Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Last Jpost article up

My last article for the "Tales of a Wandering Jew" series is now online, in the Jewish World section, under features. www.jpost.com

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Last pics up

The last pics of a long journey are now up. The pyramids of Saqqara and Dahshur, Memphis and Alexandria. Enjoy. http://picasaweb.google.com/levantine18

Friday, April 20, 2007

There and back again

This hobbit's tale is complete. My trip ended in a pretty low-key fashion. Nothing to speak of getting out of Egypt. No pleas of "let my people go" was needed to the Egyptian authorities. Just a long flight, a lot of pages of "My Name is Red" by Orhan Pamuk, and a few bad movies. We descended through the cotton clouds and touched down under a steel gray sky that reflected my own feelings of indifference. Neither excited to be home, nor sad that the trip was over. No joy, no angst; just acceptance that it was time to move on.

Interestingly, as we touched down in the good ol' US of A, the plane broke out into applause. I have never seen that happen on a flight anywhere but Israel. Perhaps for these Egyptians (and many others), America is the "promised land." As I stood in the customs line, I saw what always makes America so special. I have been through so many border lines, and always it is all the diversity in the "visitor" passport control, while homogeneousness in the "local" section; standing in line at the border, it was the US citizen section which had such a wide array of diversity, and left me pretty proud. Once back in the good ol US of A, I passed the time waiting for my connecting flight by getting the most American meal I could think of: Nachos Supreme. It was a gooey, salty mess that sometimes symbolizes my own feelings on this land as "oversized mediocrity." As I waited for my connecting flight, I napped on the floor. Some Vietnamese kids were playing ball and their ball bounced over and hit me. They apologized in English, and I replied "kum gwa zee"- no problem in Vietnamese- to their utter astonishment.

Strangely, as I was sitting on my flight from the Big Apple to DC, I got a random bloody nose. I used to get these as a kid, but it has been years since I last got one. The last time I did get one, I was in a Judaism class in Jerusalem some nine years ago. We were discussing something about religion, and I posed the question, "can Judaism be questioned?" A minute later, I was stricken with a gushing bloody nose. Ha, that was my answer.

My first day back was true Americana, as I went to a Washington Nationals baseball game with my Dad. Hotdogs, peanuts and crackerjack, oh it's slightly strange to be back. I feel like I am in the movie Traffic, where the scenery shifts from gritty yellow, sepia-toned Mexico to soft blue toned suburbia.

As I am now on the other side of the pond, fighting through the jetlag at 4:30am, I thought now might be a good time for a little conclusion. If only to put me back to sleep.

I set out nearly six months ago, on a journey across vast space and finite time. Around the world in 180 days. From Beijing to Cairo. Just saying it sounds almost unreal. Every day was an adventure, every day I learned something new. Best of all, like Frankie said, I did it my way.

People always seemed astonished that I was alone. I might have been alone, but I was rarely lonely. When you are surrounded by a billion people, you can hardly ever be lonely. Interestingly, I found myself far less lonely, than when I lived in Houston. In my travels, I was always meeting new people and making new friends. Houston, although I loved it, was a far more solitary and lonely experience. Besides, beyond all the people I met, I had so many literary companions. Phileas Fogg, Arthur Dent, Lord Jim, Ishmael, Leo Africanus, Gogol Ganguli and Kim. All men in search of their destiny, who accompanied me on my own journey.

Meanwhile, I learned that through every essence of my being I am a wanderer, beginning with my own name. I never liked the name "Paul." What is a nice Jewish boy doing with the name "Paul"? But Paul was a nice Jewish boy, who got a message (his Muse) and decided to go wandering. Meanwhile, my name in Hebrew, Pinchas, was something I also never liked. But I came to find out at a synagogue in Delhi that in the Bible it is believed that Pinchas was really Elijah- the patron saint of all us Wandering Jews. Since that is the case, I modified my Hebrew name to be Pinchas Elijah. Lastly, my last name "Rockower." As I found out on Passover, my names means just as such. "Rakover" as my name would be pronounced in Hebrew means "Only passing through." All so apt.

So the question remains, could I have continued traveling? Of course. You always pace yourself for a trip, and if I was traveling longer I would have paced myself differently. For this trip, my only flaw in the pacing and route was not making Israel last, as that was the most emotionally draining stop. In any case, now I am home and sorting out what will be the next chapter in my peripatetic life. Not sure what the next step is, but I have faith that it will work itself out, and I have a world of experience to back up my faith.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

New pics up

Tons and tons of new pics up, from top-to-bottom Israel, the Sinai, Cairo and the pyramids.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

So it ends

אלי, אלי, שלא יגמר לעולם
החול והים
רישרוש של המים
ברק השמים
תפילת האדם

"Oh Lord, my God
I pray that these days never end
the sand and the sea
the rush of the waters
the crash of the heavens
the prayer of man"
-Hannah Szenes

I had hoped and prayed that this day would never come, but I am ready for it. I am content. I have seen so much, that it is time to process it. More importantly, I have a promise to keep to one darling little sister, who is graduating from college. She is a wanderer too- in her own right. Rather than try to sum up a journey of a life time in a simple blog, I will choose to end simply with a poem. Thanks to all of you who have been reading this, I hope you enjoyed it nearly as much as I have.

