Dave Sohigian

9Apr/070

London Calling

Although we loved Egypt, it was time to make our way back home, stopping in London and New York on the way. We caught a cab in front of the hotel and were disappointed when the bell boy negotiated our fare at a 50 Egyptian Pounds ($9 US). We had wanted to haggle on our own because we were sure we could have gotten it closer to 30 Egyptian Pounds, but it was a long way to the airport and the driver was a nice enough fellow.
On the way to the airport Caleb asked “how long is the flight?” and Dave responded with, “It’s long; five+ hours to London”. Caleb did not hesitate in his retort, “Dad, that’s not a long flight. I have had bus rides longer than that. And besides, we can barely watch two movies in that time”. Such is the life of a seasoned traveler (and recalcitrant Waldorf Student).
Five short hours later we in the back of a London taxi on our way to the upscale suburb of Kensington.
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At $70 US for the taxi ride, this was to be the beginning of our sticker shock in London.
We dropped our bags in the shoebox that would serve as our room and headed out to find dinner. The cold front had hit London full force and we had put on every layer we could find, but it was still freezing.
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Some hot cocoa at the local pub helped out a bit
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The cost of being back in the first world struck us hard the next day. Our time in Thailand and Egypt had shaped our perceptions of money in two ways: how far a dollar will go and how much further you can take it by haggling. The dollar is weak against the British Pound right now and it put a serious strain on our budget. We had been aiming at $100 per day on our trip (not including airfare) and had managed to meet that goal on most of the trip (even in Australia). But London was not cheap for tourists, and unlike in Egypt and Thailand we could not haggle down the prices; we just had to take it with our approximation of that “Great British Reserve”. Dave decided to keep track of our expenses on our first full day in London (in USD):

Hotel with two twin beds $245.00
Bus Tour of London 110.00
Taxi to Breakfast 7.00
3 Croissants and tea 20.00
Bus to tour start point 7.00
Morning Snack 8.00
3 Sandwiches 17.00
Taxi from Bus Tour to Hotel 9.00
Bad Indian food for Dinner 72.00
Total $495.00

Clearly we were going to have to reset our budget expectations in London (it ended up costing more for 5 days in London than it did for a month in Thailand).
Our first full day in London was a whirlwind. We got a bus tour on an open-top double-decker bus that included views of Regent Street
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Picadilly Circus
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And Trafalgar Square
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We got off at the Houses of Parliament
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And snapped a few photos of the “Ice Cube Family”
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In a couple spots
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Unfortunately, this pesky clock tower kept sneaking into all of the photos
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We actually saw the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, enter the House of Parliament in his Range Rover while we waited for the next bus. He did not stop to say hello.
Next it was on to London Bridge this time inside the bus (the cold was getting to be too much for us on top).
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This is a view of the famous London Bridge:
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No, it is not the picturesque structure in the background; its the railing you see in the foreground in the photo above. The one in the background is the iconic Tower Bridge, which we went over next.
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Then it was on to Trafalgar Square, "The Center of London"
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We ended the day at the incredible London Museum. It turned out to be a great way to wrap up all of our time in Egypt; many ancient Egyptian treasures are on show at the London Museum having been "acquired" (read: stolen) in years gone by.
Caleb was captivated by one of the most famous pieces in the museum: The Rosetta Stone. All of the decoding he had been doing at Luxor and Giza would not have been possible without this artifact and he seemed to understand its significance
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The rest of the Egyptian collection was a knockout
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Including part of the Sphinx's beard (apparently the English could not bring the whole thing home so they settled for this little piece).
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We also went to see one of Dave's favorite treasures, a chess set he remembered seeing on his last visit to the Museum (at the age of 5). Carved out of walrus tusk, the famous Lewis Chess Set was probably created in Norway around 1150 AD (See some more details at the Museum's site)
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They are HUGE in Luxembourg
Day two in London would prove even more expensive than the first day - mainly because we had purchased tickets to see "Mary Poppins" on the West End. We started the day with a fun surprise at the hotel we were staying at; there were some fellow Portlanders' staying at the hotel, namely the members of the band Pink Martini! We chatted with them for a while and got a photo with some of them.
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Pink Martini is a well-known Portland band that has an International/Big Band sound. They are popular in Oregon, but it turns out that they have absolutely raving fans in places like Turkey and Luxembourg (their next stop on the tour). Apparently the fans in these places sing along to every song and scream as if it was the Beatles on stage. Who knew?
We went to see the fabulous production of "Mary Poppins" and the kids thoroughly enjoyed the show. The sets were amazing and the singing was wonderful. Anna begged to go backstage after the show and we got our program signed by Mary Poppins herself!
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Our last day it was onto the London Underground for a trip to the famous Covent Gardens
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Covent Gardens is a hot spot for street performances and we saw a couple great acts, including a acrobatic Japanese couple:
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And a Persian Charlie Chaplin:
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Caleb, of course, had to pull out his juggling balls and managed to make a few quid:
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The next day we were scheduled to fly out to New York on a 4PM flight with Virgin Airlines. Our flight was 5 hours delayed, so we had a long evening in the airport followed by a 6 1/2 hour flight to New York. The kids took it like the true travelers that they had become and we had a fun time at the airport.

