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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The site that Mohammed picked for lunch was spectacular: a mountain of chalk surrounded by beautiful sand
The rock rose 60 feet above us, pure white in the places where it was protected from the sand.
The views were spectacular and the day was sunny and warm. The area looked like the mesas of Arizona in a snowdrift.
and perhaps a bit like the surface of the moon
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)
and headed back to the highway. We stopped at a spring by the highway to wash up and get more water.
From there it was on to the “New White Desert” which contained striking chalk structures much like the Tufa of Mono Lake in California.
The kids played in the desert while we set up camp.
The vistas here were surreal
And we enjoyed the lovely colors of the sunset
while Khalid and Mohammed prepared dinner
and the kids tended to their own campfires
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.
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.
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.
The oasis was green and lush, but surrounded by desert and mesas.
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.
The next morning Khalid and Mohammed got ready for what would be our last day in the Western Desert
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.
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.
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
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.
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.

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.

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.
On the way he walked by the original Luxor Hotel:
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.
(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.
Hieroglyphs and murals adorn every surface of the temple.
And there is even Greek “graffiti” from tourists of a bygone age.
The main hall has enormous pillars and statues.
There is also evidence of the reconstruction during the Greco-Roman Period.
Caleb had been doing some reading about hieroglyphics and was excited to decode some of the writings on the walls.
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.
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.
It was made of a rolled-up bed-cover and towels. The other towels were on one of the beds.
For all the flash and tourism of Luxor’s main drags, you can still find back streets that remain Egyptian.
Shoeing a horse in LuxorSpice Shop in LuxorStreet scene in Luxor
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:
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.
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.
Nour el Balad in Luxor's West BankNour el Balad in Luxor's West BankNour el Balad in Luxor's West BankNour el Balad in Luxor's West Bank
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.
Horse ride in LuxorSheep in LuxorAlbino BunnyRunning with SheeptMoo!Kid chasing donkey in Luxor
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.

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.
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).
While in Hugarta, Meta and the kids got henna tattoos:
Caleb also got a silver necklace with his name in hieroglyphics.
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.
We pulled into Cairo before nightfall and enjoyed the views on the way into town.
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).
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:
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:
On our last day in Cairo we headed to the famed Khana-Kalili market to pick up a few souvenirs.
From there we made our final trip through the Cairo traffic
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)
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.”

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.
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.
Some hot cocoa at the local pub helped out a bit
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
Picadilly Circus
And Trafalgar Square
We got off at the Houses of Parliament
And snapped a few photos of the “Ice Cube Family”
In a couple spots
Unfortunately, this pesky clock tower kept sneaking into all of the photos
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).
This is a view of the famous London Bridge:
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.
Then it was on to Trafalgar Square, “The Center of London”
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
The rest of the Egyptian collection was a knockout
Including part of the Sphinx’s beard (apparently the English could not bring the whole thing home so they settled for this little piece).
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)
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.
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!
Our last day it was onto the London Underground for a trip to the famous Covent Gardens
Covent Gardens is a hot spot for street performances and we saw a couple great acts, including a acrobatic Japanese couple:
And a Persian Charlie Chaplin:
Caleb, of course, had to pull out his juggling balls and managed to make a few quid:
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.

Start Spreading the News

(We arrived in NYC on March 25th)
For us, London was cold. Cold and hard because that was the kind of cash it demanded. Cold because Spring had not yet sprung and the climate was bitter. Cold because we had no friends or family there to welcome us. We were ready to be home.
Our flight to New York City was on Virgin airlines and it was scheduled to leave at 4 PM. Although the flight was not long (6 hours or so) we would cross 5 time zones and we expected the jet-lag to be difficult. There were huge lines at the airport because it was the start of the English spring break and it took over an hour and a half for us to drop off our bags (we had already checked in online). While standing in line to drop our luggage we were informed that our flight was five (!) hours delayed. It was going to be a long trip home it seemed.
We arrived into JFK at 1 AM, cleared customs and headed outside to catch a taxi. There were tons of touts waiting for us, offering rides into the city in their cars but frankly, compared with the touts of Cairo, their attempts were weak. We grabbed a taxi and directed him to West 22nd in Chelsea.
Before leaving Cairo we had put out a call for help to our family and friends – we didn’t have any contacts in London or New York and needed some help. Dave’s family came through – he has distant relatives in NYC and his mother stays in contact with them. Bill and Susan Shanok are Dave’s second-cousins once-removed (Bill is Dave’s great-grandfather’s brother’s grandchild) and they have owned a place in the city for over 40 years. We had no idea what to expect, but we were happy not to be staying in a tiny hotel again.
The worst thing about the delayed flight was that we arrived on Bill and Susan’s doorstep at 2 AM. Bill did not seem to mind and was up to greet us.
Bill and Susan had four grown kids that are no longer at home. They put us up on the top floor of their three story Brownstone, where we had two separate rooms and two bathrooms; more space than we had seen in quite a long time. The beds were comfortable and we slept soundly all night.
In the morning we woke up and had a breakfast around the kitchen table downstairs and Anna went on a walk with Bill and their beautiful Collie.
Bill and Susan's Collie
We had a lot planned for the day: with only two full days in New York we had a lot to do. We headed off early to see Dave’s step-mother, Julianne. She lives on the Upper West Side, near Central Park. We took the subway to get there and it was a cool, but beautiful day out. Julianne met us on the street and we took a quick tour of her place before setting out for the park.
Anna, of course, had to have a try a carrying Julianne’s cute little dog.
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After the park we headed to the Natural History Museum, which was very close by. It is an amazing museum (and we had seen our share of museums by this point). The kids loved the displays.
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Our tour of relatives was not complete though because earlier in the day Meta had called her first-cousin once-removed (Meta’s Mother’s cousin) and arranged a meeting. They had not seen each other since they were little kids and we were set to meet at a pub near her apartment. Valerie is the same age as Meta and has a son just a few years older than Caleb. She has the same smile as Meta and her mother:
Caleb had fun learning a little about pool
It was a very full day and we slept well again, despite the jet-lag. The amazingly comfortable and welcoming quarters that Bill and Susan probably had something to do with our sound sleep.

Before we had left on our 6 month odyssey we had promised the kids that they at the end of the trip we would visit the most famous toy store in the world, FAO Schwarz in New York City. They mentioned this fact several times during our travels, and today was to be the day. Once a five story toy retailer downtown, they had moved to a smaller shop after declaring bankruptcy a few years back. Although they did not have a Ferris wheel or merry-go-round like in the old store, there was still a guard at the front door.

Inside were huge stuffed animals

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that were outside our budget as well as our luggage weight limits. The kids got a few toys and really enjoyed their time at FAO Schwarz.

Next we went on to the Empire State Building. We ended up not going up to the top (it was quite expensive and none of us were that keen on it anyways) but we did take some shots in the lobby and looking up the tower.

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Then we made a trip to another nearby icon, the Brian Dube store. If you have never heard of Dube, then you probably are not a juggler. It is one of the most famous brands of professional juggling equipment available, and Dave has been using Dube’s equipment for over 20 years. It was the first time he had been to the actual shop, and it was a fun diversion for everyone.

We also took the dog for a walk down to the local dog-run where Anna was in Pooch Heaven
We ended the day back at Bill and Susan’s place and got ready for our trip back to Portland.


(We left NYC on March 28th)
It was great to end our trip in New York amongst family members. Although we had been treated very well by all our hosts around the world, nothing really compares with family. We started the trip out seeing family in California and then in Hawaii (Dave’s second cousins Kathleen and Jean-Paul) and ended it with family in New York (Julianne, Valerie, Bill and Susan). It really made us feel like we were coming home.
So after a 4:00 AM wake-up call we were out in front of Bill and Susan’s place ready for our ride to the airport. Luckily we were still on London time, so it did not feel all that early to us. Bill, of course, saw us off from the front steps.
Caleb managed to find the latest Garth Nix book at the airport, so he had some reading material for the flight home. Also note the little mouse on his lap: it was one of the toys he got at FAO Schwarz.
6 hours later we were back in the Northwest, although it was Seattle, not Portland, where we first landed. The flight was on time and we relaxed most of the way, although everyone was excited about getting home. From Seattle it was only 45 minutes by plane to Portland, but it was on a small commuter plane, which have never been popular with Meta. But her time travelling in much riskier conveyances seems to have given her a different perspective and she did not mind the flight at all.
We were picked up at the airport by Anna’s kindergarten teacher, Sasha Etzel. There was no one else at the airport to meet us; we had been hoping for a crowd. But it was fantastic to be home and the weather was clear and bright. It was wonderful to see Sasha’s smiling face (and big car with seatbelts!) and we talked and laughed all the way home. It was about 2:30 in the afternoon when we pulled up to our house (school was still in session next door at Cedarwood).
As we drove up we could tell something was brewing from the huge signs all over our house.
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Out in front of the house were at least 30 kids and adults from the school that all screamed as if we were the Beatles as we drove up.
We were mobbed once we got out of the car

And the fourth graders picked up Caleb and carried him around like a hero coming home
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After the cheering stopped Ms. Abi-Nader led the class in their goodbye song.
It was a truly wonderful greeting that we will never forget. It was great to be back home!

Day 2 in Beijing: Forbidden City

(click on any of the picture in this post to expand to a larger view)

Read this sentence about the Forbidden City:

“Construction began in 1406, lasted 15 years, and required more than a million workers.”

(from the wikipedia listing)

So what can  15 Million Man Years accomplish? Something pretty big, that’s for sure.

Waking up this morning was not a problem, but getting back to sleep (at 3 AM) was difficult. I took Leo, Robert’s dog, out for a walk at 8 AM and discovered that the elevators in his place go to -1 an -2:


By 10 AM we were ready to head out for the day. We started with an “American Breakfast” at a new restaurant near his home. The last time I had a breakfast with that name was in Thailand, and it was pretty miserable. But this was much more pleasant. I particularly liked the small bowl of corn flakes with the tiny spoon. My daughter, Anna, would have loved it.


We took the subway to the Forbidden City, which lies in the heart of Beijing. The trains are fast and clean, although can be crowded at rush hour.


First stop: Tiananmen Square, famous as the site of the 1989 protests and subsequent massacre. The Square is large, flat, and for the most part, featureless. It is meant as a massive gathering place for government ceremonies, much like Red Square in Russia. It lies just south of the Forbidden City. We took the obligatory tourist picture in front of the flagpole (you can see the entrance to the Forbidden City in the background).


Making our way to the Forbidden City, we passed through the outer wall via the Tiananmen Gate. The massive doors have rivet on them. Touching the rivets supposedly gives good luck, but I am not sure how many you are supposed to touch. I tried just a couple:


The scale of the Forbidden City is just enormous. It reminded me of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, but MUCH bigger (and less ornate). The scale was similar to the ruins of Karnak – almost too big to really comprehend.


As we made our way towards the inner gate, we decided we should have a guide to show us around the rest of the monument. We found “Sunny”, a local student who sidelines by giving tours of various tourist sites. She spoke English very well (and French too, from what she said) and knew the Forbidden City history in great detail.


More doors, more structure, more plazas. The palace seems to go on forever, with different ceremonial areas and structures at every turn. There are many interesting details, such as the lion  handles on these enormous copper bowls.


The bowls themselves were used to store water for fire-fighting. Since much of the structure is made of wood, there was constant concern about fires.

Inside of most of the main structures were throne rooms, used by the Emperor and other dignataries to manage affairs of state.


This enormous lion guarded the entrance to the concubines section of the palace.


The Emperors were attended by a vast number of concubines, up to 1000 of them in some cases. The size of the palace is mainly required to accommodate the concubines, their servants and the many government officials that lived there as well.

There are many artifacts held in the museums around the palace. Some are truly exquisite:


Before I left, Meta and I wondered what the major historical religion in China was, whether Buddhist or something else. According to what I have now read, much of the structure and artifacts in the Forbidden City are focused around “Taoism“. You can read about it here:

I like the first two lines of the Tao Te Ching, the major text of Taoism:

“The Way that can be described is not the true Way.”
“The Name that can be named is not the constant Name.”

Here’s one other cool fact about China. Up until the early 1900’s they had a system of examinations that (theoretically) allowed anyone who passed to be granted lucrative jobs with the government (more on it here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_examination). It’s an interesting cultural bias that suggests that all people should be judged on merit rather than family ties or other measures.

We made our way further into the inner portion of the city, and some of the spaces became smaller and (relatively) more intimate:


Many of the parts of the Forbidden City have been repainted and restored in recent years (particularly leading up to the Beijing Olympics). Evidence of the continuing work was still visible, such as these ceiling paintings, some of which are bright and colorful, and others faded with time:


Another amazing feature of the Forbidden City is all the carved stone. Much of it is weathered with time, and many people touching it as they walk by, but some has been protected and retains it’s original detail.


One particularly amazing example was this stairway, carved from a single block of stone:


After the Forbidden City we made the trip back to Robert’s place via subway (cost: $0.30). On Tuesdays and Thursdays he has someone who comes in to make dinner, so we relaxed to a nice meal and watched a movie (Watchmen, very disappointing). Then it was off to bed for the night. Tomorrow will be a slower day, just making our way around the city.

If you made it this far you are probably Meta or my Mom. If you are dying to see more, you can see a complete slideshow of all the photos I took yesterday below.

Beijing Day 3

Today was not nearly as touristy as yesterday. In the morning I made my way around Beijing on my own while Robert headed to work for the morning. I took a bus from in front of Robert’s place and just got off when the area looked interesting. I did a little shopping (found a couple gifts for my Son, Caleb) and then realized that the bus I had taken did not run in the other direction. Although I actually quite enjoy making my way around a new city, even when I don’t know the language, I remembered that I did not even know how to describe Robert’s place to a taxi driver. Normally I would have gotten a native to write down my address for use in taxis, but I was being lazy and had decided not to bother.

I went down a side-street and found a place to buy live seafood. The choices included turtle, eel and several different species of fish:

I am not sure why, but I saw a couple reminders of Oregon while out on the town. The first was this worker wearing an Oregon shirt:


And the second was found in a high-end bike shop, which featured several Bike Friday’s (made in Eugene, OR) in their showroom:


Given the number of cheap folding bikes you can buy in China, it was really surprising to see a US made bike. Especially at a price of over $1500 US!


Eventually I traced the bus line back for about 1 mile until I found the line running in the other direction, so I made it home without difficulty.

Later in the afternoon we headed out to buy a new electric bike for Robert. This is his old bike:
And this is the new one:
Once he purchased the bike, we went for a ride around town together on the two bikes. Riding a bike (even an electric one) in Beijing is quite different than riding in the States. Cars, bikes, peds, carts, strollers, and whatever else all crowd together on the right side of the street. Horns honk, people weave and it all seems very casual. The good news is that they move rather slow and even though they can be unpredictable there is enough time to react. That said, it is not for the faint of heart and I warned Robert about trying to get my Mom up on one of the bikes when she visits: not sure if that would be wise.

We stopped by one of Robert’s favorite shopping places: Top Electronics City. It’s a huge mall purely for electronics. From complete computer systems to any part you can imagine, they have what seem like miles of stalls selling it all. Some example of what you can purchase there:


On the ride back home we heard the clattering noise coming from the car lanes and turned around to see a tow truck pulling a pickup with a flat tire. The tire was disintegrating further (almost down to the bare metal) as it drove along. The thing was clattering along as it was being pulled. The hilarious thing was that they had someone in the driver’s seat of the pickup being towed!

The evening was eventful as well. After a brief rest at home we headed out again by bike to catch the subway. The subway was crowded with people who move very smoothly as they transfer between trains:

Our destination was the Lao Tse Teahouse, a popular local restaurant with a variety show. The entire program is in Chinese and although there were translations for some of the acts, it was entertaining just to see the traditional chinese performance arts. The performances included shadow puppets, kung fu, comedy, Peking opera and a magic show. The highlight of the evening was when the magician picked Robert’s friend, Eric, to go on stage. Eric looks like the typical American and seemed willing enough. They had him help in tying up a woman for the act, and I suspect they picked him to poke a little fun at the “LaoWai“, or foreigner. They got a surprise when they asked him whether the ropes were tight (in Chinese) and he responded in Chinese (I am not sure what he said). Eric, despite his appearance, is fluent in Chinese after studying it for over 10 years. His response got a round of applause from the audience.


Some photos of the other acts:

A quick video of the shadow puppets:

The show was entertaining and gave a great taste of Chinese culture. Eric translated and explained several of the acts which gave it more meaning.

Here is a slideshow with all the photos I took on Day 3: