Thursday, April 30, 2009

Finding Neverland, or at least fairies

March 24, 2009: [Cairo_Egypt]
My last full day in day in Egypt was spent doing what all visitors to Cairo should be doing, namely driving around a smoky cab with the windows down by a 15 year old Egyptian with a peach fuzz mustache. Among our many stops were the pyramids at Giza. I was really worried about them being overly populated by tourists, but can say on good authority that if you do it right it is one of the most inspiring visits you will ever make. My new friend Abdul claimed the only true way to see the stone cones was on the back of a horse or camel. As I trusted his informed opinion I choose to take a camel ride up to the pyramids from the back entrance. We entered from the non-sphinx side and after a polite yellow toothed man made sure my goal was not to blow up the sacred site we were off and running, or riding I guess. Our makeshift caravan was comprised of my guide on horseback, myself, and a barefooted Egyptian boy that had my camel by a long rope. At first you can't even see the pyramids, but as you ride on the craggy points start to peek out from behind the dunes like shy tortoise heads. Once we crested the hill, a large photo-op session took place with me jumping off of a then unhappy horse among other things. Note to readers: camels are very tall, its like standing up on Shaq's shoulders if he spat more often. The scale is profound once you get up close, and baffles the mind how workers could move just one stone, let alone that many. For all of our modern towers and spires, I still have yet to see anything as awe-inspiring size wise as those silent behemoths.

The night before I had an amazing dinner with Nashwa, her husband Wael, and their two beautiful children. On the last night in town I met up with Abdul and good friend of his Ramy [sp?] for yogurt drinks and some hookah. It was fascinating to learn more about the culture from those that had lived their mostly all of their life and I only wish we had more time to catch up. As my time in Egypt was running to its inevitable conclusion, I wished it goodbye and made my way to Istanbul for a solitary night on my way to the Cappadocia region of Turkey. The region made it onto UNESCO's world heritage site because of its rocky formations of volcanic tufa rock called "fairy chimneys" that were turned into churches and in habitations around the 4th century AD. Many of the initial inhabitants were Christians escaping the persecution of the pre-Constantine Roman Empire. Fleeing to Goreme and other areas of Cappadocia, they began carving out of the soft white rock to form tombs, houses, churches, and stables.

March 26th - 30th, 2009: [Cappadocia Region, Turkey]
I arrived in Goreme by one of the 158 odd Turkish bus companies, this one being falsely called "Metro". My hostel reservation put me at the Goreme Cave Pension, with my dorm room being carved into the interior of one of the stone spires, and thankfully not as damp and cold as a similar situation in Alberobello, Italy with the trulli houses. The first day I got in was relatively sunny, but the clouds thickened during the night to dump about 6 inches of snow on the ground the next day, which made me realize two things: check the weather of where you're about to go more often, and don't send home your long underwear until you're sure you won't need it anymore.

The next day I went on a tour of the various underground cities only rediscovered in 1962 by farmers stumbling on the 8 story deep labyrinth of tunnels and caves. Like all tours in big buses, it ended with us at an onyx market attempting to sell everyone on board overpriced jewelry. But the next day was time to explore again, and the previously mentioned snow was burned away by a sunny, gnat populated day in Goreme.

I set out to adventure in the Rose Valley, which is a pretty close hike and home to more examples of carved out architecture than I had digital film for. After a while I just stopped taking pictures manually and switched over to the TaylorCAM to have my eyes and hands free to soak in the surroundings. Everywhere you look is populated by a densely packed series of cave rooms and openings meticulously carved out of the steep cliffs. Most are upwards of 4 or 5 stores high, and seemingly inaccessible since their wooden ladders have been rotted away over the years. Either that or whoever lived in them had spider monkey genes, I tried to climb up to many of them only to land down on my back looking up a clear blue sky and circling pigeons.

