30 November 2006

Syria: the Sequel


Rockin' the slides.

I returned from Syria at 1 in the morning on Wednesday. This time I went with my neighbors who will return to New York this weekend. This time I also saw more than Damascus. We had 4 whole days there, instead of 24 hours.

We took a taxi to the border and were dropped off there. This time the driver took us to the border crossing with a restaurant and a hotel. It was much better since we still had to wait over 5 hours for visas. I thought my Jordanian residency would speed things up for me, but it made no difference. Besides, my companions have US passports, so we were going to wait. We arrived on Thanksgiving, and found 2 other Americans waiting there. I lent them my phone so they could call home. One is from Kansas, but lives in Santa Barbara, and the other is from Santa Barbara. They’d come from Egypt, through Jordan, and were headed for Syria and Turkey. They had been there 3 hours when we arrived. They received visas about 3 hours after we arrived, and then they had to find a ride to Damascus. My neighbor went outside with them to argue with the taxi drivers (since the Californians spoke very little Arabic), and a Syrian couple who was coincidently headed back home to Damascus offered to take them. They refused to accept money, and welcomed the two guys as guests to their country. I can’t imagine that happening to Syrians in California. Well, maybe in Berkeley. We got our visas at about 1 in the morning and decided to get a hotel right there and sleep.

The next morning we set out for Damascus. Once L and I refused to get back in the taxi after seeing 4 icky hotels, we walked and found a place on our own that was really nice. We had an amazing lunch that made us all sleepy, but we decided to walk down to the Old City since “I” and L had not seen it yet. It was Friday by this point, and much of the Souk was closed; most of the businesses in the Christian quarter were open. That evening we took a taxi up to the top of the hill that overlooks the city. We’d seen the lights up there, and figured the view was amazing. (If any of us had a guidebook I could tell you what these things were called, but none of us planned this out at all.) We got to the top of the hill, and realized that none of us brought a camera! So, you have to trust me when I tell you that the view is amazing. It’s also cold right now. We headed back down and drove by the Four Seasons Hotel where the driver told us Dr. Asad was that very moment. We went to a café around the corner for Nescafe.

The next morning we set out to see as many mosques and shrines as we could. “I” is still a bit undecided about his dissertation topic, and the Umayyad Mosque was high on the list. We spent a lot of time there. This time is was much cooler, and my feet were freezing on the marble in the courtyard. We were there for the midday call to prayer, and we went inside. I think I forgot to tell you last time that inside this mosque is John the Baptist. Or, his head is there, I guess not all of him. This time I went up to the shrine and looked inside. I put my face up to the glass and it smelled sweet, like roses. It’s really beautiful there, and I can only imagine what the mosque looked like when it was covered in mosaics.

We had a wonderful day wondering around the city and looking at shrines. Toward the end of the day we went to a place in the Old City that I think is Byzantine. Again, forgive me, we had no guidebook. A bit tricky to find, this cluster of building and garden is absolutely serene. Each building has a lavishly decorated room, and there are displays of art and books there from the period as well. In one room we saw an egg that had part of the Koran written on it. Many of the artifacts there were miniature versions of something larger. One scroll had the word Allah written in beautiful script, but inside the word were probably hundreds of thousands of words that I could not read. They were so small! It was amazing. We wandered around until they threw us out. We left the Old City and went to a restaurant where I had breakfast a few weeks ago, and had an amazing dinner. I’ll say it again: You cannot find bad food in Syria. We pigged out, and had desert and tea and coffee and it cost us about 15 USD. You cannot beat that!

The next day “I” decided that we needed to go to Istanbul right away. We spent the day looking for tickets, and but nothing came of this. I did, however, get a case for my new contact lenses. Other than that the day was a wash. After intense dinnertime negotiations we decided to see about a trip to Aleppo. We decided to drive up there and back the next day unless we found a perfect hotel very easily, in which case we would stay there for a day or two. It was a great trip. Of course, it was rushed, but I’m thrilled that I got to see some of the countryside in Syria.

That morning a man picked us up, and we headed out at 8 am. I thought leaving Damascus for the day would give my lungs a rest from the smog, but I was wrong. This is the only thing about Syria that made me ready to leave. We arrived in Hama, where the water wheels are. As I stood there looking at the oldest surviving water wheels in the world, I must admit I also thought about what the city must have been like in 1982. Moving on we stopped for breakfast at a place on the side of the road that had amazing food. They served us cheese covered in honey. It was so good. Everything was good. The funny thing about Syria for me is that I love the eggplant, but usually don’t care for the hummus, whereas in Jordan I love the hummus and usually don’t care for the eggplant. Go figure. We went to an archaeological village site, the name of which I do not know. Several hours later we arrived in Aleppo. I didn’t realize until I saw the road signs that this is not the Arabic name for the town.

Aleppo deserves a paragraph of it’s own. I had wanted to see Aleppo for many years now. I have talked to people who have been there, and based on this I had an image in mind that turned out to be almost entirely wrong. I thought it would be a small town, and I thought it would be like small towns in NorCal, but made of honey-colored limestone. Wrong. The outskirts of Aleppo are filled with new and beautiful apartment buildings made of marble. The windows and doors are trimmed in a dark wood carved in art noveau-looking designs. It’s thoroughly modern looked, though. I cannot overstate how amazing it is to drive into a town constructed entirely of marble! Everything, even the gas stations, are made of marble. Marble paves the adjacent countryside, and mining operations are continuous. This, coupled with the fact that Aleppo is a big city with a lot of cars, made the smog situation analogous to Damascus. We drove by the Umayyad Mosque there, and it was beautiful. We continued on through a souk and arrived at the Aleppo Castle. This structure is amazing. The steps leading up to the entrance are ancient, and as a result they are polished. Walking up to the castle is thus treacherous as it’s like walking up a glass ramp. Inside, we saw many men working on restoration projects all over the grounds. In fact, all through Aleppo we saw infrastructure improvement projects. I suspect in a year or two, the city will be much easier to walk around. I saw a fleur de lit design over a doorway. “I,” who is an art historian, explained to me that much of what we now call European art is actually stolen Arab art. He said a lot of the motifs used in Europe were imported through Spain during Arab rule, but subsequently art historians have claimed that Europe exported these designs. We stopped at a café, and then headed west (I think) about 40 minutes to a castle on a hill. We drove through fields of marble. It’s really amazing. We arrived at this castle right before they closed, and though we were thrown out, we did have to place to ourselves for about 20 minutes. It was really beautiful there.

On our last day, we went to an Islamic Shrine about 10 kilometers from Damascus. “I” wanted to see as many of these as possible since this may become the focus of his dissertation. I don’t know how to adequately describe what it was like for me there. Both L and I were issued abayas, and then we were quickly separated from “I” who wanted to go in and see the shrine. He took my camera because it’s a bit better than his, and because I was uncomfortable taking pictures there. Besides, he takes better pictures than I do. L and I headed to the shoe check in place, and then we were in. The mosque is amazing. Inside, the room is covered in mosaics, but the tiles are all mirrors cut into different shapes. The place shimmers. Every pillar is covered in colored tiles. It’s really stunning. The women were kissing everything, and rubbing their clothing on the shrine and the doorway. Most of the women were weeping, and one woman got so worked up that she crawled outside and threw up. It was intense. We headed outside and picked up our shoes. We met “I” in the courtyard and he took dozens of pictures. We headed back to the Old City.

There, we headed down an alley and into a restaurant for some lunch. This is one of those restaurants that’s three stories tall, but really skinny. We shimmied up the stairs and had some chicken and cola. Then we went to a coffee shop that has a botanical garden attached to it. We sat in a lovely building with a wooden roof and a stone fireplace and had lattes. Then, we headed for the part of the souk where the yarn is. L and “I” chose several skeins of silk yarn. I told them I’d make them a blanket, and I had a choice of acrylic yarn or silk for the same price. That was a tough decision. I got 6 big skeins of silk for about 4 USD.

Then it was time to head home. We went to the bus station, next to which is a yard of taxis. The sign said (in Arabic) that Damascus to Amman costs 500 Syrian Pounds. The man told us it would be 600. 600 is still a bargain, but the sign indicated the prices were set. So, I pointed out the sign to “I,” and we were off for 500. The guy who drove us back is Jordanian. He told us he’d sat there in Damascus for 3 days waiting for a tourist so he could make some money and come home. Once we crossed into Jordan, he called his wife, and he almost drove off the road when his wife suggested she would bathe and be ready for him! He drove us back to our apartment instead of dropping us at Abdali, and for this I’m grateful. We shopped a lot, and “I” bought a huge suitcase to fit all their stuff, and switching taxis downtown did not sound appealing. It was a great trip. I can’t wait to go back next month!

20 November 2006

California

I was in the bay area for a professional meeting and couldn’t resist having breakfast at my favorite spot in the city, The Crepevine. Besides the clever name, they have some absolutely wonderful food at rather reasonable prices. If you visit San Francisco, you can find them on Irving in the Richmond – just look for the blue van in front.

From there I headed across the Bay Bridge into Berkley to visit Lacis, Frances’ favorite craft store. I was planning to do some early Xmas shopping, but unfortunately, they were closed.

Having been thwarted, I decided to take the long way home and drive Highway 1 along the coast. It was absolutely beautiful. A soft cool breeze lifted off the Pacific and carried the scent of pine, sage, fennel, and eucalyptus growing on the shore cliffs. Traffic was light, which meant I could drive the speed limit rather than 20 MPH below following some stupid, slow dinosaur of an SUV driven by a fat republican fearful of curves and change. I was surprised that the stretch of road near Lucia and cutting through a green schist outcrop is still unpaved! I reached San Luis Abysmal at sunset and rejoined the 101 through LA and on to home.

13 November 2006

Syria: Worth the Wait


Slides are here.

I’m back in Amman after an amazing three-day weekend. Three of my classmates and I went to Damascus, as you know. Two of us are American, one Australian, and one Danish. We met down at the Abdali bus station on Friday morning, and a cab driver said he’d get us to Damascus for 9 JD each. That seemed a bit steep, but we wanted to go. S, the other American asked him, “It’s no problem for us [Americans] to get a visa at the border?” Then the famous words of woe: “No problem!” We drove northish through Zarqa, and to the border where we were stalled for over an hour as the midday call to prayer sounded, and the bureaucrats disappeared. Everything shut down long enough to allow mobs of people to “line” up. Our taxi needed to be inspected, the driver needed documentation, and we needed exit stamps. That done, we drove through a sort of no mans land to the Syrian bureaucracy building. There, the Syrian guy asked both S and I why we didn’t get visas in “our country.” I tried and ran out of time? I really just thought perhaps you’d let me in since I didn’t vote for Bush? What does one say at a time like this. I just shrugged. He squished up his face, and said, “This could take 4 or 5 hours.” He looked at our companions Danish passport and said that was “ok,” then he looked at our companions Australian passport, and he said, “Welcome to Syria!” Both J and S2, the Dane, had their visas in 20 minutes. We sat in an office with elementary school-style seating (little wooden desks with uncomfortable wooden chairs) well past sunset. The guy told us they had to wait for a fax from Damascus. I was worried since S had been to the West Bank, and had a replacement passport issued in Amman. I was sure he was not going. 7.5 hours later, all of us starving, the night crew of Syrian bureaucrats announced that we were in! They made us tea. We were all suffering from caffeine withdraw, and S2 had smoked his last cigarette hours before. The guards kindly gave him smokes. He told them he’d never travel with Americans again. S told him that someday our tanks would roll down the streets of Copenhagen. Then, I reminded S2 that his embassy was more trashed than ours in Damascus. The Syrians were laughing! Oh well. We were in Syria in a border town, and no taxi. The guards on this side made us more tea, and we all practiced our Arabic. They were so nice, and the guy in charge insisted on paying our way to Damascus. He stopped a car, and told the driver to take us to the bus station, and gave him money for the ride and to buy us tickets. The driver didn’t seem to mind having his vehicle taken over. We picked up another hitchhiker on the way. This fellow was studying classical Arabic at the University, and we chatted on the drive. He invited us to his home to stay the night and eat. The people are so kind. By the time we arrived at the bus station, these two men made sure we were on the right bus, and gave us some hotel advice.

I passed out on the bus, so I don’t know how long the trip took. Perhaps just over an hour? We arrived at the bus station in Damascus, and a young man gave everyone cigarettes, and walked us to a hotel (probably half a kilometer from the station) and made sure we were ok before he walked back. The people really were so amazing and kind. As we schlepped our stuff through Damascus, people handed us food. We must have looked awful and in need of food! After we got a hotel, we went up the street to a French restaurant. The four of us had drinks, and tons of food (S2 had beef medallions, J had an amazing chicken dish, and S had a Saudi style meat dish that looked like Mansif). The bill was 700 pounds, or about 14 USD. The mix of French and Arab food was perfect for me.

The next morning we walked passed the Hijaz Train Station to the Old City via the amazing market there. We walked through the market early enough that no one was there but the shop keepers who sell Nescafe. We stopped for coffee at a place that looked like an old fashioned American ice cream parlor, but it was plastered in Hezbollah posters. There were also two pictures of King Abdullah eating the sweets there. One of the young men asked me where I’m from, and I said I’m an American living in Amman. He grinned and said, “I’m glad you came to see Syria.” Me too. The market gives way to one side of the Umayyad Mosque in front of which is a marble courtyard where people were feeding birds. It was so tranquil. We continued on until we found a restaurant where we had an amazing European/Arab breakfast for almost free. The great thing about Syria is that even though we are paying tourist prices, I still feel like I’m getting an amazing bargain! We spent our only full day in Damascus walking around the Old City. It is divided into quarters. Every shop is beautiful. There are grapes, or some viney plant that reach over most of the overhead space, making the walkways really beautiful and quaint.

We went to the Umayyad Mosque, where J and I had to dawn silly suits to gain entrance. I probably could have just put my scarf over my head, but I think the folks there assumed I didn’t know how to do it properly. Fair enough. Suited up, we went in. We four spent almost an hour sitting on the marble outside in the sun. It was beautiful and quite, and the sun felt good. We walked through the mosque. The tile work is indescribable. Amazing.

Continuing on, we went into a souvenir shop that seemed to specialize in Hezbollah goods. The shopkeeper talked with S and I for a while. People wanted to know about the States. The Syrians have many polite ways of asking, “What the hell is wrong with you people?” We didn’t get into politics directly, but instead talked about the “culture” of America, which I took as code for the “politics” of America. We walked out of there with t-shirts and key chains. These are interesting times.

For lunch we went to a place where we had a fondue sort of thing with chicken and fresh bread. Tea, coffee, and smoking followed. By this time, my stomach hurt from laughing so much. My traveling companions were really suited to me, and I’m pretty picky. They are all wicked funny, and there was a great mix of making fun of each other and bonding. Both S2 and J made fun of S and I for being American, we insisted they were insecure because they “hate our freedom,” and all that other stupid stuff Bush says. S and I decided, quite coincidently, not to fib to anyone about our nationality. Only once have I actually lied to a person (in Jordan) about my nationality. I was at Hasham’s alone, and a man approached me and asked me where I’m from, and everyone turned to watch me answer. “I’m from Vancouver!” I don’t think it would have made any difference, but at that moment I decided to be Canadian. But, since then I decided that I don’t want to live here if I’m afraid. I don’t ever want to feel that way here. I never have, and I don’t want to indulge that great love for fear Americans have. So, I told everyone that asked. Not a single person was rude to us. I had about 80 gallons of tea this weekend. People were interested in talking. One shopkeeper asked us where we’re from, and S answered “the States,” and the man stood up and said, “Well, then we must have tea!” We sat in his shop and had sweet tea while we asked him about the city, and he asked us about the States.

Later we decided to see the other Quarters. I’m not sure which Quarter we were in, but it was the Quarter opposite the Umayyad Mosque, when a man walked by us carrying a Kalashnikov with the magazine in it. I’ve never seen that before. S, I should say here, went to Iraq for a year, and nearly jumped out of his skin upon seeing this. He didn’t look at us, or say anything, but it was strange. It was so strange that I wasn’t afraid; it was surreal. We walked into what I presume what the Christian Quarter from there (there was beer for sale). Then we headed back toward the Mosque, and got lost in the “suburban” parts there. A little kid rounded the corner and saw us 4 and said, “Mafi Taraq,” pointing behind him. “There’s no way there.” Thanks to small children, we found our way back onto the streets of Damascus, and headed back to the hotel.

Later that night we met up with two American students and went to dinner. The only thing I don’t like about Syria is this: they put bowls (bowls!) of mayonnaise on the table which fool me into thinking there is yogurt in front of me, and then I eat it! Ick! What the heck? One American was really nice, and the other reminded me why I don’t like Americans. The restaurant was cool. It was the size of an airplane hanger, and it was packed. We headed back to the hotel where another American showed up, and S2 argued with them until about 3 am. I fell asleep.

The next morning, we packed up and headed down to the market one last time. I picked up three skeins of hand-dyed yarn for 3 USD. We looked into renting an apartment in Damascus so we can visit often. For those prices, I will need to visit often. S2 bought a coat that is reversible. It’s navy blue on one side, and white on the other. The blue side has a picture of a helicopter, and it says “ARMY” on it. We made relentless fun of this jacket for the rest of the day. That jacket is perfect for him.

We walked to the bus station and got on a bus headed for Amman. Big mistake. We drove for about 30 minutes and stopped for an hour. Then, we made it to the place where we needed to be stamped out, and that took an hour. Then we drove about 500 feet and stopped for an hour. For reasons I still don’t understand, a man got off the bus “for 5 minutes,” and one hour later returned. The other passengers gave him hell! Then we drove about a mile to Jordan where we waited an hour for people to get their paperwork done to enter Jordan. Then we drove about 50 feet to a market where we sat for an hour. We left Damascus at 4, and arrived back at Abdali at 9. Madness.

I don’t care if takes 7.5 hours each time, I would go back in a minute. Still, I like Amman, and I’m happy to be “home.” It was good to come in on the bus and see things that are familiar. What I liked about Syria is that there is a sort of liberal attitude that is still not quite Western. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the Arabs there can have fun and they don’t need to go to Starbucks or KFC to do it.

Views from Home across Seasons

Dogwood in Spring

View from the rim

A very cold Winter

11 November 2006

Syria

Greetings from Damascus. We took a taxi from Amman to the border yesterday where I and the other American with our group waited for 7 hours for a visa. The guards took pity on us and made us tea. When we finally made it through, the guards paid our way to Damascus. The people here are really kind, and the food is wonderful. We are in a hotel near the bus station. I can see the Hijaz Railroad station from my room. We walked to the Old City this morning, and we've been wondering around for several hours. We have a three day weekend because it's King Hussein's birthday, and except that we lost one day waiting for visas, it's been really fun. We are going to see everything we can today, and head back to Amman tomorrow afternoon.

07 November 2006

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?



With the elections, I mean. I couldn't get a California State ballot here, but I dropped off a "Federal Ballot" at the "castle" a few days ago. Keep your fingers crossed for a Republican smack-down!

05 November 2006

Happy Guy Fawkes Day

Remember, remember the fifth of November...

04 November 2006

Egypt: I Went So You Don't Have To!


(Slide show is here.)

I don’t know where to begin. Our Eid Holiday was amazing, and I mean that in both good and bad ways. It began on the last night of fasting. My neighbor knocked on my door and asked me if I was ready to go. I got my purse and walked out of my apartment. He said, “That’s all you’re taking to Aqaba?” He wanted to get on a bus and head 5 hours south of Amman when none of us had eaten or had water for 12 hours. I packed my bag like I was evacuating the building because of fire. We got to the bus station, and got our tickets, and then went across the street to Domino’s Pizza (the only thing open) and got Cheesy Stix and a liter of Pepsi. Bluck. 5 hours later we were in Aqaba after a terrible and loud bus ride.

Aqaba is beautiful. It’s also freaking’ hot. My neighbor’s brother and his family have lived down there for a long time. The brother, M, works for the port authority. He’s the dude in the big tower in the Gulf that makes sure ships coming in actually have on them what their paperwork indicates they should have. Needless to say, M has a baseball cap from every country in the world, I think. I met his wife and their 4 kids. Kids ages range from 4 to 11ish. They live in a one bedroom apartment away from the tourist part of town. Aqaba is an interesting town. It’s clean and beautiful, and the people are friendly, but more and more foreign interests are moving in and I can’t see how the locals are going to sustain there. Jordan has something like 11 miles of coastline. It’s not much, and they way it’s used seems stupid to me. They’ve got a royal palace on the beach. Fair enough. Then there are a zillion nice hotels (Movenpick, etc.) that have private beach. One of the last bits of beach was sold to the Lebanese president’s daughter, or something. Thus, there is about half a mile of public shoreline in the whole country. Weird.

M had us over to their apartment for lunch two times during our stay. I have to say, that was the best food I have ever had in Jordan. This was a problem because we had this amazing food, and then went to Egypt where we had few good meals. We were spoiled. I should remind you this is a Bedouin family. We go into their apartment, take our shoes off, kiss the kids, and sit on the floor in a foyer where there is a TV, and at night this is where the kids sleep. M’s wife made so much food. She made fish and chicken and salad and hibiscus juice, and tea, and they got us some cold coke at “I’s” request. I ate two pieces of chicken, about a cup of yogurt, about a cup of salad, and probably three pounds of bread. Neither the wife nor the kids eats with us. (This is the one thing I don’t like.) Mrs. M sat in the kitchen around the corner and kept asking M to report to her how much L and I were eating. When she finally emerged from the kitchen, and looked at me, and said “Koolie, koolie,” which I have learned means “Eat all of this including the table cloth; you’re too skinny,” in Arabic. We moved into the reception room and by this time a cold had settled into my sinuses. M’s wife made me tea with Gurfa, which is cinnamon. Cinnamon in Jordan is different (and better) than what we have in the States. It’s like wood chips instead of tubes, and in tea it’s amazing. I drank all of it. Then she made me tea with thyme. It was so good. I fell asleep right on the spot. This is ok. I’ve learned, traveling with a Bedouin, that they disdain water and sleep. In fact, the first night we visited M and his family we were there until 3 am, and when one of the kids yawned, everyone made fun of her. This quickly shifted to me over the next week-point-five as I was made fun of when I was tired or thirsty. The only time it’s ok to sleep is after a meal. We went back to M’s apartment the next day for another amazing meal, and M’s wife made me so much tea. It was so good on my throat. I was sad to leave their apartment. This is a poor family, and I’m hard pressed to think of people who are more generous. M told me that when Kevin visits, we have a standing invitation to Aqaba. I really miss sitting in their apartment drinking tea and watching the family interact. The only room with furniture is the reception room, but everyone sits on the floor. Classic Bedouin.

We went on a boat ride in the Gulf. The water is like glass, I could see to the sea floor. It’s really unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The boat guy told us that after World War II ended some military vehicles were dumped off in the Gulf. Now they are habitat. You can see a tank in some of the pictures. It’s interesting to be in this part of the Middle East. From the boat we could see Egypt, Eliat (sp?), a gaudy city in Israel, Aqaba, and Saudi Arabia. The Israelis must be a bit nervous. Some Jordanian’s sent a rocket (or two) into Israel from Aqaba last year. It’s so close.

After 3 days in Aqaba we decided to try and go to Egypt. Again, this was done rather like we were evacuating from a fire. We left the hotel and took a taxi down to the port where we wanted to catch a boat to Nueibaa, Egypt. There are two options to get there. The slow boat, and the fast boat. The slow boat is the one that sank last year on its way from Saudi to Egypt. So, we got our slow boat tickets, and then we were stamped out of Jordan and let into a large parking lot that had only one mosque and one Pepsi vendor. There were about a billion people there. We were told that they were returning from Umrah (that’s going to Mecca at any time other than the Hajj). M called us and told us we were idiots for doing this. The slow boat was really delayed, possibly for a few days. We decided to just go back to Aqaba. But, wait, we were stamped out of the country, and Jordan would not let us back in until we came from another country. In other words, we were stuck there. Some people had been there 5 days already. One Palestinian woman told us she’d come from the West Bank 3 days before. Her baby was sick, and no one was going to let her out, or offer her help. “I” called M back, and M told us to walk to one person in particular and hand him our phone. We did this, and within one hour we (and the Palestinian family) were on a bus to the dock of the fast boat. We were in the port for about 4 hours total. We got on the boat and were escorted to the head of the line, and put in First Class. “I” said it was because we had American passports. That’s kinda’ gross to me. The boat ride took about an hour. During that time we got one stamp (but no visas) for Egypt, and the rep confiscated our passports and said we could pick them up at the police station after we paid our entrance fee. That made me really nervous! From the boat we walked into a parking lot the side of a football field (the standard American measurement) that was covered in luggage. Some where in there was my suitcase! Did I mention it was about 1:30 am? We still had to find where to buy visas, where to find our passports, and where TF my suitcase was. (Actually, it’s my parents suitcase!) Our priority was finding our passports. We found the popo station after an hour of asking and getting conflicting directions. We paid, and received our visas and passports. Whew. Then we spend over an hour combing through mountains of luggage until we actually found my suitcase. Honestly, I cannot think of a more retarded system that what they do there. It’s really stupid. As we tried to leave the port, the cop stopped us and wanted to know where “I” is from, and what he’s doing with two [white] Americans. This was just the beginning of our time in Egypt. We told most people that L is his wife, and I’m her sister. People were confused since we all had wedding rings.

I don’t know how to adequately describe Nueibaa to you. The port was a microcosm of the town. The place is filthy, and the people are hostile. We asked a hotel worker if we could use his restroom and he said, “buy a room, there are toilets in there.” Much to “I’s” horror, both L and I pissed in his parking lot. What a jerk! As we walked out, I said to him, “I told you I going to piss at your hotel either way!” Welcome to Egypt! Then we needed a taxi to Sharm Al Sheikh (“Sharm” means “crack,” btw). The taxi drivers surrounded us, and proceeded to tell us that we’re cheap and that we’re all liars. They literally surrounded us, and ganged up. Everyone was yelling. For the first time in the Middle East I was actually scared for my safety. There were about 8 men, and only 3 of us. Eventually we found a guy who drove us to the Sheikh’s crack. At 3 am he stopped his car in the middle of a 4 lane road and told us to “get out”. I asked if he might take us, oh, I don’t know… to a hotel? “Get out of my taxi.” We were standing on an island on a highway in a busy part of S al S. Welcome to Egypt! We eventually crossed through the traffic, and went into hotel after hotel. We were denied. We decided that “I” should go in and speak English instead of Arabic, and see if our luck changed. On our 5th hotel (and by 4am) L went in to a hotel that had just turned down “I”. She got us two rooms. When “I” and I walked in the guy behind the desk looked really upset. He had told “I” 5 minutes before that there were no rooms. “I” asked him what changed, and the guy said, “Look, you came in here speaking English, but you’re Arab, and I didn’t know what was going on!” In this guys defense, S al S is bombed every year now, and last year it was done by English-speaking Bedouin guys (such as “I”). “I” pushed it, and said, “I think you know I’m Muslim, just like I know you’re Coptic and that’s why you didn’t give me a room. You people don’t like Arabs.” The hotel guy said, “I don’t like Arabs.” Wow. The hotel was actually nice. We had little cottages that were done up in colorful mosaics, and were right on the beach. Bottom line: if you’re Coptic or white, you’re welcome in S al S. Everywhere we went the tourist police stopped us and asked “I” where he’s from, and why he’s with us. He stopped carrying his Jordanian ID and carried his American passport with him. That shuts them up! S al S is Palm Springs on the Red Sea. I didn’t care for it there. Too many Westerners. Too much bullshit.

We met a wonderful taxi driver whom we hired to take us to Cairo the next day. It’s quite a drive from S al S to Cairo. The best meal I had in Egypt was in Mt. Sinai Village. The taxi driver insisted on stopping for food. We had these wonderful pitas filled with veggies, falafel, and a dressing that had the consistency of good mustard, but it was spicy. Eventually, we drove under the Suez Canal (!) and entered Africa proper. The taxi driver showed us the paper money he keeps folded into little squares to pay bribes. We had to bribe some dude to gain access to the Canal traffic. What a country! Once at Cairo, the driver had to hand us off to a Cairo taxi. I was sad to see him go. We drove around Cairo for several hours trying to find a hotel. It was much like S al S. The people were not bashful about their hostility toward “I” and their desire for “tips”.

We ended up at a hotel in New Cairo. The next morning we went to Giza. We hired a private car, and it even had AC! The pyramids in Giza now sit right next to the squalid poverty of Eastern Cairo. We drove up to the Pyramids along side an open canal (sewer?) filled with trash and I saw three dead horses and two dead dogs right on the road. Seriously. WTF? The Pyramids were both amazing and tiring. The locals have quite a racket with pictures. Going as individuals, they descended upon us. We were told that we couldn’t take any pictures unless they said it was ok, and unless we had their camels, horses, etc. in the picture, for which there is a fee. I just wanted a picture of me standing in front of them, but I had to have this fucking camel in the picture. I told the guy I’d give him 20 if he’d just go away. But, they insist on peddling these horrific Orientalist images of Egypt. When it was said and done he said, “You can pay me what ever you want to for this.” “I will pay you nothing then.” He had a chance for a 20. He yelled at me. He told me I’m cheap, and I’m shameful. Welcome to Egypt! The Sphinx is neat. Did you know he has a tail? I didn’t know that. The one thing Egypt does right is they fence off most of their monuments, and they don’t let the guys in who sell souvenirs. From the Sphinx we could see men lined up with their arms stretched through the fence holding bags, hats, shirts, and post cards. But they couldn’t get in! My advice: the Pyramids have lost all mystery for me thanks to the Discovery Channel. Skip it, and save yourself from going to Cairo!

After that we went to the one thing in Cairo I really loved: the Cairo Castle, it’s a big mosque on a hill with a killer view of the city. I think this is the same mosque on a piece of currency, but don’t quote me on that. It was beautiful and quiet. We had trouble getting in since all the cops wanted to know who “I” is and why he was with us. American passports are good for something! The mosque was beautiful, but I was shocked that they let in the tourists, and we didn’t have to cover our hair. Toward the time of sunset the cops started yelling at “I” to stop taking pictures and for us to leave. They were questioning him, and generally being bitches. “I” took my camera and jumped over the rope to access the cliff edge and snap some killer pictures of the view. I took the picture of the city with the Pyramids in the hazy back ground, and he took the pictures of the city after that. The tourist police, as far as I can tell, make a living by being shitty to tourists. One cop cornered me, told me I’m beautiful, and tried to touch my hair! “I” said I’m not allowed to punch the men here, so I shoved the guy back and yelled for “I”. When the cop saw “I” he booked it out of there. Nice. Other than the people, I really liked it up there. I could appreciate how massive Cairo is without smelling diesel. It was beautiful!

We spent our remaining time in Cairo trying to find a decent meal. “I” asked one guy, “All the Egyptians make the best hummus in Jordan, why can’t they make good food in Egypt?” We tried to make plans to fly to Luxor, or back to Amman from Cairo. We learned the hard way that in Egypt an individual can do nothing. The only way to accomplish anything is to ask someone, and let them rip you off. Unless we were willing to pay “tips” we were going nowhere. L and I asked the hotel dude to see if we could go to Luxor, and then back to Amman. Though Luxor is an international airport, there are no direct flights (at least, not for us), so our trip took us to Luxor, back to Cairo, and then to Amman the next day. We flew to Luxor the next day.

Luxor is beautiful, and the people are wonderful. This is the only place in Egypt I would ever visit again if I had to go back. We stayed at a wonderful hotel called the Iberotel. I give them props, they were wonderful. The rooms were clean and nice, the buffet was amazing, and the folks there were helpful and friendly. The guy who cleaned my room made the bedspreads and towels into these amazing swan-origami sculptures, and made nature scenes. He even incorporated my nearly-finished knitting project into one of the scenes. My jacket made a wonderful set of wings for one swan!

We hired a taxi that took us from site to site. At the place where all the big tombs are, we argued with the ticket agent for almost ten minutes. Because “I” has a Jordanian ID, he can get into these sites for nearly free. L can as well because they are married. I have a student ID which should get me a good discount, but half the people in Luxor said my ID was not valid. “I” finally just started telling all the ticket people that L and I are both his wives. So, for many places I paid the “Arab” rate. We got our tickets, and hiked in. The walk from the ticket booth to the first tomb is about a mile, maybe a bit more. It’s hot there too. We got up there, and they allow no photography. Great! “I” talked them out of making me turn in my camera. He promised to take no photos. We went into two tombs, and they are amazing. I couldn’t stay long. They are deep into the mountains, and some were crowded; this sends me to the exit pretty quickly. We came upon the tomb for Tut, and we tried to go in. The guys there told us that we needed an extra ticket for 70 pounds to go in, and we needed to get that ticket at the gate (one mile away). There was no indication of this up until that moment. I couldn’t believe it! How fucked up! We decided to look at the other tombs and see how we felt. We tried to go in the 4th (of maybe 12) tombs, and the guy there said our tickets were good only for three, and we needed to get another ticket to see more. Again, I can’t think of a more disorganized and stupid way to do this. I was pissed. We left. I stood at the entrance to the tomb of King Tut, and never went in. Welcome to Egypt!

The temples are more agreeable. You can photograph anything, and go inside most. They are beautiful, and not as crowded. I think everyone wants to see the tombs. There are tour guides (sort of) who sit around the temples, but they don’t bug anyone. If you ask them a question, they gladly answer, but they don’t push themselves on anyone. (Were Jordan like this, it would be a perfect tourist destination.)

One night in Luxor we saw three weddings. They parade down by the water with loud drums and horns. It’s really cool. All three couples looked terrified! They were married on Halloween.

There is so much to see around the town. It’s easy to travel to by taxi, and worth seeing. I loved the food at the hotel, and we were all sad to leave Luxor. We had to fly into Cairo and spend one more night until we could return to Amman the following evening. We arrived in Cairo at 1 am, and walked to the Movenpick where L had made on-line reservations a few evening prior. They had no record of my reservation. The guy behind the desk said that there were no rooms, and looked at me. I said, “This is my last night in Egypt. I will never return. If you would please get me a room without robbing me, or fucking with me any further than your countrymen have already done so I can go home without believing this entire city is populated with thieves.” “I” started laughing. The fellow told me that there was one room, but it was an executive suite, for 140 USD. It included free internet and a better breakfast in a room reserved for the executive suite people. Fine. The room was not as nice as most Motel 6 rooms are. It smelled like mold. The AC didn’t work. The tub did not drain. I went to the business center, and was told that my room was not an executive suite, but I could purchase internet access downstairs. The next morning I went back for breakfast, and was told that my room did not merit the special breakfast, but I could purchase the buffet from downstairs. The buffet, for 130 L.E. (25 USD or so) had fruit, yogurt and coco crispies. I had the same room as “I” and L had, but for 40 dollars more. When I went to check out I told the guy he needed to take the breakfast buffet charges off of my bill, or I would going to raise my voice. I asked for a discount on the room because it sucked, and instead of answering me he began to help other patrons. I don’t think I had left my invisibility cloak on. I paid with our American Express, and I plan on disputing the charge. Shame on the Movenpick, and shame on the thieves who work there!

We schlepped our crap to the airport. We had to argue to be allowed access to the ticket counter. Again, they wanted to know where “I” is from, and why he is with us. We just all insisted that we’re a married couple with American passports. They really don’t know what to do with that! We checked in, and as I was getting my ticket a man tried to push me aside to get his ticket. I forgot to tell you that everyone in Cairo pushes! I’ve never been shoved so much in my life. I grabbed his wrists and told him I’d break them if he didn’t step back. He was shorter than I am. His wife laughed quietly. He said something rude to me in Arabic. I got my ticket, and then to passport control. Our visas were expired by one day. I went up alone, and pretended not to understand anything anyone said to me. Both L and I got through easy, but “I” was again held up. Finally, we made it through. Hours later we boarded the plane. A woman behind me tried to cut in front of me, and I blocked her. She jabbed her 10 fingers into my back to hurry me onto the plane. I offered to break her fingers for her. What is it with pushing in Egypt? I was so happy to be on the plane. We flew business class back to Amman. I sat next to a nice Jordanian man who turned to me when we landed in Amman and said, “Welcome to Jordan.” I got my luggage and we took a cab back home. No arguments; people did not gang up on us.

I have an appreciation for Jordan beyond what I ever imagined I could have for this country. I really didn’t realize how user-friendly this place is for a tourist until I went to Egypt. The people here are so kind and friendly. No one has ever asked “I” why he is traveling with two [white] women here. I don’t know why there is not more tourism here. It makes me sad; this country is so nice. No one has ever pushed me. In fact, no one has ever touched me here. The food is amazing. The driving is not so crazy! Welcome to Jordan!