Thursday, December 28, 2006

(This is our 2nd try at this post, the 1st got deleted... the joys of international internetting...)

We last left you in Kodaikanal, though we said that we were probably going to stay there for another night, while we actually ended up leaving the next afternoon, because we were able to find a very cheap taxi ride down the mountain. While slightly more costly than the bus, our 250 rupee taxi ride took at least 2 hours less, was much more comfortable, and didn't involve constant stopping for more passengers, so the additional 75 rupees or so was definitely well spent! Our ultimate goal from Kodai was the hill station town of Ooty, but we first had to go to Coimbatore, an industrial stopping point where we could catch a mountain-bound bus, and then we were aiming to take an old-fashioned steam-engine train from the town of Mettupalayam (at the base of the Nilgiri Mountain range) all the way up to Ooty.
So after around a four hour taxi ride, mostly a steep winding descent, during which we got to see many amazing views, including a waterfall panorama at one point, though the curves were so exciting for Liz that her motion-sickness took over (for the 2nd time) and we had to pull over for a puke break! The Indians all had a good laugh about that, and soon enough we ended up in Coimbatore, though unfortunately we were dropped off on the far side of town, meaning that we had to ride a very cramped city bus across town to the bus station we needed to go to Mettupalayam. Cramped doesn't quite describe it, as this was without a doubt our worst Indian bus experience yet, as it was hot, humid, sweaty, smelly, and of course we were carrying all of our possessions on our back, while jammed from every side by an ever-increasing number of Indian bus-riders. When buses here start to fill up, you constantly think that no more people could possibly fit on board, and then at the next stop another 10 people get on board, while none get off! But of course we made it, and dirty, polluted city air had never tasted so fresh, and while our next bus to Mettupalayam was also packed, the fact that we at least had seats made it quite tolerable, though the utter lack of legroom meant that the 45-minute ride simply couldn't pass fast enough.
The steam-engine train runs up the mountain once a day, in the off-season (which it thankfully is), at 7:10 from Mettupalayam, and it takes around 6 hours to climb up the mountain, though the distance is only 36 km, but the ascent is so steep, a 1:12 grade incline at certain points, which is why the specially-designed old-fashioned train is still in existence, since replacing the track is clearly far too costly. However, upon our arrival, we quickly learned that our plans had to change, since the train was not running currently, due to landslides which had wiped out the track quite severely, such that the train wouldn't be running until around January 15. So after a quick "team meeting" we decided we might as well head to Ooty, because although the train might be running part of the line (from Coonoor to Ooty), we couldn't get a clear answer from anyone and would rather end up at our ultimate destination than stuck somewhere in the middle. After a quick, and fortunately amazingly delicious dinner, we then got to endure several hours of the biggest run-around imaginable, as no one, fellow travelers and bus station employees alike, could determine when or where the next bus for Ooty would be appearing. After well over an hour one did show up, but was conveniently full (or at least full for us foreigners, since we have never seen an Indian not get on board a bus, regardless of how full it may be), and so after waiting so long that Anderson started playing football in the parking lot - which turned out to be hilarious as a rather-untalented Indian man tried to play for a while, sending the ball all over the place, amidst the cows, goats, dogs, and even the one she-donkey that was there. Around 10 pm, a woman and her son who were also waiting to go to Ooty, where they live, rushed over to us and said that there was a microbus heading to Coonoor that we could take, for 50 rupees each, that was leaving soon and filling fast, so we rushed over and grabbed seats on the packed bus, which was partially our fault since our huge bags consumed much of the aisle, but there really wasn't anywhere else for them to go. The two-hour mountain ride passed quickly, as nighttime means the roads are far less busy, though at the price of absolutely no scenery, but since this was our 3rd mountain ascent we didn't feel like we were missing out on too much.
We arrived in Coonoor then after midnight, and by the time we got our packs off the bus the Indians from Ooty had disappeared, so our hopes of ride-sharing the last 30 minutes up the mountain were quickly dashed, and after attempting to find an affordable ride (an impossibility at such a late hour), we started to wander around looking for a hotel. Conveniently all were locked up, and the one that a few guys hanging out in the street knew about was around 2 km up the mountain, so given our utter lack of options we decided to sleep in the train station, in the "Resting Room." That means we slept in large chairs, with our bags chained to the legs, though we did manage to get some semblance of sleep, particularly after our ear plugs defined the chorus of barking dogs that all seemed to be residing just outside the window. We still weren't sure if there would be a train in the morning to Ooty, but buses started around 6 am or so, so we figured whenever we awoke transportation would be available, regardless of what form it took.
Fortunately we were in luck, as the Nilgiri Blue Mountain Express (unintentional Indian irony...) was indeed running, and so we splurged on 1st class tickets (75 rupees) so that we could be at the front of the train, since it is pushed, not pulled, up the mountain. However, it was run by bio-diesel, not steam-engine, since the steam section of the line, we learned, was the leg that was closed due to landsliding. Nonetheless, the ride up the mountain was amazing, chock-full of impressive views of small mountain villages, tea plantations, and, as the rather annoying American (we assumed, didn't dare ask) family behind us couldn't stop raving about, plenty of terraces for crops. I'm sure people, whether locals or other travelers, find us obnoxious on occasion, but this family took the cake for bickering about utterly pointless things, and for just being completely lame. We know we're not super-cool or anything, but we certainly felt like it after enduring them for the one hour ride (or so) up to Ooty.
Ooty, therefore, is where we are currently, and where we will remain probably for at least another day, though who really knows, our only schedule at this point is that we need to be in Bangalore the morning of the 4th of January to meet our friend Luke, who is flying from the States to travel with us for around 5 weeks, which we are both quite excited for, since it's been a while since we've seen a familiar face!
Ooty has been fun for the past 4 days though, since it has a lot more to do than the typical Indian town - as a former British summer "resort" it seems to be a bit more developed, and today it is a very popular Indian tourist spot, so most people here are visiting from elsewhere, although they are not exactly foreigners like ourselves. Highlights here have been the Thread Garden (the only exhibit of its kind in the world, of realistic-looking flowers made by hand entirely of thread yet using no needle or equipment of any kind), the Rose Garden (2800 varieties of roses, many beautifully in bloom), an amusement park (which was amusing to us for many more reasons that the typical visitor - the rides were occasionally unsafe, and definitely dated when not broken down), a movie theater (which is playing only one film, "Dhoom 2," a Bollywood film that we have seen twice due to a lack of alternate nightlife entertainment - there is none), and then today we wandered throughout the extensive Botanical Gardens (which again were enjoyable for a multitude of reasons, not just the flora but also the numerous photographs we had to pose for with Indian tourists, we were at moments literally mobbed, and were smiling and holding children throughout our stay).
A note on Bollywood films, of which we have now seen two, "Don" (a remake of a 70s classic) and "Dhoom 2" (a sequel obviously to a very popular/trendy action flick), and although they are mostly in Hindi, there are frequent English phrases, so following what is passed off as a plot is generally easily doable, though occasionally a (usually) pivotal scene will occur where we have no clue what happened in the dialogue, but a scene or two later everything will become clear. There are plenty of dance scenes, that then become music videos for India MTV and the other music channels here; each film has around 6 such sequences, which are definitely the most elaborate parts, though the don't necessarily directly connect to the plot, with at least some sort of fantasy element. That being said, they are certainly the most enjoyable parts of the movies, more so than we really could have ever imagined, and currently we simply cannot get the Dhoom 2 theme song out of our heads, such that we have bought the soundtrack and are trying to rip it into mp3 to upload to our mp3 player, though that is an entirely different (and frustrating) story, as downloading the necessary ripping software is currently taking absolutely forever...
So all is well , our X-Mas was the best ever, just kidding, though we saw "Dhoom 2"" for the first time that night, which was fun, and the definitely non-traditional meals we had were nonetheless absolutely delicious. Hope the holiday season is treating everyone well, best wishes to all for 2007!

