Saturday, June 19, 2010

World Cups, remembered

2002, South Korea and Japan
Yanik and I find ourselves drunk at a pub in the East Village at 7:45am. Game ends, we wobble to the deli on Broadway between 9th and 10th and get egg-ham-and-cheese on rolls and Cokes, diet for me, regular for Yans. We then go into my office at 770, and drunkenly and loudly eat hangover food in my cube smelling of pre-Bloomberg-era-ban cigarettes and beer. We think this is a good idea. I don't remember the rest of the workday. Korea makes it to the semi-finals, places fourth.

2006, Germany
Gabe and I have just started dating. We wander South Williamsburg for a place with both TV and brunch. Impossible. We stop in at Marlow & Sons, which has paninis, but no eggs, and a long-lost friend from New Trier who I haven't seen in almost 10 years is working behind the bar, which is really nice but sufficient enough to freak me out. We end up at Pies & Thighs, where the staff is stoned and forgets to place our order, which leads to us missing the first half of whatever game we wanted to watch. They make it up for us by giving us free pie, and we catch the second half in my dim apartment in 285 Division, gobbling an apple crumble that has the distinctly addictive quality of heroin. Korea doesn't make it out of their group, which includes Switzerland, France and Togo.

2010, South Africa
Gabe and I are married (and Yanik about to be!). We miss the opening ceremony and Korea's first dominating win over Greece while driving up the Kings Highway in Jordan. We watch the US draw with England caffeinated and sheesha-ed rather than drunk. We find ourselves in innumerable strange, men-filled cafes of Arabs wearing Villa, Messi and Rooney jerseys. We watch the DPRK stand up to Brazil in our crowded hostel lobby with a bunch of other backpackers, and I am confused with a million feelings of pride and bitterness and hope. We watch Korea score its one goal against Argentina in an open-air cafe on Rainbow Street, sipping orange juice and mint lemonade. I jump up and down screaming, give Gabe a loud, obnoxious high five. After an amused silence at the crazy Asian lady, a roomful of Jordanian men clearly rooting for the South Americans laughs warmly and gives a huge round of applause. The waiter makes a motion as if I should take a bow. I almost do. The Koreas play on.

This land is my land, this land is your land ... (Monday, June 14)

Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where John the Baptist did his baptizing thing with Jesus, is an important pilgrimage spot and tourist attraction. Of course, it's also in a militarized zone, which, you know, makes things weird.

With tourists on the viewing platform on the Jordanian side of the River Jordan, where we were escorted by a licensed guide and met a nice young Jordanian soldier with a giant rifle:

The tourists on the Israeli side of the River Jordan, accompanied by a nice young IDF soldier with a giant rifle:

And the 10 feet of hotly contested, politically charged water that runs beneath them:

... I saw above me, an endless skyway ...

Head on a silver platter, please (Monday, June 14)

Gabe, freshly shaven, evokes the sultry moves of Salome on the mountaintop where she once danced for the head of John the Baptist. He's got moves, eh? No great Biblical figure, however, was murdered this week.

Mukawir Fortress, Mukawir, Jordan

Dana and a Beard (Saturday, June 11)

The Dana Nature Reserve is stunning.

So is my husband.

Ps, this is what happens when a man chooses to shave off six weeks of facial hair in stages.

Toilets get boo-boos too (Friday, June 11)

Valentine Inn, Wadi Musa, Jordan.

Petra, to scale (Thursday, June 10)

Reminders, always reminders, of how small we are. Welcome to Petra.

Me, entering the siq.

Gabe, hiking over the Royal Tombs.

Me, entering goat traffic.

Gabe, at the monastery.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wadi Rum, Canadians and the hottest Jeep ever (Tuesday, June 8)

After crossing from Egypt to Jordan on the ferry from Nuweiba, we made our way to Wadi Rum, a pristine nature reserve in the southwestern Jordan. This is the land of Lawrence of Arabia, home to his 7 Pillars of Wisdom, where he (supposedly) rallied the disparate Arab tribes in the beginning of the 20th century in the Arab Revolt. Wadi Rum has thrilled me ever since I saw Sean's pictures of the place in 2004 or some other such forever time ago, so I was pumped.

We got a rude awakening at Bait Ali, our luxury campsite just outside the reserve. We had been super excited to indulge in a night at a fancy camp, for the outrageous price of 30 JD a night (about $42, or TWICE what we normally pay). But! The price was 30 JD PER PERSON. Uh, $84 to camp! Wha?!

Aaaaand, then we got over it. We were in fucking Wadi Rum. And then we got over it even more, because we met the sweetest of brothers, Arun and Anup, traveling through the Middle East for a few weeks. We cajole them into sharing a 4WD trek with us in the morning, and after a few terrifyingly close encounters with a giant white spider with a red head, we go to bed.

In the morning, we lay eyes, for the first time, on our trusted steed. Please note the pop can sealing the gas tank.

And, we're off!

At Lawrence's castle. Basically his Hamptons house. I look little.

Choi sees sand dune. See Choi jump. See Arun laugh.

All over the desert are interesting Nabatean inscriptions and carvings of camel caravans and other such images of daily life. Near such inscriptions? Odd rock enclaves that are just the right size for two Canadians.

All of this was cool. The highlight of the trip, however, was definitely clambering up the giant, smooth stones that lead to a stunning rock bridge. Going up the rocks? Not so bad. Walking across the bridge? Not cool, guys, not cool.

Gabe, because he is crazy, decided to go higher up. On the recommendation of a barefoot Bedouin guide, he strips off his shoes and proceeds to make me very nervous. I employed the tactic learned on the Kalalau, and just stop looking at him.

But like it always is, the terror was worth it. We'll miss you, boys! And, of course, Canada, our home and native land! Til next time.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

35 things learned in Egypt (Sunday, June 6)

1) Egyptians can be exhausting.

2) Egyptians can be kind.

3) Did we mention, Egyptians can be exhausting?

4) In order to enter Saudi Arabia, women must be accompanied by a male relative.

5) Egyptian women can, and do, swim in the beaches fully dressed in long denim skirts and hijabs.

6) Bedouins smoke a LOT of hashish.

7) Everybody on the Sinai smokes weed and hashish.

8) Honey sheesha is strong and delicious. Peach and apple sheeshas are nice, but really, mango is where it’s at.

9) Southern Egypt is HOT.

10) One can feel like they are falling off a cliff when snorkeling near a steep reef drop off.

11) The Sphinx is small.

12) The Great Pyramids are big, but not as big as you expect.

13) Tombs smell like pee. All of them. Partially because of ammonia, fungus, and old, humid air collecting, but partially because people pee in them all the time.

14) You can develop Pavlovian reactions to words. For example: baksheesh = slap upside the head.

15) Luxor is better at night.

16) The Nile is better at night.

17) Just because you wash your hands like a crazy person does not mean that anybody else will. Exercise caution.

18) Four layers of antibacterial gel on your hands feels just like dirt. Whether or not it is antibacterialized dirt has yet to be determined.

19) Egyptians are extremely bitter about losing to Algeria in the run-up to the World Cup.

20) Showering in salt water means you never get a lather on anything.

21) Everything is negotiable.

22) For proper falafel and hummus, you really need to head out of Africa and into the Middle East.

23) One can eat fuul at the horrifically filthy restaurant across the street from the ferry terminal in Nuweiba and NOT get sick. This remains one of the biggest surprises of our travel.

24) 20-hour bus rides are long. Like, really, really long. And Gabe may argue with you that they are not *that* long, but they are really, really long.

25) The last 3 hours of a 20-hour bus ride are the worst, and even Gabe will agree to that.

26) Good guy-bad guy works well when bartering.

27) 5-year-old children can hustle. Don’t trust the kids in Egypt, they’ll work you for every pound you’ve got.

28) Arabian horses really are the most stunning animals in the universe.

29) Being the only woman in streets full of men NEVER gets easier.

30) Egypt is the “Hollywood” of the Middle East and exports tons of films and other media, including its language. So Jordanians, for example, can understand the Egyptian Arabic dialect, but not vice versa.

31) Pearly white tourists will never cease to amaze in their inability to properly prepare for the sun.

32) Pearly white tourists are often fat Americans.

33) The McDonald’s in Luxor, across the street from the Temple of Luxor, is a wonderful place to spend a deliciously air-conditioned, wi-fi-ed afternoon. NO JOKE.

34) The sleeper train from Cairo to Aswan is a treat.

35) Politeness does nothing when shooing away touts.

Forever Dahab (Saturday, June 5)

Dahab is the antidote to everything in Egypt. Breeze-rustled date palms. Sun-bleached cushions stacked on worn rugs. Kittens rushing for your grilled calamari. Vertigo as you snorkel over a reef that plunges into the ocean floor. Yoga in the half shade, half sun of a baking roof deck. Giant platters of rice and chicken shared with friends. Meeting Bedouins for sage-sprinkled tea. And sheesha, always sheesha, in mango, peach, apple, honey.

Thanks to Beth and Kareem for the lazy days ... til next time, kids. Love.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Being Korean, crying on Mt. Sinai (Wednesday, June 2)

The hike up Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the 10 Commandments from God, was pleasant enough. We left Dahab at 11pm to reach the base of the mountain at 1am, and hiked up the switchbacks of the Camel Path for a few hours. The Camel Path is literally a parking lot of camels. In the wee hours of the morning, people were hustling camel rides every few turns, which is like everywhere else in Egypt, the one difference being it’s tough to pass a camel on a mountain path when there is only six feet or so of real estate. (There is another route up, some 3,000 stairs that were built into the side of the mountain by a monk who wanted to do penance.) From Elijah’s Basin, where the Prophet Elijah heard the voice of God, everybody climbs about 800 stone stairs to the top.

The night hike ensured that we, with at least a hundred others, would be at the peak of Mt. Sinai for sunrise. Most people seemed more or like less me and Gabe – shivering, snacking, waiting for the sun with digital cameras on the ready. Nothing about the performance gear or almonds suggested pilgrim.

The sun rose. It was beautiful.

The orange glow of the first morning revealed more of our neighbors on the mountaintop, including a group of about two dozen Koreans. They looked ridiculous in that way that only Asian tourists can look ridiculous – gloves to protect their skin from the sun, a 3:1 ratio of camera to person, and what we have come to call the “beekeeper” look, a wide-brimmed hat swathed in a scarf or netting for maximum sun shield. We giggled.

And then they began to pray.

I was immediately mocking. Call it too many years of feeling left out of the Korean church community, skepticism about the hypocritical and ungenerous behavior of many Koreans in the name of Christ, or just my generally confused and overwrought response to faith. I know it’s unfair. I am working on it.

Against my will, I caught a few snatches of the words, spoken by a young man with a melodic (well, as melodic as Korean gets) voice, with a timbre of what I can only describe as devotion. Something about being thankful for even the hardest burdens, for remembering to find goodness in sacrifice.

And then they began to sing.

God help me, I hate the sound of traditional Korean singing, the high-pitched warbling and thin voices remembering some tragedy, always a tragedy. As a few people around me began to snicker, I was struck by a gut dislike for the sound, mixed with embarrassment that these Koreans were making a scene and so much noise in front of all of these white people, mixed with an overwhelming longing to be a part of their community, to feel what they felt and to believe what they believed, mixed with an intense physical realization that I stood a world apart. It is a familiar sensation.

Somehow, though, the mountains of the Sinai interior deepened the voices, which began echoing out into the pink and orange valley, warming to the newly woken sun. The other tourists, who had been chattering and preparing for the hike down, fell quiet, and with each verse, reverence started to fill the air, thicken it somehow, blanket us. I could hardly understand the hymn, and of course nobody else on the mountain could either, but it didn’t matter. Everything was rich and simple and believable, and something burst in my chest and I found myself stunned, tears streaming down my cheeks. I felt vulnerable to the core, my grimy fist not-so-subtly wiping at tears that would not stop, yet weirdly perfect, too.

The Koreans finished singing, and after a hushed beat, Sinai seemed to exhale. People packed their bags, rejoined their groups, tightened their shoelaces. The Koreans started another, more reflective prayer, and Gabe and I timidly walked around them to start our descent. The valley turned red and brown as sun grew more aggressive overhead. The braying of camels was vaguely in the distance, the grating crunch of sand and pebbles immediately underfoot.

The moment moved, and I did, too. But to where, I don’t know.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Getting busted by Egyptian security (Sunday, May 30)

So, all around the Valley of Kings are signs that say, “No Camera.” The ones that don’t say “No Camera” say something like, “No Photos.” At the entry to the site, there is a security guard that rifles through your bag and tells you to leave your cameras on the bus.

Basically, you’re not supposed to take pictures.

Gabe, Paul (our Australian adoptee) get to the Valley at 6:15 a.m. - an early start is crucial in order to try to beat the 120-degree heat in the Nile Valley - and pay an atrocious entrance fee, which buys us entry into 3 tombs. We get pumped. We hike to the furthest tomb in the Valley, Tutmosis III. It is cool.

We try to get into our 2nd tomb. It is closed. We try our 3rd. It requires an additional ticket of additional atrocious amounts of pounds. We head to our 4th choice. It is closed.

It is hot.

We get to our 5th choice tomb, which is basically one of the last few that is open and free with our original ticket, and I am pissy. We walk past a sign that says “No photos.”

We get inside. Halfway through the smelly, humid mess of a hundred tourists crammed into one tomb, I surreptitiously (I think) pull out my little Canon and take a picture here, a picture there. No flash. I understand that lights can damage ancient wall paintings. I am maaaaaaaad, but not so mad that I am about to ruin antiquity. We take a few minutes, turn around, start making our way out. All of a sudden, a hullabaloo.

“Angry” Egyptian security guard grabs my arm and starts shouting at me in Arabic (I say “angry” because of course, this is all an act). “No photo! No photo!” He grabs my hand, then my camera, and starts gesticulating, a hot pink Digital Elph in his hand. “No photo!”

I feign ignorance. “So sorry!” Gabe, by this point, has noticed that I have made a scene, and comes over. Immediately, the guard starts directing all comments and hot pink gesticulating to him. It is obvious the guard considers him responsible for his wife’s misbehavior. For the rest of the time, the security guard doesn’t speak or look at me.

So, the guard tells us – uh, tells Gabe – that we have to go to the director of security because I have broken the cardinal rule of visiting ancient smelly tombs with thousands of fat smelly tourists. He starts walking purposefully to the entrance of the tomb, which is a ways away. At each turn and new room (we happen to be in a very long, railroad-apartment like tomb) the guard slows his pace and sort of slyly looks at Gabe.

The man wants a bribe, and it makes me so angry I want to shout out that he can shove that hot pink piece of metal up his dishdasha all I care, I am tired of his tombs and tired of extra hidden costs of things and tired of Egyptians trying to hustle me for money and tired of the smell of old pee in my face all the time (note: long, hot, expensive, hassle-full days in Egypt make me cranky). Of course, he doesn’t expect me to make a bribe. He wants Gabe to offer to pay him money for his misbehaving wife, because obviously Gabe must be humiliated that I did something as stupid as take a picture.

Of course, I do no such thing, and Gabe doesn’t either. He stood and waited patiently as the guard lingered, not very subtly, at the entrance to the tomb, our last chance to bribe him before going to the head of security. We wait him out. As Gabe points out, bribing one person then opens us up to bribing people at every turn, while going through the beauracratic channels at least puts us in the right. Reluctantly, the security guard walks on. Eventually, Gabe and I find ourselves in the director of security’s air-conditioned office. He’s a young dude with perfect English and a raft of people bringing him tea – but more on that later.

He takes my hot pink camera and, without ever looking at me, tells Gabe that there are no cameras allowed in the Valley of Kings.

No fucking duh.

He flips through the camera, asking Gabe to watch. They count 7 illicit pictures. Security director tells Gabe he needs to pay a fee of 50 pounds per picture - $70 USD for stupid blurry pictures of a smelly tomb that we weren’t even excited to see in the first place. We need to buy 350 Egyptian pounds worth of tickets in order to get the camera back, and delete the pictures. There is a looooong pause – security director waiting for us to counter offer and pay cash to him instead. Gabe gets up and walks out to go to the ticket booth, while I continue to sit in the office.

Suddenly, traffic in the director’s office gets crazy. Every two seconds is another man stepping in with a “Salaam aleykam,” another offer of tea, another cigarette, another long unabashed stare at the Asian woman with uncovered hair sitting like a kid in the principal’s office. In the 20 minutes that it takes Gabe to buy the tickets, at least 12 men come in and out of the office to stare, and not one of them breathes a word to me. Neither does the director, who fondles the camera and flips through the pictures, the vast majority of which are from other sights.

Gabe finally comes back, hands over the tickets, and with the director watching over his shoulder, deletes the pics. They shake hands. We leave. Not ONCE in the whole process does the director even look at me.

We finally get out of the Valley having seen only one tomb that we were really interested in, out 350 pounds and hugely apologetic to Paul, who waited patiently in the 100-degree heat through the whole debacle. After my stint as the greatest attraction of the Valley, I am feeling excessively unapologetic for taking my non-flash pictures and wishing I had demanded baksheesh out of every man who had come into the office to ogle me.

Lesson learned: Broken rules are not a big deal if you are willing to bribe your way out of them, and you will defy all of the authority figures if you don’t.

PS. Paul is awesome for not making me feel like an ass that day. I know I was an ass. Hearts, Paul!

PPS. This is a really long post with no pictures. You know why? Because I have no photos of the goddamned Valley of Kings.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Paul, our Arabic teacher

Sweet Paul! He made us an Arabic dictionary. He was patient when I got busted by the Egyptian po-lice. He helped wave off unwelcome hustlers. We love Paul. See you in Syria/Sydney/Amman, my love!

So, Luxor, Egypt is different than Luxor, Las Vegas (Saturday, May 29)

Sunset on the Nile, view from a felucca (Saturday, May 29)

Gabriel wanders through the Temple of Karnak (Saturday, May 29)

Sleeping. On train (Friday, May 28)

The most comfortable beds we’ve slept on in weeks. We know we’re in the right place when a hundred Chinese in a giant tour group get herded onto the same train down south to Luxor and Aswan. And! We adopt an orphan – Paul, an Australian studying Arabic at the university in Amman during his summer break. The air conditioning is so good that we’re actually COLD.


Violence, second hand

Egypt is a conservative country, though much more moderate than many of its neighbors. Culturally it is predominantly Islamic. Its economy is propped up by tourism, media, and a lot of foreign investment (helloooooo tax dollars!). Technically it is a secular state. We counted less than 10 women in two weeks that did not cover their head, and many more women in full burkas, gloves and veils than we did in Tunisia. Women travel and study, though the streets primarily remain a world of men. Men drinking tea and taking sheesha, men holding hands and laughing, men serving food, men staring. Though we felt seriously harassed everywhere we went, we never felt a threat of violence (unlike, say, in Colombia).

So, it stunned us when Jalal, a Lebanese-American backpacker we met at a hostel, described seeing a woman getting beaten by a man in the streets of downtown Cairo. The guy had her by the hair and was hitting her in the face. I asked Jalal if he did anything, and he said no, he walked away. He said, I don’t know what the situation is. Maybe she got caught stealing something. Maybe he was her husband. It was horrible and shocking, but what could he do?

Gabe said something similar. We don’t know what the situation is, and we’re not exactly in friendly terrain. I mean, for all we know, we’re as likely that we’d get in as much trouble – violent or legal or otherwise – for stopping a such an incident as for participating in one. Sure, if we saw that happen in the States, we could do something to stop it. But what can one person do, especially here, where we don’t know the language, don’t know the culture, where even being American makes us suspicious to locals?

My response: We fucking stop the beating! We do what we can! Who cares if it’s built into the culture? Then the culture has to change! If a man is beating a woman, you stop it somehow. You find a way. It is wrong, wrong, wrong.

And then: My God. I am that disgusting American with my disgusting assumption of moral authority and thinking that our right is the only right and maybe we don’t know the whole story and who are we to think we can, or should, change whole societies? Who are we to say anything? How dare I think our moral compass is what is right for the world?

But then: Who CARES? A woman was being hit on the street! Who cares if that woman was stealing? Who cares if that man is her husband, or father, or uncle, or brother? The reasoning that “not knowing the whole story” excuses not stopping a violent act implies that there is “some story” that somehow makes beating another human being on the street okay. And why does that make it more or less okay? How can that possibly be okay? What makes it right for anybody, anywhere, to beat someone else in public? Or in private? WHAT IS WRONG WITH US?

But then: It’s up to people themselves to right the wrongs they see in their society – if they view them as wrongs. Not us. I mean, changing hearts and minds – what the fuck, right? It doesn’t work. You can’t parachute in and make a difference. The only sea changes that have ever worked are those that have been engineered at the grassroots level. People who decide to make a change themselves.

But THEN: How can we expect someone who has grown and lived in a culture to stick their neck out if we can’t? If someone from the outside doesn’t have the courage to say something, to take a risk, to stop the beating of a woman on the street – how can we expect an insider to do so?

The whole thing is uncomfortable and impossible and exhausting and just generally fucking tragic. And all inspired by an incident that we didn’t even see ourselves. As far as soul-searching experiences goes, this lands on the massive end of the scale – and it was only a casual anecdote shared by a fellow backpacker. Life changing moments, at every turn.

Language un-barrier

It goes without saying that Egypt attracts tourists from around the world, who drive the country’s economy. We were expecting tons of tour groups and lots of people living up to their appropriate ridiculous stereotypes. (Ever seen a tour guide frantically waving a Hello Kitty stuffed cat to get the attention of his wards?) But we weren’t expecting the facility of the Egyptian tour guides - at least outside of what we have started to think of as the European “tourist” languages of French, Italian, and German.

Egyptians in the museum cracking jokes in Japanese. Talking about the sacerdotes and amores about hieroglyphics in Spanish. Rounding up dozens of Chinese, shouting to other tour guides and chatting over shared cigarettes in Mandarin.

And, of course, English, English, English everywhere. My voice is my passport. Verify me.

Late afternoon, Islamic Cairo (Friday, May 28)

Cairo. It's got pyramids (Thursday, May 27)

They are grand, they are awesome, they are crawling with tourists. They - we - ruin everything. Seriously. The breath and sweat and dirty hands of tourists create a fungus inside many of the tombs and pyramids that erode the stone and muddy the carvings and paintings. And still, these structures are awesome. Gabe and I agree – once he builds me a Taj Mahal, I’ll get started on his Great Pyramid.

The step pyramid – one of the red, white, and black pyramids – was basically a practice round. It is the world's EARLIEST stone structure. Unbelievable.

The Red Pyramid. It rises up out of the middle of nowhere, part of a collection of pyramids in Dahshur that includes the Bent and the Black Pyramid. The oldest true pyramid.

We climbed up the side of the pyramid, to then crawl down an equally steep tunnel into the pyramid, which is damp and smells like old, wet bathroom. It is claustrophobic and scary and totally worth it.

Giza and the Sphinx. How to explain? The Great Pyramids are enormous, gorgeous pieces of antiquity, overlooking the smog of a giant African city. The tourist police expect baksheesh, or tips, for just standing around in uniform. The kids with camels expect baksheesh if you say no to a ride. The locals standing around the entrances and in key spots around the pyramids expect baksheesh for “letting” you access (after you’ve paid atrocious official entrance fees). It’s gross. And still, amazing.

Cairo clusterfuck (Wednesday, May 26)

3:45 a.m. There are 30 guys clamoring outside of the airport in Cairo. We get overwhelmed, walk back inside. The tourist police say expect to pay 90 Egyptian pounds for a ride downtown (about 16 USD). We walk back outside. Immediately a dude offers us a ride for 60. Gabe says 50. We agree on 55. He walks us to a waiting cabbie, who yells at him, making the motion of emptying his pockets. Then they make up and kiss, each cheek in turn. We go to the hotel. The cabbie asks the front desk for a commission for bringing us to the airport. Hotel dude says no. Cabbie shrugs, leaves.

Welcome to Egypt.