Midnight At The Oasis

When we were starting to leave the town of Bawati, Nasser told us, “At checkpoint, say you are German. Also, tell them you leave passports in Cairo.” This statement by our Bedouin guide raised many questions for us, most of them unsettling. “Why should we say we’re German?” Is there anything wrong with being Americans here?” “What has happened here that makes this necessary? Nasser was our guide for a three-day, two-night desert trek at the Bahariya Oasis, an oasis in the middle of Egypt, and we eagerly awaited his answer.

“German people no problem. American people no problem. Americans and British people have escort with gun…make it difficult for desert safari.” I asked, “Why do Americans and British people need escorts?” Nasser replied, “French, Spanish, German good. Americans and British VERY good.” What Nasser was trying to tell us was that the Egyptian authorities took extra precautions with American and British nationalities in the desert, specifically an armed guard to accompany them, and that the guard’s presence put some of the more interesting sights off limits. We agreed to pose as Germans and the kids were practicing “Guten tag” in the back of the jeep. If we were caught in a lie, we could always say we misunderstood the guard at the checkpoint. We rolled smoothly through the checkpoint and left Bawati and the Bahariya Oasis.

The Bahariya Oasis has been a permanent fixture on the Egypt-Libya caravan route since antiquity and in the past has produced wine and dates for export to the Nile Valley and Rome. The Romans set up a fort here and the discovery of Alexander the Great’s image and cartouche in the 1930’s suggest that he visited as well. We motored south down the highway and within a half hour entered the Black Desert. The Black Desert looked like hundreds of small volcanoes with black rocks spread all around. The desert was formed by the erosion of the conical black mountains, which spread a layer of black rock and gravel everywhere. After an hour, we reached the White Desert and the landscape changed significantly. Now the white sand had and many wind- and sand-eroded rock formations all around. The formations – eroded calcite deposits – took the form of many familiar shapes: chickens, mushrooms, birds, camels, Pharoahs and many others. We stopped for photos soon after we entered the White Desert Protectorate and while there came across a solitary, black scarab beetle in the sand. The scarab beetle was considered sacred in Ancient Egypt and is found on the inscriptions of many temples. We learned of its significance while in the famous Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The scarab beetle, essentially the feces-collecting dung beetle, is typically seen rolling around a ball of dung and the ancients assumed this ball to be its own egg; the beetle thus came to symbolize death and rebirth, common preoccupations amongst the Pharaohs.

We stopped for the night in the New White Desert and Nasser parked the jeep in the shadow of a large rock formation. While he set up camp and got our “Bedouin dinner” started, we walked around a bit. The kids went exploring and climbed every possible formation near our camp. Once dinner was ready, night had fallen and we sat down to a meal of chicken, stewed tomatoes, zucchini and rice, washed down with some sweet Bedouin tea. As we ate, we were visited by a few curious and hungry desert foxes, who would alternately inch forward then sprint backward with any sudden movements on our part.

Nasser was a tall, slender Bedouin with misaligned, yellow teeth but he was a good guide and cook. He looked elegant in his turban and grey, floor-length Bedouin gown. Clues to his cultural identity came when I asked him if he was Egyptian. “No, I am Bedouin,” he stated. He mentioned that he’d be “going to Egypt” for a wedding later that week, which to him meant Cairo. I actually ran into him when he was there; he looked non-descript, short and insignificant in his western clothes and I hardly recognized him. After dinner, we watched the moon rise from below the horizon and traverse up into the night sky, giving the sandstone sculptures around us an ethereal glow. We cleaned up our dishes and got out some massive camel-hair blankets in preparation for a night under the stars. We watched shooting stars for awhile but the cold desert night soon made us retreat under our blankets and we fell asleep.

We left the desert the next day and got back to the Bahariya Oasis. Nasser put us in a shared microbus back to Cairo that was going to take about 5-6 hours. As we left, we came to another checkpoint. While officials peered into our packed microbus, passengers chattered amongst themselves, wondering where we were from. The kids, remembering Nasser’s words at the desert checkpoint, muttered something about us being German. This information got to the lead official who looked at me and said, “Passport! Go inside.” At this point my wife and I were concerned that we’d be in trouble for lying. I went inside with the passports and waited while four Egyptians officials argued with one another. Two of them had bruises on their foreheads, something that we’d seen a lot of in Cairo. The bruises were from daily prayers -- vigorously touching the ground with one's forehead -- and the more devout the Muslim, the darker the forehead bruise. Both my wife and I had been to Egypt over 20 years ago, and neither of us remembered the forehead bruises or the large percentage of women wearing burkahs, for that matter. Egypt had definitely gotten more conservative during that time.

As I was preparing my story – I don’t know who said we’re German, we’re Americans…here, look at our passports – the two forehead-bruised officials looked at me for about five seconds and said, “No passport. Go,” and motioned for me to quickly leave. I jumped into the microbus and we rolled out of the Bahariya Oasis and back to Cairo.



Our driver had just dropped us off from our all day Abu Simbel tour and we started out walking along Aswan’s corniche riverfront towards our hotel. From behind us I heard a hissing noise, once faintly, then a second time, more loudly: “Baksheesh!” Our driver, who had been paid well to drive us to Abu Simbel and a few other Nubian monuments for the day wanted to know where his tip was. On this occasion I ignored him – we were already walking away, his engine was running and there were other passengers in his van – but I later regretted this. As our guidebook mentioned, museum guards, bellhops and drivers are not paid well in Egypt and rely on baksheesh to supplement their low incomes.

Baksheesh is a Persian word that originates from the Pahlavi (Middle Iranian) language and has 3 basic meanings: charity, tipping and bribery. Charity baksheesh is paid to a beggar or incapacitated person, tipping baksheesh serves to supplement meager incomes, and bribery baksheesh motivates public servants to give you what you want. None of these meanings fully correspond to the North American or European concept of tipping, whereby 15-20% is added to a restaurant bill to reward good service from the waiter, and because of that most westerners have trouble in Egypt. For example, we found it odd that the 7-year old boy in Dahab who walked with our camels demanded baksheesh – all he did was walk with us for a half hour. We did feel that the policeman in Cairo’s Khan il-Khalili deserved a tip because he helped us get a taxi home, something that we were unable to do because of our inability to speak Arabic.

One thing that we had to watch out for was people initiating baksheesh-worthy services that we did not ask for, like the luggage porter grabbing our bags at the Aswan train station or the man in the Cairo station who offered to personally guide us to the car in our train. Museum guards at Egypt’s many fine temples are notorious for offering to show you an inscription or frieze that is allegedly “off-limits” in return for baksheesh. A guard at Giza’s pyramids graciously invited us to enter and take pictures inside a tomb he was guarding. As we were leaving, he pointed to the small “No Photography” sign, placed his body between me and the doorway and whispered “Baksheesh.” A bit perturbed, I handed him 50 piasters (about US$0.11). Without moving out of the doorway, he looked over the admittedly meager tip and pleaded, “five pounds?” I decided we’d split the difference, handed him more and brushed past him and out of the temple. While attempting to cross a particularly busy street in Islamic Cairo, a man started helping us cross without our consent. He guided my wife and daughter as they made their way across the intersection and once we made it to the other side we looked back to see a veiled woman screaming at him while holding on to his ear. Our guess was that he disgraced his wife by being seen with two unveiled women. We never found out if he was going to ask us for baksheesh. Technically, baksheesh is supposed to be voluntary, but at Jordan’s Petra my guide told us about the free horse rides down to the ancient carved sandstone city. He said, “The ride is free, but at the end you must pay baksheesh of two Euros.” Free? Must? Two Euros? What happened to the concept of voluntary? The whole idea of baksheesh had us on our toes.

We thought we’d found the “Rosetta stone” for baksheesh when my wife spotted the following in a guidebook: “Services such as opening a door, delivering room service or carrying your bags warrant at least one Egyptian pound. (US$0.22)” Armed with this knowledge, I was ready to tip the guy at our hotel desk when he helped me locate and call a computer technician in Cairo. Once we finished, I handed him some money but he waved me off and said it was not necessary. Back to square one.

Instead of trying to understand all the nuances of the concept of baksheesh, we’ve decided to just go with the flow. Whenever someone is performing a service for us, we get out a small amount ahead of time and have the money ready. We are also careful not to implicitly accept any services that we did not ask for. It’s not a lot of money and it makes getting around in Egypt much less stressful.


Lightning Strikes Twice: Jean-Louis Burckhardt

Within the space of two weeks I’ve seen two UNESCO World Heritage sites, both of which had been lost to the world for over 500 years until being “rediscovered”: the giant tombs of Ramses II at Abu Simbel in southern Egypt and the exquisite carved sandstone city of Petra in southern Jordan. Both are amazing places but what is more amazing is that that both were stumbled upon by the same European. Jean-Louis Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer rediscovered Petra and Abu Simbel, in 1812 and 1813 respectively, while on a long quest to find the source of the Niger River. Talk about lightning striking twice. That’s like Hiram Bingham, a year after climbing up to Machu Picchu in 1911, finding himself at Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan or clearing the Mayan jungle to find Guatemala’s Tikal.

I visited Petra on a day trip from Dahab while my kids were getting their diving certification and my wife was exploring Sinai's famous "Blue Hole" dive site. Petra was the ancient city of the Nabateans, Arabs who controlled the frankincense trade routes around the time of Christ. The city was carved into the rosy, reddish sandstone sometime in the 6th century B.C and is reknown for its rock cut architecture and water conduit system. In 2007 Petra was chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (along with Rome’s Coliseum, Peru’s Machu Picchu, India's Taj Mahal, Rio de Janiero’s Christ the Redeemer, Mexico’s Chichen Itza and China’s Great Wall) and it has been a World Heritage Site since 1985. Petra was also chosen by the BBC as one of “the 40 places you have to see before you die.” For me, arriving at the amazing "Treasury" edifice after walking a narrow gorge for two kilometers was a moment straight out of the movie "Planet of the Apes." Like finding the New York Stock Exchange buried under 2,000 years of hardened sand.

Just under two weeks ago all of us took the three hour police convoy from Aswan to Abu Simbel in southern Egypt near the Sudanese border. The Abu Simbel temples are two massive cut rock temples in Nubia on the western bank of Lake Nasser. The temples were carved out of a mountainside in the 13th century BC by Ramses II as lasting monuments to himself and his queen Nefertari as well as to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Kadesh. In the mid 1960’s, the temples were moved when authorities realized that the construction of the new Aswan High Dam would completely submerge them. In an amazing feat of engineering and with much financial assistance from nations around the world, the temple was cut into giant blocks and moved, one at a time, 65 meters higher and 200 meters back from the Nile river. We looked closely and could see the places where the rock was cut along with the numbers that aided their re-positioning. Abu Simbel remains one of the top tourist sites in Egypt, along with the Sphinx and Great Pyramids at Giza and Luxor’s Temple of Karnak. It has been a World heritage site since 1979 .

Jean-LouisBurckhardt was born in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1874 and studied in Germany and England before the African Association asked him to launch an expedition to find the source of the Niger River. Believing that this cause would be facilitated by speaking Arabic and understanding Islamic law, he planned to spend two years in the Middle East prior to striking out in northern Africa. While living in Syria, he changed his name to Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Abdallah to facilitate his cover as a devout Muslim.

Setting out for Egypt in 1812, Burckhardt was robbed many times in the desert and had to ask his London employers to send money several times. While in what is now southern Jordan, Burckhardt was lured by the tales of a lost city in that region known only to the local Arabs. He hired a guide and, under the pretenses of sacrificing a goat at the nearby tomb of Aaron, was led into the lost city via the two-kilometer long, extremely narrow gorge known as the siq. Burckhardt wrote in his diary, "The precipices…are about eighty feet in height; in many places the opening between them at the top is less than at the bottom and the sky is not visible from below." Finally they emerged into the sunlight and through dazzled eyes Burckhardt stared with amazement at what lay before him: a towering mausoleum some 90 feet high carved into the face of an enormous sandstone cliff. Not wanting to arouse suspicions from his guide, he moved on to the tomb of Aaron and performed the goat sacrifice.

Unconcerned with the notoriety gained from his rediscovery of Petra, he continued on to Egypt, still intent on finding the source of the Niger River. While in Nubia the following year, he was distracted again by stories of nearby temples that had been around since antiquity. While heading up the Nile, he discovered the top frieze of the temple of Abu Simbel, the great majority of it covered by sand. He mentioned this to an Italian explorer named Giovanni Belzoni, who later returned to excavate the temple. By this time Burckhardt was ailing and had to return to Cairo, not before making a pilgrimage to Mecca disguised as a beggar. Clearly, his understanding of Arabic and Islamic culture helped him find things that other westerners could not. He died of dysentery in Cairo in 1817 at the age of 33. He never even got close to the Niger River.

Inspired by Burckhardt’s rediscovery of Petra, John William Burgon wrote a poem entitled Petra, which won the Newdigate Prize in 1845:

It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.


Monar: The Man Of The House

At the last minute, after arranging the details of our three-day felucca trip down the Nile, we impulsively asked our captain if we could stay one of the two nights with a Nubian family. We’d just learned that this could be an option and Aswan was Nubian territory, the northern frontier of an ancient kingdom that followed the Nile downward to the middle of Sudan. This was how we met Monar, a 15 year-old Nubian girl from the village of Ballana. Monar was undeniably one of the most mature, focused and self-possessed teenagers we’d ever met.

We set sail on a Wednesday morning and stretched back on the cushions of our 30-foot long felucca, enjoying the breezy sensation of heading downriver past minarets, palm trees and sand dunes. Our journey on the “Nile Crocodile” would be for three days and two nights and, with the exception of our stay with the Nubian family, we would eat, sleep and play solely on our felucca. The first day we tacked against the wind as we sailed down the Nile, stopping only for the tourist police to check over our papers and to have lunch. Every 20 minutes or so, a large boxy tourist boat would motor past us and a tourist in a skimpy bikini would snap a picture of us from the pool deck. Motez, our solemn captain, and Ahmed, his first (and only) mate effortlessly guided us 18 kilometers down the Nile to our first night's destination.

We arrived in Ballana around five o’clock and Motez took us to our Nubian family where we were introduced to Uhn-Ahmed, a widow and mother of three kids: Monar (15), Monar’s sister (whose name we forgot) (13) and Ahmed (11). Uhn-Ahmed welcomed us warmly and told us right away that her name in Nubian meant “Ahmed’s mother.” We thought this was a bit strange, given that she had two other, older children, but we smiled and sat down for tea. After black tea spiced with ginger and peppermint, Monar gave us a tour of the town, starting atop the hill overlooking Ballana and the Nile. We walked through the high, colorfully-painted walls and narrow dirt alleys of the town, seeing about 25 homes, 1 mosque, and no stores of any kind. While walking we got to know Monar who, in addition to her excellent English, spoke Arabic, Nubian, was currently learning French and about to start Hindi. For a 15 year old, she was incredibly self-possessed and spoke with a confidence and frankness that belied her years. We asked her what she’d like to do when she grew up and she looked us straight in the eyes and said, “I’m going to be a doctor. I want to attend Cairo University then come back to my village to work here.” We asked Monar if she’d ever been to Cairo and she said, “No, but I was once in Luxor on a field trip from school.”

We were astounded by this 15 year-old girl living in a mud hut village that only recently acquired running water and electricity. When most of the men from her village were drivers, laborers or felucca crewmen and the woman stayed at home with their heads covered, we found it amazing that a girl from this environment could have such lofty goals. Everywhere we went in Egypt, the men did everything. With the exception of a few women cleaning restaurants or hotel rooms, virtually every hotel, restaurant, market stall, taxi, and business establishment was run by men.

The family’s house was made of brick and recently-painted stucco and had a few other rooms, presumably for the occasional visitor from a felucca. During the course of the evening, it became clear that Monar and her family did not live in the house, but lived in her grandmother’s house. I later asked Monar why her family doesn’t live in the new house and she told me, “Because we cannot live here without a man. My father died 7 years ago and Ahmed is not yet old enough so we must live my grandmother. When Ahmed is big enough, we can move in.” I asked her how old Ahmed would have to be for that to happen and she said, “Old enough to protect us.” That night Monar suggested we all play cards and guided us through a fun evening of games until it was time to go to bed.

The next morning Monar’s mom gave my wife and daughter henna tattoos and we packed up and got ready to leave. Upon leaving, I mentioned to Monar that perhaps the next time we came back they’d have moved out of their grandmother’s house and into the new house. Monar said, “Yes, perhaps it will be soon because my mother, she is like a man…like a father as well as a mother. She is very strong.” I couldn’t help thinking that she was describing herself as well.

Read about more "Encounters" with interesting people while traveling; visit Camden's Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival (July 2010) at "The Brink Of Something Else"


An Oasis In Cairo

Cairo had been giving us a bit of an edge. We bargained hard with the taxi driver at the airport to get the price we wanted but he got the difference back when he stuck us with the parking fee. En route to the Egyptian museum, a friendly older man “coincidently” exited the subway station when we did and told us about how happy he was that his daughter was getting married the next day. After a few minutes of genial conversation, he invited us to the wedding. We knew we’d been had when we somehow ended up in his perfume shop with the hard sell about to begin. Near the Al-Azhar mosque an affable souvenir salesman told us it was closed and offered to have his friend take us to a “much nicer one.” Once there, we decided not to enter because the price he quoted seemed high. We found out later that Cairo mosques don’t charge admission…and the first mosque we were headed for was really open! I was beginning to distrust everything that anyone said to me in Cairo.

