Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Study Of Labor

While in Sakkara Egypt last week, I watched some workers making repairs to the oldest pyramid in that country. To be honest, it looked as though the whole scene was designed to appeal to tourists because of the methods they were using. It made me think of a contrasting scene that I observed in Mt. Aso Japan in late December.

Here's what I saw in Egypt:

It's kinda' hard to tell in the small photo but if you click on it to get the full-sized one you'll see a guy pulling a rope tied to a wheel barrow being pushed by a second guy. Like I said, it was like they designed and ran the construction site to be as historically accurate as it would have been when they first built the pyramid.

Contrast this to the scene from Japan:

Here, a guy is digging a two-foot-deep trench with a miniature backhoe. In the first, they're rebuilding a huge pyramid built out of giant stones and in the second, the guy's moving less dirt than if you planted a tree. Well, I guess that's what you get when labor costs about 7.5 times more in Japan than it does in Egypt (according to the World Bank). Either way, both pictures are kinda' fun.

Monday, January 25, 2010


While in Israel, I had the opportunity to try Nana, which is simply black tea with fresh mint. Wow it's good. What's even more interesting is, on a recommendation, I tried it without the tea bag and absolutely loved it. Yes, it's just hot water and fresh mint but OMG I like it. Aren't the best things the simplest? Nana now gives me another use for fresh mint besides mojitos.

Here's a photo although you can probably picture it on your own:

Saturday, January 23, 2010


I had an unfortunate encounter with one of those wrong-way-tear-up-your-tire-spike strips in Istanbul. You know the things that are at the exits of parking lots and will shred your tires if you drive over them the wrong way? Well, this one was in the middle of a pedestrian walkway... This is what I mean:

It was pouring rain and dark outside and I was trying to go very fast and didn't see it. I slammed hard ripping up my palms, bruising both knees, and ended up very dirty and soaked. Fortunately, I was less than a block from the hotel so I limped back and spent about 20 minutes pulling gravel out of my hands with tweezers. Fun! My knees really hurt today when I bend my legs and here's my left hand (both look roughly the same) about 24 hours later:

Friday, January 22, 2010

Rain, Rain Go Away

I left Egypt early this morning and flew up to Istanbul. The weather up here is blustery! It's rainy and cold with more on the way. They're even predicting some snow showers at night.

I had a first today where there was a wind gust so strong on the approach (just above the runway) that the airplane wings went up and down fairly violently causing the pilot to abort the landing and pull up. There was no announcement of what happened or what was going to happen and you could feel the tension in the cabin. We went around and made the approach again much faster than a "normal" approach and everything went well. The pilot definitely was hitting the brakes hard when we landed. I'd say 90% of the passengers clapped or cheered when the plane came to a stop.

The area of Istanbul I am staying in is called Beyoglu (near Taksim Square) in the European side of town, which is the center of the "new" Istanbul as opposed to the Sultanahmet area where most of the historical sites are. I went for a walk a little earlier to get some lunch and got SOAKED! At least the lunch was worth it. Time for a quick post and then maybe even a quick nap since I got up so early today. Hopefully it'll let up a little bit in time to do some walking and picture taking tonight.

Tomorrow I'll be visiting a few of the historical sights via the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus that goes throughout the town. Wish me luck!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Learning How To Cross The Street: Cairo Style

Wow! Today was another great day! Not only were the compliments flying (see below post), I had a super-fun time exploring Cairo.

Today's tour started in Coptic Cairo. This area is slightly outside of downtown and is home to some very early Christian churches, one of the oldest mosques in Africa, a synagogue that was originally a church, along with pieces of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, most of the churches have non-exciting exteriors so there aren't many photos to show. One church we went in has the distinction as being a place where the Jesus/Mary/Joseph family hid out during their time in Egypt. Here's a (crappy) interior photo of the church:

And here's a closer up view of the front of the church. The wood screens have tons of inlaid materials and really are amazing to see up close.

