International Perspective 9/11

Yes, I’m working on the much more fun New Zealand stories, but they aren’t ready to publish, so here’s a little thought for the 15th “anniversary”.


Two years ago (2014) I was in Saudi Arabia for 9/11 but I had only arrived a few days before. I didn’t know enough to feel comfortable asking too many questions and I was assured that discussing it on any form of public social media would be grounds for reprisal. Were there people in Saudi who celebrated 9/11? Yes. But that just makes those people immature jerks who enjoy schadenfreude and every culture has some of those. Please don’t judge a whole country or religion by it’s worst representatives (Westboro Baptist, anyone?) Were there people in Saudi who grieved for the loss of life and for the perversion of their faith? Absolutely. I’m a little sad I didn’t get the chance to write about it at the time, because it was a surreal and thought provoking experience to be American in the country that spawned Osama-bin-Ladin during that time.

For most people outside the US, 9/11 is just another day. For most Muslims this year, 9/11 isn’t about terrorism, but the biggest holiday of their calendar, Eid al Adha, that only coincides with September 11th every so often because it is decided by a lunar event. While it’s important to remember our own history, it’s also good for us to be able to see through the eyes of those who are different from time to time.


I spent my September 11th this year with a family of Canadians at a UN Memorial for the Korean War here in Busan. It didn’t even occur to me that it was 9/11 because, living on the other side of the date line, my Facebook feed was still set to “normal” instead of “super patriotic reminder day”. It wasn’t until I woke up on Sept. 12 that I saw the flood of memes telling me to “never forget” that I realized the actual date.

Sometimes, I get a little frustrated with America for being so sensitive about 9/11, but then I have to remind myself, everyone’s trauma is valid. There is no scale of objective judgement for how a traumatic event affects someone. One of the worst things you can do to a victim is to diminish their pain by telling them how much worse someone else has it. So, it’s not helpful to tell America to get over 9/11 because other countries have more terror attacks or more deaths.

However, when I look at the Korean War Memorial here and realize that I am living in a country that was 90% flattened 60 years ago and is now one of the most technologically advanced democracies in the world, I am astonished. Korea did not forget what happened to them by any means, but nor do they treat their aggressors with spite and hatred. Even though the North decimated the south, leaving a landscape of ash and rubble, South Korea does not seek retribution and instead implemented things like the Sunshine Policy. Even after that policy ended due to continued rejection and aggression from the North, South Korea has refused to use force or invasion to punish the North or bring them back into the fold.

What is the point I’m getting at? Well, victims of trauma have a choice. Do we collapse in on ourselves with self-pity while lashing out at the world in anger, or do we learn to be strong and use that strength to practice compassion towards others who have suffered in a way we now uniquely understand?

After 9/11, America lashed out hardcore, starting a war in a country that had nothing to do with our trauma because we were so hurt and angry and scared. But it’s been 15 years. Kids in high school don’t know what it felt like to watch the towers collapse in flames, to stare at the devastation played over and over on every TV and try to reconcile the fact that it wasn’t a movie effect, to wonder if your loved ones in New York and DC were alive but not be able to get through because the phone lines and cell towers were so overloaded. In a few more years those kids will be adults, old enough to enlist or even be drafted into the military that is still fighting in the aftermath of that lashing out.

So by all means, never forget, but think carefully about what you want to do with that memory. When we look at countries, including Muslim ones, who are devastated by ISIS or other terrorist attacks, do we ignore their plight in order to nurture our own homegrown grievance, or can we say, “Yeah, I know how that feels, let’s help each other get through this.”?

Reflections on Paris, Friday the 13th

This is not a political blog, I am not a journalist. Generally, when I write here it is to share my beautiful adventures and to reflect on the things I am learning while exploring the world. Sometimes, however, things happen that aren’t beautiful and that make me question the things that I learn. So while it isn’t the normal tone, I’m going to take a page and talk about the terror attacks.

When I was in grad school, I studied religious terrorism. I nearly wrote a thesis paper on it, but events conspired and I ended up writing about a cult instead. I haven’t pursued a career in anti-terrorism or international relations, or any of the things I studied in school really, but I’m still completely fascinated with the field and keep up with a lot more international news than is probably healthy for me. So when I got in my car and turned on NPR and heard the BBC reporters explaining the unfolding events of Friday 13th in Paris, I was immediately aware of the depth of what I was hearing, even if I had not fully processed the information. I knew it was going to be big, like 9/11 had been for Americans big.

20150521_090755Then I watched the internet and saw the outpouring of emotions: support for Paris, hatred of Daesh (ISIS), fear of and for immigrants fleeing Syria, anger from Muslims around the Middle East at the West’s ability to ignore violence until it happened to white people, remonstrations and blame in many directions, and fortunately a good deal of “love the whole world” sentiments as well. I started trying to pick apart these views and feelings, as well as understand my own. I changed my Facebook pictures to shots I’d taken this spring when I was in Paris, but I couldn’t bring myself to use the flag filter after seeing so much pain from those in Lebanon.

I’m not proposing that I have any answers. In fact, one of the things that I learned in grad school was that research raises more questions than it provides answers. So I’m going to talk about some things, and share some ideas, and ask some questions. I hope you’ll think about it too.

The Silk Ring Theory

Shortly before this all happened, I ran across an article on my Facebook feed titled  “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing”. 
It explained this issue we have with our reactions to someone in pain, and how we can focus too much on our own pain and forget how to be supportive. The Silk Ring Theory introduces a set of concentric circles with the person most affected in the center ring, and each progressive ring containing the people less directly impacted.
In the case of the Paris attacks, then, those who were injured, or lost loved ones, or even were just at ground zero are in the center circle. Their friends, families, etc who were not there but are still closely connected in the next. Parisians, then French people and so on…As an American who once visited Paris, I’m pretty far out in the rings. The theory also instructs with the motto “care in, dump out” meaning that anything you say to someone in a smaller circle needs to be comforting, and you can only dump selfish or negative feelings outward. Hence the huge outpouring of comfort towards the French people who are ALL in a smaller circle than we Americans is totally appropriate.

But lets look at where we are dumping. Who do we see as being in a larger circle than us? Is it Muslims? Is it immigrants? Is it just anyone who has less historical or personal connection with France? So, if it’s your neighbor who has never been to France, or Australia because they didn’t trade freedom statues back in the day, it’s correct to say they are in a larger circle and you can dump some of your fear and uncomforty feelings their way. But, when it comes to the people of the Middle East, immigrant or not, we have to consider another circle: the circle of Daesh terrorism.

It’s clear that in the Paris attacks, Parisians are right at the center of that circle, however, the reign of Daesh terror is much larger than France and has been going on in the Middle East for arguably more than a decade. The people who have been killed, enslaved, raped, mutilated, murdered and displaced by Daesh are the center of this other circle of tragedy. And for them, the French people and the American people are equally far out in the rings. So, it’s also understandable that they should be frustrated when they see us offering so much “comfort in” toward France while they get ignored or worse, “dumped out” at.

So what do we do when we have two groups of people at the center of their own circles of tragedy who also exist as outer rings for each other? I don’t know. But, we can try to remember what the tragedy is, and who is at the center, and where the people we’re comforting or dumping on are in relation to us before we speak.

The Bandwagon

So, I learned the term Daesh  while I was living in Saudi Arabia. My friends and students taught it to me because it was important to them not to give the radical group any legitimate creedence. The first “S” in ISIS and ISIL stands for the English word “state” and, they argue, it gives too much legitimacy to a rouge group to call them a “state”. The Arabic “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham” could be argued to translate as “state” or “country” (I’m by no means fluent), but the acronym has also come to mean “a bigot who imposes his view on others” and the group themselves hate it to little bitty pieces. I mean, don’t you think Westboro or KKK would be upset if we started calling them “asshole bigots” instead of using the names they chose for themselves. Bring it.

But when I came back to the US and tried to use the term, or even to explain it to other people, I was pretty universally met with dismissal or curious amusement at best. I changed no one’s vocabulary. It became awkward for me to use the term because no one knew what it meant and I was seen as “showing off” my knowledge or linguistic skills or international travel. The French president and our own VP had both made statements in the news urging people to start using the term and they were ignored too, so at least I can’t take it too personally.

Now everyone is using it. It’s all over facebook and my co-workers are self correcting, “ISIS, wait no, now it’s Daesh” like it’s suddenly changed. I sound bitter, I know. I’m trying really hard to be grateful that more people are becoming aware of this issue and the importance of words giving or taking legitimacy, but I really wish that people could be persuaded to give a damn without first world tragedy being plastered all over every form of media. No one cared when it was Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, etc. But Paris, OMG. It’s like al-Qaeda again, no one cared until New York.

fb paris flag copy

So, there it is really. Use the bandwagon if it helps us make the world better, but ask yourself why you’re riding it now and where were you when John Kerry and I were trying to get you to say “Daesh” instead of “ISIS”, or why you’re changing your Facebook picture to a French flag right now. I’m not blaming, it’s not like I was on the front lines either. I don’t know if I would have learned about it before you if I hadn’t take the trip to Saudi, but I know the answer to these questions for myself. I needed a personal connection. I needed to see and meet the people who were most affected by these terrorists (it’s not New Yorkers, btw). Not everyone can take a trip to the Middle East, but I bet most of you know someone from there or at least see them around. Maybe take the time to listen to them, hear what they have to say and how they feel about Daesh and the situation in their homeland. Personal connections go a long way to making things real and important.

Why Is Paris More Important?

Which brings me to my next point. Why the heck we’re exploding about Paris after ignoring Iraq, Syria, and most recently Lebanon? My personal connection to the people of the Middle East made me more aware of the contrast. I got to see posts on my facebook from people still living there, connections I made and didn’t want to give up. It was really wrecking to see them so hurt and angry. Some people were simply gently reminding us not to forget about them, but others were angry at the media and at us for ignoring them, and a few even said that France got what it deserved for the way it had been acting. These people weren’t Daesh sympathizers, they hate Daesh, but they were angry at the West too for so many things that it was hard for them not to see the attacks as a kind of retribution or at very least a “now you know what it feels like”.

I wanted this to be more than just “white people” or “rich people” because while I know our culture does over focus on the rich/white, it was hard for me to think that this huge reaction was only from this. Then one of my former Professors from the UW, Zev Handel, put a post up on his wall explaining it in more detail. He starts off by saying what I think we all know and agree with, that all human life matters and should matter equally. The lives of Parisians are not worth more than the lives of Lebanese. But,

“The attack in France is different. Its implications for our lives are vast. First, unlike the attacks in Beirut, it signifies a very real and increased danger for those of us who live in major American cities. The desire and ability of ISIS (or whoever it turns out is behind the Paris attacks) to pursue its political agenda by instigating mass casualties outside of the Middle East means that what happened in Paris could quite easily happen in New York, or DC, or Los Angeles, or Chicago, or Seattle. It’s not surprising that many Americans experienced a more visceral shock from Paris than from Beirut (or from South Sudan or from Iraq or from all the other places in the world that are constantly convulsed by violence).

Second, this event is going to reshape our lives in ways that the Beirut attack never could have. It will change the tenor and possibly the outcome of the presidential election. It will change our military posture and could quite conceivably mean that many more people we know and love will go off to fight wars on foreign soil. It will have immediate and palpable effects on our experiences at airports and public venues. And so on.”

This brings me back around to the idea of personal connections. In the case for compassion, it’s about meeting the people who are impacted, but in the case of taking action, responding to fear or danger, it’s about feeling that impact in our own lives. Most people don’t have a personal connection to the Middle East so it was hard for them to get excited or riled up about the violence that’s happening there. However, we are more familiar with Paris and even if we love making fun of the French, there’s a sort of “nobody picks on my sister but me” feeling to the American responses. And of course, we feel the personal impact on something as simple as increased airport security for our upcoming holiday travel plans.

