I have a love/hate relationship with tourist destinations. Everywhere could be a tourist destination if it were properly marketed. Most tourist destinations are places you go to, stare at for a few moments, and then leave behind without revelation. It’s helpful for our family to have a destination since we live out our human existence on a big sphere, but the destinations are never the most memorable or life-changing parts of our travels. They give us a sense of purpose; a reason to go to a place we otherwise might not have chosen. But the landscape, the people, and the journey are always the meat of the trip. Not the destination. At least not usually.
Over the past four weeks, we’ve been to a few tourist destinations and I feel like I should write about each one separately. And each should have an amazing story to go along with it:
“Yeah… and we went to the Mount of Olives and Jesus was there!”
“You won’t believe what happened inside the pyramids…we discovered a real, live mummy in there!”
But alas, the tourist destinations are almost always anti-climactic. Our tourist destination stories go more like this:
“We went there. We saw it. And then we went back to our apartment/hotel/tent.”
I’ll use Masada in Israel as an example. We drove a long way on a road in Israel past the Dead Sea that wasn’t busy or hard to navigate. It followed along the edge of the Dead Sea. When we got there, there was a big parking lot with lots of buses and cars and other tourists, kind of like the Museum of Natural History in Denver or the Visitor’s Center at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. And then we got out of the car, jet-lagged and hungry and began complaining about the number of steps it took for us to get to the restroom facilities. We bought tickets and then we walked up stairs for from less than zero elevation to 1000 feet of elevation (this part was optional, we could’ve taken the tram). It was hard. We were sweating. We complained less about these stairs than the ones to the restroom because we didn’t have the stamina to bitch and climb at the same time. And then we were at the top. We had to push our way through tour groups to see the ruined city. Then, we went back down the stairs via the tram. We returned to our car.
One paragraph. That’s the story. We went there, we saw some things and then we left.
We’d expected the ruined city of Masada to be a challenge destination, but it was more of an irritation destination in the end. I’m sure it’s possible to explore the ruins of Masada and really get into the history of the place. And that can be light and fun especially with younger kids. Simple things like the promise of throwing paper airplanes from a high place can be enough motivation to get a 9 year old to climb 1000 feet. But Lydian, now a teenager is harder to impress. Halfway to the top of our Masada climb, John and I had to have a full-on Jet Lag Intervention with Lydian.
The two of us stopped and turned with our hands on our hips to confront Pissy Lydian on the skinny slanted path.
“Stop telling us you’re tired. We’re all tired.” We said, “You talking about tiredness is making things worse so shut up and keep that shit to yourself.” She glared at us. We told her that she could wait there and we’d come back for her later. I added, “Then you can tell everyone at home that you climbed halfway to the top of Masada.” She glared at us some more, but took her jacket off and tied it around her waist. Then, with a dramatic huff, she started the upward climb again.
“I’m climbing.” She announced. So we all climbed some more together, this time in silence, all of us suffering from the jet lag and the steep hike in our own private way. The challenging part of Masada had nothing to do with Masada itself and everything to do with the fact that none of us had slept the night before and despite our exhaustion, we still had 500 feet to climb and several hundred miles left to drive that day.
Tortuguero in Costa Rica was a challenge destination that should’ve been boring, but it kept us captivated from beginning to end. We rented a car from a ‘friend” and then since there were no street signs in Costa Rica, we followed a set of driving directions that we found online with instructions like: go to the intersection just past the tortilla shop and turn right at the banana tree OR cross the railroad tracks and then follow them for ten miles until you see the shoe-shop made out of cardboard. We did this sort of meandering for 3 hours to get to a farm where a boat docked. The captain of the boat had only one hand and he took us through the rainforest to Tortuguero, 2 hours away. We ran into a cliff on the way there, but no one was injured. We disembarked in a town with only one dirt path running through it north to south.
We walked back and forth on the path, peering into open doors where people sat together on wooden benches watching TV, their feet resting lightly on their flip-flops. Kids played on home-made playground equipment or on the grass near the river. Families sat outside together on the ground playing board games under the light of the full-moon. Muddied ponds on the path had bare foot prints through them and bike tracks. There were no cars. More people in Tortuguero died of deadly snake bites each year than any other kind of accident. People slept outside in hammocks fenced in by some wood posts and twine.
There was one road, but the residents of the community lived their lives in the open and so we were totally entertained walking the path back and forth from sunset to midnight when our turtle tour was scheduled to head toward the beach. We sat in the dark under a cement shelter for several hours with other tourists, waiting for our turn to see mommy turtles depositing eggs in the sand. I chatted with an Israeli man who’d been in Costa Rica with his family for a few weeks while our tour guide, a busty, dark-skinned Caribbean woman educated us about the sees pro-say-sees (six processes) that the turtles go through on their gestation journey. My Israeli friend got chided later for trying to take a photo of the birthing turtle (strictly not allowed) while our family stood by the beach watching the waves lapping at the shore under the light of the full moon.
But still there are certain destinations that are not “challenge destinations” per se, like Machu Picchu in Peru, where John, Lydi, and I are awed just to be there; places I’ve been seeing in history books since I was 10 years old. There are ancient pyramids and cities like Ephesus that seemed mythical from my Sunday School days. But there’s little to write about the destinations themselves after we see them because I’m not an archeologist and I know a lot of people have been there. Does the site, or the transport there need to be described again? Probably not. And besides, I’m more of a hobby ethnologist and so the part that interests me about tourist destinations is always the journey getting there and the people we encounter on our way.
On every long trip, I read up on all the possible tourist destinations that we could visit, but I try to keep the list of popular attractions reasonable because too many pop destinations can actually detract from our experience of a place. It’s hard to appreciate the sound of foreign birds chirping outside the window when you’re on the run from one destination to the next, mingling only with the other tourists. We could miss experiencing the overall rhythm of life in Egypt if we stack too many tourist activities one right after the other. Things happen to us when we travel whether we visit tourist destinations or not. We don’t have to seek out strange experiences with a Disney-World frenzy. We just have to try to live there the way that we live at home.
I try to find a challenge destination for every big trip. These are places that are hard to get to for some reason. In Costa Rica, the Challenge Destination was Tortuguero. In Peru, it was the Amazon. In Nepal, Chitwan. In Tunisia, we went to Tozeur.
Challenge destinations usually take us out into rural areas of the country that are only accessed with a guide (not the type that talks all the time, but the type that keeps you from getting killed by wild tigers or terrorists) or on our own using several forms of land travel. They’re places that most people don’t go to because it’s challenging to get there. And inevitably, through the challenge of getting from our point of origin to the final Challenge Destination, we meet people and things happen.
Life-changing, mind-blowing things.
Like the Ayahuasca ceremony that we watched in the Amazon, for example. We didn’t drink the Ayahuasca, but we didn’t have to in order to walk away with an experience that left us wondering about reality-as-we-know-it. We sat inside a wood-framed porch with mosquito netting at the edge of the river, the insects singing passionately in the jungle surrounding us. There were five wooden chairs in the room and four large bowls sitting beside them. The shaman arrived with a rug and several small ritual items, including the jar of Ayahuasca. He took a seat in a rocking chair after setting up his array of shamanic tools. And then, beginning with a whisper and a hiss, he began to sing icaros. Icaros are technically songs in that they have rhythm and melody, but they’re more than that. Performed by one person, a shaman, the icaros function to guide people through their Ayahuasca experience. The songs are multi-layered and ongoing. And hypnotic. When I closed my eyes as the shaman beat out a rhythm with sticks and weeds while chanting and tutting, I was flying over a landscape of orchards and yellow fields, having conversations with dead relatives. I was somewhere else and the landscape was vivid and electric. John and Lydi were also Elsewhere. It had been dark when the shaman arrived, the generator had been turned off for the night, and so none of us ever saw his real features, but as part of the outer reality of the experience, we all saw the silhouette of his face and his build changing as he chanted and shushed, hissed, and rocked in his wooden chair. It was strange beyond anything I’d ever experienced before in a completely sober state of mind. Sometimes he had a beard. Sometimes he looked like a boy. The trance, the dead relatives, the flying, and the weird physical contortions we saw in the shaman was strange enough that I was never sure what to write about it or how I would explain it.
There was a lot of vomiting (not us, but the man who took the Ayahuasca…he stretched out on the wooden floor, moaning, and squirming a lot). A full moon rose over the darkened talapa porch and across the river the rainforest was alive and textured by the soft light. Inside the screened in porch the walls, the floor, people and chairs were dark shadows. John, Lydi, and I sat together in a semi-circle on one side of the room. I sat close to Lydi and held her hand throughout the ceremony, the moon rising from behind the trees until it was high in the sky. And suddenly, when I looked down, I saw Lydi’s and my hands glowing blue, the only light in the whole room. John saw it too. Through a single, small hole in the talapa roof, the moon shone through to illuminate our overlapping hands.
Our three day trip into the Amazon was too full to blog about in one post. I’ve tried many times to condense it into something reader-friendly, but putting it into words always seems to diminish the experience. Like how when we were there, I couldn’t stop thinking about my dad. Before we left, I’d been obsessed with friending him on Facebook which was strange for me because the extended family and I had been somewhat estranged for years. But the week before we left on the trip, I friended everyone in our family that I could find and when we got back from the Amazon, I’d had enough of the obsession. I friended my dad on Facebook once and for all. My mom saw the “friending” come in just as she was searching for my email to tell me that Dad was having open-heart surgery. John and I booked a flight home and went back to the states the next day.
Nevermind Bunny-Eye, the bare-footed Hare Krishna who kept turning up wherever we were in the Amazon River Basin. Or the long conversation we had with our guide, Anselmo about his life as a rural Peruvian. Nevermind the tarantula that crawled up a screen in our open-air cabin as we were “chilling out”. Or the deadly pit viper near the chicken-coop. Or the amazing sunset after we went fishing for piranhas. This was a challenge destination that changed the way that I viewed the world forever.
Here in Egypt, we went to the White Desert as our challenge destination.
On a government web site, it said that it was illegal to go into the desert, but everywhere else online, like TripAdvisor, for example, and every tourist web site for Egypt, there were reviews from people who had just gone (or so it seemed). I contacted a tour company to find out whether it was legal to go into the desert or not and they assured me that there were no problems. It was perfectly legal and very safe. Still, I wasn’t sure. I sent emails back and forth with this company, asking for them to take us only to three locations: the White Desert, the Black Desert, and the Crystal Mountain. My goal was to get us there and then get us out as quickly as possible. We didn’t want to fall asleep in the desert. Since it was in an orange zone, I didn’t think we should linger there even if it was legal to go.
The tour company felt “pushy” to me and so I backed off on the project. John did a little research then and found a different company offering day-trips into the desert. All of us agreed that this was what we were looking for. So we signed up, leaving at 5:00 AM from Cairo two days later.
The driver asked to be paid for the trip up front. First he asked for 2800 Egyptian pounds. We went to an ATM. When we got back in the van, he wanted 3500. John tapped my shoulder and whispered, “why does he want more…ask him.” (in Arabic since the man didn’t seem to speak much English).
I leaned forward and several important thoughts went through my head:
- How do I say that in Arabic?
- I don’t want to ask a “why” question in a language I barely understand
- I don’t want to be confrontative in Arabic
- I don’t want to rock the boat while we’re in it
I looked at John and glared at him. He encouraged me to, “go on…tell him.”
I sat back again and said (to John), “Maybe the exchange rate is different. Look that up first before I start a fight and refuse to pay him.”
So he looked it up. And the exchange rate was still saying that we should owe 2800 Egyptian Pounds for our trip. So I leaned forward again and something along the lines of, “This, not right.”
And then, nothing happened. The man waved me off as though he’d simply accepted my weak assertion and we headed southwest. We drove for 2 ½ hours and then, at the mid-point of the journey (approximately the same place where the 8 Mexican tourists had been blown up a few months prior) the driver called his supervisor as we sat at a busy intersection and I had to explain our refusal to pay, in Arab-lish over the phone. The intersection seemed random. Heavily decorated trucks passed by us in a line, one after the other. I did my best to be honest without being a snitch and then handed the phone back to the driver. I could understand bits and pieces of what our driver was saying back to the fellow on the phone. I’d just tattled on the driver for trying to overcharge us and the driver was getting chided. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I found out later that this was the approximate location where 8 Mexican tourists were taken off the beaten path and blown up a a few months prior.
I looked over at John and glared at him some more.
…rocking the boat while we were in it…
It was an ominous start, but this driver handed us off to a different set of guides in Bawiti, a city in the Bahariya Oasis, which was a relief. And the White Desert, Black Desert, and the Crystal Mountain lived up to their reputation for being really amazing landscapes. But what I’ll never forget is how I heard one of the tour guides say discreetly (in Arabic), “they speak Arabic” before we all got in the Land Rover presumably to keep the other guide from saying something in conversation that we shouldn’t hear.
I sat in a back seat in the Land Rover, but when we got home, late that night, Lydian asked me if I knew what the word, shortay meant.
“I kept hearing them say that word over and over again, but I couldn’t remember what it meant.” She said.
A chill went down my spine because it meant, “police”. Those Mexican tourists had been killed at the halfway point between Cairo and Bahariya Oasis by Egyptian police (or military…some stories just say “security forces”). I asked our guides about the “accidental death” of these Mexican tourists and they said that the convoy was bombed. “First one car, and then the other…” the guide explained (he knew one of the tour guides personally, he said), though news stories said the tourists were shot. He explained that tourists had simply been at the wrong place at the wrong time. It sounded plausible. News stories had said the same thing (literally).
“I bet that’s why they took on us such strange paths through the desert.” John said. “They were probably avoiding the police.” After we’d returned to our apartment in Cairo that night, as the three of us discussed our trip (in privacy, finally, after a whole day of being with “guides”), we realized that the trip had probably been illegal for us. Illegal but the laws weren’t being enforced and “policed” the way that they were in the United States. And what had actually happened to the Mexican tourists is very questionable despite what news stories may say. Were the tourists bombed or were they shot? Who did the firing? And why? The rural Western Desert is host to radical Libyan insurgents and it’s hard to say what really happened. No one seems to be fessing up to the truth so the story remains as two-sided and confusing as the government admonitions against travel while the tour guides are encouraging it.
This is what I’ll always remember about our trip to the White Desert. But it was more interesting and unforgettable than going to a tourist destination that didn’t challenge us in some way. All the best destinations are the ones that take us on inner journeys with emotional landscapes beyond our comfort zone. To go and stare at an object that’s been photographed a million times and featured in a million magazines doesn’t feed my soul. The goal of travel is not to collect a roster of tourist destinations I’ve seen with my own eyes. The goal of travel is to get lost. To feel hopeless. To have to trust strangers. To be wet, or cold, hungry, or tired. And ultimately, to find the way home despite it all.