Saturday, March 29, 2008

The extreme weekend

I just got back from my fourth weekend in a row traveling. A whole month of straight traveling is a lot, and I am very excited about the prospect of two free weekends in Cairo before Spring Break. This weekend we went to Dahab and Mt. Sinai. Most people do both things in three days, but we only took two. Our extreme agenda was as follows:
-Leave Cairo on a bus for Dahab at 11:00 PM. Sleep on bus.
-Get into Dahab around 8:00 AM. Hit beach. Sleep more.
-Spend all day on beach, have nice dinner in Dahab. Do not check into hostel/hotel.
-Leave for Mt. Sinai at 11:30 PM. Get there around 2:30 AM. Climb mountain. See sunrise. Climb back down, see St. Katherine's monastery really quickly, get on bus back to Cairo.

I didn't really manage to sleep on the bus to Dahab for some reason. I usually can, and I even had my neck pillow this time! Oh well. We got into Dahab early and I took a two hour power nap, after which I surprisingly felt totally refreshed and ready to go for the rest of the day. After breakfast we headed down to the beach and spent the whole day lounging and not really doing anything. Around 4:00 a couple of people decided they wanted to mix it up a bit, so one group went ATV-ing in the desert (ATV stands for All-Terrain Vehicle), and Kyle and I decided we wanted to go horseback riding on the beach. We both wanted faster horses...although I've only ridden horses a couple of times in my life, and probably should have asked some questions about the basic logistics before I went. Our guide rode next to me, and was holding my reigns during the beginning. This was fine, except for the fact that there was no space between our horses, and he kept pushing me off balance a bit. I asked if I could ride on my own, and was told that I could, but warned that the horse liked to go very fast. We were cantering down the road to the beach when the horse picked up speed. I wasn't pressing my feet into the stirrups to keep myself grounded, and it was hard to grasp the saddle. I lost my balance and flew off the horse at full speed, slamming into the ground on my back and butt.

I've never been in so much pain in my entire life. At first I was just in shock and breathing really hard but not crying yet. It hurt a LOT, but I got back on the horse after about 10 minutes, and we headed to the beach. Then I got off again and the pain spasms got a lot worse. For the record, Kyle was great. Those who know me well know I may have a proclivity towards slight stubbornness in certain situations. This was one of those situations. Kyle talked me down, convinced me that we should call it quits, that I could not in fact ride the horse, and then spoke with the guide to get a car to come pick us up. I curled up in a ball on the back seat of the car, and we went back to the town and to a restaurant for dinner. Luckily all the seating there is on pillowed benches really close to the floor. I sat down very slowly, and Alison immediately went to go get me some ibuprofen. She came back with giant pink pills. Everyone in the group was so nice and concerned, and anxious to see if I needed anything at all. I was pretty skeptical about climbing a 7,000 ft mountain, though.

When we left around 11:30, my elephant tranquilizers had kicked in, and I was actually feeling a lot better. Still in some pain, but better. I decided I would try to climb the mountain, and Helene said she would go slow with me. Tim and Brian both ordered me to give them my backpack, because invalids are apparently not allowed to carry things. And they say chivalry is dead. I started a little slowly up the mountain, but was actually feeling pretty good, and decided to walk with the fast group. There were tons and tons of people and camels on the trail, but I had my trusty headlamp and could easily see where I was going. It was almost eerily beautiful to see a huge sky and clear stars framed by scoops and jagged edges of silent mountains that kept looming up in front of us with each switchback. I'm really glad we climbed to see sunrise instead of sunset. In all, the whole hike took about 2.5 hours, and you all should be pleased to know that Kyle, Tim, and I were the first three to the top of the mountain. We had a healthy breakfast of tea, oranges and snickers at the small snack stand, and then went up to the very top to await the sunrise. It was brutally cold and windy and we were all exhausted, but I was proud of myself for making it to the top. I went from hitting the ground hard to scaling a 7,000 foot peak. It was literally a day of highs and lows. Such is life.

