June 28, 2008

RTW by the numbers

number of countries visited: 16
continents: 6
flights taken: 21
pictures taken (and kept): 1978
days traveled: 157
hostels and hotels stayed in: 52
books read: 21
cheapest internet I found: 30 baht (about $1) per hour, Bangkok; or 1 Euro for unlimited time - stay on long enough and it's essentially free! - Dublin
most expensive internet I found: 2 NOK per minute (about $24 an hour), Berge, Norway (I didn't use theirs...)
games of ipod solitaire played: 187
movies seen: 8
new scars acquired: 6

June 27, 2008

hello scandinavia!

All my photos are now updated. Two weeks in Denmark, Sweden and Norway yielded a whole lotta picture-taking, too. Because: so pretty!

Even though I am now home, if you are at all into this sort of thing, I do recommend taking a look, because Scandinavia is gorgeous

both out at the fjords

and in cute towns like Bergen

and in places like Copenhagen.

Actually, I am not going to lie. I am uploading and organizing all of my pictures on my computer right now, and oh my god. I saw so much pretty stuff. It's really extraordinary to see it all laid out like that. I love the way my little thumbnails of pictures take on a whole rainbow of colors, depending on where I was.

June 25, 2008


Sorry the post yesterday was not my most forthcoming. At the time of writing, I was nearly delirious with tired. People on my dorm in London for some reason started getting up for the day at 4:30 am -whatever there is to do at 4:30 am. So I got about 4 hours or so of sleep, and then maybe 2 more hours of plane sleep, and by last night I was up for almost 24 hours and feeling every second of it.

But now I'm home! It's awesome. Last night when I went to bed, it was like one of those scenes in a rags-to-riches movie where I flail around on the luxurious bed. It was spectacular, all those pillows, all that space, the snuggly down comforter and the fact that there was no one else in the room. So very swank.

I have had two Diet Cokes, a burrito, a visit to Target and some quality TV time. I have already blessedly washed everything I own and put my backpack outside to be aired out, but oh my god, will unpacking will take me like years. I have no idea what to do with any of the stuff I brought home at all.

I am still not adjusted to the time difference, but tomorrow after getting a valid driver's license and getting my computer fixed, I am going to get all the updates going on here, and get my photos updated too. So even though trip is over, there is more to come!

June 24, 2008


is where i am.

June 23, 2008

traveling the world: a global perspective

Unsurprisingly, I can't sleep.

I even had some wine from the hostel bar to try to help me out, but it's not working so far. So I'll blog instead. But it's not a big deal - in a few hours, I will be on a plane, and I will have hours and hours and hours to sleep then. Which I think will help prospective jet lag? I am not really sure. But it will help pass the time.

I can absolutely not wrap my mind around the fact that I am going home. Whenever I try to think about it, I go pretty much blank, like I can't comprehend it or take it in. It feels just like I am going to the next new place, the next city, the next continent. I don't know if it will hit me, or how. In actuality, though, I am never really able to fully comprehend what I've done, this trip that I've undertaken. It never dawns on me, the enormity of it; it is constantly broken down into smaller bits, getting to the next hostel, seeing the next sight, taking in the next city. I only get glimpses of the fact of what I am doing, where I have been, and what I have done - generally it comes when I talk to someone else about it, and remember that I am not the norm. I wonder if I will have a collision, a recognition of both the trip and the homecoming all at the same time, and end up curled in a fetal position trying to process it all?

Even though I am really, really excited to be going home, and looking forward to so much both about being at home and about being done with traveling, I have a decent amount of trepidation, too. As I got closer and closer to coming home, I has also been away for longer and longer, and over the last couple of months, I have begun to feel increasingly disconnected from my life at home. I keep in contact with people, of course, but I think it has been an cumulative effect of being so far away and so erratically in touch. I know the big, monumental things that are happening in peoples' lives, but at this point, I feel like I know nothing about their day-to-day minutiae, and it makes me feel increasingly disconnected. I can't help but wonder what it will be like to come back, if it will be like I never left before very long, or if I will have to re-meet everything that I knew?

There is also the political aspect of it. It's an interesting paradox, but the fact is, traveling the world often means that you don't actually have to live in the world. I keep up with life and the world as best as I can from headlines grabbed in Internet cafes and actual headlines, when I can read them, but that really gives me that major bits and pieces. Now, though, I am back to being an American, back in a position where I feel I can and should do things about causes and issues I care about, back to a world where I am a participant and not a tourist. Coming home means re-engaging, and at a time when it feels like the world and America are at a pit of a precipice, and that is a bit of a daunting prospect on its own.

I am a worrier at heart, so I know that going home will mostly be about getting to hug my mom, and cook real food again, and sleep in a bed bigger than a twin wherein there will be no one else in the room, coming in at 4am or out at 6am (generally not the same people, but still), and watch television, and actually live a life rather than a temporary, transient existence. But the night before, I will worry that coming home will involve more than all the things I've missed while I've been away.

June 22, 2008

london daze

In the interest of full disclosure and honesty, I will now say that the bus rides in Norway are not the oh my god most expensive things ever. At 8 dollars US, they are the same price as a tube ride in London.

Yikes. So much for exemplary public transit in the rest of the world. I mean, I love the tube, but I will take a 2 dollar subway ride, thanks.

So, yay, London. It's lovely here. Once again, I get to spend the time someplace where I am familiar and feel relatively comfortable and like I know where I am and where I am going. Once again, I don't have much of an agenda - but since London is less atmospheric than Paris, now my agenda is mostly to shop; today was every bookstore I could find (why does Britain do even Borders better?) and tomorrow is Oxford Street.

But I can't shake the knowledge that I am going home in 2 days. It's surreal to me. I have been both loving where I am and loving what I am doing and missing home at the same time for so long that I don't know if I know how to not be like that anymore. As unreal as my whole trip has felt, the end of it feels almost the most significant and unbelievable part.

There is lots more to say, about going back to the States and about being at home, but I don't have the words. It is certainly bittersweet, and it is inexplicably sudden. I have known exactly how long I have for about the last month, and yet the thought of Mexican food and my own bed and a hug from my mother actually being as close as they are feels oddly abrupt.

I hope I'm ready for it.

June 20, 2008

bienvenue a paris

Huh. Interesting.

I read all the comments on here, and love them. It's interesting that the last post was the first one where I got something from someone who I don't know - or don't know that I know - and the person is being snarky. What's the point, random reader?

For the record, I do not, unfortunately, love every second of every place I visit. Sometimes I get to places that I don't like that much or go see things that don't meet up to the hype. It happens, fortunately not very often, but that's how it goes. Good with the bad, but I am not going to lie and profess amazement and wonder at every little thing I see.

Anyhow, I am in Paris, and I DO have wonder and love for this place. It's unintentional, but really lucky that I gave into the self-indulgent urge to come to Paris on my way home. In this entire trip, I haven't been to anywhere that I had ever been to before, so spending three days in Paris is like a halfway house. I have been before and gone to all of the museums and sights and know my way about relatively well, plus I (sort of, ish) speak the language, so a lot of the usual tasks and pressures and patterns from traveling don't apply. Besides wandering too and fro, there really isn't anything I need to get to in order to have a wonderful time in Paris. So in a way, I don't feel like I am really traveling anymore. But at the same time, I definitely am not home, with all that entails. I haven't talked about it much - though I will coming up, I am certain - but being home will give rise to a whole different set of observations, complications, joys and issues. So I get to ease into that some here.

As I was riding the train from Orly into town, I glimpsed a pretty, ornate white building, and I had a flash of wonder. That building was beautiful, but it could have been in Bangkok or Buenos Aires, or certainly Scandinavia. I wondered how Paris would hold up, coming from so many new and pretty places. Would it be as impressive?

Well, fortunately, Paris knows how to tart herself up. This city works it, with the lighting on the bridges and the buildings just so, with the antiquey signage and the atmospheric quais along the Seine. It knows good marketing, and this is still one of the most charming and lovely cities I have ever been to. It doen't hurt that my hostel is about a half a cobblestone street from the river and the Ile St Louis, and that the weather is nice and I have "wander" as first and last on my agenda, but still. I know it's such a cliche, but I do adore Paris.

