Friday, June 24, 2011

"The River Wild."

"I gave my heart to the mountains the minute I stood beside this river with its spray in my face and watched it thunder into foam, smooth to green glass over sunken rocks, shatter to foam again. I was fascinated by how it sped by and yet was always there; its roar shook both the earth and me."
- Wallace Stegne

I began and finished my Himalayan trek in the lakeside town of Pokhara, a popular spot for many of the adventure activities and one of the main starting points for many of the treks in Nepal.  It is a lovely location, wrapped around one of the largest lakes in the country, and although a relatively small lake, it was beautiful and calm, and hills and mountains nested around the bank with forests of trees and fields of dirt and flowers and manicured gardens of lakeside restaurants.  I woke in the mornings to walk around the lake in dawn as the sun slowly sifted up through early morning fog in orange and grey.  Paths were slightly damp and the air was delicate with the faint vapor of mud and twigs.  The morning air was wonderfully calm in the quiet city, tourists all asleep and locals out carrying small baskets of freshly baked croissants and rolls that wafted through the streets, and for about a quarter each I feasted on warm chocolate croissants and cinnamon rolls that evaporated warmly, jerking tongue and taste buds to an abrupt and eager salute.  Lunches and dinners I ate Dhal Bhatt, the typical and standard Nepali dish of rice and curries and vegetables all mushed together with your hands in a sloppy delight and eaten with hands caked and covered in warm liquid and steaming rice, and I found an old lady making fresh chapatti, pleasant reminders of former vacations and the chapatti gently crumbled in my mouth.  Yum, it was good.
  I walked around at nights looking through shops and exploring the streets and watching the tourist out in search of beer and pizza, as I cheaply ate from small street stalls.  It is a lovely city surrounded by hills that lie in shadows of the Himalayan Mountains that lay siege to the city, guarding over the sacred temples and waterfalls and the serene lake nestled quietly in the city’s borders. 
  I left Pokhara early one morning and took a bus out toward Chitiwan.  After a few hours sitting slanted  and sideways with my knees smashed against the hard plastic back of the seat in front of me, I hopped off the bus, hours before its destination and began a river rafting journey through of the Himalayan rivers of Nepal.


There were six of us on the raft and we rafted down a large canyon with green water and white rocks, boulders and slabs of stone.  All around were tall lumps of mountains thick in trees and richly green.  Down the river locals bathed and swam and did laundry in the river with small villages or shanty shacks near the river.  The water mixed from smooth to rough and green to white, jostling up and down over rocky rapids that splashed and dashed and dropped. We had time to swim in the calms stretches of the river with the sun peeking out for the first time since I’d arrived. This was like a large Ogden Canyon, one of the canyons near my childhood home in Utah.  The rivers cut through the canyon with mighty mountains at both sides, but the river and canyon were long and wide and a size to make Ogden Canyon seem a trickle.  I had not been rafting since I first returned from Arizona and went with my dad and brother Dallin up over Lunch Counter in Wyoming on the Snake River.  What a trip that was!  What a trip this was!  We stopped for lunch half-way down and ate on the banks of a river where the water pulled off in to calm lulls on the side.  A few local kids dressed in rags and filthy, but adorable sat around us perched on rocks and playing games, seemingly waiting to see if we left any food behind, but they never begged, never approached us.    After lunch we continued down, hitting the best of the rapids on the second leg, the white swooshing water that crashed in sadistic blows against the rocks and rolled and bumped through the river as the raft teetered and tottered and swayed, rose and fell and spun through splashing and passionate rapids and rock soaking us in the cool waters of a furious river.

We finished the rafting journey and changed in to dry clothes and waited for a bus to Chitiwan, but a bus never came, so I squeezed in to the crowded cab of an old oil truck.  My legs were sideways and bent back with my feet behind my knees and no room to move a foot, a knee, a leg, an arm, or even breathe too deeply.  I sat in the cab of that truck for four hours driving through canyons that turned and twisted and bumped across dips and rocks.  It began to rain with a fierce wind and there were no windows to stop the slanting rain and fierce wind from pushing and stinging across my face and arms.  It was not a comfortable ride, but I have been on many bus journeys before.  This was, however, my first time sardined in to an oil truck, so despite the lack of room, it was a better journey than another bus ride.
  The outside of the truck was painted bright with colorful Hindu gods and lines of poems and pieces of American flags and what looked like the third eye of Shiva.  The inside was even more colorful, with frilly curtains and colored beads and stickers of cars and Disney princesses and sexy women and muscular men and gods and goddesses and lace and yarn.  On the dashboard was a long patch of wheat grass with a gnome like a god standing in the middle holding his long sword like penis, and half the lawn had been clipped and eaten.  It was a decorative and colorful bus indeed.
  We arrived in Chitiwan, down out of the canyon and into a long flat valley.  We passed through forests of skinny trees and though nearly all the trees were filled with green, the ground was covered in brown fallen leaves.  It was like going through the trees in the mountains back home come Autumn, though Nepal lacked the color, and yet so much seemed the same to me, a carpet of dry leaves and that smell of them, of dry and crackled leaves, crisp and thin and mixed with the odor of dampened dirt held in constant dew from the covering leaves.  Even now just writing this I can hear the crunching sound of walking paths of fallen leaves or the rustling of raking piles and the itch and scratch of dried leaves broken to small pieces and shoved against my skin after diving and burying myself in the large piles.  Everything I see is so different, and yet it all seems so familiar.  Do we constantly seek out way to remind ourselves of home?  Of course, I have had many homes by now, though one place lies above the others, and perhaps I’ll only ever have one place that feels like home, that I consider home, maybe two, and perhaps a part of others. 
  In Chitiwan I hitched a ride to a guest house and was greeted warmly in the dark room with warm tea and a warmer smile and then I settled in to my room.  When I first walked in and sat down it was one of those moments where I smiled and said a thank you.  I do have moments of living a charmed and lucky life.  It is when I travel.  The power was only on for a few hours around dinner time, and at night I let down the mosquito net and wrote in my journal by candle light till the last drips of wax trickled down the candlestick in small dribbles of pallid wax with flickering shadows in the soft amber light wavering with the flutters of the small candle flame.  It was sublimely pastoral.

