“I Love Lamp”-edusa

“I Love Lamp”-edusa

 

Definitely didn’t look nearly like this 24 hours prior to taking this photo…

 

 

After a week rampaging throughout Sardinia’s coastline including a pitstop in Corsica — with a final night belonging in a 90s teen prom movie (I really can’t describe it in any other way … it was that … perfectly bittersweet) — we tried to take it easy the next morning with a spa day relaxing in Olbia.

Some of us having pulled a second all nighter for our final sunrise, we returned to the yachts, quickly took the trash out, made one final camp check, gave our goodbye hugs to Mihaela, Ann, and Jeanette from the marina, and walked over to the hotel Priscilla, Gina, Alex, etc. were staying in.

 

 

All I can remember it was a dreary struggle of a morning, especially after coming down from a high of the night before. Once I saw a bed, my body fell hard without even realizing until later how the marina arrivals — Sabrina, Donna, Sampson and I — were likely pissing everyone else who booked the hotel as they graciously still let us use their rooms to crash in for an hour (I’M SO SORRY).

 

 

After Priscilla, Donna, Sampson, Sabrina and I got a quick hour’s sleep in thanks to a late check out, we tried to look for a quick brunch before the next round of goodbyes with Priscilla, Gina, Sampson, and Raubern. I then felt like I was living through the entire ending scene of the movie “The Half Of It.”

I don’t know how we eventually made it so underslept but Donna, Sabrina, Evie, and I then managed to take a cab over to Jazz Hotel by the airport where we then both ran into and said goodbye to Song at the Jazz Hotel, and then had an early dinner with Daisy, Ihita and Radhika before taking advantage of the hotel sauna afterwards.

The next morning Donna, Evie, and I said our goodbyes to Sabrina after breakfast and set off on a morning flight back to Rome, where we would transfer to a quick flight to Lampedusa.

However, while walking over at the gates in Rome airport I had mistakenly assumed “Palermo” was Lampedusa (we’re actually heading to Palermo the day after) and therefore was misled to the wrong gate. And the whole time we just sat, chatted and watched Evie perform on a piano nearby without realizing we had all the time in the world to go to our actual gate.

 

 

By the time we began to board at 1:06pm, it was already too late: the agents told us we had the wrong tickets, I then realized Palermo was not Lampedusa, and that the 1:10pm Lampedusa flight had already taken off. I took a deep breath, consoled myself it was only fair after a week of successes in flying 34 people into and around Sardinia, and walked over to the last flight out to Lampedusa in another part of the airport. Then leaving my bags with Evie and Donna at our new gate with only 2 hours to spare until that backup flight would take off, I ran out of the airport with their 3 passports and vaccine cards in hand looking all over for the ticket offices.

This particular Wizz Air flight out to Lampedusa from Rome was not showing up on my searches online, and the Wizz Air website did not allow me to buy a ticket on the same day. I therefore had no other choice but wait 30 minutes physically in line, sweating out everything I had drank and ate the past week wondering what my alternatives would be if I couldn’t buy this flight. After another 20 minutes at the counter figuring it out and finally getting our new flights, I was directed back to the check-in desk (thankfully having been allowed to cut in front), where I had the awkward task of explaining to them how I wanted check in 2 passengers who were already past security at the gate itself. By the time I had returned back through security to rendezvous with Donna and Evie, they had already began to board.

Crisis barely averted.

And the whole time I could recall how this near exact scenario had played out 4 years ago when I was trying to get to Slovenia, where Rome airport was also involved and I barely made it work (Mihaela was part of that experience, and it would be the same trip where we would meet Ashley Jia, who had just joined us for Yacht Week! …you never know…).

Yet what I find even more remarkable about this particular incident afterwards, was that everyone else in our Yacht Week group were also going through missed connections of their own AT THE SAME TIME: Priscilla and Gina were also led to the wrong platform for their train from Rome to Florence, and ended up instead on a wrong train to Bologna. Ashley missed her flight home in Rome. Sabrina would find out last minute her flight out of Sardinia would be canceled and would have to spend an extra night there.

I began to wonder whether these comedies of errors was emblematic of something bigger; that no matter how frustrating or random these inconveniences would seem at the time, they serve to remind us they’re just detours — or even required pit stops — that eventually get us back onto the paths we’re supposed to be on. They seem like mistakes at the time, but they might be anything but. Either way we all felt some sense of farflung interconnected camaraderie despite being separated by hundreds of miles of land and ocean knowing we were all going through the same thing…and instead of feeling frustrated at our present predicaments, we actually got a laugh together out of them. That’s a special kind of kinship.

Furthermore I wondered had we picked the right gate to Lampedusa, we wouldn’t have be sitting next that piano for Evie to play on, which could have inspired a random onlooking passenger, that mom dancing with her baby behind Evie, or even our social media, to look at life in a new light as if we became part of a greater ripple effect…

…and yet these are also thoughts I consider when I pull 2 all nighters in a row. One can dare to dream.

 

 

Back to our regularly scheduled programming:

Located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea as the southernmost island of Italy, Lampedusa is the major island of the Pelagie Islands and considered to be part of Sicily. We arrived around 2 hours later than planned at 4:30pm.

