Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fire & Ice: Ancient Pharaohs to Alpine Peaks

"Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey." — Pat Conroy
At last, I’ve landed. For the next 3 months (until Sept. 5), my address will be Dacostakade 114-1, 1053XB Amsterdam, NL. My apartment overlooks a tree-lined canal in the city’s quiet Oud  West District. It’s an easy walk to Leidseplein, Dam Square, Vondelpark and all the museums. I welcome summer visitors.

I’ve been gone from California since April 3 on a trip that’s taken me from Eagle Island, a private sanctuary off the coast of Georgia, through Spain, Israel, Egypt, Hungary, Austria and the Italian Alps. I’ve kayaked with alligators, couch-surfed in Jerusalem and Vienna, snorkeled in the Red Sea, ridden a camel to the Nile Valley, cruised the Danube, cycled from Italy to Austria, and watched the world’s greatest cyclists climb 24% grades at the Giro d’Italia. 
The contrasts in scenery and culture, from Southern bayous to cosmopolitan cities, alpine villages and the land of the pharoahs, have been staggering, visually and socially.

As a journalist on Egypt’s first organized bike-sail tour, I joined 9 other writers and photographers in  Hurghada on May 1 for a 10-day, police-escorted Middle Eastern adventure sagged by an air conditioned van carrying snacks, juice, water, a doctor, bike mechanic...everything but a shrink. 

If you think it’s crazy to ride a bike through dusty desert, you might not realize Egypt encompasses a  coastline of azure water rimmed by rosy dunes, high-end resorts and scenic wadis (valleys), as well as ancient ruins, grazing camels, inspired temples and serene native peoples.

Here are some highlights from the second half of my trip:

* Egypt is not all barren desert. Along the Red Sea, bordering what ancient Egyptians called the Dashret or “red land,” we cycled through mangrove forests, spied on endangered species in Wadi Gemal  National Park and sunbathed on Sharm Eluly beach on a stretch that looked more like Tahiti than a dry, Middle Eastern land to me.

* With a resourceful Bedoin as human GPS, we bore into Egypt’s Eastern desert in 4-wheel drive jeeps. Bedoins welcomed us with gourass (bread) baked in ashes on the ground and bonn (coffee) made from freshly ground beans mixed with ginger, poured from a gabana (an earthenware container with a long narrow neck) into tiny china cups. At one camp, our snack included garlic-infused gibna gemeli (camel cheese), which tastes surprisingly like herbed goat cheese from Trader Joe’s! Alas, there are no Trader Joe’s in Egypt.

* While thousands have cruised the Nile since Thomas Cook Ltd. replaced leisure-paced dahabiyas with speedy steamers that fueled a well-oiled Egyptian tourism industry, travelers have been unable to savor the region on two human-powered wheels until now. Egypt Bike and Sail, a partnership between Colorado Springs-based Beyond Boundaries Travel and Cairo-based Flash Tour, now offers 2 itineraries providing insight into one of Earth's oldest civilizations.

* After Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo urging “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” Egyptians are vociferously pro-American. Wherever we went, children stuck their thumbs up, beaming “Obama!” while adults pointed to stickers touting America’s leader.

* Nubians, known for their kindness and generosity, have earned their reputation. Stopping my bike to photograph a brown-skinned peasant herding goats to his village, he asked, “Bonbon?” While I rummaged through my backpack for goodies, he interrupted me. “I have wife, children,” he said. “You come, have drink.” He was not begging, as I had thought, but inviting me to his home! Needing to catch my group, I declined, regretfully. “Welcome to Nubia,” the peasant said, disappearing into his village to meet his family with his flock trotting ahead.

* Egyptians engage in social rituals involving shisha (waterpipes) from dawn to dusk. These smoke-infused interludes take place in fields,
cafés, night clubs, souks and any other spot where people gather. You can choose from many flavors; apple shisha has a sweet, tart taste.

* Driving is an extreme sport in Cairo, where turn signals are for decoration, lanes are mere suggestions and traffic lights are virtually non-existent. Full-body armor will be more effective than a seat belt; failing that, make sure your will is updated before strapping yourself in.

* Best transportation value in Europe: Orangeways bus. For less than $12 I traveled from Budapest to Vienna via luxury coach with big windows, comfy seats, free cappuccino, beer for a buck (200 Hungarian forints), movies...even a toilet. Routes are available to major cities.

* Couchsurfing is a great way to keep expenses down while connecting with locals. And it's not just for student backpackers. In Jerusalem, I stayed with a family who invited me to temple and Sabbath dinner; in Vienna, a local host loaned me slippers, maps, guide books, an umbrella and keys to his apartment while he drove off to his summer house.

* The Dolomites—achingly beautiful peaks towering above alpine villages in northeastern Italy (formerly Austria)—are horizontal as well as vertical playgrounds laced with bike paths and ski trails for cyclists, hikers, mountain climbers and skiers. Those not fearful of heights might try a via ferrata (not a ride in a fast car but a mountain climb/trek on an isolated route using fixed cables and ladders). Book a custom vacation at any level of activity with Agustina, a feisty, Argentinean-born outdoor adventure guide and founder of Dolomite Mountains.

* Looking for a special place for a honeymoon or anniversary celebration? Check into Lagacio Mountain Residence in Alta Badia, Italy, where the South Tyrolean Dolomites create a backdrop for elegance and ecological commitment. With fresh coffee brewing or champagne chilling, take a sauna and Jacuzzi, don comfy robe and slippers, step onto your balcony for a panoramic view of the stone towers, bite into chocolate plucked from a pillow and wonder if you’re dreaming, just like this guy, found in my bed on the Nile Diva, or if this is for real.

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