Friday, October 31, 2008


I've assembled a slideshow of the best photos from the last 6 weeks, taken in Egypt and Israel. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Quirks of the two countries

Quirks about Egypt:

- Mannequins wearing hijab (veils)
- Donkey-carts and horse-drawn buggies driven down six-lane highways of congested urban traffic
- Drivers at night keep their headlights off, and flash them only if they're about to hit you
- Drivers will never brake for a pedestrian or for another car, preferring insted to honk or flash their headlights
- City water pipes lay ON the road, where they can easily get smashed, insted of underneath the road
- Some cafes and street vendors swear that falafel (a delicious fava bean patty) is sold only during the morning hours. Others only offer it past 10 p.m. Some say it's off-limits during Ramadan; others say it can only be sold between 3-5 p.m. every other day.
- Garlic-scented hair conditioner
- Streets filled with sheep
- A donkey cart with "Toyota" painted onto the plywood
- Crazy 7-way intersections with bumpy concrete, manhole covers halfway out, pipes exposed, and the thick clog of diesel burning your lungs
- Buses blast loud low-quality "Allah!" music throughout a 15-hour ride. The bus stops occasionally so passangers can pray at rest stops.
- No one checks when you set off the metal detector. And EVERYONE sets off the metal detector. You could probably walk through a metal detector with a gun slung over your shoulder and no one would say a word.

Quirks about Israel

- Half-assed security everywhere: entering a bus station or a restaurant or a sandwich shop requires letting a 19-year-old security guard take a cursory glance at your backpack.
- Peanut-butter flavored Cheetos.
- Push/Pull on doors is totally reversed.
- Our friends' lease, for his apartment in Tel Aviv, stipulated that he COULD NOT use electricity on Friday nights or Saturdays, which are considered to be a holy time of the week (Shabbat). If he's caught trying to use electricity on Friday night or Saturday, he could be evicted.
- Tel Aviv's maze-like six-story bus station, which sells clearance thongs.
- Jerusalem's highly organized three-story bus station, which sells yarmulkes.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Jerusalem: A Two-Act Play

Meanwhile, back in America -- looks like the Dow is falling but Britney Spears' popularity is rising. Has the world turned upside-down?

We're in Egypt now, but before I tell stories of our trip here, I'll recap Jerusalem: A Two-Act Play.


Bring an engineer to Jerusalem, and he'll be the first to point out that the holiest site in Judiasm is a structural retaining wall.

The "Wailing Wall" is an appropriate name -- hundreds of Jews wail, sob and bow at this otherwise ordinary-looking 2,000-year-old wall at the base of the Temple Mount. A couple milennia ago, Romans destroyed the Jew's holiest temple, and this retaining wall is all that remains.

Three of us -- two girls, one guy -- washed our hands and began walking toward the wall to pay our respects.

On the way, an old woman began yelling at us in Hebrew. We ignored her, figuring she was a beggar, a vendor or just plain crazy. We kept walking. She kept yelling. Walking. Yelling. Walking. Yelling. Finally we figured out what she was trying to tell us -- the Wailing Wall is gender-segregated and the guy was supposed to be on the other side. Oops!

He headed off to the other corner of the wall, where the Hasidic Jews at the enterance handed him what appeared to be a paper take-out cup, like the kind a elementary school cafeteria would serve fries in.

"Put this on your head," they told him. It was, apparently, a McYarmulke. (Pronounced ya-ma-kah .... it's a little cap Jewish men wear over their future bald spot).

It was generous for them to give him one -- they could have required all non-Jewish visitors to buy a Yarmulke at the Yarmulke Stand in the bus station. That's right, the Jerusalem bus station sells every design and size of Yarmulke a man could possibly want.


When Jesus was nailed to the Cross, the scene must have been unglamorous: an angry mob, some wood, and a hammer.

Now, the site where He died is festooned with silver and gold. It looks like a hip-hop video. The site of the crucifixion is some shiny bling-bling.

The angry mob, however, hasn't disappeared. They've just converted into priests.

At the site of the crucifixion, a long line of devout Christians, who are undoubtedly making one of the most important pilgrimages of their lives, wait for their chance to kneel and pray at the location of the Cross. Many of them are elderly and have probably scrimped and saved and waited and prayed for their once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the place of Holy Passion.

But their moment in God's presence is probably ruined by the priests.

These guys have spent too long watching Christian pilgraims, and have lost their patience for crowd-control. They stand next to the worshippers, yelling "hurry up! HURRY UP!," and fly into a tizzy once a worshipper has been at the Cross for longer than a few seconds. Most of the time, the priests begin screaming before a Christian has even had enough time to bow.

One particularly angry priest physically shoved an old lady out of the way. Security rushed him, demanding to know what he was doing. "I asked her to leave!!" he bellowed. Security apologized to the old lady and allowed her to get to the front of the line. "NO!!" the priest yelled, and rushed in for interference. Another priest caught wind of this and ran over, trying to calm the first priest down. Suddenly people are screaming in different languages. Commotion ensues.