Another interesting part of the construction of the carved dwellings is the residents closeness to the animals that they lived with. Not only were many of the lower caves used as makeshift stables for livestock, but the so called rat of the sky [or pigeon] was revered as an almost sacred entity, with the inhabitants of Cappodocia being dependent on its droppings for their livelihood. Next to many of the churches and cave houses are a series of carved out nooks reminiscent of a 2nd grade cubby wall. In reality these repetitive holes were used to house the pigeon population and more importantly, to catch the precious pigeon poop that was ceremoniously dropped down to the projecting sills. Pigeon dropping was used from everything to fertilize the farmland in the middle of the narrow valleys, to constructing a paste for the frescoes in the interior of the numerous rock churches. Underneath the pigeon holes is a 1 to 2 foot wide stone shelf that would be used to gather all of the droppings for use in the fields or churches. The early Christians lived right next to their animal counterparts, forming a symbiotic relationship in both proximity and the sharing of food. The pigeon would be coaxed to back to their constructed nests, and in turn would be supplied with more food than a dozen crazy old bird men sitting in central park could provide.

Staring at the long stretches of the valley walls, the elevation of openings formed an almost urban scale by their number and closeness to each other. A city of thousands if not more occupied the numerous valleys and ancient dwellings and up to the early 1920's, many of the sacred chambers were still populated by Christians and Muslims alike.

Strolling around the small town of Goreme after my day long excursion, I ran into a stone mason in the middle of the street working on blocks of soft rock for a soon to be opening hostel. Stopping a moment to study his technique, his face lit up into a mustached grin when I asked him what he was doing. By a series of frantic gestures and pointing we soon came to have a very good conversation about the various implements he was using and how the rocks were shaped for future use. The stones came rough on all sides and were shaped on site before being put into their final resting place in the building. With a theatrical flourish he whipped out his steel square and made a mark with pencil on the next rock waiting to be carved. After the initial line was drawn he propped up the stone and set to work on it with authority. I don't know if he was showing off for the benefit of the jaw open American watching his work, but without sophisticated tools he made a precise right angle cut with just accurate swipes of his rock hammer. He stood beaming as I checked his craftsmanship only to find no flaws whatsoever. This seemingly inconsequential event made a deep impression in me about the skill derived from someone that knows their craft, and amazed me at how the human body can be trained to do seemingly impossible tasks with practice and precision. I must have been overly appreciative in my thanking his demonstration because as I made to leave he told me to wait as he reached in his thick coat and pulled out a handful of Turkish raisins for me to munch on on my way home.

Thoughts on Traveling #13 : Its highly possible that Obama is endorsing the Turkish banking system with a low interest rate of 1.13%. See documented evidence below. So that's where all of our tax money is going to!!!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Eco Lodges

The eco-lodge at Al-Karm, Egypt has gotten me investigating a relatively new form of hotel popping up everywhere. According to an article on Eco lodges by "HowStuffWorks", they can be defined as "an industry label used to identify a nature-dependent tourist lodge that meets the philosophy and principles of ecotourism." In other words, they are looked at as an alternative for for hotels near city centers, instead focusing the experience on the natural wilderness surrounding, while having a minimal, if not positive, impact on the communities and ecosystems surrounding them. Al Karm had no electricity and heated all of the hot water through the use of solar hot water heaters, able to be used year round b/c of the usual lack of cloud cover and abundant availability of sun.

But without even looking for them, Eco lodges are turning up more and more where ever I look. I'm at UC Berkeley's library now and was perusing the shelves only to find an entire issue of C3 devoted to "Resort Hotels Contextual to Region", usually end up meaning some sort of expensive getaway miles away from the hustle and bustle. But the deeper meaning behind the articles is what I'm concentrating on. The upper class has always been on the forefront of exploring hard to access areas, usually just through available means alone, those same locations being next to impossible to get to because of the expenses of transportation costs. Is this heightened concern for posh nature lodging just a desperate cry for spatial and environmental freedom imposed by the over density of cities? Does the so called taming of the wilderness imply a positive or negative outcome for the national parks that house these hotels? Also it should be said that not all of these hotels are either ritzy or glamorous. Al Karm did attract a usually higher eschelon clientele, but the rates were definitely reasonable and the lodging was by no means refined. It could be the wanting for more rustic surroundings is part of the draw as well, such as city slickers going to live on a "dude ranch" in Montana for a few weeks in order to get a taste of the rough and tumble. But with the morality of expensive vacationing aside, Eco-lodges have came increasingly to the forefront in architectural magazines and websites over the past few years. Here are some examples of the ones I've ran across so far, as always, please feel free to add your own findings in as well.

