Off the Deep End, Part 7

14 Aug

By Eric Shipley

After the Church of Saint George, we made our way along narrow roads surrounded by high walls to the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which, according to local tradition, is the site where the baby Moses was found.

It is the oldest synagogue in Egypt, but it began as a Christian church. In 882 AD, however, the Coptic Christians sold it to Abraham Ben Ezra for 20,000 dinars so they could pay their annual taxes.

The original synagogue collapsed at some point, and the building we saw is a faithful reconstruction built in 1892. Interestingly, when the reconstruction was done, the geniza (store room) was found to contain thousands of Hebrew manuscripts from the Middle Ages.

From the outside, it is an unremarkable rectangular stone building with high arched windows. We had to pass through an armed security checkpoint before going inside. Once we were inside, we found a beautifully crafted interior. There is a lower level for the men and an upper level for women, and in the center of the main floor is a raised marble platform where the Rabbi reads the Torah. Behind this, there is an alcove in the facing wall which is the ark of the Torah. It is also on a raised platform with steps leading up and a row of columns partitioning it from the rest of the interior. Everywhere we looked there was intricately carved stonework and woodwork, some of it with inlaid pearl. There is an impressive Star of David in the middle of the ceiling, and I also remember seeing at least one menorah. But, given my lack of familiarity with Jewish symbolism, I’m sure the significance of many details was lost on me—much to my regret.

Both Charlotte and I found this synagogue particularly beautiful and at the same time very peaceful and meditative. Unfortunately, visitors aren’t allowed to take pictures, so we’re left mostly with memories. In a way, though, I find those more valuable.

Next: The Hanging Church


Off the Deep End, Part 6

26 Jul

By Eric Shipley

Our first day of sightseeing in Egypt took us to Coptic Cairo, a part of Old Cairo that dates back to the 6th century BC and mingles Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions. One of my most vivid memories, however, is the impression, in several places, that we’d stepped into the scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark that take place in Cairo. The tan colored mud brick and adobe buildings looked just the same, albeit with telltale modern trappings such as TVs. And, as always, there were numerous, heavily-armed guards and soldiers.

Our first stop was the Greek Church of St. George, one of the few remaining round churches in the Middle East (see image below). It was built in 684 AD and sits on top of a cylindrical Roman tower. We approached via a long series of steps that took us past an impressive relief sculpture of St. George slaying the dragon (at right below). Inside, there is an abundance of intricately carved woodwork, some of it with gold-colored gilding. I’m sure there is some religious significance to the designs and iconography, but in my ignorance, it was (and still is) lost on me.

The altar (see below) includes what seemed to me to be a shrine (presumably to St. George) in an alcove that has steps leading up to it. Around the interior walls, in shallow sconces, are paintings of various saints (image below). The bottom couple of feet of these paintings are fronted by a plexiglass sheet that leaves a narrow pocket. Apparently, this was intended to allow people to leave monetary offerings to their chosen saint, and indeed we could see money behind the plexiglass.

The Church of St. George has been burned several times, so what we saw was actually built in 1909. It retains some of the stained glass from the previous building (which was burned in 1904) and still has an awe-inspiring feeling of antiquity.

Next: The Ben Ezra Synagogue

What I Packed for My Summer Vacation

21 Jul

By Nancy Sokoler Steiner

There are lots of online sources for packing lists, but this is a list of a different sort. These are items you might not think of bringing, but which can make your travels easier or more comfortable. I found them indispensable during a recent trip abroad:

Zip Lock Bags: I brought home wine, olive oil and pesto (guess where I went?), and zip lock bags were my little insurance policies for avoiding leaks. Ditto for shampoo and other toiletries. The bags were also helpful for storing food I purchased and ate while traveling. You can also use them to organize your regular packing items (bag of socks, anyone?).

Wipes: Sure, hand sanitizer can de-germ your mitts, but wipes take the grime off, too. And try using hand sanitizer while gelato is dripping down your fingers! I like Kleenex brand, which come in resealable packs and don’t smell like disinfectant.

Fanny Pack: When I carry my purse at home, I inevitably get sore shoulders from the heavy load. So for trekking on vacation, I purchased a fanny (lumbar) pack. Yes, I know this immediately marked me as a tourist, but … guilty as charged. I chose the Mountainsmith Swift II Recycled Lumbar Pack, less bulky than a backpack, but still supportive and large enough to hold my phone, camera, power bars, sweater and a water bottle. It also allowed me to go “hands-free” in the airport, where I had other baggage to carry.

Body Oil: Nothing kinky here. Airplane air dries out your nasal membranes. Apply a dab of oil to your nostrils periodically during the flight to keep them moist.

Eye Mask: Block out unwanted light on the plane or in your hotel room.

Small, Empty Spray Bottle: Fill it with cool water and you’ll have instant air conditioning while you’re out and about.

For Us Gals: For humid weather, take a scrunchie to get the hair off your neck, and baby powder to help you stay cool and dry. Powder also helps remove sand if you go to the beach.

I’m sure there are other helpful items I haven’t included. Please add your suggestions!

Off the Deep End, Part 5

16 Jul

By Eric Shipley

Lee and Faith’s apartment was in the Heliopolis suburb of Cairo about a mile to the East of where the ancient city of Heliopolis (which means “Sun City”) was located. And as it turned out, the most arduous part of getting there was the ten flights of stairs we had to climb with our luggage. Added to this was the combination of incredibly oppressive heat (which was even more amazing given that it was winter in Egypt) and air pollution that was bad enough to make my eyes and throat burn. But make it we did, and as soon as we dropped our luggage the conversation turned to food.

At this point I should mention Sayid and the magic bus. Sayid was the Egyptian driver Lee hired to shuttle the six of us—him and his wife Faith, Charlotte and me, and our friends Rob and Laura whose visit fortuitously coincided with ours—from place to place. The magic bus (the passenger van mentioned in an earlier blog) was so-named by Charlotte because Sayid managed to squeeze it into spots that by all laws of physics it should not have fit (not unlike the Knight Bus in the Harry Potter books).

So, we piled in and headed to El Shabrowey, a popular Lebanese restaurant. From the outside, it was a hole in a wall of adobe shops on an impossibly crowded street. Normally, I would’ve stopped to look around, but we were starving and the smells coming from the open door were irresistible. Inside, the restaurant was a study in controlled chaos that was hilarious to watch. None of the waiters spoke English, so Faith advised us about what to order and told Lee what we wanted. Then they would argue about how much to get. After a while, they’d come to agreement and the real fun began. Using his broken Arabic, Lee would juggle the menus around between the two waiters and indicate what we wanted while they scribbled frantically and dodged the constant stream of people flowing back and forth. It was quite a floor show. We sat back and marveled, chatting between mouthfuls of flatbread, which Faith made sure was always in ample supply. When we ran low, she’d nudge Lee who would shout “More bread! More bread!” to one of the waiters.

One thing they ordered for us, insisting it would change our lives, was fresh mango juice. And it was indeed amazing. I didn’t know it, but mangoes are a staple crop in the farmlands on the shores of the Nile river, so the juice was lusciously fresh and delightful. (To this day, Charlotte and I get mango juice whenever we can, but it’s rare to find anything that comes close to what we had in Egypt.) Then the food came. There were kabobs, falafel (fried patties of ground chickpeas), tabbouleh (a salad of parsley, bulgur, mint, tomato, and onion with lemon juice and olive oil), shawarma (a dish of shaved meat and vegetables), and various other dishes I can’t remember. It was all exotic and delicious, and the portions were so generous it seemed like we left as much food as we ate. At this point I started to get worried about the bill, which Lee took when it came. He added a very generous tip (about 30 percent as I recall) and told us the total came to 90 Egyptian pounds. The rate of exchange at that time was six Egyptian pounds to the dollar, so that entire extravagant meal for the six of us came to $15. I found that amazing, of course, but also rather embarrassing given that the average Egyptian rarely (if ever) enjoyed a meal like the one we’d had.

We returned to the apartment and started unwinding by tipping the building manager’s son (a teenager) to get some beer and bring it to us. Now that I think of it, this was rather ironic—Egypt is a Muslim country, so alcohol is much less widely available there than it is in the United States, but they have no problem with underage kids buying it. Anyway, we were soon settled on the apartment’s narrow balcony with a supply of the Egyptian beer Stella. As the night went on, we would increasingly frequently, and randomly, shout “Stella!” (ala Stanley Kowalski from “A Streetcar Named Desire”) at the top of our lungs. It was a strange and wonderful evening, catching up with old friends while observing the Heliopolis night life. Among many other sights, we saw three wedding parties go by, each accompanied by an off-key car horn chorus of beep, beep, beep-beep-beep. Cairo at night is really something—a noisy, sprawling, bustling, dirty creature, and yet it has a strange magnificence.

Next: The Citadel and Coptic Cairo

The Magic Bus.

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.”