Sunday, December 28, 2008

Our Egyptian Holiday

We just returned from a week long holiday in Egypt. Our main destination was the beach area of Sharm El Sheikh but also took some time to visit Cairo and Giza since we were in the country. Neither of us had been to the country or the continent before so it was an eye-opening experience to see the culture, lifestyle and surroundings that we encountered while in Egypt.  Egypt is a Muslim country and is actually divided between two continents - Asia and Africa. When we arrived in Sharm El Sheihk, we were on the Asia continent and when we went to Cairo for the day, we were on the Africa continent. Cairo is a fairly "modern" city (as our tour guide described it), but more progressive would be the way I would phrase it. The further south in Egypt you go, the more traditional the views are of roles and rules. In Cairo, women do hold jobs and our tour guide we hired for the day was actually a female. However, in Sharm, we rarely saw a woman at work and everyone at our resort was male - the waiters in the restaurants, taxi drivers, even housekeepers in the hotel. The only female we saw working was one receptionist at a restaurant within our hotel. 
Sharm El Sheihk was pretty much an unknown destination to us, prior to our move to England. It is a popular destination, however, with the Brits. We took about a 5 hour direct flight to get there from England and the weather was very warm compared to England at this time of year. We experienced sunny, 70-80 degree days and then about 60-70 degree evenings. It cooled down quite quickly in the evenings than due to it being desert everywhere around you and there being no humidity in the air. The resorts in Sharm are filled with British and lots of Russians. Due to the economic situation worldwide, the resorts did seem a bit empty and many of the local workers with whom we talked said it was unusually slow this season for their normally busiest time of year. 

We felt relatively safe while in Egypt, although there were some cultural differences that made us a bit uneasy at first. Since it is culturally ingrained that employers do not fully cover the costs of living wages, "baksheeh" or tipping, is customary for people to produce for activities ranging from opening the door, to checking out towels at the beach, to getting toilet paper in a public restroom. All in all it is pretty harmless, but it was a bit of an annoyance for us to consistently have to produce small bills for such services at every turn. 
Our Egyptian visas in our passports. We were required to purchase them upon arrival in Sharm in order to be able to travel outside of the Sinai peninsula (where Sharm is located). 
The mountaineous view upon our arrival in Sharm at the airport. We sat in our bus, among the many other tourist buses, waiting for the group to gather so we could depart for our resort. 
We stayed at the Renaissance Golden View in Sharm. It was a very steep resort, with LOTS of steps and many levels of gardens and pools as you went towards the beach area. It was a nice setting and further away from the towns in Sharm which provided more of a peaceful retreat.
Our hotel's grounds and pools were very nice and plush. Here is a photo of the main pool (one of 5 or 6 on the resort). 
Scott heading down the stairs to the beach....the resort had so many stairs!
Heading to the beach in search of our chairs and umbrella for another day of reading and relaxation in the sun.
The resort buildings.
A view of part of the beach area and resort while standing out on the jetty on the Red Sea. 
On the beach on our one cloudy day. :(
Lunching poolside....and enjoying a few cocktails! 
I was approached by workers at the resort almost daily, asking me if it were my first day in Egypt. I consistently had to tell them that although it did not look like it, I had been sitting in the sun for about 5 days here! I guess the good side of my high SPF (and very fair skin) is that I never did burn while we were there.
Scott the snorkeler, in the Red Sea, just off of our resort. He snorkeled almost daily and saw a lot of fish just 50 yards from the  beach. We did take a day long snorkeling trip on a boat out in the 100 km Ras Mohammaed National Park. Sadly, our camera battery died at that point and I did not charge it properly so, there are no photos of the excursion to show. 
The entrance to our resort, decorated for Christmas. 
The south Sinai Oasis outside of our resort. Theses areas outside of the resort were vast open spaces of desert and mountains as the back drop. 
The area of Na'am Bay during the day. 
On the Monday of our vacation, we got up at 4a.m. and flew to Cairo for the day. The flight was about an hour in length and by the time we landed in Cairo, it was only 7:15 in the morning! Once there, we met the private tour guide and driver we had hired for the day. Our tour guide was an Egyptian woman named Dalia who accompanied us for the duration of our visit in Cairo and Giza. She is one of approximately 8,000 tour guides in Cairo and she was knowledgeable about Cairo's history, and she was also very open to tell us about Egyptian life and especially life as a woman in a muslim country. Tourism is the largest industry for Egypt and also for any country in Africa. We could tell that we were just two tourists, out of many, who had made the excursion to visit Cairo for the day, as we ran into a number of familiar faces from our resort at various stops along the way.  

The city of Cairo is a bustling metropolis that is crowded with people, buildings, and traffic at every turn. Parts of the city made New York City look empty to me, because there were areas we passed that were so densely populated, I can only imagine people must live piled on top of one other. In addition to the pollution of the city inhabited by 30 million people, the mid-day winds created clouds of sand which blurred the horizon and made the air dusty to breathe. 
Tall residential buildings such as these were everywhere throughout the city. 
We drove by the Citadel on the eastern edge of the city. The Citadel has been home to Egpyt's rulers for some 700 years. The fortress is dominated by the private mosque of Mohammed Ali, which took 18 years to build.
We drove through Cairo in order to get to Giza which is the former village where the famous pyramids reside. The area of Giza is 18km in length, stretching westward from the Nile River to the Pyramids. As we drove towards the pyramids, we would catch glimpses of them along the roads, between the trees. They were the pull of our eyes, before we even knew we were close to them. 

Our entrance ticket to see the sole survivors of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. The pyramids are the planet's oldest tourist attraction. 
In front of the largest pyramid (the Great Pyramid of Khufu), with the second largest pyramid (the Pyramid of Khafre) in the distance. It is mind boggling to think that these pyramids were already 2500 years old by the time Jesus Christ was born. 
A view of Giza and Cairo from the grounds by the first large pyramid. 
A side view of the lime stones used to build the second pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre. We decided to purchase the extra ticket to go inside this pyramid. Cameras were not allowed inside but I am not sure I would have had room to even take a photo! The experience of climbing down into this dark pyramid, bent over (the entire time) and inching down a ramp with slats in place of stairs was one anyone with a degree of claustrophobia would not have been thrilled to do. Once we climbed down a plank and then up another, we made it into a tiny room with one tomb to showcase. The lack of oxygen in the pyramid was quite profound and it was easy to see how so many people died while building these tombs. 

Here is a short video I took while we were walking towards the second tomb before we went inside. It was a really windy day, so the acoustics on the video are a bit blurred. The lady in the red sweater vest was our nice tour guide.
video
Does it appear that I can really hold the pyramid in the palm of my hand?
After seeing all three pyramids, we made our way to see the Great Sphinx. The sphinx is carved from natural bedrock and sits at the bottom of the causeway to the pyramid of Khafre (the largest one). The studies have said that the sphinx was most likely created to protect the pharaohs and watch over them in the tombs during their after life. 
After visiting the pyramids, we drove through Giza. Our tour guide kept saying we were in the "countryside." Scott & I both found it puzzling, because it looked very much like an overcrowded city area to us! 
The Egyptian way to avoid paying property taxes - is to not finish the top floor of your dwelling. Every other building we passed was not finished, so apparently not a lot of property taxes are paid!
A man riding his camel through traffic in Giza. 
Two men riding on the back of a van on the streets of Giza. 
A fruit and vegetable stand. There were such stands every block throughout the area. 
Our next stop was an Egyptian perfume factory where we learned about how the essence of perfume is made locally. They also had many beautiful glass perfume bottles on display and for sale. While we visited with the tour guide here, we sipped hibiscus tea, a local speciality made from hibiscus flowers. 
Our day in Cairo ended with a tour of the Egyptian Museum. Cameras were not allowed in the museum so there are no photos of the 120,000 artifacts from almost every period of ancient Egyptian history on display there. We saw a mere fraction of those 120,000 but were impressed with the magnitude of the ones we did see. Most noteably, the museum houses the tomb and treasures of the pharaoh Tutankhamun (known to many as King Tut). There are about 1700 items belonging to King Tut alone within the museum, although his solid gold death mask was by far the shiniest and most attractive piece we saw. 
Back in Sharm El Sheihk, we spent our evenings in the main town, Na'am Bay. Na'ama has grown into a string of resorts that now is more like a Las Vegas or Cancun style strip with all the charm of a shopping mall, including loud music, hordes of tourists and many shop vendors constantly trying to lure such tourists into their shops in order to buy their goods. The constant chant from the shop keepers as we would walk by their stores became annoying by the end of our trip, but we tried to just walk past them and smile. We found the better dining options in Na'am Bay so we did go there a number of times for some good dinners. 
Cassie in the middle of the street with the lights of Na'am Bay in the background. 
Freshly caught fish on display in front of a restaurant. Most restaurants would have such a display case on the sidewalk in order to lure tourists into their restaurant for their seafood. 
A shisha lounge in Na'am Bay. Many of the outdoor lounges were colorful and relaxing. They all had couch-style seating with colorful tarps thrown across the grounds and many had lights and/or lamps strung across the top of their area. 
The Water Pipe menu at an outdoor cafe. Apple flavored shisha is the most popular flavor. So, we tried it....and it was really sweet in taste. 
The hookah we enjoyed at the outdoor cafe. There were burning embers that were placed inside the top part of the contraption, and the tongs on the side were used to put them in there and then remove them when we were finished. 
The taxi station in Na'am Bay. 
Riding a taxi in Egypt made any bad cab experience in Chicago seem tame in comparison. First, before getting into a taxi, it is imperative that you negotiate the fare upfront. If you do not, the fare will change multiple times (higher of course) before you arrive at your destination. Second, there are no speed limits on the roads in Egypt. If there are any type of stoplights, stop signs, or traffic signals, there are just not obeyed. And furthermore, the drivers may use all four lanes on a road, even if there are only two designated lanes on a street. After we rode back to our resort one night in a taxi, we practically kissed the ground after exiting the car!  
Scott in the center of Na'am Bay. 
A shop selling hookahs.

