Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Time Zoning

I gave back a phone that we borrowed from Getu, one of our hosts here in Addis Ababa, and told him, "I think the time is wrong."

He said, "No, it's Ethiopian."

The clock said 3:50 pm.  My watch said 9:50 pm.  I knew that Ethiopia was in a different time zone from Egypt, but only one hour.

"What do you mean Ethiopian time?" I said.

"Yeah we have a different clock." He explained. 

"How is that useful?" Josh asked.

Getu sat up.  "OK tell me.  If God made a day with two parts, one nighttime and one daytime, why should we cut it in half?  The day should start at one."

"I don't get it."

"No, the thing is, you have the day starting at six.  Why six?  You see?"

"Oh!" I said.  "You start the clock at sunrise?"

"Yes of course."

So that is how we found out that there was no need to adjust the clock on Getu's phone.  To some Ethiopians, sunset and sunrise are the 12 o'clocks, so our nine pm was indeed 3 pm to him.  Also, by the Ethiopian calendar, it is the year 2007.

We were already losing track of days on this trip, but now the time is becoming arbitrary as well.  What next?!

Monday, April 28, 2014

See Less, Live more

Post by Josh

I grew up obsessed with the ancient world, building castles and cathedrals out of whatever I could and taking classes on Greece and Rome and Harappan India whenever I could. When we were setting up this trip, Hammad and I laid out several anchor destinations and built our route around them - Angkor Wat, India, Istanbul, Rome, Egypt, Machu Picchu, and Aztec Central America - all places with famous ancient cultures and impressive ruins. This is what gave our blog its title of Ancient Roads. And we are now a bit more than halfway through the route of our travels, having seen more than half of our anchors, and they were all pretty cool. The most recent, Egypt, lived up to its awesome reputation and was chock full of ancient roads.

These places, however, have not been the coolest part of the trip. Sites with lots of tourist hawkers, entrance fees, overloaded infrastructure, and sketchy guides have been the most aggravating things we have seen. And even if an ancient site is standing in pristine condition, all it is is mute stone. It may be a beautiful place, but it does not have much meaning without the stories and histories that let us know why it was built and who lived there. It is impossible to understand what is important in what we see without outside information. Guidebooks and signs help, but only if you already have some background information.
What is most interesting is dealing with actual, living people. And they don't even need to be in a mythic ancient site. We had more fun and learned more hanging out with the Östlunds in their Stockholm living room than wandering through the breathtaking but impassive fields of Bagan in Myanmar, where nobody could answer the 'why' questions we asked. Our time in Budapest was made by the wily Brazilian and Telluride friends we had there more than the gorgeously preserved architecture and excellent museums. And in Egypt, our experience with the Pyramids was frustrating and lame compared to touring a much less impressive temple in Luxor with a good guide we met through CouchSurfing.

We've been using CouchSurfing consistently in Africa, and it has made a world of difference. It makes it harder to set our own agendas and see all the sites recommended in the guide books, but instead we get taken out to the Mediterranean coast of Egypt for a weekend or invited to an Ethiopian wedding - things that we would never get a chance to do if we were still staying in hostels and trying to figure everything out on our own. We get to live with and like locals, which is much more the point of travel. See fewer tourist destinations but see them with more explanation  so they can truly come alive, and spend the rest of the time in an Addis Ababa cafe, full of expressive Ethiopians and Kenyans as Liverpool tries to regain the lead from Chelsea. Now this is real and quite unexpected cultural experience.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Dos and Donts of Ancient Egypt

Do bring a student ID card - you get discounts at almost every site.  It doesn't matter that neither Josh nor I are students any longer, and in fact I don't even have a student ID.  I used my Washington DC public library card and they gave me the discount.

Don't use large denomination bills.  Taxi drivers and such won't give you correct change, and will keep the remainder as "baksheesh."  You'll also need small coins to tip the guards and stray kids at museums who will otherwise not let you through or may pester you relentlessly.

Do let the little kids that are asking for money have some fun with you.  They have good senses of humor when you ask them their name.  Josh and I ask them for help (where is the closest ATM?  Can you sing a song for us?) before giving them any sort of tip.  They like having a job.

Don't go it alone.  When you are visiting these places with a local, the hasslers will approach them first and far less frequently.  But if you go alone, you will be targeted.  They will tell you the pyramids are closed, or that they can let you in for a fee, or find a way to climb, or that it is too far to walk, until you don't know what to believe and end up buying whatever it is they are selling.

