Egypt, Beautiful and Misunderstood

Arriving in Egypt

 
Ancient Egypt, I thought that's what I came to see and experience. I looked forward to seeing the great pyramids, temples and; of course, the Nile River. The world’s second largest river flowing from south to north responsible, in part, for the success of one of the greatest civilizations man has ever seen. Back when Pharaohs walked among their people like gods and had statues and temples erected in their honor and in homage to the gods they worshipped. I mean who didn't want to be an Egyptian god or Pharaoh when they were younger? There's so many to choose from. I was Sobek, the god of fertility, in my 5th grade Egyptian project! The myths and legends that fascinated me as a child, that's the Egypt I came to see.
 

 
Fast forward to modern times and it's a bit different. Unfortunately, for the young boy still inside me Egyptians no longer worship the gods of yesteryear. Cairo, the capital is an extremely busy city to the tune of about 27 million people. Anything you may have heard about the driving there is true. The only traffic law I could gather from my time in the city was don't crash. Getting behind the wheel here is like taking over the controller midway through a Mario Kart race. Crossing the street? Well, follow the locals and good luck. As my coaches used to say back when I was playing football, you better keep your head on a swivel. It is exciting though, in a, 'I better be quick and agile or I may get maimed' sort of way. 
 
Nevertheless, I'm in Egypt and I feel completely energized knowing what I'm about to see in this historic country.

Cruising the Nile

For four days and three nights I lived on the Nile, just like the locals. Except for the fact that I never had to get in the water or actually rely on the river to survive. Ok, so I was on a cruise ship, my first one in fact and it was completely awesome. Getting there wasn't too fun, a 16 hour train ride from Cairo to Aswan, where the tour started. But after that it was one of the best experiences I've had since I've been traveling. 

My train ticket from Cairo to Aswan 
 
A 'Cruise on the Nile' was enticing to me even without the tours that came with it. During the day we could see locals on the banks of the river going about their daily tasks and without fail each time we saw a group of kids they would wave until we passed. 
 

 
At night, when we were docked you could view monuments lit up in the distance off the Nile. But it was even better being on the move, when you could star gaze these Egyptian sky's and imagine what life may have been like all those thousands of years ago. 
 

 
Did I mention the tours? Two or more sites a day, all meals taken care of except drinks and some dodgy WiFi if you want to pay for it.  But hey, you're on the Nile. Take a lot of pictures, but don't worry about social media. Or get a SIM card that works too. All that, by the way was $350 which I thought was a pretty decent price for the experience and memories I got out of it. I booked it through Meramees Hotel in downtown Cairo, if you're interested.

The Sights

Before I took the night train to Aswan I made my first stop at the Giza pyramids. That's where all the good tourists start their Egyptian experience.
 

 
The pyramids are magnificent. I went on a full on photo shoot, even took some selfies, which I normally cringe at doing in public. But I have no shame here. When will I be back? Maybe never… It doesn't matter how many pictures you've seen, the pyramids will not let you down in person.  The sphinx, it is similarly fantastic. I spent three hours there and could have easily spent three more, I mean these pyramids are SO OLD it's amazing. 

The craziest thing about it though was how few tourists there were visiting the remarkable ancient structures. Aside from locals renting camel rides I felt like I was the only tourist there at some points. Don't get me wrong, it was nice not to have crowds, but Egypt’s reputation is much worse than what it is actually like, and it's the tourism industry (a huge part of their economy) that is suffering because of it.
 


 
In hindsight, I’m thankful I took the Nile river cruise because I would have never seen as much of Egypt as I did.
 

Abu Simbel Temple
 
This is the legendary Abu Simbel temple. You may have seen pictures before but not known the name, that was the case for me. Ramses II constructed this temple in honor of the high god Amon Ra. The four Pharaohs seated out front are of Ramses II and are approximately 65 feet tall! Notice the tiny person on the inside of the doorway? Ramses II, like many pharaohs I'm sure, thought of himself as a god and erected more statues of himself all over Egypt than any other ruler. He is literally everywhere.
 
The most interesting fact about Abu Simbel was that it was moved to be saved from the rising water levels that were due to the building of the Aswan High Dam.
 
One of the last temples I saw was the Habu Temple. I never realized how colorful these temples were until I set foot in Habu.
 


