Essential Cairo Attractions: Planned and Unplanned Adventures in “The City of 1000 Minarets”

Essential Cairo Attractions: Planned and Unplanned Adventures in “The City of 1000 Minarets”

I don’t like big cities so planning to spend 3 days in Cairo probably wasn’t my best travel decision but it allowed me to catch up with some old friends and experience the good, bad and the ugly of Egypt as opposed to a place like Dahab, which I probably would have enjoyed more but would have been a touristy-seaside-paradise that doesn’t reflect the country as a whole.  Nevertheless, Cairo attractions are pretty fascinating… you can cover the highlights in a day or two but make time for experiences that just kind of happened, as many memorable moments do. The Ultimate Tourist Evening in Cairo: Khan El Khalili Bazaar, Feluccas and Koshary When an old couch surfing friend had one night to show me Cairo, he came up with “the plan” that almost everyone recommends for one night in Cairo. He told me to invite the Aussie and Japanese guy and sternly warned us to be prepared to stay up late because Egyptians don’t like to sleep until after the sun comes up. We decided to head into the city early to do some independent explorations before we met Omar and his Egyptian friend after fast breaking. Somehow, we got off the metro at a random square, bazaar and busy bus station so we wasted a couple hours walking around in circles trying to figure out to get to Tahrir Square, where we’d be meeting our Egyptain tour guides. Somewhere along the journey, we found a huge tent covered in royal purple carpets. We poked our heads in, realized it was a Ramadan-fasting breaking tent and tried to excuse ourselves but it was too late: someone had spotted us, gladly greeting us with the typical “Welcome to Egypt” and all the tent’s occupants mobilized to convince us to stay. They found us a seat in the corner, near some English-“speakers”. Before we knew it, the members of the army delivered bright pink boxes with our free dinner: guava juice, dried dates, pasta, peas and some fried balls soaked in sweet stuff. We took selfies with the people at the table, enjoyed our meal as we tried to figure out whether we were eating with poor people, prisoners or mentally unstable people then concluded that they were nice and it didn’t matter. Everyone scarfed down their meals at lightining speeds and they invited us out for coffee but we excused ourselves and continued our search for Tahrir Square. On the way, a few people handed us free treats for Ramadan: a drink of dates in coconut milk and apple juice boxes. We kind of felt guilty because we weren’t Muslim but when we saw how happy they were to give it to us, we gladly accepted (although nothing’s open during Ramadan, it’s a good time of year for hungry backpackers to travel through Islamic countries because everyone’s especially generous!). Eventually we figured out were at the wrong metro station the whole time so we backtracked to get to our meeting point. As the location of the start of the Egyptian Revolution, the government removed the main metro stop to Tahrir Square and it still has security guards and movable gates covered in barbed wire throughout the area. To meet Omar, we passed a memorial for the people who died and lots of intense, freshly painted graffiti showing starving and abused Egyptians. Our first stop was Khan El Khalili bazaar in Islamic Cairo, a place that helped me understand the nickname, “city of a thousand minarets” . Unlike the non-descript, crumbling architecture elsewhere in the city, this area was filled with cobblestone streets, cozy passageways, lined with small shops of people selling spices, hookah pipes, bold-colored tapestries, ornate metal lamps and mother-of-pearl chess sets. The whole place smelled delicious: the sweet scent of shisha, street-side falafel, nectar of prickly pear cactus, dusty old books and waves of cumin wafting around corners. We watched Egyptian families with three generations and a dozen people crowd into closet-sized jewelry stores to help the bride-to-be pick out her wedding ring. Although the areas we were in appeared to be bustling, Omar pointed across the bazaar to a line of shops that had to close their doors after the revolution. Considering the bazaar was bombed during the revolution, the area recovered remarkably well. After we wound ourselves out of the maze, we headed into the car for a felucca ride on the Nile. I couldn’t believe that a 15-minute drive and a sailboat ride was all you need to find serenity in this crazy city but floating on the Nile is an undeniably tranquil experience. I felt like Baby Moses in a basket...

