Saturday, February 28, 2009

Eight lifers in fifteen minutes

What do the Hadeda Ibis, African Sacred Ibis, Southern Masked Weaver, Cape Sparrow, Cape Turtle Dove, Karoo Thrush, Speckled Mousebird, and Cape Wagtail have in common? They are birds that we added to our life list in just fifteen minutes walking around the grounds of our hotel in Johannesburg.

What's particularly striking is that our hotel, the Southern Sun, is right at the airport. We are not out in nature; we are at a classic layover hotel -- less than five minutes from baggage claim (and, we hope, from check-in). But the little ring of green around our hotel has attracted a nice mix of birds. (We also saw Common Mynas and, of course, Rock Doves, as well as some swifts and swallows that we couldn't identify specifically.)

Of course, it's much easier to rack up lifers if you travel really far from home. Even the most common birds here are new to us. It also helps to travel near distinct geographic features. Just as lots of birds in the Galapagos are called the Galapagos this and the Galapagos that, so are many birds here named the Cape this or the Southern that.

Jordan Recap

Best Tomb: The Treasury at Petra. But the Monastery is close behind.

Best Temple: Temple of Artemis at Jerash (where you can rock one of those gigantic Roman columns).

Best Mosaic: There's an amazing mosaic at Mt. Nebo depicting the evolution of human life; but you can only see photos at the moment. So we will stick with the map at St. George's Church in Madaba.

Best Arabic expression: Insha'Allah, which translates as "God willing". A typical usage would be: "When Donald and Esther get to Namibia, Insha'Allah, they will see amazing dunes and wildlife." It's similar to knocking on wood when you make a statement about the future. (The best Arabic expression from our Egypt trip, which has now been added to the Egypt recap, was yalla beena, which translates as hurry up or, in Spanish, vamanos.)

Best food: Fatoush (salad with crunchy fried bread)

Best drink: Lemonade with mint

Best creature: Yellow-vented bulbul - a cheery bird we saw all over Jordan.

Biggest surprise: The hail storm on the way to the airport.

Best guide: Omar (former badminton champion of Jordan)

Best driver: Khalil.

Precarious but cute

We are big fans of the mourning doves that visit our bird feeder back home in the States. So we were pleased to discover that Egypt and Jordan have a very similar bird, the laughing dove. Laughing doves appeared at most of the sites we visited, including our final stop at the Dead Sea Spa.

As we were resting after our dip in Dead Sea, we noticed a laughing dove gathering material for a nest. We followed it and discovered the dove couple building their nest ... in a ceiling fan (click on the photo for a bigger picture). Here's hoping that their brood fledges before the Dead Sea Spa turns the fan on.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Layover in Dubai

At night, the Emirates business class lounge in Dubai is like a hospital. Every hour or so, a young woman in uniform wakes you up for no discernible reason. Well, that's not completely fair. They check boarding passes periodically to make sure you don't sleep through your flight. But that does prevent any semblance of serious rest for the myriad travelers who have late night layovers.

For example, we landed at 9:30pm and will be heading on to Johannesburg at 4:25am. When we arrived, we had our pick of couches to rest on in this gigantic space. But now (at 3am), the place is packed. Uh oh, here comes another uniformed young woman to tell us to put our feet down so they can squeeze in even more weary travelers.

1385 Feet Below Sea Level

The Dead Sea tastes terrible. Nine hours later, relaxing in the spacious Emirates lounge in Dubai, we can still taste the salt from the world's lowest place.

Of course, we were warned: "Do not let sea water going to your eyes & mouth" read the sign. "Swimming on your back is more save." Though slightly fractured English, the message was quite clear -- keep your head away from the water, if you could. But that's not really fun. If you are going to swim in the Dead Sea once in your life, you really ought to swim, just to get the full experience.

The buoyancy is exactly as people describe -- that's Donald floating in the picture. And the salt does really sting. But some guidebooks go a bit far. One suggested, for example, that it isn't possible to swim in the Dead Sea. That's preposterous. Donald did the crawl out to the buoys and back. However, it helps to be gingerly about it. Don't splash. Otherwise the sea water going in your eyes & mouth. Backstroke is definitely more save.

We missed our chance to roll around in the famous Dead Sea mud when a thunderstorm rolled in bringing high winds, rain, and, later, some hail. The first precipitation we've seen in three weeks. Happily, we got out of Amman before the snow came.

