And then we came to the end (Part 2) – the last post.

As I wind down this blog, it occurs to me that, as a public service, I might recap some of the things we learned for those of you who might attempt a similar endeavor someday.

For example, here are some of the things I couldn’t do without:

My goofy Scottevest jacket with the 26 pockets. For the first time in my life, I always knew where my passport was. It also had one really deep pocket that could hold a wine bottle, a laptop, and an ipad all at once, (although I looked a little like the Elephant Man when I did that). It had a little lanyard in the right pocket to which I attached our front door key. It had an eyeglass cleaning cloth on a string with a map of all the jacket’s pockets on it, in case I forgot a few. It was ugly, but it was my faithful and helpful friend.

A Schwab checking account, which comes with a no-fee, no-transaction ATM card. That’s right – we were able to get money anywhere in the world with absolutely no fees whatsoever. If a foreign bank charged a fee, Schwab would refund it. That probably saved us $1000 over the course of the trip. Talk to Chuck.

Frequent flier miles from United. Of the 63796 air miles we traveled, 41638 of them were free, using miles. For some of the long haul flights we used extra miles for business class, which I would never, ever, ever do if I was paying with real money. I have no idea how much money we saved, but it was a lot.

Traveler’s mailbox. This is a service that scanned and opened our mail for us. They even deposited checks for me. It worked great until the United States Postal Service messed up our forwarding address, and we pretty much haven’t gotten any mail for the last two months. I’ve been too lazy to do anything about it, figuring that most of the big items have been taken care of, although there lurks in the back of my soul a low grade fear that I have missed something important.

Our little kitchen kit. Over the months we’ve acquired a tidy little spice cabinet that we haul from place to place in a big ziplock bag. It includes salt and pepper, cayenne, emergency Nescafe packets, tea bags, smoked pepper (called pimenton, which we got in Argentina), coffee filters, and all manner of other culinary flotsam and jetsam. Far too many Airbnb apartments have nothing at all in the cupboard, which makes me crazy. Having a spice bag made me just a little less crazy.

Uber. Uber is great. It’s invariably cheaper and better than just about any cab (although in places like Cairo or Bangkok it would be entirely unnecessary because cabs are basically free), they charge your card directly, and you don’t have to mess with a tip. Yay, Uber!

Airbnb. After our first hellish Airbnb experience in New York, things settled down quite a bit. Most of our apartments were just fine and several, like in Melbourne, Athens, Prague, Siracusa, and of course, our houseboat on the Nile, were really fabulous. They’re almost always cheaper than a hotel, and you get much more room, a place to cook, and often even a chance to do laundry. The average cost was about $110 a night. If you factor in both fancy pants safari lodges and free nights at friends’ houses, our average daily housing cost was $91.

T-Mobile. Before we left, we switched to T-Mobile, because they offer free international calling, internet, and text. In the entire trip, the only country in which I had to buy a SIM card was Myanmar, and that was about five bucks.

Google Maps. I’ve mentioned this, but with the exception of being sent down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere in South Africa (although my navigator might have played a role in this), Google Maps was extraordinary, especially when it integrated public transit into the journey, which it was able to do in almost every city we visited (except, inexplicably, Melbourne). You can put pins in restaurants and tourist sites on your laptop and they magically appear on your phone. Then you can point to a pin on your phone and Google Maps will show you how to drive, walk, or take a bus or a subway there, and it will tell you how much time it will take. How did marriages last before Google Maps?

Virtual private networks. They allow you to fool Pandora and Netflix into thinking that your computer is in the United States (or anywhere else, for that matter). There are dozens of VPN programs out there, but I used Hola and Hotspot Shield, which allowed us to binge watch The Borgia (the bad one, not the good one with Jeremy Irons). Also, I was able to use a VPN to open my Schwab account from Egypt.

Ziplok bags, rubber bands, and plastic flasks. These little petroleum-based delights saved us a million and one times. You can’t imagine how many times you need a ziplok to hold papers or receipts or food items, or, well, rubber bands and plastic flasks. Rubber bands are just endlessly useful. They’re great for cords, bags of coffee, and for corralling any number of other things. I bought a bag of them at a stationary store in Istanbul. The clerk looked at me a little funny, but it was worth it. It was also about the only haggle-free shopping experience in Istanbul, which was something to treasure. We bought two plastic flasks at a travel store in Sydney. They stay sealed, they store flat, and they don’t seem to excite the x-ray people at the airport (don’t tell!). So if we had leftover hootch and we weren’t checking bags, we would distribute the illicit liquid between the two vessels to improve our chances. I only had to pour out a small bit of scotch once.

