Egypt: desert, sea, and…frequent frustration

IMG_20190126_202502_195I’m sitting down to write this and I honestly still don’t know how to describe how I feel about Egypt.  Did I hate it?  No…but I didn’t love it either and I so desperately wanted to.  Ever since I was a little girl, I was fascinated with the wonders of Ancient Egypt:  heiroglyphics, the pyramids, papyrus, and the Rosetta Stone.  The thought of finally seeing it all for myself was thrilling and dizzying.  If only the reality had lived up to the expectations.

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We started our journey in Hurghada, a beach town known for its amazing coral reefs in the Red Sea.  Flights between Hurghada and Istanbul are cheap and the thought of some sunshine was welcome.  We booked a resort (which is pretty much your only good option in Hurghada) and prepared ourselves for a relaxing few days by the beach for the start of our trip.  If only.

IMG-20190120-WA0001Our first couple of days in Hurghada were alright.  The weather was great, the water was beautiful, and our room was comfortable enough.  On the other hand, the internet was non-existent, even if you paid a little extra for faster connection.  The food ranged from inedible to mediocre.  Attempting to lounge on a sunbed (which was the whole reason we wanted to go to Hurghada) felt less like a leisure activity and more like a game of whack-a-mole, as a whole slew of salesmen crowded along what was supposed to be a private beach trying to sell you tours.  At first, I just tossed on my sunglasses and pretended to be sleeping so they would leave me alone, but many of them still continued to loom over me and scream at me in various languages until I told them to piss off.  Not exactly a relaxing experience.  But these were the least of our problems in Hurghada.

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After a couple of days of attempting to relax in the sunshine, we decided to book a short day trip from one of the hotel’s on-site tour operators – a quad bike tour of the Sahara Desert.  Sounds awesome, right?

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In the beginning, it really was.  It was exhilarating to speed through the sand dunes under the sun with great views of the desert mountains.  I thought I had finally found the vacation I was looking for.  This quickly turned sour at the halfway point (about 40 km in) of the tour when we were guided to a small Bedouin village for a camel ride and tea and shisha.  The camel ride was essentially a one-minute walk in a circle, hardly worth the effort of mounting and dismounting.  We spent about ten minutes actually enjoying the tea before they quickly rushed us away to try to sell us random souvenirs and natural medicines.  By the time we finished, the sun was starting to set, meaning we had 40 km to go….in the dark.  As it turns out, my quad bike had no tail lights and my husband’s had no headlights.  When we pointed this out to the tour operator, he just laughed and said “yeah, that’s not a good bike to choose for nighttime,” as if he hadn’t been the one to assign us bikes.  We were terrified the whole time.  We could barely follow the guide and had no way to see if we were going to hit any rocks or bumps.  It was terrifying and frankly dangerous.  Strike two for Egypt.

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This was okay though…because I had an awesome tour planned for the following day that I had booked a month in advance and it had great reviews on TripAdvisor.  The thing I wanted to see most in Egypt (aside from the Pyramids, of course) was the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Karnak.  As misfortune would have it, I got an email that night that our tour had been canceled due to safety issues and we could decide whether or not we wanted to schedule a different day.  Exhausted and frustrated, we decided to sleep on it and see if we could work something out.  4 A.M. rolls around – we get a call from the front desk.

“Your bus is waiting for you.”

Confused, we asked to speak with the tour operator.  We explained that we had been told the trip was canceled due to safety reasons.  He said we were mistaken – there were no safety issues.  The problem was that we had been the only English speakers to sign up for that day and it would be more convenient to move us to another date, but we could join a non-English tour if we desired.

I. Was. Livid.  First of all, I had booked a month in advance!  Secondly, I had just been lied to about safety, all so they could save a few bucks!  I told them not to bother and that I had no interest dealing with their sleazy tour company anymore and that I expected a full refund.  They said I would have to cancel through the website (again, a lie), so I’m still dealing with that mess as I write this.

At that point, I was so furious and hated Egypt so much I just wanted to turn around and go home.  But…the Pyramids.

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I hoped with all my heart that Cairo would turn things around for me.  For the most part, it did.  We stayed in Giza in a room with a view of the Pyramids and that managed to cheer us both up a bit.  Better yet, the food at that hotel was much better than the garbage we had encountered in Hurghada.  Nobody harassed me or tried to sell me anything.  Finally, some peace.

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We booked a private tour of the Great Pyramids through our hotel, which turned out to be the best experience of the whole trip.  Our tour guide was awesome, professional, and made our visit to the Pyramids a great experience.  This, I can recommend.  If you don’t go with a tour guide, expect to spend a long time in line and to be hassled frequently.

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As our time in Egypt came to an end, I felt apprehensive about leaving Cairo.  We were flying out of Sharm el Sheikh – another beach town- and I didn’t want to suffer through Hurghada all over again.

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Thankfully, the resort in Sharm was vastly more professional than the one in Hurghada, and we could indeed enjoy time on the white sand beach undisturbed.  On the downside, my husband did get food poisoning there, but managed to recover quickly enough to make our flight home.  Also, a guy selling trinkets at the airport tried to pretend I hadn’t already paid him when I tried to buy a bracelet on the way out.  Not cool.

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So is Egypt worth it?  I can’t say I regret having gone. I’m very glad I saw the Pyramids – that was truly an awesome experience.  On the other hand, I was so disappointed in the the way I was treated pretty much the whole time everywhere else.  It is disheartening because I know Egypt desperately needs tourists to help boost their economy, but in this regard, I must say they are not doing themselves any favors.

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Veni, vidi, vici, I suppose.

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La Bella Vita in Rome

IMG_5368Italy has a way of pulling us back over and over again.  When we saw cheap tickets to Rome for New Year’s, we didn’t even hesitate.

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This happened in spite of the fact that many people I know do not care for Rome, for one reason or another.  I’m glad I went anyway because my husband and I had a great time admiring the grandiose architecture, eating delicious food, and strolling the narrow cobblestone alleys that were still decorated for Christmas.

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We stayed in a lovely guesthouse right in the center of the city from which were able to walk to every major site on our itinerary.  We didn’t book the trip far enough in advance to get tickets to the Colosseum or the Vatican, but to be honest, I don’t think it would have been pleasant cramming our way through the crowds.  Instead, we chose to enjoy those landmarks from a distance.

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One of the highlights for us was stopping at a cafe after walking through the old city and sipping on glasses of Prosecco while we listened to a Reggae band busking with a very hip older gentleman as their backup dancer.

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Another highlight was climbing up the Spanish Steps just in time to watch the sun set over the Roman skyline.  The weather was seriously gorgeous.

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My favorite travel companion.

I am so glad we got to experience one last taste of a European Christmas (and of Italy!).  This time next year, we will be spending our winter holiday in the States for the first time in five years!

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We are moving…

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Photo from Wikimedia

…to Chongqing, China!

After a few months of intense job hunting, we found a school that seems like a great fit for us for next year and were offered the jobs a few days before Christmas.  It still feels pretty surreal.

I am already daydreaming about misty green mountains, spicy hot pot, breathtaking temples, and cuddly pandas.

We are super excited to explore Asia, take another step in our careers, and immerse ourselves in a brand new culture.  We are also soaking up our last six months here in Turkey before taking off on this next crazy adventure.

Bring it on, 2019!

A Magical Christmas in Mardin – the edge of Mesopotamia

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At the edge of Southeastern Turkey lies an oasis of diversity and culture, smack-dab in the middle of where many of the oldest cities and civilizations first began.  Hardly anyone outside of Turkey seems to know that this gem even exists – and even those who do are wary of visiting because it is only about 20 miles from the Syrian border.  Let me assure you – Mardin is perfectly safe, full of some of the kindest people I have ever encountered, and stunningly beautiful.

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The architecture of Mardin is very unique.  There is a mix of several Middle Eastern influences as well as a local flair for building everything out of sandstone, which is abundant in the area.  The yellowish-brown structures look all the more stunning contrasted against the bright blue skies.

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Every part of the city offers a different perspective of its own beauty, like a strange sort of kaleidoscope.  The locals know how to take advantage of this with its many rooftop cafes and restaurants and shops in the old tunnels below.

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On the subject of food and coffee, Mardin has both in spades.  Mardin is a true melting pot for all kinds of cultures and ethnic groups, with particularly large groups of Kurdish and Assyrian people.  The people of Mardin are truly proud of their diversity and love to share their local specialties that have been preserved over thousands of years.  There are several Assyrian restaurants which serve delicious mezzes and wine (some of the finest I have ever tasted in Turkey), cafes serving Arabic-style mırra coffee, and all kinds of regional dishes that have developed through the cultural exchange that has taken place in Mardin over the centuries.

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Mardin proper has much to offer any traveler, but there are also many fascinating smaller towns and villages nearby worth a day trip.  Because Mardin is a little off the beaten path, it can be difficult to find an organized tour.  Since I am able to speak Turkish fairly well these days, I managed to negotiate a private tour with a cab driver for a good price.  He took us to Midyat and Hasankeyf, both well worth the visit.

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Hasankeyf, right on the banks of the Tigris River, is considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world; it is over 10,000 years old.  Due to its vulnerable position near many borders and along the Silk Road, Hasankeyf has changed hands among many different civilizations throughout history.  Sadly, due to the development of a hydroelectric dam, it may not be around much longer.

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Historically, the area of Hasankeyf has been valued for its caves, where people have been living for several millennia.  People still live in the caves of Hasankeyf today, with a few modern amenities (note the windows and the power lines).

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Efforts to remove some of the historic architecture to preserve it are under way.

Midyat looks much like Mardin, but with one key difference: the population is mostly Christian rather than Muslim (unusual for Turkey) and is home to many ancient and beautiful monasteries that are still active today.

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I was truly blown away by Mardin.  I have no idea how it took me four years to get there.  Very few tourists from outside of Turkey even know about it – but they should!  The architecture is stunning and one-of-a-kind, the people are some of the friendliest I have ever encountered, the food and wine are amazing, and there is just so much history and culture here to discover.  I hope to see more people adding Mardin (and Turkey!) to their bucket lists in 2019.

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2018

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January

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February

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March

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April

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May

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June

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July

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August

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September

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October

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November

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December

As 2018 comes to an end, it feels good to look back on all of the beautiful things I have experienced this year.  2018 has been difficult, but transformative.  Big changes lie ahead!

 

Chernobyl

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Haunting, fascinating, and a testament to the very worst of mankind.  Where to even begin with Chernobyl…

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“Long live Communism – savior of humankind.”

I saw Chernobyl as another iteration of a dark monomyth – as Icarus and Prometheus and Pandora’s box.  We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes.  I want to believe that we can be better, but that’s pretty difficult to do while surrounded by the wreckage of what used to be innocent lives, needlessly sacrificed for the latest political agenda.  Just read the news.  It often seems like we haven’t learned a thing.

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I hope very much that I am wrong.

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Kyiv

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Gold-domed churches, pastel colors, a thriving art scene, autumn leaves, and any kind of food you can imagine – these are only a few things to love about Kyiv.

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It has been pretty warm in Turkey, so we were ready for a little cold weather.  The pastel buildings and bright-colored leaves were a welcome sight – we even got some snow!  Fall and winter in one trip.

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To be honest, we didn’t plan much (aside from our Chernobyl trip, which I’ll save for another day).   We were content to walk around the city and play things by ear.  We are in the process of interviewing for jobs for our next big move and I am also taking Master’s courses this year, so we needed the flexibility.

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The architecture was unlike anything we had seen before – particularly the churches.  We spent a whole day walking around the cathedrals.

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1900 – great coffee!

My favorite day, however, was the day we spent doing nothing but walking around the city in search of the best food, coffee, and bars!  We started at about 9 a.m. and didn’t get back to our hotel (very full) until midnight.

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A personal fave was Nikolay’s pies!  These homemade pies were the perfect comfort food on a cold day and they had both sweet and savory pies.  A must-try if you are in the area.

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We also sampled several chocolates (and grabbed a few for the road) at Lviv’s handmade chocolates.  The coffee and sea salt dark chocolate bar is to die for.

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We also found a cool gastro pub called Dogs and Tails where they serve fancy hot dogs, fries, onion rings, and any cocktail you can imagine.  Pictured here is the Kiev with pickled cabbage, avocado, and a sweet and tangy sauce.  The homemade ketchup was bomb.

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We rounded out the night at a cool witch-themed bar which might have been the coolest bar I’ve ever seen.  The drink you get is determined by the cards you draw.  Our cards represented the element of fire, meaning big changes are ahead for us..

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As if the cool architecture and great food scene aren’t enough, quirky Kyiv is also extremely budget-friendly.  Seriously, it’s crazy cheap, yet it rivals almost any other European city I have visited.  If you haven’t been, it’s time to add it to the list.

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