The sunrise was totally worth the 2.5 hour climb. It's easy to see why this was an appropriate spot for Moses to receive the 10 Commandments. (Although it's far more impressive that he climbed without the advantage of a carved-out trail, huge water bottles and high-tech running shoes.) After watching the sunrise, we headed back down the mountain using a different trail, which was mostly rough stone steps instead of switchbacks. At the bottom we stopped briefly at St. Katherine's monastery...yeah, the St. Katherine...(if you don't know why that's cool then no worries...but for some reason I was thinking about violets a lot while I was there, hint hint...) and then we got on the bus back to Cairo. Thus ended weekend extreme. I came away with a bruise the size of Madagascar, some awesome pictures, a little bit of sunburn, and a really good story.

Pharaohs, temples and feluccas, oh my

Last weekend we went to Luxor and Aswan, which are two towns in upper Egypt (which means they are south of Cairo, because the Nile runs south to north). Luxor is about a nine hour train ride away, and Aswan is an additional three. Luxor is like Disneyland for archaeologists. It has the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, Queen Hatshepsut's Temple, The Temple of Karnak, and Luxor Temple, just to mention the highlights. We were in Luxor for two days, during which the temperature reached a high of 107 F. Luckily, we decided to book a nice air-conditioned bus instead of opting to bike through the sites. My favorite things were the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, which have amazing hieroglyphics painted or carved into every wall, and the Temple of Karnak, which is really cool when all lit up at night. Visual reference is on facebook.

We were supposed to be in Luxor for three days, but decided that we had seen enough in two days and wanted to go to Aswan. Friday night was our last night in Luxor, and we spent it lounging on top of the roof of our cute, colorful hostel, swinging in the hammock, admiring the view, and eating the gluten-free peanut butter brownies that Alison and I had made before setting out on the trip. Needless to say, Alison and I were very popular that weekend.

The next morning we got up around 6:00 and headed to the train station to catch our 7:00 train. However, since it is Egypt, our train did not arrive until 9:30, and we didn't roll into Aswan until around 12:30. I'm becoming an expert at sleeping in all sorts of unusual places/circumstances here, so it was no problem to just curl up with my bag at the train station and then sleep some more on the train. We only had a long afternoon in Aswan before heading back on the long ride to Cairo, but I'm really glad we went because that was one of my favorite afternoons in Egypt thus far. No museums, no temples, no packed agenda. We just chartered a felucca (which means boat)and spent the afternoon sailing on the Nile and visiting various islands. One of the islands we went to belonged to Lord Kitchener, who was a British Field Marshall and who had received the island in thanks for his campaigns in Sudan. The island is beautiful. It's filled with exotic plants from all over the world, and we had a wonderful time walking around and then dipping our feet in the chilly Nile. The flora and fauna were a welcome reprieve from the constant desert scenery. After Kitchener's Island, we went over to Elephantine Island, drank tea, and saw ancient glyphs carved into the island's elephant-resembling large stones. Then we sailed back, had a great dinner, and hopped on the 8:00 train for the long ride back to Cairo. With the exception of the constant hassling we received from everyone who wanted to sell things there, (it was a lot worse than Cairo), we had a really exceptional long weekend.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Three continents in one weekend? Not too shabby.

Warning: Abnormally long post to follow. Here's a synopsis so you can read just the parts that interest you, if you want:
Day 1 - Arrive/description of Istanbul/dinner/bar/Turkish liquor
Day 2 - Shopping/desserts/Hagia Sofia/Blue Mosque/Turkish Bath
Day 3 - Spice Market/Asia/Cultural Arts Center/Bazaar
Day 4 - Home!

This weekend I went to go visit my friend Kate, who is studying abroad in Istanbul. Before I left, my professor told me Istanbul was a mix of New York and Cairo, which I thought could either be awesome or terribly, terribly bad. Luckily it was the former, although I would describe Istanbul as a mix of Copenhagen, an Italian sea town, and Cairo. The city is pretty dense, but clean and full of amazing architecture. For some reason the wide streets and red roofs reminded me of Copenhagen. The really pretty pastel colors of the buildings remind me of Cinque Terre, which is a collection of small towns on the west coast of Italy. I include Cairo because the city has one foot in the East.