Do visit the temples that you have never heard of.  The pyramids at Giza and temple of Luxor were far less interesting than Medinat Habu, the latter being a funerary temple for Ramses III.  So many of the bigger ones are in bad shape or riddled with tourists and obnoxiousness, and their contents are in Museums anyway (which may be better to visit).  But we went to Medinat Habu on the West Bank of Luxor, which was basically empty, had tons and tons of detailed hieroglyphics and statues, and felt hallowed.  It is not far from the Valley of the Kings which we skipped.

Don't ride the horses at the pyramids.  That is the best way to be captive to your horse owner, and to have a sore butt while not being able to concentrate on the pyramids at all, since you are spending all your effort just to steer and avoid minibus traffic.

Do take time to wander the streets and see stuff that is not really historic, but living and local.  We ran across an alley with a canopy of festive LED garlands and rope tassles and flowers, where children were playing and horses were having lunch.  We also went shopping for pants and found the Facebook store, which sells nothing you'd expect.

Don't eat the Luxor street cheese.  'Nuff said.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Cairo Spring Break

We were slightly sad about missing Easter in Rome, what with the huge audience and blessings and fanfare.  But as soon as we landed in Egypt, we learned that Easter is a huge national holiday here, too,  It's called Sham el Nessim, and though it is not about Jesus' ressurection, it does herald spring, involve mackerel, and give people time off work.

Our host family in Cairo was using this time off to head to the beach on the North Coast of Egypt, and they invited us along.  We were initially reluctant, since it did not fit our idea of an Egypt trip, and we had not seen the museum or pyramids.  Plus, this is what Lonely Planet said about the North Coast:

"This is where well-to-do Cairenes and the top brass of Egypt’s military establishment now come to escape the oppressive city heat of the summer. It’s so busy here that when driving past, the only glimpses you’re likely to get of the ocean are through the skeletal structures of unfinished holiday villages."

Unless you come in April.

We stayed two days on the beach in El-Hamam city, about 50 km west of Alexandria.  There are no fake pyramid decorations or hieroglyphics or King Tut masks anywhere.  Just families and friend groups hanging out near the water.  For us, it was a great opportunity to relax in a gorgeous scenery while seeing how Egyptians take their holiday.

They ate breakfast at noon, lunch at six pm, and dinner at midnight.  We had Bedouin food with lots of tahini and tomato and fenugreek and eggplant.  There was fish and baklava and fûl and olives and cheese and lots of warm, hearty flatbread.  They slept in close quarters and stayed up laughing and joking around.  Josh taught them the card game Egyptian Rat.  They tried to teach is a game they called Estimation, but it was really hard and then we realized it was Bridge.  We all ran into the cold water together during a day with an extreme riptide and felt so alive, pushing against the current and the temperature and running back to our towels with brain freezes at the end.  I tried asking the men patrolling the beach with uniforms and guns to take a picture with me, but they must have been confused why an "Arab" was asking for this.  The sand was not tiny square grains like the beaches I am used to. It was white and fine and each grain was spherical, making it really pleasant to grasp and knead.  And of course, it was awesome to see old women wearing flow robes and head scarves sitting on beach chairs while their sons brought buckets of ocean water for them to put their feet in.

The whole time in Turkey and Italy, we had not visited any of the Mediterranean beaches for which they were famous.  I think that Egypt's beaches may be even better.  The only hard part is driving there, across the desert road (speed bumps sneak up on you!) and checkpoints without falling asleep at the wheel.  (Kudos to Josh for driving all the way back to Cairo and not losing his mind with all the aggressive drivers and pedestrians swirling about.)  We still have not done the pyramids yet, but I doubt they will be this idyllic.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Writings on the Wall

Some of the best street art I have ever seen is in Cairo, near Tahrir square.

This is Muhammad Mahmoud street, the site of heavy clashes between students and police in September 2011.  The entire street was then closed until six months ago.

Our friends Andy and Sayed interpreted the Arabic for us.  Vote for the pimp, this one said.

Andy says the paintings last for about a month, and then the government sends a worker to clean them up.  So even though he lives in Cairo, he had never seen some of these before.

The political situation here is uncertain.  Sayed thinks the current stability will last about six more months.  He was in Tahrir Square during the clashes and narrowly escaped being detained.  He tells about the colonel who interceded on his behalf.

There are no protests right now, because the government has made them illegal.  But who knows how long this will last.
Drinking mint tea and in a cafe in Cairo's backstreets, I felt safe and secure, and grateful to have excellent company in this layered metropolis.

Skip the line

At the airport in Amman, Jordan, Josh went to go use the bathroom while I waited at the gate.  He came back a minute later and said, "There was a big line.  I didn't want to wait."

I said, "Did you check the urinals?"

He said, "The line isn't for the urinals?"

I said, "When I went earlier, the line was only for the stalls."

Lo and behold, he went back to the bathroom and confirmed that all urinals were free and open, and the line was only for the stalls.  Was everyone doing number two?  Nah.

This is something I should have expected, having grown up in a Muslim culture: men sit down to pee.  We really are in the Middle East now.  Exciting!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Piazza Tiny Planets

We have discovered Tiny Planets!  A fun feature built into the photo software on our tablet.  Basically, you take a 360 degree panorama photo of a space, and then the software wraps it around a central point.  Easy and great for dramatic landscapes.  So today, in the piazza in front of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, we both tried our hands at created tiny planets Rome-style.

Cute?  I especially like the obelisk shooting off into space, and how Josh looks so small on that sidewalk.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Plants of Rome

Ivy, Via Appia

Pines, Piramide

Succulents, Ostia Antica

Topiary, Noncatholic Cemetery

Olive branches, Basilica of St. John Lateran
(used for Palm Sunday)

Pinecone, Vatican City

Banana, Old City

Where All Roads Lead

Ancient road number six: Via Appia (the Appian Way).

Connecting ancient Rome to the South of Italy.  I always thought the road led to "Appia." But there is no such thing.  No, it ends at Brandisi.  Funny how we'd heard of the road, but not known where it led.  Or, excuse me, where it came from.  Because as you know, all roads lead to one place.

With all the roads leading here, no wonder it is so crowded!  Josh and I felt like we had more space in Tokyo.  Rome's subway is the most packed transit we have used anywhere.  The lines to get into museums and catacombs and churches are monstrous.  The piazzas are choked with hawkers, and buses regularly caught in traffic.

It is so easy in a city like this to fall into the trap of seeing too much and doing nothing at all.  On Saturday, we tried to pack in the Vatican Museum, the Basilica of Saint Peter (photo below), and Trastevere.  We spent way more time waiting in line than anything else.  It works much better just to breathe, see a fraction of the things that are available, and spend more time soaking up the city.

When you do that, you begin to appreciate all the LIFE that is happening here.  Wisteria vines in full bloom, trained over decades to grow in the shape of pergolas and railings.  Chiseled marble and travertine everywhere, pieces of ancient city walls incorporated into the sides of houses and buildings, musicians playing the didgeridoo on old pedestrian bridges over the Tiber, small bookshops selling pocket Greek tragedies, and dramatic public quarrels (we've witnessed two so far, so brazen they almost felt staged).

Try as you might, however, you get sucked back into waiting in lines and dealing with bureaucracy.  Getting gelato this afternoon, we had to take a number!  And don't even get me started with the Post Office here, how they deflect all questions and send you round and round until you end up at the building where packages go to die.

I think we have learned a little about Rome, and more about ourselves.  Hopefully, Cairo in a few days won't be too overwhelming!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Stockholm Sweet Holm

Hej hej!  It is the beginning of spring in Scandinavia, and the birds have just come back from Spain and Africa.  We have joined them, and are staying in Mälarhöjden, a suburb of Stockholm, five minutes from the world's largest IKEA store.  Our lovely host, the Östlunds, have been incredible ambassadors of Swedish history, food, and humor.  We are discovering how little we knew about Sweden (and the whole Baltic Sea region) before coming here.

This whole city is built on tons of islands.  You should Google map Stockholm and check out the crazy archipelago it sits on (and capture the two Pokemon while you'd at it).  Pretty flat in the center, it gets fun and hilly out where we are staying.  There are giant granite boulders peeking out and the soil is only about 1 meter deep.  But the Swedes are real good at digging tunnels through rock (mines of Moria, anyone?).  Most of the houses in this neighborhood have geothermal heating for example - each house having a tunnel going 250 meters down through the earth.

When you think of Sweden, you probably don't think of cardamom.  But yesterday, while enjoying fika (a coffee break) with our hosts, I discovered the Swedish cardamom bun.  It's like a cinnamon roll, but flavored with cardamom, which to me was definitely a double-take.  What?  Cardamom is distinctly South Asian, right?  Nope.  These cardamom buns are the perfect combination of sweet and spicy, fluffy and crunchy.  They are sold in every bakery here, and are reason enough to come visit.

Josh has been geeking out over the architecture, especially the work of Gunnar Asplund, whom he studied in school.  Asplund was a bit obsessive, but his City Library and Woodland Cemetery (Skogskyrkogården) are very striking, I have to admit.  Look at these "hieroglyphics" on the wall of the library.  Egyptian and Greek motifs were everywhere, but never quite as you would expect.  There is also the Drottningsholm palace, a mini Versailles with an awesome, very well preserved Baroque theater.

I think my favorite part of being here, apart from taking in the excellent, clean air and environment, is learning about the country through the eyes of our hosts.  They reveal how Sweden, like everywhere, is a country of contradictions. We learned that Sweden is a major arms exporter, yet has not fought in any war since 1814, a fact which explains some of its prosperity.  It sold steel to both the Allies and the Axis powers during World War II, for example.  We learned that the Swedish language abolished the formal "you" pronoun in the 1960s, and considers itself the most casual country in Europe, but that some young people are bringing it back when speaking to adults, in a kind of ironic politeness rebellion. 

We learned about how even private schools are free, since the government pays each school per student, but that some people are starting private schools, attracting students with perks like "free gym membership" and McDonalds vouchers, and then providing a substandard education while getting rich from the government payments that they don't actually use for teaching.  By the way, our host brother went to this amazing school in Stockholm, which really challenges any school in America with its emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism.  http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=5526738

We learned that Swedish law and tradition gives everyone the right to enter, hike, camp, and even pick berries and flowers on land that is not too developed or built up, even if it is owned privately, but that certain companies are using this tradition (called allemansrätten) to bring workers from Thailand to harvest wild berries freely which they then sell for a profit.

It's hard being a utopia!

Listening to an free organ concert in Stockholm cathedral on Saturday, I couldn't help but feel a sense of homecoming.  I know that sounds strange, but it was peaceful, open to all, casual, and interesting.  Having all of these features present simultaneously is a rare thing, based on the places we've stopped on our trip.  Utopian or not, this feeling is palpable in Sweden so far, and makes me think, "Yeah. I could live here."  But could I afford it?  Um..... Check with me again after I get used to paying $5.50 for a single subway ride!

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Hungary Games

It turns out that Budapest's neighborhoods are numbered districts.  For example, we were staying in District VI.  District VII has a lot of abandoned buildings turned into pubs and District VIII has a lot of students.  Does each district pay tribute to the capital?  If so, we didn't notice.  We were too busy playing Budapest's games.

We did the cheesy-but-awesome game of Íjászat (Magyar word for archery).  Up on the heights of Gellért Hill in District I, a bit past the soviet liberation statue and the citadel, a tunic-clad dude awaits to teach you how to shoot plastic arrows at bales of hay.  My first shot was the best - the others tended to go too high.  But now I can defend myself in style.

The buildings in District V are not allowed to be higher than the cathedral of Szent István (St. Stephen, the first Christian king of Hungary).  So it affords an excellent view when you climb up to the top of the dome.  Note the Hungarian Parliament building to the left of Josh's head.  We went with our Estonian friend Uku who has lived in Budapest for several years but had never been up here.  The part of this that felt like a game was crawling through the rickety staircases through the double dome (Josh says doubling is pretty common with domes - I had no idea!) so that we were in the space between the dome you see from the outside and the dome you see from the inside.  It felt like being somewhere secret.

And of course, we played a room escape game, which are a specialty in Budapest.  We went with our new friend Cléber to an address given to us over email, and rang doorbell number 10 at exactly 7:30 pm.  Once we were in the right apartment, the door locked behind us and we had to solve puzzles and clues to get back out.  We had exactly one hour and very little idea where to begin.  The hair dryer here and the postage stamps were essential.  The puzzles also involved wrenches, a magnet, lots of antique locks and keys, a toy train, and golf balls.  It was awesome, especially because we beat the game in 58 minutes, right in the nick of time.  As we were leaving, the staff told us that only 30℅ of the players figure it out.

We went to Margit Island in the middle of the Danube (district unknown) and witnessed many many games.  Frisbee and bocce yes, but also some inexplicable variants.  English-speaking men were playing something involving beer bottles and sticks.  And a massive group of Thai-speaking men and women were playing a game with a handkerchief in a tree.  We played none of these, but were stumped by the puzzle of Margit Island's poultry.  This chicken: How did it get so fluffy?

We spent a full nine days in Budapest and it was worth every minute!  They have found ways to turn an old and serious looking Hapsburg capital into a fun and relaxed city.  Our next stop will take us north, across the Baltic sea from Hungary's distant linguistic cousin, Finland.  Sweden, here we come!