Thursday, June 26
letters from the middle east
so... here i am in jerusalem, in the hotel where we'll be staying through shabbes. i'm in the lobby on a friend's laptop. we've been playing some music - loren, one of our madrichim (counselors) is a pretty serious violinist, and there is a group guitar which has a busted A-string tuning peg but otherwise is pretty nice. there's a white upright piano here but they wouldn't let us play because it's too late. there are a number of musicians - one guy brought a ukelele, and there are some drums and flutes and harmonicas. we haven't had a full-out jam yet, but there has been music playing of some sort every night so far. some on the bus as well.
the trip has been entirely enjoyable so far - i'm really liking the group, which is large (40) but laidback and "mature" (21-26, but besides that most people are just pretty thoughtful and sensitive.) at this stage we're all mostly commingling pretty indiscriminately, though specific friendships are probably starting to form. the first morning in israel (after a short first day when we took a brief walk through the old city) i joined some folks for 5:15am yoga in the grass - rie led some hatha and then alex led some kundalini. next time around i will probably throw some iyengar in the mix. we hiked up masada (short but intense heat and fairly steep) and hung out in the cistern for a while; i participated in a preposterous masada rap performance (best rhyme: josephius/facetious.) from there to the dead sea, where we had too little time (an hour) and stretched it out by going to cover ourselves in mud at the last moment. my birkenstocks, already extensively destroyed, are now just plain unreasonable.
we stayed last night at a nature reserve, ein geddi, and woke up at 3:45 this morning to start a hike right at first light - a climb up mount jesse (yishai), where we had a celebratory dance circle at the summit, fairly frequent stops for discussions of quietude and lack, an Ethiopian walking round, a stop by a 5500 year old caananite building, unbelievably well preserved (only the foundations, but still.) then ended up at an oasis, an amazing series of waterfall pools where we swam and a couple of us did some impromptu rock climbing-cum-spelunking over moss-covered rocks and cave formations alongside the waterfall. that was all before lunch...
the rest of the day has been fairly chill; we've done some preparations for shabbat, which in my case meant preparing a skit in which i will star as a naked delusional turkey/prince. more eventually... it's all been good, and i'm looking forward to further jewish discussions, which will definitely be happening more soon. (we've had a couple.)
hope you all are well!
i'm sitting on a front porch in a small town near netanya, eating homemade sushi, drinking beer and erek, listening to cicadas and crickets and reggae on the itunes, chilling with my friend andrew and some buddies of his from san francisco. in less than an hour i'm getting on an overnight bus to eilat, the southernmost tip of israel, where i will hopefully navigate the egyptian consulate visa situation and border crossing so as to get on a bus to cairo by tomorrow night, and from there to travel around egypt with martha. last night was the conclusion of an entirely wonderful two weeks, involving a 3+ hour candlelit concluding thoughts circle, which got kind of surreal and disorienting (i was physically very uncomfortable - cold and tired on the hard floor, and then they played a random john denver song), but gave way to an all night party of group singing, dancing to impromptu musicmaking, improvisatory songwriting out in the starry dark night of the tzfat hillside. most people left on the bus at 5:30 this morning, and andrew and i slept from 6 to noon. no time now to talk about the trip really - i've gotta leave and want to be social with these folks for a minute - but it was really something special. definitely exceeding my unclear expectations. as i said in the final circle, maybe less for me about discovering new things than about remembering and reaffirming things i already have and know - but pretty revelatory nonetheless. more eventually, i hope. postcards, maybe.
hi guys. slight overlap in info from the last update, but this is what i wrote to my livnot friends about what's been going on for the last fw days:
shabbat shalom. i am writing to you from my sister's amusingly posh apartment here in cairo, where we are kicking back after a day of livnot-worthy intensity, hunting pyramids from giza to saqqara to darshur (by taxi and donkeyback), downing multiple 1.5-liters of water, looking at even more stony things in the egyptian antiquities museum downtown, and then taking a rather silly bellydancing/dinner cruise on the nile with her roomate and her friends.
