Middle East

Israel

Mom, you will be happy to know that I am no longer allowed into Syria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Saudia Arabia (even before I wasn’t allowed to take a Saudian Arabian Air flight because it had an 18 hour layover in Riyadh and as a solo female traveler, no male was able to provide “permission” for me to enter…), Sudan, Yemen, and a few other countries you would cringe at the thought of me visiting…  Well, I can’t go until I get a new passport.  The only reason: because I went to Israel and got my passport stamped.

Upon crossing the land border with Egypt, the entire content of all of my bags was emptied out and thoroughly searched.  Nearly every surface was swabbed for explosives.  And this was before about 10 solid minutes of questioning from immigration officials about my family background and my past, present, and future travel plans.  Definitely the most intense border crossing I have ever witnessed.  But in the end I got through and was allowed entry.  And to leave the country: the security checks in the Tel-Aviv airport were just as bad.  I had three different people question me about my past travel, specifically in Jordan, Dubai, Malaysia, and Egypt.  And two of them didn’t think I looked enough like my seven year old passport picture, so I had to show my drivers’ license, credit cards, and got quizzed on random travel dates that were stamped in my passport…  In all it took over 75 minutes to get through security checks at the airport, and that was without waiting in lines.  Craziness…

In Jerusalem I did all of the typical Old City stuff.  Temple Mount where according to Jews, God gathered dust to create Adam and according Muslims, Mohammad ascended to heaven.  (Which by the way, you are not allowed to bring any Bibles into – there was quite a collection at the security check point.  My gummy bears were perfectly acceptable, but any Christian paraphernalia was outlawed and confiscated), Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified, room of the Last Supper, and my personal favorite the Western (wailing) Wall.  People really do come very close to banging their heads against the stone wall, in their sorrow over the first two temples being destroyed and in their faith that a third temple will one day be rebuilt.  I also took a trip to the West Bank to go to Bethlehem.  The Church of the Nativity (where Jesus was born) was obviously the main attraction.  They also made a church celebrating Mary’s lactation (??).  Apparently they made a church for everything…
Side note: being in Jerusalem for Shabbat was quite an inconvenience for those of us who forget and didn’t buy enough water and snacks.  At about 4pm on Friday literally everything not located in the Muslim section shuts down.  Public transportation, stores, restaurants, markets, etc. all close up shop until after sunset on Saturday.  There is no traffic and very few people (most likely tourists) are out and about.  Its a really eerie feeling.
In Israel the most interesting thing I did was to take a political tour of Jerusalem (nerd alert I know).  The Palestinian guide spent several hours explaining the Palestinian side of the conflict with Israel, which quite honestly I had no knowledge of.  He took us to a refugee camp where we could see the stark contrast between their living conditions and that of the next door Jewish colony (colony is their term for neighborhood).  An interesting difference he pointed out was that you can distinguish a Palestinian house by the black water tank on the top of the house used when Israel cuts off their water supply, while the Jewish houses don’t have that necessity.  The most astonishing part of the tour was the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, only a ten minute walk from central Jerusalem.  From the Palestinian viewpoint, Jewish settlers have come in and forcibly evicted families who had been in these homes for generations.  Basically it boils down to a land dispute: the Jews believe the property is theirs because it belonged to Jews in the 19th century, though the Palestinians say that their claims are unsupported.  The UN and the United States side with the Palestinians, and yet the Jewish settlers remain in the homes.  The Palestinians claim that the Jewish settlers are targeting this area to gain a Jewish demographic majority in East Jerusalem.  Though I am certainly no expert on either subject; the checkpoints (which look and feel like international borders, which in reality sometimes separate Palestinian side from Palestinian side – essentially just creating a big traffic nuisance), the unreasonable residential restrictions, and the infrastructure projects that are built in the middle of Palestinian neighborhoods to break them apart strongly remind me of the apartheid laws in South Africa.  And I know that it sounds like I am some kind of left-winged activist, but it is pretty hard to see the occupation and draw so many parallels to what I saw in South Africa, in which the white minority rule obviously came crashing down in time.  The tour was definitely an eye opening experience.

Yad Vashem is a very thorough museum chronicling the Jewish suffering during the Holocaust.  The stories that the survivors told about their time in concentration camps were literally bone-chilling.  The most disturbing video clip I saw was of a Polish-Jewish women who had managed to survive life in a concentration camp and returned to her home.  A new family had moved into the vacant house and their greeting to her was “why are you still alive?”.

On a more emotionally pleasant day, I traveled south in Israel.   I hiked up the snake path in Masada to a fort and some beautiful views of the Dead Sea.  Ein Gedi is an oasis in the desert with waterfalls and greenery.  Then came the Dead Sea.  I had already been on the Jordanian side, so some of the novelty of floating in gelatin-like water had worn off.  But I still did the typical float in the water and cover your skin in the mud (which by the way is sold for exorbitant prices in expensive cosmetic stores).  You can see how much the sea is receding because of lower rainfall levels in the surrounding watershed.

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Baksheesh – My Overall Experience in Egypt

Basically while in Egypt, I don’t think I bought a single thing without having to negotiate or at least worry that I was getting ripped off (other than at trusty McDonalds of course).  And I’m not just talking about a scarf in a tourist bazaar; I mean a bottle of water or a roll of toilet paper…  It was exhausting.  It is common practice to not have any prices listed on anything in grocery and convenience stores and when you (as a tourist) would go up to the counter and ask how much something costs, they would just make up a price.  It was up to you to negotiate, walk away, or just accept it.  Only in extenuating circumstances would I accept getting ripped off because of my skin color, but depending on my level of frustration, convenience of alternates, and general level of hunger, I did utilize all three during my duration in Egypt.

Tourists (well, the ones who aren’t sheltered in their private air-conditioned tours) are constantly hassled in Egypt.  I’ve been to other developing countries where it is common practice to be harassed to go into someone’s store because they will “give you a good deal”, but Egypt was a whole new experience.  I understand that many of the vendors are hurting because tourism in down after the revolution (more on that later), but that certainly does not excuse their behavior.  To walk down the road and get incessantly harassed by every vendor selling miniature sphinxs, every restaurant owner, and of course every taxi (all forms – cars, camels, or horses) really grated on me.  The local men yelling out “habibi” (sweetheart) or making hissing noises got old after about two seconds as well.   I think my “favorite” form of harassment came in the form of baksheesh.  This term includes either tipping for services rendered, real or imagined, or simply giving away money because I’m western and the people asking are not.  I had a little boy walk past me, point to a box he was carrying and say “baksheesh”, implying that I was supposed to give him money for the privilege of walking in his general vicinity.  The combination of these forms of harassment quite honestly took a lot away from my experience in Egypt.   Even walking in groups didn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference, just more potential targets…

Tourism is down considerably after last February’s revolution that overthrew President Mubarak and the continued violence that makes it into the Western media.  Official numbers that I’ve found online in published papers say that its down about 30%, while a guy in my hostel in Cairo claims numbers have dipped by as much as 75%.  From my own observations, people stayed out of Cairo, but the rest of Egypt didn’t seem so desolate of tourists.  This definitely worked to my advantage on multiple occasions with booking trains, hostels, etc. at the last minute and giving me additional negotiating power (which in Egypt is obviously necessary).

Overall, I will call my Egypt experience one of “character building”.

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My Beach Office In Dahab

After flying from Luxor to Sharm El Sheikh (and of course sleeping in the Cairo airport since I didn’t book a more costly direct flight…) I had to figure out how to get from Sharm to Dahab which is about an hour away.  Usually there is a bus that runs every hour and should have been an easy trip.  However, the buses were on strike.  I only found this out by having the taxi driver take me to the bus station to be sure that he wasn’t simply trying to rip me off for a more expensive fare.  Well, it turns out he was actually telling me the truth (or took me to a different, but very convincing closed bus station…).  In true backpacker fashion obviously not wanting to have to pay the full way by myself I found a local Egyptian guy that is also going to Dahab and offer to share the ride.  The taxi driver quoted 150 Egyptian pounds (about $25), which is a good price according to wikitravel, so splitting it with this guy would be a decent way to go.  I clarified that in fact we would be splitting it 50-50, each paying 75 pounds.  His response I kid you not: “well, I’m not a tourist so I only want to pay 20”.  I was supposed to pay 130 because of my passport, and he thought that that was completely reasonable.  Never mind the fact that I’m taking minibuses like the locals do, not taking the chartered air-conditioned buses around like a lot of the tourists.  I obviously turn that down and say that I’ll wait around for more people to bring the cost to a more reasonable level.  Either the driver or the local guy got tired of waiting after about 20 minutes so they say fine, 75-75 and we leave.  I’m sure the local guy didn’t really pay that much, but either way I got the ride for the price I was willing to pay after a bit of frustration.

Unfortunately I had been pretty congested for over a week from the pollution and all of the second hand cigarette smoke, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to go scuba diving.  I was pretty bummed, but decided to try and make the most of the Red Sea and go snorkeling.  I was not disappointed!  The coral and wildlife I saw was as good as, and maybe even better than the Great Barrier Reef, which is obviously a tough feat.   And there were divers underneath me, seeing the same stuff, but at about ten times the price I paid, so bonus!

Mt. Sinai, where Moses delivered the Ten Commandments is a popular trip from Dahab.  So of course I had to do the difficult (but popular) version and climb the mountain to see sunrise.  I left my hotel around 11pm and got to the starting point on the mountain about 1:30am.  Well, this was after driving through the snow storm, not joking unfortunately.  I started climbing with my group and Bedouin guide in complete darkness.  I had been warned about how cold it is during this journey and dressed appropriately in a full suit of Under Armour underneath two fleeces and a rain jacket; in total I had six layers on the top and two on my legs, along with hat, gloves, and two pairs of socks.  I actually got quite warm while climbing, however because my group was apparently quite adept trekkers, we moved too quickly and had to wait in a Bedouin house (without heat of course) for almost two hours to wait for the sunrise.  Regrettably, during this time, just sitting around in sub-zero temperatures, I got quite cold, even with a down blanket, and never quite recovered.  I got to see the sunrise over Mt. Sinai, which was a very cool site to see, but unfortunately between the wind and my shaking hands, very few of my pictures turned out very well.  I even downloaded a picture of the Ten Commandments on my kindle and was hoping to re-enact the Moses scene, but I couldn’t feel my hands enough to even turn it on.

I stayed in Dahab for a fairly extended period of time because it was a good place to get some work done.  My hotel had a beach-side restaurant that had quite a view, which I used as my “office” for the week J  And bonus since I’m not volunteering at the Humane Society anymore, I got my fix of kittens!  A mom had had a litter of five kittens on the upper deck of the restaurant a month ago and all of the kittens were quite friendly!  It probably didn’t hurt that I fed them and the mom, usually two meals a day…  It was ironic to watch them beg for table food and for me to give in, since my cat at home is not supposed to get any people food, despite his “Puss In Boots eyes”…  (Lisa this is directed at you).

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“Templed Out” in Luxor

From Aswan I took a taxi to Luxor that stopped at two famous archaeological sites along the way, the total journey taking about eight hours.  I know what you’re thinking, whoa, Jill taking a taxi?!?  Well, it was a shared ride with three other people and it only cost about $12 each.  Once again, Egypt is cheap and because tourism is down, people are willing to bargain just to get the work.  And by the way, it’s some sort of fad in Egypt to have fur seat covers and a piece of fur lining the dashboard.  Not sure why, but it definitely soaks up the smoke and makes for a very smelly ride.  Anyway, one of the stops was at Kom Ombo temple.  The temple looked pretty similar to the rest I have already seen, but what set this apart was the Crocodile Museum that was included with admission.  This museum was relatively small, but very informative and very interesting.  It’s crazy to me that this tiny out of the way museum had more information than the whole of the world-renowned Egyptian Museum.  But anyway, the Egyptians mummified crocodiles in honor of the crocodile god, Sobek.  As the sign pointed out, they bedazzled the mummified animals.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see any jewels on the mummies, but I can just imagine the tv commercial for the Bedazzler exemplifying their work on the crocodiles sitting next to the decorated jean jackets…

The “thing” to do in Luxor is take a hot air balloon ride over the West Bank (which includes the famous Valley of the Kings), so I felt obliged to take part.  It was worth it; seeing the sunrise over the Nile from the balloon was pretty cool.  I also saw a few temples and some other cool things which I can’t identify…  Word of warning to anyone who goes on a balloon ride in the future, wear a hat.  When they fire up the balloon, which happens throughout the entire ride, you are only a few feet away from a burst of fire and it gets VERY hot.  There were a couple of times I needed to double check that my hair hadn’t been singed.

Luxor consists of the East Bank and the West Bank.  Both of which contain a total of dozens of temples and tombs.  By this point in my journey through Egypt I was “templed” out, with nearly all of them looking the same to my untrained eye.  And because each one has a separate admission fee, I elected to only visit a few of the recommended ones.  Karnak Temple being the most famous, because numerous movies have been filmed there including:  Transfomers, Lara Croft Tomb Raider, The Mummy Returns, and the James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me.  Well, this is according to Wikipedia, I haven’t actually seen any of those movies personally, so I can’t verify that information.  It was a pretty massive complex, only some of which is open to the public.  I wandered around and unfortunately encountered the usual dose of touts offering to “show” you something cool, which I would have undoubtedly found myself, and then demanding a tip in return for their “efforts”.  The frustration of the situation got to me and regrettably I left after not very long.  But I’ll write more about the general culture of Egypt towards tourists later, because believe me, I have plenty to say…

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Abu Simbel Festival

From Alexandria I needed to find a way to get to Aswan, which is about 675 miles away.  I decided to take the only direct train (which is for locals, tourists are supposed to take the sleeper class ones that originate in Cairo and cost three times more, but provide a bed).   I have slept in chairs on overnight trains before without an issue and assumed that buying a seat in first class would keep the riff-raff out and afford me at least a half-way decent nights sleep.  I can’t count the number of times that I have misjudged my ability to handle “local” things on this trip, but this certainly adds another.  Apparently in my old age I require more luxury than the cheapest options offer: though I really should have expected problems with a train ride / night of accommodation for $23…  For starters, EVERYONE in Egypt smokes.  And not just a little, but relentlessly.  So even though they were “kind” enough not to smoke in the actual carriages, only in the small connection areas between the train compartments, the ventilation holes in the walls allowed me the great privilege of total immersion in cigarette smoke.   The other problem was that the train made so many stops that there were constantly people coming on and off the train and unfortunately for those who buy tickets, the conductors don’t often check them, so I’m guessing there were quite a few people risking the fines…  And what first class train doesn’t have power points?  My kindle died halfway through, so I had very little to do for the second half of the journey.  Oh, and did I mention that this was an 18 hour train ride?!?!

Nevertheless, I arrived in Aswan, not a super happy camper, but in one (very smelly) piece.  And it seemed my luck had changed.  The draw for going to Aswan is that it is the jumping off point for Abu Simbel – the temple that Ramses built to commemorate himself and his queen, Nefertari.  The Abu Simbel Festival only happens twice a year; once on February 22 (the date of Ramses’ ascension to the throne) and on October 22 (his birthday).  Abu Simbel was architecturally designed so that the inner sanctum would only light up twice a year (those two days), which would obviously be cool to see and most likely pretty popular.  So I was nervous showing up the day before that minibuses in the convoy from Aswan to Abu Simbel would be full, but the lack of tourism in Egypt right now definitely helped me out and I got a seat.

However, it’s a three hour drive from Aswan, and the event takes place at sunrise… So I got picked up from my hotel at midnight.  The Egyptian Government mandates that all travel between Aswan and Abu Simbel must be done in a police convoy.  So the convoy left at 1am on our journey.  What I can’t understand is how a line of dozens of buses passing through on a specific schedule would make terrorist attacks more difficult…  But that’s the way it works and I arrived at 4am, in complete darkness.  There was already a line forming at the main temple of Ramses, so I join.  And then proceed to wait for nearly two hours for the sun to come up.  No one had any idea what was going on, or even what the “light” was going to be and none of the armed guards offered any explanations.  So finally at about 6:05am everyone gets shoved to the side of the entrance and then shoved into the temple like cattle.  You weave through the outer columns and then pass the inner sanctum (basically just a statue at the back of the temple) before getting literally pushed out the exit.  Unfortunately because they were rushing everyone through so quickly before the sun rose further and the effect was gone, I only got a brief look, but at least I did see it, even if I don’t have decent photographic proof.

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Alexandria

Alexandria offers all of the benefits of Cairo: cheap accommodation and food, without sacrificing on western amenities (and by this I of course mean internet and western toilets).  But Alex also has several added benefits, which made it a very pleasant stop despite the colder temperatures (only about 55 for a high).  After India and then Cairo (where there is also horrible pollution with the added attraction of EVERYONE smoking, even in the hostel…) I have not breathed a breath of fresh air in a long time, so the breeze from the Mediterranean is quite a nice change of pace.  Another major benefit I see to port cities, other than their inherently pretty coastlines, is that getting un-lost is infinitely easier when there is a massive, immovable body – such as an ocean – helping to navigate me to the correct location.  Secondly, the traffic situation in Alex is significantly less death-defying, the simple addition of a few traffic lights does wonders for both congestion and pedestrians.  And there are actually cool buildings to look at and mini parks scattered throughout the city of 4.1 million people, unlike the massive, concrete and falling down buildings landscape that much of Cairo offers.

It also certainly doesn’t hurt my opinion of the city that the main attraction is a library!  I’m not being sarcastic.  Ptolemy (reigned around 300BC, right after Alexander the Great) had a dream of a place of universal knowledge so he created the Ancient Library of Alexandria.  Unfortunately Julius Cesar “accidentally burned it down”.  The modern library was completed in 2002 to recreate the spirit of the original library.  It is pretty spectacular!  You have to pay (just under $2) to get in, but they offer free tours including access to some of the art museums located inside.   Weird side note, you can use the free internet but they block all email programs.  Oddly enough, of the block of computers I went to, six of the eight in use were open to facebook…

 

I also ventured to the Kom el-Shuqafa Catacombs.  Kinda creepy.  They are basically an underground labyrinth that was used to bury people.  The site over one square kilometer in size (247 acres) and was only discovered when a donkey accidently fell through.  There are several different sections, but probably the most chilling is a room that looks like a bunch of lockers, but lockers for bodies…  They also have a display case of bones that they recovered.  Needless to say, it was interesting, but apparently I have been to too many haunted houses in my day and half expected someone to pop out at any moment, so I didn’t linger very long.  (They confiscated my camera at the entrance, so I stole this photo from google).

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Real Life Pac-man – Cairo, Egypt

The first piece of advice that several random people gave me while walking down the streets of Cairo:  “you know how to cross the road, right?  Close your eyes and pray”.  Well, I can see where they are coming from.  Despite the fact that my hostel was only about a five minute walk from Tahrir Square, the infamous site of the Egyptian Revolution that took place just about one year ago, quite literally crossing the street is the most dangerous thing I encountered, though it was truly a scary endeavor.   The whole process of crossing the street became a real-life game of Pac-man, the key was finding a local (preferably one bigger than me) and latching on.  I did mistakenly stumble upon an anti-Israel rally of about 20 people, but when I realized what it was I promptly got out of there not wanting to be mistaken for an Israeli.  Tahrir Square has basically just become a tent city with a make-shift street market set up; I could have had a shoe-shine, bought pantyhose, or sat down and had a cup of tea if I felt so inclined… This is in the midst of the massive damage that the protesters caused last year in their successful attempt to oust President Mubarak.  For reasons I can’t begin to fathom, they trashed a McDonalds, oh yea, and completely torched a government building right next to the famed Egyptian Museum.

I of course made the half-hour journey to the Pyramids of Giza.  I splurged and hired a taxi (instead of taking the public bus) in order to get the knowledge of a local guide as well as visit the sites of Saqqara and ­­­­­the Red Pyramid that were supposed to be even better than Great Pyramids.  Well, the guide was absolutely terrible and it turns out he skipped half the sites at Saqqara (even when I asked what all those cars were doing over on the other half of the site…).  So basically that experience reinforced my normal routine of doing things independently…  Anyway, I went up and then down (a super steep, super scary incline) into the Red Pyramid.  It was basically just three small, very hot and smelly rooms made of blocks that tapered to the top – definitely not something worth repeating, especially because the climb in and out made me super sore the next day.  And before you just assume that it was because I’m very out of shape, though I am, a guy who just summited Kilimanjaro was sore too…  Moving onto Saqqara, I entered a tomb with relief sculptures that depicted different aspects of everyday Egyptian life such as paying taxes, slaughtering cattle, and courtship.  Kinda cool I guess, but I wasn’t allowed to take pictures even though people, no doubt locals, vandalize the outside.  Then came the Great Pyramids of Giza, the only remaining Wonder of the World.  They are huge!  You can wander all around the area which includes the three big pyramids, the Great Sphinx (body of a lion, face of a man), and nine other smaller pyramids.  It was too foggy/polluted to get any of the postcard perfect pictures though…

The Egyptian Museum was disappointing to say the least.  As a world-famous museum holding amazing artifacts, it does an absolutely horrible job with the presentation.  There were very few placards with explanations (even in Arabic), so basically visitors are left to wander aimlessly through the museum looking at mummies, the clay pots holding the visceral organs (lungs, stomach, liver, and intestines) removed during the mummification process (I looked this up after), and other random paintings/scuptures/artifacts.   Hiring a guide might have been more informative, but after my experience at the pyramids, I was not interested in being ripped off again by a guide who knows less than a Lonely Planet guidebook, and mistakenly thought that there would be the poster boards explaining everything.  The best part was the gold masks and coffins of King Tutankhamen.  From the research I’ve done, he is really only famous because the archeologists who uncovered him did a really good job with preservation.  His short nine year reign, ending at the age of 19, really doesn’t have much to do with the fact that everyone has learned about him in elementary school.

I ended up spending a week in Cairo because my bank cut off my debit card and I had to wait for my new card to be FedExed.  Because of this, I did random things I don’t usually do while traveling.  I walked for about an hour down the Nile to a movie theater to see the movie “Contraband” in English, which by the way had a five minute intermission (for the ever important smoke break) .  I also took an adventure on public buses to a “western” type mall to find some new socks (something that is surprisingly hard to find).  Then I had to figure out how to get back…  In many developing countries there are minibuses that are an efficient and cheap mode of transport for locals.  These are basically vans that don’t drive on predetermined routes, but rather have a guy that yells the destination out the window and picks up and drops of people as needed.  Well, I had to take one of these or pay for a taxi… Keep in mind that nearly all the people who take these don’t speak English, and apparently tourists just pay the mere $10 for a taxi, but I had nothing better to do so I decided to brave the cultural experience of the minibuses.   Somehow I figured it out and for a mere seven cents I took the 45 minute journey back to downtown where I was staying.   And mom don’t worry, women take these all the time and it was daylight…

And now for my gastronomical escapades: after basically starving in India for both the fear and the reality of getting sick, my body went into survival mode I think.  I basically have not stopped eating in over a week.  I eat a full meal, and an hour later I am not just hungry, but I feel famished.  My guess is that I’ve been consuming over 5000 calories a day, so it’s a good thing that Cairo offered a variety of cheap food.  They of course have McDonalds, which was the first meal I ate when I got in.  I don’t think a Big Mac has ever tasted so good after being deprived of meat in India for two weeks.  They also have a McArabia sandwich, which is a gyro: I obviously have to try the “local foods”…  I became quite fond of the Egyptian equivalent to fast food with a restaurant called “Gad”.  They have a variety of beef and chicken shawarma sandwiches as well as falafels, which I have grown quite fond of.   These sandwiches are quite tasty and at only about $1, they are quite a great deal!  I also discovered an amazing bakery.  The cookies, pastries, cakes, and gelato also added to my weight-gaining diet, and they all tasted fantastic!

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