Thursday, 11 November 2010

We are safely in Pemba, Mozambique

I am so sorry that we didn't post this a month ago. We were hoping to finish off the blog in chronological order, but it has proved hard to get to the internet here & time has flown by.

We will try to have time to finish off the story of our travels - not that anyone's following it by now I imagine, but it would be good for it to be a complete record. By the way, thank you for all of you that did follow our journey - it was a strength for us as we travelled.

We have been at the Heidi & Rolland Baker School out here for 5 weeks now and have 4 more to go. If you zoom in on the map you can see where we are - right on the coast literally on the beach which is beautiful.

We are loving it. There are some hard things, but we're learning so so much and are around people who have gone ahead of us on the path we are heading down. We'll try to write more at some point.

If you are praying the main things are

- God speaking to us about what comes next, whether with Iris or not
- Health, e.g. Malaria and tummy bugs
- For God to change us and teach us and grow us, particularly in the areas less up our street (I have a longer list than Cate!)

Lots of love, Nick and Cate

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

To the coast

So that night we got the sleeper from Nairobi to Mombassa. My friend had warned me that the last few times she took it it had taken a lot longer than the 14 hours that it should. Getting in to the train station was quite stressful as they tried to keep out some people and let others in - through a small gate. This sleeper had a buffet car where we unwisely opted for the second sitting which was a lot later than its adverised time. At some point during the meal the train stopped. Going to sleep it was still stationary. I was woken at about 1am by a german guy being really loud 2 cabins along. I asked him politely to be quieter which he ignored. Cate had a go a bit firmer which I could hear him ignoring. I kind of lost it at this point & got quite angry, as I was so tired still being a bit ill and needing to sleep. I even... pointed at him as I was talking, which he really didn't like and swore at me quite a lot, but he did quiten down ofter this.

We awoke to a still stationary train and were able to get off and look around. We were in the middle of nowhere - who'd have guessed it - except there were still a fair number of kids who were enjoying the train being there. It's quite easy to look down on the africans for this kind of thing, but as they have only been able to afford one track from Nairobi to the coast, with occasional passing places, it only takes one to break down and the line is blocked. In this case it wasn't our train that had broken down (as I had assumed), but a small cargo train. It had taken all night for another train to get there to take it away. Getting off the train seemed to get things moving as someone was shouting for us to get back on! So we rushed back on and had our breakfast in the buffet. At one point the german guy came and apologised which I thought was quite decent of him and I accepted it and we kind of became friends and greeted each other like long-lost brothers, Cate said, when we saw each other later on in Mombassa.

So we had an unexpected day journey, most of which being thwough a massive game reserve. Some of the guys we met saw elephants in the distance. We arrived in Mombassa about 1 day and 1 hour after we'd left which was our longest train journey yet. We found a really sweet hotel with a roof courtyard & an amazing curry house. The only sad bit was when our waiter asked us if we knew how he could get child sponsorship for his child. He was an older guy and didn't look at all tricksy and also wasn't asking us for money. It was a nice restaurant & we had assumed that a waiter there would earn enough to look after his kids.

Mombassa's old town was really beatiful and we found the scene of boys playing football in front of Fort Jesus (not two words that I like to see together!) that Cate had seen in her Cities book. We met a sweet old man selling crafts who'd lost most of his voice. We explored the old city a bit and ending up eating chapattis and beans in a little room / restaurant for something like 40p which reminded us how most people there live.

The next day we had quite a long journey ahead as we took a taxi to the small (& free!) ferry accross from the peninsula and then waited about an hour for a minibus matatu to fill up to take us to the border town of Lunga Lunga to head into Tanzania. They were competing with the north africans for noise levels, with a home made wooden box subwoofer. Time for the earplugs again.

Quite a few squeezed in hours later and we were almost at the border. This is going to be a little embarassing, but we are committed to honesty on the blog, so here goes... we remembered that again we didn't have enough money for the visa!! We asked someone if there was an ATM at the border. Oh no. There was one an hour ago in the last big town if we'd have remembered before that. So once we'd got there I had to get in a matatu heading back north for an hour or so and go and get money and get another one back, which turned out to drop me only halfway back so I had to wait for yet another one. And did I mention these are fairly cosy?!

On the plus side we did then get across the border fairly easily, not without the help of two motorbikes which seemed the only way between the two customs spots - a few miles apart, one in Lunga Lunga, the other in Hora Hora, Tanzania. At some point I found some money hidden away which we had actually had all along (whether it was enough for visas and onward travel we don't quite know...) We had hoped to head to a bigger town in Tanznaia, but we had promised ourselves not to travel after dark and so hoped that this tiny place would look after us well for our first night in Tanzania.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Night safari and butternut squash in Nairobi

We reached Nairobi from Addis Ababa in two hours. This journey should have taken us 8 days, and it was very odd to find ourselves speeding from Nairobi airport towards the city centre at 2am. We collapsed in our hotel, which even the receptionist admitted 'wasn't that nice, but it's okay'. The warmth of the dudes who worked here definitely filled what lacked in our room. We awoke to the rich tapestry of African worship pouring into the street, a beautiful signpost of God at work in Kenya! Post pancakes and coffee for breakfast in a local cafe (mmm), we called Nick's Kenya friend to see if we might be able to stay at her place. It turned out she had moved out of her parents' place, and her parents were in England. It also turned out that we could stay in their empty house and borrow their unused pick-up! This amazing generosity enabled us to have a day of fun and a day of rest before travelling again.

Day of fun first - this was in Nairobi National Park, twenty minutes from their home. I imagined this to be a slightly bigger zoo but it blew all my expectations! For all I knew, I could have been tearing through the Masai Mara, endless plains with jagged trees, streams, mountains, blue sky punched with exquisite white clouds - all above Nick and I in our truck (!), with only the occasional jeep to bump into. The animals were also tougher to spot than I imagined, which we both loved, as it made it a chase. A chase until we turned a corner and halted extremely suddenly. A giant giraffe was standing in the road, languidly chewing on a leaf. My heart leapt! I was not expecting to be afraid of a giraffe! But he was so enormous, I am sure with one lurch of his neck he could wipe me out. As we adjusted, we saw we were surrounded by about seven of them, all tall, grand, graceful.

At 'Hippo Point' we found a sign and a path that seemed to insinuate debarking from your car and ambling through the forest. Considering every other sign had commanded visitors to remain in their vehicles, this was puzzling. But debark we did. Admittedly at every rustle in the bushes we jumped, expecting a lion to pounce. Out would flutter a teeny weeny bird. This was for me the most beautiful part. The brown river ran through great, lush trees, and a concoction of bird songs filling the air. Nick followed a baboon swinging through a tree, which led us to a vast tree, housing about twenty baboons - a kingly one sitting at the front facing us, a baby perching at the top, a few inquisitive ones creeping towards us. We both faced one another in silence. Out of the corner of our eye we saw several giraffes pad down to the river to drink. It was humbling to walk among nature - I felt so small, so grateful, sharing the land with all these creatures. In Africa the sun seems to drop out of the sky in minutes, and we saw the blue sky deepen and darken, so we hastily scrambled back to the car. We had driven almost as far as you could from the main gate, but we saw on our map 'Cheetah Gate' was nearby, so we headed towards it. 'STOP!', I cried. 'A few expletives!', I cried. 'Be ready to drive'!, I cried. 'Get the windows up now', I whispered.

On Nick's side, only two metres from the car, lay a male lion. I have never seen a lion like this before. His face was captivating, powerful, with almost mournful eyes, an enormous mane. He sat at peace, staring into our eyes, and glancing away whenever he wished. Surely the most pursued animal in the park - and we had found him, right next to us! Slowly, surely, we watched the female prowl down the road towards us. She passed behind us and approached her male. She yawned widely, sleepily, terrifyingly. The male yawned back. She leapt onto him, and they rolled playfully in abandonment, only a few feet away. It seemed such an intimate and beautiful moment, and we were so grateful. Dark was closing in on us however, so we zoomed towards the gate, a herd of zebras bashing their way in front of us en route.

We finally reached the gate only to see it's rickety metal frame pulled together by chains and a solid padlock. 'Something about Cheetah Gate being pernamently closed...' mused Nick. 'Yes. I remember hearing something...' Children from the village peeped through the gate and a man lent us his mobile to call our friend so she didn't worry. It was already 7.15pm. The park shut at 7pm. Our friend advised us to leave at 6.30pm. We realised there was no option but to turn back, back into the pitch black depths of the park, to roam freely among rhinos and lions, and try to find the road that would lead us out of the wild. Plently of obstacles to face - an owl flying into our windscreen, potholes, a rhino charging off the road, that zebra herd again - we finally reached the gate (well done Nick!). We expected a severe rebuke from the park guard - a fierce looking lady with a gun - but she seemed only to care that we had shut the gate behind us properly (understandable - I would NOT choose to be the one between a killer lion and the population of Nairobi).

And then our day of rest. Both of us needed it. Nick had his second influx of man flu, which totally knocked him. Being in this house enabled him to sleep in a lovely big white bed and have a deep bath. It was a beautiful place filled with pretty things, which I loved, and a garden with flowers. I sat on the sofa with my feet up and closed by eyes for about fifteen minutes - the comfort was something I hadn't felt for ages! I popped into the nearby town, bought some yummy food for lunch and sat drinking coffee and writing in my journal. Back at the house I made a butternut squash and halloumi salad - something we'd often eat in London, but never now - and ambled around enjoying the lovely things. It felt very different to our lives these days! And I think that is a good thing - this journey feels so like the right thing for us.

Nick emerged from white puffy duvet land late in the afternoon and we began packing our bags. A night train - our last sleeper for the entire trip - to Mombasa awaited us.

Addis and the journey south

We had been told that our matatu minibus would turn up between 3.30 and 4am. We got a knock on our door at about 3.15am for which we were not ready! We reached for the light switch to do our final packing - things we need during the night like our mosquito net. No electricity. I ran out in my pajamas to borrow the night guards torch. Groggily we packed and went out to the minibus. It had started at 2am to pick up the first passenger so we were lucky!

The first bus journey - to Gondar - had involved getting out and walking for a stretch - so we weren't too surprised at the various interruptions on this long trip. We snoozed through the early hours, then stopped for breakfast and continued to get lovely coffee even in the small towns. Then we had a couple of stops were we had to wait for half an hour and pretend we weren't going the whole way from Bahir to Addis because of the new bus regulations apparently. One of these involved leaving the bus stop the back way and getting stuck in mud and me and the other guys all pushing the bus out! This was all quite good fun and we made a friend who spoke English. We also stopped for a 'carwash' - done by the driver and conductor in a small waterfall amongst beautiful mountains. By the way, had we mentioned Ethiopia is COLD! We are wearing all our clothes in the evenings when it is, brace yourselves, below 20C! We had got used to 40C until a couple of days ago so this is freezing to us!

Our friend 'helped' us find a hotel room, i.e. took over and wanted something different from us, which turned out to be quite stressful after something like 12 hours since we left in the small hours. We eventually got away after me saying stupid things, like "We've taken up too much of your time" - HIM "oh, no, not at all... (has this line ever worked?)" We found a quiet, sweet little hotel ran by women. This was nice for Cate after the long period of male dominance of the past few weeks where we had almost no interaction with anyone but men.

Addis was quite tough as the visible poverty and begging was much more than we had experienced in the north. We always try to stop for people, but here we got overwhelmed at times and just going to the internet cafe was a tiring voyage. We also felt the tension of wanting to live simply and needing to transition from the lifestyles we are used to, especially as this trip tires us out. So as in Cairo we went to the Hilton for a coffee and an escape. In both of these a coffee is less than we would pay in London, but here it feels like something out of place and yet is somewhere we can escape when our capacity seems run dry.

We spent our day off catching up with the internet or admin for the Mozambique school that is coming soon. We went to a cafe called Kaldi's that amusingly has copied the Starbucks design and font and uniform exactly and it even smells like Starbucks! We also had another get-lost-in-a-taxi experience where the taxi driver pretended he knew the restaurant we wanted. It turned out to have shut down a year ago so he really was bluffing. We eventually found our second choice and had a lovely meal, though we got thrown out at 10pm when they closed!

We had done a fair bit of research into whether we thought northern Kenya was an acceptable risk or not. But we decided to do some more before heading on from Addis the next day as this was the last chance to change our minds. Cate had had a wake in the night fearful moment a few months ago about it, but as this was after we had read some of the horror stories, we weren't sure whether it was understandable fear or a warning from God. The first time round most people that we'd read online had been saying the area was much better in the last few years. This time it seemed that the majority of what we read seemed to suggest it was a fairly dangerous stretch. There were stories of bullets through windscreens, armed robberies, much inter-tribe fighting etc. There was also the issue of it being by far the most difficult part of the trip in terms of road quality, transport and accomodation & we were finding it pretty hard as it was.

All in all, we felt like it was worth flying over this stretch from Addis to Nairobi. I had been pretty adamant against flying at all for most of the trip. We are really concerned about cutting back our carbon footprint for the sake of those in poorer countries who are the most effected by climate change. The UK average footprint is about 10 tonnes, and 2 tonnes is what we're supposed to cut down to. I had worked out that a flight from London to Mozambique was about 2 tonnes - i.e. a whole year's budget of carbon - meaning our year's footprint would be well over that. Going overland, though more costly in pounds, was only about 1/2 tonne.

A short flight though, would only push it up a little - to 0.6 or 0.7 tonnes - so I knew this was do-able, but we've always felt that when most people seem to be ignoring the warnings that scientists are giving, it is much clearer to give things up completely, which was why I was unkeen. But I changed my mind on reading about the Kenya-Ethiopa border.

So the next day we found ourselves in Addis Ababa airport. We love playing looky-likey's - we're always spotting people that look (a bit) like people we know - and Cate said, "I've got an excellent Bridget" so I crept forward for a good look, and lo and behold...It was Bridget! She and a bunch of our friends were on their way home from a trip to Zimbabwe. It was lovely to catch up and be prayed for and see familiar faces.

To prove I am no longer a seasoned air traveller, I was carrying my swiss army knife in my carry on bag. Apparently this isn't allowed. I pleaded with the lady, saying I'd had it since I was a boy and she said they could carry my bag on from there to the hold & I'd get it on the luggage conveyor. I'm not sure I would try this at Heathrow, but I was very happy.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Friends in Bahir Dar

Gondar's African castle long forgotten, we jumped on the minibus to Bahir Dar. Six hours and a numb bum later, we reached this delightful town. Lined with palm trees and at the foot of the tranquil Lake Tana, we were happy to be there and ready to rest. As soon as we stepped off the bus a new friend awaited us! Abebe was his name and he was to be our favourite character so far. He happened to work at the hotel we stayed at - a clean, restful place - and we liked him instantly.

Abebe showed us our hotel. We ate some traditional Ethiopian food (a large pancake, a pot of sauce), both of us sitting on the fence of whether we liked it or not. For me this fence was a pernament feature of Ethiopian cuisine - apart from its strong, bitter sometimes chocolately coffee. Breakfast the next day was wonderful dark coffee and an enormous doughnut. Ethiopian coffee after the Middle East's long trail of instant Nescafe is like cold water in the desert! My coffee desires are quenched! The doughnut, however, was the last in a long line of dense, white-bread food devoured and my stomach was fed up. I spent the morning in bouts of pain as everything inside me squidged together and refused to be deposited. Devouring a few bananas and some local laxatives, relief came.

In Gondar, when we had been giving out bread, we came across one boy who didn't have the use of his legs and we saw him crawling around with his face staring at the dirty pavement a few inches below. When I gave him some bread, he looked up and made a circular signal with his hands - I thought he was saying thanks, but our Ethiopian friend said he was asking for a wheelchair. It had been heartbreaking enough seeing him drag himself around, and now, knowing no better than to just ask, he looked to me to lift him up. As a westerner he obviously thought that I was able to do something about it where others couldn't. I had just smiled at him sadly, thinking that we only had an hour before the bus left & it was impossible, but it stayed with me. Now in Bahir Dar, I asked Abebe tentitively if it was possible to buy wheelchairs. We ended up spending the whole day, with Abebe as our constant companion, walking around asking people and waiting for meetings that got postponed. At the end of the day, we had a price, but it would only be available the next day & we were leaving early.

It turned out he was a childhood friend of the guy in Gondar & he offered to buy it and take it there on the bus himself and find the boy with his friend. So we decided to trust Abebe & gave him the money for the wheelchair, plus money for transportation & asked him to take photos of the boy once he had it. The ending to the story is bittersweet. The boy did get the wheelchair and we have many photos that show how joyful he is with it. It is wonderful to think of him being able to look people in the eye as he moves around town. The sad part is that Abebe's bus crashed on the way back - nothing fatal, but Abebe did get quite injured - enough to need hospital treatment that he can't afford. We are going to pay for his hospital fees and we are still working out how best to do this.

It is probably worth going back to the unpleasant details of my bowels, since they shape the rest of our time in Bahir Dar. For some the following will contain more detail than desired. If this is you, bear in mind that some of our friends would appreciate even more information on the matter than I will give. After a day's running around with Abebe, we sank into bed tired - me particularly, as the doughnut had exhausted me that morning. About 2am, I woke in incredible pain. It turns out the relief I had experienced was probably not the laxatives but the natural blessing of bananas. I say this because the laxatives kicked in now. My stomach was so cramped I was crying out in pain, and spent the following couple of hours running up and down the corridor visiting the loo. Not a highlight of the trip. The thought of getting up in two hours at 5am to catch our planned 12-hour bus to Addis Ababa brought me to tears. Nick - the man - was keen to catch it. A good amount of crying helped him see that perhaps I was not in agreement. Finally my stomach relented and I fell asleep.

And so another unplanned day in Bahir Dar. I felt as if all my energy had drained out of me and was not in a rush to return. As a treat we booked into the best hotel in town, an Ethiopian place on the banks of Lake Tana. It had spacious turquoise rooms and a bath. The garden led to the water and tropical golden birds fluttered between palm trees - we were slightly obsessed with them and took endless photos. We began to relax. A boat glided us towards an island, home of a 12th century monastery. Despite ancient art and a sweet priest, it was too dark to see much and most of it was deemed 'the holies of holies' - only for the priest to enter. Nick particularly found this heart-breaking, as we both are so excited about us all being wonderfully equal in Christ - all able to receive his amazing gifts! Much more invigorating was a coffee hut we stumbled upon. I saw the coffee tree, the beans being roasted, and then the crushed conclusion. We sipped the dark, rich coffee from little pots and it tasted wonderful. Incense floated into the air - in these common Ethiopian 'coffee ceremonies' incense and coffee seem to be interwoven. It was beautiful to see something I love being grown so sustainably. I am forever challenged on the worldwide circulation of coffee and it was a delight to drink it from a gentle little tree a few meters away!

Our guide - who I think was called Alex, we meet so many people - told us his story. He was a Christian with a living relationship with Jesus, which the Ethiopian's call 'protestants'. He explained that the 'Orthodox Christians' hate the 'protestants' and if he ever spoke out he would be persecuted. He also seemed to get a hard time from the other guides lurking around the water. When we had boarded, one guide had shouted at him in Aramaic for guiding us. As we debarked the boat at sunset, we paid him 100birr. We left him surrounded by the other guides for a moment, as we enjoyed the powerful blue grey clouds sweeping over the lake, an African eagle soaring over towering trees. He caught us up. After a bit of probing, he told us they bullied him. In his pocket he had only 40birr left. Because he was an orphan, he told us, he was vulnerable. He had no family to fight his battles. How can we help this young man? If we tell the hotel, the other guides will beat him. Giving him an abundance of money does not seem to be the answer. Another story, another set of new questions. I'm sure the answer is not to detach and close down our hearts. Creativity is needed - and many hearts, many hearts who will reach out to the poor with their own time and support them.

My tummy had healed and my exhuastion had healed. We set our alarm for 3.20am. The bus to Addis Ababa was on. We were ready for the road again... At least a little more ready.

