My two months trip in Indonesia is winding to a close. What an adventure it has been!
I had the pleasure of visiting a small chunk of this monstrously sized country, all in the eastern part AKA the Lesser Sunda Islands. During my trip to Indonesia, I went to 13 different islands. From most to least populous, they are:
Bali (4.3 million)
Lombok (3.3 million)
Flores (1.9 million)
Sumbawa (1.4 million)
Gili Air (1800)
Gili Trawangan (1500)
Gili Meno (500)
Gili Bola (n/a)
For scale, the population of these islands constitutes less than 11 million, or about 4% of the total population of Indonesia. When you look at the proportion of islands, the number gets even slimmer. According to the CIA World Factbook, there are 17,508 islands in Indonesia. The 13 I visited make up just .07% of the islands in the country.
The point is, Indonesia isn’t really a country you can just “visit” to get a good sense of it. It is a mammoth and unwieldy place, and basically a mini-continent in its own right.
Indonesia is incredibly diverse in terms of religion and culture. Although the vast majority of the country adheres to Islam (no doubt Java’s 141 million population makes up for a massive chunk of that), there are large amounts of people practicing other religions. In fact, within the span of just a few weeks, I stayed on an island that was majority Hindu, some that were majority Muslim, and some that were majority Catholic. The country also sports over 300 ethnic groups and native languages.
I want to go into detail about various aspects of the adventure. For funsies, we’ll go from least to most pleasant.
The worst part of the trip was DEFINITELY transportation. Man, Indonesia really has some of the most atrocious public transit of anywhere I’ve been. Buses can be hard to come by outside of big cities, and most land transport is by way of shared minibuses (called “bemos”) and cars. Finding an adequate ride often takes a lot of searching, and the transport never ever leaves on time. Mostly, they will drive around for a long time filling up the vehicle until it’s at maximum capacity. And by maximum capacity, I mean being uncomfortably crammed into a seat that is way too small for most adult humans. Boats are usually a bit more comfortable (at least they are not usually THAT crowded), but it should be noted that their safety record in Indonesia is far from stellar.
Another major problem here is cleanliness and pollution. There is garbage strewn everywhere and it’s not a lovely sight. It’s a damn shame because so much of the landscape here would look way better without heaps of trash thrown about. It’s also very common for locals to burn their trash, so watch out for the daily plumes of smoke all over the place. It is clearly very toxic stuff to be breathing in and is a major contributor to air pollution in Indonesia.
The food that I ate was pretty good. I’d give Indonesian cuisine a B- rating overall (obviously subject to change if I ever explore more of the country). Don’t get me wrong, it’s usually cheap and tasty. However, the cuisine definitely does not have that WOW factor of the greatest cuisines (Indian, Thai, Malay, etc). The dishes of white rice and sides of protein/vegetables can get a bit boring. I wish Indonesian food had a bit more diversity in terms of their carb choices (though some regions do prioritize cassava), and utilized spices in a more complex fashion. Some of my favorite dishes include Soto Ayam (a type of chicken soup), Nasi Campur (a staple of rice with several side dishes, slightly different at each restaurant), and Rendang (a beef curry).
Many people visit Indonesia for beautiful beaches and sea life, and it’s no wonder why. I saw, swam in, and snorkeled in some incredible beaches during my two-month stay. Unfortunately, some of the prettiest beaches (I’m talking the tranquil Koka Beach in Flores) have issues with plastic on the sands and in the water. However, others are well-maintained. You will certainly not be lacking for ocean options when you visit Indonesia.
Maybe the pinnacle of my trip was a 4 day, 3-night boat cruise through Komodo National Park (and several other small islands). On both Rinca and Komodo island, we were able to see the fearsome dragons up close, as well as the prey animals (deer, boars, buffalo, monkeys) they survive on. All in all, this trip was one of the best $165 I’ve ever spent in my life, and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Indonesia. I am currently waiting on several rolls of film to be developed, so I hope to be able to eventually share some incredible photographs from this journey!
I’m going to do a separate article on money and costs during my stay in Indonesia (spoiler alert: it’s a very inexpensive place to travel). Stay tuned!
For several days now, I've been stuck in Mataram, the capital city of the Indonesian province of West Nusa Tenggara. Located on the island of Lombok, Mataram has a population of over 400,000. It is a local center for industry and education, and sees very few tourists compared to other areas of Lombok. I'm here awaiting my visa extension, which has taken about four days to process.
At first, the prospect of waiting around a city for nearly a week was depressing. There are relatively few things to see around Mataram, and I felt my time could be better spent checking out some beautiful beaches or stunning volcanic scenery. I must reveal, however, that these past several days have been just what I needed. Let's take a look at why this is, and what my experience in Indonesia has been like thus far. To do this, we will rewind back three weeks, to October 18, 2019.
I flew into the island of Bali, not knowing what to expect. Conventional wisdom said it would be crowded with tourists, clamoring for spots on many of the beaches. My plan was to spend just a week or two in Bali, then make my way east to some of the other islands. Between my stays in Kuta, Ubud, and Padangbai, most of my fears were confirmed.
Droves of sightseers had taken over Bali, mostly short-term holidaymakers from Asia, Australia, and Europe. Amidst the local culture and regional poverty had sprung up numerous five-star resorts, Western restaurants, and tourist offices at every corner. I've never been to Cancun, but I'd imagine Kuta attracts a very similar crowd as that Mexican city. Ubud, another highly popular Bali destination (much of that due to its inclusion in the book/movie Eat, Pray, Love) has way more tourists than local people. For a city famous for its culture, Ubud sure has a hell of a lot of shops and restaurants catering to other cultures from around the world.
A common argument I have heard is "Well, the mass tourism is a good thing, because it helps the economy." There is a well-reasoned response to that:
Although tourism makes up 80% of Bali's economy, something like 85% of that money is in the hands of non-Balinese investors. In fact, believe it or not, there is now even a Trump hotel in Bali. Vice News did a great article explaining how many local people have been hurt by rising costs due to tourism, and the massive amounts of water being consumed by resorts and hotels (leading to shortages). Yes, I'm sure many residents have profited and are doing great due to the tourism sector; however, it is not all peaches and cream.
So yeah, Bali was a bit disappointing, but that's not to say there was nothing to love. Much of the local culture and cuisine is still there, though one needs to wander away from the tourist strip in order to experience it. One thing that really struck me in a positive way was the architecture (Balinese buildings are gorgeous and have a very distinct look to them). I've also heard that certain areas in the north of the island are still relatively free of tourists; perhaps I shall have to return and check some of those places out.
After recovering from a nasty bout of Bali Belly, it was time to leave the island and head to Lombok. No sooner had I reached my destination then I took a ferry to check out some of the nearby Gili Islands, an archipelago located off the northwest coast of Lombok. It consists of Gili Trawangan (by far the most touristed and "party vibe" of the three), Gili Air, and Gili Meno. Of the Gili Islands, I visited Trawangan (commonly referred to as just "Gili T") and Meno.
The Gilis were wonderful for snorkeling, and with no motorized vehicles to be found on the islands, were quite relaxing. Trawangan had far too much partying (not my cup of tea), but Meno was tranquil and quiet. Gili Meno is thus far one of the highlights of my Indonesia trip: not too many tourists, beautiful beaches and water, and a laid back local vibe. On my first day there, I sustained the worst sunburn of my life, which I have been nursing most of my time here in Mataram.
Which brings us back to Lombok's capital city. This is truly the first time in Indonesia where I'm without fellow tourists. I've spent the last few days trying regional cuisine, watching movies, working out at the nearby gym, and soaking in the atmosphere of the city. I have even made an Indonesian friend! While Mataram isn't an especially beautiful or interesting city, it feels for once that I am truly in Indonesia. Sure, meeting other tourists is an integral part of traveling to any country. However, sometimes it is nice to take a break and get to know an area the way local people do.
I feel refreshed and ready to continue my journey through Indonesia. Bring it on!
As I took the ferry from Picton, I realized this was it. This would be my last chance to see all the people I had met and places I had gone to in the ten months I spent in Wellington. Sure, I could always come back some other year, and keep in contact with various individuals. But it wouldn't be the same: the right people in the right places. Although I spent only three days in Wellington as an actual backpacker, I made sure to see as many old faces as I could. It had only been three weeks away on the South Island. But it already felt like a lifetime.
There were so many things I had missed during my time in Wellington, but I wouldn't have time to see them all. So I spent one day visiting the Weta Cave, tourist hub of the eponymous VFX and prop company (responsible for helping produce Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy). Another day, I went to my favorite restaurant, Great India. I had their $12 lunch special for the last time, and savored every last bite. I stayed at the hostel which had been my home for nearly a year, and hung out with the few long-termers that remained.
After Wellington, I went to Napier, a cool Art Deco styled city in Hawke's Bay. Then came Taupo, home to New Zealand's largest lake. There, I hiked to some waterfalls and later spent an afternoon checking out a thermal walkway full of steaming craters. A few days later, I headed to Rotorua, a city whose geothermal activity comes with a distinct sulfuric smell. I spent a good chunk of a day there hiking through a beautiful Redwood forest (planted at the beginning of the 20th century, not indigenous to New Zealand). At the peak of the trail was a beautiful view of Rotorua and its glorious steaming geysers and hot springs.
Hobbiton was the one touristy thing I felt compelled to do, so I booked a hostel in nearby Matamata and bit the bullet. Indeed, most of the things I was afraid of going in (heaps of tourists and endless fan lip service) were true. However, I still felt that I got some inspiration from visiting the movie set. As an aspiring movie director, it simply blew my mind that a set like this could be built. Hobbiton is essentially a small village built into farm hills, and the attention to detail is astounding. It feels like a real, lived-in place, and gave me a new appreciation for this kind of intricate set design.
The list of places I didn't get to see in the North Island is too large, so I won't even attempt to write them out. However, I will say the biggest thing I was unable to fit into my itinerary was the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (a long walk that passes over active volcanic terrain). The weather was way too cold to do the hike solo, and I would have had to pay $200 NZD to do it with a guide and alpine gear. Oh well, better luck next time!
The past few days have been spent lazing about in Auckland, trying lots of local eateries and relaxing. Tomorrow, I will be flying to Bali, Indonesia, in what promises to be a very different adventure from the one I have just concluded. I hope to follow up soon with a breakdown of my costs in New Zealand, so you, fellow traveler, can start planning your trip to this beautiful country!
The vast majority of New Zealand is made up of the North Island and the South Island. Today I'll be talking about my experience in the South Island, the larger of the two.
I had made peace beforehand that, no matter how hard I tried, I wouldn't be able to see everything within a three week time frame. So I booked my flight to Queenstown, bought a bus pass (essential for bus travel through New Zealand), booked a hostel, and set off. In the past 20 days, I made my way from Queenstown to Picton. Along the way, I also visited Arrowtown, Te Anau (and Milford Sound), Wanaka, Franz Josef, Hokitika, and Nelson. It was glorious.
After ten months stuck working in Wellington, and having the country hyped up for ever for me, I had a feeling that maybe, just maybe, I would be underwhelmed with New Zealand. Sure, it would be beautiful. But I've been to plenty of beautiful countries, and everyone seems to think the one they are currently in to be the prettiest. Within 24 hours of beginning my trip, however, I realized how truly misguided my concerns were.
New Zealand really is one of those drop-dead gorgeous countries, the kind where simply looking out the window of a bus can take your breath away. From the first hike I did in Queenstown (where at the peak I was treated to a stunning mountain view of the city), I realized this was going to be a memorable experience.
It was the first bus ride I took, however, where things kicked in full force. We were headed to the South Island's southernmost region, Southland. It was probably the most picturesque drive I've ever been on, with mountains, rolling green hills, and flocks upon flocks of sheep. The experience didn't end there, however. The very next day I took a cruise to Milford Sound, a fjord with countless waterfalls, cliffs, and wildlife. I was very lucky to have great weather during those days; even though I was traveling off-season, I got to see blue skies and crystal clear views.
The South Island is a hiker's paradise. I don't think a week went by without me going on at least two hikes. Some highlights: visiting Franz Josef glacier (which sadly, due to climate change has receded quite a bit in recent years), tracking glowworms at night in a forest, and visiting the famous Pancake Rocks during a bus stop through Punakaiki. There were also scenic lakes in Wanaka and Te Anau, as well as a teal-colored gorge near Hokitika.
There were also some added benefits of traveling off-season. New Zealand tourism can get very busy starting around December time, but I never had trouble booking a bus or finding a bed in a hostel. Prices were a bit lower at this time of year (September), and the dorms were rarely crowded or noisy. A couple of the hostels even served free homemade soup at night! This gave the few of us travelers an opportunity to hang out and be social. Nothing brings people together like free food.
In the next couple weeks I'll be exploring a bit of the smaller, more densely populated North Island. This is the island that has active volcanoes, so that should be fun!
The "working" part of my working holiday visa in New Zealand is over; cue the "holiday." After ten months of living and working in Wellington, I finally met my savings goals, quit my job, and headed back on the road. I'll be spending five weeks traveling through this gorgeous, stunningly beautiful country. I've begun near the bottom half of the South Island, and will be slowly moving northward.
