Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Random Travel Update 45

Last locations: Eilat, Israel; Jerusalem, Israel; Bethlehem, Palestine; Tel Aviv, Israel; Jericho, Palestine; Siesta Beach, The Dead Sea
Arrival Date: June 21, 2009
Departure Date: June 29, 2009

Current location: Amman, Jordan
Arrival Date: June 29, 2009
Departure Date: June 30, 2009

Next Locations: Petra, Jordan
Arrival Date: June 30, 2009
Departure Date: July 2, 2009

Our goal was to avoid the incredibly expensive ferry directly from Nuweiba, Egypt to Aqaba, Jordan by crossing into Jordan by land via Israel. We were going to head north through Jordan and cross back into Israel via the Allenby/King Hussein crossing through the West Bank. Upon arriving at the Israeli border of Jordan however, we were informed that there is an incredibly high departure tax when leaving Israel. So, we quickly changed plans and got a bus out of Eilat the next day to Jerusalem where we enjoyed the hospitality of one of Jon's old friends, Dan, from their days in The Sierra Club.

It's hard to write about Israel and Palestine without getting into politics and religion. It is easy to want to pick sides in the matter. On one hand you have an elite class of wealthy occupiers severely oppressing the less prosperous former land tenants, on the other, you have a nation of individuals whose land has, since the beginning of time, been disputed. As our cab driver in Bethlehem put it, "All I wonder is, after the Israelis, who's next?"

It is impossible to deny that the Israelis have done amazing things with their little strip of the Mediterranean desert, turning it into a no-holds-barred first world resort destination. There is air conditioning, well-serviced public bathrooms and superior infrastructure. For this, you pay about five times as much for everything and have to put up with the Israelis. I am not convinced that it is worth it.

Despite being multitudes richer per capita than their neighbors to the South and East, the Israelis won't hesitate to add a little extra to your bill, whether it be for going three minutes over time at the internet cafe to adding "too much" salad at a salad bar. Transgressions that wouldn't even garner a baksheesh request in one of Israel's poorer Arab neighbors. Racism, as in most countries, is alive and well here, which isn't so much surprising as it is ironic.

On a suspicion that I would like it more, we planned two mini-trips to the WestBank. We spent the first day touring Bethlehem and reminiscing over all of the sitesthat made for the basis of much of my Christian education growing up. We saw the places where Jesus was born, cradled, crucified and buried. And I did like it. The people who we met, from a group of little girls to a convoy of soldiers, were all marvelously friendly, warm and welcoming.

The second trip, on our way from Jerusalem to the Israeli-Palestinian border with Jordan was to Jericho where we spent the evening floating on the Dead Sea and coating ourselves in the mineral rich and addictively squishy Dead Sea mud. We spent the night in the city and woke up the next morning to see Hashim's Palace, a gorgeous ruin where we were the only visitors. In fact, we didn't run into a single other tourist in Jericho. Despite it's vast share of Holy Land sites and historical religious significance, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has near annihilated tourism in the West Bank. The only trouble we ran into was when we befriended a local youth living next door to us in our budget hotel. He turned out to be crazy, and spent the better part of the late night banging on our hotel room door and picking at the lock pleading for us to hide him from the Israeli Police.

The border crossing the next day was a disaster. After spending two hours and our last 100 shekels to get to the Jordanian border, we were told, for the first time, that we were at the only border crossing with Israel that could not issue a foreign visa. Two more hours of waiting confirmed that we would have to go back to Israel and re-enter from the northernmost crossing, 60 kilometers away.

Getting back into Israel was a whole new nightmare which required passing through an infinite number of checkpoints all bottle-necked with Palestinians impatient to get home. Another two hours got us through this mess and to a pull-off where we waited patiently for a bus that would take us north an hour later. We hitched the final few kilometers from the bus drop off to the required border crossing and eight hours from our departure from Jericho, we arrived in time to watch the sun set on the beautiful northern Israeli countryside and passed effortlessly through the deserted checkpoint.

And that is how we arrived in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.



Saturday, June 20, 2009

Random Travel Update 44

Last locations: Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria, Sharm El-Sheikh Egypt
Arrival Date: June 2, 2009
Departure Date: June 13, 2009

Current location: Dahab, Egypt
Arrival Date: June 13, 2009
Departure Date: June 21, 2009

Next Locations: Jordan
Arrival Date: June 21, 2009
Departure Date: Undetermined

My favorite thing about Egypt is the ubiquitous reply to being American: "Obama! Number one!", sometimes repeated many times in a row in order to make sure that we know that they know that Obama is in fact "number one". It was particularly nice that Obama decided to come to Cairo the day after we arrived, presumably to thank us for all of our hard work on his primary campaign. I am going to return the favor by visiting him in DC this August.

With the exception of Dahab, Egypt is a chaotic place with an overwhelming presence of ancient and contemporary historical value. A recent resurgence of Islamic conservatism has many women walking the streets in black niqabs which revel only the eyes of the wearer and only a handful of local women choose to go bear-headed. The vast majority wear a hijab, and despite the near oppressive heat, no female goes anywhere wearing short sleeves.

The male culture is like that of undersexed adolescent boys and men have a difficult time vocalizing their appreciation of the opposite sex in an appropriate manner, an unfortunate phenomenon that even Islam and five prayers a day is apparently unable to remedy. Otherwise, Islam has done wonders here. Despite a high poverty rate, theft is almost unheard of and you can get out of most tourist scams and heckling by making an appeal to religion (helps if you speak Arabic). Though worlds dirtier, hotter, and louder than anywhere we visited in South America, Egypt is also worlds more interesting.

The cheapest flight out of Tucson was, unusually, a Sunday flight on the 31st of May which, to my delight, makes the dates of our trip very neat to work with. Day 1, June 1st, was spent on a long layover in Amsterdam which allowed us to arrive in Cairo on Tuesday June 2nd, exactly six weeks prior to our departure date from Istanbul on Tuesday July 14th.

I had meant to write this two weeks into our trip, but that goal has been delayed due to my inability to spend much more than 15 minutes at a time in the internet cafes which, like most places in Egypt, blatently encourage cigarette smoking by hiring only chain smokers to work the counter.

Our first week was packed with us getting out of the way all of the things that one must see when on a visit to Egypt. We spent three days in Cairo, couchsurfed in Maadi, checked out the famous Khan El Khalili market, killed time at the Ahwahs (traditional Egyptian coffee houses) playing backgammon and reminiscing over Jon's old Egypt days, and of course hung out with Barack Obama during his visit to the Pyramids of Giza.

On the night of day three, we hopped on an overnight train south along the Nile to Luxor where we saw all sorts of impressive Egyptian sites before heading further south to 47 degree Celsius Aswan where we floated along the Nile on lazy Feluccas, rode Camels to ancient Christian establishments and perused the Nubia Museum which was surprisingly worthwhile (and air conditioned). From Aswan, we took the uncomfortable 15 hour train back up to Cairo where we spent the morning before connecting with our afternoon train up to Alexandria.

We spent another afternoon in Cairo, where I visited the overpriced and under air conditioned Egypt Museum while waiting to catch the eight hour overnight bus to Sharm El-Sheikh, our first stop on the Sinai. We spent US$100 on a hotel room, $15 on lunch, $30 on dinner, $15 at the coffee shops, $30 to go dancing and left the next day to avoid blowing through the rest of our Middle East budget in a single weekend. Best thing about Sharm: The Hard Rock Cafe in Naama Bay which serves up a delicious Veg Burger and almost equally delicious frozen drinks in an air conditioned non-smoking section. Extra bonus: there is toilet paper in the bathroom. Truly incredible.

Better than Sharm, is the smaller and more authentic-feeling Dahab, just an hour up the East coast. It is a budget divers paradise, where you can strap on your gear and head straight to the ocean from your hotel at $25 per dive, gear, guide and tank included. An air conditioned room for two costs less than $10 and a candlelit waterfront meal adds up to $5 per person. It is about as idyllic as it gets.

Tomorrow we leave for the ancient city of Petra in Jordan and from there head north to the Dead Sea, Amman and Jeresh before crossing into Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

I was able to post the first set of Egypt photos to Picasa which I will attempt to edit and caption when I am reunited with my Macbook. For Jon's take on Egypt, visit elfanoos.blogspot.com sometime next week. I have been going through my emails to make sure that I haven't left any unanswered, often the consequence of my leaving the internet cafe abruptly due to cigarette smoke or computer failure. Please help by resending any emails that I may have missed.