Paris isn’t more important. But humans have a natural tendency to focus on what affects them most. Instead of focusing on why swathes of humanity only seem to care when it hits close to home (or worse, blaming them for not doing enough) perhaps we can look for ways to help show people how groups like Daesh affect them before they blow up another stadium full of people? How can we make more connections?

The Blame Game

So, in all of this there is tons of blame flying around (I may be guilty of some blamey thoughts myself, too). I mentioned before that some Arabs were blaming the French for their own attack, others blame the West at large for not doing more, plenty blame each other. For their part westerners are blaming all Muslims, the Quran, the refugees and each other, and of course both Bush and Obama.

Brené Brown has some neat insights on blame and why it sucks,  but generally I think most of you know that blame is hurtful and counterproductive. We get caught up in the gray area between trying to understand why something happened and absolving ourselves of responsibility. It’s useful to understand the history behind an event, what led up to it, what contributes to it. As Brené points out, it is our natural tendency to leap to blame as fast as possible.

I’m lucky in that I live in a place where people are generally liberal and tolerant, so I don’t really see a lot of backlash against Muslims or refugees where I am right now. But I see that there are people in my country signing petitions to keep them out, or send them away. I mostly see people expressing concern for immigrants and refugees, but I recognize that the concern stems from responses to threats made by those to are afraid and don’t understand. I’ve lost track of how many different memes I’ve seen trying to explain or metaphor the total lack of relationship between Daesh and the majority of Islam. I’m not sure what’s going to get through to the people who are too afraid to listen, but I recommend Reza Aslan’s work, especially the interview that has gone viral in the wake of the attacks explaining once again how there is no such thing as “Muslim countries” as a single identity.

 

Just as blame is a response to fear and anger, so can be the urge to retaliation. I’m seeing a lot of people out there calling for a fight. France itself initiated several strikes in the days following the Paris attacks. But the reality is that unstructured violence, fear, blame, anger, and misunderstanding are tools for Daesh just as much as AKs and bomb vests. Will the militaries of the world need to take action to eliminate this threat? Most certainly, for they don’t seem the types to give in to logic, compassion or diplomacy. But we should look at these military actions as necessary structured violence, not a triumphant act to be enjoyed or reveled in. And for those of us who are not in the active military service we should remember that our best tools to combat terror are understanding, compassion, and personal connection. If you really want to fight Daesh, do so. But if you don’t want to join the military to do it, try fighting a different way: befriend a Muslim, help a refugee, learn the truth instead of spreading the rumors, invite an Imam to speak at your Church.

I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think anyone does, which is why I go looking far and wide for ideas and insights. I hope that I’ve given you some things to think about, some questions to ask, some ideas to share and maybe even some constructive actions to take.

 

“Queen” Sized: Finding Plus-sized clothing outside the US

This post isn’t really a story of adventure, so much as a hopeful resource for other women like me. Trying to find things online that actually are useful is really hard. If you are a plus (or queen) sized lady with overseas shopping experiences, PLEASE feel free to leave a comment here to help me and others out. If you want to tell me or others like me to go on a diet/exercise regimen, or otherwise insult our bodies, please fuck off.

Yes, I know, Americans are fat. And while some developing nations (not naming names here, you know who you are) are giving us a run for our money in the obesity race, we’re still a nation of large. I’m not here to fat shame, or blame the horrible processed food diet (I think I did that in another post), or soapbox in any way about it. I’m just acknowledging it’s there so I can move on to the rest of today’s blog.

The Plus Sized Shopping Experience

I’m “average” size in America (not by magazine/hollywood standards, but by actual statistics). This means I’m fat in most other countries in the world. And while the US has a growing plus sized fashion market, shopping abroad for many of us can seem like the quest for the Holy Grail.

Living in China (remember I’m not naming names?, well….) I read a lot about how it was quickly increasing in obesity, and I could find clothes that fit, but it was an ordeal, and often involved Wal-Mart. Saudi Arabia (another unnamed name) is full of full figured ladies, but because of the abaya requirement, the clothing options for plus sizes was somewhat limited. I tried to find a pair of jeans there, but everything cute was just about 1 size too small, or it was a huge elastic waisted tent.

Japan was not a place I expected to find anything, but after seeing quite a few larger (my size or bigger) Japanese ladies around town who happened to be dressed quite snappily, I gained some hope. There was a used clothing store across from my share house, and I love thrift store shopping, so I went to check it out. It’s so dang humid here that I really wanted some lighter weight tops that were a little more flattering. To my amazement, I found several in the bargain rack. I have no idea if they were actually intended for large women or if the Japanese tendency to wear clothes that make them look like children playing dress-up just worked in my favor.

Then, after my jeans from the US finally gave out, I realized I really needed to get new bottoms if I wanted to go exploring in the heat. I love my skirts, but, let’s face it, at 90% humidity, everyone gets some degree of chub-rub. I was fairly open to options: leggings, gym shorts, or real pants. But after a whole day of searching, I realized that even the men’s XL was still too tight a fit to be comfy. After more searching online for advice from other expats, I headed back out to a larger mall, to try again at the limited number of stores that *might* have something my size. Eventually, I found some things, but it meant exploring maternity and men’s departments because nothing in the women’s clothes came close.

How to Cope with Being Plus-sized Abroad?

So what’s a girl to do? I have some good news and some bad. There are some tricks that can make your clothing experience better (good news), but you’ll never be able to get exactly what you wear in the US (bad news). Here’s what I’ve learned after 2 years and 4 countries worth of clothes shopping overseas.

1) Adapt your style. In the US you may love wearing skinny jeans and printed t-shirts, or snappy pant-suits, or any number of other styles that you’ve made your own over time. But since you are unlikely to be able to find those exact things in your new country, be willing to change. In Saudi, I couldn’t find jeans for love nor money, but I found about a million beautiful skirts that fit me and looked great. I never wore skirts that often before, but it was there, pretty and cheap. In Japan, the shirts I found were all fluffy, billowy, lacy things, very feminine and “cute”. Again, not my previous style, but they fit well and flatter my shape while keeping me cooler in the Japanese summer.

2) Look around you and ask. Look for other ladies your size/shape, what are they wearing? Do you like it? Ask them where they got it. Make it a compliment. “Oh, what a great dress, where did you buy that?” Consider that another essential phrase to learn in your new country’s language along with “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Another beer please.” Locals often know of smaller hidden stores that cater to special / niche markets that might not show up on a Google search. Heck, if you’re a teacher like me, you can make it a class assignment option and get plenty of feedback.

4) Pack the essentials. Before you leave your home country, or any time you go home for vacation, know what you have the hardest time finding in your size and stock up. I brought extra brand-new bra’s that I knew I wouldn’t even need for 6 months, because I didn’t want to try to bra shop in Saudi. Other hard to find items include undies, panty hose/stockings, and jeans. People often stock up in their luggage on medications and toiletries, but really, unless it’s a weird prescription or super special local brand, you can find these things even more readily in pharmacies and convenience stores abroad than you can in the US, so ditch the things that are easy to replace and make some suitcase space for the clothes you know you’ll want.

5) Shop the local thrift stores. Also called used clothing or second hand shops, places where the local population has donated a wide variety of brands, styles and sizes. In both Prague and Japan, these shops yielded great finds. A pair of jeans in Prague (though too warm for the summer, I picked them up against the eventual fall weather), and several summer weight blouses in Japan. Yes, it takes time to sort through everything, but it can be fun, and if you do find something that fits, you can check the label and maybe find the local shop that sold it the first time.

6) Foreign brands are a reliable standby. I no longer shop at H&M despite their range of plus size clothing because I object to their unethical business practices of using overworked and under-payed women in unsafe conditions. Other places like the dreaded Wal-Mart (yeah, I hate them), or UK brand box stores like Tesco. I hate box stores, but unless you can afford a local tailor, they are your safest bet for clothes abroad. The regular sizes go up to US 12, but often times different styles fit differently, so you can generally find something up to about an 18. In China it was Wal-Mart, in Japan it was Uniqlo, and in Prague, it was Tesco that saved my wardrobe essentials. I love shopping local, but when you simply can’t find what you need, these places can be a good solid backup.

7) Don’t be afraid to stray to other departments. As I mentioned earlier, my pants success in Japan was attributed to maternity and men’s wear. It’s a little embarrassing at first to take some of these items to a fitting room, but not half as painful as my thighs after an afternoon of walking around in a skirt here, and definitely not worth missing out on the adventures. Sure, people may look at you a little funny, but chances are you’re already being looked at funny just for being a foreigner so don’t let it bug you. Find the clothes that fit no matter where the store has put them.

From Saudi to Czech

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve added anything here. Since leaving the Kingdom I’ve been having a lovely time travelling in several countries and hanging out with some friends who have also made the exodus from the US. I also caught a fun cold/flu thing which has had me moving a little slow and maybe not writing as much as I wanted. Tomorrow I’m heading off to Japan to start my new job and the next chapter of my adventures. It may take me some time to share all the amazing stories from the last 3 weeks, especially since I’ll be settling in to a new home/job/life soon, but I promise it will all get out there.


 

Leaving Saudi was a strange feeling. I didn’t feel any particular sense of relief or sadness, it just felt like walking out the door on a normal day. I had some last minute Saudi style adventures because my driver forgot about me (despite having been reminded only the day before) and the airport in Tabuk did not check my bags all the way through to my final destination. During my 5 hour layover in Jeddah, I managed to track down someone about the bags, because I did not have time to pick them up at Charles de Gaul and change planes. At first they tried to say there was nothing they could do, but I’d been in Saudi too long to accept that as an answer, and eventually got a manager who made someone go and find my luggage and reissue the stickers. And thank goodness, because I barely made it to my connecting flight in Paris.

After seeing several other ladies in the Jeddah airport dressed in non-Saudi clothes, including one Indian woman in a midriff revealing sari, I decided I could pack my abaya before boarding. It felt strange to be surrounded by people in a public place that way, but I noticed even more ladies had changed as soon as they boarded the airplane. Still surrounded by so many thobes and abayas, I felt oddly exposed in my modest western clothes. Once again I was asked to change seats to spare some man the trial of sitting next to a woman, and then had to explain to the French lady who I was seated next to what was going on. She had simply been catching a connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur and had no context for the Saudi airline custom.

When we arrived in Paris, she warned me about the poor organization of the CGD airport, and I said that after living in Saudi, nothing like that could really phase me anymore. A Saudi man turned to me and said that I sounded like I didn’t like Saudi, so I started to try to explain my mixed feelings and point out positive things, but as soon as I mentioned I had lived in Tabuk, his expression completely changed. Oh no wonder you didn’t like it, I’m sorry you had to live there, etc. We chatted a little about my week in Jeddah and how different it was, but even a native Saudi who was proud of his country expressed understanding for my frustrations when he found out where I’d lived.

My flight neighbor was right about the airport. Not only did the airline check all our passports as we disembarked, but we also had to go through passport control for the EU there in CDG regardless of our final destination. The security area seemed to be malfunctioning, so they asked me to take off my “jacket” so they could use the wand. This was really just a long sleeved shirt over my sleeveless shirt, and I was pretty upset about having to remove it, since I felt like they were asking me to take off my shirt while the ladies still wearing abayas were not asked to undress. After all the respect and privacy accorded to women in the Middle East airports (not just Saudi, but Jordan, Egypt and Dubai), this was a real wake up call that I was back in the West.

