Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Karnak Temple in Luxor is...

...F-ing huge!

Please excuse my abrieviated language; I got a bit excited.

After finding a carelessly unlocked gate, my fellow Dutch traveler find a passage way imbedded in the huge outer wall. We climb the less than shoulder width stairs and get to the top of the outer wall. Crouching as we walk on top, my fellow Dutch traveler and I avoid the not so watchful eyes of the police. The view over the huge 2 sq km temple complex is amazing.

After climbing back down we discover a second stairway. The stairs are barely visible and covered with a 3" deep layer of dirt/dust. No one has been this way for quite some time. As we climb up I realize that the layer of dust is not in fact dust, but bat droppings. And those birds flying down this tiny stairway towards me are not in fact birds, but bats. And that would in fact be a bat that just brushed a tuft of my hair as it flew past/at me. We make a quick exit and take turns trying to convince each other that there probably wasn't anything good up that stairway to see.

F-ing Huge!

A tight squeeze in the wall's hidden stairway

The reward

A Cultural Exchange

While sharing a room with a British guy in Aswan, he is surprised to see me flossing at night. "Is that floss? Haha, that is sooo American!", he laughs. 'He doesn't use floss?', I think to myself. That is sooo British.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Mental Patient from Aswan

The day started with a knock on my door waking me up at 2:45am. By 3:30am I was in a mini bus with 15 other people and surrounded by men with assault rifles, sub-machine guns, spike strips, and mirrors searching for bombs. Heading down to Abu Simbel has become a bit tense since it boarders Sudan and kidnappings and terrorist attacks aren't unheard of.

As we sit at the police checkpoint, I reflect on my situation. I've somehow managed to pick the worst seat on the minibus. A 90 degree seat with my knees jammed into hard plastic, my feet wedged sideways against a wheel-well and my head slanted by the ceiling. As I realize that I'm going to have to hold this yoga position for the next 3 hours, a wave of clostraphobia washes over me. Starting to panic and needing to get fresh air, I start clawing at the window. Open it does not. Always the gentleman, I then ask/tell the girl next to me to trade places. Well played August.

Feeling like an asshole I realize how I must appear to the rest of the mini-bus. A guy with crazy eyes and tuffs of hair coming out from his head is frantically clawing at the window. Winning friends and influencing people here in Egypt.

Luckily the sights of Aswan, Abu Simbel and Philae Temple are amazing.

Feluccas on the Nile

Armani Suits and Sub-Machine Guns. How very James Bond.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Three Minor Mistakes in Cairo

Feeling high from my clean laundry, I decide to go one step further and get a hair cut. Mistake #1.

I had a good feeling about a nice old barber that had helped me with directions earlier. Old equals well experieced right? Mistake #2.

As I sit down he tells me that he had more British than American customers during the war in the 40's. Crap. He asks my age and tells me that he is 78 years old. Crap. As he picks up the scissors his hands shake. Crap. I know that this is going to be bad, but I wonder just how bad. He starts taking one handed scissor swipes at my hair with all the finess of a hungover landscaper trimming a bush. After 5 minutes he concludes his onslaught and I survey the damage.

My scalp and ears have survived the attack, but my hair isn't as lucky. Let's talk numbers: The top ranges from 1.5" to 1/4", the sides are short but have an 1/8" difference. And as the piece de resistance, I have longer hair in the back which creates a mullet like appearance.

Having thought that a nice old man with Parkinsons Disease would never try to rip me off, I failed to ask him how much money this would cost me before the haircut began. Mistake #3. He charges me an outrageous $8!

When I get back to my hostel, the usually extremely polite receptionist confirms my fears, "yes it looks very bad".

At this point I still just thought this would be a funny story and not a train wreck.


While I was in Siwa I met a charitable French couple who invited me to stay with them in their apartment in Alexandria. I walk through their front door and my jaw drops. A huge place with fine French furniture, 15 foot high ceilings, a marble covered bathroom...and a toilet that flushes! I gush. "Do you need to do any laundry?" the frenchman asks as he points to the washer AND dryer. I nearly let out a school girl like squeal. Be cool August, be cool. "Sure, I could probably do some."

In near hyper-ventilating excitement I forget to do half of my laundry. After some quick calculations however, I come to the conclusion that any mathmatician will tell you: 2.5 pairs of clean socks are infinately better than zero pairs of clean socks. I sit back with a belly full of fine desserts and beer and feel very excited to again have a towel that, when used, will not make me smell worse that before my shower.

The Harbour in Alexandria

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Siwa Oasis

On our way back from a midnight swim, the tuk-tuk's wheel had broken off of it's axel and King (our guide) was pounding with his fist on the tire. Just a couple of hours earlier, I watched in amazement as he pulled a red hot coal out of the fire with his bare hands and ate it 20 seconds later (no joke). If anyone could fix the tire, King could.

When I made my reservation for Siwa while in Cairo, I asked the man on the phone how I should get to the hostel from the bus station. "You can just take a donkey cart here". Donkey cart? The last time I checked, donkeys were not equiped with car horns. I knew then and there that I would love Siwa.

The Siwa Oasis is steeped in history and it's also a town that time has seemingly forgotten. Today I visited the Oracle's Temple which was quite the rage in 330 BC. Armies have tried to both destroy and protect the Oracle and even Alexander the Great sought the Oracle's advice.

Feeling a bit under the weather, I have spent my days here seeking the advice of numerous hot and cold springs out here in the desert. On the edge of the 'Great Sand Sea', I feel very small and insignificant. Like a... like a... ant in the Great Sand Sea. Sorry, insightful analogies escape me.

King sings to himself as he fixes the tire and we head back to our tent in the desert. Some well deserved rest awaits us after a long day.

The oldest truck in the desert happened to be ours.

I finally get my desert sunset

Saturday, March 21, 2009

I'm Attacked!

... in Alexandria

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Egypt: The Great Pyramids of Giza

Climbing down a long and steep 3' square chamber into the belly of the beast I come upon the Pharaoh Khafre's burial chamber. Sweating profusely from the sauna like heat, I lie down in his now empty sarcophagus and contiplate big and small things as I stare at the millions of tons of stone above me. How did these pyramids get built and why do I itch so much?

I draw two conclusions. The pyramids were built by aliens under the direction of the King (Elvis), and bed bugs are very real (and yes, you should not let them bite).

No amount of images and diagrams could have prepared me for the sheer scale

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Egypt: First Impressions

Day one: I take in the sites (grid-lock traffic), sounds (car horns), and smells (car exhaust) of Cairo. Cairo, however, has proved to be amazing. As it turns out, the Egyptian people are some of the kindest, most helpful people on Earth. Numerous hand shakes, waves and thumbs up are recieved while walking down the street. Finally I'm being treated like the amazing celebrity that I am!

After taking the public bus in from the airport, I was horribly lost and tired. Not only did some friendly auto mechanics let me use their cell phone, but then they called the hostel, wrote out the directions (in English and Arabic) and gave me their phone numbers (work and cell) just in case I got lost again. Amazing.

The typical random meeting of Egyptians on the street:

Egyptian: [speaks to me in Arabic thinking I'm Egyptian]
Me: Sorry, do you speak English?
Egyptian: [surprised] Where are you from?
Me: America
Egyptian: Ah America! Welcome! [handshakes] Obama! [thumbs up given to me]
Me: Obama good! [I give two thumbs up]
Egyptian: Bush bad. [thumbs down or sideways 'enough' hand signal given]
Me: I throw my shoe at Bush. [throwing an imaginary shoe]
All: [Laughing] [2nd round of handshakes]

I'm in there somewhere.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Morocco Sucks

After a breakfastless 5 hr train ride to Casablanca this morning, I missed the last tour at Hussan II Mosque in Casablanca because I was searching for an open post office (they were all closed yesterday too). I now have a huge pile of crap (in addition to my huge bags) that I have to carry around with me all the way to Cairo. I had a fight with a cabbie, a cop, and 3 other Arabs because the cabbie was trying to scam 7 DH out of me when the actual cost should have been 2.5. After 7 minutes I won the very heated argument and saved myself 50 cents. I just realized that I lost a 2 gig memory card full of photos. Everybody here is ugly. I forgot my drain plug in Agadir and am now on day two of dirty laundry. No body knows who I am here. My socks smell. Why don't these damn people speak God's language... English? The food here sucks. Is it so hard to understand that Americans and America are God's gift to the world? I have a headache.

Ok, ok, I had a bad day. But Morocco has been excellent. I would come back in a heartbeat. Now on to Egpyt. I hope that the ancient Egyptian Gods will smile down on me and show me the way to a laundromat. I believe that it is either Ra or Proctor&Gamble that is the God of laundry.

P.S. Thank you all for your comments on this site and your emails. It has made me feel much better on days like today (and today was the first day like today).

Morocco: The Landscape

There is a little bit of magic in the air here in Morocco

A Dirty Clean

Today involved the successful negotiation that got me out of my over-priced room and into a room that was only 10 dollars. Feeling proud of myself I walk into my new home. No shower. They failed to mention that part. No matter...when in Fes, do as the Fezians that don't have indoor plumbing. They go to the Hammam (bath house).

I pay my entry and massage fee and head to the locker room. As always I'm the only white boy and consequently just try to copy what everyone else is doing. They get into their underwear so I get into my swimsuit. They fill up two buckets each with hot water and walk into a large tiled room. Sitting down on the floor, they proceed to soap and shampoo up while pouring bowl fulls of water over themselves. I sit in the middle and follow suit. I soon realize that everyone is sitting towards the edges because all of their water flows and pools right into the middle (where I am so smartly located). I do my best to concentrate on myself while their dirty bath water flows past me.

OK, bathed. One hurdle cleared. Now onto the massage. The guy calls me over to another room and proceeds to stretch my arms (thai massage like) and then pops my back in ways that would make a chiroprator cringe. I am clearly uncomfortable. He signals for me to lay down on the tile floor. I try to keep my face off of the warm wet tiles thinking of the thousands of people before me. Like a professional dishwasher, the guy proceeds to scub with a scouring pad and a vigor that is usually reserved for tough baked on foods. It hurts. I'm having fun, I'm having fun, I'm having fun. He signals for me to open my clinched eyes. My body is covered in rolls of dark grey dirt and skin that have been scrubbed off. If this wasn't so painful it would be down right embaressing.

I leave feeling very clean and dirty at the same time.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Taking in the Sites and Sales of Fes

Sitting back in a cafe, I slowly sip my daily fresh orange juice and reflect back on my first day in Fes, Morocco. There were very interesting sites such as the Mosques, the oldest University in the world (founded in 859), the pottery/tile makers, the leather tannery and the silk weaving, but my favorite part has been watching the salesmen and con artists at work.

The day started by meeting the tour guide that an Aussie and I had arranged. The guide was excellent (he deserves his own seperate post) and besides the sites listed above, he took us to a Moroccan rug shop. My fellow traveler saw each rug and had absolutely no interest in purchasing anything, and yet was talked into purchasing not one, but two rugs (I didn't ask but this most likely set him back around $600).

As we walked in, we passed a couple of people of whom the shop proprietor (Abdul) proclaimed had just purchased 6 rugs "two to keep for herself and four to sell back home". I sat back sipping on my free mint tea and watched Abdul work his magic. As rug after rug was rolled out, some of his lines were as follows:

"I can sell you as many new rugs as you want and you can sell those for profit, but you have to promise not to sell any of the antique Berber rugs. These you must keep for yourself. They are too special and unique."

"People pay for their trips by selling these rugs in their home countries. You can get 10x as much money as you paid for them here. Macy's and Nordstroms sell rugs of this quality for thousands of dollars!"

"This is an investment!"

"Do you buy these rugs to sell or to keep?" (notice no answer supplied for not buying them)

"This is a co-op where the money is given back to the widowed women workers who make these rugs."

"I teach you two Arabic phrases as we look through the rugs. 'put away' and 'keep for aside for later'. You tell me one of these Arabic phrases for each rug we go though."

The Aussie makes the mistake of nibbling on the bait "how much does this one cost?", and Abdul quickly yanks back on the line and starts slowly reeling in. Within 7 minutes, he's been netted. Good catch Abdul.

Abdul could find no counter argument for my "I do not spend money that I don't have, and I only have enough money for this trip". As the Aussie is being driven back to his hotel to get his credit card, I chat with Abdul about his business and sales techniques. While the souring economy has hurt his business, he still nets 60% of the people who come into his shop. Very impressive. An hour and a half well spent.

An investment!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The High Atlas Mountains

At 13,671 ft, the High Atlas Mountains are... for lack of a better word... tall. Waking up at 7am, I figured that it might be a good day for a hike. One and a half hours, three grand taxis (a 1970's Mercedes Benz where 7 complete strangers going to the same place all squeeze into the 5 seats), and $3.50 later, I was in Imlil at the base of the High Atlas range. Refusing the local guides and a boy who offered to sell me an $18 map, I found what I thought was the trail I wanted and started hiking up.