Juvet Landscape Hotel
Valldal, Norway : Jensen & Skodvin
construction cost : 1.28 million

The outcropping of buildings at Juvet is created by exploding the traditional view of one building with all of the rooms housed in it, instead creating a scattering of smaller rooms set clustered together in the landscape. The rooms are positioned close to each other, but with views tightly constricted to the surrounding forest and not the nearby other vacationers. A series of 40mm steel rods driven into the rock support the minimal material interventions of heavy wooden construction.

Hotel Remota
Patagonia, Chile : German del Sol
construction cost : 10 million
Many of the materials necessary for construction arrived on site by boat, since its location in Patagonia was so difficult to get to. The existing grass that was removed, was kept to form the 24inch layer of earth and plant insulation on the roof of the new hotel [skeptical about this one...].

Explora Hotel
Atacama, Chile : German del Sol
construction cost : ?
The building is raised 3' off of the desert floor with slits cutting the roof and other outdoor areas to allow breezes to flow through the public spaces.

TE Lawrence eat your heart out.

March 21, 2009:

Woke up after a surprisingly restful sleep on a camel blanket at Al-Karm to set out on a "high mountain" hike with Badri [my Egyptian guide for those of you just joining us]. We ate breakfast with Hoder and said goodbye to the disproportionally large number of Bedouin men manning the camp [there was a 2:1 ratio of workers to campers]. Hoder drove us about 20 minutes in the datsun to the base of a very imposing looking stretch of mountains. After Badri got his morning prayers complete we set out heading right towards a seemingly impassable wall of rock and sand. After walking for about half an hour or so the mountains seemed to shuffle aside visually, allowing us entrance to a narrow pass in between two of the silent sentinels. The TaylorCAM was up and running and after Badri got over his initial laughing fit at a very odd American I explained to him the way it took pictures at an interval of every 5 seconds. I haven't compiled the video yet, but from sampling it looks to be mostly about 2 hours of Badri's backside and a bunch of rocks. Now that's good television.

Just as the batteries on the TaylorCAM were shutting down, we got to our first destination and concurrently, the first break of the day. We had reached one of the inner valleys of the high mountain region known to contain many of the gardens of the Bedouin. The valleys are higher in elevation and protected from much of the harsher winds, and therefore lend themselves to cultivating small amounts of trees and food. The first part we stumbled on was an oasis of sorts, not containing any visible water, but with lush high palm trees providing shade and a stopping place for food and water. This part of the Sinai desert is truly one of the most remote reaches, with access being limited to foot or donkey, even camels have a hard time going up many of the steep trails. Walking on I was struck by the way the gardens were contained. Worried about protecting the precious crops from bored and hungry donkeys, fences and walls are constructed around many of the small fields. Since materials are such a valuable resource in this area, even the boundary conditions are created with a care for the management of the limited means available. A fence is created with scraps of wood held in place by a rock with a single strand of barbed wire connecting them at the height of a donkey's head. After a little bit further we got to a place with a larger number of Bedouin in habitations, meaning you could almost see two within eye shot. Here Badri told me it would be a bad idea to take pictures, but I managed to snap one of a traditional Bedouin traveling garb.

This guy was trucking, and even walking at close to my full speed he easily outdistanced us in a matter of minutes, to veer off to another distant path invisible to my eyes. At around lunch time we stopped at an encampment headed up by strangely enough, Hoder's brother. They invited us to sit down for the customary tea and then we played the very popular "how old do you think I am game". It blew their mind that I was older than all of them except for Hoder's brother, with them quoting my age anywhere from 15-19 and I grossly overestimating their own. They offered to walk us the next part of the way, as they were going to try and make a phone call anyway, with telephone service being about as rare as an ice cream stand in those parts. The next part of the trip was pretty hilarious, as it consisted of four Egyptian men and myself wandering aimlessly around a series of rocky outcroppings holding cellphones up to the sky and shouting at each other. When someone finally got signal, everyone would crowd around their location like an invisible desert phone booth.

We parted ways and a little bit further on Badri showed me a marker he had placed on a previous voyage to show the right path in the barren wasteland. It was a set of rocks stacked on top of each other reminiscent of an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture, equal parts nature with the odd hint of human interaction. Before making it back to camp a few hours later, we stopped at Badri's father's convenience store to chat and stare at the open desert road, occasionally raising our hands to the odd passing truck.

