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.