May 2008 | Inhuman Swill | William Shunn
Inhuman Swill : May 2008

Red, red sea

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No time for a long post, but Laura and I are having an utterly relaxing day in Dahab, which is on the Sinai Peninsula, on the shore of the Red Sea. Our hotel is amazingly beautiful, and the water of the Red Sea is the most amazing blue I have ever seen in my life. ([info]asphalteden, the diving here is supposed to be amazing, although according to the book in our hotel room, almost everything in the water is poisonous.)

You can see mountains directly across the water, ten to twelve miles away. That, I am told, is Saudi Arabia. Tomorrow we drive north, then cross the water in a catamaran, landing in Aqaba, Jordan.

A full account of yesterday in Luxor will come, as will an account of our adventures crossing the Sinai today. In the meantime, before Laura drags me out of this internet cafe, I will try to upload a couple of our videos to YouTube, especially the one of the baby camel wandering through our petrol station in the desert.

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Relaxed in Luxor

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Not to say that we're relaxing. We've been to a hell of a lot of different sites today. But Luxor has been a most pleasant surprise, and we've had a terrific time here.

First, my apologies for that flurry of posts. I've been typing them up on the laptop and saving them for when I found an internet connection. The wi-fi seems to be on the blink not just in our hotel but in the hotel next door too. But that hotel has an internet cafe, so I'm at one of the workstations frantically trying to get a lot of work done online in under an hour (66 Egyptian pounds).

We hope everyone at Wiscon had a great weekend, we wish everyone in the U.S. a happy Memorial Day, and I hope I'll be back in a few days to post some more. Next stop, Petra in Jordan!

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Death race 2008

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[Written Sunday afternoon in the Sara Hotel, Aswan.]

We awoke at 2:45 am today. Well, I awoke earlier to deal with the unsavory consequences of our delicious meal at Makka. Sorry, Ali! I promise my heart will never stray again!

The reason for the early hour was to meet our guide Ahmet at 3:30 am, and thence to meet the Abu Simbel convoy at 4:00 am. Access to Abu Simbel is restricted to certain hours of the day, so buses and cars collect at the entry point to the route in Aswan, then are released to proceed at either 4:00 or 4:30, depending on how many vehicles have gathered.

When we heard the word "convoy," we thought of a rather stately, sedate procession. What actually transpired was a road race. For three white-knuckled hours, Ahmet piloted our van through the desert like the utter fucking lunatic he is, using whichever lane was most convenient, overtaking other drivers, tailgating another van for miles at a distance of a couple of feet at I-shit-you-not what had to be eighty miles and hour or more. I'm sure there were times we hit a hundred. Laura and I were each locked in our own private hells. All we could do was try to keep our eyes closed and pretend to be asleep.

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Oh, what a Philae!

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[Written Sunday afternoon in the Sara Hotel, Aswan.]

Saturday morning we slept in. Conveniently, our train had had some engine trouble during the night, so we wouldn't be reaching Aswan in the south of Egypt until after 11:00 am, which put us over two hours behind schedule. But this was good news for the exhausted lazyheads from Friday, who didn't have to be up at the asscrack of dawn.

In Aswan, at last, after more than fifteen hours on the train, our local tour representatives installed us in the Sara Hotel, a lovely hotel in a dusty, hilly neighborhood that's either half built or half decayed. Our guide that afternoon was a woman whose English was so thickly accented she was hard to understand for a while. (We were spoiled by Shiko's perfect English in Cairo.) She took us to the Aswan High Dam, rattling off facts and figures at a pace that was hard to follow.

After that, we drove a ways and then sailed by fellukah down the waters of Lake Nasser to the island site of Philae Temple. Philae is a temple from the Ptolemaic period, unmistakably Egyptian but with unmistakable Greek influences. It is one of the many temples and monuments that were relocated by UNESCO during the building of the Aswan Dam in the '60s. Otherwise they would have been flooded and lost.

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William Shunn and the Curse of the Second Pyramid
[Written Sunday afternoon in the Sara Hotel, Aswan.]

What's most distinctive about driving the expressways of Cairo by night, at least compared to the cities I've visited, is the number of minarets you see, all lit up from within in eerie greens and oranges, or from without by gaudy neon. What impresses you once you enter heavier traffic is how Egyptians can turn a three-lane road into a five-lane road just by willing it so.

