25 February 2008

Journey into the Desert

Our first morning in Cairo began bright and early. We had arranged for a car and driver to take us wherever we needed to go for the day and had requested the "Desert Tour." This is both an easy and affordable option. For the three of us for an 8 hour day, the cost was 370 Egyptian pounds (around 70 CHF). Plus the cost of admittance to the various attractions, of course.

We likely could have gotten it cheaper had we haggled, but I have to admit to a reluctance to haggle when traveling in impoverished countries. After all, how much would it have saved us? 10-15 CHF? The money has a far greater impact on the lives of the people in that country that it has on us living in Switzerland.

Toba has worked as a driver in Cairo for many years. Although we arrived in the morning with a list of places we wished to see, he suggested that we put ourselves in his hands and he would show us the best the desert around Cairo had to offer. We decided to let him do just that, so I tucked my list away and we settled in for the day.

We first went to where Memphis had been. Founded around 3100 BC, Memphis was originally the capital of Egypt and retained some importance throughout all of Ancient Egyptian times through the Roman and Greek times until it was sacked in the 7th century AD. As such, it has the distinction of being the longest continuously inhabited city in the world, even though it hasn't been inhabited since the 7th century.

Most of Memphis was long ago covered by the sands of the desert, but there are some small remnants that remain. Although it is difficult to conceptualize how the city might once have looked, I was thrilled simply to be standing there.

There is a small open-air museum with a few statues and other artifacts in a small garden area. Much of what they have dates back to Ramses II, also known as Ramses the Great, who was a Pharoah during the 18th Dynasty. I will say this, the man certainly felt that one could not have too many images of himself about the palace and temple. Here he is as a column:

And as a sphinx done in alabaster:

And the highlight of the museum, which is the only covered item, an enormous collossus: After the museum we headed for Sakkara, one necropolis among many for ancient Memphis, and one way to give you an idea of how large Memphis must have been at one time. Sakkara is one of the largest necropolis in Egypt and the location of 17 pyramids, plus multiple tombs dating from the 1st Dynasty all the way through to the Persian times. We began at the Imhotep Museum (no photos allowed - as with all Eygptian museums, pyramids and tombs), opened recently in April of 2006. It is a small museum dedicated to the work of Imhotep, an architect who designed the first pyramid. We really enjoyed our trip to the museum. (And a note to other traveler's: it has one of the nicest restrooms we encountered in our trip. Use it, because you are unlikely to find another as nice anywhere else during your day in the desert!) But the highlight of Sakkara is the Step Pyramid, designed by the aforementioned Imhotep and the first pyramid in Ancient Egypt.

From a distance you can also see the Bent Pyramid (on the left) and the Red Pyramid (on the right) in nearby Dahshur, another of the Memphis necropoli. The Bent Pyramid is essentially an experiment in pyramid building. The architects attempted to make the tallest, steepest pyramid yet. However, partway up it began to collapse so they changed the angle, thus causing its bent shape. Their next attempt was the Red Pyramid, the first of the pyramids that we associate with Egypt. These two pyramids date back to the 4th Dynasty.
While in Sakkara we also went to a few other pyramids (in the picture above are the Abu Ghurab pyramids, which we did not see up close). Notably the Teti Pyramid, which still allows tourists inside. Because Toba, our driver, grew up in the Bedouin community at the oasis next to Sakkara's entrance and his brother is on the Tourist Police force, he knows all of the various officers. Therefore he was able to take us further into Sakkara than most people go. There was one tomb we went into that had nobody else there. That was really cool! Trust me when I say you want to enter pyramids & tombs with as few people as possible. Especially if you are tall and/or claustophobic. I happen to be blessed with both attributes. When we went into Teti's pyramid, we had to bend at the waist due to the low ceiling and walk down an extremely steep slope with iron rails to sorta prevent you from slipping. But I cannot imagine entering one of the Giza Pyramids, with the steady stream of people going down and coming up at the same time.

