Saturday, March 27, 2010

Longyearbjen, Spitsbergen

March 27, 2010
Clear, -20°C
I feel like this trip brings together so many things I’ve learned or encountered throughout my life. So frequently I feel like I have a greater understanding of the connectivity of the world because of my last three month’s experiences. This morning was no different, when at breakfast I encountered some of my favorite cheese. I first tasted this delicious block of dairy goodness last semester, when the Whole Foods cheese guy recommended it to me. It was a caramel brown, in a red package, and tasted like a sweet cheddar. I bought quite a bit of it and nibbled for weeks, pairing it with apples. And this morning, I saw some of that tawny cheese peeking out over the red label, but in a much much larger quantity. I highly recommend you search out some of this caramelized Norwegian cheese. It’s worth it. Then this evening, David brought out a chocolate pudding with two ice creams – one Neapolitan, the other a vanilla with caramel bits in it. I remembered my childhood, reading Roald Dahl’s Boy, which contained a description of this very same crunchy caramel ice cream that Dahl stated is a Norwegian favorite. As soon as I thought of Roald Dahl, I remembered that the museum we visited today featured a photographer with the last name Dahl, almost certainly a relative of the author of some of my favorite children’s stories. And while this is sort of shallow, it is still a very good example of so many happenstance occasions where I have felt the world makes just a little more sense.
At the same time, I feel like this trip has confused me beyond restoration. So many things I’ve seen have yet to even begin to make sense to me. Even things that shouldn’t be very confusing leave me wondering how the world is the way it is. After class this morning, we went to a museum and I read several exhibits detailing the benefit of conservation, about the value of the Arctic, and how it is horrible that so many human activities threaten the integrity of the region. I turned a corner and saw a reading area covered with seal pelts, with baby seal pillows. A library of books had been provided, so you could lounge on the dead animals and read the about environmentalism. I snuggled up, and looked across the room to a wall full of quotes – one which called the Arctic the “thermometer of the world” because it most drastically responds to environmental damage. It seemed so oxymoronic.

Afterwards, I bundled up in my layers – two sweaters, four pants, my winter coat, three scarves, and my trusty “toaster” mittens and hat and walked with the group out onto the sea ice. The image was stunning; it the most quintessential arctic landscape you could image. Across the water were huge dune-like mountains, covered in snow. The wind had blown of the icebergs into the U-shaped bay, and behind us and to our right were glaciers. All we needed was a polar bear eating a seal and we’d have the true arctic experience.

I think that will probably come tomorrow when we go dog-sledding across the ice fields. We decided not to go snowmobiling, because we felt that such a disruptive activity would probably be counterproductive given the subject of courses. We’re going to be suited up in all-weather snow outfits, and spend three and a half hours driving our own sleds with our own pack of dogs. It’s going to be quite an experience. And I cannot wait. After all these things I’ve done, I can’t imagine going home and going back to the mundane, the routine. I was walking back to the hotel today and every hair on my few inches of exposed face froze and icicles formed on my hat and I couldn’t believe how lucky I am.

Longyearbjen, Spitsbergen

March 26, 2010
-15°C, Clear
This morning, we flew from Tromsø to the island of Spitsbergen, at 78° Northern Latitude. Flying in, there were huge icebergs and sheets of broken up ice floating along the polar sea, and on shore there were huge snow-covered mountains surrounded by nothingness. Like when we got the first peek at the turquoise water flying into the Maldives, when the plane descended and the arctic landscape was visible, all the passengers oohed and gaped out the window. Cameras were pulled out, and people moved around to get the best view.

We had to walk from the plane into the terminal, and I had put my winter clothes in my checked bag so I was just wearing a little sweater. Those 20 meters from the plane to the terminal, with the -40°C wind chill, was undoubtedly the coldest I’ve ever been in my whole life. We took a bus to our hotel, where we are staying in quads. I’m actually writing this while everyone else is having dessert – I’m full and am enjoying the few moments to myself. The feeling of confinement is even greater than in Alaska because it would be crazy to go outside right now because of the cold, not to mention the polar bears.

Our hotel has a pamphlet at the front desk called, “Take Polar Bear Danger SERIOUSLY!” and describes how polar bears should always be considered dangerous, and if there is a clear threat to your life or others lives, you should shoot to kill. It’s a shame they’re so dangerous because all the stuffed ones are so adorable. But apparently, it’s a serious issue all over the island, especially near coastal areas. As much as I would love to see a polar bear in the wild, I would not want to be wandering back from a bar and encounter one.
We did go out today, for a two and half kilometer hike to the grocery store. It started out great fun: we saw two people dog sledding, it was beautiful to look at the mountains, and it was really nice to be outside. The grocery shopping was uneventful, but the last kilometer on the way back was icy cold. I was all bundled up (four pairs of pants!) but the small portion of my face that was uncovered burned a little bit, then went numb. We came back and I was very thankful for the heating, and to my surprise, people who hadn’t gone out were wearing jackets indoors. It’s been several hours but I still feel like it is very warm inside. And my face is still very very red from the wind or cold burn.
Nevertheless, it’s wonderful to be here. It’s absolutely amazing to look out over the snow covered mountains with the totally unreal arctic sun blazing down. The moon hasn’t set yet (it didn’t in Tromsø either) and it was shining brightly just above the mountain closest to our hotel. I hope we’re going to get to go out on the ice, but it’s uncertain whether we will have the money in the budget. The other thing I’d love to do is ride a snowmobile. They’re noisy and spit out stinky exhaust, but they’re also ubiquitous here and look very fun to ride.

I can’t believe that I’m in the Arctic. I keep having flash-backs to all the amazing places we’ve been: the coral reef in the Maldives, Ngoro-Ngoro Crater in Tanzania, the Himalayas in India, and the only thing that I could even compare to the Arctic is the White Desert in Egypt: the snow could be the white sand, the dunes are like miniature version of the mountains, and it is about as barren.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Tromsø, Norway

March 25, 2010
Clear, and cold

Last night a group of us wandered down to the pier to watch for the northern lights. We were given one bit of instruction: to see them you have to be outside. So we bundled up in several layers of pants and several layers of shirts and walked down o the fjord’s edge and waited. At first, there was a faint line in the sky but then it seemed like something exploded and the sky was split by a flowing green river of photons. The river would recede a bit, then flare back up, and we sat and froze and watched. It was really wonderful; I don’t think that photographs can capture the scale and intensity of the phenomena.
At breakfast, a row of schoolchildren with backpacks tromped down the street outside of the hotel, each carrying a small sled and sometimes a shovel. One by one, under the careful supervision of a teacher, they sledded down the huge hill in the park and gathered the make igloos and snow sculptures. We had class in the morning and ate lunch then went over to the Tromsø University museum and walked through the exhibits. It was very interesting because it seemed like all the themes we’ve talked about throughout the course were tied together in these few exhibits. Evolution and adaptation were prominently featured. Upstairs was a cultural exhibit about the Sami: a native Nordic people who were forced to assimilate into Norwegian culture in the mid-1900s.
After the museum we walked through a park that looked out over the fjord and to the mountains. We reached the top of a large hill and stood there for a few minutes before several people started skidding down on their backs using water proof jackets as sleds. Somebody found a small real sled, like the one the kids were using this morning, and suddenly we were launching one another down the hill. As I slid down, I felt like it was one of a collection of moments during the trip that were characterized by disregarding any anxiety and just throwing myself down, or off, or over something. In Thailand, jumping off the waterfall. In the Maldives, jumping off the boat. In Egypt, running down the sand dune. I wish that Biomes could have a highlights reel – so I spent the afternoon going through my pictures and organizing the ones I like the best.


Now, we’re probably going to go out and look at the northern lights again. Tomorrow we leave for Spitsbergen, and have to protect ourselves from the wild roaming polar bears.

Tromsø, Norway

March 24, 2010
Clear, freezing. Lots of snow on the ground.
Today we went to the polar museum in Tromsø, and looked at the aquariums with the local fish and two bearded seals. We watched a really adorable seal show and the trainers told us about how each individual had a unique personality and were very smart. Afterwards, we looked at a whole display in the gift shop of seal skin products: do you want your adorable, intelligent, and unique friends in the form of purses, boots, capes, or stuffed animals?

In spite of myself, I’m very much taken with the arctic landscape. I always thought I was much more fond of the tropical landscape, but the huge snow covered mountains and the blue blue fjords are gorgeous. The little peaked-roof houses and old churches are adorable, and the Norwegians are beautiful.

Today, I read in the news that an island has disappeared beneath the ocean in the Sunderbans as a result of global climate change. Ownership of the island has been disputed over for decades by India and Bangladesh, but luckily our relentless release of greenhouse gasses has effectively put an end to the political battle. I could write endlessly about the terrible effects of climate change, how all the wonderful things I’ve written about over the last three months will probably not be around for my children to see, and how I can’t stand the idea of so many people being subjected to rapid change that our technology won’t be able to keep up with. But I've done enough of that. I’m going outside to look for the northern lights.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tromsø, Norway

March 23, 2010
Scattered clouds, around -2C

This city is adorable and expensive. The streets are lined with perfect Scandinavian houses, two huge mountains loom in the distance with perfect ski slopes, and the streets are blanketed in perfect white snow. The kroner ratio is about 5.7 NK to 1 USD, and at the airport a sandwich cost from 60-70 kroner at the low end. The food, based on the simple sandwiches we put together from the grocery store this evening, seems to be quite delicious: if you’re paying eight dollars for a loaf of bread, it’s going to be tasty.
Our hotel is also adorable, but it’s tiny. I feel like eight days of living with three other girls in a relatively small room and being crammed together is really starting to get to me. Everywhere I turn I’m bumping into someone, and I haven’t slept out of arm’s reach of another person any time in recent memory. Tonight will be no different when I settle down with Liz in full-sized bed made from two miniscule twin beds pushed together and covered in a larger mattress.
Going home is going to be so strange. I won’t know what to do with all the privacy and autonomy.

Oslo, Norway (en route to Tromsø)

March 23, 2010
Raining, overcast
The nature of the trip has changed significantly as we moved from Africa and Asia to Europe: I feel like the more interesting parts of traveling have come from what we do, not where we are. Descriptions of Berlin would be a little dull because it is so similar to any major American city. The night after we went to the strange disco, I was sitting in bed wondering if I should go out. I was tired, it was a Sunday, but I felt like every night I go to bed early is a night and precious hours wasted. Everything seems to go by so fast; the trip is almost over, not to mention that I feel like I’ve grown up so fast and suddenly I’m almost twenty-one and my childhood is completely gone. But those semi-depressing thoughts were mostly eclipsed by the necessity of just doing something.
The process of planning to go out sometimes is as fun as going out itself. Picking out the place, putting the group together, getting dressed. I haven’t worn any cute clothes for months, and so I stopped by H&M and picked out some tights and a dress. It was a horrible process; too crowded and hot but I emerged happy that I could wear something vaguely appropriate. The tights wouldn’t go well with my hiking boots or earthy walking shoes or flippy floppys, so I grudgingly went looking for shoes. Anh told me that there was a really cheap shoe store near the one euro store, and I found that it was actually an entire row of shoe stores. There were indeed very cheap shoes and I brought Matt along to replace his poop shoes. I’m never going to complain about finding some cute flats for under fifteen dollars, but two things about this row of stores weirded me out. First, along the wall were distinctly scandalous shoes: see-through platforms filled with colorful baubles floating in solution, six-inch high black stilettos covered in sequins and thigh-high lace-up spike-heeled red boots. Second, I picked out my flats right next to a relatively young woman who looked like she was in the advanced stages of syphilis. I commented to Matt that these stores were undoubtedly where prostitutes bought their footwear.
The next night, when I was itching to get out of the hotel and do something, Matt and I got on the M19 bus and rode it until the end. I wondered halfway through if there was a bad part of Berlin like there was a bad part of Los Angeles. At the termination of the bus, we got on the next one and rode it to the other end – and we certainly passed through the bad part of Berlin. Standing along the street were hoards of scantily dressed ladies, and there were not one, but two bona fide prostitutes wearing mini-skirts and those intense red boots I had seen the day before. Hypothesis proven by direct observation.
Yesterday we went to Berlin’s Botanical Gardens and saw all the different plants from the different biomes growing within one hundred feet of one another in greenhouses. I also got a very delicious marzipan croissant, which caused a very unhealthy and inconvenient addiction. I haven’t stopped thinking about this delicious pastry. Now we’re in the Oslo Airport waiting for our flight to Tromsø. We’re going to be spending a few days there before venturing to Spitzberg in Arctic Circle to visit Santa Claus at the North Pole. Part of me very much misses the Maldives and the tropics, but I’m also excited to see polar ice and be on top of the world.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Berlin, Germany

March 21, 2010
Overcast, raining

Last night we went to a disco in an abandoned electrical factory. This was one of the strangest party experiences I’d ever had; we arrived around 1:30am, and I thought the dancing would be winding down and people would be thinking about going home. Instead, it turns out the club had just opened and it was a little empty. We checked our coats and walked downstairs to the dance floor and started up the party. The techno was absolutely blaring and there was a machine spewing ridiculously thick fog. The guys in our group started pushing each other and doing those ironically dorky dance moves, and I thought that we would stand out in comparison to the sophisticated Europeans.
One look around the dance floor proved me wrong. Nobody was dressed up at all, and leading the grooving was this guy with his sweatshirt tied around his waist waving his pointer fingers around in the air. It became a bit more crowded, but everyone kept at least a foot of personal space around them, even when “dancing” with another person. It seemed that everyone was just really into the music and wanted to have some space to get down with themselves. And they got down – people were going all out with their awesome moves.
I sat down on the couch for a moment, and the vibrations from the subwoofer combined with all the strobe lights hypnotized me. I’m glad nobody seized up. I eventually stood up, and everyone was so into the dancing that it sucked me in too – I spent several hours just bobbing up and down. These four girls dancing by themselves in the corner (literally, they were each about three or four feet away from each other) started screaming. Joyful screaming, but screaming nonetheless. Sweatshirt guy started whistling in time to the beat. I was ready to leave.
Thankfully the U1 and U2 train lines run all night, so getting back was easy. I was boarding the train, and just about to sit down when the car lurched forward and I flew about ten feet down the aisle and everyone laughed hysterically at me. I stood up feeling really humiliated, and skulked away trying to reduce the shame and embarrassment. Just as I was thinking that everyone was staring at me and thinking I was such a klutz, these two ridiculously drunk girls started yelling in German. I don’t know what they were saying, but they made such a scene that anything stupid I had done was immediately forgotten and everyone turned their attention to these girls. Their uncontrollable laughter distracted from my uncontrollable spazzing.
We got home just before most people get up, and I dragged myself to my room, tried to open the door quietly, and passed out in bed and didn’t wake up until just before noon today. Lunch was delicious Berliner currywurst from a place I ate at yesterday – the guy who works there recognized me and was just a tad creepy. Fortunately language barriers prevent anything too creepy from happening. Now I’m back at Starbucks, trying unsuccessfully to do my work.
Tonight, perhaps there will be another philharmonic performance, or perhaps a contemporary six roomed electronic extravaganza, with the help of “head listening ensembles,” suggested by the Berlin weekend program.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Berlin, Germany

March 20, 2010
Berlin, Germany
Overcast, Cool. Rain in the morning.

I feel like I’ve finally returned to the western world – I’m writing this at starbucks. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this. Do I miss the novelty of Asia and Africa, or am I happy to be back in a semi-familiar place? This question will become even more pronounced when I return to the United States in sixteen days. Some moments I cannot wait to get home and have free time, privacy, and all the people I love around me. Other moments, I feel completely uninterested in going back and feel like I could spend the rest of my life traveling the world.
But for now, I’m in Berlin, eating a really tasty cheese sandwich on a pumpkin seed roll. I’ve been really terrible at keeping up on my blogging, but it’s even harder to do than when I was in Turkey. In any free time, I want to be out walking around, not sitting in my room writing. Since I last wrote, we spent an afternoon in the Charlottenburg Palace, went to the philharmonic one night and a smaller wind and string ensemble another night, walked through the Holocaust Memorial , and went to the Natural History Museum. On our day off (Thursday), I spent the morning sleeping and then walked down the Kurfürstendamm to the KaDeWe, one of the largest department stores in the world.
I breezed past the clothing; I rarely have the patience to shop without a clear objective. Instead, I went straight to the top floors, which Denny and David had told us contained the most outrageous grocery story. After a life-long love affair with Whole Foods, I thought I could handle it. But the moment I saw the endless aisles of food, I couldn’t buy anything, I just wandered. There were hundreds of different kinds of bread and cheese and fruit and tea and pasta and anything else you could ever want. Every type of food was represented by a miniature restaurant within the store. The excess was extremely overwhelming and I felt a serious headache coming on so I had to leave. I haven’t been to a grocery store since Hawaii. The only thing even vaguely similar has been the “corner stores” which are like small 7/11s with maybe three types of juice, a single type of fruit, and some prepackaged food. There has been absolutely no variety.
This experience typifies how I feel about coming to Europe after traveling through very poor countries for a few months. The Kurfürstendamm is like Fifth Avenue and is lined with all sorts of stores that I absolutely love, but I cannot buy anything. I’ve been wearing my hiking boots and sweatshirt and Colombia jacket while I walk past all these beautiful people dressed in beautiful clothes. I feel very out of place, but I can’t bring myself to care. My friend Richard spent much of the summer in India, and right after he came to USC we had a long conversation about how he hated seeing all these people wearing stupid clothes and caring about stupid worthless things. I understand now why he felt that way.
I’m getting tired of being in a city; I know in a few days I’ll be in the tundra in Norway, but I feel a little enclosed. One of my favorite parts of Berlin has been the Natural History Museum. The huge dinosaur fossils and the rows of fossilized plants and the glass doors enclosing the shelves full of preserved animals were wonderful to look at. There was a space exhibit as well, with a circular couch with seat backs that were angled back. I sat down on the couch, and laid back to see a circular screen showing a countdown. When it got to 00:00, a movie started and the screen came closer and closer. It was all in German, but after watching it two and a half times, I was pretty certain what it was saying. The topic was the formation of the earth, and it went through billions of years of time and we watched the universe form, until it zoomed in to the world, then to Germany, then to Berlin, then to the museum, and then to a live image of us sitting on the couch. Then it quickly zoomed back out. “That’s the universe,” the movie finished in German.
Tonight is another philharmonic performance – last night we saw Mozart’s requiem, tonight there are Schumann pieces. Tomorrow is another free day, then Monday is more class, then Tuesday we leave for Norway. I’ll try to be better about writing.

Berlin, Germany

March 16, 2010
Cold, a few flurries

Last night we arrived in Berlin around 8 pm and hopped on the bus to the pension where we are staying. This morning, we had class and then went to the Pergamon museum after grabbing some lunch at a grocery store. At lunch time, I had another one of my incredibly stupid tourist moments where I stood blankly at a deli and asked the lady behind the counter “Sandwich? Sandwich?” several times until a kindly old gentleman holding a single leek took pity on me and said in a more German accent “Sandwich.” Then the deli lady understood and pointed me to a set of premade sandwiches. Anyways, the Pergamon museum was incredibly interesting: all the beautiful treasures and the altar of Zeus that had originally been found at the sites we were in at Turkey were displayed at this museum. Denny told the ticket agent that it was lovely to be here because we were in Bergama just several days ago. The ticket person replied, “Well this is so much better because everything important is here.”
We wanted to go to the Egyptian museum and see all the Egyptians treasures the Germans took, but we arrived five minutes after 4:30, when the last group is admitted and the ticketing agent was absolutely unwilling to bend the rules for us. As much experience as I thought I had with German people, I’ve been kind of intrigued by all the interesting strangers I’ve met. We went back to the hotel, and then I wandered with a few people around Berlin and ending up eating some tasty bratwurst and French fries. I love Berlin, but I don’t feel like journaling very much tonight.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

En route from Latvia to Berlin

March 15, 2010

Yesterday we slept in a bit and went for a walk around Istanbul directly after breakfast. Our first stop was the Ayasofya, the gigantic 6th century church turned mosque in the 15th century. One of my favorite books when I was in middle school was Anna of Byzantium, about Anna Comnena. All of the Byzantine emperors, including her brother and father, were crowned in this huge building. The author had described and referenced the Ayasofya, but had never identified it, so when I walked through I felt like I had been there before in a very strange way. We walked up the ramp that could fit a chariot drawn by four horses into the upper levels, and looked at the newly uncovered mosaics, and got to see the gigantic marble urns taken from Bergama.

Directly afterwards, we walked across the street to the Blue Mosque, which was built shortly after Constantinople was taken over and converted overnight to Islam in the 1400s. We had to wait to enter because it was prayer time, and when we went inside we removed our shoes and the women covered our heads. From the outside, it looked like a newer version of the Ayasofya, but inside it seemed less grand, probably because it is still used as a place of worship.

Mosques have made me very uncomfortable – I hate covering my hair, and I hate how there are areas cordoned off by screens for women in the back and in hidden alcoves. It seems that women would be so much less of a distraction for men if the men would stop leering.
Afterwards, we went to lunch and then had a blissfully free afternoon. I wandered around Istanbul for a while, and stopped in a sweet shop to look for Turkish ice cream, which is supposed to be very excellent. I tried to get a man to let me taste a bit before I bought a gigantic tub (the only size they had), but even with the help of a mildly creepy interpreter I was unable and didn’t want to be stuck with a huge vat of normal ice cream on a cold day. Instead I got some tasty baklava and walked back to the hotel.
I sat next to Aysen at dinner, and finally broached a subject I’ve been hesitant to bring up: the Armenian Genocide. She was talking about how much Turkish people liked the United States, and how relations are so friendly, and I mentioned the recent house resolution. Aysen brushed it off – “These are just games the governments are playing, the people don’t care. We have always loved Americans.” I think she wanted to end the conversation about the Armenians there, but I pushed the subject a little more. She told me about going to Armenia, and how poor the people were there, and how she believed that the campaign to call it genocide was purely financially motivated. If the world believes it was genocide, she said, then Turkey would have to pay the survivors.
Furthermore, she told me that she believes the circumstances around the death of the Armenians was totally different than what happened during the genocides in Bosnia, or in Iraq, or in Germany – she said that the killing happened on both sides and many Turks and Armenians died. The Armenians, she says, were moved out of the country by the government to Syria or elsewhere in order to protect them from the turmoil in Turkey, and that along the way the Armenians brutally killed many Turks out of spite. The real reason for the mass number of Armenian deaths, Aysen told me, was the bad weather for which the travelers were unprepared. Our whole view of history is based on what somebody tells us; the story that I was told is completely different, and to me it is much more believable. But to Aysen, this is the story she knows and what she had incorporated into her world schema. It seems that what actually happened matters less than what the majority of people believe happened.
This morning, we woke up and ate breakfast, and Denny sent us off with some lire to go get lunch for the bus ride to the airport. I had eleven postcards that I have been saving to mail since Tanzania, and I stopped in at least four shops to find stamps when finally someone pointed me to the post office. It was a bit of a walk, and finally a huge official building labeled “PTT” appeared on the horizon. I walked inside and literally just stood for a few minutes trying to figure out what to do. I approached a window, and stupidly asked “Stamps?” and held out my stack of postcards. The man grunted at me, then pointed and said, “Not here. There.”
I walked over to the other window, which was probably clearly labeled in Turkish. “Stamps? Eleven?” The woman handed me a stack of stamps, and I paid, and tried to hand her the postcards. “Not here. There.” She pointed outside. I wandered around the hallway for a good five minutes before I found some discreet slits in the wall labeled “Asiatic Side,” “European Side,” “Inland,” and “International.” I slid the postcards into the International slit, and I resigned myself to being a dumb tourist once and a while. I hope you all get your letters.
For lunch, I picked up a pig intestine gyro. Aysen said they were very tasty, but I took a bite and did not enjoy the entrails’ flavor, so I gave mine away and ate a grilled cheese at the airport. We had about an hour before our plane took off after going through passport control and security, so I wandered over to the food court and sat down by myself. I can’t remember the last time I ate a meal alone, much less did anything alone, and it was a strange feeling. I feel like during this trip I identify myself as part of a group rather than an individual. So many times, I write “we” instead of “I,” because really everything is done as a unit. When people conspicuously wander off by themselves or sit alone, others in the group look at them strangely and wonder why they are isolating themselves. It’s going to be so strange, almost lonely to go home and do things by myself – I’m the only one from the group on my flight back to San Francisco, and I’m going to have quite a few hours without anyone else around me. I haven’t slept alone in a room for such a long time, and for most of that time someone was sharing a bed with me. I’ve become used to it, and kind of enjoy the constant company.
Anyways, it was touch and go in when we landed in Riga. We only had about ten minutes to make our connecting flight to Berlin, and I power walked through the initial security check and saw a sign pointing to the B gates and thought I was finally in the clear, when I was abruptly stopped at a passport checkpoint. I was the first of our group in line, and the women slowly took my passport from me, and stared and it and back at me for what seemed like an eternity. “First time in Latvia?” Yes. “Where you going?” Berlin. She gave me a cold stare. “What you do there?” Just vacation, I said. She stared at my passport a bit longer, and finally she stamped it and let me through.
I dashed to our gate and nobody was standing at the desk, so I went down the walkway too, right up the doors and they were closed. I stood in horror, and slowly walked back into the gate. Somebody was standing there and I asked him if the flight to Berlin had departed already. “No, it’s delayed.” The flight, thankfully, had been delayed by an hour so we got sandwiches and waited. Then suddenly, the monitor at the gate no longer read Berlin and the departure screens no longer listed a gate for the flight. Denny asked one of the flight attendants what had happened, and she got on the phone then reported that our flight had waited for the passengers from Istanbul, but then had taken off.
We were horrified. But then, the same man who had told me that it had been delayed stepped up and said, “The plane’s still there! It hasn’t taken off yet, they’re just waiting for the other plane to leave the gate and then it will board.” The flight attendant looked unconvinced, but in about ten minutes we were boarding and now we are on our flight to Berlin.
Tomorrow is our first precious free day since Tanzania, and in the morning we are having a thirty minute orientation from Denny, David and Sigrid. I’m surprised that the most western and familiar country we have been to yet requires an orientation, considering we were thrown into Thailand, India, Tanzania, the Maldives, and Egypt with no explanation and no helpful orientation to help guide us through the rough times. Hopefully they’ll be directing us to the best places to get beer… but almost certainly not.

Istanbul, Turkey

March 13, 2010
Clear, cool

Last night I went for a walk with Matt in a park near our hotel. We played on some public exercise equipment, walked through the gardens, and ended up sitting on a bench to talk. Shortly after we sat down, two park officials came over on bikes – one was actually a trike with a child seat in back, but they were still ferocious officers of the state. They made one lap around, then circled back and stopped to talk to us. They began with what I imagine is a Turkish greeting, and quickly found out that we did not speak a word of Turkish and they did not speak a word of English. One of the officers pulled out his ID and started waving it at us, so we pulled out our room keys and pretended we didn’t have our passports, and pointed to the hotel we were staying at. By this time, we were all hysterical with laughter and trying to use hand signals to communicate: he stuck his pointer fingers out and started smashing them together. We took it as our cue to leave, and so we began to walk towards the street and two of the guards chased us down on their bikes and escorted us out. As we walked past the entrance gate, a whole group of guides waved to us and yelled something in Turkish, probably good night.
This morning we woke up late to get in the bus and drive back to Istanbul. I had settled down for a good long bus ride to the ferry, and was just dozing off when not five minutes into the drive we stopped, and we herded out into the cold. We were going to look at the Green Mosque and a tomb in Bursa. Both were very cool and beautiful with very nice colorful tiles, and in the mosque a group of teenage boys approached me and asked to take a picture with me. They then found Nate, our Biomes Ambassador, and crowded around him and took a few pictures. It’s so interesting because I could never imagine asking to take a picture of a foreigner in the United States, especially when they aren’t dressed any differently or doing anything particularly “cultural.”
After the mosque and the tomb we got back on the bus for several hours, got on a ferry, crossed to Mediterranean in under an hour, and ended up back in Istanbul. We stopped to get a picture of the strait and the bridge that joins Asia Minor with Europe, and I desperately had to pee. Allen, Zypy, Matt, Aysen and I did a mad dash to another mosque and I used easily the most disgusting bathroom of the entire trip. Strangely, there was soap and water – Muslims are required to clean before they enter a mosque.
The rest of the day was spent at the Grand Bazaar. I’m not a big fan of shopping when I don’t need to buy anything, and there is something sort of depressing about walking through miles and miles of a dark enclosed filled with shops each filled with identical stuff – pipes, rugs, shoes, lanterns, etc. All these “Turkish” things. I left and drank some fresh-squeezed juice and wandered over to the Istanbul University and through the city. On the steps on the University, two girls tried to get a picture of me as I walked by, and I turned to wave at them and they snapped a photo. It’s really quite strange, but I don’t mind.
After that, we went to our hotel, and then ate the slowest and longest dinner ever (pushing three hours), and now I’m here journaling. I feel like this is one of the most important parts of the trip for me; like I said I’m not a huge fan of buying things and so I feel like what I write will be my most treasured souvenir.

Bursa, Turkey

March 12, 2010
Rainy, cool

Tonight is one of those nights where I absolutely have no urge to write a blog, but I feel like the longer I put it off the less I will write and the more disappointed I will be when I look back on all that I have written over the course of this trip. That being said, today was a very interesting day. The morning was spent at a horse farm and winery of a Hiram alum. It was one of the most serene places I have ever been – the Arabian horses ran in huge fields with white fences and a huge red barn with the vines in the background. The winery itself smelled amazing – oaky and yeasty and grapey – things that remind me of home, when I sit down with my parents and a bottle of wine. It looked a lot like the more beautiful places in northern California.
We spent a lot of time just hanging out and petting the horses and tasting some of the wine. The best I tried (between a 2008 Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah blend and a 2009 Italian varietal that I don’t remember, and a “reject” 2009 made from the leftover grapes that got pressed a little too hard) was definitely the reject called “Survivor.” It hadn’t been aged in an oak barrel yet, so it tasted very different from most wines I’ve had, but it was very complex and delicious.
After wandering around the farm, we went out to lunch at a place on the shore of the Aegean Sea where we ate traditional Turkish food and drank some tea. Then we got on the bus. The thing about our bus rides is that we have no idea how long they will take. Sometimes, we get in the bus for five minutes, and sometimes we get in the bus all day. We never know. Today was one of those days where I thought there would be a half hour, maybe forty-five minute drive to Izmir, but about two hours in I asked Denny and he said that it would take at least another three and a half hours. I was quite content (I’ve become used to long rides in various forms of transportation) and it didn’t bother me. Five hours later, even I was getting antsy and I pointed out the window at a gorgeous hotel and said, “I wish we were staying there.”
Not ten seconds later, the bus made a swift u-turn and we were in the driveway of this beautiful European-style hotel and then we were inside, and then we were in our huge plush rooms with glass shower doors and all the toilet paper I could ever want. It is by far the most luxurious place we’ve stayed, and I’m glad we’ve had a buffer of a few weeks between this and Tanzania or India, or else I would be in serious culture shock. I’m just hoping there is nutella at breakfast.
I know this was short, and I really meant for it to be longer, but I’m tired and there are other things to be done tonight. I can’t believe I’m coming home in just over three weeks! It is this weird combination of feeling like I just left and feeling like I’ve been traveling for years. I can’t tell which it is – but I know that coming home will be very bittersweet. I’ll be so glad to see my family and friends and sleep in my own bed, but I’ll be sad to stop traveling and leave this group that I’ve grown so fond of. Already I feel like the time I have left is way too short and I know there will be some tears when I get on the plane to SFO.

Ephesus, Turkey

March 11, 2010
Cool, overcast, rainy

Yesterday we took a tour of Bergama’s ancient Acropolis and the foundation of the Temple of Zeus. As soon as we entered the city limit, we stopped to pick up another one of the glorious guides. “My dear guests. My dear guests. I am so happy to be with you.” He greeted us. His pompous manner immediately turned me off of anything he tried to say, and the way in which we herded us like sheep drove me crazy. On the bus, off the bus, gather round, listen to him say everything three or four times, on the bus, off the bus, gather round, another bunch of useless and repetitive stories. “Am I boring you!” he asked more than once. It was an accusation, not a question. When we got up to the Acropolis, and he gathered us around him facing a wall while behind us there were huge columns and ruins and a gorgeous view of hills and the town of Bergama, I ran off by myself.
I took a small path off to the side and went outside the Acropolis’ walls, and clambered down a grassy hill. At that moment, all of the mosques in the area started playing the same Koran verse, calling Muslims to prayer. The four minarets’ out of sync prayer calls created an eerie chorus that echoed over the hills and valley, and as I stood outside of the abandoned acropolis I felt the haunting sensation of a society on a precipice. I think that’s why Denny has brought us to areas most affected by climate change, then brought us to Turkey and showed us fallen city after fallen city. I think he wants to show us what our greatness can become, but when our cities are destroyed there will be nobody left to tour our ruins.
On top of that hill, I found an old oyster shell in the dirt. It was unlike any oyster I’ve seen before – the calcium carbonate layers formed a shell about two centimeters thick. The moments we see are fleeting milliseconds of geologic time: before this site was an abandoned city it was a dried up ocean. We piled back into the bus to eat lunch, and then went to the world’s first psychiatric hospital. Again, I wandered away from our awful guide, and as I was standing on the edge of a gigantic field of daisies Denny came to get me. He asked if anything was wrong, and I said that there was so much I wanted to see that the guide never showed us. Denny told me that I had to rejoin the group even though the guide was annoying, and that the Turkish Ministry of Culture would not allow us to come near a historic site without a guide leading us.
As much as I love Turkey, there is a certain frustration that comes with such an oppressive government. Before I came here, I couldn’t understand why Europe doesn’t allow Turkey to join the EU, but I feel like this government has values that are more suitable for a developing fascist nation instead of the progressive values more characteristic of European countries. I know that some portion of this extremism is in response to a fifteen-year refusal of the EU to include Turkey, but to become increasingly fundamentalist is a poor way to make friends.
Anyways, we went to our hotel and I was again exhausted and collapsed into bed. This morning, we woke up fairly early and went to Ephesus, an extremely well reconstructed ruined city. We were unable to find an official guide, and so wonderful Aysen took on that role. We wandered through the streets, sat on the ancient toilets, and sang in the gigantic amphitheater which seated twenty-five thousand. I really enjoyed the tour, especially looking at all the Greek and Roman writing on stone tablets, some of which I recognized. The library was especially amazing: huge pillars and archways with statues of goddesses. What was so intriguing about this site is that I could really imagine the Ephesians wandering around the streets, sitting on the ancient toilets, and singing in the gigantic amphitheater. It was far more than a pile of columns and some buried walls; it looked like a real city.
Afterwards, we ate lunch in a glorified cafeteria and went to two sites: St. John’s Basilica, where we saw fifteen hundred year old frescoes of Jesus and Mary, as well as looked out over the very cute town and walked through more daisy fields, and the house of Mary, a small stone building located on the top of the surrounding hills. It was very cool to be in the place where Mary and St. John lived, and the juniper trees smelled so good and the running water from the spring made a very idyllic location for a pilgrimage.
We went back to the hotel after that, and I took a very long nap.
I thought that being in Turkey would be very interesting right after the announcement about the United States declaring the Armenian Genocide a genocide, and I thought that we would see the impact of the fairly major earthquake that occurred a few days after we arrived. Neither has been evident. I wanted to write about the political drama and the treatment of Americans after the announcement, but the Turkish people have been nothing but kind to us and there have been no political statements of any sort that I’ve seen. I wonder what it means – perhaps we’re just too isolated in our tourist bubble to see reality.
One more thing, on the topic of my curiosity about bathrooms around the world: in the non-squatter flushing toilets here, there are always mechanisms that regulate how much water is used. For example, if there are not two buttons (one for mild and one for serious business) then there is a mechanism to stop the flushing when it becomes unnecessary. While we have one of the double-button toilets in our house, I rarely see anything but the single option water guzzling flushing fountain. I think that has to change. I’m not exaggerating: every single toilet I have encountered here has had a mechanism like this. If humans are replaced by something like super-smart octopi several thousand years in the future, and they come to tour our ruins, they will wonder why we didn’t even make this simple change to save ourselves.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Cobanoz, Turkey

March 9, 2010
Overcast, showers in the morning. Mid-forties

Turkey has seemed so easy in comparison to the rest of our trip – I leisurely woke up around 8:45 this morning and took a hot shower and ate breakfast. We took a two hour bus ride (read: two hour nap) and ended up in the most gorgeous quaint island town that had been fought over by the Greeks and the Turks for hundreds of years. We visited an old Greek Orthodox church and walked around the cobblestone streets. Cats and dogs were everywhere, and many of the dogs had the strangest eye color: it was a very light blue, almost white.

From there, we drove another hour to an olive oil factory, where we toured a museum of old olive-oil making equipment and tasted some extra-virgin olive oil right out of the aging tank. It was some of the best I’ve had in my whole life: at first, it was grassy, but it finished with a spicy kick at the end. The whole factory smelled like olives. Then we drove down the road to an olive farm and ate lunch in a wood-stove heated rotunda surrounded by orchards. Olives and oil from that farm were served with grilled chicken, fresh pasta, a local salad, and homemade meatballs with fresh fruit for dessert. It was easily one of the best meals of the entire trip. Turkey had been a culinary heaven, especially in comparison with Egypt where food seemed solely for the purpose of making hunger stop. At hour intervals along our day trips, we are fed snacks of fresh fruit, freshly roasted nuts, and chocolate.

After lunch, all eighteen (one person was at the hotel sick) of us piled into a single four wheel drive safari jeep and made the dangerous drive up the washed-out roads of Mt. Ida until it was no longer possible to traverse the roads, then we got out and walked up to a huge waterfall. It wasn’t a tall waterfall, but the sheer volume of water rushing through it was shocking. In the last six months, a year’s worth of rain has fallen in Turkey and in many places there are signs of inadequate drainage, especially outside of the city. Many fields are flooded and the trails in the mountains are more like creeks.
The other interesting thing about the Turkish hills is the similarities between the flora and fauna here and in California. I always hear the term “semi-arid Mediterranean” being used to describe the climate of California, and it is definitely an accurate description. Even though we are on the other side of the world, there are many of the same plants growing here. Walking through the hills yesterday was like walking through the hills surrounding San Jose.
We went back to the olive farm after our hike to have some tea before returning to the hotel. Dinner at the hotel was like every meal I’ve had in Turkey so far: multiple delicious courses so vast that it is impossible to finish. You think you’ve beaten the food, but in the end another plate is placed in front of our and the food beats you. The dessert here was surprisingly like a variation of two Indian desserts we ate quite frequently. There were gingerbread lumps soaked in syrup that were very similar to Gulab Jamun, and a baked pasta pudding that was similar to a liquid pasta pudding we had in Sariska. Also, whenever someone offers you tea here, they ask if you want chai, but then bring you a sweetened strong black tea that tastes nothing like the milky masala chai from India.
Denny would be proud that I’m doing integrations in my personal journal – I’m certain that comparing food is as important as comparing observations from different biomes.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Cobanoz, Turkey

March 8, 2010
Cool, rainy. High atmosphere dust storm.

Today is our second full day in Turkey, and I am exhausted. I feel like being in a westernized country where I am comfortable makes me even more tired than a place like Tanzania or India, because I am able to go out at night and wander around the cities. Instead of sitting in bed every night to type up a journal, I’ve been out and about, then wander back and pass out without even thinking about journaling. Subsequently, a lot of important information has not been recorded about our last three days.
We left Egypt in the afternoon on the 6th, and got into Turkey around 9 at night. The wonderful guide Aysen picked us up at the airport, tucked us into a bus, took us to a beautiful hotel on the Marmara Sea’s canal through Istanbul, and then brought us to the nicest restaurant on the trip for a very American meal of spaghetti and meatballs. I loved Turkey at that moment in a way completely different than I loved other countries that we’ve been to: I was fascinated on the variation on the theme of western culture. Everything is a different version of what we have in the United States, but the familiarity is still great enough to make an American feel comfortable.
Turkey is really defined by the geography of the country. The small land bridge that houses Istanbul is on the continent of Europe, the rest of the country is in Asia Minor. In Çanakkale, we stood on the Asian shore of one of the most-traveled straits in the world and looked out to Europe. This interface between “western” and “eastern” cultures is prevalent throughout the Turkish culture. It’s in some ways indescribable, but has many parallels with the biomes we’ve visited. As we moved through the equatorial zone into sub-tropical and now into a Mediterranean climate, each zone is not completely distinct; it is more like four-directional spectrum from hot to dry, warm to cold. The same is true with culture, through that multi-directional spectrum would be hard to label. Suffice it to say that to me, Turkey feels like a combination of India, Egypt, and France.
On our first night in Istanbul, I was so thrilled to be in Europe, in familiar settings, and to celebrate I drank some tap water straight. The next morning, I was told that the water was actually not safe to drink. I had gotten ahead of myself, but luckily I’ve created a GI tract of steel and have not experienced any ill-effects from my contaminated guzzling. We were in the bus very early and on our way to Çanakkale. Around 11 in the morning, a man selling beautiful Turkish We drove past fields that were thousands of years old, past villages and around the tip of the European continent, and directly onto a ferry boat, which took off as soon as we got the first two wheels of the bus onboard.
That fifteen-minute ferry ride took us to Asia, where we drove straight to the ancient ruins of Troy. I was giddy with excitement to see the site of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Helen of Troy, the Trojan War, and Trojan horse, and the namesake of my absolutely favorite mascot (fight on!). It was the most typical ruins you could imagine: old columns and walls sticking out of the ground, huge urns, and a replica of the Trojan Horse that I climbed up into. The wind was wicked as we stood on the very top of the hill listening to our guide learning about how thousands of years of human habitation had impacted the landscape; Troy used to be a harbor city but now is six kilometers from the ocean. Eventually, with the creation of all the swamp land, mosquitoes drove the inhabitants away.

After Troy, we went back to our guide’s shop and he served us apple tea. I went to the bathroom and my hat fell directly into the toilet. I held one of the only dry spots with the tips of two fingers all the way back to the hotel, where it went directly into unbearably hot and soapy water. Logically, I know it should be good to go, but I just can’t bring myself to put it on my head yet. Aysen gave us all small Turkish good luck charms to pin to ourselves, and I hoped that would prevent another disaster. But right before dinner this evening, as I was wearing my good luck charm, I hit the wrong button in the bathroom and water shot horizontally out of the toilet, soaking my pants and shoes. I’m just not quite used to these newfangled western toilets after using a squatter and a bucket of water for the last six weeks.
I know that I should be writing about more highfalutin things about culture and biology, especially because I recently gave the blog link to one of my professors who I like and respect very much, but the differences in the way cultures address basic everyday human needs fascinates me. Sometimes, the way I usually address these simple human needs seems so ingrained in me, and so right that I cannot believe that anyone could do it a different way and function. But they not only function, they prefer it! Women here line up to use the squatter instead of the seated toilets! This was most shocking in Thailand, when we were camping in the national park and I had to bathe by pouring water that had been standing in a tub in the bathroom all over myself using the same bucket as every other person who had passed through. I would have been repulsed even if there weren’t tadpoles and algae in the water, but as I poured the cold, slimy water on my head I thought that this really was a sign of an undeveloped country.
But for the last few days I’ve been choosing the squatter over the seated toilets. Partially for the novelty because I know I will soon be back in seater-only territory, but mostly because I’ve began to feel the guilt of the gallon(s) of water each flush when I compare it the half liter that a squatter uses. After my first blissfully hot and high-pressure shower in Istanbul, I felt the guilt of the energy and the water that most of the world cannot have. I don’t think this was the point of the program, but I’ve come out of Asia and Africa with a guilty conscience.
Anyways, we went to a hotel in Çanakkale, ate dinner, freshened up, and six of us decided to go out. We were pointed to a café and bar by a man working at the hotel, and we walked up a flight of stairs to a dark room with a bar and a lot of “reserved” tables. It was almost completely empty, and we sat down and ordered. Not five minutes later, the room started to fill up. When it was half full, a guitarist, clarinetist, and vocalist walked onstage and began playing. Soon, the place was packed and the clarinetist was going to town with virtuosic improvisation. We were the only foreigners in the crowd, but unlike in Egypt and India, nobody seemed to notice or care. There were no awkward stares. People just did their own thing.
We went back to the hotel and I jumped into bed and didn’t open my eyes until morning. This morning, we woke up and went to the 18 March University to visit the dean of their Oceanography Department. My guilty conscience got much worse as we were told about the massive destruction of the fish populations in the Marmara, Black, Aegean and Mediterranean seas, but not because Turkish people rely heavily on fish protein. Instead, the demand from other nations fuels the massive overfishing and has caused sea life to crash. We saw a slideshow of awesome underwater photography and walked through an aquaculture aquarium room, a phytoplankton lab, and several fisheries labs.

Afterwards, we ate lunch and got back on the bus to drive to the next location. The sky had turned a ghastly yellow color due to a high-atmospheric sand storm coming in from Africa. Subsequently, the rain that was falling was more like sandy mud, which would have been very inconvenient had we not spent most of the day inside. Our clothes and the windows of the bus became splotched with the sediment falling from the sky.
The hotel here is very adorable, kind of quaint. We had a delicious dinner, and Denny came around and told us to not leave when we were finished eating. Just as I was polishing off an almond pudding, Aysen came around with bags from the city’s chamber of commerce, where her husband works. Olive trees are a primary source of income here, and so there was a bottle of local olive oil, oil soap, and a plant guide in the bag! It was a wonderful gift, and she brought out two chocolate cakes in honor of International Day of the Woman. We had a candle for each woman in the group, sang a modified Happy Birthday, and blew out the candles. The guys were instructed to cut the cake and serve it to us. It was a really lovely moment, especially given the conversation that Nate, Tim, Matt and I had while we were eating dinner.
In the Maldives, as some of you avid blog readers will remember, there was an incident where some people in the group claimed that men are terribly oppressed in the United States, and I became extremely incensed. The four of us had a very good conversation about unrealistic gendered expectations and the challenges facing a society aiming for equality. This conversation actually began after we talked about “lewd” sites being blocked by the government in Turkey. A message appears when you try to navigate to sites deemed inappropriate (including youtube) that informs you that the website was deemed illegal: “After technical analysis and legal evaluation based on the catalog crimes of the Law no 5651, Administrative measure has been taken for this website according to decision no 410.01.02.2008-213737 dated 21.08.2008 of ‘Telekomünikasyon İletişim Başkanlığı.’”
Dinner was very enjoyable and now I’m up in the room about to go to bed. I’m exhausted because I can’t stand to go to sleep when there are so many things to do.
One last thing: thanks for all the little messages I’ve received in the last few days. I really miss everyone back home and whenever I hear from you, it really makes me happy.

En route from the desert back to Cairo

March 5, 2010
Somewhere between the Oasis and Cairo
Very cold during the night, very hot during the day. Clear.

The last two days were spent in the Black and White Deserts to the west of Cairo. After our night in the Oasis’ Hotel, we left in four safari vehicles. We set out away from the Oasis, and the landscape rapidly transitioned from palms and fields to completely barren desert. I’ve never seen anything so lifeless – in every direction, there was just sand and rock formations but no plants or animals.
I have a knack for choosing the vehicle with the most irritating guide. He played loud, Hitler-like Arabic propaganda for a few hours, and then switched over to loud, grating Egyptian music. I almost couldn’t stand to get in the car each time we got out to look at something. But even though I wanted to rip my ears off and I constantly bumped my head on the ceiling of the jeep, the desert thrilled me. Huge volcanic structures emerged from the desert, forming massive sand dunes on the windward side.
Our head guide brought us to one of the largest dunes in the area, and led a hike to the top. It was stunning to see such a gigantic pile of sand. The only track that marred the pristine slope was footprints of the scarab beetles, which wound their way up and down the dune. Once we took our group picture at the top, we took huge leaps down the side of the sandy hill.
The rest of the day we toured the two deserts, driving over rough sand and rock and then getting out to take pictures of a notable site. At the end of the day, our guides brought us to the White Desert National park, which is a surreal and vast collection of huge white sand sculptures. We arrived just in time to watch the sun set, and the guides set up cushions surrounded by curtains, light a campfire, and pulled out a stove set and began cooking dinner. We were ravenous.
Not surprisingly, shortly after we arrived, many people wanted to use the restroom. When asked where the bathroom was, our guide pointed to two large rocks nearby. “That one is for the women. That one is for the men.” After visiting the toilets, it became clear that we were not the first people to squat behind these rocks; dried up poop littered the landscape because there no insect or bacteria could survive long enough to decompose this organic material. Ancient toilet paper decorated the base of the rock. Later in the dark night, I left my own mark behind that rock and hoped that I wouldn’t fall onto anything too gross.
Dinner finally was ready around 9:30, and we fell onto the fire-grilled chicken and rice and potatoes like we hadn’t seen food in years. After we tidily polished off pretty much everything put in front of us and were getting ready to roll out our sleeping bags, our guides told us that they were going to put on a Bedouin Party for us. The part consisted of a drum, a plastic container, and a singer who came from a nearby camp. They desperately wanted to get us involved, and started by leading hand-clapping, then getting us to sing repeated choruses, then finally grabbed us and tried to make it a dance party.
Undoubtedly, it was fun to dance around a fire to a drum beat. But when an old Egyptian guy grabbed my hands and hip thrusted at me, I was less amused. Everywhere we go, I feel like our guides cross the delicate boundary between introducing us to their culture and being overly familiar. If you try to shimmy against me without invitation, that’s probably too familiar. I ran off and enjoyed dancing far away from the creeping hands of our guides. The Bedouin Party ended around eleven, and we got out our sleeping bags and went to bed.
Denny always tells us that the desert is a place of extremes; I have a feeling that he planned this camping adventure to really make sure that we got that point. The temperature had been dropping since the sun set, and the thin pads did not protect us from the cold sand underneath. My sleeping bag is rated to five below, and after lugging it through the hot hot tropics for a month and a half, I was so thankful for all that heavy insulation.
The next morning, our head guide beat his drum at six in the morning, about forty-five minutes before the sun got up. We shivered as we got out of our sleeping bags, and ran for the smoldering fire. We ate breakfast around six thirty – it doesn’t matter if you’re in a hotel or in the middle of the desert – breakfast always involves pita with fig jam and honey. And it doesn’t matter where you’re eating, the food is always going to have the extra crunch of a little sand. We packed up the jeeps once again and set off to see a few more of those white rock formations. Honestly, most of it was a blur for me. “A bird!” “A seahorse!” “ A whale!” our guide exclaimed, pointing to the rocks like clouds in a tan sky.
Our final stop in the White Desert was a flat-topped mesa composed of calcium carbonate deposited from a small spring underneath the sand. Subsequently, this was one of the only areas of the desert with any plant material – a little dry shrubbery and some grasses. I was dehydrated and sleepy as we climbed up the steep side of this mesa, and I sat down at the edge to wait to go back to the jeeps and sleep a little bit more. I picked absent-mindedly at the flakey rock, and underneath the top layer I found orange and green algae growing. Immediately, I was cheered up. Nate held up a rock he found with a fossilized sea shell, and I practically skipped down the rocky edge back to the jeep.
And then I promptly passed out until we got back to the Oasis and here I am back on that same big orange bus heading back to Cairo.

Friday, March 5, 2010

White and Black Deserts

March 5, 2010
Very cold during the night, very hot during the day. Clear.

The last two days were spent in the Black and White Deserts to the west of Cairo. After our night in the Oasis’ Hotel, we left in four safari vehicles. We set out away from the Oasis, and the landscape rapidly transitioned from palms and fields to completely barren desert. I’ve never seen anything so lifeless – in every direction, there was just sand and rock formations but no plants or animals.
I have a knack for choosing the vehicle with the most irritating guide. He played loud, Hitler-like Arabic propaganda for a few hours, and then switched over to loud, grating Egyptian music. I almost couldn’t stand to get in the car each time we got out to look at something. But even though I wanted to rip my ears off and I constantly bumped my head on the ceiling of the jeep, the desert thrilled me. Huge volcanic structures emerged from the desert, forming massive sand dunes on the windward side.
Our head guide brought us to one of the largest dunes in the area, and led a hike to the top. It was stunning to see such a gigantic pile of sand. The only track that marred the pristine slope was footprints of the scarab beetles, which wound their way up and down the dune. Once we took our group picture at the top, we took huge leaps down the side of the sandy hill.
The rest of the day we toured the two deserts, driving over rough sand and rock and then getting out to take pictures of a notable site. At the end of the day, our guides brought us to the White Desert National park, which is a surreal and vast collection of huge white sand sculptures. We arrived just in time to watch the sun set, and the guides set up cushions surrounded by curtains, light a campfire, and pulled out a stove set and began cooking dinner. We were ravenous.
Not surprisingly, shortly after we arrived, many people wanted to use the restroom. When asked where the bathroom was, our guide pointed to two large rocks nearby. “That one is for the women. That one is for the men.” After visiting the toilets, it became clear that we were not the first people to squat behind these rocks; dried up poop littered the landscape because there no insect or bacteria could survive long enough to decompose this organic material. Ancient toilet paper decorated the base of the rock. Later in the dark night, I left my own mark behind that rock and hoped that I wouldn’t fall onto anything too gross.
Dinner finally was ready around 9:30, and we fell onto the fire-grilled chicken and rice and potatoes like we hadn’t seen food in years. After we tidily polished off pretty much everything put in front of us and were getting ready to roll out our sleeping bags, our guides told us that they were going to put on a Bedouin Party for us. The part consisted of a drum, a plastic container, and a singer who came from a nearby camp. They desperately wanted to get us involved, and started by leading hand-clapping, then getting us to sing repeated choruses, then finally grabbed us and tried to make it a dance party.
Undoubtedly, it was fun to dance around a fire to a drum beat. But when an old Egyptian guy grabbed my hands and hip thrusted at me, I was less amused. Everywhere we go, I feel like our guides cross the delicate boundary between introducing us to their culture and being overly familiar. If you try to shimmy against me without invitation, that’s probably too familiar. I ran off and enjoyed dancing far away from the creeping hands of our guides. The Bedouin Party ended around eleven, and we got out our sleeping bags and went to bed.
Denny always tells us that the desert is a place of extremes; I have a feeling that he planned this camping adventure to really make sure that we got that point. The temperature had been dropping since the sun set, and the thin pads did not protect us from the cold sand underneath. My sleeping bag is rated to five below, and after lugging it through the hot hot tropics for a month and a half, I was so thankful for all that heavy insulation.
The next morning, our head guide beat his drum at six in the morning, about forty-five minutes before the sun got up. We shivered as we got out of our sleeping bags, and ran for the smoldering fire. We ate breakfast around six thirty – it doesn’t matter if you’re in a hotel or in the middle of the desert – breakfast always involves pita with fig jam and honey. And it doesn’t matter where you’re eating, the food is always going to have the extra crunch of a little sand. We packed up the jeeps once again and set off to see a few more of those white rock formations. Honestly, most of it was a blur for me. “A bird!” “A seahorse!” “ A whale!” our guide exclaimed, pointing to the rocks like clouds in a tan sky.
Our final stop in the White Desert was a flat-topped mesa composed of calcium carbonate deposited from a small spring underneath the sand. Subsequently, this was one of the only areas of the desert with any plant material – a little dry shrubbery and some grasses. I was dehydrated and sleepy as we climbed up the steep side of this mesa, and I sat down at the edge to wait to go back to the jeeps and sleep a little bit more. I picked absent-mindedly at the flakey rock, and underneath the top layer I found orange and green algae growing. Immediately, I was cheered up. Nate held up a rock he found with a fossilized sea shell, and I practically skipped down the rocky edge back to the jeep.
And then I promptly passed out until we got back to the Oasis and here I am back on that same big orange bus heading back to Cairo.

En route to an Oasis in Egypt

March 3, 2010
Overcast, cool
Right now we’re back in the gigantic orange bus en route to the Black and White desert from Cairo.
So many places I’ve been so far have fostered contradiction. Cairo has been no different, but the weird scenes I’ve seen have been some of the most interesting in the world. For example, yesterday I saw a donkey cart running full-speed down a major highway, carrying stacks of vegetables and being passed and honked at by cars. The driver of the cart would yell back and make rude hand gestures, feeling that he had as much right to access the road as anyone else. At night, I saw a man leading a woman in a full burqa out of a lingerie store, holding a bag full of sexy underwear. And in a canal leading from the Nile, bringing water to date-farms, huge dead animals flowed down the river, getting caught in gigantic trash heaps that form dams as people walked past nonchalantly.
Yesterday, we visited the Giza Pyramids, the Step Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the ruins of the ancient capital, Memphis. Nikki, Kanako and I rode camels around the Giza Pyramids and an Egyptian rider called out to us, “You’re the best! I hope you’re getting a good massage.” Camels are gigantic; when I sat down it immediately got up, and suddenly I was ten feet in the air with my legs dangling over the hump. I loved seeing the different ancient monuments. I think my favorite was going into one of the step pyramids and seeing the hieroglyphics written on the wall. Everywhere I go, I’m shocked at how well-preserved things are. They were covered by limestone until the 12th century, but still, the pyramids seem to be in great shape for being three or four thousand years old.
We just passed a development outside of Cairo called “dreamland,” which looks exactly like this American development in Pleasanton, California. The only difference is the gigantic mosque minaret rising up above the colorful condos. Also, I think the first gas station our bus went to was out of diesel, so we are now waiting in a huge line at the second gas station with perhaps ten trucks in front of us and more coming in behind us.
Anyways, throughout all of yesterday, we drove up and down a canal of the Nile. This was the dirtiest body of water I’ve ever seen – the one with all the dead animals. But even worse than the dead dogs and donkeys that floated along right next to small canoes out of which people were fishing (at least dead bodies are biodegradable) were the huge heaps of trash on either side of the canal. At some points, the piles were ten feet tall and around fifteen feet wide, containing every gross trash item imaginable. There were birds and goats picking over the refuse, and their fur and feathers, which must have previously been white, had been covered in mud and oil. When we sat down to lunch, the dirty egrets came to beg from our table. More than India even, this scene makes me realize how desperate a situation we’re in – we can no longer rely on plastics. The switch to biodegradable packaging must happen soon or every river in the world will be dammed with candy wrappers, plastic bottles, and grocery bags.
More light heartedly, I would again like to note the differences between Egyptian beggars and beggars in the rest of the world. I’ve noticed that here, people rarely beg but will provide menial “services” and get very angry if you refuse to pay. For example, virtually every bathroom in areas frequented by tourists, no matter how gross, will have an attendant handing toilet-goers a few squares of toilet paper. They will have a few pounds in a jar sitting next to the sink. For most of yesterday, I hadn’t been able to get any pounds so I had no local currency and all my dollars were tucked away deep in my purse.
I went to two bathrooms yesterday, both of which contained seemingly kindly women handing me a few squares of toilet paper. In one of the bathrooms, an Egyptian woman left right before me without tipping and the attendant seemed to not care. I left without much of a problem in the first bathroom, escaping with only a dirty look and a few hissed Arabic words. I washed my hands in the second bathroom and the woman cornered me, shaking a few coins in her hand. “Pounds. Pounds. Pounds.” I told her I didn’t have any money, and she said, “You have dollar? Who leads your tour?” What’s his name?” I dodged aside, and fled while she spit out what was certainly a string of angry Arabic.
Then last night, I was sitting in an open air café, and a small, well-dressed boy approached me and smiled. He hugged me and kissed my hand. I assumed that it was the child of one of the families sitting nearby, and thanked him, expecting him to leave. Instead he grabbed my hand and kissed it again, then pulled on it roughly and gave me a third kiss. By this time, I pulled my arm away and tried to get him to leave. “Pounds. Pounds. Pounds.” I told him no, and he gave me a sharp punch on the arm and ran away to a gigantic man sitting right behind me, and stomped his foot and pointed at me. The man waved him away and smiled apologetically at me as the entire café laughed. I laughed too – it was too ridiculous to not laugh.
I wish I had more to say about the pyramids, but everything I could say has already been said better in the last four thousand years. Just know that it was stupendous and I love being in Egypt. My inner Cleopatra-obsessed eleven-year old is having a field day.

Part 2:
Our long drive ended at an adorable single-story hotel. Denny had told us there was a pool, and we went to check it out. The pool was a murky green color and had a dead bat floating in it, and the water was body temperature. After getting settled, we piled into four safari jeeps and set out through a dense field of date palms. Streams ran through the orchards, and we drove just past the Oasis to climb up a hill and look around. In the distance, there were flat-topped sandstone hills, but one conical protrusion at the very end of the range. One side was complete barren desert with the sandstone, and on the other side there were lush green agricultural fields.
We tumbled down the sandy slope and returned to our cars, where our drivers took off like madmen across the sand, drifting around corners and speeding up and down the dunes. We came to a huge lake on the eastern side of the oasis, and stood at the water’s edge looking out. The lake was saltwater, and had extremely green chunks of what I’m pretty sure were cyanobacteria floating at the shore. The water was foamy, and the guide told us that the foam was from the salt, which is harvested in the summer time.
Again, we got back into the jeeps and drove off across the dunes to the conical protrusion in the landscape. We stood at the bottom, and looked up, and without warning, Swaffie and Nate dashed up the side of the sandstone formation. About ten more people followed, and at the last moment, I started climbing. I don’t know what the elevation was, but even late in the afternoon the desert is very hot and very dry and I got tired very quickly. I was breathing pretty heavily when I reached Michelle, who was also panting. She stopped at a ledge, looked out, and said that she thought she was finished. I wanted so badly just to climb down the side so I wouldn’t have to keep going. My feet tried to dig into the sand but I kept sliding, and I was worried that I would lose my footing and fall face first down the huge hill.
But I decided at that moment that I absolutely and under no circumstances would I not climb to the very top. I urged Michelle to keep going, partially to make sure that she had the same realization but mostly to keep myself going up. We scrambled through the deep and rocky sand, grabbing at the sandstone outcroppings where we could, and tested each rock to make sure it wouldn’t start a colossal rock slide if we grabbed on. We were about halfway up when we heard a whoop from the top: Nate had made it to the top. We kept going, and each time one of us stopped, the other would encourage. We were not thirty feet from the peak when our group started to walk or tumble or slide down. From the bottom, we heard Denny screaming “Come down! Come down!”
But we was thirty feet from the top and I wasn’t about to leave such a herculean task unfinished. Michelle looked doubtful. She thought they really wanted us to come down. I told her that we would not leave until we reached the top, and so we climbed the last little bit and ascended the pinnacle with a triumphant scream. Then we slid on our butts most of the way down, until there was clear sand in front of me and I went the rest of the way with giant leaps.
Our guides tsked us and we got in our jeep and rushed off to see one of the springs – it was a hole in the ground in a room, and our guide said that it was a thousand feet deep. Nonetheless, the water table is continuing to rescind, and it is predicted that in the next fifty years this oasis will no longer have natural spring water. Finally, we raced to the highest peak in the area to watch the sun set. Another desperate scramble was rewarded by watching the sun dip down over the horizon sitting on the ruins of an old hermit’s hut.
When we returned to the hotel, we ate dinner (the food seems to be exactly the same for lunch and dinner – hummus, pita, a salad of cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes, grilled chicken or sausages, rice, and an orzo pasta soup – it’s tolerable), and then a handful of people jumped into that murky pool after we took the dead bat out. I got in too, despite my better judgment, and the water permanently stained the white bits of my bathing suit brown.
I hadn’t thought about what would happen when I got out of the water dripping wet and had to walk back to my room. There is a security guard who sits at the front gate, and I really didn’t want to walk past him in a bikini. I also really didn’t want to get any of the clothing that I had worn to the pool wet. So I had Kanako open our door and I made the third mad dash of the day back to my room, with the guard catcalling me in the background.
While Indian men usually stared disgustingly at anything with two X chromosomes, they usually didn’t ever say anything. Here, you show a little bit of skin and you get harassed incessantly. I’ve been wearing long pants and long sleeves whenever I go out, but being white and blonde definitely doesn’t help me to blend in. I never realized why women would want to wear burqas until I got here: the very reason I detest the idea of veiling is the reason why it is so useful. When you no longer look like a person, when you no longer have a face or expressions, when nobody knows what your body looks like or even if you have a body, nobody will bother you. And last night, when I walked around some sketchy parts of Cairo with only Matt, I wished that I could have covered my face. I would have loved to be invisible to the Egyptian men. But I shouldn’t have to change how I dress to be respected; the men should change their disrespectful behavior. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to put on a headscarf than reform a millennia-old culture.
One final note in this ridiculously long blog entry (that’s because it really covers two days): don’t feel bad if I’ve written to you and I write some of the same comments in my blog. Emails always come before blogs, and so the similar parts were just the bits of the emails I’ve sent to individuals that I would like to publish to everyone. I would never just copy and paste my blog to you – I miss everyone a lot and love it when I get emails or facebook messages.

Cairo, Egypt

March 1, 2010
Cool, clear

Today was our first day in Egypt. We arrived at our hotel in a gigantic orange party bus early this morning, slept until just before eleven, ate some breakfast, and then went straight to the gigantic Egyptian museum. When I was eleven years old, I went through a major Egypt phase: I read about Cleopatra, I had an Egyptian perfume-making kit, a collection of real papyrus, and I had stacks of books on mummification. I made a paper mache mummy head for a class project, made it sure it never dried so I could cajole people into using a modified coat hanger to pull out the “brains” through the nose. The brains were facts about mummy written on soggy paper. Needless to say I was pretty excited.
The highlights were the King Tut exhibit with the sarcaphogus and mask, the famous bust of Nefertiti, the unwrapped mummies that still had hair and fingernails, the royal jewelry, the ancient dried seeds and plants, the Rosetta Stone, the Narmer Palette, and the animal mummies, especially the crocodiles. It was like I was in sixth grade again, but even more intense. I wish sometimes that I could have lived during that time period to see what it all was like.
I missed the Rosetta Stone the first time I walked past: there was no crowd of people, there was no fancy case, and there certainly was not any tag identifying it as one of the most important artifacts in the world. When I walked past it for a second time, the shape caught my eye, and I turned to admire it until some guy leaned up against the case in order to send a text. I was shocked how unimportant it seemed. The Narmer Palette got infinitely more attention: a special case, a huge crowd, and two different labels.
The mummies were obvious a huge draw; there was a ten dollar entrance fee and I must have stayed in that room for an hour. There were nine royal mummies; two were still wrapped up entirely and the rest had uncovered faces and feet. I really wish that the whole bodies were uncovered, but I imagine that would cause a problem in a conservative country, and it would be disrespectful to the dead. Someone mentioned that they thought it was an extremely disrespectful exhibit even with the coverings, but I feel like after two thousand years, I wouldn’t mind my mummified body being displayed. In fact, I think I would like it – it would give some a degree of immortality.
That’s what was so striking about this museum: the ability to make this amazing culture immortal. The building and displays were not at all fancy, but the sheer number of ancient artifacts stunned me. Statues were stacked upon statues, and each room was teeming with carvings and jewelry and the building incorporated the Egyptian archways and huge stone blocks into its own architecture. I loved it.
There was an entire room dedicated to animal mummies; and the most dramatic part was definitely the two crocodiles. Each was about twenty feet long and had a head bigger than my torso. One had been mummified with a group of baby crocodiles in its mouth to represent the way a mother would carry her young. There were a handful of mummified goats, some mummified cats and dogs, birds, a few shrews, and a few other animals I can’t remember.
After the museum, the group met up and we went on a “dinner cruise,” which consisted of two slightly sea worthy boats on the Nile and two guides who tried futilely to get us to dance by shaking their hips quite wildly. Our dinner was three different kinds of noodles mixed with beans and lentils and fried onions. I’d been warned that Egyptian food was mediocre, but it was definitely edible but definitely not that exciting. We watched the sunset (beautiful because of the pollution and dust particulates), and went home.

Monday, March 1, 2010

In Transit from Tanzania and Ethiopia to Egypt

Feb 28, 2010
Hot, with low clouds. Rain and thunderstorms last night.
I gave up on this miles traveled thing.

I’m on a plane from Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia before going to Cairo. We’re stopping in Mombasa, Kenya, before going to Ethiopia and it is one of those super short flights where you’ve landed before you even have a chance to open the airline magazine. I haven’t been writing much lately because the last two days have been mostly free and I have been working on catching up on the homework from the classes. The three classes often have a lower priority than eating and sleeping and functioning when we’re traveling so much.
Even though we were staying right near Mt. Kilimanjaro, I never got a very good look at it. This past week has had intermittent rain and a lot of very low puffy clouds that have obscured the view of the famous mountain. I’m sad to be leaving Tanzania, I definitely want to come back here to visit the chimpanzees at Gombe and go on another safari. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. The land we’re flying over right is fire-engine red from all the volcanic activity in this area, with sparse vegetation. But when you drive around, there are small, unexpected pockets of rainforests. I don’t really know what to expect from Egypt. The guidebook said that Egypt does not identify as an Arabic or African nation, but rather has a very independent cultural identity.
Yesterday, we ate lunch at a Japanese restaurant in Arusha. I thought there would be many Tanzanian restaurants, but we didn’t once eat Tanzanian food. Most of the restaurants we saw were cafes or Italian. The food was pretty good though – I had a tasty vegetable calzone for lunch today.
As we travel around, I really enjoy observing the different security measures at the airports in the different countries. In Tanzania, you walk directly out of the terminal onto the tarmac and point out your baggage to airline officials, who then put it on the plane. They want to make sure each bag is matched to a passenger. Yet the amount of freedom you have to move around the tarmac is amazing – people weren’t used to it so they stayed as close to the officials as possible. There were two entrances to the plane, one in front and one in back. There were no airport officials in the front, and so everyone gathered and formed a huge line at the back. I timidly walked towards the front entrance to avoid the line, thinking that at any moment I would be sniped by guards watching for wayward boarders. Despite my discomfort, I eventually walked straight to my seat without waiting in line. I felt like a sheep needing to be with the rest of the group.
I miss home right now. I’m still not ready to come back, despite how difficult the last two weeks were. But I keep thinking about all of my friends and family and wish I could have a gigantic group hug with all the people I care about in my life, just for five minutes. One of the girls on our trip is Kenyan and spent the last two days in Nairobi, visiting her family after not seeing them for five years. I couldn’t imagine. She said that her mother just stared at her in disbelief.
I never want to go five years without seeing my family. Three months is hard enough. I love you guys