Camping at Cedar Rapids: An All-American Experience

Here’s the soundtrack for this post.  Heard this jam for the first time at the camp, it’s my summer anthem for 2012.

So I recently I went to Cedar Rapids, which was my first time camping in North America.  It was actually my first time camping in Africa as a teen, where I’d gone to Mombasa, Kenya and to Mount Kenya, also in Kenya. I do not know what took me so long, but for me I imagine it was a taste of an all-american experience, even if it was only for a weekend.  There were bonfires, fireworks (it was the weekend before July 4th), barbecues, etc.  There was an interesting juxtaposim of modernity and wilderness, as someone had brought a disco setup, so there was booming music all-night on Friday and Saturday.  This was complete with the disco ball, the sub-woofers, and the massive hand held torch–I’m talking about the one that signals planes.  Earlier on in the nights, the music blaring was rock-n-roll, blues, metal and disco—mostly american classics.  You would hear tunes form Aerosmith, Nirvana, Bee Gees, Red Hot Chilli Peppers.  Later at night, when the “normal” people had gone to sleep, the modern dance hits took over, your typical Pitbull, your Guetta, and your Gaga.  This was an all-night experience–and also keep in mind that copious amounts of alcohol are flowing at the camp at all times. Basically you either stayed up all night mingling with other campers, or you slept through the thumping music. I didn’t sleep much myself, was too excited meeting others and visiting rival bonfires.  There were so many kids and cool people from other neighbouring camps that I bonded with and got to meet.  A pity that we weren’t able to exchange contacts (more on that later).  Now this was a CAMPING trip, and lest you think that it was just a big dance party, I can assure you there was a primitive element to it too.

Ok, it wasn’t EXACTLY like THIS but I swear there was fireworks, a bright moon, a river, and a clear night sky.

Thing about the camp was that it was that it was in such a remote location that there was no cellphone service, which isolated us well from the external world. Even if there would’ve been a satellite signal, there was no electricity (the DJ used a generator), so most people were out of signal by Saturday morning. This is lamented earlier that people were unable to make contacts, as there was no cellphones (interesting how nobody had pencils and papers–these days we make contacts by facebooking on the spot on the phone).  No phones meant no alarms! No instagraming on facebook instead of just enjoying yourself in the moment!  No checking the streaming flow of extremely extremely urgent e-mails in faux-urgency every other second! The isolation was so complete that there was no light pollution in the sky…the camp was located at a riverbank, and the sides were foresty hills, think of a smaller scale of the Fjords in Norway–which I want to visit one day by the way. Now what was so charming about this was that when we were playing with the fireworks, the moon was the brightest I’ve ever seen, and it wasn’t even a full moon–it was probably about 3/4. That was truly one of those times when your soul just smiles, I was living life.   We were playing with sparkles just like little kids, and some campers even had the REAL fireworks that explode in the sky, and everyone had these grins plastered on their faces.  So to add to fireworks with the bright moon in the background, there was this guy who was playing a guitar and going around taking requests and serenading groups at their request. Awesome.

All the action wasn’t at night though, we did do some rafting–it took four hours to row 10 miles!! Our group in specific did it in a unique way as we had a giant DOG that kept threatening to leap over the raft with us in our raft.  In addition, we tied our raft to two other rafts, so that’s how we got down the river at our leiseruley pace.  Really, we had all the time in the world, and it did seem like all the time in the world.  All in all a great getaway, even if it was short, and I look forward to returning and sharing laughs with familiar faces, while touring various rival bonfires at Cedar Rapids.

Reflections on holiday travel 2011: Part 2, Egypt

In my last blog post I spoke about my travels to Kenya. When we departed, we stopped over in Cairo for a couple of days. We flew in on the 4:00 am Air Egypt flight from Nairobi. Egypt was nice, and arriving at the new terminal at CAI was smooth. A few interesting things were noticeable–first of all, almost the entire plane was transfers.  Also at the arrivals (it was 8:30 am when we arrived) we were like the only people picking up baggage–I guess nobody was travelling to Egypt? I’ll get back to this later but where was I? Ah, yes, check-in was smooth as I’d arranged for airport pickup via Memphis Tours–Memphis tours were with us the whole trip for daily private transportation and guide. They organized pickup which included check-in through immigration and customs, then dropped us off at our hotel, which was the Four Seasons at Nile Plaza.

