Run the equator: 2007

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

By the way...

To all of you, regular or accidental readers of my blog, have a Merry Christmas! Or Happy Holidays, if you would prefer me to be politically correct. Anyway, drink a lot, be happy and don't drive!


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4 days in Bucharest

I have no pictures of mine from Bucharest.
This one is from Wikimedia commons

My aunt was nice and allowed us to stay with her in Bucharest for a few days. We had planned to see the city (or at least that I would show the city - which I have seen many times before - to Angela), take some pictures, and perhaps see a museum or two. But things didn't go as we intended. Laziness and constant bad weather slowed our engines; instead of taking to the streets, we locked ourselves up in my aunt's apartment, read old National Geographics and watched TV (which in Romania, with the exception of cartoons, is mostly in original language, so Angela didn't have a problem understanding).

Despite our general lack of interest for street hiking and the huge distance (my aunt lives all the way at the edge of town) we managed to get downtown twice. Once we spent most of our time looking for a toilet - luckily McDonald's is well represented in Romania - the other time, one evening, together with my aunt, we tried to get into a restaurant for dinner and kept running from place to place across downtown, since all our choices were booked for company Christmas parties. Either way, there wasn't much to enjoy in downtown Bucharest during those drab winter days. The streets and sidewalks were covered in a thin layer of liquid mud - the eternal curse of all Romanian towns during the rainy season - there were works on all the main streets and unmarked man-made pot-holes adorned many corners. In summer, the same streets are swept with dust by the hot wind of the southern plains, but at least the trees are green and the skies are blue; you can walk and feel good and stop in a beer-garden and then walk some more. But not in this wailing December weather; no, the warmth and shelter of the apartment were much more appealing than the cold boulevards...

Posted from Cluj-Napoca.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Taxi, taxi!

How do you know if you're getting ripped off by the taxi drivers waiting on the curbside in front of the airport? There's no easy answer, but it pays to check a few things ahead if you want to keep your money in your wallet. Depending on country, local laws, and the strength of the cab-driver unions, you may or may not be in danger of getting suckered into paying a little fortune for the ride downtown. Sometimes you don't have a choice - the airports are usually far out of town, and if no other transportation alternatives are available (it's too late at night or you have too many bags to drag yourself to the bus) you are stuck with whatever price the taxi drivers ask, and you have very little room for negotiation. Egypt is one example: there the taxi drivers working at the airports are like a crime syndicate (and the others are just petty thieves). You think you can just walk over to the next one and negotiate a better price?

I knew there were going to be taxi sharks at the Baneasa airport in Bucharest. Romanian cities have always had two kinds of cabs: the radio-dispatched cars affiliated to companies, practicing decent, uniform prices, and the "independents" who prey on unsuspecting out-of-towners and foreigners, and who would often charge ten times as much as the others. The trouble is, there's no easy way to distinguish between them. I didn't know what to expect: I hadn't visited Romania in over three years, money and prices had changed, and I had never taken a taxi from the airport, preferring the bus or having friends waiting for me. But we were going to land at 2AM; there was no night bus, and I had no friends left in this town anymore. Before the flight, a quick online check on Lonely Planet's ThornTree travel forum clarified things a bit - at least all taxis had to have the prices per kilometer posted in clear view on the passenger's door.

With that information in mind I stepped out of the Bucharest-Baneasa airport at 2AM, in a pouring, cold December rain. An army of yellow taxis with black checkered stripes was waiting at the curb, but none of the people who had just gotten off the same plane was rushing to them. Most were calling others on their cell phones, waiting for friends to pick them up. "Taxi mister, taxi?" I kept hearing as I cruised the sidewalk avoiding the puddles, trying to read the prices printed on the passenger doors of the cars. A few times, when the touts became insistent, I told them to sod off in Romanian. They were all independents, charging around 8 RON per kilometer (1 USD is about 2.4 RON), and some even had the audacity to try to convince me that it was a good price. If I believed them, for the 20km ride to my aunt's neighborhood at the other end of town, I would end up paying 60 to 70 dollars.

Patience paid off - Bucharest-Baneasa is one of those lucky few airports located in town and not out in the fields; thus new cabs arrived often, even at that early hour of the morning. Before long, I was able to stop a company cab as it pulled in front of the arrivals gate. 1.79 RON/km said the door sticker. Don't let this one get away! During the ride I talked with the driver about the "independents" and their shameless prices. The company-affiliated drivers often have clashes with the sharks about rates and territory control but in the end it's a free country and everybody is allowed to scam whomever they want. As long as the prices are in clear view (even if they are in minute print), it's OK to take the money away from the poor suckers who come to visit our beautiful country...

Not from us though, you won't. We've been to too many places. I may be wearing glasses, but I can still tell the crooks from the honest!

Written in Cluj-Napoca.

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Monday, December 17, 2007


“It’s 370 Euros for the seven nights, pay ahead,” the guy at the front desk said. Making a quick calculation, I frowned: “We don’t have so much money with us now, but in any case, when we talked on the phone you told me it was 50 Euros per night, so this doesn’t add up.”
“No, I told you 60 Euros.”
“You already charged my credit card for one night, 50 Euros as we agreed.”
“No that was just the deposit; the rate is 60 per night, due on arrival for the whole stay.”
“Now… you may have said something about the payment being due on arrival, I think I remember, but it was definitely 50, not 60 Euros per night.”
“Ok, ok, 50, I don’t care, I don’t want to argue. You can pay the whole sum tomorrow morning.”

Craziness in the Barri Gotic
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here for the Barcelona set

This conversation was taking place at 1AM on our arrival night in Barcelona, at the hotel Rembrandt, first in Spanish, and then in English - the guy nursing the reception desk at that late hour was an Indian and all three of us naturally drifted to the one language we could best use for arguing. He was clearly trying to scam us (later on I found the notes that I took when I booked the room on the phone, and I had indeed written down 50 Euros for the room with bathroom, and 40 for the one without) but we didn’t agree on what to do: Angela became angry and wanted to leave immediately; I advocated sleeping there for the night and leaving the next morning - it was already late, and finding another suitable hotel at that hour wouldn’t have been easy. To minimize the damage, I made sure the guy agreed he wouldn’t ask for more money besides the 50 Euros he had already charged us, and I made clear we won’t pay before the next day, if we decided to stay. I had my way, but not without getting an earful from Angela, how “this isn’t right and we should have left immediately!” I appreciate people with principles, but only when it doesn’t imply dragging a 50-pound backpack about the streets in the middle of the night… The moral of the story: don’t go to Hostal Rembrandt in Barcelona, even if it’s featured in Lonely Planet. It’s a dump, and you can find better budget hotels at a cheaper price. Besides, you’ll avoid an argument with your wife, if things go sour…

Flying rats in Placa Catalunya

All ended up fine the next day as I found the Hotel Principal (two stars), which, for being more pricey (80 Euros), offered all the comforts longed for by backpackers who had been sleeping for too long in cheap hostels: a large, tall room, a view to the street, a gigantic bed, TV (although all channels except for EuroNews were in Spanish), hard-wood floors, silent air conditioning that actually responded to the temperature controls, and a bathroom with futuristic showers that required a PhD to operate. It even had “original artist paintings” (touted as such in the hotel brochure) on the walls – maybe that’s why the extra Euros… the starving artists who had sold their hearts to the necessary evil of corporate design had to make a buck too. No breakfast was included, but internet access, including wireless, was. I didn’t balk when I heard the price; I got it as soon as I saw the room.

Fun with Eva and Robert
at a basque eatery

For us, after so many cities visited, Barcelona was just another big town, albeit one that you can fall in love with in the long run. It isn’t a flashy poser like Rome but a city that slowly grows on you because of its very distinct personality. Food… well, food just kept getting better. You can’t be wrong if you had three shots at the culinary art of a country (Madrid, Seville and Barcelona) and things have steadily gone from better to best. Spanish cuisine is now definitely the sweetest of my love-affairs with food.