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31Mar/070

The Red Sea is… Blue

After Luxor we headed for a week of relaxation on the Red Sea. To get there we took a 4.5 hour bus ride to Safaga, a small town on the coast known mainly for it’s ferry service to Saudi Arabia (used regularly for the Islamic “Hajj”). About 10 kms up the coast is a small beach, called Sharm-El-Naga, with a simple motel.
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The beach was pretty and the motel was deserted so it was a great change from the hectic pace of Luxor. During the day lots of tourist (mainly Russians from Moscow) would arrive at the beach, on day-trips from Safaga and Hurgarta (a resort town to the north). The weather was a little too cool for us to swim (the Russians did not seem to mind, but then they are made of hardier stuff) so after two days at the motel we headed north to Hugarta.
Hugarta is a resort town catering mainly to Russians and Europeans. The resort strip extends for miles down the coast and is built up like Disneyland on the sea. We decided to stay away from the resort area and went to the suburb of Ad Dahar which is where the locals lived and where Egyptians stayed when on vacation. Our hotel was comfortable and clean and one of the cheapest we had stayed at so far on our trip (at $20 per night).
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While in Hugarta, Meta and the kids got henna tattoos:
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Caleb also got a silver necklace with his name in hieroglyphics.
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And we all enjoyed the nice, quite break from all the rush-rush touristing of the previous two weeks.

Back to Cairo

After Hugarta we planned to spend 3 nights back in Cairo before our trip to London. We took a six hour bus ride to Cairo, up the Red Sea Coast towards the Suez Canal. These long bus rides seemed quite easy now after all the extended flights we had done during our trip. The buses had a small TV that would play a film (in Arabic) during the trip. The kids loved to watch even though they could only understand a word or two.
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We pulled into Cairo before nightfall and enjoyed the views on the way into town.
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After our experiences on our first trip to Cairo we decided to stay a little away from the touristy downtown area. We stayed in the wealthier suburb of Zamalek which is an island on the Nile. It is covered with trees and home to educated Egyptians and Ex-pats. We stayed at a fantastic hotel called “Hotel Longchamps” which had spacious and well appointed rooms. It felt like we were back in the 1st world, except for the prices ($60 US per night with breakfast included).
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While in Cairo we prepared for our travel home, which would include a drastic change in climate. If you include our summer in Portland, we had seen 9 months of warm temperatures. Although London had been quite pleasant in the last few weeks, there was a forecast for snow on the day we were to arrive and a nasty cold front was coming across the Atlantic; this would mean cold weather in New York City as well.
We headed to the mall to find some cold weather gear. This being Spring in Lower Egypt there were not a great deal of warm clothing options. We did manage to find some cotton tights for the kids: they were white with pink butterflies, which elicited conflicting reactions from Caleb and Anna:
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We found some long underwear for Dave and some tights for Meta as well. Sorry, no pics of those.
We also went to a puppet show, performed completely in Arabic, and packed with young Egyptian school-kids:
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On our last day in Cairo we headed to the famed Khana-Kalili market to pick up a few souvenirs.
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From there we made our final trip through the Cairo traffic
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Since it was rush hour we found we were making little progress and ended up stuck in gridlock in front of the Egyptian Museum. We decided to get out there and wait for the traffic to abate.
Dave had wanted to take one last tour of King Tut’s treasures, so while Meta and the kids waited outside having tea (and Caleb did some busking)
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Dave got to spend some quality time with his mummy.

Traveling in Egypt had been an incredible experience for the entire family. The welcoming attitude of the Egyptian people had been such a stark contrast to the image presented in the American media. Egypt certainly has it’s problems: poverty and corruption are rampant and the economy is shaky. Tourists come to Egypt for it’s history and beauty, but for us the treasures of Egypt are not found just in the Valley of the Kings or in the waters of the Red Sea; we treasure the people of Egypt and how they were willing to look past politics and government to see us as people much like them.
When Egyptians would ask, “Do you like Egypt?”, Dave would reply “Ana mabsoot giddan”, which means “I like it very much”. It literally means “I am very happy here”, which is perhaps a more accurate statement. Most Egyptians would respond with “and I am happy to have you here.”