Insider’s Insight on Yerevan, Armenia: A Quirky Place Under its Intimidating Exterior

Insider’s Insight on Yerevan, Armenia: A Quirky Place Under its Intimidating Exterior

“There is no other land in the world so full of wonders as the land of Armenians” –Lord Bryon My decision to go to Armenia wasn’t because of its wonders… mostly because its close and I was curious but I’m glad I got to explore this country, get past its intimidating appearance and get to know its softer, more hospitable side. Immediately after crossing the border, Georgia’s flat fertile fields of sunflowers turned into rocky outcroppings and piles of rusting construction equipment. The houses became more dilapidated, the vehicles became increasingly Soviet and the road became bumpy (very bumpy- I think I spent most of my time on Armenian roads levitating off my seat). Yerevan: First Impressions As we entered the capital, things changed pretty drastically. It’s nick-name “the Pink City” might suggest a certain femininity but besides the pink tuff stones throughout the city, Yerevan is exactly the opposite. Even Mother Armenia has a masculine frame, built on Stalin’s old pedestal, mightily holding a massive sword and stomping on a shield. The city has a whole exuded a sense of sturdy strength: fortified buildings, soldiers walking around in uniform and an impersonal feel of modern efficiency. The people don’t tend to exude an overwhelmingly friendly feel either. While in Tbilisi, my hosts picked out Armenians by their big noses (which many of its citizens have recently tried to tone down with nose jobs… apparently, Yerevan a destination for medical tourism and plastic surgery in general) and dark features. The women walk around Yerevan dressed to impress, in teetering high heels (that look like they might break on cobblestone sections of sidewalk) and so much make-up that makes you wonder what lies beneath. Although Armenia made an impersonal first impression, this immediately changed once I met its occupants. When trying to find my hostel, I asked a guy who didn’t speak English but asked around he found me a translator. Before long, I had an exponentially growing clump of middle-aged men, studying my map, scrutinizing my reservation, calling the hostel and even parading me safely across the street to the other side. The hostel owner greeted me with such enthusiasm and adoration, you would think that she’d been waiting her whole life for my arrival. The couch surfers I contacted from Armenia provided me with encyclopedias of advice and invitations for outings. The ones that I actually meet up with were so generous that I had to fight them to contribute to the dinner bill or cab fare. Here’s how the journey unfolded: A Night On the Town with David David was the perfect transitional couchsurfer (after swapping cities from Tbilisi to Yerevan) because lived in both (+Moscow), was Georgian by birth and was currently in residency for cardiology in Yerevan. As the sunset, the city awakened and people flocked outside, something that never really happened in Tbilisi. World Cup watchers filled the cafes, couples strolled the sidewalks and around the Opera, parents ate ice cream as they dodged children zooming around in electric kid-sized cars. David and I snaked through parks, past gangs of old men playing chess, got misted by fountains, and plopped down on a bench near the to-scale mini-model of Sevan Lake (the main lake of the country). We walked to Republic Square, which has a light, sound and water fountain show for a continuous three hours from 9-midnight. It seemed the whole city gathered (including a new bride in her wedding dress) to watch the water dance to a wide variety of Armenian, popular and classic tunes. My host pointed out a group of Iranian guys in the corner, talking to a prostitute. He complained that Iranian guys come here, see the modern city and scandalous clothing and think it’s “no rules Las Vegas” but often get in trouble with the locals who still uphold a relatively conservative culture. We walked to the Cascades, which is an impressive 572 stair-monument covered in statues that overlooks the city (whose absolute height is higher than the Eiffel Tower. One of the things I love most about Yerevan is its random collection of statues and the Cascade features many collected from all over the world. To get to the stairs, you walk past a flower garden with a fat lady lounging naked (this one supposedly caused a stir from the conservative residents of the city, a duplicate of which can be found in Colombia), a 12-ft tall bright blue penguin and a cat sticking out its tongue. On the Cascades itself, there’s a silver missile that looks ready to be launched into space, a giant lion made out of recycled tires and...

Local foods and nightlife in Lisbon

Local foods and nightlife in Lisbon

Wow it feels like the past two weeks flew by in the blink of an eye!  I’m already in Madrid, preparing for the second of three flights home.  Goncalo #2 met me in downtown yesterday after lunch to make the most of my last day in Europe.  Goncalo is my age, trained in advertising/marketing and has done a bunch of traveling through Europe, sometimes euro-exchange programs, (for example, helping scouts in Poland for a month)  opportunities that made me jealous.  It’s so easy and cheap to move between these countries and the geographically disadvantaged US has along way to go before it can successfully promote this degree of cultural interchange.  Goncalo also has volunteered at the Lisbon zoo for the past 6 years and his eyes would lit up when he talks about the tricks the vultures and macaus can do at the presentations he used to make.  As a born and raised Lisbonite, Goncalo didn’t waste any time immersing me in veggie-friendly local food experiences of his stomping ground.  We started at a teensy booth behind the hustling bustling street of shops.  I would have never thought to hide the original location of Lisbon’s famous cherry liqueur here!  But this is where you can get the beverage fresh from the tap, poured over a vase of cherries then poured in a shot glass to be enjoyed with a smile and “salud”! Lisbon’s famous cherry liquor From there, he navigated me to the entrance of the Castillo de St. Jorge.  After getting lost in the snaking streets yesterday, Aga and I gave up when we appeared at the backside of the massive complex and heard entry would require circumventing 3/4 of the building with a slightly challenging route.  I was glad to return with an expert, especially since Goncalo loved to share the history and wander the town built within the city walls.  Speaking of history, one of the places he took me to was the church of Carmelo, which was one of the few buildings to survive a 9 scale hurricane in the 1700s. Next door was where the dictator was taken during the peaceful overthrow of the dictator in 1970s.  We tried to find a postcard depicting the famous scene with children stuffing carnations into soldiers guns because the transition was so peaceful that only two people were killed, mostly because of a silly skirmish.  We stopped for roasted chestnuts as we walked to Peneira Portuguesa to try this fluffy, slightly sweet, sunrise-colored coconut bread (which they like to serve with ham and cheese).  He took me to several overlooks, around 5, we went to a place filled with teens and young adults gathered with beers, musical instruments and their friends to watch the sun sink behind the “San Francisco bridge”, with light reflecting off the Tagus river. Goncalo #2 and I at an overview of the city We went to an old-school shop that featured vintage products from regions all around Spain- port wine, special biscuits, toys that his parents grew up with, soaps and an extensive selection of sardines, which the area is famous for.  He took me to this super-retro, hipster street of revived warehouses filled with art galleries, unique shops, bars, an awesome library and large graffiti paintings outdoors.  Only a couple places were open when we went but it would be a really neat place to see on a Saturday, especially during the weekly flea markets. Pavilhão Chinês Club… best bar ever! For the purpose of people watching and an authentic-ish experience of Lisbon nightlife (as much is possible for a Sunday night during the holidays), we started a leisurely bar hops designed to drink in the sights, more than maximize alcohol consumption.  We began at a fancy place that was covered, floor to ceiling in collectibles.  There was a room filled with dolls and old toys, war paraphanela (from war helmets, to fighter planes to GI joe), paintings on the ceiling and statues.  We sat in velvet chairs to pursue the menu, which was more like a colorful storybook of hand-drawn, bare-chested flappers getting in all sorts of shenanigans as they danced around descriptions of their artisan cocktails.  He drank hot chocolate and I tried the famous Port Wine (too sweet for me) as we keep finding new objects to look at, feeling like guests in a royal cocktail room/tea parlor. To experience his more typical weekend night, we sauntered through Barrio Alto (nightlife hub of Lisbon), squeeze into a dim indie rock bar, only large enough to fit four small tables, sipping cheap beers in a swirl of smoke and Portuguese banter, accented by the clink of...

