“Even when you think you have your life all mapped out – things happen that shape your destiny in ways you might never have imagined.” – Deepak Chopra
A key motivating factor for my insatiable need for travel is to experience life outside of my comfort zone, so I suppose it is inevitable that my journeys often include going astray from pre-determined routes. Such “missteps” have rarely been negative – but rather have enriched my experience and often have exposed hidden personal strengths and attributes. They have also provided some very funny tales that I want to share. There are quite a few of these “misadventures” so this post will be just part 1 of a new section of my blog: “When Things Don’t Go as Planned.” 1) Wandering Jew in the Sahara – Giza Plateau, Egypt – To-date the trip that has been the most astounding and impressive is my sojourn to Egypt. The magnificence and longevity of an ancient civilization that can date back to almost 4000 BC is truly staggering – the immensity and beauty of the tombs in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, the temples of Karnak and Luxor, the hieroglyphs and paintings in their original colors (due to lack of humidity and other erosive factors) are almost inconceivable. My trip had a rather inauspicious start. I was with a small group led by a brilliant Egyptologist, Sameh Taha. Our second stop was the Giza Plateau, the site of the most iconic of Egyptian structures – The Pyramids of Menkaure, Khafre and Khufu and The Guardian of the Giza – The Sphinx, known to the locals as Abu al-Hol, the “Father of Terror.” It is here that my trip-up occurred. At the time (1999) cameras were not digital – a disk of photographic film had to be inserted into the camera, allowing for approximately 35 pictures per disk. I used over 30 rolls of film in Egypt, all kept in individually capped containers – yes, travelling in those days was very cumbersome. I had just purchased a new 35mm Nikon and stupidly did not become totally familiar with its workings before embarking on this journey (a mistake I will not repeat as I just purchased a new Canon known for its ability to take great night shots for my trip to Iceland to view the Aurora Borealis in December). Of course, just as we approached the entrance to the Pyramids and Sphinx I ran out of film. Sameh was just explaining that we MUST stay close to him as he planned to move very quickly to ensure we got to the best vantage points before the throngs. While trotting to keep up, I looked down desperately trying to fit the leader holes of the film into the camera’s sprockets. When it finally clicked in I looked up – to find myself in a very ironic situation – a Jewish woman, wandering lost and alone in the Sahara Desert.
Strangely, I wasn’t frightened – it was a time of relative stability in the Middle East so I didn’t feel in any imminent danger. I was more annoyed that I was missing out on those great vantage points and the sun was setting spectacularly behind the Pyramids and Sphinx. So, throwing caution to the wind, I went on my own and took some awesome pictures:
Does that last pic look familiar? It is the cover of my blog – the most incredible picture I have ever been in. Obviously I did not take that by myself – a little bit far for a selfie. Instead, as I ran around looking for the best shots, I noticed that my traveling companion was right near me – having been similarly stranded. Emboldened by having each other in sight, we fI sines taking our pictures and then hunted down the van to await the rest of our crew – with a very angry Sameh at the helm. Needless to say – i remained at Sameh’s hip the rest of our stay. Given the current political situation you might be pleased that you can get at least of glimpse of some countries you might not be able to visit in the foreseeable future. Egypt is a hot mess right now, totally in disarray and turmoil. And, given Mr. Putin’s aggressive actions towards the Crimea and the Ukraine, I doubt Americans will be welcome in Russia anytime soon – so enjoy this view: 2) Cyrillic Code and a Tzar’s Sense of Humor – Peterhof, St. Petersburg, Russia – Once again I was fortunate to visit at a time when relations between two countries, this time Russia and the US were much more amiable. Starting in the Baltic States, then traveling to Sweden, we made our way south, eventually ending our trip in Moscow. First, though, we traveled to St Petersburg on a train that, although colored green, reminded me of Strelnikov’s red train in Dr. Zhivago:
There was definitely a surreal feeling of being thrown back in time. When we reached the Russian border, the train stopped and Russian custom agents in full uniform came on board. We had been briefed NOT to wear sunglasses, NOT to smile and certainly NOT to make jokes while our passports and visas were taken and recorded. Luckily, we didn’t end up being sent to a gulag and I could breath again as we entered St Petersburg. Surprisingly, the city was not all industrial and formal as I suspected, but rather was filled with ornately decorated Art Nouveau castles:
And, the Versailles Palace look-alike, Peterhof. We lodged in the center of town in the Grand Hotel Europa, an opulent Old World beauty built-in the 19th Century with high level guests that had their own secret service with “hidden” earphones – as well as a number of older burly “uncles” escorting their nubile, young “nieces.” For some unfathomable reason my friend and I had a hankering for Ukrainian food (how ironic). With mouth-watering images of borscht, sausages, goulash, stuffed cabbage, pirogies, and tortes in our brains we arrogantly assumed that with a map and some garbled directions from the front desk we could easily find “Khutor Voelogray” restaurant which was supposedly only 20 minutes walking distance from the hotel. Please note that the above is a translation – here is the restaurant’s actual sign:
After walking about an hour our self-assurance disappeared. We could not follow street signs as they, as well as the name of the restaurant were written in Cyrillic. The directions we had gotten were phonetically pronunciations and were no help. And, to add to our dilemma, Most passers-by spoke no English. What to do? With a sudden epiphany that would make James Bond proud, we looked up a Cyrillic alphabet in our guide-book. We then transposed our phonetic words and created a side by side “decoder.” Thusly armed we honed in on our target and as quick as you could say “ура́!” – there it was. Fantastic meal, including home-made wine called Nalyuka made from cherries, raspberries, bilberries, gooseberries, blackberries, plums, blackthorns, at 15% alcohol. And to top this we were entertained by singers and dancers – great night:
My second (and not the last here, by the way) off-course move occurred during our stop at Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter the Great. Trivia: After the victory over the Swedes in 1709, Peter the Great decided to build a palace of triumph “befitting the very highest of monarchs.” A fortuitous visit to Versailles in 1717 furthered Peter’s architectural ambitions and when Peterhof opened in 1721 the Palace included a Hall of Mirrors that rivaled that of Versailles – see how it compares (with a picture on the right that I took of Versailles a long, long time ago):
The outside of Peterhof is no less spectacular, including the Grand Cascade, a sequence of 37 gilded sculptures and 64 fountains and 142 water jets descending from the terraces of the Great Palace to the Marine Canal and then the sea itself:
The adjoining gardens also show off Peter the Great’s wicked sense of humor and it is here that I literally my “Water-loo.” We had walked down an esplanade that concealed rows of pipes that could shoot out jets of water over and on unsuspecting poor souls, who at the time of PTG were dressed in pounds of silken clothes and powdered wigs – they couldn’t have been very happy getting doused. The guide then brought us to some secluded areas built specifically for romantic trysts such as this little bench settled in a bed of cobbled stones, hidden from view.
The guide beckoned for someone to cross the stones and enjoy the garden view from this sweet perch. Being the shy, introverted type I immediately volunteered and followed the guide over the stones. However, I didn’t follow her footsteps exactly and, stepping on the WRONG stone activated a series of water jets that soaked me through and through:
I should have mentioned that although I had the foresight to bring a rain hat in case of inclement weather, I had handed it off to my friend before crossing the stones. No towels – I arrived at our lunchtime restaurant drenched and forlorn. I am sure the restauranteurs had seen fools like me before for the waiters promptly started plying me with some of the best vodka I have ever tasted (we’re in Russia!) and all in attendance toasted to my bravery. After countless shots I no longer noticed I was wet:
We won’t discuss the next day hangover. More bumps in the road to come in future posts – stay tuned!