I had a streak of bad luck during my last days in Cairo which included discovering several thousand dollars’ worth fraudulent charges on my debit card and then losing my wallet. After a last minute scramble, I got my hands on some emergency cash (thanks Mom!) and am back in business.
I was greeted at the airport in Johannesburg by my friend Lourenz, whom I met while passing through Beijing on my way back to Thailand from Mongolia. Lourenz is a student in the captial, Pretoria. I decided to base myself at a hostel there for a couple days and hang out with Lourenz before heading to Johannesburg. Tonight I’ll be meeting up with my grandparents to start a trip around the country, ending just short of 3 weeks from now at Victoria Falls in Zambia.
Pretoria is a university town, and in many ways is no different from most American college towns I’ve visited. There is one thing I noticed right away, though. Every home is a fortress. I haven’t yet seen a single residence not protected by high, razor wire-topped walls. Most have automatic gates with intercoms and guard dogs. I even spotted one with an electrified fence.
I haven’t been made to feel at all unsafe walking around this neighborhood (Hatfield), but Lourenz and a few other locals have assured me that just a couple kms down the road in Sunnyside I “wouldn’t even make it a block without being mugged.”
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that someone stole all of my underwear from the laundry line yesterday. Great.
One more try to revive this dying blog…
The sun is setting. I’m sitting behind a cup of sweet turkish coffee at a cafe on the corniche of Alexandria, Egypt. I feel good. After the large helping of lamb kofta and good hour of smoking sheesha, nothing can get me out of this chair. So I’ll write.
I arrived by train this morning after a few days in Cairo. My introduction to the African continent has been a good one: in addition to the classic tourist itinerary (catching a sunburn at the foot of the great pyramids of Giza, getting lost in old Cairo) I’ve met some interesting characters.
“Backsheesh, grease for the gears, right?” My new friend Mohammed explained a few things to me about his version of the “Egyptian way” over sheesha and mint tea. I told him that I had just visited the Egyptian museum but was disappointed about not being allowed to photograph anything. “Of course you can!” He showed me the proper way to pass the museum guard a folded up bill on the sly. “They’ll leave you alone. The Egyptian way, my friend!”
Mohammed just wanted to sell me on a tour of the Cairo, but I knew that when he asked me to sit down for tea. I told him with a smile that I wasn’t interested in a tour but he asked me to stay anyway and chat. He wasn’t busy. We talked for an hour about all sorts of random things, I met his wife, he introduced me to the neighbors (awkward, no English), then I walked on.
I’ve been in the country for 4 days and already I’ve had two such experiences. Of course, for every genuinely friendly guy there are a dozen annoying touts who have no interest in me beyond what I might be persuaded to buy, but I can’t even say that much for many other cities I’ve visited. With the reputation Egypt has among other travelers I’ve met, I’m surprised to find it such a pleasant place to be a tourist.
Other random observations: - People walk fast here. Thai people walk slow. I hate that. - Single women don’t have it so easy around here. I’ve witnessed some minor harassment. - Old Cairo is just like it is in the movies. Which movies? I don’t know. There must be some.
OK time to go.
This evening I posed some questions about the Chinese language to the great Internets. The resulting avalanche of information kept me busy for hours…
The most fascinating thing I learned about is the clever way in which the Chinese have translated the names of other countries. Their native pronunciation is left partially intact (although this usually means only the first syllable) while they are given a “flattering and appropriate” title. For example:
England = è‹±å›½ = ying-guo = “hero country” Germany (Deutchland) = å¾·å›½ = de-guo = “moral country”
My favorite, though, is the Chinese name for the USA, ç¾Žå›½. Pronounced mei-guo, it can be translated as “beautiful country.” A flattering title indeed. Chinese, like most languages, has many words to express the concept of beauty. So why ç¾Ž? The character ç¾Ž is the combination of two characters, ç¾Š and å¤§:
ç¾Š = yang = “sheep” å¤§ = da = “big”
I’ve lost a lot of things during my travels - an expensive camera, two ipods, lots of clothing, shoes, money, etc. But a couple weeks ago I lost the most valuable thing yet: my journal.
My website is written on the first page, as is my email address, but I haven’t heard from you yet. That’s OK, I know you’re busy traveling through Thailand and all, and that you’re planning on sending me one as soon as you can. Its a good thing that you, of all people, picked it up. Some folks would just toss it or leave it there. I’m happy to know its in good hands.
That journal is a gift from my good friend Sarita. She gave it to me for my 25th birthday, right before I left home in December 2005. I’ve carried it with me through more than a dozen countries since then, filling it with little notes, drawings, stories and contact info of the people I’ve met along the way. I think there are about 10 blank pages left in it. I was planning to mail it home just days before I lost it.
So, if you’re still in Thailand or you’ll be back there soon (flying out of Bangkok, perhaps?) let me know. You can leave it somewhere for me, I’ll be very glad to have it back.
PS - I’m in Luang Prabang, Laos today. What a beautiful town!
The next day brought us to the town of Moron after just 12 short hours on the road. Actually, I’m using the word “road” loosely because there are no roads between the White Lakes and Moron. We bounced through fields and over countless hills, most of the time surrounded by absolutely nothing but miles and miles of wilderness. I ran my camera out of batteries on the way - the views were incredible.
The air in Mongolia is crystal-clear. High winds keep the pollution to a minimum, and there aren’t many smokestacks to begin with. The landscape is a brown carpet stained only by the shadows of clouds.
Moron is just a much-needed rest-stop on the long journey north to Lake Khovsgol National Park for most, as it was for us. We did enjoy the first shower in 5 days there, though, which would be my last for some time.
About 9 hours later we arrived at a ger camp a few kms from the lake. The arrangement was the same as before - one that I would become rather accustomed to over the next few weeks - no running water, no electricity, pit toilet. In the evening when we arrived, the ground was bare but the sky was grey. We awoke to a blanket of fresh snow, which continued to fall all of the next day which we spent at the camp.
Four of us opted to take a guided horse trip to the lake. The camp family dressed us up in thick traditional Mongolian coats and sent us off on 4 of their slowest horses. Because of the weather, visibility was low and there wasn’t much to see at the lake. It is still frozen so we walked out onto the edge of it, but didn’t stay long since we were all freezing. I spent the rest of the day by the fire.
In the evening we celebrated the birthday of another traveler staying in the ger next-door with a few bottles of vodka.
Day 1 brought us to the ancient capital of the Mongolian empire. Before I came to Mongolia, I didn’t realize that at one point Chengis Khan’s rule extended to every corner of continental Asia and even a bit beyond to form what was the largest empire in history. What was probably an impressive sight during the 13th and 14th centuries is now not much to write home about. A complex of crumbling temples and a (still active) monastery enclosed within 4 long walls is all that remains after the Russians demolished most everything else. We spent the night in a ger (traditional Mongolian home) and walked the grounds in the morning before continuing to the White Lakes.