The other area of Sharm El Sheihk that we explored one evening was the Old Market. It is a smaller version of the shopping offered in Na'am Bay and many say it is more "authentic" and not as touristy as Na'am. We found it to offer just as much stuff (really a lot of tourist junk in both areas) and the vendors were clamouring just as much for our attention. When we walked through the market and did not respond to their English approaches, they would then try to speak Russian to us, and then Italian, and then possibly another language if we still had not responded. Once we did respond, even with a simple "hello," then the bantering of trying to get us into their store would begin. It was best just to smile and walk by in order not to get drawn into their store of stuff! 
The entrance to the Old Market in Sharm. 
A really neat spice shop in Old Sharm. 
The spices on display, street side, in Old Sharm. 

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Wishes from Egypt & England!

Christmas wishes from Egypt....
On Christmas Eve, at our resort in Sharm El Sheikh before dinner. 
And back in England, our Christmas mantel, stockings hung with care....no tree this year since we were traveling...
MERRY CHRISTMAS!!
 We miss our families and friends back home but send all of our love your way! xoxo

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Our View Right Now

We are in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt right now, enjoying some beach time and warm weather..... promise to post more when we return but we have a lot of relaxing, reading and some exploring to do before we return. 
 Merry Early Christmas! 

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Holiday Baking Time

It is time for holiday baking in our house....I love this time of year! I spent all of yesterday preparing gifts of baked goodies for Scott's co-workers and a few new friends we have made here. The day of baking was so enjoyable for me - probably because I had the entire day to do it, and did not worry about having to get ready for work the next day! (Note: It is probably first time I have said to Scott that I was actually glad not to be working right now - most of the time I am anxious about wanting to get back into a work routine). The other factor that helped was that we also do not know as many people here yet, so the list of recipients was shorter than in years past. 

Here are the results of my labor yesterday.....I used 22 eggs in total and over 10 pounds of sugar in my baking frenzy, resulting in 25 loaves of bread, 90 pieces of fudge, 6 pounds of butter almond toffee, 4 dozen sugar cookies, and 28 cups of homemade granola. 
One batch of the almond cranberry granola all mixed up and ready to be contained.
The bags of granola ready for gifting.
Lots of loaves of orange almond poppy seed bread. 
The bread loaves wrapped and ready to be gifted.
Walnut Chocolate Fudge.
Chocolate Fudge in individual petit cup wrappers.
The fudge wrapped in packaging.
Butter almond toffee ready and wrapped.
Sugar Cookies in their bags.
The full gift bags of goodies. I hope the recipients enjoyed the treats!