Sunday, February 28, 2010

Back to Greece

Back to Greece
By Claire
I’m listening to Stranger on the Shore by Mr. Acker Bilk right now—we’re back in Greece at the campground in Alexandroupoli and it’s raining cats and dogs. So, that means we made it out of Turkey with Homer released to us by the Turkish government via the Customs Warehouse. Mr. Acker Bilk is still alive and 81 years old, by the way.

Back in Istanbul, we were picked up by a taksi, a very smart move since it was raining there as well. Our cab driver had the directions that Ebru from our hotel had given him. However, I looked over at one point and saw that we were speeding past the turning point. I spoke up and, of course, no problem, we’re in Turkey. He just reversed and backed up against highway traffic about 3 or 4 blocks then turned around and drove down the wrong way—the only way—to our destination. He dropped us at the door and we walked in burdened by 3 bags and two bulging backpacks. It was 9:20 and they open at 9 but Deniz wasn’t there yet and most of the workers were busy getting tea and several desk spots were empty. Someone ushered us into a room to drop our bags and we began the journey of moving from one government employee to another. I noticed Deniz hurrying in and soon we were working with her. She gave a big smile and shook our hands and welcomed us back. That was a good start. We began by having photocopies made of various documents. The guy in the photocopy booth was grumpy and eating his breakfast and seemed annoyed that he had to make copies.

After that, we bounced from one executive-clerk to another, 7 in all this time, down from the original 11 we saw back in January. Our 3 sheets of paper grew to a thickness of a quarter inch and must have been rubber stamped 25 times. The entire operation only took 1 hour and 25 minutes this time. But, that included help with our broken skylight. The same guy who climbed up there on our last visit came out with us and started pointing and talking about the top. We went inside Homer and it looked strange—wood instead of black plastic and I could see light. Meanwhile, he took off and came back with the fork lift.

We finally figured out that our black plastic top that he had kindly taped down must have blown off and he had replaced it with a sheet of wood and a rock. We got busy looking for some plastic we could tape down for the trip out of Turkey. It was tricky in the rain—the duct tape would not stick.

The view through the kitchen window of the guy lifting himself up on the forklift

Chuck up on the roof trying to figure out what to do

Chuck finally stuffed some plastic—the remnants of the reinforced US Post Office media bag we had used to ship our vast collection of guide books to Amsterdam—into the skylight over the screen and we crossed our fingers. We were really surprised that this guy had gone to the trouble to check on things—he either noticed that the plastic top was gone or took it down and put something on that he thought would last longer. Communication was pretty impossible so we will never know. We’re just very grateful. The problem now is figuring out how and where to get it fixed. We stopped at a Kipa store looking for duct tape and found a big role for only 10 TL, exactly the amount we had left to get rid of. We were so proud of ourselves for spending every last penny before we got to Greece and switched currencies.

As we approached the Greek border we saw a band of sunshine and our spirits lifted. Getting through the border patrol was pretty straightforward except for the guy who tried to tell us we had overstayed our visa by one month. He seemed to think we had been in Turkey for 4 months. Chuck counted the months off for him—the guy was embarrassed—but acknowledged that we were right. We were leaving Turkey on day 89 which technically meant that we could not enter Greece (the EU) until day 90. No one seemed to notice and we swept through.

It is so nice to be home again; I really missed Homer. Chuck rigged up some plastic and duct tape from the inside just in case; we unpacked, then had a great dinner, listened to a Chill Out music mix that they gave us at Penguin Village and went to bed around 8. We slept in until 10:30 am even though it rained through the night! I haven’t been able to sleep past 7 in years—I guess we were really tired but I also think our bed is just so comfortable and my pillow is so much better than anything we had in a hotel.

We decided to spend some time here getting settled in Homer again. We got right into the swing of campground life and had great showers. Back in the camper I heard a quiet curse—Chuck discovered 10 TL worth of coins in a pocket. Oh well, $6.50 worth of souvenirs.

We suited up in our rain clothes and drove into town in search of an ATM—time for more Euros—and even found a grocery store where we stocked up on feta, olives, tomatoes and cucumbers—what else? We’re in Greece! Back inside Homer I saw that our plastic cover was leaking and everything around it was wet—we are now drying everything out with our heater—damn! The plastic cover just came unstuck and I just experienced a little rain shower indoors. OK, all cleaned up now. Nothing like a water leak…

We’ll figure this out—we were able to borrow a ladder from the campground and Chuck did some more sealing and covering but we definitely need to find a permanent or even semi-permanent solution. Now, if it would just stop raining. I think it’s time for some face time with my book.

Next morning: the sun is shining, a good sign. Chuck climbed up on the roof of Homer to try and figure out what we can do to fix the skylight. I did laundry, so much easier in a campground laundry sink using our sink stopper than in a tiny hotel sink. It’s hanging in the breeze and the sun and we are off to find an internet cafe to research where we can get the skylight fixed. There isn’t a lot of internet access here or along the way. In fact, we will be doing a fair amount of free camping until we get to our destination in the Peloponnese. We may head to Kavala tomorrow, where we had Thanksgiving. In fact, we might go back to that restaurant and see if the owner can help us find a place that can, at the very least, do a repair of some kind. He lived in Canada for a long time and communication would be much simpler.

Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it. ~ Cesare Pavese

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hoşҫakal Istanbul

By Claire
Day 3
Goodbye Istanbul. We will go through a little grief process tomorrow when we cross the border into Greece. It's been difficult to leave every country we have visited, but Turkey is something special.

I want to add to Chuck's story about our visit at our favorite restaurant last night and the conversation he had with the two deaf men. It just blew me away watching him communicate with those guys. Even I was able to follow the conversation. I was very touched when he signed "sad" to them (forefingers simulating tears running down his face) that we were there for the last time. This was such a communal moment with everyone in the place involved. I will never forget it.

Today we decided to meander and just enjoy the city. We stopped at a photo place and had the picture of our tailor printed out so we could give him a copy. Quick, cheap and easy. We decided to head back to the Arasta Bazaar (thanks Diane) and loved the ease of walking by the shops without being harassed. We found wonderful carpets to look at, gorgeous tiles from Iznik and so many things I would love to buy and cart home. If only I had brought a tiny portion of what I did....

Park near the Blue Mosque

We stopped for tea and just marveled at how relaxed we were and how wonderful this custom is—so calming and lovely. Walking home a different way, we found ourselves once again by Little Hagia Sophia. We can see it from our hotel balcony.

We grabbed a couple of sesame rings for lunch and added Medjool dates to make a perfect lunch picnic. After a short rest, Chuck tried on his gallabiya for altering and we set off once again for our friendly tailor, Duran Yildiz. We gave him the picture—he was delighted and asked for Chuck's name and address. Then he set to work customizing the gallabiya's sleeves and hem length. Next, he completely re-sewed my backpack, reinforcing every seam. Coffee was served and friendly conversation ensued, all in Turkish and English. We kind of figured it out. At the end, he refused payment, shook our hands, touched his heart and sent us on our way.

We had dinner plans with Heather, the woman who told me about Petra at night via email. Meanwhile, I am sick of Chuck's faded out, baggy jeans and suggested we try to find another pair. The prices are so good here we decided to go for it. We tried various stores and finally settled on one of the shops at the Grand Bazaar. Chuck tried them on and they were good but too long. The guy offered to have them hemmed on the spot and to give us a good price. The good price was 65 TL. I told him no, 30. He pointed out that he was eating the 10 TL to have the pants hemmed. We went around and around--55 then 45 then I eventually came up to 35 and the deal was done. In the meantime, he grabbed someone and told me he had been to California. That was Adil. He had gone to San Diego State and loved California. He told me he visited San Francisco. I asked him how he liked it. "Too many gay people." I asked if he'd been to the Castro and he said "No, I'm too afraid." In spite of this, he was very likable and seemed more puzzled by the whole gay issue. He and the salesman, Sedat, both wanted their pictures taken. We all had a good time. I will really miss this kind of interaction.

Adil and Sedat

We met Heather at Starbucks, a few blocks down from where we bought the jeans. It felt a little like an online date but there she was, looking just like her picture. We chatted for awhile then headed over to Taksim, the new area on the Asia side of Istanbul. She had suggested a place that specializes in mezes, small portions of appetizers. We hadn't tried a place like this so I was really looking forward to it.

Pick what you want from the selection

Dinner and conversation was fun and interesting. I think we talked about everything. Heather has lived in Turkey with her husband for 2.5 years; it was nice to get an American's perspective of this country. She's lucky, she has a house overlooking the Bosphorus.

Chuck ordered pumpkin in syrup for dessert. It tasted like yams to me and he really liked it.

Heading for the funicular at 11:15, we found that it was no longer running. Oops. Heather took charge and got us on a bus after talking to some kind of bus official and then two women who all assured her that the tram was still running. We just needed to figure out which bus would get us there. She used her pass to get all of us on the bus since it doesn't take tokens. We waved goodbye from either side of the tram station. Thanks Heather!

We've been so lucky with the weather. Rain was predicted for the entire week but we've only had a few sprinkles and mostly blue sky and clouds. I hope it lasts as we make our way to the Customs Warehouse tomorrow morning.

By the way, have I mentioned that I LOVE MY LIFE!!??

Oh you painters who ask for a technique of color - study carpets and there you will find all knowledge. ~ Paul Gaugin—seen in a carpet shop window, Arasta Bazaar

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Back in Istanbul

By Chuck
Day 1
We arrived back in Istanbul, tired but determined to make good use of our time. Claire had to have her hair cut, we had yet to see the Little Hagia Sofia, and our online friend, Heather, said we had to see the Cistern. We were shown up to our 4th floor room, a little the worse for wear. We had asked for a different room this time, as we were tired of overhearing the conversations in the lobby and we had poor wifi reception on the 2nd floor room we had before. We have great reception in room 502—the room our acquaintance, Julie, had when we were last here. We have a view of Little Hagia Sofia from our room and we did manage to walk over to visit it on the way back from the Cistern. We can also see the Sea of Marmara from our window—with the numerous ships either sailing back or forth or simply anchored, waiting to be loaded or the reverse.

The Cistern was built in Justinian’s time in the 6th century AD. It is a marvel. A gaggle of 336 (mostly recycled) columns supports a brick ceiling that covers an area the size of two football fields; it is large enough to hold 27 million gallons of fresh water. Although no longer in active use, the water used to come from clay pipes and aqueducts from 12 miles away—those Romans and Byzantines were pretty good architects and engineers. Sometimes, concerts are held down here; today, we saw the setup for a small ensemble that will probably perform tonight.

The Underground Cistern

Claire at the Cistern

The off-kilter Medusas at the base of two columns, may have been put there to ward off evil; then again, it may be that they were simply on columns that were of the proper height to fit the need. We'll never know.

Upside down Medusa in the Roman Cistern

Sideways Medusa in the Roman Cistern

Knife sharpener along the way mixing old tradition with modern life

On the way back, we stopped at Çiğdem Pastanesi, a fancy pastry shop recommended by Heather. We tried to remember: Was it the one with the red awning just down from Starbucks on the tram line near the Blue Mosque? Yes. We had apple tea (elma ҫay), Turkish ҫay and a shared profiterollü pasta [pastry] which was some sort of mocha-chocolate delicacy with a dark chocolate cream-filled egg on top, sprinkled all over with shaved pistachios; it wasn’t bad. But, we have to go back, because Heather had really recommended that we try one of their walnut baklavas—we just couldn’t remember.

Adventurous Claire wanted to try a new way back; I was against it—given our track record for getting lost; but, I backed down—not wanting to short-circuit her desire to master the art of hiking Istanbul. We actually ended up exactly where we usually do after a few blocks, so we both felt good—she got to explore and I felt comfortable again. After a few more jigs and jogs we finally arrived at Little Haffia Sophia It is a delight—small, intimate and colorful. There are no tiles; the artwork is painted on the walls and ceiling; but, its spare appearance is a welcome change—sort of like (my crude conception of) the difference between Chinese and Japanese art.

We were glad to arrive back at the Saruhan Hotel. We each fixed ourselves a cup of tea (apple, Turkish) and I began to prepare for tomorrow’s hoped for outing.

Day 2
We were fully prepared for today's rainy weather and, with backpack full of raingear in hand, we set off for a trip on the Bosphorus Ferry—a cheap way to explore that particular waterway from Istanbul almost to the Black Sea. It actually turns out that the day cleared up and we had cool, clear weather most of the day. We made it to the terminal with an hour to spare—I had feared not being able to find the terminal; we had two minor problems, we went to two wrong terminals before being directed back to the one we thought was not the correct one: Will we ever learn? Then, we could not find a ticket office. Claire finally noticed a closed window and knocked; the man understood enough English to tell us to wait 20 minutes. Could we sit in the waiting area (beyond the gate) and wait for the sales to begin? Yes, of course.

Our Ferry on the Bosphorus

Rick Steves tells us to sit on the left both ways; we obeyed and it seemed to work. Since this is the off-season, seating was not a problem. Some of the time we tried to follow his itinerary; most of the time we just watched—sometimes switching our gaze from the European to the Asian side of the Bosphorus. This is one of the busiest waterways in the world: It is the only outlet for the Black Sea countries of Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Georgia.

Most of the old Ottoman-style houses have been torn down; but, there are a number of restorations—at least they look like what I think these houses should be.

The Good

The Bad

The Ugly

There are a number of stops along the way. The final stop is in a sleepy fishing village that is trying to cash in on the tourism in the area; but, at this time of year, it is depressing to see a covey of restaurants and food shops all vying for the favors of very few tourists. There are two specialties in the terminus of Anadolu Kavaği: midye tava (deep fried mussels) and lokma (crispy donut holes made of wheat dumplings dipped in hot syrup.) We loved the first, with special tarator sauce (Turkish tartar sauce but made with yogurt and garlic); the second is only available on weekends—I think that says something about the tourist trade. So, we substituted helva for our planned dessert—unless you also count Turkish coffee; it was simply delicious: Served hot, smooth, with a custard consistency and tasting like sesame seeds (tahini).

Midye Tava

Helva - We forgot to stop for the photo op!

We meandered up a steep road to the local ruined castle: for the view. It was very nice; but, by now we had no time to go to the far side of the hill to get a better view of the Black Sea—maybe next time.

Old castle and new bridge - This Bridge and another nearby are the only two in the world that link two continents!

The return trip began at 3pm; we spoke at length with a couple from India who have lived in London for the past 29 years for much of the trip and so missed some of the remaining sites; but, it was interesting to see how Western they and their family have become during this time and the challenges that Mrs. Chopra had in finding vegetarian fare in Istanbul. This was probably complicated by her high standards, in addition to her choice of foodstyle.

Mannequin - We can only wonder about the purpose of this

Turkish Venice

We were glad to have finally had the time and the weather to complete this cruise, as we had planned on this from the outset.

We enjoyed the Spice Bazaar so much last time that we decided to cruise it again—on foot, of course. I wanted Medjool dates and Claire wanted a short pen and a small spiral notepad. We never found the notepad; but, we have a spare in the camper and we will pick up Homer this Friday.

Walking back to the hotel from the tram stop we passed a dry cleaning shop. No; wait! There is a sewing machine in there and I have my backpack on. 15 minutes later the tailor at Mevlana Terzive Ҫamașirhane had not only reinforced all the seams of the backpack—most especially the straps—but had also re-sewn the neck of my black long sleeved uniform shirt: I had caught and torn the thread on at least two occasions while trying to get my passport out of my neck pouch, which I wear underneath my shirt. Despite having no English, he interrupted what he had been doing, completed the work with blazing speed and only charged TL 5 for the entire job. I was delighted with the entire experience.

Tailor - The Miracle Worker

Tonight was our final night at our favorite eatery--a traditional Turkish restaurant. As we entered, the junior waiter shook each of our hands and touched his heart—Claire had told them last night that tonight would be our last visit, as we were leaving town the next day. Once seated, I noticed that two men off in the corner were speaking sign language; I pointed this out to Claire and let it drop. Then it was time for dessert; when the waiter served the delicious rice pudding, he failed to notice that we had no spoons; when I asked for some, he picked up two tablespoons, one of the deaf men jumped up to switch these out for two teaspoons. I thanked him in sign language—one of the few signs I recall from a prior existence as an assistant researcher for a mental health services for the deaf project at UCSF, many, many years ago. He was shocked, then delighted. He began chatting with his friend again—this time about this person (moi) in the restaurant who knew signs. Finally they asked if I was deaf, where was I from, was I married to my companion…? I answered, very haltingly, as best I could: No, not deaf; I’m from America; yes, we have been married for 3 years; she has 2 grown children; I have 3. One man began to draw a map of the US and began to write “New Y..” I knew, then, that he wanted to know where we were from. Since the paper was already there, I took his pen and wrote “California” then “San Francisco.” They liked the fact that we were from America.

The Best Little Traditional Turkish Restaurant in Old Town Istanbul

One startling thing about this entire conversation is that one of the men had been there every prior night behind the counter making change for customers; we never had occasion to talk; I would ask “How much?” He would write down the amount of the bill; I would pay and leave a tip and that would be it; I never had a conversation with him, so did not know he was deaf.

As we rose to leave, the deaf customer offered to buy us another glass of tea; since we love tea—and not wanting to be rude—we accepted their offer. Finishing, we rose to pay the bill. Claire asked me, "How do you say goodbye?" One of the Turkish (hearing) men helpfully responded, "Hoşҫakal." We did a round of good-byes. All the staff and the deaf customer came over to shake our hands, wish us well and touch their hearts. Do you still wonder why we like to travel?

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see. ~ Mark Twain

Reflections and Observations on Egypt

By Chuck

There are a number of things that have made an impression on me during our time in Egypt.

• There are mini-berms all along the highway from Cairo to Bahariya Oasis. I finally asked; they are from channels dug to lay cable for electronic connections.

• The only place we have seen solar panels, here, are in the desert—for cell towers. In Turkey, by contrast, they were everywhere. This may be due to the tremendous electricity-producing capacity of the Aswan and High Dams—solar may be less necessary. We are told that electricity is cheap, here; but, no one has a clothes dryer; one source said a dryer would be LE 5000. This is far more than a clothes washer. We were told that a normal household would have an energy bill of LE 40 per month; but, with a dryer this would jump to LE 150. This is only one opinion.

• One of the first things we noticed on the trip from Cairo to the Oases was the sand on the road; there was not much; but, I imagined that it would be a significant and ongoing problem. We soon noticed that there was a gang of workers apparently clearing sand from the railroad tracks running parallel to the road on the way to Bahariya. The sand on the road became worse on the later stretch from Kharga Oasis to Luxor; we never saw anyone clearing it away.

• Pollution and trash in Egypt are quite off-putting from a tourist perspective. Pollution is particularly bad in Cairo; but, there are signs of it almost everywhere, even in remote areas where there is virtually no industry. Trash is all along the roads and in the cities and towns to a greater extent than we have noticed elsewhere—with the possible exception of southern Sicily. As we approached Kitchener Island, a lovely botanical garden, we saw two young teenage boys preparing their inventory for sale; they ripped the cellophane wrappers off their wares and tossed them onto the steps leading into the gardens; there were empty plastic bottles everywhere around the places where tourists visit—both in the Nile and on the streets.

In the Nile at Kitchner Island

Thrown overboard from a Nile cruise boat

• Recycling is rare; we only encountered this in the several oases we visited. I suspect this is a result of poverty and an underdeveloped economy. I suspect I would find similar results in comparable locations of large cities and poor rural areas in the USA. The exception to this rule is tires: used tires are used as road and desert markers, and as bumpers on cars, boats and ships.

• Remote outposts rely on tourists and their entourage of drivers and/or guides to bring certain supplies; once, we brought a load of bread to two different guard stations; another time, a driver brought water to them. In one case, we needed to use the WC; the outside of the station was nicely painted; everyone was friendly and they even welcomed Claire, a woman; but the interior of the place was worse than the inside of freshman college dorm maintained by the residents—it was dirty and crowded.

• Tips. You have undoubtedly heard of baksheesh; but, to experience it is different; people expect it and depend upon it—even when they provide no (desired or value-added) service. If you hear a friendly-sounding voice, you can reasonably expect that a pecuniary interest lies behind it. Some notable exceptions include: the cab driver who drove us two blocks to get to the Temples of Karnak and refused to accept payment; (we especially appreciated this because this was our worst mummy tummy day); Carlos, a waiter on the Nile Jewel who asked where I was from and wondered about my Kindle and, later, bought me a tea.

• Also, the rules for giving baksheesh are somewhat murky; sometimes, we would be aware we had not given a satisfactory amount—normally, they are not shy about telling you either the amount expected or letting you know it is not enough. On the other hand, when you provide more than expected—rare, for me—you may hear protestations that you have done too much—also rare.

• I would say that Egyptians who have no financial interest in getting your attention are normally serious in nature at first meeting; it is only by interacting over a (possibly short) period of time that they begin to warm up and become more friendly and outgoing. As a typical (in this respect at least) American, I tend to smile and try to be open and friendly when meeting people, trying to give them the benefit of any doubt about the possibility of relationship; I think they are more cautious; I don’t think this has anything to do with our nationality; in fact, they seem to appreciate that we have come all the way from America and California to visit their wonderful country.

• There was a young man working in Kharga Oasis who had an Australian sweetheart and had been exchanging emails and text messages with her; he understood the meanings of the words but sometimes did not know how to pronounce them. We were glad to help. He was in the unenviable position of waiting for her to invite him to join her in AussieLand.

• Toilet paper is poor quality, generally, and rare; the rolls are small and loosely wound—they disappear fast; we often had to ask for it in hotels. In public, you had to carry your own—to be sure you were provided for. Most toilets—WCs—were coin operated: you were not expected to enter unless you paid an amount—sometimes unspecified, sometimes clearly indicated. We often wondered what would happen if you had to go and did not have any small coins or bills handy.

Fresh new roll of TP

• Unfinished construction is everywhere. This runs the gamut from single family homes to gigantic gated communities. New homes here are sold as frameworks; the interior plan, walls, final plumbing and electrical fittings are left to the discretion of the owner.

• First floors of buildings outside Cairo are often made of white brick. I was told this was a style preference. This may be; but, I suspect it has something to do with the fact that these are larger and this means the construction would go faster and the labor would be cheaper. In very rural areas, you could find mud brick, red brick or cement construction, all right next to one another. Often, these would have leaves of palm branches for roofs; sometimes this would be a foundation for mud on top. A few times, we saw cardboard used, even in the cities.

• Flies are everywhere; but, fortunately, mosquitoes are rationed—only one or two per room or balcony. I had been commenting to Claire how I was so used to the flies that they hardly bothered me anymore; she responded, “What about the one on your chin right now?” Flies are ubiquitous in the desert: "I hid under some bushes near the well for hours, against the heat, very lazy, pretending to be asleep, the wide silk sleeve of my pillow-arm drawn over my face as veil against the flies." T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Insect killer provided in hotel room

• In one oasis town, one memorable shop was named The Cheapest Shop in Town; this has to be clever marketing, as every other store sells the same items at the same price. “I give you a good price.” Is the Egyptian motto, I think.

• Pyramids. One guide debunked the myth that aliens built the Pyramids by pointing out that the geography of the land boasted thousands of natural ones that were enough to suggest the idea to the ancient Egyptians; I think there was a certain amount of national pride involved in this, also. Modern dirt removal creates them, too; I saw some along the road to the first oasis and asked what they were from: “Drilling for oil.”

Natural pyramids in Abu Simbel

• Police escorts are quite common, depending upon local conditions and history. In some places in Cairo, an escort attached himself to us. On our trip across the desert through various oases and on to Luxor, only on the last leg of the journey were we unescorted. It has been commented that this is largely due to a need to keep large numbers of governmental personnel busily occupied; some believe it helps tourists to feel comforted. We saw it as a regrettable intrusion, though most tried to be friendly while not being intrusive.

• Military/Police Checkpoints are everywhere. I never asked about the relationship among the various groups—army, police, and tourist police; I guess I thought it might be a touchy subject. It was a little unnerving to see the armed guards and the guard towers everywhere. There were staggered portable gates—or strategically placed oil barrels—to slow down traffic; there were sometimes supplemental speed bumps—even along the highways; finally, there was almost always a row of oil barrels to stop traffic. The middle one would be removed as you were granted. There was at least one rolling bullet-proof shield at each checkpoint and many other locations where guards were located—police stations and banks, for example. Sometimes these were supplemented by spiked strips (held in reserve) that are intended to puncture tires that traverse them.

• Egyptian men typically wear warm clothes, even in warm weather; our guides always had on long sleeved shirts and almost always wore a jacket, too.

• Egypt is an Islamic country and is male-dominated. Many of the people with whom we come in contact carry the Koran with them and frequently read from it, even the officials on duty at the airports. There were people who stopped their routines to publicly pray at the appointed times: women on the top deck on the cruise down the Nile; a clerk behind the desk, while on duty at the hotel in Bahariya; a man walking (and then stopping) on the corniche in Aswan.

• Feminists need not come! Males have the dominant role in decision-making, here; it may be common (and common sense) to consult your wife before making a decision—which house to buy, where to live, which school to send the children to—but, it is a consultation; the final decision is up to the husband and father. “My wife trusts me to make all the decisions.” Claire asked one of our guides about all the washing that the women must do. “That is the woman’s job—to run the house.” Despite this, I believe men here would insist that women—as mothers and wives—are revered. Go figure.

• Most women are scarved in Egypt. Many of them wear full black abayas; sometimes this includes covering the eyes and hands. This becomes more common in rural areas. I saw a very young girl—maybe 6 years old—with a “training” scarf; normally, it is only at puberty that females are expected to go under cover. Occasionally, teen-agers and young women wear scarves and are “covered;” but they are otherwise dressed somewhat provocatively—tight pants and blouses or sweaters. Apparently, the main admonition is to cover flesh in order to not incite men to sexual fantasy and behavior; but, I think that some flesh-covering outfits might also arouse fantasies. One of our favorite images was of a woman fully covered, including black gloves, who was talking on a cell phone while drinking a coke. I guess this is having the best of both worlds.

• Women ride sidesaddle on motorcycles in Egypt; most of them wear dresses, skirts or abayas, which prevent them from riding astride. We were constantly worried about their safety in case of an abrupt stop or turn, or if there were an accident.

• Hitchhiking is common, here; the signal is to extend your arm out from your side and lower it toward the ground. There are also group buses here; usually, they are vans equipped with many seats; occasionally, they are small, covered pick-up trucks with two benches on the sides.

• The oases are far larger than I had anticipated and far more productive, agriculturally; I believe they are more likely to be organic. One unintended consequence of building the Aswan and High Dams is that the rich silt that has fed the Nile for thousands of years no longer flows down; this requires more dependence on chemical means of sustaining agricultural output in the Nile Valley.

• Transportation by bus is more extensively available than that by train; but, the trains we took to Alexandria and back were adequate—though the return trip was by much older and worn cars. We chose, wisely, not to bring Homer to Egypt; this would have been a hard trip for both vehicle and driver. Traffic regulations barely rise to the level of suggestion, here. Lines of traffic routinely exceed the number of painted lanes. People drive on the wrong side of the road for extended periods to find smoother pavement—however, the main roads were often quite good, or at least as those we drive upon in California these days—don’t get me started!

• Travel in early February should be avoided if you want to miss the annual two week Egyptian school holiday. This is when they visit the sites. Cairo is cold in February. There are sandstorms throughout Egypt in March and April (and sometimes May). October and November are the best months for good weather.

• Fish is offered everywhere—even in the desert; I am not sure why. Mayhaps they think it is expected. It is always more expensive than meat, chicken or veggie dishes. Each time we try it, we determine not to do it again—but for different reasons: it is too expensive, it is not fresh, it has too many bones, we worry that it may contain pesticides from the water in which it “lives and breathes and has its being.”

• Ancient Egyptians (at least people who used to live in the area we now know as Egypt) used “boomerangs” to stun their prey. This allowed them to bring home game that was alive and had not started to rot from the terrible heat—clever, no?

• The Al Kharga Museum of Antiquities in the oasis of the same name had a lovely, small display of prehistoric, Pharaonic and Greco-Roman items; the latter two groups were represented by artifacts dated around 2700 BC and between 300 BC and 400AD. It claimed to have the oldest books ever created; they are bound boards with marriage contracts and other legal documents—no novels.

• Large animal carcasses unnerved me, whether on the Western Desert or along the roads. I suppose these camels, horses and dogs merely died of old age; but, my first thought was of predators that might be interested in me!

• Desert. My ideal picture of a desert is the sort of thing you see in the movie The Flight of the Phoenix—endless rolling dunes of sand. There was relatively little of that in my experience in Egypt. We were far more likely to see flat hard ground or sand piled up against mountains. Further, there are 5 different types of sand configurations we lump together as dunes—don’t forget that Eskimos have 24 names for snow.

• Toyota LandCruisers seem to be the vehicle of choice in the desert areas; you see them everywhere.

• All the cars we rode in had a Koran on the dashboard. This included our guides and every taxi we took. We also saw men walking down the street carrying a Koran.

• While in Bahariya Oasis, Peter Wirth casually mentioned that the people we took him away from to discuss payment before we left the next morning were the American and British Ambassadors.

• Dahab—our last “lengthy” visit—is a typical tourist beach town: There is a “boardwalk” along which are the hotels, restaurants, diving shops, souvenir stores and tourist agencies—each offering exactly what the one next door does. And there is a parallel main street that has the shops that (mostly) locals use: Markets, wifi places, banks, the usual—plus the numerous empty storefronts: I guess the worldwide economy and the inevitable tourist slump has hit here, too. There is one restaurant here that has taken the high road: They not only have posters posted along the road into town, they have a declaration of intent and certificate of compliance indicating that they take extraordinary steps to provide healthy, properly prepared foods. They have prices to match this bold step; but, the food is excellent. Claire saw one chef placing a thermometer in a meat dish to ensure the proper cooking temperature had been reached. Our “thick shakes” there were actually very large shake glasses filled over the top with delicious ice cream. It has been gratifying to see how, over time and repeated contacts and requests with the Penguin Village staff and front desk, we have come to be “accepted” into their little community and we receive effusive greetings from almost everyone when we return from one of our formal outings.

• There are 99 names by which Muslims can know God. Each of those names describes a certain aspect of God's character and nature. Allah is the first of the 99 names. It is also said that there is a secret, hundredth name of God. To the one who knows this hundredth name of God, eternity in paradise is promised. An ancient riddle asks, "Why does the camel smile? Because he knows the hundredth name of God."

Camel, folded up like a card table

• As we were landing at Cairo International, we looked to the right of the runway and saw, to our great surprise, the burned out wreckage of a prior flight sitting in a ditch alongside the runway! Fortunately, we had all our prior experience on Egypt Air flying safely and comfortably, and with satisfying meals accompanied with our choice of juice—mango was our favorite—to keep things in perspective. But, lightening can strike twice! I was the last person through the last of several security and passport checkpoints as we were leaving Cairo—so far, so good...routine reviews and stampings. Then a guard wanted me to open my backpack; he began to look into the numerous plastic bags I use for convenience; finally another guard waved him off and he motioned for me to close my bag and move on. Twenty-five steps later, at final passport control, an official notes that I was not stamped through at Sharm El Sheikh! Massive consultations occur; guards from other checkpoints are summoned—presumably to re-check and ensure I am not a terrorist sneaking through the system. Claire, waving frantically from the bus where she ran to grab seats, and the entire busload of passengers leave for the plane on the tarmac. She is screaming "Let me off, my husband is in there!" The driver won't open the door. Other passengers join the cry. The bus leaves. I collar an airline official: "I'm worried the plane will leave without me." "Don't worry, we'll hold the plane." But, I notice he is running back and forth constantly on his walkie talkie, looking for the guy with my passport and boarding pass. Finally, the guard returns; I get my documentation; I jump on the bus—the only passenger; we speed out to the plane—still waiting, with Claire on the runway, refusing to board until I am found. Such loyalty. Habibi (lovely one). We are on our way back to Instanbul.

Total cost for one month in Egypt: €5,394.63

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends. ~ Maya Angelou

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sharks Bay, Sharm El Sheikh, Sinai

By Claire
We've stepped up in the world, literally, but only for one day and night. Our room is wonderful with a nice, private balcony overlooking the beach and water, and it's so quiet! However, it's so high up on the hill I felt like I was once again climbing the Steps of Repentance. We are staying in a Bedouin style room built into the hillside. We are still on the Red Sea, just further south from Dahab. We leave for Istanbul very early tomorrow and the airport is here.

We enjoyed swimming with the fishes along with a Muslim woman in jeans plus two layers on top including a long sleeve shirt, and a scarf. She was with her male escort (boyfriend? husband?) at all times. We were excited about this beach because it is sandy, unlike Dahab, which is quite rocky. However, it was all a sham. As soon as we went in, barefoot, we found the rocks hiding a little further in. No matter, we swam out and came to the most incredible iridescent turquoise I've ever seen in my life.

I guess it's true, you get what you pay for. We're staying at Shark's Bay Village for €43, €18 more than Penguin Village. However, we found huge bath towels, XXL beach towels and a shower that doesn't flood the bathroom!

I highly recommend this spot. We're relaxing with our Kindles--my latest is The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. I like it. It came up in conversation while we were sitting on top of Mt. Sinai and I remembered I had it on my Kindle. We also found out that Greg Mortenson, who wrote Three Cups of Tea, has a new one out: Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I'm anxious to start it.

Not all those who wander are lost. ~ J. R. R. Tolkien

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Goodbye Dahab

By Claire
We're leaving our home of 10 days, Penguin Village, for a day in Sharm el Sheik, closer to the airport, for our return to Istanbul on Tuesday. We've had a great time relaxing on the pillows by the water reading our Kindles. Edel, the manager, has been friendly and helpful--everyone has, even if things didn't always work. Dahab is a nice place to relax.


We rewarded ourselves with some award winning desserts.

We finished our last night with a walk down the promenade to Ali Baba, famous for their huge, thick milkshakes. Chuck was craving some giant prawns and calamari sounded good to me.

Seafood on display outside the restaurant

The service at this place is amazing, they really hustle. First, they pour hand cleaner in your hands then they bring a bottle of complimentary water. Soon the complimentary mezes arrive.

Our main courses arrived in due time.

I burned my finger on the candle flame inside the onion ring.

Chuck loved his dinner but mine was just so-so. I guess I was expecting the calamari rings, fried and served with plenty of lemon juice like the ones at Symposium at home. Instead it was kind of bland and the vegetables were overcooked. The waiter was concerned that I hadn't really eaten anything and tried to convince me to try something else. He even brought over what he thought was the baby squid--raw. I passed.

So, they brought us a complimentary plate of fruit, which was very nice but what Chuck really wanted was that huge, thick milkshake.

I think it's the best I've ever tasted, especially if you order a coffee shake.

On our way home, we noticed a woman in a wheelchair and realized it was the French woman! She had a cast up to her knee. Someone was pushing her along so at least she was still getting around. It was nice to have closure on that episode and to know that she received what looks like good care.

On to more adventures...

Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” ~ Miriam Beard

Mt. Sinai and the Burning Bush

By Claire
Using moleskin on my three blisters from the hike to the Monastery at Petra two days ago, we checked our gear and off we went to catch our ride to Mt. Sinai and St. Katherine’s Monastery 2 hours away. We were lucky that our seatmates were an interesting couple from D.C., Mark and Jenny, who are about to join the Peace Corps. We really enjoyed talking with them.

We pulled in and parked near all the other minivans and buses and met our Bedouin guide, Sala, who walked us to St. Katherine’s and the crush of people. This really is not my idea of a good time. Shoulder to shoulder, mincing along an inch at a time. No thanks. Inside the Monastery it was quite lovely but we were shunted along and the crowd was just oppressive. We soon came to the famous Burning Bush, or I should say, a descendant of the original. According to the monks, this bush was transplanted from the nearby chapel in the 10th century, and continues to thrive centuries later. St. Katherine's is considered one of the oldest continually functioning monastic communities in the world and the chapel is one of early Christianity's only surviving churches.

St. Katherine's Monastery

Burning Bush

Fire extinguisher under the bush—if the bush bursts into flame, do they put it out?

I squeezed myself past the hoards, desperate just to get out. We met up again with Sala and eventually headed to the camel trail that leads to the top of Mt. Sinai, our goal today. It’s an 8 mile hike with an elevation gain of 3,677 feet. It’s steep! Sala, who told us he is an original Bedouin, explained that the camel trail is the easy way up. The other choice is the 3,750 steps of repentance, put there by a Monk. We all wondered what in the hell he had done.

Known locally as Gebel Musa, Mt. Sinai is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, all of whom believe that God delivered his Ten Commandments to Moses at its summit.

The hike begins

Camel path

It was quite warm but as always, we had a nice breeze. Our group was small, only about 12 people—six Americans, some French, Canadian and Spanish. It was nice to be away from the crowds.

The trail was mostly desert sand and rocks. Along the way we met the other American couple, Kathleen and Tom—it was a pleasure talking with them. Sala was good about rest stops and we enjoyed the views around us and the people in our group.

Rest stop

Sala and Chuck

Elijah’s Basin where the prophet heard the voice of God.

There were plenty of camels along the way, sometimes an annoyance. The Bedouin figure someone will surely want to ride to the top rather than walk. Sure enough, they found a few customers from our group, the Canadians and a French woman.

I have to admit, it was a tough hike, maybe because I was still tired from our hike at Petra. Our trail merged with the steps of repentance and we began climbing the last 750 steps—the end was in sight! The camels don’t go up the steps so the Canadians and the French woman decided to wait here for the walk down.

Start of the 750 steps

These were especially tough—the steps are made of roughly hewn rock and are steep and uneven in many places, requiring concentration. We plodded along, there wasn’t a lot of conversation at this point, and there it was: the top, 7,496 feet!

It took about 2-1/2 hours to get there and now we just relaxed, talked and waited for the sunset. Another group had arrived but it was still manageable and fairly quiet. We noticed one guy, dressed in a gallabiya with a guitar strapped to his back, heading down a bit to a spot where he sat and played. There is a WC down on one side from the top. No door and quite filthy but hey, it was better than nothing. As the sun moved down on the horizon, the temperature went with it. I started adding layers, including my wool shirt, another shirt, mittens and a windbreaker.

View from the top

Waiting for sunset

Just before sunset

Sunset from Mt. Sinai!

Moments after the sun set, Sala called us together to begin the descent. Going down was more difficult in some ways, the sand is slippery on the rocks and the light was fading. Soon, it was full dark and the night sky was bright with stars. I stopped to look occasionally but my focus was on my feet, trying not to trip over the many obstacles along the path or slide on the sand—this happened often to almost everyone in the group.

We came to where the 3 people were supposed to be waiting but of course they were gone. Sala was upset but we carried on. About 10 minutes later he got a call on his cell phone telling him that the French woman had fallen and broken her ankle. He was beside himself. Apparently a camel was called in and we headed down to find her. She and the two Canadians were sitting on some rocks. We all waited until the camel ambulance arrived and she was hoisted up by several men, crying out in pain. It was awful. I felt so bad for her.

We continued on, the French woman emitting little screams of pain now and then—it must have been such a terrible situation for her. She spoke no English which most of the people do understand—she was not in her own country and her vacation is probably ruined. I have no idea if there is a hospital anywhere around.

I walked with the Canadian couple for awhile and they told me her shoes were all wrong, she had no flashlight and she had a heart condition. What can I say? She never should have been on this trek.

We finally made it back to the van where they managed to transfer her from the camel to the far back seat so she could stretch out. Hearing her shrieks of pain was terrible. Now the problem was that we had more people than seats. Kathleen had to sit on her husband’s lap and another woman sat in a kind of jump seat in the front over the hump. It was a very silent two hour ride back, most of us nodding off from exhaustion. We were dropped at Penguin Village and that’s the last we saw of the French woman.

Cost for the day: €26.78

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. ~ John Muir, 1913, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, 1938