Duty Free Shops – Before he started Atlantic Philanthropies, Chuck Feeney, bless him, started the Duty Free Shops. Upon leaving a country, you can unload all your leftover currency, pay for the rest with a credit card, and stock up on very inexpensive gin, which you then transfer to your plastic flasks.

A portable speaker. With Wifi, VPN, Pandora, and a portable speaker, you can set the mood anywhere.

The first thing people ask us, every single time, is what was our favorite destination, which is impossible to answer. I’m a pleaser, though, so here’s an attempt at an answer. If I had to name the top five or six experiences, I’d start with the lion cubs in Kruger, which made me realize how big the world really is, but also how small. The amazing thing was that the day after we saw giraffes and hippos in South Africa, we were toddling along in our RV in New Zealand. After that, I’d toss in helicoptering up to the Franz Joseph Glacier in New Zealand, floating over Capadoccia, Turkey in a hot air balloon, seeing the Temple at Karnak in Luxor, Egypt, watching the penguins waddle ashore on Phillip Island near Melboure, Australia, and sipping a scotch by the fire in the 12th century castle Traquair House in Scotland. There were many, many more magical experiences, not to mention all the really fun people we spent time with. i could easily come up with a second set of five great things, and a third, and a fourth.

Our best meals? That’s another tough question, but right off I’d say Peter Lugar in Brooklyn (which almost doesn’t count), Saint Crispin in Melbourne, Kakinuma in Kyoto, Fratelli Burgio in Siracusa, Sicily, Soul Food Manhanakorn in Bangkok, and Timberyard in Edinburgh, with an honorable mention to the best sixty seven cents I’ve spent in my life at the koshary place in Cairo (I never did get the name. By the way, there’s a great koshary shop in Covent Garden in London called Koshary Street. If I closed my eyes, I’d swear I was back in Egypt. If you’re in London, go there. If I had any sense at all I’d open a chain of them in San Francisco, LA, and New York and I’d helpers just to count the money. Delicious, healthy, and cheap – what could be better?)

There’s more, lots more, but I think I’ve hit the high points. Once we got into a groove, we traveled with amazing aplomb. Each new place was an adventure, full of unexpected wonders and very little, if any, heartache. I’ve never had so much fun in my life, by a long shot. I think Janine would say the same. I am a lucky man indeed to have such a wonderful wife.

Have I left anything out? Do you have questions? Feel free to send me an email or post questions in the comments area and I’ll try to answer them while I can still remember any of it.

Finally, thanks for reading, friends. It’s been a wonderful journey, made all the more rich by being able to share it with people I love through these pages. I’ve really enjoyed your comments, your encouragement, and your friendship. I hope you’ve had fun too. See you at the Turkish bath!

London and environs – Mr. Elgin, give back those marbles!

I have always wanted to visit the British Museum in London, but that was before I knew how much the place resembled an evidence locker. Herewith I offer a vituperative rant.

We went to the British Museum to visit a nice variety of artifacts that were missing from the Parthenon and various sites in Egypt, among other places. Perhaps the most famous of the plundered loot at the British Museum are the so-called “Elgin Marbles.” I’ve always thought this was a dumb name. I have images of Lord Elgin in his short pants kneeling over a circle in the sand shooting aggies and cat’s eyes with his kindergarten chums. But no, the “marbles” are massive marble sculptures that were removed from the Parthenon at the turn of the 19th century. Extremely dedicated readers of this blog will remember that we visited the Parthenon last year and that I suggested that perhaps it was time for the museum to give back the stuff that Elgin took.

Britain claims that Elgin procured the stuff fair and square – he was given permission to appropriate the sculptures by the government in charge. The problem is that the government in charge at the time was made up of conquering Turks, not actual Greeks, and allowing Elgin to cart off Greece’s cultural heritage was the equivalent of selling Big Ben off the back of a truck.

