Tuesday, April 7, 2009

All I can say is that my life is pretty plain

I am now back home in Skokie, trying to stay awake long enough so that I can sleep through the night and wake up and go to work as though I am already readjusted to the time difference.

Hence, I don't think I have the energy to make a coherent vacation summation post, so that will have to wait, or be left unsaid. I will say--as I am starting to load photos onto my computer--that much of the acute aggravations, anxieties and annoyances that I may have blogged about on a daily basis have pretty much already given way to a sense of awe for all that I saw on this trip, from Jerusalem's Old City to Petra to Akko to the Great Pyramids and much more. And I should have some nice pictures to share in the days ahead.

Obviously, I feel quite fortunate to have been able to go on this trip, and to travel as extensively as I have over the years, particularly the last 10 or so. A big factor in this is the the residual benefit of the one great perk of a job I didn't like and have been gone from for 3-1/2 years, namely the ability to earn airline miles by making company purchases (primarily media buys) on a personal credit card. Because of this, I have been able to fly to Australia, Italy, Amsterdam/Prague, Spain, Scandinavia, Israel/Egypt and more without paying for airfare (and I still have 80,000 miles). So, reflecting an old proverb, or seemingly so, good things come out of bad things.

I hesitate to convey the following, because in doing so I'm doomed to jinx myself and suffer great consequences, but I do think it is pretty incredible--in the good fortune category.

Over the past 10 years of traveling, in going to the above named places, as well as other international and many domestic locations, on long vacations and weekend road trips, I would estimate I have traveled the equivalent of half a year. And in all my travels over what equates to a 6-month period, I have never encountered a significant rainfall. Maybe 1 or 2 days of a light mist, or a little rain on a getaway day, but nothing that has ever interfered with a day of siteseeing or photography. Sure, rainfall in Israel & Egypt may have been a bit unusual, but this factoid covers a weeklong trip to the Seattle area, where it always rains, and Australia shortly after my sister's trip there was marred by lots of rain, and about ten trips to New York City, and trips to every major league baseball stadium sans 2 (the ones in Florida; I also have to get to the 2 new New York stadiums) without ever--on a trip outside Chicago--experiencing a rain delay, let alone a postponement. Anyway, I'm sure I'll now experience a weeklong monsoon wherever I go next, but as someone for whom taking pictures is such an intrinsic part of any trip, I feel extremely fortunate that my travels have included no rain.

OK, I think I'll go lie down now, and hopefully sleep until dawn.

Monday, April 6, 2009

That's Entertainment?

It is now 11:20pm in London, which means it is 12:20am in Cairo, where I awoke this morning at 3:30. But though it's obviously been a long day and sleep is just beyond this post, unless I am oblivious to a much greater altered state than I realize, I don't know what can explain this: I just saw a musical that has been running in London for over 20 years, has seemingly earned rave reviews and garnered a standing ovation at tonight's performance. But to me, to put it Britishly, it was rubbish. It just seemed like a second rate, subpar musical, but somehow everyone else in the theatre seemed to love it.

I am not speaking of Phantom of the Opera, which though I find overrated and boring, is a comparative masterpiece. Nor am I referencing Les Miserables, an actual masterpiece, which I was actually hoping to see tonight despite having seen it multiple times, but there were no tickets to be had. I am referring to a show called Blood Brothers, which is seemingly a London-only phenomenon that has been running continously since 1988. It is written by some guy named Willy Russell, who I am not familiar with writing anything else. And I haven't been enticed to see it on my 5 prior visits to London. But after having bought a ticket a couple months ago to see a musical version of Zorro, with music by the Gipsy Kings, only to have it close last month, I got to London without anything I was really hyped to see. It's a bunch of stuff that I've seen often--Wicked, Hairspray, Jersey Boys, Lion King, Phantom, Les Miz, Chicago, Mamma Mia, Oliver--as well as Billy Elliott, which I saw here last year and is supposedly coming to Chicago soon after opening last October on Broadway.

Anyway, I took a flyer on Blood Brothers, hoping it might be an enjoyable London surprise, like Bat Boy the Musical was a few years back, but it was just lame. IMHO.

But I still love London and am glad for the stopover. I went to the National Gallery of Art, on the short list of best art museums in the world, and in addition to a whirlwind tour of its amazing permanent collection, saw a strong, if a bit short, Picasso exhibit focusing on how he put his own spin on other artists' works.

On the negative side, I had a somewhat pricey "rib eye steak" that I believe was the British equivalent of Ponderosa. Oh well.

At least after the bad musical, in the Picadilly Circus tube station, there was a street musician--albeit seemingly in a sponsored alcove--playing The Jam's "That's Entertainment". A nice way to end the night.

So tomorrow, I fly home, scheduled to arrive a bit after Noon. Mom, I'll call from the tarmac on arrival and will look for you at Vestibule 5C of the International Terminal.

I have an interesting travel factoid I'll post upon my return; no need to jinx myself now.

See you soon. Happy Opening Day!

Go Cubs!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

In Denial, I Rode a Boat

No, silly punographers, I didn't "row" a boat in the Nile, I simply rode one. Or perhaps more correctly--as I wasn't Humphey Bogart--I rode in one. (Though if I were Humphrey Bogart, I would have traded for the other Hepburn). Yes, for what I thought was a fairly ridiculous fee, and even that was already less than half of where the negotiation started, I got to ride in a creaky old tourist boat up the Nile River--or perhaps technically down the river, as I believe we headed north, and the Nile is the only river to float upstream. Sorry, now I'm confused too. Anyway, I rode in a boat for about an hour with a guy who really didn't speak any English, but still tried to point out things I should photograph. The scenery really wasn't all that spectacular, and really isn't anywhere in Cairo except for the Pyramids, but the Nile River ride can be chalked up as another once in a lifetime experience.

Before denial, I spent a couple hours in the Egyptian Museum, seeing all sorts of really old stuff, including a bunch of King Tut's stuff, mummy cases, statues and more. I'm not really too fervent about Egyptian art; I admire the age and even some of the visuals, but to me, if you've seen one, you've seen them all. I did not pay extra to go to the Royal Mummy Room and see actual mummies. Guess you could say, "I missed my Mummy."

Also went to the Citadel, where I entered a mosque for the first time in my life. Had to take my shoes off. I also saw some old churches and even an old synagogue, now defunct as Egypt no longer has a Jewish population.

I ate at a restaurant overlooking the pyramids; food was OK, but the view was better.

Tomorrow, I'll probably go to a couple more places with the guide, including the Khan Al Khallil, a huge outdoor bazaar. It's turning out that nothing in Cairo is really essential except the pyramids, but I have to fill my time somehow. It's good to know about, but not somewhere I'll rush back to.

As I explained yesterday, I'm on an internet-access card that expires tonight, so no blogging tomorrow. Monday morning I fly to London, and am on limited time there, so I'm not sure I'll post then either, unless there's a free computer in the hotel or still the cheap internet joint in Picadilly. I'll be home on Tuesday, and back at work on Wednesday.

So thanks for reading along. This is a day early, but for now--after having walked like an Egyptian--I'll leave you with this (sorry if the sound is bad; I can't hear it):

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Day of Great Pyramids

I hope someone is still out there reading this, because I seem to have left the land of the free hotel internet service. This is actually costing an exorbitant amount for 2 hours access in just a 24-hour period, but I felt compelled to continue the travelogue and to let anyone who has been reading along know that I have indeed reached Cairo. (For those keeping score, I have now been on 5 continents--North America, Europe, Asia, Australia & Africa. I'm pretty sure Amy/Roger and Allison still have me beat, and perhaps Paolo, though I don't recall any stories of your being to Oz, so perhaps you're still only at 5 as well. Unless Antarctica; it wouldn't surprise me.)

It also isn't every day that you get to tell of walking around the Great Pyramids, as well as riding on a camel for an extensive period while taking photos & video. After getting into Cairo Airport near 2am and to my hotel around 3--after a bit of cab confusion but no real problems, except for driving that makes Chicago seem like Champaign, and this at 2am--I slept to nearly 11. I could see one Pyramid, the great one, out my hotel window. I'm staying at a pretty nice place for a reasonable rate, but it isn't quite across the street from the Pyramids entrance. And of course, there's no free internet access; kind of ridiculous if you ask me.

In asking about tours, I got offered a personal Egyptian escort--calm down, not as it sounds--for only about $8 per hour, including his driving--the camel ride was extra--and it turned out to be a great idea as he kept all the hustlers off my case, saved me a ton of walking, provided good background information and more. I went into the second pyramid (nothing was there) and saw the Sphinx. I know I got some great photos, at least I better have, having taken nearly 1,000. But hey, memory cards are cheap these days. At night, I saw a Sound & Light Show at the pyramids, which made them turn phosphorescent colors. Not so awesome, but worth doing.

Overall, it was a pretty phenomenal experience. The Pyramids are pretty much what you might expect, but still completely dumbfounding at the same time.

I will use the same guide to get into Central and Islamic Cairo tomorrow, and am thankful for that. Just the area around Giza (where the pyramids are) seems pretty crazy & intimidating, so I'm not so eager to go wandering on my own. Except for inside the Egyptian Museum.

Looking forward to a long night's sleep; should be able to post again tomorrow night.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

I don't know why you say Shalom, I say Shalom

Shalom (Hello). Well, unless something goes terribly wrong, this will be my last post from Israel. And while I perhaps haven't found it to be all that was promised, I believe once I get some distance from some of the acute annoyances, I will remember my visit fondly.

In less than 2 hours, I will depart for the airport to fly to Cairo at 1:10 am, arriving at 1:40 am local time. I assume that catching a taxi with a driver who knows how to get to my hotel, which is right across from the pyramids (and I have the address written in Arabic), shouldn't be too difficult and tomorrow I will awake to see one of the great wonders of the world.

Today started with another moronic and mean cab driver, who despite being provided with the name, address and location of Museum of the Jewish Diaspora written in Hebrew by the hotel clerk, still took me to the wrong museum and blamed me for telling him the wrong place. I finally got to the museum, which was a nice display about the dispersal of the Jewish people over the centuries.

I then went, again via cab--and here I'll stop to say that I don't think in my entire life, let alone on a single trip, I've taken as many non-airport cabs as I have in Israel. I prefer traveling by subway, and these don't exist in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, at least not as far as I found for getting to the tourist sites--to the ancient port of Jaffa, which is now part of Tel Aviv. Strolling around Jaffa was enjoyable and presented some nice Mediterranean Sea perspectives.

After Jaffa, I wanted to take a cab to Rothschild Avenue, an area with supposedly many prime Bauhaus architecture examples. I was a little worried about conveying this to a cabbie, but lucked into a taxi driver with good English and strong comprehension of what I was looking for. Instead of just taking me to Rothschild, he drove me around--with my full compliance--to several of his favorite Bauhaus buildings and other notable structures in the area. When we finally got to Rothschild Ave., it was clear that what he showed me was much better than what I would've seen on my own.

I finally found and ate a bagel in Israel, shortly after having a donut, and if anyone wants to invest in the first Holey Land bagel & donut shop, featuring real Chicago/New York-style bagels, I think we'd make a fortune. Though I still don't think I'd want to live here.

But after the architecturally-savvy and nice cabbie, and another visit to the record shop, whereupon learning about the clerk Dov's fondness for Wilco, I wowed him with my Jeff Tweedy in a living room story, although the human interaction was a bit less than idyllic overall in Israel (and I never did meet any nice Jewish girls, except for my cousins), it seems the Israel part of the journey has ended on a positive note. Though of course, I still have to go to the airport and get through security. Fun.

Hopefully, my hotel in Cairo--the Sofitel Le Sphinx--has a computer to use, and I'll try to check in tomorrow.

Shalom (Goodbye). (and Peace)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

All Over the Map

So today I was arrested for photographing a sacred tree whose branches are believed (by some) to have supplied Jacob with the wood to build his ladder. I was taken to the torture chamber in the dungeon of the Mossad secret police, whereupon I was beaten with a lash until I confessed that I had indeed bought a Guns 'n Moses t-shirt. I tried to explain that it was only because my friend Roger had requested one, but they weren't buying it, so the beatings continued until proof of my Bar Mitzvah could be obtained. Which wasn't easy since the synagogue is now a Syrian church.* Thanks Roger; now not only do I have weird blisters on my hands as a Dead Sea souvenir, but my back looks like the guy from The Da Vinci Code. And he's at least married to Jennifer Connelly.

Do they celebrate April Fool's Day in Israel? I haven't been able to discern any particular merriment, but all fooling aside, today was a very nice day with no significant hassles.

I awoke early and took a 1-1/2 hour train north to Acre (aka Akko), an ancient port city with an Old City leftover from 2 different eras (1200's & 1800's). After 3 hours there, I took an hour+ bus to Safed (aka Zefat), an old holy city that also sports an Artist's Colony. I enjoyed seeing both places, although both took about an hour of meandering through labyrinthian passageways until I seemingly reached what I was supposed to see. And I'm still pretty sure I missed some important things in each place, as there kept seeming to be ambiguous signs pointing in directions that were hard to follow. Obviously it was a long day, with about 6 hours of public transport, but no major headaches or snafus. Just that when I got back to my hotel at about 9:00pm, the door was locked for security purposes and no one responded to my buzzing. So I went off to eat, had a nice meal (tilapia, fries, salad, bread & diet Pepsi for about $12) and was able to get in when I got back.

Out of context, but have I mentioned that police and soldiers walk through cities and ride trains with machine guns on their back? It's quite lovely.

OK, one more day in Israel, then my 1:10am flight to Cairo on Friday morning. I hope to see the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora and the Old Jaffa Port tomorrow.

*This part is true. The temple I attended as a kid, B'Nai Emunah in Skokie, sold its building to a Syrian church a few years ago. And yes, Roger did request a Guns 'n Moses t-shirt. And Paul Bettany, who played Silas in the bad Da Vinci Code movie, is married to Jennifer Connelly. And speaking of the Da Vinci Code, or perhaps this was from Angels & Demons (I get them confused), in Acre I walked through a Templar Tunnel, all the way around & through the Old City. I guess Old Acre was the Knights Templars home base.

And Springsteen fans, check out Backstreets.com for their annual April Fool's hijinks. It's also a great place to check setlists, as the tour starts tonight.

OK, now this came into my head; feel free to play along. "Fool" songs. Fool for the City (Foghat); What a Fool Believes (Doobie Bros.); Foolin' (Def Leppard); Fool in the Rain (Zeppelin); Nobody's Fool (Cinderella; ashamed to admit that one). OK, I think I'm out.