Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The unexptected joys of long lost emails

My mom's organization has been asking its employees to start trimming the volume of emails they keep in storage. As a result, she has been going back through some very comprehensive archives that she could barely recollect even existed. This little seemingly inane task has actually been incredibly rewarding for us because she has dug up some emails that my dad had sent ages ago.
Reading through them has been very bittersweet. First of all, it has been great for me and my sister to see that our parents, even after a difficult divorce, still communicated regularly and amicably about us and their conversations back and forth show that they had remained close friends and equal opportunity parents after all these years. Second, it is incredible to see how much parents worry and discuss their children behind our backs. I mean this strictly in a positive light. For example, in 2001 I was diagnosed with keratoconus, which is an affliction of the cornea that causes very poor vision and can only be controlled with hard contact lenses. This was very difficult for both of my parents, and I would argue perhaps a bit more difficult for my dad based on the long distance that separated us. This was certainly evident in the emails. My mom carried the same worry with her, but had the benefit of seeing me every day and knowing that I was in no danger. And finally, it is humorous to see my father and mother discuss events about me and my sister and see their takes on the happenings of the day.

Here are some excerpts, which have been translated and provided with context as necessary:

(1) Following my high school graduation in 2001 (from the humorously named Poudre High School) I went to Argentina for 6 months to spend time with family.

"Nico is doing well. He is always in a good mood and enjoys everything we do...We talk and go out a lot and we both have a very ironic sense of humor. His sense of humor is not the only thing he gets from me - he is also very inconsistent. It is very difficult for him to follow through on anything that he starts. He started playing hockey here, he bought the hockey stick (which he quickly destroyed at the first practice). I went to the store and tried to exchange it by saying that it was damaged, but I am afraid it is our son that may be 'damaged.' He then bought a chest protector, spent all his money and now he doesn't go anymore....One of the topics we have broached is the difficulty he has 'socializing' with the girls. I would prefer on some Saturdays that he go out with groups of kids his age. I don't force him to do anything, but at least we have talked about it. In this regard, I can assure you he is not like me."
(2) On the same 6 month trip to Argentina, I took a brief trip to Buenos Aires, and my dad takes his opportunity to air some grievances to my mom:

"I just spoke to Nico and he arrived safely in Buenos Aires. I just thought you should know that he is starting to become somewhat expensive for me - and not for what he is making me spend, but rather for what he is breaking. I lent him my watch, which I have worn continuously for more than 10 years. In less than 24 hours he broke it. He tried to open my closet while the latch was closed. He gave it an enormous tug, broke the latch, made the frame fly across the room and separated some of the wood from the door of the closet. Fortunately, my life was miraculously spared since I was away from the scene of the accident. Yesterday at the bus station, my mother went to give him a kiss on his hand. He made a sudden movement with those enormous sausage like fingers on his hand and struck my poor mother's jaw. I almost had to go looking for her detached head at gate number 28. All kidding aside, my mother's jaw was swollen last night....It's a good thing his career path is the law instead of gynecology."

(3) My sister studied abroad in Germany her junior year in high school. Here are some communications relating to that experience.
"On Tuesday I talked to her. The mother answered and I can't even tell you what our communication was like. I spoke to her in 'my English' because I think it is closer to German than my Spanish, and she talked to me in 'her English' which is unlike any other human language....[On Sunday] I tried to scold her by jokingly telling her that how could it be possible that we had to deprive ourselves of sleep to wait until 4am to call her. She was happy to hear from us and told us she was up and waiting to go to church. Nico and I had a good laugh about this new experience of hers. I told her that now that she was going to be attending church every Sunday that maybe she would become a nicer person."

So, the moral of the story is that parents are neat. And that is all I have to say about that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Of EgyptAir and pyramids

All I can say is "Wow!"

At various parts of our trip to Egypt, Diane and I woud ask each other, "How are we going to describe this to people back home?" The truth is that I do not think words (or pictures) can really do justice to the history and splendor of Egypt.

First things first, the airplane information...

Our New York-Cairo trips were on B777, Nefertiti I to be exact.

We had four domestic flights, as follows:

Cairo - Aswan on an Embraer 170 (which coincidentally was my first time in such a plane).

Aswan - Abu Simbel on an A321.

Abu Simbel - Aswan on a B737.

Hurghada - Cairo on an Embraer 170 (sadly I got no picture of this plane).

A few notes on these flights...First of all, the service was very good. We were given a little tote bag with a travel toothbrush and socks. Plus, the crew handed out refreshing towels throughout the flight. Second of all, it was absolutely fascinating to hear the announcements in Arabic. Third, on the flight to Cairo from JFK, the cabin TVs showed live video (picture below) that was mounted on the front wheel, so we could see what the pilots were looking at as they taxiied. The video was left on through takeoff. I was hoping they would turn it on for landing, but no such luck. Lastly, the flights to an from Abu Simbel were very short - 45 minutes, to be exact. As such, the plane only ascended to 13000 feet.

I am struggling to find the words to describe the rest of the adventure. The trip was much better than we had anticipated. I was worried that we might be stuck in a group of tourists and have to mope around with a bunch of old people. Luckily, that was not the case. We essentially had our own private guided tour of Egypt. We went from temple to temple with our guides, who were both incredibly helpful and added so much value to the trip.

I could rattle off all the sites we visited, but I will stick to what one of our guides called the "Big Three." (1) The Great Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx; (2) Abu Simbel; and (3) Karnak.

The Great Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx
I remember being a bit disappointed when I first saw Mount Rushmore. I guess the pictures I had seen were taken from angles that made the monument appear enormous. In reality, it was not as large as I expected it to be. I don't mean to take anything away from Mount Rushmore, I simply mean that sometimes when you have very large expectations, you may set yourself up for disappointment. I was worried about that with the Pyramids. Boy was I wrong. They are BIGGER, LARGER, MORE IMPRESSIVE than I had imagined. If they had been built two years ago, they would still be impressive. To think that they were built thousands of years ago, without the technology that we have now, is just mind boggling.
I was also fascinated by the location of the pyramids - they are in the Cairo suburb of Giza, right across the Nile from the world's second largest city. In fact, although our excursion to Giza was scheduled for the second day of our trip, we actually saw the pyramids from the Citadel, which is on a hill in the middle of Cairo. It was so interesting to see a massive urban center with such a clearly ancient temple.

Abu Simbel
Of all the temples that Rameses II built, this one is my favorite - and it's not only because of its magnificance or location, but also for the message. It is located on the shores of Lake Nasser, near Egypt's southern border with Sudan. When it was built it was meant as a "warning" to the enemies of Egypt to the south (the Nubians?).

It is also very fitting that Rameses II also honored his favorite wife, Nefertari, with an equally splendid temple near his own intimidating temple. Rameses II had over 90 wives (or so, I can't remember the exact number). One of our guides took to calling him Casanova. The guy was a pharaonic FDR. He put his people to work on all sorts of public works, actually mostly just temples honoring him and the Gods. What a guy. As a side note, we saw him (his mummy anyway) in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. He was around 90 years old at the time of his death, and he looks remarkably good for a 90 year old (not to mention that having been thousands of years ago). He had a horseshoe bald thing going on, and his body had not contorted in any strange way.

One thing we kept hearing on our trip was how the main Egyptian god was Amun Ra, the Sun God. That is why Egyptians lived on the east bank of the Nile, where the sun rose every morning, and all their funerary temples and tombs are on the west bank, where the sun sets. There were many other gods that were worshipped and the most important ones had very impressive temples built in their honor. We visited one in Kom Ombo built for the crocodile god and Horus (the falcon god). Horus was an important part of Egyptian mythology, and as such, he had a very impressive temple all to himself in Edfu. All along, I kept thinking, if they built all these incredible temples for the minor gods, I wonder what a temple for Amun Ra would look like? Answer: Karnak.

Karnak is the world's largest religious complex. My guidebook said that it is larger than the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica and London's St. Paul's. The Great Hypostile Hall in Karnak has just rows after rows of columns. And, my god the obelisks. This is one of those places where I specifically remembering asking Diane how we would explain this to people who have not been here. It is simply a collection of greatness that you would expect from a people that were motivated to please their main god. Anything less would have been unacceptable to the Egyptians.

As far as further observations about Egypt, I can only say that we felt incredibly safe the entire time. We could walk around at night in any of the places that we stayed. We never ever felt in any sort of danger. There is a law in Egypt that requires American tourists to be accompanied by armed guards. Thankfully our guide would tell police at the checkpoints that we were British so that we weren't joined by a guard. Frankly, the requirement is unnecessary.

Islam is a beautiful religion. Five times a day, moslems pray, but we came to the conclusion that meditation is a more accurate term for what occurs. I loved hearing the prayer calls, except for the ones at 4:30 a.m. But otherwise, there was no better way to know you were in the Arab world than to hear the calls from the mosques. There is a fairly sizeable Christian population in Egypt, and they appear to live in harmony with the Moslems, if what we were told is correct. Our observations certainly seemed to support that notion. I will probabl never understand the issue with women in Islam - but the rest of the religion is indeed fascinating. As a side note, everybody assumed we were Christians, when in fact we are atheists. We both felt it was easier to let them assume we were Christians than to have the conversation about how we believe in nothing.

Camels are asinine. We rode a camel around the Great Pyramids of Giza, and when I was getting on it, the camel let out an enormous groan/sigh/growl. It was clearly not pleased that I was on him. He was equally sad to learn that ADB woul be coming along for the ride as well. At least he didn't spit on us.

They love Obama in Egypt. When we told people we were from New York, the would say, "American..........Obama." That was usually followed by us enthusiastically saying, "Yesssss!" and them responding, "Obama, good man. Bush, bad." What a thrill to not be embarrased (and terrified) to travel as an American anymore.

My sister is a heartless, mean negotiator. When I was in Ghana with her, she was able to bargain for an amazing amount of gifts for ridiculously good prices. We didn't do so well in Egypt, although I did manage to offend a carpet store owner when I offered $100 for three carpets, including a moslem prayer rug that had Arabic scribe on it which he said cost $1300. He didn't even know why I wanted that one. "Excuse me, but I do not think you are Arabic," he said to me. I wish I could go into Hannaford's and say, "$3 for milk. You're crazy, I'll give you $1.15." I did get a little better as the trip went along. My favorite strategy was to tell people that I was Argentinean and a student. That way I could comfortably claim relative poverty compared to other tourists and gain some sympathy.

And this is my last comment about the trip, and actually it's only partially about Egypt. We met a couple from Saratoga on the way home, and Cathy was telling us about a Chilean they had met on their travels incessantly complained about how dirty the streets were. At that point, I chimed in, " a Chilean he should be used to dirty streets." Oh Chile, I kid.