Posts Tagged With: Backpacking

Sojourn to Slovakia — Got Those Bratislava Blues

The amount of holiday time European nations give their citizens makes American expatriates incredulous and envious. To live in Poland and watch people enjoy 12 guaranteed non-working public holidays, plus an absurd 26 days of legally-mandated paid vacation from work, plus weekends, in just one year causes your capitalistic nerves to erupt with bewildered indignation as you stand before direct evidence that the stereotype is true: the EU is just one big leisure fest, swinging in the hammock with too much heavy petting and wine to manage tomorrow with a clear head and fortitude for the nitty-gritty necessities of proper economic management. This feeling of rough-hewn superciliousness continues to course through your stars-and-stripes emblazoned ego right until the day you drink the Kool-Aid of extra holidays yourself, and instead of dying on the spot, fall in love with the idea and are amazed that America hasn’t followed suit yet.

Extra holidays mean more time for enjoying life, obviously, and goodness knows how many prematurely burnt-out American workers are just three weeks of chilling out away from not going psycho on their co-workers with an M4. This different philosophy, working to live, is one of the reasons why working as an English teacher is an occasional pleasure; around here, you aren’t expected to slave away 10 hours a day with Saturdays until you die of some work-related cancer that your insurance won’t cover. Taking a holiday is now and then expected, and sometimes even recommended. Last month, my boss actually suggested that I skip work to visit the city of Prague for longer. Many American firms would rather fire you and get a new warm body in at the merest suggestion that you could add extra days onto an already-egregiously long public holiday (it’s Socialism anyway!). Maybe this experience will hurt me in the long-run because digging myself into soul-crushing work holes is something I don’t have the patience for anymore, but screw it, I’d rather have to come back to Europe to live and enjoy myself than slave away forever in unrelenting American businesses where profit and output mean more than living your one life well. (Remember, bros and lady-bros, YOLO – Yugoslavia outsources little otters)

For my latest period of vacation indulgence, I spent five days in Slovakia, formerly the butt-end of the spelling bee monster Czechoslovakia. Since the end of the Cold War, this mountainous Central European jewel has been puttering forward, getting its act together along EU lines, and now looks far more developed than its shambolic Iron Curtain incarnation. Like what I’ve seen with Poland, the transport is modern, the styles are all Western, and the youth have a surprising command of the English language and as part of this are obsessed with American culture. The only big difference between Poland and Slovakia that I noticed was that Slovakia is worse-off economically, which means that the youth are also jobless and bored as hell, spending most of their time plotting ways to abandon the beautiful green mountains where they were born and raised.

Going by city, I’ll recount my experiences of the country as I went West to East across its captivating landscape.

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Bratislava:

Bratislava is Prague’s abused little brother. It’s hard to put this any other way, considering the aesthetics of Slovakia’s new capital and its history as secondary city during communist times. You see, Bratislava was caught in a communist-era planning struggle wherein Prague was to be preserved as the ‘historical’ cosmopolis of Czechoslovakia, while Bratislava was to become ‘futuristic’. So in true communist style, rife with disdain for anything bourgeoisie or pleasing to the eye, the authorities rolled in the wrecking balls and destroyed 90-some percent of Bratislava’s charming old town to install baleful apartment blocks in its place. The tragic result is that Bratislava now has a very wholesome old town about three blocks wide, surrounded by a wasteland of brown and gray rectangles that look like despair incarnate. A few graces happen to save Bratislava from utter ugliness though, and they include the well-rebuilt castle above the town center and the languid Danube river. Taking everything into consideration, I’d say this plain little capital is worth two days of your time, or perhaps three if you’ve got good company. You’ll be able to enjoy far smaller crowds than Prague, which is a bonus that shouldn’t be overlooked.

My introduction to the streets of Bratislava was quite an intimate one. It all started when my backpack became caught in a closing door as I exited the downtown bus, and my desperate push to free myself from the then-departing vehicle launched me head over heels into the grimy sidewalk. Feeling ridiculous for the collapse, I had to laugh in embarrassment, and luckily only two lucky viewers got to savor my disgrace. I sustained a rip in my pants and some smarting bruises on my foot and hip, but thanks to youth I rebounded fast and found my way to a hostel-sponsored pub crawl with a Scotsman named Neil for company. Unfortunately, the pub crawl was marginal as Tuesday night isn’t a very popular night for partying, although the other men in the crawl (Yes, a sausage fest) where replete with over-excited confidence, testosterone, and booze. The night became interesting once the organizers of the crawl, two Slovak college students who were almost as lost as we were, guided our drunken butts to a student party of epic proportions at a university housing complex north of the city. The entire area was infested with piles of rubbish and inebriated young people, and us crawlers were jumping at the prospect of landing some pretty Slovak gal somewhere in the chaos. Instead, we all got too drunk to function and spilled beer over ourselves dancing to bone-rattling drum n’ bass music for a good two hours. It’s hard to chat up people when a 60 hertz sine wave of bass doom turns all your eloquent speech into sonic diarrhea. Nevertheless, I danced until 4AM, at one point moving from the outside party into a club blasting vapid trance music. Once my feet felt like overused anvils, I caught a ride back to the city center on a crowded morning bus while talking to a Kenyan-Tahitian student about racism in Slovakia. As the sun rose, I returned to my hostel and fell dead sleep.

The following day was no less notable. With the Scotsman Neil, we woke up achingly late and ventured up to the kitschy ‘UFO’ restaurant that’s seated upon the top of the bridge connecting the banks of the Danube. The view from the top is quite unforgettable, and you can gaze out into Austria and southern Slovakia on a good day. I’d say the best part is the bathrooms; while you do your business, you can look down over civilization from the large windows that expose everything below to you (and I suppose likewise is true, too). If you miss out on those wonderfully voyeuristic bathrooms, I’m sorry but you have wasted a trip to Bratislava.

