Egypt

It’s hard for me to get over the fact that I’m sitting back in my apartment after the whirlwind that’s been the past couple of weeks over in Egypt (Update: actually I’m in a hotel room in San Diego now).  One blog post wouldn’t nearly do the trip justice, so I’ll be posting several over the course of the next few days.  I’d also like to give a shout out to the other travelers from around the world that we met who made the trip that much more memorable.

Egypt was everything I expected and much more.  My trip consisted of seven days on a Nile cruise and three days in the city of Cairo.  My family flew out of JFK airport in New York on New Year’s Eve direct to Cairo on Egypt Air.  I’ll be honest, I have no idea why I didn’t expect much from Egypt Air, but I was happily surprised to find that it was one of the nicest airlines I’ve ever flown.  The seats were comfortable, spacious, and had the biggest TV screens on the backs of the headrests that I’ve seen on any airline.  Seriously, the screen had to have been a foot by a foot (bigger than my laptop screen).  And the media offerings were extensive.  The food was excellent (the dinner consisted of chicken, farfalle, grilled veggies, chocolate cake, and salad.  The breakfast offering was scrambled eggs, sausage, tomatoes, fruit salad, a large croissant, and tater tots.  The tater tots were crunchy too) and the staff treated us like kings (or pharaohs I guess would be more appropriate).

Once we landed in Cairo, we took a quick flight to Luxor and met up with our guide Remon or Re, who took us to our boat.  Now when I heard we were doing a river cruise, I pictured that we’d be the only ones on the water.  I was sorely mistaken.  Our boat, The Crocodillo, was one of about 400 river boats that travel up and down the Nile.  I don’t know why I should have expected otherwise on one of the world’s oldest water ways.

All the boats dock along side one another in a way that requires you to walk through several boats to get to yours.  It sounds confusing, and believe me, after traveling for an entire day it was in person as well.  Each boat has double doors on it’s lower deck that goes into each boat’s lobby area.  So in order to get to the Crocodillo, we walked through like 4 or 5 lobbies (and I was thoroughly confused as to what was going on, thinking that the boat had like 4 lobbies on it).

Once we got checked in, our room was small for three people.  But from what we’ve heard about the other rooms, it was the largest on the boat so we were able to make due.  We weren’t going to be spending much time in it anyways because the boat had a great top deck for sunbathing, swimming, and lounging around.  They had a afternoon tea on deck every day and provided breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the dining room on the lowest deck.

So while our boat was old (I’m going to nerd out here for a moment and make a Battlestar Galactica reference.  Our boat had a sister ship that most of the passengers on our boat also had originally tried to get on called the “Carnival”.  Essentially the Carnival was the Pegasus and ours was Galactica), our boat had character and a really fun group of passengers that made the next few days very enjoyable.

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Charlottesville, VA – Day 2

Waking up the next day was a little tough considering the festivities the night before, but we had a full day of activities ahead of us.  Our first stop was Bodo’s Bagels, a local bagel chain that Matt swore to us had the best breakfast sandwiches in the area.  Judging by the line of customers at the location we went to (and seeing the crowd outside the UVA campus location) it appeared that most of the people in Charlottesville agreed with him.  There wasn’t anything flashy about the restaurant and line moved quickly.  Bodo’s offers the usual bagel flavors and cream cheeses, as well as the typical bagel sandwiches.  The menu also features lunch sandwiches at a reasonable price.  I think the best way to describe the place is that it’s the blue collar Bruegger’s Bagel.

As much as I wanted to love the place, I was lukewarm about what I had.  I ordered a bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich on an everything, whole wheat bagel.  I wasn’t blown away by it.  Maybe it was because it was Sunday morning and busy, but the bagel itself wasn’t very toasted, and the kids in the kitchen left off the cheese.  The bagel itself was actually pretty good and like I said earlier, the price was cheap.  I’m more than willing to go back there and give the place a second try to really impress me, but I have to admit, I still prefer Bruegger’s Bagels.

