Monday, November 23, 2009

the spectacle of religion in jerusalem

Coming to the border of Israel from Jordan, we entered a world which I imagine the future world will resemble. Layers of security, processes which no one understands, separating people by race for different treatment, security personnel carrying machine guns, holding pens, and endless detailed questioning as to your intentions. It was a rough and disillusioning journey through the border of this strange island of Judaism in this sea of muslims.

We drove at night from the border through the West Bank to reach Jerusalem. The read was heavily fortified and built far from any settlements. We got stopped several times for passport checks along the way. When we finally made it to Jerusalem, we got dropped off at Damascus gate, the original entrance to the city. Through the massive archway, we entered into an ancient souq in the Muslim quarter and it was like we never left Jordan. Yet suddenly, as if some invisible border mandated it, we entered into the Jewish quarter and it was like being on the Magnificent Mile. Shining white stone buildings lined the open lanes, and orthodox Jews stomped glumly through the streets. It was just that quick - we moved from women in headscarves and Muslim shop owners in long cloaks hawking spices and then, bam, men in suits with a variety of funny hats and (sometimes very long) curls dangling in front of their ears.

We continued through the Jewish quarter to the Western Wall, the most holy place for the Jews. The wall encloses the Temple Mount, where their central and most sacred temple once stood until it was destroyed by the Romans and built over centuries later by the Muslims. The space along the wall was split into male and female sections, and the behavior there was shocking to me, as many conservative religious practices are.

Many of the more devout members began to pray by reciting the Torah and rocking back and forth, often getting themselves agitated enough to begin wailing and kissing and touching the wall (sounds like a breeding ground for swine flu to me). On the Sabbath, many of the men enter into a little room which is closest to the temple, which Alex was able to enter. He told me that they were thrashing around like kids at a punk concert and that he had never seen anything like it. However, we ended up seeing this behavior all over Jerusalem - as it is a holy place for a whole variety of religions and sects.
The same shift we found from the Muslim to the Jewish quarter was true of the Christian quarter. Once inside, it is like being in Rome. Giant domes and Christian architecture abound, and every imaginable sect of Christians has a place here. We saw Russians, Greeks, Ethiopians, Arab Christians, Italians, Philippinos and Armenians. The costumes were as varied as the people - some men in scary hooded robes, some ‘servants of God’ wearing crowns, many colors and shapes of nuns in habits, catholic priests in white collars, orthodox men in funny fur hats. We listened to chanting Armenian monks and witnessed several different services in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Jesus is said to have died, been buried and resurrected. The keys to this church are held by a local Muslim family, who opens and shuts it everyday. This is so the Christian sects don’t fight over the rights to it.

Jerusalem is a like an ancient trade city - wildly diverse, but every different group loathes the other. Everyone has a story to tell, a belief to impose, a request to make. Everyone bemoans the downtrodden state of their sect, and it is always the fault of the Other. If there was ever a place where the insanity of religion is paraded in all of its hideous spectacle and implausible narratives, Jerusalem is it.

the people of jordan and syria

Usually when moving through a place, we only get a superficial feel for the people that live there. We notice their eating rituals, their food, how they interact with or understand us, what they wear, etc. In Jordan, it was entirely different. It is almost as if they entire country is filled with hopeless romantics, sweethearts who just want to charm you because they love to make you happy.

We met our first Jordanian just moments into the country, our cab driver from the Border with Israel to Petra. After a few minutes of jovial small talk, he launched into a story that I’ll never forget:

Driving in his cab one day he met an American guy who was writing a guidebook. He needed info on Saudi Arabia, but was unable to enter the country as they are pretty much closed to non-muslim tourists. Our driver, Hassan, told the American, Paul, that he was planning a trip to Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) and would help him get the information he needed for the book. Paul was overjoyed and met with him later to give him money for expenses and some cameras.

Hassan set off on his journey as planned and went to the first place Paul asked for information on and Hassan took some pictures of the place. On the way to the next place, they came to a Saudi police checkpoint and had all of their bags checked, and the authorities immediately began badgering Hassan about the pictures he had taken. He told them the truth, they were for an American guy who was writing a guidebook. Less than five minutes later a caravan of SUVs pulled up and the equivalent of the Saudi CIA came in and began questioning him more. He repeated his story to no avail. The Saudis accused him of being an American spy.

After less than an hour of questioning Hassan was put into a prison, from which he didn’t escape for 70 days, 30 of which were in solitary confinement. We just couldn’t believe this. We kept asking him why they would do this, what purpose there was for the Saudis and he kept repeating - this is the Saudis, they don’t care about reasons or law, they are a nation of goat herders who have been given billions of dollars and now they abuse their power.

This story was just endlessly interesting to us, and Hassan was quite gracious in sharing his story. It made me re-evaluate my conflation of Arabs as similar in culture as well as realize how open and amicable Jordanians can be. This was only the beginning.

Another Jordanian we met, Achmad, we ran into at a contemporary arts center. We talked about the state of art today and he told us he was a sculptor and offered to show us his studio. Flattered, we immediately accepted. We got into his terribly broken-down Ford truck which he uses to quarry the stones the carves from, and drove to his place. He showed us all around his studio, explaining his process, the significance of his materials, and his politics. His sculptures a reminiscent of a more ephemeral Rodin, or even a late Picasso, or a sculpture version of the work of Ecuadorian painter Guayasamin.

We came to find out that he is deeply involved in the peace process with Israel, and he has been commissioned to make a statue for the outside of the Peres Center for Peace in Israel. He is also the Royal sculptor, he makes the gift that the King gives to visiting leaders. As we chat, he says that he just MUST make a sculpture for us while we’re here, so we sit down with a vodka lemon juice that he just poured for all three of us, and watched him work. He cut into the stone with a variety of tools, and the sand stone just fell apart in his hands. The stone itself is from near Petra and is therefore imbued with the most wonderful warm hues.

After he was all done, he insisted on driving us back to our place, where he came inside and sat with us and hosts for over an hour - which leads me to another story. When we had a little extra time between Petra and our planned trip to Jerusalem, we thought we’d take a little excursion to Syria. Now, Syria is a strange place and we knew we’d have a bit of a challenge getting in there. They don’t allow anyone with an Israeli stamp on their passport to get inside. We knew this (and also that Iran, Saudi Arabia and others have the same policy), so we had Israel stamp on a separate sheet of paper. With only hope in our hearts, we set off for the Syrian border with the plan to get to Damascus.

At the border, they saw through our trick (by seeing that we entered Jordan at the border with Israel), and turned us away. Our cab continued on to Damascus without us and we were stuck at the Syrian border with no way back to Amman. We asked some of the guards there how we could get back to Amman and the guard asked the first cab that passed if he would take us there for 15 bucks. They guy agreed and we found ourselves sharing a cab with a Syrian woman and her two babies Zain, 2 and Zeynep, 4.

In the car we kept mostly quiet, being respectful in a North American way, and we finally reached her house and her husband came out to greet her. This gregarious man invited everyone - including the taxi driver - into his house for coffee. None of them spoke any English, so we mostly just smiled and thanked him for his hospitality. As we were about the leave with the driver to go to a hotel, he asked us using a combination of sign language and a few English words, to stay for dinner. We obliged, knowing in our guidebook that it was common to be taken in when traveling in Arab countries.

They cooked a gigantic feast for us while we played with the kids. They loaded the table with chicken and soup and rice and bread and fresh tomatoes and cucumbers with lemon. We filled our bellies till they were about to burst and we finally refused to eat any more. After this, they poured us insanely full glasses of vodka with just a splash of juice. Wow. OK. So we sipped our drinks obligingly and laughed together at the terrible TV show and the children’s antics.

After our time was seeming to wind down, we began readying ourselves to get to a hotel. Our hosts insisted that we stayed saying, ‘hotel, no, this hotel here.’ So he kicked his kids out of their room and into their bed, and put our things in there. We ended up staying in their home for two nights, and there wasn’t a moment where we didn’t marvel at their hospitality. We had been rejected by the Syrian government, but taken in by its people.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

searching for the holy grail at Petra

After a patience-testing journey through two borders (out of Egypt through Israel into Jordan), we made it to Wadi Musa, the town accompanying the ancient ruins at Petra. Although you might not recognize the name, I know you know the place. This is where Indiana Jones and his father played by Sean Connery came to find the Holy Grail. Remember them riding up on their horses through a steep canyon and coming upon this rose-colored building cut into the rock? Yeah, that’s it.

On each of our days here we woke up when the stars were still shining. We grabbed our incredible amount of water and food that we prepared the day before, and set off for the ruins. Rewarded for our fanatical tenacity to avoid crowds, we were the first people to reach the ruins that day. We walked through the Siq - that incredible canyon which leads to the city - and came upon the treasury and it felt like we were discovering it for the first time.

We trudged through the pink sand, gaping at the façade cut out of the cliff face. The people who built this place, the Nabateans, became wealthy by luck. They sat at the crux of trade routes from Arabia to Rome and because of this, they were exposed to cultures from Mesopotamia to Greece, and incorporated these styles into their structures. So here in the middle of one of the driest deserts on the planet these monument sit adorned with Corinthian columns, crow’s steps of Assyria and, later, Byzantine mosaics. This was a cosmopolitan place inhabited by nomads who continued to live in tents even as they retained a huge amount of power in the region.

We spent a lot of our time at Petra climbing up every mountain in order to escape the hoardes as well as to see the structures from every possible angle. One of these was called the High Place, one of the few remaining altars of sacrifice like those mentioned in the Bible, where there was even a drain for the blood to empty from the altar. Even as we searched through every corner high and low, we couldn’t find that damn grail!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

diving in dahab

Leaving Ancient Egypt behind, we moved up the coast to the Sinai Peninsula, to the spot where we planned to dive into the Red Sea. The town where we stayed, Dahab, is a sort of Thailand-esque backpackers’ sty. We had to use all of our most advanced ninja travel skillz to avoid getting ripped off here. Everything was grossly overpriced to cater to the European bourgeois who frequent here in the grossly tiny bathing suits - prancing around almost as if oblivious to the lewdness of their own displayed junk.

We found a decently priced hotel, which we thought looked nice and clean for the price. Yet, we ended up with bed bug bites all over our body, spiced with a little bit of mosquito bites on the parts of our bodies not covered by our blankets. The hot water never worked, we didn’t get any toilet paper or towels, and there were so many cockroaches that when we left we had to go through our bags to eradicate them (there were three, one inside of Alex’s toiletries bag - yuck!)

So, it was even more wonderful and pristine to escape the wretchedness of humanity and slip into the cool Red Sea and it’s underwater wonderland. Each day we rented snorkels, masks and fins for one dollar each for the whole day. We then walked over to the reef, slipped our feet into the fins and plopped awkwardly in the water. We did this with the looming truth that our travels are coming to an end and this is probably the last time we’ll be in this altered Eden for quite a long while. This fact just made my attention even more rapt and my endurance unending. We swam in endless circles, bobbing with the waves and examining our fish-kin. As I ebbed with the tides and the sacred Sinai mountains blazed red in the distance, I was wishing this wasn’t the end of era.

Friday, November 20, 2009

ozymandias and the west bank temples

After a wonderful day of hiking and seeing these memorials to power built by the New Kingdom Pharaohs, we ended the day at the temple of Ramses II. Now, this guy rules over Egypt when the empire was beginning to fall apart, but still retained its last glimmer of influence in the world. Like most imperial rulers, this guy was a complete egomaniac. So much so that he built a several-stories-tall statue of his own likeness, and called his temple something like ‘the temple that will last for millions of years.’

At the end of the 19th century, many artists and poets became infatuated with the exoticism and romance of the ruins of Ancient Egypt. One of these was Shelley, a British poet who heard about this very temple, knowing that this gigantic statue of Ramses II had fallen to the ground, broken into pieces, and was slowly blowing away as dust in the desert wind. He then wrote this:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

on my own two feet in the Valley of the Kings

The very next day, after our little romantic interlude, we were back to business. Ignoring all of the hotel proprietors and taxi drivers who told us it was impossible, we set our before dawn to hike around the Valley of the Kings and through the West Bank independently. They told us it was incredibly hot, the distances were too long to hike and that we’d be sorry. We were pretty sure they were all wrong.

We got dropped off near the entrance to the Valley of the Kings, the valley into which the Pharaohs of the New kingdom carved their tombs - the most famous of whom, King Tut, you already know. We began our hike through the valley, visiting these tiny tunnels that led into tiny rooms which were often decorated from floor the ceiling with hieroglyphics - and many of them even retained their original color!

Once finished with the tombs, we set out on the first of our many ’impossible’ hikes. Now, to put it into perspective, many of the tourists who come here are unable (or unwilling) to walk to ¼ mile on pavement it takes to get from their tour buses to the monument, which is why they brought in a tram to truck their lazy asses to the tombs. So, this is the idea the Egyptians have of the physical capacity of tourists.

We like to think of ourselves as slightly more sturdy than this, so we set off to climb the mountain. The hike, for all of its hype took a whole 30 minutes, start to finish, and we really barely broke a sweat. The tourists in the valley and even their guides starred at us with a little bit of a why-would-they-DO-that kind of a look, and that was satisfying in a way. Instead of shelling out thirty bucks or more to have an air-conditioned bus and a guide and a tour group who gets shuffled around like cattle, we got up on our own two feet and moved ourselves from place to place.

We really saw the landscape, we got into it, breathed it in. This is the real way to live, I am learning. Getting out there into it all, always looking around and really seeing. Sucking the world into your lungs so deep it almost stings. This is just being present in one’s surroundings, and it has brought me incredibly joy. Just to recognize the beauty of a silver sliver of a moon at twilight, or the pop of an electric blue fish darting around on a reef, or the feeling of exhilaration at the top of a desert mountain with the dry wind whipping up around you and making your mouth like chalk. What more could anyone possibly need out of life?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

it becomes clear at thebes

Our insanely defunct train rolled up into Luxor from Cairo an astonishing eight hours late. That’s right, eight hours late. It was a night train, but not with beds, with seats. We were tired. We marched like zombies to our hotel and immediately crashed. After many hours of sleep, we woke up before dawn and were drawn like magnets to the monuments in the capital city of ancient Egypt, Thebes.

Before we went to bed Alex was doing some peculiar things - taking a stroll to ‘check out the rooftop at night’ and borrowing my ipod ‘cause he just wanted to listen to some songs.’ When I asked him why he was doing these things that he wouldn’t normally do, he just grinned. In the morning after some intense haggling we made it to the temple at Karnak before any other tourist that day. It was a crisp desert morning, with the sun’s powerful blast just coming over the horizon.

We walked through the gigantic plaza towards the ruins. This temple was a supremely important place for the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom. Their power was unsurpassed thus far in history, and they had the means to create any structure their power-hungry brains could conjure. This particular temple is the size of St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London put together. Inside there is a giant forest of enormous columns, each in the shape of papyrus, which grew on the banks of the Nile.

As we enter into this fairyland of ruins, each column encrypted with ancient art, Alex asks me to listen to the ipod with him. It is Regina Spektor’s song “Us.”

They made a statue of us
And they put it on a mountaintop
Now tourists come and stare at us
Blow bubbles with their gum
Take photographs, have fun, have fun

We’re living in a den of thieves
Rummaging for answers in the pages
We’re living in a den of thieves
And it’s contagious, it’s contagious, it’s contagious

And right there, he drops down on one knee.

Here we are, together, and it all becomes clear to me. We are fleeing the thieves, the liars, the corrupt, which seem to abound in the world. We know it’s contagious, this gluttonous, greedy aspect of humanity, so we wander, searching for answers. We’ve drifted around the globe and have seen more in these few years than most find time to notice in their long lives, and it all comes back to this. Now we’re here, at the site where civilization began.

He slides the ring on my finger - this symbol the Egyptians invented in the form of braided papyrus stems - and now it feels like the spinning of the earth is slowing and it’s only him and I, and this is the moment we decide to spend the rest of our lives together.

Friday, November 13, 2009

man and nature at saqqara and giza

Shifting our focus to the ancient world that once flourished in this place, we spent the next day going to Saqqara and Giza. The monuments at Saqqara are the first stone monuments ever built. Now, it is difficult for me to emphasize just how important this is. Before these monuments there were a few civilizations -- in Mesopotamia and in the Levant -- but no society in the entirety of human history up until this point had reached this level of power. This was the first time that a leader had the power to erect a monument to his existence which he wanted to last beyond his death.

Now, we know that this continued and continues to happen throughout the world, but this was the first. The first guy to have the influence over an army of workers that he could make build a monument to himself. The first guy to have the insane level of narcissism that he couldn’t imagine not existing after death. Now, thousands of years later, we still know his name.

After staring in awe at this all-important Step Pyramid, we moved on to the infamous great pyramids at Giza. From later on in the Old Kingdom, these monuments are shrouded in myths and mystery. All sorts of people have come to these monuments and have been struck by their precision, symmetry, numerical and directional significance. Many people have supernatural theories about them: they’re built by aliens, they have astrological significance, etc, but I just think they represent the very height of power of the very first great civilization of the world - the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt.

I was surprisingly less astonished by them, most likely because I have seen their image repeated and reproduced since childhood. I wasn’t seeing something for the first time, but instead confirming the existence of an image that I have been exposed to forever. After fighting through the hairy mobs of ice-cream-in-a-desert-eating tourists, we found a place to sit out isolated among the sand and rocks.

Although I wasn’t so shocked by these monuments, I was instead humbled and interested in them. While we sat, I watched the sky and its infinite combination of pillowy clouds playing unending games of light and dark as they moved across the sky. The sun swept across these ancient wonders and the wind whipped up some sand from the Sahara and it swirled around us. On this day, the Great Pyramids at Giza were merely a backdrop for the limitless beauty of the natural world.

Friday, November 6, 2009

why we travel

This morning I woke up before dawn. With half-awake eyes, I tripped through my morning routine in the dark. Once outside in the world still asleep, I struggle to find a taxi driver to take us to the temple. It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m haggling with an Egyptian over fifty cents in fare. Once I arrive at the temple, I dodge the hawkers and thieves, just beginning their days’ plundering of tourist pockets. We slip past the guards with knives and machine guns to the ticket-taker, who watches me with an unnecessary amount of scruples and - finally - we emerge into a forest of giant columns, the promised land at dawn.

The light of the new day strikes the pink sandstone and sets it ablaze. The sky begins an extravaganza of ever-changing hues of blue behind the glowing temple walls. And the best part of it all - we’re alone. Probably the only few minutes of the day that we won’t be inundated with tourist hoards and their accompanying leeches. So, I finally release the tension in my muscles, and I look at my best friend and see his mutual longing for the sanctity of this place and time. We breathe in the cold morning and share this holy moment. He takes my hand and we stare, mouths agape, at the fantastic ancient world that surrounds us.

Our travels are a sort of pilgrimage. At no point have we been lying around, sipping Mai Thais and eating hamburgers. To us, this act of travel is a sacred rite - a passage into adulthood, taking responsibility for becoming citizens of the world. Similarly to religious pilgrims, we often suffer in order to attain our goals. The vast majority of our time is toiling, and only a tiny percentage of our time are moments like I just described.

We sweat, stink, rush, cry, pray, curse, become weak, hungry, thirsty, dizzy, nauseous. We see the worst in people - the spitting, seething greed and corruption that can exist within people. There are moments when we are genuinely afraid, or pissed off, hopeless, or just plain cranky.

This is all rooted in why we travel, which effects the way we travel. We go to learn, to see the world that our ancient predecessors made, and to understand them, so that we might not make their same mistakes. We come to stand in the dying natural world, to listen to the siren song of the bleaching coral reefs, to watch the lone tiger prowl through the forest as its population quickly diminishes unbeknownst to it, to stand at the summit of a sacred mountain and be surrounded by ever-more polluted air, to swim under a waterfall in a lush lagoon in water that was once pure enough to drink. We see these places so that we can mourn for them, and tell of their dying moments to our children who cannot imagine such a thing as a wild tiger.

We travel to see the modern world and the quickly diminishing uniqueness between cultures. With the rapid McDonaldsization and mediation of the world, languages are being lost in favor of the television and recipes that existed for centuries are being forgotten in the name of quick, cheap food. We venture into the remotest regions to get a glimpse of the pre-globalized world, and try to learn from the differences and become aware of the vast and sometimes surprising similarities in human nature.

Moving around the world is not about pleasure for us. We only take joy in it in the same way that we take joy in life, in the act of living. Our travel is a serious undertaking, a sacrifice. We feel be must be students of the world, in order to be responsible citizens within it. Over these years we have taught ourselves how we want to live, and how to be right in the world.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

kindness in Cairo

Our plane got in at 2 am and we were zealots about not paying for a hotel room for half the night, so we stumbled out of the Cairo airport into the Islamic heart of this capital city. With our rolling bags in tow, we explored through alleys lined with vendors who apparently never sleep. We came upon Fish-Awy, a famous old café where we sipped mint tea and pomegranate juice and breathed in the city among the glowing lamps that might've had genies inside.

We spent the first day handling all sorts of business - train tickets, student identity cards, visas. Our first evening, after a night and day with no sleep, we went to a show of Egyptian ‘Sufis.’ It was more of a song and dance show for tourists, but nonetheless it was a sensory feast. The men in colorful costumes whirled and spun as the musicians sang and drummed behind them. As a religious practice, this is meant to induce a trance-like state where the dancer becomes closer to god. This, however, was more acting than trancing.

We then spent the day in modern Cairo, visiting all of the most holy and beautiful mosques and wandering the vibrant and welcoming streets. I can’t articulate how much I love the people here. As we walk through the streets, we are constantly greeted with “welcome to Egypt” or “welcome to Cairo” - which I think is an absolutely lovely sentiment to share with guests. When encountering people who are curious about us, I often smile or wave to them, which unfailingly elicits a goofy and interested grin.

The people here are unendingly generous. When waiting for an office to open, we sat on the steps outside. A woman came out of her home and said to us, “I see that you are waiting and I would like to make some tea for you.” Shocked and somewhat unclear of her motives, we agreed, and planned to wait and see how this situation would turn out. We were bewildered when she brought us tea, sugar and biscuits on a silver platter and told us that she was leaving for work and that we could leave the dishes with her son. This rare and wonderful commitment to hospitality is something we haven’t witnessed to this extent anywhere in the world. Wow, welcome to Egypt indeed.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

wow, this is almost getting to be boring

woot. here is my newest story in the Chicago Tribune about how to be a super ninja in booking a flight on Ryanair.

How to navigate a deal on Ryanair

Ashley Colby, Special to Tribune Newspapers

October 11, 2009

Ireland-based budget airline Ryanair offers some of the best bargains for flying within Europe and North Africa. But you have to know how to play the game.

In late August I was able to book a one-way flight from Pisa to Barcelona for just 10 euros, or about $14.70. This came as a 48-hour promotion for 5-euro flights with all fees and taxes waived (except a 5-euro payment handling fee) for flights September through December. Then, on Sept. 1, I found a 6-pound ($9.80) late-October flight from London to Oslo.

When booking during one of Ryanair's incredible-sounding sales, first read the terms and conditions before getting too excited. Blackout dates and seemingly incomprehensible exceptions might be involved. Flexibility is key.

Recognize that there are certain fees that most likely won't be waived, such as the "payment handling fee" (5 euros per flight) and the "online check-in fee" (5 euros).

Most of the fees, however, can be avoided with careful planning. Skip the "priority boarding fee" (3 euros) and the "text message confirmation" (1 euro) by simply remembering to check "no" when filling out details. Other fees demand greater cunning to refuse. The "optional travel insurance" is avoided by choosing the "no travel insurance required" option, which strangely is between Latvia and Lithuania in the drop-down menu.

Be aware of baggage specifications. Ryanair ( charges 10 euros for the first checked bag and another 20 for each subsequent bag. The catch is that the combined weight of all three bags must be no more than 15 kilograms, or 33 pounds.

Ryanair does not charge for carry-on luggage but expects customers to fit every item (purses, coats, shopping bags) into a single 10-kilo carry-on. Failure to follow these rules means Ryanair retains the right to deny boarding and cancel a reservation without refund.

Finally, many airports used by Ryanair are connected to the city only by a Ryanair-owned bus company. Take the price of the bus into consideration when figuring the total cost.

Once you learn how to work the system, you can find yourself jetting around Europe for the price of a few Happy Meals.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

free in Rome

While staying at Marco and Caterina's farm in Lazio, we spent each weekend on our days off going to Rome.

Although we have seen so much of Rome before when we studied here or when we returned here during our Europe trip, we just can't get enough of this city. What was the most amazing this time is how little money we spent, and I have to just gush about this now.

The first weekend Marco and Caterina were going to Rome to visit Marco's sick uncle in the hosptial, so they dropped us off in the early afternoon. We hopped on a metro (one euro each) to the Coliseum, where we found some Americans coming out and asked them for their used tickets which we then used to get into the Forum and Palatine Hill (so this was free). We then walked to the Capitoline Hill (free) and through the historical center to the Pantheon (free), sat and had our lunch (which we brought from the farm, so free) in a bookstore, and then walked over to the Trevi Fountain (free) and splurged on some gelato (3 euro each) - we both got chocolate and lemon, yummm. We also stopped at Boromini's Baroque church, which is obviously free. We took a metro (again, one euro each) back to meet Marco and Caterina to go back to the farm. Overall, this trip to Rome cost 10 euro, or about 15 dollars total.

The next weekend we took a bus from the farm (2 euro each) to a town where got on a train to Rome (no one ever came to sell us a ticket, so free) to a metro (one euro each). We went onto the Aventine Hill (free), when to a park overlooking the city (free) and into Santa Sabina church where there was a wedding happening (this is also free). We then went to another church to see a Bernini masterpiece of a sculpture (free), then to another church, Santa Maria in Trastevere, where we saw ancient gilded mosaics of the highest quality for, you guessed it, free. We decided to treat ourselves to some pizza - and we spent about 3 euro on this. We then sat in Piazza Farnese and enjoyed a free concert put on by Amnesty International and stole some wifi from a local apartment, where we called people, checked email, uploaded pictures, for free!

We then spent the night at Giorgio's - who is an old friend of Caterina's - so, free accomodation. We then got up in the morning and ate some of the delicious breakfast food he offered us - yogurt, cereal, coffee. We then headed out to see Michaelangelo's satue of Moses, free, and then went to see 9th century mosaics in Santa Prassede for free. We then caught the end of a church service in one of rome's four most important churches, St. Maria Maggiore, for free. We grabbed some bread and meat to eat for lunch at a supermarket for about 4 euro and headed to another church with gorgeous ancient mosaics, San Clemente. Then about a block away we paid one euro each to go into a tiny secret chapel San Silvestre - which you must ring a bell and pay a nun to enter. We then took a metro (one euro each) to a train (again, no one sold us a ticket) to a bus (where they also didn't take our ticket, so it was free). This second weekend in Rome cost a total of 17 euro, or 25 dollars.

Okay, so you get the idea. The last weekend we saw the Ancient Roman Forum, the Palatine Hill, The Imperial Forum, and the entire Vatican Museums, including the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's and Michaelangelo's Pieta sculpture - all for free. We paid only very little for transport and some food from a supermarket. Again, I think the total came to something like 25 bucks for both of us.

Here are some of the most famous and perfect works of art in the world, which we enjoyed for free:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

satisfaction in Lazio

We stepped off the flight from Rome delirious with jet lag and excitement. Everything was familiar. The overly pretentious uniforms of authorities, dirty floors, short men, beautiful women in impossibly pointy shoes. Ah, Italia.

We found our way onto two trains, using a payphone in between to call our host and let her know we’re coming. Marco and Caterina picked us up at the station in their boxy little car, looking aghast at our immense suitcases. We tried our best to act nonchalant, despite our lack of sleep and the cramped nature of our long limbs in their tiny vehicle.

They drove us to their house through rolling hills, cultivated in aesthetic ancient patches with mostly vineyards and olive trees. Their English isn’t perfect, but our Italian is much worse, so we struggled through some awkward patches with our mutual lack of vocabulary, but mostly had an easy time with conversation.

Marco is a Woodworker by trade, and Caterina has her PhD in Wildlife Biology. They’re in their mid-thirties and have only been together for about five years. They are both from Rome, but have elected to flee to the countryside and make a go of it with organic farming. Rome is ‘too busy, too chaotic’ for them. I am beginning to agree.

They produce mainly olive oil from the several hundred trees they have on their land. When they bought this place about 18 months ago, it was abandoned and the trees were all overgrown. They got a great price (150,000 euro for a house, barn and about 12 acres of land). They now have three ducks, one chicken (they had many more of these but they were eaten by a local fox), two horses, one donkey and a three-month old calf named Gina which they feed every morning and evening with fresh milk.

The food is intense and wonderful. The Italian way of eating would be peculiar to most Americans. On the table is wine, water, bread, olive oil and often cheese. The first course is served while the second continues to cook. Usually the primi piatti (first plate) is a pasta dish, and the secondi is meat. After everyone finishes the pasta dish, the second is removed from the oven a served separately. Salad is eaten at the end. Followed by fruit or sweets. Each meal lasts longer than an hour and always includes gregarious conversation.

We have had fresh mozzarella from the next town over with basil which is grown on the front steps; heirloom tomatoes from the garden in the back; a meal with clams, squid and tuna over pasta in sauce of their own olive oil; spaghetti carbonara with bits of ham; home-made chocolate cake; gorgonzola spread over fresh baguettes; gourmet coffee; figs we picked from the tree in front of the house; gorgeous and juicy nectarines. I could go on. Yes, we are well-fed here.

The life is slow in this place. We work in the morning from about eight to one and are free for the rest of the day. Marco and Caterina take a siesta (nap) after lunch for a couple of hours. We get most of the day to ourselves - reading, writing, photographing, exploring the countryside. Sometimes I go down and play with Gina, who is always nudging my sides in affection. We will be here for a month and in that time I will see if my city-girl restlessness can learn to slow. If I can stop, look out over the hills draped in fog after an afternoon thunderstorm, letting the sun warm my face, and be satisfied.

Monday, August 31, 2009

published again!!


China's Shangri-La is a real dream

By Ashley Colby

Special to the Tribune

August 23, 2009

SHANGRI-LA, China -- If you've ever dreamed of finding Shangri-La -- that mythical mountain paradise made famous in James Hilton's novel "The Lost Horizon" -- it's time to wake up. These days, the elusive Shangri-La isn't that hard to find. It's in China's Yunnan province.

It might not be exactly what you had in mind, however.

When I arrived in Shangri-La, it was cold and raining, and there was a cow eyeing me as it lapped up water from a bucket in the Old Town, a patchwork of wooden houses on narrow streets. Not exactly the shining pathways and endless enlightenment I imagined, but I had just gotten there.

Shangri-La, with a population of more than 100,000, is nestled in a valley near the edge of the Tibetan Plateau in far south-central China, about 1,000 miles northwest of Hong Kong. In the far distance are glimpses of Himalayan snow-capped peaks hiding behind much lower mountains that hug the city.

In the late 1990s, with the expanding Chinese middle class thirsty to spend tourist yuan, several Chinese provinces started claiming they were the true Shangri-La. The government saw an opportunity and proposed that each place prove through empirical research that its physical characteristics match those in the novel. Several years later, Zhongdian County in Yunnan province was granted the title.

People come to get a glimpse of Tibetan Buddhist culture. Getting into Tibet can be difficult for tourists. Shangri-La, however, lies just outside the formal Tibet Autonomous Region but well within the plateau where Tibetans reside.

That culture is on display every evening when the people of the town gather in the main square, press "play" on a tape of Tibetan pop songs and start to dance. Women with magenta head scarves who seem to be the village elders lead the movement from the middle of a gigantic circle formed around them.

Shangri-La is split into areas known as Old Town and New Town. The quickly developing New Town houses most of the residents and resembles many nondescript Chinese cities -- rows of concrete storefronts selling everything from knock-off designer duds to live fish.

Old Town is a former stop along the old Tea and Horse Caravan Road, the route begun during the Middle Ages and across which Chinese tea was traded for Tibetan horses. The tiny original Old Town consists of a handful of cobbled streets lined with centuries-old traditional Tibetan wooden houses. It's no bigger than a square mile. Farm houses with first-floor barns are still tucked away at the edges of the town, pushed to the periphery by the encroaching tourist necessities: cafes, souvenir shops, art galleries and hotels.

Another big draw for tourists could be low prices. A double room at the Cobbler's Hill Old Inn, a reconstructed building from the Tea and Horse Caravan days, costs 100 yuan (about $15) a night. Our room overlooking one of the livelier streets in the Old Town was lined with dark wood and had a smartly designed bathroom, a desperately needed electric blanket (in October), TV with only Chinese-language channels and odd modern light fixtures.

A balcony gave us the opportunity to sit and watch the locals: Women in bright pink head scarves trudged up the hill, carrying huge loads of just-harvested greens in wicker baskets on their backs, while other women washed their long black hair in steaming sudsy saucers in the cold morning air -- a habit probably left over from the time just a few years earlier when there was no indoor plumbing in Shangri-La.

Food also is a bargain. At Tara Gallery & Cafe, a just-refurbished home from centuries past along the caravan route, we ordered the Indian meal ($7 per person) out of the choices of Chinese or the more expensive Tibetan Hot Pot. In the second-floor restaurant, we started on our six-course feast: Indian bean soup, potato curry, chicken curry and a large bowl of white rice for harnessing the vibrant flavors. Indian flat bread was accompanied by both a hot pepper and mild eggplant spread. Then there was just a glimpse into Tibetan food with fried yak cheese balls rolled in sugar. These melted in my mouth.

Next we headed to The Raven, just a few doors down the street from our hotel. Their best deal was a house red wine (about $9 a bottle). A place for hip locals and tourists of all kinds, it was lit by candles, and the walls were plastered with posters from New York rock concerts. Punk music blared on the stereo.

A little incongruous? Perhaps. I was a long way from the South Side of Chicago and totally immersed in the joys of discovery.

Although the low costs and vibrant and visible Tibetan culture would be reason enough to visit, the biggest draw might be the monastery a few miles out of town. On our second day in Shangri-La, the morning arrived with a sun that had been mostly absent for days. It was a perfect time to explore Ganden Sumtseling.

More than 300 years old and housing about 600 monks, this Tibetan Buddhist monastery is a place of great importance in the region. Throughout the monastery I found bright and newly redone frescoes (sometimes with English labels), 25-foot-tall statues of smiling Buddhas, golden adornments on the roofs of the temples, and red-robed monks moving from room to room, praying and lighting incense. The hills behind the monastery offer a commanding view of the entire complex, golden idols glinting in the afternoon sun, and Shangri-La in the distance in a valley surrounded by hills and several groupings of snowcapped peaks.

On my way out, an older monk placed a prayer necklace that he had made around my neck. Back in Old Town, I climbed a hill where I sat beside a giant prayer wheel to watch the sun set. Prayer wheels, a part of Tibetan Buddhist tradition, usually are cylinders on a spindle lined up in a row to be turned during meditation, meant to aid focus in reciting mantras.

I watched my first sunset in days looking over Shangri-La with prayer flags rustling in the wind overhead, bells tinkling and the smell of incense drifting from a nearby temple. In that instant, I realized I had discovered my own personal Shangri-La, a magical sense of calm and connection found in passing moments like this.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

rage against the dying of the light

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas.

So, here I am again. This place where I seem to be coming back with increasing frequency. That wondrous purgatory. The questioning captivity. The exhilarating effusiveness. I am about to embark on another adventure.

It turns out that the US is an expensive place to travel. And it's also boring. Well, not inherently boring, but boring for me because I know it all too well. I need adventure! Excitement! The risk of death at every turn! (well, not death, don't worry mom) But I do need to be challenged. I need a world that needs decoding, a cultural challenge, some strangeness.

Where is this magical place, you ask? Italia! A place where the people speak with their hands and eat with their eyes. A world of ancient food culture just waiting to be devoured.

We are going to be WWOOFing there, and have already set up with a few farms in Tuscany. I just really can't get enough of this small-scale farming business. With an increasingly confusing world of corrupt politicians and greedy bankers and rising unemployment, something just makes sense about sticking my hands into the soil and making food grow.

So, here we go again. Maybe I'll find a reason to hate it and move on, maybe I'll love it and never leave. The great affair is to discover. and rediscover.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

burning in the Yellowstone caldera

After finally pulling ourselves away from animal watching in the Lamar Valley, we fell into the tourist-dominated landscape that is Yellowstone's caldera. The land here sits over an enormous supervolcano, a mass of burning magma sitting so close to the surface that it effects the world above in a myriad of ways.

The landscape here is vaguely similar to that of the very early earth, when the entire planet was burning much more brightly overall. Since then, it has been slowly cooling as time passes; similarly to how our metabolisms slow as we age. Like the Earth, as well as the universe, we burn less and less brilliantly as time moves along. The second law of thermodynamics - which states simply that all aspects of the universe are subject to increasing entropy - is what eventually inevitably puts out our flame.

We saw the remnants of our former superheated world in the form of scalding hot springs, bubbling cauldrons of mud, steaming sulfuric vents and a wild variety of geysers. The most bewildering aspect of this death-world was the prismatic color in the hot springs. Some are a astonishing white-blue, some algae-like putrid green, some burnt orange, and most were often a combination of these hues.

I learned that each color was the result of a certain organism that lived in a particular temperature range within the spring. Surprisingly, the white-blue, often associated as the coolest color, is a result of the organisms that live in the hottest water. These particular organisms are also some of the oldest organisms on the planet. The activity from these geysers and springs - the releasing of gases through heating the liquid - is how our atmosphere was formed.

It was exhilarating to stumble around this alien past-world, to be among a world burning more ferociously.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

remembrance of things past in the Yellowstone ecosystem

After the high plains in the great basin, and the trap of consumer culture that is Jackson Hole, the plains finally turned into a valley which was edged on one side by the Grand Teton mountains. This range was named by French fur trappers; in French, teton means, um, boob. Oh, French people. To be fair, the mountains do have that general shape, but I assume the name came more from being alone in the woods with other men for months on end. The men could dream.

Whatever the case may be, the mountains were just the sideshow. The main draw, by our standards at least, was the wildlife. This area is the largest intact temperate ecosystem in the world, and is unofficially known as the American Serengeti. Being here in this enormous valley, with the thunderheads in the sky gaining momentum, and the smell of coming rain hanging in the dry air, I looked out and saw hundreds of brown specks of animals feasting on the summer bounty. At that moment, I could almost imagine what the world was like before. Home, home on the range.

Now, I don't harbor any illusions about the perfection of times past. I recognize that there was no utopian antecedent to our current world. As our species has grown in complexity, we have grown in destructiveness. Before agriculture, life was short, brutal, unsafe; but people then have been shown to be much healthier than we are today - taller, faster, stronger teeth, and with slightly larger brains. With the growth of specialization and civilization came longer lives, but less healthy ones.

This comes to mind only because I am standing in landscape that is fairly similar to one our early ancestors might have encountered, and because we evolved on savannas for millions of years, there is something in this landscape that feels like home to me. Something freeing, exhilarating, sweet and wild. So I stand and watch the bison roll around in the dust and the antelope springing through the tall grass, the elk's majestic antlers lifted while scanning for predators, and the black bear wading into the stream to cool itself in the hot summer sun, and I yearn for remembrance.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

ghosts at the county fair

I don't know exactly how to approach this county fair thing. I mean, when I was a kid there were no opportunities to show off my prize livestock or vegetables. City kids don't know about these things. At our yearly block party, I gorged myself on candies and barbeque and baked goods. Ohhh, my stomach was full of peanut butter cookies and hot dogs and smarties. Then I'd slip off my shoes and bounce around in the jumping jack until my regurgitating reflex made itself known, at which point I'd roll out of the huge balloon, chug a coke and go find the kids playing ghost in the graveyard.

All of the same elements are here at the Tuolumne County Fair. There is the gorging and the rides, the kids playing games, but the things that are different - the prize cows raised by middle schoolers, the gigantic vegetables, a product of many months of careful watering and turning - are significant. These people here are country people, or they used to be. This was a venue for them to show off their season's treasures, the let loose and paint the town red. We have adopted this in the city, except we just do the celebrating, not the working in the fields part.

Although this fair has come along way since its inception (now the major events show the grotesque strength of machines in the form of truck pulls and demolition derbys), the ghost of its past enthralls me. There was a time in America when most people outside of cities worked on the land. They came once a year to show off their labor, to mingle with their neighbors and to let their bellies hang out after gorging themselves on their neighbor's meat. I hope this ghost doesn't disappear for good.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

magnificence in sequoia and king's canyon

Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks are in the southern part of California's Sierra mountain range. We drove the four plus hours from Alex's house in Sonora through the hideous, smoggy and stinking hot central valley and up into the mountains. As we climbed up to seven thousand feet, the air got cooler and clearer, a crisp and fresh break from the pollution and the endless chain stores below.

In the late afternoon, we arrived at King's Canyon, a sort of mini-Yosemite. A deep chasm (the deepest canyon in the US), it is a wilderness gem of white granite and deep pine forests set against the deepest blue of the summer mountain sky. We hiked through the varying terrain of an alpine setting - from deep and soggy coniferous forests to the moss and fern-covered banks of a raging glacial river to the harsh and surrounding desert of sun and hard granite, with gnarly, stubby shrubs and tiny lizards displaying the only signs of life.

After King's Canyon, we headed over to Sequoia National Park, home to one of the densest groves of sequoia trees in the world. Sequoia's are only found in the western Sierra's, and are incredibly unique trees as they are the largest trees in the world. Now, this is an amazing feat all in itself, but there's more. They are not only the largest plant, but they are the largest of all living things on this planet (yes, they're larger than a blue whale, I thought you'd ask that). Not only this, but they are also the largest living creature that has ever existed in the history of the earth! Amazing, is it not?

As it turns out, evolution is trending toward more and more complexity (well, that is, until homo sapiens showed up and spread all around the world, extinguishing any species larger than itself as they went along). In any case, this tree is the present point on a tremendously long series of adaptations and failures which trended increasingly toward more and more diversification of species. This tree is an outgrowth of that millions of years long process, and here we are able to witness it.

I watched a documentary recently (Encounters at the End of the World by Werner Herzog) about Antarctica, and in it one of the interviewees said something like, 'We are the creatures by which the Earth becomes aware of itself. We are the ones through which the universe can witness the magnificence of its own creation,' and I thought that was especially poignant at this moment. There were millions of years of bacteria and plants and fish and lizards and amphibians and mammals, and now, through the eyes of this strange hairless monkey, the world's growth and change and wonders are available to finally be beheld.

And in its presence, strangely, I didn't feel like an all powerful cognizant being. As can be imagined, I felt tiny, insignificant, meaningless. Knowing that this thing existed through countless human lifetimes, through wars, famines, empires, collapses. Yes, we are the creatures that can be aware of the real beauty and meaning of creation, but with this enhanced mental capacity we are also the ones who can destroy it, and have. I am just incredibly grateful that this one beautiful creature is still here, and I hope that it will remain.

Monday, June 29, 2009

gliding down the california coast

After leaving the cities of the Northwest, we headed down highway 101 and eventually highway 1 along the Northern California coast. Back to the natural and rugged world of camping, we switched out of our city gear of nice jeans and collared shirts back into our hiking shoes, ugly t-shirts and greasy hair mode. There's no one to show off for out here in the wild.

We started in redwood forests. These trees are the tallest in the world, the largest being nearly 370 feet tall. Now that's an original skyscraper. We slept on a beach with golden bluffs lining the rugged coast where elk with giant antlers walked among the tents, and took hikes into canyons lined with giant ferns, moist and green and lush.

We moved onto an even more remote landscape in the lost coast. This region of California's coast is so mountainous that they could barely fit a windy, patchy road through it. There are a few small towns spotted along the road (and by small, I mean smaller than your highschool class), one of them being Petrolia, the first place the oil tycoons drilled in California.

At last we got to the famous highway one. We walked through tall golden grass fields and looked out over the rocky cliffs and a bright blue ocean, and I felt like I was in this Monet painting that I spent a lot of time observing at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. This woman stands on the top of a hill in Normany, the wind whips all around her, pulling at her dress and her hat. It is so strong I imagine she is almost resting against it. At that moment, I wonder what she is thinking. Does she recognize the beauty of her surroundings? Or is it part of the quotidian of her life? I imagine she breaks from her routine in her mind for just a moment. Just long enough to see the wonder and ecstacy of life, as the sun bounces from the water and onto her face, warming it. I want to always feel that way.

Monday, June 8, 2009

grateful in the cities of the northwest

We drove into Vancouver on an unusually hot, sticky late May day. The sky was impossibly blue and there were many shirtless men parading their white hairy chests throughout the city. We saw Stanley Park, a gigantic forest of a city park, with its endless stream of rollerbladers in their uniforms of tiny shorts and wisps of a top. I guess rollerblading didn't leave with the 90's on this side of the border.

We met Luigi, our couchsurfing host, who showed us to our private room and separate bathroom, handed us some keys and made it explicit that his home is now ours. (for those of you who need a refresher, couchsurfing is a website that hooks up people who have an extra couch, room, or floor space that they'd like to share with passing travellers. In return, when those travellers return home, they're expected to make their space available.)

Luigi is a man from Rome with a puritanical streak for authentic Italian food, which he insisted on cooking for us fresh every evening. We ate three-course meals: antipasti covered in olive oil and pepper, sliced roast beef, roasted potatoes and grilled artichokes, and he taught us how to correctly eat his perfect pasta (hint: it does not make use of the spoon in any way).

We spent most of our time in the city getting to know its neighborhoods - which were both plentiful and colorful. We visited the home of Vancouver's artists and artisans on Granville Island, gazed at the enormous variation in ethnic eateries on Commercial Drive, and saw the sky reflected in the endless blocks of glass towers downtown.

We moved back to our homeland in our visit to Seattle. There we stayed with Dan, an Information Technology guy, who was as "IT guy" as it gets. After we dropped our stuff, we hopped on a bus to downtown and met with a lively downtown Seattle. We were flabbergasted by the vast marketplace at Pike's, where we sat down for some happy-hour-priced clam chowder washed down with local microbrews. We found the original Starbucks across the street from the market, with tremendously talented singers performing in front of it, including a motown-style quartet who reminded me of home. Then, we curiously stopped into the socialist/anarchist bookstore down the street, where we found some books we just have to get off amazon.

We continued around downtown - finding an art show happening at the Seattle Art Museum, which consisted of hipsters doing dance routines. Argh, my generation's sad excuse for art. We then found another gigantic bookstore, which was having a reading by one of its former workers who has now become a best-selling author. We sat in on her reading, where she talked about picking up one day from Seattle and moving to Bangkok - where her literary career began. I guess travel can be quite useful as a career move? We strolled on the way back to Dan's house, where we found a cafe with jazz pouring out of its open windows. We slinked in for a cup of coffee, where we listened to the man in the fedora as his sounds bounced out into the purple-ing dusky sky.

We got back to Dan's where he and his 15 or so friends were having a barbecue. As can be surmised, the conversation revolved around new operating systems yet to be released, the viability of Amazon's Kindle technology, and video games.

We then moved on to Portland, where we stayed with Devidas, an Indian software engineer who also welcomed us with open arms. As we pulled up, he showed us to our private room and bathroom and met us downstairs where he cooked us fresh, delicious Indian food and we chatted into the night. In Portland, it was overcast and there wasn't much to do, so we spent the vast majority of our time in Powell's, probably the best English-language bookstore I've ever been in. Filling up an entire city block, its vast array of titles and sections is staggering. We spent the day reading and researching our futures and plans, looking into books on gardening and apprenticeships, grad school and immigration.

I was looking to the cities of the Northwest for a future home - as global warming makes it a more viable place to live - but overall, these cities were not any more special or magical to me than any other North American cities. They have little quirks all their own, but none of them really blew me away like the places in Europe did with the beauty and grandeur. What I took from these places is more from the people in them - the incredible generosity of strangers, the willingness to share and to converse, really astounded me and made me incredibly grateful.