Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Day 15 – The jinx is still on

I should have suspected something when I first learned my return flight came back through Denver.

First, I never connected with Gustav and Christine, even though the two of them made separate trips to the airport. I waited in exactly the same place I had waited for Chrissy two weeks before, but nada! Of course, here I am coming from sunny, warm Egypt and I get to stand in the cold, winter air from 8:45 to 9:30 am. By that time I was getting pretty cold, and it was starting to snow, so I moved myself to the interior of the terminal, where I waited at the Treffpunkt until 10:30 am. Sigh, my looked for meeting with my dear friends didn’t get to pass.

OK, so I entertained myself for a couple of hours and then went to board my Frankfurt to Denver flight, at 12:35 pm. Ah, but the damn thing had been delayed, so it was not until 14:30 pm we were put in the bus and driven to the far confines of the airport to a Air Bus that seemed to have been brought out of deep frozen storage. All along we saw airplanes being dowsed with this green stuff, which is used as a de-icer. OK, so we are all packed in the plane, ready to go by 15:30, when the captain comes on the PA system to announce that now we have to wait to be de-iced, and the de-icer coordinator has us scheduled for 16:30. But we are in a faraway, almost forgotten corner of the airport, miles and miles away from where the de-icing action is taking place. As it turns out, the bloody de-icer coordinator is a dirty, deceiving, lying scoundrel, who every half hour he promises he is sending the de-icing truck. Finally, at 19:30, when hope has died in all our hearts, the green goop arrives. Ah, but we don’t want to breath what is in the green stuff, so the AC system is turned off, and over the next hour we get to almost suffocate as we see, for the tenth time, the safety announcement that promises we are ready for takeoff. Finally we take off, at 20:30, with exactly 7 hours of delay with respect to our original flight plan.

By the time we get to Denver, at 22:00, it is too late to catch a connecting flight. Of course Chrissy has my jacket back in Frankfurt, so when I hear that it is -5 degrees C (20 degrees F) outside I start to shake uncontrollably, remembering another time when I almost died of exposure at the same airport. So, shamelessly I stole one of the little Lufthansa blankets, wrapped myself in it Arab style, and was bracing to spend a shivering night at the airport when Lufthansa came through one more time. They put the whole plane up for the night in local hotels, paid for dinner at the hotel, and booked everyone in the first flight out of Denver (which for me is the 9:50 am flight that should put me in Sacramento at 11:00 am).

I am bummed that I am not going to be on time for my classes, but I managed to e-mail all my students by 9 pm California time, so if they are typical university students that check their e-mail one last time before going to bed most of them will know that I am stranded in Denver and we will not have class.

So, all is well that ends well, but I have to acknowledge that the Denver jinx is still on.

Day 14 – My last day in Egypt

This was it. A last day in Egypt, and a relatively short list of things to do. First I had to return the car, and I felt pretty sure I knew what roads to take to get back to the center of town. By I did a silly mistake and missed the onramp to the express way and got “funneled” into the small streets. Left, then right, then left . . . oh boy this is going to hurt . . wait, this part of town looks familiar . . . maybe if I cut across this narrow alley . . . yes, there is the roundabout where I had lunch after visiting the Egyptian Museum. Three minutes later I parked the car in front of the hotel, and five minutes later I was walking away, free of cares, toward the metro station.

Second, Ali had told me I had to visit the Al-Azhar Mosque, which was established on 970 AD. It is not the oldest mosques, but it is one of the oldest. It has the added claim to fame that within a few years of its foundation a school (madrasa) was added to it (988 AD). This madrasa eventually became the Al-Azhar University, which claims the title of the second oldest university in the world (the oldest is the madrasa/university in Fez, Morrocco).

Across the square is the Mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein, one of the most holy places of Islam, since it is the burial place of the head of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet, who was assassinated in Iraq (thus starting the feud between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, a feud that continues to the present day. Since it is such a holy place, it is not open to visit by non-mulsims.

Third, just alongside the mosque starts the Khan al-Khalili, the legendary market of Old Cairo. I had put shopping until the very last day, to save my pounds for a truly unique souvenir. I knew exactly what I wanted: A couple of cheap papyri to put on the walls of my Africa room, and a faience figurine of either a winged scarab (yeah, good luck with that one), an ushebti (figurines that were added to the burials of kings or nobles to perform any manual labor required of the principal in the next world), or a hippopotamus (I had seen one in Luxor, and I was kicking myself for not buying it then and there).

As always, the market place was fascinating. The color, the variety, and the absolute charm of the sellers is irresistible to me. The papyri were no problem, and I was even bold enough to haggle a bit on the price. The faience figurines, on the other hand, were nowhere to be found. Maybe I should say that faience is a type of ceramic that was popular during pharaonic times; quartz sand mixed with a pigment was sprinkled on a regular clay figurine, and when the piece was fired the quartz and the pigment would fuse and together glaze the figurine with an attractive blue or turquoise tint. Most of the merchants had no idea what I was talking about, and instead kept directing me to the regular fare they carry for tourists. Quite despondent I was ready to quit, when a lady told me to follow her to her son’s shop. It was a big shop, with many pieces, and I was sure to find what I wanted there. No, it looked just like another waste of time when I spotted a dust covered basket in one of the corners that had some pale green figurines. I pulled it out and there they were, a good dozen of ushebtis forgotten by time. The folks there could hardly believe I was interested on those old, chipped pieces, but business is business and after a modest amount of haggling I became the proud owner of the best two pieces.

After that I went back to the Scout Center, because I wanted to buy some Scout paraphernalia for Dave. So I did, and afterward realized I still had 130 pounds in my pocket. Cool, now that I am done with my shopping I can blow this money on another museum and a good meal.

So off I went again, this time headed for the Coptic quarter of the city. I am referring to the quarter where some of the old Coptic churches and monasteries are, not where the modern Copts live. You see, the Copts are the garbage collectors of Cairo, and they pretty much live around and at the dump. But in the old days the Copts became famous for the “invention” of monastic life, and many Coptic monasteries were built between 200 and 1200 AD. This means that for quite some time Coptic Christianity and Islam shared the country “nuss we nuss” (50-50). History tells us that around 675 AD, just a few years after the death of the Prophet, 2,000 Arab riders invaded Egypt and brought Islam unto the land. They established their first city, El Fustat, in close proximity to the Coptic monasteries, just south of what eventually was to become Old Cairo.

So I burnt 50 pounds in the Coptic Museum (OK, but not great), walked around the neighborhood, and secure on the knowledge that there was nothing else I wanted I started browsing through shops. I looked with interested eyes at a book on Egyptian cooking, but I only had 60 pounds to spend, and the book was 75 pounds. The very charming gentleman running the bookshop was not weakening, but he invited me to look at his brother’s bazaar, where maybe I could get something for my 60 pounds. OK, I went in, and looked, and was turning ready to go when I spied TWO beautiful faience winged scarabs! I was cool as ice when I asked for the price. The gentleman laughed and said “a lot more than 60 pounds!” But he knew I was hooked.

When I told him I had no more money he suggested paying by credit card. Really? My credit card has been totally useless so far, so I gladly reached for my wallet when I recalled I had left it at the Scout Center. Arggh. “No problem”, said he, “my brother will drive you to the hotel and you can pay for it then and there.” What can I say. When you meet such an accommodating salesman there is little one can do. So I got a ride to my hotel, with lots of conversation and sightseeing along the way, I got my credit card and using a portable remote terminal took care of business, and now I am the proud owner of four magnificent pieces of ceramic art (and an Egyptian cookbook :). I am one happy pup.

And that is it. Tomorrow I take the plane to Frankfurt at 5 am, and expect to have breakfast at the airport with my dear Christine and Gustav. After that I will fly from Frankfurt to Denver (I shudder every time I think about the time I got stranded in Denver under glacial conditions), and from there to Sacramento, where DJ and Girl will pick me up. It was a short but intense trip, and I will remember Egypt and its fabulous people fondly for many years to come.


Day 13 – The Delta

I feel a little guilty, but I was not really impressed with Alexandria. Egyptians think it is their most beautiful city, and the setting along the Mediterranean is indeed magnificent. However, the waterfront is “choked” by old and decaying high-rise buildings, set way too close together which accounts for very dark streets and alleys. My guess is that development went nuts in the 60’s, with everyone wanting a condo near the ocean, and lack of good planning ended creating an overcrowded beach front (reminds of Valparaiso in Chile, which suffers with the same ailment).

The drive south through the Delta was not quite what I had in mind. First, the morning was very, very foggy, so there was little to see. In fact, I got turned around and went good 20 km in the wrong direction before I was able to turn around. Each country has its own peculiarities with respect to the flow of traffic, and Egypt is big into sending you one way, and then suddenly expect you to make a U turn to head in exactly the opposite way. My problem is that I don’t read Arabic street signs, so I have to wait for the odd sign in Roman script to check if I am going on the right direction. Makes for very interesting detours.

Once the fog lifted I saw I was crossing a pretty, bountiful agricultural area. I stopped a couple of times, but there were no real roads away from the main highway, and the few I saw went into more of those unsmiling ag towns like I had seen in el-Faiyum.

There were plenty of vehicles on the road, and I saw a couple of rather gruesome accidents. Unfortunately Egyptians are not good enough drivers to weave at high speeds through heavily loaded trucks. But since they believe they are very good they speed up, straddle lanes, squeeze between trucks and cars, and every single car is scratched and dented. I have to be very careful not to get my car scratched.

Of course I saw many canals in my travels, and twice crossed distributary channels of the Nile, so I can be thrilled by the fact that I am crossing the delta of the Nile. One interesting site are the pigeon coops, which rise 15 feet into the air, like thumbs, and are thus easily visible across the flat landscape. Egyptians breed pigeons for tow reasons. One, as food. Two, for the guano (and hence the need for pigeon coops). Of course the pigeons poop all over the fields during the day, thus providing random applications of fertilizers, but all the night poop accumulates at the bottom of the coop, where every so often it can be collected to be used as fertilizer.

I finally made it to Cairo, where I had to struggle to find my way. I do have a map, and given enough time I could read it, but with all the crazy drivers here there is never a moment or place to stop and look at the map. Instead I had to rely on instinct and recollection of the way I went before, which takes a little longer but is almost as good as map reading.

So I am back in my comfortable suite at the Scout Center, writing my notes while I look at the TV and sip apple soda. It is getting dark out there, so I think I should go out to dinner. We will see what tomorrow brings.

Day 12 – A drive through the countryside

I decided to stop being a tourist and to spend a couple of days driving through the country, just to get a feel for it. I rented a car, braved the Cairo traffic for longer than I had expected, and finally made it into the road that heads south parallel to the Nile. It was not a happy choice since it is a narrow road, full of slow traffic, and going through lackluster towns.

