Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Dahab and Sharm el Sheikh

I chose my hostel in Dahab because it is known to be solo-traveler friendly, and I wasn't disappointed.  Over the course of the first night's trip to Sinai, I made immediate friendships with two Egyptian guys my age vacationing from Alexandria, a girl traveling from Amsterdam, and a girl from Arizona who had just finished a teaching contract in Cairo.

The five of us spent the rest of our time there together, eating and swimming and snorkeling.

Which way?
On the second day, the guys wanted to go to Sharm el Sheikh so we went on a road trip (another stroke of luck for me!).  I was so excited to go there.  It was also really fun driving through the Egyptian desert.
We waved to Mubarak in Salam Hospital, and snorkeled along the coral reefs.

I had only snorkeled once before this, in Key West, Florida.  The Red Sea is supposed to have some of the most amazing snorkeling and diving on the planet.  It was so cool to follow along the shelf of the reef, the schools of fish would swim so close you could touch them, and one large red fish, maybe a snapper, stared me down for several seconds before venturing closer to check me out by "biting" my finger!  I took a roll of underwater photos there, but have yet to go old school style and get them developed :)  I can't wait to see how they turn out!

The night before, the guys were telling us what they wanted to do in Sharm-- EAT.  They were so excited to drive down there and eat all this fabulously delicious food.  When it came time to go to dinner, we started walking, checking out all the seafood restaurants...  and then the guys stopped and I learned what this amazing food was they spoke of-- Pizza Hut!  Apparently it is all the rage in the Middle East.

So, we girls went to one of the other restaurants while they ate pizza and joined us later.  This was one of the most fun nights I've had.  

We would order shrimp, or fish, and the waiter would bring out a bunch of different sizes of the dead animal for us to choose from. We were laughing hysterically (and taking pictures), even though we knew the restaurant staff probably thought we were insane!

Also what must also be mentioned about Egypt are the CATS!  I have never seen so many cats in my life.  I guess because cats are revered in Egypt?  It is pretty unnerving... you may not see any for a moment, but when dinner arrives in front of you there are cats in your lap and on the table... along with salt and ketchup, tables are traditionally equipped with spray bottles of water to fend off the cats.

I personally found this a struggle-- between my allergies/not wanting to touch the cats/finding them disgusting all up in my food, versus feeling bad about spraying them (which usually didn't even work!), or alternatively, shoving them off the table.  And of course, the occasional adorable little mewing kitten that was impossible not to feed....
Cat for dinner?

Back in Dahab the next day, the girls were getting SCUBA certified and the guys and I went to snorkel the infamous Blue Hole.  This site has actually claimed the lives of many scuba divers, but snorkeling doesn't pose the same dangers.  The reefs and fish there were absolutely incredible. 
I am fascinated by the fact that coral is a living animal. At one point while I was surfaced, fiddling with my mask, my thigh barely brushed some coral. I felt nothing and forgot about it, but later that day I had a rash. I found out that some coral, in self-defense, will spray you with poison if you get too close!
Divers' Memorial at the Blue Hole, Dahab

Of course I also loved how inexpensive everything is in Egypt- on my last night we rode horseback on the Red Sea for an hour for about $5!

The next morning it was time to head towards Jordan for the start of my second program, taking a bus to Nuweiba then a ferry across the Sea.  I wasn't ready to leave.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Mt. Sinai, Egypt, and getting a little sappy :)

with Professors Morris, Rubenstein, Kaufman, and Feinstein

Our Israel program wrapped up with a stressful and sleepless few days as we all worked furiously on our exams.  After a group farewell dinner it was time to say what felt like an abrupt goodbye.

I had  six days to get from Jerusalem to Amman, so I decided to travel overland into the Sinai peninsula.

Up until this point I had never traveled completely alone so I was a bit nervous, but it was a great decision.  I went online, looked up the bus schedule to get from Jerusalem to the Israeli border in Eilat, and found a hostel I liked in Dahab.

Then I was off!  I crossed the border into Taba, Egypt on foot.  It's incredible how quickly you go from nervousness and uncertainty to feeling comfortable, capable, and independent once you just go out there and do it.  Most or all of your preconceived notions about people or places turn out to be untrue.  I think everyone who possibly has the means should embark on at least one solo adventure!

When I arrived at Bishbishi in the late afternoon, looking forward to nothing but sleeping, the owner Jimmy informed me that the tour for Mt. Sinai was that evening.  For those who don't know, this involves leaving at 10 pm to spend hours climbing the 7,500 foot mountain in pitch blackness, in order to be situated on top of the summit in time for sunrise.  Since of course this sounded like a fabulous idea, I took a quick nap in preparation for yet another sleepless night.

The climb really was not terrible.  The only issue for me was that, per usual, I was suffering from some bronchitis or other similar lung disease for people with stupid immune systems, which had progressed so that I felt quite breathless.  (Fortunately Tommy's mom supplied me with a Z pack before I left Michigan which cleared things up a few days later!)  Other than that, the climb itself was not as strenuous as I had been led to expect, especially in the cool night.

The sky was absolutely amazing, there were more stars than I imagined existed, so many that they were in 3d and I could see the depth between them.

Also, for the first time I saw the Milky Way, an unmistakable huge white streak across the entire sky.  It was mesmerizing.  I so wish that I could have taken a photograph of the night sky!

Out of nowhere an old Incubus song I haven't heard since high school popped into my head and remained for the entire climb.

I dig my toes into the sand
The ocean looks like a thousand diamonds

strewn across a blue blanket
I lean against the wind, 

pretend I am weightless
And in this moment I am happy

I wish you were here

I lay my head onto the sand
The sky resembles a backlit canopy
with holes punched in it
I'm counting UFO's,
I signal them with my lighter
And in this moment I am happy
I wish you were here

The world's a roller coaster and I am not strapped in
Maybe I should hold with care,
my hands are busy in the air
Saying I wish you were here.

On this night I experienced one of those surreal moments that always hit me at spontaneous points while I'm traveling.  I became completely overwhelmed by emotions, the sight of the mountains and the night sky, how hard I worked to get here, how long I waited, and the truth that I am actually here now, in this moment, in Egypt, climbing Mt. Sinai.  It always moves me to tears and to me that is the epitome of feeling alive.

the climb
the Burning Bush

Mt. Sinai is another site of important religious significance; it was here that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.  At the foot of the mountain lies St. Catherine's Monastery, the oldest working Christian monastery in the world and the home of the burning bush.

I finally arrived back to Dahab in the early afternoon, and slept for the rest of the day and night. :)


All month I desperately wanted to go to Ramallah, the capital of Palestine, so on my last day in Israel I paid a taxi driver too much to take me there.  It was completely worth it.  This is one of the most interesting cities I've ever seen.

The barricade.  Earlier, driving down the road, we actually watched a man scale the razor wire, jump down using a rope, and run off!  It happened so fast I couldn't believe what I was seeing, let alone take a photograph.

Graffiti on the Palestinian side of the barricade.

Downtown Ramallah.

Yasser Arafat's tomb.
These little boys were having a great time making faces for my camera. :)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ayia Napa and Famagusta, Cyprus

The Jewish holiday Shavuos fell during our Israel program this year, with the result that we had a five day holiday.  Receiving a brilliant tip from a couple of Israeli girls, six of us used a last minute budget travel website (in Hebrew!) to book a cheap vacation package in Ayia Napa, Cyprus!

I discovered that my initial method of entering Israel- crossing overland from Jordan- proved to be unintentionally smart; the security at Ben Gurion airport (in Tel Aviv) was rigorous to say the least.  After finally giving enough satisfactory answers, we were boarding a propeller plane to Larnaca.

While I was excited for the opportunity to get another passport stamp, I knew nothing of the country, let alone ever hearing of the city.  I soon learned that Ayia Napa is often compared to Ibiza and Mykonos as a tropical party capital.

I typically spend weeks researching every detail possible about a pending destination, so it was a bit fun to go to a country on a whim with no idea what to expect.

Upon arrival I was immediately delighted by two things: the Greek language, and the fact that the cars have the steering wheel on the right (and drive down the left side of the road).

I'm not sure how to describe the sheer awesomeness of this trip!  We spent the days sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, boating, cliff diving, and exploring for hours on 4-wheelers... took brief evening naps, went out and danced all night, came home around 8 am for breakfast, and did it all over again.

The city has a large main square, where you wander among the endless clubs with hilarious and cheesy themes such as "Flintstones", "Pirates", "Aruba", and our favorite, "Castle".

On a more serious and probably more intriguing note, Cyprus has a very interesting political situation going on.  The southern half of the island is controlled by Cyprus and inhabited by Greek Cypriots, but the northern half was invaded and occupied by Turkey in the 1970's.  Ayia Napa is located on the eastern coast of the Greek side of the island.  On a boat tour, we went up to the border and could see the city of Famagusta, which has been abandoned ever since its inhabitants fled during the occupation.

I had heard of this "ghost town", but was stunned to see the size of it.

According to Wikipedia, "Because of its isolation and neglect over the past 30 years despite being such a historically and culturally significant city, Famagusta was listed on the World Monuments Fund's 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world. Additionally, in an October 2010 report, Global Heritage Fund named Famagusta one of 12 sites most on the verge of irreparable loss and destruction..."

Our tour guide was from Famagusta, and was visibly distraught telling us how he can remember fleeing his home in the night as a young boy.  He pointed out the line of buoys in the water marking the border, and told us that any boats crossing are shot at, including misguided tourists who have gone astray.

For more on this subject, I just stumbled across this lovely site of photos.

annnnnnnd, here's my cliff dive :)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Life in Amman

Jumping up to present time for a rare post,  I'm a week into program 2 in Amman, Jordan.  Here I'm only taking one legal course, since I just finished 6 credits in Jerusalem-

This course will introduce the students to the history, sources and methodology of Islamic Law and Jurisprudence (The Shari'ah). The course will use a historical perspective, tracing the development of the Islamic science of jurisprudence and the four "Schools of Law" from the time of the Prophet Muhammad down tot he present day. Topics include: independent legal reasoning; ancient and modern practices of Islamic tribunals and legislatures; the role of the legal treatise in the Islamic legal system; and contemporary issues, including modern banking transactions, freedom of expression, and problems involving Islamic states.

Our courses are being held at the Columbia University Middle East Research Center, which is truly a stunning facility!  

Additionally, I am so excited to have the opportunity to have started Arabic classes.  We have a wonderful tutor and there are 6 students, so I can't believe how quickly we are already learning!  I finished class 2 yesterday, and know (most of) the alphabet, and have learned how to read, how to create sentences, and a few vocabulary words.  I was so excited to walk down the street after our first class and be able to read some words correctly on signs.  It feels like cracking a code or a glimpse into another secret world.  It also makes me feel like a four year old; sounding out two syllable words D-d-d-d-d...a..a.... :)  It's so pleasing and frustrating at the same time, I wonder if it felt the same way when I was first learning to read in English!

 I love this photo- my "mualima" (teacher), Jamila- and classmate Eddie  is writing "Carlie is crazy" on the board.  We are all laughing the entire class due to our constant language faux pas!

Because this is the first year of the Amman program (which I just learned), we had some important visitors this week- the deans of Seton Hall and an inspector from the American Bar Association.

Our program faculty wanted to wine and dine them, so it was fun to do that and have the opportunity to network with them as well as a few members of the bar in Jordan. 

Our lodging is also very upscale as well compared to the places I've been staying all summer.  The hotel has been especially great because it is part of a hospitality business school, so we've befriended several interesting Jordanian students our age who are employed there.

 Among the countries in this region, Jordan seems the most businesslike and definitely displays quite a lot of wealth and hospitality.

In a few hours we are departing on a weekend trip to Petra!! So, you can look forward to learning about that in maybe a few weeks. :)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Dead Sea

No trip to Israel or Jordan is complete without a visit to the Dead Sea, so fortunately for me I get to go twice. I will report on which side I find better. :)

The Dead Sea is such an extremely unique and remarkable place.  It is located in the Great Rift Valley and is the lowest point on earth, 1388 feet below sea level.

It also has so much salt and other minerals that it is about 30% solid, hence its name and our ability to float on the surface. 

From a tourist's perspective, the big thing about the Dead Sea is that it is basically a free trip to an amazing and all-natural spa.  Since I've never been to a spa, I enjoyed it all the more!

When you arrive, you first slather yourself with the thick, sticky black mud from the banks. After letting it dry, you go in the sea (carefully, and hope you don't have ANY cuts!) and use the salt/sand from the sea bed to exfoliate and scrub off the mud. You float around for a bit and get pictures :)

Next you can rinse off and get into a hot sulphur bath, also natural, and then relax in a freshwater pool before buying some Ahava Dead Sea products and heading home, allegedly with soft and amazing skin.

Initially I had a slight calamity- when we first arrived I immediately jumped into the mud pit to commence slathering, but failed to realize beforehand that the mud was boiling at roughly a billion degrees.  At the same instant I realized this, I also realized that my flip flops had suctioned themselves into the mud and I could not pull my feet out.  Fortunately the peril only lasted about a second before I was assisted by friends, although in my mind it seemed much longer, and the day was amazing from there.

I passed this couple on my way to the water... she was posing in front of the sea while he took her photograph.  What a gift to be in your eighties or so, still traveling the world and having someone to share it with!