BootsnAll Travel Network

Odds and Ends 5

February 16th, 2008

I was browsing through some old files and realized that I wrote quite a few notes from various parts of the world for my O & E section that were never posted. So, consider this an O & E “international edition.” (Notes from Italy are coming soon.)

•    In Hyderabad, India, there appears to be a trend of photographing your baby/toddler in a variety of costumes, such as a doctor, a god(dess), a policeman, or even (my favorite) Gandhi. Some people put all of the images together to create giant posters to hang in their homes. Very, very funny.

•    I passed by a kindergarten in Kenya that had painted the alphabet, and images that corresponded with each letter, on its exterior walls. What image do you think they used for the letter “G”? A giraffe? Nope. They used a gun.

•    While a friend and I lounged on a beach in Lamu, a Kenyan man told us a nice story about the baobab trees that can be found around the country. One legend says when a god gave each animal a tree or bush to plant into the ground, the hyena planted the baobab tree upside down (which is why its branches appear to be roots). When the hyena realized his mistake, he began laughing and continues to laugh to this day.

•    A friend I traveled with in Tanzania had a Swahili phrasebook that provided sentences for interactions with market vendors, waiters, taxi drivers, and so on. One of the sections was for sexual interactions. Phrases that you could murmur to your Swahili lover whilst in the throes of passion included “Easy lion!” and “It helps if you have a sense of humor about it.”

•    In Kigali, Rwanda, you can make a “cell phone call” by stopping one of the young men and women wandering the streets with full-sized desk phones that are somehow wired to the mobile network.

•    Pigeon is a popular dish in Egypt. I consider myself an adventurous eater, but I couldn’t bring myself to try pigeon, a bird that I believe is popularly known in the US as a “sewer rat with wings.” I am also amused (and a little disgusted) by the similarity between the Arabic words for “pigeon” (hamam) and “toilet” (hammam). Coincidence? Probably not.

•    Cairenes have an awesome(ly scary) way of asking for directions: rather than safely pulling over and directing their question to one of the thousand pedestrians on the street, they will drive alongside another car and, as the two vehicles weave unsteadily down the road, converse with the other driver for a minute or two.

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                The Best of Italian TV: Introducing “Ciao Darwin”

                February 14th, 2008

                Hi. Remember me? I’m your daughter/sister/granddaughter/niece/co-worker/friend who has been traveling around the world for the last 11 months. (Can you believe it’s been that long already?) I think it’s pretty clear that I failed miserably in upholding my New Year’s resolution to post on this blog more frequently, but I thought I’d try to get back into the swing of things today.

                I’m still in Rome, where I’ve been housesitting with Matteo since late November. This is my third time in Italy, and I’ve noticed that while Rome’s amazing monuments are still exciting, I tend to focus more on day-to-day things in Italian life this time around. One of those things is Italian TV or, more specifically, a hilarious primetime variety gameshow called Ciao Darwin.

                From what I gather with my slowly (but surely) evolving Italian vocabulary, each episode of Ciao Darwin is a competition between groups of polar opposites—blondes versus brunettes, old versus young, fat versus thin, smart versus stupid, the “enhanced” (via plastic-surgery) versus the “natural,” and so on. Usually, there is a question-and-answer round, a “time travel” round where contestants dress in ridiculous costumes to re-enact something like Dante’s Inferno or the American Wild West, and a sort of Fear Factor round where contestants let bugs crawl all over them or experience other disgusting or horrifying things.

                But the craziest thing about Ciao Darwin to my American mind would be the fact that a good 50 percent of the show is dedicated to showing off women’s boobs and butts. (Do I have your attention now?) This flagrant display of sexuality isn’t uncommon in Italian popular culture (there are billboards near my house, for instance, that use women’s breasts to sell toothpaste and their bare bodies to sell air-conditioning units), but Ciao Darwin takes it to a whole new level with its creative approaches.

                For your enjoyment, I’ve linked to a few clips of common Ciao Darwin segments that I found on YouTube and an Italian site. The first is a “dance” scene (Matteo says that the dances are famous for how awful they are…which obviously isn’t the main point, as you’ll soon see); the second is a Madre Natura scene, where a scantily-clad woman with strategically-placed leaves invokes the spirit of Mother Nature for absolutely no reason; and the third is the infamous “catwalk” scene (which I am having trouble linking to– you’ll need to click on the link on the left-hand side that says “Nord vs Sud”) where the opposing teams battle it out by showing off “day wear,” “evening wear,” “disco wear,” and “night wear”… I’ll leave you to figure out which is which. Be sure to watch for amusing facial expressions from the men in the audience as well as their use of binoculars, and to listen for an increased roar in the crowd every time a woman in a thong turns around.

