Travel Inspiring Reads – “Dark Star Safari”

Dark Star Safari – Overland from Cairo to Cape Town”  presents the story of Paul Theroux’ overland crossing of Africa, quite the safari!  (“Safari” means journey in Swahili.)travel book, journal, Africa, Cairo, Ethiopia, adventure, reading, inspiration

I enjoyed this book because it presented interesting topics:

  • Thought-provoking questions
  • Rich descriptions of places
  • Horror stories
  • Good history nuggets
  • Ideas for off-the-beaten-path places to visit.

Let’s go through these briefly…

Thought-provoking questions

While a book about travel, certainly part of travel is gaining an understanding of the local situation (at least for me).  The author helps the reader gain an understanding of the current state and what makes it difficult for Africa to break bad cycles.  For example, he points out how education in some of the countries suffers because those that have education and could be teachers are pulled by foreign NGOs for other activities (though I think he misses the point that often what those people go do is to try to help while also further developing capacity in these would-be teachers).  He also discusses with people he meets the issues introduced by corruption and mis-management without writing a dissertation about it.

One thing that was unfortunate is that the author seemed interested in putting down NGOs (“the agents of virtue in white Land-Rovers”) wherever he could which is unfortunate since many do very good work on behalf of those in need (even if not all are perfect; many have learned and evolved their approaches).  It is unfortunate in my opinion since it gives the impression that he has a chip on his shoulder and, as a reader, that diminishes my appreciation for his critical thinking (though it does not impact my appreciation of his writing effort).  Also, I would worry that readers unfamiliar with the questions and topics involved may just take his word for it.

Rich descriptions of places

The rich descriptions he captures of what he sees make you want to explore the places he visits.  For example, this is his description of Bayna l-Qasrayn, a street in Cairo:

“Perhaps the oldest inhabited street in the high-density city of Cairo, one thousand years of donkey droppings, hawkers’ wagons, barrow boys, veiled women, jostling camels, hand-holding men, and hubble-bubble smoker, among mosques and princes’ palaces, and a bazaar with shops selling trinket, brass pots and sack of beans…”

I also enjoyed relating to some of his observations, not dissimilar to my own.  For example, in many hotels in Egypt there are metal detectors.  I often wondered what were they really good for should someone just decide to park a truck full of explosives in front of a hotel.  He is much more eloquent than me as he shares his observations on security while in Aswan:

“There were metal detectors at the entrances to most buildings though they were seldom used and seemed more symbolic than practical… Certainly the electricity supply was unreliable and there seemed to be a labor shortage.  The armed men, with assault rifles slung at their sides, meant to reassure the tourists simply looked sinister and added to the atmosphere of menace.”

Horror stories

His description of travel through southern Ethiopia and Kenya to Nairobi is filled with frustrating anecdotes and mis-adventures.  Unhelpful government people, bad roads, vehicle breakdowns, touts and thieves, etc. all color this part of trip.  You suffer with him and then remember to be happy you are not him.  Good reading though!

Good history nuggets

The book also included great nuggets of history which certainly pleased this fan of history.  It informed me about Italy’s horrible choices when it came to Ethiopia since the late 19th century – a story I had never heard about.  In 1896, the Ethiopians trounced 20,000 invaders from the Italian army at Adwa (a place I had never heard of).  Those poor young men, sent there by crazy leadership ill-equipped, for no good reason, to die or otherwise suffer.  Unfortunately, all these created resentment that the Fascists in the 1930s wanted to act on.  So off they went (with poison gas and all) to invade Ethiopia whose fighters were still using the same weapons from the 1896 era…  (Don’t mean to pick on Italy, by the way… History is loaded with ugly decisions by many!)

Ideas for off-the-beaten places to visit

The book introduces a reader like me to places I had never ever heard of but that I may enjoy visiting.  For example, his inclusion of Lalibela in Ethiopia where there are twelfth century Coptic churches carved into the mountains adds to my already-existing desire to explore Ethiopia!

Favorite quote

One of the pieces of wisdom he heard in north Sudan during this safari struck me as universally true and is my favorite quote of the book:

“The criterion is how you treat the weak. The measure of civilized behavior is compassion.” – Sadig el Mahdi

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While the author can come across a little self-absorbed or sanctimonious, the story of his crossing Africa overland is gripping and well-written, sharing a lot more than just a narrative of adventures and mis-adventures.  I wish I could do that trip…  Maybe.

 

The Timeless Capitals: Rome, Athens, Cairo

I have traveled to a good bunch of countries and hope to add more over time.  Most of the time, that means I have visited their capital cities even if briefly.  Rare is the case where I have not visited a capital city of a country I have been to.  Honduras, Mexico and the Dominican Republic come to mind.  Tanzania does too, now that I think about it, since Dodoma -not Dar es Salaam- is its capital.  I thought it would be cool to do a series of the capitals I have visited…  Let’s start with the timeless!

The timeless capital cities

One cannot argue that there are cities that are timeless.  Many are not capital cities.  But as the theme is capital cities, I will pick three that are timeless fully aware that I am stating the obvious given the choices:  Rome, Athens, and Cairo.

Just thinking about the “youngest” one of these goes back a couple of thousands of years.  Mind boggling.  )Of course, there are much younger capital cities that I could call timeless too.)  Going to any of these can be daunting with all the possibilities to explore the ancient, the old, and the recent (say, last 200 hundred years??).

Athenas – Atenas – Athina

Athens may be the easiest to navigate in terms of this but it still requires time to learn all about it.  It also merits exploring the “recent” not just the old or ancient.  In any of these cities, one can get stuck just on the archeology or history “touring” and miss the vibrant cities they are now, their history notwithstanding.

Acropolis, Athens. modern Athens, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

The modern outskirts of Athens towards Piraeus

Acropolis, Athens. modern Athens, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

A juxtaposition of modern Athens and old Athens

Rome – Roma

Rome has such depth that one could just focus on the Roman Empire period, or just the food, or just the Catholic, or just the modern life – and spend weeks on any of the topics.  A first visit to Rome can really consume one in the key sights to be seen – and that is OK, no reason to stress about it.  But either carve out time for, or plan to return for, diving in to the other experiences.  And don’t worry, Rome is eternal so it will all still be around for your next visit!

Pantheon, Rome, Italy, Panteon, Roma, architecture, photo, Canon EOS Rebel, travel

The old: Pantheon

food, carbonara, Italian food, Rome, Italy,  food porn, Olympus

The food: Carbonara – my favorite dish to have in Rome!

Olympus, St. Peter's at night, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican, architecture, night time

The Catholic: St. Peter’s Square at night

Tourist, Pantheon, Rome, Italy, Canon EOS Rebel, photo, travel

The visitor: Is this a Roman look-alike soaking in the incredible Pantheon?

Cairo – El Cairo – La Caire – Al-Qaherah – القاهرة‎

About Cairo, what I can safely state is that it is one complex city!  For someone not used to large cities in countries where one doesn’t speak the language or one is not familiar with the culture, it can be overwhelming.  I felt that way on my first day there during my first visit.  And then you start walking around, sensing the vibe, having contact with the friendly locals, and the city opens up differently than expected.  Yes, there are key sights to be seen – the “musts,” but in Cairo, as in other places, the best part is the “experiencing,” not just the touring (I am not an anti-touring snob, just a proponent of experiencing!).  I believe it totally change what Cairo is in our minds to become more immersed (to the extent one can in a one week visit…).

Pyramids, Cheops, Giza, Cairo, Egypt, travel, architecture, ancient Egypt

The “musts”: The Giza pyramids

Cairo, Le Caire, Egypt, shisha pipe, hookah, chilling, experience, travel, photo

The “experiences”: At the Grand Bazaar

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These cities are timeless for their longevity and history yet they could also be grouped into other categories in this series.  I preferred placing them in the timeless group as they serve witness to the development of civilization, to the evolution of how we humans operate, and to the great achievements of the past while yet being alive in this modern world – not just being city-museums.  So go and explore these timeless capitals!

tourists, Italy, Canon EOS Rebel, baby carrier

Tourists enjoying a timeless capital: Rome!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these cities if you have visited – or how you envision them if you have not!

Boarding Pass Stories: Constantinople! OK, Istanbul

boarding pass, Istanbul, Air France, trip, travel, explore, adventure, exotic, airplane, flight, Turkey, Charles de Gaulle, airport

The destination, the when(s), and the reason(s)

My knack for taking one trip idea and expanding its scope is not a recent event.  That’s how I ended last year exploring a country I may have never visited otherwise:  Moldova.  It pre-dates my travel blogging days by a bit.  As I joined a group of friends last-minute on a trip to Egypt (literally, like two weeks before the trip), I wondered what else could I do as I had plenty of vacation time at work.  I contacted a former co-worker who had moved back to his hometown of Istanbul and asked him if I could visit and he said yes, of course.  I got a free ticket to/from Istanbul with Delta and then bought a separate ticket between Istanbul and Cairo so I had to fly through Istanbul to head to Egypt first and then I would come back and stop in Istanbul from where I would fly through Paris again (as the boarding pass above shows).  This was in 1998, eons ago, it feels.

The airline

Air France offered great service as usual in those days for many airlines.  I flew business class since I had plenty o’ miles and it was going to be a LONG trip.  Class…

What fascinated me about this experience

I returned from Cairo to Istanbul to visit my friend and explore this “epically historic” city for the first time.  I wait for my friend and nothing.  An hour passes and I begin to get a little antsy (these days, cellphones were not what they are today and I believe you still couldn’t use a U.S. in Europe, had I brought mine along).

So I nervously wondered if my friend confused the day or time of my arrival.  I realized I should call him at work and see.  Since these were the days you could still find payphones, this would not be a problem.  Except I first had to exchange money, hope for coins, figure out how much to pay for the call, etc.  I called and it rang and rang.  I kept trying and no answer.  I was beginning to worry more now.  I decided that surely someone was sitting around his desk or office so maybe I just had to keep calling until someone, in exasperation, decided to walk over and answer the darned phone.  Someone sure did.

They plugged me through to my friend’s secretary and she told me she had been expecting my call (!) as my friend had unexpectedly and last minute been asked to make a trip abroad.  So he left instructions with her to connect me to his girlfriend so she could let me in his apartment, etc.  I rang her but in talking to her I realized his apartment was not near the city center which was the area I was going to be exploring and since my friend was not around, no point in staying far out.

I pulled out my travel book and found a hotel, the Pierre Lotti, which had availability and ended up working perfectly due to its proximity to all the places I wanted to see!  What was great about this experience was that I explored Istanbul for 5 awesome days, met other travelers with whom I then did more social/less-touristy things, and had a great time!  I did meet my friend’s girlfriend for lunch which was neat and which led to me getting lost on the way back to the hotel.  But that, my dear reader, will be food for another post!

Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantiu, church. mosque, museum, architecture, history, photo, mosaic, art

One of the mosaics uncovered in the Hagia Sophia – beautiful

 

Visiting Old Cairo – and Feeling Cairo

I am fortunate to have visited Cairo two times:  once in 1998 and then in 2007.  The first with friends and the second for work.  However, while we hit some of the key places to see in Cairo in the first trip, one grave mistake was not to explore Old Cairo…

A First-Timer in Cairo in 1998
Let me take a step back and tell you about the first visit to Cairo.  For that trip, I joined 4 friends about 2 weeks before they were to depart due to an opening in my work schedule in between projects.  There were no pre-defined itinerary or arrangements except the plane ticket and the hotel for the first night in Cairo as we were landing at night.  I didn’t fly with them as I was using miles to get there so I flew from Atlanta via Newark, Paris, and Istanbul to get to Cairo (I was going to visit Istanbul after Egypt).  The first thing that struck me as I got off the airplane and walked the steps was the smell of burning wood, followed quickly by the sense of being in a dry place!

My friends and I were supposed to meet at the airport (I was arriving after they did) but, when I got there, my friends were nowhere to be found.  Eventually, I was taken by a customs (or was it immigration?) official eager to take me to his cousin’s taxi business (funny how that works…).  I got his “cousin” to let me use his phone to ring our hotel in Cairo – my friends were already there!  What happened?  The airport had 2 different terminals and we had landed on opposite ones so they ended up going to the hotel.  I ended up riding with the customs official’s cousin who, try as he did, could not hit a pedestrian…

I will admit that I was uncharacteristically anxious being there my first time.  It was the year after the massacre of tourists at Queen Hatshepsut’s temple in Luxor where many were gunned down execution style.  It took the first full day of being in the city to get past this initial anxiety.  People’s friendliness made me feel welcome and comfortable and pretty soon I was back to normal mode:  ready to explore!

We decided to not spend too much time in Cairo but did want to see the essentials. As happens to most tourists, we were offered a camel ride to see the Pyramids “from behind” by first being taken to someone’s store or house (hard to tell the difference) where we were swayed to hire them with tea and plenty of smiles and friendliness.  Riding the camels was a fun ride but they ride differently than horses…  However, we did not see the Pyramids up close so we were left still wanting to do that. We tried again the next day to get close to the Pyramids by hiring horses to get us there.  I emphasized to our guide that if I didn’t touch the Pyramids, I would not pay – I really wanted to make sure we didn’t get cheated again from seeing them up close.  So he made my horse gallop super fast either to pay me back for being demanding or to make sure he could get us further than he had planned in the time he had!

Yet ANOTHER picture of the Pyramids!

Next on the list:  The Mohammed Ali Mosque in The Citadel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cairo_Citadel) which was spectacular (as was the Citadel itself).  For sure, one of the best places to see!

Dome of Mohamad Ali Mosque at the Citadel in Cairo, Egypt

Mohamad Ali Mosque

We visited the Egyptian Museum which, as you can imagine, have some neat things to show from pharaonic times for those who enjoy the topic.  We also hired a car to drive us to Saqqara, a step pyramid south of the city.  The site was worth the trip but the drive to it also allowed us to see life outside of the city (e.g., bread being made on a wood burning “stove” by the side of the road).

The end of our stay in Cairo came quickly and we took the overnight train which would take us to the southern city of Aswan.  So ended my first visit to Cairo back in 1998…

Cairo Re-Visited Almost 10 Years Later

I returned to Cairo on business to attend a conference with colleagues from around the world.  Having gone once and checked out the main sights, it was actually very nice to return and not feel the pressure of visiting a must-see list of places.  Instead, we discovered hole-in-the-wall places to eat at, hired a boat for a group of us to cruise up and down the Nile at night, visited Khan el-Khalili (the bazaar or souk), etc.  It was a very nice way to enjoy Cairo and just be.  In fact, we return to el-Khalili another day not only to shop but, again, to sit and watch life go by – so enjoyable!

Around one of the entrances to Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt

Around one of the entrances to Khan el-Khalili

Exploring Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt

Exploring Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt

An alley in Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt

I did add to my list of visited sites the Old City which I missed the first time there.  What a tremendous miss on a visit to Egypt!  The Old City is a phenomenal corner of the large metropolis and full of neat architecture and history…  I am glad I got to “re-do” Cairo so I could correct my rookie mistake from 1998!

We first visited the Amr Mosque (Mosque of Amr ibn al-As), first mosque built in Egypt (and Africa) initially built in the 7th century but built-on and expanded over the centuries.

Mosque in Old City Cairo

Mosque in Old City Cairo

…then the Church of St. George (originally built in the 10th century but completely re-built in 1904)…

Church of St. George in Old City Cairo, Egypt

Church of St. George

Church of St. George, Cairo, Egypt

Light in the dome of the Church of St. George

St. George slaying the dragon in St. George Coptic Church in Cairo, Egypt

Detail at the entrance to St. George Church: St. George on his Arabian horse slaying the dragon

… thenthe Hanging Church (St. Virgin Mary’s Church, largely rebuilt in the 10th century but originally built on the 7th; the main nave is built over a passageway, hence the name “hanging”)…

Mural in the entrance to the Hanging Church in Cairo, Egypt

Mural in the entrance to the Hanging Church

First entrance to the Hanging Church

First entrance to the Hanging Church

Facing out from the front porch of the Hanging Church in Cairo, Egypt

Facing out from the front porch of the Hanging Church, a narrow entrance in a crowded part of town!

Doorway in the Hanging Church in Cairo, Egypt

Doorway in the Hanging Church

Interior of the Hanging Church in Cairo, Egypt

Interior of the Hanging Church

and the Ben Ezra Synagogue.  However, this was not a matter of just visiting important sites as I had always been curious about Coptic Egypt.  I really liked the Old City as it was loaded with history and meaning:  just about anywhere you look, there is an interesting site or alley!

Crypt of the Holy Family under St. Sergius Church in Old City Cairo, Egypt

Crypt of the Holy Family under St. Sergius Church

Cairo – Always Something New to Experience
My second trip differed significantly from the first in many ways.  However, Cairo offered me great experiences both times. The city itself awes you (or intimidates you!) as it teems with so many people, so many cars, and so many sounds (and do watch out for those cars!).  Some of my favorite images are those of the people I interacted with or saw in their day-to-day life.

Tea server crossing street in Cairo with a tray full of tea

The world’s most dedicated and daring tea server: crossing the crazy streets of Cairo with a tray-full of tea!

Taking bread from the bakery around Khan el-Khalili in Cairo, Egypt

Taking a load of fresh bread from a bakery around the suk in Cairo, Khan el-Khalili

Tea drinking at Khan el-Khalili, the suk in Cairo, Egypt

Sipping tea while watching others play a game in Khan el-Khalili

It can be initially daunting but then, if you let yourself wander a little and soak life in, say, at a local tea shop, you can begin to see beyond the main things that draw us to go there in the first place – really get a feel for the tempo of and life in this ancient and fascinating city.

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