Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Back in Cairo: Top Things Said and Overheard

Posted on: April 3rd, 2011 | No Comments

Back in Cairo and enjoying coming out of the desert.  British officers and civil servants would traditionally flock to Shepheard Hotel on the Nile.  Like many other places on this trip, this was once a romantic place which has supplied folk legend.  Unfortunately, it was burned down in the last revolution in 1952 but it still has its charms.  Returning on an exhausting drive from Tobruk (a straight-line distance of 460 miles), I sat down for a bite and made notes of things I’d heard over the last few weeks:       

  1. While walking near several Western embassies: “Can I walk through there?” pointing toward a small opening next to two tanks, a squad of soldiers and a pile of sandbags, “Of course, you have two legs!”
  2. While in a café: “[Hosni] Mubarak was like Ali Baba!”
  3. While talking to a confused tourist: “I thought my tour was going to the Red Sea but it turns out we’re going to the Dead Sea.”  
  4. While walking across a bridge over the Nile: “Excuse me but you walk like an Egyptian” (I doubt he understood the humor in this)
  5. While in an insanely fast taxi on the way back from Libya: “Don’t worry so much…if there’s an accident now, you’ll die a martyr’s death.”
  6. Everywhere in Cairo: “the revolution is not finished, that was just the start.”

I heard a lot of interesting things in Libya as well but they tended to focus on a few familiar themes: happiness (“Now we are free!”), exacerbation (“F— Gaddafi”) and gratitude (“Thank you USA, France, UK and NATO”).

Rebel’s Yell: Benghazi

Posted on: March 21st, 2011 | No Comments

They call it “celebratory fire.”  In some, maybe many, parts of the world men enjoy shooting the guns in the air.  At several points, shooting was so loud that it made talking (during the day) and sleeping (at night) impossible. More than once, conversations have gone like this: “Why are they shooting like that?”

“Because they are happy.”

“But why so much?”

“I think they are very happy.”

But they were also shooting to commemorate people killed (martyrs) since the start of the fighting. There is debate about how dangerous “falling” bullets actually are but it isn’t worth the risk and few rebels seem to be taking care to aim their Kalashnikovs in safe directions.  It’s almost laughable that they say they need more ammunition and training. 

Parts of Benghazi actually look like bits of Miami – coastal water lined by buildings of all sorts but there is also a bit of an old town with narrow streets.  There, the opposition shadow government has taken over a court building and has started putting in place the basic functions of state.  These are still rudimentary and somewhat disorganized.  Outside pictures of those disappeared under the ruling government are commemorated and solace is sought in meetings, rallies and prayer.     

On my second night, deciding the hotel food was worth the risk of moving on the streets, we decided to go out for pizza (there was less shooting that night).  There aren’t many places to go but more than you might imagine.  With a few journalists, we were taken to a place that looked and felt ok but the pizza is worth skipping in favor of samosas.  On leaving, groups of young rebels stood outside waiting for their food or just to socialize.  A pick-up truck with an anti-aircraft mounted on back is parked outside and an effigy of Gaddafi hung from the traffic signal.  I hear someone say “I wish I had my camera.”

A Traveler’s Gem: Cyrene

Posted on: March 18th, 2011 | No Comments

A report I pulled off the internet described Libya this way: “Mostly barren, flat to undulating plains, plateaus, depressions.” Only about 1% of Libya is arable so 90% of the population lives along the shores of the Mediterranean.  But there is a place called the Green Mountains (Jebel Akhdar) where the verdant pasture and tree-lined lanes resemble many parts of Europe.  Very often when traveling, surprises and this was one of them but it got better.   

Tucked away in a place near the town of Shahat, about half way between Tobruk and Benghazi, is the ancient town of Cyrene.  This is now a full archeological site steeped in history and, on the day I was there, free to all those who were willing to jump over the fence to get in.  I may have read about this place in college but then again maybe not so it was worth looking up.  Once called the “Athens of Africa,” Cyrene was founded in 630BC it was dedicated to the Greek god Apollo (and served by the port of Apollonia).  The Romans later took over and it’s mentioned in the Bible (twice).  After a devastating earthquake in 262, it never really recovered.    

It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  In 2007, plans were underway to build the world’s largest sustainable development done in partnership with the Government of Libya (actually, Gaddafi’s son, Saif Al Islam) and the firm of renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster.  For some reason, these plans are on hold.

Traveling to Eastern Libya

Posted on: March 16th, 2011 | No Comments

It’s a long drive from Cairo but the road to the border is in good condition with only a few check points (beefed up after the recent troubles with tanks and squads of soldiers instead of policemen).  The border crossing itself is nothing but a series of buildings that feel like a train depot that has been overrun by refugees from sub-Saharan Africans who have fled the fighting but lack the means to continue on home quickly.  Thousands of people pack the reception halls or sleep outside under boxes and blankets.  The conditions are not good for sure but at least the people are safe and eventually are processed onward.     

The look and feel changes immediately on crossing into what is officially called the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Republic (Jamahiriya).”  There are no ornery customs officials but instead rebels who do nothing but shake our hands and thank us for coming.  Men (there are no women around) dress in beaten mismatch of civilian and military clothing.  They look like they’ve been fighting for months, if not years, but it’s only been a couple of weeks.  There are not many cars, virtually no billboards and few shops are open.  Gasoline is a remarkable $0.15 a liter but don’t get excited, most other things are in scarce supply.  All storefronts had to be painted the same color as the Libyan flag (of the current government); a solid green.  When I asked what would happen if you painted your store a different color, I was told “your store won’t open.”    

The city of Tobruk is about an hour’s drive from the border.  This was a name I’ve known since childhood.  It was in this area that the Allied and Axis dueled back and forth using all manner at their disposal. Later General Erwin Rommel laid siege to the town and built an underground command post (over which is now a parking lot) until he was later repulsed by a combined force that included Australians, British, French, Czechs and Polish troops.  Allied military cemeteries still dot the area.  This was a place highly romanticized in media by the “Deserts Rats” and the “English Patient.” After WWII, the town was rebuilt and its charm, if there ever was any, has been lost.   

A "People's Republic"? Maybe

Coolest Bar in Cairo

Posted on: March 15th, 2011 | No Comments

Cairo is certainly a cosmopolitan place and has a long history of openness. Its large tourist industry, Coptic minority and tradition of hospitality (this last being a debatable point), mean that there is good nightlife.  As a friend explained, “Anything can be done in Cairo.”  Places tend to fall into several categories: coffee and shisha, bar/lounges and beer joints so the first thing to do is decide what you’re up for and then decide where you’re willing to go.   

There are great places in Zamalek, including Deals and Pub 28, as well as other neighborhoods.  But it’s downtown where the places with real atmosphere are found.  Rooftop top places like the bar at the Odeon Palace Bar are usually a good bet if the weather is cooperative.  That one is also reportedly open 24-hours but the current martial law has imposed there is a midnight citywide curfew right now.  And if you’re dying for the experience, Shahrazad and Arabesque have belly dancing.  However, the winner during my visit is undoubtedly Horeya, not far from Tahir Square.     

Sure, there is little to drink besides Stella beer (the local beer which isn’t bad), it’s filled with cigarette smoke and it lacks the niceties such as a nice bathroom found in upscale places. And it doesn’t look like much as you can see in the photo – the graffiti says “I want to see another president before I die.”  And the windows have been smashed or have bullet holes in them (I already said it’s not far from Tahir Square).  But for what Horeya lacks it more than makes up for in character.

Walking in the through the crowded tables, with high ceilings and smoky yellow-colored walls, the place was absolutely bustling.  A friendly waiter put down five large Stellas even know there were just two of us.  We joined conversations with journalists and aid workers just back from or going to the front in eastern Libya, students from the nearby American University in Cairo, a writer, an office worker and two people who didn’t mention what they were up to.  Midway through the evening, two guys danced and sang to the new “Free Egypt” giving high-fives to as many people as they could.  It’s not exactly a place for a quiet drink with family but later I noticed a partition behind which groups of older Egyptian men sat drinking coffee, watching TV and no doubt going over the days gossip and politics.       

At the end of the night, the bottles consumed are counted to determine the final bill and we made it back to the hotel as the mid-night martial law curfew commenced.

Crossing Tahir Square

Posted on: March 12th, 2011 | No Comments

Just weeks before, Tahir Square in central Cairo was the focus of the revolution that ended the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak.  Sure, some of the pavement stones are missing (ripped up for use in the rioting, exposing desert sand underneath), a few of the surrounding buildings were scorched and the tourists vacated the place (it was only dicey for a few days and is now perfectly fine).  But it’s still a thrilling place, ringed by travel agencies, fast food restaurants and the Indiana Jones-worthy Egyptian Museum.  And while Egypt is hardly off the beaten path (12 million tourists come here a year), it definitely retains a lot of the reasons people come here in the first place. 


The issue is with navigating the place on foot.  Cairo’s streets are notoriously chaotic and, to put it diplomatically, free flowing.  The recent revolution hasn’t changed that one bit.  Witnessing this firsthand is the best way to get to experience this but a little foreknowledge is helpful.  There are at least two ways to cross the streets that make up Tahir Square:    

Crossing Method 1 – The local way

How to: Assume a steely demeanor with a focus on the far curb, use only peripheral vision, boldly walk into traffic, pause only if a speeding car would unavoidably run you over, continue walking.  Drivers will somehow and miraculously steer their cars around you.    

When to use it: If you are a native Cairiene or long term resident, or have had several drinks.   

Crossing Method 2 – The prudent way

How to: Find other pedestrians who are about to cross (school kids and the elderly are better because they will not walk as fast), get close to them but “downstream” of traffic, look both ways and keep a close look out, cross at the same pace as the other pedestrians (ok we’re talking about using them as “human shields”).  Drivers will slow and sometimes even stop allowing the group of pedestrians to cross. 

When to use it: If you are new to Cairo. There is also a metro subway train beneath the square which can used to get from one side of the square to the other but how much fun is that?

How to Pack When going to a War Zone?