After 1 hr, the goat trail played out to be just that; only a goat trail. Refusing to admit defeat and hike back down into town, I decided the real trail must be somewhere beyond the steep hillside that was above me. All of a sudden a shepard boy appeared on a rock above me. I spoke him in my best hand signals and shared my cookies. He signaled that the trail I wanted was on the other side of this mountain and that I was an idiot (he didn't actually signal 'idiot', but I could tell he was thinking it). And me without my map or guide.

The cross country hiking got harder and harder and in the back of my mind I had the nagging suspicion that at since I was ascending, at some point I would have to descend. Sure enough when I got to the top of the canyon wall and hour later, I was looking at a lot of down. A lot of steep and technical snow covered down. And me without my map, guide, crampons, snow pants, rope and common sense. Hiking through in knee deep snow, I see the actual trail in the distance. The shepard boy was right...I am an idiot.

When I finally got onto the trail and completed the hike I was utterly exhausted. I have never been so excited to be the 6th passenger in a beat-up old Mercedes Benz taxi. On the way back to Marrakesh we all took turns with who got to lean back in the seat.

The shepard looking after his flock

Starting to get worried

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Sahara

It was sunset when we arrived at the edge of the dunes. We were told that the camels were 10km away and would be 2 hours late. Damn Moroccan transportation system! When we got on our camels at 8:30, it was dark and cloudy. Slowly we were led through the dunes in the darkness of night. All that was visible was the silouete of the dunes and all that could be heard was the was the camel's quiet padded footsteps on the sand and their not so quiet digestive systems. Occationally the almost full moon would break through the clouds and bath the desert in an eerie white light.

At 10pm, we parked our camels and walked down to four tents that were below some large 250 meter high dunes. Our three nomad guides prepared dinner and our hungry group of 12 dined at 11pm. Afterwords we circled around the fire and sang, danced and drummed until 1am. I tried my luck at the drums until one of the nomad guides told me that I had no rhythm. On the way out here, Moroccans kept on guessing that I was an Arab. Now there was no hiding the fact that I was so very white. I promptly handed back the drums.

At 1am the nomads suggested that we go on a hike. We hiked up to the top of the largest dune, layed down in the sand and looked out at the moonlite desert landscape below us that streched into Algeria 40km away. Pure silence as the wind blowing gently past us was all that could be heard. We hiked down and I hung out with the nomads around the fire until 2:30 as they told me Berber jokes. Funny in their unfunniness.

The Sahara desert was an out of this world experience.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Surfing Northern Africa

I can now proudly say that I've been a crappy surfer in 3 continents!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Misadventures at an Expensive Hotel

Pop Quiz : What’s worse than a sleepless over-night 10 hour bus ride to Tafraoute?

Today I got on the bus to head out from Tafraoute. Part way through I see a man handing out plastic bags. Then I smell it. The motion sickness spreads like wildfire. Suddenly the man sitting next to me (who was previously content with simply picking at the gum stuck to the back of the seat) decides that he too would like to join the fun. Trapped. I give him a sympathetic pat on the back before I turn my focus onto myself. Turn up the ipod, breathe through your mouth and look out the window. I’m having fun, I’m having fun, I’m having fun.

Four hours later when I get into Agadir, I check into my hostel. A room with my very own bathroom! For 13 dollars! This is too good to be true! No more doing my laundry in the one sink that's shared by the entire floor at the hostel! This will be sooo much less awkward.

A sink load later and I go explore. Happening by a 5 star hotel right on the beach I again think that this is too good to be true. I quickly revert back to my old travel trickery and sneak into the pool. Success! I pat myself on the back. I am asked to leave after 45 minutes but they are too late: I am officially relaxed and refreshed.

The five star life on the half star budget

Hiking in Tafraoute

A disgarded Berber Village

Not part of the clan

A disgarded Berber shoe

Decending into the valley

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Morocco: The People

So far the people of Morocco have been great. They are very kind and generous people (unless they are trying to conveince you that they are kind and generous people, in which case they are only interested in getting you to purchase something).

So far I have gotten a couple of generously free car and scooter rides and always do my best to keep up my end of the conversation. The fact that I only speak 6 words of Arabic and even less French (the other common language here) does not help the flow of chit-chat. Impromtu games of charades are common. I wonder what the least insulting way to act out toilet paper is?

Moroccans are also very clean people, sort of. They have very strong feelings about littering. They love it. Can't get enough of it. They will throw their trash boldly into the street as if to show off their freedom. The next morning, however, it is all swept up and the store owners all wash the cobblestone streets in front of their shops. The plastic bags that are lucky enough to make it out to the countryside, however, can forever float free; the way God intended.

He is very kind and generous now that I agree to buy orange juice

Dumb & Dumber Moroccan style

Monday, March 2, 2009

Misadventures at a Cheap Hotel

After a sleepless over night 10 hr bus ride to the small town of Tafraoute, I decided to splurge and go for the 6.50 dollar hotel. It was only after I saw the unchanged sheets that I realized that I left my sleep sheet in Marrakesh. Tonight I will sleep fully clothed with my last pair of clean boxers covering the pillow.

After a quick shower I hung my towel out the window to dry. Upon returning from my hike I saw that the towel had decided to change locations and was now situated on top of the awning of the hotel two stories below. With the hotel owner's approval I climbed out the 2nd floor window and felt the metal awning buckle under my weight. Swing and a miss. Changing tactics I started using the rock climbing techniques that Dean had taught me to hang and shimmy from window sill to window sill. Success! Towel saved! Locals entertained; crisis averted.

NOTE: You may have noticed my spelling getting worse and worse. French computer/internet settings have negated the english spellchecker. Sory.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Marrakesh: The Square

Remember when you were in 2nd grade and it snowed for the first time? The excitement and energy in the air as the snow fell gently around you? The main square, Djemma el-Fna, feels just like that except replace the snow flakes with a hoard of people. An intoxicating blend of beggars, snake charmers, monkey handlers, dancers, storytellers, singers, food stalls, pick pocketers, games, con artists, showmen. The sounds, sites and smells contribute to a bazzar, frightening, overwhelming and extremely fun atmosphere.

Surrounded by large circles of 50 plus moroccans, the showmen consist of mostly crazy people doing mediocure feats while demanding extreme compensation if a happless tourist takes a picture. You want 20Dh ($2ish) because you flipped up a shot glass resting on your foot and caught it with your hands? I give the showman 5Dh. He gets the crowd to chant at me trying to get me to instead give 20Dh as he puts my 5 back into my hand. I stick to my guns and keep giving him the 5Dh back. After three rounds of this back & forth and group peer pressure he gives up and settles for my 5Dh. Or wait, was that a 10 Dh piece I just gave him? Damn it!

Marrakesh: The Streets

As I found out when trying to navigate my way to my hostel, in the old part of the city (which is huge) the streets are not streets, but a series of winding and splitting alleyways. During the day, the shutters open and the walls are seemingly replaced with a endless stream of stalls. Sandals, jewelry, figs, raw meat, chess boards, q-tips... anything you could want to buy, you can find it here. When getting lost through these alleyways, you can also stumble onto the various districts. Yesterday I came across the chicken district with floor to ceiling eggs, chicken and, for some reason, cats. Many cats (but not for sale). Today I accidently meandured through the shoe district.

Your average alleyway

Spices for sale

Marrakesh: The Food

The first day I just toed the water of the food in Marrakesh. In the main square there are around 40 stalls that cook food in a billow of smoke and pushy men dressed in white trying to get you to eat there. I stayed safe and had kabobs, chicken, roasted vegitables, bread with two gespacheo like dipping sauces and tea.

Night number two: I get more adventurous. I eat with the locals tonight and go for the bread stuffed with boiled potatoes, egg, oil and onions. Filling, delicious and very cheap (about $1.25). Then I head over to the snail booths section. I accidently get the large order of snail soup. While the first few dozen are hardish to get down, I get used to the flavor, taste and texture. Probobably wouldn't get it again, but not bad.

Tonight? I'm trying to convience myself to go all out and get the sheeps head soup (exactly what it sounds like), but I'm not sure I have confidence in the soup, my stomach or my all night bus ride out of Marrakesh.

The smoke from the food stalls

Snail Soup

Sheeps Head Soup. Do I dare?

Marrakesh: My Confidence

As I walked to the bus station to buy a ticket out of Marrakesh today, I realized I felt more and more comfortable in this city and that my confidence was running high. So much so that I shaved off my security beard this morning. The scooters rushing by, the arm pulling "free guides", and the sensory overload no longer phase me. I had almost made it to the bus station when I realized that, no... I just walked 20 minutes in the exact opposite direction. Confidence medium. Then as I sat down to type this I realized that I still had the large sticker (specifying the pants size) running down the leg of my REI cargo pants. Confidence low. Oh well, at least this was the first time I've worn them and I eventually made it to the bus station and got my ticket. Confidence back up to medium.

Monkeys be damned! I own this city! (back when my confidence was running high)