Day 1: After I got to my hostel and met up with Kate, she and I went out to dinner at a restaurant underneath the bridge between old and new Istanbul. Our hostel location was incredibly convenient. We were right next to Istiklal Street, which is the main thoroughfare in new Istanbul with tons of bars and restaurants. After dinner, she and I headed out with a big group to a bar on Istiklal Street. Everyone else drank Turkish beer (which is allegedly much better than Egyptian beer…I wouldn’t know), but I had tequila. Yeup, because it’s gluten-free. After that everyone decided I needed to try Raki, the local witch’s brew. They brought me two highball glasses, one of which was half Raki and half water, the other of which was all water. Raki is pretty darn potent, so you need a glass of water just to chase it. I thought it was pretty good. It tasted like anise, but I could only get through half my glass because it was so strong.

Day 2: Kate had to be in class most of the day, so I went out exploring the city on my own. First order of business: shopping! I wandered down Istiklal street, going into shops and munching delicious Turkish figs, dried apricots and Turkish delight along the way. Turkish desserts are amazing, and there are small stores and pastry shops everywhere glittering with candies, fruits, and baklava.

When I was done with shopping I hopped on the tram and headed over to Hagia Sofia (or Aya Sofya) and the Blue Mosque. At Hagia Sofia I ran into a large English-speaking tour group, and their guide said it was fine if I tagged along for the tour. He spoke excellent English and was full of interesting information. I learned that there are no stairs up to the second floor because nobles used to ride horses in the building (because they were lazy), and it was easier for horses to go up ramps. I learned that Hagia Sofia means ‘divine wisdom’ as exemplified through the life of Jesus Christ, but that over the centuries the building has been inhabited by Latin rulers (they discovered it during the crusades and stayed for 60 years), the Byzantines and the Ottomans. I learned all kinds of interesting things about the architecture, but I would need a visual reference to explain everything. The Blue Mosque was equally spectacular. I didn’t have a tour guide, but the building is absolutely gorgeous. (See facebook for pictures).

After all my sightseeing I was ready for a relaxing evening, and luckily everyone wanted to go to the Turkish Baths that night. Oh. My. Lord. Most wonderful cleaning ritual EVER invented. The bath we went to was built in 1584. The main steam room had this beautiful marble domed ceiling, and a large marble platform in the middle for you to spread your towel out on. We just lay there on the marble, and I steamed away all the pollution and toxins I’m sure I’ve absorbed in Cairo. After you steam awhile, a woman comes to scrub you down and dump warm water all over you, and then you head to a separate room for an oil massage. We must have stayed for two or three hours, and when we walked out even my brain felt clean. We were too tired to go out, so we traipsed back to the hostel and just fell into bed.

Day 3: The next morning we got up to go to the SPICE MARKET. Everywhere we looked there were baskets overflowing with cardamom and cinnamon and hibiscus tea. The sellers in Istanbul speak better English than the ones in Cairo, and they yell out all sorts of colorful things like, “Come in and break my heart!” or “Hello gorgeous, I can help you spend your money!” or, Kate’s personal favorite, “Do you want to play!?” After wandering around for awhile, Kate and I caught the ferry to Asia. Yep, Asia. Istanbul is on one side of the Bosporus, (we were in Beyoglu and Eminonu), but if you go across the strait to Uskudar, you’re in Asia. Asia looked a lot like Europe, except for the fact that the bazaars weren’t as colorful, and the restaurants weren’t as touristy, which was nice. After we got back from Asia I wanted to head to Topkapi Palace, but was told that it closed half an hour later than it actually did. Oh well, no Topkapi. Instead I went to the Traditional Turkish Arts Center and learned how to make pottery. I also learned that the work ‘turquoise’ comes from ‘Turkey,’ because it used to be unique to the country, and has been used in pottery for centuries. The women who were making the pottery were extremely nice, but surprised that I would even consider studying Arabic or living in Cairo. None of them had been, even though it’s only a two hour flight. Turkey may technically still be considered by many as part of the Middle East, but these women viewed themselves as something very separate. After the Arts Center we headed out to dinner and then to the Bazaar, which was a bit of a sensory overload but lots of fun. The Turkish lira is not much weaker than the dollar, but I decided to buy lots of cool things anyway. Hey, it’s Istanbul. And Cairo is really cheap. Oh well.

Day 4: I didn’t have much time in the morning before my flight, so we just headed out to breakfast, stumbling across a political demonstration on our way, which was an interesting way to start the day. Then I got in a cab and headed back to the airport and back to Africa! Before I left Kate and I were talking about how funny it is when people cross paths again. After high school she headed to Kenyon, a small liberal arts college in the middle of rural Ohio. I headed to DC and George Washington. We have completely different majors and interests, but somehow we both managed to end up in Istanbul, a city with roots in three continents, which has synthesized different cultural traditions in a pretty unique way. It’s funny how everything diverges only to connect again.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Would You Rather: Two Deserts or Two Desserts?

When I was learning to spell in first grade, my teacher asked us if we would rather have two deserts or two deserts. Of course we all replied "two desserts!" and that was how we remembered that 'dessert' had two 'S's. Well this weekend I visited two deserts, and I am here to tell you that the experience could probably hold a candle to two heaping bowls of ice cream with chocolate sauce and cherries.

Initially a few of my friends and I talked about going to the Black and White Desert this weekend, so we made a facebook group. However, the moderator of the group decided to make it open, and soon everyone started inviting all their friends. We ended up with a group of fifty people that wanted to go on the trip. But hey, the more the merrier, right? The best part was that Brittany was coming to visit from Paris (yay!), and I was excited for her to meet everyone and go on the trip with us.

We left Friday morning at 7:30. Because Tim is wiley and/or mean, he told us we HAD to be there at 7:00, knowing that the buses were not going to show up til 7:30...ish. Yaani, it's Egypt time. Anyway, we all went to AUC and piled into several microbuses, which drove us for four hours out to a small town at the beginning of the Black Desert, where we switched to 4 X 4s. The 4 X 4s took us for awhile over completely paved road, and we were all getting very hot and feeling a little let down that we were not off-roading, when suddenly all the 4 X 4s turned off the road and drove us through rolling hills and open land, aka Mars. The Black Desert does not actually have black sand like the kind you would find on volcanic beaches in Hawaii. Rather it has regular sand dusted on top with black rock. We stopped to take some awesome pictures, climbed some small mountains, and drank a ridiculous amount of water.

Near the end of the first day, we started seeing small drifts of what looked like snow/talcum powder appearing on the ground. This, we learned, was the beginning of the white desert. We drove until we were completely on white sand among these really odd rock formations that kind of looked like Salvador Dali's version of a mushroom would look like. All our drivers quickly set up camp and a fire, and we sat around telling stories...and getting really, really hungry until they served a delicious meal of chicken, rice and potatoes. Then we brought out the "fun", as Helene dubbed it, and had a lovely time drinking sketchy wine and rum with pineapple juice. Then we all curled under our blankets and fell asleep under the clearest sky and most stars I have ever seen. Note: I can now point out Cassiopeia and the three sisters...which may or may not be a skill that will come in handy one day.

The second day we saw more of the White Desert, climbed more mountains, stopped at a hot spring (where all our guides took a bath...lucky them) and um, oh yeah, discovered that our guide probably engages in sex trafficking. He told us that he had two wives, one of whom was Canadian and spent every other month with him. We asked if she was originally from Egypt and was now a Canadian citizen, and he said no, she was born in Canada. Well...if they were actually married then he probably would have moved to Canada by now, but we all decided that she is probably a sex worker. That or a Canadian Muslim convert? Dunno, a mystery still yet to be solved. Aside from being weirded out/intrigued by our driver's marriage(s), the whole trip was really amazing, and I was so glad Brittany came to see it with all of us. After the weekend I can say I have a new appreciation for water and trees...and I really want to learn how to drive a 4 X 4. Stay tuned for new pictures to be posted on facebook.