Monday, January 11, 2010

Mummies' the Word, Cairo, Egypt, Jan 11-15, 2010

For most of the past four months, Trish was often the only white folk around. And I could almost blend in well enough to get the occasional local price. All this came to a screeching halt in the chaos and dusty mayhem they call, Cairo. The largest city in Africa, 20 million people . We landed with virtually no prep, or research---completely vulnerable. Many had forewarned us of the locals, how aggressive and shifty they are. Trish might disagree but I think they've been more honest, courteous and friendly than just about anybody we've met.

Case in point. One night I wandered the lively back alleys- looking for necessities eg beer (an impossible search in Muslim world) yogurt, and chocolate, etc...I had no idea of the costs, didn't have enough Arabic to BS my way, and couldn't have looked any more conspicuous. Nevertheless, I came back with 2 chicken sandwiches and a bag of groceries. I paid with a 100 pound note and got change of 86. That's under $3 Cdn. In Vietnam I'd have been lucky to get 2 bits back. Sure an hour earlier as I sipped the black gruel they call Turkish coffee, some dude hit on me to check out his store, another girl came begging. But they all left with minimal fuss.
For all the times we expected to be played and overcharged, it really only happened a few times. Most people were very hospitable.

This is not to say Cairo is a piece of cake. We've seen numerous shell-socked tourists clutching each other as if they were inching along the plank. Three lanes of gridlocked traffic are taken up by 5 shifting lanes of kamikaze vehicles. The pollution and noise are Olympian. Black belt haggling and direct communication are norms. Years of stereotypes about Muslims and terrorists have left many of us with subliminal red flags about all Arabs. And for us, both Morocco and Turkey offered more aesthetic, even more beautiful mosques. But it felt fresh being a newbie again. Asia doesn't prep you for the Arab world very well. The donkey carts, the head scarves, the lack of rice noodles, the big hairy men, the copious amounts of hair gel...

We spent our first few days going as local as possible, local eats, local collective minivans and the METRO, etc... The METRO is interesting though we saw no gringos on them (only 20 cents Cdn, and the only one in Africa). 'Women Only,' subway cars are offered, and one would think they would be a great way to ride a subway safely. Wrong. During one trip we were sardined into separate cars. Trish rode along with scores of robed women. A cat fight broke out. Mayhem on the car ensued and all the women seemed to get in on it. Before it broke up, blood was drawn, and top of the lung screaming could be heard. We reckon it was about a man. What else?

Despite or inspite of buddy Marc Brown's advice, we did hire a slave for a few days. We met Mohammed, a certified guide at the spectacularly rich yet bewidering Egyptian Museum ---a gentle, aging tour guide with a wreck of a car. A native of Giza where our hotel (Barcelo) was, Mohammed did most of the thinking for us.

Old Cairo:

Citadel and Mohamed Ali Mosque (19th Century):

Then of course there are the 3 Great Pyramids of Giza, and the original ones at Saqqara. If you were like us and thought the former were in the middle of the desert, think again. Let us put it this way. We saw the celebrated (and overrated) Sound and Light show from the roof of the Pizza Hut nearby. Sure we had to filter out the call to prayer and the air conditioning, but we saved on on the 75Egyptian Pound entry fee. Giza was once a farming community. Now its' 6 million people are part of the greater Cairo urban sprawl, though with donkey carts, horses and camels, it has a village feel to it in some parts.

Anyway, the Great Pyramid--the biggest (not to be confused with the scores of others in the Valley), is an engineering, geometrical, mathematical, and spiritual masterpiece. It's absolutely stunning how rudimentary tools were used to quarry, transport, sculpture, then precisely fit millions of stone blocks, weighing anywhere from 2-6 tons each, fit into a perfect symmetrical and astronomical position.
Some of our favorite parts were exploring the lesser known tombs,some with wonderfully intact and well preserved 4500 yr old paintings, carvings and hieroglyphics.

Inside a smaller tomb:
The cool thing about mummies is how the dead bodies are drained, the liver, intestines, stomach and lungs are removed then placed into stone jars. The body is then filled with herbs and spices, and chemicals before they are wrapped in linen. After that some God judges them (sound familiar) and if they've been good, they go to the afterlife, which sounds like an all-inclusive resort with no tipping.

And that stuff about Jewish slave labour (think Charleton Heston in Ten Commandments) building the pyramids doesn't fly here. Archaeological evidence points to rotating teams of paid labour and highly skilled craftsman doing the deeds.

For sheer atmosphere and full on in your face Cairo, there's Islamic Cairo. You get 1100 yr old mosques like Al Azhar, knock em sock em Khan Al Khalil bazaar where the vendors will physically drag you into their shops,

and off the tourist trail gems like....
the Sultan's old harem:
Shisha piping:

There were times we stumbled into mosques during prayer time. What a wonderfully serene experience.

Favourite food:
The street falafels, usually served up in joints rocking with grimy charm and a decided lack of anything sanitary....but each crunchy and moist, handful of heaven was served up for 40-60cents.....yummmmmmmmmmm!
Runner up...the pitted, sliced kalamata olives at our hotel breakfast...they crunched, instead of squished with every juicy bite

With a scant few hours before we head home, it's time to pack and sign off until February, when the ANTARCTICA via BUENOS AIRES and PATAGONIA legs will be picked up.
A thousand thank yous to those who followed and supported us. Hasta luego.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Love and Madness, Bangkok, Jan 4-10, 2010

The overnight VIP bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok is anything but VIP. We see passengers on other buses passing us with blankets,trays,water, and night lights. Our smiling travel agent who booked this no doubt pocketed most of our fare and schlepped us on this backpacker delight. On the road Trish lays a bombshell and tells me she's up for India. This coming from a woman who's repulsed by Indian food, who has little stomach left for touts and child beggars, and who ran out of gas 3 countries ago. She was going for me. It's a fine line between love and madness sometimes. I was so high I could've flapped my arms and flown the rest of the way to Bangkok!

Bangkok is either loved or loathed, and is inevitable if in Thailand. For us it was just rewards at the end of the road. It was also a place to plot an exit strategy and to hook up with the Elborns (more on them in a sec).

We check into our first splash out digs, the Pullman. Urbane, chic, hip, $100 nightly, 30m infinity pool, minimalist design as if it were made with us in mind. Italian sport cars and a vintage Mercedes convention flank the front. We'd heard some big headed Thai movie star had checked in. We probably mistook each other for a towel boy. Ever sleep in the clouds? We did for 6 nights. The Pullman is an absolute western bubble with thick layers of glass insulating you from the local pagans.

Kathi Elborn is a speech and language pathologist from my work. She and Ted her hubbie, and Mitchell (12yr), and Jackson (8) are on a 12 month, independent run. They make our travel look like a long weekend. Check out their superb blog at...

Anyway we spend a couple of days together, mostly around the pool, but also took the boys to AVATAR in 3D, and promptly fell in love with them. How Kathi and Ted do it is beyond me. I could keep going forever, but with two boys? White flag flapping in my wind. Make no mistake about adventure travelling...the rewards are immense, but it ain't pretty sometimes, and they've already stacked enough cache with any core backpacker.

We exchange travel stories, and pass on info re: SEAsia as they will re-trace much of our route as far as northern Vietnam, then into Laos. We missed them as soon as they left and wished we had more time.There was familiarity, comfort and comaraderie amongst us, the way old friends or road weary travellers get when they hook up. But we felt blessed we had this fortunate crossing of paths. Good people.

So for the next few days we hurriedly planned for India, and just as we were about to hit the enter button for our flights, we realized we didn't have a visa. A trip to the embassy confirmed that it was a 5 working day wait (Indian time). That meant five more days in Bangkok, and missing a mid-January return, it wasn't going to work. We were crushed, and no one more so than Trish, believe it or not. We quickly improvised and found a direct flight to Cairo with a layover, then a direct to NY, then 2 short bunny hops home.

It ain't India. But Egypt is an acceptable consolation prize.

With a few days to kill, we dont' especially feel compelled to do the tourist thing. Bangkok isn't as horrid as many have said. Sure we didn't do the lady boy cabarets, or ping pong shows and red light district. Something about sharing space in a club with white guys who've flown down to get their sexual jollies off isn't a big draw for us. Though we're reminded a bit of Hong Kong in that east and west, mod and old, rich and poor clash and co-exist intimately. It's a city of very distinct areas and neighbourhoods side by side. So we baked in the winter humidity that would rank up with the worse Ottawa summer days.

I pull a rookie mistake and get my primary camera pinched on a road near the hotel. Locals would tell me gangs work to distract tourists then make off with anything not nailed to the concrete. If it had happened early in the trip I'd have been more upset. But we regroup and we take in a few sights:

Jim Thompson House and Museum is likely the finest small museum we've seen since China. Superb traditional Thai mansions replete with antiques and polished hardwood, it's an oasis in a sea of concrete and endless traffic.

Perhaps not as subtle as the Forbidden City or Topkapi Palace, the Grand is a gold lover's delight. Rich,flashy, showy and ornate. This like the other wats (temples) we've seen, present a grander ode to Buddha, reflect a much wealthier country, and a preserved history. Each buddhist country we've seen projects their spirituality differently. Vietnam is hardly a suppository of temples, and if anything, capitalism is their opiate. Cambodia has some fine temples, but fairly simple structures by comparision. Laos' has great atmosphere if not flash, northern Thailand is a big jump in terms of intricacy, complexity and colour, and Bangkok continues this south east Asian trend.
(in all fairness the first three countries suffered devastating conflicts in the last 40years).

Ayuthaya was the former resplendent capital of Siam from the 14th to 18th century, until the Burmese came along and destroyed and pillaged it's splendour, and melted off its gold. What's left are some ruins in various states of crumbling. But it's wonderfully devoid of the worse traffic we've ever seen--Bangkok and poking around old ruins turns our crank.

These pointy things are chedis aka stupas and are throughout SEAsia. Within are the ashes of entombed kings. Other temples have remains of prominent monks.

In Ayuthaya, the kings had an area set aside to watch wild elephants. Now the only thing wild are the locals who weren't into the ruins, but let their hair hang loose and got into elephant rides at ridiculously expensive costs. Notice the chained leg.

We hit Chatuchak market on our last day for last minute handicrap and souvenir shopping. It's reputed to be the largest in Asia--10,000 stalls, 200,000 visitors daily--the mother of all Asian markets---junk, collectibles, knock-offs ( I got Levis for $3), and everything else you can think of.

So with scant hours left in Asia, and a handful of days before we return to the cold, here are some out-takes previous bits not included;

Whoring and hoarding:
We'd hoard toilet paper, napkins, hotel toiletries and slippers, food from buffets (wrapped in shower caps), whatever. Mom would be proud. Our China experience included bare minimum hotels, so we just got into those habits.
We could be seen standing by cafes, high end hotels, we could whore away on free, unsecure WIFI.

We rarely paid for guided tours. Instead we'd freeload off others, wandering surreptitiously into their spheres of conversation.

Stereotypes broken:
Americans are no longer the loudest, and most garish tourists. They've been replaced in so many ways by who else, but the Chinese--mainlanders and Taiwanese. Aussies come a distant 2nd, who have a confidence and swagger we used to see in many Americans (who're still the friendliest).

Original saying about SEAsia:
There is a field where the Vietnamese will plant the rice crop, the Cambodians will watch it grow, the Laotian will doze off in a hammock, the Thai will set up a red light district, and the Chinese will dam it over.

Death By Lack of Chocolate:
For chocoholics like Trish who need it every night, Asia is purgatory. It simply isn't part of the Asia food chain. However, fresh fruit stand, bundles of bananas and mounds of oranges, durian, longan, etc ..are everywhere, especially as you go south. Having said this, city folk, especially in Bangkok and city are expanding their girth, no doubt made easy by a KFC on every street corner.
Smokers' death:
In China you could fit all the non-smokers and non-spitters in a mini van with room for sacks of rice still. Since we left, smokers are a rare breed. Now the only smokers are the Europeans. In Thailand it's becoming strictly verboten to smoke in any public place.

Favourite Food in Bangkok:
This is THE CITY for street eats. Plates of noodles or rice or soup for $1-2, elaborately cut up fruit, curries, meat on a stick, whatever. I'd like to tell you it was all great. But in reality, it's overblown. Pad thai for example, is a simple dish are most of the above. Cooked quickly, simply and predictably. Usually with serious heat, otherwise it's no better or no worse than restaurants. Where it wins out is in price,value and atmosphere.

We know we haven't properly said good-bye to Asia, to all that was so utterly breathtaking, to that which captured our imaginations and fulfilled our dreams in every way. Everything is happening so fast. We were in Lao just yesterday it seemed. We're saturated with stimulation and experiences---overloaded in fact. And at the same time things were maddening and incredulous.

We don't do good-byes, only see you laters. And we will. We most certainly will.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Countdown in Chiang Mai, Dec 28-Jan 3, 2010

Yet another lame jungle 'elephant trek.' These elephants spend most of their time foraging for grass and drinking.

This only goes to prove that the bigger you are, the bigger pile of shXX you will produce.

As we stumble to the finish line of this magnificient Asia leg, we continually see startling contrasts.

We took the one hour flight from Luang Prabang into Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, saving us an arduous 3 day overland journey. Leaving behind the ramshackle tin and thatch roof homes and dirt roads of Laos, we arrive in the Land of Smiles, Thailand. Where the roads are sealed, SUVs outmuscle motorbikes, clay roofs and solid homes are the norm, and fish and chips and German beer cater to the legions of westerners blissed out in this safe, easy going exotica.

It's easy to see why so many westerners adore this area. Many get by without speaking anything other than English. You can get Premier League, even NHL games in pubs n clubs. There is a startling lack of abject poverty within the old city. In essence, it's west meets a safe, sanitized east with cheap eats, massages (and women if you're into that), plus breathtaking hill country, and loads of outdoor activities. Some come for the meditation, the temple touring, the minority hill tribes, it's all here.

Our day trips were classic Asian tours---everybody pays a different price and you get a buffet of things that keep you moving and guessing--whitewater and bamboo rafting, elephant trekking, hike to a waterless water fall (water is extra), tasteless lunch, a sardine packed truck ride, and a visit to a butterfly and orchid farm. It was generally mediocre but what do you want for $25? Met some fun people, though. Afterwards we found out we overpaid by double. Trish went ballistic and got 40% back. I was so proud of her. It was a joy to see her playing the bad cop for a change.

For us, the Asia leg peaked in China, and again in Angkor Wat and Luang Prabang. And to be honest, without a decent camera, one sees things differently. So we focus our weary body on an exit strategy as it's becoming harder to get pumped up. The countdown has begun and we dream of splashing out in a high end hotel in Bangkok.

New years countdown: thousands of locals and tourists jammed into Thapae Gate area and waded through a phalanxe of street food. Under a spectaclar full moon, thousands of fire lanterns float skyward, while fireworks light up the sky. The Thai really know how to throw a party and this one is worth doing again.

Some of the 300 Chiang Mai Temples:

Most have a stronger Burmese and Indian influence than what we saw in Laos, as well as the use of bricks. Overall they are more ornate, the roofs hang higher, the woodwork is more intricate and elaborate.

Butterfly and Orchid Farm:

Live silk worms:

It takes the threads from 50 dead and boiled silkworms to make a single silk thread.

Bamboo 'Rafting': Each raft was overloaded, everyone tanked.

Most interesting person:
Pui, our tuk tuk driver. Born with 11 fingers and an eternal smile, he embodied the Thai spirit of happiness and karmic recompense. As a former monk, he toured us around the temples, and let us into his life via his friends in the surrounding hills.

Favorite Food:

Red curry chicken and sweet sticky rice topped with mango, that we made in a cooking class.

(First person to respond with an email saying yummmy yummmy gets a feed)

Facts and figures:

1. Thailand is only SEA country not to have been colonized by a western power.
2. 66,000,000 population
3. 93% literacy rate
4. GDP, $8,500 avg, much higher in Bangkok, lower in rural areas

For Wayne Ng's latest travel adventures and book " Finding the Way: A Novel of Lao Tzu ," please go to his website and blog at...