Apr 18 11

Egypt = 37 degrees

by Emily Benjamin

The heat was smothering as we stepped out of Cairo Airport and made our way to Isis Hotel. Thick, enveloping and dry – with a nice hot breeze to match. It felt as though someone was holding a giant hair dryer to my face as I wound down the window, but any breeze was better than no breeze at all.

We had a restful afternoon after our flight from Jordan, and made ourselves at home in the hotel with the air-conditioning pumping. We used the time to make some plans for the next few days, and decided that tomorrow would be the best bet for the pyramids. We are only in Cairo for a few days over the 18 days in Egypt, and decided against maybe better judgement to kick off proceedings at 4am the next day for a sunrise tour of some of Egypt’s most famous sights – Giza, Dahshur and Saqqara pyramids.

The morning was tough – a 4am wake up after only 5 hours sleep – and the light from the city outside was exactly as I’d left it when I went to bed. We sipped tea and had eggs on toast before heading out at 5am for Giza, about 40 minutes away. Our driver, Ali, would be driving us to all sights we wished to visit, but would be ‘outsourcing’ the first part – a camel or horse ride to view the famous pyramids of Giza at sunrise. As he waited back at the car, no doubt catching a few more z’s, we negotiated a price for two camels to take us to see the pyramids. Negotiating with Egyptians appears to be difficult, but even more so this morning with such little sleep and with the sun rising quickly as we haggled. Eventually we settled on a price and set off slowly for the hills to see the sunrise.

We caught glimpses of the pyramids as we rode but the eventual view was pretty amazing. We were a few hundred metres away, as the gates didn’t open until 8am, but you could still get a sense of how huge these pyramids are. Thousands of years old and in better condition than buildings much younger around the world. Built without the technical equipment we have today, and mostly just built as tombs for kings, queens and important society figures. You’d expect with each pyramid built, the next king or queen would demand theirs be bigger, but this isn’t the case. Often they would just try to make theirs stand out in a different way – stepped finish, smooth finish, location, or even the angle of the pyramid itself. In one case, King¬†Chephren of the fourth dynasty¬†asked for a big lump of rock to be removed from in front of his pyramid site, so people would have a clearly view. However he was convinced to make something of the rock and instead it was turned into the sphinx!

After our camel ride we set off for Dahshur, or the bent pyramid. It is further out than the others, but we made it with 5 minutes to spare before the gates opened and were the first ones to arrive. The owner of this pyramid feared that the angle was too steep as it was being built, and decided half way up to make a change. Thus the bent pyramid of Dahshur came about. Next to it, about 1500 metres away, is the Red pyramid, so called because from a distance it looks red. Original stuff, you could say.

Next came Saqqara and the museum of Imhotep. Imhotep was a scientist, doctor and engineer, perhaps the pioneer of pyramid building all those years ago. The museum was amazing – small, but filled with artefacts that are anywhere between 4500 – 2000 years old. Bronze figures, medical devices, jewellery and hair pieces – all in pristine condition. Imhotep has his own museum here at Saqqara because through his work over the years building pyramids for kings and their queens. But as Ali tells us, perhaps the most important point is that he was bald, which was considered a sign of supreme intelligence at the time. If only that were the case now, Shane Warne could have saved himself the hassle…

Finally we made it back to Giza to see the pyramids up close. As the hours ticked over though, the temperature guage had been creeping up rather quickly and even before lunch we were tired, dehydrated and desperate for cool air. I was feeling rather faint so I stuck to the air-conditioned car as much as possible, and Ali was a real star in driving us as close as he could to all the sights. By 3pm we had pretty much peaked with the pyramids and the sphinx at the end and decided to retire for the afternoon. The management at Isis Hotel were kind enough to offer us a cool room to relax and shower before our night bus that evening – that’s right, we seemed to have forgotten that we were spending 10 hours on a bus that night to get to Siwa, an oasis in the north west of Egypt. Suddenly, the 4am start that day didn’t seem like the best idea.

Overall the pyramids were pretty amazing… but maybe not as amazing as I had expected. I could also blame the heat, which really was suffocating. I could also blame general soreness from weeks of travel. You’d think the thick, hot air of Cairo might have acted like a sauna for our weary muscles but apparently not. Then there was the lack of sleep – and that’s something that never fails to affect me. Perhaps we’ll make it back to the pyramids before we leave Egypt, to see them at sunset, away from the crowds and the hot lunchtime haze. But if not, that’ll be ok too – there is plenty more to Egypt than the pyramids!

– Em :)

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Filed Under → Words
Apr 17 11

Giza, Dahshur and Saqqara

by Emily Benjamin

I had high expectations of the pyramids, and felt a bit of pressure to come away with at least a few photos without crowds of tourists and clouds of pollution smothering the view. Given the recent unrest in the area, there were a lot less tourists than usual for this time of year. But unfortunately the day was still hazy, with high temperatures and a thick, suffocating wind blowing. These photos don’t show the blue-grey sky or the dull yellow sand, but after a bit of work in post-production I feel the gold and cream tinge cuts through the smog and captures just how dry and hot the area can be.IMG 2542Output4IMG 2380Output5IMG 2502Output1Output2IMG 2562IMG 2396

Filed Under → Travel
Apr 16 11

You’re Welcome in Jordan

by Emily Benjamin

Now I try to capture 8 days in Jordan in a succinct blog entry, including all our adventures, mishaps and experiences. From Amman to Wadi Rum, the deep blue of the Dead Sea to the bright red of the sunset on the Monastery, from the lowest lake in the world to the high peaks of Petra, and all the sights in between. What an overwhelming surprise Jordan has been.

We knew it would be a packed week, but I had no idea we could fit so much in. From our early morning arrival on Friday 8th April, we gave ourselves only 3 hours rest before we went out to explore. In that one afternoon and evening we covered most of Amman, from the cheapest and best falafel around, the views of the citadel looking over the city, and the panorama of sandblasted yellow and white Lego block houses of Amman. We met some locals, smelled the sweet shisha, and enjoyed the cool sunset from Rainbow Street.

On Saturday we shared a cab with a determined French man to Umm Quays, Ajloun and Jerash. I’d never heard of the first two, but was keen to see the ruins of Jerash to the north of Amman. We filled our day in these spots by taking photos and enjoying the warm but dry sun – a welcome change from the sweltering humidity of Asia. It is so much easier to walk around in hot dry heat than hot wet heat, I know that for sure! By 6pm we were back in Amman and back to Hashem’s Restaurant for the best falafel in town – for only 4JD.

Sunday came quickly after a quiet night in and we were up early again for a public bus to Petra. This was the big goal of our trip to Jordan – to see the Treasury in Petra, perhaps best known as the backdrop for the Indiana Jones movies. Over two thousand years old and taking years and years to carve, the temple and tomb facades of Petra were truly a breathtaking sight. By 5pm we were alone but for 4 other people, able to absorb the magnificent Treasury as it was bathed in the last of the afternoon sun. I’ve written a separate account of Petra in an earlier blog, so I won’t gush much more here, but it was absolutely spectacular.

By Monday we were itching to see the rest of Petra, as the day before covered only half what we had expected. Preparing to walk the same way as before, through the narrow, mysterious Siq, we were stopped by locals offering a horseback ride over the top to the Monastery. We haggled them down from 70JD to 40JD, and set off. For the next 2 hours our horses negotiated rocks, rubble and sand as we went around, up and over the top of the mountains, eventually stopping at a point with a clear view back to our hotel, kilometres away. We left the horses here while we scrambled down one side of the mountain, across narrow paths, and at times sliding on bums as it felt safest. Ten minutes later and we were told to keep our voices low, close our eyes, and hold hands, as our guide lead us up to a ledge above the Treasury. We opened our eyes and had to quickly remember to keep the ‘WOW’s’ to a minimum – being in this spot could get our guide in trouble with the police below, apparently. For the second time in 24 hours, we could see the Treasury with no one in it – but this time, there were hundreds of tourists below, unaware that we were peering over their shoulders.

The rest of the day was long but fulfilling. We crossed over to the High Place of Sacrifice for 360 degree views of the endless valleys below. I still haven’t found out how big Petra is, but the next day, I followed the view of the mountains from a bus window for more than 30 minutes before they disappeared – so I assume it’s pretty big! After lunch we found ourselves following closely in the footsteps of an Australian man with his local guide that we had met back where we left our horses. The guy from Melbourne quickly invited us to share his guide while we walked with them, and we discovered that Mohammed is not just any guide. It turns out Mohammed is a location director for movies and productions in Jordan, most notably responsible for the multiple Oscar award winning Hurt Locker in 2009. He rattled off more movies he had worked on, and sights he could recommend for us in Petra and Wadi Rum, and invited us to add him as a friend on Facebook. We took his card and promised to get in touch, before parting ways later in the afternoon as we headed to the Monastery.

We took donkeys to the top of the Monastery for the ‘best view in Petra.’ They weren’t wrong – the view was astounding. Another panoramic view but with the late afternoon shadows deepening the lines of the endless valleys, and the rich reds coming through in the last of the sun. Tired and overwhelmed, we trekked back down and made our way to our hotel, with our last 2JD put to use on a cab back up the hill to the hotel in Wadi Musa.

Tuesday would have been an ideal day for a sleep in, but it was not to be. We had booked a 6.30am bus to Wadi Rum, but by 6.45am it had not arrived. The day before we had asked three separate times to book the bus for us, but it turns out that three is not the magic number. It had not been done. No worries though – our knight in a shining pick-up showed up, and offered to catch us up to the bus some 25 kilometres away. We had no choice so we said yes, and over the next 15 minutes we gripped each other as our driver took racing lines at 140km/hr through s-bends on the edge of cliffs. No railings, no concerns that he was going to be caught speeding, and probably the most concerning was that he was on the wrong side of the road going around blind corners most of the time. But we made it, made not safe and sound, but at least awake. Our bus was waiting and we jumped on board, and settled in for the 1 hour ride to Wadi Rum.

Wadi Rum reminds me of Mars. No, I haven’t been to Mars before… after all, women are from Venus, right? But Wadi Rum, or the Valley of the Moon, could easily pass as another planet. In fact it has passed as Mars a number of times before, for movies – Red Planet and Mission to Mars, to name a couple. Here we had arranged for a night under the stars, and we were joined by five others and our hotelier, Walid. Maybe not a hotelier, as we were sleeping in tents. Does that make him a tentier, maybe? Who knows. But first we were given a jeep tour of Lawrence of Arabia’s one time home. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s house and spring, and burnt red sand dunes. We wrapped our scarves tightly around our heads as sand whipped through the deserts in every direction. We saw rainbows of yellow sand, green shrubs, orange and red mountains and bright blue skies. Every corner looked like a movie set, complete with mini sand tornadoes and wild camels creating silhouettes on the horizon. You haven’t been to Wadi Rum until you’ve got a photo of a camel on the horizon with a cloud behind it, I say!

By night we sipped tea and stared at the stars, before setting off again early on Wednesday morning for Petra again. There we picked up our hire car and set off for Madaba along the Dead Sea Highway. A brief stop at Dana on the way was fruitful, as we met a couple from the morning’s bus ride there. Turns out I had forgotten my jumper on the bus and of all people to collect it, this couple grabbed it and hoped to catch us again. Which was very lucky, as the nights in Jordan had been surprisingly cool and I’d been layering up to 4 or 5 times to keep warm. That layer would have been missed! A few hours later after a flat tyre and our first glimpse of the Dead Sea, we were checked into our hotel in Madaba for our last three nights in Jordan.

Thursday we made the most of our hire car and went to the Dead Sea. We were stopped three times along the way, for very different reasons. The first was a passport check point, because of how close we were to the Israel border. The second stop was for a camel ride with a local boy named Ahmed. That was very random – he waved us down, got his camel to sit, and offered us both a ride. He tried to charge 20JD for the service but we weren’t having any of that, and gave him 6JD instead. The third stop was to make way for some rally cars. Ok, not just any rally cars – the World Rally Championship was being hosted here for the next three days. Monkey got out and took photos for 10 minutes, no doubt revelling in the opportunity to see the real life rally characters that he’s raced against in Playstation. Then onwards to the Dead Sea, where we did as tourists do – we giggled and posed as our legs were lifted out from under us and we bobbed up and down in the salty water. Of course we also covered ourselves in the Dead Sea mud, and enlisted the helpful lifeguard to take our photos while we dried the mud in the sun.

It was only once we’d had another dip, had a shower and scrubbed off the mud that Monkey, being the muppet that he is, realised his iPhone had been in his pocket the whole time. You might call that a Major Monkey Mishap. We let it dry, tried the blow dryer technique, but unfortunately the phone died at the Dead Sea. We traipsed back to Madaba and had a quiet night, but spoiled ourselves with a delicious feast of warm pita bread, spicy beef sausages, lemon and garlic chicken wings and kebab and chicken shawarmas for dinner at Haret Jdoudna, reportedly the best restaurant in Madaba. I can’t compare it to anywhere but it was a delicious end to a crazy day.

Friday was our last full day in Madaba and I think we used it well. We lay by the pool for a few hours, with regular attempts to access the internet seeming futile by lunch time. A late breakfast had us full until 4pm so we headed into town for a quick look at the Greek Orthodox church containing the famous mosaic map of Jerusalem before an early dinner. It wasn’t long before the crowds and loud music outside interrupted our dinner – Madaba Tourism Agency was putting on a Middle Eastern Music Festival for us! They gave us front row seats for the action – singers and dancers from Jordan, Egypt, Palestine and Syria all there to show off their local song and dance talents as the sun went down. If I were to be honest, a lot of it sounded the same – but they each brought their own flair to the table with bagpipes, oboes and mesmerising dancers.

And Saturday… well, I’m finishing this entry now from our hotel in Cairo! On the 18th floor, with a view to Cairo Tower and the Egyptian Museum. Apparently Tahrir Square is about 10minutes walk away, but given the recent unrest, and not wanting to concern our families and friends, we’ll won’t be walking in that direction needlessly. For now we take a break in the airconditioned comfort of our room and work out how we’ll be spending the next 18 days in Egypt!

There you have it – my week in Jordan. I was succinct as I could be but this may still be my longest blog entry yet. There was so much to see and do in Jordan, but I’m glad we fit it all in. My view of Jordan has changed dramatically over the past week and I would earnestly encourage my friends and family to visit – the temperatures in April were sublime, the people were friendly and always incredibly welcoming, and the sights were almost always breathtaking. Unfortunately there is only one downside, and that is that we’ve found Jordan to be far more expensive than we planned. When we mentioned this to some locals, they laughed and agreed – it’s like some sneaky secret of theirs, to entice tourists here and then surprise them with hefty price tags. We blew our budget by almost double, maybe more. But it was just one week, and one fabulous week at that, so we’ll survive!

Until next time…

– Em :)

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Filed Under → Words
Apr 12 11

Portraits of Petra

by Emily Benjamin

Petra is unbelievable. Seriously, it is – I did my research before we left, checked out heaps of photos, and thought I was prepared. But I wasn’t. Every corner of the siq, every valley, every peak, every tomb and every camel – they all had me gasping for breath and wishing I knew better adjectives than amazing, incredible and spectacular. Phenomenal might be a good one, but I still don’t think that covers it.

I’m not sure how much of the area we covered, but we had 13 hours in there to explore, with sunburn and blisters to prove it. When we arrived at lunchtime from Amman, Monkey was chomping at the bit to get out of the hotel room and down into the valley to explore, so we set off. A guide accompanied us, and he was brilliant. Mahmood is a local, and lived in Petra until 1985 when it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Bedoiun people were relocated. He knew everything there was to know about the area, and let us walk at our own pace. Which ended up being slowly, because we were so awestruck by the sights, and busy snapping photos.

The first afternoon took us through the siq and down to the Treasury, before making our way down to the basin. By that time it was too late to climb to the Monastery, but just in time to miss the crowds back at the Treasury on our way home. I’d seen photos of the Treasury, Petra’s most famous tomb, and often wondered how the photographer managed to get photos with no one in them – just the spectacular scenery. And now I know – wait til 5pm and everyone will have left. Amazing!

The next day we aimed for the Monastery, Petra’s second most famous tomb, but got a little sidetracked. We were offered an ‘Indiana Jones’ horse ride and as we’d bargained them down from 75JD to only 40JD, we figured we may as well say yes. Quoted as a 45minute ride to the top, it was almost 2 hours long and took us around and over the siq, to a spot hundreds of metres above the Treasury. Once again we got photos of the Treasury with no one else in it – this time from above, where no one could see us. Back to the horses and we were dropped off near the High Place of Sacrifice, some 700 steps from the valley below. We check that out, then headed down slowly, winding through the valley seeing the side of Petra that others miss when they only visit for one day.

A quick picnic on the mountain top and we set off for the Monastery. By now we’d covered countless kilometres and my feet were sore and blistered, so we bargained to get two donkeys to escort us up the 800 stairs to the Monastery. It is bigger and better preserved than the Treasury, which is surprising, as we were whipped and blasted by wind and sand while up the top. It’s a wonder that it has remained in such pristine condition. We trekked a little higher to the ‘best view in Petra’ and were not disappointed. I’ve seen a few incredible views in my time – including a handful already in the day – but this was spectacular. Blue skies, red and orange rocks, and sprawling valleys below.

By 4pm we’d made our way back from the Monastery, through the basin and back through the siq just in time to get a free horse ride for the last 700metres. Which is lucky, because my legs gave up. We’d saved our last 2JD for the cab back up the hill and collapsed into the hotel just before 5pm. Dehydrated, aching all over but with a few hundred photos waiting to be reviewed. I took over 400 photos over the two days but have culled it down to 170, a handful which I’ll share below, and back on the main page.

Petra was one of the most phenomenally (there, that one works!) spectacular and jaw dropping places I have ever visited. I can’t even imagine how long it would have takes for the tombs and facades to be carved from the coloured sandstone, and over such a huge area as well. Absolutely incredible. If you’re ever in the area, give it more than a day, maybe even three. It’s tiring of course, and it ended up being quite expensive with entrance fees, a guide, and horse/donkey rides. But it is so, so worth it.

The more scenic shots are back on the main page, but here are a handful of photos of Monkey and I from the last two days in Petra.

– Em :)

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Filed Under → Words
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