Run the equator: November 2007

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Living la vida loca!

Forget falafel, forget tzatziki, forget pizza and pasta – in Spain we have reached culinary Nirvana. Tapas-hopping is a wonderful Spanish tradition that turns dinner (or lunch) into a bar-crawl. You eat a few olives here, some grilled prawns there, a portion of stuffed champignons here and some chorizo or roasted pig-ear in yet another place, all sprinkled with lots of your favorite wine or beer. Of course, these make just a very modest list; in reality, the variety of foods served at any tapas bar is enough to keep newcomers busy experimenting with strange or unfamiliar foods for weeks.

Palacio Real
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here for the Madrid set

As in many European countries, you can still smoke in bars and restaurants in Spain, and cigarettes are available from numerous automated dispensers. The locals take ample advantage of this benefit and you’ll be hard-pressed to find even a restaurant that has a non-smoking section. But things are changing – a few popular places, mostly chain-style restaurants, have started to display very conspicuous non-smoking signs, and people seem not to mind the restriction and still flood these establishments. Where smoking is allowed (and that is almost everywhere), explicit signs say “Esta permitido fumar,” but the same signs also mention that smoking can be harmful and cause heart and lung disease. In my opinion it is just a question of time before Spanish smokers will be forced to take their cigarettes outside, like they are now in Italy.


Madrid doesn’t have the intense and overwhelming beauty of Rome, but its charm is nevertheless undeniable, primarily because of the crazy, outgoing, fun way of life that Spaniards have adopted. The downtown streets are full of people every evening, bars (including those that serve food) stay open very late - they close just in time for the nightclubs (some still called “discos”) to open, and no Spaniard seems to be ever having dinner at home, despite the high prices (yes, we had a round of drinks in a bar where every alcoholic beverage on sale, except for the beer, was 14 Euros - have you ever tried a screwdriver for $20?). This propensity for social life and long-lasting parties comes as no surprise after the 36 years of hard repression by the Franco regime, when the country was in a permanent curfew. Indeed, as a bitter joke, bars and restaurants have kept on their walls the menacing warning signs of the dictatorship era: “Prohibido cantar y bailar” (singing and dancing prohibited) say those engraved plaques, screwed in the tiles above the heads of the cheering crowd. Never again, the jolly Madrileños seem to reply.

Plaza Mayor

Despite this atmosphere of freedom and relaxation, Spain is well aware that it has been caught in the middle of a sinister war, the war on terror. I’m not sure whether this has happened before or in the aftermath of the Madrid train bombings, but Spain, like the US, has sacrificed some convenient freedoms for the greater (some may dispute the adjective) benefit of increased security. Larger railway stations, which in Europe have always been places where you can run to the platforms and hop on the train at the last minute, have become more like airports – the platforms are now fenced out from the waiting halls by sturdy, tall cast-iron railings, and access to the train happens through a scanner gate where, akin to the security checks at airports, all bags are x-rayed.

A sunny day at the Prado

In other, more personal news, after all those museums full of statues and ancient mosaics and the archaeological sites we saw in Rome, switching our focus to “painting appreciation” has been a welcome change. Madrid has two of the most famous art museums in the world – the Prado, home to most of Goya’s and Velasquez’s works, where lines for tickets are permanently winding around the building during opening hours, and the Reyna Sofia, which boasts a fantastic collection of modern art, including the gripping Guernica (along with many other works by Picasso), a few rooms of Dali, and – in my uneducated opinion – too much of the over-appreciated Miro.

The city’s ferial atmosphere has cast its spell on us enough to convince even me to do some shopping. I bought a winter coat; my Marmot jacket can only help when winter temperatures are still bearable (like in Argentina or Greece), and besides, after 7 months of traveling it has accumulated dirt and food spots to the point that I have become ashamed to go into town wearing it. I was sad when we left Madrid; 5 days in this city had not been enough; we could have easily enjoyed a few more. But we were heading south for Seville and I could not resist the call of warmer weather…

Posted from Barcelona.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Muzak! Muzak!

