While in Kuala Lumpur back in 2011, I did more than just drink beer and watch street walkers, I also saw some very cool places and attractions you might not have come across.
The Old China Cafe
Old China Cafe was a great lunch of Malay-Chinese cuisine and had an interesting feel. Finding it was the hardest part but a friendly guy sniffing glue on the corner pointed me in the right direction. I’m lucky to have been in China before it’s modern transformation…this reminded me of that.
From their site:
This building was the guild hall of the Selangor & Federal Territory Laundry Association. The guild was set up at the turn of the century and moved to this part of Chinatown in the 1920s. As the guild members prospered, the founding members moved to this building in 1930. The two large mirrors that face each other are traditional feng shui mirrors that Chinese believe would perpetually reflect the good luck when the first rays of the morning sun light up the interior.
Even the interior doors still have wooden latches. This type of pre-war (World War One/1914-1918) shophouses may not last forever. Already several in the neighbourhood (Jalan Panggong, Jalan Petaling and Jalan Balai Polis) have either been demolished or renovated beyond recognition.
Old China Café tries to maintain a semblance of the Chinese community’s old social life which will soon fade into history.
Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve. Sitting in the center of ultra-modern, ultra-urban Kuala Lumpur is a rainforest preserve where you can hike across wooden bridges, see monkeys, and get your feet muddy on tropical trails. Since 1906 the 11 hectares of the preserve have been a beloved spot for locals and visitors to get away from it all by heading to the city center. Great trails and for tree lovers you can check the signage to discover Kapur (Dryobalanops aromatica), Keruing bulu (Dipterocarpus baudii), Jelutong (Dyera costulata), Meranti pa’ang (Shorea bracteolata) and Rattan (Calamus manan) and many other trees. A botanical herb garden, orchid area, nature center, and jogging trails all make this a more than worthwhile nature stop in the center of the city.
Ain Arabia is a completely neat idea to me. Sure, Malaysia is a Muslim country, but it’s not an Arab country. If, however, you want to experience the Arab world of the Middle East while visiting Southeast Asia, the place to head is Ain Arabia. The street is located at Jalan Berangan in Bukit Bintang. Oddly, the area seemed to be filled with mostly Arab tourists and I’m told that during the month of Ramadan, many Arabs come from stricter countries to avoid the enforced fast. Since I lived in Morocco, I found the Sahara Tent Restaurant and the Berber laundry service to be more than a little bit odd.
Cosmo’s World Theme Park gives you a chance to experience a theme park but without having to go outside so you can enjoy the air conditioning. The park is located at Level 5, Berjaya Times Square. It fills 380,000 square feet and has separate theme parks for adults and children called Galaxy Station and Fantasy Garden. Sorry, the Fantasy Garden is the part for kids…Still, you have to love indoor roller coasters and a ride called the DNA mixer sounds like it is much more adult than it really is.
Little India. Indians are one of the three main ethnic groups in Malaysia so Little India makes sense. For those looking for an Indian experience without going to India. This works. Jalan Masjid India is one of the oldest parts of the city and dates back to 1870 when the Indian mosque was built.
Little India is the heart of a thriving neighborhood built up around the mosque. It is filled with colorful flowers and garments and is easy to reach. Just get off the tram at Masjid Jamek Station or walk from China town.Bales of saris, shops heaped with gold, traditional pharmacies and gorgeous glass bangles fill the shops and delicious aromas come from the many restaurants which offer tasty Indian snacks like samosa, ghulab jamun and vadai.
The Bird and Butterfly Parks. The Bird Park and Butterfly house are located in the Lake Gardens, a 60-hectare reserve since 1888. It is the world’s largest free flight, walk in Aviary. The butterfly park has over 6000 butterflys and more than 120 species…and they are alive not stuck to pin-boards.
National Planetarium. I’m a sucker for planetariums. I just love them. It’s the blue domed building above the Lake Gardens and has a space museum that includes replicas of ancient observatories. The planetarium shows were in English and not only interesting, but fun. Of particular note was the very nice juxtaposition of traditional Islamic architecture with the space age. Very nice.
Not incidentally, I was also very happy to sample her 50 Special Pignoletto which she named for those days when she was a teenager and she and friends would jump on their Vespa 50 Specials and ride into the hills of Bologna where they would drink…what else? Pignoletto!
I woke up early while the rest of the Blogville residents slept off all the wine from the night before and caught a bus out to Podere San Giuliano where Chef Federica met me, we then had coffee, and she walked us through the process of making a classical Bolognese Tortellini and Tagliatella for which Bologna is especially well known.
This is the dish that takes the name Bolognese and oddly, the people of bologna don’t actually eat spaghetti – instead they eat this delicious rolled and cut pasta which should be 8 mm when cut, cooked and served on the table. There is actually a golden sample of the perfect dimensions which is held in the Palazzo della Mercanzia in Bologna!
For the Ragoul (the sauce) we needed chopped the following:
1 carrot, an onion, and some celery stalks
We then melted bacon fat, seared the vegetables and added minced meat and allowed it to cook and brown before pouring approximately 1/2 cup of white wine (because the red changes the color of the ragoul) and fresh tomato sauce which was grown and processed on Podere San Giuliano. After that, we left the kitchen so the sauce could simmer for the next two hours while we made the pasta.
Much to my surprise, the pasta was made using only approximately 2 cups of flour and two eggs. Pile the flour in the center, create a bowl in the center, add the eggs and begin mixing with the fork.
After a ball of dough is made, that is when you begin rolling it out. A nice trick Chef Federica showed us is to let one edge of the dough hang over the edge as you roll the other edge, thus allowing gravity to assist you.
Tagliatella is said to have been made to celebrate the beauty of Lucretia Borgia who was married to the duke in nearby Ferrara. Watch the video to see me combing her hair!
We rolled and rolled and rolled and rolled – and then we folded the pasta over on itself a number of times and cut it into the 8 mm strips – that’s when we took this video.
We allowed the pasta to sit for approximately an hour before cooking it and to my surprise, the cooking took only 1-2 minutes. This is fresh pasta and so it doesn’t need to re-hydrate like dried pasta.
After that, we removed it from the vat – Chef Federica says that you need to boil pasta in large volumes of water to get it to taste the best. By the way, my mother’s method of cooking until the pasta sticks on the wall is considered brutal – you actually don’t want it to be that sticky so stop a few minutes earlier, Mom.
Finally we settled on the patio for a beautiful lunch in a perfect setting.
A local belief states that the Romans preferred to march to war across Le Marche, so their troops would arrive at battle well fed and fueled for victory. The Italian region of Le Marche is famed for vineyards and farmsteads spanning from the Adriatic to the Apennines. At La Tavola Marche, a farm inn and cooking school, chickens cluck cheerfully while the cat Piccolo stalks through flowerbeds with his uncle, Buster.
Health begins in the soil where alfalfa, grains, and carrots grow. At La Tavola Marche, owners Ashley and Jason Bartner focus on organic, traditionally prepared meals. He is a classically trained alumnus of the French Culinary Institut. She is a foodie and columnist for Taste Italia. Together, they’ve created an agriturismo that crosses a Roman feast with heart-warming hospitality.
The Farmhouse La Tavola Marche sits atop a green knoll, crowned by a 300 year-old farmhouse renovated into guest rooms and apartments. A nearby spring feeds directly into the pool and pipes, providing mineral rich waters for cooking, bathing, and swimming. Down a stone path, the garden produces over 80% of their cooking ingredients, including zucchini with tender blossoms, strawberries, fava beans, parsley, and potatoes. Each morning Jason waters the plants for over two hours, twining tomato vines around traditional bamboo stakes and staving off fungal invasion with organic probiotics.
While Jason razes a virtual symphony of succulence in the kitchen, his wife Ashley tends to the chickens and monitors her cache of homemade liqueurs. House specialties focus on digestives created from local ingredients like green walnuts, plums, and cherries. By using seasonal fruit, Ashley packs vitamins and minerals into traditional after-dinner drinks.
On a typical evening, dinner encompasses five courses. In the stone courtyard, white votive candles cast a romantic light. The rooster calls his hens home. Housecats greet each other after a day playing in the fields. As Jason garnishes plates, Ashley sweeps dishes out to the tables. They are almost too pretty to eat.
With no less passion than her chef-husband, Ashley describes each platter with gusto: ripe melon wrapped with salty prosciutto, lentil salad with cucumber and shaved cheese, and garden-grown fava crostini. Primo and secondo courses playfully utilize what is locally available and at its height of freshness: hearty tagliatelle traditionally handmade without salt, roasted veal breast of puntine di Vitello. Table wine is locally made and bottled at the farmhouse. Just when you’ve reached maximum stomach-capacity, dessert and digestives appear to finish the meal with a sweet finale.
With their belief in healthy cooking, Ashley and Jason willingly provide recipes for their meals as well as cooking classes in the farmhouse kitchen. Don’t miss their Thursday night pizza parties. Visitors should take advantage of agrotourism and country lifestyle in Le Marche. Here, farmers chop wood for winter. Neighbors help weed each other’s gardens. And the moon rises over pre-Roman ruins. In La Marche, wine embodies the spirit of life while homemade meals remain at its heart.
What could be better than to taste your way through historic Old Town Pasadena, California?
Thanks to the popularity and growth of food-obsessed walking tours and local Melting Pot Food Tours (based in Southern California) tourists, visitors, and locals can get to know the unique culinary neighborhood that makes up this special city.
