Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tour de Falafel Part Three: We Three Wise Men

So on to the Holy Land! After taking a bus with some child soldiers (they were supposed to be 18; I have my doubts) up to Jerusalem, I was ready to begin my religious pilgrimage. Traveling with two more or less Catholics in Pat and Ryan, I had a lot of catching up to do on religious history. My sense of monotheism has almost exclusively been shaped by a combination of Mark Twain (“God created man because he was disappointed in the monkey”) and Monty Python (“Blessed are the cheese makers”). But between Pat and Ryan they could usually figure out what we were looking at, and I touched some pretty cool things!

When we got off the bus I got yelled at for taking a picture of taking a picture of the Kosher McDonalds. Five minutes later I got yelled by our taxi driver for closing the door too hard. It’s hard going from a land of lawlessness like Cairo to somewhere so rigid. And every old man sounds like Jerry Stiller. I made the mistake of asking for the meter and the cab driver went on for ten minutes about how I was wasting money and could have gotten the ride for less without the meter. We were staying right in the Old City, in this room that looked like it might have housed a couple crusaders in the day. That first night we just walked around a little bit before hitting the nightlife area. It is pretty crazy, because more people carry handguns there than anywhere else I’ve been. Which must make for interesting bar fights!

The next day we were up bright and early for our tour of the city. We bought some man-sized bagels and headed out of the city, up Mt. Olives, and looked out over the city. It was pretty cool because you could see the Dome of the Rock and everything. There was some talk of perhaps the Garden of Eden being in the vicinity, but Mark Twain was pretty clear that the Garden was in Western New York. Already my worldview was changing. Then we went to the Old City, where we learned that it was divided into the Christian Quarter, Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. Favorite quarter? Obviously the Muslim Quarter where the same falafel cost half as much. But we did visit the Church of Nativity where we did such everyday things as touch the rock Jesus was buried on and saw the cave (now a hut) he was buried in.

Then we went to the Jewish quarter where there was schnitzel aplenty and touched the Western Wall. Best part: free yarmulkes for everyone! I don’t know the technology involved, but it never once fell off my kurbiskopf. My day got even better when this couple on the tour with us, who bear an uncanny resemblance to Aunt Peggy and Uncle Bruce (that comment was for Ashley), bought the three of us lunch. Had I known they were buying, I would have got shawerma, but I’ve never been one to complain about a free falafel. Next we went to the Holocaust Museum, which was decidedly not funny. I would say it is more depressing than DC’s museum but it falls short of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria. Oh the sights I’ve seen!

That night we headed back downtown where we ran into the air force guys we know from AUC. We wanted to have kind of an early night because we wanted to go to mass in the Church of Nativity. But this one place looped us in, and you don’t walk away from 3 for 1 drink specials, and you definitely don’t walk away from a bottomless bowl of popcorn.

Long story short, we did not make it to mass the next morning. But we did rouse ourselves to go to Bethlehem, where I touched the spot Jesus was born. In order to do though I had to take part in a slow motion stampede, during which I took back everything nice I’ve ever said about Indians as a people (sorry Divya, Gayan, Meera, Cassie(?)). Ryan, Pat and I found ourselves stuck in the middle of their tour group, and while some of them were nice, others insisted on drinking my water and continuously pushing. My favorite part is when one of them accused Ryan of holding up the line, despite the hundred people in front of him who were not moving. We took some pretty epic pictures that will illuminate the experience better for you, as soon as I get my laptop back in shape.

After exiting the hell that was Jesus’s birthplace we quickly stopped by the place where the shepherds were informed of Jesus’s birth. It was a pretty cool field, but you didn’t get the sense that it couldn’t have been the field next to that one. I’m just glad they kept track all these years/had the presence of mind to remember where they were standing. But what was cool was driving along the wall that fences in Palestine. For reasons unknown to me it was all in English, and some of it was pretty funny like “I want my ball back!” Then we went through the checkpoint, and I don’t know what the Palestinians are complaining about, no one questioned my American passport at all.

That night we went out with Ryan’s predecessor Gabe (PKE president past and present? Like dining with royalty!), who is on his yeshiva, which is when Jewish men go study the Torah to get closer to the religion. We met up with his friends, and they weren’t radical, militant Jews! I guess that is what I’m taking away from the trip; everyone we met seems pretty reasonable (except for the Israeli falafel dealers; 20 shekels for a falafel, JOKES!). They did explain some questions I had about the whole sitch, but it was another one of those three for one drink nights, so you’ll just have to believe me it all made sense at the time.

