Thursday, October 22, 2009

Swine Flu Round 2????

I know rumors are often misleading and false, but this was is just too excited to not buy into. Apparently, Egyptian health departments are keeping the actual number of students with swine flu like symptoms somewhat concealed, but a classmate's friend's mom (truly rumor status now) works for one of the clinics and has said that the Health Ministry is waiting until after the Eid holiday in late November (Thanksgiving time) to close international universities for the semester!

This would result in all my classes meeting in cafes, through skype, etc. All in all it doesn't eliminate any class time, but I'm sure it will once again change the workload.

But don't worrying, I'm not oinking yet!

Is that a religious beard?

My parents and I were walking to a restaurant for dinner, for some reason they attract more attention than I do from shop owners. It's probably because they look more put together than I do so they appear as a larger dollar sign. Shop owners will often randomly walk up to foreigners and speak in English and be friendly and tell you about their shop right down the street and ask you to come take a look and take a business card of theirs. The first store owner we crossed paths with tried this approach and Dad handled it well. The second one took a much different approach and it definitely threw Dad off because he talked for a while. Instead of saying hello or welcome to my country, this store owner was much more blunt and straight forward; the conversation began by him complimenting Dad's beard. I started laughing and had to turn away, I turned back just in time to hear the Egyptian ask if it was a religious beard.

The three of us were humored by the conversation and it definitely a unique approach to making a sale.

Entertaining Cab Ride

A few weeks ago I went out with my two real estate brokers and we had one of the funniest cab rides of my life. I had just returned from Morocco earlier that day, so Yury and Hanny (my brokers) wanted to use my passport to buy from a duty free store. In Cairo there are a few duty free stores dispersed throughout the city, they are pretty popular because they are the only places that can legally sell imported alcohol. The catch is that you need to bring your passport and you had to arrived in the country within 24 hours of visiting the store.

The first one we tried we needed a taxi to get to. When we got in, the cab driver saw white people and immediately put some tissues up to his face. You must remember that my school was still closed because of the swine flu scare and since there are no pigs in Egypt the only way for swine flu to spread is through foreigners entering the country. I know it's not spread by pigs, but a majority of people here belief it to be brought in by tourist and foreign residents. Not only did the cab driver put the tissue to his face, he also started leaning out the window as he drove. We realized what was going on and began to fake cough and sneeze. Yury asked me in Arabic about AUC; when I answered that I hadn't been back to class, the cab driver leaned even further out the window.

The cab arrived at a duty free and we almost fell out laughing. We tried to enter the store, but it was closed so we headed back to the streets to find another cab and head to the next one. A cab came from around the corner, we flagged it down and got in. Much to our surprise it was the same cab driver!!! We immediately started coughing.

A New Discovery

So you guys have read about Koshery, the somehow amazing dish made from the simplest ingredients. Well I found a dish that one ups it...Koshary Schwarma! It is the typical Koshery (noodles covered with wild rice covered in lentils covered in tomato sauce covered in fried onions and chick peas), but has an added topping of schwarma meat (either chicken or meat). It is absolutely delicious and my new favorite Egyptian meal.

Going to the Movies

So I finally saw Inglorious Bastards in it's somewhat proper form. Previously I had watched it online, but the subtitles were in Russian so they didn't help much. This time there were the English subtitles and Arabic ones as well. Tickets cost 15LE (~$3 US) and popcorn was affordable. So affordable that during intermission, yes they have intermission here too, I bought a second box. Popcorn was less than $1. It was great being able to go see a movie and buy popcorn without having to break the bank.

Intermission here was much different than in Ethiopia. The film didn't just stop and the screen go blank, when the film stopped a message in Arabic appeared on the screen. The intermission was much shorter, by the time I got back from buying popcorn (there was no line) the movie had already restarted.

Inglorious Bastards was fantastic, much better with subtitles I understands.

