Wednesday, June 23, 2004

98.9% of our DNA

East Africa has been one of the great highlights of our trip. We have seen and done so much. We never got tired of safaris or tracking some critter in the jungle. This is one of our exploits from Uganda.

We had to struggle to jam my backpack between the ceiling and the stack of camping gear in the back of the red Mitsubishi Pajero 4X4. On one half of the rear bench sat a large cooler and Geoff's backpack. The other half was the small space that Geoff and I had chosen to squeeze into for the 6-hour drive to Kibale National Park, and we were damned glad to. Our trip to Bwindi Impenetrable Nation Park had been, as Geoff put it, an assault. We had been jammed onto a small, unpadded bench seats for 11 hours, and that made us luckier than the 20-plus people who were tossed about in the aisles with the goat and chicken. The toxic body odor and bad breath was strong enough that we could most literally taste it. We had passed the time yelling at each other over the deafening rattle of the loose glass windows and commenting on the fried grasshoppers and skewers of roasted goat that where thrust at us through the bus windows at the frustratingly frequent stops. So when Dortes and Peter offered to cram us into the one available seat of their 4X4, we took one deep breath of the soapy clean air emanating from their bodies and jumped at the chance for a non-stop ride to our next destination.

Even though Geoff and I were more stacked than seated in the back seat, we enjoyed getting to know Peter and Dortes . The conversations were typical travel banter: a stream of questions-and-answers about our respective countries. I have met several Scandinavians and whenever I finish a conversation with one of them I remind myself that I really want to visit that part of the world one day. It is the one place that I would consider living in other that Portland. I try to direct the conversion to focus on Denmark rather than the US. We have met travelers from all over the westernized world, but such a strong, consistent view of the US has evolved internationally that we rarely get an original question or comment. Our answers have become so pat that I hear Geoff give the same answer verbatim as I would and vice-versa. It's more interesting to hear about their lives and views of the world.

Charles stood from the table in front of the ranger's station when we arrived. He welcomed us sincerely with a warm, timid smile and a soft handshake saying repeatedly "Welcome. You are most welcome." After some conversation we discovered that if we hurried we could take a quick lunch and be ready for the next chimp walk that was to leave at 5PM. But where to get lunch? Charles pointed us in the direction of the Bigodi Women's Canteen, which, oddly enough, was staffed only by men. This was the only restaurant for 20Km. The canteen's dusty, wooden shelves were stacked with the usual: 3 stacks of local cigarette packages, a few bottles of whiskey, a few bottles of gin, a selection of half a dozen African red wines and several rows of Ugandi - the local fire water. In the corner stood the glass-front refrigerators that Coca-Cola seems to have supplied to even the smallest, most remote shops the world over. The fridge was stocked with local beers and local soft drinks. There was not one coke product, but the glossy, logo-ridden 1.5'X 2' poster on the wall preached in bullet form to:

"Keep a large supply of Coca Cola a product on hand so you can always meet your customer’s needs and increase your profits. Keep all Coca Cola products cold and refreshing. Ensure any stale Coca Cola products are replaced during each visit by your local sales representative."

The slick corporate propaganda seemed grossly misplaced on the reed wall. It was obviously having no impact on the canteen attendant who had most certainly never seen the likes of the crisp, corporate conference room inside which some executive had decided that there was a need to increase awareness of the importance of "availability utility within the supply chain". The poster was absurd, but hey, they got a fridge out of the deal and they could fill that with beer.

We ordered spaghetti Bolognese and struggled to power down the overcooked noodle paste covered in ketchup sauce. We were grateful when Charles rescued us from our meal. The chimps were sometimes hard to find, so we needed to hurry if we were to locate them before dark.

As we were packing up our water and film for the excursion, two tired, sweaty, happy Brits emerged from the tropical forest. It had been hard going for the five hours that it took them to find the chimps, but it was obvious by their excitement that it had been completely worth it.

Charles was energized by the Brits return. They had sighted the chimps in the west side of the park, not to far from the ranger's station. If we hurried they could still be near. As we moved from the hot, sunny trailhead to the thick, lush tropical jungle I was glad for the cool shade. The ivy, ferns, and earthy smell reminded me of the Horse Tail Falls trailhead in the Columbia Gorge.