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19Mar/070

Luxor – Not just a cheesy hotel in Vegas

After our inspiring trip to the desert, we were dropped off at a kitschy little hotel (the "Tutotel"
) in Luxor. Luxor is about 600 Km south of Cairo on the Nile river. It is famous for it's archaeological sites: massive temples and tombs built during the time of the Pharoahs.
Luxor has the dubious honor of being the "Hassle Capital of Egypt" according to our Lonely Planet Guide. It warned of their being more touts here than anywhere else in the country, and they were right. But, fortunately, our experience in Cairo had taught us how to deal with them it got to be fun saying "La, Shukran" ("No, Thank you") with a raised hand as we walked down the street. Dave even got to use "Imshee" ("Go Away") on a few occasions. In some ways Luxor was easier than Cairo - the touts were much more obvious in their approach, so it was simple to identify them. It did not detract from our experience of the city.
The first morning Dave went down to the Luxor Temple at daybreak to buy tickets.
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On the way he walked by the original Luxor Hotel:
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Once everyone was up and about we all headed down to the Temple, which was a short taxi ride away. Dave takes great pride in getting the lowest possible fare for a taxi now, using various antics he learned from Nader back in Alexandrya. The whole family now knows to immediately walk away from the taxi once they name the starting fare - which drives the price down. Anna has even gotten savvy: she used to cry when we walked away while bargaining with horse carriages (which she loves to ride) but now she knows it is just part of the game we have to play and she turns her back just as quickly as the rest of us.
Luxor temple is right in the center of town and is impressive in it's proportions. A massive obelisk stands in front of the temple with winged baboons decorating the base.
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(hey, can someone patch those last two photos into a panorama for us?)
There are two huge seated statues of Ramses II around the entrance (A tour of Luxor demonstrates that Ramses II's ego was perhaps larger than these effigies). It is amazing the scale of everything in Luxor: your neck gets tired from looking up all the time.
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Hieroglyphs and murals adorn every surface of the temple.
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And there is even Greek "graffiti" from tourists of a bygone age.
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The main hall has enormous pillars and statues.
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There is also evidence of the reconstruction during the Greco-Roman Period.
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Caleb had been doing some reading about hieroglyphics and was excited to decode some of the writings on the walls.
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Because we had gotten and early start we managed to avoid the crowds and at times we felt like we had the place to ourselves. It was wonderful to imagine what this place must have been like when it was constructed - brightly painted hieroglyphs, silver, gold and electrum plating and massive enclosed spaces. Even today the splendor of the temple is inspiring - there is very little we construct today that will last for 35 centuries and retain this sort of grandeur.
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When we got back to the room of the Tutotel we were treated again to that famous Egyptian humor and hospitality. Opening the door to our room we were confronted by this alligator, which actually made Meta jump.
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It was made of a rolled-up bed-cover and towels. The other towels were on one of the beds.
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For all the flash and tourism of Luxor's main drags, you can still find back streets that remain Egyptian.
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Later that day we visited the magnificent Luxor Museum. It was a fraction of the size of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but was designed and architected to display its treasures much more elegantly.
Statue at the Luxor Museum
Day two was off to Karnak - the sister temple to Luxor located 3 Kms to the north. There is a famous "Avenue of the Sphinxes" at Luxor Temple:
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It used to stretch all the way between these two temples!
Karnak takes Luxor's scale and doubles it. It was difficult to capture its size in just one frame.
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A 90'obelisk is the tallest in Egypt:
Obelisk at Karnak
And once again the hieroglyphs are everywhere.
Karnak Heiroglyphics
Karnak was jammed with tourists on buses (mostly Europeans) which really detracted from our experience there.
Crowds at Karnak
The Nile separates Luxor into two halves: so far we had been on the East Bank which had most of the temples (and most of the hassles). The west Bank borders the desert and contains many burial sites, including The Valley of the Kings, famous as the location of Tut's treasures.
We decided to move to a new hotel on the West Bank for our last night in Luxor to enjoy a more peaceful and genuine experience. The only sights we saw on the West Bank were the ruined "Collosi of Mnemnon" that are next to the road.
Colossi of Mnemnon
We stayed in a beautiful hotel right near the edge of the desert (the Nour El Balad Hotel). It was designed like a traditional Egyptian home and the owner lived right next door.
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The area around the hotel was agricultural and Anna got to play in the fields with the local kids.
Picking wheat in Luxor
They also showed us the farm animals.
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kids were playing soccer out in the desert
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until Caleb put on a magic show for them.
Magic for the kids in Luxor
After a delicious breakfast the next morning we made our way across the Nile
Crossing the Nile in Luxor by Boat
to catch a bus to the town of Safaga on the Red Sea, where we would spend the next few days relaxing by the water before returning to Cairo.

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17Mar/070

Arabs: The Most Welcoming People In the World

On our travels around the Globe we have gotten help from many people from many places. We have experienced the hospitality and generosity of Hawaiians, Australians, Englishmen, Americans, Thais, Canadians and Swiss. But by far the most welcoming during our trip were our friends of Arab descent. From Ali and his family in Australia who helped us buy (and sell) a car to Nader in Alexandrya and Mohammed and Khalid in the Western Desert, we had friends who would go well out of their way to make sure we were taken care of at every step.
Although Cairo was difficult because of the touts that took advantage of us, we were amazed at the friendliness of the average Egyptian on the street. We were treated like family whenever we interacted with Arabians. The big smiles and cries of "Welcome to Egypt!" seemed heartfelt and genuine. Most asked where we were from and when when we said, "America", they replied, "Amerika! Great People" (although, understandably, a few did mutter something about Bush afterwards). Children in Alexandrya would chase after us shouting "Hello! Hi! Hello! Fantastic!" and college-aged kids would greet us with a smile and a handshake.
Everywhere we went in Egypt we were treated with warmth and welcome. This is one of the reasons that the touts in touristy areas are so annoying: they take advantage of that Egyptian hospitality and can leave you with the impression that Egyptians are always out to get something. In our experience 99% of the Arabs/Egyptians we ran into were genuine in their hospitality.
Some of the lengths our Arab hosts went to in helping us bordered on ridiculousness. Ali (originally from Lebanon) in Australia spent the better part of two days helping us buy a car and then later organized its sale when we left the country. He is a VERY busy developer and the only connection we had to him was remote: our friend Brad was a college-buddy of his brother's.
Nader in Egypt, who knew us only through his brother in Portland, Hassan (whose restaurant we frequent), wanted to drive 3 hours to pick us up at the Cairo airport for a 6 AM flight! We managed to talk him out of that, but he spent 3 days showing us around in Alexandrya and was disappointed because we did not stay for a whole week. He tried to pay for everything while we were together and we did manage to pay he made sure we got the lowest price possible.
Perhaps it is unfair to generalize based on our limited experience. There certainly are places in the Middle East that would not be as friendly to Americans as in Egypt. But as far as Ali and Nader (and others) were concerned we were part of their extended family, and we were treated as such. It is hard to imagine than an Arab visiting the US would receive such a warm welcome from the average American. But they would from us now, that's for sure.

