Friday, December 14, 2007

Goodbyero, Cairo.

Unless something insane happens in the next two days (not a longshot with this country), this will be my last post from Cairo. Which is sort of freaking me out. Where did all the time go?

(Quick sidenote: yesterday was the two month birthday of my coke nail. It has gone beyond the tip of my finger, and is moving into uncharted territory. This makes it very hard for me to type the letter "A", or to shampoo my hair without scraping a layer of scalp off. In short: I am disgusting.)

Before I get all "boo hoo Cairo" on you, let's talk about how terrifying living in this apartment has suddenly become. For some reason, the beggars of Cairo decided we're regular moneybags, because they're all making the frightening ride up the elevator to the ninth floor, just to knock on our door and ask for five pounds.

That's not the scary part, obviously. Two nights ago, Beckett and I were asleep (in our separate rooms, pervert), when we were woken up by the doorbell ringing at 3 AM. I stayed in bed because I was tired and lazy, but I heard Beckett getting out of his room, grumbling and cursing all the way to the door. He opened it, and standing about ten feet away from the door was a small Egyptian man (Beckett described him as "Al Qaeda-looking"). His head was tilted towards the ground, but he was looking out the top of his eyes, staring at Beckett.

Beckett asked in Arabic, "What do you want?" but the guy said nothing. Just stood there, staring. Fifteen or so seconds passed, and Beckett repeated: "What?" A few more seconds of silence, and then the guy slowly said (extremely creepily, I might add, since I could hear it all the way back in my room): "Oh. Good evening." Which sounded even creepier in Arabic.

At this point, Beckett was completely freaked out, so he just shut the door. He got about ten feet away from it before he heard a series of knocks. Peeking through the peephole (a word I can't write without giggling), he saw the one man had suddenly been joined by two more. Luckily, he didn't open the door again, and just crept back to his room, grabbing a knife from the kitchen on the way. Apparently he didn't sleep until the sun came up, and I'm not so sure I would have been able to, either.

Actually, I know I wouldn't be able to, because while I was able to laugh off the story the next morning with a simple, "Weird..." it really freaked me out that night. We were supposed to change our locks or at least get a deadbolt when we moved in here, because who knows how many people have a copy of our house key? We tried the first week in our apartment, but failed and ultimately forgot. (If you know how to say "deadbolt" or "locksmith" in Arabic, it probably would have been easier for you.) Plus the windows in my room don't close all the way, and it was a particularly windy night, so the wind was making the curtains dance around like they always do when someone's about to be killed in a horror movie. But even worse, the wind was making the already-loose door shake and thump, like someone was on the other side trying to get in.

Looking back, I was being a bit of a pussy, but at the moment all I could think about was that guy saying, "Messe el-kher," in that creepy way. I spent the night on the couch in front of the TV, and didn't fall asleep until the sky was beginning to lighten.

Laying on the couch, I decided I really didn't feel like watching anything in Arabic, wrestling, or 10 Things I Hate About You for the umpteenth time (why does Egypt love that movie so?), so I just turned it to CNN. The most insane British man in the world was reporting on traveling in Japan, so I had a blast seeing all the places and landmarks I was at. It really felt like I was just there, even though that was way back in July.

It's really amazing that I can watch a news report from Tokyo and say, "I was there!" Or when a commercial for Turkish Airlines came on, showing the park between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, I was able to remember the times I walked through that park myself. Or when the news report came on showing protests in Beirut after another assassination, I recognized the buildings in the background. Rather mind-blowing, really.

I can't believe there are only two hours until Saturday begins - my penultimate day in Cairo. I know it's cliche, and I know it's cliche to say it's cliche, but it feels like yesterday that I arrived in Cairo, completely confused but loving every second of this insane place. And wasn't it only last night that Beckett and I checked out of the dorms at nearly midnight, getting an apartment completely on impulse? How has it been nine weeks since I was in Beirut?

There are some things I already know I'm going to miss. Simple things, like the joys of smoking shisha and drinking tea at a small cafe down some dirty street, or just the way you can't leave your apartment without insane things happening to you (naked Saudi men, anyone?). I definitely will not miss the pollution (for the past couple days, the air outside has smelled like a charming mix of straight-up gasoline, and electrical fires) or the incessant car horn honking. But I've met some amazing people and completely changed my view of the Middle East, which I think we all need these days. We may not speak a single word in common, but a cab driver and I can still share a laugh when we see a biker collide with someone getting out of their car. His culture is 100% baffling to me (and the non-offensive Egyptian hand gesture he gives me to say "wait, please" could get you killed if you did it to someone in, say, New York), but we're basically the same.

And, of course, I'm going to miss all my friends out here. Emily's in Jordan, but she decided to come back tomorrow night to say goodbye to us on Sunday, which is good, because I'm dreading the thought of leaving her. At least she's in Chicago, though. What am I going to do without Allyson, who is all the way in LA?! Or Beckett, and Elizabeth, in Washington, D.C.? Weird stuff, saying goodbye to these people.

I don't know what more to say. It's been an unbelievable four months, and I think the past however-many posts speak for themselves. I'm thrilled that I came out here, and I'm excited to get back home and restart my life in the good ole USA. (The next time one of you angsty teenagers complains about living in the "worst country", just remember that at least you have drinkable water and electricity that works. Bush sucks, but you've gotta love America.)

I still haven't quite decided what to do with this blog now that I'm going home. Do I keep it running? Is my life really that interesting in the United States? There'll for sure be one or two more from home, just to update on the whole reverse-culture-shock thing that I am oh so looking forward to. But after that - who knows? I've got a couple trips in the works, specifically a road trip this summer around the United States, and hopefully in a year or two a few of us AUC kids will reunite for either the Mongol Rally or the Rickshaw Run (or maybe the Ruta Del Sol or the Africa Rally). So even if this blog dies out once life returns to that seemingly-foreign concept of "normal", I expect a vampire-like resurrection for it at some undefined point. The world's a big place, and I'm not at all satisfied with the meager amount of it I've seen so far. What's the rest of it like?

(Oh, on a related note, if you want to invite myself and two friends to stay with you during our road trip this summer, I'd be eternally grateful to you. We have no definite plans for our route [aside from going to Disney World, of course], and I don't know about their financial situations, but I'm completely poor after all these ridiculous travels, so we will be relying on a tent for lodging, rather than crazily expensive hotels. But we could pay you back for your generosity by painting you a picture or something. My specialty is abstract/cubistic renditions of genitals.)

Apparently it's the Christmas season back home, so Happy Christmas. See you in the States.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I hate AUC.

Well, I should probably start by giving you an update on Operation Spiritual Warriors. I ended up dragging Emily with me the next day to see the movie and attempt to get a DVD. When Jsu saw I had returned, he yelled, "I love you, man!" I bet you're pretty jealous. They all seemed thrilled at my return, especially Rick Ojeda, who seems only half-heartedly to support this freaky religion. I kind of thought he'd slip me a note during the movie warning me to escape while I had a chance, but I guess they've brainwashed him enough to stop him from trying to save others from his fate.

Emily thought the movie was even better than how I described it to her, verifying my suspicions that it is, in fact, impossible to accurately portray with words. She practically ripped through the skin on my leg from gripping it in an attempt to stop from laughing. She particularly liked the sex scene (with the not-so-subtle song in the background, whose chorus is, "I am inside you") where Jsu clearly takes advantage of the situation and improvises a breast grab - while the woman is speaking her line! The professionalism killed me.

We then sat through another awful question and answer section. The first question was from the woman sitting next to me, who decided to challenge Megan's question from yesterday: "Last night, one of the Americans asked what you expected the audience to get from the movie, but I thought it was very spiritual and moving, and that's why I came back today." Give me a break. Then an American in the back row piped up with her awesome question: "In a spiritual movie like this, where you're attempting to pass along your religious beliefs to the audience, don't you think style distracts from subject? I mean, it's hard for me to stay involved with the spiritual storyline when I'm being distracted by demons and special effects." Suck it, Jsu! He clearly had no idea what to say to a question like that, so he just said that he wanted to make a cool movie filled with sex and violence. Classy. Between Megan's question the night before, and this girl's question, I was feeling pretty proud to be an American.

The best part of the question and answer segment came when Jsu said he thinks the movie will have "cult success". I swear, the irony almost made my forehead split in half (Spiritual Warrior reference!). FInally, people stopped asking him stupid questions about what sort of camera he used to film it all, and we were free to go. As I nervously approached him, practicing my lies ("I have a friend who is really into spirituality, so I think this DVD would really make a great Christmas present") some other loser asked Jsu where he could get a copy of the DVD. Jsu told him to sign up for the mailing list on the website, and he would be notified of the DVD release through there, probably around March. Damn! So, I left, utterly defeated, and having seen Spiritual Warriors twice in two hours. That was probably the lowest point in my entire life.

Since then, I have pretty much finished this semester. Classes are out, and I have already completed two of my four finals, as well as the paper that is due on Thursday. All I have left is a final on Saturday, and a final on Sunday, and then I'm home free. You know how impossible it is to concentrate during finals week at home, when Christmas is right around the corner, and you are sick of the material you've been studying for the past semester? Try doing that, but you're being tested on a language that's been dead for over 2000 years, and that language is the only thing keeping you from seeing your friends and family, whom you haven't seen in four months.

The word on everyone's lips these days is, "America." Even the kids who were so die-hard about Egypt when we got here can only talk about home. It's extremely easy to fall in love with Egypt if you only visit for a few weeks at a time, and then get back to normal civilization, but once you live here for any substantial amount of time, it really can make you dislike the country, which is unfortunate. I know I'll love it in retrospect from the comfort of the United States, but right now we all just want out.

Don't get me wrong, I've had the greatest four months of my life out here, but it's definitely time to go home. Cairo can feel extremely stuffy at times - a city half the size of Paris with four times the people can do that. Plus it's in the middle of the freaking desert, so it's a hassle to get anywhere other than Cairo. And once you've done all the touristy stuff (which can be done in a day or two, really), there's not much more to do than... well, drink. So I think a return to normal life will actually be a good thing.