There’s a display exhibit that offers a tepid defense for the theft. First, they say that removing the sculptures protected them from damage due to poor air quality and other environmental hazards. Is the UK going to invade China and remove the Great Wall because Beijing smog is bad? Next, they say that presenting the sculptures at ground level, as they do in the museum, is better than having to stare up at them at the Parthenon. I don’t buy it. Finally, they say that having the sculptures divided between the Acropolis Museum in Athens and the British Museum in London provides visitors with multiple perspectives on the works. Please. Each one of these arguments is worse than the one before. Using their logic we should cut down Big Ben and send half of it to New York and display it on the sidewalk somewhere so everyone can see it up close.

We also had the pleasure of seeing much of what was missing at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, including the head of a decapitated sculpture whose body we visited in Egypt. Raise your hand if you don’t think the head and the body should be reunited. Oh, and we saw the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone! Give that back!

We saw the headless body in Egypt. I say we reunite them.

We saw the headless body in Egypt. I say we reunite them.

Okay, I’m done with my rant. It would be more honest if they said that they stole the stuff fair and square and they’re not giving it back, rather than insult people’s intelligence by pretending to use reason and logic. I feel better now…well…not really.

On to less controversial London-area experiences.

We’ve been to London many times, but we’d never ventured too far from the city center. Our daughter’s new roommate’s parents Anthony and Allison live in Cambridge (from which they both graduated), and they invited us up for an utterly charming day. (By the way, our kid is now an official New York City apartment dweller – your donations or just your pity are most welcome.) It’s only about forty five minutes from London’s King’s Cross station, but a visit to Cambridge is a trip waaaay back in time. The university dates back to 1209 and it feels like a movie set. Of course there were smart-looking students doing their thing, but there were also distinguished-looking ladies and gentlemen of a certain age wandering about, some of them even wearing robes. These folks take their education seriously. The architecture isn’t bad either. Anthony treated us to a great lunch and then walked us around campus, where he pointed out a number of the great architect Christopher Wren’s buildings, including the library at Trinity College, Anthony’s alma mater. To top it all off, there’s a charming little river running through it, and you can sit in a boat and be paddled along by a student gondolier.

The lovely River Cam running through Cambridge.

The lovely River Cam running through Cambridge.

After a mid-afternoon tea shop interlude, we headed off to what’s called an “evensong” service at the extraordinary fifteenth century King’s College Chapel, in which the program was almost entirely sung. It was kind of like an ecclesiastical Les Miz. Actually, it was like the kid’s version, because there was a choir of prepubescent boys, sounding like dozens of pan flutes, rising seven stories up into the largest fan vault cathedral in the world. Zamfir would be proud.

This may be the thing I like best about England – it’s so very English, and it’s old but functional. You can wander into a three hundred year-old pub, a six hundred year-old chapel, or an eight hundred year-old university and my guess is that a time traveler wouldn’t get lost. If they would just give every else’s old stuff back, the place would be damn near perfect.

The Music of the Streets and other Cairo Phenomena

Raise your hand if you live in the United States and think you have bad traffic. Now put your hands down. Compared to Cairo, you have very good traffic. It may take you a long time to get to work, but in your world there are traffic lights, crosswalks, and some semblance of order. The only order you experience in Cairo are the laws of the vehicular jungle.

I seem to remember some pretty bad traffic in certain cities around the world, but Cairo stands out for its sheer anarchy. Cairene conveyances are not unlike those in other developing countries. There are taxis and private minibuses that stuff themselves so full that people hang outside the open door like tourists on San Francisco cable cars. There are also donkey carts, big, bad tour buses, bicycles, mopeds, LOTS of pedestrians, private cars, and there are now tuk-tuks, an import from India. These moped/rickshaws are entirely unlicensed – if one of them hits you, good luck trying to get satisfaction. There is no auto insurance to speak of, and people are left to work it out if they have an accident. It’s utter chaos. You could go all day and not find a car without a dent.

