Monday, July 30, 2012

Cairo, Egypt

 Thirty six hours in Cairo- go! That was my plan after deciding to make my layover in Cairo long enough to see the Pyramids. So after my last night in Dar es Salaam, saying goodbye to Caitlin and a sleepy 5 hour flight, I arrived in hot, crazy Cairo. The taxi ride into downtown took over an hour in stop and go traffic. Covered in sweat and seasick from the drive I was relieved to meet my couchsurfing host Cesar at his office. I dropped off my bags and headed out to see some of the city on my own. Man, was I a walking target.


  That first afternoon was full of getting taken advantage of, learning that the Egyptians are probably the best con-artists in the world and feeling very tired and ill. It wasn't all bad, just quite a learning process. I got swooped into a shop for chai by a sweet man who told me the museum wasn’t open for another half hour and to see the long history of his family in Cairo, to realize after a while they were selling me perfume. So I bought some perfume. It was a very pleasant experience aside from realizing that they just flat out lied to me. I did make it to the museum after more attempted to tell me it wasn’t quite open (now I’d heard that one before).  The National Museum, is amazing and so full of ancient artifacts it feels surreal. Next I got roped into doing a favor for someone. He helped me get painkillers for my headache and then insisted I come into his office for coffee. I followed, fully aware that there would be a catch. We had a very pleasant conversation with his co-workers about Egypt, the revolution and travel over a cup of really delicious coffee. In the end the favor he asked was to buy him whiskey at the duty free shop using my passport for the discount. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself at this ridiculous situation that truly was a cultural experience. Later though, sitting in a cafe I started to panic that I'd done something illegal. My heart started to race and my mind wondered to being detained at the airport, thrown in jail and getting my hands cut off. Luckily Cesar, a lawyer, shortly arrived and assured me it was all fine.


  The second day, however, was full of love and being taken care of by a new friend. Nada is from Alexandria and is a friend of Cesar’s. Frustrated by the way tourists are haggled at the Pyramids, she’d vowed to not let any couchsurfers go alone. After staying out all night she retrieved me from Cesar’s and took me to the Pyramids. I'm so grateful for her, it makes me tear up just thinking about her kindness. My time in Cairo, had I stayed in a hotel, would probably have been blah and frustrating if not scary, but my host Cesar and Nada made it the experience of a lifetime. Nada and I rode a camel(!), climbed to the top of one of the small pyramids, learned about all the tombs and kings and queens, and then hung out at her family friend’s house- a 200 year old home just next to the pyramids. The family welcomed me in and gave me chai and then made up a room for us to rest in out of the sun. They were chopping up an entire goat to make stock for Ramadan. How else would I have ever had this glimpse into Egyptian life?! I had many moments of not believing my life. The Pyramids were awe-inspiring. I tried to picture them new and shiny, covered in white marble. I’d always wanted to ride a camel (my alma Mata’s mascot strangely enough) and it was amazing. He didn’t seem as thrilled as I was though and tried to bite me whenever I got down. A school group was curious about me and excited to try out their English. Girls surrounded us asking me my name over and over again. Nada decided to give them a little history lesson about the Pyramids and they all gathered eager to learn. 

 Cairo is the blackness to the right

 view from on top of small pyramid

 School kids


Bela and his 200 yr old house


 In a café

  That night Cesar, Nada, a few of their friends and I took a feluca (sailboat) ride on the Nile- a nice break from the heat. We tacked back and forth in what felt like a different Cairo from during the day. We walked to dinner on sidewalks of sand. They told me that during the revolution the sidewalks were ripped up and used as the people’s only weapon. Revolution graffiti decorated the city walls, but my friends felt that the revolution didn’t change much (the US made sure of that). You could hear the pride in their voices, however, when they spoke of taking the streets. 

 Feluca ride


  Cesar and I stayed up until 1am speaking French and talking about the world. He then carried my bag as far as possible into the airport and hugged me goodbye. I can’t thank or my new friends enough. One day early the universe gave me one hell of a birthday present. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Mafia Island

  What a wonderful place. This wild island (pronounced Ma-fee-a and having nothing to do with the Mafia) is one of those rare untouched places left in the world. Caitlin and I left the hustle and bustle of Zanzibar and flew to Mafia on a 10-person plane. Mangrove covered beaches met clear turquoise water. Undeveloped aside from a few resorts, Mafia felt natural. 

