On the Midnight Train to Guilin

For us, China will have been traversed by either bus or train. Other than the one sleeper bus to Shenzen, buses have been thankfully, fortunately mundane in nature. Trains though, have been the marathon in the rain…have been Mao’s Long March…have been like an elephant’s pregnancy. In other words, they have felt, um, rich in analogies.
There are four main categories of train—hard seater, soft seater, hard sleeper, soft sleeper. Hard seaters are what they are—plain seats, usually in groups of six sitting across from each other and separated by a small table. People overflow (overselling of tickets?) and have to stand in the aisles for the entire journey. Vendors move up and down the same skinny aisle selling spinning tops, packaged cucumbers, and herbal remedies. This is the mode in which China’s 1.3 billion people move around the country. It feels cramped and crowded with both luggage and people.
Soft seaters are the Arnold Schwarzeneggar to the hard seaters Danny Devito, or so we’ve been told since we haven’t actually ridden one. The chairs are supposed to be cushy, roomy, and recline. There is no overcrowding. I imagine there is a bottle of Chinese Grey Poupon next to each chair.
Soft sleepers we’ve been told are also the reloaded 2.0 version of the hard sleeper. Elegant and roomy, it’s like a hotel room on tracks. I hear it even comes with slippers and people change into pajamas in it.
The hard sleeper, by contrast has two rows of bunks, each three bunks high. Each set of six bunks has a small table on the floor level. And this set up is repeated over and over down the length of the car. There are no walls or doors separating you from everyone else’s snoring, ringtones, etc. Each bunk comes with a pillow and blanket, which are not washed after each use, but maybe after some usage…
A typical hard sleeper experience starts with us picking up our bags from the hostel luggage check, and going to the train station at 11:30 pm. Outside the train station are hundreds, sometimes thousands of people; touts working on new arrivals, some groups of people talking on benches and others with mats pulled out on the sidewalk sleeping next to their luggage. We enter the train station, pass the metal detector, and scan the signs to see which waiting room in the building we will be in. We find our boarding area and sit down, trying to glimpse other people’s tickets to make sure we are in the right area. People spit in the rows next to us and shirtless, shoeless men lay out on chairs trying to catch some sleep before they have to board and probably before they have to appear more presentable. A child pees between two seats, which surprisingly causes no reaction from the strangers in the two seats. 2-3 minutes before our train is scheduled to arrive, people seem to know to queue up. We wrestle into position. Women, teenagers, old men randomly, periodically push past us and everyone else in the queue in order to cut to the front. It is tolerated and accepted by all.
Then, at some seemingly designated time, we all push forward together. We’re caught up in a wave of elbows pushing out, shoulders maneuvering bodies forward until we get to the bottleneck that is the station attendant who hole punches each ticket. Then it’s off to the races. We, and everyone else, run down the hallway towards our platform number. People with small children or big luggage fall behind the able-bodied. As we are taking the steps two at a time, a woman loses her plastic jug of pickled something or other. It rolls ahead of her, then us as people are giggling. Then it explodes on the man at the bottom of the stairs in a burst of violet. The laughter stops, but people’s feet never do. The man looks back, shakes his head, and we all move on. I hope he doesn’t have to sit/sleep in those clothes, but I hope even more that he’s not in my cabin. Eventually we arrive, slightly out of breath, to our platform and have to quickly scan in which direction our car is. When we figure it out, we run towards it and see a minimob already fighting to get on. We enter into the group queue, which is no queue at all and push our way on. Once on the train, everyone is trying to find their bunk and find precious space for their luggage. I put mine on the rack, then go about the business of moving the bags near mine to make room for Mari’s. And once our bags are up, we can finally breathe.
People usually talk and sit on the bottom bunk till about 10 o’clock, when it’s lights out. No one changes their clothing, I hardly ever see a toothbrush make an appearance. But there is a lot of eating. From the moment the train lunges forward till it makes it’s last hissing stop, people are eating. I watched one grandma go through 2 drinks, a large pack of sunflower seeds, a bowl of noodles, 3 hard-boiled eggs, and some pastries in a 3 hour period. It’s like a picnic here.
After the lights go out, people generally settle in for the night. You just hope no one in your near vicinity is a bad snorer. My bunkmate turns out not to be, though he does decide to turn his cell phone/mp3 player on high and hold it out while he closes his eyes. Apparently he needs music to fall asleep and thinks I do also. Considerate of him, but he’s also put it on repeat, so the same song blares over and over. I pray he has a short battery life. People in the bunks above me move up and down throughout the night, readily using me to help prop them up to their bunk. I kick them off and they move on, neither of us caring.
The following day is usually filled with Mari and I moving between reading, taking naps, and staring out the window. People continue to eat. One man with dress shoes, dress socks, slacks, but no shirt paces by me continuously. His rhythm is only interrupted when he covers one nostril and blows snot out of the other onto the train floor. Over the next half hour I observe him spitting 3 times on the floor (and once out the window), cleaning his bellybutton and making those dirt worms roll off his body. I say, “disgusting” at him, knowing he can’t understand me, but feeling well within boundaries if he does. Mari comes back from the toilet to tell me it doesn’t work.
Eventually, the train thins out from the stops along the way and we grab seats along the windows, staring out to the constantly moving landscape. China’s rice terraces and crowded cities zoom past, as do the hills by Yangshuo, the Li river and mud-brick villages.

