Middle East

He Said, She Said. Part 2

“This reminds me of New York.”                                                                             -The best compliment we could give a place.

A picnic in Central Park is our favorite

Our favorite New York restaurant Joseph Leonard

We asked all of our Egyptian tour guides if they were offended by the term "Muslim Extremists."  Aboudi said it best: “I simply cannot call them Muslims.  They are evil men, who twist the Quar’an for their own gain."     

“Trust in Allah, but tie your camel to a post.”                                                                  -A Muslim proverb                         

“Always uncomfortable, never unsafe.”                                                                -Our motto for the trip                                                                

Aboudi and other tour guides brought Egypt alive for us

We went to many places where terrorist attacks had happened or could happen.  And while we were very risk averse, we refused to not go to a site because of fear.  Terrorists win when that happens.

“Is that…?  Yep, Mmbop is playing on the radio.”                                                -Ryan during a taxi ride in South America

A woman in Buenos Aires, after she finished giving Blakely directions to the train, finished with: “Watch your purse, and don’t talk to anyone.”

“No, you don’t understand.  I need clothes with serious durability.  Like half spandex, half tire leather.”                                                                                      -Blakely, while shopping to refresh her backpack, to a naive shop attendant pushing cashmere

“There’s a Hermés on our block.  We’re good.”                                                  -Blakely checking out the safety of our new neighborhood in Buenos Aires

Our neighborhood was full of gorgeous French architecture.

And rose gardens of course!

“Watch your head!  If you hit your head, watch your language!”                       -Our boat driver in Belize

“You know what word I can’t get behind?  Abreast.”                                           -Blakely to Ryan on a long bus ride in South America.  People ask us what we talked about.  The answer is: Everything.

Israel, an Introduction

Israel is the mecca for us.  Its history is long, deep, and full of a turmoil that continues today.  There's no wonder that the land is fought over so viciously: it is precious and, to many, worth the greatest price.  We feel honored to have walked on the streets, gazed at the hills, and even stood in the places where the events took place that literally give our life its meaning.

Unfortunately, the land of Abraham is full of us measly men and women and the imperfections reflect that.  But these faults don’t diminish Israel’s value.  In fact, they create a desperate desire in all hearts to preserve the land and the history that it holds.  We’ll try to relay the depth and breadth of our awe as we walk you through our remarkable stay in the Land of All Lands. 

Before we get into our Israeli itinerary, we should discuss the border.  After Africa, Egypt, and Jordan, we were very relieved to be in a more westernized country.  Ryan almost kissed every person at the border crossing, and he kept saying “We are really happy to be here,” like a crazy person.

Blakely was pretty excited too.

The first thing we noticed was that soldiers abound.  The second thing we noticed was the women soldiers, which after Egypt and Jordan, was a stark though welcome contrast.  All of the border soldiers were impeccably uniformed and frankly good-looking, and they hold their weapons at the ready.  The sight of soldiers is one that will carry through all of Israel and they carry their automatic weapons visibly.  

 

Lastly, we went to Israel in a time when tension between Israel’s Palestinian population and Jewish population was escalating.  While this was worrisome, we had no issue avoiding the protests or violence.  Israel’s citizens heavily depend on tourism and no one, on either side, wants a tourist harmed because the repercussions would severely damage their economy.  We never felt threatened.  Instead, we were troubled that such a magnificent country is torn apart with complicated and seemingly unsolvable issues.

Since our time in Israel was jam packed, we’ve divided the posts by region and that, to some degree, will separate what religion each post focuses on (the exception, obviously, being Jerusalem where Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all rein).  We were overwhelmed with wonderment for all of the different religious sites in Jerusalem.  And, with all my heart, I wish what we share wouldn’t drive us apart, but instead would bring us together. 

More to come.  Until then, here are some of our favorite pictures.

Our sunrise bike tour had us a little loopy.

Our Road trip through Jordan

Jordan shouldn't exist the way it does.  It shares borders with some of the craziest countries in the news: Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Syria.  And yet it handles the refugees and violence at every border with patience, and sometimes even a dry sense of humor.  It has a peaceful monarch who the Jordanian people love, who handles matters of state responsibly and is a leader who foreign governments respect.  In all, it’s the perfect halfway mark in our Middle Eastern tour.

