Sunday, December 12, 2004
I have been getting out of the capital a little to see some of the countryside and do some field research. Look look! Another &*#%ing sand dune! God damn it camel. Hey you, yeah you, the little guy inthe robes and turban riding the camel, get your herd the hell out the road! All this while crammed in the backseat of a car with three other more than full sized adults (fat is considered beautiful here, so they force feed their women - and everything is gender segregated. Lucky me.) and two children. For 13 hours. I arrived in the village of Kiffa, out in the southeast section of the country. Kiffa is reknowned for its beads and its rabid conservatism. So it was veils all the way. Which have their uses. Put your walkman on underneath it and nod to the music. People think that you understand and care about what they are saying.
I set up camp at the home of one of the Peace Corps volunteers out there for a day or so until the real fun began. I was to spend 3 days with one of the field survey teams in the bush. So they drive me 140 kms out to this team. It is five guys in a tent, and two pickup trucks. No shelter. No bathroom. No latrine even. Just me, in a sandy field, with 5 Mauritanians. One of which at least spoke French, because my Arabic is still comical. Okay, no worries. One of the other fun things about this place is that I had to wear a mulafah, the traditional garb of the women here. (I didn't want anyof the guys getting the wrong idea by accidentally seeing my wrapped around a woman so she is completely covered accept for herface. And maybe the tops of her feet. Her hands are accessible, at great pain-in-the-ass-ness, if she really needs them. The other funthing about the mulafah, other that it being stiflingly hot in the desert heat, is that it drags on the ground, picking up ever burr and thorn you pass over. It is a fun nighttime activity while the sun is going down (there is no lights either ovbiously) to laboriously pull the briars out of your garments.
So here I am, in a field, with these guys, in this ridicules outfit, pretending that I have a clue as to what I was doing. No worries.
My first afternoon with the team, we loaded up the trucks, me riding in the survey truck, followed by the straying truck, and headed out across the fields. We stopped farmers and hearders and asked them if they had seen any locusts, then we would dash off in that direction to do a quick biological review and then spray the bastards. After two grueling hours of this, the guys called it a day and went back to drink tea. Next day it was up with the light. One of the guys had lent me his cot to sleep on, which was nice, but it was frigging freezing out there. By 6:30 we had had our tea and then it was off again to look for locusts. We stayed out for three hours this time before calling it a day. Then we went back and drank tea for a few hours until itwas lunch time. They we went over to a neighboring tent, where the herder was absent, leaving his wife and, coincidentially, five unmarried daughters, behind. Convenient eh? When I asked the teamabout the set up, they said that they camped there because they got a lot milk. I have to assume it was from the goat herds.
We had a 5 hour lunch, then drank more tea. Conversation over lunch? Why workers in America were more productive. I suggested that it might have something to do with the fact that they worked more than 3 hours a day. They insisted it was the air conditioning. After lunch we headed out again. We got all over 3 kms away, when POP there goes the tire. So then there I am, still in this ridiucles robe, unscrewingthe bolts on the tire, in the middle of a field and sand blew acrossinto my face. Is this what i signed up for?
I was leaving the next day, so they decided to have a nice dinner before I left. And keep in mind, I have been really game about eating and drinking what it put in front of me. Liver, fat, whatever, I ate it. Before every meal they gave me the special desert drink, unpasterized goat milk, mixed with untreated water and sugar. That probably won't hurt me right? And then unpasterized cow milk, sometimes still warm from the cow, after dinner. But, back to the subject at hand. Dinner. They lift off the cover, and Voila! couscous and goat head! oh god. I eat some couscous from the communal plate as the men tear into the eyes. I have a bit of face meat to not seem ungrateful. And stick to the couscous. After all the meat had been pulled off the skull, I thought we were done. Then one of the guys takes the skull in his heads, and cracks it open. He pulls out the brain. It looks just like it does on all the cartoons,with the little ridges and everything... Then he breaks it up withhis figures and distributes it. I have no choice. I take a bite.%$&%(*$&%(#$!!!!! That doesn't taste very good. Next day we spent the morning in the field, then headed back to the main town. Next morning I was headed back to the capital. I was a did I mention that there was no way to wash for the three days I spentin the field...).
I was stoked when I hit the last major town before the capital. It also has my favorite name of anyplace I haveyet encountered. It is called Boutilimit. (Pronounced Booty-Limit). And it is one of the only places with cell phone service on the roadback. So you hear everyone's phones click on, then, in a wide arrayof languages, people calling there friends and loved ones to say, "I am beyond Boutilimit, it won't be long now
Monday, October 04, 2004
Saturday, August 07, 2004
Well, I’m back. Sitting in the basement of my parents’ house, doing laundry, typin’ away.
Just a couple quick things in closing. I didn’t do too much my last days in Istanbul. The morning after I left you, I visited the Topkapi Palace, home of the Ottoman sultanate and suitably adorned, including an 86 carat diamond. That afternoon I decided to hit the Grand Bazaar. Now, I had waited all the way through the Middle East to do my heavy duty shopping, waiting for the largest Bazaar in the world. I was so excited I was practically skipping down the narrow alley toward the entrance. I saw the sign, stepped under the bar and.... my heart stopped. Florescent lighting? Linoleum floors? AIR CONDITIONING? I was in the $&*#*ing MALL! I wandered around in disbelief. Where were the donkeys? The little old men and their bundles? The dirt? The pickpockets? It was so traumatizing I didn’t even buy anything during my first outing. (Never fear though, by the next morning I had recovered enough to drop $250 on a hand inlayed Turkish end table and $70 on a four foot green glass hookah pipe.)
The next day was spent shopping in the morning, and at the rug museum. (Everything in Istanbul is about selling rugs to tourists. Go in to a restaurant, rugs for sale. Museum, rugs. Baths, rug. Trying to seek sanctuary in the post office? Rug stamps. It gets to the point where “hello” from travelers has been replaced by “I don’t want to buy a rug. Now, can you tell me...”) That evening I was hanging out with some other travelers, drinking beer and playing backgammon, as I have been known to do on occasion. There was this Turkish guy that worked at the bar that was just beyond annoying. He leered at all the women and won’t let you play backgammon for a minute without butting in and moving your pieces. I HATE that. The other girls couldn’t stand him either. And he was obnoxious, “White people don’t know how to play. They move too slow. Turks invented backgammon. I am the best! Ha ha!” I don’t know what came over me (though a good bet is that the fact that I had been sitting around drinking beer all afternoon had something to do with it), but I challenged him. Truly threw down the gauntlet too. There would be no good winners in this match, only pathetic losers. As play started he got a little worried by the fact I could count and move my pieces as fast as he did. Yeah, buddy, well things are gonna get worse. I not only beat him, I not only GAMMONED him, but I BACKGAMMONED him. Given I got some lucky rolls, but the guy certainly wasn’t good enough to talk the talk. I tossed down the dice and said, “And I thought Turks were supposed to be good at this game.” Then walked off with the other travelers, who might not have thought me a complete god, but certainly a minor deity. And the bastard was too embarrassed to speak to any of us again. High point of Turkey.
Next day I took a boat cruise on the Bosphorus to the mouth of the Black Sea. Nice enough. I decided, in one of my moments of mental lapse, to take the local bus back to town. Yes, despite the fact I had no idea where I was, which direction to go, nor did I speak Turkish to ask anyone. [Insert comical musical interlude here, with me getting on and off various buses in various urban and rural landscapes, stopping being lost only long enough to eat a shwarma.] That took care of the rest of the day, except for the requisite stop to eat pudding in the joint from Midnight Express.