Friday, December 22, 2006

To continue where we left off last night, after trekking through several kilometers of various terrain, we relaxed on a hilltop for a few minutes, soaking up the view and watching the daily migration of a herd of bison. As the daylight was nearing its end, we then headed back to our treehouse, by way of a slightly different set of paths through the woodlands. We saw a different species of giant squirrel, majestically posing on a treebranch right next to a cliff, and heard more elephants within the brush, though we didn't see anymore. We enjoyed our dinner as heartily as one could, given that it was a very simple (and runny) curry, with warm paratta bread on the side, but since we hadn't really eaten much all day since we were on the bus, any food was certainly vastly superior to no food. We turned in uncharacteristically early then, since our lights were attracting record numbers of mosquitoes, and we had to be up early the next morning for breakfast before catching the bus at 8:30 am.
Our next day was spent almost entirely in transit, as we rode 3 different buses in order to get from Chinnar to our destination, Kodaikanal, a so-called "hill station" high up in the Tamil Nadu mountains. At 2100 meters, it's our highest elevation within the Western Ghats thus far. But first we rode to Udumalpet, where we enjoyed our cheapest Indian meal yet, only 20 rupees for rice and its omnipresent sauce accompaniments. From Udumalpet we traveled on a super-packed bus to Pallani, such that we spent the hour or so with one of packs stretched across our laps - though that didn't seem to phase Liz one bit, as she still managed to fall asleep for almost half the ride! Our longest bus ride, however, was the approximately 3-hour uphill climb to Kodaikanal, winding through the hills, which was quite similar to our ascent to Munnar, though the mist actually meant our views were not quite as impressive.
When arriving in a new town we usually follow the advice of our two guide books, Lonely Planet & Rough Guide, to determine the few hotels in our price range (300 rupees or less, preferrably around 200/night), since wandering about with our heavy packs is far from the most enjoyable part of travelling India. Up until now, there haven't been an abundance of options, so our choice has usually been quite simple, as in the first place we visit is "good enough." However, the first place in Kodaikanal wasn't really what we wanted, since although it had a nice view of the valley below, the room itself was dingy and uninviting, and the bathroom looked like it has been used for a horror movie set at some point previously. Unfortunately, the next three hotels we looked at also weren't quite up to par, even though the tout who we were having a tough time ditching seemed to think they were all quite nice, though we more-than-suspected that that was solely due to his cut of the increased room rate, and not due to our supposed satisfaction. Most towns have touts, who get a 50 rupee payout from the hotels for bringing in guests, so even though they are not at all directly affiliated with any hotels, they fight hard to "help us out," even though we know they aren't in it to assist us at all. So after seeing four shoddy places, we ditched our tout by wandering off in the opposite direction, though by this point that meant we had walked well over two or three kilometers carrying all of our stuff. We decided to check one more hotel, listed in one of the guide books, before stopping at a restaurant to relax and refuel and make our choice. However, that place was closed for renovation, so we were dejectedly heading back up yet another of Kodaikanal's less-than-small hills, when we decided to take up a few workman who had yelled at us on their offer to see their hotel, which was being completely renovated, but apparently still open for business. So needless to say our current hotel, the Hamidia Lodge, besides some minor construction noise in the mornings, is quite nice, and we even got the price we wanted, 200/night, "since we came alone" - so no tout has to get paid...
Given the altitude here, and also the time of year (just after the monsoon season), most every day is overcast, but the air is perfectly clean and when the mist clears the views looking down on the surrounding hills are quite amazing. There is a large (artificial) lake here, so we rented a paddle-boat yesterday and cruised around for a while, and we've walked countless kilometers up and down steep hills to various sites of natural beauty: Bear Shola Falls (a nice waterfall), Croaker's Walk (a 2-rupee-entry walkway at a very scenic overlook), Grant's Park (a well maintained gardens open to the public), and we also walked the full 5-km around the Kodai Lake. The food here is quite good, and rather varied, with several Tibetan places serving thukpa (a hearty noodle soup) and momos (stuffed dumplings), a great Indian restaurant called Hotel Astoria which serves a delicious lunchtime thali (all-you-can-eat rice plate with a vast selection of sauces), and tonight we splurged a bit and ate at a "Western Vegetarian" restaurant, called Manna's Bake, which though well off the beaten path, was worth eating at for its tasty vegetarian pie, and more importantly the amazing apple crumble with custard for dessert. Foolishly we had eaten a full thali mere hours before, so we are currently almost painfully full of food, but since it was all extremely tasty, and we've been walking quite a bit these past few days, we assume our belly pains will be gone quite soon!
We are also in "Homemade Chocolate" country, so virtually every shop (and they are pretty much beyond counting) serves a wide variety of fresh chocolates so we have been doing a little sugar-snacking as well. We will probably remain here for another day, before heading north to Coimbatore, though that will just be a stop-off before heading to a triumvirate of hill-stations in the far north of Tamil Nadu, of which Ooty is most definitely the most well known. To get there we are going to ride on India's last remaining steam-engine train, which chugs up steep hills for around 6 hours, and should treat us to some impressive scenery.
In case we don't post again within the next few days, we'd like to wish everyone a Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and of course a Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Many things have obviously happened during the last 8 days, as we have traveled a few hundred kilometers and seen some amazing (mostly natural) things. We travelled from Kottayam to Kumily by bus, where the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary is located. After a typical tasty Indian meal, at a local hotel (as in not a "restaurant") we followed a tout to a local homestay, which is the preferred method of lodging in Kumily, so as to avoid the overpriced hotels aimed at tourists. So we stayed at a nice place, called Summer Cottage, with our room on the 2nd floor, seperate from the family's living quarters. Our plans to visit Periyar the next day were foiled however, as a state-wide strike halted not just the buses (as we had been led to believe), but also virtually all the restaurants, stores, and even the boats within the Sanctuary. In addition, the prices were not what we expected, instead of 150 rupees for the first day and 50 rupees for subsequent days, it was 300 rupees each and everyday. Our initial plan of seeing Periyar for several days quickly changed then, and we decided we'd do one day only, unless we were simply so amazed that we had to go back. The strike day, therefore, we just laid low, though we did go see a Kathakali performance, a local type of dramatic performance, combining music, dance, drama, and acting, all to tell traditional Indian stories. While interesting, we were glad we'd attended a shortened-for-the-tourists rendition, instead of the normal allnight affair that Kathakali originally was. That also meant that our initial plan of going to Cochi after Periyar was nixed, as other than beaches Kathakali is the main attraction!
Our day at Periyar started later than initially intended, as we were ambitiously going to awake at 5 am to be at the park at 6 am when it opened, but Anderson accidentally mis-reset the clock, resulting in our sleeping until almost 9... but all worked out, as we didn't mind the extra sleep one bit, and we still got to experience the two things we wanted to at Periyar: a guided nature hike through the forest, and the park-sponsored boat-trip through the park's lake. Our 11 am nature hike was very nice, as it was just the two of us and our guide, following dirt paths through the forest for around 4-5 km. The walk took around 2.5 hours, during which we saw a variety of animals. No tigers or elephants, since both are hard to spot, though we did see ample elephant dung and several footprints, indicating that they had been around recently. Periyar is one of India's larger wildlife preserves, so it would seem that the animals would be quite aware of the habits and time schedule of their human visitors. But we did see several species of monkeys, a massive yellow spider, a white frog, and several types of birds. The highlight, however, was without a doubt the two endangered giant squirrels that we saw right before our hike ended - they were quite large (for squirrels), with jet-black bodies and bright red sides, and they calmly sat in the trees just above us, allowing for perfect nature photography! Right afterwards we had to re-cross a river, by bamboo raft, to get out of the main area of the park, at which time Anderson, while itching his leg, noticed that he was bleeding, from where a leech had latched itself one to him! We then tore off our socks and shoes to discover a bunch more, Liz had 6 in her shoes (though none had attached themselves yet), while Anderson had a total of 5 leeches, 3 of which were busy blood-sucking, though all for better-or-worse popped off when the socks were removed, so salt and/or a lighter weren't necessary, though the definitely had done some damage, as all 3 bites bled for quite a while, as leeches secrete an anti-coagulant when they attach themselves, so Anderson ended up with some very bloody socks.
After sitting around for a while, and enjoying some cake that we'd brought as our "lunch," we took the 4 pm boat ride (which cost only 15 rupees each), the last of the day, which was hyped as having the most animals out and about. We saw several herds of deer, some boar, a fairly large lizard, and many species of birds, including a bunch that were nest-bound with their young, on trees in the middle of the lake. So we had a great, full day, though we decided that one day was definitely enough, since we didn't think we'd see many more animals if we returned, even if we did one of the quite pricey (and thus unappealing) nature treks.
From Kumily we headed to Munnar, a mountain town surrounded by giant tea plantations, so our lengthy 5-hour bus ride was mostly spent slowly winding up lush green hills, which was certainly a bit nauseating, as Liz proved by losing her lunch near the top! Even so, the views were immaculate, with endless rows of tea being grown throughout vast valleys. The downside of bus travel is that things always take longer than they ought to, with buses arriving late, taking longer to navigate the bumpy roads, and up in the mountains they frequently stop to allow traffic to pass going the other way, since the road is often not quite wide enough for two vehicles. In addition, sitting on the bus here is much more exhausting than you might think, since the jostling is endless, the turns often force you to grab onto the seat in front of you for support, and without fail every bus is packed to at least capacity. This means no leg room, people pressed up against you for hours on end, and often we are packed in tight with our bags, since the ancient delapidated buses here are certainly not designed for global travellers with large backpacks! That being said, rides are extraordinarily cheap, never more than 40 or 50 rupees for a several hour ride, so although sometimes a bit stressful there is nothing one can rightfully complain about: you get what you pay for.
Munnar itself is accurately described by Lonely Planet as "grubby," but fortunately the surrounding hills are quite beautiful. Our three days there, then, were spent exploring the areas around the town. One afternoon we rented bicycles and rode a ways up one of the hills, which was quite tiring, but the relaxing ride back down, complete with cool mountain winds, made it a worthwhile exchange. That was in the early afternoon, since we needed to waste a little time waiting for the next bus to arrive, so that we could take a short daytrip up to Top Station. Top Station is basically a collection of tea stands high up in the mountains, on the Kerala/Tamil Nadu state border, but the views of the misty mountains were simply amazing. It is also home to the rare-blooming Neela Kurinji flower, which shows its beautiful purple flowers only once every 12 years. Luckily, November 2006 was the first bloom of the new millenium, which meant that even though we arrived a month too late to see purple-coated hills, we were still fortunate enough to see a few late-blooming plants. The ride up was just under 2 hours, so in order to catch the 5:30 (and final) bus back to Munnar, we had to hurry to the actual highpoint of Top Station, and were unable to relax and enjoy a cup of tea, much to the vendor's unhappiness, but at least we got to see the impressive view as well as the rare flowers, which we weren't even expecting to be able to see at all.
The next day we returned to our wildlife watching ways, journeying 9 km up into the hills to Ernavikulam National Park, one of the last remaining homes of the rare Nilgiri Tahr. Essentially a mountain goat, the tahr is ridiculously tame, such that they were hunted virtually into extinction by the British, and even today remain on the endangered species list. Their inherent tameness meant that we not only got to watch them feeding on the mountain steppes, but also were able to get within mere feet for photo opportunities, as a herd of around 20 or 30 tahr were feeding right next to the paved path up the mountain. Touching them is prohibited, obviously, but we were able to stand right next to them, even the young goats and the pregnant mothers (they give birth each January) didn't mind our presence at all. Definitely a drastic change from our experience at Periyar, where we had to keep our fingers crossed just to see the animals!
We were initially going to next head to the mountain town of Kodaikanal, in Tamil Nadu state, but we decided on a whim to check out Munnar's Forest Department Office, which had information on additional national parks, and after reading up about the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, we decided to go there for a night, since it was on our way, but relatively off the beaten tourist trail. It is also home to numerous rare species of animals, from leopards and tigers to elephants and white bison. In addition, the had an overnight treehouse lodging option, for the low price of 1000 rupees per night, including meals. While 1000 rupees is technically over our daily budget, we figured staying the night in a national park was a worthwhile splurge, as well as a slightly-early Christmas present to ourselves... and it was definitely worth it!
The next day then, after spending a few hours winding through, and up and down, the tea-filled hills, we arrived at Chinnar just in time for our 2 pm check-in. After a bit of confusion about our reservation, which meant we were surrouned by 9 wildlife officials, all trying to determine whether "Anderson" was the same as "Andrews" or whatever scribbled writing they had written down as the reservation, we headed to our treehouse. The 1 km trek, with our huge bags in tow, wasn't all that bad, as fortunately our excitement enabled us to ignore the weight of our packs. Our lodging was indeed literally a house in a tree, accessible solely by a rope ladder, which then took a bit of maneuvering to climb with our 20 kg packs. But we made it, slowly but surely, and after a moment to relax, we headed off with our guide into the wilderness for an evening nature trek.
We quickly learned the difference between hiking and treking, as during our 3-hour journey we were never really on much of a path, instead we climbed up crumbling hills, cut through brambles and brush that needed to be hacked down first by our guide's everpresent machette, such that we were soon quickly covered in sweat and short of breath. It was all most definitely worth it, as we soon heard noises from the bushes, "ele-pants," we were assured. Then the most amazing thing yet, at least in India thus far, happened: as we rounded a corner, we got to see a huge male bull elephant, a "tusker," heading right for us! Our guide literally turned around and sprinted in the opposite direction, yelling at us "come, come, dangerous," so although National Geographic may never quite forgive us, we followed suit rather than stop to take pictures. Male elephants are definitely potentially dangerous though, as they can move quite quickly, are simply enormous, and since they are often leading other elephants, will not hesitate to attack anything that might be deemed a threat, which intruding Western tourists would certainly qualify as. The key to photographically hunting elephants, then, is to be far enough away that they cannot see you, but that you and your camera lens can safely see them. So, after quickly hiding in the nearby brush, we worked our way up a steep mountain slope, which was surprisingly covered with elephant tracks and droppings. The terrain seemed more suited to the tahr, which also live in Chinnar though we didn't see any, but it seems that elephants can travel through the hills more easily than we humans. After walking several kilometers, we worked our way up to a lookout point, high above the valley where we sighted the elephant. From above we were able to see numerous elephants, around seven or eight total, in two different groups, one feeding in a clearing and the other wandering across the hillside. It was really quite spectacular, as we had no expectations of seeing any elephants at all, since they are unfortunately getting more and more rare in the wild. We continued treking for a while longer, and while resting on another rocky hilltop we were able to see numerous bison, including one rare (and lucky) white bison, all wandering through the park to their sleeping places.

