Egypt Adventure: Muslim Dress

Egypt, workmen, Temple of Dendera

What to wear? Inevitably, some American tourists did not get the message that conservative dress is preferred in Egypt—no shorts, no tank tops, no short skirts, no excessive display of skin. While this standard is pretty much adhered to in Cairo and, certainly, in mosques throughout the country (where you are expected to show the skin on your feet), near the monuments in the blazing desert sun, Bermuda-length shorts are more the rule, especially for men tourists. Many women wore capri pants. Jeans, which tend to be too form-fitting, were rare among women tourists. (I should add that most visitors, on our tour and others, were “of a certain age.”)

Although I wouldn’t have expected it, my shirts with three-quarter, loose-fitting sleeves were just as comfortable as short sleeves, because they protected my arms from the sun. I got a last wearing out of my somewhat battered hat from Hawai`i with the wide brim. Women tourists were never expected to cover our hair, although most of us had scarves or shawls that could have served that purpose.

But what about the Egyptians? In Cairo, the men generally wear Western dress. The women wear long sleeves, long pants or skirts, and cover their hair with the hijab, usually a colorful one. Occasionally you see a Cairo woman wearing the enveloping abaya (almost always in black; it looks suffocating) and wears the veil. The farther south you travel, the more women are so attired. Wearing the faceveil (the niqab) is seen by many as a political act in support of Islamism, not a religious duty, and the country’s leadership has tried to discourage it.

In the south, many men wear the long garment called the gellabiya. Most often, as I remember it, the gellabiya is gray, as it is in the photo of workmen at a construction site outside the Temple of Dendera. As every woman knows, a skirt is often cooler than slacks, because its movement creates a little breeze—automatic air conditioning. Many southern men wear a small turban. These keep the sun from beating down directly on their heads and are common among farmers in their fields.

Our tour guide told us that in much of the 20th century, Egyptian women did not cover their hair. But in the 1970s, when satellite television came to Egypt, there were many broadcasts by imams of Saudi Arabia’s conservative Wahhabi sect, who claimed that to be a “good Muslim” and go to heaven, women should cover. Eventually, our guide said, the authorities stopped these broadcasts, but the seed was sown. With about a third of Egypt’s population being Coptic Christian, you wouldn’t expect that headscarf-wearing would appear so near-universal.

Photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Egypt Adventure: Security

Close quarters in the temple at Sakkara
Close quarters in the temple at Sakkara

The first question almost everyone asked when they learned I was traveling to Egypt had to do with safety. So let me tell you what has been done to protect tourists—vitally important to the country, as tourism is a multibillion-dollar source of revenue and a huge employer. Tourism is on the rise again in Egypt, and our guide estimated it’s reached about 80 percent of pre-2011 levels. It’s an odd balancing act, really, with concerns about safety on one hand and wanting to see these popular monuments sans crowds on the other.

Friends who visited Egypt shortly after the Arab spring had the Valley of the Kings almost to themselves. By contrast, we visited it on the same 95-degree day as the vice-premiere of China and his many perspiring, black-suited minions, big video cameras, and hangers-on. That was a special case, but you could see how a crowd affects the experience.

There is a big police presence in Egypt, and wherever you drive, as you enter a new jurisdiction, there are knots of police, road barriers that must be negotiated—drivers cannot just barrel through—and elevated sentry posts, most of which have six or eight inches of a rifle barrel sticking out of them. If the young man inside sees you driving by in your bus, he smiles and waves.

As I understand it, whenever 10 or more tourists travel anywhere, they must be accompanied by the Tourist Police, and several times our three buses had to await the arrival of our police escort. Usually that escort consists of a police car in front or behind. In one rural area, the accompanying officer was so energized by this assignment that he gave us lights and sirens—charming and embarrassing in equal measure. Traveling to some sites, our security detail also involved a plainclothes policeman (always a man) traveling with us inside each bus. Yes, they were armed. Once when I lagged behind the group to take a picture, I noticed one of our accompanying officers discreetly hanging back to make sure I got back with the group. The tour company also had staff keeping track of us, especially in crowds, watching out for turned ankles, falls, over-insistent hawkers, and the like. Probably the right word here is teamwork.

On the boat there were police, but they were invisible to us, and a guy whom we’d occasionally see coming in from deck patrol carrying an AK-47. Our itinerary did not include the Red Sea or the Sinai Peninsula, where security is likely much tighter, as that’s where most of the trouble has occurred.

All this is separate from the well-armed security personnel working at the monuments themselves and not specifically for our tour. When we were at the pyramids, I even saw a policeman on a camel!