Five minutes into the hike we stopped by the huge buttressed roots of a tree. Charles stoically announced "We will now have the briefing". I was expecting this. We have been pleased to discover that tourism is a much more organized, professional affair in East Africa than in the other developing countries that we have visited. The briefing included an informative explanation of the local ecosystem, a recitation of propaganda about the need to protect the environment - which was more memorized than understood - and an inquiry into the goals for our expedition. This logical, customer-centric approach was more appreciated by us sometimes frustrated long-term travelers than Charles would ever understand.

As he was giving his briefing I was thinking that Charles is a bit of a contradiction to me. He is very knowledgeable and confident, but, like most Ugandan's, he body language is demure, almost submissive. His uniform is clean, pressed and crisp, almost to the point of being starched. Like the great majority of Ugandans he obviously talked great pride in his appearance. So why is it that he smells so bad. Geoff and I joke that South America is the noisiest continent and Africa is the smelliest one.

From the large buttressed tree we set down the wide, well worn path and Charles advises us to "be quiet and listen for the chimps."

It's another 15 minutes of silence before we hear our first cries. In the distance there is a sudden outbreak of screams that would rival any victim in a Hitchcock movie. The cries are disturbingly human. It was more like a dozen people screaming in distress. We gave each other a wide-eyed look. We were lucky. We had already found the chimps, now it was time to track them. "Quickly, they are moving" Charles said, so we pick up the pace and leave the beaten path to push our way through the dense jungle-like forest. Charles moves through the forest quickly and we fit the Mazungu (white people) stereotype of weak as we clumsily struggle to follow behind. He becomes very concerned with the small backpack that I am carrying. "Give me. I am very strong. No problem." he says. I decline twice and give in out of politeness the third time.

It was 10 more minutes of fumbling over roots and ripping through sporadic vines before we saw our first chimp. I had fallen a little behind, so as soon as he had pointed the chimp out to everyone else he called after me impatiently "Hurry!” I finished untangling my foot from a loop in a vine and made my way over. The chimp had moved on. "You missed it" he scolded. "You must hurry when I call" I smiled at his enthusiasm. It was clear that my failure to see the chimp was wholly unacceptable. If he was to succeed I must succeed.

It was just a few more minutes before the alpha-male came over to inspect the intruders. He grunted and pounded his chest. Three other males near by scurried off in a show of deference to him. He seemed to size us up as nothing more than the common-place humans who regularly come though and he moved off.

We pushed our way into a clearing. That is when I saw George - the spitting image of G. W. Bush. He sat back to me in the shade of a mahogany tree. He peered sporadically over his shoulder at us for several minutes, then, for no reason I could understand, he started to scream. Dozens of chimps started to scream and grunt in response. The sound was chilling. Totally amazing. I will never forget it. I had been so fixated on Dubya that I hadn't noticed that we were surrounded. There were chimps on the ground in the shrubs. There were chimps in the low level branch of the tree. There were chimps eating fruits at the top of the trees some 60ft above the ground. Charles estimated that there were more than 30 of them screaming. A female passed by on feet and knuckles with a baby clinging to her back. Spontaneously a tree's branches would erupt as a chimp would fling itself from one tree to the next. Peels from eaten fruit would fall on our heads. There was so much going on around us that I couldn't take it all in. I decided to take a closer look at George. Charles suggested that I move very slowly, so I would take two steps then pause for a few seconds, then advance again. Each time I came closer, George would cast a casual glace at me. I got to within 10ft when Charles told me that I was close enough. There is a risk of inter-species disease transmission, so even though George would have let me get closer, I needed to keep my distance. The rangers will not even take you into the forest if you show signs of a cold.

We share 98.9% of our DNA with our chimp cousins. But when they walk by on their knuckles they look more like dogs than humans. It's not until you look into their eyes or watch them peel a fruit with their nimble fingers that the kinship is obvious. George would pluck leaves to eat. He'd scratch his chin thoughtfully. He liked to hold his feet while he sat - like I might imagine a child doing. I got to watch him for about 5 minutes before he decided to move on and the chimps moved high into the tree-top, out of sight, to make their nest for the night.

A false sense of security

Hi all,

We know it has been a long time between emails. We are currently having a great time in Iran. It’s a beautiful country filled with some of the nicest people that we have met on the whole trip. This is not the axis of evil..... they recycle here!!!! For those of you who don't know, we will be coming home in August. We found out that Cindy would lose her residency and thus her green card if we stayed out of the US for more than a year. But we have worked through the disappointment and are looking forward to coming home.

