Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Things we ate on the street: Egypt

Admittedly, keeping up this blog has proved far more difficult than we had hoped. Power outtages, painfully slow connections, limited access to computers, and other forces beyond our control have prevented us from being able to write like we would like. But we're still going to try and send word when we can. And we'd like to add two new features: Things we ate on the street and Eric's haircuts around the world. This is because we're realizing that these two experiences are some of our richest and most memorable.

In Egypt, our favorite street snacks were sucre kassap (sp?) and mango juice. Sucre kassap was where they ran sugarcane through some sort of contraption that mashed the cane into a pulp and just extracted the juice. Somehow the coils that worked this magic also made the juice incredibly cold without adding ice (which would have been murder for our fragile American bellys). Our friend Daniel, who was studying Arabic in Cairo, introduced us to this treat, and we raised a toast to him everytime we took a swill of the murky brownish delight.

Our other favorite was the fresh mango juice. You had to drink it standing up at the corner of some sidewalk stand, where they would simply mash the mango into a drinkable form and pour it into a glass that you hoped would be clean. This treat saved us from heat stroke returning from the pyramids and restored our good humor on many an occasion! Three Egyptian cheers for fresh mangoes!

Egypt: final days in Cairo and parting thoughts

After getting our fill of Luxor’s heady sights, we hopped a night train back to Cairo. At long last, the great Pyramids! Determined to save a few pounds, we braved the public bus system to get to Giza. A little trickier than it sounds, given that everything’s in Arabic and bus stops aren’t always marked. Happily we made a ‘friend’ en route, Sayed, who wanted to show us the way. We tried to shrug him off, and he scoffed at us for being suspicious. It's always such a tough call with these interactions. We hate to feel suspicious of everyone we meet, but more often than not there is some sort of sales related catch to the encounter. Sayed did indeed lead us to the right bus, and then, of course, to his friend’s ‘Desert Storm’ stable, where we could get a big discount on a a horse and camel tour. Ha! Alas, it was totally worth it, as they conceded quickly and politely to our ‘la shukran/no thanks,’ and we got to stumble through the lawless back streets of Giza---a pungent mix of top-volume Arabic rave music, camels, horses, taxis and firecrackers. Total anarchy.

And in the end, we got conned onto a camel, anyway. In all honesty, we don't even know exactly how it happened. Somehow our 'free gift' headscarves landed us on top for a photo op with demands of $10 for this fabulous opportunity. Kathleen was literally hoisted onto the animal physically, skirt and all. In the end, after some heated negotiations, we got off for about 30 Egyptian pounds. And we had a hard time being mad, because the whole thing was so hysterical. Rest assured that prolonged camel trekking is decidedly not in our future!

The pyramids and Sphinx were just as impressive as we’d hoped. While certainly well-touristed (the line of buses amazed us!), there's a reason for their fame. And that’s saying something, considering the Grateful Dead played there and Eric had high expectations. Our favorite moment was when we offered to take some Saudi Arabians pictures for them. They were so grateful that they wanted to take all of these pictures of themselves with us. Holding hands! Each individually. It was hilarious, and god only knows if we’re now featured on some Saudi website.
Also worth noting is the Solar Barque museum. An enormous full-scale boat built over 3,000 years ago with painstaking detail in the desert with the sole intention of providing safe passage into the afterlife. It’s an amazing work of craftsmanship designed solely to be buried. Hard to fathom.
Our last days in Cairo were spent braving the souk in Islamic Cairo, where the smell of sweat, tobacco, hibiscus tea leaves, and rubbish set the stage for heated negotiations and haggling. We escaped relatively unscathed, save for a backgammon board under our arm. We look forward to playing a hand with you when we return.
As we reflect on our time in Egypt, there’s nothing we would have done differently. Images that capture it for us are: the donkey-drawn cart carrying ice-blocks down a narrow alley. Turbaned men smoking sheesha in every doorway. Women balancing bags on their heads, swathed in black robes and scarves. Lobster-red tourists sweating and fanning themselves (not us, of course!). Fiery bougainvillea providing drops of color in an otherwise dust-coated landscape. The infectious smile of children eager to practice their English.