Now the Four Seasons was a little more expensive than an hotel I’d typically stay at, I did stretch a little. My thinking for this trip though was I’ll pay a little more, and in the end it paid off. Outstanding service and attention to details, just like pickup at the airport I never had to worry about anything at all.  I wouldn’t always travel in such luxury, I think part of the charm of travelling is also the street level hustle-n-bustle that backpackers experience. There’s virtues to both I guess.  But yeah, the Four Seasons at the Nile Plaza is at a central location in Cairo, and it overlooks the Nile river.  Memphis would pick us up and drop us here every day that we were there.

Cairo is a crazy city, it is a dense city that takes a while for your mind to adjust to–for me it was more of an urban setting than even New York, in New York or a Hong Kong stuff is ordered, and more predictable.  Cairo is ‘organized chaos’  and is actually like a hyper-version of Nairobi, so it’s a good thing that I’d visited Nairobi first as I think it prepared me. It has got to be the toughest city in the world to drive in. Lanes? What Lanes. Traffic lights are ignored. Every car has scratches and dents, that’s just how they roll!  

We didn’t waste time getting onto our agenda, at night on the day of our arrival we started out with the Sound and Light show at the Pyramids. I wanted to see the Pyramids at night first, plus it was a chill way to get into the flow of things. On the way back we stopped by Tahir square, which was near our hotel. For me as a student of international relations, it was a memorable occasion. I chatted with a young gentleman who had been part of the revolution in Egypt–it was surreal to do that and then buy some Hardees (the French fries were actually the ‘excuse’ that I’d used to get us into Tahir square).  By the way I didn’t feel unsafe there–again I’ll get to this at the end. 

The next day, Memphis took us on a full day tour of the pyramids at Giza and the surrounding areas that included the ancient capital of Egypt. They provided us with a very knowledgeable tour guide (for the whole trip we had the tour guide, and also the coordinator who’d met us at the airport).  Because we were touring with a company, getting into sites was smooth, we didn’t have to worry about anything.  Highlights from day one included the pyramids, and the majestic statue of Ramses. 

I admit, I was afraid at one point in my life–after I returned from Rome, Italy, that that had been such a peak experience that I’d never have that much fun again. Memorable as it was, that was the wrong approach to have, and was proved wrong by the new memories created in Kenya and Egypt. This has taught me to smile and cherish good times, but to not despair when they end as the future holds new adventures.

Time does seem to stand still when you see these wonders of the world.

 

It was not just the major landmarks that were a highlight, but also we went to a carpet school and a perfumery.  When I travel, in addition to the touristy things, I try to get some street-level unique experience that is representative of everyday culture, and chatting with people at the carpet school and perfumery were highlights in this regard.  We were able to vibe with the people, and hear them–they’ve been hit hard by dip in tourism to Egypt which was unfortunate to hear. 

Day two was the Egyptian museum in the morning.  In there I saw more gold and ancient statues than I ever had before, and to imagine that is just the stuff that was found! Who knows how many more treasures there left to discover.  The afternoon focused on religious landmarks.  We visited the imposing Citadel in Islamic Cairo, and then after that we saw two important churches in coptic cairo–including the church in which the holy family (jesus, mary & joseph) fled from King Herrod. It is humbling to visit places like these–Egypt is so much more than just the Pyramids as I found out. 

I first learned of this in the movie "Kingdom of Heaven" (the one with Orlando Bloom)

Our last day was something special.  We did a “Desert Safari“. By the pyramids. At the edge of the Sahara desert. Now you know everyone does the camel at the pyramids, right? But this is a lesser known secret. What an adrenaline rush, I’ve never been as pumped, the desert safari was basically us riding and RACING on sand dunes in the desert on ATV motorbikes, with the pyramids as a backdrop.  Those three hours felt like thirty hours, it was such pure bliss.  If you ever go to any country in North Africa or the Middle East, be sure to do a desert safari. 

So that was the end of the trip, Memphis dropped us of later, and they played a big part in making this trip memorable.  The coordinator and the tour guide were both outstanding.  On Egypt, there were a few observations:

– It is cheap! It’s a very affordable country to visit.  I’d come from Nairobi, and I found Kenya to be much more expensive.  In fact I’d be surprised if there is a cheaper major world city than Cairo. 

– The media has definitely overplayed the safety situation.  It is not unsafe there.  Unless one planned to take part in protests, there is nothing to fear.  Take chances in life! There’s a million reasons not to do anything, but don’t let doubt and fear ruin the opportunities.  The hotel was not at capacity, and many of the sites had about half the tourists they normally would.  This made it better for us to get around, but then many people are missing out on a great time. 

Hope this has resonated with others that have been to Egypt! For those that are planning a vacation and looking for a place definitely consider there! Egypt becomes the 2nd country on my list of countries that I’ll visit again in my lifetime (the other one being Italy). 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on holiday travel 2011: Part 1, Kenya

First trans-atlantic travel in almost 20 years, first time in Kenya in 17 years although I was Kenyan birth. See I am what is referred to as a TCK i.e. a ‘third culture kid’ in cultural studies–this is because I’m Kenyan born, grew up in France, but have lived most of my life in the USA.  So for better or worse (I think better) I don’t necessarily identify myself exclusively with one flag or culture.  Still it was good to travel to Africa, and yes, I experienced reverse culture shock.  It was short-lived though, and by the time I was leaving I felt at home.  I think one quality about myself I”m noticing is that I am able to adapt, or to “feel at home” to different environments quickly.  Perhaps it’s as a result of the aforementioned travels, but also because of the many roommates I had from age 18, when I stopped living in a conventional family setting.  Anyway, for me three things were notable about Kenya–the poverty, the ‘organized chaos’, and also how in other ways it was remarkably similar to a typical Western city.

Poverty

There is a lot of poverty in Nairobi.  A lot of slums all over the place, perhaps I’m using the word loosely here–but its challenging for me to describe places I saw in any other way (I should have taken more photos).  Anyway, Nairobi has the Kibera slums, one of the largest in the world. Other than a few suburban havens, you’ll see the poverty everywhere mixed in with regular life.  I drove to my cousins place in the other end of town once, and then at night at another time to another cousins, and was dazed looking out the window.  In fact, the family house was an example of such a place–it is in a nice area of Nairobi (Westlands), yet behind the large backyard, there was a  slum. The district office where I went to obtain some documents had people living at the back of the compound in “city huts” (basically makeshift housing, no electricity–but not mud houses with straw and mud–you see lots of this in Nairobi).

This is the most extreme example, Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world. However, smaller scale setups like these can be found in many places in Nairibo.

Backyard of the family house in Nairobi, Kenya. There's a small slum behind it.

While I’m discussing slums here, I’d like to stress that I’m talking about the environment (compared to the sanitized Washington DC environments), and financial status.   There was not a sense of anarchy, gang-warfare, or anything.   While I’ve been told Nairobi has a fair share of carjackings and robberies, but for me it is not that because of the poverty there was an underlying sense of terror everywhere.  Life goes on.  These slums/poor outposts (I’m not finding a way to accurately describe them!) had restaurants, enterprising businesses, clubs, etc.  In Nairobi this is part of the environment. But I didn’t detect that people were *suffering* or waddling in misery necessarily–if anything I found the whole vibe there to be LESS stressful than here in DC.  I think many who participate in OWS protests don’t know how good they have it frankly, much stress here in the US is because of a sense of entitlement and self-created but I won’t get into that here.

Organized Chaos

Another aspect of Nairobi was what I’d describe as organized chaos. I say chaos because relative to home here in Washington DC, things are not as ordered and predictable. This is seen in various ways such as architecture, roads, driving, police behavior, etc  As described above with the slums, there is no zoning really.  Apartment complexes spring up anywhere…..you’ll see Korean and Japanese restaurants in residential areas (also with the same fences and gates).    For example, everyone wants money for everything they do–the guard at an an embassy wants money, the guy that helps you at the airport load your bag wants money, etc etc. People there have learned to live with it, they get to learn the rules, how much to give, when not to give, etc.  It’s a reinforcing cycle as sometimes you’ll have to give a little just to make sure for example the parking attendant doesn’t vandalize your car, but doing that solidifies his expectation and so on.  This is not ideal, but if nothing else, at least it is open and known in the open.  The driving in Nairobi is crazy, but not nerve-wracking like in Cairo which I’ll write about in the next blog.  I’d say it’s about the same as in Italy, where I found the driving tough too.

Just like the West

Despite such difference, in other ways it’s just like any other city I’ve lived in.  Some nightclubs are playing house music.  There’s LG outlets with the latest flat screen TVs.  There’s coffee hangout spots like Starbucks (called Java House there). Basically, if you have the money, there’s nothing you can’t find.  This might seem like something obvious to state, but its easy to get caught in perceptions of places that are not classified as “advanced nations”.  Again life goes on.

In ending I strongly I recommend that if you live in a Western city, that you do your best to travel to a non-western city at least once in your life.  It’s eye-opening to see how others live.  Grateful to live in Washington DC, appreciate the people and the circumstances that have made it so. Also I had a blast in Nairobi, catching up with cousins and old friends–interesting how it did not feel like I’d been away almost 20 years, I think this is because of facebook, which has eliminated barriers of distance. There’s a lot more to Kenya than all of this, but this was just a sampling of observations I had, feel free to drop any observations in the comments.  Hope to share reflections on the Egypt leg of the trip within a week– look out for it!