Casa Battló

What do you do if you’re a tourist in Barcelona? You climb up the escalators to Montjuic and snap some uninspired panoramic photos of the city below; then you sit and relax watching the kids at play in the beautiful terraced gardens that take you back into town; you walk the never-ending blocks with “shaved” corners in the Eixample and get lost in the all-identical streets; you visit the Picasso museum and stare in amazement at the many cubist studies of Velasquez’s Las Meninas; you stroll up and down the Ramblas and enjoy the crazy crowd of passersby, gawkers and living statues; you cannot miss a visit to the Sagrada Familia temple, and if you still have energy and taste for architecture you go and see the Gaudi houses – Casa Battló and La Pedrera - at least from the outside, if you’re not willing to spend the money to get in. And these are just some highlights…

I just can't look normal in pictures!

In Barcelona I met Robert again, my Dutch friend that I knew from my Nuremberg days in 1999/2000, when we both worked for Lucent Technologies, and with whom I somehow kept in touch all those years. He brought along the lovely, wry, sharp-tongued Eva, his Spanish long-distance girlfriend. We went out every night, taking the city by storm, one restaurant at a time and got home mostly drunk, defeated by the abundance of exquisite tapas and good wines. To them I owe the fact that I finally saw the “Bodies” exhibition. If they hadn’t insisted that they wanted to go and that Eva could get cheap tickets using some “points” from previous purchases, I wouldn’t have bothered dishing out the 17 Euros for the regular entrance. This exhibition had been on display for months at the convention center, two blocks down the street from our apartment in Seattle, and I didn’t bother visiting – not because of the price (in any case it was lower than in Europe) but because of lack of interest. I had to admit it was in fact very interesting and instructive, although by the time I got to the second room I had developed an uneasy feeling that didn’t leave me for the rest of the time I spent inside: I became aware of my heart pumping blood, my bowels working and my nerves trying to transmit vital impulses… If you are still smoking, the Bodies exhibition will make you want to quit… at least until you get out and light one up…

Published from Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007


Recently I had neither enough time nor many opportunities to update the blog. Stories from Barcelona and Romania (may be) coming soon.

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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Nothing to do in Seville

When in Seville, do what the locals do
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here for the Seville set

As we boarded the train at the Atocha station in Madrid, we had lots of plans for the four or five days we were going to spend in Andalucía. But when we arrived in Seville everything fizzled out little by little and we ended up spending the next three days eating well and shopping. First, the plan to travel to Granada petered out; taking the train or bus there and then getting from Granada to Barcelona was going to cost too much. So when we found a cheap plane ticket from Seville straight to Barcelona we decided to forgo the Alhambra. In Seville itself, we weren’t very proficient with the monuments – we walked the beautiful narrow streets of the old town but didn’t enter one single tourist attraction. The magnificent Seville cathedral was charging 7.50 Euros entrance fee, and I decided that the Catholic Church would not have my money anymore. If I can’t get into a church for free, I won’t get in at all (although I was going to break this oath later at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona).

The fnac megastore

We compensated our lack of cultural interest by spending a lot of time at fnac (the French cultural and consumer-electronics megastore) and El Corte Ingles, buying the iPod Nano G3, and downloading a lot of music. And no doubt, we redeemed ourselves by sampling the elaborate culinary offerings of the many tapas bars spread all over town. “Es arte, no es cocina,” the waitress at Los Coloniales told us as she brought a delicious plate of sandwiches with foie gras and cold roasted pork cuts, topped with fried quail eggs. I licked my fingers knowing I have reached a new apex of culinary delight. And things were going to get even better…

Flamenco drama!

In defense of “traditional” cultural activities, on one of the evenings we went to see a free flamenco show in a bar. The singer and the guitar player put up a good, passionate performance, but it was not amplified, and a lot of the people in the back of the bar kept on talking. The background noise bothered the singer (who had to keep reminding the audience not to speak and not to smoke) and annoyed the people who were actually there for the music. Of course, if the show hadn’t been for free, this wouldn’t have happened.

Paul and some girls

The Oasis Backpacker Hostel, our lodgment in Seville, is a nice renovated building with a great location, but, as it happens with most places which have “backpackers” in their name, it is very loud. The hotel is built around a small inner courtyard which has been covered with a glass roof, and now holds the reception, a few couches and the computers with free internet access. As such, this makeshift “lodge” is a very popular place, and it’s no surprise that the rooms at the higher floors get a share of the conversations that happen downstairs. The hostel seemed to be full with nothing but young American students, most of them girls; the word “like” kept popping up in their conversations - which were mainly about drinking or bad boyfriends - with an unprecedented frequency. But among all those aliens we meet Paul, an American traveling alone around the world not for one, but for two years (of which he has completed half). We spent some time with him exchanging travel ideas and blog tips (is there even one person traveling for a long time nowadays, who doesn’t keep a blog?). He has lots of stories and good pictures at

At the end of the three days, we left Seville largely unexplored and headed for Barcelona hoping for good weather, more good food, and eager to meet my friend Robert whom I hadn’t seen in something like 5 years…

Written in Barcelona

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Living la vida loca!

Forget falafel, forget tzatziki, forget pizza and pasta – in Spain we have reached culinary Nirvana. Tapas-hopping is a wonderful Spanish tradition that turns dinner (or lunch) into a bar-crawl. You eat a few olives here, some grilled prawns there, a portion of stuffed champignons here and some chorizo or roasted pig-ear in yet another place, all sprinkled with lots of your favorite wine or beer. Of course, these make just a very modest list; in reality, the variety of foods served at any tapas bar is enough to keep newcomers busy experimenting with strange or unfamiliar foods for weeks.

Palacio Real
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here for the Madrid set

As in many European countries, you can still smoke in bars and restaurants in Spain, and cigarettes are available from numerous automated dispensers. The locals take ample advantage of this benefit and you’ll be hard-pressed to find even a restaurant that has a non-smoking section. But things are changing – a few popular places, mostly chain-style restaurants, have started to display very conspicuous non-smoking signs, and people seem not to mind the restriction and still flood these establishments. Where smoking is allowed (and that is almost everywhere), explicit signs say “Esta permitido fumar,” but the same signs also mention that smoking can be harmful and cause heart and lung disease. In my opinion it is just a question of time before Spanish smokers will be forced to take their cigarettes outside, like they are now in Italy.


Madrid doesn’t have the intense and overwhelming beauty of Rome, but its charm is nevertheless undeniable, primarily because of the crazy, outgoing, fun way of life that Spaniards have adopted. The downtown streets are full of people every evening, bars (including those that serve food) stay open very late - they close just in time for the nightclubs (some still called “discos”) to open, and no Spaniard seems to be ever having dinner at home, despite the high prices (yes, we had a round of drinks in a bar where every alcoholic beverage on sale, except for the beer, was 14 Euros - have you ever tried a screwdriver for $20?). This propensity for social life and long-lasting parties comes as no surprise after the 36 years of hard repression by the Franco regime, when the country was in a permanent curfew. Indeed, as a bitter joke, bars and restaurants have kept on their walls the menacing warning signs of the dictatorship era: “Prohibido cantar y bailar” (singing and dancing prohibited) say those engraved plaques, screwed in the tiles above the heads of the cheering crowd. Never again, the jolly Madrileños seem to reply.

Plaza Mayor

Despite this atmosphere of freedom and relaxation, Spain is well aware that it has been caught in the middle of a sinister war, the war on terror. I’m not sure whether this has happened before or in the aftermath of the Madrid train bombings, but Spain, like the US, has sacrificed some convenient freedoms for the greater (some may dispute the adjective) benefit of increased security. Larger railway stations, which in Europe have always been places where you can run to the platforms and hop on the train at the last minute, have become more like airports – the platforms are now fenced out from the waiting halls by sturdy, tall cast-iron railings, and access to the train happens through a scanner gate where, akin to the security checks at airports, all bags are x-rayed.

A sunny day at the Prado

In other, more personal news, after all those museums full of statues and ancient mosaics and the archaeological sites we saw in Rome, switching our focus to “painting appreciation” has been a welcome change. Madrid has two of the most famous art museums in the world – the Prado, home to most of Goya’s and Velasquez’s works, where lines for tickets are permanently winding around the building during opening hours, and the Reyna Sofia, which boasts a fantastic collection of modern art, including the gripping Guernica (along with many other works by Picasso), a few rooms of Dali, and – in my uneducated opinion – too much of the over-appreciated Miro.

The city’s ferial atmosphere has cast its spell on us enough to convince even me to do some shopping. I bought a winter coat; my Marmot jacket can only help when winter temperatures are still bearable (like in Argentina or Greece), and besides, after 7 months of traveling it has accumulated dirt and food spots to the point that I have become ashamed to go into town wearing it. I was sad when we left Madrid; 5 days in this city had not been enough; we could have easily enjoyed a few more. But we were heading south for Seville and I could not resist the call of warmer weather…

Posted from Barcelona.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Muzak! Muzak!

We have given in to Christmas-shopping temptation: we bought an iPod Nano in Seville!

Now Angela's up in the room downloading all her favorite songs fom iTunes on our laptop, while I have to wait in the lobby for one of the hostel's computers to become free... that is, when all those 20-year old American girls who were busy talking drama and boyfriends all night in the kitchen are done checking their Facebook and MySpace pages...

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ciao Roma!

In November, temperatures in Rome are close to the freezing point; every other day the rain washes the streets while gusts of wind threaten to sweep the flimsy umbrella - which you just bought for 4 euro at the subway exit - out of your hand. Yet being in Rome will redeem the frightful weather and your uninspired decision to visit Italy in this ugly time of the year.

Inside the Coliseum
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here for the Rome set

There is something about Rome that puts it ahead of all other famous cities that I have seen. I tried to define that quality so I can understand the fascination better, but it still eludes a precise explanation. It has something to do with the incredible mix of history that permeates every stone and every street. It is certainly about the great food and red wine. And no doubt, the friendly and boisterous Romans are part of the mix that makes the city so special. But no great words or hard work are needed to sell Rome to visitors – even in the midst of this harsh winter, the city was full with tourists and the cheap hotels were booked solid.

The forum

For us, the 5 days we spent in town were hardly enough: from taking a stroll through the ruins of the Roman forum after working out a bit while climbing the stairs to the upper levels of the Coliseum, to staying in line in the rain waiting to get into the Vatican museum, from shopping along the Via del Corso to having a cheap delicious dinner at an osteria in Trastevere, from visiting the Pantheon, the most striking example of surviving ancient Roman architecture, to cruising along the walls of the narrow streets around the Campo dei Fiori – there was no shortage of things to do and see in Rome. Prospective guide-book itineraries are entitled “Rome in 1 day” or “Rome in 2 days”, but in such short time you can only skim the surface of things and collect some unforgettable but superficial first impressions.

Gallery at the Coliseum

Rome is demanding, but easy to discover. The metro, while quite underdeveloped for a city this size, gets to a few essential spots, like the Termini railway station (best neighborhood for cheap hotels and easy access) the Coliseum and the Vatican. There are plenty of buses going where the metro won’t, and with a small map of the bus network you can easily figure out how to get between any two points in town for just one Euro. Taxis are not expensive if you stick to the area within the old city walls, where most places seen by tourists are anyway. Finally, walking across town is not such a bad deal - if you aren’t in a rush and the rain has stopped.

We left Rome again with a desire to return as soon as we can... If only for the fact that shortly after getting into the famous Vatican Museum and paying for the ticket, we were gently ushered out because the museum was closing early in winter… at 12:30pm, no kidding. I feel like I’ve been ripped off by the Catholic Church!

Posted from Madrid.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Tzatziki and house wine by the liter

Nafplion old town
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Nafplion set

“3.60 Euro for Tzatziki? No, it’s too expensive; let’s look at the next taverna down the street.” Over the last few days we have worked out a system to pick restaurants for lunch or dinner – the tzatziki (a typical Greek bread dip made with creamy sheep yogurt, cucumbers and garlic) has to be under 3€ and the house red wine under 4€ for ½ liter. We drink wine by the liter in Greece and always the “house” variety, which, unlike in the United States, is a decent choice in most restaurants. The rest of our lunches and dinners typically consist of Greek salads (cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, olives and feta cheese), mousaka, souvlaki, gyros, loukaniki or other Greek meat specialties, and the ubiquitous French fries that accompany every Greek dish. For breakfast, unless it’s the simple choice that some hotels offer, we always have a cup of delicious yoghurt topped with honey and walnuts. Like the real tzatziki, the traditional plain Greek yoghurt is made with sheep milk, which is creamier, more consistent, and probably contains significantly more calories than the cow milk variety. I have not searched the specialty “gourmet” stores in Seattle, but this kind of yoghurt is not available in the grocery stores at home. In fact, in the US, the large stores usually carry one single brand of plain, unsweetened, yoghurt, and it’s often inedible. But I’m sure there must be some American Greeks somewhere, who have found a way to bring the flavors of their old home to the new continent…

Greek cats are well fed

Arriving in quiet, cobbled, manicured Nafplion, after the three weeks spent in chaotic Egypt, was a bit like waking up gradually from a dream and figuring out that the world still made sense. Nobody was harassing me, trying to get my money; nobody was insisting that I go to their shop. I was driving a car and all the roads were clearly marked in Greek and Latin letters. There was no garbage lying in the ditch by the road. The streets were quiet - it was November, after all. Traveling in Greece at this time of the year can be very convenient: the off-season hotel discounts are very enticing; often you pay the half of the rate the same rooms go for in high season. You don’t even need to reserve anything in advance, since the supply exceeds the demand by far. The weather is generally good for hiking and sightseeing (not for tanning, mind you), albeit a bit erratic – you may have to deal with alternating days of rain showers and beautiful skies. But Greece is also a country that would sober up any tourist who has travelled extensively in the third world – prices are, well… European, and this reflects best in the rates charged for internet access – they average around 4€ (about 6$) for one hour. Ah, where is Bolivia…


There was not much reason to go to any of the islands at this time of the year, so we stuck with the many historical attractions on the mainland. We picked up a rental car at the Athens airport and drove to Nafplion, a jewel of a sea-side town, with a pretty historical center of narrow streets, lined with tavernas and shops, dominated by the Palamidi fortress - a gigantic system of fortified walls built by the venetians on top of the hill overlooking the town, during one of the periods they ruled the place. Not far from Nafplion are the antique amphitheater at Epidavros (restored and used for festivals in summer) and the ruins of ancient Mycenae. With all good intentions, we tried to visit the city of mighty Agamemnon, but the new owners, the museum authority of Greece, were closing the place at 2:45pm in winter and we got there too late…

Mystras castle
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Byzantine Towns set

The byzantine hill towns of the southern Peloponnese, Mystras and Monemvasia, tell a different history lesson. Although they are mostly in ruins now (Monemvasia however, has a few beautiful restored streets where tourists can sleep and spend money), they live on in the spirit of countless movies with medieval setting. Every fictional town built in terraces on the slopes of a mountain, with narrow, cobbled streets winding through stone gates, with houses and defensive walls hanging above rocky ravines, with an imposing fortress on the top of the hill, overlooking the valley, is in fact made up from the blueprint of these byzantine towns. They are quite interesting to visit, even if just to wonder what it would have taken to keep a city like that functioning – the sewers, the water supply, the transportation, the social life. It must have been nice to live in a town where every single house had a view…

The Tholos at Delphi
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Delphi set

Back in antiquity and out of the Peloponnese, we stopped at Delphi to look for gods hidden among the scattered fallen column stones and the remnants of the once-glorious temples of Apollo and Athena. There were no gods, just tourists there – Delphi is nowadays the main day-trip destination of tour groups visiting Athens. But it was November and the invasion of tour buses was in minor key; even if the weather was beautiful, ideal for hiking up the slopes of Parnassus, there were so few other tourists around that I was able to take some pictures of the ruins without including people in them – such a feat would have been impossible in summer.

