Thursday, April 30, 2009

Kenya Burning

One of our first days in Kenya, Erin and I found a really great (and free!) photography exhibit called Kenya Burning that chronicles the violence that took place in Kenya during the 2007 elections. It was a real eye opener for me because although I had followed the post-election rioting in the news I don't think that it really sunk in just how widespread the violence was, and just how close Kenya came to the brink of disaster.

It was interesting to see how immediate the local media's response was to the crisis. The exhibit had a film of interviews with many of the local journalists and photographers who documented the violence and it was a huge reminder for me about the power that a free press has to really change the course of history. During the crisis, the Kenyan radio was constantly broadcasting messages throughout the country urging moderation and warning Kenyans how closely the situation resembled the early stages of Rwanda -- which is so different from the way that Rwandan radio messages were used to fuel the violence during the genocide there.

There is something surreal about seeing such graphic depictions of violence and then realizing that it happened so recently. On the one hand, I was impressed at how transparent the exhibit was -- it certainly didn't sugar coat anything and I think that in general it says a lot about the society's resiliency that it is already reflecting on and trying to come to terms with such a traumatic time. On the other hand, in talking to most Kenyans we've spoken to there is still a fair bit of pessimism and mistrust in the government. There also seems to be a general sense of fear that the worst may be yet to come with the next round of elections, as very little has changed to address people's concerns about corruption in the government.

And on a day-to-day basis people's lives continue to be impacted by the violence because of its impact on the local economy. Even for low season it seems incredible that in most of the cities we've gone to in Kenya we've only bumped into a handful of other tourists. For the local vendors, this means that they have fewer opportunities to make a buck -- for us tourists it means that every time we leave our hotel we are accosted by at least 10 people trying to hawk the same kitschy crafts.

Lamu & the Muslim Rasta

On the recommendation of my friend Laura, Lisa and I decided to splurge and spend some time in Shela, on the island of Lamu.

Lamu is a European beach destination on the northeast coast of Kenya, located in the middle of a pretty conservative Muslim community. This made for a very interesting dynamic. On one hand you had Europeans (and us) frolicking around in bikinis (and sometimes less), and on the other hand you had a conservative community going about their day to day.. donkeys abound, the women are clad (in very beach inappropriate) black niqabs (which can't be pulled up - very haram - and therefore get wet and sandy).

Lamu is also where we got our first introduction to the Kenyan beach boy. While these boys are all members (or former members?) of the surrounding community, they have shrugged off (as far as we could tell) their religion and have become wild haired, Bob Marley loving, (mostly) pot smoking, beer drinking rastafaris.

How does that work, you may ask? I'm not entirely sure. There is definitely some palatable tension between the rastas and the surrounding community, but it wasn't violent or extreme in anyway. At worst I think the community looks at the rasta beach boys as sort of a minor annoyance, and low level security threat (a few of them have been involved in the muggings of tourists in the past, and of pickpocketing and that sort of thing)... sort of an all around anomaly.

I also wondered how rastafarism took hold on the coastal areas of Kenya. Does pot smoking and hair dreading increase in direct ratio to your proximity to the beach? Does Bob Marley sound more convincing when listened to out in the hot sun, on a dhow (it's a kind of sailboat) while fishing? (I say YES to that one, having experienced it myself last week). Does weed enhance your enjoyment of all things nautical? I don't know, but maybe the answer is yes to all of them.

Needless to say, we interacted with the beach boys much more than we did with the surrounding community. They took us on snorkling and fishing trips, they cooked us lunches and dinners on the beach, they built us bonfires, they showed us the phosphoresence in the water (so freakin' cool) they took us out dancing (oh man, that could be a whole different post. the hottest dance ticket in town is what they referred to as "the boogie boogie" but was actually called The Police Comission's Social Club, which was ACTUALLY this open air cement floored verandah thing with a dj and a man that sold beer from inside a cage. full of beach boys, prostitutes and Lisa, me and the two American girls we've been traveling with for the past week. it was obviously a LOT of fun)... etc... they basically tried to take our money from us in any way they could. It worked. It worked for them, and it worked for us.

But I couldn't help but wonder what they went home to at the end of the night (or in the early morning). Do they live with their parents, and have to listen to a lecture about cleaning up their acts? Are they pretty much ostracized from the community, and ignored? Is it acceptable behavior?

