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January 31, 2007

We are Two Canadians...


The only problem with heading into the desert is you've got to find your way out again. We waited back at the oasis for our bus which came 3 hrs late & was full. We crammed on, standing in the aisles, with rude, pushy men nabbing whatever seats became available until a kind young man & the conductor came to our rescue & forced people to move so that we could sit (true to our guide's statement that foreigners will always get a seat, even if women and children are standing). To protest is futile.


We arrived to the next oasis town in the dark & found a hotel for the night. The next day @ 5 am we were up to catch our next bus. Though we were the only people at the 'station' the ticket seller refused to sell us a ticket, saying we should buy it on the bus instead. So we wait, until the bus shows up, the driver advising us that we have to buy it from the office which now has a full line up of people all purchasing tickets from the same lying ticket vendor for Asuyut, our same destination. Though Simon made it to the front of the line and stood right in front trying to hand him our money, the man ignored him for 15 minutes until he had served everyone else & the bus driver forced him to begrudgingly sell us a ticket.

We boarded the bus last, to find our seats taken & no choice but to cram into the tiny bench seat at the back, Simon trailing his legs into the aisle. We were highly grumpy, frustrated, tired & in pain.

Furthermore, the only toilet we stopped at during the whole ride was the most revolting sight I had ever beheld. For one thing, the locals headed me into the men's loo (foreign women are often considered token men), so that was awkward in itself. But the most disturbing part occurred when I opened the door to the stall. The toilet was thoroughly besmeared, the floor a minefield of turds and puddles. It was my first time to flatly reject a toilet, choosing intestinal discomfort instead. Sadly, I doubt it will be my last of this trip...


Things finally turned around when Simon made a friend who was fascinated with our India guidebook and a very kind woman gave me a proper seat, dates and proceeded to invite me to her home. But we had more transport still to endure in our day, so we had to refuse. We switched from the bus to the train station at Asyut, enroute to our ultimate destination of Luxor.


Asyut, though, had some interesting experiences in store for us. Egypt has suffered in the past from some terrible terrorist attacks, affecting both tourists and Egyptians. But these groups are not happily harboured in this already poor country, as it further hurts their economy. So the Egyptian police are everywhere. We have had tourist police outside nearly every hotel we have stayed at and have had to give written statements frequently:
'We are two Canadians. We are spending one night in the desert. We will be back tomorrow. We do not need a police man with us... We are two Canadians. We will go to the bus station at five a.m. tomorrow. We do not need a police man...'
These are the sketchy declarations we have left in the hands of tourist police all over the country, who are unlikely to be able to understand a word of it. The interesting thing is that we were never actually offered a police escort...
Anyhow, since Asyut has been a hot-spot for some of this trouble, the police here are serious about safety and tourists are quickly ushered out. So we were not surprised when a tourist police man assigned himself to us at the train station. He organized our tickets, fetched us food, and even accompanied me to the (also disgusting) men's toilet! Finally, he sat us to wait out the several hours 'til our departure in the cafeteria, standing guard at the doorway all the while.


Things were starting to look up, we thought. But Alas, no. What should Simon see but flashing lights, the precursor to his dreaded migraines. With this one he'd have no choice but to tough it out--they certainly wouldn't let us stay over in this city. Fortunately, with the quick administration of the 'Hilary Lawson migraine cocktail' (Yay for Hilary!), the pain was dulled and vomiting was kept at bay. With Simon moving slowly and wincing in the light like a zombie out at day-time, our friendly police man put us on the train and smilingly suggested that we not stop in Asyut on our way back to Cairo.



Posted by psy2099 at 10:07 AM

Making a come-back in the Sahara


After our depressing couple of days in Cairo, we decided it would be best to seek refuge in an oasis town. So off we went on a long, crowded bus ride, down the only main road that meanders through the desert. The sad little town of Farafra had us quickly doubting this choice, until we found ourselves at the heavenly Al Badawiya hotel. This place, with it's impeccable, but still Egyptian decor, was unlike any other we've found in Africa so far. When we discovered they offered trips into the desert, we immediately signed up.



So the next day, we hopped in a jeep & drove straight into the sandy great beyond. This part of the Sahara, known as the White Desert, is so varied & unusual. We drove for most of the day, with many photo stops, and the landscape changed frequently. Finally, we stopped at our camp for the night.





All day, we had been in the company only of our non-english speaking guide. So we were pleased when we discovered an English speaking group at the camp: the hotel owner, his friends from Holland & the hotel architect. This group, wealthy, well travelled & educated, were far from your typical Egyptians, but were entertaining to talk with, none the less. The stars emerged, the temperature plumetted & we enjoyed a camp meal by the fire. We tucked in to our canvas tent after a perfect day, surrounded by the great, wide desert.






Posted by psy2099 at 09:43 AM

January 29, 2007

The Return of Careful Claire in Cairo


In a counry like Egypt you must be on your guard much of the time. People are friendly, but they always want something from you, so you have to be careful not to get trapped into a situation you're uncomfortable with.

That said, it is possible to be too guarded, as you might miss out on the genuine people. This was our mentality when we met up with Mahamet & Hussan, all of us looking for the bus station. Once we found our desination, Simon & I reserved our tickets for the next day, while our companions bought tickets for that night. They invited us to help them pass the time, which we instantly refused. Upon reflection, though, we wondered if we should relax and live a little - our instincts said that these two were not husslers. They asked if we had been to the pyramids - we had not. So far, far from enjoying ourselves in Cairo, we were finding the pace mad & the hassling tiresome. We were a little low on travel energy & had spent the day trying to track down Indian and Chinese visas - not fun no matter where you are. So we were ready for some unpredictable amusement. We got to talking about horses & how I had never ridden one & it was decided that we should all go to the pyramids, visit their friends and ride around on horses. Which we did.



All was fine & good until, hours later, it was time to leave where upon they tried to charge us an astronomical(by egyptian standards) rate for our evening of entertainment.

Fortunately we had less than a third of that in Simon's wallet & we managed to get away with giving them all of this, with our host acting as though he would have to pay for the rest himself. It was all awkward, and we felt stupid & confused & worried that we were stuck on the fringes of Cairo. But in the end, they said "let's be friends" & gave us a lift back.

At home, safe and sound, we discovered from our hostel hosts that what we wound up paying was not far above the expected rate. We expressed our feelings of idiocy & he was vehement that they were bad people. So there we are, lesson learned. Simon & I are generally very cautious by nature & I figure we should quit trying to break out of this. There are some experiences we can leave to the truly adventurous.




Putting our stressful day in perspective, we realize that we were lucky. Nothing truly terrible happened, except that we spent a little more $ than we would have liked & felt some healthy fear. Moreover, our bad day was topped with the best news of my life. Back in the city we called home to discover that Laura's stage 4 Hodgkins Lymphoma has gone into complete remission after several months of chemotherapy. Her awful six months of treatment are over & we all hope that they will never have to be repeated. BIG Cheers and sighs of relief in Egypt!!! I felt so giddy that I had to hold myself back from telling the telephone operator, who would have been very confused, as his grasp of english was rather limited.

lots of love, yer sissy & Sieemon

Posted by psy2099 at 10:41 AM

January 24, 2007

Ahhh....to be back in the land of our ancestors...

It felt tremendous to be somewhere not so foreign. This feeling was compounded by visits with friends & food we can trust. A nice homey reprieve from life on the road for the past 4 months.

We staggered off the plane famished, our hunger having finally caught up with us after so much illness. Though people don't tend to rave about British fare, we felt ourselves in food heaven. We dined on homey gourmet sausages & mash (The Sausage & Mash Diner), inventive vegetarian (Mildred's), superb traditional pub, hearty Thai, and the fantastic and healthy M&S...and finally delish homemade caribbean. I even tried sushi! (hold your shock - it was the veggie kind!) We felt justified in all this consumption, as Simon discouvered he's melted away 25 lbs. over the past 4 months, & I lightened up by chopping off all of my hair.

For all this revelling in the familiarity of England we didn't do nearly the sight-seeing we would have liked to. What we did manage to do:
-visit with Kevin & Lucinda, gracious and generous hosts, in Oxford (& wash all our belongings - thanks guys!!!)...and Talk&talk&talk&talk!


-a marathon webcam date with sorely missed creators of the above friendship, Mario & Lauren, currently lonely in Toronto, but soon to meet up with us, if we have our say!!!



-Visit with Simon's friend from Haliburton, Blake and his wife Caroline, who kindly drove many hrs for a weekend in the city to see us. Merci Buckets, you two! (& thanks for the recommendation of the delicious Green & Blacks chocolate...mmmmm)


-took a 'flight' on the London Eye.





-huddled against the cold by the Thames, as we took in Tower Bridge, London Bridge and Milennium Bridge.



-visited some staple London shops - Magma Books - so designy & desirous! & Harrods - WOW! I don't know what to say about this shameless luxury...(Merci Trevor for the suggestions!)
-Spitalfield Market - Oh the money I could have spent (s.r. "and did")(Thanks for the suggestion Francis!!!) We loved this place

Thankfully by the end of the week I felt sufficiently bolstered to consider heading out into the unknown again. But the little wheels in our minds are already busy figuring out how we can get $ to come back here on the last leg of our RTW ticket (expires Jan 22, 2008!)...


Posted by psy2099 at 03:14 PM

January 19, 2007

Marrakech - Morocco On It's Way Out


With illness delays & a Chefchaouen detour, we wound up with only 1 1/2 days in Morocco's best known city. Fortunately, to some degree, when you've seen one Medina, you've seen them all. So we did a bit more wandering of the winding streets full of local handicrafts, but gave the rest of our time over to relaxing-Morocco has been tough on us, unfortunately.





One thing that certainly is unique to Marrakech, is the huge main square & all of it's wild goings on. This is where the action is at night. At sundown, masses of food stalls pour onto the square, like horses out of the gate. After an hour or so of set-up time, the square is filled with dozens of mini restaurants, all with heir own caller to drum up business & lure, cajole, or trap you into eating at their stall.



Surrounding this are the groups of musicians, herbalists, and...snake charmers! (Mom, you would not like this!) I've never been a slitherer sympathizer, but it does make you feel for these poor beasties spread out on the pavement, mostly ignored by their handlers, with only curious tourists & an occasional little ditty from the 'snake charmer' to keep it entertained. And of course if you pause at all in this square, you are immediately pounced upon with a request for money. Perhaps for some this whole scene gives them a buzz of being in such a colourful, unique place, but after ten days of travelling in Morocco, I admit that it felt somewhat underwhelming.






Posted by psy2099 at 01:19 PM

January 16, 2007

Rabat, Morocco's Capital


Any information on travelling in Morocco leads one quickly to believe that being invited to a Moroccan home for couscous is an inevitablity. Well perhaps it is.


We enjoyed a conversation with a young mother who shared our train compartment. At first, we spoke french, and discussed head scarves (she didn't wear one) and european men & women living in sin (she didn't understand this). But then she asked me to speak in Spanish so that the other woman travelling with us wouldn't understand. She told me how she used to be in love with a spaniard but was not allowed to marry him. So she broke off the relationship & married the first islamic man who admired her on the street and approached her mother. She was 19. Now, 24, with a 3 year old, she does not like her husband, who apparently lies, does not respect her and refuses to help with "her" child. She is thinking of leaving him. Somehow she didn't see the irony of her earlier comments about living in sin. Still, she was very kind & very determined that we should come to her house in Casablanca to have some couscous.


We didn't. Instead, we disembarked at Rabat, as planned, & had a lovely afternoon at the beach. As it as Friday, the Islamic holy day, the coast was littered with Moroccans enjoying some leisure time - surfing (even their king is a surfer!) playing soccer, areobatics, promenading & just generally relaxing.




But this blissful day didn't last long enough for me: it was my turn for a bout of illness. Throwing up through the night pretty much did me in for the next day and a half. In the end, we did some half-hearted meandering through the Rabat Medina & saw the half-finished Hassan Mosque and Gardens. In my weaked condition, I suffered from the assault to the senses that is Morocco, but was thankful we were in the country's hassle-free capital. And such was our experience of Rabat.





Posted by psy2099 at 04:27 PM

Fez; Bed, Bath(room) & Beyond

As the guidebook said we would, we extricated ourselves from Chefchaouen a few days later than we had planned. We were sad to leave, and even more so when we found ourselves on a long, bumpy bus ride sitting next to a goat.


We eventually got to Fes, and all was well until 1am when Simon disappeared to the bathroom for an hour. He finally returned, only to grab more toilet paper and disappear for yet another hour in the loo, this time locking me in the room. I lay there wondering at what point I should climb out the window to check on him. Just as I started concocting morbid scenarios in my head, he re-appears again...only to vomit heartily into the trash bin...Ah, our first bout of fod poisoning on the road!
Once again, Simon seemed to have loked around, and decided that this was about as inhospitable a place as one could hope to be sick in & then went and did just that. While the hostel folks were very kind & full of concern, the rooms felt as though they were refridgerated. The toilets, Simon's place of repose through the night, were no better.

After a day of shivering under covers, Simon showed that Simon strength & pulled himself together for a walking tour of the medina (walled old city). With ten thousand streets and alleys to get lost in, we figured we would get ourselves a guide, as we would otherwise just wind up having to pay some kid to lead us out of there anyway. So off we went with Asdin (not Mohammed!) to see the tanneries,

the carpet co-op, the weavers shop,


the herbalist, the carver's shops...(if you can't tell already, Morocco is all about the artisans). Alas, the tour came to an abrupt halt when it became clear that we were not big spenders (guides get a commission on anything spent in any location they take their clients). What could he have expected, as he picked us up at the youth hostel???



Back in our little ice-box, we discovered that our Canadian troup had caught up with us. With them & an Australian & an American tacked on for good measure, we enjoyed some food, company and cards over the course of the evening. A much-improved finale for Fes.


We took the train (I'm pretty sure they don't let goats ride the rails) to Rabat the next day.



Can the king come out and play?

I found my Jedi Cloak, but with no mind tricks what's the use..."these are not the droids you're looking for"...See. No powers.



Posted by psy2099 at 12:15 PM

January 14, 2007

Chillin' in Chefchaouen


This town was not initially on our itinerary and wound up as our first Moroccan destination mostly due to our desire not to put an end to friendly company so soon. As it turns out, it was a perfect low-key introduction to Morocco. Moreover, it was the only locale we were to visit that wasn't a million+ city. Here we stayed in the open courtyard style, typical Moroccan guesthouse and learned that North Africa gets very cold at night in the winter!



Our first experience here was a horrific one - we all watched a child dart across the choatic roads and get hit by a car. Fortunately he was not so injured that he didn't bounce back up and scramble off the road before collapsing in screaming pain. But he was instantly surrounded by caring locals and we pulled ourselves away from this awful scene.



We spent the rest of the day climbing to a hill-top spainish mosque, where we sat in the sun amongst the ruins taking in the day.



Along the way Ellie tried to take a picture of a very cute little girl but was instantly rebuked by her mother who did not want her child cursed by the evil eye. I later decided that the toddler was one that was lent around the village to every parent, as everywhere we looked there was this charming two year old girl with tight little curls.


We spent a couple of days here, marvelling at the low cost of living and generally accomplishing very little.