  We stayed in one of the only budget guesthouses on the beach in Chole Bay. Our cute little bungalow sat up on the hill with a view of the water through swaying palm trees. Four adorable little brown doggies greeted us and I can’t tell you how nice it was to pet a healthy, friendly dog. Our first evening we explored the beach and ended up climbing a huge Baobab tree. The bark was the color of sunset, grey and pink, and felt like elephant skin. Back at the lodge our server Modi, a student at the Mafia hospitality school, served us the most delicious fresh fish, rice with a light tomato sauce, smokey sautéed greens and a sweet crèpe with guava jam. 

  The next day after breakfast (another amazing meal) we went snorkeling. Our host Ali and Modi took us on a dhow boat (wooden sail boat) to the other end of Chole Bay. The ride was rocky and we giggled like schoolgirls every time a wave crashed in our faces. The coral was breathtaking. You could see damage from dynamite fishing – outlawed 30 years ago when the area became a marine park. Next we explored Chole Island. This tiny island inhabits 1,000 people, old ruins and a lot of fruit bats. The bats hang from the same two trees during the day and fly in search of food at dusk. We walked through the ruins of a slave market and prison from when the island was a large trading post.

 Modi fishing at the snorkel spot

 Chole ruins

 Ali pushing the dhow 

  Our last day I went diving and Caitlin saw baby turtles hatch on the beach at a turtle reserve near by. Being the only diver, it was just me and my two Italian guides Daniel and Alejandro. We did two dives in Chole Bay and they were beautiful. Although I’ve seen larger wildlife on other dives, this truly felt like I was in another world. The coral appeared as if made up by an imaginative child and the thousands of tiny fish came in all colors and designs.  

  The thing I’ll never forget however, were the stars. They enveloped you, feeling close enough to touch. The Milkyway floated above as shooting starts danced across the sky. We would lay on the beach each night mesmerized by the endlessness of them, while the dogs snuggled with us and the bats swooshed above.  Nature’s magic.

I’m working on a travel story about Mafia so stay tuned. Next post: Cairo, Egypt! 

Thursday, July 19, 2012


 Well, I'm back in New York. It feels like NYC is the sandwich bread encasing my trip to Africa. A lot has happened in the past two weeks and although I’m sorry to not have blogged more, j’ai bien profité de living life in the moment. 

  ZZZanz-i-bArr (always with an exaggerated exotic pronunciation) was incredible. We barely scraped the surface of this mysterious, historical and mythic place. The streets, too narrow to fit a car (which doesn’t stop motorbikes from flying around corners), wind in a random and circular way with beautiful shutters and ornate doors decorating every building. The sea breeze easily navigates the labyrinth, as do the vibrant sounds of kids playing, birds singing and chanting prayers. The apartment we rented from Manuela (a wonderful woman doing anthropological research on witchcraft on the island) was in a great location between The Big Tree (literally called so on the map) and the large market. We spent most of our days split between sipping coffee in a café by the beach, viewing films at the international film festival and swimming in the Indian Ocean. On our ferry ride over we happened to meet three French guys, resulting in even more of a Paris reunion for us Francophiles. Our first night we all went to the night market. BBQs and tables lit by gas lanterns line the waterfront displaying every kind of seafood imaginable. After picking out our skewers of fresh fish, prawns, coconut bread, samosas, etc., we sat in the Forodhani Gardens grilling (pun intended) our French friends about language and expressions. 

 Julia & Manuela  

 The Night Market

  One day we took a day trip to Bububu to find Hakuna Matata beach. The crowded daladala dropped us on the main road and so began the adventure. Three mzungus (foreigners) on a quiet dusty road guaranteed attention and everyone helped us find the way. The beach was beautiful and we were soon surrounded by a gaggle of curious and sweet teenage girls all wearing their abayas in the sand. They never swim in the ocean and asked us why mzungus like the beach. My favorite part of this beach was the ruins. Once an Arab home, the ruins were being taken back by nature. We silently explored with little white butterflies, as the old stone glowed gold in the setting sun. 

 A humorous sign on the beach

 Almost every evening at dusk we went for a swim and right at this time the beach would be taken over by a boys daily soccer game. Julia and Caitlin gave swim lessons to a crowd of eager kids while I tried to capture it all on ‘film’.

  I must return to Zanzibar some day. There was so much more to see and do and I really loved Stone Town. The mélange of people and cultures over it’s long history as a major trade center in the Indian Ocean have created a truly exotic place who’s beauty and mystery stay with you.