I don't know! It's another mystery. I'll add it to my growing list...

Kenya is freakin' hot

So. News flash. Kenya is really hot.

Nairobi was not so bad, it was temperate even. Really cool with rainshowers that lasted like... 10 minutes but cooled everything down immensely. HOWEVER, immediately upon exiting our aircraft on the island of Lamu on the northeast coast of Kenya, my hair poofed out to Diana Ross proportions and my face broke out in rivulets - no RIVERS, of sweat. And my condition has not improved as we've traveled further south down the coast. Not even a little bit.

Lisa and I have started taking 2, 3, sometimes even 4 showers a day in order to stay just ahead of spontaneously combusting in the afternoon sun. We've also completely given up on make up (comes right off!) and have taken to wearing the same clothes every day (what's the point of getting everything so sweaty and digusting? NO POINT, so we don't bother). I want to know how Angelina glows when she comes to Africa, when the adjective that best describes Lisa and I from 10A to 5P is "DRIPPING".

Not only that, but some enterprising person needs to introduce waterproof sunscreen here. All the sunscreen you can buy (which comes, charmingly, either in spf 1.5 or spf 357) is labeled "water & sweat resistant," which seems ok at first... until you take your third "end of day shower" and realize you're bright red, and the owner of the restaurant you eat at that night calls you his little lobster and insists that you jump in his pot because you'd be good eating (yeah...). Water resistant in Africa actually means water soluble and sweat resistant is not enough to stand up to the aformentioned rivers that Lisa and I are outputting every day.

Luckily, we'll be back in Nairobi by next week, nursing our blistering skin, and washing all of our increasingly disgusting clothes.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Today I purchased a pair of ex officio boxer briefs; they are odor resistant, lightweight, breathable, wicking (don't know what that means), and quick drying. I am most excited about the quick dry feature. If you rinse them out during your shower, they dry out in just two hours.
I am wearing them right now, and they are ultra comfortable. It seems likely that I'll just take two pairs of these ex officio boxer briefs, and a pair of ex officio boxers, and just get in the habit of washing my undies while i'm bathing.
Ex officio also makes a quick drying tee shirt. I'll be wearing the boxer briefs for the next few days to see if they work. If they do, I will probably buy their tee shirts also... and then only pack three pairs of underwear, and a few tops for the trip.
This way, I'll have space for dress up clothes (for the wedding), 100 double A batteries (for the microphones), 100 percent deet (so i don't get japanese encephalitis), and the weird universal power strip (so i can plug in things!)

Less than a month before i leave the continental US for the first time EVER!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ethiopia highlights

Hello Everyone -- As Erin has mentioned, Ethiopia's internet is extremely slow. So here is my belated post on my highlights of Ethiopia as we've just arrived in Nairobi!

Navigating Addis has given Erin and me plenty of entertainment (and transportation adventures seems to be a recurring theme of our journey). One of our more ridiculous taxi rides happened on the way back from dinner one night -- we negotiated a fair price with the driver and hopped into the cab. About 10 minutes later our taxi sputtered to a stop on the side of a highway. After many failed attempts at restarting the engine our taxi driver got on his cell phone and called a friend. A few minutes later a new taxi pulled up and our first driver hustled us over to the new taxi. After a few confused minutes of figuring out what to do about payment for the first driver and trying to negotiate how much the second driver was going to charge we finally settled into our new taxi, realizing that our first taxi driver was actually offering to give his entire fare to the second driver. Lo and behold two seconds after our second taxi started up the hill it too conked out. By this point Erin and I were starting to wonder if this wasn't some kind of scam... but finally, after a few more confused minutes our first taxi driver walked up the hill and procured a third taxi for us. He was an absolute professional -- didn't take a cent for himself and negotiated our fare with the third driver so that we didn't get cheated on the price... and of course we felt very guilty for even thinking that he was trying to cheat us in the first place.

Navigating on foot has also had its fair share of challenges as well, despite our purchase of an excellent German map of the city. Addis would do well to assign names and numbers to its streets if it wishes to make things easier for tourists (and locals as well), but there is a certain charm in finding your way through the city like a scavenger hunt. Erin and I spent almost an entire hour scouring a 5 block radius, winding up and down a posh gated community of mostly international embassies looking for an elusive Thai restaurant that had advertised at our hotel. Their marketing campaign was ubiquitous and actually quite good except for the fact that they don't have an actual address, so all of their fliers have to make do with cryptic references to nearby landmarks and poorly drawn maps that kept us hunting for quite some time. But if there's one thing that Erin and I most always agree on, it is that a good meal is worth the hunt. We persevered and had some remarkably good Pad See Ew.