Posted: September 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: China | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Lost my Face

China is a shame based society. This I know. Being driven by the possibility of being shamed still wears on Chinese Americans. It’s engrained somewhere deep, untouchable; unlike so much else that has eroded away with the generations of American lineage. So even though China is 8 months and 16 countries into our trip, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised that in the build up to it I felt different. It felt so…loaded. I was as anxious landing in Beijing as I had been when we first left for Mexico in January. I don’t speak a lick of mandarin, and fare barely better in Cantonese. But I should, right? I mean, if I’m Chinese, I must be able to speak it…Your parents/grandparents didn’t speak it to you growing up? What a shame…However, I was also excited for the opportunity to reconcile the China I’ve always pictured in my mind, to maybe even learn what it is to be Chinese and in turn understand what is still distinctly Chinese about me.
Beijing has been the perfect intro period for me into China. Beijing is the capital. Beijing is the Great Wall of China. Beijing is the Forbidden City…is great food…is stifled democracy…is where the servers are housed that censor the internet…It is…it is…it is…Everything that is good and bad with China revolves around this city. And with the crests and valleys of Beijing rode my own pride and shame.
Mari and I had decided before we had our first meal in Beijing that we were going to splurge and try the Peking duck. It’s one of our favorite meals back at home, and we couldn’t pass up having it in its namesake. We arrived at the famous roasted duck restaurant, nicknamed Old Duck, to a hive of activity. 5:20 pm and all of the tables and halls were already full. Two waiting areas were filling up and the hostesses were being swamped. Mari and I, still a little slow in giving up the concepts of a queue or personal space, made our way to the hostess to get a number. After 4 people pushed pass us, we accomplished our mission.
As we sat in the waiting area, other people admired the artifacts along the wall, played with their children, talked with one another. We stared at our number and tried to figure out how to recognize when they called us. We tried to remember the groups who were in front of us. We made regular eye contact with the hostess and gave her our confused looks. Finally, we noticed that the hostess had said something over the loudspeaker, and subsequently her looking around was going unanswered. And right when we were wondering whether to check if she had called us, “84” was shouted into the microphone. In English. Just for us.
Our table was in the middle of the lively restaurant, letting us see the chefs carve the ducks at nearby tables and feast on the culinary smells around us. We ordered (again in English) to our waiter, who did his best to communicate with us, even explaining that the sauce and scallions were part of the dish. When our Peking duck arrived we were practically salivating. Our waiter, placed the dish on the table, then offered to show me how it is eaten by making me my first one. I tried to tell him that it wasn’t necessary…that I knew how to eat my favorite meal…that of course I knew how to eat it—I’m Chinese! But then, why can’t you speak Chinese?
Instead, I smiled as he manipulated my chopsticks and spoon to make me my little sandwich and weakly told him “xie xie.” Surrounding tables looked at me, giving me their confused looks. And I had nothing to offer them in return. No answers, knowledge, or way of making them understand that despite my looking like them, I was clearly not. Somewhere, over the generations, something had been lost.

waiter showing me how to eat

waiter showing me how to eat

Posted: September 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: China | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

goL yliaD

5:48 pm Friday—I touch foot to sand and yell over my shoulder, “Crack open the strawberry oreos!”