The Semiramis Hotel in Cairo has two public entrances, each guarded by a clutch of uniformed police and a sniffer dog that walks around every car, even checking the trunk. It’s next door to the British Embassy and adjacent to the US Embassy, and security around those blocks is extreme—piles of big, ugly concrete block the streets, police everywhere. The US embassy is capped by something that looks like a rural water tower—stuffed with listening gear, I suppose—and has asked the hotel to confiscate guests’ binoculars. Our guide advised us of this in advance and suggested simply, don’t bring them. They are returned on check-out.

Any well organized, reputable tour company and hotel probably provides these levels of security. Was it oppressive? Not at all. I viewed it as a preventive measure. I was never made uneasy by anything or anyone I encountered, even on a post-tour day-trip to Alexandria with only a guide and a driver. And, at the major sites we always had generous “free time” to wander where we wanted to, take pictures, soak in the atmosphere. Probably when we were on group outings our escorts kept an eye on us, but it wasn’t obvious. When we struck out on our own from the hotel or boat, we were unaccompanied (and the hawkers knew it!).

Photo: Vicki Weisfeld. I did not take pix of any of the security or police!

Egypt Adventure: The Nile

Nile River, river boat

In a much-anticipated 17-day trip, I finally went to Egypt this month. To see in person the legendary monuments and all the evidence of a 4000-year-old civilization was, of course, thrilling. The whole experience was enhanced by the skill of our Grand Circle tour guide, Gladys Haddad, who, despite her name, is Egyptian. The overwhelming friendliness of everyone we met was heartwarming.

As you probably know, but may not have thought about, Egypt is basically a desert. Almost all the country’s 100 million or so people live in the narrow strip of arable land along both sides of the Nile River. Egypt’s Western Desert, which extends to Libya, and its Eastern Desert, which extends to the Red Sea, flank this fertile Nile valley. We were well aware of this in Cairo, because of the tremendous amount of dust in the air and on anything not moving, like a parked car or building. Check your plate when you sit down to eat.

In some places, that fertile strip is miles wide, in others, mountains encroach. There’s a sharp line between where palms, crops, and other greenery will grow and where they will not. Here we have plants; here we don’t.

For millennia, the north-flowing Nile predictably and massively flooded every June, bringing a thick layer of silt to the valley and recharging the farmland soil. In the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam was built to control this flooding, which has enabled much enlargement of the area available for farming and building where it was impossible before. If you’ve seen old photos of the Nile with the pyramids in the background, those were taken during the flood season. In fact the river channel is many miles away.

In ancient times, several fingers of water flowed to the Mediterranean, but over the centuries, many of them were blocked off, and now only two form the Y of the delta at Alexandria.

I didn’t know or had forgotten that Sudan was originally part of Egypt and was not an independent country until 1956. A tricky political problem to watch is whether Sudan pursues a plan to build more dams on the southern reaches of the Nile, closer to its headwaters. Such an act would be catastrophic for Egypt, which has no groundwater and depends totally on the river.

Nile River, night, lights

In Cairo, our lovely Intercontinental Hotel Semiranis overlooked the river, and, surprisingly, in this generally conservative country, the party on the corniche 15 stories below seemed to go all night. That I did not expect. Neon bedecked motor cruisers, water taxis, and traditional feluccas are always out.

For a week on this trip, we were on the lovely MS Nefertiti, pictured below, cruising from Luxor south to Aswan with stops for the sights in between. 220 tourist boats (capacity 100-200) are licensed to use the river. About 80 percent of them were on the water this month, as Egypt’s tourism industry continues to recover from the dip after 2011. They dock six to nine abreast in the major ports. If we thought we were spoiled by the hotel staff, imagine 75 Americans on a ship with 63 crew! One night they set up a movie for us—what else, but Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

River Boat, Nile River, Nefertiti

More to come.

Photos: the Nile from the boat and at night by Vicki Weisfeld; the Nefertiti by Grand Circle tours.

Dover, Delaware: Travel Tips

With only three counties and less than a million residents—including one 2020 presidential candidate—Delaware is tucked into the Atlantic coast, at the confluence of New Jersey, Maryland, and southeastern Pennsylvania. Interstate 95 cuts across the top of it, giving travelers between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston access to the state’s largest city, Wilmington, but missing the capital, Dover, by nearly 50 miles.

