Sunday, January 25, 2009

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Dahab Part 3

After snorkeling, we hung out on beach chairs for a few hours while the waiters tried to sell us absurdly expensive drinks and food. I eventually got bored of my book and decided to hike up to the top of the nearby ridge.

This was an actual inscription in the wall of memorials of people who died at the blue hole while scuba diving. “Have a fun dive!”

This is an HDR of the small rock tunnel/crevice I climbed through to get up to the top.

View from the top of the ridge. The blue hole is over the first small ridge on the right.

That night we went back to “Quickly” for dinner and I had delicious shrimp and calamari spaghetti. After a great time in Dahab, we had no idea we were about to get on the bus ride from hell.

We boarded the bus at 11 pm and settled in for a nice night of sleep, but for the next 8 hours we were subjected to 3 full length Arabic musical movies being blasted at full volume. This, combined with being shoved into a tiny bus seat for 8 hours, made for one of the longest nights my life. All of that rest and relaxation that we had stored up from the trip dissipated in the loud cold bus.

Shot out of the window of the sunrise while we were coming into Cairo

When we finally got to Cairo, the bus driver dropped us off in Heliopolis, which is on the opposite end of the city from where we live. Immediately off the bus, weary travelers such as ourselves were faced with taxi drivers pulling bags out of their hands and yelling, “Taxi!? Taxi!!” in their faces. From experience I know that they only grow more insistent when ignored.
Rob and I pushed out way out of the bus station and then started walking down the street, bags in hand. Once we were far enough away from the station we got a taxi back to the dorm, arriving at 7:30 AM after a long night.

Dahab Part 2

The next day we woke up late and had a typical Egyptian breakfast – fuul (mashed beans and lettuce inside pita bread), but it was more expensive and not as good as it is in Cairo.

We signed up to go snorkeling at the Blue Hole, outside Dahab, so we piled into the back of a covered truck (think smaller World War 2 army transport) that reeked of gas fumes and took an adventure-filled ride up the beach.

It is kind of hard to see from this picture, but the road was a lot like a dirt racetrack with banked walls and rock obstacles, and the driver was gleefully banking the car into these walls as he zipped along the beach. This continued for quite some time even though there was a PERFECTLY GOOD, FLAT ROAD 20 feet farther inland. But we decided this was part of the experience.

After about half an hour, we reached the very Euro-touristy Blue Hole. It is incredibly popular among Europeans, which meant a prevalence of man-thongs. Avoiding these as much as humanly possible, we got our snorkels and fins and jumped into the not-so-refreshing December water. I know I’ll get some flak for complaining about the cold because of what everyone is going through at home right now, but the water was not exactly bath temperature.
The snorkeling was great; there were a lot of the same types of fish and coral that we saw in Nuweiba (since it’s only a few hours north of Dahab).

I ran across this guy on the beach and snapped a few pictures.

He was mid-chew when he looked towards me inquisitively.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dahab Day One

I apologize for not updating the blog recently, I’ve been quite busy with work and I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but there is also a small war currently going on in the region. Another note – my blog has been getting spammed with comments linking to websites with clothing sales and stuff so I had to change the commenting restrictions. I hope this doesn’t prevent anyone from being able to comment. Anyways, on to the updates.

Christmas in Egypt was incredibly strange because it was almost like it never happened. My friend Rob and I had decided we didn’t want to sit around for the time we had off from work so we planned a December 26-29 trip to the Red Sea town of Dahab, on the Sinai in Egypt.

On Christmas Eve we went to get our bus tickets for the 26th, and on the way back explored a part of Cairo we had never been in before. We stumbled across a “local fast food” place where we got delicious 15-cent falafel sandwiches that we ate while walking through a local clothes market. Walking back to my island, Gezira/Zamalek, I realized what a pitiful excuse that was for Christmas Eve dinner, so I went to the French restaurant/deli Maison Thomas and splurged on a four dollar ($4!!) ham panino. This is one of the only places you can get ham in Cairo.

On Christmas Day we had an unexpected “present” – RAIN! It was only the second time it has rained since I arrived in August, and of course it had to rain on Christmas day. I was invited out to lunch with one of the other interns and his visiting family members, where I had a huge one-pound burger, and then returned to call home and talk to everyone gathered at my house. I made a very simply pasta dish for a quick late dinner because I was still full from my gigantic burger and because we were leaving in the morning for Dahab.

The guidebooks say that the trip from Cairo to Dahab takes about 6-8 hours by public bus, but we left around 7:15 am and arrived just after 6 pm – nearly 11 hours!

mosaic sign outside Dahab

After a very mediocre and cheap dinner, we slept from 8 pm to midnight then went out for about an hour and a half before returning and passing out for the next ten hours. We were staying at a place called Auski Camp in a private double room for under 4 dollars a night. Something about being stuck on a public bus for that long is very draining, but Dahab is the kind of place you go to relax and not do very much at all. When we finally managed to get out of our room, we went to a seaside restaurant called Penguin Village.

@Penguin Village, with the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia in the background

This is the kind of place where you can eat a meal and hang out for 3 hours afterward without being bothered - which is what we did, until we were hungry again and got pizza for lunch! Dahab’s beachfront is lined with these kinds of places, and if you know where to go, you can eat cheaply.

After lunch we walked down to the peninsula to the south and took pictures of the sun setting behind the mountains.

One of a set of HDR images I made here, but it didn't come out like I was hoping

This is from one of the more expensive places. They all had this display of fresh fish and tried very hard to lure tourists into their restaurants where they would promptly overcharge them.

Rob and I went to “Quickly Restaurant” for dinner, which was our best find of the trip. It was very cheap ($3-4 for a main course and a drink), BYOB (MUCH different from Cairo), and the service was fantastic. We hung out there for a few hours and then wandered around to check out Dahab at night, then went to bed.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Eurotrip - Rome Part 5 - The Colosseum

Exterior of the Colosseum

Interior of the Colosseum.  This made me want to watch Gladiator...which I did when I returned to Cairo.

The Arch of Constantine, located just outside the Colosseum

Later on, Amy and I went out to dinner at a restaurant called "Est! Est!! Est!!!" and I had the best pizza of my life - of the Four Cheese variety - and a delicious house wine.

To cap off our long day (all of these posts from Rome were from the same day!), we went to an Irish sports bar about ten minutes away from the hostel to watch El Clasico, the FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid soccer match. I wore my cheap Barca jersey from Chile and soon after we got to the bar, a few Spanish fans of Barca filed in. In the end there were about four or five Barca fans and one Madrid fan.

El Clasico is usually a tightly-contested match (they play twice a year, once in each city), no matter how each team had been playing for the past few games. So despite the fact that Barca was clear ahead of the table and Madrid was sitting slightly above the middle of the pack and struggling, no one was anticipating an easy win for the good guys. It turned out to be a defensive game for the most part, with a few good chances here and there, but it wasn't until seven minutes remaining in the game that Samuel Eto'o wobbled in a cross to the back of the net to put Barca up 1-0.

Leo Messi followed this with a beautiful chip over the goalie in injury time to get to the final score of 2-0 for Barca.  

The next day I got on the train to the airport and flew back to Cairo.  I had an amazing trip, even if the Egyptian Pound - Euro conversion rate robbed me throughout the trip.  I had the opportunity to catch up with three friends I see more of outside the U.S. than I do in it, including two I hadn't seen in two and a half years.  I also got a brief visit with relatives in Lyon.  It was a much needed breath of fresh air from the pollution and waste of Cairo. 

This is a view of my island from the plane. I marked where I live. It's good to be home...sort of.

Eurotrip - Rome Part 4

The Pantheon in Rome. "Agrippa made this...bla bla bla" Amazing inside of the dome

Another church, another fantastic ceiling!

HDR of the Trevi Fountain. Cool but WAY too many tourists here.

Palatine Hill, just next to the Roman Forum and the Colosseum

Overlooking the Roman Forum from the edge of Palatine Hill

Eurotrip - Rome Part 3

After leaving the Vatican, we walked across to the Tiber, where there was a lot of commotion. Upon investigation, we discovered that the heavy rains throughout Italy had caused massive flooding of the river and caused this end result:

Debris and a houseboat or two smashed up against one of the bridges spanning the Tiber. You can see Castel Sant'Angelo in the background. There was police tape everywhere and helicopters circling above. Eventually we got bored and continued along.

One of the fountains in the Piazza Navona

My artsy Depth of Field shot of the Obelisk and the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona

We came across this bike with the smashed front tire and I thought it would make a good picture.

Eurotrip - Rome - On Top of the World (or St. Peter's Basilica)

After seeing the inside, we wanted to see the view from the top. A short elevator ride took us up to the roof and the base of the cupola. After that, it was 320 zigzagging, winding stairs up to the top.

Also a trivia note - for those of you who have read the Dan Brown book "Angels and Demons," this is where the camerlengo makes his final appearance.

The final set of stairs wind up around and follow the curvature of the dome to the point that you have to walk diagonally because it's no longer possible to stand up straight.

Cameras cannot capture this breathtaking sight of early morning Rome from the top of the Basilica. From the Tiber snaking along dissecting the city to the hundreds of churches punctuating the hazy skyline, this was one of the coolest things I've seen on my many travels, ranking right up there with the sunrise on Mt. Sinai.

The early morning mist over Rome.

The enormous dome's shadow on the opposite side

After descending down the opposite side, we visited the Tombs of the Popes (photos prohibited inside). Much like my experience in St. Katherine's Monastery, there was something incredibly moving about this place. Perhaps it was because of the enormous power wielded by the men buried there and how much their decisions affected the course of world history, or because of how much people loved the popes that reigned during their lifetime.

People were falling on their knees to pray in front of the tomb of John Paul II, and being there, it was easy to understand why. The reason I was on vacation in the first place was because Muslims were on the Eid Al-Adha, and some were completing their lifetime achievements of the pilgrimage to Mecca, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. For the people praying in front of John Paul II's tomb here in Rome, it must have been the culmination of their own pilgrimage. This was a man who had reigned since 1978 and was enormously popular, as evidenced by his funeral procession in 2005. For many devout Catholics under 40, this was the only Pope they had ever known, and the opportunity to come and pay their respects must have been very moving.

Eurotrip - Rome Part 1 - St. Peter's Basilica

After spending three months surrounded by the rich religious histories of Cairo and the Sinai, it was only natural that I continue my religious history tour of the world by taking my atheistic beliefs to Rome.

It was strange to see the difference between Italians outside and inside Rome. My impression in the countryside was that Italians were very homogeneous – not to be culturally insensitive, but they all pretty much looked like the stereotypical Italian. But inside Rome, it was completely different; it’s a bit strange to hear Asians speaking fluent Italian.

I dropped my stuff off at the hostel and after an hour or two, met up with my friend Amy, another Dutch friend from my Costa Rica trip. We went out to the Trastevere to eat pasta and then went out barhopping for a little while, but went to bed not too late because we had a huge day ahead of us.

On Saturday December 13, we awoke early for a massively ambitious whirlwind walking tour of Rome. Amy and I hopped on the metro over to Vatican City, in the Northwest part of Rome. I have a lot of pictures from all of the places we visited in Rome, so I’m just going to post them and explain them in the captions.

HDR of the main plaza in the Vatican

Outside St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica was our first stop. It was jaw-droppingly beautiful and one of the highlights of my whole trip. I didn't take that many pictures because I was in shock by how large and detailed it was, and I wanted to appreciate it through my eyes instead of through the lens. Definitely a must-see for anyone going to Rome.

Apparently you can fit the Statue of Liberty underneath the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, with plenty of space to spare.

Eurotrip - San Martino to Rome

After the completion of the Sphinx, we half-heartedly turned our attention toward building the first pyramid. We rolled four large snowballs into one area and tried to slightly mold them together in the form of a pyramid, but it turned out to be considerably harder than it looked.

Our very half-hearted attempt at a pyramid. We built the sphinx too large anyway if we were going to do the whole thing to scale because the pyramids would have had to been MASSIVE.

At this point we were pretty much soaked through from the drizzle so we gave up and went inside to get dry.

That night we watched some crazy British detective shows and, later on, Into the Wild, but none of us really had the attention span to focus on the movie, so we ended up playing a drinking game with tiddlywinks and terrible Italian liquor. Much more fun and less depressing than the movie!

In the morning, it was off to the Asti station to catch a train to Rome.

Early morning view from the drive to the train station

Waiting for my train...

I had a six and a half hour ride along the Mediterranean and a 6-person car to myself. "M'Scuzi!"

Eurotrip - San Martino Alfieri, Italy - Snow Sphinx!

After seeing Eataly, I was off to catch my third train of the day, from Turin to Asti. Barbara, a Dutch friend of mine that I had met in Costa Rica two years ago, and her friend Mic picked me up at the Asti train station and we drove to Mic’s house in the snowy Italian wine hills of San Martino Alfieri.

The house is quite isolated up in the hills – Mic has only one Italian neighbor with whom communication is quite difficult. I was planning on going to Florence for a very brief visit on Thursday but I had had just about enough of Italian trains and needed a train-free day to unwind, so I stayed an extra day in San Martino.

We went to the supermarket to buy gloves and food for our two days there. Instead of the more adventurous sliced shark meat – see pic below - we chose ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch and pasta for dinner.

People were literally coming up to the counter and getting slices of shark meat

After eating, we considered our options for possible activities. There were multiple feet of snow on the ground, but it was drizzling rather steadily, making for the best packing snow I have ever seen. So, very content to not act our age, we decided to build a snowman. After some deliberation, we modified our plan from building a simple snowman with corncob pipe to the rather ambitious plan of a to-scale recreation of the ENTIRE GIZA PLATEAU (the Sphinx and the three pyramids)!

Being the most detailed and requiring the most work, we started with the Sphinx.

I mentioned the ideal snow conditions before, but I had no idea how much it would affect our building process. I started with a snowball the size of a fist, and after rolling it downhill 30 feet or so, it got so big and heavy that it was literally absorbing all of the snow in front of it to the point that it was ripping up the grass AND the mud underneath the grass, and becoming a dirty snow-mud-grass ball.

The second problem was that if we started too far away from our allotted area for the Sphinx, it got to the point where the snowball was simply too heavy to roll, and we had to cut it down or try to slide it by using a shovel as a sled, as was the case in the next picture.

Slowly the Sphinx began to take shape, and once the body was in place, we had to heave a giant snowball on top for the head.

Mic and Barbara beginning to carve out the face of the Sphinx

The final result! The lighting was horrific for photos but you get the idea.