Archive | June, 2010

Off the Deep End, Part 4

25 Jun

By Eric Shipley

We left the Cairo airport and piled into the 1960s vintage van Lee had arranged. My first impression of the area was of a giant quarry. It was devoid of vegetation. The airport looked like it was in the middle of an enormous excavation, and as the van trudged up and out, I got my first look at a real desert. All I can say is that it is awe-inspiring—rolling mounds of sand stretching, seemingly, into infinity.

Before long, we entered Cairo. (Incidentally, that name means “The Vanquisher” in Arabic.) It’s the capital of Egypt, and it is BIG. And sprawling. And crowded. With a population of just under 17 million in the metro area, it is not just the largest city in Africa and the Arab world, it is also the world’s eleventh-biggest urban area.

I tried to take everything in, but my mind was still spinning at the idea that I was almost halfway around the world. One thing that struck me was the pollution. There was a dingy gray-brown haze hanging over everything. And the poverty was blatant. Almost everywhere it looked like what would be considered a slum in the U.S. Most of the buildings were dilapidated and crammed together haphazardly. Then there was the traffic. It was like nothing I had ever seen or heard of. Lee told us that there actually were traffic laws, but I saw no evidence of them—clearly they were regarded as nothing more than humorous suggestions. Cars were bumper-to-bumper but still traveled at white-knuckle speeds. So did the motorcycles, which were omnipresent. One of the most amazing sights we saw was a family of five on one motorcycle, with luggage! Apparently this is common, but if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I never would’ve believed it. What’s even more incredible is that pedestrians actually managed to cross multi-lane freeways under these conditions without getting flattened! Interestingly, after more observation, I figured out that the traffic situation is not the total free-for-all it appeared to be. Mathematicians who study Chaos Theory should go to Cairo and look at the highways. There is an underlying order there—the drivers and pedestrians have an informal system everyone understands. It relies, regrettably for the nervous system, on car horns and gestures (many of which didn’t seem very polite). But it works. We didn’t see any accidents the whole time we were there.

Our route took us past the mansion of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. And when I say mansion, I mean palatial compound. It covered several city blocks and was surrounded by a high, fortified wall guarded by what looked to be a small army. There were places where the road was high enough to let us see inside the wall, and the gross luxury within was appalling, especially when contrasted with the abject poverty immediately outside those walls. I started wondering if I had wandered into a George Orwell novel, an impression heightened by huge billboards bearing Mubarak’s stern face looking down on us. I couldn’t help but think of Big Brother.

Still, among all of these shocking and sometimes distressing sights, there were also numerous restaurants, shops, and clubs. There was actually quite a bit of interesting architecture (mosques and minarets and such), and in the residential areas there were plenty of people out and about who didn’t look particularly oppressed. It was then that I started to learn one of the most important lessons to be gained from foreign travel—it’s folly to judge a different country and culture by the standards of your own.

Next, our first night in Egypt!


Paris, Je T’Aime

24 Jun

By Monica Shulman

I grew up speaking Spanish at home (my mom is from Cuba and my dad is from Argentina) so when it came time to choose a language to study in junior high school (it was mandatory) I decided to try French. That was when my love affair with Paris began. I had never traveled to Europe but I became obsessed with France and all things French. I started to listen to French music, wanting to eat French foods, reading French history – this was before I even knew what the internet was (hello, early 90s!) so I really went out of my way to learn.

I always knew that I wanted to study abroad when I was in college and it was a no-brainer that France would be the place. I lived in Paris when I was 20 years old for about six months. We all have a few regrets in life – I don’t have many but there are some – and one of them is the fact that I didn’t just move to France for an entire year instead of half of one. It’s amazing for me to think back on that time – I was just 20 years old, I decided to go to Europe by myself with a program where I didn’t know anyone (I made great friends!), I had never really been abroad except to visit my family in Argentina…it was incredible – completely unforgettable.

I’ve since gone back to Paris several times and I fall more and more in love with each visit. I love strolling the streets, finding hidden gems on tiny blocks, discovering new places, trying different restaurants, drinking red wine in small restaurants, having croissants with a bowl of cafe au lait, people watching pretty much anywhere, listening to Serge Gainsbourg, roaming the halls of the Louvre, going to art galleries, old bookstores and tiny bars in the Quartier Latin, shopping in the Marais, the possibilities are endless.

As a photographer I always have my camera with me and Paris is not only one of my favorite cities in the world but it is also one of my favorite places to photograph. On earlier visits I was strictly a film shooter but on my more recent travels there – one in February 2007 and another in December 2008 – I went with my digital cameras. Here are some of my favorite images from these two trips.

A tout de suite!

when I am alone.

Alone in the Afternoon


le petit chien et la fille.

French Bird

The Wheel

les fleurs

Copyright 2008 Monica L. Shulman

grey tops

par une petite rue

table for deux

on the way up and down

the ghosts

The Strollers

a few wishes

All photos Copyright Monica L. Shulman

When I’m not blogging here, you can find me on my website and on my art, photography and lifestyle blog.

Couchsurfing in Whitefish

24 Jun

(I wrote last month about the practice of couchsurfing. You can read that original post here for some background on the following, the story of my most bizarre two days of couchsurfing while traveling the States by train in September and October of 2008. Bizarre, and enlightening. And bizarre.)

By Matt Simon

I arrived by train in Whitefish, Montana, at 3:30 a.m. My host there, Julia, graciously offered to pick me up around 5 a.m., since she was awake around then for work anyway. So I waited in the Whitefish train station in the early morning, making myself as comfortable as possible on nasty, college-style seats while talking to the attendant, the only other human there.

Five-thirty came and went. And what do you do for a living? the attendant asked. Six came and went. Where are you coming from? Six-thirty came and went. Can I call a cab for you? I wasn’t sure if there were actually any cabs in Whitefish. I knew he wanted to say it: Don’t worry son, she’ll be here.

About seven the station door swung open violently and a woman stepped in to fill the frame. “I’m here!” she yelled. It could only be Julia, nearly six feet of her, with hair frizzed out eight inches in any given direction, sporting a bizarre get-up, and wearing massive snow boots in September, a snowless month.

The station attendant looked at me for answers. I had nothing for him.

As Julia and I piled into her car, she began to explain her tardiness, which I was inclined to forgive, considering her otherwise general graciousness. Her excuse was simple, really: she had passed out drunk. In fact, she was still a bit drunk. But luckily the streets were empty, and we reached her apartment without arrest.

Once inside, Julia showed me to the couch and announced that I needed a nightlight.

“A what?” I asked.

“A nightlight.”

“But the sun’s coming up.”

“Well, just in case.” She ran riot around her apartment for five minutes, digging through piles of clothes and artwork and video cassettes. Eventually settling on a two-foot glowing Santa, she then spent another five minutes searching for an available outlet.

She finally got it lit. “There!” she yelled. “Goodnight!”

I awoke at 2 p.m. In the full light of day, I took note of what I was in. It wasn’t immediately clear, perhaps part art gallery, part residence, and part thrift store, all mixed up into a befuddling domicile. Some sort of postmodern sculpture, just a jumble of wire, was hanging from the ceiling, and there was an extra door in the corner, which may or may not have been a gateway to another dimension.

Over the next few days Julia and I adventured around Whitefish, climbing over trains in railyards and watching a succession of Paul Newman movies, through which she talked incessantly. Paul had recently died, and she was grieving in the only way she knew how: by piling popcorn into her face and ruining upcoming plot twists between chews.

I came to learn the following facts about Julia:

• She once thought she lost the cotton from a Q-Tip in her ear. After a consultation with her doctor, she apparently had not.

• She recently destroyed her cell phone with her car by repeatedly slamming the trunk on it. “The trunk just wouldn’t shut,” she explained.

• She cannot simultaneously ride a bike and wave to a friend because she will crash into a pole. This I was witness to.

• The noise coming from the right front wheel of her car isn’t a problem. She still has three good wheels left, which all roll very nicely.

Upon our first meeting, as she barreled through the train station door like a rummed-up pirate, I was downright terrified of Julia. Her living situation did not calm this fear, in particular her insistence that I not open a certain cabinet in her bathroom. The clutter, her aloofness quickly transitioning to mania, the pile of dishes and the attached fruit-fly colonies, the fragments of art lodging themselves in my bare feet, it was all too much to handle. In two days I amassed a dozen panic attacks.

My last day in Whitefish, Julia fed me Hamburger Helper and rum and cokes and forced bad TV into me like only a supremely irresponsible mother could. Later, she drove me to the train station and stood on the platform as I rejoined the typicals: the exhausted retired, the middle-American families, the thick-necked goons. None of them were wearing snow boots, because they were far too logical and sober for that.

I half expected her to have brought a fog machine, so she might be enveloped in faux-steam as the train pulled away. She didn’t of course, as that would have required an extension cord. She just stood and waved to each car blindly, pivoting slightly back and forth like a sprinkler to face them, not knowing which one I ended up in.

Once the old man next to me began telling me about the good old days, when his town shot a robber and tracked him by his bloody footprints, I realized I should have paid Julia to come with me as a sort of roaming jester. “That’s no story,” she’d counter. “Let me tell you about the time I buried two horses in just two hours.”

The Awe Factor

23 Jun

By Stephanie Gallagher

What’s more fun than three generations braving the windy roads of Ireland in a cramped seven-seater van? Not much actually. When my grandparents mentioned taking a trip to Ireland, my husband, David was skeptical. I was booking the tickets.

Few things excite me more than travel planning: researching ticket prices, hotels, places of interest. For this particular trip, however, the excitement was not mine, but my parents and grandparents. I had visited Ireland a few times and David, who lived there until he was fourteen, had been a very thorough tour guide. I knew I would miss the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land – the “awe factor” was gone.

Throughout the six-month planning process, I sent my family links and booking confirmations, eagerly awaiting their approval.

“That’s perfect!” “Can’t wait,” was the overwhelming response. They couldn’t wait and I couldn’t wait to show them.

We landed in Dublin at 6 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. I felt comfortable buying a bottle of water at the airport, unlike the first time I had been there, when I fumbled with the Euro coins to find exact change. The bus to the hotel was a green double-decker, much like I remembered. And who could forget tea time; my veins still pulsed with the caffeinated beverage from the first time I was there.
The first two days in Dublin went smoothly. I was proud of my amazing planning capabilities—until David pulled up outside our hotel in the seven-seater van that fit us all comfortably, but not our luggage. Two of us had to find alternate transportation to our final destination of County Donegal. My dad’s lap became a temporary seat for almost an hour while David searched for the Navan bus stop.

My mom and I volunteered for the bus. We didn’t speak much, just watched as the plush green scenery rolled by. I observed her reactions and her excitement became mine.

Around 10 p.m. that evening, after David had dropped off the others, he picked us up at the bus stop. As we rounded yet another twist on an impossibly narrow road, there it was—the bright moon glistening off Donegal Bay. Just like that the awe factor was back. That night we fell asleep to the ocean gently lapping against the rocks, our room still aglow from the moonlit sky.

Duck master: a fowl job in Orlando

18 Jun

(Mostly) Free Outdoor Concerts in Los Angeles

18 Jun

By Nancy Steiner

If your travel plans take you to Los Angeles this summer, you’ll want to add some al fresco music to your itinerary. The city’s balmy evenings, a picnic dinner, and live music provide the ideal recipe for an idyllic evening. And all but one are free of charge:

Hollywood Bowl
Although you’ll have to pay for tickets here, nothing tops The Hollywood Bowl as the quintessential outdoor concert location. Choose from classical on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, jazz on Wednesday evenings, or crowd-pleasing pop (often topped off with fireworks) on Friday and Saturday evenings.

You can dine at your seat, but I recommend getting there early and using one of the picnic areas. Hint: for fewer crowds and a better chance to snag a table, go to areas 11, 12 or 13 on the far side of parking lot D.

Farmer’s Market
From late may through mid September, The Farmer’s Market, at Third and Fairfax, offers jazz on Thursday evenings and a mix of musical styles on Friday evenings.
Concerts start at 7 pm on the West Patio. Before the performance, you’ll have a hard time deciding which of the many food stands to patronize. Good choices include French crepes, Cajun favorites and fresh Mexican, but my favorite is Singapore’s Banana Leaf.

Not far from Los Angeles’ Disney Concert Hall (worth a visit if you can), local and international artists perform at noon and 8 pm at California Plaza, while at Pershing Square, you can rock out on Saturday evenings. (Other free activities at Pershing Square include alternative music nights on Thursdays and Family Film nights on Fridays.)

Culver City
Culver City’s Music Festival takes place Thursday evenings in July and August at the City Hall Courtyard. The eclectic program ranges from big band to salsa to zydeco. This is a popular venue, so be sure to get there early to secure a spot on the grass or a seat near the stage.

Marina del Rey
For waterside music, head to Marina del Rey. At Burton Chase Park, you can savor classical — featuring the 75-member Marina del Rey Summer Symphony — or pop on Thursday and Saturday evenings. (Check for specific dates.) At Fisherman’s Village, you can hear R&B, jazz, Latin, pop or blues between 1 and 4 pm.

While you’re at the Marina, spring for a Wednesday night Hornblower “Sights and Sips Cruise” with all the money you’ve saved on concert tickets.

Off the Deep End, Part 3

14 Jun

By Eric Shipley

It was one of the most memorable sights I have ever seen (or likely will see). As our Al Italia flight banked on its approach to the Cairo airport, the captain made an announcement in Italian. There was no translation, but one word didn’t need it—“pyramids.” We could see them directly below us, magnificent and huge. Even from high above, they were clear as day. I was transfixed, overcome by a feeling of unreality I would experience often on this trip.

We landed soon after. My first impression of the airport was that it appeared to have been built in the 1950s or ’60s (as it very well may have been) and looked like little had been done to maintain or improve it. It was the first indication we had of how impoverished most of Egypt is. All of this was rapidly replaced, however, by the realization that we had no idea where to go or what to do. We also felt the full impact of being in a non-English speaking country. We had tried to learn some basic words and phrases in Arabic, but it was of no use. There were signs in English. The one I remember in particular used very pointed language to explain that the penalty for smuggling drugs into the country was death by hanging. Needless to say, we had nothing to worry about, but the sense of uneasiness the sign evoked was heightened by the large number of armed guards and soldiers wielding what I’m pretty sure were AK-47s.

We followed the signs and people who seemed to know what they were doing, and found the line to have our passports stamped. Of course when we got to the booth, we were told by a condescending, uniformed “official” that we had to have visas. It was the first we had heard anything about this, but luckily, at the price of some additional condescension, the official told us where we could get them. We headed off, looking for some kind of government office, but all we found were shops selling tourist junk. After some linguistic gymnastics with one of the shopkeepers, however, we discovered that we could indeed get visas there. The cost was just a few dollars, but it still seemed ridiculously mercenary.

With our passports stamped, we headed for the entrance. Between navigating the unbelievable crowd and fending off a flood of cabbies determined to give us a ride, I began to doubt we’d ever make it out of the airport. Then, in the distance I saw Lee (one of our hosts and a friend since junior high) jumping up and waving to us above the heads of the throng. Never in my life have I been so relieved and grateful. And it hit me—there we were. In Egypt.

Let the adventure begin!