Saturday, January 26, 2008

World Destruction

So this was what we had under Reagan, at least in Detroit: rap and punk and Act Up and Queer Nation and Black Action Movement, the People's Nation and Folk Nation - the Midwest version of the Crips and Bloods - and urban warfare and, well, alternatives. Rebellion. Methods of resistance.

And Bush is so much worse, and now that he's almost gone I wonder why there's been so little outrage. We're angry, sure ... a lot of us are angry. But our anger hasn't changed the culture, or changed the world.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Anthropocene

The theory is simple: Scientists at the Geological Society of London are proposing that Sufficient evidence has emerged of stratigraphically significant change (both elapsed and imminent) for recognition of the Anthropocene—currently a vivid yet informal metaphor of global environmental change—as a new geological epoch to be considered for formalization by international discussion.

In other words: the Holocene Epoch is over thanks to 1) Transformed patterns of sediment erosion and deposition worldwide, 2) Major disturbances to the carbon cycle and global temperature, 3) Wholesale changes to the world’s plants and animals, 4) Ocean acidification .

It's all here.

(Meanwhile, Save Our Surf is protesting outside our office this morning. While I agree with them, they really do need to work on their protest chants. None of us can figure out what they are saying ... it sounds something like No Big Quacking).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Waiting for the Rush

This morning marks ten days of no smokes. Any day now I should be getting the rush I get from actually kicking the habit for any length of time.

So yeah, I never managed to quit completely during racing season. I'd stop for a couple weeks, then smoke Sundays, then maybe also Mondays, but always stop a few days before a big race or practice. And then during the holidays I didn't even try to cut back, I just puffed away full force. Ditto in Egypt.

So this is usually the process: I look and feel like hell for a week. Then, as my system starts to clean itself out, I get sick. This time I really do have bronchitis, but it's compounded by nicotine withdrawal. I look in the mirror, and I look older. And then the healing finally starts. I get a rush of energy. I work out harder at the gym. My face looks younger (nicotine destroys collagen). I sleep better, and so feel more alert. I get super energetic. I feel more social.

It's almost as if I'm addicted to quitting.

But the days until I get the good feelings seem to take longer each year, and here it is ten days and I'm still waiting for the rush.

Then, of course, there will be the crash. Give that another two or three weeks. That'll be the real danger point for picking them up again.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


I celebrated MLK Day with a visit to the doctor & some fancy digital chest x-rays. The verdict: boring old bronchitis. No pneumonia, no tuberculosis, no scarlet fever, no Nile virus, and no bird flu. And I kind of knew all that already, but it was nice to have it confirmed.

That morning I felt good enough to brave the gym and beach, and stumbled upon my first Martin Luther King Day parade. It was sadder than I thought it would be - it almost rivaled Gay Pride Honolulu in triggering a why do we even bother? response. It wasn't tragic so much as pointless and disjointed.

The first contingent in the parade was a ragtag group of a dozen people carrying hand-printed signs saying Jesus Loves Justice. Next came two dozen Young Republicans all dressed in red. After them we got our first glimpse of an actual African-American: Major General Montague W. Winfield riding in an open convertible and waving at the crowd. He was as handsome as his name.

Now I know that MLK Day is not an African-American owned holiday, but still: it felt a little strange that we didn't see that many black folks until some Baptist church marched past, well in the back of the parade.

First, though, we had Obama 2008. The only group that was whiter than them was PFLAG. It must take some effort to get an all-haole crowd in a state where you can throw a net in any random direction and catch your own rainbow coalition. There were a couple small anti-war groups, a couple aged gay-pride groups, alien-abductees for Ron Paul (they didn't advertise themselves as alien-abductees, of course, but they had that look in their eyes that you can only get if you've been kidnapped by space-aliens and repeatedly anal-probed), a samba group for Kucinich, some unions (who at least seemed to have some cause, some reason to be there), lots of girls and women wearing tiaras and riding in convertibles, lots and lots of school kids singing "Happy Birthday", and some guys who looked like aged-panthers chanting marching songs. We get Dykes on Bikes. They got Buffalo Soldiers bike gang. We both got PFLAG, Lesbians Against the War, random groups riding on trolley cars (though their trolley riders were singing When the Saints Go Marching In and our trolley riders dance to canned Abba tunes), and the Unity Church.

And I know it was wrong, but I hid behind a tree when the queens marched by with their rainbow flag.

There were a few pockets of energy, outside of Kucinich's samba team. HGEA had a large anti-war turn out. The unions representing Times workers and the Pacific Garden Hotel were generally angry. And the Hare Krishnas had close to a hundred marchers bringing up the rear. I didn't even know we had that many Krishna's here. The women all wore sari's and looked happy happy happy. The men followed, and all looked like thugs.

I don't even know what the point of it all was.

