Monday, November 30, 2009

It's official!

Yesterday after Skyping with my parents, I went to the post office to check on the status of my visa application for India. (The Indian population in Dubai is so high that they have a visa services center within one of the main post offices. You don't even have to go to an embassy or consulate to apply.) And. . .approved! Yay! I don't have the actual visa in my hands yet; it is to be mailed to me (along with the return of my passport) either today or tomorrow. I'll be booking my flight today to depart for Mumbai on 5 December. The plan had always been to spend a month in India, so if that holds true, I will be there for my birthday, Christmas, and New Year's before I move on to the next destination. Of course, there's been a LOT of changes to my itinerary in the last six weeks, so don't hold me to it! :-)

So - I am VERY excited that I actually get to go to India. For awhile there I was worried that it wasn't going to happen. But now I have to get to work! I have to get a guidebook, book the flight, and start working on accommodations. 

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Everything's bigger

Dubai is basically a brand new city. I mean, it's really not brand new, but with all of the construction that's been happening in the last few years, everything you see is new new new. And if it's not new, it will be in a few years when it's finished being built. :-)

The thing about Dubai is that there are few options for things to do. The choices boil down to either the beach or shopping. Good beach weather only happens in the wintertime. In the summer (and every other month that doesn't fall in the November - March time frame) it's too damn hot to do anything that isn't air conditioned and indoors. Enter: the mall. So far, I've been to the Mall of the Emirates, Ibn Battuta Mall, Dubai Marina Mall, Dubai Mall, and Souk Al Bahar. Some of them more than once. (Oh, okay, I admit. I've been to the Mall of the Emirates like three times. Maybe four, I can't even remember anymore.)

Let me be clear, though. These aren't just regular ol' malls. I already mentioned how cool I thought Ibn Battuta Mall was. And maybe you didn't see it on my Flickr page, but the Mall of the Emirates has an indoor skiing area. Dubai Mall has an indoor ice rink, an aquarium, and an underwater zoo. Oh, and 1200 retail stores on who knows how many floors. Dubai Marina Mall is completely boring and Souk Al Bahar is only interesting because of it's location at the Burj Dubai.

So the malls are bigger. But mention of the Burj Dubai brings me to two other things that are bigger in Dubai. The first being, well, the Burj Dubai itself, the world's tallest building at 818m (more than 2,600ft). It's very cool seeing it up close; it just kind of seems impossible that something man-made could be that tall. The second big thing is the Dubai Fountain located in front of the Burj Dubai. The fountain is longer than two football fields and can shoot water 150m into the air.

Lastly on the list of big things in Dubai is the Atlantis Hotel (which is really an entire complex and not just one building, but still). The Atlantis also has an aquarium, but it also has a pool, shops, and restaurants, too. It may have more than that, that's just what I saw of it. It's so big, though, that although it's located at the top most tip of Palm Jumeirah, you can still see it from the beach where I initially photographed it.

To conclude lol, yes, everything in Dubai is indeed bigger. I think the developers must've figured they had to "go big" if they wanted anyone to visit this hot piece of desert. If you want to see the rest of the pics, check 'em out here.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Eid

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! And, since I'm in the middle east, Happy Eid, too. I was feeling a tiny twinge of homesickness the other day thinking about how I was going to miss my first major holiday, so I asked if I could make a traditional turkey dinner. And no one turns down a home cooked meal, so. . .that's my bird in the oven over there to the left. :-)

A couple of calls were made and a few hours of shopping was done and next thing you know, we had a feast in front of us! We were four total and I made turkey (of course), stuffing, mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, salad, apple crumb pie, and chocolate bourbon pecan pie. Speaking of shopping, that was quite the experience. Things that are easy to find in the states - nutmeg, poultry seasoning, fresh rosemary, karo syrup - are just not available here, so I kind of had to make some adjustments. And pastry dough! Man, I thought I was going crazy trying to find that. No one seemed to know what I was talking about. I kept asking, "Don't they make pies here?!"

Anyway, I'd say the meal was a success. I know I ate WAY more than I needed to lol. Afterwards we headed to Buddha Bar with some other friends and, well, it's already 1:40am now, so how 'bout I just end with a picture? I'll upload the rest tomorrow.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Coolest. Mall. Ever.

The only thing I really wanted to accomplish today was a pedicure. Yesterday I met a friend of my friend Mickey's and she recommended a nail salon at the Ibn Battuta mall. The pedicure was a success, but beyond that the mall was really the. coolest. mall. ever.

That's right. Yes, I'm on a round the world trip of a lifetime and I'm actually writing a post about a shopping mall. But it really was very neat (and this isn't even the mall with the indoor skiing! That's the Mall of the Emirates.). First of all, it's a pretty large mall and it's themed to tell the story of Ibn Battuta. Yeah, I'd never heard of him either, but apparently he's a famous Arab traveler. There are six courts that make up the mall - China, Egypt, Persia, India, Tunisia, and Andalusia - and each is a region that Battuta explored. Does this sound boring and kind of like the history lesson that you didn't really want to get while you were shopping?

Ok, maybe. But each court looks like the area it represents. And, this may be weird, but it's the best smelling mall I've ever been in. I think each court may have had it's own signature scent. It's honestly the most beautiful and interesting mall I've ever been in. I wanted to take pictures, but figured that would be horribly tourist-y of me, so I didn't. But go do a Google image search and see for yourself. Oh, wait. Here, I did it for you. And. . .that's just about enough gushing over a mall already.