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16Mar/070

Lost in Cairo, Found in the Desert

We arrived into Cairo in the early afternoon and were picked up by Mohammed, who would be our guide in the desert for the next four days. We had connected with him through our friends, Richard and Anke, in Australia; they had used him as a guide in the Sinai a year ago and gave him high marks.
Mohammed is from Dahab, on the Sinai Peninsula and he would be our cook, guide and philosopher on the trip. He brought Khalid with him, and experienced Bedouin guide and former basketball star on the Suez team. Khalid would handle the driving on the trip, which had started early that morning when they left Dahab on the 700 Km trip to Cairo where they picked us up.
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We piled into the back of a Toyota Landcruiser (the obligatory desert vehicle)CIMG6332
and sped off into the desert. Actually, since it was rush hour in Cairo, we really spent the next hour and a half fighting our way slowly out of the city and it's suburbs.
It was a little disconcerting to see that our guides were asking for directions on almost every street corner as we made our way through Cairo. If they could not find their way through the well marked streets, how would they know where they were going in the open desert?
When we finally go to the open road ("The runway" as Khalid called it) they cranked it up to 130 KPH and launched us out towards Bahariya Oasis, a full five hours down the road. The kids slept in the back some of the way while the scenery flew by.
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It was dark by the time we reached the Oasis. We had dinner at the curiously named "Popular Restaurant". Ironically, we were the only customers.
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and fell happily into bed in a small, but comfortable, hotel. It had been an exhausting day of travel but Mohammed promised that the next day would be slower and that the next night we would camp in the desert.
By day Bahariya Oasis was a cute little village, although it did cater to tourists
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Next it was on to the "Sahara Suda" or Black Desert near the Oasis. This desert had a layer of basalt on top of the sand which gave it a black color. We stopped at a hill for a hike to enjoy the view.
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Then we hit the edge of the "Sahara Abyad" or White Desert. We immediately pulled off to see the "Crystal Mountain"; a hill formed with many layers of quartz crystal.
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From there we made our way deeper into the White Desert to find a good place to have lunch. We went off-road to find a suitable location and it was then that we realized why we were in a Landcruiser. The Toyota Landcruiser is legendary in the Egyptian Desert for its ability to handle the tough terrain. We were in a 2005 model which was still in very good condition. It could travel on the sealed roads at 130 KPH and still be comfortable. But it was in the sand that it was really at home.
This was also the point where we started to appreciate Khalid's abilities as a desert driver. With over 15 years driving the the Egyptian Deserts he could maneuver the Landcruiser through deep sand like a speedboat in open water. There were times he would go up to 80 KPH through the deep sand and could climb up onto steep rocks confidently as well. His Bedouin heritage also gave him an incredible sense of direction in this unforgiving and disorienting landscape. We were grateful to have him at the wheel (see sand cruising in this video)
A major portion of the White Desert is made up of calcium carbonate (chalk) that forms incredible structures in certain parts of the desert. It also holds curious treasures - small black rocks that come in unusual formations. We stopped for a bit before lunch to collect a few of the rocks.
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The site that Mohammed picked for lunch was spectacular: a mountain of chalk surrounded by beautiful sand
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The rock rose 60 feet above us, pure white in the places where it was protected from the sand.
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The views were spectacular and the day was sunny and warm. The area looked like the mesas of Arizona in a snowdrift.
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and perhaps a bit like the surface of the moon
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Mohammed was a spectacular camp cook and this first lunch proved it. With all fresh ingredients he whipped up a couple great salads (tuna and Greek) somehow managing to keep everything free of sand. He washed all the veges in clean water and had everything ready in under 30 minutes. La Zizza! (delicious).
After lunch we packed up our stuff (including putting Anna on the roof)
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and headed back to the highway. We stopped at a spring by the highway to wash up and get more water.
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From there it was on to the "New White Desert" which contained striking chalk structures much like the Tufa of Mono Lake in California.
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The kids played in the desert while we set up camp.
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The vistas here were surreal
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And we enjoyed the lovely colors of the sunset
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while Khalid and Mohammed prepared dinner
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and the kids tended to their own campfires
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That night, after the kids went down, we had a long discussion about the US, Muslim beliefs and the state of the world. It was special to be sitting around a campfire talking with our Egyptian hosts.
After a very quiet and starlight night, the sun rose on the magical landscape
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And we were off again for the open road.
We stopped by a wonderful artists gallery to watch the artist, Badr, at work.
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The kids had the chance to join in and carve some sandstones with Badr. He had set up his home as his own personal gallery and dreamland. Every surface of the place was covered with his art. We stayed for over an hour in this peaceful and comfortable place.
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Then we headed to another Oasis, Dahkla, which included a hot spring near the wonderful hotel we were staying at. We all enjoyed bathing in the warm water (especially after the heat and sand of the desert) and had a great sleep in the simple, but elegant rooms, complete with domed mud brick ceilings.
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The oasis was green and lush, but surrounded by desert and mesas.
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The hotel had an unusual water sculpture, placed there by a German couple that lived nearby. We had seen similar "flow forms" in Australia - they are based on the theories of Rudolf Steiner and it was a surprise to see them here in the Egyptian Desert.
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The next morning Khalid and Mohammed got ready for what would be our last day in the Western Desert
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We started out with a trek into the dunes on Camel back, something the kids had been looking forward to since we had started the trip. We rode on two mother camels, with their ridiculously cute babies in tow.
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Khalid and Mohammed had wrapped our heads Arab style for the ride. Having these scarves placed on our heads by the guides was a bit like having your brains vacuum sealed. They were surprisingly tight, which helped keep them secure in the desert wind. We soaked them in water to keep our heads cool during the ride.
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The camels make a strange sound when calling to each other. They were using this plaintive call to their babies as we rode through the sand. We realized that it was the sound used for Chewbacca's voice in Star Wars and the babies would answer back with a weaker version of their own. (hear them in this video)
When the camel ride was over our guides got some fresh camel milk
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and we were on our way again for the 5 hour ride to Luxor.
We stopped on the open highway before we arrived in Luxor, knowing this would be our last time in the desert.
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Anna and Mohammed played on the road (you could see cars coming a mile away)
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Mohammed and Anna had developed a special relationship. Anna found she had to play fair with Mohammed; if she was being sassy or difficult he would be the same to her. He was tolerant but firm and they had become fast friends (although Anna would still pout or pull faces from time to time).
Mohammed and Khalid had been wonderful guides and it was because of them that we loved our time in the desert so much. The photos of our trek are spectacular, but they are very different from our experience of the place, which was magical in a way that the camera cannot capture.
It was sad to say goodbye in Luxor when they dropped us off at our tourist hotel on the south side of town. We hope to see Khalid and Mohammed again on another trip to Egypt in the future, Insha'allah.