And everywhere you go you see the camels and the camel drivers. Although they are technically illegal, they are a fixture and many people imagine the romance of a camel ride through the desert. Although given the smell of them, even from a distance, I cannot imagine it is that romantic. Plus, there are horror stories of settling on a price and taken far into the desert, only to be told you must pay a much higher price or they are leaving you there. It's a popular scam and the reason the Egyptian government has attempted to abolish the camel rides.

After leaving Sakkara, we stopped in the oasis just outside the entrance at a Carpet School. Everywhere you go, you see carpet schools. Which is really just another way of saying "carpet store." (Just as the many Papyrus Museums are really papyrus tourist shops!) The one we went to belonged to Toba's family. Bet you saw that one coming! However, we did enjoy our trip. Before we went I mentioned that I have used a loom before and have made woven carpets. Very simple ones, of course. But I was encouraged to sit beside a young boy who was hand-weaving the carpets with amazing speed so he could teach me how to do it.
That was quite a lot of fun, although getting back up again with people standing around and watching while your husband takes pictures of you and laughs was not so easy! And, of course, we did not leave the "school" empty handed. The hand-woven rugs were beautiful.

We ended our day at the Pyramids of Giza.

At the recommendation of our driver, we ended there because most people start their day there. The end of the day is not quite so jammed with tourists. And locals hawking their wares. And "experts" who try to convince you that you must use their pyramid touring service. And criminals picking your pockets.

Although there are still a number of people there, even 30 minutes before closing. We didn't even attempt to go into these pyramids. Although a limited number of tickets are sold per day to enter the pyramids themselves, it is still jam packed. Plus there actually isn't anything to see. Because these are the three biggest pyramids, they were never hidden by the sands. Which meant people always knew where they were. Which further meant that they were stripped of any noteworthy items centuries ago. The interior rooms are just a shell. Even the paintings on the wall were removed using chisels. Plus, because they are the best known and the closest to Cairo, they also have the largest mobs of people. For pyramid viewing, we found Sakkara to be much more worthwhile. But we still wanted to see them. And the famous Sphinx, of course!

I also had to laugh at the parking lot, with camels sitting in spaces next to the cars:

One further note about hiring a driver: I cannot recommend this option enough, especially if you wish to go to Sakkara which I highly recommend. Getting to Sakkara via public transportation is difficult, takes a long time, can be of questionable safety and greatly limits what you will be able to see given the distances you would need to walk within Sakkara alone. The other major advantage to having a driver is the Insider Knowledge. Yes, we were taken to the shops of family and friends. That is only to be expected. But we were also taken to see amazing things we would not have even known about had we not been with a local.

23 February 2008

Critical Connection

We are watching a program entitled "Decoding Disaster" on the Discovery Channel. It is a documentary about some of the worst car accidents in history.

One of them took place in the Gotthard Tunnel, an 17 kilometer tunnel through the Swiss Alps between the German and Italian areas of Switzerland.

The narrator just described the tunnel as a "critical connection between Germany and Italy."

So, Switzerland is merely a "critical connection" between Germany and Italy?

And people wonder why the Swiss have an Inferiority Complex.

22 February 2008

Cairo Impressions

Cairo was an amazing experience and a first for all three of us. Not only was it the first time any of us had been to Egypt, it was also the first time any of us had been on the African continent. (That will be hard to do again as GLH has now been on every continent except Antartica!)

And it was also an overwhelming experience. Before we left we did receive some advice from a Cairo veteran, a German woman we know who is currently working on a Ph.D in Egyptology and travels to Cairo frequently for research. She told us to call our hotel and ask them to arrange for us to be met. Just after we came off the plane, we saw our name on a sheet of paper. The hotel representative took charge, helping us to go first to the Cairo Bank window to purchase our tourist visas and escorting us through Immigration & Customs. He then delivered us to a driver who took us to the hotel. It likely would have taken us quite a lot longer to figure out exactly what we needed to do if we had been on our own.