Posted on: March 6th, 2011 | No Comments

Packing depends a lot on your expected length of travel, gender and personal preferences but it’s helpful to think in the layer system (discussed in a previous post) and climate throughout the trip (not just at the destination).  It’s often cold in deserts and sunny in cold places, there could be a pool at your overnight stay while in transit and then there’s that unplanned requirement to sleep in the airport (here’s a worthwhile link to consider).  All these should be considered on one trip. 

Almost universally, things that stimulate the mind are carried by those traveling to Libya: books, MP3 players stuffed with music, laptops loaded with cheaply acquired movies and TV series.  But ballistic body armor is not: freelance stringers can’t afford it and aid workers are usually not that close to the fighting.  Besides vests and helmets are heavy, take up lots of luggage space and makes you stick out like a sore thumb.

So in most ways, packing to go to a war is no different than going to any place that is severely underdeveloped with a (possible) lack of electricity, clean drinking water, the presence of bugs and other annoyances that make travel more interesting. Even if conditions are fine today, what if the power suddenly goes out for three straight days?  A candle, matches and a flashlight that doesn’t need batteries would be great.  What if I need to wash my clothes in my hotel sink? I’d need a long cord to dry them.  What if my camera strap breaks, pack rips or jack tears at the elbow?  A bit of duct tape is essential.  This is what the Essential Journey’s Kit was made for and is included on my bag on the way to Libya.

World’s Most Dangerous Road?

Posted on: February 22nd, 2011 | No Comments

In between my recent travels, I flicked through the satellite television channels dealing with travel and adventure.  Filled with tall claims and well spun yarns, they provide fleeting entertainment.  One show gives the impression of dealing with the “world’s most dangerous road” judging by ice-filled roads.  Certainly, in this category there is a fairly long list of contenders.   For sure, the James Dalton Highway in Alaska 414-mile gravel road that connects Prudhoe Bay oilfields needs vigilance and preparation (including a 4-wheel drive, the right kit and extras of everything).  But is it the most dangerous?   

Bolivia’s North Yungas Road, connecting the capital La Paz to Coroico in the Amazon region, is itself known as the “Death Road.”  Fifteen years ago, the Inter-American Development Bank declared it the world’s most dangerous road because it killed 200-300 people a year along its almost 70 km length.  Today, new construction has meant that few travel along this route except for a few intrepid travelers looking for a challenge and the right to say they traveled it.  

The road leading from Baghdad International Airport toward the Green Zone (now the “International Zone”) was surely the most dangerous road in the world at one point.  This is where we lost Marla Ruzicka (see earlier post) and many others.  Although strict checkpoints, constant patrols and blast walls that line the entire length make the roughly 15 minute trip safer these days, it remains a potentially hairy ride.    

East of Kabul

From personal experience, the most dangerous roads lie in Afghanistan and Pakistan where altitude, long-distances, terrible conditions and ever present violence meet.  These days, roads like the one that link Kabul with Peshawar are surly the world’s most dangerous.  That road passes through the tribal areas of Pakistan where NATO fuel supplies were recently blown up, the Kyber Pass (notorious during the British Raj as a site of ambush and intrigue), through Jalalabad in sight of Tora Bora and the now dangerous Sarobi, up a spectacular gorge and into Kabul.  In that same valley, I was stopped several years ago by a rock avalanche that took the better half of a day to clear.   

Or take the road leading north from Islamabad on route N75 to the hill station town of Murree and then north again to Muzaffarabad.  It’s fine up to that point.  This area of Kashmir has been mostly off limits to foreigners except for a period following the 2005 earthquake that devastated the region.  About a year after the disaster, I traveled up the Neelam Valley Road along the “line of control” that demarcates the long, blood-soaked division between India.  As part of the Lesser Himalayas, it is at once beautiful in a way only matched by the likes of the Rockies and the Alps.  It is also hair-raising, crossing over crumbling dirt roads over 8,000 + foot passes with very few guardrails. And, in the time I was there, aftershocks and rock avalanches.  Along long stretches, the road is well within the crosshairs of Indian gun positions on the other side of the valley.  While calm during my visit, our driver plainly said at one point “My brother was killed along here.”

Great Travel Quote

Posted on: February 10th, 2011 | No Comments

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

Traveling to Utah’s Awesome Mountains

Posted on: January 24th, 2011 | No Comments

Following a productive trip to the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, it was time to hit the slopes.  Big Cottonwood valley, less than an hour from SLC, is generally less crowded than nearby Park City.  Large pines, curvy roads and craggy mountainsides make traveling up the valley absolutely beautiful and worth the trip even if you’re not skiing.     

Topping out at over 10,000 feet, the area gets an average of over 500 inches of snow fall each season.  The skiing itself is great with many named runs and fresh snow that dumped on our trip the first time out.  But snowshoeing and cross-country which offered a nice change of pace after a day of downhill. 

Although Utah changed its drinking laws a few years ago, the bars near the mountain closed insanely early at 9pm (“so that people can ski”…the slopes do close at 4pm after all).  So, if you want to party and ski, everybody says you’re better off going to Colorado.