First thing we loved: the roads are safe and well organized.  As you drive, there are security stops every half hour with armed guards in impeccable uniforms.  They check your passport, and when they hand it back, they smile and say, “Welcome to Jordan.”  Why, thank you!

In celebration of these great conditions, we rented a car and explored to our heart’s delight.  We skipped the capital city Amman for the smaller and more interesting Madaba.  We stayed with the charming and incredibly helpful Chef Odeh at The Black Iris Hotel.  Odeh knows everything you need to do and he can organize the perfect itinerary.  Along with being a fabulous shopping spot (which we’ll get to later!), Madaba prides itself on the peaceful relations between its large Christian population and Muslim population.  Lastly, Madaba’s central location makes it the best jumping off point for the country’s top sights!

First up:  The Wadi Mujib Siq, which has a fun hour-long hike up-river to a waterfall.  As you scramble over rocks and swim through pools, crane your neck up to the towering siq walls around you.

Next, we headed to the famed Dead Sea.  Whether the water and mud actually have any healing powers is up for discussion.  We certainly didn’t feel anything but dehydrated (though Ryan claimed fluency in Gaelic, the effects wore off).  Regardless, the Dead Sea can’t be missed and the buoyancy you feel while swimming is remarkable.  Warning:  Avoid the floating Russian tourists that soak for hours.

Fact: The Dead Sea is Dying.

After our float, we went to Mount Nebo which is where Moses looked upon the Promised Land for the first time.  After standing on top, it makes perfect sense.  The dry air allows sight over great distances to create a remarkable and humbling vista.  Mount Nebo is also where Moses's body was laid to rest (though the exact location of his body is unknown).

Our last sight was in Madaba proper—it’s the Church of St. George, which has a gorgeous mosaic floor that is a map from 600 A.D.  It is the oldest original map of the Holy Land and its depiction of Jerusalem is especially impressive. 

We moved on from Madaba for the main attraction: Petra.  On the way, we drove along the beautiful King’s Highway and we stopped at the impressive Kerak Castle, which was a Crusader fortress in the 1100s.  It’s one of the largest castles in the Middle East and so much fun to explore!  The views aren’t too bad either…

Finally, we made it to Petra.  Blakely treated herself to a cooking class with Petra Kitchen on our first night.  It was a blast.  The food was delicious, the chefs were entertaining, the other guests fun, and the atmosphere warm. 

In Petra, we stayed with wonderful and kind host Mosleh at his creatively named hotel, Cleopetra.  The rooms are simple and clean, but what makes this place exceptional is the host.  Mosleh is exactly what you want in a host and we’re so grateful to have met him!

Petra is a huge park full of ancient tombs.  “The Treasury” is the most iconic building, though by no means the only highlight.  But before you can even enter Petra, you must pass through the siq entrance that leads you through a natural, twenty-minute build up to the highlight.  Then, around a rock crevice, you see it.  A gorgeous façade carved into rose-gold rock. 

Exploring Petra is an all day affair (two or more days if you’re lucky).  Start your days early and enjoy when the crowds disperse after the Treasury.  It’s as if you’re discovering the ancient city on your own!

Our favorite was the hike to the Monastery.  The steep, 45-minute climb was well-worth it!  It is magnificent!

After Petra, we drove to Wadi Rum.  We partnered with Rum Stars and the owner Ahmed treated us more as honored guests than clients!  We explored the desert in the day and hiked, climbed, and even sand boarded through the gorgeous terrain.  We had no idea deserts could be so beautiful, or so fun!

Picture from the top!

Almost made it!

Victory!

After our day exploring, we spent the night at the Rum Stars Bedouin Camp.  We enjoyed a traditional Jordanian feast (where the food is buried with a fire beneath the sand for hours until it is tender and delicious!), we snuggled into one of Ahmed's cozy Bedouin tents for a well-deserved night rest.  Who knew a desert could treat us so well!

Our last night in Jordan, we headed back to visit Chef Odeh in Madaba where we had a couple more things to check off our list.  Not sites this time, these attractions were purely commercial.  By recommendation, we headed to Yosef’s Shop around the corner.  Yosef partners with the women in neighboring villages to produce hand-made textiles in different local styles.  Not only is Yosef fascinating to talk with (our shopping excursion quickly turned into a coffee treat), he provides employment to hundreds of women, and promotes their continued tradition of weaving.

Our time in Jordan was far too short, but Israel was calling!  Next up: Nazareth!

Cruising Down the Nile

Since life in ancient Egypt depended on the Nile, that is where most of the ruins can be found.  Not a bad way to travel! 

First, our boat cruised down to Edfu.  The Temple of Edfu is dedicated to the falcon god Horus (Ryan’s second favorite god.  Don’t get him started on Imhotep...).  Inside, you can see the statue where Egyptians believed Horus lived.  Every year, Horus’s wife’s statue (a goddess named Hathor who had a cow head) was brought to him and they were left alone in the temple to consummate their marriage.

Unfortunately, many of the faces on the reliefs were defaced by the early Coptic Christians.

Next, we went to the Temple of Kom Ombo.  This temple is interesting because additions were made to it in the Roman period so it’s a mix of ancient Egyptian and Roman architecture.  Plus, it has a museum attached to it where you can see mummified crocodiles!

The next morning, we had a casual 3:30AM wakeup call to join the daily police convoy across the vast dessert to visit amazing Abu Simbel.  Yes, it was worth it.  These two gigantic rock temples are so precious that in 1968 they were relocated 200 meters stone-by-stone to save them from the rising Nile.

Later that day, we visited one more temple , which was one of our favorites: Philae Temple.  It’s located on an island and dedicated to love.  What more could you want?

Our last activity was one of the most fascinating: we sailed in a traditional felucca (Egyptian sailboat) to visit a Nubian village, meet their chief, and have tea in his home.  The sail was absolutely fabulous and the Nile glistened as the sunset.  Seeing a real Nubian village was incredible!  If a little awkward.  It was a delight to talk to locals and see their way of life.  Even if holding the pet crocodiles was a bit more than we bargained for!

Our Nile cruise ended and next we flew back up to Cairo for more sights (you didn’t think we were done did you?)!

That's What We Did on our Nile cruise.  Click Here to read What We Learned.

Lessons from the Nile

1.  The colors on many Ancient Egyptian temples are still preserved 2000+ years later because they’re made from natural substances like iron and turquoise.  Plus Egypt’s dry climate causes minimal corrosion.   

2.  Egypt has a tough time managing the precious temples in their care.  The guards allow or even encourage rule breaking for a tip.  They even try to take you into off-limit places.  Once you're in the forbidden place, they'll demand a tip.  It's best practice to ignore anyone approaching you. 

Also, the influx of tourists is incredibly hard on the ancient tombs.  With the help of foreign aid, Egypt is building exact replicas of many tombs so visitors can enjoy the sights without damaging the original. 

3.  Hieroglyphics is a language based on symbols.  Each symbol equals a letter, a sound, or an action.  Hieroglyphics can be written right to the left, left to the right, upward, or downward.  You can tell what direction you should read by the direction that the objects face (bird’s beaks being our favorite tell-tale sign).

4.  Gods and pharaohs of ancient Egypt are sometimes difficult to differentiate because they both have temples, are worshipped, and were considered immortal.   Des was an ancient Egyptian dwarf god in charge of fun.  The original joker. 

5.  The Nubian tribes living on the Nile love crocodiles.  We speak from experience.

Ryan, what is that over the door???

Please, please, PLEASE take this thing away from me!

6.  When shopping for alabaster, you can see if the piece is authentic and handmade by holding it to the light-- you should be able to see the light through it.

7.  In a mosque, it isn't always necessary for a woman to cover her head.  A definite must is to cover your shoulders and knees.

8.  Egyptian temples have graffiti that's older than most European monuments.  

9.  The temples of Abu Simbel are two ginormous rock temples that were relocated stone by stone in 1968 when the building of the new dam threatened to destroy them.  Stone.  By.  Stone.

10.  Young people here love taking pictures with foreigners.  Including us.  I even had a family ask me to take a picture of THEM with my camera.  So, here they are.

Dear Family: If you're reading this, As-salamu alaykom!