so, let's see... after bidding farewell to most of you at 5:30 am four mornings ago (was it only?), andrew (nimmer) and i slept in until noon. (a whole six hours!) his friends from san fran showed up a little while later, and we tooled around tzfat for another minute - one last yemenite delicacy (i still haven't had felafel in the middle east yet) - before saying goodbye to the rest of you. they took us to a brilliant "vanished" lake not far from tiberias, an aquifer that was discovered while digging a quarry, which had stunning green-blue water and excellent cliffs for climbing and jumping off - 40 feet up, maybe? then to a house, somewhere outside netanya, where we showered, played some cards, drank some beer and delicious erek/grapefruit/mint cocktails, and rolled and devoured some scrumptious sushi. it felt unbelievably nice, almost luxurious, to be in a friendly house and just relax, even for only a few hours.
which is all the time i had, because soon enough i was off on my own, on a red-eye (midnight-4:30) bus to eilat. i hadn't realized it would get in quite so early - i barely slept en route, and there wasn't anything going on when i arrived (although one of the beach bars was still blasting eminem and kylie minogue across the red sea), so i just wandered around a bit, found somewhere to sit on the beach and watch the sky colors change and the mountains slowly emerge from the darkness. i tried to follow the signs to the 'birdwatching park' but i'm not really sure whether i found it or not. i didn't end up fulfilling andrew's vision of jumping in a cab and demanding "take me to the egyptian consulate", because i was able to follow the map in my guidebook and find it myself, in an unassuming residential area. i slept a bit on the sidewalk waiting for it to open.
after securing my visa i started walking down mitzrayim road (sounds sort of foreboding, no?), thinking i might stop at a beach along the way - i did, and the water was lovely, but after that i couldn't take much more walking in the heat, so i just took a cab to the border. a few more adventures, going in on a taxi-van to cairo with some other folks, some of whom turned out to have the wrong visas, which held us up for a while, then some rigamarole about where they were actually going to drop us off. i was able to stretch out and sleep (and read!) in the back seat, and watch a lot of utterly empty desert go by - the land here is hopelessly bleak even compared to the judean desert; as impressive in a way, but definitely not as spectacular.
it's been a whirlwind in this crazy, dirty, noisy, hectic, colorful, nonsensical city of 22 million people (!!); on wednesday we started out in the coptic quarter taking in a synagogue and a greek orthodox church before coming to our senses and visiting some mosques. (if you thought israeli history was complicated - well, i didn't, really, especially since we ignored about 1800 years of it - it's nothing compared to this country, which has had so many cultures and religions and conquering nations and cross-pollinations, going back continuously for 5000 years, at least...pretty unbelievable.) i've really been enjoying cairo though, from admiring the panoramic view of the whole city (well, at least as far as the truly spectacular smog levels allow, which isn't that far) from the extensive hilltop al-azhar park to just walking around in the hectic streets and trying to battle my overdeveloped car-fearing self-preservation instincts.
but i'm also looking forward to heading on to slightly calmer, cleaner destinations. today we go to alex[andria]; tomorrow we are going to try to attend shabbat services at the synagogue there, which according to the rough guide "once served a jewish community of 70,000, tracing its ancestry back to the city's foundation. nowadays only a dozen or so, mostly elderly, jews remain." pretty sad...should be interesting though.
then on to sinai (dahab) and hopefully squeezing in luxor and/or aswan before i return to israel - my current hope is to try to make it to jerusalem for shabbat with nachshon next weekend.
more greetings again from egypt, "the land of civilization," as one tourist-poster slogan had it. another one: "been here for thousands of years."
i feel like i've been here a pretty long time myself... in the way that time starts to lose meaning; the tide ebbs and flows, the waves swell and cease, the moon waxes (half-way now), it gets hotter or windier or darker or brighter, but nothing much else seems to change.
i'm writing from a spot i've barely left in coming up on four days now: a restaurant in dahab, sinai, overlooking the aqaba gulf of the red sea towards saudi arabia (we see their lights at night - i guess it's as close as i'll get at least until my passport expires in five years), a flat thatched roof and no walls sheltering a dozen or so low-lying tables, each ringed with rows of cushions, rather sparsely populated at any given hour of the day with pockets of suntanned internationals, sitting, reclining, lying, sleeping. we have a room in the attached hostel, but it's been little more than a storage space for our stuff, since we've been sleeping in the restaurant too. (martha established a friendship with the preposterously laid-back twenty-something owner of the joint on her previous two visits, but then anyone could probably do the same in a minute or so.)
the guidebooks talk about travelers habitually being lured into extending their stay here in dahab, and it seems to be almost comically true of everyone i've met here - a group of women (two swedes and an italian) whom we've been palling with were originally here for a single night and have somehow stuck around for over a week now. in our case, we had clear plans to leave two nights ago - the evening of our second day - and travel on to luxor and aswan in the upper nile, but evidently things have turned out differently: i came down with some (mysterious but predictable) stomach/g-i bugginess on our second morning, which led me to spend the next 30 or so hours almost literally not moving from my spot in the restaurant pillows... thankfully after the first couple of hours it was relatively low-grade, but for a long time i was unable to move or eat without provoking some more discomfort. so basically i have been forced to relax, to temper my adventuresome ways and succumb to the languorous, lotophagous pace of life here...
it's hard to complain, really - it would be hard to conceive of a nicer place to convalesce, in all respects - the sea is so so blue, the wind keeps us cool, the food is decent and plentiful, and they never even ask you to pay (until they do, eventually, at which point you're expected to remember everything you've eaten in the last few days), but they certainly don't ask you to leave or move, they let me play my ipod over the speakers, there's a constant, fluid social thrum - new and old friends, martha's fellow teacher and my fellow sibling-companion, a friend of hers from high school, the girl we met in the synagogue in alexandria the other day... you know. it's pretty unimaginably sweet here. and all that.
sorta getting anxy to move on though. i'm a patient man but too much lull dulls my skull and dahab is confirming my suspicions that it would be a dangerous place. moof and i had a really great time just before this in alexandria - el-iskandriya, as they call it (made me think of aleks & rie too.) we took the train from cairo - an impressively green, pastoral trip - and spent an action-packed day and a half alternating sights [from ancient roman amphitheater, baths and catacombs to the extra-modern, extra-awesome new biblioteca alexandrina, hands down the coolest library i've ever seen (apologies to seattle/koolhaas)], shopping [i got some shirts and shoes and helped martha convince herself to buy three excellent dresses], and just wandering [around the city, which kind of feels like one gigantic shopping plaza, and a good deal more laid-back than cairo, but most memorably in the montazah pleasure gardens, a massive expanse of whimsical and manicured park complete with legoland-esque entrance tower, where we were invited to join a raucous bunch of women (mostly) of all ages having an all-out singing and dancing birthday celebration.] oh yeah, i also finally got my felafel fix - three times from the same place, but it was fantastic - and also had possibly some of the best fish i've eaten in my life.
so, from there we took the overnight bus (10 hours? maybe more?) to sharm el sheik, at the tip of sinai, and continued on to here. it has been good here - the first day we packed in snorkeling at the truly spectacular blue hole reef (slightly less so without glasses that don't fit under the goggles, but still) and a "bedouin" dinner in a somewhat remote desert area that wasn't too impressively bedouinny (chicken, veggies and rice) but anyway it was nice to hang out under the stars and climb up some rocks in the dark to sing down to the candlelit camp. then i got sick.
and last night, despite still not feeling 100%, i joined the gang hiking up mt. sinai (two days after shavuot - not bad right?); starting the climb at around 2:00 am and getting to the summit just shortly after the beginning of a truly lovely sunset. i was fine with the hiking - enjoyed it a lot - but i did have to move a lot more slowly than i ordinarily would, so most of my group went on ahead, though martha stuck with me. it was a nice hike going up under stars, though the trail was pretty crowded and there were frequent camel traffic jams,
[heya... whoops! i was in the middle of writing this e-mail while a very cute little egyptian kid came over and wanted to play with the laptop.
i took some photobooth pictures of us for a while, but then i went back to writing and he was poking at keys - i guess he hit something that sent the e-mail before it was finished. so now i will conclude...]
there were frequent camel traffic jams, but the descent - when we could actually see where we were going - was just breathtaking. i was however seriously feeling the absence of michael's insights, or something that could help give me some perspective on the significance of the place. it's pretty amazing just in terms of topography, but there's obviously a lot more going on. that's how i felt too about our little visit to st. catherine's monastery, at the foot of the mountain - a place with a lot of history, and lots of interesting things to look at, but we had no real access to understanding anything about it. egyptian tourist sites, to put it mildly, are not set up with that kind of thing in mind.
so. it turns out that i really did lose track of time, because i thought there was one more day here than there actually is. the current plan, taking that into account, is to do another desert hike tomorrow morning - canyon, oasis, bedouin village - the usual - and then head on to eilat, where i will meet up with loren; jerusalem, where i will meet up with liz (anybody else?); tel aviv; home. and don't worry, i'll get my photos up then. and so on. i'll probably do one final summing-up piece and then stop bugging y'all.