Thursday, September 25, 2008

Crossing the Sahara

We crossed the Sahara on a bouncy bus, gazing for hours at the endless sea of sand in every direction. The Sahara is barren, empty, desolate.

We drive for an hour. Flat sand. There is no life here, no mercy. Leave someone in the sands without water, and they'd die quickly.

We drive another hour. And another. And another. The scenery never changes.

Then, suddenly, trees. We rub our eyes. Is it a mirage? No -- it's truly an oasis.

The Siwa oasis, which worshipped the Ancient Egyptian god Amun until (relatively) not too long ago, is a solitary small town close to the Libyan border. Donkey-carts outnumber cars. The stones give way to dwellings carved into the stone, which gradually give way to modern dwellings made out of stone and mud-brick.

Women are rarely seen, not even at markets. They are cloaked from head-to-toe, with a mesh veil hiding even their eyes. By contrast, women in burquas in cosmopolitan Cairo look exposed.

So on our second night at the Siwa oasis, when we had the opportunity to visit a woman's house, Laurel and I lept at the chance. No man other than her son could accompany us; women can only be in the company of other women.

Their privacy is so fiercely guarded that her son wouldn't even reveal her name.

But we did get to see her face: smiling and shy. The left side of her mouth had large yellowed teeth, the right side had no teeth. At home she wore a simple beige tunic and a blue headscarf over her curly black hair. Although she was slender, she had an unbelievably large booty.

She brought us tea and cookies; applied henna to Laurel's hands. A television, her only contact with the outside world, played in the background the entire time. It had satellite stations, most of which were in Italian, and for awhile it broadcast images of women in thong bikinis sunbathing on the Italian Riviera. I wondered how television rocked the Berber (nomadic north Africans who settled in Siwa) way of life; I wondered if shows like these were the equivalent of porn.

She couldn't speak any English. She didn't want her picture taken. She didn't ask for any money for the hours she spent applying henna to Laurel's hands; Laurel had to forcifully press 10 Egyptian pounds ($2 U.S. Dollars) into her palms.

Her son drove us back to town on his donkey-cart. We realized he's probably the sole breadwinner of the family, as his father, whom we met, is blind. Even without eyesight, though, the father can expertly manuever the TV remote.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Salaam alaykum

“Is salaam ‘alaykum!,” we’re greeted at the train station in Alexandria. The man who says it, Mohammad Abdallah, was born and raised in the Sudan but lives in Egypt and holds a U.S. passport.

In the early 1990’s, when he was a young immigrant studying in America, he lived with my friends’ family in Broomfield, Colo., and when he discovered we are in Egypt, he invited us to stay with him, his wife and their three daughters, ages 9 months through 9 years.

We’ve been spending the past few days at his apartment in Alexandria, a coastal city bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

Outside the famed Library of Alexandria, we met an Egyptian-born guy from Los Angeles named Mustafa and his crew of Egyptian “homies” – twentysomethings with sideways baseball caps who listen to hip-hop all day and stay bored because its cool. We’ve spent the past two afternoons hanging out with them by the sea. They smoke cigarettes, rap Ludacris and Bizzy Bone lyrics, and complain about how none of the Egyptian girls will get naked for them.

All day long, we’re hot and hungry. We sleep late into the afternoon – it’s too hot to move much while the sun is out – and stay awake late into the night, when the temperature cools. We’re usually still awake by the 4 a.m. morning Call to Prayer.

At night, the city erupts with characteristic craziness. Horses pull wagons piled with eggplants down narrow, trash-strewn streets. Children ride tricycles past sheep and goats tied outside butcher shops. Men weld chicken cages as the animals cluck inside. Pedestrians dance around microbuses driving within an inch of bodies.

After breaking fast with Mohammad at sunset, we ventured out to buy a watermelon from a midnight melon cart. Someone had carved “Allah Akbar” – “God is Great” – into the melon skin.

My friend, who studied Arabic in college, read aloud from the watermelon rind. I practiced reading the Arabic numbers on license plates passing by. We began to sweat in the smoggy night humidity.

We're going to Siwa tomorrow, a small oasis town at Egypt's western border, next to Libya. More than a dozen tourists were kidnapped at the Egypt-Libya border a few days ago, but that was in the south. We're heading to the north, which (fingers crossed!) will be safe.

“Is salaam ‘alaykum!” – peace be with you.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Walk like an Egyptian

Day 2. 500 to go.

We spent Day Two at the Pyramids in Giza, which are both majestic and subtle. In a barren desert, with no buildings to compare relative size, the enormity of the pyramids is hard to grasp. Standing next to the pyramids, you lose all concept of space, distance and size.

Laurel and I rode camels across the sands, reaching a dune plateau overlooking all 9 pyramids: the 6 pyramids of Giza and 3 to the east. We pause to gaze over the stark landscape, then turn our camels in the direction of the Sphinx. I think of the empty desert the Sphinx used to look upon; how that space has now become a dense cluster of cement high-rises thick with smog and soot.

We dismount our camels by the Sphinx. Our legs are sore from riding. “You’ll be walking like an Egyptian,” says our camel guide Samir.

Back in Giza, Laurel befriends an Egyptian perfume-seller, Ismael, who is about to go to 1 out of his 4 homes to have dinner with 1 out of his 4 wives.

Laurel tells him we’ve love to experience breaking a daily Ramadan fast with a Muslim family; he invites us into his living room, where we recite the first verse of the Koran while breaking fast with sweet plum-colored juice. One of his wives cooks us the best falafel we’ve ever tasted.

We pile back of the street, bellies full, smoke a hookah on the sidewalk, drink a cup of tea, and catch a bus back to Cairo.

Arabian Nights

502-day journey, Day 1.

It’s my first visit to the Arab Muslim world, and I landed in the middle of the Holy Month of Ramadan, stepping out of the airport just in time to hear the Call to Prayer boom across the city from the mosque speakers.

From our hotel in downtown Cairo, we catch a birds-eye view of hundreds men outside the neighborhood mosque, kneeling in prayer along the sidewalks in neat little rows that stretch into the busy street. Above them, three stories above ground, five men unfurl a rug on a rooftop and break fast at sunset.

The streets are devoid of women during the day, but at night they come out in droves, crowding into markets and shops that pound with energy at midnight but fall asleep during the hot, hungry days.

The women are high-fashion, wearing cute designer tops over long-sleeved shirts and tailored, couture ankle-length skirts. They carefully coordinate their headscarves to compliment their shirt to compliment their handbag. A surprising number of stores showcase risqué lingerie. Burqa-clad women, covered head-to-toe with only a tiny slit exposing their eyes, will rifle through racks of fur-and-fishnet lingerie in the downtown shops. (Women in burqas, by the way, have incredibly expressive eyes. Making eye contact with them on the street can give you chills. They tell you a story in a single glance.)

In spite of its seeming conservatism, Cairo has a Burning Man Festival quality to it: the city is a sandcastle, built precariously on harsh desert land, and it comes alive at night, with bright flashy lights and loud music raging from sunset to sunrise. Party boats that resemble Burning Man art cars cruise up-and-down the Nile, and young ladies in sequin-lined headscarves hang out on the riverbanks, chatting (and occasionally holding hands) with their male counterparts. Egypt is “dry” in every sense of the word, and it is fascinating to watch a thriving alcohol-free nightlife in the city that never sleeps.

The interim

From Germany I fly home to Boulder and entertain my parents for their one-week visit to the Colorado Rockies.

The day they leave I travel with some friends to northern Idaho, where we watch a quintessential small-town Americana Fourth of July street parade and pick up a few hitchhikers in Canada as we drive to mountainous hot springs.

After a week I return to Colorado, spend six weeks starting and finishing a few freelance projects, move out of my house, then fly to San Francisco to hang out in the Bay Area for a week while preparing for the Burning Man Festival.

We ride a veggie-oil schoolbus into the desert, and experience the festival (which is a novel of its own). When its done I ride with a British woman to Reno, where we stay in a hotel that has its own movie theater, shopping district, six-lane entryway and restaurant row.

The next day I catch a flight to Atlanta, where I attend a four-day journalism conference and visit with my parents.

I then fly back to Colorado, pack my bags, and five days later find myself on a flight to Egypt. Thus begins a 16-month round-the-world journey.