 
It's one of the best preserved, ancient Egyptian built temples still standing. The carvings here are also much deeper than normal compared to other temples around Egypt. The colors are remarkable, as is the fact that they're still visible 3,100 years after this was built. I'm pretty sure people repaint their houses every 5-10 years now, am I right?
 

 
Other places that I wish I could show pictures of but, understandably, photos are not allowed is the Valley of the Kings and King Tutankhamen's exhibit at the Cairo Museum. The valley, which houses the tombs of the Pharaohs have colors even more vibrant than those of Habu Temple. King Tut's treasures, including his famous golden mask were jaw dropping. There was a dagger made entirely of gold in there! It even came with a gold sheath! 
 
The entrance for the museum was only 75 Egyptian pounds, about $4.20. In fact, I didn't pay more than 100EGP or $5.60 for the entrance to any of temple I visited. There are extras, like visiting more tombs in the Valley of the Kings.  You can pay for them, but they're definitely not necessary to enjoy yourself. 

True or False: Egypt is dangerous

False, it's no more dangerous than any place I've been to. I never felt uncomfortable at any point while I was in Egypt (I can't say the same for some cities I've been to in the U.S.).
 

 
It's true that Egyptians care deeply about tourists because they are so important to their lives. I'd be hard pressed to find another people that are so friendly. Now don't get me wrong, sometimes that 'friendliness' ends with a hand wanting money, but even so the people were great. 
 
For example, when I went to the train station to head out for my Nile cruise, my cab driver drove me to the station, walked me across the street then waited with me until the train arrived. He then walked me to my seat before parting ways. He could have just dropped me off and let me navigate my own way, that's what would happen in America. My parents wouldn't even do that (now they wouldn't need to in the states of course, but you get my point).
 
Locals showing how to shape Alabaster into various items
 
One of my tour guides even asked me how could he make people view Egypt as a safe and good place to visit again. I didn't know what to say. Word of mouth, I suppose? I guess that's what I'm trying to do here. As someone with a media background I can see why only certain stories are told about foreign countries, but changing the perception of a country only happens when boots are on the ground. I mean people, not soldiers, of course. Other travelers sharing a story, which is what, intrigued me to visit.
 

 
So, do you still want to see the pyramids? What's stopping you now? It's neither scary, nor dangerous and $350 gets you to all the major sites once you get there. You won't regret it.
 
A couple suggestions before you go… aim for the winter months. Even for a seasoned Arizonan like me, it was hot. Nobody beats the sun. Also, go with a friend. I went by myself, and by all means if you consider yourself a seasoned traveler then go for it. But if you’re not so confident navigating a foreign country alone then I’d recommend planning it with a friend or two. I suggest this mainly because the lack of tourists leads to a tougher time meeting people. However, I made friends on the cruise but maybe I'm just getting really good at it. 
 
– Mark
 

Advertisements

The Other Side of Israel

Never in my life did I think I would be here in the Middle East, much less walking through the Old City in Jerusalem or swimming in the Dead Sea. The perception of this area is violence and danger, but that’s not the reality.  

I started my visit to Israel in Tel Aviv, the western coastal city known more for partying and beaches (beware the jellyfish) than anything else. It just so happened that the first night I was staying in the city there was a festival going on. Now, if you choose to learn more about Tel Aviv you will come across the sentiment that Israelis love to party. I can tell you from my personal experience that this is absolutely true! I was out for what they call ‘White Night’ where seemingly the entire city is out on the streets way past their normal bedtime. Israelis know how to do it right.


The Dead Sea


Being in this water is an incredible experience, but a tip before you go… DO NOT forget your sandals. I made this mistake and the hot sand made me pay for it dearly. Running to the water doesn’t help either because the water is actually warm, sort of like a jacuzzi that’s cooling down. Also, if you didn’t know you should keep your head above the water, because the salt burns a lot.


You can think about what it might feel like all you want, but to actually float effortlessly is something you only understand once you do it for yourself. To me, it felt like I was flying or even walking through the water which was as surreal of an experience as I’ve ever had. I would guess that this is similar to being in zero gravity. It is absolutely incredible.

 

And of course, you have to put mud all over your body when you come here. It’s the touristy thing to do.

 

The Journey to Jerusalem

Any place I wanted to visit or anything I wanted to do was an adventure in Israel, but getting to Jerusalem was a bit more challenging. I had been staying with my friend Nati (more on him in a bit) who graciously dropped me off at a bus station. Here I was…. a foreigner in Israel who does not speak Hebrew, in the middle of nowhere. Imagine looking to your left and then right and seeing nothing but desert and highway and across the street are buildings that don’t look like the place you want to go for information. Yeah. After trying and failing to read the Hebrew bus stop sign, I finally asked a woman sitting near me if and when the bus was coming for Jerusalem. 

Bus 277, 20 minutes. Awesome, until it wasn’t. The bus did come… and then it went right by without stopping. I just waited 40 minutes for this and now the next one won’t be here for another hour. I’m still in the middle of nowhere. But this was not my fate on that day. The woman I had spoken to earlier offered to take me on another route to get to Jerusalem and so I went with a complete stranger. The story ends with me getting safely to the city, but the point is I got there by the good will of others. Me… a foreigner in a foreign country. I chose to have faith in people, and as they say, a little goes a long way. 

Okay, let’s talk Jerusalem. The Old City is incredibly difficult to navigate if you don’t know where you’re going. Fortunately, people again were helpful and directed me to where I was staying. The Old City is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. It’s crazy to see where one ends and one begins, it’s almost like crossing borders because you can see the distinct difference between each one. 

 

Going to these historical religious sites is impactful no matter what you believe. Touching the stone where Jesus’ cross stood when he was crucified and then being mere feet from his tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was an unthinkable feeling. Seeing the Western Wall and all the people praying was similarly fascinating. When I stood in front of these places I felt small, amazed and drawn to them all at the same time. It was something I’ll never forget.
 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Western Wall
Tomb of the Virgin Mary

The People

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what was perhaps the most impactful part of my stay in Israel. First we have to go back to Romania, when I was staying at a hostel in Bucharest about a week before I was to arrive in Tel Aviv. There, I met two guys named Nati and Yanay who were from Israel. As travelers in hostels you meet a lot of people all the time and when you part ways you wish each other the best and good luck among other things. Before Nati and Yanay left they offered me to stay with them when I visited Israel. To be honest I thought they were just being polite. But when I arrived in Israel, I thought ‘What the hell, I’ll at least grab a beer with them’.

Yanay Malik

They were absolutely serious. I met both of these guys for less than 48 hours, but here I was a week later, invited into their home, having drinks and breaking bread. Their hospitality was incredible and definitely much more than I deserved, but to them this was how they operate. To take in a guest and make them feel at home is their mission and I am very grateful that I happened to meet them. 

 I stayed with them for four of my nights in Israel so we had a lot of time to talk. If you ever travel to other countries, I encourage you to try and speak with the locals about anything. What you learn about each other and their culture is always enlightening. We spoke about religion, politics and the perception of the Middle East among other things. Nati, a 26 year-old Jewish Israeli, and me, a 23 year-old American of Mexican descent, are much more alike than you might think.

 We talked at length about how Israel is viewed by the rest of the world and generally the idea is that it is chaotic and/or dangerous. A lot of that perception is due to movies portraying the Middle East as violent and unfortunately the media picking up stories that are violent in nature as well. But it’s not their fault… be honest, are you going to read a story about the light festival I went to in Jerusalem walking through the Old City? Maybe, but probably not. ‘If it bleeds it leads’ is the saying, you gotta give the people what they want.

Nati Skital

 I asked Nati what he would like people to think about Israel instead of what the common perception is:

“All the time I invite people to my house, come see how we are living. What we are thinking. There is good and not good people everywhere in the world. It’s not like (what) the media says. It is really different and you saw that. I would say come to me, come to my house and live, meet people. A lot of people like me and you (millennials) think different things, they’re not like the older Jewish (people)” – Nati Skital

 The people here don’t want others to be afraid. They want the rest of the world to know that Israel is a safe place and not a war zone. Many people I know including family and friends were hesitant when I said I would be coming here because of the ‘perception’, but that’s what happens with the unknown. 

 I came here to challenge that idea and found incredible hospitality, friendly people and an amazing country. Remember this: people are PEOPLE, everywhere. Israel has so much to offer to those willing to visit. Don’t limit your experiences because of a stereotype, there’s too much to see.
From Ben Gurion International Airport

– Mark 

 

Greece, and the Beauty in Their Crisis

Greece is not in a good place right now financially, or politically. This has been well documented over the last few years ever since they had their crisis. The government, of course, won’t do what they need to help their people. The people, in return deal with homelessness, low paying jobs and the stresses of making ends meet. For many the cost of living is more than they can make in a month (the average jobs pays €600 = $670 and renting a place in a very sketchy area costs at least €200). It’s not uncommon to see families on the street and as of June, 2017 it’s not uncommon to see trash filling the street as well.

City workers and the government are at odds over work conditions so the employees are on strike. Another issue currently plaguing what was once upon a time the most powerful and influential place in the world. 


But despite the problems in Greece, they still laugh, they still have fun, they still smile. There’s a simple beauty to Athens and it starts with the people.

On a Monday afternoon they still pack the beaches until the sun goes down. At night they still fill the streets at the local bars. As one local told me, “Their is still lots of life here”. The people are friendly and helpful, it almost seems that they want you to enjoy the city as much as they do. 


Athens is quite amazing, you only have to see the monuments at the Acropolis and the others that litter the city to realize this.




But then there’s the neighborhoods that seemingly take you to another city just blocks from each other. There’s the busy and vibrant Plaka neighborhood where you can find music, food and shop till you drop.

And then there’s Anafiotika sitting at the base of the Acropolis, which feels like a dream land mini-city. It’s painted mostly white and contrasted with bright vibrant colors, similar to what you would expect to see in Santorini, the famous Greek island. 



In a city as ancient as this one every turn, down every street, led to another mini-adventure that I won’t soon forget. One small piece of advice before I finish: avoid summer if you can, it gets really hot here. 

From somewhere near Mount Olympus,

– Mark

The Grand Budapest City

I have never centered my day around food while on vacation or on any kind of trip, until Budapest. It all happened by chance, actually. I arrived at my hostel in the city, met a group of travelers sharing the same room with me and proceeded to tag along with them(whether they wanted me to or not). What followed next was a pilgrimage through one list of the top ten places to eat in Budapest and it went something like this:

Eggs Benedict
Breakfast, this wasn’t on the top ten list but it was my first meal in Budapest. Eggs Benedict is a classic and this one was no different. Also, it was only $6.
Paneer, Jalapeño Cheese Burger $5

Look closer, that’s not a chicken patty. It’s a REAL cheese burger. Yep, a breaded cheese patty. Need I say more? I didn’t think so. This is from a restaurant called Paneer which substitutes everything that would be meat, with cheese. We went here right after breakfast. Literally a 5 minute walk, totally worth it. 

Meat and Sauce, beef sandwich $6

Now this one might not look like much, but I’m pretty sure it’s the best sandwich I’ve ever had in my life. The restaurant is called Meat and Sauce, aptly named because that’s all this sandwich is. Mustard, shredded beef and then the entire thing is dunked in a sauce depending on the type of meat you get. Instead of making the bread soggy, biting into it just tasted like the juiciest burger you’ve ever had. The best comparison to this is a French dip sandwich, this is just the way better version. 5 stars, highly recommend. They also have duck, lamb, chicken and fish.

Zing Burger, Cheese Burger $7

I know what you’re thinking, why get a burger when it’s such an ‘American’ meal? But did you see the picture? Anyways, we were true to the list and it hadn’t led us wrong yet, so there we were at Zing Burger. Much like the first two, this one directly followed the sandwich. Also, it was awesome as well. 

 We also went to a Jewish outdoor street food restaurant, a pizza place from Italy and a popular bagel shop. However, I was not always able to contain myself long enough to take a picture so you will just have to go see those for yourself. They say the way to a mans heart is through his stomach. Well DAMN Budapest, I think I’m in love.

When I wasn’t eating amazing food I did get to see the beauty of the city and I have to say, when a river runs through the place you live or visit it makes everything so much better. And when you can walk to everything in the span of half a day, it’s game over. 

St. Matthias Church
Buda Castle
Parliament Building
Heroes’ Square
Vajdahunyad Castle
Chain Link Bridge
Parliament at night across the Danube river


In terms of cities I’ve been to so far Budapest is right there at the top with Paris. If you’re making a trip to Eastern Europe (DO IT!) make sure Budapest is on your list! In the meantime, enjoy the sunset.

Till next time,

– Mark

Two Days in Vienna (and then some)

When it comes to a city taking pride in its architecture Vienna is second to none from what I’ve seen so far on this side of the Atlantic. Now, Vienna is known as one of the more expensive cities in Europe so it may not be so surprising to witness the incredible buildings that decorate the city. 

At times it was a bit overwhelming, especially when visiting St. Stephansdom, the marvelous church in Vienna (its nearly as tall as the pyramid of Giza). 


Vienna was a short stop for me, just over two days, which is never enough time to really experience a city. And that, people, is what I like to call: Champagne problems.


Despite the short trip in Vienna it was still a great one. I was able to meet my wonderful mother here as she was in Europe for work for a week. So the visit to Vienna (and a 2 day trip to a small town in Slovakia) gets an A++ for that reason alone. When I was a young kid my older sister Ashley got to run off to New Zealand with our mom on a similar work trip. I was a jealous child at the time, of course, but visiting Vienna and an awesome medieval castle in Slovakia more than made up for it.

– Mark

Prague, Vlog Style

The city of a thousand spires was predictably beautiful. From the views of the city at Prague castle to the sight of St. Vitus Cathedral, lit up at night it is like a scene out of a Disney movie. It’s happened to me a few times, but it’s surreal to realize exactly what I’m doing sometimes. For example, walking on the Charles Bridge, which is over 600 years old, and realizing that I’m walking the same path royalty made on their way to the castle all that time ago. Seeing that I’m walking through history at every turn is an amazing experience. The gothic architecture is fantastic, with its realistic features and extreme detail it’s unlike anything I have yet to come across in Europe. Once the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, Prague definitely lived up to its reputation.  

Instead of a written piece this time, here’s Prague, vlog style. Enjoy.

In case you didn’t catch it, Czech beer is fantastic. That is all.

– Mark

Living in Lisbon

Ahhh… Portugal. To be honest I didn’t think much of Lisbon before I arrived here. Not that I didn’t like the city, it’s just I had never thought to visit. It wasn’t on my list of must see places in Europe. However, my cousin lives in Lisbon and I was able to stay with her while I planned my next trip across Europe so that’s how I ended up in the capital of Portugal.

Arco da Rua Augusta

‘The city of Seven Hills’ has many layers to it, from the deeply religious background to the earthquake that destroyed almost the entire city just over 250 years ago. To the nightlife that’s kept me out for my fair share of 5am cab rides home to the rich history of a nation of explorers.

One of the best things I did while in Lisbon was take two walking tours (one was free, the other was about $15). Both tours basically blended together to become a crash course of the history of Lisbon and Portugal as a whole. It wasn’t until I learned more about the history of this place that I could see how prevalent it still is in modern Lisbon. 


It’s not just the monuments that serve as memories of the past here, it’s the white cobblestone sidewalks from Roman influences. The tiled walls on the outside of buildings were learned from the Moors. Even the blue and white dishes used in nearly every cafe and restaurant come from their past. 

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Now, if you don’t know much about Portugal, they’re known for being sailors and explorers (Christopher Columbus, anyone?) and one of the running jokes with the Portuguese is that they don’t get the credit they deserve when it comes to certain traditions from other countries. For example, Tea (Britain), Tempura (Japanese cooking technique), Fine China (China), and even coffee with sugar are all things that can be traced back to Portuguese origins. 
Padrão dos Descobrimentos

The history is rich, as well as the food. You MUST get a Pastel de Nata if you visit. Preferably, go to Belém and get one from Pasteis de Belém. You won’t be disappointed. 

​​​Go to Alfama (take the walking tour) and meet Tininha. She sells Ginginha (a native Portuguese drink) out of her living room window for 1€. Totally worth it.

Finally, hit a beach. The weather is typically perfect, think San Diego. There’s plenty of options to choose from. This one is in Cascais, a small beach town about 20 min from Lisbon.


Those were my top picks, anything else you do in Lisbon is gravy. 

 Next up, Prague, Czech Republic

– Mark

P.S. I must be integrating to European culture. I made it to my first sunrise after a night out. Head to pillow @7:30am