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep."
-Robert Frost

Last day...

How did I seize my last day? It kind of seized me, in the grips of a hamseen- a hot wind and sand storm that sweeps in from the desert. The morning was thick with heat, as I left my friend Valentine's apartment. I walked down the street to the Sa'ad Zaghloul memorial (a prominent politician who helped Egypt gain its freedom from the British) to take a taxi, and grabbed some foul in pita for breakfast.

I took the taxi to the Ibn Toulun Mosque, one of the older and biggest in Cairo. The mosque is an Iraqi-style mosque built in the 9th century by Ib Toulun, who was sent to rule Egypt by the Abbasid dynasty (from Baghdad). It is the oldest functioning mosque in Cairo. As I was entering the mosque, the skies were becoming foreboding. The hamseen gained full force and the sand-filled winds started whipping around. I wandered through the large compound, and watched the hanging lights swaying in the desert winds. As I was leaving, I spoke with the guys at the mosque. They asked me about what happened in Virginia, and said the Egyptian people mourned for America. They also had the same sentiments about Bush, and loved Clinton. Also Jimmy Carter, everyone in Egypt seems to love Jimmy Carter.

As I left the mosque, the sky was as dark as the evening twilight. The wind-blown sands battered my eyelashes and violated my eyes. This hamseen was of biblical proportions, and I expected it to begin raining frogs and locusts. This was the cover of darkness the Israelites left under. To gain cover, I went to the museum next door, the Gayer-Anderson museum.

After getting a student ticket, I entered the once-residence of a British major and true orientalist, Pasha John Gayer-Anderson. His house was exquisite in its collections. Mother-of-pearl inlaid cabinets and tables, lacquer-covered ceilings and different rooms laid out in different styles, such as the Damascus room covered in lacquer and gold, and the Persian room covered in blue-and-white tiles. An orientalist's dream.

I took a taxi to Khan al-Khallili and laughed with the taxi driver about the Jews that come to Egypt and are afraid to mention themselves as such. We had the usual talk of shared heritage and aspects of religion. I went to the store of my camper Maged's neighbor. Atlas was a wonderful jewelry store, and the owner was a very nice Copt. He sent one of his store keepers around the market with me so I could get the best prices. After shopping for my last wares, I went back to the apt to get out of the hamseen and sat around drinking scotch and watching West Wing.

Off to dinner and seeing my campers. A nice last day.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Walkin' in Memphis

Sorry couldn't resist cheesy Marc Cohen reference.I woke up and had a proper cup of coffee thanks to my friend Valentine's Italian coffee pot. No more grit in my teeth for breakfast. My plan was to go to the pyramid fields of Saqqara and Dahshur, and have some good ol' Tennessee bbq in Memphis.

As there is no good way to get to Saqqara other than on a tour or taxi, I first stopped at a few tour shops in the middle of downtown. The first wanted 300 pounds-way too high. The second wanted 150lbs, but I bargained it down to 135lbs. I was about to take it, and went as far as putting down a deposit, but when I mentioned Dahshur, which is 20km away from Saqqara, they wanted another 25lbs. I scoffed at that, believing it should be included. After wrangling for a while, I asked for my deposit back, and decided to try for a cab. I got a cab there for 100lbs for all the locations.

Interestingly, since Egyptians don't pronounce the "q," it was called "Sa'ara." Funny habit they have, cause instead of calling coffe "qahwa," they say "ahwa;" but al-Qahira (Cairo) is not al-Ahira and the Qu'ran isn't the "Ur'an." My friend Valentine said it depends on how close the word is to fus'ha- classical Arabic.

My cabbie, Hussein, was 26 with wife and child. He loved American wrestling, as do most people I have met. I'm not sure if the WWE realizes what a global "sport" it has become, but they luv it everywhere from Cambodia to Pakistan to Egypt. Undertaker is probably the most popular American in the world.

The ride wasn't long, past fields of palmyra and along the nile-turned-small- stream. We arrived at Saqqara, and I got myself a student ticket into the area. Amazing how quickly it went from lush palmyra and cultivated Nile valley to golden, barren sandy desert. The site of Saqqara was a huge cemetery for Memphis' pharaohs. Most of it is still covered by the sands, but I visited the oldest pyramid, a steplike structure built in six rocky layers. It was built by the Pharaoh Zoser in 2650BC, and is impressively huge for such an old structure. I admiringly wandered around the large ziggurnaut-like structure. After completing my rounds, I hopped a small fence and bounded off into the desert to snap some pics. I met some bedouins who were selling stuff, and we quickly bonded over my demands for 10lbs after I took their pictures, and they wanted backsheesh. There was even a bedouin guy in a Washington Redskins hat!

After Saqqara, I went to Dahshur, which I had spied in the distance from Saqqara. Again, an amazing juxtaposition going from empty golden sands to lush green fields. Dahshur once had 11 pyramids, but only 2 are still intact. There is the Red Pyramid, which shines a bright red from the weathering on its limestone, and the Bent Pyramid, which was the first smooth-sided limestone-encased pyramid. Both were built between the end of the 2600s and beginning of the 2500s BC, by a pharaoh named Snufalupagus. Just kidding, Pharaoh Sneferu. The site is right next to an Egyptian military camp, and has only be open to the public for a decade. I climbed down the Red Pyramid, into one of the burial chambers. It was cool, I was the only one down there. It was also hot and smelled like ammonia, so I didn't stick around long.

I ended my trip at Memphis. There was a time when mighty Memphis was the capital of Pharaonic Egypt. The city was founded around 3100 BC, and as late as the 5th century BC, Herodatus was extolling its praises as a city of cosmopolitan life and a beacon of civilization. Sadly, Memphis has long disappeared, under Nile floods and Nile mud. Now little remains of this once-great capital. All that is left is found in a little, tourist-filled museum in a shabby small town bearing its name. But the museum was interesting, with statues of pharaohs, including a huge fallen statue of Ramses II. Nice little hieroglyphic monuments and a sphinx grace the museum.

I arrived back in Cairo, and stopped at a Nile Bridge to snap some pics. Interestingly, the views from the bridge overlooking the Nile reminded me a lot of Boston. Something about the way the Nile snakes through Cairo, with large buildings on both sides and sailboats wading through the waters struck me as a reminder of the Charles River and Beantown. Strange comparison, I know.

New Jpost article up

In the Jpost (www.jpost.com), under Jewish world section, under features. Also on the home page in features. Incidentally, they misnamed the column "Tales of a wondering Jew," which is somewhat apropos since I am not wandering for much longer and wondering wtf I will do next...

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Alex

I had a nice, subdued night in Alex, spent smoking shisha and drinking sahleb (hot, thick tapoica drink with crushed nuts). I awoke this morning and visited the Alexandria synagogue, the Elijah the Prophet Synagogue. The synagogue was big and beautiful, with Greek marble columns and menorahs in rows. The ark was in marble, and the stained glass windows lit the place up. I had a nice tour from a black Egyptian caretaker who spoke some Hebrew.

After, I grabbed a cup of coffee at a Brazilian coffee shop. Mmm..real coffee. I had some breakfast of foul iskandaria (Alexandrian foul) and eggs with lots of little pitas, then hopped a cab to the Qaitbey Fort. The Qaitbey Fort is built from the ruins of the Lighthouse of Alexandria. I got out of the cab early so I could walk the rest of the way along the sea.

The promenade was a scene. Veils fluttering in the salty sea breeze as the waves crashed along the rocks and wave break. Teen girls in hijabs walked past the shabab, who blew puckering flirtatious kisses at them. The girls mimicked them back in jest. The white limestone fort was brightened my the midday sun, and I wandered through just a typical day in an Egyptian daydream.

The fort was full of nooks and crannies to wander through, and I admired the wonderful sea vistas from its walls. I walked back along the promenade, past the colorful fishing boats, and a good ways to the new Library of Alexandria. I am currently in the modern library, perusing the stacks.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Escape to Alex

After stewing in my own melancholy discontent, I finally made my way out of Cairo to Alexandria. I kept delaying my trip, but I finally got moving again. It was nice to get out of Cairo, even if I do like it. The train ride was nice, if unspectacular. Alex, as known round these parts, was founded by Alex the Great in 331 BC, but there is little remnants of his city.

It was home to a wonder of the world, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, but that is long gone. As is the famous Library of Alex, which burned down in front of a weeping Cleopatra. They have recently constructed a new library o'Alex, but not nearly the same fanfare. Alex was also where Cleo was wooed by Mark Antony. Sadly, their fair city is a distant dream, but what remains has a nice mediterannean feel and great seafood. I had a delicious whole fried fish for dinner, amid the alley cats. There was ample food for all of us. There is a huge stray cat problem in Egypt (Israel too), but I always say, "better cats than rats."

What the World Costs- Egypt

50 piastres (9 cents) mug of subaya- cold almond juice
1 pound (18 cents) eggplant stew at neighboorhood restaurant
1.25 pounds (23 cents) foul and egg sandwich; falafel sandwich
1.5 pounds (27 cents) cup of turkish coffee at local coffee shop
2 pounds (36 cents) amazing rice pudding; Cairo metro ticket
5 pounds (91 cents) cup of turkish coffee by the sea in Dahab
10 pounds ($1.82) one night stay at Oasis Fighting Kangaroo
12 pounds ($2.18) Sakara beer from (Egyptian beer)
16 pounds ($2.91) 2nd class seat on a 4 hour train to Alexandria
20 pounds ($3.64) one night stay at Hotel Rashid in Alexandria
25 pounds ($4.55) student entrance at the Egyptian Museum (normally 50lbs)
28 pounds ($5.10) backsheesh for two to climb the minarets at Al-Azhar, one of the holiest mosques in the world of Islam
30 pounds ($5.45) entrance to jazz show at Rugby Club
33 pounds ($6) whole fried fresh fish, salads and bread (including tip)
40 pounds ($7.27) caramel cheesecake, brownie ala mode and cafe latte at Costa (the Arab world's Starbucks) in the City Star Mall
67 pounds ($12.19) 9hr bus from Dahab to Cairo
100 pounds ($18.18) overpriced 2.5hr taxi from the border to Dahab (I hate borders); taxi for 3 hour tour of Saqqara, Dahshur and Memphis

