education 200: avoiding scammers at the Pyramids

In the Fall of 2011 Jessie and I were fortunate enough to add on a week’s trip in Egypt to the end of our Italy/Spain vacation. By the end of the week we really grew to like Egypt, and we hope that we might go there again some day. Cairo has a strange feeling to it. On the one hand we were extremely conspicuous, so all eyes were on us wherever we went. But on the other hand so many people were so welcoming and friendly that we didn’t mind the attention too much.

Of course, when you hear the word “Egypt” the first thing you probably think is ‘The Pyramids.” That’s exactly what we thought too, so we decided to spend a whole day discovering these ancient structures. Luckily, our friend was able to set us up with a taxi driver who’d drive us around all day for about $25, so we didn’t have to worry about transportation. He didn’t speak or understand a word of English, but through a translator we expressed to him that we wanted to go to the Step Pyramid and the Great Pyramids of Giza. The custom in Egypt is that the man rides in the passenger seat while women ride in the back, so I helped Jessie into the back and then took shotgun.

Our driver was a 50-something man with an agreeable personality. He was constantly trying to communicate with me and when it became clear to him that I had no idea what he was talking about he’d laugh and pat my hand and say “Good.” He maneuvered the traffic like a pro. We passed donkey-drawn carts full to the brim with vegetables. Children with dirty faces sat atop the pile and beamed at us with half-toothed smiles. An endless sea of palm trees lining the road whipped by us for half an hour until a break in the trees revealed the unmistakeable outline of the Step Pyramid.

If you ever visit Egypt I recommend that you read about the common scams that tourists face. I was so glad that Jessie and I had meticulously studied our Lonely Planet guide on this topic. At the Step Pyramid we paid the entrance fee and walked through the museum at the visitor’s center. Then our driver took us up to the base of the pyramid structure. It was very empty and we hesitantly made our way up a path. We hadn’t been walking more than a minute when a man popped out of nowhere, looked at my camera, and offered to take a picture of us in front of the pyramid. I was caught off guard and I accepted. As he took several snapshots Jessie poked me in the ribs and reminded me that tour guides here don’t ask if you want their services. They follow you around and offer information for everything you look at. When you are ready to leave they remind you of all the things they did for you and ask for baksheesh – a “tip” – and if it’s not enough money they’ll try to guilt you into giving more. So after giving my camera back he hovered around us and starting talking about anything my eyes landed on. He was very good. But I told him several times that I didn’t want a tour and eventually he left when I pressed a few Egyptian Pounds into his hand. The Step Pyramid was pretty impressive and we basically had it all to ourselves, so I definitely recommend going to check it out.

Soon we were both hot and getting anxious to see the main pyramids. We jumped back in the taxi and made our way to Giza. As we drove back through Cairo the iconic three pyramid tips poked above the skyline. We were so excited! But when our driver dropped us off in the middle of a street and pointed us to the ticket booth our hearts sank. Our driver had apparently brought us to the back entrance, which was a dark unmarked trailer. There was no writing on or near it to identify it as the entrance. It looked so completely sketchy that we had to ask our driver several times to make sure it was the right place. When we stepped up to the barred window an unsmiling face just stared back at us. “Is this the entrance to the pyramids?” I asked timidly. The woman showed me the official seal on the pass to let me know it was legitimate. I paid the money and they opened the door to let us in the trailer. Inside two security officers inspected our bags and patted us down before pointing us toward the rear door.

I took one step out the door and was stopped by a man who demanded to see our passes. Once again, I was so glad I’d read up about scams. The most common scam at the Great Pyramids is that a tour guide will pretend he is a park ranger and ask to see your ticket. When you give it to him he pockets it and proceeds to lead you around the complex. He won’t return your ticket until you pay him for the tour. So when this guy blocked my path and said, “Ticket please,” I stepped right around him and replied, “No.” He didn’t try to stop us. I felt so cool!

We walked around the complex for the next two hours, taking photos of the Sphinx and the three pyramids. During these hours we never went more than ten minutes without someone trying to sell us a headdress or a camel ride or give us a tour. We wondered about taking an official tour that went up inside the Great Pyramid, but after walking around the entire site we realized that we’d have to finagle with a bunch of tour guides in order to do it. We decided it was’t worth it.

As we walked along a kid no older than 10 approached us with his wares. He’d probably just been allowed to go off on his own to hawk, but he talked just as smoothly as all the others. We thought he was pretty cute. At one point he even said to me, “Is this your wife? You’re a very lucky man!” I laughed at this totally not ten-year-old thing to say. Jessie looked at him and said, “You’re pretty good at this!” For a second his guard was down and we could see he was flattered by the compliment before he snapped right back into his shpeel.

We finally got rid of him and made our way around the back side of the pyramid. At one point there weren’t many people around and a police officer who was sitting on the pyramid called us over. “Go ahead! Climb on it! It’s ok!” he told us. But we knew that it was illegal to do this and that the cops here weren’t always truthful. If we climbed on the pyramid he’d probably have demanded a large bribe from us in order to not be arrested. Despite his many attempts to get us to climb, we politely declined his offer and moved on.

We walked over to the second pyramid to get a clear picture of the Great Pyramid. As I set up my camera and tripod another police officer came over to me and told me that he knew of a better angle. He walked up a bit and said, “Take your picture here!” He was right. It would’ve been an excellent shot. There was a camel lying on the sand directly in the field of vision. But I knew that if I snapped a shot the camel’s owner would demand payment. And since the police officer was in on it also the cost would probably be steep. So once again I declined the offer, set up my camera far away from the camel and took my shots.

Despite all the scams that were attempted on us at the pyramids that day, we only spent the 50 cent tip I’d given to the first guy at the Step Pyramid. It definitely wasn’t ideal having to be on guard and fending off schemers all the time, but even with these negative experiences we found it was still worth it. Being able to touch and see the pyramids up close with our own hands and eyes was an unforgettable experience.

It’s definitely possible to do all the activities you want without having tricksters take advantage of you. You just have to be prepared. So if you’re planning on traveling in a country that has a reputation for trickery, make sure you take the time to educate yourself on all the latest scams and practice saying a friendly but firm “No.”

Pyramids compilation


physical education 102: hiking Bukhansan mountain

Lately we’ve been getting quite excited about closing this chapter of our lives in Korea and heading on to the next. We have  a lot of great travels coming up: Thailand, India, Nepal, England, France, Belgium, Poland. The section of travel we’ve been most concerned about is Nepal. For the three weeks we’ll be in that country we plan to climb 5,364 meters (17,598 feet) to Everest Base Camp. Three years ago it was just a pipe dream I’d had while reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and later hiking on Fox Glacier in New Zealand. But after meeting several people who’d personally done the climb we found out that not only is it physically plausible for us, it’s also financially feasible.

Basically the most expensive part of the trek is the roundtrip flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, the starting point of the hike. That ticket costs about $250 per person. Accommodation and food are pretty cheap along the way, together costing about $20 per person each day. We’ll also have to buy the TIMS pass to legally hike in the region, which is $20. Since we’re not part of a group, we don’t have the extra costs for porters and guides. What’s also great is that we won’t need to prepare any clothing or trekking gear before arriving in Kathmandu. Since this trek is one of the two main tourist draws to the area, shops are well-stocked with every conceivable item we’ll need in both name brands as well as knock off brands. The items are available for purchase or rental. Our friend Brian told us that he rented a sleeping bag, boots and a parka for about 50 cents a day per item.

Lastly, because we’ll be up so high it’s very hard to get medical evacuation should either of us get seriously hurt. Helicopter evacuations on Everest cost upwards of $5,000! So we’re also purchasing adventure insurance from World Nomads. For three weeks it costs $230 for the two of us.

So all in all Everest should cost us between $1,500 to $2,000. Not bad!

But the cost isn’t what’s been worrying us: money’s the easiest part. We’ve been concerned for a while about if we’ll be able to physically complete it. After all, the other day I had to lead a team of students up three flights of stairs to their next class and I was breathing heavy by the time I reached the last floor! Jessie’s been doing yoga for months now, but that’s more of a stretching and calming exercise than the cardio workout the hike will be. We’re also concerned for her because she has small nasal passages and often finds it hard to get enough breath while doing strenuous exercise.

So to get us into shape we’ve been hiking in the mountains around Seoul. Luckily, our school is situated literally at the base of Bukhansan, a mountain with great hiking trails leading up to its many peaks. On weekends we’ve been heading out in the late afternoon when the sun’s warmth has passed its apex. After two hours of almost constant uphill steps we find ourselves passing under Daedongmun, a restored gate that marks one of 14 entrances to an old fortress complex. Three hundred years ago King Sukjong decided to build a wall spanning 6 miles over the mountain ridges in order to keep out Manchurian and Japanese invaders. The wall still exists and we’re able to hike along it once we reach the top. On clear days it gives us wonderful views of downtown Seoul as well as the eastern districts of the city.

After our first summit Jessie and I were elated! As we walked back down the steps we discussed how well we did and how it hadn’t been that hard. We felt pretty darn good about ourselves, seeing that we’d made the hike with only our Crocs on! Even the next few days we expected to have stiff legs but we found that we didn’t feel any more pain than normal. So that’s helped to build our confidence.

We’ve also gained more assurance by reading blogs and watching a video about the trek. There’s a great day-by-day guide to the hike on Kathmanduo’s blog. Even if you’re never going to go to base camp it’s still an interesting read with lots of pictures! Last week we watched a video made by ADRA, a human aid association that specializes in community development and disaster relief programs, about one of their teams’ treks. Seeing the people do the hike and hearing their stories further proved to me that we can do this! You can stream this video on Vimeo using this link.

So overall I’d say that morale is high right now. Once we get our Diamox (acclimatization pills) and an inhaler for Jessie, I think we’ll be all set. If you’re curious to see how it all turns out, stay tuned. I’m sure I’ll have plenty of stories and pictures to share with you come November!

Bukhansan hiking

health 104: the year my body decided to feel old

I don’t know what’s happened to me! Over the past year my body has decided it’s done feeling young, especially in the mornings. It’s not like it happened all of a sudden – truly I’ve felt periodic bouts of tiredness for a long time – but what’s different now is that the exhaustion never seems to go away.

I’ve developed several health problems that I’m sure most people would consider minor issues in their present stage. They’re all manageable, but when they’re all ailing me at the same time it can be super annoying. Alright, so now I’m ready for you to hit me with the well-worn comment heard at most gatherings with large age spans: “You think that’s bad? Just wait ’til you get older!” But I don’t want to feel worse than I presently do. I don’t want to be chronically tired. I don’t want my back to become so warped that I have to walk bent over when I’m 70.

My longest running problem is back pain. I’ve had recurring pain in the lower left side of my back since high school. In the past it would flare up for a week or two every couple of years so I never gave it much thought after it was gone. But in the last year I’ve woken up every morning with pain in this area. As soon as I try to sit up my back stiffens. I’ve made several attempts at doing different exercise routines but every time my back ends up hurting worse than when I do nothing at all. So I’ve given up on any treatment besides stretching upon waking and getting up slowly. Luckily, since my work schedule usually starts at 1:20pm, I have plenty of time to get it loose before the day begins. However, on bad days I have to pop a couple extra-strength Ibuprofens before heading off to work.

I’ve also had painful problems with my wrists for the last three years. Periodically, one or both wrists will feel so weak. At these times it hurts too much to push open doors or carry a pan of food by the handle. I’ve been very scared about this issue because there’s a history of osteoarthritis in my family. But I realized a while ago that my wrists hurt the most on days when I wake up and find myself sleeping on my stomach. Somehow as I sleep I tuck my arms under my body or my head and this restricts the blood flow to my wrists and hands, causing the weakened feeling.

Another very noticeable symptom that gave me a lot of pain for about 8 months straight starting last sumer was an annoying dull pain in my chest that felt like I always had a burp stuck at the top of my esophagus. It’s a terrible feeling! Sometimes when I’m laying down I’ll have to sit up quickly because I feel like I’m going to throw up. Other times I’ll beat my sternum sharply with my fist in order to free trapped air bubbles. I went to the doctor in Korea to have it diagnosed because it troubled me all the time. The doctor gave me an endoscopy and diagnosed me with GERD (gastroesophagial reflux disorder).

Next problem: I’m not getting restful sleep. I used to have problems getting to sleep back when I lived in Kentucky. These days I can’t keep my eyes open after 2am. The problem isn’t that I can’t sleep, it’s that no matter how many hours I sleep I always wake up feeling like I was beat up during the night. My neck always feels uncomfortable so I can’t lay still for long.

As if these internal issues weren’t enough I’ve also noticed that my face has started looking older this year. The crow’s feet around my eyes are getting much more defined. And I now have permanent lines around my mouth demarcating where my skin bends whenever I smile.

I’ve done a lot of research and thinking about my issues and I’ve come to believe that they all stem from the fact that I have horrible posture. For most people, when they stand up straight, their vertebrae form a smooth ‘S’ shape. In my back, however, three vertebrae stick way out about half way down. Because of this it’s always been very difficult for me to sit upright in hard backed chairs. I always either slouch back or lean forward when I sit because it’s so uncomfortable. Whenever I’ve done sit-ups the skin over those vertebrae gets rubbed raw. I went to an acupunturist a month ago and he audibly grunted his surprise when he felt them.

But all hope isn’t lost! If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you know that Jessie and I have started trying to live more healthy. We’ve begun a two-pronged attack on infirmity. First, we’ve been experimenting with many natural products, such as brushing our teeth with the Orawellness HealThy Mouth Blend, teeth whitening with baking soda and peroxide and no pooing. On top of this we’ve become flexitarians (we eat a mostly vegetarian diet with occasional meat). It’s been extremely hard to keep this diet while here because almost every restaurant in Korea is meat-centered. Plus, the free meals at the school where we work always very heavily consist of low-grade meat, white flour and white rice products with very little vegetables or fruit. Second, we’ve started hiking once a week in the mountains behind our apartment and taking several long walks during the week. Jessie’s been doing heaps of yoga. And I’ve started doing these easy ‘do-anywhere’ exercises I found online to help correct my posture. Check the short video out here!

Once we finish our traveling and arrive home in late November we’ll initiate the next steps in our plan to get back to good health (after Thanksgiving, of course!). First, we’re going to start making green juice for breakfasts. After watching the documentary Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead we’re convinced that above all else this will help us regain our energy levels. We’ve also found several vegetarian/vegan blogs with delicious looking recipes that we’re gonna try out. And finally, we’re also going to make a more concerted effort to stick to diets that benefit our blood types.

Thirty-two was the year of feeling unhealthy. Hopefully a year from now I’ll be writing a post about how thirty-three was the year of feeling great! If you’ve tried one of these or any other health improvements, I’d love to hear about it. Please leave a comment!


medicine 202: bamboo and machete wounds in a Thai jungle

Jessie and I spent six months in Thailand from October 2011 through April 2012. (We did a six week winter camp in Korea in the middle of it all.) Most of our time was spent at The Bamboo School, located in the jungle just on the Thai side of the Myanmar border, where we assisted 50~60 children in doing their daily chores, learning English, driving them to and from the local school, and accomplishing many work projects. One of the many things we like about this place is that we get to live in a bamboo hut. It’s a pretty unique experience. We have salamanders crawling all through the thatch ceiling. We have a brisk bucket shower that could shake the sleepiness out of anyone! We also have floors that periodically give way when you step on them. Both of us have experienced the shocking sensation of putting our foot down and the next thing we know we’re planted clear to half-hamstring in the floorboards! Bamboo is a very strong plant. However, after it’s cut from the earth it ages relatively quickly.

When we arrived in October I found myself thrown headlong into a work project of replacing the entire floor of one of the visitor huts. Luckily, I had a skilled worker to help me. Porsue, one of the oldest children there (and by child I mean he was barely under 18) was my guide. Actually if truth be told, he did most of the work. I fumbled around with the machete and the hammer and the drill trying to replicate his work, while he effortlessly worked the bamboo from tree to flooring.

The most exciting part of this tropical Do-It-Yourself zero budget project was obtaining the bamboo. Porsue and I would hop into the old pickup, drop the gear into first, and crawl off through the crazy jungle dirt roads. Every time we went the roads were different, changed by perpetual flash floods that rocketed down the hill slopes and tore giant rips into the surface. Our truck clawed over them like a determined lion on the chase. But we could only drive so far. Eventually, we’d park and head up a steep hill (that’s where the best bamboo grows) with machetes, saws and rope.

Porsue would examine the bamboo and point to the ones we needed. At first I thought he was playing games with me. I’d say, “How about this one?” and he’d reply, “No good.” But over the course of several visits I started to notice the small differences between the variety of bamboos, and learned that each type had its own specific uses. We needed the strongest kind that could hold the weight of people walking on it month after month. The biggest giveaway for that type is that it tends to develop a white residue on its surface when it reaches a mature age.

In just a few trips I evolved from the tentative foreigner who walked in every one of Porsue’s footsteps to the annoying foreigner who thinks he knows everything there is about the jungle. I was hacking recklessly into bamboo, sweating profusely in the moist hot jungle air, and beating mosquitos off my back with a whip I’d fashioned from the undergrowth. Porsue would see a good trunk,  take four swings, and it would be on the ground. Meanwhile I’d be chopping at a trunk several meters away for over a minute before it cracked and fell. In two hours we’d have 25 trees lying in a pile on the crest of the hill. Then we’d measure out 15 feet in length using the ol’ fingertip to elbow ruler, and saw off the ends of each trunk.

I learned an unforgettable lesson on the very first log that I cut. I’d gotten through most of the bamboo but the saw was getting stuck at the last part. It was stubbornly holding on and the weight of the bamboo was pinching the saw, making it impossible to move. So I turned the log over and cracked it by stomping on it. But the break wasn’t clean, so I had to pull off a small tag that was sticking off the end. I grabbed it and yanked my hand up. And then blood started spurting out of my forefinger like a geyser.

Bamboo is very very very very sharp. When its edges are exposed, it cuts through skin like its jelly. I held the skin on my finger shut but the blood kept dribbling out. I was in a mild shock so I didn’t think to scream. I was just staring at my wound and thinking about if I would have enough energy to walk down the hill and drive myself to the nearest clinic. After several minutes Porsue looked over and saw my reddened hand. He laughed and shook his head. I felt so stupid explaining to him how I’d nearly sliced my finger off. He told me to wait a minute, disappeared into the jungle, and was back in no time with a handful of some leafy green plant. He wadded the bundle up in his hands, mushing it into a small ball. Then he squeezed the liquid from it into my cut and put the green poultice across the cut. Within a few minutes the pain was dulled and the bleeding had stopped.

I opened the cut to see how deep it was. It had gone almost down to the bone, but luckily it had missed the nerve. I was surprised at how well that plant had relieved the pain and clotted the blood. Porsue smiled at me and said, “It’s a medicine plant. It works better than a bandage.” I plugged the gash back up with a new poultice and we went back to work. After the bamboo trunks were all cut to the right length, we bound them together in groups of five. Then came the hard part: we had to hoist the end of a bundle onto our shoulder and drag it down the hill to the truck. The whole process was definitely a full body workout!

We finished the hut floor in a few days and I felt so accomplished that I’d learned tropical carpentry. As for my finger, it healed completely without any complications or scarring in just a few weeks.

The next time we went out to chop bamboo, I brought Jessie along because she really wanted to give it a try. I was prepared with work gloves that had rubberized fingers this time. They worked perfectly at keeping the bamboo from slicing our hands. But Jessie found the chink in their armor: she inadvertently chopped her finger with her machete. It was almost the exact situation I’d had earlier. I swung into action, combing the underbrush for that plant and fixing her a poultice. I was a hero! My days of jungle training had paid off!

bamboo 1