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12Mar/070

Welcome to Egypt!

After the challenges of Cairo we were ready for a break. Our friend from Portland, Hassan, had suggested that we should visit his family in Alexandrya. Since it was only two hours from Cairo by train it seemed like it would be a good choice for our next stop.
On the train we met a major in the Egyptian army who chatted with us for a bit. When we mentioned Thailand he frowned and said he had been there and did not like it. He said that the people there were unfriendly, especially the women. We tried to relate our experience of the Thai people, but he was adamant; the Thais wee mean-spirited and impolite. It took a while for us to figure out that he had only been to Bangkok and was probably in uniform when he went. Anyone familiar with Bangkok could see his experience would probably be less than stellar, but he chose base his view of the whole country on his interaction with a few people. It was a strong reminder to us to not base our view of Egypt on our interactions with a few touts in Cairo. Alexandrya would give us the chance to see the real Egypt.
We arrived in Alexandrya at 4 PM, and Nader was there to pick us up at the train station. Nader is the classic vision of a young Mediterranean Arab: tall, dark and handsome.
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His shoulders were broad from years as a competitive swimmer (#3 in Egypt in the crawl, #1 in the breast stroke) and Nader loved anything to do with the water (skiing, diving, surfing, fishing, windsurfing, sailing, etc...) and he loved his home-town of Alexandrya.
Nader thoughtfully dropped us off at our hotel for a rest before dinner. We were staying at a suite at the Corillan Hotel, a small boutique hotel in the center of town. Although he room had some street noise, the view of the sea was spectacular.
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With two adjoining rooms, private bath and breakfast included, it was one of the nicest places we had stayed on our trip so far (and only $37 US/day!)
The next morning we went to Fort Quaitley which dominates the view from the harbour. The fort is over 600 years old and was built to defend the port. It was build from the ruins of the Pharos, a massive lighthouse that was one of the Wonders of the Ancient world. The Pharos was knocked down by an earthquake 17 centuries after it was erected, and the fort was built from it's remains.
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The kids had a great time at the fort and it seemed that every Egyptian were met asked where we were from and said "WELCOME to Egypt!". this included many children that followed us around the fort and the young people who took photos together with the kids.
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This felt much closer to the real Egypt than our Cairo experience. Alexandrya is not covered with Western tourists and there are not any touts looking for cash.
We met up with Nader in the afternoon to got to the famous Bibliotecha Alexandrya. This amazing library was completed 3 years a got and was designed to put Alexandrya back on the cultural map vs. Cairo. It is an incredible structure: 7 floors both above and below ground level. It includes a planetarium/Omnimax and has room for over 8 million books. There are two large children's libraries with tons of books in English.
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After the Bibliotecha we went to Nader's part of town to have some drinks on the beach. This was the beach where Nader learned to swim, with some help from his brother Hassan. Actually Hassan helped by throwing him into the water and shouting "Swim!". Nader was 3 years old at the time and apparently it worked.
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The following day was a real treat: a nice dinner at Nader's favorite restaurant, followed by a visit to meet his family. Nader is the younges of 5 kids; his sisters are in Alexandrya while his brothers (including our friend Hassan) are in Portland. His Mother welcomed us into their home, treated us to a mango smoothie, and spoke to us about our travels (with Nader doing translation into Arabic). We felt so welcomed and were really touched by our visit.
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The next morning it was time to say goodbye to Alexandrya and Nader. We stopped by a lovely Mosque
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and Nader took us to the train station. It was really sad to say goodbye and Dave said to Nader, "You love Alexandrya, and now we love Alexandrya too". Nader really had been our Arabian knight, giving our whole family a sense of comfort, welcome and safety that was missing from our Cairo experience. We hope to see him again soon in Portland if he comes to visit his brothers, Hassan and Ahkmed.
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Although were were sad to leave, we also knew that by the end of the day we would be far from the city in an oasis in the massive Western Desert. It was time for a safari, Egyptian style.

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12Mar/070

Cairo Is…

Cairo is full-on. It is not a city that you love OR hate: it is a city you love AND hate. We had read something to this affect in our guidebook before we arrived, but it only took two short days for us to fully agree with the sentiment. We arrived at 6:15 AM into Cairo after a 10 hour red-eye. Our friend from Portland, Hassan, had offered for his brother Nader to meet us in the airport, but since he lives 3 hours away in Alexandrya we felt it was too much to ask. We did not have a hotel lined up, or any specific transport from the airport; a sure sign that we are becoming more confident travelers.
We were met at the gate by taxi and limo drivers. Since we did not have a mobile phone (our Thai SIM card did not work in Egypt) a driver called the hotel we wanted and confirmed that rooms were available. When we arrived we found it too small and less than inviting; Lonely Planet was not on the spot for this particular hotel. We had the driver take us to another hotel, The Cosmopolitan, that was close by. The driver charged us 30 Egyptian Pounds ($5 US) for what turned out to be a ridiculously short drive and he conveniently did not have any change for the 50 Pound note I gave him (my smallest bill at the time). The Cosmopolitan was nice, and we decided to stay, but it fairly expensive at $75 USD for a double with an extra bed.
After a short rest we went out to find and Internet Cafe and do a little exploring. The traffic near our hotel was typical of Cairo: loud, fast and chaotic. Dodging cars to find our way to the Internet Cafe, we were met by a friendly young Egyptian man who spoke English well (with a bit of a Scottish accent of all things). His name was "Tiger" and invited us to check out his family business which was just around the corner.
We had been warned about "Touts" who pick up tourists and invite them to see wares in a nearby store where they get a healthy commission. But were jet-lagged and more than a little naive. So we went into Tiger's family business - a perfume shop. The pitch, delivered by Tiger's brother, Mohammed, started with tea and a discussion about the quality of the perfumes.
Mohammed at the perfume shopCIMG5864
Mohammed had lived in the US for 7 years and his English was very good. He got into things quickly, putting on the hard sell for his perfumes. Like most tourists, we did not really need, or want, any perfume but it seemed too late by that point. We ended up with two bottles: one sandalwood and one lotus flower. The were likely watered-down versions of the pure essence and cost us around $35 USD. It was our first experience with the hard sell in Cairo: the next came the following day after a visit to the Egyptian Museum.
We had spent the morning touring the treasures of Tutankhamen and the other Pharaohs of Egypt.
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Afterwards we planned to head home for a nap before taking on the pyramids. On the way to our hotel we ran into a friendly man named Ali
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who said he was on his way home from his work at a nearby hotel. He lived in Giza (the suburb where the pyramids are located) and would be happy to accompany us out to the area. He regaled us with stories of his family (5 daughters and 1 son) while we had lunch together an waited for the bus. It was a Muslim holiday (Friday) and the buses were not running very often, so we opted for a cab. Meta became suspicious of Ali's hospitality pretty quickly; Dave, sadly, was still pretty naive. The proverbial "Straw that broke the camel's back" was when we arrived at the stables of his "friend" Mahmoud who could arrange a full tour of the pyramids by camel and horse. Meta decided she had seen enough and walked out. Eventually we came to an agreement on a tour, but it was an emotional and aggravating experience.
In retrospect Ali was certainly a tout, although it may have just been a side job that he carried out after work. He got a free meal, ride home and probably a kickback from the stables. But he also provided a service: keeping other touts away, explaining the culture of Egypt and entertaining us with stories. He also took us to a reputable stable that is rated high in the Lonely Planet guide.
The touts also provided an important lesson - one on assertiveness. The Egyptian people are friendly, perhaps even more so than the Thai people, but there are a few that make their living off of selling stuff to tourists. Some are unscrupulous, while others are actually worth the extra cost. In almost all cases you can say "la, Shukran" (no, thanks) and walk away at any time. And that was the hard lesson of our two days in Cairo: how to say "No!" and walk away. It was a lesson that would serve us well later in our trip.

To the Pyramids!
For all the trouble getting to Giza there was a big payoff: seeing the last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World. The first glimpses of the pyramids started while crossing the Nile in the southern part of Cairo
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and then again as we slowly approached the Giza Plateau.
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We entered the busy suburb and walked down back alleys with horses racing by
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Then it was onto the two camels and two horses provided by the stables to make our way into the desert. We entered through a small gap in the fence that surrounds the pyramids
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and began a steady pace towards the middle pyramid.
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Arriving at the middle pyramid
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we dismounted and stared at the amazing structure
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We went into the middle pyramid, which required walking nearly doubled over through the long sloping passage, until we came to the burial chamber at the heart of the pyramid (no photos allowed).
We came back out
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, remounted
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and made our way to the temple of the Sphinx
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Then it was off to a viewpoint where we could see all three pyramids and take the obligatory photos
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Finally we made our way off to a high bluff to watch the sunset.
By this point Anna had ridden every one of our mounts: both camels, all the horses (including the main guide's horse) and even the little the little donkey that the other guide was riding. But she was not fully satisfied until she actually got a ride on our guide:
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We collected rocks on the bluff and ate Koshari (an Egyptian pasta dish) while the sun set over the desert.
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A final ride back to the stables and a long taxi ride home ended our day. We were in bed by 7 PM. It was a ridiculously long day, but in the end everyone was smiling:
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21Feb/070

Trekking

A trip to Northern Thailand would not be complete without a trek to the mountains; so, we signed up for a two day trek to Chiang Dao, about 80 Kms north of Chiang Mai. It sounded easy enough: on the first day we would hike for about 3 hours, ride elephants for a bit and then camp in a village. The second day we would hike for an hour and then go white-water rafting on the Maetang River. We brought two small backpacks (one for Dave and the other for Meta) packed with clothes, water and a few toys. Unlike our trip to the Elephant Camp a few weeks back (in an air-con van) we rode in a pick-up truck (called a "Sangtheaw") with 10 other foreigners packed in. We first stopped at an elephant camp to take an hour-long ride through the forest. CIMG5149
This time we were able to ride on the elephant's neck's (while the manhout shouted commands from behind).
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Dave took a go on the neck first
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and then Caleb gave it a try as well
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Anna even got to do it, although she rode behind our German companion, Stephan:
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Caleb described the experience as "Scratchy, but lots of fun".
Afterwards we hit the trail and it immediately became clear that the steep climbs and long downhills of the trail were going to be a challenge.
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Dave ended up carrying both packs and our young guide carried Anna at least 2/3rd of the way on the first day
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The trails were steep and the footing unstable, making the hike both physically and mentally difficult. Nobody whines (okay, maybe a little) and we make our way along the dusty trail (it s the dry season here) drinking lots of water as we went. About halfway we came to a cave that sometimes had small bats (they were out during our visit)
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After 3-4 hours we arrived in the hill tribe camp, which was a welcome sight
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We were filthy from the trail.
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We were given our own cabin to sleep in (very nice!)
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and Dave was offered some Thai whisky by the village men. We washed our feet (there was running water and a shower in the village) and sat down to dinner with the other travellers (2 Germans, 3 Danes, 2 Swiss and an Irishman).
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The Irishman, Adrian, who was on his 11 month of travelling regaled us with stories of his travels (including time in the Amazon Jungles). He also talked about how lucky he had been - he had a scar on his head from where his Uncle had backed a trailer over him a the age of 4 and another where a farmer had driven over his foot at the age of 6. I got the feeling that when the Irish say "Lucky" they really mean "Lucky to be alive".
That night the guides played some music around a campfire and we stayed up for a bit chatting after the kids fell asleep.
After a night of somewhat restless sleep, we hike for an hour along a fairly treacherous downhill trail
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to a small waterfall.
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Then lunch was provided at a small house/restaurant. Then it was a short drive to the white water drop in point
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The kids loved the rafting even though the river was rather low.
The day ended with a reckless drive at 100+ KPH into Chiang Mai (a real nail-biter). We were all tired and glad to get back to our comfy apartment, but proud that we had made it through!