I, Simon, would like to note that this is a Star Wars nerds second home. There seem to be more Jedi here than in Coruscant (the jedi council planet). Mischa was of the opinion that it was a place built just for him. Though we have since found out that Tunisia is the place to go for jedi-junkies (their first home), so Mischa is pushing to go there in a couple of weeks. Through in the end we didn't see any light sabres, and I couldn't find a cloak in my colour! Oh and Obi-wan can't sing


Posted by psy2099 at 11:08 AM

January 10, 2007

Less Talkin', Mo' Roccan! (all title credits go to Ellie)

Well, I must be my mother's daughter, as not only do I look like her, I have inherited her ability to find someone she is connected to half way round the world.
On the train from Seville to Algeciras, we pluked down nest to two girls, obvious backpackers. After overhearing some talk of tree planting, we figured them to be Canadians and started up a conversation.
Ellie and Anna turned out to be two sisters from Mississauga, seasoned planters in a family of four such girls, and were meeting friends in Algeciras before heading into Morocco the next day. As our direction was the same, we tagged along.
We were introduced to Gabe and Micha, chatted briefly, and were about to head off to our separate hotels, when Gabe started asking questions about where I grew up, naming the exact street. He had figured out that his grandfather was our next-door neighbour and long-time family friend. Not only that, but through these connections, Simon had got him a job tree planting many years ago.


So we felt buoyed that we'd have some company and support crossing into Africa. On top of this, we'd somehow managed to book ourselves into a very fine hotel at a very discounted rate. So we enjoyed this little bit of luxury as we figured that it would be the last that we would encounter for a while.



On arriving in Morocco, we managed to beetle out of the port area of Tangier without too much badgering. Sometimes the guide book warnings can have you more on edge than is necessary. As a small army of Canadians, we trudged to the bus station and got ourselves tickets to Chefchouen, a small, backpacker-popular town.


Posted by psy2099 at 12:32 PM

January 08, 2007

Sing it: I'd Like Sevilla in the summer. How about you?

It's hard to say what Seville is like at any other time of year, but our visit found it brimming over with meandering locals. We even saw troups of people with guitars, singing their way through downtown, joined by throngs of participants. Clearly something was up.


What holiday takes place less than a week into the new year? The Epiphany, or Fiesta de los tres Reyes Mages, of course! 'Hurrah for the wisemen's arrival!' say the Spanish, by swarming the streets and lavishing their loved ones with gifts.


As amusing as all of this was, I think the crowd-frustration may possibly have more pay-off in the summer months, when one can experience some of the showier Seville entertainment--flamenco dancing and bull fighting. In January, the best that we could hope for was a glimpse of the frilly, coulourful dresses in tourist shops, and a tour of the deserted Plaza del Toros.




We did, of course, also spend some energies on tracking down some authentic Spanish food. This is what we found: for this particular festival, Spaniards also consume a special treat that we saw carried in large flat boxes by many a celebrant-- the ‘Roscón’, or "ring shaped roll", filled with chocolate or jelly and sometimes a small gift.


We did not wind up getting a taste of this; they were far too large to consume between just two people (Nevermind that I see little point in a dessert that doesn't contain chocolate and is not pie!). But we did, of course, partake in other local fare. As per the custom in Spain, we held off, our bellies growling, until the restaurants opened at nine pm before consuming our dinner. This may not be late in our books at home, but on the road it leaves a lot of unnoccupied time between sundown and meal time, and not quite enough between full bellies and bed-time.



Our experience with spanish food was more up and down than usual. Although we ate some very good meals (usually several tapas sized dishes), everything we experienced outside of the specifically gourmet restaurants was rather mediocre and very plain. At least we had low expectations of these meals, though; most restaurants would display a poster showing unflattering pictures of each dish. Inevitably, it would taste about as appealing as the picture made it look.



Our taste buds begging for something more exotic, and our bank accounts begging for something more affordable, we left Seville and headed south to Algeciras, our gateway to Africa.

Posted by psy2099 at 01:30 PM

January 07, 2007

How Do You Sing 'Auld Lang Syne' In Spanish?

Oh wait. I don't even know it in english. But the three cute old British men who clasped hands in the middle of a restaurant in Mallorca sure did. They sang it through twice.
Oh what a New Year's it was! We rang it in with our Canadian/Oxford friends, Kevin and Lucinda, at a fine Spanish restaurant, stuffed full of seven courses and a lot of vino and bubbly.


Besides imbibing and fine dining, there were silly hats, congo lines, out of control children with silly string, palm tree climbing, chilly dips in the ocean, and of course, very fine company! Cheers to Kevin and Lucinda for letting us crash the finale of honeymoon #2!






We spent three days in Mallorca, an island that is trading its party reputation for an eco-tourism industry. Thus, we all enjoyed some good hiking, and K&L enjoyed some ambitious cycling (minus the crashes, of course : ( ouch!).





We also enjoyed a visit to...Camperland!!!

No, this is not home of the outdoorsy type. Rather, it is the birthplace of our favourite funky footwear. Since they are expensively imported to Canada, we hit the mecca here with an outlet store. Needless to say I could not resist picking up a souvenir...


But good things can't last forever; we arose earlier than any of us would have liked on the first day of 2007 and bid each other farewell at the airport.


Off Kevin and Lucinda went home, and off we went eventually to Madrid (safe and sound four days after the ETA airport bombing). This was really just a through stop for us, but we enjoyed it all the same. It may have helped that our pension was in the heart of the city, and that we enjoyed another fine meal. (Kevin and Luncinda were shocked by a game we play--remembering every dinner in every location of the past three months. Really, we're just keeping our memories sharp! and our mouths drooling...)



Proxima destinación: Sevilla


Posted by psy2099 at 01:44 PM

January 04, 2007

¡Hablo Español en Barcelona!


Imagine that: all those spanish classes have finally paid off. Of course, my skills have lain rusting and unused for over a decade, but I finally got my chance to shine!


Well that may be a bit of an exageration. A more accurate description would be a slow massacre of the language. Still, English is not as widely spoken here as we have found it to be in other European countries, so even my pathetic level of Spanish is welcome.



Dear Barcelona. We were only with you for two short days, but you sure are intriguing. Not in the love-at-first-sight kind of way, but in the i-wish-we-could-get-to-know-each-other-better way. You may not have the obvious european beauty of many other fine cities, but I suspect that you have a depth of character, and creative heart instead. If we didn´t have such strong ties to our homeland we would think about settling down with you for a while.


Gaudi, Gaudi everywhere!
The city´s patron architect, this guy liked to dream big. In fact, most of his creations have you believing that you are living in a dream.

La Segrada Familia (Simon likes to demonstrate his spanish vocabulary by calling it the Sangria Familia. To be fair, it is a bit of a drunk take on the standard sacred family). Started in 1887...finished by 2087¿




Güell Park. Also unfinished. Gaudi´s vision for an idyllic community ran out of money. Not ideal. Very Dr. Seuss, though.






Posted by psy2099 at 12:00 PM

January 02, 2007

A Nice Christmas

How Christmas in Nice is not like Christmas in Canada:
1) Where´s all that white stuff?
OK. I know that it´s not always snowy in Ontario for Christmas, but I´ve never enjoyed 23 degrees celcius over the holidays! The weather was unbelievably lovely. People were actually sunbathing and swimming, though I thought this a bit of a stretch.





2) Why don´t I feel stressed and busy?
Even without partaking in the bathing suit bronzing, the relaxed, perfectly content atmosphere of the city was impossible to resist. There was no hussle and bussle, only laid back promenading through the old town and along the beach.





3) Why am I lonely?
Far from the barrage of parties and friends and family gatherings, we sang carols to ourselves in bed. Thankfully, email and cheap phone cards kept us in the loop of all the activities at home and let us feel reassured by familiar voices.



4) Santa, couldn´t you find us?
I am well aware that Christmas is not about presents. Still, it was strange not to find ourselves spending the 25th in a pile of discarded wrapping paper. As Simon and I spend all of our time together, a Christmas surprise under the tree would have been mighty hard to accomplish. Moreover, we know that this year is a year of many gifts for us, though sometimes of the less tangible variety. So we splurged in other familiar ways...a fine meal cooked up by Monsieur Simon and a few decorations he brought home, including a two foot tall tree. (I´m sure housekeeping was not as thrilled as I was, as it promptly created a pine carped on the tiled floor!).




To sum up: Christmas in Nice is certainly nice. But not as nice as Christmas in Canada. We hope you all had a Merry one and send cyber holiday hugs all over the world.





Posted by psy2099 at 02:52 AM