The Parthenon on the Acropolis
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Athens set

Finally, there was Athens – a big, dull, (and nowadays clean as well) city, where tourists get bored fast. The place is full of ancient history, but nevertheless, nobody falls in love with it. I didn’t either, but the food was good and the discovery of a Starbucks store in town made my stay sweeter. I went to the post office as well, but even if you count the fact that I went looking for it on the wrong street for a while (before realizing that it must have moved since the Lonely Planet book that I had was researched), the experience was nothing like the one in Egypt. Athens may not be glamorous or charming, but it has the incredible Acropolis, with its 25-century-old temples perched upon a craggy rock rising in the middle of the busy town, and that’s enough to keep you coming back. You have to stop here on your way to the islands anyway…

Published from Rome.

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Friday, November 16, 2007


We're in Rome now, after a 10-day trip to Greece. There's just so much to do and see that I have hardly any time for writing. I hope I can post stories and pictures from Greece soon.

Sadly the weather has gotten worse...

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Out of Africa

When guide books describe the Sinai Peninsula, they abound in superlative adjectives. Lonely Planet calls it “a place of surreal beauty” if I remember correctly - why does it have to be "surreal"?. From the coastal highway it looks like a string of ragged brown peaks, lacking the slightest trace of vegetation, following without end under the metallic blue sky. I don’t have any pictures from the rest of our stay in Egypt. Deserts have their fascination, but make really lousy picture subjects, unless you’re a pro… or you wake up really early, neither of which applies to me.

The real beauty of Sinai lies under water, and our goal – like the goal of most tourists who visit this place – was to spend as much time as possible in the depths. The Red Sea coral reefs near Dahab are a true delight, a must-see for any diver – the coral is abundant and varied, plenty of colorful fish live and hunt on it, and the visibility is ideal. If you go to places like the resort towns of Dahab and Sharm el-Sheikh there’s nothing else to do besides diving – unless you plan to spend all your day and your money at one of the many restaurants and cafés.

Outside of the tourist areas of those towns, the garbage is scattered everywhere – on the side of the roads, in ditches and back alleys, wherever the wind can drop it. There you can find everything from plastic bottles to animal carcasses. Sure, tourism contributes to the waste problem, but visitors are hardly responsible for littering, if you don’t count cigarette butts. The blame lies with the locals, the restaurants’ management and the government’s garbage collection authority, all of whom seem to apply the “not my problem” rule quite efficiently. The garbage collection truck picks up the trash, but not as often as it should, and it doesn’t go off the main road. The locals leave the trash bags in front of their houses for pick up, but they don’t bother to take it up to the main road. Before the truck passes, the wild cats, dogs, and goats tear the bags open and rummage for food. The wind takes care of the rest. So I guess it’s the cats’ fault after all... Paul, our dive master, a retired project manager from England who has been making a living in Dahab for a while, tells us as we return from the Blue Hole dive site, huddled in the back of the dive shop’s pickup truck: “I swear, sometimes I think… it’s a beautiful country, but these people don’t deserve it!”

As for me, after the weeks spent in Egypt, I was left with one question to answer: would I ever come back to visit this country? It has been, no doubt, one of the most interesting, diverse and safe places we have seen on our trip, but the most exhausting and irritating as well. Maybe I will take a charter flight to Sharm el-Sheikh, arrange for private transfer to a hotel in Dahab, dive day-in day-out, twice a day for a week, and go back the same way I came, avoiding the hassle of Cairo and steering clear of the souqs. If I’m in a good mood I may be inclined to fend off the assault of the camel-ride touts at the pyramids of Giza. And with enough peace of mind left, I may even go down south again, but I’m afraid – and secretly hoping – that I’ll meet Ismael again and I’ll spend all my time playing backgammon and drinking tea rather than visiting Abu Simbel.

A tough decision… but one thing I know: the falafel here is awesome!

Posted from Delphi, Greece.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Tomb raider for a day

The assault has begun!
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Pyramid set

Shoving everybody out of their way, a large group of visitors make their round around the Narmer palette in the first floor atrium of the Egyptian Museum. I stand my ground in front of one of the sides of the display - they will have to tolerate my presence and move around. I pretend to read the display but instead I listen to what their English-speaking guide is saying – in a few words, without wasting any time (he must soon vacate the place for his colleagues who are coming behind, leading other groups), he tells them pretty much what the Lonely Planet Egypt travel guide has taught me about this famous artifact. They look, listen, and then are shepherded away before anybody has any questions. Alone at last, I try to focus on the detail of the fine engraving portraying the pharaoh victorious over his enemies, but I soon become distracted again – on my left, a large group of Russians passes by, following an Egyptian museum guide who seems to speak fluent Russian. The Russians are a sight to behold – quite a few men wear “wife-beater” tank-tops stretching over protruding beer-bellies and the women, young and old, wear high heels and skimpy outfits, their cleavages pushed to night-club limits, their shorts stopping at the buttocks. I wonder if they plan to go in the area of town called “Islamic Cairo”... What sort of mad attention would these girls attract on the streets in this country where the local women only show their faces and hands in public, if anything? But these Russian “nouveaux riches” (who else in Russia can afford to travel abroad?) will probably be swept from the museum back to their hotel in their tour bus, and from there to the pyramids, then maybe into a felucca or motor boat commissioned specially for the group for a one-hour Nile cruise. They probably haven’t ever dreamed of visiting a mosque and wouldn’t be allowed in anyway, dressed like they are.

Scenes of life

The museum, if you ignore the crowds and the bellowing guides, makes for a very interesting visit. A large part of the second floor is dedicated to housing the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb; these beautiful works of funerary art are definitely worth your time. The royal mummies are tucked in their temperature-controlled glass cases in an air-conditioned room. You pay extra to get in, but if you have never seen a mummy, now’s the right time – all the famous, identified pharaohs’ remains are there and some of them still smile quite nicely. However the museum can easily put you into “pharaonic overload” mode; most of it resembles a large warehouse where sarcophagi, statues, miniatures and slates covered with hieroglyphs, thousands of years old, are piled up with no explanations, in rooms that have long overflowed their capacity. A couple of hours spent inside will leave you longing for things anything-but-historical, like the restaurants and cafés of the Hilton hotel nearby.

Imhotep's legacy

Once you’re done with the museum, it’s time to head to the archaeological sites around Cairo. Everybody stops at the famous pyramids of Giza, the suburban neighborhood which sprawls almost to the base of the pyramid of Khufu (Cheops). If you’re not on a tour group, you can get there by bus, metro and taxi, but the best way is to hire a driver for the day and also visit the other pyramid sites, which are out of the beaten track – Saqqara and Dahshur. These get their share of visitors as well, but nothing like Giza; and if you get there early enough, you may have the place all for yourself. Sure, the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre will tower over you, covering the sun, and will make you feel like a gnat, but the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, so different and having the privilege of being the oldest of them all, gets a standing ovation. And if you don’t want to pay the extra ticket to get inside the pyramid of Khufu, and wait in line with the crowds, while being hassled by camel-ride touts and guards who want baksheesh, you can clamber down the shaft into Sneferu’s Red Pyramid at Dahshur – if you can stand the strong smell of ammonia in the funerary chamber. Sadly, the most intriguing of all pyramids, the Bent Pyramid of Dahshur, still covered by its original shiny limestone casing, is closed to public and can only be seen from afar.

Queen Hatshepsut's temple
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Luxor set

In Aswan, for reasons that I have already mentioned, we did not see any of the famous landmarks. But in Luxor - aka the tourist hassling capital of Egypt - we didn’t make friends with any local people and concentrated on the many famous ancient sites. The heat in southern Egypt is terrible, even in November, and forces the masses of tourists to wake up early and visit the temples of Luxor and Karnak and the Valley of the Kings as early in the morning as possible, before the sun becomes unbearable. The Luxor temple is smack in the middle of the modern-day Luxor town, and Karnak is a mere 3 km ride along the Nile – easy and fast done by taxi or by one of the omnipresent horse-drawn carriages whose drivers, like most other touts, will try to charge you a small fortune and ask for ‘baksheesh for the horse’ (don’t give, although it’s funny). The Valley of the Kings however, is on the other side of the Nile, and getting there is not a breeze. You can rent a bike, cross the river by ferry, and pedal yourself to death between the sites – not a good idea after 11am, unless you have a secret death wish. You can hire a taxi for the day, which will cost you dearly if you don’t negotiate properly, and you will be the one who decides when and where to go. The most comfortable alternative is to take a tour organized by your hotel (I dare you to find a hotel in Luxor which doesn’t provide this service). It will include a guide (whose English you will hopefully be able to understand) and all the entrance fees. You’ll have to share a mini-bus with other people; ask how many and make sure the bus is air-conditioned – you may still be lied to, but at least you know it. Invariably, you will be taken to one of the many “Alabaster factories” which proliferate in the shadow of the ancient tombs. There are so many of those stone-carving workshops, that one cannot help but ask how they are able to stay in business. There is only one answer: everybody who owns an alabaster factory must have a brother or an uncle who organizes tours of the valley, who in turn has a brother or an uncle who owns or manages a hotel or a cruise ship. This way the tourists are given the whole deal – hotel, visit to the valley, alabaster shopping. Some even buy souvenirs for their living rooms and everybody is happy and the wealth is redistributed along the chain.

Lights at Luxor

If you are ready to fight the crowds and eager for hieroglyphs, if you can negotiate prices and have enough sun-block, there’s one more thing you shouldn’t forget: your international student card – it will be the your wallet ‘s best friend. Every entrance fee in Egypt – and some places aren’t cheap to get in - is half-price for students; the ISIC cards rule in the land of pharaohs. And don’t be bitter when you find out that while you pay a lot, even with your student discount, Egyptians pay 2 pounds. Half if they are students… After a day in the Valley of the Kings you’ll wish you’d rather be Egyptian…

Posted from Nafplio, Greece.

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Walk like an Egyptian

Angela and the girls
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Aswan set

Of course, like any good tourists trying to make the best out of their vacation time, when we got off the sleeper train in Aswan we were determined to see the serious attractions of the area: the ruins on the Elephantine island, the fabled temples of Abu Simbel, Kom Ombo and Edfu, the unfinished obelisk, and a couple of museums. After a visit to the tired, unimpressive ruins on the Elephantine island - where we got ripped off by some textile sellers and an overpriced henna tattoo "artist" who just wouldn't negotiate her price - as we were walking on the corniche (the promenade along the Nile) back to our hotel room, I decided I had had enough of Egypt. The constant hassle from all sorts of touts, the irritating attitude of people at the market who assume you are a stupid tourist who will pay their outrageous asking price, (sometimes many times higher than what you would pay in your own country), the heat, the mad traffic, the crushing crowds... I felt steadily pushed closer and closer to the edge. I was ready to leave, or else bury myself in a refrigerator, wearing earplugs.


A man pushing a bicycle talked to us as we passed him. Disgusted as I was, I ignored him (after a while you have no choice but to ignore the too many people who try to catch you attention). Angela, more polite, responded to his conversation. After a few minutes of walking along, it became clear that Ismael - as he had introduced himself - didn't want to sell us papyrus or a felucca ride or anything else. He, in fact, wanted to invite us to his house to have tea with him. Although he seemed genuine we didn't want to go right then, so he told us where we could find him later, should we decide to stop by. After dinner, not having anything better to do, we decided to give it a shot and look for him. We met him indeed, where he said he would be, and followed him to his house. There, in a shabby but clean and cool room with the walls painted half-way blue, tea and talk followed until the wee hours of the morning.

Mahmoud in his favorite pose

For the next few days we gradually forgot about the monuments and spent most of the time with Ismael and his extended family, who lived on the same narrow, unpaved street with old, half-crumbled houses. We went to wedding parties, drank more tea, played backgammon, talked, and had dinner with the family. We extended our stay in Aswan by one day. Angela got a henna tattoo from Ismael's niece, a real tattoo artist who routinely adorns brides' hands before their wedding parties. We took a mountain of pictures of their many hyperactive kids. We were exhausted.

Ismael and his extended family

Ismael is what could be called "a Muslim hippie". He is apparently retired, and has some income from business and land which allows him to spend most of the time strolling on the corniche with his bike and talking to tourists. He often invites people to his place and talks their ears off. He's anti-establishment, and a light-hearted Muslim who prays (but doesn't waste too much time on it) for the beauty of life and for friendship. He has refused to get drafted and to fight against Israel in his youth and was interned for a while in an isolated camp in the desert. He's been a dive master and a tour operator, owning his tour company. How much of this is true, I don't know, but what is true, are the many testimonials that people from all over the world have left in his "guestbooks" - in English, French, German, Spanish, even some in Romanian; most of those little notes sing the same tune - Ismael has given his guests a chance to know more than just what's in the books; to sit down and listen to an old man ramble about constellations and yoga and ruinous Egyptian mentalities, to play backgammon while drinking tea and eating guavas is more valuable than a history lesson told by some crumbled limestone blocks. The temples will wait, life will not. If you go to Aswan, you may run into an older Nubian man, wearing a galabiyya, riding on a bike. It's Ismael. Talk to him, you'll have a good time.

Published from Cairo. Tomorrow we're flying to Greece.

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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Going postal in Alexandria

By 11AM I had finally nursed the hangover caused by the pub crawl of the previous night. Murad, who had quit Microsoft 2 years ago and moved back to Egypt, had taken us to some of the few shady joints in Alexandria where alcohol could be consumed, and we overindulged, happy to break our travel habit of going to bed too early. Over breakfast the next day I remembered that I had to go to the post office to ship a parcel home – our sleeping bags, so helpful on the Inca trail and during the Africa overland trip, were no longer needed; they were taking useful space in the backpacks, which even now, after many packages sent home, were still too heavy – this time because of the many books we have carried from Africa and have not yet been able to trade or sell.

I went to the post office a few blocks down the road armed with a note written in Arabic by the hotel manager, who translated my intentions: ”I want to send a package to America”. The clerk managed to explain that international parcels must be sent from the central post office, next to the railway station. It wasn’t far; I walked the 10 minutes it took to get there and tried to find my way around by showing my little precious note to people who often spoke back to me in Arabic. Communication was obscure and broken, but somehow I made progress: I was first sent from the postal counter to the next door outside and from there to the third floor. The third floor was empty; a large, well-lit hall furnished with skeletons of cubicles, a few old wooden desks and chairs and, like almost everywhere else in Egypt, covered in mountains of rubble. At first I thought I got to the wrong floor; maybe they were just in the middle of remodeling this one, so I walked back to the second floor where I showed my magic note to some people who were congregating in the hallway. “3rd floor, but closed now” said one of them, “closed today afternoon; tomorrow, open 8 in the morning.” They were all rushing down the stairs to go home. Cautious, I wanted to double-check; back at the reception, the same people who told me to go to the 3rd floor admitted they were just closing for the day.

The next morning, spiffy and fresh, I skipped breakfast so I could be at the post office shortly after eight. On the way I picked up an empty cardboard box from a coffee shop; asking for boxes at post offices had previously been futile (except in Argentina). Once there, I headed straight for the 3rd floor. The large hall was still empty, except for two men sitting at an old desk, sharing some food. I showed them my wrinkled piece of paper and they made encouraging signs that this was the right place, but I needed to wait. Armed with patience I put down my box and bag and sat down on the corner of a desk. One hour later I was still sitting and not much had changed on the 3rd floor. There were more people around; trays with coffee and tea cups were being delivered, cigarettes were smoked, and more food appeared. As I sat there ignored by all, my patience fading, it dawned on me that the office opened indeed at 8 o’clock but people didn’t start coming to work until 9 or later. The person in charge of international shipping wasn’t there yet. Who was to say he or she wasn’t going to call in sick that day?

Finally at 9:30 a woman showed up, took her seat behind a desk, had her coffee, smoked her cigarette, and when the arrival ritual had been completed, they all beckoned me to go to her. She gave me the forms where I had to write the usual shipping data, names, addresses and a description of the contents. Then she proceeded to tell me something in Arabic, which sounded quite vital for the success of my mission; I made a helpless face and shrugged discouraged; two girls who were mailing a small package started giggling. The woman at the counter was now talking slower, as if that was all it would take for me to understand. Somehow, somebody found a man who spoke good English, a customer probably. “She tells you to follow her instructions and then come back here,” he said. “You must now take the papers and go to the 1st floor to get an approval from the department of explosives, then to the 13th floor, to have your books inspected.” Oh well, so this was the customs office, not the post… “And, you know, the key is patience. You’ll be in this for at least one hour. This is how things work in Egypt. Good luck.”

Explosives? What explosives? Of course, they wanted to make sure I didn’t have any. Going down the stairs, I couldn’t help asking myself whether she had meant 1st floor American-style (ground floor) or 1st floor as in the rest of the world. I opted for the rest of the world, but when I got to the 1st and showed my papers - which now made me feel like somebody who had solid, hard-earned credentials – to a friendly man who seemed to work there, he took me with him to the ground floor. The uniformed official sitting by the airport-style x-ray machine (he needed a uniform; he had, after all, to deal with explosives) didn’t bother inspecting my bag before he applied the stamp and his bored signature to the corner of my paper. Point scored, I gloated, making a mental note that the 1st floor had ended up being American-style after all… but purely by coincidence, because soon the 13th floor became the 2nd, where the same very helpful employee took me next. The 2nd was in better shape than the 3rd, and there was no visible rubble in the corners. A woman took my two books and inspected them, talking to me in Arabic. It was safe to assume she couldn’t speak or read English, but she looked at the books carefully nonetheless. The censorship, I started to wonder. This is after all a country ruled by a dictator, and the customs must have a list of banned publications. Maybe Khaled Hosseini’s two novels, which I was foolishly and innocently trying to ship home, were already on the black list, for their being mildly critical of Islam. Maybe she would call the police and I would be expelled from the country after spending a few nights in jail... She passed the books on to another man. That’s it, she sends them to secondary inspection; I’m screwed! But no, he only took some brown paper, wrapped my books, sealed them, and gave the small package back to me. A new stamp was adorning my form. I was feeling like an A+ student.

Back on the third floor, things went smooth. The woman looked satisfied at my painstakingly acquired stamps and instructed another man to wrap the package. We stuffed everything from the bag into the coffee box, and added the books; I wrote the addresses, he taped and wrapped. I now had a fully-approved, shippable package, carrying an imposing lead seal at the end of a rope and I was beginning to think that the world made sense. “Go to the post office down the road, past the mosque,” I was told by someone, and woke up in Egypt again… but I knew I couldn’t go wrong anymore, if I had been able to pass the customs inspection armed with nothing but a wrinkled note on yellow paper.

The office past the mosque wasn’t far. I waited in line for 15 minutes, and the clerk didn’t have to ask many questions when she saw the signed, stamped papers. “380 pounds, please” she said; “air mail, very fast, seven days”. “No, no,” I shook my head; “no air; ship please, I want ‘slow’!” “Slow”, as it turned out, was costing about 300 pounds, and had to be shipped from a different post office. It was 11 o’clock. My concentration was fading; I was feeling as if I was trying to answer the last intricate question of a long and demanding college exam which had gone well so far. I gave up. “Ok, fast.”

Note: 1US$ = 5.5 Egyptian pounds
Posted from Dahab, Egypt.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Cairo – the glitter, the rubble, the mob

  “Hello mister, what’s your name?” the dark man wearing a white galabiyya asks me from across the street. I ignore him; he runs across and walks with us.
  “Hello, what country?” he asks again, and this time, from an unacknowledged instinct to be polite to people who talk to me, I answer, half-avoiding his gaze:
  “Ah, Romania, good country,” he says, clearly overcome by the joy of meeting a Romanian. “Gheorghe Hagi!” he clamors with a sudden burst of exuberance. He stares at me with deep friendliness, as if by naming the one thing he knows about my country, the name of a famous football player, he has established an unbreakable bond between us. “Come to my papyrus shop, I give you good price, for you only, from Romania! Hey, why you leave? you want t-shirt?... Welcome to Egypt!”

Crowds in Khan al-Khalili
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Cairo set

And so it goes… Felucca rides, scarves, souvenirs, henna tattoos, tea and spices, tour guides and taxi rides – all can be had in Cairo at any time of day – and night as well – if you only have the stomach and the nerves to negotiate and deal with the constant hassle every tourist is subjected to. You meet people in Cairo more than you would like to; they talk to you first, and they usually start their attempts at conversation with intrusive questions that easily become tiring and annoying for the tourist looking for a quiet stroll through the anonymity of the crowded streets. “What’s your name?” or “Where you from?” are favorite starters. If the baiting works and you answer, oftentimes you will find out that they have a brother who lives in your town (if you’re from “Amrika”) or a very good friend from your country (if you’re from “Rumania”). And then, almost invariably, they want to sell you something… You have arrived in Cairo fresh and eager to explore the streets and ready to delve into the local culture – soon you become wary, suspicious and unwilling to talk to anybody, and when people who are actually interested in meeting a foreigner talk to you, you spurn them, you become monosyllabic, and you keep your guard up until it becomes clear that they don’t want to sell you papyrus or ask for baksheesh

Men smoking sheesha in the souq

Never mind that papyrus has all but disappeared from Egypt and all you may get from them is painted banana leaves – they will still ask 10 times more than their ware is worth, but to their credit the vendors are always open to negotiating. Sadly, most western tourists have never bargained for anything in their life and get gypped with style, paying sums that Egyptian buyers would only laugh at. Even with our cunning bargaining skills, honed by the school of six months of travel, we still pay more than Egyptians for certain wares and services; we know it and that’s all right – but we won’t be taken for fools. Yet of all troubles, dealing with taxi drivers in Cairo (and in all Egypt) is the worst. Taxis are unmetered and traditionally fares aren’t negotiated ahead, so you just have to know the right price to pay as you leave – and the cabbie will still yell at you that you owe him double. And if you don’t have change for a 20 pound bill, you’re in it for a long shot – the driver will tell you very convincingly in a mix of Arabic and English that 20 Egyptian pounds is actually the right price for your trip. It’s usually a quarter of that. Better travel by metro if you can.


Being out in the streets of Cairo for too long can feel oppressive for many first-time travelers to Egypt. The crushing mass of humanity pushing and shoving from all sides, the permanent hassling by the store touts, the gratuitous requests for baksheesh coming from adults and kids alike (even in places where there are obvious “no tips” signs in English), and the mad, uninterrupted car traffic may easily get very stressful, and can turn a day out to town into a stifling ordeal, leaving the hapless tourist longing for their dark, air-conditioned hotel room. Lonely Planet guide book authors seem to love the worn-out cliché “bustling city” – if this adjective applies to Cairo, then its use should be banned in any other context.

Roofs and rubble

All life in this metropolis seems to unfold in the streets. Its buildings look too dilapidated to entice anyone to spend any time inside their walls. The suburbs are made of rows upon rows of brick and concrete multi-story buildings that look half-built and forgotten. Some floors have windows, some do not, and their gaping holes peek sadly at the street. It seems as though everybody is building their own floor to their liking and the flats are in different degrees of habitation. The old, historic section of town, known as “Islamic Cairo,” a major stop on the tourist circuit, is nothing but one giant pile of rubble. Except for a few thriving mosques, every other building seems to be falling apart, and most top floors have already crumbled. The garbage is piled up high on the walls of the side-streets and in gutters along the road, and seems to have become a permanent fixture of the neighborhoods, to the point that some tourists will not hesitate to label Cairo the dirtiest city they have ever seen. The modern downtown, built from the beginning of the 19th century onward, doesn’t fare much better – its once glitzy and gorgeous office and residential buildings, a blend of European and local architectural styles, now stand in a forlorn state of disrepair, dirty and peeling, a mere shadow of their former glorious looks. Some enterprising flat owners - like the hotel we stayed at in the busy heart of downtown - have taken matters into their own hands and did some façade painting. Most often, the effect is comical and accentuates the poor state of the building – a ribbon of fresh yellow paint, with clumsily hand-drawn edges, between two darker, dirtier floors. The new coat only goes as far as the hand and the tool of the painter could extend from the balcony. Beyond that… it’s somebody else’s business.

The Al-Azhar mosque

But as things invariably end up when one travels, I found that the most interesting side of Cairo is its people. There are few words that could describe the furious coming and going on Talat Harb street at night. People cover the long boulevard from one end to the other and seem to consider cars as just another sort of pedestrian, neither yielding in front of them nor completely acknowledging their presence and the permanent honking. Many young men stroll leisurely arm-in-arm, a very unusual and confusing attitude for the American visitor, not used with such close, friendly contact between males, except is some particular, unequivocal context. “Walking ‘engage’ is very, very low-class,” says Murad, my Egyptian friend that I went pub-crawling with in Alexandria, a few days later. “It’s sad that I have to use the word ‘class’, but that’s what we consider it here.” I don’t know where they all go; there aren’t any bars around, so they must be just enjoying a walk in the city, getting some cheap eats, drinking coca-cola and ogling the girls.

Fast and slow

Women of all ages walk around showing no other skin than their face and hands, covering their heads with scarves matching the colors of their outfits, their makeup or their cell phones. The covering of the hair is apparently a recent phenomenon in this secularized but overwhelmingly Muslim country, likely a combination between a social turn to a more religious life (some say, sponsored by the unofficial “godfathers” of the country, the Saudis) and simple peer pressure. Either way, this makes the few women who are not veiled (non-conformist Muslims, local Coptic Christians or foreigners) look even more conspicuous. Walking with Angela is a permanent invitation to unsubtle stares and dim-witted, ever-repeating childish jeers: “beautiful wife!”, “lucky man!”, “how many camels?” (trading camels for a woman is a Bedouin custom) they shout while we pass them hand in hand. They are annoying but not threatening. In fact, I have never felt safer than in Cairo - day or night - since I left home.

The mornings are quiet. They have finally all gone to sleep. From my hotel room balcony on the 5th floor, I look at the deserted street. There are few cars, and honking is unnecessary. The city is mine, at last. That’s when I think I’m going to go take a walk.

Published from Luxor. At last, I'm posting stories from the country I'm in.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

The truth about overland safaris

If you asked me whether I could recommend an overland safari trip in Africa, based on my recent experience, I wouldn’t know what to say. Would I do it again? – Certainly, I would not repeat the long journey from Cape Town to Nairobi, but I would however gladly go for smaller trips, more focused on an area or a few neighboring countries – a tour of just Kenya and Tanzania would be an example. Many factors will influence your overall experience; here are a few ones that I considered important:

  • Driving time – during “overland safaris” (as these trips are somewhat emphatically named), you will mostly sit in a truck together with the other passengers, traveling between two camp sites. Driving for 12 hours is not uncommon, 8 hours is the norm. You must usually wake up with the sun, except on few days when there’s either no driving, or the distance is short and there’s enough time to allow for a late breakfast. There isn’t always something to do at the destination –it’s often just a place to set up the tents for the night and wake up the next morning for another day of driving. Besides talking (if talking to your neighbor for 8 hours is appealing to you…), the only source of entertainment is reading – if reading in a moving vehicle doesn’t bother you, better bring a lot of books – you’ll have ample time for them.
  • Road quality influences driving times (and most roads in Africa are bad indeed) but not significantly. It takes so much time to get between places because the distances are large and the trucks are not made to speed up. Nevertheless, some unpaved roads can be really trying – you bounce up and down in the seat, and run the risk of injury, if you don’t hold on to something when you stand up while the truck is moving. The overhead luggage compartments can become a source of flying books, shoes or food bags. Just about every single object in the truck is vibrating.
  • Safari trucks come in a variety of comfort styles. Our trucks, owned by Wildlife Adventures, seemed to have been built in the 80s and not upgraded since. The seats were uncomfortable and didn’t recline. Some seats had previously broken and have been welded clumsily making them even more uncomfortable. Since all safari companies follow more or less the same routes, I had the chance to see many other truck models, and while they all seem to be similarly built, some were obviously more modern and more comfortable – with reclining seats, on-board kitchen , opposing seats and a table (so people could play cards), and individual safe boxes. The higher-comfort trucks were more expensive as well and ours wasn’t the most beat-up truck around, so there was not much to worry about.
  • Group size - Comfort is as much about the truck as it is about how many people you travel with. If every single seat on the truck is taken, you’ll be likely to feel ill at ease at one moment or the other. Out truck has 20 seats; we started the tour with 17 people; 8 of them were just visiting Namibia and left in Windhoek. For the rest of the trip, although we changed guides, dropped off and picked up some people, we remained 9 passengers. Each had two adjacent seats if needed. We took advantage of this generous seating and sprawled. The most crowded truck we met en route was one belonging to the Africa Travel Co. They had 26 passengers and 2 guides. Quite the madness!
  • People – they can make or break your fun. Being the antisocial type that I am, I didn’t like any of my tour-mates in particular but didn’t dislike anybody excessively either. The ratio of men to women was clearly tipped in the favor of women, and the only guy of my age was an Aussie, whose heavily accented English I could barely understand – my fault not his, I guess. I didn’t make any friends. There was some animosity in the group, but nothing too conflictual; we survived the whole 6 weeks without killing each other. Nevertheless, if you doubt you can share quarters with the same people, day in, day out, for 6 weeks, think twice before booking.
  • Food – is the essential ingredient whose lack of quality or quantity can ruin the trip no matter how beautiful the landscapes and the animals are. The more people you share the truck with, the higher the chance that there isn’t enough food for everyone at every meal (and this is one of the main complaints about some of the safari companies). Luckily food wasn’t a problem for us. Breakfasts were simple: cornflakes, toast, jam, peanut butter and instant coffee, sometimes eggs. Lunches, on the side of the road, were mostly baloney sandwiches and some salad. For dinner, when our guides cooked in the camp sites, there was always enough food for everybody, and nobody had anything to complain about the quality. Occasionally we had to have restaurant dinners at our expense; with few exceptions, most campsites had decent food.
  • Camping – can you sleep in a tent for 42 days? An essential question to ask before considering a long safari trip. With few exceptions – Swakopmund, Victoria Falls and Zanzibar – where hotel accommodations were booked, for the rest of the trip we slept in campsites. It was easier and more comfortable than we had imagined – the tents were spacious and the sponge mattresses were thick. The tents were functional and easy to set up and pack, but they were old, weighed too much (two people would usually carry one) and had all kinds of rips and cuts. The company is obviously cutting its own corners by not upgrading their equipment… The campsites (who I judge by their bathrooms and ablution facilities) were mostly decent except in a few cases. Sometimes I wonder… what were they thinking in the busy Arusha campsite where the male and female population have one sink each in the bathrooms?
  • Back pain – all that sitting and driving for hours doesn’t come without side-effects: it can lead to terrible lower-back pain (I wasn’t spared) and will atrophy your leg muscles – we learned this the hard way when we arrived in Cairo and started walking all day; going up any flight of stairs made our feet numb with pain. We caught up and got in shape in a week or so, but not without a lot of panting and cursing.
  • Toilet stops – ah, don’t forget about your bladder. The driver will stop once in a while on the side of the road, so everybody can find their favorite bush. And where there are no bushes, it’s the boys in the front of the truck, the girls in the back. The truck has an “emergency” button for these situations, but the guides don’t want to stop as often as some passengers would need, so they just ignore it sometimes. When asked why, they mumble something about losing time because there’s a lot left to drive and generally act as if by asking them to stop you’re talking something away from them. A common attitude of bus drivers around the world…
  • Attitude – there’s a pervasive attitude among safari tour guides best described by the slogan “This is Africa, Fit in or Fuck Off” (seen on a t-shirt). This double-edged line, meant to be funny - no doubt, contains a lot of bitter truth. Sure, the roads are bad, you have to sleep in a tent, Africa is dusty and hot, and you may not always find clean bathrooms and hot water. Nobody argues with that. But some guides are pushing this further and act condescending to the tourists, being unhelpful and incompetent at best. Our “guides” acted mostly as drivers and cooks; hardly any information about the places we were seeing trickled from them, not even trivia that anybody already knew. They were either genuinely bored or totally disinterested with their jobs. Most local guides we hired in a few game parks were even worse, hardly bothering to acknowledge our presence. The attitude could be also summarized by another line seen on a t-shirt: “I am too poorly paid to be nice to you, so fit in or fuck off!” Haven’t these people heard of tips? Of the fact that pay may increase with performance? Their tips could have been better if they had been actually nice to me. The rest doesn’t matter.
  • It looks like I only listed a string of problems related to overland safaris and none of the things that make them worthwhile. It’s not like that. There were many beautiful moments, and mentioning each one will only re-iterate what I already said in past blog entries and would make a very long list. Coming close to the wild animals, getting immersed in new and unfamiliar landscapes of incredible beauty, and meeting the local people – especially when they didn’t want to sell us anything – will survive in my memory forever. I am glad I went through this.
Overland Tour ended in Nairobi, Kenya on October 14. Posted from Aswan, Egypt. Stories from Egypt coming next.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