After our breakfast, we had a few hours to kill before heading to watch the New England Patriots game.  Since we were in Charlottesville, it wouldn’t have been a trip down there without at least a trip to the Monticello area.   Our first stop however was at Carter Mountain Orchard, which is down the road from Monticello.  The orchard was located high up on a hill overlooking downtown Charlottesville.  The view was spectacular, and it was so serene being able to just sit back and enjoy the view.  Since it was early November (which is past the prime season for apple picking) there wasn’t much of a crowd.  But there were still pumpkins to be sold, hayrides, and it looked like there were actually still some apples that you could pick.  For those of you who don’t know, when you pay the orchard for a bag and go into the orchard, you keep the apples you pick.  You don’t give them the apples.  Yes, Mel asked us this.

We didn’t end up taking any hayrides or picked any apples.   But we did enjoy the hot apple cider for 50 cents and a delicious apple cider doughnut (which tasted almost like a apple pie strudel crossed with a churro crossed with an old fashioned doughnut).

After the orchard, we made our way to Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson.  We arrived to the main visitor’s center and quickly came to the realization that we had spent so much time at the orchard, that we didn’t think we’d be able to squeeze in a trip to the actual house that TJ built for himself.  The price to see the house (which required a separate bus ride up the hill) is $17, and we elected to save the actual house visit for another time.  There was however, time to see the free museum exhibition, which consisted of an impressive gallery of antique items that Jefferson owned (such as his journals, pocket watches, dishes, etc).   There were also interactive computers and movies about how TJ built the house and his general history from youth through the Revolutionary War to his death.  Walking through the museum, both Mel and I regretted the decision to skip seeing the actual house, but it gives us an excuse to return.

We wrapped up at Monticello and headed back into town to Wild Wing Cafe.  This chain restaurant is pretty similar to any sports wing bar like Buffalo Wild Wings or Quaker Steak, so there isn’t really much to tell other than it was uniquely connected to an old-school Amtrak terminal.  I can say the wings there are very good however.  The “Virginia Fireballs” were tasty and spicy enough to have a kick, but not make you wish you had a glass of milk next to you.  That isn’t the case however with some of their other wings.  Both Matt and I each tried a “China’s Chernobyl” wing, and were literally sweating bullets in our seats.   To Mel’s credit, she ate an entire plate like it was a plate of cheese.  So we challenged her to try the “Braveheart”, which is Wild Wing Cafe’s hottest wing. The waitress brought her one wing, amusingly garnished with lettuce and jalapeno peppers, and we (along with every table around us), watched Mel take it down.  Mel being the spicy food lover she is left us disappointed initially, and gave no indication that the wing was at all the spicy wing it was talked up as.   Then a minute later, it set in and she gave us the painful look on her face we were waiting for.  Her exact words were “It’s not the heat, it’s the knives going into my tongue that hurts”.  But she’s got more balls than I do; bravo, Mel.

Let’s just say the weekend didn’t end on a high note as the Patriots got their asses kicked by the Cleveland Browns.  But that wasn’t enough to dampen what was a fantastic 48(9) hours of good times and I’ll be taking a trip back down there for sure before Matt’s time at UVA is up.

Hanging out at 2800 meters

Continuing my conversation about Venezuela, it’d be remiss of me to not mention further my group of high school friends who I take many of my travels with.  Once a year, we try our best to reunite to take our annual “Fire It Up” trip.  Going to Venezuela was one of the excursions.

First of all, going on the trip we went on to Venezuela was not cheap by any means.  Despite the fact that we’re all pretty low maintenance when traveling, the cost of the airfare and travel package was pricey.  That being said, you DO NOT want to be traveling around Venezuela without some sort of guide, especially on the hiking trip we took, so the cost is worth it.

The trip we took was a climb up Mt. Roraima, which is on the Venezuela/Brazil border.  If you’ve ever seen the movie “Up”, you remember that flaptop they wander around on?