My day ended early when I poured myself a negroni (equal parts campari, gin, and red vermouth, garnished with a burnt orange - a great, herbally, complex combination) before dinner. It didn't mix well with the codeine in my cough syrup. I skipped drunk and went straight to comatose. I managed to crawl into bed just before passing out for the night.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


It's a beautiful sunny morning, and I'm stuck inside. Sick. I can't believe this. I need my sunshine!

The cough started in Cairo, but I figured it was just from the pollution. It changed character in Aswan and Luxor, but I figured it was from the dust in the desert. Sleeping outside in freezing temperatures in the Sinai didn't help. I think, though, that it was the endless plane ride home that did me in.

I've been fine if a bit tired at work, but I've had no energy to go to the gym, surf, or paddle. The bar is out - coughing non-stop probably wouldn't impress too many people.

So here I am, a three day weekend, and it looks like I'll be stuck at home.

Friday, January 18, 2008

24 Shots of Egypt

I tried to keep this to a Top Ten, but failed.
I'll get the bulk of the photos up this weekend. Maybe.

"Camp" in the Sinai: Trying to warm up after a hellacious night.Our Camp Photographer
Somewhere in the Sinai: Bedouin Guides
Mount Sinai: Where I discover that there's not much air at 7500 feet.
Deir el Bahri: Looking down on the Temple of Hatshepsut
Ain Hudra Oasis, Sinai: Home to five families
Sinai: Climbing a dune
Sinai: Our guide and driver
Sinai: View from a desert cave
Kom Ombo: View from the train window
Medinet Habu: Ramses smiting his enemies
Medinet Habu: My favorite temple by a long shot
Qurna: Wheat fields outside my bedroom, Marsam Hotel
Karnak: A football-field sized field of stone papyrus reeds
Outside Cairo: A river of human waste
Outside Cairo: Daughters of an artist outside her studio
Outside Cairo: Preserving traditional crafts
Aswan: A fisherman tending his nets on the banks of the Nile
Across the railroad tracks, East of Aswan: Wrestling with the kids
The View from the Bab Zuweila Minaret, Fatimid Cairo: Collapsing from the topBeit el-Suhami, Fatimid Cairo: Ottoman Dining Room
Saqqara: Imhotep designed the first true pyramid for King Djoser
Giza: Camel in front of the Sound and Light Show set
Giza: Cops

Monday, January 14, 2008

Munich II

This place is so damn civilized it is going to leave me in a daze. Everything we fight for in Hawaii, and everything the public insists will never work, works here. And they work fine.

The center of town is dominated by people, not cars.

You can grab a glass of wine in the park and enjoy it without being arrested. Although it is not quite wine. It's gluhwein, which is warm and spicy and spiked with what tastes like rum. I also tried grog, at a stand outside and on the street.

The main roads all have light rail running down the middle, and bike lanes running alongside the sidewalk.

For dinner I stopped at a pork shop. For 3.5 euro I got a plate of grilled sausage and a pile of potato salad. You eat standing up around small tables, then bring your dishes to the kitchen. So cheap, but top quality.

It is clean, it is orderly, everything works, the bus arrives when it is supposed to and leaves when it is supposed to. Top it off with, people are nice.

No, top it off with: for some reason the guy at the front desk gave me an upgrade, and I am in a suite on the top floor.

And I might have written that my travel bug was cured too early. I am already fantasizing a bit about where next.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Final Day

Go figure, that I'd really start to like a place the day before I leave.

Got back from a trip into the Sinai interior with a group of students from Cairo. We had two amazing days, and one superlatively hellacious night.

Day one we hiked the white canyon, a narrow slot canyon a couple hours drive into the desert. One of the guys was 200 kilo, at least, and the girls were all city girls - so that one hour excursion took 2.5 hours. We ate lunch at a small oasis that was home to five Bedouin families. The land was so incredibly arid that it was a relief to see this small valley with trees and life. The afternoon we switched to a 4x4 and went tearing off into the wilderness. That ... was an adventure ... though it left us all bruised.

One of the Bedouin showed me videos he had downloaded onto his phone. There were exactly three types: Lebanese girls belly dancing in their rooms from You Tube, camels fighting, and guys doing spin-outs on sand dunes in their 4x4's. And there you have Bedouin Culture, in a nutshell.

Then we drove into camp.

I can't put enough quotation marks around that word camp, so you'll just have to fill in the irony yourself.

Camp was a few pieces of lumber hastily nailed together, with a few moth-eaten camel blankets on the roof and one side, ripped plastic sheets on two sides, and the third side open. The floor was rocks with think blankets placed over them. The sun went down, taken it's meager heat with it, the moon brought a cold wind with it, and we suffered the night. I can't recall ever being so cold and uncomfortable. And angry - I had specifically asked about blankets, reminding the tour organizer that I was from the tropics. He assured me there would be plenty, that we'd be taken care of. What he meant was, you get one blanket each, hope you survive.