There are some really good things about getting about in Cairo. Taxis are dirt cheap. The flag drop is three Egyptian Pounds, or forty two American cents. A trip from downtown to our apartment takes anywhere from ten to forty minutes, depending on traffic, and costs about two dollars with tip (I always give the cab drivers a tip and they seem genuinely grateful). Getting the cab to take you there is another story. We were advised to make sure that the cab driver always turns on the meter. Most will, but some will tell you it’s broken, or come up with some kind of story about why the meter is a bad idea. Apparently, this is a chapter in the International Cab Driver’s Union Handbook. When that happens, you’re supposed to make the driver stop the car and just get out of the cab. One day last week it took us three tries to find a cab driver who would turn on his meter. Then there’s the matter of the destination. Fortunately, our apartment is near a spot known to all cabbies – Kit Kat Square (yes, that’s what it’s called). The amusing part is that there are no hotels near us and cab drivers are highly entertained that we want to go there. One actually laughed at me. My guess it’s as if a tourist hopped into a cab and told the guy to take him to Riker’s Island, or Cleveland.

If the lines in the street are the equivalent of a coloring book, drivers in Cairo are Jackson Pollock. The flow of traffic is an organism unto itself. Drivers weave in and out, sliding from lane to lane, poking through the briefest of openings while they have the chance. The Cairene driver is not just a painter, but a musician. The horn is his instrument (and I mostly mean his – most of the drivers I saw were men). Cairo drivers toot their horn to let you know they’re coming, they beep it to remind you to stay out of the way, they honk it to signal discontent, and they will also tap out a tune from time to time, seemingly out of boredom or maybe just sheer creativity. One day we were heading back to the apartment after a day downtown. There was a brief, rare, blissful moment in which our taxi was all alone for at least a hundred meters. There we were, with the road to ourselves. What did our cab driver do? He honked his horn. Maybe it was a reflexive act. Maybe he was just making sure it worked for the moment, in anticipation of ten or twenty seconds hence, when he knew he’d need it. No matter. It was an auditory transportation non sequiter. The music of the streets, which we can hear quite clearly from our houseboat on the Nile, and which seems to amplify the sounds of the traffic as it bounces off the face of the water, is like an Ornette Coleman composition. At first it sounds simply like noise, but if you listen carefully, you will find that it most definitely develops a rhythm. It somehow makes sense. There are no two ways about it, this is music. Sometimes, the tune is catchy. One driver will tap out a rhythm on his horn (boopedy boop boop, boopedy boop boop) and another will join in, and another, until you have an impromptu automotive symphony.

In any event, just wandering down the street to the market on any given day is an exercise is sensory overload. If you need to cross the street, it also becomes a test of survival. We had one episode in which we had to make it across six lanes of two way traffic. Janine was a bit tentative, and I was too bold – never a very good combination. I confidently stepped off the curb and was halfway into the street when a motorcycle came out of nowhere and nearly ran us down. We retreated back to the curb in flinching self-defense. Janine was more than traumatized. It reminded me of the time when we gave in to our daughter Maggie’s desperate desire to have her ears pierced when she was about five. The problem was that the ear piercing shop only had one person on duty, so they had to shoot the earring stud gun into her earlobes one at a time. Well, these stud guns make a lot of noise, and the first one sent her into a frenzy of tears and recrimination. It took at least a half hour of cajoling to get Maggie to agree to endure the horrifying process of driving a second hole into her other earlobe. That was how Janine felt when she saw her life flash in front of her eyes in Cairo traffic. After a fair amount of suffering, she finally braved the traffic and made it across, but I suspect she’ll carry the moment with her for years to come.

Cairo is not for everyone. In fact, it might not be for most people. For one thing, it’s a developing world country with all that goes with it. Garbage is everywhere. Sidewalks, not so much. The country is also on edge, with well-armed police and army everywhere. Outside the Egyptian Museum, which sits at the edge of Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the recent revolutions (the one to depose Mubarak, and the other to depose Morsi), there is a line of tanks, with soldiers on high alert. Long strands of barbed wire blockades are staged at the sides of the roads, ready to be rolled into place at a moment’s notice.

Line of tanks outside the  Cairo Museum

Line of tanks outside the Cairo Museum

In a poor country, public services are catch as catch can on their best day. One person I spoke with talked of the lack of public space in this city. For example, there are few public playgrounds. The wealthy can buy access to private ones, but poor kids play in the street. Public parks are rare. It’s no wonder that much of the place appears to be treated as a no man’s land where people toss garbage, relieve themselves, or otherwise discount the value of having a clean, well-organized common resource. It was always nice to get home. To get to our houseboat, we pass through a simple unlocked wrought iron gate. Inside our gate, the space was ours, and the chaos of the city was reduced to a thrumming pulse that was over there, while we were over here, down by the river, separated from the madness.

Cairo is not the easiest place in the world to be a tourist. Unlike in many world capitals, westerners in Cairo are a great big curiosity. With my mishmash of European genes, locals have asked me for directions in Rome, Athens, and even Istanbul. Not so in Cairo, where we really, really stand out. Perhaps it’s because there are so few of us after the revolution. Perhaps it has always been the case. But to walk down any street in town is an exercise is being a very big goldfish in a teeny, tiny bowl. I wasn’t terribly bothered by it, but Janine was regularly made quite uncomfortable by the attention she attracted, especially from men. Janine said that she understands why a woman would want to cover herself completely in a culture that seems so polarized by gender.

Then there are the touts. If you look like a foreigner, you won’t get far before someone starts talking to you (at best), or aggressively attempting to sell you something (at worst). Or, like the squeegee guys around the Holland Tunnel, someone will begin to provide a service (like pointing out that the pyramid is a pyramid) that you neither asked for nor need. At the so-called “bent” pyramid in Dahshur, just outside of Cairo, Janine and I had the entire place to ourselves. At one point, one of the two fellows guarding the site (who was packing a very intimidating looking automatic weapon) began following me around the area.

My guide at the bent pyramid at Dahshur.

My guide at the bent pyramid at Dahshur.

Your humble correspondent at the Bent Pyramid

Your humble correspondent at the Bent Pyramid in a photo taken by my pistol packing pal.

Unnerved, Janine retreated to our guide’s car. Silly me, I wanted a better angle to take a photo, and found myself being tracked by my new friend. He may have been toting some serious firepower, but I could also see his socks through his cheap cracked cardboard shoes. He began pointing out some very simple elements of the pyramid, and I could see where this was going. Whether I liked it or not, I would be tipping my well-armed but underpaid new friend. You basically have two choices for how to respond – you can get frustrated or even angry, or you can go with it. I must confess that sometimes I feel charitable, but sometimes I feel manipulated. It’s not like wandering the streets of Rome or Paris, in which you will be left to your own devices no matter what. In Egypt, you are what’s for dinner. Anyway, I suspect that the pyramid touts are members of the Associated Squeegee Guild, or some such august institution.

People will approach you on the street and claim to be just trying out their English, and before you know it, you’re being led to some souvenir stand. It’s unnerving. On the other hand, after the revolution the tourist trade has cratered, and people are attempting to get by on a lot fewer scraps. For the rare tourist, that means a lot more attention. I find it hard to blame people for trying to make a living. We had a fabulous guide in Cairo, a young man in his thirties named Mina, who was introduced to us by houseboat Dan. We spent a few days touring the city with him and he patiently explained who we should tip and how much. The fellow who opened the minaret for us at the Ibn Tulun Mosque gets ten pounds (a little more than a dollar). The guy who led us around the really terrific Gayer-Anderson Museum for half an hour gets twenty. That’s the rate, that’s how it works, and boy does it take the edge off. (By the way, I can’t wait to read the book The Irish Pasha, which explores the fascinating double life of the Egyptologist Robert Gayer-Anderson. It’s being crowd funded at Unbound. If everyone buys a copy maybe we’ll actually get to read it.)

The view from the top of the minaret at the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo. The view was well worth the small tip I gave the fellow who unlocked the door to the minaret.

The view from the top of the minaret at the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo. The view was well worth the small tip I gave the fellow who unlocked the door to the minaret.

By this time you may be asking why anyone would come to Cairo. What with the traffic, the garbage, the unwanted attention, the smog (the air is really bad), and the poverty, why subject yourself to such challenges when you could sit in French cafes or on a Caribbean beach?

My answer, believe it or not, is that it’s actually all quite wonderful. The call to prayer is a perfect example. Each morning at 5:15, it wakes you with a start, even with the best earplugs. But it’s charming, atmospheric, and deeply meaningful to the faithful, who worship in a way that most Americans don’t understand. It reminds you that you are far from your comfortable life and that you are a visitor in a strange land. And it’s really quite beautiful, even if you’re trying to sleep. I really like that.

Next time – thanks for all the atmospherics, Eric, but will you ever tell us what you saw and what you ate?