Monday, December 31, 2007


SHORT VERSON: I probably got had by a dodgy looking dude in Luxor's souk.

LONG VERSION: My tolerance for the hassle-happy, obnoxious high pressure Egyptian sales people in Luxor's souk (market) was, for whatever reason, remarkably high this afternoon. I had successfully negotiated a couple of cheap cab fares and was feeling high and mighty in my newfound bargaining skills.

But I didn't go looking for the usual pile of fake papyrus, cheap alabaster, raffish glitzy waterpipes, and other kitschy garbage the Egyptians dump on hapless tourists by the truckload. I entered one shop that looked to be selling (what appeared to me anyway) genuine antiques. I asked the guy where I could find some old or ancient Egyptian coins. He took me a couple blocks down where streed vendors peddled some of the tackiest junk and introduced me to a dodgy looking old fellow with a toothless grin, a knarly, dread-locked beard and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth.

I told him I was looking for old coins. He immediately looked around like I'd just asked for 3 kilos of cocaine or Israeli sub-machine guns by the truckload. He then fished out some grimy silver coins with Arabic written on them. He asked if I wanted to see more. I said yes and he swore me to secrecy before leaving his pile of wooden cats and showed me to his apartment. He was obviously putting on a show, but whatever.

If I thought this man was suspect before, his 'apartment' did nothing to put my mind at ease. His only furniture consisted of an old stained matress I wouldn't let a dog sleep on. Nothing else but dirt, trash, and thousands of cigarette butts in the corners decorated his floor. I supressed my gag reflex long enough for him to fish out three plastic bags full of coins in random order.

The only ones I knew anything about were several old Indian Rupees and three Eisenhower dollars. He looked to have dozens of coins from British Egypt before World War Two. I was certain they weren't worth much though, and he was asking for some pretty ludicrous prices for them. He also had a bunch of what he said were Saudi coins. But most of his collection appeared to be fairly recent American coins, euros, and some of the former European currencies. The ones I could identify seemed to mostly date from the 1960's and 1970's.

He did show me an old silver coin that he said was from Saudi Arabia. I liked it and made the biggest mistake in the book while coin collecting: I bought something without knowing anything about it. Sadly, I still can't read most of the Arabic numerals. But I strongly suspected it was at least 50-60 years old. It is fairly large, and I could tell that it WAS silver. The coin also has a VERY ornate Arabic Calligraphy inscription on one side. I liked it.

I asked him for a price and he said 1600 Egyptian pounds (almost 300 US dollars). I smiled, but silently balked. I threw out 150 Egyptian pounds (about 25-30 dollars). He went on and on in his raspy chainsmoking voice about how poor he was, how I was so privileged to see his secret collections, how I was insulting him and breaking the rules by not compromising and lecturing me on how to bargain. I responded with two hundred Egyptian pounds and silently groaned inside. He started all over again with the same nonsense.

I got up and said "Thank you for showing me everything, but I don't have that much money with me and I have to go." Then he got all upset and threw all sorts of protestations and offered me a "special goodwill discount" as long as I promised to return and do business with him and to refer friends and family to him. The special discount was 1300 pounds. I got up to leave again and suddenly the price goes down to 600 pounds. Now I knew he was full of hot air (or cigarette smoke in his case).

In the end, he sold me the coin for 200 Egyptian pounds, which is way more than I had ever planned to spend. Without knowing anything more than a novice American coin collector, I would say I certainly overpaid. I'm going to take it to Mr. Said in the UAS business office or an old souk somewhere in Kuwait to see if they'll identify it for me and tell me more.

The character was certainly a master at bargaining, but it was immediately obvious he knew next to nothing about coins. He could speak and communicate in a broken English, but he obviously had trouble following some more sophisticated questions about the coin. He couldn't read the European coins, mostly old Francs and Italian Liras, and frequently got them confused (something to which I did not draw his attention). So all I really had to go on was my own estimation of the coin and its value.

But here in the Arab world, I'm totally in the dark about coin values. I know when something is silver or gold, and have got a good feel for "size," but I'm not an expert. And who knows what this coin might fetch in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or Egypt. Clearly, I need to do my homework when I decide to drop 30, 40 bucks or more.

