Tuesday, December 31, 2019

King's Road

It's 7:15 a.m. and black as night outside. I'm continually surprised by how dark it is here in the winter -- particularly after returning from sunny North Africa.

We did have sunshine yesterday, though, and even though I already have a ridiculous number of pictures to edit from my trip, I decided to take a walk through Chelsea. I needed some new London photos for the ol' blog, and after sitting on airplanes and in airports all day Sunday, I also needed some exercise.

I started at Victoria Station and walked west through Belgravia and down the King's Road, an epicenter of Swinging London in the '60s. It's not all that swinging now -- more gentrified than anything else -- but it was a good walk. I chuckled as I passed the Saatchi Gallery, which is hosting an exhibit of relics from King Tut's tomb. Egypt is following me around!

Olga came home yesterday as expected. She arrived in the morning and after a few minutes of racing around and reuniting herself with her Kong toy, she immediately went to bed. (OUR bed!) I think she's always a little stressed when she's away from home, and it's probably such a relief to her to be back in her environment. She slept all day and she's sleeping now.

Unfortunately, her pink blanet did not come home. Simone forgot it. When I asked about it, she rolled her eyes and said, "From now on, no pink blanket!" I guess most people don't send a blanket with their boarding dogs. I seem to remember Simone almost forgot it last time, too. She's going to deliver it today -- and yeah, from now on, it stays home.

As you can see above, I did get some laundry done. As I was going through pockets I found this:

So we have an accidental souvenir. (It's not worth much -- about 48 British pence or 62 American cents.) I'm glad it wasn't a big bill, but of course, I'd have been less likely to lose one of those.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Back Home Again, With Photos

Dave and I are home from our adventures in Egypt. Our flights yesterday -- again through Istanbul -- went smoothly, and we're both glad to be back. I, for one, am looking forward to doing laundry. Somehow cleaning up a suitcase full of dirty clothes is immensely satisfying and restores a sense of order after the chaos of traveling.

Olga should be back with us later this morning. I haven't heard from Simone yet but I'm assuming she'll be dropped off after her morning walk.

Now that I finally have reliable WiFi and my photo editing software, let me share with you some favorite Egypt shots that I wasn't able to post while we were on the trip. (I have about 700 photos to sort and edit! I'll only keep a fraction of them, but still...I'll be busy for the next few days.)

First, above, the Nile waterfront in Luxor at sunset.

These are the Colossi of Memnon, located at the site of a long-demolished temple on the west bank of the Nile near Luxor. They were badly damaged by ancient earthquakes, but now there's some work going on to excavate the remains of the nearby temple (background).

A street scene in Edfu. I didn't have a chance to get out and wander around as much as I'd have liked, because our timetables were pretty tight and we had so much to see. But I could still get a sense of street life from the windows of our buses and cars and, in this case, from our horse-drawn carriage.

I loved watching life in the villages we passed on our Nile cruise boat. The buildings were often very vibrant, and draped in colorful laundry to boot, with interesting details everywhere. I have lots of photos like this!

A fisherman on the Nile at sunset.

Sailboats on the river in Aswan.

A brightly colored building in a Nubian village near Aswan. I think it was a hostel or maybe a tea-house. I loved that doorway -- I saw the top of it from the roof of a neighboring house where we were having tea, and I told my guide, "I have to go find that door!"

Here's our camel boy at the pyramids in Giza, taking pictures of Dave with my iPhone. (He had us both do all sorts of silly poses, making it look like we were lifting the pyramids or leaning on them.) This gives you a sense of the barren plateau, which makes the pyramids look so isolated in some photos. But if you look over the edge of the hill behind the camel boy, you can see lots of buildings. That's Cairo, and it comes right to the base of the hill.

Here's a panorama of Cairo, taken from the old citadel. (Probably best viewed large, if you have that capability -- just click the photo.) This gives you a sense of its immensity. More than 20 million people live in the Cairo metropolitan area.