We were delighted with the warmth and hospitality of the Egyptian people. A good example being the cabbie who couldn’t speak English or read our note, so he flagged down another cabbie who spoke a little English, who then beseeched the help of a veiled woman sitting in the back who spoke fluent English. All of this while moving at top speed down the highway. A fabulous cross-cultural exchange of laughs and sign language. We found that most everyone was eager to help and show their pride in Egypt. They were glad we had come, and they wanted us to go home happy. Even when Eric accidentally stood in the women-only line for ice-cream, he was gently re-directed with many giggles from behind veils. Admittedly, this side of Muslim culture was the most different for us. We rarely got to interact with women, although Kathleen was frequently offered a phamplet on 'Women in Islam'. Had we spoken better Arabic, perhaps we could have gained more insight into this aspect of Egyptian culture.
Next time though, we’ll come in the winter!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Egypt, the next chapter: Welcome to Alaska!

We hear this joke at least 20 times a day. It's usually preceded by 'hello friend, where you come from?' and followed by 'very nice people. Just come have a look. Just look, no buy.' At times, you can feel like a walking wallet in Egypt, where even just stopping to look at a map is an entree for someone to offer you a guide/a horse-drawn carriage/a coke/a papyrus painting/your name in sand. It can be a bit exhausting, but overall we found Egyptians to be incredibly warm and helpful people. Many went out of their way to help us out (our favorite being Sherif, who saw us trying to hail a cab and hailed it for us, negotiated the price in Arabic, gave the cabbie directions, and asked us if we happened to know his girlfriend in Ohio....he wasn't sure how close it was to California. Unfortunately, we didn't.) You can't even blame the aggressive touts, as everyone's just trying to make a buck in a country where unemployment is outrageously high. Although at times, we wish we could give a little sales seminar on more appropriate sales tactics. In any case, at least everything is done with a wink and a smile.

When we last left you we were enjoying seaside bliss. We followed this up with yet another exciting foray into the world of trans-country bus travel. It was drama filled, as usual. We boarded the bus around midnight, and it was a mad rush for seats as veiled women, hauling huge shopping bags and kids, muscled their way to the back and promptly fell asleep. The bus was over-sold and Eric stood for the first 4 hours of the journey (until 4 a.m.), while Kathleen had one cheek on/one cheek off when a darling and toothless woman offered to share her seat. That being said, Eric made friends with the local Don Juan (whose suitcase was full of hair pomade and cologne) who shared his chips and snacks with us, let Eric sit for a bit, and shared some belly dancing porn (fully clothed) on his cell phone. Classic. A fight broke out in the front of the bus in Arabic at some point, which added to the excitement as the bus hurtled through the pitch-black hot evening air.

At least it didn't break down.

The next morning, we joined the police convoy at 3am to journey out to Abu Simbel, our first big ticket Pharaoh site. Ever since the 2005 tourist bombings in Sharm-al-Sheik, police convoys are required for travel in Southern Egypt. The result is an inconvenient obligation to travel by armed police convoy to areas---prompting a group tour mentality that we don't love. It's actually surprisingly rare to find individual travelers in Egypt. Or at least that's been our experience. Nearly everyone is part of some sort of package tour. In any case, it seems to me that putting all of the tourists in an endless line of tour buses all going down the same road at the same time seems like a good way to invite any would-be hooligans to get rid of us all in one fell swoop. Alas... That being said, Abu Simbel was entirely worth the hassle. A temple carved out of mountain on the west bank of the Nile River between 1274 and 1244 BC by Ramses II, it fulfilled all of our fantasies for jaw-dropping unreal Egyptian historical treasures. It's enormously grand with huge statues of the man (Ramses II) himself, hieroglyphics, and a stark, bold enormity that dominated the Nile River and designed in part to show strength to anyone sailing into the Pharaoh's lands. Even more incredible was learning how it had been painstakingly moved from its original location following the creation of the High Dam (and threatening flood waters that ensued). We loved walking through and imagining what it would have been like in the land of figs and honey over 3,200 years ago. Or to have been the explorer who stumbled upon one of the statue heads sticking out of the sand (the whole gigantic complex had been swallowed up by the earth), only to realize the colossus that lay below. In fact all of Egypt's many earthly treasures invite this kind of pondering: the deciphering of hieroglyphics via the Rosetta Stone, the shaft of light that illuminates hidden statues on only two days of the year, the thought of the Pharaoh’s riding to victory on horse-drawn chariots, gilded tombs filled with treasure for the afterlife....it's all the stuff of your wildest dreams. What isn't so dreamy, however, is the 115 degree heat that made us sweat from every pore and long for the evil sins of air-conditioning and copious amounts of ice-cream. And, of course, our bus broke down on the way back from Abu Simbel. Par for the course. But after hitching a ride on another bus (I guess the convoy isn’t all bad) we made it back in time to board a felucca to sail lazily down the Nile with six other travelers headed to Luxor. We won the lottery with our fellow sailors---a great, interesting, and fun mix of students, aid-workers, engineers, and globetrotters. We felt really lucky to sleep under the stars with such a charming and generous crew. Basically the felucca is an old-school simple sailboat with a flat platform where you spend all your time. You eat there, you sleep there, you read there, and you sit there to watch palm trees, donkeys, Nubian villages and Nile-side life drift by. And you try to ignore all the garbage and petrol and bilharzia (schistosomiasis) and Allah-knows-what-else floating alongside with you. Captain 'Cool', our fearless leader, had a penchant for saying ‘Hasta la Vista’ which really only got old by the third day.

We caught the sun rising sublimely over the Nile before disembarking at the ancient temple of Kom Ombo, where Sobek (the crocodile god) reigned. It’s fun to imagine the Nile teeming with crocs, and the land still home to roaming elephants and giraffes. We then hopped on the police convoy to Edfu, where blazing temperatures induced a bit of heat-induced insanity on our part. Eric and I crouched near a monument and laughed like maniacs, doing our part to increase good sentiments toward Americans. Ha!

From there we made our way to Luxor, a veritable treasure chest of indescribable monuments, tombs, museums, rows of Sphinxes, and mummies. Off the E-ticket temple circuit, we enjoyed wandering the souk, with its alluring shops selling everything from tea and spices to belly dancing costumes. We loved seeing the passing of daily life: the shoe repairman sitting outside with his sewing machine, the man ironing laundered pants on the sidewalk, the backgammon games being won and lost in a swirl of sheesha smoke.

The whole country is swarming with Tourist Police, many of who are a bit bored, we believe. One of our favorite sightseeing moments was when a Tourist Police officer showed us around Medinat Habu, took pictures of us switching hats, threw a rock at a sexed-up hieroglyphic to point it out to us, and then demanded a baksheesh (tip). All in a day’s work, I suppose. That being said, Egypt felt exceedingly safe everywhere we went.

The Valley of the Kings was impressive, for its location and isolation as well as the 62 tombs that have been excavated in the valley. This is the site of the tomb of Tutankhamun (King Tut). The treasures themselves have been moved to other locations, but his remains still lie in the tomb. The tombs were generally huge structures built deep into the ground (sometimes 90 steps down) with decorated walls that tell the stories of ancient civilations.

One of our best Luxor memories was watching the dusty palette of sunset rise up to our rooftop bar view. Palms, palaces, crumbling rooftops, and feluccas plying the Nile River while a cacophonous medley of calls to prayer (from a multitude of speakers in a multitude of voices) reverberated across the city, rising above the din of honking cars, street hawkers, and the hoofs of horse-drawn buggies.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Egypt: Camels and Taxis and Buses, Oh My!

We landed safely in Cairo and even saw the pyramids in the sunset from our plane. Just like in Vegas! We were quickly introduced to the wildest experience that Egypt has to offer: that of a taxi into downtown. It's a wild ride of congestion, honking, and exhaust in the 90+ degree heat with zero attention paid to lanes, pedestrians, stoplights, or other deadly hazards. Fun!

In Cairo we smoked the sheesha from a hookah in a rooftop bar, ate our weight in babagnoush, and spent an afternoon deciphering the Arabic in the Egyptian Museum. It's just like Indiana Jones promised: full of sealed wooden crates (maybe one has the ark?), mummies, King Tut's death mask, and other treasures of the earth. A highlight was being in the mummy room when they wheeled in a new addition (no joke!). We saw them shuffle female Pharaoh Hatshepsut (who has been dead since 1458 BC) over to make room for a new discovery they found buried in the basement: her liver and a tooth in a keepsake box. We felt badly for this incredibly important woman who has been reduced to a sign that reads that she died 'overweight and with bad teeth.'

Next we hopped a 7-hour (supposedly) bus to Mt. Sinai made all the more exciting when it broke down, and we spent 3 hours in a sweltering garage watching the driver and mechanic climb halfway into the engine (never letting go of their cigarettes, of course). By the time we got moving it was too late for the bus to stop for food, so Eric nearly gnawed off his arm as we went nearly 12 hours without food after a breakfast of Egyptian hotdog buns. But we did make some friends en route. Nothing like 90-degree weather in an oily pitstop in the middle of nowhere to make you feel close.

After 3 hours of sleep, we got up at 2:30am to begin climbing Mt. Sinai to view the sunrise where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments. It was a surreal warm night under the stars watching a bobbing line of headlamps and camels as more than 500 people pilgramaged their way up to the peak. It was a fascinating mix of Japanese choir singers, Nigerian prayer groups, and camel-riding Russians at the top. We descended the Steps of Repentance down to St. Katherine's Monastery, the oldest continually functioning monasteries in the world (founded in 330 AD) and home to the burning bush and many sacred texts. It's chapel is one of the only surviving churches from early Christianity. The museum was fascinating, but ironically much of the collection was on loan to the Getty Museum in L.A. We wonder if the bus ride to Los Angeles is as fraught with as much excitement and police checkpoints as that to St. Katherine's. Come to think of it, maybe...

We are currently sweating profusely in Dahab on the Red Sea. Getting here was another adventure unto itself, as the bus service was cancelled due to mechanical problems, and we aligned ourselves with two feisty European ladies studying Arabic in Cairo who refused to budge on cab fare negotiations. It became a battle of wills against us and the cabbies as to who was willing to wait it out the longest. The whole mess ended with a visit to the Tourist Police, but long story short we made it to Dahab in time to relax on seaside cushions while enjoying a beer and gazing across the sea at Saudi Arabia. The requisite Bob Marley and Jack Johnson were on the stereo, while lanterns swung under palm trees. Dahab is a backpackers bohemia, and an international mix of divers and travelers are strewn about on pillows night and day, smoking sheesha and playing backgammon.

Thus far, we haven't met much in the way of Americans. It's been quite an international mix, but English has remained the common language amidst all the foreign tongues. Eric has been asked if he was Norwegian and is now proudly calling himself Eric Erickson.

Next stop is the Nile River Valley to see if we can uncover the next tomb of treasures!

Where to find us

We have an open door policy, and we'd be thrilled to see friendly faces on the way. We've heard delicious rumours that some of you may want to slip on your flip flops and join us for some globe-trotting. We hope so. Just in case, we're providing a rough outline of where we'll be and when we'll be there. This is open to all sorts of change and interpretation, but will give you a sense of where we could meet you. The first beer is definitely on us!

  • Now until August 1: Egypt

  • Uganda: first few weeks in August

  • Tanzania: last few weeks in August

  • Kenya: first week in September

  • August 30-October 31: Traveling from Kenya to South Africa

  • October 31: fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina

  • November 2 to Mid-December: Likely in Brazil and environs.

  • Mid-December through Mid-January: Hopefully renting a flat in Buenos Aires and improving our Spanish while learning to tango. Come join us for New Year's hoopla!

  • Mid-January to Mid-February: Patagonia and Chile

  • Mid-February to March 7: Somewhereish en route to Peru

  • March 8: Aloha Hawaii!

  • March 17: Happy Birthday Dan!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Leaving on a Jet Plane

The bags are packed (almost), the thank you cards are completed (not even), and the apartment is clean and ready for the subletter (hardly). Ah, but still, come Tuesday morning, we're off!