Next morning we successfully made it to mass. My Latin is a little rusty, but overall I thought it was a pretty good sermon. Favorite part: obviously the free cookie. Ryan and Pat waited in line to get into the cave/hut Jesus was unsuccessfully buried in, and just when they got in one very angry priest decided it was time to clean it, but the bros joined a group of nuns in charging in. Obviously, this wasn’t the angry priests first rodeo, as he didn’t hesitate in squirting water on the on rushers. When that didn’t work, he collared Ryan like an experienced bartender and threw him out. Pat got an excellent shot of an angry priest hand coming down on his camera, which I’ll post here when Pat gets it up.

But alas it was time once more to return to the Land of Sand. We decided to cut out Tel Aviv for the simple reason that the bus we were planning to catch doesn’t run on Saturdays, which are the Jewish holiday. Added to the fact we had spent too many shekels on man sized bagels, outrageously priced falafel, and obligatory schnitzel, we knew it was time to return to whence we came. We left our hostel at 9 in the morning, but were too late to buy tickets for the 10 o’clock bus to the border. That meant another four hours of waiting at the bus station, a specialty of ours. It did give us occasion to try the Kosher Burger at McDonalds, which Pat claimed made him the most full he’s ever been at a Mickie D’s. Someone obviously missed Shrek week at that fine dining establishment this summer. After that it was just a five hour ride to the border, an exit tax from Israel, an hour to cross, an entry tax for Egypt, and a six hour ride home to Cairo. Plenty of time to get to know Pat and Ryan.

And so ended the journey of the life time. And now only six classes of Romantic Literature (three weeks) until I make my triumphant return to America. Halleluiah!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tour de Falafel Part Two: House Hassem

LAPTOP DOWN! Sorry my pictures end abruptly with Lebanon, but my laptop is out of commission at the moment. Also, the computer I’m typing on apparently doesn’t have spell check, so hopefully you’ll be able to sound out this post!

To understand my visit to Jordan it is first necessary to understand my relationship to Hassem. In Connecticut Heights (DC’s best kept secret), I live above a delightful man named Rateb, a frequent commenter on my pictures you may have noticed. He would occasionally come up to our room to learn English, and seeing as he brought tea and chicken, of course I was willing to oblige. You might also be able to tell fom his comments he is a better cook than I am a tutor. Anyways, when I told Rateb I was going to Jordan he insisted his friend Hassem would take care of us the whole time we were there and not to worry about anything. From that point onward Hassem sent me texts in Arabic to which I replied to in English, and a friendship was formed.

We got off the plane, transferred our Lebanese money into Jordan dinars (which are actually better than the dollar) and met Hassem. He is the most cartoon-like person I have ever met, and I loved him for it. He spoke absolutely no English, and you all know my Arabic capabilities. But he knew animal sounds! Whenever we would pass a donkey, you could rely on an EEE-AHH EEEE-AHHHH. And we would laugh and laugh and laugh. We got a taxi for the day and first stop, some church in Amman! I didn’t catch the significance of it, but if I can find out from Pat or Ryan I will definitely update this post. Of more significance was the rug store outside, where Pat and Ryan got beautiful Bedouin made rugs. I considered it, but turned back at the last minute due to my hatred of vacuuming.

Then we hit up the Mountain of Nebo, where Moses died. Those of you who are going to heaven will know that Moses wasn’t allowed into Israel for the unforgivable crime of tapping the rock twice. Anyway it offered a great view of the Holy Land and had some pretty funny mosaics.

Next stop, the Dead Sea! Famous for its magical floating capabilities, it made for the ultimate photoshoot. And while Hassem took awhile to learn my best angles in a swim suit, we’ve got some pretty awesome pics of us doing what we do best, floating. Also, I set a new PR for treading water. Often this summer, I would challenge the freakish Katie Wood (she has webbed toes) to treading competetions, and now I think I can finally beat her (I feel bad now, she doesn’t actually have web toes (on second thought, I’ve never asked her if she does or doesn’t, you decide)). As I said, Connecticut Heights, where the fun never stops.

Then we headed back into downtown Amman, where I sampled the local falafel and shawerma. It was here that Hassem made the association of me with shawerma, and at random points throughout the trip he would look at me, laugh, shake his head and say shawerma. Also when I tried to tell him I played soccer he just shouted shawerma and started laughing. Do I look like a shawerma? We walked around the city, with Hassem trying to buy everything for us. By the end he had gotten us this delicious cheese-sugar combination desert, sugar cane juice, and sheesha, which Ryan became associated with for the rest of the trip. Then we headed to Rateb’s house, which is in Amman. Two hours later, we mustered up the courage to mime where the hell are we. Hassem turns around, “House Hassem”, and hands us his phone. We should have expected the unexpected, but none of us were prepared for the porn that we dutifully watched for five exceedingly awkward minutes before returning it to him. “Great sex?” asked Hassem. Due to language/culture barriers, all we could do was nod. That night we slept on couches in Hassem’s house. Just me, Ryan, Pat and our taxi driver Mohammad, WORST ROOMMATE EVER. Up until midnight watching his Arab comedies, then snoring like a fighter jet the whole night, and then getting text messages every five seconds from 6:30 until 8. I would’ve talked to RA Hassem but when I walked into his room he was sleeping on the floor next to “his” bed, leading me to believe we weren’t actually at House Hassem.

The breakfast was amazing though. We have long planned to open a falafel shop in DC when we get back, but Hassem gav eme a great idea. Jumbo Pita, a direct competitor to Jumbo Slice. You get a huge pita, and can put anything you want on it from jam to hummus. Then there was dates (which I was hesitant to eat, but when Mohammad said every good Muslim should eat 7 a day I had to oblige) and yogurt. We carbed up big time for our trip down to Petra.

I feel like not many people know Petra. I didn’t before I went. But it is one of the coolest old places in the world. It is an entire ancient city carved into rock. Oh I should mention by this time we were traveling with Hissam, Hassem’s brother (though we didn’t figure out their relationship til much later). The five of us made our way through the ancient city, taking pictures at will. There is not an oddly shaped rock I didn’t stand on. Something to look forward to when my computer comes back to life! An awkward moment came when we were driving away, and this little kid was wearing a Quincy Carter Cowboys jersey. I didn’t know they even made those. So we all go to take a picture and he walks in front of these three attractive European girls, who turn around and think we’re taking a picture of them. Hassem doesn’t help by turning back to us and yelling “Beautiful?!” Then traffic stopped and we were right next to these girls. All we could do was nod.
Then we were back on the road and ate dinner in the Red Sea resort town of Aqaba, all expenses paid by Hassem of course. After dinner we made our way to the beach, where we sat a few feet into the water, smoked sheesha and drank coffee. Sheesha apparently is the international language, because we had a great time despite not being able to communicate too well. Ryan was accused of trying to eat the sheesha, and then of getting high from the sheesha. He denies both counts.

That night, we parted company with Brothers Hassam and Hissam, and left part of our hearts with them. We posted up at the Bedouin Garden hotel, right on the Red Sea. Apparently, the only local beer comes in 20 ounce cans with a 10% alcohol level. Who knew? We spent the night on the beach reflecting that this was only the fifth night since leaving Cairo and we had already done Beirut and driven across the whole of Jordan.

The next morning we ate breakfast, swam for a bit in the Red Sea (my third time, has to be some sort of record), and got ready to go to Israel. Well, Ryan and Pat got ready; I was last in line for the shower. The taxi came while Pat was in the shower, so I called in urgently that the cab was here. “Message received,” was the nonchalant answer I got. It obviously wasn’t because he wasn’t out for another ten minutes. I think part of the reason we got through Israeli security so quickly was the guards didn’t want me anywhere near them. But hey, we had made it to the Holy Land!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Tour de Falafel Part 1:The Thriving Beirut Night Life As Imagined From My Bathroom Floor

The minute of our big trip had finally arrived. And then it passed. And 65 ones like it. It became a race of which would happen first, Pat being ready to leave, or the taxi cab we ordered for 7 pm coming. At 7:45 we had to let a cab go because Pat wasn’t with us yet. When he did join us 15 minutes later, he opened with, “OK, so who is the asshole we’re waiting for?” It was such an open-ended I didn’t know how to answer it so we all just laughed. Pat redeemed himself by getting us a ride in someone else’s taxi and we were off to Beirut!