We have given in to Christmas-shopping temptation: we bought an iPod Nano in Seville!

Now Angela's up in the room downloading all her favorite songs fom iTunes on our laptop, while I have to wait in the lobby for one of the hostel's computers to become free... that is, when all those 20-year old American girls who were busy talking drama and boyfriends all night in the kitchen are done checking their Facebook and MySpace pages...

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ciao Roma!

In November, temperatures in Rome are close to the freezing point; every other day the rain washes the streets while gusts of wind threaten to sweep the flimsy umbrella - which you just bought for 4 euro at the subway exit - out of your hand. Yet being in Rome will redeem the frightful weather and your uninspired decision to visit Italy in this ugly time of the year.

Inside the Coliseum
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here for the Rome set

There is something about Rome that puts it ahead of all other famous cities that I have seen. I tried to define that quality so I can understand the fascination better, but it still eludes a precise explanation. It has something to do with the incredible mix of history that permeates every stone and every street. It is certainly about the great food and red wine. And no doubt, the friendly and boisterous Romans are part of the mix that makes the city so special. But no great words or hard work are needed to sell Rome to visitors – even in the midst of this harsh winter, the city was full with tourists and the cheap hotels were booked solid.

The forum

For us, the 5 days we spent in town were hardly enough: from taking a stroll through the ruins of the Roman forum after working out a bit while climbing the stairs to the upper levels of the Coliseum, to staying in line in the rain waiting to get into the Vatican museum, from shopping along the Via del Corso to having a cheap delicious dinner at an osteria in Trastevere, from visiting the Pantheon, the most striking example of surviving ancient Roman architecture, to cruising along the walls of the narrow streets around the Campo dei Fiori – there was no shortage of things to do and see in Rome. Prospective guide-book itineraries are entitled “Rome in 1 day” or “Rome in 2 days”, but in such short time you can only skim the surface of things and collect some unforgettable but superficial first impressions.

Gallery at the Coliseum

Rome is demanding, but easy to discover. The metro, while quite underdeveloped for a city this size, gets to a few essential spots, like the Termini railway station (best neighborhood for cheap hotels and easy access) the Coliseum and the Vatican. There are plenty of buses going where the metro won’t, and with a small map of the bus network you can easily figure out how to get between any two points in town for just one Euro. Taxis are not expensive if you stick to the area within the old city walls, where most places seen by tourists are anyway. Finally, walking across town is not such a bad deal - if you aren’t in a rush and the rain has stopped.

We left Rome again with a desire to return as soon as we can... If only for the fact that shortly after getting into the famous Vatican Museum and paying for the ticket, we were gently ushered out because the museum was closing early in winter… at 12:30pm, no kidding. I feel like I’ve been ripped off by the Catholic Church!

Posted from Madrid.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Tzatziki and house wine by the liter

Nafplion old town
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Nafplion set

“3.60 Euro for Tzatziki? No, it’s too expensive; let’s look at the next taverna down the street.” Over the last few days we have worked out a system to pick restaurants for lunch or dinner – the tzatziki (a typical Greek bread dip made with creamy sheep yogurt, cucumbers and garlic) has to be under 3€ and the house red wine under 4€ for ½ liter. We drink wine by the liter in Greece and always the “house” variety, which, unlike in the United States, is a decent choice in most restaurants. The rest of our lunches and dinners typically consist of Greek salads (cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, olives and feta cheese), mousaka, souvlaki, gyros, loukaniki or other Greek meat specialties, and the ubiquitous French fries that accompany every Greek dish. For breakfast, unless it’s the simple choice that some hotels offer, we always have a cup of delicious yoghurt topped with honey and walnuts. Like the real tzatziki, the traditional plain Greek yoghurt is made with sheep milk, which is creamier, more consistent, and probably contains significantly more calories than the cow milk variety. I have not searched the specialty “gourmet” stores in Seattle, but this kind of yoghurt is not available in the grocery stores at home. In fact, in the US, the large stores usually carry one single brand of plain, unsweetened, yoghurt, and it’s often inedible. But I’m sure there must be some American Greeks somewhere, who have found a way to bring the flavors of their old home to the new continent…