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We also did the free city tour, as advertised all over travel internet sites, and had to sit through three hours of endless information told by a sporty Slovak girl whose explanations were enthusiastic but lacking in conciseness. Plus, the weather was a scorcher, and by the end of it everyone except for the bronzed Slovak girl was cultivating a gentle sunburn. I had heard far more facts about Slovakian heroes and dates than I cared for, and that’s saying something for a history lover like myself.

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After providing the not-obligatory but totally-morally-obligatory tip to the guide, we got some traditional Slovak grub at the unpretentious “Slovak Pub” that really hit the spot (try the bean soup). A nap at the hostel later, and Neil and I were down in the hostel pub debating the relevancy and possibility of Scottish independence in between gulps of screwdriver cocktails. Neil got quite belligerent when I suggested that Scottish independence isn’t seen by all Scots to be a good idea, and somehow we got onto arguing over the necessity of central banks in loud voices that scared off all ten guests from the bar’s basement. Neil’s staunch hatred of central banking and currency not backed up by gold would have made Ron Paul quite proud, though his understanding of the exact mechanics behind money valuation and interest rates was drunkenly faulty (not saying mine’s perfect). In any event, we settled the matter, drank more to forget about it, and then scouted the streets for a good time.

Despite our energy, not one was found. However, as we went pub-hopping along the abandoned night streets of the old town, buying bartenders drinks and wasting about a few days of my wages in the process, a pair of short, overweight prostitutes suddenly pounced on us, grabbing us by the crotches with garbled coos of “YES make the SEX”. I was genuinely afraid that I was about to be robbed blind. We broke free, but the nightstompers found us nearby later and I literally ran by them as they approached, in fear of my nuts. Please, watch out for these predatory chunkers before they upgrade from grabbing bystanders to straight up sitting on them. At that point, none of us will be able to escape with our junk or money intact.

Coming up next: Rural Slovakia and its Magnificent Castles

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Anti-Tout Bootcamp: Egypt Edition

The last days I spent amid the sands of sun-parched Egypt, I was in the tourist capital of Luxor doing two very important things: a) enjoying ancient history to the point of mental illness, like I always do, and b) conducting a groundbreaking scientific study on which strategies are the best for turning away Egyptian hawkers, with me as both the subject and tester. Pursuit A can simply be discussed through pictures and captions, but B deserves a complete exposition for the sake of expanding humanity’s knowledge base and the future well-being of unwitting tourists who will need to cross 500 meters of infested Egyptian boardwalk without breaking down in tears or going to jail for assault. I came close to both, so there’s no need for anyone else to suffer! My paper on the experience will be coming to a scientific journal near you soon, but until then I’ve reproduced the meat of it on my blog for your convenience.

Below are five rigorously-tested tactics to parry the verbal advances of the dreaded Tout, ranked on a scale of 3, estimated for average time consumption by seconds, and accompanied by a helpful explanation. And all of these methods were accompanied by a purposeful forward walking speed, without any unnecessary stopping along the way. If I had stood still, they would still be holding me up today.

Oh, and ground rule number one: TRUST NO ONE.

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“No Thank You”:
 ♠ ♠ ♠ 5 seconds
By far the best way to shut down a tout without a struggle, a simple “no thank you” with a determined stride forward will have you freed up quickly. Giving eye contact to the man will add at least five more seconds to the situation, as he will then think you are instantly more persuadable. Just look ahead, give him the Arabic “La Shukran”, and keep marching. Arabic is the key here—throw in a “Khalas!” (Enough!) if he persists and you’re good as gold.

Silence: ♠ 30 seconds
Maybe not saying anything to a random man who wants to sell you shit you don’t want is your instinctive reaction due to annoyance or shyness, but this tactic really doesn’t work as well as the first, especially if you’re alone. By not talking back, the tout believes you are listening to him — like you’re his freaking psychologist! So he will give you the full run-down of his marginal services and will only leave once he is tired of talking or has gone beyond his general selling turf. Looking at him in the eye will double your wasted time to a minute, easily, because then you really seem sympathetic to his pathetic deals.

Whistling like R2D2: ♠ 20 seconds
One day, the sun fried my brain so much that I thought I was a three-legged servitor-bot from Tatooine.  So, how does the average hawker handle modulating whistles as answers to questions? He doesn’t handle them: he becomes confused and the remaining grey matter in his crusty skull lights on fire. Some of his ilk may instantly back off from you, others may look at you like you are insane—let’s face it, you kind of are—but nobody will play along and have a nice old robo-chat with you. Thus, if you’re at the edge of madness and you’re good at whistling or love Star Wars, this is a potential option.

Insulting the Person: Varies Depending on Whether Mother is Mentioned and/or Occurrence of Physical Conflict
Every male tourist out there feels some sort of aggression when exposed to persistent touts, but please gentlemen, just bottle that fury up and tear a pillow apart with your bare hands back at the Four Seasons. You get three per bed there, anyway! Trading insults only happens when you can’t control yourself, which is a sign of a person of poor character, like me. I did this twice on my trip. I mentioned the first time a few posts ago, and the second was after a full day of hawkers asking me if I wanted to buy marijuana. Now, how could this make you crazy? Well, if being profiled ceaselessly for an illegal product that somehow all of your friends avoid being offered doesn’t make you grumpy, just imagine this whispered into your ear about 20 times a day in horrible Eengleesh:

SMOK MAREEWAANA?
HAASHEESH?
DA MAREEWAANA?

DA HAASHEESH?
YOU WAN
HAASHEESH?
SMOK DA MAREEWAANA?
YOU LIKE HAASHEESH?
GOOD PRIGHS HAASHEESH?
YES MAREEWAANA? YES HAASHEESH?

Therefore, it was only natural that I answered one group of offending young hawkers by pointing a finger and declaring “You all smoke too much marijuana.”

They got angry. “YOU DIE!” came from one of the teens, to which I turned around and responded “YOU DIE! YOU DIE!” with a ridiculous accent, flailing my arms about like a fool. Luckily, no fight happened, but I probably just created three new members of a Westerner head-sawing terrorist cell that will be declaring jihad on The Imperialistic Great Satan as soon as they get enough cash for plane tickets to Pakistan. My bad.

The point is this: try not to get in a spar with a hawker. Especially do not mention anything related to Islam or their mothers. In that case, they’ll forget all about selling you that camel ride and probably offer you a neck-choking for free.

Talking About Particle Physics Education: 900 seconds
The final tactic involves taking a hawker and, with full eye contact, hand gestures, and expressions, delivering a riveting lecture on the mysteries of particle physics one quark and boson at a time. You can dive into any aspect of the field you feel is most valuable for a carriage ride salesman; I personally chose a discussion of the Large Hadron Collider and opportunities for international cooperative research on studying particle collision. Well, the fellow was rapt for about ten full minutes, walking a full kilometer with me and trying to add some irrelevant point about “Is very cheap” right when I was pontificating about recent efforts to detect the Higgs Boson at CERN. Once I’d made the basics of the field known, I recommended that he scrap his carriage business and use the cash for a bachelor’s in Physics at an esteemed European university. “With hard work,” I said, “you can even land an internship in Switzerland with the world’s best physicists!”

Well folks, this may not be the best way to shed a vexatious hawker, but if you want some interesting entertainment for fifteen minutes, spread the joy of physics to a tout. If you’re lucky, he’ll be so bothered by your deep questions, he’ll never talk to tourists ever again!

There you have my hard-earned research and all its illuminations for you, ready to be used by any future traveler to this fascinating country. If someone gives the “uhhhh” method a try–after every statement say uhhhh–I’d love to know how that goes, so please message me with any statistical analysis and/or results.

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Rest a While, In Style, on the Nile — January 21st-23rd

If you ask the average backpacker why they drag themselves through absolutely squalid accommodations and transport on their trips abroad, the answer is usually that it saves money. Keeping as much cash as possible in the unpredictably-expensive game of travel is the primary reason why people can be found catching atrocious sleep in 32-person hostel rooms where two of the crowd are having bunk-creaking drunk sex and six are snoring like machine guns. It’s why intrepid Western college students visiting Whereverstan crowd onto dangerously-packed local buses, some mechanical time-bombs bequeathed by previous colonial overlords, for cramp-inducing half day journeys on roads that feel similar to getting a body massage by an enraged silverback. And it’s the motivation for me, since I haven’t struck gold teaching English or finding a bag of Viking gems in my backyard, to go on the rougher side of the railroad tracks when I’m on the road. Skimping on the unnecessaries is not just my modus operandi, by my credo. That’s just a wankerish way to say I really avoid expensive stuff.

But good news for all of you who would rather be in the sauna drinking whisky at the Ritz-Carlton than stepping on tarantulas in your infested 4 dollars-a-night pension room: a place called post-revolution mid-chaos Egypt exists! What on earth could that mean? Well, right now, you have the unparalleled opportunity to get fantastically low-priced 4-star resort hotel rooms, tours, and other services just by showing up and showing off a bit of hard bargaining. Western tourist traffic has fled from huge tracts of the country due to fears of instability and Islamism, both of which are actually non-issues for tourists, and locals are now desperate for cash. It’s hard to celebrate this all without sounding disgustingly exploitative, but seriously, cut the whitebread scaredy-cat “Muslims are DANGEROUS” bullshit and come to Egypt for your next holiday. You can save money and have a hell-of-a-good-time here. Just be careful about those balloons (Kapadokya in Turkey is better than Luxor, anyway).

My trip was filled with plenty of solid deals, but the best one I walked away with was an awesome three-day, two-night riverboat cruise from Aswan to Luxor. For 150 bucks, the price of one night in many American hotels, I got:

  • All-you-can-eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner—check.
  • Gleaming private bathroom for a stinky backpacker—check.
  • Two double beds (If you want to make a fort, like me)—check.
  • Totally glorious sundeck and swimming pool—check.
  • Unforgettable passage down the timeless Nile with stops at epic archeological sites—check.

It was an un-passable bargain. Originally, I had been planning to hire some soft-spoken Nubian guy named “Honey Bunny”—I kid you not—to take me down the river in his felucca for an indeterminate amount of time until the wind pushed our boat into the banks north of Luxor. Not only was that more expensive than the riverboat option, but without a speedy southerly wind it could have been an abject failure. Nothing would have ruined my holiday more than missing my plane back to Poland and getting stuck on a glorified rowboat with Captain Sugar Hare. Except for dying while trying to get off said vessel.

In all my experiences going from foreign A to foreign B, that river boat interlude was undoubtedly the most luxurious I’ve ever had. I even felt excessive just lying there on my double bed(s), everything clean, no lingering cigarette smells and no wall-stains, so I spent my time on the sun-deck chilling with a groovy English bloke from Yorkshire by the name of James. He was courteous enough to share a few G&Ts with me, and by a good stroke of luck we discovered that we both harbored quite a skeptical streak regarding religion, pseudoscience, and the Evil Powers of Unreality and Antireason. So our conversations were thoughtful and far more interesting than I could have hoped for on the ship, and things got better when we met up with a spritely pair of Argentine ladies, a girl named Sigrid and her aunt, and went out to Luxor for shopping one night. Alas, the cruise wasn’t long enough to disconnect from reality forever, and I had to trudge down the gangplank and bid farewell on the 23rd. Smashing two nights though, nonetheless.

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I may have hyped up the low cost of the trip, but you really can’t slap a price-tag on the ability to make time irrelevant to your ability to enjoy yourself. Even when people are travelling on an average holiday, keeping track of time becomes utterly essential for the day’s progression, transforming itself into a bothersome fetish that blocks your dopamine receptors with its anal-retentive girth. Example:

Marge: “Look Roger, let’s take a quick stroll through that beautiful park—“
Roger: “FUCKIN’ MARGE THE GODDAMN TRAIN LEAVES IN FORTY NINE MINUTES AND THREE SECONDS, IF WE GO AT AN AVERAGE WALKING SPEED OF 2.3 MILES PER HOUR AND THE STATION IS 3 MILES AWAY WE’RE SCREWED WOMAN AGGHGHAHAGHH ***Old white guy mouth-frothing***

That’s why boat trips are awesome: you get on, mindlessly eat food, and then chill until you have to mindlessly eat food again and then chill. Everybody needs a bit of that to stay sane in our hyperactively minute-minded world, so I recommend a lazy cruise down the watery heart of Egypt for any person—no matter your budget—ready to “Turn off time and float upstream” as the Beatles put it. Or downstream, like me!

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The Land of Ozymandias (Pt. IV) — Slow Life in Aswan: January 18-20th

One of my warmest memories of Egypt will always be my time in laid-back Aswan.

Located in the extreme south of Egypt on the spot where ancient Egyptians believed the Nile was born out of a mighty spurt from the ground, the sleepy city of Aswan competes strongly for the title of best tourist town in Egypt. For any visitor coming to see the iconic temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, Aswan is a necessary stopover, but it is so much more than a place to pass out between sweaty tours. Thanks to its easy-going Nubian heritage and the scorching sun above that complicates any concerted effort outside, Aswan moves lugubriously like the lazy Nile alongside it. A chilled-out evening on one of the many riverside restaurant terraces has one watching felucca captains effortless maneuver their wooden vessels gracefully through the mighty granite boulders and isles that segment the waters. Hookah (Sheesha to you Europeans) gets started up upon nightfall and the beer—yes, there is beer aplenty—fuels the relaxation well into the eve. Furthermore, the locals are true to their humble roots and seem to be the least pushy folks in all of Egypt. The hawkers may even treat you like a real person!

If that doesn’t have you sold, the attractions around Aswan will. The plethora of tombs and temples in the environs of the town are absolutely worth a detour, including the ones at Abu Simbel, Philae, and the monastery of St. Simeon. It may not have the overwhelming archeological selection that Luxor has upstream, but it certainly makes up for the lack of places in terms of quality. Plus, it’s worth it to see the area’s monuments for the simple fact that they were all to be destroyed by the Aswan high dam and Lake Nasser, and were only saved through the inestimable efforts of an international UNESCO team in the 60’s. The temples and monuments were meticulously taken apart, stone-by-stone, and reassembled on high ground in the exact forms of their originals by archeologists collaborating together from all over the world. This success of international cooperation alone is enough to see places like the island temple of Philae.

The Journey South:

I got to Aswan by taking a 60 USD per-ticket night train south, which included but not drinks nor demanded tips from train personnel. This issue was actually quite a thorn in my side on the trip; each cabin is serviced on the Cairo-Luxor-Aswan sleeper train by ingratiatingly servile men who are literally trained to not look you directly in the eye without bowing and nearly whispering with reverence. You feel disgusting when addressed like this, as if you just beat the shit out of the fellow and he’s deathly afraid of round two. But it’s all a big ploy for them to get tips from you, and my attendant asked “What do you want for me?” at the end of the trip in an effort to indirectly get me to cough up change. I had nothing left (true story) so I gave nothing! Despite this, the train was a comfortable choice, although I had no other because the other passenger trains had been shut down due to a massively fatal train crash in Giza two days prior.

Aswan Highlights:

Abu Simbel: this awe-inspiring rock-cut temple of mighty Ramses II, featuring four mega-scale seated figures of the pharaoh and the gods, was originally built to scare the bejeezus out of invading African tribes from the north so much that they’d turn back home rather than face the colossal Egyptians. After being re-discovered in 1814 by an Italian traveler who saw the tip of the far-left head peeking out from under a sand dune, it became a hit tourist site. 150 years of Graffiti from careless visitors marks the torsos of the figures and parts of the interior temple, but the general beauty and pure strength that the structure communicates are totally intact. In the 60s, the site was moved to a man-made rock face to save it from Lake Nasser, and the movers did a damn fine job keeping it the way it is. I personally loved the temple to Ramses’ wife, which had much more intricate carvings than her husband’s!


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Nearly every hotel and every tourist agency offers trips which start in the early morning (3:30-4:00) and arrive at the site around 7:00. Tourists are given a few hours to mosey round the main temple and that of Ramses’ favorite wife, Nefertari (Not to be confused with Nefertiti), and then the buses return to Aswan in the late morning. Tickets to the site are not usually included with the transport cost.

