Monday, April 20, 2009

Goodbye Egypt

Slowly walking through the crowded and chaotic street markets of Islamic Cairo for one last time, I try to fully take in the scene.

The dirt and mud covered streets are linned with people sitting and standing selling their goods. There is a constant barrage of sound as chickens cluck, meat cleavers come down hard on cow bone, people shout, men hiss(a polite way to signal 'watch out' as they try to pass with large bags of food on their head), and falafels sizzle while being deep fried in large woks. The smells of fresh strawberries, shisha (mollases soaked tobacco smoked from hookahs), fish sitting in the sun, turkish coffee, fresh cilantro, hot garbage, freshly baked bread and many other smells that I can't even recognize, waft up as I pass by.

I'm going to miss Egypt and Cairo. Next up South Africa and Botswana.

Give me a pack of Skittles, a can of Pepsi and a quarter pound of cow head please.

At Least no Bed Bugs

A scene from The Shinning or my $8 hotel room in Cairo? The wall opposite is completely covered in a floor to ceiling shattered mirror.

Almost Made It

Horns here in Cairo usually come with four wheels, a steering wheel and an operator. The operator's primary purpose is to honk said horn in an effort to anger and confound the pedestrians of the city. My operator was doing a stellar job. In five minutes he had chalked up over 30 honks. At this rate we might finally break the 100 honk barrier on this cab ride. He was of course good at honking at cars, mopeds and pedestrians, but in addition he was also excellent at performing horn malfunction tests (honking the horn for seemingly no reason to see if it still works). Yup, still works.

It had taken a while to communicate my destination. I was trying to get to the Northern Cemetary to check out where squatters have created a whole town within the tombs. I started the game of charades by trying to act out death. Laying down in the taxi cab seat, I closed my eyes and crossed my arms over my chest. Soon enough we were on our way.

We finally got to the cemetary. Only 86 honks. I hung my head low, kicking myself for not knowing the Arabic phrase for "keep circling the block please".

I didn't know whether to focus on counting his honks or his burps from chugging the can of soda. Sensory overload.

Friday, April 17, 2009

One Week Earlier...

"Are you or aren't you not going to Syria? Yes or no?", she asked in an annoyed manner.

"Ummm... I guess... I won't be going to Syria", I responded. I knew full well that an Israeli stamp in my passport would erase the possibility of traveling to other Middle Eastern countries, save a select few. I could have had the stamp on a seperate piece of paper stapled to my passport. I was, however, tired from a long minibus ride and just wanted to be in Jordan and done with the day. In addition my judgement was clouded by dark brown eyes with long lashes and other equally exotic attributes.

It was, of course, only after that fatefull stamp was laid down that I started hearing about how great Damascus was. "Excellent". "My favorite city in the Middle East". "The most friendly people you'll ever meet". "You have to go if you have a whole month in Turkey". Crap.

Now, in the Cairo airport, kicking myself for not saving money by not getting a multiple entry visa to Egypt, I had a great idea. I took my new $15 Egyptian visa sticker and placed it directly over the Israeli entry and exit stamps. can't possibly be this easy to erase a country from your passport. I'll keep you posted.


The little siq (canyon)

Funny you should ask about the grail...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Grass is Always Greener...

I was lying in the crook of a rock writing in my sketch book and looking over the endless desert. I could not have been more content.

Looking out to the rock peaks on my left, I saw Maarten off in the distance climbing up to watch the sunset. I was suddenly not content. The scrambling and the perceived view looked too good to be missed. I packed up my bag and bouldered after him.

Seeing that he had his ipod in and was enjoying a solitary moment on his peak, I continued on to the next (and slightly higher) peak. Out of breath, I sat on the peak and took in the stellar view. After 20 minutes I heard something behind me and looked back. There was Maarten climbing up. "I was very content with my view, until I saw you on a higher peak", he confessed.

We had spent the day following in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia. With a driver and an early 80's Land Cruiser (that had to be hotwired for each start), we explored the vastness of the desert landscape.

That night I dragged my sleeping pad out into the sand and wrapped myself in blankets. Looking up at the stars, I reflected on my day. An excellent birthday to be sure. Then the wind started blowing hard, pelting my face with sand. Ok, a pretty good birthday.

Maarten wasn't satisfied with this view. (He's the small white dot on the rocks)

A happy birthday indeed.

Wadi Rum: Part 2

"Last one down the sand dune buys the beer tonight", Maarten challenged. I rolled my eyes to show that I had no interest in participating… and then I started running down in a full sprint. Not 20 minutes earlier, exhausted from our hike through the canyon, I barely had enough energy to wave off the flies from my face as we were eating lunch. We were in the red sand dunes of Wadi Rum where it was scorching hot and I was nearly out of water. My, how quickly the promise of beer changes a situation.

Before entering the canyon, we decided to play it safe and declined paying for a guide or a map. How hard could it be to navigate through a canyon that the Lonely Planet describes as 'labyrinth like'? My, how quickly I forget my past mistakes. It only took us one hour to realize that we had gone one hour down the wrong canyon. Finally after stumbling on a group of French climbers, we were shown the correct canyon wall to scramble up. It turned out to be some of the most beautiful and technical hiking I've ever experienced. Good scary fun.

Now neck and neck, Maarten and I were running full steam down the side of the dune. There was no definite end to the dune; just a gradual run out. This was stupid.
"Where is the end?" I choked.
"This is stupid!" Maarten choked.
"Call it a draw?" I choked.

We bent over holding our legs and looked out at the 3 hours of desert that we still had to cross. A long, beautiful day.

We're lost. (Maarten is the white dot, and I'll give you a shiny new penny if you can spot the French climbers) [click to expand]

Ropes would have been nice.

Wadi Rum: Part 1

I awoke in a canvas tent surrounded by sand but the call to prayer that woke me was very different from the one that I was used to. Bouncing back and forth on the canyon walls that lined the valley, the lyrics quickly became an eerie jumble of sound and music. I had finally escaped the siren song of Dahab, Egypt and was now hearing the siren song of Jordan.

I unzipped the tent, wiped my eyes with my fists, and looked around. Sculpted 2000 ft high sandstone cliffs randomly sprouting out of the desert. And sand. Sand as far as the eye could see. It was beautiful.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Toilet Seat Position

Having a ten day, doctor imposed ban on diving gave me the opportunity to realize that life on top of the water isn't so bad. Let's give windsurfing a go.

I looked damn good as I shot across the water at a good clip. Sure my beginner board was so wide that I could have parked a Hummer on it. And yes, 'shot across the water' meant 2, maybe 3 miles per hour. Even so, I knew that corporate sponsorship, magazine photo shoots and beach parties with models weren't far off.

"Get out of the toilet seat position!" my instructor shouted at me from the beach. Realizing I had been squatting over the board this whole time, I stood up straight feeling like much less of a badass.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Uniting the Major Religions

My doctor, also pleased with my progress (I can now put on my pants without falling over) gave me permission to go hike Mt. Sinai and head to Petra if needed. Mt. Sinai is first up.

Mt. Sinai is a sacred mountain to both Jews, Muslims and Christians. It is on top of this mountain that God first handed down the ten commandments to Charlton Heston.

After a 2 hr drive, my group starts hiking up Mt. Sinai at 2am with our guide Mohammad. He is a man who has been tasked (by the government) with job of keeping our group together while hiking up the mountain. His English consists mainly of the word "hey" which he uses at different pitches to convey his meaning. We keep on hearing the angry "hey" whenever various members try to (unsuccessfully) leave the group.

Mohammad's frequent smoke breaks and the long line of people ahead of us start jeopardizing our goal of reaching the top before sunrise. I can see a crack of daylight on the horizon as the line stops dead 300 meters short of the top. My quick calculations (that I base on absolutely nothing) tell me that I'm going to miss the sunrise at this pace. It is obvious that the path is held up by slow picture takers on their way up.

The sides of the path are lined with excellent granite boulders that are begging to be climbed. The temptation of the boulders and frustration of the slow people are too great. I break my government issued shackles and start scampering up the rocks at full speed. I hear a distant angry "hey" from behind me, but Mohammad knows he's too late. I'm gone.

For one beautiful moment in history, the Jews, Muslims and Christians (in the line) all put aside their differences and focus their collective anger and frustration on me. No one says anything, but my soul can feel their icy stares. Passing the slow culprits at an all out run, I get to the top quickly and find myself a perfect nook in the rocks from which to catch my breath and watch the sunrise. Absolutely gorgeous.

Still panting

Now very much relaxed

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Serving 5-10 in Dahab

Just two days earlier I had wished for more time in Dahab. Now I was sitting in the hospital next to a huge decompression chamber. Careful what you wish for.

