Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Pac-10 Football 2010 Straight Ahead - Season Picks

I'm getting excited for the upcoming college football season! Most schools start their schedules this weekend.

Of course at this time of the year hope springs eternal and the talk is all about what's going to happen...predicting.

In thinking about the Pac-10 and which teams might do what this season, I realized that over the past 6-7 seasons, each Pac-10 football team has performed in remarkably similar fashion over that period of time. For example and in no particular order:
  • USC - dominates wire-to-wire
  • OSU - starts slow but finishes strong
  • Cal - starts strong but fades in the second half of the season
  • Oregon - erratic, can beat anyone but can lose to anyone too
  • UW - not very good beginning to end of the season
  • WSU - lose virtually every game
  • ASU - always picked to be a contender, never delivers
  • UCLA - see ASU comment
  • UA - See ASU comment (except for last season)
  • Stanford - scrappy team making headway
And guess what? I bet this is exactly what happens again this year...with two exceptions. Those are: 1) I doubt USC will dominate everyone and even if they do it does not matter as they are not eligible to win the conference due to NCAA penalties, 2) I think UW will be better and could win as many as eight games.

Past that, I think we're going to see these programs perform similar to their recent track record:
  • Oregon may go 11-1 and win the league going away, or they could go 7-5 (or worse).
  • OSU could be a contender if they start even a game or two faster than most seasons.
  • Inversely, Cal could contend if they don't fade as early as in recent seasons.
  • ASU, UCLA and UA...well, I just won't believe they're Pac-10 title contenders until I actually see it happen. More likely they will be the "middle of the pack."
All that said, here is my prediction for the upcoming Pac-10 season:
  1. Oregon - stars align enough that they come out on top, Darron Thomas performs well at QB, BSC bowl
  2. USC - good team does well, but cannot play post season
  3. OSU - similar story to last season...solid team, start a bit slow, finish very strong, bowl
  4. Stanford - the scrappy team keeps scrapping and getting better, very good QB helps, bowl
  5. UW - Locker finally is consistent and the team surprises, wins enough to get to a bowl
  6. UA - comedown from last year and back to underachieving, might make a bowl 
  7. Cal - late season fade comes earlier this season, no bowl
  8. UCLA - don't believe the hype
  9. ASU - sorry, not this year either
  10. WSU - sad but true, may lose 9 or more games
There. Those are my picks. I did them in the moment here just before the season starts, and it's eerie how similar they are to my thoughts following spring practices earlier this year. At least I'm consistent.

In the end, I think trends and tendencies from the past will continue for the most part this season.

For those of you who say sure Marc, you  picked Oregon to win it because that's your school, I say you are correct in part...but the other part is that I honestly challenge you at this stage of the year to tell me there is a better team Pac-10 team front-to-back, O and D than the Ducks. Another team might end up being better, sure, but as of now I don't see one better as we kick off the season. Hey, I know Oregon will eventually slide...all programs do and football is cyclical...but I don't think it'll be in 2010.

Here's to an entertaining season.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Excursion to Egypt - The Series

As many readers of this blog know by now, my wife Diane and I took a trip to Egypt this past spring. Over the past couple months, I've re-capped our adventures in a series of posts - each with the "Excursion to Egypt" title.

Through the series, I've tried to capture not only where we visited, but also added in some observations and perspectives. Hopefully you have found this interesting, maybe learned something and picked up tips for what to do if you ever visit that ancient and fascinating land.

In any case, I've now collected the various pieces from the series together in one place. Simply click on the headlines below to access the chapters.



Photo Feature - Pictures from our trip on my Flickr Photostream

Sinai & the Red Sea

Observations About Egypt

NOTE: All content within the Excursion To Egypt series has been written or photographed by me, Marc Osborn, and is copy written in my name. No use of the text or photos within the series is authorized without written permission from me.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

15 Songs To Check Out

Just for the fun of it, here are 15 songs - a whole album's worth - from the "rock" category that many of you may not have ever heard that perhaps you should:

  1. Miles Davis & the Cool by The Gaslight Anthem
  2. Constructive Summer by The Hold Steady
  3. Solitude Sometimes Is by Manic Street Preachers
  4. Kingdom of Doom by The Good, the Bad and the Queen
  5. These Days by The Hours
  6. Coast to Coast by The Jesus and Mary Chain
  7. Way Out by The La's
  8. Basement Parties by Matt Pond PA
  9. Rest of Our Lives by Mike Ness
  10. Secret Meeting by The National
  11. This Picture by Placebo
  12. Common People by Pulp
  13. Same Jeans by The View
  14. I Can't Get Behind That by William Shatner (yes, Captain Kirk) with Henry Rollins
  15. Alcatraz by Sound of Guns

All of the above are easily available on iTunes or via Amazon, and...in my opinion...there are loads of other songs and albums by each of these artists worth checking out.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Excursion to Egypt - Thoughts & Observations

For the last post in my "Excursion to Egypt" series, I have gathered together some thoughts about what we witnessed over there. These are not comments about the big sites, the history of the country or obvious stuff. You can read about those things in my other posts about Egypt. Rather, these are a few observations on culture and what appeared to be happening around us.