Philae: located on an island surrounded by Lake Nasser, this graceful temple provides repose from the hustle and bustle of an Abu Simbel morning. To get to the island, you need to pay 25 EP and get a private boat there. My travel mates and I haggled hard to 20 pounds for five people, but as a condition of the low price we only stayed on the island for around 45 minutes.
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The temple, dedicated to various gods like Hathor and Osiris, has a unique asymmetrical layout and is fun to wander through sanctuary to sanctuary. One of the fascinating aspects to notice about the place is the brutal iconoclasm of early Christians, which destroyed many of the reliefs and left rough crosses carved into the limestone walls. However, I discovered a sweet carving of a monkey-dog playing a lute in the temple to the arts, and the huge-columned Kiosk of Trajan will forever change your perception of just how big a kiosk can get. I would have preferred a full hour or one-and-a-half to see everything, but I made do with the demands of our jilted boat driver.
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St. Simeon Monastery: this early Christian monastery is the real deal when it comes to seeing the tranquility and roughness of monastic life in the desert. Although the structure is in ruins, its picturesque location and solitude really communicate the spirit that early Christians sought to better ponder God and Jesus.
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The Ins and Outs of Visiting St. Simeon (And other tales):

It’s an unvisited place with crappy winter hours—only open until four—and transport there is a little more complicated than for other sights. I met up with a German friend named Martin and we took a swift felucca from the eastern bank to the western in about 25-30 minutes. The ride was awesome as we got to glide in between the currents of the Nile and the imposing boulders that are strewn about in it; felucca captains use a zig-zagging method of movement down the river to catch unfavorably-directed wind and use it to push the boat in the right direction. Our captain, “Nimo”, advised us to get back before it got dark (Jackal zombies, most likely), and upon landing we jumped out and trekked up purposefully the path towards the monastery.
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The mud-brick complex sprawled across the empty wastes of the desert. It looked so cool. But it was all closed up. Damnit! However, we didn’t despair, and I found a low-level wall that my friend and I could jump over and we more-or-less broke in. Despite the questionability of this, we were both rational lovers of history and thus any damage to the site would be unthinkable to us. I wandered around on my own through some chapels, hermit cells, and the soft darkness of the main hall. The second floor was inaccessible, probably because stomping around in a 1600 year-old mud structure is inadvisable. Yet it was all really fun to silently admire, even though medieval Arabic graffiti is splattered all over many surfaces. In one place, the marauding Arabs never looked up (haha, stupid-heads!) and the original frescoes of saints remain on the 8 foot-tall ceiling remain intact.

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We mounted a crumbling perimeter turret to watch the sunset and then got out without a soul seeing us from nearby. As hardy kindred adventurers, we decided that a saunter cross the desert back to the ferry loading point a few kilometers north of where our felucca dropped us off would be a most enjoyable idea. So we marched on over dunes and across an empty tract, before scaling the muscle-aching incline of a large hill covered in sand. Dripping with sweat, we got to the top and were struck by the marvelous view of Aswan in the fading dusk light, with the lazy Nile below. It was a great climax to an awesome day. On the way down, the going got bumpy as we were without lighting devices (Oh, that’s what the felucca captain was talking about) but we at least could go towards floodlights placed on the hill by the tourist authorities to illuminate some rock-cut tombs. These tombs also received a short visit from us, and I must say they looked deliciously evil with bats flying around in the dark and the pale crescent moon above.
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We later caught a ferry and chilled out at Saladin restaurant, smoking hookah and discussing Western and Egyptian cultural differences, along with a pinch of linguistic chat thrown in there. Martin introduced me to the ugliest word I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear, which is “cuckoo clock” in some variety of Swiss German. There is not one but three iterations of guttural throat sounds in the word, giving it resemblance to an emphysematic’s dying cough.

And that was just about it for my time in Aswan. The next morning I ran around the city looking for feluccas to take me to Luxor like how people went the old days, but no cheap and quick ones were to be found so I settled for a luxurious two night Nile Cruise that shall be lauded in the following blog post. So, if you’ve gotten thus far, thanks for reading and check in soon for the ins and outs of my Death on the Nile experience without the death!

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The Land of Ozymandias — Pt. III (January 16th): The Big, Four-Sided 3D Triangles of Giza

A trip to Egypt without the Pyramids of Giza is like a stand-up routine without jokes. Nothing can really justify a holiday in this crazy country and the long haul necessary to get here without the experience of these colossal humblers. As the world’s oldest continuously-visited tourist attractions, the Pyramids have withstood four millennia of concerted sandblasting and opportunistic looting to keep humans stroking their chins in wonder. And the sight of these glorified tombstones is enough to make a moderner stop and ponder with envy: why can’t I have my own army of drafted laborers build a man-made mountain for me?

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It’s frankly amazing that something built two thousand years before the ancient Roman Empire, something that was already an antiquity in Antiquity, can still inspire a tremor of alien fascination in the hyper-stimulated mind of today. In the Era of Glowing Rectangle Love, every bit of larger-than-life entertainment we could possibly want is coming at us at blinding speeds through the internet and the myriad of electronic gizmos that surround us, and within this bubble it’s possible to encapsulate yourself in a fantastical dream-state of never-ending artificial enjoyment. As a victim of this, I can attest that it doesn’t take long before reality begins to shrink in its grandeur. CGI effects and intricate video game graphics inure us to mind-blowing scenes that would shatter the perceptual worlds of our forebears, and watching New York get ripped apart by cosmo-robots wielding skyscrapers for truncheons is something we don’t even blink at. Because of this, perhaps the most awe-inspiring fact of the Pyramids is not that they are simply enormous or venerable, but that they can still cause us, We the Attention-Deficited of the Future, to say, “Wow!”

Okay, some of you may want that inevitable grain of salt about it all. It’s not all perfect, sure—nowadays the Pyramids are being encroached on by the bacterial urban sprawl that Cairo has vomited all over its western bank, and the pollution can occasionally make them invisible. And that’s just the beginning; while you are struggling to reconcile the city’s proximity to the Pyramids (right up to the eastern lip of the complex, in fact), you will assaulted by hordes of souvenir and camel ride touts whose shameless brazenness will leave you speechless as they clean out your too-polite pockets. My story, told from the perspective of a lone backpacker, will illustrate the struggles quite clearly for you, but I can’t iterate enough that the Pyramids are 100% worth a solid visit.

First Stop Dahshur: The Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid

The day I visited the monolithic trio, I began by taking a taxi (225 Egyptian Pounds) down to the pyramid field of Dahshur. This place was my primer for the real deal and I’ll remember it as one of my journey’s definite highlights. It’s located about 35km southward from Cairo and features two excellent examples of pre-Giza pyramids that stand as benchmarks in the development of pyramid architecture. As a refresher for all you who just started reading, Egyptian funerary monuments developed from mastabas—designed as underground burial chambers overheaded by rectangular mud edifices—to pyramids in the course of a few hundred years during the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods (3100 BCE  – 2181 BCE). Both of the pyramids at Dahshur—the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid—are in pristine condition and have the smooth sides that we all know and love. Plus, they are totally out in the empty desert, permitting you a much more authentic and tourist-free setting than what you’ll find at Giza.

I first hopped up a wooden staircase on the Red Pyramid’s north face and got in by descending a tiny diagonal chamber that takes some sturdy legs to move up and down quickly. The interior of the pyramid has about three chambers, two of them high-ceilinged corbel vaults, and the last one being the half-caved in burial chamber. I would say it’s all in great condition and worth a peek, but it is breathtaking how insufferable the smell is that permeates the structure—literally. Be warned: the Red Pyramid has the odor of an ancient piss-trap, splashed over by gallons of tourists and localites’ urine with no drainage system of cleaning apparatus to deal with it all. I saw one suave-looking European fellow and his guide spend approximately two minutes glancing around before fleeing back to the surface for fresh air. However, I suppose that if you can deal with the reek of urea, the inside is just as charming as any other pyramid’s!

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After a few photos of me and the red-colored outside, I hit up the Bent Pyramid and walked a counter-clockwise circle around its huge base. This pyramid is named for its sides, which don’t stay straight but break to an odd lower angle about halfway up the structure. Along the way, some bored police officers toting rusty AK-47s on patrol caught up with me and helped take some photos. One of the wildest things on my holiday happened when I was posing for a shot in the doorway of a queen’s pyramid, and right as the officer was taking the photo, the mother-flipping door I was leaning on broke open and I tumbled down the pyramid shaft. In a matter of seconds I was sliding into inky darkness, luckily on my back facing forward, and I tried to gain control of slide using the soles of my feet. As I quickly flew downward, I caught a glimpse of the sand and rubbish at the bottom of the shaft and thereafter crashed into it with a huge plume of dust. The alarmed police officer called down to me, and after coughing up a pound of mummy particles I notified him of my good health and thanked my lucky stars I was okay. A few minutes later and I had climbed out of the shaft by positioning my feet on the opposite walls to slowly wedge my body upward. When I reached daylight, the officer, still standing there with my camera, chuckled at the sight of me and helped me dust off. Eventually he and his partner wanted a tip for their invaluable contributions to maintaining my safety and their photo-taking, but they kindly let me depart without paying up!

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Onward to Giza! And Surviving the Hawker Trap

Having survived the isolated plain of Dahshur, I was ready for the real deal at Giza. My taxi got me there after an hour-and-a-half of traffic jams northward and I recall taking a pleasant short nap in my reclined passenger seat. But when I awoke, I was unprepared for the incomparable onslaught that is entering the Pyramids. You see, the moment your taxi gets around the illogical traffic circles and their accompanying legions of automobiles into the 400 meter road leading to the northern entrance of the complex, the gauntlet of hawker doom begins. This is what happens. All around you, sprinklings of men, who at first are just standing on the curb looking idle, suddenly come to life at the sight of your taxi—fresh blood—and run towards your car like the starving undead. Then, they nearly collide with the vehicle and run along its sides screaming:

“CAMELRIDEONEHOURMYFRIEND20POUNDSSPECIALPRICEJUSTFORYOUYES!!!”

While you are recoiling in horror from the dirty fingers that are slapping against your window, their masters hungering for your attention, you push the door lock down as fast as you fucking can. But it’s too late: one of them, an extra pushy undead fellow with a hat and greasy black hair, has thrown himself into the backseat and proceeds to tap on your shoulder with a “’SCUZEME ‘SCUZEME ‘SCUZEME”. If you’re like me, you first tell your cab driver to drive past all these bastards, and when he does a shit job of it and now the hawkers have blocked your cab’s way, you simply have to ignore the guy tapping on your shoulder in the back seat trying to get your attention and repeat “LA SHUKRAN” (No thank you) until it becomes as familiar as your first name. To add to the ridiculousness, the fellow pretends to act insulted when you don’t acknowledge his presence past this and says “HELLO I AM HERE”. It’s a surreal game to be a part of. Meanwhile, other hawkers have gotten into fights with each other outside the car and are yelling at each other with accentuated finger-jabbing for unknown reasons.

Anyway, this process repeated itself between 2-3 times more, I lost track, before we got to the parking lot where my taxi dropped me off to buy my ticket. Within a second of getting out, a man had confronted me professing to be an employee of the site, wearing a tattered shirt and a head-wrap, and I brushed him off like all the others. More got in my way but I got to the ticket booth and entered the site without much else happening except for a security officer pushing away the head-wrap guy who was still after me. Once in, on the north side of Khufu’s Pyramid, the chaos of camel ride vendors harassing me for rides started right back up, and at one point I simply snapped and said to one man, “No, fuck off.” The bespectacled fellow got surly and shot back, “Do not say bad things to me or I will say some bad things to you!!!” Whatever, dude. I received more angry comments from those I ignored, some mounted on camels and somewhat hard to get away from, until after about five minutes I had safely reached the eastern side of Khufu’s Pyramid and away from the main cadre of vicious touts. Whew!