I haven't been in years, and in some ways the city has changed a lot. I notice the effects of the huge influx of immigrants, and there is the inflation and increased international attitudes that I am sure have a lot to do with the EU. But on the other hand, I have gone looking for places I went to when I lived here for a summer, and my insticts just kicked in. I know when to turn, I recognize buildings, and nearly everything is just where I left it. I had dinner last night at a Tibetan place that I remembered vividly, and still liked it, and went shopping today at my favorite papeterie for new pens. I sat by the Seine and watched boats go by and drank excellent supermarket wine last night, and found the best creperie this block for nutella banana crepes. It's nice that some things don't change, and wait for me instead.

I notice how much English is everywhere, from a solid 75% of the people I pass - it is Paris in June after all - but I also don't remember there being so much English from the shopkeepers and restaurant staff. In some ways it's handy - after years disuse, my French speaking abilities are really, really bad. I can read everything perfectly, I can understand nearly everything, but speaking... not so good. I try, and they switch to English. I need to practice. But this is also new, and I wonder if it will put an end to the "rude Parisian" myth.

I go to London tomorrow, and it will be interesting to see. I have even less on the agenda for there, and have been more recently, so we will see where it falls on the travel scale this time.

June 17, 2008

Tour de Fjord

Well, I did what I set out to do, and have officially toured the fjords of three different continents. (Ok, so no, I didnæt set out to do it exactly, but I realized early on that I would be doing it, and the name "Tour de Fjord" as a subheading for my trip was too good to pass up. Hee. Fjord is a fun word.)

The short version is that I love fjord landscapes - I think it is probably the prettiest scenery I've ever seen. It's so dramatic that it's gorgeous in sleeting rain (thank you, Milford Sound!) or on a pretty, pretty day like I had yesterday.

I went on what is apparently the most popular day trip in the country, called "Norway in a Nutshell" (cute), so it was me, tons of senior citizens, Germans and Japanese tour groups. In some respects, as day trips go, this was just the right kind - it's mostly packaging up existing trains and buses to see things and get you back to where you want to be. There's no guide, they just give you a ticket and a timetable and send you off, so that was right up my alley.

The train part I'd done before, getting to Bergen in the first place. Then we switched to a bus to go down the mountain to the water - down the steepest road in Norway, apparently, at an 18-20% grade the whole time. I kept thinking how fun that would be to go (down) on my bike, but considering I am lousy at cornering, the constant switchbacks would have gotten me into trouble. Anyway, there were pretty valley views, waterfalls right by the road, really pretty.

Then was the two-hour fjord tour on a boat. It was the kind of day that brings out postcard photographers to convince people this is the way fjords always look - blue sky, white fluffy clouds, smooth clear water that reflects like glass. We cruised by wee waterside "villages," most with only a handful of structures and no road access. I can't even imagine it - I mean, it's pretty, but can you imagine the winters? And there's something tragic about living THAT remotely, and having your tranquility broken twice a day by tourists swinging by to take pictures.

Speaking of, man did I take pictures. I need to go through them, because it was all so pretty that I am sure I took like 7 of everything because I couldn't believe it. But I just couldn't get enough of the overlapping mountains plunging into the glassy water of the mountaintop snowpacks that gave way to lovely waterfalls.

Unfortunately, that was pretty much the highlight of the day. The boat left us off in Flåm, which is touted as a picturesque fjordside village, but which is, in fact, a really remote truckstop with overpriced tourist cafes and overpriced, mediocre souvenir shops. I thought the Flåm railway would make up for it - it's called Flåmsbana, come on! It's supposed to be this incredible feat of engineering, climbing huge mountains with relatively little distance, and I 'm sure it IS impressive, but it never felt like we were climbing. It felt like we were on the Roaring Camp Thunder Mountain Railway. And we even had to stop right next to an (admittedly impressive) waterfall to watch a random costume musical number by two women who I THINK were supposed to be some old Norwegian folk legend or Ren Faire participants or something. And the scenery was better on the Bergen line to boot.

So, you know, if planning a trip to Norway's fjordland, now you know.

Today I am spending in Bergen itself, until my night train (oh, yes, I'm leavin' on a midnight train to Oslo). Unfortunately, I don't like Bergen. I didn't like it on sight, but I tried to reserve judgement. Turns out I was totally right. It's a drop-dead stunning town, maybe one of the prettiest I've been in, but it combines all the worst stuff from big cities and tiny towns. It's weirdly sprawling and big and hard to navigate, so the expensive and slow bus system is actually a necessity to getting placed, and the people are brusque and impersonal and probably tired of tourists. But at the same time, everything shuts down early, and even when it is all open, it's so small that once you're done ogling the scenery, there isn't much to do but go visit hugely expensive one-room museums or go souvenir shopping. It's also strange, but I find the short 3 hours of nighttime more disorienting here than I did in Oslo, even, for some reason.

It's pleasant enough, I guess, so I am spending the day wandering, but inside I am stamping my foot and saying "I wanna go to Paris!"


diet coke: scandinavia

i only tried one for the region - hey, these countries are practically the same, right? - for three reasons:

#1, it is friggin' expensive. i found one all cheap and was excited to only have to pay 3.50US for the privilege. it's what i get for being a completionist.

#2, it's "coca cola light." ergo,

#3, it sucked. or i guess, in the correct language, it søcked (or really, for pronunciation, it såcked. hee).

June 14, 2008

last new city

I won't spout politics, I swear.

I took the train today - all day today, really, which is surprisingly exhausting - from Oslo to Bergen. I was really excited about it, too, because the Bergen railway is supposed to be one of the prettiest train trips in the world.

Yeah, it lived up to it. You would think that like, after hour 4 or so, the scenery would get tired of being so relentlessly jaw-dropping and like, be dull or something, but no. It just got lovelier. Coming out of Oslo was pretty much town, and then we moved into the verdant pastures and charming painted wooden homes amongst green trees that is Scandinavian pastoral suburbia. As we kept going, though, it just stayed incredible. There were big mountains and valleys, fields of heather, lovely lakes with glassy water, rushing streams, the occasional surprise waterfall, charming little villages and wee seaside cottages.

Getting further along, we hit Finse, the highest part of the trip, and it looked...chilly.

I will remind you this is mid-June.Granted, not many people do, but can you imagine living like that? So cold!

Anyway, the scenery got a lot more fjordy as we got closer to Bergen, and the town itself, while bigger-feeling than I expected (it's only 200 thousand about, but it's also the second-largest city in Norway...) still has quaint houses perched on hillsides and what I expect are phenomenal views. I'll go exploring tomorrow.

I realized, though, that this is the last new city I am going to. The only places on my itinerary I have left - London, Paris, back to Oslo - are all places I've been to. In six months, I haven't been to anyplace I had been before, and that's done now. Weird.

June 13, 2008

socialism fiesta

It is a really fascinating, different experience to come to Oslo both with someone, and with someone who is moving here. It makes you see a lot more in depth of the place you are visiting, even if it means going to fewer museums and tourist sites. (I can't say I'm sorry about the latter, though, considering how friggin' many muesums and tourist sites I've been to in the last six months. It's a number bested only by the number of tombs/churches/temples/religious monuments I've been to.)

Last night, while walking from the park where we had spent the evening eavesdropping on the outdoor Foo Fighters concert (so we couldn't see it, but could hear it just fine. And the Foos are very Big In Europe, apparently, so we were not the only squatters) to the night bus, we had a fascinating discussion with Terje, our Oslo host, about the economic structure in Norway. Yep, it's 7US for a soda, it's about 12US per gallon of gas (and you can't even say that it pays for public transport, because while it DOES pay for public transport, the bus still costs 8US one way) cigarettes are more than 15US, a bottle of spirits about 80, etc. And yet, apparently there is viertually no poverty here. There are, of course, problems - it may seem sometimes like a utopia, but it isn't really. Heroin addiction and prostitution are social problems in Oslo, and as it is the queer capital of Scandinavia, there is also a correlation to a rise in homophobic violence (though they also just passed, by an easy margin, a new law that makes gay couples equal to straight couples when it comes to adoption, so that's one more step forward for them).

