Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Thinking About my Friends in Dahab

A little less than a month ago, Sierra and I were sitting in the lovely beachside restaurants of Dahab, drinking Egyptian Stella and eating kofta. Yesterday, we arrived in the Zanzibar beach town of Paje to hear a BBC News report that 23 people have been killed and 63 wounded in three separate bombs in the quaint seaside Sinai town that I have come to love. The main blast happened at “Al Capone’s” restaurant, the very first place I ate when I visited Dahab for the first time in 2005. This senseless killing seems completely crazy. The people who live and work in Dahab are some of the nicest I’ve met while traveling and far from political. The tourists there are mostly young people, traveling on the cheap. There is however a US military instillation on the edge of the desert, a stone’s throw from town, that I once walked up to with my hands raised and my US passport held high, so that the M-16 wielding Marine in the tower would recognize me as non-threatening. But, this was a senseless act of terrorism, not an act of war, and those killed were exclusively civilians, the vast majority of them Egyptians.

Since we left, two of the four cities we’ve visited have been bombed, and the influence of terror is highly visible here in Tanzania where the newly built US embassy complex is a huge walled fortress with a surrounding moat. Their fortification is clearly a reaction to the 1998 embassy bombing here in Dar es Salaam. The whole thing starts to paint a rather frightening picture of what the world is becoming. My government is in a bloody quagmire, frighteningly comparable to the beginnings of Vietnam, and the rest of the world is a mess. I guess it always has been, but is there any possibility for change? Redistribution of wealth seems like an important first step. But here in Africa, that’s plainly a fantasy. The so-called “War on Terror” is obviously having the opposite effect.

When I think of my friends in Dahab, and the pain that they’re going through, I feel sick to my stomach. These random acts of violence make no sense at all.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


Being a visible minority, like I am in Africa, is both eye opening and challenging at the same time. Unlike in Turkey and Italy where locals spoke to me in rapid foreign tongue expecting me to answer them, here there is no hiding the fact that I’m an outsider. Eric’s very sweet head of household, Christopher, won’t let Sierra and I venture downtown unescorted for fears that we’ll be mauled by “young thieves.” Two days ago he sent the gardener, Saidi, with us to the Indian shopping district. We trekked around in the sweltering heat and forced Saidi to eat Indian food with us. We saw a beached ocean liner and sitting nearby, a man with such extreme elephantitis that I had trouble making eye contact. Sometimes I forget just how privileged I am. In our lonely planet guide for our next destination, Ethiopia, there are warnings to check your mattress and the room wall for splattered blood, a sure sign that the hotel mattresses have bed-bugs. The thought frightens me, and a little voice urges me to rent a 4x4 instead of taking the bus, and spend more money to stay at fancy western style hotels.

When I tried to smile at the deformed man near the beach, my stomach churned uncomfortably. It made me remember the time when I was a 9 years old, visiting family in New York, and being overcome with sadness by streets overflowing with homeless people (before Rudy Giuliani shipped them all upstate.) I tried to put on a kind face for the badly deformed man but, it still brought into sharp focus the thin line between vacationing in the third world and taking part in what Sierra’s father calls the “pornography of poverty.”

Today I accompanied Christopher himself into town to go food shopping at the insanely busy central market. As we walked through the crowded stands, I heard sentences peppered with the word “Mazungu” (Swahili for “white man”) over and over again from many of the produce sellers and bag vendors. One insistent young fellow pushed Christopher to buy his ginger root. I could tell that something the kid had had said had offended Christopher, so I asked him to translate. The kid had rudely pressured Christopher to “buy the ginger so that you can prepare it for your white man.” Christopher admitted that my presence at his side had been steadily driving up the price of produce the entire morning. On the mini-bus home, we stopped in the pouring rain and Christopher asked the driver if he would take us a little further to a nearby taxi stand. The driver instead offered to kick out two other passengers and take Christopher and his Mazungu directly home for an additional 3 dollars. I shook my head after Christopher ran the offer past me, disquieted by the thought that this driver would happily push two of his fellow Tanzanians out into the pouring rain to get a commission from the Mazungu.

Despite these moments, I still greatly enjoyed going to market and spending time with Christopher. Traveling is one of the most inspiring and rewarding things I’ve done in my life, but sometimes it makes me pause. And sometimes it smashes me in the face.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

We Got Game

This morning as I lay in bed still half in a dream, I heard a BBC World broadcast about bombs going off in the suburbs of Istanbul. Two countries back, Turkey already seems like a distant memory. Last night we arrived home in Dar Es Salaam from our Safari (which in Swahili simply means “journey.”) For the last week we drove a few hundred kilometers a day, through three of the most incredible game parks on the planet. Sierra’s father generously treated us to a five star package tour, so we traveled and lodged in style while visiting the dense and tremendously varied animal populations.

After an eight hour drive North, past the impressive Mt. Kilimanjaro, our first stop was Lake Manyara where we were immediately greeted by an assembly of baboons.

Sierra later befriended a baby elephant.

Late on the first day, our friendly Masaai driver Leiza spotted a pride of lions lazing in the high branches of a tree. Their hanging perch looked rather uncomfortable, but the lions seemed restful and well-fed.

On our way to the Serengeti, as we entered the vast savannah lands we followed the wildebeest migration. Intertwining zebras, impala and wildebeests, the horizon in all directions was blacked out by four legged animals.

Reaching the Serengeti, we were taken to our tented camp where massive canvas structures made up an entire luxury complex, from hotel lobby to sprawling bedrooms. The fenceless grounds allow game to wander freely past our tent. That night I was awakened by the sound of child crying and the deep growl of a rather large feline in close proximity to our bed.

The hippos got a little excited when Sierra expressed her affection for me in the back seat of the Land Cruiser.

During the daytime, I was pounding back water to stave off dehydration, so I constantly needing to relieve myself. I could clearly imagine the headlines: “Another Stupid White Tourist Killed While Urinating” and I spent many a weary moment with an unzipped fly, scanning the bush for one of the multitude of predators potentially priming themselves to pounce.

The next morning a line of over a dozen Safari vehicles formed a traffic jam while waiting for a leopard to bring a recent kill up into a tree.

Driving South again we headed towards the Ngorogoro Crater where an overabundance of animals are virtually trapped by the steep slopes. On our way down into the crater we encountered a group of Masaai Warriors, and I purchased a dauntingly sharp spear.

In order to become initiated as a warrior, a young Masaai must first kill a lion, but when I saw the furry creatures lazing in the mud an hour later, I left my spear in the trunk.

From the comfort and security of our Land Rover we watched as a pair of pint sized jackals chased a large mixed heard of impala and zebras around the grassy landscape. Then later in the day we witnessed a hyena mother carrying her infant out of their resting hole just a few feet away from our vehicle.

It felt like a real gift to be able to see all of these incredible creatures in their natural habitat, and to catch a glimpse of what our world was like when our ancestors couldn’t quite stand up straight yet.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Dahab & Cairo to Dar Es Salaam

The five lazy days we spent in Dahab were luxurious compared with the insane bustle of Cairo and Istanbul. On her refresher dive, Sierra had some pressure troubles with her ears, but I spent a good deal of my time in the Sinai submerged under the blue waters of the Red Sea. We only snorkeled over Dahab’s infamous “Blue Hole,” which claims the lives of dozens of divers a year due to nitrogen narcosis.

Dahab is a quaint desert town where you can walk from restaurant to restaurant as doormen at each eatery work up a sweat in their effort to get you to dine at their establishment. Their first question is always “where from?” to which I would usually answer Canada. Invariably they would reply “Canada Dry!” often followed by “Never Die!” and occasionally “No Woman, No Cry!” Sierra and I theorized that if restaurant hawkers spent less energy dragging one off the street and a little more on actually serving one when one had sat down, the whole dining experience in Dahab would be greatly improved.

After a nine hour bus ride through the desert and under the Suez canal, we were back in the Egyptian capital, much to our annoyance. But things improved the next morning when we ventured into “Islamic Cairo” and spent a few hours getting lost in the sprawling Arab Souque, the sensory-overloading precursor to our western mall complexes.

I briefly considered purchasing a mosque dome-topper to send to my folks, but decided against it after calculating the cost of shipping a ton of copper by DHL.

That afternoon we were delivered by taxi to the Pyramids Hotel. After a fierce hand-signal argument with our driver that culminated in the drawing of three small triangles on an envelope, we were taken to the actual Pyramids at Giza.

Apart from repeatedly having to yell “file mish-mish!” (Arabic for “that’ll happen!”) to tour guides on Camels who constantly pestered us to ride their foamy-mouthed beasts, we had a rather nice time mucking about in the afternoon sun, gazing up at the structural wonders.

We experienced twelve hours of delays on our 2 day Kenya Airways journey from Cairo through Nairobi to our new destination: Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

After many uncomfortable nights at flea-bite hotels, we’re basking in the comforts of Sierra’s father Eric’s lavish African compound. Tomorrow we set off on a five day safari to Kilimanjaro and the Ngorogoro Crater.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

From Cairo to Dahab

Just over a year ago, my friend David and I coined the phrase "Things are Better in Dahab," after we overlanded out of an insane ten day trip in Israel to the overwhelmingly beautiful and sublimely relaxed Egyptian Sinai desert. Thirteen months later, Sierra and I left the Egyptian capital--what our dope smoking taxi driver dubbed "Crazy Cairo"--to step off an 11 hour bus ride at three in the morning in Dahab. And the (not so old) addage that things are better here is very much still true. We're looking forward to five days of sun, scuba, 4x4s in the desert and generous dollops of idyllic inertia.

We spent 3 long days in Cairo and saw both mind blowing pyramids as well as a dozen creepy mummies. We wore out our legs crawling into underground crypts while overzealous hawkers wore out our patience. Through a little half assed negotiating, we managed to hire a taxi driver by the day to ferry us between sights, but he turned out to be so crazy that we had to part ways after a couple of days. The food was so inedible that at our worst, we resorted to dinner at TGI Fridays and Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch. We spent a lovely evening at a Cairo casino, sipping free drinks and even leaving with $20 of blackjack winnings. We did not ride any camels, because my crotch is still recovering from a camel assisted mountain descent last February.

The night we arrived in Egypt, we pounded the pavement for two hours at 4am looking for an available room in one of the many busy downtown hostels.

The streets in Cairo are so busy that crossing one is always a near death experience.

But darn those sand triangles were perty.