Thursday, November 19, 2009

I heart Dahab

Goats in the rear view mirror.

We got off the bus in Dahab and breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The ride from Cairo took 11 hours. The bus wasn’t nearly as bad as we expected; offering a/c, comfortable seats, and a collection of slap-stick Arabic movies, played continually [and at an alarmingly loud volume]. The scenery we drove through was pretty spectacular – empty desert-scapes, majestic rocky mountain views, and the impressive sight of the Suez Canal.

We got a room at the Red Sea Relax [which might be the nicest place I’ve ever stayed], went for a walk along the beach, and found a restaurant on the water to eat and smoke sheesha.

Then…we got stuck.

The Red Sea Relax


We only intended to stay Dahab for one night; after all, we had things to do, places to see, rocks to climb! But somehow, we decided to stay another day…and then another….and….another…Matt changed his gmail status message to: ‘In Dahab, contemplating not leaving.’

As we spent more time in Dahab, we also met lots of other people who had gotten stuck there for varying amounts of time. Preston had come for 2 days and stayed 8; two Australian girls had come for a week and stayed 3 months; Lorraine had come for a two week diving course and was still there…4 years later. [Lorraine, a British podiatrist-turned-scuba-instructor, and I had a really nice conversation one afternoon about how the grass is always greener, choosing to live outside of ‘normalcy’, and the difficultly of having both things and time.]

It’s pretty easy to understand how people get stuck in Dahab. A laid back international beach community, it offers stunning scenery [rocky mountains plunging into the Red Sea], rock climbing, world class scuba diving, near perfect weather, and excellent food that is shockingly cheap.

I mean…sure…there’s also some downsides: an unstable political status and uncertain future, an incomprehensible and corrupt legal system, rumors of terrorist activity…bomb scares. But really, who’s thinking about any of that when you’re laying in the sun, or staring out over the Red Sea at the breath-taking view of….oh right, that’s Saudi Arabia in the distance.


We only did one day of climbing while we were staying in Dahab. We went to a place called Wadi Gnai, about 20 minutes from where we were staying. We hired Mohammad, a Bedouin guide, to take us out in his 4WD Toyota truck. He insisted on making us tea and cooking us lunch. [?!! How can we get a system like this going in Rumney? Pay for a ride to the crag and it comes with a Bedouin who’s psyched to cook lunch? Don’t worry, I’m just kidding…I’m not really advocating ethnic exploitation…although it was a very enjoyable, and cushy, day of climbing.]

Wadi Gnai.

Mohammad cooking lunch.

The routes we did were fun -- single pitch, on well-bolted granite with super technical balance-y moves. I don’t know why we only did one day…partly out of laziness, I suppose…but hanging out at the beach doing nothing was surprisingly fun. Oh right, so this is what normal people [i.e. non-climbers] do on vacation…I get it now.

We went snorkeling at a place called the Blue Hole, which was amazing. It’s apparently a pretty famous spot for scuba diving and for free diving. [A quick Wikipedia search reveals that a number of the world records for free diving have been set either at Dahab or Sharm-el-Sheik, an hour south.]

I didn’t know that much about free diving before our trip to Sinai, but I’m now convinced that it is one of the more impressive and absolutely insane things that people do voluntarily. The pursuit, also called competitive apnea, involves diving down to absurd depths, under water, with no oxygen. Apparently competitive free divers can put themselves into a meditative state that, when combined with an instinctual survival reflex, initiates several physiological changes [drop in heart rate, constriction of blood vessels, release of oxygenated red blood cells], allowing people to achieve mind-boggling depths…more than 200 m below the surface. 200 m!!??

Here is a video of someone free diving the Arch at the Blue Hole [where we went snorkeling].

I suppose, free diving shares something with free soloing [climbing without a rope] – the drive to push the human body to it’s physical, mental, and emotional limits, the meditative aspect required to attain those limits, the completely non-existent room for error, the face-to-face confrontation with fear…and death.

All I know is that, while some people think rock climbing is scary, it’s got nothing on this. But then again, maybe it’s partly a personal preference…I don’t even really like to be underwater. And I always sucked at that game where you try to hold your breath and swim across the pool.


More goats.

We met a lot of cool people Dahab…3 girls from New Zealand who we, randomly, ran into again a few weeks later in Bethlehem [weird], and several guys who were on epic-ly long backpacking trips…10 months, a year, etc. A bunch of us had dinner one night at this fantastic roof-top seafood restaurant, where we swapped stories about bizarre adventures in random places over a shared mountain of calamari.

I don’t know what it was, exactly, but I came away from the meal feeling like I had somehow really changed a lot in the last couple of years without realizing it. In college I was perfectly happy to wander around Europe or Mexico or India, not knowing what I was doing there or why...just looking around and meeting people. But there on that beautiful restaurant rooftop in Dahab, in the company of a cadre of travelers, I really thought that I might be done with aimless backpacking.

I don’t know what happened…but I just don’t have the same desire to go somewhere for that long unless I have a reason to be there: a project to do, or people to visit…or rock climbing. I’m also just not as psyched about staying in the typical backpacker jaunts, i.e. really gross places – places where you know how dirty the sheets are, or where you put something over the drain at night to keep the roaches at bay. I liked our room at the Red Sea Relax. And while it was really cheap by American standards, it wasn't 10-month-backpacking-trip-cheap.

Oh no…does this mean I’m getting old?


Back in Boston, just in time for winter. What the hell was I thinking? Why didn’t I spend the summer and fall in New England, and then head to Israel in the winter? Why did I go to the Desert for the hottest months and then return to Boston for the coldest?

I flew back Saturday night and arrived in Philadelphia in time for sunrise. We had some mechanical issues on the connecting flight, requiring us to de-plane and apparently steal another aircraft from an unknowing group of passengers. The delay, which really only took about an hour in total, had the effect of visibly annoying a large percentage of the American passengers. There was lots of sighing, eye rolling, and complaining at the injustice of it all.

I don’t know if it was my lack of sleep, the surreal state of mind that is a common side effect of transcontinental travel, or a [Middle-East-induced] newfound tolerance for logistical mishaps, but for some reason I couldn’t share in my fellow passengers’ collective distress. I just sat there, content to be reading Love in the Time of Cholera, and figured we’d get there sooner or later, Insha Allah.

We did. And it’s good to be back. It’s funny the things you miss, without even realizing it…like being able to understand what people are saying, even if they’re not talking to you directly. I mean, it’s not that I make a habit of eavesdropping, but it’s nice to feel like I could, if I wanted to.

The surrealism of boarding a plane in the Middle East, going to sleep, and waking up in America was heightened by a phone call that I received just after landing at Logan. My college roommate, who I love dearly but who’s residence on the other coast prevents me from seeing her often enough, was coincidentally in Boston, staying at the Ritz. [Yes, the Ritz Carleton…just off the Boston Common. The circumstances by which she ended up there are surreal in and of themselves, but unfortunately folks, that is not my gossip to share.] Anyway, I headed over to where the other half lives [or rather, where they stay when they come to Boston], feeling under-dressed and very broke for a wonderful, if incongruous, welcome home.

Since then, surrealism has been slowly dissipating. More often than not, everything seems totally normal and I kindof feel like I never left Boston…except for that reoccurring conversation:

“Oh! You’re back! How was your trip?!”

[Holy shit, where do I even begin? I feel like telling them to read my blog.]

“Um…good. The Middle East is a crazy place.”

“Did you have a lot of fun?”

[Fun…hmm. Not exactly the first word that comes to mind when I think about Cairo, orJerusalem, or the West Bank, but somehow I have a feeling that’s not really where this conversation is going. Better to go with the stock answer:]

“Yea, for sure.”

“Cool. Did you take a lot of pictures? Are you glad to be back?”

“Yes and…um…yes?”


In the next few days, I’ll try to fill in the missing posts from my last few weeks in the Middle East.

Coming Soon:

I heart Dahab

Abdul Aziz Abu Fayed

Climbing Insha-Allah

Israel Road Trip Part 1: Eilat à J-Lem

Israel Road Trip Part 2: The North

Monday, November 2, 2009

Pyramids: never-before-seen photos!

Don’t worry, yes of course we went to the pyramids.

We opted against the hired driver service offered by our hostel [£160] and decided to take the public bus [£2 each] to Giza. This involved locating the public bus station [not obvious], figuring out which bus to take [thank you google], learning the Arabic numerals so we could recognize our bus [we needed not 357, but ٣٥٧], and then, of course, finding it [trust me, harder than it sounds].

I still don’t have a clue where one is supposed to find ٣٥٧, but eventually we asked for help from several uniformed “Tourist Police” who insisted on waiting with us and flagging down our bus when it drove by their post [under 2 intersecting overpasses next to the bus stop]. I assume this isn’t standard procedure, but it worked quite well. In general, being female and sweetly asking men in uniform for help usually works out okay. And in this region especially, there seems to be an indirect correlation between the rights women have in a particular culture and the willingness in that culture for officials to help out a lost-looking American female.

Honestly, the bus ride was kindof miserable – hot, loud, crowded, and filled with an almost overwhelming amount of car exhaust – but it was cheap and it got us to Giza relatively unscathed. I say “relatively” because I suffered a bit of personal discomfort after being groped by an old man with a bandage on his head sitting behind me. Without thinking, I immediately turned around and yelled “stop touching me!” publicly embarrassing both him and myself. After my outburst, the man immediately got up and exited the bus and I looked around to see dozens of Egyptian male faces staring back at me. Ick.


So… the pyramids are cool.

I don’t really know what else to say.

They are definitely big, impressive, and…pyramid-shaped. I mean, you know what they look like.

When I was there, I kept thinking about that book, Ways of Seeing, where Alan Berger writes about the irony of making a pilgrimage to the Louve to witness the “authentic” Mona Lisa after seeing millions of reproduced images over the course of one’s lifetime…only to feel disappointed by the diminutive size of the original.

We went inside the great pyramid to see the tomb, which was cool and bizarre, and a bit claustrophobic [not much air flow in there]. The surrounding area was, like the Egyptian museum, strangely devoid of signs, maps, and explanatory information and, surprisingly, filled with scantily-clad white foreign tourists. I mean, I’m not an overly modest person, but when traveling in Muslim countries I tend to observe a rather conservative dress code [in an effort to avoid, for example, getting molested on public buses.] I figured this would be standard in Cairo, but it’s not…we saw all sorts of women wearing all sorts of things I would never think to wear in public in the U.S., let alone in Egypt – bikini tops, see-through blouses, shorts with the same approximate coverage as my underwear.

Seriously?! Who goes to a museum wearing a bikini? At Matt’s request, I’ve included the following colorful description: “One girl, in particular, was wearing shorts that would make a stripper blush; a full 1/3 of each butt cheek was hanging out at any given moment. In fact, she was wearing less than any of the strippers we saw in Vegas last week at Dan’s bachelor party.”

I know I haven’t said much about the pyramids, but that’s all I got. We went because when you’re a foreign tourist in Cario you can’t not go to the pyramids. And we had a pretty typical experience – we looked around, took photos, and got hassled by tons of Egyptians hawking various incarnations of a super-aggressive tourism industry [private guides, “super-duper” camel rides, photo ops, cheesy souvineers]. But…now when we go home and everyone says “Egypt, wow! Did you go to the pyramids?” We can smile and say yes.

And then we went to Dahab, a.k.a paradise and changed our plans for the rest of our trip, editing out Petra and opting for more time in Sinai and Wadi Rum. One Middle East uber-tourist extravaganza per trip is more than enough.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Even in the cloudy mental haze of 3am, I knew I was in Cairo as soon as I stepped off the airplane. It was hot, dirty, and immediately disorienting.

My arrival was uneventful. Miraculously, my climbing gear arrived at the same time I did, despite having been checked to Cairo via Rome, and the fact that I already had Egyptian pounds in my wallet [along with Israeli shekels, Jordainian dinars, Euros, and US dollars…WTF?] made the requisite ritual of purchasing a visa that much easier. As soon as I stepped outside of the airport, Matt was there to meet me with a hired driver from our hostel, a fantastic surprise that had the added benefit of saving me from the hassle of negotiating with the overly aggressive cab drivers.

Downtown, we walked through a dilapidated door, up a decaying staircase [that doubled as an elevator shaft], passed a carpet-seller and what seemed to be the sleeping-spot-of-choice for a number of homeless men, as Matt assured me that our room was nice. He was right; as soon as we stepped on to the 3rd floor the ramshackle building we had entered was suddenly transformed into the relatively* clean and very friendly Australian Hostel.

[*Very-clean-in-Cairo is still rather dirty by American standards. It’s more like India-clean…no, actually, it’s dirtier than that…now that I think about it, in India I was often surprised by the cleanliness of interior spaces in contrast to the filthiness of their exterior fronts.]

Tuesday, after breakfast at the hostel, we went for a walk along the Nile. I didn’t have time to form much of a first-impression of the city, since the sum total of my mental/observational energy was directed towards surviving the re-occurring adventure that is crossing the street in Cairo.

[Coming: Matt note on the art of crossing the street in Cairo]

Drive thru coffee, Egyptian-style.

After a while, we managed to navigate our way to the Egyptian Museum without getting lost [let me assure you…this is a feat, in and of itself] where we took a brief respite from the air pollution and heavy exhaust fumes to see a bizarre collection of Egyptian relics. The museum was super weird; I mean, they obviously have an amazing collection of things…but the various antiquities [spanning several thousand years] are strewn about the gallery space with little perceptible organization and virtually no explanation of what they are or when they come from. With my [admittedly] weak knowledge of Egyptian history, I had the distinct feeling of being in an antique-store-turned-theme-park, but as we saw more and more I really began to enjoy the lack of discernible curation. It was as if the objects were stripped of all historical and cultural context…no longer artifacts documenting some historical narrative, they became simply cool-looking objects.

Let me give you an example…upstairs, passed the Mummies…there is a hall where several rooms are filled with small-ish objects organized by type [as opposed to chronology or geography or associated meaning, like you tend to find in American and European museums] – 46 idols of Ra here, 8 tables of gilded jewelry there, countless coins in another place.

One room seemed to be dedicated to things-written-on-papyrus…no sign, no explanation, just a collection of things-written-on-papyrus. There were large framed pieces with hieroglyphics and cases of smaller tattered pieces showing pictograms and Arabic calligraphy. Only a few had descriptive index cards; one, describing a nearby Arabic text read “rental agreement.” Matt and I looked at each other, confused. Rental agreement? In contemporary-ish Arabic? Sure, we’re not Egyptologists, but this historical document [from an unknown date] didn’t seem to have much in common with the hieroglyphics beside it…well, other than the fact that both were written on papyrus.


Cario has excellent cheap food.

Two examples: Gad, a local chain serving all kinds of snack/street food that is open 24 hrs and seems to be busy nearly all of them. Schwarma on “Egyptian bread” [i.e. pita] costs 5 Egyptian Pounds [or $ 0.92, with the current exchange rate]. And they make this amazing dessert thing out of fried bread, cream, honey, coconuts, and powdered sugar. Very healthy.

I think Koshary El Tahrir only serves one thing, the classic Egyptian favorite after which it is named. Koshary is a mix of macaroni, spaghetti, rice, black lentils, spicy tomato sauce, and fried onions, topped with garlic & chili sauces. At El Tahrir you can get a “small” bowl for £5 or a bigger one for £10. It’s actually a lot better than it sounds, but the other night while eating take-out, I had the distinct impression that I was eating something cooked up by a drunken college boy, after a long night of partying…

Cheap beer, however, is another story.

I know that drinking isn’t such a big thing in Egypt [given that alcohol is prohibited under Islam] but we figured it had to be possible somewhere in Cairo [population 17 million]. After consulting google, we set out in search of a pub called the Fat Black Pussy Cat [ok, I’ll admit, we chose that one mostly because of the name] which was reported to be located within walking distance of our hostel. It took us about 15 minutes to get utterly lost, at which point we strolled into an area that was decidedly less modern and more crowded, than anywhere else we had been. I think I might have been the only female in sight, a fact I had trouble ignoring because of the [literally] hundreds of eyes looking my direction. We played it cool for a little while, but eventually enlisted the help of a cab driver to get us back to Talaat Harb, from where we made our way to a fancy Western-style rooftop bar atop one of the big hotels on the Nile. Although the view was pretty spectacular, we laughed at ourselves for paying £80 [$16] for two Heinekens…roughly 8 times as much as we had paid for dinner. Sure, they were ridiculously overpriced, but I was pretty glad to spend a few tranquil minutes high above the perpetual chaos unfolding below.


Here are some photos of the Khan El Khalili, a large souq [market] in the Islamic district. They don’t really capture the craziness of the place, but at least they give some indication of what it looks like.