 

 

This island has been inhabited by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs until it became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. You can tell it has Arabic influences to moment you arrive into town.

After a week in the very Wester European influenced old towns of Sardinia and Corsica, I felt immediately at home here.

 

 

With population of 5800 people, the island is 12km long and 3km wide, boasting a Middle Eastern-influenced capital “town” full of charms and vibes.

 

 

Fun fact is that we’re not really in Europe; this island geologically belongs to Africa.

 

 

For the average visitor who must go somewhere “unique” to the island, they should head straight to L’isolotto dei Conigli (the Island of the Rabbits), regarded as the “world’s best beach” on an official TripAdvisor poll.

We took the hourly 1 euro per person bus from the center of Lampedusa’s central town which gets to the beach on the west side of the island within 15 minutes.

 

 

What we did not know was that you need to make reservations ahead of time via your accommodations to visit the beach, otherwise expected to be placed on a waitlist (aka sit on an uncomfortable rock wall) where you could wait up to 2 hours to get in.

 

 

Thanks to a kind Italian nuclear engineer named Claudia (and her parents!) from Naples living in London, her watermelon themed umbrella kept us sane for our 2 hours underneath the sun.

Once our 2 hour wait was up and after the folks with reservations having been let in first, we finally got to see what the fuss was all about. I also needed to stretch my legs after that.

 

 

For sustainability purposes, they only allow a maximum of 550 people at a time on a beach, with a maximum of 2 hour shifts at a time before you’re expected to leave to make room for another group to arrive. The beach opens late morning and closes at 7:30pm.

 

 

Once you’re in you have to hike down a rock path 15-20 minutes to finally reach your destination.

 

 

And once you do, it’s baptism by paradise.

 

 

Wait this long to get in and you just want to flip your hair:

 

 

No excuses:

 

 

Lampedusa was also a location for many film shoots, so movies fans may also recognize some locations and film stars here. We recognized one:

 

 

After our time here was up, we headed back into town for a cab pickup at our lodgings for our onward 6:40pm DAT direct flight to Palermo.

 

 

- At time of posting in Lampedusa, it was 30 °C - Humidity: 63% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Love In The Time Of Corona/COVID-19 — The End Of The First Wave

Love In The Time Of Corona/COVID-19 — The End Of The First Wave

 

Stepped outside in the middle of my ER shift on Monday, April 13th to take a moment to myself when a passerby with a camera happened to be at the right place at the right time:

I needed to breathe. I needed to know if I was still alive.

A few weeks later and through several degrees of mutual friends, serendipity would have Kareem find me again and send me this photo; a moment which barely encapsulates 8 weeks of COVID-19 related care since my first case in March 8th in Brooklyn.

Since then and within 50 days I’ve worked 35 shifts (all 10-12 hours long) across numerous ERs in mostly The Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn (and a few in Manhattan), added 3 new ERs to my roster, met so many supporters, while also losing colleagues, friends, and my grandfather to COVID-19.

As patient volumes are now decreasing and I have much fewer shifts needing to be filled, I take pause to reflect on the souls and the innocence we’ve lost. And as bury our dead, tend to the injured, and process all the emotions we had held off during the first surge, we also brace ourselves for the possible next wave.

But alas even if there would be no next wave, life is life, and there always will be “a next wave.” Whether it’s more COVID-19 patients, the patients that waited too long for care, the rising mental health toll, the livelihoods lost, the next pandemic, or the next disaster, those of us remaining will keep holding the line so we can all see to another tomorrow.

Until then, channel gratitude for the precious opportunities you still have and don’t forget to take a moment to yourselves right now. Don’t forget to breathe. Don’t forget to live: All you got is right now. This world doesn’t wait for anyone.

Photo credit: Kareem Black

For further immediate, live updates on the ground, follow the stories posted on my Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/monsoondiaries/

 

- At time of posting in NYC, it was 18 °C - Humidity: 21% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

“Namibe”-tter Duo, I’ll Wait. Otherwise You Gotta “Lubango!”

“Namibe”-tter Duo, I’ll Wait. Otherwise You Gotta “Lubango!”

 

After some uneven back-and-forth kind of travel in the outskirts of Luanda yesterday, we “slept in” this morning until 8am before starting out day with a drive to Cacuaco for a stroll around a local fishing village.

 

 

My gut feeling here was that since tourism here is still raw and developing, I would recommend keeping on the periphery and not to getting in the way at the market.

So we spent about 10 minutes here before heading off to the airport for our 12pm flight to Lubango.

 

 

Not since Tuvalu since I got a handwritten plane ticket!

 

 

I think they accept priority pass at the domestic airport?

 

 

Alas but nobody was there to check me in. It was very rude.

 

 

After a half an hour delay passing the time over some coffee and two of us doing 300 pushups in the waiting area, we finally boarded our flight at 12:30pm.

 

 

We landed after an uneventful 1.5 hour flight in Lubango, where we got screened for a fever (COVID-19 fears are real even here!) and had our visas checked. 