Next day I headed home. I checked my luggage and got into the airport with 2 hours until my boarding time. I was hungry, so I went to peruse the food court. What to my watering mouth should appear, but SUSHI! (I don’t care what stereotypes there are about Northeastern liberals, I LIKE the stuff!) I walked over cautiously to check the piece. There was a picture of a roll (6 pieces for non-sushi eaters) with a price of $3 below it. Reasonable! I ordered two rolls. I enjoyed my tuna roll. The California roll was a bit of an adventure. Normally it is made with crab and avocado, this one was made of shrimp salad and pickles. Right colors anyway. Then the bill came. $40. WHAT!?! The price was per piece, not per roll. I had no where near enough money to pay for that. And no way of getting more. Luckily the guy I was sitting next to and had been chatting me up paid for me. (He is an Israeli working in northern Iraq, but scolded me for being reckless because I went to a dangerous place like Syria, all without a trace of irony.)
Then, after a 20 hour layover in Zurich, home again. I will hang up my cargo pants with the pocket system of small change, entrance tickets, bus passes and room keys that would make Molloy’s head spin. The backpack gets a wash and goes on the wall. Shoes are retired.
Sunday, August 01, 2004
I really have nothing interesting to report. I spent one more day in the cave full of Australians, then headed down to Olympos. I spent the last day hiking with two random Brits and a crazy Canadian mother hell bent on taking her two grade school age children to Syria. We went to Love Valley, where the natural rock formations would make Dr. Ruth blush. It was a little lost on the kids. Luckily I was juvenile enough to appreciate it.
Olympos is supposed to be this super cheap, mythical backpacker mecca where the conversation is chill and the dope is plentiful. I fucking hated it. Cheap? Perhaps I shouldn’t have spent almost four months in the developing world before hitting it, but $6 bucks a night to sleep in a “treehouse” (read: rough wood shack with holes in the slates big enough for a chicken to walk through)? No. Not cheap. There was plenty of dope there, although it was mostly in dreadlocked human form. I escaped the scene a bit down to the ruins and the beach, with were admittedly beautiful. That night, around midnight, I went to see the Chimea, the legendary flames spewing forth from the rock, reported to have guided ships since the ancient times. It is supposed to be breath of a mythical beast living below the ground. Scientists speculate that it has something to do with leaking natural gas deposits, though they have about as much empirical proof as the mythical beast theory. The hike up was surprisingly steep and difficult, though short, and I made it (the hike) with some Norwegian guy. The flames are just plain eerie. They burn nothing and from nothing.
Next day I booked a 4 day Mediterranean cruise, and headed out to sea on a huge sailboat. Other than some sunburn, the trip was uneventful. We stopped a few places to swim, pirate caves and the like, and explore some ruins, but that is pretty much it. One of the other guests and I, both crazy American women of course, decided to jump off a cliff at one of the places we stopped to swim. The local kids were doing it, and the Australians of course, both of which have no sense of their own mortality. We passes a couple of older local guys on the way up, procrastinating about the uncomfortable distance between them and the water. We jumped without hesitation, eventually shaming them into doing the same. The captain was mad though. Apparently some crazy American girl had done just the same thing a couple years ago, and managed to break her neck. That captain got sued. This captain wasn’t interested in that fate. He liked me, anyway though, and tried to convince me to stay on the boat to work there. As I sat in the sun, cruising through the beautiful turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, I would be lying if I said I didn’t think about it for a while. “Hi Mom. It’s me. No, everything is fine. Yeah, I decided to blow off the Fulbright and Harvard to be a sea dog in the Mediterranean. What’s that? You are coming to kill me?” I turned him down, but did take his card for future reference.
After the sun, I went to Ephesus, former home of the Temple of Artemis, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, current home to some kick ass Roman ruins. (There is some Greek stuff too but I can’t figure out how to spell Hellanistic.. Helenist... whatever, I am going with Roman.) It is hard to describe ruins (and then there was this mind blowing DORIC column), but they were cool. Back in the main town of Selcuk, I went to the Selcuk museum, which had some bits of the long ago demolished wonder of the world, and a great detailed exhibit on the various ways gladiators had of killing each other, with medical textbook like descriptions. Then it was the tomb of St. John the Apostle (apparently he and Mary moved up here after all the goings on in Judea), which was nice, in that ruined Byzantine Church sort of way.
I am currently in Istanbul. After getting off my second overnight bus in a row this morning, I decided that the best use of the first day was to take a nice long nap. When I came to around noon, I headed off to see the sights. First stop was the ATM, which, given the prices here, will be a frequent one here in Istanbul. Then to Hagia Sofia. It’s a church. It’s a mosque. It’s a museum. Whatever it is it is awesome. (Took over the title of my favorite place of worship from St. John the Divine uptown.) There are Byzantine mosaic, Islamic frescos, immense architecture. It’s got it all. Then I hit the Blue Mosque. Also pretty, but not ol’ Sophie. Final stop of the day was the Underground Cistern, which was, as promised, both underground and a cistern. You could wander on platforms above the flooded floor, where big ol’ carp swam around. In the back they had two colossuses heads of Medusa, one upside down and one on it’s side, that the original builders must have scavenged from a Roman temple to use as column bases. One the way home I wandered through the Hippodome (obelisks for one and all) and had some sour cherry juice (complete with song and dance from mobile cherry juice salesman), and called it a day.
That is it for now. I’ll be back in the US on Friday, so there will likely only be one more installment on Kristen in Wonderland as Dad calls it. Never fear though! I should be in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania by mid September, so the adventures can continue.
Saturday, July 24, 2004
I am currently living with 3 Australians in a cave in central Turkey, but more on that later.
After I last left you, I visited Krak des Chevaliers, the best preserved Crusader Castle in the world. It was a neat trip. Because it isn’t the United States and no one has to worry about insurance, they let you crawl all over the place. At one point I was wandering down an unlit hallway, trying to avoid drainage ditches and exposed wells, using my digital camera as a flashlight. I would take a picture of the space immediately in front of me, use it like a map to walk 10 steps, then take another picture. I was imagining a secret treasure room at the end, but it was just a wall. Oh well. The rest of the castle was nice. You could see all the way to the Mediterranean and Lebanon from the ramparts on top. There were also some nice arches, a gothic portico and the remains of a cathedral that, unsurprisingly, had been turned into a mosque. That night I headed to Aleppo.
I checked into a backpacker joint and was put in a room with three guys, an Austrian, a Korean and a Japanese. The Japanese guy was intolerably cool, like all Japanese backpackers, so I didn’t talk to him. The Korean guy and I went to have dinner. Over a place of something sheep-based and incredibly delicious, he told me about his trip. He has been backpacking for a year and a half, and has another year and a half to go before returning home. He spent the first ten years after university in the Korean military (he had some great tidbits about officers’ training school. Did you know they electro-shock your testicles to see if you’d be tough enough to handle torture if captured?), then he is going to go to China and become a millionaire on the backs of cheap Chinese programming labor. My stories seemed pretty lame in comparison, so I ate more lamb. Back in the room, the Korean guy whipped out his electronics and set up a small Bat Cave on his bed (got to stay connected right?), the Japanese guy hipply lounged with his trucker hat covering his eyes, so I decided to talk to the Austrian, or Ostrich as the Syrians insist on calling him. He was a cute kid who was really worked up about his girlfriend back in Salzberg cheating on him. He had one neat little story though. He had been out in the far east of Syria, near the Iraqi border, when a couple of guys had grabbed him. He was scared shitless and couldn’t imagine what was going on. I sat there looking at this 19-year-old white kid with a crew cut, gray tee-shirt and olive green pants, and thought, gee, I wonder. And I was right! Apparently they thought he was a lost American soldier. He told them he was Austrian, which then prompted them to think that they had a lost Australian soldier, not quite as good, but okay. Eventually the EU passport sorted it out and they let him go.
My first day in Aleppo I made the requisite visit to the citadel. ABC. Another Bloody Citadel. Then I spent hours wandering in the market. It is one of the larger souqs in the Middle East, over six miles of shops. I didn’t buy much, but the process was fun. They just sold everything, spices, silks, gold. Every once in a while a donkey would wander through, lead by an ancient old man. It was like being in 1001 Arabian Nights. I had my first anti-American experience of the trip though. I was in a shop, looking at some bric-a-brac crap, and chatting with the shopkeeper. The guy asked me where I was from, and I told him. Get out of my shop you American dog! I will not sell to American swine! I put down the inlaid box I had been looking at, and asked if he was serious. He was. Okay man, if you don’t want to sell to Yankee swine, no skin off my back, and I left. I was promptly greeted by tens of other shopkeepers that loudly assured me that that they would HAPPILY sell to Yankee swine. In fact, they had a special price for Yankee swine. I walked around pissed for a while, and hoped that a stray missile would hit his house, but then I remembered how much ignorance and hatred there was in the US about Arabs, and decided that he wasn’t any worse.
I stopped by the museum on the way back to the hotel, but it was just some more arrowheads and broken pots. That night I splurged and had dinner at one of the nicest restaurants in town (cost me $3!). Completely worth it for the first cloth tablecloths I’ve seen in months.
The next day was the hammam. A hammam is a traditional Arabic bath and the one of the oldest in the world is in Aleppo. It dates from the 14th century. So I arrive, a little nervous, but hanging tough. I was handed a sheet of fabric and told to go behind the curtain and take off all my clothes. Okay. Then I was handed a pair of high heeled wooden shoes with red leather straps. They would have perfectly matched gingham hotpants and be completely appropriate at the International Sisterhood of Tarts’ Annual Picnic. They were also two different sizes, neither of which were mine. So I clump-clumped down the beautifully decorated interior and the marble hallways to the bath. First is the steam. You sit in a room like a sauna for as long as you can handle. Man it was hot. The visibility was less than 3 feet because of the steam. Dizzyingly hot. I lasted about 10 minutes before I thought I was about to faint. Then it was time for my bath. I went into the next room and sat on the floor. A woman sat behind me and scrubbed my hair with a bar of soap. She showed all the loving care of a prison matron. Then she soaped and scrubbed me with a brillo pad. (It might not have actually been a brillo pad, but it was certainly close.) Rolls of gray dead skin came off. She was got a repulsed look on her face. What did she want, I’ve been backpacking for three months? Then she called over all the other ladies in the room. Look! Americans ARE dirty! *Sigh. Then it was a quick rinse and back to the steam. I lasted a little longer this time, but at one point I began to notice a very familiar smell that I couldn’t place. A few minutes later it came to me. Lobster cooking. I took that as my cue to go. I took a quick rinse off again, and spent some time sitting on the cool marble to keep from passing out. Back out to the lavish main room, where I got dressed and a cup of tea. Despite that fact that it sounds like torture, it was really quite relaxing when it finished. And I have never been so clean in my life.
The woman sitting next to me when I was having my tea explained that hammam serves a vital roll in Syrian society. Say you are a gentleman interested in marrying a lady. She is smart and funny and you think she’ll make a great wife. The only problem is that you don’t know what she looks like. Everyone is veiled and some just have their eyes showing. So you find out when she goes to the hammam, and you send your mother to inspect the goods. If Mom approves, then everything is kosher and you can proceed with the proposal. If not, it’s back to cruising the souq.
At 12:30 pm I decided to leave Aleppo for Antakya in Turkey. The cities are only about 100 miles apart and, even with the border song and dance, the trip should only take 3 hours. Uh-huh. Since I wanted to leave in the afternoon, I had to look a little harder to find a ride. After a few hours of dithering around with dishonest taximen, and meeting two Korean backpackers in the same boat, we found a bus. It is 3 pm. The situation was a little sketchy though. There were only 8 or 10 men on the bus, not nearly enough to make the trip profitable, and a TON of cargo. Whatever, who’s arguing, get on the bus. We drive for 40 minutes, then turn off the main road onto a side road and eventually to a gas station. We spend an hour and a half there, during which the bus is parked in the back of the station and we aren’t allowed to see what the men are doing to it. Great. Smugglers. I go inside the little cafe to have grilled cheese and banana milk and spend the time contemplating whether I’d prefer Turkish or Syrian prison. Back on the road. We sail through the Syrian side of the border, and things are beginning to look up. We come over the hill to the Turkish side and oh shit. Hundreds of cars and people. Think the GWB on the Friday afternoon of Labor Day weekend. We take our spot on line and the guys jump out. It is a police check. Once a blue moon the police decide to check every bag coming through the border. This is the day. This puts everyone a little on edge to say the least. We can’t go back and we can’t ditch. Again the tourists are herded off the bus while seat cushions are removed, spare tires opened, and things generally re-arranged. We are at the border for 6 hours. And I don’t have any money. The exchange place has closed and the stored don’t take Syrian. No food. The head smuggler feels bad for me and buys me a bottle of water. Everyone is trying to get me a Turkish coffee (think espresso with the consistency of Hershey’s syrup), but that is the last thing I need. Eventually decided to take a nap in the back of the bus. Around 11:30 the head smuggler wakes me up. I go outside and stand by my bag as the border guard walks by. He tears into the other guys’ bags though, confiscating what looks like bags of granulated dark sugar. I never did figure out what it was. Then all this over, we head out again. The crew busies themselves with digging out the rest of the stash. About an hour later we are dropped of 4 km outside of the town we had set off for 9 hours before. This wasn’t going to fly. I neither calmly nor gently explained that to the gentlemen. A brother-in-law was called. A car was produced. We were driven to the bus station.
It is now 12:30 pm at a bus station in the middle of southern Turkey. I find out that the first bus is at 5:45 am. I join forces with the Koreans and find a hotel for the night. It was quite simply one of the worst places I’ve stayed anywhere in the world. Dirty was not the word for it, and the metal springs were actually coming through the mattress enough to draw blood scratching my legs during the night. 4 hours after going to bed, I am up and at it again. The bus ride was 11 hours including a 2 hour wait where I changed. The first bus was late and the second broke down. I was CRANKY when I got to Gorëme.
