Tanzania – It Takes a Village

Africa….what is it about this continent? After I lived and volunteered for two months in South Africa in 2015, I knew it would not be my last visit to this special part of the world. In early 2016, I toured Morocco for a month, and in early 2018 I travelled for two weeks in Egypt. Of course, these two North African countries are not what we envision when we think of Africa, but they are examples of how diverse the continent is.
During a chance conversation last year while I attended a workshop in Paris, I learned about Global Volunteers and the work they are doing in Tanzania. Bingo! Of course! That would be my next destination, and it didn’t hurt that Tanzania is next door to Kenya, a country I have come to love from afar through books.
The bonus to all of this is that Global Volunteers’ efforts in Tanzania are having a real impact in the villages they serve and I wanted in on that. GV assigned me to work in the little village of Mkalanga, which is a short drive from our living quarters in the village of Ipalamwa. If I had to list just two surprising things about this place they would be….it’s colder than you think, and asphalt is not to be taken for granted. This is the second time this year that I have misjudged the chilliness in a foreign country. The difference in Israel was…I went to a store and bought an extra sweater. In Mkalanga, there are no clothing stores. The roads are mostly dirt and rocks, which means long, bone jarring rides. On those rare occasions when we happened onto a paved road, we cheered with excitement.

The things that didn’t surprise me were the kindness of people in the villages, the dedication of the volunteers and local caregivers, and the beauty of the country when viewed through the lens of openness and understanding. The human spirit is an amazing thing. The people in Mkalanga live simply in basic shelter, don’t always have enough to eat, have no running water or disposable income, work with babies strapped to their backs, and walk miles for medical care. And yet, their smiling faces and generosity were evident every day. A mother with three young children offered us a stalk of sugar cane after we labored over installing her hand-washing station. A mother of four who had lost her husband last year had nothing to offer, so she went with us to other homes and helped us dig the holes for the stations…with her one year old snuggled on her back, and a big smile on her face. Everywhere we went, the littlest children, too young for school, followed us. I greet them in Swahili which causes them to erupt in surprised gales of laughter. They are dressed in raggedy clothes, not warm enough for the chilly weather, but they are still joyful, intrigued by us, the strange visitors to their village.
The school age children would run to greet us outside their schools, often serenading us with happy songs in Swahili. They cajoled us into singing American songs, and danced the hokey pokey with us. The village children have no toys, don’t really know what toys are, so these interactions with the strange visitors are a welcome and exciting distraction.
GV employs Tanzanian citizens as part of the Reaching Children’s Potential program. The caregivers, young single women, have bachelors or masters degrees and live in the village. They have left their cities and towns in order to dedicate themselves to the families they serve in these remote villages. Almost everyday I worked with Elkana, who has a Masters in Social Linguistics and hails from the town of Iringa. She was part interpreter, social worker, laborer, and facilitator and I came to admire her for her kindness, work ethic, and intellect. My fellow volunteers would offer the same praise for the other six caregivers with whom they worked. You don’t make progress like GV has in Ipalamwa and Mkalanga without hardworking, dedicated people.
So, what was a day in the life of a volunteer in Mkalanga like? During our first few days in Ipalamwa, we were awakened every morning by the roosters…at 4:30 a.m! Eventually the rooster crows faded to background noise and we slept through them. After coffee and breakfast, the volunteers and our local leader, Winnie, had a brief morning meeting, reviewed our assignments for the day, and headed off to villages and schools. About six of our group of 17 volunteers taught in the local primary and secondary schools. Others conducted workshops for the women participating in the RCP program. And the rest of us spent our days visiting women and children in their homes, getting updates on the children, and installing hand-washing stations. We returned to our living quarters at the end of the day, gathered in a sunny outdoor spot with a cold beer or glass of wine, and shared the stories of our day.
Our evening meeting was followed by dinner at 7 PM. Our dining room serves many purposes: meals, meetings, and classroom for the workshops. None of our buildings are heated, so there would often be a roaring fire in the dining room fireplace at dinner. There is no television of course, nor internet, so we entertained ourselves with getting to know each other, playing games, and an occasional discussion with a local expert on Tanzanian culture. Volunteer housing included comfortable beds, attached bathrooms, running water, and electricity.
On weekends, we went on safari at Ruaha National Park, participated in local church services, visited the city of Iringa, and star gazed at night.
We can look at pictures on the internet or the news, or in books and see an image of a faraway place. But visiting, meeting, helping, learning, living in that faraway place turns the image into an understanding of real people and their very different, but very real lives. Those rocky dirt roads I bristled at on day one looked very different to me later on. What I now saw, as the sun lowered in the African sky, was this hauntingly vivid burnished red road amidst the beautiful banana trees and sunflowers, with the occasional rooster crossing, and a stream of human life walking by – lives that have no need for paved roads.

Tanzania – a Volunteer Adventure



Jambo! Hello from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Dar es Salaam is Tanzania’s largest city and a major commercial port on its Eastern coast. I arrived here late last night, after roughly 24 hours of travel, but I have no time to explore Dar. Today I will board another plane for a short flight to the Iringa region of Tanzania, followed by a bumpy two hour drive to the village of Ipalamwa where I will work with Global Volunteers (GV). There is no wifi in the village, so my efforts at communication will be severely limited. I have purchased a SIM card for my phone, but cell service is expected to be intermittent and not entirely reliable in this remote area of Tanzania. So I will share now what I have learned in advance about the village and the project, and hope I will be able to share more with you over the coming weeks.

Tanzania is the 13th largest country in Africa and is located on the eastern coast, along the Indian Ocean. It also incorporates several offshore islands, including Zanzibar. The country is the site of Africa’s highest and lowest points: Mount Kilimanjaro, at 19,341 feet above sea level, and the floor of Lake Tanganyika, at 1,155 feet below sea level, respectively. Swahili is the prevalent language, but English is also spoken by some.

The village of Ipalamwa is located south of the capital of the Iringa region, which happens to be southeast of the Ruaha National Park. We will spend our weekends off on safari in Ruaha.

Global Volunteers has had a presence in Tanzania since 1987, but the Ipalamwa project is relatively new. Ipalamwa is rural and economically impoverished, but spiritually and culturally rich. While I will be staying in Ipalamwa, I will actually be working in Mkalanga, an even smaller and more remote village. It is so small that there is no information or pictures than I can share with you just yet.

Just as there are many reasons that children may not reach their potential, there are many aspects to GV’s Reaching Children’s Potential (RCP) program. High rates of childhood stunting and mortality are often the result of the lack of good nutrition, hygiene, stimulation, and education. GV volunteers work with and under the direction of local people on a wide range of service projects*:

• Demonstrating proper hand washing with soap and water
• Teaching breast feeding, prenatal nutrition and fitness during pregnancy
• Engaging preschool children in learning activities and teaching classroom subjects to primary and secondary school students
• Providing baby stimulation and psychosocial support at caregiver home visits
• Teaching health education, hygiene and disease prevention to families
• Helping local tradesmen with light labor and construction
• Building hand-washing stations
• And more, depending upon monthly needs

I am beyond excited to meet the people of Ipalamwa and Mkalanga and I look forward to sharing their stories soon.

 

Kwaheri kwa Sasa
(Goodbye for now)

*Many of the photos of Ipalamwa and much of the information presented here is courtesy of Global Volunteers website. I hope to have my own to share with you shortly.

 

Mountains, Rocky Coastlines, Lobster – Loving Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park

Gorham Mountain

Acadia National Park in June is a sight to behold. Situated southwest of Bar Harbor and covering most of Mount Desert Island and the associated smaller islands, it offers a beautiful environment and interesting history. Bar Harbor, with its fishing boats, lobster shacks, and stately former homes of the great industrialists, is as charming a village as you will find anywhere along the northeastern United States. So this chapter of Purposeful Travel is not about a foreign land and exotic culture, but about a homegrown American experience, a national park and a uniquely New England culture.

From Bangor International Airport our party of three joins two fellow hikers from Salt Lake City for the shuttle ride to Bar Harbor. This turns out to be a delightful ride on a bright sunny June Sunday. It is late morning and Helen, our driver, takes the scenic route on a two lane road. It is smooth sailing, barely another car in sight. Helen points out the tall purple Lupine that grow everywhere, wild and naturalized. She also gives us some history of Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park, answers our questions, and welcomes us to Maine, a place she clearly adores.

After a stop at our hotel to deposit our bags, we head straight to the heart of Bar Harbor on a mission….beer and lobster rolls. Joan and Pat, friends of mine since childhood, are perfect companions for a trip that involves strenuous outdoor activities, craft beer, and good food. After a stroll down Mount Desert Street, we turn left onto Main Street, where we land at Bar Harbor BeerWorks. Each of us orders a lobster roll, a selection of local craft beers, with sides of onion rings and a gigantic soft pretzel. We underestimated the size of both the pretzel and the iconic lobster sandwich, but it was so worth it. The lobster rolls were generously stuffed with flavorful chunks of pink, freshly caught Maine lobsters, and the onion rings were crisp and tasty. I resisted the pretzel, but thoroughly enjoyed the local wheat beer.

 

 

 

Before dinner we join our fellow hikers for a Victorian walking tour of Bar Harbor. Our guide, in character as a maid to the Vanderbilts, paints a picture of Mount Desert Island as it was during the cottage era when Bar Harbor was one of the world’s most illustrious resorts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day two is cold and overcast, but we manage to get almost four hours of hiking in before the rain comes. The hike up Gorham Mountain serves up views of the Gulf of Maine and the Cranberry Islands. The terrain up the mountain is mostly rocky and uneven which slows our pace. We periodically hoist ourselves over large boulders, then stop in several clearings to observe nature and gaze at the waves crashing on the rocks below. The rain commences after we have started our descent from the summit. All of those rocks and boulders become treacherously slippery when wet and we are thankful for the grip provided by our hiking boots.

 

 

 

 

A steady rain greets us Tuesday morning, but we head out nonetheless for George Dorr’s Oldfarm. In our waterproof jackets and boots we hike through the woods to the ruins of this old estate of Mr Dorr, considered to be the father of Acadia National Park. I should mention now that temperatures are under 45 degrees both yesterday and today….in the rain….but like good modern women, we persist. The story of George Dorr is worth the damp and chill. Dorr was a private citizen whose life covered the last half of the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s. He inherited fortunes from both his parents. He attended Harvard University and traveled widely in Europe with his parents. He was a gentleman scholar and lover of nature who first visited Mount Desert Island in 1868 on a vacation and made the decision to make the island his primary home. He never married; instead he focused his time, energy, and intellect on preserving the natural beauty of his beloved island. Over four decades he worked tirelessly to acquire tracts of land for protection. He donated scores of parcels of his own land and persuaded others to donate land or money. He was essentially broke when he died because he gave so much to Acadia. While little remains of the his home on Oldfarm, a walk through the forrest leads to the rocky cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, where George would scramble down the jagged path to swim in its frigid water.

 

 

 

My bicycle riding skills are limited. I can ride a bike. I can ride a bike with three or less gears. Bikes with 10, 20, 30! gears challenge me. I am always in the wrong gear, so that even on a flat road I feel like I am peddling through glue. Our group was scheduled to do a six mile bike ride on this chilly Wednesday morning in Acadia National Park. Our guide and my friends assured me they would get me into the right gear and not abandon me along the way. I had my doubts, but the cheapskate in me did not want to miss out on anything that is “included” in this trip. After the first mile, I was able to put aside my fears. Gears became my friend. Even though I stayed within a narrow range of shifting, I managed to make it up hills for the most part. There were a few times I fell short of the crest of a hill, hopped off the bike, and walked it a bit. In the end, it was worth it. I loved being able to cover so much more ground than can be accomplished on a hike. The route, Sargent Drive, boasts spectacular views of Somes Sound, a fjord with a varied shoreline of fields of wildflowers, rocky beach, and craggy pine trees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After lunch, Pat, Joan, and I board a boat for a two hour harbor cruise that allows us to view the coast from a different perspective. Bar Harbor varies from docks with lobster boats, dinghies, and yachts to sheer granite cliffs topped by pine trees. Along the way we also spotted seals lounging on a pint sized rocky island, whose only structure is a small lighthouse. Egg Rock Light is a lighthouse on Frenchman Bay, Maine. Built in 1875, it is one of coastal Maine’s architecturally unique lighthouses, with a square tower projecting through the square keeper’s house. Egg Rock is midway between Mount Desert Island and the Schoodic Peninsula. As we start our return trip, a shout from our guide sends our gazes skyward. An American Bald Eagle sweeps across a background of white clouds and gracefully lands on a tree branch above a stone cliff. The proudly magnificent bird poses long enough to be captured in a photo, then launches itself off to the sky once again.

 

 

 

 

Tonight we enjoy more lobster and local brews at Galyn’s, a slightly upscale establishment near the waterfront in the center of Bar Harbor. Our table, upstairs by the windows, is perfect for watching boats, people, and water. We turn in early to rest for another day of hiking.

Thursday dawns with sunshine! Finally! Before heading off to hike, we spend an hour learning about the second largest industry in Maine – lobster. I can now tell a male from a female lobster…who knew!
In 2017, Maine lobstermen (women are also called lobstermen) caught 111 million pounds of lobster, 80% of all the lobster caught in the United States. I think my friends and I made a serious dent this week in all that lobster.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By 10:00 am we commence our climb from the base of the majestic Cadillac Mountain. We chose the south ridge trail, which is like most trails in Acadia – rocks and boulders of all shapes and shades of granite. I actually like the challenge of hauling ourselves up on top of huge boulders, finding footholds and grips. It exercises your mind and body. Of all of the spectacular views from Cadillac Mountain, my favorite has to be that of the Porcupine Islands.

Porcupine Islands

The islands are an archipelago or a group of islands. From our perch on top of the mountain, the islands take on the imaginary appearance of stepping stones for a giant making his way across the ocean.

On Thursday night we enjoy a feast of whole lobsters. I have always thought that trying to eat a whole lobster is more work than it’s worth. But with expert instruction from our hosts, it is a breeze. We crack open our lobsters, caught earlier that day, and they burst with pink and white lobster flesh. We end the evening with Bar Harbor’s signature desert, blueberry pie.

Clouds greet us Friday morning as we march off to our last hike, but we are grateful that it isn’t raining and the temperature has at last broken into the 60s. The Great Head Trail is an easy one compared to the boulder climbing required over the last four days. This trail is comprised of some pine needle tufted forest floor, planked paths over wet spots, and less treacherous rock climbs. We start at Sand Beach and join the trail that leads around Great Head peninsula. From the trail we have views across to the Beehive (a mountain named for its shape), and from several vantage points the beach, rocky cliffs, and ocean are visible. We come upon the ruins of of the Tea House. The house and surrounding acreage was a gift from J P Morgan to his daughter, Louisa, in 1910. A year after Louisa’s death in 1946, fire destroyed the homestead along with much of Mount Desert Island. Louisa’s daughter, Eleanor Satterlee, donated the property to the United States for Acadia in 1949.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We end our week with a picnic lunch in the picturesque Albert’s Meadow, under a warm and sunny sky. As we leave Bar Harbor and Acadia, our bellies are full and our muscles are tired, but we have a renewed appreciation for Mother Nature and the land and ocean she has gifted us.

April in the Berkshires

April in the Berkshires…..FDR, yoga, and writing.
Laura Davis is many things, including a best selling author and a teacher. I have been part of her online following for the last year and have enjoyed her weekly communication – The Writers Journey Roadmap. Laura conducts unique writing workshops in California and around the world. She also teaches each year at the renowned San Miguel Writers Conference in Mexico. I have wanted to attend one of her workshops, but time and distance kept me from taking the plunge. So when I read this in her newsletter, I knew I would make it a priority….
“If you live east of the Mississippi and haven’t wanted to fly all the way across the country to study with Laura, now you have your chance! This five-day-retreat at Kripalu, a beautiful yoga retreat center in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, will give you the opportunity to discover the stories that are living inside you. Experience the power of a vibrant, supportive writing community with a seasoned, compassionate teacher.”
The opportunity for writing practice with Laura, while also practicing yoga with some of the best teachers in Massachusetts, in a beautiful setting…well, who could say no to that!
But first….
Readers of this blog will know that I like to enhance my travel with side trips. After volunteering in Thailand, I visited Siem Reap, Cambodia. Before a workshop in Paris, I did a road trip along the beaches of Normandy. While researching the route from my home in Pennsylvania to Kripalu in Massachusetts, Hyde Park, NY jumped out for a few reasons: its charm and setting along the Hudson River, and it is also the location of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home and presidential library. The presidential library (the first in our nation) is chock full of memorabilia, including FDR’s desk from the Oval Office, complete with tchotchkes and family photos. The original copies of both FDR’s and Eleanor Roosevelt’s correspondence and speeches are displayed next to photos and history boards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the walk across the grounds to the house, Springwood, you come across a formal rose garden, where FDR and Eleanor are buried. Roosevelt’s home has been scrupulously maintained, down to the pens on desks and combs on bureaus. Several rooms on the first and second floor are open to the public, but only as part of guided tours. I had read in advance that the hour long tours fill up fast, so I went straight to the visitor center to claim my spot. As expected the next available slot was almost two hours away. So I used my free time to tour the grounds, library, and museum, which are well worth your time and money. The home tour is a walk through the intimate story of FDR. There are no elevators in the house, surprising given Roosevelt’s infirmity and wealth. How did he get upstairs to bed at night? He was lifted into the back hallway dumbwaiter where he hauled himself, hand over hand, up to the second floor. Remarkable.

I spent three hours in Hyde Park and I wish I had just one more hour to take it all in. The house tour fee is $10, unless you have a National Park pass (I do), then it’s free. Entry to the library and museum is not covered by the pass, but cost is only $10, discounted to $6 if you are 62 or over. If you are visiting anywhere in Hyde Park, be sure to grab a bite at the Eveready Diner, just down the street from the FDR site. Food is delicious, reasonably priced for Hyde Park, service is friendly, and the coffee is great.

 

 

 

From Hyde Park, the drive to the Kripalu Center is less than an hour an half (on a Sunday afternoon).
I arrived at Kripalu in time to settle into my room and walk around a bit before dinner. Kripalu is a center for health and yoga, located 5 minutes from Lenox, Massachusetts on 100 acres of rolling hills and woodlands, with views of the Berkshire Mountains and Lake Mahkeenac. Formerly a monastery, its rooms are basic, but comfortable. There are lots of places to wonder, sit, meditate, and explore nature. Kripalu offers several yoga classes every day for all levels of practice. I attended two a day, including yoga dance – an uplifting and joyful incorporation of yoga and free form dance.
Three meals a day are included and there is a café on site for purchasing snacks, coffee, ice cream, etc. Unlike many yoga centers, Kripalu offers the occasional meat entrée choice for dinner, and….coffee is available with breakfast….hallelujah! The quantity and quality of food was very good. Take note: the rooms in the main building are not air conditioned. So if you go during the height of summer, book your room in the annex.

The workshop – Crafting Personal Stories That are Vivid, Compelling, and True
Writing workshops are like Las Vegas….what happens there, stays there. So I won’t go into a lot of detail, other than to say Laura Davis and her co-facilitator, Nancy Gertz, provided us endless opportunities to deepen our craft. Their guidance and insight led to many breakthroughs and much productivity. If you have thought about writing, or want to use writing to work through something, one of Laura’s retreats could be a worthwhile and enlightening experience.

Writing Retreats With Laura Davis

Laura in our writing circle

 

 

 

 

Five days after my arrival at Kripalu, I head home feeling zen and relaxed, stretched and full, with a binder full of writing…new beginnings to new stories.

Last Days in Egypt, Packing, Laundry

The Valley of the Kings – for nearly 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC, rock cut tombs were excavated for the Pharaohs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom.

The valley stands on the west bank of the Nile, opposite Luxor. The royal tombs are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology and give clues to the beliefs and funerary rituals of the period. In modern times the valley has become famous for the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun (with its rumors of the Curse of the Pharaohs) and is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world.

At the Temple of Karnak, you will marvel at the size of the columns. Hypostyle Hall, part of the Karnak complex boasts 134 massive columns arranged in 16 rows. 122 of these columns are over three stories (33 feet) tall, and the other 12 are over 6 stories tall, with a diameter of over ten feet…just massive. How did they build them with no modern equipment? The architraves on top of these columns are estimated to weigh 70 tons. These architraves may have been lifted to these heights using levers. This would be an extremely time-consuming process and also would require great balance to get to such great heights. A common alternative theory regarding how they were moved is that large ramps were constructed of sand, mud, brick or stone and that the stones were then towed up the ramps. The top of the ramps presumably would have employed either wooden tracks or cobblestones for towing the megaliths. Similar columns and buildings can be seen nearby at the Temple of Luxor.

Our river boat is the Movenpick Royal Lily and each spacious room includes a five by six foot picture window, giving us panoramic views of the Nile River and the ever-changing scenery along its banks.

 

 

 

We cruise to Edfu and disembark to tour the temple there, then we sail on to Kom Ombo Temple. In the evening, we dress up in our newly (and cheaply) purchased beaded and bejeweled Egyptian Gallabiyahs* for an onboard dance party. Luckily, my fellow travelers are not inhibited and we dance the night away to rock and roll and lively Egyptian music.

Our next stop is in Aswan, where we visit the Temple of Phalie, dedicated to the Goddess Isis and the God Osiris. The temple was moved to the Island of Agilika, after it’s original site was flooded by the Nile after construction of the Aswan Dam. From here, we board a felucca* and sail to the Aswan Botanical Gardens. Schools in Egypt are on holiday, so the grounds are brimming with Egyptian families, picnicking and playing. From here we stroll through the market in the center of Aswan where spices are piled high in wagons, and families buy their vegetables, clothing, cooking utensils, mattresses, you name it. There is no shortage of souvenir shops interspersed in this open air market.

 

 

 

On our last day on the Royal Lily, we disembark and take a short flight to Abu Simbel. Hewn from a solid cliff in the 13th century BC, the temples at Abu Simbel are a stunning sight along the shimmering Lake Nasser. The Great Temple was built to honor Ramses II, while the smaller temple was built by Ramses II to honor his favorite wife, Nefertari. These two temples are considered to be the most sophisticated of all the temples in Egypt and were worth the flight to see them.

From Abu Simbel we fly to Cairo and spend our last night in Egypt at the spectacular Le Meridien Hotel, conveniently connected to the airport. Our farewell dinner is another delightful culinary experience. I say goodbye to this group of adventurous, like-minded women, and goodbye to the land of the Pharaohs.

 

 

*Gallabiyah – ankle length, lose fitting garment
*Felucca – a traditional wooden sailing boat used on the Nile River. Some have oars and sails, some just sails.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A practical word about packing and laundry….

We have all been guilty of overpacking. I cringe when I think about the amount of luggage I hauled around as a young traveler in my twenties. After many continents and countries I have learned to pack much more efficiently. Many of my journeys have included small planes, jungles, and the bush. This often means much smaller bags and weight limits. So even though I am usually gone for a month, I pack for one week, then find ways to do laundry. In Israel I waited until we got to a Kibbutz where I knew there would be a coin operated laundry. In Jordan and Egypt the hotel laundry service was so inexpensive that I used it in both countries more than once. A bag of laundry (2-3 pairs of pants, PJs, 5 shirts, socks, undies) cost from $4-7. In South Africa I paid $3.89 per week to have my laundry done. In the jungle north of Chiang Mai, Thailand, I paid $5. In Europe, I always make sure the AirBnB I rent has a washing machine. Laundry service in American and European hotels is extremely expensive, so I always pack a couple of my workout shirts to wear under other shirts. They are lightweight, dryfit, and can be washed in a hotel sink at night and they are dry in the morning. This allows me to wear the cover shirts multiple times. Unless you spill something on them, pants can be worn over and over. I don’t pack white pants unless I know I will have access to cheap laundry. Dresses – I have two that can be rolled up in a ball and still wont wrinkle. Happy travel packing!

In addition to online articles, my research on Egypt included the following:

Apricots on the Nile: A Memoir, by Collette Rossant
A Traveller’s History of Egypt, by Harry Ades
In an Antique Land, by Amitav Ghosh
Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story, by Thanassis Cambanis
Butterfly Mosque, by G. Willow Wilson
DK Eyewitness Travel Egypt
Cleopatra, a film directed by Joseph Mankiewicz

Egypt – Land of the Pharaohs

Egypt has long played an important role in connecting Africa and Asia, and the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean. The earliest signs of civilization in Egypt date back to prehistoric times, but the towns and cities can trace their roots back to approximately 8000 BC. This is when the Sahara was formed and settlers started moving closer to the fertile land of the Nile River.

The dynastic period, widely regarded as one of the oldest ever cultural periods in the world, began around 3100 BC. The first Pharaoh is generally believed to have been Menes. A total of 30 dynasties ruled over the next three millennia with many of the pharaohs leaving their mark on Egypt in the form of beautiful palaces, temples, and tombs. It was during this time that most of the astonishing sights you see today were built. Among them: the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the temples of Luxor, and many more.
At various times in its history, Egypt has been occupied by Persians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, the British and French. But it is the pharaohs that have left the most mesmerizing legacy. Who has not been captivated by the story of the young boy who became King Tutankhamen in 1333 BC, and the beautiful Nefertiti, a queen who worshipped one God.

I arrived in Egypt with a perfunctory knowledge gleaned from history and travel books, documentaries, and films. Now I get to see, smell, and touch all that it has to offer.
As I mentioned in my last post, I spent my last day in Jordan shivering under the covers in my hotel bed. I managed to drag myself out of bed and make myself somewhat presentable in time to catch an early afternoon flight to Cairo. The plan was to explore Cairo on my own for the first two days, then join some fellow women travelers for a tour of Egypt. This turned out to be a serendipitous choice since the unplanned days gave me just enough time to stay in bed, recover sufficiently, and join the group for dinner on day two.

Marta

Marta is our tour manager and she handles all of the scheduling, problem solving, and communication. Mohamed owns the local tour company and he accompanied us the whole two weeks. I have never had the local company owner in any country accompany a tour, so this was an added bonus. Rafa is our Egyptologist and the extent of his knowledge of both ancient and modern Egypt is astounding.

Rafa and Mohammed

Every day that we were in or near Cairo and Giza we were accompanied by an armed tourist policeman. He was discreetly dressed and his sport coat covered his holstered hand gun. To be honest, I never felt unsafe anywhere in Egypt, and eventually stopped noticing the security forces present at tourist sites. Once we headed south to Luxor we no longer had our private guard along for the ride. We did occasionally have a police escort to speed our bus through traffic jams.

Baksheesh (a tip or a bribe depending on the situation) is rampant in Egypt and almost comical. We often found ourselves being ushered in to sites, tombs, and boats without regard for a queue! Then I would notice the small wad of Egyptian pounds (or better yet US dollars) exchanging hands. Which reminds me, US dollars are widely accepted everywhere in Egypt. I would still be sure to have some small denomination EGPs on hand because you rarely enter a public restroom where an “attendant” isn’t there with an extended hand. Baksheesh for the WC!

On my first outing with our small group of women (hailing from the US and Canada), we climbed onto our camels and trekked across the sand to the pyramids in Giza. I have been on a camel before (Morocco), but I was still thrilled to travel this way for my first visit to the pyramids. I often describe my travel experiences as feelings or vibes, and standing before the Giza pyramids is no different. When you have studied ancient Egypt, read books, looked at pictures….it is still difficult to imagine the feeling once you are standing right there.

Climbing out of a pyramid tomb

The Giza pyramids were built around 2500 BC over a period of about 85 years. The Sphinx stands guard at the approach to the Pyramid of Khafre and was carved mostly from an outcrop of natural rock, then augmented by shaped blocks around the base.

We next visited Saqqara, a vast, ancient burial ground serving as the necropolis for the Ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis. Saqqara features numerous pyramids, including the world-famous Step pyramid of Djoser. The step pyramid is the first free standing stone building in history. The hieroglyphics here are incredible for their intricacy, age, and condition. If only you could pull up a chair and admire them for an afternoon.

The Egyptian Museum is not to be missed. It is chock full of artifacts that are older than anything you can imagine. The star of the show is King Tut’s death mask and tomb enclosures, but there is so much more to see. For an extra fee you can enter a climate controlled room that contains the actual mummified remains (mostly intact and in good condition) of ancient Egyptian royalty! A new and larger museum is being built and construction is expected to be completed this summer. This will allow the large number of artifacts and sarcophagi that are still in storage to be put on display.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our flight to Luxor is short and smooth and we check in to our hotel, situated on the banks of the Nile River. There is no internet in the hotel, so I venture out into the street to find a phone store where I can buy a SIM card. I am immediately accosted by a middle aged Egyptian man in long robe and turban. He wants me to visit his cousin’s souvenir shop – “best prices! You like.” “No no, I explain, I’m just going to the phone store.” I have spotted an Orange store about a block away. The most dangerous thing you can do in Egypt is cross the street, so I am focused on oncoming traffic as the man jabbers away about the deals to be had at his cousin’s shop. As I scan the street ahead, I see the next robed man, waiting for me to discard the current one. As I realize I will be shadowed no matter what, I elect to keep my current escort. I explain to him (he has told me his name is Aziz), not sure how much he is understanding, that I would like him to escort me to the phone store. This will allow him to: “earn” a small token of my appreciation, keep the rest of the hawkers away, and he won’t have to convince me to shop. It’s a win-win for both of us.

I should mention that SIM cards can be a good alternative to expensive international plans offered by your carriers at home. In most countries, you can buy a SIM with a gig or more of data, texting, and calls for under ten dollars. The one I purchased in Egypt was $2.50 and I only needed half the data allowance. Internet is not free in many hotels or on the Nile cruise boats, so this proved to be a valuable purchase. I did not buy a SIM in Jordan because cell service there is hit or miss and I was only there for a week. Israel had the most expensive plan I have ever encountered, over $20 for a gig. I have purchased SIMs in Thailand, Morocco, Scotland, France, and many others for less than one quarter of the cost of a Verizon international plan. Best to get familiar with your phone’s SIM before you leave home and confirm with your carrier that your phone is “unlocked.”

So, back to my excursion through Luxor. The SIM purchase at the Orange store takes longer than the usual 10 minutes and Aziz waits patiently in the lobby. After thirty minutes, my purchase complete, Aziz and I exit the store and head back in the direction of my hotel. None of the hawkers approach me and I am patting myself on the back about the successful execution of my plan. At the entrance to my hotel, I take Aziz’s hand to thank him and slip him 10 Egyptian pounds (less than a dollar, but twice what his cousin would have given him). He’s happy, I’m happy, and it’s a beautiful, sunny day in Luxor.

 

 

 

 

Next up….Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, and the Nile River.

 

Jordan

As we cross the Sheikh Hussein border checkpoint between Israel and Jordan, I am once again confronted with the juxtaposition of modern and ancient in this sunny, mysterious corner of the world. But first, some facts:

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a small country with few natural resources, but it has played a pivotal role in the struggle for power in the Middle East. Jordan’s significance results partly from its strategic location at the crossroads of what Christians, Jews and Muslims call the Holy Land. It is a key ally of the US and, together with Egypt, one of only two Arab nations to have made peace with Israel.
The desert kingdom emerged out of the post-First World War division of the Middle East by Britain and France. So, while it is in ancient land, Jordan is a young country.

Some key dates in Jordan’s history:
1946 – The United Nations recognizes Jordan as an independent sovereign kingdom.
1950 – Jordan annexes West Bank.
1951 – King Abdullah assassinated by Palestinian gunman angry at his apparent collusion with Israel in the carve-up of Palestine.
1952 – Hussein proclaimed king after his father, Talal, is declared mentally unfit to rule.
1957 – British troops complete their withdrawal from Jordan.
1967 – Israel takes control of Jerusalem and West Bank during Six-Day War, major influx of refugees into Jordan.
1994 – Jordan signs peace treaty with Israel, ending 46-year official state of war.
1999 – King Hussein dies. His eldest son Crown Prince Abdullah succeeds to the throne.

My first impressions as we drive from the border with Israel to Amman, Jordan is that the temperatures are colder than expected, and there is trash everywhere. In an interview with the Earth Island Journal, Jordanian cardiologist, Ramzi Tabbalat, laments this lack of care for public spaces. He points to the trash in a forest outside Amman – waste from hundreds of weekend picnics. It is strewn everywhere. The entire ground to the right of a glade is literally buried in garbage. “People just leave their stuff on the ground, throw all their garbage into the woods,” Ramzi Tabbalat complains. Why is that — not just here in the woods, but also in Amman, in every neighborhood, on every meadow, in every corner of the country? Tabbalat shrugs his shoulders. “It is a cultural thing,” he explains. “I guarantee you that every square inch of their homes is spick and span, but because this is not their property, they don’t seem to care,” says Tabbalat. “Jordanians are — and I hate to say this — simply lazy.” Rather than obsess over the trash, I vow to put on my blinders in order to enjoy all that is beautiful about Jordan.


And the beauty is easy to see at the Citadel in Amman. Thankfully, the historic sites are maintained at a higher standard than the rest of the country. The Citadel property includes the ruins of the Temple of Hercules and the Umayyad Palace. Excavations have uncovered signs of human occupation from as far back as the Middle Bronze Age (1650-1550 BC). Archaeologists have been working at the site since the 1920s, but a great part of the Citadel remains unexcavated. I don’t think I have ever walked through ruins in any other country where you could easily pick a piece of 3000 year old pottery off the ground as you strolled the grounds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

North of Amman we visit Jerash, often referred to as the Pompeii of the east because of its unique state of preservation. It’s colonnaded streets, and ruins of the temples of Zeus and Artemis, stand out against the backdrop of modern day house covered hills. The oldest parts of the site have been dated to the 3rd century BC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course the star of the show in Jordan is Petra! From the parking area it is a 1.2 kilometer walk through the siq. The siq is the main entrance to the ancient Nabatean city of Petra in southern Jordan. It is a dim, narrow gorge (in some points no more than 10 feet wide) that winds like a snake through the towering rock walls (over 250 feet tall) and ends at Petra’s most elaborate ruin, the Treasury.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Treasury is actually an ancient mausoleum, built around the first century AD by the Nabateans. Modern movie goers will recognize it from the film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There are many ways to make your way from the parking area, through the siq, and around the tombs, caves, and hills of Petra. Based on my experience, the rules in place are designed more to spread tourist dollars among a greater number of the local Bedouins than they are to preserving Petra. You can hire a horse drawn carriage, but not a horse or donkey to carry you through the gorge to the Treasury. You can hire a donkey, but not a carriage, to take you after the Treasury and up to the monastery. At the end of Petra, you can hire a donkey to take you back as far as the Treasury. After the siq, you will be offered a free ride on a horse to take you to the parking area. But….a $5 tip is expected. And then there are the camels who I think can go most places. I am certain I have mixed up all of these rules and if you are up to it, I recommend walking it all. I walked 80% of the roughly 6 miles around the sight, but gave in to a very charming donkey guy for a portion of my return journey….although this choice was more about my fatigue from a worsening chest cold than Abdullah’s charms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And this reminds me to mention the Jordanian people. They are warm, friendly, happy, and welcoming….even when they have nothing to gain. They love their children and are proud of their families and country. Omar, our guide, was as funny as most comedians, but also possessed a deep and thorough knowledge of ancient and modern Jordanian history. And he took excellent care of us. On our last night, I was too ill to leave my hotel room. Omar arranged for food and beverages to be brought to my room, then called the next morning to be sure I was on the mend. I wasn’t, but that’s another story. Will I make it to the airport and my flight to Cairo? Of course! This purposeful traveler won’t be beaten by chills and fever! Inshallah (God willing).

Israel

How did I end up in Israel? It was never on my bucket list and I’m not Jewish. And next week I will be in Jordan. Again, not on the bucket list and I’m not Muslim. So what’s a casual Catholic woman doing here when volunteering in Tanzania was next on my nomadic adventure calendar? The answer is not complicated….the weather in Tanzania is cooler in July than January, so Tanzania will wait a few months. And, Israel is next-door to Egypt, a place I have dreamed about since seeing the movie, Cleopatra, way back in fifth grade. One of my travel philosophies is to lump in neighboring countries whenever possible. If I’ve taken the time and expense to go so far, why not see two or three countries while I’m in a particular corner of the world. Last year I added Portugal after a month in Morocco, and Northern Ireland after a month in Scotland. For this long awaited excursion to Egypt, a gander at a map revealed Israel and Jordan to be the safest options nearby.

So here I am in the ancient city of Jerusalem, feeling a little embarrassed by my previously uneducated attitude that Israel would only appeal to Jewish visitors. Thankfully, in the weeks before I left home I took the time to learn something about this country that is unique and diverse in many ways – landscape, people, history, and faith.
While people of all religions have a reason to visit Israel, the majority of those who live and work in Israel are Jews. Why do Jews live in Israel? That was the question Jerusalem Post editor Yaakov Katz asked in a column last year. Katz refers to recent dialog about Israel as the Start-up Nation, and Israel as a Light unto the Nations engaged in tikkun olam – doing good around the world. They are popular responses and two of the reasons that Jews go to Israel, but they are not necessarily the reason that Jewish families, the young in particular, stay in Israel.
Katz believes that Israelis should continue to innovate and do even more tikkun olam, but the real answer to the question – “why do Jews live in Israel? – is to actively engage in the greatest Jewish experiment of the modern era: figuring out together what type of civil and religious society we want to build – and then going out and doing it.”
Now, after my first few days in this tiny, half desert nation, I ask myself – why should a traveller want to come to Israel? In no particular order I would say: cuisine, history, landscape, and people. I was most surprised by the cuisine. There is no strictly Israeli cuisine. Most people in Israel are immigrants from five continents and over 100 countries, a variation on our own United States. Those immigrants brought the recipes, traditions, and foods from their homes around the world.

In ancient Israel, the daily diet of the ordinary Israelite was mainly one of bread, cooked grains and legumes. The Israelites drank goat and sheep’s milk when it was available in the spring and summer, and ate butter and cheese. Figs and grapes were the fruits most commonly eaten, and wine was the most popular beverage. Meat, usually goat and mutton, was eaten rarely and was reserved for special occasions.
All of these foods and drinks are still part of modern Israel cuisine, but they are crafted with the style of many cultures. There is more meat served (lamb and chicken being the most popular) than in ancient times, and I was able to try some good Israeli beer. The food that stood out for me in Israel and Egypt both was the hummus. It was creamy with layers of intense flavor that made each taste a culinary dream. I’m afraid it ruined American hummus for me.
In most restaurants we were able to feast on tasting menus that were served family style. The enthusiasm shown by my travel companions and me for the waves of food placed in front of us was reminiscent of movie scenes of medieval feasts. There might have even been some singing and clapping.

 

 

 

Luckily, all of this eating fueled us for hours of walking everyday. One of our first excursions was to Jerusalem’s old city. From our first vantage point on top of the Tower of David, we could take in sweeping views of all of Jerusalem, including the Dome of the Rock, the Mount of Olives, the Western Wall, and Jaffa Gate. All of this was interspersed with scenes of daily life for residents of Jerusalem – shopping for vegetables and bread, going to mosque, synagogue, and church, walking to work and school. The Old City is not just an historic site, but home for over thirty thousand people in an area of less than a half square mile. Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian, with the Muslim quarter being the largest in both area and population. If I had to choose a short list of my favorite sites in and around Jerusalem, they would be (again in no particular order): Holy Sepulcher Church, the Western Wall, the Tower of David, and several of the stone gates in the walls surrounding the old city. In Holy Sepulcher Church you can touch the slab of stone purported to be the place where Jesus’ body was washed after he was taken down from the cross. It is difficult to describe the vibe near this incredibly holy spot. The Western Wall is just such an iconic site, that it makes my list. And yes, I did pray and slip a small prayer request into a crack in the wall, just like over a million people every year. Twice a year, the notes are collected and buried in the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. I like knowing that a piece of me is there.

 

 

 

The Tower of David is a citadel built in various stages beginning in the first century BC. There is a museum that presents Jerusalem’s story. It details the major events in its history beginning with the first evidence of a city in Jerusalem in the second millennium BC, until the city became the capital of the State of Israel, as well as its significance to three religions. I am not a big fan of the night time light shows prevalent at historic sites in the Middle East, but the one at the Tower of David is worth a look. It presents the history of Israel in light, sound, and music that is short (45 minutes), but compelling. Admission is about $15.50.

Bethlehem, located 6 miles south of Jerusalem, is part of the Palestinian Authority. Israelis are not permitted inside and the crossing is monitored by armed Israeli military. The Church of the Nativity – undoubtedly the top attraction in Bethlehem – is a veritable citadel built fortress-like on top of the cave where Jesus was born to Mary. It is one of the oldest churches in the world. The first incarnation of the building was erected on the orders of the Roman Emperor Constantine I (the Great) in 330 AD. Access to the cave under the church is down a dark and narrow staircase, but it is well worth it if the place of Jesus’ birth is important to you.

Marks the place of Jesus’ birth

From Jerusalem, we began our drive south to Masada and watched as the scenery changed from urban, to greenery, to desert in quick succession. The ancient fortress of Masada was built in the Judean desert by King Herod, ruler of Judea around 35 BC. It was here that I had a small world moment. As I traipsed around the ruins of the fortress, I came upon a friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen in over 40 years. We had a brief mini reunion and marveled at the odds of this chance meeting in a desert a world away from home.
At the Dead Sea (not really a sea, but a lake), we changed into swim suits for a dip in the lake. You really do float easily because of the extreme salt levels. The beach around the lake is brimming with marble sized chunks of salt. The banks of the Dead Sea are also the lowest point on earth at over 1300 feet below sea level.
From the salty sea, we headed north to the fresh water Sea of Galilee. Our lodging for the next few days is a kibbutz on the shores of this largest of Israel’s lakes. Our first excursion here takes us to the holy city of Safed. Safed is the center of Kabbalah in Israel and there is a mystical vibe to this village perched on a mountain in Upper Galilee. Many of the doors and windows of homes and shops are painted blue in mystical symbolism to confuse evil spirits. Safed is also an artist colony and its narrow cobbled streets are lined with galleries and craft shops. From its cafes one can enjoy a morning coffee while taking in views that extend as far as the Golan Heights, Lebanon, and the Amud Valley.
The age and history of this ancient corner of the world are awe inspiring. To be in the land where Jesus was born, lived, and was crucified – emotional, incredible. There were so many other unique and stunning sites in Israel, but this blog is running long, so I will just list a few that I found well worth visiting:
Bet She’an – the archeological site dates back to the 16th century BC. King Saul and his sons met their deaths here. Kings David and Solomon spent time here.

 

 

Jordan River – Small in size, big in history. Stop at Yardenit if you have an urge to stand in this holy river and be baptized.
Capernaum – an old fishing village dating to the second century BC. A modern church marks the site where the ruins of St Peter’s home are visible. Capernaum is mentioned in all four gospels. Jesus taught here and healed the sick, as detailed in gospels by Mark and Luke.

 

 

 

Israel was a cultural, culinary, archeological and religious delight. I’m glad I decided to add it to this journey. Now, what will Jordan bring? Tune in soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to online articles my research on Israel included the following:
Books –
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide – Jerusalem, Israel, Petra, and Sinai
Israel, by Nelson Yomtov
The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel, by Martin Van Creveld

Documentaries –
The Gatekeepers
5 Broken Cameras
In Search of Israeli Cuisine (with Philly’s own Michael Solomonov, owner of Zahav)

Fitting In Staying Fit on the Road

Traveling Workout Equipment

When I travel, I am often away from home for a month or more. During that time away from my home based routines, the thing that suffers the most is exercise. Even though I might be walking several hours a day, or doing physical labor as a volunteer when I travel, it’s not the same as exercising for fitness. When at home, my weekly workout schedule is something like this: 2-3 one hour workouts at my gym, a one hour session with Crystal, the best trainer in the world (http://crystalfittraining.com), and yoga on the other days. By yoga I mean a gentle 20 minute session at home or one hour on Fridays at my local library, also gentle. I sometimes substitute a trail hike for a gym workout.

So that is my usual routine. Do I cheat? Yes, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of laziness. In May, I spent almost ten days on my couch due to a lingering chest/head cold. That first trip back to the gym was a killer. It is not easy to climb out of a slump. Which is exactly how I feel when returning from a long trip.

In February I wrote about how jet lag is lasting longer for me. I’m sure that the time difference (12 hours) and distance on that trip (Thailand) was a factor. I had lengthy recoveries when returning from South Africa, Morocco, China, and others. I now think age and interrupted routine also factor in. While I can do nothing about distance, time difference, or my age; I can loosely replicate an abbreviated version of my exercise routine when abroad.

On my just completed trip to France, I decided to test this idea. Did it work? More importantly…did I actually stick to my planned protocol? Is my jet lag less pronounced? Did I jump right back into my exercise routine at home?

Before I left for France, I saved links to YouTube videos for a few different 15 minute yoga and exercise workouts. I knew 15 minutes was an attainable goal. A goal of a one hour, or even a half hour workout after a day of sightseeing, eating, and writing would just be setting myself up for failure. After all, it was France! To keep it simple, I got advice from Crystal and googled hotel room exercises, since the only equipment I was packing was a yoga mat and a resistance strap.
In a previous blog I described my first day in France – picked up the rental car and drove most of the day, making stops in Giverny, Rouen, and finally stopping for the night in Honfluer. Two hours sleep in 38 hours. Did I really need to exercise that first night – no. But I knew if I made excuses the first night, I was doomed. So I pushed myself and did it. In all honesty, wherever I travel I am usually on an “arrival high” the first day, so that helped. The next night it was 15 minutes of yoga. On the third night, I was out late in Mont St Michel and had climbed to the top of the Abbey there. It was a warm night and there was no air conditioning in the hotel. So I gave myself the night off.

Once I got to Paris and settled into my apartment, I had the space to keep my yoga mat and resistance strap rolled out in the living room as my constant reminder. And it worked the first night; I completed my 15 minutes. The next afternoon, while strolling the gravel path along the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower, I took another kind of trip. The kind where your foot connects with a big rock that sends you flying, followed by gravity smacking you down. There was a fair amount of blood, but no hospital worthy injuries. This did mean, however, that my knee required bandages, elevation, and ice packs, instead of yoga poses. So I took two days off from exercise. On the third day, I had to modify my routines, but I did manage yoga or regular exercise during the remainder of my stay in France.

This lovely family picked me up off the ground at the Eiffel Tower

So after two weeks at home, what is the verdict? The results are mixed. Jet lag lasted for almost a week, which is my typical experience when returning from a trip of that distance and time difference. Routine exercise didn’t do a thing to improve the duration of my adjustment to Eastern Standard Time. But my regimen did pay off in the time it took to get back to my home based workout routine. My normal slack off period of two weeks after a long journey was reduced to three days! I am back in the swing of things. And a good thing too. Because while in France, I ate…a lot, in a country where butter is the first listed ingredient in most dishes.

Even the ice cream is a work of art

C’etait tres magnifique!