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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Coming Home from Egypt

Once Linda had booked our flight from Cairo to Washington, D.C., she found us a flight from Washington to Minneapolis and we began preparing to leave.

Because of the dust that infiltrates everything in Cairo, we wrap the furniture in plastic before we leave our condo for the trip home.  We start with 50 yards of plastic.  It comes to us as a long tube about four feet wide and the first job is to unroll it and slit it to turn it into a long plastic sheet.

This year we had purchased and brought with us some "furniture bags" for the sofa and two chairs.  This simplified the process.  We also keep a number of bags to use in covering lamps, electronics and the like.  Even so, we still use most of the 50 yards of wrap.  It is a long process.

Our condo cats are going to miss us for the next nine months.  We think Grayson really wanted to come home with us.

Our Egypt Air flight was departing at 11:00 a.m. so we had a chance to head to the airport in daylight.  For some reason, most of our flights home have previously departed around midnight to 3 a.m.
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The plane was packed with about 370 passengers.  There were embassy employees rotating out and some ESL teachers who had been preparing Egyptian military for their studies in the U.S. and a general assortment of folks who were just stuck for a while.  Masks were quite common.  I rode the middle-seat for the ten and a half hour flight while Linda had the window.
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We arrived late Friday afternoon at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, just west of Washington.  Our flight to Minneapolis would not be leaving until 6:00 the next morning so we took shelter at the airport Marriot which is very close to the terminal.  What a wonderful welcome to the U.S. to see the cherry trees in full bloom just outside our room. The trees in the courtyard were as close to Washington's famous cherry blossom festival as we (or anyone else) could get since the festival was cancelled this year.

We quickly discovered that all restaurants in the hotel were closed, however, room service was available.  Unfortunately, the phones were not working - so it took a while to get our order placed and have a wonderful hamburger dinner - with bacon!!!

We took the 3:45 a.m. shuttle to the airport where we discovered that there were no large crowds.  Our tickets from Washington to Minneapolis on Delta Airlines cost only $107 each.  But we would be charged for each piece of baggage to the tune of $120.00. That called for negotiation - after all we had tickets home from Cairo on Delta which permitted two free bags for each of us. Short version of the story: we negotiated free baggage.  But we were shocked that the ticket agent, the gate agent, the flight attendants and virtually everyone in the terminal was unmasked.

With no other planes taking off and with very few passengers on our plane, we quickly departed Washington just before sunrise and in two and a half hours approached the Minnesota border.  (That peninsula in the St. Croix river is part of Kinnickinnic State Park.)  There was still a covering of snow on the ground, just as when we left.
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Once we reached home, we unpacked and examined our Egyptian purchases.  Fabric, a map, blue pyramids, some souvenir coins, a pound of coffee, a tote bag, the pillow cushion covers and, of course, eleven rolls of toilet tissue - we had heard about the shortage here while there was no shortage in Egypt.

Within a couple of days, one of our dear neighbors across the street sewed custom masks for us as a welcome home gift.

We are now halfway through our self-imposed fourteen days of isolation.

Regular blog readers, do not despair.  I still have photos, culled from the six thousand I took this year, to support a multitude of additional blog posts and will continue to post highlights of this year's Egyptian adventures over the coming days and weeks.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Stranded in Egypt (again) and the Story of the Wuhan Corona Virus

For only the second time in a decade, we found ourselves stranded in Egypt with no easy way out.

Last time, in 2011, we were observers at the Egyptian revolution overthrowing the thirty-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak.  (See blog posts beginning here.)

This time is was the Corona virus.

It is easy to lose track of how quickly things have changed in the world in the past three months.  We arrived in Cairo on January 7th for our annual 12-week escape from the Minnesota winter.  I suppose we might have noted this January 5 article from the Associated Press printed in many U.S. newspapers:

It describes a "mysterious infectious" viral pneumonia that had infected five Hong Kong residents who had visited the mainland China city of Wuhan - where another 44 people had been detected with the disease.

We had friends who would be arriving in Cairo in about ten days and we would join them for a Nile Cruise tour in the south of Egypt where we would visit the famous royal tombs at the Valley of the Kings.

On January 19, we visited the pyramids with our newly arrived friends.  Much later, when scanning some  news stories, I was struck by a photo of two of the first Americans to become infected while in Egypt.  The Palo Alto couple were sitting in about the same spot as we had been.  They became infected with the virus on a similar Nile Cruise.

Of course, almost all tourists stop and pose for a picture at the "Panorama" with the pyramids in the background.  I suppose that these seating spots are part of what is referred to when we hear that Egypt is sanitizing the pyramids.

Meanwhile, literally thousands of Chinese visitors streamed through the Golden Eagle Papyrus shop just down the block from our Cairo condo.  We and our guests also visited that papyrus shop on Jan 19.  The Chinese have been big contributors to the world tourist economy over the past ten years.  There are now over 150 million Chinese people traveling annually.  Egypt gets a good share.

It was not until January 21st that that the first Corona virus case was recorded in the U.S. - a man who had traveled to Wuhan, China.  On the next day, China internally cut off trains, planes and other links to Wuhan.

Egypt became sensitive to the virus threat and on January 26 banned all flights from China.

On January 30, we toured the Gayer Anderson Museum in Cairo with our friends.

I took that picture while we were waiting to begin our tour of the Gayer Anderson Museum.  We were waiting patiently as a group of Chinese tourists moved ahead of us.  We had been held back by the local guides, most of whom wanted to be very separated from that group.  I thought they were being overcautious, but it was the first time I had any real concern about this strange new virus.

On the next day, January 31, President Trump issued a China travel ban.

Egypt confirmed its first case of the Corona virus on February 14.

On Monday, March 16th, Egypt banned all flights in and out of Egyptian airports as of noon on Thursday March 19.  We would be staying longer than expected - we had been booked on a return flight scheduled for March 31.

A rapid process of shutdown, isolation and eventually, curfew began.

On March 21st, both the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Egypt's Orthodox Christian Church announced the halt of communal prayers and services.  The call to prayer heard five times a day throughout Egypt no longer ended with a call to come to the mosque.  Instead, it concluded with warnings to stay at home and take precautions in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Wedding reception venues closed.  A few weddings were still held - we attended one on the 23rd - but they were required to conclude by 7:00 p.m.  At the one we attended, a platoon of army personnel rolled up in armored personnel carriers at 7:00 to insure that everyone left!

A general curfew was proclaimed and enforced.

The traffic on the streets and the Ring Road disappeared at night - albeit not precisely at 7:00 P.M.

Protective measures were instituted and taken seriously.  "Elbow bumps" and "ankle taps" were in ample supply at that wedding we attended on the 23rd - although plenty of handshakes and kisses were still much in evidence.

Protective disposable gloves were supplied at the supermarket; even the shelf stockers were all wearing them.  A customer fishing cash out to hand the cashier who then counted it while also gloved was quite clumsy the first time through.

Even the sellers at the nearby "green grocer" were soon wearing masks and gloves.

People waiting in line at the ATMs were also masking up  -  even if not maintaining much social distance.

As the fifteen-day curfew and flight bans lengthened, Linda worked the phones and reservation systems to see when we might be able to get home.  April 27th was the earliest that Delta would schedule us.  That flight would go through both Italy and JFK in New York - we were not pleased with that routing.

Four more weeks in Egypt, maybe longer?  At least we had a place to stay.  And sympathetic friends were bringing us great home cooking.
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Linda also had signed us up for the State Department's STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program).  This proved fortunate.  It turned out that the U.S. Embassy was able to set up three commercial flights via Egypt Air that would go directly from Cairo to Washington D.C.  We now had an exit option.  But should we take it?

The coronavirus statistics for Egypt looked a lot better than for the United States.

We decided to leave.  We reserved seats on the April 3 Egypt Air flight.  Our friends across the hall were concerned and brought us the perfect "going away" gift - gloves and masks.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Crazy About Goats

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm crazy about goats. There is nothing cuter to my eyes than a baby goat. Way cuter than a human baby. I cannot resist them. Others may not hear them but they call out to me.
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I'm not at all shy about asking a stranger if I can hold their baby goat.  Good thing for me is that I've never been denied the pleasure.  This lady wanted me to hold two of her babies but that was just too much cuteness at one time.

I like adult goats too.

Lucky for me, Egypt abounds with goats of all colors and sizes, I have no favorite color.

I brake for goats! If I see any while driving I will shout to the driver, "Goats! Stop! I need a photo."

Just look at that face, so sweet.

The babies settle right in and seem to love the affection and warmth. I think they would let me hold them for hours.  As soon as I set the babies down though, they begin to bleat and search for their mother.

When I'm in Egypt, I'm in goat heaven.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Bird Watching at Lake Qarun

About a year ago, we visited the artist community of Tunis, along the shore or Lake Qarun near the Fayoum oasis about 70 miles southwest of Cairo.  One of the shops we saw there belonged to Ahmed Mansour, the "bird man" of Tunis.  We kept a picture of his shop and phone number for future reference.  "Some year...." we thought.  Well, this is the year.

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After contacting Ahmed, we decided to plan an overnight stay in one of the local Tunis hotels and then to have an early morning excursion with Ahmed for several hours of birding, mostly in the marshes along the shore of the lake.

Ahmed joined us and with our friend Roshdy driving, we departed for the lake at 6:00 a.m. as the sun was just above the horizon.  We hadn't driven more than a hundred feet when Ahmed pointed out our first few birds standing in the hotel driveway.  We would see, by our count, 31 different varieties of birds in the next four hours.  We managed to get decent pictures of twenty.

As we pulled into one of Ahmed's well scouted dirt trails leading down toward the lake, he pointed out this crested lark, basking in the first rays of sunlight.

We left the car and began a walk through the reedy marshland down to the shoreline.   We discovered an abundance of black-winged stilts and spur-winged plovers.

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Spur-winged plovers.

(Just a reminder that you can click on any picture to enlarge it and click again to enlarge more.  You will be in my Flickr album at that point and can move through the pictures with arrows on the right and left edges of the photos.)

We soon discovered that Ahmed could imitate the sound of any bird.  His hearing would pick up sounds of a particular bird in the distance which he could amazingly spot at an impossible distance.  He aimed his spotting scope and then invited us to view a small bird from a hundred yards away.  He is quite a remarkable birding guide.

Some birds were very noticeable by their calls like this clamorous reed warbler that was always hidden back in the reeds.
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Other difficult to spot birds included this purple gallinule slightly out of focus in the distance behind the mallard that you might not see at first glance in the foreground.

These plovers seemed to be enjoying the view in the distance

when they were joined by a moorhen in their midst.

Taller birds included this little egret and squacco heron.
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A grey heron posed nicely for us.

In between spots on the waters edge, Ahmed found interesting birds perched on the powerlines including this white-breasted kingfisher and a little green bee-eater.
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Of course, the white-breasted kingfisher deserves his own picture from the front as well.

People who come to lake Qarun expect to see flamingoes and Ahmed Mansour keeps a close eye on their movement.  It took a while for him to locate the flock but we closed out the morning with a group photo of these long necked birds.

The town of Tunis, the surrounding scenery and the hotel are also quite photogenic but that will have to wait for another posting.  Click-through on any of the pictures to see other birds not mentioned plus extra shots of the ones that were.