Inhuman Swill : Page 56
Why is my blog called Inhuman Swill? Because you can unscramble the pieces to make William Shunn.

Tapped human side

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Here's an article about Algis Budrys that ran in yesterday's Chicago Tribune:

Tapped human side of science fiction

I'm going to head out to Skokie for the service Saturday morning.

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Laura Chavoen in the courtyard of the Mohammed Ali Mosque, The Citidel, Cairo
[I've only written 12,000 words so far about the big trip, so I suppose there's no reason not to go ahead and slap on a few more and close this out.]

Our lame-duck tour company had, belatedly, offered us some options for our Cairo sightseeing pleasure on Saturday, May 31. We could have a tour guide, or a driver, or a tour guide and a driver, or we could do it all on our own using public transportation and taxis. After some hasty private consultation, Laura and I opted for a driver only. We figured it would be useful to have someone who could take us where we wanted to go, but wouldn't get in our way or try to drag us off on annoying consumer side adventures.

We set off on our adventure first thing after our buffet breakfast at the hotel (which featured the best damn fresh orange juice I've had in a long time). We had three items on our sightseeing agenda: the Citadel, Islamic Cairo, and Coptic Cairo. Well, two out of three isn't bad.

Things started off well enough. Our driver whisked us away to the Citadel, that ancient fortress city built up by Saladin to defend against the Crusaders. We were especially enamored of the Mohammed Ali Mosque, a grand structure in the Ottoman Baroque style—even though Laura's carefully composed outfit was not proof against being wrapped in a green cloak as we entered. Our small playlist of five videos from the Citadel complex will give you an idea what we saw there. Or, if you prefer to see only one, try this video of Laura in the courtyard of the Mohammed Ali Mosque:

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Borderline retarded

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Koshary (yum!) in Cairo, Egypt
We knew that Friday, May 30, as another long travel day, was going to suck. We just didn't know yet how badly it was going to suck.

Over dinner the evening before, Ra'ed had broken the news to us that there would be yet another change in our travel plans. It seems the tour company had not booked our return tickets on the morning ferry to Taba soon enough, and the earliest ferry with berths still remaining would not be until 7:00 pm. That would get us to Taba far, far too late to make any bus that would reach Cairo at any remotely reasonable hour.

The solution foisted upon us—dreamed up by that same favorite benefactor of ours in Cairo who only days before had failed to get us from Hurghada to Sharm al-Sheikh by boat—was overland travel. It seemed fairly straightforward, if tedious, on the face of it. Ra'ed would drive us back to Aqaba, hand us seventy American dollars, and drop us off at the border crossing to Eilat, Israel. Once in Israel, we would take a cab to the Egyptian border, where a driver would be waiting to spirit us south to Dahab to catch our bus.

It sounds so simple, doesn't it?

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In the Siq, near the Treasury, in Petra, Jordan
Petra is an ancient city established in what is now Jordan in the 6th century B.C. by a tribe called the Nabateans. The city inhabits an extensive valley defended by a narrow canyon called the Siq. The Nabateans carved open channels into the canyon walls to bring irrigation water into the city, and covered channels for drinking water. In this way they were able to defend against numerous invaders over the centuries, establishing Petra as an important center of commerce on the trading routes between Arabia and the Mediterranean. Petra finally fell to Rome in A.D. 106 after a lengthy siege, but continued as an important population center until being crippled by an earthquake in 363.

The most notable archaeological feature of Petra is the proliferation of elaborate tombs or temples, and smaller shrines, carved into the faces of the area's sandstone cliffs. The best preserved example of this beautiful Greek-influenced architecture is al-Khazneh, or the Treasury, which has survived as long as it has thanks to the protective overhang beneath which it was carved. The Treasury may be most recognizable in popular culture as the exterior of the temple containing the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The drive from our hotel to the entrance to the Petra site took all of two minutes, first thing on Thursday, May 29. We had been told that we would be riding horses in as part of our tour. I pictured us arriving at the Treasury like Indy Jones, riding out of the Siq in a thunder of hooves. This turned out, disappointingly, not to be the case. Instead, our grand horse ride took us from just inside the site entrance to near the upper end of the Siq, a distance of only 200 meters. Our Arabians were led by their grooms. There was no free riding. Well, Laura somehow managed to convince her groom to let her take the reins from him. Me, I completely failed to communicate to my groom that I could ride a horse all on my own, or even that I knew how to mount and dismount by myself.

That turned out to be the only disappointing thing about Petra. No, there were two disappointing things about Petra. First was the horse ride, second was the fact that the battery of our borrowed digital camera (as it so often did on this trip) died just as we were getting to the good stuff. Everything else was spectacular (although when you imagine how a site like this is going to be, you rarely picture the proliferation of tourists and merchants cluttering it all up).

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Dinars on us!

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The view from breakfast, Dahab, Egypt
[Now that we've been back for more than a week, maybe I should get cracking on these last few trip updates.]

Wednesday, May 28, was another travel day, though we did get to enjoy another fine hotel buffet for breakfast and some more relaxation on the Dahab shore before the next van came calling for us. We loaded up at 11:00 am, then rushed north up the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba to Taba.

Our ferry was supposed to leave for Aqaba, Jordan, at 2:00 pm. At the appointed hour, however, it hadn't yet arrived, so our guide and driver Hassan suggested we retire to a nearby cafe and have some coffee while we waited. From the open-air cafe, we had a perfect view of the ferry's long approach, so we were back to the dock in plenty of time to get run through customs and have our Egyptian exit visas stamped in our passports.

In the process, an X-ray machine detected the presence in my suitcase of a fancy multi-tool pocketknife, and I discovered that the word "Leatherman" is one of the unexpected words in the lexicon of Egyptian immigration officers. As in, "Your Leatherman must stay with the captain of the ferry during your transit."

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When you absolutely, positively have to be a smug asshole to your friends and love ones one last time, there's:

YouveBeenLeftBehind.com

In a nutshell, the site queues up messages from you to your infidel friends that will be dispatched after the Rapture. And how does the site know that the Rapture has happened? Because at least three of the site's five designated holier-than-thou's will have failed to log in for three days running.

This begs the question of what would happen should, God forfend, a catastrophic but non-Rapture event should wipe out those saintly designees all at once. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue should all those ha-ha-I'm-in-Heaven-now messages get sent while their authors are still miserably earthbound? I hope someone hacks the site and makes it happen.

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I just heard from Geoff Landis that Algis Budrys passed away this morning. He was one of the great writers, editors, critics, and teachers of science fiction, and as the first week's instructor for my Clarion class in 1985, he certainly had a profound influence on my early development as a writer. I'm very sad to hear this news, especially given that I now live so close to Evanston, Illinois, where he made his home for so long.

I've pulled Rogue Moon down from the shelf and intend to start re-reading it tonight, something I've meant to do for a very long time.

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Forced to resort

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Cat at internet cafe in Dahab, Egypt
[Writing in Cairo hotel room, hoping to stay up all night in preparation for sleeping through our 7:35 am flight to Paris.]

According to the original plan, we shouldn't have been on that overnight train back to Cairo at all. This was the first leg of our two-day journey from Luxor to Petra, and it was supposed to have started first thing Tuesday with a drive east to Hurghada, a resort city on the western shore of the Red Sea. From there we were to take a ferry to Sharm al-Sheikh, another Egyptian resort city, this one on the western shore of the Gulf of Aqaba. We would spend the night in Dahab (yes, another resort city), and then continue on our way from there.

We had been informed of the change in plan on Friday evening, our first evening in Cairo. We were sitting at an outdoor cafe near the train station at the end of our sightseeing day with Shiko our guide and our three new Australian friends. I was smoking a shisha, and Shiko was favoring a distinctly reluctant Jemima with a rather flirtatious palm-reading when the Egyptian agent of our tour company showed up. He had some news for Laura and me.

It seemed he had just learned that the ferry from Hurghada to Sharm al-Sheikh would not be running the day we needed it. It seemed, also, that he had known this might be a possibility, but hadn't let us know any sooner. His alternate plan would be for us to take a train back to Cairo from Luxor, then ride a bus from Cairo to Dahab. He said the bus would take six hours.

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I've been doing a little uploading to YouTube tonight, and I keep seeing ads for its new Scientology Video Channel. This reminds me, though, that about three weeks ago Laura and I were startled to see an actual demonstration against Scientology down in Grant Park in Chicago. Some of the picketers carried signs demanding the Church of Scientology be taxed. We cheered them on. Protesting that behemoth takes some guts.

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Luxor deluxe

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[Writing in our hotel room back in Cairo again. I have an internet connection, but can't seem to reach the mail relay server that will let me send email.]

After about four hours on the train Sunday evening, we reached Luxor. It was not exactly a comfortable train ride, since we didn't have a private sleeper car and we were hot and cramped. But we were determined to put the bad and discouraging aspects of our trip behind us.

As soon as our new guide Ibram met us at the station (and, by the way, I am certain that I am massacring even the loose art of transliteration with all our guides' names), we felt the tide had turned. Young, short, and rotund, Ibram was nonetheless filled with a contagious enthusiasm about Luxor. Laura asked him if we could stop for fast food on the way to the hotel, and he and our driver were more than happy to accommodate our wish. We scored some tasty falafel and shawarma sandwiches from a walk-up cafe, and we polished them off long before reaching the hotel.

The hotel itself was beautiful, and from the balcony—yes, balcony!—of our spacious fifth-floor room we could see out across the Nile. When we awoke on Monday, colorful hot-air balloons were drifting through that view, over a glistening, glimmering green landscape on the far side of the river. Our morning itinerary was set, but the for the afternoon itinerary we had three options to choose from, one of which was a balloon ride. Seeing the balloons there in the morning light made me a little sad that we hadn't selected that option. But not too sad, because I really had no desire to see Laura huddled in an acrophobic lump on the floor of a gondola.

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The Accidental Terrorist 30th Anniversary Sale

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William Shunn

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