Flying the Sinai

Hello Dear Readers!

Finals are over, all my papers are turned in (with the exception of my dissertation, which isn’t due until August), and my time in Edinburgh has come to a close.

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It’s bittersweet, but mostly bitter. I don’t feel like I’ve had enough time here, but time moves forward and there’s nothing I can do but go along.

Enough of the moping, though. I haven’t finished telling you guys about Egypt- which was certainly one of the most interesting experiences of my life. After our classes ended we had an extra two weeks in the country itself for…um…studying…purposes. Obviously I took this to mean it was an excellent time to travel.

Now, Harrison and I haven’t seen much of each other recently as we’ve both been extremely busy. So once I knew I had a week off, I thought “Hey! I’ll make the short jump from Cairo to Tel Aviv and go visit him for a week! How hard can it be?”

Well, the answer is: really hard.

In case you guys aren’t up to date on your world politics, even though Egypt and Israel are at “peace” they still reeeeeally hate each other and make it as difficult as possible to connect between the two countries.

This goes for air travel as well as land crossings, so when I attempted to find a direct flight between Cairo and Tel Aviv, I was met with a big fat zero. Honestly, I tried everything I could, but none of my trusty sites served me and in the end I was forced to conclude that I’d need to fly to Turkey first and connect down to Tel Aviv, with a total journey time of around 16 hours each way to make it some three hundred miles.

And then. In a dark, empty, corner of the internet I found mention of a flight. Of an airline, kinda sketchy and secret, with no website and only a hotmail email address with which to contact them. Legend went that they operated once daily a direct flight form Cairo to Tel Aviv and vice versa.

I emailed them and was met with silence. So I had Harrison call their Tel Aviv office (yay for speaking Hebrew!) and they informed him that the only way I would be able to purchase a ticket was in person, in Cairo, in cash.

So when I got to Cairo I rolled up to Egyptair’s office, the parent airline that had purchased this small, secret airline (Air Sinai), and which sells the tickets for this flight. Of course, since they own the only flight in town the ticket price was exorbitant. And yes, I had to pay in cash. I enlisted the help of my friend Shahnaz and together we crept into the Egyptair flight office clutching a wad of bills the size of a baseball.

When I informed the flight agent I wanted a ticket to Tel Aviv, her eyebrows nearly flew off her head, but she let me purchase it and sent me on my way with a paper ticket. (Did anyone know they still made those?)

The morning of my flight I made my way to the Cairo airport, where the flight board registered one flight to Tel Aviv with no specific airline attached. I made my way to the ticket counter, waaaay in a back corner, and stood in line for an hour waiting to check in as the one harried ticket agent attempted to deal with every single person on the flight.

And the plane.

Well, you know that they hate each other. And you know that the Sinai is generally regarded as a lawless wasteland. And maybe I hadn’t mentioned this yet, but the plane flew directly through the Sinai on its route to Tel Aviv.

So it was that I boarded an unmarked plane parked at the wrong end of the airport and flew through the ungovernable anarchy of the Sinai Desert. Twice.

And I made it!

-Carissa “I’m Only Brave Until I’m Stupid” Rawson

Nicosia- The Last Divided Capital: Part 2

Hello Dear Readers!

Did you enjoy my story about the hammam? I mean, it was certainly an experience. Right?

Anyway, after we finished at the bath, we wandered around the Turkish side of the city, eating in a random bookstore cafe and going to see the whirling dervishes, which sounds really cool but in actuality is a bunch of men twirling in circles for hours at a time.

The Turkish side is so so different from the Greek. I can’t stress that enough.

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Me in a mosque

In the evening Harrison and I went to Pivo Microbrewery, had a few drinks (and he ate a literal rack of ribs), and then wandered down to a bar so he could teach me how to play backgammon.

I’m not going to say he was going easy on me. But I will say that I won a few times. I prefer to think of it as my own cleverness and expertise.

The next day we spent entirely on the Greek side, wandering into an abandoned art district near the wall, which was utterly surreal as it was a sunny Saturday and literally no one was around.

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Artsy

We ended up playing more backgammon, eating Oreo cheesecake (authentic Greek Oreo cheesecake) and having a wonderful time before heading to the airport and flying our separate ways.

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I’m a winner!

Gosh I sure missed Egypt. I swear.

-Carissa “Backgamon Superstar” Rawson

Experiencing a Turkish Hammam

Hello Dear Readers!

As I told you guys yesterday, we crammed as many things as possible into our two day trip to Nicosia, which meant that on Friday we rose bright and early in order to make the most out of our time in Cyprus.

One of the first things we did was head to the Turkish side, which is radically different from the Greek side. To put it simply, the Greek side is European, with all the normal chains, stores, and brands that you’d expect to see strewn across Europe. In contrast, the Turkish side is decidedly foreign, with small shops shoved everywhere and boatloads of Ray-Bons, Guci, and Louise Viton for sale at very good prices.

They also have a famous Turkish Hammam, one of two in the city, which we stumbled upon and decided, “Hey, when in Rome!”

We walked in and it happened to be mixed hour, so we paid up, got our covering cloths, and made our way down to the hammam itself.

So. It’s a bath, right? You shower yourself and get all sudsy and everything. And it’s public, right? Well, they gave Harrison a pair of shorts about the length of regular swim trunks. Me? I got the standard covering cloth, which covered the very top of my bottom and the very bottom of my top. And nothing more.

So in we walk, him all comfortable and confident and me hunched over like a troll to make sure all my bits stay covered. It’s pretty empty, just one other man, and we head to one of the separate areas to start bathing. It’s going pretty well, I’m relaxing and everything, and when we finish we head to the heated marble plinth to await a scrubbing from a formidable Turkish woman.

As we’re laying there more people wander in. Excuse me, more men wander in. It is mixed hour, after all. And one of these men, upon seeing us lying there, gets this huge grin on his face and comes to lie down.

He lowers himself to the marble, his teeny cloth tucked betwixt his legs, and props his head on his hand. He’s utterly at his ease, this jovial Turkish man for whom the hammam is a normal part of life. He’s like a Greek god with a beer belly, and his roving eyes keep flicking between Harrison and I, working as he tries to puzzle out our relationship.

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An accurate approximation of our Turkish friend

Fortunately, a few minutes later the woman comes in for my scrubbing, and she proceeds to scour me until I have absolutely no skin left. She also asks me to flip over to my back without a covering on my front, which I do while acutely aware of my nakedness. Luckily nobody but her was watching, but damn if it wasn’t uncomfortable.

After I was done, Harrison took his turn, and she was much nicer to him, not forcing him to be naked whatsoever, a fact that I will envy forever.

Afterwards we changed back into our clothes and headed out, cleaner, more cultured, and grinning with glee at our luck of stumbling into the hammam.

Also, Harrison took a surprise photo of me walking out of the hammam, which he hates and I use to torture him, because it’s a constant reminder of how seriously dorky I am. Enjoy.

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Heeeey you guuuuuys!

-Carissa “Cultured” Rawson

Nicosia- The Last Divided Capital

Hello Dear Readers!

I’m back in Scotland now, and will be for the next two weeks while I take my final exams. Egypt was a great experience, but I will admit that I almost cried when we landed back in the western world. Home.

So, I’m here for two weeks and then I’m off back to California for another few weeks. After that…a trip to Vietnam! I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to go (hence not having said anything), but things have just gotten finalized so I’ll be spending a couple weeks there before interning in the Middle East over the rest of the summer. I’m really looking forward to it, and have some awesome things planned.

But! Before we get onto that, I have a few other things to tell you guys about.

Mid-April Harrison and I met up in Cyprus, which was great because we hadn’t seen each other since the Maldives in January. (Way too long, in my opinion). We stayed in Nicosia, which bills itself as “the last divided capital,” because the city (and Cyprus itself) is fought over between Turkey and Greece. Thus, the city has a gigantic wall going down the middle of it, and one half is Greek, while the other is Turkish. This makes for some really interesting border control experiences (though neither side will stamp your passport, which is really too bad).

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The “border”

Since we only had a weekend in Cyprus, we crammed in as many things as possible. And that included a visit with Eleana and Cameron, two of my classmates (who weren’t in Egypt), who just happened to be vacationing in Cyprus the days that we were there. So we met up, drank entirely more than was sensible, and had a blast.

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Least blurry photo of the night

Around 2am, Harrison and I ended up in a cab for the hour long ride to our hotel and fell asleep halfway through. Luckily, we made it, and I said a quick prayer for my wallet as I remembered how much things cost outside of Egypt.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you guys about our first day in Cyprus, which was super long and included a trip to a Turkish hammam, whirling dervishes, dinner at a microbrewery, and backgammon over shisha.

See you guys soon!

-Carissa “I Can’t Help It I Love Travel” Rawson

The Pyramids: Part Two

Hello Dear Readers!

So I’ve just finished talking to you guys about my visit inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. It was certainly an experience, I’ll tell you that much. However! There’s more to the area than simply going inside, as there are multiple pyramids and (obviously) the sphinx to look at. The rest of our journey around the Pyramids was a lot better, and we got some awesome photos, except for one tiny detail.

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You see, there are a lot of hawkers around the Pyramids. You know, people who will “give you camel ride, best price, for you my friend the Egyptian price!”

They’re everywhere. And they’re vicious. The best thing for you to do is keep your head down, shake your head firmly no, and pretend like you can’t understand their English.

The worst thing to do is engage.

And the worst worst thing?

Let me tell you. Here we all are, meandering our way around the base of the pyramid (immediately after our hike inside), covered in sweat and still trying to make sense of what had just occurred. We’ve been solicited a dozen times already, but as long as you cling together in a large enough pack, they can’t really come at you.

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Safety in numbers

We’re like a herd of antelope, and they’re the lions, looking for the weakest link.

So here’s the thing. We’re here to better our Arabic, we really are. And to that end, we often go out, practice our language, and try to speak with people. And we have this friend, his name is Evan, whose Arabic is amazing. He loves meeting new people and improving his language.

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Except Evan is a little too enthusiastic sometimes. So we’re walking and chatting and all of a sudden we notice Evan has gone missing. After a moment’s search we spot him, taking selfies with a bunch of Egyptians and chatting with them in Arabic. He’s basically famous, this random white guy speaking like a local.

And we can sense it. There’s blood in the water.

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The rest of us huddle even more tightly together and begin hissing at Evan “come here! Come back!”

It’s too late.

Evan says his goodbyes to these guys and begins to walk away, at which point one of the hawkers shouts to the entire world“Hey! This foreigner can speak Arabic!”

And the hordes descend, a million men on camels and donkeys and horses all crowding forward, shouting at Evan (in Arabic) “You want a ride? You speak Arabic? Where did you learn it? We’ll give you the Egyptian price!”

And hapless Evan, finally sensing the danger, tries to scurry back into our herd and lose himself amongst us. And instead we’re targeted, all of us, harassed repeatedly while Evan pulls his hat down over his forehead and tries to look innocent.

One man followed us for half an hour with his horse and cart, even stopping when we stopped, to the point that he got out of his cart and followed us when we tried a diversionary tactic to lose him. He only left when we managed the entire walk without him and he realized there was nowhere left for him to drive.

But, y’know, the sphinx was pretty cool.

-Carissa “The Antelope” Rawson

The Pyramids: Part One

Dear Friends,

Oh my dear dear friends.

A few weeks ago we went to the pyramids. I mean, living in Cairo that’s obviously something you need to check off the list, right? My friend Carlos had been before, and from his grim expression whenever he spoke of the pyramids, I was a little bit apprehensive.

My dear friends. You have no idea.

It took us roughly twice as long as usual to actually get to the pyramids, because the president of Portugal happened to be visiting and they shut down the roads entirely. Four of us were in a cab, sweating as our driver chain smoked and the meter ran in the parking lot of cars. It was an auspicious start, I’ll tell you that much.

But we made it there safely, bought our tickets, and, with bated breath, wended our way up to the Great Pyramid of Giza.

It’s breathtaking, it really is. The sheer size of it is mind-boggling, and when you walk up, the ancient stones above you looming large, you can’t help but be filled with awe.

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We had bought tickets to go inside to have a look around the Great Gallery. “Be careful,” they warned us, “it’s a bit of a climb.”

And yes, yes it was.

Let me lay the scene for you here.

It’s Cairo, mid-April, and a group of eight of us have just purchased our tickets to go inside. We make our way up the ancient stones, where a roughly hewn opening has been cut into the wall.

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Just inside, it’s cooler, as the rock shades the sun and a nice cross breeze drifts into the mouth of the pyramid.

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“This is lovely,” you think, snapping a photo before making your way deeper into the pyramid.

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So excited!

Inside, an angry young Arab man is yelling at a line of tourists, insisting that the narrow path above is a two-way walkway. You look up, eyeing it, and wonder how small people must have been when they built it. It’s not simply narrow, no. It’s barely more than a tunnel, and people are bent over in half, crab walking up a steep incline as they attempt to avoid elbowing each other.

“Here goes nothing,” you mutter, lining up with your friends as you begin to climb. You soon realize you are becoming very well acquainted with your friend’s behind, as the angle of the hike has forced your head to become roughly level with his ass. You feel a moment of pity for the girl behind you, whom you’ve only just met and who is currently suffering the intense view of your sweaty Thailand pants.

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It’s getting hotter now, and humid, as the sweat of hundreds of people begins to condense on the walls of the pyramid. The air is rank with body odor, and you simply pray that your deodorant lasts the length of the climb. Harsh fluorescent lights from the eighties cast unforgiving glows on the people you pass, who prove, indeed, that it is a two way path. Several times you encounter men simply lying on the floor, for whom the walkway is too narrow for them to fit. They are waiting for the flow of people to ebb, so they can stagger down in relative peace. Little do they know that the stream of tourists is only intensifying, and you wonder how long they have before their sweating gives them dehydration.

On and on and on you climb, it’s a millennia of hiking, you with your back bowed and your contacts blurring and your breath coming in short, stuttered pants, punctuated with coughing as you inhale more of the fetid air.

Finally. Finally. You come to it.

The Great Gallery.

Tomb of Kings.

Ancient wonder of the world.

Home of history.

It is roughly the size of your bedroom back home, and empty save for a small stone coffin, devoid of markings, which sits in the back corner.

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Behold the glory.

You’re bent over, hands on your knees, attempting to regain your breath as you look around. “Is there more?” You ask aloud, and from the grimaces on the faces of the people around you, you know there isn’t.

Still, at least I’ve had the experience.

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So. Much. Regret.

-Carissa “You Can’t Pay Me To Go Back In There” Rawson

Ancient Alexandria

Hello Dear Readers!

My very first weekend in Cairo the university had set up an organized tour all the way up to Alexandria. I appreciated this for a multitude of reasons, not the least because transportation in Egypt is a nightmare.

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We started with lunch on the Nile

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It was a pretty good weekend overall, though definitely guided as we were shuffled from place to place:

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The catacombs, in which we explored ancient tombs covered with Roman-influenced hieroglyphics:

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Pompey’s Pillar, which is the largest freestanding pillar in the world:

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We also visited the new library of Alexandria, which was built in homage to the ancient library that was burned way back when:

 

 

The Citadel:

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Montazah’s Gardens:

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And last but not least, Starbucks, because I may be international but I’m still basic at heart. Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of it, but I’m sure you guys get the picture.

 

The tour was great, entirely in Arabic, and the food was good. Best part? It was free! The transportation, guide, food, entry tickets, and hotel were all given to us for the low cost of nothing. I call that a win.

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-Carissa “Um Excuse Me Where is the Starbucks” Rawson