We're currently closing down this internet cafe, so we will continue our adventures soon, hopefully tomorrow...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

We're now back to our traveling ways, having departed Varkala 3 days ago, and though we are currently in Kottayam, near the backwaters, tomorrow when we wake we head to the Periyar Wildlife Preserve to the east. Regarded as south India's best place to see wild elephants, we're hoping that we can at least see some of them, and though the odds are against it we obviously are hoping to see a wild tiger. Even if we don't see either, plenty of other animals should be around, from spotted deer to wild boar, so we should have some exciting wild animal photos regardless! We'll probably take a 4-5km guided hike, to get further into the park, though a boat tour is a possibility as well. It's four hours there by bus, so we'll hopefully leave Kottayam early enough tomorrow morning that we have time to take a tour or something tomorrow afternoon before the park closes at 6 pm.
We went to the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary today, about a 30 minute bus ride (for 6 rupees there, 7.5 back), and even though the foreigner rate was 9 times that of the Indian rate, it was still only 45 rupees to enter the sanctuary, which is actually an island now barely separated from the mainland. Much of the backwaters are similar, in that land and water are well mixed, partially from the extensive rice paddies, partially from land reclamation, and partially from the endless African moss that has taken over, making many parts of the water just look like land. After wandering for a while through the sanctuary, and not really seeing many birds, we decided to take a wooden-boat ride out into the backwaters, which turned out to pretty wonderful, not only for the increase in wildlife, but also because it was very relaxing being alone in a small quiet boat, surrounded by nature, with only the sounds of the birds to disturb us. Our craft was powered by bamboo pole, so unlike the noisy, smoke-spitting engine-powered boats, ours was silent and environmentally sound. Though in a way its rather depressing, knowing that our 200 rupees ($4) will probably feet the boatman and his family for several weeks in a way makes us feel very good...
We did, then, see a good number of birds, though only about 5-10 different species, but nonetheless it was pretty enjoyable seeing them fly all around us, or to look out on the lake and see birds on branches everywhere, and on our return ride to the sanctuary, we got to watch one waterbird dive underwater, fishing, only to surface several meters away, while hardly disturbing the water. There were also a lot of turtles sunning themselves, though they were rather bashful when we approached.
Yesterday we took another day trip, since Kottayam itself is a somewhat dingy and unspectacular city, this time to the nearby town of Ettumanur, home of a large Shiva Temple. It was a little confusing, to be honest, since none of the people working were very helpful, and then they tried to ridiculously overcharge us for our camera pass (1oo rupees versus 20 rupees according to our guide book - such "inflation" doesn't occur to such extremes here, it's merely individual people trying to take advantage of gullible tourists), so we weren't able to take pictures of the semi-famous murals there, which though large and impressive, were rather obscured and dimly lit. Basically they were hardly on display at all, we actually walked past them three times before spotting them, so a photo would've been difficult anyways, so it all worked out. We did walk around the temple, which was completely covered with oil burners soaked in burnt oil, though our walk was quite quick since the concrete was boiling hot to the touch of our bare feet. Shoes aren't allowed in many places in India, not just temples, as many shops also don't allow any sort of footwear.
Our hotel here in Kottayam is pretty standard, though it does have cable TV, so we are watching a bit of CNN and plenty of football (not American) on ESPN and SkySports. It also has a built-in restaurant, which is good though overpriced for its food portions, but is still nice because we can get room service at the same price on any items, which means for once we can actually drink cold water most of the time! There's also a sweet shop in the lobby, which we'll probably take advantage of (again) when we return from the internet cafe.
While we had a fun time in Varkala, we are glad to be moving again, since we were starting to get a bit bored being so stagnant. That being said, we did meet a lot of very nice people, both fellow travelers and locals alike, and the beach there is definitely prime, with 2 meter waves crashing into a sandbar, so you can bodysurf while standing in only about 1 foot of water. Our last day in town was actually a bit of a headache, since we'd stayed an additional day to try and testdrive another motorcycle (the first one, which we almost ignorantly bought, turned out to be a bit of a lemon, with shaky steering and such, but fortunately we were well-advised to steer clear by some folks more knowledgeable than ourselves), but then that one also fell through since the owner refused to let us testdrive it for a day before buying (which obviously means something must've been not quite right). The middleman for the deal, a local mechanic and motorcycle tour-operator offered us another bike, though for several thousand more rupees, but fearing the classic "bait-and-switch" we steered clear; we're going to wait until we're in Mysore where Luke's friends/contacts can assist us in making a more educated purchase, if we're still feeling the desire to travel by motorcycle in another month.
In addition to that, we had a bit of a fiasco involving phone usage, since a local phone shop owner tried to overcharge us by several hundred rupees, resulting in Liz getting into a half-an-hour yelling match with him at his shop, and then more harsh words were exchanged when he came to our hotel to argue more. But nothing came of it, since he was trying to add on a 3 (initially 5) rupee surchage PER MINUTE on our effectively free BSNL phone call - which meant he was asking for over 300 rupees. India has 3 phone networks, depending on the type of call, but BSNL is the one we use, since we have a calling card which we access via a local 800 #, so that we only have to pay 3.5 rupees per call, regardless of length. Obviously that's not very fair to the local operator, since we can (and have) tied up the one phone in a call shop for a few hours before, but that's how the system works, and no one had any issues until this one morning, when we were calling our nephew Isaiah to wish him a happy 9th birthday. So we both got yelled at, though mostly Liz, but our hotel operator Rajesh at least calmed things down a bit, riding his scooter back and forth and talking on his cell phone in Malayalam (the local language) a bunch, with the end result being us not paying anything at all, since we offered the 20 rupees (what we legitimately owed) several times, with him refusing, so that was that...
Despite that one bad experience Varkala was great, but we are really excited for our next few days, where we will be exploring the natural wilderness of India, and then checking out the amazing views that Munnar offers of the Western Ghats (mountainous hills). We have decided not to go to Goa for New Year's, since the prices there will be substantially overinflated, so we will have to wait until late February before hitting the trance-music clubs there, but hopefully the lodging prices will be slightly lower so we can hit the clubs harder!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Not doing much, in the traditional sense, but having a great time relaxing in Varkala, though we are honestly finally just about to leave, to head further north into Kerala. However, we are currently investigating purchasing an Enfield Bullet motorcycle, the quintessential Indian roadbike, and a much freer form of transportation, rather than our current forced reliance on the often rare buses and trains. Motorcycles here are more of a temporary investment, since you can resell them quite easily to other travelers for virtually the same price, and bikes are quite cheap anyway, between $400 and $500 depending. Our bike will need a rack attached to the rear, so we can strap down our packs, but since Liz's pack has ripped a bit , and we don't have tons of stuff, we'd been debating dropping down to only one pack anyway. Having a motorcycle would also enable us to travel much more off the beaten path, as well avoiding the relatively pricey rickshaw rides within towns, that add up quite quickly. Petrol isn't the cheapest in India currently, around 53 rupies/litre, but the bikes get between 20-30 km/litre, so while its more expensive to travel by motorcycle than to solely take trains and buses, with rickshaw rides thrown in, the additional expense is rather marginal. Nevermind that you can't put a price on freedom!
However, we haven't seen the bike we want (good condition, good price, nice seller), so we may be leaving Varkala by train tomorrow if the bike(s) we look at today aren't meant to be, otherwise we'll remain here in town for a day or three longer learning to ride our new method of transportation. We met a guy named Michael from Germany, who has an Enfield (as do many other long-term India travelers) himself, and he gave us some basic lessons on starting and gear-shifting and such, so we are no longer totally in the dark on how to ride a bike. The roads here in India aren't nearly as bad as they are generally described, they are often just crowded making high speeds impossible, which is obviously just fine with us. But traffic is primarily in the cities and towns, so that travel between towns isn't too congested at all. By the time we make it further north where the population is more concentrated we'll be in theory seasoned bike-riding pros, so our south-to-north plan should be benificial in this department as well. Helmets are super cheap here as well, around $10, so getting those won't be a problem either. We don't have our hopes to high for this next bike, since the others we have seen haven't but up to par, but one never knows (particularly not here in India), when things will actually work out!
Michael also taught us an excellent card game, called Skat, pronounced 'Scot' not 'scat,' which is the national pasttime of sorts within Germany. It's meant for three players, though often played with four with the dealer sitting out, but it's really quite fun, like a more challenging euchre, or a more varying bridge. Check it out next time you're bored, it's a bit complicated at first but very fun.
Not much else is going on, just having fun relaxing, eating at Mamma Chompos' Restaurant Once Upon A Time, reading, body surfing in the ocean, etc. The sea today was rather rough, with a strong side-current, but most of the time previously it's been just about perfect. A few days ago we walked along the cliff/beaches here for over an hour, the scenery was quite impressive, as the palms and peaceful sand go on seemingly forever.
However things work with the motorcycle we'll be on our way out of Varkala real soon, just hopefully on two wheels instead of four!

Monday, November 27, 2006

We haven't moved at all since our last post, the beachside town of Varkala is simply too beautiful for us to depart! The sunsets over the Arabian Sea are amazing, the food is tasty, and all the people we have met are very nice, both Indians and other (mostly European) tourists. We are planning on staying in Varkala for just about two weeks, which means we've only got a few days left here. We'd been saying for days (around 5 straight) that we were going to leave the next morning, but each day came and went and we just couldn't bring ourselves to go! However, the cliffside and beaches are getting more and more packed, as the tourist-season is just about to begin (for Christmas/winter vacations and holidays), so at least some of Varkala's charm, being it's quite and peacefullness, is unfortunately rapidly decreasing. Not that it still isn't amazing here; today we body-surfed 2-3 meter waves during the afternoon, which is actually more challenging than one would imagine, because even though the water level is quite shallow for an extended distance, an extreme riptide is often literally yanking your body parallel to the beach! So you often are walking in chest-deep water in order to stay in the same spot, which gets very tiring very fast. But the warm water is a nice break from the even hotter sun, not to mention the ever-present humidity. It seems every second or third night we get to witness a rather intense storm - though the rainy season is technically over the weather obviously disagrees. Last night the thunder was so loud at one point it sounded like the sky was ripping in half, and the lightening will often descend from all sides over the ocean, lighting everything up for a few seconds. The sea is usually lit-up at least a little bit, since the majority of the local fishermen are out at night, catching what ends up as the "catch-of-the-day" at all the clifftop restaurants. The fresh seafood is pretty varied, with massive marlins (2 meters long) aside piles of prawns, red snapper amongst many types of fish, plus crabs or lobsters on occasion. While pricey compared to the far cheaper veg options, a seafood dinner can still be had for around $3, for a large serving that leaves you stuffed from seafood, not from the side-dishes. But we usually eat vegetarian, since the food is amazingly good, and at around $1/dish, hard to resist.
We've been playing lots of Yahtzee, often at restaurants while waiting for our food, but tonight we are going to play chess (well, Anderson's going to teach Liz how to play), and since our hour on the net is just about up, you'll have to wait for more news until another day!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

We know it's been just about a week since our last post, but you haven't really missed much... just 6 days of relaxing at the beach here in Varkala, enjoying the warm Arabian Sea water, reading the many cheap books we have picked up, paying around $3/night for our reasonable hotel room, and eating all sorts of delicious food. It's really rough, being plagued by the endless "to read or play Yahtzee" debate!
Varkala is, it should be mentioned, suffering from the tourism-buildup that much of India's beautiful coastline is currently undergoing, and in this case the last 10 years of construction have created an entire clifftop row of souvenier shops, restaurant/bar/clubs, and internet/bookshop/travel centers. Fortunately, we are staying near the "old" beach, which was Varkala's beach up until around 1997, and is still where most locals come to enjoy the ocean here. While the clifftop is just a short walk away, our relative isolation brings peaceful evenings (devoid of loud Europop music) and lower prices. A fresh coconut (full of juice) is only 10 rupees, and there is a delicious restaurant kitty-corner from our hotel that serves great-tasting food with larger-than-usual servings for average-or-below pricing. We're not sure it it's the fabulous name of "Mamma Champos' Once Upon A Time," the wonderfully nice owner and staff, or if it's the food alone that keeps us coming back, but regardless, after trying numerous other places around town, our stomachs have found their true Varkala calling! To give you an idea of things, real quick, it was the Shrimp Dumpling Soup that first attracted us. Not only was the bowl of soup over twice as big as most, but it had numerous shrimp in the soup, as well as dumplings that are actually stuffed with shrimp!
Most of the restaurants here serve seafood-heavy pan-Asian fusion food, which is great, though obviously more than a bit inauthentic. But it's nice as a brief break from the all-Indian food scene most places, and there is a wonderful local restaurant right up the road from us, overlooking the temple water tank, that serves a delicious lunch thali (an all-you-can-eat spread of a variety of vegetarian dips/dishes, served with bread and rice) - all very delicious and quite cheap, at 40 rupees. Just like Egypt, the beverages often cost almost as much as the meal itself, whether you're drinking bottled water, the overpriced sodas, or a pot of coffee or tea. But when the total bill for two people never exceeds $5 or $6 (including drinks and tip), it really is rather difficult to complain, isn't it?
We plan on staying here in Varkala for at least another day or two, maybe longer; it's very relaxing here, and we haven't really felt the urge to rush onwards yet, and therefore we haven't. People are friendly here, and there is something to be said for the small nicety of being recognized at the restaurants and coffeeshops that we frequent, though at the same time we can only stay out of real India for a little bit longer - after all we are here to be travellers and not tourists, and Varkala is definitely a tourist town, albeit with an amazing beach.
We want at least one more real day at the beach, so hopefully today's rain and clouds will give way to sunshine tomorrow, since reading oceanside is much more relaxing (and why we came to Varkala) than sitting inside our hotel room, or at a restaurant, admiring the downpouring rain.
In our semi-immediate future, however, is a journey north to Alleppey, which leads into the backwaters of Kerala, where rural/real Indian life still thrives, though tourism is obviously making headways, for better or worse. But rather than book a tourist-trip, we plan on village-hopping by local ferries, which will hopefully give a more authentic presentation of how life really is for the majority of people who live here. Afterwards we are then headed to Kollayam, on the eastern side of the backwaters, and from there we will continue east to the Periyar Wildlife Preserve, in the hopes of seeing some exciting fauna (in our wildest dreams a wild tiger, but probably spotted deer, boars, and maybe an elephant). Of course, that's just the plan, so we'll have to wait and see what actually develops!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Just a quick update, since only 24 hours have passed, but we had a minor change of plans late last night, so we have remained in Trivandrum for just one more night (Tuesday), before we definitely head to Varkala and its beaches tomorrow around noon or so. Today, however, we didn't spend much time in Trivandrum itself, as we headed to the beach at Kovalam by bus pretty much as soon as we awoke. The bus was super cheap (7.5 rupees each), and thankfully it only took 25 minutes or so, since it was standing-room-only most of the way there. The beach however, was pretty much the opposite (since it's still before the peak tourist season), so at times it felt like there were as many touts selling tapestries and fresh fruit as there were other beach-lovers. The sand was a mix of tan and black, rather psychedelic in spots, and the water was just about the perfect warmth (much more comfortable than the Red Sea). The body of water here is the Arabian Sea, and it was absolutely beautiful, though large parts of the beach are off limits due to safety concerns - apparently people have gotten taken out to sea here, and some have even died due to the powerful rip tides and undercurrents.
We spent most of our time lounging, on some cheaply rented lounge chairs, though we did do a bit of bodysurfing, and Anderson took a run around Lighthouse Beach (the one we were at) and the neighboring beach to the north. Once sunset was approaching, we headed to a ultra-close restaurant, called Fusion, which suprisingly featured all sorts of mostly seafood fusion dishes (Indian meets Western). The food was pricier than what we usually get, but it was our only meal of the day, and it was worth spoiling ourselves to enjoy the sunset from their rooftop dining area, all the while enjoying some amazing soup, fish, and a Kingfisher (an Indian beer) as well. Afterwards we wandered through the beaches in the dark, before ascending to the bus stop, for a much-less-crowded return-ride to Trivandrum. Unfortunately Trivandrum doesn't exactly have much for a nightlife, since the seedy bars filled with drunk Indian men aren't really too attractive, and all the movies playing are definitely not in English, which is why we returned for another night of internetting. Tomorrow should be action-packed, as we will probably ride the 2nd-class train up the coast, and then hopefully relax on the beach during the afternoon!

Monday, November 13, 2006

India... India... India...
The good news at least that the internet has been the most frustrating thing so far, which is obviously relatively minor, and thus our first few days here have been great! Not that our diarrhea and stomach pains have been wonderful, but given the spicy foods and entirely new set of bacteria, that was to be expected. The internet is only annoying because the first place we went to this evening closed just 20 minutes after we got there, though they neglected to tell us that when we arrived, and the current more-expensive (but 24-hour) place that we are currently at not only features hilariously cramped seating, but frustratingly out-of-date software that is making our relatively simple uploading quite the chore!
We are currently still in Trivandrum, which is home to the furthest-south international airport in India, though not much else really as far as being a tourist/traveler is concerned. However, fortunately, there are many good beaches in the nearby towns, so tomorrow we head to one, most likely Varkala, about 1.5 hours by bus to the north, for some relaxing in the sun, before heading inland to visit a wildlife preserve (though we may cruise the backwaters by boat first, we haven't really decided yet!). We saw most of the the town's sights yesterday, first visiting the Puttan Malika Palace, which is a massive 19th century building. Most of its hundreds of rooms are off limits, but the numerous that are open to the public are part of a museum, so we were able to admire the numerous beautiful woodcarved ceilings, as well as the many massive marble carvings of various Hindu deities. There were also many rusty swords, ivory and crystal thrones, but it was the architecture itself (red-roofs, dark-wood carvings everywhere) that was the most impressive. Photographs weren't allowed, but our tour guide was informative, so it was a good, if short, experience. Next door (and an even shorter experience) was the Shri Padmanabhaswamy temple, which is only open to Hindus, so we were only able to gawk at its massive stone-carved structure, and then try and peer in at the inner chambers. We did receive (regardless of whether we really wanted it!) the traditional dab of chalk on our foreheads, and the "guard" implied that we could enter for baksheesh, but being culturally inappropriate and religiously insensitive isn't worth it, even for free! But just seeing the temple was enough, as it is a massive hulking monolith, though I'm sure we will see bigger, better, and cleaner ones in the semi-near future.
Afterwards, we wandered through town, along the main road (called MG, for Mahatma Ghandi, as many main roads are), which is busy, dirty (two-fold, from piles of trash as well as polluting vehicles), but full of people and the vibrant life of modern India. The touts and drivers aren't near as obnoxious as in Egypt, and more and more our Egyptian experience is definitely coming in handy as a primer for the daily realities of being travelers in a country that is home to a drastically different culture than our own. Here, while there are taxis, the main transportation is via auto-rickshaw, which is basically a small three-wheeled cart, powered by gasoline, but that is steered not by a wheel but by handlebars similar to those on a bike. They get incredible fuel economy, despite blowing out nasty black smoke much of the time, and are able to weave around vehicles, pedestrians, and potholes alike with ean ease that cars could only dream of. Plus, they're one-half to one-third the price of taxis, and are more abundant, so they are definitely our preferred method of transit, when our own two feet aren't up to the job (i.e. when "the dogs are tired"!).
It should be noted that the prices on everything on India are a mere fraction of what things cost in America; the exchange rate is roughly 45 Indian Rupees equaling one U.S. Dollar. A rickshaw ride virtually anywhere in town costs 15-20 rupees (total for the two of us); dinners cost between 60 and 150 rupees, depending if we just get a meal and drink, or if we get 2-3 drinks each, plus soup and maybe an appetizer; books by Indian authors cost 95 rupees, while foreign books cost around 250-300 rupees (all paperbacks); the zoo, palace, and museums each cost 6 rupees to enter per person, and 20 for our camera at the zoo; a 2-litre of bottled water costs 22 rupees; our hotel costs 264 rupees a night, total... you get the idea, but you can easily live on $10/person/day, and often less, even if you don't walk much and still visit cultural sites.
Our hotel, the Greenland Lodge, is very nice and clean, includes complimentary mosquito coils, and we even have our own bathroom! The staff is friendly, they supply free daily copies of English-language newspapers in the lobby, and overall the place is lightyears ahead of the rather dumpy place we spent our first night at. We arrived rather early in the morning, exhausted from 2 straight days of travel, and the Greenland (recommended by Rough Guides) was full, as were the three other places nearby that either of our travel guides mentioned (we also have Lonely Planet India), so we just picked a cheap place at random. It wasn't necessarily the worst place that we'll stay at during our travels, though probably the worst yet (definitely as far as bugs, the roach Anderson killed was pretty gross), but we were able to get the sleep we needed, though our transfer to the Greenland the next morning was a delightful change - and the cost difference, 12 rupees per night, laughable given the huge difference in quality!
Anyways, after wandering through the center of town, we headed north to the other section of "culture," which consists of a very nice (and free) public botanical gardens, which is part of a complex consisting of several museums and the zoo as well. We saw 2 of the museums, first the Napier Museum, which is home to all varieties of indigineous artwork, mostly Hindu interpretations of various deities, though there were also some collections of non-Indian items from Java, Japan, China, etc. Most of the work was carved into wood, though some stone statues were also present. The museum was small by Western standards, which made it easy to actually enjoy everything it had, rather than being forced to scurry through massive galleries fighting off fatigue, crowds, and inevitably sheer boredom. The second museum was effectively an art gallery, called Shri Chitra, and it housed various paintings by a wide variety of Indian artists, probably most notably the oil works of Raja Ravi Varma, though we weren't exactly that impressed with his rather dull landscapes (though they did portray Indian life quite accurately, its just that art was imitating life a bit to exactly for our tastes!). Fortunately the zoo was right next door (though we'd already seen the reptile (as in snakes pretty much) house, which was part of the public gardens (and home to many cobras and pythons, including one boa whose cage also contained a live chicken!); the zoo was rather impressive, particularly given that we are in India, as most of the exhibits imitated natural habitats, so the many monkees, lemurs, etc. seemed right at home in the trees, as did the more spectacular one-horned rhino, tiger, lion (which we only heard roaring from a distance and never saw), and hippos. The zoo was laid out very well, with one winding path, clearly marked by signs, and thus no doubling-back was necessary, so basically it was a very leisurely walk with excellent natural views. Some animals, including all the birds, were in small and rather dirty cages, which was depressing, but the zoo is rather new and seems to at least be making a concerted effort, which was nice to see. Hopefully our 12 rupees will go towards the many more habitats that were under construction!
That's basically all that Trivandrum has to offer for sites, so today we slept in, though later than usual due to upset stomachs - the combination of the very spicy food with all the new bacteria means that diarrhea is just about a constant, so things are going well when hurried trips to the toilet aren't necessary, though it seems that every morning thus far one of us has had to make a bit of a dash to the bathroom - this morning was Anderson's turn, with his innerds keeping him awake for over an hour before he could clear things out enough to go back to sleep! But we did need a lengthy rest anyway, to finish up our jetlag recovery, and so we leisurely got up, before heading to the post office to unload some weight (which turned out to be 7 kgs, about 15 lbs.) by sending a package via boat to Anderson's parents of Egyptian souveniers and books that we have read but want to keep (Anderson got a free hardback Robert Jordan book in Germany, which turned out to be autographed, and thus a must-save). Fortunately, our post office experience, though slow by Western standards, was wonderful by Indian standards (at least from what we have heard), as after only 5 minutes of bumbling around the workers were helpfully wrapping our goods in a box for us, before stitching it up with a cotton sack and string. From there we hit up a delicious restaurant for lunch, where we enjoyed our first masala dosa (thin pancake-ish bread wrapped around flavorful potatoes, veggies and sauce) and our new favorite drink: lime juice! Lime juice is just a little bit of lime with sugar and the rest water, but it is super tasty, thirst-quenching, and usually suprisingly cold. After lunch we checked out a couple of book stores, since books are ridiculously cheap here in India (under $2 for Indian authors, around $5 or less for foreign authors), and so for cheap we were able to reload the mobile Muth library!
Tonight we just have had a less-than-satisfactory dinner from the Indian Coffee House chain (though the building, a circular spiral with ever higher tables was intriguing), then some relaxation at our hotel, before wandering to find our current internet cafe. Tomorrow we're off to the beach as mentioned, though we may go to Kovalam before Varkala, since our friend Luke (who was in India this time last year) has been lobbying for Kovalam via chat on gmail.
Now time for a little back-to-the-future action, since last you read we were in Dahab, about to leave for Cairo. Our last day in Dahab was pretty laid-back, we just wandered about, ate one last time at King Chicken, our favorite cheap restaurant in town, and then talked with our friend Osama, who owns a music store next to King Chicken. We then caught the overnight bus back to Cairo, which frankly was terrible. We were on East Delta, instead of Upper Egypt Bus which we took the rest of the time, and the bus seats were much smaller, and the edge of our assigned seat had a very sharp point, which Anderson kept hitting his leg on while trying to sleep. We also stopped numerous times, and even had to get out of the bus near the Suez Canal for the lamest bag inspection ever (and at 4 a.m. on top of it), so by the time we arrived in downtown Cairo around 6, we were pretty out of it. Our plan was to simply find food and then catch a taxi to the airport, so we could sit there and maybe sleep, or at least just let our fried brains avoid the bustle of Cairo, but of course that's not at all what happened:
As we meandered down the street away from the bus station, sending all-too-frequent taxis away, we stopped at a corner store to inquire about early-morning food options, and the three young guys hanging out there nicely offered to take us the 3 blocks to the nearest falafel joint. After some wandering, we got some warm, fresh Egyptian breakfast food, much-needed after our arduous bus journey. One of the guys, named Ahdam, invited us up to his apartment, which was just across the street, and since we had nothing else to do, we took him up on his offer. He lives there with his mother, a former English teacher, who was in the midst of her morning prayers when we arrived. We had some tea, and then proceeded to watch a quality bootleg of the movie "2 Fast, 2 Furious," which arguably was about the most complicated cinema we could handle, given our condition! Everyone was very nice, and though we were tired the conversation and company was far better than the airport, and then, when the noon-time prayers were approaching, Ahdam asked if we'd like to join them, since Friday prayer is the biggest of the Muslim week. After making sure that it would be appropriate it we went, Liz got washed and dressed (as in completely wrapped up in skirt and headscarf) and then went out with Ahdam's mother, while Anderson washed with the three guys. The washing involves three rinses of the face, feet, arms, mouth, and privates, and then one final rinse of the head and ears, in order to be clean before God. Liz got to skip the privates-washing (which is done privately, it should be noted), and we semi-learned some Arabic prayer-phrases in order to do things right. Being regular Egyptian men, they ended up departing too late to catch the service at the mosque that Liz went to, so we each ended up at different mosques (though there is literally one every few blocks in downtown Cairo), but the service itself was quite quick, consisting of a reading by the imam, before some praying, then a quick series of kneeling/praying, before sitting and listening to the end of the service. Then a handshake, and things are over. Muslims pray five times a day, though most Egyptians don't go to the mosque all that often, many it seems only go once a week, if they can, but the whole experience was quite interesting and unexpected, though very ritualistic (of course). Afterwards, we enjoyed some koshari, and quickly said our goodbyes, before catching a taxi to the Cairo airport. Getting through security wasn't bad, and both flights on Qatar Airways went just fine, with good food, though poor sleep, on each plane, and the complementary alcoholic beverages certainly didn't hurt, though the Heineken's on our flight from Doha to Trivandrum were ultra-warm. Our 6-hour layover in Doha was about as good as possible, though Qatar is apparently painfully oil-rich, as the duty-free items were frighteningly numerous, including hundreds of types of alcohol, plus just about every Western bit of electronics one could imagine(all at ridiculous prices), plus several $300 raffles that were for new BMWs and the like. Pretty ridiculous, all and all, particularly given the rampant poverty throughout other parts of the Middle East, but then, as Americans, we don't really have much room to talk.
However, with the wonderful news of the Republicans losing control of both the House and Senate, hopefully the evil grip of Bush and his cronies is nearing its end, and some normalcy (and much-needed reality) can begin returning to American politics, both domestically and internationally. Hopefully you all voted Democratic, since tragically our 2-party system doesn't leave much room for variety, and that when we return from our travels America will be better off than when we left it!
Hopefully more updates will come soon, though given the quality of the internet around here that is somewhat of an unknown, but all is well in India, we are happy to be here and enjoying everything but the diarrhea and the humidity! When you wake up tomorrow and head to work, we'll most likely be at the beach, so we'll make sure to catch some sun for you as well!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Our time in Dahab has nearly come to an end, and with it our time in Egypt as well. The month we have been here has just flown by, and although we have often been frustrated and exhausted, we have had an amazing time, both seeing and experiencing Egypt as well as meeting many genuinely nice and friendly people. We are going to return to Egypt at some point, mostly to see our friends in the Dakkhla Oasis, though Dahab has been a lot of fun (and would be great to scuba dive in once we work up the courage!), and we still want to ride a felucca up the Nile River at some point in our lives!
We have been in Dahab for four days, and between travel exhaustion, very upset stomachs, and unseasonably windy seas, we have relaxed more than we have engaged in recreational activities, but there's nothing wrong with that and we have still had two simply amazing experiences. We are also in an annoying and unnecessary financial bind, since all the ATMs in this town are owned by the same bank, and for whatever reason our ATM card isn't being recognized. So we have to use the last of our traveler's checks tomorrow in order to afford the bus fares back to Cairo, but we have consequently felt the pinch a bit in our recreational spending. No big deal, just one of the minor frustrations that can occur while traveling!
The first cool thing we did hear was to snorkel in the Red Sea at The Blue Hole, a reef site about 6 km away from Dahab City where we are staying, due north up the coast. The Blue Hole is a notorious dive site, and many divers have died in its practically unimaginable depths (120+ meters straight down, but only about 20-30 meters across!). However, the top is merely a beautiful coral-laden reef, with numerous incredible species of fish! We saw at least 100 species during two tours through the water (the cold water temperature coupled with the windy conditions limited the amount of time we could be swimming before the shivers took over), including several lion fish, translucent glass fish, and numerous barracudas. Both times we dove in, in was into a school of little bright-blue fish, that weren't too intimidated by our arrival. A little weird, being completely surrounded by fish, but very tranquil at the same time. The Blue Hole is a little bit build up, so there's a row of makeshift restaurants to relax at (that also rent out the snorkeling equipment), so that was nice that we had places to lay out in the sun or lounge in the shade whenever we so desired.
We did the snorkeling on Sunday, then, of this week, relaxed on Monday, wandering about the town, eating amazing (and cheap food), and such, and did more of the same on Tuesday during the day, saving our energy for Tuesday evening, when we climbed Mt. Sinai. The mountain is about 2 hours away, and due to the heat of the day, the best time to climb is at night, in order to also then catch the spectacular sunrise. That means then, that we left our hotel (which we technically had checked out of for the night) at 11 p.m., and rode to Sinai until 1 a.m. Guides are mandatory, though completely unneeded since the paths are painfully obvious, so we were grudgingly guided up the mountain, which really meant that we stopped more frequently than necessary, allowing sweat to gather and freeze us more than the cold temperature actually was! It was never really all that cold, even at the top of the mountain, which we reached about 4 a.m., the temperature was only 45 degrees or so. We were bundled up in all the layers we have, and actually using our long underwear as scarves, so we didn't need the blankets they were renting at the top (we'd brought our sleeping bag liners), though we did get one mat to lay on since the ground itself was pretty frigid (as we discovered sitting on rocks at various coffee shops along the way waiting for our guide to warm up).
Sleep came sparingly during the 90 minutes we had to wait until sunrise, and we awoke to eager sun-waiters before our 5:30 a.m. alarm went off, which meant we were fully awake to watch the entire rising from our excellent vantage point. We then began the descent around 6:20 or so, and were down to the bottom (via a different route, we went up by the "camel trail" and down by the "3000 Steps of Penance") by around 8 a.m. Both trails meet before the summit, and thus 750 additional stairs are mandatory regardless of which route you take. The camel trail is easier, particularly at night, and thousands of stairs were rough on the knees going down, so we're sure going up wouldn't have been all that enjoyable. There was a full moon, so flashlights were rather unnecessary going up, which was pretty awesome.
We had to waste an hour then, from 8 until 9, which was easy given our exhaustion from both the climb and the lack of sleep, though St. Catherine's monastery, located at the foot of the mountain (and whose opening we were waiting for) wasn't exactly the most riveting. It's to not only a well-preserved ancient Christian church, but also the descendant of the "Burning Bush" from the Bible, as well as a well Moses supposedly drank out of, but it's all rather packed and dull, full of overly-enthused elderly tourists staring at a large prickly bush and a closed off ancient well. The church itself is nice enough, accept that it is so packed with icons and such that it looks quite tacky, kind of like a bizarre religious bazaar. Incense burners hang from the ceiling just about everywhere, and the church is so tiny and cramped it is hard to even see everything, plus Russian Orthodox ministers seemed to be holding a service of some sort as well. But, whatever, cathedrals and mosques and churches and stuff aren't really our style much anyways, but when you're there you're there, so we're still glad we saw it, though the Sinai sunrise and climb is what we will really remember.
We've also managed to obtain some incredible traditional Egyptian music, through some music shop owners here in Dahab that we befriended, and subsequently swapped mp3s with, though much of it is unlabeled we do have all the artist and album names, so hopefully we can piece things together eventually, but at least the amazing music is easy to listen to!
That's about it for now, anything we've forgotten about Dahab will have to come later. Our upcoming itinerary is: Thursday night - overnight bus to Cairo; Friday day - chill at airport, avoid aggravation of Cairo; Friday afternoon - fly to Doha, Qatar (and enjoy a 6-hour layover); Saturday afternoon - arrive in Trivandrum, India (in the far south); Saturday evening - sleep. Now it's getting way to late for these typing fingers, so peace and good night!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Of course we've been busy since we left you hanging at Karnak Temple - the internet cafe we were at was rather stingy on the 2 hours we agreed to, most places are a bit more flexible. Speaking of flexible, our plans have pretty much completely changed, due to a rather hilarious and typically Egyptian situation, but first we need to get you up to speed with what we did a while ago, first our two days spent in Al-Kharga, which is where we went to after our 10 days in Mut City (Dakkhla Oasis), then onto our 2nd day in Luxor (spent at the Valley of the Kings amongst other places), and then what we have been up to our last 48 hours (let the suspense build!).
Unfortunately we couldn't stay in Mut City forever, though the wonderful and gracious Anwar family would have certainly allowed it (everyone was so kind and loving to us, we received countless free meals, only paid for a few glasses of shai, never once puchased our own sheesha, and our offers of payment for rides around town via car of donkey cart were summarily refused - not just by the Anwar's, but all the people of Dakkhla). We truly made some friends forever during our almost two weeks there, and will hopefully be able to return at some point, though we also want to help Sameh and Muhammad to come visit America at some point if that is possible.
So, we headed to Al-Kharga (another oasis town, although much more developed than Mut City) after many genuine goodbyes, in order to see our friend Muhammad (whom we had met in Dakkhla) and his family, since he had had to go back to work while we were still in Mut. Sameh went with us, which worked out well since he helped out with the transportation and such, and with the four of us hanging out, along with Muhammad's other friends, a lot of fun was definitely had. We rode to Al-Kharga via microbus, which meant we three were packed into the last row of a cramped 14-passenger van, filled almost to capacity, which was also filled with endless reading from the Quran. The Quran reading is interesting, though a little tedious while travelling for over 3 hours. Muhammad nicely met us at the microbus stop, and after our first hotel attempt didn't work out (their cheap rooms were all full), we ended up at the El Waha Hotel, a budget place if there ever were one, but the rooms were clean enough, the bathroom passable (expectations for bathrooms have dramatically decreased, some of them truly make you nauseous so "clean" is a very relative thing), and the price of 24 EGP was just right. We quickly discovered a hidden bonus of Al-Kharga, which the presence of a constant police escort. We'd managed to avoid such a thing in Mut, but literally the whole time we were in Al-Kharga a non-uniformed (but armed) officer walked with us, sometimes joined by a uniformed member of the Tourism & Antiquities Police, and at night (and sometimes during the day) a police pickup truck with 2 or 3 officers in it trailed us everywhere that we walked. As you can imagine, the whole situation was pretty ridiculous and very unnecessary, but there was nothing we could do about it at all (simply beauracratic government protocol for "our protection") - though it made walking through the town very annoying at times, as we attracted even more attention (since our group of people walking was at a minimum of 5 or 6) than usual. Also, none of the police spoke any English at all really, so even when situations arose where they could have been actually helpful, they simply "helped" us find an English speaker to answer our question(s). It should also be mentioned that Al-Kharga is far from a dangerous or threatening town, it's just that Egypt's unemployment rate is frighteningly high (the government claims 9.9%, most independent assessments put the number around 25%) so the police force is consequently enormous in order to provide increased employment opportunities, and also the US government just recently lifted a travel restriction on Egypt (which had been put in place following some tourist attacks at monuments) so we think that as Americans we are particularly guarded.
Fortunately we were really just in Al-Kharga to hang out with our friends, and we spent the majority of our nights then at the Coffeeshop Africano, a surprisingly hip and nice outdoor coffeeshop that Muhammad's cousin, also named Muhammad, works at (when he is not in Aswan for university). The coffeeshop was definitely the largest we've seen, with a wide variety of tables and ambiences spread out around a wide sandy park area between several buildings. We often relaxed under the gazebo, or after hours at one of the back tables. We also got to meet many of Muhammad's friends from Al-Kharga, including another Muhammad, Ahmed, Sayed, Honey - or Honi (a DJ), Hamam (who also worked there and was very nice and friendly), Amn, Mustafa, and many others, all male as you can obviously tell, but women aren't really allowed at coffeeshops outside the big cities unless they are there with their husbands or fiances. Liz of course was more than welcome, as the rules obviously do not apply to non-Muslim tourists!
We also ate at several delicious restaurants, and since we were with friends we not only got cut-rate Egyptian prices, but also did not have to haggle at all, a nice change from our typical day! Liz did a little shopping, and got to talk to some very nice women who are English majors at the Al-Kharga University (proof Egypt is slowly moving forward), and she got an amazingly nice Egyptian skirt for herself. We also got a bunch of Arabic music put on our mp3 player, which is fun to listen to though it is all a bit goofy and our player cannot read any of the Arabic characters so the names are mostly gibberish. Sameh stayed for one night, but he hung out for the entire next day before catching the last bus at 2:30 a.m., which made for a sad goodbye after a fun day in Al-Kharga, and a fun 10 days in Dakkhla before that, but obviously being travellers these things are inevitable. Our last day in Al-Kharga was spent mostly at Muhammad's house, since his wonderful mother, Mrs. Yousef to us, made us a fabulous luncheon feast. Their house, supplied by the government since Muhammad's father, a former member of parliament for the New Valley, is now the head of security for the mayor (governor more accurately), is definitely the largest and nicest we have seen, and it is surrounded on all sides by an extensive garden, full of orange, lemon, date, mango, fig, and tangerine trees, as well as many grape vines that are wrapped all around the thatch roof covering the porch. Even though we were stuffed, we couldn't resist a dessert consisting of fresh-picked oranges (still green) and traditional Egyptian cookies. Of course there was tea, and a policeman or two around the entire time as well. We then went to Coffeeshop Africano one last time just to wait until later to head to Luxor, since travelling at night is much easier and enjoyable than being in the Egyptian heat.
Since travel to Luxor is virtually non-existant directly, even though the cities are only 3 hours away or so, we had to take a microbus to Asyut (around 4 hours, though our microbus was really just a station wagon, equipped with 7 seats), and then catch a train to Luxor, which took about 6 hours or so, although we had to wait around 2 hours since it was very, very late. But both rides were reasonable, the coffeeshop at the train station was nice enough to wait in, and with our earplugs in the train ride was rather quiet! We thus arrived in Luxor around 8 a.m., and enjoyed our first day there, which you have hopefully already read about.
Our second day in Luxor was equally exciting as our first, though we opted to take a guided tour booked through our hotel, in order to optimize our day of sightseeing and minimize our wandering around Luxor's West Bank in the brutal heat. We did get a pretty decent price (about half what most others paid since we acted very disinterested through numerous sales pitches and then haggled a decent amount as well), although we still could have probably saved some money if we had travelled on our own, but that's just the nature of Egypt in general, and often it is worth spending just a bit more (as in $2-$5) for convenience.
The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly the Valley of the Kings, where we saw 3 tombs, those of Ramses III, Ramses IX (& sons), and Ramses IV, all of which had pretty amazing and intact funerary wall-paintings. There are 62 total excavated tombs within the desolate valley, but most are either too small or delapidated to warrant viewing, or are currently closed for protection or renovation. Our ticket admitted us to three tombs, and our tour guide had obviously pre-decided for us which ones we were going to, but we definitely saw ones that were impressive and reasonably well-preserved. All sorts of bright colors, giant walls filled with incantations written in heiroglyphics, plus numerous scenes of life and the afterlife recreated, usually almost lifesize. Most of them had cracks and chips all over, and some unnecessary modern scratch-style graffiti, but the Ramses IV tomb did have some cool ancient Coptic Christian graffiti. Cameras were not allowed, but we did manage to record several videos casually, only getting hassled by a guard once, which are currently being uploaded to Youtube.
It should be mentioned that the King Tut tomb, arguably the most famous of all, is a seperate admission, which we skipped since it is very overpriced and the tomb itself is quite small; just the treasure which was discovered inside (which we saw at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo), impressive in both quality and quantity, since it was the only completely intact tomb discovered within the entire valley.
We also saw the Valley of the Queens, the Temple of Hatshepsut, and the Colossi of Memnon. The Colossi were just 2 huge semi-delapidated statues, but they were free, so not too bad, and the complex they were once a part of was actually larger than Karnak. Hatshepsut Temple was pretty massive, with some nice wall reliefs still retaining much of their color, although the huge desert mountain right behind it (backside of the 2 valleys) was just as impressive, really. The temple is literally built into the rock, which is simply amazing. Outside Luxor is very barren, which is why the ancient royalty picked it for their tombs, in the hopes that grave robbers would fail to locate them - too bad that idea failed so miserably.
We went on our tour with (amongst others) some Canadian girls who have been teaching English in Korea, so we learned all about that as a possible job option in the future... apparently the pay is more than reasonable (so you can save a couple thousand US dollars a month), plus they cover your housing and work transportation, so Korea is definitely a possibility for when we will be seeking employment (probably sometime late 2007, early 2008). Other options include Thailand and Cambodia for teaching, but that is a ways off, so currently all we are doing is gathering ideas and researching possibilities.
We actually zonked out right after our tour for a much needed nap, but we'd already decided that we'd seen all that we wanted to in Luxor (the museum is somewhat of a repeat), and we saw all the major sites on both banks (the Luxor Temple is part of the modern town so we'd walked all the way around it numerous times). The sleep was great, though we did grab some falafels and some blackcurrant flavored Fanta (both amazingly good and cheap, 6 EGP total = $1.10), before working on things at an internet cafe for a while.
Luxor is a lot like Cairo as far as being irritating and frustrating, and the locals are even worse about harassing us than in Cairo in some ways. We literally get chased around by horse-carriages and taxis as their drivers yell at us about needing a ride and how "cheap" it would be. We usually do not even want a ride, since part of travelling is wandering about semi-aimlessly soaking things up. It's rather awful at times, and somewhat dehumanizing for all involved, though only we seem to realize it! We're not quite sure whether Luxor's persistent yelling is worse than Cairo's ceaseless "friends" who just happen to be selling papyrus or perfume, but truthfully neither is enjoyable or necessary in the slightest.
Conveniently our first bout with upset stomachs (nothing like painful and frequent liquid poo to liven up your morning) hit on our last morning in Luxor, so our hopes of going to the post office early were dashed, and we slept for several more hours, which was semi-successful in regards to our feeling better. After a nice (and nicely haggled) lunch for only 10 EGP each, we began what became a lengthy and agonizing journey to find the Luxor bus station, since the town had recently closed down the old station (located downtown), and moved it several kilometers outside of town, though supposedly there was still an Upper Egypt Travel Office around somewhere. After getting the run-around from numerous people, greedy taxi-drivers and other unhelpful locals alike, we ended up wandering all over the downtown area, train station, etc. without finding anything helpful at all, so we finally caught a microbus ride out to the new bus station, with enough time to catch the 2:00 p.m. bus that our hotel had advertised, though our guide book said that it was actually at 3:30 p.m. Our driver tried to ditch us several incorrect places, first at the train station ("no, bus station"), then at a microbus pickup ("Upper Egypt Bus"), and once even at some random spot along the road before we finally got there - only to discover that no buses at all went to Aswan anymore. Apparently the only way to get to Aswan is to take a microbus early in the morning as part of the once-daily police-escorted caravan, or to take the twice daily train. However, taking the train (which was supposed to arrive at 5, though would probably come hours later) would mean that we would not arrive in Aswan until 10 or 11 p.m., much to late to get on a felucca, meaning we would have to wait around in Aswan for a day, which was time we didn't really have since we wanted to go to Dahab for snorkeling and peace, not necessarily in that order, while Aswan didn't have much worth seeing save the Nile boat ride. So we made the decision that we should just head directly to Dahab, and cut out the costly and time-inefficient trip to Aswan. That means of course no felucca ride, but since we'd seen plenty of the Nile, and heard from some people that the river is far noisier and dirtier than it is advertised to be, going to Dahab seemed the better choice, plus a bus would be leaving for there (around 20 hours or so) within a few hours. However, since we'd planned on going to Aswan, our finances were rather restricted (since carrying lots of cash around is a bad idea usually), so we didn't quite have enough money for the ride all the way to Dahab (and of course the bus company refused to take a traveller's check). So we caught the next bus leaving Luxor, which was headed to Hurghada, about a quarter of the way to Dahab, and since it was leaving an hour before the Dahab direct bus, we would have time in Hurghada to go to an ATM and eat an actual meal. The ride wasn't too bad, since half of it was at night, and though we had to walk much further than the Hurghada map in our Lonely Planet guide indicated, we did find an ATM relatively easily, though our tasty kushari dinner was definitely the highlight of our brief time there. After inhaling the fumes from more than a few other buses, and using a far-from-pleasant toilet (and completely ignoring the tout asking for baksheesh to use the "clean toilet"), our bus arrived, only about 40 minutes late.
A huge line of people formed outside the bus, and it became quickly apparent that the bus itself was already packed, as no one really got off, and soon the announcement came that the bus was completely full. We asked a semi-helpful tourist policemen when the next bus would be, and he said that one wouldn't go to Dahab until 9 p.m. the next night. We immediately knew that that bus as well would be similarily packed, and we didn't want to spend a day in Hurghada anyway (though it is on the Red Sea, it is over-developed and consequently terribly touristy and overpriced), so we begged to get on the bus, without a seat, and were finally allowed to sit/lay in the aisle between the seats with our bags. Awful doesn't really quite describe the situation, since no one got off the bus until Sharm-Al-Sheih, over 12 hours later; that meant that for half a day we lay on a dirty floor, cramped between smelly Egyptians and a few EU tourists who were totally passed out, trying to get comfortable enough to sleep. That never really quite happened, so our sleep came in fitful 15 minute spurts, and that only after we switched spots so Liz could avoid a "sleeping Egyptian" who kept trying to grope her. The time slowly passed, and we managed to get only some semblance of sleep, but we figured waiting 24 hours wouldn't have really changed our experience at all, since the buses depart from Luxor filled with people, and no Egyptians would ever go to Hurghada (nor should any smart travellers), so our ride was what it was, inevitable and unenjoyable. Once we arrived in Sharm, and got our own seats, things were much better, though the sun was up enough that sleeping wasn't much easier, but at least our comfort level was infinitely higher.
The remaining ride up the georgeous Red Sea coast only took a few more hours (thankfully), and all the tourists on board (every last Egyptian got off before Dahab, which is known as a "backpacker Nirvana" in addition to an amazing place to snorkel/dive the Red Sea) emerged to the yells of taxi drivers offering rides into town, which was about 3 km away. Some Australians we had met earlier had recommended the 7th Heaven Hotel, so we headed there, though after our "welcome drink," of warm but good mango and strawberry juices, we learned that we weren't really all that welcome since the hotel was fully booked! So we headed down the strip of hotels with our guide book in hand, and ended up at the Auskie, a cheap (20 EGP/night total for both of us - about $3.35) and simple place, though it actually had a queen-size bed, versus the double twins that virtually all budget hotels offer exclusively. We decided to take the hotel up on one of its tours, a cheap snorkel trip to the nearby (6 km) Blue Hole, which is an internationally-known dive spot. We've thought about scuba diving, but neither of us really have that much interest, and it is something that not only costs a lot of money (in US dollars), but also takes several dedicated days to take the classes and introductory dives necessary to receive certification. Maybe later in life we will try scuba, but for now we are content with snorkeling!
We were supposed to go snorkeling today, but Liz was up much of the night with a very upset stomach, and Anderson isn't doing all that much better, so we decided to postpone that until tomorrow, which turned out to be quite fortuitous because the sea is unbelievably rough today, and high-intensity winds have been blowing in from offshore the entire day.
We have had what was possibly our best meal in Egypt, though its hard to really judge such a thing, but after weeks of chicken and the occasional cut of beef, freshly caught seafood from the Red Sea was a welcome change. We ate at the Sea Bride restaurant last night, and before you are seated you go next door to their market, where you pick the actual fish or seafood that will be prepared for you. We chose to split a red snapper and a seafood sampler plate. The fish was simply amazing, so we didn't even mind its cute teeth and eyes, and the shrimp, mussels, calamari, and other fish were exquisite as well. The meal also came with the usual rice, vegetables, soup, and bread, so it quickly became a much-deserved feast/reward after our heinous night aboard the bus. We were so hungry that we left a music shop, who's owner Osama was nicely showing us all types of Egyptian music, in order to rush to eat, and when we returned we were so stuffed we could barely drink the tea that he made us! The music was great to listen to, as we got to hear all types of traditional and interpretated music styles, from Egyptian jazz to Bedouin oud to synthesized Arabic music. We're going to trade him American music off of our mp3 player for a few burnt CDs, so we're going back to his shop tonight to finalize the deal, though we did already get a complete copy of the Quran being read in Arabic (since we've been hearing it constantly and it does sound quite interesting). We also journied all over the lengthy Dahab boardwalk, stopping to play dominos (ours, since coffeeshops here don't have them as abundantly as in the oasis') at a rather Western bar called Adam's Place - though the real attraction is the several-pounds-cheaper Stella beers, which they serve ice cold, as though the literal half-price versus the other bars around wasn't enough of an attraction. Not the "coolest" place to hang out certainly, but we just wanted to relax and play dominos and have a few beers, so it fit our needs perfectly.
Today then, we haven't really done much, though it seems we are feeling a bit better, and Liz is no longer such a frequent visitor to the bathroom (!), so hopefully the seas will also calm down for us tomorrow, and we can then enjoy our first day of Red Sea snorkeling. It is possible to just rent a snorkel and check out the reef right offshore, but the minimal additional cost for the all-inclusive trip makes it well-worth it, particularly for our first day in the ocean.
That's where we are at, with sunset turning into night here in Dahab (it gets dark just around 5 p.m.), so we will soon go grab some dinner before swinging by that music shop again, and we plan on avoiding alcohol until our poor overworked stomachs are feeling happy again. Hopefully that will be tomorrow, since we are very excited to go snorkeling!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Luxor... and when we are hungry, aka Suxor. Not that it is bad here, really, it's just that people on the street are all salesman, and the taxi drivers and horse carriage drivers will literally chase us down sometimes to yell at us about getting a ride. So the feeling is much like Cairo, though fortunately the city is not quite as big or hectic, but we have definitely left the loveable oasis' for less desirable territory. However, Luxor is home to some amazing sites and ruins, so that is the trade-off, which at least makes it worth being here for the 2 days that we are. We spent the beginning of our day on an overnight train from Asyut, which took over 5.5 hours, from 2:30 am until around 8:00am. The whole reason we even had to go to Asyut to catch the train (which was very, very late) was rather ridiculous, since we had been staying in Al-Kharga, the eastern most desert oasis, where our friend Muhammad lives and works, and we wanted to go to Luxor, which is only about 3.5 hours away. However, no buses go that way, only "special taxis" that are overpriced (350 EGP vs. under 100 EGP for the transportation that we took), so instead we took a station wagon taxi for 10 EGP each to Asyut, which took around 3 hours, before waiting for over 2 hours to catch the train to Luxor. On the upside, we didn't have to pay for lodging, the train seats were adjustable and reasonably comfortable, and our friend Sameh (who runs the Anwar Hotel in Mut City) wrote a note in Arabic for us to give to a friend of his who runs a hotel here in Luxor in order to get a good price. So when we emerged half-exhausted from the train, and rather out-of-it, the three hotel touts yelling at us didn't really faze us, since we already had a pre-decided destination in mind, which was very fortunate since one tout in particular was relentless, following us for 3 or 4 blocks yelling about his hotel, despite us first politely, then blatantly ignoring him.
The Fontana Hotel ended up being rather close to the train station, only about 10 blocks, and we crossed paths with sleepy children headed off to school most of the way there. The proprietor hadn't arrived for the day yet, so we were served tea, and then we got down to room haggling, which is not only an Egyptian past-time, but pretty much mandatory not only at hotels, but sometimes at restaurants, and definitely at all the shops. You don't have to haggle, it's true, but then you'll end up paying the highly inflated tourist price, which is sometimes about twice the "real" or "Egyptian" price. Basically it's financial racism, or discrimation, but it's simply reality in a country filled with very poor and chronically unemployed people who are inundated by relatively wealthy Western tourists.
The hotel was effectively all booked up, but a guest who was staying there for 3 weeks was just leaving as we were drinking our shai, so her room (double-booked apparently, but in Egypt that's how things often seem to go...) was the target of our haggling, and we got a pretty fair price of 70 EGP for 2 nights, in a room with air conditioning and a private shower (amenities we haven't had yet on our trip), plus 2 free breakfasts including eggs, so our subsequent several hour passout was done in comfort.
Since we only have 2 days here, we couldn't sleep too late, so we got up around noon, mostly refreshed, and after eating a late breakfast (and signing up for a tour to the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, etc. on Luxor's West Bank for tomorrow morning - starting price 580 EGP, ending price 240 EGP - exactly halfprice...), embarked to the mighty Karnak Temple. We took a brief pitstop at an ATM (something the oasis' didn't really have in great supply), and decided to ride a horse-drawn carriage the rest of the way to Karnak, since they are quite cheap, fun, abundant, and the brutal mid-day heat is nothing to scoff at in Egypt, even during the "winter." Upon our arrival, the sheer magnitude of the temple complex became readily apparant, since it towers at least 30 metres in the air, and occupies well over a square kilometer. Everything is made of sandstone, with detailed hyroglyphics carved on all the walls and columns, many of which show remnants of Karnak's complete paint job that would have been amazing in antiquity. Today splotches of color exist, blues and reds mostly, usually on ceiling carvings that have been better protected from the elements over the last several millenia. Karnak was an ongoing project, with numerous ancient pharoahs, and later conquerers, including the Christians, building their own monuments to the massive temple. Despite such a rich past, the throngs of tourists today, combined with baksheesh-hungry guards, make the place in actuality rather lacking of any semblance of spirituality, though the magnitude of the monument, combined with the obvious work that went into its construction, allow its historical relevency to shine through.

To be finished later...

Saturday, October 28, 2006

While we remain in Mut today, it is in fact our last night here (though we have been here for over 10 days now), and we will head to another oasis, Al-Kharga, tomorrow (as in Sunday). We are going to visit our new friend Muhammad Yousef, who we met here in Dakkhla (he's been best friends since childhood with our hotel owner's son, and its proprietor, Sameh Anwar), and whom we spent many enjoyable nights with. He left this morning to go to work, he is a law professor there, but it is on our way to Luxor, so we will spend about 48 hours with him in Al-Kharga before returning to the undesirable "land of the tourists." Though we technically are tourists ourselves obviously, it has been very nice to be seen as just friends here in Dakkhla (where people refuse our offers of money for taxi rides/donkey cart rides instead of demanding baksheesh constantly), and we are not that excited to head to Luxor and have to put up with everyone's false friendships/kindness as they simply hope for our money. The trade-off of course is that the "touristy" places are where the big archeological sites are, and we do want to see them, it just often feels like it is at a very high price. So after our final days of relaxation in Al-Kharga (and hopefully some football with Muhammad and his friends Monday night), we are going to try and dash through Luxor and Aswan (and maybe Abu Simbel), before taking a peaceful felucca ride back up the Nile. Then we'll be off to Dahab, on the Sinai Peninsula, for a few days of snorkeling, before dashing back to Cairo to catch our November 10 airplane to India.
As for what we have been doing, generally we have been simply relaxing, but our day-to-day affairs are of course far more exciting than that. Today we finally got to ride on a donkey-cart, something we had been dreaming of since we first saw one. The donkeys here are super-cute, we want to get one when we return to America, and we encourage you to do the same... then you can be transported via ass power! Before that we were at the Anwar family's second (and much nicer/newer) hotel, the Bedouin Village Oasis, taking photos for them as a favor for a new brochure they want to design. Frankly, our camera is assuredly the best in town, so taking a few pictures was an easy favor to reciprocate their continual kindness. We also got to see the eldest Anwar son Mohammad's house, which is attached to the hotel, and it is simply beautiful.
Today the town returned to "normal," since Ramadan ended 4 days ago, which was then followed by 3 days of partying and feasting, and then yesterday was a weekend (Friday and Saturday here, so Sunday = the new Monday), but apparently Saturday is busier than Friday, since Friday is the Muslim holy day, with virtually everyone going to the mosque for the noon-time service. That means that the Anwar's restaurant (adjacent to our hotel) reopened for business, so for lunch today we had fire-grilled chicken, rice, stewed vegetables, fresh cucumber and tomatoes, plus hot tea for lunch - which was all amazing! The chef, Mr. Mahmoud, does most of the cooking, though our friend Sameh helps a lot as well (and is also a great cook). And tonight for dinner we will finally get to try some of the local falafel, which has not been available until now, much to our chagrin.
Last night we had a pretty interesting time, since first our dear friend Sameh had his first episode (ever, apparently) with a self-induced upset-stomach, since he had neglected to eat dinner before battling with the mighty local brew, Sakara 10%, which is a worthy opponent of any imbiber, and clearly bested poor Sameh, out of practice after the month-long abstinence of Ramadan. That alone would have been exciting, but that all happened right before we headed to a neighboring village, with Muhammad (or M-$ as we call him) at the wheel, and Sameh ill in the back seat, to attend a friend's wedding... well, that is what we were told, though later it came out that it was an engagement party, but either way when we arrived not only was the music pounding, but dozens of children literally mobbed us (like we were celebrities). It was quite crazy, as men were pushing children away from us, our arrival was announced by the MC, and everyone stared at us the entire time. Liz wisely refused to dance, as the men were somewhat in a frenzy all trying to out-dance each other, plus her sage logic that she shouldn't be dancing if none of the Muslim women were allowed to proved reasonable enough to the men pressuring her to dance. That, and Anderson, Sameh, & Muhammad all formed an effective barracade between her and the omnipresent swarm of children. We met the bride-to-be, who wore an immaculately detailed beautiful turquoise dress, and the groom, Sameh's friend, who was in a stylish modern suit, though with the language barrier who knows if they understood us, but at least our intentions were clear if nothing else was. Anderson then was pulled into the dancing frey, and after briefly dancing with Sameh and some other men, the MC announced that this song was "for the American" - in Arabic of course... which meant that Anderson got to dance by himself in front of everyone at the wedding. Fortunately it was a drum-n-bass song, and his days of rave-dancing aren't that far in the past, so Anderson evidently held is own well enough, since after that he was escorted to dance with a girl from the village to an Arabic song, which was rather hilarious since all the men formed a dancing ring around to keep the crowd from pressing in on them! Pretty crazy, a definite whirlwind, and then within two minutes we hastily departed, cutting through the crowd back to our car, with the herds of children pursuing us. It really felt like the papparazzi, 3rd-world style!
Later in the night the groom-to-be came to the Anwar Hotel for a more relaxed conversation with Sameh, which was funny in its own right since he had passed out, and also since he arrived with several of his lawyer friends, who were eager to show off their material possessions (like a BMW) to we Americans. Funny, funny, funny, but good times as always!
We spent another day (during the 3-day post-Ramadan Eid feast) with Sameh's mother's family, which included Sameh's 3 sisters, their husbands, and a bunch of their children, as well as his grandmother who is absolutely hilarious even though neither of us understand what the other says at all. She is in her 90s, lacking many teeth, but still very spry for an old lady and, like all the Anwars, extremely kind to us. We all took a day trip to their garden, which in reality is a field, but it is filled with many crops nonetheless, so in addition to the prepared feast that they brought with them (bread, 3 types of cheese, beef dip, fresh cut vegetables, etc.), we also got to eat fresh-picked dates, oranges (they are green, not orange), peanuts, and sugar cane. Everything was delicious, and could not have been fresher, something the average American supermarket experience is sorely lacking. We also had tea, with water boiled over make-shift fires started from dry palm leaves, and then played some football in the dirt, and chatted a bunch in the limited sense that we can, though several of the men spoke reasonable English, and one of Sameh's nieces does as well, so Liz (but not Anderson at all) spoke with her a bit, too. Gender segregation is a predominant fact of Egyptian life, engrained in the culture primarily due to Islamic law, but also supported by the patriarchal society at large. Particularly in the rural areas, most women have no chance of going to a university, and spend most of their lives shut-in at home working on domestic chores. Not that women don't have social lives, but it often restricted within their extended families, and behind "closed doors" in many ways. So while the men lounge on streetcorners smoking sheeshas (tobacco from a hookah) and drinking shai (tea, sugar-laden usually), the women are effectively prohibited from a cultural standpoint from participating in either activity, which means that Liz is always the only female present when we are out and about. All this really means that Egypt and India are far more similar than we ever could have imagined, except for the difference in religion (Islam vs. Hinduism), so the initial shock that everyone warns about when you go to India will hopefully be significantly lessened for us (we hope!).

Well, more to come on our time in Mut, soon, we promise, but for now its off to the land of falafels since our bellies are rumbling!