Post-Mortem Star Strike

December 14, 2008

It was time for some official sightseeing in Hyderabad, and where better than the city’s old fortress? Driving there we had to go through some fairly rough slums, and though I’m sure it was by no means the worst examples of poverty in India, I began to understand what people meant by expressing discomfort witnessing poverty while traveling. Homes made out of tarps and other scraps of garbage were clustered together in kinds of villages, inhabited by large families. Little children would play in the mud and garbage as diseased looking dogs would poke around looking for scraps. Looking at it just made your heart sink, and you felt a shadow of guilt looming over you for the luxuries you take beyond the basic necessities of life.

After paying the appropriate fee for entrance (10 cents for Rucha, $2 for me since I’m a foreigner), we purchased the services of a guide and climbed up what was once a huge fortress called Golconda situated atop a hill in Hyderabad. Highlights included architecture that assisted in the acoustic transmission of clapping from one section of the fortress to the next for purposes of communication, sweeping views of Hyderabad, and learning the ominous odor of unseen bats laying in wait.

After a stop to shop for bangles in a particularly crowded and busy network of old streets (Charminar), we also viewed a very nice palace (Chow Mahal) that included interior and exterior areas for viewing. The greenery of the palace grounds was very lovely, including stretches of fountains shot arches of water into the air . They had something for everyone: for me, several rooms displaying old armaments, and for Rucha displays of clothing and jewelry from long ago.

The highlight of the day was yet to come, however, as that night I was to encounter for the first time the Hyderabad club scene! At 10:00 or so Rucha’s friend Harsha picked us up to begin the night’s festivities at a friend’s place not very far from Rucha’s home. We parked and entered the friend’s home, and I remember following in tow really not knowing what to expect. The house was very big and lavish, and we climbed an indoor marble staircase to enter a room upstairs that turned out to be a kind of entertainment room, with a giant TV displaying live the Miss World competition, some couches, and a bar area with 6 of Harsha’s friends (including his sister) hovering and chatting.

Everyone was very friendly, and Harsha poured me a Jack and Coke while folks chatted with me about how I liked India, the US, etc. Alas, the Jack and Coke had several huge ice cubes in it, but not wanting to rude I employed a technique that so far had worked for me: just drink the drink as fast as possible!  I could only hope the rate of my alcohol consumption didn’t give any wrong ideas…

Two more people joined us eventually, and I shook shook their hands as Rucha introduced me. She leaned in a whispered “He’s a really famous actor here!” I’d never seen him before, but I took her word for it.  I believe it was Akkineni Nagarjuna?

After some time, a subset of us headed out to a club called Touch, which apparently Harsha used to own but eventually sold to someone else. Upon arrival we were whisked by security and into the booming sounds of the club. The club was big but crowded, with people dressed up for the evening, dancing in dim lighting filled with laser lights and fog machines while the DJ spun house music. We cut through the crowd to head towards the bar where, throughout the night, Harsha kept handing me drinks without my having to pay for anything! The club was excellent for people watching, and while we stood with our drinks and looked around, past acquaintances would keep coming up to Harsha or Rucha, shaking hands, hugging, and chatting. At one point I shook hands with someone who Rucha explained later was another famous actor (Sumanth?). Eventually Rucha introduced me to another friend of hers, nicknamed Cherry, with whom she’d been friends with since they were kids.

Suddenly the lights came on and the music stopped. I looked at my watch and it read 12:30. Apparently a new law put in place required most clubs to close at 12:30 in an effort to reduce drunk driving. The effect of the sudden lights were drastic, as though someone had lifted a series of Photoshop effects applied to a magazine cover. A girl I had pointed out to Rucha as being cute was now revealed as having completely different facial features with too much makeup having been applied. Everyone looked a bit awkward, as if waking up and seeing clearly for the first time the company they had gone home with the night before.

“Thank you for coming, but it is time to go. If you know after-parties to go to, you can go to them now,” said the DJ into the microphone.

We followed Cherry out to her car and she kept getting on the phone with various folks as her driver took us one way, then U-turned in another direction, until we ended up at a house which turned out to be the home of the woman who owned the club we had just come from. We passed a brand new cherry-red Porsche in the driveway as we made our way to the outdoor bar that she had next to a small pond in her back yard.

As we continued meeting people and chatting, it slowly began to dawn on me that everyone at this house looked oddly familiar: they were all the people from the club we just came from! I even saw the DJ walking around. While I was chatting with someone he explained that the group of people I was hanging out with that night (all in their 20s and 30s) were among the wealthier families in Hyderabad. They would often grow up there, go to school in the US, and return to open a club, or restaurant, or stores using their family’s money as backing. It struck me that the crowd that Rucha hung out with in Hyderabad was quite different from the crowd in the US. Here she was among the upper class, actors and club-owners, whereas in the US she was among the middle class, the worker-bees of organizations.

I also had an interesting conversation with Harsha’s sister, who was visiting from her home in Jersey. When I asked about whether she was happier in the US or India, she said she was very happy there, and preferred it to living in India. We talked about her baby boy, and the cultural elements of America she wanted to instill in him (“independence, and self-sustainability”) as well as the Indian cultural elements she wanted him to have (“respect for the family and your elders”).

I had some great conversations with people that night, though Rucha teased me that I always seemed to talk to either guys or girls that are already spoken for. “Maybe you do that because you get nervous talking to available girls,” she joked. Ridiculous!  Right?

After taking some time on the dance floor, we headed home around 3:00. I had received a long list of instructions from Mr. H on how to lock things up and turn off and on the appropriate lights at their house, so I began doing so, starting from the gate outside and all the way up the stairs.

At this point let me pause a moment and reflect on one of the simpler inventions of this world that tends to be taken for granted: the doorbell. Now, in all my life I have pressed a number of doorbells, in all their shapes, sizes, and sounds. Some prefer the little circular button, others the rectangular form. But never have I encountered a doorbell that not only takes the form of a light switch, but is also nestled snugly amongst other light switches as though a proper member of the light switch family. That is, not until that night when, deep in “light-turning-off” mode, I pressed a series of light switches next to the front door and activated the doorbell. Rucha hissed “Don’t press the doorbell!” but alas my powers of time travel were still absent and the deed was done. A very sleepy looking Mrs. H promptly opened the door, and I began my series of apologies for waking her up at such a late hour.

The following day Rucha and I went shopping for music since I wanted to get some Bollywood music that I’d been hearing in clubs or seeing on TV as a kind of acoustic souvenir. Music in India is super cheap (around $4 for a brand new CD), and before long I’d piled up a bag full of music. As we shopped around in the store, I paused in shock to look at the DVD section. There in front of me, on all the different DVD covers, was the actor I’d met the night before, here on a motorcycle, there with a woman, there with a different haircut. It was such a surreal feeling, to have this kind of post-mortem starstruck feeling, and I smiled at what I knew was yet another memorable moment from my travels.

Matrimony Caucophony

December 11, 2008

Considering how lavish things were to this point, I was curious to see how the main ceremony would be. As we drove, I kept looking about and wondering where we might see the event – a temple? A park? A palace?

I finally got my answer as we pulled up in front of a convention center amidst a huge cluster of cars similarly dropping guests off as though for the grand opening ceremony for a new building or a big event with A-list celebrities. We stepped inside, and walked through the flowery awning to enter the hall where the ceremony was already in progres (apparently it’s quite normal to show up late and for only a portion of the day’s festivities), and I couldn’t help but laugh at the grandeur of what I saw.

In what looked like the conference center’s biggest hall (larger than eBay’s company all-hands conference hall), there were three sections: 20% at the front was taken up by the wedding ceremony area in progress and space for the musicians, 50% was taken up by audience seating facing the ceremony, and the rear was taken up by a food area in the back. Mr. H said he was glad I was along since he could spot my head above everyone else’s, or he might lose us. Above all this was several huge red and yellow cloth fabrics attached to the ceiling that draped down in grand arcs.

We took our seats to witness the ceremony. The sound was a loud cacophony due to the priest’s chanting being microphoned loudly and because for some reason they also chose to mic the musician playing his Oboe-esque horn, which was already quite loud. This sound was the most irritating also because the player tended to move about in a way that sometimes his instrument wasn’t amplified, and then suddenly it was, the sudden loud honking noise making me reflexively look about for an oncoming car.

At the center was a kind of altar space where bride and groom, elaborately adorned, were in the center of a buzz of activity from those around them. The priest chanting into the microphone, an assistant grabbing various things and moving them about, family members coming and going in accordance to what was needed for that particular part of the ceremony.

At one point things seemed to be going to a kind of climax as the chanting became more intense and the music drew to a peak in dynamic and almost frantic melody. I couldn’t help but lean forward on the edge of mu seat to watch. Bride and groom were standing with a kind of rope joining then together, and Mr. H leaned over to explained that this was the moment where they actually became married.

After the ceremony, we lined up along with everyone else to congratulate the bride and groom. On Mr. H’s instructions, I tool a pinch of rice grains and drizzled a bit on Abishek and Prati’s heads (bride and groom) and contratulated them. It felt very odd to be involved in such an intimate ceremony, even if there were so many other people there. I wanted to express to them just how much I appreciated being able to witness this facinating element of Indian culture, and how glad I was that they’d allow someone they don’t even know to be a guest witnessing such an important moment in their lives, but given I only had a few seconds, and, aware of the many other people waiting behind me, I’m afraid my words didn’t do justice to voice my feelings of gratitude.

Becoming Corey Babu

December 11, 2008

After a good night’s sleep, I began my second day in Hyderabad with a spicy omlette with chilli in it before taking my “shower.”. Rucha explained that to get my hot water I’d have to “warm up the geezer, which takes some time.” Thankfully, before I saught out someone old and cold, Rucha explained that by “geezer” she meant the Indian pronunciation of “geyser”, the water heater in my bathroom. My shower involved filling a bucket with hot water and pouring it on myself with a pitcher. It actually wasn’t too bad, and seemed to inherently prevent the waste of water. It was also interesting to see just how much water is needed to bathe.

Driving in India is every bit as bad as it’s reputed to be, though I was somewhat prepared for it by Egypt and to a lesser extent Jordan. In high school, when learning how to drive, I was told to think of the handy acronym “SMOG” when making a lane change: Signal, Mirror, Over the shoulder, Go if safe. India’s acronym, if they thought about driving in terms of lane changes, which they don’t, might be “HAG”: Honk And Go. Essentially the general driving technique involved filling any space in front if you where your vehicle might fit. Any time you were passing someone, or someone looked like they were coming towards you, you honked your horn. My brother Colin sometimes employs this technique in San Francisco, and calls it “preemptive honking.” In India it’s just the normal way to drive. In fact, many of the little taxi cars literally ask for it (“Please sound horn!”) because their vehicles aren’t equipped with rear-view mirrors.

Traffic lights were a rarity at intersections, and if they were there they often needed police officers to stand there and ensure that they were adhered to. If you needed to turn across oncoming traffic you didn’t wait for a gap, because one would never come since there were so many people. Instead you just eased yourself into the oncoming traffic assuming people would stop and let you go. One of the rules seemed to be “if my vehicle is in front of yours, I get to go, because otherwise you’d hit me.”

Motorcycles were extremely common, prized for their ability to cut between cars. They would have 2, 3, even 4 people squeezed on them, usually wihout helmets, and often with little children no older than 4 squeezed between mother and father. A common way for a lady passenger to sit in the back of the motorcycle was sideways, sometimes holding babies in her arms.

The weird effect of this is that it causes your “oh shit we’re going to hit someone”-meter to go haywire, because after falsely going off so many times you keep nudging it’s sensitivity up until nothing registers any more. Some of this is mitigated by the fact that the streets are so packed that you can’t go very fast, so there’s velocity lacking that would entail serious damage. In all my time in India I still haven’t witnessed a single accident.

Our first destination was a clothes store, where I was to buy some traditional Indian clothes to wear at some of the upcoming wedding events, which Rucha assured me would be suitable and the usual garb that people would wear. The store had many nice clothes to choose from, and I enjoyed the way that all the vibrant colors of the clothes on the shelves gave an overall impression of the spectrum of a rainbow.

I tried on a few long shirts and found two that worked, and then Rucha handed me some “pants.”. They looked like they were made for someone my height but with thin legs and a collosal butt. Before I could object, Rucha assured me that this was in fact quite the norm, and since I didn’t see Mrs. H stifling a laugh I went ahead and got those too.

In another section of the store, they had a bin full of what looked like the twisted rope used for dog tug toys. At this point I became a bit nervous as I realized that Rucha could have handed me anything and convinced me that it was part of the traditional Indian garb and I wouldn’t have a clue (“Yes, you just take this thing that looks like a mop and drape it over your head. No seriously, everybody wears it here! You’ll look great!”)

One particular piece of clothing that I thoroughly enjoyed viewing were the very fancy, orrnate men’s jackets. The intricate patterns embroidered into the cloth were facinating to view, and I looked at many of them while Rucha looked for clothes for her to buy (though I didn’t purchase any coats, much to the disappointment of the salespeople as they were quite expensive).

While waiting for Mrs. H and Rucha to finish shopping, Mr. H talked with me at length about what he views as one of India’s biggest and most frustrating problems: corruption. While in the states it appears that corruption primarily manifests itself at the higher levels (the Illinois Senate seat scandal was a timely example here), in India the corruption also manifests itself at a lower level. Traffic cop pulled you over for something? Just give them a bit of cash, and they’ll look on. Got a container with makings for explosives that you want to bring into the country? With a bit of money the inspectors can be convinced not to look in your particular bin.

Mr. H was quite passionate about the subject as it plays a significant role in the work he does, and viewed corruption as one of the most difficult problems a country can overcome. Part of the blame seemed to go to what he viewed as a lack of a consistent and adhered-to “moral code of conduct” akin to the commandments of Christianity, but another important part was corruption at the highest levels such that it didn’t behoove those in power to inspect themselves, and even when there were pending investigations they took so long to execute that by the time the results were discovered they were no longer in office.

When I asked if he ever felt frustrated to the point of just leaving and joining his children in America, he was quick to decline the thought. In spite of its troubles, Mr. H’s roots seem firmly planted in India’s soil, and he seems to have a love for the country that gives him what he told me was necessary to cope with its troubles: patience.

All this shopping was to attend the night’s dance performance. Apparently a choreographer was hired so that friends and family of the bride and groom could dance on stage to the amusement of all.

For this occasion, a section of a large park was reserved, complete with a lighted waterfall and giant rocks framing the park area. Our driver dropped us off at the foot of a steep incline, and a red carpet lead us to the peak where Mr. Srinivas was greeting guests beneath a beautiful arch under the harsh lights of the cameras there to record the night’s festivities. After saying hello, we took our seats among the audience in front of the stage, which was also conveniently positioned by the arch where all the guests arrived, enabling Mrs. H and Rucha to do red carpet commentary on the arriving guests.

Since the performance was still some time away, Mr. H took me to get a drink and preview the food. This served two purposes: he had a hand in the food planning, so he wanted to see how it ended up, but he also wanted to scout out the area to get a sense for where the best food was!

In addition, he took me behind the scenes to the “kitchen” of the catering being done. Since this was a park, there was no real kitchen, but instead an area behind the rocks where the food was being prepared to be eaten. Squatting amidst the dirt and rocks, people were engaged in all kinds of tasks to send the food out to be eaten, peeling vegetables, skewering meat and paneer before handing it to another to grill it over a propane-lit flame, and deep-frying various pasteries. I did my best to not think about health codes and such as I watched them shoo away a mangy stray dog, or spit into the brush. The food was so delicious, though, that this was easily forgotten as I took samples right off the batches being made fresh before my eyes.

What the actual dance performance may have lacked in talent was more than made up for by the evident effort undertaken by numerous friends and family of the bride and groom. I was reminded of middle-school talent shows as group after group of people walked akwardly on stage before shaking their tail feathers to choppy mix tapes of Bollywood music. The audience eventially melted away in search of the night’s dinner.

As for how my outfit was received, I was quick to realize that not only was I almost the only Caucasian there, and likely the tallest guy there, I was also the only guy wearing traditional Indian garb; everyone else was wearing slacks or a suit. I was assured that the following day’s actual wedding ceremony would have more people so adorned. Nevertheless, I’d already dressed up like Arafat in Egypt, so why not have one more experience in foreign clothes? It’s not like these photos will end up all over the Internet or anything…

Henna in Hyderabad

December 9, 2008

We arrived in Hyderabad via a propellor plane and landed at their new airport, which was the nicest one I’d seen yet this trip. After gathering our luggage, we walked out the exit and spotted Mr. Humnabadkar (heretofore referred to as Mr. H) waiting for us. I got to see a glimpse of Rucha’s childhood as I saw her face light up and she flung her arms around him in jubillant greeting, and I found myself grinning too, happy to see a familiar face in a foreign land.

Mr. H’s driver took us to their home where I’d be staying for the next two weeks; a big, beautiful house with white marble floors and patios with views of the surrounding area. It was there I also met Mrs. H, whose culinary expertise I had previewed in the States during her visits before, but which I was now going to enjoy continuously during my stay in Hyderabad. I was looking forward to it tremendously!

I mentioned in an earlier blog posting my preference for becoming familiar with the “life experience” of a city rather than a bulleted list of it’s monuments, and my feelings regarding the matter hadn’t shifted after the Egypt tour. For the same reason that I don’t feel like Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Warf, and cable cars are the elements of San Francisco that make me love the city, I’d rather seek out experiences of foreign countries that give me sense of what life, the people, and the experience of the city is like. It’s difficult to do if you don’t know people who live there, but I think it’s a worthy endeavor.

It was for this reason that I was very excited about my stay in Hyderabad. I would be staying in an actual home, instead of a hotel, with homecooked meals, and with people for whom Hyderabad was a place they called home.

On top of this, however, I was to be treated to an extra special I; it just so happened that the time of our visit coincided with the wedding of the daughter of Mr. H’s colleague of many years, and incredibly they had extended me an invitation to witness the ceremonies surrounding the wedding!

And so it began, my first encounter with the much-rumored elaborate experience that was The Indian Wedding. I can honestly say that in spite of my expectations being set pretty high due to descriptions from my Indian friends and colleagues, nothing could have prepared me for such an amazing experience, which Mr. and Mrs. H were quick to tell me was elaborate even by their own standards. I suppose the fact that they were willing to invite someone as remotely connected to the bride and groom as I (the bride’s father’s colleague’s daughter’s friend) should have been a clue :)

The first event I attended the night of my arrival in Hyderabad was a party where henna was applied to the hands of the women attending the wedding. Upon arrival, I met Mr. Srinivas (the father of the bride) who was very warm and welcoming, and took to immediately introducing me to a number of people so as to ensure I didn’t feel isolated. He blew me away by mentioning to others not just who I was and what I did, but the fact that my older brother played in the symphony!

For this particular event the family had taken over a small park, and in one section erected a huge multi-colored tent where the henna would be applied. The center of the area had a raised floor with pillows and the like so the women could sit comfortably while multiple artists applied the intricate designs to both hands of each of the ladies. Behind this tent, a group of musicians played and sang Indian songs.

The henna application process reminded me of the way a baker carefully squeezes a delicate pattern of icing on a cake, and here too the substance was squeezed out a bit like toothpaste, where it was to sit on the skin for 3 hours until it dried. This meant that the next few hours would be quite amusing as Rucha and her mother became essentially temporarily handicapped, unable to use her hands.

This proved especially agonizing for Rucha because the next area of the park was dedicated to a number of tables serving delicious food. I surveyed the food with Rucha in tow, her hands comically open and outstretched in front of her as she ordered me to collect select dishes. Once we sat down, we began a silly routine of eating that went like this: first, I cut a bite of the food and positioned it on the spoon. Then, I placed the spoon at an angle so that Rucha could ever so carefully pinch it between thumb and forefinger (the henna smudged there be damned, she was hungry!), and feed it to herself (Rucha was worried that if I just fed her we would immediately be perceived as a couple. Gossip spread like wildfire in Hyderabad, especially at weddings). Then I would prepare my own bite, while Rucha anxiously prodded me to hurry up and prepare her next bite. Repeat. Thankfully, Mr. H eventually came to the rescue and, in a very Kodak moment, took to feeding both wife and daughter.

The atmosphere was palpable as the party drew to a close, the four of us sitting in silence at a table listening to soft songs and watching the party’s numbers thin. People were laughing and chatting, Mr. Srinivas was talking animatedly to another couple of guests, and at one point two ladies took hands and danced together in one corner of the tent.

The evening wasn’t quite over yet, however, as we were to eat a number of special dishes that Mrs. H had prepared for us at Rucha’s request, including cognac-marinated mutton and a fantastic chocolate cake. All the food that evening was delicious, but it was just a taste (sorry, couldn’t resist) of what was to come in the days ahead!

Goan Bliss

December 8, 2008

Heading to Goa was a bit more involved than we’d thought it would be. All in all it took us about 24 hours to get there, from Cairo to Amman to Delhi to Goa. This was made worse by the increased security in India (due to the Mumbai terrorism) that involved frisking everyone at multiple checkpoints.

One point of interest on the way was that during our 6 hour layover in Delhi we paid a visit to Rucha’s aunt and uncle, who were very warm and hospitable, and allowed me to take a much needed nap in their guest room, after which they insisted on feeding me all kinds of tasty snacks.

My impressions of Delhi are brief and blurry due to lack of sleep, but I do remember a few points vividly. They apparently don’t let people welcome arrivals inside the terminal, so when we emerged we were greeted with 50 or so people outside with their faces pressed against the glass looking in to the open, vacant area where we came out.

Once outside, it was mayhem – too many people standing around too little space, honking taxis in a clustered line trying to get in or out of the airport, and every once in a while a giant snake of luggage carts would somehow weave its way through the crowd. Rucha left me with the luggage while she attempted to get a taxi ticket, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the chaos as, in spite of the thick tangle of individuals, people somehow made it through to their destination.

I was able to witness this first hand once we got in our taxi. I laughed at the impossibility of it all – we’d gotten in to a small van that was boxed in on all sides by other cars. But our driver snapped into action, and I watched a master at work. First, he got into the car in front of us, started it up (maybe the keys were left in the ignition?). He moved it forward so we had just enough space to get out. After popping back into our van, he took a hard left and lurched onto the sidewalk, honking at others who got in our way while officials looked on nonchalantly. Once we came to a stream of people walking in a crosswalk, he just kept honking and lurching foreward so people skittered out of the way and he made his way through. Once we hit the traffic of cars trying to leave, he put the van in park, and got out again. He appeared to be talking with some officials, or maybe other drivers, and then something happened I can’t quite explain: in spite of a sheer wall of cars, he managed to defy physics in some way so that we were able to squeeze through the traffic, and before I knew it *POP*! we were free of the traffic and on our way.

Later, on our flight to Goa, I noticed a woman in front of us who had what must have been 20 bangles on each arm. When I pointed this out to Rucha, she explained that this was an indication of marriage, and that I’d probably be seeing a lot of that since Goa was a big honeymoon destination. Sure enough, as I looked about the area where we were waiting for our flight to Goa, many women were similarly adorned.

Traveling without Suja and Helen felt odd – we kept expecting any minute for one of them to reappear and sit beside us, giggling about something. Rucha and I hadn’t been alone traveling since Istanbul, and while we got along just fine it wasn’t the same without the others. Goa was also an extremely romantic destination spot, so pauses in our conversations while in candlelit restaurants on the beach with someone crooning a love song in the background at times felt a bit akward.

But Goa was just what Rucha and I needed to relax and recharge from our action-packed Egypt trip. Now we could sleep in, eat well, and relax without any kind of agenda. And what a beautiful place to relax!

Goa reminds me of an Indian Hawaii, what with the palm and coconut trees, tropical climate, and greenery that seemed to envelop the stores and houses along the roads. Oddly, I was also reminded of Shanghai during the evenings in terms of the way the night felt, most restaurants and bars being open super-late, and the contrast between very clean, well-kept bars and restaurants and the streets on which they were situated.

The Taj resort was also beautiful, and huge! The greenery was amazing, with giant trees and bright purple and white flowers throughout the grounds. I was finally able to get my hammock fix from a grove of coconut trees that had hammocks strung up among them. Silence was a rarity as you always heard birds talking to one another, or even a rooster crowing.

But by far the biggest highlight was the food. Oh tasty meals, how I missed you so! After weeks of mostly bland Jordanian and Egyptian food I was practically in tears of joy to have food with an attitude. Whether it was the monster sized fresh jumbo prawns and mutton curry at the hotel, the spicy Indian-influenced musaman curry beef at the Thai restaurant, or the amazing prawn curry and tandori fish at Lobos, it was all delicous, and Rucha and I both ate with big silly grins on our faces.

Time seemed to slow down during three days we spent in Goa, and we reveled in our laziness. We would stand and stare transfixed at the sunsets as one does into a fireplace, mesmerized by the patterns of orange, black, and blue light reflected on the rippling waves, all the while wrapped in the cozy, slightly humid warmth of the Goan climate. One partucularly active day we woke up at 1:00 PM, strolled to the restaurant for a tasty meal, then waddled to the spa for an hour long massage. Exhausted from our athletic exertions at the massage, we napped on the hammocks for a couple of hours before staggering off to dinner.

Saturday night we decided to check out the clubbing scene, so we went to Goa’s oldest club, Tito’s. However, once in we saw only scattered wallflowers, and no one dancing. Undaunted, Rucha and I took to the dance floor, and after a brief period where people just stood and stared at us eventually others began to join until the floor was packed. The DJ was spinning hip hop, and though there were a few Caucasian tourists there most of the patrons were Indian couples dancing akwardly with one another.

Later in the evening, the DJ suddenly spun the music back, and a new DJ began his set of Bollywood music.
Immediately the mood of the club shifted; Where before there were serious faces trying to look cool, now there were beaming smiles and mouths moving along with the lyrics being played. The general energy level of the audience lifted as the tempo increased a notch, and the dance floor became even more crowded. We had the pleasure of being situated next to two friends who were great dancers thoroughly enjoying themselves, though they shot occasional annoyed glances at a Caucasian guy who’s flailing about was encroaching on their already small dance space. We continued dancing through the night, and I was glad to experience first hand local dancing to local music.

If Istanbul is unique for its stray cats, and Cairo for its stray dogs, Goa stands out for its stray cows. We would be driving along and, inexplicably, there a single cow would be, lumbering along the side of the road. No marks on it, no collar, or any indication of owership. The absurdity of the situation was emphasized by the fact that no one else seemed to think it an odd event. I at first wanted to get out of the car and stand next to the cow yelling, “Hello! Are you people crazy? There is a big COW, here, and it’s just walking around!” at which point an embarrassed gentleman would run up and say “My mistake, sorry, I’ll put him back where he belongs. Bad cow!” At one point we saw two cows with their front legs on the red stairs leading into a bar as of they were in line to enter! But the sight became so common that I eventually didn’t bat an eye when our driver honked repeatedly at an indifferent-looking cow that stood in the middle of the road, unsure of which side of the road to take to.

Both of the restaurants we went out to eat at were situated on the beach so that you could view the moon and stars as well as others who were relaxing on the beach at night. Vendors would walk about trying to sell their wares, spinning around a light that made the colors of the rainbow appear in a circle before you, or shooting neon-lighted helicopters high into the sky, where they’d slowly drift back into the vendor’s practiced hands. Meanwhile, a singer would croon 80s songs into a microphone with a karaoke backup as support. One guy even performed Stayin’ Alive, a feat which, though poorly executed, I appreciated the balsyness of executing in public.

One afternoon, we signed up for a “bump ride,” where people sit in an innertube attached to a motor boat and are dragged along the surface of the water. The water felt warm as we waded to our innertubes that were tied to the back of a somewhat shabby motorboat. As we got ourselves situated, I reached for the handles that were on the sides of the innertubes, and discovered that my left handle had had one side torn out, an ominous foretelling of what would come in the next 8 minutes. I did my best to grasp the flimsy strap just as the boat lurched forward and Rucha and I were tilted backwards at a 45 degree angle.

Just as we had begun to cheer, the boat’s engine died, and we were plopped back at a normal angle. A few pulls on the motor, it roared to life, and we were back in action. We began our cheer again, but the engine died again, and we were both plopped back upright, looking at each other and laughing in the silence.

Eventually we seemed to be in the midst of presumably what was the fun of the bump ride: tilted back so we couldn’t see anything but the sky and each other looking silly, salt water splashing in our faces, smelling the thick acrid smell of the exhaust from the motor. During one brief period when I could see the boat towing us, the people driving it made “come here” gestures to me that I couldn’t fathom what they meant by, though perhaps they were gesturing to someone else behind me.

Finally the boat managed to hit a rhythm that had us seated upright, and it began to make sharp turns that would swing us side to side at great speeds, which was a lot of fun, and I gripped my tube’s handles as though my life depended on it. Then, quite suddenly, it was over and after prying my now stiff hands off my tube’s handles we were finished.

It was in Goa where I also became aware of how being in conservative countries seemed to rub off onto me when, for the first time, Rucha went out with a dress, bare arms and all. My initial reaction was “How scandalous!” but then I caught myself. Rucha herself expressed relief at being able to dress more freely, and I marveled yet again at just how different cultures could be, just a plane-ride away.

Welcome to Alaska!

December 4, 2008

Our final days in Egypt began at our Nile cruise’s destination, Aswan. There we stayed at a beautiful Movenpic hotel (apparently they don’t just make ice cream. Who knew?), which you had to take a ferry to access from the town. After checking in, we took a sail boat (felucca) to see the botannical gardens, which were very nice, though we were a bit tired from standing in the sun so much that day during a viewing of a giant unfinished obelisk at a stone quarry.

On the way back, the felucca sailors sang a call-and-response song that was stuck in our head for days;

“Ohhh, la lay lay!”
(“Ohhh, la lay lay!”)

“Lah, lah, la la lah”
(“Lah, lah, la la lah”)

They then modified the song to include a typical joke told to Americans by resident Egyptians:

“Welcome to Alas-ka!”
(“Welcome to Alas-ka!”)

At one point, an older Filipino man from our group began doing a little tribal dance along with the song, much to the delight of all.

Unfortunately, the wind died down, and we were stuck immobile in the water. To pass the time, Nesrine first tried to get the “Spicy Girls” to sing (this was the name given to Rucha, Suja, and Helen when they were overheard singing Abba songs in unison the day before). Rucha deftly attempted to deflect the request by announcing that I was a professional musician playing in an orchestra, and therefore I should sing instead. I tried to parry by announcing that Rucha was the author of a book available for sale on Amazon.

Manny, another Filipino in our group, was gracious enough to spare us by starting another round of singing in the same tune that was just taught us:

“Ohh, la lay lay!”
(“Ohh, la lay lay!”)

“Wel-come…to Ind-ia!”
(to which Suja replied singing “A, mi-tabh Bach-chan!” the name of the Indian actor everyone kept saying to us)

When a motor boat came to tow us back after some time, the song shifted again:

“No, more fa-lucca!
(“No, more fa-lucca!”)

The following day we opted for sleeping in and lounging by the hotel pool instead of taking the optional flight to Abu Simbel and waking up at 5:30 AM. The pool was large and pleasant enough to look at, but I should have been warned by the absence of people actually swimming. I usually like to just jump in pools rather than slowly getting in…like ripping off a bandaid. But as soon as my toes hit the water mid air I felt my body reflexively try and do a cartoon-esque run back to warm land. Alas, gravity prevailed, and I cringed and exhaled in response to how frigid the water was. As I surfaced and began what I was sure I’d read was the initial stages of hypothermia, Helen called out “How’s the water?”

“It’s… not too bad,” I lied, not wanting to admit to my error, and began to swim to try and keep warm. I thought I might get used to, or even numb to, the water, but it was no use, and since Helen wisely tested the water before leaping in I was deprived of any company.

That night we decided to hit the town and see what the streets were like, and found ourselves among more tourist shops. One of them had a sign that said “NO HASSLE!” which turned out to mean “No Haggling,” which was an interesting change. A few shops were doing it, so I wondered whether folks were trying it out to better cater to what westerns were used to. We also noticed that when we went into the store it was empty, but when we left it was full of tourists. The storeowner gave us free gifts, telling us that we brought him good luck, and finally we understood why storeowners asked us to please come into their store, even if we didn’t buy anything, because it brought them “good luck.”. Apparently they’ve realized that tourists tend to go into stores that other tourists are already in, perhaps because people see it as a sign that the store has something of value, or that the storeowner will be too busy to nag them to buy something.

After a healthy dose of “Lucky man, 3 wives!” we spent our last evening in Aswan at our hotel’s bar which was on the 12th floor and provided a nice panoramic view of Aswan. The following day we flew back to Cairo, where we were to spend our last surge of energy seeing a mosque, a church, and a synagogue.

The highlight of that day was actually Cairo’s famous bazaar, which we were ready to just skip after our overdose of peddlers and hassles throughout our time at Egypt. But the Cairo bazaar turned out to be very nice, with picturesque narrow winding passageways and better quality goods than we were used to seeing.

That night, starving to the point of not being hungry any more due to the day’s absence of food, we had our final Egypt dinner with other members of our tour group at an Itallian restaurant in the hotel. The meal was pleasant save for the fact that someone was playing Christmas tunes on a keyboard with an extremely flat key that kept making me visibly cringe whenever it was struck.

There was some quality music later that night when a trio including an Egyptian Tina Turner lookalike took turns singing. The woman did an excellent job singing in Arabic, and I wished they would have let her sing more often. Things really took a turn to the bizarre when Suja pointed out that they were singing a mixture of Maroon 5 lyrics set to the tune of Sexual Healing, perhaps to avoid its scandalous lyrics.

When it came time to part, Gabriel (a fellow tour group member around our age) gave Rucha a long hug goodbye, only to be interrupted by a grumpy old man who banged his cane on the floor in protest.

“Stop this! You do that in your country, not here!” he exclaimed in disgust, shaking his head disapprovingly.

That night we watched some mediocre bellydancing outside in a tent by the pool. At one point, a curvey, hoochily-dressed girl from the audience came up on stage and did an even better job dancing than the woman they had hired. All the while her much older, portly, mustachioed man stood on stage with her, bobbing and swaying back and forth while smiling approvingly. The rest of the sparse audience, all male except for my companions, looked on, transfixed but seemingly without emotion, eating dinner and smoking their sheeshas.

Some final notes about Egypt:

99% of the women in Egypt (not counting tourists have their hair covered by a scarf called a “hijab.” Suja explained to me how her perception of this shifted since coming to Egypt after her conversation with Nesrine, our tour guide. She explained that while some places like Sadui Arabia requires covering your head, people (including Nesrine) wear them in Egypt because they want to. She told how her daughter isn’t wearing one these days, and that she doesn’t plan on insisting that she wear one.

It was interesting to be submerged in an environment where almost all women had their hair covered. I never saw Nesrine’s actual hair, and realized I probably never would, even if I knew her longer as a friend. When we were driving along I saw an Egyptian girl walking along the street with long, wavey, black hair and couldn’t help but turn to look at her since it was such a rare phenomenon. The absense of exposed hair seemed to be making it a kind of special or taboo part of the body.

In Egypt but also Jordan, it was rare to see women in the streets – maybe 20% of the time. It was extremely rare to see them running a store though oddly it was very common to see them acting as tour guides.

Rucha felt like the men in Egypt were aggresive in their comments, flirting, and staring. And this was all while I was there; I can’t imagine what it would be like with no male companion in tow.

Nothing in Egypt is free. If someone is offering to take a picture of you, they’re going to ask for a tip afterwards. Even when an old man picked a flower at the botannical gardens and gave it to us, he insisted on a tip. And even if you give a tip, they will likely complain about its size (I mean this regarding strangers at tourist sites, not hotel employees and the like).

I think that this just hints at a deeper, general need for money; A girl sowing Persian rugs made between 10-40 Egyptian pounds ($2-$8) per month, and apparently the starting salary for doctors is 400 Egyptian pounds ($80). When the girl at the rug shop smiled and invited Rucha to sit with her for a photo, she was quick to whisper, “Quick, before he sees me, give me some money!”

The net result was that it shifted the way we interacted with others in that we always assumed, usually rightly, that any polite contact and conversation was just an interaction that would eventually lead to a request for money. Which was too bad, because I think part of what one takes away from experiences abroad is the pleasure of social transactions of culture for its own sake, for mutual benefit.

Next stop: Goa!

Pirates of the Nile

December 2, 2008

A swift flight to Luxor revealed a side of Egypt I had yet to see. Yes, Cairo is Egypt’s big city, with all its people, buildings, traffic, and accompanying grime. But Luxor revealed what greenery the Nile could bestow on the country, and we were quick to agree to preferring it over Cairo. Turning your head to the right, you might see the dry sand and rock that Egypt is famous for, but turn your head to the left and you’d see lush greenery, palm trees, and plots of produce being locally grown.

It also turned out to house what I found to be the most amazing tourist attraction Egypt has to offer: The Valley of Kings, with its unbelieveably well-preserved tombs in full color and detail. Many of the sights we saw included heiroglyphs and illustrations that had faded over the years or, as was often the case, damaged by successors of those represented, with scratched out faces atop royal bodies. But the tombs in the Valley of Kings required no stretching of the immagination to behold.

And there were so many! We only saw a subset, and while we were there we witnessed scores of workers mid-excavation al la Indiana Jones, digging, sorting through piles of findings, and assembling jars piece by piece. I had mistakenly assumed that the great discoveries of Egyptian antiquity were already found for the most part, but this trip quickly revealed otherwise. Our tour guide Nesrine described how the government was having to relocate people’s homes because they were atop ancient ruins, and even while we were driving around we saw homes who had ancient sphynxs in their front yard, and kids using rows of them as boundaries for street soccer games!

One highlight of the Valley of Kings took place on our way back to our tour bus. We were waiting for the shuttle that would take us there, but just as it came a new tour group came and its tour guide, a man with oversized sunglasses, called for his tour group to get on the shuttle ahead of us. Nesrine, usually quite calm and peaceful in her demeanor, protested, and a heated conversation in Arabic ensued. As a proficient speaker of Arabic, I’ll translate the dialogue below:

“Pardon me, sir, but I’m afraid you have made a small error. You see, I was here with my group before you, therefore I’m sure you will agree that I deserve to ride this shuttle.”

“Out of my way, insolent woman! Learn your place. I’m going to cut in front of you, and there’s nothing you can do about it! Oh, and your scarf is tacky.”

“Oh no you don’t! You think you can just cut in front of me? Shame in you! Imagine if you mother saw you now. I hope God remembers this moment when you are being judged, and that he sends you to the fiery pits of hell for your rudeness!”

“Um, after you.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” (snap snap snap)

Ok, I added the three snaps at the end, but you get the idea. At the conclusion of this heated discourse, our tour group burst into a cheer for Nesrine, which she responded to with a sheepish grin. “Thank you all for your support, it was really nice,” she later told us.

After a number of temples, tombs, catacombs, and other such sights, we headed to our last hotel before transferring to our Nile cruise, where we’d be staying for the next few days. The hotel was situated right on the Nile, each of our rooms would be a separate bungalow along the bank. We checked in and gathered outside to share a bottle of wine (hot cocoa for Suja). After a healthy debate about whether Tibet and Taiwan should be a part of China, and in general the criteria for a country to justify independence, we had dinner and headed to our rooms. Alas, the ominous smudges on the wall of my room was an accurate foreshadowing of my night’s activities: Corey: 12. Mosquitos: 0 (tough they did manage to get some nice bites in)

While our initial thoughts about the Nile cruise were a bit skeptical since it include a day of doing nothing but hanging out in the boat while we travelled, it was actually a welcome relief from the usual manic schedule we were maintaining. The highlight of the cruise a top deck with couch-esque lounge chairs that was covered to protect lounging people from the sun, and provided an excellent view of the banks of the Nile drifting by slowly, wildlife along its shores, and clouds overhead. A bar was located nearby as well, and we all enjoyed drinks and ice cream while we read and chatted. I won’t forget the feeling of laying on my lounge chair and alternating from reading a few pages of my book (Stumbling on Happiness) and drifting off to sleep and nap for a few moments, feeling the gentle sway of the ship as it made its way south on the Nile.

“…hallo!”

“Hallo!”

In the distance I heard a cheerful, oddly familiar voice.

“Hallo there! Please, have a look!”

*thud* Something soft rolled past me.

Not totally convinced I wasn’t dreaming this, I opened my eyes to see a few people peering over the side of the boat. As I got up to see what was going on, something the size of a football and wrapped in plastic arced neatly over the side of the ship, and rolled until it hit a chair and stopped. Looking over the side of the ship I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

Our boat had slowed its pace as we reached a narrow checkpoint that we had to maneuver through, and there were a few other cruise ships nearby who were also either just emerging or going into the checkpoint. In the water surrounding the huge cruise ships were 50 or so small row boats with peddlers in them shouting up to the ships’ inhabitants, and hurling goods up for them to inspect. Somehow, in spite of being in the middle of the Nile river on top of a 4-story cruise ship, the peddlers were managing to try and sell goods to us.

Gabriel, one of our cruise ship companions, had fetched one of the products that they’d thrown on board and was shouting down, “We don’t want it! Come closer so I can throw it back to you!”

But the merchant was insistent. “Please sir, show it to people. Please!”

“Ok, look, I’m showing it, see?”. Gabriel revealed a brown scarf with intricate patterns woven in. “They see it, ok? They don’t want it. Here!” and he threw it neatly into the merchant’s hands. “Oh I’m good!”

“How about a nice galabia for you sir! I have nice galabia!”

“No no I don’t want…oh great.” Gabriel had begun to protest but another plastic bundle flew aboard.

Rucha made the mistake of peering over the edge. “Hallo, India! Spain? You are beautiful! Miss, please, look at this tablecloth!”

“Oh no!” Rucha exclaimed, but it was too late, another bundle came flying over the edge. Gabriel seemed to enjoy the game of throwing these things back down, and he threw the tablecloth back down to the boat.

“Sorry, I don’t have a table!” Rucha shouted down, jokingly.

*thud* “Here you go, a nice rug!”

“I don’t have a house!” Rucha shouted back apologetically and threw the rug back, missing the boat and hitting the water. The merchant gave an incredulous look as he manuvered his boat over to his product, safe in its plastic from the water.

A flurry of activity in the distance caught my eye as a cruise ship passed at a fairly good pace. A merchant in a row boat had managed to somehow grapple the ship as it moved, towing the merchant in its wake. The merchant was busy throwing a rope attached to his boat to another merchant’s boat, who deftly attached it to his boat before doing the same for another merchant.

Eventually the passage became too narrow for the merchants to follow, but they did successfully make a couple of sales to a fellow tour group member, who paid by including the money in the plastic bag of another product that had been thrown up. We wondered what would happen if we hadn’t thrown the things back down, or insisted on a low price, but we never found out; I suppose the vendors know that more often than not tourists are pretty honest, and it’s worth it for them to take the risk.

This was by no means the end of our encounters with peddlers – my worst experience was waking down a supposedly famous bazaar and literally being stopped at every store by insistent merchants. Their trick was to stick out their hand in a offer to shake it and say “Welcome!” Not wanting to be rude, I would shake their hand, but when it came time to withdraw they would continue holding it and insist that I see their wares until I pried it away. If I didn’t shake their hand, they would feign insult, saying “I only want to welcome you!”

Helen in particular did her part to support the Egyptian economy by making a number of purchases. My most memorable moment shopping with Helen was when she was trying to decide which jewelry to order from the ship’s gift store. She had already disclosed to me that she was terrible at haggling, so I was curious to see how she did. After getting my second opinion on a ring she was considering, she finally made her selection and asked the price.

“Five hundred Egyptian dollars,” the man replied.

“Ow!!!” exclaimed Helen, and doubled over as if on pain. “Wow, she’s kind of overdoing it,” I thought.

The man looked a bit shocked, and began to stammer justifications for his price.

“No, no,” laughed Helen, though still wincing, “It’s not that, I just have a cramp in my leg.”

That night we had a “galabia party,” where as many folks as possible were to dress in the local attire. I had purchased my galabia and headpiece earlier that day, and after several unsuccessful attempts to leave the privacy of my room I abandoned my better judgement and went down to the lobby to meet others. Thankfully I wasn’t the only one dressed up, and Rucha, Suja and Helen all looked fantastic. That evening we all got a taste of what it must be like to be celebrities with paparatzi at every turn: all the tour attendees were there with their cameras, and we were practically blind by the evening’s end. Especially popular was the photo of the man with three wives :)

After dinner, the “evening activities” began, starting with a dancing game where people needed to form groups of a number shouted out by an announcer. Rucha emerged the winner of this game, rewarded with a drink and 60 seconds of dancing alone for everyone (how the latter is a reward is beyond me).

Next up, they asked for “3 strong men,” and others were quick to push me to get involved. Not wanting to be a party-pooper, I begrudgingly headed to the dance floor. That was when I saw the potatoes and began to worry.

We each had strings tied around our waist, with a potato dangling from the end. One of the people tying the string kept gesturing for me to lift up my galabia, for reasons I was not yet aware, so I protested, not wanting to be indecent. I mean, a galabia is basically a dress on a dude, and I felt hiking up my galabia was somehow a scandalous request.

Alas, it appeared this would be a game not of strength but of humuliation with a dab of dexterity. Essentially, we were to gyrate our hips, in a way suggesting certain nocturnal activities, so as to swing the potato dangling between our legs and strike a potato on the floor so it would roll from one end of the floor to the next. Much to the amusement of all.

That was probably the longest 60 seconds of my life, which I spent alternating between considering flinging myself overboard and trying to win the game (which now included lifting my own galabia so I could see the damn potato, since I had so wisely resisted the worker’s advice in attempt to spare my “dignity”). Luckily, the fellow on by left appeared to be well versed in potato-rolling as he made quick work of the game and claimed his drink prize.

That night, the four of us headed back to the ship’s roof to see the Nile by night. It was a bit cold, so I took the blanket from my room’s spare bed for the girls to use. They looked like a Hallmark Christmas card that night, all three huddled close under the white blanket, laughing, teasing, and giggling about the day’s events.

Uses for Corey

December 1, 2008

* Bonus entry *

Apparently my benefits as a companion are not limited to my sharp wit and charming company, but as Helen, Suja, and Rucha have revealed I also provide these handy-dandy uses:

Camera tripod (for those high-up shots)

Shade (for when you’re standing in the sun listening to the tour guide)

Extra suitcase (when you have no room in yours)

Stepstool (for those hard-to-reach places)

Coathanger (when you need someone to hold your stuff while you go to the restroom)

Mule (when you don’t want to carry things any more)

Wallet (when you have no pockets)

Sole representative of the entire male species (when you don’t understand men)

I am a veritabe Swiss army knife of uses!

Hot or Not: Mummy Edition

December 1, 2008

Going from Jordan and Istanbul, where Rucha, Suja and I had to figure out everything for ourselves, to Egypt, where we were a part of a large tour group of about 34, was quite a shift of gears. In some ways it was a relief, in that we knew everything was going to be figured out for us, we would be in a safer environment, and we’d constantly be with someone who spoke the language fluently. But the downside, we quickly found out, was that our entire experience was much more sterile and regimented, viewed through the fishbowl that was our tourbus windows. Instead of waking up when we chose and discussing the days’s plans over a relaxing cup of coffee, we were now jolted from sleep by wake up calls, sometimes as early as 5:30, so that we could grab a quick shower and wolf down breakfast before beginning the day’s extensive itinerary. Pyramids? 45 minutes to snap some pictures, check. Sphynx? 30 minutes, then back on the bus. Rebuilt Library of Alexandria? We’ll stop the bus for 30 seconds so you can take photos from inside the bus, check. It got to the point where I lost track of the tombs, museums, and temples, and just let myslf be carried along without resistance.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! Upon landing in Cairo we were treated to an enthralling drive to our hotel and our first encounter with Cairo traffic and driving craziness. People do not use the lane dividers, instead choosing just to fit as many cars as possible. Horns sound at least every 10 seconds as people seem to use them to say “Here I come!” rather than “Look out!” and they all sound hoarse from use.

The hotel was very nice, but also very gawdy with its Las Vegas-esque over the top use of gold ornamentation. My room even had a view of the pyramids, which were vaguely visible through the thick haze of Cairo smog. My first night in the hotel I was treated to the surreal experience of Helen’s voice waking me up at 2:00 in the morning. Apparently they had accidentally put us in a room together, and this mix up combined with not having seen Helen in a year and the early hour had me very disoriented. In spite of being on the tail end of a long journey, Helen was quick to act and got another room just as I had managed to accomplish the intellectual feat of establishing that it was in fact Helen in my room and not Suja or Rucha.

The following day, we jumped into the big event: pyramids! As I mentioned before, they were practically walking distance from my hotel, which surprised me; I’d envisioned them being far away from the city, and apparently at one point they were, but the city just grew and grew until it came practically up to their footsteps. Nevertheless, I was very excited to see this monument that I had read about again and again in school.

To be honest, I came away a bit disappointed. This a probably due to a number of factors, not the least of which includes a lot of hype and high expectations to live up to. Part of it I also blame on the limited time we had, in that I just wanted to sit and stare at these things for a long time to take in how old they are, fathom the fact that I was staring at millions of multi-ton blocks of stone assembled by human beings, and imagine how it once looked not stepped and jagged such that folks could clamber to the top, but rather completely smooth, with tips capped in giant gold such that they would reflect the sun. But even if I’d had the time to sit and contemplate, it would surely be hindered by the many people trying to sell galabias, papyrus, necklaces, and other tourist trinkets.

Oh, the peddlers. They were a prominent and consistent part of our Egypt experience. They stood with their goods and blocked your path, holding up their wares. “Hello! Where you from?”. If you were Helen, it would be “Hello, China! Ni hao!” or “Japanese? Kawaii!”. If you were Rucha or Suja, “India! Namaste! Amitabh bacchan!

The joke I was subjected to throughout the tour of Egypt was comments on the fact that I was one guy travelling with three girls. “You lucky man, have three wives! How many camels for her?” (Suja at one point fetched a price of 5 million camels). Or even, “Busy man! You want to buy Viagra?” Folks in our tour group picked up on the joke too, saying “Good morning Corey, where are the wives?” or, when they heard that Helen and I got a separate room, “Sorry to hear about the divorce!”

The peddlers would say prices that would quickly drop in value as you passed by. One trick we were subjected to was a peddler offering us some scarrabs for free. “Yes, free! Please. Please, it is a gift, you will give me good luck.”. If you accept the trinket, not wishing to offend him, he will immediately say “5 Egyptian dollars, that’s all.”

While taking photos, one of the sellers kindly offered to take our photo, so Rucha gave him her camera. “Please, right this way, I know the best place to take the picture, you get the whole pyramid!” he said, and began to lead Rucha and me towards the other side of the pyramid, away from the other tourists. Feeling a scam coming on, Rucha protested, gently at first and then more strongly so that he would give her camera back.

Moments later, I noticed Helen being led away by the same guy, so I followed to make sure things were ok. Around the corner they had a resigned-looking camel set up for picture posing. Having heard horror stories from our tour guide about unsuspecting tourists placed atop camels who were told to stand and not letting the tourist down until they paid the demanded price, Helen had avoided getting on the camel and just posed with it. This too they demanded more money than initially proposed, and began crowding around her. I stepped in and just told Helen that we had to go because our you group was leaving, and thankfully we left OK.

I also treated myself to a camel ride, an experience that can be summarized by saying that it’s like riding a horse only taller and with funnier sounds of protest and looks of indignation coming from the mount. Kids waved enthusiastically to me and shouted “Hello!” as they did throughout my travels in Egypt.

Lunch was a tasty roasted chicken and a kind of lamb meatball, with really tasty Pepsi (Suja believes the better taste is due to the fact that they use real sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup). Our next stop? The Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

The Egyptian Museum was amazing, containing extremely well-preserved artifacts from thousands of years ago. We were even able to see King Tut’s sandals and underwear, of all things! The highlight had to be all of the mummies, who were also remarkably well preserved to the point where the 3 girls got into a giggly debate as to which one was most “attractive” (I think Ramses II was given the dubious honor), earning them a stern “Shush!” from a museum employee.

The low point of this portion of our tour had to be the day trip to Alexandria. The city itself is nice, but most agreed not worth the 4-hour drive each way. This was compounded by the fact that we weren’t able to get “lunch” until 4:30, at which point I was contemplating the flavor of our tour bus’ upholstery. What with an earlier wake-up call and a longer commute than I usually have when home, I had to remind myself I was in vacation. We knew something was amiss when we cheered at the announcement that the following day’s wake up call would be at the late hour of 7:00.

Ok I lied about the low point. The real low point was realizing that Rucha and I would have to cancel the Thailand leg of our trip. For months we had known about the protests in Thailand, but we’d hoped it would die down by time we got there. We’d booked a flight to Bangkok (mine was even business class, a deal I’d scored for just $300 more to make the red-eye flight more bearable), three days in Bangkok (looking forward to massages and Thai food), a flight to Phuket, and a few nights stay at a beach resort where I’d splurged on a beach-front bungalow, and finally our flight to Hyderabad. And to top it all off, we were going to meet our good friend Polly there!

Alas, huddled over a computer terminal in the business center of our hotel at night, Rucha and I read horror stories in the news about tourists trapped in the Bangkok airport, sleeping on the floor. We even thought to go directly to Phuket, but no dice: the protesters had shut down that airport too. So, with a heavy heart, Rucha and I set to work cancelling our flights and determining our alternative plans. All in all I lost around $500 from making these adjustments given the 3 flights.

On the bright side, I have to commend Rucha’s attitude throughout the whole thing, as others might have just throw in the towel and headed home. Instead, we decided to take a few days in Goa (for our beach fix) before heading to Hyderabad a bit earlier than planned. It also meant I would be able to witness more of the wedding I would be attending, which I was looking forward to.

So, 8 cancellations, 7 reservations, and 2 hours later Rucha and I emerged victoriously from the business center with our updated itinerary and, exhausted as if we’d stayed up late studying for a final or working on a last-minute PRD for work, headed to our rooms to order room service for dinner. After calling in my order and grabbing an apple, I flopped on my bed to flip on the tv, and was greeted with BREAKING NEWS: TERRORIST ATTACK IN INDIA.

Awesome.

Going from our Petra hostel, where we had to give some ahead notice if we wanted to shower with hot water, to the Kempinski Resort has to be one of my most contrasting experiences. Upon arriving at the resort, our car was scanned for bombs by someone with the appropriate tool at the front gate. Upon entering the resort, we were offered a hot towel as well as a juice drink before checking in. After being shown a map of the grounds (including what they reported as Jordan’s second largest spa), I was driven to my room. Entry to the room was achieved with a water-proof FOB, which could be attacked to my shorts when I swam.

My room included a view of the Dead Sea and a nice patio, free wet bar, walk-in closet, and a bathroom with a huge tub and a circular, tiled shower (with awesome singing acoustics, I might add!).

The resort was gigantic! There were multiple buildings with rooms to stay in, some of which were $25,000 a night! There were at least 4 restaurants, including Thai and Itallian food, and many bars. The odd thing was that there really weren’t many other people there, so much of the resort had an abandoned feeling. It did mean that we got great service attention!

My only disappointment facilities-wise was the Hammocks Garden. I saw a sign indicating the general direction of “Hammocks Garden,” and immediately became very excited, seeing visions of groves of trees with hammocks of every shape, size, and color languidly dangling between them before a sweeping view of the Dead Sea. Alas, after asking many of the staff where said Hammocks Garden resided, and doing some very convincing impressions of a hammock to those who didn’t know what it was, my search ended in vain.

One of the highlights of the resort is the supposedly demotologically therapeutic remedies resulting from completly covering oneself in mud from the area for 15 minutes, and then stepping into the Dead Sea to wash it all off. Before we began this process, we noticed a camera crew and a reporter chatting with a hotel employee looking about as if searching for someone.
“You there, do you speak English?” one of the camera crew asked.
“Yeah, why?”
“We’re doing a program about this resort – can we film you putting the mud on?”
Rucha and I were happy to help what turned put to be a Turkish news crew, and eventually even Suja allowed herself to be filmed. Supposedly, we aired on TV the following day! We both laughed at the thought that Shushan (our new friend we met in Turkey) might see us on TV after only just meeting us days before.

We were all shocked to learn that you really do float in the Dead Sea. Not just kind of floating, but literally I could not get myself to sink no matter how hard I tried. This is apparently the effect of having such a high concentration of salt that you are only supposed to stay in the water for 15 minutes at a time.

But oh God, the flies. How such an amazing resort could be plagued with such a countless number of flies is beyond me, but it really took away from the lounging experience when you were constantly brushing flies away from you. Luckily we did find pockets of places where there were fewer flies, and at night they seemed to go away. They didn’t seem to bother you once you were in the water, too.

Food was a bit of a challenge for Suja, but the Itallian restaurant was accommodating to her vegetarian needs so we quickly became regulars there. Like most Jordanian food, though, it was pretty bland, so we put a big dent in their Tobasco sauce supply :)

My most vivid memory of our time at the resort is of watching the sunset from one of the resort’s pools. It was circular and filled to the brim with warm water so that the outer edge of the pool (towards the Dead Sea, downhill) was constantly spilling water below and acting as a fountain for those viewing from below. You could swim all the way to the edge of the pool and watch the sun setting and casting beautiful colors on the surface of the water both on the Dead Sea and the pool in which you swam.

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