But on the other hand, the way Terje describes it, there is very little true poverty here that doesn't have some aspect of choice to it, and there is always an escape route in place, even if people don't take it. Addiction is a major deal, of course, but there are government-funded programs to help people who want it, to get them jobs and places to live. There is negative unemployment in Norway, so there is a vested interest in its citizens working. In essence, people in Norway can be born into unfortunate circumstances - addicted parents, uneducated parents, parents who for whatever reason do not take advantage of services made available to them and do not give the children access to things like the free schooling for all. So there is a possibility of some small percentage of the society who is unaware or uneducated about their opportunities. Barring that, however, if you are in a terrible position, a lot of it is a result of your own choices and actions - people aren't stuck with a shitty lot in life.

People seek out the advantages, too - in addition to the refugees that regularly move to Norway from (predominantly) the Middle East and Africa, there is apparently like a begging toursim culture, of people bussing in from (mostly) Eastern Europe on a tourist visa and using their time to beg in Norway, and living on that money the rest of the year. The minumum wage here works out to about 19US for any kind of job. Immigrants, uneducated, and under-the-table workers (generally those operating on some sort of social disadvantage) might be stuck making as low as 16US an hour. It costs a lot, but they pay you what you need to live. Isn't that a revolutionary lifestyle?

There's so much more than that, too - people complain about the price of beer here, obviously, and things like that, but there is a very mature and responsible outlook on it as well. Yes, I have to pay so much for a gallon of gas, but that money is also paying for me, for my education, my health care, my entire infrastructure that is entirely in my interest. They also recognize that, yes, a bus trip is 8US, but that money is going to mroe than paying to take me 10 kilometers outside of Oslo center, it's åpaying for a system of buses that run with virtually no one in them up north, but which provides those few people who live in far north Norway a means to travel around a far more harsh landscape for longer distances at the same rate. There is an understanding here that is what we need more of in the world, that it is not enough to serve just yourself, but that there is a larger sense of communal good. Sometimes it means paying higher taxes for someone else's healthcare if they get ill and you do not, but that is better than having crap private healthcare that is hard to get. The greater good is the good for all, not just one. It's so inspiring to hear twenty-somethings with that progressive, insightful a worldview. You become a little more socialist each day in Norway.

It's not all sociopolitical revelations, though. Yesterday in addition to the concert, we went to the film museum, to the National Gallery (where I saw The Scream, and other fantastic Munch paintings, and some Norweigan painters I had never heard of and liked, and van Gogh's self portrait), and today we went to the old vortress right on the harbor overlooking the city. Oslo is lovely, tiny, and lively - a great combination for a tourist. The weather has finally turned bad/normal, and today is cold and rainy, but it's still a great place to visit. Tomorrow I am heading west to Bergen to spend my last Scandinavian days on the fjords. Which I am certain the Norweigan government also takes care of in some advanced, progressive way.

June 11, 2008

o, o, oslo

Well, strike one for Norway. I mean, seriously. We got on the train this morning and were chugging along across some truly stunning scenery - I don't think we went more than 5 minutes without passing some lovely body of water, and the rest was verdant and green. But then about 90 minutes from Oslo, we stopped to do some hooking or unhooking of cars (Alix is doing her best to learn Norweigan, but is still on page 13 of "Teach yourself Norweigan," so we can only understand so much from the announcements). Anyway, the 5 minute wait stretched out, and then stretched out, and then it turned out that there was some problem with the track that they had to fix, and more waiting, and then we all got off the train to be taken to Oslo by bus, and then waited, and then got BACK on the train because the track was fixed, and then had to switch trains for the last 5 minutes of the journey. It was hilarous, but alsto unnerving - things like that happen in Norway? I mean, it's not very efficient. It was as devastating as finding out that glass does break in Sweden. Not very ideal, if you ask me.

But then Oslo is lovely. Itæs super tiny, in both population and size, but it seems more populated because it is denser than Stockholm. It also has such a young population, and feels very edgy, that Alix and I are loving it. We wandered basically the whole city and found wonderful Indian for dinner, and then proceeded to give up on finding affordable - today I spent 7US on a Sprite and 10US on a bottle of cider, among other things. We just gave up and had fun with it.

But then in the cheapest bar in town (8US for a pint! Practically free!) we happened to sit next to two typically fantastically nice Norweigans, and got offers of jobs and housing for Alix, an offer of a place to stay if we needed it, a hook up for a spin class tomorrow (really not kidding) and some interesting discussions on American soldiers in Kosovo and the economic basis for the Euro. Norweigans are amazing.

So despite the disillusionment of a train being LATE, Oslo rocks hard core. If I could afford it, I almost wish I were here longer. I'd only have to sell my kidney on the black market. Do they have a black market in Oslo?

June 10, 2008

taste of stockholm

Stockholm is really gorgeous, y'all. It's hard to go wrong when the city is built on several different islands that make up its cute little neighborhoods, the architecture is all affluent old-European, and the weather is still enough to make a Californian go, "oooo, pretty day." But still: gorgeous city.

Getting here from Copenhagen, I couldn't take a direct train because it was the last night of a four day weekend, so apparently all of the Swedes were going home and took the train places. So I had to go a bit longer way, and then I awesomely missed my train in Götenborg for Stockholm - by like SECONDS! I was there at 13:12, but they had closed the doors, and I had to watch them pull away! The Swedes may be a little TOO efficient, if you ask me. The next train was full, too, but I managed to talk and beg my way on, so I got to Stockholm only 20 minutes later than planned. It's the first time I've been anything but 10 minutes early for a train, and oooo did I pay.

In Stockholm, I've been hanging out with Alix, who I met at my hostel in Bangkok. She is here to scope out Oslo before moving there in a couple of months, so we are traveling together for a bit. She got to Stockholm a couple of days before me and is trying to learn the language, too, so she is officially in charge of the map for a couple of days. So nice not to be!

On Sunday night, we wandered the neighborhoods - old town Gamla Stan, trendy Södermalm, all the areas to get to each one. It was still a holiday, and a Sunday, so the streets seemed pretty quiet, but it made for a picturesque visit to the Parliament houses, the Royal Palace (which is not as pretty as the Parliament), the museums, the opera house - everything is housed in pretty, pretty buildings, as we saw when we went up the big city elevator at dusk (so, about 10pm) to look out over the water.

Yesterday we went to Djurgården, which is totally one of the prettiest islands, to go to an open air museum called Skansen. It's supposed to be 'Sweden in Miniature,' but really it's Colonial Williamsburg for Scandinavia. Hilariously, right as you walk in, there is a mini diorama of Skansen, and we half expected to look at it really closely and see another, littler diorama there of an even smaller Sweden. It's a rabbit hole of minis, this place. But there is also a lot of olde tymey Swedish stuff, which was pretty cool, and the best zoo ever. The animals were weirdly happy in all of ther huge habitats, and when you would come over to see them, most would come running over to meet you. The elk, the otter, the sheep came a-running over to the fences to get come attention. Swedish animals, clearly, love to be loved.

Last night, we bought picnic stuffs at the supermarket and went to Skeppesholmen (another posh, museum-y island), found a grassy spot, and watched the long, slow sunset from a hill overlooking the water while we talked about travel adventures and all the places we still have to go.

Same as in Copenhagen, the English fluency here is astounding, and so convenient, but the city also feels quite different. I first noticed that there were nowhere near as many bikes, but then I began to notice the lack of people. Stockholm is pretty spread out, and has about half the population of Copenhagen, so it always feels quiet, like there just aren't people about for some reason. It's an interesting feeling, to be in a major metropolis that also feels like a ghosttown. It will be interesting to feel what Oslo is like - it's 50% smaller again, population-wise, but I think the urban area is smaller as well, with a more defined city center, so it may feel more city-like again. Find out tomorrow.

On a more dull, administrative note, sorry about the lack of photos up to verify the pretty. Internet in Scandinavia is not cheap, but hostels have had free internet, which is a huge boon. But they are not equipped to handle uploads, and there are always people waiting, so pictures are going to have to wait. Honestly, at this point, I will probably just upload when I get home and I have beautiful internet, all the time I want, on my own perfect computer. It seems like a long time, but I get home in two weeks, so the pics aren't too far behind.

June 07, 2008

weinerbrød, and something's rotten (but NOT the weinerbrød)

I have to begin with a word about the loveliness of the weinerbrød. It's what the rest of the world calls a Danish, but here they are weinerbrød, which is way too fun to say. They are so much better than at home. The pastry stuff is flaky and crumbly, more like a croissant, but still buttery and not very sweet. I found one today that is like pecan pie, but in Danish form. So insanely good. I've had one sort of one a day, and I will get one in the morning before I get on the train. Mmmmm, weinerbrød...

Today I went train hopping. First I went north, to Helsingør to see Kronborg Slot. It's the castle that served as the setting for Hamlet, and it is so cool- perched right on the water, overlooking Sweden. It's a gorgous castle, with all kinds of cool tunnels and casements running underneath. I also found it really interesting - yesterday at the Nationalmuseet, there was a lot on the expected close relationship between Denmark and Norway and Sweden, but today I noticed that most of the fine arts in the castle were courtesy of the Dutch and the Belgian. Also, I guess as some sort of art outreach thing? I don't know, but there was all kinds of contemporary art installations throughout. It was sort of strange to have these mega-modern paintings in the royal portrait gallery, and some of the video installations were downright distracting.

In the afternoon, I went south and straight on to Sweden to visit Malmo. It's just on the other side of the bridge from Denmark, right on the water. It's a pretty charming town, but it didn't need more than an afternoon. Even though there were people about, it somehow seemed quieter, and after wandering around for a few hours, I didn't feel like there was much there that Copenhagen didn't have. Also, it does seem like Sweden - or Malmo at least - has way more American fast food going for it. In addition to the McDonald's and Burger King, there were KFCs and Subways. They may have them in Copenhagen too, but they are way less obvious. The beach was really nice, though!

I don't know when this turned into straight travel commentary of what I've done, but I feel very under pressure to get in, blog, get out with the free internet at the hostel. I will try to be more interesting later, I promise.

June 06, 2008

wonderful copenhagen

Is there some sort of recent baby boom in Denmark? The sheer number of cyclists is really rivaled only by the number of little under-twos riding around in their little buggies. Seriously, so many wheels to dodge as a pedestrian.

Copenhagen is juuuuust slightly big to be a true walking city, so even though I slept long and well last night, I am beat again after a whole day of walking around. But far more coherent, and loving the friendly, easygoing feel to this city.

Of course, I realize I am getting a skewed view by the fact that I am getting the most perfect weather ever to be had in Perfectville, but still, Copenhagen is a fascinating mix of old architecture and brand-gleaming-modern, the population is very lively, and there are the picturesque canals everywhere that I am obsessed with, as you can tell from my pictures.

I went to the botanic gardens today,and then did my one-two of culture with the National Gallery and the National Museum (or Nationalmuseet. Hee! I love Danish.) The latter was really cool - everything from Viking displays (of course) to artifacts collected by kings over decades of world exploration (Greenland Eskimo celebration wear, a replica of a Korean house, Polynesian ceremonial robes...) to a Danish history in artifacts from 1660-2000. Really fascinating afternoon.

I also went to the little island off the city center, Christianhavn, and saw the "freetown" of Christiania, a hippie alternative-living enclave that's been living alternatively since the 70s. Walked down, I kid you not, Pusherstreet (subtle with their interests, huh?) where I Just Said No (actually, I wasn't offered at all. Apparently there's been crackdowns since a more conservative government came in.) and into the free living commune. Reminded myself that I am not a free living commune type, and was glad I was just visiting.

I learned some other things too, like the Danes are as gaga over H&M as I am, which makes it seem that much more authentic, and that this is the first country I've been to that really does not make peanut butter. Also, apparently, hot dogs on the street and schwerma are the national street foods, confusingly.

One more day in Denmark, and that's it. So sad!

June 05, 2008

onward and northward

I am so tired right now, I could happily keel over and not budge. For the record, it is 7:22pm local time.

In my defense, this is how my last several hours went: After spending the day wandering Galway, I went to see an evening movie (Indy 4; ugh), got out about 10, came back to the hostel, packed my souvenirs and things into my backpack, went to the bus station to catch the midnight bus to the Dublin airport, and slept on the bus for about 3 hours in transit. Sigh.

At the airport, I waited around a bit, called my mom very briefly, waited some more, checked in for my flight, went to my gate and curled up on two adjacent chairs for another hour of sleep. Sigh.

We boarded the plane, and I presume the flight went well, but I slept through both hours of it. Sigh.

But then I was jazzed, because I was exhausted and unshowered, but I am in Copenhagen. For several years, I have been inexplicably but unwaveringly entranced with going to Scandinavia, and I am finally here.

After doing a bunch of dull logistical stuff - customs, reserving train travel for the rest of my time here, finding the hostel, getting settled, getting changed, eating a Danish, all the important things - I hit the town. I basically did a big ol' walking tour of the city, getting to some of the highlights; the rest will have to wait until tomorrow.

Copenhagen is gorgous. It helped that the weather was perfect and that today is a holiday, so all the locals were out enjoying the day. The city has awesome architecture everywhere, both old and new, and makes the most of its green space and waterfront wherever it can. The Danes are supremely gorgeous people, too, unsurprisingly, with phenominal fashion sense. It's as or more expensive as I was braced for, and pretty quick you just have to give up fighting and pay the $4 for a soda and put it up to the experience.

Everyone travels on bikes; I have never seen so many, and I am jealous. People are really friendly, and it seems to be a much younger population than I was expecting somehow. Lots of young families with babies about - and charmingly, all of the babies were in old-fashioned lay-down buggies. Adorable! There are cobblestone streets, and there is evidently an obsession with ice cream, and all the shops make the waffle cones fresh, so the smell wafts out to get me.

I am so exhausted, though, that I can't be much more coherent than that. Tomorrow is more wandering, and ultimately, hopefully more sense.

June 04, 2008

diet coke: ireland

i can't believe i forgot to post this before now!

ok, so the tragic has happened, that i honestly don't know if i remember what the real diet coke tastes like anymore, if i remember the nuances of that liquid joy, to be able to describe why, precisely, this isn't it. but it's not, quite.

well, first, good on ireland for ousting the 'coca cola light' crap, because if greece taught us anything, it's that light =/= diet.

as far as i can tell, though, the diet coke of ireland - all of which i have had from a fountain, by the way - is like a less carbonated, less flavorful, less potent version of the real thing. not watered down, mind you, just like real american diet coke had been like, turned into a shade version of itself.

but it's been months and months, and the thing is, this diet coke is eminently drinkable. it's not the real thing (like the 'burrito' i had in galway was really just mexicanISH) but at this point, i take what i can get.

farewell ireland

Today was my last day in Galway, and I've spent it mostly wandering about. I went on a lovely coastal walk from Galway to the resort suburb of Salthill on the wonderful bike/walking promenade they have right on the sea, and while it would have been an even prettier walk if it had been, say, sunny like it has been most of the week, I can't begrudge the super-Irish rainy cloudy weather I did have. It was still lovely.

I don't quite know why I like Ireland so much; it's not just difficult to put into words, but it's hard for me to even tell. Part of what I like are the same things I liked so much about New Zealand - friendly people, lovely countryside, ease of travel, charming scenery, lots to see and do, but a really easygoing feel as well. Cute little towns, liveable cities, a climate that I weirdly really like, a great accent to boot. But somehow it's more than that.

Maybe it's just that Ireland takes what I already liked - the quaint Britishness that appeals to me on a very basic level (I've long since had this weird fascination with living in London, which I credit mostly to reading too much British chick lit. So really, it's not that I want to live in London, I want to live in British chick lit. Sort of how I loved living in New York, but I REALLY wanted to live in 1940s film noir New York. I would have made a stupendous dame.) - and combines it with an approachability and an ease that I have grown to appreciate. Recent years and my travels have given me a newfound like of coutnryside and population sparsity, so Ireland is a good combination of the urban and the twee widdle village worlds. So far, Cork is probably the favorite city that I've seen in Ireland, and I would go back there in a heartbeat. But really, what I would love to do is come back some day when I have a valid driver's license and go explore the parts of the country (read: most of it) that you can't get to via public transit or bus tours.

There is something about the Irish, though, that I just don't fit in with. Primarily, it is that I don't drink beer. I would like to think that this is not a problem, but let's be honest: all the shops and everything closes at 5 or 6. People eat dinner at 6. It stays light in the summer until like 10. What is there to do in between? Judging by the storefronts, there's lots of pubs, smoking, and bookmaking. The Irish like their vice, clearly, but it's not MY vice. It's a mix of the old Catholic values and the listless urban ones, and somehow I fit in with neither.

Even so, as far as it goes, there is little better than biking along the Irish countryside. Can't beat that.

June 02, 2008

irish countryside

Well, my plan worked.

Even though the Celtic ruins here are the most impressive thing to see and do on the island, I didn't do them when I got here. Instead, I waited a day, and took off early this morning. My theory was to get there before the first ferry arrived from the mainland,
and before the subsequent tour buses and fleets of rental bikes could make it to the road. It worked great.

First, can I just say that I am really lucky Inishmor is so small? I mean, clearly there are not exactly gridworks of roads here, right, for the 800 inhabitants? There are essentially two roads, both unnamed: the main road and the coast road. You can tell if you veer from one of those because it is no longer paved. Fair enough.
I found the coast road easy enough, but was unable to find the main road yesterday. I got directions, but still couldn't find it heading out of town, but there was the sea right there, so how could I complain? On the way back yest
erday, though, I did find a different road, much more suburban, so I could safely say I had found the two roads on the island.

Yeah, no. They were the same road. But the fog had come in yesterday afternoon to such an extent that I couldn't see the sea right there, so the entire place suddenly looks very different. I am very directionally challenged.
Also, it turns out that those two roads were both the main road; only today did I successfully hang a right and find the coast road.

And this cool, foggy, overcast morning was a lovely one to be tooling down the coast road in the Irish countryside. I passed the seal colony and rock w
alls and old stone ruins and loved it all. And when I got to Dun Aengus, I was literally the only one there. It is perched at the top of some cliffs, these Celtic stone semicircle that drop off on one end to these sheer, sheer rock walls to the water below. It's oddly quiet up there, and the wind sort of stops once you are inside, and being all alone meant that it became sort of otherworldly quiet and solitary. It was a magnificent morning.

June 01, 2008

days of beauty

On the one hand, now that my time is my own again and internet is cheap and supah-fast, one would think that I would be more diligent about updating my blog. One would THINK. But a lot of places I am staying just give free internet, but only for a short while, so I have fallen a bit behind. Whoops!

Anyway, on Friday morning, I hopped on a bus and headed from Cork to Galway, all the way on the west coast. Its a small town, even smaller than Cork, but just as adorable and cute and loveable, so of course I am charmed and just as happy as I have been
the whole time in Ireland. All Irish cities (perhaps by law? I am not sure) are on a river -Dublin is on the Liffey, Cork on the Lee and Galway is no exception, on the Corrib, and do not ask me how to pronounce that. But it's also on the Atlantic, and has this fantastic park with a bike and running path along a marshy coastline that may be permanently overcast and grey, to preserve the awesome, broody moorish quality to the place.

Yesterday, though, I left Galway and did a day tour to Connemara. Despite my awesome tour experience, I am still not a huge fan of day tours in general, with the herding off the bus and the chatty tour guides and the spoonfed scenery, but seeing the countryside was also totally worth it. Connemara is totally rural, a glacier landscape of peat bogs and lakes (or 'loughs' here, adorably) and teeny little villages where people still peak Irish. I loved it. It
was like seeing the Ireland out of Brigadoon, only with blissfully 100% less singing. We also saw the most beautiful nunnery/castle/boarding school on the planet, Kylemore Abbey, that was completely breathtaking. I didn't go in, because I am honestly feeling a little impressive-religious-sited out, but wandering the grounds was enough.

And that brings us to today, with more pretty. I think the only thing better than a clear, beautiful, sunny, blue-sky day in Ireland is one coming on the middle
day of a three-day weekend. Tomorrow is a Bank Holiday Monday (no actual holiday that I can see, bank are just closed? I don't know. It's a three-day weekend.) and today was spectacular weather - welcome June! So I, along with many Galway-ians took a bus along the coast (which, I stand corrected, today was so blue and white it could pass for tropical, and not broody at all) to the ferry terminal, and then took a ferry across to Inishmor, the largest of the Aran Islands. A lot of people come for day trips, but I am here for a couple of days, so I hope the weather holds.

In case, though, I rented a bike for both days, and I decided to take in the island. It's gorgous here, but in a different way even than Connemara - I don't even know if I can describe it, really. There are so few who live here, and the islands are pretty remo
ved, so it just feels isolated, even when I am not on my own on a wonky bike on a non-road. The landscape is pretty barren in parts,covered with some short grass but that's about it. And the hillsides in one direction fall in sheer cliffs to the ocean. Add to that the fact that the countryside is divided by low rock walls into an uneven grid shape every where I look, even though nothing is actually in most of the pens. It feels a little eerie and otherworldy, and I haven't even seen the ancient Celtic ruins yet - that's for tomorrow.

On the north end of the island - the remote part; I actually almost feel like that's the part where the folks in the 'town' look at at and say, wow, that's really out there - there's this little road that goes up and up, wit fields on either side. Even though it was warm and sunny today, there was a mist coming in from the north that was actually pretty chilly, and it was blowing in to block off the view pretty quickly - it was actually really cool.

Of course, this was also naturally where my wonky bike opted to drop its chain for the third time, and get horribly wedged between the frame, so I spent about 20 minutes trying to free it, and only got mot of it, until a couple stopped and he spent another 10 and finally got it free. Of course it happens on the remote partof the remote island. But at least it wasn't dark.

Anyhow, tomorrow I am going to go some more around the island, see some ruins, and soak in old Cletic culture. I may end up with an Aran sweater to boot. We'll see.

May 29, 2008

bit of the irish!

I will amend my earlier post, only to add that I seem to love Ireland in general, not just Dublin.

After my one full day in the big city, I trotted over to the bus station to head south. Though I generally love train travel, i decided to take the buses here, one b
ecause trains don't do part of the route I am taking, and also because te Irish rail network is generally preceded in all conversation by the phrase "questionably reliable." So bus won, and for the better - turned out the rail networks are all on strike, so there are extra buses running the routes. Hah.

The bus ride was unremarkable, and after we got out of the icky city traffic, it was picturesque countryside and charming wee villages. The countryside looks a lot like New Zealand - complete with sheep - but with fewer mountains, and if possible, even greener. Or rather, just as green, but even less that is not green. Plus, it's older, so we could be driving along and pass random medieval ruins.

I arrived in Cork and proceeded to be really dramatic - I did LAUNDRY. It may not sound exciting to you, but everything I owned was covered in a think layer of the Middle East, so it was worth every extortion-level penny I paid for it (the only laundry here is for more of an industrial crowd, so their rated don't start low enough to make my one load a practical purchase. But it was fast, and also worth it). I also went out for a pint (not of beer, once was enough) and some traditional Irish music with some girls in my dorm, and if anything will make you love Ireland more, it's a local pub. We have dive bars in the States, which I love, but it's really not the same at all, is it?

Yesterday was wander-Cork day. It's a walkable town, and I went all over - the local cathedrals, the butter museum, the hills overlooking town, up and down the little side streets. But it's not a very big place, so that pretty much covered it. It's a charming city, on two sides of a river (actually three, but most of the stuff is in the middle and on one bank), and I had to stop myself from taking too many pictures. Also, even though it's Ireland and it never really gets bright, it also doesn't get dark until like 10:30. Not quite Patagonia unnerving, but certainly a change.

Today, I got a bit out of town, and went to the Blarney Castle. It was hyper-touristy, sure, but the castle grounds are also stunningly pretty. I did kiss the Blarney Stone, too, so if you find this and future posts to be unusually eloquent, well, you will at least know why. But just wandering the lush green lands were enough to make me feel so peaceful; even when it started to drizzle (of course) it wasn't enough to push me inside.
Tomorrow I am off to Galway, which I am really looking forward to. Most people say it's the best city in Ireland, so my hopes are up.

I still haven't found a good sweater or hoodie to buy Despite current weather to the complete contrary, most stores are selling bikinis and gauzy skirts, and there are actually surprisingly few tourist shops, but even fewer with anything good. There were a bunch today, of course, in Blarney, but nothing I actually want to wear, or want to spend tourist-level kinds of money on, so I will just count on finding something later. Or, you know, getting an aran sweater on the Aran Islands. For now I can just keep wearing the same two longsleeved shirts I own...

And for those keeping score, I am STILL not caught up on my pictures from Egypt, despite many hours' worth of online effort. I finished Jordan, and am keeping Ireland up-to-date ( I now deeply know the perils of falling behind...) but have like 150 more to label in Egypt. Sigh. Tomorrow, maybe.

May 27, 2008

a whole new world

I. Love. Dublin.

It;s like London, but smaller and cuter and easier to navigate. Everyone here is so young, too, with basically the entire population looking like they are in their 20s and 30s.

I just walked around yesterday, touring the city and going to St Stephen's Green, the Photography Archive, Trinity College, the shopping streets, the Liffey, all of it. It was so pleasant to walk about, even if I was wearing my long-sleeved shirt, my fleece and was still cold when the wind blew.

I also went out with a girl I had met in Bangkok, and I tired,I really did, but I just can't drink Guinness. Euch.

Today it's rainy, but I am spending the day on the bus anyhow, heading southwest to Cork. I am really excited to see more of Ireland, because so far, so good.

May 26, 2008

gear shift

I am all out of the Middle East. It was a brutally long day of travel yesterday, but everything went smoothly, so I have gone from Jordan to just about as opposite I can get. Today, I take on Dublin!

It was surprisingly difficult to leave the tour. I was lucky and ended up with a really cohesive group who genuinely got along and enjoyed spending time together, which was lovely, so as with any goodbye it was hard to say goodbye and all go our separate ways. But even more than that, I was pretty hard-hit by how much I was going to miss the fact of my tour mates. It was such a welcome relief to have people to travel with for three weeks. For the first part, to have someone so competent to take care of all of our details and travel concerns for us so we didn't even have to think about it. When things went wrong, an 8 hour ferry wait or an abysmal accommodation in Petra, we were in it together and would joke about it and get through, rather than me having to take it all on my shoulders alone.

I've had to remind myself the last couple of days that not only CAN I do this solo travel thing (remember, self? That's how you've been doing it almost this WHOLE TIME), but also that I would even want to. Today, though, after a good night's sleep under a comfy duvet, with a nice hot shower and a rainy, overcast Dublin through the window, I am much more excited about exploring. Besides, I am on the way downward end of my trip, so I need to make the most of it - love it or hate it, it won't last long.

Anyway, to wrap up Jordan: Meh.

I mean, Jordan was good - Petra was incredible, and of course I loved floating in the Dead Sea and getting covered by mud.

But overall, Jordan was just kind of all right. The food was the same sort as Egypt, but not as good; everything was easier and more Western, in terms of the bargaining and the baksheesh (tipping) and the like, but it was also less interesting and more sterilized. I just felt like I was there because the things I wanted to see were in Jordan, as opposed to any desire at all to see Jordan itself.

All right, enough rehash. I am in a place with lightening-quick internet, so I hope to have the rest of my pictures up later on, and get them labeled and ready to view. After that, my mind is 100% on pretty green Ireland!

May 22, 2008

dr. jekyll and mr.jordanian tour guide

So, I've been lucky, and had a really wonderful tour that I love.

I've now also been super unlucky and miserable and had a crap tour. Interestingly, they are the same tour.

I thought the ferry crossing was a blip, and that things would be smooth and easy, but it turns out that the Jordan leg of my trip is going to be radically different. In Egypt, the tour was fortunate enough to have a wonderful guide who was both a good guy and incredibly knowledgeable. He was a great guide, and we loved it. In Jordan...not so much.

Our tour guide here is pretty sleazy, clearly making his living by kickb
acks, commissions and freebies courtesy of his tours; making seedy comments to the pretty blonde on the tour, and giving all of his information with a healthy dose of condescension. We had a problem when we arrived in Petra and went to a hotel different from the one listed on our itinerary - given to us two weeks ago - and significantly worse quality. We ended up kicking up a fuss and moving ourselves to another hotel - the one on the itinerary - and fighting with the local travel agency about getting reimbursed.

On the one hand, it's a nightmare. Whereas my Egypt tour made me thrilled with the company and excited about all the places in the world I could go with them that I was not comfortable traveling to on my own, if Jordan were my first leg, I would be in misery and trapped in every organized tour horror story you hear.

However, this is not a poor me bitch session. the thing is, after two weeks of traveling together and some genuine affinity, my tour has become 12 good friends, so we are all in this together. we are a pretty close group and we are all traveling together, so it's not so bad. We roll our eyes at the guide, or take turns fighing the battles we need to fight, and it works out really well. tit's a huge advantage to traveling in a group, honestly - even when things are bad they are not bad for you alone.

But enough with the bad - Jordan is also pretty incredible. I came to this country for Petra, and to Petra I have officially been:

Jordan may just be the country that cannot be captured by a camera, though. Petra is completely stunning, but there is no picture that can really get across the mind-bogling level of pretty at teh Siq, this amazing one-and-a-half kilometer long cavern that you walk through to get to Petra, with towering walls orf amazing rock, no can they get the magnitude and the colors in all of the carved out buildings of the city itself. It is honestly a wonder of ancient architecture and beauty, and nothing I took, or anyone else took, possibly did it justice.

But even before then, we went to Wadi Rum, in the desert to the south, and spent a day four-wheeling around and then a night in the Bedouin camp, and I took picture after picture, but nothing got the craggy, jagged, gorgeous rocks and the sweeping deserts really well. This is apparently a country that cannot be got really well on my wee camera.

random egypt

The short version is that I liked Egypt a lot more than I thought that I would. I was really excited and intrigued to go there, but before arriving, I was more intellectually interested in the place - the history is so long and so vivid, the culture so foreign and so fascinating, and the images of pyramids and heiroglyphics so iconic that I was looking forward to the education of the place. I got all of that, to be sure, and I feel much smarter than I did before I came. But I also liked Egypt - it was fun, the people were wonderful and different and fascinating, the food was fantastic, the weather quite lovely. That was unexpected.

As much as I was interested in going to Egyt, though, there was no way I was going to try it on my own. Every day I was there, I became even more convinced of how right a decision that was. I could probably have done Egypt on my own, but I don't know that I could have enjyed it. Egypt is very, very hard.

The most obvious is that it is hard to be a woman in Egypt. Not just a Western woman, though that is certainly harder, but being female. When I got to the airport, on the airport bus to the parking lot, I was the only woman. On the street, there were occasionally a pair of women traveling together, but they kept to themselves and tend to hurry along. I honestly never felt so conspicuous as a female as I did simply existing in Egypt. And to exacerbate the problem, the social and religious practices of Egypt itself make the men rather aggressive and unpleasant in a lot of ways - but only sometimes. Others are terribly friendly, with no ulterior motive at all. It makes it a challenge to do anything, because you get peppered with greetings just walking down the street, and you never know - is this person asking where I am from or saying "Welcome to Egypt" to be friendly, or are they doing it to elicit a smile that they can take as an invitation? This is not an exaggeration, really. It is a minefield. The attention, very unwanted and very constant, really got to me before too long, and even though I dressed conservatively, I still felt that I was on display. The fact that I quickly began to see the advantage of the traditional Muslim female dress I think says too much about the way men ae socialized in Egypt.

But it's not just a gender thing; the whole place takes negotiation. You have to constantly be on guard in Egypt, because the heavy tourist culture makes for an active culture of ripping off Westerners. My tour members quickly discovered that when you asked the price of something, if it took them more than a second to answer, they were basically inflating the price, often my 100-200%; if the price was immediate, it was probably close to accurate. This is not just for the outdoor markets aimed at tourists; this is at mini markets, drink stands, everywhere. You have to constantly be on guard, clarify that they mean EGYPTIAN pounds when they give a price (they like to "mean" English pounds to give a higher price to start the bargaining), and ask for a breakdown of prices when you buy a few things, because often the math got creative. You price things at various stores, and you learn that everything, EVERYTHING, is a negotiable price. You have to play it as a game, because otherwise you start to fee like everyone is out to rip you off. But Egypt is just random, and there is no good reason for two oranges to cost only 1 pound less than 2 oranges, two bananas and two plums, except that the people who bought the latter didn't balk at the price, so the vendor wanted to see how far he could go.

Egypt is random and unpredictable, but it was good. I don't know if I ever will go back - the Red Sea coast is incredible, and I would like to see the Western Desert and Alexandria, but it is difficult and there are so many other places to see. But I like that I get to associate Egypt with a sense of uncertainty and gambling that makes it entertaining.

May 19, 2008

more middle east

Egypt is officially no more for me.

Since we left Cairo, we have done the following (assume all is said with some disbelief that this is my life and this is all for real, because that's how it felt):

We got on a private bus on Friday to drive down to the Sinai Peninsula. A lot of the tourist routes in southern Egypt (Aswan-Luxor, Aswan-Abu Simbel, etc) have required convoys buses need to travel in for "safety reasons," but Sinai does not have this; they do, however, have mad check points all over and lots of scary military with scary huge guns. Sinai is pretty much a rocky, sandy moonscape that is pretty in a forbidding way. We also drove in the tunnel under the Suez - unreal!

It took several hours, but we got to St. Katherine's "City" (it is a few stores and hotels...) midday, and got toeat and rest before we climbed Mt. Sinai. No joke. The climb was long, but not terribly hard until we got to the last set of steep, rocky, uneven steps - I counted 763 of them. But the view from up top was just astronomical, and we watched the sun set from Mount Sinai before climbing down. Incredible.

The next day we went back to St Katherine's Monastary to tour around, and saw the burning bush and the Eastern Orthodox chapel, which was gorgeous, and navigated our way through some serious throngs of tourists. I am not really one for religious monuments as my top impressive tour sights, but something about St. Katherine's was really moving. Honestly, I think that it is because, in Egypt, there is this ancient monastary worked by a group of Greek and Russian monks, and the place is cared for and run by a particular Beduin tribe, a tribe that is 100% Muslim. There is even a mosque at the monastary for the Beduins to pray in. I just find it so compelling that the different religions and histories are all able to work with this respect for one another that is larger than any differences.

After Sinai, we went on the road again to Nuweiba, a little cluster of small resorts on the Red Sea. Can you say spectacular? I spent the last two and a half days staying in a thatched hut about 10 meters from the water, lounging in and by the water, and eating calamari. It was the perfect holiday in my holidays, and I got a bit of my tan back from Thailand. I was surprised a bit, but honestly the Red Sea is up there with my best beach spots ever, and apparently the Scuba was fantastic.

Of course, the relaxation was all to lull us to a sense of security, I can clearly see now. We have local leaders for each leg, so our Egypt guide left us at the port at 2 for our ferry, where we proceeded to wait in a seedy, dirty, gross port with no signs or announcements in English and air conditioning for only a little while. And we waited. We thought the ferry was at 2:30. Then we find it is at 4. Then it may come later. Then it is here, and we will load in an hour. No, another hour. We are shuttled from one door to another. We wait. At 7:30 they put us on buses to go to the boat. At 8 we are still queued up to get on the boat. Then they try to tell us that the boat is full, but we will not be dissuaded. Then they pull everyone from the back of the line and let them on and leave my group and about 25 other international tourists fighting to be allowed onto the boat, which we eventually are, but without seats. The ferry leaves at 8:45. We finally browbeat them into letting us onto some of the empty business class seats after sitting in the aisled for the first half hour. We get to Aquaba, Jordan about 10, but wait and wait and wait on the boat. They collect our passports, and we are unnerved by this fact. The disorganized, ramshackle, tedious immigration process takes about another hour. We have an Intrepid person waiting to get us to the hotel, which is wonderful. We finally make it, and I fall into bed and sleep like the dead at about 1 am.

It was a long, terrible day, and really tiring - I just about regretted being up to watch the sun rise over Saudi Arabia that morning.

But we are in Aqaba, which is so much more clean and polished and modern than Egypt - it reminds me a lot of Singapore, really. And we are officially in Jordan. The internet is slow-ish, and there are no USB ports to upload photos, but its here. Though tonight, we are going to a Beduin camp, so you know, probably no WiFi.

And we are offically done with Egypt. I have a lot, lot, lot to say on Egypt, but this has already gone on long enough, so I will add it soon.

May 15, 2008

diet coke: egypt

I give it a hearty "meh."

Much better than Greece (meaning it's drinkable), but much less appealing than Thailand. It looks cool, though.

But the most depressing thing is that I am beginning to wonder if I am forgetting what the real thing tastes like. That can't happen, can it? I can't be getting confused my my steady drinking of Fanta and an ever-increasing amount of water, can I? I will remember the joy of Diet Coke once more, when I experince the magic once again? Please say so!

Back to Cairo

Ok, foreign keyboards are hard enough, but signing into Blogger on an Arabic computer is damn confusing. The user name is on the right, the password is on the left. It's backwards, and I can't read anything at all.

Anyway, minor quibble, but here I am. I am just popping online briefly on our free day back in Cairo. We took an overnight train yesterday from Luxor and got in this morning, and then I took it pretty easy, going back to Khan al Khalili market to do some shopping (because I hear it's pretty rubbish in Jordan, so it is now or...Dublin) and also to Coptic Cairo, to get a feel for a completely different kind of Egypt. This is the Greek Orthodox area, and it has tiny winding streets and no cars, so it felt like a whole other world, even though it was only a few stops on the metro from our hotel in downtown Cairo. Surreal.

In Luxor yesterday, I discovered that donkey riding is way, way easier and more pleasant than camel riding - either because you feel like there is less distance to fall, or because they surprisingly smelled less, or because I had a mellow, lazy donkey who was keen to stop just...whenever, so I never felt out of control. Except when I wanted him - I named him Paco, for lack of knowing his real name - to andale up the hill. he preferred to whine and complain about how LONG and STEEP the hill was. Sounds like me on a bike ride.

Anyway, I've been all over - hot air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings, to see several tombs there, to the Colossus of Memnon and Karnak Temples, and on a felucca sailing up the Nile for an entire day and night in the most relaxing, no-agenda day I've had in ages. Plus, it was sailing up the NILE, stopping now and again when we got hot, to go swimming. In the Nile.

Life is getting surreal, but I love it. To add to that, tomorrow we drive south again, and then climb Mount Sinai.

The next couple of days we get to lounge by the Red Sea, and maybe do a spot of snorkeling.

It's so strange to get to do all of this, but I love it.

May 11, 2008

Down the nile

'Sup, yo.

Sorry that I am not updating as much. It is not, as you may think, because I cannot find Internet or because it is prohibitively expensive, as neither are the case. I've been in major cities so far, and the most expensive I've found is the one I am currently on, which comes
in at a whopping $2 an hour. So this is not the problem.

Time is the problem. Tours are tiring! We do so much and go so many places, and I suddenly have people to talk with that when it's the end of the day I am too darn tired to muster up the energy to post a blog. I will be better, but it's looking like, nah, pictures are going to wait a while longer. They take too long.

So anyway, the tour so far is great. It's a small group, with 4 other Americans, one Canadian and 6 Aussies, and a good range of ages. The guise is Egyptian, too, which if you are ever coming here, insist on it - that alone (besides that he is very good) is invaluable.

On the first day we went to a Mosque, to the Khan al Khalili market in Islamic Cairo, and out to dinner where I had fanTAStic ground spiced lamb. Since then, we have also:

--visited the Pyramids of Giza (taking the metro and public bus to get there, which I loved)
--gone through the Egyptian Museum (which was wonderful, if rather completely overwhelming and chock-a-block with too much stuff, though the Tutankhamun room was jaw-dropping)
--ridden an overnight sleeper train down the Nile, which I loved. I adore train travel, sleeper cars are so North by Northwest, and it was such a cool way to tool down the country
--ridden feluccas on the Nile, visited Nubian villages, and, of course, the following:

I did quite well, thank you. even though I now can safely say that camel travel is both inefficient AND uncomfortable.

Today we got up ungodly early in order to leave the hotel at 3:30 am. Yeah. We are in Aswan, but we were getting a caravan of tour vans out of town to go a few hundred kilometers south to visit Abu Simbel. Everything I've listed above was, of course, astonishing and amazing; this was so far the highlight. This temple is just magnificent, and I could have spent hours staring at the carvings on the walls. Loved it.

After, we drove back (with a driver who stayed awake nearly the whole time!) and went to the Philae temple, which is an Egyptian temple and Roman church both (Egyptoman? Romyptian?) in the middle of the Nile. Lovely way to end the day.

Except it was about 2:30. So now we've had luch, and tonight our guide has arranged a dinner at some friend's houses - the cooking should be fabulous. I will say, though, that I am looking forward to tomorrow. We get on a felucca and spend the entire day and night just floating up the Nile and reading, drinking, eating, swimming, and relaxing. Oh, so fun!

I am so glad, though, that I am on a tour. I would not be able to do what I am doing on my own, and I don't think I would have as much fun. As it is, it is already starting to get hard to deal with the scams and rip offs that are so common everywhere we go. I understand that money is so important, but on the other hand, I don't appreciate being made to haggle to use a toilet when I know what it costs, just because I am a tourist. But hopefully it is residual crankiness from being up at 3 am...

May 07, 2008

Onto the next

Made it safe and sound to Cairo. It's such an overwhelming city, right from the start. The sprawl is huge, and from the air so many of the buildings are crowded together and the same color and not really defined, so they almost look like rubble fallen together. We did fly over the pyramids, though, so that was incredible.

I am back in heat, but it is so far WAY more bearable than Asia. I am itching to meet up with my tour tomorrow, and until then dont have a lot on the agenda. But I have officially reached a new country and a new continent. Woo!

May 06, 2008

Greek Week

It's interesting how much Athens can change in a week. Compared to when I was here with my parents, on this visit the city was far, far more crowded. I expected there to be more Greeks in twon, since it was no longer the long Easter holiday, but there were also exponentially more tourists and backpackers around the city as well. There were suddenly venders lined up in front of marble pillars that were not there before and the metro was packed and busy. May 1 must mark the start of the big tourist season or something, or at least other people pay attention and start their vacations AFTER Easter? Imagine that! I still really enjoyed the city, but if people I've talked to had only visited during high season, i can easily see why they would find it a crowded, dirty city.

Of course, my circumstances changed as well - before, I was not only on a high from getting to see my parents, but I was also in a happu hotel existence, bopping about the islands at a good clip and enjoying the company. On my return, I was back to hostel living. The one I stayed at a supremely nice location, but also had a barely-tolerable bathrooms (some of the worst I've encountered thus far actually - I hope it's not an indication of the hostels in Europe...).

I also noticed the travelers here - like with everywhere I've been, the majority seem to all come from a similar background, and in Greece, in May, a huge percentage of them are American or Canadian college students either finishing their study abroad by traveling about or getting a jump on their summer backpaking through Europe.

Even though the age groups are similar, for some reason, this group strikes me as decidedly more Baccanalian than the young Brits traveling everywhere in Australia. Maybe because the Brits were in one place longer, and were working, and were living and traveling both, but somehow they were not as ...frat party about thier travels. Sitting in the hostel's garden, listening to groups trade stories about where they had been and where they were going, so much seemed like a waste - a giant drinking binge across a continent. I hope that, too, is not an indication of the hostels across Europe...

(Though it did encourage me , since I will be in my last month in Western Europe during high season, to make the unprecedented move to book hostels for that whole time - good thing, too, since I already ran into places being booked out).

But despite some of the difference not being for the better, and despite it being a 3-day stay rahter than a day-and-a-half one, I had a good time back in Athens. I went to the Archaeological Museum, whioch we missed the first time on account of Good Friday but which was absolutely worth a visit, and I sat in the National Gardens, so unruly compared to the tidy, manicured botanical gardens of Australia and New Zealand.

I also went to Delphi today, to see the oracle and a bit of northern-ish Greece. It involved a long day of travel and lots of clmibing about the ruins, but it was well worth it - the rocks and cliffs and stones were just gorgeous, and there was almost palpable history there. Of course, to get to Delphi (three hours out of Athens) one must get up before 6am. And at that time, one thinks one is tucking ones camera in their bag, when in fact they are leaving it in their backpack at the hostel. Sigh.

May 04, 2008

on the road again

All alone again, now in Athens. My parents left today, and I am not going to lie and say it wasn't hard, but they are off to Italy, and in a couple of days I am going to Egypt.

The good news is that even though I am back to traveling alone, back to hostels, back to it all, I have sort of re-discovered my reason for doing this. I am once again looking forward to the places I get to go, and once again feel capable of getting to them. So really, the time with my parents, the time in Greece, it all had the rejuvenating effect I hoped for. And thank goodness!

I am glad my attitude returned, though, because the day my parents left, things did not go so well. I had worked out what I wanted to do for the four days between coming back from Santorini and going to Cairo, and I made reservations at a hostel on a nearby island called Aegina, and then at a hostel in Athens for two nights each. No problem.

So yesterday I sadly leave mom and dad, and get on the Athens metro and ride it to the ferry terminal. Then I get a ferry to Aegina. Then i wait an hour to get bus to the other side of the island. Then I get there and discover in 8 minutes that the hostel is shut up tight - presumably still for the season? I don't know. It's overgrown and padlocked.


So I basically get to retrace everything - wait another hour for the bus, catch another ferry, do another metro ride, and go to the only hostel I know in Athens, where I do not have a reservation, at 7:30 on a Saturday night. Good lord.

But, fortunately, they did have a bed, and I was so exhausted from a futile day of LOTS of travel that I fell into it. I have one more day in Athens now, so we will see how I fill it.

It seems my travel karma markedly improves when I have others in my family there to help it along.

May 03, 2008

something old, something older, something oldest

Ah, Santorini. Really stunning place - the island is on the cusp of a volcano, with the towns clinging to the sides of sheer cliffs in white, stair-steppy glory.

Santorini at times feels a bit superficial, or like its water - shallow, but pretty! - but there were some really cool, amazing things to the island as well. On Naxos, we went to the Mitroplous museum and saw the remains of a city from 1300 BC and I marveled that it was the oldest thing I'd ever seen (apart from nature, of course). Today, though, we went to two museums. At the first, there was a new record, as most of the artefacts - gorgeous, well-preserved vases and pots, still painted and lovely and mostly recovered from the town of Ancient Thera - dated to 1700 BC. Everything was stunning. But THEN we went to the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, where they keep the really old stuff. It's findings from Akrotiri, an ancient...well, urban hub, really, that has only been 3-5% excavated. The new oldest thing I've ever seen is this:

dated from a Cycladic period from 2800-2300 BC. Jaw-dropping. Aren't they incredible?

In New Zealand, I marveled at how new everything was. As an American, I can go to England and see schools still in use from back before anyone over there even FOUND our continent, so in New Zealand, where America was old hat during their entire Anglo history, everything seems so young. But, of course, the Maoris were there long, long before - as with the aboriginal sin Australia, the Native Americans, and so on. There were people there and living hundreds of years ago. But in Greece, it's in terms of millenniums - there were people there, building cities, wearing jewelry, making purchases, taking baths, cooking and eating and celebrating not too differently from how we do now several MILLENNIUMS ago. It boggles the mind.

But that is not the bulk of Santorini - really, the bulk is all about the pretty. I get the feeling that the Santorini Chamber of Commerce or whoever saw tourism starting in Greece like
30 years ago and decided to capitalize by turning the island into Quintessential Greece (tm). The terraced, perched villages are stunning, but all the buildings seem to be hotels and restaurants and shops - everything for tourists; the locals (of which there aren't many, year-round) are sensible and live on the flat parts, where it's not 40 zillion stairs and a donkey ride to get a bottle of water from the market.

It's worked, though. If you go to the Greek Isles, from the States anyway, then Santorini is the place you go. Often to Mykonos as well, and maybe another, but Santorini without a doubt. If you go ona cruise in Greece, you go to Santorini. It really is "typical Greece all the
way" I wonder if that's Quintessential Greece (tm)'s motto?

I can't even imagine what this place is like during the high season, too. We were in Fira today - the capital, where we stayed - when there was a cruise ship, I think from Spain, was in port, and toe town felt overrun. That was one ship. Yesterday, there were nine cruise ships docked for the day. NINE. It made me so happy that was the day we rented a car (this time an even more stripped-down mini vehicle in bright yellow we dubbed Little Buttercup) and fled to the o
ther parts of the island. We got to see lots of beaches - one in red! - and lots of quiet towns not yet thumpin' for the season. We ran into two Japanese tour groups when we went to Oia at the north of the island to watch the sunset, but mostly we zigged when the hordes zagged. In high season, I don't think there is that option - our waiter tonight was telling us that, in August, the adorable cobblestone walkways are so packed, people can only shuffle along, not walk at full speed. Even with things sometimes being not open or the weather being occasionally cold, I will take Greece outside the high season, thank you. After all, it's still pretty.