syria in my rearview mirror

We spent my last full day in Syria at Crac Des Chevaliers, the largest of the Crusader castles. Seen Braveheart? This is where he was hanging out. In fact, Braveheart's signature is carved into the stones above one of the fort's gates. Even better: Remember the knights of the round table? That was Braveheart's idea. Guess what? It's still there. I felt like I was walking through a story book.

From there we drove down the road a ways to the St. George monastery, where three churches have been built one top of the other over centuries. And the place was chock-full with faithful teenagers praying, then strolling down into the village's one cafe to gossip and flirt over juices in the shadows of the flags of the World Cup participating countries. Not to mention that the cafe is named Manzo and the insignia is an M, as in the golden arches. Globalization strikes again.

I got through the sixth book of this trip yesterday. I'm starting to run low again. Fred, I take it back, bring some books to Greece.

So far I've gotten trough:

1. Falling off the Map, Pico Iyer
2. The Quiet American, Graham Greene
3. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
4. The Alchemist, Paulo Coehlo
5. Mayada -- Daughte of Iraq, Jean Sasson
6. The Writing Life, Annie Dillard

Now I'm working on An American Childhood, also by Dillard. It's a three-in-one. The one book she won the Pulitzer for (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) I just couldn't bear. Thankfully, I picked up Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat in Dubai. That's my kind of beach reading.

Tomorrow afternoon I drive down to Beirut with a friend of Avo's for the sixth country on my seven-stop tour. I don't have a Lebanese visa, so we'll see how much of a hassle they decide to give me. Don't worry: I've got my poker face on.


castles and graves

All is well here in Syria. The travels continue and leave us exhausted nearly every night. I've even started to take naps. I think the 6 weeks of traveling are finally catching up to my body. Muscles are aching and my eyes are drooping every day. Still, I must persevere.

In the midst of my fun, I got some bad news a few days ago. My aunt Ani in Beirut has spent the last few years caring for her husband Antranig, who's been suffering from Alzheimer's. After some very tough times, he finally succumbed and died a few days ago. The funeral was Sunday in Beirut. I'm headed down there Thursday. It'll be a bittersweet reunion, but nice at the same time. My cousin and his wife came from Italy for the funeral and so I'll get a chance to see them before they head back.

Of course, it's put a damper in my mood. But this is life and in the end my uncle was finally freed of the disease that's tortured him and his family for years.

With that on my mind, we've still seen plenty in the last few days.

On May 28, we went to a restaurant in the mountains above Latakia to celebrate Armenia's original independence day (1918.) Lunch, patriotic songs and even some dancing lifted my mood. Yesterday we went up the same route to Qalaat Saladin, a Crusader fortress turned Muslim fortress under the Sultan Saladin, who conquered much of the Middle East during his time (12th century.) The site is virtually untouched and there were few visitors when we arrived in the afternoon. You see that Syria has a long way to go to lure more tourists, which is a shame because there's so much to see.

Tomorrow we go to Homs and Crac Des Chevaliers, another Crusader castle. At one time, all these forts were linked from Europe down to Jerusalem. They were spaced apart in such a way that they could send light signals and messages to one another. And the architecture just blows your mind. To think they built these massive stone structures without the aid of modern machinery or tools really gives you some pause.

Afterward we drove down to Qirdaha, former president Hafez Assad's hometown. At the center of town is a massive white mausoleum, built of course in the Islamic style. The large empty hall houses two coffins draped in green velvet. At the center is Hafez Assad. In one corner is his son, who died a few years before he could take over the presidency from his father. We were the only visitors and they allowed me to take pictures. I was waiting for some propaganda, but we got none, a pleasant surprise. As we walked outside, we were offered Arabic coffee from a black-clad young man sporting a tie with a white image of the dead son imprinted on it. What a trip.

Now I'm hanging out with Areen who's enthralled with Bugs Bunny cartoons. It's almost as good as visiting Crusader castles and dead dictators' graves.


100 miles to Iraq

Don't worry, I escaped unscathed.

Yesterday's road trip started at 5 in the morning, when Avo and I left Lattakia and headed toward the ancient city of Palmyra, about a four hour's drive away. Avo must've seen the longing in my eyes, because he let me drive the last hour to Palmyra. It felt good to be behind the wheel again.

On the road, signs for Iraq kept coming up and soon we realized we were a little more than an hour's drive from the border. Don't worry, we didn't get any closer than the last 100 miles. It's only another 100 miles or so to Baghdad. Tempting... Just kidding, Mom!

Palmyra was awesome. The ruins are incredibly well preserved. Almost an entire long boulevard of columns has been preserved. You can almost imagine the people walking down the street, stopping in the shops or the public toilets (yes, the small stone toilets remain.) It was pretty cool.

From there, we drove another couple hours toward Damascus to an ancient Christian village where they still speak Aramaic (allegedly the language of Jesus Christ.) There we saw a church that may be 2,000 years old. Some of the wood in the church has been tested and was found to be about that old.

It seemed to be an international city littered with flags from Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Germany. Oh yes, the World Cup! While there are many European flags strewn about, Syrian seem to prefer Brazil and Argentina the most. What a surprise.

Our last pit stop was a little further down the road at a convent in Saanadiyeh. They claim the oils made here can cure all your ails and have letters inside their little chapel testifying to this particular cure or that. Allegedly, a portrait of the Virgin Mary inside the chapel weeps tears of oil. Avo made me kneel in front of it and pray to see if it was actually true. I'm sorry to report I saw no tears. Maybe I didn't pray hard enough. Either way, I'm bringing home a cotton swab of oil. If anybody has ailments they'd like cured, just let me know and I'll be happy to stop by when I get home.

Today was little Arine's 4th birthday. We celebrated with some cake (pink and white decor, of course) and many presents. She's so cute and is starting to talk like an American. The "OKs" and "yeahs" are particularly funny.

Today is also supposed to be the birth of Mimi's first child. I hope her first daughter (she won't give up the name until she's born) has arrived healthy and happy.

Tonight we're off to smoke some nergeeleh and tomorrow is May 28, Armenia's original independence day. We'll be celebrating at a restaurant in the mountains.


ahlan wa sahlan

Arabic, translation: Welcome

I got to Lattakia last night after a four-hour bus ride from Damascus. I arrived in Damascus on Tuesday afternoon and spent a night with Nelly Yacoubian, a friend of the family. She showed me around the old, narrow streets of Old Damascus. It's a little like Venice, with narrow alleyways leading into beautiful courtyards and old houses that have been converted into restaurants.

On Wednesday we visited the Hamadeeyeh, an old covered market. I limited my shopping to a pair of leather sandals and splurged on a turquoise necklace. I figured the expenses here are going to be minimal and frankly I deserved a nice necklace...right? Too bad the Armenian jewelery I bought the necklace from would NOT shut up. He was pushing 50 and looking for bride. He kept pestering Mrs. Yacoubian about her daughters. She told him they'd all gone to America and he was out of luck. Ugh. Shadaghos. (translation = too talkative)

The bus ride to Lattakia was very comfortable. Avo picked me up from the bus stop and we stopped off at home before heading out to dinner, then for some nergeelah along the coast.

For the Agopians: Areen has grown up into a very cute little girl. Saturday is her fourth birthday. She's talking slowly, but is quickly learning English. She keeps bringing me books and demanding: "Read this Leeza!" I'm trying to get her to say my full name, but it'll take time. It didn't take long for her to open up. She's jumping into my arms and gives me hamov bachigs. (Big kisses) She's so much fun to play with.

Tomorrow, my cousin Avo and I are going to Palmyra. If there's time we'll also visit Crac Des Chevaliers. I'll report back after that journey.


so long dubai

Actually, so long Sharjah. But I'm sure I'll be back again. I fly to Damascus tomorrow afternoon and will be in Syria and Lebanon until June 5, when I meet Dr. Freddy (God help us, he's a doctor now) in Athens for 10 fabulous days in Greece.

Sharjah has been very restful. Definitely what I needed after the go-go-go of our trek across Egypt and Jordan. Here I've been sleeping late, pigging out and doing very little walking. The pants are starting to feel a bit tight already. I'm hoping the next two countries will be a little lighter and more active. Although, the thought of hummus, moutabel and kebabs is already making me drool. Mmmm.

Other than the brutal heat (it climbed to 43 celsius yesterday, roughly 109 fahrenheit), it's pretty much an Arab version of home. I've had my fill of Starbucks, KFC and even some Chili's yesterday because Lorig had a craving for one of their steaks. Mine was good, hers apparently left something to be desired. (Courtney: tell Val I thought of her at Chili's.) We even saw a movie the other night. In case you're wondering, the new Mission Impossible is definitely a popcorn movie. I'd recommend it. Phillip Seymour Hoffman -- no surprise here -- totally rocked as the bad guy.

Tonight I'm going out with Taline and Lorig and tomorrow afternoon I head to the airport for my ninth flight in six weeks.

More from Syria. (Just for Cindy: Oooohhhh Syria!)


it snows in Dubai

Well, it snows in the Mall of the Emirates, anyway.

That's right, we visited Ski Dubai today. It was just as ridiculous and awesome as it sounds. Fresh powder, clean crisp air, and even a steady -2 degrees (celsius) temperature to boot. I'm glad they provided us with the snow boots, pants and a jacket because we needed it. I thought my toes were going to fall off by the time we were ready to leave.

As you all well know (if you know me at all), I can't ski because I'm afraid of the chair lifts. (To my credit, this isn't a new irrational fears, this is one of the golden oldies of the Crazy Things Eleeza is Afraid Of.) I did, however, slide down an icy bobsled course in the snow park and pelted my cousins with hefty snowballs. It was a ton of fun. Made all the better when you see the Arab men wearing their Arafat-style hats and white robes with snow boots and down parkas. I got pictures. I'll upload them the next time I burn my memory chip to a CD.

This is one crazy place, I tell you.

After the snow, we went to Dragon Mart, a massive bazaar of every kind of good you can imagine from China. Shops with names like Sizhuan Trading Company are stocked with those red-checkered scarves and women's robes and are sold by Chinese at heavily discounted prices alongside knockoff Hello Kitty knicknacks and gaudy portaits of sheiks.

Crazy doesn't do this place justice. It's like being on another planet.


back home

No no no, I'm not going back to Irvine. It's just that being here feels just like being at home. The malls, the crazy family, all of it. All of it, that is, except for the humid, 97 degree weather. I walk outside and my glasses fog up and I feel like my skin has been coated in vegetable oil.

Just like home...if home was Texas in the dead of August. Yuck.

Still, I've finally recovered from the exhaustion of Egypt and Jordan. Although my skin may not be showing it.

Yesterday we went to Dreamland in Umm Al Qewwen, two Emirates to the north of Sharjah. The water felt cool at first and immediately after dousing myselfl it felt like a lukewarm jacuzzi. Mmmm, refreshing. Still, it was fun and the place was empty. It was nice to have it all to ourselves.

This morning I woke up early to go to Dubai Media City, a massive news, advertising and media complex. CNN, CNBC, newspapers, freelancers all have offices there on the marina in Dubai, near The Palm island development. We took a peek inside the plush Dubai Press Club. As much as the Orange County Press Club holds a dear place in my heart (Hi McDonald!), I'm now dreaming of kicking back in the Press Club's plush library with my laptop and a cappuccino.

Tomorrow we're going to the Emirates Mall to check out the indoor ski slope. Maybe I should buy a fashionable overcoat to hang out on in the snow with my spiced cider. Then when I step outside, I can use it to put out the flames that will surely break out all over my body.

As Sarig just told me on her way to watch cartoons: "We'll be right back!"


more pictures

Got the latest pictures burned to a CD yesterday so I can bring them to you here. Nothing else new to report. Just more lounging and doing battle with the kids.

Enjoy the pix!

Karnak temple.

Courtney brought her famous avocadoes to Luxor so that she could have a falafel sandwich, Cali-Mex style.

Our last sunset over the Nile.

Courtney found a piece of home in Sharm El Sheikh.

Home base in Sharm: Shark's Bay Bedouin Camp. It was just as heavenly as it looked.

These are the fish I didn't see while snorkeling. Instead, I saw them from the top deck of the boat. Far away from their nibbling teeth.

The descendant of the burning bush at St. Catherine's Monastery. It told us never to take a bus to St. Catherine's again.

Very sad to leave Sharm and our dinners on the beach.

Our first peek at Petra's treasury.

About half an hour into our 40-minute climb to the Monastery, the coolest spot in all of Petra.

See? Isn't that awesome? The monastery.

Our leaders in Jordan: King Hussein and King Abdullah.

Sunset over the Dead Sea. The land in the background is the West Bank.

This how close we actually got to Israel. Just below that bank, the West Bank of the river, is the Jordan River.

Jesus' baptism site.

My adorable cousin Sarig, who's now 2. She stole this chair from Lorig's house and insisted on sitting in it in the car.

I'll take more pictures of the kids soon and get them burned later. That's all for now. Hope you've enjoyed them!


vocabulary lesson

Still not much to report. More relaxing, playing with the kids.

For the Agopians, I'll give the Sarig report. She's started talking quite a bit and is so cute and "lopig" I can hardly stand it. Her vocabulary is great, too.

In Sarig's world, here are a few key vocabulary words:

chocolat = tokola
shoonig = doonig
verchatsav = tertatsav
tapetsav = papetsav
dzsedzs = general term for a slap and reserved for use when she's upset with you
doobie doo = scooby doo, which we watch every morning.

Now for a few more pictures of the Egyptian escapade:

At dinner at Cairo's Studio Misr on a boat harbored in the Nile with Thomas Zakarian, Zepur's friend who helped us navigate Cairo.

Courtney and I smoke sheesha at Fishawy, in Khan El Khalili, Cairo's massive bazaar. Fishawy is a cafe that's been owned and run in the same spot by the same family since the 1770s.

The outfit I donned to enter the Mohammed Ali mosque in Cairo.

My last night on the Nile.

More pictures to come. I have to get them burned to a CD tonight or tomorrow. Then you'll see just how cute my little terrorist cousins are. (The boys anyway, the girls are angels. Of course.)


snapfish sucks

I've been trying to upload photos for two days and Snapfish refuses to comply. Damn newfangled technology. I'll try another Web site tomorrow. Until then, I'll try just posting a few directly here.

Brief recap of today: Woke late, went to Armenian church for memorial service for victims of last week's Armavia crash over the Black Sea, lunch at Lorig's (fish--yum), went swimming in the Persian Gulf (felt like a jacuzzi in an oven, but still great) and came back for dinner and lounging at home.

Let's give these pix a whirl:

Me on safari in Uhluluwe National Game Reserve.

Zaheera, Freeha, Z's Aunt Fowzia who graciously hosted all three of us in Durban. At the rehearsal dinner.

Henna on my hand.

Gringos at the wedding.

Mr. and Mrs. Nista and the boys.

Me and Z.

Me and a new friend in Kliptown, South Africa.

Freeha and I walk like Egyptians.

Enough for one night. It takes a while to upload these one by one. I'll share more tomorrow, mmkay?


you know you're in the Middle East when...

You try to open a My Space friend request in your e-mail and you get the following message:

We apologize the site you are attempting to visit has been blocked due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates.

If you think this site should not be blocked, please visit the Feedback Form available on our website.

Oh yeah, I'm in Dubai.

Actually, Sharjah to be exact. I'm staying with my cousin Taline and her family. My most taxing activity every day is playing with the three kids (five when Lorig, Taline's sister,and her two daughters are over.) I love the "tashghallah" (chaos) of this family.

Got in yesterday afternoon where I was greeted by the balm 34 degree heat. It felt like I'd walked into a soggy blowdryer. Took a shower almost immediately and then forced myself to stay awake. (Didn't sleep much our last night in Amman after Courtney left at 1:30 a.m. Went off to an Irish bar, seems no country is complete without one.)

After a solid 11 hours of sleep, Taline and I headed to the market to buy some hair dye. She disapproves of the gray in my hair. Of course, she's no hairdresser...the edges of my face are dyed a nice shade of dark brown. Hopefully it'll wash away by tomorrow, but scrubbing is not working. After that, she insisted on getting me to singe away my arm hairs. I successfully resisted, but now she's hellbent on shaping my eyebrows. I think her and Lorig have designs on finding me a husband here. I thought they were joking when they told me about a 40-year-old who's looking for a housewife, now I'm not so sure. SOS!

That's about all for now. Nothing on the itinerary except relaxing, eating and maybe shopping (this is Dubai after all.) Oh and we're going to check outthe new indoor ski slope. That'll be a riot.

As you can see, I won't be having much to report over the next two weeks, so the blog entries might be coming slower. But fear not: I'm fine. If you're dying to hear from me, shoot me an e-mail. Slowly uploading photos to Snapfish. Will send out the link when I can get them organized.


adios perquez

I'm typing my last entry from Jordan. This time tomorrow I'll be sitting comfortably in my cousin's house in Sharjah (Dubai) and Courtney will be on her way back home. Hopefully, I'll have some clean clothes by then, too. My suitcase isn't emitting the prettiest odors right now.

Our last night in Wadi Musa was grand. Riad, our kindly hotel friend, kept us up late to smoke sheesha with tobacco from Bahrain. He's very sweet and 21, so we didn't mess with him too much. But he did arrange for us the nicest taxi driver we've had this whole trip. And as if that wasn't enough, he's 1/4 Armenian!

Moteb's grandfather married an Armenian woman who he saw in Turkey. The woman, Mary, was already married, but that didn't stop grandpa, who killed the husband and married Mary to make many half-Armenian babies. Apparently Moteb's father speaks Armenian. Unfortunately we didn't figure this out until we were an hour outside Wadi Musa, otherwise we would've been sitting down for some coffee and conversation. It made him so happy that I was Armenian that I think that combined with the general company of two pretty California girls, as we've come to be known in both these countries, that he nearly refused to take our money when we arrived at the Dead Sea three hours later. We forced him to take what was only a third of the price he normally charges for that drive. We definitely enjoying dealing with the Jordanians more than the Egyptian drivers who would flat out lie to us half the time. So frustrating.

As for the Jordan Valley Marriott....ahhhh...I'm still dreaming about that phenomenal bed, white sheets, down comforter. It was amazing. We felt poor and dirty just walking into the lobby. Even more so when we saw what were likely Saudi princes trailed by their security detail. *That's* how nice this place is. According to the guide book, it may be the best hotel in all of Jordan. It was worth every penny for our one night of luxury. We definitely appreciated it even more after some of the mosquito-ridden locales we'd seen in the last two weeks.

Our first activity was to cake ourselves in some Dead Sea mud (I'm talking head-to-toe smearing), drying in the sand, then into the Dead Sea to rinse off. The floating was unlike anything I've ever experienced. It was so funny to try and put your feet down and just watch them pop up immediately. We couldn't stop giggling. It's the lowest point on earth, about 400 meters below sea level, making the weather very hot and muggy.

This morning we wedged in some pool time before some more pampering. Courtney had a hot stone massage, which she described as the best massage she's ever had. I had a full-body salt-scrub. My skin is now cleansed of all the grime I'd accumulated on this trip.

We checked out and headed to Jesus' baptism site on the River Jordan. You walk through an incredible jungle-like thicket to the pools they excavated less than dozen years ago. It felt like we were walking through the Bible. We walked all the way down to the river, which is heavily guarded by Jordanian soldiers. Less than 20 feet away -- literally a stone's throw -- is Israel, the West Bank. You can see the Israeli and Palestinian Authority flags from just across the river bank, over the barbed wire. It's the closest I'll get to Israel for several years I'm sure. (not going until I get a new passport, sans the Syrian and Lebanese visas.)

Finally we arrived in Amman around 6 this evening and checked into the Farah Hotel, which is fine for 9 dinars a night, but definitely a letdown after the palatial comforts of the Marriott. Oh that bed...I'm still dreaming about it.

We've spent the evening walking around downtown Amman, which reminds me of Aleppo. Lots of little shops and markets. The fruit and vegetable stands are remarkable. The produce is all so ripe and the colors so vivid. We stopped off for a dinner of falafel, shawerma and foul from street kiosks. All together we spent less than $3 for our complete dinner. It's the only cheap meal we've had in Jordan. Everything else has been pretty pricey. We also had a canteloupe milkshake for dessert. Fabulous.

Though I haven't seen any Armenians yet, there's a Hagop Berberian jewelry shop just down the block from our hotel. It was closed, otherwise we would've gone in to say hello.

It's nearly 10 p.m. Courtney leaves for the airport at 2 a.m. She's already gone off to pack. I need to do the same before catching my 8 a.m. bus to the airport tomorrow morning.

The next post will come from Dubai!


worth the hassle

First and foremost, no excuses people, you *HAVE* to go to Petra. It's absolutely amazing. You actually walk the streets of the ancient Nabatean Kingdom's capital. Phenomenal. Incredible. Mind-blowing. I can't think of enough hyperbole to describe the place. It blew me away more than Giza.

Now that that's out of the way, I'll give only a short recap of yesterday's pains, so as not to dour my happiness with all we accomplished today.

First was the suffocating four-hour bus ride to Nuweiba, then the three-hours-turned 5-hour ferry across the Red Sea to Aqaba. We found out when we arrived that the 1-hour speedboat we were expecting to take at 2:30 was not scheduled for that day because of some obscure holiday. The ferry would've been fine had their been a serviceable toilet. Instead, my best option was a very stinky men's toilet. I don't understand why it's so hard to keep toilets clean in foreign countries, but apparently it's damn near impossible.

Then we had to pass through customs in Jordan, haggle over exchanging money then finally haggle with a taxi driver for the $40, two-hour ride to Wadi Musa, the city that borders Petra. That's a whole other story, but suffice to say that we left the port at 9 p.m., but didn't leave the city until 10 p.m. after getting gas, changing drivers, having the 2nd driver also stop for gas, then to pick up his wife for what we could only interpret as their date night. They chattered away while Courtney and I desperately tried to sleep on the drive up.

We arrived in Wadi Musa with no hotel reservation and got lucky at the first place we stopped. For about $21 a night, we have a massive room, private bathroom and drop-off and pick-up at the Petra Gate at the Al-Anbat Hotel. Oh yeah, we scored.

Petra though...Wow. You have to see it to believe it. We probably walked around 8 miles up and down mountain trails, marveling at the architecture that's lasted 2,000 years or more. If you're wondering what all this looks like, just go to Blockbuster (or Netflix) and rent "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Remember that last building he walks into? That's the Treasury of Petra. They filmed the movie there.

But now we're absolutely wiped out. Time for dinner and an early bedtime. Our buddy in the hotel has arranged for a friend to drive us the three hours to the Dead Sea tomorrow morning for a seriously cheap price. We're very happy to have Riad as a friend.

Jordan Valley Marriott (aka Lap of Luxury): Here we come!


courtney's bad idea

It's OK. She gave me special dispensation to use said title. It really was a bad idea, but it wasn't the worst possible day. Considering the fact that we've had very little troubles traveling around Egypt, things could've been much much worse today. Still...it was not the best of days.

We started off at 7 a.m. from Shark's Bay, where we had to wake one of the taxi drivers sleeping under blankets on the sandy expanse outside our Bedouin camp. (Not really a camp. I'd give it a solid 3 stars.) We barely had energy to haggle over the price, but finally agreed and he delivered us to the Sharm bus station, where we caught the 7:30 bus to St. Catherine's Monastery.

The alleged three-hour bus ride turned into four with a stop in Dahab (woohoo--nobody bombed us!) and several stops in between for passport checks. Us being the naive Americans we are, left our passports behind not realizing our bus would be boarded roughly every 100 meters for a passport check. After several assertions of "American!" and a few attitude adjustments we both happily delivered to the grumpy soldiers, we finally arrived at St. Catherine's at 11:30.

But wait, there's still a healthy hike to the monastery's gates, where we arrive at 11:50 a.m. to discover that the monastery closes for the day at noon. After some sweet talking we finally get inside for about half an hour. The chapel is beautiful and just behind it is the "descendant" of the burning bush.

Oh, I forgot to mention that in the midst of all this, we'd found out there wasn't a 3 p.m. bus back to Sharm as we'd been told. In fact, the last bus back to Sharm left at 1 p.m. that day, giving us just one hour to peek in at the monastery and catch a glimpse of Mt. Sinai.

So...monastery closed and we scramble as far as we can up the camel's path to Mt. Sinai only to realize that it's behind another mountain blocking our view and that we have only 10 minutes to hike back down to the main road and catch our bus back. So... we didn't see Mt. Sinai but we did see the mountain in front of it. Ugh.

Finally we get back down to the road right at 1 p.m. and see our bus lumbering up to the stop, slow down, I step out to wave to the driver (same one as the morning), he goes over a speed bump and takes off. Dumbfounded, we're standing there as another man at the stop tells us that bus went to Cairo and not Sharm and there are no more buses to Sharm. After several more miscommunications and frustrating attempts, we started walking into town in the hopes of overpaying for a taxi back. Instead, a minibus with two Israeli tourists and a Korean couple stopped for us and gave us a ride into Nuweiba for 25 pounds and from there we arrived just in time for the last bus back to Sharm.

The upshot is we had an unexpected tour of the Sinai desert. It looks like a desert. With some pretty cool canyons in between.

12 hours later and we walked into our hotel. I've never been so happy to see a hotel in my life. I thought we'd be camping on Mt. Sinai for the night and losing a day in Jordan. Courtney thinks this day should be enough to reinstate my faith. I'd be more willing to consider it if the burning bush had actually talked to me.

So now we're back and sadly about to go eat our last meal on the beach (hoping for more of this in Greece!). Tomorrow morning we get back on the bus (boo) to Nuweiba at 9 a.m. and catch the 2:30 p.m. ferry to Aqaba, Jordan and from there will hopefully find a bus that doesn't desert us and instead takes us to Petra, where we'll crash for the night. We're planning a full day in Petra, a second night there and the much-anticipated Jordan Valley Marriott at the Dead Sea as the cherry on top.

It can't come soon enough.


visual landmines

Courtney coined this very useful phrase for us during our 4-hours-turned-6-hour adventure abord the Happy Man 2 as we sailed around the Red Sea, stopping only to snorkel. (more on my latest phobia in a bit.) The landmines included: Italians' hairy armpits, Russians' insistence on wearing Speedoes (blech), and (I hate to say it) but sizable women who wore bathing suits a few sizes too small.

We were the only Americans on the boat and, in fact, may have been the only Americans ever to have *been* on that boat. One of the crew members told us he'd never seen Americans in Shark's Bay before. I guess Courtney and I are breaking some barriers for American tourists.

The waters were warm and Courtney tells me there were many fish. I'm afraid I can't report the same myself. As soon as I hit the water with that suffocating mask and mouthpiece I thought I was going to drown. Off it came and instead I enjoyed a leisurely swim around the coral reefs and hiked across the stony stretch of Tiran Island. The island is a vast expanse of nothingness, not even vegetation. We were told it is in U.N. control after Egypt and Israel battled over it. Though why anyone would fight for such a sparse natural resource is beyond me. Then again, most conflicts in the Mideast don't make much sense, do they?

We've only just returned and are dying for our first real meal of the day, so I'll keep this short. Though I should say, we had a great meal last night at Hotel Ghazala in Na'ama Bay, which looks something like Las Vegas but littered with Russian and Eurotrash tourists. Yuck. Thankfully dinner at Tam Tam was delicious. Mouttabel, fattouche and the grilled sea bass were all fantastic. Can you tell I'm starving?

On a historical note, one of the Ghazala complexes was bombed a few years ago. We saw the beginnings of the reconstruction. Don't worry, we've yet to see any sort of terrorist activity. But in two days we will be driving through Dahab on our way to the ferry. Keep your fingers crossed for us.


be careful what you wish for

Cooler weather we wanted and cooler weather we got. Our 8:30 alarm this morning can be way of a thunderous clash..literally. A giant roll of thunder quickly punctuated by the falling of rain. Yeah, that's how we started our "resort" stay. As Courtney and I grumbled what was likely the work of Tutankhamun's curse. We just *had* to see his tomb.

Luckily for us, the rain cleared and the clouds parted by noon for a wonderful and sunny afternoon at the beach. I left my sun chair twice: Once for a cappuccino and the second time for a calamari sandwich. Oh and a third to take a dip in the Red Sea -- very warm! Tomorrow, Courtney is determined to get me to snorkel. I promised I'd try, but I won't guarantee more than 5 minutes with one of those wretched masks on. On this trip, I'm discovering I have a lot more irrational fears than I once thought. And still, I'm more worried about those fish keeping their fins to themselves than I am about suicide bombers in Sharm El-Sheikh. Call me crazy, I guess.

We arrived last night after a 25-minute flight aboard Egypt Air. Our luggage even had the courtesy to show up with us. The $90 ticket was worth it when you consider the alternative was an 8-hour bus-ride/ferry crossing to the Sinai. I'm already dreading the 3-hour bus to the ferry terminal for our ride over to Jordan.

Our hotel in Shark's Bay (they claim all the sharks have been scared off by the divers -- I'm holding out for the sake of skepticism) is great. Small cabins dot the sandy expanse of the resort, which is peppered with bedouin-style tents that serve lunch, coffee, tea and, of course, the obligatory hookah (nergeeleh, sheesha, etc.) It's literally just steps from our door to the beach. We have an extra unplanned day in our itinerary. Needless to say, we're pretty sure we'll be spending it here, if not at St. Catherine's Monastery for the hike up Mt. Sinai. More on that tomorrow, when our brains will likely be more willing to compute times and dates.

Tonight, Courtney and I will belatedly celebrate my birthday in Na'ama Bay, the main resort strip in Sharm. We're planning an Egyptian dinner and some hookah time. Yes, our little Courtney is even smoking hookah. Don't worry Reg kids, I'm taking pictures at every turn.

Also, we appear to be the only Americans who ever stepped foot here. Everyone is surprised to hear our accents as the beach is littered with Spanish, Italian and German tourists who insist on wearing those god-awful Speedos. When will the Euros learn?

I'm not sure if it's working in our favor, but the American accent also seems to coax a "You're very beautiful" from nearly every dive guide and boat operator in the place. One was particularly taken with Courtney and tried to convince us to take a night-time ATV ride through the desert with him. She politely refused. It seems I need to be chaperoning her on this trip. Don't worry fellas (and parents), I'm refusing the Egyptian proposals that seem to come on a daily basis, too.

Also: Can't seem to get more pix up on Snapfish. I'll send what I have now which is just my first night in Durban and some of my safari pictures. I'll upload more when I get to Dubai.

In blissful exile,


egyptian baptism

You've heard of baptism by fire? Courtney and I got our very own Egyptian baptism this morning on our walk from the hotel to the ferry to cross over to the West Bank. The streets of Luxor are littered with caleches, horse-drawn buggies. The unattended horses laze along the sidewalks and take care of business there. In our heat-induced daze, we didn't see the stream of horse pee that was hitting the ground just two feet from us, which then splattered our legs. Can't think of a better way to start a two-hour long hike through the arid Valley of the Kings.

That said, the Valley of the Kings was pretty incredible. We even saw inside Tutankhamun's tomb, though it's a total ripoff. They charge 40 Egyptian pounds to get inside the Valley and 70 pounds just to see inside Tut's tomb. ($1 = 6 pounds) Luckily, I still have my student ID from Santa Ana College and I *am* going to be a student again in a couple months, so I've been getting half off admission most of the places we've been visiting.

Still, that's all we were able to do today. The 101-degree heat is too brutal to get anything else done. We came back at 2 for a shower and a nap. Courtney's gone off to look for a friend her family made when they last visited Luxor and I've been trying to upload some of my pictures to Snapfish. Finally got the CD burned yesterday, but even with an alleged DSL connection at the Nefertiti Hotel, it's taken about half an hour to upload a dozen pictures. I'll try to get the first few days of South Africa up today and will hopefully be able to post more from Sharm El-Sheikh. Shoot me an e-mail if you want me to send you the Snapfish album.

Last night we went to one of the five-star hotels to see a belly dancing and whirling dervish show. The whirling dervish was very cool, the belly dancer was pretty talented, but the Arabic pop dancing was something straight out of a cheesy music video in the 1980s. What made it better was they insisted on pulling me and Courtney up to join in the last dance of the night. Needless to say, Courtney was horrified, but stood her own. Luckily I'd drank a large Stella beer right before, so I was a little more willing to perform for the audience of mostly European tourists.

Still inundated by the Spaniards and today many Russians. I've only heard Americans maybe once or twice here. I guess the Middle East is still too scary for Americans. Though they shouldn't be. We pass through a metal detector to enter nearly every antiquities site and all the major hotels. Tourism police are everywhere you turn. We've felt very safe here. It'll be interesting to see how Sharm El-Sheikh compares after the bombings in recent years. In case you're worried, we're staying at a place called Shark's Bay (the shark part is what's freaking me out). It's just outside Na'ama Bay, the main touristic area. We should be fine.

We fly Egypt Air tonight and arrive around midnight. Everyone assures us it'll be much cooler in Sharm El-Sheikh. We're hoping and praying they're right. That said, Egypt Air ought to be an adventure, too. Keep your fingers crossed we arrive in one piece and with all luggage in tact.


narrowly escaping death

Courtney is convinced I nearly caused my own Santa Ana-style pedestrian death on the streets of downtown Cairo. I think I was just exhibiting a brash sense of confidence. Regardless, we're both alive and well and even survived our 11-hour train ride from Cairo to Luxor. The air conditioned, first-class cabin was a welcome reprieve. Two Benadryls also helped the ride go much smoother as I slept for a good 8 hours of the trip.

We needed the rest as it is approximately 500 degrees here in Luxor. Imagine the inside of a blowdryer on full blast and that's what it feels like here. After a two-hour power nap, we caught a taxi to the Karnak temple and marveled at the architectural wonder of it all. Then, for kicks, we tried one of the minibuses to the Luxor Temple, which is literally in the front yard of our hotel, the Nefertiti Hotel (a steal at $9US a night.) For that price we get a private room, our own bathroom, a/c and breakfast. I don't understand why more Americans don't visit here.

OH yes, more on languages. We heard Egyptians today speaking fluent Chinese, Japanese and Polish, in addition to Italian and Spanish. Globalization is hilarious.

The hassling here is far worse than in Cairo, probably because this is a predominantly touristic spot. Every few steps someone offers to "help" not "hassle you." One store went so far as to name itself the "No Hassle Shop." To their credit, nobody outside tried to veer us in. My favorite line, however, is "No charge to look." Aieeee. We're going mad. Can't wait for Sharm, where we hear it's much less of a hassle, so to speak.

Tonight we're contemplating a belly dancing show and likely an early bed time for a trip to the Valley of the Kings early tomorrow morning. I'll try to update again tomorrow, though tomorrow night, we catch a flight to Sharm.

Also, FINALLY burned my photos to a CD, but I can't seem to get blogger to post them. I'll try again later when I'm not sitting in the middle of 100-degree-plus-heat. Aiee...