Eventually I made it to the desert and headed toward el-Faiyum. The desert is . . . well . . . the desert. Endless expanses of sand, rock, and little else. Some portions look dug out, as if it were the training ground of every backhoe operator in the country.

El-Faiyum is a surprise when you come in from the desert, with its green agricultural fields. None of the fields is particularly large, and I was unable to figure out the general pattern of the irrigation canals. It makes for a pretty if unexciting landscape, and I am sorry to say the towns are not the quaint little “pueblitos” I had imagined. No, they are conglomerates of high-rise buildings, 8 to 10 stories high, set too close together and in a rather poor state of repair. The muddy streets, strewn with trash, don’t do much to improve the general mood.

Slightly depressed I decided to take the Desert Road and head north, to Alexandria. It was a pleasant drive, and I got to Alexandria by late afternoon, in time to enjoy a walk along the Mediterranean coast. I had to find a place to sleep, however, and to my surprise I didn’t find the beach front crowded with hotels. There were a couple of the super fancy hotels (200 dollars a night in the one I asked), but finding a modest hotel took much longer than I had expected, and forced me to drive up and down the seafront boulevard, each time pitting my abilities against those of the wild Alexandria drivers. I reflected about what made them so bad, and concluded that, being coastal folks, they behave like a school of fish, swerving left and right following the leader (irrespective of where the lines on the pavement are). The trick is to become the leader, but in order to do that you have to drive really, really fast.

That night I went meandering through the narrow streets of the city, grazing from street vendors. My favorite was something I bought at the butcher shop. They make a patty of ground beef with spices and salsa, pat it flat between to discs of dough, and then bake it on a little oven right then and there. Totally delicious!

Day 11 – A brief history of the Nile

The ride on the train was all I had expected to be, sans crime. To a devotee of the novels of Hercule Poirot, I couldn’t help but hope that someone would be bumped off in the middle of the night, and that peering out of my door I would see a woman with a dragon-embroided bath robe walking toward the opposite side of the corridor. Alas, it was not to be, and I had to satisfy myself with a good dinner, a rocking sleep, and a fabulous sunrise over a landscape dotted with palm trees.

I spent the day taking care of the business that brought me to Egypt on the first place: A conference on the development of water projects in arid lands. Most interesting is what I learned about the Nile. The history of the Nile can be described in four stages.

The play starts with the opening of the Red Sea, during the Oligocene. At that time the eastern edge of the African continent was uplifted, as an angry sore around the rifting area. This diverted the flow of water to the west, so there was no “Nile” flowing from south to north at this time. Then something catastrophic happened: Africa nudged itself north against Europe. Two consequences of this nudging were: (1) Deformation and mountain building in Egypt, creating a “fabric” of folds, or ridges and basins, with a general northwest orientation. One of these ridges (anticlines) was to become the el-Fayum depression at a later time. These folds blocked the east-to-west streams and the Nile 1 was formed. The Nile 1 meandered all across Egypt, carrying a goodly amount of water and the sediments eroded from the Red Sea Mountains until 6 million years (Ma) ago, when the second consequence of the collision between Africa and Europe was felt. (2). 6 Ma ago the Strait of Gibraltar closed. Cut off from the inflow of Atlantic water the Mediterranean dried out! Yes, the large volume of the Nile 1 notwithstanding, evaporation in this hot area outpaced the rate of recharge. A thick layer of salt and gypsum accumulated at the bottom of the Mediterranean, which lay 3,000 m below current sea level. From the standpoint of the river, such a gargantuan drop in base level caused the river to aggressively cut down its channel, carving a canyon that rivaled the Grand Canyon in all respects but one; instead of being only 320 km long, like the Grand Canyon, the Nile Canyon was 1,300 km long! Imagine what a rafting trip that would have been :)

5.4 Ma ago, the “dam” at the Strait of Gibraltar broke off, and the Atlantic cascaded into the Mediterranean with a deafening roar. No other waterfall on Earth could have rivaled this one! Now, what happens when sea level suddenly rises? The ocean invades the land canyons, forming estuaries that extend deep into the land. Since the Miocene canyon of the Nile 1 was so long and deep, the estuary was unusually long and deep, and for a couple of million years marine/estuary deposition dominated central Egypt. The river had disappeared in the meantime, but its tributaries kept bringing sediment to the estuary until eventually the Miocene canyon was all filled up with sediment, and the Nile 2 was established.

3.3 to 1.8 Ma ago, the Nile 2 ran over the marine/estuarine deposits, and started carving a not very deep but fairly wide valley. The climate was more humid, and large tributaries in Sudan and Western Egypt contributed significant amounts of water to the river. Then climate changed, quite suddenly as climate is wanton to do, and a very dry period ensued. The dry conditions lasted between 1.8 and 0.8 Ma ago, and they were so severe that the Nile stopped flowing.

The end of the dry period, 800 thousand years (ka) ago, brought the Nile 3 back with a vengeance, and it is largely during this time that the broad valley of the Nile gets its final remodel. This is probably also the time when a channel breaks off the main stem of the river to pour water into the el-Faiyum depression. The origin of this depression, which is now as low as 50 m below sea level is still unclear. Geologically it is an anticline, so it should be high rather than low. Perhaps the folding caused fissuring on the crest of the anticline, formation of caverns, and collapse of an extensive cave system to form the depression. In any case, if you imagine the Nile as a carnation, with the stem being the Nile flowing from south to north, and the delta being the flower itself, el-Faiyum would be the only leaf branching off the stem. All the way up into pharaonic time, in times of flood, the Bahr Yusef flood branch of the Nile has flowed through the Hawara Channel into el-Faiyum, feeding a lake that formed and dried out between big flood events. It was a natural detention basin for the flood waters of the Nile. The ancient Egyptians recognized this, and made sure the channel was kept clear of sediment that could clog the channel and impair the spillway function. Sometime in Ptolemeic times sluice gates were added to the channel, so irrigation into el-Faiyum could be controlled, for the growth of cash crops to be sold to Rome.

Another dry spell starting at 400 ka and ending at 12.5 ka, caused the Nile 3 to flow intermittently (interestingly, between 15 and 11.5 ka is when California has the very wet climate that we geologists refer to as the Pluvial Period of California history.
So at 12,500 years ago the Nile 4 gets established. Much smaller that its predecessor, the Nile 4 is content in flowing over a small portion of the broad alluvial valley, moving around the sediments accumulated by the Nile 3. At Aswan, during construction of the high dam, geologists found over 250 meters of alluvial sediments under the current channel of the river, which go back to the filling of the Miocene canyon by the estuarine and alluvial deposits of Nile 2.

Egypt, and all of the Sahara for that matter, had its own Pluvial Period from about 10,000 to 4,500 years ago. The rain belt of the intertropical convergence region shifted northward just enough to turn the desert into a savannah, and much of Egypt’s groundwater must have been recharged during this time. Then climate started deteriorating, and civilization sought the Nile 4 valley as a cradle to develop. Although the evidence is at best permissive, it seems that the three golden periods of Egyptian civilization may have coincided with times when the flow of the Nile was average or above average, whereas the two intermediate periods when government collapsed may have coincided with periods when the flow of the Nile was well below average for an extended period of time.

Day 10 – The East Bank

Well, the accommodations may have left much to be desired, but the friendly game of dominoes last night, and a lavish breakfast this morning did much to mollify my poor opinion of the hostel.

I decided to spend the morning at the Karnak temple complex, which has been called the largest religious complex in history. I decided to take a minibus, which took many detours through the city. “What is going on?”, I thought as we were blocked off by streets being torn off. Well, the Luxor municipality is engaging in a major beautification effort, which in a couple of years will give this city a magnificent river walk and improved street network. However, there is always a danger when you start excavating on a city with more than 2000 years of ancient history. In effect, the public works have unearthened a major avenue of antiquity between Karnak and Luxor temples, and now they are slowly recovering the hundreds of sphinxes that lined the avenue, plus an untold number of other treasures. It looks to me that the plan is to reconstruct this major avenue, and open it to the public as another Theban wonder (but to do so many ugly buildings are being demolished, and the street network needs to be changed significantly).

Karnak is indeed amazing. It covers an area of 80 square kilometers, of which maybe 10 square kilometers are open to the public. The rest of the area is still being investigated, and everywhere one sees archaeological crews hard at work. Most of the work is done by Egyptian laborers, who dig and dig and dig through recent soils before finding a solid surface that the archaeologist can then check. Some other archaeologists (students to judge by their age) have the more entertaining task of making full-size sketches of hieroglyphic inscriptions (a see through acetate is taped on top of the inscription, and the copy is made by marking the acetate with a waterproof marker).

The set of temples is to complex for me to try to describe in these notes, so I will just make a few notes at random. My first impression is that Egyptian monumental architecture is based on rather minimalist but enormous pylons or porticoes. Their simple architecture made them an ideal canvas for the kings of ancient Egypt to carve enormous murals glorifying their deeds. An interesting piece of trivia is that in reconstructing one of these pylons archeologists found they were filled with the remnants of another temple that had been demolished in antiquity. It turned out to be the temple built by Akhnaten, the heretic king, so archaeologists photographed every piece they could find, and with the help of a computer did a virtual reconstruction of the whole temple! (The computer went through all possible matches of the fragments until the whole picture emerged). A physically reconstructed wall of the temple can be admired the Luxor Museum.

A second element is called a hypostyle hall, which is a very tall roofed enclosure supported by a forest of massive columns. It is supposed to be a representation of a “forest” of papyrus reeds, where some of the columns are topped by buds, and some other by open flowers. It makes for a great place to imagine ancient conspiracies brewing.

There are two obelisks standing, and a couple more crashed on the floor. Somehow they don’t look as large in the framework of the massive temples, but they are beautiful in their simplicity and impressive balance. Did you know that obelisks are totally unsupported laterally, held vertically in place by nothing else than their prodigious weight?

Finally, there were any number of small temples, many of which were demolished after the reigning king made the trip to the west bank. Most exquisite were those of Hapshepsut, the female king, built of red Aswan granite, and that of Amenhotep I, built of white Egyptian alabaster (i.e., travertine limestone). Both temples have been reconstructed in the adjacent Open Air Museum, which I had all to myself since other tourists were too cheap to pay the 25 pound entrance fee.

After I finished visiting Karnak I walked along the river to the downtown area, where I wasted 50 pounds in the Mummification Museum (a small and not very interesting collection of mummifying implements and animal mummies). Hot and hungry I found a oasis of shade in a small outside café, where I sat quietly for nearly two hours reading, seeping cold beer, and having a yummy lunch of pizza and a type of Egyptian lasagna that was to die for.

In the afternoon I went to visit the Luxor temple, which is small compared to the temple complex of Karnak, but likewise very beautiful. It was built by Amenhotep I, but was “refurbished” by Ramses II (aka as The Great Chiseler), who put statues of himself all over the place, and refaced the pylon so he could carve the story of the Battle of Kadesh (again!).

