Sipping Vashon: Wine, cider and more just 20 minutes by ferry from Seattle


Garden tasting area at Palouse Winery

No time for a getaway to California wine country this spring?  How about spending a day of sipping in the sunshine on an island just 20 minutes by ferry from Seattle?

Locals call Vashon Island the "Heart of the Sound" for its location midway between Seattle and Tacoma. Once known for its strawberry and blueberry farms, it's now home to a cluster of boutique wineries, cideries and breweries, with picnic areas and  views that invite lingering on lazy weekend afternoons.

Fuel up with breakfast in town at the Snapdragon Bakery and Cafe, loved by locals for its  plate-sized pastries, or pick up lunch- to-go at the Saturday farmers market. Then map out a route using the suggestions at SipVashon.com  

If you're up for biking up the long hill into town from the ferry dock, leave the car at home. Otherwise, appoint a designated driver, or sip sparingly and stagger tastings with visits to the islands many art studios, nurseries and farm stands.




Depending on your timing, you could begin or end the day at Palouse Winery,  closest to the ferry dock. Cars lined the street and filled a small parking on the Saturday afternoon my husband and I stopped by. 

A sunny patio with high tables crafted from barrels leads to a small tasting room stocked with wine casks. Visitors are invited to sample refreshing whites and bold reds, sold only here, through the winery's wine club or at island restaurants. 


Palouse Winery tasting room 

Owners George and Linda Kirkish source their grapes from vineyards east of the Cascade mountains in the Rattlesnake Hills, Columbia Valley and Horse Heaven Hills AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) to produce 1,500 cases per year of mostly single vineyard, single varietal wines. 

We wandered into a back garden overlooking the Puget Sound  to relax over a glass of Dog Day Chardonnay, a crisp white dedicated to the winery's dogs, with a portion of profits benefiting the Vashon Island Pet Protectors. www.vipp.org  CQ 

Nearby is Vashon Winery  where owner Ron Irvine,  a founding partner of the Pike and Western Wine shop in Seattle's Pike Place Market, directs tastings in what he calls a "garagiste" winery, a moniker used in Bordeaux, France to describe garage-size wineries that make wines without owning their own vineyards.  


Ron Irvine
Look for the landmark red barn where Irvine produces just 600 cases of wine, much of it made with "cool climate" grapes he buys from vineyards on Vashon, and others around the Puget Sound. Four wines and a vintage cider made from European cider apples are usually available.  


Vashon Winery

Devoted to hard ciders made from apples and perry, an alcoholic beverage made with fermented pears, are Dragon's Head Cider and Nashi Orchards

Nashi (named for a type of pear cultivated in Japan) plans to move its tasting room in mid-June to a new location closer to the center of  town (marked on the map), but until then, visitors can try its ciders and perry at its location off Wax Orchard Road at the south end of the island. Here, owners Jim Gerlach and Cheryl Lubert grow Asian and European pears and heirloom apples on 27 acres they purchased 15 years ago that happened to come with 300 Asian pear trees. 


Cheryl Lubert in the Nashi orchard

Using what they grow locally as well as purchase from other orchards, they produce 10 varieties of cider and eight types of perry including an aged heirloom draft cider available in growlers, and a delicate Flora Perry, a blend of Asian pears, Jonathan apples and quince.  
Laura and Wes Cherry, owners of Dragon's Head Cider, turned their hobby into a business when they moved to Vashon from Queen Anne in 2010 with the goal of making a lifestyle change for their family, and a dream of  starting a cidery. 

The former tech industry workers began planting English and French cider apples on 30 acres of former strawberry fields. Today they grow about 35 percent of the fruit used to make the ciders and perry they sell at the farmers market and at their orchard tasting room.  


Karen Jensen pours perry at Dragon's Head Cider

Bring a picnic (blankets provided) or linger while lounging on a hammock next to a shady pond. Dogs and kids are welcome (they just can't taste). There's usually something on offer at the orchard that's not available elsewhere. The day we visited, it was a dry, champagne-style sparkling perry made with seedling pears likely harvested from trees planted by the island's early homesteders.   

In the center of town, two family-friendly breweries, both with patios and indoor tap rooms, offer alternatives for beer geeks. Both serve food, making either convenient for a late afternoon stop before heading back to Seattle.

The newest is Camp Colvos Brewing  with a dog and kid-friendly tap room in a former 1955 Shell gas station. The brewery was four years in the making for Vashon resident Matt Lawrence and his team who named their venture after Colvos Passage, the tidal strait running between Vashon and the Kitsap Peninsula, and then threw in the word "camp" just for fun.