So enjoy as I explore topics such as fat Russian men with skinny Russian girls, picking and arranging, standing around and more...

Security and Safety
We never had any safety or security scares in Egypt - that we were aware of. And, annoyances like aggressive hawkers and gawkers were not anything worth worrying about. Hell, we've seen worse in New York, New Orleans and our home city of Seattle.

None the less, Egypt is in the Middle East. While you won't mistake it for a wild and unsettled Iraq, Yemen or Afghanistan, it has in the not too distant past witnessed terrorism against tourists. Those very attacks back in the late 1990s and mid-2000s were, in fact, why we postponed visiting Egypt at those times until a time when things were calmer.

In any case, we had a wonderful trip. However, part of the reason it went so smoothly from a security standpoint may just be that the Egyptian government has invested heavily in making sure tourists are safe.

Hotels. At every hotel entrance there is a squad of soldiers. Each vehicle coming in is stopped, the driver's identification is verified, a dog sniffs all around the car and one of the soldiers checks the undercarriage of the vehicle with a special mirror affixed to a long pole. Occasionally, they'll look in the trunk or cargo area. We saw this happen a couple times, however not for a vehicle we were in. Once satisfied that the vehicle is safe, they wave it through. But, that's not all for hotel security. Once you exit your car or taxi, you have to go through a metal detector staffed by more soldiers to get into the hotel.

None of these procedures are scary or hinder a tourists comings and goings. The Egyptians want tourists there and they want to make sure they are safe. So, we had no problem with these procedures at all.

I imagine each hotel has a 24x7 security detail inside and out as well, but other than the team a the front entrances we did not see evidence of them.

Armed guard. Everywhere our tour group went out in public, we had an armed guard with us. In the bus, on the street at the sites we visited and even during our entire Mt. Sinai adventure. Now, you couldn't overtly tell they were an armed guard because they wore a business suit. But under that jacket? A fully automatic rifle. Small, compact and deadly. Think Uzi or similar.

These guards were not assigned to us because we were from the U.S.A. nor because there is any heightened security issues in Egypt. No, they are assigned because it's the law. As mentioned, Egypt has a big sector of its economy tied up in tourism, and they have indeed had some horrible incidents in the past, so they want to make dang sure nothing happens to people who come now. Therefore, the guard is partly to simply ease tourist fears - real or imagined - but also an very real deterrent and/or response to anyone wishing to do tourists harm.

Such was the dedication to protecting tourists that when we toured the massive bazaar in Cairo, a guard continued on with us even when our guide had to leave and technically the guard could have too.

Tourist police. Most "tourist police" you encounter in cities around the world (including some in the U.S.) are a scam...just criminals trying to shake you down. However, in Egypt they have a huge Tourist Police force. You see them, decked out in all-white uniforms, black beret and AK-47s - everywhere  tourists are. Now, they're not overwhelming in number or anything that takes away from your experience, but they are at each monument, museum, temple or site. Their job is similar to the private guard - protect tourists.

A last note on security. The Egyptian military REALLY protects President Mubarak. On two occasions when we drove from our hotel to the airport in Cairo, we witnessed mile upon mile of soldiers standing on the roadside in anticipation of the president's motorcade coming by.

Pickin' and Arrangin'
To be sure, Egypt is a male dominated society as most in the world are. Outwardly, you see this in a number of obvious ways. Virtually all women dress conservatively with a head covering of some sort at minimum while men where whatever they like. Women do a lot of the hard work while most men - seemingly - are not doing as much. Men are head of the household, but women do most if not all of the child raising and manage home life. It goes on and on like that.

In a society like that where men dominate, they are not so concerned with what women may think of their actions. Why would they care? They are just women after all.

One very common activity I saw men do in Egypt that surely must be a result of simply not caring one bit what women think is nose picking. That's right. Aggressive, obvious, out-in-the-open, unapologetic nose picking by men. We saw it everywhere.

You think these men would be picking their noses with such open aplomb in a society where they valued what women thought of them? How they might be perceived by the opposite sex? Hell no. But in Egypt, no big deal. Nose picking is a common daily activity. By the way, we never once saw a woman doing this.

The worst of this for me was on our flight over to Sharm. Diane and I both had isle seats - one across the isle from the other. This meant we were sitting next to someone else who occupied the respective window seats next to us. Well, there was an Egyptian guy sitting next to me. He slept the entire 1 hour flight from Luxor. But, as soon as we landed, he woke up and started picking his nose profusely. This guy was diggin' for gold. This really grossed me out. But worse, he started flicking his boogers - kinda sorta aiming for the floor. "HOLY SHIT, this guy's going to flick a booger on me!" my brain screamed out. Thankfully, the plane arrived at the gate and I was able to escape. But man...GROSS!

