Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

Monthly archive October, 2011
Major Tom to ground control - we've landed!

Major Tom to ground control – we’ve landed!

After one year and 13 days on the road, we are back in the U.S. of A.  That doesn’t mean we’re settling down or even unpacking our bags. We’ll be continuing a little more life on the road, splitting our time between NY, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and friends who live somewhere in the middle.

Our trip was summed up nicely on arrival by our U.S. Immigration Officer.  Upon inspecting our passports and flipping through the pages – he snarkily pointed out:

“You know, you’ve could’ve down this same tour for free in the 60’s….”

For the past 378 days we lived our dream, though at times we did wonder whose nightmare  we were appearing in.  We met fantastic, generous strangers and made friends at every step along the way.  Thank you for your all for your  support. And as Goenka would say:

Be happy!  

More photos here.

Yes 'Little Timmy', the streets of Cairo are safe!

Yes ‘Little Timmy’, the streets of Cairo are safe!

Vinnie learns Towla from our friend Hazem

These days there is an air about Cairo that is exciting to be around. People fill the street-side cafes, sipping tea, smoking shisha, and playing towla (backgammon). People are warm and inviting. They smile with a genuine satisfaction. When you cross the street, you are likely to have an Egyptian man escort you pass crazy drivers and give you a big “Welcome to Egypt” when you arrive safely on the other side.

People ask where you are from with genuine interest. They are proud of their country right now and want to make sure you are experiencing the best of it, even if that means grabbing you by the hand and personally showing you famous monuments and attractions.

I feel fortunate to be here at such a time of re-birth and national pride. I haven’t experienced anything like this in our travels. It’s not frequently that a democracy is ‘born’ (and through non-violence no less). And it can’t be certain that a free democracy is inevitable as Egypt is still in purgatory between the revolution and elections next spring. If you ask people on the ground about presidential contenders, there is no strong figure that stands out that they wish to elect, though the mood is optimistic and you’ll hear “Anything is better than Mubarak!

You gotta fight to party!

Kristine fights for the rights of Egyptian citizens!

On our second night in Cairo, we were sitting at a packed outdoor cafe (alongside dozens like it, lining an alleyway). A football match was playing on TV screens up and down the street. After the match, all the cafe owners scrambled to move the tables and chairs inside. As it was 1am, we assumed it was closing time. But we soon overheard shouting and asked a local what was going on. The military was trying to issue a curfew and began marching down the street, instructing shop owners to move tables and chairs inside. This was met with angry shouts from patrons and soon a demonstration was forming – pushing the military back and out of the alley! Hundreds of bystanders became demonstrators (including us) and chants and shouts had a mix of anger and smiles. Citizens pushed out the men in uniform sporting face masks and machine guns. Finally congregating in a square which became ground for a larger demonstration with more people, megaphones, and cameras (tons of cameras)

In Egypt, the people corner the army!

There is a feeling (both noticeable and verbally *said*) that the “people” control the military and the police. When asked if demonstrations ever get out of hand or violent, one youthful group replied “No, we wouldn’t let that happen, we would step in to stop it.” When we replied, ‘isn’t that the police’s job?‘ they said “The country belongs to the people and the military works for us.

In addition to freedom, there is this sense of “ownership” that the people have over their country (that should permeate through any democracy), but I have never felt such a deep sense of ownership like I felt in Cairo. It’s amazing and we’re fortunate to be here right now, because as somebody from a country spouting to be the greatest democracy in the world – i’ve never come across this level of democratic emotion and I don’t think it can last forever.

The Pincer Movement

On our last night, we learned about the two phased approach of demonstrations that were going on during the revolution. The first is what we all watched on our TVs, hundreds of thousands of people in Tahrir square, protesting peacefully in the wake of violent lashes from Mubarak. However, there was a second movement happening off the screen. The military and police fully encircled the square for days so that supplies, like basic food, water, blankets, etc. could not be easily be brought in – and thereby weaken the protesters. Also, as with any volatile movement, there was the risk of looting through Cairo as many shop owners were in the square. So bands of youths came together to be interim village police and protect the community. They would form groups on each block to make sure nobody was looting nor causing trouble – as the police were hoping to encourage this behavior and have the people take themselves down.

It’s an amazing feeling on the ground right now. Egypt is safe, welcoming, friendly, and undergoing a transformation that you may only get to see once in a lifetime!

Food Wars

Food Wars

The fastest way to gain a few pounds is to tell a Malaysian that you enjoyed the food in Singapore. Immediately you will be forcibly carted off to a century old noodle restaurant to discover just how much beef and broth you can possibly fit in your stomach. And while your trying in vain to digest your first meal, your Malaysian hosts begin to cast aspirations that the next meal might be even better. Not two hours later you find out that dreams can come true, then you fall into a deep Thanksgiving-worthy coma only to be roused for an ice cream.

Ummm.. Beefy!

An extra five pounds is certainly preferable to a fist in the face, which is what might happen when you start drinking in South America.

The fastest way to make an enemy in Peru is to mention that their national drink, Pisco Sour, is originally from Chile.  And no matter how much you kick back in Chile never insinuate that, technically, the grape brandy in their favorite tipple originated in Peru. In fact, don’t talk at all, just shut up and enjoy that frothy bitter sweet concoction sent down from the Gods of alcohol.

All smiles until you mention the pisco!

Food and drink are heated topics worldwide, every country believes that their food is the absolute best. (And they’re all wrong, the award for best food in the world has already been given to San Francisco.) As usual the Middle East brings some very impassioned, very loud voices to the great food debate.

Hummus.

My favorite meal

In the Middle East this dish isn’t doomed to linger on the appetizer list. It’s not a dip or a salad or a less-fattening alternative to mayo on your sandwich. Hummus is a meal meant to tide a working man over from morning to night. Huge steaming bowls of creamy, olive oil soaked chickpeas are served alongside massively fluffy, steaming hot pita and perhaps some deep fried falafel.

Hummus in Jordan

It takes a lot of work to arrive at point where you can lift the last bit of bread and wipe it across the naked bowl to make certain that the last vestiges of hidden hummus are properly consumed. Most westerners can simply not eat that many beans in one sitting.

BUT I CAN.

Hummus with Fuul

Hummus scooped with raw onions and crunchy pickles. Hummus covered with fuul or whole chick peas. Hummus served with meat, hummus with mushrooms, hummus with tahina. I ate it all. Everyday. That is, until I discovered just how many calories a blue-collar bowl of hummus contains. A lot.

HUMMUS.

There is only one dish on this menu - HUMMUS!

I refuse to state which (non-)country had the ultimate bowl of this deliciousness for fear of destabilizing the entire region and causing The Great Hummus War.

And because I’m such a peace loving person let me warn you now: no matter where you eat this be careful how you say it. It turns out that my American accented “hum-us” sounds suspiciously like “Hamas” in Arabic…

Named after my friend, Emily Hummus

 

THIS IS PALESTINE!

THIS IS PALESTINE!

When I was 20 years old I spent the summer in Spain. One week a friend and I took the ferry across Gibraltar to the port town of Tangiers in Morocco.  When we disembarked there was a hoard of men waiting to descend upon the fresh faced backpackers on board.  They screamed at us, “You’re not in Europe anymore! This is AFRICA!”

And I was scared.

Bethlehem

I felt very similarly as I took the bus to the Israeli border and walked up to the imposing 26 foot high security wall, continued through the intricate set of turnstiles and down a chain-link fence alley way into Palestine with nary a security check or someone at the border to approve my passage.

In my mind I was thinking, “You’re not in Israel anymore. This is PALESTINE!”

As seen from Israel

Show no fear!

But instead of PALESTINE! I found Bethlehem, a quiet little town surviving from the trickle of tourists that make it across the border. Tour buses of people come to visit the site of Christ’s birth, to kiss his star and absorb some of the holiness that might still lingering in the air. I did this too but after saying my respects to baby Jesus, I wandered around the city streets looking for signs of PALESTINE.

Church of the nativity - The manger had a facelift

Give baby Jesus a big kiss!

Instead I found love, peace and Banksy!

Olive branch Banksy

Bethleham is just too small, I reasoned.  It’s not the “real” Palestine. It’s not the place of malcontents and keffiyeh wearing radicals waiting for statehood. The next day I once again crossed the border, this time into the de-facto capital of the West Bank.

A young Israeli soldier with reflective glasses, heavy black boots and a large automatic weapon boarded the bus to check our papers. Seeing my passport, he studied me.

“This is the bus for Ramallah.”

“Yes,” I responded in my most polite, deferring to authority voice.

“You want to go to Ramallah?!”

“Yes,” with a little less certainty.

In a deep, serious voice he said,”Be very careful”

His words reinforced what I believed, that I am heading to a dangerous place. I am going to find PALESTINE!

"Take my picture!"

I was mentally prepared. I imagined refugee camps, a smattering of chaperoned women with babies and angry men openly carrying guns wandering the rubble strewn streets. I fantasized that my blatant American accent would insight an Anti-American riot culminating with a chorus of bearded men shouting “ku-lu-lu-lu” and shooting machine guns into the air as I was shoved in a van and whisked away to be held for a ransom that was never to be paid. Or at the very least I would get some hostile looks.

So two things should be obvious: one, I clearly have an overactive imagination and two, none of this happened.

Instead of a poorly developed, poverty stricken town, Ramallah is a lively, bustling city overflowing with men, women and children. Ice cream parlors filled with families line the street and jam packed shawarma restaurants are busting at the seams with teenagers on cell phones. The foot traffic on the sidewalk swelled into the street where taxis, buses and the odd new model Audi struggle to move an inch.

There is no sign of rubble or collapsed buildings. Instead you see store upon store and the streets filled with things to buy. Outside the open air malls mannequins with headscarves and full-length grey trench coats stand next to piles of sneakers and lipstick. Nuts, dried fruit and gummy bears sit in huge barrels. It’s nearly impossible to resist the siren call of freshly roasted coffee that wafts from every other shop entrance.

Coffee Shop

Instead of a rowdy, unemployed youth and angry, radicalized machine-toting men, each and every person I met was unerringly polite.  “You’re from America?” they repeated after learning my homeland. This was quickly followed with “You are welcome here!” or “Welcome to Palestine!”

Peace in the Middle East, yo!

I walked through the refugee neighborhoods and peered into the homes clearly equipped with the modern basics. I wandered the markets and lingered around the male dominated tea-and-hooka stalls.  I searched high and low for assurance that I was indeed in that famous non-state, the center of conflict in the middle east. Instead I found myself in a peaceful, modern, and distinctly Arab city.

I was in Ramallah just days before Abbas headed to the UN to ask for statehood and when my own government was thwarting that effort. I am amazed at how Middle Easterners – from Jordan to Egypt  – have separated the person from the politics.

It’s intimidating to break out of your comfort zone; no one wants to find out that their assumptions or their stereotypes are misguided. I’ve continued to confront the fact that ‘Arab’ doesn’t mean radical, the Middle East isn’t all bombs over Baghdad and perhaps what I’m sure I “know” is just something I heard on the news.

(My camera broke falling off of that bus to Ramallah so I borrowed the most accurate pics I could find of that city.  Here are some shots of Bethlehem.)