Northern's Ethiopia's beauty and pain

We rose at dawn to begin our expedition to Ethiopia. We hopped on a three-wheeled tuktuk to Gedaref's bus station, and boarded a three-hour minibus to Gallabat, the Sudanese border town. Within minutes we were thrust into rural countryside, and we saw the land begin to change. Greenery sprung up, gently at first, then bursting out in patches. Khartoum's dusty sprawl and Wadi Halfa's harsh desert seemed as if they belonged to another continent. Circular straw and mud huts decorated the landscape where silent towns of dry square dirt houses had been before.

We reached the Ethiopian border and experienced it's extraordinary system. There seems to be one town at the border, but it is called Gallabat in Sudan and Metema in Ethiopia. You rock up, pay a visit to the police to pick up a form (though this was never checked) and walk over a bridge, filled with people and donkeys going to and fro. You can then sit down, and relax. You are in Ethiopia. We have experienced intimidating night police banging on our door in Turkey. We have entered towering customs buildings in Jordan. We have raced around the desert searching for dollars in Syria. The ease of this experience was bewildering.

From Metema, we waited for an hour for our six-hour bus to Gondar, where we would stay the night. Joy was brought to an otherwise tedious hour by some young guys picking up Nick's guitar and having a strum, as about thirty locals gathered and stared. Our bus arrived and we were on our way - high up into the highlands of Ethiopia. The view was breathtaking. Everywhere stood seemingly magical mountains as if out of a picture book, the slopes carpeted in thick luminous lime grass, perfectly dotted with wide, green trees. Wild flowers sprinkled the mountains with sunshine yellow. Violet flowers graced our winding road, as a baboon scurried in front of us to a the safe refuge of a nearby tree.

We reached Gondar. On these long journeys, I am beginning to feel as if the destination town is a bit like a promised land! I get so tired, and hope we will be there soon, glancing at the clock (yet trying not to). And then I see some houses... maybe we are there... and then a lorry park, a building site... yes, this could be it... a hotel, a restaurant... it must be... and then a sign with the name of the town... YES! We are here! And with awe, I soak in every shop, every face, every cafe - and I know soon my legs will be stretched and my tummy full of food, and it is a very good feeling!

We stayed at a 'pension' - which promised clean, comfy rooms but no breakfast. The hot water didn't work, and in fact leaked through our room, but the place was bright and calm, with a little balcony. Exhausted we gravitated towards the loveliest restaurant in town. Up a hill, it looked over the whole city, and we ate western food, spending the meal talking about the meal in thankfulness.

We woke the next morning ready for more travelling, this time to Bahir Dar, deeper into Ethiopia. Before then we had a few hours to explore the city. With an African castle to see and proper coffee machines filling each cafe, we set off with high expectations. On the way we bumped into a friendly dude who was keen to show us around. We, however, just wanted coffee. I can show you nice coffee place, he told us. Ok, we said, and followed. He then joined us for coffee, teaching us Amharic, listening to our story. We are learning to be more flexible with our plans. The late bus isn't our only refiner. Self-appointed guides and new friends are constantly teaching us the start of what Henri Nouwen learned: 'It has been the interruptions to my everyday life that have most revealed to me the divine mystery of which I am a part... All of these interruptions presented themselves as opportunities.'

And the opportunity this friend gave us was both painful and necessary. We saw two very poor men lying on the road. Nick suggested popping into a bakery and buying fresh bread. We did and handed it to these struggling gentlemen. And then we saw more. And more. There seemed to be beggars everywhere, some sitting, some lying down - and on top of that little children. We bought dozens of bread and went round handing it out, wincing at our skin's connotations, and yet moved by hunger. We saw appauling things - poverty I have never seen before. We saw a man naked who had surely lost his mind on the street. We saw a child with black tape over his eyes, a picture that continues to haunt me. We saw a child crawling on the ground with no legs, begging Nick to buy him a wheelchair. We saw old and blind woman beg, and as I approached one to give her bread she spilled her precious milk all over the street. We ran out of bread and we ran out of time. It was heart-wrenching to leave. A strong pain remained in my stomach, and re-emerges as I'm writing. Would anyone go to Gonder and give these beloved children of God a home? What can be more needed?

To Khartoum and onwards

Oh we are so behind on the blog!! Sorry to have caused any worry for being out of contact...

We spent about a month or maybe even two planning this trip - mainly in the Camberwell library. Initially we had a lot of worry about heading through Sudan. The press carry a lot of incidents from there. What we found on more research was that the country is made up of 3 different areas & given that it is the largest country in Africa, these areas are spread wide apart. Broadly you can split it into Northern Sudan, Southern Sudan & Western Sudan (Darfur) - map here. What we read of in the press comes from Darfur or Southern Sudan where there has been conflict for a long time. Northern Sudan, which we are cutting right through the middle of, has been said by other travellers to be one of the safest parts of the Cairo to Cape Town route. So it's a bit like travelling through England when there is fighting in Wales and Scotland, but on a much wider scale. In fact most seem to say that the Northern Kenyan border was the only real worry on this journey.

During that planning stage in Camberwell library we had allowed 3 days to travel down south to Khartoum. Lots of the info we were able to find on the internet and in our lonely planet turns out to be out of date as we travel. Mainly, things turn out to be easier than we thought. Only a year ago, with the help of China, they completed a tarmac road all the way to the capital and also have a load of brand new Chinese coaches (with plastic wrapping still on seats!). So in 12 hours in a very comfy coach (with a/c - phew!) we were able to cross the Nubian desert - the eastern most part of the Sahara that runs right across northern Africa (try clicking on 'Sat' on the map on the right & zooming in to see). This was a long and fairly uneventful journey, except for the 'camel's graveyard' which was a stretch of a couple of miles with literally hundreds of dead camels lying by the road. We got out for a couple of stops and were reminded that it was actually roasting outside, as you easily forget when there is air-conditioning.

We arrived just before nightfall, in a city that can take an hour and a half to drive across, with a vague address of our friend of a friend and their number. Very quickly a couple of Sudanese men wanted us to sit down - one in his taxi, the other at his bus ticket stall. We had got used to this kind of behaviour in Egypt and were very wary of it. But we had heard Sudan was different so we went along with it. We experienced what was to be the first time of many - they were genuinely just looking after us - they gave us tea and water (we don't drink the local water so this was a pray-and-hope-for-no-squits!) and one lent us his mobile to call our friend. We are much more helpless on this trip than we've ever been in London - just calling someone is difficult - and it means help is all the more sweet. Our friend came and collected us and we drove across the city, full of unfinished buildings, a posh hotel built by Gadaffi & many small shacks.

After endless tiny hotel rooms, it was an incredible treat to stay with this couple and meet another family who were staying with them. We joined them for church, we heard all about the community of workers there, we saw such unity and perseverance, it was a real joy. We were supposed to get travel permission from one government department and check in with the police somewhere else (and pay them quite a lot for the privilege) - but we had turned up at the end of Ramadan holidays - like Christmas - and only managed the first part of this. In the end neither was checked or remarked upon, even when at the border I said to 3 different police dudes that we hadn't checked in and pointed it out in the passports!

We also slightly reluctantly forced ourselves to explore the city a little bit - in search of a taxi a Sudanese lady stopped to help us and ended up driving us round the city herself! Again the Sudanese hospitality. She had a one and half year old - her nephew - sitting on her lap holding the steering wheel. Occasionally we would veer off the road a little as she forgot that his steering needed supervision. Then she would say sternly 'No, Dudey!' as Cate is so often heard exclaiming to me. Are you serious?! Did we hear right? Yes, this little one was also called 'Dudey'. We explained to her that we also speak to each other thus and the 3 dudies + lady had a good chuckle as she continued to say 'Well done Dudey' and the like. It was a bit worrying driving past the police as they couldn't see her hands holding the lower part of the wheel, but no-one seemed to mind this under-age driver.

We had to tear ourselves away after a couple of days and get on a bus to Gedaref, towards the eastern Ethiopian border. Another posh bus, with a thermometer reading of inside and out - over the course of the journey it dropped from 40 to 27 (and Khartoum had been 40 night and day). Gedaref was a much smaller town, like many it was dark at night with little electric lighting. Nevertheless we felt safe walking around as we have done since the beginning of the trip. We went to a restaurant where we were offered chicken, lamb or beef. After a lot of miming I got him to make me a fried egg sandwich (and no, I didn't have to go as far as miming laying an egg!). At one point a group of young men invited us to sit with them and have tea. We ended up talking for an hour, mainly to one guy who had excellent English and knew more about UK current affairs than us! He was also what I had really wanted to meet - a sincere and devoted Muslim who spoke English well enough that we could really talk. We all shared our faith, he with us & we with him. Cate shared very well as she always does, from the heart and unashamed. It was also sad, as he explained that he would love to travel like us, but it was far beyond what he could afford. Back to our hotel, which was quite a tough one. Cricket count was only 1 though, which I trapped under a glass. Don't worry, I freed him in the morning when we left.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Sea voyage to Sudan

We awoke on our last day in Egypt with excitement and a certain amount of trepidation as we rushed around getting as much money out as our bank cards would allow before heading to the ferry. We had heard that our cards wouldn't work at all in Sudan.

The ferry to Sudan only leaves once a week and it is the only allowed overland route in. This acts as a funnel for all those heading south - the majority going in jeeps. We've now met about 12 westerners on the same journey. Two of those were doing the same as us, but in reverse - Cape Town to England, and were waiting in Aswan for their 4x4 to follow on the separate barge that takes vehicles and cargo. They gave us this priceless info about the bank cards and also encouraged us greatly with how good and safe a trip they have had so far and how sad they were to leave sub-Saharan Africa. The others were not doing so well as they'd been told they had to wait another 2 weeks before a ferry + barge combo would sail.

We worked out a safe amount of money that we might need and then proceeded to be able to get much less than that out because Cate's card isn't working and mine has a daily limit. Do not fear, we have some spare dollars and we were being quite safe, especially as we rather wonderfully are going to be staying with some friends of a friend in Khartoum.

We didn't know what time the ferry was - we only knew that the norm is to turn up at 10am and for it to leave at 6pm. Still, we were a bit nervous as it was nearly 10 when we got our taxi for the 20 mile trip to the port - but we kept our heads and went via the tiny hidden coffee shop that we had found to buy some excellent felafel sandwiches. When we got to the port, all the others were there - negotiating a possibility of some of them travelling with us and a few staying with the vehicles and sailing a week later.