Yeah, well Mt. Roraima is the real life place that the movie was depicting.  And yes, our trip was to go to the top.

Now, if you didn’t read the Wikipedia link I inserted, I’ll give you a brief description of what it is.  Mt. Roraima is a flattop mountain (think Will Smith’s hair in the Fresh Prince).  The top is a plateau that’s about a little under 3000 meters high and has a walking area of about 30 square km.  Getting to the top is no joke and I WOULD NOT recommend it for those of you who might not be in top shape.  The dangerous climb up  and down the side of the mountain is rocky, steep, and wet (at the part when you hike up and down through a waterfall).  And you’re doing all of this with all your gear on your back.  But when you do make it to the top – it’s like no other feeling.

Needless to say, it’s incredible.  It’s hard to describe in words what the plateau is like other than it’s like walking around on another planet.  Literally, you can hike around on the top for miles.   One second it’s sunny and clear, and the next second, a cloud will come cruising in and you’re immersed in fog.  There’s not a whole lot of life on the top, but there are several very unique rock formations all around making it very serene, eerie, and alien.

For those you who don’t like heights, stay away from the edges.  There is literally a straight 3,000 meter drop on the sides of the plateau that would make even a skydiver squirm.

Like I said before and earlier this week, the hiking company we went with was outstanding: New Frontier Adventures.  There’s not enough good things to say about the group of guys who we traveled to the top with.  All of our guides were friendly, competent, and made climbing up the 3000 meter side look like a walk in the park.  (Literally, I thought I was in shape, but after seeing these guys fly up the side of this mountain with 40lbs of gear, I need to rethink my workout).  A few of them always went ahead to have camp setup by the time our group arrived, and a few stayed with our group.  They made sure we all were okay with the pace and every few hours or so we’d have a “cookie break”.  I sorta felt like I was back in 4th grade summer camp.  Our main guy, and translator was Liu Izquierdo.  If you ever go with this company to this place – request him by name.

The guides took care of the tents and cooking while we hiked to the mountain and while we were on top.  I shit you not: these guys can cook.  They didn’t just make rice and beans and give us water to drink.  We had straight up meats, cheeses, pastas, casseroles, and they even hiked up a bottle of rum!  Now you may say to yourself, “why are you doing cartwheels over pasta?”  Believe me, when you’re out on a mountain, hiked all day, legs and back aching, and it’s 30 degrees (the temperature difference from the bottom to the top was like going from Florida to Maine) it’s nice to have real food. And these guys are gourmet chefs of the mountain.

The experience was memorable not only because of the great guides and environment, but because meeting the other hikers going up the mountain was a lot of fun.  Not a lot of people hike up and down the challenging face, so when there’s a group that is going up alongside yours, a bond is formed.  We met some really friendly locals during our climb, and exchanged stories, drinks, and items with them such as Venezuelan chocolate for Trader Joe’s trail mix.

The challenge, the bonding, and the unbelievble sights is what made this trip a must-do.  So, if you’re looking for an adventure, but are apprehensive about going it alone – save up your cash and vacation time and book a trip with New Frontier’s up Mt. Roraima.  Just remember to bring plenty of bug spray.  The insects at the base of Mt. Roraima had a Chinese buffet courtesy of my limbs.

Plastic can only go so far

These days when you’re traveling, most people do what they can do get currency at a place that has the best exchange rate.  There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s actually very smart.  Credit cards usually are the best bet when you’re purchasing items abroad, and most of the time you can find an ATM machine that’ll have a Star or Cirrus logo that you can get your local cash at.  Traveler’s checks (or cheques if you want to be anal) are alright, but honestly, who’s even seen a traveler’s check in the past 10 years?  I think the last time I used them was in 1999.

So all the plastic you have is fine in theory.  Unless your cards don’t work.

So here’s the tip: Bring three days worth of cash with you. It doesn’t matter if it’s U.S. Dollars, Euros, or the local currency.  Have something in paper.   Maybe your card doesn’t work, or it gets eaten by the ATM; it doesn’t matter.  You’ll want the security of a few bucks to either exchange or live off of.  If it’s the weekend, and the banks aren’t open then you’ll want to have enough cash for a few days until the banks do open.

You don’t want to end up like me and my friends in 2009.  The 6 of us all landed in Venezuela, each with a few bucks here and there, but all of us thinking, “We’ll grab some cash from the ATM when we get there.”  That thought process usually works fine in Europe, but in South America, that’s a different story.  So, one of us tries our ATM card at the kiosk.  Result: Fail.  The second person tries.   Same result.  So here we are, 6 helpless looking Americans who don’t speak Spanish and about 100 U.S. dollars.  It could have been really bad.  We even came really close to getting some folks back home to wire us some cash.

Luckily for us, we were going on a guided hiking trip with all meals included.  And our housing was our sleeping bags and tents anyways – so we were able to make due for a while.  You wanna know how we finally got money?  Our guide (Liu Izquierdo, more about him and this great hiking company in Venezuela in the next post) drove a few of us across the border into Brazil where we used the ATMs there.  Once we got Brazilian cash from those machines, we had to exchange like $1,000 worth of Brazilian currency into Venezuelan money in the back of Liu’s cousin’s restaurant in the kitchen (yes, it’s as shady as it sounds).  I shit you not, we came back over to Venezuela with a ratty-ass Jansport backpack full of cash, which we used as our money for the rest of the trip.

So, if you’re going to go abroad – make sure to have a money belt with a few Benjamins on you.

Conde Duque Hotel

Since we were on the topic of losing luggage, I wanted to talk about this hotel we stayed at in Madrid.  Like I said, losing your luggage is always a pain, especially when you have to deal with calling the airport and the one person in your party who speaks any Spanish has the proficiency of a 10 year old.

But if you happen to stay at a place like Conde Duque Hotel, your ordeal can be a whole lot less stressful.  If you want a good place to stay if you’re visiting Madrid, Conde Duque Hotel is a great choice.  The price is right, it’s right near the Madrid subway (or T, Metro, Underground, whatever you want to call it), and there’s a big supermarket conveniently down the street.  It’s not in the central part of Madrid, but if you want to stay at a hotel without all of the noise at night, this location is for you.  The subway, like I said, is only 100 meters away anyways.  And the breakfast that they provide each morning is pretty decent.  But the service is what made the experience memorable.

The bellman’s name was Victor and when we first walked in, he was so quiet that we weren’t sure if he was in a bad mood, or if he was just a dour person.  Not exactly uplifting to my luggage-less party.  But once we told him our situation, the curtain rose and he was tremendously helpful in getting our bags back. He gave us some great tips about food (I wish to god I could remember the paella place he sent us too – phenomenal) and getting around.  To this day, my sister still emails with Victor (every time I hear that name, I have an urge to growl/yell it out like Hugh Jackman) and although he’s probably still not working there, the hotel is one that I’d recommend to anyone.

UPDATE: Speak of the devil.  So my sister emailed Victor and he replied with the name of that great paella restaurant I mentioned above.  If you don’t know what paella is, click here.

The place is called La Paella de la Reina.  The restaurant is on a little side street, and yes, it looks a little shady from the outside, but trust me it’s fine.  When we asked the folks at Conde Duque for a quintessential place in Madrid to get paella, they didn’t hesitate to recommend this place.  You have to order the paella in advance, so be sure to plan ahead and call in the morning.  Since Madrid is known for their seafood (yes, I thought it was weird too since Madrid is right smack in the middle of Spain) I ordered the seafood paella.  Let’s just say I’ll never be able to eat any seafood dish (seriously, any seafood dish) again without comparing it to the paella I ate at this restaurant.