Sauntering Round the Pyramids and a Conversation with a Sex Tourist

The complex around the first pyramid, known as the Great Pyramid because it is the highest of the three, was teeming with visitors and it didn’t suit me much; especially after seeing Egyptians illegally climbing on the blocks of the slowly-eroding base, which is now darkened from the grubby hands of millions of visitors every year (A huge threat to virtually every worthwhile monument in the country). So, I took off southward toward the seemingly-bigger and more isolated Pyramid of Khufu. And during my saunter across the emptying sands, the feeling hit me—that wonderful, goosebumpy, and somewhat frightening sense of being dwarfed by the majesty of a colossus. It happens on hikes in high-elevation mountains, it happens when you are on a breaker gazing out over the ocean, and it happened right when I found myself between the two pyramids. With this sensation, I got a huge rush of adrenaline and I was compelled to see the entire site in the measly hour that I had left before closing time at 5PM. My destination was the super-famous picture spot in the southern desert where the most quintessential photos of the Pyramids are taken from.

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I trekked and trekked over the beige land, into the setting sun past the ruins of funerary temples, straggling Egyptian tourists and a few touts before getting to the smaller pyramid of Menkaure, famous for being the unlikely victim of Islamic fanaticism when Al-Malik Al-Aziz Osman bin Salahadin Yusuf, a 12th-century sultan and pipe-dreamed religious nut, tried to tear the pyramid down. He only succeeded in leaving a vertical cut in the north face, more blemishment than an accomplishment. I hopped an enclosure wall surrounding it all and hit the desert proper, happily heading out to the sands that flow into the desert south of the complex. Feeling oh-so-fine, I summited a hill and got my own postcard-worthy pics of myself and the three biggies with the smaller ones of their queens out in front. Heading out there is a must for any intrepid visitor with a good set of legs (or the patience to endure a tout and his camel ride there for an hour). Up on the hill, I encountered a strange Norwegian fellow in his fifties or so with a petite Egyptian girl, maybe 12-15, on a camel ride. The girl was definitely with the white guy as no family members were present, she was uncovered, and she had the same awkward demeanor I’d seen a boy prostitute have at dinner with a fat white guy in Laos a few years back. “Sex tourist alert!” I thought.

Then, the man and I commenced a conversation, in which he revealed he was an active adventurer who had kayaked from Norway to Israel or something crazy like that, and had motorcycled all the way from Alaska to Argentina at one point in his life. Of course, these are definitely amazing accomplishments, but then he went on to disparage America’s “close-mindedness” and delivered a lecture about the evils of the Midwest. Yea, so America is evil and bad and stupid and what not, and you’re just a paragon of European enlightenment by sticking your prick in an adolescent Arab girl driven to desperation for cash by poverty in a country where she could risk her life and future for such an act? Pardon my crudeness, but sex tourists really ought to be more charming to make up for their creepiness, don’t you think?

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Still, that time on the hill was glorious, and I felt like a total boss heading back towards the main site. I ran virtually the entire way, past rock-cut tombs looming eerily in the sunset, as the complex was beginning to ring with klaxons signaling closing time. Fortunately, I managed to take some sweaty-ass photos at the Sphinx on my way out. Running through sand certainly gets those pores open. Then, I had to vault up the modern road that bisects the area and convince a group of security officers to let me through a closed road to the north parking lot. They listened to me pant for a minute and then waved me through, and I got back to the taxi all right.
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Totaling up Two Days of Ancient Fun:

The day was a total success—I saw the cream of the pyramid crop that Egypt has to offer, and I got some great exercise walking and running around it all in the process. Breaking it all down:

  • Financially, it set me back 450 Egyptian pounds for two days of travelling by private taxi and 110 pounds for tickets (Saqqara=30, Dahshur=20, Giza=60). So, around 80 USD—for any enthusiast of large-scale history it’s a fair price, although splitting the cab costs with someone is advisable.
  • Experientially, backpacking solo there was a good choice. I was able to see everything on my own at my own speed, and that allowed me a great deal of comfort and enjoyment with the three pyramid sites. Tours risk being far too fast and stressful for those who want to really feel the vastness of the places that the pharaohs originally intended.
  • Serenity-wise, Giza is a bit of a mess for its hawkers and Saqarra suffers a little from this as well. Dahshur was the best here by far, although I would still recommend checking out Giza despite the partial madness of getting in.
  • Final result: Dahshur and Giza are Musts, although I’d put off Saqarra if you don’t have time to stop there on your way to Dahshur or if you don’t want to be let down by the restoration. Two days is plenty of time, and if you are a real marathoner and can start at 7AM and go till 5PM, all three sites are doable in one day (though I’d avoid it personally).

To all travelers heading to Egypt soon – Have fun going pyramid crazy. I certainly did!

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The Land of Ozymandias — Pt. II: Warming up for the Pyramids (Jan. 15th)


I have been unhealthily obsessed with pyramids since I was a kid. Back in the day, I constructed Lego pyramids, drew pyramids on sheets intended for homework, forced my parents to buy me books about the Egyptians because I loved their three-dimensional triangular masterpieces, and so on. Whereas some of my other fascinations about Egypt kind of dropped off the map, I think a spark of this one stayed alive for the full decade-and-a-half it took me to get to the real deal. Because when I got to the ancient necropolis of Saqqara, BAM, my heart started pitter-pattering and I could feel my love surge back to life. 

