Category Archives: International

beyond the fifty

Welcome to the Fairmont Heliopolis

Crystal Chandeliers in the Fairmont Lobby

TRAVEL THERE: MY LUXURY VACATION BEGINS

If you read this blog with any regularity then you’re well aware that I don’t spend a lot of time in swanky hotels.  I’m more the quaint bed & breakfast type, when I can find it, or I’m bragging about the huge discount I found on Expedia.  However, on this trip we were in top hotels all the way.  In Cairo, we checked into the Fairmont Heliopolis.

Leaving the Airport

One of the things I remembered from my previous trip to Egypt was the wide open spaces between the airport and Heliopolis.  Once we had dealt with the absence of our luggage on that trip, I’d sat the backseat of a car wondering just how far we were going to drive before we got to anything.

It’s not that way anymore.  It’s like the stretch of LBJ between I-35 and DFW Airport.  While it used to be out in the middle of nowhere, it’s now chock-a-block with restaurants, hotels and other buildings.  Outside the Cairo Airport was the same thing.  What’s more, I barely blinked before we were entering the main thoroughfare of Heliopolis and almost immediately we arrived at the Fairmont. So the first thing you might want to know about the Fairmont is that it’s close to the airport.

Between two lobbies

The Security Routine

Here’s the drill for most hotel properties in Egypt.  (The Cecil in Alexandria and the Dahab Paradise were exceptions to the rule, but pretty much anyplace else put you through this.)  The properties are all fenced and gated.  You pull up to a guard house with a barrier across the driveway.  Your car is thoroughly checked.

First they get the ID of the driver and question him.  Then he has to fill in a log.  Then they do a physical check of the exterior of the car which includes looking under it with a mirror.  Some places also had sniffer dogs.  The driver opens the trunk and the dogs and/or metal detectors are used to check out the contents.  There are usually a group of guards and after they’ve conferred with one another, the barrier is lifted and you drive through.  Someone is usually standing nearby with a machine gun.  Some kind of welcome, huh?

Ayman, our niece’s husband, assumed we were in the newer part of the hotel and drove through the older portico to deliver us to the Towers.  Only we weren’t in the Towers.  The bags were pulled out by the bell staff and Ayman drove away, but once inside we were directed across the way to the original part of the lobby.  It was late and I was ready for bed.

Now the reason we were staying at the Fairmont is that we were part of the wedding party and that’s where they were staying.  We like to keep our accommodations in two digits if we can, but we were splurging.  I have to confess that I was glad we stayed in the older part of the hotel.  The new part had that edgy clean look, but I’m a sucker for crystal chandeliers and other gaudy looking hotel lobby decor, like the replica of a pharaonic boat in the Fairmont lobby.

The check-in hasn’t even begun, but I’ve already run out of words, so come back next week to see how we liked our room.

 

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The Airport Adventure Continues

TRAVEL THERE: WHERE’S AYMAN?

Now that I’m home, I’ve tried to educate myself about the pilgrims who crowded into the Cairo Airport the same night I arrived.  I shared some of the answers last week, but I left Bill and I standing with our niece in a huge, noisy crowd.  At first there was the initial small talk of arrival, but soon it was apparent Mirette thought it was high time for Ayman to rescue us from our perch among the milling pilgrims.

Looking for Ayman

After a few minutes of chatting, Mirette began to scan the passing cars for her husband, with the international expression of, “where is he?”  Soon she was describing the car Ayman was driving to Bill.  Then they began to discuss how far away the car had been parked.  When they moved the conversation into Arabic, I got worried.

Then Ayman himself hurried up, but on foot, not in the car, which was perplexing in and of itself. He explained the crowds became too large, so the police shut down one of the roads. He’d found another parking spot as close as he could get, but we still had to walk some.

Midnight Rambles

Even though the time was nearing midnight, walking didn’t sound like a problem, as long as we had a cart for the luggage.  Then we came to a set of stairs and I wasn’t really happy about that. The collapsing handle on one of the bags quit working before we ever left Dallas and would have to be carried. The condition of the sidewalks and streets suggested rolling the checked bags would also be a challenge, but I saw no other alternative.

