About Me

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Author of Safari Jema, A Journey of Love and Adventure from Casablanca to Cape Town http://tinyurl.com/owdwvrp I write about travel and adventure from my home in California and from Africa. I've sailed a catamaran from California to Hawaii, trekked in the Himalayas, worked as a construction manager on a bridge project in Zambia, hiked 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, (http://bootsbedouinsandabridge.blogspot.com/) and traveled in over 100 countries and all seven continents. Indie Book Award Winner for Best Memoir of 2012, New York Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, San Francisco Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, Travelers Tales Solas Award for Best Travel Writing Honorable Mention for My Gambian Husband. Indie Book Award Finalist - Best Travel Book 2013. BOTYA Honorable Mention 2013 - Travel Essay. Member of The Explorers Club since 2013 You can follow my current 2013-2014 expedition across Africa, this time in a 1973 Land Rover Series III 109 on http://teresaokane.blogspot.com/ and on facebook https://www.facebook.com/safarijema

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Pizza Hut and Pyramids, and The Ferry to Sudan

Even though it is THE thing to see in Egypt, we were reluctant to visit the Pyramids in Giza. We had been there in 1981 when they sat alone in the middle of a desert but now we heard there were apartment complexes practically in the shadow of the Pyramids. Sadly it’s true. We caved to pressure from the others and went to Giza. We were able to eat calzones while watching the sound and light show from the rooftop terrace of a Pizza Hut directly across from the Sphinx.

Cairo was hot and dusty. The air was so foul we could barely see the sun. We spent our days strolling through the narrow alleys of the souk, touring the fine museum, eating falafel balls, and blowing our noses.

In hot and dusty Luxor we approached Karnak Temple by horse drawn carriage and aimed for pins in a 2-lane bowling alley fronting the Nile.

In the first game I was paired with Natalie, an Australian nurse, who had a mean spinner technique and could take out most of the pins on each throw. I managed a few spares myself. When we scored the most points, I broke into my happy dance and re-injured the Achilles tendon that had given me so much trouble during the hike in Spain. When will I learn? Excessive celebration spanks me every time.

Aswan, in contrast to Luxor, was dusty and hot. But 2 nights on a felucca helped dull the heat some, at least while we were under sail. Yes, the Nubian Museum and The Valley of the Kings were incredible, but The Last McDonalds Until South Africa was voted best attraction. We even tried to get the felucca captain to pull over for one last McFlurry just after we set sail in Aswan.

It’s a necessary evil, but the ferry ride to Sudan, like a Commandment, shalt never be forgotten. Scott and I negotiated the bustling port by charging through the hoards of people and parcels, trying to look like we commuted to Sudan from Egypt weekly. “Keep forward momentum! Don’t stop. Don’t look back!” Scott prodded. We boarded at 10 am and finally set sail at 6pm that night. Humanity, boxes, sacks, or suitcases took up every square inch of deck space. Most of the large boxes contained brand new electric fans and that was my first clue that any moving air in Sudan would have to come from a man made source.

Our ticket required that we sleep on the deck but during the day we could pass the time in an air-conditioned bench seating area below deck along with 550 others. Scott stayed on deck while I joined in on a card game with locals below. One man hated losing and, thinking it was the inept card playing skills of the person before him that caused him to lose, rearranged our seating order several times. I don’t speak any Arabic and they didn’t speak English so whenever anyone wanted to change the suit we had to point to a spade, heart, club, or diamond on torn out page of a novel where we had drawn pictures of the suits. My new companions liked playing cards, but they loved to laugh. They offered me homemade honey with pita bread and I offered them Egyptian Pringles.

After losing three straight games in a row I went back on deck to find that the crew wanted to do a lifeboat drill and had moved our group from where they sat under the only shade on deck, which was of course, the lifeboat. The drill took forever and brains were starting to boil so Scott, our African Trails driver, and a few others just cranked the boat back up on their own initiative and everyone re-hunkered down in the shade. In the direct sun it was absolutely intolerable to be on deck. Scott and I consumed copious amounts of water during the day but rarely had to use the stanky, humid, flooded bathrooms on board. Who knew dehydration would have its advantages?

Around sunset there was a call to prayer at the very same time I was making my way across the deck. About 40 men suddenly stood shoulder-to-shoulder, faced east and prayed. Periodically they knelt and brought their heads to the deck in unison. There was barely space to move. I was just beginning to wonder where the women were praying when people behind me began pushing to get through. But I couldn’t move forward or back. I felt trapped. Finally, during a kneeling phase a man quickly stepped around me and made his way between those praying. After some hesitation I decided to follow him. Only I was too late. Suddenly the kneeling part was over and they were all standing again. I froze between two men. Horrified, I stood there with big eyes, not breathing and trying to look invisible. It would be as if I was in mid-genuflect (is genuflect still in the Catholic dictionary?) and someone came and stood right in front of me blocking my connection to the altar. I panicked and tried to pass but the man to my right, without making eye contact, calmly raised his hand ever so slightly as in “wait” so I did. I stood as still as a pillar and was suddenly part of an Islamic prayer cluster.

I tried to find him later to apologize. I thought I might be able to spot him since he would surely be the man giving me dagger eyes. But none of the men cared. They were as nice as could be to me. I’m sure they would have preferred that they could pray without distraction - who wouldn’t? But their attitude was more, “We’re all on this crowed boat together doing the best we can. Now let’s get back to playing some cards!” Religious obligation over, it was time to get back to the fun stuff. Like when I was a kid. After mass we would get to go home and watch some football.

Still, standing amidst a small sea of Islamic worshipers while they pray is just not kosher so I decided I would be less culturally annoying to everyone if I just stayed below decks. I went back down to the A/C to try my hand again at a card game called something that sounded like, “Whoa”.

At 9 pm the temperature outside was still above 40 degrees Celsius. I was in no hurry to brush my teeth and go to bed so I continued playing cards with a Nigerian woman and two Sudanese men. Eventually blankets came out, the cards were put away, and people began to stretch out on the seats so I had no choice but to move up to the deck. I looked at the space Scott and I had reserved under the lifeboat but there were too many bodies and only room for half a Scott to sleep comfortably. Hot and sticky, we surveyed the deck looking for any available space to get horizontal. Eureka! We gathered our therma-rests, tiptoed over slumbering Egyptians and Sudanese, and climbed up to the small near-empty roof of the pilothouse.
A few others joined us on the roof including an Arab man who periodically sat up to pour water over his head before lying down on the backpack that he was using as a pillow – mine- but mostly it felt like it was just the stars in the sky, Scott, and me. It was a beautiful and surreal night. At 4 am, over scratchy speakers, a call to prayer so loud that I’m sure could be heard back in Aswan prompted most of the men on deck to again rise, clear a space, face Mecca, and pray. Sunset prayer was one thing but, 4 am?? Once again I was struck by the power of faith and how devoted people can be to their religion. I had seen it on the Camino in Spain, on top Mt. Sinai, and now on the ferry. I’m just in awe faith.

Just after sunrise we squeezed in underneath the lifeboat, hung our legs over the side of the deck, and took photos of the shore and Abu Simbel, the gigantic temple complex that was relocated a slight distance up the bank when the Nile was dammed to form Lake Nasser.

Several times during the voyage we were summoned to fill out paperwork. We had just returned to the shade of the lifeboat after completing a form that certified us as aliens (“I always knew you were from another planet” never gets old, does it?) when we were told to report to the clinic on board for an H1-N1 clearance. We traipsed upstairs to a small, untidy cabin with a bunk bed and a desk covered with yesterday’s or last week's plates of food and cups of tea. It didn’t smell very nice. One man sat on the disheveled bottom bunk smoking a hookah pipe while another took our temperature. He inserted a thermometer into the ear nearest him, took a reading, recorded it on yet another form, wiped the end of the thermometer on a manky-looking cloth, said, “Next,” and probed another ear. The thermometer must have been broken because all of our temperatures were far below normal - but since we were starting to feel that way, it somehow made sense.

The last 3 hours of the journey we were stuck in the mud. This coincided with an Biblical plague of small green bugs that swarmed in from the shore. After 31 hours we finally arrived in Sudan, a country like no other. Okay, it’s hot and dusty like Luxor, and dusty and hot like Asswan, but the people are, honest to God, the friendliest we have ever known. Sincerely nice. The lady who seemed to be trying to insert her brand new boxed fan up my backside as she pushed and shoved to get off the ferry couldn’t have been from Sudan.
Once we were on Sudanese soil we were no longer hassled like we were in Egypt: “Hello my friend, ride camel? Come to my shop? Try my perfume? See my papyrus? Why don’t you want to be my friend…?” Instead, people just smiled and said, “Welcome! How do you find Sudan?”

Scott and Tris

Wadi Halfa, Sudan

Next: Swimming The Nile in a Muu-Muu

Moses Had Buns of Steel

We started our climb of Mt. Sinai just before midnight under a full moon. We knew it would be cold at the top so along with sleeping bags and therma-rests we carried warm clothes in a backpack. About 30 minutes into the climb the moon illuminated a Bedouin and a camel beside the trail. “Take camel?” he asked, and pointed in the direction of the summit. “Very steep!” It didn’t take long before I regretted my decision to decline a camel ride. It took us just under 3 hours of constant climbing and ceaselessly increasing elevation to get to the top. It never leveled off, not even for a few feet. “Boy! This trail is very steep!” I huffed, quoting the Bedouin. The last stage was brutal because we had to negotiate 750 rough-hewn granite steps, part of an alternate route called the Steps of Repentance totaling 3750 big steps. My lungs felt as though they would burst and my glutes were screaming.
“Moses must have had buns of steel,” I gasped to Scott. “Spin to win”, I reminded myself out loud.

I had spin to win going in my head for the entire climb - it’s what got me to the top, I’m sure. I think spin to win whenever I am faced with a physical challenge that brings me to the brink of quitting. Our wonderful friend, Peter Marcus, whose life was prematurely taken by cancer four years ago, taught it to me. We were on his Gabriola Cycle and Kayak Oregon Coast cycling trip – 400 miles of mostly gentle hills, but uncommon head winds. Anyway, one particularly cold and misty 70-kilometer day, everyone else had arrived in camp but a fierce head wind had slowed me down to such an extent that Peter had come looking for me in the support van. He rolled down his window and watched me struggle along at a slow but determined pace. Both of us knew that I would decline a lift to the campground. “Spin to win”, he said with a smile, meaning, no matter how slow you go, keep your legs moving, keep spinning, and you will reach your goal. It was Peter’s mantra that helped me on tough days on The Camino and it’s what got me to the top of Mt. Sinai.

Though we had begun the hike in over 90-degree heat, by the time we made it to the top we were freezing. It was 2:30 in the morning, and the sweat that clung to our bodies just made us colder. At first I thought it was a high altitude mirage but just below the summit appeared a tiny teahouse lit by a single gas lamp. Through the “to go” window we bought a hot chocolate and rented camel blankets (so named because of the smell) from the thin but heavily robed and turbaned man inside. We found a spot to unroll our therma-rests out of the wind and tried to name all Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not freeze to death,” was my contribution. Out came the thermal underwear, jeans, down sleeping bags, and the camel blanket to keep us warm while we slept a few hours until sunrise. Absolute silence fell over the mountaintop. There were only 10 of us, all part of the African Trails Nile Expedition, who slept on Mt. Sinai that night. Not one of us could remember all Ten Commandments.

At 5 am we wrapped up in our camel blankets and hiked a little higher to watch the sun rise. Soon we began to hear voices coming from below. We looked down to see a stream of over 300 pilgrims, mostly Russian, climbing the 750 steps. Once again I was struck by the devotion of the faithful, a theme of this trip it seems. But mostly it made me very glad that we hiked up alone in the middle of the night. I began to dread the hike back down since over 300 of us would be descending at once. Shivering, I wrapped the stinky blanket tighter around my shoulders. I looked over the jagged peaks and down into the barren valley where Moses’ people waited to hear what had been revealed to him and thought about all those who had left their footprints there before me. Suddenly a woman dressed in a down coat, warm boots, and furry hat came into my view.
“I got one!” I said to the others. “Thou shalt not covet!”

Scott and Tris


Monday, June 14, 2010

Clean! Very Clean!

Santiago to Brussels to the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea. Isn’t that how everyone gets to Egypt from Spain? If you are like Scott and get giddy over cheap airfare, you do.

We didn’t have the national delicacy during our 2-day layover in Belgium - French fries doused in mayonnaise - but we did see the movie Robin Hood at a theater where we paid $40 for 2 tickets and a bag of sweet popcorn. Oh, and a euro to use the toilet. BBC News reported that Brits were giving the movie a unanimous thumbs down because Russell Crowe’s accent sounded “too Irish” and “not Nottingham-ish t’all”, but we thought he sounded merry enough and we thoroughly enjoyed the movie. The toilet however, was not worth the euro.

Finally in Africa

We met the overland truck that will transport us along the Nile for 9 weeks in Dahab, Egypt.

Dahab is where travelers on a budget and Europeans on package holidays come to dive the crystal clear waters of the Red Sea. What’s special about diving in Egypt compared to diving, say, the Great Barrier Reef? Well for one thing, when you come up for air on the Red Sea there are usually camels and Bedouins staring back at you from shore. The other thing that makes it so special is that it is an absolutely incredible diving experience. At a place called the Blue Hole where obsessed people wearing nothing but a monfin,a large mermaid’s tail on their feet and facemasks ignore the aquarium around them and try to set records for how deep they can free dive without dying, we saw fish, coral, and clams of all sizes in every color of the rainbow within 12 feet of the surface. Scott saw an octopus on the hunt and I saw a lone seahorse with a flaccid tail. The memorial dedicated to people who die every year while trying to get to the bottom of the abyss that is the Blue Hole is located at the take out point. Might it not be more useful at the entry point? On shore near a herd of camels a persistent Bedouin man wrapped and re-wrapped my head in a scarf in an effort to make me look good in it. After each time he would stand back and regard me with a dissatisfied frown while shaking his head and sighing. The only time he seemed moderately satisfied was when he wrapped the scarf in such a way that it covered everything but my eyes. He wanted 20 Egyptian Pounds for it, $4, which I almost paid until a little girl selling bracelets made from colored string walked up and whispered, “Don’t pay more than 10.”

The seafront in Dahab is lined with restaurants decorated to evoke dining in a Bedouin tent. The sandy floors are covered with a mosaic of bright carpets and huge pillows to lounge on. It’s the only spot in Dahab where you can get a wisp of a offshore breeze so it’s THE place to be between dives. With your drink or smoothie comes mezze (tahini, baba ganoush, hummus) served with freshly baked, puffy pita bread, enough to call lunch or dinner.

One block off the waterfront we found all the shops and services a holiday seeker would desire including what we needed most, a tailor and a barber. On an alleyway next to our guesthouse, a tailor replaced a zipper on our money belt and repaired a hole in an immodest location on Scott’s shorts for only $3. The barber was located on a nearby street near the sea. Akmed seemed to be doing such a good job on Scott’s hair that I asked if there was anyone around to cut mine too and a barber named Mohammed suddenly appeared by my side. It just so happens that Muslim men have given my the two best haircuts in my life; one in Pakistan, the other in Sydney, Australia so I felt pretty confident that Mohammed of Dahab would do a fine job as well. After offering me tea (“Yes, please”) and a cigarette (“No thanks”) he trimmed my hair practically strand by strand. After 20 minutes I said, “I like it. Shukran, thank you,” and started to get up.

“Not finished!” said Mohammed raising the headrest and reclining the chair in one rapid movement. He reached for a jar of powder and spool of thread.

“What? Wait. What is that? What are you doing?” I asked.

“Bebe!” he answered. “Bebe very good!” He smiled broadly and exclaimed, “You will be clean, very clean!” Quicker than I could say, “What the heck is bebe?” my eyebrows received the first “threading” of their lives. Next to me, Scott was getting threaded too! Akmed worked his threads near Scott’s side burns, in and around his ears, up his nose, and on his eyebrows too. “Ouch! Ouch!” a stunned Scott said wincing each time a hair was plucked. I still don’t understand how threading works exactly. It looks so complicated. The thread seems to begin in the barber’s mouth. Two (or four??) strands of string meet at an individual eyebrow hair then with a quick tug of the barber’s head, hairs are plucked out one after another.

Stepping back Mohammed observed my eyebrows with the same scowl of dissatisfaction as the Bedouin head wrapper and resumed shaping the old fashioned way- with scissors. He worked on them for what I thought was longer than necessary, until I said, “I think that’s enough. You don’t want to make them too perfect you know! Yuk yuk.” He muttered something in Arabic, which by the look on his face translated, “That would take a magician.” Then he put down the scissors and started to dab circles of powder at the places on my face I refer to as my Ingrid Bergman areas. Ingrid Bergman was famous for looking radiant in photos. Photographers loved shooting her because her skin appeared absolutely flawless on film. Several years ago I read a biography that revealed that the secret to Ingrid’s luminosity. A substantial amount of downy peach fuzz covered her face. Apparently the hair caught and held any natural or artificial light around her and made her glow. Ever since I read that I have embraced the Ingrid Bergman areas on my own face. Still, no close ups, please. Anyway, Mohammed never heard of Ingrid Bergman and seemed to see no benefit at all to peach fuzz.

“Whoa!” I said, “What are you doing?” I put my hand up to stop the powder puff in mid air.

“It’s ok. It’s ok. I’m going to make you clean! Very clean!” said Mohammed reaching for the thread.

“Oh no, please don’t do that.”

“Why not?” Mohammed asked with puzzlement. I remember my mother’s warning when I was twelve and wanted to start shaving my legs, “Once you start that business you can never quit.”

I looked at Mohammed and said, “If I let you do bebe then you’ll have to move in with me and do this bebe thing on me for the rest of my life. No thank you! No bebe for me.”

Then Akmed got in on the act. He stopped fussing over Scott and leaned over me studying my face as if it was under a magnifying glass. He stood back and said seriously, “Why you don’t want bebe? It will make you very clean! All women, all men in Egypt get bebe.” He leaned towards me again and ran his hand over my face from chin to forehead just as a sculptor with a piece of rough marble would.

He was beginning to rub my fur the wrong way but I believed what he said about people in Egypt regularly getting bebe. I flashed on the day we arrived when I saw someone in the airport with the most substantial mustache I’ve ever seen on a woman. She must have been away from her bebe groomer for longer than she expected. I repeated more emphatically looking from Mohammed to Akmed, “No. I definitely do not want bebe.”

“Inshallah,” Mohammed mumbled, saying a short prayer to Allah with obvious frustration. He reluctantly put the powder and thread aside, returned the chair to its full and upright position and began wetting my hair with water from a spray bottle. When it was evenly damp he opened a wide mouth jar of something labeled “Mink Conditioner.” But the subtitle intrigued me more, “With Garlic!” It said in excited bold lettering. Mohammed took a liberal scoop of it with his hand and began spreading it slowly through my hair.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s ok. Not bebe. Ok. Ok.” He could tell I was getting nervous. He parted my hair down the middle and combed it slick to my head. He parted my bangs in the middle too and curled the ends ever so slightly inward so that they pointed towards the bridge of my nose. When I looked in the mirror I saw Alfalfa from the Our Gang series staring back at me. Scott took one glance at me and said to Akmed in a slightly panicky voice, “That’s enough. I think you can stop cutting my hair now.” He’d already had a head, neck, and shoulder massage, threading, shearing on the bottom half of his head and Akmed had been snipping away at the top of his head with scissors for some time. Unfortunately Scott should have asked Akmed to stop 10 minutes earlier or just let him finish the job. The style Scott has going now can best be described as a cross between a jarhead and a groomed poodle. He looks like he is wearing a too small furry blond scull cap atop his head.

As we walked back to our guesthouse I looked at Scott and said, “Well, Fifi, at least you look clean… Very clean!”

Scott looked into the Bedouin restaurant we were passing. “Is it too early for dinner? The aroma from the garlic in your hair is making me hungry.”
Scott and Tris
On the Red Sea, Egypt