Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bordering on the ridiculous

Yesterday, Shannon and I finally made it across the UAE border into Oman. I say 'finally' because it was our second attempt to do so. I recently purchased a guide to hiking in Oman, and I’ve been eager to leave the coastal deserts of the UAE to test out the rugged terrain of the al Hajar al Gharbi (the Western mountains). Having consulted the slightly minimalist but seemingly sufficient maps included in the guide as well as taking care of a few other necessary logistics, we set off confidently last Friday morning for a day hike in Oman, looking forward to the scenic vistas and invigorating exercise we would soon enjoy (is that enough foreshadowing for you?).

Our 2-hour drive to the UAE/Oman border was lovely but uneventful. The trip only began to get interesting once we came to the border post. Pulling up to the "drive-thruesque" window, we told the Emirati officer that we were heading to Oman to do some hiking, in response to which he wished us well on our journey and pointed us in the direction of the correct Omani checkpoint for our intended destination. And we were off! I had read online that some tourists encountered difficulties at the borders, but I found myself thinking: That wasn't so bad (there's some more of that foreshadowing).

As we drove away from the UAE border, we marveled at the extreme change in scenery, the distant horizon suddenly filling with jagged mountains. But after about 10 minutes without any sign of a border, we began to ask ourselves, "Uhh, where is this checkpoint our friendly Emirati officer mentioned?" I consulted the map only to discover it did not have the detail required to be of much help in our current situation. Finally spotting a service station, I pulled in to buy a better map, but sadly they did not sell maps. A second service station wasn’t open at all. Not knowing if we should turn back or keep going, I cursed myself for not having been better prepared and grew increasingly frustrated, letting out deafening sighs every thirty seconds or so as we drove on.

Shannon, ever the good trooper, sweetly suggested that we just enjoy exploring the magnificent scenery around us, even going so far as to suggest the possibility that we might have to postpone the hike for another weekend (as it was growing late). Incredulous to what I was hearing, I scoffed at her weakness and vowed to never give up (of course, this was only my interior monologue).

Well, after another seemingly interminable ten minutes of continuing blindly down the road, we spotted the Omani border. "Huzzah!" I thought to myself, "Victory at last!" We pulled into the parking lot and went inside to take care of the necessary paperwork to enter Oman legally. But when we arrived at the counter and presented our passports, the Omani official asked us a simple question for which we had no answer: "Where is the UAE exit stamp on your passports?"

"What exit stamp? We were just waved through the UAE side of the border; they gave us no exit stamp." As I said these words, I realized that we had made a huge mistake, or more accurately, our friendly Emirati border patrolman had made a huge mistake. The Omani officials could not let us into their country without an exit stamp from the UAE to prove our legitimacy, and very politely but firmly suggested we retrace the 30 kilometers to the UAE border to obtain the stamp before returning to the Omani border. At this point, we broke out in laughter (what else could we do?) at the silly day we were having and headed to the car, concluding that this development coupled with the dwindling hours of daylight meant we must retreat back to the UAE in temporary defeat. Little did we know that we had one more obstacle in our way…

On the road back to the UAE, we noticed signage for a border checkpoint closer than the one we had originally crossed. Happy to shave off a few minutes of driving, we turned in and presented our passports. The Emirati inquisitively flipped through them, paused for a few moments, and asked us to park our car and come inside (never a good sign).

Once inside, he asked us where our Omani exit stamp was. We explained that we didn't have one because we didn't actually go into Oman because we didn't have a UAE exit stamp. This did not clear up the situation. Why don’t you have a UAE exit stamp? He wanted to know. "Because one of your colleagues at the other border point slacked off" didn't translate well from English to Arabic, and we basically found ourselves talking past each other in broken sentences. He wanted to send us back to Oman for an exit stamp before he would let us into the UAE, but he didn't seem to understand that we needed to enter the UAE now in order to get an exit stamp so we could go back to you see the tragic cycle we had entered? As I was beginning to imagine a scenario involving Hilary Clinton negotiating our rescue while we camped out in no-man’s land, the officer decided to waive us through.

At that point, you might think that we grabbed our passports and rushed back to the UAE as quickly as possible, thankful for avoiding any further bureaucratic complications...but you'd be wrong. Having just discovered on the map what looked to be another point of entry into Oman which made more sense in light of our hiking destination, I decided to make the most of our time there and ask for future reference, "Is it possible to cross into Oman at Mezyad?" Immediately, Shannon began tugging anxiously at my sleeve, to which I brushed her off with a "Hold on honey, this'll just take a moment." But precisely at this moment, the officer’s superior entered the room and looked at me expectantly, so I repeated my question.

The superior motioned for me to hand back our passports."You want to go to Mezyad? Where is your exit stamp?" I heard Shannon let out an exasperated sigh beside me and could feel an "I told you so" coming in the near future, but I continued trying to get my point across.

I replied, "No, we're fine for now. We've already been cleared by your colleague here. We want to go to Mezyad next week."