Picking up our checked luggage and driving off promptly at 2pm south for Namibe, we then had a quick lunch in the city proper before stopping at a viewpoint on Serra da Leba cliff:

 

 

There’s also some street art along the highway:

 

 

After a 3 hour drive, we arrived at Namibe at 6pm, just in time for the golden hour and enjoying a kind of splendid city atmosphere that immediately reminded me of Cienfuegos and Havana in Cuba.

 

 

We then checked in at our hotel in the outskirts and had an early dinner before turning in at 10pm.

The next day was…not very efficient and a string of mishaps.

Although we had been informed by our local guide to wake up at 6:30am for a morning drive out to visit a few tribes, nobody showed up when we did just that. Half an hour went by before we got word that only one of the drivers “just woke up” and another car “wasn’t working.” So we shrugged our shoulders and went for breakfast where another hour went by. Then another. It wasn’t until 9:30am when anyone showed up with an update and a single 4×4 to take only part of the group. Not wanting to lose any more time and get back to Lubango too late, we sent half the group out on the itinerary while the 3 of us stayed behind for a second 4×4.

About 45 minutes later at around 10:15am a second jeep showed up, with the other guide informing us that there had been an additional delay because of some “oil issues” with his borrowed vehicle. Undeterred, the 3 of us remaining packed the 4×4 and set off.

An hour later we soon crossed through the town of Namibe and off-roaded into the desert. The litany of abandoned cars here became a fitting harbinger of what was to come.

 

 

About 45 minutes into the desert, our jeep suddenly stopped driving. The engine wouldn’t start, and we started to smell smoke.

 

 

Yep, you guessed it. Aforementioned “oil issues” turned into “engine failure.” We got out and began to pay our respects to a dead vehicle that was now stranded in the middle of the desert, 45 minutes from the nearest city.

And yet by pure dumb luck and before any sort of worry set in, we only had to wait a mere 1-2 minutes before a good samaritan — driving his family and 3 goats on the back of his pickup truck — stopped to help resurrect this husk of metal. He quickly took out his black toolkit, looked at our engine, picked up an empty aluminum can off the side of the road, ripped off a shard, and performed some heroic McGyverish maneuvers.

 

 

After about 10 minutes of trial and error, this good man finally got the engine back up running again but warned us to not to drive too quickly. So we thanked him, got back in our 4×4, shut off the A/C, rolled down the windows, turned around our jeep, and limped our way at 18km/hour back to Namibe. What would have been a 45 minute drive took us about twice as long at 1.5 hours.

Once we arrived back into town, we stopped back at the car shop where our guide had originally picked up the jeep and tried to switch to a new vehicle. By then our jeep was so murdered by the elements that the staff had to manually push it back out from the garage into the street.

 

 

To add insult to injury, the car shop had no other vehicle for us to switch into. So our guide ran off without explanation, returning about half an hour later with a small Volkswagen beetle (so much for a 4×4 and off-roading for today!). By then it was about 1:30pm. At this point I was amused at the whole morning, sitting in a café across the street, and enjoying the whole comedy of errors as long as we were all alive and safe. We decided to head straight to Lubango.

But then a different spectrum of emotions emerged.

 

Here’s a Preface:

I’m a big believer of not judging anything from your high-horse/backseat/armchair unless you experience it yourself and form your own opinions.

That said with all my experiences, I am far past a point of no return in being a perfect person. Travel can be fraught with so many ethical conundrums that it becomes a mess, and if we look through it from such a lens, my hands are filthy.

So at the very least I strive to minimize the impact of my sins on this earth by seeking “Truth” with a capital T, which has created a habit of constantly locking horns without the boundaries of what society considers “acceptable.” After all, most of the things we take for granted without a thought today would instead be considered taboo if it were not for those who have challenged the status quo of generations past. I thus relish in the rebellion in critical thinking, questioning established institutions and “rules”, reading between the lines, and then touching the burner (and yet the caveat being that as long as any of my actions and any downstream ripple effects don’t directly harm anyone, have unsolicited negative consequences, or interfere with anyone’s daily lives) — it’s the core of what excites me when I wake up every morning.

And then today, these feelings came: Even rebels have boundaries.

 

The Emotions

I have certainly taken portrait photographs on my travels more than a handful of times. But why does today feel completely different, even when having verbal consent? Why would it be today that I would reach some kind of personal limit where I couldn’t even bring myself to participate?

When our local Angolan guide insisted that we take photos of local tribes along the way back to Lubango, why couldn’t I help but feel he was being exploitative by encouraging and we were being equally exploitative by going along with this? Why couldn’t I help but feel as if our guide was some kind of pimp driving along the road asking us “you like this tribe? Want to stop for a photo?” Why couldn’t I help but feel we were on kind of objectifying dehumanizing safari?

It’s not so much the feeling that counts as much as understanding the meaning behind those feelings.