Thinking back, I think I shouldn't have bought the coin at all, or AT LEAST read a guide of some sort on Arab coins. With American coins, I've got a pretty rough idea what the more popular coins are worth. If it is American, chances are I have an example of it, or have seen examples of it. I could identify almost ANY coin minted in America and probably tell you a little something about it. I'm weaker and less knowledgeable when it comes to grading coins and their conditions. But this is only because I don't buy the exotic rarities where the tiniest microscopic flaw could mean a difference in price of hundreds of dollars. I've never spent more than 90 dollars on a coin or bought something that was in mint state. I've also got the knowledge to navigate the Japanese coin market, although I'm no expert.

I don't think I was completely HAD by this guy though. It's about the size of the old, silver half dollars and its in pretty good shape. Any of the American Walking Liberty Half Dollars or Franklin Half Dollars would fetch in the range I paid for, so I don't think I overpaid too much (if I did in fact overpay). What bothers me is that I have no idea.

Hatepshut, Karnak & The Valley Of The Kings

I'm leaving Luxor a few days earlier than planned. There is tons of stuff I'd like to see here, but I really don't want to stay. The town is dirty, full of touts and hucksters, and I'm just not enjoying the polluted air's effects on my lungs or my photographs. And so far, I've only seen the Valley of the Kings, Hatepshut's Temple (above), and Luxor Temple.

On the bright side though, I got to see Karnak temple today (below), which is relatively spectacular and amazing. You can see the pictures here.

Nobody Made Me Buy a Ticket

After leaving Dakhla Oasis, I traveled by bus to the Egyptian town of Asiut, about halfway between Cairo and Luxor. My final destination of Luxor, required a trip on the train.

After finally arriving at the train station in Asiut, I walked up to the ticket counter. A guard from the Tourism and Antiquities Police introduced himself. He told me the computer system was down, the train was late, and insisted on accompanying me to the cafeteria. Having me more than my fair share of hucksters and scam artists on this trip, I was sceptical. I got in line only to be told 20 minutes later that the computer system was down and that I would have to buy tickets directly on the train. The guard patiently waited beside me the whole time.

I told him I'd like to get something to eat (not at his suggested cafeteria) and asked him to leave me alone. He said OK and told me to please find him when I come back to the station. I went with another couple travelers who were in the same boat, and the guard was waiting outside the restaurant I think.

I found out later that Asiut was one of the centers of fundamentalism. During the early 1990's a series of bombings targeted Western tourists and most of those groups came out of Asiut and some other areas, so police are VERY cautious with Westerners there, and prefer that they make their stay in certain places short. They escort obvious tourists (guilty as charged) and nudge them along to make their way to Cairo, Luxor, or any resort destination. At least the guard didn't act like he deserved a tip.

When I finally did board the train, I got on first class and asked someone who to pay. He pointed to a huge, chainsmoking mustachioed guy with a tattered thing resembling a uniform, a painfully enormous beer gut, and his fly down. I asked him twice while the train was in motion when I could pay and get a ticket. He mubled in broken English to sit down, not listening to anything I said.

He checked tickets for everyone in my car in no particular order. He'd check a few people in front of me. Then he'd sit down for a while, then he'd check a few behind me. The whole time, he never checked my ticket and I got to ride for free. Five hours of free train travel. This in a country that seems to have perfected the art of extracting money from traveler's pockets.

My enthusiasm and happiness soon waned however, when I tried to use the restroom. The toilets on Egyptian trains officially set the record for filthiest public toilet ever witnessed by Tyler Beal in his entire life. The previous record was held by a gas station somewhere between Oklahoma City and Amarillo, Texas visited in the summer of 1999. The train beat out Chevron by a mile. Oh, the nastiness.

I finally did get to Luxor. and then I had a nice meal that consisted of stuffed pidgeon. Add that to the list of meats I've ever eaten.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Dakhla Oasis: A Place for Hantavirus

The end of my desert excursion is near, I take a step back in time as I stand on the street in Dakhla Oasis. A sleepy, one camel town separated from Libya and Sudan by nothing but endless miles of sand, gravel, and rock as dry as twice burnt toast. Most locals appear to be farmers, growing dates and some sort of hay-like camel and horse feed plant that I've already forgotten the name of.

But the best thing about Dakhla Oasis is the old city. Ancient residents constructed the old city with mud-brick, and much of the old buildings still stand. I remember making a crude imitation of mud brick as a child during Bear Valley Church's summer day camp. Back then I never imagined I'd stand in a place where such buildings actually existed. I started wandering around the old city and noticed that residents have abandoned most of the mud brick, although some are still occupied. Its kind of unfortunate, because all of the new buildings are constructed with a very ugly concrete or some sort of very low grade white brick (even uglier than the concrete).

The mud-brick section of the city is only partly inhabited and most of it has fallen into disrepair. Wandering around in the abandoned parts, I thought back to Anasazi ruins in Arizona and Utah that I've seen before. This place had a similar haunting presence of a glorious past that is no more. Except that folks still lived in some of these places. Garbage and trash was strewn around the sections that looked used.

The abandoned sections, with all their interconnected rooms, tunnels, stairs and passageways all made me think just one thing, "There's probably a lot of rats, mice, and rodents around here. And they probably carry hantavirus, boubonic plague, rabies, and a bunch of other diseases I don't wanna get."

A Whole Other Kind of Sand

Sand, Sand, Sand. More Sand. There's certainly no shortage here in the Sahara.
Unlike most people, I got past loathing, hating, and vainly fighting sand after I spent enough time at Camp Surf on Imperial Beach in California. If you are surrounded by it, you simply do your best to avoid it, and don't fight it when you can't.

At the beach, seawater frequently submerges beach sand with the tides. Seawater is also full of salts, minerals, microscopic organisms, and generally makes the sand moist and sticky. It also makes sand irritate your skin, especially if you wear globs of sunscreen.

But desert sand is different and much easier to deal with. After being blown in by winds, the desert sand doesn't stick to you. It is finer, softer, lighter, and while dusty, somehow ... cleaner (if that makes any sense at all).

But I'll spare you my endless pedantic psychobabble about, well... sand, and just show you some pictures.

White Christmas in the Sahara

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas....

Well, it WAS white, but this particular Christmas wasn't anything like the ones I used to know. Mainly because I was truckin through the Sahara in a ancient beater Landcruiser with a German/Syrian dude, a chainsmoking Egyptian guide, and a Korean couple.

We left out of Bahariyya Oasis, which lies 5-6 hours southwest of Cairo. After another hour or so, we pulled off road into the black and white deserts. It dawned on me, as we were about to camp, that we were in the White desert for Christmas Eve.

I only say it was white because I was in Egypt's White desert looking at these otherworldly rock formations from an ancient prehistoric seabed. And while the tour turned out to be less than I had hoped, the surreal lanscape managed to amaze a jaded guy like me, who used to live in the Grand Canyon and used to visit Sedona, Utah, or the Colorado Rockies every other weekend.

Just take a look.

Sick of the Touts

Would somebody PLEASE do SOMETHING about all the obnoxious touts in this country?

Everywhere I go, I get guards, random dudes, and all sorts of crazy characters bothering me for money after showing me around somewhere I was perfectly happy going or finding on my own. EVERYONE wants tips, "admission," baksheesh, or some commission. It gets real old. If they really cared about their tourist economy, you'd think they would do something about these types.

Every hotel, hostel, or inn I stay at, someone tries to sell me a "tour" to wherever.

Perhaps its my own falt for having stupid rich westerner, or "moneybags" written all over my forehead, or for being nice, approachable, and polite (been living in Japan too long), but I've never been so accosted in my life. Seriously, you can't be civil without giving them the mistaken impression that they deserve a tip or something.

Nitrox Rocks in Sharm El Sheikh

"Tastes like a septic tank, smells like your old man's farts and gives you a horrid case of diarrea. Use it too much and you'll grow hair on your tongue." Fortunately these were NOT the first words out of the mouth of my instructor, as I studied to get my nitrox permit for scuba diving. He did however, warn about the possibility of oxygen toxicity, as breathing too much of the stuff isn't good for your brain or lungs.

I suppose I should start with a better explanation for all non-divers reading this. When you dive, your body absorbs nitrogen in your bloodstream. If you absorb too much, either by diving too deep or diving too long, the nitrogen builds up, and causes all sorts of serious health problems (which explains Michael Jackson and TomKat). So divers carefully measure, monitor, and limit the amount they absorb. Unfortunately, this limits the number of dives you can do and your options when diving.

SO, how do divers get around this? Since nitrogen is the problem, why not just breathe a mixture of gas with less of the stuff in it? Enter enriched air nitrox (to thunderous applause). Normal air consists of 21 percent oxygen and 79 percent nitrogen (except when my dad uses small lavatories). But Nitrox contains 32% or 36% oxygen. So you breathe more oxygen and less nitrogen at depth and your body absorbs less nitrogen, so you might be able to do that fourth dive without having to worry about pressure sickness.

The downside? Increased risk of oxygen toxicity. You can have too much of a good thing. Equipment also oxidizes faster and there's an increased risk of fire/explosions (just like my old man's farts).

But all in all, if you are doing lots of fairly routine dives over multiple days, nitrox might be the way to go, despite all the hassles associated with it.

As for Sharm El Sheikh and the Red Sea, the diving is fantastic, but it doesn't quite live up to the legend that divers had put in my mind. The famous wreck in the area, the Thistlegorm, was allegedly closed, and a little piece of my heart died inside. The reefs were in decent shape and the visibility very good. 20-25 meters at best. But the Red Sea is famous for 30-35 meter visibility, and this just didn't happen. The coral reefs were quite pretty, but overused. Every dive site we went to had 3-7 other boats, glass bottomed boats, and snorkelers. You couldn't dive anywhere without the sound of motors or engines somewhere in the distance.

Nevertheless, with as much traffic as I saw, the Egyptians seem to be doing a decent job preserving the reefs. One thing didn't surprise me though. I was underwater, and another diver pointed out a huge eel that was probably 5 feet long and weighed 40 kg or more. Impressive. He pointed to a nearby reef shark after that. Then he scribbled, "TIPS 3$", on his clipboard.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Getting Hassled at the Pyramids

Is it really so outrageous that a guy should want to visit one of the most famous sites in all of antiquity and not want to spend all his money on fake papyrus, camel rides, pictures, special tours? Its one thing if people want to sell all this stuff, but can't a guy just decline and say no and not be bothered? One almost can't be civil with every person throwing scams at you or selling their stupid tacky garbage. Several times I had to yell at guys trying to get me onto a camel before they finally got the message that I didn't want to ride it.

I did however, get to see the Pyramids! They are quite large and impressive, but I don't have much to say beyond this, When I was through being impressed (and sick of the endless touting)
I returned to Cairo to look around at the National Museum.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dispatches from Cairo

Hello everyone, this time from Central Cairo. Yes, I got on a plane early this morning and flew to Cairo. Now I'm being a total tourist again, this time in Egypt. I'm spending a couple nights here to see the pyramids, some Coptic Churches, some Mosques, Museums and to try not getting ripped off too badly by unscrupulous cab drivers and smelly old fat guys selling fake papyrus.

My readers are probably getting sick of hearing about the next place Tyler is going to visit. So, my amusing story to keep everyone reading: I farted on the airplane! I was in the center seat, center aisle, and I let a big moldy one rip. People gagged. Babies cried. Stereotypes about ugly (and smelly) Americans were reinforced. (Just kidding).

Thursday I'm going to Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai peninsula for some scuba diving and sunshine.

After that, I'm headed off to the Western Desert to look at sand. I'm hoping to end up in Luxor and perhaps see the Nubian desert. We'll see.

I wish I had something funny or amusing to say about Cairo, but the place is very much the way I envisioned it, perhaps even nicer. The city has a horrible reputation for filth and pollution, but it isn't as bad as I had heard it was. Certainly not as bad as Naples, or Cambodia. Only complaint I have so far centers around the primitive internet cafe where the computers don't have USB ports to hook my camera up to. So I guess you'll just have to wait a day or two for pictures.

Kuwait's Grand Mosque

No, I haven't started a new career as an orator, rather I went to see Kuwait's Grand Mosque.

The large, well funded Grand Mosque of Kuwait is actually a very recent addition to Kuwait City, having been put up in 1987. Its exterior, while ornate, keeps a low profile in Kuwait's city center.

The School organized a tour for teachers who wished to see it, so I went with Jeff, John Fager, Gordon Gabriel, the 6th grade science teacher, Alison Lovell, another rookie at the elementary school, and Geoff Williams, the 8th grade English teacher. May, the school librarian, came along to make sure nobody did anything to embarass the school.

The tour was informative and helpful and surprisingly open. The guide was helpful and polite in answering everyone's questions. They even let me hike up into the pulpit to take pictures posing as a charismatic Imam.

While the exterior of the mosque wasn't all that exciting, the interior was absolutely gorgeous. The main dome showed several striking styles of ornate Arab calligraphy and the main altar was decorated with Quranic verses written in no fewer than 7 different styles of calligraphy. I give full marks for the artisans responsible for the mindblowingly excruciating detail work that must have gone into the decoration and construction of the facility. Excellent detail work involving stucco around the Mosque also impressed me. Sunlight leaking in through the arched windows bounced off the soft blues red tones of the walls to give the whole of the massive interior a warm glow.

Unfortunately, I forgot my own camera, so I had to borrow Jeff Wallick's pictures.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Everest Mountaineering Slideshow

Until last Friday, I hadn't seen a famous climber's slide show presentation in several years. I remember my Dad and I watching Alex Lowe's slideshow together. I also remember going to a couple other slide shows at a rock gym in Flagstaff. This slideshow was to be done by Zed Al-Refai, the first Kuwaiti National and evidently the first Arab to climb to the top of Mount Everest on May 22, 2003. Having never heard of him (I haven't been keeping up with events in the climbing community) I grew quite curious to hear his story.

The AWARE center, an organization promoting Western-Arab relations, hosted the event. Slick, professionally done posters with Zed posing on the tops of Aconcagua, Denali, and Vinson Massif, greeted us at the entrance. Posters of Zed atop each of the Seven Summits of all the continents shamelessly promoting Gillette Mach 3 Razors bespoke of a well funded, professional mountaineer. My expectations grew dramatically.

After being shuffled down to the Center's large Diwaniah room, Zed began with some video clips of him doing some easy rock climbing at some unspecified location. He told the story of how he was introduced to climbing while living in New Jersey and doing some mountaineering around New England. This led him to attempt and successfully climb Denali in Alaska.

Following this, Zed made three attempts to climb Mount Everest. During his second attempt, while descending via the North Col / North Eastern ridge from the Tibetan side, Zed was carried down the mountain with High Altitude Cerebral Edema. After turning back, he apparently made it to one of the lower camps on his own power before being carried down the mountain unconscious in an oxygen chamber. Unfortunately, the details in the story were not fully explained.

Zed was successful on his third attempt and became the first Arab to summit Mt. Everest. He currently resides in Switzerland.

The slideshow was OK. Zed certainly had some great pictures. But his presentation catered more to the amateur audience in the room and less to the mountaineers (was I the only person in the room that had done any climbing?). One of the best things about climbing slide shows like this is for other climbers to ask the famous guy details about the routes, epic story, and challenges faced on an adventure that everyone has already read and heard about. Instead of regular climbers being able to "talk shop" with a pro, Zed spent a good deal of time explaining simple things to amateurs. He talked endlessly about "Why I climb" to everybody, whereas every other slide show I've seen was filled with climbers who understand the motivations all too well.

Needless to say, numerous details about the climb I would have liked to hear didn't get explained. What were the circumstances that led to his Edema? At what point in the climb did he turn back? What were some events that occurred during his third attempt? While I enjoyed the show, it just turned into a whole, "I came, I saw, I climbed," kind of story with few interesting details. There also wasn't much time for him to answer questions or talk about other mountains (the guy went up Denali, Gasherbrum, and some other interesting peaks).

John Fager and I eventually ate the AWARE center's free meal (they are very generous with good food) and met a guy looking to do an around-the-world motorcycle trip.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Random Events

My life is pretty simple and uneventful right now, which explains the lack of regular updates. Things will pick up again when I finally reach Egypt. Here are some random events and notes.

1. Went to the first Thanksgiving dinner I've ever been to in three years. It was a small affair in a friend's apartment. It was the only Thanksgiving dinner I've ever eaten without family and it is the only Thanksgiving dinner I've ever been to where Americans were outnumbered at their own holiday feast.

2. I've been doing some serious procrastinating on my upcoming trip to Egypt in a few weeks. This probably isn't a good thing, as the winter tends to be the high season for tourists in Egypt. I'm only really concerned about finding an outfitter to take me to the desert though. We'll see what happens I guess.

3. Been going to my new gym. I'm finding my new job is a lot more draining than my old job and finding the motivation to exersize afterwards is getting harder. Hopefully things will again change after the holiday break.

4. My faith in the political and economic future of my own country, the United States of America, took an ump-teenth turn for the worse this week with talk of subprime mortgage bailout. We know rich corporate fat cats will never have to face the music for their wildly irresponsible investments and loans, but I have a hunch every struggling homeowner who bit off a little more than they could chew (oftentimes just as guilty, but without access to the federal government's influence and pocketbooks) Why not solve drug addiction problems by giving out free heroin to addicts? Its times like these that I'm glad I don't get paid in USD, nor pay taxes to contribute to every pile of excrement the US throws at fans on a nearly daily basis.

5. I went to another Rugby dinner/gala/ event shindig with some teachers again. I've been to two or three of these now (for Rugby groups and the Kuwait Irish Association), and these functions are becoming pretty predictable. All the foreigners get dressed to the nines, go to some hotel convention room, eat an overpriced dinner of passable, but predictably typical cuisine, have a raffle by some annoying MC, and then dance the night away to the same predictable songs they danced to at the last event. Seriously, how many times can you hear that annoying, "Tell Me More" song from Grease in a year and be inspired to dance to it?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Tyler. Egypt. December. It's on.

Some of you may or may not know that I'm going to Egypt this year for Christmas and the Winter Holidays. While I will miss all my family and friends, I'm looking forward to this very well deserved (and well needed) vacation. Things on the Agenda include:

1. Unwinding from a whole semester with seventh graders.

2. Scuba Diving in the Red Sea, ostensibly some of the best scuba diving in the world.

3. Taking an 8 day desert safari tour. (Picture Tyler as Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient. Staring off at a sunset over sand dunes with a brooding angst splattered across his pasty sunburned face).

4. Being a total tourist at the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings.

New Dishdasha & a New Gym

My friend Jeff and I were out one Friday night at the Old Souk (market) and happened to wander by a tailor selling dishdashas. For those of you who don't know, a dishdasha is the traditional garb worn by men here in Kuwait and Arabs in most of the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.

Usually they are white, but in wintertime, many different colors are worn. I'll have a picture of me in mine soon. I don't look exactly right in mine, but Jeff Wallick on the other hand, could pass for a local if he keeps his mouth shut.

Hopefully nobody will use this against me if I ever run for senate!

I also joined a new Gym. The commute to my old gym, Al-Islah fitness center, required a 15 minute walk down crowded, dirty, smelly streets, ultimately passing over a 12 lane controlled access freeway. This was starting to irritate me.

Another teacher at my school showed me his gym. The new gym lies only a 3 minute walk away, hidden away in a hole in the ground under a 12-floor apartment complex. The new gym is closer, cheaper, cleaner, nicer, and has a whirlpool. The only problem? They pipe in some satellite music video channel and I spend more time watching top 40 and less time pumping iron. I'll get used to it I suppose.