                Oh, Italy. There’s so much more to you than the Colosseum and gelato.

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                The Italian Government Fell on Thursday

                January 26th, 2008

                But given the Italy’s usual political instability, I imagine that a lot of travelers can claim to have witnessed something similar.

                Sadly, there are no riots in the streets or other displays of anarchy that would have taken place if this had happened in any of the other countries I’ve visited on this trip. Oh well.

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                Ringing in the New Year in Rome

                January 5th, 2008

                Is this post a little late? Ok, maybe it is, but December 31, 2007 in Rome definitely needs to be remembered.

                First, to place the event in context, let’s go back to December 27, 2007 or so. That would be around the time that one of my Italian neighbors decided to begin his nightly launch of full-sized-Fourth-of-July-in-DC-worthy fireworks from his rooftop, crowded urban neighborhood be damned. All of them resulted in rattled windows and huge blasts of color across the sky; when I first heard them, I thought bombs had gone off.

                In the home of frothing personal injury lawyers, otherwise known as America, I’m sure that the police would have been called out to a similar scene right away. Not so in Rome.

                Now flash-forward to 11PM on December 31st. Matteo and I decided to go to Piazza di Popolo, a beautiful square in the center of Rome filled with priceless statues, twin Baroque churches housing paintings by Caravaggio, and even a hieroglyphic-adorned obelisk carried out of ancient Egypt by the Romans. When we arrived, we found a huge crowd of jubilant Italians and vacationing foreigners of all ages in a ring around the square as well as on the obelisk’s platform in the center. But few people were in the square itself. Why? Because a fireworks war was underway!

                Being young adventurers, Matteo and I decided to take a risk and run to the center to be with other crazy souls. Dodging the fireworks being tossed across the piazza, which exploded just next to statues that would be protected in climate-controlled glass cases anywhere outside of Western Europe, we entered the center around 11:57PM, ready for the countdown. But everyone was screaming so loudly, spraying bottles of champagne that had been purchased from smart vendors in the piazza, that we figured our watch was late, shrugged, and yelled Happy New Year to one another. Around 12:03AM, a group nearby decided to count down to the New Year, or possibly replay a moment from the old year, and I stumbled along with them in Italian. (Counting from 1 to 10 in Italian isn’t a problem for me, but I’m still a little slow from 10 to 1.) Our countdown was interrupted by more fireworks exploding in trash cans, so who knows if we actually did it at the right time or not. In the meanwhile, the few men and women from Rome’s polizia who were actually there to witness the madness celebrated alongside the crowd.

                So, amid the anarchy, I rang in 2008 (and, thankfully, emerged with my body intact). I hope this year turns out to be as exciting as 2007!

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                Happy New Year and Merry Photo-Browsing!

                January 3rd, 2008

                At long last, I’ve gotten my act together on the photo front. Lesson learned: when you’re on a round-the-world trip, upload photos as you take them.

                My photos from Malaysia, India, Kenya, and Tanzania can be seen at I have internet access at the house where I’m staying in Rome, so my photos from Egypt should also be up within the next few days. There are no Rwanda photos because, as those of you who read this blog might remember, my camera was stolen in Kigali (tear).

                Update: All my photos are now online!

                One of my New Year’s resolutions was to start posting on more a regular basis, so expect to hear from me again soon. I had a blast hanging out at Rome’s Piazza di Popolo on New Year’s Eve, and the experience was definitely entry-worthy. More on that later. Until then, enjoy the photos!

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                La Colazione “Piccola” alla Casa di Zia Teresa

                December 9th, 2007

                I’m in Rome now and, as usual, I have a million new experiences to describe. I’ll get around to posting them eventually but, in the meantime, I’ll keep it simple and describe the absolutely tiny lunch I had today at Matteo’s aunt’s home. The menu:

                • Tortellini with cream sauce
                • Fried pork cutlets
                • Potato “quiche” with ham
                • Artichoke hearts with garlic and olive oil
                • Green salad
                • A whole loti fruit
                • Fruit salad
                • Apple tart
                • Espresso

                Matteo and I had a serving of each item. Zia Teresa pouted when we didn’t have additional servings (it was all delicious, but I felt like my stomach was going to explode), and then made us a fresh batch of breaded meatballs to take home for dinner. In case we were hungry this evening.

                Ciao for now!

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                Deserts of Soot and Snow

                December 9th, 2007

                I wrote this entry a few weeks ago, but I haven’t been able to post it online until now. Sorry. My current location: Rome, Italy.

