Africa

H-Bomb’s Sunday photo, week 61: a leopard in a tree in South Africa

St. Patrick’s Day may be almost upon us, but my thoughts today are of a place that’s vastly different from Ireland. This week’s featured image comes from the safari that I took in South Africa. One of the highlights of my safari was seeing members of each of the traditional “Big Five” species: elephant; lion; Cape buffalo; rhinoceros; and leopard. Leopards are agile creatures and they like to hang out on tree branches, high above the ground:

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This guy was sleeping up there for a while. I couldn’t imagine catching my zzz’s in such a precarious perch; I would be afraid of falling off. 🙂 Anyway, this photo was taken during my visit to South Africa in September 2011.

Would you like to go on safari?

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H-Bomb’s Sunday photo, week 60: Agatha Christie slept in this Egyptian hotel

Less than two weeks from today, I’ll be auditioning for the quiz show “Jeopardy!” That audition will take place in Washington, D.C. Of course, Washington is just a hop, a skip, and a jump from my home base of New York City, compared to some of the destinations to which my adventures have taken me.

For example, today’s featured image comes from Aswan, Egypt, about 433 miles south of Cairo but nearly 6,000 miles from Manhattan. Standing on the east bank of the Nile in Aswan is the The Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan hotel. Before it was a Sofitel property, when it was simply the Old Cataract, this was the hostelry in which Agatha Christie, sitting on the terrace of her guestroom, penned her novel Death on the Nile. The hotel’s ballroom also appeared in the 1978 film based on that novel.

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The Old Cataract was built in 1889, and in addition to Ms. Christie, its roster of distinguished guests through the years has included the likes of Tsar Nicholas II; Winston Churchill; Howard Carter (the guy who discovered King Tut’s tomb); Margaret Thatcher; Princess Diana; and Jimmy Carter. The hotel was expanded over the years, and was extensively renovated and restored from 2008 through 2011. This photo of it was taken during my visit to Egypt in September 2012. I did not, myself, lodge in this 5-star property; I was on a cruise down the Nile, during which I slept aboard the boat.

Do you like staying in historic hotels?

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Places that captured my heart: the top 5 cities that I long to return to

8079727_mWhen I venture forth from my home base of New York City, I tend to prioritize visiting destinations that I’ve never been to before. It’s my goal to explore as many different places on the planet as I can (and, along the way, to sing karaoke wherever in the world I can find it). If I had my druthers, I would travel as often as possible to the spots that I most enjoyed in the past, while constantly adding new locales to my itinerary. Due to time constraints, however, first-time destinations tend to win out when I’m planning my next holiday. There are few overseas cities that I end up getting to more than once. But some metropolises have made such an impression on me that I’m fervently hoping to find a way to spend more time in them. This post is about the five global cities that I would most like to return to.

Note that in compiling this list, my focus was on international travel, and accordingly I only considered cities outside my native United States. I’m certainly always up for going back to American locations such as San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Chicago, Miami Beach, and Seattle; but that’s a discussion for another day.

This post was written in response to a challenge by Arnab of the blog Travel Andy. Anyway, here are my top 5!
Continue reading

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H-Bomb’s Friday Photo, week 43: magnificent columns in an Egyptian temple

I hope you’re all having a great Friday. Earlier this week I celebrated my birthday, and I’m looking forward to another year filled with adventure!

This week’s featured image comes from a country that’s synonymous with adventure: Egypt. Specifically, it’s a photograph taken at the Temple of Hathor — a Greco-Roman temple complex in Dendera. The portion of that temple known as the Large Hypostyle Hall contains columns that are approximately 50 feet high:

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Although parts of the temple date back to the third century B.C., the Large Hypostyle Hall was added during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, who ruled from 14 A.D. to 37 A.D. (It’s believed that earlier temples also dedicated to Hathor were built on the same site as early as 4,000 years ago.) Hathor was a deity worshipped by the ancient Egyptians who was typically depicted with bovine features. She was the goddess of love, joy, and motherhood.

This photo was taken during my trip to Egypt in September 2012. Dendera, the location of the temple, is about 50 miles from Luxor.

Are you awed by grand structures like this that were built thousands of years ago?

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H-Bomb’s Friday Photo, week 38: the view from Table Mountain in Cape Town

Happy November! Today is just another Friday as I count down to my departure for Peru and Panama, now less than three weeks away. I’m getting pretty excited about those impending additions to my World Karaoke Tour! I still have no idea what songs I’m going to perform in those countries; but I’m confident that my journey will feature some unforgettable nights of singing. Seeing Machu Picchu and the Panama Canal, among other sights, will be pretty awesome too.

It’s time for another photograph of the week that memorializes one of my favourite destinations from the past! Today’s featured image comes from Cape Town, South Africa. That city’s signature landmark is not man-made; it’s the natural wonder of Table Mountain. A flat-topped promontory overlooking the city, Table Mountain boasts breathtaking views from its approximately 3,500-foot elevation. Here’s one of them:

Cape Town view

In this view, you can see the rotating cylindrical cable car that ferries visitors to the summit. (You can also choose to hike up the mountain.) Visible in the background are the smaller peak known as Lion’s Head; and, beyond it, the Atlantic Ocean. Cape Town’s city centre is just to the right of the frame.

This photo was taken during my visit to South Africa in September 2011. To see what Table Mountain looks like from ground level, go here.

Would you like to go to the top of Table Mountain?

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H-Bomb’s Friday Photo, week 33: a riotous marketplace in Marrakesh

Welcome to what, in the Northern Hemisphere, is the first Friday of autumn! (And if you’re reading this from below the equator, happy first Friday of the spring!) Fresh off my appearance this month as a quiz show contestant, I’ve registered to audition in early October for another game show: “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Wish me luck with that!

As that audition approaches, I’ll have to fill out the written application and brush up on my trivia. But I’ll get to that stuff later. Right now, it’s time for another featured image from my travels. Our newest photo of the week comes from Morocco, and specifically from the city of Marrakesh. With a population of just over 900,000, Marrakesh is the fourth-largest city in Morocco; historically it often served as the capital of the Moroccan Kingdom. (Today, the capital city of Morocco is Rabat.)

The focal point of Marrakech’s medina (old city) is its vast central square and open-air marketplace that’s called the Jemaa el Fna. That square is well-known as a symbol of the city. Most notably perhaps, it appeared in several scenes in the great Alfred Hitchcock movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Here’s a view looking towards the Jemaa el Fna at dusk:

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Rising up in the background is the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque. As you can see, the marketplace pulses with activity after the sun goes down; at that time it fills with stalls peddling street food and produce. If you look closely, you can see steam rising up from some of those stalls.

This photo was taken during my visit to Morocco in February 2011.

Would you like to visit Morocco?

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H-Bomb’s Friday Photo, week 30: a transported temple in Egypt

Greetings. It’s Friday, my favourite day of the week! And as we approach the beginning of autumn here in New York City, we’ve been enjoying spectacular weather. I hope it’s nice where you are, too.

Today we have a new weekly photo. Our latest featured image comes from Abu Simbel in the southern part of Egypt. In that town you can find a pair of temples. Here’s a glimpse at the façade of the larger of the two, known as the Great Temple:

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The two temples at the site were constructed in the 13th century B.C. under the direction of the pharaoh Ramses II, also known as Ramses the great; four statues of him sit in front of the façade. Each of the statues is some 66 feet in height.

The temples were originally built on the shore of the Nile; but after standing there for over 3,000 years, they had to be moved when the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s, in order to avoid being submerged. (The construction of the dam resulted in the creation of Lake Nasser, the largest man-made lake in the world, which inundated the area where the temples had stood). The temples were broken down into blocks and reassembled on higher ground; the relocation, a truly amazing feat of engineering, took about four years.

This photo was taken during my visit to Egypt in September 2012. At that time — 19 months after the revolution that deposed President Hosni Mubarak — conditions in Egypt were relatively stable, and it was safe for tourists such as me to visit most areas of the country. But in July 2013, Mubarak’s democratically elected successor, Mohamed Morsi, was himself ousted, and much turmoil and strife have ensued. For the sake of the Egyptian people — a people that I found to be friendly and hospitable — I hope that peace and stability will soon return to their land.

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Touring Egypt, part 4: the earliest Egyptian pyramid in Saqqara, plus the ancient capital of Memphis

The pyramids in Giza date back over 4,500 years, a scale of time that can be difficult to comprehend. But none of the Gizan monuments can claim to be the oldest pyramid in Egypt. That distinction goes to the step pyramid built for King Djoser. You’ll find it in Saqqara, which, like Giza, is an easy day-trip from Cairo (Saqqara lies about 19 miles south of Cairo’s downtown). Saqqara is not a city; it’s a giant necropolis that, in antiquity, served the corpse-disposal needs of the nearby city of Memphis. During my September 2012 vacation to Egypt, my tour group spent a morning in the remains of Saqqara and Memphis.

SAQQARA: A CITY OF THE DEAD

Djoser’s step pyramid: a trend-setter

The centerpiece of Saqqara is the step pyramid, which was completed before Djoser’s death in 2611 B.C. — thereby predating the pyramids in Giza by about 100 years. It features a more primitive “step” pattern, rather than the smooth sides of most pyramids you’ll see.

Djoser's step pyramid at Saqqara.

Djoser’s step pyramid at Saqqara.

Although it has bragging rights within Egypt, this edifice might not be the absolute oldest pyramid in the world. Continue reading

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Touring Egypt, part 3: tomb raiding in the Valley of the Kings

Tut tutMany people have witnessed the fabulous treasures that were recovered from King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Some of those artifacts have gone on traveling exhibitions that toured the world beginning in the 1970s (just ask Steve Martin); and the collection — including the famous gold funerary mask — is permanently housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

It’s comparatively rare to stand in the presence of King Tut himself. Unlike the stuff that was buried with him, the most legendary of all Egyptian monarchs still remains (in mummified form) in the subterranean chamber in which he was deposited following his death in 1323 B.C. That tomb can be found in the area known as the Valley of the Kings. My wanderings through Egypt in September 2012 included a visit to that valley, and the unique chance to gain an audience with King Tut.

A really upscale (and really old) cemetery

The Valley of the Kings is a sprawling necropolis on a desert plain on the west bank of the Nile River, near the city of Luxor and about 300 miles south of Cairo. In ancient times, the full name of the site was “The Great and Majestic Necropolis of the Millions of Years of the Pharaoh, Life, Strength, Health in The West of Thebes.” (Thebes, one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the Bronze Age world, was a precursor to Luxor.) This particular burial ground was quite exclusive; the only people laid to rest within its confines were kings and select noble personages. (Nearby is a separate Valley of the Queens, in which wives and children of pharaohs found eternal repose.) Its clients received accommodations befitting the stations they had occupied while alive; most of the tombs are voluminous and elaborately decorated.

Entering the Valley of the Kings.

Entering the Valley of the Kings.

The first corpse to be interred in the Valley of the Kings was probably that of Thutmosis I, who perished around 1500 B.C. The last tomb constructed at the site was built for Ramses XI, who passed away in 1078 or 1077 B.C., but it’s believed that he wasn’t buried in it.

Like the pyramids in Giza, the tombs were a tourist draw even in antiquity. Continue reading

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H-Bomb’s Friday Photo, Week 14: a lesser-known Sphinx in Egypt

We’ve made it through another week. And that means it’s time for our latest featured photo! Today’s image comes from Memphis, the second capital of Egypt (it held that status from roughly 2950 B.C. to 2180 B.C.). The Great Sphinx at Giza, which I also visited, is justly world-renowned; but there’s another sphinx in Memphis that has also endured through the ages.

the alabaster sphinx in Memphis

It’s not nearly as large as the one at Giza (it’s only about 26 feet long and 13 feet high, in contrast to the Great Sphinx at Giza which is 241 feet long); and it’s quite a bit younger (it’s believed to have been chiseled sometime between 1700 BC and 1400 BC, which means that the Memphis sphinx may have been built over a thousand years later than its Gizan counterpart). It’s been dubbed the Alabaster Sphinx, although it’s actually made out of calcite, a mineral that’s merely similar to alabaster.

This photo was taken during my trip to Egypt in September 2012.

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Touring Egypt, part 2: staring across the abyss of time in Giza

Previously in this ongoing series about my September 2012 holiday in Egypt, I recounted my impressions of the capital city of Cairo. (Seriously, if you haven’t read that one yet, you should do so immediately!) Now we proceed to Giza, the featured attraction of my sojourn in the Land of the Pharaohs. We’re still just getting started; there are many more Egyptian locales that I still need to get around to covering in this series!

The pyramids at Giza have been tourist magnets since the days of the Roman empire, making them among the very first travel hotspots in world history. (International tourism originated during Roman times.) One of the joys of my own visit to the Giza Plateau was the knowledge that I was gazing upon the very same sights that had allured and mystified a hundred generations of travelers before me. While I took in countless spectacular things during my fortnight in Egypt, the ruins at Giza surpassed just about everything else. During the course of my stays in Cairo, I made three separate excursions to Giza; but I would eagerly go back yet again if the chance arose.

ON THE GIZA PLATEAU

Meet the pyramids

Three principal pyramids rise up from the stretch of desert known as the Giza Plateau, which is about 10 miles from Cairo’s city center. All were erected in the 26th century B.C.

• The largest and most celebrated is, of course, the Great Pyramid, which was built for King Khufu (also known to us as Cheops, the Hellenized version of his name). Originally soaring to a height of 481 feet, the Great Pyramid stood as the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years, until eclipsed by England’s Lincoln Cathedral in 1311 A.D. (Erosion has since reduced the height of the Great Pyramid to a still-impressive 455 feet.) The Great Pyramid has gained particular renown as the only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world that still survives intact in modern times.

• The second-biggest is the pyramid of Khufu’s son, Khafre (known alternatively by his Greek name of Chefren); at 448 feet it’s nearly as tall as the Great Pyramid itself. (Prior to erosion, Khafre’s pyramid topped out at 471 feet.)

• The bronze for third-largest goes to the pyramid of Khafre’s son, Menkaure (a pharaoh who also goes by the Hellenized name of Mykerinos); its height is 204 feet, down from 215 feet before the ravaging effects of erosion did their thing.

In addition to the main pyramidal trinity, the site contains several much smaller buildings in that shape, known as “Queen’s Pyramids” (in reference to the personages who were buried in them); and a variety of other, more conventional tombs. (The three largest pyramids were, themselves, conceived as mausoleums for the kings who decreed their construction. The mummies of those kings have never been found; their remains may have been purloined by grave-robbers in the distant past. Whether those grave-robbers succumbed to the curse of the mummy is anyone’s guess.)

The world’s first skyline. Left to right: the Great Pyramid; the pyramid of Khafre; and the pyramid of Menkaure. One of the Queen’s Pyramids is visible at the extreme right.

My tour group in front of the Great Pyramid.

The pyramids are remarkable works of engineering that surely deserve to be considered among the world’s first great works of architecture. As with Stonehenge and the moai of Easter Island, we’re not completely sure how they were built, in light of the primitive technology available to the society that designed them. It’s no wonder that, when writing a midterm examination in a freshman year history course at university, I speculated that benevolent space aliens assisted the ancient Egyptians in the construction of their iconic monuments. (I received an “F” on that exam, but it’s not my fault that my professor wasn’t open to my revisionist scholarship.) 🙂

My experience visiting Giza’s pyramids wasn’t limited to admiring them from the outside. Continue reading

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H-Bomb’s Friday Photo, Week 7: a tablecloth in Cape Town

Hey everyone! I hope you’re finishing up an outstanding week. This week’s featured image comes from Cape Town, South Africa. When a cloud rolls in over iconic Table Mountain, locals call the effect a “tablecloth.” Here, you can see such a phenomenon in action.

The view here is looking towards Table Mountain from the Victoria & Albert Waterfront. The Lego-like sculpture of a man in the right foreground is made entirely of Coca-Cola crates; entitled “Crate Fan,” it was built for the World Cup in 2010 and is still there. The artist who created it is Porky Hefer (I swear, I’m not making that up, that’s really his name).

This photo was taken during my visit to South Africa in September 2011.

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Touring Egypt, part 1: Cairo, gateway to historic Egypt

A visit to the pyramids at Giza is a marquee item on many bucket lists. Indeed, the pyramids were one of the destinations that the dying old men visited in the crappy Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman movie that inspired the whole bucket list craze in the first place. To be sure, seeing the pyramids up close and personal is a surpassing experience (and one which is covered in my next post). But there’s much more to Egypt than those piles of limestone bricks in the desert. This is the first in a series of articles in which I’ll comprehensively recap my two week tour of a magical land that’s been around since the dim mists of recorded history. That tour took place in September 2012. (As sort of a prologue to the series, I wrote about how Egypt became country no. 25 on my World Karaoke Tour. Check out that article to find out what happened when I sang “Walk Like An Egyptian” in Egypt!) Today’s subject is Cairo, the capital city in which my adventure got underway. Future installments will cover the other checkpoints on my Egyptian itinerary: not only Giza, but also Luxor, Karnak, Dendara, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Philae, the Valley of the Kings, Aswan, Abu Simbel, Memphis, and Saqqara. And I’ll also write about my cruise on the Nile, that wonderful liquid highway by which I reached many of those immortal locales.

Last month, an article in the New York Times travel section discussed the idea of sharing moments with history. The concept is that when you travel to an area that’s steeped in history, your journey isn’t only geographic; you’re also transported along a temporal dimension. Egypt works particularly well as such a time machine; wherever in the country you go, you find yourself in the long shadow of the past. And Cairo is the perfect gateway to that time machine. It’s a 21st-century megacity that sits, in part, on land mentioned in the Old Testament; and in it you can commune with various historical moments along the continuum between the Bronze Age and modernity. (Hat tip to one of my favourite travel bloggers, Jenna Francisco of “This Is My Happiness”, for bringing to my attention the aforementioned Times article and its notion of communing with history.)

Before I could explore all that history, I had to overcome fears stoked by a present-day crisis. Just days before I was supposed to be in Cairo, anti-American demonstrations had flared up at the U.S. embassy there. Some of the footage that the TV news channels were broadcasting looked pretty frightening. I wondered: should I reconsider my trip? Since you’re reading this article now, I obviously proceeded to go. And I was so happy that I did!

Once I arrived in Egypt, it quickly became apparent that the perils were overblown and overhyped by the American media. The protests fizzled out within a few days and had always been minor in scope (involving only a few hundred people in a city with a metropolitan area population of nearly 19 million). Ultimately, I never felt in danger in Cairo or anywhere else in Egypt. To the contrary, all the locals I met were friendly and hospitable. What’s more, to the extent the subject of my nationality came up, Egyptians uniformly had good things to say about the United States. That made me very glad that I didn’t act ashamed of where I was from or pretend to be from Canada (as one of my Facebook friends had actually suggested I do — not that I would have ever considered putting a maple leaf on my daypack). Anywhere I go, even in my home city of New York, I just have to exercise common sense and appropriate caution. Egypt, including Cairo, turned out to be no different in this regard. (One factor that enhanced my sense of well-being in Cairo: both hotels there in which I stayed were like fortresses. You’re required to pass through a metal detector every time you enter; bomb-sniffing dogs are on hand; and vehicles, including taxis, that pull up into the hotel’s driveway must pop their trunks open for inspection. And it’s not just the hotels; metal detectors are ubiquitous at the entrances to tourist sites throughout Egypt, although outside of Cairo, those screening checkpoints are frequently unattended and disregarded.)

The thing that can legitimately be deadly in Cairo is the traffic. Continue reading

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H-Bomb’s Friday Photo, week 1: a Moroccan mosque

Welcome to this website’s newest feature! Every Friday (with hopefully rare exceptions when things like travel preclude it), I’ll be posting a photo from my previous worldwide adventures. Some of those pics will have appeared, or will appear in the future, in substantive blog posts here; others will only be seen in these weekly “Friday Photo” posts.

To kick off the series, here’s a look at the Hassan II Mosque (Arabic: مسجد الحسن الثاني) in Casablanca, Morocco:

Completed in 1993, this mosque was designed by the French architect Michel Pinseau and can accommodate 25,000 worshippers. The minaret, ascending to a height of 210 meters (689 feet), is the tallest in the world.

This photo was taken during my visit to Morocco in February 2011.

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Country no. 25 on my World Karaoke Tour: I sang like an Egyptian

Greetings, readers. I’m currently in Egypt. Earlier this week, this storied Land of the Pharaohs became country no. 25 on my World Karaoke Tour! And I’m here now to tell you how it all went down. I’ve been taking plenty of photos on this 2-week trip that I’m now in the middle of; in upcoming articles I’ll post many of those pictures, and I’ll talk about the stunning historical sights that I’ve been seeing. But the focus today, in my initial dispatch from Egypt, is on my experience of the Egyptian karaoke scene. Priorities! 🙂

Night no. 1: Giza

I’ve actually sung in Egypt on two different evenings so far. My Egyptian karaoke debut occurred on Monday, September 17, 2012 at the Laguna Lounge Cafe & Restaurant in Mohandessin, a neighbourhood in Giza (Giza being internationally renowned as the city in which you’ll find the Great Pyramid and Great Sphinx). Continue reading

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