Thursday, April 27, 2006

Bosphorus...for the rest of us!

Istanbul, Turkey

Based on my experiences, I would not describe Turkey as an Islamic country. Headscarves, although common, are certainly not the rule and in some places are definitely the exception. Many women wear the same belly and shoulder exposing ensembles (love 'em!) that are currently favored by females the world over. Men and women openly booze it up in discos that would not be out of place in London or New York. Serious flamers get their flame on up and down the avenues and you can even sometimes catch teenagers making out on park benches in full view of an apparently tolerant public.

Similarly, I do not count Turkey as part of the developing world. Busy urbanites shop at the Gap and gulp down Starbucks just like anywhere else. Cities have modern infrastructure that seems more handicapped by a long history than a lack of funds. Farms in the countryside are large, orderly, and rely heavily on gas-driven equipment. There is probably a horse-drawn plow somewhere in Anatolia, but I didn't see it. Villages have potable running water and electricity. Perhaps most significantly, the currency has a strong value and prices are not the kind of cheap you would expect from a nation still turning the corner.

All this brings me to a question posited by Jason: "Why is there resistance to Turkey attaining full membership in the European Union?". I can think of only two reasons. First, Turkey's government has retained a few autocratic tendencies. For example, there is still a military-dominated uber-council that has, and presumably still will, step in at any time and suspend democratic government. Also, there is a bit of an information war going on. Turkey has not completely given up suppressing its history of kicking around Kurds and Armenians and there is an official version of the history of the Turkish ethnicity and language that may not jive completely with the anthropological and linguistic record.

Secondly, European countries may be genuinely spooked by the prospect of a majority-Moslem country joining the fold. The way things are moving in the world , it would not be completely surprising if in ten years Turkey had turned away from secularism. The current prime minister's Islamic party managed to avoid being ousted by the army by toning down some of their more Western-unfriendly rhetoric. The EU has enough trouble implementing its social agenda as is. Trying to make it jive with the vagaries of sharia-inspired law would make the task much harder.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Video Gallery: The Call To Prayer

Every director uses the call to prayer as an audio byte to introduce a muslim city. The OC likes to follow accepted standards.

Video Gallery: Scary Diving

When the Thistlegorm was sunk in the Gulf of Suez during WWII, a bunch of folks died. When we dove inside the wreck 60+ years later, no folks died.

Video Gallery: Pretty Diving

It's beautiful around the southern coast of the Sinai Peninsula. At least when shit isn't blowing up.

Happy Anniversary

A little over a year ago, my tonsils were successfully ripped from the back of my throat through surgical procedure. The hope was that this surgery would prevent a re-occurance of the nasty sinus/throat infections that had been plaguing me for the past year. In particular, it would help me withstand the biological onslaught that an upcoming world trip was sure to bring.
Realizing this, I took a look over the two posts that I made on the subject, and read through the comments. To date, my first post on the procedure has been the most successful OC post ever, in terms of readership and subsequent commenting. Because of it, the term "swollen uvula" was, for a long time, the search term most successful in leading strangers to the website (only recently supplanted by "Mt. Fuji").

I'm glad I got that surgery. Since the trip began, I've only had one serious re-occurance of the sickness, and that was directly due to China's horrendous pollution controls.
Soon, I will be impervious to all known ailments.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Terrorism Is Scary

At least 23 people got blown to bits in Dahab, Egypt very recently. This is just up the road from where we were staying in Sinai and was on the short list of prospective OC scuba headquarters. The last time I had the same "dodged a bullet" feeling was when there was an earthquake in the north of India a few days after our departing the area. This is somehow much more disconcerting. I would not mind so much getting killed in a natural disaster. Dying because of politics sounds like a horrible way to go.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Three Dog Nights

Istanbul, Turkey

The OC is having a bit of a nightlife losing streak. Last evening was our third unsuccessful outing in a row. We did not go out at all in Egypt, Ankara, or Izmir, so I was well ready for a bit of beerlarity. Lack of booze and cigarettes was making me dangerously chipper and healthy. Most of the young-folk fun in Istanbul goes down on or near the Istiklal Caddesi - a long pedestrian street that runs from Taksim Square across the heart of the new city. It is full of shops, cinemas, cafes, restaurants, bars, and clubs and seemed the natural place to start out. We were not two minutes off the bus and ten meters down the avenue before we were approached by an affable pair of Turkish men - one of whom spoke very good English. We walk together for a bit and chatted about the usual kind of things and they invited us to join them for dinner. We accepted.

Our new friends led us down a side street, around a corner, and down some stairs into a little restaurant centered around a large central grill. We scored some seats at the bar directly next to the barbecue and it was not long before we were enjoying a variety of salad dishes, bread slices, and a few glasses of raki. In between watching Model Boxing and Fear Factor on TV, the discussion revolved around footaball, horse rearing (the occupation of the more anglophonic gentleman), and women. We followed the salad course with some meaty skewers straight off the flame and washed it all down with another small bottle of raki. I was feeling good when we emerged back into the chilly night air.

We happily followed our hosts to a nearby bar. This is when the other shoe plummeted to earth. I could tell right away that something was not on the level. The bar had a comically-overdressed doorman, decor that is best described as "Russian chic", and the few occupied seats were filled by suspiciously Eastern-European women in lurid evening wear. The quickly-produced drinks menu had no entry costing less than 35 YTL (more than 25 USD). Jason quickly proclaimed the joint too rich for our blood and we made a prompt exit. Our companions stayed behind. The Lonely Planet warned that smooth English-speakers sometimes befriend tourists in order to lure them into buying horrendously over-priced drinks - with payment sometimes extracted through threats. We gave benefit when we should have given doubt, but we escaped with no money lost.

Determined not to let a bit of scamola ruin the evening, we marched up the stairs to a nearby cafe known to feature Turkish folk music. We downed a couple in the back of the room and watched the locals lurch and shimmy their way through a few numbers. As it turns out, traditional Turkish music does not agree with my musical palette, so we left to find a more contemporary offering. Club Babylon sucks. It was full of kids (average age - 19) bobbing around to disco tunes. I felt like the chaperone at a middle school party. Jason hit the dance floor for a bit. I contented myself with sending a barrage of weepy text messages. We left as the place was emptying out and caught a taxi back home.

Our plan for Saturday night seemed very promising. We were going to watch the big football match (a local derby) before heading downtown to see a set by drum and bass luminary Ronnie Sides. The football part was good. A local restaurant manager tipped us off to a good venue. We watched the match in a large tea house surrounded by dedicated fans. It was strange to watch a game in a booze-free environment. Afterwards we had a good supper and a nice Turkish coffee within easy sight of the Sea of Marmara.

Things started to go wrong just as the taxi man dropped us off at the drum and bass club. First, he got me with the old "you gave me a five, not a fifty" slight of hand. Second, he somehow managed to seriously overcharge. All told, I paid about 75 USD for a 10 USD cab ride. I hate that guy. The club itself was very nice, but Ronnie Sides and his audience were extra lame with a side of boring. The music could be described as "disco and bass" or maybe "drum and house". It lacked the essentially aggressive quality of good DnB. The people on the dance floor were bad, pushy dancers. Some enthusiastic flamer managed to spray me with beer, so I reeked of Efes all evening. Mr. Side seemed only marginally interested in his work and took any opportunity to walk off for a break. It was all a bit limp, and entirely disappointing.

Reeling from these two defeats, we devised a cunningly simple plan for Sunday night. We are staying in an area full of hostels and all the lowbrow clubs and restaurants that cheap-o travelers such as ourselves attract. We went out for a simple meal around the way, then settle in for a bit of a bar hop down tourist row. It was a lazy option, but at least we did not have to travel, could speak to most people we met, and were guaranteed to hear music that is at least familar. Things did not go wrong so much as they just did not go. The entire young population of Australia is in town for ANZAC day and we were unable to penetrate but the very periphery of their antipodean tribes. Dance floors were either uncomfortably packed or uncomfortably empty. We eventually gave up and went back to the hotel where I downloaded the "more cowbell" sketch. It was the highlight of the evening. God bless Christopher Walken. I hope Athens is a bit more happening.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Rubber Ducky, You're The One

Istanbul, Turkey

Today, the OC rolled out of bed around noon, grabbed some lunch, and made direct for the Turkish baths. A good steam and a strong massage seemed just the antidote for drum and bass induced weariness. On first entering the aged building (more than 500 years old), we plunked down the base charge plus a supplement for a massage. We were then handed scrubber mits and thin towels and ushered upstairs to a lockable private room to change. Full nudity is not done in the male part of the baths. You must wear at least a towel at all times and the provided sandals if you are walking around. From the locker room, we went back downstairs to the bathing area.

The main baths were divided into two rooms made almost entirely of marble. The first (where we entered) had a few basins with hot and cold taps and a little area full of dry towels. Off to the side there was a bathroom with toilets and showers. Beyond a door laid the main stage, a circular room with a high domed roof dominated by a raised marble slab. Around the outside were more taps and basins, some in small semi-private enclosures. We were directed to lay down on the slab. It was heated from below (by what I am not certain) to a pleasingly high temperature and it was not long before I was enjoying a sweaty half-nap. About twenty minutes later a big Turkish guy in a towel tapped me on the foot and it was time for the massage to being.

"Massage" here is not really the right word. The masseuse not only rubs you down, he also gives you a good wash. He started out by using the mits we got at the door to rub away a surprisingly gross layer of dead skin. Then he covered us in warm suds produced in some kind of sud-generation bag (Jason can attest to this, fogged glasses interfered with my vision) and started a good rub-down. About this point, my masseuse gave me the option of "normal massage for normal tip" or "special massage for special tip". I am a sucker for a special. Upon my agreement, the Turcoman really started going to town. He cracked just about every joint in my body and rubbed every muscle to the point of pain. Rather than ask me to move, he would spin me around on the soapy marble surface. It was fun. He seemed to take my gritted teeth refusal to shout as a challenge.

After the beating, the masseuse took me back out to the first room where he shampooed my head and gave my neck and back another good going over. There was more cracking of bones. The finale was a big bucket of cold water over the head. I took a quick shower to was my naughty bits (the masseurs avoid these), changed into a dry towel, and went back upstairs to cool off and change. There I joined Jason for a fresh orange juice and I palmed the special tip into the grateful hands of the waiting Turcoman. The exchange had to be on the DL. They apparently are not meant to request extra cash from customers. I reckon it was worth the money, though. I feel about two inches taller.

My Ears Are Burning

Istanbul, Turkey

A Turkish barber shop is a lot like other barber shops I've been in, but everybody speaks Turkish and there isn't one of those rotating blue, white, and red things out front like you see in the US (and elsewhere?). I only had to wait my turn for about five minutes before being ushered into a chair. I managed to work out a pretty good mime for "gimme a close cut and take all this stubble off my face" to get things going.

The first part of the operation passed without incident. Electric clippers do not leave too much room for improvisation. The shave was notable for the luxuriously extravagant amount of foam and the use of a straight razor. This was my first shave with a naked blade. It was a little unnerving. I just met this guy and already he had a knife at my throat. That kind of reaction is usually reserved for people that can understand what I am saying. I was not the least bit worried that the barber might slip. The bigger fear was that I might move unexpectedly and throw off his groove. It is hard staying absolutely still - especially when you are thinking about trying to stay absolutely still.

After the save, things started to get a little weird. Instead of a dusting of cologne about the head and neck, I received a thorough swabbing of some kind of alcohol onto my left ear. Before I could raise the alarm, the man set my ear on fire. The flame was alive for less than a second, and there was no pain, but you can not help but take notice when part of your body is burning. I was too stunned to resist a repeat of the procedure on my other ear. That done, the barber seemed to lose interest in setting me alight and went to work on my nose hairs with a small pair of scissors. He finished off with a thorough steaming of my face and neck with a handheld boiler.

I determined later that the ear ignition is an efficient means of removing hair on an irregular surface. It was by far the strangest thing that has ever happened to me in a barber shop, including the time I got a red mohawk in Brazil. Turkish barbers do good work, but be warned that they employ unconventional techniques.

Photo Albums: Sharm El-Sheikh

Diving off of the southern coast of the Sinai peninsula is supposed to be some of the best in the world. It was pretty frickin' sweet.

Photo Albums: Cairo

Our first stop in Egypt was Cairo. Our first act in Egypt was to lose our luggage.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Camel Burgers


Karen, Princess of Power, hear me!