On tap are several IPAs, a Belgian pale ale, and my favorite, the Up Town Porter. Most beers are available to go in "crowlers," 32-ounce sealed aluminum cans, the equivalent of a half-growler. Camp Colvos also serves beef, ham and cheese and curried vegetable savory pies made by Island Queen across the street.

A five-minute walk from Colvos is the Vashon Brewing Community Pub. Cliff Goodman left his daily ferry commute and accounting career to start Vashon Brewing in 2011. He opened the pub last year as a family-friendly community gathering space with live music, trivia and open mic nights. 

Goodman uses locally-sourced barley, seasonal fruits and other ingredients, adding a fermentation enzyme to reduce the gluten. Current brews include a Hibiscus Sour, made with a wild lactobacillus culture created at the brewery, and a Summer Perle Kölsch brewed with Pilsen, Pale and Vienna malts from Skagit Valley Malting.


If you go:

Just 13 miles long and eight miles wide, Vashon Island has 45 miles of shoreline. Get there via a 20-minute ferry ride from West Seattle aboard the Washington State Fauntleroy/Vashon ferry.  A walk-on water taxi operates on weekdays.  

Best times to visit are Saturdays and Sundays when tasting rooms are open in the afternoons. Call ahead for appointments on other days. See SipVashon.com for a map showing locations and hours.


Dragon's Head ciders at the Farmers Market

Vashon is home to dozens of small family farms and nurseries. Find local products, crafts and plants at the Vashon Island Farmers Market, 17519 Vashon Hwy SW, Saturdays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at Vashon Village Green. Many farm stands around the island are open during the growing season.


For visitor information, contact the Vashon Maury Island  Chamber of Commerce 

This story appeared in the Seattle Times on Sunday, June 9.



Travel to Cuba: Yes, You can still go


One of Havana's vintage taxis

Once again, average Americans are the ones who will suffer by the Trump Administration's efforts to beat foreign governments into submission with erratic changes in economic policies.

This time, it's not tariffs, but travel restrictions putting a halt to popular cruises and people-to-people group tours in Cuba, after years of surging demand.

The reason, according to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, "is to hold the regime accountable for its repression of the Cuban people and its support of the Maduro regime in Venezuela." 

Yeah, sure. 

Given the fact that Orange One seems to have no problem cozying up to world leaders with human rights records far worse than Cuba (North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Hungary, Turkey, the UAE, Egypt etc.), we can only surmise this is a political move designed to win Florida in 2020. 

The good news is that new restrictions, announced by the U.S. Treasury Department this  week, will make it harder for Americans to legally travel to Cuba, but not impossible. While cruises and people-to-people group tours made travel to the island easy and hassle-free, there's a chance that better and less expensive opportunities await for those with the patience to delve a little deeper. 

Americans still can go to Cuba for family visits, official U.S. government business, journalistic activities, professional research and meetings; educational activities (such as those from U.S. academic institutions and secondary schools); religious activities; humanitarian projects, and perhaps most important for average travelers: trips organized around support for the Cuban people. 

Trips that fall into that category require travelers to take more responsibility if they decide to travel to Cuba, such as having evidence of staying at privately-owned bed and breakfasts, eating at privately-owned restaurants, shopping in privately-owned stores, visiting art galleries and interacting with locals on a meaningful level,  Sarah Arizaga, of Cuban Adventures, told USA Today. The company’s tours are already compliant with the condition about support for the Cuban people, she said. 

The U.S. government can ask for documentation of such activities for up to five years, but there are no requirements that travelers apply for a special visa or give any notification to the government in advance.

For independent travelers interested in making their own arrangements, companies such as Viahero.com can help plan a trip for $30-$40 per day.

Keep in mind that "The Support for the Cuban People" category requires that you adhere to a full-time schedule of activities that support the Cuban people. It means avoiding staying in big hotels banned by the US State Department because of the fees the government and military collect.

The truth is that this has always been the best way to travel in Cuba, and it's the way most Europeans and South Americans visit. 

Some of the U.S.-based people-to-people tours were costing as much as $500 a day, with much of the money going to the Cuban government for licensing fees and government-approved guides and buses. 

Cruise companies also paid big fees while doing little to help ordinary Cuban people since passengers mostly eat and sleep aboard the ships.

