Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Delhi II

We arrived back at the New Delhi train station late in the morning. The smell of urine and hordes of people had not changed in the two days we'd been gone. I was thoroughly stared at once again, only this time I was too tired to find any amusement in it. Instead I gave them my best glare and stuffed down my feelings of annoyance at being looked at like the wolf-man at the circus. Outside we had to fight off the tuk-tuk drivers since we chose to walk to the hotel - it was only about 1 km from the station. We were staying at the same hotel we had been at for our previous three weeks in Delhi and everyone there remembered us. Our new room had a fridge which was nice. We liked to go down to the grocery store and get waters and little box-juices and now we could keep them cold in the fridge. We didn't do much that afternoon, the most notable event being dinner which we ordered at the hotel. They brought a small feast of tandoori chicken, mutton curry, chaat, rice and naan. The tandoori was so spicy that it left our lips burning for ten minutes after we had finished! And the mutton was soft and fell right off the bone. I think in India they call goat "mutton," so it might have been either goat or adult sheep. Either way it was a meat we hadn't tried yet and it was very good.

On the 24th we decided we'd better go to the local Citibank and get some more money. We would need a good chunk of it for our two week trip around India's western desert state: Rajasthan. The first tuk-tuk we asked said there was a festival going on that would make getting around difficult and quoted a price double what we were used to. We'd learned never to trust tuk-tuk drivers about such things though and moved on to the next one. He also told us there was a festival, so we were feeling more convinced. We took his offer of not-quite-double-the-price and headed down the street. He went the opposite direction than we expected and soon enough we hit some heavy traffic. He tried a few side streets but had to turn around due to oncoming traffic. Slowly, we butted our way through a tangle of cars, tuk-tuks and motorcycles until we were stuck in a serious grid-lock traffic jam. The huge intersection was at a complete standstill, most vehicles being trapped in the middle with no escape. That's when we decided it would be best to just get out and walk. It was madness!! Everyone was trying to go the direction they wanted to which made for a giant mess of vehicles that weren't going anywhere at all. The chaotic driving in India works pretty well most of the time, but in situations like that one it just creates a huge mess. So we walked towards Connaught Place and the Citibank. On the bright side, we got to see the festival along the way which was neat. There were a lot of marching bands. Like I've mentioned before, they aren't the stiff, disciplined groups that you would find in DCI (Drum Corps International), but they have uniforms and instruments and walk through he streets playing music. There were tons of different groups of kids dressed in various school uniforms, tightly packed and looking bored. There weren't really any floats, but there were vans covered in strings of orange flowers. Many vendors were wandering through the crowds selling cotton-candy-looking treats, or pinwheels. And of course, there were tons of people there to watch the parade inch it's way down the road. One old lady saw me with my camera out and spun her grandson around for a photo. He didn't seem very happy with this and made an extremely pouty face, but Grandma looked awesome in the picture. I wish I could have given them a copy. Past all the festivities, the traffic cleared up and we managed to get a nice cheap tuk-tuk the rest of the way. Getting our money from the Citibank was no problem. If it had been a problem I might have had a breakdown... I would not take kindly to them canceling our debit cards again. But, like I said, no problems! We tuk-tuked back to the edge of the festival and walked the rest of the way. I caught sight of a street stall that had a big wok full of bubbling oil, floating with fat pakoras. We got two of these awesome, golden pakoras for just 5 rupees ($0.12 USD) each. It's kinda scary getting street food, but is usually so worth it. It must have been street-food-day for us because we also grabbed some bananas from another cart. They were covered in black patches on the outside, but inside they were firm and sweet. And cheap: two for 5 rupees. And then we got some shortbread cookies from another cart that was passing by later that evening. We were on our way to an internet cafe to print our train tickets and I saw the cart rolling by with interesting looking foods on it. There was a covered tray full of little round cookies, and next to it a warm wok with a bunch of cookies pressed to bottom to keep them warm. We asked for just a small bag of them. He pulled out a home-made newspaper baggy and dropped nine of the little suckers in there. We handed over 9 rupees in exchange and went on our merry way. Turns out they were shortbread cookies!! Yum! A little taste of home-baked Christmas right there in New Delhi, India. So our simple day in Delhi turned out to be pretty interesting.

We were off again on the 25th. We had to get up at 4:15 AM to catch our early train. We once again found that the hotel staff had spent the night on the couches downstairs, wrapped in warm blankets. One of the hotel workers grabbed a rickshaw for us and set a price of 20 rupees. Once we got to the station the driver claimed that it was 20 rupees a person, not total... My foot. We paid him a full 40 rupees anyways. I'm pretty sure we were swindled. It was only an extra $0.40 USD, but it's principle of the matter. Oh well. The floor of the large, covered lobby area of the train station was crowded with little blanket-covered lumps. Tons of people had spent the night there and I suspected many of them spend many nights there. I found myself amazed at how tiny a ball they managed to roll into and because they were covered head-to-toe I had to wonder if there was actually a person under a few blankets. They just looked too tiny. We had trouble finding our train because it wasn't listed on the departure board, but a few people directed us in the right direction. As we were walking the full mile down the platform towards our carriage (those trains are long) a British woman caught up to us and asked if it was the train to Jaipur. We told her that it was, and then got to listen to her complain about India for a few moments. She liked to curse. When it turned out she was in the same carriage as us I was a little relieved to see that she wasn't actually sitting near us. Sure, I'll complain about India to Chuck, but I'd rather not trash-talk the place on a crowded train with a boisterous woman. While we were waiting for departure time an attendant came by handing out free newspapers and bottled water. And after we left (on time for once) we got a fun little "tea kit" and a thermos of hot water to make our own tea. A few hours later we were served a decently tasty breakfast. It was pretty cool! Indian trains may look old, dirty, and unkempt, but the service on some of the lines is pretty awesome. Getting a newspaper, bottled water, tea, breakfast, and a 300 km at $10 USD a person is just incredible!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Our train arrived late in Agra - just over an hour late, making it somewhere around 11:00 PM. We piled out of the station through a side entrance and were immediately bombarded with offers for rides to our hotel. We did our best to politely tell everyone "No thanks." I remember that one of the more persistent men had lost his ear to a fire from what I could tell. All that was left were some bumps where the thickest cartilage had managed to survive. I just kept watching his ear as I walked behind him while Chuck refused his tuk-tuk offer. We ended up getting a ride from a driver who wasn't hassling us at all. We stopped him as he drove by, agreed on a price and jumped in. The ride was freezing! I suppose that fact that we were technically in a desert made for cold nights, especially during winter. The tuk-tuk driver walked us right into our hotel lobby room where I think he was given a commission for bringing us there. That's something you have to be careful about with the drivers - if you don't know exactly which hotel you're going to, they'll do their best to convince you to go to one of their choosing where they'll get a fat commission for your delivery. It will most likely be a crap-hole or too expensive, despite whatever the tuk-tuk driver claims. After the lengthy check-in process we headed to our room and were slightly horrified. There wasn't anything particularly wrong with it... It just was unpleasant. Slightly dirty, completely bare, holes in the wall covered with a newspaper, toilet seat completely broken off, broken TV. It's easier to accept little problems like that when they pop up one at a time. When they're all found in the same room together it makes you really not want to be there. To add to the annoyance, the hotel's claims of wifi-in-every-room ended up being a lie. That was expected though. We'd already figured out that most of the hotels claiming to have wifi don't. I don't know if they think that having internet on one computer in the lobby is the same as wifi, or if they are just outright lying, but they usually do not have wifi. We slept that night under a short blanket and with our feet hanging off the edge of the bed and were constantly woken up by people moving around in the hallway. It was not fun.

