Lisbon, Portugal Part II

On our second day in Lisbon we got another day of beautiful weather (actually we pretty much had mid to high 80s and sunny the entire trip) and our day consisted of even more walking around and sightseeing.   Here are a few of the highlights:

A good starting off point for a day in Lisbon should probably begin at the central area of Praca Dom Pedro IV or better known as the Rossio which is what we did.  Located in the heart of the city, in between the historical Alfama region and the restaurant/bar scene called Bairro Alto (I’ll talk more about this area next blog post), the main square is loaded with shops and cafes.  Walk down the pedestrian street Rua Da Augusta towards the water and you’ll find even more outdoor restaurants and pastry shops.  Most are touristy and you’ll be hounded by restaurant workers left and right trying to convince you to stop and eat, but it’s a pleasant walk nonetheless.  Note: Although safe, keep an eye out for the numerous shady characters trying to sell you weed and cocaine on the street.  Once you get near the water, you’ll end up at Praca do Comercio where we just happen to luckily come upon a free Joss Stone concert.

Note: The best way to get your bearings back if you get lost in Lisbon is to just head towards the water.  With all the unmarked crisscross streets, and maps that aren’t able to label every little alley, it can be easy to lose your way.  But if you head down towards the river, you’ll eventually end up on the main road along the water and that can guide you to where you need to go.

You’ll notice very quickly that the city has an admiration for blue tiles or Azulejos, as you’ll see them on several of the churches and government buildings throughout Lisbon.  One place to see one of the more impressive arrays of Azulejos is at the Monastery of Sao Vincente de Fora (Monastery of St. Vincent Outside the Walls) in the Alfama (It’s a bit of a hike uphill to get there FYI).  The entrance fee is  4 Euros (Note: Cheaper if you’re a student, but you have be under 25 years old) and once you get inside you’ll be struck by the mass array of blue tiled artwork.  In particular, check out the exhibit upstairs displaying the azulejos of La Fontaine’s fables.  There you’ll see depictions of 38 of the fables, along with the actual fable written next to it in English and Portuguese, including: The Donkey and Dog, Hawk and Cockerel, Upbringing, and Bear and Man Who Loved Gardens.  Make sure also to see the remains of the 7 Portuguese and Spanish missionaries that were martyred in Morocco and the crazy, freaky mausoleum with a marble cloaked woman weeping over a coffin in the center.  It’s really, really creepy – like hairs will stand up on the back of your neck creepy.

Here are a few more places to check out:

-If you’re looking to get a peek inside what life was like in the Middle Ages you should definitely check out the Castelo de Sao Jorge.   Located at the top of the hill in the heart of the Alfama and overlooking Lisbon, this medieval fortress costs 7 Euros to enter.  On a good day like we had, the castle provided some fun, childlike behavior as we bounced from tower to tower and the views from the top were more than camera worthy.   If you’re lucky enough you’ll also notice the several peacocks that have taken residence in the courtyard and roam around with their baby birds.

-Although Lisbon is known more for its seafood and desert pastries, if you can find it there’s a great steak house to try.  Located near the Parliament building, this local place is so hidden it blends right in with the residential apartments – you have to know the exact address.  The place is called Cafe de Sao Bento and it’s on Rua de São Bento 212, north of the Bairro Alto.  Now this place is old school – you actually have to ring the doorbell to get in.  We actually rang the bell on accident not knowing for sure if someone would answer.  We were more than a little stunned when we were greeted by a man in a tuxedo who led us into the small restaurant.  The place has a weird mafia hideaway feel to it and we definitely felt awkward the first few minutes we were there.  That feeling quickly subsided however when we saw several other “normal” looking groups of tourists, families, and local businessmen.  The wait staff was very kind and hospitable and the seats were plush and comfy.  The steak was phenomenal as well, plated in a no nonsense way – just the meat and sauce with a bowl of either fries or homemade chips.  The steak melted in our mouths and was reasonably priced at around 14-20 Euros.  For vegetarians, the only other thing on the menu besides steaks were small sides of creamed spinach and salad.   One mark against the place however was their ant problem – we had a few of the critters crawling around our table.  For that, it gets bumped down from an A- to a Grade: B+

Recap

What I saw:

Praca Dom Pedro IV aka Rossio

Monastery of Sao Vincente de Fora
Largo de Sao Vincente

Castelo de Sao Jorge

Where I ate:

Cafe de San Bento
Rua de São Bento 212

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Lisbon, Portugal Part I

Before I got on the plane with my two friends to Portugal a few weeks ago, I had really no real idea what to expect; because of work I didn’t really get to do much research beforehand.  I guess my impression of Portugal was that it was like the forgotten middle child of the European countries, with no defining landmark like the Colosseum, Eiffel Tower or Buckingham Palace, or signature food such as Pizza or Paella, or even a reputation for vices like what you would find in Amsterdam.  But even so, I jumped at the opportunity to visit the country that I knew probably had a lot more to offer than what I imagined.

Our trip took us to three parts of Portugal – Lisbon, the capital of the country on the southwestern coast, Porto, up in the northwest, and Lagos in the beach area of Algarve along the southern coast.  We flew a red-eye flight on TAP, the Portuguese national airline, which was to be honest not the most comfortable ride in the world.  Expecting the plane to have the amenities of most European airlines (with cushioned seats, and video on demand screens on the seats in front of you), instead we had an older airbus with extremely worn seats and no movie/music options.  Needless to say, I was underwhelmed and feared at the end of the trip having to fly home on the same old creaky plane (Luckily for us, we had a much more normal/modern plane on the way back with all the comfortable amenities).  So just be warned if you fly TAP, you might land on an older plane.

Once we landed in Lisbon, we headed to the apartment we booked through Airbnb.  (Watch out for the cabs from the airport – they will cheat you.  The cab from the airport to our apartment cost us 28 Euros.  The cab back going the same distance at the end of the trip – 7 Euros)  The apartment we got was fantastic.  It was clean, in a great area right in the historical region of Alfama, and our host Ema was super helpful in getting us settled with tips about taxis, telling us where the closest supermarket was, and giving us advice on good places to visit.  If you’re planning on visiting, please get in touch with me and I’d be happy to give you her info.  The rate for her two bedroom apartment, one bathroom, living room with kitchen/laundry was 60 Euros a night ($85 a night).

Here’s an outline of some of the things we did the first day:

-After walking around the city we quickly figured this out so be warned – the city is extremely hilly.  Make sure you know that before you come to visit if you’re with the elderly or injured.

-Several of the sights in Lisbon are free to all and/or free on some days (usually Sundays) making the trip very affordable if you plan ahead accordingly.

Igreja de Santa Maria Maior Se or Se de Lisboa (Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major): One of the first of many churches we visited on the trip, the fortress looking building was free to enter.  Several of the parts of the church you should check out are the room with the high adorned papal robes and hats and the gargoyles patrolling the church.  Other parts of the church such as the cloister and treasury cost a few Euros to enter and I hear are worth seeing if you’re a history buff (we unfortunately didn’t make it in, opting to save the Euros for other parts of the trip).

Fado – One of the quintessential Portuguese arts is Fado, a traditional singing performance consisting of a singer and a guitarist or two.  You can’t visit Lisbon without going to a restaurant at least once with a Fado performance.  Although you probably won’t understand a word their saying – much like opera – the delivery of the singing is what makes the music so moving.  Times vary and there are definitely tourist traps that lure visitors in with their Fado.  But we did find one small place with several locals called A Tasca do Chico in the Alfama.  The food wasn’t great to be honest, but the atmosphere more than made up for it.  There were rotating male singers (all of whom looked like regular schmoes off the street) along with two very talented guitarists.  They sang three songs each with a half hour break in between, the time we spent talking to the others we shared a table with.  It’s definitely a relaxing time and a good way to unwind after a long day of sightseeing and meet some locals.  Grade: B-

Pois Cafe: For a laid back, coffee house experience with a staff all fluent in English check out Pois Cafe.  Just down the street from Se de Lisboa (see above), this bohemian style coffee shop offers a venue where one can lounge around in their cushy sofas and grab any of the books or periodicals along the walls – think of it like an Urban Outfitters with food.   With a menu of sandwiches and salads, the place hits the spot if you’re looking for a quick respite.  Try the Mozart Sandwich (Cheese, Prosciutto, Salad, and Balsamic Vinegar) and their flaky apple strudel.  Grade: B

Recap

Where I stayed:

Emanuela Pendjer Mendes’s apartment through Airbnb.com
Beco da Lapa
Lisbon, Lisbon 1100
Portugal

