Category Archives: Uncategorized

Day 1: Journey To The Other Side Of The World

“Isn’t it dangerous?”

“Why would you go to Egypt now?”

“What about ISIS?”

These are the kinds of comments we received when we originally booked our trip to Egypt late in the summer of 2016. We heard them for months. It was easily a 4-to-1 (if not higher) ratio of people whose immediate reaction was concern for us versus excitement for us when we told them of our plans. When we first saw the deal for the vacation to Egypt, I think we both initially had this reaction ourselves, a 100% emotional response based on nothing but years of only hearing the bad news that comes out of the Middle East.

Courtney and I share many tenets in our philosophy of life, and a couple of them are applicable here. The first is that we refuse to go through our life being afraid, either of the unknown or the unfamiliar. In point of fact, we are quite the opposite, seeking out that which we don’t understand in an effort to learn more about our world. We also refuse to be afraid of “what might happen.” The hard reality of life is that your safety is ultimately an illusion, a result of societal norms that we all agree upon, whether you are in the United States or France or Egypt. All it takes is for one person to break this implicit arrangement, and your life is over. This is not to say that we behave irresponsibly (we researched the security situation of the trip before we left), but we are also not opposed to taking a certain amount of measured risk to gain valuable life experiences.

The second is that we believe that most people are good; they are trying to get through life day by day, in their own way, just like the rest of us. Most people do not hold any ill will toward others just because they come from a different place or have different beliefs. We all just want to live our lives the best that we can. And so after getting over the initial irrational reaction and talking it over, we jumped at the chance and booked the deal.

We were going to Egypt!


 

We did our packing on the morning of our departure. Our flight out of Dulles left on the evening of the 17th of February and would put us in Cairo on the evening of the 18th. In addition to the 20 hours or so of total travel time (including layover in Istanbul), we would be losing seven hours in time zones in our journey east. Our friend Chad dropped us off at the airport, where we met up with our friends Rodney and Shannon, whom we had convinced to join us on our adventure. We checked in for our flight and had a blissfully uneventful trip on Turkish airlines (a fine airline, by the way) to Istanbul and then transferred planes for our flight to Cairo, which was equally smooth.

Upon landing in Cairo and exiting our plane, we were soon greeted by our tour leader from Encounters Travel, Mohammed Khalifa. Since approximately 126% of the male population in Egypt is named Mohammed, he instructed us to just call him Khalifa to avoid confusion. Khalifa is a jovial sort, of standard Egyptian complexion and always smiling. He was dressed in a dark suit with tie and carrying a clipboard, marking off those of us joining his group from our flight, of which there were eight more besides our immediate party.

We collected our luggage from the baggage claim, and Khalifa assisted those in our group in getting visas that didn’t already have them. Our group of four, being exceptional planners, had acquired visas from the Egyptian embassy back in the States several weeks prior to our trip. Once we made it through customs, Khalifa loaded us all onto a van, and we began our journey to our hotel.

It took me mere moments to fall in love with the city of Cairo. It’s like something straight out of Blade Runner, minus the flying cars but with more pyramids. It’s a city of neon lights on ancient buildings. More modern architecture is interspersed randomly amongst the long established constructions. Each minaret on the many mosques is decorated in the same blazing white and green tubes of light, anachronisms in a city that is itself in many ways an anachronism. We made our way from the recent erections of New Cairo toward the old side of the city where the pyramids and our hotel are situated.

The lines demarcating the lanes on the Loop (as Cairo’s beltway is called) are mere decoration. We drove five cars wide on a four lane highway for the majority of our half hour trip to the hotel. Cars weaved freely between the larger vehicles, and pedestrians worked their way between them all as they crossed the highway on foot, a practice that is technically illegal but is a logistical necessity in one of the most densely populated cities (39th) on the planet.

This system would be an absolute disaster in the United States and cause countless deaths; we are far too selfish of a people. And yet, in Egypt it works. No incidents occured on our drive to the hotel, nor did we see the signs of any previous issues. (In fact, we would see no traffic accidents in our entire time in the country.) What appears at first to be complete chaos functions like a well-oiled machine allowing people to get to where they need to go instead of creating permanent gridlock.

We arrived at Le Méridien Pyramids Hotel & Spa, our hotel for our one night in Cairo. The porters unloaded our luggage, and Khalifa got everyone checked in. Our bags were whisked to our rooms, and he wished us a pleasant night’s sleep. It would be an early morning, though we would have many earlier ones in the coming week. Tomorrow we would visit our first ancient tombs, those enormous monoliths jutting into the sky mere meters from our room.

We were asleep in minutes.

Previous Entry: Prologue: What Is Egypt?

Prologue: What Is Egypt?

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It is a country that embraces the landmarks of its past even as it claws itself into the future. It is centuries old edifices bedecked in burning neon tubes. It is guttural conversations in Arabic, where every interaction sounds like an argument to the outside ear. It is a land of hospitality, where inviting foreigners into your home and sharing what you have is the norm. It is a river of life that carved itself into 700,000 square kilometers of desert.

It is Cairo.

It is smoke and spice and smog. It is the organized chaos of driving five vehicles wide on a four lane highway as pedestrians meander their way almost effortlessly between the cars. It is the almost complete absence of stop lights. It is families constructing their homes over ancient tombs in the City of the Dead. It is over nine million people living out their daily lives under the stony watch of the pyramids built by some of their earliest kings.

It is Aswan.

It is a hydroelectric dam over two miles long that created the largest man-made lake in the world. It is the Lotus Tower, commemorating the cooperation of nations in its historic construction. It is the Temple of Isis at Philae, nestled on an island in the middle of the reservoir. It is feluccas criss-crossing their way along the Nile between the city and the Nubian village. It is evening dance parties with complete strangers in the living room next to the crocodile cage.

It is Luxor.

It is the ancient former capital of Thebes and the modern seat of tourism for an entire nation. It is the Avenue of Sphinxes that stretches on for almost two miles. It is the Luxor and Karnak Temples, magnificent in their unearthed splendor. It is the final resting place of kings and queens, of nobles and laborers. It is archaeologists excavating ancient ruins under the faceless gazes of the Colossi of Memnon.

It is cuisine infused with legumes and fruits. It is pita, falafel, and kushari. It is the source of the concentrated flower oils later diluted with alcohol in France to create overpriced perfumes and colognes. It is papyrus scrolls and carved hieroglyphs. It is the coral reefs of the Red Sea teeming with all manner of aquatic life. It is the Suez Canal, gateway between Europe and Asia. It is Alexandria, and Edfu, and Esna.

It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

Next Entry: Day 1: Journey To The Other Side Of The World

RIP Max (2002 – 2016)

I’ll never really understand how Max got his nickname. Or nicknames, for that matter. I think I just inherited my dad’s gift for fitting pet nicknames. He was Max to pretty much everyone, but to me he’ll always be Spud. It never had anything to do with potatoes or weeds or anything like that. I just looked at him one day and noticed that he looked like his name should be “Spud.”

It stuck.

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Spud was a great cat. He was ultra-friendly, always rubbing up against guests’ legs to say hello. He was also my shadow. On days when I worked from home, he was almost never out of sight. He would sleep on his perch in my office or directly on my desk. Sometimes he would decide to sleep in my lap. When I would leave the room, he’d follow. At night, he would sleep on the pillow above Courtney’s head or, if he was feeling snuggly, he’d butt my head so that I would lift up the covers so he could crawl underneath and lay beside me.

Toward the end, when Max’s cancer started to really get to him, he chose the latter more and more frequently. In the last couple of weeks, he would wake me up almost every night around 3:30AM so that he could crawl under the covers and snuggle. One of the things that makes it so hard to have a pet put to sleep is that you feel that you can never really make them understand. I think they do, though, at some level. He had a reason that he was spending more time with me at night. I think they know when the time is coming.

The day we took him to be put to sleep, he spent an hour or so on the nightstand looking out the window. There’s not really much to see this time of year (birds have migrated away and most animals are hibernating or just holed up) so he usually isn’t up there very often during the winter. But that day he just sat there looking outside, taking it all in. I think he knew it was for the last time. Usually if he was awake when I tried to take his picture, he’d move or do something to completely ruin it, especially when he started hearing the shutter. That day he didn’t move at all; he just let me take all the pictures I wanted.

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The only bad thing about Spud is that he could be a bit of a diva. If his litter box wasn’t up to his particular expectations that day, he would pee on the carpet. If he wanted to come into a room, but you wouldn’t let him because you were trying to get something done without him being in the way, he would pee on the carpet. If you left him home for a weekend, you had a 50/50 shot that he would resent you for it and pee on the carpet.

Eventually, we tried to encourage additional litter box use by giving him treats when he did. This created more problems than it solved, I think. Once he learned what was going on, he would come into the office and yell at you after he went to the bathroom until he got treats. Sometimes, if he was feeling particularly sneaky, he would just go into the litter box and move litter around as if he were going to the bathroom, but not actually do anything. Then he would come demand treats. He would also recognize who gave him treats and try to trick the other person. If Courtney would give him treats when I wasn’t around, he would occasionally demand treats of me when I came in the room. He was a crafty little dude.

The thing I did not expect after he was gone (and the part that hit me the hardest) was how empty the bed felt without him. He was just always there, every night, a fuzzy part of the furniture. How something so small left such a massive void was devastating. It was like there was suddenly a black hole where once there was only light.

The first couple of days after he passed, I would be doing something around the house, and I would see him out of the corner of my eye, but when I turned there wouldn’t be anything there. I’d be left alone with the ghosts in my mind. Thankfully, this has become much less frequent.

It’s been really hard letting go of him, but he had a great life. Even though he could be a pain in the ass sometimes, he gave us many years of happiness to more than make up for it. I’d give anything to have him pee on the carpet again. Or yell incessantly during a conference call. Or have him butt my head at 3:30 in the morning.

But all I can do is remember.

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Day 8: Tuscany

I’ve been looking forward to this day for many months. Sure, I love me some ancient ruins, but I think the one thing I was most looking forward to on this trip was visiting a winery in Tuscany. I was really looking forward to trying some Old World vintages that aren’t really popular in the US, and boy did this place deliver.

We started out this morning by heading to the market in Livorno, the port where our ship was docked. After a brief five minute drive, we pulled up to the largest covered marketplace in all of Europe. There was stall after stall of locals selling fresh fish, produce, cured meats, butchered meats, prepared dishes, wine, olive oil, pretty much everything you could think of. Since it was Saturday, there were even stalls set up outside the marketplace selling shoes/boots, clothes, jewelry, and other fashion items.

Our purpose in stopping at the marketplace wasn’t purely to sightsee. We were there to pick out ingredients for the pizza we would be making at the winery later in the day. Everyone had an assignment for an ingredient and 10 Euros to spend to get it. If you had any left over, you could find items outside the list you though others would enjoy. Our ingredient was eggplant, and Courtney and I took our job very seriously, visiting probably twenty or so stalls to see which farmer had the best eggplants. After we made our purchase, we decided to use some of our remaining money to get some fresh basil, as that wasn’t one of the primary ingrdients that our chef handed out.

Once everyone procured their ingredients, we met back up at the entrance where the chef gave us a tasting of some fresh prosciutto and mortadella to see how the various curing/processing styles differed. After that, we got back on board our bus to head to the vineyard: Torre a Cenaia. Upon arrival, we were given a brief tour of the cellar, and then everyone got on board a covered wagon for a horse-drawn tour of the vineyard. It was a little chilly for some, but the weather was pleasant enough, even though it drizzled a little bit.

After fifteen minutes or so, our wagon pulled up to a little kitchen on the property that was over 200 years old. It was here that we would make our focaccia, pizza, and cantucci (the first baking before biscotti). Believe it or not, my summer as assistant manager of a Little Caesar’s served me well, as we made pizza dough from scratch, something I had spent several months doing on a daily basis. We didn’t use this dough, as it needs time to rise; we made the dough for the next group and used the dough made by the preceding group.

Under the tutelage of Chef David, head chef at the vineyard, we put our dishes together and cooked them in a wood fired oven. Everything came out amazing, and we all had our fill of bread, pizza, and roasted vegetables. To accompany the meal, we had four wines: two whites and two reds. The first white was a steel aged chardonnay, and the second white was a varietal called vermentino. We liked the vermentino so much that we bought a bottle that we will enjoy later in the cruise. 

The reds were a fantastic sangiovese and a red blend of the sangiovese with cabernet sauvignon. While both of these wines were great, we had been told by our tour guide in Rome that the wine voted best in Italy was a varietal called brunello di montalcino. It just so happened that the vineyard had this wine, though we didn’t get to try it while we were there. We decided to purchase a bottle for 24 Euros solely on the advice of our guide and take it to dinner back on the ship.

When we had finished our lunch, we boarded the bus for the half hour ride back to the ship. I promptly fell asleep for an hour, after which we decided to don our bathing suits for the first time and relax in the hot tub on the pool deck. The skies started to clear and the sun began to set while we were there, so after we got out, I rushed down to get my camera. I’m glad I did because the sunset was the bet yet and created the most enormous rainbow I have ever seen. It easily filled 1/4 of the sky (see Facebook photo).

Once I had taken my photos, we got ready for dinner, went to Martini’s for a pre-dinner drink, and then went to dinner at Polo Grill, which is the steakhouse themed restaurant on board.  I had a nice ribeye, and Courtney chose the surf and turf. But the real star of the show was the fantastic brunello di montalcino that we brought along. We knew we had done the right thing when the sommelier smiled as she read the bottle while she opening it for us. We will most likely be ordering a case of this sometime after we get home. It was just phenomenal.

Tomorrow we will be docking at Monte Carlo in Monaco but will spend the day in Nice, France at another vineyard. I’m looking forward to tasting the differences in the wine. We’re also going to try and visit the famous Monte Carlo casino if we have time. Tomorrow should be another busy day!

Day 7: Rome and The Vatican

We woke up this morning docked in the port of Civitavecchia. This is not Rome; Rome is over an hour’s drive away. If you had decided to make your own plans, you were either going to pay over 500 Euros round trip for a taxi or jumping on the train for about 75 Euros. Fortunately, we had a tour booked with the cruise line and didn’t have to worry about any of that.

We left this morning  on our bus around 9AM and made our way to Rome. Our tour started with a drive around the city, which was nice up until we were supposed to go by the Colosseum. Apparently there was some sort of protest or strike going on, and several streets were blocked off by the police. Despite our driver’s best efforts, we weren’t able to get access to the Colosseum area, so he decided to wait until the end of the day and try again.

We were dropped off in the Piazza del Popolo (the People’s Plaza) where we were given an hour and a half of free time to explore Rome. We followed our guide to the Spanish Steps and the fountain at the Piazza di Trevi, but from there we struck out on our own. We grabbed some pizza at a local restaurant (the Italians’ obsession with pizza seems equivalent to the Americans’ obsession with burgers) and then made our own way to the Pantheon and the Piazza Venezia to take some photos.

After that, we made our way straight back up the Via del Corso to meet with our tour guide back at Piazza del Popolo to reboard the bus and head to the Vatican. Our entire group made it back on time, save for two people. We waited around for them for another twenty minutes, but our tour guide eventually decided to give up on them and head to the Vatican to keep on schedule. Just as our bus was about to pull away from the curb, the final two people came running up just in the nick of time to join us for the last part of our tour. Talk about a lucky break!

We were dropped off at the Vatican where we were handed over to our Vatican guide, Christine, who took us through the Vatican museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. All of the artwork was simply gorgeous. I especially enjoyed seeing the various maps of Italy painted on the walls, as well as the enormous tapestries that hung from the walls. I have to say that for some reason I expected the Sistine Chapel to be larger, but the paintings inside were just as magnificent as I was led to believe.

What completely blew me away was St. Peter’s Basilica. The whole thing is on such a massive scale, and the frescos and sculptures appear just flawless. I think I was able to get some really good photos from interesting angles here with such a wide open interior, and I’m looking forward to taking a proper look at them back home. The whole trip was amazing, and the only thing I really hated about it was the crowds.

Rome itself is already crowded, but the Vatican itself is practically intolerable. They really need to do some sort of timed tours where they control the amount of people let in at once and force them along a single path. Allowing everyone in at any time and having it set up where multiple paths converge on single, small choke points makes for some very uncomfortable situations. There were several times where I thought someone would end up falling down stairs or getting crushed in a crowd, but fortunately I didn’t see anyone get hurt.

Once were we done in St. Peter’s, we exited into the square and had a few minutes to visit the souvenir shop. Our gifts purchased, we then boarded our bus for the last time. We made our way back to the Colosseum area, and thankfully the crowds had dispersed so we could get our photos. With that taken care of our driver got back on the A12 to head back to port, and 90% of us immediately fell asleep, having been on our feet for almost eight hours.

When we got back to our room, we opened our complementary bottle of wine and relaxed a bit before heading to dinner. Our dinner tonight was back in the main dining room, where we were seated with Barry and Kris, a wonderful couple from the UK who are enjoying cruising in their retirement. We had a lovely conversation with them over dinner, and apparently they are as big of fans of American TV drama as we are, so we had lots to talk about. We also brought each other up to speed on our respective political climates, which was quite an enlightening conversation.

Tomorrow we will be docking in Livorno, which is the closest port to Florence, but we won’t be visiting that city. Instead, we will be heading into Tuscany to visit a winery where we will go to the local market to select some ingredients, make our own lunch, and sample some wines from the vineyard in the process. It will be a nice, relaxing respite after such a full day today.

Day 6: Napoli (Naples)

This morning we were awakened not by lowering life boats, but by our scheduled wakeup call. We had another room service breakfast and again made our way to the lounge for our scheduled tour of Pompeii. We didn’t have to wait long this morning, as we were docked at a standard pier, so we were able to just walk off the ship and onto our bus.

After the brief drive to Pompeii, we were led among the ruins by our guide Barbara, who also happened to be an archaeologist. She was very knowledgable about the city, and had a great passion, not so much for excavating further, as for protecting what had already been uncovered. Rather than expound upon the 40% of the city that is still buried, she was making sure that none of our group accidentally touched the frescos or otherwise did something damaging out of ignorance.

I learned many interesting things about Pompeii today: 1) most of the citizens of Pompeii did not die in the explosion; at least 90% of them had time to escape before the pyroclastic flow arrived some 36 hours later, 2) the city is much bigger than I expected, even taking into account that almost half of it is still buried; it would be very easy to get lost, 3) the rich and poor all lived in the same buildings; the poor lived on the ground floor, the wealthy on the 2nd floor, and the middle classes on the third and fourth floors, 4) they had raised crosswalks, street drainage, public fountains, plumbing (via aqueducts), and heated public baths; they were a very advanced civilization for their era, and 5) if you wanted to run for office, you had to do something for the city FIRST with your OWN MONEY before you would even be considered for election. I think that’s something we should adopt back home.

I have tons of pictures to share when I get back, but the things that blew me away the most were the enormous public square, the detailed mosaics and frescos in the houses of the wealthier citizens, and the infrastructure they had for heating their public baths. The ruins of Pompeii have definitely been the highlight of the trip for me thus far, and there were a lot more interesting aspects of the city to see than I initially expected.

After several hours roaming the city, we had about fifteen minutes before we boarded the bus back to our ship. We used this time to get some Italian pizza and some gelato, both of which were exceptional. Once we got back to the ship, we relaxed a bit before heading to high tea at 4pm. They have high tea on board every day, but today is the first day that it fit into our schedule. Courtney had an English breakfast tea, and I had Earl Grey. Courtney also took the opportunity to avail herself of the bounty that was available on the pastry cart.

After tea, we went to the gym to burn off some of the myriad calories that we’ve consumed so far on this trip, got ready for dinner, and went to Martini’s for a pre-dinner libation. Every drink there is a martini of some sort; I had the 007 (vodka martini, shaken not stirred), and Courtney had the French martini which contained some chambourd and pineapple juice with the vodka.

Dinner was at Red Ginger, which is the Asian themed restaurant on board. Our meal here, like everywhere else we’ve been on board, was exceptional. We had edamame, summer rolls, vegetable tempura, and ginger calamari to start (possibly the best calamari I’ve ever had). We each had a nice Asian tea with our dinner (lemongrass ginger for me and white ginger pear for Courtney), along with a very nice sake that was aged for two years, mellowing the flavors to perfection. For our main course we chose the double crunch chicken, which had just the right amount of spice. For dessert, I had a chocolate and lemongrass creme brulee, and Courtney had a bounty cake, which was like an Asian tiramisu.

We’re heading to bed a little earlier tonight. Tomorrow is a ten hour whirlwind tour of Rome and the Vatican, and we need to be well rested. Don’t worry, I’m going to be taking a lot of pictures!

Day 5: Taormina, Sicily

We woke up this morning to the sound of the lifeboat that hangs outside our room being lowered into the water. There was no emergency; it’s just that Taormina is a tender port. Many of the ports around the world cannot handle large cruise ships for docking at their piers, so the ships drop anchor in the harbor and ferry passengers to shore using their lifeboats.

We had a light breakfast delivered to our room and then went to the lounge to await our boarding call for our trip to Sicily, which would include visiting Mt. Etna as well as San Michele vineyard. We ended up having to wait in the lounge a little longer than expected due to the tendering operations. But eventually our group was called, and we made our way down to board the boat that would take us to shore.

Upon arriving in the port of Naxos, we boarded a bus for our drive up to Mt. Etna. The views as we made our ascent to the top were stunning (pictures when I get home), and it looked like every romanticized scene of Italy you’ve ever seen in a movie, only it was real. We were excited to visit our fourth volcano, but we had no idea how different Mt. Etna would be compared to the others we have been to in Hawaii and Guatemala. The sharp, rocky soil was exactly as we expected, but what we were not expecting was the incessant, gale force wind that would occasionally gust to hurricane strength. There were times I was almost lifted off the ground, and I couldn’t bring myself to get any closer than twenty or thirty feet to the mountain’s edge. Hiking down into the crater itself provided a little reprieve from whe wind, but the fantastic views were up top, so we didn’t spend much time there. 

After snapping as many shots as I dared, Courtney and I sought refuge in the bar (because of course there is a bar at the top of Mt. Etna) with most of the other tourists. Courtney got her turtle souvenir for Italy, a small figurine carved from the volcanic rock of the mountain, and we shared a caffe di crema, which was an espresso flavored food that was a mix somewhere between whipped cream and pudding.

Once everyone had received their free exfoliation treatment by being sandblasted with volcanic dust, we reboarded our bus and made our way down the mountain to San Michele vineyard. If you were to conjure up in your mind what a vineyard on a mountainside in Sicily should look like, it would probably be pretty close to this place. The view was spectacular, and the food and wine was perfection. For lunch we enjoyed a nice selection of antipasti, two pastas (cream and tomato based), grilled meats, a small slice of cake and some fruit for dessert. All of the wines we tried were exceptionally light, from the brut to the white, the rose, and the red. Some of this has to do with the varietals they plant, but a lot of it is also due to the volcanic soil that the grapes grow in. After lunch, we were given a tour of the cellars, and then we got back on the bus for the last time as we made our way back to the pier.

Once back on board the Riviera, we went to a private wine and cheese party with our tour group, had a scotch at The Grand Bar (at least for me; an Amaretto for Courtney), and then made our way to Jacques, which is Jacques Pepin’s namesake restaurant on board. As you might think, the entire menu is French style cuisine, and it was amazing. We both decided to make it a full six course dinner, which we paired with the remainder of our bottle of pinot grigio that we had purchased our first night on board. The food and the service were both outstanding, and I’m a little worried that Oceania may be spoiling us for our eventual return to Royal Caribbean.

Tomorrow we are dropping anchor in Naples, a slight detour from our original destination, due to some rough seas in Sorrento. Our tour is inland, though, so none of our plans are being affected. We will be traveling to the excavated city of Pompeii and exploring all that it has to offer. We are looking forward to our next adventure!