Friday, April 13, 2007

The October War

I took a taxi to Heliapolis this morning to see the October War Panorama, the Egyptian monument to the 1973 Yom Kippur war. A little different perspective, I would say. The courtyard is filled with tanks and airplanes, I had seen them passing by. The memorial is designed by the North Koreans, that should give a hint to how strange it is. There are murals outside in that North Korean Communist propaganda style. I arrived as a whole tour of Lebanese school children were there, so I kinda joined the highschool tour. First I walked around the different panoramas to previous wars, done up in that worker-slaying-the-evil-capitalist style. Strange.

Then I watched a few presentations. The first one was old clips, I had to watch it in Arabic so I didn't understand that much. Funny editing, same clips over and over again of a few soldiers running up a hill and hoisting a flag. The kids cheered a little during the movie, to my silent chagrin. I was going to leave after, but there were more presentations. The staff got me a translator set, and I got to hear most of the next presentation, which was a puppet show of sorts. Cheap puppet theatrics showing the battles. The narration was slightly hysterical, proclaiming the October war strategy practically as the greatest military maneuver since the Greeks came up with the phalanx.

The final coup de grace of the museum was an overdone spinning panorama of the opening battle is vivid propaganda designs. With dreams of liberation abound, brave Egyptian soldiers planted flags to the top of the bar-lev line, with choppers and planes victoriously flying overhead... Listening to the narrator, you would think that the Egyptian Army defeated Napolean's 4th army, Lord Nelson's fleet, Rommel's Afrika Panzer korp, General Patton and Chuck Norris all at once- not a country busy praying and fasting on their holiest day of the year.

When I was 13, at camp I had a bunk boxing match with Chris O'Conner. He was a year older and much bigger than me, but I agreed to it anyway. When the bell rang, I quickly swung and hit him with a hard shot to the face. I gave him a good surprise, one that he wasn't expecting. But he shook it off and went on to pummel me furiously (split lip, bloody nose, etc). See under: October War. The whole panorama was so overdone, that I couldn't help but laughing and shaking my head.

After, I trudged my way through a stadium grounds- as I was walking over, it was raining down on me (last two days have had freak rainstorms)- onto where Sadat was assassinated. I saw it before, just as I was coming in to Cairo, and actually recognized the area from films I had seen. I visited his tomb across the street to pay my respects.

I then headed over to see one of my campers, Moos (Mustapha). He was also recently in a car accident. He was sitting on the trunk, trying to ride there and fell off and cut up his face pretty badly. He unfortunately had to cancel his part in a rap show, he does amazing beatboxing and was going to play until the accident. He learned a tough lesson-insert Abba quote about good judgement comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgement.

Later I tried to go to the Shar HaShamaim synagogue for shabbat service but apparently there weren't any. The security folks told me to come back tomorrow. "Goodbye Mr. Rockower," they said- remembering me from the day before. Umm...creepy. I fiddled trying to get pictures online, but it hasn't been working. My third-world frustrations led me to Western capitalism, and I grabbed a burger at Hardees. I don't even have Hardees in DC! I was sitting across from a Muslim couple, and the wife was completely veiled save the slit. I noticed that she had to stuff the burger and fries under the veil to eat. Never thought about that difficulty before. As a final note on fast food, it has come to my attention that western fast food in the third world is decidedly middle-to-upper class fare in the developing world, as opposed to in America where it is grub for a lower socioeconomic sphere.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Paris on the Nile

After I broke my fast, I spent yesterday evening at the City Stars Mall with my camper Maged. We wandered around a Dubai-esque shopping mall in Cairo, ate deserts formerly forbidden to me like caramel cheesecake and brownies ala mode and watched "the 300." I enjoyed the movie, as I had written a paper about it my senior year at Edmund Burke for a class on decisive battles.

Today I hopped the Cairo Metro to Coptic Cairo, and wandered around an old maze of ancient churches and the Ben Ezra synagogue. There are a few rumours about the synagogue. First, it is believed to be at the spot where Moses was fished out of the Nile. It is also rumoured to be where the Prophet Nehemiah gathered the Israelites after they were sent into exodus by the Babylonians. The synagogue was beautiful, walls that were mother-of-pearl inlay and Islamic-style patterned ceilings. I will write more about it in my Tales article.

The Coptic section was also impressive. It is one of the oldest, if not the oldest part, of Cairo. It was built in what was Fustat, the city that preceded Cairo, and also existed when the area was known as Babylon. I visited ancient Coptic churches with amazing murals and mosaics, and beautiful icons. I also saw the Coptic Museum. The Coptic Museum had pottery, artifacts and relics that were thousands of years old. Ancient mosaics, tapestries and sculptures galore. They had some stunning gilded bibles in Coptic, Greek and Arabic script. All under walls and ceilings of decorated intricately carved wood and mother-of-pearl.

Sadly, I think I am traveled out. I am having a hard time adequately appreciating what I am seeing. I made a mistake in not making Israel my final stop. It was such an emotionally-laden stop, so much so that I am having a hard time appreciating anything anymore.

Anyway, I returned back to downtown for lunch of an Egyptian calzone called fateer. It was tomatoes, olives, peppers and cheese, wrapped in dough and fired in a stone oven. I washed it down with a cold glass of sobeya- cold almond milk/juice (I am addicted to the stuff).

Later, I wandered around downtown Cairo, admiring the old architecture that once had Cairo called "Paris on the Nile." The old, dilapidated Colonial architecture still has its charm, despite the crumbling facades. I met my friend Jenna and her Egyptian friend Mancy for a night falucca ride on the Nile. We cruised up and down the Nile in a little boat, admiring the Cairo night lights. After our cruise, we had dinner at a famous place known for its koshary. Koshary is Egyptian pasta with chickpeas, crisped onions and tomato sauce with hot sauce and garlic-lemon juice to accompany. Egyptians love the stuff, and I can see why. For desert, some sweet rice pudding that would put Kozy Shack to shame. We were joined by another Egyptian named Ahmed, and we ended the evening sitting around smoking shisha and drinking tea and sahlep, while chatting the night away.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Passover no more

Passover is finished! I crumpled my matzah and tossed it to the winds. Then I broke pessach with semi-stale whole wheat pita bread and alexandrian foul. Very yummy.

Under the Pharaohs' gaze

After dealing with a bunch of lying cab drivers who wanted 5-50 pounds for a trip that was 2 minutes away, I figured out my way to the Egyptian Museum. After conning a student pass (since I am a perpetual student), I spent the afternoon under the watchful gaze of the Pharaohs.

It was overwhelming to be surrounded by so much history. Surrounded by black granite Pharaohs with black almond-shaped eyes staring through eternity, beyond infinity. I wandered through the black granite jackal and falcon-headed statues, deities whose worship has long since passed. Sarcophagi bearing hieroglyphic stories of days long forgotten. I visited the decrepit old mummified remains of once-great kings that ruled over long-lost empires. I passed by the golden treasures and turoise scarabs of ancient eras. There was a time, but that time has disappeared under the sweeping sands of many millennia.

Meanwhile, I am waiting to break the Pessach fast, as my people have done for thousands of years. I can remember all the far-flung places I did such. Last year in Pretoria, at a cafe with a Ugandan friend of a friend. Years ago in Agadir, Morocco as I watched the sun set into the Atlantic Ocean and flirted with cute Moroccan girls. Beer and bread, here I come.

Monday, April 09, 2007

al hel

Meaning the situation here. Wandering around the markets, you can't help but notice all the veiled women. My friend Valentine, who studies at American University Cairo mentioned that when her friend graduated in 2000, there were 2 veiled girls; now at least half are wearing the hijab. In Egypt, its become such a social phenomena that it has become more of a decision not to wear the veil than to wear it. As noted by Valentine's teacher, an Egyptian Christian, before you couldn't tell the difference between Christians and Muslims, everyone looked the same; now, there is a clear divide.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian Christian community is rather worried about the situation after Mubarak. The Christian Coptic community has been in Egypt for thousands of years, they are the closest in relation to the original Egyptians, not the Arab conquerors who came through and ruled over Cairo for the last millennia. While the current regime has been tolerant, they are terrified that the Muslim Brotherhood might take over in the post-Mubarak era.

Other interesting notes, I have found the attitudes here to Americans to be rather welcoming. No one likes Bush, but everyone I have spoken with has nice things to say about the American people and make the difference between the people vs. the government. Clinton is also rather popular. I will write an article when I return about the "rabid" anti-Americanism that is supposed to be so pervasive around the globe, but has been so lacking in my travels.

al-kahira

I had a fascinating day around Cairo yesterday. Jenna (Genna in Egyptian Arabic) and I had breakfast at a place called Cafe Tabasco, which incidentally had no tabasco sauce. We both had Mexican eggs, which were good, but not remotely Mexican. I had a cafe dulce, which was espresso layered with dulce de leche. Yum.

After breakfast, we went to the Islamic Art museum, which was beautiful. All sorts of pottery and vases in the florid styles. The museum itself was a beauty too, with spiraling flower tiles and designs. I love art museums where the museum itself is as interesting as the stuff inside.

After we grabbed some chocolate at a french chocolate place, as she had given up chocolate for lent, and was now over with choco-fast. After we took a taxi to Giza. Interestingly, the city sprawls right up to the pyramids and desert. I saw the sphinx, which had birds covering its face. It was surprisingly smaller than I expected. We ran the gauntlet of touts, camel drivers and drink hawkers and ascended to the pyramids. Amazingly impressive in size. The biggest pyramid has some 2.5 million blocks or so. Napoleon calculated that it was enough to build a 3m wall around the whole of France. Those wonders are damn old, they were 2,500 years old when Jesus was a wee tyke. They are massive structures sitting upon the golden sands. I went into one pyramid, but it was an overrated venture, as it was merely walking down and up into an empty room, then back out. Anyway, the pyramids were damn impressive.

After Gize, we went to the Citadel in what was Fustat. Fustat preceded Cairo as the Islamic capital city of Egypt. The citadel compound was impressive for its Ottoman style mosque and other smaller mosques, one with an interesting green dome. The view over Cairo was great, with the domes of mosques and old quarters of the sprawling city in view. The turkish-style mosque was a beauty, and reminded me of Istanbul. We sat in the middle of the mosque, with the throngs of tourists, and admired the architecture.

Went back for a midday nap, and later met my camper Maged and his friend. Maged was bestfriends with my camper who just passed away, and he has been having a rough time with it. He was supposed to be in the car that crashed. Scary stuff.

Seeing him also gave me a chance to apologize for some misconstrued remarks I made last summer to him and a few others that almost led to my unceremonious firing from SOP. He actually had understood what I was getting at, but the other campers had not. Nice to make amends nonetheless. Today I will attend the funeral for my camper Omar, which sadly lets me see all my SOP kids, but not in a fashion I would have liked. It is sad that it takes tragedy to bring people together, but you realize what a family SOP can be.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

To the last stop

Plans are always what God wills. I was planning on going to Mt. Sinai, and climbing "Gebel Musa" but Easter has left the monastery closed and no buses to Santa Katerina. Apparently the monks are busy searching for colored eggs in the desert. I found this out at the bus station, so I adapted my plans and headed onto Cairo. What God wills. I will file Mt. Sinai in with Bahrain, Ramallah and Jericho as places I planned to hit up but events proved otherwise.

I caught the 8:30am bus, which left an hour late and made my way through the desert. It was beautiful. Cutting a path between the red mountains, golden sands and turquoise seas as we passed under a crayola periwinkle sky. The On the bus I met Jenna, an American-Palestinian girl studying at American University of Cairo. We chatted as the sands of the desert swirled around in a hamseen. After many checkpoints, eventually I crossed the Sinai as Sharon did so triumphantly some three-and-a-half decades before.

As I got into Egypt proper, I received some very sad news. One of the campers last summer, Omar, died in a car crash in the Sinai. He was on his way for vacation, and was killed in an auto accident. He was a very sweet kid, full of laughs that descended into snorts. He and another Omar and Maged used to all laugh so hard, they would create a cacophony of snorts. Life is far too short and sad some times. Now I am in Cairo, and trying to find out about his funeral. Not how I expected to spend my last days, but plans were decided otherwise.

Meanwhile, Jenna let me crash at her apartment since things were so unsettled with the Seeds kids. She lives in Zamelek, in the heart of Cairo. A beautiful view from the 33rd floor, that looks out all over Cairo's polluted beauty, and over the Nile. We had dinner at a local cafe, and sat playing chess at a alley cafe with the shisha smokers of fair Cairo.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Sinai

Good Luck, she is never a lady,
But the cursedest queen alive,
Tricksy, wincing and jady-
Kittle to lead or drive.
Greet her- she's hailing a stranger!
Meet her- she's busking to leave!
Let her alone for a shrew to the bone
And the hussy comes plucking at your sleeve!
Largesse! Largesse, O Fortune!
Give or hold at your will.
If I've no care for Fortune,
Fortune must follow me still!
-The Wishing Caps (Kipling, Kim)

With sadness in my heart, I departed Israel. I took a taxi to the border, and, amid the throngs of Israeli tourists, crossed the border with little delay. So begins the last chapter of this wanderer's tale.

Once into the Sinai, I began the unenviable task of trying to find transport to Mt. Sinai. Under the baking sun, I quickly realized I would have no luck and it might take me forty years to get there, so I switched my plans and headed onto Dahab. In an overpriced cab, with an Israeli and a Korean. The ride was worth the overprice, as we we hurtled through the Sinai- with the turqoise Red Sea on one side, and the red ragged mountains on the other. We passed by checkpoints, beachside resorts and beachside huts as we crossed the face of Mars.

I arrived to Dahab and found cheap accommodation at the Oasis Fighting Kangaroo. 10 bounds (no "p" in Arabic) or $2 for a place off the beach. At a beachside cafe, sitting on a deck chair,I had lunch of Bedouin vegetables covered in melted cheese with rice (I'm sephardic re: kitniot). and basked in the sun's rays. A few dips in the Red Sea and a few pages of my new book Kim by Rudyard Kipling, the day passed me by.

I wandered along the promenade, which is much more developed than when I was last here some 8 (!) years ago. Dahab has lost its seediness and bohemian spirit, but I wasn't looking for it so I cared little. I made my way off the boardwalk, to the locals' beach area and snapped pics of camels on the beach. On my way back, I stopped at a bar for a beer. I took one sip, and quickly remember that it's Pessach, so I gave it to a fellow barmate. Rather, I found another cafe on the sea, a bedouin-style cafe, where I lounged on pillows and rugs, sitting under the shade of a giant wooden umbrella, sipping sweet Turkish coffee and watching the waves gently lap against the rocks. I caught the sun setting in golden brilliance over the red mountains, and admired the view.

Tomorrow, I will try to make my way on to Mt. Sinai, although unfortunately, St. Catherine's monastery is closed for Easter and the monks are off searching for dyed eggs. As for now, on to sit with the shisha smokers, and while the shishas bubble like bullfrogs, I will watch the watermelon moon rise over the Red Sea, as the lights in Saudi Arabia come on for the night.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Dixie Chicks in the desert

After a long wait, I met my old commander Irit from Sar El. I had such a crush on her when she was in uniform and carrying an m-16. Turns out she is only a year older than me, I always thought she was much older. Anywho, she is engaged to an Israeli. We had a nice time catching up, then I caught a train to Bersheeva in the south. I stayed with a Seed named Ra'anan in Bersheeva. I arrived late and we hung out eating matzah and humus, and played with his dog and half blind cat.

Today, I had homemade dulce de leche and matza and took the bus to Arad, my old home. I couldn't get in-touch with my camper Omri, so I didn't stick around long. But it was nice to be back in Arad, the air there is very clean and fresh, it is known around Israel as having great air (Buenos Aires of Israel). I tried to get a shared taxi to the Dead Sea, but there weren't any and no buses either. I did what any good Israeli would do, I "tramped" aka hitchhiked.

After about ten minutes, I got picked up with two Israeli girls by a woman in a minivan. I entered into a mommy van, with a woman from New York, and the Dixie Chicks blasting on the radio. She lives in the settlement Gush Etzion, near Jerusalem. We drove down the beautiful desert path, with the Dixie Chicks blaring and her talking on the phone in a heavy New Yawk accent. It was surreal to say the least, through the golden and white desert to the Dead Sea.

I arrived to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth. This comes some 5 months or so after being at the highest place on Earth, Mt. Everest. That seems like an eternity ago. I arrived to the smells of the mangal- bbq cooking meat and the smoke wafting in the air as Eyal Golan and other Mizrahi music blasted in the parking lot. So Israeli. I waded into the Dead Sea, then made my way out to try to get to Eilat.

I waited an hour for a bus, which didn't seem to be coming. Another guy had been waiting half-an-hour before I got there. Some girls who were tramping back to Bersheeva smsed the bus company, and said there was no bus. Instead, I caught a service taxi back to Arad, along with a fellow American living in Israel. He seemed to think there was supposed to be a bus in 15 minutes, but came along any way. After we took the bus to Arad, we then took another bus to Bersheeva and then to Eilat. a lot of time in transit for 15 minutes at the Dead Sea, but no one ever said I was efficient with my time. Meanwhile, talking with the American, we realized we were on opposite ends of the political spectrum. His father is a Kach activist, and was Meir Kahane's right hand man. Jewish Defense League and hardcore rightwing Jewish zealots. I could handle this, but to make matters worse, he was a Dallas Cowboys fan. Oy.

I'm now in Eilat, staying with my camper Shahaf. We were watching the Maccabi Tel Aviv vs. CSKA Moscow basketball game, and I had a yummy shnitzel (k4p) and humus with couscous. I love pretending to be Sephardic and eating kitniot.

I leave Israel tomorrow for Egypt and I am very pained at the prospect. It is never easy to leave Israel, but this time feels different and more difficult. I can't say I really want to leave, even if I am excited for Egypt. After months of being in unfamiliar territory, it was so nice being somewhere that I knew- the culture, the places and the people. I also have a lot of unexpected questions to deal with, such as if I want to live here, something I was not expecting to be wrestling with again. So ends my Israel chapter. Despite that I have been here a few times, and spent a short period here, I would surprisingly say this has been the best chapter. Tomorrow begins my reverse exodus to through the Sinai desert, to Mt. Sinai and onto Egypt. Journey on.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Pessach

I left the seder, and went back for a brief stop to Tel Aviv with my friend Inessa before heading back to Jerusalem. I was starving when I arrived and nothing was open due to the holiday. Downtown Jerusalem was eerily quiet and peaceful. I found McDonalds was open, and had a kosher-for-pessach McDeluxe. The bun was made of matza meal. It wasn't great, but a novelty nontheless. After scarfing down my burger, I made my way onto East Jerusalem to meet my camper Tiger Jamal.

Tiger Jamal was one of the more interesting characters at SOP. TJ is the Palestinian equivalent of Forest Gump, and I mean it in the nicest of ways. I had coffee and tea at one of the four restaurants his family owns, while he related stories to me that remind me what, in the literary world, would be called an "unreliable narrator" he seems. Ah, Tiger Jamal.

After I left TJ, I hung out around Bethy's building, hoping to find her as I didn't feel like lugging my bag around. I couldn't find her, so I spent the afternoon drinking wine and reading a book. Later, I met up with Prof. Muhammed Dajani, who I was interviewing about his new centrist, democratic Islamic party. Fascinating stuff, and a very interesting man. I might not get to publish the interview because I got an email later from my editor Amir at the Jpost that they want to send another reporter to interview him.

I had a nice baguette of bulgarian cheese, eggplant and redpeppers on the matza meal bread. So gross yet so nice for pessach. I had another glass of wine at Mike's Pub, the third different location for the pub since I have been visiting Israel. I finally caught up with Bethy, and her friend Eliana and we watched a stupid movie called the Darwin Awards. I gave up 2/3 through and went to read my book. Now I am in Tel Aviv, having just met two of my campers Roi and Jonathan. Just had a shwarma in a kosher for pessah laffa (iraqi pita). I was going to go to Ramallah to see one more, but the IDF put a closure on the West Bank during passover, so I can't get in. Now I am just waiting to see my old mifakedit (commander) Irit when i volunteered on an airforce base during yearcourse.

New pics up: Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Haifa and the Galilee.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Ani Rakover

Or in hebrew, my name means "I'm only passing through." Too funny. I passed through Haifa, visiting my campers. First, I took the carmelit cable car up to Mount Carmel, and commandeered a photo store to let me upload all m pics. The only internet place in the area charged 25 sheks an hour, $6! So I convinced the photo store to let me use their computer for free. After, I went back down the cable car, and took a train to Kiryat Motzkin- a suburb of Haifa. There I met Iram, one of my campers from SOP. I stayed with him, and we toured around the city. It is a city of so many traffic circles, all nicely decorated with flowers and palmtrees. We met a few more Seeds, one of whom Netta I not only didn't remember from the summer, but also that I spoke with her a week before at the SOP conference in Bethlehem and still didn't remember her Ooops.

Back at Iram's house, I watched the Maccabi Haifa soccer match against Maccabi Tel Aviv with his dad, while Iram painted his room. The next morning, it was rainy so I hung out, drank coffee and talked politics with his mom and sister till the rain passed. I took the train back to Haifa and then the Carmelit back up to meet another camper Matan. We hung out on the promenade overlooking Haifa. It was stunning, the whole Haifa was before me, with clouds painting shadows over different parts of the city. Truly something to see. I have always loved Haifa, it is like an Israeli San Francisco, without the Castro. If I were to make aliyah, it is probably where I would live.

Meanwhile, I am finding myself once again wrestling with the idea of moving to Israel. I have realized that I was bitten not just by the travel bug, but also the aliyah bug. Both are something that plague my thoughts and never seem to die down.

I left Matan to catch a train and a bus to Rosh Pinna, where I would be holding my seder with the Rakowers. On the bus, the driver wished all the passengers- with all his heart, a happy passover. The ride was absolutely beautiful. Spring has fully descended on Israel, and the north is gorgeous. Fat Texan clouds filled the skies and painted shadows on the green hills, covered with avivian flowers and olive groves. We drove past the Sea of Galilee, which shimmered under the warm sun. I arrived to Rosh Pinna and was met by my distant cousins. We drove back to the house of Anne Rakower, which overlooked the Sea of Galilee. We hung out, and went on a brief tiyul (trip) through the Galilee to the Jordan river. I dipped my fingers in the rushing Jordan, and admired the blossoming yellow flowers and blue poppy-ish plants. After, we headed on to the Hula Valley, and walked through apricot orchards.

The seder was nice, lots of laughing and lighthearted fun. Could have been my own seder at home, save that it was all in Hebrew. Same prayers, same food (sorry Brian, only matza ball soup), same matzah. The seder gave me a chance to look back on where I was just one year ago, in South Africa, in a small town with the city's entire Jewish community. A woman kept asking me if we did the ritual after ritual back in America, to which I replied we do the same the world over. Last year, I was finding the story of Mandela and deliverance of South Africa in the passover story. This year, I am reconnecting with long lost family and namesakes.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

An epiphany

I had a vision this morning, I have decided that I will stay here and go to Yeshiva. There is a free yeshiva I can attend near the Kotel. I will spend the next year or so fulfilling my studies and perhaps even find a nice ortho wife and have 10 kids. It is something that is in my heart, and it came to me this wonderful April morning. Haha, April fools....

Rather, I woke up, and took the train to Haifa, after a lovely time in the Meadad's Druze village. I was fed like a king. For lunch I had kibbeh, the Arabic version of steak tartar. It is raw ground meat and spices, eaten with salad and a sauce of olive oil and cooked meat and lafa (iraqi bread). For dinner, I had a wonderful "mangal" (bbq) of lamb and chicken kebabs, with salads, humus and pita (YUM!), as well as tea and coffee. I met his grandfather, an old sheikh with a beard. His family was lovely, and the village was so interested in me. Practically everyone is his family, as there are 2,000 people in the village, of which 1,200 are Druze, and 700 are related to him. I also saw a soccer match, which had just about everything except a goal. It was between the local team and the team from Afula. Lotsa fun in the village. Everyone thought I was Meadad's age (16) or close to it even though I was closer in age to his mom than him. Maybe I am getting younger, cause no one believes that I am 27. The joys of being Peter Pan.

This morning, the hills were so beautiful, covered in olive trees and a verdant green and there were clouds sweeping over the tops. So peaceful and beautiful.

New pics up from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.