This past year has been pretty emotionally draining, to be frank. It's the longest I've ever been away from the United States, and was spent pretty much the entire time in a backpacker hostel. Because I was working a full-time job during the week, and working reception at the hostel on weekends, I didn't really get a chance to go out and do much. It was just work work work work work.
On paper, I guess I accomplished most of what I set out to do. I produced and directed my very first movie, got a full-time job in Wellington (at a camera shop), and saved enough money to do some traveling as well. Because I was also working for accommodation at the hostel, I ended up saving around three-quarters of everything I earned. Here's a general idea of what I was able to save during my working holiday visa in New Zealand:
My 35-hour per week job at the camera shop paid $18.50 NZD per hour (that's a little under $12 USD). Including holiday pay, which was an extra 8% in each paycheck, my take home after taxes was about $585 each week. On average, I was able to save about $420 from each paycheck. That's about $1680 per month in savings (a bit over $1000 USD per month).
Now keep in mind, I didn't pay anything in rent. I don't drink much, and I didn't have free weekends to go out and spend a lot of money. I did still go out to eat several times per week, however, and went to the movies whenever I felt like it. Because my job was a ten-minute walk from the hostel, I didn't have to pay anything for transportation. I most certainly didn't own a car, because that would have been an extra hassle, and more of a financial burden.
A large chunk of the savings went toward making my film, then the rest went into savings for travel, with a bit put off to the side for my retirement account. I probably don't save anywhere near as much as I should for retirement, but I do put in some effort.
So here's the question: was it worth it?
That's a really tough question to answer. On one hand, I got to live in a different city, work some really chilled out jobs, and meet a lot of interesting people. There was also the short film project, which seriously helped me learn more about what it takes to produce and direct a movie. It also gave me the opportunity to work with local talented artists, and gave me some new perspectives on things.
On the other hand, I don't feel as if I progressed quite as much as I would have liked. After all, working in a city for a year is working in a city for a year. Whether it is in New Jersey, California, or New Zealand, a job is a job. When I have full-time work, I tend to put off doing fun things, until I quit that job, and then go into full swing enjoyment mode when I leave. It's probably not the healthiest mindset, and that is something I'll have to re-examine in myself.
As far as cities go, Wellington is a really charming one. The weather can be all over the place, which is definitely my least favorite thing about it. However, infrastructure is good, the city center is compact, and there is a huge number of restaurants, buses, and things to do.
Living at a backpacker's hostel for ten months has left me with mixed feelings. I probably wouldn't have been able to meet my savings goals without it, and I met lots of wonderful and cool people. However, the lack of privacy can be frustrating, as is the inconsistency of who is staying there. At least when you sign a lease for an apartment, you know who you'll be living with for the next year! At hostels, people come and go like the wind. One week you'll be chumming it up, the next, it is time to say goodbye.
Now I'm back on the road, to finally travel through the country I had patiently ignored. After the five weeks in New Zealand, I'll be flying to Indonesia. I'm really hoping to take the opportunity to see a lot of amazing places, and work on some creative projects I'd been putting off. It can be depressingly easy to lose track of what you want to accomplish in life. It's been hitting very close to home just how quickly procrastination can make time go by.
Although I am unsure of what the future holds, I know that it is far better to figure it out while enjoying the benefits of travel. One can feel lost in life behind the desk of a dead-end job, or one can feel lost in life while hiking through a beautiful mountain range. The truth is, we don't really know where we belong until we feel it. I choose to take another step forward.
Thank you to all who have continued to read this blog. I hope to have more content in the near future!
Until next time,
The Himalayas. Nothing could have prepared me for the grandness of its scope. As I flew into Leh, mountains towered above ground, shockingly close to the airplane windows. Surely this couldn't be real? I was about to find out how real it was.
I checked into my hostel. A period of mild altitude sickness followed, as my body acclimatized to 3500 meters of elevation. For those unaware, the symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) range from headaches, nausea, and insomnia, to difficulty breathing. Generally, the higher in altitude you are, the greater the risk of experiencing this illness. Most cases are treatable with hydration, rest, or a decrease in altitude. However, AMS can progress to more serious forms, which are life-threatening.
Thankfully, my symptoms in Leh were very mild. A day or two of relaxation and bed rest was all I needed to adapt to the high altitude. Some fellow hostellers were planning on doing the Markha Valley Trek, a five day expedition in the Ladakh region of India. I decided to join them; little did I know what was to come.
I was expecting a beautiful yet challenging hike through some gorgeous terrain. What ensued was bar none, the most physically taxing experience of my life, and one of the most emotionally draining, too.
We took a shared taxi to Chilling, the village where most trekkers begin the hike. So it began.
The first three days were challenging but fairly straightforward. Each morning, we would begin a 5-8 hour hike. The terrain encompassed staggering mountains, rivers, and miles upon miles of rocky ground. Starting at an altitude of roughly 3500 meters, we climbed no more than 400 each day. The trail passed through small villages, where we spent the nights.
The village home-stays all had the same general layout. For 1200 rupees (roughly $17) you were given a place to sleep, a hot home-cooked dinner, breakfast in the morning, and a packed lunch to bring with you for the afternoon. The meals were simple. Dinner usually consisted of dal (lentils) with rice and veggies, and the occasional steamed momos (Tibetan dumplings). Breakfast was bread with honey, jam, and peanut butter. The packed lunch was rather meager: a small potato, boiled egg, fried bread, and an (artificial tasting) juice box. However, the odd tea stall served omelets and snacks, allowing us to replenish certain missed nutrients.
On day four of the trek, things started getting intense.
Most trekking guidelines suggest increasing your sleeping altitude by no more than 300-500 meters per day. This allows one to slowly acclimatize, without putting undue strain upon the body.
Do you know how far we ascended on our fourth day? Nearly 1000 meters. That's right, our altitude increased by nearly a kilometer in several hours.
The altitude increase was our first mistake (though pretty much every other trekker we ran into was attempting the same feat). Our second mistake was: getting lost for a couple of hours. Although we were not far from our base camp destination, we accidentally wandered in the wrong direction. Darkness was just hours away, and I was starting to get a mild headache. I took the emergency Diamox on hand (note: please don't use this blog article as a how-to guide to taking Diamox: I most certainly used it incorrectly), and figured it wouldn't be long until we reached our camp. As soon as we ran into another group of trekkers, however, the headache got worse. We had found our way, but now I had full blown altitude sickness.
Although logic dictates lowering one's altitude in case of AMS, it was becoming too late to turn back. The closest village was two or three hours away, while our destination was less than one. Additionally, there was unlikely to be medical assistance down below, while the base camp was populated by more than 30 trekkers and locals.
The pain was starting to be unbearable. My head felt like it was going to explode. Breathing had become quite difficult, and a wave of nausea washed over me. My heart was pounding full force, and my energy levels were at zero. I sat on the ground, head in my hands, unable to push on. Fellow trekkers nervously stood by me, offering food, water, and moral support. I thought I was going to die.
"I need to turn back," I said. People anxiously reminded me how risky of a decision that would be. Why oh why had I gone on this trek? I had bitten off more than I could chew, and now I had to die because of it?
Suddenly, seemingly miraculously, the Diamox must have kicked in. It was like a switch had been flipped in my respiratory system. I felt a tingling sensation in my fingertips and feet, and I gasped. Air came rushing into my lungs. A headache still persisted, but my temples no longer felt like they were going to burst. "Let's do this," I said. No sooner did the words come out of my mouth, than a local guide offered to carry my backpack for me. We were on our way.
The experience of reaching base camp was overwhelming. A cabin full of dozens of trekkers greeted us with open arms, hot tea, and headache remedies. Everyone shared stories of their past week on the trail, including a few who had also dealt with mountain sickness. Seems I was not alone. After a delicious dinner, we stayed in tents, preparing for the upcoming (and most physically challenging) day. The altitude was 4800 meters, and it snowed that night. I slept very little.
I couldn't believe it, but when I awoke, my headache was gone! Was I really going to attempt a 5150-meter mountain pass, shortly after getting ill? The answer was, yes.
The climb to Kongmaru La Pass was rough. It was the steepest incline yet of the trek; the cold and snow slowed everything to a crawl. All I could do was put one foot in front of the other. The closer we got to our destination, the farther away it seemed. Inches felt like miles. Eventually, I stopped looking up, for fear of the distance we had remaining. Right foot, left foot. My legs were screaming. My feet were screaming. There was no choice but to go on, lest we were done for.
The feeling when I reached that pass was multifaceted. A mixture of accomplishment, relief, exhaustion, and dread ht me like a ton of bricks. The day wasn't even half over. We still had to descend more than a thousand meters, a feat which would take more than four hours.
The rest of the trek went without a hitch. I returned to Leh, tired and sore, and crashed at my hostel.
It's still too early to tell, but I believe the trek changed me as a person. It made me realize both what I was and wasn't physically capable of. The moment I was rendered helpless by the altitude, my self-reliance hit zero. All I could do was trust the goodness of others, and their senses of judgment. I discovered how important it is to have capable and reliable allies near you, especially when attempting something extreme.
The experience also made me rethink physical fitness. Back in the USA, one of my jobs was being a personal trainer. Though I work hard to keep in shape and make exercise a regular part of my life, treks like the Markha Valley require a different kind of strength. Besides the fact that one needs to walk nearly eight hours per day (often steeply uphill) while carrying a heavy backpack, trekking take an inner kind of strength. At certain points, it really does become mind over matter. I felt like my ultimate completion of the hike came down more to a sense of mental fortitude than it did anything else.
I plan on spending the next several weeks in the Himalayas, possibly doing some more trekking. Markha took a lot out of me, but what it took, it replaced with something stronger. When all is said and done, traveling has the potential to challenge one in every way imaginable. 16,000 feet certainly did for me.
"Have you been to Sinai?"
This question was asked to me by pretty much every Egyptian I met. A destination I had originally written off my itinerary due to safety concerns, it seemed that Southern Sinai was deemed the hippest, most relaxing region in all of Egypt. I could not turn down an opportunity for some peace and quiet, so after multiple reassurances that it was only Northern Sinai which was dangerous, and constant reminders that I would regret not visiting the Red Sea coast, I relented.
After my lovely excursion to Siwa, I arrived in Alexandria, tired and sweaty. I could have opted to stay the night in Alexandria; after all, it would have been cozy to get a nice hotel room and shower, but I decided instead to head back to Cairo. The trains were all sold out for the southern Egyptian cities of Luxor and Aswan, which had originally been on my itinerary. Time in Egypt was running short, and I thought: "I guess I'm spending the rest of my trip in Sinai." I booked a bus that day.
I arrived in the lazy coastal town of Nuweiba and rented a hut at Soft Beach Camp. It was an extremely basic accomodation set at the foot of a beautiful stretch of beach. The water was pure blue, and you could see Saudi Arabia in the distance. For several days, I was at peace. Every day I would swim once or twice, lay in the sand, listen to music, and eat delicious fish (cooked by the camp). On the third day, I took a side excursion to go snorkeling in a coral reef. It was a truly eye-opening experience.
The pickup truck took us at 10 in the morning, and we began our ride to Ras Abu Galum, a coral reserve. It was an extremely bumpy ride, through rough desert and mountain terrain. The sight was spectacular: miles upon miles of brownish-red mountains. When we finally reached the body of water, it seemed to burst forth, a sea of bright blue against the rock of the desert.
The snorkeling was something else. Hundreds of fish, in different sizes, shapes and colors darted around the mountains of white coral. The variety was astonishing, and the water was clear enough to see every little detail. It was like being dropped in the middle of Finding Nemo, only there were no animators needed. This was real life. This was a real place, an entire ecosystem hidden from us land dwellers. I felt like an unwelcome visitor on an alien planet, peering into a neighborhood in which I didn't belong. Throughout the day, I went back into the water a second, third, and fourth time, never being able to get enough of it.
As the sun set, we took the bouncy truck back to Soft Beach. This is what I came traveling for.
I hate Cairo. I hate this city.
Sure, I had a great time at the Giza pyramids (on my first day of the trip). Sure, Coptic Cairo has beautiful narrow alleys, a cool Hanging Church and ancient synagogue, and feels like you're walking through a piece of history. Sure, there's the Saladin Citadel, with its gorgeous mosques and sweet panorama view of the city. Sure, it's fun riding a boat down the Nile, while blasting music and having a drink with some friends. Sure, Khan el-Khalili souk is bustling with energy and soul, and huge crowds of people. Sure, there's a ton of incredible food everywhere you go.
"Yonah," you might be asking, "if there is all this cool stuff in Cairo, why do you hate it?"
I hate Cairo because it's loud, polluted and dirty, and has some of the worst traffic I've ever seen in my life. The noxious fumes on the roads are tearing my lungs apart. Having been to many developing countries in Asia, I'm used to chaotic roads. However, what really sets the driving in Cairo apart from these places is the aggression. It often feels like drivers are trying to prove something by how reckless they are, and they often let little things get to them. One Uber driver got so angry at another driver that he lost his cool, and kept swerving more and more erratically. Eventually, he got his left side mirror knocked off by another car (he finally calmed down after that).
I also hate (and this is more of a qualm with the country than the city) that I have to return to Cairo every time I want to switch destinations within Egypt, as most trains and buses depart from the capital city. To be fair though, this has been made much more pleasant by my generous host in Ma'adi, a quiet, cozy suburban district. I often forget I am in Cairo until I have to venture outside to do anything.
I hate Cairo, but it's ok! It's alright, because I've taken some incredible trips to other parts of the country, and have more on the horizon.
I went camping in the desert, near the ancient city of Faiyum. We climbed up a small mountain to watch the most beautiful sunset I'd ever seen in my life. Then, we pitched tents and watched a meteor shower under clear starry skies.
A day later, I began what was easily the highlight of my trip thus far. I ventured ten hours away to a place called Siwa, a large desert oasis near the Libyan border. It was out-of-this-world beautiful. The desert landscape clashed with that of thousands of date palm trees (which you can simply pick and consume fresh dates from). It is one of Egypt's most isolated settlements, so it's also a very interesting place culturally. The people of Siwa are ethnically Berber, and even speak their own language (Siwi). Siwa contains many ancient structures, such as the Temple of the Oracle of Amun, famously visited by Alexander the Great, and the Mountain of the Dead, which contains several tombs.
On the outskirts of the city, is a large salt lake, which is probably the prettiest thing in all of Siwa. The water is a stunning shade of turquoise, and it looks extremely aesthetic next to the salt formations and desert sand. Some local Beduins have set up saltwater swimming in nearby areas of the desert, where you can float on your back, just like in the Dead Sea! The desert also contains several hot springs (most notably Cleopatra's Bath), some with nearby cafes if you want to spend the afternoon swimming. Finally, there are a couple of great spots for sunset watching; they serve fruit juices and hot drinks and are perfect for winding down after a long day of sightseeing.
At the moment, I am back in Cairo for a short period of time. However, I plan on soon departing for a different region of the country for some more backpacking. I'm extremely happy I decided to go to Siwa, and cannot wait to see what else Egypt has in store for me!
My stay in Jordan was short-lived, albeit wonderful. I spent the first two days in Amman, the capital city. The food and atmosphere were nice; Jordan definitely felt more traditionally “Middle Eastern” than other places I have been to. Although it is a modern country, lots of people wear traditional garb, and pretty much everybody speaks Arabic as a first language.
From Amman, I headed down to Wadi Musa, a tourist trap of a city. It is full of overpriced shops and touts, whose main focus is selling tours to Petra. For those who don’t know, Petra is the centerpiece of Jordanian tourism. It is a magnificent old city, carved out of mountain stone. The archaeological park it’s housed in is huge, and at least one full day is needed to do justice to this amazing site. At $70 for a one-day pass, it’s expensive to enter. However, I was given some partially unused tickets by a French couple I met in Amman, so I entered the park for free.
My feet were worn out and sore from several hours of hiking through Petra, so I made the decision to cross the border to Israel the next day. Since I have friends and family living in Israel, I figured it would be relaxing to hang out with them. Therefore, I headed to the Jordanian city of Aqaba, where I would cross over to the Israeli city of Eilat.
The first thing that went wrong was that the taxi driver who brought me to the border, tried to rip me off. Although we had agreed for him to turn the meter on, he still insisted I pay him 11 Jordanian Dinar ($15.50) upon arrival. Seeing as the meter came out to less than 3 Dinar ($4.25), I absolutely refused to meet his demand. After a minor verbal scuffle, I paid him 3 Dinar, stormed out of the cab, and walked toward the border.
It was surreal, being between two countries; I had very little idea of what to expect. Jordan quickly gave me an exit stamp, and pointed toward the Israeli side of the border. I held my breath, and slowly began the walk to Israel. I could see blue and white flags off in the distance, and wondered how long it would take to be admitted into the country. Since there was a Lebanese stamp in my passport (Lebanon and Israel don’t get along very well), I figured they might question me for a bit. I was prepared.
A guard was waiting for me in front of the Israeli crossing. She took my passport, asked me my purpose for traveling, and ushered me inside. They took my bag, ran it through a scanner, and then proceeded to question me. “Who are you visiting in Israel? Is this your first time here? What other countries have you been to?”
I calmly answered each of the interrogator’s questions, and when it came to the query about the other countries, I began listing: “Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Singapore, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, and Jordan.”
When I got to the word “Lebanon,” I noticed an immediate change in the interrogator’s attitude. She sharply asked me what I was doing in Lebanon, if I knew anybody in Lebanon, if anybody had given me anything to bring across the border. Once again, I calmly gave my responses, and seemed to appease her curiosity.
She then proceeded to do a detailed search of my backpack. She flipped through my clothes, journals, and everything else in sight. Of course, they found nothing incriminating, and gave me my passport and an exit card to bring to the stamping booth. “Cool,” I thought. “That wasn't so bad.”
When I handed my passport to the employee in the stamping booth, she immediately asked me why I had been to Lebanon. I answered her questions, and was then told “I need to check your passport in the back for a while.”
“Oh great,” I thought.
A second interrogator was brought in. He took me into a little room, and began asking me the same questions as I’d been asked before. Once again, I answered everything in an honest and calm fashion. He asked me to write down the name and phone number of my mom, and told me to wait outside.
It happens to be, my mom lives in Israel and is an Israeli citizen, so I was ecstatic. I figured he would just call her to confirm my identity, and then send me on my way. No such luck. I waited in the same chair for over two hours, during which nobody told me what was going on. The only thing that happened during those two hours, was that a K-9 drug sniffing dog was brought by to give me a friendly whiff. The dog found nothing, but that didn't stop them from making me wait another hour and a half.
Without any more updates or questions, they finally gave me my passport back. This time, it had an Israeli entry stamp on it. The whole process took around three-and-a-half hours.
I later messaged my mom to ask whether she had also been extensively questioned. They hadn't even called her.
I’m nearing the end of my wonderful stay in Lebanon. The country has been great. The food is nice, people are nice, and sights are nice. I’ve been asked multiple times about whether the country is safe or not, and I can guarantee that it is. I’ve felt safer in Beirut that almost any other big city I’ve been to. Everything has been fine and dandy here. That is, except for the time that I literally got electrocuted.
It was a night like all other nights. I was sitting in the hostel common area, reading some emails. A group of people asked me if I’d like to join them for dinner, and having been holed up inside all day, I happily said yes. We walked outside, laughing and talking as we went. I forget exactly what the topic of conversation was, but I remember passionately blabbing about something. Well, the streets of Beirut happened to be poorly lit, and suddenly, I bumped head first into something shocking. An exposed, hanging power line.
You know that feeling when you stub your toe, and time stops for several moments? That’s kind of what happened to me. My brain didn’t even register what was going on for a few seconds. I jumped away from the dangling cable, which had been touching my forehead for what seemed like an eternity. “Hey guys!” I said. “Help, I was just electrocuted.”
It must have been the direct current, because I didn’t feel any pain. Nor was I knocked unconscious. Nor was there any spark or any traditional “shock.” It was more of a super-alert kind of feeling, where I lost some control over my muscles and (it seems) my nerves. It became difficult for me to speak and think, things that I usually do too much of. I could literally feel the electricity pulsing through my body, and it did not make me happy.
Unfortunately, I am predisposed to having panic attacks. So the fact that I had just been zapped by a power cable, registered in the most horrendous way possible. I could rapidly feel my body and mind racing, and ended up having a full-blown panic attack. The first thing that jumped to mind was “out of all the ways I could have chosen to die, this is by far the lamest.” My friends tried to calm me down, but to no avail. After roughly fifteen minutes of being asked how I was feeling and cajoling me to sit down, I told them I was going to the hospital. “Go eat dinner without me; I’ll call a cab,” I insisted. I apologized profusely, and hurried to find a taxi.
Shaking, hyperventilating, and convinced that I was going to die, I hopped into the taxi and was on my way. I think the driver could tell something was wrong; he ended up not charging me for bringing me to the emergency room.
When I entered the emergency waiting room, the best possible thing happened. The man working the desk refused to let me in unless I paid first. At that time, I didn't even have money on my debit card. Thank goodness. You know why? It made me sit down and think about why I was there.
I realized that I had completely jumped the gun, and had assumed the worst about my situation. I sat in the waiting room, took a number of deep breaths, and decided to walk home. I collapsed into bed, exhausted from the mental exercise I had just gone through.
None of this stopped me from anxiously researching the effects of electrocution over the next couple of days. I had a number of small panic attacks, where I contemplated what sorts of horrible muscle and nerve damage I could have been exposed to. You know what, though? It’s several days later, and I feel totally fine. My panicking mind absolutely warped my sense of reason, and brought me to the most horrendous conclusions.
That’s my story of getting electrocuted in Lebanon. Tomorrow, I fly to Jordan. You can bet my eyes will be peeled for those loose street cables!
My name is Yonah Paley. I quit my job in the United States to travel. I also write movies and do photography. As I backpack across the world, I share stories, philosophy, and travel tips.