The sun came up, and it took as a few hours to warm up. Next stop: St. Katherine's Monastery. The Bedouin told us to tell the military police (there were lots of check-points) that he had come from Dahab that morning. I guess we broke the law that night. Ooops. Yeay. That made me feel better.

The monastery was absolutely packed with tourists from the mega-resorts at Sharm, so it was hard to enjoy - but it was still a fascinating place. It was founded in the 6th Century by the Empress Helena of Constantinople - though it might have still been Byzantium then. It had already been a place of pilgrimage for centuries, as it was the reputed site of both the burning bush and Mount Sinai, of the Ten Commandments fame.

It was another Bedouin lunch in the desert, which took a few hours - Cairo Time is worse than Hawai`i Time. It was late in the day before we finally started heading up the mountain. No picture I've seen has done this place justice. Past the monastery the land opens up into a great plane surrounded by craggy peaks. One crag, taller than the rest, looking impossibly sheer and laying behind the setting sun, was Mount Sinai - our destination.

We're taught "Moses went up the mountain for forty days" without giving it much thought. Staring at this crag rising to the sky you realize how absolutely pagan the whole idea was. You're people are starving in the desert? Climb a mountain and wait for the sun god to send you a message.

The climb wasn't too bad, until the end, and the Steps of Penance. Some unknown monk had made it his life's labor to carve out a stairway to the final summit. The "stairs" were more rough rock. 750 of them, we were told. It was at a 7500' elevation, the air was thin, and we hadn't slept the night before. It was incredibly hard - I had to stop every three or four steps to catch my breath.

The 200 kilo guy didn't make it, but the girls did, just in time to see the sun finally set behind the rows of mountains in the distance. Twilight lasted just long enough to get back down the steps, and we walked by moonlight the rest of the way. It was fantastic. I forgot to be cold until the end. Down below we could see the fires in the monastery. Above, rocky peaks outlined against the stars. I almost forgave our organizer for the night before.

It was also great finally meeting normal Egyptians, girls without veils, and one's who seemed more aware of the world around them. They're not sure what happened to Egypt any more than the author's I've read. Their mother's used to wear mini-skirts. Then ... what? Somehow most of the country reverted to 7th Century styles.

So now I'm back in Dahab. The sun is out, although there is still a cold wind. I ate breakfast with some of the guys from the hotel, and listened to their stories of seducing Western girls. The girls don't have a chance here. These guys are used to seducing women hidden behind veils and jealously guarded by their families. Western girls are easy pickings compared to them. These guys can smell a lonely girl from 50 meters. Though, sometimes, they get more than he bargained for. One was trying to pick up two Slovenian girls the night before. He used all his best lines, and they worked. On both of them. He didn't know what to do, and panicked. When one of his friends started teasing him in Arabic, he told the girls that the friend was his boss, and that he's ordered him back to work. And then he ran. These guys are so macho, and then so suddenly innocent.

Still glad to be going home, though. Tomorrw night I'll be in Munich again. I plan on taking a long hot shower. Then I'll take another one. I'm going to eat pork. Lots of pork. And then, home.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


This town is slightly more interesting than I thought. The guys at the hotel - which is more of a collection of rooms around a garden than a hotel per se - are all nice enough. I haven't met guys like this yet in Egypt. They're all young, and a lot came out here after hellacious experiences in the Egyptian army. I heard some pretty rough stories about spending two years on the border with Libya with poor food, few blankets, and lots of scorpions for company.

So now they're out here chasing European girls up and down the strip. The guys are handsome, and the girls don't seem to mind. They're hippy boyfriends might mind, but most seem too stoned to care.

I had planned to take off tomorrow into the mountains on camel. It's still cold as hell, so I had doubts about how I'd survive, but I really like camels.

That plan just got changed on me, as I've learned through the grapevine. The new plan: I'm heading on a jeep safari with three girls and a guy from Cairo. One had a guitar, and they stayed up late last night singing along to Alannis Morrisette songs. These aren't your normal Muslim girls. We'll sleep overnight in a Bedouin village, then head to St. Katherine's Monastery and Mount Sinai for a second night.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. I wanted to see the Monastery and Mount Sinai. I had no interest in a jeep safari - that might be more boring than sitting here. I like camels. I asked the guy for camels. But I told the organizer I'd be up for others joining. It would bring down the cost (I thought). I didn't realize that the others could then over ride my original plan with one of their own.

So what? It's already 9:30 pm and we leave at dawn. I can hunt down the original guide and be a bitch about it, though for a plan I was only half-heartedly interested in anyways. Or go with the flow and see where this takes me. And of course I'll go with the flow. Fighting it in this country isn't worth the effort.

On the Red Sea

I couldn't switch my ticket, so flew to the Sinai as originally planned early this morning. Landed in Sharm just after dawn, and took an over-priced cab up the coast to Dahab, a "hippy enclave" on the Red Sea. It was a bumpy flight, the kind with lots of screaming passengers.

