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