Our guide reported that from the tribes’ side, it was understood that members would agree to have their photographs taken if they got paid 500-1000 kwanza per person. So a monetary transaction was expected here? This was not a “Humans of New York” campaign where we could spend time to get to know them, hear their stories, invited into their homes, exchange a meal of perspectives, and they would in turn fully comprehend and understand the purpose of our photographs. Or even better, like in Mumbai’s Dharavi, photography is officially banned; instead you can tour around with a responsible NGO who then sends you an album of responsibly taken “ethical” photos for your personal use. I would have appreciated even a semblance of such efforts by our guides, but alas, at the same time Angola is still developing these infrastructures.

On a brighter side of better behavior, my fellow travelers made efforts to soften the blow; one had a Polaroid camera which photos he gave back to the tribes, and another tried to have a conversation with the locals and ask meaningful questions via the guide translating, but I still felt the guide wasn’t being very helpful and just wanted to drive to the next stop. There was no conversation.

 

 

At one point I thought maybe I should be giving everyone the benefit of the doubt in that the local tribes are also fully onboard? And yet because Angola is infamous for its extreme inequality gap and so underdeveloped in tourism, such a scenario would be on the unlikelier side of the spectrum. It also didn’t help that a random police officer had stopped our guide sometime in the afternoon, made us drive to the local station, and told him what he was doing was not allowed (The guide’s defense was that the officer wanted a bribe and there was no such rule).

Therefore I wince over how it is much more likely that our local guide is a willing participant in exploitation, where downstream patronage — foreign or domestic — further exacerbates an inequality. Furthermore, our local guide replied with an unsatisfying answer when we asked him about whether he was being respectful in his approach to these tribes: “I go to the tribe and I say I have these tourists who are interested in your way of life and would like to take a picture.” *Crickets*

So what ended up happening today was except for the police station, I sat in the car in a form of borderline bratty but silent protest. Despite the guide repeatedly asking me to pay the tribes to take a photo without otherwise starting a conversation with them, It just felt all wrong to me; I smiled politely the best I could and declined.

 

 

Circling back to how the very nature of travel is fraught with ethical dilemmas that it can never be perfect, I don’t want to come off across as ethically superior to anyone and I don’t want this to sound like self-righteous condemnation. As I have said in my preface, I myself am far from a perfect person and I plead guilty to having towed the line so much that my entire life has stretched ad infinitum into an endless gradient of grays. So instead of unsolicitedly imposing any sort of personal ethical standards onto others, I’m thus here on my own platform to describe and vent an intense feeling I couldn’t control, so that I may hopefully ultimately ascertain a meaning behind why I feel the way that I do, and that as part of the problem I may do better next time.

But where I can’t control emotions (who can, really?), I certainly can control my own actions — Tomorrow I’ll skip out on the second day of this “tribe safari” and finally enjoy some time alone to myself.

So after a whole afternoon of driving and discussing this, we finally reached our hotel in Lubango by 7pm where I continued this conversation with my other 2 fellow travelers over dinner and we all seemed to be on the same page.

But what about the other half of the group in the first car that had left earlier before us? They ended up driving back to Namibe instead of onwards to Lubango due to another miscommunication. So they turned back around, reaching our hotel by midnight where we were finally reunited. Oh Angola. Baby steps.

 

 

The next morning I stuck to my promise and sat out the morning’s activities while the rest of the group set out to visit a few more local tribes. I took my time with breakfast and caught up on a lot of housekeeping.

By the time the group finished, they picked me up at 12:30pm for a street stall lunch and then a city tour of Lubango’s surroundings.

We returned to the edge of the Serra da Leba cliff this time for a viewpoint on the other side to see the Tundavala Gap.

 

 

Then we headed up the mountain to the famous Christo Rei statue, a near exact but smaller replica of the one in Rio.

 

 

And we then were dropped off back at Lubango’s airport for our 5:30pm flight back to Luanda.

 

 

- At time of posting in Namibe, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 81% | Wind Speed: 4km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy

 

They Put A Monsooner On The Moon — The White Desert Of Egypt

They Put A Monsooner On The Moon — The White Desert Of Egypt

 

Once in a while, I’m blessed to write up and release a blogpost that will stand the test of time in my memories.

 

 

This is one of those posts.

 

 

The irony of today rests in the fact that after a decade visiting 180 countries and territories, that it would take me returning to my first ever country — country #1: EGYPT — to finally write these words on my blog: “I have never seen anything or been anywhere like this before.”

 

 

This is the White Desert, a moonscape formed by centuries of erosion and sandstorms and a last minute yet unanimously decided excursion for our last hurrah of the trip. And I don’t know we can place such a perfect dot to an exclamation point of a trip ever ever again. And yet, we may be confusing the actual reason for that very thought, to be the people that came with me.

 

 

But before we get there, the sweet is never as sweet without the sour — first it is not easy to get to the White Desert, and our story today won’t work as well without some bitter to begin with.

Going back a day, I found that this trip obviously has been going too well, as if The Monsoon Diaries always has some bad freaking luck with catching trains.

I always tell of the epic infamous story 3 years ago where on our way to Xi’an from Beijing, I messed up the wrong train station and ended up booking it last minute to the correct one, only for half of us to make it and the other half missing it. This led me to pull everyone who did make it off the train as it was pulling away just so we could stick together, which meant a crash overnight stay in Beijing for 4 hours and then taking morning flights to Xi’an instead to resume the monsoon on schedule.

