Sunday, August 24, 2008

numbers

$11,000 - total trip cost
  • $3800 - total airfare
  • $4400 - money spent during travels, excluding diving
  • $1500 - scuba diving
  • $800 - vaccinations, insurance, pills*
  • $500 - pre-trip shopping (camera mostly)
* - this is the most I've ever heard anyone pay for v, i, p. Unfortunately, Cambodia + India + Ghana = every single vaccination "strongly recommended."

$9,000 - vague amount budgeted for trip before serious planning
$10,700 - amount budgeted after research
$300 - amount over budget
2.8% - percent over budget
9 - how awesome that is (10-point scale)

30,800 - number of miles traveled
11 - countries visited (excluding America)
32 - cities/towns/whatever visited
6 - cities/towns/whatever where the temperature broke 100 degrees while I was there. Not 90, not 95. 100.

115
- nights of the trip
18 - nights spent in buses, trains, ferries, streets, airports, or stations
32 - hot showers (I'm shocked at how high this number is.)

$8.20 - average cost of a night's stay throughout the trip
$39 - most expensive bed: very last day of the trip, in Morocco
$2.80 - least expensive bed: Siwa oasis, in Egypt

24 hours - longest flight: Chicago > LA > Taipei > Kuala Lumpur
17 hours - longest train ride: Sungai Golok > Bangkok
4 hours - longest ferry ride: Nuweiba > Aqaba
31 hours - longest bus ride: Srinagar > Agra*

* - That's a 550-mile journey. It's like that joke, where a farmer boasts that he'd have to drive all day to reach the end of his farm, and the other guy says, "Yeah, I used to have a car like that, too."

60 - approximate number of posts mailed to the States
39 - passport stamps and stickers collected on the trip (most countries give a visa stamp/sticker, entry stamp, exit stamp)
12 - currencies dealt with
$20 - money "lost" due to botched conversions (beats the time I missed a zero in Japan, and Mom and I went to a conspicuously fancy $16 meal in Tokyo...)
$600 - cash hidden in my money belt or backpack at the start of the trip
$600 - if I could redo the trip, how much I would have brought in cash. It was perfect.
2 - number of days lost to illness (altitude sickness in Leh)
0 - number of times I was even remotely bothered by stomach/food/GI-issues
wow - yeah, wow to that last one!

Days required to readjust to life at home? I'll tell you once I find out.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

home sweet home

My dad always says: "You know, your grandma always said: 'It's good to want to go on vacation, and it's good to want to come home.' And she's right."

And he's right.

Groggy in Casablanca, barely catching the train to head to the airport to catch a plane to NYC to catch a Chicago-bound flight (thanks for rescheduling my flights, travel agent Kyle!)... well, it sounds like the start of a bad day. But I was just too excited to see my folks, to walk on American soil, to be home.

After circling above Cape Cod for 2 hours while waiting for clearance to land at JFK, the pilot just gives up and decides to land in Bangor, Maine. Being delayed several hours and missing a flight is tragedy, but landing in Bangor, Maine instead of New York City? That's comedy.

Imagine if someone had never seen New York City. His first time on an airplane, imagination running wild. Skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty, Tiffany's, 5th Ave, Coney Island, Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan; he's just so excited. New York City. He wakes up, after dreams of the Big Apple, of America, of New York City! Looks out the window, and there it is. Bangor, Maine.

Now, unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), the airport of Bangor, Maine is not exactly an international hub*. In fact, there are no international facilities. No visa service, no customs, no entry stamps. We're not allowed off the plane.

* - see this entry's comments RE these totally incorrect statement.

Just as we're getting hungrumpy, maybe an hour and a half, we lift off for a short hop to the real NYC. Land at 9pm. Next flight to Chicago is 8am, so after a failed attempt to catch some z's in a little corner of the arrival hall, a single-serving friend and I have wheelchair races all around the empty airport 'til the wee hours of the morn, when our vehicles are confiscated by a guard who looked like she'd never had an ounce of fun in her life, and was jealous. So then my newfound friend regales me with incredible stories of his 4-year tour of Iraq, and we get some muffins when Au Bon Pain finally opens at 5am. Sit around 'til 8am, and I'm off to Chicago.

Mom picked me up at O'Hare International. Due to Dad's work schedule and my extra day of transit, I won't get to see him 'til tomorrow morning, when he comes home from Loyola Medical. How sad! And my brother and sister? They're somewhere between Egypt and Jordan currently. I guess wanderlust runs in the family. We like to travel.

But man oh man, is it nice to come home, too! Freshly-shaved, showered, and fed. I'm putting my photos on the computer as I type, and as soon as Mom gets up from her nap, we're taking a walk. I like walking with Mom.

So.

So, I'm home! And you know what? American computers, American internet: I can put up photos and videos that I couldn't before. Let's do it! Here, some videos.


"leading" hephalumps to the river kwai to drink
video


tak bat in laos
video


leh, narrated in a 900-number voice (I was sick, remember...)
video


nageen lake, in kashmir, whose surface is smooth as glass
video


random rockshaw ride in agra
video


let's go diving. i'll just take this camel here.
video


tour group buses in egypt
video


magic box in ghana
video


stroll through medival fes
video


Ooooh, and here are some Ghana photos, too!

Start with the best photo of the trip:


That photo was from this school... once they noticed I had a camera.


Is that an abruni?! It IS!


Ice cream and cute little kids? Ghana is the best!


Even the flies are nice. Have you ever seen such a pretty fly?


The whole place is pretty. West African art is awesome. Remember those two statues I fell in love with? Are these great statues, or are these the best statues? Colonial art 4eva!


Here's the fishing town of Cape Coast.


Another Cape Coast scene.


Everybody balances stuff on their heads. Here the vendors are waiting for traffic to roll up.


Cape Coast has some former slave forts. This one's called Cape Coast Fort.


Here's a view from the e-walk in Kakum National forest. Good stuff.


Ghana, I like you.



And why not, here are a couple Morocco shots:

Alleyways with great tiled fountains scattered throughout.


Poke around a mosque, and head back to the market roads.


Oooh, I can't afford dinner at this riad, but tea sounds perfect.


Some of the other terrace-crashing travelers bid me a hero's goodbye.


Unfortunately, the plane got a little confused:


But you already heard that story. Actually, that brings you up to date entirely, right up to me sitting here, typing this sentence you just finished.

I'll put up another post in a few days or so with a few numbers and things, but there's one thing I want to mention right now:

I honestly, honestly, honestly didn't expect anyone to keep tabs on this little blog. My folks, and myself, and that's it, really. But the occasional email notes or blog comments, so totally unexpected, were just such a treat of this trip. That really, really made me smile.

Hmmm, that didn't come out as vitriolic* and impassioned as I was hoping, but you'll have to forgive me -- last time I slept was thirty-some hours ago in northern Africa -- but here's the point: thanks.

* - hmm, turns out that word does not mean what I thought it meant.

Thanks for keeping in touch, for checking in and following along and saying hello and all that good stuff. It was just so unexpected, and you all made my day time and time again.

So thanks for that.

Now I think I'm gonna snuggle up in my big fat comfy bed, under some big fat comfy blankets, in my clean air-conditioned room, and dream of more big adventures. Good night everybody, and sweet dreams.

Monday, August 4, 2008

goodbye ghana, hello morocco

Damn you computers!

So the blog was doing well until Ghana, where computers just took too darn long. And I thought surely, SURELY in Morocco these machines would be lickety-split and we'd be back on track. And they ARE lickety-split, but they won't load my photos! Quelle domage! (But at least I can check on the Cubs now.)

The highlights of the last few days in Ghana?

1 - Sam and Carl coach rugby at a local school; let's join! 3 tro-tros later, we get off at Pig Farm (no joke), and... man I wish I had photos. It's tough to explain how excited Ghanaian kids get at seeing abruni. They just stampede right at you. Teachers came around with switches to keep the kids off me, and I still ended up with a trickle of blood running down my cheek from a zealous boy who needs to clip his nails. I bought some oranges and juggled for the group (I think Sophie got some photos of that), and threw the oranges one by one into the crowd afterwards. Sam was just staring at me in disbelief, like "what made you think that was a good idea?!" You'd think these oranges were winning lottery tickets. Little girls were being trampled underfoot; it was like a soccer riot. It was positively surreal.

2 - Colin Powell, the geography whiz from whom I bought some masks and stuff, stopped by Crystal Hostel and had a few beers with us. That's very Ghanaian. People are just instafriends. It's wonderful.

3 - Headed down to Labadi beach in Accra for Reggae night. Bonfires, live Ghanaian music and dancers (how good are African dancers?!) and wading in the dark African surf. It was a blast.

4 - The sink in Labadi beach's bathroom didn't work, so a worker was there ladling water from a bucket for you to wash your hands. The worker told me the bathroom was 50 cents -- it's common for public bathrooms to cost money; in Egypt some had admission tickets, like it was a train -- and I only had a $1 note. He said thank you, and I said no, I need change. So okay, let's go to the bar and get change. I start walking and he half-follows, then slinks back. This is very not Ghanaian. I say, aloud, "Hey, you owe me change." Suddenly one of the other workers gets angry with him, "If you owe him money, give him his money!" and a middle-aged woman starts hitting him over the head with a stick, furiously reprimanding, "Kofi, you know that bathroom is free! Give him his money back! It is not right to cheat people! Give him his money!" Wow.

5 - Folks told me a cab to the airport should cost about $7. In most poor countries, a cabbie would see that I'm white and going to the airport, and demand $20 and it'd be a 5-minute ordeal. In Ghana:

"To the airport, how much?"
"$6."

Honesty makes me so happy. I gave him seven. At the airport, my $2.50 snack became $2 when there was no correct change. Thanks Ghana. You get an A-.

Why the minus? Ghana's bugs are pretty unbelievable. The flies are irridescent yellow and green and blue. They're the most gorgeous flies I've ever seen. I took pictures of them. But wait, that's a plus, not a minus! No, the minus comes from the the deet-resistant biowarfare mosquitocopters. The bites are enormous; I looked like a smallpox victim. Even with anti-malarials, one person at the hostel got malaria. And the poor sap who didn't bother with anti-malaria medication? She made it about 3 days before the inevitable.

Despite that somewhat serious health hazard, I'd go back in a heartbeat. Never did I think I'd see such an amazing marriage of poverty and happiness. It's absolutely inspiring.

On to Morocco.

After a red-eye to Morocco, I found a hotel and spent the day in Casablanca. The weather in Ghana, Egypt, Dubai... actually, this whole trip!, well, comparatively, the breezy 82-degree Moroccan air was absolute heaven. But street-side cafes and friendly locals just weren't able to compensate for Casablanca's concrete aesthetic, so I took a very 1st-world train to Fez, which is where I am right now. I damn near cried when the train doors opened and I was blasted with 104-degree air -- why can't I escape this extreme heat?! -- but the old medina in Fez is AH-MAZE-ING. It's lauded as the largest car-free area in any city in the world. Why no cars? They simply don't fit. The old medina is 1200 years old, with cobbled streets and markets and the tiniest alleyways all winding tortuously around like exploring ants. It's gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous. And while Hotel Cascades was sorta full, you can sleep on a mat on the roof terrace for 50 dirham ($7) a night, which is just too cool for words (though I'm not a fan of the "ALLAH AKBAAAAAAAAAAAR MUHAMMAD RESULU ALLAAAAAAAAAAAAAH" calls to prayer ringing out in the worst hours of the night). Last night I used a small melon as a pillow. I figure I'll spend the rest of my trip right here.

And they have vegetarian food!!! Oh how I miss you, rare variety!

Today is the 4th. Assuming my flight issue gets worked out (shifting flights have shortened my NYC layover from 3 hours to negative 1 hour), I get home on the 8th. Oh America, with your hot showers and potable tap water and sit-down toilets and bearable heat, how I miss you so! But I love love LOVE traveling, and I don't want this to end. I know I won't be home 3 days before I wish I were exploring again.

But wait, right now, I'm in the ancient walled medina of Fez, with alleyways pulsing with culture and history and a million lives, and I'm sitting here at a computer?! No no no, this is all wrong.

I gotta go explore.

Monday, July 28, 2008

shhh, on our left is the elusive African Internet. approach slowly.

I found an internet!

This is the third internet cafe I've found in the last 4 days, but it's the first one that, you know, was connected to the internet.

