Monday, January 31, 2011

Walk like an Egyptian

Walk like an Egyptian

Seeing the pyramids in Egypt had been a lifelong dream of mine. Briana and I started looking into the possibility of going to Egypt months ago. My host mom, Antonia, recommended a travel agency that she used for other travel throughout Europe and the Middle East. We decided to bite the bullet and sign up. We got what I think was a very reasonable deal considering all of the flying we did. We intended to sign up for a group tour to help bring the costs down.

Our flight left from Madrid, which made getting to Cairo a very full day of travel. We left our house early in the morning to catch the Ave (the high speed train) to Madrid. Once we arrived in Madrid we hopped on the metro to head to the airport. Once we got to the airport and were sitting by our gate we began guessing who else would be in our tour group. Since a Spanish travel agency organized the trip we were able to limit our guesses to Spaniards. The flight to Cairo was a little longer than I was expecting. We were in one of those huge planes with two aisles. On the plane we started to talk to the guy sitting next to us. At first his nationality was a mystery. When we boarded the plane he was speaking Spanish and he’d speak with the flight attendants in broken English. I think we must have started talking with him in English and then he suddenly lost the accent. Very puzzled, we finally asked where he was from. We were surprised to find out he was from Canada. We never did learn his name. He gave us some advice and for the rest of the trip we just referred to him as Canada.

After finally getting into Egypt we had to stop to purchase visas and exchange our money. The visa cost $15. It’s a really cool sticker that goes in your passport. It quickly gained rank, and now it’s my favorite page in my passport. After going through customs we met Emad, the representative from the travel agency. He walked with us to get our luggage and we asked if he needed to wait for the other people on our trip. He informed us that it was just the two of us. It was hard to understand his broken English and Spanish to begin with and on top of that he would practically whisper. It left us very lost and confused for the majority of the trip. Emad helped us pick up our bag and we met our driver and the 15-passenger van waiting for us outside. The whole time we just kept thinking that we couldn’t be the only ones on this “group tour!” From the airport we were driven to our hotel, which was conveniently on the other side of Cairo. To avoid traffic, mind you it was about 11pm, we took the ring road, which goes all the way around the city. I caught my first glance of the pyramids and was very happy to arrive at the hotel after our full day of traveling.

When we signed up we were told that the guides were only Spanish speaking, so we were prepared to listen, or doze off. Since it was just the two of us we were very lucky and everyone they hired to be our guide spoke English. Wednesday morning Emad and our awesome tour guide Andrew picked us up in the hotel. In a typically confusing fashion (please note this on going trend) we literally dropped Emad off somewhere on the side of the road. He just said, “ Ok, see you later!” and got out of the car. We didn’t dwell on it too much because we were headed to the pyramids! I can now officially cross it off my list of things to do before I die. (Side note: this has been a very successful four months. I’ve been able to cross off two items and still plan on crossing off several more!)

The pyramids were mind-blowing. While we were there I was thinking back to fourth grade, which was the first time we learned about ancient Egypt. It was great to see these amazing structures in person after being fascinated about them for so many years. In case your ancient Egyptian history is escaping you, the pyramids were constructed by the Pharaohs to serve as their burial grounds. The construction began as soon as a Pharaoh began his rule. Sadly, virtually all of the pyramids and tombs were looted. After walking around the pyramids we drove to a site a little further out to get some great photos of the pyramids. While there we couldn’t resist the temptation to go on a camel ride.

This was rip off number one of the trip. We quickly got used to being taken advantage of in Egypt. For virtually everything there is a tourist price and then a price for Egyptians. You can clearly guess what category we fell into—and boy did we fall had. We asked our guide how much the camel rides cost and he told us it depended, but that he’d set a price before we got on. He spoke with the camel owner in Arabic before we got on and we assumed it was to set a price. Nope. When we got back the camel owner said, “ok, 450 Egyptian pounds.” That’s the equivalent to about $90. My jaw dropped. The night before Briana and I had had a discussion about how bartering makes me uncomfortable. It brings me back to an unpleasant experience I had as a child on some Caribbean island where I was yelled at and shooed away from attempting to barter with a street vendor. Briana reassured me that she had fine-tuned bartering skills. Sadly, they didn’t make an appearance at this event. I looked at her panicked, but she wasn’t able to say anything. We were so confused because we thought our guide had set a price and we didn’t know if the 450 Egyptian pounds was negotiable. (Word to the wise: everything is negotiable in Egypt.) At this point in time I also didn’t really understand how bartering worked. Us Americans are too worried about offending people. All in all, we were royally ripped off. Our camel ride ended up costing about $35 a piece. While it was an absurdly expensive camel ride, I’m really glad we did it and now I have some amazing memories and photos! From the camel ride we got back in the van and drove to the Sphinx, another really cool sight.

After our ludicrously expensive camel ride and the trip to the Sphinx we went to a papyrus factory to see how it’s made. It was interesting, but definitely a tourist trap. With our little camel excursion in recent history we were feeling slightly vulnerable, so we didn’t buy anything and grabbed our purses for dear life. We returned to the hotel for lunch. It was a delicious buffet with hummus and other sauces galore. After lunch we decided to sit out by the pool. We sat shivering for about an hour and I was even using my towel as a blanket to keep me warm. Briana and I turned to each other and decided it probably made sense to go inside. We ventured to our hotel room and ended up taking a three hour-long nap. Woops. Luckily the hotel had some good movie channels, so we were able to watch some quality American movies. It helped pass the time since the hotel was so far out of the city and we couldn’t explore Cairo. A cab would have cost $50 each way and there was absolutely nothing in our area to do.

The next day we woke up early, had breakfast at the hotel and met Emad in the lobby. We were off to the Egyptian Museum. It was interesting, but at a certain time once you’ve seen one ancient Egyptian artifact, you’ve seen them all. The coolest thing we saw there was Tutankhamen’s burial sarcophagus and mask. In 1922, Howard Carter accidentally discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb, which had never been looted. If I remember correctly, this was the only tomb to be discovered which wasn’t looted. The most important items found in his tomb are in the Egyptian Museum. It was really neat being able to see his burial mask after having seen pictures of it for years.

After the museum we drove to Old Cairo to see the old churches and synagogue. When we entered our driver and Andrew needed to talk with the Tourism Police, who are absolutely everywhere and appear to do absolutely nothing. We heard Andrew tell the officer we were from Spain. After we got through I asked why he had said that. He said that if he told him we were American the guard would have asked a lot of questions like where we were coming from, where we were going, etc. This part of town was really interesting. We visited two churches, one of which was Orthodox and I don’t remember what the other was. They were built with traditional Islamic architecture, so it was humorous to see a church built in that style. The synagogue is no longer used. Andrew told us that during biblical times the Nile used to run all the way up to the back of the temple. In fact, he said that was where Moses was found. Whether you believe that to be true or not I thought it was interesting because it fell under the category of hearing about one thing for years and then being able to see it.

From Old Cairo we drove to the Citadel. It’s up on a hill/mountain and it has great views looking down on the city. There are several mosques there, one of which Mohammed Ali (no, not the boxer) built. I had seen pictures of it from a friend’s trip, so I was glad I made it there. It has hundreds of hanging lights and it’s just a pretty place. After visiting the Citadel we went to lunch. I was expecting Egyptian food to be more Middle Eastern and was surprised when it just seemed like a hodge-podge of everything. It ranged from pasta to soup to chicken. I was expecting it to be a little more “exotic.”

Right down the block from lunch was a perfume store. Supposedly Egypt is famous for perfumes, or essences, as they call them. They claim not to add anything to the fragrances. They had tons of different scents. After smelling a few, the man helping us asked if we wanted to hear the prices in Egyptian pounds or dollars. We said Egyptian pounds because that was the currency we had, but that it made sense for him to tell us in dollars as well so we’d know the price in a currency we were familiar with. As he was going through the prices Briana and I were in awe! No way could it be that cheap, we thought to ourselves. We decided on getting the smallest bottles. It came in a package of four and with a burner. We thought we were paying 100 Egyptian pounds, or about $20. We walked up to the register to pay after they had already packaged everything and saw the guy had American money on the table. That’s when it hit us. It wasn’t 100 Egyptian pounds, but $100. Either way, I’m really glad I got it, but I definitely wasn’t expecting it to cost quite as much. So much for trying to travel cheaply. Immediately after realizing our mess up we ran into the bathroom to laugh (or cry.)

Our last stop of the day was at the bazaar, or market. We had been looking particularly forward to it since getting there. I was expecting it to be a little bigger, but it was still interesting. I’ve never been hassled so much in my life!

Special price for you! Spice girls! Will you marry me? We have [fill in the blank knock-off product here] for really cheap. American? You from America?

I tried my best to look straight and avoid the constant questions. The problem was as soon as I saw a booth I liked I’d look in and that’s when the owner started to harass me with countless questions. I realize this might be their way of doing business, but in the end I think it causes them to lose business! Westerners get deterred from this and then just walk away. Our guide, Andrew, pretended to be our Egyptian husband to help us get better prices. As I mentioned, there’s a price for Egyptians and then a tourist price. It was really nice of Andrew to help us get as close as possible to the Egyptian price. For a few of the items we purchased we were able to get them down to 1/3 of the original asking price. Let’s just say I got much more confident with my haggling skills. All in all, I found the bazaar to be a little disappointing. I did, however, end up with two new scarves (surprise, surprise.)

I have never experienced anything like driving through Cairo. If a street is marked with three lanes there will be five cars jammed into it. There are very few stoplights so you have to cross the street cautiously and lane by lane. Also because there are no stoplights you can’t make left-hand turns. That being the case you have to make a right, find a place to turn around and then head back in the direction you originally intended to go. It makes the trip much longer than it should be. I’m not sure which was scarier, driving in the city or on the highways. On the highways people would be trying to run across to get to the other side. Lanes were not obeyed. Our driver drove in the middle of two the majority of time we were in the car. They drivers don’t seem to use their side mirrors because every time you pass someone you have to give a little beep so they don’t come plowing into you. Our driver also flashed his brights like it was his job! I couldn’t get a good handle on when he used them. They seemed to serve as a hey, watch out, don’t move I’m here, what’s up, and virtually any other greeting one would find on the road. Driving there was mass chaos.