The Aswan to Wadi Halfa ferry has always been excitedly anticipated on our itinerary. Maybe it was the exotic voyage from Egypt to Sudan. Maybe it was sleeping on the water. Maybe it was delving deeper into Africa. Or maybe all three – but I must admit this romantic exhilaration slowly seeped out of me as we battled our way through endless customs before boarding. It was blazing hot and our bags were heavy. We felt self-conscious drinking water as everyone is fasting for Ramadan and every two minutes yet another uniformless dude would ask for our passports. Eventually we got on this medium-sized, tired and dirty boat, knowing when we stepped off we would step foot on Sudanese soil.

But we had 24 hours to face before that. Our room, with a bunkbed and a table, was grimy to say the least. Dirt seemed to be stuck onto everything and a mini cockroach scuttled under Nick’s foot. Initially grateful for air-conditioning, the system progressively froze the air until we were reaching for sleeping bags, cardigans, anything. Outside men shouted and banged various gigantic boxes about the boat. Romance, me and this ferry parted ways.

After boarding at 10am, the boat didn’t set off until 5pm. When it did however, we got up on deck and relaxed. We bumped into the British travelers, which was fun, and watched the sun set in a rich sky of pink gold over the water. As the sun sank into the water, everyone’s fast was broken and food was guzzled down. Darker Sudanese faces were dotted around, and each face beamed a brilliant white smile at us – so refreshing after the stares and smirks of Egypt. Romance was nudging its way back on board.

We slept surprisingly well and after some sweet tea and an egg in the cramped ferry restaurant, we arrived on the promised Sudanese soil – or sand. We boarded a truck with the Brits and were thrown out in Wadi Halfa, a tiny desert town, which one traveller deemed ‘the hottest place on earth’. We were shown what seemed to be the best hotel – one room had air-conditioning and the lobby had swanky chairs and wooden tables. Discovering this hotel had been built for the government by the government, we searched for another place to rest our heads. What we found was different to anywhere we have stayed so far. The rooms were dirty, the corridor was old stone, leading to the open air and a couple of long drops (yes – cockroach infected, yes – I preferred to pee in a bottle than brave them). The water to drink was kept in old orange stone jars and our open light switch had a threatening hanging wire. It was also 40C and though we had a fan Nick
likened it to a fan oven. Leaving Nick to rest, I snuck out to see the sunset and discovered a little family of cats – a mother and her two miniscule kittens. Fascinated I watched them for ages, and when I returned I found Nick in his sleeping bag at 40C. He was ‘testing a theory’ that once the body is at a certain heat, a sleeping bag would cool it down. The only theory I saw was that extreme heat fuels extreme peculiarity.

Walking round Wadi Halfa was delightful – a colourful shop, a donkey there, smoking coals for tea here, smiles there, all surrounded by relentless desert. Nick was seriously pummelled by some youngsters at a football PlayStation game - in a games console cafe - excatly like an internet one, but full of PlayStations and excited boys. Evening fell, and we ate beans, surrounded by men in long white kaftans drinking tea and watching the village television. We staggered home through the darkness. We needed all the sleep we could get - we were tired, it was hot and we had a 12 hour bus journey the next morning. Khartoum, Sudan's capital, awaited us.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Nile grazing in Aswan

A painless sleeper from Cairo - soft white sheets, a cinnamon roll in the morning - arrived in Aswan, southern Egypt, at 9.30am. We stumbled through the heat (having gently dipped into a cool Zone 1 in Cairo, we are back in Zone 2 of 40c plus) to our hotel, the Keylany. We found our little room, simliar to most rooms we stay in - but very clean. More delights than bedroom bound cleanliness were to come! Yes - delight upon delight! And all at the same price as our normal B&B! For breakfast a smartly dressed waiter serves pancakes, fresh fruit and fresh lemon juice - which is joyous, as we have had many an egg over these last few weeks. Also in the Middle East they LOVE 'Nescafe' which means instant coffee, but NOT HERE - REAL coffee is brought in a gorgeous crumbling stone mug. These guys are going against the grain (in more ways than one...) and I am relishing it. They serve all of this yummy goodness on a roof terrace with wooden sun loungers and a little POOL! perfect for zone 2 temperatures. The joy of this little space is that no one seems to use it, and we spent a wonderful few hours up there on our first day with a non-alcholic beer in the pool. So strange to sometimes get those glimpses of being on an amazing holiday - and the next minute be embracing all SORTS of comfort challengers!

Aswan is a sweet town. The Nile seems to have magically transformed from a flat grey to a sparkling blue, the hot sun dancing on its ripples and graceful white feluccas sailing to and fro. The pace of life has slowed and we can cross roads again - most of the time. There is a wonderful souk (market) that flows in old arches through the town, with copper lanterns, blue and red spices, pretty glass bottles and wicker baskets. With the influx of beauty comes the influx of tourists, which we did not expect. Zone 2 creates a low season at this time of year, but there are still a few white faces and long shorts bopping about. The mark of tourism is greater than this however - we meet it almost continously as we walk the streets. We haven't been as hassled as this since we began our trip. Everywhere we go cries rise of 'felucca ride, I give you good price' or 'come and see, come' or 'spices?' or 'where are you from?' - the list is endless. I wish our patience too was endless, but it has started to wear on us.

It is a complicated business - this 'hassling'. Egypt is renowned for it, but I know it won't be our last encounter with desperate pleas for business. The intentions behind it are mixed - curiousity, money, fun, laziness, aggression. And I think the source of these intentions has a long history. Egypt's economy is struggling under severe population pressure. The reason for this struggle is also complicated. I know my country has acted appaulling in Africa throughout history and continues to through subtler means. Regardless of global context, the man in front of me hassling me to buy spices is poorer than me. I know it from his shoes and the fact that I can come and go to Aswan, and he may never leave it. Contempt for him is totally inappropriate - compassion and reptenence is better. We are reading Les Miserables at the moment, and I love this part, spoken by the bishop:
Teach the ignorant as much as you can, society is culpable in not providing instruction for all, and it must answer for the night it produces. If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.
We want to be like this bishop, but we are not always.

Amidst all this, we have also managed to relax, which has been wonderful. We caught a ferry to a neighbouring island, Elephantine Island and suddenly I felt like we had arrived in Africa. Everything up to this point has seemed distinctly Arab - men with lighter skin speaking Arabic, the desert and the Westernised cities, the women in seamless layers of black. But here I felt like we were exploring what I understand as Africa. It started with colourful mud huts among towering palm trees, and developed with the smell of smouldering fires and the sounds of cockrel cries. Goats hit in the shade and a woman walked between walls with baskets poised perfectly on her head.

We found a old man who had decorated his house in bright Nubian colours - blue, yellow, red, green against white walls, alongside jewellery and pink wicker hanging in neat lines. It was his own little restaurant and we sat on his roof balcony, watching maybe the most serene scene on earth. The Nile passed by, blue and deep, with strong palm trees decorating its edges. Behind the river lay daunting sand dunes, and the sun hot in the sky. White feluccas glided by and a couple of men were digging steadily outside their home. We spent hours there, eating and enjoying this beautiful place in quiet.

Quiet... until we met EL CROCO. El C was a little weeny croc rescued from a fishing net by our Nubian host. He took him in and raised him, and now he is a bigger and scarier croc. He is still a minicroc, but who doesn't get jittery over a minicroc? Especially in a very escapable tank in the house you are eating in. However we fearlessly hung around El C, amazed at his beauty and jagged little munchers. This harmless play is recorded on our previous post. El Croco decided at one stage he had enough.

These felucca sailing boats I've mentioned are a sight to behold. They seem ancient, made out of canvas, rope and wood - the wood painted white but wearing away at the edges. We hopped on one today for an hour and basked in the gentleness and beauty of the Nile. Our sailor had a brilliant smile and allowed Nick to steer us for a bit, much to his enjoyment! As he sailed I hopped around the boat taking in how beautiful it was. Man wants to steer, woman wants to appreciate beauty. Man also wanted to explain the techicalities of the sail but this was too great a reach across the divide and within minutes both were retreating to what they knew best.

We now approach the end of our week's delay in Egypt. Tomorrow we board the ferry to Wadi Halfa. Leaving behind the car horns of Cairo and the feluccas of Aswan, we hope to wake up in Sudan on Tuesday.

El Croco!

Hey, with Cate's new birthday camera, this blog just got a bit more blogtastic!
We will try to upload some photos as we go...

It does video as well - here is us with a pet crocodile (see Aswan post coming soon):

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Cairo: dust, horns, pedestrian peril

The next morning after our Sinai experience, we were up at 5am again to catch the six hour bus to Cairo. Apart from a serious argument that involved everyone on the bus except us, it was fairly uneventful.

Too difficult for us to meet Sudan's demands for a VISA (letters, more VISAs, money, photos, forms) in time to catch the ferry, we suddenly have over a week to rest in Cairo. Though initially disappointing, we arrived totally drained from desert strandings, bus journeys and mountain hikes, and actually the prospect of a stationary week sounded delicious! Desperate to relax I asked a local what to do to relax in Cairo. "Relax?" he asked incredulously. "No relax in Cairo! Cairo stress city!" Unabashed I asked another Egyptian. "Relax?" came his reply. "Stay in your hotel room."

I have decided not to ask anyone else, because I am finding out for myself. I am learning our initial impression was typical of this heaving city - the largest in Africa and the Arab world. A thousands horns blast into the air, lanes upon lanes of cars (including our taxi) jolt violently and dart between one another, blast blast, people amble carefree among speeding buses, blast, a donkey here, a running teenager there, jolt jolt, blast, it is stickily hot, dust and dirt fly everywhere, jolt jolt. Out of the taxi and onto the street - even harder to navigate, more jolts - and horn blasts replaced with cries from street sellers, children, old men, anyone.

We arrived at our hotel of choice - the Berlin hotel. The entrance and frighteningly bolt of a lift was filthy. But everything is dirty is Cairo. A grey dust cakes everything in a thick film of dirt - the streets, almost every building, the walls, the floor, my feet. Our room was surprising clean (apart from the slightly grey looking shower), and we collapsed exhausted, hungry and strained on the bed. At this point meat re-entered my life. It was becoming increasingly difficult to find veggie food, and I was finding about three hundred other aspects of daily life challenging. I thought it would be good to ease up on the food side and remove that stress - and it has been a real relief! Nick, amazingly and so graciously, continues to fight the veggie fight, even through lowpoints such as waiters saying 'yes we have veggie... green salad?'

The Berlin hotel lasted a night and only a night. About the only time we were seperated Nick went out to use the Internet while I rested. I began to feel a bit fearful and thought lying on a bed alone was not helping my heart! I needed to get up and engage with the world. As I left, however, the receptionist dude (who had appeared about 80 years old and very sweet) took my hand and told me he loved me! Although this maybe sounds comical, actually I was alone in a weird hotel up five floors and he had known Nick was out - so I felt really uncomfortable. Also women and men in this culture show NO affection: they even sit in different carriages in the tube. The superfast lift served me very well as I zoomed out of the hotel, and I went to Internet cafe to find Nicholas. En route I hurried across a green mat on the pavement - it turned out to be a holy place and a praying Muslim shouted and chased me off! I found the Internet cafe. It was closed. I was now stuck in Cairo without a clue where Nick was. An Egyptian man approcahed me to help and by now I was fed up with Egyptian men but he turned out to be a persistent and actually a very helpful Egyptian man who said he would show me the nearest Internet joint. I accepted. This happened to be his best friend's travel agents: a little shop with leaflets and one computer with a man behind it. He booted his best friend off the computer, and I sat down, manning the travel agents. His best friend didn't seem to mind chilling and made me some sweet tea. I tracked Nick down on Skype (in another internet cafe he'd found) - and we arranged to meet. Phew! And we met - not without me getting lost one more time, after telling another Egyptian man 'No help thanks, I know where I'm going!' and humbly having to retrace my steps and ask him for his aid.

And so we left the Berlin hotel that day. We gave the receptionist a hard time - Nick trying to call the manager, me telling him he better not do that again to a travelling girl. He apologised profusely, his hands shaking. We left feeling that weird mixture of anger but so much grace - knowing he is not in a good place. We dumped our bags at Hotel Luna Bella which was a world away from the Berlin. A dirty entrance and fast lift were it's only similaritites. It was spotless and had pretty rooms with hat stands and decorative mirrors. The reception wore glasses and mainly spoke to Nick: we liked him a lot! We plan to stay here for the next few days.

Slightly shellshocked from our difficult days in the desert and now all Cairo was flying at us - add to that concotion my nasty cold and unwanted runniness - we sought rest and comfort. We found it at the Cairo Hilton. Cool, airy and wonderfully comfy, everyone was so gentle and helpful and I began to feel life flowing back into me! We spent the afternoon having yummy Italian food and lazing on a sofa reading, me ordering a hot lemon with sugar (I imagine about the only place in Cairo I could!) to ease my cold... I also found a copy of 25 Beautiful Homes magazine - which in London I might avoid for how it makes me want to live a decadent life - but in Cairo with only a backpack en route to Africa, it only brings colour and creativity!

I woke up in our new hotel yesterday and was musing on beauty... It brings so much joy and life to me: pinks and turqouises, patterns and peonies, golden evening sunlight and worn wood. Sometimes on our trip my eyes are flooded with beauty - and sometimes I miss it, in plain hotels, dusty roads and metal buses. And so I hunger for it and felt God honouring my desire for it, saying it was from His heart of beauty and creativity. As I thought all these things silently in my heart, Nick popped out and came back with a beautiful bouquet of pink, yellow and red roses! A birthday treat, as we hadn't been near any flowers earlier in the week! What a treat and a gift I think from my smiling God... Seeing this display of love (well done Nick!) the hotel manager upgraded us to their best room - spacious with two balconies! - for no extra cost. What a blessing.

And so in among the high stress of Cairo there is also delight and fun. We had a gorgeous Indian dinner last night to celebrate my birthday with lots of laughter... we got sent out of a cafe for being too affectionate (we have been SO restrained so far but had a momentary lapse) and as we left I smashed the glass by accident, I have never seen a sadder waiter about a glass... and we are learning to carve our relaxing spaces in our quiet times and in restful hotels! Still, Cairo has been difficult for us. It is hard to cross ANY road, and in a taxi it is joltjoltjolt, when I am not near Nick within seconds a man will shout or approach me, and it feels like at night the city is in a permanent state of riot. Actually everyone is celebrating Ramadan's end of day feast, but what we see is thousands of people cramming the pavements and traffic at standstill. What we hear from our hotel room is blast blast and screams (really - I don't know why, but a yell / cry / scream / laugh mixture fills our ears as we try our best to sleep... pray for Nick, particularly to sleep, as he isn't easily.)

So a delicious blessing to have a stationery week. We just need to know how in a chaotic whirl of a city, we remain stationery inside and out. I think we are learning.

From sunrise to sunset: Cate's birthday

On the morning of the 25th of August, my birthday, we woke at 5am to watch the sunrise. Apparently Egypt don't do the whole hour ahead thing like the rest of the world does. So by accident we woke at 4am to watch a dark sky. At 5am, a slow purple haze appeared above the sea. Gently red infiltrated the purple, the pink, then yellow light. As this light fell on the waves, two giant crabs scuttled past us and were swept quite suddenly into the sea. One of us was a bit scared by the crabs. I won't say who, but he is known to call cockroaches crickets.

We ate some bread and our driver came to collect us in his pick-up. He sped us to the nearby town to catch the bus - our plan was to go to Mount Sinai, where God appeared to Moses and gave him the law. It was exhilirating, speeding through the air as the sun ascended, a red, burning ball above the sea. We got off at the local town Nuweiba. After an hour - a thoroughly enjoyable hour as we watched a stray camel amble down the road, seemingly unafraid of violently fast buses, chomping innocently on a tree - our bus arrived. Exhuasted after a rough night, I snoozed for what seemed like half an hour. Suddenly the driver was ushering us off the bus. We had hoped to get off at Dahab, and catch our connecting bus to Mount Sinai. This dude recommended we get off at this random junction, as it would save time. On the map it certainly seemed to save us two hours travel time. We disembarked.

The promised bus never came. The sun was beating down and we were stranded. Our only company was mountains, electric pylons and fifteen police men manning a checkpoint, grumpy with guns. In hope of our bus, we waited there for three hours. I cried. It was my birthday and I was stranded and sad. Nick was sad because I was sad. We were both really sad. I opened some of my beautiful cards... THANK you my dearest and most precious friends for these! Such a delight! Such colour and joy and words of love! These made me cry even more because I wanted to be in London drinking coffee and celebrating with loving people. Instead I had pilons and guns. (And the amazing Nick! who was seriously brilliant throughout our stranding.) One gunman became our friend and asked truck drivers to help us. We desperately held our thumbs to posh tour companies but all the westerners averted their eyes from us! The lowest point was when I asked the gunmen if I could use their longdrop. They didn't initially understand, and as I walked away I saw one look digusted and shake his hands at me with such a degree of horribleness that I told Nick when I got back. Ooh and then one of my favourite moments of the day! Nick marched up to the gunmen and gave them an impressive telling off - and as they fobbed him off with 'no problem, it's no problem', he said, undeterred by their gigantic rifles, 'It is a problem! You were rude! She's upset! And it's her birthday!' The man apologised and I was somewhat smitten with my choice of husband.

A Bedouin man (the local tribe in Sinai) stopped by and offered to take us to Sinai for a fee. We accepted gratefully, and got to stop by at his home en route - a tiny hole carved into a mountain of rock. He dropped us off once more in the middle of nowhere with guards, which was almost the final straw, but apparently this time we were extremely close to Sinai. Another Bedouin (very old with no teeth, wonderful eyes and an ancient wooden stick) offered us a lift to Sinai. We jumped in, and he too dropped us off NOT at Sinai but CLOSE to Sinai, and this time, hungry we stopped to eat. I pottered off to a local stall. By this stage I was so exhausted. I knew the stall owner would be keen for some chat. I decided to embark on a NEW TACTIC - silence. This is how it went.
Owner - 'Hello!'
Me - Silence
Owner - 'Come in!'
Me - Silence
Owner - 'Have a look!'
Me - Smile and silence
Owner - 'You are beautiful, and quiet! An angel!'
So impressed by my silence was he, that he gave me a free bracelet. When he offered to put it on for me, I said no thanks my husband would, and he started telling me how lucky my husband was. He interupted himself and started writing a postcard to my husband saying the following 'Necolas you are lucky, wife is beautiful angel, England.' He was so zealous that he didn't mind drawing on his own resources to pen his heartfelt congratulations.

We walked the final stretch, ten minutes in the desert heat, and found our monastry guesthouse, at the foot of Sinai. What an oasis in the desert: cool, clean rooms and a leafy courtyard. We had made it.

We were ready to make like Moses and, er, climb up Mount Sinai...

Or at least we were ready to sit on some camels while they did the legwork and we enjoyed the view. On the way we met a police man who insisted we go back and get a torch if we were to go up at this time - nearly 5pm. Having done that & got Cate's glasses, I showed him my super 1/2 Watt wind-up LED mini torch which he very much liked, though he did drop it. It's not up to much, but it doesn't get dark that quickly does it?

We paid for two camels and a guide with some of Cate's birthday money and we were off. This was harder work than either of us imagined as we gripped on with our legs and tried not to panic as we trusted them to follow the path and not wander off down the cliff. I noticed their feet were much more suited to the climb than say a horseshoe would be - they are kind of like lanky horses with slippers. Mine made very strange noises a lot. And also farted really really loudly on occasion. I'm not sure even now that Cate believes it was the camel. It was. Honestly.

After about an hour and half, we were ready to give up our sideways munching friends and walk the last 45 mins up to the summit. This is a much steeper bit not suitable for camels and was pretty hard going. Though we had been warned of the hoards of tourists, we had gone up the whole mountain alone. At the top we joined a few people who had also come for the sunset and found a place to sit.

The sweat and tears were to be rewarded. Mount Sinai was astounding: towering peaks as far as the eye could see, with dark shadows of valleys between. The red sun we watched rise now set amidmst this overwhelming land of mountains, of power, the earth brown peaks and black valleys illuminated by red and gold light. I was so amazed at its vastness and how small I was, that I felt almost frightened. The God who made all of this suddenly seemed so magnificent and massive, and I was so small. I knew He was God and He could do whatever He wanted. And then I remembered His love for me, and I was overwhelmed. He is so holy. I thought I could hear Him whispering 'Be holy, as I am holy'. What a call... and I have the Spirit in me, who is Holy by name, to lead me to holiness...

It suddenly grew dark very quickly, and I couldn't see Nick anywhere. A quick jaunt down the mountain I thought, jogging over in my little plastic flipflops. Nick was cross I had taken so long - he was worried about about the descent. I began to understand why. In the blink of an eye it was night, and we were stuck at the top of a mountain. We still had our guide who had accompanied us on the camel, and so we were reassured by his presence. The problem was he skipped like an antelope, leaping down the hills as if they were green English meadows, and we were often left quivering with our pathetic torch behind. This jaunt became an absolute marathon. A mix of ferociously uneven rocks, jolting our ankles and causing us to slip, combined with death traps around the corner, as a few wrong steps would lead to hurtling off the edge, and added to that serious exhaustion, antelope guide and hours still to go... At one point I mounted a stray camel to ease my legs, but it hurtled me back and forth so painfully I had to get down. In the end I was so tired I was speechless and my legs were shaking like jelly. We arrived like drained wretches to a wonderful three course meal at the monastry and an incredible night's sleep. Was the trek worth it? Yes. But I might not hop up there tomorrow.

Asia to Africa

We did catch the boat the next day! This time we got there early and it all went very easily, except for the second time, I left my wedding ring in the hotel, but both times I've remembered before getting too far away! So we caught the daily 1 hour ferry from Aqaba to Nuweiba, Jordan to Egypt, Asia to Africa. After paying our exit tax and getting our passport exit stamps, we got on a coach and then boarded the boat. We found that they had a policy of segregation - Egyptians in the main section & all non-Egyptians in the other section. We found this a bit odd & Cate being naturally rebellious against being told to do things that don't seem right, we headed for the other end of the ferry, and sat at a table in the Egyptian section. This didn't seem to be actually forbidden, though we did get a lot of looks - but these being a daily occurrence are becoming like water off a duck's back. (Perhaps one might note that one of the ducks is a bit more sensitive than the other duck and doesn't, say, love getting looked at a lot or disobeying policemen with guns who want you to queue barge or doing things that he's, er I mean it's been told not to do, etc.). Anyway, after a bit, about 8 children were chatting away to us (not that we could understand what they were saying much) and a little girl was showing off doing acrobatics with her dad. They liked our crossword and we got them to teach us numbers in arabic - very useful for bargaining with taxi drivers!

Eventually we walked back toward the other section, to find a closed door and a guard between us and it. He did eventually let us through and then we found we had missed out on a round of everyone give in your passports to immigration. So when we left the boat we had to hand them to a guy who put them in his trouser pocket. BYE BYE passports we said! This was the first, of I imagine many times, where we say goodbye to our passports and just have to hope that they reappear. Then we had to get another shuttle coach - in the scramble to get on one, the baggage hold door nearly fell on Cate's head and her bag ended up on the coach with us left behind. BYE BYE bag as well!

Happily, after getting the next coach, we found her bag dumped in the middle of the road. And our passports did eventually show up. We had met an Austrian couple in the ticket office and they decided to join us at our camp/hut site, which was a 20 minute shared taxi drive up the coast. It was so far along the beach that the taxi guy kept trying to give up but we did eventually find Harby's place (website here). We had a little hut just a few metres from the 10 miles of Red sea between us and Saudi Arabia. No heating or cooling or electricity, local food & supporting the Bedouin economy - it was our little eco-beach-paradise!

We had long chats with the Austrians, who were a great pair, I played backgammon with an Israeli expert and only lost by one, we swam, we chatted to the chef who was from Sudan, we enjoyed his hummous (hummous and felafel are my new best friends). They do occasionally have electricity there, but not that night. We could easily walk around by the amazing full moon which shone across the water. The paradise was only slightly marred by the almost impossibility of sleep in the crazy 40's heat. Outside the hut was slightly cooler with a sea breeze, but a massive beetle there drove me inside (Cate fared slightly better than I, partly because she was asleep outside before I saw the beetle...) I even went for a 1 in the morning swim to cool down which lasted for all of ten minutes.

And it was August 24th, the night before Cate's birthday.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Into Jordan

After a stunning supper on a roof in Damascus and a night in our hotel, we had to say farewell to our favourite city so far & goodbye to Syria. The next morning we caught a taxi (which are more affordable than at home & more prolific - in some towns it appears to be literally half taxi) to the inter-city bus stop to head to Amman in Jordan. These stations have the long distance buses and also the service taxis where you wait until they're full before you go and only cost a little more than the bus. Before reaching the station, whilst driving there along the main 3 lane highway, a service taxi came along side shouting out to ask whether we were going to Amman, which we were, and offering a price, which seemed fair going by a few sources we had checked - so we thought why not & gave him the thumbs up (very useful international sign!). During this speedy (!) negotiation another taxi came to the table, as it were, cutting up the other one and offering a lower price. Our driver eventually stopped with these other 2 taxis - in the road, they don't mind that here - and the second driver came up to our window claiming us as his prize. But we felt we should stick with our 50mph thumbs up contract with the first guy so we stuck with him.

He then took us a few mins to the station and we waited about an hour for him to fill the car with other passengers, which was a hot wait. Full up, we headed south. After a few hours we reached the border - this time prepared with enough dollars! We weren't going to be short-changed this time! We wouldn't need to bailed out again by our taxi driver! OK, so, as you have guessed, we did get help once, well OK twice, from the taxi driver during this border crossing. Although we did have enough dollars, they wanted Syrian and Jordanian money which we didn't have enough of and he was happy to swap us for. Heh, what are taxi drivers for? They love to help. Plus they're in a hurry!

Two other features of this journey - 1) was that on the way there, all of the passengers ate a kind of nut baklava and gave us some, even though it is Ramadan. At one point the taxi driver pulled over and a man standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere got in and became the new driver. A bit later we offered them all some olives and they refused, saying they were fasting and looking very innocent - 'As if we would eat during Ramadan' their faces said! This new taxi driver was obviously a bit more strict! 2) At the border, one of the passengers tried to get me to smuggle his packets of cigarettes through. I declined, miming that they are bad for you and cause death. He was very persistent as we neared the police, but I kept up with my mime. He even phoned a friend who spoke english who tried to persuade me.

When we got to Amman, we were transferred to another taxi and we experienced our first city with really bad traffic, which I had to dodge to run out and get some money out. We found our hotel which was sweet and had a very talkative lady who was the owner. It was probably the first woman who'd spoken to us since we'd entered Turkey so I was a bit surprised. We were given some free turkish coffee - which this time was a thick gloopy substance with loads of cardamon in it. It was so undrinkable that we had to take it to our rooms and pour it down the loo as we didn't want to seem ungrateful.

We went out to an Italian cafe in the upmarket side of Amman which served amazing pizza & had an incredible view of the city - a little treat as we get accustomed to the local food - which is a bit limited for the veggie. The cafe was called 'Books @ Cafe' (it also had a bookshop) which the taxi guy who took us there just couldn't get when we said it. Eventually he cried out "Ah, booksaat cafe... booksaat cafe... why you say it wrong..."

Even though the next day was a travel day, we decided we had to squeeze in a visit to the site at the river Jordan where John the baptist preached and Jesus came to be baptised. Having been really touched by going to Ananias' house, we thought it was worth it. We shared the trip with a german guy called Robin who had spent two years in Japan learning karate and had travelled overland back from there. On the way to the river, we were taken to Mount Nebo - the mountain where Moses looked upon the promised land. It was an incredible view - looking down into Israel, we could relate a bit to Moses as we would have loved to go into Israel, but couldn't for visa reasons. There really is something special in going to places you've read about in the bible. But this was nothing compared to what came next...

We had barely recovered from the hill and yet suddenly we had arrived at the entrance to the baptism of Jesus site. After an unchilly wait we jumped on the bus down to the river. It was more of an event than I realised - we paid to enter, we had a tour guide, we had 10 others with us, there were different sections to visit. It was to be my most special encounter yet. Our first section was just to peep at the river - green and slow. There was nothing special about this particular point of the river, but I was blown away by the whole idea. The whole idea of Christ, my Lord, walking on earth - walking just here. I was breathtaken. The group moved on with Tour Guide but I just lay there in the dust. The next stop was what the archiologists believe is the exact site of Jesus' baptism - there is a mosaic showing a building there from a few years AD and the stones from this building are still there. We viewed it all - dried up now - from a platform above. By this stage I was clear that Tour Guide was not really the explainer I would have chosen as he sounded a bit bored and slightly annoyed. People also asked questions I did not want to know the answers to. So as TG told us 'let's move on now' Nick and I stayed behind a moment to pray. As we knelt down, we heard a whistle. Down below an old man with dark skin and a white & red headpeice beckoned us to join him at the site. There was a gap in between the rope fence so we crept down... "Ex-cuuuse me!" TG shouted from up ahead. The old man shouted something in Arabic. TG relaxed.

Here we were - on the site where Christ was baptised. We knelt and wept. I could imagine the whole thing so clearly - the Father singing words of love, Jesus receiving it in the waters, the Spirit rejoicing as a dove. Wooppeee! And then I heard these precious words... "This is my daughter, whom I love, with her I am well pleased..." Oh the beauty and joy and glory of this! I want nothing else!

To finish we dipped our feet in the Jordan, among tadpoles in the still, green slow flow. We saw an exquisitly adorned church and as our fellow group members marvelled at its cream stone, I questioned in my heart whether Jesus would have asked for this as a response. Baking hot, we walked for what felt like a LONG TIME back to the bus. Sweat was just pouring everywhere - but I didn't mind!

