Sunday, June 27, 2010

We must tear it down, before we build it back up!

While I'm prancing all around Egypt and Israel, taking trains, boats, buses, and planes, you've been quietly wondering - say, I sure would like to know what ever happened to the mini? Well, never fear, we have an update! Gunnar, back in Seattle, is now fully in charge of running the affairs of the mini. First step of the process is to tear everything that was still left on the car apart (he reports finding even more rust than originally expected, and a bit of dust whose origins are likely Mongolia, or a country whose name ends in stan). Next step will be to put it all back together using new, not-yet-rusted parts and build it up to be better than it had been ever before! And finally, he'll get rid of the fluorescent color... That's all going to take a while, a long while, in the mean time, Step 1:

All that's left is the shell! And the fluorescent yellow...

Hey, didn't there use to be an engine in there?

Dust of ill-defined origins

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Amazing Egypt *

Ok, I've been a little hard on Egypt recently. And it probably deserved it too, but I should give [some] credit where [some] credit is due. So, Egypt... the ancient land of Pyramids, the land of amazing Arabic architecture, the land of magical stretches of sand lining the Red Sea.

Starting from the beginning, Irina and I crossed over from Israel and headed straight for the beach town of Dahab. Dahab was easily my favorite spot in Egypt - it's still Egypt, with all the negative connotations that carries in my mind, but, at least, this is a place where backpackers have always come, and while it's all grown up now (with a variety of all-inclusive resorts - we stayed at one of these), the few backpackers that still come to Egypt, do still come here, which gives the place a much more easy going vibe than anywhere else in this country. And then, there's the gorgeous sandy beaches ... it's just a beautiful place to relax for a few days. To wit:

Dahab means 'Golden' in Arabic - the beautiful golden beaches of Dahab, Egypt...

Inside of the Coralia Resort. Definite bonus points for atmosphere!

Zizo! I can't remember what it was that Irina called his position at the resort, but he was definitely in charge of keeping the guests entertained, and he certainly did a great job of it.

Irina in white, meet Irina in black... It's a small world, and there's lots of Russian tourists all over Sinai, some of them named Irina

Just our Irina, being one with the beach

Next stop was Sharm el-Sheikh. I'm certainly not like most other tourists (in my defense, I was slowly winning Irina over to my side), but while millions of tourists descend upon Sharm every year and seem to absolutely love it, I could best describe it as an abomination. An absolute abomination filled with too many people, so many in fact that the locals have long ago become terribly, horribly jaded, making them even more incredibly unpleasant to deal with, than your average Egyptian purveyor of crappy merchandise. And the place looks like an over-grown shopping mall, straight out of the American suburbs, with a bit more neon and loud music thrown in. Subtle, it is not. Over-priced, it is... And yet people seem to love it - I don't really understand people. Anyway, the only worthwhile thing we did here was a camel ride, but I'm punishing Sharm el-Sheikh anyway by not including any pictures, so moving on:

Cairo! Cairo is everything that is right and everything that is wrong with Egypt. Cairo is the home of the Pyramids, the magnificent and mind-bending structures that are over 5,000 years old!

trivia time:
Q: the Great Pyramid of Khufu was 146 meters tall when construction was completed in 2570 BC. When was the first building constructed that was taller than this Pyramid?

A. 1889, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which reached 324m in height. Being in Egypt, you note that our civilization might really not have advanced all that much in the past 5,000 years!

The ancient (well, not that ancient, compared to the Pyramids) mosques are also here, and Christian churches dating back to the times of Jesus. It's the market hub of Egypt, where you can buy anything, and somebody will always be trying to sell you something, usually something you don't actually want. And then there's the streets of Cairo... I'm glad they have a subway system! The traffic is nothing short of amazing - the way these people drive is hard to even describe, but suffice to say that you are taking your life into your own hands every time you try to cross the road. But, we are not focusing on all that right now, today, we are highlighting 'amazing Egypt,' so:

The Great Pyramids of Giza!

The Sphinx stoically guards the Pyramids

You are not supposed to take pictures inside the Pyramids... But I did anyway - take that, Egypt!

Baby Sphinx in nearby Memphis

The Mosque of Mohammed Ali in Cairo

A beautiful courtyard lies behind the Mosque

The Al Azhar Mosque, "the mosque of the most resplendent", the oldest Mosque in Cairo - construction began in 970. Impressive. They tried to make a God-fearing woman out of Irina before letting us enter, can't guarantee it worked.