What impresses me about this reaction was that Saqqara wasn’t even that great, objectively speaking: it’s under heavy restoration and much of the site has been filled in with piles of Egyptian rubbish and sand. The site is most known for the step pyramid of Djoser, which was the first large-scale attempt at making an architecturally-viable pyramid that succeeded. Along with the main pyramid, there are smaller pyramids and a medley of tombs that have provided archeologists with their most comprehensive data about life in the Old Kingdom of Egypt (~2,500-2,000 BCE). However, with the restoration of the main pyramid occurring, and most of the northern site blocked off to tourists, it’s not a totally must-see place. That would be the adjacent pyramid site of Dahshur, which I’ll sing the praises of later.

Getting to Saqqara is straightforward if you have your own wheels. I rented out a cab from Cairo for the day for 225 Egyptian pounds with a man who resembled the black sergeant in Tropic Thunder, and we got on quite well due to his good English. We got to the site after an hour’s drive from central Cairo, and upon arrival it seemed quite deserted based on how big the parking lots were designed. The museum of Saqqara has some great artifacts and information about life in the Old Kingdom, and its best piece is a hair-raising stone relief of starving people with ribcages poking through their emaciated frames. The picture is theorized to depict a massive famine that effected Egypt near the end of the Old Kingdom. After an hour at the museum, we headed up to the actual site, where I spent the better part of the mid-day wandering around. The step pyramid looks like it is being eaten by a wooden fungus, which is actually just the restoration scaffolding that surrounds the pyramid on three of its sides. I had to dodge a handful of coercive guides who wanted to show me around in return for baksheesh to get to the technically blocked-off northern part of the site. Although the whole area is filled with tombs, you wouldn’t be able to tell much because of the insane trash-filled land that the renovators and local people have turned it into. Piles of plastic bags, burnt bones, and beer cans aren’t very evocative of the pharaohs!

The workers did nothing to stop my walkabout, but one lone galabaya-wearing man at the far entrance of the site tried to follow me and scare me away from the northern area. I basically played a nice game of cat-and-mouse with this fellow, hiding behind dunes while he struggled to keep up, until he had finally had enough and retreated to the shade of his entrance booth. Once free from pursuit, I marched all the way west round the site to the eclectic set of minor tombs for officials located south of the main pyramid. A few of the tombs were simply enormous chasms built by late-era Persian generals who wanted to create a failsafe way to guard their treasures in the afterlife. But, like 99% of the tombs discovered in Egypt, these were nevertheless looted as well. Piety for the dead is quickly forgotten when one act of profanity can land a man riches beyond his wildest imagination!

I took a peek inside a few mastaba (mud structure) tombs, including one of a court minister whose body was mysteriously tossed out in antiquity and replaced with that of Princess Idut, a daughter of King Teti who died around 2,330 BC. Inside there were some curious reliefs of a hippo giving birth and a farmer pulling a calf out of the Nile to save it from hungry crocodiles. Besides this tomb and a few open mastabas, there wasn’t much else to examine at the southern site. Most my energy was spent trying to dodge baksheesh demands from roving Egyptians, which was partially accomplished through hiding in the small pyramid of King Unas for fifteen minutes. Thanks for the hospitality, Mr. U!

So that was my time at Saqqara—it was okay for a visit, but I’d recommend visiting it only once the restoration has been wrapped up and the site has been cleaned.

By the time I left Saqqara, it was too late in the afternoon for Dahshur but too early to head back to Cairo. I couldn’t just go home that early so I toured the nearby tomb and pyramid site of Teti with the unrequested assistance of a pink-faced Egyptian peasant. This guy, like his carbon-copy counterparts that swarm almost every tourist-visited historical place in the country, couldn’t speaky the Eengleesh for crud and tried to direct my attention to delicate frescoes with barely-surviving paint by touching them! You want to scream when you see a grubby finger land on 4,000 year-old wall painting—and to think he’s just doing what nearly every other self-styled guide in these places does. What can a tourist do but cringe? On a brighter note, I got to go inside the pyramid of Teti and actually enjoyed it. The beige-colored hieroglyphics on the inside are in great shape and the carved stars on the roof of the tomb chamber are a treat to see in person. However, the roof seems to be caving in and I wouldn’t like to be the hapless tourist stuck inside when the first part comes down like a piano.

I finished my day by taking an off-the-beaten-track detour to the pyramid complex of Abu Sir. Abu Sir is little more than three misshapen pyramids skirted by a destroyed sun temple’s rubble, but as I am Pyramid Crazy, that was not a problem for me and my obsession. The place is visited by virtually nobody and was ostensibly closed when we arrived, so I had to bribe some local peasants about 40 Egyptian pounds to let me into the complex. Upon access, I received another unasked-for mediocre-quality tour, which consisted mostly of a skinny, sharp-faced peasant man reiterating the word SA-HU-RA—the name of one of the pharaohs buried there—in my face again and again. It went like this:

Me: **I point to the pyramid** Malik? (King?)
Ahmed Ahmedson: Sahura!
Me: Sahura?
Ahmed Ahmedson: LA! (No!), SA-HUU-RA
Me: SA-HUU-RA
Ahmed Ahmedson: La, la, SA-HUU-RAEAEAH
Me SA-HUU-RAEAEAH
Ahmed Ahmedson: La!! **Unintelligible Arabic muttering**

The guy also did not want to linger around the area, but I got to get some nice photos of myself and the pyramids before leaving. On the way out, he asked me if I had any wives and started making pelvic thrust motions. So, I enthusiastically joined in and under that brown skin of his I’m sure he turned a bright pink because one of his friends walked up to us right then and saw me. My embarrassed but giggling guide wanted me to stop but I continued, with a few Borat ‘VAIR NAICE’s thrown in to spice it up. And I jumped in my taxi, gave him the lowest acceptable tip I could shave off from my wallet, and sped off back to Cairo for an evening shooting the breeze with Nick.

NEXT POST: Dahshur and the Real Pyramids. Thanks for reading along so far!

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