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...