Monday, October 27, 2008


I loved Egypt first for Ramses' sake. That's Elizabeth Peters' Ramses, of course; hotter than wet-shirt Darcy and with ten times the brainpower. (Someday I plan an e-card site dedicated to his archeological perfection.)

After a few visits and several months in Cairo, my relationship with Egypt is different, less starstruck. Naguib Mahfouz, Egyptian Nobel Laureate, said that Cairo is like meeting your beloved in old age; I'm not a Cairene, but I think he's right. There is plenty in Egypt to adore (the sweet carb overload of koshari, golden limestone igniting at sunset, rollicky Egyptian Arabic jabbing like a mirthful elbow in your ribs) and there is plenty to flinch from.

My last time in Cairo, I'd left cheerfully. I'd been studying Arabic solo for a few months and was eager to get back to my fantastic new boyfriend and hassle-free streets. So on this trip I was pretty surprised when the magical smell of burning trash and scorching Sahara made me tear up right there in the Cairo airport. (Of course, I teared up at The Secret Life of Bees, too: indications are good that I am a sap.)

I spent our 72 hours in Egypt in a daze of jetlag and nostalgia. The pyramids were as impossibly huge as ever (and as impossibly smelly: we all emerged from our excursion inside one dripping with sweat and reeking of cat pee); the traffic was as charmingly insane. The smog was--well, look at this picture taken from our airplane. Perfect blue sky, meet Cairo.

We spent a day in Luxor, which, for all its jillions of tourists, still feels pretty chill. Here's a load of bananas going who-knows-where. And there really is something thrilling about the Valley of the Kings: you look around to see dirt, dirt, dirt, and oh, here's buried treasure. (If you haven't read Howard Carter's account of finding King Tut, you're in for a treat.)

Our Cairo hotel, InterContinental Citystars was absurdly decadent, Luxor's Sofitel --despite being literally on the Nile-- just couldn't compare.

We spent (not enough) time at the Egyptian Museum, where I could wander happily for weeks a la Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler, Coptic Cairo, and of course the temples of Luxor and Karnak. I dragged Becky and Ann to the wild Khalili bazaar, where we were (not unwillingly) accosted by scores of henna girls, men selling the same exact silver necklace, beggars, wannabe cab drivers, and slick-as-cow-snot hawkers.

On our way home, our taxi driver, who was a very nice man, confided that we were Answer to Prayer, because our American passports would let us into the Duty Free Store, right next to our hotel, which contained the foreign alcohol he desparately needed for his niece's wedding later that week. Pushover Ann agreed to help out. And that, Mom and Dad, is why my passport now says with "Three Alcohol Units; Three Cigarette Units." I swear.

I'm pretty sure the cigarettes weren't for his niece.

Friday, October 24, 2008

aaaaand i'm back: the overview

Why hello there! I'm back from a terrific Middle Eastern trip, and well overdue blogging about it. Leslie and Konga have already beat me to the punch.

My camera's got 391 pictures from 14 days of traveling; we saw brillions and brillions of things. I only got through one book, that's how busy we were. I want to write about el tripo in some detail, because some day I hope to play tour guide myself. It's totally understandable if you'd rather drink camel spit than read about every single freaking tell, so to make skipping easier, I'll give a trip overview here, and then blog in separate entries about the rest.

The trip was an official tour, my very first, and it worked out quite well. There were about 40 of us, mostly family -- great aunts and second cousins and uncles et al. (Poor Peter couldn't make it; he had to stay home with the nose to the grindstone. Bless his reliable heart.) We all crammed onto a bus with local tour guide, corporate tour guide, bus driver, security guard, and Mike Wilcox from the U of UT (Biblical history superstar), and proceeded to blast through Egypt, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine.

I've spent time in these countries and neighboring ones before (up to a sum total of 12 1/2 months now, woot!) but it's always been to study the language, and I've enjoyed myself most when hanging out with the local folk and exploring solo. This time was much more traditional (some might say "ugly") tourist. We were whisked en masse from bus to site to bus to store to bus to hotel. So it wasn't quite the cultural experience I've had before, because pretty much every moment of every day was scripted. Also, we were totally subject to the local guide's lust for commi$$ion; because we were herded to specific restaurants and specific souvenir stores, we paid Maximum Rip-off Price for felafels and trinkets. (Seriously. $13 a felafel sandwich is absurd, no matter how lousy the dollar is right now.)

There were some advantages to being part of a tour group, though. Not having to organize the logistics of travel (negotiating with cab drivers, figuring out where to eat, tracking down hotels) meant we were able to see an incredible number of things in a very short time. The historical lectures we got, particularly in Israel and Palestine, were also exceptional. Traveling with such pleasant people was another real plus, and so was getting access to some extraordinary sites (like an active archaelogical dig that was uber Indiana Jones). I would totally do it again.

And the loot? I bought me: 3 necklaces (turquoise, dove w/olive branch, and widow's mite, which occasioned some very elaborate and probably illegal early morning meet ups), a fabulously gooey mud mask from the dead sea, and a lovely lion-n-lamb olive wood piece.

Great family. Great place. Great trip.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

gone camel riding

I'm off to Cairo, Luxor, Amman, Jerusalem and a bunch of places in between. Common denominators: camels and hummus. Yeah, I'm pretty much blissed out.

If there's internet, I may blog a bit; if not, I'll catch you in a couple of weeks! Yallah ciao!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

"If I'd known how much packing I'd have to do, I'd've run again." - Harry S. Truman

I've got the pre-trip jitters, which I'm calming by overpreparing. Today, for example, I bought a bunch of nonessentials that MIGHT make my trip more fun but will probably just contribute to massive overweight luggage fines.

Still, some of the gadgets are pretty cool. Behold:

From top right clockwise, we've got a DIGITAL LUGGAGE SCALE. I could, of course, just buy a scale--but this is so much cuter. I am also relieved to not have to worry about the wild checked-to-carry-on scramble at check in, which always seems to result in my underwear or dirty socks being exposed to public scrutiny.

(My desk chair, incidentally, weighs 11.2 pounds. A half-full gallon of milk is 10.2 lb, and my new cookie sheets, at 2lbs, weigh the same as my left foot. I'm kind of addicted.)

I also got earplugs that are supposed to prevent congested ears from messily imploding with airplane pressure changes. Isn't that the worst? It's like aural kidney stones.

I got luggage locks (I'll be rooming with my sisters, and I so do not trust them to keep their hands of my DVD collection), moleskin (why are comfy shoes so impossible to find?), and a hunk of good-enough-to-eat Godmother soap from Lush. Although unless my luggage scale is particularly affable, I'll have to leave the soap at home.

Still to pack: billions of ziploc bags, billions of paperbacks, and billions of knitting projects. My greatest fear in foreign travel is boredom. I was hoping to get Leslie's sweater done before the trip, but the lace is proving a worthy foe. Note to self: must learn basic math. "Repeat four more times" actually means a total of FIVE repeats is required.

Here's the lace for the back of the sweater. It's unblocked, so it will get much prettier. And the best part. . . it only weighs a tenth of a pound!