Archive for May, 2012

Coming Home, Again

May 26, 2012

I returned yesterday afternoon from a five-week, three country Odyssey combining professional courtesies, travel, physical challenge, and the opportunity to cross off a few more items on my personal “Bucket List”. As the trip ultimately involved a complete circumnavigation of the globe, I was a bit understandably upset that there was no one leaping forward upon my re-entry to present me with a gilt-edged certificate recognizing the “around the world” feat, much like the first time crossing the Equator, or the International Date Line (come to think of it, I didn’t get a certificate then, either). The fact that the temperature was only 37 degrees also cast a bit of a pall over the whole arrival thing, and I recollected that “Yes, we usually have snowstorms in May, in Wyoming”. This was of little comfort to someone who had been basking in the 105 degree readings in the Upper Nile Valley, only four days prior.

As a happenstance, I was fortunate this evening to read a quite eloquently-written blog, “Coming Home”, that encapsulates many of the same feelings I experienced upon entering the front door of the house. Fleeting thoughts abound, many of them repetitious of ones that invaded my personal thought canals while lying awake during the long, quiet nights on the Nile river boat; others appeared at odd times among the many hours of flight between target destinations. Often, that “stream of consciousness” of James Joyce would begin with a look back at the day’s events, and ramble on hither and thither trying to achieve some sense of completion or closure.

But always, there appeared to be a sense of unease; something was making me uncomfortable. In Korea, I had visited the DMZ, and felt, but what? When I looked at a palace, or a viewing tower, or a freeway, I saw, but I didn’t feel. When I viewed the pyramids, I was impressed, but the feelings I had didn’t seem based on the pyramids themselves. Temples at Aswan, Luxor, and in-between—they were all so similar that they blur in memory into one amalgam, one Ultimate Temple. Again, no feeling. Later, Buckingham Palace made no stirrings; the people and pigeons in Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly were more of interest; the stroll along the haphazardly laid out streets in Central London held my interest because of what people were doing, not where they were doing it. My visit to Stonehenge, high on my list, evoked nothing but fatigue from the long bus ride to and from, and registered only as an item of interest.  And then it was in the massive foyer of the British Museum, that an epiphany occurred—I suddenly realized that I really didn’t want to see any more “stuff”, I’d had it with famous structures built on the backs of the masses—folks like us. It meant nothing to me that, given time, money, and abundant labor, any of these structures could arise. And I began looking back upon my other trips for validation of this perspective—palaces in Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Istanbul, Cairo, Nurenburg, Paris, and others—-all a tribute not to an idea, or an ethic, but merely evidence that given enough resources, it could be done. And for whom? Therein lies my unease.

So, what did I learn? I reflected back upon people I had met—the Scotsman in St. James Park, with whom I shared a two-hour conversation beginning with observations about the weather, and expanding to discussions of our homelands, elections, and other “people topics”, and all on an uncomfortable park bench.

There were the people at the three schools in Cairo, and one in Jeddah; their passion and enthusiasm for what they were doing was infectious. One of the schools has the most comprehensive special education program I’ve seen (I was a special education director for a number of years), with total inclusion. One of the parents we interviewed has an autistic son, and had heard about the school while she was living in Saudi Arabia. She moved to Cairo strictly for her son to attend the school, and for the first time, he is showing progress. And this in a region of the world that barely recognizes special needs children. All because of one woman’s vision and perseverance in establishing this program; her early demise has led to a strong commitment by the school’s staff to carry on her legacy.

Many times during my voyage, I longed to be able to share thoughts and ideas with my former “muse”, no longer available. This was especially true when I met Rula Zaki, the wife of the principal of one of the schools, and a well-known singer in the Middle East. She has a personal “mission” not unlike that of the Muse, to break down the barriers between peoples to achieve Peace and Harmony. One of her songs I especially wanted to share, from the rula.zaki website, combining a video with beautiful pleas toward mutual understanding and the recognition that Islamic and Christian faiths share the same foundation. Ms. Zaki was delightful, and we had an enjoyable time singing Broadway song duets while her husband transported us in his speedboat, down the Nile to lunch at a riverside café’. Her husband, Muhammed, is a former surgeon turned educator, and they and their two sons are planning a trip to Yellowstone this summer, and may visit us in Thermopolis. Later, I shared one of my poems with her, one that mirrors her mission and stresses the concept that believers can find Safe Harbor and Serenity through their faith, regardless of their religion.

So again, I think I have grown. I now consciously recognize that people are the most important thing for me, not giant palaces or temples, or cathedrals, or anything else which is merely a product of resources and not ideas. I enjoyed greatly seeing how people do things, differently from us, I liked watching them argue in Egypt as their first Presidential election approached. My guide would provide me with summaries, after he cooled off enough himself from the various exchanges he had with his neighbors.

Yes, I will continue to struggle at golf, as the ravages of age interfere with achievement of unreasonable expectations. It is difficult to accept the fact that many of those days are in the past. I hope to be able to continue my travels, not so much to see tributes to power as to experience friendship and mutual respect with persons of many religions, races, and cultures, elsewhere.

I think I shall be able to resume chasing after some of those elusive thoughts, once again providing myself excitement and comfort as I further explore the inner workings of my own mind. I want my writing to improve so that each word is a necessary building block toward a complete thought, not so much for others to understand but for my own self-clarification. And who knows? Maybe the Essence of that Muse is still dimly somewhere in the shadows, urging.

Always Be Happy!                                                                                          To Our Youth Everyday!

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MOTORCYCLES ET AL

May 20, 2012

Motorcycles! Ah, yes, motorcycles! If I can call Amsterdam the city of bicycles, Luxor must be the city of motorcycles. They are used for everything; they swarm the roadways with their myriad of colors and noises, some belching smoke, others merely making a racket. Almost all of the them are cheaply made machines from China, and have so many different names on the tanks that I can’t remember any real trends in popularity. I’ve yet to see a Harley, and have only spied one Yamaha, two Kawasakis, and one Honda Shadow (that doesn’t count, it was in Cairo). Most of them are about 125cc.

Before I go on, just a note about cliché’s. Think about how they got to be cliché’s, it’s because they were highly adequate to their task of communicating effectively some perspective, concept, or description. I am not ashamed to use them, nor do I spend time thinking I can significantly improve upon them. And so, with that having been said, I continue—-Many of the drivers travel at breakneck speed through areas crowded with pedestrians, donkey carts, horse carriages, and automobiles and trucks. Most of them seem as though there is a new slalom event at the Olympics, involving bikes, and they’re practicing! I’ve learned to adopt an “outside observer” stance from the back seat of whichever vehicle I’m in, and only cringe slightly when it appears that we are going to hit something solid.

You are familiar with the ladies wearing the black burkha, the head-to-toe robe ubiquitously seen throughout every Middle Eastern town. When they ride as passengers on the motorcycles, they sit sidesaddle so their garment doesn’t get caught in the rear wheel. And they must have great balance for some of their rides; I saw one yesterday that had a small child in front, the driver, another toddler, and then burkhad mom clutching an infant—five folks on a small bike! And of course, no helmets.  I wasn’t quick enough to get a picture, it would have been a real keepsake.

Another extreme example was seen in Cairo, in the midst of a major traffic battle at a popular intersection where people were playing the game, “Every man for himself”. The driver was alone, but operating the bike with his right hand while talking on a cell phone held with his left ear and shoulder, and an ice cream cone in his left hand.  And he was successful! It brought a memory of one of my failures, that of trying to eat a Maverik chili dog while shifting a five speed manual transmission in my 300ZX. A poor choice.

Not to ignore other forms of transportation. Lots of donkey-drawn carts, transporting Allah knows what here and there, often piled 10 feet high with something, and maybe a person riding on top. The best of those was a double team, on one side a full-sized horse, and its partner in the harness was a donkey. Again, I had left my camera on the boat, but had I been able to capture that scene, it would have been titled “1 ½ horsepower”. Extensive fields of clover between the banana and sugar cane farms are used to feed the animals; the area around Luxor, as well as in Aswan, has lots of agricultural goods from Mother Nile. Most of the animals look healthy, as the owner’s income is directly affected if the animal is ill, but I did see some donkeys that didn’t look long for this world.

Last evening, my guide and I took a carriage ride all the way through and around Luxor, seeing the contrasting areas of poor to upper middle class. In almost every area, small children would yell “Hello”, with big smiles; even the adults in the less fortunate sections smiled and wave at us. More ruins of more temples are here and there, lots of small sphinxes lined up for about a kilometer or so, near the Luxor Temple on the direct route between Karnak and Luxor. These had the head of a king, the other options have the head of a ram (probably a Tar Heel) or a falcon.

Our evening out ended when the driver went off for a while to pray, while we visited Fast Ali at his carpet and curio shop, so he could prey. Yes, I succumbed, and bought a small wall hanging, even more tightly handwoven than the one I bought last year in Istanbul,  for one fifth of the price! The shop itself was a replica of my father’s flea market booths, stuff piled high and mixed, in close quarters. The whole upper floor was filled with various textiles, especially finely-made silk rugs made in Egypt. Fast Ali (I don’t know his real name but many of you would recognize our beloved Eddo in his mannerisms) spoke English well and enthusiastically, and our negotiations were finally settled after I had left the shop, leaving behind my best offer. My guide acted as a go-between for the final agreement.

A problem ensued when we stopped at an ATM on the way back to the boat, I needed cash for gratuities and to pay a small beverage bill. After inserting my card, in the same machine I had use the day before, I heard the usual whirring and clicking, a screen appeared instruction me to take my cash and card. Instead, the receipt slot belched a receipt that wasn’t for my transaction, and the card and cash remained inside. My guide called the night number and explained the problem; we were to come to the bank in the a.m. when it opened. Subsequently, that’s what we did, but had to return later after the mechanic guy came to retrieve my card. I checked my account online, and noted that the money had been removed from the account. The final arrangement was that they did retrieve the card, but will credit my account at Meridian Trust if their daily accounting shows they have 700 Egyptian pounds too much (that’s about $100). So I’m waiting to be picked up in an hour or so to go to the Luxor airport for my flight to Cairo, and tomorrow afternoon to London.

One further note: everyone, educated or not, rich or poor, is excited about the upcoming election in three days. Emotions run very high, with strong suspicions that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate does not intend to support anything but an Islamic government. Opponents opine, probably correctly, that such a government would kill the tourism industry, Egypt’s main source of revenue. My guide is rooting for Shafek, a former Minister under Mubarek and one of the three favorites. He has supported a secular government concept, when the new Constitution is drafted, and has strong support in the Military and Police as a former general. I hope whatever violence occurs next week is kept to minimum, if it has to occur at all.

Always Be Happy                                                                                                                                            To Our Youth Everyday!

TEMPLED OUT

May 19, 2012

This morning saw the end of temple visits, and none too soon! At some point during the numerous dynasties (31, by last count), there must have been one of those corruption guys bribing those in power to allow all the temple building to occur, sort of like Boss Tweed in NYC or Pendergast in KC. We only actually visited six, but others were pointed out at each turn of the head. And I learned a lot—for instance, the many figures and hieroglyphs on the walls often tell a story, with sequential panels just like the Peanuts or Beetle Bailey comic strips. There was even one humorous one, alleged to be the first joke, about a donkey complaining about having had to transport the wife of the King of Punt (not Ray Guy, but the ancient name for Somalia), an obese example of too much of the good life.

The main venue of the morning was a visit to the Valley of the Kings, the most barren, desolate looking place one could imagine. I was told that the reason it was chosen is that at the head of the valley is a pyramid shaped mountain, an important factor in the location. In the Old Kingdom, the pyramid shape was chosen because the rays of the sun god Ra formed a pyramid shape when they came from the sun, and the stairstep sides could be used to ascend to Ra; the Middle Kingdom saw more pyramids but smaller, due to the economy (sound familiar? Their own building crisis?). At the same time, pyramids made it easy for tomb raiders to locate goodies. So, later leaders thought that the Valley of the Kings is a great location, it retains the Ra-pyramid connection but the tombs are well-hidden—or at least they were. It is also so dry that mummies are easily retained, and the sides of the valley block out unfavorable winds.

Another interesting thing is that as soon as a new Pharoah takes office, they start building a tomb; sort of like the figurative image of Karl Rove after Obama’s election. Many of them are unfinished due to the prospective resident dying early, or at least before his or hers was completed. I went into three of the Ramses’ set, Ramses 3,4, and 9. Ramses #2 was shut down for repairs. It was recommended by my guide to skip the King Tut tomb; he said there is not much to see there other than an empty room. The others were fraught with a plethora (like those two words?) of pictures of gods and kings doing good and bad things; hieroglyphics telling one story after another, and many in vivid colors of blue, green, red, and yellow from malachite and ochre.

My first stop on the tour was Aswan, my air destination an hour or so out of Cairo. What a pleasure! I was met at the airport by a representative of the Gezira Travel Agency, who whisked me the 25K into town along a beautiful, wide parkway which at one point crossed the old dam and then snaked our way down a well-landscaped winding one-way boulevard to my five star hotel. I couldn’t see much as it was almost midnight, but got a sense that things were going to be much different from Cairo. And I was correct; the morning revealed pastel views of a placid Nile, a few feluccas raising their sails and gliding here and there below sand and rock-covered hills behind the river’s green swath. Traffic? No traffic, if one considers something that would be normal in the US, not during rush hours. I actually saw people being courteous, and there was at least one traffic signal.

My contact took me to the tour boat at noon, and I settled into my cabin after meeting the tour guide, my partner for the next four days. I had thought I would be part of a tour group; as it turns out, tourism is sadly way down on the list of activities that people seek in Egypt, due to the revolution, and very few people are coming here. As tourism is the country’s major source of revenue, that’s a real problem. There was an extended family group from France, about a dozen, as the only other residents on the boat. We chatted occasionally,  generally around or in the swimming pool on the promenade deck, in the shade during tea time, or watching activities of the boat such as going through the two sets of locks on the river. The river, by the way, is not very deep, usually around 20-30 feet.

The boat remained at its mooring until the next day; in the interim my private guide took me to the High Dam at Aswan, from which we had a good view of Lake Nasser, a 350 mile-long body extending south into Sudan, and then a short trip by motor launch to the Philae Temple on an island below the dam. After resting for a few hours, we took another boat trip to a Nubian village almost hidden away among a host of small islands and rocky outcrops below the First Cataract, a former waterfall before the High Dam was built. All of these were quite relaxing, albeit hot! I always had my trusty backpack with water, and tried to consume some every hour or so.

From my brief acquaintance with Aswan, I recommend it as a vacation destination during a cooler season—there’s plenty to see, at a leisurely pace. I asked to visit the Coptic Christian Cathedral, a beautiful modern structure looming over one section of the city, and easily a landmark visible from the river. I did not, however, visit the local McDonald’s, although I didn’t see the usual large arches anywhere around the circular building where it is located.

The boat itself is somewhat elderly compared to some of its brethren, but comfortable. Meals were good, each lunch and breakfast beginning with excellent varieties of soup, breads, cheeses, and meat slices. Normally, meals would be buffet style, but the small number of passengers made it more efficient to have a single menu item. Last night was shish kebab, lunch today was spaghetti. I’m writing this in the forward video conference room, an air-conditioned area next to a forward lounge. The boat is air conditioned throughout, although most areas have heavy doses of tobacco smoke—many men smoke, but fu Manchu (I finally found a use for that phrase!).

We finally weighed anchor, or whatever to heck they do with these tour boats, and headed downstream toward our final port, Luxor, where I would see the Temple at Karnak, the Temple at Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, and the Temple of Hapshepsut. Along the way, we stopped at two other locations, to see more temples, I’m “templed out”. At all of these, there were stairs, and not just stairs, but STAIRS! This country must be the Stair Capital of the World. My legs are not what they used to be, which may or may not be a good thing, but my slow ascents were not from being short of breath. And then there are the flies—all the while that I was keeping a lookout for a West Nile mosquito, even on the East Bank, these flies were smacking their lips in anticipation of an American meal.  I learned why folks cover up their bodies, even in the heat, and I began wearing long pants everywhere.

I won’t go on and on about this, preferring to tell and bore folks in person, but it was great! One other good thing, I did not die in traffic in Cairo, an event which was not on my “Bucket List”, but which appeared likely each time we took to the streets. The Valley of the Kings, and the pyramids, temples, and associated antiquities have been on my list since high school, but my father wouldn’t let me start a major in archaeology when I began college. And Monday, it’s on to Stonehenge, another pebble to put in my bucket.

Always Be Happy                 To Our Youth Everyday!

CAIRO AGAIN

May 5, 2012

I arrived yesterday and was met by one of the administrators from the school, and a driver, who got me to the hotel by noon. After dealing with priorities  (restroom, shower, food, and a reconnaissance of the golf course), I collapsed and spent the next 12 hours pleasantly snoozing among about 8 pillows in the luxury level accommodation. Occasional periods of awakening demanded a short trip outside on the balcony, to decide where to position my approach shot to that green in the event I am able to play.

As has been my previous experience on Turkish Airlines, the food and service were excellent, the planes exactly on time leaving and arriving, and my baggage arrived when I did. Why can’t our domestic airlines do that? I received an email from my co-chairperson, flying United; he’s already missed two flights and will be at least 5 hours late getting here.

On the day of my departure, I awoke early and started on “my list” at 8:30 a.m., mailing a package of Korean trinkets plus my new custom cashmere pea coat (don’t ask, I don’t know either where I’ll wear it in Thermopolis—but it was so inexpensive that I had to order it made!). I went back by the school we had just accredited, and had lunch with several of the staff. A few  more  hours killing time, then the bus to the airport. Again, I was excited to see all the flowers, trees, grass, modernity, mountains, and other characteristics of the Korean landscape. I had taken this bus at 4 p.m., it is the last one of the day, to the airport. I then wandered the huge terminal for the next 6 hours, pausing to sample a Korean dinner based on a local version of cabbage supplemented by a few small portions of beef, from ribs. It was in a soup format accompanied by small dishes of unknown food items, and the usual bowl of white rice. I’m even getting “just ok” using chopsticks, at least I wouldn’t starve to death). The meal was delicious, but as it turned out, a bad idea. Over the next 24 hours, I was constantly reminded of the nature of cabbage in the system, and enjoyed its effects with periodic visits to the plane’s facilities. There was enough gas gurgling through my upper and lower body that I could have fueled a small city for at least a week.

The first flight was about 12 hours, quite smooth, and we reached Istanbul at 5:30 a.m. I had been able to sleep for several hours, in short bursts, on the plane; certainly a first for me. Note that I had now been awake, for the most part, for about 30 hours, with more to go. After a two hour hiatus, we boarded for the Cairo flight, and I finally reached the destination. Flying into Cairo, the pyramids were easily picked out of the surrounding areas, and were boldly lit by the morning sun. I still need to research why it is, or how it is, that the Nile is now so far away from them; from the air it looked like a couple of miles between.

The hotel is typical of the five star level—lots of amenities I wouldn’t use, like terry bathrobes, slippers, shower cap, cash bar, etc., and lacks the stuff I expect—free internet, sufficient number of drawers for my clothes, microwave for my popcorn, refrigerator for snacks. There are 99 channels on the TV, but only about a dozen in English, and one of them is Fox news.

I met the pro at the golf course, and almost had a heart attack when told the green fee yesterday was 350!. After regaining consciousness, it was explained that is in Egyptian pounds, about six to the dollar, so it was only about $55, with cart. And today, Sunday, the price drops to 200—that’s because in the World of Islam, Friday and Saturday are the weekend, Sunday a work day. Most of Friday is spent on religious activities. I think I can afford $35, plus club rental, this a.m.  And avoid Fridays.

Tomorrow, the school has arranged a City Tour of all the  major points of interest except the pyramids, which I’ve visited before. A highlight will be the Cairo Museum, which was off limits during the revolutionary activity—it’s on Tahrir Square where the rioting occurred.

I hope to spend some hours today working toward finishing my report from the last school, and preparing some flash drives for my new colleagues. And I hope my co-chair makes it here!

Always Be Happy!                                                   To Our Youth