He kept repeating the need for an exit stamp and eyeing me and my passport with suspicion, and I realized that his mastery of the English language did not extend to the hypothetical or even future tense. After trying another few times to communicate my intentions only to be met with blank stares, we found ourselves at a stalemate. But just as frustrated with the experience as we were, and seeing the line queuing behind us, he finally returned our passports and waived us into the UAE. After vigorously thanking him, we drove away as fast as legally permissible, grateful to be on our way back home.

As I mentioned at the beginning, we did finally make it into Oman (yesterday) for that hike, having done a bit more research and planning this past week and determining to say as little as possible at the border checkpoints. As it turns out, the excursion proceeded quite smoothly, and we were able to enjoy some of Oman's fantastic scenery, both in the car and on the trail. Below are a few shots from our hike.

Abandoned village near Wadi Ghul

Exploring the ruins

At the top

View of Wadi Ghul

Heading back down at sunset

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Plastic tourism

As we planned our recent trip to Egypt, we encountered a fair amount of negativity toward the country, from people we know here in the UAE as well as from guide books and travel websites. Some comments were made in reference to the general decay and chaos of Cairo, which is certainly noticeable, but most of the derogatory remarks were sadly directed at the Egyptian people who, we were informed, concerned themselves primarily with one thing: extracting as much money from tourists as possible (legitimately or not). But starting with the man sitting beside us on the flight from Abu Dhabi to Cairo (who won us over with pictures of his family and stories of life in Egypt), the warmth and generosity that we encountered over and over in the Egyptians was palpable and humbling. During our seven days in Egypt we had the opportunity to meet local people from rural and urban walks of life, and we had an overwhelming sense they were looking out for us. True they are trying to make a living, but most also seemed genuinely concerned that we were enjoying Egypt. Reflecting on the trip, we wondered why our experience was so different from what others had predicted.

The answer we reached wasn't that we happened to catch the Egyptians at a good time (though January is probably the best month to visit), but that our choice to plan our own itinerary and make all arrangements ourselves, without the help of a travel agent or tour company, allowed us first-hand encounters with local hospitality that we would likely not see as part of a large tour group. Given the abundance of vacation days and proximity to vacation destinations, most UAE expats tend to travel quite a bit, and the definite trend is for them to meet with a travel agent, who books the flight, transportation, hotels, and pops them in with a tour group for scheduled visits to points of interest. This approach saves time and energy and provides peace of mind -- just show up and go where they tell you to go – and for those seeking relaxation as the primary vacation objective, this is a good option. But for those seeking an authentic taste of the culture and people of the vacation destination, we believe that being your own travel agent is a must (apologies to those who make a living this way). We did this primarily to save money, but because of what we learned and experienced in the process, it is now our philosophy of travel.

For example, since we had emailed directly with the hotel managers in the process of booking our stays at three hotels, we already had a rapport by the time we arrived. It did not feel coincidental that we were given the best rooms available at all three (especially considering what we paid). But it goes deeper as well. While walking along the East Bank of the Nile in Luxor, we met a felucca owner named Hassan who turned out to be related to the owner of our hotel (a quaint family-run operation on the West Bank). He was delightful, and we hired him to take us on a two-hour sail to Banana Island, a place recommended in one of the travel books we read in preparation for the trip. On the island, Hassan gave us a short tour of the banana and mango plantation, after which we sat down to tea with him and another local. During our conversation we were introduced to the “East Bank” versus “West Bank” dynamic among the residents of Luxor. On the East Bank you find a developed tourism infrastructure with large hotels and restaurants (mostly chains) and ubiquitous tour buses taking European groups from site to site. The West Bank, on the other hand, is where most of the locals actually live, and it has a rural, almost pastoral feel. Not only are there no large buses to be found near the villages, but you actually find a fair number of donkey drawn carts!

Hassan and his friend talked about the advantages of staying on the West bank because it was only there that you could gain some insight into how the local population actually lives. Those traveling in large groups led by agency-appointed guides often miss out on such experiences because their agendas are driven more by efficiency than the promotion of exploration or discovery. While being ferried from site to site in a group of fifty or more individuals, the experience of the country becomes insulated, determined by the travel agency. Often the tour guides aren’t even locals, and the planned “cultural experiences,” like a belly dancing performance, for example, are not quite authentic. Additionally, the tour company is liable for those on the tour, so the guides may give warnings not to interact with any locals to avoid the off chance that someone will be taken advantage of and then blame the tour company. Perhaps this kind of practice explains the misconceptions that we encountered about the Egyptian people. The unfortunate result is that the local community in Luxor benefits less and less from tourism, and unsuspecting tourists benefit less and less from their visits to Luxor. Hassan and his friend called this "plastic tourism." Not only do you use plastic to pay for it, but the experience itself is fake.

While we nodded in agreement with much of what Hassan said, our newfound beliefs were soon put to the test. On the trip back from Banana Island, Hassan offered to take us on a tour of the West Bank the next day in his own car. He quoted us a very good price and said he would take us wherever we wanted to go and even take us to meet his mother, depending on how much local culture we wanted to experience! It sounded too good to be true, so skeptical and worldly as we are, we tentatively agreed to meet him at a designated time and place the next morning knowing we would investigate further before actually showing up. Back at our hotel, we asked the manager's advice. We told him we had a met a man named Hassan who claimed to be a relative. It turns out that most people in Luxor are related somehow, and every man seems to share one of three names, so this did not narrow it down. Not being able to confirm the identity of this man, he cautioned us about the risks of hiring a local, unlicensed driver as opposed to an established professional service. He said it was up to us (obviously) but that he could not be held responsible if we were unhappy with the experience. We were torn betwen the adventure (and low price) of going with Hassan versus the guarantee of a licensed tour guide, but ultimately we decided to go with our gut and give Hassan the job.

As it turns out, Hassan and his brother did a fine job in taking us from one site to the next, and even added a few stops that we had not anticipated (the most interesting being the restaurant owned by the son of a local who helped Howard Carter in his discovery and excavation of King Tut's tomb, perhaps the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century!).

Had we been a part of a large tour group, I'm sure we would not have stopped at the restaurant, met and befriended Hassan, or done the myriad other things we were able to do because we had planned the trip ourselves (like hiking a trail from the Valley of the Kings to Hatshepsut). While this took more leg work and involved some risk, it was also so much more rewarding. But just in case I've started to sound preachy, you should know that at our next destination, Sharm El-Sheikh, we engaged in a little "plastic tourism" ourselves because we were so exhausted, and I have to admit, it was quite nice. Maybe every vacation needs a bit of both.

Hassan (left) and his first-mate driving us back from Banana Island

Monday, January 18, 2010


We recently returned from what was possibly the best trip of our lives, at least in terms of breadth of experience. During our seven days in Egypt, we toured some of the holiest and architecturally stunning sites in Islam, saw many of the marvels of ancient Egypt including the Giza pyramids/sphinx and the Karnak temple complex, sailed the Nile at sunset, survived the organized chaos that is Cairo driving where "lane" is truly a foreign concept (and we thought Abu Dhabi drivers were insane...hah!), and swam/snorkeled in some of the most beautiful waters in the world. And while we encountered a plethora of places and people, there was one constant refrain throughout our time there: the warmth, humor, and generosity of the Egyptians. We'll say more about this in an upcoming entry so for now I'll let the pictures do the talking.

1st Destination - Cairo

Giza Pyramids and Sphinx

Barquq Mausoleum

The Citadel - built by Saladin (he retook Jerusalem from the Crusaders in the 12th century)

Mohammed Ali Pasha Mosque

Sultan Hassan Mosque

View of Cairo from Minaret of Ibn Tulun Mosque

Inner courtyard of Ibn Tulun Mosque, the largest and oldest mosque in Cairo still in its original form

Example of arabesque geometric designs found in Islamic architecture

Courtyard of Al-Azhar Mosque, the center of learning in Sunni Islam (and part of Al-Azhar University, the oldest in the world)

Al-Ghuri Complex (marketplace on the oldest street in Islamic Cairo)

Mmm...Egyptian bread (they're talented in both making and carrying it)!

Fishawy's - famous example of Cairene cafe culture

A merchant's stall in Khan El-Khalili, a bustling marketplace where you can pretty much buy anything your heart desires and enjoy the art of haggling

2nd Destination - Luxor

Waiting for breakfast to be served in the courtyard of the Amon Hotel on the west bank of Luxor, a serene oasis after the chaos and clamor of Cairo

Sunset felucca ride on the Nile heading toward Banana Island (our captain was a Bob Marley fan)

Banana Island

hence the name

Sam steering us home

Fabulous Egyptian-style dinner at Africa, a rooftop restaurant overlooking the village of Gezira and the Nile

Excavation continues to this day - this dig is led by archeologists at University of Basel, Switzerland

One of three tombs we went inside (Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep II, and Ramses I)

Hiking over the mountain from Valley of the Kings to Hatshepsut's Temple

View of the Nile River Valley (unfortunately a hazy day, but you can sort of make out the lush green in the background)

Ruins of Deir El-Medina, the city where the workers lived who constructed all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings over hundreds of years

Djeser-Djeseru, Hatshepsut's mortuary temple complex (a female Pharoah who reigned nearly 22 years, Hatshepsut is a fascinating historical figure)

Ramesseum (memorial temple of Ramesses the Great, believed to be the pharoah of the biblical exodus)

Final Destination - Sharm El-Sheikh

View from our hotel room of the pool and the Red Sea beyond - exquisite!

After four days of nonstop sight-seeing in Cairo and Luxor, we spent the entire first day in Sharm at our hotel - lying on the beach, swimming, lying by the pool, eating, and playing ping pong

On the second day we were a bit more productive (though we still spent a good deal of time lying in the sun) with a snorkeling tour of the Red Sea coral reefs at Ras Mohammed marine national park

Shannon eagerly awaiting her first-ever snorkeling attempt (without any instruction, she soon realized this is not an intuitive activity, but she finally got the hang of it)

Sam returning to the boat after his first underwater view of the coral reefs

Relaxed by the sun and satiated by witnessing the beauty of God's creation, we headed back to the hotel to prepare for our early morning flight back to Abu Dhabi