“Daddy, I love it here. I wish we could stay here forever.” Ava told us after having arrived in Tigre.
After stepping off the Azamara Pursuit at 9:15 in the morning a few days ago, it was only a 20 minute walk to the train station for our next hop. We found a coffee shop in the station that had good wifi and we caught up on emails, news and finalized our Antarctica video. Already, I was planning to go back there but this time hoped to scuba dive and started looking into how we could get ice diving experience.
Tigre is considered a northern suburb of sprawling Buenos Aires but has the last vestiges of what one might call a town before jumping off into the frontier. We were set to stay at a small cabin on the banks of the river but were told that supermarkets were long walks and we were better off taking our food with us. We had bought 6 steaks, 2 loaves of bread, butter, chorizo, potato chips, milk, coffee, wine, potatoes, spices, 3 mangos, 3 tomatoes, 1 cucumber, cereal and strong armed 5 shopping bags full of food along with our luggage to the pier. Communicating solely in Spanish with our host and boatman, through ‘What’s app‘, we met our boatman “Beto” who took us by boat taxi up a series of canals to our little casa called ‘Sol De Medianoche’ which translates to ‘midnight sun.’ “We wouldn’t have been able to come here without speaking Spanish” Lisa glowed triumphantly.
Our stay was magical. Our cabin was poised upon stilts to save it from perennial flooding and we were befriended by local dogs that came to hangout with us on our balcony demanding ear and tummy rubs. There was a dinner ‘surge’ of canines especially when we discarded fatty scraps from our steak dinners which bought their affection instantly. The whole stay felt like going to the cabin in Minnesota or Wisconsin with locals zipping by in small boats and kids swimming the murky water and making mud pies on shore. The days were long and at night we’d sit on the balcony watching whatever the river brought by, listening to music, dodging mosquitos and counting our blessings.
The Almacen Boat
We went through food fast. By the second day, we had burned through our steaks and most of our eggs and were at risk of running out of sustenance. Luckily, there is a river boat called the ‘Almacen’ which translates to ‘mercantile’ which makes its rounds between 12:00 and 1:00 and docks wherever locals come down to the water’s edge and wave it over. Its arrival was the most exciting part of our day and much like when the ice cream truck rang its bell to announce its arrival in our neighborhood on a sweltery July summer day back when we were kids.
Shiny luck. With our new found fortune, we were able to stock up on fruit, eggs, coffee, salt, pepper and chorizo sausages for evening barbecue. For locals, this IS the grocery store and we welcomed it every day. Pura vida.
Science and Reading Lessons
Ava’s educational time was structured around the science of river deltas. The Tigre delta felt similar to that of communities of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam with its houses and dirt walking paths mirroring the larger river channels but she didn’t know the science of how they formed. Coincidentally, we were reading “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” as our guided reading book which is about an African American girl named Cassie whose family grows up in the Mississippi river delta although the book is less about the science of river deltas and more about the harsh prejudice of racism. As the first day of our stay was during Martin Luther King Jr. day, there were some nice lessons on the importance of standing up for others.
Tomorrow, we’ll have 7 forms of transportation back down to Buenos Aires and across the border to Monteverde, Uruguay where we’ll be for the next 2 weeks.
A trip to the local K-mart near my in-laws house in Tehachapi planted the seed for the ice kingdom 4 years ago.
Walking around the aisles that day long ago, I came across a bargain discount book bin and found a Lonely Planet Antarctica edition for 2 dollars. I laughed out loud at the notion of actually going there, but scooped up the book nonetheless thinking that it would be an entertaining read.
Most guide books start with suggested itineraries, highlights and then country history. The history of our southernmost continent however, is quite short, as the lack of civilizations means that its history starts with notable explorers like Shackleton, and then moves on to more familiar names like Amudsen and then to those who braved routes to the pole first as a team, then individually. One of the more curious endeavors in a series of ‘firsts’ for the continent were the intrepid folks who set out to coin themselves the first skydivers over Antarctica. Sadly, the first attempts killed the first jumpers as at the altitude, cold and lack of oxygen caused the first skydivers to lose consciousness and fall to their deaths. The next batch utilized automatic parachute deployment devices which worked, but brought their lifeless bodies down with a hard thud, immortalized in a way they had not envisioned.
Antarctica is a land of extremes. Extreme cold. Extreme weather. We set out on the ‘Azamara Pursuit’ from Buenos Aires for a 14 day cruise down south and back up with a stop in the Falkland islands. Although January in Argentina is officially summer, after 3 days at sea of chugging south, we were in 10 foot, white-capped swells with biting cold, whipping winds and constant rain. Despite the Pursuit’s hulking 180 meter length and 30,000 tonnage, the grey horizon line tipped up and down causing everyone to keep a free hand to brace themselves every time the heavy plunge of our bow crashed into a trough causing the boat to shudder and shake. Seasickness bags went faster than a box of Krispy Kreme donuts in the teacher’s lounge.
Big cruise ships do have a distinct advantage: they’re built around customer service and know how to keep their guests occupied. Every day at 10 am Ava and I joined a bridge class which was followed up by weightlifting in the gym, lunch at noon and afternoon trivia at 4:00pm. By the 4th and 5th day, we had befriended other guests (and a few characters) that made up our traveling community. There was Robin and Alex, from our bridge class with whom we played Euchre everyday just before lunch. There was also Jutgart and Elsina from Brazil, who, never once did we see without drinks in their hands. There was also Debbie, the solo Hawaiian who excelled at dizzying storytelling and the Australian ladies who took Ava out for a couple evenings so Lisa and I could have some ‘adult’ time. As our cruise was in January when school was in session for North American kids, children were mostly absent with the exception of a couple of Kiwis, Argentinians and an Australian boy.
Thus, the trip was dominated by the kind, genteel, well travelled senior variety. “Old fogeys” my 73 year old uncle characterized of cruise ship passengers. He might have a point. Waiting for a 80 year old to fill their soup dish with a small ladle in the lunch line can test one’s patience and sometimes passengers would not know when to get off the elevators. “Is this our floor?” They would ask of one another when the doors opened. “I don’t know. Where are we going?” Another would ask. I sometimes stepped up to the role of tour guide by shepherding them around when needed while macabrely wondering which of these frail and feeble passengers around me would be next to die. I then quickly shut such thoughts out of my mind, knowing that I’d probably go to hell for thinking such things, or worse, incur the wrath of my mother for not respecting my elders.
Ushuia and Cape Horn
We rounded Isla de Estados and made port in Ushuia up the Beagle channel (Named after Darwin’s voyage) on day 5 which is the southern most point of Argentina and the common expedition port across the Drake passage. The first time I’d heard about Cape Horn was from an old salty sea dog co-worker named Henry when Lisa and I worked as summer camp directors back on Catalina Island. Henry had gotten hold of some old historical black and white footage of sailing expeditions from the mid 20th century, and couldn’t wait to share it with all of us. His enthusiasm of the video was overzealous but we unfortunately misheard him initially, and thought he was saying ‘gay porn’ instead of ‘Cape Horn’ (as they do sound identical) but he gave us no context so the conversation sounded like this:
“You guys ready to watch my gay porn video?” Henry asked.
“Well, thanks for the invite Henry, but we’re not really interested.” We said back.
“Cmon! Here at summer camp you should stretch your horizons. You should be open to learning new things!”
“We’re not judging you buddy and everyone has the right to live their own life.”
“What are you guys talking about?”
“What are YOU talking about?”
Cape horn and Isla de Estados is not just a geographical location, but a resting place for more than 130 overconfident ships that are now playgrounds for sea urchins and hallowed sea. The ‘Logos’, ‘Sarmiento’, ‘Estancio Remolino’ and the “Duchess of Albany’ are just some of the footnotes in the local maritime museum that undoubtedly helped make sea travel safer for the rest of us.
Tourism to Antarctica is highly regulated and everyone who touches foot on the continent has to undergo a strict quarantine process to ensure they’re not taking any invasive plant species or other contaminants between their boot treads that might upset the ecology of the area. Because of this, there are 2 ways that you can travel to Antarctica:
The Easier and More Luxurious Way The first (and ironically cheaper) option which we took was a cruise which takes you around the icebergs and landmasses without setting foot on them. Cruise ships leave Chile, Argentina and are actually a very comfortable way to travel. We booked passage on the ‘Azamara Pursuit’ through Affordable Tours.com which got us passage on the 2 week cruise for $10,700 for all three of us which included unlimited food, alcoholic beverages and $1,100 in ship credit that we could apply for shore excursions and spa packages. A kings ransom no doubt, but nothing compared to:
The Harder and More Authentic Way Boats with more than 500 passengers can’t make landfall in Antarctica, so boats that do tend to be smaller and catering to the ultra rich and undergo strict quarantine when boarding or disembarking. These expeditions have a longer queue (sometimes a few years) and cost 5-7 times the price. (We spied The National Geographic boat in Ushuia which costs $14,000 a personand that was considered a very ‘budget’ option) Another popular way for solo travelers to see Antarctica is to stroll into Ushuia (Or Google ‘Last Minute Antarctica Expeditions’) and check upcoming departures to see if there are any last minute open berths trying to get filled at fire sale prices on scientific boats which effectively use tourism to help subsidize their research. I asked around in Ushuia and found trips 10 days to 2 weeks out going from between $5,500 to $8,000 a person and 1 flight option departing from Punta Arenas which spent 5 days at a research base.
Neko Harbor and Deception Island
Our second day cruising around the peninsula, we were met by 4 members from the Spanish research base at Deception island who came on board and shared their experiences doing climate and seismic science for the 3 months of the year that they were here. “What is a typical day like for you?” Ava asked during the Q and A session afterward which most people thought was a great question.
Our visiting scientists noted that due to international treaties, Antarctica is both protected and not owned by any one country. That, coupled with the inhospitable conditions (Minus 153 in the wintertime) means the continent is our planet’s most pristine and most unspoiled. The ice skirt around the continent bulges to over a hundred miles from its shoreline in the wintertime.
As we set our course northeast to Elephant Island (where Shackleton and his men were marooned after their ship was crushed after 147 days at sea), we settled in ‘Iceberg Alley‘ where the blueness of the ice was beyond belief. Some icebergs next to us were the size of city blocks and is was both humbling to see and also know that 90% of their mass lies underwater. Penguins stood sentry as they floated by and pods of Humpback whales spouted exhalations in the cold air as if to welcome us. Most people waited their entire lives to see this. Ava saw it at 10.
By now, we were used to 11:10 pm sunset and 3:15 am sunrise so we tacked a course north. The captain said that swells around the Falkland Islands had gotten to 9 meters in size so we made port in Puerto Madryn instead of Port Stanley and would have to visit that another day. Puerto Madryn gave us the ability to snorkel with Sealions (a first for Ava) in the frigid, 16 degree Celsius water. “Welcome to Patagonia” said Jorge as we bobbed up and down in our double layered, 7 mm wetsuits.
After 3 more days at sea we were sadly back at port in Buenos Aires and I couldn’t believe our 15 days at sea had come to a close. We said our goodbyes to our many friends and Ava said her farewells to her fan club which swelled to encompass half the ship. “Are you Ava’s parents?” we were commonly asked.
After getting catching a train to take us to the fronterra for a few days of camping and fishing, I made some small talk with a local in espanol:
“Where you are going?” He asked.
“Al norte” I replied in Spanish. “We’ll be visiting Tigre for camping and some peace and quiet too.”
“You know, if you have time, you should go south. It’s quite cold down there, but very beautiful I hear.”
A two hour hop to Heathrow from Berlin and another fourteen hour flight heralded that a new leg of world travel was about to begin.
South America has always proved elusive. Visiting the americas during summers and Christmas meant catching up with family and friends and not leaving much time to explore our sister continent south of the equator. Boarding a plane in Germany in the middle of winter and stepping off in Buenos Aires in the middle of summer was a bit confusing for Ava as we usually hugged lines of latitude with trips across the big pond of the pacific ocean.
“How can it be a summer here?” She asked.
“It has to do with the tilt of the earth.” I told her. “The northern hemisphere is farther away from the sun in its winter, but the southern half is closer.”
“I don’t get it.”
The former science teacher leaped into action as I then proceeded to model the earth as an apple with a nearby lamp as the sun and she understood completely. Take that flat earthers.
San Telmo Market
Buenos Aires is the land of Malbec, tangos and steak and we sought to try every one. Whereas in Berlin my blond beard and blue eyed appearance made me look like a German (Guten tag herr…?), Ava and Lisa looked the part with their olive skin and dark hair so locals would start up with them in Spanish at every turn. Being in a region where we could speak the local language was immensely insightful and I regretted not learning more Arabic while in the middle east.
Our Airbnb was a 10 minute walk to the historic San Telmo Market and we were lucky enough to arrive on market day when the streets were aligned with artisans, antique sellers, and clothing shops. The indoor market has a number of shops selling produce, flowers, but the food kiosks are the real pull. Empanadas with cheese and chorizo. Grilled rib eyes with potatoes. We even found a Vietnamese restaurant that served up a pretty good ‘Buon Tit Nuoung‘. We were home.
The presidential palace is one of the most iconic buildings in Buenos Aires and gets its name from the rose colored bricks. Sitting at the east end of Plaza de Mayo which hosts demonstrations and political rallies, this might be one of the more intricately carved facades in the world and evolved from first a fort to customs house, post office and eventually the building which it is now. The old colonial architecture of Buenos Aires was completely different than anything we’d ever seen thus far on our trip.
Khan Academy Comes to a Close
We’ve been using ‘Khan Academy’ to support Ava’s math curriculum and since she finished the last of her 14 units of study it was time to take the ‘end of course challenge‘ after reviewing over the last few weeks. With so many units of study, some topics only gave 1 or 2 problems to show ‘mastery’ so a simple error could incorrectly gauge that a student didn’t learn a topic at all.
As a teacher, I’ve always believed that students should be given multiple opportunities to show their learning and teachers should assess learning when the student is ready, not vice versa. Ava’s early attempts at passing the course challenge were met with failure but retakes allowed her to learn from her mistakes, improved her self confidence and raised her course understanding with every attempt.
The mission of education should not be to separate students that learn quickly from the ones that don’t; after all, all students are different and learning is anything but static. Don’t you think?
Lisa has always wanted to experience the European Christmas markets for the holidays. So we went to Germany.
Despite many cities having legendary Christmas markets such as Vienna and Budapest, (not to mention cities across Italy, France and Spain) we settled on Berlin to greet December the 25th, and meet our friend Lori for a few days of indulgence and sightseeing.
With over 60 Christmas markets popping up over the city in the days leading up to Christmas and continuing for days after, Berlin makes for a fun place. Our apartment was a short tram ride from Alexanderplatz station where two separate markets straddled the tracks and the nearby market of Roten Rathaus offered ice skating. The food alone was worth the trip alone. Every day, we devoured bratwurst, gluehwein, waffles, and potato crisps before finding such delicacies such as fried cauliflower with garlic butter, eggnog, and raclette. We found kiosks selling gingerbread which we took home for breakfast which paired well with crepes (a Christmas family tradition), pork sausages and pots of brewed coffee. We ate well.
The markets are set up to look like little Germanic villages in the mountains with icicles hanging from facades, boughs of pine trees festooned in every possible nook and proud vendors wearing lederhosen to show off their virility and brawn. Between snack sessions we took advantage of the following which made fun day trips:
A visit to the Berlin Wall and taking in the beautiful murals that have transformed monuments of division to art and expression.
Reading up on the history of “Checkpoint Charlie” and seeing the infamous crossing between East and West Germany
A walking tour between Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and Memorial to Jews killed in WW2.
“Listicles”: Deceptive Click Bait?
On the travel blogging front, my PLN of travel bloggers and their quest for search engine optimization and a recent Huffington post article confirmed what I suspect we already knew- listicles are the new format of the internet. For a populace that is continually bombarded with content, how to get consumers of media to click, scan and share is the ultimate ‘brain hack’ so titling your articles with “Top 10 things to see here” or “Top 5 things to do there” is the new norm.
It makes content an easy pill to swallow. You know exactly what to expect after a link click and it keeps the reader scrolling to see if their experience was similar to the authors, or how many days they should allot to a destination on the horizon to prevent FOMO. It makes Pinterest boards easy to build for an upcoming trip, house remodeling or reminder list of what to buy your children when you take them out for back to school shopping. Ironically, a number of travel bloggers in my circle have built travel blogs and Pinterest boards flush with articles with such titles and haven’t even been there themselves! Posts are put together from lonely planet highlights or trip advisor recommendations so many of these so called ‘experts’ are really fraudulent fakes as demonstrated by destination photos with them notably absent. Some even go so far as to pathetically photoshop themselves in. For many, it’s not enough to merely experience a new destination but reduce travel to a series of checkboxes, tweets and likes that can be quantified. If you didn’t instagram your great meal, it didn’t happen.
One of my favorite reads this fall was an article from the NYT on how this decade was shaped by scammers, fake news and bots and that the future will be just as bad especially with ‘deep fake’ technology. This will affect the way we live, the way we think and what we ultimately believe. Because people are increasingly unable to distinguish truth from fiction, more and more are dismissing truth all together.
So, go spend time with your family. Pick up the phone and call your mother. Reach out to an old friend. Don’t waste time reading some self-proclaimed prophet on what they think you should see in Berlin after they they themselves have been there for only 5 days.
“This is where Jesus Christ was buried and some say resurrected after.” I told Ava.
“THE Jesus?” She asked.
“The one and only. All the churches we’ve seen in Europe have been a testament to his teachings. The Roman empire installed a governor named Pontius Pilates to enforce their rule and beliefs onto the population, but Jesus and his disciples had their own beliefs, and one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him and he was later crucified which was a common form of punishment at that time.”
The first thing you see when entering the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the anointing stone where Christ’s body was cleaned before burial. To the left is the chamber where he was entombed and the writings of Paul decades later reveal post mortem appearances giving the appearance of his resurrection and cementing him as the messiah for all his believers. A few hundred years later, the Roman empire would adopt Christianity as its official religion and six hundred years later, attempt to take back the holy land from Muslims in a series of conquests known as the crusades. The history of Jerusalem goes back much farther though, but its future was also just getting started.
Jerusalem: A City Divided
For all the peace, tolerance and unity that organized religion promises, the capital of the region is a very tense place. Coming from Amman into Jerusalem was a 4 hour process of tedious checkpoints rivaling the thoroughness of airport security with flak jacket clad agents and soldiers armed to the teeth inspecting bags and visitors. It’s reported that unclaimed items are simply taken away and blown up.
The city walls of Jerusalem have been razed and rebuilt over the years, but the city as a whole is divided into Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian quarters all having a legitimate claim to their homeland through some era in history. Walking to the Haram esh-Sharif, the words ‘Temple Mount’ were scratched off the navigation signs in the Muslim quarter attesting to its place as a ‘Muslim’ place of worship. The Dome of the Rock, where Abraham was told by God to sacrifice a son to show his faith was also the place where the prophet Mohammad had his night journey to heaven. You’ll seen T-shirts with “I love Palestine” in some quarters, but “I stand with Israel” in others.
Most people have a dim view of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The World Zionist Organization under Ottoman and British rule funded land purchase in Palestine giving Jews safe haven from growing antisemitism in Europe and Russian going back as far as two centuries, but the official establishment of the Jewish state was post world war 2 in 1948. Slow encroachment of Israeli settlements have given rise to Palestinians protesting the land grab, sometimes violently, and petty attacks going back and forth have grown militarily in scale. Palestinians firing homemade rockets into Jewish neighborhoods are met with disproportionate air raids by Israeli gunships in the Gaza strip. Just last month, an Israeli airstrike killed suspected Hamas fighters along with dozens of Palestinians including 5 children. “Sorry about that, we’ll look into it” is always the official statement with the unofficial one being ‘collateral damage‘ and payback for Munich and 2002-2003 when 383 lives were lost by suicide bombers. The stories don’t even register on Western news outlets anymore as motherless and fatherless children on both sides grow up without love in their hearts; so evil fills the void and the circle of violence continues.
“Someone once said that being ‘educated’ is being able to listen to a point of view contrary to your own and not lose your temper.“
Since we arrived here, I have been thinking a lot about the word ‘hatred‘. Back home, as the seemingly ‘United States’ are becoming increasingly divided during the impeachment proceedings, it’s becoming hard for political groups to even tolerate one another in this current political climate as they are fed deep fakes, selective reporting, and alternative facts that cause them to see only one ‘story‘. It’s easy to fool someone, but impossible to convince someone they’ve been fooled.
The New City
We met our host ‘Lior‘ in the so called ‘New City’ just west of the old town where yamakas and peyots were proudly worn by boys and men of all ages. College students and young hipsters lounged among the pastisseries and art galleries and with the wide variety of restaurants and modern development, you wouldn’t think we were still in the middle east. We had a tiny apartment above the Sira Pub on Ben Sira street and enjoyed deli sandwiches, cheap beer and a great Mexican taco place with cooks from Oaxaca that knew how to make corn tortillas like jack ballin motherf&#@ers.
We used our apartment as a base to explore the old town and area west of us which took us through ‘Zion Square’ to the happening downtown triangle and ‘Ezrat Yisrael’ for evenings and the nearby shops for Christmas gifts. Ava and I finished ‘Number the Stars’ by Lois Lowry and she is near preparing for her final course challenge for mathematics which she’ll take in a couple days.
Highlights in and Around Jersualem
Getting lost in the old town
Rising early to visit the ‘Dome of the Rock’ and ‘Al Asqua Mosque’
Visit the ‘Church of the Holy Sepulcher’ to see the tomb of Jesus Christ
Trying ‘Shakshuka’ or poached eggs in a rich tomato sauce on a cold morning
Day trips to Bethlehem and Jericho
Giving pause at the Western Wall
Taking in the mosaic of history at the Museum at the Tower of David
Visiting King David’s tomb and Oskar Shindler’s grave south of the city
As we head to Tel Aviv and the coastal areas tomorrow with Christmas only a week away, we’re increasingly counting our blessings and reasons to be thankful and grateful for the many good things in our lives. What Jerusalem taught us was a heightened level of ‘empathy’ and the importance of trying to understand the views and beliefs of others whose values run so counter to our own.
After all, if you are ignorant of a man’s understanding, you will remain ignorant in your understanding of the man.
“With all the conflict nearby, Jordan has been a real uniting country for the region.” Our friend Vaughn said while driving us to a Wadi for a day hike just outside of Amman.
“You have Syria to the north, Iraq to the east, and Saudi Arabia to the south with Israel to the west of the Jordan river.” He pointed out. “Jordan is not a rich country and doesn’t have oil reserves like the Arabian peninsula, but they are a very hospitable people and take in those in need. People here have nothing, but they are always mindful of those less fortunate.”
There are dozens of refugee camps in Jordan and the Zaatari camp in northern Jordan is the sixth largest refugee camp in the world. Since 2014, Jordanians have been taking in Syrians displaced by war and the Assad regime because taking in people fleeing violence is, in their opinion, the right thing to do. A far cry from the populist and nationalist rhetoric that is growing around the world.
Landing in Amman with the ‘Jordan Pass’
We had a Royal Jordanian flight from Larnanca, Cypress to Amman on December 4th and bypassing immigration couldn’t have been easier with the ‘Jordan Pass‘. Our friends in Amman turned us on to this find which costs 70 JD (about 100 dollars) and includes your visa and entrance to 40 sites around Jordan including Petra, Wadi Rum and dozens of ruined cities. Overall, it reduced our entry fees by 50% and although it was a big chunk to pay up front, it reduced costs down the road.
We met our friends from Saigon (Vaughn and Ally) who work at the premier international school in the city and used their house as a base for exploring the city. The first day, we visited the Citadel and walked down the hill to the souks and roman era amphitheater with a stop at the Afghan market and ‘Hashems’ for lunch with some of the best hummus we’ve had in the middle east. They call Jordan “The City of 7 Hills” as the city’s neighborhoods sprawled out from these notable hilltops which gives Amman a feeling of being at sea with the peak and troughs of waves covered by domiciles and houses in every direction.
What really amazed us was the hospitality of the Jordanians as a whole. We would frequently be asked by locals: “Where are you from? Oh really? Welcome to Jordan!” without any hope of reward, baksheesh or patronizing their establishment. Being badgered by touts in Egypt made us hard and suspect of strangers and it took a couple of days for us to let our guard down.
Our dollar rent a car rep came to our house and dropped off our car and we were off to Jerash. Like most places in the region, cities were clogged with traffic and getting around was a little bit of struggle, but once were outside the city center, things opened up. It was nice to drive on the right side of the road again and not have to content with driving a manual transmission with my left hand. I had to force myself to stay right at roundabouts (which was the opposite in Cyprus) and use my horn fastidiously when cars veered into my lane which was…all the time.
We’d never heard of Jerash before coming here, but it was the best preserved Roman city we’d ever visited. Entering through Hadrian’s gate (pictured above) through the southern entrance gives you a view of the best preserved ‘Hippodrome’ in antiquity complete with spectator seating for the chariot races . The similar ‘Circus Maximus’ in Rome with its broken down arches and grass taking over the stone blocks gives you a footprint of what such a site could have looked like, but in Jerash you see what it was.
From the ‘Oval Plaza’ and it’s dozens of columns, it’s a long walk along the beautiful ‘Cardo Maximus’ which takes you to the north gate where market vendors once sold their wares to the north amphitheater, Nymphamium and the Temple of Artemis.
Floating the Dead Sea
We found a good hotel deal at the lowest place on earth which broke up our trip down to Petra. At 400 meters below sea level, the dead sea with its shrinking and ever receding coastline must have looked like an oasis to water starved travelers in the ancient desert and filled them with false hopes of nourishment. It’s 9 times saltier than the ocean and its salinity allows only a few forms of resilient bacteria to thrive. Because salt is more dense than freshwater, it gives a bather a buoyancy unlike any other place in the world.
Walking into the water, you first feel the soft mud on the bottom and chunks of salt crystals squishing between your toes. Upon getting ‘waist deep’ you can simply sit down and raise your arms and lets above water level. Wading out to deeper water, one floats at mid chest level verses the neck when treading water. The ‘Hilton Dead Sea Resort and Spa’ had staff down by the waters edge that covered us in mud and then gave us salt scrubs taking off 2 pounds of dry skin from as far back as Morocco.
Petra- Nabatean Perfection
We drove down to Wadi Musa and spent the night there before the long walk to Petra- the crown jewel of the Nabatean kingdom and they carved out (literally) a civilization in the sandstone walls across the wadi valleys.
It’s a considerable walk downhill through the narrow Siq, but after the last turn, the most iconic structure, (the treasury) appears between the sinuous canyon walls and you can’t help but feel like explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt did in 1812 when laying eyes on it for the first time. Petra’s other notable structures are the beautiful royal tombs and Monastery which open up in the valley below. Gazing around the cliff faces, you see hundreds of hollowed out holes where whole families must have lived and interestingly, many modern day Bedouins have taken refuge. Visiting the royal tombs, I spied some small make shift kitchens and sleeping cots for the touts and vendors that still this day call this place home.
We chartered mules to take us up the 800 steps to the Monastery and save us 3 hours of climbing. Our guide ‘Mohammad’ was only a kid, but helped us mount ‘Champagne’, ‘Shakira’ and ‘Katy Perry’ for the long trip up.
“Don’t have your feet all the way in the stirrups, just have the tips of your toes in.” I told Ava.
“Why not?” She said back.
“Because if the mule falls over the edge, you can jump off more easily.”
“Well, accidents DO happen, and chance favors the prepared.”
Sure enough my foresight didn’t assuage her fear, but heightened them and as we climbed up, our mules toed the edge of hundred foot canyon wall drops by mere millimeters.
“Daddy I’m freaking out! Why did you tell me that!”
“Well, I just wanted you to feel safe!“
Wadi Rum: Desert Camping
We drove two hours south to Wadi Rum from Wadi Musa to try some desert camping. When looking for a desert camp in Wadi Rum, I was pleasantly surprised to see amidst all the luxury camping options, Bedouins renting out their caves in the desert on Booking.com. We were given GPS coordinates to a gas station in the middle of nowhere and were met by our hosts that drove us to their family’s camp snuggled in at the base of a huge sandstone monolith amidst the red sea of sand dunes.
Our first night gave us one of the most spectacular sunsets we’d ever seen in our lives and we spent the evening with other guests sharing our stories, and playing card games. Ava won a memory game that night, beating out all the adults and our hosts gave her complimentary meals for the duration of our stay as reward.
In Comes Google Lit Trips
As Ava finished her year long Math curriculum five months early and started to review for her final course test, we started reading ‘Number the Stars’ by Lois Lowry with ‘Google Lit Trips‘. Google lit trips layer Google earth images with the storyline to give the reader some discussion questions that relate to the text but also with images for reference that come up in the reading. In the case of ‘Number the Stars’, the story takes place in Denmark at the start of Nazi occupation and cites castles and places were new to both Ava and I.
“So Ava, what were your favorite parts of Jordan?” I asked.
“I loved floating in the dead sea, playing with all the kitties, and Petra“
“What did you like most about Petra?”
“Taking the mules up to the Monastery was amazing don’t you think? Daddy?…..Daddy?…..Daddy?“
Cyprus is the forlorn lovechild between Greece and Turkey.
In 1974, Turkey invaded northern Cyprus as a deterrent to a coup supported by the Greeks and the island has since been effectively partitioned off into two separate territories with each country having a claim to the land either north or south of the jagged ‘Green Line’ running horizontally across its length from shore to shore. It’s attracted a fair share of Russian weekenders and British retirees so you’ll see plenty of ‘русский язык‘, mixed in with the local ‘Ελληνικά‘ at the local pub. Coming to Cyprus in November was like visiting a ski resort in the summer, it was a ghost town with many businesses closed until spring.
In addition to making sense of the signage, driving was a big challenge. The last time I drove a car legally on the left side of the road was as a foreign exchange student in Australia which was over 20 years and 100,000 hair follicles ago. Furthermore, since the driver’s seat was on the right side of the car, I had a manual transmission which I had to shift with my left hand which was awkward beyond belief.
Autumn caught up to us as well. As our friends back in Korea have been posting scarlet hued pictures of leaves as far back as October, we’ve managed to escape the chill by traveling through north Africa and the Middle east which have kept us in shorts, t-shirts and sweat every step of the way. After leaving Egypt to fly 400 miles north, we had officially left the desert for lowland scrub and found that mornings were actually chilly and we had to dig into the farthest reaches of our bags for jackets and scarfs before stepping out the door every morning. As winter was around the corner, we have been looking for thrift stores in Jordan and Israel to buy used winter clothes to keep us warm in the Christmas markets of Germany and cruising through icebergs in Antarctica which we’d see in late December and early January.
Paphos to Limmasol
Paphos was a 90 minute drive from Larnaca airport and a nice place to chill out for a few days. After so much traveling and staying with friends for the last month, it was so nice to just ‘sit’ and do very little other than binge watch our favorite movies, read books, cook and plan. The first day in Paphos we stocked up on supplies and spent most of our time hobnobbing around the neighborhood exploring and enjoying the fact that we were back in Europe which meant well stocked supermarkets and good local food. I befriended an old Greek woman who ran a local supermarket who gave me daily oranges and pecans from her village to take back to Lisa and Ava as snacks. A nearby, competing shop owner bewailed me every time I did this and wondered why I didn’t come into his shop more often. In Greece, rivalries between families and business can transcend generations like the ‘Hatfields and the McCoys‘.
Having an Airbnb with a good wifi connection was immensely productive. Since we now had the start date of our next school where we’d be starting in June, we could start to work on logistics of the spring. Up till last week, we had our trip planned up till mid January, with only some rough ideas for what to do afterwards. In Paphos, Lisa spent 2 full days booking open-jaw airline tickets through Argentina and Brazil, and reserving accommodation from Argentina through Uruguay to Brazil through booking.com which gave us an itinerary through early March. Those purchases along with visas for Jordan and a trip to the local dentist for our 6 month cleaning, broke our budget of $1,000 per week, so we spent most of our time in Cyprus not going to restaurants and cooking in our apartments (with the exception of Thanksgiving) to make up for the additional costs and get our budget back on track.
A Real Thanksgiving for Travelers
For American Thanksgiving, we found a nearby shop that had beautiful roasted chickens and we made stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, and baked two pies the day before to round out our meal of giving thanks for the things in our lives. We spent the afternoon going around the table and giving thanks for the people, family and little things in our lives that had made our little trip so wonderful:
A good clothes washer and effective spin cycle.
A large drying rack on which to hang your clothes.
Smart TVs that are Chromecast compatible.
Supermarkets within walking distance.
A coffee machine and fresh Lavazza every morning.
Contrary to what most children learn in school, the origins of American thanksgiving are quite distorted from its portrayal in picture books. It was first a commemoration of massacre of the Pequot people in 1637, and then a reminder not of religious expression, but entrepreneurial pursuits of the Pilgrims and finally a celebration of civil war victories under Lincoln. Over the years, it has been whitewashed into a ‘feast to bring locals and visitors together’ despite Wampanoag natives may not even having been invited to the original table. In short, it’s a holiday that celebrates a history that people ‘wished’ to have happened much like the reasons that Columbus day is so unabashedly celebrated in classrooms around the country while turning a blind eye to his barbarism. Proof that history is written by those in charge.
Limmasol to Ayia Napa
Our apartment in Ayia Napa overlooked the ocean and had one of the best kitchens we’ve had on our trip. I cooked french toast for breakfast most mornings and in the evening we had ravioli with white wine garlic sauce, mexican style burritos, pizzas, and fish tacos for dinner. While at the local ‘Metro’ supermarket, I spied English sausages and made biscuits and gravy the last morning which is one of my weekend specialties back when we had our own apartment in South Korea. Between meals, Lisa tentatively reserved a 20 day itinerary for Peru and Machu Pichu and I found a good price for one way tickets from Cuzco Peru, to Cartagena, Colombia for $630 for all three of us with an overnight layover in Lima. I booked our final flights from Bogota to the Aruba and a series of puddle jumper flights that would take us from there to the islands of Bonaire and Curacao for scuba diving before flying back to Los Angeles in early May. With the rest of our flights booked the end of our trip had taken shape and, we realized that we were over the halfway point of our trip. Where does the time go?
A Persuasive Essay Turns Infographic
As Ava worked on her second writing piece of the year: ‘Why we need to save the Rhinos’, inspired by our time in Kenya, we thought that it would best be supported by images and statistics not ideally displayed by traditional word documents. For this, we settled on an infographic which we used ‘piktochart’ to make which has more allure as a poster or printable flyer.
I now know the significance of the phrase: “Balls like a Cairo taxi driver.”
Driving in Cairo is more like living through a scene from ‘Mad Max‘ where everyone is escaping near death on a daily basis in a post apocalyptic dust cloud of dented cars and trash lined roadways. Lanes are completely optional. If two cars are driving down designated lanes and there is space between them, shooting the gap is fair game. Horns are used as religiously as the Koran. Most cars we rode in didn’t even have seatbelts.
“Don’t try to cross the road here with heavy traffic.” Our friend Susanna said.”It’s not like Vietnam, where they’ll swerve around you. Here, they’ll run over you.”
And run over people we did. Because pedestrian cross walks are non-existent, people are forced to find gaps in the traffic and play ‘frogger’. On our second Uber trip in the city, a pedestrian bounced off our hood and neither him or our driver didn’t even stop.
“Shouldn’t you check to see if he’s OK?” I asked.
“No, he’s probably fine.” The driver said dismissively with a wave of his hand.
The next day, we came to a screeching halt just inches in front of a man escorting an elderly woman across the street. Her guide shook his cane at our driver and our driver shouted back while casting obscene hand gestures. Luckily, Ubers were cheap. Some rides around the less touristy sites came in at less than a dollar, so after getting a ride to our friends Anton and Suzanna’s house, we knew we could rest easy for 3 days with old friends and catching up.
If you ask people: “What do you want to see before you die?“, many will answer the Pyramids at Giza.
Of all the historic sites we planned to see on our trip, the pyramids in Cairo and ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru were at the top of our list. Learning about these structures as young children filled both Lisa, Ava and I with such an awe, that the night before we actually felt nervous; like you do before delivering a speech or a job interview. It was almost if we were afraid of disappointing the pyramids themselves and had anthropomorphized them into judgmental monoliths whose journey through time brought them to life.
The size is the first thing that strikes you. You know they’re going to be big, but nothing prepares you for the size of seeing 2 million blocks built over 20 years with primitive tools that has lasted for 4000 years with only 58 millimeters of variance. Many of the blocks were as tall as me. We did a figure eight around Khufu and Khafre before we walked down the causeway to the great Sphinx.
“Wow, the Sphinx is smaller than I imagined.” said Ava. “And it looks like Imseti. Don’t you think daddy?”
“Who is that?“
“Imseti is the egyptian man that guards the liver in the canopic jars.”
Since she had been reading the ‘Horrible Histories’ version of “The Ancient Egyptians” our daughter would come to teach us much about ancient Egypt and served as our family’s own personal guide.
Our friends in Tanzania (The Fossgreens) whom we stayed with while there and who lived in Egypt for a time told us not to miss the Saqqara complex.
“And the Red Pyramid too.” Bill told us. “You can go down into the antechambers and there is nobody there.”
We chartered a driver for 800 Egyptian pounds to pick us up from our house and drive us south of Cairo to visit the Saqqara (or step pyramid), Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. Bill was right. There was hardly anybody there.
What made the Saqqara complex so amazing is the tombs of the viziers. The royal viziers were the most trusted counsels of the kings in ancient Egypt and although they weren’t given pyramids, trusted viziers commanded respect in the form of large tombs, and carvings worthy of a Pharaoh. While in Saqqara, we visited the tombs of viziers Kagemni and Mereruka, counsel for King Teti in the sixth dynasty which was around 2,400 BC. King Teti’s tomb was also there and in typical fashion of tombs in the pyramids, you have to crouch and descend down a long chamber to the main corridors and interior chambers that were adorned with wealth.
The red pyramid was a harsh lesson in physical fitness. It had a 65 meter descending tunnel into three massive corbel vaulted chambers. By the time we got down, I was dripping in sweat and needed to stop twice on the way out. Our thighs were sore for 3 days afterwards.
Scams to Watch out For
By now, we had gotten pretty accustomed to scams in Egypt, which we read were too numerous to print. Around the temple areas, the scam plays out the same: some guy will be lurking near an off the beaten track part of the complex and tell you your ticket does not cover these rooms and if you want to see them, you have to pay extra money. Or, a guide will miraculously appear at your side and start talking, and after waxing on about the history of the area, ask for a little ‘baksheesh‘ by rubbing his fingers together. Another is a vendor who will give you a shirt for free, and then his thugs will appear a minute later asking for money now that you have soiled his shirt.
I heard from others that ‘Baksheesh‘ was a dreaded term in Egypt and many locals would not do their job unless some gratuity was promised or given for their meager efforts. Upon landing at the Cairo airport on day one, a bathroom attendant pulled a paper towel down from the dispenser so it was easier for me to grab and wanted baksheesh. I would ask guards and attendants for information on this or that and they wanted baksheesh. As tourism is just starting to rebound since the revolution of 2011 when tourism revenues fell by 95%, many locals are still hurting for money and jobs and appreciate every little bit.
Luxor: Time to Relax
Since we had been staying with friends in Oman, Dubai and Cairo, we decided to splurge for our 4 nights in Luxor by staying at the Hilton Luxor Spa and Resort and celebrate having gotten new teaching positions in Lima, Peru starting next summer. Although the rooms were $140 a night, we got 3 times our normal 14 times points as this was the low season and with our diamond status got free room upgrades with breakfast and complimentary cocktails in the evening and the point tally would push us over the amount needed for a free 4 night redemption in Brazil in March. Having 4 full days to lounge around the pool in the afternoon with room service, massages and spa access was the cats whiskers and just what we needed to unwind after the emotional rollercoaster of an international job search.
Before entering the temple of Karnak, Lisa and I bought checkered ‘Kieffer’ headscarfs to keep our pates out of the scorching heat. Kieffers are commonly worn by locals in the Arab world and they vary much on the fabric, size and design depending on whether your intent is style or function. Ours were made of cotton and were a slightly heavy weave to absorb the sweat and were just under a meter square to allow us enough material to wrap securely around our heads but allow enough material to drape over our neck and ears to keep the majority of our heads shaded. Many locals volunteered to show us different head wrapping styles that they themselves had favored over time.
Valley of the Kings and Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple
We chartered a car that took us to the west bank of the Nile to see the Valley of the Kings one morning while in Luxor. The valley is pretty unseemly, and what surprised us was how many people were buried in the region. We had thought going into it that a dozen or so kings and queens lie buried in ancient tombs, but it turns out that there are thousands of people from upper and upper middle class Egypt that had been laid to rest over the centuries. Some modern villages were built on top of the tombs and after UNESCO declared the area a world heritage site, the local homes had to be demolished and moved to a new area that complied with conservation mandates. 24 hour video cameras keep an eye on the huge area to prevent further grave robberies.
Valley of the Kings was pretty spectacular. Admission gains you entrance to 3 tombs of your choice, but some of the more decorative ones like Seti and Aphrodite have additional, eye gouging fees. We visited the tombs of Ramses the III, IV and IX and the carvings were exquisite. We didn’t visit King Tutankhamun’s tomb as there was an extra fee and as he died young and rather unexpectedly, so there wasn’t time to make his tomb as large and elaborate as the other kings of old. His claim to fame was the tomb itself escaping burglary and being only discovered in 1922 with all his possessions still in the chambers. His golden mask at the Cairo museum might just be one of the most beautiful artifacts we’ve ever seen.
On the way out, we stopped at queen Hatshepsut’s temple which was anything by subtle. The mortuary temple at Deir El-Bahiri is a colonnaded symmetrical entrance with that is a grand gesture to her time as ruler and her achievements such as her fairly long reign and expansion of trade routes and building projects within the Egyptian civilization.
