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A streetscape in our Jardins neighborhood

Sao Paolo turned out to be little more than a utility stop for us. That seems like a shame in a way, since it’s one of the biggest cities in the world. And it’s sort of the New York of Brazil, with tens of thousands of restaurants and innumerable shops and art galleries and nightclubs and bars. Many well-heeled Brazilians wouldn’t live anywhere else.

But for an outsider it’s a hard place to get a grasp of. It’s so huge and sprawling. It’s not very pretty. There are really no monuments or must-do sights that you’ve ever heard of. It’s knd of a mystery in a way, especially when its rival metropolis, Rio de Janeiro, is packed with sights and beaches that are practically household names.

If you have a 15-hour flight to get to Brazil it helps a lot if your plane has a bar!

Another big drawback is the city’s reputation for crime. Like in Rio, you hear and read so many warnings that you feel like staying holed up in a bunker. We stayed in a fairly posh part of town called Jardins, where you could walk pretty freely around, without too much worry. There were plenty of restaurants and shops to keep us occupied, especially since we had errands to run.

Ordinarily I would have liked to wander around historic central Sao Paolo, not too far from Jardins, to see its grand colonial architecture. But when the guidebook warns you to watch out for the countless pickpockets — and avoid the area altogether in the evening or on weekends, that deflates your interest quite a bit.

So we mostly stuck to our own neighborhood and got through our chores. It didn’t help matters that chores were more difficult than normal. Our first priority upon arrival in any new country is to buy SIM cards for our phones. The difficulty varies wildly from country to country, but Brazil turned out to be the worst. Most stores simply would not sell them without a Brazilian ID. Many phone stores were mysteriously closed on the weekend, even though everything around them was open.

And we faced a surprising language barrier in these stores and elsewhere in Sao Paolo. In so much of the world there is a strong presence of English, at least among young people in educated, urbanized areas. The biggest exceptions have been in China and Japan, and to a surprising extent here in Sao Paolo.

Nonetheless, I managed to eventually muddle my way through the complications of buying SIM cards using some combination of a few words of Portuguese, filling in with Spanish and Italian, and a good dose of google Translate. After two days of finally finding a place that would sell the SIM card, we loaded them in our phones only to find that it takes up to 24 hours for it to work. What the hell?

We of course managed to sniff out some great food here, and we got through our errands. And we did even enjoy just a taste of the things we love about Brazil. It’s super multi-cultural. People like to have fun. They stay up late. And now we are ready to hit the road and encounter all that we love about Brazil in some more beautiful places.

Jim, on the streetscape, as we churn through our errands

After a long walk to an Indian restaurant that was unexpectedly closed, we ducked into a nearby Italian place, where they served us outrageous amounts of tasty grub

Mark and Jim take over the airplane bar. And if you are wondering, yes, Jim is wearing pajamas.

We were pleasantly surprised when we saw some camels on the grounds of the hotel. Then even more surprised when we realized they were plastic.

After three weeks traveling the length of the Nile, from Alexandria in the far north to Abu Simbel in the far south, it was time to ditch the history lessons and head to the beach. In Egypt “the beach” means the Red Sea.

The Red Sea offers two primary playground areas. The first, Hurghada, runs along the edge of the Eastern Desert — the vast stretch of desert between the Nile and the Red Sea. The alternative is Sharm El-Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula. Both areas are famed for spectacular diving and snorkeling. Both areas are massively built out for tourism.

Boston Bear was pleased with the hotel housekeeper, who made some pretty elaborate friends for him

I was in Hurghada on my last trip to Egypt 34 years ago, so I was more interested in going to Sharm El-Sheikh this time. And besides, Hurghada sounded quite overbuilt and a bit run down, while Sharm El-Sheikh is reputed to be a bit more stylish and with more appealing places to stay. Nonetheless, the way the transportation worked out, it was pretty convenient for us to visit both, so we ended up booking five nights at each place. From Luxor, it’s a three-hour drive across the desert to Hurghada, and from there it’s a 30-minute airplane hop over the Red Sea to Sharm.

Indeed, the contrast turned out to be stark (though we’ll save stylish Sharm El-Sheik for our next installment). After five nights in Hurghada we are hard pressed to say very much nice about the place — except that the snorkeling was really impressive. From our hotel you could swim right out to a reef teeming with colorful fish and coral and the works. Regrettably, we have no underwater camera, so you only get pictures of the lesser beloved aspects of our stay.

When I first considered (skeptically) staying in Hurghada, I was less than thrilled wth the choices of accommodation. The place is jam-packed with junky looking all-inclusive resorts catering to Europeans who jet into “Egypt” on cheap package holidays. And a lot of resorts here appear to be abandoned, victims of a tourism slump since the revolution of 2011. But then I discovered that the upscale Indian hotel company Oberoi has a property in an area called Sahl Hasheesh at the far Southern end of the sprawl. Since our Nile cruise was also run by Oberoi, they’d include a nice comfy transfer across the desert for us.

On the last day here I decided to have a glass of wine with my lunch. I was a little surprised when it came in an airplane bottle, complete with a miniature ice bucket.

But aside from that impressive reef, even the Oberoi was a disappointment. The landscape was too stark. The hotel was strangely designed so that the well-appointed rooms mysteriously faced away from the sea. The food was hit or miss (more miss). And when we took a long drive into Hurghada for lunch outside the resort, the best restaurant we found was dreadful.

And I won’t blame the Oberoi, but we managed to have five days of weather dominated by wind. It was so windy we never wanted to go in the water, which was rough. The exception was the third morning, when the wind was gone and the water was miraculously still, like glass. An English guest told me this was his last day of a two-week stay, and it was the first day without that hideous wind. He also told me how great the snorkeling was, so Jim and I headed to the dive shop to get snorkel equipment for the first time.

When we came out of the dive shop 15 minutes later the wind had come back out of nowhere. We couldn’t believe it! The gorgeous morning had given way to that damned wind, just like that! We did snorkel anyway, and it really was impressive, until the wind and waves caused me to stress out and crash onto the reef. So I left Hurghada with my hands and legs covered in scratches, cuts, and bruises.

And on top of that, Jim came down with a nasty case of food poisoning. So this stop was not a huge success. Let’s hope we like Sharm El-Sheikh better.

Oberoi hotels tend to have beautiful Indian Mughal-style architecture. But here the landscape was dull, and the rooms were strangely oriented away from the beach.

One day we took a LONG drive into a touristy area for lunch. The restaurant choices were dismal, but Jim did get a chance to pose with this Roman soldier.

As I mentioned the landscape here was surprisingly stark and dull. The sky was not actually dappled. I added that to punch up a boring picture.

The beach was okay, but notice the trees fighting against that miserable wind

I knew you’d want one more look at those plastic camels

The Temple of Horus at Edfu, possibly the best preserved temple in the entire ancient world.

From Aswan we sailed north to Edfu to visit the Temple of Horus, which is arguably among the very best preserved buildings from the entire ancient world. It’s also relatively new for ancient Egypt, as it was built by the Ptolemaic pharaohs (Greek descendants of Alexander the Great) between 237 BC and 57 BC. Its roots go back back a bit further, since the Ptolemies built the current temple on the site of an older, smaller one.

But despite its tender age of a little over 2,000 years, it’s been through a lot. Like many monuments from ancient Egypt it suffered greatly at the hands of Christian zealots after the Roman Empire banned non-Christian worship in 391 AD. Throughout Egypt, devoted Christians thereafter destroyed “pagan” images in temples, often scratching out the faces or whole bodies of carved figures. They carved crosses into various parts of the temples to convert them to churches. And they blackened painted surfaces either through burning candles or intentional arson.

As the centuries wore on and the Egyptian gods were forgotten in favor of Christian and then Muslim teachings, this temple and many others were slowly buried by Nile silt deposits and drifting desert sands. The upper reaches of the Edfu temple only barely stuck out from the sand when French explorers found it in 1798. In the late 19th century, French Egyptologists began to remove the sand and mud, thus to discover a remarkably well preserved temple.

One of the stunning granite statues of the god Horus

The massive columns, still bearing loads of detailed carving and traces of original paint, are awe inspiring

Unfortunately, religious zealots had a nasty habit of scratching out the carved images of ancient gods and pharaohs in the early years of Christianity under the Roman empire

Here is one of my favorite little details from among the endless carved images that cover the temple walls. I know that the symbol on the bottom means “water,” and I’m guessing that the symbol above means something along the lines of “bunny rabbit.”

At the back of the innermost sanctum of the Edfu temple stands a huge carved granite altar from the earlier temple on this site

After one night docked in Edfu we sailed on toward Luxor, the capital of Egypt during its golden age in the mid-second millennium BC. While we are not big fans of cruises (or most other kinds of organized group travel) there is something pretty magical about floating along the Nile. We love the colors of the deep blue water, the lush green strip of farmland along the edges, the rose-colored sands and mountains beyond, and the bright blue sky above. We love floating past bustling cities. And we love the glimpses of little villages that appear to have hardly changed since ancient times.

We’ve been surprised by how blue the Nile waters are, especially further south

Gliding past a village in a time warp

Passing the city of Esna, as we approach a lock on the Nile

As we approached a lock near Esna, we noticed some aggressive touts along the lock and in little boats below. Then ensued a scene of mild chaos as they would toss their wares three stories into the air to land on our deck. Our fellow passengers would laugh as the little projectiles would land on the deck or straight into their hands. Some passengers would dutifully throw them back to the touts below. Others, to my amazement, would scoop them up and then throw money back down.

People going about daily life on the river

Stepping back on board the boat after a long day of sightseeing

A great way to relax and watch the world go past