Riding through Cairo we stared in fascination outside the windows. Cairo has roads with painted lanes. There are traffic signs and speed limits, but no one seems to pay the slightest attention to any of them. There may be three lanes, with nice white paint, that would seem to suggest that there should be three lanes of traffic. But why? When with just a little extra chaos and a whole lot of horn beeping you could have 4, 5 or even 6 lanes of traffic.

And do not think that you will see only motorized vehicles. We saw horses, cows, camels and donkeys sharing the road. Even on the highway. At one stage we even saw a pick-up truck being pulled by two donkeys on a highway with a posted speed limit of 100 kph.

And yet, even with all that there are surprisingly little problems. Even though the rules are based on anarchy, everyone seems to know what they are doing and even handle to issues with a bit of humor (our driver explained that the horn beeping was the Cairo anthem) or at least resigned acceptance.

Everywhere you look there are small markets that have been set up alongside the streets and highways. We also saw butchers, who were actually butchering the animals outside and then hanging the meat, unrefrigerated and wrapped only with a cloth to protect it from flies. The sight reaffirmed my vegetarian lifestyle. However, I did not photograph the bloody carcasses of goats and sheep. Here's a benign fruit and vegetable stand instead:

Public transportation is also an interesting proposition. Along the roads you see individuals and clumps of people waiting on the shoulder, or occasionally actually on the road. Multiple private mini-buses will drive along. There are no timetables or routine stops and destinations. People will shout out where they want to go. If the mini-bus has room, which means that it would be possible to squeeze another body inside the space, possibly by tossing them on top of the shoulders of others or having them hang off the outside, then the driver will slow down. But not necessarily stop. People hop on and away it goes.

NOTE: Every tour book we read or person we consulted stated that tourists should NEVER take either the private mini-buses or the infrequent city buses you see. It is not considered safe unless you are extremely familiar with Cairo, can speak Arabic and know where you are going. Even so, we never saw a Westerner on any of the private mini-buses that passed us. The subway is actually considered quite safe and has a large number of Tourist Police, but there is only one line. If where you want to go isn't on the line. My recommendation? Just take a taxi. They are cheap to start and can be even cheaper if you are inclined to haggle.

We arrived at our hotel at about dinner time. And just look at the view we had from our balconies!

Next: Day Trip into the Desert

21 February 2008

Traveler's Disease

We've been back from Cairo for a few days. However, even with the extreme care we took with food and water, we seem to have picked up something: all three of us. Won't paint you a picture.

Will post about Cairo soon...

Note: brushing your teeth with bottled water is both expensive and a bit of a pain in the tush.

13 February 2008

Bad Day for Global Librarian...

Annoying Occurrence 1
As a result of a lawsuit in 2006, the government did an audit of all H&R Block customers for the past X number of years. Including mine from 2002 which was found to be wrong. Then it took more than a year for them to find me, what with me having repeatedly moved, changing my name through marriage, and then moving once again to Europe. So now I also owe late fees & penalties. It's not a lot of money, although I am extremely annoyed they are charging me 11% interest for the last year when I knew nothing about it, but it's the principle. H&R Block will be receiving a Very Strongly Worded Letter! Mostly because attempting to call them did me no good whatsoever. 'Cause they SUCK!

Annoying Occurrence 2
For my birthday trip this year (in May) I decided I wanted to go to Las Vegas to see Bette Midler's new show which just opened at the beginning of the year. At the time we booked the non-refundable flight & hotel (at the same time as a US business trip GLH needs to take anyway), Bette was scheduled to perform that weekend. But you could not buy tickets until 3 months before the performance. We just checked to see if the tickets were on sale yet and found out that all of her shows for the month of May have been cancelled. So now I am trying to decide which lackluster show I wish to see for my birthday in a city I would never have selected except for the fact I love Bette Midler. Perhaps I should also send a Very Strongly Worded Letter to Bette?


At least I get to go to Cairo tomorrow!

Weekend Journey

Early-ish on Saturday morning we headed for Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a small Medieval walled city in Germany with the wall still intact. (Most of the old walls were partially or completely demolished as the need for the walls diminished and the space was needed for expansion.)

Due to the need to sleep-in slightly, we got a bit of a later start than planned and arrived at Rothenburg past 3 pm. We headed immediately for the Medieval Crime Museum. Although I prefer to think of it as the Museum of Medieval Torture as that is what it appears Criminal Justice entailed at that time.

The following appears to either be a history of Medieval torture or an instruction manual. Between the style of print and the Old German, I wasn't certain which!

After the museum we wandered about the town and climbed up the wall to walk along it. Most of the wall is open for visitors, although a sign does inform you that the city is not responsible for death or injury! My sister, Kara, greatly enjoyed her medieval experience...

We next headed for Heidelberg, the site of the oldest university in Germany. As we arrived later in the day, we found dinner down in the Alt Stadt and then had a brief meander before turning in for the night. The next morning gave us another bright and sunny day, perfect for viewing the city.

We headed straight to Heidelberger Schloss (Heidelberg Castle).

Overlooking the city, a castle was first built on this site around 1200. It was rebuilt, expanded and or improved by successive rulers over the next 400 years or so. The castle was abandoned after the French sacked it in 1693, including loading the four towers with gunpowder and exploding them. (Those rascally French!)

The castle also has a museum on the history of the Apothecary, which was quite interesting and astoundingly free of visitors, especially given the number of people touring the grounds already before 10 am on a Sunday morning!

As we needed to (sorta) pass by anyway, we decided to head to Strasbourg, France...

And a lunch of famous Alsatian Flamekuchen.

And finally, since we were passing directly by it anyway, we decided to stop off at Augusta Raurica in Basel.

And so ended our full, but short, weekend!

Next up? Cairo!

12 February 2008

Fear of Flying

GLH knows that I do not like flying.

He knows that every time I get on an airplane, I am convinced that we will all die a fiery death.

He knows that before each and every flight I have to force myself to be reasonable and get on the plane anyway.

Would someone please explain to me why he insists upon watching a reality television program entitled Air Crash Investigation while I am sitting on the couch next to him?

11 February 2008

Bad Day for the Kittens

Max and Tilly made a trip to the vet today for their vaccinations.

After the trauma of sharing a waiting room with another cat, several dogs and a bunny, they had the further terror of the vet pressing their stomachs, peering in their eyes and pulling their lips back from their teeth before delivering two shots each. Not a good day in for a cat.

They are not feeling well and are still acting a bit cranky. All they want is to lay about on us, periodically hissing at us or each other. And their little noses and the pads of their paws are very red due to a slight fever.

Poor little sweeties. They'll be fine by tomorrow. And they would undoubtedly be thrilled to know their next scheduled vet visit isn't for 2 years, if they had any concept of time and could understand what we say. Although if Max continues to insist upon eating non-edible things, we may have to go sooner. (Last week he ate the cord from my camera, leaving me with a sad-looking camera hanging from my wrist with recycling string. Fortunately, it passed...)

Of course, between a day spent on laundry and a vet visit, I ran out of time to make a diaper cake for a baby shower tomorrow afternoon, much less post pictures from our weekend trip. Ah well.

Quick Note

We've just returned from a quick trip to Germany (Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Heidelberg) as well as a quick swipe through France (Strasbourg). Now my visiting sister and I are catching up on laundry before we all leave for Cairo later this week. I'll post photos if I have time this week, but it is going to be a tight schedule.

By the way, France and Bavaria banned smoking in all public buildings as of January 1st, so it was a blessedly smoke-free weekend.

As we walked through the various cities, we saw smokers huddled under blankets at the outdoor cafe tables. They looked so cold in the February weather.

Is it wrong that I really enjoyed the sight of their discomfort? After years of being made uncomfortable by them smoking inside buildings, I grinned from ear to ear every time I saw them!

C'mon, Switzerland, get off your arse and pass the darn smoking ban already!

NOTE: Yes, I realize that I likely will not be able to get away from all the smoking in Cairo. Yes, I know that smokers reading this blog may appreciate this fact.

06 February 2008

Surprise Box

After a long and wet trudge up the hill, there is nothing better than finding a big box sitting on your doorstep. A box you hadn't a clue would be coming. A box that contained 34 used paperbacks originally sent via the cheapest USPS rate more than a month ago from a friend.

Thanks, A Librarian!

Fasnacht Season

Yesterday some of the Bloggy Hausfraus set off for an afternoon trip to Luzern's Annual Children's Fasnacht Parade.

For those not familiar with Germanic Culture, Fasnacht (or Fastnacht or Fasching, depending upon the regional dialect) is the German way of saying Mardi Gras (French) or Carnevale (Italian). However you say it, in all languages it is the last big celebration before the Lenten Fasting begins.

When we arrived we followed the masses into the Ald Stadt, where people in costumes packed the narrow streets as the revelers marched by. Although these folks decided to stay above it all...

Even Alorie's 4-month son, Adrian, got into the spirit by dressing as a Chili Pepper. Well, perhaps the rest of us got in the spirit by dressing him. He seemed slightly bewildered about the strange course his day was taking.

And as it was the Children's Parade, the bulk of the spectators were children with parents, grandparents and other family members. Such as this sweet Lady Bug!

Of course, as with any Swiss parade, festival or the like we have attended, the noise was deafening and the pungent stench of raclette cheese filled the air. (Does anyone else think that raclette cheese smells alarmingly like dirty feet?)

After a couple hours of in Luzern, we all decided it was time to head back to Zürich. But a great time was had, as evidenced by the smiles on Alorie, Jill and Nicole. Although by this stage Adrian had decided he'd had enough and had checked out. Even with all the noise, he slept soundly!

And so I leave you with a brief video clip of the parade as it passed by. Here are some rather frightening clowns:

05 February 2008

Vegetable Pakora

I purchased a vegetarian Indian cookbook, but haven't cared for any of the recipes to date. So most of my Indian recipes come from the internet. I rarely remember which site...

Vegetable Pakora

1 cup chickpea flour (available at Indian/Asian grocery store)
1/2 tsp coriander
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp garam masala
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3/4 cup water
Oil for frying
Vegetables of your choice, cut into pieces*

Mix flour, coriander, salt, cayenne pepper, garam masala and garlic. Make a well in the center and fill with water. Gradually mix the water into the flour & spices to form a smooth, thick batter. Let sit for 30 minutes. Heat oil to 375 degrees (medium-high burner).

Fry the vegetables a few at a time, turning once, for about 4-5 minutes until done. Remove from oil and place on paper towels. Serve immediately with a Cucumber Raita sauce for dipping (recipe below).

*We used cauliflower and carrots, but you could use pretty much any vegetable you like. Although green peas might be a tad small...

Cucumber Raita

2 cups plain yogurt
2 tbsp honey
1 large or 2 small cucumbers; de-seeded, grated and drained of water
1 tsp coriander
1/4 tsp cumin

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Chill and serve.

We served this to guests on Friday evening and were very happy with the results. It's super-easy and tastes great! What did GLH think? Well, Gadget Boy has decided that perhaps we need a new gadget: a deep fryer. He just can't help himself, can he?

Book Tag

I've seen this one going around and decided to go ahead and do it...

The rules are: take the book closest to you right now, turn to page 123, find the fifth sentence and then write the next 3 full sentences in your post.

Yellow or brown leaves indicate aging, so avoid them. Substitute 2 1/2 cups shredded cabbage or florets of broccoli and cauliflower for Brussels sprouts if they are not in season. This is a salty stir-fry, made to go with a spicy or sweet-and-sour dish and a plateful of grains.

Real Vegetarian Thai by Nancie McDermott

This morning I looked up the German words for some of the ingredients of a recipe in preparation for a trip to the grocery store. It was the nearest book to my computer.

Which reminds me that I forgot to post the new recipe of the week. Look at me! It's already February and I am still doing that New Year's Resolution!

Recipe post coming up...

Expiration Dates

For the last week I have been having the worst time with my contact lenses.

Usually I can wear them all day long, from the time I get up until I go to bed, with no problems whatsoever. For the most part I am not even aware I am wearing them. I have never even had an eye infection.

But this past week has been terrible! They hurt from the time I put them in all the way through until I give up and take them out. Midway through the day, they will get a smudge on them that makes it hard for me to see until I take them out and wash them.

Last night, while taking them out immediately after dinner because I couldn't stand to wear them anymore, I happened to glance at the bottle of soaking solution.

It expired a couple of months ago.

Huh. Sometimes the expiration date actually means something?

Most of the time I take the posted expiration date as a suggestion, not a rule.

I have now thrown away the 3 bottles of recently expired solution and am using a bottle that will not expire until 2009.

Much better.

Who knew?

04 February 2008

Reason to Cheer!

GLH just finished watching the Super Bowl. The game started at 2 am last night and since the Cleveland Browns were not playing, he taped it. (Unless the Browns are either playing or somehow impacted by the result of the game, he doesn't care who wins.)

Yeah! Football season is done for almost 8 months! Now that's a reason for me to cheer!

Thank goodness he doesn't care about any sport except American football. 'Cause I don't want to watch any of them.

Unexpected Beauty: Sunrise over the Alps

Just when you think it is going to be a dreary, cloudy and rainy Monday in February, you walk into your kitchen and are greeted with this:

The forecast is cloudy with a 90% chance of rain mixed with sleet and snow. But at least the day started off well!

02 February 2008

No More Apologies!

It happens virtually every time I go to a restaurant and I am tired of it! I hereby refuse to apologize to yet another waiter for failing to eat all of the food they have served to me!

Here's the issue. As I have mentioned before on this blog, I have stomach issues. I get sick frequently after eating. It is the reason I am now a vegetarian. While removing most of animal protein & fat (except dairy and eggs) from my diet has helped, I do still have issues.

One of the issues is that I cannot eat very much at a time. At home I tend to eat 5-6 meals evenly spread throughout the day. They are very small meals typically consisting of a yogurt and an apple. Or a hard boiled egg and a couple of crackers with peanut butter. If I eat a "normal-sized meal," as in normal for most people, it makes me nauseous and gives me stomach aches.

When we go to a restaurant I always end up with way more food that I can eat. Which means that when the waiter comes to clear my plate, they always want to know what is wrong with the food. And then I apologize for not eating it.

But no more! If I don't want to eat all the food, I don't have to and you cannot make me. So there!

Note: Before you write in with all sorts of helpful comments about how to resolve my issue, let me tell you that I have now seen 7 different doctors in 2 different countries and tried 4 different prescriptions and a few homepathic remedies as well. Yes, I have tried the various prescriptions for IBS. Yes, I have tried ginger and peppermint. Trust me, whatever you are thinking of suggesting has likely been tried already. It didn't work. OK? The only thing I haven't yet tried is acupuncture. Which I will admit I am seriously considering. Still trying to figure out how to find a reputable one in the Zürich area who speaks English.

01 February 2008

Kein Deutsch!

During my German lesson this morning the telephone rang. I checked the number on the caller id and thought it might be GLH's office telephone. He rarely calls me from work (which is why I don't have the number memorized) and only when it is important, so I answered it.

It was actually a telemarketer.

As I always do when telemarketers call here, I said "Ich spreche kein Deutsch." And I made certain to use a very bad, obviously foreign accent to emphasize the point that I do not speak German and they should just hang up and call someone else. Usually they say "O.K. Bye." And hang up. For the first time I encountered one who spoke English. So I politely told her I wasn't interested and hung up.

As I looked across the room I noticed my German teacher giving me a disapproving look. After all, I had just spent the last hour conversing with her on multiple topics. In German.

Once I explained the situation, she laughed and thought it a great idea. Indeed, she may use that tactic when telemarketers call her too!