Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Home. Time to reflect

I've been home for a week - sufficient time I feel for the whole experience to sink in. I set out on the 3rd of March for a 7 week backpacking trip around the world with the goal of seeing everything I wanted to see when I was 8 years old, and I did it. I saw everything I wanted to, and then some. I even saw a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and I was convinced that I wouldn't. Granted, it was a model, and it was on Josh's mantelpiece in LA, but it still counts!

I started in Los Angeles, caught up with my mate Josh, met his fantastic girlfriend and his wonderful parents, and saw Disneyland, California Adventure and Six Flags Magic Mountain. I was rollercoastered to within an inch of my life.

From LA I hit Cancun where I partied with the American Amateur Mixed Martial Arts team for two days. I also got kicked out of their hotel by diminutive Mexican security guards. I saw the pyramid at Chichen Itza and got to tick another thing off of my Bucket List. I met two German tourists, Dan and Dan, two American spring breakers, Nikki and Jessica, the MMA team (of course), and a Kiwi whose name I can't remember.

Peru was my next stop and my luggage was lost en route. If given a chance, don't fly American Airlines. The aircrew appeared disinterested in their work, they misinformed me about my luggage, and they wanted to charge me for booze on the plane. Bad Mojo. I spent 12 days in Peru and saw Cusco, Macchu Picchu and the Inca trail. I met a brilliant group of travelers (most of them Aussies) and spent 45km and 5 days with them. I hope to see many of them again. It's at this point I must refer to Girl-Sam from Perth as 'a Superstar', because I promised I would. No, Sam, I don't know when the next 'fuckin banos stop' is :). Walking to Macchu Picchu was the most Cosmic thing I've ever done. Just magic.

After Peru I spent 30 hours in London where I managed to find time for the British Museum. I walked there from my hostel and experienced London as it should be experienced - rugged up against the cold sunshine in an empty street with nothing but clear air to breathe. I'm told that this is a false impression of London, but it's one that I shall treasure.

Jordan was the next stop where I was introduced to the Arabic language, the concept of tipping for no reason, and the delight of being Baksheeshed every five seconds. Saw Petra with Dan and Lindsay (sup?), two Americans that I met at the entrance to the Petra complex. Spent all day with them. Both top people, although Lindsay was much nicer to look at.

Egypt was the anchor of the trip. I met some people whom I'm sure I will see (and very much hope to see) again at some point. I saw the Pyramids at Giza, I walked INSIDE the Great Pyramid itself, I sailed on the Nile at night, I argued with stallholders at a market, I threatened to break a man's hand, I learned how to call people 'Gay' in Arabic and shouted it out of a moving cab, much to the displeasure of pedestrians. I saw the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, Abu Simbel, the Cairo Museum, Tutankhamen's mask and all the associated treasure. I spent a week with an American bloke called Christian who insisted that he call me 'Mike'. I spent a day of perfect moments with the beautiful Rose and managed to teach HER some Arabic. It was not useful Arabic, but it was Arabic nonetheless. I sat on a boat as it floated down the Nile. I sat by a fire doing my best Jesus impression. I grew my beard long and took to wearing a Yasser Arafat hat. I saw the very best of Egypt and the very worst. I got drunk on a train in the middle of the night and threw up in one of the corridors. I sat cross-legged on the floor of the smoking car and regaled a group of English teenagers with stories of my trip.

I smoked sheesha with a German, a Canadian-Mongolian and a Kiwi-Indian. I watched Mehroo, the Kiwindian girl, make a scene on every street by swearing, dancing, laughing and punching (usually punching ME when I made fun of her height). I was asked to leave a papyrus store after Christian made a scene, and I got *this* close to punching an 8-year-old right in the middle of his stupid little 8-year-old face.

I saw many fascinating things, met many wonderful, beautiful, inspiring, funny people, fulfilled a heap of my life's goals and learned MUCH more than I ever dreamed possible. I learned alot about home by not being there, and I learned alot about myself by being completely absorbed in every moment of every day. I learned that becoming a floaty bearded backpacker is one of the joys that many people miss in life.

I'm home now, and I'm glad to be here, but I do already miss waking up and thinking 'Where am I again? How long do I have here? I wonder who I'll spend the day with today? Where is my next port of call?'. The solution to this is more travelling of course, and I will do another trip for sure, I just need the cash to do it.

I hope you've enjoyed vicariously joining me on my trip through this site, because I did enjoy writing it and sharing some of it with the people who stayed at home or went to different countries after we parted ways. I collated all the entries too and did a word count - this journal is longer than my honour's thesis, took alot less time to write, and was a damn sight more fun to work on too. I think there's something to be learned from that.

Stay safe, happy travels, and cheers for reading.

- Sam

Thursday, April 23, 2009

An Egyptian Conclusion

Egypt is done, finished, halas. It certainly was an interesting experience. So much of my childhood was spent dreaming of visiting the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, the Cairo Museum, and now that I've done it, I've come away with a slightly different impression than I imagined.

Egypt is NOT the idyllic desert oasis many people imagine it to be. Yes, the Nile is lovely in places. Yes, the pyramids are incredible and they DO emit an energy that I cannot put my finger on. Yes, the Valley of the Kings is a magnificent tribute to people who now live only in stories. Yes, the museum in Cairo is full of beautiful things and Tutankhamen's mask might just be the most beautiful thing ever made. No, Egypt is not the pristine place that exists in our imagination. On the whole, and this is going from my experiences in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, I can make the following conclusion: Egypt is overcrowded, it's heavily polluted, it's chaotic, it's dishonest, it's filthy, it's noisy and it's tense.

There are an estimated 25-30 MILLION people living in Cairo alone. Of these people I would not be surprised if 70% were smokers. The lowest octane fuel they have is 84, so it burns like shit and emits nasty dark smoke. The roads logjam because there is no order, the stall-owners see white skin and immediately try to fleece you, people come up to you in the street and offer to give directions 'because they are helpful' only to turn around and demand money. If you threaten them with violence they go away. Generally, women are treated pretty fucking terribly compared to in the West and it's distressing. For example, I was walking across Tahrir square with Rose about about 10pm on a Friday night. I was perhaps 5 metres ahead of her at the time. I heard something and turned around to see three guys a few metres behind her following with what can only be described as a hungry expression on their faces. I stopped, looked at them and growled, 'Not tonight, mate.' They looked at me as if I was a bit insane, then adopted a look of fear, then walked in the other direction. Treating a woman nicely (or rather, not treating her UN-nicely) just because there is a man around is just plain wrong. There is no respect. I don't like having to put on a crazy face (although the beard does help), I don't like having to pretend I'm angry and I don't like having to fluff my plumage.

