where i've been...

My travel map

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Athens, Greece

This is definitely the country I will come back to as soon as I compromise most of what I stand for and just settle and marry rich...very, VERY rich. Greece (well, really all we have seen is Athens) is beautiful. Beautiful in the sense of both

a)lots of ruins (i.e. the Acropolis on the hill that you can see from almost anywhere in the city) and history


b) a starbucks or coffee shop at every turn and newly released (well, new to me) american movies in the cinemas. :)

Like I said. Beautiful.

So, my one complaint about the movies here (we have seen two in the last two nights) is that in the middle of the movie they do an intermission. Yes, an intermission. Lights go up. Movie stops. Everyone takes their little bathroom break or goes to buy more popcorn or soda. WHAT?!?! It is horrifying to me. My "shiny object syndrome", as Luis coined in a few years back, takes over and I totally lose the emotional groove of the movie. I begin to notice the horrible hairstyles of the people around me, or how my chair isn't as comfortable as I originally though. How I like or don't like the decor of the room, etc. I count rows of chairs...anything. It is a 15 minute intermission, and then, when it is time to start up again, there are stragglers still settling back in, climbing over your legs, getting comfortable, etc. and you are trying to hear the movie and remember what Benjamin Button was so sad about 15 mintues prior when you were so rudely interrupted by the intermission.

At this time of year a lot of the islands are closed and ferry routes are limited. So my dream of spending time in those cute towns you always see with the white domed houses overlooking the bluest sea known to man will have to wait for later. I guess it is good to have a few places on this trip that I have to go back too. Wouldn't want to cross them all off my list at once, right?

But I did get to eat some baklava. Yummy. And almost too sweet. :)

Some of the remnants of the recent riots here in Athens. We liked this one.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Getting to Jordan...

is harder than one would think! So, our journey began on a sunny Wednesday. We got up, ate (of course) went for a quick walk around town and then back to the house to (eat, of course) and grab our things and head to the bus station. Long story a little bit shorter (okay, so I'm not really good at holding to that, but it's fun to say) our Lonely Planet book had said there was a direct bus from Alexandria to Aqaba, Jordan. The truth of the situation, is that there is not. Instead, there is a multiple-modes-of-transportation journey, that ended up taking us just over 32 hours. It consisted of a bus to Cairo, a two hour wait, another bus to Nuweiba, Egypt, an 11 hour wait, and then a ferry to Jordan, followed by a two hour cab ride to the city of Wadi Musa, just outside of Petra. Woah.

The good news is that I had time (lots of it and the vast majority in a freezing cold, air conditioned bus driving through the desert at high speeds in the dark, windy roads, with no headlights and a broken speedometer) to contemplate the things that I truly miss about the US. Here are a few:

1-lines. Not only the existence of lines, but the respect for them. See a line, go to the end of it. Wait your turn. Does that really seem so hard?
2-to go coffee. I want to take my coffee with me. I want to walk around with it. I want to multi-task.
3-customer service. Just tell me the truth. Give me correct information. Say sorry when you mess things up. Take responsibility. Or at least pretend to.
4-the ability to book things online in advance. Oh, how much we this for granted.
5-schedules and timetables that are somewhat reliable and accurate. If the ferry leaves at 6, tell me 6. Not 2!

The ferry trip was a real treat. First of all, the trip over (about an hour and a half) is a RIDICULOUS $70, US. On top of that, you must pay in USD, but the ATMs don't give out USD. We are pretty sure now that whoever owns the ferry is related to the one bank in the neighboring town that exchanges Egyptian Pounds for USD. Luckily for us, Jenny had enough USD to cover us all. So there are two ferry options, the fast ferry (1.5 hrs) and the slow ferry (2.5 hrs). Well, considering we arrived at 5:30am and had nothing to do but sit outside and drink tea, we were more concerned with getting on a ferry than the amount of time it took to get to Jordan. They told us the slow ferry left at 4pm (and was $10 cheaper) but the fast ferry left at 2pm. So we splurged on the fast ferry. Come to find out, the slow ferry actually left at 12 and the fast ferry finally left at about 6:00pm. Urgh. I would have gladly paid the extra $10 just for the correct information! We met a good group of people waiting for the ferry though, and we all made it over in the end.
The classic picture taken as you walk in and first see the Treasury.

Some of the amazing colors of sandstone.

The following day I pulled myself out of bed early (6:15!), ate breakfast and headed out to Petra with two guys who we had met the day before. Rahima and Jenny were so exhausted that they decided to meet up later in Petra. We got there about 7:45am, and spent all day there...literally. We must have been the last tourists out of the place about 6:30pm, walking out in the dark. I will definitely not do justice to Petra here in this blog. It was one of my top two things I wanted to see on this trip, and it surpassed every (and I mean absolutely EVERY) expectation that I had. I don't think I have ever spent so much time somewhere and just marveled at what was around me. The buildings are carved into the sandstone walls and everything is just massive. The buildings are beautiful and you really feel how it was a true city, not just a little town with one or two spectacular facades carved into the walls. It is sprawling across quite a bit of space and you sometimes just go around a turn and can't believe what you are seeing right in front of you. One of my favorite parts was the Monastery, which is 48m tall and 43m wide. One of the guys we were with, Tim, disappeared for a bit and suddenly called out to us, from the TOP of it! Well, I was certainly envious and so when he said it was quite an easy climb, Ed and I started up ourselves. Jenny and Rahima stayed down to get the good pics of us. It was incredible. I sat on top of one of the 7 wonders of the world. Sigh. :) Does it get much better than that?

The Monastery. If you look closely just to the left of the spire you will see Tim, standing on top, in a dark grey sweatshirt. Wow!

Me and Ed on top of the Monastery. Can you believe it? It was absolutely spectacular. :)

Oh yeah, and on the way to Amman today we stopped at the Dead Sea and floated for a bit. It was really funny. The guide book even warns that if you are coming here to commit suicide, rethink it, because you won't be successful. You literally cannot make yourself sink on your own. Looks like we are lying on the bottom in these pictures but we couldn't touch the bottom. The gnome got to swim too. It was a good day for us all. :)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Happy 31st Birthday!

Well, for starters, this internet cafe hates me. I have been fighting with it for about 45 mintues and I am going to try my best not to let my sheer and utter annoyance at both this computer and the obnoxious men behind me not affect the entirety of this blog. But seriously, if this computer doesn't let me finish this blog AGAIN, or if those guys do one more obnoxious thing, someone is getting hurt. 31 definitely has a shorter fuse than 30. ;)

Aside from my little rant, 31 has been great so far. We spent a day in Cairo and probably did what most people do in a few days, all packed into one. We got a VERY early start and went to the Giza Pyramids. Wow. It was amazing. The sphinx was really my favorite. I just couldn't believe I was actually there, staring at such immense structures that were built so long ago. The pyramids are actually the only one of the original 7 manmade wonders of the world still in existence. We walked around and even climed around inside of one of them. It was great.

Jenny and me going into the Great Pyramid. Check out how large each of the stones that made up the pyramid are behind us. WOW!

Rahima and me at the Great Pyramid.

Then we went back to Cairo and went to the Egyptian Museum, where (my favorite part) was seeing everything that they took out of King Tut's tomb. It was so perfectly preserved. The amount of gold and the condition of all of the jewelry is really a marvel. I stood gawking at the famous headpiece for quite some time. We met up with Rahima's aunt Nahid, who lives in Alexandria but came down to Cairo to meet up with us and then to escort us back to Alexandria the next day. She took us to her cousin's house in Cairo for dinner. Their family has 6 kids, ranging from 22 to 3 months. They were amazing. The older kids (22, 20, 17 and 12) speak a lot of English and were thoroughly amused with me attempting to learn words in Arabic. They were so kind and amazing, that they insisted we stay with them for the night instead of returning to our hostel. So Rahima, Jenny, Amar (the oldest boy) and Aunt Nahid went to the hostel to collect our things and I was convinced by the 12 year old, Sara, to stay with her at the house. She and her brother, Mohamed, and little sister, Salma, spent the next few hours teaching me words in Arabic, quizzing me, and laughing hysterically at me. It was great. :)

Everyone together. Amany, Jenny, Aunt Nahid, Rahima, Samina, Mohamed, (front) Amar, Sara, Seif, Me

So my Arabic now consists of the following: good morning, let's go, spider (the essential words first, right?), I love you, I'll miss you, yes, no, man, woman, girl, boy, thank you, you're welcome, okay, hello, and no problem. I also have picked up a few choice hand gestures which I am sure will come in handy. That, and my biggest accomplishment is that I have learned how to read the numbers 1-10, so that I will no longer be ripped off by street vendors when I ask prices. Ha ha to them! They don't know what they've got coming now. :)

So I have come to the conclusion that negotiating really is part of Egyptian culture. It works in reverse inside of a home though. You see, when you are out on the streets as a tourist, everyone tells you a price at least 75% higher than they would tell a local. So you bargain EVERYTHING. It gets a little annoying at points. But inside a home, no matter what you say, they want to feed you more. So when you say you want two pieces of something, they give you six. If you say three, they give you seven. So, if you only want one or two pieces, you must refuse staunchly, and hope that maybe they will stop loading up your plate at two. :)

All of the food...or what is left of what we just couldn't eat! :)

After a huge dinner around 8pm, we ate fruit at about 9pm, cake about 10, and then around midnight Amar, the oldest boy was sent out for bread and things for (what we naievely assumed) breakfast. We came back and talked and laughed until about 2am, when they made cheese sandwiches and forced us to eat again. We couldn't believe it. They tried with fruit (bananas and tangerines) as well, but Jenny took advantage of a moment of distraction to polietly hide them back in the kitchen. :)
They all turned off the lights about 12:30 and sang Happy Birthday to me both in English and Arabic, and being around such a lively group made it feel really great. I am still having a blast and hopefully, with any luck, this blog will post and make my birthday complete. Let's all be thankful for small miracles. :)

Friday, January 16, 2009


Sunset on the Nile.

What can I say about Luxor? What is it not? Vegas. No pyramid and no huge beam of light shining from it. What is it? A city filled with history, tombs, ruins, and falafel. I really can't stop eating the falafel. We found a street place that sells a half a pita with falafel and this jalapeno-eggplant mixture for 1 egyptian pound. That is about 16cents. So for two falafels and a soda or bottle of water, you can eat for about 80cents. For some reason though, I can't stop eating them. First of all they are delicious. Secondly, I have been trying so hard to keep some semblance of a food budget while in Europe, where a simple cup of tea averages about 2.5 euros (just over $3). So here I find myself with enough money to eat, and eat, and eat some more. Whoever thought traveling would mean losing weight never came here and ate street food. It couldn't be more delicious. And now the guys at the shop know us and wait for us a few times a day to pass by and stuff our faces...again. Oh how I a poudly living up to the excessively gluttonous American reputation! There is a McDonalds down the street and they sell McDonalds-Egypt beach towels, in three different colors. I guess they had to branch out to keep some business since the food elsewhere is so good!

My falafel...yum.

Luxor itself is a pretty big place, overrun with tourism, but with so much to offer that you can't really help but like it. We are about two blocks from the Nile and can see the Luxor Temple ruins from our hotel as well. Yesterday we went to the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Workers, Queen Hatsepshut's Temple, and the Colussi of Memnon. Today we went to Karnak Temple. Everything is very surreal here. Heiroglyphics everywhere and it is amazing to see huge statues and painted tombs that have lasted for over 4000 years.

Luxor Temple at night.

The gnome (yes...he still is with us) and the Colossi of Memnon)

In Karnak Temple.

The spices, especially the dried hibiscus, in the streets of Luxor.

It gets a little old being hassled all the time here, and the concept of walking just to walk seems foreign to all taxi drivers, minibus drivers and horse-drawn carriage drivers. We have tried being polite, ignoring them, speaking spanish, not speaking at all, and even being (what feels to us) rude. Seems like they all keep going, lowering their prices for things you don't want. It can be a little entertaining though. Jenny (who is half Chinese and half Hungarian) has had loads of people here think she is Egyptian. Rahima (who is Egyptian) shocks people by saying she is actually the Egyptian in the group. I (of course) get "tourist" all the time, but when I say nothing and am in my sunglasses get called Shakira. Go figure. Everyone loves Obama and hates Bush, and wants to make sure we are the type of Americans who agree. Amazing how much common ground that gets you once you leave the US.

Rahima, me and Jenny at Hatsepshut's Temple.

Tomorrow we head to Cairo for a few days. After being around all the tombs (we didn't go to King Tut's because everything has been taken out of it to the Cairo Museum so there isn't all that much to see but they charge you extra to do it anyway), I can't wait to get there and see all of the contents of the tombs. And to see the pyramids. :) Maybe I'll even get a few more falafel sandwiches in before we go.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Last day in Hurghada, Egypt

Today is our last day in Hurghada. Really, if you aren't diving there isn't much to do here at all. The city itself thrives on tourism and we are in winter here. That means that the daytime temp is only about mid-70s. The city is full of unfinished construction of what seems like will be hotels. Apparently there is no property tax on unfinished buildings, so there is not a large incentive to finish them. The touristy part of town is a little sickening and I am glad I have spent most of my time here looking at fish instead of shops!

We finished our SCUBA certification yesterday, and I can see where the addiction comes in for being a diver. Rahima was more than happy to spend the day sleeping in. After four days of being up and out by 7:45am and then being in either a classroom or underwater practicing skills for 8 hours a day, she really wanted her sleep. As for me, I wanted to do a day of diving without any skills, practice exercizes or tests. So I did a half day, two-dive trip this morning. In contrast to my travel buddy, I was picked up at 6:50am and was on the boat and moving by 7:05am. Urgh. But it was worth it. It was amazing because there were no other boats at the dive site when we got there and went in. When we got out (about an hour later) there were a total of 11 boats, gearing up and ready to jump in. We had it really good. :) We did a second dive at another site about an hour and a half later, and the boats that were there were happily taking a lunch break, so we once again were the only three divers on the reef (me, another diver, and Hilde, my instructor/guide).

We saw tons of cool fish, and when I say tons, I mean literally thousands of fish. A few times there were schools of hundreds of fish and you could just swim right through them, or float along with the current beside them. We saw a HUGE feathertail stingray yesterday when diving, at least a meter wide and probably a little bit more than a meter long (not icluding the tail!) Today we saw a giant clam, probably about a meter wide and a half a meter tall. It was indigo, and really, really neat! We saw two different kinds of poisonous lionfish and two VERY venomous scorpionfish. We also saw lots of "Nemos" (clownfish), angelfish, butterfly fish, mantarays, and a pretty interesting looking crocodile fish to name a few. I wish I had an underwater camera to be able to post some pictures, but that will be in another lifetime, with a substantially bigger budget!

So tomorrow we will leave the Red Sea and head to Luxor. I can't wait to see what is in store for us. Although I have only seen a very small part of this country (and almost nothing above water), I have to say that Egypt sure holds a lot of treasures, and I have just begun to explore them.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

SCUBA in Egypt

I can't really begin to describe how much fun I am having with this whole SCUBA thing. :) Yes, my big brother was right, and I should have done this long ago. But really, learning to dive in the Red Sea (warm even in winter) really is a lot better than Monterey (cold, all year round!)

We have been doing our SCUBA certification for three days now, and tomorrow will be the final day. The first two days really consisted of a lot of theory (classroom) and some confined water dives, in the shallow water right off of the shore. All went really well, I just needed to get used to taking off my mask underwater and not breathing suddenly with my nose. YUCK! After a few tries, and a throat full of yucky salty water, I figured it out.

Today we got to go on a boat and do two open water dives near a coral reef. I know it is just the beginning, but it was SO neat. It is really cool to be able to just wander around underwater and look at things, without thinking about needing to breathe. I just love it. We saw a bunch of parrot fish, which are just like rainbows under the sea. It is amazing how colorful they are. We also saw a bunch of clown fish (Nemo) and even baby ones maybe only a few centimeteres long. We saw a huge moray eel, peeking out of some huge coral, but it must have been at least 1-2 meters long itself. Very neat. And the amazing part to me is that when you are down there, the fish couldn't care less about you. When I snorkel and dive down, the fish always scatter a bit, but when I am diving the fish are actually curious about what I am and so they swim right next to you. So tomorrow we have another two open water dives and then we will be officially certified. I can't wait to do a real, full dive. :)

Rahima and I all geared up.

Here I go! Look how blue the water is!

Just before we go down. That's me attempting to give the "okay" sign to Jenny on the boat.

Aside from that, the town we are in (Hurghada) is really a large tourist area, mainly for divers. There is a big touristy center with two McDonalds about a block away from each other, followed by a Pizza Hut, Burger King, KFC, etc. There isn't much else to do here, so we will probably leave right after we get certified and maybe do another dive in the Red Sea in another town. Amazingly, it's not just a Cairo thing to drive with your headlights off after dark. When we were coming back from dinner last night we took a taxi back to our hotel. A man followed us out of the restaurant and asked if we needed a taxi because he was a taxi driver. I asked how much to our hotel (we knew it should be about 15 Egyptian pounds). He said "How much for you?" I said "15 pounds". He said, "20 for all three of you". I said, "No, that's too much. Let's start again. I'll go 10 pounds, then we can negotiate up." He laughed and said, "Fine. Let's go." Then he played Egyptian (I think) pop music all the way back to the hotel, turned it up really loud and encouraged us to clap along while he danced/drove. Happiest cab driver I will ever meet I think. :)

Our hotel is really nice too. Relatively speaking of course! We have had a few bumps with things such as hot water, or water pressure. Getting the two at the same time seems to be asking a little too much. Yesterday I literally had to get down on my knees in the shower to get enough water pressure to rinse the conditoner out of my hair! But the hotel staff is really nice. When we came back yesterday the towels had been folded in the shapes of hearts and flowers on the beds. We thought that was a nice touch. Then today, we returned to find one big blanket folded into the shape of a big fish, with Rahima's eye cream bottle as the eye, and the other towels were in the form of an alligator, wearing my Brazil soccer jersey which I had left out! It even had little paper teeth and eyes and nostrils and everything. Some people really do have amazing talents.

Our towel alligator.

Look how cute the teeth are!


London from the Millenium Bridge, coming back from the Tate Museum, which was great.

The giant pigeon-eating pelicans in London. Serioulsy. Aren't they huge?

Us in front of Big Ben.

Why French women really don't get fat. We solved this mystery when we were stuck in Paris for a few hours in our long journey from Edinburgh to Barcelona. We had to wait in a train station for a few hours, but all of the train stations are open, so they are just like being outside in the freezing cold. We went inside to eat (and mainly to get warm) This is their actual "normal" sized cup of coffee. Think of that...then a venti from Starbucks. Little bit of a difference, huh?

Me riding a lion statue in Barcelona.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Made it to Egypt!

I realize every now and again that when I don't have the chance to update the blog, some people get worried that I'm not okay. :) Sorry bout that!

We did finally make it to Barcelona and had a great few days. We stayed with Maria Rosa's cousin, Silvia, who welcomed us with open arms and made our stay really comfortable. We ran around Barcelona seeing as much Miro and Gaudi as we could, which I enjoyed more than I can say. The last night we were there, it even SNOWED up on the hills. Crazy.

We are now in Egypt. We arrived late last night, waited at the airport for Rahima's friend Jenny, who is traveling solo for six months, and then headed to our hostel to sleep for about four hours before getting up today and on another bus to head to the city of Hurghada. It is on the red sea, and if all goes well, Rahima and I will begin our SCUBA classes tomorrow. The weather is heavenly, in the mid 70s, a welcome change from Europe's winter!

So, I have one quick anecdote for you all to ponder before I have to run. When we went from the airport to the hostel last night, via taxi (about 3am) we noticed something very odd about driving at night in Egypt. That is to say, cars drive with their headlights OFF and use them to only flash each other when they want to pass. Hmmm...not quite sure about this system, since they already don't follow any coventioinal rules of the road. I'll keep you posted. Oh, and their horns are seriously wired louder than any horns every should be, and they are constantly honking. At everything. See a car: honk. Pass a car: honk. Want to pass a car: honk. See a car wanting to pass a car: honk. Sitting in your car: honk. The list is endless...let's hope I can sleep through it. Listen to that...someone just honked. Seriously.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

almost there...

Well, since my last post, we have made some progress. And by some, I mean a little bit. :)

We caught an 11:10 train from Paris to somewhere in the southwest of France, where supposedly we could catch a train to Barcelona. Sounds good, right? It was a sleeper train, so we did get to lay down and sleep for about six hours. YIPEE! Unfortunately when we got off the train, the blackberry somehow stayed nice and warm somewhere under Rahima´s covers. Apparently it did not want to get up yet. So after a few hours of using our impeccable command of French, we were able to find the phone, in another town, and we went to claim it. From there we took the train just over the border to Spain (yes!) and now officialy have tickets that will take us to Barcelona, arriving at 10pm tonight, almost exactly 60 hours after this journey from Edinburgh began. So we are killing some time in an internet cafe (obviously) and I am trying to upload some pictures. :) It is pretty cold here, and it is hard to believe that in a week I will be learning to scuba dive in the red sea. The thought of weather warm enough to wear a bikini in is delightful.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

fall from travel grace...

Well, for all of the good luck we had traveling up to Edinburgh for New Years, we are now paying the price. Granted, we did NO advance planning to get us to Edinburgh, and even less for accomodations, which were running about 65 pounds a night with a minimum stay required of three to four nights. So when we got a last minute couch through couchsurfing we were more than grateful. We stayed with a few Polish guys and one Argentine gal and really enjoyed ourselves, until we realized that we somehow needed to get from Edinburgh all the way down to Barcelona, and we fly out of Madrid on the 7th to meet a friend of Rahima's in Egypt.

So we began to look for flights, but being last minute we weren't coming up with the deals we had hoped for. The cheapest option was a day bus (9 hrs) from Edinburgh to London, then keep ourselves awake there from about 8pm until 4am, head to the airpot for a 7:30am flight and be in Barcelona by 11am the 3rd. Well, this is where it begins to go amok.

After arriving in London, we find out they only check bags (storage) until 11pm and don't reopen until the next day at 7am.
Problem 1: we are stuck with all of our bags

We called the Australians who we met in Dublin to possibly leave our bags at their place for a few hours, (E5, laugh here) but they live a bit outside of the city, and the tube closes at midnight, so getting back would be an expensive ordeal.

Problem 2: we still have our bags, and a lot of time to kill.

We go to a pub, get some food and decide to go to a movie to pass the time. We take a cab to the theatre only to realize we read the times wrong and there are no more movies that night.

Problem 3: it is another 8 pounds just to return to our starting point. And it is cold.

So. We decide our best option is to just go to the airport. We pay 10 pounds for the hour and a half ride, to get there and be denied entrance because the fire alarm is sounding. It is freezing outside, and I secretly hope for a fire inside. My basic instincts tell me fire=warmth. Sadly, there is no fire.

Problem 4: pretty sure that one was obvious

When we finally get inside it is about 1am. I find a freezing spot of floor (reminiscent of the Madrid airport exactly one month prior) and sleep for two hours. Those floors literally suck any and all body heat right out of you. I countered my impending hypothermia with a few cups of tea and sudoku.

Problem 5: I am now cold and tired. I am no longer a fun travel buddy.

At 5:45am we go to check in, only to find out that the airline saw a possible fraud alert from my credit card company (with whom I had spoken and they had authorized the transaction after verifying my identity two days earlier) and cancelled the ticket. Easy jet shows they have refunded the money, visa shows they haven't. Welcome to my hell. It froze over, and it's called London.

So, instead of getting the next flight for about 175 usd each, we began the budget travel option instead.

Problem 6: this takes WAY more time.

So we went from the airport back to the city (1.5hrs), then to the coast of England (3hrs), then on a ferry to France (1.5hrs), then a train to Paris (3.5hrs) and are most likely going to miss the connecting train to Barcelona tonight.

So, lessons learned? We should not be in airports on the 2nd of the month. (Our first flight leaving LA was also on the 2nd, and was delayed over 8hrs). Shower and sleep well when possible...you never really know when the next chance you will have to do either will be! Be grateful for a travel partner who manages to make all of this "fun". As she pointed out, at least this way we get a France stamp in our passports. I'll be tearing out that page and framing it.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Happy New Year!

This will be quick because we are on a bus, but we had a wonderful New Years in Edinburgh, Scotland. We watched the fireworks go off over Edinburgh Castle up on the hill and I think it was my favorite New Years ever :) I can't wait to write more about Scotland, but I have to run now. We are in London for the next 11 hours or so before we fly off to Barcelona. Hopefully the eurail pass will be better once out of the UK! Sure can't be worse!