What I saw:

Igreja de Santa Maria Maior Se or Se de Lisboa (Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major)
Largo da Sé
1100 Lisboa, Portugal

Where I ate:

Pois Cafe
R. de São João da Praça 93
1100 Lisboa, Portugal

A Tasca Do Chico
Rua do Diário de Notícias, 39

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Avalon, NJ

Ah, summer time has arrived.  As we head into the Memorial Day week, left and right BBQ grills are getting fired up, pools are opening, and as my one (female) friend mentioned, “Time to break out the white pants”.  The summer season also obviously marks the beginning of the beach season as well.  Luckily for me, a buddy of mine has a family home about 400 meters from the beach in beautiful Avalon, New Jersey.

Now let me say off the bat – this is not your MTV Jersey Shore type location.  If you want to see Ed Hardy shirts and trashy college students, head 20 minutes up the road to Wildwood, NJ or go to Dewey Beach in Delaware and you can see that sort of foolishness there.  Avalon is much more family friendly, with several locally owned restaurants and shops, mini-golf, and bike rental places.  There are people of all ages, but can’t say of all races (I have to report that in the weekend I was there, including myself, I counted a grand total of 9 minorities). I also don’t think the LGBT crowd would have any problems on Avalon beach, but I’m pretty sure when we went on our day trip to Rehoboth beach in Delaware, they were all there.

Getting to Avalon is easy, but getting in isn’t.  If you try and go on Friday night, you’ll hit a one lane traffic jam getting in that can last miles and take up to a couple of hours.  Same goes for getting out of the town on Sunday night.  But once you get over the bridge into Avalon, the town is a welcome sight and is such a great place to relax.  You’ll quickly forget your stress from the traffic.  I’ll go down the list of the things to see and do.

The beach is easily the highlight of the town.  It’s not usually too crowded, and is clean and family friendly.  Make sure when you head to the beach, you go there with cash because unless you have a pass that residents pay for, it’s $6 a day, $12 for the week, and $26 for the season.  They don’t want you bringing booze on the beach, but you can get away with it if you’re not being too rowdy.  Watch out for the seagulls dive bombing down to get the food though; they’re aggressive and relentless.  And finally, the lifeguards are pretty strict about staying near the lifeguard seats and not swimming out too far.  You’ll hear a whistle on average every 10-15 minutes.  The pictures below were taken at around 11 in the morning; the crowds really rolled in about an hour after that.

If you’re looking for a quick bite to eat head to Nemo’s Pizza.  It’s a local family restaurant only open during the summer season.  There you can get your pizza, pasta, or Italian sub fix for a decent price.  I’d say the pizza is pretty close to the kinda you can get a Papa Gino’s for you New Englanders reading this.

If the fun and sun on the beach gets a little boring, there’s a fun local mini-golf (or Putt Putt if you prefer) place called Pirate Island Golf.  Get the last shot in at Pirate Island and you win a free game.  And next to Pirate Island is the Avalon Freeze, a small, local ice cream shop with the usual soft serve offerings and their version of the Dairy Queen Blizzard called the Avalon Freezer.   Watch out – the Avalon Freezer is as filling as a meal.

For breakfast food, Avalon offers two family breakfast joints.  The first is Uncle Bill’s Pancake House.   Open from 7 AM- 1 PM, this place will always hit the spot, with every type of pancake, waffle, egg, breakfast meat combo you can think of.  I personally love the Special Combo that is 1 egg, 3 butter pancakes, bacon, and toast.  I usually also get a side of home-fries because I think they’re some of the best.  If you get a fruit pancake (bananas, blueberries, whatever) keep in mind they don’t make the pancake with the fruit in it, they put it on top.  Now the place is probably a little overpriced, you’ll end up spending at least $10, and it’s cash only.  And don’t be surprised if you have to wait for a table – the place is big, but everyone in Avalon ends up there around brunch time.  One final thing that you’ll also probably notice is that the dozens of waitresses running around are all high school girls.  Just saying, it’s kinda weird.  Here’s some pics of the food there:

The second place is the Pudgy Pelican.   Much smaller, and a little less high school cheerleader with their employees, the Pudgy Pelican is a solid diner style back up for breakfast with pretty much the same breakfast offerings as Uncle Bill’s, except that it’s open longer for the lunch crowd with more sandwich offerings.  I also personally think their omelette is far superior than the one you can get at Uncle Bill’s as well.