And finally, one more video. While on our Nile cruise between Luxor and Edfu, we were shocked when guys pulled up next to the cruise vessels in little rowboats, tied on to the bow, and proceeded to hawk souvenirs to tourists. They'd yell and barter, and if someone was interested in an item they'd stuff it into a plastic bag and throw it up to the top deck, where we were all sitting. The buyer would then put money in the bag and toss it down. It all seemed very precarious and not a little dangerous, and a few souvenirs did float away downstream, but I'm sure someone retrieved them. The Egyptians can be very determined salesmen!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Casanova and Michael Jackson

We finally made it to the pyramids yesterday morning. It was like saving the best for last.

We set out around 7 a.m. with a guide named Mohammed, and we drove west across the river into Giza. In every photo you ever see of the pyramids, they look like they're out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by desert sands and a wide blue sky. Well, let me tell you, those photos are lies. The pyramids are basically in suburban Cairo. There are hotels across the street and residential buildings sprawling around for miles.

What gives the pyramids a sense of isolation is the fact that they're built on a plateau, and when you see them from certain angles, the city is concealed beneath the horizon of the hill. Of course they're huge, and you can't help but marvel at the technology involved in hauling those massive stones around and fitting them together so snugly, not to mention quarrying them in the first place.

Yes, we rode camels. Dave rode Casanova, and I rode Michael Jackson. (Don't spread that one around, please.) Casanova's face was rather artfully shaved, as you can see above. Don't ask me how one endeavors to shave a camel.

The boy who led our camels was quite insistent that we tip him -- "I take care of you, you take care of me," he kept saying. But he did take some rather spectacular iPhone photos of us, so we rewarded him appropriately.

We also visited the sphinx, and were then diverted by our guide to a papyrus gallery, which offered ridiculously tacky colorful artworks painted on handmade papyrus. I bought one largely out of a sense of obligation. Plus they gave me coffee.

We moved on to a coptic Christian church, built over an area where the Holy Family allegedly stayed when they fled to Egypt shortly after Jesus' birth. There were signs saying "The Holy Family walked on these stones," and "The Holy Family drank from this well."

I was reminded of those signs you see all over the northeast United States: "George Washington slept here." We may have George, but the Egyptians have Jesus. I think they win.

Then we went to a large, Turkish-style mosque in Cairo's citadel, with towering minarets. We were able to go inside and see the vast, carpeted space and the stained glass windows. I always feel privileged when I can enter a mosque, because in Morocco, it wasn't permitted.

From a terrace outside, we got an amazing view of the city, including the pyramids in the distance.

Then we went to the Khan el-Khalili market, a huge warren of narrow streets lined with shops selling pretty much anything you could imagine -- spices, blankets, clothing, food, housewares, jewelry, carpets, knick-knacks. There were miniature figures of Oum Kulthum and tiny pyramids made from alabaster. I got a beautiful scarf with a blue paisley design and accents of golden thread -- maybe a bit dandyish by western standards, but lots of guys here wear them.

I caught this kid watching the commotion in the streets from a shuttered window. (And trust me, there was a lot of commotion.)

We went to dinner with our main guide, Cesar. He recommended this place for authentic Egyptian food, and it was hopping -- there were people waiting out front to get in, and a guy in dark glasses and black leather controlling the crowds. I felt like I was standing at the velvet rope at Studio 54. We were eventually granted admittance, and inside we once again met...

...Egyptian Santa Claus!

(Yes, that is all our food. Cesar ordered it for us, in the Arabic tradition of hospitality. It was more than we could ever begin to eat, but it was definitely our best meal in Egypt.)

Finally, I'd told Cesar that I really wanted to see Tahrir Square, where the Egyptian Arab Spring protests took place eight or nine years ago. We had coffee in a little coffee shop there -- a fantastic place populated by older guys smoking hookahs and disconsolate youths looking glum, all watching a football game on TV. (Maybe that's why they were glum.)

We have had an incredible visit. And now, back to London!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Cairo Tower

And here we are, back in Cairo. We flew back this afternoon from Aswan, after a morning spent packing and clearing out of our room on the riverboat. Goodbye, Esmeralda!

The only decent pictures I took today are night shots -- so once again, you're seeing the glowing nocturnal metropolis. Our hotel, the Kempinski Nile, is to the right on the opposite riverbank in the photo above, the one with the big white sign along the roof. The photo was taken from the top of Cairo Tower, apparently known locally as "Nasser's Pineapple."

It does look kind of pineapple-ish at the top.

The tower was built starting in 1956, and it has a fantastic tile mosaic on the ground floor depicting various scenes from Egyptian life. And at the top -- a rotating restaurant! When I found that out, I knew we had to go. Our tour guide made reservations for us and even arranged our transportation.

Here's the inside of the rotating restaurant, all decorated for the holidays. The web site says it takes 45 minutes to complete a circle, but we timed it, and it's more like 30. As Dave said, "It's a spin cycle!" It honestly doesn't seem fast, but the rotating mechanism sounds a bit creaky.

And look -- from the viewing deck above the restaurant, our first view of...

...the pyramids!

That's where we'll be going today, along with several other sites on a whirlwind tour of Cairo.

I haven't had a chance to answer your comments on my previous posts, but I will do so when I get back to London on Sunday. Sorry for the wait! I am reading all your comments and I appreciate your sticking with me during this crazy jaunt!

Friday, December 27, 2019

Abu Simbel and More Towelcraft

I forgot to mention yesterday that at Kom Ombo temple there’s also a crocodile museum, because the ancient Egyptians revered the crocodile. These are crocodile mummies, thousands of years old! Of course, being from Florida, I loved this. Our guide tells us there are no more crocodiles in the Nile north of the Aswan High Dam, but apparently they’re still in Lake Nasser and farther south.

Yesterday was super-busy. I got up at 3:30 a.m. to catch a bus down to Abu Simbel, about three hours south of Aswan by road through a virtually featureless desert landscape. It’s a temple complex that’s testament not only to ancient Egyptian engineering, but modern engineering too. When the Aswan High Dam was built across the Nile in the 1960s, creating the gigantic Lake Nasser, this temple and many others were due to be flooded. UNESCO helped move it to higher ground, building an artificial mountain, carving the temple and rock face up and transporting it block by block. It’s a remarkable temple.

Dave didn’t go to Abu Simbel. He preferred to sleep in. He’s on temple overload.

Oh, and remember how I said yesterday I’m almost in Sudan? Abu Simbel is just 60 km from the border, according to our guide.

And look! It’s Marlo Thomas!

I found some really scraggly looking skinny dogs in the parking lot at Abu Simbel. Since they’re distant cousins of Olga, I tried to share my breakfast with them. I tossed them some cheese rolls. Unfortunately in the Middle East when you throw something to a dog, the dog thinks it’s a rock and runs away. I saw them circle back once they got a whiff of the bread, though. I hope I made their morning.

Then it was back on the bus and back to Aswan, where we visited the dam and a rock quarry that served as the source of granite for ancient Egyptian obelisks.

In the evening I went with a group of Spanish tourists to a Nubian village — again sans the exhausted Dave — where there was the inevitable camel ride. I’ve always scoffed at these cheesy camel rides, which no self-respecting Morocco Peace Corps volunteer would ever take. But I have to admit it was pretty fun. My camel did not like me. I don’t think it likes anyone.

We also did a sailboat outing on the Nile.

Oh, and remember the towel baboon? Well, look what greeted us in our room next...

His body is made from the pillows on our beds.

“What’s next?” I asked Dave. “An elephant made of 47 towels and a mattress?”

Thursday, December 26, 2019

From Edfu to Aswan

These are the kinds of temples we’ve been seeing on our trip so far — this one is in Edfu, and it’s actually newer (only 2,000 years old) than some of the others we’ve visited. Don’t you love the images of gods and goddesses,which include Horus, Osiris and others?

Our guide gives us an encyclopaedic amount of information about all the royalty and the ancient Egyptian religion. Dave tends to get glassy-eyed after a while, and I must admit I’m glad there’s no exam at the end of this trip!

This is how we got to the temple from our boat — in a carriage drawn by a rather scraggly looking horse. Dave and I both felt bad for the beast. I love how the driver is checking his iPhone in this picture — talk about the old and the new!

This wall featuring the ankh, or “key of life,” was at the Edfu temple. To me it looks like ‘70s wallpaper.

And when we got back to the boat, this towel creature was hanging just inside the door of our darkened cabin. It scared me to death! We think it’s a baboon. I grew to like it once my heart stopped racing.

Our boat steadily made its way south from Edfu, and we also visited the temple in Kim Ombo. This morning we’re in Aswan, site of the famous dam, which we’ll visit later today. I never imagined i’d be this far south in Egypt. We’re practically in Sudan!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Half Underwater for the Holidays

Here’s the view from our cabin on our Nile cruise. And we’re not even in a submarine! Our room on the vessel Esmeralda is right at the waterline. Dave and I joke that if anything happens to this boat we’re toast because we’re basically underwater anyway! Gallows humor, I know.

We’ve been going full tilt visiting ancient Egyptian temples and tombs. Yesterday we saw the very tomb where King Tut was found back in the ‘20s. (His mummy is still there.) Some of the temples have amazing, colorful hieroglyphics and some have tons of pigeons living in the hand-carved niches in the stone. Pigeons are everywhere, aren't they?!

I have plenty of pictures but the WiFi doesn’t really work on this boat, so I’m going to have to wait to share most of them. Here are a few from the Valley of Kings that I took on my phone:

And here’s my reading material for the trip:

Appropriate, huh?

We had a boatwide Christmas party and a special Christmas dinner last night. All the Egyptian staff wore Santa hats and one even dressed as a skinny, youthful and rather unconvincing Santa. I had a gin and tonic that I'm convinced contained neither gin nor tonic. It’s been a hoot! Hope you’re all having a great holiday and I’ll share more when I can connect our computer to the rest of the world. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019


I promise I won’t keep deluging you with videos, but for reasons related to wonky WiFi they’re all I can post right now! All my photos are in Dave’s computer, and darned if I can get it to connect. We’re on our Nile cruise boat docked in Luxor, and the crew says the signal will be better once we get out on the river. Why this is true I’m not sure, but here’s hoping.

So, yes — Luxor! We did indeed get here after yet another flight. We visited our first official Egyptian temple, which is basically right across the road from our boat dock. It’s lit at night, which is fortunate, because we got there after dark. We were there when the call to prayer sounded from a mosque within the temple — that’s what I tried to capture in the video.

There are a surprising number of tourists here. I counted 37 buses in the temple’s parking lot. (Kind of funny that an ancient Egyptian temple even HAS a parking lot!) Apparently it’s high season for tourism. Lucky us!

Today, more temples, in Karnak and the Valley of Kings. And then hopefully better WiFi!

Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas on the Nile

Well, we made it to Cairo, as you can see. The view above is from the Jazz Bar on the tenth floor of the Kempinski Nile Hotel, where we're staying. That's the Nile, right there in front of the Sofitel and Sheraton hotels on the opposite riverbank. Don't you love the big holiday message on the side of the Sheraton?

We went to the Jazz Bar last night for a much-needed drink after a long, long, exhausting day of travel.

We got up at 2:30 a.m. and had a car collect us in London an hour later for our 7 a.m. flight. Of course we had a super-chatty driver, which you know is my favorite thing in the world, especially when it's still a couple of hours before dawn. But I figured maybe the guy was trying to stay awake, so I talked to him all the way to Heathrow. Blah blah blah.

Then we had the craziest flight to Istanbul. First there was a lot of chaos as people had to be shuffled to different seats, and then all the baggage in the overhead compartments had to be plundered because one passenger "refused to fly" (?) and the flight attendants had to find and remove their bags. Then, in mid-air and during meal service, they asked twice over the PA system if there was a doctor on the plane. Not sure what that was about.

We landed in Istanbul at 2 p.m. with several hours to kill before our connection. I was amused to find the Istanbul airport decked out for Christmas, with "Jingle Bells" loudly playing. For some reason I thought in a majority-Muslim country there wouldn't be so much Christmas enthusiasm, but there it was. At an airport shop I bought a new bathing suit covered with images of tree sloths, kind of like Dave's sloth socks. (Apparently there's a pool available on our Nile boat trip.)

We saw at least six guys walking around who'd had very recent hair transplants. Like, still red and hurting. We wondered what the heck was up with that, and an Internet search revealed that apparently traveling to Istanbul for a hair transplant is a thing. I guess it's much cheaper there.

"Should we get you a present?" said Dave.

Then we had an equally chaotic flight to Cairo, with people once again sitting in the wrong seats. Some people have a very hard time telling 33A from 33F -- although, to be fair, maybe our alphabet isn't the one they routinely use.

In Cairo, we were met by our guide, Cesar, who walked us through getting our visa, passport control, baggage collection and customs. Basically all we did was walk beside him and haul out our wallets at the appropriate times. We boarded a van for our hotel, and Cesar talked to us about Egypt and its culture all the way, I suspect to distract us from the wildly weaving Egyptian traffic. At the hotel Cesar checked us in (apparently we're completely incompetent on our own) and agreed to pick us up around lunchtime today for our onward travel to Luxor. We'll be back in Cairo for sightseeing at the end of the trip.

See why I needed that drink?

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Teasels in Jail

Remember how I said I was going to try to pluck some of those teasel sprouts out of the seedhead in our garden and plant them? Well, I did -- I planted three little sprouting seeds. And then all three were promptly pulled up by birds (probably pigeons). So I replanted the two I could find and plucked another new one, and covered the pots with wire for protection. This may be a fruitless experiment, but if we're lucky, we'll have little teasel plants for next year's garden.

I'm writing this post ahead of time because on Sunday morning, when I'd normally post, we'll either be waiting at the airport or in the air on the way to Cairo. Woo hoo! I'll schedule it to go live around the normal time, and I'll be back with you in real time on Monday. (Insha'allah, as they say in North Africa -- "God willing.")

Simone, Olga's dog sitter, came and collected her on Saturday morning as planned. We sent Olga's pink blanket with her, so she'll have some of the comforts of home while we're away.

I also called my mom to wish her Merry Christmas. She sounds like she's in good spirits, and she plans to spend Christmas Eve with my brother and his family.

A week or two ago I mailed Mom a copy of this photo, which was taken when Dave, Olga and I went to the dog pub in early November. She said she has it propped up with her other family photos. Isn't that a good picture? If I had Christmas cards made, I'd have used this image. Consider this my blog card to all of you -- have a wonderful holiday, whatever, whenever and however you celebrate!

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The News of the Day

I found this poster hanging in Soho on my last visit -- it's called "MADe in America" by artist Ben Turnbull. The portrait of Donald Trump is a collage, created from images of Alfred E. Neuman, the famously gap-toothed mascot of Mad magazine. Apparently Turnbull had an art show in Bermondsey this fall, but I didn't hear about it until it was over. I might have gone had I seen this poster sooner!

As long as we're talking about Trump, there's also this:

It's a pillow I found on a carpeted bench beneath a staircase at school, where the high school kids hang out. I'm not entirely sure what the rodent signifies -- is it saying Trump is a rat? A mouse? Or is it just a fun portrait using his immediately recognizable coiffure? You got me.

I really don't want to get TOO political, because it exhausts me, but let me just gloat for a second over this headline from The New York Times, a few days ago:

It will probably all be a futile exercise, in terms of outcome -- because the Republicans aren't about to unseat him -- but golly, that headline was still wonderful to behold. The Times ran an interesting article comparing the situations facing Richard Nixon in 1974 with Trump now. Although their impeachable offenses are similar, Trump faces a much more forgiving constituency today, with partisan loyalty paramount and a weakened, less-trusted media to hold him to account. Not to mention a Supreme Court that probably tilts in his favor.

We can only hope voters remember all this turmoil in the next election cycle. It's fascinating to me how much support Trump still has, but let's face it -- there are a lot of rich and powerful people who see him as an asset, and they'll do all they can to keep him in the White House, including manipulate reality (via Fox News) to mobilize pro-Trump voters.