We left Coptic Cairo to go to the Citadel. This hilltop fortress is home to the Muhammad Ali mosque, which my guide assured my was NOT named after the famous boxer of the same name. The most striking features of this mosque are the cool minarets and the iron domes. Here's your favorite white guy outside the mosque:

And an inside shot of the Muhammad Ali; the first mosque I've ever been in:

On the way out of the Citadel complex, I took this photo of a Roman aqueduct. Also, if you saw my pyramids post, the site in this photo is one of the places where they quarried the stones for the pyramids.

We then headed to the Egyptian Museum where they house many of the artifacts that have been found. The two highlights of the museum are the mummified animal and King Tut exhibits. They don't allow photos inside (they make you check your camera in at the door) so here's one outside:

After the museum, it was off to a lunch of lamb. Yum! Not bahhhhhhd at all! :-) My guide humored me by stopping off for some sweets at a local bakery. Yum again! We then headed over to the gigantic outdoor market called Khan al-Khalili. Gigantic probably doesn't do it justice. It spreads over hundreds of downtown blocks and is full, full, full of people. One of the best photos I got in this area is of a guy pushing a cart through the crowd. He's selling baked sweet potatoes, which he cooks in the oven on his cart.

On the way back, my guide "treated" me to a ride on the Cairo subway, which, interestingly enough, is probably the cleanest place in the city. The subway cars are as crowded as Tokyo though. :-0

Thanks Shaimaa (my awesome guide) for teaching me how to really cross the street. I'll never be afraid to play in traffic again!

Where You From? Part 2

Today was spent mostly walking around downtown Cairo. As a follow-up to yesterday's "Where you from?" post, here's what people called me today:

Antonio Banderas (my favorite)
Mel Gibson (not sure about this one)

All in all, I like the people of Cairo. They're good for my ego!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Where You From?

Something that I find really interesting is that every person that comes up to me to try to sell something asks this question. It's like it's the only thing they teach you in tourist-kitsch-sales school.

The really funny thing is that, in a week-and-a-half of Israel and Egypt, not one person has asked me if I am an American. I'd say that 80% think I'm from Spain. I'm curious that once I get to Spain if I'll look like a local.

I did have one person in Israel ask me if I was Russian. Contrary to the Spain thing, I actually do have some Russian in my blood.

Hola. Como esta usted?

Walk Like An Egyptian

Today was a cool day.

I was picked up this morning at 830am by my guide and a driver. We pulled out into the crazy traffic headed to the Giza plateau, home of three of the world-famous pyramids. Here's a shot of the three pyramids from the freeway through some new Cairo suburbs:

Pulling up to the pyramids themselves was surprising because they were smaller than I expected. Now that's not to say they're small but rather, in my mind, they were super-giant and they could never be that big. They are very big and very impressive though especially if you consider their age. Here's a shot that I think shows their relative size. Note the camel (purely a tourist thing) and the cars next to the largest of the three pyramids.

The stones that were used to construct these things are massive. According to my guide, they were quarried near to downtown Cairo and brought here. That's impressive as it took us a like an hour to drive there. Here's a close up of one corner from a distance of about 50 feet:

After walking around the pyramids, we went over to see the Sphinx, which is just in front of the middle pyramid. Once again, it was smaller than I expected but not small. As you can see from photos, the face is pretty beaten up and they're restoring the bottom right now. The Sphinx is quite a sight to see in person.

On the way out of the complex we snapped a couple of "overview" photos. This was the best one:

From here we headed down to Memphis to see some statues. Memphis used to be an important place but most of the construction at the time was clay brick and is pretty much all gone. There are two cool things at this area. First is the second largest sphinx in Egypt, which is quite small. This is what the "big" sphinx would have looked like if it still had a nose, etc.

The other cool item is a large, one-piece-of-stone statue of Ramesses II:

We then went on to Sakkara, home of the the oldest know Egyptian pyramid. This one is a stepped design and isn't as impressive as the Giza pyramids. What makes this site extra special though is that you can go inside one of the pyramids and see some amazing hieroglyphics. Here's a shot of the stepped pyramid. If you look to the far right of the photo, you'll see what looks like a small pile of sand off in the distance. This is the pyramid you can go in to see the hieroglyphics.

Here's a shot next to a "doorway" for the spirits:

And, finally, a real close up of some hieroglyphics. I have to say that it's really neat to be able to get this close and actually touch something this old.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Walking The (New Testament) Bible

Monday was spent walking around a rainy old city of Jerusalem. My mom would have been proud that I remembered some of the bible references that my guide showed me. As a friend named Gil pointed out on facebook, this was the tour of the new testament (with a Catholic bias for my benefit). Warning: today's story has tons-o-photos!

We started out on foot from the Montefiore Hotel where I was staying with a quick stop at the local coffee shop Aroma for some go-go juice. Yum; lattes in the rain. The first site we visited was the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. You'd recognize this building as the one with the big gold (yes, it's real gold) dome on it. This was the location of the temple that was around 2000 years ago.

One of the interesting things about the Dome of the Rock is how the bottom half of is (supposedly) constructed of found building materials. Here's a close up of one of the walls. At the bottom center you can see a carved scrolling-type pattern that might have been part of temple or something.

From here we set out to follow the Via Dolorosa, aka stations of the cross. Here's the overview map I found on the side of one of the buildings:

Some of the station sites looked like this one; just a plaque on a wall and not much else. I'll skip the others that look like this one.

Station 9 had a cross available for photo opportunities I think. This one honestly confused me:

From here, we moved into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The next photo is me at the site where Jesus was nailed to the cross.

Here I am touching the rock where the cross was erected:

And finally, in front of the burial site of Jesus (note that it's inside a small building inside the church):

The church, as you can imagine, is important to lots of people; people with lots of different points of view. My guide told me that they have a book of ground rules to cover every detail of building maintenance, times of day when ceremonies can take place, and so on. Once outside though, he pointed out something that isn't covered. This photo shows a small ladder that has been in place since the 1800s (it's in some of the first photos of the church) and no one knows where it came from and no one knows what should be done with it. I think this is a bit of humor in an otherwise serious place.

After the visit to the Church, we went to a few other sites that I don't have good photos for. On the way back to the hotel we came across this spot that shows some bullet-hole evidence of one battle this wall has seen:

Here's a shot of me on a roof top across from the Wailing Wall with the Dome of the Rock in the background. This is the sort of place you can only get to with a guide since he knew where it was and how to get in (It's on a private building).

Wow. All in all, a great trip to the holy land. If you are religious, it's a must-do trip. If you want my guide's name, send me an email and I'll get you his information.

I'm writing this from Cairo as I left Israel very early today. Let me just say that Cairo is CRAZY!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Bible Sites Around Jerusalem

After getting back from the desert, I got a tour of some religious sites outside the old city of Jerusalem. Here's a view from the Mount of Olives of Kidron Valley (with the old city in the background) where judgment day will take place:

This is a shot of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where it is believed that Jesus was buried) also taken from the Mount of Olives:

Here I am in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus spent his last night:

Tomorrow, we'll be walking through the old city of Jerusalem. I'm really looking forward to it. Hopefully the rain will hold off...

Masada, the Dead Sea, and Dead Sea Scrolls

I spent today outside of Jerusalem with a professional tour guide visiting Masada, some sights near the dead sea, and a couple of spots near Jerusalem. Here's the desert part of the tour...

My guide Dani picked me up at the hotel at 830 and we drove about an hour or so out to the desert site of Masada. He usually leads large groups so today was a relatively easy day for him I hope. Here's a picture of Masada from the road coming in:

If you remember your history and religion classes, what we now consider Masada was built by the oh-so-pleasant King Herod (the guy who had John the Baptist's head cut off) as his middle-age Ferrari of the time. He used it as a winter house and to impress his buds. Everything about it was done to be ostentatious; the fresh-water baths, the saunas, the Roman style, and so on.

The darker side of Masada was the battle fought between the locals and the Roman Empire back in the first century. As the siege took its toll and it became obvious that they would lose, the townspeople decided it would be better to die than surrender and ended up killing themselves. Almost no one was found alive once the Romans entered the fortress.

To get to the top, you take a cable car up and you can walk all over the top of the mountain. It's a very impressive place. Here's a photo of some of the store rooms with the Dead Sea in the back to the left:

We then drove over to a Dead Sea public swimming beach. The sea is about 1000 feet below sea level. The blue-green color of the water was amazing as was the build up of salt along the shore. From what I was told, it is something like 15-times more salty than the ocean. For the record, here's a photo of me in front of the Dead Sea (no, I didn't swim):

Our next stop was the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The Rosetta-Stone of religions were hidden in various caves around the area. Here's one of the caves:

It was warm and very, very, very, very, very dry out there. After washing your hands, you don't need to dry them because you can really feel and watch the water evaporate off your skin. I ended up drinking almost two liters of water in about 5 hours. Amazing.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Rosh Hanikra

On Friday we drove up to the northern border of Israel. At the spot where Israel, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean sea meet, there's a park call Rosh Hanikra. This park has a cable car (the steepest in the world according to the brochure) that allows you to descend to sea level and check out railroad tunnels that were built along the shore by the British in the early 1940s. This is the view on the way down:

On this site, there are also a number of sea caves that you can walk into and watch the waves break inside them. The day we visited had very big waves so some of the viewing areas were closed. Here's the inside of one of them:

Finally, there's a cool rock formation that looks like a large white elephant. Here's some white guy in front of the elephant rock:

Oh yeah, almost's the mandatory stand-on-both-sides-of-the-border photo:

Ashqelon National Park

Ruma, Nicole, and I went to Ashqelon National Park here in Israel on Thursday. It's mostly a beach park with some old ruins mixed throughout.

There are two somewhat-interesting facts about the park that made me include it here. First, it is the site of the oldest arch in the world. It served as the gate to the Canaanite City and was built in 1850 BC (yes...3500 years ago).

Here's me under the semi-restored arch:

The other item of interest is that is the site where, in the bible, Samson "struck down" 30 Philistines and took their clothes to pay 30 companions who had solved a riddle he proposed at his wedding. To me, it seems like killing 30 people for their clothes is overkill but maybe times have changed. Here's the action shot:

Friday, January 15, 2010

Wedding Day

Thursday was wedding day. Most of the day was spent by the family doing prep work with the wedding event starting around 6pm. The actual marriage ceremony took place around 8pm and was preceded by an amazing spread of appetizers (sorry-no photos again...).

Here's a photo of the bride and groom during the ceremony:

There were three things that were different from any other wedding that I have ever been to. First, the actual marriage ceremony was chaotic in that it took place while the "crowd" gathered around (and didn't really stop talking). I think if you blinked, you could have missed it. It was a very nice ceremony though.

Second, the guys here dance with each other...a lot. It's almost a complete role reversal from what you see in the U.S. In the U.S., the girls feel perfectly fine dancing together, holding hands, and so on. Here, it's the guys who dance together. It was nice to see them enjoying themselves so much. To me, the guys enjoy the wedding way more than the girls do. Here's an action shot of the dance floor:

Third, I got a ride back after the ceremony with the bride and groom. Yes, just me and the two of them in the car back to the hotel. Really, it made sense but it was unusual. I just tried to pretend I wasn't in the car...

One other thing that I should mention. The food at this wedding was amazing. Actually, it was almost a religious experience. Thanks to the family for having me at the wedding. I enjoyed it very much.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


I went for a walk along the shore of the Mediterranean yesterday in Ashqelon (south of Tel Aviv) Israel after a nice work out at the gym.

While out and about, I stopped by a little store to buy a soda, some water, and a snack of some kind. What I found was a small happiness in the form of a local-made (non-Nestle) banana-flavored KitKat. There were about five other “flavors” as well but if you know me well, you’d know that I have a slight addiction to fake-banana flavoring.

Here’s a photo showing the KitKat I bought today along side of the wasabi-flavored ones I bought last week at the Narita airport in Tokyo.

Here they are "open":

I have to say that the wasabi ones from Japan blow away the banana ones I bought today. I guess putting wasabi in a sweet is the Japanese equivalent of when you’re in Mexico and you get chili pepper and salt on your fruit salad.

I’m starting to wonder if everywhere in the world has a local-flavored version of a KitKat. Maybe I can add looking for them to search for refrigerator magnets…