On the plus side, our aches from climbing through Petra and Jerash disappeared after 30 minutes of floating. So chalk one up for the healing powers of the Dead Sea.

Readers may remember that Donald and Esther visited an inland salty sea earlier in our sojourn - the Salton Sea near Palm Springs, California. The seas have some similarities -- they are far below sea level and have salt levels much higher than the ocean. But the differences are stark. The Dead Sea is truly dead. The only things we saw swimming in it were Russian tourists and plastic bags. The Salton Sea, however, is full of fish and the birds that eat them. A good reason to make sure that the salinity of the Salton Sea never rises to Dead Sea levels.

Old Statues and an Unsung City

Petra is a tough act to follow. But we folded our achy bodies into the car at 7:30am on Thursday so we could drive up to Amman (about three hours) to do a quick city tour, lunch, and then visit Jerash about thirty minutes to the north.

Our Amman tour was relatively brief -- a visit to the Citadel overlooking the city plus a visit to the Roman theatre nearby. The theatre was fun, particularly because it's still in use despite being built more than 1,800 years ago. The Citadel provides great views of the city, including one of the world's tallest flagpoles. But the highlights are the small treasures in the museum there. Most famous are the portions of the Dead Sea scrolls, written on leather, papyrus, and bronze. But our favorite were statues that are apparently the oldest statues of humans ever discovered (in Ain Ghazl-Amman in 1985). More than 8,000 years old, the statues reminded us of ET. The two-headed ones are believed to represent the idea of husband and wife coming together to form a single person.

After a yummy barbecue lunch, we headed out to Jerash. To be honest, we had never heard of it, but we are glad our guide recommended it. Jerash is one of the largest remaining Roman cities. The grounds are immense, with Hadrian's Arch, a Hippodrome, temples, tombs, houses, columns, fountains, theatres, yet another amazing mosaic, and a cathedral. Not to mention acres and acres of ground yet to be excavated. Among the high points are the Tomb of Artemis, which contains some of the few columns that have remained standing since the original construction, and the South Theatre, where you can (somewhat incongruously) be serenaded by bagpipe players.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Rose-Red City

What can you say about Petra? Carved into the sandstone hills by the Nabateans - the masters of desert, water, and trade -- the rose-red city lives up to all the hype. And then some. We have always known about the Treasury (made famous by Indiana Jones), but we hadn't appreciated the extent of the city. After eight hours of exploring the sandstone tombs, temples, and churches, we were fulfilled, but exhausted.

The first photo to the right is our take on the classic view of the Treasury, the first great tomb carved into the sandstone. You approach through a narrow canyon -- the siq -- and eventually get glimpses of the building. Of course, it isn't actually a Treasury. Instead, it's a tomb.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a picture of the Treasury without any pesky tourists in front of it? (Hint: Crowds thin near the end of the day.)

The long climb to the Monastery is worth it. If you can survive the climb, the animal waste, and the occasional run-away donkey, you are rewarded with another stunning tomb carved into the sandstone -- plus some outstanding views.

The sandstone is beautiful, with blues and yellows joining the predominant reds.

One highlight in the siq is the larger-than-life carving of a camel caravan. In this photo, you can see the outline of one camel, its feet, and the lower body of a man leading it. You can also see Petra's one great weakness. Sandstone erodes over time, so it's almost impossible to get a sense of how the tombs and temples originally looked.

Finally, we should mention that Petra also has a lovely mosaic. We are particularly fond of the giraffes shaped as camels (or are they camels colored like giraffes?).

Mosaics and the Promised Land

We should have spent more time in Madaba, the mosaic Mecca of Jordan. Like many visitors, we spent a good chunk of time studying the famous mosaic map of the Holy Land. But, in retrospect, we should have visited other mosaics as well -- they are quite stunning.

The mosaic map was constructed back in the Byzantine era (second half of the sixth century), and is now housed in St. George's Church. Back then it was common to construct maps oriented so that up = east and down = west. With that orientation in mind, the photo shows a portion of the Dead Sea and the Jordan river, with Jordan to the east (above) and the promised land to the west (bottom). Jerusalem is in the bottom right; Jericho is toward the bottom center. (You can see more detail if you click on the photo).

There are many nice touches in the mosaic -- e.g., the fish in the Jordan River trying to swim away from the Dead Seas (where it would die). Also of interest is the blur of tiles toward the upper center. That was originally a lion chasing a gazelle, but at some point it was destroyed as part of an anti-icon effort. That's a recurring theme in our visit to both Egypt and Jordan. Either for reasons of religion (e.g., opposition to icons) or politics (e.g., desire to destroy images of past kings), many great statues, carvings, and mosaics have been defaced.

Near Madaba is Mt. Nebo, believed to be the resting place of Moses. Mt. Nebo provides a great view of the promised land. It was a bit hazy the day we visited, but that's the West Bank over there (with the Dead Sea off to the left), and if it were a clearer day you could see Jerusalem. Moses' fate was to be able to see the promised land, but not reach it. Thus, he passed away once he reached Mt. Nebo.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Egypt Recap: High Points

Best adventure: Being alone in the Great Pyramid.

Best tomb: Nefartari, in the Valley of the Queens.

Best temple: Tough call, but we'd go with the Temple of Hathor in Dendara.

Best statue: The four Ramses II at Abu Simbel.

Best god: Horus (the falcon god).

Best goddess: Hathor (the goddess with cow ears)

Best creature: A monitor lizard swimming in the Nile (which set off a brief, vigorous debate on whether crocodiles might still exist north of Aswan).

Best plant: Papyrus.

Best food: Sweet potato with cream, coconut, and caramel (dessert served at a private home in Cairo).

Best Arabic expression: Yalla beena, which means hurry up. A typical usage would be "Yalla beena Esther." (This item added February 28.)

Best guide: Hala

Best co-travelers: Joe and Bette, Michael and Mary Ann, Gene and Linda, Jim and Martha, Robert and Jenny

(Obviously, the Cairo bombing stands alone at the top of the list of low points.)

Six out of Seven

When we think of Asia, we usually think of Japan, China, India, Thailand, etc. But you know what? Jordan is a card-carrying member of Asia as well.

Our arrival in Amman today thus brings our lifetime continent total to six. Clearly, we need to visit the penguins and leopard seals in Antarctica one of these years.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Bombing at Khan el Khalili

Today's bombing at Cairo's Khan el Khalili market is a sad reminder of the challenges that still remain in Egypt.

Our previous post discussed some of the security arrangements involved in our Nile cruise. Security was also apparent in Cairo itself -- we had an armed guard on our tour bus and had to go through metal detectors at the hotel -- but we never felt any specific risk.

We spent Sunday touring old Cairo to learn about Islamic architecture (quite beautiful, particularly if you like geometric patterns) and to visit the Khan al Khalili market. (The attack occurred a few hours after we left the market to return to our hotel). The market is a maze of narrow alleys, crowded with tourists and shopkeepers. With so many people pressed close together, even a relatively small bomb could kill and injure significant numbers of people.

Outside the Security Zone

Most Nile cruises stay between Aswan and Luxor, a stretch of river that is heavily protected by Egyptian security forces. Egypt took a big economic hit in 1997 when the Luxor attack scared off tourists, and the government is determined that this won't happen again.

But some outstanding historical sites are north of Luxor. The Temple of Hathor at Dendara, for example, has fascinating carvings, a nifty crypt, a zodiac, beautiful views, mellow vendors, and, some would argue, images of the world's first light bulb.

If your boat heads up there, the river is much less crowded, and the residents are extremely friendly (photo above). But security does become more of an issue.

In our case, there were three new layers of security. First, courtesy of the government, several heavily-armed members of the security forces came on board. Second, also courtesy of the government, we picked up an armed escort in a small boat (photo). Third, ground travel occurred in convoys of buses led by a military escort.

All this trouble is worth it, because the sites north of Luxor are amazing (even for a group suffering "temple fatique"). But the security situation can provide some unexpected moments.

In our case, the most tension occured on the return bus ride from Dendara. We were the last bus in the convoy. About halfway back to the dock, the vehicles all had to slow down to cross some railroad tracks. The military vehicle made it across, as did the first four mini-buses in our convoy. But just before we could cross, the crossing master pushed down a barrier, preventing us from crossing the tracks. Other vehicles pulled up behind us, of course, so we were completely blocked from moving. And then we sat there. No one did anything threatening, but our tensions rose as no train appeared. We looked across the tracks and could see that the rest of the convoy, including the military vehicle, hadn't stopped, leading to much discussion of whether that was appropriate convoy protocol. We are all in this together, until we're not?