Well, after a chill time in Alexandria just as everything felt like it had been going well without any hiccups, the group decided to split in 2, with one taking the 8pm train back and the other taking the 9:25pm. So at 6:45pm the former — a group of 10 — then split into 3 Ubers to pick up our bags  that we had dropped off at Triomphe Hostel earlier in the day, continuing onwards to Alexandria train station.

 

 

1 of the 3 Ubers almost drove to the wrong train station afterwards and the other was forced to hail 2 separate Ubers due to issues with parking as we went to pick up our bags.

Once arriving at the train station, the first Uber group that arrived ended up in the wrong ticket office (the ticket office outside security is NOT for Cairo), before a kind passerby led us to the right office INSIDE the train station for tickets to Cairo. There I was able to buy 10 tickets to Cairo with 20 minutes to spare at 7:40pm

 

 

After reuniting with the other 2 Ubers to get back our group of 10 together, we asked the station master for the platform for our train (Platform #4). There at 7:45pm we were waiting on Platform #4 confused why our train to Cairo looked like it was abandoned and out of service.

 

 

The guy inside that train EVEN SAID it was the right train to Cairo after looking at our tickets. Something felt off but luckily another passerby came by and told us we were supposed to be on Platform #6 after asking for our tickets. At this point it was 7:50pm.

 

 

So we crossed over to Platform #6 where Chyne, who already suffered a laceration 3 days prior and a fall from his horse 2 days before that, stumbled over his bag right on the platform (he’s fine and just suffered a superficial abrasion on his hand). Big yikes!

We quickly picked him up and at 8:01pm boarded the right train (thank heavens it decided to wait for us). I gave that passerby 50 EGP for his troubles and the train departed right afterwards at 8:04pm with train staff amused at how befuddled we looked to them.

 

 

Peak monsooning the way I missed it.

And to top it all off another well dressed “undercover” plainclothes officer began to monitor us. Then I realized that instead of determining whether we were threats, they may be assigned to protect us, especially after what had happened to 17 tourists 6 months ago. Because once we disembarked from our train in Cairo at 11pm, I saw the plainclothes officer motion to a uniformed police officer to personally guide us to the metro outside the train station before letting us on our way back to our hostel.

Faith in humanity restored! And just to be complete, our final and later group from Alexandria arrived without a hitch a few hours later.

The next morning we woke up at 7am and headed out down the street towards Talaat Harb Square, where our driver Ahmed was waiting for us with a 14 passenger coaster.

 

 

And promptly at 7:30am we set off for the 5 hour drive into the the Farafra depression and desert of Western Egypt for Bahariya: We didn’t last very long.

 

 

We reached a lonely but romantic rest stop about halfway into our 5 hour drive.

 

 

Don’t drop the toilet paper!

 

 

And then finally, about 2 hours later we reached the lush green oasis of Bahariya, where human settlements there date back to ancient Egypt and Roman times.

 

 

There we were greeted by the legendary Badry at his home where he served us al dente pasta and vegetables for lunch.

 

 

After lunch we switched vehicles to three 4×4 jeeps and set out for the White Desert at around 2pm, located approximately midway between Dakhla and Bahariya oases. About about 30 minutes into the drive, we first drove through the Black Desert. Also known as Sahra al-Suda, here we saw dozens of sand dunes lay covered by the remnants of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.

 

 

Then after about another half an hour of driving, we reached the edges of the White Desert. You’ll know it when you see it:

 

 

After taking a few photos and running up and down sand dunes, we then drove about 20 minutes dune bashing and off-roading, cuing classic Indiana Jones music in the background.

 

 

By 4pm we finished up just in time for sunset,

 

 

The White Desert continues to remain as one of Egypt’s best secrets. The scenery here is unlike anywhere else in the world — once submerged by the sea, it now exists as an isolated and gorgeous moonscape with chalk white pillars coming out of the sand, formed after millions of years of sandstorms that eroded calcium rock into these natural sculptures that look like mushrooms or ice cream scoops, or for others, abstract man-made statues you’d find in a modern art museum.

 

 

If you ever find yourself here, please take a moment to give yourself at least 30 seconds to take in all the silence of this place. It was so quiet we could hear the ringing of our own inner frequency.

 

 

As Diana writes: “There are no pyramids here, so we made our own.”

 

 

But even when pyramids fall, we’re still standing.

 

 

As the sun finally dipped below the horizon, we set up camp with the bedouins led by Badry.

 

 

As the stars began to reveal themselves in the silence and with no WiFi to save us, we lost ourselves in stories and the lentil soup, rice, veggies, and barbecued chicken over an open fire,

Perhaps it was the atmosphere, but we collectively dare to reckon this could be the best meal of the trip.

 

 

After dinner, we then broke out Badry’s hookah around our campfire and shared more stories of travel, love, and romance under the stars.

 

 

In the meantime, others set out to get that perfect shot for the ‘gram:

 

 

Since many of us wanted to wake up at around 4am to catch the twilight at its darkest with its stars, most of us then headed to bed at around 10:30pm.