I don't mind the chaos in Cairo, it's sort of fun (AND I nearly got hit by a car. That was exciting), and I can tolerate the polluted air to a point, but what I cannot stand is the lack of respect people seem to have here. They don't respect the pyramids - the rubbish that surrounds them is evidence of that, they don't respect the tourists which keep the country afloat (the corrupt tourist police are evidence enough of that), they don't respect the word 'No' unless it's coupled with a few more 'No's' or in my case, physical violence, and they don't seem to get that dumping rubbish on the banks of the Nile might seem wrong and filthy and horrible.

This might all sound negative, but think of it this way: It's only through seeing how bad a situation can be that we appreciate how wonderful the GOOD situations are. Inside the Great Pyramid was astonishing, and quiet, and clean. The best people I met were the ones not asking for money or trying to fleece me. I spent some of the most amazing moments of my life standing in front of (or inside) 6,000 year old structures which hadn't been ruined by the modern world. I did fulfill lifelong dreams by coming to this place, and I do not regret visiting it in the slightest. There are some truly magic, truly beautiful, truly special places here which I would encourage everyone to visit. Just know that you'll have to develop a bit of a cold heart and a blind eye when you're here so you can cope. I liked being hassled some days because it meant I could play the game and see how far I could push the envelope, and it meant that I could test my bartering skills for a more appropriate time.

My recommendation for travel to Egypt would be: Book a good hostel, not a hotel. Hotels cloister you and you don't meet many people at all. Make sure the hostel is downtown. I spent time at the City Plaza hostel on 26th July Street (it's above GAD restaurant, the best fast food joint in Cairo), I spent time at the New Palace hotel just down the road from the City Plaza (it's a hostel without the 's') and I wouldn't have picked anywhere else. The managers were delightful, the locations were perfect and I got to meet a heap of cool people.

Second recommendation: See Giza, Saqqara, Dashur in one day. See the Cairo Museum on another day. See Coptic Cairo, Islamic Cairo and Khan Kalili market in one day, then go back to the market the next day for some proper shopping. Then get out of Cairo and see Aswan/Luxor, then maybe head out to the oasis in the Western Desert, or head to the Red Sea for some diving (didn't do either of these things). Spend enough time in Cairo to see what you want to see, then get out before it loses its sparkle, because it will.

Egypt is certainly a place where dreams come true - seeing the pyramids was one of mine - but remember that some dreams turn out a bit odd towards the end. Egypt, and Cairo by proxy, is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

I'll chuck up a trip summary in a few days, after I've been back here at home for a full week. Need some time to get my head around it all.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Not on a boat, not with a stoat, won't stay afloat

Day two started with the obligatory '2 pieces of bread, tea and a hard boiled egg' and a quick sail downriver. It was here that the captain disembarked to pick up more water (the pillock hadn't picked up all the water we'd ordered, he'd just pocketed the cash) and to 'conduct some business in Aswan). We sailed for 2 more km in an air of frustrated silence and landed on the other bank to wait for the captain. We were there for 2.5 hours while a nice breeze blew. A breeze that should have been taking us to our destination. We argued with the acting captain, we tried to work out what was going on, and it was generally not fun. Amongst all this tension were a few relaxing moments, but on the whole, it was tense. Captain useless returned with not enough water. Again, he'd pocketed some of the cash and only brought back two thirds of what we'd ordered. It was at this point that we labelled our water bottles and made the decision to drink sparingly to conserve water. This was supposed to be a relaxing cruise, not an exercise in water rationing.

After lunch we pestered the captain until he came clean. Apparently, all the feluccas take the same route all the time. 2 nights, 2 days, start here, stop there, no we never reach Luxor on this trip, it is impossible. Once he'd told the truth and reassured us that our transports would meet us the next day and take us where we needed to go, we all relaxed. All they had to do was tell us the truth from the start. Later in the aternoon we stopped in a faster section of the Nile to go for a swim. It was incredibly refreshing. We sailed on until just before dusk when we stopped on a long sandy beach. It sounds nice, but the Egyptians seem to treat every flat surface like a rubbish tip, so we had to be careful where we were stepping. A few of us spent an hour or so collecting enough wood and lumps of charcoal for a small fire which we lit on the beach near our boat. That bit was blissful. Fire, friends, a beach and a belly full of pasta. Three of us were in Galabayas and I had my white scarf around my head. I looked like Jesus haha. Watched the sky and the fire for a long time and just talked crap. It was nice to be properly relaxed. Went to bed at 10pm and woke at 5:30am to find that we were already under sail. At 8am our 'private air-conditioned car' arrived. It wasn't private, nor was it a car. It was a minibus packed with europeans. So it was an uncomfortable ride to the temples of Ko Ombo and Edfu. Ko Ombo was impressive because of the 4,000 year old paint that still clung to the stone pillars and the intricate carvings all over the wall.
Edfu was impressive because it was designed to be. Colossal pillars stood around a courtyard which in turn acted as an entrance to a dark pillared temple. The bas reliefs ran high up the 20 metre high walls and the paint could still be seen in places where the sun and rain don't reach. Incredible stuff. What's even more incredible is that the human race lost the ability to do this stuff for 700 years after the Roman Empire collapsed. We could be on Mars by now.

Speaking of Christians delaying the progress of human society, we found out that the defaced carvings in the temples were done out of jealousy by Christians hiding from the Romans. When the Romans came a'huntin', the people ran into the temples for refuge and decided that they should try and erase the 'false gods' from the walls. Most of the Greater Temple had been filled with sand at the time, so it was spared, thankfully, but still, what gives these terrified groups of lion food the right to erase history?

From Edfu we continued in the bus to Luxor where we checked into the hotel before heading to the temples of Karnak and Luxor. Fun Fact: Karnak is the largest worship site in the world. The Room of Columns has over 100 pillars, all decorated in rich carvings and paintings. It blows my mind that PAINT survived the elements for 4,000 years. 1 point Pharoahs, 0 points Dulux Solarguard. It's hard to describe, but if you imagine a shitload of elaborately carved statues, pillars and obelisks, spaced evenly in accordance with the passage of the sun, then you get some sort of idea of the grandeur and precision of the place. Luxor temple was a waste of time and money. We could have seen the best bits from the road. If it was the only temple in these parts, then it would be impressive, but since it's one of the smallest, it's a sort of non-event. It's funny, for years I've wanted to go to all these places, but now that I'm here I've found myself thinking 'Oh, another statue. Oh, another carving. Oh, another bit of ancient paintwork. I'm bored.' THIS THOUGHT PROCESS IS AWESOME because it means that I've seen and experienced so much that it has become normal. Who would've thought that that would even be possible? That seeing ancient relics would turn into 'meh' moments? It's something that I really appreciate because it means I've soaked up ever iota of information here.

This post is quite the wall of text, but the week was a busy one.

The next day I went to the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens and Hatsephut's temple. KV (King's valley on the maps) is a desolate place, and hardly a place you'd associate with Pharoahs. Our guide sounded like a wikipedia soundbite, without all the useful information, so I ditched him and walked around the valley on my own. I saw the tomb of Thutmosis III and it was impressive. There is intricate paintwork on every flat surface except for the floor. On the ceiling there are yellow stars painted on a deep blue sky, on the walls there are protective spells for his journey to the afterlife, on the pillars are grid lines for work that was never finished. It was a really deep tomb and unbelieveably humid and stuffy, but it was well worth the visit. There are more stars underground in KV than there are in the sky above Cairo.

The next tomb was that of Tutankhamen. It's small, but it's a nice place. I got there before the crowd and spent the time looking at the few paintings on his walls, the quartzite sacrophagus and the King's body. He's quite a short guy and his nose is squashed from the mummification process. There isn't a great deal to see down there, but the experience is unforgettable.

Ramses I next. It's a shaft which ends in a decorated burial chamber. Lots of yellow paint on the walls, and lots of representations of the Pharoah and Osiris. The theory is that he died a sudden death, so the tomb could never be constructed in the manner in which it was intended. Even the coffin looks rushed.

The last tomb I saw before I left was that of Ramses IV. It's the largest publically-accessible tomb in the valley, and also the most richly decorated. The ceiling is at least 4 metres high, the corridor at least 4 metres wide, and the tomb about 50 metres deep. Everything is perfectly square and everything is perfectly painted. The hieroglyphs are dead-vertical, the spacing of the stars is even and the angle of the tomb messes with perspective so it looks alot bigger than it is. The sacrophagus is an immense block of granite, and it doesn't take a genius to work out how they got it there; they dragged it. There is none of the 'how did they get such a large object down sch a small hole' here. It looks deliberately rough too. It's as if the king said, 'I want to use that lump of rock for my sarcophagus', only to have the architect say 'But sir, the tomb is too small', to which the king would have replied 'Then make it bigger. Then make it bigger again.'

When you look towards the burial chamber from the entrance it looks like the final destination of an adventure film. There, at the end of a highly-decorated tunnel lies whatever it is the hero is searching for. The sarcophagus sits there like an immovable toad, and I love it.

Hatsephut's temple was impressive due to the government's restoration effort, but I'd seen most of the stuff in other places. I was never interested in this temple when I was a kid because it's so similar to the structures built by the Romans - colums, columns, columns. It's a pity we couldn't get into the temple inside the cave because from what I saw through a security grill, it's really deep and richly decorated. The paint looks new. I think I got a photo.

Queen's Valley was just like the King's valley, but smaller and less impressive. The one standout feature was a picture of the dead queen dancing with her husband. It's the first intimate moment I've seen on a tomb or temple wall. On some level, the Pharoah and his wife were still people like everyone else, regardless of what they told the population. Went back to the hotel after lunch and got screwed around some more by the money-grabbing bastards that seem to be around every corner in this country. We caught the train back to Cairo at 9pm, had a drink in the bar carriage after arguing with a waiter about whether the carriage existed at all (he said it didn't, just so he could overcharge on drinks), then went to sleep. I slept like a baby and we arrived in Cairo at 9am. I spent the day with a Scottish bloke, Bradley before heading out to a fast food dinner with Christian and a few girls who were staying in our hotel. One of them was an Indian/Kiwi/Aussie who spoke with a mixed accent. Clear Aussie one second, a touch of fush and chups the next, only to be followed by a couple of lilting indian words a moment later. She swore and drank and generally caused a spectacle. I'm not sure the Egyptians knew what was going on. Good value, and has some ties to actors in Bollywood. Yes Chris I got her details and can give you info on that when I get home. You might be able to catch up with her in Mumbai in November. Yes, I know, you worship the ground I walk on.

That's most of my Egypt adventures in a nutshell, but I have way more stories to tell when I get home, including the one where I was *this* close to punching an 8-year-old right in the middle of his stupid little face.

I leave on a jet plane tonight and get back at some point Monday.

Egypt - A Conclusion will be up in a few days.


Not on a train, never again, feel like a drain

So, we got really drunk on the train from Cairo to Aswan. The night started fine; we went to the bar carriage and ordered a beer and had a chat with some Americans who were visiting the middle east. Nice enough people, about 18-19 years old. One of the girls, bless her, still thought that she could make a big difference in the world just by wishing it, and that she had all the solutions for the middle-east conflicts. I stand by what I've discovered this whole trip: When you're 18 years old, you don't know shit. Christian bought a bottle of red, and it was very bad. So I drank half of it. This was on top of the two cans of beer I had earlier. They serve the beer over here in 500mL bottles or cans so it's a bit different to home. The other glaring difference is that the beer here is quite bad. After I was half a bottle and two beers in the hole a swarm of english teenagers swarmed the car with their two teachers. Turns out they were on a 1 week tour of Egypt. 2 teachers for 14 kids aging from 14 to 16. Madness, but the teacher struck me as one of those dedicated enthusiastic types, so maybe he won't go crazy. Time will tell I guess.

I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the train, beer in hand, floaty shirt moving around me, my beard occupying my face. For a split second I had a giggle - I felt like some wiseman or something surrounded by acolytes. I had 6 of these kids sitting around me on chairs asking me about Australia, my trip, and a whole bunch of other stuff. It was pretty cool having people hang on every word on a train speeding through the night. They were genuinely interested by what I was saying (and no I wasn't drunk, that bit came later), so I was happy to tell them anything they wanted to know. Made me think I should do that extra year of study (ack) and become a teacher. They left after an hour or so and I had a chat with their teacher and called him mad about 5 times. Those kids from Manchester were going to have a hell of a trip, I just hoped a few of them stopped dicking around long enough to appreciate how lucky they were. When the kids left I told a German couple that my ambulance was broken, that I had saurkraut in my leather pants and that I was a sausage. It's all the German I know. From here it gets a bit fuzzy since Christian bought me 4 more beers and 2 whiskeys. He didn't want to drink alone you see, so I was happy to oblige. We talked shit for hours and met alot of other travellers until the world went blurry. I walked back to our sleeping carriage, got to my chair and passed out. Woke an hour later feeling deathly ill and stumbled towards the back of the carriage where the banos was. The door was jammed shut so I stumbled on further till I reached the gap between carriages. I don't know which car it was, but I do know that when I left there was quite a bit of terrible beer, wine and whiskey all over the ground.
Hands up if you've got drunk on bad Egyptian beer on a train in the middle of the night somewhere in the middle of the desert, then thrown it all back up again.

*Puts hand up*

When I woke at 7am I felt quite bad really. 5 hours sleep, too much booze and no air-con made me hate life just a little bit. Compared to my travel buddy however, I was feeling rosy. He blew $150 USD on piss in a few hours and looked like he had been rolling in a gutter. When we arrived at Aswan he gripped my backpack and I led him through the crowds, across the streets and into the hotel. Our guide led the way for me and asked if we wanted to see the High Dam and Philae temple that afternoon.
'No thanks, we're quite sick at the moment'
'A cold, sir?'
'...something like that, yes.'

When I got to my hotel room I couldn't work out why I'd got so sick off of a relatively small amount of alcohol. I should have been buzzed but not sick. It was then that I remembered that I'd taken a couple of tablets to stabilise my stomach about 12 hours before getting on the train. I checked the box of meds and, lo and behold, saw this message: 'Do not consume alcohol for 48 hours after taking this medication'. Oops. There was my reason for feeling so ill. The meds, coupled with bad Egyptian beer (Luxor Brand) was a sure-fire way to make yourself feel as bad as possible in the shortest amount of time.

Aswan is where the wonder of Egyptian organisation was revealed to us. Back in Cairo we'd forked out $270 USD for the trip to Aswan/Luxor. This included all transport, a 2 night sail on a felucca and 2 nights in hotels. Sounded pretty reasonable. The thing is, they wanted us to share a room in Aswan. At this, Christian was suddenly awake with a loud 'Fuck that shit!' and we got separate rooms. The day was spent dozing. Important note: I didn't sleep, I just drank alot of water with re-hydration salts in it. Was right as rain by 6pm. I was told that we needed to be in the reception area at 3am to go to Abu Simbel by bus. I didn't sleep that night and Christian opted to stay at the hotel, so I went to the lobby alone at 3am and boarded the minibus filled with Italians and 2 americans. We drove for 15 minutes and stopped at a security checkpoint. We did not move for 45 minutes. We just parked the bus and the driver got out to smoke. So not only could I have stayed in bed longer, I also had no idea when we would arrive at our destination. After standing around for no reason we boarded the minibus and set off on the 3 hour trip across the desert to Abu Simbel.

Australia does not have desert. Jordan does not even have desert compared to Egypt. This Egyptian desert is like the surface of Mars, just yellow. Remind me to tell conspiracy theorists that there is no *real* Mars Rover, they just spray-painted Egypt red and sent the robot there instead. We arrived at Abu Simbel later than expected (because of the dicking around at the checkpoint) so we missed the sunrise there. Abu Simbel is a nice place, but to be honest I was disappointed. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the crowds, maybe it was the lack of sleep. I'm not sure. It was impressive for sure, and the statues were beautiful, but I wasn't filled with that sense of wonder that has been so familiar this trip. I think that I've imagined visiting Abu Simbel alone on a cool day, which is completely unrealistic. The heat here is baking - it's about 35 degrees every day this far south, and the tourists SWARM over the place. It's nice, but it would be infinitely nicer to be there on my own. The other downer is that the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities is hell-bent on setting up light shows at all of the major monuments. I have no problem with a few spotlights on the ground pointing up at the statue - it would look impressive at night, but it would still be simple. What the dickheads have done though is mount spotlights on Ramses' knees. His fucking KNEES. As your point of view scrolls across you see untouched statue, untouched statue, untouched statue, ancient statue with two large spotties on his lap. Doesn't seem too respectful to me.
Still, I'm glad I came, because it's something I can tick off my list.

The bus ride back was interesting because we were driven through a small sandstorm by a dickhead. He nearly rolled the bus because he tried to swerve nothing at 140km/h. If I were in a Lotus Elise, this would have been simple, but since he was in a minibus packed with tourists, it wasn't as simple a feat. Got back to Aswan, packed my stuff and joined Christian in the car for the ride to the felucca.

For those of you playing at home, a Felucca is an Egyptian sailing boat. What we were told in Cairo is that we'd spend 2 nights and 2.5 days on the felucca and sail down the Nile from Aswan to Luxor. There would be no more than 8 people on the boat, there would be proper toilets along the way and we'd see temples on day 2. What actually happened was this:

We arrived to find 10 people on the boat already, plus the three crew. So 15 people on a boat designed for 8. Of these 12 passengers there were 5 separate pairs/groups, including a family consisting of Mum, Dad, 7-year-old son, 10-year-old son. Each group had a different itinerary, none of which were followed. It turns out that the travel agents in Egypt tell the customers any damn thing to get their money, then whack them on any old vehicle and push them into the river. The first day was cruisy. We were relaxed, the wind was good, and there was an air of relaxation over the boat. We stopped for an hour so the captain could pick up beer and water. I did not order beer, just the water (to be safe). This transaction should have taken 15 minutes, but we were there for an hour. We sailed further down river to our campsite where they parked the boat and served us dinner. Lunch had been bad falaffel and a salad which we'd seen them rinse with river water. Dinner was some sort of tomato stew type thing. It was not filling or nice. Still, it was food. It was here that the captain told us we'd be visiting a camel market the next day. No we bloody weren't. He wanted us to pay to go in, clearly so he could get his kickback. We all argued with him alot and he was defeated. Everyone was tense because we had no idea where we were actually going, and had got the definite feeling that we'd been screwed.

I put on Christian's spare Galabaya (Arab man dress), wrapped my scarf around my face, and settled down to sleep, crammed between Chinese Phillip and English Tom. A boat designed for 8 does not sleep 12 very comfortably.

As an aside, I'd been awake for 38 hours and I wasn't feeling heavy-eyed or drained. I was running on fumes, and it was fun. No floaty feeling, not sickness, no 'oh god I'm so tired' feeling, just a state of ultra-awareness. It's the longest I've ever stayed awake in one stretch.

Friday, April 17, 2009

My Egyptian Adventures

I haven't had access to a computer for 7 whole days and before that I was keeping myself rather busy, so here's the first update in nearly two weeks.

I've been to the Cairo museum, I've been to Khan Khalili market, I've been to Aswan, Luxor, Abu Simbel, The Valley of the Kings, The Valley of the Queens, Hatsephut's Temple, The Temple of Karnak, The Temple of Luxor and a small book market which I found on the other side of a metro station. I've met some fantastic people and I've met some arseholes. I've met Australians, Scots, Palestinians, Egyptians, Americans, Germans, Poms and Kiwis. I've seen some pretty cool stuff in the past two weeks and had both great times and rather unpleasant times.

The Cairo Museum is a dream come true for 8-year-olds everywhere. The entrance hall is filled with statues, the largest of which sit at one end facing the entrance. They have serene looks and wry smiles on their faces. It's as if they're quietly laughing at a joke that no one will ever hear again. There are granite sarcophagi dotted everywhere and the floor is dominated by a fresco painted for the heretic Pharoah, Akenaten. Off to one side, slightly away from the other statues is a large beautiful granite bust of a pharoah. The face is staring through you and about 4,000 years back in time. The thousand yard stares of SAS soldiers are nothing compared to the thousand year stares on these statues. The serenity on their faces really gets me. It's as if they're saying 'I know something you don't know, and you'll never find out either.'

There are statues and paintings and models everywhere you look. Papyrus texts cover the walls of the stairwells and gold jewelry fills rooms. Coffins stand against the walls, and 4,000 year old paintings sit there as if they were conceived yesterday. The highlight of course is Tutankhamen's wing. Every treasure from his tomb sits in resplendent glory, surrounded by gawking tourists and shouting guides. Everything though pales in comparison to the famous mask. Someone once described Tutankhamen's mask as 'the most beautiful thing created by man' and you know what? I can't think of any challenger at this point in time. The gold is polished to the highest shine and the lapis lazuli inlay glows blue. The eyes are unparalleled in their realism and I stared at the damn thing for about 40 minutes. I could have stared at it for hours still, but the tourists were swarming, so I left. It sounds sort of silly, but after a while I got tired of seeing these artifacts - it's a sensory overload. You see a few treasures here and there in museums all over the world, and you yearn for more, but here it's a whole different ballgame. Every artifact you could desire is here (as long as you don't request the Rosetta Stone or the Book of the Dead) and it's exhausting. Some of the black granite statues are mesmerising, and would look quite nice in my house, and some are just the same as all the others. To find gems amongst the 'dross' of the museum is fantastic, because you know you've seen the very best of the best.

I met an American guy here at the hostel. His name is Christian, so I call him Christian. He calls me Mike because that's the name of the hotel manager and is one of the only names he can remember. We checked out the Giza pyramids later in the week and I managed to get inside the Great Pyramid. The thing is colossal, truly truly colossal. The entrance looks like a narrow sandstone cave, but after 15 metres or so it narrows down into an even smaller red granite passageway. I'm guessing it's barely 1.2 metres square, so it involved a bit of bending over. This tunnel goes for 20 metres or thereabouts before opening into the Gallery. It's a 3 metre wide, 10 metre high, 40-50 metre long passageway made of massive red granite blocks. The masonry is perfect and the colour flawless. I don't know about other people who've been in there, but I was filled with a sense of wonder - another thing to tick off my Bucket List. At the top of the passage is a short corridor which leads to the burial chamber. This final chamber is 10 metres long, 5 metres wide and at least 6 metres high. The only thing in there is a small sarcophagus. It looks lonely, almost as if it was never meant to be there in the first place. The large box is dwarfed by the room around it. After a couple of minutes in there the lights turned out, so I was essentially stuck in the middle of Khufu's pyramid without a star to steer by. IT WAS AWESOME. Some people in there freaked out a bit, but it was a hell of an adventure, sweaty and oxygen-poor as it was. When the lights came back on I slowly walked out, soaking everything in. I get that uplifted feeling even a week later when I sit here typing this. I was in the pyramid. Epic.

Christian and I checked out the Khan Kalili market too. It's a thousand-year-old market which sits in Cairo. If you want to be surrounded by exotic smells, clothes, people and language, then go here. Just be prepared for the hassle. I'm not claustrophobic in the slightest, but my heart did start to race a bit as the stall holders swarmed around and tried to drag me into their store, 'La, halas' is all I could say (No, it's over/finished/done in Arabic). One joker told me that he 'didn't care about my money, just my friendship' as he tried to charge me 270 LE (about $65 AUD) for 2 head scarves. We got down to 80 for two when Christian said 'This guy over here wants 40 for 2'. Problem solved. I swear I've turned into a magpie. I don't look at jewelry at all at home, but as soon as I pass a jewelry shop here I go 'Ooh! Shiny!' and gravitate towards it. The thing about the jewelry here is that alot of it is modelled in the same style as the artifacts that were taken from tombs, so there's the wonderful mix of gold and lapis lazuli. I wouldn't wear it because it's too flashy, and I wouldn't buy it because gold is bloody expensive, but it is nice to look at. I almost want to build a damn nest out of the stuff and fluff my plumage.

One guy had the nerve to grab my arm and drag me towards his shop despite my protestations. I grabbed his bicep, gripped under the muscle and said 'No. Halas. Understand?' He let go. that's a problem I've found over here, and I'm starting to understand why the middle-east struggles with the idea of peace. It seems that the only language these people will listen to come the end is the language of threats or physical violence. I don't like that. I liked floating through Peru, smiling at everyone and being open to new experiences. Here I have to shut down a bit and play the stone-hearted arsehole. It can be fun, for sure, but after a while I get tired of being on edge. At any rate, I found an eye of Horus for my travel necklace that I'm putting together and went on my way. Our driver, Achmed spent the day trying to teach us Arabic. Christian is quite the linguist, so he knew the right questions to ask. We can now say 'Where is [insert word here]' 'I want [insert word here] 'My friend' 'That' 'BAKSHEESH! (Give me a tip!) and 'Gay'. I'm not sure how many times I've told an Egyptian that Christian is gay, nor how many times he's returned the favour, but it's happened ALOT. Isn't learning fun? I think the highlight was yelling 'Gay gay gay gay gay' out of the car as we drove through downtown Cairo. Apparently this is considered very offensive. I like to think we're doing our part to improve international relations with the Middle-east.

I met up with Rose and Linda again on the 10th. My travel plans had changed which meant we could catch up again (travellers can't take day trains anymore, so it meant spending an extra day and night in Cairo). We went to the Mohammed Ali mosque, some other mosque, the Egyptian museum where I looked at tut's mask again then picked up Christian and went out to dinner at some Egyptian place. The food was pretty good, but part of my kebab dish wasn't chunks of meat, it was more like mince that had been cooked on a stick. It looked like a dog turd steaming happily on a bed of lettuce. Food fit for a beggar. From the restaurant we went to the river where we took a felucca ride along the Nile thanks to Mostafa, Rose's Egyptian friend. Sailing the Nile is nice at night; there are no crowds, there isn't much sound, the sky is clearer, the lights shine brightly, and there are hardly any Egyptians around either. I'll get to why the last one is important later on. From the felucca we hit the market again. Christian bought 2 Galabayas (Arab man-dresses) and I grabbed a couple of floaty shirts. Took ages to find what I wanted, but I got it in the end and paid too much because I couldn't be arsed arguing with a shirt seller at 2am. A change had come over Rose and Linda since I'd last seen them. When they left they were fairly floaty and tolerant of most things, but since their return from Luxor and Aswan they wanted out. They didn't tolerate the hassle for a second and they seemed pretty on edge and angry. Some of the negative energy rubbed off on me, and some of the shine of Egypt was tarnished a bit. It wasn't their fault though - I'd been walking around with a Kiwi the day earlier, and he too had come back from Luxor and Aswan steaming. He was sick of the constant Baksheesh and conmen too. It was more the fact that I was reaching the end of my tether too as far as Cairo was concerned and I needed a change of scenery.

We said goodbye to the girls and went back to the hotel. The next day was the day we slummed around and prepared for the night train to Aswan... Ah the night train to Aswan. That was an... interesting trip. More on that in the next update tomorrow.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Ubiquitous understanding

It's very rare to say that you understand something completely. Today I saw some things that made a penny drop. Hard to describe, easy to experience.

Today I Understood.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

No Smoking

Bit hard to say you're not a smoker in Cairo - as soon as you step outside you're hit by a myriad of smoky smells. Car exhaust, cigarette smoke, fumes from... whatever it was that I passed in the street. It's a polluted and busy city to be sure but it's also a pretty good place. Unlike Cuzco, you can't feel the history here, it's more a feeling that there's some history just a little way away, you just have to go look for it.

Day 1 in Cairo was spent getting accustomed to the surroundings and threatening touts with physical violence. I'm a calm guy, everyone knows that, but it sure was fun getting amped up with anger for a brief period. My scary face was a good one.
On the evening of day 1 I contacted Rose and Linda, a couple of Aussie girls I met at Amman airport, and sorted out a tour to the Pyramids at Giza, Saqqara and Dashur the next day. Dinner was a bottle of whisky I shared with a Swiss bloke here at the hostel. 500mL bottle of Glenfiddich (sp?) only cost $30 AUD Duty Free in Amman - bargain.

The tour of the pyramids at Giza was top notch - real dreams come true stuff. It seems I've had that alot this trip, and it makes me smile. I think we got ripped off as far as Giza went, purely because we took the horse riding option. Rose's bargaining skills are stellar - it helps that she's worked in Jordan for a year, and we got our entrance fee and horse ride + guide for 210 EGP instead of 390 EGP. So... $50 AUD instead of $100. Rode the horses from a side entrance to Menkaure's pyramid (the small one). It's funny; from a distance the pyramids look huge, but from close up you don't appreciate how big they are because they fill the sky. We left the guides and walked to the Second Pyramid, Khafre's (or Chephren's) and just chilled. I climbed some large rock thing with Rose and we sat above all the souvenir sellers and tourists and just soaked it all in. There we were, sitting on a 6,000 year old stone structure, in front of a Pyramid that seemed to fill the world. On the right sat the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops), on the left sat Menkaure's pyramid, and in the middle was our little rock in a sea of people.

I'm not exaggerating when I say it fills the world. Mountains are supposed to be big - that's their purpose. Pyramids are built by men, and they seem too big, too huge, too immense, too good to be true. The thing is, there is a truth about them which is irrefutable. It's not tangible and it's not logical. Or maybe it is. Maybe it's the purest distillation of logic and tangibility that humans have ever created; it's a big pile of stones which have been ordered in a certain way according to a specific plan, and their construction is as close to mathematically perfect as doesn't matter (since it was created without all the modern conveniences that we enjoy today). It's also really really tall, really really wide and really really heavy. There is a peace about them which I enjoy. I'll have to go back there later anyway because I MUST get inside the Great Pyramid, but I think I'll just hang out too.

If anyone has read Terry Pratchett's Pyramids then you'll have an understanding of the energy which surrounds the place. Granted, these Pyramids don't flare Time off their apex like in Pratchett's book, but when you stand next to them, you almost believe that it could happen (or does happen when nobody is looking. It's the world's biggest Shroedinger's Cat experiment).

From Giza's Sphinx and Pyramids we headed for Dashur, site of the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid. Cheap entry and hardly any tourists. It's slightly off the beaten track, although we did go on a prayer day, so there wasn't as much traffic around. Halfway up the structure is a door about 1.2m square. Extending down from the door at a 45 degree angle runs a passage lined with red granite. This passage would have to extend for 70 metres. I could be wrong because the angle and the darkness messed with my perceptions a bit. At the base is a room of smooth unmarked granite. Completely unremarkable were it not in the middle of a pyramid built 6,000 years prior to my visit. The next room has a ceiling at least 20 metres high. It's stepped to alleviate pressure on the surrounding stone. The apex is lost in darkness. The next room smells like ammonia and is empty save for a rickety wooden staircase which is maybe 8 metres high. Rose and Linda stayed at the bottom while I climbed up. The top smelled like a freshly-cleaned oven. The coolest part was the fact that that the staircase led to an unlit tunnel. The sight of a pitch black tunnel was exciting to me, so I whipped out my mobile phone (a really ineffective torch) and strolled off into the darkness. At the 6 metre mark the passage stopped. In front was rock, to the left was rock, behind me was the passage, and on the right was a strange handrail with open air on the other side. I turned my camera's flash on and took pictures forwards, left, right, up and down. Even though thousands of people had been there before me, I really felt like I was the one exploring it for the first time. The pictures showed an empty room with a vaulted ceiling and bare rock floor, but it was the experience that mattered. Cue Indiana Jones music.

I walked out of the chamber, down the stairs and back to the red granite passage. The light of the entrance far above put me in mind of a train coming down a tunnel. I ran to the top and met the girls. We rested a bit then headed back to the car and left for Saqqara - home of the first stone pyramid, as designed by Imhotep for the Pharoah Djoser. Again, Rose's bargaining came into play. She went to the ticket office and told the clerk that she was a student in Jordan and had left her student card in the car (Truth). She then told him that she was travelling with her student sister (Lie) and a classmate, me (Lie). We got in for half price. Two wrongs don't make a right, but two wrongs and a right make a right. Important to know. Did a brief museum tour and discovered that 2,000 years after Imhotep died, the priests made him a god. That's a pretty good reference letter.

As it was near closing time we moved fast. First stop was a hieroglyph-covered tomb. Really beautiful and detailed, but it was nothing compared to what happened next. At Saqqara is an unimpressive pile of sand and stones. It's the remains of the very VERY old Teti Pyramid. To enter you must walk down a narrow corridor much like the Red Pyramid, but much shorter. At the base is a room with limestone walls that are covered in thousands of hieroglyphs. There are etched deep in the stone and look just like that would have millenia ago. The lines they are written between are dead straight, just like a school exercise book, but vertical. The spectacular part of the complex is the burial chamber. It's small and contains four things of interest: The vaulted ceiling, the colossal granite sarcophagus, the hieroglyphs on the walls... and the stars on the ceiling. I couldn't help but feel touched by the thought that went into the ceiling.

Someone seven thousand years ago must have looked at the burial chamber and said, 'The Pharoah will be mummified and placed in this room. He will have no brain, no eyes, and his organs will sit in jars beside him. He will reside inside a black granite sarcophagus, and the lid will be placed over him. It will be dark, but here there will be stars and they will shine for eternity.' I like the thought of that. He may be dead, and he may be under a 5 tonne slab of granite, but he will still have the stars in the sky.

From the Teti Pyramid we took the car to the Step Pyramid and did the photo and tourist thing. It wasn't anywhere near as important a place, at least to me, as the inside of the Teti structure. I also got ripped off by a tourist policeman of all people, but I didn't care about the 0.5 EGP I gave him (about 15 cents AUD), I was still dreaming of a starry sky. We went back to Cairo and set up a time to meet for dinner. I got thoroughly lost walking to meet Rose. Most people here are quite helpful, but they get 'Left' and 'Right' confused and they often give incorrect directions, just to show that they want to help. I eventually turned up at the square where Rose was waiting about 45 minutes after I was due. Was fun getting there though - I got well and truly lost and discovered that Cairo has many different squares and midans (roundabouts) that look very similar. As I waited for Rose I got hassled by a guy who clearly wanted to 'very helpfully' give me directions or assistance in exchange for cash. I kept the conversation away from assistance while I waited. He was polite but had a greedy look in his eye which he transferred to Rose when she arrived. Apparently he'd hassled her before I arrived so she went for a walk somewhere else. There are sleazes everywhere in the world, but they seem to operate on a different level here. Still, no real harm done, so we walked off to the Nile.

The smog was thick and it hid the sky, but that didn't matter; I still had a starry sky spinning inside my head.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Cairo - First Impressions

It's fucking crazy! It's like every single crazy person in the world tried to get a driver's license and failed, but started driving anyway! It's so much fun being a passenger here, as long as you're in the hands of a competent driver. It's like a constant rally course.

The hostel is fantastic. It's about 3 months old and is owned by an Egyptian/American/Italian guy. Great English, great prices on tours and things, so you can't go wrong.

I did however have my first experience with a ripoff artist today. I was walking down the street looking for a place to buy an American -> European power converter for my camera charger. A guy walks up to me and says, in pretty good English, 'I like your shirt'. I was wearing my Binge drinking tshirt, so this reaction is what I'd call 'normal'. He said 'I'm here on holiday, but I've been here before, what are you looking for?'
I told him I was looking for a power converter/computer shop/electricity shop/electronics shop/Radioshack?
'Ah yes, there is a radioshack this way near the Nile, I will show you.'
'You're not looking for money are you, because if you are, I won't pay you.'
'No no my friend, I'm just here on holiday, I'm happy to walk around, I'll show you.'

Off I walked. Partway through the journey I asked him where he was from. He said 'Palestine' and started talking about how Israel bombed his city and how his whole family is dead. No sympathy from me because I'm a cold suspicious bastard. We keep walking and he tells me about how cheap everything is here so I stick to the 'poor student' routine. It's a good routine which I plan to keep up.

We walk a bit more an I ask 'Are you doing this for money? I'm not paying you.'
'No no, I'm just walking around this afternoon, I like making new friends travelling.'
I smile and say, 'Me too, that's what I like about travelling. I like meeting new people, but if they try to take money from me, steal from me, or cheat me, I'll break their fucking hand.'
The look in his eyes said 'Really? you'll break their hand?' but the look disappeared shortly after as he said 'No, I have never had problems during my life. If I do something for someone, it isn't for something in return. I do it because I am good, and if they help me, it's because they are good.'

Bull. Shit. Mate.
We keep walking and he points out stupid shit to me. What do I care about a leather jacket? We get to Radioshack, I distract him while I open my wallet, and I buy my power converter. Halfway back to the hostel (which I neglected to tell him the name of) he starts talking about how he wants food. I get angry.
'You told me when I met you that you didn't want money.'
We start arguing, and since I have a beard and he doesn't, I have the upper hand. He starts gesticulating like an Arab and saying 'I need 2 euros, I'm on the street tonight, I have no place to stay!'
I reply, 'I don't have 2 euros. I have 6 pounds (egyptian pounds... so about $1.50 AUD) I can give you.'
'This is not money! This is nothing! Ask anyone! 2 euros is good price. everyone here will charge you 50 pounds!'
'I have 6 pounds mate, I'm just a backpacker. 2 euros is a whole day's food for me (haha yeah, as if). You can either take this money and be grateful, or I'll take it back and you can piss off.'
He starts swearing in Arabic.
'This is nothing money.'
'Then give it back and piss off.'
He walks away, gesticulating towards me angrily. I've just pissed off an Arab in Cairo!

I get back to the hostel, check my backpack, and notice that I already have a power converter, so my whole excursion was a waste, still, it was fucking hilarious and I got to get legitimately angry at a guy. I do like adrenaline ever so much.
I'll take the converter back tomorrow some time.

Oh, and two guys started punching each other on the flight over from Amman, but that's a story for another day. Arabs getting violent on a plane? Whoever would've thought? hahahaha

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Petra - Dah dahdah dahhhh dah dah dahhhhhh (Indiana Jones theme)

I arrived safely Jordan after spending most of the flight from Heathrow talking to an Iraqi Petroleum Engineer. Nice guy. He has 6 kids, lectures at Baghdad University and tells me 'Oh yes, Iraq is quite safe now.'

Jordan customs was easy to get through and I passed the 'waiting for my luggage' time by talking to one of the most gorgeous girls I've ever seen. She was in Jordan to visit her parents. I think she was studying in London or the US - she had a mixed accent and eyes you could lose yourself in. Her father interrupted our chat with a stern look which said 'I know how to... do things to people who talk to my daughter' - I'm not going to argue Islamic tradition with a guy with a towel on his head. I think he'd win the argument. Still, she was quite pretty.

The drive to the hotel was a no-brainer. It was late, it was dark and there was no traffic. Easy. Got to my room, crashed out, woke up, did the whole breakfast thing, crashed out again, then took a car to Petra. Cost me 65 JD which works out to $130. I didn't mind so much because we drove past some of the local buses on the way. They were very... local.

My first impression of my hostel in Petra was positive - the staff spoke excellent English and did everything they could to make me feel comfortable. Granted, my bed was a bit short (as they are everywhere for me), and the bathroom was a bit shit, but it was still a great place. (My first actual impression was 'this is a shithole', but the owner, Nasser was so kind and accommodating that my disgust with the bathroom disappeared).

The next day I fell in with a gorgeous American, Lindsay (again, taken. wtf is with me meeting people who are already taken?), and her friend Dan. We spent all day walking around Old Petra. The Treasury building is as cool in real life as it is in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It's huge and the detail is astounding. Part of me was thinking, 'Yeah, I can see how the Holy Grail could live here'. The rest of Petra is impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the Treasury, which is the first building you see. The temples carved into the cliffs are pure genius, and the Roman road that runs through the place is still in pretty good nick after all these years. The camels and donkeys screaming in the canyon below sounds exactly like the Sand People from Star Wars, and I expected Jawas to come strutting out of every cave I passed.

As we walked along the Roman Road, which these days is lined with hawkers selling miscellaneous crap, we came across a large temple which stood away from the mountains, which was odd, considering every other place in Petra is carved from the red cliff faces. It's pretty big. It's about as big as a standard-sized church back home (without the spire). Lindsay found a stone staircase filled with garbage, so we climbed it to the top of the temple. I nearly fell off the top. That was interesting to say the least. Took some photos then went back down. The stairs were in really good condition - probably because most tourists look at the stairs and put it in the 'too hard basket' because 'they're scared they might fall'. They're right. They might fall. I nearly did. 10 metres straight down, right onto my head.

From the temple we started off towards a crusader fortress which was built by the Crusaders during, you guessed it, The Crusades. Not only was Petra an important crossroads on the Incense and Silk Roads, it was also an important defensive choke point. There is an intricate canyon system in place which would funnel all troops around a certain spot - the spot where the Europeans built their fortress. It isn't really a mesa, but it isn't really a hill either. It's sort of the bastard child of both. I'm not really a fan of taking paths, so we walked off the beaten track and climbed some boulders, checked out tourist-free views, and scared the crap out of some lizards. I tried to catch one, but they were too fast which is good in hindsight because:

A. I don't know if they are poisonous
B. I was lifting up rocks without any thought to what could be beneath
C. I don't know if Jordan has venomous snakes

Still, it would've been cool to get a closeup shot of these lizards. They look a bit like the Bearded Dragons we get back home, but with fewer spiky bits. They're also really bloody fast.

The walk up to the summit of the fortress was interesting, but simple. If any of the Inca Trail people are reading this, think of it as the first kilometer or so of Day 2 - a bit steep, but pretty damn easy. We got to the top after crossing a very shitty bridge and were met by a stunning view. At the base of the outcrop runs the Roman road. On the left side of the road is a sandy hill covered in stones, and on the right sits a bunch of broken roman pillars. The road runs for about a kilometer towards the temples carved in the deep red rock in the distance. On the far right is a whole of nothing, with accompanying mountains. On the far left is a canyon system and a narrow road which leads out of the valley. That's Petra in a nutshell really. Temples, Path, nothing, Mountains, nothing, Lizards, Hills, Rocks, Hyre be Draygans.

I tried to find a faster path down to the base, and I did, if you call 'gravity' 'a faster way'. The path I chose was a line of scree which ended in a sharp vertical drop. It would be fast but quite painful, so we chose the proper path and made our way to the Monastery which we were told was 45 minutes away.

We got to the Monastery after a 15 minute walk. We either walked fast or the people who estimate these sorts of things are budgeting time for people who are well on their way to a third hip replacement. After a walk which resembled Day 1 of the Inca trail we were met with a building far bigger than the Treasury. In it's heyday, the Monastery would have been more impressive than its famous sibling, but time has not been kind to the structure. The pillars are still smooth and the roof is pretty much intact, but there are clear signs that wind and rain have worked their magic over the years. It stands 48 metres tall, and 43 metres wide, which is big in anyone's book. It's funny, the high-rises and skyscrapers back home are far bigger than these old temples, but they don't make you feel as small as these ancient structures. These old buildings have 'I will crush you and the camel you rode in on' written all over them. (I wouldn't be surprised if they did really, there's way too much carved graffiti on these things).

My guess is that they built the temples from the top-down; Carve a bit, dig down a bit, carve some more, dig down some more etc etc, so it's already easier than using scaffolding, but it doesn't stop it being a marvel. Every tap of the chisel had to be precise or else the artisan would be screwing up hours or weeks worth of work. Remember that these buildings were carved out of a single lump of rock. Yes they are bloody big rocks, but they are still just single rocks.

We grabbed photos then trekked back to the entrance which meant going past the Treasury again. It was even more impressive the second time around. It might be because the light was different, it might be because there were fewer people, it might be because we'd seen everything else and it had paled in comparison, or it might have been a combination of both. I managed to get a few iconic shots (altho none completely devoid of people) before walking through the Siq to the entrance.

For those of you playing at home, the Siq is a pathway through the tall canyons. It's cool and dark in there, and I was continually scanning for lines to climb. I need to get back into rockclimbing when I get home. At the top of the path (which is a damn sight longer going up than going down) I parted ways with the Americans. I think they only let the good ones out of the country to go travelling because I haven't met an arsehole yank yet. After saying our goodbyes I walked back up the hill to the hostel. It was here that I had an epiphany.

I understand religion! Fancy that, me of all people. Yes, I understand it now, and I shall explain why.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam all originated in the same area. Know why? Because the creators of these religions were all completely fucking out-of-control crazy. The countries these religions started in are hot, dry, dusty, devoid of water in alot of places and completely barren. These people had nothing better to do than tell stories to each other. To me it seems that they all felt that there was no way known that they could all be as collectively unlucky to end up in a place as bare as this, so they concluded that someone out there must be holding the grudge to end all grudges against them. It was then clear that they had to appease this invisible force in the hopes that he/she/they/it would deliver them from harm. Here's an idea: Go for a walk to where there is water. The Nile Valley isn't that far, really. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers aren't that far either. Hell, walking to Europe would be more productive than talking to the sky.

I have no problem at all with the concept of a guy called Jesus being alive two thousand years ago, nor the fact that he might have been a nice bloke to have a cup of tea with. I just don't buy all the supernatural or 'but he will save me' stuff that goes along with it. Same goes for the Prophet Mohammed.

What I've seen of 'The Holy Land' both in real life and on television makes me wonder if there is a more unholy place on the face of the earth. It's barren desert, there has been fighting here for thousands of years, and no one can agree who told their story first.
Still, nice people here in Jordan, really accomodating, it's just a shame that the landscape isn't as hospitable as its people and that the insanity of their religions has reflected badly on them as people.

Tomorrow I leave for Cairo for 7 days, then Luxor for 7 days after that. I think there's two days of travel in there somewhere as well. I'm going to blow my budget a bit in Egypt - I NEED to get to Abu Simbel near Aswan. Saving money, even while on a budget, is a very good thing.

See you in the Land of the Pyramids.