Each of the girls grabbed a carry-on bag, leaving the larger bags to the men. Then, at the bottom of the stairs, I found a cart!  Either someone had left it or God had deposited there for my benefit. Either way we were saved. We loaded up the new cart and continued on our way.

Ayman and Bill pushed the luggage-laden cart through the obstacle course.  A few feet along the sidewalk and then down a curb.  Then a good long haul through parking areas, weaving in-between cars when necessary.  Up a curb, over a sidewalk, down a curb, across a street, up a curb and finally we could see the car.

Halting the cart, each of the fellows picked up a bag to put in the trunk. While their backs were turned, the cart took off like a rocket. I shouted and ran after the careening cart, but my shouts were lost in the other noises around us. The cart skewed off the sidewalk, fell to its side and dumped the bags into the street.

A couple of pilgrims watched from afar. You’d have thought they were watching moss grow on a stone for all the reaction the cart and I got. Bill and Ayman looked at me as if the bags strewn in the middle of the street were somehow my fault. All I could think of was the bottles of scotch.  You do remember the scotch, don’t you? Would my suitcases be full of glass shards and alcohol-soaked clothes?

We’ll find out together. Come back next week for my first impressions of Cairo outside the airport.

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Lost in a Sea of Pilgrims

Will we ever make it out of the airport?

TRAVEL THERE: AIRPORT ANXIETY

So, we’ve landed at the Cairo Airport.  We’ve been through Customs and found all our luggage in baggage claim.  We should be fine right?  Well, I certainly would have guessed that to be true, but instead Bill and I are standing outside the terminal, in a huge crowd of people, many of whom look like they are dressed in togas.  I’m wondering where the riot squad is.  Were all my security fears going to come true in the first hour I was in Egypt?

Dismay and Distress

There Bill and I stood, trying to stay connected to each other and to our luggage cart, while being knocked about by the press of the crowd.  Part of me was worried about mundane things like pickpockets, but another part was trying to understand what was going on.  The toga-dressed people and their friends didn’t actually seem threatening, but I couldn’t understand a word they were saying.

What if we inadvertently angered someone?  Would the crowd turn on us?  And where were Mirette and Ayman?  Had Bill given them the right information and confirmed they’d be there?  Had something happened to prevent them coming?

Bill has a gift for appearing calm in a crisis, even when he’s exploding inside.  Like me he’d missed the crowd at first, but he’d continued to overlook it until we were in the middle of it.  Had I realized how worried he was, I would have been even more concerned.  Just when I was ready to hail a cab, our family members found us.

Instant Relief

I’m not quite sure where they came from but suddenly my niece and her husband were there. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so glad to see anyone, with the exception, perhaps, of Bill the two times he came home from Iraq. Once they had located us, Ayman headed off to get the car.  We were still being jostled, but we’d been found, so things didn’t seem quite so threatening.

While we waited, I tried asking Mirette what was going on with all the white outfits. She said they were pilgrims on Hajj as if that explained everything, but it didn’t.  Even I knew the Hajj was taken to Mecca, which is in Saudi Arabia, not Egypt. Something was getting lost in translation.

Why would people on a plane from Saudi Arabia be coming TO Egypt for the Hajj at Easter time? No one could ever tell me.  They just kept patiently explaining the pilgrims were on Hajj, as if that was the definitive answer. Once I got home, I tried Google and Wikipedia, but could find no straight-forward answers.

I’m probably on some watch list by now.  Not only was I in Egypt while this pilgrimage was going on, I was also there for the Pope’s visit.  Since I got back, I’ve been googling every question I could think of to figure it all out.

I educated myself on traditional ihram clothing, which is the toga-like outfit worn by the pilgrims.  I satisfied myself April was not the date for Hajj this year or for any of the major Muslim holidays, for that matter.  I found out pilgrimages taken at times other than Hajj are something called Umrah and I finally found some Umrah locations in Egypt.  Most of what I found when I Googled were travel packages available for Hajj and Umrah, but all of them that I read sounded like a travelogue for people who already know why they are going.  Nothing there to explain exactly what was going on.

So come back next week and find out our other adventures at the Cairo Airport.  Since I’m here writing this blog post we obviously made it out, but not until after a little more craziness.

 

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Touchdown in Cairo

Niece Mirette and her husband, Ayman

TRAVEL THERE:  LET THE CRAZINESS BEGIN

It was a late night arrival in Cairo, so the activity inside the terminal was actually pretty calm.  A flight arrived from Saudi Arabia about the same time as ours, but otherwise customs and baggage claim was empty.  Preoccupied with my own arrival I wasn’t really focused on other passengers, but it was clear we were in the Middle East.  

What’s With the Guys Wearing Towels?

In the terminal, hajibs and galabeyas were more frequent than blue jeans and yoga pants, but one guy really got my attention.  To my uninformed eye, it looked as if he were dressed for a toga party.  His white garment came to about mid-calf and had been torn all the way around the bottom.  The texture was towel-like and it appeared one shoulder might be bare.  Something like a a shawl was pinned around his other shoulder. He was definitely wearing shower shoes, but whatever the reason for his outfit, staring would be rude, so I kept my eyes down.

Islamic Pilgrim Wear

If there had only been one guy like that, I might have forgotten about it in the hustle and bustle, but I began to realize there were a lot of men wearing variations of the same thing.  Some ‘togas’ were longer than others. Some men had both shoulders wrapped.  One hem would look freshly torn with ratty looking strings hanging around the bottom, while another hem would be so smooth I wondered whether it were torn at all.

There were also variations in the textures of the garments.  The first ‘toga’ I had spied looked like a laundry mistake.  If you’ve ever washed a few towels and then discovered them still in the washer several days later – damp, wrinkled and soured – then you know what I mean.  I didn’t get close enough to smell him, of course, but that’s what it looked like.  He was the anomaly in the crowd, but there were other subtle differences.  While some had the lush looped-terry of a luxury hotel’s complimentary robe, a few had the even more exclusive look of a waffle-woven linen hand-towel  No loops there.

Please understand, I’m making all these observations out of the corner of my eye or from under lowered eyelids.  I didn’t want to appear to be a gawking tourist, even if that was exactly what I was.  I started trying to figure out if this was totally a male thing and I was able to ascertain very quickly it was.  The women wore traditional galabeyas and hajibs, and most were of the gloved, head-to-toe, black variety  mentioned in my initial blog about this trip.  Days later, I would begin to realize there were women dressed in simple white variations of this head-to-toe manner, traveling with some of the men, but if they were at the airport I missed them.

I kept quiet and kept my eyes to myself as much as I could, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the deal was.  Did an entire group of conventioneers get their luggage stolen and this was the best the hotel could offer?  Your imagination does weird things in a vacuum of information.

Where are Mirette and Ayman?

Step-by-step we made it through customs and retrieved our luggage.  We were almost out of the terminal, but with the exception of professional drivers holding signs, we hadn’t seen anyone greeting our fellow arrivals.  Just outside the sidewalk was busy with people cuing up for cabs.

Have you ever looked around a place, trying to get your bearings and missed the most obvious thing.  I was looking so hard to find my niece or her husband, that I missed a wild cacophony right in front of me.  When I finally got my bearings, I started to wonder if I was about to get caught up in a riot.

On the other side of a thoroughfare filled with cabs was a huge crowd.  Many of the men had on the togas I had noticed inside the terminal.  Bill headed across the street and I followed him, wondering if he’d even noticed the rowdy crowd.  They weren’t rowdy in a soccer fan kind of way, it was more purposeful and less emotional, but nonetheless quite loud.  What a kaleidoscope of sight and sound to begin our sojourn in Egypt!

I’ll tell you about it next week.

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Back From the Brink

More Egypt Every Wednesday

TRAVEL HERE:  YOUR LOCAL TRAVELER RETURNS

Jane!  Where Have You Been?

I know!  You’ve been wondering what happened to me.  Well, as always, that’s a long story, but I’m digging out from under it.  By now you’ve probably figured out my recent trip to Egypt is filling up my Wednesday posts – and that’s going to continue for a while.  What a rich experience it was!  A third world country from the balcony of five star hotels!  I’m blogging as fast as I can, but I’m already writing posts for September and I’m only two days into the trip!

Back at home, Travel Here disappeared some time in August with only a few exceptions since.  I didn’t quit having Dallas adventures.  I just didn’t have time to tell you about them.  Travel Bug Tales?  October was the last time the younger me had a chance to share her travel tid-bits.  (Hangs head in shame.) I’m guessing it will be a week or two before I’m able to kickstart my Friday blogs, but they’ll be back.

Fun at GHM

Unintentionally Immersive Global Experience

The truth is it took me almost a year to figure out that I can’t do everything.  I took a part-time volunteer position at Global Heart Ministries.  I should have known better, because I don’t do NO well.  I thought I might be able to blog a little bit for them and maybe help out with their volunteers.

Well, I did that and their newsletter and e-news and video shoots and special events and brochures and database – get the picture?  Truth is I overdid for them.  It’s a wonderful ministry and they desperately need all the help they can get, but after approaching a serious case of almost insanity, I had to realize I couldn’t single-handedly meet all their needs.  I had to take a deep breath and just say…well, I didn’t exactly say no.

I couldn’t go cold turkey on Central Asians after I fell in love with them.  I’m still blogging for GHM.  A video shoot and an Azerbaijani concert are just weeks away.  I’m trying to wrap my mind around Apple technology to take over some social media tasks, but I had to hand them back the rest, so I could have a life.  Maybe someone out there is looking for a volunteer opportunity.  I’ve got just the thing and you can start immediately!

To help me take a giant step backwards, I’m only scheduled in the GHM office for staff meetings and very specific assignments.  That means I’m sitting here at my desk in Heath a whole lot more and that makes me a whole lot happier.

Memorial Day Thoughts

So today is Memorial Day, honoring those who were killed protecting our country.  I’ve noticed folks are very deliberate  this year, about pointing out the killed-in-the-line-of-duty thing.  I’m glad.  Things have gotten very imprecise with all this political correctness, inclusiveness and entitlement stuff.  We need to be reminded of the sacrifices which have been made for us, allowing us to become so persnickety.

I hope you have a very special day and that you do take a moment to remember how privileged we are here in America.  The world is having one tragedy after another – some initiated by man and others by nature.  We’re not being very nice to each other, either.  It’s a rare day when one of my “friends” on social media doesn’t insult or irritate me with their political breast-beating.  While it would be nice if America did become great again, I’d be satisfied if we were just a little more tactful and sensitive towards one another.

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Happy at Heathrow

Lunch at Huxley’s

TRAVEL THERE: A DEFINITELY DELIGHTFUL LAYOVER

No matter how pleasant an Atlantic-crossing flight may be, I need a break when it’s over.  Hanging out in an airport may not be the most fun I can have, but it can be some fun – and this time it was.  It had been a while since I’d been to Heathrow and I have nothing but nice things to say about it.

Welcome to Heathrow

Our bags were checked through to Cairo, which was a blessing, but we had to change terminals.  That’s never fun.  At Heathrow that means you take a bus to the first terminal, follow the purple signs forever, take another bus to the other terminal and get delivered to a skillfully-organized dime-dropping opportunity.

After our brisk walk following the purple signs, I was ready for lunch.  We arrived in the departure lounge and were a bit overwhelmed.  This place is a shopper’s paradise and they have some pretty good food, too.  After checking out the possibilities at the terminal map, we made our way to a place that sounded sort of pub-ish.

My Post Fish & Chips Grin

Hungry at Huxley’s

One nice thing about Heathrow was their choice of restaurants.  You weren’t stuck with your usual food court choices.  I was craving authentic fish and chips, so we made our way to Huxley’s, described on the Heathrow website this way: 

“With its handsome dark-wood chequerboard floor and leather banquette seating, Huxleys could pass for a new-wave gastropub, but the menu has no such pretensions. Expect simple compilations of the best ingredients: slow cooked pork belly, old English pork sausages and 21 day aged steak. Thick-cut sandwiches, pie and mash, all-day breakfasts, beer battered fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding continue the British theme. “

I had to look no further than front and center on the menu to figure out what I wanted and Huxley’s did not disappoint.  The British Classic was everything my taste buds had been craving – and the minted peas?  Marvelous!  Bill had some sort of sandwich and a beer.  I wanted a beer, but I opted for a diet soda instead.  I was still trying to watch my weight at that point and I was busting the calorie budget with my beer-battered fish.

