America Lust and Ambivalence

Contrary to what Ann Coulter would have you believe, I’m a committed, card-carrying, Kerry campaign-contributing member of the DNC–and I don’t hate America. In fact, I love it. A lot. I’ve been gone for almost 11 months now, and not only do I appreciate America more than ever, but I also have a raging case of America-lust.

As my departure date (July 7) draws closer, my mental list of things I want to see and do, foods I want to eat, and people I want to visit when I get home grows increasingly long. In fact, it’s getting kind of ridiculous. Right now, it stands as the following:

1) Eat Mexican food until my parents have to hire an entire construction crew to lift my enchalada-fajita-guacamole filled self out of the restaurant.
2) See my dog, to whom I will speak in an annoying, high-pitched voice, as I tell her how much I wove, wove, wove my pwecious puppy. She will jump all over me, and the embittered “I know what you’re doing, Miss Dragging-Massive-Suitcases-Down-The-Stairs, and I’m not happy about it” looks she gave me the night before I left will be forgotten.
3) Go bike riding.
4) Go to Target. Buy stuff that they don’t have here.
5) Go to Whole Foods. Buy food that they don’t have here.
6) Eat enough Thai and Indian food that my parents will have to call the construction crew again. They should probably hire them for a full month, just to be on the safe side.
7) Hook up the kicka** speakers for my laptop that make my MP3’s sound like they’re coming from a pimped-out gangsta car with eight subwoofers. Subsequently annoy parents with incessant music playing.
8) Watch TV, in English, and be thrilled by my ability to understand everything they’re saying.

As a case in point, my friends and I went to Chili’s in Cairo last month, and I was overwhelmed by the fact that, having not been to an American establishment in almost a year, I wanted everything on the menu. Everything. I sat there, frantically flipping through the pages, feeling genuinely upset by the fact that I couldn’t have a bacon cheeseburger, fajitas, and buffalo wings in one sitting. (Now, before you make any comments about going to American restaurants while in a foreign country, Egypt’s food is notorious for giving people horrible stomach problems. We knew this ahead of time, and tried to minimize our exposure to street food. Despite our best attempts, I still wound up with what can only be described as King Tut’s Revenge.)

However, despite my America Lust, I’m feeling ambivalent about coming home. There are so many things I’m going to miss, things that we don’t have in the States which have become part of my daily life here. I realized that the Middle East has filled my senses with things I hadn’t even heard of before I left the States. However, they weaved themselves into the fabric of my life with such ease that, knowing that the time to head back home is rapidly approaching, I wonder what it’s going to be like to not smell Turkish coffee and cardamom on the street, not hear the strains of an aoud song coming from outside my window at night, not read signs written in Hebrew and Arabic, not taste hummous made from scratch that morning.

I’ve gotten used to hearing the heavy bass beat of Arab music down by the Damascus Gate in the Old City, and to feeling the heat of the Judean Desert as soon as I step outside each morning. I live in East Jerusalem (which belonged to Jordan prior to the 1967 war, but was liberated by the IDF 39 years ago today), a still-contested territory which is now a mixed Arab-Jewish section of the city–and I love it. I love seeing the old mansions from the Mandate Period with bright blue tiles and gardens that are to die for. I love seeing the juxtaposition of traditional Israeli architecture next to old Arab buildings. I love exploring the alleys of the Old City and seeing the bazaars featuring exotic fabrics, sweets made from ingredients I didn’t even know existed on planet Earth, and beautiful ceramics. I love hearing both Hebrew and Arabic spoken all around me, and I love talking with the friends I’ve made on both sides of the conflict.

I’ve also developed an affinity for spices that we don’t have in the States, and for excellent produce bought for next to no money in the shuk. I’ve come to love being surrounded by the “belagan,” Hebrew for chaos, that characterizes the Middle East, drinking tea with fresh mint in it, swimming in the Mediterranean, and basking in the sun (with sunscreen, of course…I mean really. I’m Irish. There’s no avoiding the SPF 30).

All in all, it makes me wonder what it’s going to be like to come home. Will I miss this place terribly, or will I be so thrilled by the presence of enchaladas and Target that I won’t be nostalgic at all? Will I wake up at 3 a.m. with jet lag, wishing I was in Jerusalem? Or, alternatively, will I wake up at 7 a.m. and be excited about starting my day with a caramel machiatto? My guess is that I’ll experience a little of both, but in the meantime I have a lot to do. Pictures to take, places to visit, tours I haven’t done yet (not to mention all that pesky homework that I’ve been ignoring lately): I’ve got 6 weeks left to do it.

So from here on out, despite any pangs of America-lust or ponderings about my ambivalence, every day is game day. Time to lace up my skates, stretch, and go out there for my last–and hardest–month (and two weeks) abroad.

The Egypt Triolgy: Part III

(The last and final installment of the Egypt Trilogy…as can be deduced from the “Part III.” But that’s not the point.)

As we rowed towards shore, the guy rowing next to me started to get, shall we say, a little too touchy-feely. Moving my foot away after accidentally brushing his foot with mine, he said, “No, it’s okay, no big deal.” Unsure how to react, I just said “Ok, thanks,” and continued rowing. A second later, I felt him put his foot on top of mine; when I gave him an “um, excuse me, but what the hell are you doing?” look, he just smiled toothlessly and said “See, no big deal!” Claiming that my toes were getting squashed, I moved my foot out from under his, only to feel him wrap his arm around my waist and pull me closer to him. “You’re warm, I’m cold,” he said.

Eeeeeeeeewwwwwwwwwww.

Claiming that this time I needed room for my elbows while I rowed, I scooted away from him and tried to discreetly examine the blisters forming on my fingers from only 10 minutes of rowing. Of course, he saw this. As he grabbed my hand and planted wet, slobbery kisses on both my fingers, I briefly considered throwing myself into the Nile and swimming back to shore. However, I thought better of it when I remembered the intestine-shredding parasites that live in Nile water. I shuddered, said I was tired of rowing, and sat back down with Audra.

Finally we reached the shore, and we beelined for the hostel. We couldn’t get out of Luxor fast enough, and were practically chewing off our arms in anticipation of our train out of town. We ate dinner on the roof, and in the middle of feeding my hummus addiction, I started showing signs of heat exhaustion (nausea, fatigue, sweating). I started chugging bottled water (the only kind you can drink in Egypt), but the stomachache wasn’t going away. And that was when I realized: dysentary. Suddenly the travel warnings, friends’ stories, and the phrase “if you go to Egypt, you will get sick,” oft-repeated in this part of the world, hit me like a truck. Oh no, I thought, please don’t let it really hit me until I’m back in Israel.

About an hour later, we set out for the train station. Having been unable to buy tickets for normal tourist class seats (they miraculously “sold out” when we got to the ticket window), we’d purchased tickets for the second-class train to Cairo. We boarded the train at midnight, and having drank so much water, my first stop was the bathroom.

The problem was, you needed a HAZMAT suit to go in.

A hole in the ground would’ve been better, because at least then I wouldn’t have had to worry about staying at least 5 inches from a toilet seat covered in feces. Or from a wall that was also covered in feces. Or had to watch as a roach as big as my thumb crawled across the wall while I gripped a handlebar for balance. I was horrified, but I’d consumed a liter of water in the last 2 hours. I had no choice.

As soon as I was back at my seat, I started to really stress about the dysentary. I broke out the Immodium, and started popping pills like mad in an effort to pre-empt the misery that I knew was inevitable. I just have to hold it off until I cross the border, I thought to myself.

We arrived in Cairo at 9:30 the next morning, and set out trying to find the bus station that operated rides to the Tabaa crossing. We went on a bit of a wild goose chase, and wound up finding the right station at 10:15. “Sorry, the bus left at 10. The next one is at 10 tonight,” said the ticket agent. Looking at each other in horror, we eventually decided to go back to the hostel we’d stayed at earlier in the week. We’d loved the hostel itself, the staff was fabulous, and we’d be able to take showers: a very popular idea. They wound up letting us stay there all day, charged us half-rate to rent a room for 12 hours (also a popular idea), and after showers, naps and lunch, we took one last stroll around Cairo.

We wound up in Khan-al-Khalili, Cairo’s main bazaar/shopping district, and were able to do some excellent shopping. At dusk, we ate dinner on an outdoor terrace in between two massive mosques, and listened to the evening call to prayer as the two muezzins competed for who could deliver the most elaborate “Allahu akbar.” It was a perfect ending to our Cairo experience, and it’s something I’ll never forget.

Later on, we boarded the bus for Tabaa. More compact and with far less leg room than the train, I knew I was going to be a hurtin’ cowgirl when I got to the border. Sure enough, we got on the road around 11, and just as I started to doze off, my right leg started cramping. Muttering words that I shouldn’t repeat here, I tried to contort myself enough to be able to stretch my leg out without kicking other passengers. I had to do this a lot, and wound up nailing the poor guy across the aisle from me more than once. My leg cramps finally stopped, and I was able to go to sleep (despite the fact that they were playing what can only be described as an Egyptian kung-foo movie featuring a very large Pharonic-looking man who does nothing but scream and beat people up, at full volume, for two hours).

An hour later, the bus nearly rolled over. I don’t know how this came about, but one second we were chugging along, and the next, the bus was in a full spin and lurching to the side. We were very much in the middle of nowhere, and it was pitch black outside. Hmmm, I thought, this’ll be a good one: the headline will read “three American women, ages 24, 25, and 26, disappear in Sinai when bus falls off cliff.” Thank God I registered with the U.S. Embassy. But then I realized that the mountainous part of the Sinai wasn’t until we got near the border, and that it was probably still flat outside.

I finally fell asleep again an hour later (after the other leg cramped), only to be awoken by a snarky checkpoint officer poking me in the shoulder with his walkie-talkie antenna.

“Mforr,” he said.
“Pardon me?” I said, perplexed and groggy.
“Mforr.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Can you please speak more slowly?”
“MFORR!!”
At this point I was slightly more awake, but still had no idea what was going on. Thankfully, the guy who’d endured my accidental leg-stretching kicks throughout the night bailed me out. “He needs to see your passport,” he said.
“Ah, okay!” I said, thankful to have avoided a run-in with the Egyptian authorities.

We arrived at the border at 5 a.m., and I’ve never been so thrilled to see the Israeli flag.
“Ani aohevet et haaretz hazeh,” I said to myself in Hebrew when we walked through the Israeli checkpoint.
“You love this country, huh?” Said the borderguard who overheard me. “Well then, welcome back to Israel.”

"No, We Are NOT Going On a Five-Day Boat Ride to Aswan!"

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The Egypt Triolgy: Part II

So I’ve realized that not only is the Excellent Adventure to Egypt going to take more than one post, it’ll likely take three. So, because Naguib Mahfouz authored the Cairo Triolgy, I’m declaring myself the author of the slightly-less-worthy-of-the-Nobel-Prize-for-Literature Egypt Trilogy.

PART II

After seeing the Pyramids at Giza, we explored Cairo until the next night, when we took an overnight train to Luxor. Luxor, which is about 2/3 of the way down the Nile towards the Sudan, is home to both the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Karnak. Now, the overnight train experience seemed exotic and exciting—and it was, until I tried to actually fall asleep. Imagine a girl whose legs are too long to fit comfortably into the back seat of most cars, stuck in a seat that leans back to a semi-sitting-not-really-lying-down position, trying to get comfy enough to sleep. Didn’t really happen. I woke up at 5 a.m., calves and feet cramping, and moved into the aisle to stretch—thereby nearly plowing into the guy handing out hot tea and coffee. “Sorry,” I muttered, feeling bad and looking like a class act in a sweatshirt, hoodie tied securely around my head (the A/C on those trains runs full throttle), squinting because my eyes were attempting to lay the smackdown on me for my having slept with my contacts in.

We arrived in Luxor around 7 a.m., and if Cairo was ungodly hot, then Luxor was straight-up hellish. Ditching the headscarves and opting for tank tops, we visited the Luxor temple and Karnak, which is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. For all the anti-climactic scenes that have occasionally happened this year (i.e., the visiting the Western Wall…I wanted so badly to feel the weight of history, religion, and so on when I went there, but wound up looking at it and saying blithely “Yup. It’s a wall. Great. So where can I get some food around here?”), Karnak more than made up for it. Made of 6-story colossi statues of various rulers and gods, the world’s greatest colonnade, and a devotional temple, I was awestruck by its beauty. The columns were bigger and more imposing than any picture can capture, and many of the paintings in the temple were well-preserved in full color. It was one of those places where, despite the blistering heat, I got goosebumps.

That evening, we took a felucca (Arabic for boat) ride on the Nile, and relaxed for the first time since we’d arrived—a much needed break, considering that in Luxor, tourists are incessantly dogged by locals trying to drag them into their shop, carriage, donkey cart, or restaurant. And when I say incessantly, I mean that it literally does not stop. At all. You have to say no at least 5 times before one person leaves you alone, and the second he backs off, another one is all over you. They don’t back down, and they actively cheated us—something that irritated me enormously. For example, after saying that he would take us across the Nile to for 3 pounds, one ferry driver immediately said “no, actually, I’ll only take you for 5” as soon as we pulled out our wallets. I was, at this point, at the end of my rope, and was furious. We ended up paying the extra 2 pounds (the equivalent of $.25, which made my hissy fit seem pretty ridiculous), but I made it my business to let the ferry operator know that this was not okay. Luxor is a town that depends entirely on revenue from tourism, which makes higher prices understandable–but the efforts to extort the tourists were out of control. I felt stressed and, frankly, angry about being cheated at every turn, and the three of us were more than ready to leave Luxor the next night.

That night, though, we boarded a felucca headed for a place called Banana Island. Contrived, sure. Do they take all the tourists there, walk through banana plantations, and then charge them obscene amounts of money for a bottle of water? Yeah. But for me, this held special personal value. My mother, for those of you who don’t know her, has imbued in me her Holy Trinity of Health: vitamins, plenty of sleep, and bananas. Always bananas. Whenever I was getting on a plane to head back to college or to D.C., she gave me bananas to eat on the way there. Back in the days of early childhood, my lunch always included a “have a good day!” note, and the ubiquitous banana. Getting on the plane to Israel last summer? Bananas. My. Mom. Loves. Bananas.

So knowing that I was going to go to an island full of bananas, where I’d be served a plate full of bananas stacked almost a foot high, I was cracking up the whole way there. Trying to explain to my friends the inside/family joke that this fruit has taken on in the last few years, I tried to contain my laughter when the heaping mass of bananas arrived. (Case in point: after I finished my junior year of college, my dad made the bi-annual pilgrimage to the East Coast to help me drive my stuff back home. We were somewhere in the middle of Indiana when my mother called to make sure we were doing okay. “Yup, we’re fine. In fact, we were just reminiscing about the good ol’ days of being careful and eating bananas,” said my dad, causing me to choke on my Dr. Pepper.) I felt healthier within seconds. No lie.

The next day, we went to the Valley of the Kings—the ancient secret burial ground for the Pharoahs, on a massive plateau overlooking Luxor. We paid the allegedly-regular student price to get in, and were issued three tickets: “one tomb per ticket, three tombs,” was what both the sign at the entrance and the ticket guy had said to all three of us. Not so much. We saw one, which was beautiful, but…looked like it’d been drawn by some guy with a Sharpie permanent marker. Most artwork in Egypt is engraved, and that which isn’t is painted in great detail. This looked like some guy had rolled in with a pen and some Crayola paints, but despite not being of the caliber of other things we saw, it was still amazing. Most of the other tombs were closed for renovation/refurbishing/whatever you do to an ancient tomb to touch it up a little, so we hiked up to one that sounded promising in the guidebook, and definitely had people going in. We walked into a corridor featuring gorgeous wall carvings of Egyptian deities, and then into a larger ante-chamber that not only had exquisite carvings, but that was in full color as well. The sarcophagus lay at the bottom of another corridor, and it was massive.

From there, we schlepped to our third and final tomb (having used two of our three tickets). “Three tickets to enter,” said the man at the entrance. “I’m sorry, they said it was one ticket per tomb.” Said Audra, looking perplexed. I was, at this point, too agitated by being cheated and harassed all day to be nice in such an interaction. “No. Three tickets. One, two, three. Three tickets.” I kept my mouth shut, looked at my feet to avoid giving the ticket guy my Death Glare, and told myself that there were other tombs we could get into. Not so. All the tombs from that point on demanded three tickets to enter; nearing the end of our respective budgets for this trip, we decided to pack it in and head back to the hostel.

On the way back, I needed to use the restroom—by this point, I’d learned that bathrooms in Egypt are BYOTP, so I declined to pay (as politely as possible) when the man outside the bathroom asked that I give him 5 pounds. “Actually, I brought my own,” I said, showing him the roll I’d brought from home. “You still have to pay,” he replied. “For what?!” I asked, feeling like my nerves now resembled fiber-optic wire. “Clean water,” he said, acting like this should be obvious. “No,” I rebutted, “I am absolutely not paying for clean toilet water. You have no reason to charge people for that.” With that, I turned on my heel and walked away.

Wanting to kill some time before catching another overnight train back up to Cairo, we decided to take another felucca ride so we could relax for an hour or two. In what ended up being a comedy of errors, our felucca guy fell off the boat, accidentally slammed our boat into two others, I nearly was decapitated by the rudder handle while trying to keep the boat from colliding with the ones we wound up hitting anyways, and once we got across the river there was no wind. At all. We were in a sailboat. This was not helpful. By this time we’d acquired two other boat guys to help row us down the river, a process which had taken an hour in and of itself.

“If you want to stay out here 5, 6 hours, is no problem,” says one of them. “5, 6 hours, no problem.”

Nervously exchanging glances with each other, Amanda politely replied, “No, that’s very kind of you, but we need to be back in one hour. One hour.”

“But really, 5, 6 hours, no problem.”

“No. One. Hour. We go to Cairo tonight. One hour.”

“I have great idea!” Pipes in guy #3. “We can take you on a 5-day felucca ride to Aswan!” (60 or so miles down the Nile, and very very close to the Sudan.)

“Um, not tonight, maybe next time we’re here, but we really need to get back to the other side of the river. Soon.”

“But we had to row all the way over here. We’re tired.”

“I’ll help you then,” I said as I climbed onto the deck, knowing that these guys would sooner drive through Baghdad with Israeli flags on their cars than let a woman show them up. “C’mon boys, let’s row.”

Looking stunned–if slightly annoyed–they sat down with me, and we began to row towards the shore.

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More to come in The Egypt Trilogy: Part III!

Egypt Egypt: Part I

The Excellent Adventure to Egypt is far too long to put into one post, so this will have to happen in installments. So with that in mind, I bring you…Egypt Egypt, Part I.

Last weekend, I was chatting with the coffee shop guys about what we all did over Passover break. (Yes, I get coffee often enough to know all the staffers at both of the establishments that I frequent. Yes, I have a raging addiction to coffee. And no, it’s not crack, so hold the comments about caffeine dependency.) When I said I’d gone to Egypt–and I always find the irony of saying “I went to Egypt during Passover” to be hilarious–he asked if I’d only been in the Sinai.

“No,” I said, “we went to Cairo and down the river to Luxor, and then back up through the Sinai.”

“Oh!” He replied, clearly impressed, “You went to Egypt Egypt!”

And oh man, did we go to Egypt Egypt.

After getting a 7 a.m. bus to Eilat, the Israeli port city on the Red Sea, my roommate Amanda and our friend Audra and I crossed the border and quickly fenagled a sherut to Cairo. The Sinai Peninsula is rocky, mountainous, and dry–it reminds me of the pictures I’ve seen of Afghanistan, with sharp, rocky peaks jutting up as far as the eye can see. As we wound through the narrow, dangerously-close-to-hitting-oncoming-traffic roads, our Bedouin driver listened to recordings of the Qu’ran for a few hours before informing me in Arabic that he had a toothache and could really use some painkillers if I happened to have any. For those of you who know me well, I’m a one-woman stockpile of Advil (years of running has ruined my knees), Tums (’cause everyone can use some calcium and a calmer stomach), and Halls vitamin C drops (’cause my immune system likes to fail me when I need it most). I pulled out my bag of Target brand ibuprofen, handed him two tablets, and watched as the chewed them. Let me repeat that–he chewed them. No wonder he had a toothache. Nonetheless, there I was, sharing my Advil with a Bedouin guy in the middle of the desert. Ain’t that something.

It started raining soon after that, and before long, the roads were washed out and barely passable. Considering that we were in a ghetto jet of a van–circa 19-before-my-parents-ever-even-met-each-other (and since I’m 25, that can give you a rough estimate)–which sat about a foot higher than the road, our toothachy Bedouin at first refused to try and drive through the water. “So help me God, we’re getting to Cairo tonight,” I muttered under my breath before egging him on to at least try to drive through the mini-flood. We argued for a minute, before a car with an undercarriage even lower than ours managed to navigate the water. “See? They did it, so we’ll be fine,” I said. We had to do this a few more times before we got though it all, but managed to make it to Cairo in one piece. (Lesson #86 of living in the Middle East: traveling, and driving in particular, is always a long string of near death experiences. You spend the duration of your time being thisclose to hearing a booming voice from above yell “game over!” Eventually you accept that what you’re doing is unfathomably dangerous, and that aside from holding on tight, there’s nothing you can do about it.)

Cairo was amazing, complete with traffic that follows no rules, regularly hits pedestrians, and appears to consist entirely of cars made in 1970. As Audra observed, Egypt must’ve had it’s industrial revolution in the early 70’s, and it hasn’t progressed since then. Our hostel was on the main thoroughfare in Cairo, and had a fantastic view. When we got up the next morning, we sloppily fastened our chadors (headscarves) to our heads in an effort to blend in–I figured that, given Egypt’s terrorism problem over the last few years, it’d be good to blend in as much as possible.

Looking like wannabe-locals, we hit up the pyramids. We were the first ones there, thankfully, since it was ungodly hot and crowded within a few hours. We went into both the first and second pyramids, both of which felt like they were straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. In order to get into the burial chambers, you have to climb through long, narrow, barely lit tunnels—we’re talking 3 feet high by 3 feet wide, 60 degree incline, damn-near crawling and hardly able to see, thanking my lucky stars for the soccer legs and gym membership that enable me to fly up to the top, passing wheezing tourists who seem perplexed by a girl in a headscarf who leaves them in the dust.

Once we’d seen the pyramids, we went to hike around some of the old burial grounds that sit between the sphinx and the pyramids themselves. While schlepping around in what is basically an archaeological wonderland (however, there’s so much of this stuff that sites like this are neglected because they don’t have valuable artifacts), we found a tomb that had two perfectly-preserved hieroglyphic carvings on the wall. “Omigod!” Cried Audra as Amanda and I, oblivious to the carvings, hoisted ourselves up into the chamber, “there’s a man on the wall!” Being that a) this was, after all, an ancient burial tomb, and b) I’m the owner of a highly overactive imagination, my heart flip-flopped when she said this. Turning slowly to the wall she was pointing at, envisioning horror movie scenes starring the three of us and an angry now-undead mummy, I was happy to see that we were actually dealing with a wall carving. Insert sigh of relief here.

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Being that this post is now obscenely long, I’ll leave you in suspense…more to come in Part II!