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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Inside of Ancient

Spending time inside the oldest (and most intact) Wonder of the Ancient World is a trip. Especially when accompanied by a group of energy seekers chanting up a storm in peaceful defiance of the raging pinstriped Egyptian dude who apparently thought that all of the chanting hippies needed to go, us included. There were no time limits that we knew of, you have to pay extra for the privilege of entry and only 300 lucky guests are able to enter on any given day. But Mr. Pinstripe wanted us out. Of course a madman shouting in Arabic wasn’t a focus for any of us inside the ancient tomb, but I did look on with more than a healthy amount of curiosity as his ranting reverberated throughout the tomb. I wanted to see what the chanters were going to do, how Mr. Noisy was going to conclude his rousting and what, if any, success the young local men would have diffusing his fire.

The acoustics deep inside of the pyramids are incredible. Upon entry we could feel the oms vibrating throughout the cavern. I slid down against one of the walls, closed my eyes and took it all in. It was perfect...until Noisy Pants came in. After watching the ruckus for 10 minutes or so I decided to shift my attention to the grumpy man. I focused my love straight at him. A few minutes later I opened my eyes and caught his glance. I smiled a calming, it's ok smile. Surprisingly, he settled down for a minute, stared back and a tiny crease appeared on his cheek and he let loose a hint of a smile. Ah, it was working, I closed my eyes and kept my attention on him. He took my look as an opportunity to try and evict me since he wasn’t getting anywhere with the spirit seekers, but I ignored his effort.

After a while we got up to leave and Mr. Slight-Smile decided to cheerfully be our personal guide through the tunnels and corridors of the pyramid. He graciously took our hands, guiding us through the narrow spots, showed us a secret tunnel and even relieved Glenn of his burden of carrying an empty water bottle by chucking it down a deep shaft inside the pyramid. Gulp. We would have gladly carried it out and placed it in the trash, but it will forever live somewhere within Khufu‘s tomb. When our tour was over he even allowed us back inside with our cameras for a photo. Wow, the power of a little love.

The next time someone is going a little crazy send them love and see what happens.

We did tell the guards outside that there was a pinstriped madman loose in the pyramids. This guy they asked holding up his arm like a prize fighter. That’s the one I said. No, no, they retorted. He is a good man. Maybe it was just a simple language barrier. The Egyptians do communicate with a distinct mix of verve and urgency at a notch just below a shout. A little unsettling even for noisy Americans like us. 

We never did see the hippies emerge.

Sending you love,

For our photos and a hilarious sequence of Glenn getting manhandled onto a camel named Michael Jackson click here

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Long Way From Where We Began

We left the Nile River a few weeks ago setting out into Egypt’s Western Desert. On the map it looks dry and desolate. The ‘towns’ are few and far between and not even noted on our Michelin map…humm. We stocked up on water, lots of water. What little did we know. Now looking over the map we have a completely different perspective. The tiny oasis towns that dot Egypt’s western frontier are alive in every sense of the word. We fell in love with the slow relaxed atmosphere and the remarkable fortitude and generosity of the people living in these isolate outposts.

So much has happened…where to begin?

We began traveling with Rouven and Christine, a German couple who left Germany 16 months ago, circumnavigating Africa in a bright yellow Iveco caravan. Our paths kept intersecting, so we decided to merge. We ended the journey sand boarding the windblown dunes outside of Siwa with a couple of American students studying Arabic and a South African guide living in Alexandria. In between these jaunts we met and hung out with: Egypt’s fastest desert racer (who holds two Guinnes Book records, working on a third), an internationally acclaimed artist creating magic out of sand, a few recluses on the lam (we didn’t ask), an attorney cum coffee shop owner, an organic mint farmer/soap maker, two Namibian agriculture students and a third from Burundi, a water buffalo rancher, a few hash smokers, a few more artists and a couple of date/olive farmers. What a bunch. The short end of the story is we had a blast, we were welcomed with open arms and fell in love with these sandy little heavens far away from the tourist madness that is Egypt.

Today we reached the Mediterranean coast, four hundred nineteen days and 50,200+ miles from where this whole journey began. Looking back on the early photos is a trip. It seems so, so long ago. Ages ago. Lifetimes ago. We were clean back then. Wow, what a year.

Tomorrow we’ll drive east to Alexandria where our real work will begin. We need to get our car back to a dealer in South Africa who will sell it to another lucky family who will call our little Toyota home and begin their own journey. Our airline tickets have long since expired, so we’ll have to sort out a return flight. Just the thought of life back in the USA freaks us both out, but we’re more than excited to come home in spite of the madness that we call the developed world. We’ve gone feral. The transition will be an interesting one.  But returning to our own little paradise in Oregon makes the prospect so much more appealing. I miss you like crazy and can’t wait to wrap my arms around you, have dinners together and talk, talk, talk. Living with a man for a year has really cut into my daily allotment of words and I have 14 months of pent up chatter just waiting to let loose.

We’ll probably spend a month sorting out the logistics, checking out Alex and Cairo and maybe Sinai if we can swing it. I know a MONTH! That is longer than most American vacations (sorry to rub it in), but we’ve grown into the rhythms of life in Africa and things here take time. Sometimes just checking Facebook seems like a noble daily accomplishment. So keep posting photos of flowers and signs of spring, we need all the motivation we can get. 

Sending all my love,

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Oooo Lucky Man

An Egypt without tourists could mean two things: one, that we would have the monuments and sights to ourselves without bumping shoulders with thousands of other tourists, or it could mean that the energy of the Egyptians would become so concentrated on the few visitors who have braved the revolution that you’d find yourself holed up in your hotel contemplating skipping the second meal of the day just so you don't have to face the desperate mobs. Both turned out to be true.

It is really wild to drive into empty parking lots that are usually filled with busses and take pole position by the front gate. In Edfu we were two of a handful of other visitors; in the three hours that I spent roaming the temple complex I came across two other families. Ours was the only car in the parking lot. The guard told us that on any given day the lots would be full; people are trucked in here by the busload. Two different ticket sellers working at the Edfu and Karnack temples estimated daily ticket sales of 7,000 – 7,500 respectively. It is great if you don’t like gaping tourists in all of your photos, but not so good if you’re an Egyptian merchant relying on the tourist industry.

So before you get caught up empathizing with the Egyptians I must tell you about a call I made to my Granddad last night. He was stationed in Egypt during the Second World War. I wanted to ask him what the Egyptians were like back then, just to get a feel for the people, a sort of mental gage. I wanted to know if the palpable desperation is a new phenomenon or are they just class act scammers from way back when, prying on your sympathies. Well, I won’t repeat my Granddad’s words, but let’s just say nothing much has changed.
Yes, I know it is sad to see a country digging out from decades of corruption on a mass scale, but these guys are really good at reinforcing compassion fatigue. After decades of scamming a good wake-up call might be in order.  It got so bad that we even decided to violate a basic family rule, no hotel food, and ate dinner at the Sheridan one night just to avoid the street scene. That dinner only reinforced our rule, but that is another story. We’ve met other travelers more bright eyed than we are who remain somewhat torn between pity and irritation, a bit worn down by their persistent whining, but GP and I are road worn and salty at this point. We don’t want to hear it.

With our ‘thick skin’ on we’ve spent the past two weeks wandering alone through some of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen. Everything is bigger and more ornately carved than I had imagined. Incredible. Now those of you who know me know that I have an appreciation for all things aesthetic, it’s in my blood. Both of my Grandmothers have/had a deep love for excess. My Nana loves anything over the top: sequins, rhinestones, ruffles and anything pearly or opalescent. My Grams had a flare for red: red and gold flocked wallpaper, red velvet boudoir furniture,  fur bedspreads, nudes hung on the walls (very risqué to my conservative young memory) and tubes of Channel Red that she’d stock up on when in Portland…oh and she even had an Egyptian room. My gaudy streak runs deep. I am in heaven here.

In keeping with the theme established over 3,500 years ago the shops are crammed full of every conceivable Egyptian trinket most of which are gilded and glittered. At one point all of these gorgeous temples were painted in primary colors from foundation to roof, it is hard to imagine these elegant sand blasted stone structures were at one time the height of gaudiness. But the modern day Egyptians are keeping the tradition alive and well and it is a sight to see. I would love to wander into all of the shops, but I can only subject myself to a few hours of their begging and finagling a day. Imagine hearing [in creepy slimeball voice] ooooh, lucky man 100 times a day *shiver*. Surely there are more original ways to make a buck. 

Sending my love,

Monday, March 7, 2011

6 Pitas and Change

Egyptians will do anything to get a pound out of you. The world watched as Hosni Mubaric was ousted from power, his legacy of corruption lingering long after the scent of his aftershave evaporated (Egyptians are a perfumy bunch). Infamous corruption on such a grand scale isn’t relegated to a few top dogs, it trickles down through the government and into the private sector. These guys are scammers. They come across slimey, but you can’t really blame them for trying to rip off tourists who pour into Egypt by the bus and boat load? If they can get 10x or 20x the price out of one of these pudgy, pink legged, goucho wearing tourists forking over fistfuls of play money for a tacky trinket, why not!

Here is an example: The other day I queued up for some hot pitas fresh out of the oven. I put three pitas in my bag while sampling the fourth. I asked the baker how much. Since I was fresh off-of-the-boat I had no idea how much they should cost. Ten pounds he shouted. No I said, knowing they weren’t that expensive, so I handed him one pound ($.30). He demanded more so I upped it to 2lbs and walked away.
Later I found out that the food riots at the heart of the protests earlier this year forced the government to subsidize bread throughout Egypt; now, pitas are 10 piasters a piece, one tenth of a lb.

So the next day I cued up smugly and asked for 6 pitas. I didn’t ask how much they were, I just quietly handed over my 1 lb coin and waited. The man held out his hand expecting more money and I did the same asking for my change. There was a roar from the crowd of vendors who had gathered around with their empty boxes waiting in line for fresh hot pitas which they resell all throughout the city. They loved it. The baker put a 10 piaster coin in my hand and cautiously looked up. I motioned with come hither fingers that I expected more. He finally busted up laughing amidst the cheers from the other buyers and forked over 50 piasters, giving me one free pita for my moxy, I think. The waiting vendors hooted with approval, I am sure they were delighting at the shrewdness of my negotiation skills. They love this stuff and have somehow managed to make a sport out of it. It’s hilarious. I nodded my appreciation as I turned back toward the car swinging my piping hot pitas and munching on my prize.

How on earth am I going to buy bread at home? There are no cheering crowds in Oregon lining up to watch money change hands. There are no winners and losers.  It is going to feel so mundane. I am going to feel so ordinary.  

Sending you kisses with wheat bran specked lips,

Friday, March 4, 2011

All Aboard

Despite the horrors recounted by other travelers the 18 hour ferry ride from Sudan into Egypt was relatively mundane and almost pleasant. It was the bureaucracy that was painful. For some reason the only way you can cross from Sudan into Egypt is by sailing up Lake Nasser to the port town of Aswan. There are roads crossing between the two countries, but no border posts. Everyone and everything must go by barge. Crazy? Beyond crazy. And the kicker is that you cannot travel on the same barge as your car (and are usually forced to relinquish your keys). And…the ferry only leaves once a week! So in order to get to Egypt from Sudan you need to arrive in Wadi Halfa Sunday or Monday (to load your car, apparently the car ferry takes 3-4 days). You’ve no other options than to hang out in the dusty border town until Wednesday when you check in at the ferry terminal at 11:00 am for a ship that finally sets sail around 6:30 pm; the next 18 hours are spent sailing up the Nile. If you’re lucky (and we were) you car will be waiting for you at Aswan. If you’re not so lucky you get to wait in Aswan until it does. We’ve heard some grizzly accounts of travelers stuck in Aswan wondering where there car is…for days on end.

We docked around 9:00 am. By the time we cleared customs with the necessary paperwork stamped and filed, the standard Egyptian slimeball ‘tax’ extracted and doled out to the various ‘officials’ and ‘helpers’ it was 4:00 pm Thursday afternoon: a 4 day border crossing, our longest yet.

But we’re here and loving it so far.

My love,

PS: If you’re en route to Egypt via Wadi Halfa and come across an Egyptian ‘fixer’ named Kamel beware.