 

 

And then, imagine you wake up to THIS:

 

 

Dancing away a story called life and on a spaceship called Earth, we fulfilled our one rotation around the sun as it rose once more for us gloriously at 6:30am:

 

 

Some were too cold and had to enjoy it from their rug cavern:

 

Where is Ji Won in this photo?

 

Others braved the chill:

 

 

The silence here at sunrise was deafening.

 

 

How’s your Thursday morning been?

 

 

After taking it in and freshening up in pure blissful nature, we began our breakfast and morning tea together at around 7am.

 

 

During this time, Diana and our very new inductee into the social media team — Raubern — were kind enough to surprise me with a makeshift outdoor interview booth against an epic backdrop, as we all began to realize that we wanted to hold on to our appreciation of this place as long as possible.

 

 

After lingering here for another hour, we slowly hiked 10 minutes towards the famous “chicken and mushroom” formation.

 

 

“You’ll know it when you see it.”

 

 

It has been called anything from “mushroom and chicken”, “chicken and tree”, or “chicken and atomic bomb.” At least everyone agrees on chicken.

 

 

The mushroom and chicken just got served.

 

 

And not just by me:

 

 

Cue the M.I.A. music:

 

 

“Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.”

 

 

After about 20 minutes here taking our photos, we set out in our 4X4s for other formations, such as the turtle:

 

 

This one is supposed to be an elephant? Because I don’t quite see it.

 

 

And this one I just had for lunch today:

 

 

At this point it was time to turn our 4X4s back home, with a quick stop at Crystal Mountain and locally known as Gebel al-Izzaz: a ridge dotted with quartz, barite or calcite crystals created by a unique geological phenomenon.

 

 

We then took a proper photo stop at the Black Desert, painted dark by ancient volcanic ash:

 

 

By noon we returned Badry’s camp back at Bahariya where we enjoyed our last official lunch together on the trip:

 

 

Don’t forget to bring some dates on your way back.

 

 

And after another 5 hour drive back to Cairo, the group freshened up back where it all started at Tahrir Square Hostel from day 1.

Given that my trips usually end in a completely far off destination than where it begins, to end a trip back where we starts should have some weird serendipitous meaning, a meaning that hopefully may reveal itself to us one day.

 

 

But we’re not finished! The group needs one final dinner together, and so we took the recommendation of many of our local Egyptian friends (even our cab drivers agreed that we were going somewhere special) by dining at the famous Sobhy Kaber, known for its lamb chops and other meat dishes.

 

 

But overwhelmed by the chaos of the place, the group wanted to end such a trip somewhere on a quieter, more humble note.

So we promptly and efficiently returned after dinner back to Tahrir Square Hostel where we kicked back one final time together as a group over local $1 USD hookah watching the world go by at Tahrir Square.

It’s time to say goodbye, for real.

 

 

But it’s never a “goodbye” with us, right? We shall mark tonight desperately clinging onto the infinite possibility of “see you later.”

 

 

“See you later.”

 

 

— AN ENCORE —

The next day, only Diana, Grace, Kasie, Melissa, and I would remain. Since Grace and Kasie had missed the first 3 days of the trip to meet us in Aswan, I had to show them the Cairo as I knew it: we returned for horseback riding by the pyramids at sunrise.

The story that started it all.

 

 

And if at first you don’t succeed with the weather, try try again — the haze from our first go last week had now finally disappeared into this:

 

 

This view never gets old.

 

 

So how much have I changed the past 10 years?

 

 

Afterwards we sent off Grace and Kasie to view the pyramids up close . . .

 

 

. . . while Diana, Melissa and I retired to the bougie breakfast buffet spread nearby at the hallowed former palace (and current Marriott property) Mena House with the pyramids in full display.

 

 

After Grace and Kasie finished at the pyramids, we then took our van out to show them the Cave Church at the top of Manshiyat Nasir (aka “Garbage City”).

There we rendezvous’ed with Priyanka, a girl we had met in our van on the way to Abu Simbel one week ago!

 

 

From there we did our first day in Cairo entirely in reverse — first by walking downhill through Manshiyat Nasir . . .

 

 

. . . and then to Qarafa (aka “City of the Dead”) where a woman invited us into her garden of tombs, not accepting any tips from us for her hospitality, and instead left us all shedding a few joyful tears that felt like she was truly recognized by a vast world that seemed to have forgotten her.

We eventually reached back to where we had our first lunch together at Nagub Mafhouz in Khan Al-Khalili where we kicked back and relaxed. There Priyanka said her goodbyes so she could finish up the last of her sightseeing, and the rest of the group went shopping in the souq for a few hours.

If this post continues to update at the time of reading, it means I’m really trying to prolong this goodbye as long as possible. . . .

. . . this blogpost still in progress at the time of posting: if you’re reading this then that means I’m still typing away in Cairo with Diana, Grace, and Kasie laughing at me. . . .

 

. . . Maybe I won’t end this post formally, just as a symbolic gesture as this being one of the rare moments how I never would want such a trip to end. . . .

 

- At time of posting in Désert blanc, Egypt, it was 22 °C - Humidity: 42% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Try Not To Be An Old Giza, Will Ya: The Great Pyramids

Try Not To Be An Old Giza, Will Ya: The Great Pyramids

 

After a whirlwind first day in Cairo, we woke up bright and early at 4am for the Pyramids. Just like good old times.

 

 

Today we changed nothing on the plan I did 10 years ago. Everything was planned to the tee to be exactly the same except that instead of 4-5 friends with me, I had 20. 

We drove over from Tahrir Square to the bedouin horse stables where 16 horses were waiting for us by 5:00am. They quickly assigned each of us to a horse based on preferences for “fast”, “slow”, “strong”, or “small.”

 

 

10 years ago, I chose “crazy”:

 

 

Today I chose “crazy fast”:

 

  

We quickly befriended our horses and set off into the darkness (obviously any photos I took came out all black).

10 years ago,

. . . with a sound of a whip breaking through the cold air, my life would change forever. My horse raced off and so did my heart, and I held on for dear life. The poor bastard I was sitting on was galloping away as if we were trying to outrun a jaguar: we were outrunning fate. From the sound of crackling pavement to that of rustling sand, I slowly caught on that I was in the middle of the Sahara desert: Just my horse and I in the blind.

The darkness also overwhelmed me; I couldn’t see anything but the color black under a cloudy night sky. I’m not sure if I could brag that “I was riding that horse with my eyes closed!” but this was close enough. And I knew in my bones that if I had let go for a second, I’d fall and break something: my camera, my limbs, my head, my dignity. So I held tighter. I channeled prior experience on riding mechanical bulls back home. It seemed as every gallop would be the last thing I would ever hear. I remember there was a little voice in my head telling me that I *really* wasn’t in New York anymore (a little slow, a little late).

Then with a high-pitched whistle in front of me I saw a fire burn in the distance. Shadows in the light of the fire pointed. I turned my head over my shoulder . . . 

 

 

As we reached the Giza plateau, dawn began to pierce the night. The muezzin call to prayer, the adhan, began to fill the air around us. Familiar emotions from 10 years ago came back as if stored like muscle memory. As if I smelled the perfume of a former lover, read an old letter to myself, or stepped in a room I used to grow up in, I wept. Luckily nobody saw me in tears through the thickness of twilight.

As the sun began to peek above the haze, we got off our horses to take it all in.

 

 

We watched as an occasional harras of horses galloped across the plain.

 

 

And as the sun continue to rise, we were treated to a breakfast for the ages by our bedouin guides, with the silhouettes of the great pyramids (too covered by a thick haze to be clearly seen) in front of us.

 

  

There was some photobombing.

  

 

And there were some emotions (not just from me): A little birdie tells me that Mihaela also had a moment where she wept out of pure joy. 

Ironic since it was she herself who coined the quote that “at least one person always cries on a monsoon.”

 

 

We then wrapped up our morning with traditional tea by a makeshift bedouin campfire.

 

 

After an hour on the plain, we set off back on our horses back to the stables, bid our guides farewekk and drove towards the Great Pyramids themselves.

 

 

BTW, if you have been following us on our Instagram stories, then you should know how grateful I am to my social media manager on this trip, Diana Klatt.

 

 

And equally so, the rest of my monsooners on this very trip who joined me in my emotional return to a place that changed my life forever.

10 years ago:

Today:

 

 

After an hour with the Great Pyramids, we drove towards Saqqara: a vast, ancient burial ground in Egypt that served as the necropolis for the Ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. 

It is most famous for the Step pyramid of Djoser.

 

 

To the south, we then drove even further towards Dahshur, home to the failed Bent Pyramid, which construction was unsuccessful due to the miscalculations made on the structural weight. 

You can see the big fail right from the outset

 

 

Learning from these mistakes, King Sneferu then built the much more successful Red Pyramid:

 


…where we were able to go inside:

 

 

It’s a long long, seemingly interminable way down. Warning to those who get claustraphobic!

 

 

Once you climb down the 5-10 minutes it takes to reach the end, it takes about another 5 minutes to see whatever it is inside:

 

 

We then returned to our bus and finally rested for lunch in the area.

 

 

We then headed back to Cairo, taking the metro from the Coptic area for our overnight train to Aswan.

 

— AN ENCORE: ONE WEEK LATER —

On our very last day of the trip, only Diana, Grace, Kasie, Melissa, and I would remain after saying our goodbyes to everyone

Since Grace and Kasie had missed the first 3 days of the trip to meet us in Aswan, I had to show them the Cairo as I knew it: we would return one week later for horseback riding by the pyramids at sunrise. This time the mist was gone.

 

 

And if at first you don’t succeed with the weather, try try again — the haze from our first go last week had now finally disappeared into this:

 

 

This view never gets old.

 

 

So how much have I changed the past 10 years?

 

 

Afterwards we sent off Grace and Kasie to view the pyramids up close . . .