Maybe that semi-isolation is what has allowed Dover to stay modest in size and allow its central area to suggest you’re stepping back into colonial history, an impression magnified by the brick sidewalks, the green squares, and the federalist architecture—all red brick and white paint. A plaque marks the location of the tavern where, in 1787, Delaware’s delegates were the first to sign the new U.S. Constitution, inspiring Delaware’s nickname, “the first state.”

Last week we spent two days there and, yes, we found plenty to do and see in the historic downtown area. We started with the Biggs Museum of American Art, which has a small collection expertly displayed in period rooms that include art, furniture, and appurtenances, plus some bold wallpaper! The current Legislative Hall, where you can visit both chambers, and the Old State House, which even Delaware outgrew, are worth a visit and offer tours. We did Legislative Hall on our own, but had a docent for the old statehouse and for the governor’s house, Woodburn, where you can arrange a private tour. Portraits of the state’s first ladies fill its reception hall.

We visited a French bakery (only once), located near the Johnson Victrola Museum with its fine display of the machines that brought music into the homes of millions. Lots of representations of Nipper, too, listening to “his master’s voice.” Excellent early example of branding.

Finally, we drove out to Dover Air Force base to visit the Air Mobility Command Museum, which has exhibits indoors in a converted hangar and, outside, a mind-boggling airplane parking lot. Latch onto a guide, who can take you up into some of the planes. Most amazing was walking inside the cavernous C5 cargo plane, which is big enough to hold six full-size buses or a couple of giant tanks. The Museum is preparing a special D-Day exhibit which we were sorry to miss.

All that, and we didn’t get to the beaches or the area’s several wildlife refuges!

Photo credits: View of the Legislative Hall by Marc Tomik is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 ; Johnson Victrola Museum, Vicki Weisfeld.

20 Miles, 200 Varieties, Millions of Blooms * A Visit to the Met

New Jersey Tulip Festival

Monday’s drizzle didn’t deter the tulip-lovers at Holland Ridge Farm, whose motto is “Don’t fly to Holland. Drive to Holland.” While I’ve studied the Facebook pix from friends who went to Keukenhof Gardens this spring with great envy, I realized, you know, we have tulips in New Jersey! This IS the Garden State.

On more than 150 acres in the community of Cream Ridge, Holland Ridge Farm devotes 50 acres to its colorful stripes of tulips, the largest tulip farm on the East Coast. The owners have brought their fields to the point that the farm now has an annual Tulip Festival, in full bloom this month. There must have been hundreds of people there, strolling the grounds, smiling, but the areas is so large, it never felt crowded (Easter Sunday was another story, I’ll bet).

Gift shop, café, U-pick opportunities, hayrides around the fields, and lots more, with more tulips every year! While a leisurely walk around the tulip beds may seem an old-fashioned, almost quaint pursuit, the farm’s FAQs offer a sign of the times: No, you cannot fly your drone over the tulip fields.

Only an hour from Philadelphia and New York, getting there entails a lovely drive through farmland and past horse farms. Buy tickets online.

Metropolitan Museum

Last weekend in Manhattan we saw the Met’s “The World Between Empires” exhibit, “art and identity in the Ancient Middle East,” on view through June 23. Some of those empires I’d never even heard of before, so I definitely learned something. The exhibit focuses on the Middle East conflict between the Roman and Parthian empires.

The art and objects of the period (c. 100 BCE – AD 250) came from the civilizations along the great trade routes and show the influences of Arabea, Nabataea, Judaea, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Says The Wall Street Journal, “Nothing short of spectacular.”

Photos: Vicki Weisfeld

In the Sea and Under It

A recent trip to the Windy City (temperature: -1⸰) included a visit to the marvelous, that is, full of marvels, Shedd Aquarium. If you’re ever in Chicago on a business trip, don’t miss it; it’s right downtown.

We were minding the two kids, ages 7 and 9, and we thought by keeping them engaged there, we could spare ourselves the embarrassment of losing chess games to them.

We caught the new special exhibit “Underwater Beauty,” with over a hundred species, only one highlight of which were the charming blue polka-dot jellyfish you see one of here. Of course the reef fish were bright and colorful, and the seahorses adorable, but there also were creatures called “weedy sea dragons” I’d never seen before, pictured below. Rather astonishing.

The Oceanarium show with the beluga whales and dolphins, a sea lion and an owl (?) is always a hit. As is the penguin play area, though they’re outgrowing that. They enjoyed the nearby pet-a-starfish exhibit even more. I could be mesmerized by the lobby’s circular, 90,000-gallon Caribbean Reef tank for hours. In the 1930’s water for the aquarium’s saltwater tanks was brought up from Key West on railroad tank cars.

What did the kids like best? Petting the bony backs of the armored lake sturgeon, where they plunged their arms into the water so deep and so often I ended up buying them new (dry) T-shirts. That -1⸰ thing again. Flooded with atypical modesty, they were reluctant to take their wet shirts off until a nearby mom opened her coat flasher style to give them some privacy.

photos: jellyfish, Vicki Weisfeld; weedy sea dragon, Magda Ehlers for pexels

Cape May’s Off-Season Delights

Maybe not this past week, with temperatures in single-digits, but off-season can be a fun time to visit beach towns, like historic Cape May, New Jersey, which clings to the far southern tip of the Garden State, and is actually south of Baltimore and almost directly east of Washington, D.C. On a narrow peninsula, surrounded by water, Cape May is full of extravagant Victorian homes (many of them now B&Bs), impressive restaurants and a range of attractions.

Visiting off-season, you find the summer crowds have disappeared like the flocks of migrating birds you can see there spring and fall—at “one of the greats migration hot spots on earth!” The Cape May Lighthouse has a hawk-watching platform, the city has a nature center, an Audubon Society bird observatory, and several other attractions catering to birdwatchers (and the curious). Even after the big migration, there are a lot of shore and wading birds.

Jersey Shore Alpacas is a place where you can pet, feed, and find out whatever you might want to know about this interesting breed of animal (and buy luxuriously soft alpaca-wool items and gifts). The farm (whose motto is “furry fun for everyone!”). Nearby is the Cape May County Park and Zoo, which, unbelievably, is free. It features some 250 species, including lions, and zebras, and giraffes, though if the day is too cold, you may not see some of them. Just a guess, but the snow leopards are probably always on view. There’s an indoor aviary for the tropical birds, and the raptors are outside. Winters, it’s open from 10 to 3:30 and, again, not crowded.

A 10-mile drive north brings to you the town of Wildwood, whose two-mile long boardwalk is almost impassable with tourists in summer. The stilled amusement park, the silent roller-coasters, the shuttered ice cream stands suggest the set for a B-movie. Sparse traffic encourages a drive past the Wildwoods’ collection of doo-wop motels, architecture straight out of the 1950s!

The Naval Air Station Wildwood (NASW) at the Cape May Airport is home to an aviation museum in a converted hangar (dress warmly), which includes an array of aircrafts, engines, and interactive exhibits. It has a moving display about the 9/11 “All Available Boats” rescuers too. When I walked inside, I thought it wasn’t going to be that interesting, but I ended up fascinated. It’s not at all slick, and seems to be a labor of love.

Cape May offers some spectacular restaurants. Our favorites included Tisha’s, Union Park Dining Room, and Fins Bar and Grill. There’s pleasant shopping, and the town has been an artists’ inspiration for decades. Evidence is this bouncy Bud Nugent song and my short story “Windjammer” about a vengeful sea captain whose ghost haunts one of Cape May’s arriviste residents.

Stuff I Learned Lately and How I Learned It

Woodrow Wilson's Princeton Home

Woodrow Wilson’s house in Princeton cost about $35,000 to build and is now—rough-guessing here—worth about 100 times that — I learned this at a library benefit dinner at the actual house, featuring a talk by U-Mich professor Patricia O’Toole, who has a new Wilson biography: The Moralist. (Wilson promoted  the neo-Tudor architectural style, and you see it all over town)

Just because an online course is about a subject I’m deeply interested in doesn’t mean the course itself will be interesting — learned during sessions 1 & 2 of a 3-part online course about genetics in genealogy

How to tell llamas and alpacas apart – at Jersey Shore Alpacas (e.g., llamas are bigger and have perkier ears)

There was a founding father before the Founding Fathers and, though the British called him “the greatest incendiary in all America,” he’s practically forgotten – a lecture at the fantastic David Library of the American Revolution by Christian di Spigna, author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr.Joseph Warren

Not all NYC crime writers sport sleeve tattoos – disabused of this impression at the December Noir at the Bar readathon

It took about 1300 years for medical science to reacquire the knowledge lost when the Alexandria library complex was destroyed – adult ed course on Egypt

Ron Chernow (and thus the musical Hamilton) probably got a couple of the more risqué situations in his book wrong – also at the David Library, in a talk by Tilar Mazzeo, author of the new book, Eliza Hamilton

 I may be exhibiting early manifestations of that old person’s “no filter” problem – you don’t want to know

The black stockings and tights I’ve been wearing since Thanksgiving are navy – daylight.

Sicily: Beyond (and Before) the Corleones – Travel Tips

Agrigento - Temple of Concordia

Agrigento – Temple of Concordia, public domain

Our two-week trip to Sicily ended recently, and what an interesting and beautiful region it was. The food was pretty spectacular too. We traveled with a British tour company called Esplora, and if you’re looking for a recommendation, this is one. Esplora and its founder Damian Croft, specialize in small-group tours of several Mediterranean countries, as well as Armenia, Georgia, and, soon, Iran.

There were a dozen of us on the tour, six Brits, an Australian couple, and four Americans. We had two charming guides (Chiara and Simona) and our irreplaceable driver/major domo, Carmelo. Our guides were language and art history specialists. How nice, I thought, in advance. How essential, I’d say now. Here’s why (and before I go on, I’ll tip you that we saw the impressive architectural remnants of all these civilizations.)

The earliest tribes in Sicily, the Sicani, documented to around 8000 BC, were followed by the Sicels and some minor groups. They lived in caves, and some of their caves are still in use for storage, as shelters for goats and chickens, and in extremis, habitation.

Sicily was a crossroads of the ancient world, and for at least some period, Siracusa was the most important city in Europe. This importance began with the arrival of the Greeks, who set up independent colonies in Siracusa, Agrigento, and elsewhere. Domination of the island was passed back and forth in practically nonstop wars between the Greeks, Romans (who established colonies under Roman authority), and barbarians, namely, the Germanic Vandals and Ostrogoths.

The Byzantines annexed Sicily in 535 AD, and were harassed by invading Arabs from Carthage (now Tunisia) in north Africa. Next came the Normans—yes, those same Normans who invaded England in 1066. This was a surprise! They established liberal government, tolerant of the many ethnicities and religions who lived on the island. That couldn’t last, of course.

Swabian Germans took over, followed by an insurrection to remove the French (Normans) and the people turned to the Spanish for aid. The Spanish Inquisition in 1492 resulted in expulsion of all the Jews from Sicily and other depredations. In the next two hundred years, the island also suffered devastating earthquakes, and the plague.

The Bourbons were next, with Sicily fighting on France’s side in the Napoleonic Wars. Guiseppe Garibaldi had a strong presence in Sicily in his successful effort to unite the separate regions of Italy into a united Kingdom of Italy (1861).

In the 20th century, assaulted first by waves of crime from the Mafia then invaded by the Allies in 1943, this little island of less than 10,000 square miles—not much larger than the state of New Jersey—was once again at the crossroads of history.

Historians will shudder at the elisions and probable errors in the above. Whole books have been written about this, of course, and here’s a really good one:

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Read my new short story in Quoth The Raven, an anthology of new works based on the style and sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe. For how to order it, click here.

All 50!

Welcome to Idaho

photo: pixabay, creative commons license

A highlight of our recent Yellowstone trip was the detour we took into eastern Idaho. I was excited because Idaho was my 50th state! Given the number of stickers plastered on the welcome sign, Idaho must be a notable destination for people from a lot of places!

When we stopped the rental van near “Welcome to Idaho,” I hopped right out to stroll back to the sign. That gave my six family members time to prepare a surprise. They slipped off their overshirts to reveal Idaho-themed T-shirts underneath. As we gathered for pictures, they gave me the ball cap below, a saucer-sized “All 50!” refrigerator magnet, and membership in the All Fifty States Club, signed by President Alicia C. Rovey. It’s hard to say which of us was most excited! Me, the family, or my new friend Alicia!

all 50 ball cap

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

I mentioned this forthcoming accomplishment to the watercolor instructor at the Old Faithful Inn. Turned out she’s been to all 50 states too. Her 50th was North Dakota. Apparently North Dakota is the last state for a lot of people (we can guess why), and the locals make a big deal of it—pictures, T-shirts, the whole deal. I suggested I get my cup of coffee free at the café in Driggs, Idaho, but no. Besides full-price coffee, the town also is home to the Teton Valley Historical Museum, a great lunch spot, and a lovely shop selling local artists’ work.

Michael Pollan’s fascinating book, The Botany of Desire, describes how the obsession with certain crops—apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes (to which list I would add tomatoes)—has from time to time created agricultural craziness. Pollan had convinced me that Americans’ love affair with the french fry had turned much of Idaho into an over-farmed, over-fertilized, and over-pesticided moonscape. Around Driggs, however, the farm fields, rolling terrain, and distant mountains were beautiful. Still, for lunch, I ordered a salad. Just another beautiful spot in the fifty!