Man reading the Qur'an in the courtyard of the mosque

Cairo was Irina's last stop - I escorted her to the airport, she took off for her long flight back to the real world, I remained in Egypt. If you've been reading my last few blog posts, that may have been somewhat of a mistake in the grand scheme of things, but let's not forget the amazing, there were certainly more things to see in this country. So, I boarded a 'tourist train' down to Luxor and arrived the following morning, quite comfortably, which was a little surprising. The 'tourist train' is actually pretty good value compared to the rest of the world, but is, of course, ridiculously more expensive than the normal Egyptian trains. This would be perfectly fine with me, if I, as a tourist, wasn't restricted from taking the regular trains... But I digress, Luxor!

Luxor is up the Nile and South of Cairo. Here, you are getting into what was once the Upper Nile, which was, of course, a separate kingdom and spent a lot of time fighting the Lower Nile. And then, they moved their burial sites to the Lower Nile and built the Pyramids... Twist of fate. But most importantly, at this point, Luxor is South of Cairo! And Cairo is in Africa, and it was June, and I thought my brain was going to melt. After I left my things at the hotel and headed out towards the tombs and temples, I passed by a thermometer in the center of the city - it read a remarkable 42 degrees! Celsius! And I actually thought this was Ok. That's 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit, by the way, and this was at 10 in the morning. Now, I could have taken an air conditioned car to see Luxor. This is true, and it would have been almost comfortable. However, it would have involved talking to and negotiating with an Egyptian 'fixer' on the street, who would then proceed to drive like a maniac and somehow disappoint me in the end. I wasn't in the mood, so I rented a bicycle. And proceeded to pedal against the 42 degree heat... and rising. I drank lots of water - I thought it wasn't bad, really. Still do - my brains may have melted... Since it wasn't all that bad, I parked my bike in front of the Temple of Hatshesput and proceeded to hike over a nearby ridge to the Valley of the Kings. I drank lots more water. And I stopped in every bit of shade that I could find. It continued to be miserably hot - actually it got better on the far side of the ridge where there was some wind. When I came down into the Valley of the Kings, the locals seemed pretty impressed that I had walked over the ridge, so I'm still able to impress the populace - that's worth something, right? After wandering around the Valley of the Kings for a little while, refusing to pay for the entire admission ticket (in part because it would have involved walking all the way over to the ticket booth at the main entrance - apparently they don't expect a lot of tourists to hike the goat paths over the ridge), I proceeded to bribe a guard to let me into one of the more far flung tombs (it was pretty impressive) and promptly went back over the ridge to pick up my bike. An hour and a half later, I was back at the Nile and returning the bike back to the rental shop.

This could have been a good time to stop, go back to my hotel (AC'd!) and take a nap. However, I was determined to just spend one day in Luxor, still harboring thoughts and hopes of getting a few more days for diving on the coast), so I headed up to the Temple of Karnak instead. This temple is absolutely amazing - it's gigantic, constructed, and added to over the course of several centuries by a succession of pharaohs and featuring columns grander and thicker than any I had seen in Rome and Athens (more of the how far have we really come in the past 5,000 years?). It was also stiflingly hot at 3 in the afternoon, and most of the temple is in an open area. Very open, very sun-lit, so I sort of dragged myself through the motions of documenting what was there and proceeded to head home. The good news was that I was tired enough that ignoring the touts along the way selling whatever was perfectly easy by now - just a non-chalant No, and moving on...

The final stop on the way home was the Luxor Temple... it did seem interesting, especially since somebody had apparently decided to place a mosque right in the middle of it. I looked at it and rolled over those thoughts in my head. Then I took some pictures of the temple (and the mosque) from the outside and went back to my room for a richly deserved nap!

The Colossi of Memnon greet you at the entrance to Luxor's West Bank

Deir al-Bahri, home of the Temple of Hatshesput. View from above as I was climbing up the ridge

My friend, the guard at the tomb. No, I can't remember whose tomb it actually was - an ancient Pharaoh! The guard was a nice guy too and did his best to have me enjoy my tour of the tomb. On the down side, the man smelled horribly and didn't speak a word of English, but we were able to establish some common ground on terms like Tomba, Pharaoh, and Scarab

The Papyrus Forest of columns at the Temple of Karnak. Really, if we were able to build columns this impressive in 2,500BC, how far have we come as a civilization?

The Luxor Temple, with the Mosque strategically (if perplexingly) placed right in the middle

And finally, the last stop before my Hurghada retreat was Aswan. It's even further South and, thus even hotter. I suppose my brain was fully melted by now, so I didn't care very much. Fortunately, there's not all that much to see in Aswan proper - there's a big mosque, an even bigger Christian Church, and an even bigger yet mosque under construction... Woo-hoo! The attraction here is Abu Simbel, which is another 3 hour bus ride South, almost all the way to the border with Sudan. The thoroughly amazing thing about the Abu Simbel temples is that they were going to be lost forever when Egypt built the Great Dam on the Nile, causing the water levels up the river to rise, and threatening to flood the Temple. To prevent this, international organizations (with a little bit of Egyptian input and assistance) raised a bunch of money and proceeded to cut the entire temple into portable pieces and move the entire thing, piece by freaking piece, to a new location, 65 meters higher, and safely away from the rising waters... Say what you will about the Egyptians, but that's pretty astounding. When you actually get there, very early in the morning - the bus departs Aswan at 3AM(!) and see the temples in person, it becomes even more astounding! Clearly impressed by their abilities, the archaeologists later proceeded to move the Temple of Phillae to higher ground as well. Also impressive, especially since this temple was already flooded when they started, so part of the work had to be done under water...

The Great Temple of Ramses II, dug into the side of a mountain at Abu Simbel is simply astounding. The Pyramids are surely the greatest attraction of Egypt, but I do think this was the most memorable site.

The nearby Temple of Hathor isn't too shabby either

Lake Nasser, the largest man-made lake in the world. This surely seems like a record ripe for the taking by the Chinese - they clearly just don't know about it yet

The artwork decorating the Temple of Philae - once again, considering that this was all created several thousand years before Jesus Christ even came along, it kind of makes a lot of what we've accomplished since pale in comparison a bit

Well, and that's it, really. The other thoroughly amazing part of Egypt is the underwater life in the Red Sea, but I feel like that's been covered thoroughly enough in my earlier posts, so that's Egypt for you! On to Tunisia and Italy!

* India has a long running campaign to promote tourism with the tagline of "Amazing India." Well, Egypt and India have a lot in common - both places that have some fascinating sites to see, yet both places that I was happy to leave after some three weeks in each. The reasons are different, and I've had plenty of people tell me that they had fallen in love with each (after a long adjustment period), but tying 'Amazing Egypt' to 'Amazing India' seems all too appropriate

Monday, June 21, 2010

BOOOOOM! Goes the volcano...

It starts off as a rumble of not-so-distant thunder. Then the sound quickly escalates into the roar of a jet engine at take off. By now, it has your complete attention, so you are staring at the column of fire (and, well, brimstone) that's shooting twenty or thirty feet up into the air from the top of the crater! That's Stromboli; it does this about every 20 minutes, and has been doing so for the past 40,000 years, roughly. It's a tiny little spec of an island off the coast of Sicily, which is one of the youngest, and thus most active, volcanoes in the world. But it's not real big on huge, destructive lava flows, just a column of fire every 20 minutes to entertain the tourists.

BOOOOOM! It's awesome...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Oh, Italy!

Remember when you had the Roman Empire? When the only people you couldn't conquer were the ones you couldn't find? How about the Roman Catholic Church? As grand as the Roman Empire was, the church spread its influence even wider! And then what happened? Is that how the Roman Empire actually fell? When the Barbarians figured out that nobody did anything between the hours of 12 and 4 in the afternoon? Cause they sure don't these days. Can I buy a ferry ticket at 2:30? No, come back at 4. Can I get a map of Palermo, from the tourist information kiosk outside the central train station at 1? No, closed till 4. Can I find out about renting a scooter at 3:15? No, somebody'll be here some time after 4... But it sure is pretty! Which just makes you wonder - how did they build all those amazing things if nobody works during the day?

Church of Santo Domenico in Palermo, Sicily

Sunday, June 13, 2010

On Egypt, Part III: the Yin and the Yang of Egypt

I ended up spending a full week in Hurghada - it's not that I actually liked it, no, it was just comfortable, my hotel had AC and internet, and diving was cheap, easy, and nearby. After a couple of dyas of local dive trips though, grander things came calling, and I agreed to go South to Marsa Alam for a day of diving there; after all Marsa Alam is about as good as it gets for diving in Egypt.

Marsa Alam: so beautiful... so empty...

