Our Top 10 Travel Movies in 2010

As a companion piece to the last blog entry on our Top 10 Literary Travel Books of 2010, I present our family’s Best Travel Movies of 2010. These are not the best movies we’ve seen, nor are they the best travel movies out there; they are the ten movies that most enhanced our family’s travel experience. (Present-day country in parentheses)
#1: HBO’s Rome (2005 - 24 episodes) (Italy): This two-season HBO series is not a movie but we saw nothing in the last year that educated us more…nor was more entertaining. From Julius Caesar’s rise to the fall of Antony and Cleopatra, we were captivated by every hour of this series that covered the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire. The characters were well-drawn and the acting excellent, with the added benefit that our kids now know their Cato from their Cicero.  (For more on why our 14 and 12 year old kids were even watching this, go here)

#2: The Devil’s Miner (2005) (Bolivia): This little-known documentary is the story of 14-year old Basilio who works in the Potosi silver mine to support his family when his father dies. Taking a tour of the Potosi mine is harrowing and claustrophobic but this movie will put a human face on the experience. The movie is hard to find but available from sidewalk pirate-DVD sellers all over Bolivia. The title comes from the manner in which all the miners make offerings to the “devil of the mine,” the shrine that serves as an everpresent reminder that death can happen any at minute.

#3: The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) (South America): Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Che Guevara in his 1952 motorcycle tour of South America with his buddy Alberto. The Andean scenery and Gustavo Santaolalla’s music is a perfect backdrop for Che’s political awakening; the scene where he shares a campfire with Chilean miners and learns of their exploitation is particularly well done.

#4: The Dancer Upstairs (2002) (Peru): Another little-known movie which is directed by John Malkovich and is based loosely on the hunt and capture of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman.(the movie makes no mention of Peru, Guzman or the Sendero Luminoso) Javier Bardem does a nice job as the lead detective and the movie gives you a sense of the tenseness and terror in Lima in the 1980’s during the time of the Sendero Luminoso.

#5: The Merchant of Venice (2004) Italy): Al Pacino does a creditable job as Shylock in this Shakespeare classic directed by Michael Radford. The story gives you an idea of what being a Jew was like in 16th century Venice, even though Shakespeare never set foot on Italian soil.

#6: Creation (2009) (South America, Galapagos): A recent movie about Charles Darwin’s relationship with his eldest daughter and how her death affected him. The movie portrays his internal conflict between religion and his scientific findings and it implies that his daughter’s death helped push him towards science. Many of his scientific ideas came from his 1835 visit to the Galapagos.

#7: Out of Africa (1985) (Kenya): Less about east Africa than about the colonial experience in Kenya, Redford and Streep play out their star roles amidst the beautiful Kenyan landscape. Based on the very good Isak Dinneson book of the same name.

#8: Roman Holiday (1953) Italy): A fun and light romp through the Eternal City with Gregory Peck as a reporter and Audrey Hepburn as a visiting Princess. Beautiful black and white cinematography.

#9: Alexander (2004) (Greece and Turkey): Not the greatest of movies and I’m not a Colin Farrell fan but it gives a good overview of Alexander’s short life. Alexander’s relationship with his generals (Ptolemy, Antigonus, Antipater, Seleucis, et al. ) who would carve up his empire after his death was of special interest.

#10: Troy (2004) (Turkey, Greece): Again not a great movie but an entertaining way to learn about Homer’s account of the united Greek city-states’ assault on Troy.


Top 10 Literary Travel Books of 2010

One of the pleasures of travel is reading a good book set in the country you are visiting. A well-written book adds context to the things that you are seeing everyday and allows you to understand more of the culture. David Bennett at Quillcards, left a comment on this blog when talking about how learning about a country enhances your experience of it. He used the phrase “knowledge puts depth into a flat landscape,” which I think is a great way to sum it up. In that vein, I present our family’s top 10 Literary Travel books of 2010, books that most enhanced our travel experience. (present day country in parentheses)

#1: Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernieres (Turkey): I can think of few fictional books that combine a great story with a complete history lesson, the lesson in this case, the Ottoman Empire's collapse and Turkey’s entry into the modern world just after World War I. There are twists, turns, paradoxes, dilemmas, contradictions and all of them set amongst story that won't allow you to put the book down.

#2: Midaq Alley by Naguib Mafouz (Egypt): A story of intersecting lives amongst the impoverished class in the heart of Islamic Cairo, Nobel Prize winner Mafouz tells a great story and made us feel like another dimension was added to the people we met while in Egypt. We were inspred to visit the eponymous alley while in Cairo.

#3: The Last Days of The Incas, by Kim MacQuarrie (Peru): A complete story of the Spanish conquest of the Incas. The initial battle scene of Pizarro and Atuhualpa in Cajamarca and the siege on Cusco are fascinating.  Almost nothing remains in Cajamarca, so reading this book was essential to understanding this northern Peru city.

#4: The Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone (Italy): The fictional biography of Michelangelo’s life, Stone does a solid job of giving the reader insight into the mind of a master sculptor. We read this prior to spending a month in Florence.

#5: Pompeii, by Robert Harris (Italy): Harris gives the reader a sense of the chaos, confusion and politics that accompanied the eruption of Vesuvius, told from the point of view of the engineer responsible for the aqueducts. As we walked through the Pompeii ruins, we thought about the widespread panic portrayed in the book.

#6: The Camel Bookmobile, by Masha Hamilton (Kenya): The story of a New York woman who helps bring books to a remote Kenyan village on the Sudanese border. As we drove through the remote Kenyan countryside, we had a better idea of what went on in each of the villages. This book raised a question that our kids had not thought about before: Is literacy always a good thing?

#7: Death In The Andes, by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru): A story about some killings in a remote Andean community. The police are sure it was the work of the Sendero Luminoso but the locals suspect pishtacos (mythological boogeyman). A great introduction to the two main sides of the Peruvian character.

#8: Voyage Of The Beagle, by Charles Darwin (South America, the Galapagos): Darwin’s account of his South American voyage, where many of his ideas about evolution and natural selection were formed. I found it interesting how he relentlessly compared and categorized the things that he saw.

#9: Incantation, by Alice Hoffman (Spain): A story about a young teenage girl who slowly finds out that she is Jewish during the time of the Inquisition. The book gave our kids a good idea of what that would be like.

#10: Julius Caesar, by Phillip Freeman (Italy): A solid biography of Julius Caesar that highlights his military prowess and his ability to motivate his soldiers.


Chullo Confidential

I really want to like the chullo. The South American woven hat with pointed top and long earflaps is perfect head gear for the frigid Andes and those snowboarders look so cool in them, but unless I'm freezing my butt off, it’s just a little too uncomfortable.  Verilyn Klinkenborg, in her New York Times editorial “Season of the Chullo” said, “If there’s a political statement in the chullo, it’s a little hard to decipher. Perhaps it signals indigenousness, international-ness. But what it mostly says is, I don’t care how I look as long as I’m warm.” The chullo may not be the most flattering hat in the world but it does keep me warm.

It keeps me warm but once I move inside, I’m too hot and I’m dying to take it off. This leads to another problem: the after-effects of wearing the chullo. I don’t know the what the literal Quechua translation of chullo is, but I’ll venture to say it means “that which promotes hat hair.” Keep that trendy chullo on for just fifteen minutes and your hair will smashed on one side and pointing straight up on the other and you’ll have no choice but to wear it for the remainder of the day.

I love watching a proud indigenous man wearing his chullo while strolling through Cusco. I want a piece of his certainty, his simplicity, his heritage. I also want others to note my savoir-faire and my been there done that-ness. Since I’ve worked with Andean weavers I know the difference between an authentic chullo and one made for tourists. This knowledge brings a simple equation: the more authentic the chullo, the scratchier it is, as higher end chullos use alpaca wool and the lower end uses sheep wool or synthetic materials.

Basically, it needs to be very cold out for the chullo to make sense. It’s a great hat for cold climes but it doesn’t translate well to warmer weather. Klinkenborg comments in the same New York Times article, “Perhaps the anti-stylishness of the chullo — its simple functionality — is its politics. The fact is that really cold weather eclipses style.”