 

 

. . . while Diana, Melissa and I retired to the bougie breakfast buffet spread nearby at the hallowed former palace (and current Marriott property) Mena House with the pyramids in full display.

 

 

After Grace and Kasie finished at the pyramids, we then took our van out to show them the Cave Church at the top of Manshiyat Nasir (aka “Garbage City”). 

There we rendezvous’ed with Priyanka, a girl we had met in our van on the way to Abu Simbel one week ago!

 

 

From there we did our first day in Cairo entirely in reverse — first by walking downhill through Manshiyat Nasir . . . 

 

. . . and then to Qarafa (aka “City of the Dead”) where a woman invited us into her garden of tombs, not accepting any tips from us for her hospitality, and instead left us all shedding a few joyful tears that felt like she was truly recognized by a vast world that seemed to have forgotten her.

We eventually reached back to where we had our first lunch together at Nagub Mafhouz in Khan Al-Khalili where we kicked back and relaxed. There Priyanka said her goodbyes so she could finish up the last of her sightseeing, and the rest of the group went shopping in the souq for a few hours.

If this post continues to update at the time of reading, it means I’m really trying to prolong this goodbye as long as possible. . . .

. . . this blogpost still in progress at the time of posting: if you’re reading this then that means I’m still typing away in Cairo with Diana, Grace, and Kasie laughing at me. . . .

 

 

- At time of posting in Giza, it was 22 °C - Humidity: 51% | Wind Speed: 15km/hr | Cloud Cover: hazy

 

During The Terrorist Attack in Pul-e Mahmood Khan, Kabul, Afghanistan….

During The Terrorist Attack in Pul-e Mahmood Khan, Kabul, Afghanistan….


09:30AM

As I’m writing this a few explosions just occurred within our vicinity a few km away (it’s already on the news). Still hearing some gunfire in the distance where the plumes of smoke are.

 

 

We just went up to the rooftop to take a look:

 

 

What is more remarkable is how the hotel staff and even some of the people in our group remain so blasé right now as if we had heard a car accident just happened a few blocks away. We’ve been here a little over a week and the desensitization is very real, even though nothing close to this has happened during our 7-8 days here.

We even went out for lunch outside an hour later. As our guide informed us, most of the attacks occur between 7am-10am at the same places to target the morning commutes of VIPs and foreign workers. Tourists are never a target.

 

12:10pm

Another explosion has just occurred during the call to prayer at the OMAR Landmine museum, which we had visited just yesterday afternoon. It appears that the Taliban has stormed and occupied the TV station that situated on the same site as the OMAR Landmine museum, and has been fending off outside attempts to re-secure the building by Afghan military and police forces.

The Taliban has now claimed responsibility for today’s attacks on Kabul right now where a series of bomb blasts and sporadic gunfire are still occurring outside from where we’re staying.

 

02:00pm

I’m going to write this from the entire perspective of both my past week (which has been otherwise uneventful and very safe) and what has been going on the past few hours.

Because for security reasons I chose to post this on my last day in Kabul, and especially given that just as I finished writing this we heard a series of explosions and sporadic gunfire occurring a few kilometers away from our hotel, I’m writing this both from the perspective of my first and last day in Afghanistan after 7 days here. And although it took awhile, Afghanistan surprised me in ways I could not expect.

I expected to be throttled, shocked and awed, stumbling to the ground believing it would be a feverish experience from the moment I arrived. Instead pleasant surprise prevailed. Walking on the streets of Kabul on my first day felt immediately comfortable and familiar, and I never once experienced any sense of heightened tensions I had been warned to expect. At many moments I felt like I was back in Pakistan, gallivanting without a care other than the occasional tout and curious child. Like our initial concerns coming here, even military forces soon evaporated within the din of rush hour traffic.

Then I traveled to Mazar-e Sharif, Samangan, and Hairatan for 3 days — and despite the reported threat of the Taliban lurking around the corner — Afghanistan’s ocean of grandeur remained in wait, its beauty slowly unraveling like the beginning of an epic tale. Not until my return to Kabul for my final 2 days did this country finally reveal a tapestry of countless beautiful complexities.

Yes, before I go on, I must take a sense of responsibility and acknowledge the inherent dangers that could happen — even the one within a few minutes at the time of writing. However, I also cannot ignore the tens of thousands other minutes and moments where we felt completely safe, privileged to witness a place past the filter of Western media. Where a degree of the negativity bears truth, most of the positivity remains unrecognized. I know I still go to work hearing gunshots outside my ER back home.

To know Afghanistan is to know patience; the first impression can sometimes be the wrong impression. And sometimes the first impressions stick. Either way, you cannot judge a place or a person until you have experienced it for yourself. All I can conclude is that Afghanistan takes its time, lies in wait, rewarding only to those willing to look past the trauma porn of violence and war at its surface. It may take ages, demand repeat viewings, and should never be considered as n simply packaged, single-serving experience.

What I had witnessed this past week was resilience. Resilience in a country and people proud of its deep history — scars and all — while forging ahead towards an uncertain destiny.

 

 

- At time of posting in Kabul, it was 26 °C - Humidity: 16% | Wind Speed: 31km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy