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!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Well, we're still in Mut, and currently experiencing one of Egypt's (and the Islamic World's as well) idiosyncrocies, which is that apparently during Ramadan small town banks only take cash, and not the ATM cards and traveller's checks that they would ordinarily. Which wouldn't be that big a deal, except that we just exchanged our last $20 bill, so we are going to have to be extra careful with our finances for the next three days (as in "tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow" as the bank employee explained it) until we can restore our personal finances to full health.
This situation, obviously, leads perfectly into our promised section on the differences (small & large) between Egypt and America:

1. Since Arabic cannot be precisely transliterated into English, numerous accepted spellings often exist (Mut vs. Mout, Bahariyya vs. Bahariya vs. Baharea).
2. In cities, most people who speak English at you just want to sell you something, most likely papyrus (often bananna leaves) or perfume (flower extract).
3. In rural areas, most people who speak English only know a few phrases, but will smile the whole time and won't ask for anything (particularly the children, who will ask "what is your name," "what is your age," and sometimes "what is your favorite food," or "what are your favorite hobbies"). They also usually know "hello," "welcome," and "goodbye" - and that right there is the entire conversation, which is repeated just about constantly with every herd of children we see!
4. Ramadan brings all of Egypt to a grinding, grumpy halt, as virtually everyone has to fast for a month straight, and all businesses either close or keep drastically shorter hours. For example, most banks, museums, and historical sites close at 3 p.m., as opposed to 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. like usual.
5. The system of baksheesh (rampant in cities, virtually nonexistant in the desert oasis'), that is, of tipping a pound or two (20 to 40 cents) for almost any service is seriously broken. Ahmed passing a pound to Mohammad to get his mail, who gives it to Said for sweeping the walk (most likely unneccessarily), who then forks it over to Ali to see a tomb, who then returns it to Ahmed for something else, is not only painfully redundant, but taxing on a system which lacks any real infrastruction, and consequently doesn't really benefit anyone, as the same money just moves around cyclically amongst the Egyptians. Obviously tourists are taken advantage of more (baksheesh to hotel owners, tombs, guards who want you to take their photo not the other way around, guides, etc. really adds up) but particularly in Cairo Egyptians are expected to baksheesh with shocking frequency as well.
6. Tourists, and it seems Americans in particular, are often treated as dollar bills on legs. Admissions to museums, archeological sites, and other such things are often inappropriately pricey, though thankfully our under-26 cards (which pass as student cards due to the language/written character barrier) give us 50% off of virtually all admissions.
7. Recreational activities are quite limited, particularly during Ramadan, but generally the men hang out at awhas (coffeeshops), smoking numerous sheeshas (flavored tobacco from a hookah) or cigarettes and drinking untold cups of extremely hot tea. Dominos is the game of choice (and actually very fun), but backgammon, chess, and checkers are also played. Barbershops and anywhere in the streets are also popular male hangout locations, but women by comparison are seldom seen except when shopping. We believe we have spotted one beauty shop in Mut City, but it is very small, cramped, and obscured, unlike all the other shops.

Aside from all of those differences, life here is exactly the same!
We are currently chilling at an internet cafe, packed with youthful gamers, listening to the likes of Eminem, The Black Eyed Peas, and Jay-Z. Strangely comforting, even though we listen to our mp3 player all the time.

There is more to be said here, but our extreme hunger can finally be dealt with, since Ramadan ends now!!! Let the feasting begin!!!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Hello from the Dakkhla Oasis, deep in the Egyptian desert! We are staying at the Anwar Hotel, in the town of Mut (the Muths in Mut -- haha), and have been relaxing here for several days now, though we just finally found an internet cafe late yesterday afternoon. It was a bit hard to find since there wasn't any sign in English, but a friend of our hotel proprietor gave us a ride and showed us where it was located, so that made our lives much easier. First, some brief computer stuff, and then onto the details of what we have been doing for almost the last week: Youtube seems to be working fine now, and hopefully we will be adding more videos tonight if we have time, otherwise in the near future, but many more will be coming soon, we promise! Also, the tagboard that was on the side is no more, our emails to the company have bounced back, so we are pretty sure that they went under. Perhaps we will fine a replacement eventually, but obviously that is not exactly the pressing priority. Before we get into the details, everything has been going wonderfully since we left Cairo, the people and vibe of the rural oasis' is much more to our liking, and we will be staying here in Mut for at least another 4 or 5 days, through the end of Ramadan and the 3-day feast/party that follows. We figure that the celebration will be more authentic here, and certainly more accessible since we are the only tourists even staying in town right now (the tourist season doesn't really start for another week or two, after Ramadan and once it is a little cooler out). But before Mut, we spent a few days in another oasis, Bahariyya, which possessed a lot of natural beauty, though the town itself was rather filthy. However, we left you hanging about what happened at our hostel during our last night there, and though it wasn't anything too terrible, it involved some shady behavior by the hostel owner, which means we are certainly not returning to the Pension Vienna once we're back in Cairo, which we had previously planned to do.
Basically, Mr. Ramadan, the hostel owner, confronted us outside the hostel when we returned from wandering about with Hassan (and booking our trip to Bahariyya), and told us that we needed to pay for all of our internet usage, 3 EGP per hour, of which there had been many hours spent uploading photos, videos, emailing, etc. However, the problem was that this had never been mentioned to us previously, not in our agreement with Hostel World, nor by Mr. Ramadan himself during the several times he had chatted with us while we were on the computer, and there was definitely not any sort of sign, in English or Arabic. The other problem was that he had semi-coerced us into filling out our rating of his hostel under his supervision, which of course meant we had to give him high ratings across the board (we are currently waiting on a reply from Hostel World concerning that), but that then afterwards his attitude towards us completely changed. It seemed that he just wanted the rating from us, and then it was back to trying to suck as much cash out of the "rich Americans," which is how most people, particularly in Cairo, view us. Obviously, he doesn't know how to use a computer, since he would then know that ratings can be changed, as well as the fact that his explanation of why we needed to pay for the internet time in the first place just didn't quite make sense. But we blew him off, and the half-hearted crony that he sent up to our room shortly afterwards, and we of course used the internet as planned later that evening (which the night worker had nor problem with, since he was even using the computer at the time), which pretty much proved that he was just trying to scam us out of even more money - he had overcharged us for an additional night, which Anderson didn't realize at the moment he gave him the money, since it was late and we had initially paid in euros via the internet, and were then paying in EGP - plus, we hadn't expected our seemingly-kindly host to turn money-grubber, but we learned that lesson quite quickly. Fortunately we left early the next morning to catch our bus, and Mr. Ramadan had not yet arrived for the day, so that is how things have ended, though if you ever go to Cairo, do not stay at the Pension Vienna Hostel!
We will be putting together a comprehensive list with explanations about the differences between American & Egyptian culture, of which there are many, but that will be a separate post, in the meantime we want to get you all caught up on our adventures, since we left Cairo early Monday morning, and it is now mid-afternoon on Saturday.
At 7 a.m. Monday morning then, after staying up until 2 a.m. the night before updating things, we met Sayed from the travel agency (whom we had met the night before for tea and sheesha with Hassan) outside of our hotel, and he kindly escorted us to the bus station, via taxi, got our tickets, and waited with us until 8-ish when the Upper Egypt Bus Co. bus arrived to take people to Bahariyya. Sayed was very nice, he gave us his mobile number and email address so we can contact him when we are back in Cairo, and he earned "extra points" as the first Egyptian to refuse baksheesh, saying that friends don't accept money from friends! A small victory perhaps, but at least it put us in a good mood for the 5+ hour bus ride, of which most of the time we spent in some state of semi-sleep, though by the time we arrived in Bahariyya, we were reasonably refreshed despite the often bumpy ride through the desert. We were picked up at the bus station by representatives from Ahmed's Safari Camp, where we were staying, though we mistook them for hotel touts as first, being used to the pace of Cairo, plus our guide book had forewarned us that we would be attacked, but after a minute or two of confusion things got figured out. The room there was fine, and we enjoyed a nice lunch of tomato-and-egg stew-like stuff, with pita bread, and a plate of fresh cucumber, tomato, and fresh cheese which was like mozzarella crossed with yogurt - all very fresh and very good. We then went on a tour of the surrounding area, with 2 Australian girls who had spent the previous night out in the White Desert, which included stops at the nearby expansive salt lake, an abandoned "English House" which was more like an army post built out of rocks - but it did provide an excellent view of not only the town of Bahariyya, but also all of the countryside, before heading to a rather dirty and sulfur-smelling hot spring, which we only dipped our feet in, though that in itself felt wonderful!
Bahariyya (and Dakkhla as well) is very, very rural, with almost as many donkeys and donkey-carts providing transportation as beat-up old Fiats and Land Rover 4x4s. Many people still live the traditional Bedouin lifestyle, of gathering palm fronds to make baskets, using mud-brick to build houses and pottery, riding donkeys, and harvesting dates and apricots from trees, in addition to the grains, beans and other field crops that much of their diet consists of. The standard meal, which is amazingly tasty (fortunately, since we have eaten it at least once every single day!), includes a large portion of rice, a bowl of cooked down vegetables - primarily squash, with tomatoes or something else occasional added, and a quarter of half of chicken for the meat, which sometimes is not even available. A fresh salad is sometimes the mezze (appetizer/starter), which would be cucumber, tomato, and a little lettuce finely diced, and often a bowl of clear soup with a thin bean (of some sort) is included as well. But everything is wonderfully flavored, seasoned properly, warm, and satisfying, so we have no real complaints about the food, though at the same time when Ramadan ends, and then more variety of food will become available, we are certainly not going to complain! At that point, falafel, pizza, and kushari (a noodle & rice dish that is amazingly good) will all become available again, much to everyone's delight we are sure.
Anyways, after our guided tour of Bahariyya itself, we had dinner (you can guess what it was) with the 2 Australian girls (Kaddy & Jess), and a German guy whom we had ridden the bus with, and then the 5 of us spent several hours relaxing, talking about cultural differences, and listening to a wide variety of music. A "Western" night in many ways, but we were the only people staying there, and it was nice to have a conversation without either a language barrier or salespitch involved. The main room at Ahmed's Safari Camp was quite nice, with a ping-pong table and a billiards table, plus ample room to lounge. After a nice long sleep, we chilled in our room reading for a while (since the desert heat is oppressive around noontime, even in "autumn"), before joining everyone for a quick lunch, and then a departure for the desert. It was just us, our guide named Ismed (probably spelled incorrectly, but he spoke just the minimum of English), and a nice Korean guy named Kwan. Our itinerary was filled with natural marvels, so make sure to check out the photos to get the full scope of things, but first we went to the Black Desert, where the rocks and sand are appropriately colored, before heading to the Crystal Mountain, a lone outcropping of an entirely quartz rock pile in the middle of the barren desert, though it did lay directly off the road we were traveling on. We rode in a Land Rover, fortunately, since we often trekked a bit into the desert, and a car would probably have not made it! The desert is relatively rarely traveled, we saw very few cars, and only a few other tourists, mostly once we had arrived in the White Desert. It should be noted that the deserts in general are quite mountainous, and although the are obviously very sandy, they are in most places rocky as well.
The White Desert appeared in the distance, shimmering, as it is filled with huge rock formations, made of a white chalk-ish mineral, and all shapes and sizes rise out of the desert, often looking like mushrooms, camels, faces, or anything else that the imagination might desire, really. We camped amongst these outcroppings then, with a very organized Ismed setting up first a wind-block, then a fire, and we watched the white rocks change colors from white to pink to orange (like a moving Salvador Dali painting), before darkness descended. There is little life in the desert, and yet there were footprints and droppings everywhere from desert foxes, though despite our efforts we did not manage to ever see one, though several of their former sleeping holes were reused as latrines. Our dinner was excellent, and the fact that it was predictable made no difference whatsoever, and honestly the chicken was probably the best we have had yet, since it was slowly char-broiled over a well-kept flame. We then chatted (well, with Kwan) about America, Korea, Egypt, football, etc. and listened to our mp3 player (which is a life-saver at times, when at least the music can be familiar, if nothing else is), so Hunab Ku, just know that you have been rocked out to in the White Desert in Egypt! After a bit of stretching (very nice in the sand), much stargazing (the night was amazingly clear and we could see tons of stars, as well as the band of the Milky Way), and some relaxing after our very filling meal, it was time for bed, as the sun and the subsequent heat would be waking us up around 6 a.m.
Shortly after retiring, in sleeping bags on sleeping pads and blankets, Liz asked our guide if he had ever been rained on, since we had seen some lightning on the horizon in the distance. He laughed and said no (in his own Egyptian way), but lo and behold as soon as we settled down to sleep, we felt first one, and then several drops of rain. So we had to burrow under our sleeping bags and sweatshirt pillows, and eventually the wind was whipping enough sand our way that Anderson actually had to put on his sunglasses to protect his contacts, but we did eventually manage to fall asleep, as although the rain showers continued for part of the night, they were infrequent and it never poured or anything, it is the desert after all. We awoke throughout the night, it is definitely a little disorienting sleeping outside in the desert, but the storm abated within a few hours and the night sky was again crystal-clear.
The sun did indeed wake us up early, and the sun rise was just as impressive as the sunset, though our typical Egyptian breakfast of bread, cheese, and jam lacked the usual tea since all of the matches had gotten soaked the night before. We later found out that it actually only rains on average twice a year, so in some ways we received quite the rare treat by experiencing a desert rainstorm. After breakfast, Ismed quickly packed up the Land Rover, and we headed to a nearby fossil bed (though we actually thought he was saying "flowers" for the longest time), which had once been an ancient sea. The fossils were everywhere, and the landscape was just littered with their black fragments. We then took the over-an-hour journey back to Bahariyya, which included stops at a few patrol booths (rather hilarious and unnecessary, as barrels blockade the road), and a stop at a steaming hot spring for Ismed to wash the dishes. The spring was far too hot for even our toes to be in for more than a few seconds, and steam was constantly rising off the water, and so although we couldn't bathe in it, it was nice to relax there for a few minutes at least. We had been debating on whether to stay in Bahariyya for another night (or longer), and then if so whether to stay at Ahmed's Safari Camp (which was 4 km outside of town), or to venture into town and stay elsewhere, but we eventually decided (after returning and enjoying wonderful sand-removing showers), that our best bet was to take the bus that day to Dakkhla, another oasis, where lodging was cheaper and more plentiful in the town of Mut. Included in the tour we got in Cairo was the bus ride, but we figured it would be smarter to use that right away, rather than complicate things, plus the general dirtiness of Bahariyya didn't exactly encourage us to stay much longer. So another lengthy bus-ride was endured, this one around 6 hours, but fortunately the bus wasn't very crowded, and we not only had seats near the air vents, but we could also actually lay down in the back and get some slightly-higher-quality sleep.
We arrived in Mut at dusk, and picked the Anwar Hotel from about 2 or 3 low-priced options in our Lonely Planet guidebook as our first choice, and after getting briefly turned around (since the bus dropped us off at a different location than the bus station), we ambled over to the hotel. After meeting the proprietor (who we quickly learned is named Sameh, and is the owner's middle son), we examined the room - 3 beds, a balcony, and a fan - and haggled for a price (80 EGP, about $14 since $1 = 5.7 EGP) for 3 nights for both of us, and settled in. A typical, and typically tasty, meal was brought to us quite quickly, and some semi-cold mineral water was acquired for us as well. Ramadan in these small towns means much of the usual comforts are not available, and when they are the hours are very different, with things opening later or not at all, so when we walk the streets here in Mut, everyday it seems that a whole different set of shops are open! The town here is very relaxing and friendly, with everyone waving and saying "hello," of "welcome," and we are often mobbed by groups of school children (there is no school during Ramadan either), asking us "what is your name," "what is your age," and "what are your hobbies," all full of excitement, and curiosity, before a quick "goodbye" before they scurry off, laughing and smiling. It is all very cute and enjoyable, which makes the repetitious nature very tolerable and enjoyable. Our hotel owner, the elder Mr. Anwar, worked for the government for 35 years, so pictures of him with the president adorn the hotel walls, and it seems the family is quite successful within the town, as they own a restaurant and pizzeria next to the hotel, and Mr. Anwar's brother owns a coffeeshop and another business as well. Life here is simple, so we sleep late, read for a while, before taking brief tiring walks in the desert heat, and end up fasting ourselves most days due to the difficulty in finding food when no restaurants are really open. The nights are totally different, as the weather becomes just about perfect, a slight breeze brings a slight chill, but we play dominos at the coffeeshops (usually Mr. Anwar's brother's), smoke sheesha (tobacco from a hookah - which the older men do constantly, while the younger men alternate between sheeshas and cigarettes), and drink numerous glasses of shai (tea, both regular, with mint, or hibiscus, all served painfully hot at first, but very tasty after they cool a little bit). The hotel has a stereo, so we listen to our mp3 player through that, much to the delight of Sameh, who always wants to dance with Liz (who he most undoubtedly has a crush on - imagine that - but like all Egyptian men he acts somewhat like a 15-year-old even though he is our age). Mr. Hampdy (?), a local schoolteacher, hangs out with us as well, he is older, and has given Anderson some rides on his rumbling and ancient Fiat motorcycle.
Since we are the only tourists in town, Egypt is turning out to be very good preparation for India, much more so than we really initially thought. As we said we will remain here in Mut for at least 4 or 5 more days before heading back to the land of the tombs and tourists in Aswan and Luxor, but between now and then we will hopefully get to experience the post-Ramadan feasting and partying. We'll post more details on our time here in Mut later, but things really are quite simple, so they have already been summed up fairly well. Pictures are slowly uploading from our time in the desert, though they are certainly taking a while, but at least some will be up before we leave the internet cafe this evening.
Peace & much love from the Egyptian desert - Anderson & Liz

Sunday, October 15, 2006


The ups and down of Cairo have pushed us to the brink of insanity, while kind people have pulled us back with their hospitality and compassion. The last couple days have been very long, and very trying in many regards, and so consequently we will be flying back to the States immediately.

Just kidding - we're taking a morning bus to the Bahariyya Oasis for some much needed relaxation, at least one night of camping in the White Desert, as well as a drive between there and the adjacent Black Desert. Obviously the desert names refer to the color of the sand, and both are supposed to be beautiful. But since we never seem to know what the future will hold at all, enough about what should happen, let us tell you about what has happened:

After our lengthy first Egyptian day, including our Giza adventure, we slept in until after noon, getting some much needed rest. Due to Ramadan, finding food before the first evening prayer at 5:30 p.m. is quite difficult, and arguably culturally inconsiderate, so we hung around our hostel, before taking a walk shortly before 5 p.m. in order to see the surrounding area for the first time. The streets of downtown Cairo are filled with many touts, selling all sorts of papyrus and perfume/flower essence, and being non-Egyptians means they seek us out like no other. It is further complicated by the fact that they all act like nice men who just want to chat, and obviously it is in our nature to oblige people, since we want to make new friends and meet real people, not just other tourists/foreigners/travellers. We met a man named Ayman, who swore he had nothing to sell when he invited us to dinner at his cousin's house. Technically he was correct, but after our delicious dinner of spicy vegetables, rice, meat, the omnipresent pita bread, and some tea, his cousin (of course) took us upstairs for a perfume sales pitch. We minorly obliged him, since we needed a travel container, and the strength of the dollar here means that the 20 Egyptian Pounds that we spent comes to under $4. We also realized that Mohammad Ali (the boxer) came here in the 70s/80s, and apparently met everyone's uncle/father/brother/cousin, since all the shops we have been in have framed, faded, and oft-used photos. After the sale, Ayman invited us to a bar, so we ended up on a 7th floor hotel's rooftop bar, where we drank the strong (and supposed 10%) local brew: Sakara (which ought to be spelled Saqqara, but 'q' and 'k' are substitutable when transliterating between Arabic and English). They had a ping-pong table, and since we were pretty much the only customers, the two otherwise bored employees, Sharif and Meenah, definitely had a good time with us, getting their picture taken, being videotaped, and smoking way too many of the local favorite Cleopatra cigarettes.
One of the first things that you learn as a foreigner here, is that everything gets rounded up, against you, since the money is very confusing (many small bills, in terrible condition), and prices are rarely, if ever, posted. But we had a fun time, and Ayman was at least a reasonably nice companion, though it is tough because you never know what people are saying right in front of you in Arabic. So we decided to go with the flow, which was to take a taxi to his friend's house for some peach brandy (gotten by us at a duty-free shop) and some card-playing. But the cab ride took forever, of course, and we basically ended up on the edge of Cairo's suburbs, which is to say way, way out in the desert. But obviously that's where we were, so we hung out, were treated to another nice Egyptian meal, and in addition to his friend Omar (who turned out to be a rather chauvanistic douchebag), there was Omar's girlfriend Dana (from Germany who could certainly do much better), and an Egyptian-turned-Frenchman (he lives with his French wife near Marseilles) named Hassan, who is honestly one of the nicest people we have met on our trip yet. After some card playing, which was basically old-maid and rather boring, we had run out of mineral water, and since we were assured that the "Swiss market" was very close, Anderson volunteered to ride their bicycle there, since our hosts had been kindly and friendly to us.
So, while Liz remained, Anderson's descent into the desert started off alright, as the road where their apartment was quickly led to the main road, and the directions of "take a left and follow the lights to the market" seemed pretty simple. But after much riding (and with both pedals casually breaking off on the gear-less pedal bike that they had) the only sign of civilization had been a closed "Smile" gas station, which though ironically named, was very unhelpful concerning the rapidly increasing dehydration and exhaustion. So, (switching to first person for a moment, sorry for the break in continuity) I headed back the way I had came, figuring that worse things could happen than returning without any water, since we could certainly boil some, or just take a cab ride home and drink to our hearts' content there. But the road seemed to go on forever, and then a larger-than-remembered hill had to be conquered, and soon the scenery began looking not-quite-right. Then bad turned to worse, and the bike ceased to work - the pedals were still going, or rather the remaining stubs of what had once been pedals, but the bike was not moving at all. There was, however, a row of lights in the distance, which seemed to possibly be where I needed to be, but they were definately a way off in the distance, so I immediately began trying to flag down the occasional passing vehicles. It probably should be mentioned that by now it was at least 5 a.m., and I had been gone for what seemed like forever, but must have been around an hour, if not longer. So with legs burning, and a mind filled with despair, I finally flagged down a dumptruck, since no cars had deemed me worthy of a stop. There were two Egyptian men in the truck, and one helped me toss the defective bike in the back bed, and so I squeezed in between two kindly Arabic-speakers, and began the struggle of trying to explain my predicament. They offered me some water, though since it was assuredly from a local tap, as much as I craved it I knew I could not consume it.
We headed to the semi-distant row of lights, but before too long we hit a round-about, which I had most definitely not encountered during my ride, so I had them stop, and explained that things were "not right," and "very bad," which they did understand, and so they nicely pulled over, and attempted to help me call our hostel, which I fortunately had all the information for in my pocket since carrying the guide book around all the time is a little too touristy for our tastes. But between my bad handwriting, and (I learned later) the addition of the unnecessary country code, the call did not go through. But just then a taxi was spotted in the distance, and so we all three ran to try and flag it down. Of course we did not arrive in time, and at that moment the most awful sickness hit me, and I had to empty my entire stomach contents, mostly on the road, but due to the suddenness of it all somewhat on my shoes and pants. After three such awful moments, my kindly Egyptian saviors quickly pulled out a cushion from their truck, and gave me the water, which at that point I drank regardless of future consequences, since the present situation trumped any future illness that might result (which fortunately none have). After resting for a while, and missing yet another taxi, finally as the rays of dawn (and the heat of the day) hit, a third taxi came by and it shuddered to a halt. Taxis here, by the way, are primarily beaten up early 80s diesel Fiats. How they even still run is quite the conundrum, particularly given the road conditions here, but at that current moment thoughts like that were the furthest thing from my mind. The taxi driver only spoke Arabic as well, obviously, and so "Downtown Cairo," and the "Egyptian Museum" - which are hostel is quite near, meant nothing to him, nor did our hostel address in written or verbal form. But we finally ran into a semi-English speaker, who was headed in the same direction, and so I returned, in quite the exhausted daze, to Cairo and then finally our hostel, after a quick stop at a market for some much-anticipated water (several hours after I went to get some!). Meanwhile, elsewhere in Egypt, Liz was having a fun time as well:
Fun is not the exact term of what was happening back at that suburban apartment where I was left to worry my brains out about what was happening to Anderson. After an hour and still no sign of Anderson I couldn't help but start to ask questions to my new friends: "Would it take this long?" and "Do you think he's okay?" No one seemed particularly concerned so for another half an hour I worked myself up in silence. By then it was obvious that things were not right and Hassan was clearly starting to worry, too. I began pacing back and forth to the balcony in hopes of that first sighting but with no luck. The options were pretty slim as to what could have happened since either it was something really bad (kidnapped or hurt) or he was hopelessly lost. Everyone there insisted that the Egyptians (especailly in the suburbs) would never hurt him, but they were in agreement that he was likely to be lost (or in Omar's case smoking sheesha somewhere). Of course nothing made me feel better since Anderson would never leave me without notification in an odd situation, so I knew without a doubt that whatever he WAS doing, he was not having fun. Soon after, Hassan left to go and look for him. He was gone a good 45 minutes and asked all the neighbors if they had seen Anderson. Since Hassan was unsuccessful that made him, and me, worry a bit more. To be honest, I was near crazy with worry and almost made myself sick from it (but I had to keep it together since I needed these people's help). By this time the sun was up (not fun to watch the sunrise while overcome with a stress headache) and something needed to change. Dana was the first to suggest that we take a taxi back to the hostel and wait, since anyone lost would go to where they know. I was thinking this but didn't have a penny on me, so I jumped at the oppurtunity to borrow some from her. Omar, being the wonderful guy that he is, barked at the idea since we are both "Western women." But, since he didn't like that idea he was willing to surrender his phone so I could call the hostel. Luckily I had the backpack with our dear notebook so I had all the information at my fingertips. The first call was unsuccessful since his phone almost ran out while I was waiting for the hostel worker to "wake up Mr. Anderson." Clearly I knew that Anderson couldn't be sleeping in our room (since I had the only key) so things were looking quite dim. I called back five minutes later just in case though, and lo' and behold Mr. Anderson had walked in that same instant. What a relief to hear his voice!! He gave me a quick rundown of the situation and now I was more than excited to leave that dreary apartment and reunite with him back at the room. But first, I had to get there. Thankfully, that dear Hassan was willing to escort me to our door, and after an hour-or-so journey, first by foot, then by minibus, then by foot again, I saw a ragged Anderson (and a giant bottle of water) waiting outside. It was 8:30 a.m. at this point and we had just had one of the (if not THE) craziest nights of our life, and certainly the most unusual of our trip thus far!
Since we were back together again, and semi-adequately hydrated, our main concern was to get some sleep, since our initial day's plan of going to the Egyptian Museum was immediately postponed until Sunday. Ramadan even affects such a tourist-driven place, with the closing time at 3 p.m. instead of the usual 7 p.m. Instead, though, we slept most of the day, basking in our air-conditioned and shade-darkened hostel room, and enjoying every non-conscious second of it!
About all we did Saturday evening, was grab some food from a nearby stand-up Felfala place (which serves felafel, koushuri - an amazing noodle, rice, and chickpea dish, shawerma - kebob meat in a sandwich, and numerous other Middle Eastern favorites like mashed potatoes served in a pita), and accept the invitation of our hostel owner for a relaxing sheesha and mango puree drink.
Today, as in Sunday (which is not the weekend anymore, that being Friday and Saturday here), we finally hit up the Egyptian Museum, which is literally just down the block from our hostel. The museum is amazing, for several reasons. First, it houses what must be the largest collection of artifacts housed anywhere, at well over 120,000, with impressive highlights including the famed collection of artifacts from King Tutankhamen's tomb (gold masks, sarcophogi, jewelry, etc.), as well as the two rooms filled with temperature-controlled royal mummies, and the Narmer Palette(the first written documentation of a united Upper & Lower Egypt). Secondly, the museum is so packed with artifacts, and so scarce on space, that most of the 100 + rooms are brimming with pharaonic paraphenalia. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the labelling system and storage techniques are all so hilariously outdated, that it borders on impossible to find the most impressive pieces, and when you finally do, there is often absolutely no information about them. Add on top of that the multi-lingual yelling guides, the hordes of tourists all over the massive two floors of the museum, and the plethora of museum security who don't seem to do much at all, though at least one was getting some excellent sleep passed out at his post. In addition, many rooms are poorly lit, in the process of being cleaned or painted, and the floorplan itself means that even we almost missed out on the entire second room of the royal mummies, even though we had already bucked up for the seperate admission (which is oddly enough more than the regular museum admission itself). That all being said, it is still very informative, and the archeological wealth more than impressive, which in many ways just makes the current situation a giant shame both to the artifacts themselves as well as the visitors who are trying to enjoy them. But it isn't called the Egyptian Museum for nothing, since everything about it is very, very Egyptian. After that odyssey, we relaxed at our hostel briefly, before eating dinner at the packed post-Ramadan-fast Gad Restaurant, where we enjoyed delicious authentic food, verified by our presence as the only non-locals in the entire place. We also grabbed some honey pastries from the local fav El-Abd Bakery, which made for a delicious dessert. By sheer chance, on our walk back, we encountered Liz's savior from the day before, Hassan, who was out shopping for shoes with his younger brother. So we recounted our adventures for him, and then enjoyed some delicious hibiscus juice (or maybe it's tea, we're really not sure) at a local ahwa (coffeeshop), and he took us to a close friend of his who is a travel agent to secure our morning (well, 4-hour-away) trip to the Bahariyya Oasis. Assuming that that goes as planned - which obviously at this point we are hesitant to be sure of anything - we are very thankful for Hassan's help, since travel shops are literally everywhere in Cairo, and they all look virtually identical, so telling the good ones from the bad ones is virtually impossible unless you actually know someone who is reliable. It is at this point, heading back to our hostel, that some more craziness involving our hostel itself occurred, but since we are still here, writing about it is a little inappropriate, so that will have to wait until our next update, which may be a few days off due to the lack of readily accessible internet access in the desert, but we will obviously try our best to keep you updated. Until then, peace be with you, and hopefully with us as well!

PS - Sorry about the Youtube invite, the system freaked out on us, and we currently cannot even load the website, so we are not sure what exactly is even going on!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

We are now safely in Cairo, Egpyt, though thoroughly exhausted from our busy first day in the desert. But first... a quick recap of our last few days in Greece:
Monday: The highlight, and majority of our day since we slept in nice and late, was the Amadou & Mariam concert we attended at the Athens Opera House. The show was a benefit to establish an AIDS orphanage in Mali, Africa, where Amadou & Mariam (a blind couple who sing in French and whom also happen to totally and completely rock) are from. That meant the show was a bit short, preceeded by a video in Greek, and attended by many members of what we would assume are the "artsy-rich" types of Athens. Fortunately, the show was also attended by numerous Greeks our age, some of whom started dancing by the 2nd song (it was at a seated theatre), which gave us the cultural-approval we needed to get up and boogie. By the end of the show almost everyone was on their feet, if not dancing hard, including many old ladies for whom dancing didn't even seem possible. It was definitely a fun, sweaty, international experience, and the endless smiles we received from young and old Athenians alike were as enjoyable as the wonderful music made by Amadou, Mariam, and their French backup band. There are several videos posted on Youtube, and we are trying to get a "Director's Account," so we can post even longer videos for your viewing pleasure.
We rather lucked out on getting our tickets, or invitations as they were called, since they were supposed to be a very spendy 50 euros each, but when we went to the Ivory Coast Consulate to get them (Greece already runs an AIDS orphanage there), we were asked if we were students, and then given the almost half-price student discount without needing any ID. Thank goodness we look young, and that Anderson had just shaved!
So that was Monday essentially, though after the show we did meet some Greeks our age who were very nice, and to whom we need to send links to the photos and videos from the show, which will hopefully happen soon.
Tuesday and Wednesday were also low-key, primarily due to the weather, which was constantly grey and cloudy, and frequently downpouring. We did take advantage of the cheap Greek calling centers (primarily to wish Liz's sister a belated birthday), though the 8 hour time difference was a bit of problem since no one was really home/awake to answer our calls. We did relax at several cafes and coffeeshops on Wednesday, before heading to the Athens airport that night for our well-timed midnight flight on Olympic Airways to Cairo. Apparently that is when most (or more likely the only) flights arrive in Egypt, for our plane was quite packed, and was rather hilarious as it seemed culture clash (or something similar) meant people bordered on being blantantly rude to each other. Of course, the turbulence didn't help much, neither did the nasty tea that they served right before landing.
So... Cairo... is an intense head-trip, filled with seemingly endless touts who want to be your friend, as long as baksheesh (a "donated" bribe) is quick in coming. However, baksheesh is not a tourist-specific phenomenon, but rather is firmly ingrained in a society very, very short on money, jobs, and opportunities, but not short on energetic, enthusiastic, and enterprising entrepreneurs. That said, given the weakness of the local currency, the Egyptian pound, and the strength of the US dollar, most baksheesh is to the tune of 20 cents, though it is the frequent asking, and culturally-expected deliverance, that can quickly become tedious and exhausting, in case a dirty metropolis, plethora of Arabic signs, and desert climate were not draining enough. That having been said, Egypt is an amazing place filled with wondrous curiosities, and being able to cheaply pay for almost anything can often be a wonderful blessing, as long as it is not abused.
We arrived at the Cairo airport then, around 2 a.m., and got through customs easily after buying the necessary stamps for our visas (only $15 US) and exchanging some money to pay for our first few nights at our hostel. We emerged to a crowded baggage claim area, full of Egyptians eager to find us hotels, cab rides, or anything else we could've demanded, so long as their personal profit was involved. Fortunately, our hostel's airport pickup was there waiting for us with a sign, and our driver, Said, quickly brought us through the pandemonium, and out to his beat-up Fiat taxi, which brought us to the Pension Vienna Hostel, on the 4th floor of an old building, a few short blocks from the Cairo museum. After the apparently necessary tea, and a sales pitch or two for tours, we finally got to our beds around 4 a.m. for some much-needed, though all-to-short slumber. Our room is great, with a private bathroom and small balcony, and for only $12 for both of us we even have our own room. A very Egyptian breakfast (tea, bread, cheese, and jam) was delivered at 10 a.m., and after a refreshing shower, we headed on our Said-driven tour of several ancient sites: Memphis, Saqqara, and finally the awesome Giza Plateau. Memphis was Egypt's original ancient capitol city, and doesn't have much to show for it, apart from the splendid Ramses II statue, that weighs 95 tons, is only really the upper-half, and is suprisingly intact. There are a few other decent statues, but really more baksheesh-hungry guards than artifacts worth guarding, in addition to plenty of trinket-stands. Our stay there was brief, and we actually spent as much time at the nearby cafe/papyrus shop, where Said was relaxing. After watching a brief educational demonstration of the papyrus-into-paper process, we gazed at numerous spectacular pieces before treating ourselves to our first real souveniers (3 stunning papyrus paintings of ancient Egyptian scenes) of our trip. We managed to partially haggle the prices, which were more than reasonable to begin with given that the typical painting takes an artist at least a week to paint, with each color needing a full day to dry. We then headed to Saqqara, and fortunately did so with haste, since we arrived right as it was about to close. The so-called Step Pyramid is there, the first ancient pyramid that was the prototype for all to follow. Some baksheesh admitted Anderson to a locked tomb, of which there is a brief video, before we were duly removed.
It is currently the holy month of Ramadan, and since Egypt is definitely an Islamic country, everything currently has shortened hours. During Ramadan all faithful Muslims over the age of 10 fast from 4 a.m. until after the 5:30 p.m. call to prayer, which means the lack of food, drink, smoking, and sex puts the country at a virtual half-speed. Consequently the nights are filled with feasting, and merry-making, as most people stay up until the 4 a.m. call to prayer, before sleeping as late as the brutal desert heat will allow them to (conveniently bypassing several hours of fasting). Once we have recovered from travel and heat exhaustion (and we cannot wait for that moment to arrive), we will definitely take advantage of the city's later-than-usual hours, though at least for tomorrow we plan to rise early in order to maximize our time at the Egyptian Museum (which is most assuredly closing early).
After Saqqara then, we headed to Giza, where we were assured by Said that we would have plenty of time to wander about before catching the sunset. We discovered exactly why that was when we arrived at his friend's stable, where the details slowly and painstakingly came out that the the Pyramids were officially closed for Ramadan, but we could easily get anywhere we wanted to (quasi-legally) on either camels or horses with one of their guides. After some debating, and haggling, we went with the 2-horse option, a guide, and a ride until dark for 170 Egyptian pounds (plus baksheesh afterwards, which goes without saying in Egypt). Our horses were nice, Liz's supposedly was called Princess, and Anderson rode Ali, who constantly wanted to go faster and obviously knew that his rider was a rookie. Our guide spoke relatively excellent English, kept us in-line, and allowed us to run, gallop, or walk wherever we desired in the Giza complex, after slipping past a guarded gate. It became quickly apparent that this is somewhat commonplace, since our guide knew all the people, tourist police included, that we passed by during our 2+ hour tour. We got ample photo-ops, were able to touch a pyramid, entered a semi-forbidden tomb, and could've taken a whole pyramid with us if we could've somehow carried it, though we did decline his offer for a pyramid rock, since posterity needs that more than us. The Giza Plateau is amazing, and horseback optimizes the experience as would-be agonizingly lengthy walks are non-existant, and the sun and sand would have otherwise been quite the battle. We saw the smaller-than-imagined Sphinx, as well as the larger-than-life pyramids in all their splendor, and enjoyed the sunset from a vista with a priceless view.
We learned several lessons on our first day in Egypt: the fast-talking salesmen (which are really all Egyptian men it seems), ought to relocate to car-dealerships in the States, but in the meantime definitely need to be dealt with curtly and quickly for not only our financial benefit (or non-loss) but also for our ever-shortening mental health. Also, inadvertantly fasting all day due to site-seeing is a date with disaster, as our post-Giza exhaustion was magnified ten-fold. However, genuine hospitality must be appreciated and enjoyed, even when that means eating sweet dates and endless glasses of hot tea. The stair-climbs to star-less rooftops, and perfumery-visits we can hopefully further avoid, but a strong sheesa (tobacco from a hookah) numbs your tired body quite well, and our lifetime supply of Lotus Flower extract will ensure that we are pleasant-smelling regardless of how much of Cairo's filth we end up in! We can definitely say we have positively no idea what our upcoming days in the land of the Pharoahs will hold, but we are exhaustedly excited, and will keep you up to date as well as the internet will allow us to. Many more videos will be coming to a Youtube near you, as well as many exciting photos, though none from our museum trek tomorrow, as the four-step security process most definitely does not allow cameras. That's all she wrote here in Egypt for tonight, and unlabelled photos will be momentarily ready for your viewing pleasure!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Somehow these European nights become very late, very quick, but that's just how it's going to go when we walk around museums and ruins and busy streets all day long, and then hang out with other hostel folk for some of the night (usually waiting for the computer to be totally free), before we attempt to update this and our photo site. But we're trying to balance things, and it seems to be working well so far.
After our long first real day in Athens, we of course had to sleep in for a while, but that's the one thing we're not stressing at all: whatever happens happens during our travels, the winds of fate seem to be steering us in the proper direction quite well thus far. So, on Friday we once again went to the gyro taverna near here (we've been there at least 5 times now, the cheap good food, nice owner, and pleasant atmosphere have completely won us over), before continuing our Athenian exploration. With our pass from the Acropolis, which cost 12 euros each, 5 other archeological sites are also included, so we've been trying to check them out as well, particularly since we've already effectively paid for them. So we checked out one of those ruins right away, the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, which was once the largest temple in all of Greece, though of the 100+ columns only about 15 remain, one of which toppled in the 19th century due to a terrible storm. But the site is still impressive, the detail work at the top of the columns is particularly well-rendered, and the urban pollution has not affected it as much as the Parthenon. Next to that temple is Hadrian's Gate, built much later by the emperor Hadrian, but still an impressive entrance, though Hadrian himself was somewhat self-centered. To wit: the gate, which had been built before Hadrian's time, reads one on side, roughly, that it is the entrance to the city of Theseus (the mythological hero), and on the other side Hadrian added, this is the entrance to the city not of Theseus, but rather of Hadrian. Sounds like a great guy, huh?
Afterwards, we walked to the nearby Zappeion, a big semi-impressive government-looking building, which was really just on our way to the 1896 Olympic Games stadium, which seats around 50,000+ and was re-used for this past Olympics in Athens as the finish for the marathon. Next we wandered about the vast National Gardens, which were a bit wild looking (particularly compared to the immaculate Botanical Gardens in Amsterdam), but they had a lot of nice fish ponds, including one which featured at least 25 turtles swimming around and sunning themselves (well, alternating between the two activities), plus a very dirty petting zoo that our guide (Let's Go Greece - very helpful!) had warned us about. We'd decided that we wanted to climb the Lycabetus Hill, which is several hundred meters high, another of the 7 hills in Athens, in order to get a different view of the city, and also there's an old church at the top which was nice, though small, so we ate a quick meal at Everest, a restaurant chain here serving sandwich/pizza/pastries amongst other things, so it was tasty but a bit generic - though our ravenous hunger wasn't too offended at all, before heading up Lycabetus. It was a bit difficult to find the path up the hill, since it wasn't exactly marked, but fortunately a few others were headed the same way, so up we climbed, amongst a quickly changing habitat - giant aloe plants and cacti soon surrounded us on all sides as we made the ascent. The walk was rough on our sore legs, but nothing really too grueling, and we soon made it to the slightly windy top. We knew in advance that the church occasionly had weddings, but it seemed that a Christening or something had just occured, because there was a whole slew of well-dressed Greeks, taking photos, with 2 young girls seemingly at the center of the whole scene. So that was an interesting dichotomy, random international tourists taking pictures of Athens around Greeks taking pictures of themselves!
After relaxing for a little while, we realized that the sunset that we had thought would be worth waiting for was definitely going to be obscured by the clouds and smog (Athens is a dirty, dirty city in many ways), so we headed down before the light waned too much. We got a bit turned around whil trying to head back to our hostel, since Athens' many streets are definitely not set up on any sort of grid system, but after a few wrong turns and map consultations, we regained our bearings and headed swiftly in the right direction. After resting briefly, our hunger got the better of us, so we hit up our favorite gyro place again, for some food and some Mythos beers. A football match was on, so we watched a bit at our hostel, before settling in at the computer for some late night updating (a familiar theme for us currently).
Today, being Sunday, is definitely a day of relaxation for many Greeks, as the streets seemed a bit busier and the cafes as well, but we spent the majority of our day at the National Archeological Museum, which features many vast collections of ancient statues, vases, earthenware, as well as extensive funereal gold and other decorations, many dating back over 6,000 years ago. Greece is definitely regarded as an ancient cradle of civilization, and today it was very easy to see why. We saw gold masks from the Micanaeans, bronze statues of Greek and Roman gods, marble statues of dignitaries, and many artifacts from the famed Antikythera shipwreck, including the Antikythera Mechanism, an early copper device with gears (probably the earliest ever device of its kind) that was used to gauge the passing of time in regards to the seasons. In some ways a bit much to take in all at once (a different type of culture shock), but we endured through it all, even after our minds had reached maximum stimulation. We then enjoyed a leisurely lunch at a cafe near the museum that we had noticed while walking there, and we had a great lunch for only 6 euros for us both; a quarter of a chicken and some lamb-pattie sandwiches filled us up completely. We then headed to the Keramikos, the ancient cemetary of Athens (part of our Acropolis pass), but it was honestly not very exciting. The museum there featured a couple nice statues, but the site itself was somewhat overrun by grass, and a large section was roped off for some unexplained reason, and there simply wasn't all that much to really look at. But that's how it goes sometimes, so the highlight ended up being our watching nature at work when we stumbled upon a pair of frisky turtles. Turtles (as well as stray dogs and cats) seem to be at a lot of the ruins around here, but these two were pretty crazy, one kept nipping and headbutting the other... but it was a good break from all the culture, and we had a good laugh with some older Greek tourists who were there as well.
After that, we returned to Hostel San Remo (which is pretty far north from most of the ruins, though close to the archeological museum), hit up the gyro restaurant again (if you ate there, you'd be going back just as often, we promise you!) for a leisurely dinner, before hanging out at our hostel up until now, mostly chatting with a nice American we've met, named Peter, who has been living in Europe for the last 5 years, first studying in Norway and currently working in Holland as a translator. It's really too bad the hostelling phenomenon hasn't taken over America like it has the rest of the world, they are so affordable compared to hotels, and provide a unique international experience that is constantly changing. The next time you travel anywhere that has one, we really recommend you stay at a hostel for at least one night - they may be a bit rough around the edges in some ways, but they (at least so far) have all been clean, safe, and filled with lots of genuinely nice people all on differing global adventures of varying lengths. Most people that we meet are on shorter trips than our own, while some are just in hostels temporarily while looking for work, housing, or both, but everyone speaks English regardless of what country they come from, and the staff is always courteous and helpful. Since it's 3 a.m. it's prime time to get off the soapbox, but we'll keep you up to date as best we can, though we'll be travelling much of Thursday on our way to Cairo, Egypt.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Real quick, since it's late and we have to get up early to go to a museum, but our photo site has been mostly brought up to date (finally). The pictures we took with our disposable cameras our now labelled, though still out of order, and fresh pictures taken with our digital camera (having been repaired and then stuck in Spanish customs for a few days) from Greece are up, but not yet labelled. Have a good night, we'll post about our day today and whatever the future may hold soon!

Friday, October 06, 2006

Faithful readers: we're now in Athens, Greece, and we just experienced an unexpectedly fabulous night courtesy of the Greeks and their hospitality. But to learn about that, you must first read about our adventures in obtaining our package (and therefore our digital camera), which we have compared to "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle." If you haven't seen that movie, you're depriving yourself of a real treat, so stop reading, watch the film, and then continue:

Real quick, we did see a bunch of great museums in Madrid: the free secondary exhibit of the Thyssen Museum (featuring works by two Spanish painters); the simply massive Prado Museum - it features art, mostly painting, from 1100 - 1900, and has what must have been thousands of priceless works of art, as well as an incredible exhibit detailing new infrared painting-scanning techniques that enable the artist's initial drawings (underneath the paint) to be seen - which is simply amazing, not only for showing off their attention to detail and skill even in the preliminary stages of the painting, but also for the fact that one can see the various changes that are made - items not painted, or adjusted, or viewpoints that are changed; and lastly the Reina Sophia Museum, which features mostly modern art, though of all types from paintings to structures to things that we were quite sure are simply not art (white canvasses with solitary black lines, and monchrome canvasses lined up, for example), though tragically the majority of their Dali and Picasso paintings were closed for the day due to the temperature or something equally weak like that - which wouldn't have been too big a deal, accept those were the two artists we mainly went to see, and we weren't notified of that fact until after we'd already paid and tried to go the Picasso and Dali rooms - thoughtful...

We last left you late, late on our final night in Madrid, so after only about 4 hours (that's generous) of sleep, we awoke around 9 a.m. on Thursday, packed up all of our belongings, checked our email (which is more fun than you'd think when you're travelling), and tried, quickly, one last time to get our package from the local DHL drop-off point. Obviously it was not there, but after a call to DHL (fortunately the owner/main employee was very kind, he frequently called DHL on our behalf for free), we learned that our package was en route, but that information was of no good to us, since we had a 1 p.m. flight to London (& then on to Athens), and thus we headed to the nearest metro stop, which was fortunately right across the street. However, fate was on our side, since when we arrived at the British Airways counter, they informed us that our flight was going to be several hours late, and since we had a connecting flight (which we would therefore miss), we were actually going to be placed on their parter airline Iberia's direct flight to Athens. So that fact alone was great, since London was numerous hours of flight time out of our way, but the even better news was that our new flight was not until 6 p.m., which gave us several hours to attempt to hunt down our package. After a surpisingly good airport lunch (the baguette sandwiches are prime everywhere in Europe), we headed to the bus stop that we needed to be at in order to catch a bus to the cargo area of the airport, where the main Madrid DHL office is located. Once again, fate was on our side, since we had just missed the bus (meaning we had to wait about an hour), but right away an American guy from California arrived, and explained that he also had to go to the cargo area, and it was only a short walk and he could take us there in about 10 minutes. So after the walk, which was then followed by a visit to the wrong DHL office (business and personal packages are seperate, though apparently one is just supposed to know that), we got where we needed to be, only to discover that all the employees not only solely spoke Spanish, but they also spoke Spanish muy rapido. But we lucked out again (sensing a trend here?) and the only other customer there spoke fluent English, and was able to serve as a translator. After much discussion, and a few phone calls to the driver, DHL nicely arranged for our package to be dropped off at an actual DHL location, in downtown Madrid. We were going to have to take a bus, in order to get on the metro, but our kindly translator volunteered to give us a ride back to the airport metro stop, which was simply wonderful and saved us a lot of walking and hassle. And after our metro ride... we finally got our freaking package!
We'd like to note that the majority of the headache was not due to DHL, but rather the painfully redundant Spanish infrastructure, which somehow required a multiple-day customs approval-process; this was well verified by numerous people, including our translator who often sends packages for his work. Though, the mystery as to why they couldn't deliver the package on Wednesday, and also why they never ever called us, will never be answered, but all's well that ends well, right?
So if you're ever sending or receiving packages internationally, heed this advice: be patient, and don't box yourself in with a tight time schedule!
After much rejoicing we returned to the Barajas airport, wandered around for a bit before eating another round of sandwiches, and then caught our flight to Madrid. Our Iberia flight was quite nice, and we had a great dinner, though unfortunately despite our extreme exhaustion we weren't really able to sleep at all on the flight, but that's how it goes when the excitement of travel keeps you awake!
We arrived in Athens, then, right around 11:30 at night, grabbed our bags, and hopped on a waiting bus bound for downtown (since the Suburban Train, which would have been much faster and more direct, had already stopped service for the evening). The main station, Syndagma, is relatively near our hostel, but when it's past midnight in a foreign city, walking around looking like the tourists we are is simply not smart travelling, so after a brief search for our connecting bus (which was nowhere to be found), we simply grabbed a taxi. Of course our drive spoke no English, and we absolutely no Greek (Anderson's one Greek class in college was not only over 4 years ago, but was also in ancient Greek, which is just a bit different than what is spoken today), but fortunately that must be a common situation, since the driver called someone on his cell phone who acted as a translating go-between, and after a brief GPS-system search for the small street that our hostel is on, we were quickly on our way. The hostel wasn't far, and was exactly where it was supposed to be (thankfully), and after a nice sigh of contentment we paid what was due (though we backed down from our initial 7-night commitment, we're currently staying for 4 nights - through Monday morning, because we may want to head to Mt. Olympus for a 3,000 meter hike of "fun" :-), and headed to the European first floor to our room.
Despite our prior exhaustion, we hit it off wonderfully with our roommates (most hostel rooms are multi-bed, 4 in the current case), a couple from South Africa, Iain & Claire, on a similar around-the-world journey, though they were on their last night in Athens before heading to Turkey, Syria, Jordan, & Israel. Instead of sleeping right away, we ended up chatting about travelling, American politics, and life in America versus South Africa until the wee hours, which was a lot of fun. There is the possibility that we might also meet up in India, since they are eventually headed there after their time in the Middle East. We are rapidly discovering that the true joy of international travel, particularly involving the hostelling lifestyle, is that you must expect the unexpected.
After sleeping late (it's not like we've got work in the morning :-), we started our first day in Athens by heading to a nearby restaurant, recommended by Iain & Claire, which was not only amazingly cheap (5 euros for 2 gyros - which is pronounced like gyrate, for the record - and a bottle of Coke), but also delicious, and with an English-speaking proprietor. Not that we want to be culturally-insensitive, but gesturing and mispronounciation can sometimes only take you so far! After a brief stop back at our hostel, which is quite nice, just like all the others we have stayed at thus far, we started our Athenian experience the right way, by heading to the massive Acropolis, where many ruins of Ancient Greece still lie in surpisingly good condition. Walking through Athens is a little crazy, the traffic is typical European, death-defying jaywalking is inevitable, and tiny shops chock full of unusual wares are seemingly everywhere, but on our way we took care of a few needed errands: getting some stamps, cashing a few traveller's checks, replacing Anderson's sunglasses (two pairs lost already...), grabbing a map of Athens, and getting some much needed water (which is finally affordable - 1.5 liters for only a euro), before walking up the steep hill at the Acropolis' base.
It seems that all of the ancient ruins here, as though suffering from the passing of two millenia and numerous conquering invaders weren't enough, are also suffering from the ravages of modern pollution, so many parts of the white marble are lined (usually underneath) with a fine layer of seemingly permanent black soot. Of course, it's not soot at all, which is rather depressing, but it does the seem that the Greek government is putting out tremendous efforts (perhaps the stimulation of the economy from the 2004 Olympics has helped) to re-restore things. Most ruins have been restored several times over the ages, but the restoration techniques of the present day have a bit of an edge over the 1840s, so much of the general Acropolis is under construction, but that doesn't really infringe on being a tourist, it just means there are stacks of miscellaneous marble all over the place.
Enough about restoration though, the Acropolis itself is incredible, with its view of modern Athens alone being quite impressive, but the major buildings (Parthenon, Temple of Athena Nike, Theater of Dionysus, etc.) were amazing feats of architecture in their day, and even though that was over 2000 years ago, the detail in craftsmanship on such a massive scale is simply stunning. There is also a nice and extensive museum, included in admission (as are 5 other major historical sites, to be seen by us over the weekend), that features many items too precious to be left to the elements (natural and man-made). The whole area is made of fine white marble, so the paths are slick from years of wear, and the hilltop practically shines under the sunlight. Not trying to exaggerate here, but pictures simply do not do justice to this ancient marvel. After wandering around, and happily taking pictures once again (!), we headed down the hill's backside, and wandered about a large park full of walking paths for a while, which also featured a few ancient ruins, including the remnants of one of the world's oldest roads, as well as a monument to a 2nd century A.D. Roman ruler, the Filopapou. We were actually trying to locate Socrates' Prison, which even though it was on our map is apparently invisible or something, but we will probably try to locate it again tomorrow - being Philsophy majors it seems appropriate!
We stopped at a nearby crepe shop, intending to share a crepe merely to tide ourselves over for dinner, but it ended up being so massive that it pretty much filled us up, making that two cheap and tasty meals in Athens thus far. We were then headed back to our hostel, though we decided to take the shorter, and more fun, route, involving cutting through side streets in the correct "general direction," and since we had worked up a bit of a thirst, when a man across the street at a bar gestured at us to come over, we assumed he was a proactive employee and took him up on the offer. After our beers came, it quickly became apparent from talking to him (in English obviously, though his thick Greek accent at times made things just a little difficult to discerne), that he was actually just a customer hanging out there. However, he was an older gentlemen (we seem to attract them, probably Liz's doing), and it's always nice to chat with local people, so that really didn't matter. After finishing our Amstel's he invited us to walk down the street to a different establishment, which we understood as being where he was headed anyway. So now of course a bit of sketchiness enters the picture, but we decided to go with the flow, ready to make haste if necessary. When we arrived at a cafe just down the street, it immediately became apparent that he was actually its owner, and that he had just been relaxing down the street. This is where the Greek hospitality enters the picture, as we were treated like royalty by him (Vasili is his name we discovered) and his fellow 60-something male Greek regulars. Despite our numerous requests to pay for our drinks, and a denied attempt to treat everyone to a round of ouzo, Vasili insisted on giving us all our Amstel's on the house, along with several tapas plates: peanuts, fresh apples, and plums. As though that were not enough, one of his friends, after buying us a round, also ordered a delicious cabbage dish and bread for our dinner. We were simply overwhelmed by everyone's unprovoked kindness and generosity, and we were really not sure how we could reciprocate. But we chatted away, listened to all sorts of traditional Greek music, and thus we got to experience a genuine Greek night out. He had mentioned dancing a bit, so we decided that dancing would be at least some sort of minimum repayment, and so we found ourselves dancing at a Greek cafe to the delight of a bunch of clapping Greek gentlemen. After we had finished, we were treated to some traditional Greek dancing by several of Vasili's friends, which was interesting to watch, and a plate was even broken (a Greek tradition during dancing). It ended up being an amazing experience, and we have already decided that we are definitely going to go back in a few days to actually pay for a proper meal at his cafe.
Now we are back at our hostel, which is called San Remo by the way, but since it is now about 3 a.m., we have got to go to bed, since there is yet another day of adventures awaiting us. Oh, and the next time you're at a Greek restaurant, don't hesitate to order a gyro, but just remember there's no need to pronounce it 'your-o'!