Olga's dog-sitter is coming to collect her this morning, and we've got to get ourselves ready for Egypt. We leave early tomorrow morning. (Our flight is at 7 a.m. -- ugh!) Dave bought a new suitcase -- his Christmas present to himself -- and I'm still wrestling with whether to bring along "David Copperfield." I've read about 625 pages, but I still have about 250 to go! It's really good but I don't think I ever realized how long it is.

I keep thinking about that scene in "Gone With the Wind" where Melanie begins reading "David Copperfield" aloud as the women wait for their husbands to return home from their vigilante raid on the squatters' camp outside town. If she were to read the whole book, I think they'd have wrapped it up just in time for the Nixon administration!

Friday, December 20, 2019


I barely got off the couch yesterday. The weather was dismal. I managed to walk to the cleaners to pick up one of Dave's shirts, and I got Olga a new bag of dog food, but otherwise it was a day to stay home.

Fortunately, we had plenty of avian entertainment during a late-morning break in the rain. The European goldfinches were back, snacking on the seeds of our dry teasels.

(And by the way, remember how I found tiny teasel seedlings growing in the seedheads at Wormwood Scrubs? We have the same phenomenon in our own garden. You can barely see them in the photo above. I might try to extract one or two of them to pot and grow next season.)

The omnipresent starlings were squabbling noisily and making splashy visits to the birdbath.

This parakeet tried valiantly to get into the peanut feeder, even peeling back some of the duct tape that holds on the lid. It didn't succeed, though. I tried to set out a plate of peanuts for it, but that spooked it and it flew off.

This little coal tit, however, was perfectly happy with our peanut feeder -- as are the blue tits and other little garden birds.

This great spotted woodpecker visited our suet feeder. Quite an impressive bird.

A starling kept watch while the woodpecker ate. The starlings love the suet and are very protective of it!

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Christmas Preparations, Now and Then

Well, I think I've got our admittedly minimalist Christmas squared away. I went online yesterday and ordered some new shirts for Dave, and I walked to a nearby kitchen supply store and bought him a gift card. I've found with kitchen stuff it's much better if Dave chooses his own -- he knows what he needs, and inevitably whatever I buy doesn't get used much. (Anyone want a ten-year-old crepe pan, still in the box, or a Le Creuset fondue set? Like new!)

I've also mailed a gift card to my nieces. And I bought bottles of wine for my library co-workers, which I didn't even have the chance to give them in person because everyone was locked up in training sessions Monday and Tuesday. I just left the bottles on their desks.

And that's pretty much it. There's no cooking, since Dave and I will be gone. There's no decorating to speak of. Christmas is much easier when kids aren't part of the picture! Adults -- especially adults who know me -- have low expectations.

I feel like I grew up with relatively simple Christmases, although that probably just betrays my ignorance of how much work my parents put into them. I'm three years old in this picture. My nursery school had a "kitchen corner" with toy appliances that I loved, so my parents bought me some. Don't you love my little flowered apron?

Anyway, even then, as you can see looking at that tree, there wasn't a great deal of decorating going

After my parents divorced, my mom, brother and I used to spend Christmas at my grandmother's house in Maryland. She was also into keeping Christmas simple. We'd put up a little artificial tree, a couple of feet high, in her living room, and we'd all buy each other one or two presents. We had Christmas dinner at my uncle's, where the holiday tended to be more of a production, and my dad and stepfamily always put up a big ol' tree at their house and had lots of presents. I liked our little Maryland tree and our quiet evenings just sitting around talking, but I confess that if I wanted something specific as a gift, I knew to ask my dad and stepmother -- they were much more likely to come through.

After my grandmother died in 1989, by which time I was living on my own, Christmases at my mom's in Florida were fairly simple too. Once or twice my brother went out just before the holiday and bought a half-price tree, but most years we didn't bother. We had a single strand of colored lights we used to put up along the roofline at the front of the house, and they were so old we joked they might burn the place down. We gave each other a couple of gifts, my mom made a special dinner, we did all the cleanup, and that was that.

I don't know how holidays in our culture turned into such a crazy production.

(Photo: A city view near the overground train station not far from our flat. The poster looks like a religious message, but it's actually an advertisement for a Kanye West album.)