5:32 pm Friday—I’ve just overpaid the boat captain by 50,000 rupiah. He knows it and I know it. We both knew I would pay it the moment Mari and I dragged our sweaty, worn selves out of the van in the middle of nowhere as the sun was beginning to set.

5:30 pm Friday—After the 2 hour drive, we finally pull into Tanjung Batu. I smile out at the villagers who are returning home from work and all of the people on their porches. Blank stares or outright sneers are their responses. I turn to Mari and say, “Whatever it takes, we’re getting a speedboat and getting there today. I don’t think we’re welcome to stay here tonight.”

4:12 pm Friday—We just went over a huge pothole in the road. The driver had no choice but to swerve to avoid going into a part of the road that had previously collapsed. The pothole though, makes my backpack jump in my lap and it comes down on me heavy. The baby is jarred and stops breast feeding in the front seat. Why is it immodest for this Muslim woman to show her hair in public, but able to let her boob hang loose? I’m just asking.

3:27 pm Friday—I’m in the middle of the street in Berau and staring at the driver as he’s staring back at me. In front of us is the boot of the van, and it’s filled with eggs. At least 90 dozen eggs, stacked from floor to ceiling. I laugh because he seems to think I can put our backpacks on top of them. What the hell?

3:15 pm Friday—We just passed a turnoff to Tanjung Batu. Looks like we’re doublebacking.

1:46 pm Friday—My car buddy says something to me in Indonesian, which I assume means move. I oblige and we all exit the car that’s pulled over to the side of the road. And then we all take a few steps into the rainforest and pee. I find some plants whose leaves, as a defense mechanism, instantly close up when you touch them and aim my stream at them in attack mode.

12:53 pm Friday—Road trip! That’s what this feels like. I don’t know the driver or the other three men in the car that exists somewhere between a taxi and a carhire, but there’s some feeling of companionship in listening to the same music and having a shared destination. They’re my car buddies; they just don’t know it yet.

11:40 am Friday—Are we there yet? Are we there yet? I’m 55 minutes in to this boat ferry and starting to feel sick. Maybe it’s being cramped in a small boat with 29 other people, maybe it’s the low roof that’s making me feel like I can’t breathe, maybe it’s the small dirty windows that don’t allow me to see the horizon, except between the bounces of the boat.

10:38 am Friday—I repeat the Indonesian word for “head.” Then, “mouth, nose, and eyes.” The man that sold us our boat tickets has taken a liking to me as evidenced by this impromptu language tutorial and by the fact that his hand is on my thigh. My upper thigh. It’s a nice moment except for his hand.

9:59 am Friday—I’m still holding out hope there’s another way…a shorter way. But our hostel receptionist and the taxi driver both confirm that if we want to get to Derawan, our route is as follows: 1 ½ hour ferry from Tarakan to Tanjung Selor-3 hour taxi to Berau—2 hour taxi to Tanjung Batu—30 minute speedboat to Derawan. Damn you Lonely Planet!

7:30 pm Thursday—Mari and I think it’s best to eat someplace simple and quick as it looks like we might be in for a long day of travel tomorrow and need a good night’s sleep. So, we’re eating at a mall foodcourt, which turns out to be more interesting than expected as it has a karaoke performance going full blast. Funny Asians.

4:07 pm Thursday—“How can you not know how to get to Derawan but your travel agency advertises itself as ‘Derawan Travel?'” I ask the woman across from me. She mutters something to us and returns to her paperwork. Mari says, “Thanks…for nothing” as we turn to leave.

2:00 pm Thursday—“To Derawan? No, not from here. I think you have to go to Berau.” answered our taxi driver, giving us the first inkling that I’ve read the signs wrong.

12:21 pm Thursday—Our plane just landed in Tarakan. Hopefully we’ll be in Derawan by the end of the day!

11:44 am Thursday—We checked in, paid our airport service tax and got through security in eight minutes. Record time. And with a minute to spare, I buy some strawberry oreos and jokingly tell Mari, “We’ll save these as our reward for getting to Derawan.”