It was 1 am when we got there, and we were so amped up we just walked around the city. You would think we would have felt more cautious, but the Lebanese army was out in force and we didn’t stray into western Beirut. My two connotations of Lebanon coming in were that Lebanese women are among the most beautiful in the world and that the country will occasionally have a civil war. Walking around so early in the morning, there was little evidence of the former but great evidence of the latter. From what I gather there was a four way civil war (new twist to the game?) starting in the 70’s that lasted until 1990. Kanye was right that the prettiest people do the ugliest things; almost every building in some neighborhoods had bullet holes in them, including our hotel. Looming over the city is the former Holiday Inn, a specter of the days when 250,000 civilians were killed and many more were forced into exile. We were just taking it all in at a small sheesha café when we met Michael. Michael was a pistol-toting intellectual who discussed with us his political party which campaigns to join Syria. I was dubious at first, hardly seems good politics to campaign for the end of political sovereignty of the nation you are in. But then he bought us coffee and I saw his point.

Beirut is a very western city, due in large part to the French colonization and a huge Christian population. This westernization was very apparent on the walk back to the hotel. First of all, the very fact they were selling pizza makes it western, and the other fact that a guy tried to trade a piece of pizza for a night of romance with Pat is another indicator. Language was a bit of a barrier, but it was pretty apparent the pizza was coming with strings attached. According to Ryan this wasn’t unusual because the majority of the gay population in the Middle East lives in Beirut. I still think it was unusual.

The next day we pretty much just bummed around the city. We walked along the Corniche, which is like a boardwalk of sorts. The Lebanese were all fishing and swimming in the Mediterranean and we were taking pictures of everything, but we eventually made it all the way down to see the Pigeon Rocks. Then we went to check out the souk, which we thought was going to be a authentic market place like the Khan in Cairo but turned out to look like Georgetown in DC. Each US dollar is 1,500 Lebanese pounds, so just imagine a Gucci handbag cost multiplied by 1,500 and you’ll have an idea of the sticker shock we experienced.

But then it was time for the famous Beirut night life! The New York Times, despite being run by the Zionists, still said Beirut was the best place to go in 2009. It being 2010 at the time of writing, it can’t have fallen far down the list. So we got ready to go clubbing and headed to a cool bar to start the night off. After my first beer I vomited in the bathroom. I thought it was odd, as normally I don’t get smashed until after my third beer, but I chalked it up to being too full from an epic falafel eaten just hours before. After my second beer I was begging the taxi driver not to aim for the speed bumps as we sped back to our hotel, where I spent the rest of the night.

Due to the ferociousness and brevity of The Sickness I have concluded it was food poisoning. The thing is that everything I ate in Beirut Pat and Ryan also ate, so I have to conclude that it was the pound of dates I ate before getting on the plane to Lebanon. Not an irrational conclusion! But yeah, I had Maddie, my date dealer, pick me up a batch for Wednesday’s Blackburn game. Unfortunately she couldn’t get them Wednesday so got them for me Thursday instead. I knew there wasn’t much wisdom in eating an entire batch of street fruit before a big trip, but I have an eating problem. But no more! As Kate Moss would say, nothing tastes as good as not sleeping on a bathroom floor feels. That night I gather Pat and Ryan barhopped before making it a club our hotel manager had recommended, which apparently sucked as much as our hotel manager. But they saved the night by going back to the sheesha café and getting some more pizza, hopefully by paying for it.

The next day we took a tour of Beirut. Our tour guide Ronnie was pretty funny and pretty knowledgeable. In fact, the tour turned into more of a lecture on the complex zoning and squatting rules of the city. Turns out it is really hard to tear down an abandoned building in Lebanon; much easier to wait til the next civil war and hope it becomes part of the collateral damage. My favorite part of the tour was when Ronnie asked what the national tree of India was, and an Indian guy celebrated getting the right answer by cheering, “Yeah, Indian guy!” Is it racist to say that Indians have become funnier as a people sinse Aziz Ansari made it big? Well, anyways I hope my facebook friendships with Divya, Meera, Gayan and Cassie(?) prove that I’m not. By the way the ? denotes my skepticism of Cassie’s ancestry, not my facebook friendship with her. But other things we saw on the tour include Roman baths, the President’s house, and Martyrs’ Square, where all the cool kids go to protest/incite unrest. Also on the tour I learned the Lebanese constitution mandates certain positions be held by certain religions. So like the President has to be Christian. Imagine having to formalize something like that. Are the Lebanese on to something here? Can we expect a new constitutional amendment in America, given how Barack’s assumed Muslimness nearly disqualified him from our highest office?

After the tour I went back to regain my strength, seeing as the previous night I had lost every liquid in my body. Ryan and Pat went out again though to make more of an effort to get every bit of liquid in their bodies as they could, and they dropped a good amount of money doing so. The highlights, from what I gather, were Pat falling asleep at the bar, Ryan falling in love with the bar tender, and hanging out with Michael again while he was carrying two pistols in his belt. They came back pretty out of it.

Two hours after they returned to the hotel room we were at the Beirut Airport, and seeing as we made good time we had about an hour before the flight took off. So we parked ourselves ten feet in front of the gate. Understandably Ryan and Pat fell asleep, but luckily I had a good night’s sleep so I kept watch. Unluckily I tried to read my romantic literature, so the next thing I know I was woken up by the airport worker who was screaming LAST CALL FOR AMMAN! That would have been bad. But we made it. Next stop, Jordan!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

In Case You're Looking For Me

Gone are the days when I would wake up and my greatest concern is where to break my ridiculous 200 pound bill. You would think a nation that traffics in three pound falafels wouldn’t dispense these monstrous bills so freely, but it is all the ATM produces most days. Then of course no one will accept it, whether they have change or not, on the principle of the matter. You want 197 pounds of change? Honestly, I just want a falafel.

But I digress. The Trip of Epicness starts Thursday so you’ll have to deal without my omnipresence on Facebook, Skype, and G-chat. Ryan, Pat and I have had our Risk board out for weeks, mapping out what should be a goldmine of profile pictures. We are flying to Beirut and staying there for a few days. Then we are flying to Amman, Jordan, to see the city and stay with a friend of a man who lived in the apartment below me in DC. Trust me, it’s legit. Then we are swinging down to see Petra, made famous by Indiana Jones. Then I make a third appearance at the Red Sea, but this time at Aqaba in Jordan. From there were bussing/taxi-ing across the border up to Jerusalem. They say it’s hard to cross the Israeli border, but I’ll just turn the charm on. So you guys ever been to Lebanon? Not since 2006? Oh well there were no rockets when I was there. After four days in Israel it’s back to Cairo, via a 12-hour bus ride. Plenty of time to get to know Ryan and Pat. But so help me God if I hear one hat story…

So yeah from the 11th-20th I will be incommunicado. And until then, I’m rushing to finish all these papers I’ve got due the week I get back. I am struggling to write my Romantic Literature paper, as per usual I’m writing about poems I cannot understand. I’m regretting dropping Arabic to take this course; at least with Arabic I could use Google Translate. Now when I try and put Wordsworth into the box it tells me it doesn’t recognize the language. That makes at least two of us, but with the lack of class participation I’m guessing that number could climb as high as 25.
I got a huge confidence boost though when we got our midterms back today. I was pretty nervous, as I was banking on his abstract mind reading into my highly abstract answers. His comments were, “Great job! Very original analysis, though lacking in any real evidence.” He must not realize how easy it is to be original when not grounding answers in any evidence. Still, if he’s handing out A-‘s for original analysis, he is going to love my paper. Speaking of backhanded complements, I was playing tennis the other day against a real tennis player. At the end of the match he came over and said, “Adam, you’re a great tennis player! The only thing you are missing is technique.” Incidentally, I’m a great cross country runner; the only thing I’m missing is stamina.

I finally made it to a professional soccer game. Kind of underwhelming. We were obvi cheering for Cairo’s team El Ahly, who were playing some team not from Cairo. We had maybe three thousand fans to their zero. But for the first time I truly felt I was in a police state. The road to the stadium was lined with helmeted riot police, and at the end of every row in the stadium sat an armored officer. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the people behind us from spitting and throwing drinks on to the people in front of us. And by direct request of Divya for more pictures of myself in Egypt, here is one of us bringing the fervor for Ahly:

You’ll notice I’m wearing my flag as a cape to shield against the barrage of spit and drinks that rained down throughout the match.

But as I was saying I leave in two days so I’m scrambling to get everything done before then, like intern applications, blog updates, and of course Romantic Literature papers. And packing. It is hard to pack because we're going to be doing a lot, climbing mountains, swimming in seas, and raging in clubs, but at the same time we have to carry everything around with us. For this reason I've decided to bring an extra pair of jeans, three shirts, and a can of Fabreeze. But what has been troubling me most lately, and taking up most of my time, is WHO KILLED HARRIET VANGER?