Yes, yes indeed. It is time for another one of my comprehensively researched and not at all boring articles about food. An army marches on its stomach and diet has a profound effect on the esprit de corp of the OC. You should have seen the look of elation on Jason's face when we tucked into his first plate of Brazilian beans and rice. It was like watching a junkie find a fresh vein. Similarly, my morale has never been as low as when I realized that what I thought was a bowl of Vietnamese cat soup was actually pork intestine stew. Charlie always gets the last laugh. This time, it is the cuisine of Egypt under the knife. Let me know if all this writing about eats is getting tedious.

I think it best to start with a brief discussion of the two staples of Egyptian cuisine: tea and bread. The former is consumed all the time and everywhere. Sugar is optional, but conventional, and liberally applied. Milk is unusual. Sometimes you get a refreshing sprig of mint thrown into your glass (there are apparently no mugs in the country). The hot syrupy mix is just the tonic for the throat-roughening effects of desert dust and dirty Cairo air. Bread comes in two major varieties and also appears at just about every meal. My preferred form is a spongy flatbread thicker and darker than what you might expect from the Middle East. This loaf is no flimsy bit of pita upon which to heap humus - it is a sturdy material to be reckoned with on its own level. The other variety is lighter, thinner, and drier. Its ubiquity is matched only by its inferiority. Shame.

Egyptians that live in mid range hotels start their day with a simple breakfast of bread, butter, cheese, jam, and tea. Those that live in somewhat nicer hotels may also indulge in a boiled or fried egg. I can only assume that people that live in normal homes or apartments eat something similar. Lunch is taken around noon and is no more filling than the Western equivalent, although the content differs quite a bit. Common meals are a bowl of pasta and lentil starch mush topped with a tasty tomato sauce, mashed fuul beans and bread, or any of a variety of pizza-like savory pastries. Dinner is served around six or seven. It can be similar to lunch, but there is a definite tendency toward grilled meats. Kofte-style mince is big as is sausage and chicken pieces. Pork is, of course, just not on. Main dishes are frequently accompanied by shared spreads (humus, eggplant), salads (cucumber, lettuce, and tomato), pickled vegetables, and either really nice buttery rice or soggy french fries.

Some details of particular note:
  • Bedouin bread - Our desert guide carried with him a bag of very stale Western-style bread. From time to time, he would break off bits and dunk them into water before eating. I am guessing that this is more of a preservative than a flavoring technique.
  • Booze - They do make beer and wine in Egypt. We did not drink any, though. Allah forbids it.
  • Meat cylinder - You know those rotating meat cylinder things they have in "Turkish" kebab places? They got those in Egypt, too. Maybe its the sand, but the crappy meat you get in Cairo is much better than the crappy meat in Bethnal Green.
  • Salty nuts - Everywhere that a US city would have a Starbucks, Egyptian cities have a snack shop. They sell all kinds of nuts and dried fruits and such by the bagful. My favorite is the pumpkin seeds.
  • The big squeeze - Juice bars occur almost in parity with snack shops. I never went in one, but it looks like they stock a huge pile of some seasonal fruit (oranges when we were there) and juice 'em one glass at a time.
  • Okra and venison tagine - Some of you may know of my deep affection for slimy food. The okra is the clear king of the slimy vegetables and my favorite green thing. In Sharm, I had a tagine (tangy stew) made from a big hunk of venison and an ocean of groin-grabbingly good okra in a thick, salty tomato sauce. My underwear is getting tight just thinking about it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Look Out Europa

Izmir, Turkey

A few words by way of update...

We spent a few days in Ankara before cutting down to the Aegean city of Izmir, a lovely place full of ancient ruins and friendly folks. We are presently in the bus station waiting to board transport for the 10 hour run to Istanbul. This journey will mark the OC's triumphant return to Europe. Those of you in that hood - please prepare the continent for our arrival.

Turkey - Not Istanbul

Ankara, Izmir, Efes, Sart - Turkey

Some cities are so big so as to take on a life and culture separate from their country. Good examples are Bangkok and New York. Both are fine towns, but they in no way typify Thailand or the USA. Fearing this might be the case with Istanbul, we decided to see a bit of the rest of Turkey before hitting the bright lights of the big city.

Our first port of call was the capital, Ankara. It is not a terribly nice place. Jason remarked that our arrival there reminded him of our first glimpses of Tallinn. I have to agree. There is something decidedly post-Soviet about the grey concrete buildings, wide avenues, and monuments to revolutionary heros. The city is in a functional state of repair, but could use a bit of work. For example, there was a large park very close to the commercial center, but it was dotted with piles of trash and broken concrete and the artificial pond was empty. The fading paddle boats looked positively morose resting on the concrete bottom. The walls of the old citadel are inhabited by a warren of little homes that reward a wander, but the area would be more picturesque if it were not so depressingly poor. The highlight of the visit was The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations - a fine collection of artifacts starting from the stone age chronicling the many peoples that have lived in and around Ankara. It is housed in a particularly pleasant restored building that makes excellent use of natural light.

We travelled from Ankara to Izmir on a very comfortable bus that proved to be typical of Turkey's efficient coach network. The countryside between Turkey's 2nd and 3rd cities was dominated by orderly farms on gently rolling green hills. Agriculture in those parts seemed very much in harmony with the landscape. The only thing that broke up the scene was the occasional war monument on the crest of a hill and our eventual arrival. Izmir is on the Aegean coast, but is not really that scenic of a place. The view from a ruined fortress above the town was worth the walk, but more for the urbanscape than the natural beauty. We used the city as a base for two expeditions to nearby sites of archaeological interest.

The first outing was down to coast to the ruined city of Ephesus (Efes in Turkish - like the beer). It was easily reached by a bus from Izmir and a pleasant walk under some shady trees. The site has everything that you would expect from a Greek ruin: a giant amphitheater, broken columns, impressive facades, marble roads, and lots of important looking inscriptions. Even the weather (bright sun) and the land (arid hills) met expectations. At one point, the city had been where a river met the sea, but the river silted up. This ruined the harbor and set the town into a long period of decline from which it did not recover. We stood where the city docks had once been, but the sea was nowhere in sight. Efes is full of historical interest, but it is this geologic oddity (how did the ocean recede so far so fast?) that really captured my imagination.

Our second expedition was to the ancient city of Sardis (Sart in Turkish). The city had been occupied by a number of civilizations and is most famous for having been the home of the semi-mythical King Midas. The remaining ruins date to the Greeks, though. Most prominent are a largely intact gymnasium and bath and a temple to Artemis that was unearthed only in the last 50 years. Sardis is a bit further off the beaten track, and it showed. Explanatory panels were thin, but we were free to scramble around by ourselves. The walk there from the road goes past a village and some small farms set against the backdrop of a knife-like ridge. It was a good day out and ultimately for memorable for the scenery than the archaeology.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Turkish Keyboards Are Weird

Ankara, Turkey

Just a quickie...

We arrived this morning in Ankara by way of Istanbul. It is grey and pouring down rain and Jason has taken a bit ill. Not the most fortuitous beginning, but hopes are high for a speedy meteorologlical and physiological recovery.

Live Like An Egyptian


There are a lot of things that I like about Egypt. Foremost is the individual liberty you get within the relative disorder of a third-ish world country. People here are in a very real sense more free than their cousins in the West. The hand of government may be heavy but it is encountered less frequently. Citizens are left alone to drive cars, build houses, and conduct business according to norms that are not so much legislated as evolved. To the Western observer, places like Egypt and India may at first appear to be lawless, chaotic, and unsafe. Further experience has lead me to describe them instead as flexible, efficient, and permissive. I am not convinced that just because the roads in Cairo do not have lanes that there are any more (or more destructive) automobile accidents. Scarily enough, my admiration for the freedoms available in the third world put me in the same camp as Jarah - a man who judges the value of a society primarily by how much they restrict bonfires.

That is not to say that Egypt is some kind of anarchic paradise. There are a couple of things that make me not want to live here with any kind of permanency. Most obviously visible of these is the physical state of the cities and towns. They are pretty dirty places. Air is meant to be invisible, and even if you were supposed to see it, it would not be brown. Egypt has not reached the point were people are willing to sacrifice immediate benefit for long term environmental good. We only got there in the US sometime during the 70s, so it may be a bit longer before green ideas really get rolling along the Nile. I think I could stand the smog and garbage itself, but the attitude that produces it would grate my nerves something horrible. I can not under sober circumstances bring myself to chuck a cigarette butt in the street, so driving an aged fume-spouting diesel or chucking trash direct into the gutter is way beyond the pale.

The next big negative is more a product of Islamic culture than the state of economic affairs. During our three weeks here, we had almost no meaningful interaction with non-foreign females. The state of women in Egypt is so out of step with my own values and upbringing that I do not think I could go long before acceptance of the traditions of another culture gave way to active judgment and condemnation. The last thing I need is to surround myself by a world that reinforces one of my worst personality traits - a tendency towards superiority. Less high-mindedly, it would be really difficult to meet girls if even the slightest inter-cultural romance could result in serious feelings of dishonor and some kind of family catastrophe. I imagine many Egyptian fathers would rather their daughters go gay than bring me home.

Finally, by living in Egypt and paying taxes and taking part in society I would be giving my implicit support to both the autocratic government of the corrupt Mubarak regime and the tacit popular acceptance that keeps him in power. Egyptians are quick to bemoan the thievery of their leader and his family, but seem disinclined to do anything about it. This implies that they are either happy with the way things are and value stability over ideology or that they just can not be bothered to put up a fight. I reckon it is the former. My American education has left me with the indelible belief that you should stand up for justice and liberty even if the trains are running on time. It would be very difficult to be part of a society that feels so far from similarly.

Egypt is a fine country full of friendly people living and enjoying life, but you will not find me building a little four bed / two bath pyramid with attached garage any time soon. I am too spoiled by London's royal parks and the West's general insistence on sexual equality and governmental accountability. Add to this my own tendency to look down on the unfamiliar and I can see clearly how my residence in Egypt could go very badly indeed.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


Sharm al Sheikh, Egypt

The OC is really spoiled when it comes to diving. We did our basic certification course with a small dive company on the beautiful tropical island of Koh Tao - a place that seems to exist solely to fulfill the needs of divers on and offshore. For the advanced course, we headed to Carins, Australia to do a four day live-aboard trip to the Great Barrier Reef. This journey afforded us four efficient dives a day among the world's most celebrated submarine scenery. Armed with this experience, we felt qualified to test the claim that Egypt has some of the best diving and dive facilities in the world.

The city of Sharm al Sheikh is not the kind of place you come to learn about Egyptian life or culture. The hourly flights bring mostly Europeans looking for sand, sun, and scuba. At times, it can be difficult to find any signs at all in Arabic. English, German, and Russian are duking it out for the honor of lingua franca. We phoned ahead to a dive center listed in the Rough Guide and they helped us arrange a hotel at a decent price not too far from Nama Bay where all the hotels, bars, and restaurants crowd together. The area is packed and busy, but it manages to avoid some of the worst sins of mass tourism, especially at night when the weather cools and the waterfront promenade and adjoining streets come to tasteful life.

All told, we did 8 dives over 4 days. The first was a check dive to make sure we had not forgotten the basics. It was notable only because it was our first dive from shore. I much prefer to dive from a boat. A rather plump snorkler leaped from a floating dock onto my head on the way back in. There was no repeat of this unfortunate meeting as all subsequent dives were done from boats over the next three days. A van picked us up early in the morning, drove us out to the very hectic port facilities, and returned us to the dive center afterwards.

Due to a sudden bout of cholera, Jason was unable to finish the advanced course back in Oz, so we did the remaining "deep dive" portion of that instruction on the second dive. This was not a total waste for me as we combined completion of Jason's course with nitrox instruction. Dive three was a straightforward float along a reef wall. It was scenic, relaxing, and effortless. The fourth dive featured a very cool cave and some nice coral formations. On the fifth, we got our first experience with a wreck. We swam among a pile of toilets left on the bottom by a poorly-navigated Russian cargo vessel. Dive six was another float along a reef wall and was remarkable only for the variety of sea life on hand. Rays are spooky.

The last two dives were easily the highlight of my undersea career. We went out of our way to arrange passage to the wreck of the Thistlegorm, a British cargo vessel from The Second World War that went down in shallow water after a bad blind date with a Luftwaffe bomb. On the first dive, we swam most of the length of the deck and examined the tanks and train locomotives that had been lashed to the deck, old artillery shells, and the mostly intact outer structure of the vessel. It was excitingly like living inside the Discovery Channel, but the best was still yet to come. On the second dive, we went inside the ship and swam among the still-full cargo holds, some internal passages, and the bridge. I would have been scared out of my wits if I was not so busy taking pictures and trying to restrain my amazement.

Two of our eight dive sites are listed by some experts among the top 10 dives in the world. This is assessment is spot on from where I am sitting. The Red Sea faced stiff competition from Thailand and The Great Barrier Reef and easily came out on top. Diving (like riding horses) is one of those things that I never really thought I would enjoy enough to pursue any further, but I definitely see myself spending more time underwater. The problem is that there appears to be little room for improvement.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Chebyshev Is Dead; Long Live Chebyshev

My long-suffering laptop has decided to be a bastard and stop working. Just because I've exposed it to a year's worth of meteorological extremes, maltreatment, and occasional cursing does not give it the right to screw me over like this.
While we figure out how to deal with this little mishap, there may be a little hiccup in the website updating schedule. Sorry.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Photo Album: Desert Trek

Four days in the desert is a long, dirty time.

Photo Album: Rio de Janeiro

Since my camera got stolen in Salvador, I had to buy a cheapy disposable one to record the OC's domination of Carnaval. At first, I was a bit worried that the pictures were not up to the usual high standards of this here operation, but then I decided that I should put them on display in spite of there less-than-stellar shine. Behold!

Video Gallery: The Camel Dance

Camels are funny-lookin' and funny-actin'.

Video Gallery: Desert Trekkin'

Have you ever wondered what it looks like crawling across the northern Sahara atop a camel?

Video Gallery: Bedouin Breakfast

Whilst in the desert, we were treated to daily meals by our favorite Bedouin cook, Arajeep.
Yupi, Yupi!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

On A Camel With No Name

Bahariya, Egypt

Having already explored the world's highest mountains, largest inland swamp, and most extensive jungle, it seemed only natural to have a look at its biggest (?) desert. Bahariya oasis is several hundred kilometers west of Cairo in the edges of the Sahara. We set up our desert base at Ahmed's Safari Camp after a four hour trip from Cairo by taxi. Mr. Ahmed runs a desert safari company out of his simple hotel compound on the edge of the oasis town. After taking lunch, we retired to his constantly busy office to review our safari options. We settled on a four day / three night camel trek into the sands that would take us by way of a smaller oasis. Money handed over and arrangements made, we spent the rest of the afternoon being driven around in an jeep by Mr. Ahmed's son in the company of two young women - one Canadian and one Kiwi. The latter had contracted some kind of dread disease, necessitating a stop at the pharmacy in town after our viewing of the local hot spring, a swim (for me) in the reservoir, and a hilltop sunset.

We met our guide and his two camels early the next morning. Arajit (are-ahh-jit) was pretty much what I expected from a bedouin - shortish, scruffy, mustachioed, comfortably dressed, and an enthusiastic smoker. He did not speak much English, but it mattered little. We substituted improvised (and often absurd) songs for conversation. The camels carried all of our supplies in large plastic bags slung on either side of a long saddle made from pieces of wood, rope, and what looked like a bale of hay. Jason and I both rode on the first day and Jason again on the last. I found travel on camel back to be clumsy, uncomfortable, and boring. I much preferred to be on foot where I could stop and look around without restriction and my legs are not forced into a dangerously akimbo position. I understood Jason's choice to mount up on our last day, though. Walking for miles on sand takes it out of your legs and literally rubs your feet the wrong way.

We spent the first morning making our way out of Bahariya then stopped for lunch in a stone hut on the outskirts of town. After the meal, we rested through the hottest part of the day before setting out again around half two. Sometime about six, we made camp, watched the sun set, prepared dinner, and stared at the stars before passing out in our sleeping bags. The first day established the pattern for the rest of the trip. It was an itinerary pleasingly settled into. We got up with the sun, followed it across the sky, stopped for a bit to nap while it was at its most blazing, then chased it again until it dropped out of sight. Meals were simple but nourishing and there were plenty of restorative cups of tea to urge on weary legs. We made one break from the norm on day 3 when we stopped at a small oasis to take a bath in a hot spring and have lunch in a palm hut. Both the water and the shelter were appreciated after two dusty days on the march.