A place to redeem all ugliness in the world

Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Ngorongoro set

Shaking and growling, the vehicle trudges its way up on the bumpy dirt road to the rim of the crater. The “Crater access road” sign, scribbled with red paint on a wooden board appears out of the morning fog for a brief moment. It is an unassuming but unambiguous signal that we are about to cross to the other side of the mirror into wonderland, and like Alice in the fable, I am curious, excited and a little anxious. What if the experience doesn’t live up to the expectations? But there isn’t much time for wondering and questioning. We are turning sharp corners going downhill now, on the steep track clumsily carved in the mountainside. This isn’t much of a road – it’s riddled with holes and boulders, uneven and dusty - but a real road – god forbid, paved! – would be completely out of place in the Ngorongoro crater anyway.

Land of elephants

Nearly five hours later we emerge from the caldera at another point. The fog has broken long ago; now a different sign greets us in plain sight – “Crated ascent road. Do not enter.” Yes, I want to say. Do not enter; leave this place alone, you can only ruin it. I am transfigured by the experience and selfishly I’d like to be the last pair of eyes to admire the wonders down below. Any more visitors after me could only bring destruction and waste to this still-perfect world; more gas fumes from their jeeps, more roads and more plastic bottles will eventually topple the fragile natural balance that keeps the crater alive and unmistakably magical … But I am just being childish: no plastic bottles littler the crater floor, and while many 4x4 vehicles hit the crater roads every day loaded with trigger-happy tourists who take shots until their memory cards are full, the visitor impact is kept to a minimum and the animals seem undisturbed by human presence.

An ominous edge

I was elated. On the way back to camp I was pondering silently if I could truthfully and honestly say that I have never seen a place more beautiful than the Ngorongoro crater. This was the single moment that redeemed all the disappointments of the whole 6-week overland trip. Bad and incompetent guides, sitting in the truck for hours each day, some uninteresting and annoying tour partners, the waking up before sunrise almost every day – none of that mattered anymore: this trip had fulfilled its purpose, it has made me happy. Luckily, the visit to the crater happened on the last day of the trip – had we gone the other way, Ngorongoro would have been our first stop, and later I would have compared all other game parks with it, probably to their disadvantage. My expectations had been sky-high, ever since I had read a beautifully illustrated National Geographic article about the crater lions, which had interbred for so long without bringing in new blood from outside, that they displayed a string of genetic defects and had become vulnerable to diseases otherwise benign to lions. My expectations of this place were sky-high – but they were met and exceeded.

A thirsty couple

Sadly, during the visit we didn’t get any information from the guides about the crater, its animal populations and the conservation challenges. Our local “guide” and driver didn’t speak to us at all (although he spoke English) for the whole duration of the game drive – but he often blabbered in Swahili on the radio with the other drivers, and talked to our Kenyan tour guide, who was too busy making out on the back seat with the Swiss girl in our group to be of any help. Nevertheless I didn’t mind; the nature did the talking for them. But I’m not sure if the guide realized that if he had been more helpful, I would have gladly left him a tip at the end.

Caught in the act
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Serengeti set
Happy lion
Giraffe drinking water

My memory of these days is dominated by the fantastic moments spent in the crater. But a day prior to that game drive we had visited another wildlife reserve, further to the west of Tanzania: the Serengeti. It is quite possibly the most famous national park in the world, a name instantly recognizable as a symbol of wildlife abundance. You say Serengeti and your mind immediately pictures lions hunting gazelles, buffaloes wallowing in the mud, a parade of elephants lingering among the trees in the evening sun, and millions of wildebeest stampeding the plain, turning the horizon into a black cloud. There was none of that. Besides an abundance of Thompson gazelles and zebras, the other animals were scarce; there was not one single elephant in sight. I can’t say I was disappointed – the scenery was beautiful, with the high, green and yellow grasses on the gently sloping hills, the lush marshes teeming with hippos along the quiet river and the eerie rock formations rising out of the immense plain. Some animals finally showed up and posed for our cameras, but I was left with a tinge of dissatisfaction – maybe my expectations had been too high and when that mental image of a pride of roaring lions bringing down a struggling buffalo had failed to materialize I refused to see the beauty of what actually was around me. Sometimes I have to remind myself that eyes are most useful when kept open.

Fast facts: The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is situated 180km west of Arusha in the Tanzanian highlands. Its main feature is the Ngorongoro crater, formed after a volcanic explosion some 2 million years ago. The crated floor is 610m deep and covers 260 square kilometers. It boasts one of the highest concentration of wildlife in Africa and is home to most species found in East Africa, including the "big five" (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo). The crater's steep walls form a natural migration barrier, keeping most animals permanently inside.

Published from Alexandria, Egypt. Still catching up...

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Indian Ocean

Sunset in Stone Town
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the set

If you think of overland safaris as trips dedicated exclusively to watching wildlife, then our detour to Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar falls outside the norm. For three days we took our leave from the big truck and explored the winding, narrow streets of Zanzibar's Stone Town, had good espresso coffee and pastries in downtown Dar es Salaam, and dived in the Indian ocean close to Nungwi beach village at the northern tip of Zanzibar island. Sure, we spent more money (diving here was $35, almost double the price in Honduras) but we got to sleep in a real bed (the last time had been in Livingstone) and sipped cocktails on a terrace with a view of the ocean...

Palms in our Dar es Salaam campsite

There is not much to say about Dar es Salaam, really... the map said that the part of town where we got dropped off was downtown, but it surely didn't look like it, and if it hadn't been busy with people, shops and cars I would have thought we got lost in some provincial ramshackle town. Since the sights were so disappointing, Angela and I concentrated on the one real attraction the town had to offer: the Epi D'Or french bakery, which provided great espresso coffee (for the last 5 weeks we had had only instant coffee, mixed with chicory on top of that), delicious pastries and air conditioning, much needed in the hot and humid Tanzanian climate. We spent there almost all the hours we got each time we had to pass through town on our way to and from Zanzibar, except for some brief moments needed for hitting the ATMs and the grocery store.

Stone Town - a restored building

Zanzibar's Stone Town, lying more than a stone's throw away from Dar es Salaam - actually almost 2 hours by ferry - is a beautiful but dilapidated old town, formerly a slave and spice trade outpost, dating from the period of Arab colonization of the eastern coast of Africa. The thin streets squeezed between high white walls are reminiscent of Venice, but the omnipresent garbage and the crumbling facades are definitely African. Unfortunately, as it is often the case, there isn't enough money and good will to bring the colors of this town to its former glory. The few beautifully restored buildings testify to the enormous potential hidden behind the drab, tired stone walls of this world heritage site.

Masai man wearing traditional

But Zanzibar is not only Arab architecture and busy food markets; it also has a very touristy side. The Nungwi village at the northernmost end of the island has sold its soul to hotel developers and its beaches now resemble those in any tropical tourist paradise island. To their credit, the hotels blend into the landscape and have not become an eyesore yet. We spent two days in this wonderful place doing not much of anything, except for one dive and some beach swimming. The beaches are 'patrolled' by scores of Masai men in their traditional clothes, some of them working as security guards for the hotels, most others trying to sell their famous hand-made jewelry. My attempts at conversation with them were thwarted quite fast; whether they approached me or I approached them, within the first minute of talking they would try to sell me something and then I would politely decline and leave. This is often the case but fortunately not always - you can still find good, easy conversation at the bar: the people who work there will only sell you what you already want...

Posted from Cairo. Still catching up with past stories...

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