"I think they have moved on" I said in a whisper to Cindy. She just put her hand on my arm and silently willed me to shut up. While doing research about Africa for this trip I had read an interesting bit of conventional wisdom about camping in the national parks. It is an unwritten rule that stated if you don't go outside of your tent at night; the animals will not come inside. I remember laughing about it at the time, but I was not laughing when I heard the loud growl of the pissed-off lion currently walking near my tent. The sound was like nothing I had ever heard before and my mind clung to the thought that if I just stayed quietly in my tent, he would keep up his part of the bargain. The thin canvas fabric giving me a false sense of security.

We were on a camping safari in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. We arrived in country days before. It was an 18 hour bus ride from Kampala Uganda, through Kenya and then finally to our destination in the town of Arusha. The main business in the town is safaris and hustling tourists in one form or another. We were told there are over 250 safari companies in town. When we arrived we where met by the usual array of touts or flycatchers as they call them. They descend in a swarm to the newly arriving busses, so thick that you have to push and swat them away just to be able to get your bag off the bus and give yourself some breathing room. I had learned from past experiences with long overnight bus rides that I do not deal kindly with their sudden assault when I am that tired. I let Cindy do all the talking and soon we were in a taxi heading toward our hotel and I had managed not to strangle anyone.

The touts were back the next day as we walked into town in search of a safari company. They attached themselves to us at the edge of town and followed us like a gaggle of ducks following their mother as we walked the streets. No amount of polite refusals to their offers to buy trinkets could make them go away. Occasionally cindy would turn to them, put her finger to her lips and say "shhhhhh". Surprised, they would all get quiet for a few minutes, silently following in a little procession. Soon they would get up the courage and start yapping at us again. "Shhhhh", Cindy would say and the whole cycle would repeat itself. By the afternoon, we had booked a 5 day camping safari to a few of the national parks in the area.

We started by visiting a small tribe of Bushmen near Lake Eyasi. They speak a "click" language and have been living in the area for over 10,000 years. They live in the open bush in crude huts made with a loose weaving of sticks branches and small patches of animal fur. I would not really call it a shelter. It was more like a "defined space" for each family. The women wore only a cloth or animal skin covering around their waists and some handmade jewelry. They looked just like the pictures you have seen in national geographic. One of them had a newborn baby. Through the guide we asked how old she was. They had no idea. Time was not something these people measured.

The men had all gone hunting for the day but had left one hunter behind because they knew that the tourists were coming to gawk at them. While we took pictures and snooped about their campsite, he busied himself by sharpening his wooden tipped arrows. The interpreter did not have a name for him and just called him "this one". He wore only a pair of cut off jean shorts that he had slit into vertical strips at the bottom to form an ornamental fringe. His ownership of them was no doubt the consequence of some foreign donation program. You cant go anywhere in east africa without seeing the influence of an NGO. Their early misguided efforts to help people out by giving them everything that they needed, instead of training them to fend for themselves, has had a profoundly bad effect on the country. They have created a culture of people expecting something for nothing from every foreigner that they see. The saying "Hey Mazungu - give me money" is heard everywhere. The NGO's have learned somewhat from there early mistakes but I still think they do more harm than good.

Just when I thought that our hunter was just putting on a show for us and was truly shooting arrows at nothing, he took off across a gully and started shooting into a tangled mass of branches. We walked over and saw that he had shot some poor creature that was hiding in a tree. The branches were so dense that at first I could see nothing. "This one" pulled out 4 bloodied arrows and then reached in and extracted an animal known as a Genet. It's a small spotted cat with a long striped tail.

After posing for a few cheesy pictures with his kill, the bushman pulled a long straight stick with a blunt end from his quiver of arrows. He then split a branch in half so it was flat on one side and placed it curved side down over some animal dung. By putting the blunt end of the stick on the branch, and spinning it between his hands, he quickly created hot embers that ignited the dung. More branches were added to make the fire bigger. The whole operation took only a few minutes.

To our amazement, "this one" then threw the cat directly on the fire. After all the hair had burned off and the carcass had blackened, he made a cut around the ass of the animal, grabbed the skin and with a swift tug, pulled out its intestines and various innards. He then slit it open at the belly, removed the rest and separated out the heart to cook and eat separately. Strangely as a vegetarian, none of this made me the least bit squeamish. After a thorough cooking, he cut off pieces and offered them around to eat. I declined but Cindy gave it a try. She said it tasted very gamey and fatty and was almost like chewing on rubber. She found that she had to swallow it whole to get it down and the aftertaste stayed in her mouth for a long time. As is custom, "this one" ate only some of the meat and saved the rest to take back to the tribe. The liver was kept and used to rosin his bow string and the tail was tucked under his belt to be later used as decoration on the bow.

We camped that night nearby and set off in the morning for the vast open plains of the Serengeti. The wildebeest migration was in full swing and the herds were so large that their numbers were impossible to estimate. They covered the grass lands like a carpet and the view of them stretched as far as the eye could see on both horizons.

We were now in the thick of lion country and the rustic campsite had no fences around it. There was supposed to be running water to the toilets but an elephant had torn up the pipe a while ago. There where two 10 x 12 ft fenced in enclosures within the site. One for the cooks and the other for the campers to dine in. The tents were set up in the open. Nailed to a tree was a sign that simply stated "Do not get out of the campsite. Animals may attack". Check I thought, I won’t cross the dirt road. That will keep me safe. And if a lion comes into the campsite, I will try to remember not to give him table scraps.

That night was uneventful although at one point our guide, who had the tendency to disappear somewhere into the bush every night and get majorly drunk, approached us gibbering excitedly that he had seen two lions mating on the road near out campsite. We piled into the truck, played a game of ditch the tailing rangers (Its illegal to go on a "night drive"), and found the lions post coital relaxing in the grass and smoking a cigarette. That night we fell asleep to the sounds of them growling in the bush.

It gets dark early near the equator and so bedtime has a tendency to be soon after sunset. On the second night we were awakened at 10:00 pm by the sound of lions near the edge of the camp. The amorous cats were at it again but this time wanted an audience. It was too close for comfort for most of the campers and the guides tried to chase the lions away with their safari vehicles by honking at them and revving their engines near them. It was funny in the sense that these were the same vehicles that the lions largely ignore during the day as we chase them around the grasslands trying to get our "trophy pictures".

In time the lions left but most of the campers moved their bedding into the fenced dining area. Cindy and I were tired and hoping that they would not be seen again, went back to our tent to sleep. Fitfully. Of course they were back two hours later and this time, were pissed off at the trucks and were wandering around through the middle of the campsite.

After some time we heard the gunning of the vehicles herding the lions farther and farther away from the camp. Some discussion ensued and Cindy's survival instinct finally won out over my need for comfort and we grabbed our sleeping bags and mats and climbed into the nearby enclosed safari jeep. After a few hours of no sleep I returned to the tent. The lions never returned.

The next day we were up early looking for tracks in the dirt. We had not seen how close they came and were anxious to see if we were in any real danger. The prints 15 feet from out tent were a little too close for comfort. We met a guide days later who was camping in the same site the last time lions had entered. It was 1996. So this was not a usual safari experience. At least we didn't have to push against the side of the tent like he had to keep the lion on the other side from collapsing his tent, like he did. We wanted a great safari... I think we got it.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Travel: educational, interesting, and sometimes disgusting

I have just finished watching the truly amazing Twirling Dervishes, and that is probably what I should be writing about. But a written description of the bright colors, vibrant energy, and exotic music that accompany the spinning Muslim dancers would fall so short of the frenzied entertaining atmosphere of the performance.

My bladder had reached capacity about 30 minutes before the show ended. I weighed my options. On the one hand I could endure the car ride back to Maadi and go to the bathroom there. Maadi is the neighborhood of the extraordinary warm and hospitable American family who have invited us to stay with them while we are in Cairo. There I would get to use the most luxuriously clean toilet that I have had the privilege to press my butt against in months. Or — I can brave the toilet at the dance venue. Cleanliness here will fall somewhere between a public bathroom at a highway rest stop and the famous bathroom scene from Train Spotting. I consulted my new American friends. They informed me that we would be going to another outing, not home. I consulted my bladder. It informed me that waiting long enough to get to our next destination was out of the questions.

I looked down the paved pathway searching for a bathroom sign. I passed Marcus, one of our friends, coming out of what I saw as the only door along the wall: must be the bathroom. Approaching the door I saw a sign: “WC” on the top and Arabic writing underneath. It’s the Train Spotting version of cleanliness that greeted me: blue tiled walls ooze with caked on filth; faucets drip into three sinks layered in brown and yellow grime; the floor is covered in a slimy thin layer of stale water; the flickering fluorescent lights cast an unnatural one-dimensional light; the high humidity has caused a coat of black mold on the ceiling. I won’t even go into the smell.

I am surprised by a man standing at a sink and the grotesque urinals hanging on a wall. I had only seen one door along the wall. I had imagined that it lead to both the men’s and women’s bathrooms. The Arabic on the sign undoubtedly said “Men”, but that was of little help to me. Strange as this may seem, I made for one of the wooden doors to a stall. It’s common in Egypt to be greeted by a person at the entrance of a bathroom who will demand payment for your use of the facilities — often in exchange for a few squares of toilet paper. On a few occasions the valet (if I can call him that) had directed me to use the stalls in the men’s bathroom if the women’s were full. This is probably why I chose to stare at my feet and go for the stall instead of leaving to look for the lady’s room.

The stall was a small room with thick walls that were just a few feet short of the ceiling. Consistent with the rest of the bathroom, each square inch was disgusting: slimy floor, bodily fluids and grime on the walls, caked-on layers of yellow-brown filth covering the toilet. Using the Touch-Nothing hover that I have perfected, I tried to get this over with as soon and as quickly as possible. Glad to be leaving, I tugged on the tiny latch touching as little of the dirty, peeling white paint on the door as possible. Nothing. The door wouldn’t budge. I pulled as hard as I could. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The big wooden door had swollen with the humidity in the room and it was solidly closed. That’s OK. I just needed more grip. There was a small groove on the side of the door. I cringed as I wedged my fingers into the sticky moist crack. There was also a gap under the door. I wedged my foot under the door and angled it upwards so I could pull from the bottom of the door too. I repeatedly tugged and jerked with my hand and foot simultaneously. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. The door was so jammed that I couldn’t even get it to shake. Hum?? After a few moments I considered climbing out the gap between the ceiling and the wall, but the wall was probably 8 feet high. My guess was that if I climbed on the shaky toilet it would break long before I could escape. Eventually Geoff would come looking for me, but it probably won’t be in the men’s bathroom. I heard the voices of two Arab men speaking. Embarrassed, I knocked meekly on the door. I had no idea how to ask for help in Arabic or how to explain why I was in the men’s room. I heard the sound of water pipes rattling in the stall beside me. I felt a few drops of water, but I was mostly trying to decide if knocking harder and shouting, “Help” would get me out of there. Then I started getting rained on. I looked up and there was a jet of dirty water spitting upwards from the stall beside me. Don’t ask me how. The stream was strong enough to clear the wall of the stall. Ahhhhh! Without thinking I started to shuffle in the stall. There was no reason to. Where in the heck could I go? I climbed on the toilet yelling: “Ahhhh!” “Gross!!!” “Oh my God this is disgusting!!!!!!” And “Heeeeeeelp!!!!!!!” From the top of the toilet I started kicking the door still saying “Help — Help — Help!”. Finally one of the Arab speakers decided that if a women’s voice starts to ring out from a stall in the men’s bathroom, and the door is being kicked on, well, then he should open the door. First I heard him give a small push, then a shove, and finally he kicked the infernal thing open. More discussed than I have ever been I bowed my head in embarrassment and pushed passed him without even saying thanks.

Outside, Geoff and our new found friends started joking about how long I had been gone: “What? Did you fall in or something?” Then they noticed that not only had I been doused with water, but my face was contorted in disgust. At first I just kept walking. I didn’t know how to even begin explaining this. Eventually I started into the story, but I couldn’t finish they were laughing so hard. Our plans to get to our other outing were quickly replaced with getting me home for a shower.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Bad vibes in Jerusalem

We are now playing in the Red Sea in the Sinai on the coast of Egypt. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Israel. Regardless of what you saw on the news, we felt completely safe while we where there. We rented a car and toured the country on our own. Whenever we were in Tel Aviv we stayed with a wonderful person named Yael whom met while traveling in Guatemala earlier this year. Because of her, we were able to have a nice base to explore from, and she and the kindness of her family really enhanced the trip for us. The country is very small and you can drive from the bottom to the top in about 5 hours and across it in 2. There is so much history packed into the place. Roman ruins, Ancient Tels where as many as 25 civilizations have been built one on top of another, religious sites, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, etc, etc. We put on tons of kilometers on the car crisscrossing the country and visited the Dead Sea twice because floating in it was so much fun.

Here is an excerpt from my journal about our trip to Jerusalem. It was super interesting but not in the way that I had thought.

March 20th, 2004

Today we spent the day wandering through the old city of Jerusalem. It is the walled part of the city in the heart of religious conflict for thousands of years. It is broken up into a Christian, Jewish, Arab and some other quarters that I am sure I am missing. There are no physical walls between the quarters to speak of, just different areas within the same walled compound. I was told that it would have a great vibe but truthfully felt the exact opposite. The second intefada has damaged tourism so much that the business people are having a hard time making a living of it. The Jewish people used to shop in the Arab quarter but are now staying away along with the rest of the worlds tourists. I wondered often about how they were making any kind of living as we were just about the only tourists in any shop we went into. One man we met told us that his brother owned the shop but had to look for work elsewhere because of the downturn. He was working there because he was a retired and it did not matter to him if business was bad, but as he spoke he pointed out all the other closed doors shops had been and had to close.

Upon entering the Jaffo Gate, we turned down a chance for a guided tour from the first guide to approach us. He wanted something like 150 NIS for a 3 hour tour and we thought that the price was too high. Of course we then promptly screwed ourselves by hiring a more expensive guide who undoubtedly saw us for the suckers that we were.

There is so much religious history packed into such a small space here. It oozes out of every building, rock and stone. On the tour we saw Jesus’ tomb, the rock where he was hung on the cross, the point of his ascension into heaven, Kind David’s tomb, The place where Christ delivered the “Lords Prayer” for the first time, the location of the last supper, the garden where he was betrayed, the Jewish Wailing wall, walked the stations of the cross, the place where Mohamed ascended into heaven ( which is also the site of the first and second Jewish temples, and the place where Abraham was to sacrifice his son to god). And on and on and on. It is like walking through the Old and New Testament, and the Koran, all within a few square miles.

Our guide was a Palestinian Christian so our tour had a slightly Christian slant to it. He claimed that he had been guiding for 20 years and owned a home in the Christian quarter. He claimed that the Mormons offered him 1 million shekels for the place and he turned it down because it had been in his family for generations and was beyond value. I asked him if 2 million would have been enough to sell it and he said YES! He started out doing an OK job but the tour quickly deteriorated. We kept standing around looking at locked chapels or areas, and finally Cindy got on him about the fact that we were not seeing very much and he turned kind of nasty. But it did give him enough of a kick in the pants that we managed to see much more.

It was interesting getting a Palestinians point of view on living in a Jewish state. He was not happy with them. He said that he felt like he was treated like a second class citizen although he paid all the same taxes, and he felt that he did not reap the same benefits as the Jewish Israelis. He said that he felt like he was a prisoner in his own country but did not adequately relate to me why. On the flip side, he did not believe that there should be a Palestinian state until the different warring factions within the Palestinian movement got their shit together and could work as one unified group with a clear goal for all. He was definitely a man in the middle.

The more I think about it, the more I think that Jerusalem is not really a spiritual place at all. There is so much anger there between each of the religions. Every one wants to claim a holy place there for their own. For instance, in the church of the holy sepulcher, 5 religions share the place. Roman Catholic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Coptic and Greek orthodox. And they all had different times that they could be there. I think the true meaning of the man and god that these people worship has been lost there. They all seem to be in a great big pissing match with each other over the place. It was very disturbing.

We wanted to get into the grounds of the Dome of the rock. The place where Mohamed ascended into heaven. We were not allowed in because the Israeli guards would not let us because it was the Jewish Sabbath. It made utterly no sense to me that they were stopping us from going into a Muslim site just because it was a Jewish holy day. But, you don’t argue with a gun so we left. We did get in the next day and strangely we felt that it was the most calm and holy place in all of Jerusalem. There is a beautiful tiled and domed building in the center covering the Rock and it was surrounded by gardens. All around us Moslem women were having pick nicks, children were playing and people were just lazing around enjoying the beautiful day. It was very serene. We were only allowed to stay for an hour before we where kicked out.

Tense is a very good word to describe Jerusalem and now after having been there I can really see why. It was a very complicated place. As far as I can tell, the people and many religions there are not going to get past their differences any time soon, as long as they continue to fight each other about the sites and icons of their faith.

Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Romantic, Relaxing Dahab

Early evening is my favorite time in Dahab. This is when Geoff and I go out to one of the dozens of open-air sea-side restaurants that line the local shore of the Red Sea. To calls these restaurants isn't quite right. There are no walls, no chairs, and no wait staff running around delivering food. These are more like Bedouin eateries: palm leaf roofs are held up by palm trunk pillars; the red pebbles of the beach floor are cover in a quilt of colorful rugs; heavy bright cushions are arranged in large circles around small wooden table. Travelers drape themselves on the floor collectively smoking hookahs (water pipes) and filling the air with the pleasant, sweet smell of cherry tobacco.

We usually pick a comfortable looking stack of pillows near the edge of the restaurant that puts us no more that 4ft away from the slow, lapping waves of the sea. We gab about the day's dives and watch the shore start to sparkle with the hundreds of soft, colorful Christmas tree lights that are hung in the palm leaves of the restaurants. We relax in the light of the dozens of candles put around the perimeter of the restaurant and on each small table. It's impossible to get a meal here in less than one-and-a-half hours, but who cares. The wind is perfect: warm and steady. The kind that can make you want to turn your face into the wind, close your eyes, and inhale.

As the sun sets the minaret of the mosque wails poems in Arabic to call the men to evening prayer. One night we ate at the south end of the main road. The edge of the restaurant is reserved for several large straw prayer mats. As the minaret continued to call, we watched several of the restaurant's staff make their way to the mat; some wearing western cloths but many wearing a thob (long sleeve, ankle length dress) and ghutra (head scarf). They all looked across the Gulf of Aqba to the visible cliffs of Saudi Arabia. Facing Mecca they stood, knelt and bowed while moaning poems and praying to Allah. I know I probably shouldn't have, but for the next 20 minutes I watched out of the corner of my eye trying to not get caught.

We have spent every day diving. I am now a certified PADI Open Water diver.

The reef here has been disappointing. We've seen sporadic mounds of incredibly vibrant coral absolutely exploding with life, but they are rare. Most of the reef has been killed by careless divers and poor reef management. The living coral serves mainly as a contrast to the brittle, white skeletons of the dead coral and as a reminder of what once was. Now that I am certified there are many more dive sites open to us. We hope to find better water in the next two days.

We have already been here for the five days we had planned, and good diving or not, we are having trouble thinking about leaving. I think we will be soaking up the mellow vibe for a while yet.

Saturday, January 31, 2004

A man parted from his money

Unlike Cindy’s wonderful stories, this is just an update of what we have been up to in the last few months. Obviously writing has not been at the top of our priority list.

After a raucous New Year spent in Buenos Aires we headed down to New Zealand. The land of Kiwis, poor exchange rates (compared to South America), over hyped and overpriced entertainment, and legal prostitution. It took me about 2 weeks before the novelty of being able to understand the conversations around me wore off. Cindy said that I would talk peoples’ ears off just because I could.

We have been here for about 6 weeks and will be leaving in a few days for Australia. We will only stay long enough to process my Irish passport and then will head off to the mysterious Middle East and the land of Evil Doers. Hence the neccesity of an Irish passport in a ridiculous attempt to disassociate myself from wonderful Mr. Bush. I think the ball cap, American accent and straight teeth will be a dead giveaway no matter what I do. Mom, I will tell you all about it after we have left the area.

We have really enjoyed NZ but it has been a severe drain on our pocket‐books (I may rant about that later). The scenery here is beautiful and we have had many adventures. Our friend Brian Huston from Portland came to visit and helped me destroy my liver for a few weeks.

(Here comes the rant) Truthfully as fun as it is, the whole of NZ can feel like a giant tourist trap. The difference is that in South America, when they try to separate you from your money, they try to conceal the fact. Here it’s just in your face, “Hey you silly rich tourist, come over here and empty your pocket book!” The best example of that was in Queenstown. It is adrenaline junky heaven. They have hang gliding, parachuting, bungee jumping off bridges, cable cars, parasailing, white water rafting, kayaking, sledging (think going head first down a river full of rapids with a boogie board on steroids, a wet suit and fins), canyon swings and the list goes on and on. I was very quickly parted from over $400 New Zealand dollars for just a few minutes of shear terror filled events. Some I was forced to do twice in a row. I was told by some locals that they don’t go anywhere near Queensland because they can’t afford it. Even worse, the nightlife there goes on all night. It’s a horrible place.

Once we arrived in the land of the Kiwis (which can be a bird, a fruit, a dollar, or a person) we thought we would ease the cost and heighten the fun by buying a van and living out of it while we were there. There was a bed built into the back and it had all the camping equipment needed for making it a home on wheels. We tried to sleep one night in free camping and the next in a “holiday park” with showers, kitchens etc. Worked out great execpt when I drank too much beer at night and repeatedly have to go find a bush in the middle of the night.

Surprisingly, the weather here has been not great. It’s the middle of summer and I have had very few times when I did not need a fleece. The north Island was a little better than the south but now I understand why the Maori called this place “Aotearoa” which translates to “Land of the Long White Cloud”. In case you dont know the Maori were the indigenous people here before the ’Brits came, waged war with them and stole their land. I have had quite a few wonderful “white” New Zealanders quite unprompted tell me all about how much they dislike the Maori, are angry that the government is giving them money and land back as compensation for the land taken when this was a British Crown Colony. They generally move on when I give them my “deer in the headlights” look of disapproval about what they are saying

Some quick highlights from Kiwi land

Abseiling (rappelling for us in the states)

We got to absail into a cave in an area called Waitomo (they filmed the Shire there for you Lord of the Rings nuts). Then jumped into an inner tube for a butt numbing ride down the frigid river running through the cave. The ceiling of the cave was filled with glow worms trying to attract insects to snack on. It looked like you were under the stars on a really dark night.

The Tongariro Crossing

It has been called the most beautiful one day hike in NZ. It passes over varied and spectacular volcanic terrain. Near the summit you hike by Mt. Ngauruhoe, its steep black sides tinged rust-red near the summit. (Again for you Lord of the Rings junkies it has the distinction of doubling as Orodruin or “Mount Doom” in the films.) Volcanoes as tall as this were the result of multiple eruptions over many thousands of years. Ngauruhoe’s first eruption is thought to have occurred 2,500 years ago, making it the youngest of the volcanic vents in the park.

The Fox Glacier

This was very cool. We got to hike up and onto the glacier. The cracks and crevasses were way cool to see. It is remarkable in that it ends in temperate rainforest, 250 meters above sea level and a mere twelve kilometers from the sea.

Kayaking with Hector Dolphins in Akaroa

We rented a double sea kayak and headed out into the sound. Suddenly I saw a few fins in the water and the next thing we knew there were dolphins swimming around us checking us out. They even bumped into the bottom of the boat. Very cool. They are endangered with only about 3–4,000 of them left in the world.

Spying yellow eyed penguins in the Banks peninsula

We hid in the grasses on the edge of a deserted beach and waited for sundown to see them come ashore at the end of a day’s fishing. They are extremely afraid of people and if they see you, they won’t come ashore and feed their chicks. We had seen quite a few come in near us and wanted to leave but got trapped by a straggler on the beach. He was just taking his sweet time coming in and we did not want to run the risk of him seeing us. The only way off the beach was to walk right by him about 5 feet away. I dashed by him with no problem but he saw Cindy and she had to dive down under a clump of tall grass. She finally got by him but he got spooked and headed back towards the water. We were happy to see him finally turn back towards land a few minutes later and start to waddle home. They are also endangered with only about 4,000 breeding pairs.

The Canyon Swing in Queenstown

There is no way to adequately describe this thing. It is basically a giant rope swing across a 300 foot high canyon. You are attached to the ropes in a full body harness. You are launched off a cliff-mounted platform and swing in a giant arc into the Shotover River canyon and after coming to a rest are hauled back up to the platform. You freefall for about 180 feet before the rope changes your direction into an arc. At the bottom of the arc you go so fast you reach terminal velocity and you experience 3Gs of acceleration. I was so scared shitless the first time that I had to do it twice: the first time facing backwards so I could see the platform receding from me and the second time head first facing the canyon wall. Check out a picture of the canyon swing.