I was awaken for the last time at 7:00 AM, thanks to a loud group of people checking out of the hotel, but I continued to lay in bed for a couple more hours. When we finally got up for the day I decided not to fully shower due to the cold water. I just did my hair-wash-in-a-bucket thing and avoided the rest. The hotel was literally right down the street from the South Gate entrance to the Taj Mahal, so obviously, that would be our first stop. On our short walk there, all the shop keepers along the street were calling to us and promising very good prices on their jewelry or statues. A little boy - maybe 10 or 12 years old - gave us a business card for his family shop and suggested we stop by later. Then he showed us where to get our tickets and where to stand in line, etc. I thought that was fairly nice of him. We got our tourist-priced tickets from the tourist-ticket window and then had to stand in a nice long line to get in. There were two lines - one for men and one for women. The reason for this is because they have tight security at the entrance and they have a woman frisker for the women, and a man for the men. Standing in the line was a bit of an experience in and of itself. First thing I noticed was that I was about 6 inches taller than most of the women in the line. That was a bit awkward. And secondly, I noticed how closely everyone stands. I've noticed this before, but now I was getting to experience it. The woman behind me always had her front-side touching my back-side, pressed up on me like a slice of Kraft in a grilled cheese sandwich. I tried my best to get all up on the tiny old lady in front of me, but I tended to only get close enough to be touching the cloth of her sari. It's just not in my cultural blueprint to stand so closely in line. After a 15 minute wait and a thorough frisk-and-search by the lady-officer (Chuck had an uneventful frisk of his own), I was inside the gates of the Taj Mahal! The first view of the magnificent white tomb was pretty impressive. There's a lovely view of it across a long, narrow pool of water that everyone likes to try and get a picture at. The Taj Mahal reflects off the water and makes for some nice pictures. So after fighting the crowd for a great picture or two, we battled our way up to monument itself. You have to take off your shoes to walk around the building, so that's what we did. I stuffed them in my purse to avoid paying a shoe-tip. Gawd, I'm cheap. We saw a number of other tourists wearing little shoes covers instead of taking off their shoes and was very glad I hadn't gotten myself a pair of those. They are ridiculous! There was a long, immaculately precise line that wrapped around the Taj Mahal that we waited in. Photography wasn't allowed inside the tomb, but it wasn't any more impressive inside than outside so I didn't mind so much. It's definitely the outside that counts in the case of the Taj Mahal. After the quick tour inside, we wandered around the area looking at the mosques and landscape nearby. Once done with the Taj Mahal we picked a place to have lunch that was nearby our hotel. Once again, we were accosted by the shop-keepers, including the boy who had helped us earlier. We didn't end up going into his shop, and I felt a shade guilty about that, but hardly enough to actually make me go inside. We sat on the roof of the place we ate lunch at and watched all that was going on in the streets below. The roof was basically the second floor, so we had a pretty good view. It was really interesting! We were at a busy intersection so we saw a bunch of different vehicles going past: tuk-tuks, bicycle rickshaws, tons of motorcycles and the occasional car. There were a few cow-drawn carts, a donkey pulling a cart full of manure being driven by two 10 year old kids, and some men on brightly decorated horses. Stray cows and dogs wandered around on their own, scrounging for a scrap of food. They nosed through piles of garbage and ate anything they could find. I even saw a poor cow down a piece of paper. There were also quite a few white people wandering around. It seems that when you're someplace where you're the minority, you notice others who are also in your minority. So whenever we see white people we hurriedly whisper to each other and point them out. I'm always curious about what they're wearing, how they're acting, how long they're traveling, and where they've been. Strangely enough, we hardly ever speak to any of them though... We all notice each other, but speaking is forbidden somehow. While eating lunch, we just observed from our roof-top view. It was funny watching as they fended off a little boy roaming the intersection trying to sell keychains. He followed one couple through the intersection, having been told "No thanks" by the lady already. Finally fed up, the guy turned to the kid and said something that looked very curt and final. That got the kid to leave them alone, but he was un-phased and kept trying his sales on other people. I also recall an older man with a backpack on his back and a camera around his neck, seemingly wandering the streets on his own. I thought he must be rather brave. After lunch we got a tuk-tuk to Agra Fort. The driver said he would wait for us there and we tried to tell him not to. I hate it when they want to wait for you... Makes me feel obligated to search for them when I'm done. We got our tickets and just as we were going through the big entrance gate I saw a monkey climbing on the giant wooden door! And just past the entrance we see that there are 5 or 6 more monkeys happily taking peanuts from people. I looked them up online a few days later and determined they must be Rhesus Macaques. They had red little butts that faded to a deep golden brown across the rest of their bodies. One mother had her baby clinging to her belly for comfort which was very cute. Chuck decided he had to give some peanuts to the monkeys and found the guy who was handing them out. By the time he got his peanuts though, the monkeys had eaten their fill and were scaling the fort walls to relax in peace. We saved them to try again later. The Agra Fort is a pretty big place. It has some nice sights here and there, but quite a few areas of the fort were non-descript. At one point my camera died on my because I'd been neglecting to charge it in for quite some time, so I didn't get to take as many pictures of the place as I would have liked to. I would have loved to get pictures of the cute chipmunks I fed. In attempt to see how close they would, I broke up a peanut and dropped the bits closer and closer to my feet as I stood still. It didn't take them long to be comfortable running right around and practically across my feet! I kept having to wiggle my toes at them because I was afraid they would think they were peanuts or something! They kept darting at them like they might be peanuts... I have never forgotten being bitten while trying to feed peanuts to an apparently near-sighted squirrel when I was a kid. I didn't want a repeat of the incident. They were cute little buggers though. After getting our fill of the fort we sat by the entrance where the monkeys had been feasting earlier. Chuck was still hoping they might come back down for some more food. As we sat there we got loads and loads of stares. One young boy - maybe 10 years old - walked by staring at me with a disgusted look on his face. As he walked past, his eyes stayed locked on me continuing to stare with that disgusted look, until his head was spun full around like an owl. Although his apparent horror brought up feelings I hadn't felt since elementary school, my stronger reaction was amusement. I looked right back at him and laughed good-naturedly. I was happy to see that this wiped that look off his face and replaced it with a smile of his own. Ah, the power of smiles in any culture. Another couple tried to be sneaky about taking a picture of us. The guy had his wife stand five feet from us as though they wanted a nice scenic picture with the fort. Only problem was that the scenery they were photographing was a flat, boring wall. I smiled and looked into the camera as he took the picture, causing him to try to hide a slightly guilty smile. It was an interesting experience. We never did get to feed the monkeys either. They never came back down. We tried to feed the peanuts instead, to an incredibly thin dog who looked about ready to lay down forever. When Chuck tossed the peanuts to the dog he flinched at the sound of them hitting the sidewalk. I'm not sure dogs eat peanuts, but Chuck thought it would be worth a shot. We didn't stick around to see if he tried though. Poor animal. We looked for the tuk-tuk that had dropped us off and promised to wait against our protests, but he was nowhere in sight thankfully. We got a chai from a dirty street cart and sat with a skinny old man that we suspect was high. We didn't really talk to him at all, but he seemed really nice and made room for us on the flimsy wooden bench he was sitting on while staring blissfully into the distance. When we went to get our tuk-tuk back to the hotel we passed by some horse-drawn carts and a horse made to eat my arm. Bad horsie! And on the ride back we saw a couple of other tuk-tuks that were packed with goats. One had three goats and a person stuffed in it! People love their goats in India. I have to admit, some of them are very cute - but I'm pretty sure they don't keep them for their cuteness. Back at the hotel we discovered - thanks to the vocal tourists in the room below us - that there is hot water there! The hotel staff has to flip a switch to turn it on is all. As soon as we figured this out we got ourselves a nice hot shower. Man, it was so nice! No hot water for 3 weeks makes a steaming shower delicious. We went down stairs to try and use the internet, but wouldn't you know it, the hotel's one computer with internet was currently not working. So we went down to the tourist information center instead and booked a hotel for when we arrived back in New Delhi. Over all, it was a pretty long day!

Thanks to having gone to bed late, we barely woke up to beeping of our alarm clock at 4:30 AM. I think I had managed to get just two hours of sleep. We packed our stuff in record time and went to check out. We found the staff curled up under blankets on the couch and floor of the little reception area - this is common in India - and were glad we had paid on arrival so we didn't have to wake them up. The streets are so different in the early hours before dawn. It's so quiet and still. Strange. Where there were 10 tuk-tuks during the day, now it was barren and we had to wait for a lone tuk-tuk to pass by to get a ride. But luckily, one did pass by and we had another chilly, dark ride through Agra - this time back to the train station. We saw a few people out jogging for their health and I wondered how badly the smog was stunting their progress since Agra is only slightly less smoggy than New Delhi. At the station we boarded our train and left the station 30 minutes late. The ride back to New Delhi was much more interesting than our trip out to Agra because it was light outside. We could see the places we were passing and were astounded. There were only small patches of garbage-free ground here and there. One little town looked like it was built on a hill of garbage whose sides were now crumbling away. In the cross-section of crumbled land we could see masses of dirty clothes stuck in the packed dirt. There were usually a few cows close at hand, grazing on the refuse, and I even saw a small group of pigs. The homes were crumbling and many peoples' roofs consisted of a sheet of metal weighted down with bricks. We saw a few men bathing outside, in the middle of their village - they wore little shorts and scrubbed themselves quickly using a bucket of cold water. We saw a school where the kids were sitting in the "back yard" area with open books. It didn't really look as though there was an area inside big enough for them. And the most interesting sight of all was all the pooping that was going on as we passed by. We couldn't go 500 feet without spotting another pooper, copping a squat just 20 feet from the railroad tracks to drop a log. It was a very deep squat they used - one that looks like it practically forces your bowels to evacuate. The kids were forcefully dropped off at the pool, only to find the pool empty - if you know what I mean. And don't ask me how wiping worked. Maybe there wasn't any need for wiping given the wide spread, thanks to the deep squat. All I know is that I was fascinated and repelled by each person we passed by. And even more interesting was that sometimes there would be a little group of 3 or 4 people all going together. A little bonding time perhaps? Geeze, it must be like walking through a mine field out by those tracks.

Friday, December 18, 2009

New Delhi I

Our plane touched down in New Delhi, India at about 5:00 AM. We knew check-in wasn't for a few more hours so we hung around at the airport watching people go by. We got a water and soda from the snack bar there and were amazed by the cheap price. When it was time to go we got a pre-paid voucher for our taxi - that way we would just give the voucher to the driver and not have to worry about haggling or paying any extra money. It was about 10 or 15 km to the hotel and we got to get a taste of what was to come along the way. It seems that traffic is just as bad, if not worse than in Cairo. I would venture that its worse actually. Slow bicycles and cows mix with the cars and motorcycles, everyone squeezing themselves through narrow openings between vehicles in their anxiousness to get ahead. Sometimes people just drove into oncoming traffic to pass, and people cut each other off all over the place. Honking galore. A fair amount of shouting. A lot of barely-avoided accidents. It's madness! At least to my mind. But it works for the most part. As for the sights along the way, they weren't pretty. We noticed a lot of men pissing on walls. The air is incredibly smoggy - you can see the haze between yourself and things that are just 20 feet away. It's so bad that on a clear day the sun still doesn't actually shine. Everything is covered in a layer of brown, dusty dirt: streets, buildings, signs, etc. I don't know if this is from the smog, or if New Delhi has dust-like dirt that's hard to control (like the salt-rust that's unavoidable by the sea), or if people are just dirty. People just drop their garbage on the ground, expecting someone else to clean it up. You frequently do see people sweeping the area around their shop with their little hand held straw brooms, transforming the scattered trash into piles of trash, but then it just sits there. Either it's not picked up often (and come to think of it, I never saw a garbage truck in India), or there is so much garbage that there is always a pile. We also saw some monkeys on the way to the hotel. They were just chilling on the corner, picking at each other and climbing the big electrical box they had claimed for the day. No one seemed to be bothering them and they seemed perfectly at ease with the city. After we got to our hotel and checked in we immediately fell asleep. That wasn't the best way combat the jet-lag, but we were so tired! We woke up around 4:00 PM due to the noise, mainly honking. The honking is worse than anywhere else we've been. At least they're creative with their horns though. Mixed in with the regular one-loud-blast honks are horns that blast 6 or 7 honks, getting quieter with each one. Others have honks with a rhythm, or some with changing pitches. Some sound like a little jingle or song. A lot of the time people just lay on the horn for 20-30 seconds straight. It can be really really annoying. So with all the honking we figured it must be time to get up and get some food. Our hotel is in an area called Pahar Ganj. It's know as the "backpackers" area and is one of the busiest, loudest and dirtiest parts of New Delhi I think. But also one of the cheapest. So our first venture out into the madness - without the protection of a car - was kind of scary to be honest. Everything was covered in that dirty dust, the piles of garbage were scattered everywhere, and there were all sorts of people walking about, many staring at us. We discovered that you have to watch out for the cars and rickshaws because they don't like to bother avoiding you. I was clipped on my wrist by a motorcycle handle and had a sore wrist for the next few days. As for finding a place to eat, we had no idea how that worked because the restaurants did not look like we expected them to. A lot were only 8-10 feet wide and had no front door. In fact, there was no front wall at all. They were dimly lit and the kitchens typically consisted of portable equipment. Electric stoves don't appear to exist in India – it all runs on gas, or just a coal fire even. We walked up and down one of the busier streets, eyeing the restaurants and shops warily. We ducked into the grocery store at the end, trying to avoid having to brave one of the restaurants. We got some bottled water (absolutely necessary in India) and chips for $1 US. But we couldn't avoid it any longer after that. It was eat or starve. So we went into one of the larger places and took a seat. It was called Sonu South Indian and was a vegetarian place (a lot of joints are). We were happy to see that the menu was in English, but still put-out by the fact that we had no idea what the items were. So our first taste of India was randomly chosen: a Masala Dosa, Dal Fry, and rice. Man, were we satisfied. It was all very spicy, but so tasty. The Masala Dosa is a tube of crispy, thin crepe-like bread filled with a mix of spiced potatoes, cauliflower, and other veggies. The Dal Fry was basically a lentil curry. It was a great introduction to Indian food. And the best part was the cost. It was enough to fill us both up and only cost a total of $2 US. That's a great deal! Back at the hotel we weren't feeling tired at all thanks to our nap and ended up staying awake until 5:00 AM. Ugh.

We woke up super late on the 3rd. 4:00 in the afternoon. We got food at that same place again. This time we got the Punjabi Thali (a thali is like a meal with 2 or 3 different curries, rice, and roti bread). We decided to try and eat the Indian way by not touching the food with our left hands and not using silverware. We managed to tear our roti using just or right hand and then use the pieces to pinch up piles of curry soaked rice. Our left hand was only used to scoop curry onto rice with the spoon and otherwise stayed out of the whole ordeal. We had rather dirty fingers by the time we were done, but I was a bit proud of my attempt to eat like a local. Of course, it seems everyone has their own way of eating so I'm sure we could stuff our faces using just a spoon and no one would look twice. Watching other people eat, I've seen some that use both hands, others just the right one, some use utensils, some are very messy and some tidy. It was kinda fun to get my fingers all up in there - an acceptable way to play with my food. After that we tried to find an ATM but they were all closed or broken. No money for us apparently. Back at the hotel we brought the laptop downstairs to check emails and also call Citibank (the bank we use). We had received an email from them just before we left Egypt telling us that our cards had been compromised and we had until December, at which point they would be disabled. They informed us not to worry though, because our new cards were already in the mail. To my Mom's house. On the other side of the world. What. The. FFFFFUUUUUUU. Of course, since that day we'd been very upset with them, and were forced to try and either have our cards "un-black listed," or get our new cards sent to New Delhi. Otherwise we would be cut off from our accounts at some point and that's really not a good idea when you're traveling around the world. Citibank's customer service was good about trying to help us the best they could. After explaining our situation to the woman on the phone - she was surprised at our being in India and amusingly bewildered at the fact that it was nearly midnight for us and the middle of the afternoon for her - she told us she could have another set of cards expedited to one of the Citibanks in India. She couldn't send it to our hotel for security reasons. The only catch was, once she sent the cards our current ones would immediately become un-useable. I didn't understood why, since they had apparently already sent a set to Mom's house and our cards were still working. Gah. So we decided we had better wait and get a bunch of money first, then have them sent. So that was that for the night. I have to give their customer service props for seeming to want to try and help us. I don't give props to Citibank and their policies though. Granted, I understand the whole "flagging" of our cards for being used in Egypt I suppose, but the inability to just re-instate the ones we have was incredibly annoying. Truly a huge inconvenience for us! And once again, we ended up in bed late. At 2:00 AM this night. I guess it's better than 5:00 AM.

I woke up in the early hours of the morning and couldn't sleep, so I read for a while. After finally falling asleep again at 6:00 AM we both got up at noon. Chuck was feeling cool and shiver-y so we got out our thermometer (we like to be prepared with our fancy medical equipment) and discovered he had a bit of a fever. It wasn't too high, so we decided to go to Citibank despite his situation, since we really needed to get money. As for showering, it sucked. No hot water. I quickly discovered I can happily (“happily” isn't actually the most accurate term, but it'll have to do) bathe using a wet sock to scrub only a few, necessary parts. The bathrooms in India typically consist of a sink, a toilet, a shower head, a faucet, a 10 gallon bucket, a half liter bucket with a handle, and a short stepping stool. Note that the shower head and faucet have no area of containment or curtains. The whole bathroom is the shower and there are typically two drains set in the floor. I'm not sure how everything is supposed to be used, but I can tell you how I decided to use them. I would fill the big bucket all the way with the cold water and dip my head into it to wet my hair. I shampooed and rinsed under the faucet so I didn't have soapy bucket water, but I used the big bucket to rinse the conditioner out. I found that just plunging my hair in still water and swishing it around a bit makes the conditioner work better! Then using my little sock as a scrubby I scrubbed what needed scrubbing, only splashing water on the individual parts as necessary, striving for as little contact with the cold water as possible. Then my favorite part - slowly pouring the big bucket of water right onto the floor of the bathroom and watching it all flood away into the drains. I think I might be alone in being so entertained by that, though. Tada! Clean as... a slightly crusty plate that's still useable. I still don't know what the stepping stool is for though. So! After the showering we headed out towards Connaught Place. On the way we got to see some of the day-to-day life of New Delhi. There are always a lot of people on the streets so you have to pay attention and weave through the throng. Men apparently just unzip and relieve themselves on any wall, as long as there is no one in a 10 foot radius around them. Some spots are more popular than others, and you know you've found one when the scent suddenly burns your nostrils and makes you want to gag. The smell of old, rotting, warm, sun-baked layers of urine has to be one of the worst things in the world. It is absolutely disgusting. We also met an Indian man along the way who started chatting with us. Mainly he told us about how to get train tickets and guided us right to the front door of some tourist shop. No thanks. As for Connaught Place, it's a huge round-about that rings a decent sized park that many people like to hang out at. On the outer edges of the round-about are arcades of shops and a few restaurants. There is also a bazaar in the area with lots of shouting and activity. It's a happening place. The buildings are old British-built, colonial, pillared things, whose white color has long since been dusted over by the Delhi-dirt. Pretty much every section had scaffolding, or a trench, or thick wires hanging from the story above, or a tarp. Every bit of the place seems to be under construction. The ground just off the cemented paths were barren packed dirt with no sign of grass or life other than the shoppers, workers, and occasional beggars. Our goal was a big red building on the south side that was easy enough to find. When we arrived, my purse was half-heartedly checked by the woman guard (they don't like to have men check women's belongings unless there's no other option) and we made our way to the Citibank on the first floor. We took out 20,000 rupees which was pretty awesome, just because it looks like so much money. It was about $400 US though, and had to last us until we got our new cards. That was all we needed the bank for - just the money. So back to the hotel again. On the way we got a mango drink called Slice. It's a thick, tasty juice, but not something I'd want to drink very often. We also stopped and got some cold & flu pills at a tiny pharmacy stall for 25 rupees - or .50 cents. Wow. After getting some groceries to sustain us for the night we went back to the hotel to rest. We authorized Citibank to send us our new cards to a New Delhi branch of our choosing, and then I did my best to take care of Chuck for the night. Chuck's temperature was at 101 by then and I was feeling a bit worried. I even mopped his forehead with a cool, water soaked sock for a while (not the same one used for the shower mind you).

The next few days consisted of the both of us being sick together. I had a fever of 102 for a day, but that was the only symptom I had to deal with. Chuck cooled my forehead with a sock for a bit after his fever broke. We slept a lot. Chuck did a quick run one day for take out, and another day we weakly hauled ourselves to a nearby restaurant. Even after we were over our fevers, we were still were not up to full strength. Even going out for lunch or something simple would make us light headed and weak. Chuck was also developing the smog cough that is common in Delhi. We've frequently heard people hacking in the streets or adjacent hotel rooms, sometimes to the degree that I wondered whether they might actually be vomiting. I was woken up one morning by someone in the room next to us have a truly nasty coughing fit - the kind that makes you want to gag a bit as you imagine a pink squishy lung dangling out of his mouth. To add to those problems, I was lucky enough to have my digestive system disagree with Indian food for about a week. I tried to avoid the spicy foods for a while to see if that helped me adjust, but it's very hard to do that in India. Fried rice and chow mein were both just as spicy as the Indian dishes. Even KFC's non-spicy chicken is a tad spicy. By the 9th we expected that our bank cards should have arrived, so we hauled ourselves down to the Citibank in Connaught Place via rickshaw to check. A rickshaw is a bicycle powered contraption used to taxi people around the city. It's like a big tricycle with a small seat hardly big enough for two people, positioned over the back two wheels. The drivers work so hard to get you where you need to go that they are usually standing up on the pedals using the full weight of their slight bodies to force the wheels forward. I always felt rather guilty when I took a rickshaw. A lot of the men in India are so skinny, and to have an older thin man hauling us two plump Americans on the back of his rickshaw is just...wrong. On the other hand, I'm sure he appreciates the money. We grabbed a Limca - a carbonated lemon drink - from one of the many cart stands around to try it out. It kinda tasted like sweet, carbonated Pine-Sol with lemon. Interesting. We waited forever at Citibank because the woman we needed to speak with was on a break or something. Meanwhile, Chuck and I noticed that we were still weak and woozy and had to sit down - how long would this sickness last?? When she finally got back we were told that our cards had not arrived yet. Sigh. Later we experienced our first true beggar outside KFC (I needed a non-spicy fix). As soon as we stepped outside of the restaurant a dirty woman and a two year old kid with hardly any clothes on swooped in. They thrust their little cupped hands in front of us and tugged on our sleeves as they constantly murmured something about "food" and "baby." They walked with us as we made our way to the road, touching us or pulling gently on our clothes the whole way. It seems the street was like a magic barrier for them because once we began to cross they turned around and went elsewhere. It's quite annoying to be begged like that, and it certainly doesn't encourage me to hand over my money. In fact, it makes me less likely to give you money! And even when I do feel a twinge of pity for a beggar, I still won't give them anything because I've read about begging-gangs in India that do terrible things to people (especially children) to make them more pitiable. Like hacking off a leg or burning out their eyes. Wasn't that in that Slum Dog movie? Am I mixing Hollywood with reality here? Maybe there aren't really beggar-gangs... But maybe there are! Also, I've been surprised at how many Indians actually give money to beggars. It always seems to be only 1-2 rupees, but still - a lot of people hand out money to beggars. That night - the 9th - was pretty bland except that Chuck saw a nasty accident when he went downstairs to use the internet. Apparently some guy was just standing on the edge of the 10-foot-wide dirt path that is the road outside our hotel, when BOOM! A van came right at him, slamming him into the wall of our hotel. It wasn't a hard enough hit to do any damage to the building, but it sounds like it was enough to possibly seriously injure the guy. Chuck didn't go outside and get involved, so all he recalls seeing was a lot of blood on the ground by the guys leg. Chuck recons he might have ended up legless. I was oblivious to the whole thing, putzing around in our hotel room on the third floor. There were never any sirens, no masses of police, no one asking for official witness statements. I assume they just tossed the guy in a tuk-tuk and drove him to a hospital. Actually, I wouldn't even be too surprised if he just skipped a hospital all together and decided to deal with it on his own.

By the 10th we really needed to get over our little illness, so we got ready and went out to see the Red Fort. We got a great deal on our tuk-tuk ride there, from a nice older man. A tuk-tuk, by the way, is basically an auto-rickshaw. The whole contraption is very small - a 5x5 foot box perhaps, with open sides. There's one wheel in the front-middle, and two more wheels in the back. Like a tricycle. The steering isn't done with a wheel, but rather with a set of motorcycle handle bars. Drivers often like to decorate their tuk-tuks with religious pictures, or hang a string of chillies and lemons to ward off evil spirits, or - my favorite - attach glittering tassels to the front, like on a little girls new bicycle. Many of the tuk-tuks are old and starting to rust, but a few are freshly painted and still have some spring in their seats. They are a fabulous and inexpensive way to get around and I think we should start catching on back in the states. So, our convenient and cheap tuk-tuk ride deposited us outside the entrance to the Red Fort for 50 rupees. To get our tickets we had to stand in the 'foreigners' line - which had no one in it - and pay 25 times the Indian price. Indian citizens pay 10 rupees to get in, whereas foreigners pay 250. I'm not actually complaining about this though. Chuck and I at least can afford to pay the $5 USD to get in, as opposed to their $0.20 USD. I just hope it actually goes toward good use. Since this was our first "real" time out in Indian culture we got to finally see how people react to us. There was a lot of staring. Women stare just as much as men and children do. Some people look away if you see them staring while others just continue. The kids are more likely to take it one step further and actually say something. They love to say "Hi" or "Hello" with a big grin and wave. There were a number of school groups there during our visit. At one point we were walking behind a crowd of girls (in their British-style pleated skirts, white blouses, striped tie, and knee high socks) who kept turning around to stare at us with giggling curiosity. Like we're... monkeys at a zoo or something. It is really very strange - first of all to be the minority for a change. But more than that, it is strange to be some place where it is acceptable to stare at a person so blatantly. We had many stares where the 'offender,' upon be caught mid-stare, would not flinch an inch and continued to stare right back. Right into your eyes. I'm the type of person that once I look into a strangers eyes - whether I was caught staring or the one doing the catching - I look away immediately. That is the appropriate, typical American response and I'd venture to say that it's a fairly strong cultural instinct. It is really weird to receive such unabashed staring! Some moments I feel like a celebrity and others a circus freak. All part of the experience. The Red Fort was fairly nice. It really is a red color, hence the name. More a burnt red, but it's vivid. The buildings had nice architecture and a few marble water-ways built into the center of walking paths. Nothing spectacular, but nice. We noticed that India seems to have a lot of chipmunks who seem to only live in areas that have trees. Trees aren't too common in New Delhi, and the ones at the Red Fort might have been some of the first we'd seen. Our tuk-tuk back to the hotel was a rip off. That was disappointing, but still only $2 USD.

We woke very late again on the 11th and ran down to Citibank to check for our debit card. "Not yet," they told us. We were pretty sure it should have already arrived and made plans to call Citibank as soon as we could. Before that though, we took a trip to see the India Gate. It's a massive war monument and home to the Indian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A really cool sight, but marred by the haze from the smog in the air. There were a lot of people there - vendors and visitors both. A few groups of young people said "Hello" with a bit of excitement as they passed by. A number of women were selling their henna services and men were selling snacks and sodas. Others were trying to sell drawings or toys. We didn't stay there long, as it's really just a big monument with nothing to actually do. We got a Coke on the way out, but weren't convinced it really was a Coke. There was hardly any carbonation or hiss when we opened it, and although the label had the Coca-Cola logo on it and looked almost genuine, there was something not right. We had a few sips, but in the end decided not to drink it. It just felt funny. I think that glass-bottle sodas in India are frequently re-bottled. In many cases, I'm sure the soda really is Coke, or Fanta or whatever – but sometimes I think they cheat with a cheap substitute. That situation was the only time we were pretty sure we had just been ripped off though. On our tuk-tuk ride back, while we were stopped at an intersection, a two year old boy waddled over to us, through the three lanes of stopped traffic. He had on a dirty little shirt and dirty underwear, and had smudges smeared all over his little body. He did a few somer-saults on the asphalt beside our tuk-tuk. He was too young to even be able to turn to us with his hand out for money. He seemed he would rather do a somer-sault than beg at this point in his life. Since I can be rather cold-hearted in this sort of situation, I thought he was adorable - as so many of the children through India are - but I had no desire to give him any money. I think our tuk-tuk driver might have decided we were cold-hearted bastards at that point. I imagine a lot of our tuk-tuk drivers have come to that conclusion. I sensed him giving us penetrating glares in his rear-view mirror after that. He dropped us off at the end of our road, so we got to walk a half mile and take in the hectic sights. Restaurants set-up under permanent tin tents, barber shops on the sidewalk, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, and dogs all trying to make their way down the street in what looked like a free-for-all. I know there actually is an amount of method to the madness, but it's still over whelming. And the dogs are interesting because they're all stray, dirty, very skinny, and frequently have a broken or missing a paw. That doesn't stop them though - they go about their business as if us humans were merely moving scenery that one treats with ambivalence. It was like they had their own separate society from the human one and didn't acknowledge anyone unless they had to. At night we often heard groups of dogs barking and howling and sometimes whimpering painfully across the city, reminding me of some sort of doggie Fight Club. Back at the hotel we called Citibank and double checked the delivery address, checked on delivery confirmations, etc. I finally realized that the bank it had been sent to was not the one we kept going to check for it at. So the new plan of attack was to go to the bank where it was actually mailed. Things are looking up! We figured we would get our cards the next day, for sure.

On the 12th we decided to go out again! Yay! Our strength was coming back and it was nice to be outside (although if I'd had a choice I would certainly not have chosen to spend my outside-time in New Delhi). We grabbed a tuk-tuk to Humayun's Tomb which was a good distance away, but closer to the Citibank we needed to visit. The tombs were very cool! But... I hate to keep mentioning it, but I can't help it: the smog was so bad. The dirty haze covered everything! When we go to these beautiful old sights I can't help but notice it and be disappointed. Grrr. The first building we saw was my favorite. It was an octagonal stone building, with eight small pavilions on the roof and a big domed center. We climbed up a short but dark stairway to the roof which was fun. The main tomb – belonging to Humayun herself - was impressive, especially in its size. It was huge! There were also small river-ways sunken in the marble walking paths that crisscrossed across the whole complex connecting to simple fountains, large and small. I enjoyed the visit. However, when we left the area we were accosted by tuk-tuk drivers, waiting like vultures for us naive tourists to come stumbling along. We asked one fellow for his price to the Citibank at Nehru Place and he told us 250 rupees! That's ridiculous if you ask me. We managed to get someone to take us for 100 rupees, which I realize now was actually a pretty decent price. Tourists are usually quoted much higher prices than the locals are - a 10 rupee trip might cost 50 rupees for an unsuspecting tourist. In our research on India we read that 10 rupees per kilometer is a pretty good deal, so our 10 kilometer ride to Nehru Place for 100 rupees was lucky for us! That's what happens when you haggle though. If you think your tuk-tuk is charging too much tell them "No thanks," and try the next one. That's what we did, and we got a good deal. At Citibank we were searched and wanded (although they were very half-hearted about it) before being allowed to go inside. We asked quite a few people whether that had received anything in the mail with our names on it and no one seemed to be able to find anything. I was rather frustrated by this bad news, so I asked if I could use a phone to call Citibank in the US. After finally figuring out how to dial out to the US I was told by Citibank that their records showed that it had already been received by the bank. Funny. The bank insisted they didn't have anything. We annoyed the hell out of them for a good 30-45 minutes before finally heading back to the hotel empty-handed, sulking the whole way. Why oh why did they have to cancel our cards?? It had truly turned into a serious annoyance.

We ended up calling Citibank yet again and had a another card sent out, this time to our hotel. The only way we managed to get them to send it to such an "insecure" location was by answering security questions about our mortgage loans and car payments - all of which are non-existent, so that was easy. We waited around for another four days, checking every afternoon with the reception for any packages. The staff at the hotel all knew who we were by now and I think the manager was happy that we were apparently stuck in town. We watched TV, used the internet for an hour each day, played on our computers, and were generally rather bored. Indian TV can be somewhat interesting. We only watched the English movie channels, but we still saw the Indian commercials. There were commercials for "skin lightening lotion" for both men and women. I never thought about that fact that people in other parts of the world might want to lighten their skin rather than darken it! In the US I know they have lotion with tanners in it, but I had never heard of bleaching lotion. And the actor in the men's lotion commercial was frightening! He had these weird evil eyebrows, a squinty eye and a crooked-toothed, lopsided grin that scared me. There were also a lot of commercials for face-creams for women that I felt were a tad sexist, or at least a bit offensive on some level. For example, one commercial claimed to make your skin younger and more beautiful in just seven days. Then they show a scene of a man romantically asking his wife to "marry him again" and the voice-over says "See a change in your husband in just seven days!" So... they're basically saying your husband will suddenly fall in love with you again because you're not as ugly? Something about that claim just feels offensive. And in another commercial a girl is having her portrait painted by her boyfriend over the course of a few days. Of course, she's using her miracle face lotion during this time and he keeps being impressed by her improving skin quality. When he finally reveals the portrait at the end, he's painted a fat diamond ring on her finger, as though the fact that she now has nice skin has made him decide he wants to marry her. It's a particularly goofy commercial. And other commercials show an apparent love of singing and dancing. I think that's kind of nice though - singing and dancing is fun. The internet at the hotel proved to be a pain. One of the reasons we chose the hotel was because they said they had wifi throughout the whole place. We've since learned that hotels will claim they have every possible amenity when they really have... none. We were actually lucky that our hotel had any internet at all! At least we were able to bring a laptop downstairs and plug it into the internet in the lobby. We noticed an interesting cultural difference after a few trips downstairs to use the internet. The staff were more than happy to stand behind us and watch what we were doing on the screen. There wasn't much sense of privacy. So, there would frequently be someone blatantly watching whatever we were doing online. I think they watched Chuck more than they watched me though.

On the 17th we were woken up by the sound of our door buzzer going off accompanied by insistent knocking. A package had arrived for us! Yay! We finally got our debit cards! Or, just one card to be accurate. Chuck got a debit card - but that's all we really needed. So we did the activation phone call, headed down to the local Citibank to withdraw some money (the tuk-tuk driver had the gall to keep upping his price as we were driving), and indulged in some Indian McDonald's. Since they don't do the beef thing in India, there was no beef on the menu. Where's the BEEF? So I tried the Chicken Maharaja Big Mac and Chuck got a Mexican Wrap. I have to say, India is missing out by foregoing beef. The Chicken Big Mac didn't come close to the satisfaction one gets from it's beefy cousin. I'm sure many of you will completely disagree with a Big Mac giving any kid of satisfaction though. I wish I could be more like you guys!

