Thursday, April 19, 2007

So much in 1 month...

I realize that I've been remiss in my writing duties. For that I apologize. In the last month, I have been quite a busy dude. I have: written project grants, traveled, planted trees, been in the paper and on TV, given a grammatically flimsy interview, been to sushi, bartered, gambled, eaten Indian food, had dysentery, drunk non-alcaholic beer, rock climbed, dune-jumped, dived, been in a sandstorm, had grants rejected, sat in a sarcophagus beneath a pyramid, sat in front of royalty on a plane, had a grant approved, been hit by a car twice, grown tomato plants, eaten rice and so much more! Where do I begin to write? (ok, relax mom. The car tapped me the first time in the Stara Zagora bazaar, and I just went on eating my falafel sandwich without more than an annoyed glance at the driver. The second time, I hopped over the hood and finished crossing the street. That was in Cairo where it seems like the Taxi drivers aim for pedestrians.)

My multi-national adventure started out with a morning flight to Amman, Jordan from Sofia. We flew within sight of Stara Zagora and I was just able to make out my neighborhood from the plane. The photo, however, did not come out. On the second leg (Istanbul to Amman), I sat in the front of the aircraft amongst a group of Swedish diplomats. Near the end of the flight, I learned that Princess Victoria was one of the attractive and friendly young ladies sitting behind me. None of my friends believed me, as the VIP entourage departed by the time they disembarked from their aft seating on the plane. We headed to Petra, which is an astoundingly historic place. Today, it is probably best known for its appearance in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the site of the Holy Grail. Only one of its hundreds of sites is shown in that movie. Petra was inhabited by Nabateans, Macedonians, Romans and others through history. Temples, tombs, sacrafice sites, sculptures and more were everywhere in the rocky valleys throughout the region. I was there for 2 days, but could have easily stayed a week to explore the extremities of the area. I could see Aaron's tomb on a far mountain top, but did not have the time to hike there.

After Petra, we camped in the deserts of Wadi Rum in southern Jordan. Sweeping vistas, towering rock formations, oases, neolithic carvings and Bedouin tents dot the valleys of this region. Most of the desert scenes of Lawrence of Arabia were filmed there. We went to Lawrence's spring and the ruins of the house he stayed in when in the area. From this valley his allied army attacked and captured Aqaba, which is where we headed next. Aqaba is a Jordanian city that has not yet been filled with foreign tourists. Although it has been a vital trading port for millenia and still has spice and clothing bazaars standing on the same plots as their ancient predecessors, the city does not have a public museum. People had come from Amman and all of Jordan to the beach there to enjoy the holiday weekend. From the hotel window, we had a view of the end of the gulf, over the last stretches of Jordan, the intensely developed Israeli coast, and then the cliffs and dry mountains of Egypt. A strong military presence in the city accompanied the entourage of Angela Merkel, who was on a diplomatic visit to the King's residence on the Aqaba waterfront.

From Aqaba, my friends and I took the ferry to Neweba, Egypt. Out the windows, Saudi Arabia crawled by on our left and Egypt on our right. The ferry was supposed to have been the fast ferry, but we waited on the boat far longer than than the 2-hour transit. Our whole trip took more than 4 hours. Upon reaching Egypt, we learned quickly about the cultural difficulties of traveling. We continuously had to haggle for EVERYTHING including transportation. First, we made a deal with a driver who reneged after we went to the ATMs and missed the last bus to Sharm-al-Sheik. We had to re-haggle and eventually settled on a price for drop-off at our hotel. He tried to collect passengers to other destinations along the way (who they had tried to use beforehand as a bargaining tool) but we didn't let them. When we arrived in Sharm, the driver dropped us off kilometers away from our hotel and told us that it was just a few blocks away. I was furious and took charge of the group's payment. We tyold him that since he broke the deal, we would only pay him for part of the journey. He knew he'd lied to us and, seeing three angry, imposing men, accepted.

More on the trip to come in the next post.