Taxi back to Amman, and then service taxi down to Aqaba. It felt like a long drive though it was only four hours. A numb bum is not an aid to a long journey - famous Taxi proverb. Sweet moments though - a pitstop to pee (rare) and the driver covering my window with carboard so I was shaded. In the last hour, however, I had to rip this covering down because we were suddenly surrounded by the desert and its mountains. Arid brown sands and towering empires of rock - jagged, relentless and rugged, jutting out of the ground, its vast boulders like tiny crumbs encrusted on its edges. We tore in between these mountains, sitting ahead of us too. They were lit up from behind, and in magical shades of cool blue they were crisp in the forefront and translucent further away.

We arrived at our hotel and were blown away. It has a pool and it is by the sea... we are basically on holiday! After the tumultous travels thus far it is the richest blessing. We ambled down to the beach and swam - of course! Ahead of us was the sea, the blue mountains of Egypt and the radiant glow of a pink and yellow sunset. Behind us were the desert mountains and the moon - brightening as the sky darkened. I didn't know which way to look so I kept spinning around until I had to stop!

Today we planned to go to Nuweiba, Egypt on a quick little boat across the Red Sea. It should have taken an hour - so easy. Sadly the boat's departure time has changing since the Lonely Planet was written - and our hotel didn't know about it either - so we rocked up ready to go and had missed it. It was also full. So instead of catching it's midnight sister tonight we plan to go tomorrow. We both got really annoyed about the change to our plan! I particuarly was in a bad mood about it - and then felt bad for being in a bad mood in a stunning place. We haven't stopped much since we left and the thought of hanging around the pool with nothing to do got me into such a stinker! I KNOW this will drive some of you crazy! But I suppose I must be honest! I suppose sometimes we want our own way and when a plan is changed, our own way is gone and we get cross. But life is surrender to Jesus and I am learning... Thankfully we cheered up a few of hours ago and have spent a delightful, relaxing afternoon lazing in the sun, reading, writing. Now I am seriously getting into it! I could holiday more often! No... we must catch the boat tomorrow. Or at least try.

Friday, 20 August 2010

A Day in Damascus

Well it wasn't too bad at first. This hotel was dirty and stained in bits but there was a lovely Syrian rug on our bed and we slept well. We had planned to spend the day in Damascus and sleep another night. Working out whether to sleep our second night in this hotel, I got up from the bed and saw we had a friend joining us. A little, fat, hairy friend. Our first experience of what is known to many as a COCKROACH (shhhh don't tell Nick. Don't tell Nick because he is insisting we call them CRICKETS instead. He thinks crickets are similar but way more friendly. The idea is that you see an enormous and terrifying cockroach and say 'ooh yes a little cricket's popped in to say hello' and you don't really mind.) It was a gentle start into the realm of the c-blank-blank-blank-r-blank-a-blank-h-blank-s because he was only a tiddler but nonetheless I encouraged Nick to speedily pop an ashtray over him. Shutting him out our minds we enjoyed singing to Jesus and getting empowered for the day ahead - we SO need this time with him every day. (When Nick lifted the ashtray to set our cricket friend free there was nothing there. Disconcerting.)

We have booked our second night at the Orient Palace hotel - a three star - as a treat! We will stay there this evening. It was built in the 1920s and is recommended in the Lonely Planet if the traveller enjoys 'faded grandeur'. I think I do. The room is so spacious with a balcony and a beautiful blue and white woven rug on the bed... and yet it has a a bit of a battered feel. It is superb! After we waved goodbye to our cricket this morning we had breakfast here at our new hotel. LO and BEHOLD there was Lurpak on the table. I admit I had a mini-weep. We realised maybe we find the travelling harder than we realise. We had a large barney over suncream (which resulted in me agreeing to wear it every day you will be pleased to hear all four parents!) and here I was weeping over Lurpak! It's hot, everyone stares at you, you don't know where you are going and no one speaks your language. I think that is challenging, and it was good for us to admit it! And very good to enjoy some Lurpak whilst doing so.

Cheered up, we embarked on a stunning day in Damascus. It is the most enchanting city. Everything drips with age - particularly the ancient stone and the winding walkways between homes. We loved being on Straight Street - where Paul headed after being blinded by Jesus' brightness and prayed for three days, until Ananias came to help him. It was so awe-inspiring to imagine Paul walking down the very street we walked on (and that this net cafe is on!) We visited Ananias' house - which is now a small stone underground chapel. I lay on the floor (it belongs to my Daddy so I could be at home!) and both of us felt His presence strengthening us.

We also spent some time around the Umayyad mosque in the Old City, so important in Islam that only Mecca and Medina are more esteemed. We walked past as the Friday call to prayer resounded and hundreds of men and women flocked to it. I found this quite painful as I saw a great number of people who do not know Jesus not walking to him, but to another religion. It felt as though my eyes were clarified and I felt an acuteness about how much we need to share Jesus with the world. Often in my home setting my eyes are dulled and it feels okay that people don't know Jesus. Today I had a fresh clarity and a renewed brokenness. That passage from Romans turned in my heart: 'How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"' And I thought Lord I am not sent here at the moment! But please send those who are! Let them be obedient! And my encouragement to anyone who reads our blog is to go and to share the love and saving words of Jesus!

For lunch we stumbled upon perhaps the most beautiful place I have ever seen! It was like a little palace... with beaten dark wooden doors, white and blue mosaics, purple and pink and white stones, a fountain with flowers surrounding it, pearl & wooden chairs with deep cushions, delicate copper lanterns hanging... It's beauty was so perfect, and our delicious lunch of hummus, flatbread and falafels SO in our budget...

And here we are, still on Straight Street, recovering from the baking heat in our little cool internet cafe. Off to supper now and our faded / grand hotel tonight!

Nick & Cate
By the way, we love reading all your comments - every one means so much and is a real encouragement. Thank you!!! xxx

Desert Dillydallying to Syria

Since we last wrote we have traveled through many places beginning and ending with the letter A. We have been from Ankara to Adana to Antakya to Aleppo. Aleppo does end with an O but it's Arabic name is Halab which has two As in it to make up for this. Let me start with Ankara, which is where we left you last time.
We chugged off from Ankara to Adana on a sleeper train - air-conditioning and comfy bed (with tartan rug!) making it a smooth ride. Our only blip came at the beginning - from our ticket inspector who used his authority to suggest we pay him a substantial tip. It was our first experience of feeling quite intimidated - stuck in our cabin with the supposedly most trustworthy man around now forcing us to give him money. We gave him a few coins. I also offered him some of our pizza as he left, which he gladly went for. We pondered our reaction afterwards. He was in the wrong - using his position to instill fear into his passengers to give him cash. But maybe he doesn't get paid enough and maybe he is hungry (happy to take pizza) - Jesus' words ringing in my heart 'it is more blessed to give than to receive...'

We awoke in Adana, the heat piercing us as we leapt from the train station to a taxi. This taxi took us to a very discreet bus station, where we were ushered by several young guys onto the Adana to Antakya bus. Sweetly they stopped five minutes in to let me go to the loo and gave us cold water. (These moments are so precious - when we really feel a need and someone in kindness meets it!) This was our FIRST BUS JOURNEY! I think my expectations were too high - the few hours we were on it felt very arduous. I also got bus-sick which was my fault for looking at the crossword too much. (I find it difficult to imagine the word as Nick says r-blank-blank-blank-f-blank-blank-e-blank. By the way that is not a real word. In case you are trying to guess it.) By the end I felt very rough, as we heaved up and up the mountains into the highlands of southern Turkey.

I stumbled off the bus with Nick at Antakya - our final stop in Turkey! Antakya seemed to have only three ingredients - men, white buses and mountains. It felt as though we were off the beaten track for the first time. It was all quite exhilarating as were suddenly surrounded by several men offering us a taxi to our destination: Aleppo in Syria. We discovered there were no buses to Aleppo until the morning so we decided to get a taxi. The group all jostled for their plan and price, guiding us into a small air-conditioned office and sitting us down. We had no money and Antakya had no ATM, so after a lot of liveliness, Nick hopped on a motorbike with one of the dudes to find a bank and I was left with our bags in this office. As soon as Nick left I think the group all got a bit shy, and it was quite a quiet ten minutes!

Soon enough we were in a taxi speeding along to Syria - three in the back, three in the front. We had a young Turk guy in the back with us. In the front was our driver in a black shirt who was often in a rush, and two Syrian gentlemen. The first couple of hours were fun - a hot wind powerfully blasting in the car and the desert blurring past our window. We stopped at the border Duty Free which felt like an odd mirage in the desert - ice-cold selling things like Swiss chocolate and Clarins moisturiser. But no food - and we'd only eaten a lot of twig biscuits and a pretzel that day. The afternoon was pressing on. We found a guy selling biscuits and quickly bought some before hitting the road again.

The Syrian border was a nightmare. There are no other words for it. It costs $100 for us both to get in and we didn't have enough dollars. Not only this but there was no ATM for miles and miles - we were in the middle of nowhere - and so we were stuck. The heat felt stronger than ever and I began to feel very weak. We also hadn't eaten much and couldn't find our driver who had the keys to the car - where all our water was. Weak, thirsty and hungry I sank into my metal bench and waited with the Syrians and the young Turk. Meanwhile hero Nick and hero driver were zooming around trying to fix this standstill. They walked all the way back to Duty Free and asked for dollars there. No luck. The driver - who, as I said, was always in a rush and sweated even more than us - amazingly bought a phone. Nick paid using his card and the driver gave Nick the right amount in dollars. The driver saved us! Meanwhile I waited for what was maybe an hour in the heat for these guys to return. I bonded a bit with my fellow passengers - mainly because I was constantly apologising for our muck-up. Finally we got through. Beyond caring what I looked like, I slumped on the marble counter in front of our official. Surprised the official asked me 'This is boring?' 'Yes' I replied. He smiled. 'It is boring for me too!' Seems nobody likes borders.

On the road again! The Turk jumped off and we sped towards Aleppo. I continually poured water on myself the whole way and tried to eat biscuits and water to inject some life into me. Gradually I began to feel better. After a while the older Syrian started arguing with the driver. We had noticed that in this corner of the world people do not hold back in terms of voice level. I thought this was casual discussion at HIGH decibels but after a while the driver stopped the car and pulled over. The Syrians and the driver jumped out the car and carried on yelling at each other next to the car. After a bit I thought about asking them to hurry up but after our border error I decided against it. In the end the driver drove off without the Syrians. Nick tried to say bye to them but I don't think they heard.