Two days ago I started my advanced scuba diving training. After the first dive, I chalked up the light-headed and dizzy feeling to low blood pressure. After each subsequent dive, I felt progressively dizzier and dizzier. When I could no longer walk a straight line, I decided that being 30 ft underwater in the dark was a poor idea and canceled my night dive. When I woke up the next day my room was still spinning so my dive master took me to the hospital. I now sat anxiously awaiting the doctor's diagnosis.

"You have to stay in Dahab 5-10 more days". I have vertigo.

No dropping 90ft down in the blue hole, no drifting through the canyon, no exploring the wreck of Thistlegorm. No more diving on this trip. Also no hiking to watch the sunrise from the top of Mt. Sinai and even my trip to Petra is in jeopardy since it involves a mountain pass in Jordan.

Disappointed? Of course. Sad? I'm somehow finding it hard to be sad as I sip my mango juice and watch the waves roll lazily in. I can't seem to think of a better place to be trapped in, and now that I constantly feel dizzily drunk, I can save money on beer. I stumble back to my dorm room, feeling much like Lucille 2 from Arrested Development.

Monday, April 6, 2009

How to Survive a Violent Attack in 4 Easy Steps

Step One: Stay Calm

Step Two: Try to disorient your attacker

Step Three: Play the "why are you biting yourself, why are you biting yourself?" game

Step Four: Subdue your assailant with kindness

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Dahab, Egypt

When I first arrived in Dahab I had a bit of a hard time relaxing. "So instead of constantly walking and seeing sites, I'm just supposed sit here on this beach all day drinking fresh squeezed juices and beer?" How very foriegn.

It wasn't until ran into a Kiwi couple that I started to relax. They unknowingly captured the spirit of Dahab. "We used to start at one end of the restaurant and move every few hours over to the next cushioned seating area so that we could stay in the sun. It was too much work, so now we just stay on these cushions all day" I take a deep breath, stop worrying about the world class diving that I should probably be experiencing, and take another sip of my beer.

Sure I have to kick in my door each time I enter my hostel room, and yes at the count of twenty I stopped trying to total the amount of flies that had landed in my honey during breakfast. There is, however, no denying Dahab's paradise status when you're sitting on pillows around the fire at night looking towards the glimering lights of Saudi Arabia just across the calm waters of the Red Sea.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Canals and Wedding Cake

Spending the night in Suez was a great way to break up an 11 hr bus ride to Dahab and a perfect chance to see colossal super tankers lumber through the canal. Viewed from a distance, they eerily look as though they are drifting through the city streets. Or maybe this is just another acid flashback (just kidding mom!).

The dolphins jumping past the bow of the tankers was icing on the cake and the scene was perfected by the early 90's music (Ace of Base) that a guy was blasting from his car as he cruised up and down the strip. From here in Suez it's possible to arrange passage on the tankers heading to India, South Africa and Australia. Hmmm... tempting.

Instead of passage on a ship, that night a combination of my curiosity and dumb luck had gotten me passage to an Egyptian wedding reception. The conversation was practically non-existent, the wedding cake dry, but the experience was great. Flaming swords, sufi dancing (not to mention excellent borat-like dancing) and completely out-of-place techno music during the cake cutting. Very happy with my evening, I head back to the hostel.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Typical Negotiation

Egyptian: My friend, you want to rent bicycle for day?
Me: How much?
E: 35 pounds (about $7).
Me: Ha. [look away in disinterest]
E: Ok, how much you pay?
Me: No, no, no. Is too much. [still looking away in disinterest]
[repeat previous two steps 1-3 times]

Me: You give me real price.
E: Ok, 30 pounds.
Me: No, no... too much.
E: Ok, what you pay?
[repeat previous two steps 1-3 times to see if he gives lower price]

Me: 10 pounds (about $2).
E: 10 pounds? This is nothing! My friend, no one rents for 10 pounds! You walk for 10 pounds.

Me: I am poor student. Cannot afford.
E: Ok, 20 pounds.
Me: No, no. too much.
E: Ok, 15 pounds. Best price.

Me: No, I need to eat [make eating motions with my hands]. Only pay 10 pounds.
E: Ok, 13 pounds.

Me: Only pay 10 pounds. You want me to starve? [holding my stomach]
E: My friend, is only 3 pounds! You can buy falafel for that!
Me: Exactly! I need to by falafel with 3 pounds. Look at how skinny I am!
E: Ok, 10 pounds.