On a beautiful June weekend morning, Melting Pot Tours treated a team of press people to an unforgettable 3-hour, 1.5 mile epicurean excursion to enjoy some of the best off the beaten path artisanal restaurants and unique shops in heart of Old Pasadena.
The tour group met in front of a local wine store and was made up of about 10 people from all kinds of places, ages, and walks of life. The tour started promptly with a quick explanation of the day’s itinerary. The walking pace and amount of information given was perfect. My group especially appreciated that owner/tour guide Lisa kept us on task and on schedule. We never felt rushed, but neither did we feel bored at any time.
Old Pasadena is well known for its food. Delicacies of every variety can be found throughout the city, from dim sum to truffles. Our tour took us to an eclectic mixture of nine great shops, cafes, and restaurants. Each tour is different so you can go multiple times and experience something different each time. Ours took us to an old-world boutique chocolate shop, an award-winning gelato shop, an authentic Mexican torta café, a Mediterranean café serving crispy falafel balls, an edgy Asian fusion restaurant (the group’s favorite stop of the day), an exquisite olive store, a delightful family-owned and operated Peruvian style restaurant, a gourmet tea and herb shop—complete with a tea bar- and an upscale soap shop. If there’s one thing the owners of Melting Pot Tours know—it’s good food!
Each place was thoughtfully chosen to be unique and probably not something I would have found on your own. In my opinion Melting Pot delivered on its promise, “…to entertain and educate locals and visitors alike.” At just $53 (adults) and $28 (children) this is the bargain of the century. I’ve taken similar food walking tours for double and triple the price.
A walking food tour is appropriate for almost anyone, but is best suited to adults with a curiosity about local food, architecture and history. The dining experience will provide enough food to satisfy any appetite. Water is the only beverage served, but you can purchase other beverages if you like. My advice is to wear sun block, comfortable shoes and a hat if it’s a hot day. No time has been set aside for shopping, so you’ll most likely have to go back on your own time if you see a special treasure you want. The route is flat, but if you have knee or hip issues, the course will be a challenge for you. Each stop is less than 10 minutes from the next one and you will be spending about 20 minutes or so at each stop.
Tours are given year round (except major holidays). Guides are patient, knowledgeable and engaging. Most are day tours, although April – October an evening tour is added on. Feel free to join an already organized group or you can book a private tour with 10 or more people. Advance tickets are required. So come hungry and be excited about the Old Pasadena Walking Tour, as you eat your way through the best restaurants, and shop your way through some of the most unique shops in the diverse, best tasting city in Southern California, Old Pasadena.
Once you finish your foodie tour, think about strolling back over to the Everson Royce (ER) wine shop and tasting bar (named for owner Randy Clement’s two twin boys). The shop is located across from Memorial Park where the food tour started. April Langford and Randy Clement have created a shop that offers small production, high quality, artisanal wines …and a few surprises. For starters, there’s draft wine – from an eight-tap dispenser to be exact. You can find that treat in the tasting section of the wine shop. The taps dispense four California reds (cooled to 60 degrees) and also four California whites (cooled to 43 degrees). Wines change often, but look forward to small lot beauties such as Butternut Chard, Blue Plate Chenin Blanc, Andrew Lane Merlot, and Hobo Zin.
You can find owner Randy Clement there on most days. You can feel his driving energy and passion for exceptional customer service and value. He also seems to have a knack for choosing the right staff. As Randy told me, “It’s all about customer service; we want to kill our customers with kindness.” I can confirm that. My experience is that the staff is attentive, knowledgeable and engaging.
Once you’ve finished your tasting, there’s a large selection – about 500 bottles – to choose from, from just about everywhere. Prices run from $7 – $2,000 a bottle. Special orders are welcome. Think eastern European wines, Italian, French, Spanish and lots of California wines showcasing whatever you can think of from varietals to blends. Be sure to ask for your 10% off discount off as a participant in the Melting Pot Tour experience.
Until you’re able to take the tour, here’s a quick and refreshing recipe from our first stop Tortas Mexico to tide you over. It was a group favorite.
Watermelon Agua Fresca Compliments of Tortas Mexico Pasadena
Tortas Mexico Pasadena offers an authentic casual dining experience with recipes from the owner’s homeland of San Juan Yucuita in the Nochixtlan District of Oaxaca. They use only the freshest ingredients and each food item is made to order.
This light, refreshing drink popularized in Mexico is a terrific thirst quencher on a hot summer day. The trick with making agua fresca (Spanish for “fresh water”) is to infuse the water with fruit essence without turning it into a smoothie or slushy drink. Feel free to experiment with other flavors such as strawberry, mango, cantaloupe and honeydew.
6 to 8 pounds seedless watermelon, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 cups cold water, divided
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon honey (more or less to taste)
Cut the watermelon flesh from the rind. In a blender, process half the watermelon pieces with 1 cup of water until smooth. Pour through a strainer into a pitcher. Repeat the process with the remaining melon and water. You should end up with about 8 cups of juice. Stir in the lime juice and honey. Pour into ice-filled glasses and garnish with lime slices and mint.
Modena, Italy is the city that Italians think about when they think about food. For me, that was enough to make me book a foodie tour while I was there. Sure, there are plenty of beautiful buildings, famous artwork, historical stories – but I was in Modena for three things –
Parmagiano-Reggiano Cheese (this isn’t the Parmesian that comes in a green can, Americans!)
Traditional Modena Balsamic Vinegar
Lambrusco – the famous sparkling red wine of Modena (yes, sparkling red!)
I arranged my tour through Emilia Delizia – out of all the tour companies available, I liked these guys for the way they set up their tours, for the personalized nature of the tours, and also because we had nice interaction via email. All of those things added up to my booking with them and meeting my guide, Gabriele, at 8 am in Modena.
The day began with Gabriele offering a nice overview of the food of Emilia Romagna, the history of the region, and a short drive to a small dairy outside of Modena where Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced. The cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna region is both robust and refined consisting of smoked meats, cheeses, wines, vinegars, and pastas such as tagliatella and tortellini. I had taken a pasta cooking course back in May, so this tour was going to be focused on the wine, vinegar, and of course, the cheese.
Emilia-Romagna really hit the gastronomic big time back in the 1800’s when food writer Pellegrino Artusi when he detailed the region in his book The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well which spoke about the various regions of this and other parts of Italy. Artusi was a native of the region and described the food as not just being healthy and delicious but also good for the soul!
At the dairy, the cheese master kindly let me view the whole process, ask what may have been silly questions, and take plenty of photos. You may remember the images of huge wheels of cheese falling during the recent earthquakes in Northern Italy – that was the prince of all cheeses, Parmegiano-Reggiano aka Parmesan Cheese. This cheese is considered such a perfect food that it is sent to outerspace to provide the calcium for astronauts and thus avoid the loss of bone density which comes from extended periods in weightless environments.
I’ve always been a big cheese lover, but seeing the process, made my appreciation grow. It begins with the grains grown on the dairy which are fed to the cows that live at the dairy. This is a truly regional product. The making of it goes back to the year 1200 and has remained much the same since that time. The only place that this cheese can be made and certified is in the small region south of Mantua and bordered between Parma and Bologna. The cows, the grain, and the cheese master all need to be from this region.
The milk has to be fresh from the cow (within two hours of milking) in order to be used. The milk is placed in vats and overnight the cream separates. It takes more than 4 gallons of milk to make 2 pounds of Parmigiano-Reggiano and it is all artisanally made. The milk is then heated in copper cauldrons where it begins to do the work of curdling. Next, the milk curd is broken up into small chunks using a giant whisk, then it is cooked and allowed to cool. The curds drop to the bottom and using a pair of sticks and a large spatula – the cheese ball is lifted out and cut into two masses, dropped into molds and pressed to remove excess moisture for several days.
Next the cheese is soaked in a salt bath for about 20 days before being removed and allowed to age for 1 to 3 years. Only at this point is an expert certifier brought to inspect the cheeses – if they pass, they get the fire brand – this is the ‘Parmigiano-Reggiano Consorzio Tutela’ oval mark you will find on the finest cheeses. Those that don’t make the cut, are marked with horizontal bands which indicate they are of an inferior quality (though still delicious). We tried a 12, 24, and 36 month cheese – of them all, I preferred the 24 months as the flavor was strong with hints of nuts and sweetness but not overpowering as the 36 month was. The 36 month is special and should be reserved for specialty cooking – although with a drop of sweet balsamic on top, a single piece comes close to cheese divinity.
Our next stop was a family home where traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena has been made for several generations. I should point out that the Balsamic Vinegars that most American’s have tried are very different from these. While most vinegars are made from wine, traditional balsamic is made from unfermented grape juice. Again, this is a product that must be completely regional – the grapes are usually grown by the family who makes the Balsamic.
The process begins with the grapes which are crushed and then added to a battery of hard-wood barrels which impart varioius flavors to the vinegar as it ages – how long? The minimum is twelve years! There are two certifications 12 and 25 years. The process takes place in the attic of the house.
We were met at the gate by Carlotta, the daughter of Giorgio and the newest in generations of Balsamic producers. As we stepped in the house, the overwhelming sweet smell of the Balsamic met us as Carlotta led us to the attic where battery after battery sat slowly concentrating. The barrels range from large to small and over the course of years the vinegar reduces from the open tops – each year a bit of the previous years grape juice is added until after 12 to 25 years – voila! A barrel of a few gallons is ready to be consumed or sold. Seriously, 25 years to make a handful of bottles.