Even all the bling-bling in the world can't make the site of the Crucifixion sacrosanct.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Yom Kippur

Zohar invited us to stay at his kibbutz -- a communal village, population 650 -- in northern Israel.
We leapt at the prospect of seeing a communal village, although Laurel was a little hesitant. Should she spend Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, at the kibbutz? Or should she try to spend it with Israeli relatives she's never met before; family with whom she shares a common great-grandfather?

Thanks to strange serendipity, she didn't have to choose. As it turns out, Laurel's relative lives on the same kibbutz. In fact, he's Zohan's next-door neighbor!

This relative, Yani, is extremely friendly. He wholeheartedly greeted Laurel when she knocked on his door, and he hosted us for three consecutive dinners. Today he and his wife drove us to Mt. Carmel, took us to a Sufi market, and bought us an amazing hummus, dolma, and lamb kebab lunch.

Devout Jews fast on Yom Kippur, but the kibbutz is populated with kids in their early 20's who care more about fun than fasting. We spent The Day of Judgment hanging out at a campfire with about 25 Israeli youth. We cooked pizzas over the fire, munched on cookies, and enjoyed an unconventional, fasting-free Yom Kippur.

In general, we're better-fed in Israel than we ever were in Egypt. During Ramadan in Egypt, there simply was no food available. We'd get hungry, and climb onto the roof of the hostel, and shake a palm tree until dates fell out. We'd munch on the dates and call it lunch.

We were poor and hungry, and we all lost weight. Here in Israel, we're promptly putting those pounds back on, one scoop of tahina at a time.

The landscape here looks dry -- rust-colored soil, stone settings -- but amazingly, this kibbutz is brimming with fruit. Our days consist of picking pomegranates out of trees, watching quails, walking past the sheep pastures, picking wild herbs to make tea.

We're returning to Tel Aviv tonight.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Don't mess with the Zohar

Zohar is an Israeli man who had a month's vacation from his job in the military last year.

He spent that month traveling through California, Colorado and Texas, and found our house through We let him sleep in our basement for a few weeks.

Now, good karma comes into play. We're staying at his apartment in Tel Aviv.

It's amazing how a border -- an arbitrary, imaginary line -- changes everything.

As soon as we crossed into Israel, we faced a new language, new code of socially acceptable behavior, and new standards of health and hygene.

The hummus here -- as opposed to in Egypt -- is sold in a safety-sealed plastic package, without flies. The prices here have quadrupled. It's acceptable to wear short skirts here. Instead of people fasting for Ramadan, public transit shuts down for the Sabbath.

We seem to have arrived in both Egypt and Israel exactly in time for their annual religious holidays. We spent Ramadan in Egypt; now we're spending Yom Kippur and Sukkot at Zohar's kibbutz in northern Israel.

I never took the time to describe the "iftar," the breaking of the fast, that happens every sunset in the Arab world. The bustling, crazy, traffic-choked streets clear out. The loud panic subsides to a whisper. For a brief hour, the streets are completely quiet. All you hear is the Call to Prayer singing "Allah Akbar" and all you see are groups of men sitting together on rugs, eating their first meal of the day.

Here in Israel, we're about to witness Yom Kippur, the day of judgment. Everything shuts down on that day -- no public transit, no jobs. Everyone fasts.

Maybe the more countries change, the more things stay the same.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Border crossing

Crossing the border on foot from Egypt into Israel is something everyone should experience once -- and only once.

Yesterday we tried to catch a bus from Dahab (our coral reef resort hangout) to the border. But since the bus only runs once a day (which you have to GO to the bus station to discover), our plans were waylaid for an extra 24 hours.

We caught the bus to the border this morning, but had to bribe the bus driver to take us to the actual border, instead of dropping us off at the central bus station. He demanded an extra 5 Egyptian Pounds from each passanger, under the table.

I got off the bus desperate to change my tampon. I was leaking blood everywhere; my pants were stained deep red from the bus ride.

Unfortuantely, the nearest bathroom was across the border, and a long line of Korean tourists were standing in the way.

With a determined look on my face, I jumped ahead of all of them in line, knocking mothers and little kids out of my path. I did this not just once but twice, through two security checkpoints. I darted into the dirtiest bathroom I've ever seen -- far worse than anything in Nepal -- and took care of business.

We exited Egypt and walked to the Israeli enterance, where my passport was flagged because it shows that I was born in Nepal. Security called for backup, and soon three people stated questioning me:

When did you move to America?
Why didn't your parents just keep their jobs in Nepal, insted of moving?
What do each of your parents do for work?
What are your parents names?
What did you study in college?
What part-time jobs did you have during college?
How are you paying for this trip?

I found the questioning utterly pointless, given that they have no way of verifying my answers.

And so on. In total, security detained me for more than an hour, suspicious of my ties to Nepal. I don't think they believed me when I claimed that I no longer have a Nepalese passport.

Finally across the border, we caught a bus to Eilat, where we're waiting to take the 1 a.m. bus to Tel Aviv. In total, we'll be in transit for about 24 hours.

Welcome to World Tour, Country #2.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Thou shalt dodge a Dromedary

It's 3:30 in the morning, and I dimly spot a large object lumbering towards me on the gravely path.

"Jimal! Left!," someone calls out, and I duck to my right to avoid being run over by a camel. These creatures seem as heavy as horses, and getting stepped on by one would be an ugly injury.

I wonder why camels are allowed on such narrow winding paths in pitch-black dark. Surely my headlight can't spot them coming from above.

But our paths cross, the camel and I, and he continues a steady saunter downward while I push on toward the summit.

I've been walking since 2 a.m., and I need to reach the top by 5 a.m., in time to see daybreak over the mountains.

I have no trouble doing so, and I find a narrow stone ledge at the summit of Mt. Sinai.

It's here where (according to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike) Moses recieved the 10 Commandments from God. I had read about this mountain millions of times in Catholic school, but never did I imagine it to be so desolate.

Life is impossible in these mountains for plants, trees -- for anyone other than camels and box-lunch tourists on air-conditioned buses.

I try to imagine 40 days of solitude on this mountaintop, as Moses spent when he talked to God. Once the sun rises on these mountains, they become scorching hot and unbearably dry. Anyone would start hearing voices, it seems.

As the sun rises, the only voices I hear are hymns in German, in Korean, in languages I can't identify. They're sung by the pilgrims sharing the crowded summit with me.

As I start my descent back down, I hear the gurgles and groans of camels. 40 years from now, the camels will still be on Mt. Sinai.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Even in a tropical paradise, sometimes its the strange people you meet -- not the sunny place you're in -- that sticks in your mind the most.

This is true of Dahab, Egypt.

This beach town on the Sinai peninsula, near the Gulf of Aqaba, boasts some of the bluest, bluest waters in the world, and an elaborate seascape of coral reef.

It's my first time snorkeling and my first glimpse of coral reef. I'm identifying an entire new world underwater of puffer fish and parrot fish.

The town feels more like a Thai island than Islamic Egypt. We can freely swim in bikinis while staring across the gulf at Saudi Arabia. It's amazing to realize that a tiny stretch of sea separates a beach where women can deep-sea dive from a country where women can't drive.

Of course, snorkeling, coral reefs, reflections on freedom -- blah blah blah. None of this is as colorful as Mickey.

Mickey is a middle-aged Danish woman who's been living in Egypt for the past 7 years.

When I call her "colorful," I mean it literally. She's bright red, head-to-toe. Her color might come from sunburn; it might come from her excessive alcohol consumption. We suspect it comes from both.

She looks old for her age, with saggy, wrinkled skin and an incessant cough from a lifetime of cigarettes and hash. Her cough sounds like water hissing as it hits a pot of hot oil.

She's our neighbor at Camp Sabry, a Bedouin camp overrun by cats.

None of the Camp Sabry residents can sit in our musty, unclean rooms in the evenings, so we all converge under the woven canopy in the center of the campsite.

This space has become our "living room." The cats outnumber the people at least 3-to-1. They seem to multiply hourly.

Sitting in Camp Sabry's "living room" last night, Mickey -- in her usual drunk state -- tried to tell us a story. She made it through "Once upon a time," before devolving into a coughing fit. She sounded like the muck of ancient earth was lodged in her lungs.

All the other guests began laughing at this old woman's failed state. She looked around angrily, then tried again. "Once upon a time -- " she began, before her words dissolved into fitful coughing.

She managed to tell the story -- a fictional tale about a fish with a golden head -- though she told it in a rambling, convoluted way, like Sarah Palin trying to answer a foreign policy question.

Then she walked off, defeated.

Half an hour passed. It seemed like the night was calming down. Even the cats had disappeared.

Then I noticed everyone staring at me. What? Wait, no, they're not staring at me. They're staring at some spectacle behind me.

It's Mickey, completely topless, drunk beyond her skull. Her body is as red and saggy and wrinkled as her face. Her breasts, somehow, are perky and creamy milk-white.

She walks past all the practicing Muslim boys, who are vacationing in Dahab to celebrate the end of Ramadan fasting. They glance, look away, glance again, then look away with vigor.

She stumbles toward the bathroom, then back toward her room. But she walks through the wrong door.

We watch as she enters someone elses' open bedroom door. We wait for her to realize her mistake and leave. She does not.

After some hesitation, the guests crowd the doorway. Mickey is passed out asleep on someone's bed. Four feet away from her is an innocent man, sleeping, oblivious to his intruder.

The Muslim men aren't sure what to do. One grabs a towel and places it around her, covering her skin. They try to pick her up.

She wakes up, falls over. Shoots a look at the innocent man asleep in the next bed.

"WHAT'S he fucking doing in my fucking room?" It begins as an angry bellow, then falls to a mumble. By the end of the question, she's asleep.

The sleeping man wakes up from of the commotion. Screams.

Just another night in tropical snorkeling paradise .....