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."