March 22, 2009:

Woke up at the Bedouin camp to a grinning Badri greeting me as I sat down to my early breakfast of beans, cheese, boiled egg, bread and honey. I had asked him to take me by a "Nawamese" village east of St. Catherine on the way to Dahab. Hoder was busy that day, also being a teacher at a local elementary school [Arabic and Math], so it fell to another of Badri's friends, Muhammad, to drive us to our locations. Since we were going outside of St. Catherine's, we had to pass by a series of police checkpoints. To ease the process along Badri came running out of his house with a light purple Jabaliya headdress for me to throw on to avoid questioning. I didn't think it looked convincing, but apparently my darker tan was starting to have some benefits, we cruised through all of the police checkpoints with just a casual wave and me tugging my lilac covering down closer around my non-Egyptian eyes. I learned later this might not have been the best idea had we gotten caught, but luckily everything went on without a hitch and in my head I could almost hear people starting to call me el-awrence like Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia [By the way, I asked numerous people what they thought of the movie in Egypt, and no one had seen it, which definitely shot me down].

Arriving at the site of the Nawamese I was struck by both their size and orientation. A cluster of about 30 or so low stone cylinder structures greeted us on entry. The entrances were all turned to the west, with none at all being visible when walking up. Once you get around to the back side though, the twinkling of dark eye sockets stare back at you in the form of the portals of the Nawamese structures. They are all about 7 feet tall, with many of the entrances having to be crawled through in order to be accessed. The buildings seemed to bubble up from the earth they rested on, low to the ground with thick clay colored walls, they resembled a barnacle on the Earth's crust. One of the things that struck me so mightily when visiting many of the parts of the Sinai peninsula was my inability to trace where buildings started and stopped. So many of them interacted with the landscape in such a primal way I began to question whether the sandy dunes arrived first or the raw stacking of stones to form walls. Even after thousands of years of blowing winds and stinging sand, the Nawamese still stand unmoved, indifferent to the changing governments, floods, and droughts. All past materials in the form of wood and reed forgotten to leave the bleached carcasses of stone with their backs turned, gazing out towards the setting sun.

The sandy plains of Egypt have a near and dear place in their heart for me, and even now I can hear them calling me back with their ancient, raspy voices. I hope to go back there someday to soak in even more of the Bedouin's care for their surroundings and in habitations.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Egyptian Adventures [Part II]

I'm currently back in SF, CA right now but need to do some serious catching up on backlogged posting. So we're going to continue in Egypt and work our way through Turkey and some road tripping in the USofA.

When we last left off in Egypt, I had just eaten about 4 lbs of chicken at a Bedouin get together, and woke up the next day to go see St. Catherine's Monastery, proclaimed to be the oldest still inhabited monastery in the world. It is also said to be the sight of Moses' flammable plant, with the monastery being built around it's location and the mountain where he delivered the ten commandments about a two or three hour hike away [Mt. Sinai or Mt. Mousa]. The monastery is nestled in the bottom of a valley surrounded by tall rocky mountain ranges and protected from the harsh winds. The landscape around it was stunning, though the actual collection of building themselves were hard to get a feel for due to the massive amount of tourists pouring off of giant charter buses. As soon as you get inside you were swept along in a sea of fanny packs and bad khaki safari hats. Whizzed by priceless paintings and artifacts only to be spat out the opposite end. After I got over my initial claustrophobia gained from tightly packed spaces, I continued onward with the goal of hiking up Mt. Sinai. Luckily for me only of the bravest of the brave air conditioned travelers dare to climb up the hot three hour hike up to the top. Those that do usually take the camel path up riding the spitting four legged beasts. I approached the base of the mountain trail to find a German couple [Leo and Ruth as I was to find out later] argueing with two Egyptian policemen who would not let them pass. They said you have to have a guide in order to go up the mountain, which we thought to be just a way to gouge more money out of tourists looking to climb said rock. Apparently though, they really do require you to have a guide, as there are numorous paths up to the top with no signs marking which is the right way to go. We ended up jumping on with a group of four french women touting ski poles and a nice Bedouin guide that led the way.

On the way up the long and dusty path are small outposts for snacks and drinks ran by Bedouin. Everything has to be brought up to supply them and like good capitalists, the prices inch up the closer and closer you get to the top. The plan of the small shelters is usually always a "U" shape, with the open end of the "U" facing north. The walls are thickly stacked rocks from the surrounding mountain with minimal mortar used, just enough to keep down the often harsh winds, especially during the pre-dawn and post-sunset pilgrimages. Above, the roof is made out of light palm beams and even lighter palm fronds. The front open side is then enclosed again with wooden shelves that also serve as a sun baffle, blocking and bouncing any stray rays that manage to get past the small overhang. After seeing many of the Bedouin structures inhabited in Egypt, you can usually break down the materials into two categories: "Very Heavy" and "Extremely Light". Many of the walls end up being exceedingly thick stone structures, able to block a majority of the wind without teetering, serving as a thermal mass to absorb much of the sun's heat, and having the ability to recess shelves and other items into their deep cavities. In distinct contrast, the roofs and screens all tend to be very delicate, dappling the harsh light, yet still allowing breezes to slip by. Mostly made out of reeds or palm, every once in a while a lightweight steel under-structure is also applied. I made it up to the top of the mountain without too much trouble, though there it was interesting to see old English women shelling out ten pound notes to young egyptian boys to help them get up the last quarter mile of steep steps. After saying "adieu" to my french company and guide, I hustled back down the other way to get up Mt. Sinai, the aptly named Siket Sayidna Musa, or "steps of penitence" that took me only about an hour, but going at an admitted too fast of a pace.

For the next few days I had on my agenda to go visit some Gra Safah "old houses", an ecolodge even deeper in the desert, and a hike in the "high mountain region". To accomplish all of this, it was necessary to get a Bedouin guide to show me where everything was located and make sure I don't end up a bleached pile of bones out in the sand somewhere. That night at the place I was staying, the appropriately named "Bedouin Camp", I went to meet with the local Sheikh of the Jabaliya tribe, Sheikh Mousa. A sheikh is a tribal leader that is looked to for guidance and leadership for all of the members of his tribe, and is an extremely good person to get to know, as I was come to find out later. We sat down with a map with visible north arrow and pointed at different dots for a while till we both seemed satisfied that we knew what we were talking about. Then I figured out through Sheikh Mousa's limited English that he would have a guide come by that night in order to discuss price for the trip and finalize plans. After I had dinner sitting out on the mats with low tables, my future guide popped his head around and introduced himself as Badri. We sat down and drank tea while we talked about what would be possible to do, and when to hike versus drive [tea is always present and they say if you get above ten cups a day then you can start to worry]. There was some confusion at one point and I asked Badri if we could look at a map inside and go over exactly where we were going to visit. We ambled inside and Badri scratched his head when looking at the map, turning it this way and that. Eventually it devolved into him pointing at a location and asking me what it said, then pointing to another and repeating again and again. After it became painfully obvious the Badri could not locate our current position on the map, much less where we were heading I started to get a little freaked out. But as it turns out, many of the Bedouin guides have no need for maps, they are raised around the desert their whole life and know all of the paths and markings by sight, not from our preconceived top-down-north-south-east-west ideal. In fact, Nashwa told me that most Bedouins don't even use the cardinal points to give directions, its usually just broken down into "up" versus "down", meaning which way on the mountain you are heading.

