The Nile

We landed in Luxor (“Lu” as in Lulu – “ks” along with a clearing of the throat – “oh”) before breakfast and it was already hot. Luxor, later known by he Greeks as Thebes, is literally the greatest open air museum you can imagine. This is the region of the Upper Nile (remember, the Nile flows northwards) and the people here look like their Lower Nile counterparts from Cairo but with skin as dark as mine.

We don’t have enough time to see everything in Luxor. So we agree to see the two main temples, Karnak and Luxor, which are on the east bank, get lunch, and then get to our guest house on the west bank, leaving our luggage for the duration in the taxi of a taxi driver we just met at the airport. We risk never seeing our bags again but the people we have met in Egypt are honest. We decide not to squeeze in the famous necropolis on the West Bank, including the Valley of the Kings where pharaohs like Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, and the various Ramesses were buried. We know that our eyes will glaze over after 2-3 hours of Intense Egyptology.

Karnak temple is a sprawling colossal place. It has been built, rebuilt, and added on to by many pharaohs and dedicated to multiple gods, and was regarded one of the most sacred places in ancient Egypt. We restricted ourselves to the precinct of Amun-ra, the Egyptian King of Gods fused with the Sun God – about as powerful as gods get. You enter through the huge pylons past a row of ram-faced sphinxes. Inside is a hypostyle with 104 enormous columns – mostly built by Ramesses II. Then there’s Hatshepsut’s giant obelisk – a monolithic tower of inscribed granite rising almost 100 ft into the air, making it the world’s biggest obelisk. Incidentally, the obelisk at the Place de la Concorde in Paris is a smaller cousin of this and came from here.

The next morning, after a rooftop breakfast at the guest house overlooking the hills of the Valley of the Kings and the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, we were driven about an hour south to the ancient town of Esna. Here we board the Adélaide, a dahabiya with 10 beautiful white cabins below, an expansive open deck covered with low sofas and cushions upstairs, and two triangular red and white stripped cotton sails on either end.

The Adélaide is a traditional shallow bottomed double masted wooden ship of the type that have sailed the Nile for thousands of years. She is the newest member (this is her fourth voyage) of the fleet of four dahabiyas belonging to a Mexican American, Enrique, a French designer, Eleonore (I think they are married), and Memdouh, their Egyptian boat builder and business partner.

The company has slowed the trip down the Nile to five nights – you could drive from Luxor to Aswan in three hours. We weren’t sure how Vivian and Evan would react to this but they loved it. Vivian asked if we could redo the trip again the next week. The dahabiya takes five sailors – to climb the masts and set the sails, to navigate at the giant helm, and to secure the boat to the shore for our frequent excursions. During periods of calm, the sails are put away and the dahabiya is towed by a long line attached to its tug. Soon after boarding I expressed interest in the boat. I was invited to sit and smoke a cigarette with its crew by Captain Sayed.

We ate, swam, walked, slept, read, and chatted our way to Aswan. The food was simple but delicious. Eleonore says they hire the best chefs from top hotels and then ask them to “cook like your grandmother did”. We take informal hikes through villages, and date and mango orchards, and the desert which is never far away. We go on guided visits to the main archaeological sites on the way. At Kom Ombo, there is a temple to the crocodile god Sobek and a large collection of mummified Nile crocodiles. At the narrowest point on the Nile we visit the enormous quarry at Gebel el-Silsila where entire hills of sandstone were once quarried to power the massive projects built by the pharaohs. We swim in the Nile. The current is swift – you walk along the shore upstream or are taken there on the tug and swim or simply float downstream. Eleonore isn’t a spring chicken but she swims more often than anyone else. Evan is worried about Nile crocs but once he is in the cold refreshing water he’s hooked. We get to know our fellow passengers from Tucson, Denver, California, London, South Africa, Cardiff, and Australia as the days go on. Everyone eats together at a long table and one night a group of Germans from a sister ship join us for dinner. A couple of times the crew and staff show up after dinner with drums and there’s an impromptu dance party on the deck – accompanied with hip shaking that would make Shakira proud.

The days pass easily. At the end, we say goodbye to our new friends with invitations to visit them in different countries. Vivian and Evan got tonnes of compliments for being such amazing fellow passengers, leaving Jo and me baffled.

Egypt is beautiful. Egyptians are warm and welcoming, not withstanding the fact that I was often mistaken for an Egyptian or they were trying to sell me something. When they guessed “India?” I still got a big open smile and a handshake, even in tiny villages. Vivian and especially Evan got special attention and treats from almost everyone they interacted with.

I asked just one person about the future of Egypt, so my dataset is just one data point. “Will your children have a better life than you?” The answer was a clear and definite “no”. His parents had a better life than him. He thinks the trend will continue. I’m not sure why he thought that way but iPhones and video games made their way into his rambling reply. I am hoping he is an outlier.

Then there is the relationship with Israel. I started by asking our guide about Sisi. He said that Egyptians love their military and when Sisi came from the military they knew he was good. I asked if Nasser is considered a hero by Egyptians today. Our guide replied “No”. In further conversations I gathered that Sadat is, because he “won Sinai back”, while Nasser isn’t because he lost it to Israel. A satellite city in Giza is named 6th October City after the date Egypt Syria and Jordan initiated the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The date is a matter of pride in Egypt. But let’s hope that Egypt and Israel’s peace is durable enough to last our lifetimes.

We left our lovely temporary floating home, the Adélaide, at 4am, taking a cab through the city of Aswan before dawn. You could tell electricity must be made somewhere close by because the city is lit up like Las Vegas. We got one last look at the beautiful Nile shinning like a pool of gold in the rising sun before our airplane turned into the desert for the trip back to Cairo, and then via Athens, to the island of Mykonos. Onwards, but I think Egypt is another country we’ll come back to another day. And I can see Vivian and Evan returning as adults.

Later that same evening, through the miracle of modern technology we were perched on top of a rocky hill in Mykonos looking at the same sun as it set in the West, the land of the dead according to the ancient Egyptians.


From Greece we hoped to visit an as yet unplanned combination of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. Due to a fuck-up in the White House (both noun and verb), it didn’t seem like the best time to visit Turkey. So we booked our flight from Athens to Cairo and landed in Cairo on a quiet Friday morning.

We drove through the heart of Cairo from the airport to the east of the city to Giza in the west, crossing over the Nile. Our driver pointed out landmarks as he drove. To me Cairo seemed like a huge dust and brick colored sprawl. As we approached our guest house, the driver made a sudden u-turn and pulled up outside a fruit juice store. A minute later we were drinking fresh ganne-ka-ras (sugarcane juice). It tasted just like those at the Tank Bund when I was growing up in Hyderabad. The driver refused to take any money for it, and conveyed in broken English that it was his way of welcoming our family to Egypt.

Three weeks before this there were surprise antigovernment protests in Cairo’s Tahrir square over alleged corruption in Egypt’s military and government. British Airways cancelled regular flights between London and Cairo for a week. Two weeks before our departure the government clamped down on protests, effectively closing down the area around Tahrir square and arresting over 3000 protestors and bystanders, adding to their alleged cache of 60,000 political prisoners. Turkey at war was beginning to look like a better option.

This is us at Tahrir square with our guide. It is peaceful and completely normal looking. Security is high in tourist dominated areas, just as in Europe. Our guide and driver tell us that Cairo is one of the safest cities in the world, and that Al Jazeera always makes up news stories to make Egypt look bad. “If you watch TV you think there is war in Cairo. Look, there is nothing. Only peaceful people.”

Al Jazeera is funded by Qatar. Qatar has been blockaded and ostracized by a Saudi-led broad coalition of Muslim countries since 2017, including Egypt, with tacit support from Trump. Qatar, which hosts the largest US Air Force base in the Middle East, is accused of having ties to terrorist organizations like the Brotherhood of Islam, the party that rose to political power after the 2011 Egyptian “spring”, and Iran. In 2012 Egyptians voted for Morsi. An Islamist member of the Brotherhood with a PhD from USC became president. After a year of fumbling around rather badly, in 2013 he was deposed in a coup by his defense minister, a General Sisi, amidst popular support for change. Thousands of Brotherhood protestors were allegedly massacred and the organization was banned as a terrorist group. Sisi ran for president and won overwhelmingly. The protesters three weeks ago in Tahrir square accuse the Sisi government of corruption.

Tahrir square looks peaceful. After visiting the fabulous Museum of Egyptian Antiquities at one end of the square we ate at a light but very tasty lunch at a local favorite called Felfela, just off the square. The road leading into Tahrir was guarded by police in full SWAT armor. Armored anti riot trucks guarded every entrance into Tahrir square. They are tucked behind the streets so you can’t see them from the square. But the city bustled around the trucks and cops and everything appeared normal. Even the SWAT police looked bored.

It is difficult to wrap my head around the history and heritage of Egypt. Indians have been at it for as long, as have the Chinese and many others. But Egypt is unique. From before 3000 BC till Cleopatra of Mark Anthony fame, the rulers of Egypt have been called Pharaohs. They come from different places, belong to different families, and formed different dynasties. But they ruled all of Egypt – both upper and lower Egypt, built massive temples, engaged in the funerary rite of mummification, wrote in hieroglyphics, depicted themselves in sculpture in similar ways, and wore the double crown – the red crown of lower Egypt, and the white bowling pin crown (named by Evan) of upper Egypt. The place to start understanding 5000 years of Egyptian history is at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, with a good guide to take you through a tiny fraction of the displays.

Here Evan is looking at a statue of Thutmosis III from about 3500 years ago, considered one of ancient Egypt’s greatest warriors. This statue was originally in the enormous Karnak temple in Luxor. He was the sixth Pharaoh from the 18th dynasty of the New Kingdom. This statue is one of 120,000 items at the museum. Even the best intentioned eyes glaze over quickly.

The section that displays the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb is jaw-dropping. Gold death masks, huge gold sarcophagi, chariots, weapons, thrones, and even his sandals are on display. You aren’t allowed to photograph Tut’s death mask and a few other items but everything else is right there with seemingly little overt security. Similarly the royal mummy room is astonishing.

Then here’s something you don’t see everyday – a young lady in a full burka taking a selfie with a statue of a seated pharaoh.

We visited the great pyramids the next day. Our guesthouse is located just across from the Sphinx and the pyramids. The guesthouse roof gave us a great view of the Giza complex and good look at the light and sound show at night. I grabbed a beer and we settled down on a couch on the rooftop balcony to watch it. The kids wandered off quickly. Then I lost Jo. I made it to the end of the show but I’m glad I didn’t pay for it. After a while I felt bad for the poor neighbors who are subjected to Omar Sharif’s nightly narrations and deafening recorded orchestral music.

The pyramids are magnificent. We got there early but so did everyone else. The first pyramid is the biggest and is that of Khufu (called Cheops since Greek times). We climbed up and into a tiny rough rock tunnel to see the chamber inside the pyramid. After waiting inside the tunnel in the stifling heat for about 20 minutes and having tourists disregard the queue and get in the way of people coming out, I started to feel that if just one person freaked out, it could result in a stampede. Vivian wanted out, and the first time Evan voiced a similar feeling, I gathered them up and left.

We toured the reconstructed boat found in a pit next to the pyramid and walked around the outside. This pyramid was the tallest structure in the world from when it was built in 2500 BC to about 1300 CE – for more than 3800 years. It was built so precisely that modern construction methods would be hard pressed to replicate it. The entire base of the mammoth structure is within plus or minus 15 mm form the horizontal. The structure’s sides line up with the true cardinal directions within a fraction of a degree. The base is an almost perfectly squared square. The ratio of the perimeter of the base to the height of the pyramid is almost exactly 2π. All this leads to speculation. Our guide, who was so sensible at the Egyptian Museum the day before, turned into a full-on History Channel’s Ancient Allens conspiracy theorist. He explained that the pyramids are really more than 25,000 years old. The Old Kingdom found the already constructed pyramids and used them for their tombs. The pyramids were completely submerged during Noah’s flood. And the boat that they unearthed next to the pyramid isn’t Khufu’s ride to the next world after death. It is Noah’s Ark. Jo told me to ask our guide how Noah got all the animals into this boat.

After visiting Noah’s Ark I decided to try the tunnel one more time. Jo and the kids waited outside. It took me about 50 minutes. The rough tunnel is called the Robbers Tunnel. Then there is an ascending passage that is tiny – about 3 foot tall and 3 foot wide that you have to crawl up along with people coming down. That widens into the tall Grand Gallery which continues to slope upwards. At the end of that is the hot and humid King’s Chamber – a high ceilinged room of plain granite somewhere inside the pyramid. The only content is an empty burial crypt of rough granite that is larger than the width of the grand gallery leading egyptologists to believe that it was placed in there during construction before the massive 80 ton granite ceiling blocks were moved into place. The crypt was found empty. It is believed that the Great Pyramid was raided many times, possibly even during antiquity. Recently imaging techniques have unearthed new unexplored empty spaces in the Great Pyramid. It is safe to say that we don’t have a clue about many aspects of this iconic structure.

After we finished mucking around the pyramids we drove down to the mortuary temple complex and the Sphinx. Even less in known about the Sphinx which led to more speculation and rampant theorizing from our guide.

At this point we were ancient-Egypted-out. But we continued to Saqqara to see the first pyramid – a step pyramid structure like the ones in Mexico and Central America. We entered two tombs and saw intricate well preserved artwork and hieroglyphics.

Then we just had to say no. We couldn’t take another word of history. There was a lot more to see. We didn’t make it to Memphis or Dahshur. And we had just skimmed the top even at the places we did manage to visit. At stores and restaurants in Cairo we were met warmly and made to feel welcome, especially Vivian and Evan. It is a chaotic huge city of 37 million inhabitants and can do with a power wash (Jo’s comment) and a lick of paint. But I’d like to go back and see it properly someday.


Our first good look at the Acropolis was late in the afternoon. After landing in Athens and taking a cab to our apartment we went to the Plaka area for a late lunch. We stuffed our faces with everything on the menu and then walked up the back road to the Acropolis with the intention of visiting it. But google lied to us and the ticket office was already closed for the day. So we climbed up on a well-worn rocky outcrop just to the west of the Acropolis with about a thousand other people of every ethnicity and race and watched it in the rays of the setting sun.

The next morning we ate the best chocolate croissants so far at Kekko’s, a cafe near our apartment and walked past graffiti urging us to go back home and for Airbnb to fuck off. Ignoring them, we made our way to the enormous Temple of Olympian Zeus – one of the biggest temples in Greece. Construction started in the 6th century BC. The temple was finally finished by Hadrian, the Roman emperor (of Hadrian’s Wall fame) 638 years later. Of it’s 104 colossal columns only 16 stand today but they still convey what it must have felt like to stand before it in its full glory.

Then we got to where I was itching to be – the Acropolis Museum. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the museum displays its contents in an amazing way. Starting with the archaic period you slowly start developing a sense of what the Acropolis must have been like over the many millennia, going back to the Bronze Age.

The hall dedicated to the Parthenon is set askew from the rest of the museum and is aligned to the actual Parthenon instead, which you can see outside its glass walls. The friezes, metopes, and pediments are displayed just as they would in the Parthenon, except they are at eye level. I read up a bit on the gods and the depicted stories so I could keep up with Evan later.

That afternoon we finally climbed up the steps of the Acropolis. Evan was full of information when we got to the spot where Athena is said to have competed with Poseidon for patronage of the then unnamed city (sorry, unavoidable spoiler alert). Poseidon struck his trident on the rock and gave the citizens a spring. But the god of the sea could only conjure up salt water in his spring. Athena offered an olive tree and won. Evan wasn’t happy though. According to another version of the story, Poseidon offered the horse. “Imagine, horse versus olive tree! What were the Athenians thinking?!”, Evan said multiple times in a very exasperated voice. He hates olives.

All good things come to an end. We ended our trip to the Acropolis at a gelato store.

The next day Vivian complained of a stomach ache. Between late evening and mid morning she threw up several times. When she felt better we took s short ferry ride to the island of Aegina. Evan threw up there. That night I too hurled. The next day Jo went through the other symptoms but never did actually throw up. In about three to four days the bug ran through us. Luckily we recovered pretty quickly without any medication and carried on.

When we all felt better, we walked from our apartment up to Aristotle’s Lyceum. It was an unremarkable piece of land in a very nice part of Athens. The lyceum was destroyed by Sulla, the Roman general, when he crushed Athens in 86 BC. Aristotle had taught here till 323 BC and many other luminaries had learned and taught here in the ensuing years. Thousands of books and botanical samples were also destroyed when Sulla razed the lyceum to the ground.

From here we wandered to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Snytagma square and witnessed perhaps the weirdest change of guard in the western world.

On our final day we went to Cape Suinion and visited the Temple of Poseidon built in 440 BC. The location is perfect – perched high above the startlingly blue waters of the Aegean at the southern end of the Attic peninsula. Along with the temple, there are fortifications and remains of a small town. This was one of the locations where the population could retreat to during times of war.

Afterwards we drove around the coast and stopped at a small town for gelato. Evan sat under a eucalyptus tree and even resisted gelato because he was mad at Vivian about something. He appears to be in deep thought.

Speaking of deep thinkers, it’s not the Greek gods and the temples in the Acropolis that made Athens special (though it is what tourists like us flock here for). Back when the rest of the world was still mired in monarchy and would stay that way for another twenty five hundred years, the Athenians were writing constitutions and experimenting with democracy. In version one they had an aristocracy who elected leaders from amongst themselves to run the city state and command its armies. In version two they divided themselves into four classes, and even the poorest class could participate in electing their leaders, though they could not themselves be elected. The demos, the people, were gaining power. In the most successful iteration, anyone could hold office. In the span of a human lifetime, this one spot on earth saw the likes of philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and other notable contemporaries like Sophocles, Pericles, Herodotus, Phidias, and Demosthenes. Imagine being a fly on the wall of the agora of Athens during this time (I’m having to imagine even harder because the agora is an open plaza with no walls, but there are plenty of flies here :-).

As smart as they were, they essentially fought their way to their demise – with enemies from far away, like the Persians, and with their neighbors, the other Greek states.

Lessons to be learned here for mankind, for us, and for Vivian and Evan. But I think we’ll have to come back when they are older and not puking up their guts. Next up – Egypt!

Around Dubrovnik

You can’t see everything in one trip. We never made it to Croatia’s famed islands or to its fabulous parks and waterfalls. On our last full day in Croatia we took a boat to the small islands of Kolocep and Lopud. Evan and I got to jump in the clear blue waters of the Adriatic and snorkel and explore a few caves. We walked around the small village of Donje Celo, but it was early October and things were already closing up after the busy summer tourist season.

We drove to the airport next morning, stopping to admire the view of Lokrum island and the cruise ship that had anchored all night. Among my last memories of Croatia is the sign at the door at the Dubrovnik airport. They have very specific instructions about what is kosher.


We rented a car at Split airport and drove south down the crazy beautiful Dalmatian coast. Our first stop was the fort of Klis, a two thousand year old strategic fort that saw lots of action through the centuries. Since the Middle Ages it was captured by the Ottomans, recaptured by the Venetians, captured by Napoleon, and most recently absorbed into the global psyche as a location in Game of Thrones.

We walked around the walls and through the fort, admiring the views of Split down below in the distance and the peaks of the mountains around it, imagining thousands of soldiers battling to death here in the Middle Ages. Then we went to a restaurant famous for its grilled lamb and ate a nice lunch and drove on towards Dubrovnik. The drive was beautiful. A bit further inland we drove past towering peaks shrouded in fog and deep valleys with a few tiny villages. But once we descended from the mountains down to the sea we passed towns and farms. We stopped at a farm stand and bought a 2 kg bag of delicious oranges and some dried figs.

And then for 20 km, we left Croatia and drove through coastal Bosnia-Herzegovina, an otherwise landlocked country. The area around Dubrovnik is cut off from the rest of Croatia and can only be reached by sea or by passing through this section of Bosnia-Herzegovina called Neum. This geographical strangeness can be traced back to a treaty in 1699 when the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor defeated the Ottoman Empire and added most of Central Europe to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Two small buffer zones were created on either side of Dubrovnik to separate them from their rivals, the Venetians. The northern buffer zone is Neum. These territorial boundaries were respected during the formation of modern Yugoslavia after WW-I. Further, when Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina came into existence in the early 1990’s, Neum remained with Bosnia and not Croatia. Amazing what you can google.

Dubrovnik has been called the Pearl of the Adriatic. The old city is still fully enclosed in huge walls. The land rises up steeply from the old city and newer parts of the city cling to the sides of hills. Steps, not streets, lead down to the old city. Here’s the view of the old city from our Airbnb at sunrise.

One morning we climbed up the several flights of steps to the top of the city walls. We did this before the crowds got there. It looked like a storm was brewing but the rain held off.

We admired the red roofed city and the fortifications around the town. And came across a rather peculiar shaped basket ball court. And I got a shot of Evan looking very pouty.

Just as we climbed down from the walls it started raining. We decided to wait it out at a cafe over breakfast. But by the time we finished breakfast every tourist was trying to shelter in cafes and we felt bad hogging a table. So we made a break for it and walked through old city in the pouring rain up to the gates and tried to find an Uber or a cab.

After trying for a few minutes we agreed to tromp through the rain. There was so much rain that even the steep streets were flooded and the stairs that connect one level of the city to another were cascading waterfalls. We splashed our way home and arrived completely soaked!


Split puns are flying high as our flight from Venice comes in to land in Split.

We’ve booked an Airbnb just hours ago – which seems to be how far ahead we are able to plan these days. We are on the top floor of a 17th century waterfront castle (in reality a nice sturdy stone building) with a bar / coffee shop underneath in the sleepy fishing village of Kastela Stari halfway between the historically (and touristically) famous cities of Trogir and Split on either ends of the bay.

After the usual squabble over beds and bedrooms between Evan and Vivian, for the third time this trip we have that Sand Island feeling of exhaling and relaxing and enjoying the beautiful view.

Jo and I start with a drink outside and then we left the kids to their homework and electronic device and walked down the waterfront for sunset and enjoyed our time together without the brats. Then we retrieved them (after some debate) and walked over to a restaurant and sat a couple of feet from the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic and tasted grilled Croatian food for the first time. Wow. The eggplant and zucchini were so delicious that I could have skipped the meat. And we learned our two words of Croat (bog – hi, and hvala – thanks) from our waiter.

We didn’t do much. One afternoon Jo, Evan, and I rented bicycles and rode along the promenade over to a couple of other neighboring towns (there are seven castle towns on the coast next to each other). Another time Jo and the kids walked over to our beach a stone’s throw away and spent the afternoon at the beach with speedo-clad old men and families. We bought ice cream in tubs from the local Tommy mini market and a bag of pre-crushed Oreos (they sold Cabernet and Merlot in 2 and 3 liter bottles for about five bucks). We ate grilled meats, fish, and vegetables at the nearby restaurants. There was a bakery a couple of doors away that made good croissants. The bar downstairs always had cold Ozujsko on tap for me, an iced Somerset cider for Jo, and a table at the edge of the water. And I guess we spent some time there because one day Vivian commented rather unsubtly “Aren’t you guys drinking a lot?”

We were supposed to be visiting the amazing Croatians islands starting with Brac right outside the bay, home to the famous celebrity studded party town of Hvar. But we were happy doing nothing in our castle-village by the sea.

We dragged ourselves up and called an Uber and finally went to Split. On the longish drive over we learned that our driver was in the Yugoslav army. He talked about how he had Serbian friends before the homeland war. But today, even a soccer game between the Split home team, Hajduk, and visiting Serbian teams could be dangerous. Interestingly, he missed the days of Broz Tito. “Everybody was taken care of. Now you see homeless people”, he complained.

My dad used to visit the old Yugoslavia on business when I was in high school. Tito was nearing the end of his reign and his life. Back then I remember my dad saying that if it wasn’t for Tito who was forcing the different Balkan people to live in relative peace together, they’d be at each other’s throats.

We spent a lovely evening in the Diocletian Palace. The Palace was built by a Roman emperor about 1700 years ago as his retirement home and Old Split has slowly occupied it over the years. And when it was time to go home I was going to call the Uber driver who had given me his number. But a young cab driver had started chatting with Jo and was angling for our business. When I told him I’d rather Uber because it was cheaper, he pointed to his BMW cab and said “But Uber is shit car”. It wasn’t exactly true but it was getting late and Vivian needed to use the bathroom. So we went back to Kastela Stari in the cab with the kids giggling and muttering “Uber is shit car”.


Ahh, Florence!

Venice was an impulse visit. But can one get this close to Florence and not visit? So we did. For a quickie.

We took a boat from piazza San Marco via Murano to Marco Polo airport (where they have a large boat arrival and departure terminal) and drove off in a rental car for Florence. Pressed for time with only a year to see the whole world, we took the autostrada instead of the scenic route. Along the highway we passed exits for Venice, Padua, and Verona, which got us wondering about Shakespeare and this corner of Italy. Maybe Shakespeare was an Italian woman…

On the autostrada, once we got west of the coastal plains it was all tunnels and bridges. While my fellow passengers snoozed after a stop for croissants and expresso I felt I was driving in a video game. Modern, clean, and ergonomically lit, Italians do tunnels very well.

In Florence we had the top floor of an apartment around the corner from the Palazzo Vecchio. This was terrific till later that evening. We left a brooding Vivian (we all need our space once a while, and we are learning how to get and give it while traveling as a family) and stopped for photos in front of Fake David (Evan doesn’t look that happy either, right) and walked past the hallowed Uffizi. We took an evening walk down to Ponte Vecchio – the famous bridge across the Arno that even the Nazis couldn’t bring themselves to blow up (Evan is beginning to cheer up). Later that evening we ate dinner at Perseus, a restaurant on the piazza across from the Vecchio Palace not far from a bronze of Perseus holding aloft Medusa’s head. And we reminded ourselves to not eat at restaurants on touristy plazas Ever Again. The gelato at the piazza-facing gelato store, however, was terrific (even Vivian cheered up).

On the plaza there was a huge event being staged. A man with a microphone and a jumbo screen behind him was interviewing celebrities and urging people to do something – all very loudly. In the plaza there was a whole bunch of stationary bicycles and people were riding them vigorously – think Rosedale Ride or any other charity bike ride but with stationary bikes. I like the idea. No streets to close off, much simpler permitting from the city, the entertainment and the cyclists stay in the same place, no motorists or road rage, fewer wrecks, and you can do it on a Friday evening! Between the loud interviews, music played even more loudly. And the huge and ancient wall of the Vecchio Palace was used as a screen for projecting images, logos and messages. From guessing and googling I gathered they were saving the planet, especially marine life, from plastics.

“Get in the Saddle. Let’s make the planet a better place”

The party and especially the music continued till well past 1am and the cleanup crew carted shit loudly down the cobbled streets till it was dawn. Ahh – Romantic Notions of Italy – 0, Boring Civic Minded America – 1.

In the morning while Vivian and Evan finally slept for a bit, Jo and I walked around the Duomo. Chinese brides were getting their wedding photos in front of Instagram worthy backdrops before it got crowded. But the lines were quickly beginning to form. By the time we walked to the Accademia to peek in at Real David and the Prisoners, the lines were too long for my liking. Instead, we walked over to the market at San Lorenzo and admired the famed huge indoor food market. We bought croissants for breakfast and took them back to the sleepy kiddos.

Later that morning I dragged everyone to Santa Croce and walked respectfully past the crypts of Michael Angelo and Galileo and Machiavelli and the sad empty monument to Dante. Outside in the piazza a couple was playing FM grade easy listening music on a violin and keyboard and they filled the space with beautiful sound.

Then we repeated much of the same route around the Duomo with Vivian and Evan. I talked to them about the dome of the Duomo, a marvel of engineering, and the history of the famous Baptistry of Saint John, and how so many amazing people came together in this one city almost six hundred years ago to create so much that we still treasure and how that gave the Renaissance an unstoppable momentum. But Vivian and Evan really couldn’t give a shit and that happens sometimes. So we went to the food market at San Lorenzo and ate a nice lunch and drank wine and cider and chatted. Then we drove to the overlook on the Arno to get a view of the city. It was splendid and even the kids stared.

And as quickly as we had driven down, we went back to Venice and got in an airplane bound for Croatia. Finally.


A high speed train from Salzburg with one change in Innsbruck was supposed to take us to Venice by afternoon. But someone had killed himself by jumping in front of a previous train, which unfortunately isn’t uncommon in Europe. So our train wound its way through breathtaking valleys along the back rails of Austria and Italy at less than half its normal speed and we got to Venice at nine at night. At the train station we took a water taxi and met our Airbnb host at the Piazza San Marco stop who led us through a labyrinth of passages lined with high fashion stores and enotecas to our apartment.

We did the touristy things – breakfast on the piazza, lunch in the shadow of the Ponte di Rialto, a gondola ride, photos at the Bridge of Sighs, gelato by the Riva at sunset. And had so much fun.

Astonishingly we literally ran into our friends Sunil and Sabina from Hyderabad who had arrived the day before to spend a month in Venice. Twenty million tourists visit Venice every year. The odds of an accidental meeting are skinnier than wework’s profit margins. They invited us for dinner. We left the kids at home and had an adult evening and stumbled back home drunk without falling into a canal.

Speaking of tourists, last year an astounding number of 1.4 billion international arrivals were recorded. I am very much a part of that problem. We are in Venice during the shoulder season, hoping to escape others like us. But low seasons are a thing of the past. The quality of our time in Venice was diminished by the overwhelming number of people like us. I asked Vivian and Evan to imagine waking up at home one morning and finding Rosedale Avenue choked with tourists. Every hour, every day. They grimaced.

The democratization of travel has been amazing. I can plan my trip and get there without much work, comparing costs and options effortlessly from my phone. I don’t need local money. I get directions on my google maps. My Uber takes me where I want like a magic carpet (and the carpet guy is magically paid). I stay at an Airbnb. International travel is easier than staying at home!

Cynicism aside, travel breaks down misconceptions and stereotypes. Our host, Tim from Gansbaai, South Africa, said “You’re not just teaching your kids. You’re giving them an education”. Jo and I hope so. The more you know about people and places and animals and cultures and languages and food and art and music that is different from your own the more you understand and the less you fear.

But then you see a person posing in front of a phone pouting like Zoolander, tossing his or her hair back obsessively to get that perfect Instagram selfie, oblivious to the world around. And you think “C’mon man. My friends are dying to see *my* picture. So hurry the fuck up and move over”.

And when you see this for the 1.4 billionth time, you have to be clinically optimistic about the human race to not jump off the stone walls of Dubrovnik.

Here is interesting news story about tourists from yesterday.

ps. We saw graffiti urging tourists to go home and Airbnb to fuck off in Athens. We and other tourists promptly stopped and took our selfies in front of the graffiti.


We really didn’t have a plan for Germany. A very cheap fare from Cape Town is the reason we are here. We need to end up in Croatia. My initial plan was to drive from Frankfurt all the way to Dubrovnik and then onto Athens – about 24 hours of driving spread out over several days. But it turns out that car rental companies in Germany (including Hertz and Avis) won’t let you take one of their cars into Croatia and especially not into Montenegro and certainly not across Albania. So Plan B. Which is to head towards Croatia and wing it.

Our first stop is at the Nueschwanstein Castle at the southern edge of Germany. Built by the Mad King Ludwig II in the 1870’s to resemble a medieval fortress, it is a fairy castle nestled amongst alpine crags and is the inspiration for the Disney castles. We had to wait in line at the village below where they sell tickets, and again at the forecourt of the castle for our tour. But German efficiency was everywhere and out tour started at the right time. We were expertly herded from room to room till we got to the gift shop and cafe and then we could dawdle as we wished.

Vivian and Evan are awed by the castle and the stories of its construction. I am (again) impressed by the modern beautiful kitchen. Jo kept us honest by having us walk all the way up from the village and walk back down instead of taking the bus or the horse-drawn carriage. Vivian who is anti-walking today is not very happy.

The castle was as beautiful and dramatic as I remember. But I didn’t remember from my previous visit about 30 years ago that the king wasn’t probably mad and that the whole insanity thing may have been a political ploy and that the poor king mysteriously died a day after his arrest. It isn’t easy being a dreamer.

After a dinner of pretty bad pizza and pasta and a night at an Airbnb in town we drove along the mountains north of the German-Austrian border through beautifully preserved tiny Bavarian villages and along hills and valleys through the back roads. The drive was so beautiful that we agreed we’d return and explore the region again at some later time. That afternoon we returned the rental at Traunstein, home of Pope Benedict, hopped on a train across the border, and hopped off at Salzburg in Austria.

We left our luggage in our room at a hip hostel style eco hotel called The Keep and walked along the Salzach river, people watching as we went. We noticed a large number of men and boys in lederhosen, and ladies, young and not young, in drindls. At first we shrugged it off. Then we assumed that traditional attire must be popular in Austria. Finally, we asked google and were told that is was St. Rupert’s Day – the biggest summer fair in Salzburg. So we followed the crowds of lederhosen and drindls to the main square and listened to oompah bands and ate giant pretzels and the kids rode on a swing carousel and we had a good time.

Back at the hotel my friend Bernhard (who I met climbing Kilimanjaro) joined us for a beer. He’s a medical student in Salzburg and he generously offered us his apartment in Vienna if we wanted to visit the city. We thanked him and said we’d mull it over and let him know in the morning.

Next morning we packed up and headed to the train station. I voted for Vienna but everyone else wanted a different city that started with a V. We’re off to Venice. Still approximately in the general direction of Croatia.


Eventually we reluctantly said goodbye to Cape Town and drove off in a rental car towards the south. Our first stop was at a funky place called Pajamas and Jam in the burb of Somerset for breakfast. The selection of cakes and breakfast goodies was amazing, though Vivian, Jo, and I agreed that our caramel Nutella hot chocolates were heavenly.

Then we made our way along the beautiful eastern side of False Bay through charming coastal towns to Hermanus and then to Gansbaai. Bay is baai in Afrikaans. The the “G” pronounced with a clearing of the throat.

We had booked a place on Airbnb called the Whale Tail. When we arrived it was like the feeling we had when we got to Sand Island in Kenya. From the front lawn (and all the rooms) there was a sweeping view of the sea with the town of Hermanus about 30 km away on the other side of the bay and the mountains rising up behind. To the right the wide bay ended in a nature preserve with pristine beaches and sand dunes and rocks a couple of miles away.

We dumped our luggage and went out to explore the rocky shore – with inlets and cliffs and hidden caves.

Over the next few days we walked along the paths at the edge of the shore a couple of times a day. We explored large caves that were inhabited by our ancestors a few tens of thousands of years ago. Evan and I left Jo and Vivian perched on top of a rock by the bay and ran up and slid down giant sand dunes till we were exhausted (which took me about 5 minutes).

One afternoon Tim, our Airbnb host loaded us into his four wheel drive and took us for a tour of the “township” and the coast further out of town. We inspected beautiful tidal pools and saw poachers in wetsuits going out to collect abalone. Abalone from this region fetches top prices in the global seafood market. Attempts to govern sustainable fishing has given rise to a Chinese blackmarket. They pay local young colored South Africans in drugs to poach abalone. The town has given up calling the cops because nothing happens. So now the locals turn a blind eye to the poachers and the poachers don’t create a security hazard for the locals. It works -unless you’re an abalone or an honest fisherman.

When we see or hear whales come close to the rocky cliffs we run out to see them, walking on the rocks as fast as we can to keep up with them. The calf usually frolics and breaches and does the headstand thing where its tail sticks straight out of the water while the mother, huge by comparison, staidly swims on, smacking one flipper periodically on the surface so that her calf gets used to that sound and stays close to her once they start their long journey to the cooler Antarctic waters.

Besides fishing and whale watching, the other huge business in town is shark diving in cages. We didn’t have to decide whether to try it or not – when we were in Gansbaai the seas were too rough and the trips were cancelled. You don’t actually have to dive – the cage isn’t fully submerged. The waters are chummed to attract great whites and the tourists, wearing snorkel masks and standing in the cages neck deep in water, stick their heads underwater to observe the sharks. Apparently last year two orcas killed three great whites to eat their livers, temporarily depleting the town of their prized sharks. Fortunately the orcas left and a few more great whites appeared. But those that understand orca behavior say that it’s only a matter of time before the orcas return – their large mammalian brains let them remember these things.

We drove about two hours to the southern most tip of Africa one day. It was cold and windy and more desolate here though there is a nice sized town just before Cape Agulhas. We quickly took a photo on top of the monument that marks the southernmost point and ran back to the car and drove to Gansbaai. Below the brass monument marking the cape there was a neat blue sign with a white line down the middle. On either side of the divider the words “Indian Ocean” and “Atlantic Ocean” were nicely printed. Alas the ocean and the beach looked the same in both sides of the sign and paid no attention to silly names given by humans.

The Rugby World Cup is being played in Japan. “A real game, not like the American football you play with helmets and body armor” they said, though I told them I hadn’t ever played American football. Tim invited me to see the game (called a test) between two rugby superpowers – the South Africa Springboks and the New Zealand All Blacks. If you’ve seen Invictus (which we did a few days later one evening in Croatia) you know how important rugby and the Boks are to the South African psyche.

We walked into a smoky old bar where everyone except me was wearing the green and gold jerseys of the Boks and Castle beer flowed like water. I got a quick tutorial on rugby and when I correctly got the fifth round of beers they accepted me as one of their own. Except for the dead animal heads mounted on the wall I could have easily been in dive bar in Austin with old friends.

Later that evening the kids wanted pizza and on Tim’s recommendation we went to Mama Rita’s – a cute little place with very friendly staff and great food. As it was close to sunset and we were a couple of blocks from the sea I asked our waiter if we could take our wine glasses and go watch the sunset. We had ordered a bunch of dinner and hadn’t paid for anything yet and she had never seen us before but she didn’t bat an eyelid. Jo wasn’t sure if we should be walking outside with wine glasses. I told her this was South Africa – home to a lot of good wine. And we were just miles away from some big wineries.

We started crossing the street. I handed Evan my wine glass so I could get my camera out. Jo frowned at the growing list of bad civic behaviors. I shrugged and said that there’s so much real crime in South Africa the cops were busy enough. And a second or two later a cop car with lights blazing and siren blaring charged directly towards us.

A moment later the cop car turned away. Jo breathed a a sigh of relief and went back to dinner. Evan and I and the wineglass watched the sunset.

Back at Mama Rita’s I ran into a couple of my new friends from the smokey bar earlier that day. They had cleaned up and were with their wives. After they finished their dinner they stopped by our table to say hello to the family. We felt a tiny bit like locals : )

Later that week we took the inland route back to Cape Town. While the coastal roads were dramatic, the farms and green and golden endless rolling hills of wheat were a beautiful sight to behold. We thought of the views of Kansas along the turnpike – but more rolling and even more expansive and with occasional steep mountains thrown in. We stopped at the Tokari vineyards halfway between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek for lunch and then drove to Cape Town and got on one of the last Thomas Cook Condor flights. Our flight landed in Frankfurt at 05:00 on a gloomy cold Monday morning. Thomas Cook declared bankruptcy at 08:00, leaving about 600,000 travelers stranded worldwide.

In Frankfurt we rented a car, got some Euros from an ATM, got on the autobahn, and headed off towards Bavaria in the rain. It felt very strange not to be in Africa. Today is one day shy of two months since I left Austin. And everything is A-Ok.