We were punchy when we came off the plane from Rome. A travel facilitator from our tour company helped us acquire visas quickly and pass through customs, then our first day's tour guide, Shiko, took over and bustled us into a van. At 4:00 am, we were settling into our room at the Zayed Hotel, and we had only three hours of sleep to look forward to before the day would begin.

At 9:15 am, we hopped back into the van with our luggage and joined three Australian travelers. Our first stop was the Egyptian Museum. I would like to describe and lovingly linger over everything we saw and learned there, but that would take days. With this, as with the monuments and temples and other sights I will mention over the next few days, you can generally assume an inverse relationship between how cool and awe-inspiring something is and how many words I spend on it. You know what most of this stuff looks like already, and otherwise I'll never catch up.

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The amazing race

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Colosseum, Rome
[Still in the Sara Hotel coffee shop.]

Laura and I slept in Thursday and set off for the airport without benefit of breakfast. We were second in line at the Alitalia counter when it opened, and we got booked in prime seats all the way through to Cairo. For both flights, we were in the first row of the economy cabin, left of the aisle. Instead of three across, that row on that side had two seats with a baby-sized seat in between. We had plenty of elbow room between us.

This, for Laura, was the real beginning of the vacation. We landed in Rome at about 3:45 in the afternoon. Our flight for Cairo would leave at 10:15 pm. That gave us six and a half hours to play with. At Laura's suggestion, we spent it on a Roman excursion. It was probably ill-advised, but we managed to pull it off.

Once we found the airport train station, we learned that the Leonardo Express would take us from Fiumicino Airport to Termini Station in Rome in thirty minutes. We bought tickets for both directions. We made it into Rome at about 5:10 pm. We explained to a young man at a tourist information kiosk that we wanted to know what we could see nearby at still be back to catch the 6:52 train to the airport. He pulled out a map and quickly sketched out a route for us.

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Parchment and penalties

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[Still on the train to Aswan.]

Wednesday morning Laura and I again tried the room-service breakfast. Her bagels seemed fine, but I knew ordering my "American pancakes with syrup" would be something of a gamble. What I found when I lifted the lid from my tray were French crepes with a tub of honey. This was fine. At least the crepes were browned all the way through.

As an added bonus, every room-service cart (as opposed to the trays) comes decorated with a Gerbera daisy in a white stem vase. We now had three sitting around the room, including the one that came with our dessert of tirimisu and creme brulee on Sunday night: one red, one pink, and one orange. It made the cheerful room even more so.

Laura needed to be at the conference all day, so after doing some work in the morning, I set off on the nearly two-hour bus journey to the south shore of Malta and the ancient temple sites of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra. Malta is not that large, but to get most places you must transfer in Valletta and then wend your way slowly through every hamlet and burg along the way. This made for much rapturous gazing out the bus window at narrow streets, yellow-washed walls, startling churches in hidden plazas, and hills divided by low walls of rough fieldstone—when my nose wasn't stuck in my copy of Culture Shock! Egypt, that is, as I crammed for the upcoming phase of our trip.

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[It's Thursday afternoon, and we just boarded our Alitalia flight back to Rome. I'm writing this in a black vinyl-bound journal with a skull-and-crossbones on the cover that I got for my 40th birthday. When I next have the chance, I'll copy this back into my blog.]

Tuesday morning at the Intercontinental, Laura and I opted to have only coffee delivered to the room. My Monday morning order of French toast with cinnamon had been disappointing in the extreme. The four slices were all still soggy with egg batter in the middle. I had eaten around the edges and tried not to gag. The Intercontinental may be a 5-star hotel, but it gets no more than four, maybe three, in my book. The internet connection, via ethernet cable, is not very reliable, and neither is some of the concierges' advice.

I spent the morning working in the room while Laura attended her morning conference sessions. At noon-thirty, I ran into Laura and her colleague Cyndee in the lobby, just as I was heading to the hotel bar in hopes that I could sneak in a pint of Cisk (the local lager, pronounced chisk) before they arrived. They had to run to the rooms and change, so I gulped down a half-pint that looked larger than that. By the time I was done, they were back, and we all took the bus to Valletta.

Valletta on a weekday is far different from Valletta on a Sunday. Very crowded, every shop open, from the tiniest silversmith to McDonald's and Burger King. Our first stop was at a gelateria because our quest for gelato for Laura had ended in disappointment the night before. [Beginning to taxi.] Laura was very happy with her Valletta gelato, but I had already been served my two scoops when I spied the tub of fig gelato. I enjoyed my pistachio and "banofee"—banana toffee—but became fixated thereafter on finding and trying fig gelato elsewhere.

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The Kitchen is open

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Not a huge sightseeing day yesterday. I spent some of the morning writing in the hotel room, working on a new story titled "Our Dependence on Foreign Keys." In the afternoon I wandered around St. Julian's, collecting such supplies as bottled water (a must, they say) and a universal-to-UK adapter that would accept my laptop plug and thence plug into my converter (found it at a photography shop after being directed there by a gruff but helpful ironmonger). I also collected the indelible memory, after turning into a dead-end car park down by the shore behind the Westin, of a couple having sex in a rocky declivity by the water. There were other people on the beach, less than a stone's throw from them, and I watched only long enough to be sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. Okay, maybe two seconds longer than that.

Together with her colleague from work, Laura and I hopped a bus that evening to Sliema, where the concierge had promised us we would find a wonderful little inexpensive traditional restaurant on a side street. "No sea views, but good food." Laura specifically asked if it was open on Mondays, because many restaurants are not. "Yes, yes, open all the time." You can guess where this is going, but what you might not guess is that when we tracked down the tiny shuttered restaurant and perused the posted menu of what might have been consumed on a Tuesday through Saturday, we discovered we had been spared a cavalcade of pizza, pasta, and burgers.

Guidebook to the rescue! One of the top restaurants in the area, The Kitchen, was a mediumish walk away on the Triq il-Torri, and on a Monday evening it was possible to secure a table without a reservation. The service was painfully young, surly, and slow, but the food was outstanding. Beef ragout in rolled pancakes with sour cream, pumpkin tortelloni, open pie of seabass fillets, stuffed pork fillets over baked beans.... We shared everything, stuffed ourselves, and topped it off with a nice local blended wine.

At the bus stop after dinner, around 10:30 pm, we saw our bus approaching, the 62. It quickly became apparent that the bus was not going to stop. We shouted and waved, and the bus stopped for us half a block later. The driver did not seem pleased to let us on. Was it an express bus that wasn't supposed to stop there? Was the driver just hoping to end his last run of the night a bit sooner? I don't know. But the gelateria where we'd hoped to score some dessert was closed when we arrived, and St. Julian's was crowded with pretty young people doing their best to get even more drunk, so we cut short our quest for gelato-not-Ben-and-Jerry's and called it a night.

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Cities of sand

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A nine-hour flight east, a four-hour layover in Rome, and a one-hour flight due south brought us early yesterday afternoon to the tiny Mediterranean island nation of Malta. The weather here is a vast improvement over Chicago's. It's sunny, with a bit of haze in the evenings, and just the cool side of warm. North across the water lies Sicily. To the south is Libya. To the west is Tunisia. This island, in fact, lies farther south than Tunis.

Malta belongs to the EU, so passport control was ridiculously easy. In fact, since our visas were stamped in Rome, we didn't have to fuss with customs at all. A harrowing ten-minute cab ride, wilder than any Manhattan trip, brought us to our hotel, but we were distracted from imminent death by the gorgeous vistas of sand-colored buildings crowding every hillside in sight, occasionally topped by spectacular towers and domes. It's probably fortunate that we didn't learn until we reached our hotel room that Malta's rate of traffic accidents is the highest in the EU.

Our hotel is in St. Julian's, a metropolitan resort sort of city on the north shore. We're next door to a multiplex movie theater and across from a bowling alley. Our hotel has a private beach. But slumming on the sand was not our goal yesterday. Once we were settled and changed, we hopped a bus back east a few miles to Malta's capital, the medieval city of Valletta.

Valletta was built in the 16th century by the Knights of St. John, the Catholic military order that ruled the island from 1530 to 1798, and was named for Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette. It was, I have read, one of the first European cities built from scratch on a grid plan. It occupies a long narrow promontory pointing northeast between Marsamxett Harbour on the northwest and Grand Harbour on the southeast, with a street plan very reminiscent of Manhattan's (on a rather smaller scale).

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