Saturday, July 24, 2004

Smugglers and Bedrock

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

Sorry Mom, did I neglect to mention I was going to Syria?

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

I climbed Mt. Sinai and all god gave me was this lousy blister

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

Found Nemo

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.