Okay, enough bashing Cairo. Lets focus on how terrible AUC is, shall we? You see, before we go home, we have to tell AUC where we want our transcripts sent, so our grades and credits transfer. Should be a simple process, right? Not at AUC! We have to go to the Student Services office, which is run almost exactly like the DMV. You take a number, and sit and wait for your number to be called. From every student that has gone through this process, I hear the sitting and waiting takes over an hour. And this is only to get the freaking form! I could suggest a million different options - sending the form out in an e-mail, having one employee whose only job is handing out the forms, or, I don't know, putting the forms in a pile on a desk for you to just walk in and grab?! Once you have the form, you have to go to about five different offices to get various people to sign off to say that you don't have any book checked out of the library, and you've paid all your fees, etc. etc. Then you return back to the stupid Student Services office, where you take another number, and wait for another hour. Just to hand the form back in. And the final kicker? The office is only open from 9-1 on weekdays. So there's almost no way you can get in and out on the same day, unless you're very lucky. Beckett and I will be attempting to beat the system tomorrow, but I'm sure it'll end up being a two-day process.

All that's left between me and the United States: the stupid transcript process, handing in a paper, taking two ridiculously easy finals, packing, cleaning, celebrating Beckett's birthday. Tomorrow will be my last day of being a tourist for a while - Beckett still has not seen the pyramids in the four months we've been here, so Beckett, Emily, and I are heading out there to hopefully ride horses, and definitely to touch the pyramids. And then tomorrow night comes my first and worst goodbye - Emily is leaving early to travel in Jordan until she goes home. I don't know what I'm going to do without this girl I've seen every day since we became friends literally three hours after I landed in Cairo. Luckily she lives in Chicago, so I'll see her at home. But Jesus, saying goodbye is going to suck.

I promise this is my only "Cairo sucks" post. The next one (maybe my last?) will be looking back on how amazing this has all been. Because, let's face it, this whole four months has been more than surreal. Oh, and happy last night of Hanukkah.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Cairo International Cult Festival

I don't know how to describe what just happened so you get the full effect, so I'll start by saying that you will never be able to understand what we went through today unless you've lived in Cairo, and also been inducted into a cult. How's that for an intriguing introduction?

Yes, it was another crazy day at the Cairo Film Festival, which has become my favorite thing ever. Remember what I said about "Cairo" being synonymous with "low quality"? Today proved that, and the unfortunate victim of this lesson was Harvey Keitel. And then later, it was us.

We showed up early to get good seats for Reservoir Dogs, which wasn't a problem because the place was deserted. Even at 11:56, there were less than twenty people in this large auditorium. I quickly got up to run out and get some popcorn, and I literally ran into Mr. Keitel. He was walking in the door, holding his son, and I was walking out at the same time, so I all but trampled him. I was way too shell-shocked to say anything, so I just quickly jumped out of his way and let him through. He look at the abysmal crowd and joked, "I knew it would be packed in here!"

He stood at the front of the auditorium with an interpreter and his son, and just did a brief introduction for the movie. And it did not go well at all. He was hilarious and classy and very, very nice, but Egypt kind of got the best of him. The microphone was not working, so various Egyptians kept running up to him with other microphones and literally shoving them in his face. None of the mics worked, and he couldn't get through any of Quentin Tarantino-related anecdotes without some moron interrupting him with a new microphone. He was way more patient than I would have been, but eventually he just said, "I can't do this. These people just want to watch the movie, so welcome to Cairo and enjoy." And then he got the hell out of the theater entirely. Thus ended my encounter with Harvey.

Within two minutes after he had left, a man came out and announced something into the broken mic, so none of us understood exactly what he had said. But the gist was that their only copy of Reservoir Dogs was "broken". You'd think at least one person would have thought, "Well, Harvey freaking Keitel flew all the way to Egypt to attend a showing of Reservoir Dogs, so maybe I'll just run up to the film booth quickly and make sure we actually have a copy of the movie on hand." But, of course, they didn't.

Incredibly, Beckett had a copy of Reservoir Dogs back at our apartment. So he volunteered to get in a cab and run to get the disc, which they agreed to, since he was totally saving their asses. So he took off running, and we all sat down to wait. Twenty minutes later, they decide that they are through waiting for him (even though they had called him and found out he was already on his way back), so they were just going to stick another movie in. I think they just assumed we all were there only to see a movie in English, not specifically Reservoir Dogs, because the guy came out front again and said, "We have English movie for you. It's okay, in English." Uh, what? One of the guys sitting next to us asked if they had any movie that Harvey has been in, since that's kind of the point, but I don't think this employee had any clue who we were talking about.

So we just sat and watched Battle for Haditha, which turned out to be really great. It's shot like a documentary, and feels incredibly real, and it shows the events of November 19th, 2005 in Haditha, Iraq, when an IED killed a Marine, and the remaining Marines proceeded to kill 24 men, women, and children. Four of the Marines are currently on trial for murder, so it's an incredibly controversial movie, but it was very well done. So I guess it was a fair trade - I got to see Harvey Keitel, and a good, new movie. But somehow I doubt Harvey will be returning for the 2008 Cairo International Film Festival.

Okay, now comes the insane part. Beckett, Elizabeth, and I convinced Allyson and Megan to come with us to see Spiritual Warriors, which they were all for, because we had visions of rubbing elbows with A-listers like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney. Yes, this was sure to be a grand affair.

We arrived half an hour before the movie started (assuming we'd be fighting for seats if we got there even a minute later), and practically got knocked over by Jsu Garcia himself on the stairs. He seemed all a-fluster, but he recognized us, and said, "Come on, I'll hook you up!" We soon found out he was only trying to sound cool and important, because we followed him up to the theater, which was free to get into anyway.

The theater was in a real Cairo Pandemonium, because - surprise! - the projector wasn't working! So while Jsu ran around like a madman trying to find his DVD copy of it, we stood outside the theater, talking. A kind old woman said to Megan, "Hello. I'm Sally," and instantly I knew that this was Academy Award nominee Sally Kirkland. Megan, of course, did not, and responded in the most condescending, whatever-you-say-crazy-old-lady voice: "Nice to meet you, Sally. I'm Megan." This embarrassment continued for Sally, because I was the only person not affiliated with the movie who knew who she really was. She actually grabbed a reporter and said, "Do you want an interview?" to which he responded, "No thanks." She finally got a couple interviews, and the only parts I could hear of it were her listing off all the hundreds of movies she's done, and repeating, "I'm Oscar nominee Sally Kirkland!" I wanted to push her out the window into the Nile to put her out of her misery. It didn't help that she was wearing a weird crystal between her eyes, which should have been a clear sign that we were getting into something insane.

We schmoozed with the "rich" and "famous" for a while, like movie producer Rick Ojeda, who made an interesting choice of a first impression: flat-out lying. "I'm the Prince of Darkness in this movie," he proudly stated. Which I discovered later was not true. He was actually just a doctor that had one line. Did he think I wouldn't notice that the Prince of Darkness looked nothing like him? Whatever, he was the nicest guy ever, and I may have fallen in love with him a bit. Hey, compared to Sally's craziness sitting next to him, he was marriage material.

Finally the movie was ready to go, so we were ushered into the smallest theater ever, which smelled like hot dog farts. The DVD menu was projected on the screen in front, and I caught the word "subtitle" misspelled as "subtitel". Why did I not recognize any of these signs and escape while I had a chance? Alas, we sat down, listened to Jsu's little introduction, and the movie started.

I really don't know how I'm going to explain this. I'll frequently be cutting in with little insights, straight from the mind of Jsu himself, so bear with me. You know the scene in Lost where they open a door in the Others' complex, and that kid is being brainwashed by really crazy images? Or the brainwashing in A Clockwork Orange? Or have you ever done acid? It was like that.

It started out normal enough. For, like, two seconds. Basically, Jsu played a struggling actor, who also on the side was a drug dealer for the mafia. (Sidenote: Jsu said at the end that the movie was based on real-life experiences. So I guess he was a drug dealer?) He runs from the cops, and decides the best solution to evade the police is to sleep in a bush. He wakes up, and he's in the garden of the strangest old man EVER. This is him:

The old man gives him some tea, deals some cards, and thus ends the semi-cohesive plot. Jsu's forehead splits in two, launching us back in time to the continent of Atlantis. Some crap goes down, the King dies, and every freaking three seconds the King's face is juxtaposed with the old man's. I can't honestly do a scene-by-scene recap of this, as much as I would love to, because I've tried to erase it from my mind. But most of the movie took place in flashbacks - Jsu's "past lives" - to stuff like Camelot, and also two kids were randomly shown being hanged 2000 years ago in Jordan. (This will become a hot issue in the "press conference" afterwards. Hang on, we're getting there.)

One of my favorite parts of the movie (but let's face it, I thoroughly enjoyed all 99 minutes of it) is that every so often scenes would be stopped, and text would appear, showing a quote from the founder of this god-awful cult they're all members of, John Roger. The quotes were all totally nonsensical, but what made it even better was that in case we couldn't read, they had someone reading it to us. We assume it was John Roger himself, because if it wasn't, they should have hired a different actor. The narrator sounded like Dick Clark post-stroke. Seriously, it sounded like half of his mouth was melting. It's hard to not laugh when you hear the narrator of a movie drooling all over himself, but it's even harder when he's saying stuff like this: "If you withhold yourself from your life, you are withholding the support of the Spirit." Or: "Spirit doesn't care because there are no emotional levels in Spirit." Or: "Spiritual Warriors have the Sword of their Heart in front of them." I could go on for days.

This madness continued for an hour and a half. Crazy stuff happened that I will never be able to explain. At one point, he became a full-on angel with wings. But then he did a swan-dive back into his body. There was a wonderful training montage with Jsu and the old man, during which they did stuff like rollerbladed at the beach (seriously) and planted flowers together (again, I'm serious). And then, out of nowhere, Jsu was standing in the middle of this neon blue ocean with all sorts of cities trapped in bubbles around him, and then he hugged a half-naked toddler and cried. An explanation for this scene was never given.

Finally, the final battle between Jsu and the Prince of Darkness (or PoD for short) took place. Just when I thought it couldn't get any better. They each grabbed swords, which turned into Lightsabers (sidenote: Jsu admitted later that Star Wars was, in fact, his inspiration for this scene), and they had a pathetic little battle, before the Prince of Darkness thought, "Wait, what am I doing? I'm the freaking devil!" and just shot a fireball at Jsu, knocking him all the way across the desert as Jsu screamed, "NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Suddenly, a force field appeared in the middle of the desert, separating Jsu from the PoD, and the force field had the old man's creepy face floating in it! At this moment, I completely lost it and laughed out loud. He gave some words of inspiration, Jsu realized that he was The One (sidenote: Jsu also admitted later that he got this "inspiration" from The Matrix), but the PoD again realized that he's freaking Satan, so he turned into a really terrible computer graphic of a monster. He started stabbing Jsu with his wings and throwing him all around, while the old man's face appeared on the sides of mountains, encouraging Jsu. Then I looked down for two seconds to try to hide my laughter, and somehow the PoD had been magically transformed into a cockroach! Problem solved!

It's really, really impossible to get the full effect of the movie without seeing it, but I hope I did it a little bit of justice. If you were confused by my description, I served my purpose well - we had to run out of the theater to avoid laughing in front of Jsu.

After the movie, we had our pathetic little "press conference" with Jsu, one of the producers named Fadal, and Sally. (One last sidenote: I don't know why Sally came all the way to Egypt, because she was literally in the movie for 45 seconds.) The first question that was asked was honestly this: "It was so deep and spiritual that I think we're going to have to watch it again to fully understand it. Can we watch it again?" I almost crapped my pants. After that, since we were the only Americans in the audience, the conference went into total Arabic, with Fadal answering all the questions, since he's Egyptian. Every once in a while Jsu would make him translate so we could understand what was going on, but Fadal would only translate part of the question before cutting himself off to answer it, so what we got only confused us more. The conference only lasted for about fifteen minutes, but these people had some insane questions. Two women actually started yelling about the fact that the two little Jordanian kids that had been killed 2000 years ago were not wearing historically-accurate costumes. They got in a good three-minute fight with Jsu and Fadal about it. On the list of offenses this movie committed, inaccurate costuming is near the bottom. Then someone else asked a question, and Fadal answered, and then the guy said something else to which Fadal again responded, so Jsu asked, "What the hell are you saying?" Fadal said: "He's asking about Israel and Palestine," and then they got in a big fight in Arabic. What? Why is he asking you about this right now? Then someone else asked a question, and Fadal answered, but translated the question for us: "He's asking about my village which was destroyed by conquerors." By this point, I was waiting for someone to jump out and shout, "Gotcha!" and reveal the hidden cameras.

Jsu allowed only one more question, and then just as we were about to be set free, Sally finally spoke up and said, "Wait, I have a question for the Americans." My heart sank. "What did you feel when you watched this movie? Did you feel anything in your heart and soul? Tell me about your experiences." She was met with total silence for nearly 30 seconds, before Megan - always the one ready to debate someone - responded with, "I actually just have a question. I know why you made this movie - it was an intensely personal, spiritual movie that was all about what was going on in you, and I can see you got a lot out of making it. But what did you expect us, as an audience, to get from it?" Translation: "It sucked." He responded with some bullcrap about it being a "love letter to us and to John Roger", and then we got the hell out of that place.

It kills me to have to write bad things about these people and their movie, because Rick, Fadal, Sally, and of course Jsu were incredibly nice people and I wanted oh so badly to like their movie. But... they can't be serious with this madness. Here's the worst part: I really, really need a copy of the DVD. I haven't wanted anything this badly since yesterday, when I saw the Egyptian wearing the sweater that had "SuperFab" sewn into the back of it. So... I think I'm going back to see it again tomorrow. It's the final showing, so I'm going to offer Jsu some money for the copy of the DVD, since they won't need it anymore. (Unless it's the only copy in the world, considering the only way you can see the movie is if Jsu personally comes to your city and does one of these awkward personal showings.) So if I actually have the balls to go and sit through the movie again, I could end up with a copy of the greatest movie of all time, and most likely get it signed, too. The bad news is that they'll probably be convinced that I'm very serious about the religion now, and will do their best to convert me. But I guess that would make for another interesting story.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Closest Possible Thing To Danny Glover

First of all, happy Hanukkah. You Jews at home aren't celebrating it yet, since it's not sundown in the States, but the sun went down long ago here (in Israel, as well), so I'm more than justified in saying it. Just deal with it, okay?

One of the things I love most about Cairo is the fact that any simple excursion out into the city, no matter how brief, always turns into a bewildering adventure. Tonight was a perfect example. The Cairo International Film Festival is currently going on, and while I've been hearing stories from people who peed in a urinal next to Danny Glover and others who met Jerry Seinfeld, I never really felt the urge to make a go of the festival. Not really sure why, since I love crap like this, but maybe it has something to do with the fact that any place or event with the word "Cairo" in it usually is using the city's name as a synonym for "terrible quality". I'm just sayin'.

On a whim, I decided to check out the festival's website to see what movies were playing. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that tomorrow, Reservoir Dogs would be playing, and none other than Mr. Harvey Keitel would be in attendance for a press conference after the movie! My fate was sealed; I had to go to this movie. So Beckett, Elizabeth, and I all ventured over to the Hyatt, where the festival's main theater was, to see how we could get tickets.

Unfortunately, the girl selling the tickets did not speak a word of English, other than the script she memorized earlier: "Which movie? How many ticket? Twenty pounds, please." We tried to communicate that we wanted to see Reservoir Dogs (for some reason she didn't understand, "We want to see Harvey Keitel!") for several minutes, but she wasn't having any of it. Dejected, we walked back to the elevator, but we saw a guy wearing a press ID badge, so Beckett grabbed him and asked if he spoke English. It turns out this was the best possible thing he could have done.

The guy's name is Abbas, and he is Iraqi, but engaged to an American ("Nice, eh?" he said) and he was unbelievably helpful and hilarious. He reminded me a bit of Roberto Benigni. He said he would help us get tickets, but then instantly got side-tracked by showing us all of the movies that were playing, and explaining which ones we should see. Then, mid-sentence, a pile of almonds magically appeared in his hand, and he gave each of us a nut to eat. I didn't know what the hell was going on, but I was loving it.

He exchanged some words with the now-thoroughly-annoyed ticket girl, and then suddenly stopped talking to her, and gestured for us to follow him. We started going down the escalators back to the lobby, and on the way he was telling us that he's a member of the press, but also an actor, and that he has many famous American actor friends. I was a bit skeptical, but then he said, "Oh, there's my friend!" and pointed at a guy in a nice suit who was in the glass elevator across from us and waving his arms and jumping up and down. So then we just took off running down the last few escalators, yelling, "Jsu!" which I guess was the actor's name. The man was waiting for us at the bottom, so we were introduced to Jsu Garcia. You're probably wondering who he is. I hadn't ever heard of him either, but a quick search on revealed that he has had tons of roles, some of them fairly large, such as starring opposite Mel Gibson in We Were Soldiers. But what really got me was that he got his start as Johnny Depp's best friend in A Nightmare on Elm Street. How can I not love the guy who uttered the line, "Up yours with a twirling lawnmower"?!

Jsu (look at me, on a first-name basis with the stars) is here because he wrote, produced, and starred in a movie called Spiritual Warriors. We thought it was just a small little production, but it definitely wasn't. It's supposed to be an incredible movie, especially since it was filmed in Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, and the budget was under $1 million. It's starring Jsu, some old dude who's been in a billion movies, Christopher Atkins, and Sally Kirkland, who we should be meeting tomorrow. Apparently Sally has been nominated for an Academy Award, and she was the first person be completely nude on-stage in a play. I think I'll break the ice with that little fact when I meet her. So anyway, he asked us if we wanted to come see it, and there was no way we were saying no to him. He offered to let us in for free, and said he'd be outside the theater waiting for us tomorrow night to let us in. Pretty amazing, right? He also gave us a bunch of flyers promoting the movie and asked us to hand them out at AUC to spread the word. He was such a cool guy, and it was an incredibly generous thing for him to do. Even though I had never heard of him by name, I've definitely seen him in movies before, and I've never met anyone like him who just exudes a movie star aura. I have to admit, I had no idea who he was, but I was totally star struck.

So he ran off, and Abbas took us back up to the theater (thereby confusing me about why we were going down to the lobby in the first place, but there's no questioning Abbas' methods), and insisted we had to see the movie that was about to show. We just did what you do in Cairo, and went along with the flow, instantly purchasing tickets. I bet the ticket girl was thrilled to see us again. Our tickets were taken by someone I'm positive was Horatio Sanz in disguise, and we were ushered into the theater. We said goodbye to Abbas outside of it, but he promised we'd see him at Jsu's movie tomorrow night. So we just grabbed three seats in the theater - which was by far the nicest theater I've ever been in - and tried to figure out what sort of movie we were about to see. We had no idea what country it came from, what the plot was remotely about, or even what the title was. Meanwhile, Beckett texted his mom to have her look up the plot details for Spiritual Warriors, and she responded with this: "Actor meets mysterious old man, old man trains actor, they fight forces of evil." Sounds awesome, huh? I can't wait.

Now, the theater was pretty enormous, and there were about six people in there. But suddenly a huge group of Egyptian students - there must have been at least 20 of them - came in, and sat down right next to me. Out of all the seats in the theater! They then spent the next half hour screaming, wrestling, running around, playing Coolio songs on their cell phones, and generally being as annoying as possible. But I wouldn't expect anything less from Egypt, so I found it all quite hilarious. Before the movie started, they were yelled at by a giant man in a suit, so then they generally quieted down. Eventually the theater filled up a little more (it was still pretty embarrassingly empty), and the lights dimmed.

What followed was the craziest hour I've experienced in quite a while. I had no idea what was going on in the movie. It was in Hungarian with English subtitles, and it was about some ugly gipsy who was framed for murder. I think. Mostly it seemed to be about creepy old imaginary ladies tormenting him in his jail cell, dead chickens, and gay sex. It was absolutely terrible. Luckily it only lasted for an hour, and then the main character killed himself in the final second of the movie, so I guess it was all worth it.

Thoroughly confused, we encountered Abbas outside the theater, who admitted that he slept through it. So why did you make us go to it, Abbas? Eh, bygones. We said goodbye to him again, but hopefully we'll see him tomorrow night. Not only is he an awesome guy, but he's the first Iraqi I've actually ever met in real life. So far, I love Iraq. I returned back to our apartment and had a sad little Hanukkah celebration, lighting the candles all by myself, in the dark since the power was out. If there had been someone else there, it would have been very romantic. Especially since it had this whole Anne Frank-esque feel to it, what with the power outage and the fact that I had drawn all the shades to hide my Jewish tendencies from curious neighbors.

So tomorrow I'll be going to only one class, and then blowing off my other three to watch movies all day! But I'll be meeting one movie star for sure, at the very least seeing another, and hopefully meeting Miss Kirkland as well. I have to say, this is shaping up to be the best Hanukkah ever.

Also, I apologize for the lack of pictures. Chances are, there won't be any more. My camera got up one day and decided it was going to make every picture have a horrible purple hue. I'm much too embarrassed to use it anymore, so I think it's time it goes into retirement.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Shave and a Haircut, Two Turkish Lira

As promised, here are the pictures from my Turkish haircut experience:

Midway through the process. I considered leaving it like this, but decided to let him continue.

Half an hour later, the guy seemed like he was finally done cutting, and this is what we were left with.

Now begins the styling process. This is Phase One, which oddly took place before the shampooing. Note the older brother in the matching sweater in the background, searching men's hairstyling magazines for inspiration

My first shampooing by a dude! The water here practically came out of the faucet boiling. My face is melting.

Big Bro steps in for Phase Two of styling. He is currently adding three different kinds of hair product. To get the full effect, imagine this picture going on for thirty minutes.

I look to the future with great optimism. What will this haircut bring me?!

The final creation. Take note of the horns on either side of my forehead. Those were gone two seconds after this picture was taken.

And now, since I didn't have any on my own camera and therefore couldn't show you them earlier, Whirling Dervishes!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Only An (Asia) Minor Offense

Alright, so it sucked to not be at home for Thanksgiving, but definitely not as much as I thought it would. Istanbul is, for lack of a better word, awesome. It's so beautiful, it's got a fascinating history and mix of East and West elements, and in the cold of November it feels and looks as bleak as a Dostoevsky novel. Which is exactly what I expected from Eastern Europe. In short, I loved it.

Tuesday night, Ellen and I left for the airport around midnight. We got to the airport with relative ease, considering it's Cairo, (i.e. our cab only broke down once on the way there) and we were off to Turkey. We got in around 5 AM, and were instantly amazed at how clean the airport was, as well as how many signs they had. It was so easy to find the metro! We got a little lost downtown trying to find our hostel, since the area we were in had literally a billion hostels and hotels. But we found the cleverly named Istanbul Hostel, dropped our stuff in our dorm room, and went out to explore. We were dead tired, but screw sleeping. We mostly stayed around the downtown area, near the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, which had a great little park separating them. In the park, I found a black stray dog, and of course I had to pet him. (Just so you know, all the strays in Istanbul have tags on their ears, which means the city has taken them in for various shots and de-worming. Just another reason why Cairo sucks in comparison to the rest of the world.) Naturally, since I was the first person to give him some lovin' in quite some time, he followed us around all morning. And throughout the next four days, every time I ran into him, he'd follow me for a good hour. It killed me that I couldn't bring him back to the States.

We waited outside the Blue Mosque for it to open for visitors, and while we were waiting the dog rounded up another dog friend, as well as a cat. So we just sat there outside this incredible mosque, surrounded by strays. Finally the place opened and we went in, sans animals, and admired it for a few minutes. It's huge and beautiful and old, and what more to say? Other than the fact that the combination of the gloomy skies and the bleak beauty of the mosque combined to create the Greatest Picture Ever. But I'll save that for the end of the post, where it can be fully enjoyed. Patience, my friend.

Once Emily and her boyfriend Nathaniel woke up (she had left the day earlier, and he had arrived that same day from the good old USA), they met us at the hostel, and the four of us set out to see the city. We went to the fabled "Grand Bazaar", which was neither grand nor bizarre. I mean, it was huge, but each shop sold the exact same things, at ten times the price you could get them for anywhere else in the city. So most of our time there was spent trying to find the way out.

The next day was Thanksgiving, and by this point Emily's roommate Laura had arrived in our hostel room (while we were sleeping off the previous 48 hours of being awake), and a good number of other AUC students had also arrived in the city. So Emily, Nathaniel and I organized a Thanksgiving dinner (way early, at 4 PM, just like at home, of course) for the 12 American students in Istanbul at a really good restaurant. At 4 we all piled into the restaurant, much to the dismay of the staff, and since their largest tables could only seat eight, we proceeded to push tables together. The waiters stopped us, which resulted in a bit of a fight. We tried to reason with them, saying, "Either you get our business and let us push the tables together, or we go elsewhere," while Emily yelled hilarious things like, "In America, today is a holiday!" They stood their ground, however, and we ended up wimping out and just cramming 12 people onto the 8-person table. Which actually made it more fun and more like Thanksgiving at home. We had a huge, relatively cheap meal, and it was definitely a Thanksgiving dinner to remember. Unfortunately, there wasn't any turkey or gravy or mashed potatoes, but we did have chicken kebabs, hummus, and fried eggplant. Plus instead of apple pie we went down the street and all had some amazing cake. So all in all, it was a fair trade.

Not wanting to end our little makeshift America we had created in Istanbul, Emily, Nathaniel, Laura and myself decided to spend the night escaping to the United States, just for once. So we grabbed some take-out McDonald's and brought it into the theater to watch 30 Days of Night, starring Josh Hartnett. It was a lot of fun, and the movie was actually pretty good.

Could they have maybe made Baby Jesus a little less creepy? Or at least given him a better haircut?

The next day, Laura and I woke up with nothing really planned, so we decided to go to Asia. Why not, right? We went down to the harbor, and just jumped on the ferry we thought crossed the river. Luckily, it did. Fifteen minutes and a trip across the Bosphorous later, we disembarked on Asian soil. It was pretty remarkable that for a dollar we could go from Europe to Asia. To my disappointment, no one was speaking Chinese on the Asian side.

We walked around that part of Istanbul for a couple hours, which didn't have many sights, per se, but therefore was much less touristy, which was a welcome break. Eventually, I decided enough was enough, and it was time to get a haircut. So we scoped out the barber shops, and picked the best-looking one. It was run by what looked like two brothers (they looked alike and wore the same sweater, only one was blue and one was orange) and their dad, who just sat in a chair, reading a newspaper the whole time. The younger brother seated me, and we spent the next fifteen minutes looking through hairstyling magazines, trying to explain what I wanted. We found something sort of close to a normal haircut (it was really, really slim pickings) and the guy set to work. This was my first-ever haircut from a man, as far as I can remember, and it didn't help that this particular man had a European mullet. I wished I knew how to say, "Don't make me look like you," in Turkish. While he did the cutting, the older brother kept looking through the magazines and asking me if I wanted some of the cuts, all of which were horrible. After I turned to Laura for advice about a hundred times, he figured out who was calling the shots, and eventually only showed her the pictures. My life was in her hands.

The haircut took nearly an hour, because the guy was a major perfectionist, which I was completely okay with. Once he was finished, he asked if I wanted a shampoo. I've already gotten a haircut from a man, so why shouldn't I have him wash my head? Next thing I know, he's shoving me face-first into the sink and pouring scalding water over the back of my head, which ran down my face. I screamed and writhed, but he put his hand in the middle of my back and held me down, like the sadist he was. Once he decided I had burned off enough layers of skin, he pulled me up and dried me off. Then he stepped out, and the older brother stepped in.

This guy was a pro. Apparently he is the stylist brother, because he got all his ingredients out and went to town on my head. I've never seen even a brain surgeon so careful about his work. God knows what went into my hair, but I definitely saw him use two kinds of gel and wax. He fashioned a wonderful little faux-hawk for me, and then made these two really strange curving horns out of my hair that curled across my forehead. It's hard to explain, but I'll eventually have a picture to show you what I mean. Finally he was done, and I payed them, thanked them, and left. Laura and I instantly went around the corner, took a few pictures to document the cut, and then fixed it. Unfortunately, she still has all the pictures on her camera, but once she gives them to me, I'll make a photopost or something to show the whole ordeal. We crossed back into Europe and met some friends for a really crazy night that I'd rather not write about here. So stop being so nosy.

The rest of the time wasn't spent doing anything really outrageous - we just saw most of the sights in Istanbul and enjoyed our break from the chaos of Cairo. We've really come to appreciate something as simple as fresh air, so the freezing, clean air of Turkey was an excellent treat.

Eventually we had to return to Cairo, even though none of us really wanted to. It's not that we hate Cairo, it's just that we... kind of hate it. Don't get me wrong, it's an exciting, interesting place, but it's getting a bit wearing to live there for this long. Plus we had a little taste of the Christmas season, and as much as Cairo tries to keep up with the rest of the world in that department, putting a few Christmas trees in a couple stores just ain't doing it for me. However, we have less than three weeks left here, which is rather shocking. I can't believe I'll be going home so soon. I'm extremely excited to get back, but I know once Christmas and New Years wind down and I get back into the swing of things, I'm not going to be able to think about anything other than my next big trip. Speaking of which, we were planning on going to Luxor and Aswan this weekend, but everyone's feeling a bit lukewarm about it now that they've missed so much school and have a lot of make-up work to do. Whereas I missed 14 days, and I have absolutely zero work to do. My classes here are a bit of a joke, and I think I might be in serious trouble when I get back to classes at Madison. Maybe I'll just transfer to AUC for good.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Turkey for Thanksgiving

I know I just got back from England, but I think I've been in Cairo for far too long, so it's time to take off again. I leave in a few hours for Istanbul, where we will be spending our Thanksgiving. I'd actually rather be at home for the holiday, just because it's definitely one of the best holidays, and my entire family will be getting together to celebrate it without me. But I suppose I can't complain too much, what with being in freaking Istanbul and all.

I'm going to have to do my best not to think about all the fun stuff going on at home, but I know come Thursday I'll be going through some massive homesickness. I love everything about this holiday, from the delicious and insane amounts of food, to seeing all the family together, to all the stupid traditions like making fun of me for that time I accidentally swallowed one of the "I'm thankful for..." pieces of paper my mom baked into the rolls.

I've got a lot to be thankful for this year - it's been definitely the most amazing one of my life. I've always wanted to go to both Japan and Egypt most in the world, and to visit both of them within six months is incredible. I'm thankful that all my travels thus far have been completely safe and gone off without a hitch - or, if there has been a hitch, it's been nothing serious, and easy to laugh off. I'm obviously thankful for my parents, who never make me feel like crap when I have to ask for money (which has been far too often lately - sorry about that), and who support all my decisions, even seemingly-crazy ones like jetting off to Beirut during election month. Thanks for giving me all these awesome opportunities. I'm also thankful for my sisters, who are always hilarious to talk to back home, and who I can't wait to see. They're both graduating this year, so congratulations to both of them, even though that means they'll both totally be stealing my thunder when I get home.

Lets get even sappier, shall we? I'm thankful for my extended family, who I haven't seen in nearly a year since I'm always gone, but who I'm very excited to see once I get home. I'm also thankful for friends - my old ones, for not hating me for being able to do all these amazing things, and for at least faking interest in the stories of my adventures; and my new ones, for making the four months in Egypt among the best months of my whole life.

I'm also thankful for Jesus, because Thanksgiving never would have existed if he hadn't risen from the dead and defeated the Maccabees. At least, I think that's what we eat turkey to celebrate.

Have a good Thanksgiving, ya'll.

Monday, November 19, 2007

When Will You Kids Learn That There's Semen On Everything?

Was that ever a good weekend, or what? Yes, I have returned from my extended weekend in England with the family, and it was everything I had hoped. Fun family times, clean air, good food and drink, and most importantly - Christmas!

On Wednesday, I got up, packed, and brought my duffel bag to class, where I had to take a midterm before I left. I thought security would have a problem with my big duffel bag coming through the metal detectors, but all they did was ask, "What in that?" and when I said, "Clothes," they just let me right in. Perfect, now I can plant all the bombs I brought to school! Anyway, I obviously aced the midterm (just like last time, all the Egyptians had to re-do their tests because none of them could grasp the incredibly difficult concept of using pencil rather than pen on Scantron tests).

I then said goodbye to Allyson, and hopped in a cab for the airport, enjoying my last thirty minutes during the drive of breathing 90% fumes and 10% oxygen. I had a bit of an Amazing Race moment - there are two totally separate airports that serve Cairo - Airport 1 is mostly domestic but with some international, and Airport 2 is mostly international but with some domestic. Confusing, right? Now, the obvious choice would be to go to Airport 2, since it's mostly international and chances are the flight to London would be leaving from there. But when the cab driver asked, "Which airport?" I went with my gut feeling and risked it all with Airport 1. I'll spare you the suspense and tell you that I was correct, which made me feel great all weekend. Especially since when I got to the airport and asked the guy at the information desk where the BMI counters were, he responded with, "Airport 2," but my gut still told me it was at Airport 1, so I walked past him and found the BMI desks on my own. But the fun of Cairo didn't stop there - you have to go through security just to get to the check-in desks, so when I tried to go through, I was forcibly shoved back through the metal detector, and one of the guards took my passport and left me standing there. I watched him talking to about three different BMI agents for nearly five minutes, with me holding up the entire line behind me. Finally, he came back, gave me my passport, and let me through. From this point on, I had a personal escort until I actually got to my gate.

Anyway, I eventually arrived in Heathrow, and set off on my series of three trains to get to the town of Eltham. But since I can't travel without having the most ridiculous things happen (usually through my own fault), I had to go to the bathroom. Terribly. The food on the plane did a number on my digestive system. So for all three trains, I'd arrive at the station telling myself, "This is where we'll find a bathroom," but every time the train was just pulling in, so I'd jump on the train and say, "Okay, at the next station." This continued for nearly two hours. On the final train, I literally thought I was going to shit my pants. I came within seconds of biting off my coke nail. That's how bad it was. I even
thought about taking the little emergency escape hammer, shattering the window, sticking my ass out, and just going out the side of the train. But I reached Eltham station, and ran down to find a bathroom. Of course, the first bathrooms I encountered had massive padlocks on them, and the second ones were locked as well. My dad had also told me there would be cabs out front of the station, but there was nothing. I was seriously panicking at this moment. I asked some dude sitting behind a window if there were any bathrooms, and I think he said no, but I wasn't really listening. So I just asked for a cab, and he typed something into his computer, and a cab magically appeared from god knows where. It was awesome. I got in the cab, rode for ten excruciating minutes to the hotel, where luckily my parents were standing outside of, about to get into the car and drive to find me. I was extremely rude and gave them half-assed hugs, told them to pay for my cab, and ran into the hotel, right past Nikki and Sara, and into the bathroom. Once my business was finished, I managed to greet the family properly, but the damage had already been done. We will never be a family ever again.

That night was most excellent. They were all exhausted and went almost immediately to sleep, and even though I thought I wasn't too tired, I passed out pretty quickly after hitting my (outrageously comfortable) bed. I spent about five minutes trying to stifle my hysterical laughs over how absolutely silent it was out there. No one was shouting, no cars were honking, and there literally was not a sound to be heard, as hard as my ears were trying to find something. After three months of non-stop noise, this was an incredible shock to my system, and I actually got a headache from the lack of noise. It was wonderful.

This is what the rental company tried to saddle five of us and our luggage with. Seriously.

The next morning, we took off in our little rental van for the town of Bath, to see a university for Sara. By this point, she had already pretty much given up on the idea of going to school in England, instead focusing on Seattle, but my dad needed to trick himself into thinking all the money he spent on this trip had a point, so we went to all the previously planned schools, no matter how much everyone begged to skip them. The drive was pretty fun, since the English countryside is remarkably beautiful when it's all frosted over in the morning, and since my dad was still trying to figure out how to drive on the wrong side of the road. Since I hadn't eaten anything since that awful BMI meal (now I know where they got the first two letters of the airline's name), we stopped for breakfast at a... Costa. Wonderful. We eat lunch at Costa about three times a week back in Cairo. But they had different kinds of sandwiches than stupid Egypt, and I ended up eating half of my mom's turkey, gravy, and cranberry sauce monstrosity, which was kind of disgusting, but that's all the Thanksgiving I'll be getting this year, so I made myself enjoy it.

We got to Bath with only a little difficulty - I told my dad to make one stupid wrong turn, and all of the sudden I was labeled as the family idiot who can't be trusted with the maps anymore - and I think all of us fell in love with the town. It was not too small, not too old, not too modern, and for me at least it was the first time I really felt like it was the beginning of the Christmas season, which everyone knows is the best time of year. The college was very nice, too. I don't really remember any of it, but who cares, right? The point is, it's Sara's number one choice in England, which is excellent.

We then did some touristy things, like seeing the church were the first king of all of England was crowned, and the nearby Roman baths. My family was amazed at all of it, but I'm going to have to be a snob and say that it can't compare to the stuff I saw in Lebanon. It all felt really touristy and fake. The baths were filled with hot water, which made it look more like it would have back when they were in use, but also made it all look even faker. Plus they had an actor in a toga shuffling in a neverending circle around the main bath, occasionally stopping to ask Minerva for blessings on "Kevin and Erin from Australia," and other such tourists. He didn't ask for any blessings for us, but I think that's because we were snickering at him the whole time.

After that, we just embraced our O'Neill side and went from pub to pub. I was ecstatic when we got nachos at one pub, and even though they were simply Doritos covered in cheese, thrown in the microwave for 15 seconds, and covered in really crappy salsa, guacamole, and sour cream, I could not stop talking about how amazing the nachos were. Apparently Cairo isn't known for its Mexican. Neither is England, but at least they make an effort. When we returned to the hotel that night, we had a conversation about the blankets in the hotel, which ended with my mom's now-famous titular line to this post.

The next morning we got out of Bath much more easily than we got in, and headed to Winchester to see the university there. On the way, we stopped at Stonehenge, which was pretty cool. It's literally on the side of a highway, and just comes up out of nowhere. You can no longer actually go up and touch it, and they kept us at a pretty far distance the whole time, but it was still really cool to see that place. Unfortunately, Egypt has ruined me forever, because once I heard it was a mere 6000 years old, I just scoffed and lost interest in it. Okay, that was a joke. It was actually amazing to see one of the only monuments in the world that comes anywhere close to the age of the pyramids. Perhaps my favorite part of the whole thing was all the made-up information they provided us with, since no one really knows a thing about who built it, why they did it, or what purpose it served. But that didn't stop them from providing us with a painted reenactment of the construction of Stonehenge, complete with honest-to-god cavemen in loin cloths. I was shocked they didn't include the dinosaurs they harnessed to haul the stones, a la the Flinstones.

The University of Winchester was lame. The town was incredibly small and boring, and the same went for the school. Plus all the buildings were made in this awful modernist style that just looked horrible next to all these old houses. Smell ya later, Winchester.

We returned to London and, of course, pub crawled. Eventually Nikki and I talked the family into going to a Japanese restaurant so I could get my sushi fix, and even though they griped about having to go there, they all admitted how amazing the food was. Next summer: Gottleib Family Japanese Road Trip!

That night, Katie and Laura planned on taking Nikki and I out with some of their friends, so Katie arranged that we would meet at 9:15 in front of the theater for the Queen musical. Insert gay joke here. But Nikki only started getting ready at 9, so out of fear that we'd be late, I sent Katie a text message apologizing in advance for being late. But then we only got there two minutes late, and Katie was nowhere to be found. So we waited. For half an hour. At that point, we kind of suspected they had already gone somewhere since I said I'd be late, but I didn't want to text her and nag her if she was just running even later than we were. So I didn't. We stood there freezing for another fifteen minutes, and I finally gave in and texted Katie, who, it turns out, was literally around the corner in a bar with everyone. She apologized a million times for a mistake that was totally my fault, but then made sure to make fun of me all night for it. Which I wasn't too upset about, because the more time she spent retelling the story of me standing and freezing while waiting for her, the less time she would spend retelling the story of when I screamed out for my mom while I was sleeping in Kyoto.