We've Got Class

Chiang Mai is considered by many to be the cultural center of Thailand. As such, there are plenty of ways for farang (foreigners) to get educated int he Thai way of living. Meta has taken a Thai cooking class where she learned to make Red Curry, Phad Thai, Papaya Salad, Sticky rice with coconut milk, Tom Yum Gai and Cashew Chicken. Dave took a similar course and learned to make some of the same dishes, and how to clear the kitchen in a hurry: CIMG5433CIMG5450
We have also been taking private Thai language lessons once a week with an excellent tutor named Gaew. An example conversation between Gaew and Dave is attached: it is too inane to deserve translation.
Caleb took some lessons in card magic from a great Thai magician, named Robin, that we met here. It was not exactly a cultural thing, but it was a great opportunity for him.
Caleb learns from Robin
There are many more options for classes in Chiang Mai: Traditional Thai massage, Thai Kick Boxing (aka "Muay Thai"), jewelry-making, dress-making and, most intriguing to us, meditation. Meta decided to take a five-day meditation course at Wat Doi Suthep,
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located 15 Kms from the city. She is staying at the temple during the course.
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Each day she wakes up at 4 AM (!), attends morning prayers, has breakfast and then meditates a bunch. She is not allowed to eat after lunch and is expected to sleep for no more than 6 hours a night: no-one ever said that enlightenment was easy. The monks will provide room and board during her stay and, in the Buddhist tradition, there is not charge for course; Donations are accepted.
If Meta survives the experience, Dave will take a 3 day version of the course. He had considered taking Muay Thai classes instead, but his Fight Club days are over it seems. A mid-life crisis should included a search for enlightenment, not a beating.

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20Feb/071

Final itinerary

We have our flight plans set up now for all the flights until we return:

  • February 28, Chiang Mai to Bangkok on Nok Air Flight 8319 Depart 5:55 PM Arrive 7:00 PM
  • March 1st, Bangkok to Cairo on EgyptAir Flight 961 Depart 12:45 AM Arrive 5:45 AM
  • March 20th, Cairo to London on EgyptAir Flight 777 Depart 09:30 AM Arrive 12:35 PM
  • March 24th, London to New York on Virgin Flight 009 Depart 4:00 PM Arrive 7:55 PM
  • March 27th, New York to Portland on Alaska Airlines Flights 11/2493 Depart 7:40 AM Arrive 2:15 PM

We will send another update soon. We are preparing to head to Egypt in another week, and as part of those preparations I have sent a message to a guide in Egypt (who we knew through an Aussie friend). The guide speaks English quite well, but only reads/writes arabic. So I got the smart idea of using an online translation service (http://www.systranbox.com/systran/box) to translate our rather simple message from:

Mohammed,
We will be arriving on March 1st into Cairo. We will tour Cairo for a couple days and then we would like to go to the desert. We will call you when we arrive in Cairo to plan our travel.
Thanks,

Dave

Into:

محمّد ،

نحن كنت سنصل في مارس - آذار [1ست] داخل قاهرة. نحن سنجول قاهرة لزوج أيام وبعد ذلك أحبّ نحن أن يذهب إلى الصحراء. نحن سندعو أنت عندما يصل نحن في قاهرة أن يخطّط سفرنا.

شكور ،

[دف]

I sent off the message, rather pleased with the results. Then I decided to take the Arabic and translate it back into English, just to see how accurate that would be. Here is what came out...

Mohammed,

We was will arrive in practiced - March [1[st]] inside mighty. We [snjwl] mighty sticking of days and afterwards that loved we to the desert goes to. We will call you when we arrive in mighty to trip plans our.

Thanks,

[tambourine]

I am not sure if we will have a guide in Egypt after this message! My favorite part is how it translated my name into [tambourine]. At least it got Mohammed right.

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16Feb/071

A Day in the Life in Chiang Mai

Although there are many days days where we go on exciting adventures here in Chiang Mai, a majority of our time has been spent at a fairly leisurely pace.
We start the day around 8 or 9 AM when Dave heads downstairs to the a restaurant right outside our condo. There he asks for "Kow Pat Gai, neung" and "Kow blow, neung" and "Kor Klap baan", which means "one order of chicken fried rice, one order of steamed rice and make it to go". Or something close to that. The cook, Cha Ming (nickname "lek" for small) is there from the early hours in the morning to late at night. Dave quickly checks mail at the local Internet/gaming spot and heads back to the condo.
By 11 AM everyone is up and about and we clean the place up a bit before heading downstairs. Depending on the hour we might head to Sukothai Restaurant (just a few doors down) where Jang and Nok cook up something delicious.
If we are feeling motivated we may head to Thae Pae Gate which is the backpacker part of town. The American University Alumni building has a small English library there and we check out books for the kids and ourselves. We might also go to a bookstore or a Western style restaurant or a travel agent to arrange a tour. A foot massage for the gang or a visit to a Wat (temple) might also be in order (Dave always drags us into every Wat that we pass, much to the kids chagrin).
Wat Nong Kham in Chiang MaiWat Ou Sai Kham in Chiang Mai
Once it is afternoon we will head back to our place by Tuk-Tuk or Sangtheaw. Dinner at Sukothai is fantastic and we try not to miss it. Dessert is some sweet Rotte (sweet crepe, Muslim style) and we often hang around and practice some Thai and English with the locals. The pace is laid back and comfortable.
Learning Thai
One of the fun ("sanook" in Thai) challenges in Thailand has been learning the language. We have two phrasebooks and a great set of audio CD's (from our friend Chad) to help in our efforts. We also get lots of help from the locals who are very forgiving and supportive. Dave likes to record phrases spoken by the locals on our camera so we can listen to them later.
Thai is a fairly simple language grammatically, but difficult in terms of pronunciation. Like Chinese, they have different tones for different meanings. For example, the word "mai" can be pronounce with a mid, high, falling, low or rising tone and have various meanings ("mile", "wood", "not", "new" and "silk" respectively). Context can be helpful for many words, but many are not so simple. For example, the word for "near" is "glai" with a falling tone, while the word for "far" is "glai" with a mid-tone. Dave recorded this example (courtesy of our friend Jang). See if you can tell the difference.
The Thai's often laugh at our pronunciations, but they are not laughing at us. In Thailand it is considered polite to laugh when someone makes a mistake because it lightens the mood and avoids embarrassment (the opposite in the US). Conversations are often full of laughter for us. It is amazing how small an error in tone can lead to puzzled looks. If we mispronounce a phrase or word the Thai's will often repeat the correct pronunciation for us (and we often think "but that is EXACTLY what I already said!").
For now we have mastered some of the basics like Hello and Goodbye, thank you, Can you make it cheaper?, counting and finding the toilets. It is also useful to understand the phrase "Where are you from?" and "How old are you?". Thais like to know your age (not just for the kids) because age helps in determining how to address you in conversation.
We are getting along well, all things considered, and can manage to get around town, haggle at the market and meet new friends in Thailand.

Phra (Monks)

One of the most prevalent features in Thailand are the Buddhist monks ("Phra" in Thai). You see them all over the place; at the temples
Novice Monks at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang MaiMonk watching Calebs magic tricks
eating with locals
Monk chatting with Thais
washing a car (no idea why)
Monk cleaning a car
taking care of business
Monk at ATM
Like most foreigners we have been curious about the monks since we arrived in Thailand. We had a good introduction when some monks came to our condo to bless the building.
They come at least once a year to bless the building and it's inhabitants. The residents, in turn, give offerings of food and useful items to the monks.
Making Merit at Riverside CondoMaking Merit at Riverside Condo
It gave us an opportunity to hear the monks chant prayers and to be blessed by the monks as well.
Monks at the Riverside CondosMonks at the Riverside CondosMonks at the Riverside Condos
After the prayers the monks sat down to a meal provide by the condo association.
Monks at the Riverside Condos
After the monks ate we all sat down for a meal as well. It was great to get a bit of Thai Buddhist culture delivered right our doorstep. Amazing.

We found an even more personal way to connect with the monks through a unique program called "Monk Chat".
Monk Chats while Anna puts on lipstick
On most afternoons, foreigners can speak to monks at a local temple, Wat Suan Dok. The program is set up so that monks can improve their English skills and introduce tourist to Thai Buddhist Culture.
We showed up at Wat Suan Dok at 5PM (Meta had attended a Thai cooking class earlier in the day), just when the monk chat was to begin. The Temple is a large working temple just outside of town.
Inside one of the buildings they had set up tables for the monks to sit at along with several foreigners. We started our chat with a novice monk who came from the country to become a monk. His name (or probably nickname) was "Gan" and his English was good. We asked him several questions about how he came to become a monk and about Buddhism in general. He also shared many insights about cultural practices (and taboos) surrounding monks in Thailand. Gan is shown below cutting the hair of one of the foreigners that attended the monk chat (Samir from Slovenia, who had long dreadlocks before this picture):
Gan gives Sam a haircut
The kids got bored with the philosophical talk pretty quickly and they ended up hanging out with some other monks while we chatted. Caleb started to demonstrate magic and juggling. The monks joined in on the juggling.
Monk with Juggling BallCaleb and Gabe Juggling
And they were more than happy to pose for picture with us
The Gang with Gabe and another Monk
One of the monks, named Gabe (another nickname - given by a foreigner in this case) took a liking to the kids and addressed them as his brother and sister. He spoke English very well and asked that we come back again for the monk chat in the future. He said that Caleb should stay and become a monk
Gabe and Caleb

Umbrella Factory
We met a nice family here and they offered to take us to Bo Sang where there is an Umbrella Factory. Tong Bai, her husband, Sumate, and their Son, Balm, live near Chiang Mai. Tong Bai is a nurse and she works across the street from our Condo (that is how we met). Sumate is a Captain in the Army and Balm is 11 years old
. Tong Bai, Sumate and Balm with our familyTong Bai, Sumate, Balm, Caleb and Anna
Bo Sang is about 5 miles from town and we went there in their shiny new SUV (the first time we have seen seat belts in a few weeks!)
The factory has a tour of the umbrella making process which is all done by hand. The process starts with making the paper.
Umbrella Factory
Then cutting the spokes by hand.
Umbrella Factory
Then they put pieces together and they paint the surface.
Umbrella Factory PaintingUmbrella FactoryUmbrella Factory PaintingUmbrella Factory Painting
The artists who paint the umbrellas for the tour are willing to put acrylic designs on anything: Wallets, clothes, bags etc..
The kids both got patterns on their wallets and Dave got an elephant on his shoulder bag.
Dave's Bag in progressElephant Design on Daves BagCaleb's Wallet
Afterwards we went to a nice Thai dinner in Chaing Mai. Tong Bai and family have offered for us to join them again on another trip in the future (perhaps to a Hot Spring).

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