The other thing we saw a lot of was men publicly arranging their junk. Yep. You know what I mean. Moving their Johnson around or scratching their nads. All this is done while fully clothed, but still...to a westerner, it's a bit strange to see guys just openly arranging themselves like that all the time. Again, I think that its a behavior predicated on not giving a shit what women think. I mean, hey, western men get uncomfortable down there sometimes or become itchy. It happens. But, you don't walk around New York City, London or Paris and see guy after guy arranging themselves like this.

Cairo is polluted. It may not be quite as bad as Shanghai or Beijing, but for sure a gray/brown haze hangs over the city...graying it out most days. So, yet another massive city pumping out massive amounts of pollution every day.

On our second visit to Cairo on our trip, skies were clearer and you could really see what the smog had been obscuring in our earlier visit. Here's what I'm talking about:

First visit

Second visit

Whole Lot of Standing Around Going On
Like other places in the third world we have been, I have noticed a lot of people standing around doing nothing. Mostly men. Women seem to be very busy with work, children, errands, etc. Men seem to be standing around a lot.

Our guides said that unemployment is very high in Egypt because the tourism industry has gone way down over the past couple years - mainly due to the overall global recession. There are simply fewer people from Europe and Asia coming to Egypt for vacations, and given that tourism is the second or third biggest sectors of the Egyptian economy (the other two being electricity via the Aswan Dam and toll fees for the Suez Canal), there are huge numbers of people normally employed in tourism now out of a job. I assume that there are other sectors of the economy hard hit too.

This explains a lot of it I think, but regardless of the reason, when you have hundreds of thousands of poor, unemployed men standing around doing nothing for extended periods of time, things might get a little sketchy. Egypt is a relatively stable nation, but there have been increasing complaints about the President Mubarak's iron clad grip on his office...and how his son will likely succeed him...in what is supposed to be a democracy. Many of these complaints are legit, but many are also coming from religious radicals who would replace the Mubarak system with a fundamentalist religious regime.

Not a "Food Trip"
We ate very well in Egypt. But, we ate cuisine from other places - Lebanese, Indian, Thai, Italian, American for example. We did this not because we wanted to avoid or we disliked Egyptian food, but rather because it was simply not that easy to find. Or at least it was hard to find given we were staying at really nice places and on a tour.

When you go to France there are restaurants and bars all over the place that serve up French food - everything from rustic classics to inventive new cuisine. Or, say you go to Vietnam. Every place you go is loaded with local fare. The same was our experience in India and China. It's easy to find indigenous food without trying very hard...like, all you have to do is walk down the street.

Well, not as much in Egypt - at least for a western tourist. I am sure there are many pseudo Tony Bourdains out there (and I love me some Tony B believe me) who would challenge this and say, "hey, you're not trying hard enough! Go find the good stuff." And technically I know they'd be right. I am sure we could troll the many back streets of Cairo and find some very good local joints serving the local fare. But, we made the decision to be part of a small tour group (16 people) for the ease and security of it and once you sign up for a group trip, you also sign up for (mostly) group meals...and that means lowest common denominator food. Even if it's really, really good food, it means eating what the tour company thinks most Americans are going to like.

So, that's why we did not have a major "food trip" this time. There were some exceptions of course, such as the trio of Cairo places Diane and I went to on our own (read about them at the bottom of my post HERE) and the Italian place we ate at on our own in Sharm (info in the post HERE), the Thai place at the Hyatt resort in Sharm and the plate of snacks in the Nubian village near Aswan.

Does Egypt have wonderful places serving delicious indigenous food? No doubt. But, unlike a Paris, Amsterdam, Hanoi, Xi'an, Udaipur or many other places around the world we've been, it did not seem prudent or easy to find it.

Fat Russian Men With Skinny Girls
It became immediately clear upon checking into the Hyatt Resort at Sharm that the place was crawling with Russians. It's just a language you automatically started hearing upon entering the lobby. No big deal, but obvious.

Within a day or two of bumming around the grounds, sitting at the beach and eating in the resort restaurants another thing became clear about these Russians. Namely, almost all the couples we saw were fat men with skinny attractive girlfriends or wives. It didn't matter if the guy was young, old, attractive or not...he was fat. And, his girlfriend or wife was young, skinny and attractive. We saw no equally attractive or fit Russian couples.

To be clear, there definitely were Russian families on vacation at the resort and I'm not talking about them. Their situations spanned a wide range of ages, fitness, etc. No, I'm talking about Russian couples clearly on holiday together sans children or other impediments (like a spouse).

The next thing that came to mind was the question of why this might be? Why would these young, attractive girls go for these fat guys? Why was it so consistently the case?

Well, who knows for sure, but my speculation is that it's all about money. These fat Russian guys are fat for a reason. They have money. Probably a lot. They can afford to fly from mother Russia to the Sinai and stay at the nicest place on the beach. What's a young Russian girl to do? Why not date one of them for the benefits of his money...including a long weekend on the Red Sea at a resort? This is the only explanation I could think of.

Love for Americans
Each guide, shop owner and driver we encountered professed to really like Americans and prefer working with them rather than French, Russians or Italians. Usually, the feedback was that U.S. citizens are friendlier, more talkative and not condescending or rude. Apparently the Italians, Russians and French are consistently all of those things, so Egyptians like Americans by comparison.

Now, some of this reaction may be obvious because, well, what else are they going to say to us? After all, they all have an interest in you spending money in their country and - in the case of guides - tipping them after they're done.

None the less, I think I have a pretty good BS detector, and I think the feedback about the attitudes of the different nationalities rings true to Egyptians no matter whether you will be paying them or not.

And with that, this wraps up my Excursion to Egypt series. I will aggregate all the posts into one place with relevant links here shortly for a one-stop page for all elements of the series for those who have not read the other parts yet.

Thanks for checking in on the blog and following my ramblings!

NOTE: The two pictures in this post were taken by me, Marc Osborn. Any use of these pictures is not authorized without written permission directly from me.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Elvis Would Have Been 75 Years Old Today

Thirty-three years ago today, Elvis Presley died at the age of 42.

As is said about him, "Elvis did everything before anyone did anything."

That's a pretty accurate statement when it comes to what "being a rock star" has come to mean over the past few decades. For example, here are somethings that Elvis did bigger, better or first...
  • Combining blues, country and hillbilly music into what became known as "rock and roll" - check.
  • Male sex appeal sending teenage girls into a frenzy - check.
  • Gender bending with eyeliner - check.
  • Shocking parents and older adults with stage moves - check.
  • Big TV specials - check.
  • Entourage of childhood buddies - check.
  • Cross-over from music to movies - check.
  • Messy divorce - check.
  • Big estate - check.
  • Extravagant possessions (jet, horses, cars, jewelry, etc.) - check.
  • Drug addiction, paranoia and an early demise - check.
So for all you did for music and pop culture, R.I.P. Elvis...

Picture taken by me, Marc Osborn, and is not authorized for any use without permission from me.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Excursion to Egypt - Sinai & the Red Sea

This is the fourth installment of my series called Excursion to Egypt.  You can read about our experiences in Cario HERE, about Aswan and cruising the Nile HERE and about our visit to Luxor HERE.

"Impressive" is one word to describe that first portion of our trip. Another word is "tiring." We knew this was likely going to be the case, so with a little foresight we built in a "vacation from our vacation" on the back end of our two weeks. Yep. We went to the beach. And what a beach!

Here's what we did...

Sinai Peninsula Paradise
Flying from the middle of hot and dusty Egypt in Luxor, we took a short 1 hour flight over to Sharm el-Sheik. Oh, it's just about as hot as Luxor, but its situated nicely right on the Red Sea at the southern point of the Sinai Peninsula. "Sharm" as it is called, is a resort city dotted with hotels, resorts, restaurants, etc. It also has one of the largest and most spectacular coral reefs in the world right there in front of it.

Checking into the beautiful Hyatt Regency Resort just north of the main town, we knew we had found what we were looking for - a luxurious crash pad to rest from our busy sightseeing schedule. The property features white terraced buildings, lush gardens, excellent restaurants, pools, scuba/snorkel gear, sandy beaches with thatched umbrella shade "palapas," and that reef right out from the beach.

The place was so great that we knew we wouldn't be leaving much and would rather just laze away a few days right there. And that's exactly what we did. A typical day for us here would start with a beautiful mid-morning breakfast overlooking the turquoise ocean from a shady terrace restaurant, perhaps a quick swim or turn down the hidden water slide, then parking ourselves for the day down at the beach. Settled in there, only two things disturbed our rest, read and nap schedule: lunch and snorkeling.

The restaurant at the beach featured fresh seafood and sandwiches - of which we tried pretty much every one over the week we were there. The staff came to recognize us quickly - both because of our week long tenure, but also because were one of the only U.S. citizens at the entire resort. I'd guess that about 80% of the guests here were Russian. Yep, apparently Sharm is their "Mexico" or "Bahamas." Pretty close to their homeland, but oh so much warmer, sunnier and cheaper. Also to note, there were strictly two types of Russians we saw here - first, families just like you'd see anywhere in the world at the seaside and second, pairings of overweight Russian men - young and older - with skinny young Russian girls. Hmmm. More on that in another post.

As for snorkeling, what can I say? We've been in Hawaii and in Mexico, and sure, we've seen some coral and fish. Not bad. But this place! Wow! They call these reefs coral "gardens," and I can see why. Just under the water is a whole world of green, blue, yellow, purple and orange coral of all shapes and sizes. And, yes, there are loads of colorful exotic fish to see too. Quite simply, this was the best snorkeling we'd ever done.

Peeking Outside Paradise
We ventured off the Hyatt property two times while in Sharm. One of them was to go for a look at the old market in Sharm el-Sheik town itself and an Italian dinner nearby. The bazaar in the older part of Sharm is filled with small shops selling pretty much anything tourists might want, so it's not really the type of market that locals would be shopping at for everyday items. The buildings here are older, and unlike many such markets the streets are actually wide. We strolled around, stopped into a few places, bought some small items and generally had an OK time.

Also, in the back of my mind, I knew that this was the place where not too many years ago a terrorist bomb killed tourists. So, you know that this is extremely unlikely to happen again, but still you wonder. Obviously it didn't and we caught a taxi to the Italian restaurant we'd read good things about.

Arriving there, we saw that the restaurant sat perched on a bluff of land overlooking the Red Sea. We'd read that this place, El Fanar, was notable because the Italian chef had fresh ingredients flown in from Italy 3-4 times a week. Apparently, there are enough Italian tourists who come to Sharm that the town boasts some very good Italian places.

So, we were pretty stoked to eat here. As we walked in at about 7:30 p.m. we noticed a couple things right away: 1) a nice, well appointed and big space, and 2) absolutely nobody else was there. Nope. Not a sole except a waiter, a bartender and a chef. For all we'd read about this joint, this was pretty surprising. We even wondered if they were really open. We asked, and they waiter said certainly they were.

So, we took our table and thought, "what the Hell, we're here lets eat." I figured maybe that we were just unfashionably early as Italians (like many/most Europeans) tend to start dinner much later than we Americans. But no, nobody showed up the entire 90 minutes we were there.

The saving grace here was that the food was really good. Both Diane and I had pasta dishes, and I have to say that they were delightful - savory, pasta cooked just right. We also quickly consumed the best bruchetta we'd ever tasted. In the end, we exited just as we had arrived...the only customers in the whole building. Oh well. As one of the guys hailed a taxi for us, we asked him why the restaurant was empty that night and he offered that it was "change over day" and that all the Italian tourists had left earlier that day and more would be coming tomorrow. Who knows if that's true, but our strange - but enjoyable - dinner was memorable.

Camels, Moses and A Monastery
The other occasion we left the friendly confines of the Hyatt compound was for a hike up Mt. Sinai. But this wasn't just any old hike. No. This was a nighttime climb up a sacred mountain in the middle of the desert for a sunrise crescendo at the summit. Oh, and camels.

To lay it out for you, this hike entailed us being picked up at the Hyatt at 10:30 p.m. by our guides, a long drive through the middle of the Sinai desert arriving a the base of Mt. Sinai just before 2 a.m., a camel ride two-thirds the way up the mountain by starlight and a hike up the rest of the way to see the sun rise at the 7,500 foot high summit, and then a full hike all the way back down to the base where the ancient St. Catherine's Monastery awaited for a visit. And then the return drive back to our hotel.

All of this sounded exciting, fun and both Diane and I were looking forward to it. But before I get to all that, we did not do the hike without some trepidation. Ultimately we did not encounter any trouble and had a lovely time, but in the moment we did ponder some concerns.

For example, as the time drew closer for us to be picked up for the nighttime drive through the Sinai desert to the base of Mt. Sinai, I began to consider that we'd be driving through desolate areas with people we didn't know in an place that had in the not too distant past seen acts of violence against tourists...only to get out and climb up into even more desolate hills and mountains where who knows what type of operatives lived. We'd even been told that it was only in the western desert and the rugged hills of the Sinai where any organized extremists or militants actually existed in Egypt. This caused both Diane and me to pause and wonder just what we may be getting into. And to top it off, as we rested in our hotel room waiting for our guides to pick us up, we tuned into CNN and saw a story about an American couple who had just been kidnapped in Yemen. In any case, by the time our guides arrived I had dispensed with the "terrorist" worry as so extremely unlikely that it wasn't, in fact, worth worrying about. And of course I was right.

However, at this point it dawned on me that the all too real danger for this jaunt was, in fact, a car accident. Yes, as you may have read in my first post about our Egypt trip, car accidents are very common in Egypt and as our small tour bus ventured out into the roads of the nighttime Sinai peninsula, I realized that the most serious threat to our safety was getting in a accident on these open and vacant roads. All it would take is one sleepy or wild driver and - boom! - big trouble. Obviously, we didn't have any problems, and by the time we were actually on the road and on our way to Mt. Sinai, I just "let it go" and tried to get some sleep before we arrived.

We rolled into the little town near St. Catherine's Monastery about 1:45 a.m. and met up with a couple of our friends we'd met on the earlier part of our trip. After a hot cup of coffee at a little coffee shop we all headed out with out guides to get the monastery and the camels that we would ride up most of the mountain.

As we walked together closer to the base of the mountain, we strode through a valley and right by the ancient monastery. Lit by the moonlight, the mountains were magnificent as the moonbeams shone off their ridges to give us an otherworldly view. It is also at this point that I abolished any lingering doubts about being "out on a mountain all alone." For indeed, there were hundreds of other tourists making the ascent this morning too. Most were walking up the hiking trail rather than riding up on the camel trail, so luckily we did  not have to share the trail with most of them. But, it was clear to me that no funny business would happen with all those people around.

Our group met up with a number of Bedouin tribesmen who were the keepers of the camels we would ride up the mountain. According to our guide, it is the law that all tours up the peak need to be done with a local Bedouin as a way for them to have work in the tourism industry. So, under the starlight we loaded up on our camels - each of us riding our own.

From there, we began an ascent like no other we've done before - unlike our hike in China in 2008 and unlike our annual hikes in the Cascades back home.

Clopping their hooves on the trail, our camels negotiated the twists and turns up the mountain in the dead of night as we each sat back and marveled at the spectacular display of stars above us. The Milky Way, occasional shooting stars and, well, more brilliant points of light in the night sky than we'd ever seen before were conveniently laid out over our heads to enjoy. Because we were on camels, we had the luxury of focusing on the sights above and around us rather than carefully picking our way up the side of the mountain in the dark with hundreds of tourists.

Along the way up there were a few places where you could stop for a snack, soda or tea. We chose not to dismount and kept pushing onward.

One thing about riding camels - or at least if you're not used to riding one - is that it really stretches your legs at the point where they meet your torso. Your legs are draped over each side of the beast, but there are no stirrups to put your feet. This became pretty uncomfortable at times, but you just have to ignore that and appreciate where you are and what you're doing. This is what we did.

By about 4:30 a.m. we reached a rally point high up on the mountain and dismounted our camels to join the rest of the masses making the final climb to the top. Here is where we realized that most of the other hiker tourists were Russians. And wow, those Russians don't much care for, oh, little things like dressing for an aggressive 7,500 ft. hike. Seriously, for every one we saw who was semi-equipped for a hike we saw 2 or 3 dressed like they were out for a night at the dance club or perhaps the beach. Really. We're talking about girls in tight shorts, heels and flimsy tops...guys in flip flops and beach shorts...and just about everything in between. Amazing. Oh well.

After a short while we picked our way up the steep and narrow stone steps to the top of Mt. Sinai. The first hints of light were appearing. Before the sun burst over the horizon and rose above the peaks around us, Diane and I quickly ventured to the very top to see a couple sites that are mentioned in the Bible. Now, neither of us are religious types, but on the other hand - whether you believe in the Bible or you do not - it is surely true that this is the spot that is referenced in the text where Moses received the 10 Commandments from God. And for that, there is a small chapel up on the mountainside, along with a small hole where Moses is supposed to have "holed up" for many days before receiving the Commandments. We saw that. Then we went to go see the sunrise.

After sunrise and taking in the view, we started our hike down the mountain and back to the Monastery. On our way down, the full extent and beauty of the surrounding mountains impressed. Arriving at the bottom, we toured the St. Catherine's Monastery - a Greek Orthodox outpost dating back 1,000 years and built over the spot where the men who wrote the Bible said Moses saw "the burning bush." In fact, it is said that the bush still exists in the confines of the Monastery. Below is a picture I took of it:

Getting pretty dang tired at this point, we had breakfast at a local spot and then loaded up on our bus again for the ride back to the Hyatt in Sharm.

The ride through the desert - this time in daylight - revealed a very desolate, very rugged and in that way beautiful topography. After some rest I simply looked out the window and watched it all go by with a very rare camel, rest stop or guard post visible once and a while.

Eventually we arrived back at our Hyatt oasis around 1 p.m. We immediately cleaned up, got a bite to eat and hit the beach for a nap and relaxation knowing we'd just completed a unique and memorable adventure. Now completed, we concentrated on getting the most out of the hotel over the next day before we had to leave.

NOTE: All pictures featured in this article were taken by me, Marc Osborn. They are copy written in my name and are not authorized for any use by anyone without written permission directly from me.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Excursion to Egypt - Luxor & the Valley of the Kings

This is the third installment in my series about our trip this spring to Egypt. The first two are HERE and HERE. And, as a reminder, you can see more pictures from our trip on my Flickr Photostream by clicking HERE.

Following four days of cruising on the Nile, our ship transformed into a stationary hotel tied up to the riverbank for the next two nights as we docked at Luxor to see the sights in this important area of Egypt.

Carriage Ride Offers Perspective
Our first adventure here was a horse carriage ride around old Luxor at dusk. Each couple in our group boarded their own vessel and the set of them formed a line of clippidy-cloppidy vehicles snaking through a variety of scenery including the cramped and vibrant quarters of a market, empty side streets, tranquil residential areas, hussely-bussily broad avenues, shopping areas, etc. With a now tolerable early evening breeze blowing, the ride offered a pleasant way to see parts of Luxor we would never otherwise get to.

Arriving back at the ship after dark for a late dinner, I also found it interesting that many of our older tour companions did not enjoy the trundle through Luxor. Most said they disliked seeing the poverty or the dirtiness. "I know it exists, but I don't need to see it," was a comment I heard more than once. I chose to maintain a polite demeanor and simply nod at such escapism as I had to be around these people for a couple of days still.

However, in my mind I could not disagree more with what I was hearing. Sure, nobody "likes" poverty or unsanitary conditions, but they exist...and in fact, most people in the world live right there down in that stuff. It's more "real" than suburban American life, and my opinion is that it is precisely valuable to see what that's like so you can have a better informed, more well rounded perspective back home when you're trying understand any number of things - immigration, world events, politics, or even just why those new neighbors might look or act different than you.

Anyway, I'm not one to wallow in "how good we have it" comparisons or take - as described in a Sex Pistols song says - "a cheap holiday in other people's misery," but I do want to get a perspective on the world beyond big hotels, fancy restaurants and impressive monuments.

Lots of Hot Air
And speaking of different perspectives, how about what you can see at 1,000 feet above the ground?

Neither Diane nor I had ever been up in a hot air balloon, and honestly it hadn't occurred to us that this would be an option on our trip to Egypt. But, just before our evening carriage ride around Luxor, our guide mentioned that this would be something we could do the next morning if we wanted. Pondering the variables as we rode the Luxor streets that evening - How much would it cost? How safe is a hot air balloon in Egypt? And, perhaps most importantly...how early would we have to get up? - we went back and forth on whether or not to do it. Eventually, we decided that it was a minimal risk and it would be a shame if we regretted not seeing the sites from the air when we had the chance. So, we made the arrangements and hit the sack.

Rising early and disembarking our ship as the sun began to peek over the horizon, Egypt was hotting up already. The skies were clear and you could tell we were in for a great view of whatever we floated over.

A short bus ride later, we boarded a covered river longboat that would transport us across the Nile and over the the western bank where our balloon awaited. As we chugged along, we were offered instant coffee that we both refused because, well, you never know if that water really has been boiled. No need for contracting a rotten gut on the cheap like that. We also began to see balloons go up into the air and that made us anticipate our own flight even more.

Leaving the boat, we rode again in a bus for a short while, eventually arriving at a flat tilled field where a number of balloons were in different stages of inflation or take off.

After a while, our blue balloon inflated enough for us to board the basket. Roughly a rectangle in shape, it held about 12 people, plus the pilot in the middle. As the pilot fired up the balloon further to lift us off the ground, we felt the very hot blasts come down on our heads. Sure, the fire was nowhere near us, but the down draft was so hot that we cringed down to the floor of the basket to get away. We had not anticipated this and the only relief were hats and cringing down. Eventually we took off and all was good again.

Rising slowly, the magnificence of where we were revealed itself. As we climbed, the massive Temple of Hatshepsut came into view. This huge complex was built by one of the only female Pharaohs - Hatshepsut and is the most striking above ground structure in the area.

Nearby and around there were other ancient temples built near the river by the Pharaohs and their queens as their public statement from the afterlife - even while their bodies were secretly buried over the ridge in the Valley of the Kings.

As we rose further to an ultimate height of 1,000 feet above ground, we took into view the Nile, Luxor town, the Temple of Luxor, the ridge line of the Valley of the Kings and vistas beyond. Quiet and still, the flight proved to be calming and, obviously, impressive. Lots of "oooos" and "ahhhs."

The breeze this day dictated that our flight floated straight up, then drifted east back toward the Nile. All good except that if you're the balloon company you want to land your craft on the west side of the river, and if you're a passenger...well, you don't want to have a swim along with your flight. Our captain managed to entertain us with a little guessing game called, "will he land us before the river." Turns out, he did. We came down nicely in a dirt field about 100 yards from the Nile. After disembarking our balloon basket and a quick scamper through a banana tree orchard...in which Diane was convinced there were snakes, but of which we saw none...we were back in the truck and off to meet up with our group once again.

Valley of the Kings
Later that day, we visited The Valley of the Kings. Nestled in the hills just beside the Nile River, this is a place where more than 30 of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs had their graves secretly built and guarded. With their public temples visible to all down by the river, these graves were created to ensure the kings had an uninterrupted journey to the next world after they died. Hence, the tombs were carved by hand out of the rock deep into the mountainsides to hide their presence and demure grave robbers and looters.

Each tomb is different - some are big, some small, some long, some not, some deep, others shallow, some with many rooms and levels, some with just one, some with columns, others not., etc. However, most have common attributes. Those include an entryway into a hall that descends into the earth. The walls and ceilings are covered in colorful hieroglyphs depicting the king's history, fidelity to the gods, accomplishments and more. Most of these hallways are long and have smaller side rooms or coves. Eventually you reach a large room that houses the sarcophagus where the Pharaoh was buried. Virtually all the mummys of the Pharoes have been exhumed and quite of few of them now reside in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo where you can see them up close and personal. Oh, and another common attribute? It's dang hot down in those tombs!

Seriously though, it was quite a sensation to walk the corridors of these ancient underground structures and see the graphics on the wall...painted and carved so long ago. One could just imagine how difficult it was to dig these out of the living rock, decorate them, perform all burial ceremonies in them, seal them up and guard them.

Finally, another interesting thing that I learned on this trip was that all of the tombs - save one - had been entered, robbed and in some cases defaced many times over the millennium. Virtually all items of value and consequence had long been removed. Ironically, the mummies themselves were not among those items prized by ancient thieves, but certainly the jewels, gold and other valuable pieces were. Now, the one tomb not robbed or even opened until the 1920s was that of good old King Tut.

Yes, his relatively small tomb went undiscovered and untouched for thousands of years, only to be found by accident by a British archaeologist as he was excavating a nearby tomb entrance. Because Tutankhamen's tomb remained intact all along, all of the fascinating items from it provide an invaluable insight into not only this king's life and death, but also how many of the other tombs must have been decorated and arranged. All of the items from King Tut's tomb are now on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and a traveling exhibit is hitting the U.S. soon I hear.

Shopping - the Art of Alabaster Negotiation
Departing the Valley of the Kings and back near the Nile, our group stopped at a shop where we disgorged from the bus and perused the wares available at a shop specializing in alabaster stone. Now, to be sure, our guide was getting a kickback for taking us here. So, we were under no illusions that this shop was not a random choice for our stop. But, we also knew that alabaster is one thing this area is known for in terms of art and souvenirs. Therefore, regardless of why we were at this shop, the question in our minds was, "is this stuff any good or not?" After looking, handling and asking questions about the merchandise we figured this was as good a place as any to buy some things.

As with every shopping experience in Egypt - and indeed many places around the world - buying is a negotiation. It basically should go like this: upon entry, the shop owner treats you like a king...his best friend...and shows you loads of things based on what you say you want. Price is not discussed at this point, just what you're looking for and what you like. Assurances are given that price will not be a problem. Sit back, relax, have some tea or a cold drink that the shop owner will lavish on you. In your mind, you start determining what it is exactly what you want and how much you are willing to pay for it - never mind what price tags you see. Eventually, you tell the shop owner which one or collection of items you want. At this point, you either ask the vendor how much this will cost or you offer your price. But in any case, the price you throw out there at this stage should be lower than what you've calculated in your mind you will pay for the item because you'll need the room to come up to that ideal price as you negotiate. My advice is not to offer a super low price just to get a bargain, but rather, shoot for a price you think is fair to both you and the vendor. Also key to know is that once you say a price, you cannot then go lower still. So, chose well and let the fun begin.

In any case, once you say your initial offer the vendor will invariably react as if you've just stolen food off his table and you are starving his children. Never mind this. This is a ruse to guilt you into paying a high price. Keep in mind, this does NOT make the shop owner or seller a bad person. This is simply how it is done. Remember, he will not sell you something if he isn't going to make a profit. At this point, the negotiation is in full swing and you and the vendor go back and forth on price...him coming down from the asking price and you coming up from your offer until a happy medium is reached. In many cases, that's it. You agree, pay and everyone is friends again.

Frequently, however, this dance will come to an impasse where either you or the vendor will not budge. And this is where your secret weapon can be used: you MUST be willing to walk away and not buy...or at least appear to be. The more real your resolve to walk away the more power over the situation you have. If you find yourself in this situation, the way to handle it is to politely say thank you and sorry, but you cannot afford the price and then start leaving the shop. You may even need to actually leave the shop. I estimate that in about 80% of the time the vendor will come after you and his reservations about meeting your price will start to crumble. Sure, he'll throw out a token reduction off his last offer at first to lure you back, but just stick to your guns and your leaving and the numbers will come down quickly. In a few instances, the vendor will indeed let you leave without pursuing. In that instance, don't feel bad because you can take comfort in the fact that you did not pay a price you were uncomfortable with or get suckered.

All of this happened on our alabaster shopping trip and after some drama we walked away with some very nice items that now look beautiful in our house.

Temples-O-Plenty Redux
As a center of great importance in the ancient Egyptian world, the Luxor area has many large and important temples to see, thus ushering in the second "Temple binge" of our trip. Here are the highlights:

Temple of Hatshepsut
A massive complex built by one of the only female Pharaohs, Hatshepsut. In addition to it's notoriety as an antiquity, this is also the place where back in 1997 terrorist attacked and killed western tourists. Below left is a picture I took as we walked up to this temple in the late morning heat.

Karnak Temple
This is the largest ancient temple from the days of the Pharaohs. It's a massive complex with walls, sanctuaries, columns, obelisks, lakes, avenues and more. We toured it under the late afternoon hot, hot sun. Many of you may recognize some parts of this temple as they were featured in movies such as The Spy Who Loved Me and Death on the Nile.

To me the most interesting aspects of this place beyond its sheer size were the rows of sphinxes and the colossal columns. Here are a few pictures I took around the temple...

Temple of Luxor
After a busy and long day of hot air ballooning, shopping and tomb and temple sightseeing, we ended with a sunset visit to the Temple of Luxor on the banks of the Nile.

The format of this building is very similar to the other temples - large and small - that we had seen on the trip so far, but it seemed to me there were more fully formed and impressive statues here. Also, the setting sun provided some great lighting to see this structure. And therein lay the interest to us here. Here are a few pictures to show you what I mean...

Returning to our ship after dark, and looking forward to departing for another part of Egypt the next morning, we dined that evening one last time with our tour mates with the pleasure of knowing we had seen the impressive best of this area.

NOTE: All pictures except those of the Valley of the Kings (postcard scans) that are featured in this article were taken by me, Marc Osborn. Those pictures are copy written in my name and are not authorized for any use by anyone without written permission directly from me.