Having said all that, Gorëme is out of control. It is a town built into these rock formations caused by some volcanic anomaly. But it looks exactly like Bedrock in the Flintstones. Everything is carved into the rocky hillsides and everyone lives in caves. Hence my living situation. There are just under a ka-billion backpackers here though, so it is anything but peaceful. It is good though. No stress. I am on vacation from my vacation. Today I took a bus tour with some other backpackers around the local sites. They were possibly even more bizarre. Don’t worry, I took pictures because it is just beyond explanation. The first stop was this place called Pigeon Valley. It was really just a scenic overlook, but it was one hell of a scene that it overlooked. It was an entire valley of what they call “fairy chimneys,” which look roughly as the name suggest. They are tall, thin, rather phallic structures rising out of the ground. Apparently they are formed when, back in the day a couple eons ago, there were sporadic volcanic eruptions on a field of very soft rocks. Eventually the soft rock wears away, leaving only the columns of the very hard rock. So I have been told. The next stop was Derinkyu, a massive underground city. It was built to protect the population from the various marauding hordes that passed through over the centuries. At its height it could hold 100,000 and their livestock. I can’t imagine that smelled very good. Then we hit the Ilhara Valley and went hiking a bit, stopping at a frescoed church and a local restaurant. We then scurried around the Selima Monastary, the Avanos Pottery Factory (the pots and tiles were nice, if a bit out of my price range, think on par with airfare), Caravan Servais (an ancient khan dating back to the Silk Road days, where we got a dubious story about whirling dervishes and electrons and a more impressive sunset) and then the mushroom rocks (self-explanatory).
Well, that is all for now. I am back in the first world and there are people to meet for dinner and beer to drink. Hope all is well.
Monday, July 19, 2004
I’m in Syria. And don’t believe the hype, or the State Department, the Syrians are among the nicest groups of people that I have encountered anywhere. This even takes into account that Americans are about as common as brontosauruses here, and things are further complicated because I speak French like an African and Arabic like an Egyptian.
Bur first things first. I last left you in Amman, where I was about to embark on the Day of the Dead [Sea]. I headed out in the morning with a group of fellow backpackers to the shores of the Dead Sea. My ears popped continuously and my bottle of water was twisted into strange contortions as we descended to the lowest places on earth. The water was thick, like swimming in soup or watery porridge. I could float on my stomach, with my arms crossed, not moving a muscle, like I was on a beach float. The only problem that I encountered was that fat floats, so my caboose felt like it had a life preserver strapped to it. Floating upright was challenging. One false shift of balance and over I go like a duck in a shooting range. I also took the opportunity to smear myself with Dead Sea mud. It is supposed to be good for your skin. I felt like a side of salted pork. After returning to Amman and a VIGOROUS shower, I set out with a British guy that has spent a collective 7 years of his life backpacking (this does extremely strange things to a person) to see the local sights. This included the seeing some of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the local museum, and the requisite citadel. That night I did something I haven’t done in long while. I went out for a beer. Bars in the Middle East are, um, interesting. They are all frequented by men, lit with red lights, and have 60s Playboy pinups all over the wall. I was with the British guy so no one hassled me, and in fact, I was a bit of a local celeb. I actually got an honor guard to close off the bathroom for me when I had to pee.
Next morning it was off to Syria. Nothing too much happened on the road to Damascus, Jesus didn’t appear or nothing. Crossing the border was relatively painless, except for some big jerk Saudis who would have walked right though me on line had it been humanly possible. That afternoon I walked around the Hamidiyya Souq, eating everything in sight. Syria has the best street food. Anywhere. Ever. I guess the shopping was nice too. It got in the way of the food stalls though. There was one interesting guy though. He was selling taxidermed hawks. Multiple taxidermed hawks. He had some sort of cat too. I can just imagine what the Customs officials at Kennedy Airport would have to say about that.
I also visited the Umayyad Mosque, whose main claim to fame is that it contains John the Baptist’s head. I will remember it more for the silly rent-a-robe they made me wear. I was covered from elbow to ankle, and had on a bandana, they still made me get one. It was made of earth tone brown polyester and had an incredible number of straps hanging off it, and a big hood. I looked like a cross between a 70s bondage queen and a druid. The next mosque I visited was even better. It was the Raqai’ya Mosque, built by the Iranians. This place was flash. All tiles and mirrored ceilings. Definitely where the Prophet would pray if he were in Vegas. The robes were flash too. They were shiny black polyester and had the name of the mosque embroidered across the back in gold. This time I looked more like a little white Moslem Druid Boxer. After that I hit the markedly less pizzazzy Al-Azem Palace, then gave up and wandered through the small side streets of the Christian quarter. And ate more.
The next day I browsed the National Museum (which had a neat-o Palmyrien tomb in the basement) and then got generally lost in downtown Damascus. [Never ask a Syrian traffic cop for directions. Three different guys on three different corners of the same block gave me three different sets of directions - all wrong. It appears that the only pre-req for the job is to share the same taste in mustache fashion as the country’s president.] When I eventually made it back to the hostel and packed up, I grabbed some baba ganoush on the go, and headed to the bus station. I walked through the metal detectors to a scene from Dante’s Inferno. People screaming at me, trying to get me into their bus to Palmyra. Fistfights broke out. I wonder if they do this with every passenger? I chose the one leaving the soonest and got the holy hell out of there.
The bus was hot. It was en principe air-conditioned, but there is only so much you can do driving through the desert at high noon. About halfway through the trip, a man appeared at the side of the road. The only other things in sight were the road and power lines leading to the horizon. We slowed down and he hoped on, carrying only a blue and white cooler as luggage. As soon as we were rolling again, the guy opens up his cooler and starts selling, I kid you not, vanilla ice cream cones. He interpreted my “hell yeah” as a na’am, and before the kilometer was out, I was sucking the crushed pistachios off ice-cold goodness. Everyone on the bus got one. Kids. Veiled women. Business men. Sheiks. Me. And we all silently and contently ate them as the Arab pop blared and we sailed along the dusty desert highway. Ice Cream. The great equalizer.
That night and the next day I explored the ruins at Palmyra, and old Roman trading town. I saw both sunset the night before and then sunrise, which I have to stop doing because they all look the same and I just end up tired and cranky. The ruins were nice though, the best I have seen outside Rome. I also hit the two local museums, which can best be described as eh, and a slightly more interesting eh. Walking around town I was invariably lost, and the guy that gave me directions also gave me a couple of incredibly good dates. (From date palms, Palmyra, you get it.) Then I grabbed the local bus to Hama. Hama is famous for two things. Waterwheels and the bloody put down of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 (?). I will focus on the former. Huge waterwheels, up to two stories high, bring water up to aqueducts, which in turn water the town’s lush gardens. Teenage boys play on them, riding them to the top and diving off. Veiled girls stand on the banks and giggle. It is comforting to know that American teenagers don’t have the corner on the stupidity market.
The room I checked into was my second favorite of the trip (you can’t beat the Indian haveli). The guy at reception kept showing me different rooms in the hotel, but the prices were always more than I wanted to pay. Finally he got to the last one. It was this or I was sleeping on the roof with a group of particularly skuzzy looking French backpackers. He opened the door. I smiled. Yup. This will do. It was an old utility closet. There was a counter top and a pair of industrial side sinks. Wedged into the only space in the room was a narrow twin bed and a fan. I crawled across my bed to toss my backpack onto the counter, dumped the contents into the sink, then kneeled on my bed to do the laundry. Who could ask for anything more?
My sightseeing that afternoon was limited to the Hama Museum. Better than the first two of the day, but you can only get all hot and bothered about arrowheads and broken pottery so many times in a single 24 hours. They had this massive Assyrian Lion though. He was worth the admission. I spent the rest of the day walking around the city, and, as I am in Syria, eating everything in sight. I was headed into a café to try a halawiyyat al-jibn, a local specialty which was kind of like a croissant filled with cream cheese, when a guy started talking to me. Usually I don’t flinch when people talk to me, but this guy was at the same traffic crossing, and genuinely seemed interested in what a little white girl was doing wandering around a residential neighborhood in a random central Syrian city. After I explaining I was a tourist, he asked were I was from. And as I never lie about being an American, I told him. He got very excited and asked me if I had ever met a Palestinian before, because HE was a Palestinian. I said sure, I live in New York, we have all flavors. Then we looked at each other for a couple seconds. This conversation didn’t go at all as he planned. Then he left. I went in and ate my pastry.
That night I had dinner with a reoccurring French couple in the Sultan Restaurant. It was touristy and the food was less than mediocre, but who can say no to eating in an Ottoman insane asylum?
That is pretty much it. I am headed to a Crusader Castle tomorrow, then off towards Turkey. One final note I should mention is the new breed of animal I have encountered here in the Middle East. I call him Defensus Contractorus. This creature usually has just finished his tour in Iraq and is hitting the sights on the way home to whatever southern backwater he crawled out of (apologies to those of you still wearing the Gray but they all drawl). They are not to be confused with the young diplomats and NGO workers on similar vacations. They look like deer that have been slapped around a bit. No Defensus Contractorus is all swagger. I ran into a prime example of one at the Dead Sea. He hemmed and hawed about getting in the water, then got into it and rubbed mud all over himself. All over his fat hairy body. He made an unlucky painfully obliging Canadian film the debacle, “for the neighbors.”
Thursday, July 15, 2004
So, I didn’t see any hammerheads. Unfortunately the word got out that they were there and every diver in the region was looking for them. The hammerheads headed for quieter waters. But I stayed on in Dahab for a few more days anyway, diving and sitting in the sun. Until one fateful morning where I woke up and inadvertently thought of growing out my armpit hair. I sat bolt upright in bed. I had Dahab hippie disease. I had to get moving ASAP or I would be wearing hemp before the week was out. I hurriedly said goodbye to the crew I had been hanging with. They nodded and took another drag from the sheesha pipe. I booked myself on the 11pm bus heading for Mount Sinai.
I arrived at the monastery of St. Catherine’s at 2 am, and started hiking to the top of Mt. Sinai, with a few hundred of my best pilgrim friends. I arrived at the top around 4:30 am, and began waiting the 2 hours to sunrise. It was freezing on top so I rented a blanket from one of the Bedouins to keep from freezing to death. I believe the previous owner was a camel. Anyway, in order to make my cold sleep deprived self even more miserable, god deemed that the Koreans in front of me and the Spaniards behind me should start a hymns-off, singing as loudly as possible to drown out the other. It sounded like 100s of cats fighting. And I had hiked up with this dippy-hippy girl from Colorado. She made Woodstock look like the annual Schwab share holders meeting. I thought repeatedly about setting her on fire.
The sun came up eventually and I was suitably touched by the spirituality of the occasion. Then I hiked back down the mountain to the monastery. It was pretty non descript except for the burning bush. Okay, not THE burning bush, but a 1600 year old bush grown from a branch of THE burning bush. It didn’t have anything of interest too say though.
Since I didn’t want to risk going back to Dahab and relapsing into Dahab hippie disease, I got dropped off at a police check point in the middle of the desert, heading to the port town of Nuweiba. I was a little hesitant to try this little move, but it worked out. As soon as the bus let me off, the guards started shouting at the driver that he couldn’t do that. The driver took off. The guys looked at me like lifelong bachelors look at a newborn baby. I smiled. They set the guy with the M16 to “wave” down the next vehicle to take me to the port. And off I went.
The bus dropped me off in the middle of no where, but there were two other backpackers who knew there way around and got me through the dance of buying a ticket and immigration. They were the first two Syrians I met in the Middle East, and they bought me a Coke and told the customs guy to stop looking at me funny. The ferry itself was a breeze and I landed in Aqaba, Jordon. I spent the night there and then headed out to the desert.
I had booked a day/night tour on the ferry and soon found myself dashing across the sands in the back of a pickup truck. The tour was arranged by this Ozzie guy who generally had the appearance of someone running from the law, and my two fellow tour takers where some chick named Melissa-did-I-mention-I-was-a-diplomat and this absolutely insane Taiwanese chick that just keeps showing up. She drives me nuts so I keep trying to get away from her. What are you doing tomorrow? Oh, I thought I would spend the morning painting my toenails, then go to Libya. You? And she backpacks with a rolling suitcase that is constantly getting stuck places, stairs, doors, sand, etc. (As your mental picture of me wandering around the Middle East progresses, every one in a while, stick the picture of a small Asian woman trying to extricate her luggage from some strange place in the background.)
The tour was basically a tour of Lawrence of Arabia’s old haunts. He seems to have slept under every rock in the desert. There were some pretty neat sandstone formations though, left over from the time when the place was an ocean. It was fun to scramble up the rocks. You can get pretty high and see, um, more rocks? and sand? I spent that night at a Bedouin camp. This basically involved sleeping in a tent made of Persian rugs and drinking a potentially lethal amount of mint tea. The stars were incredible though.
After being dragged out of my tent to watch yet another bloody sunrise, we headed off to Petra. Petra. For the history buffs out there, it is the 1st century BC capital of the Nabateans trading kingdom. For the religious nuts, it was the ancient home of the Edomites, which made an extreme tactical error by blowing off Moses on his way out of the desert. For the rest of us, it was the temple at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the one where he goes to get the grail. In any event, it is a rose colored sandstone city carved out of the rock. And really damned cool. You walk down this narrow crack in the mountains for a mile or so to emerge out on the 35 meter high ornate treasury building, carved straight into the side of a sheer cliff, you know, the one Indy rode the horse through. I spent the afternoon hiking around the place with an Australian couple I met on the way in. We climbed to the Place of the High Sacrifice, which was, as advertised, high, in the heat of the day. This turned out to be rather ill advised, and we were exhausted when we finally got to the top. Luckily there was a little bit of a breeze and the walk down was easier. Heading down the cliff, we passed the Lion Fountain (long since fallen into disrepair), the Garden Tomb (some nice columns but more impressive for the stunning rock it was set into), the Tomb of the Roman Soldier (huge, must have been compensating for something) and the Feast Hall (the only building in Petra carved on the inside.) The most impressive part of the experience though was the rock. Layers of rock hardened over thousands of years into birthday cake swirls of orange, red, white, yellow and dark shades. Top notch. We began following the path back into the center, when a fatal error was made, I was put in charge of directions. With my keen nose on the job, I promptly led us into a dry creek bed and we ended up scrambling a good way off course. We eventually made our way back to the main gate and called it a day. I even sprung the 50¢ for a horse to give a lift back the 2 km to the parking lot.
This morning I woke up again at the crack of dawn to see Petra in the early morning light. I decided to climb up to the Monastery, a building high in the surrounding hills. I made it part of the way before I decided it was hot and I didn’t like this game anymore. Just then a nice man appeared, dressed in the red and white checked scarf made popular by Yassar Arafat, and full Desert Storm combat fatigues, to sell me a ride up on his donkey. How could I say no? So I climbed on the back of this little black donkey (don’t worry, I got a picture) and off we went. The difficulty is that the whole way was a steep flight of ancient steps. I think my donkey was the new guy because he stumbled a lot. This was enough to send at least my thoughts careening over the sheer cliffs on each side.
After my donkey adventures, I walked around a bit more, checking out some old Byzantine mosaics and a couple cliff tombs. The Byzantine Cathedral had kind of a Murphy’s Law sort of existence. Finished in 550 AD, a fire tore through it in 600. What remained was flattened by an earthquake a few years later. And Muhammad arrived on the scene not too long after to kick the ashes around a little bit. The bits of mosaic that remained were nice though. I also hit a couple assorted royal tombs and temples, but I was maxing out. The problem I saw with carving your whole city out of sandstone, is that over the centuries it melts. So by the end of the morning, it looked to me like the whole city was melting in the heat. I decided it was best to call it a day.
I grabbed the afternoon bus to Amman, the highlight of which was getting off at the “Amman East, Saudi Border, Iraqi Border” exit. Don’t take the wrong ramp man, please don’t take the wrong ramp.
And now I am here. I am headed for the Dead Sea tomorrow to see if I’ll float.
Thursday, July 08, 2004
So I did indeed get to the Valley of the Kings, just not the next day. The trip was short on people. No worries though, there are other things to see. I saw the Luxor Temple, which had lots of granite and columns and sphinxes. It’s big claim to fame is that it is the original home of the obelisk that is now in the Place de Concorde in Paris. In return the Egyptians got a clock tower, which is now in the Muhammad ‘Ali mosque in Cairo, from the French. The clock has never worked. Damned French. I also saw the Karnak Temple, which was certainly impressive for its size. And they are still in the process of excavating it. I took the opportunity that it was Friday (everyone was at mosque) to take a little unofficial tour of the excavation sight. It was neat to see all that pieces laid out like a jigsaw puzzle. They even put the temples together like a jigsaw puzzle, starting with the end pieces, albeit the piece weigh tons and they have to use a crane. Then I went to the Luxor Museum, which was nice in that it was well laid out and air-conditioned. That night I hit the Mummification Museum. It was cool, I guess, but I was looking for something a little higher on the gross out scale. Like live demonstrations.
Then it was on to Thebes! It looked a lot like it does on TV. The Valley of the Kings is a secluded area where later pharaohs chose to be buried (apparently they got wind of the massive grave robbing that occurs when you build a tomb you can see from space.) The painting on the walls were impressive, you could still see the 3000 year old brushstrokes, but most of the good stuff was stolen in the BCs, or is in the museum in Cairo. The tour also went to the Temple of Hapshepsut. She has a really neat story as one of the only female rulers of Egypt (cross dressing and palace intrigue abound!), but the temple was a bit non-descript.
But no worries, because now I am in Dahab on the Sinai Pennisula. Dahab has a rep among travelers for being that place that just sucks you in. I have been to quite a few places with similar reps and escaped no more than a few days behind schedule, but Dahab got me. I was supposed to leave yesterday, now I am thinking about maybe Monday??? It is this laid back once-Bedouin, now tourist, community. It is the only place I know of where you can lay on the beach, in a bikini, drinking an icy cold one, and look out across the beautiful blue water, to Saudi Arabia 20 miles away. And the diving is out of this world.
[Fun Interlude : Since Saudi Arabia is so close, a few years ago some Aussies decided to go across and take pictures (in a blue plastic foot paddleboat of all things - Aussies). They spent a few months in jail when the Saudi military caught them. The Saudis were thinking of hanging them as spies, but what spies arrive drunk in a blue plastic paddleboat?]
I have been diving everyday. It is costing me an absolute fortune, but really I don’t care. This is just the most incredible undersea life I have ever seen. That includes many many hours watching the Discovery channel. I won’t bore you with the details of every time I chased a clown fish or tried to tickle one of the massive parrotfish that seem dead on convinced that my hair is edible, but I will tell you about one of the all-day trips I took.
I left Dahab at 11 pm for a 2 hour van ride to Sharm el-Sheikh, where I boarded a boat and promptly fell asleep. At 7:55 sharp the lights were on and the captain was yelling, “Dive Briefing on the Second Deck. 5 Minutes.” I scrambled out of my bunk and up to the deck. Our first dive of the day was on the wreck Thistlegorm.
[Educational Interlude : Thistlegorm was a British supply ship in World War II. In 1941 it was loaded with supplies in Glasgow and set around the Horn of Africa to bring them to Egypt. It was anchored in the early morning of October 6th when to long range German bombers landed two lucky hits directly on the munitions cargo storage. A quarter of the boat blew to holy hell instantly and it sank straight down quite soon after, leaving much of the rest of the ship intact. It is now known as one of the best wreck dives in the known universe. You can send your thanks to Jacques Cousteau for finding it, and keeping it a secret for 30 years.]
On the first dive, we saw the anti aircraft guns sitting on the deck (fat lot of good they did), and a coral covered tank lying on its side, and train cars, complete with locomotive sitting loaded on the deck. It was so strange to swim by a school of glass fish and a snapper the size of a German Shepard, under the huge propeller, and over a tank. The sensation is beyond words.
The second dive actually went inside the ship. We swam in through the breech in the hull with flashlights to explore the inside. We saw thousands of pairs of boots, completely intact and likely wearable, if a bit soggy. Then into the next hold, there were lorries and jeeps, still mostly intact with hundreds of glass fish just chilling out. The backs of the lorries and jeeps were filled with scores of motorcycles. You could wipe off the muck and still read the gauges. We swam around from room to room, through door ways and around stairs, exploring the galley and the bridge. Really damned cool.
The third dive was a ways away at the Ras Mohammed underwater national park. (dun-un) It was the best coral gardens I have ever seen, anywhere. In the space of 35 minutes, we saw hundreds of different kinds of fish, some the size of large dogs, some tiny, some bigger than me. (dun-un) The list includes sea turtles, sting rays (the fun spotted blue kind), barracuda, huge groupers (Grandad you could have grouper sandwiches everyday for months with one of these babies), snappers, napoleons (which look like tropical fish the size of Labradors), etc etc etc. (dun-un dun-un) There were also moray eels that were 10 feet long and as thick as my thigh (not a small feat by any stretch of the imagination). (dun-un dun-un dun-un dun-un dun-un DUN-UN) Yes, as you may or may not have guessed from my virtual sound effects, then came the shark. It was an oceanic shark about 10 feet long and 10 feet below me. (When you are scuba diving, you use the air in your lungs to regulate partially your depth. When I saw the shark I squeaked and exhaled sharply, causing me to sink closer to the many teethed gentlemen in question.) It was really cool. Of course the divemaster got all of our attentions and we followed it for a while. It was faster than we were though and we lost it.
Speaking of sharks, I got a great story for you. Well, great is probably not the commonly accepted vernacular for it, but work with me. While I was in Dahab, there was a Russian teenager snorkeling a couple hundred meters down the beach from where I was staying. Apparently a confused tiger shark swam up and tried to eat her. It was only successful in getting her hand. Gross huh? The dive-masters said that sharks are much more likely to attack swimmers and snorkellers rather than divers, because swimmers are up there flailing around the surface like wounded fish. I’ll stick to the bottom of the sea thanks.
Back here in Dahab I was diving again today, just at local places. One of the dive-masters on the truck with me was telling me about this day trip she was going on tomorrow. It is to an island called Trian, which has beautiful reefs and fish, and, this time of year, schooling hammerheads. Hammerheads? I asked. Yup, last trip saw 25 on a single dive. So, instead of leaving tomorrow, I will be on the trip with her. Who could say no to breeding hammerheads?
Maybe I’ll leave on Monday.
Don't worry Mom.
Thursday, July 01, 2004
I am still having the time of my trip here in Egypt, despite the fact that I haven’t encountered an honest Egyptian since I left Cairo. (That’s not entirely true. A tailor is Aswan sewed a hole in my skirt for free, but I think that was largely because I am at the point where I look like an extra from “Oliver” and he felt bad for me.) To Aswan....
Aswan is 14 hours south of Cairo along the Nile (upstream). Other than the dam, it is best known for ancient ruins and miserably dishonest tourist service. I found both these things to be more true than anywhere else I have visited. The first day I visited a couple local temples, Hill of the Nobles and Elephantine Island, nothing to impressive by Egyptian standards, but still cool. The highlight was the 95% discount on ferry tickets that my ability to mumble in Arabic earned me. And wandering through a Nubian village, which looked like a cross between an African village and an Easter Egg. (After they make the hajj, Nubian paint their families homes in “festive” colors.) On my way out of the village, one of the local teenagers though it would be a cool idea to trail me saying all the lewd things he learned in American movies. I was patient and ignored him for a while, but eventually he got bolder and tried to grab at me. I turned and told him, in my best Arabic, put your hands down! shame on you! go away! A little old lady happened to be walking in the other direction, carrying large black plastic sack of flat bread, when this happened. As I walked away, I saw her bludgeoning him with the bag of bread as she told him, loudly, what she thought of his manners. Back at the hotel, I relaxed by the rooftop pool of (yeah, pool, and the air-conditioned room cost me $5 a night - god bless developing nations.). That evening I went to the Nubian Museum, which was incredibly nice, air-conditioned and well laid out, with signs in English and Arabic where most of the words were even spelled right, though the gist of them was basically, “Thanks a whole bloody lot Nasser, you sank our culture.” I met another New Yorker there and she and I decadently snuck off to an ex pat joint for pizza and beer. It was glorious.
The next day I went to the temple at Abu Shimel. Abu Shimel is an incredible temple with giant colossuses (colossi?) and intricately carved chambers. It is also 300 km south of Aswan (translation : shouting distance of Sudan) along a road that requires an armed police escort. Islamic fundamentalists picked off a handful of German tourists (okay, 8 handfuls) in 1997 and the government is pretty keen on that not happening again. So to beat the heat, I caught the 4 am police convoy down, arriving at 7 am. The tourists were already there in force, but I still got my Indiana Jones temple-exploring fix. There were two main temples, both of which had been moved from their positions when the dam was built. It was neat to see how they had cut the things into pieces and brought them up to the new position. The first temple was aptly but uncreatively named the Great Temple of Abu Shimel. It was ostensibly dedicated to Ra-Hurakhti, but really it was just one big ego trip for Ramses II. The chambers of the temple were covered in hieroglyphs. Inside the main entrance were two rows of ten meter high statues (not surprisingly of Ramses II). Outside there were four colossuses, three of which were in pristine condition (one is missing a face that fell off during an earthquake in 27 BC.) They are 22 meters high (translation for those not on the metric system, the height of a good sized suburban office building.) The other temple was the Temple of Hathor. Nice, but got nothing on the Great Temple. The other interesting bit is the graffiti. Most of it is from Victorian travelers at the turn of the century, and it must have been done with a hammer and chisel. Can you imagine a bunch of people in waistcoats and button-up boots sneaking in under cover of darkness to tag a temple with their hammers and chisels?
That afternoon I also visited the Aswan High Dam (about as exciting as a visit to DMV) and the Philaes Temple. The Philaes Temple was also cool, on an island in the Nile with ornate columns.
***Bonus fun fact***
If terrorists were to successfully destroy the Aswan dam, 98% of the Egyptian population would be killed in the ensuing flood. (There are enough troops there to occupy Malta.)
Now the felucca. A felucca is a small sailboat that tourists rent with other tourists for a three day sail down the Nile. It is supposed to be a relaxing experience. Mine was partly relaxing, and partly not. Between the captain that would demand the goldfillings out of your teeth if he had the chance, and the four other passengers - (Ewww! I have to go to the bathroom in a bush? Dinner? That’s just rice with red sauce on it....) - it was a bit trying at times. We played a series of very international games of Uno. The captain was perma-stoned and insisted on inexplicably calling all the men on the boat “Steve,” no matter how may times he was corrected. And Cap’ couldn’t understand when I didn’t want a joint, and really thought there was a conspiracy afoot when Mexican “Steve” said no. The best part of the ride was the two “deckhands” (the boat was 16 feet long, I don’t think that any New Englander could properly call them deckhands) got out their drum. The first of my two favorites in their repertoire was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” A sample of the three Egyptian men singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”... and all this is at the same time... “In the jungle, the mighty jungle...” “[humming of Frere Jacque]” “[incoherent mumblings in Arabic]” “...stolen from Africa, brought to America...” and then, all together, “a-WEEEE-mum-mumba-way..” Things were even worse with the Macarna, which just involved random lyrics from this and that, they “HEY MACARONI.” The Mexican almost fell off the boat. The second day the wind died. Instead of sailing, we drifted downriver. The captain didn’t even pretend after a while. He just took down the sails and fired up another joint while we baked in the heat and humidity.
Today, after I escaped the felucca, I went to the Temple of Horus in Edfu. Again, incredible, and I highly suggest you go there yourself one day. It was up there with Abu Shimel for best temple in Egypt. Skip the felucca.
I am in Luxor now. Tomorrow - Valley of the Kings.
Time Out for : Myth Dispelling
For those of you who have been to the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) in New York, you know that there is a large Egyptian tomb in one of the atriums. This used to bother the holy hell out of me when I was a damn-the-man-smash-the-system-down-with-exploitation high school kid. I thought that either some old speckled and spectacled old Fifth Avenue millionaire had “found” it on some turn-of-the-century archeological dig, then “endowed” it to his favorite museum, or that the US had taken a cue from the British Museum [of Rape and Pillage] and just claimed it as some point. I was wrong on both counts. What really happened is that when the Aswan High Dam was being built, it was going to sink a ton of archeological sights. Egypt is a developing country that would never have enough money to save all of these things, so they asked for international assistance, saying they would go halvsies on anything they pulled out. The US paid to dig out and move two temples, one to higher ground, and one to New York.
Saturday, June 26, 2004
So my time at the Siwa Oasis was well spent. I did a whole lot of not too much and generally regained some of my sanity after the breakneck pace of the last two weeks.
The first day I hung around the room, reading and doing laundry in the sink (the glam aspects of the jet set lifestyle). In the afternoon, when the sun cooled off to just ridiculously hot, I rented a bike to see the sights of the town. The bike rental guy was at the mosque when I got there, so I sat down and watch Arabic Sesame Street until he got back. (Today’s episode was brought to you be the letters saad and hamza, and by the number ithnine…) The bike I got was a little old lady bike, with brakes that can best be described as ornamental, and off I went, wrapped up tight because of the strict dress code of the Islamic village. The bike made this repetitive rhythmic rattle-squeak-shake-squeak as I bounced along through the sand. Think Lawerence of Arabia meets the Triplets of Belleville. My first stop was the Temple of ‘Obayda, which lasted thousands of years only to be torn down by some bureaucrat in the late 19th century for housing stone. But I enjoyed scrambling up the ruins to try and get a better view of the desert beyond. (Come on, it does SAY don’t climb on the antiquities.) The next stop was the Oracle of Amun, where Alexander the Great trekked out to find out if he was a god (oracle gave him the nod). I figured, considering my recent run of good luck, and since I was in the neighborhood, to find out if I was a god. The oracle produced one small tail-less gray lizard. I’m still interpreting the results.
After my fun with oracles, I headed 5 km out the other side of town to watch the sunset, or, a more fun way of measuring distance, one-tenth of the distance between me and Libya. I got there before the sun was ready to go down, so I walked out into the dunes a bit, through the dry salt flats. A little strange, wind blowing over the dunes, the taste of salt in the air, hundreds of miles from the ocean. After the sunset I raced the coming darkness, and some little 9 year old punkass in a donkey cart that thought he was somethin’. I smoked him AND his donkey
Next day I similarly did nothing until late afternoon. Then I went out on a 4x4 to the edge of the desert. (You used to be able to go out into the desert, but the military closed it after some Italian hit a “landmine” coming across the Libyan border during a semi-sanctioned desert rally race a couple months ago. The “landmine” was likely an unexploded ordnance from WWII which litter the desert, and which the Italians dropped in the first place. So a guy from a country that decided it was in their strategic interest to bomb a town made out of mud brick, a week’s camel ride from anything, with no running water or electricity, is pissed off because he accidentally ran over one of the remnants and put a hole in his tricked out Extera? I am markedly unsympathetic.) Anyway, then we hiked out 2 km into the dunes to watch the sunset. 360° of sand. Nothing but sand. Not even a dead weed. Just sand and the huge hot sun sinking into the horizon. I was glad the guide knew the way back. We hit town just in time for me to jump on the 10 pm bus back to Alexandria and connect to the train to Cairo.
Where I was going to get the 10 am train to Aswan (of the big dam fame), but, oops, the guy in Alexandria was wrong, train is at 10 pm. So I have a day to kill in Cairo. I get some falafel and fresh mango juice to assess the situation. I have seen all the sights listed in the book with the exception of the “City of the Dead.” The City of the Dead is a former necropolis that was taken over by squatters in the late 80s. Forget Disney baby, this year we are taking the kids to the City of the Dead. The guide book says that it “teems with life.” Um. Times Square teems. Delhi teems. Ant hills teem. The City of the Dead has to settle for “being inhabited.” But, even with all that, and the fact that someone narrowly missed my head winging a dirty diaper out a second floor window, the mosques were nice and the view from the minarets incredible. The flat shanties and buildings of the City of the Dead spread out in the shadow of huge opulent mosques.
Which brings me to my current position, spinning my wheels until the train. Hope all is well!
Thursday, June 24, 2004
Let me start by saying that I am in love, no, dare I say, yes, in RAPTURE with Egypt. It is one of the most interesting places I have visited and the people are unbelievably nice. Seriously. People are 99% more likely to offer me falafel that harass me about the United States. No one has given me any problems, either for being a woman traveling alone, or for being an American.
I am currently in the Siwa Oasis, in the middle of the desert about 35 miles from the Libyan border. It is really a bizarre place. Hours in the bus of nothing but sand, then all of a sudden, BAM! village lit up like a Christmas tree. I guess it is like when people describe coming upon Las Vegas in the Nevada desert. (I wouldn’t know. I am scared of states that don’t touch oceans.) I am out here hiding from tourism. I have been running around at a breakneck pace looking at the sites, so I came somewhere where there was nothing to see to relax for a while.
I have been in Cairo since I last spoke to you. It would take a week to run through everything I saw, but I'll give you the highlights.
Whirling Dervishes - I thought they were something my grandmother made up (Kristen Anne - stop spinning like that! You’d think you are a whirling dervish!), but they are real. Basically you spin around really fast for an hour, then you see God. I went to tourist show, so they were a little less concerned with seeing God, but man they sure spun around. With their huge colorful skirts flashing. At up to 100 revolutions per minute. To the point of tedium at times.
Citadel - A massive building on top of a hill (hence citadel) with some old defensive strategic importance, and some neat mosques. I thought that I was sufficiently covered, tee shirt and pants, but the two inches of upper arm I was showing was a problem. They were nice enough to give me a bright green floor length polyester cloak to wear. With the other tourists, walking around this richly furnished interior, we looked like a bunch of extras from a Harry Potter movie. Other highlights included the palace where one of the sultans invited all the major political figures in the land to dinner and desert, locked the doors and killed them. Gruesome but efficient. There was also the Rifa’ir mosque, which was significant it is where the Shah of Iran and the last monarch of Egypt are buried. For those in the know, Rifa’ir is the THE place this season to entomb your deposed despots.
Coptic Cairo - The Christian section of the city with elaborate churches and small winding alleys. The Copts are a sect started by the Apostle Mark back in the day. I don’t know much about their beliefs, but the churches make even the most ornate Greek Orthodox church look like a Calvinist meeting hall. The Hanging Church was a little disappointing, as it is no longer hanging. There was, however, a rather impressive synagogue in the area, but it is no longer used. It is interesting that religion was both the impetus to build this incredible building, and the reason for its abandonment.
PYRAMIDS - Okay, there is a reason that these bad boys are a wonder of the world. In - flipping - credible. Do you know how BIG these things are? Serious. The bases are bigger than a city block and they are about the height of a 30 story building. They let you run around the inside some of them. It is a little creepy inside (who'd a thunk that a 3000 year old tomb would be creepy inside?), but fun nonetheless. The passages are low (no more than 3 foot square) and you have to scurry around in them. Outside it is brutally hot and camels are eating whatever little vegetation they can find - when they are not toting tourists around. The Sphinx was especially cool. You don’t really think of it as being real, just a cultural icon people slap on things, but here it was. I was traveling with a Canadian I picked up in the Egyptian Museum (hey, can I see your Lonely Planet?), and he and I were on a bit of a budget for the adventure. Instead of hiring an expensive camel, or car, or horse to shuttle us between tombs, we walked and hitch-hiked, sometimes with nice air conditioned cars of Irish tourists, sometimes on the back of backhoes. You know.
Carpet “School” – After the pyramids and a couple of other sights in the area, the taxi driver wanted to take us, the happy couple, carpet shopping. We weren’t exactly jazzed, but he promised we could be in and out in 15 minutes and it might be neat to see the carpet school, so okay. The owner proudly showed us 35 or so underage children hand-knotting carpets, some as young as 8 or 9. Look honey, take my picture next to the slave labor. The owner explained that they were on vacation from school, learning the ancient art of carpet making. Yeah right.
Islamic Cairo - This is the old city, mosques, vegetable stands, men carrying hundreds of loaves of pita bread on top on their head on racks... I visited a few mosques here, including the oldest university in the Cairo, al-Azhar, which is still very strictly Islamist and made me wrap up, not too much unlike the mummies in the museum... I really liked this section of town. And no one hassled me or bothered me in anyway. I got a couple of looks when I went into a local restaurant, but I just sat in the woman's section and ate my kushari (it involves lentils and noodles) and drank my kakaday ( known as biisap in West Africa, it is made of dried red leaves boiled and sweetened. In the Corps, we used to call it African Kool Aid).
Yesterday I went to Alexandria for a few hours before connecting to the bus for the Oasis. Alexandria is like a different country. Cool, breezy, Mediterranean, filled with Greek and Roman ruins in addition to the hieroglyphs. I went to an old Roman theater, the catacombs and a museum (where again, things are labeled in either Arabic, French, English or Braille, but only one. Braille especially makes sense since everything in the museum is under glass.) Nothing too exciting.
So I am loving Egypt. It is a completely modern country, on par with maybe Vietnam or even Thailand. The street food is delicious. Who knew a race of people could come up with so many delicious ways to serve chick peas? And the best part is the juice stands on every corner. If I am having a frustrating moment, I just go to the corner, give them the equivalent of a quarter, and they give me a huge glass of mango juice. Then things are better.