Spanish culture: Gypsies and Flamenco in Granada

Spanish culture: Gypsies and Flamenco in Granada

Granada’s such a cultural experience and I’m glad we decided to immerse ourselves with a flamenco show. We heard mixed reviews about the potential to be a tourist trap and how the gypsies can rip you off if you go to some of the caves in Sacra monte to view the performance.  On the other hand, Simone’s friend raved about a tear-jerking show she had seen so we decided to experience this piece of Spanish culture at Le Chein Andalou “the Andalusian Dog”. Proceeding down a short, dark tunnel, we squished ourselves at teensy picnic tables and looked around to see if the 20 or so other people in the audience had any idea what we were in for.  Freddy had warned us that Granada was famous for gut-wrenching, tragic flamenco and if we wanted to see happy flamenco, we were better off in Sevilla.  And he wasn’t kidding! For the first part of the show, it was the music.  The hunched-over guitarist looked like he was hanging onto his guitar for dear life, and his fingers flew over the strings in a strange strum, more similar to that of a harpist.  The skinny singer, wailed about rosas negras y notches obscures, almost dislocating his jaw with the raw emotion of the cancion.  And occasionally rocking back and forth with his eyes closed, adding syncopated claps to the instrumental.  About halfway through, a scowling back-haired woman with dramatic make-up rustled through the aisle with her polka dotted dress, flashing her fishnets.  She started sitting, just adding rhythm with her claps, snaps and taps but then she really got going.  She filled the small stage with dramatic glasses, sharp turns, and remarkably fast footwork.  From prior reading I knew the exact origin of Andalusian flamenco was highly debated, potentially influenced by Hindu music brought over from gypsies who originated out of the india, Jewish chants or the call of the Islamic muezzin.  Dancing on the wooden box (which she didn’t do here but is also stereotypical) probably began later with South American or African influences. Watching it, I agreed flamenco was probably a combination of all above, and tried to imagine what life must have been like to inspire such raw emotion.  Here’s a youtube video of similar Granada gypsy flamenco to give you an idea.  I’m definitely glad we experienced it, but a little of that kind of intensity goes a long way, so after being flamenco-ed out, we decided to obey our when-in-doubt-eat-tapas rule with our new friend Jesse. A Colorado resident and recent college graduate, Jesse is still bright-eyed and bushy tailed after 2 of a 3 month European backpacking adventure.  A self-described “yes man”, Simone and I instantly liked him, as someone who had the rare combination of being both interested and interesting.  We happened across a medieval themed tapas bar, where we drank sangria in front of swords and full suits of amor.  When our tapas appeared as bagel sandwiches with ham, both of them were exuberant, having being deprived of bagels in Europe/Greece for months.  Before coming to Spain, I pictured tapas as some bread and cheese, or something uniform across bars but in Granada, it’s the ultimate lottery and you never know what you’re going to get.  Earlier in the day, we met up with three locals at a global tapas bar Babel World Fusion, where our tapas where cheese risotto, pad Thai, fajitas… Large, gourmet meals, free with your beverage.  The previous night, had been three courses of fried fish dishes.  And here, you can barely buy bagels if you tried, but they magically appeared under our noses! Anyway, a finance and economic major, jesse entertained us with an update on the current status of marijuana legalization in Colorado.  Supposedly, you can call up delivery pizza places for marijuana-infused, custom-foods delivered to your house.  Although Jesse doesn’t smoke much himself, he seized a business opportunity to as an advisor/support person for budding pot growers, sometimes earning $1000 per client.  Between being this business savvy and selling his car, he took off on this epic adventure, already having covered most of France, Germany, Netherlands, hitch hiking in Poland, Slovenia, Portugal (one of his favorite so far which makes me excited), Croatia and probably much more before coming here.  Next stop for him will be the Spanish Canary Islands where he’s considering trying to find a gig working on a super yacht, which made Simone and I quite envious as we elected to stay bundled in our winter coats and scarves, even inside. Speaking of warmth, we decided bid goodbye to Jesse, who exited the bar with an exuberant...

Alhambra is not the only treasure in Granada!

Alhambra is not the only treasure in Granada!

I can’t believe I almost skipped this multicultural, snuggled-in-the-mountains, breath-takingly beautiful cultural city!  I met Simone at the crack of dawn (for all essential purposes) at our hostel where a Swede named Freddie gave us a vibrant descriptions of the city.  I love when he added audio enhancement to his descriptions, mimicking the cha-cha-cha of the ticket printer, the wail of gypsies, drum beats of the flamenco dancers and the battle cries of the crusaders.  Simone, the couchsurfer that I’m staying with is absolutely hilarious.  She’s born and raised in New Jersey, with the attitude and accent to prove it (when she got her large hoop earrings stuck in her scarf, she joked “Jersey girl problems”) but both her parents are Greek and she’s currently in Athens teaching rich kids English on a Fulbright.  She’s definitely immersed in the culture too- she complimented me on my gloves at one point, and when I lost one, she diagnosed it as the case of the “evil eye”.  In Greek culture, light-eyed people are often the target of envious glares which lead to a day of headaches until cured with burning cotton balls in oil and mixing water and oil.  Or something.  Fortunately, I found my mitten and don’t have a headache! Anyway, she’s a little energizer bunny, up for anything, even after three planes and a bus ride so we took off armed with a bad map and the spirit of exploration.  And there was much to see!  We poked our head into cathedrals, wandered around the Jewish section where we found a minuscule Semantic museum in some hidden neighborhood and she invited us to a Hanukkah music concert tomorrow (I doubt we could purposefully find the museum again), had tea in the Arabic section which where hookah pipes and Turkish lanterns spilled into the streets and pet cats at another randomly amazing museum on some painter who liked to collect Asian things. The whole day we planned to visit San Miguel Alto for sunset which ended up being a day long epic adventure.  Between our bad maps, tendency to veer off course to investigate interesting looking things and our preference for standing in sunshine (Simone joked “I’m solar powered!  I only function when the sun is out”), it seriously took all day to get there.  We hiked through gypsy territory where ladies tried to put tree branches in my hand and mumble madness about “hijos, amor, vida larga”.  We saw people living in mini caves with teensy horses eating grass under garbage outdoors.  We climbed a billion steps to the top of the city to reach our vantage point to enjoy the view- the Alhambra glowing orange, distinct personalities of different neighborhoods and the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance.  Definitely worth the hike, especially since rolling back down the mountain ended up being a lot more direct. Friday night, we met up with some locals for tapas in a Valencia-style and some perreo latino (Latin dance).  My British couchsurfers complained how Americans dance so dirty, grinding up on each other and told me they don’t do that in Europe.  It was strange to see Spaniards dance to very, sexual Latin music because they do it in a rather spacious more formal way.  But good times were had by all, dancing well into the night! Famous Court of the Lions at Alhambra On Saturday, we toured the famous Alhambra palace complex, an architectural gem which has been compared to Taj Mahal and the Acropolis.  It was absolutely massive- at least three palaces, three giant churches and elaborate gardens.  I think all of the palaces were built by the moors so the palace was covered in colorful mosaics, intricately carved plaster and ornate calligraphy.  Definitely more of a middle eastern vibe that’s infinitely more interesting to be than standard European architecture. This city has made me so excited for my trip to Turkey to February because like Istanbul, like Granada is a city where Jewish, Catholic and Muslim cultures collide and I just love walking down a street selling hookah pipes, spices and tea from the orient then being suddenly surrounded by Stars of David then in front of a huge cathedral.  Grenada also has gypsies in the mix (we’re hopefully going to a flamenco show tonight) and the free, elaborate tapas with a 2 euro beverage don’t hurt either! Anyway, Simone and I had another lovely day of getting lost, tapas with four locals and perusing the Arabic...

Singapore gardens and a night at the Marina Bay Sands

Singapore gardens and a night at the Marina Bay Sands

Final countdown begins!  Only three full days left in Singapore.  Fortunately, I’ve been able to cross off all the last major things off my Singapore bucket list. Last Tuesday, Jen, Dawn, Marie and I finally made it to the famous Gardens by the Bay, which impressed even the flower-illiterate me.  En route, our cab driver raved about the famous Singapore garden with over 70,000 types of vegetation.  Jen and I focused on redeeming our Groupon to see the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest conservatories.  The Flower Dome featured gardens from around the world, including some crazy Baobab trees (from Australia, if I recall correctly) that inspired the Supertrees that they illuminated each night.  The Cloud Forest was undisputedly my favorite- despite the humid moistness was frizzing my hair beneath its braids.  It featured a 35 meter high man made waterfall covered with a variety of orchards and ferns, which you could explore from the inside on multiple levels- I’ve never seen anything like it. Waterfall at the cloud forest We finished those gardens just in time for the simultaneously futuristic and tribal Supertree sound and light show- it felt like a cross between the Lion King and Star Trek.  Tomorrow, I’m meeting Lauren, Daly (my dumpling friend) and some fellowship people for wine and cheese inside one of the Supertrees!  So pumped- Lauren went last month and said she felt like she was inside a James Bond movie. Supertree Grove Speaking of fun Wednesdays, I think Wednesdays are favorite day of the week in Singapore.  Last Wednesday was particularly amazeballs because Ken got the EAPSI gang a room at Marina Bay Sands.  AND we got upgraded to a premiere room on the 47th floor with a ginormous bathtub.  I’m not used to staying places so nice- we called down to order some ice and ask for extra cups.  They called back, what kind of cups we would need.  Sure enough, when we opened the cubard, we found at least a dozen cups: coffee mugs, wine glasses, beer mugs, tumblers, highball glasses… more glassware than I know how to name! Alissa jumping up and down- blur of excitement! We didn’t linger too long because fellow fellows were flooding in and we didn’t want to miss out on our Ladies Night free drinks.  Almost everyone showed up and it was a fun way to celebrate a successful and truly unforgettable summer. Katie, Dawn and Alissa in the infinity pool Once Alissa and I stopped jumping for joy over the spacious epicness of the room, we donned bathrobes and headed to the infinity pool on the 57th floor. Nothing can beat the viewing experience of peering over the edge of the pool to see the illuminated city, spilling out before you.  It’s where the musical genius B.o.b. shot his “Livin’ the high life” music video (I think I shared it in an earlier post), rapping to life changing lyrics, including those in the title of this post (just kidding, it’s an awful song but we like it for nostalgic reasons). Most of the Marina Bay Sands crowd Work has been going well too.  Last Monday, I gave a successful talk at NUS high school, despite being bleary-eyed after stepping off my Sri Lanka flight at 5 AM.  All of the physics teachers came and most stayed an hour and a half after my talk to chat (and eat yummy snacks).  Prior to my talk, I got a private tour of the impressive facilities.  Singapore definitely is doing some extremely innovative things with their education system.  NUS high school is exempt from national exams and they exploit that freedom to get students engaged in high level research opportunities, machine shop classes and electronics labs.  One student independently constructed Tesla Coils (a project beyond the capabilities of his teachers- they just gave him space to work).  Pretty impressive for 7-12th graders! Today, I gave my final educational outreach “talk” to NUS-Yale college, which I was a little nervous about because the professors there were by far my most educated audience.  The acceptance rate for students was only 4% (in the first year of operation!) and students turned down Stanford and Yale to attend this brand-new school.  Dr. Adams, who I had met with before, was born in Kenya, earned degrees from Stanford, Oxford and Cornell, earned the prestigious National Research Fellowship scholarship in Singapore and helped set up a S$225 million educational initiative as a graduate student! He encouraged me to read the faculty bios of the RSVPed attendees and everyone was Ivy League educated, innovative and adventurous.  And he wanted me to provide a ten-minute introduction to SCALE-UP then lead...