Carlotta walked us through the entire process and showed us the batch her father began when she was born. She is 26 now and so the Balsamic Vinegar ‘Carlotta’ has recently come available. The amazing thing is that the woods of the barrels import a strong taste to the Balsamic so that a Balsamic that was kept in only sweet woods like cherry or ash offers these flavors. Similarly, the Balsamic that sat in Juniper tasted strongly of the berries and aroma of the juniper trees.
The Balsamic ‘Carlotta’ was sweet and delicious and she confided in us that she likes it best dribbled onto vanilla ice cream! We were able to taste a variety of 12 and 25 year old Balsamics while we were there and then we had the chance to buy a 100 ml bottle. You can imagine how much a 25 year old vinegar that yields only a handful of bottles will cost – the minimum for a 12 year was 45 Euro and this went up to 180 Euro for the Balsamic that won the 2011 best Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena award – which means, it is the best in the world. To be honest, my wife would have killed me for spending that much on a tiny bottle of anything – so I had to pass, but those on the tour with me were quite happy to buy multiple bottles. I was tempted but could see my wife’s wooden cooking spoon coming at me, so regretfully said no.
By this point, we were all ready to drink a little wine so we then drove out some long country roads to an organic agrotourismo on the outskirts of Modena where we wandered the vineyards, learned the process of the making this famous sparkling red wine.
We enjoyed a farmer style lunch with a local dairy man, a couple of farmers, and the owner of the vineyards. Lunch was a delicious homemade pasta, several types of cheese, smoked meats from the region, and of course Lambrusco. This wasn’t my first time drinking it, and to be honest, I was looking forward to it .
Lambrusco is a bubbly red wine that is served young. In fact, in the 1970’s and 1980’s the wine was considered to be the wine of the young – unfortunately, this led to a loss of reputation of what is a very nice wine as it was relegated to the land of those who think of it as inferior. While there is a lot of Lambrusco di Modena that will please your palette and provide even the most haughty of connoisseurs with enjoyment – this particular vintage wasn’t it as evidenced by the fact that of three bottles opened for nine men, none of them got finished. Or maybe we were all a bunch of teetotalers…
That being said, however, the lunch was wonderful, the vintners were gracious in showing us how the Lambrusco was made, and as an ending to a wonderful food tour it was almost perfect- because what foodie doesnt’ love strolling through Italian vineyards or drinking homemade grappa with the farmer who grew and fermented it?
Fez is the spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco. Here are five activities that will give you the ultimate in cultural exploration in this remarkable city.
Morocco is one of the few places on the globe where you can find artisans practicing their crafts in the same way they were conducted hundreds of years ago. The hard part is finding the real artisans and crafts and avoiding the fakes. An Artisanal Tour is the best way to see the real thing. (http://culturevulturesfez.org/artisanal-affairs/)
Moroccan Cooking Class
A cooking course is a great way to take a bit of your travels home with you. The Clock Kitchen Cooking School offers authentic courses in a variety of traditional techniques. Chef Souad knows her stuff and is a real sweetheart on top of being able to teach you about Moroccan cuisine.
Watch out for donkeys! You won’t have to worry about getting run over by a car or motorbike in the Fez medina, but donkeys are still the primary means of transport within the ancient city walls. This is the largest car free urban area in the world. Don’t get too lost!
Listen to the Call to Prayer from 365 Mosques
As the spiritual capital of Morocco, Fez has 365 mosques within the city. When it’s time for prayer, you can hear the muezzins (callers) giving the ayden (call to prayer) from all of them. This can be expecially poignant at sunrise or sunset. Since they don’t coordinate their clocks down to the second, there is a surreal, other-worldly quality to the warbling sound. Of course, if you sleep too close to a mosque, don’t be surprised to be woke at dawn!
To celebrate Halloween, here is another monster story, but this one with a twist – it’s a mummy love story. I first shared this back in 2011. Enjoy!
When you travel the world you come across wonderful things, but some of them touch you more than others. The story of an ancient Korean mummy and his heartbroken wife hit me hard as I traveled and thought of my wife at home, pregnant with our first child. My own journey here was very random as I had come to Andong with no idea of what to do or see and when the bus passed by Andong National University, I figured it was a good place to wander around since Universities tend to have free libraries, galleries, cheap food, and interesting people who speak English.
It was my good luck to find the free archeology museum where the Andong mummy lives so that I could discover this story. It’s a famous story by now, but maybe you haven’t heard of it yet. Everyone in Korea knows it though and when the mummy was found and the letter with it was read, it touched hearts around the world. On this day, it touched my own.
The 16th century mummy was found by archeologists in Andong City and identified by researchers at the Andong National University as Eung-tae, a member of the very ancient Goseong Yi Clan. Eung-tae was in a wooden coffin in a earth hardened tomb. The archeologists were very excited to have found a male mummy, not a common thing in South Korea. His beard and clothing were still preserved and they found that he was fairly tall at five feet nine inches, which even today in Korea would put him above the average. On his chest, much to their surprise, they found a letter from his wife, which is actually how his identity was revealed.
The letter was heart-breaking and over the next few years led to novels, films, and even an opera. Here is the text of the letter translated to English:
To Won’s Father
June 1, 1586
You always said, “Darling, let’s live together until our hair turns gray and die on the same day. How could you pass away without me? Who should I and our little boy listen to and how should we live without you? How could you die before of me?
How did you bring your heart to me and how did I bring my heart to you? Whenever we lay down together you always told me, “Dear, do other people cherish and love each other like we do? Are they really like us?” How could you leave all that behind and die ahead of me?
I cannot live without you. I want to go to you. Please take me to where you are. My feelings toward you I cannot forget in this world and my sorrow knows no limit. Where can I put my heart now and how can I live with your child missing you?
Please look at this letter and tell me in detail in my dreams. I want to listen to your words in detail in my dreams and so I write this letter and put it in with you. Look closely and talk to me.
When I give birth to the child in me, who should it call father? Can anyone fathom how I feel? There is no tragedy like this under the sky.
You are in another place, and not in such deep grief as I. There is no limit and end to my sorrows and so I write roughly. Please look closely at this letter and come to me in my dreams and show yourself in detail and tell me. I believe I can see you in my dreams. Come to me secretly and show yourself. There is no limit to what I want to say but I stop here.
The letter and the mummy made me suddenly aware of the risks I was taking by traveling and being away from my wife and the child she carries. It was at that moment, that I just wanted to go home, to be with her. From there forward, my journey held no joy for me. Certainly I met wonderful people, saw interesting things, and yes, I enjoyed myself, but my heart was no longer in it. I just kept thinking of this woman, weeping upon learning the death of her husband, weeping as her child was born, and struggling through life as a single mom and without the man she had come to depend on.
Perhaps it was for this reason that I didn’t have a desire to take any great risks, to test the limits of my endurance, or to push the limits of my already very limited budget. It would be several months before I would be able to permanently be at home with my wife and our unborn child, but upon meeting the mummy, I made a promise that I would make certain to be there for them. And so, from Andong to Busan, back to Seoul, back to Kuala Lumpur, to Singapore, Jakarta, and back to Turkey I walked carefully and kept in mind that there were two people waiting for me and relying on me. And now, I am home- back in Morocco with my wife and our child will be coming in a month or so. Suddenly, I can relax and much of the tension I felt while away has melted since I know that my wife and child have me with them at this very important time.
The story of the Skull Tower in Nis, Serbia is a cautionary tale about power and rebellion. It is called Cela Kula in Serbian which means…”Skull Tower”.
The Serbs were far from happy being in the Ottoman Empire and they had began a rebellion in Nis which sits on the Constantinople Road running through Sofia, Bulgaria to modern day Istanbul. The 1809 rebellion was put down and the skulls of the rebels were used to build a tower as a reminder to anyone else who wanted to rise up against the Ottomans and Sultan Mahmud II.
Here is some of the history from Wikipidia:
On May 31, 1809 on Cegar Hill a few kilometers northeast of Niš, Serbian insurrectionists suffered their greatest defeat in the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire (1804-1813). The insurrectionists’ advance towards Niš was stopped here and, when the far stronger Turkish forces attacked, the battle was ended by the Serbian commander Stevan Sineli, who sacrificially fired at his gunpowder depot in order to avoid surrendering to the Turks, killing himself, the rest of his men, and the advancing Turks.
After the retreat of the Serbian rebel army, the Turkish commander of Niš, Hursid Pasha, ordered that the heads of the killed Serbs were to be mounted on a tower to serve as a warning to whoever opposed the Ottoman Empire. In all, 952 skulls were included, with the skull of Sin?eli? placed at the top. The scalps from the skulls were stuffed with cotton and sent to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) as proof for Sultan Mahmud II.
The tower stood in the open air until the liberation of Niš in 1878. By that time, much of the tower had deteriorated from weather conditions or from the removal of skulls for burial by relatives of killed rebels. In 1892, with donations gathered from all over Serbia, a chapel designed by the Belgrade architect Dimitrije T. Leko was built to enclose what was left of the tower. Today, only 58 skulls remain, including that of Sineli.
In front of the chapel stands the monument to Sineli, and a small relief depicting the battle, both from 1937. The monument commemorating the battle in the form of a guard tower was built in 1927 on Cegar Hill by Julian Djupon. The lower part is made out of stone from the Niš fortress.
Skull Tower was declared Monument of Culture of Exceptional Importance in 1979, and it is protected by Republic of Serbia.
Like much of Serbia, I found the Skull Tower to be creepy and lacking any sort of contextual explanation – I had to search for that later. To get there I had to walk about two kilometers from the center of Nis. The ever present dog turds and tagging were constant while the sidewalks were not.
Along the way, I stopped to eat the Serbian delicacy Borek, basically a filo dough pastry stuffed with cheese or meat. It was a bit greasy, but overall pretty delicious. I bought a yogurt to wash it down while sitting in a grungy little park with some senior citizens who had no idea what to think of me joining them as they ate their boxed lunches.
At the tower, there was no signage. I walked around it, took some pictures of the external chapel, but the doors were all locked so I couldn’t get inside. By this time, the borek and yogurt had caused my bowels to become a bit upset and I needed to find a toilet so despite my desire to see the tower of skulls, I went towards a dirty little bus station nearby to see if I could find a toilet. At the bus station, the lady asked me if I wanted to see the tower. I explained that I needed a toilet first, but yes, I wanted to see it.
A tiny little dwarf of a woman came out and led me to the very dirty bathroom (which I was very happy to have access to) and after I paid her the very reasonable entrance fee of 100 Serbian Dinar, she led me to the chapel where she pulled out her huge ring of keys and unlocked three locks to let me in. She watched curiously as I snapped some photos and tried to ‘feel’ the place. It felt like I expected, creepy.
When 19th century traveler Alphonse de Lemartine visited Nis in 1833, this was his experience.
“ My eyes and my heart greeted the remains of those brave men whose cut-off heads made the cornerstone of the independence of their homeland. May the Serbs keep this monument! It will always teach their children the value of the independence of a people, showing them the real price their fathers had to pay for it. ”
It made me think of something – which has caused more than a few people to claim I was being disrespectful, but which was, after all, what it made me think of. The Tower of Skulls is a powerful symbol of Serbian Independence – but since I’m a child of 1970s America – the entire time I was there, I was thinking of this….
In honor of Halloween, I present to you the only legendary monster story I was able to unearth in Turkey – the monster of Lake Van
You would think a country with as much history as Turkey would be chock (cok) full of legendary beasts and monsters. After all the Greeks and Romans were here and they had tons of monsters, the country is filled with tombs and ruins, so you would expect some ghosts, and the landscape is eerie in places like Kula or Cappadoccia. However, in asking my students about monsters, ghosts, and ghouls – I usually get the answer “We don’t have them in Turkey.” Which just strikes me as pretty weird.
One of my advanced students told me that people don’t like to talk about the supernatural and that may be the cause. This is quite different from Morocco where stories such as Aisha Kondeisha, a ghost Djinn that kills soldiers and lures men from their families are used to scare children.
The only story, thus far that I’ve been able to pry out of my close-mouthed students is that there is apparently some sort of sea monster that lives in Lake Van, a mineral water lake in the far East of Turkey.
Situated at 1719 meters above sea level it receives a few short streams but has no outlet. That is why its waters are unusually rich in sodium carbonate and other salts extracted by evaporation and used as detergents. Swimming in these brackish, “soda” waters, where the only surviving fish is the herring, may result as an original experience, indeed.
Due to the annual inflow, higher than evaporation, the lake level continues to rise: several peninsulas have become islands during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 1986-1995 time period a dramatic 2.16 m rise in water level occurred.
There is little left from the original dense wood along its shores. The only remains of ancient woods are in a very small region on the southwestern shore. The intensive pasture of huge Kurdish herds and deforestation for firewood erased even the memory.
So, that is Lake Van, but what about the monster?
I found this story on CNN about the creature.
Sightings of the Lake Van monster were first reported about two years ago, but further evidence was offered on Tuesday: bad quality amateur pictures of something long and dark moving in the middle of the lake.
After each sighting, professional camera crews have rented boats to try to capture the alleged beast clearly on film, but were unsuccessful each time.
The subject became an obsession for 26-year-old Unal Kozak, a Van University teaching assistant who has been talking to eyewitnesses since the first sightings.
Stationing himself at spots where most of the sightings were reported, Kozak says he saw and filmed the so-called monster on three occasions. Kozak also wrote a book on the creature, including drawings of the monster based on the descriptions of some 1,000 witnesses.
He says the creature is about 15 meters (49.5 feet) long. Public opinion is divided over whether the Lake Van monster is a clever hoax to attract visitors to a region that could use some tourist revenue.
The city of Van is in an underdeveloped area of eastern Turkey that for years has lost out to holiday resorts in the west of the country.
The pictures have been sent to Cambridge University for examination, and Jacques Cousteau, the world-famous marine biologist, is expected to visit and examine the lake.
Finally, here is the video footage of the monster.
I have to say, I’m fairly disappointed not to find any kind of legends of tiny people like the Menehune of Hawaii, of creatures like Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest, like the Pine Tar Creature of New Jersey, or the many ghosts and demons that haunt the UK or surround Lake Toba in Indonesia. I’ll keep searching, but it seems that either Turks won’t talk about their monsters or they are just too practical a people to have such stories.
In any event, I can see why Halloween has a 0% zero impact on Turkey. Most of my students have never even heard of it. However, if you are looking for monsters on your holiday to Turkey, head to Lake Van.
The small Southern town of Lynchburg, Virginia is steeped in rich history. Much of that history can be revealed by visiting the Old City Cemetery which is located in the very heart of Lynchburg. I sense some eye rolling out there and a sarcastic note or two of “Really…?” is ringing in my ears. I know. Cemeteries are considered by many to be eerie places, full of ghosts and bad memories, but I find them sort of fascinating – especially the ones that are loved and supported by the local community. By reading old grave markers, you can find out so much about family lineage and how old or young people were when they passed away, or even how a society tended to treat its citizens.
Some people make a hobby out of visiting graves. I am not one, but I can see their point. They’re called gravers. A graver is someone who visits cemeteries for fun. The graving hobby encompasses a range of activities. There are tombstone tourists who plan vacations around the resting places of Hollywood stars and military gravers who track down Civil War soldiers. Genealogical gravers fill blank spots in their family tree with information collected from headstones. Preservationist gravers use special compounds to clean moss from 100-year-old markers. Many gravers just like to hang out in cemeteries and look at the stones.
On a recent trip, I came to explore the emerging Virginia wine scene, but left fascinated with the dearly departed. I didn’t purposely set out to immerse myself in cemetery matters, but I did and I am better for it.
My visit was to the Old City Cemetery. Not so long ago the Old City Cemetery was totally overgrown. But through the efforts of the Southern Memorial Association under the direction of Jane White combined with the efforts of the dedicated volunteers and the Lynchburg Public Works department it has been reclaimed as a well-kept park honoring the lives of the people buried there and those that keep the flame alive.
The Old City Cemetery is a registered historic landmark opened in 1806 as a public burying ground. It is the oldest public cemetery in Virginia still in use today. It has been estimated that over 90% of Lynchburg’s enslaved and free African American population are buried in the Old City Cemetery, the primary burial site for African Americans from 1806 to 1865. Since 1806, Lynchburg’s indigent citizens have also been buried in the Cemetery. An area known as Old Potters’ Field was used from 1960 to 1994 and is now enclosed as a memorial. In another part of the cemetery a distinctive bottle tree is part of a display created at the Cemetery to interpret centuries-old African burial customs.
The 26-acre site features more than 2000 historic gravestones, monuments, and ironwork enclosures; Butterfly Garden & Lotus Pond; garden of 19th-century shrubs and local architectural relics; Pest House Medical Museum, depicting conditions in a Civil War quarantine hospital; Cemetery Center, housing an office and small museum of mourning customs; Hearse House & Caretakers’ Museum, featuring an original 1900 horse-drawn hearse and grave markers exhibit; Station House Museum–an 1898 C&O Railway depot that interprets local railroad history; and Confederate Section containing 2200 graves of Civil War soldiers from 14 states.
It can be a bit much to take in if you have just experienced the loss of a loved one, but all in all this cemetery celebrates the lives of those who came before us and those that are just starting out in life. The Old Cemetery keeps up with the times by offering space for meetings, recitals, lectures, and weddings. All occasions are easily accommodated in the charming little Chapel at the Old City Cemetery. Small groups of 50 adults can be seated in the 100-year-old handmade pews. The Chapel is also the perfect setting for a traditional wedding ceremony.
One of the things I especially enjoyed about this special place is how it engages the community and visitors. The 26-acre site is an arboretum of 19th-century trees, shrubs, and flowers. Before you visit, plan ahead. You can plan by Seasons in the Cemetery. Peak of bloom for antique roses is the last two weeks of May. The peak of bloom for the Lotus Pond is July and August. And especially impressive is the peak of Fall Foliage the last two weeks of October. The peak of the bird population is the first week of June. The peak of the butterfly population is August.
Of particular note are the hundreds of antique roses which reach their peak of bloom in mid-May. If you plan to visit in May think about attending the Annual Antique Rose Festival where you can enjoy the Cemetery’s famous antique rose collection near its peak of bloom. Quite a sight. There is also a special free Mother’s Day Rose Walk. Or if you’re a history buff check out the Confederate Memorial Day Ceremony (“Decoration Day), an annual Lynchburg tradition since 1866.
Fall brings its own unique opportunities to interact with the Cemetery. The Bawdy Ladies of 19th-Century Lynchburg is held in late September. Historian Nancy Weiland leads a tour to the graves of some of Lynchburg’s famous “sporting ladies.” It’s Free. Candlelight Tours in October is always SOLD OUT, so call ahead and book early. I am told tickets go it a matter of a couple of hours. However, you can call or visit the Cemetery office after 9:00 a.m. on the morning of each performance night to check for extra tickets. If the weather forecast is good, extra tickets will be made available for each tour that night. Actors in period costume portray true stories of Cemetery residents. Six tours each night begin at 6:10. Tickets must be purchased in advance, at the Cemetery office, by phone (434-847-1465), or online: www.lynchburgtickets.com/candlelight.
Perhaps one of the most touching events is held in December. Wreaths Across America begins with a
brief ceremony where attendees lay evergreen wreaths on hundreds of veterans’ graves in the Cemetery. Visit http://www.wreathsacrossamerica.org/ for more information.
Family fun can be found just prior to Christmas. The Holiday Open House encourages locals and visitors to stop by the Cemetery Center for hot cider and cookies and last-minute gifts before going to the Chapel for a special holiday concert.
I suggest you consider including a tour of the Old City Cemetery in your tourist plans when visiting Lynchburg Virginia. Expect to see the grounds filled with people of all ages and interests – from the Civil War Buff to the antique flower enthusiast to school children on a history field trip. Plan an hour or two to stroll around the property. A guided tour or attending an event will make your time there even more memorable. And while you’re there, stop by the gift shop and pick up a copy of the award-winning cookbook, Food to Die For: A book of funeral food, tips and tales. Talk about a unique souvenir.
This was originally posted in August of 2011 – as Halloween approaches, it seems appropriate to repost.
I’m not sure why, but I’m fascinated by ethnographic monsters. I visit a country and I ask “What kind of monsters do they have?” I’m a big fan of legendary monster stories. In Turkey, I heard about the story of the Lake Van monster and in Morocco, I revel in the stories of jin and Aisha Kandisha. In Bulgaria, I heard about a few new ones. One old guy I asked simply replied “The only monsters we have here are the criminals” – fair enough, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. Another old man on the bus told me about the Loch Ness Monster of Bulgaria which is known as the ‘Water Bull’.
The water bull lives in a Lake Rabisha near Belogradchik, a small picturesque town in the Bulgarian Northwest. You might have actually heard of the town since the now famous Belogradchik Rocks did pretty well in the competition for the New Seven Wonders of the World or because of the Magurata Cave with its prehistoric paintings.
The legend says that a bull-man lives in the lake which was once thought to be bottomless but now is known to be about 40 meters deep. The head of a bull, the body of a man – yes D &D friends – it’s a Minotaur. The story goes that they used to kill off the most beautiful girl to keep the monster at bay. They would row her out in a boat and throw her off of it. Eventually, the most beautiful girl in the world was born there and taken out in the lake where the water bull fell in love with her and they lived happily ever after. It’s a crap ending to a story that includes Bull and a word that sounds a lot like Rubbish, but at least it’s a monster story.
My friends Tim and Peppy in Sofia, told me about Baba Marta. Baba Marta, an old lady with the touch of death. She is like Jack Frost but an angry old woman and if she doesn’t get treated right, the cold Bulgarian winter just keeps on. The sun only comes out when she is happy. Snow is sometimes referred to as the feathers from her mattress.
Each spring Bulgarian girls make ribbons and when they see the first signs of spring they put them on trees or under rocks. This is all to make Baba Marta happy and bring a nice year.
The monster which sounded the most interesting to me was a tribe of ghouls called Karakoncolos or Kurkeri who stalk people in the dark and then they jump on the victim’s back, causing them to lose their way home. There are annual festivals where people dress up as these monsters and dance.
And finally there was Torbalan who carries kids away in his pack if they don’t do what their parents tell them to.
The Celebration of Fire and Water – Ashura in Morocco
If you’re in Morocco on the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram, you are sure to hear drums banging and see gangs of happy children rushing through the streets and alleyways with new toys generally used to make music and noise. This is just a part of the celebration of Ashura (which comes from the word ‘ten’ in Arabic since it’s the 10th day of the first month on the Muslim calendar. Some call it the Islamic New Year, but it’s more than that. It’s a celebration of light and life, death and renewal, light and dark. For the past few years, it has been celebrated in November and December but since the Islamic calendar is lunar, each year it is ten or eleven days earlier (on the Gregorian calendar) than the year before.
In most of the Arab world, Ashura is a time to remember the death of Hussein for the Shi’a and a day for celebrating the liberation of Moses from Egypt for the Sunni. For both it is a day of solemn fasting and prayers. The same is true in Morocco, but the shamanism and Judaism that Moroccan Islam was born in have reshaped the holiday into something more.
In Morocco, Ashura is a day that celebrates life. It is a day when people throw water on one another after a night of bonfires and singing. Ashura is the day when the myth of Baba Aichour is celebrated. Baba Aichour is the Moroccan Santa Claus, and so, Ashura is almost like Christmas for children in Morocco. For days before and after the holy day, kids form makeshift bands that play celebratory songs on drums made of wood, pottery, and sheepskin. They travel through the streets performing for candy and coins. The noise reaches a crescendo on the night of the ninth day of Muharram when bonfires are lit in vacant lots and neighbors gather to share food and tea.
In the poorer areas, people will light branches and wander through the streets chanting songs reserved for this holiday and at the neighborhood bonfires, you will often see people jumping over the flames in an effort to burn away evil spirits or free themselves of curses.
This is considered to be the most auspicious time of the year to say your prayers. Fortune tellers called ‘shawaafa’ do a booming business during this time as young people try to understand their destiny and capture the love of their lives. Some go further and engage the help of witch doctors ‘afikih’ that work with djinn and magic. Some seek to cast spells and others to be free of them. The ‘afikih’ can help with both.
The morning of Ashura is often begun with a cold bath or shower which some say is the origin of the water throwing. Other’s hold that it is a celebration of the parting of the Red Sea. Either way, in desert areas it is common for men and women to sprinkle water on tents, plants, and each other whilst saying their prayers. In some areas, Ashura is called ZamZam day. ZamZam is the name of the well in Mecca that Muslims believe God created for Hagar and Ismael, the wife and son whom Abraham abandoned in the desert.
While the adults fast, the children are given chocolates or small toys, and as the sun goes down, the entire family will gather to break the fast together. There are some traditional meals for Ashura – among them sheep’s tail, liver, dried meat, and couscous.
The holiday extends into the next day, since tradition says that any profit made during the 11th day of Muharram will not be blessed by God. The 11th day is called the day of waste and usury and with all of the businesses closed, it’s a handy way to extend the celebration for one more day..
In the Moroccan city of Goulmima there is a large street festival where people celebrate Ashura by wearing costumes, different skins of sheep and goats, and scary looking animal masks. In the Berber tradition, the costumed people are referred to as “Udayen n Ashur,” the Jews of Ashura. With only tambourines and handclaps, “Udayen n Ashur” creates lively music, performances of acrobatic dancers. Everyone sings and dances with amusing variations on the songs, until very late into the night.
The Berbers have a different name for each of the three days of Zamzam: The first day is “Bou Isnayen” the second, “Bou Imerwasen” and the third is, “Bou Imrazen.” These are translated as “the day of throwing water,” “the day of repayment,” and finally “the day of fight.” On any one of these days, if water is thrown at a person, they have the right to throw stones back
One of the songs children sing as they travel through neighborhoods asking for coins tells about how Baba Aichour came outside to pray, gave the children coins and sweets, but then was swept away by the river.
Traditionally, the morning of Ashura begins with a cold bath. Some say this is the origin of the water throwing that takes place through the day, but for others it is a celebration of the parting of the Red Sea or of Baba Aichour being swept away. In the Sahara, the Tuareg sprinkle water on tents, plants, and each other whilst saying their prayers.
The hustle in Egypt is relentless and from my perspective anyway, downright shameful. Don’t get me wrong, I call both Morocco and Turkey home, so I understand the hustle from the carpet vendors in the Grand Bazaar asking three times the price they want because the guidebooks say tourists should ask for half price to the Moroccan haggler that will overcharge you by 1000% just because he can. I don’t dig that stuff, but they at least have something in common that I can respect. Once you agree on a price, that’s the price. Not so in Egypt.
Granted, my experience is limited to airport hustlers and taxi touts but within a short time, I noticed something that offended me far more deeply than being over charged. Egyptians continue to try to gouge you for higher prices even after you have agreed on a price. The price goes up when you pull out your wallet, if you pay in advance they then tack on extras like the ‘airport ticket’, and even if you shake on it – they will tell you a higher price immediately and try to wheedle it from you. That, to me is offensive. The violation of the agreement.
I can live with Egyptians (and Moroccans and Southern Italians, Greeks, and other North Africans) violating my ideas of what the que (line) should be and why it should be respected. Frankly, I think it is a reason why their societies are less successful than say those of Turks, Northern Italians, Brits, Germans, or Americans. So, I hate my idea of the line being violated, but I loathe the idea of the handshake being nulled. The most classic example of a deal done. When an American shakes my hand, looks me in the eye and tells me something – and then it changes – I honestly feel a desire to maim and hurt them. With the Egyptians, I just feel an intense sadness because the handshake isn’t even worthy of a lie. The agreement of a price, isn’t even an agreement.Certainly, a society where agreeing on a negotiated price holds no weight – isn’t a society I want to be in for even a day more – no matter how cool the Pyramids might be.
The Oasis Hotel in Heliopolis
The name certainly sounds nice, but like the agreement on price, the name holds no meaning at this particular establishment. I’m certain that I’ve stayed in worse hotels. The hard part is remembering where and when that was. The one positive thing I can say is that I didn’t get bit by any bugs – but, I did have to sleep in a room that smelled like it had been fumigated hours before I arrived. I woke up coughing Raid fumes at 3 am. In fact, I woke up a lot. This wasn’t due to anything buy my own paranoia.
The door had been kicked in so didn’t close securely and the security bolt had been ripped off but replaced with just one undersized screw so that didn’t make me feel any better. The windows didn’t bolt or secure and the one chair in the room was too small to fit under the doorknob and the clothes bar from the closet wasn’t long enough to make the windows close.
The bathroom appeared to have not been cleaned in years – if it had been, it was only a bad cleaning. In terms of the room itself, it was a 1980’s TV and an air-conditioning unit that continually dripped water on the carpet (and had been doing so for years) while rattling and banging. The noise from the street was too much to sleep with the window open and besides, I had odd security fears since I am traveling with cash and jewelry I bought for my wife in Turkey – not something I usually do, but I expected a short layover with a controlled environment – not this madness.
The sheets had about a hundred holes in them and the shower curtain was covered in mold. This is a 3-star, they assured me at the airport before I foolishly handed over my $50 without seeing the room. Not something I would normally do, but I needed to be back at the airport to catch a connecting flight. And there I was – sleeping on a massive mattress covered with holes and waking every thirty minutes as doors slammed and lights flashed across the windows. At 6:30 – I was fully awake feeling cleaner without a shower, besides no towels. Breakfast was unrecognizable meat cooked with onions and some sort of awful beans. I like middle eastern food. I’ve had delicious Egyptian food, I’ve had breakfast all over the world – but this, I don’t know what this was except awful.
This sucks. I never wanted to visit Egypt like this. I wanted to have wonder and excitement, not frustration, disappointment and complete and total uncertainty. This is my fault – I pressed the buy button. I took the single leg of the flight. I blew it.
Even the coffee I got in the airport was a hustle. 21 Egyptain pounds it said on the board and when I gave the barrista 21 EGP, he told me, “No” you have to pay the tax and rang it up as 26 EGP. I told him “If you have to pay a 25% tax on a cup of coffee, it’s time for another revolution” and he didn’t smile but said “This is the airport, there is a service charge.” This after making me wait ten minutes, go back to the counter and ask for my cup of brewed coffee. I’m not at all in love with this place. Huge no smoking signs and three people smoking under them. They told me to wait until 8 AM for standby but then made me wait until 8:30 AM and then said “There’s no space, this is a full flight” but they knew that at 6:30 AM when they told me to wait until 8 AM.
The driver last night was on the phone with someone and kept saying “No money” and it was quite surely in reference to me since I was paying as cheaply as possible. He asked for a $1 million dollar tip. He got nothing. Nor did the hotel. Nor did the barrista, except he took it in the service charge. It’s amazingly difficult to get out of Cairo and I just want to confirm when and if so that I can make plans – take a tour, go somewhere else, figure something else out – anything. It’s this limbo situation in a hustler touristic hell that is unbearable. Maybe all of Egypt is like this, I hope not, but so far, this is what all of Egypt is like to me…ugly.
The wifi in the airport is the sort that doesn’t work on my netbook or my phone or my kindle. It comes up as limited connection. So I can’t plan anything here either. The hijabi ladies at the reservations center told me to wait for one hour to see if I can confirm a flight for tomorrow or the next day. It’s going to cost me something like $400 but it will be first class – hahaha. Shit. I can at least afford it, but I’d rather use that for something else since I’ve already paid for one ticket.
But shit, I’m in Egypt. No matter what they tell me, I’m going to sort things out after that. I’m going to find a hotel, get a decent room, use the internet, visit the Cairo Museum, see the Pyramids, visit Luxor, buy my wife a Nefertitti necklace like Granddaddy used to get for Ganny and move onwards. Dammit, I just want to go home and see my daughter. I’m trapped in tourism hell.
My head hurts – the bad AC, the bug spray, the lousy sleep, the lumpy mattress, and constant feeling that I might be robbed or molested by bedbugs in the Roach Oasis. I found my Raybans though – that’s a good thing. Maybe these ladies will find a solution for me. Maybe this can all be turned around. I hope so.
Awful ideas come a thousand at a time to me. For $400, I can fly to Tunis and then onward to Casablanca. At least I think so. Or maybe I could figure out a way to go to Libya. Maybe I can discover a way to traverse all of North Africa in a shitty yellow cab.
Quite frankly, it is tourism that has ruined the world. Capitalism first, then tourism. People should just stay home. I should just stay home. I don’t even think that’s possible for me – especially since I don’t have a home. Where is my home?
Big Bear? Nope. Bellingham? Maybe, sort of, but not really. Myrtle Creek? Nope. Portland? Not really. Honolulu? Might be the best bet, but I’m a mainland Haole so it can never truly be mine. Seattle/Tacoma – Not at all despite being born there. Sefrou? I hope not. Istanbul? I like it, but I’m not even Turkish. Redding? Jesus – almost worse, no definitely worse than Sefrou. But at the end of the day, home is where my hat is hanging and it’s hanging in Sefrou with my wife and daughter – so for the moment. Sefrou is home. I want to go home – I don’t care about the hat, I care about my girls.
I should develop some sort of plan.
1) Talk with the reservations girls and see if they can help me
Find someplace with internet or rent a nice hotel room
Arrange some kind of tour, since I’m here
If necessary – find an alternate flight home or just pay the necessary total
Go home and never leave on a solo trip again unless my way home is already secured
And it turns out that the girls at the reservations office in Terminal 1 were able to help me. They got me a flight two days later for a $38 change fee. I used the internet and found a nice, cheap hotel near Tahirer Square – Invitation Hotel for $38 for two days including breakfast and a night cruise dinner on the Nile, an all day Pyramid Tour, and a private car back to the airport the morning I leave for about $72 more. So, $150 more and I have a very nice Egypt trip. Yes, I would have paid $200 at any time in my life to see the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum.
The Egyptian Museum
Overwhelming is an overwhelmingly understated word when it comes to the Egyptian Museum. Over 130,000 artifacts dating from Egypt’s massive history. Yes the King Tut mask is magnificent. Yes the mummies are creepy and cool. And yes, it is an amazing journey through a history that most of us are at least passingly familiar with. I spent an afternoon just bopping and bouncing from room to room and letting whatever caught my attention catch my attention.
A statue of a pharaoh with an incubus on one side and an Anubis (I think) on the other. Perhaps it was two gods – one with jackal head and one with falcon head.
The household items and furniture. A beautiful folding chair with a leather back and a detailed design of the symbol of eternity (a man sitting cross legged with arms outstretched) embossed upon it. The still comfortable looking couches and neck rests – I want to try one.
King Tut’s knife with the golden sheath and handle.
A funerary box with a ‘family’ of tiny blue sarcophagi mummy boxes arranged peeking over like Moroccans on a rooftop.
An incredibly fine marble statue of a Roman or Greek.
The mummified animals. The massive crocodiles were wondrous but the dog and monkey arranged staring at one another really blew my mind.
The burned out shell of the former governments ‘Democratic’ headquarters next door and the completely stripped out Museum shop. The lack of uniformed guards inside but the eyes of the very watchful men in each of the rooms who are assigned security duty.
These, no doubt, are the men who, when fires were burning as the coup/revolution took place – took the truncheons and guns of the police they had been fighting and lined up around the museum – reportedly saying “This is our history and if it disappears, we will never get it back.” They were unable to stop the first looters who stole a reported (but probably more) 50-100 items but they kept the bulk of the collections (and the most important pieces) safe for 12 hours until the army sent troops to take over. All of that was part of what blew my mind. The burned out cars in the parking lot next door, the eyes and lack of uniforms of the guards, and the real story behind the history.
Also overwhelming was the massive hugeness of the collections and the arrangement though without placards, audio tours, or a guide – I found myself enjoying it and able to simply wander and let my eyes fix on a treasure and then discover it. I see wonderful things.
This had the potential to become yet another layer of hell and upon setting foot on the massive boat, I almost immediately felt regret at booking this dinner cruise – especially since I was on my own and everyone else on the cruise was in large groups. One wedding group, a couple of birthday groups, some traveler groups – but no one else on their own.
The big boat and the mediocre buffet along with the tacky dining room, the unsmiling waiters, and what certainly promised to be unremarkable dance had me sitting on the edge of a table for eight with a party of four on the other end unable to look out the window and feeling slightly creepy as the karaoke began in the saloon. So, I ate my meal – the most remarkable piece of which was a pickle salad with small red peppers – and then I went up on the main open deck and decided to skip the entertainment. After all, I can see whirling dervishes, a dancing dwarf (yes they had one and I’m a bit sorry I missed that ) and belly dancers (okay, I admit it, I also regret missing them because they might have been sexy, but then they may have been old and wrinkly too with flabby elderly bellies – somehow I doubt that, but it makes me feel better) anywhere but I can only see the Nile and Cairo in Cairo on the Nile.
I don’t regret my decision to go to the upper deck because night on the Nile was both magical, real, and surreal. Small party boats with blaring speakers and a profusion of neon lights zipped by with guests sitting on them. Egyptian sail boats (I want to know how they are rigged) and windsurfers tacked by us at amazing speeds. The lights of the city, the skyscrapers, but mostly – it was my new friend Ibrahim, an Egyptian artist who sells souvenirs on the boat (though I must admit, he didn’t sell any that I saw – not even to me.) It was extremely enjoyable to feel the wind from the Nile and talk to this guy about life in Egypt, his home near Giza, the revolution, and his art. His art is pouring colored sand into bottles and then using wire to make pictures with it, building ships in bottles, and creating sand paintings of Nefertiti and other Egyptian scenes. His work was beautiful but the themes were so kitschy that I couldn’t even bring myself to ask about the prices. Maybe it was the bright colors or maybe it was something else – but I simply didn’t really want his work, even though I almost convinced myself that I did. The one thing I considered buying was a sand painting of Nefertiti – okay, I admit it, I regret not buying it.
As we left the boat, I saw the dwarf in his costume and a couple of guys showing each other pictures of the belly dancers – I have the memory of cruising on the Nile and making a new friend. No regrets.
I don’t know how mind blowing the pyramids must have been before there was tourist infrastructure and aggressive touts, but judging by how astounding they still are today they must have completely blown the fucking minds of every person who came upon them. I know they blew my mind.
My driver picked me up at 8 am and we drove out towards Giza but continued on to Saqqara, home of the oldest of all the pyramids, the famous step pyramid which the Egyptian government (or someone) seems to be in the act of rebuilding. This pyramid is considered to be the one that started the whole trend. Nearly 7000 years old, it was built for King Djosar by the great Egyptian architect Imhotep. Surrounding the pyramid are many complexes of buildings which it seems no Egyptologists have firmly labeled yet. In other words, nobody knows – except for perhaps the touts who will be more than likely to tell you the definitive answer.
Despite my driver’s warnings about the aggressive touts – I found them to be much less hassle than the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or the medinas in Fez or Marrakesh – of course, there were only about ten touts there and I was the only tourist that I saw – I was dressed in black like the foremen of the construction and I spoke enough Arabic I think they all thought I was an engineer working there. Now is the time to come to Egypt if you want to experience the Pyramids, Luxor, or other amazing ancient places without crowds. The touts though, are tricky – several asked for my ticket and then said come with me – which sounded official but was actually just a way to give me a tour and grab a tip or fee – but I already know that trick and took my ticket back and walked away ignoring them. In fact, I may have ignored some real security as I walked past the construction fence and into the areas marked closed. It was just me on the ground and all the slaves, eh, workers doing whatever they were doing to the pyramids above. Just me and a 7000 year old pyramid – leather bags full of pot shards, an open door that led down into where-ever it led – the tomb? The burial chamber? I don’t know. It was dark and I didn’t have a light. I didn’t really want to fall into a 500 foot shaft and have some future archaeologist find me and say “Hey, what’s this guy doing here?” as he picks apart my bones. But, I touched the pyramid. In fact, I pissed on it. I marked it as my territory.
The step pyramid is only one part of a vast burial complex that served the city of Memphis (not Tennessee). There are several more pyramids in various states of disrepair in the area. Our next stop was a series of old kingdom tombs where the touts were slightly more aggressive and annoying. I attribute this to a busload of Mexican tourists who arrived at the same time as I did.The touts began directing people where to go, closing doors to parts of the complex, and enforcing the no picture and no camera rules – until they would get a tourist alone and then they would say “You want me to take your picture in here? It’s okay.” Frankly, this offended me more than the touting – the rule is there to protect these treasures and preserve the feeling of specialness inside the monuments – I therefore declined, as did most of the Mexicans. I saw one of the touts manage to get a couple of bucks from one old woman, but mostly, they were just annoying. The police ignore it and I’ve heard, they sometimes even participate.In post Arab-Spring Egypt, tourism is way down and the economy isn’t doing so hot either. People have to make a buck and support their families, that’s not always so pleasant for those of us who are fortunate enough to be visiting.
In fact, though, it’s less pleasant for the Egyptians. As we drove to Saqqara, we passed dozens of Carpet Schools. I asked my driver and he said that in this region, people are very poor and can’t afford to send their children to school. The children have to work at an early age. Families send them to ‘Carpet School’ where they work 9-12 hour days weaving rugs. As the driver explained “You and I can’t do that work for that long because it will destroy our eyesight and give us arthritis.” My heart broke as I realized what he was telling me – these ‘Carpet Schools’ are child sweat shops to make Egyptian rugs.
From Saqqara, we drove to Giza. My driver wanted to stop at a perfume factory but I told him I wasn’t interested. He wanted to go to the Papyrus Museum (another factory) but again I wasn’t interested. Suddenly, he was less interested. He told me the price to get in the pyramids, explained how big the complex was, told me about horse and camel rentals but wouldn’t tell me the total price. He was a nice guy, my driver. An old guy with a funny habit of saying “Do you understand?” where most people say “You know?” I don’t know how much he makes for the tour without the commission, but it must be disappointing when a cheapskate like me comes along.
The horse renter gave me his spiel and offered me a special discounted price of 280 EGP for a 1-2 hour horse ride around the complex. That’s about $45 – and it was about 100 EGP more than I paid for the tour I was told was all in. I told my driver never mind. My enjoyment was gone. I didn’t care about the pyramids anymore. Take me back to the hotel. I was done. We ended up at 160 EGP which is about $25 US and include $10 for the entry ticket. I’m so glad I did that.
My Bedouin guide, Alex, kept all the touts away from us and we took the long ride around the plateau so that I was able to truly experience the majesty of the pyramids at Giza and the feeling of what it is like to be alone in the desert with the Great Pyramids – on a horse. I’ve never specifically wondered what it would be like to ride an Arabian horse across the Giza Plateau and be alone with the Pyramids – but now I know.
As we rode up to the Sphinx, I saw the seats from the Sound and Light Show of the Pyramids – the seats don’t appear to have changed since the movie Moonraker where James Bond fights with ‘Jaws’ at the pyramids. Inside the temple of the Sphinx, there were no more than ten people. Jaws wasn’t there. The touts tried the ticket trick again, and failed again, and Alex waited outside with the horses. I asked the Sphinx a question and the answer was a riddle.
We rode back into Giza town like cowboy movie heroes on funny saddles with funny stirrups. My driver offered to take me to a few more locations to buy souvenirs, but I told him to just take me back to the hotel. We were supposed to see the famous Red Pyramid, but honestly, I’d already seen everything I needed to.
I’m not sure why, but I thought it would be very cheap to buy souvenirs and a small gold necklace for my wife in Egypt. I suppose my mistake was easy enough – with tourism down, the cost of hotels and tourist activities are lower than ever in Egypt. I made the assumption that this would also include tourist items and that the domestic economy would be such that buying some luxury items would also be cheaper. I think it was a fair assumption and it might even be true in some areas, but certainly it wasn’t true anywhere I went in Cairo.
I quickly determined that buying any sort of souvenirs near the pyramids was a huge mistake as the prices began at around $20 and I was pretty sure these were $1 items. My next stop was a small mall near Tahirir Square where I found a gold merchant who told me that gold was at a premium in Egypt because no one was certain about the currency. There went that idea, but I figured I might try at the airport and maybe I could actually find something unique in the airport shops or the duty free. Yeah, right – at the airport, a stuffed camel doll made in China was $20 with no room for negotiation. That was my other quest – something special for my daughter – a baby. I couldn’t bring myself to pay $20 for a toy that would be $3 in the USA, $5 in Turkey, $7 in Morocco, or less than $1 in China. As to the gold in the airport – a small pair of scarab earrings that must have weighed just a gram each were $276. With gold at $50 a gram or thereabouts – I couldn’t do it. Especially when he told me that they sold by the piece, offered no guarantee, and would not provide me with a weight or certification.
I’d been to a few of the souvenir shops around Tahirir Square and found that the prices were approximately 300-1000% of the price they should be. In addition, the gift shops at the Egyptian Museum, gift shops at the Pyramids, and elsewhere were poorly stocked. Cheap ‘papyrus’ scrolls and Chinese made junk souvenirs with ancient Egyptian themes seemed to be the things that were in abundance. None of which I was looking for. I visited a hijab shop, thinking that perhaps I could get my wife a fancy Egyptian hijab, but fashion, especially Islamic is so foreign to me that I couldn’t really find my way to purchase a hijab, besides which, I don’t really want to encourage her to wear a hijab anyway. Toy stores and kids stuff – I didn’t find anything. I thought about getting them fancy Egyptian djellabas but the truth is, to me, they looked just like Moroccan Djellabas. My wife doesn’t like perfumes – so that was out. Moroccans don’t really seem to appreciate souvenirs, so I skipped that. I thought I might buy a kilo of fancy Egyptian dates – but the dates were all fresh. I bought a bag and put them in my checked bag hoping customs wouldn’t take them from me. Still, I needed something. Egyptian glass seems beautiful and delicate so I bought four delicate little glass bottles for Hanane and a brass scarab for me. I actually would have loved to find a fancy reproduction of King Tut’s tomb knife for me but never saw anything like that. For my wife, I was looking for a necklace my grandmother used to wear – a gold disk with a bust of Nefertiti on it on a delicate gold chain. No luck.
Finally, I arrived at the airport with just the glass and the scarab. I still needed something so I purchased some expensive food products at duty free. $35 for some fancy dates, some sesame crackers, and some jasmine honey. More than I would pay for them in the USA, I’m fairly certain – but you can’t go home without presents and souvenirs of some kind. I’m still hopeful they might sell something decent on the plane….
The Invitation Hotel
I feel very fortunate to have found the Invitation Hotel. Wonderful location right near Tahirir Square, a great friendly staff, and best of all – a clean room, with nice sheets, satellite TV, internet, and air conditioning.
The manager when I arrived was friendly, helpful, and honest. There was no hustle with her. She smelled like my grandmother which I’ve managed to figure out is a smell of Gigi perfume and stale cigarette smoke. For me, it’s quite a nice smell when blended onto a woman with finely sculpted eyebrows and a friendly attitude. She helped me set up my tours, took payment, got me a cold drink and helped me with many things.
Overall, the hotel was a great place for the two days I was here and the price was perfect. About $25 per night. The night/morning guy was a hefty Egyptian with a pleasant demeanor but that unfathomable attitude of hating you while he smiles. He was a lazy dude. In the morning, I had confirmed that breakfast was at 8 am repeatedly, but at 8 when I woke up, he told me, “I’ll get it in 15-20 minutes.” Since I had pickup at 8:30, that wasn’t going to work. I asked him to get me some coffee right away and do his best to get breakfast – he flounced away in that huffy fat guy in his 20s kind of way. We had a bit of conversation but it was hard to take anything he said seriously, mainly because he was a spitting image of my former boss, Spencer at the ill-fated TechPlanet in dot com Seattle circa 2000. How in the world had Spencer ever been made my boss?
The hotel itself was good with some minor annoyances. The bathroom in my room was being redone and they opted to continue the work while I was out – when I returned it was still being worked on. I had to use the toilet, but had to wait twenty minutes. After the pyramid tour, I returned thirsty and asked for a bottle of water. The girl at reception told me she would bring it to my room. 30 minutes later, I was still waiting. It was only when I got in the elevator that I found the 8-year-old boy they had sent to fetch it returning with it.
To be fair, there is a mineral water shortage in Cairo. It can be hard to get and the prices have gone sky high, though the guy who charged me 20 EGP for a small bottle at the museum was a robber.
And then, the tour recommendations – I don’t recommend a dinner/dance cruise to any solo travelers – that was a mistake even if it was nice to be on the deck above looking at the Nile and Cairo. The pyramid tour didn’t include ticket prices, a guide, or water/lunch. It was budget, but I could have done better outside of the hotel.
Fly the Hajji Skies
As usually happens when I catch any flight to Morocco, and I can only assume as happens whenever you mix Moroccans and airplanes – chaos ensued. Add to that, the fact that most of the passengers were pilgrims returning from the Hajj (the sacred trip to Mecca that all Muslims are to conduct – if possible- at least one time in their lives) and hilarity quickly becomes a part of the equation. The hilarity is a result of the fact that most of these pilgrims are old, taking the one trip of their lifetime, and all very proud and happy that they have fulfilled their life’s mission. The waiting room at the airport rang with the calls of Ya Hajj and Ya Hajja (loosely translated as “Hey honored person who has completed your sacred duty (both male and female)). Once you have completed the Hajj, you are called Hajj or Hajja. It is a great honor and you can see it as these old Moroccans call each other Hajj, yell out the name to call their friends and loved ones, and every other oldster who is now a Hajj or Hajja turns to look.
Still, these are Moroccans and so regardless of respect, Hajj or not, when it comes time to form a queue and move forward, they press into a tight wedge shape and everyone begins shoving. I stood back out of respect for their age and their new status, but the other Moroccans I saw let the dynamic of the line push them forward. The Moroccan line is a living and pulsing thing of awfulness and if I didn’t need to sometimes get somewhere, I would refuse to take part. But, I need to get in the wedges to get a taxi, to buy food, to get government work done, and more. So, I am forced to be a wedgii as well. “Ya Wedgii” I managed to hold back until the second bus and then I was among the last to get on the plane, but this was a mistake because my seat was all the way in the rear.
Most Moroccans don’t know much about assigned seatings or the protocols that go with bag stowage, first class, economy class, or anything else that is fairly standard knowledge in the orderly western travel world. So, there was complete and total chaos as all the Hajj and Hajja tried to stow their pilgrim baggage anywhere they could, got told to go to their assigned seats, and made a muck of things. The young Lebanese guy in the seat next to me laughed himself silly. So did I. The poor flight crew came out of the cockpit and tried to order things, but it was next to impossible until one guy, possibly the Captain – started yelling and screaming about things. I’m glad it’s not just me that loses his patience with this stuff.
Finally they had all been seated and stowed their bags and then the constant trips to the bathroom began. The flight was, after all, delayed and these are old people with most likely weak bladders and swollen prostates. I decided to wait until the tide ebbed – but it was a near constant stream (haha). Finally I took my turn and was very glad I didn’t have to make #2 because I forgot that Moroccans (especially the old and the untraveled, don’t do well with no bucket to wash with.) The western toilet is a strange phenomenon to these folks and they soon had the spotless EgyptAir toilet looking like a toilet on a Moroccan train. The sink was filled with water of almost certain washing the bum provenience, water was all over the floor, the seat, and everywhere. Later I began to see old folks trekking into the bathroom with empty water bottles to use to wash. This is life – and it’s actually pretty funny from a outsider perspective.
They are sweet, nice people. The girl next to me has sweet, dreamy eyes behind a flowered scarf that covers all but her eyes. She is traveling with her husband and the henna on her hands plus their youth makes me think they are perhaps on their honeymoon. I’m fairly certain her husband is not Moroccan, but she may be. In any event, I try not to look at her out of respect for her veil and her husband, but it’s a bit hard.
Elsewhere on the plane, the flight crew is struggling to deal with the demands of the Hajj and Hajja but failing pretty badly. There was one European woman who ended up carrying her and her husband’s meal trays back for them. I can imagine that for anyone unfamiliar with the chaos of Moroccan travel, it must be completely insane and probably unbearable. Many of the old people smell like slightly stale pee. I suppose that’s normal for just about any old people. Of course, there is more chaos to come when we arrive in Morocco but I think I can outpace them to the immigration, but I may be stuck behind them in customs.
Cairo Burger King Doesn’t Do It Your Way
While it’s normal for travel hubs to be more expensive than the surrounding areas – I truly hate this practice. Why is it that I have to pay $10 for a $5 meal just because I am trapped behind security? Ah – wait…it’s because I’m trapped. Captive.
A chubby bald Brit with fake headphones (okay they were real but he wasn’t listening to anything just wearing them to avoid having to talk to people – I bet he read that in a guidebook somewhere) was in front of me and a bunch of Moroccans and other Arabs kept crowding to the front. I was a bit stuck because I couldn’t really just shove past him but as long as I was behind him, I was never going to get anywhere. Finally, after yet another group jumped in front of him – he left in disgust cussing under his breath. With relief, I shoved my way to the front and was the next served.
I ordered a Whopper meal, regular size. The cost was 41 EGP. He added something and the price went to 46 EGP – “What’s that?” I asked. “The tax” he told me and pointed to the sign. It said 10% will be added. Apparently they round up. Next he added 8 EGP more bringing it to 54 EGP. “What’s that?” I asked, more curious than angry. “Super size” he said. “I don’t want supersize” I told him. “Now we only have supersize” he replied “Nothing else.” “Can I have Barbecue Sauce?” I asked “3 EGP” he told me. “That’s okay, I told him, I don’t want it.” By getting a 41 EGP meal I thought I was saving a bit from the 60 EGP for breakfast at the next place – but actually, I should have gotten what I wanted to begin with – though it might have cost me 75-80 EGP with the tax, service and whatever other extras they might add on.
5 Free Things to do in Hawaii that Should Cost a Fortune
They say that in life the best things are free, but we all know that usually is a crock of malarky. Food, housing, travel, clothing, family, medicine, eductaion – all of these things cost money. The thing is, though, sometimes you find that there is some truth to that old saying after all. Here are five things in Hawaii that are free to do but should cost a fortune.
Going to the Beach
The beaches in Hawaii are among the best in the world. That’s the reason people are so surprised when they come to Hawaii and find that public beach access is a right that is protected by law. You don’t have to pay to go to any beach in Hawaii. They are all free and everyone is welcome.
Hiking in the Rainforest
You can pay for a guide if you want to, but the truth is that you can find plenty of information online about where to hike in Hawaii and it won’t cost you a cent. You can hike all day in public rainforest with no entrance fees, no charge for the guavas, and no charge for the bird watching.
Swimming in a Tropical Waterfall
You need to pay atteintion to the signs and learn about Leptosporosis, but while you’re sweating on that hike in the tropical rainforests of Hawaii, don’t be surprised to come across a waterfall in the jungle. Falls like Mauawili and Manoa falls are fantastic for swimming and wading. Let the warm water wash over you and imagine yourself in a soap opera.
Seeing Giant Sea Turtles and Hawaiian Monk Seals on the Beach
Nobody will charge you to see the wild life in Hawaii, but if you harrass the animals you will get charged a hefty fine so remember not to approach too close to the sea turtles or Hawaiian Monk Seals while they are lazing on the shoreline.
Watching the Sunrise and the Sunset over the Pacific Ocean
Because the islands aren’t very big, you can watch the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean as if you are in Japan and then watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean as if you are in California. My favorite spot to watch the sunrise is from the bunker in Lanikai onOahu’s Windward side. My favorite sunset spot is from Sunset Beach – it’s called that for a reason.