“Hitting the Rapids.”

We await the rumble of rapids before heading
    for a few watershed buttes just beyond the next 

bend where the faster whitewater is running.  
    As the afternoon sun starts its descent, we move 

gently toward a narrow sluice, shoot through 
    a sudden drop, then surge over those bedrock holes 

and rolling wave trains swollen with the seasonal
    release flushed from an upriver dam.   By sunset, 

we have slipped past the last falls of the gorge:
    all that's left is one short stretch of mild ripples 

and a small section of beach for landing.  Tonight, 
    we will lie beside this constant sweep of current

that continues as persistently into the future as life 
    itself, and fall asleep beneath a flood of darkness 

marred merely by sparks embarking from some 
    faraway stars scattered like moments of memories

we'd hoped to hold on to, those shattered fragments
    solely able to offer light from times already passed.

Edward Byrne

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Himalayan High.

             the roof of the earth, the emperor of all mountains,
                you stand there, a benevolent force,
your arms spread wide encompassing one tall fortress after another,
standing protectively over the lands north and south,
you are not as foreboding as I had thought.
It’s you, every year thousands of people go to meet, 
million others live on the foothills at your feet.
So many others want to conquer you,
they take you for granted, scramble all over,
sometimes even have the temerity to trash you.
What do they know?
These pesky trespassers,
for you are the original warrior,
who in the Mesozoic era,
rose triumphantly from the ancient deep bed of the Tethys sea.
Do the mountaineers know they are on a pilgrimage?
After all, you are the abode of Gods,
where the divinity resides,
and watches us mere mortals 
go on with our lives.
But you don’t like to blow your own trumpet,
instead, just stand there serenely.
It’s rarely do we hear when you lost your calm,
and a mountaineer was lost in your snow white arm. ..
                                “The Himalayas.” –    poems-on-the-himalayas/

Only one more country to write about! Admittedly, I am excited at being caught up.  I was a slacker for too long allowing myself to get too far behind, and honestly, I didn’t see the point in writing a blog I was convinced no one ever read.  I am still not entirely convinced, but it gives me something to do to pass away the dull moments of Arabian life.  Of course, this certainly won’t be the last country I write about, just the last one to get me caught up to the present date.  I will undoubtedly travel to many more countries in the future, and already have some possible plans for new adventures. 
  I really have been blessed as far as traveling goes over the last couple years.  In the past 2 ½ years, I have been fortunate enough to travel through 20 countries, the 20th of those being the beautiful and mountainous country of Nepal.  I chose Nepal for a variety of reasons.  I was looking at countries not too far from the U.A.E., such as Lebanon, Ukraine, & Nepal, and Nepal seemed it would be the cheapest.  Also, with living out in the horrid desert of Al Gharbia in what I consider the most unattractive place I have yet visited on earth, I really, really felt a need to go somewhere with beautiful nature, amazing mountains, rivers, lakes, grass, trees, flowers, etc.  The Himalayas of Nepal seemed they would offer all I needed, and sure enough, they did.
  I flew in to Kathmandu, and landed at the somewhat disheveled airport.  Like most of my travels, I had no itinerary, no reservations, no plans, just an idea that I wanted to see something beautiful.  As I had no place to stay that night, I bartered with a cab driver to drive me in to town where all the cheap guesthouses were located and quickly found a place not far from the bustle of Kathmandu.  I did not stay in Kathmandu long, just long enough to explore and get an idea of one or two things I wanted to do in Kathmandu at the end of the trip. 
  The next day, I hopped on a local bust heading toward Pokhara.  There was a bus made for tourists, but I opted to ride the journey on the local bus with the Nepali people.  I knew as soon as I arrived in the country that I was going to wish I had more time there.  Nepal is ripe with adventure sports and amazing treks.  I tried to fit in as much as I could, but I suppose you are rarely, if ever, able to fit in everything you want.  I started off though with what most people come to Nepal for, a trek through the amazing Himalaya Mountains.  I found a local guide named Kamal, and the two of us alone set off up in to the mountains.  We began the trek with a two and a half hour bus ride.  The first half hour I had to stand up inside the bus, the roof being at least 10 inches shorter than I am.  The bus was cramped, and everyone crammed in unable to turn around or shift position.  Once we got out past the city, the bus driver, seeing my hunched over uncomfortably, pulled to the side of the road to let me hop on top of the bus, where I comfortably enjoyed the remaining two hours in Asian style.  It lightly rained as the bus passed through small Nepali towns and countryside and climbed the mountains and dropped down the back end.  The bus was old and rickety and clanky and had all the men gotten out and pushed the beast uphill, we may have moved faster.  The road was torn and bumpy and cold have grinded out every drop of urine inside a person, so the bus driver stopped to allow the men to pee at the side of the road.  That is something about Asia I still laugh at , men peeing in public everywhere with no worries at passersby or care at all for anyone to see.  You can be walking down a busy street in many Asian cities and see a man in a suit unzip on the street and take his leek right on to a building as everyone casually passed, so potty breaks on a bus in Asia means the side of the highway.  It was a lovely drive up top, with my unfettered view.  Nothing passed me unseen, not the mountains, not the fields not the children on the road with their pants around their ankles, not the lines of hanging to dry; nothing passed me.