Bolivian Bowler Hats

I’m sure Thomas and William Bowler had no idea that the hat they created back in 1849 for English gentlemen on horseback would be a South American fashion statement amongst Andean indigenous women. Walk the streets of La Paz, Bolivia and one of the first things you’ll notice are the cholitas, the indigenous Aymara women with bowler hats perched on their heads. They sell just about anything from street corners; during the first hour of our La Paz walking tour we saw them selling soap, meat, stuffed animals, onions and dried llama fetuses. When we popped in to see a Harry Potter movie that night we bought some popcorn from one of the cholitas lined up in front of the theater. They each wore layers of petticoats over shiny skirts with a shawl covering their shoulders. Each of them had long black hair braided into waist-length pigtails with bowler hat balancing on top of their heads.

There does not seem to be a clear consensus on how the bowler hat got to South America and why these women adopted it. One story relates an accidental surplus of the hats, leading the manufacturer to market them to women. Another story says that they were made for British railway workers here in the early 20th century. Yet another story relates that there was no surplus of the hats, they just made them too small for the Europeans so they were given away to locals. One thing is certain; the hats do not fit properly. They are all too small and must be balanced on the head or if you’re cholita who cheats, a bobby pin can be used.

The Bowler brothers designed the hat 160 years ago so that gentleman horseback riders in the English countryside would have an alternative to the top hat which was often knocked off by low-hanging branches while riding. While the origins of the Bowler hat are steeped in functionality, its current usage in the Andes is not. It does not fit well, it doesn’t provide shelter from sun or rain and the felt is not particularly waterproof. Despite this, the Bowler hat is a Bolivian fashion statement.

Peruvian Fusion: Andean Good Luck Charm

If you walk through towns in the Andean region around Cusco one of the things you’ll see on many rooftops is a pair of ceramic bulls. It’s said that these bulls bring good luck, keep the house safe and ensure health and wealth for the family that lives there. We’ve seen the bulls all over Cusco and in towns like Pisac, Chinchero and Ollantaytambo.

The bulls come from Pucara, an area between Cusco and Puno, and are called toritos de Pucara. These figurines were originally made as ritual elements of a cattle-branding ceremony. The bull figure, which is also a flask, was used to hold the chicha (fermented corn beer) and mixed with the blood of cattle and drunk by the high priest conducting the ceremony. The bulls are always placed on the roof so that they have a view of the apus, the mountains gods revered by the Incas. Given that Spaniards brought over cattle to the New World, it’s safe to say this ceremony and the toritos are not Pre-Inca and yet another example of New World culture fusing with the Old World.

While two bulls on a roof are pretty consistent, what accompanies them varies quite a bit. Often there is a cross and occasionally a ladder, which will help the family members get to heaven. At various times I’ve seen Peruvian flags, doves, horseshoes, parrots, roosters and even shovels accompanying the bulls.

Towards the end of our stay in Cusco my wife hunted for a pair of these bulls to bring back home and put on the roof our house back home in California, but our search turned up empty. We now have a good reason to come back.

Kids Volunteering In Cusco

Aside from getting drilled in Spanish five hours a day, doing their homeschooling/distance learning and swimming on the Cusco swim team, both our kids had regular volunteer jobs during our time in Cusco. After their Spanish class, both would walk through San Blas to their jobs at Colibri, a shelter for street kids and children of single-parents with no place to go in the afternoons. Many of the kids worked as shoe shine boys and some of the girls sold gum or woven finger puppets in the Plaza de Armas in order to supplement the family income.

Once our kids arrived each day, they were greeted by Senor Alcides, the director, and his assistant, along with a dozen young kids who come up to hug them and greet them. Our kids’ main role was to play Monopoly or card games with the kids, do art projects, help them with their homework (usually math or English) and play futbol with them. Many of the local Spanish language schools sent adult students over for one or two week stints, so during their three month tenure our 14- and 12-year old kids got to meet and work with people from Australia, Sweden, England, France, South Africa and other countries.

About a month after starting with Colibri, and hearing our kids complain about how tattered and beat up the board games and sporting equipment were, our family had the idea of trying to raise some money for the shelter. There were no basketballs, the monopoly game was missing a bunch of pieces and they were in desperate need of school supplies. The kids wrote up a proposal outlining what was needed and how much it would cost along with a description of the shelter and some photos and we thought about who to send it to. We decided they should send it to my group of neighborhood basketball-playing dads back home who hold a tournament each year and raise money for sports and youth-related causes. Within two days, the group responded and said they would be happy to donate $300 for sporting goods and school supplies.

Here is the body of the thank you letter they wrote:

We are writing to you guys to thank you for your generous donation of $300 dollars to the Colibri Organization, in Cusco, Peru.

Colibri is an after school program for kids when their parents are at work or they do not have parents. It is a police sponsored program designed to give kids a safe place to be off the street. We work at Colibri for two hours a day after Spanish class. When we go to Colibri, we help with homework and often take the kids up to a park five minutes away and play basketball, soccer and games with them. The kids are very smart and are very nice. Their ages range from 5 to 14.

Your donation of $300 to Colibri will be spent on new basketballs, soccer balls, notebooks, pencils, colored pencils, and food. The kids at Colibri don't have very much stuff and it’s really sad to see them playing basketball with a beat-up old soccer ball. We can assure you that your money will be spent on worth-while things. The kids at Colibri are very happy and very grateful.

Once we received the money, we went to El Molino, the discount shopper’s paradise in Cusco, and bought everything, taking care to record how much was spent on each item and giving a full accounting of the donated funds. The kids listed all the expenses in a spreadsheet and sent some photos back to the basketball dads’ group, showing them how their money was spent.

The kids’ time at Colibri was extremely rewarding and the biggest treat for us came whenever our family walked through the Plaza de Armas. Quite often while crossing the main square, we’d hear small children call out our kids’ names, come running over and give them hugs. Who says they weren’t getting compensated for their time?


Drinking Chicha In The Sacred Valley

We’d been living in Cusco for a while and I had read and heard about chicha, the fermented corn drink that is popular in southern Peru. I’d occasionally looked for it on restaurant menus but never saw it. I'd heard that the locals drank a lot of the pale, milky, straw-colored drink at important festivals and occasions, but for my first month in Peru I never saw anyone drinking it.

One day as we were driving in the Sacred Valley, I noticed that each village had at least a half dozen mud homes with red plastic bags attached to bamboo poles above their doors. There were too many of them not to be some kind of local sign. I asked our driver what they were and he said “chicherias.” So that’s where they were imbibing the chicha! (The picture here is the front of a chicheria in Ollantaytambo) I later learned that chicherias can be identified in southern Peru by either a red flag, a bouquet of flowers, ribbons or plastic bags affixed to bamboo poles. Typically, a family will mix up a big batch, set up some tables in a spare room of the house and raise the bamboo pole for a little extra income. Chicha is prepared from a specific kind of yellow maize called jora and it has a slightly sour aftertaste.

We tried some that weekend, not in someone’s house but at a weaving contest that my NGO was hosting. I steeled myself as they ladled me a glass of the slightly alcoholic drink that looks a lot like, well…spit. I intentionally spilled a bit on the ground as an offering to the pacahmama and tried it. (Okay, maybe it was kind of a big offering) The aftertaste was indeed sour and I vainly struggled to identify any type of corn taste. I proudly downed my cup and brought over some to my family, who each took a sip and wanted no more.

While regular chicha de jora was not to our liking, we all enjoyed chicha morada and towards the end of our stay in Cusco, started making batches of it from boiling purple corn cobs, pineapple rinds, and spices. We did not make chicha de jora.

This post was part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa carnival "Toasting Around the Globe" from Orange Polka Dot.

Cusco, Peru: Mate De Coca, Anyone?