The line for customs was enourmous and I would not have made my flight if I’d waited patiently, but the people around me encouraged me to simply skip up and explain to others that I had only 15 minutes to make my connection, and this actually worked, no one got upset at all. I saw some other people try to walk up to one of the airport officials with the same plea and get turned back, so I’m glad I decided to rely on the patience of my fellow travellers to get up to the head of the line. I made it to the gate at final bording call! I didn’t actually realize this was passport control until much later because there was no bag searching and no declaration forms, they simply stamped a date in my passport and waved me through.

I had a big surprise arriving in Prague because I didn’t have to do any customs or passport control there at all. My friend explained to me that it was because I had done it in Paris, so that crazy wand search and little passport stamp were all the security I needed to be in the EU. We picked up my rental car and for the first time in over 8 months I was driving again. It’s so peculiar because the entire time I lived in China, I never even wanted to drive. To be fair, there was great cheap public transportation and prolific taxis, plus the driving was kinda scary. But somehow, being stuck in a place where I could not drive and could not move independently with public transport made the feeling of being back behind the wheel nearly euphoric.

My friend met me at the airport and guided me back to her apartment. She’s also a teacher and you can read about her adventures here. Some nice young men from her TESOL program showed up just as we did and helped move all the luggage up the three flights of stairs. Then we set off to find food, which turned out to be this amazing little restaurant called Martin’s Bistro wherein I had some really phenomenal food, the likes of which I really hadn’t had since the last time I was in Dubai.

On our way back we ran into a wine festival in a public park area and ended up getting happily buzzed on local Czech wines. I discovered Clarets and straw-wine, both of which I hope to cultivate a longer relationship with in the future. I also got a frozen yoghurt that was fresh made and mixed on the spot with frozen cherries for a fruity soft serve in a light and crispy waffle cone. The weather was simply perfect, sunny but not hot, and the live music was fun. It felt like the entire world was trying to welcome me home. As if that weren’t enough, we went with some of her classmates to a traditional Czech pub for dinner where I ate the heavy but delicious local food and watched the Russians get way too excited about the hockey game on TV.

Because I’d really only slept for a few hours on the flight from Jeddah to Paris, the whole thing felt like one really long day in which I’d woken up in my apartment in Tabuk and somehow been warped into this quaint Eastern European utopia of wine and food where I finally fell asleep. Little could I have known what else the universe had in store for me as I continued my journey.

 

Royal Decree Holiday: A Day in Cairo (Part 2)

I’m sitting here almost completely packed and waiting to go to the airport to leave Saudi and start the next chapter of my adventures. I have 5 more hours to kill before I can go to the airport, where I will wait some more, before flying to my connecting airport and wait 5 more hours for my flight out of the Kingdom. So as a semi-productive use of all that time, I’m going to try to finish up the last stories from my time in the Middle East. So here’s the final chapter in the Royal Decree Holiday Series (March 19-27, 2015).


After our Nile river cruise and a buffet lunch it was time to head off toward the main attraction, the Great Pyramids at Giza! We had to drive quite a ways through the city and it was disparaging to see the half built state of the buildings. Our guide told us that the buildings were mostly left unfinished and people moved into them anyway. The government tried to smooth over the unrest caused by this condition by providing free or cheap satellite tv to the residents, but it backfired because they ended up seeing much more of the world that way, and it only served to highlight their situation.

Unsurprisingly, the tour took us to a shop. It’s not unusual for tours to take groups to the shops of their friends and family. I found out that for Arabs this is actually an anticipated part of the tour, and they are sad when it is left out, whereas Westerners tend to get a little annoyed and feel like they are being scammed. I didn’t mind this one because it was also quite instructional. It was a papyrus art store, and they had really cool little demonstration booths that showed us how traditional papyrus paper is made from the papyrus plant. The plant is naturally fibrous, so they slice it into long strips (the size they want the finished scroll to be), soak them for ages (the longer the soak, the darker the paper will be), then weave them together and press them for more ages.

The whole thing takes a couple of weeks. The sugars in the plant act like a glue and bind all the fibers together while they are pressed. When it comes out, it has a clear and visible texture showing the woven strips of papyrus. And, as it turns out, you can wash papyrus paper once it’s all finished and it won’t disintegrate like tree paper. Pretty cool. I was also totally suckered in and bought a family tree and had them write the names of my mother, my sister and her two little kids into the cartouches in hieroglyphs. I don’t often souvenir for myself, but I did promise to be the crazy aunt who travels all over the world and brings back cool stuff.

IMG_1838Shortly after we left the shop, the guide pointed out to us that we could see the tops of the pyramids in the distance, which was really surreal. All the movies and photos make it look like they are in the middle of nowhere in the desert, but they’re really right on the edge of the city. Cairo is actually only on the east side of the Nile, so the city we were in now was technically Giza, once reserved only for the dead, the western side of the Nile started accommodating living residents when the population in Cairo became too dense. Our first glimpses of the pyramids were still quite far away and the amount of driving we still had to go gave some slight indication of the massive scale.

IMG_1848The closer we got, the larger the structures loomed and the worse the neighborhoods got. Garbage on the streets, shacks and shanty buildings, increasingly run down cars and also more horses or mule drawn carts. Our guide told us that there were almost no new cars in Egypt because of the high taxes on new imported cars (and there are no Egyptian car companies). Since petrol is really cheap in the region, most people see no benefit in buying newer, more fuel efficient cars and just drive their old gas guzzlers until even duct tape can’t hold them together anymore.

The pyramids themselves are of course a massive tourist attraction, but to be honest, I had expected to see more people. It wasn’t like we had them all to ourselves, but I don’t think there were more than a few dozen tourists out there. In fact, there may have been more locals in the form of tour guides, security guards, and trinket sellers than there were tourists. We had to pass through some security, a standard bag scanner and metal detector, and then we were in the park. Our guide did a good job of making sure we always had plenty of time to take pictures at all the best picture spots. And he took some silly pictures for us, using perspective to make it look like a person was touching the tip of the pyramid with their outstretched finger. These photo ops only get more ridiculous as we go on.

IMG_1861I think for a while, my brain was just rejecting the idea that it was real. All the experiential data I ever had with the pyramids was in 2d representation, after all. It’s a very strange feeling when your brain takes something so familiar and has to rewrite the entire thing. I really did try to listen to the guide, but most of what he was saying was stuff I already knew from decades of documentary watching. Instead I kept staring at the pyramid next to us, watching people climbing on the lower blocks and boggling at how easy it is too completely loose perspective without something for scale. I mean, we know the blocks are big, but since all the blocks are big and the backdrop is a desert (the city was behind us) it’s hard to keep in mind just how big, and then you see a person who is standing next to a block that is as tall as they are.

I know it sounds trite, but it really makes you marvel at the people who built it. I mean, the Great Wall is also a marvelous feat of engineering, but at least the stone blocks that make it up could be moved by a small team of men at most. It’s a lot of labor, but it’s labor that makes sense. It’s that stunning difference between knowing a fact from a book or tv, and feeling that idea for yourself. I will never get tired of that.

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We climbed over the front of the large pyramid for a while, taking pictures and feeling the stones, examining the well known spaces between which a piece of paper cannot fit and just generally feeling giddy (nope, that wasn’t just me) then we piled back in the van to drive around to a viewing platform where we could see them a little better. This was a pretty surreal view, because from this place, we could see the grouping of pyramids but with the city as the backdrop instead of the desert. I met an au pair there from Spain who was with the family she worked for on holiday in Sharm. Her boss had given her the day off to come to Cairo and she was near tears with the excitement of actually being at the pyramids.

We took more pictures, and she and I talked about what the pyramids meant to us. I really can’t say enough how different being there is from seeing it, even in IMAX. It’s like waking up from a really cool dream to find out that it’s real after all. It was so nice to find another person who felt the same way about it. Sometimes I think travelers can get inured to the wonders, or simply go to places to check them off a list. Lists can be great, but not if they’re the only reason you’re going. There are things that, when you see them, they will change you if you let them. Your world gets bigger and more amazing than it was before, and even if you forget sometimes, the memory can remind you that amazing stuff is out there, and you can see it.

From the viewing platform, we had a choice. We could pay a little extra to take a camel ride or horse-drawn carriage ride all the way out and around to the “classic” view of the 9 pyramids against the desert backdrop, or we could stay with the van and head to the next stop. I think there are places that spending the extra money is a scam, and I almost always think a camel ride is a scam (maybe I just don’t like camels), however if you find yourself in this position to choose… do it.

IMG_1876I opted for the horse-drawn carriage ride, and got one with a little shade cover, which was nice because the afternoon sun was coming on strong and we were starting to feel the heat. The driver was very courteous and the horse was a little flatulent, but it was a side excursion so very well worth taking. This post is so challenging because I continued to find myself at a complete loss for words, my mind (so rarely quiet) stilled into complete shock by the spectacle in front of me. You’ve seen the pictures before, and I’m sure as you look at mine, they don’t seem that different (perhaps even slightly inferior) to others you have seen. I don’t know to relay the feeling, because nothing anyone said to me before conveyed it.

IMG_1884Plus, out there on the little path through the desert, the tourists and the city and the poverty and the centuries sort of faded away. I couldn’t hear them, and all I could see were the occasional camel and rider shape in the distance. It was a really great way to get some time to myself with the pyramids. The driver stopped several times, some were clearly planned and other times he just noticed I was taking pictures and stopped to make it easier for me. IMG_1905He also took a wide variety of pictures of me in front of the pyramids in increasingly silly poses, most of which will never ever be shown to anyone over the age of 5. The guide had suggested a reasonable tip for this service, and since I felt like he did a good service (and I have intense privilege-guilt) I acquiesced to the extra money above the ride fare.

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As we rode back toward the pyramids, the views continued to shift and change, and although the afternoon is the hottest part of the day, the bright sun and deep blue sky made for some wonderful photos. IMG_1913We finally reunited with the tour group. While we were waiting for everyone to get back, the guide pointed out a small mound of rock between us and the city skyline. That, he told us, is the Sphinx. As my perspective shifted, I realized I was indeed looking at the back of the Sphinx’s head,IMG_1933 it’s body hidden by the high walls of the pit that it lies in, it’s face looking out over the city. It was so small compared to the mammoth buildings next to us. Even the smaller three pyramids in the complex made the nearby Sphinx look tiny.

IMG_1936Once everyone was assembled, we headed over to one of the smaller pyramids where we would be allowed to climb down into the burial chamber itself. Inside a pyramid! Entrance into a small pyramid was included in the ticket price (which was part of my tour package). A person could go inside the Great Pyramid for an extra cost. Our guide suggested that we try the small one first to see what we thought. He pointed out that the chambers were not terribly different, and that we would be better off with the free version. Considering the not very hidden extra fees for the river boat and the horse carriage, I was a little surprised that he wasn’t pimping the Great Pyramid more, but it also made me less inclined to go.

There were several tour groups gathered at the entrance to the small pyramid we were allowed to enter. They were supposed to be regulating the number of people who would go down at a time, but that didn’t always work out. The majority of my group went down, but I was told to wait because there were too many inside. Some came back rather quickly, deciding the steeply slanting climb down in the narrow passage was just too claustrophobic. When I got my chance, I was surprised at how warm it was. I thought that the thick stone would protect the interior from the heat, but there were also a lot of people. There was a small landing at the bottom of the main passage and then another downward slant at a 90 degree angle to the small chamber. The passages were too narrow for people to pass one another, so we clustered together on the landing waiting for the last of the people coming down from the outside, so that those in the chamber below could get out.

I did say there weren’t too many tourists, but this confined space was too much for more than a dozen people at a time, and everyone wanted to see. There was a guide or guard in the chamber, but he was having a hard time regulating people. To be honest, I’m really glad no one panicked because it is a little unnerving to be under tons and tons of rock with a press of bodies and no way out. I finally got into the chamber. There were some ziggurat style “stairs” in one corner, perhaps used as shelving, and there was clearly the carved out pit where the sarcophagus would have lain. These were the two preferred photo-op spots,  and some tourists and I traded cameras so we could take pictures for one another and avoid handing our camera off to the native.

It was very strange. I think I would have liked to see it alone, to get a sense of the space. It was smaller than I pictured burial chambers being, particularly in comparison with the size of the building that housed it. Climbing down into the sarcophagus pit was fascinating. I’ve always loved graveyards, crypts and mausoleums, and although the stone has been brushed by probably millions of hands since it was carved for it’s only resident, if anything that added to the experience, knowing how many people across time and geography had shared this moment with me. A moment preserved where no sun or rain or wind could carry it away.

At some point the room started becoming far too full, and we were running out of safe places to stand. I had become completely cut off from the rest of my group, but I also knew that our guide had been counting heads every time we got on the van and that he wouldn’t leave without me. It took some wrangling and eventually some yelling between guides in Arabic to get the downward flow of tourists to stop and let me back up to the top where my guide was having a heated argument with another guide that sounded roughly like, “see I told you I still had someone down there you idiot”. He was clearly upset with the other guide for not waiting for our whole group to get out before theirs went in, but not upset with me at all.

IMG_1957Our time at the pyramids was finished and it was time to head next door to the Sphinx. We piled back in the van and drove through some more shanty-shack neighborhoods and pulled into the tourist parking area for the Sphinx park. We used our ticket stubs from the Pyramid park to gain entrance and headed toward the great lion-man past a gauntlet of trinket sellers. However bad I may have felt about the Egyptian economy, almost nothing gets me to stop for cheap trinkets, which is sadly what they all had on offer. I was definitely pleased with my art purchase from earlier, and I gotta say, if you need a souvenir from Cairo, go find a nice shop or two and leave the gew-gaws behind with a firm but polite “La, shukran”.

IMG_1961First we entered the temple where we saw the fine stonework that assembled the walls, floors and pillars. Stones here are carved in very irregular shapes, not regular blocks like bricks or legoes, and not even different sized blocks, but really 3D jigsaw style shapes. Each one had to have been carved as part of a larger plan so that they would still fit together so neatly that the proverbial paper could not come between them. Modern engineers and architects think that this kind of assembly gave the structure more stability over time, making it resistant to natural disasters such as floods, high winds or earthquakes.

IMG_1965In many ways, standing the the pillared hallways of the temple was just as thrilling as being inside a pyramid. I know there are a few manmade things on earth that are older than this place, but not many, and none as sophisticated. Somebody needs to shrink the fMRI to a portable size, because I really want to know what the brain is doing differently when we see an image of a thing vs when we see the thing. Our guide did some more historical explaining and warned us once again about the scammers lurking around before setting us loose at the Sphinx viewing area.

IMG_1966This were a lot of tourists, or at least it felt like it. The Sphinx is made of much more fragile rock than the pyramids, and has worn away and been rebuilt many many times since it’s original construction. As a result, tourists are not allowed to climb on the Sphinx the way we are on the pyramids. There is a wall and fence to keep people out of the pit where the Sphinx was dug out. Nonetheless, there was a tiny little corner where, if you stood on the very edge and leaned into the fence, you could get a spectacular shot of the statue that was totally bereft of people. IMG_1983As I made my way along the railing, admiring the work of the flank and paws, a local noticed me trying to take some selfies (because Sphinx selfie, you’d do it too) and more or less took my camera out of my hand to take pictures for me. I did try to stop this from happening, but eventually gave up arguing and let him take the photos, which were the most ridiculous by far, including me punching the sphinx, me kissing the sphinx and the sphinx kissing my bum. No, you cannot see them.

About this time, I decided that it was getting out of hand and took my camera back. This was an argument with some force, because he wanted paying for taking these pictures that I had not requested. I finally got the camera back, simply by refusing to let go. When he asked for money, I gave him the only Egyptian currency I had on me (having left most of my money back on the tour van where it was safe), a whopping 5 Egyptian Pounds (less than 2$). He was also not happy about this and asked for dollars or British Pounds (being used to tourists, the British Pound is widely sought after in Egypt), but I explained that I had no such currency, and that this was all the money I had on me, and perhaps he should be more cautious about taking pictures for people that didn’t ask him to. He left in bad grace and I returned to happily walking up and down the length of the viewing area, dodging children and other people’s photo-ops. I did get my selfie after all, as well as some very nice pictures and a giant amazing memory.

IMG_1980With some reluctance, we said farewell to the ancient mysteries and wended our way back to the tour bus. The Sphinx had certainly been worth the efforts of fighting the crowds, but it was a little disappointing not to be able to explore it more after having so much freedom at the pyramids, ah preservation. The tour was over, but we still had a little time before we had to go to the airport, and so we were escorted to another small shop. This was actually somewhat of a relief, because they were pleased to let us use their restroom and wash some of the dust off before we were all seated for the sales pitch.

The young man attending us was from a Bedouin family that made their business in trading perfume oils. They mostly supplied the fragrance oils to major brand perfumeries (and some off brand too, I’m sure), but were selling the oils directly in their shop. I have no idea if they were really supplying Chanel or Jean Patou with the base flower oils for their perfume or not. I do know that a lot of those oils do come from Egypt, so it’s possible, and it was air conditioned, so I didn’t mind too much.

They offered us a choice of coffee or tea, and some of the other folks were hesitant to accept, believing it was a ruse to put them under obligation to buy. He tried to explain the Bedouin tradition and assure them, but even still, I had to whisper to a few that it really was ok to accept the tea.

Once the drinks were passed around and we had exchanged some pleasantries, he began to tell us more about the oils. There were many scents that were individual flowers or spices, and others that were blends. He sampled out several of them and showed us how to use the oil in small drops instead of spraying as normal perfume. At the end of the presentation he asked us what our favorite perfumes were to see if they had a match. At first I couldn’t think of anything because I don’t wear perfume very often, but then I remembered my mother’s tiny little bottle of Shiseido that I had loved as a little girl. He had to go research the name since it isn’t one of the top brands anymore, but he finally came back with a product they called Isis (the goddess not the terrorists), and while I can’t tell you if it was a match, I did really like it, so I bought a small bottle for about 25$, and I can tell it’s going to last me a really long time because I’ve been using it most days since then and the level has hardly gone down at all. So, all in all, another good choice for a shopping stop.

Finally we headed back to the airport where we clustered together and talked about the day, comparing notes and feelings, talking about where we had been and where we were going. It was quite late by the time I got back to the hotel in Sharm, and I only had time for a few hours of rest before I had to catch my ride back to the ferry at Taba that would take me across the Red Sea.

Although I only spent one day in Cairo, it was a spectacularly amazing trip. I hope to go back again someday, to spend more time in the museum and perhaps see some other parts of the city, but whatever happens, I will cherish the memories of the day my childhood dreams came true.

Royal Decree Holiday: A Day in Cairo (Part 1)

Having postponed my trip to Cairo until my last full day in Egypt, I was pretty darn excited when I woke up before dawn Thursday morning. As I child, one of my very first books was a book of Egyptian mythology. I knew about Isis and Osiris (along with the Norse and Greek gods) before I knew about Jehovah or any of the Abrhamic religious stories. Our family didn’t worship them, they were just fun stories, but the fascination with ancient Egypt gripped me at an early age.

I went through a phase of life where I really thought I wanted to be an archaeologist (I think Indiana Jones did that to a lot of kids in the 80s) and especially and Egyptologist. I have written book reports, given speeches, and made dioramas about ancient Egypt. I have also watched nearly every documentary out there on the topic of the pyramids and the sphinx (yes, even some of the nutty ones about aliens). Stargate SG-1 was my sci-fi tv show hero for delving into the more obscure gods and myths to create characters. I lived in Memphis, TN which is named after the necropolis on the western side of the river Nile. I watched the glass and steel pyramid on the Mississippi River imagining the real things. I wanted to go to Cairo. Really bad. So when I saw a day trip from my resort to Cairo that included the museum, the pyramids and the sphinx for about 200$ including airfare, buses, ticket entries, and lunch… well it was an opportunity not to be missed.

Our van picked us up in the dark small hours of the morning, collecting tourists from several resorts around Sharm before taking us to the airport. We rode a tiny little plane for about an hour, crossing over the vast emptiness of the desert of eastern Egypt that lies between the Red Sea and the Nile river. As we approached Cairo, I was really struck by the contrast of the river valley with the desert around it. There was so much green, and what was clearly acres and acres of flourishing farmland around the winding water that ended abruptly in sand. I was also struck by how long we flew over developed land. Along with the agriculture, there were buildings, extensions of the city that is overflowing it’s borders. Wikipedia says Cairo is 7.7 million people, but our guide told us that if you count the whole metropolitan area that it’s closer to 25 million. Looking down from the air I certainly could not have told you where one “city” ended and another began.

We were told about Old and New Cairo, but also that “old Cairo” is still only about 200-300 years old, and “new”Cairo is about 15-20 years old. Of course people have been living there much, much longer. And there’s also Giza, formerly Memphis. It used to be strictly a necropolis, no one lived on the west bank of the river. But as population pressures continued, people eventually had to join the dead and build housing for the living there too. The government is so concerned with the population pressures in Cairo that they are building a new capital city even farther out and plan to move the seat of government there. It would be astonishingly huge, but hopefully alleviate some of the population squeeze and attract more tourists to the region. Construction is set to begin by 2020 and since “New Cairo” is already in use, there isn’t a name for it yet.

Driving through Cairo

When we arrived at the airport we were divided up by tour group and shown to our buses, where we then waited for a very long time. The Egyptian government is still mightily concerned for the safety of tourists, so we had to get the entire caravan assembled and a police escort readied before we could make the drive from the airport to the museum at Tahrir square. This gave us plenty of time to talk to the guide. It was quite interesting to hear about the last 5 years of Egyptian history from the inside. He didn’t actually intend to get in to a political discussion but there was more than one person who asked questions about it, but it also set up a curious and respectful tone for the trip, and our guide was a font of information with a good sense of humor.

As we drove through the city, he pointed out various landmarks and told us about some of the history of the city. Egypt has been a part of many Empires and colonized by many outsiders over the millenia and it shows strongly in the architecture. There were parts of the city that reminded me of French baroque, Italian Renaissance, and Ottoman Arabic. It was fascinating to see them all side by side.  There were former palaces of Egyptian royalty (ruling as recently as 1952), and the once reserved necropolis sites that were a blend of ancient, medieval, and modern graveyards interspersed with post modern apartment buildings an businesses. We saw the city’s only synagogue (the Ben Ezra) and passed by a Coptic cathedral, but since we were only in town for a day, there was no stopping at any of these wonderful cultural sites, just quick explanations from the highway.

Tahrir Square

IMG_1812Eventually we arrived at our first stop and our police and security escorts took their leave. We were in the famous Tahrir square where both revolutions of 2011 and 2013 held massive protests. I looked around and saw a huge amount of military hardware around the square including a long line of tanks. I have no idea if they were there to protect the museum or to ward off any further mass gatherings in the area. I was a little surprised at how small the square felt. I realize that after being in Tienanmen, that (other than maybe Moscow) all public squares are going to seem a little small, but the numbers of protesters cited in the media made it feel huge. So I did some research when I got home, you should too because the images of the protests are very striking. I realize now that they must have done the same thing to Tahrir that Beijing did to Tienanmen, which was to use cleverly placed monuments and gardens to break up what had once been a wide open space.

Our guide pointed out with pride that the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities had not been damaged at all during the protests and then showed us a building right next to it that remained a burnt out concrete husk. That building had once been the headquarters of the Mubarak regime that was brought down in 2011. It is a stone’s throw from the museum, the blackened and abandoned remains loom large over the square and the gardens and remain a vivid monument to the struggles and success of the revolution.

We were escorted through the gates of the museum and into the surrounding gardens to enjoy the view and take pictures while our guide arranged our tickets and our group headsets. Cameras, alas, are not allowed inside the museum, so I only have my memories there, but you can generally find the most amazing displays have been recorded by an approved media outlet for a magazine or documentary. There are so many tourists at the museum that guides get a special microphone and headset arrangement so that only their group will hear them talking (so they don’t have to shout) and tourists can clearly hear their own guide no matter where they are standing). It was kind of neat actually.

The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities

As I recall the space in an attempt to describe to you what I experienced, my eyes are misting up a little. I love museums. I have a love affair that goes back to my childhood days in the Smithsonian. I love them all, big and small, but oh my god this museum is amazing. If you don’t love museums, feel free to skip to the next section, because I am going to gush. Although I usually use my own photographs here, I was not allowed to take pictures inside the museum, so I tried to find some photos from the web for perspective and to break up the wall of text.

The building itself is enormous and some of the artifacts housed within are so large that the vaulted ceilings go up 3 stories to accommodate them. There are enormous stone statues rescued from dig sites that had been nearly entirely pillaged. There are halls and side rooms and pillars and stacks and rows and buckets of ancient Egyptian artifacts. I went to the travelling Tut exhibit when it was in the US and just.. no. If you love all things ancient Egypt, this place is your temple. I could probably have spent the entire day happily exploring all the rooms and exhibits there, but we only had a couple hours.

The tour guide said he would explain a few highlights to us and then turn us loose for the remainder of the time. (we were free to wander really at any time, but I liked his explanations and stories so far, so I stuck around) Our first stop was a statue of a king where he explained the traditional imagery of the statues, why one foot was always taking a step forward, why the hands were always down at the sides and holding something, and what the meaning of the beard shapes was. It turns out most of these are design features to make it easier to carve strong, long lasting and above all huge statues. The foot forward makes a more stable base than feet together, and the closed hands are both easier to carve (less detail) and stronger. The left foot became the standard because the heart is on the left side of the body, and some significance was attached to that. Square beards indicated humans and curved ones belonged to gods. Since pharos were born human and ascended to godhood, statues of them in life may have square beards while statues of them after death will have curved ones.

The next stop was the Rosetta Stone, only it wasn’t because the British Museum won’t give it back to the Egyptian government. So the most important artifact in helping us to understand the civilization of ancient Egypt is a replica in it’s own country. There were beautiful alabaster sarcophagi that weighed several tons each. Alabaster was chosen because it was the only stone that light could pass through. Specially carved lids required equal lifting from four corners to remove, preventing lone grave robbers from desecrating the bodies. Tombs were often found with two such sarcophagi, but it was not the king and his queen, but rather the body and the organs. No more than one person was ever entombed in single pyramid. We saw the only surviving relic from the tomb of Khufu (Cheops) that had been so thoroughly looted before the sites became protected that all that remained to find was a tiny carved figurine only 7cm high.

I think I may have glazed out for a few things, because honestly there was a lot to take in. At some point I began to get tired from standing still and trying to pay attention and caught myself leaning against the nearest thing, which happened to be a small (less than 3m) sphinx. We passed into the part of the museum that housed the Tut exhibit. Our guide explained that our perceptions in the West that Tut was very important stemmed from the fact that the find was important, being untouched by looters or grave robbers. Tut himself was a child king and only ruled for 9 years. Yet there is over a ton of gold among his treasures. How much more elaborate then would have been the tombs of kings who ruled for decades and accomplished great deeds?

We passed by the nesting boxes of Tut’s tomb, these were small room sized boxes of gold, covered with writing that nested within one another. This was the only way they could create enough wall space to write everything down apparently, since the actual burial chamber sections of the tombs are rather small. There were loads and loads of display cases that showed smaller items, jewelry, clothing and sundries. Our guide stopped at one with a particularly amused look on his face and pointed out a small item of indeterminate form or function. He asked us if we could tell what it was for with a slight smirk and finally revealed that the item was King Tut’s condom. They knew this, he explained, not just because of the material (animal intestine) or shape (and no, Egyptian men aren’t that small, he said, the material has shrunk and dried out over time), but also because they found a residue of semen inside the condom which they were able to DNA match to Tut himself.

Guides are not allowed in the room with Tut’s most famous treasures, so ours pointed out the exit and told us when to meet there to catch the bus to our next stop. I took a quick peek into the Tut treasure room and was not disappointed. All of the most famous and rich treasures including the mask are in this room. Jewelry made from gold and precious stones were in cases all around the mask and it was really only the glowering gazes of two old men at the back of the room that kept me from trying to whip out my phone for a Tut selfie. It really doesn’t seem to matter how often you see these things in pictures or movies, there is just no substitute for the real thing.

Soon the attractions of more rooms of unseen artifacts pulled me forward into the museum. The further I wandered, the less it seemed like a well ordered display and the more I began to feel like I was wandering among the archives. Eventually I came across two men doing active restoration on a piece and watched them for a bit. Then I found a whole section of artifacts that were only partially unpacked, crates still stacked up around them. I walked through a tunnel that had been taken from a crumbling tomb and I stood at the feet of statues so tall that their big toes were at least a foot high. I felt surrounded by the history on all sides. The pressure and weight of civilizations past was overwhelming and eventually I couldn’t hold thoughts any longer but simply stared at the treasures around me. I noticed that there were people throughout the museum perched in front of one object or another making detailed sketches in lieu of photographs. I think that the next time I am able to go to Cairo I’ll be planning about two days for the museum alone and bringing my sketchbook too.

Royal Decree Holiday: The Resort at Sharm

This is the story of my stay in the Park Inn by Radisson. It was a pretty epic deal that I found online and not a bad place to relax. The story is a little less jam packed than most because unlike my previous trips, my stay at this resort was all about doing as little as possible.

The Food and the Grounds

I woke up Saturday morning rather early since my normal sleep schedule gets me up at 6am. The bed was gloriously huge, you know the kind you can roll over in a half dozen times before you reach the other side? I’m not sure if the sheets were Egyptian cotton (being in Egypt) but they were much nicer than the ones in my hotel in Saudi anyway. So I lounged around in bed while waiting for the dining hall to open for breakfast. My all inclusive deal there included 3 meals a day at scheduled intervals in the buffet style dining rooms, but judging from the hours these were open, I couldn’t actually imagine anyone ever having enough time to get hungry between meals.

20150321_075532Breakfast was a bit heavy on the carbs, being full to the brim of pastries, breads, porridges and potatoes, but I managed to get an omelette made to order, an apple cinnamon cheddar danish (omg make that for yourself!) and some fresh fruit including, much to my surprise, fresh dates. I’d never even seen a fresh date before, so I was guessing that these fruits that looked like well hydrated dates were in fact just that. They were quite interesting, and had about as much in common with the dried dates as grapes do with raisins. They were far less sweet and had a texture not unlike a persimmon or khaki fruit. On the whole, I think I prefer the dried ones, but it was a really cool experience to taste them fresh.

The food at the resort was not particularly remarkable otherwise. Despite it’s claim to 4.5 stars, the food was closer to 3. It was perfectly tasty food, but nothing besides the danish and the fresh dates was a new or fascinating taste experience.

20150321_071427After my first breakfast, I decided to wander around the grounds. The weather was simply perfect, sunny but not hot with a nice breeze coming in off the ocean. The water slides don’t get turned on until 10am, so I was able to take a lot of pictures without worrying about disturbing anyone’s privacy. Although Egypt is more open than Saudi, I still saw plenty of women there in modest Muslim dress, including several burkinis (the head to toe bathing outfit that replaces the abaya and hijab for water wear) and I wouldn’t have wanted to offend them by snapping pictures.

IMG_1743The resort compound was huge. It took me most of an hour to walk all the way around the grounds. There were two swimming pools, two restaurants, several bars (also not serving until 10am), an indoor and outdoor dry children’s play area, and of course the water park. Everything was done up in the architectural and decorative theme of ancient Egypt. Having lived in Memphis, TN for some time, I was sort of accustomed to this style. The Memphis (TN) zoo is totally Egypt themed, there are several buildings and restaurants that like to add Egyptian style architectural flourishes or cartouches, and there’s even a giant pyramid down town (concert hall and sports arena, as well as the site of the debaucherous Eyes Wide Shut style parties that the city’s elite hedonists throw). And of course Las Vegas has some similar Egypt themed attractions which may or may not be even more debaucherous. The point is that Americans like making Egypt themed stuff and I’ve seen and even lived with quite a bit of it.

IMG_1744Then suddenly it hit me. This wasn’t some knock off Egyptian history being subverted for marketing, this WAS Egypt. They were totally subverting their own history for marketing!

It was so luxurious to have a week of time in one place, to not have to hurry to see everything that I ended up having naps most days. In the afternoon, I settled into some drinking by the lazy river and met some other Americans (although they hadn’t been back to America for more than a decade) and spent a happy afternoon chatting and drinking having accomplished almost nothing at all.

The Beach and the Staff

IMG_1797The next day I decided to go find the private beach, which entailed crossing the road into the partner resort, the Radisson Blu. All resort guests had wristbands to show we were entitled to free food and drinks and use of the facilities, color coded by resort. It was another beautiful day, so I decided to walk down to the beach rather than wait for the shuttle bus. The Radisson Blu was definitley the more classy of the two resorts, and I’m sure more expensive as well, but it was nice to be able to wander the gardens freely on my way to the beach. There was no sign whatsoever of the over the top Egyptian decor that the Park Inn sported. My resort had a specific area of beach claimed, where I could get a towel with my towel card and where my wristband would be honored at the bar, but past that, I was really free to go where I liked.

IMG_1774The water was surprisingly cold and the ocean floor was covered with shells and rocks that made it uncomfortable to walk barefoot. So after a breif foray into the water, I settled down in a deck chair under a date palm umbrella with a gin and tonic to enjoy the view and the sea air. I spent a rather pleasant morning there alternating between reading my book and watching the water and finally decided to head back to my side of the road for lunch. If my days at the resort seem slow and idle, then I have accomplished my goal. After the February vacation of running around to three countries, I wanted to just lay on a beach or next to a pool and relax. It was blissful.

IMG_1763The Red Sea at this particular location is not at its most stunning, but there were still plenty of people trying to sell boat trips, diving excursions and even dolphin meetups. In fact, these sales people were one of the only downsides of the resorts, since they are constantly roaming the poolsides and beaches to try to sell you something. And maybe they have good deals, so if I was interested in a boat ride or a spa day, I think I would have been glad to see them, but I was not the only guest who felt that they were more pushy than helpful. After a couple days, they all recognized me so started bothering me less. However in the first couple of days at the resort I got invited out a lot, and not just by the sales staff (who invited me to go bar hopping with them) but also by the hotel staff who tried to get me to go out on a date! I might have done the former if I hadn’t been alone, going out to the bars with a group would have been ok, but I really couldn’t imagine going on a date. I also had several of the dining hall staff single me out for special treatment and some intensely over-friendly service until one said to me that he had dreamed about me the night before, to which I replied that I felt he was being inappropriate and the unwelcome attention stopped. I really can’t decide if they were really flirty (because of all the loose Western women in bathing suits running around) or if they just thought that all the women enjoyed this kind of attention. I can certainly imagine that some women would find it very flattering, I may have just been in Saudi too long to be comfortable with it. Either way, I was pleased to see that they desisted as soon as I expressed displeasure.

The cleaning staff were astonishingly persistent. If I forgot to hang up the do not disturb sign when I took a nap, they would knock and knock until I got up to tell them to go away. Once, after calling from the bed for them to go away (“no thank you”) they had the reception call my room to ask me to let them in! However, if I had the sign on the door, there was not so much as a peep. And when they did clean the room, they left beautiful arrangements of fresh spring flowers and folded my fresh towels in interesting patterns on the bed.

The Water Park

IMG_1759Other than a toe dip in the wave pool and a short wade in the sea, I hadn’t really done any swimming. The pools were actually rather chilly, which is probably awesome in the hot weather, but the mild spring weather meant that the pools were not quite comfortable. I never did get to take advantage of the swim up bar because it was just too cold to be both in the water and in the shade.

IMG_1753However, the friendly Americans (who live in Jordan) that I had made friends with were often at the poolside after lunch and invited me to join them and hang out. This was nice because I love meeting and talking to new people and it also meant that I got a lot less attention from all the male staff (because we were surrounded by children). It was really nice to see what looked like 3 or 4 separate families interchanging kid duties so that various adults could take turns doing other stuff, and it’s part of how I got the idea to try to organize a similar trip with my kid bearing friends.

IMG_1751So I sat with them and sipped my g&t and watched their children play. I had been looking longingly at the water slides for some time, determined to get in a few good rounds while I was there, but they seemed so intimidating to do alone. Not because the slides were scary, but because there were almost no people using them at all and a single woman still attracted a lot of attention. (sometimes I wonder how long it’s going to take me to be comfortable in mixed gender company again after all this). Fortunately, I was saved. The 8 year old boy was itching to go, but his mother had insisted all the children go with buddies and none of the other kids wanted to do the scary high slides he wanted to go on. IMG_1749So I asked if he would go with me instead and we had an absolute blast. I forgot to hold my glasses on the first slide down, and he happily dove to the bottom to retrieve them for me. We rode several slides and I always let him decide where we would go next, what order we would go down the slides in, and for the two person raft, who would sit in front. I felt totally safe from the attention of the male staff with an 8 yr old in tow and his mother told me later that I absolutely made his day because an adult wanted to hang out with him.

The Food Poisoning

I debated about putting this in, because I feel like it was otherwise an absolutely stunning trip, but for the sake of posterity and narrative tension, here it goes (don’t worry, there aren’t any  pictures). I was staying at the resort from Friday to Friday (although realistically, that was 2am Saturday morning to 2am Friday morning) and figured that an entire week of relaxing was just too much, so I had scheduled a day trip to Cairo for Tuesday thinking that would give me three days of getting adjusted and relaxing before, and another two days to relax afterward. I think this would have been a great plan, except that Monday night I fell astonishingly ill.

You can make jokes about the free booze and overdrinking, but really, I had never gone beyond lightly tipsy at any point, I don’t really like being drunk and certainly not when I am alone among strangers. This was not a booze related puking. Also, with booze you generally throw up and then feel better. I almost couldn’t stop, and even a sip of water would bring it on again. I spent hours like this and worse, I couldn’t get anyone from reception to pick up the phone. Although at the time, I only wanted to order peppermint tea, I can’t imagine if it had been a real emergency how they would have handled that. I guess they aren’t used to single guests there and rely on a family member to be able to run for help. Insane.

Somewhere around 3am I realized I was not going to be able to go to Cairo. The shuttle to the airport was supposed to arrive around 5am and I had had zero sleep and the vomiting wasn’t stopping. So I called the travel agency and said I couldn’t go and asked about rescheduling. Eventually I realized that I had to stop putting anything in my stomach, even water, and was able to get a few hours of sleep. When I woke up, I tried the water again with better results and went down to the dining hall to make myself some hydration fluid (salt, sugar and lemon in water). Armed with several bottles of this concoction and a couple of white bread rolls, I went back to the room and dozed in and out of consciousness while trying to make myself drink slooooowly. There was no way I could have gone to Cairo that day.

I won’t accost you with the remaining symptoms of the food poisoning, but suffice it to say I was concerned about dehydration and ate only very plain foods in tiny amounts. Tuesday was entirely lost. Wednesday wasn’t a whole lot better. I was able to eat a bit more food, but I don’t think I was digesting it well, I still slept a lot and felt weak and tired the rest of the time. Thursday was my last day in Egypt and the day I’d rescheduled my trip to Cairo for, and come hell or high water, I wasn’t going to miss out on that, so Wednesday evening I asked the hotel to prepare a boxed breakfast for me and I packed my backpack up for a day trip. Thankfully, the lingering effects of my illness were mostly a complete lack of appetite and the excitement made up for any lack of energy that may have remained.

By the time we got back to the resort late Thursday night I had only a few hours to repack my bags and nap before the bus back to Taba arrived, where I would catch the early morning ferry to take me back to Jordan, where I would await my driver to take me back to Tabuk, ending my (mostly) magical adventure.


The rest of the story will be continued in “A Day in Cairo”… don’t forget to check out all the pictures on my facebook page and thanks for reading! 🙂

A Farewell to Saudi

I think I realized why I’ve been putting off writing in my blog about the last vacation. In the car on the way back from Aqaba, I felt so good, so full of joy and love for the world I thought I was going to burst, and yet within a day of being back in Saudi it was gone. Before when I would come back from a trip, writing about it was half of the adventure, I got some of those feelings back when I viewed my photos or wrote descriptions of the places I’d been. It seems I’m avoiding those memories, because all they do is remind me of what I don’t have now.

When I first came here, there was some adventure, some newness, a series of events of trying to figure things out, and several things to look forward to. I don’t think it’s Saudi in general that’s getting me down. I see people in other cities having a good time, and I remember that in Jeddah and Riyadh there were taxis and car services, lots of restaurants, parks, museums, and places to go that had a little freedom like the expat beaches or diplomatic quarter.

But Tabuk is small, and I’m trapped in one tiny corner of it with no means of transportation but a company driver, and no one go there with anyway. It might have been a little more bearable with better transportation, but really, I don’t think I’d be happy living in a tiny town in any culture. In the second half of my time in China, I was going into Beijing at least twice a week to get out of the small town. When I lived in a small town with my family in the US, I started taking off into the city as soon as I was able, and not necessarily waiting for parental permission (sorry mom).

On top of that, Saudi is a hard place to be a woman, especially a single one. Although I had more freedom in Jeddah and Riyadh, it’s still hard. Unlike many expat women, I don’t hate the abaya, although I am getting a little tired of black. But I don’t like the inability to have a conversation with a man without being seen as “loose” or any number of other derogatory sexual terms. I don’t like the fact that I can’t shake hands, make eye contact or smile at another person in public. Although the women behind closed doors are wonderfully friendly and lively, in public they are closed off and distant, so finding my way into social settings is very challenging.

I remember at my going away party I was showing off pictures of the compound I was supposed to be living on, but that was changed after I arrived in Saudi, and instead of living around a community of expats with access to a cafeteria, cinema, pool and gym, I’m living in a rather small hotel room with one working burner, no oven, a washing machine that’s only one step up from hand washing, and no neighbors to mingle with.

I question what is the point of proving I could “tough it out” when what I really want in life is to feel that joy and love again. Am I proving something? What? and to who? I know I’m strong and capable already. Is it about future employers? Not really. There isn’t actually an industry wide stigma about leaving a job as long as you do it with notice (voluntary resignation and termination are standard clauses in the contracts), and basically everyone would understand leaving a job in a desert with no air conditioning, no flushing toilets, and in a country that just went to war.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate Saudi, far from it. I’m still grateful for the experiences I have had in the Kingdom, I’ve seen things that most people will never get to see. I now know why everyone who comes here wants to write a book. This place is unlike anything else on Earth. On top of that, I made enough money to travel around the region and learn things about the Middle East that have changed my feelings forever for the better.

Jeddah
I spent a wonderful week in Jeddah when I first arrived here. I got to go snorkeling in the Red Sea, and enjoy a beautiful beach. I got to ride Asia’s tallest double loop rollercoaster and see the UNESCO world heritage site at Al Balad. It gave me a great insight into the wide range of cultural norms within the kingdom.

Saudi People
I got invited more than once to visit a Saudi friend in her home. It was so welcoming and such a great way to see how the people live here. We had so much fun chatting, eating and dancing. I also got to go to an Istraha and see how the Saudi people party!

IMG_0274

GCON
I went to a women’s only gaming convention in Riyadh, and although I only got to see a few hours of it, those hours were a precious memory and a great peek into what is going on under the abaya for the young women here.

Riyadh
In visiting the capital I got to see the jewel of a museum that is there and was thrilled to see the quality of the displays as well as the delicate integration of science and religion that respected both. I also got to go to the famous Al Faisaliah tower, enjoy a magnificiently luxurious spa treatment followed dinner at the top complete with view.

The Edge of the World
The first of my three bucket list items that I came here with was completed with this trip. The geography was simply stunning and the company was equally amazing. I found a 50+ million year old fossil shell and I got taken out to a traditional Saudi restaurant for dinner afterward by some more charming and brilliant Saudi ladies.

A Saudi Wedding
I got to attend a wedding where the men and women remained segregated even as the bride walked down the aisle. It was a real kick to see the women shake it, even the old ladies got up and danced!

Madain Saleh
Number two on the bucket list was this amazing ancient civilization’s ruins. It was really a privilage to be able to see the ruins and be escorted by such a great guide. Not only that, I left with a pretty hilarious story about the French cultural attache.

Beyond Saudi
I also got to explore Dubai, Jordan and Egypt while I was living here. In many ways I think I had a very different experience coming from Saudi to these countries than I might have simply on vacation from the US. For one thing, whenever people I met found out I was living in Saudi, they seemed very sympathetic, but also very keen to showcase their own country’s customs in contrast to what I experienced in Saudi.

Dubai
This place is as wealthy and glitzy and big as you think it is. Acutally probably more so. The amazing birthday brunch and surprise night out with the mystery star, the world’s tallest building, the Atlantis, and so much more. Dubai is like going inside a fairy tale.

Jordan
This country has stolen my heart in a very short time. Petra was so powerful, my stay in Amman was barely long enough to let me know I want to go back, and Aqaba finally checked off my third and final bucket list item for this leg of the adventure: scuba diving in the Red Sea.

Egypt
From the luxury resort at Sharm el Sheihk to the majesty of the Pyramids, the people of Egypt are so welcoming and full of hope for their future and yet struggling so much to recover from the years of revolution. A life long dream of seeing the great Pyramids would have been enough, but I got more.

My blog is filled with these experiences and many more because I treasure them and want to share them with the world. It was a desire for experiences that drew me here. It was because Saudi cannot be understood from a book or a movie that I wanted to see it for myself. And I see a lot of expats who have made a home here, but most of them have a family with them, and live in a community they can interact with, while I am alone. So after some serious soul searching, I have decided I need to leave now.

As for what’s next, I’ve been waiting to hear back from some interviews and job opportunities, but I think it’s time to recognize that I will find something, if not now then surely by the fall. I chose this career because I enjoy the work, I love the travel and someone’s always hiring. This wasn’t my plan when I came here, but that is one of the things I’m learning, how to let go of a plan. In one of our last converations, my father said this to me:

“You call yourself an adventurer and you certainly have had some adventures. You have seen and done things most people only dream about. All adventures also have an element of danger and uncertainty, that is part of what makes them an adventure. It seems you have traded financial well being for an adventurous life. If you can’t have both, it seems like a good choice.”

I guess I hope I can have both, or at least enough financial well being not to be living in a cardboard box, but I think he’s right, if I have to choose, I would rather have adventure than money. It’s been a wild ride in Saudi, but it’s getting time to move on.

“The greatest adventure is what lies ahead.
Today and tomorrow are yet to be said.
The chances, the changes are all yours to make.
The mold of your life is in your hands to break.”
–J.R.R. Tolkein

Royal Decree Holiday: Getting to Sharm el Sheikh

When I found out we were maybe going to have an extra week of vacation, I started considering my options. I’d originally planned my March outing to be a weekend trip to the iris fields outside of Riyadh, but since that tour was the weekend before our holiday, I decided I’d take a longer trip outside Saudi again instead. Turns out I got to see some pretty beautiful flowers anyway, and a whole lot more.

I went to my friendly Saudi expat Facebook page for advice on where I could go for a week and not spend a fortune. I felt like I was pretty much done with Dubai for the moment, plus it is not cheap there. I thought about Bahrain, but the airfare was becoming prohibitively expensive. Then several folks suggested a place called Sharm el Sheikh. I did some research and found out that this is a beach resort town on the southern part of the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. Although our holiday hadn’t been confirmed yet, I found a resort online that was going to cost me less than 300$ for the whole week, and was all inclusive and had a waterpark on site. Since it was free to cancel, I booked it.

I then went through the dance that results from nothing being sure until the last minute. By the time we were confirmed for our holiday, ALL flights going anywhere from Tabuk were sold out. It was literally impossible for me to fly out of Tabuk. I further found that it’s not allowed for women to take the public intercity buses without a male escort. I remembered one of my co-teachers had hired a driver to take her to and from Jordan, so I asked her for the contact information and began to arrange a private car to Aqaba. But the resort is not in Aqaba, it’s in Sharm. So then I had to figure out how to get from Jordan to Egypt. I looked at flights, but they were more than 600$ and went through 2 stops on the way, Amman and Cairo. I thought about giving up my great resort deal and just spending my vacation in Aqaba, but Jordan is much more expensive than Egypt, and I could not get anything like the accommodation for anything like the price, so I’d probably end up paying just as much to fly and stay in Sharm as I would not to fly but stay in Aqaba.

Finally, my searching led me to discover the existence of ferries that run from Aqaba to the Sinai peninsula. For some reason, tourism websites for the Middle East aren’t well maintained or updated, so I found a lot of false leads and no way at all to book a ferry ticket online, despite finding several places that said that tickets had to be purchased days in advance of the trip. After many emails and phone calls, I finally found a company that would arrange the boat, as well as the car drive from the ferry terminal to my resort. It was almost as expensive as the flight, but I was running out of options. So I agreed to pay the fare and asked them to confirm the booking… then never heard from them again. I hadn’t actually given them any money, so that was pretty strange. At nearly the last minute, I found another company with much better prices and booked with them instead, saving myself several hundred dollars. (aqaba@sindbadjo.com)

You can read about my days in Aqaba here.

Friday evening, I left my Aqaba hotel and headed down to the marina to meet my boat to Egypt. I couldn’t find the slip, but was able to call the company who told me where to go and sent the ship’s captain out to meet me. They made me some coffee while we were waiting, and we had to run up to the immigration office since the official decided not to come down to the slip. There I paid my exit tax for Jordan and was allowed to board the boat. The captain showed me up to the bridge, saying I got the VIP seat.

The captain talked to me for a while about the change in Egypt over the last 5 years, the fall of the Mubarak regime and two revolutions. The collapse of the economy and the death of the tourist trade that made up 34% of their economy before. He was not a young man, and I can only imagine all of the things that he has seen Egypt go through in his lifetime. He seemed to love his country despite all it’s problems and he was proud that they had learned from other democracies and finally arrived at a limited term presidency. He told me about the new capital city that’s being built outside Cairo, and he seemed genuinely hopeful for Egypt’s future.

When his attention was required to navigate the international waters, he returned to his instruments and doused the light in the room. I stepped into the doorway that led onto the deck, remembering the advice of another captain I know “one hand for you, one hand for the boat”. So it was that I found myself crossing the Red Sea by starlight from bridge of a yacht. As I looked up at the stars, I found the familiar constellation of Orion, and then reminded myself that here he was known as Osiris. I am so glad I didn’t fly.

As we reached the far shore, the bare rock mountains of Sinai loomed suddenly out of the water, lit by the streetlights along the narrow road between the sea and the cliffs. In no time at all we were pulling into the port at Taba. I bid farewell to my host and joined the shuffling mass of tourists heading toward customs and immigration. We passed through with little ado, but when I got clear of the border post, tourists were being rounded up into buses by tour guides. I asked several if they knew where my bus was, but no one did. I think before coming to the Middle East this situation would have made me really nervous, instead I was just exasperated. I called the company back and explained the issue, they gave me the name of the driver I should ask for and I proceeded to. Another driver said he knew the man, but that he wasn’t there that night, so he called him for me. The driver who was supposed to collect me denied that he had been scheduled, so I called the company again. After a few more calls and some offers from other drivers to buy a seat on their bus (not an option I wanted to pursue, since I’d already paid one company for a round trip), the Jordanian manager of my company arranged for another driver to take me that night, effluving apologies and making rather disparaging comments about the Egyptian workforce.

Take home lesson, if you’re lost in the Middle East, make your tour guide sort it out. I’m not a huge fan of tour guides in most situations, but these guys were really helpful in navigating the paperwork and arranging the transportation that would have definitely been more expensive had I tried to simply take a taxi from the port. Plus they do trips both ways, so on my way back a week later, I was amid a group that was headed to Petra for a day before returning to their resorts in Sharm. Shameless plug, but the countries need the tourism and the Sindbad guys really were nice, efficient and well priced.

The drive from Taba to Sharm is 3 hours according to Google maps, but took us more like 4.5. Not only are the roads in terrible repair, making it very hard to rest for all the bumping, but we had to stop at every checkpoint and wait for the entire caravan of vehicles to catch up before we were allowed to move on. I understand this is a security measure to keep isolated vehicles full of tourists from being lost on the road. I don’t know if it’s a normal thing, or if we got extra security because of the 26th Arab Summit that was going on while I was there.

For the first couple of hours, I actually didn’t even mind. The view was really beautiful with the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. The stars overhead were stunning so far from any large urban areas. But after a while, the stars disappeared and the weariness of the day began to sink in. We stopped at a little gas station/rest stop to get coffee and use the bathroom. There was a fee for the restroom, and I hadn’t had a chance to change any currency since leaving Saudi. The employees there were accepting British pounds and US dollars in addition to Egyptian pounds, but looked shocked when I told them I only had Saudi riyal. Not to be deprived of money, they figured it out, and I got a few Egyptian pounds in change and access to the the toilets. Considering the exchange rates, I think they were charging us less than 20 cents each, but they must have made out like bandits having several busloads of road weary tourists with nowhere else to pee.

After a further couple hours, we finally arrived. The driver took us around to all the resorts on his list, dropping a few tourists off at a time. Most of the people on my bus were Russian. It seems that Sharm is a very popular vacation destination for Russians. I later learned that all of the vacation literature is published in English and Russian, and most of the staff speak one or both languages as well. I finally got to the Radisson Park Inn around 2am. When I told the gate guard I was there to check in, he asked about my luggage and was really surprised that I only had a backpack. Apparently most people arrive with loads of bags (I often saw piles of luggage outside the reception area awaiting delivery to rooms) and leave with even more, since shopping is a popular Arab pastime.

After a full day that had included scuba diving, crossing the Red Sea and driving the Sinai coastline, I was totally worn out, but I knew I had a full week ahead of me and so I headed to my room and zonked out.


To be continued…

Explore the resort, the beach and the people of Sharm el Sheikh with me in the next installment of the Royal Decree Holiday. 

Royal Decree Holiday: Diving in Aqaba

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve written in here. There have been some life events that maybe when I’m farther away from I’ll be able to write as interesting anecdotes, but for the moment they’ve had me holed up and uncreative. Now I’m on my way out of the Kingdom soon and looking forward to some new summer adventures visiting friends in Europe, so I figured I’d try to get the last of my holiday travels written up before I go on to new ones. Thanks for hangin’ in there with me 🙂


Our second semester of classes was meant to be one 5 month long string of classes with no relief in sight (a fact that had I known, might have made me reconsider my choice of employer and has since caused me to add a new question to my interview pile). However, suddenly and out of nowhere, the new King declared that all the schools in the Kingdom would be closed for a week in late March. Later there was some speculation that this might have been related to the impending invasion of Shia held territories in Yemen, but at the time, we had no idea that was coming, we only knew that school was out because the King said so. I think a lot of people believe that the Saudi monarchy is more honorific than practical, because our picture of royals is so based in Britain, however, Saudi is a true monarchy: the King owns all the land, the King owns all the oil, the King makes all the rules. There are advisory councils and local representatives (some of whom are even elected), but in the end, when the King says close the schools, the schools close.

There was a period of debate from my employers however, since we are a private school not entirely subject to the same rules as the Saudi schools, and while our branch was on a Saudi university campus, many of the company’s other schools were not on such campuses and had no reason to close. And of course, during this time of debate, we were strictly told not to purchase any plane tickets or make any non-refundable hotel reservations, because this trick happened last year and the vacation was cancelled at the last minute, screwing dozens of teachers out of their holiday plans and the money they had spent.

I booked a great (refundable) hotel, but had no idea how to get there if not by plane, and all the flights out of Tabuk for the holiday were rapidly filling up, even weeks before the holiday, because all the Saudi’s knew for sure they weren’t going to school. In fact, by the time the holiday was officially acknowledged by my employer, there were no seats on any flights out of Tabuk going anywhere for any price. (valuable lessons have been learned, dear reader, oh how full of fine print and loopholes is the glorious world of ESL teaching)

My only option remained a private driving service that ran shuttles from Tabuk to Jordan. So, along with two other teachers escaping for holiday, I hoped in an SUV and embarked on the desert road trip. Actually, it’s an astonishingly beautiful drive. The desert in northwestern Arabia was once, like all of Arabia, under water and the stunning rock monoliths that jut from the sand in striations of color and peculiarities of shape are quite breathtaking. We stopped in Haql just inside the Saudi border to get some gas (I’m sure it’s much cheaper in Saudi), snacks and find a restroom. The gas station didn’t have one, but we hopped across the road to the public beach that had a changing room/bathroom for public use. On the way back to the car, I grabbed some quick pictures of the sun setting over the Red Sea and some beautiful pink spring blossoms.

It took us a long time to get through the border. There was a lot of paperwork and waiting, and at some point the whole process shut down for sunset prayer. Sometime well after dark, we were finally released into the freedom of Jordan, and one of my car companions popped into the duty free shop at the border crossing to buy a beer. I am not normally one to grab booze at the first exodus from the dry zone that is KSA, but it seemed like a fun idea, so I grabbed a can and looked longingly at the bottles of wine before remembering that I had another border crossing the next day and no idea what the customs rules were on open bottles, so wine could wait until Egypt.

The eventual solution for getting to my resort in Egypt, by the way, was to take a ferry from Aqaba (Jordan) to Taba (Egypt) and then get a bus to Sharm el Sheihk (Egypt) where the resort was. I would have flown if I could have, really, but then I would have missed this amazing side adventure in Aqaba, so I think it worked out for the best. The ferry departed in the evening around 7, but we were supposed to check in at least 30 minutes early to deal with customs. I knew that it was a 3 hour drive from Tabuk, which meant that theoretically I could have made it to the docks in time, but decided not to chance it and booked a hotel for Thursday night in Aqaba near the Marina where I would catch the ferry the next day instead. It was a good thing too, since the border crossing had taken so long, it was well after 8 when we arrived at my hotel.

I checked in without incident, dropped off my things in the room and came back out for dinner, having only had some laban and a pastry since lunch. I ordered something lamb and tomato which was quite delicious, and chatted with the Filipina waitress while secretly passing tidbits of my dinner to the puppy and the cat who ranged around the patio. I also enjoyed my beer with dinner in the cool spring evening air before crawling into bed and falling asleep.

The room was not luxurious, there were three beds arranged in the space and it was clearly meant for larger groups than me, but it was reasonably clean and the air conditioning worked, even if the television did not. What the hotel lacked in room amenities it more than made up for in awesome people.

I headed out of my room for breakfast the next morning, unsure of what to do with my day but unconcerned as well. While I was staring at the carafes trying to determine which one was coffee, the Pakistani couple already seated clued me in. We exchanged some lighthearted comments about the importance of morning coffee and they invited me to sit with them. It turned out that the husband was also a teacher in Saudi and so they were on the same holiday from school that I was. They were surprised that I had recognized them as Pakistani, saying that most people thought they were from India based on their accents. I’d like to say it’s a lucky guess, but I’m slowly learning that at least in the ME, Indians are treated as servant class, so it was more their clothing, demeanor and status as tourists that clued me in to their economic prosperity and thus their nationality.

We chatted about life in Saudi and I asked about their holiday plans. It turned out they hoped to see Petra, so I was able to share my advise on where to stay and what to see. They were happy to have the insight. I really hope that they made it and were able to enjoy the sights.

Shortly after the couple left to catch a ride to Wadi Musa, I settled in to the hotel’s outdoor seating area to read. Aside from the outdoor dining area, there was a small pool, two floor seating areas designed to mimic Bedouin tents, and another patio with raised seating. Everything was surrounded by climbing trees and vines that were blooming in the late March sunshine. Happy little birds chirped in the trees and the puppy roamed around amiably. The air was fresh with the breeze from the sea that was just over the main road and I had a book and a cup of coffee. I felt that I could happily spend the whole day just like that.

I was interrupted by a friendly face come to say hello. And as I’m sure you all know by now, I love meeting new people, so I put down the book and commenced to chatting. Ismael, as it turned out his name was, ran the dive shop attached to the hotel and had come over to see if he could convince me to take a dive that morning. A scuba dive. Which I had never done before and had no training in whatsoever. I told him as much and he said it was no problem, that the dive master would take good care of me and I would have a wonderful time. Wary of a sales pitch, yet loathe to be rude, I followed Ismael over to the dive shop next to the restaurant where he showed me the equipment they used and several underwater pictures of the reefs were they took people to dive. The offer was becoming more and more tempting.

Before coming to Saudi, I had read about the wonderful coral reefs in the Red Sea and it was my firm determination (believing at the time that I would live in Jeddah, a city on the Red Sea with lots of beaches) to scuba dive for the first time in the beautiful waters there. On my one trip to Jeddah, I was able to go to a beach that had a reef close enough to shore to access without a boat and went snorkeling there. It was amazing. I felt like I was in a National Geographic documentary, even though I never swam deep enough to have to hold my breath. I knew that if I had lived there, I would have spent all the time I could at those beaches and learned to dive if I could find a school that would take a female student, but alas, I did not live in Jeddah, and my weekend trips soon became curtailed when the company decreed that we could no longer take personal vacation days, even unpaid ones, but only national holidays or sick days with doctor’s notes.

So when I found myself suddenly presented with the option to actually dive in the Red Sea, as I had declared my intention to do a year previously, I was a bit overwhelmed. Ismael was patient but persistent, he addressed my concerns, talked to me about safety procedures and even offered me a discount by way of encouragement. Adventure finally won over practicality and I went of to don my swimsuit and contact lenses (which I had brought thinking I might go snorkeling again, glasses don’t fit under swim masks at all). Back at the dive shop I was fitted out with a scuba suit and introduced to Mogli who would be our dive master that day. Mogli was a kind and modest young man who really seemed to love his job. He was a capable instructor and did a good job of encouraging us and dealing with my total inexperience.

We donned all the gear and walked from the pavilions down to the beach, which is quite a heavy walk let me tell you. The Red Sea is very saline and we had heavy weights in addition to the tanks. Once we got in the water, he made sure that our fins were on tight and had us practice breathing in the shallows to make sure we were ok with the tanks. He taught us some simple hand signals: ok, problem, go up, go down, out of air, and he told us a signal he would use to tell us to pose so he could take pictures. We practiced getting water out of our masks and practiced the hand signals some more, then headed out toward the reef.

My first scuba dive was done with about 10-15 minutes of training, but it was really cool. Even more than snorkeling, where one is mostly looking down upon the ocean floor, we were able to swim around such large reefs that from the ocean floor, we were looking up the reef with fish swimming above us like birds. I spent a lot of energy focusing on my breathing. You can’t breathe in scuba like you can in air, it requires slightly more force to inhale and exhale, not an uncomfortable amount, but not so little that you can do it without thinking on your first try. There were moments when I would feel like I couldn’t get enough air, but thankfully I’ve had a lot of training in breathing from band, choir, martial arts and yoga, so I was able to stay calm and find the rhythm of breath again. I also had a hard time orienting myself, when I stopped moving I would drift or bits of me would start floating. I don’t have much experience swimming with fins, so I had to keep reminding myself to stop trying to swim with my arms.

It was a lot to take in, I kept getting distracted by the beauty all around me and would forget to do something with my body. It would be like trying to learn to drive on a beautiful country road surrounded by flowering trees and soaring mountains filled with magical waterfalls. You have to pay attention to the road or you’ll crash, but you want to watch the beauty around you. I’m grateful to have had such a good guide, who had me hold on to his arm as he guided us around the reef so that I could worry less about where I was going and spend more time watching. In addition to so many beautiful living corals and colorful tropical fish, we spotted a lone puffer fish and a beautiful red lion fish among the rocks.

Before I knew it, the dive was over and we were heading back to shore. Once we left the water, the gravity that had seemed to ignore us for the last 30 minutes came back with a vengance, and we slogged back up the beach in all our heavy gear in the newly unfamiliar pull of 9.8m/s2 in mere air. We loaded all the gear back in the jalopy and drove the short way back to the hotel. It was still before noon, so I went back to my room to take a shower and get dressed. I managed to find the hotel manager to ask about check out time. I told him I was catching the ferry that night and so wanted to hang out until it was time to go, but could check out whenever it was necessary. He told me not to worry about it, which was nice.

Ismael and Mogli invited me to join them for dinner. I wanted to catch a nap after my exertion diving, so I asked them to call me when it was ready to wake me up. They were preparing a local dish called zarb which involves digging a big hole and putting a fire in the bottom, then layering in chicken, rice and vegetables, covering up the hole and letting it all slow cook in the earth. I had a nice afternoon nap and woke up just a bit before they called me about dinner. We gathered around a large communal dish in the room behind the diving center, myself, Ismael, Mogli, Tyson and another quite shy young man whose name I’m sad to say I never properly learned. We ate without utensils as is the custom of the Bedouin, but unlike the Saudi kabsa, the Jordanians pour yogurt over the rice and chicken, which is not only delicious but makes it much easier to scoop up in your fingers.

I also noticed that although at least some of them did mutter “bismallah” a kind of pre-meal prayer, that the prohibition of left hand food touching wasn’t really observed. I thought about it more and realized that every time I’d been at one of the no utensil meals that it had been necessary to use both hands to tear apart the meat on the plate, since both lamb and chicken were served whole or in barely separated large chunks far to large to pick up whole and often far to stubborn to rend with one hand. They may have moved the food to their mouths right-handed, but the chicken was torn apart two handed. I think there were two or three chickens, in addition to a huge pile of rice, a half dozen potatoes and some onions and peppers. I was quite hungry, and the food was amazing, nonetheless I still ate far less than my hosts who continued to claim I should stop being shy and eat more (some things it seems are the same even across the border).

 

We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting, drinking tea and smoking shisha, I collected the pictures that Mogli had taken underwater. My host called out to everyone passing by, some he knew and others were strangers. Some came to talk, drink and smoke with us, others passed by with a wave and a smile. I enjoyed myself immensely, and as the evening drew to a close, I packed up my bag and accepted a ride to the marina from one of Ismael’s many local friends.

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On my way back from Egypt a week later, I arrived on a very early morning ferry and caught a ride with one of the tour guides, although I was not a part of his group. He took me back up the beach to the hotel and as it turned out, was also a friend of Ismael’s. The folks at the hotel were happy to see me again, and I camped out around the public spaces, mooched some coffee from the kitchen and settled down to enjoy my last day of freedom before the driver came that afternoon to take me back to Saudi.

Ismael managed to talk me into a second dive, which was not really very hard to do. This time I went alone with Mogli and we went to an area called the Japanese gardens. We didn’t have the camera along, but it was even more stunning than my first dive. I was a bit more comfortable with the gear, but still felt awkward trying to move along. I am very buoyant naturally, and combined with the high salinity of the Red Sea, I’m extremely buoyant. I remember floating in the water in Jeddah it took no effort at all to float fully vertical with my head above water. Normally, staying vertical requires treading water, and floating requires more horizontality, but not in the Red Sea. Our second dive was a little deeper and even with the weights, I was still floating too much, so Mogli had to put some rocks in my vest to weigh me down. I hadn’t really learned to adjust the buoyancy controls myself yet, so I felt like I was always to light or too heavy. This was probably not helped by the fact that in the crystal clear water it was almost impossible to tell how far away the corals below us actually were.

However, the gardens were unbelievable. They really did resemble beautiful gardens of sculpted topiary and shrines of carefully balanced rocks with beautiful little flowers dancing in and out of the cracks. We swam around so many beautiful formations. One of my favorite color combinations is a sort of sandy brown with a light blue and the corals offered this combination over and over again along with stunning purples, greens and yellows, not to mention the flashing silver, rainbow and neon of the fish. Mogli showed me the anemone clinging to one towering wall of stone and coral, touching them lightly to make them hide. We saw so many amazing animals. There were more puffer fish and large lion fish on display. There were thin snake-like fish disguised as blades of sea grass. There were schools of fish of all colors and patters, zebra stripes, neon blue and sunny yellow, purple so intense it was almost ultra-violet and silver that flashed bright in the sea filtered sun.

It will probably take me many more dives and much more training to be able to use the equipment on my own and to get used to the strange method of locomotion that isn’t like any other style of swimming I’ve done, but it will be worth it. In less than 90 minutes of time in the ocean on only two occasions, I’ve become an addict. I don’t know where and I don’t know how, but I will get my open water certification, and you should too.

After my second dive, I didn’t have a room to shower in, but there were some in the public bathrooms at the hotel, so after washing off the salt, I spent a happy few last hours with Ismael and his friends, drinking tea and smoking shisha and watching the people pass by in the beautiful spring weather. Although my holiday was planned for Sharm el Sheikh, a chance overnight hotel booking became a magical adventure and beautiful two days, starting and ending my holiday with nature’s beauty and humanity’s goodness. In many ways, it was this part of my holiday even more than Egypt, that made returning to Saudi so difficult and has made the contrast between what is available here and what exists elsewhere.

It isn’t just Dubai, the Las Vegas of the Arab world, that offers freedoms and fun in the Middle East. All of the people that I met in Jordan both in February and again in March in three different places were open, friendly and very moderate Muslims who embodied all the hospitality of legends while displaying absolutely none of the intolerance or violence that has come to be associated with the Middle East in the media these days. It safe, it’s beautiful and the people are wondrous. I think I’ve fallen a little bit in love with Jordan, and that if I ever return to the Middle East to live it will be there.