Let's just jump into it: I really like Ghana. On the one hand, there's not a ton to do, but on the left hand, doing nothing has never been so fun! The main activities are crossing the street, catching a tro-tro, trying to find a market, hunting for a chop bar that has egg sandwiches. Life is so public here, it's a blast. Every morning the curtains open and smiling characters come flooding from stage left and right and center. Kids play with hoops and women carry baskets of fabric on their heads and men weave between tro-tros as the tro-tro mates give their bizarre, nasally calls. (Want to go to circle? Listen for the mate yelling "sec sec sec sec sec." Darkuman? "daku daku daku juuuuunc, daku juuuuunc.") You just walk outside and become part of the production. Every street's a theater.

Of course, a LOT of places I've been have had that "every street a theater" vibe -- poor places with high populations, like Egypt and India and Cambodia -- so why is Ghana holding a special place in my heart? It's the PEOPLE!!

It's a miracle of statistics. The small but omnipresent minority of hustlers and hasslers and cheats in any given country, they can really ruin it for the traveler. (And they probably irk their honest compatriots more than anyone.) In Ghana, though, I have YET TO MEET A GONIFF! It's truly a miracle of statistics. I've not ONCE been asked an ignorant-foreigner amount for a cab fare or a tchotchke souvenir or a chop bar meal! I've not ONCE had a hard sell or an overly-pushy come-to-my-shop! NOT A SINGLE ATTEMPTED COMMISSION at my expense! It's heaven. Ghanaians just have a culture of being wonderful, wonderful people.

How to pass as a Ghanaian:

1 - SMILE.
2 - Greet everyone (salutations are important here).
3 - Laugh at every sentence like it's a really funny joke (this one can be confusing at times).
4 - Confuse foreigners by not distinguishing between pre- and post-redenomination currency: does "twenty" mean 20,000 old cedis, which is TWO new cedis, or is it 20 new cedis?
5 - If an abruni looks remotely lost, drop everything to help them. (In the absence of a gender-neutral third person singular, I'm using the plural. Deal with it, Mom, Lois, and all you other grammar pedants.)
5 - When someone asks directions, never point. Walk them to the destination, no matter how far. One guy walked me over half a mile to a restaurant. One woman walked me over the footbridge and down a block to find the right tro-tro, the whole time casually balancing a basket of water packets on her head. (Thirsty? A would-be-rude-in-America hiss gets a water-toting woman speed-walking, basket on her head, straight for the open tro-tro window. You give her 5 cents, she reaches up and plucks a 500mL sachet of water from her head. You have to bite it open, and about 50mL spills all over your pants.)
6 - Call all white people "abruni." This literally means "white person" in Tchwee. It has no positive or negative connotation; it's just as if they're all named "abruni."
7 - Wear LOTS of colors. African skin looks good with lots of colors on it. Wrap yourself up in a Ghanaian flag (green, red, yellow) and you look like a million bucks.
8 - Be ready to dance at the drop of a beat.
9 - Be totally unable to guess distances. It's like a national disability.
"Hello sister (suppose she's about my age)."
"Hello abruni, how are you?"
"I am well. Do you know which way to Kumasi station?"
"Straight down this road."
"Thanks; do you know how far?"
"You can walk or take a taxi."
"Is it 1 kilometer?"
"Like that."
"5 kilometers?"
"Yes."
"10 kilometers?"
"Maybe."
It's a phenomenon every single abruni I've chatted with has found. It's bewildering.
10 - Love your country as much as the Thai love their king. That's a LOT of love.

I know there were two number 5's.

The vibe of friendliness totally extinguishes hesitancy. Walk around alone at night? No problem. Once Sophie and I got lost... well actually that's a little story.

Sophie, a volunteer from Milwaukee, and I wanted to find some shirts and pants and stuff, so we catch a tro-tro to Keneshie Market ("kah-nesh kah-nesh kah-nesh!"). If you're looking for cooked fish, live crabs, huge crawling snails (yum!), the biggest mangoes you've ever seen, bizarrely half-peeled oranges, or FanIce, this is the market for you. But for the life of us we can't find clothes. So, filled with FanIce and mangoes, we decide to head to Circle, which we know has a clothes market. We start making the Circle motion (places have both calls AND hand motions, your choice), and a tro-tro mate pulls Sophie into his van. I barely make it. After maybe 20 minutes, the mate asks us where we want off (to get correct fare, in the 20-40 cent range). Circle, we say. Not in this tro-tro we're not. Well, apparently we got on the wrong tro-tro, so we get off and we're very lost. Sophie searches for a cab while I make the circle hand signal and keep tro-tro watch. A random dude in a car sees my hand signal and waves me in. Sophie, let's go. So this good Samaritan, lord knows where he was planning to go, says he knows a place to get clothes. Awesome! 15 minutes later, and we're there. Thank you nice driver man! You're very welcome, enjoy Ghana! Sophie and I are dumbfounded to see that we're literally across the street from the Keneshie food market. We're still munching on the last pieces of mango we bought from the lady not 20 feet away. And that's how you cross the street in Ghana.

Now Sophie, Carl, and Sam all volunteer at schools. I wanna tag along, just 'cause why not. Carl and Sam, how far's your school? 20 minutes by tro-tro. Sophie, your school? 5 minute's walk*. So I went to school with Sophie.

* - is that possessive or plural? I think I'd say "one minute'S walk away," so it's possessive. That's it, I'm going back and adding an apostrophe.

Sophie could've maybe prepared me a little better than "this way to school." I get there, and am MOBBED by screaming 3-6 year-olds. I mean MOBBED! I am just manhandled. One poor tyke is balling his eyes out, just too terrified for words. Sophie then remembers, "oh yeah, you're probably the second or third white person a lot of them have seen. It took about a week for them to get used to me." They pet my hair, stroke my chin. They think my farmer's tan is up there with Legos and Playdoh for fun stuff, they trace the blue-ish veins on my arm. They're all talking in unison, trying to introduce themselves or name body parts or tell me their ages. Everybody wants to hold my hand, so each grab a few fingers. The best part was when they started dancing around me and chanting "pink and white! pink and white!" It was weird. Sophie got some photos of it.

School itself was a little what you'd expect, except there were more songs and praising Jesus, and the teacher would bust out her drum and they'd dance to the songs. They did some math. The 2-4 year-olds would come over to the 5-6 year-old side of the classroom to sneak a white-man arm-touch. They'd walk up to you in that clompy haven't-totally-figured-out-walking way, and they're just staring in a way only fascinated little kids can, and they'd touch your arm and then quickly retreat. They were adorable.

Kindergarten and 1st grade graduation photos were scheduled for the day I was there, so this guy comes with a camera from like 1975, and I got to pose as the guy handing out diplomas for some of the shots. So in India, on some family's wall, there's a photo of their trip to the Taj Mahal, or the Kailasa Temple or Srinigar, of the family and me. And soon, in a village on the outskirts of Accra, near Darkuman in Ghana, there'll be some kid's graduation photo, with him or her looking as cute as ever, and I'm handing out the "diploma." I like that idea.

Wanted to take some photos of the school, so I pulled out my camera. Woah.

I don't quite get it, because it's not like we were in some tribal village. Accra is the capital of Ghana, with 2 million people, and there are computers and cell phones and cameras and abruni, and we're not all that far from Accra proper. But an abruni, with a digital camera, with an LCD screen? It was like a ghostman with a magic box. The kids just flipped. I have some great videos of me sitting down, and kids just swarming and yelling "and me! and me! and me!" and half the video is just of hands and fingers on the camera, and I'm trying to spin it around because everyone wants to see the LCD screen, so they're all kinda racing out of the frame to get behind the camera. It was a lot of fun.

When I finally said goodbye to the kids, when school was over, they mass-hugged me. I'll be back. They were so cute.

While walking back through the village, a group of seamstresses wanted to say hello. I walked over and they all just started dancing. Can't explain it.

This is getting to be a bit long-winded, and for that I'm sorry. I'm a little excited to find working internet, and slow as it might be, for 60 cents an hour, I can afford the luxury.

In brief, I went from Accra to Cape Coast, where I got to see a pair of fortresses used to store and transport slaves during the Triangular Trade days (fascinating, but a bit too uncomfortable and depressing to "enjoy," so I didn't stay too long). The trip to Kakum National Park was pretty decent, with a crazy Ewok-style canopy walk compensating for the lack of exploration-inviting trails. The little park entrance slash mini-museum was really informative and well done. I appreciate that.

The park entrance was 2 cedi (almost exactly one-to-one with the US dollar), and I only had a ten. For some reason, in lots of countries, the ATMs dole out inconveniently large bills. Egypt was the worst: it's 100 pound notes (~$20) were accepted almost nowhere. It's like walking around the States with 500-notes; you're technically rich but you can't buy anything! Anyway, the guy didn't have change for a ten, so he just said I could pick up the change on my way out. Now, I wouldn't trust that anywhere else in the world, but in Ghana? Lo and behold, he had 8 cedis in a rubber band waiting for me on return. Honesty is just part of their culture. It's wonderful.

Now I'm writing from Kumasi, where I came on a bit of a lark. I have no idea what I'm doing here: just kinda exploring and meeting Ghanaians, which seems to be the thing to do. Tomorrow I'll pro'lly head back to Accra, go back to school, say hi to Colin Powell, and have some good times around Crystal Hostel's green table again. That sounds perfect. (Not as perfect as a hot shower, a clean bed, and a banana milkshake, but I bet I'm not home two weeks before I start wishing I were traveling again. The table's always greener...)

Sorry, by the way, that I have yet to find an open, working post office in Ghana. I admit I haven't really been looking, but, yeah, sorry. Tuzin Yowis, I actually have a postcard to you that still has an Egyptian stamp on it. Okay, that's it. Today I'm finding a post office. I have a mission.

Prediction: lots of folks stop to help me, a few kids yell "hello abruni!" from across the street, I end up getting a FanIce, everyone's happy to give directions, nobody knows how far. Chances of actually mailing stuff: 60%.

Goodbye, rare internet! Goodbye, small connection to home. I don't know when we'll meet again.


As a sort of post script:

I'm happy to see internet here, but I'm only half-joking. The net goes down all the time. It's really a luxury. You know that 3 days ago, Accra ran out of water? Yeah, all of Accra, 2 million people and the capital of Ghana!, it just ran out of water for about 12 hours. And I'm not talking hot- and cold-running purified potable 1st-world water. I mean just plain water.

I know America isn't perfect -- I really do -- but I really think it does a LOT of things right. And without hesitation, the more you travel, the more things, small and large, you appreciate about your home. This is so cheesy, but I just have to announce it: I really, really, really love America. It's my very favorite-ist country in the whole wide world.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

welcome to ghana

Right now I'm in an internet cafe, resolved to write at least some kind of entry, but being pretty distracted by the sing-along English version of Jacques Brel's Le Moribond. It's a morbid choice for a kid's sing-along. (Actually, to think of it, lots of kid's rhymes are eery: Rock a Bye Baby is straight scary.) But in Ghana, lots of choices make you double-take.

The shop names make every walk down the street a little comedy. Most are poorly-infused religious themes, like "Clap for Jesus Butik" [beautique] and "God Loves Calling Center," and a handful are just, just... I don't know. At the corner by my hostel is White Cock Catering. I'm writing from G-Spot Internet Cafe. Seriously. I don't think it's supposed to be sexual, but, I just don't know.

G-Spot is the only internet cafe around, and it's slow like turtles. Photos are totally out of the question. But, yikes!, to think of it, in 3 days here I've taken zero pictures! I gotta get my camera out!

So... what.

I left off heading to Luxor. I'm going to be brief.

My aircon room at El Gezira hotel ran me $12 a night. I was the hotel's only guest. Most folks visit Luxor on package Nile cruises, and I have a few nice photos of a site parking lot, with ~80 tour buses and a lone bicycle. It was dry, but 108 degrees is hot no matter how you slice it. Folks wave at you as you bike past: they don't see a lot of that in July.

Luxor is the heart of what most people associate with Ancient Egypt: it is the site of Thebes, an important city during the Middle Kingdom and Egypt's capital during the New Kingdom's 18th Dynasty (1400-ish BC), and remained paramount during the entire New Kingdom. The New Kingdom (18th-20th dynasties) is the quintessential Ramses, Nefertiti, King Tut time.

To note, I've been trying to load Wikipedia's Luxor page for the past 9 minutes. It's still not even close.

Anyway, Luxor is a who's-who of Egypt sites, with Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Luxor Temple, Karnak Temple, the Ramesseum, Hatshupset's Temple, Tombs of the Nobles, the Colossi of Memnon, and all sorts of smaller and less-restored temples and tombs and structures. But, like I think I wrote before, it was just too much a production. Sound and light shows?! This is too tacky for words! Huge parking lots, tour buses rolling up like a rock concert, lines and flash photos and concession stands. I just couldn't get into Ancient Egypt mode. If I biked out early morning, the first site of the day would be wonderful, but around 10AM the tour buses would rumble on the road in the distance, and the day's magic fooosh, out like a match stomped underfoot.

I wish I could put up photos. Sorry. The Luxor page still hasn't loaded.

Without photos, let's move on to Ghana.

The Ghana visa issue was a bit of an experience. I was escorted to Room 2 on arrival, where I sit across from a uniformed sergeant at a big wooden desk in a poorly-lit carpet-free office with a dusty fan. The sergeant's assistant has his own, smaller desk, mashed up against the sergeant's. This room was clearly made for one, and it's a little, uh, cozy. Getting grilled by a guy that, to me, looks and dresses like an African general making a speech on BBC News (I'm seriously Africa ignorant), well, it would be a million times more intimidating if he hadn't already taken my hundred dollar visa fee. As soon as the other party has a load of your money in their pocket, that transaction is closing.

At the airport, there's a guy holding up a sheet of paper that says "Jacob Cooper." What a fantastic feeling! You know my dad's a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune's "I Love / I Hate" column (he's kinda a big deal), and that was an I Love of his that made it to press. Oooh, and the last time he got an I Love in the Trib, it was particular terrific! I'd put a link here, but the Luxor page still isn't up; I'm not opening a new window. If you want, Google: Chicago Tribune I Love I Hate. My dad's pretty great.

The driver took me to Crystal Hostel, where I'm staying with a gaggle of international volunteers. It's a great vibe, and they're some really cool kids. Taught me how to catch a tro-tro (the decrepit vans that act as share-taxis slash buses), where to buy water, how much things should cost. One is a vegetarian, but her "you're going to have to eat a lot of plain white rice" wasn't too encouraging. 3 days in, and I'd kill for some deep dish pizza. 3 weeks to home!

Uncle, the hostel owner (every male older than you is "Uncle") has a voice like a BBC narrator for a nature documentary. I've never had such voice envy. Every time he says "good morning!" in his rumbling deep, smiling, African-accented timbre, I see gazelles nervously approaching a watering hole while a huge, hidden crocodile waits in the shallows. It's unbelievable. "How are you this morning, Jake?" I'm the best I've ever been, Uncle!

Ghanaians are friendly. There's so little hassle. Little kids will point to you and yell "Abruni! Abruni!" (white person), but it's just so giggly and friendly. Ghanaians have the biggest smiles.

Dara and Sam and I went out to the market, and sure, there's a lot of "come look in my shop," but it's not a hard sell. It's fine. One guy has a really wonderful looking shop. "Hello!" he says, with the biggest smile. We need to learn how to smile like Ghanaians. Where are you from? "Chicago, the Windy City! Chicago is in Illinois," he tells me, "but it's not the capital! The capital of Illinois is Springfield!" I wish we had punctuation for how Ghanaians speak when they're smiling. An exclamation point works. I'm impressed, how do you know about Illinois? He just loves geography, so I quiz him. "Alaska is the Frontier State, and it's capital is Juneau! Did you know, you cannot drive into Juneau? You must fly or take a ferry!" He knew EVERYTHING! And he had a pair of statues that I LOVE, and I'm going to buy them later. When I mention that I like the statues, he tells me all about them and, in a light-hearted, totally friendly manner, tells me he'll give me the Peoria price. What?! He laughs at my surprise: he knows Chicago is expensive, but he'll give me the Aurora price. This dude has his geography DOWN. Even if it were just a stellar sales technique, it works! And I don't think it is: he knew the capital of Mongolia, and I doubt that's a lucrative piece of knowledge here. But anyway, the statues are just too wonderful, and I'm very much not a shopper, but if you see something that you can afford (his starting price was $60 for the pair), and it's interesting and you like it immediately... all things should be such obvious buys.

In 4 days here I've done very little. I walk down the street and buy FanIce (ice cream in a packet, 30 cents) and... geez, what do I do? Yesterday we got out buckets and soap and did our laundry, and I'm telling you, I've never had such a good time doing laundry. We just do nothing and it's a blast.

You know where Ghanaians carry things? No backpacks, no handbags: all balanced on their heads. Wrap a towel into a ring, put it on your head like a peasant tiara, and put whatever perched atop. They just walk down the street like that. I'm self-conscious of how this comment sounds, but: it's just so, so African! I love it.

So I'm sorry I can't get any photos up (I need to take some!), and I know this isn't too fleshed-out, but I'm safe, I'm in Ghana, and I love this place. I already want to come back.

But that deep dish is calling...

Monday, July 21, 2008

update issues

I'm just writing the world's shortest entry to note that I've been having some issues with loading this blog on these not-exactly-2008 computers, so hopefully I'll get an update soon (if not photos, at least something more than this).

Long story short is that Luxor had some top-notch Ancient Egypt sites, but they were such a production it was a bit anticlimactic; like how a Clapton concert is too much about the show and not enough about the music. The Siwan tombs were, somehow, better. For the 3 days I was there, Luxor's highs were 108, 108, and 109.

I'm writing from Ghana, where I had to drop a HUNDRED DOLLARS on an "emergency" visa on arrival. But I'm here, and so far (24 hours in), Ghana is awesome.

I'm gonna post this before Mr. Computer goes kaboom again.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

the hashemite kingdom of jordan

You know that's the official name of Jordan? That's what it says under the ubiquitous photos of the king: "His Majesty King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan." That's an awesome title.

(Of course, Bhutan's ruler still wins, hands down.)

But wait wait, I was still diving in Dahab last update. Diving is as addictive and more expensive than drugs, so one last goodbye to the loverly aluminum cyclinders, and let's go.


As soon as you turn around from the blue blue Red Sea waters, you're looking at Sinai's barren red red mountains. They look great. I wanna go see 'em closer up.


That's the view at sunrise from the top of Mt. Sinai. I waited and waited and waited for hours, but no commandment tablets from up high, so Reginald (another disappointedly un-chosen climber) and I made up our own. Free pizza Sundays, no pants Fridays... we hope they catch on.

Actually, if God had to make up a single commandment for everyone who climbed Mt. Sinai, He'd never have time to eat!


Here's a high-school-art-class photo I took.



Alright, I'm doing well on time, let's see Petra. I've heard good things.


--- LEAVING EGYPT (EXODUS?) ---

The problem is that Petra is in Jordan, and while I thought Egypt bordered Jordan, it turns out Israel slices down to the port of Eilat. I did not realize that.


So, to save precious real estate in my passport, I opted for the somewhat expensive (Nuweiba, Egypt) -> (Aqaba, Jordan) ferry. It was a disaster.

After being lied to in Dahab about how the ferry's not running today (the guy wanted me to stay another day at his hotel), by the time I figure out the truth (the ferry doesn't run tomorrow), I've missed the bus. So $30 taxi to the Nuweiba dock, and get there in plenty of time for the 2pm ferry. But where's the ticket guy? Out to pray, back around 2pm. But that's when the ferry is! "Don't worry," I'm reassured. I've heard that a lot on this trip. It's as much an alarm as "good price."

Serendipitously ran into Mini, whom I befriended in Siwa, so the time passes fast enough, but by 6pm she and the Japanese couple we met were taking naps. No word on the ferry. Nobody seems concerned or aggravated. Now in India, I expect this, but Egypt so far has been pretty decent.


Around 9pm, I'm getting hungry. The ferry isn't even in the dock yet (if there even is a ferry), so screw it, I'm leaving this sweaty-hot concrete-box port and getting some food. Here's where things get really sour. The soldiers won't let me leave the port, as officially I've exited Egypt. If I want to get food, I need a re-entry stamp. But it's past 3pm, and the immigration folks have all left. We get in an argument, which ends with an armed guard escorting a fuming me back to the port, hungry and stuck.

Beyond this gate is Egypt, where I'm not allowed.


By about 10pm, folks are getting aggravated, little bubbles beneath the surface, and 4 soldier/guards come over to play sheepdog. People start getting angry and shouting, and the soldiers are barking and make us all sit down crowded together outside. The very few women in the group, Mini and Japanese friends included, are taken on a bus somewhere. (I learned later they were taken to the ferry, which was somehow already pretty full, and left without the men). This whole scene, hundreds of hungry, tired, half-angry half-despondent people sitting cramped together as armed guards seperate the women and put them on buses, while the men wait huddled on dark concrete ground at night lit by a half dozen flood lights, it really makes you think of prison, or war, or something. There were maybe 300 of us cramped together, and I was really hungry and trapped and the whole scene was awful and surreal and I kinda snapped, and stood up and started yelling at the nearest guard.

This group of Egyptians, about my age, try to calm me down, and one of them speaks excellent English. He calmly talks to the guard I was yelling at, and then takes me aside. He tells me that (1) don't worry, he's going to take care of me, (2) the ferry has already left for Jordan, but will be returning for us, though the trip is 2 hours each way, so we have to wait 4-5 hours, and (3) I have to calm down or I'm going to be arrested.

This guy (his name is Mohammed, of course), became my guardian angel. He got me an apple. He found a curb that was more comfortable to sit on. When the ferry finally came, at 3am, everyone's pushing and shoving to get on, because not everyone is going to fit, and I'm one of the people who does NOT get on. Then, I swear to you, just like a guardian angel in a cheesy made-for-TV movie, Mohammed walks from the ferry (he's already on, somehow) directly to me, takes me by the hand, and I don't know what he's saying to these officials, but he's like the Great Gatsby meets the Artful Dodger. I follow him past everyone, through doors, past guards, and up stairs to the ferry's VIP lounge, where he takes my passport and when I wake up, still in my plush VIP seat, I have a Jordanian visa. I don't know what I would have done without Mohammed. I just don't even know.

I arrive in Jordan at 7am, after one of the worst nights of my trip.

You know what's a really viscerally uplifting sight? The rising sun. Seriously, night's over, and something about seeing the sun come up, it just lifts you.

As some sort of cosmic compensation, from 7am on, everything goes as well as it possibly could. There's a taxi driver who takes me the 2.5 hours to Petra for 15 Jordanian dinars, which is like $22, and is about a third the price everyone else was asking. He said he's going to Petra anyway to pick a group up. He got me tea and grapes just to be nice. Met some wonderful folks at the hotel (Cliopetra Hotel, hahaha!), and the avuncular hotel owner gave me a pair of apples and tea, and drove us himself to the entrance of Petra, no charge. I'm groggy and slow and have probably looked fresher, but I'm here. Let's see Petra.


--- PETRA ---

Petra is AWESOME.

This is just the entrance!


Lookit that entrance! And it's not like 50 feet long, or even a football field. No man, the Siq -- that crazy tall canyon thing -- is half a mile long! It just goes forever! And it's really huge. If you zoom on that photo, for scale, there's a tyke running there. He was running for his life. That little man was running with the terror of God in his heart. I half expected a dinosaur to come thundering through in a minute, or a ghost or a cold wind or something.

I kept thinking, even if you took away the great company I had (Pedro, Raquel, Garreth, and Malena were really ideal, fun travel mates), and even if you took away all the carvings, tombs, theatres -- the entire city of Petra: diyanu!

The geological beauty of the area rivals the Southwestern US. It's incredible. I didn't want the Siq to end, but wait, what's that I see peeking through?


There it is, the most famous site in Petra: the Treasury. Welcome.



What is this place, anyway?

According to the visitor's center booklet, "most people, when asked, will tell you that Petra is an ancient city carved into solid rock by the Nabataeans, whose capital it became." Ummm, you way overestimate how much "most people" know about Petra.

In short, the Nabataeans were the semi-nomadic Arabs who ruled the region's trade routes from roughly 500BC to 100AD. Petra was their capital, and since they were nomadic, it's about the only structure they left for posterity. Just about everything in Petra is a tomb. For years, archeaologists thought Petra was just a huge necropolis. The Romans took over the Nabataean empire around 100AD, and they kept using and "updating" and repaving the city for a few hundred years. I'm not sure when it was finally abandoned. The ancient city was lost to the West until the crew of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade stumbled upon the ruins. For this discovery, he's about the only character you'll see more than King Abdullah.



Indiana Jones would give you two false impressions of Petra, though.

First of all, the decadence and grandeur of the facades belie what lies inside. That enormous Treasury? Walk in, and this is the entirety of it:


But man, lookit that stone! Here's another tomb. Eat your heart out, Sisteen Chapel!


The other false impression Indy gives is the size of Petra.

Petra is huge! It's not just a couple carvings; it's a CITY. You can go on exploring forever. The booklet proclaims that only 8-10% of Petra has been found. (I assume they mean "excavated," as I have no idea how you'd quantify what you haven't yet found.) This main road goes on and on and on, with structures everywhere.



Near the entrance, especially in front of the Treasury, there are a million tourists. Good place for photos of people taking photos.


But you can explore your way to solitude if you like. And we liked.

Go up some ancient steps. (Ahh! I don't know why the computer rotated this photo a quarter turn clockwise; now it looks so Escher-esque and confusing.)


Vistas of sections of Petra.


Oooh, it's just like the Treasury, but a long hike means fewer tourists!


We went way off the beaten path, and found the world's most beautiful (and kinda dangerous) cliff vista, where we took lunch.



video

I'm tired, too, donkey!


But I could look at this rock forever! Is that the most beautiful natural rock you've ever seen, or is that the most beautiful natural rock you've ever seen?


We ended up exploring Petra for 16 hours over two days. It's like a national park in America's southwest, with an ancient capital carved in to boot. I liked that place. But my plane's in Luxor, and while Egypt left a very sour taste in my mouth that last day, I'm still excited to head back.


--- BACK TO EGYPT ---

Even though two other folks at the hostel used the ferry with no problems, I didn't want to support them. And Pedro and Raquel were going to Egypt overland anyway, so let's all go together through Israel, precious passport real estate notwithstanding.

video

A potent portent of times to come. There was this comedy of errors as Pedro, Raquel and I were bounced around in those no-man's-lands. But they were good company, and the emergency cabs to embassies and ATMs were split three ways. But I lost a day to this fiasco, and my poor passport: I exited Jordan, entered Egypt with two visas (one was subsequently canceled), and entered and exited Israel twice on the same day! What do you do if you run out of pages?


Once in Egypt, the shared minivan to Cairo gets held up at the very first checkpoint. Lots of forms, collect passports, etc. What's the problem? You have an American on board; you need a military escort. Apparently, I, personally, need an armed escort. Why? The guy writes down, on a sheet of paper: "you important." Good answer.

So after maybe 40 minutes, a suit with two guns and a radio gets in the front seat, CIA-style. He's coming with us to Cairo. His name is Mohammed.


The minivan was 6 Danish missionaries (Christian), a Palestinian peace activist slash preacher (Christian), Mohammed the CIA escort guy (take a guess), and Me the important American (secular Jew).

Warning about this next sentence: it involves a traffic accident. I don't want to be graphic, but we passed a horrific crash and there were several bodies still on the road. It was... I don't know how to describe it. Horrible. Everybody in the minivan except me starts praying, and the van is silent for a few minutes. Mohammed the CIA guy says something to the Palestinian, who speaks both Arabic and English, and the Palestinian turns to me, translating: "Mohammed wants to know why you didn't pray." Here goes.

"I'm an atheist."

I swear, I said it as politically as possible. It was purely informative, like "I'm eating this clown cone because I like ice cream, thank you for asking."

Translation pause.

"Mohammed says even a blind man can see God. He says your life is very, um... dark and empty."

What I should've said here is nothing, but instead we played escalatio for a bit until Mohammed called me a godless infidel and I called him a hypocrite with a belt of guns, and then this poor multilingual peace activist refused to translate further.

A few hours later, Mohammed and I apologized and we shared some snacks. The peace activist slash translator was mighty proud. And the endless stretching road-to-the-horizon background made it a very cheesy moment.


And now I'm in Cairo, wasting a day online (I don't like cities) before catching an overnight bus to Luxor.

It's July 15th already! Man, I'll be home in a blink (so excited, but that was fast!), and more important, it's Mommy's birthday in two days! She's turning 44 ;)

I'll try to call from Luxor, but in case I can't:

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM!!

Monday, July 7, 2008

under da sea

I'm in Dahab, on the Sinai coast. Beachfront dinners are awesome, and isn't that the best-looking plate of grilled vegetables? It, with appetizer and dessert, was $10.


But let's get to business. Dahab is a diving spot. I'm a diver.

Is there any hobby as expensive as diving? Faberge egg collecting?

But the Red Sea is a diving mecca, and I am, er, was well under budget. So in the past week I've logged over 20 hours underwater... and spent well over a thousand dollars. Yikes. But,

I

LOVE

DIVING!!!!


Let's start with a live-aboard. This is an eat-sleep-dive kinda adventure, where you spend X number of days on a boat with a bunch of other dive-nuts (X = 3 in this case), and you dive before breakfast, after breakfast, after lunch, and a night dive after sunset and before dinner. It's intense. It's awesome.

First, head to diver central and find your boat.


Check-ins, all sorts of formalities, let's get to our first dive site already. Ooh, what an inviting shade of blue!


(Or sometimes an eery thick black, just after sunset, and then out with the flashlights and glowsticks for the always kinda creepy night dive. That's scary water:)


Pre-dive briefing.


Suit up.


An unflattering shot of your humble narrator, in decidedly heavy and awkward attire for land.


The last thing you see before splashdown. Hello fishies!!


Like everyone, when I was little I wanted to be an astronaut. But at some point I learned astronauts are glorified engineers, and while I'm hardly knocking it, it's not really what I meant. I wanted H.G. Wells-style planet discovery! I wanted to explore alien worlds, see life suited to different physics, different constraints and limitations, different wonders! I wanted to be an aquanaut!

Here's just a teeny, tiny sampling of the inhabitants of a totally different planet that share Earth with us.

Stonefish (must've been two dozen I passed for every one I spotted: it's even hard to find in the photo below! And they're kinda scary: can-be-fatal-ly poisonous dorsal spines and they don't move out of the way, so you can touch them).


Regal angels.


Blue-spotted boxfish (hahaha, you're so cute!).


Lionfish (pretty poisonous, but slow as rocks, and there was probably one for every one I saw; they're tough to miss).


The brilliantly-named Pajama nudie.


Garden eels (lawns of 'em).


Sea moths (cute little guys, very rarely seen).


Titan triggers (huge and territorial - appreciate from a distance).


Blue-spotted rays.


Lettuce corals (they look JUST like lettuce!).


I could go on and on and on. And, AND, they have the coolest behaviors. Schools of tiny anthias hang around a brambly coral head, and if you go near, they all disappear into the tiniest coral nooks and crannies. Hundreds of juvenile triggers hang in a puff like drops of vapor in a cloud. Sergeant majors display their fins as irridescent cleaner-wrasse give them a run-down. The tiniest little damselfish bonk into your mask, defending their territory from any intruder, regardless of size. Huge Napoleon fish lazily cruise by and curiously keep an eye on you. All this while you're 80 feet below the surface, flying weightless over the most magnificent palette of corals. There's nothing like being under water.


The Red Sea is home to a wild variety of biota, but it's also filled with shipwrecks. Every other page on the Sinai Red Sea dive guide booklet looked like this:


Most wrecks aren't actually that neat to see: the ship's wood has long deteriorated and the cargo of lentils or cotton or whatever is no longer there. Usually, though, the wreck is a bonus. These ships sunk because they struck the reef, so you dive the reef, and hey, whaddya know, there's a ship down here. Sometimes they're extra neat: the Yolanda itself has rolled into deep water, but its cargo still sits conspiciously among the corals.


But the shipwreck that deserves very special mention -- it was the main feature/destination of the liveaboard, and is consistently rated in the world's top 10 dive sites -- is the wreck of the Thistlegorm.

The Thistlegorm left England in 1941 with a cargo of military supplies bound for Egypt. The Mediterranean was controlled by Germany, so the vessel went all the way around Africa and up the Red Sea. While waiting for the go-ahead to enter the Suez Canal, the Thistlegorm was targetted by German planes, who unloaded their excess munitions on the ship while returning from a mission. On October 5th, 1941, a direct hit on hold four sunk the 419 foot Thistlegorm. Jacques Cousteau discovered the wreck in the fifties, but kept the location secret. In the 1990's, it was rediscovered, and has since become one of the world's most famous dive sites.

The Thistlegorm isn't the easiest dive -- you're penetrating an enormous wreck 80-feet deep, and the resident stonefish make me a little nervous -- but woah! It's like swimming around a WWII museum. Anti-aircraft guns, motorcycles with sidecars (how WWII are sidecars!), machine guns, tanks (yes, two entire tanks!), trucks, boots, airplane wings, and a million other military odds and ends, all coral-encrusted and guarded by schools of silent squirrelfish and patroling sergeant majors. But it's not just a dive, and it's not just a museum; it's very real. It's quiet, and it commands respect. It's a war memorial. People died.

Anatomy of the wreck:


Anatomy with some photos you can zoom in on:


It's really an amazing piece of history.


The diving was phenomenal. Unfortunately for the above-water part of the trip, the boat was 9 Danes and myself. I don't speak a lick of Danish; that made for some long meals. I spent a lot of time watching the stars (I slept on the deck all three nights), and inspecting the boat for all things interesting. What's wrong with this hours-of-sunlight graph?


The cab back to Dahab winds through some beautiful Sinai interior. At one point I saw a bush that looked just like a camel, but then I realized it was a camel. I don't know why I thought it was a bush.

More diving in Dahab. One trip was to a reef in Ras Abu Gallum, a park so protected, so out of the way, that it's inaccessible by car. But we had an idea...


Load your dive gear onto a camel, and let's play Moses and wander through the Sinai.


Wait, how far? Okay, let's load my dive gear and myself onto the camel.


(These photos are both of me just 'cause I was on the Formula One camel, so if I wanted a photo of the I-can't-believe-this-is-happening caravan, I had to shoot behind me.)

Before we even get to the site, I love this trip! Is that beautiful or is that beautiful?


And you just keep thinking: I can't believe I'm taking a camel to a dive site. I love my life. And that reef? SO PRISTINE! Corals like heaven, blues and greens and yellows and whites! It was like skittles and science class and The Little Mermaid and The Discovery Channel and a box of crayons. It was the best.

But, alas, today's my last day of diving -- it's a very expensive addiction and I need to cut myself off. I'm in Dahab, and the Blue Hole is a very famous... er, infamous site, so I thought I'd go see it. The blue circle is 300 feet deep. Just left in the photo, outside the reef, the ocean bottom is 1000' down.


While not at all intrinsically dangerous, Blue Hole is sometimes known as Diver's Cemetary*. The dive instructor at my place says the Blue Hole's claimed well over 100 lives. It's a morbid scene at the entrance:


-----
* - If you're curious why, basically, it's the temptation of trying The Arch. The Arch is an 80'-long tunnel though the reef, connecting the 300'-deep hole to the open ocean outside the hole. Here's the rub: The Arch is 200-feet deep. If you really want to go into why that depth is dangerous, look up nitrogen narcosis, oxygen toxification, and air consumption at depth -- but for reference, without advanced certifications, divers are allowed to go to 60'. A deep dive is 100', and 120' is very deep. As long as we're going tangential, freedivers (breath-hold diving) replace all the problems of breathing compressed gases by, well, holding their breath. You want to see an amazing video? (The divers filming are tec divers, with several cylinders filled with air, nitrox, trimix, hydreliox, or other exotic gases.) And you can see, as William descends, the ambient pressure compresses his body enough that he becomes negatively bouyant, and he just sinks the second hundred feet down to The Arch. Of course, then he has to swim back up!
-----

I thought about not writing this into the blog, because it's really bothersome, but I'm going to anyway. The dive was fine, but when we surfaced, there was a crowd gathered on the shore just feet from the water's edge, and in the middle, three men were performing CPR on an unresponsive diver. I don't know what happened, but it's really... I don't know, it just makes your stomach churn. They're pumping resolutely and have him hooked up to oxygen and people are ogling and some are crying, and the diver is just totally limp and his big belly's so lifeless, and sometimes water comes out of his mouth when they pump, and it's just awful. I don't know what happened.

So I'm really sorry to end on such an awful note. I'm sorry my dive vacation-within-a-trip ended like that, too. But it's a morbid reminder, perhaps, not to get too complacent underwater. Even if everything, everything goes right, it's still dangerous. And it always makes me a little nervous to see someone get a 2-day certification in Cancun or Ko Samui, and plunge in too headstrong to admit he's underwater and on life support. So I know this sounds really patronizing and campy, but I'm in a kinda blue mood after seeing that today: If you're a diver, please stay within your limits. Be safe.