In other news: I'm trying to figure out what my next stop will be. I went last week to fill out my India visa application and I should hear before the beginning of the Eid holiday this Wednesday if it's accepted. If so, India here I come! If not, maybe Sri Lanka? Maybe Thailand? Ah, decisions decisions.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

I nearly lost a contact lens in the Arab Gulf

Yesterday, Friday, was my first official weekend day in Dubai. (Did you know that the workweek here is Sunday through Thursday?) First I went with Amiri and Morgan to brunch at a swanky hotel. There was all kinds of foods to choose from: sushi, seafood, a carving station, a taco station, a mashed potatoes station, traditional Arabic foods, fruits, cheeses, soups, and a bajillion different desserts. I ate til I nearly burst and was pretty sure I wasn't going to need to eat again for days. :-)

Then we headed to the beach where we met up with Tamr and Angelica (who commented that she hadn't been to the beach in about seven or eight months because it's just too hot for the beach during most of the year). The day was perfect. The air temp was about 28C, water temp about 25C, and just enough of a breeze to keep it from getting too hot. We all got into the water right away and it happened almost immediately that I nearly lost my contact lens. Now, I've worn contacts for 15 years and have gone to the beach and swimming pools throughout this time, so this was a pretty unusual occurrence. Luckily, I caught the lens as it popped out of my eye, made my way back to the beach (holding the lens between my thumb and finger above the water), and put the lens back in. My eye and I can now officially attest to the salty-ness of the Arab Gulf!

Anyhoo, moving on. After playing in the water for awhile, we dried off for a bit and then threw a frisbee around. And, as you can see, this beach also has camels. :-) Within a few hours, we were into the late afternoon and everyone started talking about dinner. (Not me! I was still wondering if I'd ever eat again after the brunch we'd had!) We all headed home to shower, change, and get ready for dinner.

By 8pm we were all at the restaurant and ready to eat (yes, even me lol). The restaurant was a place called The Rotisserie and it was at the Arabian Court. The Arabian Court is part of a huge complex that is now a hotel. As it was told to me, within the last 10 years or so, a very rich businessman built this palace for a woman that he was in love with. Ultimately the relationship didn't work out (did she die? I can't remember) and the palace was given to the hotel. As you can probably imagine, this place was incredibly beautiful and amazing looking. The Arabian Court is only one of four courtyards and each courtyard supposedly looks completely different.

Dinner was another buffet meal and again there's a huge variety of food to choose from: various traditional salads, fruits, cheeses, seafood, duck, veggies, quiche, beef, you-name-it-they-probably-had-it. I know it sounds like the exact same foods that we had at brunch, but they were completely differently prepared. You'll just have to take my word for it. :-) It was very good, but again I ate til I nearly burst. And it wasn't just the food that was good. The company was equally as good. We talked about all kinds of things and the laughs were plentiful. Afterwards, we headed to a place called The Rooftop (guess where it was located? lol) for another round of drinks before going home for the night. All in all, it was a very fun day.

Today is the last day of the weekend and I'm not sure what's on the agenda. More beach time perhaps? And I'd like to get a pedicure, so that's a possibility. Just a lazy weekend in Dubai, but I'm digging it so far.

Friday, November 20, 2009


One day last week I got an email from a friend I hadn't seen in awhile because he moved out of state for work. We hadn't really stayed in touch except for short emails here and there, so he was quite surprised to hear about my travel plans. I gave him the blog link and he must've read the whole thing in one sitting, lol, because not long later he sent another email with a list of questions. I've decided to include those questions and answers here because others of you out there might have been wondering the same things.

Did you ever get/use the Flushette thingy? Please forgive me if this question is too personal. Nope, didn't get it (and it's actually called a Freshette), but so far I haven't really needed it because I've only seen western toilets. It may be a whole other story when I actually get to SE Asia.

Which do you like more the “couchsurfing” thing or staying in Hostels? I mean aside from the cost issue.
CSing and hosteling both have their pluses and minues, but I like CSing better. With hostels you only meet other travelers, but with CSing you meet locals who actually live in the place you're visiting.

How are the “Ex Officio” undies working out for ya? LOL! Sorry, I had to ask!
The Ex Officio undies are working fabulously, thanks for asking! They are super quick drying which is a life saver when you're washing them in a sink.

Oh, not a question, but a word of warning from my Army days….Drink lots of water while you’re on the Doxy! My unit’s medics said it can play hell on your liver if you don’t flush your system out! I know about this because I went to Honduras, but I think I told you this already? Thanks for the Doxy advice, I will be sure to load up on H2O. One of my hosts in Barcelona told me that he stopped taking his malaria pills because it gave him horrible nightmares. . .and then he got malaria and almost died. So. I'll take the pills AND drink water and maybe the water will lessen all of the side effects.

Ok, so I’m interested in the Hibiscus flower and 7-Up drink! Tell me more. I’ve also heard that Chrysanthemum tea was great, too! I don't think there's really much more to tell about the hibiscus flower and 7Up drink. It was cold, a very dark purple color, ever so slightly carbonated, and tasted pretty sweet, like a mix of different berries. Chrysanthemum tea is good, I've had it before and it's also pretty sweet.

Are you planning to do another one of those “By the Numbers” posts soon? That was pretty telling for me. I probably will do another by the numbers post, but probably not for a few weeks or so when I have some more stats compiled.

One think I was kind of unclear on: the Cemberlitas Hamam – the Turkish bath. Did you get to do it or not? I read where you got there 30 min before it closed and that they did not take your credit card, but you described the belly rock and bath pools with greater detail than someone who just read about them on the advertisements. Yes, I did go to the Turkish bath. The first one wouldn't take a credit card, the second was the Cemberlitas Hamam (the one I went to).

Alright, so now's your chance to ask your questions. Got any? Let me know in the comments and I'll answer in an upcoming post.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Egypt: A public service announcement for Americans

Some of my more conservative friends and family at home were concerned about me traveling by myself in an Arab country. And more than one Egyptian that I met asked me if I thought all Egyptians were terrorists. After the experience I had in Egypt, I thought it was my duty to spread the word.

