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.

IMG_20190124_092051_221.jpg

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.

IMG_20190122_111136_828.jpg

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?

IMG-20190122-WA0003

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.

IMG-20190124-WA0007

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.

IMG_20190125_200359_793

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.

IMG-20190126-WA0025.jpg

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.

IMG-20190126-WA0016

IMG-20190126-WA0020

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.

20190128_140314.jpg

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.

IMG_20190128_171628_098.jpg

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.

IMG-20190120-WA0003

Veni, vidi, vici, I suppose.

IMG-20190126-WA0006

Processing Loss

When I last left this space, I had expected that my next post would be about our trip to Germany to see the Christmas markets.  I had planned to write about sparkling Christmas lights, stalls of decorations, beautiful mugs of hot wine, and enough Christmas spirit to last a lifetime.  I did indeed go to Germany, but what happened next was not a part of my plans and this post is one that I never wanted to have to write.

Just a few short hours after arriving in Germany, I got a call from my dad.  My grandpa had passed away unexpectedly.

I left Germany the next day, made arrangements to take off work, and flew home as quickly as I could, broken-hearted.

My grandpa was one of the kindest, most generous, and hardest working people I have ever known.  Even as a child, I was always in awe of the way he would help those in need – even total strangers – without a second thought.  He was always lending people tools and going over to help friends and relatives fix their cars and houses (he was a brilliant handyman).  He was also incredibly thoughtful and fun to be around. My sister and I spent a lot of time with him as kids – especially in the summers when we would stay with our dad. He retired young, so he was always willing to watch us while my dad was at work. Some of my favorite childhood memories come from that time.

I will never forget scary movie marathons, watching TNT early in the morning, making crazy milkshakes, or driving the riding lawnmower. I will also never forget learning about collecting coins, trips to the Kansas State Fair, and all of the amazing things my grandpa built – especially the giant Jenga he made for my wedding day.

My heart breaks for everyone who knew him because of the wonderful person he was – his absence will be felt by so many. These last couple of weeks have been so strange and so hard.

I thought that going back home would give me some peace and some closure, but even there, it didn’t seem real. I kept expecting to hear him burst through the back door after some work in one of his shops or to hear him laughing in the living room after a refill of iced tea. It just doesn’t seem possible that he is gone.

Perhaps this is a testament to his ability to leave an impression on everyone he met. Perhaps his presence still shines in the love that everyone had for him.

This is going to be a tough time for my family. Peace to all those who are grieving this holiday season.

The Sri Lankan Jungle: Habarana, Sigiriya, and Dambulla

DSC_0054.JPG

After a brief night in Colombo, we started our Sri Lankan adventure with a 6 hour bus ride on a packed bus (without air conditioning!) to the tiny city of Habarana.  I was immediately taken aback by how lush and green everything around us was, mostly due to the plentiful rain.

DSC_0007.JPG

Exhausted and starving, we immediately asked where we could find food and the hotel owner whipped up a delicious plate of fried rice (with spicy chicken gravy!) and brought us a couple of Sri Lankan Lion beers.  As fate would have it, a Slovakian guy who was also starving joined us at the table, and after chatting over drinks for a few hours, we decided to travel together the following day.

dsc_0002

Habarana is small, but is a very convenient location for several of Sri Lanka’s highlights. There are a ton of day trips that can be done from that area, and out of all the places we traveled to in Sri Lanka, this is where I wish we had budgeted more time.

dsc_0047

One thing that blew me away was how cheap it is to hire a driver for a whole day.  The three of us split a “tuk tuk”- a tiny, three-wheeled vehicle- for less than $10 each.  Our first stop was Sigiriya.

dsc_0091

The crowds were a little crazy, but since we weren’t traveling with a tour group, we blew through the mobs pretty quickly.  The view was incredible, surrounded by jungle, mist, and tons of tiny monkeys.

dsc_0038

It took about an hour to reach the top – and we got there just in time.  Just as we started our descent, we were pelted with a torrential downpour, which somehow blew horizontally and destroyed our umbrella.  I’m normally not a big fan of rain, but it actually made the view even more spectacular, cascading off of the rock into tiny waterfalls.

dsc_0040

When we finally made it back to our tuk tuk soaking wet, it was about time for lunch.  We stopped a little diner and discovered Sri Lankan cutlets; spicy, deep-fried balls of tuna and potato.  I’m going to have to attempt to recreate them in Turkey.  They are delicious.

dsc_0051

Next on our agenda was the Dambulla Temple.  As we climbed up towards the caves, we were once again greeted with the sight of little monkeys scampering along the path.  There were also vendors selling fresh, ripe mangoes spiced with chili pepper…a snack I could not resist.  I had forgotten how much I love mangoes.

DSC_0055.JPG

 We finally made it to the entrance, where we dropped off our shoes so we could go into the temple.  I was stunned by how beautiful it was.  The temple – built into the side of a cave circa 4th Century AD- was incredibly intricate.  The ceilings and walls were covered with detailed paintings and the walls were lined with countless golden Buddhas.  Of all the churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples I have visited, this one certainly stands out.

dsc_0071

dsc_0067

After a good hour of exploring, we decided to go out for a cup of coffee before saying goodbye to our fellow traveler.  On the way home, our tuk tuk driver pulled over to get us some fresh grilled corn…a perfect end to a perfect day, in spite of (and perhaps even because of) the rain.

dsc_0076

 

Go Places

IMG-20161121-WA0001[1].jpg

Yes, a heart should always go one step too far,

FOT3466

Come the morning and the day winding like dreams,

dsc_0050

Come the morning every blue shade of green,

DSC_0142

Come with me,

dsc_0169

Go places.

**from Go Places by The New Pornographers.  This song has been stuck in my head on repeat this week.  Go give it a listen if you haven’t.

I’m feeling sappy and lucky today to have been so many places with the one I love.  I’m excited to see where we’ll end up next.

 

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

DSC_0231.JPG

Yes, I know it’s a bit early, but here at the school we always celebrate Halloween on the closest Friday, so here we are.  This year was ten times better than last year, mainly because I actually knew what I was doing this time around.

DSC_0236.JPG

We started off by decorating the main part of the school and doing some good, old-fashioned pumpkin carving.  None of them had ever done it before, so it was a doubly fun experience!  I loved how delightfully creepy these pazar pumpkins were!  It totally added to the atmosphere.  I think my favorite part was the look of pure disgust on all of the students’ faces when I demonstrated how to rip the pumpkin “guts” out from the hole in top with their bare hands.  So much fun!

DSC_0239.JPG

After lots of decorating, carving, scary movies, spooky games, and photo ops, it was time for the trick-or-treating!  This year, we decided to make huge batches of hot chocolate with heart-shaped marshmallows (a.k.a the hearts of students who don’t do their homework) instead of candy. It was quite the undertaking, but totally worth it.  Our kitchen looked like Victor Frankenstein’s lab by the end.

DSC_0218.JPG

After loading up on sugar, we had a costume contest and it didn’t disappoint.  We have a lot of theatrical and creative students, so many of them had a performance in addition to their immaculate costume.  It’s always hard to choose the winners.

DSC_0220.JPG

I stepped up my own costume game this year, which was much needed to keep my energy up to entertain 200-something teenagers all day!

dsc_0227

Happy Halloween, everybody!

 

 

This is Halloween

DSC_0105[1].JPG

A spooky full moon on a night of decorating

IMG-20161016-WA0002.jpeg

Crafted from After Eight wrappers

img-20161016-wa0006

IMG-20161016-WA0008.jpeg

Oops.

dsc_0109

DSC_0108.JPG

I was a holiday spirited homebody this weekend.  I was too overwhelmed at this point last year to appreciate the season, but now that I’m a little more put together, I realize how important it is for me to celebrate this time of year.  Back in the States,  Halloween was basically  a month long for me.  While I can’t celebrate on the same scale I did before, I’m determined to do as much as I can.  A weekend full of DIY decorations and some Tim Burton movies was a pretty good start.  It takes a little extra effort as an expat to make a new place feel like home, but it’s so worth it. .

Istanbul Coffee Festival

DSC_0047.JPG

Anyone who knows me well knows of my love for coffee…especially good coffee.  My husband and I were just casually looking around for things to do over the weekend and when the Istanbul Coffee Festival came under our radar, it was a no-brainer.

DSC_0053.JPG

The Istanbul Coffee Festival, otherwise known as paradise, is an annual event that brings together all things coffee.  There were TONS of local coffee shop owners, as well as several international coffee brands.  There were also many workshops, snack vendors, and fun activities at the event.  Obviously, the best part was the coffee.  I did my best to visit every stand to taste what they had to offer, determined to find a few favorites to take home with me.

DSC_0054.JPG

DSC_0058.JPG

DSC_0045.JPG

DSC_0050.JPG

It can be hard to escape the usual Turkish coffee in Turkey, but Istanbul has a fairly vibrant coffee culture if you’re willing to seek it out.  There were several great vendors who were offering fabulous filtered coffee, from pour-over to drip to cold brew.  You name it, they had it!

DSC_0059.JPG

After four hours of non-stop complimentary coffee samples, I don’t even want to talk about how caffeinated I was.  If not for the lingering cold, I doubt I even would have slept. It was totally worth it though, because not only did we get to drink amazing coffee all day, but we also discovered plenty of new coffee hangouts in Istanbul for future weekends.

DSC_0071.JPG

We left with some pretty good loot.  We got some delicious new coffee beans, some tasty granola, and a new coffee grinder (so we don’t have to rely on our food processor all the time.)  We also got some cool t-shirts and a tote bag.

DSC_0075.JPG

Pretty much all of the coffee we had was good, but my personal favorite was Deal.  Their Burundi beans were fabulous and you can order them online, so if you’re looking for some great filtered coffee in Turkey, check it out!

DSC_0039.JPG

I’m feeling much more prepared for the colder days ahead.  I will definitely be back at the festival next year!