Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Slovakia, Austria, Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary

I seem to have the most interesting adventures in hostels! In Slovakia I went to bed at 7pm to be woken at midnight by a drunk who peed on the floor and then threatened to urinate on my belongings. After coaxing him to bed, I was later awoken by someone trying to steal my purse from within my sleeping arms who then stuck his fingers in my mouth. A few hours later, someone escaped from a Bratislava prison and decided to spend the night under my bed. The Bratislava police interfered and kicked the man about the room and forcibly returned him to prison. I was surprised with the brute force that was applied against this man- I hope that that doesn’t happen in the United States.

After Slovakia I traveled to Vienna to meet my friend Sahara. Vienna was very nice but bone-chillingly cold. We visited the Vienna ballet to see a performance of the Nutcracker for which I paid four euro for standing room. I could hear the pitter-patter of the ballerina’s feet on the floor as they moved and I became so engaged with the production that I had forgotten I had been standing for hours. The production was set for a younger audience incorporating modern elements into the traditional Petipa ballet; the mice were replaced with ninjas and the toys were replaced with video games. Attending the Vienna Ballet was one of the best things I've done in Europe.

From Vienna Sahara and I flew to Egypt where we toured Cairo, Giza, Aswan, Kom Ombo, Luxour, and Alexandria. On our first night in Cairo I was so surprised by the way we were treated; I was consistently pegged as being Dutch and the citizens of Cairo were very welcoming. As we walked through the streets surrounding our hotel we were greeted with “Welcome to Cairo” and even given free guavas! Other areas of Egypt were not so welcoming. On the cruise ship and in the southern parts of Egypt people tried to buy us and to marry us. I was valued at a million camels! We regularly had to tell people that we would not be their "habibis" (loves) and that they couldn't marry us.

I had imagined the Middle East to have more of a desert appearance and to be a less American-friendly region but was surprised with the acceptance that we felt in Cairo. The Pyramids of Giza were of course impressive, Sahara and I rode camels around the pyramids. I was very afraid of the camel and not impressed when it began “dancing” and insisted on sucking himself and nearly knocking me off his back.

I have dreamed about visiting Egypt for years and felt so accomplished and independent to have been able to fulfill my dream on my own volition. We spent most of our time in Egypt on a cruise which visited many of the important cities along the Nile. Each day we had a new tour guide which provided a unique perspective and insight regarding each location. On another of my favourite days we traveled to Alexandria to visit the library of Alexandria and other famous sites. In Alexandria Sahara and I went scuba diving amidst ancient ruins including a sunken WWII RAF plane and the table where Cleopatra killed herself. I love scuba diving and it was great to share this experience with Sahara.

One of the most interesting things I learned about religion in Egypt is that when Muslims find something truly beautiful they say “Allah.” God accordingly is represented in all that which is great. It is very inspiring to view religion as a way of celebrating that which is present on the earth. I think we should celebrate the godly nature of the world’s treasures.

I am very conscious of ways that womyn have been repressed through history and was interested to learn more about the roles that womyn played in Egyptian society. Though female characters generally represented ideals such as “beauty” and “dancing” the inequality in size between males and females is not representative of inequality in societal roles. Womyn are sometimes pictured very small to represent that they are far away, just as in ancient images where womyn are the central focus the men are depicted as being very small. Queen Hatshepsut independently ruled Egypt for a number of years and created her temple with her dressed as a Pharaoh; I suppose that this was the first example of what the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls “radical feminism”.

We spent Christmas in Egypt and from Egypt flew to Istanbul for New Years with Sahara’s friends Kit and Luz. Istanbul was one of my favourite cities in Europe. Notably, in Istanbul I saw the last of the eight obelisks located throughout the world in D.C., London, Paris, Cairo, Aswan, Luxour, and Istanbul. We had a relaxing New Years Eve atop a nice hotel in Istanbul where we could see the fireworks overall of the major mosques and bridges. We had a lovely time dancing to traditional Turkish music and to some of our favourite American songs. On our last day in Istanbul we visited the Turkish baths. The baths were very relaxing and it was nice to truly be able to rest after an exhausting semester and several weeks abroad. I bought a lot of spices and strange herbs in Turkey that I look forward to using as I prepare meals in Ghana.

When Ataturk took power in Turkey he pledged to make the country secular by enacting measures like during Hagia Sophia into a museum, banning head scarves, and detracting from religious focuses within the culture. Turkey felt distinctly different from Egypt as a result of these influences. “Secular Turkey” provided an interesting contrast to the United States which also aims at being secular. Despite the secular attitude of the country, religion seems to be written on the faces of the citizens. I'm not sure that it is possible to be secular. Regardless of the efforts that we may take to preserve both religion and the state by keeping the two separate I think that there is an intrinsic element of religion that calls us to promote certain political changes. The social justice missions of my religion are my politics.

Romania was also a beautiful country. We flew into Bucharest and from there explored five other cities including Brasov, Sinia, Bran, Signasora, and Tirgu. The countryside of Romania reminded me a fusion of Boulder, Colorado and Florence, Italy; the snow iced the mountains and the houses screamed of the colours of the Tuscan sun. The man who inspired "Dracula" was born in Signasora and lived in Bran Castle. Perhaps my favourite part of Romania was the delicious food. Sahara and I gorged on hearty vegetable soups, tender seasoned vegetables, and delicious salads. I'd like to take my parents to Romania sometime.

Now that I friends literally all around the world I can't help but picture their faces when visiting their countries. The Hungarian parliament isn't just "some other country's parliament" but is a place that I know my Hungarian friend Kaitlin cares about. On the Budapest walking tour today we passed the Hungarian coronation church and we told that it is popular to marry in the church and I couldn't help but wonder if Kaitlin will someday marry in that church. Cities are alive. Historical sights are more than just history, for some people in the world they are the present.

In Budapest today we heard of the bridges over the Danube being destroyed during WWII so as to prevent the Russians from reaching the German troops. I've studied the destruction of WWII in school but I feel different about wars when I can see the damage. I was very upset to know that the exquisitely crafted lions that once stood on one of the most magnificent bridges of Budapest were crushed into pieces and into the Danube. How can people have the audacity to destroy civilization?

I apologize for the disjointed nature of this post... there have been so many stories that feelings that I wish I could relate. I hope that my words can depict for you some of my thoughts.

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