At 7:30 pm, thoroughly exhausted after a day of solid tourism, I headed for the train station for the overnight trip back to Cairo. I have decided to be kind to my tired bones, and have booked a sleeper berth. I have not been in a train sleeper since I was a kid, so I am quite looking forward to the comfortable ride.

Day 9 – The West Bank

Four o’clock in the morning and I am already on the road (there seems to be a pattern here). Last night Ahmed Ishmael talked me into a ride on a hot-air balloon to see the sun rise over the West Bank necropolis of ancient Thebes. I talked him down to 70 dollars for it, but now I am regretting falling for this. It is probably going to be some silly go up tethered to the ground, take a quick look, and get back down. At least I am not going to be the only mug. There is quite a crowd once we get to the wharf, to take the little boats that will cross us from the East Bank to the West Bank. I get lumped together with a party of Germans, and we have a good laugh together as we cross.

A quick minibus ride takes us to the field where the balloons are getting set up. There is something eerie at seeing these behemoths raise their enormous heads as the hot air fills their entrails. In the dark of the night the bursts of flame illuminates the thin fabric, and they look like dragons bobbing their heads as they breath fire. Finally our balloon is standing erect, trying to lift but held in place by the hands of the numerous ground crew. It is time for us to board, about 20 people to the basket. Then the captain gives the signal, the ropes are let go, and with a roar we start our ascent.

Wait. Where is the tether rope? How are we going to get back to the landing field? As we rise we start to drift, and all of a sudden this is not some silly ride anymore. We are actually going to float across the West Bank, and God only knows where we are going to land! The full moon illuminates the flood plain of the Nile, but the stark hills of the Theban Escarpment, where the Valley of the Kings is located, are still in penumbra. We rise more and more, and now we can see the full breath of the flood plain on both sides of the Nile, covered with fertile agricultural fields, and as if drawn with a sharp edge the boundary of this land of plenty with the barren desert on both sides.

The sun finally breaks through the eastern hills, and the Theban Hills are set in fire as the Aten bathes them with a reddish glow. Now we can see Hapshetsup’s Temple directly ahead of us, in Deir el-Bahari. The Valley of the Kings must be right behind it, but the wind is carrying us in the opposite direction. Right behind us is the town of Al-Quner, infamous because it has cradled generations of tomb robbers since antiquity (but has also provided expert workers for archaeological excavation crews).

We are absolutely fascinated by the landscape that unfolds beneath us. I spot a fox, running at a gentle, unhurried trot through the fields, until it gets lost in a sugar cane field. There a small farm comes slowly to life, and a young woman brings the cow in for milking. There a crew is hard at work, sowing grain on the furrows being opened by an ox and a plow. Looking up we see the other balloons all around us, each following a different path and giving us excellent opportunities for photographs against the full moon, the rising sun, or the Theban Hills. This has to be the coolest thing I could have done here in Luxor!

At some point we start our descent, and I for one cannot see where we are going to land. I see high-voltage lines, and irrigation canals, and small towns, and agricultural fields, but where are we going to set this behemoth without destroying some poor farmers crop? It is true that the captain has no way to steer the balloon, but he knows that the wind moves in different directions at different altitudes, so he bobs up and down until he finds the current that is just right an using a radio he gives instructions to the ground crew. We finally spot them about a kilometer ahead. They are driving along a canal, and it looks like the captain is planning on dropping us right on the levee. I hope he knows what he is doing, because on one side there is the canal, and on the other a sugar cane field. The last few hundred meters are exciting, with the basket grazing the top of the sugar cane. And just on the knick of time the top of the balloon is opened and we drop like a feather on the top of the narrow levee, where the ground crew jumps and grabs the basket to keep it steady. We have made a perfect landing!

The rest of the day was pretty exciting as well. First I went to see the Colossi of Memnon (the name given by the Greeks to two giant statues of Amenhotep III), which is all that is left of the temple of Amenhotep III. You see, he was unwise enough to build his temple out of adobe bricks on the flood plain of the Nile. Well, the Nile flooded every year and the adobe temples got wet and eroded, one little bit at a time, until all that was left were the two massive statues of the king, which had been carved out of hard sandstone.

Hatshepsut’s Temple was also interesting. She is unique in that she was the only woman who became King. Yes, she was a regular Queen, but when her hubby died she took over the throne (probably as a regent for stepson Tuthmoses III), and within a couple of years proclaimed herself King, wore the false beard, and went ahead to do pretty good things. The temple is a glorification of all she did during her reign: Sent an expedition to Punt (present day Erithrea or Somalia), brought back resinous trees (from which incense is ultimately derived), honored the gods, had obelisks carved in Aswan and brought them by barge to Karnak temple, etc. In short, she was an OK King. Unfortunately the Egyptians could not cope with the idea of having had a woman King, so a few years after her passing her name was officially erased from the historic record, and her images and cartouches were carved out of her temple.

The Valley of the Kings was a bit of a disappointment. Not the three tombs I visited, which had wonderful mural decorations, but the valley in general. It is much smaller than what I had imagined, and the tombs are but a few tens of meters apart. Hard to understand why it took so long to locate them, but here I am speaking out of ignorance, since I have no idea of the amount of work involved in clearing the entrance of a tomb.

In the afternoon I relocated to the hostel I had booked through the internet. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. It is nothing like what was shown in the picture. No, it is positively seedy, and one of the less appealing I have found in my trips to Africa. Oh well, I can survive a night here.

My evening activities included a visit to the Luxor Museum (a very nice piece of museography!) and a walk through the sueq or suk. I was dreading the latter, because the hawkers can be quite annoying, but that was not the case. You were of course actively encouraged to come into the shop and look, but they were respectful enough not to follow you or grab you by the arm. I did enjoy myself quite a bit.

Day 8 – Goodbye to our felucca

Two thirty in the morning, and the breeze has almost died down. Somewhere in the distance a muezzin chants a prayer. The full moon shines over the bank of the river, where a fox stands immobile, looking at the sleeping felucca. But not everyone is asleep. I am fully awake, taking every sound of the night, smelling the cool breeze (the desert air is gone, replaced by the fresh wind from the Mediterranean), and looking at the fox as it turns on its heels looking for a more interesting view. I don’t want this magic to end, but I know that shortly after sunrise we will disembark and say goodbye to our friendly crew. Staying in my sleeping bag is no longer possible, so I get up and step on shore.

The great river flows slowly past me, invitingly. I cannot let this opportunity pass, and under the full moon go for the coolest swim I have ever had. The water is so refreshing.

My swim has apparently woken Reis Awat, who discovers the barky is stranded high on the sand. This is not good and he promptly gets ready to put it afloat. A quick bark and the boys drag themselves from their blankets; I, as the cause for this early activity, get drafted as crew. At the word of the Reis we all put our backs against the hull and heave . . . heave . . . heave. The first couple of efforts were futile, but at the third push we feel the heavy vessel start sliding. More pushing, much more grunting, and finally we are floating free on the water. Without a word the Reis and his crew go back to sleep, and I am left alone one more time, free to contemplate this magnificent river.

But all good things must come to an end, and after a wonderful breakfast with French Pita (just like French Toast, but with pita bread instead of toast), we say goodbye to our friends and aboard the minibus that will take us to the next stage of our journey.

First we stop for only half an hour at Kom Ombo, to see an interesting Ptolemaic temple. The Ptolemys ruled Egypt from 323 BC (the death of Alexander) to 30 BC (the death of Cleopatra), but in these 300 years they were busy little bees who built many temples in a most curious mix of Egyptian and Greek architecture. Kom Ombo is a fine example of such mix, and its location at the bank of the Nile is without equal.

Then we stopped for an hour at Idfu (aka Edfu), at the Ptolemaic temple to the falcon god Horus. Now, this temple looks 100% Egyptian, and because it is so recent its bas-reliefs are beautifully preserved. I remember thinking, when visiting Machu Picchu, how odd it was to find such a piece of monumental architecture without a carving, a statue, or an inscription. Well, at the Horus temple the difficulty is to find a surface without an inscription! They sure were chatty, them Ptolemys, and I suspect they tended to repeat themselves a lot, just like my students do. The effect, however, is quite impressive.

We finally made it to Luxor, where my friends scrambled into all sorts of low price hotels. Me, a favorite of Lady Fortune, ended in a 4-star hotel. I don’t know how this happened, but our mini-bus driver got a special cell phone call, naming me, and was instructed to take me to this awesome hotel, where a representative of Habibi Tours was ready to receive me. He had may plans for the next two days all lined up, talked me into a 4 am departure to take a balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings to see the sunset, and got my instructions for a sleeper train to Cairo on the night of the 24.

I think I will take a bath in my luxury tub while I can, to shake the tiredness off my weary bones . . . oh, wait, what is that? The muezzin’s first call to afternoon prayer. Yes, I think I will pour myself a drink and soak in the tub until it is time for the second afternoon prayer.

Day 7 – Sailing the Nile

Sailing the Nile on a felucca has made me the happiest man alive. This is exactly what I had in mind when I dreamed on lazily gliding down the Nile.

Feluccas are heavy boats, with very broad beams, a massive mast, and a rudder whose post is a good 6 inches in diameter. Yet, with their impossibly tall triangular sails, they move gently through the water as if they were mythical monsters or sail fish.

Now, as all my students know an area of low pressure develops over the very hot land, which constantly draws wind in from the sea. In other words, the wind blows from the north, precisely in the direction in which we wanted to go. So Reis Awat, seasoned sailor that he is, tacked his way from one side of the river to the other, over and over again, so we effectively moved in zig zag fashion downstream. This curious way of advance is somewhat slow, but has the advantage of maximizing sailing time, and of giving the sailor alternate glimpses of both banks and their exotic landscapes. I should add that these are true sailing ships, with no form of mechanized locomotion, so the master has to be particularly vigilant to not lose his wind or get pushed unto a lee shore.

All along our merry crew kept a constant flow of chatter, cups of sweet tea, and a very passable and varied number of meals. Nothing fancy, you understand, but traditional fare that goes remarkably well with the appetite that a fresh breeze seems to make particularly sharp: scrambled eggs with tomatoes and spices, pasta, rice with potatoes, falafel and salad with goat cheese, and abundant amounts of pita bread. Nobody went hungry on board!

My cup of joy overflowed when Reis Awat asked me to take the rudder (I had been hovering over him all morning long), and for a couple of hours I was Reis Horacio el-Misri (Captain Horacio the Egyptian!). I loved having the massive rudder under my control, and checked off one of the big items in my bucket list: Sail the Nile.

Later in the afternoon we had a bit of a change in the wind, when a hot air mass coming from the Sahara blew from the west, which allowed us to sail in a straight line, “running away” from this cross wind until it was time to anchor for the night.

Day 6 – Abu Simbel

Three in the morning, and like a bevy of mummies five of us stumbled stiffly through the night to meet the small bus that was to take us to Abu Simbel. We are told it is a hard ride through the desert, so we do one half at night to enjoy the cool of the morning. We have to go in convoy, apparently to protect ourselves from attack by marauding Bedouins.

It is indeed a harsh desert, with endless spans of sand and small outcrops of rock. The sunrise is spectacular.

We get to Abu Simbel around 7:30 am, and are told we need to be back in the bus at 9:45 am. So, we have two hours and we have to make the best of it.

Maybe I shall start by telling you that, although within the frontiers of modern Egypt, we are well within the biblical land of Kush (later known as Nubia, and encompassing the southern portion of modern Egypt and the northern portion of the Sudan). The ancient Egyptian empire ended at the first cataract, where modern Aswan was built, and we are nearly 200 km south of the first cataract. To find an Egyptian monument here would be like finding an Aztec pyramid in downtown LA! Clearly Abu Simbel was built so far into Kush as a double dare of king Ramses II, aka as Ramses the Great, to the Kushites. Any of them gliding down the Nile toward Egypt would see this enormous temple along the banks of the Nile and think “What the hell?” And if they were bold enough to disembark to check it out, they would be faced with four 20 m-high statues of Ramses the Great towering over them. Trembling they would walk between the legs of the innermost two statues, through a corridor where the only decoration is a long row of Kushite captives (you can tell they are African blacks from the curly heads and the distinctive facial features), being dragged on a line by the victorious Ramses. If by this time they have not peed in their pants they would enter the great hall, where the Egyptian success at the battle of Kadesh is told in exquisite and painful detail, showing Ramses victorious over the Hittite army (the Hittites were the modern Syrians), and culminating on a tableau where Ramses is rubbing elbows with the three main gods. In short, this was Ramses’ way of warning “all ye who cross this gate” that they better turn back because ahead they could only look forward to defeat and slavery.

There is a second temple at Abu Simbel. It is the temple that Ramses II built to honor the great love of his life, Nefertari (which means “The Beautiful Has Come”). Nefertari was his Great Wife, and although he had many secondary wives and concubines, from whom he begat more than 50 children, Ramses loved and honored her above everyone else. The temple is less imposing than the main temple, but it is lovely in its reliefs, and when you leave and take a look back at it, you cannot help but sigh looking at the romantic inscription in it portico: Nefertari – She for whom the sun does rise.

Lost in reflection I wandered back into the commercial annex to the temple complex, and got there just as a movie about the archaeological rescue of Abu Simbel was starting to play. I knew of course that the temple had been salvaged from being covered by the rising waters of Lake Nasser in the mid 1960’s, but I had no idea how this had been accomplished. In fact, looking at the exquisite reliefs in both temples it is hard to imagine that they had been cut into blocks at some time past. But cut they were, with wireline saws and with regular lumberjack saws, and in a display of craftsmanship they were moved a hundred meters up the hill to be assembled again in such a way that you cannot see the seams! Rightfully, UNESCO and the contractors from five countries who did the work can claim to have saved a priceless jewel of the patrimony of humanity.

Long bus ride back through the desert, arrival to Aswan, quick walk through the souq (market) and its magnificent mounds of spices and dry hibiscus flowers (jamaica para nosotros los mexicanos), and I finally landed in the welcoming magic carpet of the felucca that was going to be my home over the next three days. Feluccas are the graceful sailing boats that ply the Nile. Their broad beams trigger images of luxurious carpeted platforms where Cleopatra may have lain as she traveled downstream (north) to meet the Roman conquerors.

The company included two Australian couples, two Canadian girls, a German couple, an American woman, a Chilean guy, and yours truly. The felucca is under the capable command of Reis Awat, and he is “helped” by his two apprentices Ala and Yossuf. Reis Awat (i.e., Captain Awat) is a small wiry old man, who can read the river like a book. He is a devout Muslim, and as the first afternoon call to prayer resonates through the valley he lays down his best robe to use as a praying mat. The first afternoon call to prayer is also the first call to drink for our Australian friends, who soon have the whole company playing a drinking game. It is really easy, but I am going to record it here for memory sake. All players sit around and draw a card in turn; depending on the card drawn the following happens (all seen from the standpoint of the person drawing the card):

1 – I designate one person to take a drink
2 – I designate two people to take a drink
3 – I designate three people to take a drink
4 – I become master, and when I do something silly, like putting my thumb against my forehead, everyone has to do the same. Last one to react takes a drink
5 – Social! Everyone takes a drink.
6 – Rhyme time. I say a word or a sentence, and everyone in turn has to keep the rhyme going. First one to be speechless takes a drink.
7 – Categories. Say cities in Egypt. First one to falter takes a drink.
8 – Rule. I set a silly rule, like no laughing allowed. Everyone who laughs takes a drink until a new law gets proclaimed by someone drawing an 8.
9 – Everyone on the downwind side of the boat takes a drink
10 – All Americans (from the continent America) take a drink
11 – All Europeans and Australians take a drink
12 – Queen. All girls take a drink
13 – King. All guys take a drink

Kind of fun!

Day 5 – The Egyptian Museum

I have devoted the morning to touring a grand museum. The building is of 1890’s vintage, on the general lines of the old Louvre. Unfortunately it has not aged graciously, so I think I should send them Faby as a consultant to jazz up the paint work, refresh the glass windows, and rearrange the collection si it tells more of a story. Ah, yes, the small typewriter cards have to go, to be replaced by large, bold notes of explanation.

But outside of this minutia I have to say I stand in awe. The pieces are truly magnificent, and speak of the highest level of artistic accomplishment in a civilization that not only flourished 5,000 years ago, but also went through two near collapses and, like a phoenix, rose from its ashes twice! I imagine we could call its transformation into a Greco-Roman “colony” as a third and final period of decline, but if so they went into the night with a bang.

Fabulous pieces include the Nermer Tablet, which records the unification of lower and upper Egypt about 3,000 BC, under King Menes, the unusual statues of Akhnaten, the heretic king, the many statues of Ramses II, aka Ramses the Great, tons and tons of stele and papyri with lengthy inscriptions (they were chatty little things those Egyptians), and the carving of Nut, the protective goddess of the starry sky, on the inside of a royal stone sarcophagus. The treasures found in the unrobed tomb of the young King Tutankhamen are indeed remarkable, not only on the wealth they represent but also on the variety of artifacts represented.

I made the bad decision of paying a small fortune to visit the royal mummies, thinking that it was there that the full regalia of Tutankhamen would be on display (it is not, since Tutankhamen still rests in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, no doubt on a store-bought casket). Imagine my disappointment when all I saw was row after row of mummies, and I have absolutely no interest on mummies. However, I did find an interesting thing. These mummies of ancient kings had all been found together, in a cache at Deir el-Bahari. It seems some king of the 25th dynasty was concerned about the pillage of ancient tombs, so he had all the royal mummies he could find in the Valley of the Kings collected, had them rewrapped and tagged (a toe tag, like they use in the morgue these days), and buried them all together at Deir el-Bahari, where his guards could keep an eye on them. Pretty nice of the old fellow, don’t you think.

I have to praise the Egyptian Museum for their decision not to allow cameras. Most tourists groan (me included) when they have to surrender their cameras at the Guardarropa, but it is sooo much nicer to wander looking at the collection without having to stop every five seconds while some nincompoop takes two minutes to fire a shot. Now, if they would only ban tour groups my cup of joy would overflow. What a nuisance it is to get engulfed by a bunch of tourists moving like a swarm of locust!

A quiet walk along the Nile brought back my sense of balance, and after a delicious lunch of a ketfo sandwich (some type os spice ground beef rolled into a sausage) and a liver sandwich (chicken livers cooked in a tasty tomato sauce) I made contact with Habibi Tours, who will facilitate my visit to upper Egypt. Their representative was most professional, I paid for all the arrangements, and was even given a one hour in a hotel room to take a shower and take a nap. At 3:30 pm, exactly, my driver came to pick me up, to drive me at neck-breaking speed to the airport. Egyptians are good drivers, but they have the tendency to straddle the dividing line between the lanes, no doubt to double their chances to shift to an empty lane. The problem is that by doing so they actually occupy two lanes, so the Formula One racer coming behind has to (1) toot his disapproval, (2) squeeze himself in half a lane, and (3) straddle the line himself so other drivers will have the same troubles that he had to face.

But I made it to the airport, and an uneventful plane ride brought me to Aswan, the city that has grown around the Aswan High Dam. It is a colorful city at night, with people coming out at night to promenade along the river, play in the public gardens, or just seat with friends sipping coffee, just like they do at La Parroquia back in Veracruz.

Day 4 – The Pyramids of Giza

Smile and the world will smile with you! I should have not wasted good worry on money matters, because the first bank ATM I visited was happy to disgorge large amounts of pounds unto my waiting hands. Feeling flushed I went in search of breakfast, which I found in a small but popular eatery on a back street. With signs and pointing I managed to order an egg sandwich, but I had to forego a cup of morning coffee. On reflection, I believe what the friendly people in the eatery were trying to tell me is that I had to go around the corner to get coffee, so I am going to try again tomorrow.

I had asked at the Scout Center and was told a taxi to the pyramids should be only about 20 pounds, but the one man that accosted me first quoted 300 pounds for the day, or 70 pounds for just the one-way trip. Something told me I was being taken, so I just jumped on a bus and let lady fortune guide my steps. But she had some help, because the friendly manager at the Scout Center had lent me his personal map of Cairo, and you know me: give me a map and I will easily get to the end of the world.

I made the mistake of wearing shorts, which shouted to the world I was not an Egyptian. Otherwise I got many compliments on my graying beard, which everyone thought made me look like an Egyptian. In any case, a man in shorts looking at a map seems to awaken all the kind feelings that Egyptians have toward visitors. I was looking at the map and had just found that Cairo has a metro (oh happiness :) when this friendly gentleman riding the bus asked me if I needed any help. “Yes, please, could you tell me when we reach the metro station?” “Gladly, I am going there myself.” Score!

My good angel guided me to the metro, insisted on buying my ticket, got me off at the right station, flagged down the correct minibus, paid for the ride, and finally told me where to get off and in which direction to walk to get to the pyramids. Pretty neat, isn’t it?

As I walked the three blocks between the place where the minibus had left me and the pyramid I could see in the distance I realized, with a start, that the pyramids are on a meseta or plateau. In fact, the great pyramid is dangerously close to the edge of the plateau. Ah, but the sedimentary rocks that underlay the pyramid are pretty tough. The sequence includes interbedded sandstones and shales (the materials in which the Sphinx is carved), all capped by the most beautiful nummulitic limestone (Nummulites sp. was an Eocene foraminifer that could grow to the size of a quarter, so the fossils are quite spectacular). The limestone has excellent compressive strength but can be easily carved with stone tools, which is why it made a wonderful foundation material. Did you know that the base of the great pyramid is about 14 acres (7 hectares) in surface area, and that throughout this large area the elevation barely changes by more than two inches?

The visit to the pyramids was a cultural experience. The Giza Plateau is some sort of city park for the inhabitants of Cairo, who come here for family picnics, for the kids to ride horses and camels, and for couples to hide from prying eyes between the mastaba tombs. Tourists are and added bonus, rather than the raison d’etre of the recreation area. So I was able to engage on serious people watching at the same time I dodged camels and runaway horses. Of course I also stared in awe at the magnificent monuments, but I was not going to go into a narrow tomb passage with several hundred Cairenes!

I did go into the Khufu boat museum, since it is a rather unique artifact. Khufu is the king who built the great pyramid, but added considerably to his stature when in the 50’s archaeologists discovered an enormous boat in a “trench” excavated parallel to the side of the pyramid. The boat had been dismantled, stored in the trench, and covered by giant block of limestone that kept it safe for nearly 4,000 years. The wood, cedar of Lebanon, was in very good shape, so archaeologists were able to restore it and put it together. It is about 60 m long, is held together by a complex network of ropes and notes, and is in every respect a royal barge. The preferred explanation is that it was the funerary barge of King Khufu, in which he made the trip to the west bank (an euphemism for dying and being transported to the west bank of the Nile for burial).

All good things must come to an end, and after walking like a dog for several hours I finally got hungry. I had seen a seafood restaurant on my way in, and decided to treat myself to a nice meal of fish. And what a wonderful dining experience it was. First of all, I had three waiters hovering over me. Just so we understood each other, they made quite clear that I was going to have a wonderful meal, and that I would be so satisfied with it that I would be eager to leave them a big tip. Yes, it was yummy, with appetizers of pickled vegetables, grilled veggies, hummus and tabouli. And let’s not forget the cold, cold beer (beer and wine being hard to find in a Muslim country). Then came the main dishes of rice, grilled fish, and fried calamari. Knowing I was Mexican my gracious hosts found some chili peppers, which I was forced to at least try not to hurt their feelings. For dessert I had bananas and sliced guavas, which I was not able to finish because I was seriously satiated. Ah, but the drinks man had to come and serve me some tea with mint leaves, pouring it graciously from up high. A fine dining experience, and I was indeed glad to hand tips all around, but it makes dining out kind of expensive. I am sure I will have many more opportunities of talking about the love of Egyptians for tips, or baksheesh :)

On the way back to my luxurious Scout Center I stopped in several bazaars, looked at beautiful papyri, and coveted many archeological reproductions. But I was good and bought nothing. I will acquire a piece, I am certain, but I am going to bide my time to make sure I get the best of the best.

My unerring instinct also put me on the road to perdition. Yes, even in a Muslim country you can find the odd street where liquor runs like water, with the accompanying relaxation of moral codes. Nothing new under the sun.

Day 3 – A busy day in Petra and the Dead Sea

I was back on the site by 6:15 am, intent on enjoying the Rose City by myself. There were actually a handful of tourists that had bit me by a few minutes, but they were no match for my brisk walk, and soon I was alone, truly alone, in this magic place. Thanks to Ben’s advice I had a goal: to climb to the edge of the mountain range, to look at the biggest of the tombs/temples, and to peer down unto the rift valley of the Dead Sea.

Making the climb in the early hours of the mountain was the best thing ever, because I enjoyed the morning breeze and the shade of the cliffs. Besides, as I said, I was alone, me and my soul, so I could enjoy the sense of discovery almost as if I was the first people to ever set eyes on these wonders. The temple was magnificent and absolutely gigantic. I bet it was used for very special feast in Nabatean times (it is called “the monastery”, but I am pretty sure that is a late designation, as there are no structures that would suggest occupation for any extended period of time.

The view of the rift valley was breathtaking, and in every way on par with the East African Rift Valley or the Rio Grande Rift. Ben called it when he said that the rocks toward the bottom looked like basalts. They sure looked that way to me, and I wondered whether they indicated a time when a Mesozoic flood basalts covered the Arabian shield (they cannot be related to the rift, you see, because they are below the Nubian Sandstone, which is probably Triassic of Jurassic in age). An interesting little problem that drew me deeper and deeper into the wadi, trying to get to a fabulous outcrop where a set of dikes cuts the basalt sequence. The great advantage of being an independent traveler is that you can go wherever you want, and get into all sorts of trouble all on your own. Sanity came back to me while I was contemplating crawling down a free-fall cliff a few tens of feet high, and regretting that I will never be able to ascertain 100% that those were basalts I started the laborious climb to the edge of the rift.

On the way back I took detours to see some of the more remote temples, and the remains of the Byzantine church. The latter included a beautiful mosaic floor where the whole of creation was being depicted. The medallions depicting African animals were particularly exquisite.

Finally I couldn’t dodge the hordes of tourists anymore, and walked one last time up the wadi, saying goodbye to beautiful Petra. Back up in civilization I treated myself to a delicious lunch of bakhari rice (long rice cooked with turmeric, coriander, pepper, clove, and cardamom, followed by a spicy lamb kebab grilled to perfection. The kebab was served with something like a thin flour tortilla (like those used for burritos), coated with a spicy salsa that gave it just the right amount of zest.

Then came the struggle of what route to choose for the way back. It was 1 pm, and I had to be at the airport at 6 pm. The route I came in would only take 3 hours, but I had gotten a glimpse of the Dead Sea and the call of adventure was too strong to ignore. So I hurled recklessly down the steep slopes of the rift, driving a road that must have had an overall 100 % slope for a good part of the way. I was still looking for the Petra Basalts, but I never got low enough in the stratigraphy to see the base of the Nubian Sandstone.

Finally I made it to the bottom of the rift, which to my great surprise is a thriving agricultural area. Somehow I had imagined it would be as barren as Death Valley. It is more like the Imperial Valley, where irrigation can make miracles. There are indeed vast salt pans, and mining potash is one of Jordan’s main sources of income, but overall it is not as harsh a desert as I had expected. Finally I got a good look at the Dead Sea, took the obligatory picture, and then hurled up another impossibly steep highway, counting the miles and minutes to the airport as if they were precious drops of water to a man dying og thirst in the desert.

Yes, I made it, just so, and with the sense of unreality I boarded the Egypt Air flight, to let The Horus bring me back home to Cairo. Funny how now I feel Cairo is home and how smoothly I negotiated the taxi to bring me to my Scout Center, where I was received as a member of the family. With one difference, though: I am the poor member of the family, who had to leave a deposit and beg a soda and a bottle of water on credit. Let me explain. There is an ATM outside of the Scout Center, so I had counted on it to get money for the lodging that night and my tourist activities for the next few days. But the bloody thing didn’t work! No, my transaction was denied one time after the other, and at the end I had to lay my whole fortune (200 Egyptian pounds) on the counter, as security that tomorrow I will get things squared out at a bank, and pay my full bill (and a soda, and a bottle of water). Argggh!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Day 2 – A quick detour to Jordan

I woke up at 5 am, apparently totally caught up with jet lag, and promptly started making preparations for the trip to Jordan. I wanted to have a cup of coffee, but apparently Cairo is one of those cities that wakes up late and all of a sudden, so I walked and walked looking in vain for a small café. At last I flagged down a taxi and went to the airport, where the cup of coffee was both too small and too expensive.

A totally uneventful flight brought me to the Amman airport, in Jordan, by 9:30 am. I innocently thought that half an hour would be enough to get through immigration, in perfect time to meet my rental car at 10 am. Alas, it was not to be. Jordan requires a visa, which you can buy on arrival, but the line was super long and super slow, and as soon as it started to move out would pop at the front of the line a “coyote” or dragoman, with the passports of about 20 people, and all progress ground to a halt. The phenomenon of the dragoman is pervasive in Egypt and Jordan, perpetuated by generations of parasite tourists, who would rather pay an extra charge than make line like we regular people.

So it was not until 11 am that I came out of the customs area, and found no Budget person waiting for me. I went to information and was told that the man was around. Then his buddy from Thrifty called him and found out he had gone back to Amman, and would not be back for about half an hour or an hour. I was clearly ticked off, and went to see if other cars were available at Avis or Europcar. Nothing. It turns this week is a big Muslim holiday and all cars are out. More grumbling on my part, but at least time has passed so the Budget man must be forthcoming. Ah, here is the man from the info booth: “The Budget man called to say he is not coming.” Great! One of his buddies probably saw me asking around, passed the word, and the other bum decided not to interrupt his holiday for an ingrate like me. I am screwed. I went as far as asking this girl who was renting a car if she would consider taking a passenger, but she was not going to Petra.

OK, back in the prowl I cornered the Alamo/National man. Yes, they had a car, but because of the holiday I would have to rent it for four days. Fine, the cost of the rental just doubled but what is one to do? So I go for it, it takes a while to get the car, we sign the papers, and then I learn that I have to pay the bringing of the car to the airport and then the taking it back from the airport to Amman. 50 Jordan dinars! (Something like 75 dollars!) This trip is definitely coming at a pretty price.

Finally I am on my way. It is 12:15, and I feel that precious exploration time has been wasted at the airport. Now I have to drive like a maniac to make up for the lost time. I am going over totally desolate desert, where very few have been foolhardy enough to settle. Looking over the rear mirror I see a sandstorm following close on my heells. It looks like a scene from The Mummy, where the evil wind drives a sandstorm that obliterates everything on its path. When it catches up with me visibility drops to just a couple of meters and I am forced to stop at the side of the road. Fortunately I was detained for just a couple of minutes.

I finally got to Petra at 3 pm. In my original plan I was going to have lunch before visiting the site, and maybe book a hotel, but I am anxious about the lost time and decide to make a beeline to the site.

And then I went into a different world. Imagine, if you please, a narrow canyon carved in a massive, cross bedded sandstone, not unlike the Navajo Sandstone in Zion National Park. The sandstone forms very tall vertical cliffs, which host the necropolis of Petra. The narrow canyon eventually opens into a valley with a flat, broad bottom, but still surrounded by majestic cliffs. This is where the city proper stood.

Petra became an important cultural center after Alexander the Great added the Middle East to the Macedonian empire, sometime around 300 BC. It flourished in the centuries that followed as a Greco-Roman metropolis under the Nabatean kings (people from the Arabian Peninsula who adopted the Greco-Roman ways with a remarkable ease; I also see some Mesopotamian influences). A big earthquake around 400 AD severely damaged it, leaving behind domino-like piles of collapsed columns, and by 500 AD the city had been abandoned. It had a renaissance between 700 and 1000 AD, when a Byzantine church was built over the Greco-Roman temples, and no doubt some of the tombs were used for Christian gatherings (there is in fact a series of arches that were added to one of the big temples during Byzantine times).

The city itself reminded me of Efesus, with its main walking avenue surrounded by columns, shops, fountains and palaces; its auditorium carved on the rock sandstone, and its magnificent view of the valley. On the other hand, the Nabatean kings were strongly influenced by the Egyptians, and were big into excavating monumental tombs for themselves, at the base of the cliffs of the necropolis. It is these tombs that we see in the much admired “churches” carved out of the rock (see, for example, the “church” where Indiana Jones found the cup of Christ in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” Truth is, there was never a church at this place, but just the elegant tomb of one of the Nabatean kings. The problem is that they used the level of the wadi (the Arabic word for the Spanish arroyo) to carve the entrance of the tombs, and centuries of flash floods and relentless weathering have covered many of the tomb entrances and defaced the elegant facades, giving Petra the patina of antiquity that makes it such a magic place. There are also fine examples of flood deposits inside the tombs!

It was dark by the time I got out of the site, so I had to move quickly. As I said this is a big holiday week, and all hotels are full. But I have a nose for these things, and pretty deftly booked what I believe was the last free room in town. Dinner was a modest but tasty affair. I was lured to the Cleopetra Restaurant by the brightly illuminated porch, but it was the smiling and polite propietaire who talked me into it. His vest looked a bit the worse for ware, but the colorful buffet was exactly what my starving stomach needed, and I was happy to help myself to three servings of the most varied of dishes: falafel with cucumber and tomatoes, hummus, tabouli, rice with aubergines, grilled chicken, lentil soup, and many types of salads and vegetables. Simple, but it was exactly what I needed to make up for the missed breakfast and lunch.

Day 1.0 - Monday

After a long, uneventful 10 hours I made it to Frankfurt, where we landed promptly at 8:30 under a light rain. Well, at least it was not cold, and seeing the smiling face of Chrissy was enough to make me feel like the sun was shining. She and her son Phillip came to pick me up, and in less than 20 minutes we were in downtown Frankfurt, where we met with daughter Anna, who took time off her busy schedule to come show me her new apartment (well, a year ago new). It is in the fourth floor of a building without an elevator, but is beautifully located smack in the middle of old town Frankfurt. Pretty cool pad.

From there we four stopped and said hello to Onkel Klaus, and then went to have a Graef Vollsinger beef sausage and Kartoffelsalat at the Kleine Markthalle, for old time’s sake. Then we bough cups of coffee to go, and bummed around the old center of town until it was time for Ana to go (she was allowed to cut work for a couple of hours to come meet her Mexican friend, but she is a working stiff now). We then went down to the River Mainz, crossed the river over one of the bridges, and then went to say hello to our friend Aurora, one of the original group that made the trip to India two years ago.

And that was it. Time ran short in a hurry, and we had to get back to the airport to continue the trip to Egypt. I was so glad to see Chrissy and the kids, who are one of the precious families that took me and Faby as one of their own in our wandering years.

Six more hours stuck in a plane and I finally landed in fabulous Cairo!

As it is, Cairo airport is very modern, and I had little trouble exchanging money (1 dollar = 5.48 Egyptian pounds), collecting my luggage, and finding a taxi. The taxi ride to the youth hostel (15 dollars) was through a modern freeway and wide avenues, and the traffic was no more crazy than what I have seen in Mexico or Beijing. The hostel is actually the Cairo International Scout Center, and is a 6-story impressive building with lots and lots of room for boy scouts from around the world. Unfortunately there does not seem to be anyone here right now, so the place is disappointingly quiet. My fabulous private room (20 dollars) has TV and refrigerator, wireless internet, private bathroom, and a private balcony, so I can tell I am going to be very comfortable here.

By 8 pm I was ready to go in my first exploration of Cairo. First things first; I have to get a plug adaptor so I can charge my computer and iPod, so I asked my friendly host for a supermarket. He promptly asked if I was taking a taxi. “No”, I said, “I need to discover Cairo on foot”. He liked that, and with a big smile gave me very understandable instructions on how to get to the commercial area. Once there I had to try the charades approach to explain what I wanted. I had brought the extension cord I always carry with me, so with a bit of French and a bit of Spanish I gathered the attention of three young workers, who not only got the plug I needed, but insisted on connecting it themselves since it was obvious I didn’t have any tools. Ah, my soul is at rest. Once again I find that kind people are to be found all over the world. I know I am going to like it here.

Day 0.5 – Sunday

Sharp at 2:30 am Sandy came to pick me up, to drive me to Sacramento airport. It is a good thing I had supper at their house, because she was quite surprised when I said goodbye and told her “see you in 6 hours”. “What do you mean?” “Well, you are taking me to the airport, remember?” “But I thought that was Sunday night.” Alas, no. Had to leave the house at 2:30, to be at the airport at 4:30 am, to depart at 6 am, bound for Houston International.

Once in Houston I had a layover of nearly five hours before I could board the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, where bright “tomorrow” morning I will meet Christine Kobberger for the shortest visit I have done to Germany so far. Hey, I’ll take it.

Day 0. Preparations for a trip to Egypt

Well, I am all packed, letting the time tick slowly until it comes time to go to sleep for a few hours before starting the trip. I think I have taken care of all things, so to pass the time along I have invited Chico to go for a canoe ride down the Tuolumne. A couple of weeks ago I bought a cool canoe, only 12 feet long, and I am dying to try it out. The purpose of a short canoe is so I can transport it easily (it fits in the bed of my blue truck!), and can go solo if need be. Of course, I would much prefer to have company, but I think I am loosing my touch and it is becoming increasingly difficult to ensnare an innocent soul into my crazy plans.

So Chico came at the appointed time, we loaded the canoe on my truck, and off we went. The plan was to put in near La Grange, and then canoe down for about 8 miles to the Turlock Lace campground. We were finally in the water at 12:45, trying to find our balance; it seems to be a pattern with me that I have to fall in at least once before I remind myself on how to balance, but Chico is an expert so I was hoping for a dry ride. It was not to be: At some point we had to make a sharp turn, the canoe took in water, and . . . we managed to right ourselves without ending in the drink! But the canoe doesn’t have much freeboard to begin with (or is designed for a man and a skinny woman, and two gorditos were pushing the limit), and with water we were floating about an inch from sinking. But we held in, moved the slow moving bathtub by the shore, and we managed to get out unto the sand with little more than a wet butt.

The rest of the run was uneventful, and what a run it was! We covered the stretch in about one and a half hours, not necessarily because we were rushing, but once we got on sink we barely wasted a stroke. It was a perfect afternoon, with the sun shimmering on the autumn colors of the trees, and I felt it was a great omen for the new adventure.

That afternoon I spent at Sandy and Chico’s, getting a foot reflexology massage, watching one of the Harry Potter movies, and having supper with my dear friends. When I got home at 8 pm I spoke with my parents for 5 minutes, hopped in bed, and slept like a log until 1 am.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Day 22. Around Beijing and the end of this adventure

We met at 8 am in Tian’anmen Square with Annette and Alberto, a couple we had met in Xi’an and with whom we had made plans to spend a day visiting Beijing. Annette reminds me a lot of Faby: brunette with brown eyes, short, pretty, and with an enviable bronze complexion. She is German, has a German mom and a Bangladeshi dad, and like my beloved daughter is a polyglot who feels at home anywhere in the world. Alberto is Catalan, speaks very good Spanish and English, and is tall and of fair complexion (just like DJ!). They are traveling through China for three weeks, after which Alberto will back home to Barcelona and Annette will go to Hangzhou for a year to complete her degree in Economics. Pretty interesting travel buddies for the day, wouldn’t you say?

The Forbidden City was a bit of a disappointment. It is a must-see landmark in Beijing, but in summer it is hot and terribly crowded. Besides, you only get to see the central one third of the whole complex, where the big palaces are. OK, one would think, there should be plenty to see in the big palaces. Alas, no. They are essentially giant warehouses, with a rug, a throne, and a few imperial amenities (you need to add with your mind a throng of 3,000 concubines, flowing banners held by eunuchs, lanterns, gongs, and colorfully dressed courtiers to get an idea of what the place might have looked like in its heyday). But you have to do your imagining as you peer through rather narrow openings since the public is not allowed inside the warehouses.

The imperial garden, at the far north of the complex, is OK, but not as imperial as Versailles or those of the European nobility. Besides, the soot that floats over Beijing gives all surfaces a slightly shabby aspect.

Fortunately Klaus had recommended climbing the small wooded hill that rises north of the Forbidden City, and that was delightful. An additional fee of 20 yuan cut the crowds by at least 90%, so you could actually stroll through the woods, stop to look at groups doing dance/exercise, and from the top of the hill look at the Forbidden City, which from the distance does indeed look imperial and vast (this is when we realized tourists only have access to one third of the whole complex).

With our karma and feng shui restored, we ventured west, to the lakes that border the Forbidden City to the west, and where the Winter Palace and the White Pagoda are located. I never identified the palace, but the complex of the White Pagoda was quite interesting, with several temples devoted to different incarnations of the Buda and his coterie of angels and demons.

The lakes themselves are a favorite place of relaxation for the Beijingese, with all sorts of opportunities for boating, strolling, or picture-taking. Now, the Chinese have taken into picture-taking with a vengeance, and are intent on dethroning the Japanese as the biggest collectors of tasteless pictures. Interesting characteristics include total lack of the concept of framing, avoidance of any sense of normality (either by being stone faced or by breaking into silly poses), and incredibly long intervals to actually snap the picture (why, in comparison with them el Coquito is like lightening in taking a picture).

Thoroughly satisfied with ourselves we were thinking of quitting for a few hours, but we dug deep into our reserves of inner strength and went walking through the Hutongs west of the imperial complex. You see, Beijing was built from scratch as a planned city in the 1420’s, and as soon as the imperial and administrative complexes were delimited a couple of million squatters established residence around them (actually, they were probably the workers and artisans that built the imperial complex). Well, as time went by the “old city” became defined by a network of alleys with small, single family residences, where the people lived in a type of vecindad or vecindario, doing half of their living in the communal areas. So the narrow streets were where kids played, food was prepared in small coal burners, bucket showers were taken, clothes were hung, and socializing took place. With the Olympic games in 2008 many of these vecindarios or Hutongs were razed to the ground, but a few were rebuilt as a show piece of history, and the remaining ones were give a coat of paint to brighten their squalor. Luke felt we were wasting our time walking through little ugly streets, but I hope one of these days he will remember walking through the history of old Beijing.

After a quick lunch at Yoshinoya (one of my favorite fast food restaurants from Japan) we said goodbye for a few hours to Annette and Alberto (we were meeting again at 6 pm), and Luke and I headed home to take a break. Fortunately Klaus has a good collection of action movies, so we relaxed for about an hour and a half watching Die Hard 4 with Chinese subtitles. Nice :)

By 5 pm we were on the road again (or shall I say in the metro again), headed for a dinner date with Klaus, Annette, and Alberto. Klaus figured that if we had come all the way to Peking, then the least we should do is have a traditional Peking Duck dinner. He had chosen a strip of nice restaurants intermingled with pubs and handcraft shops, along the shore of one of the lakes, for our dining experience. The restaurant was super popular and super crowded, because on top of serving delicious meals they also put on a dinner show. We missed the first part of the show waiting for a table, but we thoroughly enjoyed the second half, looking at the jugglers, the dancers, and the magicians! (When I was a little boy my parents took us to see a Chinese magician, who I remember as being marvelous. He wore a Mandarin robe, and long mustaches, and performed the most amazing tricks I had ever seen. This show totally reminded me of that wonderful memory).

The Peking Duck was superb, but this was an upscale restaurant so I didn’t get to gnaw on the head, neck, and bones of the carcass. Schade! The trick with Peking Duck is that it is sliced very thin and is served with very thin steamed tortillas, a strongly flavored duck gravy, cucumber strips, and onion strips. The diner takes one of the tortillas with his/her chopsticks and lays it flat on the plate, dips in the gravy two or three slices of duck and lays them on the tortilla, adds a few slivers of cucumber and onion, and then wraps it tightly to form a small package that can then be daintily placed on the mouth. Well, since we had the League of Nations at the table the results were as varied as burritos and Knödels, but they certainly didn’t resemble the sample we had been given. Ah, but the taste was not affected by the outside appearances, and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.

Klaus then invited us to go for a walk along the strand, and to have a beer in one of the outside pubs, and so we let the night drift away until . . . shit, what time is it? Ten? Oh my, the metro closes at 10:30 pm!

We quickly gathered our tiliches, and at a brisk walk headed for the bus stop, rode to the metro station, and there said goodbye to Annette and Alberto. They are a very neat couple, and we wished them the best of lucks for the year to come. I am sure Annette will come back speaking Chinese like a native, but I am sure Alberto will pine for his vivacious girlfriend alone in Barcelona.

Then we turned and ran into the metro. Oh, good, the last train is at 11:20 pm. But it was already 10:40 and we had a good stretch to go, including two transfers. We made the first transfer on the nick of time, and we ran with the rest of the stragglers to try to catch the second transfer. We were almost there when the crowd came to a sudden, silent stop. The last train had just pulled out of the station and we had missed it! (At the end it was not such a tragedy, since we were already within walking distance of the house, but it was a first time experience to have missed the last metro train by seconds :)

Well folks, that is it. I am actually writing these notes on Day 23 (August 18), and in a few more hours Luke and I will be boarding the plane for Seattle, will have a layover of 5 hours in Sea-Tac airport, and then will take the last leg of the trip to Sacramento, where we should arrive at 7 pm of August 18. Luke figured that this trip has involved something like 9 flights, 12 major stops, 4 bus rides, 2 hard bike rides, and 1 death march. During these three weeks we have made many new friends and visited old friends (“one is silver and the other gold”), Luke has collected many girlfriends, and we have seen wondrous sights. We have tasted exotic foods, dined in fine restaurants, and enjoyed breakfast with the locals by the curbside. Best of all, we came to say hello to our Chinese brothers and sisters, and got a warm brotherly embrace from them and an invitation to come back soon. Not to worry, we will.


Day 21. Travel to Beijing

And just like a magic carpet Eastern China Airlines deposited us unharmed at Beijing airport a little past noon. It took us a while to get our backpacks and navigate through the metro, so we were 20 minutes late for the appointment we had made with Klaus at a park near his work. No Klaus, but he got there ten minutes later. He had correctly assumed that if we had not shown at the prearranged hour it was because of some delay, went back to work, and this was his second visit to the park. We exchanged greetings and the key to his apartment, and a few minutes later we were on our way to home!

It was so nice to kick off our boots, turn on the air conditioning, pop open a coke, and sit down in front of the TV to just relax. We saw a funny martial arts movie playing in the late 1800’s (“Once Upon a Time in China”), and were just reaching the end when Klaus got home.

OK, what shall we do? Let’s go to the Donghuamen Night Market! We quickly charted our way through the metro, which at 7 pm was packed to the gills (so much so that we got separated, because Luke and Klaus couldn’t stuff themselves in the car I had oozed into), and reached Wanfujing street, which is the shopping street in Beijing. The night market is an alley that opens into Wanfujing, and its famous because of the odd things it offers to the gourmand. Well known are the skewers of small scorpions, which are still moving before they are deep-fried and given to you with a flourish. Luke and I had to taste them, of course, and have the photos to prove we did it!

Other oddities, which we didn’t try, include skewers of tarantula, big black scorpions, lizard, cycada, cycada cocoons, bird nests, snake meat (tastes like chicken) and sea horses, in addition to the common fare of spicy beef, squid, chicken, meatballs, and dough balls. There were also drumsticks of every species of bird known to man, and tasty-looking roasted lamb legs (although now that I think about it they could very well have been roasted dog legs). The merchants add much to the color and din of the market by offering steaming bowls of noodles or rice, so you can easily make a meal by picking a little here and a little there from different stalls. And for dessert you can have a skewer with glazed fruit, that somehow still looks fresh and crunchy after having been dipped in gleaming caramel.

Alas, my companions were more horrified than enthusiastic at the cornucopia spread in front of them, so, after feasting my eyes and trying to store in my memory the scents, colors and music of one of the most remarkable markets I have seen in my life, we ended going into a regular restaurant to a tray of steamed buns, and cold dishes of chicken and vegetables (only to find out that Luke has never eaten cold chicken and didn’t care for it at all!). The kid eats scorpions but won’t touch cold chicken; what’s up with that?

Day 20. Biking through Xi’an

Luke has gone native! Since there are several ways in which this expression can be used I better explain. It first comes to my mind by the fearless way in which he plows across traffic in a bicycle, as if traffic laws were not even a recommendation but a downright annoyance.

I imagine I could also use the expression in the sense that he is beginning to think like a Chinese. Perhaps it is the fact that his physical features straddle a fine boundary so sometimes he is regarded as a foreigner (in which case he draws the stares and admiration of children), and sometimes he is regarded as a chinito (in which case he draws in rapid-fire Chinese conversation). Have you noticed how he squints his eyes when he looks at you? Well, Chinese young women find that squint adorable, so he gets a lot of smiles and batting eyelashes. No wonder he is thinking on moving to China after he finishes college.

OK, now that I have permanently embarrassed my travel companion it is time to get started with my narrative: Trying to be economical we decided to rent bikes and enjoy a Sunday in the city on the cheap. Our first stop was a very large city park just outside the old city walls. It is the equivalent of Chapultepec, in that lots and lots of people had come to walk, to do tai-chi, to practice the Chinese violin, to kick the hacky sack, to paddle in the lake, to visit the zoo, to play in the mini-fair, and even to practice ballroom dancing.

After a thoroughly enjoyable hour of people-watching we got back on the bikes and headed for the North and South Lakes, a few kilometers out from city center. We were having a good time, even though I had to cringe at Luke’s lackadaisical disregard for city traffic. (I have to revise my former statement that Chinese are terrible drivers. They are very good in the sense that they will come within millimeters of running you over, but once their bluff has been called they will actually stop and let you step in front of them. I am just to weak on the knees for playing the chicken game with a bus!)

There we were, a good 10 km from city center, when my back tire went “bang!”. What to do? Buses here don’t take bikes, and a bike is too large for the little taxis they have here. Luke offered to strap the bike to his back, but that was a bit too much to expect from the lad, so we parted company with the understanding that he was to continue the tour and be back at the hostel by 2 pm, while I would simply walk the shortest route back home.

It was a long but nice walk. I made a few stops to buy pop frozen bars, take pictures, or just stare at interesting shops. The bird pet store was particularly interesting, not only because all sorts of wild birds were flying around the cages, but also because they also sold these small straw cages (about the size of a tennis ball) where a giant, noisy cricket was to be had.

I made it home around 1:45 pm, and Luke was already waiting for me. The folks at the hostel were really mortified that the bike had failed on me, and they refunded me the whole rental fee. I need to praise the wonderful staff of all International Youth Hostels we had stayed at, and very particularly Ken and Wen from the Xi’an hostel, who have not only been fabulous hosts, but have also become close, caring friends. They are wonderful examples of the young Chinese, who appreciate the value of tourism and go out of their way to care for their charges!

We figured that lunch had to be traditional and cheap, so we asked our excellent hosts and were directed to a noodle shop just outside the old city wall. Great! Throughout our three weeks in China we had not had a straight bowl of noodles, so it seemed fitting to close our stay in this wonderful city with a treat. And what a treat it was! For 28 yuan (about US $4) we had two delicious bowls of noodles with chives and beef, a giant Coke, and a half liter of cooold beer. Best deal in town :)

As our last hoorah we climbed the old city wall (now beautifully restored), rented bikes anew, and did the 14 km circuit along the crown of the city wall. This wall is immense! It must be a good 30 m high, and at the crown 15 m wide, so when you ride along it you are high over the city, and facing a wide avenue ahead of you. Nice place to ride and think.

Day 19. Disaster strikes

Luke had been partying until an ungodly hour, so I let him sleep until 9 am. I know, unheard off. It was cool and overcast when we got out of the hostel, but we were silly enough not to carry and umbrella with us. First we walked a couple of blocks to the corner where the breakfast vendors congregate. We had a pocket of noodles, a Chinese crepe, and fruit yogurt drink for about a dollar each.

We had decided to spend the morning at the Shaanxi History Museum (Shaanxi is the state or province where Xi’an is located), so we started walking toward the bus stop when a light rain started. We could have gone back for the umbrella at that point, but the rain was too light and we didn’t want to backtrack, so we decided to tough it out. Bad mistake.

The bus dropped us a long block from the museum, but by this time the rain had started in earnest and we were quite wet in a matter of minutes. Still, the day was young and we felt like this city was now ours so in good spirits we platched all the way to the museum. Then we saw the line and Luke almost went back. It was looong! It turns out that the museum is free, but in order to get a ticket you have to write down your name in a list, show your identification, and write your identification number in the list. Since there were some families with four or five family members the process was taking forever.

By the time it was our turn we had been standing under the rain (very light by now) for about an hour. Ah, the sacrifices a tourist must make.

The museum was magnificent. It turns out that this state, and the valley where Xi’an is located, have been heavily populated for a very long time. Fossils of Homo erectus have been found at a couple of localities, and as we had learned yesterday there were a number of Paleolithic and Neolithic villages sprinkled here and there. Their presence is richly documented by pottery, stone implements, and the first bronze implements.

Then come the different dynasties that made this city either their capital, or at least one of their main cities. Don’t quote me on this, but I believe the city was important in the times of the Shang (1600 to 1046 BC) and Zhou (1046 to 256 BC) dynasties, and became the capital of the Qin dynasty (which only lasted as long as emperor Qin was alive, from 221 to 207 BC), under the name Chang’an. I have told you about the terracotta army, and the museum had a very nice display about it, but there are also tons of artifacts and structures of this time that have been exposed throughout the city. Then we have the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), which was a time of considerable advances in technology and agriculture, but the golden age of China and the city come with the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 AD). Fabulous palaces were built throughout the city during this time, trade with the surrounding area and the countries of the Silk Road flourished, the court become most refined (with a superabundance of portly ladies that Luke and I dubbed "the ugly fat concubines"), and the goldsmiths, silversmiths, and statuary carvings reached their pinnacle.

Less than 20 years ago a hoard was discovered in the city, and the artifacts were being displayed in a special exhibition called “The Treasures of the Tang”. The crowning piece of the collection was a beautiful carving of a water buffalo in agate (as luck would have it, the museum had a reproduction for sale, but they no longer have it because now I have it, he, he, he :)

The final dynasty to call the city home was the Song dynasty (960 to 1279 AD), which perfected the art of the three colors glaze on pottery and terracotta statues (you may have seen reproductions in the form of horses or camels with an ochre, celadon, and brown glaze).

Luke lost interest about half way through the museum, but he was a good sport and didn’t complain aloud as I went from one exhibit to the next. All good things must come to an end, though, so sometime around 2 pm we left the museum, at peace with men and the world, and entered the first restaurant we saw for a well deserved lunch. Spirits were high, and we were thoroughly enjoying a quiet day in “our city” when disaster struck:

From the restaurant we walked a long block to a big park developed around a Buddhist temple with a tall pagoda. We were in no hurry, so we enjoyed the walk, Luke became acquainted with a traditional Chinese toilette (“Damn uncomfortable”, says he), and we did plenty of people watching on our way to the entrance to the temple. For example, we have noticed that people here sit on their haunches to rest, rather than sitting on a bench. So we get to the ticket counter, and I reach for my wallet, and . . . no wallet. Damn! Trying not to panic I casted my mind back, and concluded I must have left it on the table at the restaurant after I paid for lunch. We turned back right away and fifteen minutes later were at the restaurant, but without success. The waitresses seemed honestly distressed, and according to them no wallet had been found, but . . .

So I lost my driver’s license, my ATM card, two credit cards, and about 80 dollars in Chinese money. Not a tremendously big loss, but with it went all the ability we might have had to get money from the ATM. We have taken stock of our resources and count 100 yuan that Luke has, and 500 yuan, 50 dollars, and 100 euros that I have in my passport pouch. We should also get 100 yuan back from our deposit at the hostel. Considering that we only have three more days to go, we should be able to make it through without problem. Still, I am vexed that after so many years as a traveler I have made the mistake of leaving my wallet at a restaurant table (Tantos aňos de condesa y no saber menear el abanico!).

Rats, rats, and double rats!

PS. To celebrate our new found poverty Luke and I went to the movies tonight. It was some sort of psycho-thriller called “Curse of the Deserted”. A definite B movie, and some of the weird parts we definitely didn’t understand, but it was a new experience.

Day 18. The Terracotta Army

Today could be seen under two lights: the slow and anti-climatic view of the straight tourist, or the awe-struck view of the student of antiquity. I will have to combine the two in a single narrative, which may make for some contradictory statements, but so is life.

We could have attempted to visit the foothills of the Li Mountain on our own, but this time it seemed more expeditious to book a tour. So the day started late, with pickup at 9 am, lazy stroll to the other youth hostel (which is about ten times larger than ours), sit and wait, wait and sit, and finally we got started at 10:30 am. Traffic was fierce, so our driver chose to take a shortcut through less savory parts of town, and it was not until 11:30 am that we got to the site of the Neolithic village of Banpo.

Banpo was occupied in the middle of the period that Chinese archaeologists refer to as the Matriarchal period (7,000 to 5,000 BC). It is a particularly interesting site because one can see the actual surface excavated by the archeologists, on which it is easy to recognize the foundations of at least three different types of dwellings, cooking pits, and the moat that once protected the whole village (a monumental piece of engineering a good 6 meters deep and about 1,000 m long). Ah, if only Uri were here to witness all these wonders! Within the village there were also a significant number of burials and utilitarian pottery.

The next stop was at a handcrafts shop, with the excuse that they would explain to us the way in which the terracotta warriors were made. They actually did a good job at describing the process of molding and firing, which was no small feat given that the statues are life size. The trick was to fire them in parts, to later put the parts together. We learned two important facts: First, the warriors had been painted in bright colors. Unfortunately very little of the color remains today, so they look instead black due to the fact that they were fired in reducing wood fires. Second, four years after the death of emperor Qin Shi Huang Dhi (pronounce the first word Chin), a rival warlord got into the mausoleum complex and smashed each one of the estimated 10,000 statutes (actually, he missed one, so there must had been 10,001 statues). This latter piece of intelligence really shocked me. I though they had found the whole army intact, “standing frozen” as a guard of honor to emperor Qin. Instead I learn that what you see today is the patient labor of hundreds of archaeologists, who so far have only reconstructed 10% of the whole army.

Illumination comes at a price, however, and for the little lecture we had to go through a gauntlet of sales people that were trying to sell us everything from a full-size terracotta warrior (I was tempted . . . it would look so nice guarding the library) to lacquered furniture and silk rugs.

The next stop really annoyed me (I tell this in the order in which enlightment came to me). We had booked a visit to the mausoleum of emperor Qin, and instead we were driven to this Las Vegas type of building, where 30 years ago government artists had built a model of the mausoleum, together with little figures milling around the streets. It was a very large model (say 50 by 100 m), and clearly they had put on a lot of detail, but it was not the site I had expected to visit! Our guide gave us some bullshit about the government having decreed 50 years ago that no one was to enter the site, because archaeological technology was not advanced enough to cope with the proper excavation and preservation of the site. I now wish I had put more attention to the model, because in fact it was built with as much archeological information as was available at the time. For example, the scale of 1:100 was as accurate as they could get it, so that means the mausoleum was about 5 km by 10 km in area. 50 square kilometers! That is half of the size of Teotihuacan! Fortunately I noticed, on the periphery of the outer wall of the complex, the miniature representation of the elongated pits filled with row after row of terracotta warriors, and from that got the idea that the warriors were but a small part of the mausoleum. The mausoleum itself had an outer and an inner wall, with lots of small structures scattered through, and a central dominant artificial mountain 100 m high. I believe the mountain was just a decorative feature.

Anyway, still upset for what I considered an underhanded switch I barely turned my head when the guide pointed out a small mountain in the distance, and mentioned that it was the central artificial mountain of the mausoleum complex. Had I been thinking clearly I would have used this central point to draw on the landscape the possible footprint of the complex.

So finally we made it to the site of the terracotta army, where all of China had decided to congregate. We dutifully followed the throng to the exhibition halls, and in reverence entered the hall of Pit 1, where most of the reconstructed warriors are exhibited. The “pit” is immense and the rows of warriors and their horses seem interminable. However, the reconstructed statues occupy only about 10% of the excavation area. Behind them you can see the “work in progress”, which are jumbles of fragments of soldiers and horses that are being patiently put together by an army of archaeologists. What a monumental project! And yet, the whole professional life of some of these archeologists is going to be to put together a dozen statues. It seemed to me a job that is at once sublime and extremely limited in scope.

I was musing about this as I walked through Pits 2 and 3, which are nowhere as impressive as Pit 1, when everything clicked together as I walked through the Exhibition Hall, which is a museum of “the other stuff” that has been recovered from the mausoleum. Now, remember that in the model the warriors were but a peripheral feature of the 50 square kilometers site, and that there were a lot of other features and structures within the site. “The other stuff” are materials that have been recovered from exploratory excavations elsewhere within those 50 square kilometers, and the magnificence and variety of the artifacts is but a taste of the information that remains to be recovered.

I came out of the hall and stared at the foothills of the Li Mountains. Out there, 5 kilometers distant, I could see the artificial mountain that marked the center of the site. All of a sudden the throngs of tourists became so many Qin dynasty people, milling around and building what will no doubt earn the title of Eight Wonder of the Ancient World. Yes, the terracotta army is magnificent in its own right, but what will be found over the next 100 years of archeological work baffles the imagination. This is a unique opportunity of seeing a site at the very initial stages of exploration, and to an old archeology buff like me is a thrill to contemplate the possibilities.

The ride back to the hotel was slow and full of traffic, but I enjoyed the chance to mull quietly on what I had seen, both factually and figuratively. I just wish I could have a second look at that model.

Back at home Luke went in the search of girls (that boy has some punch with the fair sex, and because he looks much older than he really is he comes up with really cute co-eds), and I went to the supermarket. Yes, wherever I go I enjoy going to the supermarket to see what they have for sale. It is a way of confirming that yes, I could live here if need be. So I pushed my little cart through the wines (I bought some Great Wall wine that turned out to be pretty good, and got a corkscrew as a present from an obliging employee), the meats (they have chorizo and patitas de puerco!), the fish (wonderful variety), the veggies and fruits, the spices, and the sauces, to name but a few, and ended with 80 yuan worth of merchandise that somehow I will have to eat over the next three days.

Finally, to wrap a very full day, I had a foot massage, that Lucienne had recommended as being very special. Actually it was a little brutal, but I was happy enough to make an appointment for a lower back massage and acupuncture tomorrow evening. Why not? After all, I don’t come every day to China :)

P.S. I forgot to make some historical remarks about emperor Qin Shi Huang Dhi. He is remembered as the first emperor of the whole of China, and gained this distinction at the end of the Warring Period (500 to 221 BC), when his state (the Qin state) defeated the other major state in southern China. For the fist time, then, most of the territory now known as China was under a single ruler. Now, you don’t get to be top dog by being a nice guy, and emperor Qin was no exception to this rule. With a fist of iron he imposed on the whole land the Qin script (and to do that burnt any books written in any other script, and buried alive all scholars that could have rewritten the burnt texts), the Qin coins (round and with a square hole in the middle, rather than the spade or knife-shaped coins used in other states), the Qin distance between cart wheels, and the Qin everything. He started working on his mausoleum even before he became emperor of all China, and was buried in it around 207 BC. With his death the Qin empire started to fragment, and four years later the country was once again a mess of warring factions. Remember that one of these warlords took it upon himself to destroy the terracotta army outside of the mausoleum walls (nobody has any idea if he got inside the mausoleum itself).