Friday, January 13, 2012
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Egypt: Let's try this again.
So as I embarked on my third voyage into the Middle East, our group got to make a trip through Egypt. This was my second time in the land of the pharos and I have to say, it was a much different experience this time. As such, I am making a list of the three most important things to keep in mind for anyone who decides to visit Egypt:
1. Don't go in July.
2. Don't go in July.
3. Don't go in July.
In my two visits to Egypt, the differences were like night and day. The first time I went in (you guessed it) July. This time, our group went through at the beginning of May. Although it is outside of my personal experience, in addition to the aforementioned advice, I would suggest avoiding the trip in June or August, either. It will be HOT HOT HOT. Especially in Luxor. Last time I was in Egypt, it was so hot, that people stopped taking pictures of the historical sites, and started photographing the steady stream of sweat pouring off of my nose because they were literally more amazed by my perspiration than by the ancient monumental architecture.
I was amazed at how nice the weather was there in May. But if you think I'm just a wuss and you can handle the heat, think again. I'm not just talking about heat here. The heat effects a lot of other things too. My students on this trip all thought I was a dirty liar after I had told them all of my horror stories about death marches through gauntlets of starving trinket salesmen who attach themselves to tourists like barnacles on sinking ships, and all they got were more like very tenacious post-it notes. Apparently, the tourist industry in Egypt becomes exceedingly desperate in the hotter months and if you want to be rid of the aforementioned "barnacles" you have to up the ante from "no, really, I'm not interested" to "Florgen zen fliggen zogen?" That's a language I made up last time I was in Egypt called "schwiedergugen."
Anyway, go sometime in the spring or the fall. It's lovely that time of year.
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Kamaran Island, The Red Sea, and Western Yemen
The first term of classes at the Yemeni Language Center is officially over which means that we get a whole 9 days of break until we start the second half of classes. We are now 5 days into the break, which means that we have just returned from the longest trip we will take during our time in Yemen. Our journey ranged between 7200 and 0 feet above sea level and hit a number of landmarks along the way, but perhaps more interesting than any one location was the incredible diversity of landscapes that we came across during our travels. I never imagined that so many different kinds of terrain could exist in a country as small as Yemen. It would be like going from a city 3000 feet higher than Salt Lake City to San Francisco in about 78 miles. We started off in what looked like the Scottish highlands as we went back through Manakha, and as we descended the mountains changed to a valley with torrential rains that reminded me of the green mountains of Oahu. There were waterfalls coming down from every side creating a river that was surrounded by bananas, palms, and even a Pandanus tree, which I haven’t seen anywhere since I left the pacific. Once we got out of the mountains, it became glaringly apparent that we WERE in the Arabian Peninsula as everything totally flattened out with the exception of some scattered sand dunes that were covered with entire herds of wandering camels. By the time we reached our main destination we were looking at a coral reef system with a variety of tropical fish. On our way back out we stopped by a nature reserve that looked like a slice of tropical Africa, complete with baboons. Seriously.
It was really shocking coming out of the Yemeni highlands to find that we actually WERE in the Middle East and that the Middle East gets really, really hot. It’s shocking to think that this is the society that came up with the idea of covering a human being from head to toe in black cloth. I’m not one to go shirtless, but it seemed the very most basic instinct I had while I was on the Yemeni coast. I was never really able to fulfill this instinct, however, until our group got on some really shady looking watercraft and motored ourselves to a secluded island off the coast (far away from pious Muslim eyes.) I spent two whole days sans-shirt and began to wonder why the wretched rag had ever been invented in the first place. Our two island days were spent, swimming, snorkeling, relaxing on the beach, and playing cards, mafia, and ping-pong (of which I remain the undisputed and undefeated champion.) Night swims on the island were particularly magical due to the billions of plankton in the water that light up at night when disturbed. It looks like all of your limbs glow when you swim. During these night swims, a game was played among the group members entitled “the west wind blows” in which everyone makes a circle around one individual who says: “the west wind blows for anyone who…” and then anyone who fits the description provided must trade places in the circle with others who also fit the description, eventually resulting in a new person in the middle. It’s essentially musical chairs of who’s done x, y, or z. I soon found out why Mormons are so overrepresented in the CIA. Almost instantly, the game began to revolve around psychedelic substances and sexual experimentation. My position on the fringe of the circle was quite secure.
Our time off of the island was a mix of various death marches through historical Yemeni cities. Imagine if there were a stadium-sized sauna filled with street vendors and garbage, and that’s about what we experienced in various western Yemeni villages. Not that we didn’t see anything interesting there. We noticed some form of medical bloodletting that involved suction cups and a number of plastic crates containing chicks that were spray-painted green and blue and pink and orange. Apparently they sell them to kids.
We stopped by some historical… thing… building… place… I’m not really sure since there was not very much explanation during these death marches… anyhow, there was some tower-like structure that our military escort wanted us to go into, so they led the way into the front entrance. The soldiers went in, and the bats came out. I’ve seriously never seen so many bats in my life. It was like rabbits coming out of a hat. We didn’t go in, but one soldier stood at the door with a stick, trying to make solid contact with the exiting rodents. One of our final items of business in the hotter part of the country was to visit a nature reserve to see the baboons that apparently live in Yemen. Another complete change of scenery. It really looks like you should be in some kind of African highlands. Anyhow, I’ll include pictures of all of the things described above, and hopefully it will do it some justice.
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Last week our group took a journey into the Yemeni highlands, which are AMAZING. First of all, the mountains are unbelievably steep, so the contrast between mountain and valley is stunning. Secondly, the land is pretty fertile and good for agriculture so virtually every inch of the mountains are terraced and covered with a variety of crops. There are little villages that you KNOW haven’t changed for centuries, all sitting on top of little peaks looking over their terraced crops.
We ran a little late for everything on the first leg of the trip due to a major delay upon trying to leave the city. Apparently, the Yemeni Government wants to make absolutely sure that all foreigners leaving Sana’a are totally safe, so we had to wait for a military escort. A crack squad of savvy individuals who can take down attempted terrorist attacks and let you take pictures holding their guns. Yemeni soldiers have a softer side too though. Just like all other Arab men, sometimes they just want to hold hands.
Our hotel had a night full of music and Yemeni dancing. The best thing about Yemeni dancing is that about 90% of the time it includes at least one weapon. The best dance included two big Yemeni knives and two big British rifles. I had to be a part of it. But what could possibly be better than a knife and a gun? The answer is simple: a knife and TWO guns. I soon had a following. I and two other Americans were soon destroying a perfectly fine Yemeni dance. Pictures and video follow.
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Wadi Dahr, Dar al-Hajar, and the Prarie of Prax
Our group took our first journey out of Sana’a this past week and oh, what an adventure we had. We went to Wadi Dahr which is about 45 min from where we are. It’s a highly vegetated valley (compared to the rest of the barren desert that surrounds Yemen) that is full of 18th century Arab architecture built into the red rocks and you occasional quaint gift shop. I don’t think the guy who ran the gift shop we went to was very used to American tourists and certainly didn’t have a particularly acute sense of the female psyche given that he made sure to tell every girl in our program that all t-shirts were available in XXL. “Muhammad, let me share something with you: in American culture, bigger is not always better.”
The drive both there and back was AMAZING… or perhaps I should say shocking. It is not uncommon in Yemen to see two Yemeni vehicles meet in the middle of a narrow road like a north-going Zax meeting a south-going Zax on the prairie of Prax. This will ultimately result in two long trains of vehicles extending infinitely in opposite directions. Of course the only way to solve this problem is for every member of the great pileup to honk their respective horns in evenly spaced intervals until the solution is found. On the way to Wadi Dahr, we found our reasonably large tourist bus facing down a giant gas tanker that literally took up ¾ of the road. We of course stopped, and the tanker stopped, and the cars behind us naturally decided to pass. So we sat there and waited for all of the cars behind us to pass us and destroy the paint job on the left side of their cars in passing the tanker. We eventually followed suit. There was a little friction between the two vehicles. As if the trip there were not shocking enough, our bus driver decided that we should all spend the entire ride back listening to everyone’s favorite hits by 2pac Shakur, starting off with California love. This, I believe is the most bizarre clashing of worlds that I have experienced yet; Almost like watching “the Matrix” with the soundtrack to “the Sound of Music.”
The valley itself was very cool. There is a big building built on top of a giant red rock called Dar al-Hajar, or the house of the rock. It has a number of rooms and connected buildings that climb up the back of the rock until you reach the biggest one on top. It goes up staircase after staircase. While we were there, there was a wedding celebration in which a couple kids banged on drums while the older men danced in a circle while waving their large knives over their heads. It was very cool. I could probably describe this in further detail, but I’ll just attach some pictures instead.