The Red Bull of the Andes
 You have just arrived in Cusco, Peru at 10,800 feet, which is probably two miles above wherever you’ve come from. You head straight to the Plaza de Armas, the center of Cusco, which is the center of the Incan Empire, because you don’t want to walk anymore. You’re huffing and puffing up the stairs to a restaurant with a balcony on the plaza and every three or four steps you stop to regain your breath. From your seat on the balcony overlooking the plaza, your waitress brings you your mate de coca, your coca leaf tea. It tastes a little like Japanese green tea with a hint of menthol and it goes down easy, its warmth counteracting the chill in the air. After a few minutes you realize that your heavy breathing has abated and that dull pain in the back of your head is now gone. It’s not an alcoholic buzz, but you definitely feel better, sharper, more yourself. Two women in indigenous dress pull llamas in front of La Catedral down below you. As you look at life go by from above the plaza, you think about how this ritual has been done for centuries here in the center of the Andes. You take another sip and give in to the acclimatization process. There is no better way to spend your first few hours in Cusco.

This post was part of the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa carnival "Toasting Around the Globe" from Orange Polka Dot.


Peruvian Cuy: Pets or Meat?

In Michael Moore’s 1989 film “Roger & Me” there is a scene in which a woman in Flint, Michigan has a sign in her yard next to a cage of rabbits that says “Rabbits Bunnies Pets or Meat For Sale.” The film blames General Motors chairman Roger Smith for Flint’s economic decline and this scene is supposed to show the desperation that Flint residents have stooped to: they’re so hungry that they’re eating their pets!

Pets or meat? The answer depends on where you are. Take the guinea pig for example. In the United States and Europe the answer is pets. If you are in the South American Andes, the answer is meat. Before the Spaniards arrived with cows, goats, pigs and chickens, the main sources of animal protein in the Andes were llamas, alpacas and cuy, the Quechua name for guinea pig. With animal protein sources scarce, the pre-Columbian indigenous people did what they had to do to survive. If you are invited over to someone's house for a special occasion while in Peru, undoubtedly you will be served cuy.

The picture here is of my plate of roasted cuy over a rocota rellena (stuffed pepper) with some papas (potatoes) on the side. My little fella has an aji (chile pepper) in his mouth and sports a dandy little pepper and huacatay herb hat. Cuy has a chicken-like taste with lots of little bones and I wonder if I lost more calories searching and picking out bones than I gained by eating my dinner.


Volunteering In Cusco: A Day At The Office

What’s it like to be a volunteer in Cusco, Peru?

A typical day starts with breakfast with the family and out the door by 8:30 am when Patty, the kids’ Spanish teacher arrives for their five hour lesson. I walk along the mortar-less Inca walls towards the Plaza de Armas and observe the day beginning in the ancient Incan capital. The women who work at the produce market push carts with large sacks of fresh fruits and vegetables, a woman in indigenous dress hangs handbags and blouses outside her store and down one alley, a man relieves himself against ancient stones.

I pass by a busload of tourists waiting to visit the famous Korikancha and as I approach my work, the Centro de Textiles Traditionales de Cusco (CTTC), I say hello to the man who sells candy in front of the building and then I’m buzzed into the front entrance. There are about a dozen people who work in the main office which sits above the retail store and museum on Avenida El Sol, and I have to greet each one with a “Buenos dias” and a kiss on the cheek. My office is basically a picnic bench in a communal area that is frequently where indigenous women weave, crochet and spin yarn with their babies eyeing everything from the slings on their backs. The women are genial, speak a bit of Spanish and all smell like they’ve slept in a cornfield. Most of the mothers look like they are 15 years old and will drop everything and lift up their blouse to breastfeed when their babies start crying. Sometimes they let their infants crawl around on the dirty floor and I’ll occasionally be working when I feel a tug on my leg.

I boot up my laptop and inevitably have to re-start the wireless internet router which dangles precariously from a loose nail high on the wall. I’ll then make some manzanillo tea from the tea and coffee station outside the Director’s office. Since I typically leave by early afternoon each day, Jenny or Paula usually come by to tell me what I’ve missed the previous afternoon. My main project is to budget a large conference for weavers that the CTTC wants to host. Everything they want to plan is in a large spreadsheet on my laptop, and every time there is a change of plan, I have to make sure that it is reflected in the budget.

By mid-morning, I’ve done a little work and had a 5-10 minute chat with most of my co-workers and I go outside and walk around the corner to the bakery and buy a dozen warm onion rolls, fresh from the oven. I’ll lay them out in the communal area and they will quickly disappear.

Much of my work is impromptu projects that require financial analysis. Jenny will often come by with a request, like “Senor Jason, we have to ask for money and the foundation wants financial statements. Can you do this?” or “We need an insurance policy for our antique textile collection, but we have no idea how much it should be…can you help us?” The combination of my budgeting work for the weavers’ conference and requests like these always keep me busy.

By one or two O’clock my day is done and pack up my laptop, say my “hasta luegos” and start walking home to my apartment. Typically I will pick up some bread at the bakery or some causa (a delicious savory, potato pie filled with chicken and avocado) at a deli around the corner. As I walk into our apartment for our late lunch, Patty is wrapping up Spanish class with the kids. So goes another working day for a volunteer in Cusco.

Swim Meet in Cusco? Bring Your Lawyer

The time had finally come. Our kids had dutifully practiced for months without a competitive swim meet and now was their chance. The Campeonato de Natacion, the annual city-wide swim championships, was taking place in Cusco and our kids were ready.

For a while, it seemed like we’d never have a swim meet. In the first few months coach Cristian rattled off a list of swim meets that the kids would be in – Quillabamba, Arequipa, Pisac – but we later realized that without enrollment in the collegio school system, they could not participate. The first swim meet the kids could swim in was the Transandina Youth Games, the international games for the Andean countries of Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile that happen once a year. We had timed our arrival in Cusco to make sure that the kids had a chance to qualify, but the day after the qualifying trials, we were told that the meet was postponed because of Dengue Fever. Six weeks went by and Cristian told us about an upcoming meet in Arequipa and we eagerly made preparations to attend. After making our hotel reservations and only a few days prior to the event, Cristian told us that the meet had been canceled due to concerns over the Swine Flu.

We put all this behind us and enjoyed a long Saturday of swimming at the Piscina Municipal de Wanchaq. Our kids are competitive swimmers so we expected them to do well, but we were here for the sense of community and the chance to meet other parents and improve our Spanish. My son won his 100 meter breast stroke race by half a pool length and received his gold medal on the medal stand while local newspaper photographers took his picture with the silver and bronze medalists. By the end of the day, both kids would earn 3 gold medals each and thoroughly enjoy the day.

Everything went smoothly but there was one incident in the late afternoon that caused a small delay to the proceedings. Two twin girls who also happened to be on my daughter’s basketball team were competing and one was involved in a small controversy. The parents of the twins were both lawyers who were very genial and financially well off by Peruvian standards. The father greeted and bantered with the mayor as he entered and settled into a chair, using his video camera to capture his girls’ successes. After one of the races, in which one of the twins narrowly missed a bronze medal, there was a long discussion between her father, the meet chairman and the mayor, all of whom were studying a playback on the father’s video recorder. While they were talking, the first three finishers stood on the medal stand and received their prizes.

After the awards were given and another 10 minutes of studying the video camera, an announcement was made that his daughter, who originally came in fourth place, was now the third place finisher and they had a separate medal ceremony for her to receive her bronze medal. Apparently, the father had used his video camera to disqualify one of the top three finishers and get his daughter a medal.

Despite this awkward display of favoritism, the meet went very well and it was a long and enjoyable day. We had thought about altering our schedule to have the kids complete in the rescheduled Transandina Games in Argentina, but we were concerned that it might again be cancelled. We considered going but in the end we opted not to and this was a good decision: it was canceled.

Surf's Up! Sandboarding At The Huacachina Oasis

We arrived in the unattractive town of Ica after a long, hot bus ride along the Pan American highway from Nazca. We planned to completely bypass the town of Ica and take a taxi five kilometers southwest to Huacachina, a picturesque oasis dotted with palm trees and surrounded by huge sand dunes, some of which get to 700 feet in height. As we drove to Huacachina, the hot, dusty commercial landscape of Ica gradually gave way to the sand dunes that lie outside the city. Our plan was to enjoy the oasis, then take a dune buggy tour of the sand dunes and do some sandboarding the next day.

