Other countries other cultures

 It is one thing to learn about other countries and cultures through school or television programmes, but it is something else entirely to experience them yourself.  As many of you already know, my best friend Lynne and I went on a Mediterranean cruise at the end of September which would take us to the Ancient Empires – places we had never visited before.

We started off from Civitavecchia port outside Rome and thankfully had a couple of days at sea before the itinerary really began.  This allowed me my last precious mornings arising at what I considered to be a reasonable time when one is on vacation.  In an effort to keep off the weight I had lost in the months leading up to this trip, I made a point of visiting the onboard gym when I had the chance.  I don’t have great balance at the best of times, so trying to jog on a treadmill whilst the ship encountered waves was an interesting experience.  I kept sidling to the edge of the belt and then would suddenly catch myself and hop into the middle again.  It must have been a comical sight for anyone behind me.

We had booked private tours for all our stops only because we wanted to go at our own pace.  The first two places on the itinerary were Haifa and Ashdod in Israel.  Haifa port had the magnificent Baha’i temple and its 19 levels of gardens.  From there we drove to Akko and Zefat where we saw ancient city walls, browsed markets, ate falafel and generally climbed more stairs than either of us had attempted in a very long time.

Our guide in Ashdod took us to the Dead Sea where those on the beach were witness to two translucently white women gingerly making their way across brown sand to enter the reputedly healing salt waters.  I can’t tell you what an odd sensation it was, having the slick mud on the bottom squishing between our toes.  It was also hazardous trying to make our way out into the water, as there were hidden sinkholes all over the place.  I went down to the knee in one, and Lynne’s left leg disappeared to the thigh.  We floated for a moment, basked in the spectacle, and then clumsily made our way out again.  That was enough of that.

The next stop was Old Jerusalem – a fascinating city with four different quarters within the walls (Christian, Jewish, Armenian, Moslem) existing in harmony.  The markets here were fascinating, although Lynne made the mistake of trying on a singularly unflattering shirt in the Moslem market, and then deciding not to purchase it.  The seller was beside himself so we had to pull her out of there before she started an international incident.

Alexandria was the very next day where the ship was overnighting, and therefore we had opted to overnight at a hotel in Cairo.  Our guide, plus driver, plus security picked us up at the port and we exited into the most UNBELIEVABLE traffic I have ever seen!  Lynne noted that she couldn’t really see any lanes on the road and certainly the cars didn’t seem to adhere to any particular rules.  Cutting off other vehicles, heading straight for pedestrians who dared venture out, and the overutilization of horns and brakes seemed to be the only license requirements in this city.  The seething masses of people, broken down buildings, and overall mayhem were completely foreign to us.  After five minutes of gripping and yipping at every close call, we realized that our driver knew what he was doing so we might as well just completely trust in him or we would be basket cases by the time we got to Cairo.

In Cairo we visited the Muhammed Ali (no – not him) Mosque where we first experienced the thrill of paying for toilet paper.  We entered the women’s toilets only to be greeted by a woman and young boy who happily rolled off some sheets for us and handed them over in exchange for an Egyptian pound (about 20 cents.)  I’m in the wrong business…

We drove to Saqqara and saw the step pyramid of Pharaoh Djoser, passing a tributary of the Nile as we went.  There were men riding camels along the dusty trail with ramshackle buildings lining the road and lush agricultural fields behind them.  That night was a dinner cruise on the Nile in a huge river boat complete with belly dancer and a Whirling Dervish – a man in a huge skirt who spins until, thanks to his training, he is the only one in the room not feeling nauseous.

After a night at the Movenpick Pyramids and a huge breakfast buffet that included everything from eggs to chili (probably supplied by those who sold toilet paper), we went to see the piece de resistance – the three stunning Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx.  We rode a camel led by a 12 year-old boy who made mysterious clicking noises as signals for our steed.  I kept hoping he wouldn’t cough in case that translated to “gallop.”

Egypt was amazing but different.  I don’t think I’ll be buying property in Alexandria.

I was so grateful for a day at sea before the next round of stops.  I had been up with the sun for about four days in a row – it was killing me.

The rest of the trip took us to other exotic locales including Athens which I would definitely see again once I’ve purchased some new sneakers and knees.  The Acropolis is breathtaking to behold and reach.  Lynne mocked warnings about drinking anything but bottled water and took a swig from the fountain there, only to regret it for about five days afterwards.  Zeus’ revenge.

Santorini (one of the Greek isles) was indescribably beautiful.  My fear of heights was tested when we scaled Lykos by car, but the view of the island from the top was worth it.  If you are romantically involved with anyone this is definitely the vacation spot for you.

Kusadasi in Turkey was a small town with lots of markets and we quickly learned that all the merchants knew every trick in the book to try and grab the tourists’ attention.  From knowing how to greet people in any language to endlessly calling us “pretty ladies” (which of course we were, but that’s not the point), they wheedled, cajoled, begged and generally badgered visitors to enter their stores.  I thought that stall sellers in US malls were pushy but they are rank amateurs compared to these guys.

We took a tour to the ruins of Ephesus and the Terrace Houses.  I don’t have enough allowed word count to go into them in this article, but if you have any interest in ancient Roman ruins you should research Ephesus.  It was fascinating, made all the more so because it was unexpected.  We knew nothing about the site until we had a tour there.

The last two stops were Mykonos, where I picked up a nice cold, and Naples/Capri.  We could have seen Capri or Pompeii, but my congested nose raised a protest and so we ended up staying on the ship and packing our bags in anticipation of disembarkation the next day.

It was an amazing trip – not just because I was up for breakfast almost every morning, but also because it was so interesting to visit all these places that were forever linked by their history.  I would urge everyone to try and explore beyond their comfort zone.  Just bring toilet paper.