So what was my experience? I am not exaggerating at all when I say that Egypt has some of the warmest, friendliest, most generous, selfless, and nicest people I've ever met. At every turn, people went above and beyond the call of duty for me and I'm not just talking about people who were friends of friends; I'm also talking about complete strangers (and, let's face it, even the friends of friends were strangers to me who didn't have to help me).Salama picked me up at the airport. Tatio let me stay a night at his house and Amiri's sister, Dina, let me stay three nights. Gaafar took me to the bazaar and introduced me to a lot of traditional foods. A random stranger saw my confusion as I got off the microbus and walked me (out of his way, mind you) to Lebanon Square where I needed to go to catch a cab. Lots of people invited me to tea. Remember when I mentioned my trick for crossing busy Cairo streets? Half the time I didn't even have to pull that trick because people would see that I was a foreigner and they would guide me across the street with them. Peet told me that if the cab didn't come the morning I was scheduled to leave for Sharm, to call him and he'd take me to the airport. Moussa left a bar where his favorite local band was getting ready to play to drive me home, even though I said I could just take a cab.One thing I found interesting is that Egyptians have a really high sense of fairness and justice. More than one person told me that if someone tries to grab your bag and run off, just yell the Arabic word for thief (haramy) and an entire crowd will go after that person, detain them, and get your bag back for you. They just feel that people work hard and it's not fair or right for someone else to profit from that work. Make sense? I'm probably not doing a good job of explaining it. Just know that this is part of the Egyptian psyche.

I also mentioned before that there were two things that happened on my last day that I needed to expound upon. First thing: On the plane to Cairo from Sharm I was talking to my seatmate, Tarek, about work and travels and such, and I said that I hadn't yet arranged for my transportation from Cairo to Alex even though I needed to be there that same day. Tarek said that once we landed, he'd have his driver drop us off at Starbucks for coffee and then send him to the train station to check the schedule and buy my ticket for me. There was a lot of traffic, more than usual, in Cairo that day because of the soccer match that was being played. (Have you seen my video of the aftermath?) Tarek couldn't wait with me for the driver to get back, so he said goodbye and was off. The driver eventually arrived and took me to the station. I asked him how much the cab ride was and, in very broken English, he told me that Tarek had taken care of it. Are you sure? Yes, he was sure. Then I tried to pay him for my train ticket (50 Egyptian pounds) and he indicated that had been paid for, too. I thought maybe he didn't understand so I showed the ticket to him. But no, Tarek had paid for that, as well. The driver wouldn't even allow me to give him a tip because all of it was to be taken care of, I suppose.

Second thing: Islam was the friend of a friend who was to pick me up from the train station in Alexandria. He didn't find out until 9am on Saturday that I was arriving at 8:30pm that night, yet he was there waiting for me (for an extra half-hour, even, as the train was late). We only had a few hours til I had to be at the airport for my flight, so we drove around Alex for a whirlwind tour. Islam showed me all kinds of things and made it better with his narration and stories. We went out for dinner (I was told I HAD to eat seafood while in Alex) and whole fish, calamari, and various salads were ordered. The bill came and Islam refused to let me pay, even though he didn't even eat since he's on a diet. ("Don't you know that women don't pay in Egypt?" "Well, I was starting to get that impression, yes, but you didn't even eat anything!" "It doesn't matter. I'm paying.") We got to the airport and by this time it was about 1am. Islam waited with me and we chatted some more because he didn't want me to be alone for too long waiting for the plane.

These are just two examples of scenarios where people went above and beyond for me, expecting absolutely nothing in return. So the public service announcement that is the point of this whole post: if you are a person who has stereotypes in mind of what Egyptians specifically, or Arabs in general, are all about - rethink them. The hospitality and kindness I experienced was at a level I'd never experienced before. To all of my new Egyptian friends: thank you from the bottom of my heart for an amazing time. I hope to meet each of you again in the future.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The next Andrew Zimmern*?

Who? Me? Well, no, I don't think so, but it was a comment my father made a while back when we were chatting about some of the local foods I've been trying. So what exactly have I been eating? Let's go through a list and you can tell me if you think they're weird.

Barcelona: Nothing really weird, actually. I had rabbit one night that was delicious, but lots of people eat rabbit, even in the States, I think. Other than that, the food I ate was pretty "normal": lots of cheese and meat, bread and wine.

Prague: Still nothing particularly weird, although I had foods prepared in ways I hadn't had them prepared before. The traditional food I ate included ghoulash and roasted pork with bacon dumplings (Laura, are you reading this?? Bacon! In dumplings! Bacon makes everything taste better!). As you can probably tell, I liked this food, too.

Athens: Most people are fairly familiar with Mediterranean foods - olives, olive oil, feta cheese, seafood, that kind of thing. I ate a lot of souvlaki in Athens (it's quick, very cheap, you can eat it on the go, and it's perfect after a night out drinking), but it's not what I thought souvlaki was. Souvlaki starts with meat (chicken, pork, or beef) that is carved off of a spit and put into pita. Added to that is lettuce, tomato, onions, and 4 or 5 french fries, and it's all topped with tzatsiki and wrapped up. Speaking of tzatsiki, I don't know about the kinds you've ever tried, but Greek tzatsiki is totally different from what I've had at home. The taste is essentially the same but with 10 times the garlic and it's thick like a dip, not thin like a sauce.

The other foods of note in Athens are actually drinks. Greek coffee is actually what most people would probably know as Turkish coffee. It's thick, half of the already small cup is full of coffee grounds, and it's very strong. Not really my cup of tea (or coffee, as the case may be). Then there's raki which is made from the must of wine grapes and has 37% alcohol. It's served warm in shot glasses and is sweetened with a touch of honey. It's very good and goes down WAY too easily. :-) Also, I don't know why, but none of the wine I had in Athens was drinkable at all. It was more like grape juice than wine, but maybe it was just poor selection on my part.