Once off the bus we immediately began to hike upward, unable to see the tops of any mountain.  We started ascending through a canyon where a river rolled downwards.  For some reason, that made me think of Korea, looking down at the river.  I remembered the mountain rivers of Korea and their perfect clear green color.  This river was different, but still it gave me pleasant memories.
  We hiked steadily up passing through small village upon small village, a collection of a half-dozen homes.  In one village the men stood outside shooting arrows in to posts with homemade bows in a friendly competition.  People tended fields, sat on porches and did what people do.  It began to rain on us and I was soon soaked through.  We made it to a tea house and stopped for lunch to wait the rain out.  Once the worst of it passed, we continued up in the lighter drizzle.   The first day up was easy enough.  We continued to pass arrays of trekkers, and my guide was a little surprised at our fast pace.  I didn’t realize we were going fast at all, but he mentioned we cut several hours off the usual time for each day that we hiked.  That gave me lots of free time for reading and staring out to the valleys and mountains of Nepal.  The first tea house we stayed the night in was quite, with no other visitors.  We ate dinner and breakfast there and chatted with the family.  Then I sat alone up on the balcony looking out over rice terraces and potato fields and watched wild monkeys sneak in to steal potatoes and passing oxen try to steal clean greens freshly picked from the lettuce patches.  I read from my book and enjoyed the restful and quiet passing of night, and in the morning we continued upward.  The next day was much more difficult.  It just kept going up, step after step, hour upon hour.  I was not sure the climb would ever end.  We climbed through forests and jungle and passed over rivers and small waterfalls and hills clothed in trees of red rhododendron, the national flower of Nepal that brightly speckled the mountainsides.  It was humid, but not hot.  Still though, I dripped with sweat, particularly where my backpack covered my back and rubbed continuously against the fabric of my shirt.  I had to wring the sweat from my shirt several times and finally decided to continue shirtless despite the brisk air of high mountain altitudes.
  All the way up there continued to be small villages high in the mountains, usually a village comprised of only a few lodges catering to trekkers.  The kids in those villages had to climb down the mountain each morning for school and then walk miles and miles steeply up each afternoon.  That is dedication.  It was a regular occurrence to see a Nepali man with a giant bag or basket thrown on to his back with a strap around his head to place the weight upon his neck and head.  They would climb that mammoth mountain with supplies for villages or lodges up to the top, or supplies for long camping treks.  Oh, what mighty men to climb that mountain from dusk till dawn with such enormous bags and weight upon their backs and heads as they steeply climbed, up, up, up.  Many women also carried baskets up, with goods or crops.  I even saw one small girl who looked no more than 4 or 5, a basket to the brim, carrying her load up the mountain. 

  I stayed in small lodges in small rooms of hard beds with blankets clearly made for short Asian people, and particularly the last night up on top, I had to ask for extra blankets, as the below freezing temperatures and the biting and howling wind slithered in to my bones and swooshed across my face.  Cooking was done on wood burning stoves and the rooms were typically no more than thin wooden planks loosely nailed together, not much thicker than the glass of the windows.  Up on top, the window of my room started out to mountains more than 8,000 meters, or 26,000 feet, high.  It was an incredible view.  At night I huddled in my bed and listened to some Nepali guy screaming and singing and playing all night long.  He was still at it at 4:30 when we left to make it to the peak before sunrise in time to see the sun come up.  The sun rose above the clouds.  It was foggy, and the thick mist covered all views.  Fortunately, the fog moved quickly and as it raced on it left spots of clear open views to the magnificent peaks across the deep canyon.  The place I stood is a mountain indeed, but those peaks I stared out to are beyond it.  I gazed out hypnotically, calm in the chilling the air and and wonderfully alive and alert in the stillness of damp mountain fog.  I was in my own special high in that moment, not just high in elevation, but high, tripped out and dazed; It was a Himalayan high, the adrenaline of perfect scenery and an amazing moment. Those giant domes of white rose craggy and massive to twice the height of the mountain I stood on.  One of those mountains, Kachanjunga,  is the 3rd tallest mountain in the world.  Oh, how the first two must look!  Even with the clearing it was still foggy and misty, as it often is that high up.  The fog swarmed over trees and frosted beady drops of dew hanging from thin branches and grass.  Moss almost looked like snow covered in the frosty dew, and in the cold, cold air, my breath left no cloud, but instantly camouflaged in to the thick moisture of damp and fog.  I stood on top gazing out and braving the numbness of my fingers and toes in the high altitude.  I will never be able to get my fill of views such as those on that mountain, and I never wanted to leave, but after a long stay on the peak I turned and began the 30+ kilometer hike to the finish.  The downhill was easy, but aching on the knees, and I was sore afterward and earned my sleep.  When I left to head down, the fog fell thicker and covered nearly everything.  It was like walking steeply down in smoke and haze and slippery rocks.  We stopped for food, but otherwise made our way fast down the mountain.  My guide continued to be surprised at how quickly we went with so little rest.  I may not be in the same shape that I once was, but I do still have the same stubborn determination, and I wasn’t going to let some professional Himalayan trekking guide get the best of me. 
  It was beautiful down as well as up.  We continued down, and down, and down.  Had I really climbed that entire mountain in only a couple days?  Was I really on the peak of a mountain in the Himalayan range staring out to some of the tallest mountains in the world?  The valley below was green with farms and surrounded by hills and mountains in some idealic setting.  Down below it looked almost more like jungle, like the mountain areas of Vietnam or the Philippines, but the monstrous Himalayas stood just behind.  I went to Nepal for scenery, nature, and mountains, and I got precisely what I went for, though the Nepal journey was not yet over and more adventure lay ahead for me. 

In east ,
on a clear day, you can come across
                a magnificent and mystical panorama,
detailed in ancient scriptures by great lamas,
an enchanting sight,
in the glow of dawn’s ruby light,
the strawberry snowy peaks,
the mighty cliffs,
a lofty castle in the sky.
It’s the Kanchanjunga.
Even if I were a hotshot scribe,
the emotion I felt
when I first saw this view would be hard to describe.
Looking at the mountainous shrine,
I felt a good kind of shiver
run up my spine.
For even now just its memory,
the warmth and hospitality,
the starkness and beauty,
of the landscape and humanity
of that pristine land,
brings a whistle on my lips and a certain bounce in my stride.
  “The Himalayas.” -

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"On Holy Ground.:

 “And He said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest [is] holy ground.”  Exodus 3:5

  I entered back in to Egypt and back to Dahab and stayed in a cheap dorm room at the beach, spending days walking along the edge of rocky beach in both directions, enjoying the wind and warm sun, and staring out at windsurfers sweeping over the sparkling blue of the red sea with the desert town creeping right to the edge and brown and barren mountains looming above in the background.  I walked several miles in each direction until the pathways ended and walked along rocky uneven beaches with scattered sand.  The farther out I walked, the prettier everything became, narrow beaches of stone opening to far stretches of sand, and huddled restaurants and hoards of sun bathers and beach goers left in the distance and traded in for the tranquil hush of seclusion.  Is there some direct correlation between solitude and beauty, between serenity and silence?  My best and worst moments are perhaps wrapped up and mingled in the lonely moments of being all alone, but the lonely moments of some solitary beach, some walk through a warm wind, or a quiet moment a world away, these are sharply outlined and bunched like bouquets of babies’ breath.  They are beautiful; they are the accessories that make a life. 

 Staring out across the narrow waters along the coast of Dahab, I looked across the sea to the mountains of Saudi Arabia and also Jordan.  It is almost painful for me to know I am so close to a country, and yet not visit it, and I had to put off Saudi Arabia because of difficulties with a Visa, and while in Jordan I came within a mere mile of the Israeli border, and yes, it nearly hurt me to know such a place was so close, and yet I would not visit those countries.  I still have many travels and adventures to plan and look forward to, and I will cross those borders some day.
  One day in Dahab I spent snorkeling in Dahab’s famous Blue Hole, a bumpy ride beyond the city, passing camel camps and tents and the omnipresent mountains of the Sinai Peninsula.  The Blue Hole is a deep drop of water encircled by shallow waters of coral causing the sudden contrast of blue in the water, light blue above the coral, and dark blue of the deep hole in the middle.  It seemed unearthly, some cosmic creation of swirls in space.  It is amazing how the water drops so steeply down from the coral to depths unseen in the clear sapphire water.  I swam about spotting colorful fish dashing through coral, and dodging snorkelers and the bubbles of scuba divers below. The water of the sea shifted and trickled in to emerald and indigo, cobalt and jade, such greens and blues that were splashes of paint.  I think that God decided to prove how beautiful the emptiness of a desert could be, and so he created the Sinai Peninsula, throwing mountains in moulds of rocky clay and adding bleak and barren sand that extended out to a thousand miles, and then God created a sea, and looked down at the brown and orange and yellow and white of the desert and the water that lapped softly on the shore, and He knew His work was not finished, so He filled water balloons with paint in shades of blue and green, and in a playful and omniscient laugh, He dropped the balloons from high on to the water of the sea, and the colors splashed in to the water in uneven splatterings, thrown  and smudged against the canvas of sea. 
  I also went scuba diving at another beach in the Red Sea, with the clear waters and soft sand, the corals and the steep drop from shore.  Myriads of multi-colored fish swam around me, long, skinny, short, fat.  The water was so wonderfully clear, so picturesquely blue.  It is a pleasant feeling to be under water, freely swimming and staring eye to eye with fish deep below the surface, the feel and sound of breathing through a tank and the rise and fall of your body with every inhale and exhale of oxygen.   It is a freedom, staying so long below, deep down in water with the feel of billions of barrels of water and pressure softly folding around your body in gentle divides.  Perhaps scuba diving is something I should get in to more. 

    Another of the highlights of the Sinai Peninsula, and a major reason for my venture out to the Red Sea was Mt. Sinai itself.  One night, I caught a ride to the mountain, and in the cold of a desert night, I climbed the mountain.  The mountains here are so rocky, so steep, though it was an easy hike.  Tents along the way offered Bedouin Tea and blankets to rent to warm up hikers in the frigid and frosty night.  I met a Malaysian guy and climbed with him, walking slowly so as not to reach the windy and freezing top too early, though we still did.  I hiked Mt. Sinai, where Moses stood and received the Ten Commandments.  God Himself stood and spoke upon that mountain top.  I have walked the path of prophets and stood in the steps of God, and there I watched nature’s homage to her creator, the sun rising above the mountains, a prelude of primary colors signaling up the fast rise of a fiery sun, glazing orange across endless ranges, casting grey shadows on the back of peaks.  A Jewish group stood encircled and sang quietly in reverent tone.  What a sunrise!  What views! What mountains, so massively barren.  A month before I stood where Adam stood and watched the sun rise over a tropical island, and then only  a month later in the pre-dawn of early morning I stood where Moses stood, and where God stood, and watched the sun rise over a desolate and mountainous peninsula.  What places have I yet to stand? 
  I stayed up on top as the sun quietly climbed and the mountains morphed and mingled with color.  There were “oohs” and “awes” at the sparkling and spectacular sun that shed carrot and crimson hues across limitless views of sand and stone. I looked around at the harsh unfertile land, barren and empty, and laughed inside and wondered that God must have burned all the bushes on that mountain when he spoke to Moses from behind a burning bush.  Like Jordan, here was an unequalled simplicity.  The folds and lines of mountains rippled in to the slithering curves of more mountains, a hard and ubiquitous stone rising from the all-pervading desert. 

  I hiked down with my friend, enjoying talks of culture and religion, asking and answering questions, sharing and learning.  We passed the crowds of hikers and followed a different path down that wound through skinny uneven trails mixed with brick and stone arches and an immensely wild desert mountain.  At the bottom we stopped at St. Katherine’s Monastery, the oldest working monastery in the world, containing what they believe to be the burning bush in which God appeared to Moses.  I think they reached that conclusion by process of elimination.  It was about the only bush on the mountain. 
  Sinai was amazing, the hike up in the dark and the biting wind and the calmness and reverence of sunrise on a holy mountain.  I enjoyed the rest of my time in Dahab walking alone along the beaches and strolling through the tourist shops and small restaurants.  One restaurant was a Russian restaurant.  One Russian couple was eating there when I showed up and they told me the restaurant had very typical Russian food, and shortly they left leaving only me at the restaurant.  It was hardly a restaurant.  It had only three tables and patio chairs around them all located on the roof of a building, out in the air of night.  The kitchen was a tiny room also on the roof, and the waitress was also the cook, the hostess, and the dishwasher.  Her mother who was visiting on vacation helped in the kitchen, and the father sat at the table next to me and in very broken English talked to me.  The food was great, and obviously home cooked, and I had one of the most delicious drinks I have yet tasted, Sahlyab, made from sweet milk and hazelnut, with nuts and cranberries, and other goodies and spices.  The Sahlyab at that restaurant was amazingly fantastic, almost like a liquidy tapioca.  I wish I could have it again.  Oh delicious and yum!
  After the mountain hikes and canyon walks, the sandy strolls and the calming swims, I had to leave the Red Sea and her beautiful beaches.  I took a night bus up to Cairo and spent more time up there exploring the city.  I am not entirely sold on Cairo.  Like every city, it has some great areas, though it was certainly not among my favorites.  I also went up to Alexandria, having heard so much about Egypt’s second city located on the Mediterranean Sea.  I knew I wanted to see the new and modern library of Alexandria, the largest in the Arab world, and certainly a wonderful library.  Alexandria was not what I was hoping it would be.  The parts of the city directly along the coast were alright, but even two blocks inland it was like the rest of the cities in Egypt, filthy, crowded, and horrible traffic.  The ruins of ancient Egypt are an orgasm of architecture and history.  Modern Egypt, however, is a smorgasbord of filth and waste.  I wasn’t impressed with any of the cities.  I spent days roaming around Cairo, looking at mosques and markets, walking small alleys of crumbling buildings and eating schwarma and koshari.  I became a fan of koshari, a typical and inexpensive Egyptian food. 
  I spent all the holiday season there in Egypt and Jordan, roaming about on my own, meeting momentary friends, which comprise all of my friends of the last several years.  I live a transient life of a wandering gypsy, and in moments, I wish it to be no other way, though certainly I often wish to share my many moments with someone, and even crave for stability and permanence with an urge to settle down, but not yet finding anything calling out loud enough to force me to stop, not yet finding anything that calls to me in more than a whisper, and with the winds of many continents, I cannot hear the whispers, so I keep going.  Perhaps someday, someone or something will want to more than whisper, and perhaps, I will want to listen. 

"Among all the stupendous works of Nature, not a place can be selected more fitting for the exhibition of Almighty power.”
-          John Lloyd Stephens on Mt. Sinai.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Crayola Christmas.

“Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
 A rose-red city - half as old as time!”

  I arrived in Dahab tired and anxious, knowing there was much I wished to do while in the area.  I went to the Sinai Peninsula for many reasons; among them was the ease of crossing in to Jordan.  I would not stay long there, but one of the highlights of the trip was there in Jordan, among the many mountains and deserts stretching beautifully in to an infinite blandness.   My reason for going to Jordan was to visit Petra, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, and an absolute must for me while living in the Middle East.  I say only a small highlight of Jordan, and it enticed me to want to return and see more.  A bus drove me up and over mountain ranges that seemed like giant stalactites, craggy and brown, and barren, cone shaped, mound shaped, rounded, pointy, and they rose and dipped and swayed like a perfect desert mountain range.  

Petra itself was spectacular.  I hiked my way down The Siq, or narrow canyon adorned in colored walls where the sun leaked in to breathe vibrant shades on to red, and orange, and yellow, and black walls, highlighted by the luminous glow of a warm and creeping sun.  The Siq reminded me of southern Utah, or of Arizona, red sandstone cliffs carving out narrow canyons in a hiker’s delight of scenic mazes.  The Siq ended at the most famous sight in Petra, called The Treasury, what looks like a giant house carved out of the canyon wall in a collage of autumnal colors.  Everything there was carved out of mountainside or cliffs or canyon walls, the hundreds of caves and monuments, the large Roman style amphitheatre, everything.  The mountains rose around with donkeys and goats wandering the hillsides and Bedouin people cooking over small charcoal fires and resting in the caves.  All of Petra is enormous, and I covered but a taste of it, and wished to camp there among the cliffs and caves and explore for a week in some solitary séance.  Give me proper shoes, a sleeping bag, and the necessities for food; give me a pen, a journal, and a book to read, and with that and the freedom of my mind, I could have stayed there hiking each day farther in, new canyons, new caves, to the tops of new mountains, perfectly and wonderfully alone.  There are places I have seen where I think of people from my life and how much they would enjoy being there, and in Petra, I imagined my father and uncle with their backpacks, their far-fetched stories, their lively banter and cheerful talk.  I could see my father staring at each mountain with some unquenching curiosity.  I imagined his gazing eyes in wonder and bewilderment at the streaking lines of bright color, whole canyons a scribbling of primary colors in a child’s coloring book.   They would love it there, and appreciate it there, like they do the red-rock cliffs and canyons of southern Utah.  My father will never visit Petra or Jordan, and it is a shame, because few people would ever appreciate the beautiful simplicity of color and canyons as would he.

 As great as the monuments were, the mountains and cliffs and canyons leading to them were, at the least, equally impressive.  It is a touristy place, but at moments it had such authentic charm, and often I caught myself in the canyon with no person in sight, only the red colored cliffs and the silence of a solitary moment.  Horse carts drove through The Siq with Jordanian cart drivers singing out Arabic songs, likely Quran scripture.  From the treasury and beyond camels carried those either too lazy to walk or those wanting the experience of a camel ride.  I walked and roamed alone up the cliffs and ascending slopes.  Petra is a panorama of caves and cliffs in a collage of desert colors.  I sat in the shade of arches or the hump of some lonely hill and stared out to an extending horizon that stretched out beyond the large canvas of Crayola that is Jordan.  I strolled leisurely through and unhurried, the calm and quiet of my own inner self and the still rhythmic breathing of a slowly rising chest connected to and conscious of the swirls and shifting turns of the wind and the silent pulse of canyons and mountains and valleys and miles of a vast and beautifully empty wilderness of dust and stone.
  The drive out of Petra was a beautiful sight.  The sky morphed shades of red and yellow and orange that crashed abruptly in to the black of coming night rising above dark outlines of a thousand mountain peaks.  I pressed my face against the window, crinking my neck so not to miss a single dive and rise of the road, the contrast of dark night and the bright fading light of day that is dusk, the steep drop down to valleys and the sharp rise of mountains that only seemed like smudges and outlines in the retreating light of empty valleys.
  It was Christmas that day, and I suppose my present to myself was the smile that comes with new journeys and amazing places.  I hardly knew it was Christmas, far from family, far from friends, and walking out through warm deserts of Arabian lands.  Holidays spent alone do not seem like holidays at all.  It is the time of year for celebration with family and the revelry of friends, and I was entirely on my own, as I most often have been the last 2 ½ years.  This part of the world does not celebrate Christmas of course, and there are only a few reminders, and although my family may have been far in distance, never in thought, so I remembered that day, if only because I knew how important it would be to call my family, and my own pleasant imaginings of Christmas mornings back home and passing out the Christmas presents for everyone to open.  Some memories never die.  Some reasons for celebrating go on through eternities with the enormity of profound blessings.  My own particular blessing and gift on this specific Christmas was small in comparison, but small things become grand, and I will always remember my celebrations in dust and sand.  I will always remember my own special Crayola Christmas.

“…And thou too, Petra, tho’ the Roman came
And fann’d thy dying glories into fame;
Rear’d the tall column – Spread the stately dome –
And seem’d the founder of a second Rome –
How brief the pageant! On thy dying brow
Men laid a crown – but who shall crown thee now?
A thousand summers o’er thy ruins crept:
A thousand winters o’er thy ruins wept:
A thousand years – and still the very spot
Where once thou wert so glorious, was forgot! ..”
  “Petra: A Poem”
  By John William Burgon, BA.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Feluca Fun and Kings of Karnak.

“Night fell on old Luxor:
Then O’er the desert, darkness swiftly crept.
And filled the distant valleys, where there slept
The spirits of a hundred Theban kings…”

  - “Night Fall: Luxor.”  By R.R. Thompson.

After Aswan and Abu Simbel I found a spot on a felucca and sailed listlessly down the Nile northward toward Luxor.  A felucca is a traditional sail boat with a large deck, but no state rooms, no bedrooms or bathrooms, just a padded deck with blankets and the company of a few others.  I spent 2 ½ days on the felucca.  The first night there were ten of us, plus the captain and one crew member.  It was fantastically relaxing.  That first night we sailed a short distance and docked the boat on the bank of the river for the night.  We played cards and chatted through the night and slept there on the deck of the boat.  The night was filled with a brisk wind blowing off the river and the orange moon loomed large and full and splotched in black shadows clouds.  We cuddled in our blanket till the cold of the morning woke us.  It was much colder in desert winter than I anticipated, and I had packed no cold weather clothes, just a simple windbreaker and a thin long sleeve shirt. 
  The food was simple and traditional, pita bread with Egyptian style pasta or rice along with vegetables.  There are large cruise ships that go down the river, covering more ground and stopping at the various temples and sites in Luxor and around.  I would rather do the Felucca.  Despite the lack of luxury and comfort, I enjoyed the relaxation and intimacy.  It was quite perfect for me. 
  After the first night, we were down to five, a Peruvian couple, a Belgian couple, and me.  It was a great group.  The day passed patiently and warmly on, zigzagging the river to catch the wind in the tall sail.  At lunch, we dove and swam.  Yes, I have both sailed and swum the great Nile of Egypt. I was sad to see the Felucca trip end.  It was blissfully calming and I caught myself in moments with that inward smile of contentment.  I am happy when I travel.  It is the only moments I find myself nearing happiness.  I love that inward smile, that sudden realization of the moment and the reality of the life I am living.  There is good in it, and excitement, and wonder, and awe.  The second night the weather was not the cold from the previous night, but a more pleasant cool and a gentle swaying of the boat.  We rose early and crossed the river.  We bade the captain and the boat adieu and took a minivan the rest of the way to Luxor. 

Luxor is filled with temples and sights.  It is the city where ancient Egypt is most on display, and I kept busy with days of walking temples and standing under tall pillars of thick stone.  I visited Kom Ombo Temple, and Edfu Temple, which was the more impressive of the two, and like the other temples was a complex of pillars and statues and slate walls carved out in an ancient writing.  One evening I made my way to the temples of Luxor as the early dark of a winter’s night set in and lights beamed in a soft glow upon the walls and carved out pharaoh faces and the tall Luxor obelisk.  It was nice to see a temple at night, the brown stone glowing.  The temples of Luxor were fascinating.  How do I describe them to sound any different than the others?  The pillars of broken walls and crumbled buildings seemed a coliseum of splendor.  How was mighty Egypt able to build such things as this?  The soft shades of sandstone gleamed in a faint orange from the soft lights, an orange that grew and faded tall in to the sky to an eventual black of dark night and speckled stars.  I walked around alone, thoughts of the temples, of the grandeur they must have been, of the magnificence they still are.  I tip-toed quietly through halls and courtyards, as though to imbue a sense of reverence, despite the crowd of tourists in their hustle and bustle.  I walked out to the back of the temple, behind broken walls where it seemed no tourist ever came, and stood staring through the columns and arches at the city of Luxor on one side, and the ancient temples of Luxor on the other.  I appreciated the contrast, though certainly I came for the ancient, for the mighty and revered, and I stood, I sat, I stared, and I listened to the very walls, hoping to hear the sound of light softly echoing through the carved out hieroglyphics in a subtle reverberating tone.  I listened to the hum and drum of the breeze and the pattering of footsteps and the chorus of dozen languages, and when I had my fill, I left the temple and walked the city grounds and through the bazaar and up and down any road I could find.  I spent much of another day doing the same, walking aimlessly and purposefully in an attempt to become semi-lost.  It is what I do, wander and walk with no other reason than to feel and hear the pavement under me and the sounds and sights of a city that I may never know again. 
  Luxor has many great sites.   One day I rose early and headed over to the west bank of the Nile to The Valley of the Kings.  That is where the pharaohs had their tombs carved out into the mountains.  Wow!! They are impressive, and it is amazing to think how one man could have so much time and effort and labor put into such an elaborate and extravagant burial place.  The longer the man served as pharaoh, the bigger his tomb was, for once a pharaoh died, the laborers would quit working on his tomb and begin working on the new pharaoh’s tomb.  The tombs are massive caves and tunnels hollowed out of limestone with colorful paintings still intact and the intricate carvings seen everywhere else.  No camera were allowed anywhere on the site, and what a shame.  Can you imagine perfectly rectangle tunnels leading a hundred yards or more in to, or steeply down a mountainside, with series of cave-like chambers and everything finely smoothed, carved, painted and chiseled in fine and delicate pictorials?  Yes, another great site of Egypt.  I walked down in to several of the tombs, the boy pharaoh, Ramses, and others, and it continued to amaze me at what power these pharaohs must have had, what gods they must have both seemed and thought themselves to be.  What arrogance! 
  I stayed out on the west bank visiting the other great sites and temples and met a Japanese family living in Kenya, as the father was the Japanese Ambassador there in Kenya.  The eight year old daughter took a liking to me and we were fast friends and spent most of the afternoon playing games and talking with me.  She never seemed to run out of energy or things to talk about, but she was a cute kid, and her mother wished I could be a teacher at their school in Kenya.  Realizing what my students were like in the U.A.E., I wished for the same. 
  In Luxor I also visited the complex of the Temples of Karnak, 65 acres of pillars and stone walls and piles of crumbling rock and statues.  It was a maze of temple sites, beautiful in its size and its fading authenticity, how the crumbling pieces blended in to fine walls and heavy pillars lined in row upon row of massive stone.  I was a mouse in search of cheese, slowly scurrying through hallways and tunnels and courtyards and temples.  There was too much to see at Karnak, and there, wear and tear and the battling of millennia showed its toll in the piles of battered and beaten stone, and the crumbled rocks spilled in to a scattering of dust.  There is a statue there where it is said if you walk around it three times you will get lots of money.  If you walk around it five times all your dreams will come true.  As I finished my fifth lap, the Peruvian couple jokingly shouted that six times around and I would find a girlfriend, so I made haste to finish one more go around.  That was 4 ½ months ago, and I haven’t found her yet.  I stayed there at Karnak passing the hours through the jigsaw puzzle of temples.  The weather was warm and fine with a calm wind that swirled the sand and dust in slow sweeps.  The sun added a pleasant heat of a true desert winter day and the towering stone added the thrill of adventure, experience, and opportunity.  I am a hoarder of these things, devouring them wholly, selfishly, entirely, and writing mere memos of remembrance tied up with silly snapshot photos, inadequate and plain.  I constantly imagine how much better all these things could be done, and envision what new experiences I will find to hoard and gulf down.  Luxor though was finished, and I started off on a painful 19 hour bus ride squished in to the row with the least amount of leg room, despite being the tallest person on the bus.  After a tiresome and cold night of cramped legs and banged up knees, I arrived in Dahab on the Sinai Peninsula with the aqua waters of the Red Sea, where I will begin with the next entry. 

“Meditation in Luxor.”
  By Dibakar Barua

Liquid under the charred brow
of the valley of death
the fabled Nile gleams.
It’s the eye of Horus
shedding a tear for old temples,
peering, joyless, at hot air balloons.

Snake charming pipes regale
tourists on a cruise boat;
the soul grows heavy
with images of bursting planes --
and wary of the judgment
of Osiris – the monster Amemit
eating a meaty, raw heart.

Luxor’s stone tree of life still glows;
one thinks of the ochre moment
of Bardo that will erase all colors,
Nile blue or a childhood rice field green
of billowing waves, and invite all
to a merging with the one --
like pink portals that beckon
to a feast at the teats of Nut.

But the sky and the earth are
a backdrop. We walk the pathways
of desire and fear with a hollow
feathery heart bent on ascension.
This body with its meat sacks,
its iterative propensities,
belongs to none, and this mind that spins
endless spidery filaments
catches nothing.