Sting ray on lying on the bottom in Marsa Alam

Coral Reefs, with lots of fish all around

But it is Egypt, so the trip went terribly right from the start - I was taking a bus, instead of a private car (even though I was still paying the price of a private car?), the bus was taking five hours to get there, instead of the three I'd been told, and the bus was two hours late - well, sadly, it was actually only an hour and 57 minutes late as I had set 7AM as my deadline to call the whole thing off, but the bus finally showed up at 6:57. I should have called the whole thing off... instead, I went to Marsa Alam, the Yin of Egypt came along, or the Yin of the people of Egypt is perhaps better. It's a simple pattern really, that never fails to repeat: first they overcharge you, then they proceed to under-deliver...

So, somewhere around hour five of the "three hour trip to Marsa Alam", I was sitting by a window, watching the Red Sea slowly pass by, quietly raging, and passing the time composing the scathing review of the Hurghada tourist services I was going to write (but the passing scenery was nice). Then the Yang arrived: a bunch of kids boarded the bus in Al Quesir. One of them sat down next to me at first, did not speak any English, just called me 'Habibi!' (common term of endearment, literally meaning something like 'my lovely'). A bit of re-shuffling came forth in a few minutes, and I was now sitting next to Said. Said spoke English, made fun of the other kid a little, and explained that they were all heading to the beaches around Marsa Alam to sell newspapers on the water-front. At exorbitantly inflated prices, of course. But since I had no interest in the papers, we just chatted for a bit. Said comes from Cairo, he had attended university there studying to become an accountant, but upon receiving his degree and spending six months looking for work in Cairo, gave up and came out to the coast and sell papers by day and work at a restaurant by evening. I'm sure I would have hated him were he to approach me on the beach and try to sell me yesterday's paper for ten times its cost, but here on the bus, where he wasn't trying to make a sale, he was a genuinely nice kid, and fun to talk to. He explained about the lack of jobs in Cairo, his nine years of studying English which, in reality, does not appear to help much in the job search, and how he liked the Russian girls because they were happy to talk to him, even though he was a mere paper boy - the British, on the other hand, were all stuck up and just thumbed their noses at him... Consequently, his collection of girlfriends presently included two in Russia, one in Switzerland, and an object of affection here in Egypt, who was apparently marrying another, richer, man... I wished him the best of luck with the Russians... The Yang of Egyptians: those exceedingly rare moments when you can have a conversation with an Egyptian man, who is actually not trying to sell you something.

The Yin survived and prospered, of course, as the great under-delivery of Marsa Alam continued right on course when I finally arrived - we were going shore diving, instead of the boat diving I had been promised (shore diving is an interesting experience to try, but is not what I had in mind when agreeing to get on a bus at 5 in the morning... which left at 7. Oh wait, 6:57 actually!) The shore diving, naturally, reduced my desires down to just two dives, instead of the three I thought I was going to be doing, but poor Imad was incredulous that I wanted to pay less for my two dives than I had originally agreed to pay for three. By now, I just laughed at him, fairly openly. His dive master had let the normal prices slip beforehand, so I was paying double anyway. The five hour bus journey back turned into an hour and a half by bus followed by two hours in the back of a cramped ancient Peugeot, whose driver seemed intent to kill us all. I did get a measure of revenge the next day when I yelled at Ali, my fixer, and got him to return a quarter of what I had paid for my disappointing experience. I'm not entirely sure where exactly to place Ali on the Yin/Yang scale as he actually seemed a reasonable fellow, and did come through with both my hotel and the diving in Hurghada. And I did watch him set up the Marsa Alam trip with another 'associate', who didn't looked so reasonable, or trustworthy, actually he had more of a look of a used car salesman. An exceedingly sleazy one at that. I later found him to be utterly incredulous that I had chosen to pay less for my two dives than what had been previously agreed upon as the price for three dives. He may have presented it in somewhat more convoluted terms... Regardless, whether my man Ali really was getting screwed himself or if he was just trying to re-assign blame to make me feel better, getting some of my money back was a major victory (and a minor financial one), especially as that's normally an outright impossible proposition here in Egypt.

On the way back in the evening: Egypt's listening... Somewhat ironic actually - the censorship turns out to be much stricter in Tunisia

So, I filed this whole experience away... Somewhere under 'if you found a place in Egypt that doesn't offend you much, like Hurghada, just stick with it already!' Following that line of reasoning, I promptly decided to skip Alexandria, since I was by now sure that it would be disappointing and frustrating and caught the bus straight to Cairo to get to the airport. Yin and Yang came along for the ride. First up to bat: Yin. The bus is 'scheduled' (as much as schedules exist in this country) for 3 in the afternoon. I arrived at around 2:20 - I didn't have much to do anyway. The bus showed up at about 2:45 and ... promptly left at 2:50. An Egyptian bus might leave two hours later than scheduled, or 10 minutes earlier - plan accordingly, and by that I mean, try not to have any plans riding on the bus arriving (or departing) anywhere at any prescribed time.

But, alas, the bus didn't actually leave Hurghada, he left the bus station, circled through the city to the bus depot, dropped us off and took off, with some vague promises to come back 'shortly'. In the hour that passed, I had time to make friends with the Yang - I met Hany, an Egyptian now working at a hotel in Dubai, but formerly a tour leader in Egypt. An interesting guy to talk to - spoke perfectly good English and was also frustrated with the unreliability of the Egyptian buses. If anybody's going to Dubai (and I certainly would like to some day...), I can hook you up with some help! Hany also, of course, has a Russian girlfriend - in fact, he's on to his second one. But this one is all of 21 years old, so he didn't particularly trust her.

So, Hany, the Yang of Egypt - the man was smart, knowledgeable, easy to talk to, and shared most of my frustrations about the place. He didn't prove to be entirely without some local mis-judgments though, as we talked about car prices in Egypt. Apparently, a Toyota here costs slightly less than it does in the States. But 75,000 Pounds is much more difficult to come by for an Egyptian than the equivalent $13,500 is for an American, he countered. Quite true, I offered, but do you expect Toyota to sell cars at a loss in Egypt out of compassion for the impoverished people of the country? He was definitely still the Yang though - we chatted, he helped me try and figure out where to go upon arriving in Cairo. This was nice... then the bus finally came back: Yin happens... how much is a ticket to Cairo, I had inquired (more than once). Well, prices in Egypt are never posted - it's a little harder to over-charge tourists if you actually post prices, you see - so I first happened to ask my sleazy car salesman. He told my 75 Pounds, I assumed he was lying, just on the off-chance that I would actually ask him to get me the ticket. I figured I'd rather walk to Cairo than ask for his help, but I digress. He was, of course, lying - I asked the ticket office, they said 55 Pounds. I asked Hany, he too said 55. I gave 70 pounds. I got five in change. I complained - Hany translated. The man matter of factly stated that the tourist price was 65 Pounds. I declared Bullshit, Hany apologized, the ticket seller walked away. I figured I had a better shot at getting one of his teeth than getting any money back. Yin happens, you are in the wrong country to be crying over 10 pounds (almost $2 - pick your battles!). The bus approached Cairo, the Yin percolated on board... finally deciding to demonstrate that it's an equal opportunity affliction and can haunt the locals too (especially the ones who stray from the true path of robbing tourists... with a smile): you see, Hany's parents lived not far from the airport. The airport wasn't on the way, but there was a convenient spot along the way for him to get dropped off. And since it wasn't all that far from the airport, I was going to get off there as well, and my taxi to the airport would be cheaper than one from downtown Cairo. Would have been, I should say, as this was an excellent plan, of course, and Hany shared it with the driver, in fluent Egyptian Arabic. The driver signaled his approval. We arrived in downtown Cairo... Remember the smiling kid in Hurghada with the apparent learning disability? The driver probably had the same condition... It's called the Yin of Egypt.

To summarize: Egypt has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to world class attractions - from the ancient temples and Pyramids of Giza, Luxor, and Aswan, to the dynamic cities like Cairo, Alexandria, and (for some) Sharm el-Sheikh, to natural wonders like the Red Sea, the Nile, and the vast deserts. It is absolutely worth visiting. Egypt also has some really nice people. These people, unfortunately, can be hard to find. The vast majority of the people are greedy, lying, unscrupulous bastards, who have heard their politicians talk about the difficult economic conditions of the country (likely caused by the same greedy and unscrupulous people never paying any taxes) long enough to feel it is their absolute right (and responsibility) to extort money from the tourists who come anywhere near them. And if you don't choose to come near them, they will come chase after you. If you ask my advice, I'd just say reward them for their behavior by staying away, but if you do decide to go anyway - the place does have all those amazing attractions after all - take a tour! It will, of course, over-charge and under-deliver too, but at least they'll take care of all the negotiating for you, so you'll get ripped just that one time when you buy the package ticket, and when your bus will be delayed for an hour for no good reason whatsoever (and yes, it will be), you'll have someone to yell at!

The Great Pyramid of Khufu - Giza, Egypt

I'm so excited, my pants are going to split at the seams in three... two... one... now!

The Mosque of Mohammmed Ali (no, not the American boxer!) - Cairo, Egypt

The forest of columns at the Temples of Karnak - Luxor Egypt. To think that all these massive things were built nearly five thousand years ago absolutely blows your mind!

The Great Temple of Ramses II in Abu Simbel

Larger Scale: the Yin and Yang of Northern Africa.

Egypt threw one final piece of smelly Yin my way on my way out, when my flight to Tunis was delayed from 9:30PM to 2:30AM, but five extra hours weren't enough - we finally left another hour later. I could blame TunisAir, the Tunisian airline, but I think it's Egypt's fault! And, eventually, leave we did! And after a couple of hours, we had landed in Tunisia. And yes, of course, Egypt was still being very fresh in my mind, but Tunisia seemed like such an amazing breath of fresh air! Prices are posted, the people are helpful (without expecting a tip in return for their help), the buses are easy to navigate. There is no army of angry, foul-smelling cab drivers offering their services in place of the bus that is "no longer running." People do come up on the street trying to sell something, but when you just say 'No, Thanks,' they actually leave you alone... And every conversation doesn't start with 'Where you come from?' Better yet, the locals go to all the same places that the tourists go, which, keeps the prices in check (helps that they are posted too). I've also met some wonderful people here in Tunis, after finally deciding to give CouchSurfing a chance - they spent a large chunk of their Sunday showing me around the city. CouchSurfing, for the un-initiated, is a website that connects people with couches with other people that want to spend a night or two sleeping on said couches - it's like a community thing. Everybody gets reviews, both the hosts and the surfers, so you, generally, try to not stay with people who get described as rapists and murderers. I'd never used the service myself before, but I've met many a traveler that swears by it - a free place to stay, and you meet interesting local people who are more than happy to show you around their town, time permitting, or at least tell you what to do. Then Irina and I got a place for the night at the Kibbutz on the Dead Sea using CouchSurfing (which worked out incredibly well), so I was ready to give it a try myself, and so far, I'm extremely pleased with the outcome!

But this place does quite well as the Yang to Egypt's Yin of Africa in its own right. It's cleaner, it's greener, it's quieter, it's calmer. The traffic isn't as horrendous as Cairo's; the attractions are better preserved; the people have some understanding of the concept of a queue. The attractions (the ruins of ancient Carthage and the beautifully preserved old city of Sidi Bou Said) might not be quite on the world-class, 7 wonders of the world, par of Egypt, but I've enjoyed the experience of seeing them so much more, that I do very much want to some day return to Tunisia to see the rest of the place. Egypt, on the other hand, the Yin of Africa, remains as a definite 'maybe... if I run out of other places to see.' And if you'd like a haute-couture all-inclusive beach resort vacation? Well, Tunisia has plenty of those on the Mediterranean coast as well.

Mohamed, Nes, Ossuama, and myself at the amphitheater at the ruins of ancient Carthage. Mohamed not quite timing the wait time on his camera correctly...

More ruins of Carthage, and Mediterranean in the background. Nes striking a pose in the foreground

Sidi Abu Said, where there is a law that all the houses must be blue and the decorations must all be in this very shade of blue. The result is gorgeous!

Panoramic view from the top of the hill at Side Abu Said

Central Tunis in the distance

The Clock Tower in Central Tunis as dusk gathers

Mohamed's in art school, takes some great pictures, and can do some fun things with Photoshop

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sunrise to sunrise

Sunrises really are a lot more spectacular than sunsets. You go from pitch black darkness to gentle dawn and then, all of a sudden, the golden-red orb of our neighborhood star pops up over the horizon! Then again, maybe I just don't get to see nearly as many sunrises as I do sunsets, so they only seem more spectacular? Sunrises do have a tendency of happening insanely early after all...

I had plenty of time to contemplate all this while standing on the road passing by the settlement of Ein Gedi in Israel at 4 o'clock in the morning

It was dark still. 4 in the morning is too early for the Sun too

Irina and I were standing here at this unfathomable hour of the morning (night?) because for sunrise, we wanted to get to the top of Masada, a famous nearby mountain peak. And an Israeli stronghold against the Romans two thousand years earlier - we'll get to the history lesson in a moment. In the mean time, Masada is best accessed from the hostel that sits at the base of the mountain. Unfortunately that hostel was full. So was the hostel in Ein Gedi. We were instead sleeping at the Ein Gedi Kibbutz, quite grateful for the generosity of a couple guys we had found through couchsurfing. Having free accommodation at the kibbutz was very awesome, unfortunately it wasn't doing us much good in terms of getting to Masada in time for sunrise - our hosts recommended getting up early and hitch hiking - the Israelis are quite practical like that. So, here we were at 4 in the morning, on the highway outside of Kibbutz Ein Gedi. We spent an hour here. Perhaps ten cars passed us - none of them stopped. We muttered bad things about the drivers. I don't quite remember what else I was thinking or feeling during the time, but mostly I was unhappy about not being in bed. I vaguely remember Irina being not entirely pleased with me either, but the details escape me... Did I mention my distaste for waking up at 4 in the morning? I also don't like the uncertainty of hitch hiking, especially when after an hour noone stops, and you end up giving up and going back to bed. Actually, that's not true - going back to bed felt wonderful! I could see the first signs of dawn lighting up the Eastern sky on our walk back to the kibbutz...

The morning rolled around. We had gotten an additional five hours asleep since our middle of the night escapades and, feeling rather refreshed, were determined to conquer the stubborn mountain the next morning! Over the course of the day, the one and only taxi driver in Ein Gedi was located and his monopoly-inflated prices to take us to Masada the next morning were agreed to (Ein Gedi is not a big place). Then we met Katya and Sam and convinced them that they needed to see a Masada sunrise too, and thus the monopoly-inflated taxi costs came to be split four ways. And off we went the next morning - I can't remember what time we got up, but while it was certainly still before sunrise, it felt a lot less horrible than the night before... or maybe we were just developing a tolerance for the pre-dawn insanity?

Catching the sun rise over the Dead Sea from the top of Masada, that's what it's all about!

Celebrating our triumph at the top

As for the history lesson... Masada (meaning 'stronghold' in Hebrew) is a sheer-sided plateau rising high above the Dead Sea. It was once a palatial retreat of Herod the Great, who, I presume, was a Roman governor appointed to rule the lands of Israel. Things aren't meant to last though, so Herod died, the Jews revolted against the Romans, and a group, called the Zealots, established Masada as their base. We'd probably call a bunch of zealots holed up in a mountain-top stronghold terrorists today, but I digress... The Romans, in short order, came back and laid siege to the fortress. The zealots all committed suicide instead of being captured. This image lives rather vividly in the hearts of the Israeli Defense Forces today, who take their oaths at Masada.

In modern terms, Masada is a big rock rising up above the Dead Sea, with 750 steps leading to the top. At the top, there's extensive ruins and excavations of the historic site, and spectacular views of the Dead Sea, surrounding mountains, and the sun rising over all of them, if you climbed the 750 stairs early enough. Which we did, because we are a determined bunch!

The Roman ruins at Masada

Surrounding sheer cliffs

A couple of days passed. We left Israel and made our way over to Dahab, on Egypt's Sinai peninsula. Not having seen any pre-dawn hours of the night for a whole three straight days, I felt the need to follow in Moses' footsteps and watch the sun rise from the top of Mt. Sinai, which is conveniently located on the Sinai peninsula... Picking up a few new commandments may have been a nice bonus, but wasn't a must-have. Irina had wizened up and upon learning that the way to the top of Mt. Sinai involved 3,750 steps - an even 3,000 more than Masada - chose to stay by the beach in Dahab. I joined the tourist horde and headed for Sinai.

The sunrise was mildly disappointing, which would be a theme for Egypt - some amazing sites, yet the experience as a whole? Mildly underwhelming and disappointing. Now Masada is a big place at the top - we actually lost Sam for a while. But there's not a lot of people there - it looked like maybe a dozen people were doing the sunrise climb, and a couple of Birth-right tour buses showed up from the other side (the weak and lazy among us can take the easy road on the far side of Masada, which goes just about to the top of the mountain. Not that we were making judgments about our collective superiority...). That's Israel. Not so here - Sinai is in Egypt, and the Egyptians are very enterprising about putting together rushed, overcharged, and not-very-well organized tours for their attractions, so while there's a lot less space at the top of Mt. Sinai, there is a hell of a lot more people up there - easily over a thousand in time for sunrise. On top of that, we left Dahab at 11 the night before, which got us to the base of the mountain a little before 2, and to the top some two hours later. Which, much as I had pointed out back in Dahab, is not when the sun rises.

It was a clear night with a full moon, so no trouble following the windy path to the top. Avoiding the persistent camel peddlers along the way - much harder!

So, we waited at the top. More people arrived. A lot more. Egyptians came by offering to rent rather disgusting-looking blankets because, you know, it gets a little chilly at the top of a 7,500+ foot mountain, at four in the morning, when you aren't moving about for an hour and a half. I tried to sleep; it was a fruitless effort - the thousand people kept popping into existence all around me. We were one of the first groups to reach the top and picked out a nice vantage point to watch the sun come up. Over the hours to follow our vantage point was packed with a litany of new tourist groups, chattering away in German, French, Russian, and most other languages of the UN (except Hebrew, of course - relations are still a little tense with Israel). Finally, around 5:30 the sun showed up. Actually, there was some debate about this - most thought it was just the Moon. Judging by time and compass direction, I was fairly certain it was the Sun (especially as it kept rising), but, admittedly, the spectacle was awfully subdued - there was a lot of haze in the air, so there was none of the bright brilliant reddish-golden radiance, just a pale yellow orb slowly and quietly making its way up into the sky. Producing precious little light or heat at the time.

Yup, that's the rising sun!

The mountains of the Sinai peninsula all around are a pretty amazing site though!

I was excited to be up here, haze or no haze!

Mt. Sinai, of course, has a ton of Christian tradition, so there's a chapel up at the top. The stairway leading up to the top, the '3,000 Steps of Repentance' was built by a monk over a thousand years ago

And on the way back down... the crowds, oh the crowds!

We took the Steps of Repentance on the way down, which wound through a spectacular canyon with the sun, higher and brighter by now, lighting up mountains on either side of us. At the bottom of the canyon we could see St. Katherine's monastery, the oldest continuously operating monastery in the world. A brief visit to the monastery was also a part of the tour - it too was rather disappointing.

But at least it is an awesome site on the way down through the canyon!

A three hours ride in our very uncomfortable minivan later, I was back in Dahab. I probably should have gone to bed, but instead I went wakeboarding - I have my priorities

And it was the right choice anyway! I heart the wake the Malibu puts up...

In between climbing mountains in pre-dawn hours of the night, we spent a lot of time lounging on the beach - yes, I know, it's a hard life. First was the Dead Sea, which was simply spectacular - the concentration of salt and other minerals is amazingly high, so nothing lives in the water, it stings horribly if you ever get it into your eyes or mouth, but, you don't sink! You lie down and just kind of gently float on top of the water - it's the coolest feeling, I've never felt anything remotely like it! Jesus supposedly walked on water in the Sea of Galilee, up in the North of Israel - good thing because it would have seemed so much less miraculous to do so down here!

The Dead Sea! That's Jordan on the far bank

Just lounging about

Yup, you don't sink! Don't take your flip flops off either - you'll definitely know about any cuts you had, even if you didn't know you had them before. Getting a fresh cut on the rocks below would bring horrible pain!

Or you can take a little nap in the water - just put your sunscreen on!

The water is actually incredibly good for your skin - note the high content of salt and other minerals by the shore. Unfortunately, the Dead Sea is gradually disappearing as Israel and Jordan have diverted a lot (too much?) of the waters feeding it, so come see it now while it's still here!

We also spent a day on the beach in Eilat, on the Red Sea, which I found fairly underwhelming, but Irina explained about the minimum number of days a modern human being has to spend in the sun on the beach every year in order to maintain their sanity and health, and headed off for the beach. I did not entirely see her point and went off to run some errands, which felt useful and productive, and, in the end, were largely a complete waste of my time - I suppose her theories must be correct!

My final tally:
- Masada: awesome, just hard to get to in the morning due to lack of transport options
- Dead Sea: amazing, go see it before it disappears!
- Eilat: nice, but if you've come all the way down here for the beaches, just go to Egypt, where the beaches are better and the prices are lower
- Dahab: perfect! Easily my favorite place in Egypt
- Mt. Sinai and St. Katherine's Monastery: I guess if you are here, you ought to go see them (historical significance and all), and the sunrises are usually more spectacular than what I got, but I was underwhelmed.