Istanbul: This is where things started getting a little more unusual. I wrote about some of the foods I tried here, but nothing I've already mentioned was particularly weird. First up is kokorec, a sandwich made of chopped and seasoned intestines. The first opportunity I had to try this dish, I turned down. The second time, I figured I had to try it, but I was really nervous about it. As it turns out, it was very, very good and ended up being one of the things I ate in Istanbul over and over again. Next up was a raw beef dish that I was still nervous about trying, but I figured I already ate intestines, so why not? It is mixed with spices and grains and I don't know how else to describe it, but it also was good. It wasn't my favorite dish, but I'd eat it again without hesitation. Then there's gozleme which is best described as Turkish quesadillas, nothing too strange there.

There were two drinks I had in Istanbul that were definitely not my thing and yet I drank them over and over again trying to figure out what the appeal was. Aryan is a yogurt drink that's very popular. There's also a fermented black carrot and beet juice that I only ever saw the one time my host and I tried it. Both of these drinks are quite salty which was very unusual for me. I mean, don't you drink to quench thirst and not make yourself even thirstier?

Cairo: A few more unusual foods here, too, some of which I've already talked about. Additionally, I've now tried three kinds of shawerma, a sandwich with chopped and seasoned meats - beef, liver (cow), and chicken. All were very good, but the liver was actually my favorite. Foul (pronounced like fool) is made from beans, but they don't taste like any other bean I've had before. It's usually served with falafel which I love. Kocharay (not at all sure about the spelling) is probably what you'd make if you were trying to get rid of leftovers. It has rice, a couple different kinds of noodles, beans, veggies, and some sort of meat all tossed together. When you eat it, you can decide how much lemon water and super spicy sauce to add in. Also, salads in Cairo are probably not what you'd consider a salad. No leafy greens or tomatoes in sight! The salads are served with pita as an appetizer and are more dip-like than anything else. A couple I tried were made from beans, one from potatoes, and a couple from cheese (one of the cheese ones was made from "old" cheese - it was very salty; again, not my favorite, but not horrible).

Then there's shisha. Not a food, but it is consumed, so I'm including it here. Shisha is tobacco that's smoked from a water pipe. In addition to the regular, non-flavored varieties, you can also choose from mint, lemon, mango-apple, peach, strawberry, orange-mint, and pineapple (among others).

I told my father that if I kept eating the way I was eating, I was going to come home as big as a house. He said he couldn't believe that someone could get fat eating intestines and raw beef because he would just as soon starve than eat those things. :-)

So what does everyone think? Is anything included here truly weird? Would you try or have you already tried any of these foods?

*For those who don't know, Andrew Zimmern hosts a tv show called Bizarre Foods in which he travels around the world eating (in my opinion) far stranger foods than what I've tried so far.

Modern city meets the desert

Dubai it is. ToadMama guessed it right, but I think I had already hinted to her that I was thinking about coming here.

So I don't know what exactly prompted my decision to skip my other plans in Egypt. Luxor and Aswan were starting to look more expensive than what my budget could handle because those are places that are really a lot easier to do with a tour (there's too much to see and it's too spread out to really do on your own). Even after talking to Kharboush, my travel agent friend of a friend, it was going to be about $100/day, not including site entrance fees. The most expensive entrance fees are only about $12 USD, but those add up, too, if you see 4 or 5 sites a day.

As an aside, regarding my budget for those of you who may be wondering: My budget varies depending on the city I'm in since some places are more expensive than others. My daily budget for most of Europe was about 36 euros, or 54 dollars. This, I have to say, is ridiculously low for Europe. Most of the other longer term travelers I met were spending double this and people who were just on a short term trip were spending about 100 euros per day. But, honestly, there have been a lot of days I spent less than budgeted so it's been working for me. When you're working with a budget like this, you have to pick and choose a bit. Are you more interested in sight seeing or is nightlife more important? I also briefly considered a safari in Kenya, but that was even more of a budget buster than Luxor and Aswan.

So. I weighed my options and decided to move on. It was indeed a very last minute change of plans as I booked the ticket to Dubai on Friday night for Saturday night/Sunday morning at 2:35a (my flight back to Cairo had already been booked). I left Sharm on Saturday for my short flight to Cairo. I spent a couple of hours in Cairo trying to decide between a bus or a train to Alexandria, and then deciding when I'd leave. The train to Alexandria was about 3 hours and when I arrived, I met up with Islam (another friend of a friend who met me at the station) for a whirlwind night time tour of Alex. Then it was to the airport for the flight (which somehow managed to leave a half hour early!) and I arrived in Dubai at 7:15am on Sunday.

I really need to talk more about two experiences I had on my last day of Egypt, but I'm going to save them for another post on my overall impressions of my first trip to an Arab country. Hint: It may (or may not) be what you'd expect, depending on your perspective. :-)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Snorkeling in the Red Sea

Friday was my last full day in Sharm El Sheikh and I fully intended to make the most of it. I was planning to meet up with Essam and Marie, friends of friends (as with most of the people I've met in Egypt) that I'd met the night before to go to the beach. They must've needed more sleep than they realized, though, because they slept in quite late. I waited poolside to hear from them, so all wasn't lost. :-) We finally got to the beach and this one was a private beach on the Red Sea (the beach I had been going to was at Naama Bay).

You guys, it was beautiful there. The beach is kind of on a cliff, s
o you walk down stairs and there are different levels of beach you can choose from. All around you you see thatched umbrellas and desert right up next to sea and boats and shimmering water.Since Essam and Marie slept in, we got there kind of late, but it was perfect because it wasn't at all crowded. When they found out that I'd never been snorkeling before, they said I had to do it that day because the reef there is so amazing. They didn't exactly have to talk me into it!

After a couple of technical difficulties in which I figured out how the mask worked and everything, I was good to go. At this particular beach, you walk down this long pier, down some steps that put you right into the (still warm in November) water, and you're surrounded by reef. It was a bit disconcerting at first how you could hear yourself breath, but eventually I got used to it and it even is sort of meditative. I saw huge sea urchins, anemones, clownfish, and all kinds of fish that I don't even know the names of. After awhile I drifted towards the edge of the reef. Whoa. Did I ever tell anyone that I'm really sort of (irrationally) scared of deep/dark water? Yah, that fear came flooding back when I got to the edge of the reef. For a second I thought it was really kind of cool how far down you could see and how the color of the water changed. But. Then I got a little panicky and decided to get the hell out of dodge and back to the pier before I lost it. This is one of those things that I think I could overcome if I did it often enough, but for my first time ever snorkeling, I figured I'd pushed myself far enough.

The three of us were hungry by then so we ate pizza at the restaurant there at the beach. (Add to my list of new foods tried: anchovies on pizza. Verdict: actually good!) The sun was setting and I got this shot: Seems like a pretty nice way to end a vacation from my vacation, doesn't it?

A day of traveling got me to. . .

. . .here:

Anyone want to venture a guess where I am now? Hint: It took me a plane ride, a train ride, another plane ride, and a couple of taxi rides to get here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Walk like an Egyptian

Scene - Airport in Sharm, trying to get a cab to my hotel.
Me to the driver - Royal Plaza hotel in Naama Bay. Bekam da? (How much?)
Driver - 100 (Egyptian pounds)
Me - What? That sounds high. How far away is the hotel and how long exactly will it take to get there.
Driver - 15 km. 100
Me - It didn't even cost that much to drive from 6th of October to the Cairo airport and that trip took more than an hour!
(At this point, I'm already in the cab and we're driving away)
Driver - Sharm is more expensive than Cairo.
(I decided to call someone who would know better than me what this trip should cost. Luckily, he picked up right away.)
Me - Amiri, how much is a cab from the Sharm airport to the hotel?
Amiri - 20 pounds
Me - Yah, that's what I thought. I knew this driver was trying to scam me. He told me 100!
Amiri - What?! Tell him to go eff himself! It shouldn't be that much and he's only giving you that rate because you're a foreigner.
(Meanwhile, the driver is listening to my phone conversation and pulls a u-turn to go back to the airport.) (And I didn't, for sure, tell him what Amiri told me to tell him!)
Long story longer, I got a new driver who wanted to charge me 50 and I told him 30. He kept trying to negotiate it and I finally told him that I knew the going rate was 20 and I was going to give him 30, so just drive me to the damn hotel already!

* * * * *

Sharm is a LOT different than Cairo. For one thing, there's not nearly as many people here and it's filled with tourists. But it's still Egypt and still an Arab country through and through. After only five days here, I'm realizing that I'm picking up on a lot of the culture pretty quickly.

Regarding the title, people here don't really cross streets at an intersection when they have the right of way. They just cross when they feel like it. This amazed me the first time I saw it and I wondered why people weren't getting killed, but now I do it, too. You have to, otherwise you'd be waiting to cross forever. My trick, though, is to always try to cross at the narrowest part of the road and, if that's not possible, surround myself with Egyptians and cross when they do!

I'm also really good at the Egyptian 'no' which is kind of a tsking sound. It comes in handy when people are trying to sell things to you or get you into their store or restaurant. It's kind of like they respect you more if you tsk than if you just say no or shake your head.

Also, things are less conservative here than in Cairo, but I still felt really naked when I stepped out of my hotel room wearing a t-shirt and shorts. It had been a long time since I showed that much skin - showing a lot of skin just isn't done in Cairo (in Sharm, with all of the tourists, it's not a problem).

* * * * *

My vacation from my vacation is going swimmingly, though. I went to the pool yesterday after I arrived and then showered and went out. I had dinner and a shisha and then went to a club. Today I slept in a bit and then headed to the beach. It is warm and sunny here, such a nice change from all the cool, rainy weather I'd been seeing. Tonight I'm meeting up with friend of a friend, Kharboush, and some of his friends and we're going bowling. I haven't done that in ages! So, all around I'm just relaxing and taking it easy. It's a nice change of pace for the next few days before I'm back to all of the sightseeing.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sharm El Sheikh

Just a very quick note to let everyone know that I arrived in Sharm El Sheikh safely. I'm currently using the hotel computer and it's insanely expensive - 20 Egyptian pounds for 1/2 hour - which equates to about $8 per hour. Yikes! So I'll try to find an internet cafe offsite somewhere to post something longer and upload more pics.

For now, I'm off to the pool with a book. It's time for a vacation from my vacation! :-)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Did you know they had pyramids here?

Today was a full day. I actually got some sightseeing in. :-) I went to see the pyramids in Giza and that was pretty wild. No matter how often you see the pyramids on television or in print, it's totally different in person. You're definitely in the desert out there, as evidenced by the fact that I'm fairly certain I still have sand in my contacts 12 hours later, and the pyramids are larger than life. But at the same time, it almost seems like they're not that big. I think it's because on tv it seems like the pyramids and Sphinx are in the middle of nowhere and that's just not true - there's a city all around it!

So I'm at the pyramids and of course a guy wants to get me to either a) buy a ticket to see the inside of the pyramid (I'd heard it wasn't worth it because there's nothing to actually see), or b) agree to a ride on a camel or horse. I told him I didn't have any money and I wasn't interested anyway and he told me to at least sit on the camel for a picture (using my camera). Ok, so I did that, but then he wanted me to give him money anyway for taking the picture! Uh, no. Moving on. . .

There are actually nine pyramids here, not just the Great one and the two others that most people are familiar with. Besides going into the pyramid where you can't really see anything, you can also go into the trap doors where you can see stuff. Check Flickr for pictures as my connection seems to be incredibly slow and nothing is uploading very fast. I'll try to add a couple to the actual post later.

I didn't hang out in Giza too terribly long because Dina was waiting for me and had Nadim with her in the car. Right about the time I decided I was ready to leave was also the time I decided I'd had enough wind in the desert (see above: sand in eyes). She popped me into a bus headed downtown so that she could put Nadim down for a nap. That was. . .an experience for sure. No one on the bus really spoke English and I didn't really know where I was going or when I was getting off, so it was interesting. (Plus, driving is different here in a big way. I'll have to talk about that more later.)

I did eventually make my way to the Egyptian Museum. It's a lot bigger than the Acropolis Museum in Athens and I easily spent 2 1/2 hours or so there. I don't think I even saw everything there was to see. I think perhaps the coolest part of the museum was the animal mummy room. You do know that it wasn't just humans who were mummified, don't you? I had heard this before, but I didn't realize there were different levels of animal mummification ranging from food (so a person would have something to eat in the afterlife) to pet to honorific (which isn't the right word, but it was when animals were mummified because it was believed that a god had manifested itself in that animal). There were mummified cats, dogs, shrews, baboons, birds, snakes, even a crocodile. Walking through the museum and thinking about how a lot of the antiquities were between five and seven thousand years old. . .just amazing.

I had some time to waste after the museum before meeting up with Gaafar, a friend of a friend, so I decided to go ahead and book my trip to Sharm El Sheikh. I'll be leaving by plane on Tuesday of this week and returning on Saturday. Sharm is a beach town and I was thinking that with all of the go go go (and rain!) that I've been having, that a few days to chill and do nothng might be just the ticket. I'll also check out the nightlife and may even go snorkeling or for a dive, but it will be mostly low-key - me and a book on the beach!

Anyway, then I met up with Gaafar and we went to Khan El Khalili, Cairo's bazaar. It's not as big as the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but it's more interesting because the shops tend to have a wider selection (instead of all the same stuff like in GB). Gaafar had talked about maybe meeting up with a friend for dinner, but the friend bailed so I invited myself along. :-) I told him that I was up for anything as long as it was traditional Egyptian food.

At the restaurant, Gaafar was trying to be really sensitive to what I may or may not like, but I told him that after what I ate (and liked!) in Istanbul, I would seriously try anything, no worries at all. (Which reminds me - I have a food of Istanbul post planned, that I really need to get posted while it's all still fresh. Keep and eye out for it and someone remind me if you don't see it by the end of the week.) None of the food that we tried was particularly weird or anything, but some of it isn't very common in the US. We started with pickles, but in Cairo pickles means any vegetable that's been pickled. In our case it was cucumbers, onions, something purple that I forgot to ask about, and lemon (also known as preserved lemons). They were all pretty tasty, even if they were a tad too salty. Next was smoked herring and more pickled onions eaten as a sandwich on pita bread. The smoked herring actually tasted a bit like smoked salmon which I wouldn't have guessed (I also wouldn't have guessed that I'd like the way a smoked fish and onion sandwich tasted, but there you have it). Gaafar said he doesn't like either of these two things very much individually, but that he really likes them together. There were chicken livers; they can also be eaten as a sandwich with onions. I tried them plain and in sandwich form and I gotta say - the texture is a little weird, but these were also better than I expected. We had a rice dish that had hazelnuts, raisins, and maybe a bit of liver of some sort, and an orzo dish that had beef in it, but it's kind of hard to describe. I told Gaafar it was kind of like jambalaya, but that didn't mean a whole lot to him lol. What else? A soup that had spinach and (lots of) garlic. And a drink made from hibiscus flowers and a splash of 7Up. Everything was very good. This whole try-everything-because-you-never-know-you-might-just-like-it thing is working out well for me so far!

I have no real plan for tomorrow yet. I might reach out to some CSers, local and foreigners, and see if anyone wants to hang out.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

No sightseeing yet

I've been in Cairo for about 36 hours now and I've still done no sightseeing. Well, not really anyway. I've seen a bit of Cairo at night and I've experienced the nightlife, but that's about it. Last night I went out for sushi and drinks with Salama and Tatio to this place called Asia (I think) and it was literally right on the Nile river. So I've seen the Nile! It looks like a river!

Today we slept in and then hung out for awhile before heading to a late lunch. It was actually a business meeting and I tagged along because I don't know Arabic so it didn't really matter that I was there. Later on I met up with Mohamed's sister, Dina, who I'll be staying with for the next few days. She has a two year old son named Nadeem and he's an absolute cutie. When I met him he was shy for about half a second til I crouched down to say hi and he ran over to me, gave me a hug, and proceeded to not let go of my hand for a half hour or so. My heart just about melted since he's the same age as my nephew, Joey. By the way, Nadeem doesn't speak English so the conversations he and I have are pretty interesting. I think he'll end up teaching me a few words of Arabic before all is said and done.

I sort of have a plan for my next few days. I plan to officially check out Cairo over the next couple of days. Some real sight-seeing, complete with pictures. On Tuesday I will probably fly to Sharm el Sheikh which is on the Red Sea and soak up some much needed rays. Maybe my bathing suit will even see some action! From there. . .well, my plans have changed so much already, so it's hard to say, but I think I'll probably stick around for a little while and see what I can see.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Just a quick note to let everyone know that I am in Cairo. I arrived a few hours ago and was greeted at the airport by my friend Mohamed's friend, Salama. We drove to his other friend Tatio's house, where I'll be staying, and then went out for a late lunch.

I haven't taken any pictures yet, but I can already tell you that, as expected, it's a completely different environment all together. I'm excited! Also, it's warm and sunny here. . .although, from what I hear, it's now sunny and warm in Istanbul, too.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia and a Turkish Bath. Oh my!

You read that like "lions and tigers and bears," right? Because you were supposed to.

I was apparently all about being a tourist and doing all tourist stuff yesterday. The Blue Mosque was amazing. For me it was about 10 times better than La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. My pictures will totally not do it justice at all, but:
That section in the front (on the floor) is where the men pray. Visitors aren't allowed to cross a certain point into the mosque. When you arrive at the visitors entrance, you take your shoes off and put them in a plastic bag. Most people carried these with them, rather than leave them unattended. Women are supposed to have their heads covered, but I was quite surprised that a full 50% of them (I'm guessing) didn't. Now, I understand that the Blue Mosque is essentially a tourist's mosque, but it's still in use by practicing Muslims. I think it's disrespectful to not follow the culture. But they were still let in, so, whatever.

Then I headed to Hagia Sofia, right across the street. The Hagia Sofia is a cathedral that was constructed sometime around 532 A.D. and converted into a mosque when the Ottoman Turks conquered Istanbul (then Constantinople) in 1453. Again, my picture doesn't do it justice, but this is my favorite shot because it gives an idea of the size. And I like all of the columns and arches.
Next up was the Turkish bath. I had tried to go to one the other day, but wouldn't you know it? I got lost. Not too lost, but by the time I got there it was less than an hour before they closed and they didn't take credit cards, so I just gave up. The bath I chose was the Çemberlitaş Hamam. It was more expensive than the other one (55 lira vs. 25 lira), but it's well known and was very easy to find so it was worth it. Also, I couldn't take pictures (for obvious reasons), so be sure to click on that link if you want to see what it looks like.

The bath was quite the experience. Women and men have their own sections. When you arrive you're shown to a locker to chang
e and lock up your stuff. You walk (in a towel and flip flops) down to the massage room and are told to lay anywhere you can find a spot on the belly stone. (It's a hot slab of marble in the center of the room.) For someone who's never done this before, it's a bit of a shocking scene. Women everywhere are walking around naked from the waist up, wearing only underwear and flops. Wild. So you lay on the stone for awhile and it's kind of like being in a sauna. When it's your turn for a massage, you move to the edge of the stone. Cool water is poured over you and then you are soaped up and scrubbed. This lasts for about 15 minutes and then you're rinsed off and your hair is shampooed. From here, you have your choice of two pools, one at 38 C and the other 36 C. You can go back and forth from the belly stone to the pools as much as you want. When you're finished, you get a fresh towel (because you've been walking around without one all this time) and then head to your locker to change. It was strange, but you got used to the nakedness after awhile, and it really was very relaxing.

After my day of being a tourist, I met up with CSers for the Istanbul weekly meeting and rabble-rousing. I wanted it to be a late night because tonight can't be; I have to leave the house tomorrow morning at 8:30am to make my flight since I'm taking public transportation. I was successful in my mission! I stayed out until 4am or so and slept in til 11:30am. Today was SUNNY! For the first time since I got here. I went to the Spice Bazaar as that was the last thing I really wanted to see before I left.
Since it was so nice and sunny out, I had lunch in a square outside a mosque and wrote postcards while I watched stray cats beg for scraps. It was a relaxing day and a good way to say goodbye to Istanbul. And now, I'm heading out to meet up with a CSer for dinner. My next post will be from the African continent!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

In the begınnıng, was there a plan?

Today ıs November 4th and I've been offıcıally travelıng for 35 days now. Remember way back when, when I fırst started (tryıng) to plan my ıtınerary? Then I thought I had a plan, but I stıll wanted to be able to keep thıngs flexıble. Basıcally, I knew even before I left that I mıght end up wantıng to do thıngs or see places that I hadn't consıdered before. And that certaınly happened, as evıdenced here, here, and here.

Where's all thıs leadıng? To an ıtınerary change, of course. :-) I was certaın that I was headıng to Bangkok from Istanbul, but wouldn't you know ıt? I ended up bookıng a flıght to Caıro, Egypt ınstead. No real partıcular reason except that the flıghts to Bangkok were a lıttle hıgher than I wanted to pay. Besıdes, Egypt was on my orıgınal lıst, so why not? (I'm stıll goıng to Bangkok, btw, just a lıttle later than I thought.)

When I decıded on Egypt, I got ın touch wıth Mohamed, the Egyptıan couchsurfıng frıend that I met ın Athens. He started rıght away gettıng ın touch wıth hıs frıends and famıly ın Caıro and I now have the names and phone numbers of people who wıll be takıng care of me whıle I'm there.

I leave Istanbul on Frıday at 12:30pm local tıme. I thınk my tıme travelıng to number of ıtınerary changes mıght be staggerıng. Some math genıus out there can fıgure ıt out.

Monday, November 2, 2009

More on Istanbul

I feel like I haven't said a whole lot about Istanbul yet. From the moment I arrived, it immediately felt more exotic here as compared to the other cities I've been to so far. The sights and smells were not exactly overwhelming, but it was a lot to take in.

Let's start with the sights. I mentioned to ToadMama that I must be shopping deprived because everywhere I looked I saw something I wanted to buy. Shops have colorful scarves, beads, and ceramics. The clothing, bags, and shoes in the shops are different from anything I've seen so far. I kept seeing things and imagining who I'd buy it for, if I were headed home from here instead of on to my next destination. I haven't bought anything for myself yet, no souvenirs or anything, so I may just treat myself and get something pretty! On the other hand, a lot of what I saw had 'Made in Thailand' tags, so I may just wait to get it there where it will probably be cheaper.