As we waited for our food to be served we observed what others were having and admired something called an Eton Mess as it was delivered to another table.  Fresh strawberries, crushed meringue, whipped cream and ice cream.  What was there not to like?  We toyed with the idea of finishing our meal with the same, but there was no room in the tummy after I inhaled all the gorgeous fish and chips.

Let’s Go Shopping

To me, the star of the shopping mall was Harrod’s.  Not only is it a British classic, the space it occupied was spectacular.  I saw at least six things that I wanted to come home with me before I even entered the shop.

Bill was attracted to the duty-free shopping.  That’s where he discovered that I had been right about the Jack Black Scotch.  We could have bought it for a great price at the airport and not had to sacrifice pounds in our luggage.

There was another little shop that represented another brand now associated with all things British.  I’m not a Hogwart fan, but I had to take this picture for Hannah Beth.  We were able to enjoy both floors of the Heathrow Terminal 5 shopping opportunity before they posted our gate on the departure monitors, but we managed to keep the credit cards in our pockets.

I caught up on my travel journal – it’s always quite detailed in the beginning, but by the end of the trip I’m not such a faithful diarist.  I wandered around a bit, trying to take advantage of this chance to stretch my legs.  I also made my pre-boarding potty stop.  That’s when I found this guy biding me farewell and  I couldn’t resist capturing him for you.

Our flight was called and we boarded.  Come back next week for our exciting arrival in Cairo!

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Grateful for the Yawn Factor

Picture from aa.com

TRAVEL THERE: BLISSFULLY BORING FLIGHTS

I’m of the opinion that travel is more interesting if there are problems.  “Everything was perfect,” might make for a great vacation, but you could bore your friends to death with that kind of travelogue.  Lost luggage, crazy GPS instructions and rude hotel clerks make better copy.  Hopefully, I won’t put you to sleep today, but our travel to Egypt was without incident.  That all changed once we got to Cairo, but that’s for later.

I Flew on American and I Liked It

This may not be a newsworthy item for you, but it was for me.  I’ve sort of hated American for a long time.  For years, every travel horror story I lived through began with, “I was on an American flight…”  I carried that anti-American chip on my shoulder for a long time, but in recent years I noticed that other airlines were doing their part to be as awful as I thought American was.

Most recently that was Lufthansa.  I’d always counted them on my favorites list, but then I flew them to Frankfurt.  The plane rattled so much I thought it was made out of Tinker-Toys.  Bill claims the flight wasn’t that bad, but if I hadn’t been sitting next to him, I would think he must have been on another plane.  Bottom line, I could no longer say my worst flights were American.

My other problem with American had to do with Love Field and the Wright Amendment.  As a Dallasite, I love Southwest Airlines and Love Field.  The Wright Amendment tied the hands and feet of both, in favor of DFW, and I didn’t like it.  I also loved Legend Air, which was a Love Field underdog that I maintain was run out of business by American.  I’m always for the underdog.  I go out of my way to avoid Walmart.  I won’t buy anything on Amazon.  I hate most chain restaurants, too.

This American flight snuck up on me.  (Yes, I know snuck isn’t really a word, but I like it better than sneaked.)  I wasn’t the one to make the reservations and I thought we were flying British Airways.  It wasn’t until a few days before the flight, when I was researching baggage allowances, that I realized my British Airways flight was going to be on American.  By then it was too late to do anything about it and I knew Bill was tired of hearing American Airlines Hysteria.  I just lived with the revelation.

A Brand Spanking New 777

So we got to the airport, parked our car, rode the shuttle to the terminal and checked our luggage curbside.  It was easy.  It was a late-night flight, so the airport was pretty boring.  We had a nice chat with a lady in the L’Occitane En Provence store.  In fact, she sensed my concern and we actually prayed together.  Finally it was time to board.

Let me tell you, our plane was so new I think it just rolled off the assembly line.  Nothing rattled.  Everything was pristine.  There were bells and whistles I hadn’t even thought to wish for – and we were in economy.  Even the food was decent.  I watched a couple of movies.  I was even able to sleep!

So, American Airlines, I know you weren’t losing any sleep over my grudge against you, but I want you to know it’s over now.  I can easily say my best flight ever was on American.  Singapore Air still holds my best-food-on-an-airline award, but the shepherd’s pie on American’s return flight was pretty decent.  (BTW Sing Air, I liked your old paint job better.  This new one is boring.)

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