Greek cats are well fed

Arriving in quiet, cobbled, manicured Nafplion, after the three weeks spent in chaotic Egypt, was a bit like waking up gradually from a dream and figuring out that the world still made sense. Nobody was harassing me, trying to get my money; nobody was insisting that I go to their shop. I was driving a car and all the roads were clearly marked in Greek and Latin letters. There was no garbage lying in the ditch by the road. The streets were quiet - it was November, after all. Traveling in Greece at this time of the year can be very convenient: the off-season hotel discounts are very enticing; often you pay the half of the rate the same rooms go for in high season. You don’t even need to reserve anything in advance, since the supply exceeds the demand by far. The weather is generally good for hiking and sightseeing (not for tanning, mind you), albeit a bit erratic – you may have to deal with alternating days of rain showers and beautiful skies. But Greece is also a country that would sober up any tourist who has travelled extensively in the third world – prices are, well… European, and this reflects best in the rates charged for internet access – they average around 4€ (about 6$) for one hour. Ah, where is Bolivia…


There was not much reason to go to any of the islands at this time of the year, so we stuck with the many historical attractions on the mainland. We picked up a rental car at the Athens airport and drove to Nafplion, a jewel of a sea-side town, with a pretty historical center of narrow streets, lined with tavernas and shops, dominated by the Palamidi fortress - a gigantic system of fortified walls built by the venetians on top of the hill overlooking the town, during one of the periods they ruled the place. Not far from Nafplion are the antique amphitheater at Epidavros (restored and used for festivals in summer) and the ruins of ancient Mycenae. With all good intentions, we tried to visit the city of mighty Agamemnon, but the new owners, the museum authority of Greece, were closing the place at 2:45pm in winter and we got there too late…

Mystras castle
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Byzantine Towns set

The byzantine hill towns of the southern Peloponnese, Mystras and Monemvasia, tell a different history lesson. Although they are mostly in ruins now (Monemvasia however, has a few beautiful restored streets where tourists can sleep and spend money), they live on in the spirit of countless movies with medieval setting. Every fictional town built in terraces on the slopes of a mountain, with narrow, cobbled streets winding through stone gates, with houses and defensive walls hanging above rocky ravines, with an imposing fortress on the top of the hill, overlooking the valley, is in fact made up from the blueprint of these byzantine towns. They are quite interesting to visit, even if just to wonder what it would have taken to keep a city like that functioning – the sewers, the water supply, the transportation, the social life. It must have been nice to live in a town where every single house had a view…

The Tholos at Delphi
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Delphi set

Back in antiquity and out of the Peloponnese, we stopped at Delphi to look for gods hidden among the scattered fallen column stones and the remnants of the once-glorious temples of Apollo and Athena. There were no gods, just tourists there – Delphi is nowadays the main day-trip destination of tour groups visiting Athens. But it was November and the invasion of tour buses was in minor key; even if the weather was beautiful, ideal for hiking up the slopes of Parnassus, there were so few other tourists around that I was able to take some pictures of the ruins without including people in them – such a feat would have been impossible in summer.

The Parthenon on the Acropolis
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Athens set

Finally, there was Athens – a big, dull, (and nowadays clean as well) city, where tourists get bored fast. The place is full of ancient history, but nevertheless, nobody falls in love with it. I didn’t either, but the food was good and the discovery of a Starbucks store in town made my stay sweeter. I went to the post office as well, but even if you count the fact that I went looking for it on the wrong street for a while (before realizing that it must have moved since the Lonely Planet book that I had was researched), the experience was nothing like the one in Egypt. Athens may not be glamorous or charming, but it has the incredible Acropolis, with its 25-century-old temples perched upon a craggy rock rising in the middle of the busy town, and that’s enough to keep you coming back. You have to stop here on your way to the islands anyway…

Published from Rome.

