Thursday, June 19, 2014

egypt, it's where it's at

Something we had talked about doing, but hadn't yet, was the one night layover thing that certain airlines offer. On our way back to the US from Israel, we finally go the chance to do it with a one night layover in Cairo. Neither had ever been there and we really wanted to go. We made sure we'd have enough time to get from Cairo to see the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx--and it was close, but we would just make it.

We got into Egypt around noon, but the whole process of getting one day visas and having to go through customs didn't get us to the hotel and ready to head out until 3. We walked out to the street in front of our hotel and talked to a few cabbies before finding one who was charging what we thought was reasonable for the ride to the pyramids and back. He was a nice guy who ended up telling us a lot about Egypt's current situation and from a local's perspective, why they had their summer revolt.
The traffic was pretty stop and go for a while and we didn't get to the Pyramids until around 4. Once there, we found out that the Pyramid Complex had closed early that day, and was already closed. We were bummed, but what could we do, jump the wall in front of the military patrolling with guns? We took pictures of it from the gate, which luckily wasn't too far away. (And strangely, there wasn't another tourist to be seen. We knew Egypt tourism was down, but there was literally no one there.)

Maggie over the Nile River in Cairo 
View from the locked gate

A cat guarding the Sphinx--whose original head is thought to have been a cat.

Andrew finding high ground to peer over the wall into the Great Pyramid Complex

Maggie posing with the Great Pyramid

As the taxi driver told us, the fairly new wall around the Pyramid complex is a good example of why the people of Egypt are so upset. The government built the wall around the Pyramids so they could control who could gives tours and when they are allowed in. While to Americans this may make sense, to the hundreds, if not thousands, of Egyptian families who have been making money off Pyramid tourism for generations, this is creating a barrier for making a living.

We saw this with a family we met while walking around the Pyramid wall. We were just wandering around (we were still the only tourists in the entire area) when a lady came out of her house and started chatting with us, and invited us into her house for tea. There we sat on the floor in the one small room where it appeared the whole family lived and slept (there were six of them there at the time) and met the whole family. The oldest son spoke English, so he was the translator, and we told them about ourselves, how we had been traveling for awhile and were now going home. The woman told us that her husband's family had been living in Cairo for hundreds of years and that they used to be able make money giving tours of the Pyramids whenever they wanted, but now because of the wall and the permits, they have had to try to find new ways to make money off the tourist trade, but with many families in the same boat, it is harder to do. This combined with the huge decrease of tourism has made the times harder.

Everyone we met in Egypt told us, and wanted us to relay to everyone we knew, that Egypt is not dangerous and no one should be afraid to travel there. It is really is true. (Or at least, it definitely seemed to be at the time--this was mid-2014.) To us, it seemed like there is no better time to go to Egypt. The tourist infrastructure is there, but with fewer tourists. The people couldn't be nicer and really want tourists to come back to their country. So if you are thinking of going to Egypt sometime in your life, now is a great time. We couldn't speak more highly of what we saw of the country.

Maggie with the family we met, in their house

Andrew hanging with the Egyptian Justin Bieber

Sunday, June 15, 2014

tel aviv

Another unexpected stop for us was Israel. Andrew had a good college buddy, Dave, who lives there with his wife Shara and their two kids, who he had wanted to visit for years. Before we headed to Germany, we saw that there were fairly decently priced tickets from Berlin to Tel Aviv, so we decided it was fate and bought them - and we were off to the Middle East.

Accommodations were a little (a lot) more expensive then we were accustomed to, so we ended up getting a shared apartment that overlooks the Israeli version of the Pentagon. It was in walking distance of Dave and Shara's place and the walk took us through Rabin Square, the heart of Tel Aviv.

The view from the balcony of our place.
We spent a lot of time hanging out with Dave and Shara and their family.

With Dave and a crazy colorful fountain in the middle of the city.

Babysitting on their lovely porch

Shara and the kiddos

We also happened to be in town during the Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade, which is known as one of the best Pride Parades in the world - and it lived up to it. The streets were packed. We didn't know where we were going, and ended up finding the tail end. So we jumped in and second-lined the Parade until we caught up to it and found our way up to the floats. 

Our outfits weren't quite as brightly colored as many

Next up: activities around Tel Aviv.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

dead sea

We had heard good things about the Dead Sea, so it was a place we wanted to go. It would have been a really hard day trip, so we planned to stay there overnight. When looking online, we found that there was a place to camp right on the beach, so with Andrew's bag full of pillows, blankets, food and water, we jumped on a bus. We went through Jerusalem a different way than we had before, which took us right up against the wall separating Israel from the West Bank.

It was a few hour bus trip that took us through one of the most desolate parts of the world - and it lived up to it. There was nothing once you reached the Dead Sea, it made New Mexico look lush. While we were skirting the Dead Sea towards the major city on the Israel side, we went right past Masada. We had no idea we were even going to be close and hadn't alloted enough time to go there - a regret we still have.

When we were finally dropped off in Ein Bokek, we didn't really know where we were going, so we just headed to the beach. Once we arrived there, we found small covered area with tents set up right on the shores of the Dead Sea. We knew we were in the right place. We claimed an area and stripped down to our swim shorts and got in.

It was as buoyant as we heard. You felt like a cork trying to touch the bottom--it would shoot you back up to the surface. And you do not want to get any of that water in your eyes. It's like pouring salt directly into them - not comfortable.

Maggie covered in Dead Sea mud

Andrew floating on the surface

While hanging out on the shore, we befriended a gay couple from Moscow. One of the guys was from New York and the other was a native Moscowian. They were really nice and we talked a lot about Russia and what it was like being a gay couple there. We found out that these guys only knew of two gay bars in Moscow and they rotate to keep from being shut down.

We'd heard that Dead Sea mud was good for the skin. We thought that we'd just be able to find mud on the Dead Sea shore and cover ourselves in it. But as we found out, the Dead Sea - at least where we were - had no mud. It was just a sandy / salty mix that you would not want to rub all over yourself. Because of this, we had to go to the mall by the beach and buy packets of Dead Sea mud, while in sight of the Dead Sea. With mud in hand, we head back down to the beach and smeared it all over ourselves. It was definitely not normal mud. It was super greasy and almost clay like. You are supposed to let it dry on you, then take a dip in the water to wash it off. As it's drying you start to feel a little bit like Han Solo getting stuck in Carbonite. Once you get in the water you really have to scrub to get it off to, but when you emerge, your skin feels silky smooth.

As the sun began to set over Jordan, we set up our sleeping arrangements, which was a tarp with a blanket and two pillows - so pretty much the Ritz. The plan was the same as it was in Taiwan when we were sleeping in the airport: enough wine and you can sleep anywhere.

Dead Sea at dusk

Our hotel for the night

It was not quite as nice of a night sleep as it had been in the airport in Taiwan. Andrew was attacked by a swarm of biting Dead Sea flies and in the middle of the night, a group of Arab women showed up and went into the Dead Sea, burkas and all. The Arab women then sang songs for many hours while soaking, which means we didn't sleep much.

The next morning, we made our coffee and headed right into the Dead Sea for a morning dip. It was so buoyant that we could just sit in it and drink our coffee.

Morning coffee

Saturday, May 10, 2014

anniversary in jaffa

Our anniversary is not a day for working, but for celebrating. So we headed out early in the morning and rented two bikes. It was our first experience with the Tel Aviv bike rental system, and it looked similar to the others we'd used (like Velibs in Paris), but as we found out later in the day, not so.
Like many things in Tel Aviv, the bike rental was a little more expensive than in other cities, so we planed on making half an hour hops from place to place, and return the bikes while we hung out. Our first hop was to breakfast closer to the beach on Ben Yehuda St. We ate on the patio of a nice little cafe and had a traditional Israeli breakfast, which involves many little things (which ended up being a food theme for the day, without us even planing it).

Our Anniversary Breakfast

After breakfast, we rented two more bikes and rode to Jaffa. We hadn't gone there yet and even though it's a different city, Tel Aviv and Jaffa are as close as conjoined twins. Jaffa is actually a much older city than Tel Aviv, with a history stretching back three millennia, and is mentioned in both the old and new testaments.

They have a rustic shopping district that we decided to find ourselves an anniversary present in. We had been talking about getting a Mezuzah as a souvenir from Israel and realized there was no better time. So we spent a while perusing the selections and made a decision. From there we made our way to the Jaffa Port to met up with Andrew's friend at his work.

When we got to Jaffa Port, the difference between all other cities' rental bikes and Tel Aviv's rental bikes became apparent to us. There is a special lock you must fully engage to return the bike. Well, one of the first bikes we returned before we went to breakfast must not have been 'fully' engaged, because we received an email telling us that it still hadn't been returned and we've been getting charged since. We didn't have phones, only wifi. We searched Jaffa Port for a wifi connection and finding one, went to the rental bike's website and began a labored process that ended with us finding out that it was a mixup on their side, and we would not be charged.

With that settled, we met up with Andrew's friend and got a tour of the news station he works at.

Jaffa Port

Jaffa's Lighthouse

Bird Buddy

Andrew and his friend at his friend's work in Tel Aviv

After the tour we went back to Jaffa Port for some drinks and dinner. While there, we were consumed by a orange stick wielding mob. It was some new Tae Bo thing were you could do dances and workouts with the orange sticks. There were enthusiastic instructors teaching everyone how to use them--how could we resist?

After some exercise, it was on to dinner at The Old Man and The Sea, a famous Jaffa restaurant. Like breakfast, it was many small things they piled onto your table until there was no room for anything else. And as soon as you finished something, they would take it and fill that gap on the table with something new. It's a place to come to hungry to, because you could eat yourself silly.

Orange Stick Workout

Hanging at the Port
Eating at The Old Man and the Sea
Maggie being angelic as always

Friday, May 9, 2014


When in Israel, you have to go to Jerusalem. Possibly the most fought over city in the world, the history behind this place is staggering. We had no idea what to expect as we took the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The first thing we were struck by was how hilly of an area it is. You just keep going uphill from Tel Aviv and then you really hit the hills and you can see Jerusalem in the distance sitting atop the highest ground in the area.  After seeing this, it became quite obvious why this place is so sought after, it is very defensible.

We left the bus station and took the light rail to the old walled city. Going through the city we were surprised to see how different the city looked from Tel Aviv. Almost all of the buildings we made out of some sort of white sand stone that gave the city a very together feeling. We entered the old city through the Jaffa gate and starting wandering through the tight streets looking for the West Wall. Breaking through the tight press of buildings, the West Wall complex finally opened up in front of us.

Andrew's friend told him about a tour of the tunnels that had been excavated below the Western Wall complex. It sounded like a really neat experience, so we signed up for it and took the tour. We had no idea, but we were in Jerusalem on Jerusalem day, which celebrates Israel reclaiming the area during a war in the 70's. While we were waiting for the tour to start, there was a bomb threat at the Western Wall and we were locked in the tunnel where the tour started until they could verify that it wasn't a threat.

The tunnel next to the Western Wall where the tour started from.

The Western Wall below the surface and the original ground level in 0 AD.

Walking along the below ground tight corridors that follow the Western Wall.

The exit of the tour and the Israeli Military that escort you back to the Western Wall through the Muslim district.
After seeing the Western Wall we headed to the other major site in the old city, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is the spot where supposedly Jesus was sacrificed and then buried. The Pope had been in Jerusalem the day before, so the approach to the Church was still filled with Papal Seal banners and pictures of the Pope.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

After walking around the old city for a bit we were ready for a break and headed back outside the walls. There was a park just on the other side that we found a shady spot in and sat down with a bottle of wine with a view of the Jerusalem city walls.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

west berlin

From East Berlin, we moved for the last few weeks to a apartment in the trendy Friedrichshain neighborhood in West Berlin. Our first impression was that it is a more well-kept neighborhood with a lot more typical German-looking things about (at least compared to the Turkish part of town we had just come from). Out place was a nice loft overlooking a very overgrown but cute courtyard.

This was taken as we were packing--though it's not like we're much neater than this usually.
Our first day exploring the new neighborhood we came across an old cemetery. It was much like the parks, very overgrown but well kept, and beautiful. It was such a contrast to American cemeteries that are so mowed and trimmed and devoid of plant life. This cemetery was teeming with growth, making it fell like a very peaceful place to have your eternal rest.

We also found a park by us where you could ride elephants - not real ones, but cement once. There are so many parks in Berlin, and not just sanctioned parks--there are a lot of open spaces where something used to be, but it's now gone, so it's just overgrown and you can use it like a park. The Germans seem to not prohibit things as much as we do. In the US, there would be a barbed wire fence around a vacant piece of land, making sure no one trespasses, but in in Germany it's just a de-facto park.

More drinking in public

In our neighborhood was a very popular bar/restaurant street, so we headed down there to see and be seen and catch a bite. We had been craving American food and Mexican food and this street was known for being quite international, so we ended up eating a burger one day and nachos another. At this point we had brats, kraut and strudel coming out of our ears so we felt like it was okay to depart from the German classics.

The major road on the way to the restaurant street, and Alexander Platz in the distance.

After a few days in the new place, we thought it was time to head out and see some more of the Berlin sights. We jumped on the subway, beer in hand because in Germany, drinking on the subways is allowed - so why wouldn't you. On the way, we passed by a park we had heard about. It was an old Nazi airport that after the war got turned into a park. And it looked like just that, an abandoned airport with people flying kites and riding their bikes.

Got to love Germany.

The airport park.
As we walked from the subway to our first destination we walked past an intersting memorial that took up an entire city block. It was for all of the Jews who were killed during WWII and was quite somber (for obvious reason) but interesting. At first it looked like it was made on a hill but as we walked into it, we realized it was actually a depression and the stone pillars just got taller. So it actually became a kind of labyrinth that you could get lost in. It was a very intering place to walk around.

One of the major tourist attractions is an arch in central Berlin. I'm not sure what it commemorates, but it is used in a lot of signage around town to show it's Berlin oriented.

From there we walked through the giant park that occupies the center of Berlin. On our way we walked past a funny monument that shows the crazy history of the area. It is a Soviet Monument commemorating the Soviet troops who died taking Berlin away from the Germans at the end of WWII. In the 90's it was handed over to the Germans and for some reason, they haven't torn it down. It says a lot about the type of place Germany is today - tolerant.

After seeing a bunch of naked sunbathing Germans in the park (just like public drinking, public nudity isn't a big deal) we headed to a Biergarten the was at the edge of the park for a little thirst quenching.

That evening we had a traditional German meal on the banks of the river. It was a fantastic meal that was supposedly a Berlin specialty: cabbage stuffed with sausage.

You can tell how much Andrew liked it by the look on his face.
When not going out and about around the city, we did a lot of picnicking at the parks, it was just too nice out not to.

Opening some champagne on the street.

On the way to an afternoon picnic.

Friday, April 18, 2014

east berlin

After sleeping in the airport in London, we took the early morning flight to our next destination: Berlin.

Boarding the plane via outside stairs still feels fancier, somehow.
Our first place was in the old East Germany, right off of Karl Marx Stasse - can't get much more East Berlin than that. This was the first place out of our many house sittings where we actually were taking care of a pet, and luckily for us, it was a cat. His name was Dino and we hit it off immediately.

Celebrating our largest place on the trip with a morning MoMo.
Dino tempting us with the oh-so-dangerous stomach pet.

Dino was no stranger to lounging.

But he didn't mind getting down to work when he had to.

 After settling in we headed out for a big day in Berlin. We were close enough to the center of Berlin (which seemed like the area around Alexander Platz) to just walk and enjoy the city. There are many canals running through Berlin and since it's a city where you can drink in public, we made stops to enjoy the sights.

Maggie enjoying some vino on the canal on a warm-ish day.
Since drinking is allowed in public, you see a lot of things you would never see anywhere else. Like a mobile bar where the bar-patrons are the peddle-power that keeps the bar moving. We saw a few of these things--this was not a one-time occurrence.

On our way we passed by the old Berlin Wall on our way into West Germany. So we had to stop and take a photo-op with the famous wall. There are only a few segments of the wall left--the rest of it has been covered over by streets or buildings. We got the feeling that in Germany, they prefer to look forward rather than backward. The site of Hitler's death is now a parking lot.

The wall looked like a larger version of a highway divider. We were kind of expecting more.
While Germany is not known for its wine, we found it to be fairly good and cheap, so once we made it to Alexander Platz, we celebrated with a nice refreshing can of champagne - because we could. Alexander Platz is a very nice part of Berlin with lots of public areas to hang out in and many stores and seasonal outdoor shops. It is probably the best place in Berlin to people watch and put your thumb on the pulse of the city.

Drinking a champagne can and surreptitiously watching all the punk kids' antics in the background. 
People blowing bubbles in Alexander Platz.
We were staying in what we heard was the up-and-coming trendy neighborhood of East Berlin so we did a fair amount of exploring around it. Just a few blocks away we found a nice little Biergarten that we went to a few times - because you haven't done Germany until you go to a Biergarten.

We also had a nice park just a few blocks away that we would take picnics to. It was a very popular park and showed the diversity of the area. We would have Turks on one side of us, Hipsters on another, Punks over in the corner and Hippies in the center smoking joints. It really was a diverse part of the city. As a rule Germany didn't seem as diverse of an area as some other parts of West Europe we had been to, but the Neukoelln area of East Berlin is an exception.

The park on a chilly--and therefore less crowded--day.
We also had a very overgrown park a little further away from us. I mention it because an interesting aspect of Berlin was how they kept most of their parks. Unlike a majority of the world, the parks in Berlin were very wild and overgrown. It might be because they had so many or because it was such a green place, but we really found it interesting to see how vegetated the town was and how unkempt and wild most of it felt (in a good way--the city was beautiful).

We happened to be in Berlin for Easter and like most of Europe, everything shuts down for the whole weekend. So it gave us a nice opportunity to have a nice Easter picnic in yet another park. The sun was shining, the flowers were blooming and the mimosas were flowing - it was a good Easter.