It's cloudy, cold, and windy - so I won't be going into the water any time soon. And without that there doesn't seem to be much else to do here. Or rather, much else that interests me. I already walked the coast top to bottom, and I'm already bored to tears.

Not that it's a bad place. Aside from the divers and families there are a lot of young kids on their round-the-world party tour. The locals have all adopted a pseudo-surfer "Hello My Brother" veneer of I'm Your Best Friend. The coast is pedestrian only, and every inch is lined with cafes and clubs. Tonight I could choose from Old Skool Night, Pulp Fiction Party Night (your favorite hits of the 50's and 60's!), and a half dozen places offering Awesome Fun with various British DJ's.

Bored to fucking tears, I tell you. I'll probably end up joining some desert trek tour for the next few days, as I don't know what else to do, and there's nothing here to do on your own. If I were still 24, or a cold-water diver, or here with a lover, or content to get high and sit on my ass all day, this place would be really cool. For the solo and restless? Not. Cool. At. All.

At least I made the most of my last day in Luxor. Walked to the tombs of the artisans that were found behind the old worker's village. These were the people who built the temples and monuments for the pharaohs. They weren't allowed to use royal iconography, and so the tombs were painted in a more free-form, easy to understand style. There were lots of scenes of families at play and at work in the fields. Even the gods were more homely - Isis in the form of a tree, Anubis holding hands with the departed to lead them into the afterlife, and ferocious cat-bunnies chopping up snakes with their swords (I couldn't tell if they were bunnies with fangs or cats with very long ears). Even after three thousand years the images were vivid and strangely familiar (except for the cat-bunny).

In the afternoon I met up with Vicky, the Aussie town planner, and we went to the Valley of the Kings. These tombs were more awesome, and more formal. Entire caverns were covered with the texts from the Various Books - the Book of the Hours, which describes the descent into the subconscious), the Book of the Cavern, the Book of Day, the Book of Night. Afterwards we hiked up over the mountains, coming down above Hatshepsut's massive temple in the back of a natural ampitheater.

That night I mostly listened as the village's resident ecentrics exchanged stories. There were a handful of artists, a scattering of amateur Egyptologists who return year after year, some professors, and some archaeologists waiting for their digs to start. They were awesome company.

So - Egypt so far: Hated Cairo, Aswan was an interesting interlude, Luxor was beyond incredible, and so far Dahab looks tiring. Usually I don't want to return after a vacation, I just want to keep on moving and see where the road takes me. This might be the first time where I'm really just ready to go home. Realistically, my perfect track record of awesome trips had to end at some point. I know this, so I'm not that disappointed or bummed.

This should cure my travel lust for a bit, at least. Maybe I'll actually save some money now.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Paradise Found

I took the train to Luxor early yesterday morning, and crossed immediately to Hotel Sheikh Aly in one of the small villages on the West Bank - and finally found an Egypt I could relax in. The West Bank is the perfect storm of beauty and wonder. The hotel is set around a small garden where we eat. Small irrigated gardens stretch from the outer walls for 3 km down to the Nile. On the other side the red Theban Hills rise out of the mist. The ruins of tombs and massive temples line the dusty country roads. There are tens of thousands of tourists on the other side of the river, but most only cross to the west side in hermetically-sealed buses that shuttle them between the main sites - Tutankanem's tomb and Hatshepsut's temple. Otherwise it's just local farmers, French artists, international teams of archaeologists, and a small scattering of random travelers.

I visited Medinet Habu yesterday afternoon, an almost intact temple complex built on an epic scale. It's the first time I've been in awe of a place in Egypt. Now I get it. Finally.

Six days to find my groove, and nine days to finally be filled with wonder - it certainly did take awhile.

I crossed to the East Bank this morning to hit the bank (none on the other side) and visit Karnak with an Aussie Town Planner I met in the hotel's garden. Karnak was mobbed with tour groups, but it's monumentality dwarfed everyone. The main hall - 100 meters by 50 meters - was designed to mimic a Nile garden, and was filled with hundreds of massive stone 'papyrus' stalks stretching up to the sky, and each carved with reliefs over every inch. It was too much for the eye to take in. In a bit I'll hop the ferry back to the villages. Tomorrow I'll explore the Valley of the Kings.

I want to extend my stay a day, but I have a flight in two days & the line was 60 deep at Egypt Air. I'd lose a day to gain a day.

As for my final night in Aswan - it was a bit insane. Dinner was a let down. The 'good' restaurant was only average, and I was the only one in it. In retrospect, I think meet me for a beer at my favorite bar meant let's go now so you can pay. Live and learn. I ate, and watched the felucca sail off into the dark waters. I could have joined in, of course, and it would have sounded romantic - sailing into a Nile sunset with your Nubian lover. Knowing that I'd by buying it took some of the romance out of it. I'm not that jaded to confuse a purchase with love, something some of these old English ladies taking Egyptian boys will have to learn the hard way.