The next few days were spent trying to figure out how to get out of New Delhi - now that we could - and see other parts of India. I never expected that their railway web-site would be so ridiculously impossible! Actually finding a train and getting to the booking page was a struggle, and then having it reject our brand-spanking-new debit card over and over was just too much. When we tried to go down to the train station in person to book a ticket we were guided first to the pre-booking station, then down to the "government travel agency" where a silver-tongued travel agent painted a beautiful picture of their package deal to Kashmir, India in the north. When Chuck and I told him we wanted to discuss it over lunch before making any decisions, he showed us to "a really great restaurant" just around the corner that I was stupid enough to actually decide to eat at. We are 95% sure that the fellow who turned up and just happened to sit right next to us when we were the only other people there, was sent by the travel agent. He talked with us the whole time, subtly hinting at Kashmir being great and non-chalantly confirming that the quoted price was a pretty good deal. One thing that clued us in to the scam was the fact that he described the travel agency to us at one point, and then after we were finished eating he asked us to show him where it was, as though he didn't know. When we walked him to the corner and tried to just point him towards the agency he asked us to show him right to the door. Really?? You can't find the door with the giant "Government Travel Agency" written across it? I think it was lucky that we ended up just walking off because we later read about a scam involving the "Government Travel Agency" in New Delhi flying people to Kashmir where they find themselves in a semi-war zone. When it's time to leave they're told their flight out was canceled and they end up having to pay 1-2 weeks of extra housing and food costs before the agency finally manages to find them a flight back. The scary thing is - I was actually considering doing it! In fact, if we hadn't so obviously been set-up at the restaurant I might have. Basically it was starting to look like we just weren't going to be able to make it out of New Delhi. Before long we were searching for flights to Thailand for as soon as was possible. I had been trying so hard to convince myself that there must be something worth seeing somewhere in India. That it can't all be dirty, noisy, smelly, poor, and full of scams. I was sick of the smog cough we both now had. Sick of being stared at like some weird alien. Sick of people constantly trying to scam us or get us to buy something useless. Sick of dodging cars, bikes, tuk-tuks, and people. But I knew that there had to be some reason that people come back from India claiming to have loved it and that it was beautiful. I really wanted to see that. So I did one more search and came across our savior: It's a much easier and user friendly train-booking site for India. And it actually worked with our credit card! So before we knew it, we had booked a train to Agra! We just had to wait a few days to actually leave. Indian trains fill up hella fast, so you're lucky if you can book a train three days in advance. The wait can be even longer out of New Delhi. So all we had to do was survive a few more days of Delhi.

One thing we've noticed in India is the affection between men. Men will quite happily hold hands while walking down the road, fingers entwined. Or when they're just standing around they'll lean on each other, or put their arms around each others shoulder. It's all heterosexual affection, but with our western - or more specifically, American - upbringing, it's very strange! That degree of physical touch between men is reserved for romantic relationships in the States. But here in India - and also in Egypt - holding hands is fine. Touching between women and men is a completely different story, though. Pretty much no touching. You don't even see couples holding hands very often. I even read that kissing in public can be a big no-no. Supposedly a foreign couple was actually fined for kissing at their own wedding! Once again, compare that to the US. In the US contact between men and women is fine - whether romantic or platonic. Of course, if you're slobbering all over each other in public you'll get nasty glares, but I think it takes much less to get those glares in India. They even advise against foreign women offering to shake hands with Indian men, unless the man initiates the hand shake. So I guess we're really just opposites in a way. In India, men touching men is ok and women touching men is not okay. In the US, men touching men is not okay, but women touching men is okay. Oy! On the 20th we saw a parade of some kind go by the hotel. This wasn't the first time the parade had gone by actually. It had passed through about 4 or 5 times during our three week stay at the hotel, but this was the first time we came down to watch. It was a small affair and started with a disorganized marching band. They played on beaten up brass instruments and even had on marching uniforms. The music was very chaotic and somewhat out of tune, and they didn't actually do any marching. They just walked down the street, randomly playing repeating tunes. Behind them was a group of drummers that beat out fun, energetic, and simple rhythms. After them was a group of people that just seemed to be along for the ride. At their center was what looked like a shrine of some sort that was being carried on the shoulders of a group of men. To make the most of the celebrations, children were setting off really loud fireworks that even made the locals flinch. When a group of kids caught sight of us standing outside the hotel they ran up and all wanted to shake our hands. They even got a bit rowdy and tried to yank me along! I'm not sure what it is about shaking a foreigners hand, but the kids seem to love it. I also got a business card from a cross-dressed Indian man. He gave me an intense look as he - or she - handed it to me. It was fun!

On the 21st we finally packed our stuff up and checked out of the hotel. We caught a tuk-tuk to the train station where we encountered the Indian train system. The station itself was pretty filthy, and the train platforms all smelled like a bathroom. The place was completely packed. Luckily, we found our train listed on the departures board and didn't have any trouble finding the platform. We had to walk what seemed like half a mile down the platform to finally find our carriage. Those trains are long! Then we waited around with the horde of other people until our train let us all board. I noticed that many Indians prefer to squat rather than sit on the ground. I'm too chubby to squat myself - the fat in my thighs chokes off the blood supply and I'll end up with noodley legs. But the thin Indians seemed to be very happy with the squat position and will just chill out like that all day long it seems. At the train station, by the corner store, going to the bathroom - the squat is popular. Once on the train we sat around until departure time. Then we sat some more, without the train having moved an inch. We finally pulled out of the station about 40 minutes late. The train was definitely a bit old, but still useable. Our chairs would automatically recline if you leaned back too far which was annoying for the people behind us. And occasionally the tray on the back of Chuck's seat would snap open, scaring the fellow behind him. A train-man came around selling food and we got these surprisingly tasty omelets that had been fried with onions and herbs for just 50 rupees. There was always something for sale: chai, chips, or water. The ride to Agra actually wasn't so bad.

Friday, December 11, 2009


Getting into Egypt was no problem for us. Unlike England, we just paid $15 each for a pretty visa and were stamped through. Our luggage showed up pretty quickly. Next thing, we were out the front door looking for our pick-up guy. It was midnight when we came into Cairo, but the hostel said that it would be no problem to have someone there to get us. There was a large crowd of men holding signs with various names on them, but we found our name pretty easily, right at the front. He loaded our luggage into the trunk of his car, shut the lid and said "Bye bye" as he walked off. I'm not sure what anyone else's facial expression was, but I just blankly stared after him for the three seconds he was walking away from us. Luckily he turned back around with a big grin and a chuckle and I realized he was just pulling our legs. If he had been serious though, I would have been out of luck! I'm so gullible sometimes. The drive to the hostel was interesting. Driving in Cairo (possibly all of Egypt as well) is very different than anywhere else we've been so far. The only lane lines they might bother with obeying are the ones dividing opposite directions of traffic. Otherwise, it's every man for himself. Wherever your car fits, stick it in. If there were technically three lanes, then you'd typically find about five cars squeezed in, fighting to get ahead of each other. Honking is absolutely necessary in this sort of environment, otherwise they'd be constantly crashing into each other I think. And their safety standards are different than I am used to. For example, we saw a pick-up truck piled 6 feet high with furniture and boxes, all tentatively secured in place with ropes. On the top ledge of one of the boxes was a boy! He was laying down, holding on with just his hands! If the driver had taken off a bit too quickly then the kid would have gone flying off his little shelf into traffic! And lastly, the street lights are mostly ignored. A red light means "glance to the left or right as you cross the intersection, if you feel like it." Somehow, it all works out though. We saw one accident during our whole trip, and it was just a tap from behind. No damage. So, our trip to the hotel was a nice introduction to Cairo driving! We met one of our awesome hostel "guides" when we arrived: Mohamed. He was nice enough to let us hang out in the hostel common area until morning, when our room would be available. Robyn and Chuck ended up falling asleep for a while on the cushions that lined the floor, but I managed to push through and stay awake. Once we were in our room though (which was actually really nice, especially for a hostel) I crashed for most of the day. When I woke up later in the afternoon Robyn told me about a Nile River Dinner Cruise that Mohamed mentioned. We decided it sounded like fun! We were picked up by a driver who weaseled his way through the congested traffic to our little boat. When I say little, I mean little-er than some of the other boats that were docked along the water front. Our boat was big enough to fit two large dining rooms, one on each floor. I think we were all seated according to nationality because we ended up at a table with another American couple and a British couple. We talked with the British couple over the course of the night - they were very nice. Dinner was buffet style and mostly very tasty, but wasn't really the highlight of the evening. The highlight was the dancing! After dinner the lights dimmed and the drums started and a scantily clad woman struts into the center of the room and begins to gyrate. Her hips seemed to be dislocated from the rest of her body at times. She shimmied around the center of the room, spinning and popping for a good 30 minutes before she was done. Belly dancing is such a cool form of dance. After she made her grand exit, a very short man (ie: a little person) marched his way to the center of the room. He was dressed in the traditional Sufi dancing costume: two long multicolored skirts, a short blue jacket with gold embroidery along every edge, and a white beanie-like hat with a white scarf tucked around it. The drums still going, he began to spin in place. The colorful skirts flared out around him as he spun in circles. After a bit he untied the top-most skirt, still spinning. He slipped it off over his head, folded it up and passed it quickly to one of his buddies. Without missing a beat, be unwrapped his white scarf from his head, stuffed it into the little beanie, and tossed that to his friend as well. Then he untied the last skirt (don't worry, he had clothes on underneath), lowered it until it was almost dragging on the floor - still spinning mind you - then pulled it over his head and suddenly stopped. He gave a feigned sigh of exasperation to another Sufi dancer who had made his way to the center of the room, and stomped off. I think it was all a little comedy routine before the "real" performance started? It made everyone laugh at least. And then the new dancer (all 6 feet of him) began spinning, his pretty skirts billowing around him like a colorful tea saucer. He was really incredible! The whole dance lasted about 30 minutes I think, and he was spinning the entire time. He used spotting (I think that's what it's called) - like how ballerinas do - to keep from getting dizzy. His head would whip around to the same point after his body had already begun to turn, always focused on a particular spot. His spot would change frequently though because he liked to interact with the audience and chat at people. When he took off his top skirt and folded it up, he folded it as though it were a swaddled baby, then whipped out a bottle and pretended to feed it. At another point he was given a serving tray, an empty glass and a bottle of water (yes, all while still spinning). Holding the tray at an angle, he set the glass on it and poured himself a drink of water! Nothing was spilled. And at the end of the routine when he lifted his second skirt over his head, instead of dropping it and being done, he spun it around and around over his head, like a big lasso. He wandered around to everyone's table, chatting amiably, spinning his skirt, making jokes. It reminded me of a UFO. When he came near us, we could feel the wind it was generating. He must have some serious strength to keep it up for the 15 minutes he did. It was a very good show and made the cruise worth it. On our way back to the hostel our car was motioned to the side of the road by one of the many police-men that are always present. Our driver seemed a tad nervous, but mostly annoyed as he gathered his necessary paperwork and handed it over. I have to admit that I was a bit nervous myself. I prayed that our driver wasn't in any kind of trouble and we wouldn't be stranded in the company of a bunch of Egyptian police. Of course, everything turned out fine and it was just a random stop. Back at the hotel we were all quick to fall asleep for the night.

On the 24th we did the Pyramids thing. We wanted to save money and decided taking the bus would be an optimal money-saving strategy. We went for the more expensive bus though: 2 LE instead of .50 LE. In other words, we could have spent $0.09 US cents as opposed to our $0.36, but we decided the luxury would be worth the extra $0.27. We managed to find the bus stop with the help of a few hyper-friendly Egyptians. Gosh, Egyptians are friendly! Some in an altruistic way, and others in a let-me-get-business-for-my-brother-by-helping-these-poor-saps-and-leading-them-to-his-shop sort of way. So, we caught the bus and settled in for the hour-or-so journey to the great ancient sight. We had no idea where to get off - would we be able to see the pyramids from the stop? Would there be a sign? Would they announce it? Robyn fell into conversation with one of those friendly Egyptian men as we neared the hour mark. He told us that we should get off at the next stop, that he knows all about the sphinx because he lives right next to it. He will help us and show us where to go. His second name, he informed us, is No Problem. Mr. No Problem. So we follow him off, a bit apprehensive, but willing to try this out. He guides us across the crazy ass Cairo traffic (you're really testing the fates when crossing big roads) by holding his arms up, palm out, seemingly forcing cars to stop by sheer willpower. He tells us his help is not free. That we should pay him by helping him - like he is helping us - if we ever see him in America. Everything he says is accompanied by a big, genuine smile. He's a genuinely friendly guy, who genuinely wants to help us. He hails thing to take us to the pyramids. The cab looked like an old, rusty, white VW van. The seats were barely hanging on, figuratively and literally. They were torn up with pieces missing, and as we discovered when the van jolted forward into traffic, they weren't bolted to the floor very well. Mr. No Problem drew us a hasty, child-like map of the pyramids with a lopsided sun in the sky and pointed out all the places we should make sure to see. Once we arrived at the pyramids - or as it turned out, his friends travel shop right by the pyramids - we paid the van-driver .50 LE each for the ride. Inside the travel shop we were all treated to a hospitable round of drinks before any transactions and package deals were even thought about. Tea for Robyn (they kept laughing and calling it Egyptian whiskey), water for me, and 7-Up (or 7-Down as our friend called it) for Chuck. After about 10 minutes the tour-guide-fellow got down to business and started talking tours with us. He was a robust guy, with a happy but calculating face and wore one of those long beige man-dresses. Unfortunately I don't know what they're called, so "man-dress" will have to suffice. He rattled off the options and then the prices and inside I hug my head in annoyance. It looked like we weren't going to get away with a cheap day. We haggled a bit with him and finally settled on $40 per person to get a panoramic view of all 9 pyramids (yes, there are 9 pyramids at Giza, 3 huge and 6 tiny ones that you can't actually see from this oh-so-wonderful view point), see the 3 big ones, touch one of the smaller ones, and see the sphinx. Oh, and all this on a camel. So we get our camels first thing. They were pitiful creatures that broke my heart. I was more fascinated by them than the pyramids half the time. Mine had a gaping neck wound that was hidden under a writhing mass of flies and I couldn't stop staring at it. Robyn's was kind of cute and would occasionally press his face against my leg, reminding me of a cat rubbing against me in affection. He probably just had an itch on his face, but I liked to think that he liked me. Robyn's camel was tethered to mine which was tethered to Chuck's and the whole procession was led by a young man on foot. Our tour guide rode a horse along side us and would occasionally give Chuck's camel a good thwack on the behind with a stick. Sometimes the creature would obey and pick up the pace momentarily, but more often he would just fart. Egyptian music our tour guide called it. Farting camels. Robyn was praised as the best camel-rider among us. He said that if she ever wanted a job she could come and teach people to ride camels. I think he meant it too. Not the job part, but that she was a good rider. He commented on it to me when she was out of earshot saying that she goes with the flow of the camel. He would make remarks to us about being a good belly dancer if you ride camels well. I can't compare it to riding a horse because the last and possibly only time I was on one was over 10 years ago. But he told us to sit up very straight and to let your hips rock under you with the camels movement, trying to detach the movement from your torso. Those weren't his exact words, but I gathered that's basically what he meant. Despite my guilt at enabling what I can only imagine is an unpleasant life for the camels, I enjoyed the ride. Poor beasts. As I mentioned, the panoramic view was less than astounding. We had to ask where the other small pyramids were, and even then I couldn't see them. In front of us were the pyramids and behind was a swath of desert as far as the eye could see. We were told it's the beginning of the Sahara desert. I looked it up - the Sahara is the same size as the USA: 3,500,000 square miles. Holy crap! Just imagine the ancient people who were able to make homes there, or those who ventured to cross it, many of them dying I'm sure. Man, what a life that must have been. We crossed the tiny-in-comparison bit of desert towards the pyramids and got up close to the one belonging to Menkaure and the three nearby Pyramids of Queens. We got to climb on the 3 small ones and Robyn climbed up a bit on Menkaure before one of the pyramid-police blew his whistle and started yelling. Our guides didn't seem to care, but I guess we're not supposed to climb on the big pyramid. I can understand that. I suppose before we could climb on the pyramids we had to get off our camels, so let me explain how that's done. The camel-handler grabs the reins and drags the camels head down towards the ground while sort of beating his front legs for further "encouragement." The beast lurches forward as it drops to it's knees, giving you just a bit of whiplash as you hang on tightly. Then it drops it's back legs to the ground, springing you back the other direction. All the while the camel is making these horrible gurgling noises and sounding something like an angry clogged sink. So they beat all our camels into a sitting position so we could get down, and then again to mount back up and move on toward the Sphinx. Chuck got on his camel and the 10 year old boy that had replaced our camel-walker had the creature get up before I had gotten on mine. This forced my camel to rise as well due to the fact that they were tethered together and the poor boy got a bit of a yelling-at by our tour guide for his mistake. Luckily I was just preparing to get on my camel and hadn't actually swung my leg over yet, so I avoided being tossed off or anything like that. As we cantered around the side of the pyramids towards the Sphinx I noticed that it seemed like we were being shouted at by the white-uniformed police on a couple of occasions. I'm not sure why, but looking back I suspect that perhaps we weren't actually authorized to be there. I wouldn't be surprised if our guide pocketed most of the money and didn't actually pay the entrance fees he was supposed to. We always stayed just far enough away from any authority figures that it would take them a bit of time to run out to question us. And our visit to the Sphinx was from quite a distance away, once again leading me think that he didn't actually pay the entrance fee to officially see the thing. I was feeling a bit ripped off to be honest. I paid him $40 for something I could have done on my own. In fact, we could have paid the standard admission price for the pyramids and the Sphinx at $20 a person and gone right up close. So we basically paid for an expensive camel ride and the company of a guide, who didn't actually give much information about the pyramids. There were no history lessons, no geography lessons, just jokes about belly-dancing camel-riding. I mean, he was a nice enough fellow and I understand the... relaxed nature of Egyptian culture, but I felt ripped off. I was also annoyed with the fact that I couldn't just freely wander around to good view points and pose for pictures. Being stuck on a camel meant that positioning yourself for a good photo was near impossible. And the fact that we viewed the Sphinx from so far away meant getting a picture with it wasn't going to happen. Grr. We made our way back to the travel shop for another round of laid back Egyptian whiskey - er, tea I mean. He invited us to come see an Egyptian wedding that was being held right by the pyramids and said that it would go all night. That was pretty tempting, but we were in a hurry to get back and make it to a free dancing show that evening. Unfortunately I ended up eating a 6 hour old cheeseburger from McDonald's that I had stuffed in my purse and I got sick on the ride home. The poor taxi driver... I puked out the window as we were passing over the bridge across the Nile. I looked back at the door in shame when we got out at our stop and saw threads of vomit streaking the door. He charged us 10 LE extra for the trouble... I was so embarrassed. Why me?? Ah well. And after all that we missed our dancing show. Traffic in Cairo does not move quickly. But I think we were all relieved to be able to relax after such a long day. I know I was happy to have a nearby bathroom...

Chuck and I had decided that we were going to go to India after Cairo (Robyn wouldn't be joining us because she was going home), so on the 25th we walked to the Indian consulate to the start the visa process. It was a simple matter of filling out some paperwork to get the ball rolling that morning. Around lunch-time the three of us headed towards the Egyptian Museum (or the British Museum as I kept calling it). Before leaving, Mohamed suggested we try a place called Abou Tarek for lunch. We had to ask directions from a couple of helpful people along the way, but it was easy to spot once the big white building with neon blue signage was in view. The specialty - and possibly only - meal at Abou Tarek is a dish called kushari. Oh man, is it good! They bring out a big bowl of pasta, vermicelli rice, and lentils. You top this with a special tomato sauce, chick peas, and fried onions. Mix well and enjoy! I think it would be a great food for a college town. The waiters at the restaurant were funny. When they saw our camera they wanted us to take a picture with them, and when we left they were sure to ask if we were going to come back the next day. It was so good that I thought perhaps we would. We went to the museum after that. We had to go through three different security checkpoints, and weren't allowed to even bring our cameras in the museum with us. They're very strict about the no-photos policy. I wish I had been able to get some pictures though, because the museum was an interesting place. It was like an antique in and of itself. It felt like perhaps some archaeologists had dropped off loads of finds and just tucked them into the corners of the building wherever they would fit. The signs on the exhibits were dark brown with age, and looked as though they had been typed up on a typewriter. It just felt very old. Quite a unique museum! And the amount of stuff they have is astounding. The museum itself really isn't all that big, but they have so many objects on display that it takes two hours just to walk past everything, much less actually look at it all. I admit that after the first half hour, Chuck and I ended up just breezing past most of everything. I mean, it's really special stuff they have there, but it's so overwhelming that it drains you. And it all starts to look the same. And you don't really know the cool story behind each piece. We were excited to see the mummies, but the "Royal Mummy Room" was an extra 100 LE, so we skipped that. We did get to see the mummified animals room, which we thought was pretty cool. They had mummified crocodiles, cows, birds, cats, dogs, etc. And on a cultural note, Chuck and I witnessed a young lady in full black head-dress and garb lift her veil and smile for a photo (how they smuggled their camera in, I don't know) with some artifact. Her boyfriend, or brother, or whoever it was snapped the picture and she dropped her veil back in place. I couldn't help but wonder if she had just broken a sacred religious law, or if it's big deal. I mean, rationally speaking it would all depend on the "strength of her convictions," or perhaps the strength of her father's convictions in the case of Islam. I mean, in Christianity there are different levels of devotion that people will go to, depending on how strict they are in their beliefs, so I imagine it would be the same for any other religion. It was just strange to actually see the face behind the veil for once! She was pretty too. So after walking around the museum for a couple of hours we went back to the hostel. Mohamed noticed us sitting around being lazy (he always noticed when we were being lazy) and told us about the Khan el Khalili. It's a big bazaar that is busy until 11:00 PM or so. He gave us directions on how to walk there and we headed out. We came to a crazy, crowded, bustling market and figured it must be the bazaar. We walked through and were immediately accosted by vendors trying to get us to check out their goods. They were all very aggressive and the young guys would eye us girls with that...look. The kind of look that ladies don't actually like to get because it makes one feel somewhat uncomfortable. And they would follow us a bit too, asking where we were from, and maybe sometimes saying "Beautiful" or things like that. Robyn got this treatment more than me and after walking down one leg of the market she was about ready to explode. She pretty much demanded that we leave, and with the tension being rather high by that point there was a bit of snapping at each other as we headed back towards the hostel. It wasn't the nicest experience. We stopped by a place called GAD for food on the way. It's an Egyptian chain eatery. The first time that Chuck and I went was a bit scary. It's a very busy place, and ordering works differently than we were used to. First, we had to find an English menu because I'm still not quite solid with my Arabic. Luckily a nice guy who worked there noticed us looking incredibly lost and gave us one. Then you order at the cashier and he gives you various receipts. You take the receipts to the appropriate stations. I'm really not sure where each receipt goes and we always had to ask, but I think meat dishes are at one station, pancakes at another, sandwiches at another, etc. It's actually pretty confusing! But we managed to somehow figure it out each time we went. So to go back to the current night, we tried some new dishes. I got a honey smothered pancake called fatir and Chuck got something called fuul (or as they spell it on the English menu: foul). It's like Egyptian chilli. But my pancake, I have to say, was awesome! It's more crepe-y than fluffy, and it's about two feet across. They fold it all up so it's about 5x8 inches. Then they drizzle a ton of honey over the whole thing, making a delicious, warm pile of goodness. When we got back to the hostel Mohamed asked us why we were back so soon. We told hi we'd gone to the bazaar and it was too crazy for us. He sighed once we described where we had gone and told us we didn't go to the right bazaar. Oops! But he offered to take us there the next night if we wanted.

