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Travel

Egypt: Luxor Temple

The entrance to the Luxor Temple feels much more complete than that of Karnak. There is the usual Pylon of stone on either side but with an obelisk added and two seated pharaohs guarding the entrance with two more standing pharaohs on each side. Luxor has so much more ‘stuff’ than Karnak. The reason for the difference is easy to explain.

Karnak is a shrine to the gods – Amun, Mut, and Khonsu specifically with a plethora of shrines to other gods added over the centuries. Whereas the Luxor Temple is specifically a temple to the Pharaohs and the yearly rejuvenation of their rule. So, it seems to me that the pharaohs went out of their way to make sure everyone knew what big powerful kings they were.

Ramses II in particular left his mark on the temple. He added the grand pylons at the entrance. The statues guarding the entrance, two seated and four standing, are stylized depictions of him. Ramses II also added the first courtyard with seventy-four Lotus bud columns and even more statues of himself. As I said, this is a temple to the Pharaohs by the Pharaohs – look how great we are!

At one time a grand scene of Ramses II going into battle decorated the Pylons. You can just make out the remnants of the carvings that were originally painted in bold bright colors. Also, there were originally two obelisks set at the entrance, but the smaller of the two was gifted to France in 1829 and is now in the Place de la Concorde in the center of Paris. We drove past it on our stop-over in Paris.

The city of Luxor was built on the ruins of Thebes, the ancient capital of Egypt. The power of the pharaohs was centered around the worship of the Gods at Karnak and rejuvenated every year at Luxor during the flooding of the Nile with the Festival of Opet. They were then buried in the Valley of the Kings across the river on the west side of the Nile. Thebes was the site of more than sixty festivals and feasts annually. It was the center of both religious and political power for centuries.

Alexander the Great recognized this and had a shrine built here after he conquered the country. He had his image stylized as a pharaoh and carved into the walls depicting him receiving his power from Amun. This is the Amun-Min version of the god with one arm, one leg, and a massive penis! On our visit, there was a line of people to see this carving. Apparently, massive penises are very popular with tourists!

The Luxor temple complex has been an important religious site for more than 3000 years. The original temple was dedicated to Amun, the God of the Air. Romans used it as a church and monastery that was then converted into a Mosque that is still in use to this day.

Our personal guide Ahmed knew that I was an engineer and writer. At Karnak, he pointed out the temple of Ptah – the god of architects and engineers. At Luxor, he showed us an image of the goddess of writing and knowledge – Seshat. (My new favorite goddess.) The image is carved into the back of the throne of one of the seated Ramses II statues inside the temple. You would never notice it unless someone pointed it out.

The central aisle through the galleries will take you to the most important room in the temple: the room where the god’s barq was kept. They have a replica displayed inside, but again there was a line to peek in and no lighting, so it was impossible to get a good picture of it.

All the professional guides in Egypt are required to be Egyptologists. Seriously, they are experts at the stuff. Our guide, Ahmed, had a PhD in Egyptology. When we visited the temples, he flooded us with information. The history of the sites and the narrative of the stories carved into the stone is so vast that it would take a PhD to absorb it all. We did our best to retain and understand as much as we could, but it did not take long before it was a blur of names and symbols. This was when I stepped away and began just looking for great photos.

Ancient temples and the world’s tourists surrounded us. I was literally eating up the culture and the atmosphere. I loved it. I took hundreds of pictures here and got my first taste of the monumental architecture of Egypt.

As an avid photographer, I love looking for the perfect picture of a scene. I tend to see what I want in my mind’s eye and then attempt to recreate it. Egyptian temples are a treasure trove of photo ops. I love a good space and the massive stone construction provided some great shapes and shadows to work with.

In the back corners of the temples, you will run into locals that have staked out prime locations and will point out extra special photo ops for a few dollars. I am sure they make a pretty good living during the tourist season.

When I travel, I like to step away from the group to explore and absorb the atmosphere of a place. I did that here. I avoided touching any carvings, but not everyone is so careful. However, I did place my hand on the rock of the temple and even hugged one of the massive columns. I always hope to feel something – such as an energy reaching down 3500 years to somehow connect with me. There was nothing there to feel, but it was still thrilling to be able to place my hand in the same place another person had touched hundreds of generations ago.

That is how travel can really put your life into perspective. Compared to the age of this place, my life is a grain of sand. How could my daily stresses mean anything in comparison?  

Gute Reise!

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Travel

Egypt: Karnak Temple

Our first thought on entering an Egyptian temple was: Damn that’s big! Particularly when you realize that everything is built of cut stone and with manual labor. Massive props to the engineers and workmen!

As an engineer myself, I tend to analyze the possible building techniques before I even notice the art and aesthetics. But beyond the amazing architecture, they are beautiful, well-built structures and I was duly impressed.

Gate Pylons at Karnak Egypt

Our first temple was Karnak, one of the most iconic Egyptian temples. This is the most visited temple after the Pyramids at Giza. Karnak has appeared in many movies and is usually the one pictured when they want a generic ‘Egyptian temple’ in the media. However, what they don’t show is that the temple is right next to the river Nile and surrounded by a modern city.

Both the Karnak and Luxor temples are located in the city of Luxor and most of the economy is driven by the tourist trade generated by the temples.

The Avenue of Rams at Karnak

Our first approach to Karnak was down the Avenue of the Rams, which appeared in one of my favorite movies: The Mummy Returns (2001). The first thing you notice is the different heights of the two pylons of the gate. These were a late addition to the temple and ultimately unfinished and undecorated. The remains of the mud-brick ramps used for construction are still in place. This detail got me pretty excited. …Engineering-nerd, what can I say.

The temple is dedicated to the worship of the god Amun, the sun god, and was added onto for over a thousand years.

During the Opet Festival when the Nile floods, a statue of Amun would be carried on a symbolic barge from the temple of Karnak down the Alley of Sphinxes 3km to the Luxor Temple where he would be ceremonially married to the pharaoh, thus promoting the fertility of Amun and the pharaoh and all of Egypt.

The Alley of Sphinxes is still extant and walkable. I was unable to talk my wife into the hike, so we were shuttled to the Luxor, just down the road.

The Temple of Karnak is iconic and absolutely beautiful, and yet a little of a letdown.  This is a working tourist site and has a worn-in and trampled feel that can take away from the experience. However, I found that I could ignore that and turn my mind inward to experience the atmosphere. I could almost feel time hanging in the air like cobwebs.

The Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak

The most famous and photographed part of Karnak is the Great Hypostyle Hall. It is 50,000 square feet of COLUMNS!! I love me some columns! Karnak is a column farm. 134 of them. Most are 33 feet tall with another twelve 70 feet tall! There are several examples that are not completed showing how they were constructed. The unshaped rock was stacked and mortared into place, then craftsmen shaped the column, followed by artisans that would carve the art and hieroglyphs into the stone. Finally, everything was painted in bright colors. Most of the paint is now faded and gone, but there are places where it can still be glimpsed.

At Karnak, I first encountered the ramps used in the construction of the temples. For some reason, these are never mentioned in any of the books I’ve read. The stones were cut, roughly shaped, and placed on barges at the quarries in southern Egypt. Then when the Nile flooded, the barges would be floated down the river and into preconstructed canals leading right up to the building site. They used the same technique for the pyramids. Amazing engineering!

The Ramps at Karnak
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Travel

Balloon Over Egypt

Our first full day in Egypt began with a boat ride across the Nile at 4:30 in the morning! We were to welcome the dawn from the basket of a hot-air balloon over the Egyptian desert. We’ve always wanted to go up in a balloon and when Sheri found out that we could do it in Egypt, she jumped at the chance. The worst part of the experience was that it was so early after arriving in Egypt. We were still suffering from jet lag and were a bit punch drunk from the international travel experience. But we weren’t going to miss this for anything!

Of course, the balloons are popular and we were part of at least a hundred people on this particular morning. There was an entire field of them going up at once. Watching fifteen feet of flame shoot up into the night is pretty exciting. I took hundreds of pictures on this trip.

The baskets are large and hold sixteen or twenty people at a time, divided into little compartments. The pilot is in the middle surrounded by tanks of propane. The tanks don’t last long and he changes them out quite often. The balloon pilots are actual trained pilots with uniforms displaying their wing pins. Our pilot was very professional. Sheri and I were placed directly next to him and got to watch as he worked his magic.

The flame was directly above us and HOT.

From the balloon, we could see the Nile twisting through the country with a narrow band of green fields on either side. West of us was the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Hatshepsut.

In the hills, we could see openings cut into the rock. Were they ancient tombs waiting to be explored, but off-limits to tourists? It made me muse on what wonders we are not allowed to see?

From our height, we were able to look down onto some of the local houses and businesses. There on the edge of the desert life is clearly harsh and hasn’t changed all that much in 3000 thousand years. There were more carts than cars and more donkeys than bicycles. But even then it seemed peaceful and content. The lack of noise that surrounds us in our normal life was stripped away at that height and it was both exciting and calming.

Even with a pillar of flame above me, I found peace and contentment in the sky above Egypt. Part of the allure of Egypt is what we imagine is there but aren’t able to see. We conjure up cities of ruins under the sea of sand and hold our breath as we round each corner.

But the grandeur we seek is long gone, only the vestiges remain among an impoverished populace that sells access to the illusion. I don’t blame them for it; this is their inheritance. But I am nostalgic for what we’ve lost.

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Travel

Our Egyptian Adventure: The Nile

The Nile is such an iconic river it would be difficult to live up to its vaunted reputation. For me, it has been the subject of decades of history lessons, bible lessons, favorite movies, and books. So, of course, it didn’t live up to its image.

The Nile is much narrower and calmer than I ever expected. It is a wonderful small river; clean enough for swimming and fishing. Unlike American and European rivers, the Nile is not very industrialized. In our four days on the river, I never saw a barge or a factory. There was a small amount of trash along the shore, but it was minimal compared to what I’m used to.

I expected it to be much wider. It’s narrow and clean.

I live in St Louis, Missouri, USA, right on the Mississippi, which is an industrialized and sick river. I would never swim or fish from it. Which, made the Nile such a surprise. There has been a civilization along the Nile for thousands of years and you would expect that to show in the river itself, but it doesn’t. It’s as if the river washed all those years away, leaving the land clean and natural again.

The land along the river is extensively farmed but by small family plots. We didn’t see any industrial farming as we see in the US. There was no large farm equipment at all; people still used donkey carts and manual labor to work their fields, just as their ancestors did.

The country is extremely poor and much of the population barely gets by. Many of the homes we could see along the shore were simple and crude. However, everyone smiled and waved. They genuinely wanted us there because tourism is really the only economy in Egypt.

When we scheduled our Nile cruise, we imagined a lone boat making its way along an isolated desert shore. But the ships work the same itinerary, so they cruise as a pack, parking side by side at the dock and allowing passengers to pass through to the shore. It was surprising, but I can see the logic.

The Nile is smooth and navigable, making the trip perfect for anyone that gets seasick. There was almost no movement of the deck.

We were on shore touring the sites in the morning and early afternoon. The boats leave the dock in the afternoon and usually cruise through the night. The observation deck was ideal to watch the procession and the night shores glide by. The air smells different in Egypt, clean and fresh compared to home, with a little hint of sand.

The Hollywood image of the Nile is far from its reality. It is a beautiful river flowing between lush green shores bordered by bare rocky hills behind. The valley of the Nile narrows in places to only a narrow shore before the desert pushes in. Most of the Nile valley is wide and green, extending for miles into the desert, proving that the Nile is still the lifeblood of Egypt and will lead you to adventure.

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Travel

Whirlwind Through Paris

On our flight to Cairo, we somehow ended up with an eleven-hour layover in Paris. Bummer! What will we do with ourselves? Well, we hire a driver and guide for a whirlwind tour of Paris, of course!

I contacted www.mydailydriver.fr and gave them our desired itinerary. They took care of the rest and did a bang-up job. The driver wasn’t fluent in English but super nice. Then once we were connected with our guide, we were able to communicate perfectly and she knew her stuff.

Paris has a few icons that every tourist must see. We chose to avoid the most tourist-trappy, i.e., the Eifel Tower. We did do a drive-by long enough to get a couple of pics from the car. Honestly, it was bigger than I expected. Very impressive for the period in which it was designed.

The four places on my list I really wanted to hit were:

1.  Sainte-Chapelle – because of the stained-glass windows.

2.  Notre Dame – because of the history and the fire.

3.  The Catacombs – because I love that sort of macabre setting.

4.  The Louvre – for everything NOT the Mona Lisa.

We met our guide at a café, because of course!

Food is always an important part of our adventures; we like to go on Food Safaris and try everything. Of course, the croissants in France are the best. But coffee is also important, and we like to sample the local brews. I like an espresso once in a while, but will normally order a ‘long’, so it’s more like American coffee. And I never put anything in my coffee: coffee should taste like coffee. The coffee at the little café was divine, almost chocolaty in creaminess.

St Chapelle was magnificent. I have a thing for churches simply because of the architecture and the beautiful art. I am not religious in the slightest, but I really love a good cathedral. This gothic style chapel is almost 800 years old and was consecrated on my birthday in 1248. I found it amazing that most of the windows have survived through wars, revolutions, storms, and vandalism. The space inside is not large, but the colors are breath-taking.

Notre Dame was closed, but we made a visit just to see it. I can be honest and admit that I cried when it burned. I watched the coverage of the fire for hours and cried over the lost history and beautiful art. It was a cultural tragedy for the entire world, not just France. Someday I will go back and see the completed rebuild.

We skipped the catacombs on the recommendation of our guide, because guides are not allowed to work inside the catacombs. She also warned us that once you get past the first chambers it’s just dirty smelly tunnels. I was a bit disappointed but found other ways to entertain ourselves.

The Louvre was amazing, of course. Our guide company had special passes for us, so we skipped right past the line. I was not interested in the Mona Lisa. It’s nice picture, but not that special. The Louvre is massive and many much more interesting items. One of my favorites was the ‘Winged Victory’. It is placed at the top of a wide sweeping staircase and is simply awe-inspiring.

I took a ton of pictures in the Louvre.

One of my very favorite paintings is located here. When I was a child of five or six, I remember my parents having a book with this painting in it. It is one of the first images I remember emotionally affecting me. I would seek out that page and stare at it. The tragedy and hope and pain and loss embodied in the piece hit me then and still resonate with me now. It is one of the great moments of my life to be able to stand directly in front of this magnificent painting and feel those same emotions.  

Paris deserved a longer stay, but I am glad we did the whirlwind tour. It was worth it and I highly recommend www.mydailydriver.fr if you have the time.

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Travel Uncategorized

Egypt – Finally

In our travels, my wife and I avoid tourist traps. We like foreigners and travel to meet them on their home turf, not to hang with other tourists. We seek to experience foreign parts with the locals. However, our vacation to Paris and Egypt was absolutely focused on tourist traps: the Eifel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, Luxor temples, Valley of the Kings, Giza Pyramids, and the Egyptian Museum. There was no avoiding tourists.

Yet, we were helped by the fact that our visit was at the end of summer before the busy season, so most sites were at less than medium capacity allowing us to enjoy them in relative peace. We also had a private tour guide for most of the trip. We shared a guide with another couple for our cruise down the Nile, which included the Luxor temples, Edfu (my favorite), the Valley of the Kings, and the Temple of Isis at Aswan.

Ready for Adventure

Our days began at 7 or 8am to avoid the heat and crowds, allowing us to really experience the temples intimately without the crowds.

As the day progressed we had to contend with larger and larger groups of tourists. Busloads of people would be following a single guide around the temples. It turned into a cacophony of different languages. I can’t imagine they received much information from their guide. It didn’t look like a good time. We were usually done and back on the boat by early afternoon.

Our guides from Memphis Tours (https://www.memphistours.com) did a knock-up job, they were more than knowledgeable; actual Egyptologists. Not some random guy with a notebook.

The heat of Egypt was brutal and this Minnesota boy did some serious melting. My best suggestion to survive Egypt is to purchase a good quality Egyptian cotton scarf (not the $10 scarves sold by random vendors) and learn to make a turban. Once I was properly equipped, the trip was much more enjoyable. I sport a bald head and my dome was thoroughly baked after the first day. The turban was a life-saver.

We found the Egyptian people to be super friendly and helpful – for a tip. Tourism is really the only economy in Egypt and much of the local market is driven by tips. Don’t be stingy, but don’t be taken too easily. There is a fine line between being generous and being a sucker. I was caught as a sucker a few times, I know.

This trip was in the planning stages for almost four years; meant to be  Sheri’s fiftieth birthday trip. She wanted to scuba dive in the Red Sea. I learned to swim and then got my scuba certification for this adventure. We were set to go in the fall of 2020, but then disaster, pandemic, and general idiocy ensued ruining our plans.

As the date of our trip approached – again – I kept expecting something to happen; another outbreak of stupid, or an asteroid, or pilot strike… something. But nothing happened and we finally found ourselves on a plane to Paris and then Cairo! Crazy!

Three years of anticipation were finally coming to fruition and man was it worth it. I have 3000 pictures to sort through and memories to last a lifetime. Which is exactly why we travel.

The world is a really big place and we can never truly understand that if we never explore it. I love home and my boring middle-class American life, but I can never truly appreciate it until I experience other places. Only then can I recognize how fortunate I am to live where I do and how completely spoiled we are here. Never take where or how you live for granted, we are all only a stroke of luck away from living in a hovel or sleeping on the ground.

Enjoy life and see the world!!

More to come…

Categories
Life Travel

Over It!! – Craft Beer

I am over the craft beer craze. I mean seriously OVER IT!

I want to go into a restaurant and order a beer I’ve had before and have it taste the same as it always has. I am tired of needing to do a sampler to find a beer I think I can stomach for this one time. Because I may never see it again and will never ever ever order it again.

My wife and I have started to look at beer lists online before going to a restaurant. The food alone will no longer get us in the door. If they don’t have a beer we recognize, we will not be patronizing that establishment. We like beer. We don’t drink often, but when we go out, there will usually be a couple of beers with dinner or after. But if the restaurant doesn’t have a beer I want, the food loses its appeal. I no longer care how good their BBQ is.

I also don’t understand IPAs. ‘Bitter beer face’ was not a sought-after experience when I grew up. Now I find that there are people that believe that bitter is better. I don’t get it at all. This is fine; they can keep those beers and all the other witches’ brew concoctions that people are labeling as ‘beer’.

Such as these potions that I call ‘gag-beers’, like Habanero Stout or Peanut Butter and Jelly Ale, or even breakfast cereal beer with marshmallows. Those are beers you buy just for the novelty. You will never drink them more than once. But hey, you can now brag that you drank an entire can of HellFire IPA and kept it down. You are that kind of ‘man’! (Yes the quotes are needed.)

Sigh…

After all the forced exploration of the craft beer fad, I have realized that all I really want is a tall Guinness or a Stella or even a good old Miller Lite. I no longer care what your cousin is brewing in his basement. Please stop forcing us to drink it.

Thank you!

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Life Travel

New York 2021: Ellis Island

Ellis Island should be a required pilgrimage for anyone with immigrant ancestors. Or really anyone that wants to truly understand what makes America America.

We are ‘the’ melting pot, a stew of every race and language and religion and superstition on Earth. Whether we know it or are willing to admit it, our culture and beliefs are a patchwork of every immigrant family that has made their way here.

My own immigrant story is not recent. My Irish ancestors came to America around 1670. So, I haven’t been Irish in 300 years but still identify as being of Irish descent. I think that deserves some discussion.

How long before your family is ‘American’? If you’re white and American-English speaking, it can be almost instantaneous. But if you happen to be non-white or non-European or have a second language, you can assume that it will never happen. You will always be hyphenated-American.

Some Chinese-American families have been here for generations – since before the Civil War – and still speak Chinese but are not considered American by many of their more recently immigrated fellow Americans.

I don’t know if I have any ancestors that came through Ellis Island. Still, I felt the impact of the immigrant experience all the same. The pain, suffering, and desperation that traveled through that place is both tragic and heartening. I believe it is that suffering that created the fortitude that immigrants contributed to our country’s fabric. People came here with nothing but hope, leaving behind family, friends, and everything they had ever known. They did this knowing that it would be forever. Many had nothing waiting for them here, nothing but the pie-in-the-sky hope that was and is America.

Today America is still that pie-in-the-sky hope for many people. But we seem to have forgotten the humble origins that made us. My ancestors were German and Irish immigrants that came here for a better future. I don’t feel that I or anyone has the right to deny someone else the ability to pursue the same hope that our grandparents and great-grandparents were given. Were they any more desirable than a poor family from south of the border? I don’t believe that your country of origin determines your moral fabric or the strength of your character.  

Cages for the undesirables.

Our visit to Ellis Island distilled the immigrant experience down to its essence. It was clear that immigrating is not a holiday or a vacation visit. It’s never short-term. There is no trial basis that can be reversed if it doesn’t work out. It is forever for most. Immigrants almost never go back to visit the old village or those long-lost cousins. The families and friends and homes left behind were gone forever, never to be seen again.

One of the most tragic things we learned was that some families were separated upon reaching America. People were not allowed in willie-nillie. They were inspected for diseases, sometimes even political affiliation. If grandma was suspected of being sickly, she was sent back to their port of origin, often never to be heard from again. Those are the tragic stories that we don’t hear about. But those are the experiences that made America.

“Whatever happened to great-grandma?”

“No one knows…”

Liberty from Ellis Island
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Travel

NY – Doesn’t Smell Like Pee At All

New York City is dirty and eternally under construction. But I loved it.

We stayed in Manhattan, in the Lower East Side close to the Bowery. It was everything you imagine NYC could be. It was smelly and loud and the melting pot chaos that is America. It also had its unfortunate ugliness and tragedy, but that is part of the package – always has been.

We saw a lot of homelessness and some of it was extreme. One poor soul was sleeping or passed out on the sidewalk with no shoes and his bare ass hanging out with his pants at his knees. People were just walking by like it was nothing. He might as well have been a potted plant. But then, what are we to do? What is the correct response to that? I’m not sure. And therefore we didn’t do anything.

There were also several obviously stoned individuals wandering the streets. Most of the time I find them to be comical. Yes, it is sad and tragic that they got themselves into that situation, but looking in from the outside, it is funny. I think most of us have been that drunk at least once in our lives. When it becomes a daily occurrence, someone should step in and get them some help. That is the part society seems to have forgotten. 

One thing that non-New Yorkers seem to consider a settled fact is that the subways and buses of New York are piss-covered and stinky. Most people think the same about any subway and city bus system. However, I have found the public transportation system clean and pleasant in every city I’ve been in. I like Chicago’s system the best, but New York’s was very nice if a bit more confusing. My wife and I never drive when we go to a city with a subway and bus system. That way we never have to worry about where to park or traffic or any other BS. We fly in, get on the train, and hit the town. We are downtown long before we could have driven there.

I’ve also never felt unsafe in a public transportation system. Not once. Big cities are big, but not necessarily the untamed wilds that they are portrayed to be. There is just a lot of people in a small area. But they are still just people.

So, all you Timid-Tina’s and fainting lambs out there that want to see the big city but are terrified of taking subways or buses should calm down and get on. It’s gonna be fun! Life is supposed to be an adventure, right?

Some of the wildlife of NYC
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Travel

Photo Day: San Francisco

I’ve done a little bit of traveling and I’m a little bit of a shutter-bug. I like to take pictures, but then never really get around to doing anything with them. So here are some from San Francisco last year.