Trudging back to my hotel I gave in & agreed to go home with one of the caleche drivers. I made it clear that it wouldn't be about money, and he made it clear that that wasn't what he was after. We hopped in a cab, and took off for the hinterlands of the City. I tried to keep track of all the turns, but when we crossed the railroad tracks into a world where donkeys and horses outnumbered cars (not too hard, given that we were the only motorized vehicle in the suburb) I lost track. We zipped in and out of potholed side streets.

The word ghetto flittered through my mind before I kicked it out. I was too much into it to turn around, and the only way out was forward.

His house was up an open flight of concrete steps. I took my shoes off, and went into the living room. The walls were unfinished cement, but they and the couches along each wall were lined with gold tapestries. Shabby chic, African style.

I heard women talking in the other room. There were no doors. The guy wanted to get it on. He assured me the women didn't come into this room - all of ten feet down the hall. We proceeded to be interrupted by crying babies, shouts from the street, and knocks on the door. This is not happening, I told him. Relax, he told me. A child walked into the room. My son, he said, picking him up and putting him on the couch opposite.

I wanted to be down with the culture. Silly me. One day I'll learn, if not in this life then the next.
Anyways, no way was I going to mess around with a kid sitting there watching. All doubt was removed when even more kids came in to check out the stranger. We drank tea instead. I wrestled with the kids, and they showed me all their World Wrestling moves. Later the other horsemen arrived, and the whole neighborhood gathered in his living room to smoke bhanga and gossip. This is what we do at night, the host said. Smoke and gossip.

I have friends just like that in Hawai`i. I passed on the bhanga (tobacco mixed with hashish oil and pot), as I really was disoriented enough & really wanted the full use of every single brain cell.

The party finally ended at 1am. We tried to take a horse back, but it bolted and refused to cooperate. Instead we hiked out of the ghetto (I can't get away from that word) back to the mainstreet, and I caught a cab back to the hotel.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Yessir, we have no bananas

I told myself that I wasn't going to just do the usual tour of Pharoanic Egypt. I would see a few monuments, to be sure, but would spend more time getting to know the land and the people of today.

This morning I decided to nix that completely. I was ready to throw in the towel and join the masses of tourists being cosseted on cruise ships and fancy hotels on private islands, and who only left the safety of their nest in the company of guides who handled all bribes. I'd take photos of the great monuments, and then spend the afternoons sunning by the pool. This land is hostile territory for the independent traveler, and it was actually costing me more to do things on my own than if I had caved and joined an official Thomas Cook tour. The frustrations of solo travel just weren't worth it.

My plans were foiled again, because once you are outside the mainstream the mainstream will not let you back in.

I couldn't get on a last-minute tour to Abu Simbel, so hired a taxi through the hotel to get to the Temple of Isis at Philae, an island a few dozen km south of here. I was hoping I could find some other travelers to split the cab with, but I appear to be the only one in my hotel. The only other guests I've seen were women in full hijab, & I didn't even bother to ask them.

I got to the dock, thinking I could at least find someone to split the boat ride with. Again, no luck. Tour groups all clung together tightly. I saw zero solo travelers. I saw a few small groups without guides, and tried to approach them. I couldn't even get a hello - they'd coalesce into a tight pack on my approach, and whatever gnu ended up on the outside of the herd would shoo me away and go no no no.

It was the same approach they took with the multitude of carpet, papyrus, postcard, and trinket salesmen who swarmed around us. I tried not to take it personal.

But still. I guarantee that I've been under more stress than they, and yet I'm still smiling, still making eye contact, and still making small talk with all the touts. I started to think, maybe I'm not doing so bad after all.

I'm almost feeling like I can relax. It's hard to drop the hard wall I've put up after Cairo. You still have to stay alert here, but some of the salesmen - once they've failed to make a sale - will tell me what bar of coffee shop to head to at night. They seem like honest offers, that we can actually have a beer and just hang out once the business day is done.

That, or they think I'll be an easier lay when drunk. There were times today when I thought all of Nubia must be gay, as claimed by the Tyrolean. With the waiter at breakfast it was coffee, tea, or me. Nescafe is hard enough to enjoy without having a wayward teen standing over you rubbing his crotch and saying, yes? ok, you like? good? I took a 20" nap after getting back from Philae, but was woken twice by knocks on the door from 'room service' checking to see if I needed anything. And, as usual, my walk along the corniche was sprinkled with a dozen offers for "special" felucca and taxi rides.

I know not to get too cocky, and that most of these boys would flirt with anything with a wallet.
(and in the back of my mind, I think: they still mutilate the genitals of women here. And if women have been desexualized en masse like that, then of course all the men would be turning to other men.)

I'll hit one of the floating bars/restaurants later tonight. It'll be my first real night out in Egypt. This is the first time I've been remotely in the mood, or had the feeling that it might be enjoyable rather than stressful.

As for the Temple of Isis - it was pretty. I only had an hour at the site, so it was hard to relax and truly enjoy it. It was the last outhold of the old religion, and the last hieroglyph was carved here in the 4th century. Or rather, near here. The original island was inundated after the building of the Aswan Dam, along with the entire homeland of the 5000-year old Nubian civilization. UNESCO removed a few temples and placed them on higher ground. And though they did an excellent job it still felt a bit stage-like and empty of the mana it should have held. I'll put up more temple info when I post pictures.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Aswan Daze

It didn't take long in this town to finally have a proper adventure. It's been quite a day.

Aswan is much bigger than I pictured - it sprawls for a couple miles along the Nile, although here the desert presses tight against the town. And though it's chaotic and confusing & every other Egyptian that says hello is running a con and I rarely know what's going on, it's also all a bit more manageable. Just not having that nightmare traffic to deal with makes everything else seem almost easy.

I was killing time before I left the city, and went in for a haircut - my first since March, and only the second time I've been to a barber in a year and a half. I loved Middle Eastern barbers in other countries, and was looking forward to an old-fashioned haircut. Cairo, however, was not going to let me off the hook that easily. This guy spent more time blowing and teasing my hair than actually cutting it. I had to avoid looking in the mirror, it was that scary. He started off by giving me a bouffant. I growled and motioned that I do not wear my hair up. Next stage: Flock of Seagulls. I shook my head no. Finally act: David Bowie in all his Ziggy Stardust glory. I gave up.

I was so embarrassed walking down the street that I ducked behind a corner and dumped a bottle of water on my head.

Turns out that it's a pretty good haircut. I like it when it's not all poofed out.

And that was it for Cairo. I shelled out a hundred bucks to change my ticket so that I can fly out of Sharm el Sheikh on the Red Sea rather than return. I'm not alone, either. I read that Naguib Mahfouz quit holding court in his favorite coffee shop because the commute had grown so unpleasant.

I checked into my hotel in Aswan around 9pm, and decided to take a walk along the Nile. I didn't make it more than twenty steps when a dust-covered caleche driver in a gelebiya approached, took my hand, and offered a ride in his buggy. I turned it down. Grass? He offered. No. Hashish? Thanks, but no. Banana? Uh, no thanks.

He gave a rough sigh. Sir. Banana means sex.

Yeah, country boy, I understood your silly metaphor. I gave my best Cherry Blossom Princess smile (something I learned from the Japanese) and just said, oh, thank you, good night.

The Cherry Blossom routine grew less effective the further north I walked, as each succeeding caleche driver - and it was non-stop - grew more assertive and blunt. I finally turned around when one squeezed the outline of his hard-on through his robes to show me what he had.

It wasn't even that impressive of a banana. I was really expecting a higher quality of harassment.

This morning I took the local ferry across the river to visit some tombs cut in the hillside. And by ferry, I mean a small leaky wooden boat crammed with Nubians. Finally, I thought - I'm having a real Egyptian experience.

Most of the tombs were locked, but I did manage to get in a few. These were for nobles and priests, not royalty, so they were on a more human scale. I was brave enough to scurry down one hole into the darkness - and realized that I could never do this as a career. I like sunshine too much, and I scurried back up just as quick.

Out across the desert, 3 km and a few hills over, I could see the ruins of a 7th Century monastery that I'd read about. I sat at the edge of the Sahara and pondered whether it was a good idea to try and get there. I decided it wasn't, and then headed out anyways. It wasn't a bad walk, and it was great to be out in the open. I spent a few hours exploring the fortress-like monastery, then started what seemed like a much longer walk back to the Nile.

I used Qubbet Heba, the Hill of Wind, as my navigation point. Once I reached the top I met a telepathic Tyrolean who invited me to his place on Elephantine Island for tea. Sure, that sounded good. We walked south along the dune crest, and then down to where he had hidden a rowboat in the reeds.

I spent the rest of the day at his place in the mud-brick Nubian village on the island. It was a great inside look into how people live here.

Next up? Dunno. I got back too late to arrange a tour to Abu Simbel as I had planned. I might spend more time exploring the islands here, or I just might wake up at a brutal hour and see if I can hop on a tour. Abu Simbel is on the Sudanese border, and so there's no choice but to go with a military convoy - at 4am.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Cairo: Final Hours

They need to stop oppressing gays in this country and let us run things for a few years instead. Egypt needs our help, and bad.

I head to the airport in a few hours, and don't know if I've ever been so glad to be leaving a city. It's not that anything outright bad has happened, so much as I've never been to a place so desperately in need of a revolution. It's a city ruled by cars, where people live like rats in the margins.

But I don't know what I would have skipped. I spent the day yesterday with two American archaeologists at Giza, and it was great. They were pretty amazing, actually - they kept digging through the dirt exclaiming at every pottery shard. They could actually look at a fragment and tell without pause how it was fired and cooled, and what period it came from. Saqqara and Dahshur were worth a day. Old Cairo was worth a day, easily. I had to see Islamic Cairo after reading all the history, even though all it's monuments were shockingly run down compared to other places in the middle east.

Today I went to the museum, which was the tipping point for me - what should have rivaled the Louvre instead had all the grace of a warehouse. I woke up early, coughed up all the gunk that had collected in my lungs the day before, packed, ate, and hit the road. The toxic cloud that had settled over the city the night before was blocking the sun, but it was Friday and at least the traffic was a bit lighter than normal. I walked along the Corniche, the road that runs along the Nile. I only had to shake off two hustlers, which wasn't bad.

I thought that I'd beat the crowds, but there were thousands already lined up outside the gates of the museum - tourists of every conceivable stereotype, the worst being the transvestite hookers. I mean, Russians - God's gift to misanthropes everywhere. They only dressed like transvestite hookers. It made no sense: plastic high heels, daisy dukes and halter tops and bare midriffs in the middle of winter in a Muslim capital, tons of make-up, fake blond hair, and fat boyfriends in capris and tight shirts. Worse, they were rude. You could be reading a plaque, and they would literally push you out of the way to get a better look.

I had been confused when people kept telling me how nice the Egyptians are. I mean, yes, they are. But, I thought, where aren't people nice? Pretty much everywhere I've been, and that includes New York and Paris. Now I know: they aren't nice in Russia. They are assholes.

Back to the museum. Sigh. So much wealth, just squandered. Everything was arranged pell-mell, much of it behind grimy glass panes. The toxic cloud from outside crept into the main hall, and turned the air inside a sickly yellow under the glare of the fluorescent lights.

I think of the incredible impact just a few Egyptian pieces had at the Louvre, and how little impact this museum had for all it's pieces, and can't understand why this museum can't find the resources to apply the most basic modern principles to managing or displaying the collection. With the 25US entry, plus 50 for the mummies, and the thousands of tourists there just in the few hours I was inside, and we're talking tens of millions of dollars a year just in entry fees. Poverty is not an excuse here. Certainly they could have at least put in decent lights, or washed the grime off the walls and display cases. Or - inshallah - put in bathrooms where you didn't have to bribe the doorman for toilet paper (or have them demanding baksheesh while you were still pissing).

But overall, this was Cairo. Noise, chaos, dirt, and a government that seems more interested in putting money into the military and secret police than providing basic services. There's such an amazing infrastructure here. It's a shame it's been allowed to decay. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go cough up a lung and then find somewhere to eat.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Cairo Day Three

I just had a really good day. It was a surprise - because I haven't been liking Cairo until now.

Technically, I fucking hated this City. I hated that every transaction had to be a fight, that you could not let your guard down once, that 90% of any random merhaba was followed by a demand for a bribe, baksheesh, or the beginnings of a scam. I hated the air, thick with exhaust fumes. I hated that I couldn't catch a taxi without bargaining hard, and that it would take three to four tries before I would get a taxi offering close to a reasonable price.

I had great plans to explore the city's nightlife. Those are all out the window. It's too much a pain in the ass to wander far.

I hated the hotel. I want a hotel to be a refuge from the world, especially one as chaotic as Cairo. This one is basic - I knew that - but even here I was charged obscenely to hire a driver for a day. The bite was, I knew I could have gotten a private tour with a professional Egyptologist for the same price, but I was stuck with this one as I don't have a phone to arrange other plans. I tried to tell myself that 50 US wasn't bad for a private driver, that I could afford that - but the exploitation from this hotel still stuck in my craw.

And I hated the horns. The non-stop blaring horns. I know there's a secret language in them, and that there's different honks for hello, and do you need a taxi?; a short quick honk for it's safe to cross, and a dreaded long honk for you just fucked up homeboy and are about to be roadkill.

It was probably the horns more than anything that were jangling my nerves. There was no rest, and no peace except for under the covers of my cell-like room. I was like some delicate English lady sent out to the colonies to live with her Officer, totally unprepared for the madness of life outside London.

So I woke up in a dark mood yesterday, all gunked up inside from breathing this air - and the the blackness of my lungs was only matched by the blackness in my soul. I wanted to fly out that night, but I had paid for five days & had a flight on Friday evening to Aswan.

I couldn't believe how badly I misjudged this. But how could I have known? I've liked even the most unlovable of cities, and wasn't Cairo once the Mother of the World?

So, yesterday, I met a Peace Corps volunteer from Armenia, and invited her to share the ride (for which the price went up, dammit). The driver was pleasant, and we started off visiting the pyramids and necropolis at Saqqara.

My spirits went up a little when we say the pyramids of Giza framed on the horizon. I tried to maintain that brief moment of joy while at Saqqara, but ... it was a challenge.

Our first stop: the Mastaba of Mereuke, a tomb for the vizier with 32 underground rooms. It was interesting, but we got trapped in the tomb between a very loud and very large Spanish tour group and a slightly less loud Russian one. We couldn't pass through, and were stuck waiting for them to move before we could.

Next stop: The Mastaba of Ti. This was off the main route, and we had to walk a brief way across the desert to the entrance. Our spirits shot up when we realized we were the only ones there. We descended stone stairs into an underground channel - and the Bedouin pounced from behind one of the pillar. He was like some angry spirit of the tomb, hungry for baksheesh and forcing himself on us as a guide. I tried to ignore him, but he wouldn't allow that. Sir! Sir! He'd snap in my face, and then hiss if I ignored that. Sir! LOOK HERE! ELEPHANT? SEE? ELEPHANT? NOW LOOK HERE. CROCODILE. He was almost as loud as all the Spaniards combined.

Penny (my traveling companion) was a dear old gray haired lady, and unfortunately much more polite than I was. We were stuck with him. He of course, demanded baksheesh at the end, and I gave him a pound (I would've paid ten times that to make him go away), and he got angry. He tried to follow us out of the tomb, but the Tourist Police stopped him.

The Police then asked for baksheesh. Which: no. I draw the line at paying bribes to cops. We walked on with a smile and a masalama.

Then we drove to Zoser's Step Pyramid, the first of the pyramids, built by Imhotep. It was impressive. I wanted to explore some of the other sites (the Serapeum, the Persian tombs, the inside of the collapsed Umas pyramid), but all were closed. Random Bedouin carried keys and offered to open up secret tombs for us, but we declined.

So Saqqara was mixed. It was cool, but it could have and should have been world-class. It has the raw resources, but too much was locked up and only open to those who paid bribes, and it was impossible to know what locked doors led to interesting things and what to empty rooms.

Then we did lunch, at the Pharaoh's Carpet School and Garden. It was our driver's choice. I was ready for more tourist hell, but it turned out to be the perfect pit stop. We ate in a garden of Date palms, and the food was excellent. There was a bit of kitsch - dancing Arabs in tambourines played and danced around us when we entered, left, or went for a piss. But it was also an oasis of peace.

Refreshed, we went south to the pyramids at Dahshur. They were built just prior to the huge ones at Giza, and are almost as impressive. Best of all, you could enter the Red Pyramid. Penny and I lucked out, we were the only ones inside. I was a bit claustrophobic, but made it all the way down the long ramp into the inner sanctum. It was a great end to the day. The cops tried to demand bribes again, but this time I just laughed. Seriously, no fucking way am I going to pay off a cop for doing his job.

But I still could've left Cairo after that.

Today I meant to head to the museum, but changed my plans en route and hopped the metro to Masr Quadima, the original Coptic and Roman town (Memphis, the pharonic city, has long since sunk under the mud of the Nile).

I went without a map, and had to cross multiple highways to get there. That alone was an adventure. I'd join a group of men, and move with them through the traffic. It almost felt like we were a school of fish, all turning left then right in unison until we made it across. The subway was less challenging, but you only had a few seconds to jump on or off the train before it took off. It had it's own dangers.

And Masr Qadima was fabulous. I wandered into convents with signs telling us "No Photos ... Blessed are the Obedient." There were ancient Greek churches, the last Jewish synagogue in Cairo, secret alleys, and mysteries behind every door. In the old cemetery I was shocked to smell. Herbs and flowers, vaguely Mediterranean, but also unique to this place. This, I thought, is what Cairo must have smelled like before 21 million people and 3 million cars.

I spent the day exploring. It was the experience I was hoping for in Islamic Cairo, but that quarter's monuments are stripped and barren. This was the real thing.

And since I didn't have map or agenda, I ended up a bit far from the tourist paths. And this is how I stumbled onto the City of the Dead.

I was walking down a dirt road bounded by two walls, trying to find my way back to the main thoroughfare. On the left was the Greek cemetery with it's smells. Behind the wall on the right I could see what looked like the roofs of a village. I came to an open gate, asked a young man lounging under a tree if was ok to go in, and he motioned me to go ahead.

I entered, once again, into another world. It looked like a village of small stone or brick houses, all packed close together and with neat dirt alleys and paths running between them, and many complete with doors and stairs and porches. Each house, however, was a tomb. It was a tidy Our Town for the dead. I explored for a good thirty minutes, with no company but the stone angels perched on the roofs of the tombs.

I left in a bit of a daze. It was the singularly most haunting place I have ever seen. I recouped for a bit in a coffee shop, then hopped the metro back to town.

So. Cairo. The walk back was ok. The horns still irk, and I still can't breathe, but ... it might not have been such a bad choice after all.

Tomorrow I take the train for a day trip to Alexandria. Inshallah.