                Bahariyya Oasis is one of five major oases located in western Egypt’s vast deserts and, less than one week ago, it was our departure point for an overnight safari with a Bedouin guide named Mehur. (We spent a day and night in the oasis itself and were bored within an hour of wandering the streets—it was a too-simple, too-quiet town of concrete-block apartments, sand, and palm trees.) Upon learning our names, Mehur decided that “Taea” and “Matteo” were too complicated to pronounce and re-named us “Yasmin” and “Mohammed.” I, in turn, christened him “John.” And so we began our journey.

                Our first stop was the Black Desert, where layers of black sand stretched for miles and freestanding, scorched-looking mountains rose from the earth. Gorgeous. Standing on top of one of the mountains, I looked down on an otherworldly landscape.

                Leaving the Black Desert, we continued on to a cold spring. Along the way, I envisioned a clear pool of water in the sand, surrounded by palms and perhaps a thirsty camel or two. What I actually saw was a concrete box filled with water gushing from a large metal pipe, and yet another of my romantic dreams was crushed.

                Our next stop, “Crystal Mountain” was decidedly more exciting. At the edge of a new stretch of desert, named the White Desert for its snow-white rocks, was an area filled with crystals on boulders and in millions of pieces on the sands. Gathering huge chunks of smooth, glittering clear crystals in my hands, I had a little girl princess moment and began giggling at my thoughts of being surrounded by “free diamonds.”

                We stopped for lunch after we moved deeper into the desert, to a place filled with sand dunes. As Mehur prepared a delicious meal of mashed eggplant, cucumber and tomato salad, bread, feta cheese, and sweet mint tea, I wandered into the dunes and laid down to take a short nap on the warm, yellow-white sand, under the unbelievably blue sky.

                After lunch, we continued on Agabat, a region of larger sand dunes and deep valleys punctuated by enormous free-standing rocks. We stopped our jeep at the top of one large dune to take photos and, lured by the emptiness and soft sand, Matteo and I (and a French-Canadian girl named Anna who had joined us on the safari) ran barefoot and arms-outstretched to the valley below.

                As the sun began to dip towards the horizon, we entered the White Desert, where we would camp for the night. The landscape was, without a doubt, one of the most magical I’ve seen. Hundreds, if not thousands, of perfectly white rocks resembling animals and plants like chickens, camels, and mushrooms rose from white sands; traveling through them was like experiencing a harder, earthly version of watching clouds in the sky.

                And it got better. As I mentioned before, our guide was a Bedouin man, and as he set up our campsite, it quickly became clear that the Bedouin know how to camp in the desert in style. First, Mehur stretched out a large canvas screen decorated with colorful designs. Then, within these “walls,” we laid down several woven rugs on the sand and topped them with a low wooden table and mattresses covered with thick blankets. A few feet away, our fire pit warmed a kettle of tea and cooked kofta and tomato stew.

                After dinner, the four of us sat around the fire, talking and drinking endless cups of tea. Mehur’s knowledge of English was limited, which created several amusing moments. I tried to describe the importance of scary stories on camping trips to Mehur, for instance, but he didn’t know the words for “scary” and “story.” As I mimed “scary” and pointing to the dark landscape, he began laughing and teasingly asked, “Oh, Yasmin, you scared of the desert?!?” Then, lured by the smell of kofta, a desert fox entered our campsite. When Anna asked Mehur if the fox was dangerous, Mehur told a scary story of his own—no, he said, the fox won’t eat you, but, he continued in halting English and mimed gestures, it may claw your face and chew your arm. Oh, ok. (And, later, we asked him if he was going to sleep with us outside. No, he replied—I’m going to sleep in the car.)

                Luckily, I was able to put aside fears of being clawed by a fox and snuggled comfortably into a warm pile of thick blankets, for a night under a sky filled with so many stars that it looked more white than black.

                The next morning, after watching the sunrise (well, after Matteo and Anna did—I periodically squinted at the rays from my pile of blankets), we broke camp, drove out of the White Desert, and entered the Western Desert, where more dunes and an immense valley reminiscent of a lunar landscape awaited us. More photos, more gawking, more running barefoot through the warm sand. And then we returned from the desert to the urban streets of Cairo, where we would wrap up our trip in Egypt and head off to new adventures on a new continent.

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                Leaving One Overseas Home for Another

                November 22nd, 2007

                Remember when I said that I’d be traveling until the money ran out? Well, the money ran out. (But I’m still not returning to the US!)

                As usual, my blog is a little behind–I’m in Cairo now, but I will leave Egypt at 2:45PM today for Italy. Matteo and I will be housesitting in Rome (another reason why I love dating an Italian man) for the winter and, inshallah, earning some euros to continue our trip through the Middle East in the spring and, probably more importantly, pay for our eventual flight home to the US.

                I’ve been to Italy with Matteo twice before, and know the house in Rome well, so I feel a little like I’m coming home. I’m looking forward to eating good Italian meals (and learning to properly cook said meals), walking around the Colosseum and other amazing sites, taking side trips to France and Switzerland to practice my French (only $75 roundtrip from Rome on RyanAir!), brushing my teeth with tap water, shopping at stores with fixed prices, cleaning my clothes in washers and dryers, and, more mundanely, having time and a quiet space to finally finish my pesky graduate school applications.

                In the next few days, I’ll post stories from Bahariyya and wrap up my thoughts on Egypt. Until then, Happy Thanksgiving to my American family and friends. Enjoy your turkey and pumpkin pie, and all of those tasty foods that, despite the promise of a dinner with mozzarella and prosciutto, I’m going to sorely miss today.

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                By the Sea

                November 21st, 2007

                When we first arrived in Egypt, Matteo and I had planned to travel straight from Cairo to Alexandria to wait out the summer heat near the breezy Mediterranean coast. Our plans fell apart, however, on our first night in Cairo, when we fell in love with the city as we sat drinking mint tea on a sidewalk café, watching busy crowds of Egyptians and Gulf tourists browsing shops still open at 2AM. We soon became completely entrenched in Cairene life—we made friends, I found a job teaching English, Matteo continued his Arabic studies with a private tutor—and now we view the city as a sort of second home. (Or really, these days, it’s our only home.) Yet, despite my fondness of Cairo, I always wondered how my life would have been different in Egypt’s second largest city.

                Nearly a week and a half ago, we finally traveled to that second city and, as luck would have it, fell head over heels in love with yet another Egyptian metropolis. (Who knew that I would be such a fan of this country? I still don’t know if I love it because it’s Egyptian, or if I’m simply fascinated by Arab society…I’ll have to see how I feel about the rest of the Middle East in the coming months.) Alexandria (or “Alex” to those in the know) is in so many ways like Cairo, with the same bustling energy and crowds, but, with its beautiful, wide blue-green harbor and stately old European buildings with ornate facades, it also reminds me of another city across the Mediterranean named Marseille. And, I admit, while I remain a fan of Cairo, I was a little disappointed that we didn’t stick with our original plan.

                Thoroughly burned out from the temples in the south, Matteo and I didn’t visit a lot of sites in Alexandria. Instead, for three days, we walked everywhere, admiring the gorgeous views, and ate everything, happily tucking in kilos upon kilos of freshly grilled calamari, shrimp, and fish and gobbling delicious cups of fresh ice cream at some of the dozens of stands along the water. At night, we wandered down streets draped with brightly-colored flags and banners, along markets selling anything and everything—clothes, shoes, feta cheese, olives, pomegranates, bananas, seafood, live chickens and rabbits, radios, notebooks, gigantic stuffed teddy bears—and settled down at cafes where patrons smoked apple-flavored sheesha and played chess over cups of strong Turkish coffee and shai.

                On our final day in Alex, we visited the Roman catacombs and had, for the third time, an Indiana Jones experience as we wandered deep within the earth. We were alone; at the lowest levels, water had seeped into some of the graves and flooded the ground so I walked along creaking wooden planks and stifled screams as I spooked myself with visions of ancient corpses emerging from the water’s depths or crawling out of the dark spaces.

                Back above ground, we stopped at a dilapidated building with crumbling brick walls where young boys were playing ping-pong and pool. We challenged several to games, and drew enthusiastic crowds. A boy of about 10 or so tried to give me trick gum (there was a plastic cockroach attached to the end hidden inside the package), while another one, mistaking “love” and “like” as so many Egyptians tend to do, declared that he “loved” Matteo. And I was happy, because moments where I can bond with people rank among my happiest overseas.

                From a sea of water we moved on to a sea of sand. Next stop: Bahariyya Oasis.

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                Temples, Tombs, and Tourists

                November 21st, 2007

                From Hurgada we continued on to Luxor. The ride was unusually eventful; I was seated next to a deceptively demure veiled woman in her 50s who broke the ice 30 minutes into the journey by showing me a film clip on her mobile phone that featured young girls shaking their butts and jiggling their boobs in time with Arab pop music. Her name was Awatif. After a surprisingly lengthy conversation (considering our limited knowledge of each other’s language) about our families and travel, Awatif saw a notebook I had brought onto the bus and asked if I could teach her the English alphabet. I did, both to my amusement and that of every Egyptian seated within range of Awatif’s booming voice. (When faced with an unfamiliar letter, she always guessed that it was the letter X—that is, until she actually came to X. Then she looked at me blankly and asked “M?”)

                We arrived in Luxor in the late afternoon and, after months of Cairo’s concrete and travels through great expanses of desert, I was struck by a burst of colors—purple and hot pink bougainvilleas lined asphalt roads with black-and-white checked curbs that ran through deep green wheat and sugarcane fields where young boys and old men sat atop donkey-pulled wooden carts, and bisecting it all was a sapphire-blue stretch of the Nile. It was beautiful.

                Bidding farewell to Awatif, Matteo and I disembarked in the center of town at the ancient Temple of Luxor, which was illuminated by dozens of floodlights. There was a huge square in the front (opposite a McDonald’s, naturally), where Egyptian families sat on benches, talking about the day’s events while their children ran around playing games. (I watched one bossy little girl direct five others, setting them up for an elaborate game that broke up just seconds after it began; children are the same everywhere.) And that night, after our new (and utterly ridiculous—but more on that in another post) travel partner bribed a guard with several pounds, we entered the temple and gawked at the intricate hieroglyphs carved across its massive façade. My first thought was that Egyptian temples remind me a little of walls in public bathrooms where writing is scrawled over every inch of space. (My second was that pictures of owls, eyes, scarab beetles, and the like are at least more aesthetically pleasing than phone numbers and offers for “good times.”)

                The next day, we went to the nearby Temple of Karnak, which was even more massive and beautiful than the Temple of Luxor. The hypostyle hall, filled with over 100 enormous pillars carved to resemble a papyrus grove, was particularly impressive and no photo I took could capture its size and presence—there are just some things you need to see for yourself. I wandered through the temple compound for hours, marveling at statues, obelisks, and murals that existed thousands of years before me and will probably exist thousands of years after me. (Egypt tends to spark those sorts of thoughts often.)

                For the third and fourth days, we crossed the Nile to Luxor’s West Bank by ferry and rented bicycles to free ourselves of horribly overpriced taxi rides to the Colossi of Memnon, the Temple of Hatshepsut, the Medinat Habu, and the Valley of the Kings. That we escaped the tourist trail was an additional bonus—with the dozens of tour buses sticking to a well-defined route, we found ourselves riding alone through outlying villages and fields, past curious (not to mention bemused—I don’t think that many rural Egyptian women ride bikes) men, women, and children who greeted and chatted with us in a genuinely hospitable (rather than the “come to my shop, my friend” hospitable) kind of way.

                All of the West Bank sights were incredible and inspired similar reactions. I felt small. I was conscious of my mortality. I couldn’t get over how Egyptians liked to write all over everything they built.

                Of all of the sights in Luxor, though, my favorite was the Valley of the Kings. Tucked in a blindingly-white desert landscape several kilometers behind the wheat and sugarcane fields, the Valley of the Kings is home to dozens of ancient Egyptian royal tombs (including that of the famous Tutankhamen). To enter the tombs you must descend into holes in the mountainside; once inside, you crouch in small passageways that break off into chambers filled with beautifully preserved paintings of the pharaohs, their exploits, and the underworld. Not knowing what to expect when I entered the tombs for the first time, I was thrilled with the interiors and felt (yet again) like I was in a scene from Indiana Jones.

                Finally, our time in Luxor came to an end and we headed off to Aswan, a city 3-4 hours south by train. Aswan is located in what was once known as Nubia, an ancient land that straddled what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan, and differences between the people of Aswan and those I saw in northern Egyptian towns are evident—people have darker skin and more African features, giving you the sense that you are making your way deeper into the continent. The city itself is a pleasant place, sitting along the banks and islands within the Nile, and you can spend hours, as we did, sitting at one of the many parks along the water watching broad-sailed feluccas glide by while sipping delicious karkadeh, or hibiscus tea.

                After a day of relaxation in Aswan, we headed even further south on a day trip to Abu Simbel, a hot town just 40 kilometers or so from the Sudanese border, where the famous Temple of Ramses sits at the edge of Lake Nasser. The temple, like every other temple we saw in Upper Egypt that week, was awe-inspiring. Two things made it stand out, though: one, the amount of chambers within the temple (all of which were filled with wonderful carvings and still-bright murals) surpassed those within any other temple we visited; and two, there were dozens of amusing bits of graffiti carved into the temple’s exterior and interior walls by European soldiers in the late 1800s. (This, I thought to myself, is definitely a way to achieve a degree of immortality and I fought a surprisingly strong desire to carve a reminder of my own visit into the stone walls.)

                And then, from the southernmost point of Egypt, we began to work our way to its northernmost point, Alexandria.

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