The entire night was way too much fun. It was definitely one of my favorite moments of study abroad, getting to see Katie. She kept saying, "I can't believe you're here!" throughout the night, and we both kept remarking on how crazy it is that she's from England, I'm from the United States, we met in Japan, and I'm visiting her in London while I'm going to school in Cairo. It just didn't seem real. The night was both a testament to how well we get along together and to how much traveling makes you form incredibly close friendships in such a short amount of time. I mean, we had only ever seen each other for five days out of our entire lives, but we felt like old friends. I can't even imagine what it's going to be like separating from my friends in Cairo for a while and then getting back together with them later in life. I think we all may need to live together forever like those stupid Friends.

Anyway, we went to various bars in the thankfully less touristy areas, and had a blast. All of Katie's friends were so much fun, so hopefully they'll be able to come to the States eventually. We had to meet up with Laura who was out with her "new fancy man," and since Laura is the worst at getting around EVER, it took forever to find where she was. At one point, she texted to Katie, "Just ask someone where The Big Chill is. Preferably a girl." But it's for things like that that we love Laura, so it was all okay. Of course, she did focus a little too much on her fancy man, when she had claimed she was coming to London to see Katie and I, but he was a very nice guy, so I can't fault her.

When Nikki and I returned around 3 AM, I used my cell phone to try to see my way through the dark to my bed, and since my mom is like a mental patient when she's sleeping, she saw the light and, still half-asleep, started muttering, "Why do you have a thing like that? It's hot in here. Oh, I thought you had a miner's hat. Take your miner's hat and see how how it is in here." The three of us then lay in the dark laughing for several minutes, much to Sara's annoyance.

For our last day in England, Nikki and I just wandered the city for a bit while the family went to see one final university. We then met up and got some incredible food in a pub that opened under Elizabeth I's (for those of you confused by numbers, that would be Cate Blanchett, not Helen Mirren) reign. It was all made by this feisty old woman - presumably the pub has been in her family since it opened, but we were all too intimidated to ask her - who managed to cook all the food in the two microwaves behind the bar while simultaneously yelling at all the slow helpers who worked there. It was very entertaining.

We then set off to see some strange collections. First was this museum that contained all sorts of horrible things collected by some mad scientist or something. The place was two floors, and absolutely packed with jars of freaks of nature, thousands of dissected body parts, examples of surgeries gone wrong or just disgusting surgeries gone right, and some horrible deformities. There was the enlarged skull of some poor bastard, which looked about as heavy as my entire body, and the skeleton of some "Irish Giant", who was over seven feet tall. It was so cool at first, but after seeing hundreds of twisted spines and faces ravaged by syphilis, we all left feeling pretty queasy. After that, we went to the British Library to see their collection of some rare crap, which was amazing. Unfortunately, we got there only twenty minutes before it closed, so we couldn't spend too much time admiring everything they had, which included: Shakespeare's first folio, the original handwritten drafts of Alice in Wonderland and Jane Eyre, three of the only surviving copies of the Magna Carta, original works by Mozart, Wagner and Bach, ancient Buddhist texts, Sir Thomas More's final letter to Henry VIII in which he pleads for his life, and an awesome section that had the original handwritten verses to many Beatles songs like Hard Day's Night and Michelle. On one of them, John had drawn a hilarious caricature of himself, and on the bottom of another, he had pretended to grade it like a teacher and wrote, "3/10. See me." Very cool stuff, but I don't remember any of it since we were rushed out of there so quickly.

Our last night as a family until late December, Nikki decided to blow us off and go see the Lord of the Rings musical. Which I'm sure was awesome. We just ate some awesome Italian food (the dessert was one of the best desserts of all time) and didn't do anything too exciting.

The next morning, I got up before everyone, packed, said goodbye, and left at 6 to catch the Tube to Heathrow. Of course it was a Sunday, and the Tube wouldn't open until seven. So i went back up to the room, and we tried to get me a cab to Paddington so I could take a train there, but by the time it all was being finalized, it was almost seven, so I just went back up to the room and waited. I then said goodbye for the third time in one hour, and went down to catch the first train to Heathrow. As I waited, I was speaking Spanish to this guy from Bolivia, and as I was saying goodbye to him, who do I see but my dad, running down the escalators! He brought me the printout of my flight confirmation, and I had to say goodbye for a fourth time. These people just do NOT want me to go.

There were some delays along the way and some added stops to make up for other train lines that weren't running, so we got to Heathrow about fifteen minutes late, leaving me only an hour to get to my plane before it took off. There wasn't a line at the self-check-in desks, but there was a nearly hour-long line for the desks where we check our baggage. Somehow I got incredibly lucky, because they opened a second row of desks, and an employee grabbed me and started the second line with me in front. So I checked in within about five minutes. It was amazing. Security was a breeze, too, so I made it to the gate with nearly half an hour to spare, which enabled me to watch the BBC's morning-after recap of last night's major soccer events. (For those of you not keeping up, Israel barely beat Russia, keeping England in the running. It was very exciting.)

The plane ride was semi-uneventful, except the way-too-attractive British couple next to me made me stand up about every half hour so one of them could get out to go to the bathroom. Plus we were in the second-to-last row, and there was a line for the bathrooms literally the entire five hours. So I constantly had someone standing directly next to me, and when someone would come out of the bathroom and have to squeeze by, the person would shove either their ass or genitals in my face to try to let the other person past. It was really miserable. About an hour into the flight, as well, we must have hit an air pocket, which caused an enormous jolt that actually made some people fly up to the ceiling. Just watch the crash footage from the first episode of Lost, and it was exactly like that, minus the plane splitting in half. It actually stunned the plane into a panicked silence for a couple minutes. But, apparently, we survived.

So now I'm back in Cairo for another 24 hours or so, before I take off again for Istanbul. If I had it my way, I'd be leaving now. Cairo just seems like hell compared to England, and I would really like to get back to real civilization, which I hear Istanbul has. But it's worse for poor Beckett, who came back on Friday and more or less wants to go back to Wisconsin. He said it was awful getting readjusted to Egypt. That's alright, we're only here for four weeks from today, and you bet I'm going to enjoy every minute. Because once I get home and Christmas is over, I'm going to be dying to get back to the excitement of Egypt. But that's too much to think about right now. I suppose I should go to class now, huh? (Due to sleeping through my first class and other classes being canceled, I only have one class to go to today. Which means by the time I get back from Istanbul, I will have only been to one class in two weeks. I don't know why I say I don't like AUC - it's the best school ever!)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Definitely not doing work.

Greetings from the Egyptian Museum! I'm supposed to be working, but screw that. The page I'm supposed to be entering into this database is literally the most boring thing on the planet.

I don't really have anything to report. Had the most boring weekend thus far in Cairo, since Beckett's gone and I was all alone in my big, overly-fancy apartment. It didn't help that the power went out almost every night.

I leave for England in 24 hours. Finally! The rest of the family is already there, but I think we all know they won't have any fun until I show up. My dad gave me extremely detailed directions as to how to get from Heathrow to their hotel, because apparently it's really hard to get around English-speaking countries. Please, Jay. I've been to Beirut. (I'm going to be one of those people when I get home, who start every other sentence with, "When I was in Egypt...")

I also just bought my tickets for Istanbul. The schedule for these whirlwind two weeks is this: clean the apartment tonight with Emily and Allyson for Beckett's glorious return, take a midterm tomorrow morning, hop in a cab right after class and go right to the airport, fly to England, have the best time ever, return to Cairo on Sunday, go to some classes on Monday (I have to at least pretend I go to school once in a while), eat dinner with Allyson's family and possibly Beckett's family on Monday night, and then jump back on a plane on Tuesday for Istanbul. So I won't really get to rest until Sunday the 25th, and that will only be for three days at most, since we'll be leaving later that week for Luxor and Aswan. And then probably Jordan the weekend after. And then Wisconsin. All our plans are finally coming to fruition, and it's wonderful. The final five weeks are really going to fly by incredibly fast, I think, which is very bittersweet. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Anyway, I'm for sure meeting up with Laura and Katie (see my posts from Kyoto, Japan) in London probably Friday night for a smashing good time. They're already coaching me on getting rid of embarrassing Americanisms. I don't have a "cell phone", I have a "mobile"! And I certainly don't ride trains, but you bet your ass I "take" them. What a goofy country.

Very, very excited for tomorrow. Maybe I'll even study for my midterm! Probably not, though. (An indication of how easy AUC is: the last midterm for this class, I literally didn't touch my notebook until the five minutes before the test started. I got an A-. Plus I've got the professor in my pocket. We're allowed three excused absences before our grades drop, and I was planning on using my third and final absence for the day I was missing when I took off for Istanbul. But I ended up sleeping through the class last week after I stayed up all night with Beckett. So I approached the professor after class to ask her to possibly waive that absence due to circumstances beyond my control. I was nervous as hell, because she's a massive bitch during class, yelling at all the Egyptian students who come in late or talk on their phones while she's teaching or do other assorted things during class I thought only actually ever occurred within the Clueless universe. But she cut me off before I could even explain the situation, and surprised me by knowing my name. "Daniel, don't worry about it. The three-absence rule isn't concrete for you." So... I love this woman. Am I still writing in parentheses? How embarrassing.)

Maybe I'll go back to work. Or maybe I'll just go home. Whatever, I do what I want. Ya'll can't stop me!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

When I left for the Middle East, everyone back home was worried that something would happen to me. As Americans who haven't traveled to the area, when someone heard the words "Middle East", images of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars flashed in their heads, and they naturally assumed everywhere was like that. Of course, the majority of the area is perfectly safe, and I've never once felt in danger. The thing none of us thought about was the idea that when one of us returned home from study abroad, a loved one wouldn't be there waiting for us.

Unfortunately, Beckett's step-sister passed away two days ago. He flew home that night to be with his family, and he'll stay in Madison until next Wednesday. It killed me as his roommate and closest friend out here to see this happen to him, especially since he got the news within an hour after we finished talking about how incredibly close his family is, even though they're not all blood-related.

We're all a little shell-shocked as well here. I don't think it really entered any of our minds that someone could just be gone when we get home. In fact, we've all made little jokes about how we wish "life would just stop" at home when we go away, based on the jealousy we feel from seeing Facebook pictures show up with all our friends together, having fun without us. But we never really thought that life for anyone would really just stop.

Fortunately Beckett's family is very close, and I know they'll all get through this with each other. He had some difficulty getting out of here so last-minute, but I'm glad he did and that he could rush back home almost immediately. There's not much more you can do when something this unexpected happens - you just pick up the pieces as best you can, and go on. I told both my sisters how much they mean to me, and I'm looking forward to enjoying every minute I spend with my family in London next week, because, well, you never know what's going to happen.

Go tell your friends and family you love them. Salaam.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


Wow. I haven't posted in three weeks. Will you accept my apology? Can we ever be friends again? Hopefully someone's still checking this thing (I know you'll never give up on me, Sarah Pagel). I wish I could say I've been really busy, but I haven't done that much. I suppose we've all just been enjoying each other's company here. We still have six weeks left, but we've all gotten into the mindset that we're going home soon (hence the massive pile of unwashed, moldy dishes in our sink), so we're all getting a little depressed that soon we won't be seeing each other every day. It'll be very weird.

Last weekend, Beckett, Allyson, and I hopped on a train for Alexandria, since one of our classes would be taking a field trip there the next day, and the professor said we could meet up with them in the city and go to the museum and library with the class, so we wouldn't have to pay admission ourselves. For a first-class train ticket to Alexandria (a nearly three-hour trip), it was about $6. Unbelievable, this country. We got in a really crazy fight with this guy who was furious that he and I had the same seat assignment, and even though I sat down in the seat first, he kept screaming in Arabic at Beckett to make me move. Eventually a really nice woman who spoke English switched seats to appease the dude, because he had some sort of ridiculous standard for how his train seats should be, and all the other open seats just weren't doing it for him. Even though he couldn't understand English, I spent much of the ride loudly proclaiming that my seat was the most comfortable one on the train.

In Alexandria, we didn't really do much. We got off at the wrong train station, since everyone else was getting off, and then decided to walk to the hotel, trusting in Lonely Planet's map. If you've read even one of my Japan entries, you'd know what a horrible mistake this was. What looked like a short, ten minute walk, turned into an over five-mile hike along the Mediterranean coast. Luckily, it wasn't that hot, so it was actually not to bad of a walk. Our hotel was pretty nice for being $7 a night, and it even included breakfast. Plus the place was completely empty, so Beckett and I were able to play five games of pool in the really creepy lounge without being interrupted once! I won every game, naturally. We spent the night literally going from seafood restaurant to seafood restaurant, eating a crazy amount of marine life. For what I've heard about Alexandria's seafood, I was rather disappointed. With the exception of the calamari (probably best I've ever had), the crab and fish I had were sorely lacking in flavor. Maybe it's a bad time of year.

Halloween was sort of a disappointment, as well. I decided I had only one costume option - a mummy. Really, the only place easier to choose a cliche Halloween costume is Transylvania. The one problem is that Egyptian toilet paper is absolutely the worst. Granted, I maybe should have sprung for some better-quality paper, but I don't think it would matter here. Kimberly-Clark needs to tap into this market, Dad. The paper kept ripping, and it didn't help that Beckett is in Amsterdam for the weekend, so I had to wrap myself. I eventually grabbed seven rolls of toilet paper, and hopped in the elevator to go down to my friend Alfred's apartment to ask for some help. Of course, there was some guy in the elevator, which made the entire ride really awkward, what with my body being half-covered by toilet paper and all. Alfred, his roommate James (who looks a lot like Jim from The Office, so naturally he went as Three-Hole-Punch Jim), and four girls were all getting in their costumes, and for some reason James was the one that started wrapping me, rather than any of the four girls. And he decided to wrap my thighs. Needless to say, James and I are very close now. Eventually Neve and Meg took over for the pelvic region, saving James and I from a very awkward night.

The toilet paper barely stayed on during the cab ride, and by the time we got to the AUC Halloween party, I was almost completely uncovered. Luckily, the party was even worse than my costume. We stayed for about 20 minutes (we all only went for the promised free candy, which was literally 10 pieces - thanks, AUC!), and then took off back to Alfred and James'. By that point, the only toilet paper left had all fallen down my legs to my ankles, so I looked like I was sporting some awesome leg-warmers rather than any sort of costume.

Next weekend, Beckett, Alfred, myself, and anyone else who decides to come along, will be jumping on a bus to Israel. It's about a five-hour drive to the border, at which point we have to get out and walk across the border, since the bus drivers will not cross into Israel. The hardest part will be getting through the border - we've heard stories of kids seeing both sunrise and sunset sitting at the border - but I think this is the one time during this trip it'll actually benefit me to say, "I'm Jewish!" If we're stuck crossing the border for most of our weekend and we don't see much, at least we'll have had an adventure.

And the weekend after that, I'll be in England for a Gottleib Family Road Trip! I'm dying to just fast-forward to November 14th, to see my family and breathe clean air again. Jury's still out on which one I'm more excited for.

I promise I'll stop slacking on updating this thing. Although it's actually starting to get a little difficult to type with my coke nail. Today's the three week anniversary, and it's already getting pretty long. Only 49 weeks left to go!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Only in Egypt... you wake up to find outside your front door there was a sand and brick cascade during the night.

And, one more picture from Lebanon. My favorite ad campaign ever. If only they had remembered to put their product somewhere on the sign as well.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Well, I'm back safe from Lebanon. And we didn't even get to see one lousy assassination! The trip was amazing though - probably my favorite week of study abroad thus far. It was absolute, ridiculous luxury from start to finish, and I'm struggling to find anything that went wrong all week. Let's start at the beginning, I guess.

On Tuesday, Beckett, Allyson, and I boarded a plane to Beirut. Everyone else (all freaking nine of them) would be joining us on Thursday, so for two blissful days it was just three of us. The plane ride was probably the best plane ride of my life (excluding the business class trip from Tokyo to Chicago, of course). Middle East Airlines is awesome. The flight was under one hour, but we still had very comfortable seats, private TVs, and we even got meals! It was amazing. It definitely set the tone for the rest of the week. When we landed, we passed some Lebanese celebrity (seriously, this beatiful woman had a TV camera on her, people all around her, and two massive stacks of luggage with people pushing them for her) and entered the city of Beirut. We hopped in a cab and told him where we were going, but he stopped within about three feet and got out, screaming something. Next thing we know, he's ripping open the trunk, whipping some guy's suitcase in there, and then opening our cab door and shoving this man in next to me. So... I guess we're sharing a cab, then? Turns out our cab driver was on crack or something. He kept ranting and raving in the craziest, high-pitched scream for the entire 30-minute drive. He barely spoke a word of English, but since they speak real Arabic and not the bastardized Egyptian version, Beckett was able to translate most of it. And the guy next to me turned out to be really, really nice. At one point, we drove past a couple tents with Lebanese flags all over them, and he whispered to me, "Hezbollah. Shhhh. Bad." This wouldn't be our first Hezbollah encounter.

After dropping off our newfound friend, we arrived at "Talal's New Hotel," which still has bullet holes in it from the civil war a couple decades ago. New, indeed! We had read some reviews online that said Talal has attempted to molest several girls who stayed there, but at $7 a night he could molest me all he wanted! We were a bit wary about meeting him, and at first he was pretty creepy. He instantly started snapping at us, but once we got settled in our rooms, he gave us all free waters, and from that point on he was incredibly nice. And not once did he rape anyone! The hotel was actually really nice for $7. We shared one bathroom with about 20 people, however, which isn't such good news in the Middle East. One woman I only saw going in and out of the bathroom - and I saw her seven times the first day.

We threw our stuff in our room, took a little breather, and then set out to explore Beirut, not knowing what in the least to expect. We wandered into this area near the downtown, which was incredibly creepy. It was totally destroyed in the civil war and was recently totally rebuilt, so it's impeccably clean and European. It looks exactly like a part of Disneyland. Not only that, but it was completely devoid of people. We would eventually come to see that all of Beirut was frighteningly empty, but no one had a good explanation as to why. So we stood there, in the middle of this empty European courtyard, not knowing what to do. We picked a sidestreet, and immediately came upon a massive wall of barbed wire. Okay, dead end. We picked another road, and ran into several soldiers (unlike Cairo, these guys' rifles are most definitely loaded) and a series of roadblocks. We were allowed to walk through unbothered, but it was really unsettling. The problem is that this Disneyland area is directly next to all the governmental buildings, so it's unbelievably beefed up with security. Every once in a while soldiers would come up to us and check our bags at random in the middle of the street, and there were cement blocks, barbed wire, hundreds of soldiers, and even a couple tanks, all around the area. We likened the whole experience to the movie 28 Weeks Later - it felt as if Beirut had been wiped out by a zombie attack, and we were now among the first people to resettle the city under military protection. That's how strange it was. But eventually we got used to it.

We moved down to the considerably less-creepy Mediterranean coast, and sat and had drinks on a small pier at sundown. It was awesome. But our stomachs started rumbling, so we quickly set off to find our main goal for the night - sushi. We had all been craving sushi for the past two months, since we don't really trust the raw fish in Cairo, and since I hadn't had a good piece of sushi since the Tokyo fish market, I was going through some severe withdrawal. After about half an hour of wandering due to Lonely Planet's awful, awful maps (see every single one of my Japan entries...) we found the restaurant. What followed were the greatest two hours of my life. This restaurant was listed in Paris Vogue's "100 Best Restaurants in the World", and while I don't rely on Paris Vogue for any information whatsoever, I have to agree. The sushi beat many places in Japan, the service was awesome, and, of course, I was accompanied by two of the best people. Plus their fried ice cream was fantastic.

The next morning, we hired a private car (it sounds way pricier than it really was) to drive us down to the southern parts of Lebanon. See, Lebanon is incredibly tiny, so even the furthest attractions from Beirut are at most only an hour and a half drive. The driver didn't speak much Arabic, but was fluent in French, which Beckett also happens to be, since he lived there for a year. So we got along wonderfully with the driver, Beckett translating for all of us. On the way to Tyre (pronounced "Soor" for some reason), we stopped at the city of Sidon for about an hour. We saw an old crusader castle, which was kind of cool, and then wandered around a nearby market, where we saw all sorts of crazy things like decapitated goats and puddles of blood and stuff. At the end of the market was the "soap museum", so - why not? - we went in. The place was actually kind of cool. We got to see how soap was made. I swear it was interesting! Beckett and Allyson bought some soap, since they hadn't brought any along with.

Allyson can't believe all the soap.

We then drove on to Tyre. Our driver had to get back to Beirut to get his car fixed for whatever reason, so he knocked $10 off what we originally agreed to pay, and pointed out the bus station to us. We then spent about an hour wandering around these unbelievable Roman ruins. At first, it was just a massive Roman graveyard that was pretty much in ruins. But upon further examination (and climbing over barriers and whatnot) we discovered some awesome stuff. Most of the tombs were still filled with Roman bones, which blew our minds. Some were really piled high. We also found a couple small, hidden mosaics, and some really cool carvings and writings. The place was enormous, and just when we thought we were getting to the end of it, we turned a corner, and suddenly we were standing in an enormous Roman stadium. It was completely shocking, and we were stunned into silence for a second. We climbed all over the seating and explored the corridors below the stands, and loved every second of it. It was probably one of the coolest things I've ever seen. When we were done, since we had nothing to do for the rest of the day, we walked down to the beach, which sounds so simple. We had to walk past huge military encampments with all sorts of guards and tanks and barbed wire and towers with huge guns. But we never once felt threatened - it's just not something you see every day. Once we got to the Mediterranean, we found an awesome, deserted hotel, where we sat on the beach and had a late lunch. So far, two perfect days.

But the day wasn't quite over. When we returned to the hotel, we discovered our friends Oskar, Katie, and Tim had checked in, so the six of us decided to go out for dinner. We went to this place we had read about that offered 15-course meals for $35, as well as an open bar. Seriously. When we showed up, the place was practically deserted, so our awesome waiter Sleiman knocked $5 off the price for us. As if we weren't going to stay in the first place! So for the next two-plus hours, we ate piles and piles of delicious food that never seemed like it would end, and drank normally very high-priced wine. We definitely got our money's worth, especially since I kept asking for seconds on everything, which Sleiman would always kindly oblige. He then tipped us off to the best places around town, told us who to talk to to make sure we get the best service, and tried to return some of our enormous tip. What a classy guy.

The next day, I woke up sick. Perhaps I had a little too much meat? Well, shpuking or not, I had no time to stop, so the six of us set out to explore Beirut until the other six arrived. We were actually semi-dreading doubling the amount of people with us. All we managed to do in these five hours were eat some crepes and see the campus of the American University in Beirut, which left us extremely jealous and wondering why we didn't study abroad there instead. When we arrived back at the hotel, Emily, Megan, Elizabeth, Laura, Graham, and Catherine had arrived, thereby doubling our group size for the rest of the trip. Fantastic.

The following day we hired a minibus, since 12 of us would no longer fit in a private car. The driver was really nice, but only spoke this really strange mixture of Arabic and Spanish, which meant that it took both Beckett and I to translate every other word to figure out what he was saying. We couldn't figure out where he was from that he would speak this crazy blend of languages, since he didn't understand, "Where are you from?" in either Spanish or Arabic. The plan was to go wine-tasting, but when we arrived at the vineyards, we learned that nothing was open since it was the last day of Ramadan. So we continued on to the second part of our day, the ruins at Baalbek. These ruins are listed as among the best Roman ruins in the world, but not many people ever come to Lebanon to see them, so we were really excited. And they were incredible. It was several massive temple complexes, with thousands of giant pieces of carved statues, inscriptions, and paintings all scattered around the ground. One of the temples, the temple dedicated to Bacchus, was still almost completely standing, and it was breathtaking in its massiveness. There was only one problem: Baalbek is in the homeland of Hezbollah. And since it was the last day of Ramadan, things were a bit wild. First, we heard the call to prayer broadcast around the city. Okay, nothing new here. Then the call to prayer turned into some guy screaming in Arabic, which Beckett was able to understand a few words here and there to get the gist - most of what he was saying was stuff about America. And he wasn't screaming because he loves us. Then the gunfire started. They weren't shooting at anyone in particular, just up in the air to celebrate, but still. Our driver warned us that almost everyone in the city is Hezbollah, so we should keep our eyes down and say we were from Canada, but we were not expecting this. For the next hour as we explored the temple, it sounded like outside the complex was a war zone. The sound of AK-47s firing into the air was really nerve-wracking, and once the noise started getting much louder and nearer, we decided it was time to move along. But the temple was really amazing. On our way out, we passed two kids running around playing with what looked like real handguns but were probably just filled with BBs. Although, really, I wouldn't be surprised if they weren't.

On the way back, our driver found a vineyard that was open, so we did a little bit of wine-tasting. 12 college kids know nothing of wine-tasting, so we mostly just got some sips of free wine and then wandered around the building. It was up in the hills, which were absolutely beautiful and reminded me a lot of Tuscany. For the first time in literally two months, we weren't surrounded by noise. No honking horns, no screaming, no Amr Diab blasting from every radio and stereo. It was absolute silence, and I enjoyed every second of it. When we returned, we went back to the sushi restaurant, since it was Catherine's birthday and that's what she wanted (I may have influenced her decision a bit by stressing how great the fried ice cream was). Both our waitress from the other night and the owner of the restaurant remembered Beckett, Allyson, and myself, which made us feel pathetic and wealthy at the same time.

The next day, we decided not to hire a private anything and try out the bus station right down the street. It was actually shockingly easy. All we did was walk up to the bus station, and suddenly we had 30 people around us, trying to pull us onto their buses. So we walked up to the first bus, said, "Jaina Grotto?" and he said, "Yes! Yes!" while the other bus drivers also yelled, "Yes! Yes!" They really, really wanted us Americans to get on. So we played the drivers off of each other until we got a ride for 1000 pounds - 67 American cents. The Jaina Grotto, by the way, is the most popular attraction Lebanon. It's this massive cave with some incredibly impressive stalagmites and stalagtites. It was really cool, but compared to the ruins we had been seeing the past few days, it was kind of bland. The whole place was pretty entertaining, though. With the price of our tickets, a ride on the gondolas up the hill was included, so we jumped in the carriages, expecting a long, beautifully scenic ride through the Lebanese hillside. Instead the entire ride took about three minutes. The entire ride was about 100 feet long. It saved us from maybe a five minute walk. Naturally, we milked every second of our pathetic little ride.

Our penultimate day was spent in the town of Byblos, the oldest consistently-inhabited city in the world. We explored some more ruins, which couldn't compare with those at Baalbek and Tyre, but were still pretty cool. Since the city has constantly been lived in, there were Roman ruins on top of ancient Egyptian ruins, which were all in the shadow of a massive Crusader castle. The park was enormous, but we all got pretty antsy within an hour, since we could see a really nice beach and we had all brought our bathing suits. On our way out, we noticed every single kid in the city running around with these sticks of wood. We were making fun of them, but then we found the store where they were sold. Beckett and I started having a sword fight with the sticks, and suddenly the fun of the sticks was revealed to us. So we instantly bought two. For the next three days, we were inseperable from our sticks. We tapped them on walls as we walked, had swordfights with them, turned off light switches with them, and even snuck them on board the plane on the way home. Believe, me a long piece of wood with some leather wrapped around one end with a thumbtack stuck in it is much more entertaining than it sounds.

The rest of the day was spent at the beach. It was part of this country club/hotel, who didn't mind us using their beach chairs. Since it was a country club, the place was filled with really beautiful people, all of them filthy rich. They all had trophy children, but the funniest part was that they all had a Filipino nanny. Every single one. So we were surrounded by beautiful Lebanese people, beautiful children, and Asian nannies. But everyone was really interested in us, especially a woman from Ohio who had married a Lebanese man and now lived there. She couldn't believe American college students would take a vacation to Lebanon. The place also served some amazing iced tea and delicious food - right down from the salad to the calamari to the strawberry cheesecake (the best I've ever had in my life). Once again, it was ridiculously luxurious, especially considering the fact that it was a Monday evening, so we knew at that moment all our friends back home were waking up to go to class. Suckers!

Our last full day, everyone that came late wanted to see Tyre since we had been talking it up (perhaps a bit intentionally to get them to go away for a while), so Beckett, Allyson, Elizabeth and myself hopped back on a bus to Byblos. We spent the entire day at the beach. It was the greatest day ever. All we did was swam, played in the sand, ate delicious food, napped in the sun, and watched beautiful people. We stayed to watch the sun set over the Mediterranean, and then had some dessert before returning home. Beckett ordered a fruit bowl, which he took to mean a fruit salad but was in fact a giant plate stacked with four whole bananas, five whole apples, three kiwis, two mangos, and various other unsliced fruits. I couldn't decide between the strawberry cheesecake and the banana split, so I just got both. See how hard study abroad is?!

The next morning, we settled our bill with Talal (under $50 for a seven night stay, internet access, and many 2-liter bottles of water), jumped in two cabs, and headed back to the airport. It was no trouble getting out of Lebanon or back into Egypt, thereby completing our flawless trip. I didn't even get sunburned from lying on the beach all day, for the first time in my life. To tell the truth, we were kind of dreading our return to Egypt, since Lebanon was such an Eden. And the second we got back, we remembered what we had left behind. It took nearly half an hour to get out of the airport parking lot, since our taxi drivers kept getting stopped by corrupt cops (as if there's any other kind here) demanding bribes. When the taxi drivers refused to pay the ridiculously high bribes, they were denied exit with passengers, so we were tossed on the side of the road. Ah, Egypt. Good to be back.

One last thing:

Everyone in the Middle East has a coke nail. You know, where their pinky nail is half an inch or longer, the better to cut coke with. So one night, one thing led to another, and long story short, I now have to grow a coke nail for an entire year on my left-hand pinky finger. If I do, I will get $365. Five people are chipping in, and we all signed a written contract. The experiment ends October 13th, 2008. Here's where we're at right now: