Monday, July 23, 2012

A Seventh Wonder-ful Layover

We got into Egypt very early this morning & got a cab to AJ's apartment, smooth sailing.   Unfortunately, because of the way the streets are numbered, we had a difficult time locating it.  His apartment is number 20 and while we found 19 and 21 with no problems, nobody could tell us where 20 was.  Turns out this was mostly because, in a stunning feat of logic, it was over a block away.  Our cab driver was wandering up and down the streets, asking everyone in sight and in the meantime we were sitting in the back of a cab next to two of the filthiest dumpsters I've ever seen in my life with trash literally overflowing into a sea of garbage that feral cats were grazing on- welcome to Cairo.  Eventually he got AJ on the phone, he came to retrieve us, and our cab driver shed tears of joy- or possibly regular tears from the overwhelming stench of the mini dump he had inadvertently parked in.

We had some greatly needed showers after that debacle and then a driver picked the three of us up and drove us to the pyramids.  I thought driving through the streets of Cairo was so interesting, for one because it's a very monochromatic city- the majority of buildings were a sandstone color, which I felt like contributed even more to it's ancient feel.  Coming from Thailand to there, reminded me of being at work and going from the bright, fun colors of the children's hospital, over to the adult side where everything is beige.


It was so crazy to see the Pyramids of Giza in the distance as we were driving and know that we were about to visit something that we'd seen pictures of and learned about in school for years.  Even knowing in advance how large they are and how long the Egyptians spent building them, I wasn't really prepared for how enormous and incredible they are.  They don't call them one of the 7 wonders of the world for nothing.

This was a pretty hilarious little scene.

Although though it was scorching hot, we actually picked a good time to visit- there was hardly anybody there because of the combination of it being summer, the middle of Ramadan, and tourism being down post-revolution.  So it was really nice to not have to fight throngs of tourists and have space to wander around and explore- at one point we were the only people at the Sphinx, it was crazy!

The only down side was the vendors were pretty aggressive with asking us to buy things, take pictures, ride camels, etc, because business was down.  AJ actually got the worst of it because he's a guy- the opposite of how we found it to be most other places- but he fended them off.  One guy did ask him how many camels he wanted for one of us, an offer he probably entertained taking him up on.

After an exciting morning of that included not only pyramid viewing, but racing a guy on a camel in the car (he won-those things can move!), we traveled on to the Citadel.  This complex was stunning beyond words.

Among other things, it houses the Mohammed Ali mosque which is easily one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen.  The walls are all detailed with ornate gold, there are stained glass windows, in the center there is a giant intricate chandelier and all above your head there are winding rows of glowing globe lights.  I think that because I had no prior knowledge of what I was about to see, it was even more striking.

After spending some time in the mosque we walked to the viewpoint where there was a fantastic overlook of the city.

Since it was now after 1pm, blazing hot, and we had a accomplished quite a bit of sightseeing, we headed home for a little siesta before dinner.  Since it was Ramadan we had to wait until the sun went down to go to the restaurant- and when it did go down it was quite a spectacular sight from AJ's balcony.  The upside of urban smog is it does create some beautiful sunsets!

We set out to get some traditional middle eastern food but the place we wanted to go to had a huge wait because everyone was out breaking their fast for the day.  AJ & his two roommates decided we should go get some grape leaves and a drink at another place while we waited the hour and a half.  The grape leaves were a success but our hunt for a place to get a beer was not- nobody was serving any because of the holiday.  But we got a nice tour of the city & it was interesting to be there in person to see the city square that had been the backdrop of so many news reports during the revolution.  All around the city, but particularly in that area, there was tons of political graffiti- portraits of leaders, martyrs, and all kinds of liberty themed images.

After killing some time we returned to Taboula and as promised it was worth the wait.  We ordered a ton of stuff to share- hummus, babaganoush, tabuleh, falafel, chicken meatballs, kiba, mussels, salad, fried cheese.  It was all absolutely delicious- one of my favorite meals of the trip, and in typical fashion we ate until we couldn't eat another bite and then had a couple more.

After dinner AJ and Rafi decided it would probably be wrong of us to come to Egypt and not have a shusha, so they took us to this little plaza where everyone was sitting outside under shimmering silver Ramadan decorations, smoking hookahs.  We ordered one lemon and one cantaloupe & just told stories and relaxed.  It was a phenomenal way to end the last night of our crazy journey and check my 6th continent off my list!


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Nirvana in Thailand

Somebody should probably pinch me right now.  Tara and I just had the most terrific 4 hours in recent memory.  We got to the airport way before our flight because Nattie and Donna's flights were before ours & discovered we couldn't check in for another 3 hours because our flight wasn't until 1am.  We didn't want to hang around the check in area because there wasn't even a coffee shop or restaurant in that section until after you went through security.  So we decided to drop off our bags at the storage area and sky train it into the city.

After getting some recommendations from some helpful pedestrians, we found an area that served the Pad Thai we had been searching for.  We stopped at one restaurant that looked like it could be the one, but once inside it seemed from the odor, that this restaurant may have been hiding a large open air aquarium in the kitchen and that would just not do for our last meal so we bounced.  We were oh-so-glad we did because just up the street we discovered this cul-de-sac of cute little restaurants and bars.  We sat ourselves down at the Muy Thai Cafe and ordered cokes in adorable little glass bottles with Thai logos, Tom Guy soup, Pad See Ew and Pad Thai.  Everything was absolutely delicious, the servers were so nice, and we were seated directly in front of a fan; it was like a little slice of heaven.

 Before leaving we pumped our waiter for information about where to get a massage and with a little navigational assistance from some of the street vendors we found ourselves at a pink storefront near the Asia Hotel getting manhandled in some pajamas made for giants who moonlight as surgeons.

Note we are not fully in this photo because we were laughing too hard, in a place where you aren't supposed to be laughing at all, at how ridiculous we looked to get a decent shot off.  It's hard to tell but we could have easily gotten both our entire bodies into one of the pant legs and I have a pretty fantastic Urkel waist thing happening.

These might have been the best massages yet- we went for straight up back, neck and shoulders instead of messing around with all the arm & leg nonsense.  This lady had one strong set of hands- if anybody grabbed me that hard in my everyday life I would have them arrested, but somehow she made it a delight.  She also cracked probably every part of my spine that could physically be cracked (and possibly some that couldn't be) not once, but twice!!  At the beginning she worked my back like bubble wrap while I was laying down, one spot at a time and for the finale she sat me up, put my hands on my head, wrapped her leg over top of mine & twisted me around on each side like a pretzel while my back went off like a machine gun-  After it was over and we had returned Paul Bunyon's loungewear, we were sitting at the front sipping green tea from our chicken teacups & Tara said to me, "I wish you could see the look of bliss on your face right now."  So that pretty much sums it up.

As we set off for the walk back to the train, I was keeping an eye out for a place to have one final banana pancake but it looked like it might not happen.  I thought it might be just too much to ask for and declared that the rest of the night had been so perfect, I wouldn't even be upset if I didn't get one.  No sooner had the words left my lips, when a man emerged from the shadows, pedaling a bike around the corner in front of us.  And attached to that bike- his mobile pancake stand.  Cue angels singing and soft glowing lights from the heavens, surrounding him.  I was pretty sure I was living in a dream, or that I should immediately figure out how to pantomime, "Where can I buy a Thai lottery ticket?"  We flagged him down, he whipped up one final, delightful, banana pancake for me & I was like a kid on Christmas morning as I devoured it on the train.

We got to the airport & through security with plenty of time to spare, which was fairly shocking considering how Tara and I both operate.  I even had time to walk the 6 miles to get my $2 VAT refund, which if I had done the math (even with my trusty iphone currency converter app downloaded especially to do the math, I never do the math) and figured in the effort I probably wouldn't have.  There was a silver lining though- on my way back I lucked into a bookstore displaying Carrying Cambodia.  We had been searching for this book since we had been talking to Andrew at dinner in Cambodia about the incomprehensible, common sense defying, amount of stuff the people in SEA haul around on their motorbikes.  He told us about how somebody had published a coffee table book with amazing photos of Cambodians balancing an assortment of items off their bikes & in our travels we had only been able to find it's Vietnamese counterpart Bikes of Burden.  They only had one copy left so I snatched it up for a birthday present for Tara and off we went for the last leg of our journey!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Kicking off the Cambodian Leg

We woke up to the realization that, though only a short distance away, Cambodia is not within the borders of Vietnam and therefore is an INTERNATIONAL destination and maybe we should considering getting to the airport immediately.  We scurried around a bit, made it onto our flight and and short time later, touched down in Siem Reap.

We made our way to Frangipani Villa, and after the semi-sketch lodging of the previous nights, we were definitely ready for this place.  It was beautiful.  The lobby is open air, with billowing white gauze curtains, and the room is accented with the work of local artists.

I could happily have moved into the lobby, but they took us to our cute little room.  Probably one of my favorite things about it was the picture in the bathroom- it was a framed picture of that very same bathroom.  I'm not sure if they were trying to be funny, modern artsy, or just ran out of artwork to hang, but I thought it was highly amusing.

Since we had been on the go for so many days in a row, we planned to take full advantage of hotel amenities and just relax.  We had a delicious lunch in the hotel restaurant, during which I challenged the allergy gods and went for the Panang curry containing pineapple, and then moved to the garden side pool.  The most difficult decision I had to make for the rest of the afternoon was whether to enjoy my margarita from the comfort of my chair, or the hot tub.

When it was time to eat again, we met up with Nattie and Heggie's friend Ben from college.  He and his girlfriend Kim took us to Studio 26 for some Cambodian cuisine.

Ben is the founder of an amazing NGO called Everything's Gonna Be Ok that is based in Cambodia.  His organization is dedicated to providing educational and vocational training for young Cambodians who want to enter the hospitality industry.   I really admire the work that they are doing and found myself entertaining the possibility of coming to volunteer with them in the future.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Another Night in 'Nam

We were up bright and early, though probably would have been more rested if there hadn't been some sort of strange singing being played over a loudspeaker somewhere in the middle of the night.  It legitimately sounded like someone was drowning very loud, very sick house cats and it went on for very much longer than I would have liked.

We spent some time at the front desk and with the help of such useful devices as charades, pictionary and my translator app, coordinated a ride to the nature preserve to go for a hike.  A taxi came to pick up Tara, Marissa, and me, but just as we were getting in to go up the road, a van flew past us in the opposite direction & we heard tires squealing and then this loud smacking sound.  We turned around and saw that the van had hit a woman on a motor scooter.  She had been thrown off of it and was lying in the road, not moving.  A bunch of people came running over to help and we saw someone on their phone calling for an ambulance.  We weren't sure if we should go try to do something too but our cab driver made us get in the car, so we have no idea what happened to her.  It was surreal and scary & the idea we had tossed around, of renting motorbikes if we couldn't do the hike, evaporated into the afternoon sky.

Our taxi driver took us, very slowly & while beeping like a mad man at any motorbikes within hearing distance, to the nature preserve office.  There a sweet, stylish little Vietnamese woman helped us figure out what hike we could do with our limited amount of time, provided us with a pretty useless map (all maps are pretty useless to me, but my companions confirmed that this one was in fact, truly useless) and sent us on our way.

After a considerable amount of searching, and one false alarm, we finally located the pink house that indicated the start of the trail.  You can bet that this pink house was not properly marked on said useless map.   As we headed up, it quickly became a pretty steep hike and we were sweaty (okay sweatier) and breathless in no time- my body rebelling at the first legitimate physical activity in days.

(Pictured here, upon our return, Marissa and I enjoy a birdbath facial, directly under the air conditioner while we wait to be sure we don't have heat exhaustion.)

It was nice to be in the jungle and enjoy the quiet for a bit, but we didn't get too far due to some time constraints that arose from the multiple times we had to stop and examine the map.  If we had it to do over again we probably would have tried to hike the day we got here and do the trail that led to a scenic vista & snorkeling lagoon.  Maybe next time Con Dao.

Back on the main road, we stopped at a little house that was selling cookies, chips, etc  and bought some pandan pirouettes that, while delicious, were really just a way to get in the house so we could use the phone and get our cab driver to come and pick our sweaty asses up there instead of back at the national park office.   I'm still not entirely sure how we managed to convey this to both the owner and the cab driver and it actually happened but the owner was very hospitable and invited us (still via charades) to sit and watch a Japanese movie, dubbed in Vietnamese, with him and engage in some more pantomimed conversation while we waited.

We ended up being a little late leaving for the airport and I actually thought that we wouldn't get there at all because I was pretty sure they were going to find my body by the side of the road after being ejected from the seat-belt-less van going 90 miles an hour along hairpin turns.  But we made it one piece, making up for lost time & then some, and had a quick flight back to Ho Chi Minh.

Back in the city we checked in to the Empress Hotel, which wasn't anything terribly notable; it's claim to fame was being awarded something by Trip 1998.  We dropped our stuff and headed back to our favorite market for some more wandering around.

This time we were prepared for the early dining hours of Ho Chi Minh and after some pre-dinner drinks at a pretty posh Thai restaurant (which we knew was posh because they brought us actual cloth napkins for us to wipe ourselves down with- aka the birdbath) we made our way over to Huong Lai- the restaurant that Nattie and I had tried to dine at on my birthday.  This place was great, it has open air loft seating and not only is the space beautiful, the concept is as well.  All the employees of the restaurant are disadvantaged youth, who are training to work in the service industry so they will have a way of supporting themselves.  We did a prix fix and all of our dishes were great- with the exception of my dessert, but that is my own fault for choosing some sort of strange red bean pudding because it sounded the most exotic.  Exotic it was, tasty it wasn't.

The dessert fail turned out just as well because that meant I had room for one of these adorable little cupcakes from a shop that we passed by on our way to the Hoa Vien Brauhouse- that's right, we went to a German beer garden in Vietnam.  And I ate a cupcake of unknown ethnic background inside of it.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Con Dao Island

Since our air conditioner was on the arctic tundra setting all night every one was up early and ready to go.  We went for a Monday brunch at one of the local roadside restaurants.  We were having a bit of trouble conveying what we wanted when Tony, the owner of Rainbow Divers- the company we planned to do our scuba diving with later in the day- rocked up and came to our rescue.  He even let Heggie jump on the back of his moto and took her to the market to grab some fruit when the restaurant didn't have any.

Afterwards we strolled around the town admiring all the beautiful little houses, walked the road above the shoreline and toured the area where the prisons used to be- up until a few years ago the island was strictly a military base and no visitors were allowed.  Things are changing very rapidly there, with plans to build a new harbor, so in a few more years it will probably be unrecognizable as the quiet little place that we visited.

Pretty soon it was time to head to the dock to meet our scuba instructors from Rainbow Divers.  I was super excited about this because there had been a bit of a debacle with my scuba certification training before I left and I had not been able to do any open water dives & when I emailed to see if I could do 2 of the 4 needed in Con Dao they initially said no.  But it all worked out and it was such an amazing experience to be swimming along the ocean floor, looking at all these fish and coral- and breathing!  It's mind blowing that something like that is even possible, let alone accessible to me.  We did one dive and took a break for fruit and sun back on the boat.  Then we did a second dive where I had to do a bunch of skills in the beginning so he could sign off on them in my logbook & then did some more exploring.

At the end of the dive they let us take turns jumping off the top of the boat and into the water which was pretty awesome as well.  When it was time to head back, we climbed up to the top and watched the sunset from the deck chairs as we sailed back to shore.

Back at the hotel, where we now had two rooms (one of them still with the makeshift California King) we got cleaned up for dinner.  Tara, Marissa, and I were in hot pursuit of some Pho so we walked up the street a bit and checked out a couple local restaurants.  Either what we were saying was unrecognizable in Vietnamese, or they don't get down with Pho on this island because no matter how we pronounced it or how hard we looked for it on the menu, it remained elusive and the language barrier prevented us from discovering what the deal was.  So we settled for some more pan fried noodles & vegetables and morning glory, which tho not Pho, was still pretty satisfying.

After that there wasn't much else to do but head for bed, as nightlife is pretty lacking here, which actually works out for the best since we're trying to get up early and do a hike tomorrow morning before we fly out.