2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 7,600 times in 2010. That’s about 18 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 70 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 1058 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 1gb. That’s about 3 pictures per day.

The busiest day of the year was September 29th with 456 views. The most popular post that day was young Muslim women go for a swim in the latest burka fashion.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, mail.live.com, google.ca, linkedin.com, and mariaozawa2u.blogspot.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for mineau.wordpress.com, singapore expat family blogs, mineau wordpress, cow shower curtain, and portara.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

About us February 2010
1 comment

2

First post to come shortly February 2010
5 comments

3

A fun dinner at a real Supper Club (by Olivier) March 2010

4

Random wanderings (by Jessica) April 2010

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Crème de la crème

We promised some “top lists” from our journeys, and after many laughs around the dinner table, we’ve compiled some our favourite memories for your enjoyment.

More lists to come!

Places to return to:

Greek Islands

New Zealand

Bali

Argentina & Buenos Aires

London

China

Singapore

Where we still want to go:

South Africa

Jordan

Israel

Portugal

Scandinavia

Russia

Ireland

Brazil

Central America

Hawaii

Myanmar

Tibet

Most memorable stories

Eighteen hour car ride through the Bolivian jungle, in the rain, on the world’s most dangerous road, from Rurrenabaque to La Paz, including three flat tires, three cars and three drivers.

Nearly jumping out of our moving taxi in Athens to avoid being ripped off by the driver’s inflated flat rate upon discovering he didn’t have a meter.

Travelling New Zealand’s North Island in a campervan.  On day two, the camper van broke down and wouldn’t start.  Upon the arrival of a tow truck, the thing finally started.  We drove and drove, without turning off the van, until we reached the repair garage.

The screaming lady and her peeing daughter on the plane to Hong Kong.

Our grand entrance of smashing three duty free bottles of wine, including one bottle of port, onto the floor of our Singapore apartment upon our arrival.

Jessica’s purse being stolen in a vegetarian lunch restaurant during our second week in Buenos Aires, and the ensuing challenges of replacing the missing items in South America.

Our amazing four-day Inca Trail trek, our favourite guide Santiago who taught us all about his people, and reaching Machu Picchu at sunrise after hiking through the dark after a 3am wake-up call.

Witnessing a near scooter death in Bali.

The fantastic friends who partied in style at our big Buenos Aires going away bash.

Interesting People Wednesdays, where we met some truly fascinating and inspiring folks congregating in Buenos Aires.

Lying together in a body harness swing, being hoisted high above the green New Zealand sheep pastures, and pulling the rip cord for a gut-churning fall.

While river rafting in Arequipa, Peru, the boat bucked over a drop and Oli was left hanging out of the boat by his tangled big toe.  His head (in a helmet) was perilously close to smashing against big rocks while his rafting partner flailed around to help him.  Jess reached down, grabbed Oli’s life jacket and heaved him back into the boat with bewildering strength.

Along with a lovely Japanese family, being crammed in a two-person horse and buggy for four hours on Eid in Alexandria as we made our way from dinner back to the hotel.

Being smuggled into the Bombonera by the local hooligan gang, the barrabrava, to watch a stadium-shaking Boca Junior game.

Best Hotel Rooms

W Hong Kong

W Santiago (Chile)

Sheraton Alexandria (hotel is a time capsule, but we had the Presidential Suite!)

Luxury Collection Villas, Phuket (Thailand)

Le Meridien, Siem Reap (Cambodia)

Dewani Villas, Bali (Indonesia)

Vedema Santorini (Greece)

Best friends made along the way:

Cristobal: who got the ball rolling and who was always up for fun, and by extension his friends Gaston & Javier

Bernardo:  for his big smile, welcoming hugs and connecting personality

Sally, Nacho & the Worm Hole IT crew: for being great friends, teaching us about Argentina and always being open, fun and wonderful

Morgan, Celia & the Wednesday “Interesting People” night crew: for always opening the door, and for an unfailingly interesting Wednesday night gang

Vanesa & the Palermo Valley crew: for welcoming the Canadians as one of you

Martin, Withers & co.: for supporting us and our ideas

Michelle & Co.: for a memorable night at the rooftop pot luck party

Spanish school crew: for many good nights out, and for all being travelling misfits together

Jeffaroundtheworld: Quebecois happenstance friend in Cusco; for continuing the Quebecer bond

Olivier & Sophie: French happenstance friends in Copacabana; for fondue and a fireplace

Lupe & Christian: Peruvian/German happenstance friends in Arequipa; for cuy culinary lessons and a 4-hour lunch

Santiago: Our wonderful Inca Trail leader, who also wins the award for best guide in the world!

Quebecer couple: Happenstance Quebecois friends we first met on a glacier in El Calafate, Patagonia and again for dinner in Buenos Aires; for proving once again that Quebecers are great people

Anne-Gaelle & Guillaume: Excellent French friends and roomies in Singapore; shaky-shaky!

Japanese family in Alexandria: For your good humour and go-with-the-flow attitude while we were all stuck first in taxis, then in a horse-and-buggy, for six hours on Eid in Alexandria

Italian/Greek couple in Santorini:  To enjoying Greek food, wine, and black volcanic sand

Our deepest gratitude to all of our friends who welcomed us along the way, in no particular order:

Patricia & Guillaume, who toasted our travels on day one in Buenos Aires

Arieh & Blair, for Team Canada bar trivia domination in Melbourne

Ting & Ying, for hosting us like Emperors at your home, guiding us around Chengdu and answering all our questions about China

Joyce & Andrew, for hosting us first in LA, and then at your home in Beijing.  Here’s to foot massages, Peking duck, climbing the Great Wall and your generosity

Marcelo & Daniela, for taking us out to Hong Kong’s best spots

Oli’s INSEAD class crew in Singapore, for sharing our love of Singapore

Ananda & Barbora, for hosting us in your Singapore home

Steve & Jenny, for a fun meet-up dinner in Beijing

Diana, for a chauffeured tour of Jakarta’s finest

Alex & Kate, for crossing travel paths long enough for a Singaporean brunch

Darwin & Erika, for satays and sugar cane juice on the streets of Singapore

Coby & Dana, for honeymooning over steak and Malbec in Buenos Aires

Creighton, for some of the best fish in Sydney

Jorge & Amelia, for introducing us to Lima’s best pisco sour, causas, chicha and ceviche

Julia, for a brilliant evening in London

Louis-Philippe, for meeting up with family over Lebanese food and a pool hall in Buenos Aires

****

Happy New Year to everyone!  It’s been a helluva year, and writing these top lists have taken us back to those happy, happy months on the road.  Thanks to our friends and family for the memories and support throughout this adventure.  It is truly the people in this world that make the places so special.

Final port of call: Amsterdam (by Jessica)

The Dutch are a very privileged bunch.  Not only are they tall, lean and beautiful with wavy blonde hair and an impeccable sense of style, but they have a capital city that is a fairytale come true of clean canals, civilized bicycle traffic, charming brick row houses and silent trams gliding through the city’s main roads.  I’m sure that the modern Dutch might disagree with my overly positive first impressions; they might grumble about immigrants, or extreme right-wing politics, or the constant winter rain, but all in all Amsterdam is one of the most idyllic cities in the world.

We arrived to a misty rain in the evening and dragged our suitcases about a kilometre to the Movenpick Hotel.  Our luggage, being only 15kg each plus a backpack, is not particularly heavy or awkward, but also carrying an umbrella is an added juggle.  The hotel was a bit out of the way, but it was a steal on Priceline in pricey Amsterdam, and we stayed there very comfortably for two nights.  It was around 9pm and we were starving, so we checked out the “curry night” in the hotel restaurant.  For once the hotel restaurant wasn’t an overpriced morgue, but instead a social, lively place.  Our curries were decidedly watered down but OK…and Amsterdam is not particularly known for its cuisine.

Tummies full and spirits refuelled, we headed out into the night, determined to enjoy our evening.  This is, after all, the last destination on our itinerary.  Our epic trip is quickly coming to an end!  We headed to the happening Leidseplein neighbourhood and came back around 12:30pm on the last tram, having felt like we’d seized the day and being thoroughly exhausted from a day of travel and a slight one hour jet lag.

We awoke to grey but dry skies; all that we could ask for from the Fall weather.  Beneath the hotel we rented two very Dutch bikes, equipped with one bell, three gears and two mega locks.  We set off onto the cycling highway and explored the quiet side streets of canals and leaning houses.  Amsterdam’s signature old houses are all tall and skinny, much like its people, and were built on a slight outward angle with hooks on the top.  These hooks are to better allow moving in furniture, which is hoisted up on the hooks and put through the windows.  The angle helps avoid anything smashing into the window below.  I would have liked to have seen these in action, but maybe today the furniture it brought up on pneumatic hoists or some other type of sturdy machinery?  The Dutch would know.

It was a chilly day and I was looking for some Dutch comfort food.  Pizza and pasta are it.  We stopped for lunch at a nice little place that advertised 5 euro pizzas.  If you don’t feel like pizza, which is available on every street, then you can pop into one of the dozens of trendy Argentinean steak houses with semi-catchy Spanish names.  Whether the beef is from Argentina is questionable, but at least the concept seems to have caught on regardless of authenticity.

Back in the saddles, we rode to the Van Gogh museum, where we spent a few great hours following the life of this fantastic Dutch artist.  I have never left a museum feeling like I knew about the artist…until now.  The Van Gogh museum is like travelling through the artist’s life through his art.  Large posters explain what he was living through at each period, and how the art reflected his growth as a person and as an artist.  He was a prolific, daring artist who was self-taught and completely broke, but thankfully sponsored by his brother who believed in him.  He died in tragic circumstances, by his own hand driven to madness, perhaps by syphilis, at a young age.  His loving brother died shortly afterwards, and Vincent, as he signed all of his paintings, was buried in the South of France, where he spent his most inspired years painting his colourful pieces known the world over.  Oli and I played a game where we each had to choose just one painting, a favourite.  He chose Sunflowers and I chose Almond Blossoms, both of which are available on a paperweight, t-shirt, bicycle or traditional poster in the gift shop for great sums of money.  If only Vincent could see his work now.

By the time we left the museum it was sunny!  We followed Vondelpark, which was packed with Amsterdammers enjoying the rays.  Beside the park we found some extremely nice residential streets that we rode around until the sun set.  That night we went to see Boom Chicago, an American improv comedy troupe and Amsterdam institution that produces hilarious shows for tourists and locals alike.  The Sunday night crowd was big and lively and the energy made the four performers even funnier.  We laughed until our guts hurt and I admire their on-the-spot skills for making any phrase, word or suggestion into an entire song or skit…and very funny at that.  The more ridiculous, the better.  They poked fun at the Dutch, which made the locals laugh louder than ever, and we left with plans to go back the next night for a different show for only 5 euros.  What a deal!

Our second day and the weather wasn’t as cooperative as the first.  It was rainy, but we weren’t deterred.  After two nights at the Movenpick, it was time to switch to the Pulitzer, a unique hotel in the city that spreads between several traditional row houses.  Oli worked his Starwood magic once again, with the last of our hotel points for the big finish.  Each house still has its own style and the place is a maze to navigate all the different levels, hallways and ups and downs.  Its central courtyard must be great in nice weather, but we just saw it in the drizzle.  Their computers were down when we arrived, so they served us some tea and coffee until they were back online.  Nice touch.  Our room was on the ground floor with a canal view and very high ceilings; lots of “old world charm” as they would say in a brochure.

We decided to do a bit of shopping, since we were carrying many summer clothes and only one or two cool weather tops and pants.  In just a few short days we’d arrive in Montreal, where the weather would be cool and we’d be stuck in the same old things.  We checked out a nearby shopping street and split up for a little while, which seems to be the most painless and efficient way to shop as a couple.  I hit the jackpot in one store and bought two pairs of jeans (they fit!) and a long-sleeved top, which will be enough to tide me over.

That night we decided to have a nice dinner before our second Boom Chicago show and found a great tapas restaurant for a Spanish meal.  A man singing songs from Uruguay entertained the room, but the kitchen was slow. We ended up eating in a hurry to make our show.  At least it was tasty!  The show was half full, so the energy wasn’t the same as the previous night, but I had the fun of throwing out a few suggestions on which to base their improv skits.  It was funny, but not the uproarious laughter from the previous night.  Still worth the five euros, though!

Our third and final day in Amsterdam… is not only our final day in Amsterdam, but the final day of our entire journey!  We’ve both been pretty contemplative these past few days, savouring and yet finding each moment bittersweet.  Each evening we’ve been putting together a bunch of “top ten” lists from our trip as a way to remember all of our highlights, low lights and crazy adventures.  To add to the drama, the final day is also my birthday!  No time for tears and morose faces.  It’s time to celebrate!

Instead of being at work in the office, which has been my usual birthday for the past few years, we were together in beautiful Amsterdam, wandering the city hand in hand, going in whichever direction we wanted, doing whatever pleased us that day.  It wasn’t raining, and so the wandering was easy and we walked for a few hours.  I knew that Oli had planned a nice dinner for us, but we were without schedule for the last time.  After a well-deserved nap, we walked to dinner at Little Buddha, the sister location in Paris where we’d eaten a few years ago.  The food was good and the atmosphere cool but relaxed.  There was no singing or birthday candle, but then my travel dreams have already come true.  What would I wish for on the candle?  Continued good health, love, happiness… and that one day our future children will be able to see the world, too.

I could tell you about our flight home (uneventful), but I’ll skip that part.  Instead, I’ll share some of our top ten lists.  Stay tuned!

Going Greek in Naxos & Athens (by Jessica)

It’s always been my dream to travel to Greece.  Why wouldn’t it be?  Sunshine, bright blue skies, friendly people, turquoise ocean, fresh seafood, white and blue domes… and it’s even better than I could have imagined.  Santorini was the pampered, ultimate vacation experience.  I was sad to leave our Olympian villa oasis.  I thought that our next island destination, Naxos, couldn’t compete with the best.  Well, I was wrong.  We boarded the ferry for Naxos and arrived in the late afternoon a few hours later.  Instead of the imposing cliffs of Santorini, we found a dry, mountainous island with a picturesque town and marina stretching along the blue, blue shore.

We walked the comfortable kilometre along the boardwalk towards our accommodation past dozens of seaside restaurants, all claiming to have the best home cooking, the most authentic Greek cuisine, the freshest seafood and the oldest establishment.  It was like we had the island to ourselves, like we didn’t get the memo that the tourists have all left for the summer.  September is the best time to visit Greece.  The weather is sunny and in the high 20s, and still nice enough to make an ocean swim tempting.  The turquoise ocean is still warm from the summer heat.  The tourist industry workers are tired and relaxed after the busy season and aren’t aggressive to sell.  Everyone is extremely friendly, and prices are more competitive or negotiable.  Best of all, there are much fewer tourists, so we enjoyed our pick of beach space, the attention of waiters, and a choice of discounted accommodations.

We had an idea where our studio apartment rental was located, and asked a few locals along the way until we found it hidden on a lovely street just a few steps from the beach and a quick walk to town.  A smiling woman met us at Antony Studios (not to be confused with Antonio or Antonia Studios in the same neighbourhood) and let us into our spacious room with kitchenette and a balcony overlooking the lane.  The whole place had the laid back, beachy feel of a vacation apartment and we felt immediately happy with our choice of coming to Naxos.  Gone was the luxury of Santorini, but here we felt a simpler, family-friendly approach to a good time at much more affordable prices.

We dropped our stuff, threw all of our laundry into a mega bag and trotted it over to the neighbourhood lady who charges 10euros per bag to wash and fold.  Laundry in Santorini was out of the question.  Already in our swimming gear, we skipped to the beach, happily anticipating clean clothes and warm waves.  It was already late afternoon, nearly sunset, and we found the calm, sandy bay lined with restaurants with empty lounge chairs.

It had been awhile since we’d eaten the small, overpriced sandwiches on the ferry, and dinner wouldn’t be for a few hours.  We decided to camp out at a table in the sand, ordered a few classic Greek appetizers with some house vino, and went for a quick dip in the ocean.  The bay was surprisingly shallow and warm, and we had to wade out quite a ways before we could do any real swimming.  By the time we were back on shore, our food had arrived and we filled our hunger with tzatiki, hummous, babaganoush, bread, and some Greek salad while the sun set over the water.

We picked up our impeccably clean laundry and, before we knew it, dinner time was rolling around.  We walked back to the restaurant strip and shopped the menus up and down, and spoke with all the staff at each place about their specials and catches of the day.  Finally, we came upon our perfect table and menu next to the marina.  Their deal of a fresh grilled fish, potatoes, salad and a ½ litre of wine won us over.

The next morning we headed out into the village to explore on foot, and also to shop around for a rental car for the next day’s excursion around the island.  The village’s souvenir and touristy shops were cute, but the best part came when we climbed up and around the maze that is the oldest part of town.  The old town was settled by Venetians during their glory days in the 1600s, and walking around their twisty alleys and shady spots were one of the highlights of our stay in Naxos.  Not only were the alleys empty of all people, but we felt like we were interrupting a secret, very special place.  The only signs of life were a few cats lounging in the sun, and some wash hanging to dry in the wind. There were no shops, no tourists…just us, the sun, the salty wind, and the white, white buildings against the blue, blue sky.  Then, we heard something.  It was a piano!  A concert pianist was practicing his evening performance on the stage of a small outdoor venue overlooking the ocean.  It was our private show.  Heaven on earth?  It qualifies in my books.

Our walk continued towards the Portara, the island’s landmark Venetian marble arch that greets all arrivals.  The Portara is on a tiny island off the coast, connected by a break wall.  On one side of the break wall, the ocean’s huge waves crash with fury.  On the other, the waters are calm and locals go swimming.  We rushed along the wall and barely missed a full soak, but we were pleasantly sprinkled with salt water.

Lunch was back in the village, served by a little old woman who is owner, server and chef of her establishment, cheerily decorated with decades of kitsch.  Oli loved his gyro platter, and I dug into an assortment of little dishes suggested by our kind hostess.  Across the street were a few rental car places, so we obtained several quotes for a day of touring.  Most places have all of their vehicles available, dying on the lot, so we were able to get aggressive prices and had the pick of the island.  We ended up booking a mint green VW Bug look-alike convertible from the island’s “Fun Car” agency.  Fun, here we come!  We ended the day at the beach again, with another great sunset and more delicious Greek food.

Oli went to get our Fun Car at 9am the next day.  We learned of two fun surprises.  First, the car was a permanent convertible; there was no roof.  We eyed the usually 100% blue sky and spotted a few little clouds.  But what were the odds that it would rain?  We’d take our chances.  Second, the car had all the oomph of a supped up golf cart.  It looked cute, but we wouldn’t win any races.  Well, at least it was a manual transmission, so pilot Oli could shift around the curvy mountain roads.  For 35 euros, we couldn’t ask for much more.

Map in hand (with hand-drawn arrows on our suggested route from the Fun Car lady), we set off.  The car climbed high into the mountains and we could see the whole island and well beyond.  Our first stop was the site of an ancient marble quarry and workers’ village, where the Greeks obtained most of their marble for architecture and statues in Athens.  The footprint of the former village was clear, as were several broken and abandoned statues scattered several kilometres around the site.

Back in the car, we climbed even higher and we were suddenly much colder, up in the misty clouds, with spectacular 360 views.  As we drove through the mountains, we noticed entire peaks were carved up, with sheer faces showing where the machines had dug slabs of marble.  The mountains had been mutilated.

We blasted the heat and headed back down, to the other side of the island this time, and spiralled downwards through back-shifting roads to the water.  The cliffs and narrow roads made me close my eyes while Oli drove the challenging course like a pro.  Once down, we found a seaside restaurant with a selection of freshly caught fish and the fishing boat to prove it.  The service was incredibly slow, but we sat beside the crashing waves in the shade of some scrubby trees while the cats begged for food at neighbouring tables.  Finally our fish arrived, and it was our turn to be stared down by the kittie gang.

Next stop were some beaches.  We found them, deserted and pristine, but by then the temperature had dropped and we weren’t enticed by swimming.  The last item on our itinerary was another ancient Greek site, but we couldn’t find it after several drive-bys.  Before dropping off the car, we filled up with gas and got our third surprise of the day; the little golf cart guzzled gas!  All of that hill climbing and descending cost 30 euros in gas.  We couldn’t believe it.

Our final day in Naxos involved some more beach time.  We wanted to lie on one of the hundreds of lounge chairs, but each set is owned by the adjoining restaurant and you can’t lounge for free.  Even if we ordered lunch there, the chairs were not negotiable.  Instead, we headed back to our inn and borrowed some grass mats and water floaties to set-up camp on the free sandy section.  One girl nearby, who happened to be particularly curvy and obviously proud of it, was dressed in the only bikini thong on the beach.  After a quick dip to display her large buns, she decided that she would sunbathe topless, slather oil all over her body, and roast her humungous, glistening breasts in the sun.  As we took a walk along the beach, we noticed that many women, although mostly over the age of 50, were also displaying their browned boobs while reading, eating lunch, playing a board game or simply crisping during a nap.  Those Europeans.

Our final day in Naxos involved more beach time, more eating of delicious seafood and heavenly tomatoes, more house wine and slabs of feta.  After a cheap gyro snack, we lined up for the ferry  and waited…and waited.  The boat was late, but it showed up nonetheless.  It was a long, wavy ride back to Athens.  I remember the ship’s cleaning crew working hard to mop up the frequent seasickness accidents, and trying hard to keep my cookies firmly untossed.  Back on terra firma, we jumped onto a train and headed into the city.

ATHENS

We met some fellow Canadians on the train, backpackers on honeymoon.  When we got out of the train, we flagged a taxi to take us the rest of the way to our hotel.  Since we were returning to the same hotel, we knew where to go and how much it would cost.  Our driver took off and after a few blocks we noticed that there was no meter running.  Oli spoke up and asked to turn on the meter.  The driver replied that there was no meter, flat rate only.  How much would be charging us?  Fifteen euros, three times the five euros it should cost on a meter!  We yelled at the driver and told him to stop, that we wanted out, that he was ripping us off.  When he kept driving, Oli started to open the car door to get his attention.  That worked, and the cabbie pulled over out of fear of damaging his cab.  We insisted he drop his price.  There was haggling.  In the end, all worked out and we earned his respect.  He started to call us “friend”!  Once safely delivered at the hotel, we went out for a bite to eat and crashed hard into bed.  The next day was set aside for sightseeing!

We awoke bright and early to switch to a downtown hotel, where we used a free weekend night to check-in to the Hotel Grande-Bretagne, a classy but stuffy hotel in a great location.  We received champagne and cookies as we checked in, but our room wasn’t ready so we headed out to find some lunch and see the city.  Taking directions from the check-in lady, we found ourselves in the ultra touristy neighbourhood where lunch would cost a salty 20 euros each.  We shopped around and found a nice outdoor terrace with decent prices.  After having experienced the best, freshest Greek food on the islands, Athens couldn’t hold a candle to our expectations for delicious, cheap fare.  At the table next to us were a lovely retired couple from Argentina, and we struck up a conversation about our time in Buenos Aires.  Suddenly, I found myself searching for words and sentences.  My Spanish had become rusty!

Back at the hotel, we checked into a room with early 20th century British décor that felt like a Queen’s boudoir….a bit of creepy mixed with posh, and facing a brick wall.  No Acropolis view for us.  Instead, we headed back out and hiked up to the Acropolis for a close-up view.  We got a bit confused and headed up the wrong side of the hill, until we met a Mexican couple and steered ourselves in the right direction.  Again, we conversed in Spanish and I was again frustrated with my brain freeze.  I vowed to find some Spanish speakers back in Canada to make friends and practice.

At the Acropolis, we paid the entry tickets and wandered the sites.  It was busy and we could only imagine how swamped and hot it would have been during high summer season.  I was patient and got a few photos without any tourists, and the views overlooking the city were truly impressive.  We spotted many of the ancient sites with an excellent bird’s eye view, which was enough for me without having to go there and walk around the fallen columns.  I was a bit underwhelmed by the Acropolis and its many buildings, all under perpetual restoration, paid from the coffers of the bankrupt Greek state.  It’s hard to tell which parts are original or which are reconstructed at this point, and what it must have looked like all those centuries ago.  The buildings’ accomplished beauty and historical significance are truly mind-boggling, though, and I tried to imagine these buildings being built during the Golden Age of 400BC.  The worn marble pathways and stairs are all extremely slippery, like walking on smooth ice, and the tour groups barrelled forward to block our views.  I decided that the Acropolis is impressive, but that it looks much more beautiful from a distance, dominating the city landscape.

That evening we went to the rooftop of our hotel, where a swanky open-air lounge was in full swing.  We ducked a few intimate tables for two to stand at the edge and admire the Acropolis, bathed in light, its columns still standing over Athens as they always have.

The next day we did a little work-out at the gym, did a dash for some Greek fast-food (more gyros!) and hunted down what is supposedly the best place in town for baklava!  The famous cake, a crispy pastry soaked in honey and crunchy with pistachios, was so worth it, but then we were getting to be tight on time to get on the subway, get to the airport and catch our flight to Amsterdam.  We said a little prayer to our travel god Iquique (pronounced Ee-kee-kay, named after the Chilean airport that benevolently didn’t charge us the $120/person to land) and got on the metro, which took us smoothly to the airport in record time.  We bid farewell to the sunshine and heat, knowing full well that Amsterdam would be cold and rainy, and promised to return to this fantastic country soon.

Living like an Olympian (by Olivier)

We were pretty concerned when we found out that our flight from Amsterdam to Budapest was 30 minutes late, considering our connection for Athens was only 45 minutes! Fortunately, our second flight was also late by 30 minutes, so all worked out for the best and arrived in Athens, luggage and all!

While the Greeks have trouble paying for it, they enjoy brand new infrastructure, including a subway line going right to the airport. We took it downtown, and found out that our station was closed for repair. Four euros later by taxi, we arrived at the Centrotel, a small, bit out of the way hotel with excellent reviews on TripAdvisor. After checking in to a spacious room with a balcony, we walked over to nearby Victoria Plaza, restaurant and cafe hub with huge outdoor seating areas. We hadn’t had lunch, so we sat down to a sizeable Greek late lunch/mid-afternoon snack: a salad of fresh tomatoes and rye bread, huge meat balls in tomato sauce, and a ½ litre of house white wine. I made the mistake of asking if their house wine is good. “Yes, I think, very!” came the natural reply. For only a few euros, I wasn’t sure, but it turned out to be great. We walked around the area a bit, which was not at all touristy but full of locals.  Later on, we were a bit hungry, so we popped into a souvlaki place with a huge grill, full of meat on a stick.  We called it a night early since our ferry for the islands was leaving early the next morning.

The alarm went off at 6am Athens time, 4am London time. Ouch. Only the thought of paradisiacal white and blue islands was strong enough to tow us out of bed. The pre-booked taxi was right on time, and we headed for Piraeus, the main ferry port. The city was empty, until we reached a traffic snarl at the port.  We jumped out and walked the rest of the way, picked up our pre-booked tickets and boarded the huge and modern HighSpeed 5, “Greece’s fastest vessel”.

Five hours later, the crowds lined up to disembark off the bridge onto Santorini, the “most beautiful island” in Greece. The port was a bit of a zoo, everyone hawking their guest rooms, hotels, tours and taxis.  Luckily, the hotel shuttle was there to pick us up, and we hit it off with an Italian couple living in Athens on the way. It was time to reap the rewards of the “3 stays = 1 free hotel night” at Starwood (we got 6 free nights by switching hotels every night in South East Asia). The Vedema hotel is a 400-year-old vineyard transformed into a small ~50-room hotel located in a tiny village on the hills. It is built respecting the traditional curvy, minimalist Greek island architecture, and every room is unique and charming…especially ours! Thanks once again to my Platinum status, we were upgraded to the ridiculous Olympian villa, complete with a small private pool, Jacuzzi and unobstructed views of the vineyard and sea in the background! I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

After some welcome champagne and a comprehensive tour of the facilities, we pinched ourselves, did a little happy dance, and quickly changed into our bathing suits to catch the shuttle to its private beach with volcanic black sand. We had an outstanding, fresh seaside lunch with the new friends we met in the shuttle, followed by a long swim in the crystal clear water, followed by a pleasant lounge chair nap, swayed by the sound of waves. Jess even had a massage from a Chinese lady roaming the beach. Once the sun was getting low, the shuttle brought us back to our palace, where we alternated between the pool and the Jacuzzi while drinking our complimentary bottle of local red. The hotel restaurant was way, way overpriced, so we walked out to the village and had good grilled fish in a very good restaurant that clearly feeds off the Vedema tourists.

We woke up just in time to catch the 11am shuttle into Hora, the main town on the island. It is crammed with chic touristy shops and with restaurants overlooking the ocean…and the prices are much higher than anywhere else in Greece. However, the calderas, or steep cliffs overlooking the ocean and volcano, are a sight no one should die without seeing. They are what make Santorini such a famous destination. We had a simple lunch with a great view of the cliffs and ocean, followed by more wandering around and marvelling at the views: cliffs composed of layer after layer of colourful rocks, charming little guesthouses with smiling owners and beautiful small churches with the signature sky-blue semi-spherical roofs. The sun was hot, and overall it was perfect weather for exploring, especially since there were so few tourists compared to the craze and heat of August.

We stopped at Carrefour to buy breakfast for the next day, with some fresh fruit and wine before heading back home to enjoy more of our backyard. That evening, around 6pm, we decided to take out some bikes and head for the neighbouring village, high on a hill, to watch the sunset. The Vedema provided us with pretty good looking bikes, and even pumped up the soft tires. We followed some small little curvy back roads towards the village, until we found the main street—and it was all uphill. My bike was stuck in a high gear, and it wasn’t easy going. As the sun was setting, we were near the base of the village, and the climb would be at least another half an hour of brutality. We called it a day and enjoyed the much more fun way downhill, and rode into the sunset.

Once again, we walked into the village for dinner, but this time we chose a very local restaurant. The decor was kitsch, the music Greek, and we were the only tourists there.  We got to choose our fish from their refrigerator in the kitchen, and the husband and wife served us a great spread. Three kinds of fish, accompanied by tzaziki (yogurt, garlic and cucumber sauce, we had it at least twice day while in Greece), Greek salad (no lettuce, just fresh tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers, olives, a big hunk of feta cheese and olive oil), saganaki (fried or flambéed salty cheese) and a delicious, dirt-cheap house wine, of course! Happy and full, we walked back home for a second night in paradise.

On our last morning in Santorini, we had breakfast on our patio overlooking the sea, then headed to the cavernous gym for a good work-out.  Many back-and-forths between the pool and Jacuzzi later, we were sad to check out of the best digs of the trip, and headed for the port to catch the ferry to Naxos. Upon check-out, our total payment was: zero euros!  Memories and enjoyment at the Vedema: priceless!

London calling (by Jessica)

If the culture shock from Beijing to Cairo was a 7/10, then the shock between Cairo and London was about 8.5/10.  I guess 10/10 would be if you were living in the bush in Africa and then flew to London.  That would be huge.

London is one of the most sophisticated, orderly, beautiful and calm cities I can think of.  Cairo is one of the dirtiest, chaotic, ugliest and busiest cities I can think of.  Not that Cairo is any competition for London.  How dare I even compare them in the same paragraph.  But there.  I did it.  We saw dead camels and mountains of garbage floating in Cairo’s rivers.  We saw pretty boats and ducks on London’s rivers.  Just saying.

So we arrived in London, where I have never been and where I have always wanted to visit.  London, Paris, Rome, New York…I’ve seen them all except London, only the cradle of civilization for the Anglo world.  We were surprised and relieved that our luggage managed to avoid becoming a “lost” Heathrow statistic, and we found the Tube.  The Tube is a lot nicer than what I was imagining.  The cars were new, big, not crowded and cheap.  While in the Tube, I noticed that people were all playing on their iPhone, some of them the new iPhone 4, which we have mostly only seen in photos until this point.  Its Asian release was recent, and most people in the world with enough money to go out and buy a new iPhone are not the Average Asian.

This pricey gadget was the first sign of being in the developed, rich, European world of London, where money has a history of flowing everywhere you look; from the fantastic brick architecture, to the way people dress, to the cleanliness and order that permeates the fabric of society, to the daily problems and routines of its inhabitants.  Their biggest problem isn’t, “My government doesn’t allow freedom of speech or democratic elections,” or “It’s so expensive in Shanghai that I will need to deplete the savings of three generations of my family to gather a down payment for a tiny condo,” or “If I don’t cover all of my skin, society will call me a whore and I will shame myself and my family,” but more along the lines of, “Shit, they cancelled my favourite TV program,” or “I’m sick of eating sandwiches from Pret a Manger, but it’s all I can afford in this bloody expensive city,” or “Oh man, my iPhone 3GS is no longer the best!  I need the iPhone 4.” I’m not saying that Londoners don’t share the same fundamental human problems as everyone else, such as sickness, death, paying for food and shelter, raising children, getting an education, etcetera, because they do.  But the developed world sure does have it easier than most of the Earth’s population.

As you can see, the culture shock was strong.  My biggest, and most visible, revelation was the difference in the way women look and dress.

In China, the nouveau riche women plaster themselves with the biggest, most expensive logos they can find and make a medley with their purse, belt, sunglasses, earrings, scarf and shoes.  “If you didn’t notice that my purse is a Louis Vuitton, then I hope you notice my shoes are Ferragamo and my sunglasses are Chanel.  Don’t hit my new Audi or you’ll be in big trouble.  I’ve got connections.”  Physically, Chinese women make me look like Hercules.  They are so slight, small and flat that their clothes don’t fit me.  Their skin is very white, protected from the sun with parasols and arms covers.  Any skin cream available is labelled as “whitening”.

In Egypt, the women cover up in a variety of ways.  Some wear very colourful, coordinated outfits with jewels, sparkles and sequins, but the skin of their arms, neck, head, and legs are always out of sight, either with baggy pants or a long dress or skirt, with arm covers to match their dress.  Some women wear their clothes tighter, revealing shapes and curves, while many just look like a big potato bag.  Given their roomy clothing and lack of exercise, most Egyptian women, especially the older ones, are quite overweight to obese.  The oldest, and therefore the heaviest, even have trouble walking.  I understand that fancy lingerie and shoes are the biggest fashion items, and most popular gifts, for Middle Eastern women.

Now, switch to London, which is more on the familiar side of the fashion spectrum for me.  These women are experienced at looking tailored, effortlessly put together, and practical, with hints of luxury and expense when they can afford it.  Given the right budget, I would emulate them.  They’re not as overtly feminine and sexy as the French, which only the French seem to be able to pull off, and which might not fly in a Canadian workplace.  Men in London are also fashion conscious, and wear beautiful leather shoes, suits and casual jackets, all pulled together in a sort of “messy” but chic combination of colours and patterns.

***

It was mid-afternoon when we checked into our hotel in the chic Piccadilly neighbourhood.  The Sheraton Park Lane looks grand from the outside, but feels old and dark inside.  Since the Pope was expected in town, they were fully booked and so we were relegated to a tiny, dark room with a view of a wall and no room to open our suitcases.  For once, we were disappointed with Starwood.  Not wanting to spend any more time there than necessary, we put on our warmest clothes and new jackets from China to go explore the city in the cool autumn air.  The temperatures were such a welcome and invigorating change from the 30+ C heat we’d been living in for the past few months.  For once, we weren’t sweating!

We wandered around all of the nearby landmarks, and in London that’s not hard to do.  The city is so compact, perfect for walking, except for the signature London misty rain.  We saw Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Parliament, Piccadilly Circus and the entertainment district full of musicals and shows.

For drinks and dinner, we met up with Julia, a Londoner who was living in Paris at the same time we were in ‘07/’08.  We caught up over a bottle of wine in a cool cafe attached to a book store, and then moved across the street for an authentic Japanese meal.  It was so great to see her again, and it felt like we’d said goodbye in Paris just yesterday.

For our only full day in London, we took a walk in the other direction, towards the British Museum.  The British Museum is my favourite museum in the world, and was historically the first ever to offer collections open to public viewing.  Over the centuries, the British pillaged great treasures from all the corners of the world and brought them back home for preservation and study.  For free entry, we checked out the permanent collection of Egyptian artefacts and read the detailed, interesting descriptions for each piece.  I learned more about Ancient Egypt there than I did after a week in Egypt.  We continued on through Ancient Greece for a preview of what was in store for our next destination.  My favourite room was the Enlightenment period, showing what people collected, studied, explored and theorized during this period of scientific discovery.

The museum features tactile stations, supervised by a knowledgeable staff member, who gives you the story and significances of certain selected objects.  We were able to touch primitive stones that were carved into hunting points.  These stones are some of the very first tools used by man to kill animals and eat meat.  Once Man discovered fire, their diet could open to include cooked protein, and then this protein made our bodies and brains grow into what we know and love today.  Another object on display was a much more recent invention; an astrolabe, for explorers to find their position in the dark using the alignment of the stars.

The museum was so fantastic and so big, I could have come back every day for a year.  We took a break outside at the sausage stand for a quick and cheap lunch before heading back inside.  We breezed through Asian artefacts and would have liked to spend some time in Mesopotamia, but we were tired and there was still a lot more of London to see!

We walked across town, a good hike along the Thames, to the famous Tower Bridge (freshly painted blue!) and walked across.  Already it was time to go see another friend of ours, this time Tatyana from Russia, whom we’d met at Spanish school in Buenos Aires.  She’s just started her MBA in London and is getting used to her new home.  We met her at a cute cafe and had a light dinner over good conversation.

Our exploring continued after dinner in search of a traditional pub for a pint.  We found ourselves that night in the fancy, very posh area of Mayfair, where every car parked on the street was worth over 100,000 pounds, the houses were big and beautiful, and the shops incredibly chic.  On the main shopping strip of Oxford Rd, we popped into a London department store to see the new shoe department, rumoured to be the biggest shoe shopping space in the world.  However, we were 12 hours too early and were only greeted by plywood covering the doors that would open the next day.  While in the mall, we saw that most of the buying customers were veiled, most likely Middle Eastern women on a shopping trip.

It was the last day, and we had the morning to walk around St James Park, see the Queen’s guard practice their brass instruments, and visit Westminster Abbey…but we didn’t go in when we were repulsed by the 15 pound entrance fee!  A quick sandwich later and we were back at the hotel to check-out.  In order to get to Gatwick airport, we took the Tube a few stations to the spot where the Easy Jet bus makes a stop.  An hour drive through scenic London suburbs, and we were at Gatwick for our flight to Amsterdam, from where we would catch a flight to Athens the next day.

I left London with the regret that we didn’t have more time there, but we’d strategically planned a short trip in order to save some budget damage in one of the most expensive cities in the world.  We both agree that we love London, and we’ll have to go back sometime soon, for a much longer stay.

Our arrival in Amsterdam was rainy and dark.  We took the quick 20 minute train right into downtown’s Centraal station, and we easily found our room for the night about 200m away.  The check-in was at the bar, and our room was directly above the bar.  Ear plugs were provided.  The bathroom was communal for the floor, and we each had a single bed with a thin mattress.  After a touristy wander around the Red Light District, we had a delicious steak and called it a night.  I didn’t sleep much, though, and struggled through the music and loud people below.  All this for the budget price of ~$100!  Amsterdam is not cheap, indeed.

We rolled out of Amsterdam very early the next morning to catch our flight to Athens, via Budapest!  Amsterdam, we’ll be back in a week!

Egypt: ancient land of annoyances (by Olivier)

We slept pretty well on the eleven-hour flight from Beijing to Cairo, so when we landed at 5:30am  (10:30am Beijing time) we were surprisingly alert and ready to roll.  It was an immediate culture change when we landed at Cairo’s brand new terminal, with several planes landing from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. Men were wearing traditional white costumes, and most women were in a full burka or at least a head scarf and conservative clothes covering every inch of skin. We ran to beat two arriving planes to the customs lines and breezed through the visa on arrival process, picked up our bags and hired a taxi to our first Starwood hotel in Egypt: Le Meridien Pyramids. The city is the colour of sand, with lots of garbage everywhere and little plant life.  As we were turning a bend in the road, I nudged Jess and she looked up with an awed smile to see the pyramids looming ahead on the edge of the city.

We arrived at the Meridien before 7am, and so our room was understandably not yet available. We had breakfast at the lounge with a view on the pyramids and were quickly shown to our executive suite with a large terrace overlooking the pyramids. Talk about a hotel with a view!  The room was very spacious but the furniture and décor need some updating. A new wing of the hotel is almost complete, and I believe they will renovate the old one once the new one is done.

Having been to Egypt about 5 years ago, I shared a few words of warning with Jess as we walked out of the hotel. First: 98% of Egyptians around tourist sites want to sell you something, or show you something and ask for a tip. For example, if someone points you in the direction of the washroom, they expect you to tip them. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to meet the nice 2%, as all 100% appear nice and genuine for the first minute, and only then can you tell if you’ve been duped into something (98% of the time) or actually have met someone who wants nothing more than an interesting conversation (elusive 2%). Many touts mistake a polite “no thank you” or “hello” with “please follow me for 10 minutes trying to sell me a mini pyramid or convince me to visit your father’s ancestral perfume shop”. Cynic? No. Experienced? Yes!

Almost all Western tourists come to Egypt on some kind of bus tour. Most people think they are less likely to be screwed on these tours, but it’s not always the case. The tours have their own little scams, which are more clever than the average street tout, but also more costly. The bus will keep taking you to “carpet / perfume / papyrus museums” where high pressure salespeople make you feel bad about how rich you are and how starving their family is. On my first visit, I was on such a tour and our guide would flat-out lie to us about how far and expensive everything was, just so we would book additional activities through the tour agency, versus doing them at a fraction of the price on our own.

We dropped our bags, freshened up a bit and walked over to the Great Pyramids, only about 20 minutes away. One hundred offers for a taxi, papyrus, food, scented oils etc. later, we arrived at a dusty concrete hut where we bought our tickets. Security on the site is quite serious, with a search similar to an airport. The site was surprisingly calm and not nearly as busy as we’d feared.

The pyramids are HUGE. The largest one held the record for the tallest man-made structure for 3600 years! Building blocs were brought from far-away quarries, and stacked many stories high. There are thousands of pyramids around Egypt, but the pyramids in Giza are the tallest, best preserved and most famous. The same site is also blessed with the Sphinx, the large half-man, half-lion statue. One surprising fact about the pyramids is that the city has built right up to them, although law now prevents construction behind the pyramids, where the desert takes over the landscape. It’s therefore still possible to get a view of the pyramids with a desert background. We walked around the sites for a few hours, and it was surprisingly not too hot or sweaty compared to the humidity of China.  We ducked most of the camel ride offers with a firm “no thank you” or “la shakran” in Arabic, which seemed to deter most touts, who were less feisty than usual due to Ramadan fasting.

Craving a non-dumpling, non-noodle meal, we ate lunch at Pizza Hut right across from the pyramids. Being Ramadan, we were the only ones in the place except for the very famous Fijian rugby team. They are by far the biggest stars in Fiji, equivalent to meeting David Beckham. We shook their hands and had a little chat about our recent visit to their country. After lunch, we walked around at random in non-touristy streets, where we exchanged smiles with the first genuinely nice Egyptians of the trip. The rest of the afternoon was spent by the beautiful hotel pool with pyramid view. That night, we had dinner at the tex-mex hotel restaurant, which was pretty good as far as tex-mex in Egypt goes.

On day 2 in Cairo, we took a taxi to the main bus terminal completely on the other side of the city. Our visit happened to coincide with Eid, the end of Ramadan and one of the most important holidays on the Islamic calendar. Unlike the normal gridlock traffic of Cairo, we had the streets to ourselves! Even touts were on vacation. We bought our bus tickets to Alexandria and walked around the city for a bit. Cairo is, bar none, the city with the most ground pollution I’ve ever seen. The city is literally covered with trash everywhere, making Cairo a 16-million inhabitant garbage dump. There are few trash cans, and even when there are, few people use them.

We arrived on foot at the Egyptian Museum, which holds the largest number of ancient Egypt artefacts in the world. It was built in 1905 and has apparently never been renovated. It is extremely poorly organized, is not air conditioned and has visible leaks in the roof. There are very few signs indicating what treasures are rotting in front of your eyes.  If there is a sign, it was written with a typewriter or by hand. At that point, I was grateful that colonial powers robbed Egypt of its most precious treasures, as they are much better looked after at the Louvre or British Museum. The museum does house the tomb treasures of King Tut, which were stunning in their grandeur and beauty, especially his famous burial mask of gold.  Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take any photos in the museum, and all cameras must be checked outside.  Jess decided to see the pharaoh mummy collection for an extra $20, and I sat it out since I’d been five years ago.  You can see their skin, hair, teeth, nails…everything perfectly intact and preserved in modern cases and with real explanations about each ruler.

We spent a few hours in the museum until closing time, and then took Cairo’s underrated subway a good part of the way home for only $0.15. It is modern and safe, yet very few tourists use it. We attracted quite a few curious stares, but non-threatening. A gentleman even offered us some assistance, promising, “I don’t want any money,” before asking us if we were interested in booking a tour with his agency. Not sure where he falls in the 98-2 breakdown; probably borderline good side.

We had another enjoyable swim and beer at the swim-up bar, then dinner at a nearby Egyptian restaurant. I had grilled pigeon, the local specialty, while Jess tried some kebabs.  I finished the meal with a traditional “double apple” shisha, or tobacco water pipe. The server, who had been so nice with us during dinner, tried to screw us on the cheque, insisting we leave him a tip and claiming that the “service charge” line on the bill was actually a government tax (it is not). We left this otherwise great place with a sour taste in our mouths.

The next morning, we took the bus to Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, on the beautiful Mediterranean. At the bus stop, we noticed how everyone waiting just sat there, either doing absolutely nothing or just chatting with their family or friends.  Had we been in Toronto, everyone would be playing on their phones, reading or working on their laptops. Once more, there were no other Western tourists on the comfy Egyptian bus. They prefer to pay 15x the price to be on the exact same buses sitting next to other tourists, instead. The bus trip was very pleasant and ahead of schedule. Alexandria is a major Arab tourist destination, but very few other tourists opt to visit.

We lucked out on finding Alexandria’s newest taxi to take us to the Sheraton Montazah, east of the city. Walking into the lobby was like entering a time capsule: no doubt a fancy place 40 years ago, but in dire need of updating today. The manager at the check-in desk was quite rude, and told me to “wait over there because room not ready”. I asked him if we could wait at the lounge instead, and he lectured me that I had not booked a club room. When I pulled out my Platinum card, his face and attitude changed immediately. He offered me a seat at his desk and within 2 minutes, we had keys to the Presidential Suite. The room was spectacular! Probably 2000 square feet in size, it boasted a 180 degree view of the Mediterranean Sea, a kitchenette, a dining room, 2 bathrooms and no less than 20 seats and couches (yes, we counted!). His impoliteness and crap service were not forgotten, but definitely forgiven.

We had mixed grill meats for lunch by the sea. Jess decided to catch up on blogging on our balcony with a view, while I threw on my bathing suit and went for a long swim in the boiling hot water. I tested out my super cheap and excellent goggles purchased in China, and there was a lot of garbage but little sea life to be observed. I spotted a small octopus living in a Coke can, and called over a family of Asians who were snorkelling nearby. They appreciated my (free) friendliness and we had a long chat. The family of Japanese origin has been living in Cairo for over a year for the World Bank, and used to live in Washington and Cote d’Ivoire before that. The father asked me if we had plans for dinner, and invited us to join the family to a good fish restaurant across town. I quickly accepted, and invited them to our room for drinks beforehand.

Getting to their restaurant was supposed to take 20 minutes, but we had not considered the Eid factor, where every Muslim in town heads for the waterfront to hang out and celebrate all night. It took almost three hours crawling in a cab to cross 12km! Fortunately, dinner was excellent. We ordered about 7 fish for the 5 of us, along with wine and salads.

When we exited the restaurant, the alcohol-free but merry crowd had multiplied. The streets were packed with revellers in their spiffiest outfits. We tried in vain to find a taxi, so one option remained to make it back to our hotel: a horse-drawn carriage! We became the stars of the show—a Japanese family and two “Americans” crammed into a horse-drawn carriage during the biggest Muslim festival of the year. Here we were with three unveiled women, wearing “revealing” Western clothing (arms and lower legs were exposed) and people of such foreign look…it was beyond comprehension.

We received friendly waves, open stares, laughter, people shouting out “Welcome to Egypt!” and a few middle fingers, too. It was a fascinating ride.  I doubt that many non-Muslims get the chance to see this type of celebration, so we felt privileged to get this glimpse into Egyptian culture. Our trusty steed forced its way through the never-ending crowds and cars, but every landmark we hit along route felt like we were not making any progress.  At around 1:30am, when all our backs and legs were in spasm from the cramped seating arrangements, came “Are we half-way yet?” inquired the 13-year-old.  “No, only about 3/8ths” replied her father, in a comical Japanese banker fashion. Note to self: don’t stray from your neighbourhood during Eid. We went to sleep around 3am, much later than we had planned.

We had a very short night, as we had to wake up early the next day to go diving. Alexandria is not a well-known dive spot compared to famous Sharm El-Sheikh, but it does have lots of historical artefacts and wrecks very near its coasts. The dive shop had a nice website, and inspired confidence. However, our experience was very disappointing. Here is the review I posted on tripadvisor:

***

Safety standards are a joke

My wife and I are certified divers and were lured in by the prospect of diving with historical artefacts. This dive shop is conveniently located near the Citadel in Alexandria, and the actual shop and grounds themselves are quite new, albeit filled with trash like the rest of the city. They should have definitely invested in new dive equipment instead of 4 flat-screen TVs, however.

Unless you have your own stuff and are able to look after your own safety, do not dive with this shop. The equipment is old and defective. The first two regulators they offered had leaks in them, and the bottle they set me up on had less than 150 bars, vs. 200+ for all other divers. When I pointed this out, they cussed me out in Arabic. The fins and wetsuits are shredded apart. Once on the boat, the dive master helped me gear up and told me I was good to go. There was yet another leak in my BCD and I lost 10 bars of pressure in 60 seconds. I pointed this out and again was treated like an idiot. However, the dive master offered me his BCD, which was much nicer and newer than the rental stuff.

No discussion about buddy check or any other safety procedures. Good thing I did a little check myself as I found out that he had not turned on the air! Once in the water, the driver kept moving the boat around, with a spinning propeller dangerously close to the divers in the water. We had an interesting dive, however: mostly archaeological artefacts like columns and headless sphinxes. The dive sites are very shallow, max depth of 7-8 meters. The dive master indicated to surface after about 30 minutes, with well over 100 bars left. I was puzzled but quickly found out that we would not be swapping bottles for the second dive, so it’s really two mini dives worth one dive rather than 2 full dives as they claimed when we paid.

The second dive location was near a downed WWII British plane, which is pretty cool, but the visibility was less than one meter. I couldn’t even see my bright yellow fins.

Also, one of the divers was brand new, never dived before. They pretty much geared her up and pushed her in the water. Good thing the dives were very shallow, but still not acceptable.

Conclusion: unless you know what you’re doing and you either have your own equipment or are reckless, don’t dive with Alexandra Dive.

***

After our dive, we lunched at an excellent seafood restaurant nearby, and took a taxi to the train station to purchase our return ticket to Cairo. We felt lazy that night, so we had a pizza at the hotel restaurant, followed by a short evening walk to digest.

On our last morning in Alexandria, we had a good workout in the gym and a quick lunch by the sea. When our train arrived, a train employee aggressively grabbed our luggage from our hands, loaded them on the train and extended his hand. I knew where this was going but tried to protect my wealth by giving him my train ticket. He looked at me like he wanted to rip my head off and said “tips”. I gave him 5 pounds and he was clearly not satisfied. Afraid he would throw our luggage back on the platform or give us more trouble, I unwillingly gave him another 5 and he took off looking pissed off. The rest of the train trip was uneventful.

In Cairo, when our taxi driver started taking tiny alleys, Jessica started sweating bullets, thinking we were heading for trouble. Fortunately, he was simply trying to avoid traffic and we reached Le Meridien Heliopolis, near the airport. We checked into our crappy room and went to the bar to enjoy Happy Hour. We had a very long conversation with an interesting American who has traveled the world all his life for business. At almost 70, he has no plan to retire and still enjoys flying from continent to continent every week. His wife joins him occasionally, if the destination suits her. We had dinner by the pool, where we tried fried veal brains. It was pretty mushy, pretty much the texture and taste that I was expecting. Jess took a taste but was not impressed.

On our final morning in Egypt, we had a rushed buffet breakfast at the hotel and took the 8am shuttle to the airport. Like the rest of the city, even the airport is full of con artists and touts. They pretend to work for the airport or the airline, ask you where you’re going and point you in the right (or wrong) direction and ask for tips. Or they help you with your bags and expect several dollars for a moment of work. We held on to our bags tightly and managed to get on board without further incidents. Along with Jakarta, Cairo was the only city we were excited to leave.