The one exception to the quaint family feel is the one bar in Avalon called “The Princeton“.  Located at the end of the main drag in the center of town, the Princeton is one of the few, if not the only, bar in town that’s big enough and loud enough to draw a crowd that includes undoubtedly the college, underage drinking posse.   Since it is the place to be, and pretty much the only one in town, you’ll pay a pretty penny to get in on a weekend night, and you probably won’t find that many great drink specials once inside.  That being said, if you are looking for a place to drink, dance, have a good time with a group of friends and want to find someone to hook up with – The Princeton is probably your best bet.

Avalon, NJ is a great place to go for a long weekend beach outing.  It’s clean, safe (no joke, you can literally leave all your stuff on the beach for hours and nothing will happen to it) and you’ll no doubt get your relaxation in.

Opening Weekend at Wrigley Field

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Nothing makes me feel like spring is here more than getting to a baseball game.  In D.C., National Park is comfortable, clean, with great food and an overall “nice” place to watch a game.  Same goes for PNC in Pittsburgh, and Camden in Baltimore.  But what these new stadiums lack is a history and character.  As a long time Red Sox fan, I’ve been to Fenway Park numerous times and love the old-school look and feel of Sox games during the summer and I’m almost snobby about how it’s a far superior baseball watching experience than in any other ballpark.

The one place I always thought that could be the exception is Wrigley Field in Chicago.  Much like how the Red Sox fans used to be, the poor Cubs fans have had a long history of losing heartbreaking games and a championship drought going back to 1908.  So when I was sent to Chicago for work, I made it a goal to get to a Cubs game while I was there.

Wrigley is located right in the heart of the Wrigleyville neighborhood in Chicago.  Unlike other stadiums that you can see from miles away, Wrigley Field is so small and intimate that you don’t know where it is until you follow the crowd down the street and you’re right on top of it.  Walking into the stadium, you can feel the excitement and energy from the crowd immediately.  The interior has that same archaic look that Fenway has, where there is more wood and old paint look then that metallic, smooth, electronic look of the newer stadiums.

We walked in right as they were doing the national anthem, and I was able to take in just how small the stadium was.  But what the park lacked in size it made up for in character with the manual scoreboard out in center field and the make-shift bleacher seats on the rooftops of the buildings across the street (easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen).   Also seeing the seats in left field reminded me of the famous Bartman incident in 2003, and I can see how easily the fans in that section are on top of the action out there.  Our ticketed seats weren’t that good (although there aren’t really bad seats in the park since it’s so small), so throughout the game my buddy and I inched our way closer and closer until we had seats that gave us a great vantage point on the first baseline.

The fans at Wrigley were both amusing and knowledgeable, making the conversations around us almost as entertaining as the game itself.  Our baseball experience was rounded out with a Chicago hot dog and cold Old Style beer (the Natty-Bo, Milwaukee’s Best, Iron City, whatever shitty beer you want to insert, of Chicago).  The close, back and forth game was also an exciting one with home runs, a play at the plate, web gems, and a beer getting thrown in the opposing players face as he tried to catch a fly ball (http://www.chicagobreakingsports.com/sports/cbsports-pirates-jones-on-beer-spill-it-was-a-miller-lite-i-got-a-taste-of-it-20110403,0,5736166.story).  We also got a little Chicago native John Cusack as well singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the traditional 7th inning stretch ceremony.

But ultimately, in stereotypical Cubs fashion, they blew the 5-4 lead in the 9th inning and lost the game 6-5.  The picture that said it all in my mind was seeing a Cubs fan in the bathroom afterwards, shaking his head and talking to no one in particular saying “The Cubs are so bad…They’re so bad….”.  Don’t worry Cubs fans, take it from a Red Sox fan – It has to happen sometime.  But believe me, even if the Cubbies lose, the bars around the park are still hopping like crazy afterwards and everyone seems to still know how to have a good time.

If you’re a baseball fan, get yourself to a Cubs game at some point in your life.  I don’t know how much longer that ballpark can hold up over time, so get the experience in while you can.

The Pyramids/The Egyptian Museum

You know what they are, you know what to expect.  But believe me – you cannot prepare yourself for seeing the Pyramids for the first time.  As we drove through the hectic streets of Cairo, over the river into Giza, the Pyramids almost sneak up on you because you don’t think that they’ll be THAT close to the city.   And then, “Whoa!”, there they are in all their glory.  As much as I hate to make this reference, and I’m laughing at myself right now for doing so, the experience is a little similar (just a teeny bit) to seeing the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas as you’re driving through the desert, but on a much smaller scale.  The Luxor would have to be like eight times the size of the U.S. Capitol building to meet the magnitude.

I already described the hysteria with the camel rides in the previous post, so I won’t get into that again.  After the camel rides, we had the choice of going into the Great Pyramid or the smaller Menekaure’s Pyramid.  We opted for the smaller pyramid due to the fact it was 30 Egyptian pounds per person and that the entrance fee for the Great Pyramid was much more expensive (I failed to record the price, my bad).  But nonetheless, the Great Pyramid on the outside was spectacular enough that we didn’t feel like we had less of an experience by not going into it.

Going inside the pyramid was extraordinarily claustrophobic, even more so than going into the tombs at the Valley of the Kings.   I would not recommend the experience to anyone who is the least bit uncomfortable in tight spaces, and/or has back problems because you literally have to crouch down an incline for about 50 meters. Once inside, the interior was pretty anti-climactic and we came out of it with only the feeling of accomplishment that we A) made it in and out without completely freaking out and B) that we were inside a pyramid.

Once we got out, the fresh, cool air never felt so good.  As we strolled around a little more, another thing I’d like to point out is that the second largest pyramid, Khafre, still actually had some of the original smooth casting stones on its apex allowing you to see/imagine how amazing the pyramids all originally must have looked thousands of years ago.  I’ll also say that at nighttime, the pyramids on the horizon are actually pretty ominous looking.  The silhouette of the pyramids was actually relatively frightening and it’s not hard to see how the villagers of the time viewed the pharaohs as nothing short of godlike.

From there we took a short walk down the hill and a got a look at the Great Sphinx (which was one of the few things I expected to be a little larger, but was still cool nonetheless).  I had no idea the “What has four legs at sunrise, two legs at noon, and three legs at sunset?” riddle that I’d heard before was the question the Sphinx asked.  I’m glad I would have known the answer (it’s “Man” btw if you didn’t know) because the Sphinx ate those who got it wrong. The one annoying part of that area was the millions of girls trying to take pictures of themselves giving the Sphinx a kiss (a little to the left, a little to the right, lift your chin up a little more, go on your tip toes a bit, crouch down a little, turn you head…)

We moved onto the Egyptian Museum in the center of Cairo next.  As much as I would have loved to take pictures of the amazing displays – once again, no photography was allowed inside the museum.  We were able to take some snapshots from the outside though.  The building itself is actually a historical landmark and it has the same 1930s Indiana Jones feel to the architecture.  However, any blogging I do about the artifacts inside wouldn’t nearly do the museum justice.  So here are just two tips.  1) Dedicate a full day to the museum, that’s how big it is and you’ll regret it if you don’t give yourself the necessary time to wander around and discover everything.  2) Pay the extra money to see the mummy room.  It’s worth every penny (though admittedly little morbid) to see the actual mummies of many of the famous pharaohs of Egypt.

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Luxor and Karnak Temples

When we were back at Luxor for the second time, we were able to see some of the sights that we didn’t get around to seeing on the day we arrived.  Two of the main highlights were the Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple.  The Luxor Temple was much like the Edfu Temple in size and look, and was conveniently located a few hundred meters from our boat.  The few highlights of the Luxor temple include the remains of some Christian murals that were painted over the original hieroglyphics and one of the first Islamic mosques that was over the temple.

The Karnak Temple was about a mile down the road from Luxor and it wins the prize (hands down) for the most impressive temple due to its sheer scale.  The Karnak Temple was not even close to being finished, but what had been built over the course of 2,000 years was amazing.  Of all the temples, it’s probably the most recognizable one from film (I personally remember seeing it in The Spy Who Loved Me during the scene when 007 is evading the henchman Jaws).  I’m just glad we didn’t visit Eygpt when they were filming the new Transformers movie there.  Imagine traveling all that way just to show up and the temple is closed because they’re making a third installation to what is a pretty horrible movie.  But alas.

It’s funny how incomplete the place is due to the fact that with each new pharaoh, started new building projects in or along the temple without finishing the previous king’s projects.  So it’s sort of like a potluck where each dish that everyone brings is only half cooked or prepared.   I’m not going to lie – thoughts of how amazing it would be to play hide and seek in this complex crossed my mind.   I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, but here are a few other things first:

-When you first walk into the Karnak Temple – look to your right.  You’ll see behind the left pylon the reminiscence of what used to be the dirt mound the Egyptians used as scaffolding.  That’s how the discoverers new that the temple wasn’t just a ruin that had fallen apart over time – it was actually incomplete.

– See the nighttime light show; it’s about 60 Egyptian pounds per person.  It’s a great experience, one that’ll give you that feeling you had the first time you saw an IMAX movie.  You walk through the temple and the lights project images on the sides of the temple walls and columns as a booming voice narrates a story.

-Try to find the graffiti left by Champollion, the man who deciphered the Rosetta Stone.  If you do find where he scratched his name, you’ll see how high up on the column it is.  It illustrates where the sand/ground level used to be and how massive of a excavation the Karnak Temple is.

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Camel Riding

What do you think of when you think of Egypt?  You think of the Pyramids.  And you think of camels.  Now before our trip I made it a goal to make sure that I got a chance to ride one of these bad boys.  My enthusiasm however was stunted a little bit before we even went to Egypt because I had heard all these horror stories about peoples’ not so joyful camel riding experiences.  Specifically, that the camel drivers were going to rip you off, make you pay extra to take a picture, make you pay extra to get off the camel, things of that nature.  But nevertheless my intent was still there and I had the opportunity to ride on the camels twice – both being two very opposite experiences.

My first camel riding experience was in Aswan.  When we mentioned to our guide at the time that we wanted to take a camel ride at some point he told us, “The camel drivers in Cairo are thieves.  They’ll charge you a ridiculous amount.  Pure thieves.” This statement pretty much supported what I had heard at home before we went on the trip.  But he told us that he could take us to a place in Aswan that would give us an opportunity to ride the camels at a more legitimate rate.  Now our guide was doing this out of the kindness of his heart, since this wasn’t on the normal tour itinerary, so he asked us not to mention to anyone on the boat that he was doing this favor for us.

We took a quick boat ride across the Nile from Aswan to the base of the Tomb of the Nobles (you can see it easily from Aswan).  The motorboat ride cost us $60 round trip (however, our guide was with us so you’ll probably have to pay more unless you’re really good at bargaining/speak Arabic).  Once we arrived on the opposite bank we took a quick 3 minute walk up to the base of the tombs and, low and behold, sitting there was a group of camels.   Our guide was able to get us 30 minutes on these camels for only 30 Egyptian pounds a person (which is about $6).   In Cairo, our guide told us he’d heard of some camel drivers charging 500-600 pounds to some poor unsuspecting tourists.

My excitement was at its peak as I hopped onto the back of a feisty, male camel.  As he stood up, I almost lost my balance as I wobbled upward.  The camel driver I had was an elderly man who didn’t speak very good English.  Now I’ve never ridden a horse or anything like that, so when part way through the ride my camel driver gave me the reigns, I thought he wanted me to hold them momentarily while he tied his shoes or something.  No, he was giving me control of the camel, which at first almost ended in disaster.  My driver started saying things in Arabic and I really couldn’t tell if he was giving orders to me or the animal I was riding on.  Definitely at one point, my camel got seriously pissed at something and started sprinting (yes, it started fucking sprinting) away from the group.  I had NO idea what I was doing and it took me a little too long to realize what the camel rider was yelling in Arabic was essentially to pull back on the reigns to get the camel to stop.  I pulled back so hard, that the camel stopped so suddenly, I almost flew head over heels off the damn thing (my crotch actually slid forward into the horn of the saddle which was extremely painful, but the only thing that stopped me from flying off).  Once the camel calmed down, and I figured out how to get the reigns to make the camel go where I wanted to go (he was a feisty one throughout, but I did like his spirit) it became a much more pleasant ride.  My mother and sister both had teenage boys leading their camels and these boys were more than happy to take several photographs of us (they seemed to really be enjoying playing with the digital cameras).  At the end of the ride, we were on cloud nine.  The ride was so much fun, and the camel drivers were absolutely great.  We paid them the agreed 30 pounds a person, and we gave them each a hefty tip (which they accepted with great appreciation.  This is something I’d like to point out now and go back to).

Our second experience was not so enjoyable.  When we arrived in Cairo (I’ll explain more about Cairo in the next post), we were all running on about 3 hours of sleep since it was New Years Eve the night before.  Being in Cairo we were going to have a new guide, and on the very first day we were supposed to see the Pyramids of Giza.  We arrived at the Pyramids, and our guide essentially told us we really should ride the camels.  All of us weren’t totally in the mood since we were so tired, and we had done it already in Aswan so we didn’t feel the need to go a second round.   But this guide of ours just kept pushing it, and pushing it.  We finally figured out that this guide was pretty much getting paid off by one of the camel drivers.  The guide was quoting $40 American for each of us for 30 minutes (versus the $6 in Aswan).  Then he dropped it down to $30.  At this point, we decided, if we could get it down to $20, we’d do it (I mean it was a camel ride next to the Pyramids, so we guessed we’d probably regret passing up the chance).   He gave us $25 and were like “Fine, whatever, we’ll do it” as much out of wanting him to stop pestering as actual enthusiasm.

So we board our camels, but of course this time around I know what to expect/know what I’m doing.  My camel driver was a chatty fellow who didn’t have the same kind demeanor as the fella in Aswan.  My sister had a kid no older than 5 pulling her camel along, which was actually quite disconcerting.  We get to a point where the Pyramids are behind us and the camel driver offers to take a picture.  So I give him my camera and he takes some shots of us with the Pyramids.  When he comes back, he doesn’t give me my camera back – he holds out his hand.  I literally am like “Are you serious?” He says “C’mon give me a tip”.  I’m not going to win this one, so I start pulling out money (the guy even says to me “Give me American dollars).  I give him 10 Egyptian pounds (which is like $2) and I tell him “Give me my camera back, now“.  He gives me my camera back, and I look over to my mom and sister and motion to them to put their cameras away or we’ll be quickly losing more money.

We ride along a little bit further and the older man and the young boy leave (inexplicably) and we’re left with a teenage boy who ties all our camels together and has the camels start running back.  In the midst of all of this running, the bouncing causes my mother’s camera to pop out of her pocket.  We scream at the kid in front (who doesn’t really speak English either) to stop the camels.  We check the saddles of the camel (quite thoroughly, keep this in mind), but don’t see any camera.  We spend the next half an hour scouring the desert for the camera on the ground.  It was bizarre because we could see the tracks where we had come from and the camera shouldn’t have been buried by any sand in the 30 seconds the camels were running.  We’d almost given up on the camera and were getting ready to head back with out it when I have the head camel driver (who had come back to help find the camera) check the camel’s saddles a second time.  This time the camel driver “finds” the camera relatively easily.  Now, I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but we find it rather suspicious that the camera was discovered so easily in the saddle after my mother, sister and I all looked through it pretty thoroughly.   Once again, he holds onto the camera, even though I motion to him to give it back, and smiles “We’re all happy now, yes!”  We get back to our Cairo guide, who has a big smile on his face hoping that it’ll charm us to go easy on him, and I try to get the camera back again.  The camel driver says “Are you happy?”  I reply, “I guess”.  He puts out his hand and says “Show me”.  So I give him 50 Egyptian pounds and he shakes his head.  Once again, with no one to back us up (the police standing there couldn’t care less to help), and our Cairo guide just standing there, there no way to win this one.  So I give the guy a second 50 and he gives me the camera back.  I look at my family and they gave me the same look that said it all.  We wish that our memory of camel riding was isolated to the experience in Aswan.  The drivers there were humble, kind, and a pleasure to be around – the total opposite of the drivers in Cairo.

After that, it was only the fact that the Pyramids were so amazing to see in person that saved the day for us.  So if you’re ever in Egypt, heed this warning:  BEWARE THE CAMEL DRIVERS AT THE PYRAMIDS.  One way to get around getting screwed is to have one of your party walk along with the camels and take pictures (but you’ll really owe the one person who doesn’t take the ride).  Or do like we did the first time and find a place to take the camel rides in the non-touristy areas.   But in the end, you can’t get around it.  We got some pictures of us in front of the Pyramids, riding on camels, so we’ll choose to forget the ordeal we went through and just appreciate that we have them.

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