The next morning we organized a tour and got started before the weather became unbearably hot. After cresting a tall dune, we stood above the village of Huacachina and saw nothing but white sand for miles and miles. Peru’s biodiverse terrain never ceased to amaze us: Amazon jungle, Andes mountains, Pacific Ocean coastline and arid desert. We were about 200 miles south of Lima and 30 miles from the ocean but felt like we were in the middle of the Sahara desert. About a hundred miles to the south stood Cerro Blanco, the highest sand dune in the world, some 6,561 feet above sea level.

Huacachina was interesting for its physical geography and contrast to the nearby commercial and agricultural center of Ica, but it was also a little strange. The lagoon in the center of the village was a murky dark green color and smelled a little putrid. I’d heard that many residents had installed wells and the resulting low water level of the lagoon had to be offset by bringing in water from elsewhere. The two days we were there many of the businesses were closed and the entire town was geared towards tourism. It was an odd mix of Peruvian weekenders sitting around a smelly lagoon and backpackers wielding sand boards.

Riding the dune buggy was a blast. Ours was a brand new buggy with a red chassis and bright yellow bars encircling the riders. We sat in protective seats that resembled portable infant car seats with multiple straps that attach in front of the chest. The yellow bars surrounding much of the vehicle made the dune buggy look like a big yellow, egg-shaped cage on wheels. We zipped up and down the dunes and our kids squealed with delight. Our driver climbed up one of the taller dunes, rested for a moment to admire the view then plunged straight down the other side, causing us to tighten our stomachs and hold our collective breath.

The sandboarding was not as fun as riding the dune buggy. Our driver gave us a quick introduction by telling us to lie face down on the board and slide down a dune. After a couple times doing this we tried it standing up with mixed results. Although our driver repeatedly waxed our boards, we just couldn’t get enough speed to make it interesting. In response, we tried shorter, steeper dunes but that ended with us falling over into the sand. After a pound or two of sand in my clothes, I retreated to the dune buggy and watched my son and daughter battle the dunes. They gamely tried more boarding but after about a half hour we were all done. We scooted back to Huacachina and after getting all the sand out of our clothes, took a taxi back to Ica and caught our bus to Lima.


Sunday Morning Pickup Basketball In Cusco

Since I left university, I’ve lived in a few different places and one of things that gives me a sense of home is having a regular pickup basketball game. A bunch of guys joking around and getting some exercise on a regular basis gives me a sense of connection to a place, so when Miguel, our Cusco landlord, suggested that we play some basketball I enthusiastically agreed. Anywhere that I’ve lived I’ve been able to find a weekly venue for pickup basketball, a habit from my high school and college playing days. When I lived in New York City I played in a league in Harlem on a team of ex-Columbia University players and in Tokyo I was invited to play in an expat recreation league. While living in Los Angeles I found a regular pickup game about a mile from my house and back home in Marin County I’ve been playing with the same group of neighborhood dads for the last 12 years,

Miguel and I agreed to play the following Sunday morning. That day I rounded up my son and daughter and we met Miguel and his brother David and their niece and nephew downstairs. We jumped in two taxis and headed down to Parque Zonal, a large sports complex with soccer fields, basketball courts, a track and field stadium and a 1960’s-era domed indoor arena. We paid our entry fee and walked over to the courts and met Miguel and David’s basketball buddies. We exchanged pleasantries, chose teams and started playing and I quickly realized how much I missed basketball.

Most of my interactions with Peruvians were on a somewhat superficial level due to my limited level of Spanish. That Spanish ability allowed me constant interaction with locals but it was always on a slightly formal level. I missed making jokes and speaking colloquially and above all, bantering with the boys. There’s a level of intimacy on the basketball court that is not language-dependent so I don’t need to be fluent in Spanish to give my teammate a “high five” after a nice shot. Mastering the intricacies of conjugation is not necessary to set a screen for a teammate. Jostling and bumping and laughing with the locals allowed an intimacy that I didn’t get from working in the office. The little language we needed we picked up quickly. My son made a shot from beyond the three point line and Miguel said “Buen punto.” (good shot) David came up to screen my man and said “ventana.” (screen) My daughter eyed the hoop from the top of the key and Miguel said “Tira!” (shoot!)

We played about an hour and a half that first day, fully winded from a half dozen games and the altitude, but I felt energized from the experience. We slapped hands with the guys we played with and said “buen juego” (good game) as we were leaving. We would be back every weekend during our time in Cusco. It was a little slice of home in the Andes.

Death Ride In The Andes

Our driver picked us up near Cusco’s Plaza de Armas and we headed out of the city center. We turned and moved along the crowded Prolongacion de la Cultura then turned and drove for a few blocks through a residential neighborhood of roosters, dirt roads, barking dogs and concrete-block walls with glass shards sticking out the top. We were let off on a corner and told to wait in what looked like someone’s backyard. My son, daughter and I were here to celebrate my son’s 14th birthday, Cusquena style: riding quadrimotos (ATV’s) through the Andean foothills.

After a few minutes two young men came over and introduced themselves and we began our “training course.” Our guide Juan explained in Spanish how to operate the vehicle and told us to start doing practice runs on the small, uneven oval track in the backyard. After a half dozen loops on the oval, Juan declared us ready. My son would have his own vehicle, my daughter and I would share one and Juan and his assistant would both ride on a small motorcycle. Before we started up the nearby hill, Juan said, “Tenga cuidado. Hay muchos perros en estas calles. Cuando empiezan a correr, no reducir la velocidad.” (Be careful. There are lots of dogs in these streets. When they start running after you, don’t slow down)

I took special note of the fact that he said “when” the dogs start running and not “if,” so I made sure the kids understood this instruction. The five of us took off down the street and within thirty seconds a stray dog began chasing us, keeping up with us, but not quite fast enough to bite our ankles. My daughter raised her feet up to seat level just to be sure. In order to access the road up the mountain, we had to drive on the main De La Cultura thoroughfare for a few blocks, an activity of questionable legality. Once off the main boulevard we started uphill and saw more dogs chasing and nipping at our wheels. In all, we passed by about a dozen snarling mutts on our way to the dirt road that led us away from the residential area and to the hills.

For the next 20 minutes we climbed a dirt road until we reached a crest with a spectacular view of the Cusco valley. In another ten minutes we arrived at a higher plateau and we stopped to take pictures and I gave my daughter a chance to drive the ATV by herself. From here we followed a rutted dirt road past farms and we started to feel raindrops. Juan looked up at the ominous clouds and told us that we would have start back. As the rain started getting heavier, we turned left past a creek and my son caught a rut and his ATV tipped over. He safely jumped off beforehand but with the rain coming down harder, I wanted to get back down the mountain as soon as possible. By now we heard thunder and saw lighting flashes and the dark grey clouds that were previously down the valley were directly overhead. We were completely soaked and I was starting to worry that we would be hit by lightning. The Andes have a rugged, rocky beauty but they are not known for a lot of forests and trees. Most of the trees that I’d seen were transplanted gum and eucalyptus trees and there were not that many. The sound of thunder become louder as we raced across a treeless ridge, racing to get back down the mountain before being stuck by lighting. As the rainstorm turned into a hailstorm, I chided myself for the dangerous position that I had put my kids in.

We started our descent down the same dirt road but now it was filled with mud. The road hugged the side of a valley, so we were now protected from lightning although the rain and occasional hail continued to pelt us. The road was slippery and mud had packed into the crevasses of our knobby tires and Juan looked back every 30 seconds and motioned for us to go slowly. Juan’s tires were completely caked in mud and he was soon unable to control his motorcycle, his assistant falling off every time the back wheel lost traction. At one point it became impossible to drive with two of them and the assistant jumped on the back of my son’s ATV. We eventually made it down the hill, past the angry dogs, and back to our starting point.

We arrived back home completely soaked with our pants and shoes caked with mud. We peeled off our clothes and all took showers, the warm water getting our body temperature back to normal. It was an eventful afternoon. Aside from illegally driving on a main thoroughfare, escaping from the snarling dogs, my son tipping over his ATV, surviving the rain and hail storm, narrowly avoiding being hit by lighting and successfully navigating the dangerously muddy downhill road, it was a fun time. Fun, but we won’t be doing it again soon.

This post was part of a Blogsherpa carnival by Joe at Hello Pineapple called Scary Stories.