Happily, it didn't really matter. We weren't going to be the victims of some imagined ambush. Instead, we were merely the victims of an overly-conservative crossing master. After six or seven minutes, a train did emerge -- at great speed, we should note -- and once it passed, we were on our way.

Three Facts about Electricity in Egypt

1. Some people believe the ancient Egyptians invented the electric light bulb.

The ancient Egyptians were an innovative bunch. Among other things, they are credited with inventing polytheism, monotheism, boomerangs, bread, beer, wine, and the Christian cross (a derivative of the Ankh). But we were particularly intrigued to hear the hypothesis that they invented the electric light bulb.

The evidence for this claim comes in two forms (that we heard -- Google can probably provide more). First, there's the question of how the Egyptians were able to see what they were doing when they made carving deep inside a tomb or enclosed temple. There are apparently places in which the nearest natural light was 100 yards or more away. Mirrors were used in some cases, but have limited reach. Torches could been taken even further, of course, and often were (as indicated by the soot covering the ceilings at the temple of Horus, for example). But there is no soot in some deep temples and tombs. So how did they see what they were doing? Perhaps electric light is the answer.

The second piece of evidence comes from carvings, such as those at the Temple of Dendara, that appear (to some) to show electric light bulbs. As the picture to the right shows, however, that interpretation is, shall we say, aggressive. Is the cobra in the elongated space really a filament in the first light bulb? You be the judge. (Maybe he's an electric eel?)

2. Street lamps are a substitute for headlights.

Driving through Cairo our first night, we noticed a peculiar (to us) fact: most cars don't use their headlights. Our tour guide explained that Cairenes feel that they shouldn't waste their batteries and headlights, as long as streetlights provide at least a little light to drive by.

Those drivers would probably be shocked by the growing trend in Europe and the U.S. to use headlights even during the day.

3. Voltage matters.

For the modern traveler, the mystery of electricity is how to get juice for your favorite devices. How do you keep your iPhone, Vaio, Kindle, Flip, and Nikon happy? Woe to the traveler who confuses an adapter (which gets the plug right) and a converter (which adjusts voltages). Happily, the cords for the Kindle, Vaio, and Nikon have converters built in, so all you need is an adapter. And you can charge the iPhone by plugging it into the Vaio.

But then there's the Flip, which runs on AA batteries. Being a good environmental steward, Esther brought rechargeable batteries for the Flip and, of course, a recharger. Too bad it works only with the 110 volt power we have in the States, and not with the 220 volt power here in Egypt. Not realizing this, Esther ran an impromptu science experiment. Result: A loud pop, sudden darkness, and a defunct battery charger. Oops.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Welcome to Alaska

Vendors are aggressive at Egyptian tourist sites. The most aggressive place scarves on your shoulders, hand you trinkets or "gifts", and try anything to engage you in conversation. We sometimes found this tiring, but we did enjoy many of the opening lines we heard. Our favorite, as we stepped off the launch to the Temple of Philae:

Welcome to Alaska. Happy Birthday.

The Alaska line must work well, because we heard it repeated at several other temples. Sadly, no one else wished us a happy birthday.

Other popular opening lines included:

Obama good. Yeah Obama.

Don't I know you?

Come look, my friend, everything free.

And the hardy perennial:

One dollar. One dollar.

Partly for fun and partly from fatigue, several of us tried to deflect the vendors by pretending we didn't speak English. This strategy was a bust, however, because many vendors had opening lines in multiple languages. Thus, a typical exchange might be:

Vendor: My friend, postcards, one dollar.

Donald: No, grazie.

Vendor: Ah, Italiano! (Stream of Italian words, unintelligible to Donald)


Our journey began with ancient pyramids that were largely devoid of ornamentation. We then visited Greco-Roman temples covered in hieroglyphics telling the stories of kings and queens, gods and goddesses. Those hierogylphics were once colorful, but the several millennia of exposure have left only the carvings, not the color (see, for example, the carving of Horus, the falcon god).

There have been occasional exceptions. At the Temple of Karnak, for example, some hierogylphics had been shielded from the elements and thus retain some color (second photo). Still, the predominant theme has been carving not painting.

