Friday, January 10, 2014

Latvian connections and Digging into the past, Part I

One of the best things about being Latvian is having friends in many different places. Over the years, I have been fortunate to be able to visit quite a few friends living in various locales - both exotic, and some not-so-much.

Interestingly, a cancelled vacation to Latvia in spring 2010 resulted in my traveling to Egypt later that year.

In November 2010, I combined visiting Latvian diplomat friends in Cairo with attending an American friend's wedding in Sharm-el-Sheikh. I am so very grateful that I did decide to journey to Egypt at that time -- only two months later, in January 2011, Egyptians revolted against their government and unfortunately many parts of the country became less safe to visit. My friends in Cairo were fantastic hosts; not only did they show me around Cairo, but I was also able to attend the embassy's reception to celebrate Latvia's Independence Day.

My fabulous Cairo hosts - at the Embassy reception
Very few Latvians live in Egypt, but like many northern Europeans, Latvians like to vacation in Egypt - particularly in the resort towns Sharm-el-Sheikh and Hurghada, both on the Red Sea. However, at the Embassy reception I did have the opportunity to meet a few local Latvians, including a couple of young women who were studying in Cairo and who shared numerous interesting experiences (not all positive!) about their time in the country. I also briefly met Latvia's honorary consul to Jordan, whose hospitality I would unexpectedly appreciate at the end of the trip.

This photo of the Giza Pyramids is deceptive - the city surrounds them!

Several fun days in Cairo included visiting pyramids (both the Giza and Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara), the overstuffed National Museum, the highly entertaining Military Museum, a couple of mosques, and the busy souk which is an enormous bazaar/marketplace where - among other things - a woman yanked my ponytail for some unknown reason. Then I returned to the airport to meet my great friend Nora and her wonderful family. We flew to Sharm-el-Sheikh for several days of rest and relaxation, and for Nora's wedding to her Egyptian fiancee whom she had met while living in Dubai. I had never vacationed in a all-inclusive resort; in some ways it was a very relaxing experience, yet at the same time I generally prefer a more active type of vacation - lying at the side of the pool or on the beach is not something I can do for hours or days on end.

In Saqqara. This must be where phrase "walk like an Egyptian" originated!
Pool at our hotel in Sharm with Sinai Mountains in the back
The wedding itself was one of the more memorable I've experienced. The reception took place outdoors, on a lovely expanse of green grass overlooking the Red Sea. The weather was perfect (think sunny, warm but not humid), the food was amazing, the music was entertaining, and the company was fun.

With Nora at her wonderful wedding
The day immediately after the wedding I, along with many other guests, had plans to return home. I had hoped to finish my vacation in a cooler locale - by visiting a German friend near Zurich, Switzerland for a couple of days. The weather gods, however, ensured that my trip would take a Middle Eastern detour. My morning flight out of Sharm was delayed for hours due to fog. Luckily, other guests were in the same situation and we kept one another company at the small airport. My flight into Cairo arrived so late that I saw the SwissAir jet take off as my plane was landing.

Naturally, SwissAir only has one flight a day out of the Cairo airport, and all of their employees had gone home for the evening. The employee of another airline took pity on me (I had no way of calling anyone!,) and took me to a back office so that I could use his company's telephone. I desperately called my friends in Cairo to let them know I was stuck for the night. Luckily, they were able to rescue me in due time. At their apartment I called United Airlines (I'd arranged my flights with United frequent flyer miles) and was informed that the soonest I could leave Cairo was the following evening - by flying from Cairo to Amman, Jordan (with a long layover there) to Frankfurt and finally back to Washington. I had no choice but to accept this option.

I'll be honest - I am not the most adventurous traveler, so the idea of spending many hours at an airport in Jordan - a country about which I unfortunately knew nothing - was not my idea of a fantastic time. I mentioned this to my friends, and quickly Latvian connections came into play yet again: the honorary consul for Latvia in Jordan would be happy to host me for dinner during the long layover in Amman.

After landing at the airport, I purchased a visa, exited the gate area, and found a chauffeur waiting for me. He drove me through the quiet and dark streets of Amman - after the chaos of Cairo (where I was terrified to even cross the street by myself!), it seemed very calm. The consul treated me to good French wine and a delicious dinner, offered me fresh olives from his farm, showed me his art collection, entertained me with stories of travels and business ventures. After a couple of hours, the chauffeur returned and drove me back to the airport.

When I saw the airport's packed waiting area, I was particularly grateful that I had been able to escape for a few hours. Everyone from German backpackers who looked like they had not showered in a week to Arabic women in full abayas and many enormous suitcases were sitting, lying, napping and sleeping on any available chair. Although Jordan is a relatively small country (population of about 6 million), and the airport is not particularly large, it happens to be hub for many flights to/from the Middle East. Finally my flight was announced, and I was allowed to check in and go through security. I enjoyed stocking up on Middle Eastern sweets at the large duty free shop, and eventually boarded the plane at some ungodly hour - may have been 3am or so. Irregardless, Lufthansa, being a airline that still values its passengers and their appetites, served an amazing breakfast after the flight took off. My layover in Frankfurt was great, as Germany is a country I love dearly, and the opportunity to eat a bratwurst and brotchen and buy many excellent German chocolates was much appreciated. Naturally, returning home at the end of fabulous vacation is anti-climactic, but there was one thing I could say with certainty to anyone who asked about my trip - I am incredibly glad I had decided to go to Egypt, as it was in many ways a once-in-lifetime opportunity.

Bonus: Movie recommendation: For a beautiful yet somewhat romanticized view of Cairo from a tourist's perspective, I highly recommend the film "Cairo Time."

1 comment:

  1. We never made it to Egypt, but traveled portions of Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon a few years before it blew up. Like you said, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I'm glad we seized it. I hope we make it back to the region to see Cairo someday... Great entry, I like the Latvian connection!


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