A few variations of these scams were listed in our guidebook but when someone looks you in the eye and distorts the truth…and then gets outraged when you question their sincerity, it is hard to know the difference between ruse and reality. After walking around all day in a city of over 10 million people and harboring such suspicions, one needs a place of serenity; an oasis in the desert. For us, it was the African House Hostel.

African House is in the Midan Ramses section of downtown Cairo, located in an aging building with high ceilings, wide stone stairways, a barely-functioning antique elevator and original wood floors and shutters from the 19th century. The hostel has most of the key things we look for in a hotel: great location, breakfast included, wireless internet in the room (so kids can do online homework), and a large room with four beds and a bathroom. Our kids’ favorite feature is “Sphinx,” a kitten who comes running into our room every time he hears our squeaky door. The drawbacks – so-so showers and an occasional mosquito -- are more than offset by the intangibles…the pleasant and helpful attitude of the staff. The staff is comprised of 6 men who rotate at the front desk who seem to act as one. Begin planning a desert trip with Ali and follow up later with Mahmoud and you’ll notice that he knows all the details of the earlier conversation. Get directions to the souk from Zizu and when you return Karim will ask you how you liked it. Order your 24/7 complimentary tea with Abdul – “three with milk, one without” – and you won’t have to tell Nagy the details next time you order. When we told Mahmoud that we wanted to visit a camel market 30 miles outside of Cairo, he wrote the instructions in Arabic for us to show a taxi driver – essential to get anywhere in Cairo -- and gave us his cell phone number. Sure enough, our taxi driver got lost so we had him call Mahmoud, who guided our driver in the right direction.

Aided by the staff at African House, we became more comfortable independently navigating Cairo. We successfully came back from the Khan el-Khalili market one evening to see all six of them on couches watching the Egyptian soccer team in the finals of the African Cup – Africa’s “Super Bowl.” Instead of consuming beer and potato chips, as we’d see back home for a sporting event, they all leaned forward in the same crouching position, drinking their black tea and smoking cigarettes. We’d come home to our oasis.


Homeschooling: Travels With Burger

Both our kids are homeschooling while we’re traveling and it is comforting to know that mathematics is the least of our worries. This is in large part due to Burger. Our kids love Burger. Burger is Professor Edward B. Burger, a mathematics professor and online video math teacher extraordinaire. He’s funny, he’s organized, he’s full of energy and he makes math fun. Recently, while my son was doing his geometry homework, he yelled out, “Check out Burger!” We all lined up behind his laptop to watch Burger declare his preference for, of all things, a math theorem: “Pythagorean Theorem, I've got to tell you, this is my favorite theorem. This is it. If you were wondering: Gee, Professor Burger what is your favorite theorem? You know what. Wonder no more.”

Burger is a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Williams College and is a pioneer in the multimedia Internet lectures that complement online written material to form electronic textbooks. His lesson tutorial videos earned publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston a 2007 Award of Excellence from Technology & Learning, an academic publication. Our kids are studying geometry and pre-algebra, respectively, via an online Holt California Mathematics Course and they are loving it.

I don’t want to say he’s a nerd or anything, but Burger’s research interests include algebraic number theory, Diophantine analysis, p-adic analysis, and continued fractions, to name a few. One of his scholarly articles is named "Badly Approximable Systems and Inhomogeneous Approximation Over Number Fields.” Okay, okay…he’s a nerd…but he’s a cool nerd. I mean he’s got a Facebook page. It’s full of gushing teens and pre-teens thanking Burger for his teaching style that makes math fun and interesting. On Burger’s Facebook “wall” one of his fans says “I watched your vids and they are clear and hilarious! (Our) school LOVES YOU. We are always like "PUT ON BURGER!"

Burger is enthusiastic, organized and full of energy. He wears glasses and has large eyes that occasionally have a crazed look as he gets excited about whatever the topic is. He has jet-black hair, prefers long-sleeve shirts in dark colors with the sleeves rolled to the elbow. His lessons are interactive and he’s constantly asking questions of his audience: “Tell me what you think,” or “Isn’t that right?” He recently started a tutorial video with a math problem couched in football terms. Just before he launched into the problem, a football was tossed to him from offstage. He aids his lessons with graphics and animations. My daughter was doing her Pre-Algebra homework a few weeks ago and said, “Look at Burger!” She re-wound the video for us, which started with Burger declaring, “I like gold.” Then, an animated gold crown appeared on his head, followed by a gold necklace, a gold bar and a gold staff. He keeps the kids interested.

Burger has been a big part of our travels and he feels like part of the family now. He does most of the tutorial videos for the kids’ homework, but occasionally someone else stands in for him and the kids are disappointed. A few times, an older woman professor will appear in the video and our kids will groan, “Where’s Burger?”; she’s very good but it’s just not the same without Burger.


Homeschooling Essentials: HBO's "Rome"

Okay, we’ll admit that having our 14 and 12 year old kids watch HBO’s graphic and award-winning “Rome” series as a part of their homeschooling curriculum is a bit unorthodox. Along with online textbooks, workbooks, writing journals, web tutorials and classic novels, we are making them sit through one of the most violent and sexually-explicit series in television history. It’s filled with blood, four-letter words, quite a lot of nudity and several fornication scenes. It’s not that we are extremely permissive parents – we’re not – it’s just that we have found no better way to have the myriad of characters and events of Ancient Rome come alive for our kids’ education.

HBO’s “Rome” series is set during Ancient Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire, starting around the time of Caesar’s invasion of Gaul and ending around the time of Mark Antony’s death and the rise of the first Emperor Augustus. The series started in 2005 and lasted just two seasons. It was a critical and ratings success but ended due to the price tag of the lavish costumes, extensive sets and on-site locations in the Italian capital. The first season alone cost over $100 million.

In order to shield our kids from the gratuitous sex and violence, we simply mute the sound and ask them to cover their eyes. It helps that both my wife and I have already seen both seasons and can therefore anticipate the more explicit scenes. And there are plenty of them. The Los Angeles Times describes a “vivid portrayal of a dirty, cacophonous, amoral metropolis steeped in the tumult of the time. There are graphic depictions of both the city's violence and sex within the first few minutes of the premiere, which features blood-splattered soldiers thrusting fatal blows into their Gallic enemies and the full-frontal nudity of a woman emerging from a post-coitus bath.”

A byproduct of our unique censorship method is a story that gets a bit choppy. We watched the first episode from our Cairo hotel room and my wife and I were prepared to pause the DVD at the first graphic sex scene between Atia (Caesar’s niece) and one of her lovers. As soon as I saw the edge of the bed in the frame, I paused the remote, said “Cover your eyes” and muted the volume. When the inappropriate scene was over, I paused again, un-muted the volume, said “Ok, open them,” then hit the play button. With so much inappropriate material, watching an hour-long episode of “Rome” can take almost two hours, with a lot of wear and tear on the pause button. Hitting the pause button is something that happens a lot when our family watches DVD’s. Oftentimes, my son or daughter will say, “Pause it! Why is Pompey leaving Rome?” which will lead to a short discussion of the politics of his decision. In terms of learning about Rome while avoiding the sex and violence, this isn’t the most elegant educational solution, but we’ve found none better.

About a year ago, knowing that we’d be touring the Mediterranean, I began reading Gibbon’s 3-volume “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." I am usually pretty good at slogging my way through long history books and I even printed out both an event and emperor timeline to begin my assault on the empire. I got about 200 pages into the first volume and had to give up; Gibbon was just too dry and the work covered too many personalities and events that I was unfamiliar with. About 4 months ago my wife and I started watching the “Rome” series and were hooked. After watching Augustus, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Mark Antony, Pompey, Cato and others for 24 episodes, we felt close to the characters and that we had a good understanding of this very important period of history. We hope for the same for our kids…minus the sex and violence.

Read more about kids and travel at the July 2010 Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival at Glennia Campbell's The Silent I blog. Here is the link to the carnival post "Kids Around The World".


"What Is Suez Canal?"

Something didn’t seem right when reading about the Suez Canal in our Lonely Planet guidebook for “Egypt.” The book talked about the engineering wonder being an “impressive sight to behold,” yet offered few practicalities on how best to view it. Lonely Planet takes pride in providing up-to-the-minute, practical information on how to experience a country, but beyond the glowing accounts of the canal, there were few particulars. In Ismailia, near the center of the canal and a two hour bus ride from Cairo, the book did not mention how to view the canal but it featured the house of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French builder of the canal. After describing the house, the book added that it was no longer open to the public. At the southernmost section of the canal, the guide stated that Suez “remains one of the best places in the region to view colossal cargo ships gliding through the canal,” again with no specifics. We had met a few travelers in Egypt—not one had seen the Suez Canal.

Despite the lack of information, we were determined to see the canal. We had all enjoyed seeing and learning about the Panama Canal and its history and we considered a Suez Canal visit an important part of our kids’ home-school education. Considering all our possibilities, we opted for the Suez option and jumped on a bus. After 2 hours of rolling through flat, white desert, our bus came to a stop and everyone exited. We looked around for a bus station, but all we saw were people loading a microbus and a few taxis near the end of a long row of apartment blocks. A taxi driver walked by and asked “Taxi?” and I said “Suez?” He held up 10 fingers and when I countered with six of my own, he shook his head firmly and said “No, Ten.” At this point, we’d been seen by a group of taxi drivers near the microbus and they all sprinted over yelling at us in Arabic. At the same time, a taxi sped right for us and screeched to a halt before almost hitting us; he wanted a piece of the action as well. We watched as the newcomers pushed the first taxi driver out of the way and it looked as if there was literally going to be a fight for our business. I was starting to worry that a small riot might break out, so I said to the first driver, “10. Yes. Let’s go.” I grabbed him by the arm and led him to his cab. After being in Egypt for only a few days, we’d witnessed many heated arguments amongst Egyptian men. The overwhelming majority of businesses were run by men; usually a bunch of them sitting around getting on one another’s nerves. We had already seen a few fistfights. We saw a fight on a boat on the Nile, a fight beside a mosque in Giza and a man being slapped by a woman who was pulling him across the street by the ear. I figured it was better to take the first taxi driver than wait for a fight to erupt. As we neared his cab, I heard my wife loudly say “Get out of my face,” to a snickering young Egyptian man who was saying things in Arabic to her a little too closely. We all jumped in the taxi and sped off. Nervous energy morphed into laughter as we left the touts behind.

Heading toward the port town of Suez, our driver turned to us and said “Suez? Yes?” I said, “Yes…Suez canal…canal of Suez.” He gave me a confident look and then a confused look as we made our way into town. We saw no cargo ships passing by and our driver was clearly unsure of where we wanted to go. In his broken English, he again asked, “Suez? Where in Suez?” Again, I repeated loudly and clearly, “Suez canal,” and starting making gestures like little boats floating by. By now he was frustrated with our lack of Arabic and his limited English and he blurted out “What IS Suez canal?” and pulled to a stop. The irony of a Suez taxi driver not knowing the English words for his town’s world famous attraction generated a shared smile between my wife and I, but now we were getting worried. I got out my guide book and read further in the Suez section to find that the nearby town of Port Tawfiq is “an ideal place to watch the ships go by.” Unfortunately, it gave no details on how to do that and the map surprisingly depicted no canal.

We left Suez and in 2 minutes were in Port Tawfiq. We turned down a long avenue and saw the multi-story “Red Sea Hotel” to our right. With our driver clearly frustrated and no cargo ships in sight, we decided to go to the hotel in hopes that someone might speak English. We paid our driver, walked into the hotel and asked the manager “Is there a place where we can view the Suez Canal?” He gravely nodded and said, “You can view it from our sixth floor restaurant; if you eat lunch there.” We went up to the restaurant and found a clean, breezy and empty restaurant with a full wall of windows facing the canal. After the struggle to get here, we had found the perfect place to view the canal.

Just as lunch was served, a convoy of container ships started slowly making their way through the desert, seemingly cutting their way through the sand, on their way southward to the Gulf of Suez. On a typical day about 3 convoys make their way through the single-lane canal. The passage takes about 12-15 hours with the ships traveling the 119 mile canal at 15 miles per hour (with stops to allow oncoming convoys to pass). We were fortunate to be eating just as a southern convoy was approaching. We pulled up our chairs to the window and enjoyed the view, our near-scuffle with the taxi drivers a distant memory. Despite the lack of information from our guidebook, we’d found that the best method for getting here was just to get on a bus and go.