We were lazy on the 26th. We went for lunch at a new place where we tried some taamia (felafel) and hawawshi. While we were there we met an older gentleman from California. He was studying in Egypt and seemed happy to see some American faces. He seemed a bit anxious to be out of Egypt and back to the States. And after lunch we stopped into McDonald's for some sweet treats: a Coke, McFlurry, and a Shake. It even rained a tiny bit while we were out! I don't know if that was unusual, but I figured being in a desert would mean rain isn't that common. That night Mohamed was true to his word. He took us out to the real Khan el Khalili bazaar. It was much nicer than the market we had ended up at the night before. I mean, there were still some people trying to get us to look at their goods, but they weren't nearly as aggressive about it. I suspect having Mohamed with us might have helped a bit, but perhaps the atmosphere of the bazaar was just a bit nicer. Robyn haggled for a necklace and got the deal she wanted. We went to a coffee shop and sat down for some sahlep, which was different than the sahlep we had in Turkey. It was a thick, creamy drink topped with peanuts and dried fruits - very good and filling. Many people came around trying to sell us stuff: henna tattoos, Qurans, plastic glasses with attached moustache, bracelets, etc. I learned that the best way to tell them no is just to say "Thank you," or "Shukran" with a nod of the head. After we finished our drinks Mohamed took us to see some of the old, big mosques that are in that part of the city. Although it was dark, the mosques were gently lit with colored spot lights that made them very pretty. Some of them looked huge and others and others had really gorgeous embellishments. We weren't able to go into any, of course, but it was nice to see them from the outside. One of the back roads that Mohamed took us down was interesting - it was the sort of road that we wouldn't have gone down on our own. Not so much because it looked particularly dangerous, but more that it was completely torn up! It looked like a bulldozer had come through, torn up the road, and hadn't gotten around to patching it back up again. We had to step carefully as we made our way down the short street, but I thought it was pretty cool! I like to see places that I wouldn't have gone without the help of a local. And seeing the city and bazaar at night wouldn't have happened without Mohamed's help either. It was very cool.

We woke up early on the 27th to catch the train to Alexandria. The walk to the train station was a little bit crazy. The area around the station was packed with people on their way to work as well as vendors setting up to sell sunglasses and CD's. The tickets for the train were printed on a fairly old-fashioned looking device that got jammed when it was our turn, but they were some of the prettiest tickets I've seen. The train we took was the air-conditioned one, thank goodness. After two and a half hours we pulled into Alexandria. We walked north towards the coast, looking for the old Roman amphitheater along the way. We never did find it. We ate lunch at a hotel-cafe with a view of the sea. We headed east to try and find the library. Chuck stopped and asked a young girl if we were headed the right way and she got very shy and giggly. She vaguely motioned us off to the east as she turned away, trying to avoid talking to us in embarrassment. Afterward I realized that it was probably a breach of protocol for Chuck - a strange man - to have talked to her! Or she was just really shy, but I bet it was because Chuck was a guy. Whoops! In the most extreme of cases, could a woman get in trouble for that? Hmm. So we finally got to the library, which is a very modern glass building that requires paid admission to get in. Although the original Great Library was destroyed long ago, they're keeping up the tradition. We didn't go inside, but we can now say that we've seen where the Great Library at Alexandria once stood. We caught a cab to take us to the other side of the harbor where the Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque is. It's a beautiful building - many mosques are. We walked toward the front entrance and the men started directing Robyn and I around the side of the building. Turns out there's a separate entrance for women. So we said goodbye to Chuck and let ourselves be led to the side entrance. We dropped our shoes with the shoe-man and stepped inside. It was lovely, but a bit hard to appreciate what with the little wall that separated us women from the men. We were in a small area that took up about... 15-20% of the whole mosque, surrounded by a 6 foot wooden wall with pretty designs carved out of it. There was a large woman sitting in the center, fanning herself and directing people who looked lost (ie: Robyn and me). Only problem was that we couldn't understand a word she said. So we ooh-ed and ahh-ed for a few minutes, feeling rather uncomfortable and then left. Our shoes were held hostage until we paid a tip. Chuck later told us he ended up paying 5LE to his shoe kidnapper because he didn't have any smaller change. The guy who had shown Robyn and me to the side entrance took us a bit behind the mosque for a photo op. He took two pictures of us with the building and then led us back around to the front to meet up with Chuck. I would have tipped the guy, but I was fresh out of small money thanks to the shoe guys! Tipping gets to be difficult because it's hard to get small change to begin with. Vendors and stores ask you for exact change, depleting your already small supply of little bills. So when it's time to give tips all you have are big bills. Very frustrating sometimes. So we finished with the mosque - I know I left feeling a bit shunned by the experience - and headed towards the Qaitbey Fort. It wasn't as exciting looking as we had hoped and we decided to just look at it from the outside and not bother paying to go in. After our fill of the fort we grabbed a taxi to the Catacombs. The taxi ride was a harrowing experience on its own, but our visit to the Catacombs trumped it by far. We paid the entrance fee and dropped off our camera (they're very strict about cameras in some places). As we headed towards to main catacomb one of the Antiquities Police Officers motioned us off to a monument hidden in the back. I wasn't sure what was going on at first and it took me a few minutes to realize that he was trying to give us a tour. This would mean paying him a baksheesh (a tip) and that worried me a bit. We couldn't understand what he was saying, and to be honest I'm not sure he was actually saying anything coherent. It just sounded like he said "mummy" and "catacomb" over and over. He was very enthusiastic though, and plunged ahead without giving us a chance to get a word in edgewise. He led us further and further back until we were at the edge of a steep slope covered in debris. To my surprise he charged right down into the pit, waving us along after him. At this point I started to worry about more than just how much of a tip he would expect. We followed him down and my eyes flicked to his pistol as he helped me navigate through the palm leaves and rocks that littered the slope. The pit opened into the bottom part of the catacombs and he happily pointed out all the body-sized bunkers that had been carved out of the rock, mumbling something about "mummies" and "catacombs." We all nodded and said "Yes, yes" whenever he seemed to ask if we understood. He took us deeper in and I resigned myself to whatever might happen. I was pretty sure this was just a way for him to earn an extra buck, but my overactive imagination couldn't help picturing him pulling his little pistol and demanding all our money, or maybe something worse. He guided us up some stairs, closer to the surface. Despite my nervousness I couldn't help but notice how cool the catacombs were. Imagine coming upon the scene when it was filled with old skeletons, and maybe a few treasures if they hadn't been looted already. And the sand made delicate little piles in every nook and cranny. It was so soft to the touch that it somehow reminded me of down feathers. He led us around a sand-piled slope that I thought I might fall off of and down another staircase into a pitch black room. Oh man, this is where my nerves really worked themselves up. If he wanted to do anything terrible to us, this would be his opportunity. Oh well! I remembered that I had a flashlight in my purse and whipped it out. Isn't it great to actually find a use for the random things you bring along?? The room was filled with junk - modern and ancient. As he led us towards a dark tunnel in the back my light shone on a skeleton of what looked to be a cat. We all laughed nervously as we continued past. Our officer-guide didn't seem too phased by it. If anything, perhaps he seemed a bit embarrassed by it. He led us down the narrow, dark tunnel at the end of which was an even more pleasant sight: a dead dog, about the size of a border collie. This carcass still had flesh attached. Dried, brittle flesh that had rotted through in places, but flesh none the less. I could see the hollow eye sockets and they made me feel guilty somehow. As you can imagine, our nervous chuckles were a bit hysterical at this point and we hurriedly turned around in as nonchalant a way as we could. A dark tunnel on it's own makes one just a smidge nervous. An armed officer-guide as well. Finding a dead, half rotted dog also. Put the three together and it's enough to make you glad for the experience, but happy to end it. We emerged at the top of the stairs into the sunlight and fresh air to complete our tour. The officer now wanted his baksheesh and we gave him a disappointing 30LE. I could tell it was a disappointing amount because his face fell and he seemed rather sullen. We went to explore the other catacomb on our own after that. It must have been the main catacombs because it much bigger than the one we had just been in. There were rooms and tunnels all over the place. I imagine it would be pretty easy to get lost in there. Chuck and I split up from Robyn and ended up being curious about some rooms that were off of the path. We stepped off the platform and headed down the corridor, looking into the side rooms to see if there was anything interesting that had been left behind. We had gone about 50 feet when suddenly the lights went out. Holy crap, let me tell you that I freaked out a tad. Luckily, I only really freaked in my head. My body decided to react more rationally. But that first instant when you're walking off the path in an ancient underground tomb and the lights cut out leaving you in utter pitch blackness, your mind explodes with fear. It's all irrational and you know that there aren't really ghosts waiting to steal your soul, or creepy, double-jointed creatures with dripping hair waiting to rip out your heart, or savage vengeful hell-monsters that have been waiting for centuries to disembowel unsuspecting tourists who have wandered off the path. But for some reason your heart constricts with fear, even though your mind says the most dangerous thing that could happen is getting lost. So first thing we did was find each other in the dark by calmly walking towards the sound of each others voices. Next step was to get out my trusty flashlight, and let me just say thank goodness for that! We switched it on and swept the light around to get our bearings. As soon as we were sure where the path was, we dashed back down the corridor to safety. Everyone knows that monsters can't get you when you're on a designated path. The lights were still out as we made our way out of the room to the main stairway. We could hear others doing the same as we got closer. We were assured by someone who worked there that the lights would be back in just a few minutes so we hung around to wait. We found Robyn and she told us that she had used the light from her cell phone to find her way back to the entrance. I didn't get her full story, so I don't know how nervous she got about the black out. All I know is that if I had been alone while wandering off the path and the lights went out I would have been much more frightened. Gosh, I think I'm afraid of the dark! Shhh, don't tell anyone. Once the lights came back on we explored the rest of the catacombs, staying on the path this time. They're kind of cool, but I think the experience could be enhanced by having old skeletons tucked into the burial shelves. But still, it was a neat place. After that we had some bottled waters at a cafe just outside the Catacomb complex. We used that time to double-check the directions to get back to the train station seeing as we were done for the day. The walk back was very interesting. The streets were pretty filthy - piles of food scraps and other piles of just garbage. Not huge, steaming piles or anything, just little piles here and there. The buildings weren't in the best shape, some worse than others. Despite that it was business as usual. People were walking around doing their shopping. A few goats were grazing wherever they could find a scrap of grass. Every now and then a donkey drawn cart would meander down the road. People were very welcoming to us white folk. At least I assume it was the color of our skin that tipped them off to our foreign status. We were bombarded with "Welcomes" from every side. Some said it with genuine sincerity while others seemed to be trying to welcome us into their store rather than their country. I recall one 10 or 12 year old boy saying it with contempt and a sneer. It was very strange to be perfectly honest. We walked for about 30 minutes and couldn't go for a full minute without being welcomed by at least two people. I was very torn as to whether I should feel annoyed or special. On the one hand it's nice to feel so welcome, and on the other it's annoying to stand out so much. So at the very least it was definitely interesting. Back at the station we got our tickets and boarded our train. Chuck talked with an incredibly sweet older gentleman for much of the trip. He was an Egyptian man who had lived in Miami, Florida for 20 years now and was back visiting Egypt for a few weeks. He was so nice and had lovely thoughts on how the world would be so much better off if we could all be peaceful with each other. For reasons unknown to me, the train trip lasted about twice as long as it should have. By the time we got back it had been dark for quite a while. Oh, one more interesting thing! We were waiting at one station and I got to see how people get on and off trains. These were probably commuter trains because they were so packed. People don't actually wait for the train to stop to get on. As soon as it's going slow enough that they can grab the rail next to the opening where there should be a door (the doors are long gone, or perhaps there never were doors), they pull themselves up and inside. And just because the train my be full, that doesn't stop them from continuing to try and get on. There may be 3 or 4 people hanging out of the doorway, their feet barely finding purchase on the little stairway that leads onto the train as it's rolling into the station. Craziness! This is how the buses work too. You don't have to wait for a bus to stop. As long as you can jump on or off, that's all that matters. Anyways, we made our way back to the hostel, stopping at GAD for food. Back at the hostel we discovered that it was like party night and they had a giant spread of food for everyone. I think it was all thanks to some of the guests that were leaving the next day. Mohamed brought us a hookah to use for the night. He doesn't actually smoke himself due to his religion, but he was happy to set it up for us and everyone else at the hostel to use. So we hung out smoking shisha with a nice German girl, some Polish girls, and random other people. It was a good day over all! And my feet were filthy by the end of it.

Robyn woke up really early on the 28th to catch her flight back to Florida. She woke me up to say goodbye and I quickly fell back asleep with a sad feeling in my chest. There had been some rough times during our time traveling together, but I was sad to see her go. When Chuck and I woke up again later that morning we headed to the Indian Consulate to pay our ridiculous visa fee: 750 LE. No visas yet - we would have to come back the next day to finally get them. We grabbed some McDonald's for convenience sake on the way back. Chuck wasn't feeling well that so we didn't do anything during the day. He wasn't keeling over the toilet or anything. He just didn't feel very good. We did go out to see a show that evening with Mohamed, the two Polish girls, and another good-tempered American guy though. We caught a taxi to Old Cairo and got in line for a free Sufi dancing show. Despite showing up nearly an hour and a half before, it was still quite a scene getting in. When we got to the door they suddenly shut it on us, leaving everyone wondering if they were full already or just waiting to get people seated. The door opened a crack and everyone pushed forward expecting to be able to go through, but instead they sent two people back out and shut the door again. We were all squished together like sardines in a tin. I was probably sandwiched between and touching 5 other people, all of us leaning towards the door. At one point I had to put my hand against the door to keep from being knocked over. Most of the people in the crowd were tourists and there was a lot of nervous laughter at the situation. But finally, we were let in! All the seats were taken so we chose a place to stand on the right side of the open-air theater. Then we waited for almost an hour. The show started with a line up of the instrumentalists. There were a few different kinds of drums, some interesting wind instruments, and a finger cymbalist. A few of them stepped forward and showed off their skills. They were all fun to watch, but the best one was the finger cymbalist. He constantly had a huge, almost goofy smile on his face and looked like he was having so much fun. He was great! Then they progressed through a few different Sufi dancers, spinning around and around with skirts flying. One of them spun for almost 40 minutes! I don't know how he did it. He didn't even spot. In fact, he looked a tad green sometimes. You could tell it was a religious experience for him though. He was lip-syncing along with the lyrics and making hand motions towards the heavens and looking full of conviction. It felt very personal at times. It was cool. And the last dance involved three Sufi dancers spinning around each other on the stage. It was a very good show. Perhaps not as "professional" as the guy we saw on our river cruise, but still very good. And in the middle of the performance one of the little boys who was sitting in the last chair in the row very chivalrously got up and offered me his seat for the rest of the show. I thought that was very sweet! I even tried to offer it back to him after a bit, but he refused. Such nice manners, hehe.

The next day was simple. We went and picked up our Indian visas finally and got McDonald's once again. I suppose the fact that it's really close to the hostel, it's fast, and it's a comfort-brand makes it an easy choice. We tried the McArabia. You could say it's a hamburger, but in a pita rather than on a bun. It was decent enough, but it didn't quite satisfy that addict-like craving that an American Big Mac does. That's probably a good thing though. We putzed around the hostel all day, taking full advantage of their awesome wifi. Working wifi is such a luxury while traveling. We got delivery from an Egyptian place for dinner. Good stuff, and a great price.

We decided we'd better get off our butts on the 30th. We still hadn't seen the Citadel yet, so decided that's where we should go. We grabbed some kushari from Abou Tarek first, then got a taxi to the Citadel. The taxi driver was nice. He was curious about us and was happy to tell us the Egyptian words for all sorts of things. Of course, I can't remember them now... But he was very friendly. We bought our tickets and made our way to the main attraction: a big, beautiful mosque. Before being allowed to go in I was shrouded in a green robe. I was wearing a short sleeved shirt, and I guess too much arm is not allowed inside. I didn't have to cover my hair though. It was a bit opposite from the Turkish mosques. It was pretty inside, of course but that's not what interested me most. What I found interesting was a group of school girls who ran up to us with a big smiles and asked if we would take a picture of them. I feel badly now that I didn't, but I've learned to be so wary of people asking anything of you or trying to help you. I faltered as they asked me, unsure of whether there would be a catch or not. When I did say no thanks their faces fell, but they just moved on to another woman with a camera. I think they just wanted to be in peoples' pictures with no strings attached. Now I wish I had their photo to scrap book or something! After we left the mosque we were surprised to be approached by two Muslim ladies. They held up a camera phone and looked as us questioningly, as if to ask if they could take our picture. Um, ok? So we posed with a smile and wondered what was up with that. We got a few more pictures of the mosque and the surrounding city and then explored more of the Citadel complex. As we were walking down one of the roads we were stopped by a couple with a baby. The woman held her baby out to me and I took the kid, feeling very confused. Does she want us to take a picture of them without their kid? That's weird. Then they turn their camera on us. Oh my. They want a picture of us holding their baby... So they take the picture and smile and thank us very kindly and go on their way. It was so weird!!! This kid's gonna grow up and look through his old baby pictures and be like "Who are those people Mom?" What is she gonna say to that? "Some of those crazy white people"? I wish I could be there to see how that question is answered. My best guess is that white folks are a rare sight in the Arab world. We had one more "photo op" with a father and his two sons. This time we decided we would get something out of it too and after they took their picture, we took our own picture. So there's a picture of Chuck with a very happy looking Dad and his two sons, both looking a bit more unsure than Dad. It was all rather funny to be honest. Quite different than how we've been treated anywhere else. There wasn't much else to see at the Citadel seeing as a section of it was off limits. There was a waiter who kept trying to get us to come have coffee at his restaurant, and used flirting to try and convince us. He said I needed to bring my sister back for him and for a moment I was wondering how on Earth he knew i had a sister. Then I realized he was just messing around and didn't know anything about whether or not I had a sister. He came surprisingly close to the mark though, and I was almost tempted to tell him that she just left. We did some hard core bartering for our taxi ride back to the hostel. We ordered in again for dinner and called it a night.

And the 31st - or Halloween - was an uneventful day. Once again, we did nothing. We got some delivery again that evening. The Egyptian-style rice is so good. It's got those vermicelli things in it. I don't know what they are exactly, but they're in Rice-a-Roni. Good stuff! And the beef meal is good stuff too. A group of four Belgian guys joined us in the common area. I was in a quiet mood, so Chuck did most of the talking, but they had an interesting story. They were traveling by car from Belgium to South Africa. That's a long drive! They drove to Italy, ferried to Africa, drove east to Egypt, and will be heading all the way down to South Africa. They bought the car a year before their trip and spent that whole time fixing it up. They said gas (or petrol) prices once they hit Africa dropped significantly. We also noticed that in Egypt - gas was cheap! It sounds like they'd had quite an experience so far and had quite a it more to go. Very cool. I'd be scared as hell to drive through Africa.

The 1st was leaving day for us. I know I was a bit sad to leave the hostel because it had been such a great place - the staff was awesome, great internet, comfortable beds, hot water. We got a ride to the airport, organized by our hostel. The driver was a cool guy. He chatted with us about Egypt and tried to teach us some Egyptian words. There was a ton of traffic on the way - more than usual that is. Finally we were detoured at a big bridge and had to do some round-about driving to get to the airport. The problem was a ton of military guys making way for the President of Egypt. Apparently he was coming to town that day and they set up nearly 1000 military guards at 20 foot intervals along the roads and medians. The whole bridge was shut down for the event. You could even see guys patrolling roof tops, rifles strapped to their backs. It was pretty impressive. Luckily we got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. It took us a few tries to finally get through the right security point, get our tickets, and go to the gate. The plane ride was very nice. We flew Gulf Air and had wonderful service. We got a meal on each of our two flights, and when I asked if it cost extra to get an alcoholic drink the stewardess chuckled and told me "No." She asked where we were from. "America." She just smiled a secret smile and said "Welcome to Gulf Air." I wondered if she frequently had Americans asking how much it costs for alcohol. We stopped in Bahrain for a couple of hours, which was cool. They have a sweet airport there! It's so shiny and clean and modern. Nice place. Some time in the early hours of the morning we boarded our second and final flight to New Delhi, India. Whole new adventures await us!