Next up, the smells. Yummy smells abound in Istanbul. It's no wonder it seems that Turkish people are always eating something - it just smells too good to ignore. You can buy things like kebab and other on-the-go items like roasted ears of corn and roasted chestnuts. But people are all about cooking at home, too, as evidenced by the markets. You can find all kinds of colorful produce, nuts, olives, and meat. One section of a market that I was in had loads of the most amazing looking silvery fish that I really wish I'd gotten a picture of. People pop into the markets or various produce stands to get a few things they want for dinner that night and then head home to cook. Speaking of home cooked meals, Mehmet has cooked a few traditional Turkish dishes for me that were delicious. One was a spinach dish that had been chopped and seasoned (but I couldn't tell you what all was in it). Another was a celery root dish that has onions, garlic, lemon, celery root (when cooked, kind of has the consistency of a cooked potato), and celery stalk. Generally both of these dishes are cooked a day ahead of time and served cold the next day. Yet another was chicken that had been chopped up in the food processor with spices and sauted. Mehmet also made a dessert that I got to help with - baked quince with clotted cream. SO good (and I'm not just saying that because I peeled the quince!). It was also suggested that I try salep, a traditional Turkish drink. The link gives the history of the drink, but what I can tell you is that it's milk based, served hot, and sprinkled with cinnamon. It's quite good, even if the consistency of it is a little offputting at first.

What else? That should fill in some of the blanks of Istanbul, but what do you want to know?

I'm not in America anymore

Since I started my travels, I've been taking notes on ways I know I'm not still in America (as if that would be hard to figure out!). Here's what I've come up with so far.

Barcelona edition:
- People are eating dinner and/or getting ready to go out at 11pm on a Wednesday night.
- There are no SUVs here! The biggest vehicle I remember seeing was a Jeep.
- I saw someone texting as they were driving a scooter. (Not that this couldn't happen in America, it probably does, but the traffic in Barcelona is a bit more chaotic.)

Prague edition:
- Beer and wine are often cheaper than soda. Not sure why, but guess which one I was drinking? :-)
- Sidewalks are never plain concrete. They are always decorative in some way. (This was true in Barcelona, too. In every city I've been in so far, actually.)

Athens edition:
- People can and do smoke everywhere - bars, restaurants, airports - no where was off limits it seemed.
- Scooters and motorcycles have no particular driving lane. They can and do drive between cars and wherever else they want. It's common practice for scooters to pull up to the head of the line in traffic, often sitting right under the traffic light so that drivers have to turn their head to the side to see when they have the green. (I asked Evangelos about this because I told him this wasn't legal in the US and he asked what the point of having a motorbike was then, if not to manuever more easily in traffic.)
- Stray dogs! They're everywhere. The government tags and leashes them to show that they've been vaccinated against rabies and people often feed them and take care of them. It's like they are the public's pets. There are stray cats, too, but they're not liked as much.
- Beggars appear to always be diseased, disabled, or deformed in some way.
- You have to flip a switch to turn on the hot water and then wait about 10 minutes before taking a shower.
- Worry/stress beads. Greek men (and only the men) have beads that kind of look like rosary beads that they play with. It was described to me as just something that men do. I have no idea why it's limited to men.

Istanbul edition:
- I walked into a restaurant that essentially had a home kitchen, complete with 2 resident cats.
- Everyone walks in the streets instead of the sidewalk because the sidewalks are often very narrow and/or crooked. Cars give a little honk and people move to the side.
- Toilet paper doesn't go in the toilets. There are special tp trash cans situated next to the toilet for paper disposal. (Also true in Athens.)
- Stray cats! Same as Athens above except in Turkey they like the cats more than the dogs.

I'm sure there are plenty of other examples that I'm forgetting. I also have a few examples that are, uh, too-racy-for-general-public-consumption that I can share if you're interested.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Catchıng up: Istanbul

So, where was I? Today ıs Sunday and I arrıved on Thursday, so I have a bıt of catchıng up to do. As I mentıoned before, I met up wıth CSers on Thursday nıght (ıncludıng Thanos, my host from Athens). On Frıday, Thanos and I dıd some sıght-seeıng on both the Asıan sıde and the European sıde. (By the way, dıd you know that Istanbul ıs the only cıty that sıts on two contınents? I actually saw a sıgn that saıd 'Welcome to Asıa' and that was really cool.) Frıday nıght I met up wıth my Istanbul host, Mehmet, and we went to a fellow CSer's house party. It was another late nıght because after we left the party at about 3am, we went to a few clubs ın Istanbul. Sleep dıdn't come untıl about 7am. :-)

Saturday proved to be very raıny, wındy, and chılly. Not a perfect day to do any sıght-seeıng. I compromısed by allowıng Mehmet to drıve me around to varıous non-tourısty parts of the cıty. :-) Mehmet ıs great because I'm learnıng a lot from hım. I get Turkısh hıstory lessons and he's tellıng me about all of the ıntrıcacıes of the language, so ıt's fun. We went to another CS party on Saturday nıght, thıs one a combınatıon bırthday/Halloween party.

Today started out not partıcularly raıny, but ıt ended up raınıng today, too. I got horrıbly lost whıch ısn't exactly fun ın the raın. I met up wıth two dıfferent groups of CS frıends, but agaın, dıdn't do a whole lot of sıght-seeıng. I aım to change that tomorrow, whether ıt's raınıng or not. I stıll have to see Hagıa Sofıa, the Blue Mosque, the Spıce Bazaar, and the Grand Bazaar before I leave.
All pıctures have been uploaded for your vıewıng pleasure.