Badri and I had come to an agreement, so the next day himself and his cousin Hoder picked me up in Hoder's old 1981 Datsun to head out into the great white unknown [or at least to me]. On the way to El-Karm Ecolodge [where we were staying for the night] Hoder leans over and tells Badri we have to make a stop first. At a seemingly invisible turnoff point Hoder pulls the car off of the bumpy dirt road to an even bumpier sandy road and drives down a few hills. He is in charge of one of the water wells/gardens that the Bedouin have maintained at hidden locations for hundreds of years in order to make sure they always have enough water and food to survive. Since the modernization of much of Egypt, these gardens are disappearing more and more, but some such as Hoder still upkeep them for the valuable resources they provide. We walked past some Bedouin scarecrows, complete with head scarves, lording over a small vegetable garden. Behind the silent sentinels was a hole open to the sky, carved out of the hard earth about 15 feet deep. Badri and Hoder grabbed a leaky bucket with a rope attached and Mobil Gas container and proceeded to haul load after load of water up into the black gas container. After it was filled up to the desired level we walked over to a shallow concrete basin about 20 feet away that had a spliced black plastic tube sitting in its small confines. As Hober started twisting the pipe open, Badri began pouring little by little of the precious liquid into the bowl, and picking out large pieces of twigs or rock that might get caught in the tubing. After Hober started a water vacuum by holding his thumb on one end, he told me it was going down to the garden where we entered. The irrigation ritual has to be done every day when they have not had much rain, as the well is too low to bring water by itself. We sat watching the glistening water in the summer sun until all that they had hauled up had been drained into the jet black piping. Walking back, I could see the now, though I had not seen it at all before. It was right below the surface to protect it from UV rays, occasionally held down by rocks gathered from the surrounding areas.

Next stop, El Karm Eco-lodge to meet Sheikh Gamil, put our small packs down, and of course, have more tea. After everyone had said hello and caught up with friends and family members [many of the Bedouin are related in one way or another, for instance, Hoder's father was working as a cook at the camp currently] we headed back out to see some of the Gra Safah before the sun set. Gra Safah translates to "old house" in English and are stone structures made with incredibly skill and barely any bonder to speak of. The ruins are clustered together to form a small outcropping, with maybe 25 to 30 structures altogether. They all lie on the Eastern side of the nearby mountain range, being protected from fierce western winds and sun with most all of the openings to get inside facing north, probably covered by wooden doors or cloth that has long since rotted away. The roof now is open to the sky, but originally would have been covered most likely by reeds and valuable scraps of wood that had been grown in one of the protected valleys further up. Besides the one main opening to enter, all of the structures are punctured by numerous ultra small holes to let in light, the keyword here being "numerous" instead of large. The tiny voids are put low on side and high on the other, allowing wind to blow through and drive the hot air up and out and providing a minimal amount of light in besides the doorway. The construction technique behind the stone wall is elementary but incredibly sophisticated in the same breath. The ancient builders started with the heaviest stones to make up their base, and gradually got smaller and lighter as they proceeded upwards. The idea being that even large men would not be able to lift the heavier blocks up very high. Seemingly simple, but then I think back to the way many buildings are currently built, with an overwhelming uniformity in their material as it goes up. The same steel section sometimes used all the way up many stories for presumed ease of use and unwillingness to differentiate between materials and the way they are put together. Some of the Gra Safah are clustered even closer together, sharing walls and possibly made for multiple families to occupy concurrently. One of the dwellings I stumbled upon might have been for a tribal leader, as the construction was even more painstaking, and large thin slabs of stone had been inserted into the wall to become shelves on the inside. At other points in the same structure the stones had been removed and a lintel place above, creating many nooks in a gridded pattern for even more storage. Once the sun started getting more and more sleepy we decided to head back to camp for the night and taste Hoder's father's cooking.

El Karm Ecolodge is a small outcropping of buildings designed by a still yet to be determined French architect in 2002 [I asked everyone I could and checked websites and all I can say with certainty is that he/she is in fact french]. The Ecolodge is run by Sheikh Gamil and can sleep about 16 people at any one time, though they are currently in the process of building several more structures to expand. They have waterless composting toilets and solar hot water heaters and no electricity in the whole camp. As soon as the sun goes down all you can make out are fleeting shadows gliding by with headlamps to light their way to the candlelit bathrooms. In the main dining space, instead of having a few large windows, cues were taken from the surrounding ancient houses, with many more smaller openings creating a seemingly random pattern of light and shadow. Most all of the interiors are kept as cool and dark as possible, with transitional shaded spaces serving most of the activities during the day and into the dusk. Though it worked well in the dining spaces, many of the rooms had trouble getting any light at all with the same philosophy, though ideally you would really only be in there sleeping after a long day of hiking and exploring I would guess.

Thoughts on Traveling #12 : Never needlessly offend anyone in Egypt. There is a very high probability that they will later end up being your sole guide taking you up a dangerous mountain. And call you out on it. And then you'll feel like an idiot.