Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wadi Rum Diaries

Cool, powdery red sand slides between our toes as we stand in the silent vastness of Wadi Rum. We've just run up a sand dune which feels more like flour than sand. The jeeps look tiny on the desert floor below surrounded by sand and protruding rock formations. We run, leaping down the dunes like playing in the snow to continue our prehistoric cruise through the sandstone. Staring at the cliffs, you could begin to see pharaohs, pyramids or Petra coming out of the walls. Our Bedouin guides grew up in the Wadi, just like their nomadic ancestors, and were more than happy to tell us that T. E. Lawrence was a punk. As amazing as the red sand and rock formations were, it was the stillness that was overwhelming. The sun on your back, feet in the sand, you could listen to the same silence that caravans of traders heard 2000 years ago.

We found the perfect rock looking west over a valley to watch the sunset in the distant hills. The dramatic colors of the day shone in the golden light. We made our way to camp in the evening glow finding six goat hair tents at the bottom of a tremendous rock face. After a fire, a few cups of Bedouin tea, along with some singing and drumming, we stepped out into the crystal clear night to gaze at the beaming moon. We got back to our tent and dumped a day's worth of red sand out of our shoes.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Musa's Mountain

Our ascent of Mt. Sinai began at 1:00 am in the morning. With our headlamps blazing, we climbed the Camel Path Trail. It's not a clever name. Camels would appear out of the darkness breathing down your neck. The warning of "camel!" was frequent and they don't break for tourists.

We were hiking with the group from the minibus we took from Dahab. Our mountain guide gave us the name "Katrina" which he would scream almost non-stop in a Marco Polo fashion. He would also stop the group for head counts and ask, "Have you seen the woman? The large woman?" After one too many stops and rests on what wasn't that challenging of a hike, we, along with a French artist, decided to push ahead on our own.

We soon met up with a Canadian couple who had also left the Katrina group but didn't have a headlamp. The five of us climbed alone to the end of the Camel Path where the stair climb to the summit begins. When we got to the final concession stand before the summit we learned we were the first ones up. A full three frigid hours before sunrise. We took shelter in the shop where they sold coffee and rented out blankets. We wrapped ourselves up and chatted with our climbing partners.

Soon the shop filled up with other climbers and our guide arrived. "Katrina!" At 4:45 am we walked the final 100 meters to the freezing summit. The group found the perfect spot at the edge and huddled together for warmth. The horizon began to glow long before the sun appeared, lighting the landscape we had just hiked through. Standing in a shivering mass of humanity we waited.

"Here comes the sun!" Temple called out, seeing the orange orb under the clouds. I wish I had said, "it's alright", but I was cold. Besides, it was better than alright. It was biblical.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


In the middle of ancient Thebes, now Luxor, rise two impressive temples, Karnak and Luxor. Karnak has a incredible hypostyle hall with over 100 towering columns covered in hieroglyphs. Many pharaohs added and expanded on Karnak over the years making it one of the largest religious sites from the ancient world. Karnak was once connected to the Luxor Temple by a sphinx-lined street. Restoration is underway to restore this pathway.

Upon its discovery, Luxor Temple was buried under houses and an important mosque. When archeologists started to uncover it, the local citizens refused to let them destroy the mosque. Now it, along with remnants of Coptic Christians who painted murals over the temple walls, shows Luxor's long and layered history.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

River Nile Felucca

Our fire burns down to embers during a chilly night on the banks of the Nile River. When it's time to board the boat for bed our captain, Allah, notices that the passing river boats have beached our felucca. He and his uncle, who we just call "Uncle," wade into the water and begin to push. They are having little to no success so I roll up my pants and step into the dark Nile. With Uncle and Allah on either side of me, we try to leg press the boat into deeper waters. At first, it is a comedy of errors but soon we begin to feel the felucca coming unstuck. After a few more synchronized pushes, she is floating again.

We boarded the beautiful white sailing boat earlier that day in Aswan. The deck of the felucca had a foam mattress and pillows for lounging. We sailed around, just the two of us, before picking up Tim from Portugal, Catherine from Texas and a Chinese couple. We all relaxed and talked of our travels as Allah tacked back and forth across the Nile. By the time the sun set in the desert to the west, we were all good friends. We continued sailing after dark, gliding along in the Egyptian night before going ashore for dinner and a fire. The Chinese man surprised us all by breaking out his harmonica. Uncle accompanied him on drums. Allah pulled out his travel size hookah and we smoked sheeshah.

Once the boat was unstuck, we boarded and prepared to sleep in the cold under thick blankets. When we awoke, the Chinese were gone, having only signed up for one night. We were in no rush the second day. We didn't start sailing until 11:00am and soon after we stopped for an extended lunch break. Allah said it was a good place to swim. We were all still cold from the night before but I was ready to jump in. I ran into the refreshing water as the other three began to change their minds. Soon we were all bathing in ancient waters.

After lunch we had a strong wind at our backs and continued towards Luxor. We learned from Catherine that Allah had offered her 500 camels and 2,000 Egyptian pounds for her hand in marriage. We laughed about the proposal and the other antics of Allah and Uncle. Allah only spoke a little English and Uncle, none, so much was lost in translation. As funny as Allah was, it was Uncle who stole the show with his crazy eyes, random animal noises and cuddling up to me as a morning wake up call. The laughter continued around the camp fire that night and into the final day of our voyage.

Temples of Upper Egypt

Temple loves temples. Needless to say she was digging the Nile Valley. I'm more of a simpleton, thinking that once you've seen one offering scene of lotus you've seen them all. But amateur Egyptologist Temple Moore's enthusiasm was infectious. She was soon teaching me and our new friends all she had learned in art history class.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Abu Simbel

The temples of Abu Simbel are three hours south of Aswan near the border with Sudan. The tourist convoy leaves every morning at 3:00am and returns around 1:00pm. The crazy hours are so you miss the extreme midday heat in the desert. Although in the winter heat is not such a problem, the schedule doesn't change. So in the wee hours of the morning, we're squeezing into yet another mini bus. It's an uncomfortable journey on which neither of us sleep. More importantly, however, when we get to Abu Simbel, we're the first ones through the gate and our first views of the towering Ramses II are amazing and devoid of tourists.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

How Bazaar

We are lost. We're looking for the bazaar from our guidebook when a small man appears. He asks if we want the tourist bazaar or the real bazaar. Without hesitation we both say, the real one. "Then follow me," he says.

Just steps from the busy street, we're pushing aside oriental rugs and rolls of fabric, heading down dark alleys. Soon we arrive at a spice market out of Arabian Nights. Our new friend Medi introduces the owner of one of the most famous shops who lets us smell and taste all he has to offer. We enjoy the aromas and color and buy some dried hibiscus for tea. Then we continue through the labyrinth past juice bars, a fez factory and the oldest coffee shop in Cairo. We soon find ourselves in a pickling factory where four jovial Cairenes are pickling all types of vegetables in large wooden barrels.

Back outside, we head for our guide's workshop. Turns out he makes beautiful wooden inlaid boxes. He shows us all the different qualities and prices and we watch his fellow artists working. The top of the line boxes are amazingly detailed and expensive. We buy a budget travellers' priced one. But the tour doesn't end there.

He walks us back to the market, stopping in on shoemakers and a papyrus art gallery. After pausing to get us a sugar cane juice, our guide pushes open a large wooden door to an abandoned looking room. He looks back at us with a sly grin and we follow. Soon, we are standing next to a boiling bath tub where men are creating dyes for Egyptian cotton. They are working very intensely on a brown dye after finishing the blazing blues and blinding whites that now hang to dry in the midday sun. We stand there in awe of the color and craftsmanship.

Moments later, we find ourselves where we had been lost just an hour before. "This is where I leave you." And with that, our guide disappears back into the bazaar.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pyramid Fields

Out of the taxi window, we get our first glimpse of the Giza Pyramids. We have only been in Cairo a few hours and are determined to get on a camel asap. All our romantic notions of camels, sand dunes and pyramids quickly collide and crumble into modern Giza. Our camels look abused. Instead of sand dunes we are on city streets. And very far from the pyramids.

This camel ride begins a pattern in Egypt. Doing something you think will be amazing, then it turns out to be bootleg, and just as you're about to lose hope, mystic ancient Egypt appears and takes your breath away. Because after riding through the neighborhood with no pyramids in sight, we ride past a graveyard and into the desert, not very far into the desert but still. Just a few sand dunes away are the three pyramids. Aside from the large chain-link fence with security cameras patrolling the perimeter, the view is time travel back four thousand years. It's hard to add any insight to pyramids that were considered ancient by the ancient Greeks. They are timeless, looking thousands of years old and space-age all at once. Or like a constellation, appearing, from a far sand dune, as stars in space. Watching one sunset of the million the pyramids have seen and the millions more they will see, is the perfect end to the first day of our Egyptian adventure.

Early the following morning, we're alone at the Dahshur pyramid field. Our first up close encounter is with the Red Pyramid. We walk around in awe, then climb up the walls to crawl down into the tomb. Tight squeeze is an understatement. Doubled over, we waddle down the narrow passage until it opens into a large chamber. It smells bad and is burning hot. Soon we are crawling back out. Behind the Red Pyramid is the Bent Pyramid. During construction they had to change the angle half way up to avoid collapse. It's not structurally sound to this day and is off limits to tourists.

Our next stop is the Saqqara Pyramid, the first pyramid and first stone structure ever built. The work of the great architect Imhotep, it is a step pyramid making it unique from the more famous complete pyramids.

To end the day we head to the Giza Pyramids. After having Dahshur and Saqqara basically to ourselves, the number of people at Giza is overwhelming and a little demystifying. Large even on a modern scale, every apsect about the pyramids is difficult to comprehend. Down the hill sits the Sphinx. No riddles were asked. The only question was how do I get away from all these people? But the throngs of tourists are appropriate. It's been a wonder for nearly five thousand years.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

And Me

These kids don't get dizzy. It's impossible to spin one kid around without all the others wanting to take flight. As soon as I set Elibaraka down, here comes Bennett, Micha and Yohani pulling at my shirt calling "and me! and me!". When I start to get dizzy from all the circles, I tell them to count to 100. Most get to 50 -by which time my equilibrium has returned- and they get another spin. After a few more rounds, I have to ask them to count again. This time, before they hit double digits, they lose interest and go play elsewhere. But moments later, without fail, they return screaming "me high! me high!".

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Manyara House

The Manyara boys are the big men on campus. The younger kids of the village look up to them and it's no mystery why. They are cool, smart, funny and loyal, making a great team.

Saidi is the leader of the house, telling others what to do and maintaining his tough-guy image despite an impossibly sweet grin. Benja is the ham. He loves to crack jokes but also to assert his authority. Although he's small, Swedi takes after his big brother Saidi, and is very mature for his age. Jackie tends to be a little shy except for on the soccer field. Then there is Abdul, the charming, sensitive one. He loves reading and has the best smile in the village. Silly Yusufu, as the youngest boy, gets pushed around quite a bit. James, inquisitive and sarcastic, always has something on his mind. The boys are eager to learn new things, whether its a story from a history book or a dance from Step It Up the movie. They are responsible, always completing their chores without being asked and having fun in the process. Each one is more than willing to take care of baby January whenever he's out of the Mamas' arms. Together the Manyara men are a charming act and constant entertainment.

Along with the boys, there are three sweet girls living in the house plus Neema who returns from high school during holidays, and who I hung out with during my last week. Edina is sassy and hard-headed. She takes good care of her younger sister Rehema who is smart, and so, mischievous. They are both adorable but Natalie takes the cake. Three years old and full of personality, I fell in love with her on day one. Immediately, she latched on to me and I to her, both of us crying when it was time to say goodbye.

Mama Priska is the main disciplinarian of the house. I visited her small, cozy home when I took some kids on a walk to pick peaches in her village. Mama Eliphas is Masaai and so has a shaved head and sings upbeat chants while playing with the baby. She loves teasing the kids and it is a joy to see her laugh. Both of them were so lovely to me. Also living in Manyara is young Melanie, who cooks a lot of the meals, and Elizabeth, the kindergarden teacher. I gave them typing lessons on my computer and we would stay up late watching Tanzanian soap operas. I appreciate these wonderful women and their joyful spirits.

I feel so blessed to have lived in Manyara for my three weeks at RCVC. On the last day of school when the students marched, I was so proud of all of them, especially Jackie for winning the best sportsmanship award and of Abduli for receiving best student overall. I am so impressed by the love and respect that these young people show for and expect of each other. Although they occasionally fight, the kids are quick to protect their cacas and dadas (brothers and sisters). They gave me a wonderful gift when they accepted me in and I am forever grateful.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Serengeti House

"Tell one from your heart" says Isaka from the top bunk.

After a perfect day of peach-picking, frisbee-throwing and monkey bar-swinging, it's story time and all the Serengeti boys are awaiting an epic tale. I tell them stories of a group of eight boys named Mole, Paulo, Simon, Christopher, Vicente, Boaz, Joshua and Isaka. Their adventures take them around Africa, swimming at Mosi-oa-Tunya, rafting down the Zambezi, sailing to Zanzibar and having close encounters with lions. Though they enjoy each story, their favorite one is when they are all signed to play for Manchester United and win the Premier League. Basking in the glow of victory, they fall asleep and dream of the Champion's League.

I then cross the house and knock on the girls' door. "Hodi?" "May I come in?" Inside, Christina, Eva and Happy are quietly doing schoolwork, reading books or folding laundry. A huge change from the rowdy boys' room. I tell them similar adventures only changing the characters to three girls. But they want true stories, about me. I tell them about my friends and family back home, mainly, tis' the season, about our family Christmas traditions. When my stories are over Christina reads The Giving Tree, her favorite book. She reads it so well, though she doesn't need the book at all. "I know it in my heart," she says. Each reading is incredibly moving and a highlight of my day. "Lala salama," I say, closing the door behind me.

Lying in bed that night, I dread leaving in a few days, but am happy knowing that this place, these children and our stories will always be in my heart.