The following morning is the perfect example of how I had no clue what was going on 90% of our trip. Emad picked us up at the hotel to take us to the airport. The problem, or funny thing rather, was that I had no clue where we were going. My bag was packed and I had my passport in hand, but it wasn’t until I got my boarding pass that I knew what our next destination was. Again, very representative of our week in Egypt. We were insanely early for our flight and there wasn’t much to do in the domestic terminal. Out of boredom, I managed to pass out for a few hours, also representative of our trip. It was nap central. I even napped twice in one day once. All of a sudden we heard over the loudspeaker last call for our flight. We were really confused since it was still 20 minutes until we were supposed to board. Either way, we ran to our gate to find everyone just sitting there. It wouldn’t be travel if your heart didn’t get to an uncontrollably high speed every once in awhile.

It was a smooth flight to Aswan (turned out that was our destination.) Mohammed from the travel agency picked us up and we were off to the boat. We had to pay a supplemental fee for a nicer boat because supposedly the normal one was full. We were expecting a nice boat, but what we ended up on was out of this world. It was by far the fanciest cruise I’ve ever been on. Mahogany everything with gorgeous granite tiled bathrooms. Another oops. And we thought we were going on a budget group trip. Mohammed told us what our schedule would be. While we were touring Cairo with our guide Andrew we asked him if it made sense for us to sign up for the trip to Abu Simbel. He said yes, but warned us that we’d have to wake up at 3am. Briana and I thought he was exaggerating and Briana made a very appropriate comment saying that she’d never heard of a tourist attraction that was open 24-hours. Mohammed confirmed our worst fear. We had to leave the boat at 3:00am, so that meant waking up at 2:30am (a time we both consider a reasonable bedtime!) Well, how many times am I going to be in Egypt? Probably only once and on top of that we had already paid for it, so there was no turning back.

After hearing about how early our next morning was we ate dinner and went to bed. 2:30am came before we knew it. Tons of people on the boat were going on the same excursion so they were very nice and packed us breakfast boxes. Our guide told us that everyone had to travel from Aswan to Abu Simbel by caravan and that there were two to three caravans a day. I’m not really sure why, but I assume it’s for safety purposes. Once we got in the car we were all corralled into this one area after being checked by approximately 20 tourism police officers. Then we were finally on our way to Abu Simbel. Thankfully, I was able to sleep for a good portion of the car ride there. We got to Abu Simbel at about 6:30am; right after the sun started to rise. We still never got a good explanation of their opening hours. I think our guide got confused with open and closed because she said it was always closed. Either way, we made it in. It’s escaping me as to which gods this temple was built for. The monument is gargantuan.

To walk back to the parking lot you have to walk through several sections of vendors. I would have liked to look at the stuff, but after being hounded every step I took I quickly lost interest. One guy somehow hooked us into coming into his shop. He wouldn’t let go of my arm, so I really didn’t have a choice. I also didn’t have a choice when he put some strange head wrap on my head. He asked if I wanted to take a picture and fortunately I knew that if I said yes he would then charge me for the photo. I threw the headpiece off and we got the heck out of there. I decided to give one last vendor a try. He was selling these cool wall hangings. While negotiating I was holding one of them in my hand. I decided I didn’t like his price and that I was ready to leave so I tried to hand him the tapestry. He wouldn’t take it because he wanted me to buy it. This continued for far too long and my only option was to put it on the dirty sidewalk, which upset him.

Hey Egyptians, let me give you a piece of advice. If you’re looking for business try being nice to your customers and not harass them.

The drive back to Aswan was scarier than the drive there because I could actually see what was around us—nothing for miles and miles. There weren’t road stops or gas stations or anything really. We did pass one bizarre building, which we thank god stopped in to go to the bathroom. Needless to say, I was very glad when we made it back to Aswan and I don’t think I’ll be taking any more trips through the desert any time soon.

When we got back into town we went to the high dam. I’m not quite sure why it’s a tourist attraction to be honest. It’s just an ordinary dam. If I remember correctly, Russian engineers helped the Egyptians build it. After that mind-blowing attraction we went into town to visit an Egyptian cotton factory. Yet another rip off designed specifically for tourists. We felt like they were trying to pressure us to buy something. It left us wondering if our guide got a cut of our purchases. Everything was overpriced and not even that good so we happily left empty handed. Our last sight in Aswan was going on a short boat ride down the Nile. Our trip included a ride on a felucca, similar to a sailboat. Our guide claimed that the weather wasn’t right (I have a feeling she was lying since there were plenty of other feluccas on the river) and suggested we go on a motorboat instead. We said that would be ok. It was fun to be cruising down the Nile. Neither of us were surprised when the guy who took us out on the boat pulled out five bags of jewelry and tried to sell it to us. Reminder, Egypt=rip off. I was getting nervous about getting back to the ship because we were cutting it awful close and still on the motorboat ride. They ended up pulling up right next to the boat and we ran over right before our scheduled departure.

We sailed for only a few hours because our next stop was just up the river to visit Kom Ombo temple. We met our guide Sara and explored for little while. Yet again, the site was swarmed with vendors trying to sell things. There was even a man sitting on the ground with a cobra charging tourists for photos. We even saw one woman pose with it around her shoulders. I’m going to venture to guess she’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. On the walk back to the boat our guide left us because she said the driver wanted to leave. It made me a little nervous to have to walk through all of the vendors alone. I stopped to buy a pair of earrings at one booth. I agreed on a price with the owner and then after I paid him he said well what about money for my five kids? He kept begging, but I wasn’t budging. Finally, I just decided to leave. I honestly wasn’t trying to be rude, but I kept getting so frustrated every time we tried to buy something. Feeling like you’re being constantly ripped off and that there’s nothing you can do to change it isn’t a fun feeling. I also wasn’t prepared for having to open my wallet every other step. You had to pay to use the bathrooms/leave a tip for the women working there. This was the case in practically every bathroom. Even inside the museums and airports! Then you had to tip the guides, the drivers, the guy who wouldn’t let you carry your suitcase by yourself. Needless to say, it got to be a little excessive. Especially since I really didn’t have a lot of money to spend to begin with! When we disembarked from the boat on the last day two employees from the boat wouldn’t let us carry our bag ourselves and insisted on carrying it to the car. We didn’t have much money left, and only a couple of big bills which we were not willing to use. We gave them all of the change we had. Since we don’t know Arabic we weren’t exactly sure what they said, but Briana saw them looking at the coins in their hands and talking to our guide. We’re pretty certain it was asking for more money! Just be prepared for this if you go to Egypt.

That night dinner was Egyptian themed. Somehow Briana and I didn’t get the memo so we were the only ones that didn’t dress up in traditional garb. Some people got really into it and bought dresses, head pieces—the whole nine yards. There was a photographer taking pictures of each table. We laughed when we saw all of the pictured laying out the next day. We stuck out like sore thumbs since we were the only two not dressed up. Again, remember how confused we were the entire time we were in Egypt.

The next day we arrived in Luxor. We met our guide Moustafa who took us to Luxor Temple. I was very surprised to see that the University of Chicago was a part of the restoration process. The temple was cool, but we were kind of at that point when you’ve seen five ancient Egyptian temples, you’ve seen them all. We explored for a little while and then headed back to the boat. That night on the boat there was a very underwhelming belly dancing show. After the belly dancer this young guy had a performance. It’s kind of hard to explain, but he was wearing this large colorful skirt and turned in circles without stopping for about 15 minutes all the while doing different tricks. It was mesmerizing to watch, but it also made me extremely dizzy. We went to bed right after the show to prepare for our last full day in Egypt.

The next morning our first stop was the Valley of the Kings. That is where Tutankhamen’s tomb was found. There are a total of 62 tombs that have been discovered there. It was really fascinating to see and I wish cameras were been permitted. After the Valley of the Kings we stopped at an alabaster factory. Again one of those places the tour company sets up, they give you their very well rehearsed spiel and then the guide potentially gets a cut of your purchases. We fell for it again and got two beads that we’re going to put on necklaces and bracelets. When in Egypt, right? From the alabaster factory we went to Queen Hatshepsut’s (pronounced hot chicken soup) Tomb. It is a huge monument carved right into the side of the mountain. There are visible caves carved into the surrounding mountainside. Our guide told us that is where the soldiers and workers were buried to help protect and serve the Queen in the afterlife.

On the way back to the boat we made a very quick stop at the Pillars of Memnon. I really have no clue what their significance is. Needless to say, it was absolutely fascinating. After lunch we had our last stop of the trip at Karnak Temple. I really enjoyed walking around there. It had an insane amount of huge pillars. It was fun to take pictures next to them because we were about 1/6 their size. After exploring the temple for a while we asked Moustafa if we could get henna. He made a couple of phone calls and found out there was a place in the market. We asked how much it would cost and he told us about five euros. When we got there the guy was asking for 25 euros. We bartered him down to about 12, which was still a major rip off. While in the bartering process I asked how long it would stay for. He said 60 days. When Briana was getting hers done I asked the guy doing it how long it would stay on. Suddenly it dropped to only 30 days with a warning that it depends on how your skin reacts to it and that it could be as few as 20 days. My henna wasn’t even close to seeing 20 days. Either way, it was cool while it lasted. I got a design that combined the Egyptian symbols of the key of life and the eye of protection. It was pretty awesome looking. While our henna was drying Moustafa took us to his cousin’s shop that had just opened. There was a fair amount of pressure to purchase something, but at this point in time we had developed a joking relationship with him so we were able to make fun of it. I ended up purchasing a beautiful glass camel perfume bottle to hold the perfume I bought in Cairo. Even though he was pressuring us to purchase something, it only ended up being about $3, so I was happy to get it since it had been something I was looking for.

We had to rush back to the boat to grab our suitcase and head to the airport. The travel agency insisted on us being 2.5-3 hours early for every flight, so you can say we got to know each of the airports well. When we landed in Cairo Emad greeted us and brought us to our driver. The driver only spoke Arabic and Spanish, so we were forced to use our Spanish for the first time. Unfortunately, we were staying at the same hotel out in the boonies so we had a long drive there. The driver yet again insisted that we leave unnecessarily early for our flight back to Madrid the following morning. The hotel was about an hour from the airport and he picked us up FOUR hours before our flight left. I tried my best to beg and plead for a little more sleep, but he insisted. He said there might be traffic (at 6am?) and that it might take us three hours to check in. Yeahhh. He was way off on both. No traffic and it took us about five minutes to check in. The airport didn’t have any seating in the terminals, so we were forced to sit on the cold floor. It was a rough morning that consisted of a nap on the dirty floor (don’t judge.)

We made it back to Madrid without any problems. It took us longer than we had anticipated to go through customs and get our bag. We still had to take the metro to the train station to catch our train back to Sevilla. We literally ran through the airport to the metro station and ran between all of the transfers. We were so lucky that we didn’t have to wait more than three minutes for a train each time. We caught our train back to Sevilla with literally two minutes to spare. Out of breath, sweaty and extremely tired, I was very happy to be seated on the train back to Sevilla.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Part two winter break: the luck of the Irish!

From Switzerland we were off to our next adventure in Ireland. The flight was slightly delayed, but we weren’t too upset because that meant there was still a flight. We were nervous because many of the other flights on the board were flashing cancelled, but with a little luck, we made it to Dublin.

Day 8: We were just in Dublin for one night the first time around. It was just enough time to rest our heads and gear up for another fun week. Early in the morning we were off to Cork. We quickly found our hotel and learned about a citywide water storage. Supposedly a pipe burst and many establishments throughout the city were effected. The first being our hotel. We were in the process of checking in when they told us that we would not have running water, nor would the toilets or showers function. Needless to say, we got the heck out of there. Luckily, there was another place across the street that had availability—and water! After checking into our second hotel we left to grab some lunch and explore the city. About ¾ of the places we stopped by were closed to the pipe bursting. The ¼ that were open, but weren’t allowing customers to use the bathrooms. We settled on a bagel place. Boy have I missed bagels living here. Ireland’s bagels weren’t even close to as good as home’s, but it was better than nothing. Today I decided I couldn’t live abroad again because I miss bagels too much. I’ve had one in my freezer since getting here, but I’m waiting until I’m absolutely desperate and filled with bagel cravings. Ok, back to Cork. We just walked around town for the rest of the afternoon and early evening. I bought some rain boots. I figured if I was going to find good rain boots somewhere in Europe it would be Ireland. I have yet to try them out, though. Fingers crossed they won’t leak.

While we were walking around we spotted a place that had fish and chips, so we decided we wanted to try it out for dinner. Much to our chagrin, they were out! We still had a decent meal, some good Irish hard cider and fun chats with the bartenders. It was funny, while we were in Cork we asked several people what they recommended doing. Each and every one replied, “drink.” Apparently there isn’t much to do in Cork.

Day 9: This was a very exciting day because I was able to accomplish a lifelong goal of mine—kissing the Blarney stone. I hadn’t heard much about Blarney Castle aside from the stone itself prior to going. Turns out it’s a beautiful piece of land. Our first stop was obviously the castle where we climbed to the top and took turns kissing the infamous Blarney Stone. I even fell for the photo tourist trap and bought the picture they took. I never do that! After exploring the castle and kissing the stone we wandered around the grounds. It’s full of gorgeous walking paths and greenery. After the castle we went into town and got some fish and chips! Long overdue fish and chips, may I add. After lunch we took the bus back into town and hung around at the hotel until dinner. For dinner we tried a really good vegetarian restaurant that came highly recommended. After dinner we headed to a pub to listen to some traditional Irish music. I learned that I’m actually a fan.

Day 10: Onwards to Killarney! The journey continued as we took a train from Cork to Killarney. Killarney’s a relatively small town. Most tourists stay there because it’s a good starting point for the tours of the Ring of Kerry. It’s also home to Killarney National Park. Liza and I spent a good chunk of the afternoon walking around the park. It was brilliant. We went towards the end of the day, so we got to see a beautiful sunset and the lighting was great for photos. On the walk there we even saw a couple posing for wedding photos with their bridal party.

We walked to Ross Castle, which wasn’t open, but pretty nonetheless. We both wished we could have stayed and explored longer, but the setting sun was a bit of an issue. I didn’t really want to be walking back through the forest at night. That night we tried out an Italian restaurant for dinner and followed it up with drinks and live music at the Grand Hotel. A local band was playing and their songs ranged from unpleasant to listen to, to covers they semi-butchered. Either way, it was a lot of fun.

Day 11: We signed up for a tour of the Ring of Kerry through our hotel and another outside company. We boarded the bus at 10:30 and were driven around by a nice Irish fella. He was challenging to understand, so I really tried to focus on what he was saying. It was a nice, big bus and not very full so Liza and I were able to sit in separate rows allowing us both to have window seats for the amazing views. We made several stops along the way to have a better look at the beautiful scenery and for some obligatory photos. We stopped in a teeny, tiny town for lunch…whose name I’m forgetting. I can only imagine how gorgeous the trip must be during the spring and summer months when everything is green and in bloom. Guess I’ll just have to visit again!

After our tour we went to the cutest little teashop called Miss Courtney’s Tearoom for an afternoon tea before heading back to the hotel to get ready for New Years Eve. We didn’t really have any particular plans for NYE, just mingling and bar hopping. We went to this horrible place for dinner where the fish and chips were practically inedible. Things perked up after dinner when we headed to the bar across the street to get our night started. This bar ironically had several Illinois license plates hanging on the walls and a sign about living in Sevilla. I think it was made with me in mind.

I randomly started talking with these women standing next to us. I offered to take a picture for them and we struck up a conversation. There were four women and one guy from Bray Co., just outside of Dublin. They were truly a hilarious and charming group, so we spent the rest of the night with them. And boy, could they drink! They brought drinking to a whole new level. I thought I’d seen it all after going to a Big Ten school, but they put our heavy weights to shame. Not only did they consume a ton of alcohol, but also they didn’t exhibit any signs of being drunk. We spent most of the night at the first bar we went to, but after getting bored there we went across the street to another bar that had some good music playing. We danced the night away while ringing in the New Year. It was a great time and lovely meeting our new Irish friends.

Day 12: I felt absolutely splendid (I hope you can sense the sarcasm) when we woke up early the next morning to catch our train to Dublin. Getting to the hostel was easy because it was the same place we’d spent our first night in Dublin. We dropped off our bags and left to hit up the town. I had really wanted to visit Kilmainham Gaol (the old prison,) so that was our first stop. The tram ride there was as bizarre as bizarre get. The first strange thing was a man sitting on the floor in the middle of the tram, smoking a cigarette and drinking something that resembled cough syrup, but was probably a lot stronger. We were very happy to see him and his lady friend get off the tram. They made sure to make an exit, though. While they were getting off another very strange couple was getting on. The woman exiting the train shared a very passionate and long kiss with the woman getting on the train. We couldn’t really tell if they knew each other. What we could tell was that everyone was cracked out. It seemed to be a general trend in Dublin.

The Gaol was interesting, but lacked a little something since I’m not very familiar with Irish history. It was also freezing inside, which made it hard to concentrate. After that little stop we ran back to the hostel to put on more layers. After we were sufficiently bundled we went to the movies to see Love and Other Drugs. Parts of the film are supposed to be set in Chicago (however it’s not actually Chicago. Last time I checked there was no 7th street. Also, they don’t even use real Chicago street signs. Come on, Hollywood.) Despite the offensive slipups, that any true Chicagoan should notice, I really liked the movie. When I first saw the Chicago skyline flash on the screen I audibly gasped in a very crowed movie theater. Luckily, my tears were a little quieter. (I miss Chicago!)

Day 13: We started our day off with the Sandeman’s walking tour. It was very interesting and we met a couple of nice girls and decided to have lunch with them and the rest of the group. We went to this great pub where the portions could kill. I didn’t even make a dent into my fish and chips (see a pattern here?) and I was starving. After stuffing ourselves silly we wanted to continue the trend with the Guinness Storehouse and Brewery. The storehouse was interesting, but a little boring. It’s something like six or seven stories tall. I mean how much is there to learn about Guinness? Either way, we went through the whole storehouse/museum and enjoyed our free pints on the top floor. Both of us could only muster a few sips. It was my first Guinness and after that lunch there wasn’t much room in my belly. We kindly donated our barely consumed beers to the gentleman sitting next to us. At least someone could enjoy it. On our way back to the hostel we picked up some Thai food for dinner. I needed to do laundry because I was only going to be back in Sevilla for about 13 hours and our lack of a dryer makes doing laundry quickly impossible. I forgot how much I love normal size washing machines and dryers. At first I thought I’d have to do two loads and then I realized I was judging that against the size of my washing machine here…which barely fits two pairs of jeans. Luckily, I still had room to spare. The best part of it all was the dryer. I hugged my clothes upon taking them out until I remembered there were security cameras in there. After remembering that I tried to slyly place them back in my bag…only to go back to my room and continue to hug my clean and very warm clothes. Boy do I take my dryer for granted at home! Do me a favor and give your dryer a little wink or love tap for me. I seriously miss having the ability to dry my clothes quickly and have them shrink back down to a normal size. (As I type my clothes have been drying on the terrace for three days now.)

Day 14: We had to wake up at an ungodly hour to catch the shuttle and make it to the airport for my 7am flight. Saying goodbye to Liza was so difficult. Heading back to Spain (even if it was only for 13 hours) was not what I wanted to be doing at the time.

All in all, our trip to Switzerland and Ireland was all and more that I could have possibly dreamed of. I loved every minute and it was really special to be able to travel just with Liza. I hope we have the opportunity to do it again.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Part one winter break: Switzerland!

To begin, let me just say that this winter break takes the cake. It was by far the best one yet. Very appropriate considering it will probably be my last, unless I decide to go into teaching, which after four months here isn’t very probable. Liza came to Sevilla to kick things off. It was really wonderful having her here. She got to see my apartment and we spent a fair amount of time with my host family, which I also really enjoyed. So here’s part one of three of my winter break.

Day 1: Our adventure began on Tuesday, December 21, 2010. We were off to Geneva, Switzerland! Not without a few kinks beforehand, though. To avoid the ridiculously steep cab fare to the airport I often take the bus. The bus leaves from Santa Justa, the train station, which is conveniently about 10 minutes from my house. Usually, this walk isn’t a problem. Unfortunately, when Liza and I needed to leave it was pouring like I’ve never seen it before. My tiny little umbrella did nothing. My jeans were soaked up to my mid thigh, and my winter coat and every other layer I had on were sopping. Everything on my person looked like it was just removed from the washing machine—without having gone through the spin cycle. Luckily, the Sevilla airport has hand dryers. That being said, I spent the entire time we were there practically naked in front of the hand dryers trying to dry all of my clothes. Certainly a memory I will not forget…nor will the people walking into and by the open bathroom door. Woops! After one smooth flight, one delayed flight and a $16 5-minute rip off cab ride we made it to the hostel. Nothing like going to bed in wet PJs (thank you, rain.)

Day 2: We thought it was necessary to hit up the sights that made Switzerland famous, so we headed out to Gruyeres to see the cheese being made and to Broc to the chocolate factory. We got a little mixed up on the way there and got on the wrong train at our transfer stop and it put us back in the direction we’d come in. That put us an hour back so we missed the cheese demonstration we had planned on seeing and had to wait for the next one. Luckily, our extra time allowed us to explore the small town of Gruyeres. It was exactly what I had pictured a small Swiss town to look like—beautiful, snow covered and absolutely adorable. After our tour around the town, it was time to head back to the cheese factory. We dined in the adjacent restaurant and had our first sampling of fondue…yum! We also got three cheese samples, each one aged to a different amount. It’s amazing how much a couple of months can alter the taste. The cheese demonstration itself was rather boring. I’d like to think we just missed the highlights, but I’m not sure. There was an observation deck looking down on the big vats that were stirring the milk/cheese around. Nonetheless, it was interesting to learn more about the process.

I was so incredibly excited about our next stop. If you know me at all, you know that chocolate=life. Everyone raves about Swiss chocolate so I only assumed this place would be the place for me. It was the Cailler chocolate factory. It involved a strange, but semi interesting historical explanation on the history of chocolate, a description of how it’s made, a conveyer belt showing part of the production process and what I was most excited for…samples! Liza and I decided that we needed to try every sample they had. Bad idea. Horrible idea. First of all, the chocolate was disgusting. Why we continued to sample it, I truly have no idea. I suppose we hoped it would get better the more we ate. I started to take a bite and throw the rest away. I even spit out a few samples. That’s saying a lot for someone who lives for chocolate. Basically, this place was underwhelming and extremely disappointing. We didn’t even buy anything at the gift shop when we left! That bad. Also to leave a bad taste in my mouth was how sick I got. Needless to say, I won’t be sampling any more Cailler chocolate anytime soon.

Day 3: This was our only full day in Geneva. We walked around by the lake, headed to the cathedral and tried to find some famous clock (and failed.) We also trekked up to the International Red Cross museum, which I really enjoyed. One of their exhibits started with ancient texts projected onto several screens from various civilizations, all in different languages. Each text demonstrated the various civilizations’ interest in peace. I thought it was very moving. The rest of the museum was about the history of the Red Cross, interesting, but a little dry. Across the street is the United Nations headquarters. Sadly, they were closed for tours due to the holidays, but we still got to see all of the flags outside. I guess that just means I’ll have to go back one day for the tour. Later that night, we were off to Grindelwald for city number two. The train ride there was a bit of an adventure in itself. Towards the end of the first train to Bern it got really crowded. We were worried about having enough room to get our bags down and run off the train. Luckily, a very nice Swiss gentleman in the army helped us with our bags. With only a few minutes to spare, we had to run through the crowded station at rush hour to make our next train. Finding the hotel in Grindelwald wasn’t too much of a problem considering the town is one long block long.

Day 4: We woke up to snow, which was exciting, but it also made planning our day more challenging. We had planned on going up to the Jungfraujoch, the highest train station in Europe, but it was only recommended to go if there’s good weather because the bad weather hampers the amazing views. Not knowing what to do, we ventured into a ski shop to inquire about some lessons and gear. The gentleman that worked there could not have been nicer. He convinced us to go up to the Jungfraujoch despite the weather and we even put in an order for skis and a lesson for the next day.

The Jungfraujoch was still pretty amazing not being able to see the views. It’s on/part of a glacier, which they’ve turned into ice caves and sculptures. It was great getting lost in there and wandering around aimlessly. We climbed to the plateau and briefly went outside. It was absolutely freezing and the wind was unbearable. We didn’t last too long. It was Christmas Eve so we decided to go for a traditional Swiss dinner. I sampled alper macaroni. It’s macaroni and cheese with some ham mixed in and served with applesauce. Sounds like a bizarre combo, but it was delish! We went to bed early so we’d be well rested for our day of skiing!

Day 5: We woke up very early so we could catch a quick breakfast, put on all our layers for skiing, check out of the hotel and still catch the 8:47am train up the mountain. The train was actually delayed a few minutes, which is a rarity in Switzerland. We met our ski instructor on the train ride up. Ross was relatively new to Grindelwald and hailed from Manchester. Despite being a young guy, he’s taught ski lessons all around the world, most recently at an artificial indoor mountain in Dubai.

The last time I skied was in Steamboat, Colorado 12 years ago. Perhaps going straight to the Swiss Alps was a bit of a mistake. The skiing in Switzerland was much different than what I remember from home. The slopes aren’t tree lined, but rather lined with poles. One side has paint going farther down than the other so you’re supposed to remember which to stay to the left of and which to the right of. I couldn’t remember it for the life of me. The slopes were also noticeably narrower than the slopes at home, too. The level of runs is also different. It goes blue, red and then black in level of difficultly. Another difference is the sheer difficulty level. It’s prohibited by law to alter or bulldoze the runs, unlike the U.S. where they are tailored to the skiers needs.

We started on the bunny hill. After going down that once Ross thought I was ready for the real deal. Our first run was a relatively easy blue and then Ross took us up to a red run. Thank god all mighty it was snowing and visibility was terrible. If I had been able to see what we were going down I’m not sure I would have made it. Ross coached me through it and also lied about the difficulty level, only telling me afterward that that would be the hardest run we’d go on all day. Either way, it was a lot of fun. Since it was Christmas day the mountain was pretty empty. It was just us and a bunch of Asians. I sat out the last run so Liza and Ross could do a more difficult one. I met them in the tepee, which is a bar where the train stops. After saying goodbye to Ross, Liza and I each skied one run separately. I decided to take it easy with some more blues now that my coach was gone, but Liza was ready to take on the hard stuff. After lunch I did one more run and hung around for a little while Liza explored some more runs on her own. At that point in time I was ready to throw in the towel, but Liza convinced me to ski down the mountain. I am so glad she did. It was my favorite part of the day. It was small, empty, tree lined slopes and it was absolutely beautiful. Liza had her camera with her, so we stopped along the way to take plenty of photos. It was truly breathtaking.

After skiing we had to return our gear, grab our belongings from the hotel and book it to the train. We were off to Luzern!

Day 6: We ate breakfast in the hotel and were delighted to see Luzern by day upon stepping outside. It’s a beautiful little town. We walked to the transportation museum, which looked much closer on the map, and in the 20 degree weather seemed much farther to begin with. The museum was interesting, but not necessarily my cup of tea. They broke it up into sections: trains, planes, automobiles and boats. It was any engineers dream. They also had a section, which they called the Planetarium. We were expecting it to be similar to a planetarium at home, but it actually was just one of those large screens on the ceiling with the chairs in circles leaning back to look up at the screen. It was a movie about the history of the earth. The topic combined with the dark room and reclining chairs quickly put me to sleep.

After the transportation museum we “needed” to sample some more chocolate. I think I ate a year’s worth in the one week I was there. From our chocolate stop we walked across the famous wooden bridges. After resting at the hotel it was time for dinner. For our last dinner in Switzerland we wanted a traditional Swiss meal. The woman at the front desk recommended a restaurant called the Fondue House. It was delicious, but so expensive. We knew Switzerland was going to be expensive, but I wasn’t expecting it to be as bad as it was. The Swiss franc and the dollar are one and one, but everything is twice as expensive. For instance, if a coffee in the US costs $3, it would cost 6 Swiss francs, or $6, in Switzerland. It was out-of-this-world expensive.

Day 7: We quickly ate breakfast in the hotel and we were off to the train station to catch our train to Zurich where we spent the day and flew out of later that night. We checked our bags for the day at the train station so we wouldn’t need to lug them around. We walked around Zurich and saw the Marc Chagall stained glass windows. Across the street from that church is the main cathedral. We climbed up to the top to see the gorgeous views of the city.

Finding a place for lunch was beyond challenging. We turned to our guidebooks to try and find a tasty meal. The first place didn’t open until 6pm on Mondays. The second place was disgusting. The third place was closed for the holidays. The fourth place was a 40-minute walk, but we were determined to find a good place to eat. Ready to fall down dead, we discovered this place was also closed. I was ready to shoot both Let’s Go and Lonely Planet at this point. We ended up at this really strange Italian cafeteria/restaurant.

After our disgusting lunch we wanted to end the Switzerland part of our trip on a good note, so we ventured to another chocolate store. Above the store there was a bustling café. We couldn’t find a table, but two very nice Swiss German women offered to share theirs with us. This ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. We learned so much about Switzerland by talking to these women. They told us about some of the differences between French Switzerland and German Switzerland, most of which we were able to discern ourselves. We also talked about the education system and average salaries. No wonder everything is so expensive, average starting salary is over double what it is in the States. The women commented that their schools are struggling and looking for English teachers. Maybe I’ll just relocate there. ☺

After our delicious, but insanely expensive hot chocolates, we headed to the grocery store to pick up some last minute chocolate (surprise!) and then back to the train station to pick up our bags and hop on the train towards the airport. By this point in time our bags were bulging at the seams. A nice guy working at the luggage storage gave us a cart so we could run to the train. We only had about five minutes so we were literally running like mad women through the station, pushing this cart with an insane amount of luggage for two people to catch the train. With about a minute to spare, we jumped on. We got to the airport only to find out our flight to Dublin was delayed, but luckily it wasn’t cancelled. This was in the height of all of the weather problems.

Some side notes about Switzerland: Absolutely everyone speak English and at least one other language aside from their native tongue. It was incredible and very impressive after living in Spain where English isn’t widely spoken. Everyone was fluent in English, too. It’s not like they just knew a few words to get by. I could not believe it. The women we met in the café told us that most movies are in English and have subtitles. I thought this was very interesting, because in Spain all movies are dubbed instead of having subtitles. Also, The standard of living there is extremely high. I would say that 90% of cars were luxury cars. Lastly, the Swiss sure love their dogs. There were dogs everywhere. Even in stores and restaurants! All in all, Switzerland was absolutely amazing. I really enjoyed visiting there.