Arrival of the Parents

So Mom and Dad are here, time to do round two of tourist attractions. So far we've done the Citadel, the market, the Egyptian Museum and the Pyramids. We also went on a dinner boat for a great all you can eat buffet and to watch Sufi, Belly and Whirling Dervish dancing. The first two types of dances were ok, the belly dancer was not a good one, she was pretty much shaking her breasts and ass and not really belly dancing so that was disappointing. The Whirling Dervish was incredible, the guy just kept spinning and spinning and the outfit was beautiful. At one point he was dancing with decorative bowls on his head and at another point he was spinning like a top completely covered by the outfit.

It's great having the parents here, perhaps the best part is that they are staying in a hotel, so for the first time in months I'm enjoying an air conditioned sleep and a shower that has consistent and forceful water pressure and hot water that doesn't disappear (I could even make it hotter). I'm just kidding about that being the best part, but it's not too far behind them being here.

Mom has surprised me in her street crossing ability, at times she's a little jumpy and nervous, but it's usually because a car is a few inches away from us. Dad is impressed by the drivers and trusts them more than American ones so he walks around like it's nothing; he did almost get hit by a motorcycle, the hairs on his arm literally blew in the wind as it whizzed by. My parents refuse to eat pigeon, but they have been good sports about trying other foods and my mom loves the juices and coffee.

At the museum Dad looked like a little kid. He was so impressed by the artifacts, both in there grandeur and the massive amounts the museum has. You could see the joy in his eyes especially when he was looking at the King Tut mask. Mom loved the jewelry and noticed the designs on many of the bottles and tables resembled the designs on objects my Great Grandfather brought back from his overseas adventures of the mid 1900s.

This trip to the Pyramids was completed on camel instead of horse. Mom has dreamed of riding camels by the Pyramids so we went one step further than just riding, we took a 2 hour tour of the area by camel. Dad was in awe by the Pyramids, at one point as we were walking up to one he joking wondered if his great-great-great-great-etc. grandfather had helped to build this one. On this tour of the Pyramids I learned two really interesting facts. 1. The three big Pyramids were built for the King, the 6 smaller ones were built for his Queen and daughters. 2. In front of the Pyramids there are excavation sites were they are uncovering new tombs. These tombs are not royal ones, but rather where the bodies of those who built the Pyramids are buried. After a Pyramid was built, all those who worked on it were slaughtered in order to prevent them from sharing the secrets about how to enter the Pyramid, etc.

The Sphinx, while in the same compound is fenced off from the rest of the Pyramids. You can see it from outside the fence, but it's much cooler when you go in. It's fenced off because it costs an additional 60LE per person to enter the fence. I told my parents not to worry, last time some kids helped us get in for free. Well this time, the kids didn't need to help, I talked to the tourist police officer and he let us in. Afterward he followed us to get a little tip, but hey a 20LE tip compared to 180LE entrance fee, I'd say it was well worth it.

This round of site seeing in Cairo is over for my parents. They're off in Luxor and Aswan doing a tour by boat down the Nile. I can't wait to see pictures. They come back to Cairo Friday night, then we're off to Alexandria for the weekend and then back to Cairo for 2 days before they head back to cold Buffalo.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Micol in Cairo Part 2

We got back to Cairo and Micol had one more day left. So we ventured back to Khan-al-Khaleli. It's a huge market in Islamic Cairo. The vendors "harass" you to look in their store, it gets even worse once they see a bag in your hand; they know you're shopping then and not just looking. After a couple of hours of wandering, shopping and haggling we were done and wandered through one of the nearby neighborhoods. I learned that it is very important to use my limited Arabic in the market, one salesman was giving Micol a price and when I spoke up in Arabic he looked surprised and immediately lowered the cost - it was still more than it should be, but it was a much better starting point for haggling.

Micol ate quiet well here and experienced all of the Egyptian delicacies I have come across from koshary to baked goods and even pigeon. Yes that dirty bird is not so dirty here. They are raised on peoples' roofs and fed well and they taste delicious. A sweeter and juicier chicken, almost half way between chicken and duck.

Unfortunately it was time for Micol to head home, off to the airport we went and through the metal detectors she went - shoes on I must add. It was sad seeing Mimo go, it's been weird not having her around all the time and being on my own in a new and different place. It was time for me to head home, get some sleep for the night, wake up do some school work, go to class and then meet my parents in their hotel. It's now their turn to visit me and see Cairo!


For the posts about Micol in Cairo and Ethiopia make sure to check if she has left any comments since I am sure I have left things out by mistake.


After a short layover in Khartoum we arrived in Addis Ababa. It was kind of gray and rainy!! I was rather excited for this since I'd been living in a desert where it doesn't rain and I hadn't seen clouds in weeks. It was a little chilly for me, Micol made fun of me...Buffalo boy was chilly in mid 60 degree weather. The weather confirmed that my parents are going to have to meet me at the Buffalo Airport with an Eskimo outfit it they expect me to walk outside the airport in the lovely December weather.

The city seemed very modern, yet very old at the same time. Buildings were new, yet very run down. The road plan provided for a very spread out city where the suburbs appeared nice and the downtown appeared not so nice. I knew going to Ethiopia there would be a lot of poverty, but I wasn't prepared for the type of poverty. There were lots of people suffering from polio and lots of amputee war veterans. At one point, two kids came up to us and asked for money for food. We gave them 1 birr each (about 8 cents US) and they were some of the happiest kids I had ever seen.

So what did we do??? Well we spent a bunch of time sitting in cafes eating and drinking, went to the largest market is Africa, saw a movie and walked around. Food was pretty cheap and beer cost about 60 cents US. Apparently the coffee was very good and the tea was ok to me. The tea was mostly camomile tea. Burgers were very common there and was primarily what cafes served if you didn't want National food. The National food, especially the bread, was much better than any Ethiopian I've had in DC. In DC the bread is like a gooey napkin that you eat the food with, but in Addis it tastes delicious and makes the food so much better. The market was interesting, a little unnerving because you always had to watch your pockets and make sure nobody pick pocketed you. Like most of sub-Saharan Africa, pick pocketing is a real problem, but unlike most of sub-Saharan Africa, there is very little violent or gang related crime in Addis. We spent a couple of hours just wandering around the market taking in the smells and sites. Getting to and from the market was interesting. We took a mini bus taxi. They stop at specific destinations and a kid, between 14-18, leans out the door of the van calling out where they are going to as they pull up and then collects your money. Now on to the movie, we saw Bedazzled; yes the Brendan Frasier movie. Not something I would normally see, but it was the only movie in English and the Amharic (official language) movies didn't have subtitles. Well we missed most of the first half of the movie, even though the people working at the theater said it started in 30 mins. As we're watching, the film all of a sudden stops and the lights come on, I'm thinking great what happened, but I was wrong, nothing happened it was time for intermission. It was a real theater like intermission. A bell rang, people left for the bathrooms, men came in and sold pop and doughnuts and other snacks, a bell rang and then the movie started again. I was pretty happy we at least got there before intermission so I could learn that it happens. The tickets were 16cents US so even though we missed most of the first half we got our money's worth.

After a couple of days in Addis, we decided we had to leave. We tried to go to Lalibela, but all the flights were over booked so instead we decided to rent a 4x4 and a driver and go to Awash Natoinal Park for two days. The drive there through the Ethiopian countryside was beautiful. We drove through the park for 8 hours, walking some of the time with our game scout. We saw Oryx, Warthogs, Monkeys, Baboons, Crocodile, Dik Dik and tons of birds. I took a picture of a tribal herder carrying his Kalashnikov and then got yelled at by his tribesman who had the same gun, thankfully our game scout resolved the situation. The tribesman wanted money for the picture. After this little adventure we kept walking through the palm tree jungle to the volcanic hot springs. Once there I swam in one of them, it was really hot, almost beyond jacuzzi hot, so hot that I was red when I got out, but my skin felt great and it was the cleanest I felt since I had arrived in Cairo! The water was so crystal clear and the surroundings were so green and tropical, I loved it.

After driving through the park we arrived at our hotel, well not really hotel, but where we were staying the night. We had a camper trailer, not the luxurious kind, but a extra large pop-up like one, in the middle of the African savannah. There was a lodge with a restaurant and they had a table set up for us. It was sadly one of the most, if not most, romantic dinners Micol and I have ever had. Our table was right one the edge of the patio overlooking the Awash River Gorge, it was late enough at night that we could only hear the river and see tribal camp fires, but the ambiance was great. That night it rained like crazy, massive downpours and thunderstorms. I was loving it and so were the people of Ethiopia, they've had a prolonged drought that is cutting into food and energy supplies. It rained so much that most of the park roads were barely navigable the next day so we just drove back to Addis.

We arrived back in Addis about 8 hours before our flight was supposed to leave, we tried to catch an earlier flight, but they didn't have any so we walked to a cafe and sat there for a few hours and then headed back to the airport for a 5 hour wait until takeoff. Looking back on the trip I can definitely say that Addis and I and I think Addis and Micol have a love/hate relationship, but overall Ethiopia was pretty cool and I def. want to go back and explore more of the countryside and some rural towns.

Micol in Cairo

Micol arrived shortly after my return from Morocco. It was great having her here. She loved the excitement and chaos of Cairo.

Now that I had a visitor is was time to do all the tourist attractions. We began with the Egyptian Museum. All I can say is AMAZING!!! Every history museum I've been to has an exhibition on the ancient Egyptian civilization, but this was an entire museum dedicated to it. Tons of statues, artifacts, mummies, animal mummies, sarcophagi, etc. The King Tut room was incredible. The gold mask that was on the cover of National Geographic was in the room and it was stunning. So ornate and perfect. 11 kilograms of gold! After a while the museum didn't become boring, but it became mundane; there's just too much amazing artifacts that your brain begins to fry and things don't look so amazing anymore. After about 3 hours we left and wandered around Cairo for a little.

One night we took a falucca (a replica of ancient Egyptian sail boats) out onto the Nile. It was so peaceful and relatively quiet. It provided a great escape from the noisiness and hecticness of downtown.

The Salhadin Citadel was interesting. It was built by Islamic conquerors as their fortress overlooking the city. The walls contain the most stunning Mosque I have ever seen. It was huge and the interior had all the elegance and decor of a Renaissance European Church. The ceilings were vaulted and painted, there were massive crystal chandeliers and the walls were all marble. The Citadel also provided some amazing panoramic views of Cairo, it was crazy seeing my home from this viewpoint. The Military Museum inside the Citadel was interesting and a little unnerving for us. It truly portrayed how proud Egypt was of the October 1973 War (Yom Kippur War). The government pushed the perception of victory and the sentiment expressed by the display reminded me of the perception (we didn't lose) of the Vietnam War back home, except here the soldiers who died are portrayed as martyrs.

We took the subway to Coptic Cairo. I had heard rumors of the metro's creepiness, but it was surprisingly pleasant and easy for us. A one way ticket cost 1 LE, so about 20cents US. Coptic Cairo was very unique, it almost felt weird walking around a completely Christian section of Cairo. The area was filled with tourists and believers. The followers of Coptic Christianity would touch certain pictures of Jesus or Mary or the glass cases containing the remains of Saints and then kiss their fingers. I'm not sure why this is practiced, but I did learn about Coptic Christianity. The Holy Family came to Egypt when they were exiled by King Herod from Israel, they spent about 2 years hear until an angel (I think Gabriel) told them it was safe to return home. Due to their travel throughout Egypt, there are many holy sites in the country. Coptic Cairo became the center of the Christian population in Egypt. Coptic Christianity is now a branch of the Orthodox faiths so there was a huge Greek influence and lots of Greek writing throughout the area and on tombstones in the cemeteries. Unfortunately, Ben Ezra Synagogue which is in Coptic Cairo was already closed for the day by the time we got to it. This Synagogue is the oldest in Cairo and is supposedly built where Moses was found in the reeds of the Nile River.

After looking at the Churches and cemeteries, Micol wanted to do some shopping. We were looking in one store and I was intrigued by the chess sets. The shop owner told me the price and when I told him it was too expensive he offered to play me for the board. If I won, the board was mine, if he won nothing happened. So I figured I'd give it a shot. Well once I agreed, he leaned out into the street and called his brother to come play. His brother was pretty good, I lasted all of 15 minutes, but it was an entertaining match.

One night we went to the top of the Cairo Tower. Similar attraction idea as the Empire State Building or Sears Tower. We got a pretty cool view of the Cairo night skyline. Off to one side we could watch a soccer match form above and see the development of every play and move by both teams.

After a few days and a small taste of Cairo, it was time to head out of country with Micol. We wanted a mini vacation and some time to explore somewhere new. We wanted something not too expensive and not too overwhelming since we only had a short amount of time. Well guess where we picked...Addis Ababa, Ethiopia!

Monday, October 19, 2009


I apologize for my recent absence from the blogging world, but it's been a crazy month. I traveled to Morocco for 10 days, then Micol came to Cairo, then we went to Ethiopia, then Mimo left and then my parents arrived. The 'rents are gone for a few days so I have time to update y'all on my adventures.

I want to start this one with a note to the world...if I ever speak of hiking a 14,000 foot mountain on a whim again, please try and stop me. I doubt it would work, but at least try instead of telling me that it sounds awesome, or get some good pictures, etc. It was awesome and I would maybe do something like it again, more on it later.

I began my trip to Morocco on a train from Casablanca to Marrakech. I heard that there isn't much to see in Casablanca so I didn't want to waste my time there. Marrakech was interesting, reminded me of a small Cairo. There was a huge market in the center of the Medina that was open all hours of the day. I often found myself wandering around the city looking at different Mosques and ruins and eventually winding up back in the market place. I ate most of my meals in the market at little stands, other stands sold amazing fresh squeezed OJ, there were monkeys and there trainers, African dancers, belly dancers and I even got to play with some snakes and watch a "dancing" cobra. The vendors in Marrakech were rather aggressive in trying to get me to buy things, but negotiating was pretty easy and I was proud of my skills. The exchange rate was very much in my favor, $1 US was 7.7 Dirhams. Things were priced reasonably, little more expensive than Cairo, but I could eat for $3 per day. Life would pick up at night once it cooled down a little, the market turned into a huge gathering place and street performers were found all over the piazza. I spent two days in Marrakech and was ready to leave, it was an interesting place, and the more I look back on it the more I really do love the place, but I was anxious to climb Mt. Toubkal.

I took a grand taxi from Marrakech to Imlil, the tiny Berber town at the bottom of the hiking trail. A grand taxi, does not mean some sort of limo or luxury ride. It means at least 6 people plus the driver in a mid 90s Mercedes. In Morocco there are petit taxis which are smaller Peugots and such that will carry single passengers around the cities, a grand taxi is meant for longer trips and usually has to have at least 4 passengers before it will leave, and by at least 4 I mean usually carries 6-10 people.

It was recommended that hikers spend a day in Imlil to acclimate to the high altitude. In Imlil it was walnut harvesting time. Men would climb the trees and get out on the thin branches and start beating the different branches with a really long stick. The stick was obviously made for walnut harvesting. Women would collect the walnuts from the ground and bag them. Kids would participate in both activities and when the harvesting was done for the day, they would collect rocks and throw them at any remaining walnuts. It was a really cool thing to see. Harvesting was not just happening in the town, but all up and down the valley I had to hike up. While looking for a place to eat, we (I was with a woman from England who I met in the grand taxi) stopped at a butcher shop to observe the locals' activities. The meat was fresh, the goat head was sitting on the ground in front of the shop. The butcher told we could take pictures and then asked me if I was Chinese. I know a number of you are cracking up right now (especially Zach and Jenna), but I don't think it was just because of my eyes, I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that the Brit was of Chinese decent. For dinner that night, we ended up eating in a little restaurant right next to a butcher shop, I ordered fresh kofta. The butcher brought over the meat and then it was cooked for me, very few things have tasted as good as fresh meat kofta.

So the hike, it began ok, I made decent time. It's supposed to take 5 hours, I made it in 6. The hike twisted up from the valley floor and followed the river bed until it reached an Arab Muslim holy site. There is a big white rock that covers a small portion of the river that is said to be a healing site for all ailments. Only Muslims are allowed to cross the bridge that leads to the rock covered holy site. From this tiny town the trail begins to really climb uphill until the refuge where everyone sleeps for the night. The refuge is at 3,000+ meters in elevation. The air was much thinner and it made hiking the last 2 hours pretty tough. I was exhausted by the time I made it, but pretty happy with what I had accomplished. All that was left until the summit was 1 night's sleep and then a 3-4 hour hike up another 1,000 meters in elevation.

Day 2 of the hike began at 6am, clouds move in much thicker in the early afternoon than in the morning. The climb up to the summit, SUCKED!!! The air was really thin and the climb was very vertical. I had to stop every 15 minutes or so and catch my breath. I eventually made it to the summit and wow it was AMAZING!!!!!!!!!! I was above the clouds, I could look south and see the mountains slowly fade into the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert. When people ask what is your greatest lifetime accomplishment, I never knew what my answer was, but now I have an idea. Hiking to the summit of the 36th most prominent peak in the world carrying my own bag (f00d, water, etc.) and without a guide may be it. My flight home from Baltimore to Buffalo flew at 15,000 feet; when I was on the summit I was within 1,000 feet of that plane. After hanging out on the summit for a little, it was really cold and windy, it had snowed on the summit two days before I climbed and there was still some snow left, I began my trek back to Imlil. By the time I got back to Imlil it was 6pm, I had been hiking for 12 hours that day. My legs were tired and my knees were killing me from the pressure put on them of the hike down the mountain. I did get some great pictures and was really happy with my accomplishment (great weight loss regiment by the way, I think I lost about 10 pounds in the 2 days).

The hike took place in Berber areas of Morocco. This made for interesting conversations and interactions along the trail. At certain points there were little shacks Berbers had opened to sell souvenirs and drinks. Every time I approached one, the men working would ask if I had anything to trade them. They were especially interested in clothes with American labels and US cell phones. Trading with them was tough, I tried a Nike shirt, but they were willing to give me far too little in return.

From Imlil I headed back to Marrakech so I could catch a train the next morning to Fes. I had to take a grand taxi part way to Marrakech and then switch to another one. This grand taxi was a Mercedes station wagon so when we left Imlil there were 4 of us in the back seat, two in the front, the driver and one in the trunk with all the luggage. I thought it was as full as it could be, but I was wrong. A man flagged down the taxi and got in the front seat, not on the passenger side, but on the driver's side. The driver was basically sitting on his lap flying around winding mountain roads. A couple of times I thought we might die and one time so did the Moroccan next to me, but I eventually made it back to Marrakech alive and in one piece.

Fes was an interesting city. The medina was a tight packed mess of alleys and narrower alleys. Cars could not fit so there were many push carts and mules in the road. The medina was mostly markets, the famous tanneries and some Mosques. The tanneries were pretty interesting to look down on from the roof of a neighboring building. The men were basically doing the I Love Lucy grape smashing dance with hides in washing solutions and dye solutions. The dyes were very vivid in different colors, especially the red. The medina of Fes is rather confusing, but not at all like what the guide books say. They all recommend bringing a compass and preparing yourself to pay a kid to lead you out of the maze, but in reality only an idiot would have to do that. The city is built on hills (didn't know this when I planned on going there after mountain climbing, let's just say my legs were not happy with me!), the medina is the center of everything at the bottom of all the hills, order to get out of the maze, just walk uphill. Not to hard of a concept to grasp.

I stayed with a family while I was in Fes, a kid asked if I was looking for a hostel and I told him yes and the price I wanted to pay and he brought me to this house. It was great, they were learning English so one of the kids had to be the translator. I helped them with English and they helped me with Arabic and tried teaching me some French.

After Fes I headed to Rabat. In all of Morocco the French legacy was unbelievably obvious, but no where that I was was it more obvious than in Rabat. The capital looked like a European city and many people spoke French with each other rather than Arabic. The city itself was kind of boring, almost too clean and pristine for me. The market was ok, nothing different or special than in the rest of Morocco, but the one thing that Rabat had that I hadn't seen yet was beaches. I decided spending some time on the seashore and relaxing in the sun was a well deserved break before heading back to the insanity and dirtiness of Cairo.

Well it was time to head home to Cairo, I had an entire row to myself so I slept the best I ever have on an airplane. I was excited to get back to Cairo, not only was I heading home and to somewhere where I knew where to find food and a place to sleep, but Micol was on her way and was arriving within 24 hours of me!