Our Middle East Trip Takes a Turn
While in Luxor, we decided to take the next portion of our middle east trip off our journey. Although Lebanon was a place we’ve wanted to visit for some time, travel there had recently become a headache since anti-government protests started mid-October and the country was starting to suspend basic services and roadblocks were making it difficult to get around. Our friend Damon who is a teacher there relayed that his school had been cancelled, banks were shutting down, and kidnappings were up around border areas near Syria and Israel so we decided to avoid it for the time being. Even the US state department raised their travel advisory one notch below the level: “Avoid all travel“
So, while in Luxor, we cancelled all our Lebanese bookings and researched an island in the Mediterranean sea we knew nothing about which we would come to discover soon: Cyprus.
“20 years ago, there was nothing here.” Saaid, our Uber driver told me.
“Like, which buildings, do you mean?” I asked looking out over the vast expanse of development and construction projects.
“All of them.”
The rampant rise of turning a desert into a booming world economy that is hosting the World Expo next year is no small feat. Emiratis are some of the wealthiest citizens in the world and their rich oil reserves have created infrastructure that would make your head spin. The population of Dubai is made up largely of immigrants from the Philippines, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan all working across service and labor industries. Local Emiratis makeup only 10-15% of the actual population so it’s evident that everyone is coming here for their own slice of the pie. A non-existent crime rate, excellent health care and luxury villas give Dubai an appeal to the ultra wealthy and its location as a business hub means Europe, Asia and Africa are all within an arms reach.
I’ve heard that living in Dubai is like living in a mall. Everything is new, constantly being manicured and well put together. It turns out that a trip to Dubai means visiting the mall, and with dozens to choose from, it’s actually a nice way to spend a day. The air conditioning and almost theme park like attractions (The Emirates Mall had a downhill skiing hill!) make it a nice respite from the sun. Another thing that was nice about visiting the mall are the international restaurant franchises that offer us the comfort food that we longed for after having been in Africa for two months. TGI Fridays, Cheesecake factory, PF Changs, Din Tai Fung, Chili’s, and Cinnabon were just handful of the shops that promised massive portions, loosening of belt buckles and good old fashioned gluttony. Sights like ‘The Frame’, Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa are quintessential world landmarks.
Ava Takes a Field Trip
While we were at the GRC job fair, Ava joined our friends (the Greenes) to ‘Bounce’ and to the Mall of the Emirates for a spin in their bouncy room and lessons on Chemistry and Space. Ava had the opportunity to program a rover to retrieve a satellite from space and for physical science, used chemical reactions to fill balloons. Fun stuff.
The Job Search Comes to a Close
The week before the GRC fair in Dubai was crazy busy. Schools in attendance were updating their vacancies frequently and we had skype interviews with schools nearly every day the entire week before the fair even started. My first interview was back in August, so I had months of interviewing practice which made me a well oiled machine complete with a succinct elevator pitch, and how to make the right impression. Despite the hectic pace, it was nice to reconnect with friends from Korea and administrator friends all over the world when we had a moment between interviews.
We are happy to report that we signed with a fantastic school Saturday night, so our our job search is officially over and a huge weight has been lifted. Sometimes, international school teachers will have to take positions for which they are not ideally suited or in locations that are not pleasant but in our case, we’ll be moving to a new continent to work in a school that has a great reputation with administrators with whom we had instant rapport. With that, we can breath a sigh of relief and focus on more homeschooling and enjoying the sights around us.
Where are we going? You may ask, would be a story for another time.
Growing up in America, you are practically conditioned to be afraid of the region. As a child of the 80’s and 90’s, I got a quick synopsis of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict in ‘Western Civilizations‘ class in high school, but 9/11 was the coffin nail to the last throes of tolerance for many, and after that, the vicinity became synonymous with terrorism and violence.
So, it only made sense that we visited the middle east to learn more about it first hand and take advantage of seeing it through the eyes of friends we have in Oman, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. Iran and its fabled cities of Shiraz and Persepolis were on our list, but were too tough to get visas for. Saudi Arabia has introduced new tourism initiatives and is even hiring travel influencers who are trying to give the country’s image a makeover from their double standard of rights between men and women and the country’s grisly public beheadings. That too would be a visit for another time.
Because we landed at 2:00 am in Muscat, we got an airport pickup that took us to a hotel and we were in bed an hour later. The next morning, the Cabalunas (ourfriends from Korea) met us at the hotel swimming pool and we spent hours in the cool water under the roasting Omani sun with temperatures rising up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. “It’s just starting to cool down, thank God.” our friends told us. With some locations in Oman reported having hit over 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, I imagine some people bursting into flames.
The next day, our friends took us boating in the Gulf of Oman. It was refreshing to be on the water and after driving to the marina, we learned that local workers on a tractor back your boat and trailer in the water for you and you signal to shore when you want them to pull you out. Thomas captained us to a secluded bay and we dropped anchor and waded our supplies to shore to set up camp.
The day was one of those ‘magic’ days. While sitting in the sun drinking beer we adults caught up, the kids explored the wadi and the family dog ‘Jude‘ found a tasty goat’s leg boat to chew on. As the heat became too much, we transitioned into the ocean and played ‘keep away’ with a water ball. Kids against the grown ups and vice versa until the sun went down.
We had started reading ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe‘ while in Oman, but the big news on the education front was preparing for Egypt. Ava had found a book called ‘Ancient Egyptians‘ of the ‘Horrible Histories‘ book series and had read it cover to cover dozens of times since we started our trip in June so she was looking forward to seeing the Giza plateau and the temples at Luxor. She was fascinated by the process of mummification and I thought mummifying a chicken would be a nice applied learning project to learn more about the process, when we learned that old friends had recently settled in Cairo and we would be staying with them instead of an Airbnb. Doing surgery on poultry in the privacy of a stranger’s house is one thing, asking your friends to use their teacups for canopic jars is another.
Google expeditions came in handy as a nice supplement to learning more about this process. I found an expedition on ancient Egypt and we researched the societal structure way of life and construction of the pyramids which Ava added to her learning notebook. The virtual reality interface gives students choice and are an immersive experience that (contrary to popular belief) one does not need VR headsets to experience. Can’t believe that we’ll actually see these structures next week.
The pyramids have endured for 4,500 years and are one of the wonders of the ancient world. Think they’ll hold up 5 days longer?