In that respect, the Trump Administration is right to say that curtailing these types of group trips will deny the government and military badly needed foreign currency. On the other hand, it may mean that the U.S travelers who decide to go to Cuba under the new rules could end up having a more authentic experience.


Local transportation
I visited Cuba a few years ago, partly on an organized tour and partly on my own, and found through my reporting that most of the commercial tours involved a relatively closed circle of architects, performers, economists and performers who cycle through American tour groups. Traveling on my own, staying in people's homes, hiring local guides, and eating in locally-owned restaurants was far more rewarding. I was surprised to find, for instance, that most of the people I knew who went on tours never made it to La Coppelia, an outdoor Disneyland of ice cream who Cubans line up for hours just to get in and indulge in five or ten dishes in one sitting. 


La Coppelia, a Havana landmark



Getting to Cuba is still relatively easy. The U.S. government so far is continuing to allow commercial flights, eliminating the need for expensive charters. Alternatively, Air Canada and Cubana Air offer daily commercial flights into Havana (Air Canada from Canadian cities, Cubana from Cancun and Mexico City) that can be booked and paid for online or through travel agents. 

TripAdvisor offers hundreds of reviews for Cuban hotels and bed and breakfasts (called cases paticulares), offering what may be the best way to interact with Cuban people. Cuba Junky, a long-time and reliable online agency for Cuban travel, provides booking services. Some casa owners even have Facebook profiles. Airbnb lists more than 800 casas on its website. It charges a booking fee which may be worth of the convenience of booking online and paying for the reservation with a credit card.  



Our homestay in Vinales
On our visit to Cuba, my husband and I took a bus three hours from Havana to the rural community of Vinales, a UNESCO site known for its national park, limestone cliffs and traditional farms harvesting tobacco and corn. Scenic hikes and cave explorations await, but the best reason we could find to come to Vinales was to stay in a casa particular.

I looked over reviews on TripAdvisor, then made an online booking at Casa Papo y Niulvys. They requested no deposit, only asked that I call the day before to reconfirm. 

Papo met us at the bus stop on his bike, and we walked to the peach-colored house the couple built few years ago on what was a vegetable garden next door to his parents. Niulvys was a gracious and talkative hostess, and a great cook. 

We paid $20 per night for the bright, spacious room below, with windows overlooking the garden, AC and a private bathroom. A breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, toast, juice, coffee and cereal was an extra $4 each. Dinners (lobster one night, chicken the next) were another $8. Add a couple of Papo's pre-dinner Mojitos spiked with fresh mint from the garden, and we paid around $50 a night for the room, breakfast, drinks and dinner.

I do feel for the thousands of cruise ship passengers who had trips scheduled. The cruise lines usually reserve the right to change itineraries for any reason, so chances are they will do this. It's really to early to know what the full impact will be.

In the meantime, if you were thinking about a trip to Cuba, don't give up hope. Consider going under the "Support the Cuban People" license. There are options out there already, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of the major people-to-people group tour organizers don't quickly reconfigure their itineraries to comply. 

Responsible Travel: Focus on interactions rather than transactions


Uzbekistan: People are the best part of travel 

Radical Travel is the theme of the summer issue of YES! magazine, a national publication based in Seattle focused on peace, social justice, the environment and the new economy.

I contributed two pieces to the current issue, out on newsstands on June 1 and available here by digital download. All of the suggestions that follow are based on personal experiences, leading me to believe that people are the most important part of travel.

Here's my take on how to substitute interactions for transactions when you travel, and find ways to support the local economy. 



Three ways to travel that build real relationships. Interactions, not transactions:

* Share a meal with a local through Eatwith.com and Mealsharing.com, web sites that connect travelers with people who love to entertain. Dine on red bean soup with egg noddles in the home of a filmmaker in Budapest; feast on vegetarian lasagna while soaking up canal views from a houseboat in Amsterdam; or gather for a rooftop brunch of artichokes and orange salmon in Barcelona. Prepare to linger over wine and conversation with your host and other guests. Eight other guests and I recently stayed past midnight sharing food, wine and conversation in the home of a French journalist covering the Yellow Vest protests in Paris. 


*Host other travelers or be a guest in more than 2,000 households in 48 states and 50 countries by joining the Affordable Travel Club, a Washington State-based hospitality exchange group for people over 40. More personal and less commercial than Airbnb, the club arranges for hosts to offer an extra bedroom, breakfast and a hour of their time to acquaint travelers to the area. 


*Discover what natives love about their city by spending time with a Global Greeter , volunteers who act not as guides, but as new friends in U.S. and foreign cities. I recently spent a delightful day with Valerie, 42, a volunteer with Lyon City Greeters, wandering through the city's network of underground passages, then sampling oysters and white wine at a Sunday market. 


Tea in Seoul with a volunteer goodwill guide

Also...Seek out organizations that arrange walking tours with university students and others who want to practice their English. Saigon Hotpot  sets up city tours, meals in students' homes and street food tours in Ho Chi Minh City. In Seoul, South Korea, English-speaking volunteers organize city-sponsored walking tours to local markets, parks, traditional neighborhoods and areas  showcasing futuristic architecture. 


At lunch with Saigon Hotpot students

Join a local meet-up group where locals go to practice their English, or search Couchsurfing.com to find people interested in meeting for coffee or a meal. My husband and I  remain in touch with the two Peace Corps workers we met for dinner in Albania one evening through Couchsurfing.




Three ways to support local economies:

*Lodge locally: Sleep where your dollars make a difference by staying in independently-owned hotels, small inns and home stays rather than chain hotels. Look for hotels that partner with non-profit organizations to train and employ disadvantaged youth. Guidebooks focused on sustainable travel, such as the Responsible Travel Guide to Cambodia, can help with suggestions, such as booking a room at the Robam Inn in Siem Reap whose owners returned to start the business after taking refuge in Canada during the Khmer Rouge regime.


Tashkent bread market: Buy locally 

*Spend intentionally: Eat and shop at places dedicated to fair trade. Consult listings on the World Fair Trade Organization's website. Explore beyond tourist areas where small entrepreneurs can't always afford the high rents. This is how I found Belil, an art gallery and cafe in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, selling textiles made by a women's weaving cooperative with whom the owners work to create modern designs.


Local textiles in San Cristobal, Mexico 

*Tour responsibly: Use local guides who can offer insights into the culture as well as sightseeing. University students working for tips often guide tours listed on Freetour.com, a website that offers group walks in dozens of cities worldwide. Global Exchange,  a San Francisco-based  human rights organization, sponsors "Reality Tours''  focused on relationship-building and promoting local economies. An upcoming trip to Palestine will include home stays with farmers during the fall olive harvest, and visits with fair trade cooperatives on the West Bank.

Also...In countries where sex-tourism and child labor is a concern, look for hotels and other businesses with ChildSafe certification.



Aswan: Arriving by boat to a Nubian village in the middle of the Nile



Elephantine Island


Aswan, Egypt - Our boatman meets us at the dock just below the KFC on the Aswan corniche for a trip to our Airbnb on an island between the east and west banks of the Nile. Within 15 minutes, we’re transported from a busy waterfront where cruise ships are moored five deep to a rural village where the river feeds fertile farm land surrounded by desert.

This is Nubia, a region along the Nile between southern Egypt and Khartoum in Sudan, one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Africa. Descending from just two main families are the 2,000 residents of Elephantine Island. The only way to get here is via a two-minute ride across the river on a beat-up public ferry, or for those with luggage, by private motorboats or graceful sailboats called feluccas. 

Our hosts at the Nubian Lotus, one of about 20 guesthouses on the island, are Osama Edfawy, a Nubian who grew up here, and his wife, Marta D’Arcangelo, born in a small village in Italy. One day while Marta was working on an Islamic art history project at a local museum, she met Osama when she took a walk on the island and stopped to take his picture. They married six months after. Twelve years and two children later, they offer visitors loding in a house that took them four years to build on a hill above the banks of the Nile. Everything, from sacks of cement to wooden doors, comes in by boat, and has to be carried into the village by hand or on donkeys. 


The Nubian Lotus


Breakfast with a view

Our mornings begin with an Egyptian breakfast on our balcony or on the rooftop of their two-story home. Osama and Marta take turns making a big batch of ful - a hearty dish made with Fava beans grown on their farm - accompanied by a soft, white cheese, pita bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, a hard-boiled egg and coffee. 


Osama and his son on the way to school

Osama walks his boys, ages 7 and 9, to the ferry each morning around 6:30 a.m. where they take the boat, then a bus on the other side to a school that specializes in teaching foreign languages. They already speak Italian at home, Arabic with their friends and are learning English, French and German. 


It’s less than a mile from one end of the island to another, so there are no road or cars. Dirt paths like this one lead to mud brick or brightly-painted stucco houses, and also to a five-star resort where we walked one afternoon for pizza and beer. . Gardens and farms are irrigated by water pumped from the Nile into canals that flow through the village, creating swaths of lush greenery surrounded by sand. 

Many people travel as far as Aswan, hoping to experience the Nubian culture before the start of a Nile cruise to Luxor. But they leave disappointed when they encounter touts in the souk or taxi and horse carriage drivers who are just as aggressive as those in Luxor. 

Selling bread in the souk

Aswan used to have a reputation of being more laid back than other parts of Egypt, or at least that’s what the guide books would have you believe, but that changed when tourism collapsed and everyone became more desperate. The exception is the island where villagers still seemed interested in striking up a conversation more out of curiosity than wanting to sell a service. 

A main reason people come to Aswan is to visit the temples of Abu Simbel, carved out of a mountainside in the 13th century BC, during the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II. Threatened with submersion during the creation of Lake Nasser, a massive artificial reservoir formed after the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, the entire complex was relocated to an artificial hill a few hundred feet higher to keep it from flooding. To get to the temples, we arranged for a driver to take us 140 miles across the desert, a three-hour trip through the middle of nowhere, except for a few mirages and the “truck stop” pictured below where our driver pulled over so we could get something to drink.

Desert truck stop


It’s faster to fly, but we had the time for the drive which came with the luxury of giving us as much time as we wanted to explore. It turned out that most of the bus tours go every early in the morning to avoid the heat, so by the time we arrived around 10 a.m., there was hardly anyone around.  It was amazing to think about how engineers dismantled the temples stone by stone, and put back all the statues back together again in the exact same way. 


Abu Simbel




Another attraction in Aswan is the Old Cataract Hotel, built in 1889 by Thomas Cook for European travelers taking Nile cruises. Agatha Christie set portions of her novel Death on the Nile here. So many people want to vist that the hotel requires non-guests to buy $15 vouchers to for food or drinks in one of the bars or restaurants. I was put off at first, then decided to look at it as the price of admission to a museum, a bargain considering we had two refreshing mocktails, bottled water and a salad on the terrace overlooking the Nile.

The Old Cataract Hotel 



Drinks on the terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel


That’s a wrap for Egypt. We’re glad we made the trip, not just for the amazing antiquities we saw, but for the people we met along the way.  That’s always the best part of travel.


New friends in Aswan


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Luxor: When life gives you lemons...Offer one to a visitor





Luxor, in Egypt’s Nile Valley, is like an open-air museum - not just for its temples and tombs built more than 3,000 years ago by the ancient pharaohs - but for its people-watching. In between visiting the sites, we’ve enjoyed getting a taste of local life by riding the public ferry several times a day from the West Bank of the Nile where we’re staying, to the East Bank, the location of Luxor Temple and most of the bigger hotels, shops and restaurants. 


Morning rush hour


Luxor Temple





It’s fascinating seeing the families gather for picnics and conversation around  Luxor Temple lighted at night, and watching vendors in the souks hawk scarves and spices to tourists and lemons to locals. I can’t get enough of the men in their turbans and the school children in their uniforms riding the ferry back and forth like a school bus. There are many women out and about, riding the ferry, shopping etc., but virtually all the shopkeepers, tour guides, waiters, hotel clerks, hotel “maids,” etc. are men. We had three female tour guides in Cairo, and saw some female taxi drivers, but none here in Luxor. This is conservative, rural Upper Egypt, and women traditionally do not work outside the home, at least in these types of jobs. 



Ferry commuter

Our Egyptian/German-owned Hotel Nakhil is on the quieter residential West Bank, tucked away on a dirt street in a neighborhood filled with small children who love high-fiving us, and saying “Hello” in English and “What’s your name,?” then giggling when we ask theirs. We’re settled in nicely, but  arriving here at night from the train station was a challenge. 

Hotel Nakhil on the West Bank of Luxor

The hotel owners told us it was an easy walk to the ferry dock, then a short walk from the dock to the hotel - all true- except for the time it took to dodge all the pushy touts and taxi drivers wanting to give us a ride or find us another hotel. We made it to the ferry, along with two German travelers on our same train, after dragging our suitcases past the temple and down some steps in time to catch the boat just before it was leaving. It’s not unusual to see locals jump one or two feet onto the boat from the dock to catch it before it leaves. One guy jumped on holding a bicycle in one arm. I couldn’t imagine doing this with my suitcase. The alternative is to wait until the next ferry fills with passengers, usually only 10-15 minutes, or take a private boat across, sometimes for the same fare (25 cents) or just a little more.

The public ferry crossing the Nile in Luxor

Wandering through the markets both here and in Cairo, I saw slabs of fresh meat hanging from open-air stalls, a reminder for us to stick to a mostly vegetarian diet to avoid health problems. We’ve eaten chicken just twice, once in a family home and once in the Moroccan restaurant at the Sofitel in Cairo. For being such a tourist city, Luxor doesn’t have many restaurants. Most tourists eat on cruise ships or at their hotels, and Egyptians don’t really eat out.  Other than McDonald’s, and a couple of cafes serving delicious coffee milkshakes (50 cents), there’s Sofra, a charming restaurant tucked away on a street filled with storefront laundries where men do the ironing, and neighborhood mosques broadcast the call to prayer from loud speakers atop minarets ringed in colored lights.


Nile landscape


Land around the Nile is irrigated and fertile, but outside the city, Luxor is surrounded by dry, mountainous, rocky desert. Nothing grows, and only snakes and scorpions can survive. It never rains, so restaurants like Sofra sometimes use curtains instead of windows. Our favorite dishes were baked eggs with tomatoes, chili peppers and garlic; grilled vegetables; a soft, white cheese flecked with black olives, fennel and dill; and rice pudding with rose water, nuts and raisins. We ate this meal twice at Safra, along with non-alcoholic beers and mint tea. Each time the bill was around $9.


Dinner at Sofra

The Egyptians say tourism is recovering, but we’ve seen few signs that it is. Our hotel has 25 rooms, but  we were the only guests our first night, and have seen only two others since. Cruise ships are parked five deep on the river, don’t appear to have many passengers. One taxi driver told us he waited four hours in a parking lot for a fare that netted him around $2.50.

Modern Luxor grew out of the ruins of Thebes, the capital of Egypt between 1550-1069 B.C. when the pharaohs built temple to honor the mythical gods, and dug elaborate tombs for themselves deep into desert hillsides. The lack of tourists combined with unusually cool weather (70s instead of 90s) makes it an ideal time to visit. 


Luxor Temple

Under reconstruction is the Avenue of the Sphinxes, which once stretched from Luxor temple to Karnak temple, 1.2 miles away. Many of the 1,3500 sphinxes have been damaged or destroyed, but like much of the ancient statuary, many are amazingly well-preserved. Intact at the Karnak Temple is the Avenue of the Ram-Headed Sphinxes where the heads are of rams instead of humans.


Karnak Temple

Construction on tombs for the pharaohs began as soon as they were crowned king. Unlike their ancestors who built pyramids in Cairo, they tunneled directly into a desert mountain that resembled a natural pyramid in an area called Valley of the Kings.

Valley of the Kings

The last major discovery here was the tomb of Tutankhamen, discovered in 1922. It’s a small tomb, built in a hurry for a young king who died suddenly. All of the treasures buried with him have been moved to museums. We were able to go inside by paying an extra fee while visiting three other tombs in the area. On display was his mummified body, not something I really cared to see or photograph. More interesting were the amazingly preserved paintings and carvings in three other tombs, decorated using paints made from egg yoke and other natural substances.

Tomb interior

We’re now on our way up the Nile to Aswan, a Nubian city close to the border with Sudan, and our last stop in Egypt. Instead of taking a river cruise, we opted to arrange a car and driver through our hotel, and cruise the backroads instead. To do so, we had to register ourselves and the trip with the police, then follow a route that passes through small villages with police checkpoints.


Coffee with our driver, Kaleb

We’ve been chatting along the way with our driver, Kaleb, while he dodges donkey carts and trucks piled with bananas and surger  cane. Scenes of palm trees and lush farmland along the Nile alternate with rows of mud brick houses built into dusty desert mountain towns. At Edfu, we stopped to see the Temple of Horus, considered Egypt’s best-preserved temple, discovered just 200 years ago buried under sand and rubble and parts of the village.


Temple of Horus, Edfu

It’s easy to feel “templed-out” in Egypt, one reason we’re happy to be alternating visits to the historical sites with the chance to meet Egyptian people such as Kaleb, a father of three who grew up on the West Bank of Luxor. He speaks excellent English, which he says he learned “on the streets,” from driving tourists. I can’t imagine a more pleasant driver with whom to be spending four-plus hours in a car. Long after memories of the pharaohs fade, I’ll remember sharing tea and conversation with Kaleb.

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Cairo: Getting by with a little help from new Egyptian friends



On the train from Cairo to Luxor — “Luxor?” asks the bearded man in a blue wool pea coat and baggy stripped trousers as we hoist our suitcases up the staircase and into Cairo’s Ramses  train station. Like just about everywhere we’ve managed to go in the Cairo, we’re getting by with a lot of help from new friends.

The man points to the other side of the tracks, and walks with us to Platform 8 where Train 980 awaits. We give him a small tip, grateful once again that things are going surprisingly smoothly in what could be a journey fraught with problems. Few tourists travel independently in Egypt, and few take the trains, preferring cruises along the Nile or short flights instead.

Without help from our Uber driver who knew a back entrance to the station where we could avoid a crush of humanity trying to shove boxes and suitcases through an x-ray machine, we might still be wandering around trying to figure out how to decipher the Arabic signs. And without the help of an Egyptian acquaintance who bought our tickets ($11 for first-class seats on a 10-hour Journey) we might not be on the train at all. The reason is that the government prefers foreigners take an overnight sleeper train ($100), accompanied by tourist police, instead of the local day train. But we wanted to see the countryside, and in terms of safety, it seemed to make more sense to NOT take a train designated for tourists only. It’s not illegal, after all, for foreigners to ride the local train, it’s just that we can’t buy tickets, at least directly, a problem solved by the willingness of an Egyptian to buy them for us. 


On the train to Luxor

So here we are ready to start the second leg of a two-week trip to Egypt, surrounded mainly by men in first class, all locals with the exception of us and three travelers from Australia who managed to buy their tickets online. Allowed to board briefly before the train left the station was a woman who tossed little packets of Chicklets into our laps, then came around to collect them, and another in a black niqab making a plea in Arabic for money for her family. Our seats are worn, but comfortable. The AC works, sometimes too much. There’s no smoking in the cars, so people stand in the hallways and light up.


A bread vendor in Cairo traffic

A city of 20 million, Cairo was recently ranked the world’s most polluted city and the third-noisiest (after Guangzhoui and Delhi). WIth it’s constant traffic jams and ceaseless honking car horns, it’s not for everyone, but we’ve loved being here, from the minute we arrived at our charming little three-start hotel in the residential quarter of Zamalek (albeit at 1 a.m. because our flight was three hours late). With its art and music schools, museums, cafes and foreign embassies, Zamalek is a relatively calm oasis away from the chaos of downtown or Old Cairo, and our Longchamps Hotel is an excellent alternative to a chain hotel that even travel guru Rick Steves didn’t seem able to avoid.

The owner, Hebba  Bakri, returned from Germany 16 yeas ago to take over the hotel started by her mother in 1953. Renovated in the style of a Parisian guesthouse with antique furnishings and photos of old Cairo on the walls, Longchamps was our launch pad for five days worth of excursions around the city by foot, Uber or subway, and a home away from home when we returned from hour-long crawls through traffic. 


Zamalek

Despite what I had read about foreigners being bothered by pushy touts, we experienced none of this in Zamalek, or almost anywhere else in Cairo for that matter, with the exception of a few low-key vendors at the Giza pyramids who went on their way after a polite “No thank you.”  




Bread fresh from the underground oven

Instead, we met helpful and friendly people, such as this baker, who climbed up the stairs from an open-air oven we spotted while walking along the Nile our first afternoon. He offered us fresh loaves, then asked for us to pose with him for a selfie. WIthout a tour operator to arrange excursions, we signed on with Urban Adventures for a walking tour of downtown, a morning tour of the pyramids in Giza and an evening dinner with a family in Cairo. 

A guide from another organization called Cairo Walking Tours led us on a four-hour exploration of Coptic (Christian) Cairo and Islamic (Old) Cairo. The downtown tour took us first on the subway where I had the chance to ride in one of the female-only cars. Couples traveling together generally ride in the “mixed cars,” but women traveling alone prefer their own designated cars to avoid unwanted touching on crowded trains.


Riding the women-only subway car

Our walking tour took us past Tahrir Square, the site of mass protests that led to the Arab Spring revolution in 2011. We learned to cross streets where there are no stop or walk lights, just horns blowing contstanly as a warning that you or another car are in the way. Best advice: Walk with a group, if possible, and if in doubt that a car will stop, hold out your right arm, as if you are pushing it away. Stop often for coffee or ice cream that stretches like taffy, and try Koshary, a national one-pot dish made with pasta, rice, tomato sauce, lentils and chickpeas and doused with either garlic or hot sauce. Almost every tour includes a stop for this dish, not a big expense to include since the average price is about $1.


Tom enjoying Koshary 

I expected the 5,000-year-old pyramids at Giza to be the highlight of our stay in Cairo, and they were amazing to see, especially because our Urban Adventures guide led us in the opposite direction of all the bus tours, leading us first to the reclining Great Sphinx when no one else was around, and later to the complex of three pyramids while most others were walking towards the Sphinx. 


The Sphinx at the Giza Pyramids

What I will remember most, however, about our stay in Cairo, will be the dinner we had later that evening in the home of a Cairo couple, Reham and Ahmed, both 37, and their three children. 


Reham's feast 

Along with an English-speaking guide from Urban Adventures, we sat around their dining room table, eating chicken topped with green and red sauces; rice; grape leaves, salad and homemade babba ganoush; and chatting about everything from food and family to politics. This group mostly seemed to favor Sisi, Egypt’s secular but hard-line military leader, over Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who was elected after the revolution, then deposed a year later. Reham showed me the collection of colorful scarves she has to go with varioius outfits, then insisted that I learn how to tie one, so we could all pose for pictures. 


Dressing up with Ahmed and Reham 

Afterwards, we had tea and looked at their wedding pictures as we relaxed in the living room of the three-bedroom apartment they bought when they married 15 years ago. Not all Muslim women in Egypt wear the head scarf. Some don’t cover at all, and others wear a full niqab, a black garment that covers the face except for the eyes. Religious beliefs, not government rules, determine what whether you decide to cover or not. Like Reham, most young Muslim women seem to prefer a head scarf only, worn causally with jeans and stylish jackets or sweaters. 


Coptic priests

Islam is the main religion, but Egypt has a sizable Christian population dating to the time when Rome ruled Egypt and Alexandria was one of the world’s great Christian centers. Egyptian Christians are called Coptic Christians or Copts. They are part of the Roman Catholic Church, but as an Eastern rite,, their churches and services are different, and interesting to observe. Icons replace crosses or the crucifix, and men and women worship in separate areas. The priests wear black cassocks and round, beret-like black hats. We visted an area, called Coptic Cairo, filled with Coptic churches and also the beautiful Greek Orthodox Church of St. George.


Church of St. George

One of the Coptic churches houses the cave where scriptures refer to Jesus, Mary and Jospeh taking shelter when they fled to Egpty to escape persecution from King Herod who ordered a massacre of male infants. 


Arabic and Roman inscriptions in Cairo's "Cave Church"

One of the most interesting is the “Cave Church,” also called the Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner, carved into a mountain in an area known as “garbage city” because of its large population of garbage collectors who are also mostly Coptic Christians. Built into a pre-existing cave in the 1970s, the church looks more like a stadium and has a seating capacity of 20,000. The only way in is through garbage city where cars share a narrow street with donkey carts and trucks piled with cans, plastics and papers to be recycled.





Located in the oldest part of Cairo, called Islamic Cairo, are dozens of mosques, many of which anyone can enter. Everyone must take off their shoes, and women must cover their heads and wear skirts over pants (loaner robes are available). Inside we found men staking out nooks in which to pray or read the Koran while women tended to congregate in groups. 



Fashions in Khan-al-Khalili

Still expecting to encounter some pushy touts, we wandered into  Khan al-Khalili, a 14th century bazaar that caters mostly to tourists these days, but services locals with plenty of stalls sellling cheap clothing, food, spices and gold and silver jewelry. Perhaps it was an off-day, or it’s just that tourism in Egypt overall is still down, but the sale pitches were again surprisingly low key. We skipped coffee at FIshawi’s, a historic cafe hidden deep into the market, and instead scored a sidewalk table at Eqyptian Pancakes near the Al-Hussein Mosque where we sampled a pizza-like crispy treat filled with coconut and golden raisins and sprinkled with powdered sugar. 


Catching up on the news on the train from Cairo to Luxor

I can’t say we’ve found anything on the train as tasty, so good thing we brought along our own snacks. Time’s flying as we breeze past dusty villages and farms dotted with palm trees. It’s not the best train I’ve been on, but certainly not the worst. And spending 10 hours reading, writing and listening to podcasts beats sleeping the time away at ten times the cost.

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