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Friday, November 16, 2007


We're in Rome now, after a 10-day trip to Greece. There's just so much to do and see that I have hardly any time for writing. I hope I can post stories and pictures from Greece soon.

Sadly the weather has gotten worse...

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Out of Africa

When guide books describe the Sinai Peninsula, they abound in superlative adjectives. Lonely Planet calls it “a place of surreal beauty” if I remember correctly - why does it have to be "surreal"?. From the coastal highway it looks like a string of ragged brown peaks, lacking the slightest trace of vegetation, following without end under the metallic blue sky. I don’t have any pictures from the rest of our stay in Egypt. Deserts have their fascination, but make really lousy picture subjects, unless you’re a pro… or you wake up really early, neither of which applies to me.

The real beauty of Sinai lies under water, and our goal – like the goal of most tourists who visit this place – was to spend as much time as possible in the depths. The Red Sea coral reefs near Dahab are a true delight, a must-see for any diver – the coral is abundant and varied, plenty of colorful fish live and hunt on it, and the visibility is ideal. If you go to places like the resort towns of Dahab and Sharm el-Sheikh there’s nothing else to do besides diving – unless you plan to spend all your day and your money at one of the many restaurants and cafés.

Outside of the tourist areas of those towns, the garbage is scattered everywhere – on the side of the roads, in ditches and back alleys, wherever the wind can drop it. There you can find everything from plastic bottles to animal carcasses. Sure, tourism contributes to the waste problem, but visitors are hardly responsible for littering, if you don’t count cigarette butts. The blame lies with the locals, the restaurants’ management and the government’s garbage collection authority, all of whom seem to apply the “not my problem” rule quite efficiently. The garbage collection truck picks up the trash, but not as often as it should, and it doesn’t go off the main road. The locals leave the trash bags in front of their houses for pick up, but they don’t bother to take it up to the main road. Before the truck passes, the wild cats, dogs, and goats tear the bags open and rummage for food. The wind takes care of the rest. So I guess it’s the cats’ fault after all... Paul, our dive master, a retired project manager from England who has been making a living in Dahab for a while, tells us as we return from the Blue Hole dive site, huddled in the back of the dive shop’s pickup truck: “I swear, sometimes I think… it’s a beautiful country, but these people don’t deserve it!”

As for me, after the weeks spent in Egypt, I was left with one question to answer: would I ever come back to visit this country? It has been, no doubt, one of the most interesting, diverse and safe places we have seen on our trip, but the most exhausting and irritating as well. Maybe I will take a charter flight to Sharm el-Sheikh, arrange for private transfer to a hotel in Dahab, dive day-in day-out, twice a day for a week, and go back the same way I came, avoiding the hassle of Cairo and steering clear of the souqs. If I’m in a good mood I may be inclined to fend off the assault of the camel-ride touts at the pyramids of Giza. And with enough peace of mind left, I may even go down south again, but I’m afraid – and secretly hoping – that I’ll meet Ismael again and I’ll spend all my time playing backgammon and drinking tea rather than visiting Abu Simbel.

A tough decision… but one thing I know: the falafel here is awesome!

Posted from Delphi, Greece.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Tomb raider for a day

The assault has begun!
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Pyramid set

Shoving everybody out of their way, a large group of visitors make their round around the Narmer palette in the first floor atrium of the Egyptian Museum. I stand my ground in front of one of the sides of the display - they will have to tolerate my presence and move around. I pretend to read the display but instead I listen to what their English-speaking guide is saying – in a few words, without wasting any time (he must soon vacate the place for his colleagues who are coming behind, leading other groups), he tells them pretty much what the Lonely Planet Egypt travel guide has taught me about this famous artifact. They look, listen, and then are shepherded away before anybody has any questions. Alone at last, I try to focus on the detail of the fine engraving portraying the pharaoh victorious over his enemies, but I soon become distracted again – on my left, a large group of Russians passes by, following an Egyptian museum guide who seems to speak fluent Russian. The Russians are a sight to behold – quite a few men wear “wife-beater” tank-tops stretching over protruding beer-bellies and the women, young and old, wear high heels and skimpy outfits, their cleavages pushed to night-club limits, their shorts stopping at the buttocks. I wonder if they plan to go in the area of town called “Islamic Cairo”... What sort of mad attention would these girls attract on the streets in this country where the local women only show their faces and hands in public, if anything? But these Russian “nouveaux riches” (who else in Russia can afford to travel abroad?) will probably be swept from the museum back to their hotel in their tour bus, and from there to the pyramids, then maybe into a felucca or motor boat commissioned specially for the group for a one-hour Nile cruise. They probably haven’t ever dreamed of visiting a mosque and wouldn’t be allowed in anyway, dressed like they are.

Scenes of life

The museum, if you ignore the crowds and the bellowing guides, makes for a very interesting visit. A large part of the second floor is dedicated to housing the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb; these beautiful works of funerary art are definitely worth your time. The royal mummies are tucked in their temperature-controlled glass cases in an air-conditioned room. You pay extra to get in, but if you have never seen a mummy, now’s the right time – all the famous, identified pharaohs’ remains are there and some of them still smile quite nicely. However the museum can easily put you into “pharaonic overload” mode; most of it resembles a large warehouse where sarcophagi, statues, miniatures and slates covered with hieroglyphs, thousands of years old, are piled up with no explanations, in rooms that have long overflowed their capacity. A couple of hours spent inside will leave you longing for things anything-but-historical, like the restaurants and cafés of the Hilton hotel nearby.

Imhotep's legacy

Once you’re done with the museum, it’s time to head to the archaeological sites around Cairo. Everybody stops at the famous pyramids of Giza, the suburban neighborhood which sprawls almost to the base of the pyramid of Khufu (Cheops). If you’re not on a tour group, you can get there by bus, metro and taxi, but the best way is to hire a driver for the day and also visit the other pyramid sites, which are out of the beaten track – Saqqara and Dahshur. These get their share of visitors as well, but nothing like Giza; and if you get there early enough, you may have the place all for yourself. Sure, the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre will tower over you, covering the sun, and will make you feel like a gnat, but the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, so different and having the privilege of being the oldest of them all, gets a standing ovation. And if you don’t want to pay the extra ticket to get inside the pyramid of Khufu, and wait in line with the crowds, while being hassled by camel-ride touts and guards who want baksheesh, you can clamber down the shaft into Sneferu’s Red Pyramid at Dahshur – if you can stand the strong smell of ammonia in the funerary chamber. Sadly, the most intriguing of all pyramids, the Bent Pyramid of Dahshur, still covered by its original shiny limestone casing, is closed to public and can only be seen from afar.

Queen Hatshepsut's temple
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Luxor set

In Aswan, for reasons that I have already mentioned, we did not see any of the famous landmarks. But in Luxor - aka the tourist hassling capital of Egypt - we didn’t make friends with any local people and concentrated on the many famous ancient sites. The heat in southern Egypt is terrible, even in November, and forces the masses of tourists to wake up early and visit the temples of Luxor and Karnak and the Valley of the Kings as early in the morning as possible, before the sun becomes unbearable. The Luxor temple is smack in the middle of the modern-day Luxor town, and Karnak is a mere 3 km ride along the Nile – easy and fast done by taxi or by one of the omnipresent horse-drawn carriages whose drivers, like most other touts, will try to charge you a small fortune and ask for ‘baksheesh for the horse’ (don’t give, although it’s funny). The Valley of the Kings however, is on the other side of the Nile, and getting there is not a breeze. You can rent a bike, cross the river by ferry, and pedal yourself to death between the sites – not a good idea after 11am, unless you have a secret death wish. You can hire a taxi for the day, which will cost you dearly if you don’t negotiate properly, and you will be the one who decides when and where to go. The most comfortable alternative is to take a tour organized by your hotel (I dare you to find a hotel in Luxor which doesn’t provide this service). It will include a guide (whose English you will hopefully be able to understand) and all the entrance fees. You’ll have to share a mini-bus with other people; ask how many and make sure the bus is air-conditioned – you may still be lied to, but at least you know it. Invariably, you will be taken to one of the many “Alabaster factories” which proliferate in the shadow of the ancient tombs. There are so many of those stone-carving workshops, that one cannot help but ask how they are able to stay in business. There is only one answer: everybody who owns an alabaster factory must have a brother or an uncle who organizes tours of the valley, who in turn has a brother or an uncle who owns or manages a hotel or a cruise ship. This way the tourists are given the whole deal – hotel, visit to the valley, alabaster shopping. Some even buy souvenirs for their living rooms and everybody is happy and the wealth is redistributed along the chain.

Lights at Luxor

If you are ready to fight the crowds and eager for hieroglyphs, if you can negotiate prices and have enough sun-block, there’s one more thing you shouldn’t forget: your international student card – it will be the your wallet ‘s best friend. Every entrance fee in Egypt – and some places aren’t cheap to get in - is half-price for students; the ISIC cards rule in the land of pharaohs. And don’t be bitter when you find out that while you pay a lot, even with your student discount, Egyptians pay 2 pounds. Half if they are students… After a day in the Valley of the Kings you’ll wish you’d rather be Egyptian…

Posted from Nafplio, Greece.

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Walk like an Egyptian

Angela and the girls
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Aswan set

Of course, like any good tourists trying to make the best out of their vacation time, when we got off the sleeper train in Aswan we were determined to see the serious attractions of the area: the ruins on the Elephantine island, the fabled temples of Abu Simbel, Kom Ombo and Edfu, the unfinished obelisk, and a couple of museums. After a visit to the tired, unimpressive ruins on the Elephantine island - where we got ripped off by some textile sellers and an overpriced henna tattoo "artist" who just wouldn't negotiate her price - as we were walking on the corniche (the promenade along the Nile) back to our hotel room, I decided I had had enough of Egypt. The constant hassle from all sorts of touts, the irritating attitude of people at the market who assume you are a stupid tourist who will pay their outrageous asking price, (sometimes many times higher than what you would pay in your own country), the heat, the mad traffic, the crushing crowds... I felt steadily pushed closer and closer to the edge. I was ready to leave, or else bury myself in a refrigerator, wearing earplugs.


A man pushing a bicycle talked to us as we passed him. Disgusted as I was, I ignored him (after a while you have no choice but to ignore the too many people who try to catch you attention). Angela, more polite, responded to his conversation. After a few minutes of walking along, it became clear that Ismael - as he had introduced himself - didn't want to sell us papyrus or a felucca ride or anything else. He, in fact, wanted to invite us to his house to have tea with him. Although he seemed genuine we didn't want to go right then, so he told us where we could find him later, should we decide to stop by. After dinner, not having anything better to do, we decided to give it a shot and look for him. We met him indeed, where he said he would be, and followed him to his house. There, in a shabby but clean and cool room with the walls painted half-way blue, tea and talk followed until the wee hours of the morning.

Mahmoud in his favorite pose

For the next few days we gradually forgot about the monuments and spent most of the time with Ismael and his extended family, who lived on the same narrow, unpaved street with old, half-crumbled houses. We went to wedding parties, drank more tea, played backgammon, talked, and had dinner with the family. We extended our stay in Aswan by one day. Angela got a henna tattoo from Ismael's niece, a real tattoo artist who routinely adorns brides' hands before their wedding parties. We took a mountain of pictures of their many hyperactive kids. We were exhausted.

Ismael and his extended family

Ismael is what could be called "a Muslim hippie". He is apparently retired, and has some income from business and land which allows him to spend most of the time strolling on the corniche with his bike and talking to tourists. He often invites people to his place and talks their ears off. He's anti-establishment, and a light-hearted Muslim who prays (but doesn't waste too much time on it) for the beauty of life and for friendship. He has refused to get drafted and to fight against Israel in his youth and was interned for a while in an isolated camp in the desert. He's been a dive master and a tour operator, owning his tour company. How much of this is true, I don't know, but what is true, are the many testimonials that people from all over the world have left in his "guestbooks" - in English, French, German, Spanish, even some in Romanian; most of those little notes sing the same tune - Ismael has given his guests a chance to know more than just what's in the books; to sit down and listen to an old man ramble about constellations and yoga and ruinous Egyptian mentalities, to play backgammon while drinking tea and eating guavas is more valuable than a history lesson told by some crumbled limestone blocks. The temples will wait, life will not. If you go to Aswan, you may run into an older Nubian man, wearing a galabiyya, riding on a bike. It's Ismael. Talk to him, you'll have a good time.

Published from Cairo. Tomorrow we're flying to Greece.

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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Going postal in Alexandria

By 11AM I had finally nursed the hangover caused by the pub crawl of the previous night. Murad, who had quit Microsoft 2 years ago and moved back to Egypt, had taken us to some of the few shady joints in Alexandria where alcohol could be consumed, and we overindulged, happy to break our travel habit of going to bed too early. Over breakfast the next day I remembered that I had to go to the post office to ship a parcel home – our sleeping bags, so helpful on the Inca trail and during the Africa overland trip, were no longer needed; they were taking useful space in the backpacks, which even now, after many packages sent home, were still too heavy – this time because of the many books we have carried from Africa and have not yet been able to trade or sell.

I went to the post office a few blocks down the road armed with a note written in Arabic by the hotel manager, who translated my intentions: ”I want to send a package to America”. The clerk managed to explain that international parcels must be sent from the central post office, next to the railway station. It wasn’t far; I walked the 10 minutes it took to get there and tried to find my way around by showing my little precious note to people who often spoke back to me in Arabic. Communication was obscure and broken, but somehow I made progress: I was first sent from the postal counter to the next door outside and from there to the third floor. The third floor was empty; a large, well-lit hall furnished with skeletons of cubicles, a few old wooden desks and chairs and, like almost everywhere else in Egypt, covered in mountains of rubble. At first I thought I got to the wrong floor; maybe they were just in the middle of remodeling this one, so I walked back to the second floor where I showed my magic note to some people who were congregating in the hallway. “3rd floor, but closed now” said one of them, “closed today afternoon; tomorrow, open 8 in the morning.” They were all rushing down the stairs to go home. Cautious, I wanted to double-check; back at the reception, the same people who told me to go to the 3rd floor admitted they were just closing for the day.

The next morning, spiffy and fresh, I skipped breakfast so I could be at the post office shortly after eight. On the way I picked up an empty cardboard box from a coffee shop; asking for boxes at post offices had previously been futile (except in Argentina). Once there, I headed straight for the 3rd floor. The large hall was still empty, except for two men sitting at an old desk, sharing some food. I showed them my wrinkled piece of paper and they made encouraging signs that this was the right place, but I needed to wait. Armed with patience I put down my box and bag and sat down on the corner of a desk. One hour later I was still sitting and not much had changed on the 3rd floor. There were more people around; trays with coffee and tea cups were being delivered, cigarettes were smoked, and more food appeared. As I sat there ignored by all, my patience fading, it dawned on me that the office opened indeed at 8 o’clock but people didn’t start coming to work until 9 or later. The person in charge of international shipping wasn’t there yet. Who was to say he or she wasn’t going to call in sick that day?

Finally at 9:30 a woman showed up, took her seat behind a desk, had her coffee, smoked her cigarette, and when the arrival ritual had been completed, they all beckoned me to go to her. She gave me the forms where I had to write the usual shipping data, names, addresses and a description of the contents. Then she proceeded to tell me something in Arabic, which sounded quite vital for the success of my mission; I made a helpless face and shrugged discouraged; two girls who were mailing a small package started giggling. The woman at the counter was now talking slower, as if that was all it would take for me to understand. Somehow, somebody found a man who spoke good English, a customer probably. “She tells you to follow her instructions and then come back here,” he said. “You must now take the papers and go to the 1st floor to get an approval from the department of explosives, then to the 13th floor, to have your books inspected.” Oh well, so this was the customs office, not the post… “And, you know, the key is patience. You’ll be in this for at least one hour. This is how things work in Egypt. Good luck.”

Explosives? What explosives? Of course, they wanted to make sure I didn’t have any. Going down the stairs, I couldn’t help asking myself whether she had meant 1st floor American-style (ground floor) or 1st floor as in the rest of the world. I opted for the rest of the world, but when I got to the 1st and showed my papers - which now made me feel like somebody who had solid, hard-earned credentials – to a friendly man who seemed to work there, he took me with him to the ground floor. The uniformed official sitting by the airport-style x-ray machine (he needed a uniform; he had, after all, to deal with explosives) didn’t bother inspecting my bag before he applied the stamp and his bored signature to the corner of my paper. Point scored, I gloated, making a mental note that the 1st floor had ended up being American-style after all… but purely by coincidence, because soon the 13th floor became the 2nd, where the same very helpful employee took me next. The 2nd was in better shape than the 3rd, and there was no visible rubble in the corners. A woman took my two books and inspected them, talking to me in Arabic. It was safe to assume she couldn’t speak or read English, but she looked at the books carefully nonetheless. The censorship, I started to wonder. This is after all a country ruled by a dictator, and the customs must have a list of banned publications. Maybe Khaled Hosseini’s two novels, which I was foolishly and innocently trying to ship home, were already on the black list, for their being mildly critical of Islam. Maybe she would call the police and I would be expelled from the country after spending a few nights in jail... She passed the books on to another man. That’s it, she sends them to secondary inspection; I’m screwed! But no, he only took some brown paper, wrapped my books, sealed them, and gave the small package back to me. A new stamp was adorning my form. I was feeling like an A+ student.

Back on the third floor, things went smooth. The woman looked satisfied at my painstakingly acquired stamps and instructed another man to wrap the package. We stuffed everything from the bag into the coffee box, and added the books; I wrote the addresses, he taped and wrapped. I now had a fully-approved, shippable package, carrying an imposing lead seal at the end of a rope and I was beginning to think that the world made sense. “Go to the post office down the road, past the mosque,” I was told by someone, and woke up in Egypt again… but I knew I couldn’t go wrong anymore, if I had been able to pass the customs inspection armed with nothing but a wrinkled note on yellow paper.

The office past the mosque wasn’t far. I waited in line for 15 minutes, and the clerk didn’t have to ask many questions when she saw the signed, stamped papers. “380 pounds, please” she said; “air mail, very fast, seven days”. “No, no,” I shook my head; “no air; ship please, I want ‘slow’!” “Slow”, as it turned out, was costing about 300 pounds, and had to be shipped from a different post office. It was 11 o’clock. My concentration was fading; I was feeling as if I was trying to answer the last intricate question of a long and demanding college exam which had gone well so far. I gave up. “Ok, fast.”

Note: 1US$ = 5.5 Egyptian pounds
Posted from Dahab, Egypt.

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