Syria looked beautiful. I immediately loved it - so ancient, with grey stone and white fabric holding up houses and children playing in the street. We pulled into one of these settlements and arrived at our driver's family home. Still about an hour or so from Aleppo it was yet another detour! The first person I saw was a tiny little boy who gazed in astonishment at us. Then followed two sweet girls who shook our hands and an older lady, head covered with a wide, kind smile. The driver rushed in and his father appeared to take his place in the driving seat. It was a very touching moment - to catch a glimpse of family life and to see a father faithfully helping his son in a stressful moment. One more mad dash from the driver - into the house to get us an freezing cold bottle of water and a glass for the rest of the journey. A wonderful first experience of Syria. As the sun set we hurtled towards Aleppo, and eventually we arrived. We had no hotel booking - but we had arrived, and after my most exhausting day yet, that was enough.

So there we were, dropped off by our driver's dad in downtown Aleppo & we set all our bags on the side of the road so Cate could wait there while I went to check the prices of the hotels in that area. After checking a couple and being gone for about 2 minutes I returned to find about 6 men around Cate - one old guy and 5 younger guys. This sounds a little alarming, but I quickly got the impression that they were very friendly types - plus they were in uniform (which always seems more trustworthy) - they were parking attendants for the posher hotel over the road. The younger guys were giggling away and mucking around. After a bit they even bought us sandwiches which were these giant wraps with cheese and tomato (how did they know we were veggie?) which were incredible and after a lunch of biscuits they seriously hit the spot. We found a decent little hotel (with air-con, though the temp we set it at for nighttime is rising - now 28°C - so I think our bodies are really starting to adjust.) On that note, it turns out that heat ZONE 2 has come upon us earlier than we thought. According to locals and BBC weather, it has been in the 40's °C these last few days in Syria. They are saying this year is unusually hot - they even find it a bit hot - yikes! But amazingly it hasn't been that bad. A think a combo of our bodies adjusting and it being very dry. But I don't want to pretend it isn't full on - it doesn't feel that much hotter in the sun than in the shade and in the old city parts of town the stone acts not unlike a pizza baking stone - you can feel it baking you as you walk along! Gosh, I hope I don't actually bake - though at least Cate wouldn't be able to eat me as she is vegetarian.

The next day, after a pretty full on journey, we decided to have some treats. First, we went to a big hotel's cafe to have a nice coffee. They said they offered either Turkish coffee or Lavazza. Cate's ears pricked up at this, and we ordered the latter. Turkish coffee, we have discovered, means instant nescafe and they love it. The waiter obviously thought we must have made some kind of mistake and brought us a beautiful pot of hot water, an elegant little jug of hot milk & lovely cups - empty, bar a little sachet of instant nescafe. Risking breaking his heart, we did clear up the order and he did then bring Cate a perfect espresso and a latte for me.

Our second treat was to go for a swim. We had thought of going to a local big hotel, but our hotel receptionist told us of what sounded like an almost mythical swimming experience called The Blue Lagoon that was a short taxi ride away. He said there was a lagoon, and a river and a beach and well he convinced us that it was well worth the journey. It was quite a long ride way - about 25 minutes - and in the middle of the desert. We paid up and checked that it was mixed and that Cate didn't need to cover up. We found... a water slides theme park! And it was excellent fun. We started on the 'river' where you had a rubber ring and were taken around in a kind of mini flume. We went round 3 or 4 times! Then we went on the slides which were scarily fast. Then we went for a dip in the 'beach' which was a pool which gradually got deeper. Then we had a spot of lunch and we'd only just started when the 'beach' started getting pretty wavy - the wave machine was turned on and to a man everyone there (admittedly mainly under 14) rushed into it. We had to leave our lunch for a bit and get involved. Finally I jumped off the 10m board to show off to Cate. (This did hurt a little and I did a little of the swimming equivalent of hobbling. For the guys only - what I'm saying is, it hurt!) It was great fun - so nice to be in the water after so much heat.

We got a taxi back, via the hotel to pick up our bags, to the train station for our train to Damascus. At the station a really lovely Syrian brother and sister came to chat to us while we waited for the train. I was able to clear up something that had been bothering me. A new thesis had come to attention regarding the number of stares we had been getting, which was that perhaps people were not used to a man wearing the rather excellent Turkish trousers that I have been wearing. By the way, here is a link to roughly what they look like: One piece of evidence was that while we had seen maybe 3 or 4 women wearing them in Turkey, we had seen zero men. But I had been concerned not to be culturally insensitive. I checked with the Syrian couple and they assured me they weren't insensitive, just funny. Thanks a lot!

The train journey was a measly 5 1/2 hours which is a breeze now. We also went first class because it was only 60p more! Trains in Syria are cheaper and less popular than buses even though they are really nice. I finally went through all our receipts to keep account of all our spending. And we did another crossword. We might have to admit here that after a recount it turns out our best score is actually 20. So it turns out it's the 10's that are the current prize that we seek.

At the Damascus station we shared a taxi with a German guy who was good at haggling. We ended up in the center with our usual hotel search, which is always a bit more stressful at night. We walked past an imposing building with loads of police carrying machine guns. We have generally been going for the cheapest hotel with a/c & we found a one star hotel with a/c that was a lot cheaper than the last few nights, which was great.

OR WAS IT???!!!!!! .....

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Romania to Turkey Part 2

After two nights` atrocious sleep (see part 1) I arrived in Istanbul exhausted. I honestly don`t thınk I have been so out of ıt before from lack of sleep. We found somewhere that sold halloumi & coffee and collapsed. We discovered our hotel had no air conditioning and I began to cry into my coffee cup! So exhausted and so hot, another night of no sleep seemed too much. Nick did what every good husband should do - lecture her on it beıng a good way of her beıng stretched... then see she is not responding... she is still crying... and then book another hotel.

We had the day to explore Istanbul and it was gorgeous. Full of winding ancient streets, spilling with carpets, blue lanterns and hot bread, spears of blue and pink mosques everywhere (which are beautiful but I found it difficult... I wish they were built for Jesus!) and the sea just around the corner. We spent lunch by the sea - Nick loves the sea! so it was a real treat particularly for him. It was beautiful and İ loved dıppıng my feet in the water. I was pretty out of it from lack of sleep so I was a bıt more zoned. Post-snooze I was reinvigorated and we had a delightful dinner out that evening. The waiters were classic, the roasted veg delicious and we even bought some seriously cool (in more ways than one) pairs of trousers on the way home...

We assumed an easy 5.5 hour train ride to Ankara the next day - followed by a sleeper to Adana that evening. The 5.5 hour train ride proved to be epic. Rocking up to the train station in Istanbul we discovered there was more than one station in a city of 12.8 million people. Thankfully we met a helpful man who`d been a hairdresser in London. We told him our story. He loved our story and our hearts and bought us a drink. He also began to seriously advise us to save cash for the future and not to be foolish... worldwide advice! He waved us off in the right direction and so began a walk, a taxi, a boat and another walk - then our train journey which broke down for about 40 minutes in baking hot heat. We had to stop off at a random stop and catch another train for 1.5 hours. By this stage we knew there was no way we could catch the sleeper that night as planned. As we boarded our final 1.5 hours train we were both tired and bit dispirited. I prayed for us to have some fun...

And fun we had! This train was incredible... Weirdly, in the middle of turkey, for a very short journey, lies the poshest train in the world. Like an aeroplane, the seats are spotless, the guards wear lapels, there is a film option and seven radio stations, it is superbly cold and speeds through the desert at 250km/h. (Nick didn`t believe me initially so don`t doubt me. He told me he would eat my lovely white hat. He hasn`t yet.) We also discovered Maze - an extremely thrilling game on the ipod which involves twisting the actual ipod in cool shapes. So recommended. The desert was stunning as we raced through ıt - the sun setting in the pink sky, leaving the mountains almost violet in its dimming light.

We woke in Ankara this morning. It is a busy, hot, sprawling city with few tourists. It has been the first place where there seems to be very few English speakers. It makes me personally feel like we are an island detached from people - but I would love not to be! I love people and engaging with them - and it feels more lonely the more alien the city is.

I have found the last few days much harder than the first few. I was full of energy and travel appetite at first! Now I am more tired, the travelling and temperatures ahead seem too challenging, the cities unpersonal and too busy. In short I feel weak! Our times with God have been amazing, strengthening, crucial and beautiful since we began. I feel like I need him all the more as we continue. I know that whatever He asks, He will provide for. He is my shepherd, caring for me and making me lie down (see Ezekiel 34 and Psalm 23). I am also remembering a verse Noomi had for us as we left - `this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead`. I can see in so many ways my reliance on Him growing which brings more life and more love! What a pain that the path to this is so often weakness! But I see more of his grace... Do pray for me though - that we lean on Him ın challenging times - and that we are kind to ourselves as He is kind! Interspersed through these more difficult patches there is also lots of laughter and a fair amount of cuddling (although Nick is concerned we might get arrested so public hugs are brief)!

Another encouragement is Jesus on the cross and his love for me... I have been so impacted by a song called Arms Wide Open by Misty Edwards... the lyrics are of Jesus `wıth arms wide open, a heart exposed, with arms wıde open, bleeding` and then Him saying `you shall love me - with arms wide open, a heart exposed, with arms wide open, bleeding, sometimes bleeding`... I am so hungry for this. As we ate supper in Istanbul, a young girl, deaf and dumb, approached us selling tissues. These lyrics flooded my mind again. Is it not horrendous that at night a child can approach adults eating and no one ask questions? Why is she there? Jesus` pure love for me and for children like her do fire me on through difficulty.

So the day-awaited sleeper tonight. Oh yes and for those of you who are praying, pray for us in these temperatures as they rise & rise! We will wake in Adana and bus along a bit from there. Going to sign off now and slink off in my supercool Turkish trousers and my snazzy Romanian bag. As if red hair and a backpack weren`t enough, I seem keen to prove to everyone I am a traveller.