That changed with our visit to the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Over the centuries, the kings and queens of Egypt had learned that pyramids were not a secure place for eternal rest. Indeed, building a pyramid was tantamount to hanging a "rob me now" sign over your tomb. So they innovated. And the key insight was that you could build your tomb into a mountain side, where it would be much better protected from tomb raiders and the elements. Hence, the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of Queens, which are located on the western side of the Nile at Luxor. (The Egyptians associated West with death because the sun sets in the West.)

We saw several colorful tombs, including those of Ramses II and King Tut. But the highlight was a private tour of the Tomb of Nefartari in the Valley of the Queens. Nefartari means "the most beautiful" and the tomb certainly lived up to its billing. It's amazing to see all the hieroglyphics -- Horus, Anubis, Ra, cobras, papyrus, and on and on -- come to life in vibrant reds, greens, blues, and yellows. Too bad we can't share the view with our readers (photography is forbidden in the tombs -- we even saw one tourist get his camera confiscated). But we did find one photograph over at Wikipedia.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


We are proud to have gotten this far into our Egyptian journey without mentioning Steve Martin or the Bangles. But we can't ignore American culture any longer.

We spent the past two days in Luxor, home to the Karnak complex, the largest religious site in Egypt and, perhaps, in the world. Everyone who is anyone -- Ramses II, Tutmosis III, Hatshepsut -- added their own special touch to the complex. Temples, obelisks, colossi, sacred lakes, statues of scarabs, you name it.

This is amazing place, full of things to explore not only during the day but also during the nightly Sound and Light Show. The show is kind of cheesy (think dramatic music -- Dun-dun-DUN -- and weird narration -- "the waters of the Nile spurt from my sandals") but it's great to see the looming buidings bathed in colorful light.

Still, if you are an American of a certain age, you can't help being reminded of Johnny Carson in a turban holding an envelope to his forehead. Johnny spelled it differently -- Carnac the Magnificent -- but that doesn't mean that Americans of a certain age don't immediately think of him when they come here. (And no, Donald and Esther aren't yet "of a certain age" -- just reporting what we hear among other voyagers.)

Creatures Along the Nile

We have seen half-a-dozen crocodiles so far on our trip. Too bad they were all mummies.

We've heard competing views on the presence of crocs in the Egyptian Nile. One school of thought is that there are no crocodiles remaining north of the High Dam at Aswan. The other school is that a few sneaky crocodiles remain, but you will only see them when it's too late.

What we have seen are birds -- herons, egrets, ibis, lapwings, cormorants, stilts, gulls, kites, gallinules, ducks, and geese. Our favorite? The Pied Kingfisher. These striking birds appear everywhere along the Nile, perching on reeds along the river bank or hovering above the water hunting for dinner. Charmingly, they appear almost always in pairs.

Of course, the dominant creatures along the Nile are livestock. Donkeys (which have remarkably cute faces), water buffalo, and goats are most prevalent, but they are joined by the occasional domestic goose, dog, or, rarely, a camel. So far, the only wild mammal we've seen was a fox chasing little egrets along the water's edge.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Soaring Above The Valley

Today started with another great warning: "When we come in to land, face away from the direction we are traveling, grasp the white rope tightly, flex your knees, and place your forehead against the cushion. We should bounce a few times before we fall over. No pregnant women please." Thus went the preflight briefing for our hot air balloon trip over the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.

Up before dawn, we joined 25 other brave souls in our balloon basket and at least 20 other balloons soaring above temples, tombs, and colossi, not to mention the houses, cell phone towers, and burning sugar cane fields. It was cold before dawn, but the flame heating the air did a good job keeping us warm until the sun rose.

And the landing? Well, the warning applied to what our captain described as a "British" landing, with the basket flopping on its side. "American" is when you land upright, after several bounces. But we landed "Egyptian" style, nice and smooth.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Morning in the Museum

Lots of hieroglyphics and art on today's adventures, particularly at the Egyptian National Museum. Which makes sense -- all the beautiful objects were either looted from the pyramids and other sites or were moved to museums. The museum opens at 9am to the public, but our tour group got in at 7am. We tour artifacts from all of Egypt's history, but the big event is King Tut. The boy king is famous not for his achievements as king (slim), but because his is the only complete, unlooted tomb ever discovered and preserved. And all one can say is Wow! For starters, imagine yourself opening the tomb to find a giant gold box, the size of the tomb. You open the box and find ... a slightly smaller gold box. Open that and find ... another gold box. Open that and find ... a fourth gold box. When you open that final room-size box, you then find lots of treasures and the famous golden coffin in King Tut's image. Open that and find ... a slightly smaller golden coffin. Open that ... and another golden coffin. Open that ... and find his mummy and head mask. The items from King Tut's tomb take up multiple rooms in the museum, leaving one obvious question: If the Egyptians did all this for a minor boy king, what must the tomb of a great king -- e.g.,, Ramses II, have looked like?

We finish King Tut at 9am, just in time to see the chaos of the official museum opening. A sea of humans enters the ground floor, and a few intrepid souls sprint up the stairs to find the boy king. Good strategy. Most of the mob crowds around the exhibits near the entrance, so the sprinters can get a few minutes of calm up on the second floor.

We wander the museum on our own and luck upon the perfect exhibit for us: animal mummies. These run the gamut from scarab beetles to Nile crocodiles. Cows, cats, and falcons appear to have been popular, but we particularly like the mummified cobra and crocodiles.

We then head down to Memphis to see the statues of Ramses the II. Then on down to Sakkara to see Zoser's step pyramid, which our guide describes as the first free-standing stone building in history. Sakkara is at the edge of the Sahara. It is striking to see the vast expanse of barren sand stretching out from the nearby groves of date palms.

Tomorrow we are off to Abu Simbel and then Aswan to start our Nile cruise. Too bad this requires a 1:45am wake-up call!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Taken for a Ride

This blog is supposed to document lowpoints as well as highpoints, and here's our first one: the ultra-touristy camel ride. Esther always wanted to ride a camel. Donald was less enthusiastic. But a combination of peer pressure -- look, even the people who didn't enter the pyramid are doing it -- and the opportunity to rely on the tour guide to haggle with the camel drivers convinced him to say yes. Well, let us tell you that it is pretty darn scary when that camel stands up! Particularly if you got the camel that doesn't have stirrups, so you are just holding on to the saddle horn for dear life. Once you get comfortable (well, less uncomfortable), it is amusing to imagine yourself riding through the desert approaching the pyramids. But still, you are mostly looking forward to getting down. Until, of course, it comes time to negotiate with the camel driver about letting you down. In our case, the driver very nicely let Esther down, but then started demanding his tip while Donald was still aloft. Esther made clear, however, that no tip would be forthcoming until Donald was safely back on the ground. Happily, our tour guide had told us how much to "tip", so we could ignore the ten-fold exaggeration of his opening request. (According to our guide, standard tip is one dollar. His request: ten dollars.)

Pyramid Power

Today we did the usual stops in Giza: Pyramids, the "solar boat" museum (a 150 foot boat that was reassembled from pieces buried more than 4,000 years ago), and the Sphinx (who looks surprisingly tiny next to the Giant Pyramid).

The best part of the day came with the biggest warning label. "If you have claustrophobia, back problems, knee problems, heart problems, a fear of heights, or aren't in good shape, you probably shouldn't enter the Great Pyramid," warned our guide. Her pep talk dissuaded most members of our tour group, but we decided to take the plunge. And through lucky timing, we ended up having about ten minutes as the only two people inside the Great Pyramid. The ascent lived up to the warning -- it was dark, narrow, steep, and required a couple hundred yards of crouching. Donald even crawled for part of it. But it's worth it to visit the burial chamber in the center of the pyramid. There's almost nothing there -- an empty sarcophagus which you can see if you bring your trusty, high-BPP Brookstone flashlight -- but it's pretty darn cool to be in the center of a gigantic pyramid that was built more than 4,000 years ago. The pyramid builders weren't into hieroglyphics or art, just impressive architecture.

One fascinating aspect of pyramids is the history of technological innovation. It all began with the mastaba, a simple one story tomb for ancient rulers. Think square building. But as the centuries passed, some innovative pharaoh thought: hmm, I am a big deal, why not add some additional levels? So you get step pyramids. Think five or six levels, each somewhat smaller than the previous one. And then another enterprising pharaoh says: hmm, I am a bigger deal, why not have the levels converge to a single point at the top? So you get the idea of a complete step pyramid. But reality is difficult and builders of the first one either miscalculate, run short of money, or lose enthusiasm. Whatever the reason, the only way to have the levels converge is to flatten the slope of the pyramid partway up. So you get the bent pyramid. Then another pharaoh comes along and he has a good architect, enough money, and enough longevity to pull the whole thing off. So you get a complete step pyramid. And then another pharaoh comes along and says that whole step pyramid thing is old school, I want smooth sides. And so you get the ultimate in pyramids, where they build a complete step pyramid and then encase it in extra-nice stone to create smooth sides all around. (You can see the remaining casing at the top of one pyramid in the Sphinx photo.)

Another fascinating aspect of pyramids is the sheer logistics of constructing one. The Great Pyramid -- which is comprised of more than 2 million hand crafted blocks -- took more than twenty years. Researchers estimate that as many as 12,000 workers were involved at one time, not to mention all the folks providing logistical support (food, water, etc.). The Egyptians showed genius in construction methods -- imagine fitting together 2.3 million pieces into a perfect pyramid -- but they must also have had some genius in organizational management. (And no, the pyramids were not built by slaves.)

Why Not?

When we approached the Cairo baggage claim, we saw a prominent list of passenger names. Happily our names weren't on it, for these were people whose luggage missed the flight and would be arriving later (one hopes). We felt their pain, however, since American misplaced our baggage a few days earlier on our return from Palm Springs. We wasted 30 minutes waiting for bags that didn't even make it on the plane.

Why don't U.S. airlines follow the Cairo example and let passengers know their luggage is delayed? In this age of bar codes and tight security, they should be able to match bags to passengers. Why not post a list at the airport to prevent wasted waiting? Or go further and notify passengers while they are in the air? You could fill out paperwork about where to deliver the luggage, if necessary, without wasting time waiting for bags that will never come.

(The title of this post comes from a column (and book) of the same name by Ian Ayres and Barry Nalebuff who ask "why not" about things that could be better.)

Key Travel Metric: BPP

We have a long journey ahead, and we hate lugging around unnecessary weight. Thus, our packing regime tried to get as much benefit per pound (BPP) from items as possible.

Some items with high BPP:

* The Kindle. This slim device allows you to carry the equivalent of dozens of books -- more than you could ever possibly read on your trip. But there is more to be done. The holy grail of BPP would be a Kindle that does justice to travel guides and nature books. We are carrying seven of these (five guides, two bird guides) and, unfortunately, are planning to jettison them as excess weight once we no longer need them.

* The Brookstone Microbeam flashlight. Lots of light at virtually no weight. Perfect for finding your way in unfamiliar hotel rooms at night, reading while your spouse sleeps, or navigating pyramid tunnels.

* The iPhone. Portable stereo, notepad, camera, etc. Too bad we can't seem to make it work as a phone over here ...

As we travel, we look forward to discovering what other items have a high BPP ... and which low BPP items we regret bringing.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Wow ...

The TED conference certainly lived up to expectations. We returned full of inspiration and new ideas.

The format generates a remarkable amount of insight in a short time. Each day the program was packed with 20 to 30 brilliant speakers and performers, each of whom had only 3 to 18 minutes on stage. The pace and quality of ideas was amazing.

It's impossible to do justice to the experience in a few blog postings, but we should mention a few. The first two are already up on the TED website; we hope that the others are released in the future.

Bill Gates drew the most attention with his talk on malaria and education. For the malaria portion, he (in)famously released mosquitoes into the audience. His talk, rich in insights, is here.

Elizabeth Gilbert's talk on creativity and genius was the first big hit of the conference. Well worth 18 minutes, her talk is here.

Hans Rosling gave a talk on AIDS in Africa using his famous graphics. That talk isn't on-line yet, but his previous talk on world development nicely illustrates the power of his graphical approach.

Other stand-out talks were by Willie Smits (describing his remarkable reforestation efforts in Borneo), Bonnie Bassler (describing how bacteria communicate), and TED prize winner Jose Antonio Abreu (describing the dramatic success of his music education program in Venezuela).

Of course, there were many more great talks. Not to mention the performances by Herbie Hancock, Regine Spektor, Eric Lewis, and Jamie Cullum.

We are now packing for our trip overseas. If all goes well, our next post will be dateline Cairo.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

TED Delivers on Day 1

Some highlights from the opening day of TED:

* Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, lays out his vision for the next big thing: Linked Data.

* P.W. Singer documents how technological advances are transforming warfare.

* Jake Eberts and Jacques Perrin demo Oceans, the ultimate in nature documentaries.

* Bill Gates lays out a vision for combatting malaria and strengthening teaching.

* Pattie Maes previews how humans can harness a sixth sense, with technology feeding us information in real time about the people, places, and things we encounter.

* Regina Spektor wows the crowd with her dark, beautiful songs.

* And Jason Hackenwerth unveils his vaguely unnerving balloon sculpture Spectronomic Photoluxe.

All in all a great opening day.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Windy Start to TED

Alternative energy is an emerging theme of our current adventure. On Sunday we rented a Prius. On Monday we discovered geothermal power plants on the edge of the Salton Sea. And today we visited the WinTec wind farm.

Together with about 30 other TEDsters -- fellow attendees of TED@PalmSpring -- we got up close and personal with the almost 700 MW of wind power in the valley just outside Palm Springs. Here's what we learned:

* Just outside the city, there is a pass between two tall mountains. As one of our guides explained, that means one thing: every mode of transportation will want to go through that pass. And, sure enough, you have a major highway, a railroad, a natural gas pipeline, and electric transmission lines all sharing the same narrow passage through the mountains.

* And you get wind. The temperature difference between the desert and the sea creates strong, steady winds through the pass, particularly in the summer. As a result, the valley is lined with wind turbines, some newly built and others 20 or more years old.

* Perhaps the most striking aspect of the wind farm is how much land is unused. At this particular facility, the wind turbines are located are about 1500 feet apart. Why? Because each turbine (a) uses up wind power and (b) leaves turbulence in its wake. As a result, you need to leave space -- equal to perhaps 10 times the diameter of the turbine blades -- between the units. The obvious economic question is what to do with all the space. In some areas the land is used for grazing, but that doesn't work in the desert. Perhaps solar power would work, once the economics get sufficiently favorable.

P.S. Look carefully at the photograph - do you see the people standing at the base of the wind turbine?

So That's Where the Name Comes From

Imagine the stereotypical desert oasis: a small island of trees and precious water in the midst of an arid expanse. A glimmer of green amongst the rocks and sand.

Such oases do exist. And today we learned their origin. Aquifers often stretch below deserts, their life-giving water trapped by layers of impermeable rock or clay. But those layers sometimes break -- e.g., in an earthquake -- and water pushes its way to the surface. When that happens, cue the trees -- you've got yourself an oasis -- an oasis of palms growing around springs.

In short, Palm Springs owes both its name and its existence to the San Andreas Fault.

230 Feet Below Sea Level

Yesterday we visited one of the lowest places in the world. An oasis in the midst of desert. A land of salt-encrusted rocks, obsidian promontories, gurgling mini-volcanoes of mud, and geothermal power plants. You almost feel like you've traveled to Mars. Except for the thousands upon thousands of birds.

Welcome to the Salton Sea.

Saltier than the Pacific, the Salton Sea is Palm Springs for western birds. Pelicans -- both white and brown -- savor the free tilapia buffet. Avocets, stilts, and sandpipers promenade along the shore. And legions of snow geese and cranes find refuge from the harsh winter to the north.

The Salton Sea has long been hailed as a birder's paradise ... and it lives up to that billing.

Highlights: A field full of Long-Billed Curlews. Hundreds of White Pelicans. Thousands of Snow Geese. A field of squawking Sandhill Cranes. Black-Necked Stilts and American Avocets. Gambels Quail and Desert Cottontails. Greater Roadrunners.

Missed Connections: Mountain Plovers (MoPlos) and Burrowing Owls.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Palm Springs, California

Palm Springs, California is the first stop on our travels. We are here for the TED conference, which starts on Wednesday, but we came early to explore a bit.

Our first impressions when we flew in yesterday afternoon:

* Is this the golf capital of the world? When viewed from the air, the number of golf courses is stunning. And the number of golf bags at baggage claim? Overwhelming.

* Wow, we may well be the youngest travelers in the airport. We are hardly young, but the dominant tourist demographic clearly skews older.

* Look at all the palm trees.

Additional impressions once we settled into our hotel room:

* Palm Springs is Las Vegas without the glitz and without the grit.

* The city worships stars of the past -- Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Marilyn Monroe. Our hotel does a wonderful job of honoring that timeperiod with a modern touch. For example, each room contains pictures of Marilyn and a 1950's Cadillac. Very cool in their way.


Welcome to Donald and Esther's Travels! We have just embarked on two months of exploring the world, and we look forward to sharing some highlights (and, perhaps, lowlights) of our adventures.