If Erin has not already mentioned it, Ethiopian food is not my favorite. It has been interesting to be here during the fasting period for lent because it means that meat is basically nonexistant on the menus. It has actually made ordering quite easy because usually the only dish available in local restaurants is the traditional fasting plate -- injera with a variety of vegetarian samplings on top. I actually don't mind the flavor of the vegetables, but something about injera just doesn't do it for me. And after two and a half weeks of fasting plates I'm more than ready to move on to Kenya for more culinary variety...

The biggest highlight of the trip for me was our 3-day, 22 mile trek in the Simien Mountains where we saw wild baboons, tons of beautiful birds and some incredible scenery. The mountains are breathtaking -- literally and figuratively. At an altitude of 4,000 m and with very steep inclines the hike was very challenging. Even at our campsite, the pit latrine was all the way at the bottom of a very steep hill that always left me huffing and puffing at the top and certainly made me think twice about whether I really had to go to the bathroom or not. And the water taps were in the complete opposite direction down another steep hill. Erin can attest to the fact that I was the only one among our 6-person trekking group that opted not to hike out of my way to take the coldest shower ever and preferred to wallow in the grittiness for our 3 days in the wild...

The vistas were absolutely incredible -- it looked a lot like the Grand Canyon. The biggest difference by far was the remoteness of the Simiens compared to the Grand Canyon. When you go to the Grand Canyon its hard not to be within earshot or eyesight of another tourist for even a minute. In the Simiens we did an entire 16km hike without encountering another soul (and then we landed in a Village in the absolute middle of nowhere, which was a bit surreal). In some ways its amazing to have that level of preservation, but it also made me a little sad to think how few Ethiopians ever actually see the Simiens, aside from those who actually live here. It really brought home for me the difference between a culture that can afford leisure and one that cannot....

Which brings me to my final impression of Ethiopia. Throughout the country -- in both the city and the rural areas -- the one constant refrain that I keep coming back to is how incredibly hard life is here. Along most of the countryside you see endless fields full of people tending to their crops with extremely manual and primitive tools, maybe a mule if they're lucky. Women will walk for miles with a load of firewood on their backs and in search of the nearest water source. Its nothing for children to hike up and down a very steep mountain a few kilometers (without water!) to get to and from school each day. On our second day here I encountered two people actually bathing in puddles of rainwater on the streets of Addis -- it certainly makes me think twice when I'm hoping for a hot water shower to think about not having one at all.

Ethiopian Food is BOMB: Final thoughts on Ethiopia

My dad often says, that Ethiopian food is the only food that consistently makes him ill. He HATES it, and if you know my dad, you know that hating any kind of food is a rare occurrence.

I've never felt the same way, although I've met many who have. I think what it really boils down to is: injera is kind of weird. I'll cop to that. It's served cold, it's kind of got a spongy texture, it's slightly sour, when it gets wet it falls apart which is obnoxious because you have to use it as your fork, spoon and knife... I get it.

But, despite it's faults, I've enjoyed our traditional feasting here in Ethiopia.

We happened to time our trip to coincide with Ethiopian Lent. Ethiopians take their Christianity very seriously - compared to a lot of Ethiopian Christians, Americans are just phoning it in. For Lent pretty much no one eats meat (fish doesn't count as meat though... go figure... it's the Faith Gaskins method of vegetarianism.. ZING). There will be meat listed on menus, but if you order it, you'll be told it's not available.

So that pretty much left us with the Ethiopian Fasting Plate. Sounds pretty awful, but in reality it's not at all awful. It's basically a big round of injera topped with all these little vegetarian salads. The mainstays are a kind of spiced, curried lentil, a cooked cabbage salad, shiro (which is the only food I will admit is really trifling. disgusto. it's basically chick pea sauce, but there's nothing in the sauce, and the sauce itself kind of tastes like glue or paste or something), curried potatoes and carrots and then whatever else is available. Sometimes a sort of coleslaw like salad, sometimes a green salad, sometimes something unidentifiable but delicious.

Also this huge meal costs the equivilant of about $1.50 USD. It's like the ultimate dollar menu! Really cheap, really tasty, really filling.

They also serve injera for breakfast here, called firfir. It's literally yesterdays torn up injera stir fried with some awazi sauce (super spicy) or some other sauce... sometimes the dreaded shiro. It's pretty good, although I'll admit I go for eggs when available.

While the Italian colonizers were only here for like, five years, it was enough time for the Ethiopians to take the best of what they had to offer: pizza, pastries and aqua con gas. We've only been in Kenya for 1 day and I already miss Ambo! They have it everywhere, it's just seltzer water, but it's a nice constant in a country who's landscape and people change so dramatically from region to region.

The pizza in Ethiopia is GREAT, and every other storefront is a pastry shop. Granted, you can point at any slice of cake, no matter what it's shaped like or what color it is, it will turn out to be lemon cake - but that's beside the point.. it's GOOD! And it's everywhere. Donuts too! (Which reminds me of a very off color joke told to me years ago: What's the easiest way to exterminate the entire population of Ethiopia? Throw a donut off a cliff. I HOPE YOU'RE NOT LAUGHING).

Also, to make my mom proud, we found the only Thai restaurant in Addis, and ate there our last day. Guess what? It was really good. Everything tasted authentic and we were joined in the dining room by two tables of Thai people, so you know it must have been the real deal. It was even better than the Thai food we had in Cairo. And significantly more spicy than Thai food served stateside.

So all the jokes about food and lack of food in Ethiopia are totally off the mark, the food here is great, I didn't get sick once, and not EVERYTHING is hellishly spicy. I have a feeling I might even miss the Ethiopian fasting plate here in Kenya... We'll see! Tomorrow we're headed for the coast!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

In which I almost redeem my repatriation of remains clause

So far here are the words I know in Amharic:
Ah mah seken aloo = thank you!
Bekka = enough
Selam = hello
Cuss ba Cuss = slowly, slowly (you have to really accentuate the C sound to get it right)
This last phrase I used copiously on our 3 day hike up into the Simien Mountains in north west Ethiopia. We hiked 22 miles up to almost 4,000 meters above sea level. My lungs felt like they were going to explode and ooze out of my body, leaving me a sad, dirty, windblown corpse. Luckily, we were accompanied by a guide (who spoke english) and a scout (who did not). The scout, with his intimidating looking gun (what was he protecting us from? babboons? kids who coveted our water bottles?). He became my pesonal bodyguard and best friend of the trip. I vacillated between dramatic huffing abd pugging, to accentuate my struggle and apologetic looks that he had to wait for me. We bonded over Beyonce on my iPod as I tried to catch my breath.
Despite my proximity to unglamorous death, it was really a wonderful time (sorry no pictures! I'm still in Ethiopia! land of the slowest internet connection ever!) And I felt a really great sense of accomplishment upon finishing our third day, alive.
I have a lot to say about Ethiopia. None of it terribly cohesive. So here's a list:

* They really love empty water bottles here. But it feels weird giving someone your trash, even though you know that they want it. It's hard to get used to, and feels vaguely insulting. But they ask for them constantly.
* The food is super good. I'll be sad to leave. I haven't gotten sick once (knock on wood) and have even started branching out to salads and raw food!
* There is a really awsome blanket culture here. Especially up in the mountains. People walk around wrapped in blankets all day long. I wish it was culturally appropriate in the states. How awesome would THAT be? (answer: totally awsome)
* Ethiopia is not for the faint of heart. As in the physically faint of heart. There is a LOT of uphill walking to be done, even just to get around in a very basic way. Also the sights are usually strategically located up a massive mountain that takes an hour or so to walk up (especially if your speed is cuss ba cuss like me)
* Little kids love love love practicing their English here. They usually just know "hi" or "good morning" but today Lisa and I hiked up to see a monastary (up a mountain, I wasn't kidding about that) and when school got out at least 35 kids asked me what time it was. Because they had just learned it in class.
* Kids also know how to ask you for stuff. Water bottles are the most popular request, but sometimes they just want some water (which is easily shared). In the Simiens the kids would come up behind you and whisper "water, waaater, waaaater" or something ot that effect and it was really creepy. Now I like to creep up behind Lisa and say "satan, saaaatan, saaaaaaaaaatan". It hink things like this happen after 5 weeks of uninterrupted togetherness.

So those are my thoughts currently. Sorry they're not more cohesive. I wish I could post pictures because I have a lot of really amazing ones... but I can't! It's Ethiopia for Christ's sake! Which brings me to my next point. We're in Lalibela now, home of the rock hewn churches that King Lalibela made in the 13th century to be a "second Jeruselum" which is kind of weird, made weider as you tour the churches and the guide is like "This is where Christ was crucified, this is where he was born" etc etc. And it's like... uhm.. but he WASN'T actually born here! It's like an ancient Disney World for Jesus lovers, I guess. Tomorrow is Ethiopian Good Friday, so that should be even more interesting. Or disturbing. Depending how you look at it!
I leave here Saturday and then have about 3 more days in Addis and then it's off to Kenya!
xoxo erin.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Joys of Bathtime in Ethiopia

So. Internet is so slow in Ethiopia, I have sent this blog post to the always lovely Naomi to post for me. Pictures would be nice, but that's LAUGHABLE...

Unlike picking your nose or playing solitaire, a cold water bucket shower is something that I think would be much more fun with a partner. With someone you lust after, it maybe could be a really sexy thing. When done alone in the darkness of your blacked out hotel room on the shores of Lake Tana, it's just sort of cold and messy. I contemplated more than once why I insisted on growing my hair so long, why the bucket is so freaking small, how many trips it will take from the drain to the faucet to sufficiently clean my body, etc etc.

However, it did get me clean. And I WAS on the shores of Lake Tana PLUS I totally saw a wild hippo that afternoon!

More to come... very slowly...

xoxo Erin

Friday, April 3, 2009

egyptian recycling

So. Our Ten Thousand Villages - EGYPT stop was to visit a really nice woman named Linda from the MCC (Mennonite Central Committee... before we continue, please don't hold it against me if I get some details like names and things wrong... I'm only human and I didn't write anything down, and Lisa's not sitting beside me to confirm if I'm correct... that said...) who took us into a community of garbage collectors in the outskirts of Cairo.

In Cairo a certain percentage of waste is collected by independent garbage collectors, for something like 5 Egyptian pounds a month. The guy comes every week and takes the haul back to his house (in this community, in other communities the garbage is taken waaay outside the city and sorted there) where he and his family sort through it salvage about 95% of it, while discarding the rest. The salvaged material is sorted into... plastic bottles... cans... fibers... organic matter ... cardboard... plastic... paper etc. He then sells those items to a specialized collector in that same community who recycles it for further use.

Ten Thousand Villages purchases really neat rugs and bags that are made in a compound in the community out of recycled cloth. It's cut into strips and woven to make really pretty bags (they'd make great beach bags). Additionally they make paper out of salvaged materials. You can buy their stuff at (and you SHOULD).

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. I was actually expecting much worse living conditions than what we found in the community. It is definitely it's own little world, tucked away from the rest of Cairo society. Most of the people living there are Christians (which is, obviously, not the norm ANYWHERE else in Cairo), and the community itself is very insular. They have their own hospital, schools, church etc. And I guess it would be unwise to underemphasize the squalor that these people have to put up with (no pictures though, Linda gave us a tour but asked that we not take pictures as it makes the people living there rightfully angry at being photographed dirty and living such a dirty lifestyle).

There was trash EVERYWHERE. People generally would sort trash in the first story of their house, and live above it on the next level. They generally also keep cows, pigs etc on the first floor to eat the organic matter they can find. Swarms, and swarms of flies everywhere. Lots of kids covered in blackish dust and muck. The stench was pretty much what you'd expect. Linda told us that in another community like the one we saw, they discovered that a group of kids were getting these weird chronic illnesses in large numbers... the found out that the community had been making toys out of recycled hospital waste... The whole thing is a public health crisis.

That said, I was really impressed at the level of organization in the community itself. The garbage collectors, while social outcasts, actually make a more steady, reliable living than a lot of the lower class in Cairo. They are looked down upon (they're considered a step above beggars), but they are actually fairly economically stable. From what we saw, everyone was pretty well fed, safe and relatively happy. It was much better than what I was expecting.

Also... think about recycling 95% of what we throw away! It's inconcievable. It really makes you think twice about what you put in the trash here...

That's it from Egypt.. we're headed to Ethiopia tomorrow to stay at the famed $4 a night Wutma Hotel! 24 hour hot water! I have a feeling posting there will be a bit more difficult (pictures may be impossible from here on out), but we'll see!

Hope all is well back home!

Here's an aerial of the community we saw. If you zoom in (however you do that) you can get a bit of a sense of the neighborhood. Pigs in the back yard, trash everywhere, goats on the roof... etc. Sorry it's the only one! Go buy some recycled fabric bags!

Israel & Egypt in Pictures

Oma and her friend at Kfar Blum Kibbutz, Israel

Ladies at Sindyanna making an order of Ten Thousand Villages olive oil soap... get yours at!

The Yokel family survives the trek up Mosada.

More pictures here because these computers are too slow to upload!

Baksheesh & Bureaucracy

Erin and I have now been in Egypt for about two weeks and are leaving tomorrow. We are traveling in a group of eight here – my dad and his wife Joanne, Erin and her parents Kathy and Uri, and Joanne’s friends Bob and Jim.

Arriving in Egypt from Israel was a surreal experience. The juxtaposition of the two societies is stark – Israel is a culture that thrives on order, while Egypt is a culture that thrives on informal chaos and a fairly laid back (some would call it inefficient) approach to life. The extreme lack of order and organization in Egyptian society, and particularly in Cairo, is especially stressful for us Westerners who are overwhelmed by the constant smog, noise, traffic, crowds and ever-present vendors trying to hawk their wares at every corner.

Our first breakfast in Egypt was at a small café in Zamalak, the middle-class neighborhood where our hotel is located (and where I used to live when I studied abroad here). Kathy, Uri, Dad, Joanne, Erin and I each ordered a coffee drink and a croissant. Our waiter took dutiful notes – two small cappuccinos with whip, two large cappuccinos without whip, one café Americano with cream and one small latte. Thirty minutes later, after we witnessed 6 bumbling waiters hemming and hawing over the espresso machine we were presented with 6 absolutely identical coffee drinks. The Egyptian word, “Ma’alesh,” which loosely translates to “no worries” came to mind.

It’s amazing to think that in America a Starbucks barista probably could have single-handedly produced 6 times that many coffee drinks with an equal number of custom variations within the same time frame. But then again, in all of that efficiency that we are so accustomed to, we often miss out on the opportunity to really live in the moment and stop to enjoy leisurely meals with good friends, family and good conversation.

My flight from Cairo to Aswan was another priceless Egyptian experience. The rest of the group was traveling on a separate flight a day after me, so I arrived at the Cairo airport by myself at around 8 p.m. for a 10:20 p.m. flight and planned to get a hotel room for myself in Aswan to meet the group the following day for our 4 night cruise down the Nile from Aswan to Luxor.

After standing in line for about 30 minutes to get to the check-in counter, I finally made it to the counter only to be told that my flight was “suspended” due to sand storms in Aswan. When I asked what “suspended” meant, (was my flight cancelled? Delayed… if so, till when?) the response from the EgyptAir representative was “no comment.” At that point I knew it was going to be a long night. So, I went with the throngs of other people to stake out a spot on the hard metal benches and wait…and wait…. My flight’s departure time came and went without so much as an announcement or notice on any of the screens. Eventually, at about 2 a.m. I decided I was probably in for the long haul and decided to try to sleep. Of course, as soon as I fell asleep I was awoken by a mad rush over to the check-in gates.

I assumed that we had clearance to depart so I joined the throng of people jostling up to the counters to check our luggage. The one thing about Egyptian airports is that there are conspicuously few lines. It’s more like a giant scrum with people shoving and pushing – everyman (or woman) for himself (or herself). Since there are few official announcements most of the best information comes word-of-mouth from other travelers who have gleaned bits and pieces of information from varying sources with sometimes dubious credentials. Eventually I checked my bags and was herded into a lounge area for a gate. Of course with all of the rush I assumed that we would be departing any minute. Even though it was the middle of the night, I still figured this was good timing and that I’d have plenty of time to take a quick cat nap at a hotel before checking into our cruise boat.

4 hours later, at about 6:30 a.m. we still hadn’t made any progress and eventually there was another mass migration (everyone following one another like sheep with no real authoritative information to go by) – this time we were ushered out of the building into another terminal entirely and into a new check-in area.

By this point we had been in and out of security at least 6 times. Our new gate had a metal detector at its entrance, but we quickly discovered that the security guards at the entrance could care less whether it beeped or not – so eventually all of us tourists who are used to the usual airport strip down (shoes & belts off, laptops out, liquids contained and out, no jackets, etc…) took our cues from the locals and began to walk freely through the metal detectors bags and all – back and forth to the bathrooms and a meager selection at the café. (Sidenote: This complete lack of security has been a constant theme throughout the trip – there are guards, metal detectors and bags at almost every hotel and historic monument, but the guards always wave us through – a continuous BEEP BEEP BEEP as cameras, bags and people flow through unchecked. I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t better ways to spend the money that is clearly wasted on buying equipment and employing guards.)

At 10:30 a.m. the next morning, just as desperation was starting to set in amongst our weary group we finally got clearance to fly…14 hours after arriving at the airport. I made it to Aswan just in time to catch our cruise ship. Again, the whole experience seemed to be epitomized by the sentiment, “Ma’alesh” – I’m re-learning how to go with the flow and enjoy these opportunities to meet people and bond through a shared experience.

It takes an equal level of patience to deal with the constant barrage of vendors asking for “baksheesh” (tips) for a variety of services (ranging from pointing you in the wrong direction to providing two sheets of toilet paper at the bathrooms) and cheap knick-knacks for sale. Everyone we pass on the streets asks us the same questions – “Hello, Bonjour, Hola… Where are you from?” and when we respond “America” we are greeted with enthusiastic replies of “Ahh…. Barak Obama!” It’s a welcome change from the response of “Ahh… Bush:(” I was greeted with 4 years ago!

All of these frustrations aside, Egypt also has a lot of wonderful aspects as well. I love being able to use my muddled Arabic to talk to people and bargain in the markets. We’ve had some really lovely experiences talking to cab drivers, felucca captains and tour guides. We’ve eaten delicious meals at hip restaurants in Cairo, had a picnic lunch on the banks of the Nile, stumbled into delightful hole-in-the-wall fiteer and koshri shops in Cairo and Luxor. The ancient tombs and temples are breathtaking and we were even able to take a hike along the ridge over the awe-inspiring Queen Hatchepsut’s temple (she was a kick-ass feminist before her time!).

Next stop… Ethiopia!

(Hatchepsut's Temple)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

driving in egypt

I think it would be inaccurate to say that drivers in Egypt are maliciously aggressive. I am a very aggressive driver. I drive too fast, I tailgate, I cut people off, on occasion I roll the window down and do some shouting. I'm the first to admit that when behind the wheel, I'm a raging bitchmachine.

Drivers in Egypt exude a kind of benevolent aggression. There's yelling, and fist shaking on occassion, but no one really seems to take it to heart. No one gets real red in the face.
HOWEVER, their manner of driving is one of the most insanely terrifying spectacles I've yet to encounter in my lifetime. And it's not just one asshole who's driving like a maniac, it's a COUNTRY of assholes driving like maniacs. In fact, I think I should put "driving" in quotes to really convey how loosely this style of "driving" resembles what we call driving in the US.
There is no concept of lanes, anywhere. It's just a swarming mass of cars constantly weaseling in front of each other, sometimes 3 across sometimes 5 across... it's nuts. NUTS. In addition, when a small space opens up in front of the "car pack" (kind of like a wolf pack, only way more scary), EVERY car floors it to fill the hole, and stops just short of total destruction.
If you think that's bad, try CROSSING the street. There are really no crosswalks (ok maybe a few, but those are located in places where you don't even really need them), and there are defintely none bisecting the biggest, most crowded roads. It's like a live action game of Frogger with no extra lives. You basically just have to take a deep breath and step into swiftly moving traffic, hoping that you won't get flattened by the public buses that are packed like sardines, or the men (and babies, BABIES) on motorbikes with no helmets (ever, even on the BABIES).
It's therefore very suprising to me that I have not been involved in any accidents, I haven't even seen anyone else get into an accident. This leads me to believe that Islam must be the one true path to God, because someone must be protecting Egyptians from killing each other regularly with their automobiles.


I don't really have any good pictures to illustrate this phenomenon... this is the only real "driving" picture I have, of a bunch of camels in front of our taxi driver's cab. He got really super excited and ordered me to take a picture, and then started imitating camel noises. EVERY time he saw a camel he would get excited, pull the cab over and make me take a picture. It was pretty funny.