The scenery in the desert was predictably desolate. We were almost always walking on a carpet of small rocks that covered the sand like a mosaic. The skyline was broken up only by rounded rocky hills. The overwhelming "brown-ness" of it all was interrupted here and there by sudden bits of purple or white. This trek is the only time I have ever wished that I had studied more geology. The stones and rock formations were in places fascinatingly strange. There was also a bit of life to be seen. Grasses and small trees capped the dunes in clumps where there must be subterranean water. Near the plants we found scary silver ants, a small yellow and black bird, and disagreeable mosquitos that bite your head while you are trying to snooze.

At no point were we completely rid of signs of civilization. We could always see electric lights at night and tracks from 4WD trucks in the day, so I was not really surprised at the end of day four to find that we were very close to a paved road. We had arranged for the safari company to pick us up at an agreed point at five in the evening. Come seven, I tried to convince Jason that we should hitch back rather than spend another night in the sand. He had just rejected the idea when our ride finally showed up. The two new arrivals and Arajip set about the complicated task of getting two reluctant camels into a space just big enough for them. This involved a lot of kicking and was part of a larger pattern of abuse. Arajip did not think twice about smacking the camels with sticks, giving them a good kick in the knee, or chucking a rock at them. His methods made me a bit uncomfortable, but what the hell do I know about camels?

At any rate, we were soon back at the camp enjoying a good wash and a civilized meal. The trek was fun, but not something that I will rush to do again. Four days of nearly uninterrupted thinking have given me all kind of fool ideas. Also, my feet hurt.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Big Egypt, Little Trouble

Cairo, Egypt

Cairo is a huge city full of noise, dirt, and pollution, but I like it. It feels safe and friendly. Violent theft is apparently unheard of in Egypt (outside of the odd terrorist machine-gunning of a bus full of tourists). This was a very welcome change after Brazil and South Africa. It felt good to walk around with my passport and a camera without a second thought. The worst thing that might befall a tourist is to be overcharged in a market or taxi or be suckered into buying overpriced papyrus art. Getting knifed for your wallet just isn't in the cards.

Feeling safe makes it a lot easier to bear the enthusiastic friendliness of the people. Everyone that can speak a little bit of English wants to know where you are from. It is not uncommon for people on the street to say "Welcome To Egypt!" as you walk by. It can get a bit tiresome, but I definitely prefer constantly returning greetings to constantly looking over my shoulder.

The newer part of town is full of Western style buildings and modern shops that stay open late into the evening. The streets do not seem to really come alive until after dark when shoppers clogged the sidewalks and stores and all the sidewalk cafes are full of tea-drinking, sheesha-smoking men. The region around the Nile is flanked by high-rise hotels and garish floating clubs. The river itself is plied by neon-decorated boat taxis that provide a pleasant (if incongruous) distraction for the eye.

We visited the older part of the city only during the day. The market area was a narrow warren of pedestrian-only streets dedicated to intense commerce. The buildings are low-rise, stone, and showing their age. From a high vantage, we could really appreciate the density of people and buildings. Workshops and stores take up every available space that is not occupied by one of the hundreds of ornate mosques. Cairo has even more minarets than Charleston has steeples.

I have only two complaints about Cairo. First, the air is terrible. Old cars and smoke-belching buses clog the roads at all hours. Second, there is no where to escape the smog. Parks and green space are in very short supply. It is difficult sometimes to find a tree at all. These drawbacks are not so severe as to seriously hamper my opinion of what proved to be a favorably memorable introduction to the Arab world.

Just Foolin'

Baharia Oasis, Egypt

Most of you saw through our ruse, but just in case...

I did not really get deported. It was an April Fools Day joke. Today we drove out into the desert. Tomorrow we start a four day / 3 night expedition by camel. My butt is never going to be the same.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Long Story

Mike got deported... for reals.

We think he left his passport in El Sollum, but we aren't sure. Either way, ouir flight leaves in 10 minutes. I'm sure we'll have more info once we get to NYC.