Harvest Time In Peru's Sacred Valley

We pulled to the side of the road in complete darkness, the rapids of the Vilcanote River rushed through the Sacred Valley of the Incas and drowned out any other sounds. Alfredito and Zulma, got out of the car and started yelling across the river, “Alfredo! Alfredo!” My daughter turned to me in the back seat and asked, “What are we doing here?” “We are on our way to the Chavez’ farm but I don’t know why we’ve stopped here,” I responded. After a pause, I said, “It’s an adventure,” which was my way of telling her to not worry and enjoy the uncertainty.

We had not been in Cusco for more than two weeks when our host family suggested that we come out to their chacra (farm) to help with the corn harvest. My daughter and I were staying with them for six weeks while my wife and son were still in California tying up loose ends before joining us. The chakra has been in the Chavez family for a few generations and is ideally located in the Sacred Valley on a bend in the river between Pisac and the town of San Salvador. Our hosts got back in the car, turned it around and we started to go back the same way we came. My Spanish was still rusty and my daughter was just beginning to learn, so we didn’t have a clear idea about why we had stopped, yelled across a river and started back the way we came. After 20 minutes we entered the main plaza of San Salvador and there we saw Alfredo. We got out of our car and got into his 4-wheel drive SUV and started out along an extremely rocky dirt road. From these developments and few clues from Alfredito’s conversation, I surmised that access to the farm was only by 4-wheel drive and cell phone reception was nonexistent in this part of the Sacred Valley. Indeed, the only way to get to the farm was to drive past the town to the point across the river from the farm and yell for a pickup in San Salvador. After a very bumpy 20 minute ride, we pulled up at the farm and saw kids watching an old black and white television outside, while the adults drank Cusqueña beer and prepared for sleep in their tents. After sharing a beer with the family, my daughter and I went to sleep in our guest room.

At 4:00 a.m. we were awaken by extremely loud Peruvian music from a radio just outside our bedroom window. The laborers were getting up for a long day of harvesting. After 20 minutes of hoping they would turn it off, I rifled through my bag looking for earplugs. I found them and my daughter and I eased back to sleep. At around 7:00 a.m. we got up and roamed around the cornfields watching the 70 or so laborers at work. The high mountains of the Sacred Valley dwarfed the flat river plain in an impossibly beautiful setting. Zulma mentioned that they have received offers for their 40 acre lot, mostly from hotels and upscale bed and breakfast developers. While the offers are tempting, Alfredo, who is a dentist by profession, loves getting to the farm on weekends, driving the tractor and enjoying what he calls terapia (therapy).

Women in colorful blouses, long alpaca skirts, felt hats with their hair in long braids separated the choclos (cob) from the husks and placed them in sacks, to be collected by teenage boys who then carried them to the tractor. Younger women carried babies in multicolor slings on their backs while they worked the field. At the mid-morning break, Zulma brought out oranges for a quick snack. The younger kids munched on the dried corn stalks and offered some to us. My daughter and I tried some; they tasted like sugar cane, only less sweet.

While I helped the boys move the sacks of choclos to the tractor, Zulma put my daughter in charges of quality control. The corn would be dried for a few weeks and then sold at auction to the highest Japanese bidder, to be turned into dried corn snacks. Zulma explained that the Japanese were very particular and only wanted pure white corn. My daughter’s job was to find all the purple, orange, pink and red choclos and remove them from the 75 by 40 foot rectangle of dried corn that was laid out on the ground in front of the house.

After the long day, we sat on the front porch with the foreman and drank some warm beer, congratulating ourselves on a productive day. We all shared the same small glass, even though I knew there were plenty more in the kitchen. It was a sign of camaraderie and brotherhood to drink from the same glass and after every turn, we’d leave a bit in the glass and deliberately pour it on the ground, an offering to the Pachamama (“Mother Earth”), the Andean fertility goddess who is responsible for planting and harvesting. It was the least we could do for another successful day at the corn harvest.


Ten Reasons Why Your Family Shouldn't Take A Year Off: Reason #8 "How Will You Communicate Without Speaking The Language?"

Pulling up your family's suburban roots and heading off for some developing country for a year is foolish. There are lots of reasons not to do it. For example: How will you communicate without speaking the language?

With an itinerary covering thirteen countries and eight languages you might think that language would be a major stumbling block for our family. With half our time in Spanish-speaking countries, it helps that we are all now proficient in that language, but we have spent half our time in places where we don’t speak the local language. Here are some things to keep in mind when you are traveling and you don’t speak the local language.

1) English is (almost) everywhere. The English language is spoken in one form or another in many places on the globe and you’ll continually be surprised by the number of people in out-of-the-way places who can converse in English.
2) Motivation trumps language skills. Most of the people you’ll deal with while traveling are people who want to sell you something: a hotel room, a meal, laundry services, that pretty little artisan handbag. To travel is to be needy on a daily basis; those whose livelihood depends on fulfilling those needs will be more than happy to overcome language differences to close the sale.
3) Context conveys meaning. If you show up at a hotel at midnight with your backpacks, looking tired and desperately in need of sleep, do you really need to speak a common language with the hotel owner to understand what is being communicated?
4) If you really need it, so do the locals. Much of communication while traveling is driven by need fulfillment. Your interactions with locals will be about what you need, not about philosophy or art history. For example, if it is monsoon season in Thailand, there will umbrellas on sale everywhere.
5) Think about who colonized the country. If you are going to Morocco, chances are your high school French will come in handy. In Hong Kong all you will need is English. In central and south America, whatever Spanish you’ve learned in school will help considerably.
6) A smile is worth a thousand words. A smile goes a long way to smoothing over language barriers. 25 years ago I traveled with a young German man who had been in South America for 7 months and had not learned a single word of Spanish. In the interactions that I observed, he spoke English slowly with a huge smile on his face while trying to get his point across. The locals were so charmed with his smile they tried extra hard to understand what he was saying. He usually got what he wanted.

With these things in mind, you will find yourself in situations where there is a language barrier. When you do, here are some tips to help you communicate.

1) Learn the basics. Get a phrase book and learn the basics: “good day”, “yes”, “no”, “thank you”, “please”, “how much”, etc.
2) Use your fingers. While negotiating a price in a market, flash a single finger and then five fingers to convey that your offer is fifteen of the local currency. It’s a market so they’ve seen this before. In a restaurant, point at that tasty meal that the guy next to you is enjoying.
3) Write it down. If you have a pen and paper handy, negotiate by writing down the prices on paper. This has the added benefit of documenting the final price, in case an unethical merchant tries to change it after you’ve struck an agreement.
4) Use a calculator. When haggling, use the merchant’s or your calculator to make sure that you both have the same number in mind. Punch in your offer and hand it to the merchant. He or she will counter by punching in a new number and handing the calculator back to you. Simple head nodding will convey agreement or disagreement.
5) Use your pantomime skills. Once when I was in China, I wanted to order an omelet in a small restaurant. After trying English and quickly exhausting my limited Mandarin, I got my protein with a succession of 4 crude but effective pantomimed movements: flapping wings accompanied by clucking noises >> reaching down for an egg >> breaking the egg >> scrambling the egg. Yes I got an incredulous look, but I got my omelet as well.

I’ve seen many circumstances where two people speak the same language but don’t communicate, leading me to believe that communication is not language dependent. The bottom line is that an inability to speak the language is not a barrier to enjoying a great overseas trip.

Macedonia: There's Something In The Water

A big part of our kids’ education while traveling the Mediterranean is centered on history: particularly Egyptian, Greek and Roman history with some Ottoman Empire thrown in as well. Throughout their (and our) travel-based history lesson, it has occurred to us that the Balkan area of Macedonia has disproportionately contributed more world leaders than just about any other region in the world, save for the long line of Roman emperors from the Italian peninsula.

Present day Macedonia is a landlocked sovereign country bordered by Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania and is one of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia. Ancient Macedonians lived in the alluvial plain around the rivers Haliacmon and lower Azius in the northeastern part of the Greek peninsula. The Battle of Chaeronea, where the Macedonians defeated the Greeks in 338 BC, marked an end of Greek history and the beginning of the Macedonian Era. The kingdom of Macedon was established by the 8th or 7th century BC and their first ruler of note was Philip II (“Philip of Macedon”) who ruled from 359-336 BC.

Under Philip of Macedon the Macedonians are credited with numerous military innovations, chiefly among them the phalanx (a rectangular mass military formation) and the sarisssa (an extremely long spear or pike). He united Macedonia, Illyria, Thrace and Greece by bringing the various city-states into his empire through military victory, persuasion or by bribes. Probably his greatest legacy was his son Alexander, also known as Alexander the Great. When Philip II was assassinated by one of his bodyguards, Alexander took over.

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) led the Macedonian armies into Asia and conquered the Persian Empire, enabling Macedonia to become the world’s largest Empire, stretching from Europe, to North Africa, to Asia and India. Alexander was tutored by Aristotle (who in another interesting line of succession, was a pupil of Plato, who was a pupil of Socrates) and was influenced by the classical Greek thinking of that era. Alexander’s death led to a Macedonian civil war, as his generals fought over who would succeed him. Ultimately the generals carved up the empire with Antigonus I taking Macedonia and Greece, Seleucus I taking Asia and Ptolemy I taking Egypt. While Antigonus and Selecus formed dynasties on a smaller scale in their respective territories, Ptolemy’s dynasty in Egypt lasted for 275 years (from 305 to 30 BC), taking over what was the grandest and longest-lived empire that man had seen to that point. Over a dozen successions into the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra VII came to the throne.

Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemys to rule in Egypt and after her death, Egypt became a Roman province. Most Ptolemaic rulers spoke Greek and refused to learn Egyptian, which is why Greek as well as Egyptian languages were used on official court documents (as well as the Rosetta Stone). In contrast, Cleopatra learned Egyptian and represented herself as the reincarnation of an Egyptian Goddess (Isis). While there is some evidence to the contrary, Cleopatra is typically cast as a great beauty and her conquests of the world's most powerful men (eg., Julius Caesar, Mark Antony) are taken to be proof of her allure. French philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that Cleopatra's classically beautiful profile changed world history: "Cleopatra's nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed." While she certainly charmed great Roman leaders, other Romans were not so smitten with her, highlighting her Macedonian goatherd family origins in many off-color jokes.

In the 20th century, Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, was born in Salonika (Thessalonika) to an Albanian father and a strong-willed Macedonian mother. It’s pretty amazing that this Balkan pastureland between the high peaks has produced so many great leaders. For a bunch of goatherds, the Macedonians have done pretty well for themselves.


Cairo, Egypt: The Art Of The Scam

Our Metro train stopped at the Sadat station in Tahrir Square and we walked up the steps, anxious to be spending the day at the Egyptian Museum. As we ascended the last flight of steps, I made brief eye-contact with an Egyptian man in neatly-pressed western clothes walking near us. We now started to walk along Meret Basha, looking for the museum. As we walked I looked down at my map trying to determine if we were on the right track, when the gentleman from the Metro said, “You are looking for museum, yes?” “Yes,” we responded, put at ease by his dress, manner, facility with English and the fact that he, like us, had come out of the Metro and was on his way somewhere and probably not trying to sell us something. “Unfortunately, it does not open for another hour,” he said, with a smile. “Oh, I’m so happy,” he continued, “my daughter gets married tomorrow. She is 22 years old.” We congratulated him and he said, “I am Ahmad…I am so happy…you have a nice family. I’d like to invite your family to my wedding.”

My first thought was: Wedding? That would be awesome! Getting an intimate glimpse of what life is really like in any foreign country is what travelers yearn for. I remember being in Fiji years ago and my taxi driver casually invited me to stay at his home and attend two weddings – one Hindu and one Muslim – and it was a great experience. I remember drinking kava and “getting low” with all his taxi buddies yet never being introduced to his wife. I recall caravanning to multiple stops for the Hindu wedding and eating a small, spicy yellow pepper at the Muslim wedding reception that made me unable to do anything but lay down for 45 minutes afterward.

While I did have my guard up against a potential scam, the thought of attending an Egyptian wedding completely trumped any concerns about getting fleeced. “That would be great,” I said. “Do you have a business card so we can contact you?” Yes, at my uncle’s place, not far from here,” said Ahmad. We walked along the street and Ahmad continued to beam with delight about his daughter’s wedding, talking about the number of guests and the amount of food he had to buy. We arrived at his uncle’s place and he opened the door with a key and said, “Come in please. Have some tea while I find a business card.” “Oh, no thanks,” I said. “We need to get to the museum.” “I insist,” he said. “You must have tea. Besides, the museum doesn’t open for another hour.”

Now that we were in what looked like a shop, my scam sensor was starting to beep more loudly. He led us towards the back of the shop and introduced us to his smiling family: an attractive wife and two pretty teenage daughters. If this was a scam, it was an elaborate one in which the whole family was participating. “Come and have a comfortable seat,” Ahmad said, and led us to a sweetly-scented, dark room with a large comfortable couch. Towards the back of the room an older gentleman sat at a desk, on top of which were what suspiciously looked like perfume bottles. Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, went my scam sensor, now ringing very loudly in my head. Yes, we’d been had. We were in the middle of the spider’s web, ready to be shown perfumes until we’d buy a case just to get out of the shop. “This is Ali, my uncle. He has been to Minnesota. He knows your country.” Ali started talking and I muttered to my wife, “We gotta get out of here.”

While Ali talked about how beautiful Minnesota was and Ahmad moved to bring over a tray of perfume bottles, I thought about how we found ourselves in this predicament. Ahmad was indeed artful. He must have been waiting for foreign tourists in the Metro station and I was pretty sure that his information about the museum opening times was a lie. And his daughter’s wedding? I’ll let you decide that one.

If Ahmad’s artistry got us in to the perfume shop it was going to be our steely determination that got us out. I shot a glance at my wife and stood up. “We really need to go. Come on guys,” I said to the kids, who were confused at why we were leaving when we had just sat down. “No, no. You must stay and have tea!” said Ahmad. “No, we need to go now. I’m sorry,” I said, thinking our chances at escaping were better if we did not drink any of his tea. Ahmad reminded us that the museum was still closed, but I repeated our mantra: “We need to go now.” Ahmad’s tone quickly evolved from polite confusion about our impending departure to one of righteous indignation. “But you just sat down! You can’t leave!” he said, standing in front of the door. I reached around him for the doorhandle and brushed by him. He continued to protest, “You must have tea!” as the four of us skulked out the door towards the main entrance. We breezed by one of the daughters as she was bringing the tea tray. We opened the front door, walked outside and did not look back.

As we walked, my son asked why we had left and I explained the ruse to him. When we arrived at the museum we found that it was open, and had been for a couple hours. While we were fortunate to have escaped without buying perfume or having to politely try to leave for an hour, I had to admire Ahmad’s skill in getting some fairly seasoned travelers sequestered in a sales pitch. Ahmad was indeed an artist and the unsuspecting foreigner was his canvas.


Favorite Places: Val D'Orcia in Tuscany

It’s kind of unfair, really. Italy’s Tuscan countryside is beautiful enough on its own but the Tuscans have to take it a step further. Well, I’m just going to come right out and say it: they don't play fairly. It is not sufficient that the landscape is breathtaking; the Tuscan farmers take it a step further and mow their wheat fields in perfect contour-shaping lines that hug the voluptuous hills and resemble a topographical map. Sophie Redisch at the Lonely Planet-affiliated blog Sophie’s World is hosting the blogsherpa Carnival this time around and her theme is Favorite Places and mine is the Tuscan countryside, specifically the Val D’Orcia region around Pienza between Montalcino and Montepulciano. Yes, it’s my favorite place but I don’t think it’s fair.

We recently drove through the Val D’Orcia and marveled at the harmonious blend between natural beauty and man’s best efforts. The green rolling hills were so lush that the texture resembled a soft baby’s blanket, fresh out of the dryer, left to fall gently on the terrain. From that blanket a patchwork quilt is created. Start with a square of twenty-five trimmed olive trees standing in a perfect 5-by-5 formation, then a wild section of pine, chestnuts, cork oak and myrtle, and then patch in a small vinyard of grapes, the parallel lines wrapping tightly over a small hill. Everywhere you look, man has added to the natural beauty. We saw many straight gravel driveways with perfect lines of trimmed cypress trees on both sides leading to stone farmhouses with vegetable gardens of tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, basil, and sage. And wheat fields everywhere…manicured to perfection.

At the end of our day we stopped for dinner in the hilltop town of Pienza at a place called La Buca Di Enea, for which I’d read a glowing review (here). Even though we were now inside and away from the landscape, its products continued to wow us. I had the best meal since we’ve left home. I enjoyed bruschetta on Tuscan wheat toasts, a garden salad, cinghiale (wild boar pasta) with a glass of Brunello wine, every bit of it echoing the scenery we’d seen that day. Antonio, the proprietor also gave us a complimentary glass of Zibibbo, a fresh and light Sicilian dessert wine that perfectly topped off the meal.

We drove back to our Florence apartment as the sun was setting on the golden wheat fields, reflecting on a perfect day. Even though the Tuscan farmers don’t play fairly, Tuscany is still my favorite place.


Abu Simbel: A Mirage In The Desert

Our 2:30 a.m. wake up call seemed to shake our hotel room, rousing the four of us from a deep sleep. We dressed and went downstairs to the hotel lobby to join other half-awake guests searching through their complimentary box breakfasts to find something edible. We were herded into a minivan and drove through the Aswan streets picking up more tourists until we had a full minibus. Our driver then took us to a spot south of Aswan where a couple dozen minivans and several large buses lined up ready to start the convoy to the Abu Simbel temples. We sat in the chilly pre-dawn desert for a half hour until someone decided that we had enough minivans and buses to start our convoy.

The convoy is a legacy of the 1997 terrorist attack on tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor. In an effort to reassure foreign tourists, the Egyptian government mandated that all foreigners travelling overland between the country’s main tourist centers to join armed convoys. This visible security was intended to dissuade attacks and reassure visitors, but some argue that the convoys have done nothing more than draw attention to potential targets and make it more difficult for the various tourist attractions to process large surges of people at one time.

If we thought that the logistical procedures necessary to get to the monuments were complicated, learning about how the monuments themselves had to be moved dwarfed it by comparison. The Abu Simbel temples are two massive rock temples in Nubia, southern Egypt on the western bank of Lake Nasser about 230 km southwest of Aswan. The complex is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the "Nubian Monuments." The twin temples were originally carved out of the mountainside during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II in the 13th century BC, as a lasting monument to himself and his queen Nefertari, to commemorate his alleged victory at the Battle of Kadesh, and to intimidate his Nubian neighbors. The temples fell into disuse and were forgotten until 1813 when the Swiss explorer Jean-Louis Burckhardt stumbled upon them while searching for the source of the Niger (yes, Niger) River. (Read blog entry on Burckhardt here) The complex was relocated in its entirety in the 1960s, on a domed artificial hill, high above the Aswan High Dam reservoir. The relocation of the temples was necessary to avoid their being submerged during the creation of Lake Nasser. Starting in 1964, a multinational UNESCO team of archeologists, engineers and skilled heavy equipment operators carefully cut up the site into a 3-D jigsaw puzzle of large stone blocks of up to 30 tons (averaging 20 tons), then lifted and reassembled them in a new location 65 meters higher and 200 meters back from the river, in one of the greatest challenges of archaeological engineering in history.

We arrived after three and a half hours of convoy driving and piled out of our minivan ready for our allotted two hour tour of the site. The façade is of course impressive for its size, detailed carving and its situation overlooking Lake Nasser, the bloated reincarnation of the Nile in Southern Egypt. The interior was well preserved and the fresco of Ramses leading the charge on his chariot in the battle of Kadesh is stunning (photo). The battle of Kadesh featured 5,000-6,000 chariots and pitted the Egyptians against the Hittites in modern-day Syria but there is no scholarly consensus on who won the battle. We visited first the larger temple, dedicated to Ramses, and then the smaller one dedicated to Nefertari, then returned to sit in front of the famous façade, looking for lines where it was cut as well as small tell-tale numbers that allowed its reassembly.

The awe-inspiring sensation of antiquity of this UNESCO World Heritage site was, for me, equally offset by a sense of artificiality. The site is supposed to commemorate a great victory but no one really knows who won the battle of Kadesh, a conflict waged on another continent. The temple’s current location has been barren desert for thousands of years until a 20th century dam was built and the lake behind us, the world’s largest man-made body of water, was not there either. Legend indicates that even the name Abu Simbel is a misnomer. The name has nothing to do with Ramses or Egypt or Nubian history; tour guides regularly talk about a young boy named Abu Simbel who led 19th century explorers to the site and the temples and nearby town were eventually named after him. A tour guide in the desert is a good idea, especially if you are looking for a mirage.


Cairo, Egypt: How Do You Say Motherboard In Arabic?

Our family travels with two computers so that we can pay bills, keep this blog going, check email, skype back home and most importantly, allow the kids to keep up with their studies. We’d been lucky for most of our travels, although our second, older computer died while we were in Mancora, Peru, succumbing to a deadly Trojan virus that brought it to its knees. (From what I saw in that northern Peruvian party town, our Trojan was probably not the only virus being passed around). Once back in the U.S. for Christmas, we replaced it with a new, smaller mini laptop and set off for Africa. All went well until we arrived in Cairo and the new minicomputer started going berserk: colorful patterns and bars flashed across the screen to form a pyrotechnic display of depixelation where the familiar Windows logo should have been. Great. How will the kids do their homework? How on earth are we going to fix this in Cairo, Egypt?

Options flashed through my head. Throw it away and get by on one computer – not possible. Buy a new computer - nope. Try to fix it – O.K., where? I went to the customer service section of the web site for the company, a well-known brand that rhymes with “hell.” I started a chat session early in the morning with Krishna in India who thought that the motherboard was the problem. She said that if I were in the US she could ship me a new one within 15 days. When I mentioned that I was in Cairo, she said that my warranty was not valid outside the U.S. and there was nothing she could do for me. After an hour and a half chat, trying to find any loophole in their policy, I gave up. I now had a malfunctioning motherboard and a useless warranty. Before the end of the chat session, I got the phone number of the Middle Eastern representative, which happened to be located in Cairo.

Cairo is the most populous city in Africa and virtually no one speaks or writes English and all I had was a phone number. I was desperate and was now thinking in magnitudes of hundreds of dollars in order to get it fixed. I asked Mahmoud at the front desk of the African House Hostel to make the call for me to the service center. Fortunately, he located Tarek, an English-speaking technician who told me to bring in the laptop and he would see what he could do.

Mahmoud wrote down the address for me and said that all I had to do was go to the Behouth metro station, jump in a cab and show them the address that he had written down for me in Arabic. In theory, this sounds like a great plan, but the skeptical side of me viewed this like finding a needle in a haystack. I got to the Behouth station and found a taxi driver who seemed to know the address and we drove off. After 15 minutes and many stops to ask other taxi drivers, it was clear that he had no idea where this authorized service center was. After another 10 minutes and a few more stops for directions, we stopped at a corner. The taxi driver pointed down a street and held out his hand for payment. I paid him and started walking.

There is no doubt that finding your way in countries that don’t use roman script (i.e., Arabic speaking countries, China, Japan, Russia) is a bigger challenge than in Europe, South America and most of Africa. I walked for 4 blocks looking at Arabic scribbles and just as the street was coming to an end I finally saw the boxy blue logo of my computer manufacturer. I went inside and asked for Tarek, who took the ailing machine and looked it over. After fiddling with it for 10 minutes, he said, “I will replace the motherboard. You can come back for it tomorrow.” This was great news, but I also had to ask, “How much will it cost?” Tarek waved his hand and said, “It is under warranty, it is free.” I told him about the type of warranty that I had but Tarek again waved his hand and said, “No problem, we’ll just transfer the warranty to Egypt. See you tomorrow.”

I did get the repaired laptop from Tarek the next day, but at that moment I thought about how in six hours my situation had turned around 180 degrees. I had gone from having a fried motherboard and an invalid warranty, to locating the only English-speaking technician in the Middle-east who happened to have the right part who would replace it for free! How do you say “Needle in a haystack" in Arabic?


The Cairo Metro: Protecting The Booty

Sometimes a common objective is what brings a family closer together. While in the crowded Cairo Metro during rush hour, that shared goal brought us much, much closer together. The common objective in this case: protecting the derrière of our 12-year old daughter. We squeezed into the crowded subway car, three of us forming a protective triangle around my daughter. Thinking strategically, I took the aft, positioning myself at the area that was most vulnerable while my son and wife formed the other two points of the triangle. We moved through the sea of men wearing grey, beige and black clothing until we found a spot in the corner of the car. We giggled about the absurdity of our mission and I made a few wisecracks about looking out for “pirates seeking booty.” After four stops we exited the subway car and successfully made it up and to the street without incident. Mission accomplished: we had successfully protected the booty.

The reason for all this fuss about my daughter’s hindquarters was a direct result of what happened to her the previous day. We had gathered into a car at rush hour and all grabbed hold of the vertical pole running from the floor to ceiling of the car. There were about 3 dozen hands holding the pole for stability and the male riders who were pressed together either avoided eye contact or gave polite and impassive smiles of acknowledgment. A middle-aged man smiled at us and I greeted him with salaam aleikum and a nod. After a few more stops we got off with no incident…or so I thought.

As we were exiting the Metro station, my daughter whispered something to my wife who said, “What?” My daughter had just experienced a first: her butt had been improperly caressed on the subway car. “Why didn’t you say something?” asked my wife. My daughter, clearly embarrassed by the whole situation said only, “I didn’t know.” Apparently it was the smiling man next to us who had done it. In hindsight, I guess it had to happen. A very attractive, blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl on the verge of womanhood in the middle of a subway car jam-packed with men. Throw in some middle-eastern, Hollywood-spawned stereotypes about the loose virtues of western women and you have a situation ripe for culture clash. And clash we did on the Cairo Metro.

The Cairo Metro is the only full-fledged metro system in Africa. The system consist of two operational lines, which carry around 700 million passengers a year and on average 2 million people per day. On all Cairo trains, the middle two cars (the 4th and 5th) of each train are reserved for women. We learned this after the successful ‘protecting of the booty’ episode described above and the women-only car became our modus operandi going forward; my son and I headed into the mass of people in the mixed car and my wife and daughter going in the slightly less crowded women-only car.

With the booty successfully protected, riding the subways became a more pleasant experience. Looking back on this episode always gives us a laugh and my wife never fails to point out, in mock indignation: “How come no one was after my middle-aged booty?”


Why We Travel

Travel is a mirror.

In my early 20’s, before I had ever left my country (USA), I watched a French movie called “Le Salaire de la Peur” in New York City. I liked the movie, with its Hitchcock-like suspense turns and stark black and white imagery but I was confounded by the tragic ending where Yves Montand, after successfully completing his mission, accidentally drives off the cliff and the credits roll. “What’s wrong with the French…why so pessimistic?” I asked myself.

(Fast forward through 3 years of backpacking through 40 countries and understanding more about the world and how it views my country)

I watched the movie again in my early thirties and enjoyed it just as much as the first time, but this time the ending didn’t seem out of place. I understood better that I was a product of my country’s culture (and Hollywood “happy endings”) as well as its fortunate geography and short history.

Sometimes you need a mirror to see yourself.

This article was originally written for Denise Pulls, Lonely Planet featured blogger, who has a running feature for travelers and bloggers at Travel With Denden called "Why We Travel."

Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival #7: Internet Connections

Back when my wife and I were in our late twenties we each spent a couple years backpacking through Asia, Africa and South America. One of our fondest memories was of arriving at various poste restante (held mail) locations after months of overland travel and eagerly opening our mail from home. Family and friends who knew our itinerary would time their letters to arrive just before we did. Letters from home were read and re-read several times to savor news of the familiar, a commodity that was in short supply in exotic third-world locales. These days, that connection to home is more immediate. Instant, 24/7 communication is the norm and the places that you can go to escape the web are getting fewer and fewer.

People stay connected these days by email, instant messaging, skype, chat and many travelers and expats have travel blogs. One of the benefits of my association with Lonely Planet is that I regularly get to read great travel blogs written by bloggers from all over the world. To find them, I didn’t have to slog through thousands of travel blogs on the web…Lonely Planet had already done it for me (list here). These blogs are all connected by quality travel writing and by the Internet. As such, the 7th Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival is fittingly called “Internet Connections.” As your carnival leader this time around, I doff my top hat and say, “Let the carnival begin!”

First up is Liz at “Travelogged,” who is based in New York City and has been writing about her travels and those of others since January of 2009. Drawing on her experiences as a senior editor at as well as other publishers, she incorporates the perspectives of other travel “insiders” to give a fresh and varied perspective on the world. Much of her writing is done on the road but that leads to occasional challenges. When Liz was in Rome she found that her fancy hotel charged an outrageous €25 per day for use of their wireless connection. Read “Finding Wifi in Rome” to find out where she went to get connected. I’ll give you a hint: along with free wifi, they also have great Guiness.

Claire at “First Time Travels” writes from the Philippines and her blog was “created to help first-time travelers as they embark on something different. It is an assurance for every tourist and traveler that even the most seasoned one has started out as a neophyte.” Read her post "Internet Connections" to learn her convoluted yet effective technique of penetrating “The Great Firewall of China” while accessing Facebook and Twitter on her last visit to Shanghai. I’ve read it and I’m still not sure how it works.

Sash at “Barefoot Inked” is an Australian woman living in a tiny muslim fishing village in Indonesia. Sash is adventurous and feels that in order to experience the sand between your toes, you need to take your shoes off. According to Sash,”My office smells like the ocean, tastes like chillied fish and wraps me in the sweet air of the salted sea brushed with coconut leaves. Read her post “A Tough Day at the Office” and you’ll understand why her multiple re-writes are not a perfectionist habit but a technological reality imposed by the constraints of an internet connection “so unreliable that you often can’t upload a simple photo.”

Jen at “The Turkish Life” is a California girl from San Francisco who lives in Istanbul, Turkey and works as an editor for a Turkish publication. Her blog is a rich tapestry of expat life in Turkey seasoned with vignettes of her ongoing battle to learn the Turkish language. Read her post “The Tie that Bonds and Binds” to understand how the internet can be a double-edged sword to the traveler or the expat. Jen muses, “I do wonder how much my experience here has been shaped, and limited, by the ready ability to keep close connections to home. Without them, would I have immersed myself more fully in all things Turkey, improved my Turkish, made closer local friends, spent less time inside?” Jen writes from Turkey, but this idea is universal.

Bret at “I Moved To Africa” is an American marketing and advertising executive from New York City who spends a year in Africa. Bret states, “This blog is about my travel adventures in a country I never heard of before, my experiences within the U.S. Embassy community, the NGO community and befriending expatriates abroad.” Read his post “Internet Connections” to find out why he says “Everyone talks about how wonderful skype is, especially when traveling. Those people have never been to Gabon.” I smile every time I read that line.

Jennifer at “Orange Polka Dot” is a Californian living in Barcelona with her husband and kids. She is the English-language resource for what’s happening in that vibrant Catalan city, especially when it comes to doing things with children. Read her post “Internet Connections” to learn more about staying connected in Spain when the wait for a phone line is measured in months. Jennifer writes, “In the meantime, I sat in the parking lot of my nearest university to bum the free wifi, which by the way, in Spain is pronounced "wee fee." On the weekends, I would bring the kids so they could skype with my parents back in California.”

David and Tamara at “Quillcards” run a combination blog and e-greeting card business. David is English and Tamara is American and they’ve lived in England, the USA, South Korea, Finland, and Israel and have traveled in Europe, Central and South America, India, Japan, Australia, and Morocco. David gives a concise and thorough review of which accessories you should take to the subcontinent to stay connected with your MacBook Air in “Travels With a Macbook Air in India.”

As we close this carnival, it is interesting to note that over the years technology has changed considerably but the human need to feel connected has not. You can still enjoy the previous carnival (#6), titled "Encounters" at “The Brink of Something Else” and the next one (#8) will be hosted by Sash on September 1st 2010 at “Barefoot Inked” and it's called "Love on the Road."