11:36 am Thursday—I’m in front of the ticket office of Sriwijaya Airlines and they’ve just assured me that if we buy now we can still catch the flight that is scheduled to leave in exactly nine minutes. I take it as a good sign, since we’re supposed to be able to get to Derawan from either Tarakan or Berau and this flight leaves forty minutes earlier than the Berau ones. Could it be any easier?

Posted: August 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Indonesia | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Not a Timeshare, a Holiday Club Resort

Indonesians like to sing. A lot. From the latest Indonesian pop songs to Jason Mraz, we hear them after we pass their little warungs, or doing karaoke in the electronics store, or as they pass us on the street. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s often followed by a laugh just to let us know that it isn’t so much about being in key as it is about being happy.

Mari and I were reflecting on this after having just secured our next day’s plans of visiting an off the path village and temple hopping. With the rest of the day free, we decided to just walk around the beach the rest of the afternoon before heading back to our hostel. There are times when we have time to kill in spades and this was one of those afternoons. We passed a group of uniformed guys who asked us if we had a minute. And we’re used to usually just walking right by them (Mari after politely refusing, and me usually without any acknowledgement), but today decided to give them a chance to do their spiel. One of the guys gave us two prize cards and asked us to open them. Mari opened hers and “won” either A) a digital camcorder B) a week free in a resort or C) $500. In sing-song English the guy exclaimed how excited he was for her and told her if we went to listen to a holiday club presentation, we were guaranteed one of the three for free. We balked a little, but he threw in a $20 food voucher for us. We balked a little less and he threw in free drinks, and a free taxi ride back to our hostel. Sold.

As we entered into a van to go to the resort where the presentation was Mari started to freak out a little and exclaimed, “for the record I don’t like this one bit.” I asked her what record she was speaking of and tried to calm her down by telling her it sounded like we were going to sit through a timeshare pitch and come away with some freebies. She said fine, but she wasn’t talking at all throughout the pitch. She yelled her last words of, “we are not giving you any money!” to the sales guy as we pulled into the resort.

It turns out, the Royal Resorts are the largest Holiday Club in Australia and expanding almost exponentially after its 18 years in business. With luxury apartments or suites in Goa, India; Phuket, Thailand; and Bali, Indonesia we had the opportunity to OWN a studio for a week a year in India if we purchased that day. And if we did that, we’d receive airline and cruise discounts up to 50% off public prices, and be tied into a network of partners that offered luxury holiday stays for about $200/week. I smiled through the presentation sipping my cold coca colas and asked a few questions to seem interested. It seemed too good to be true, but I was assured people from all walks of life made the jump and took advantage of it. In fact, it was pointed out to us that we could sell our week or even the cheap holiday stays and make our money back within 6 months. And despite the numbers not adding up, us knowing nothing about this company, not even knowing where Goa, India was, and us not having gainful employment, their pitch did get our minds turning. Do we have friends and family who we could share this wonderful gift with? YES… Did we think we could travel enough to take advantage of this remarkable savings? YES! Could we put just $1500 down today to start cashing in on these guaranteed rewards for the next 25 years? And see, that’s the sticking point we keep coming back to…no.!

In the end, we wizened up maybe because of cash flow and maybe because it was a silly dream to begin with, and told them no. We finished our drinks, took our food voucher and free week in a resort in Phuket, Thailand. And we left to return back to our hostel in our air-conditioned taxi ride. And as I looked out the window, scooters rushing by, I caught myself barely and nearly inaudibly, but definitely, singing.

Posted: August 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Indonesia | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Shark Penguin Shark Oreo

Outside of Hermanus, a whale-watching coastal town that seems equally as comfortable with its high end resort homes as with its resident baboons in the middle of streets, we embarked on an ocean dive of a different sort—cage diving with the Great Whites. Apparently, here the animals are known simply as white sharks. Maybe the sheer number of them here desensitized the area residents into forgetting the power of this predator. I, however, will show my respect for them and continue to mention their greatness.

Anyway, Great Whites here range from 1.5 to 6 meters. Separating us from them are 2 inch steel bars. But despite the stupidity of those numbers, Mari and I were excited but not scared of the trip. We boarded the boat with about 25 other excited people and set off towards Shark Alley. The ocean though, was rough this day and rocked the boat, constant like a heaving breath. About 1/3 of the excited boat stopped smiling pretty quickly with this motion, myself included. Ten minutes into our 4 hour viewing session and the first of us was over the side of the boat, heaving up her complimentary breakfast. More people followed suit. I stared at the horizon hard in an effort not to join them. About 2 hours out at sea, we spotted our first Great White as it swam up to the tuna heads placed as bait beside the boat. People rushed into their wet suits so they could jump into the cage and get a better look. I sat hunched on a bench with my wet suit pants on unable to will the rest of it up. Mari was a trooper, and in between sessions of throwing up she went into the cage and got close and personal with a Great White. It stayed around for another hour or so before we headed back to shore. I turned green, from the seasickness and from envy at those not affected by seasickness. I never was able to get into the cage and left the day disappointed— not with the shark adventure, but with myself.

Maybe it was an effort to redeem myself, but two days later in Cape Town I was at the Two Ocean’s Aquarium, signing up for a Predator Dive. That’s a dive in their 2 million liter tank which includes five ragged tooth sharks, two sea turtles, stingrays (the largest was bigger than a queen-sized bed), and numerous fish.

Three of us were going into the tank. The Dive Master would tell us when to enter into the tank to avoid descending onto one of the sharks. He entered with what looked like half a broom stick and told us it would deter the sharks if they got too close. I looked at the sharks, saw their 2 ½ meters of length, and thought that must be one special stick. But he jumped in the water and we followed. He told us to watch out for the Mussel Crackers and then he descended. Having no idea what a Mussel Cracker was, I watched out for everything as I went to the bottom of the tank. And for the rest of the dive, every time a fish came towards me, my hands instantly withdrew to my armpits. But the dive itself was amazing. I even found some shark teeth during the dive, which the aquarium let me keep as a souvenir.

Before the trip I emailed a South African friend of mine and told her South Africa was one of our destinations. She replied back that the country is beautiful and a ton of fun—just be careful because it can be dangerous. I quickly replied back to her asking what the hell the dangers were. She, um, never did write me back.

But after having driven through it I think I understand her and the country a little better. Adventure. Unique landscapes. Wildlife. Adrenaline and danger. This is South Africa. Nature at both its rawest and at its shiny display best. Car jackings and muggings are as much a possibility as a shark attack or the bungee line breaking. That is to say that all seemed equally unlikely, but nevertheless a possible reality. But there’s also a better respect and maybe even harmony (even the commercialized versions of it) with nature that allow us to fold ourselves into it, even for a short time. And there’s a rush here that you can’t experience anywhere else. And that’s why we came. We wanted extreme experiences in the most fitting of settings.

In between the cage diving and the predator dive we drove to Betty’s Bay. Here exists one of 3 colonies of an endangered species, the African Penguin. We walked close to these beautiful creatures and watched as they waddled in front of us, returning to the water or back into their homes. A mother kept watch of her baby, whose feathers were still like down. About a thousand remained in the colony and allowed us to hang out with them as they went about their day. One was curious of me and let me within a few inches of him before I moved on and let him be. We left there that day feeling fortunate to have visited them, sad for their future, and in love with the most awkward of animals.

We came for the sharks. We came for the lions and for the elephants. It was the 216 meter bungee jump and the opportunity to ride an ostrich that made our palms sweat. But in between all of the quickened heart palpitations South Africa offers something else. Quietly, it is encountering an endangered species and in doing so becoming more invested in it. Or more loudly and resolutely it is Robben Island, where Mandela was locked away during apartheid. It is the education of both nature and in a social experiment which is every bit as interesting as the USA. Eventually reflecting back on South Africa as one of our favorite countries, I have a feeling we’ll remember the moment our feet left the safety of a bridge and what a shark’s teeth look like from a meter away, but it will have been the moments in between those which will have made the impact on us.

Posted: August 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: South Africa | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

This is Kenya

From Egypt we were scheduled to take a 3:20am flight to Nairobi, Kenya. The flight however was delayed till about 5:30am, which made Mari and me miss our connecting flight, stranding us in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for a day. But we ate well and slept in a decent hotel courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines as we geared up for Kenya.
We arrived in Nairobi at noon, but our Kenyan experience really didn’t feel like it began till that night’s dinner. We ventured into a local restaurant (with butcher shop attached), picked out a little over a kilo of goat’s meat hanging in the window and asked for it to be prepared as Nyama Choma (roasted goat). About an hour and a half later, our waiter brought to the table a pitcher of hot water, and a wash bowl with soap and we dutifully washed our hands. After that he brought a large wooden cutting board out with our Nyama Choma laid out on top of it. And that’s it. No knives or forks. No napkins. No plates. So we “when in Rome”-‘d it and dug in. I was chewing on a rib when I looked at Mari and saw her tearing the meat off a bone with her teeth. The piles of bones on the table were growing in front of us both. I heard her growl, but she denies it now. The meal was fun and made me feel like if you’re going to eat meat—this is how it should always be done. It only lacked the stuffy air of western “sophistication…” and maybe a side of spinach. After the meal, Mari asked me whether we were supposed to get vegetables or a staple dish, to which I replied that maybe this is how they do it in Kenya. My heart hurt a little bit, but my stomach seemed happy.
We spent the following days visiting Kenya’s game parks. We were greeted about 3 minutes into our first game drive by a zebra in the distance. I shouted to the driver to stop, as if I had been the first to discover the animal. We took some crappy photos of it in the distance, wanting to make sure we had proof of our first sighting, especially in case it was our last. But as we drove on we passed another zebra, and another, and another. We passed Thompson gazelles, warthogs and Impalas by the dozen. There were buffalo, monkeys and baboons eating, drinking and for the most part, ignoring us as we gawked at them.
Lake Nakuru continued the animal voyeurism. As we drove towards the water it unfolded as a bed of blue and pink from the thousands of flamingoes that stand there. They fly in long lines, accentuating their profiles. The sheer number of the birds made it a unique spectacle. We eventually tore ourselves away from the flamingoes to go up to Baboon Cliff. I almost asked our driver if we would see any of the animals the cliff was named after when my question was answered. About 25 baboons greeted us in our car running away from people and towards others. I heard a growl and turned to see an adult baboon grabbing a schoolboy’s shirt. The boy escaped as an aggressive man nearby threw a rock at the aggressive baboon to teach him a lesson. The baboons eventually blocked our return to the car as three were sitting on it. Mari tried to show dominance and banged on the roof of the car and told them to get off. The adult male baboon charged Mari and growled something to the effect of “dominance, schmominance.” Mari retreated.
The Masai Mara offered us almost completely different animals to wander across, as well as the main reason we came to Kenya. There were elephant herds, cheetahs, lions, ostriches, hippos and giraffes. And of course there were the wildebeests. The wildebeest migration is referred to as the largest animal migration and their abundance was evident everywhere. At times hills looked as brown from the wildebeests as they were green from the grass. At other times the wildebeests appeared British in heritage as they lined up in long queues, patient and orderly, following each other across the landscape. We drove past them by the thousands. I remarked to Mari, “Wow, this is Kenya.”
After the game drives we spent a final day back in Nairobi. We were on our way to dinner, when a cop pulled us over. The driver, Mari and I hurriedly put on our seatbelts. The cop asked us all a couple of questions, but in the end it was evident he wanted only one thing. We paid him a thousand shillings as a bribe and he left us to be on our way. We were saddened by the blatant corruption, but our driver told us not to worry about it. He said he was glad we saw it and simply stated, “This is Kenya.”

Posted: July 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Kenya | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

6 Months in…

July 7th marked the 6 month mark to our travels, which brought with it the sense that we should be reflective about our time up to this point. So I’m here in a safari tent in the Masai Mara in Kenya writing down some randomness.
• Traveling for this length has caused a curious warping of time for me. It’s the never knowing the date or the day because there’s no need to (which is great), but it’s more than that. Time as a measuring tool has lost its usefulness. The last 6 months have gone by so much faster than I had anticipated, so trying to think back to February or just last month leaves me usually scratching my head. Instead, I convert it to what country I should have been in during that time, and think about the experiences in that country to gain a mental foothold about the past experiences. But if I try to just think about the experience and fit it into a time measure, it feels so much longer ago than it should. I guess I’ve had so much input to absorb—cultures, peoples and experiences, that processing it all makes my brain work in overdrive and changes temporal perceptions. Anyway, it has me all jumbled up. I must ask Mari what day it is at least once a day.
• People ask us whether we’re sick of each other yet since we spend all of our time together. Oddly and surprisingly, no. It’s been remarkably easy to get along, work into a travel groove of sharing responsibilities and watching out for each other, and avoiding each other’s areas of contention. We’ll revisit this at the end of our travels and see if the answers remain constant. But to date, we’ve had one blowup so far with each other in Istanbul, which isn’t too shabby.
• I’ve always known I liked animals but traveling has confirmed my love for them. When I look at the percentage of photos committed to animals as opposed to world heritage sites and masterpieces of art, I’m embarrassed. But I keep clicking away.
• I’m still afraid of bugs, but I’m trying. To be fair, the types of bugs we’ve encountered aren’t the ones you swat with a newspaper, they’re the types you hit with a bat.
• I’ve recently recognized that traveling has had an effect on my hygiene. I’ve noticed I’ve taken to rubbing the griminess from my neck and face into those little dirt cigars and flicking them away…often…and in public. I also clean the dirt from my nails all the time, mostly because there’s dirt in my nails all the time. Both habits are disgusting, but oddly enough I might still be the cleaner of the two of us.
• Climate change is real and its effects are being felt all over the world. It’s the consumption levels of the rich countries that cause it, but it’s more apparent in poorer countries whose resources can’t be committed to aid in us ignoring the problem. Hope we get it together.
• I feel comfortable saying the world loves Obama. I feel accurate saying the world hated Bush.
• If there’s a hope that has been growing in the last half year, it’s that I hope I am malleable enough to be changed by what I’ve been seeing and the people I’ve been meeting.

Posted: July 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Itinerary | Tags: , | 2 Comments »


Cairo is a city with a population exceeding 18 million people. The metro system underwhelms with 3 lines of operation. The city is spread out so people will tell you that you need a car to get around. This is LA…if you took away some of the infrastructure, aged the buildings, crammed 14 million extra people into less than half the size of it, and added 40 Fahrenheit degrees. The result of such a city is that the streets overflow with cars and people and visible order appears only to physicists who study chaos theory. Drivers are aggressive in the way they switch lanes, in the way they defend their own lanes from others cutting in, in the way they create new ones entirely. But more or less, there are other areas of the world where drivers act like this. What adds though to the chaos and complexity of street traffic here are the people that walk across these same streets (and highways). Initially I was nervous in the streets sitting in a half a ton vehicle. Crossing the street brought images of Frogger to mind. But there they were…men, women and children as young as 7 walking between 5 lanes of oncoming traffic in ways that would make New Yorkers look like complete pansies. One night we watched the cacophony of traffic from our balcony and eventually it began to unfold into, if not a symphony, a dance between people and cars—ebbing and flowing in a way that made total sense to the people below. We watched for about an hour, surprised by the beauty we found in it.
Like I mentioned before though, I am not one of those people. If you want to find a way to emasculate someone, make them insecure about something they’ve done their entire life, and is done with a daily mundaneness all around him…like crossing the street. I felt like that kid who walks around the block for hours because they’ve run away from home but remember that their parents don’t allow them to cross the street by themselves. Now that I think about it, Mari and I did find our meals at restaurants around the right corner of the hostel we were staying at…coincidentally.
By contrast to the lack of self-confidence Cairo knocked into me was President Obama’s visit here a month prior. When he came to see the sights here, the city cleaned the streets he was to visit and replanted trees along them. But that’s not what should have given our president an ego boost. Egypt wanted to impress so much that when Obama visited, the day was declared a national holiday and people were urged to stay home so he wouldn’t experience the traffic of the city. And for the most part, people took their paid holiday and watched Obama give his speech in Technicolor instead of in person. Our president was able to effectively shut down 18 million people by simply showing up. And me? I’m gearing up to tackle the streets soon enough. Maybe just a few more laps around the block first.

Posted: July 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Egypt | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Petra Rocks!

If you’re ever in the area and get a chance to fly Royal Jordanian, do it. There seemed to be more leg room than the average airline (though Mari couldn’t confirm this), the food was great and the flight attendants were all so attractive it couldn’t have been by coincidence. The best part?  Even in economy class there was alcohol being served for free. I imagine the whole experience was close to what it must have been like to fly American flights when commercial airlines were in their heyday…minus the old stewardess buttons with the icon of a woman.
We came to Jordan to see Petra, a previously “lost city” built by the Nabatean civilization. Ever since Indiana Jones walked out of the Siq, revealing the Treasury to us, I’ve wanted to go. The entrance into Petra was a dusty road, open to the elements of the desert, hot and bright. Along the walk rudimentary caves and tombs appear foreshadowing what’s ahead. After we were sufficiently hot, the path turns into the Siq (gorge-like, but made from tectonic forces instead of water). We walked in its shade, at points 80 meters high and only 2 meters wide as our anticipation built with each curve. The subtle descent to the path added to the effect, as it drew us further into the city until it opened up to the Treasury, the structure that’s been Petra’s face to the world. It didn’t disappoint. It stands 43 meters high (about 13 stories), well preserved in rose hued rock. It’s “awesome” in the way the word was originally used.
Actually, “awesome” describes not only the transition from the Siq to the Treasury, but Petra as a whole as well. I hadn’t realized that Petra isn’t just a one trick pony. It really was a lost city. There are over 800 archaeologically significant sites in Petra spread over the mountains and valleys. We walked to the theatre, Royal Tombs and the Monastery, passing on the way other nameless tombs, grand in nature, and realized they didn’t even appear on the maps or trail guides. Over the 2 days we were there, we ventured out and saw Petra from the mountain tops, took the trails mostly used only by the few local Bediouns still living in Petra, and in the early evening sat alone-just in front of the Siq and staring at the Treasury, taking it all in. In terms of things man-made, I think this may be the most amazing place I’ve seen yet.

Posted: June 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Jordan | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »


In Central Anatolia there’s an area that alternates between hillsides that mimic bunched ribbon, at once both smooth and rippled, and plains where seemingly randomly placed rock columns violently dot the landscape. It’s a hiker’s wet dream. In actuality both formations were created by previous volcanic activity and make for a spectacular scene. The rock columns look like giant phallus symbols or fairy chimneys, depending who you ask (and I guess depending on the audience). For the purposes of this blog, I’ll refer to them as fairy chimneys henceforth. And I guess it is a pretty accurate description, since coming here to Cappadocia made me feel like I had entered a fantasy world. Because the formations were created from tuff, softer volcanic rock– the hillsides, fairy chimneys and the ground itself has been carved out by previous civilizations leaving a world of possibilities imagined and imaginations actualized.
We arrived into Goreme, the most central town in Cappadocia expecting to find a “normal” hostel to lay our bags and then go exploring our new surroundings. We checked 5 or 6 which all offered dorm accommodations for relatively more expensive housing then we were hoping for. So we kept looking and were offered a cave to stay in, but Mari exercised her executive veto power. The move was a good one though, because we ended up being offered our very own fairy chimney as lodging because of it! As Mari entered the fairy chimney, ducking at the door, I thought about how small fairies must have been in the past. Not enough hormones in the food supply. Our ceiling in the chimney was almost 6 ft. in height, which gave us the illusion of being giant—like that room at the Exploratorium where you get bigger as you walk further in. We settled in, made our obligatory Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum jokes and went for a walk.
Over the next 3 days our walks took us through the Rose Valley, the church of John the Baptist, numerous fairy chimneys and an underground city which was populated by upwards of 10,000 people. Throughout the sights one of us would usually proclaim that they felt like they were on a movie set. I pictured a movie with Christopher Walken for some reason.
I should actually make a correction. The fairy chimney was not our own. We had a fairy chimney buddy that stayed on the floor below us whom we had met previously in Fethiye. Mari and I complement each other pretty well as travel partners, but because our companionship is constant and encompassing, an interesting new travel friend acts like a snap of the finger to a driver crossing down the long straight part of I-5. It was great to be able to hear another perspective on what we were seeing-another voice to supplement our knowledge base on the area. We all shared meals, conversations, hikes and somewhere around our 2nd bottle of shared wine, I realized our fairy chimney buddy felt more like an old friend.
The next day we went our own ways, she back to Ankara and us off to Istanbul. We all were glad we came here if not a little overwhelmed by the uniqueness of the landscape. I think too, at least for Mari and myself, that the land of the fairy chimneys was made better because of our buddy on the floor below.

Posted: June 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Turkey | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »