Friday, January 21, 2011

EGYPT: Pyramids, Museums and Mummies

So finally the day had arrived, we were off to see the Pyramids of Giza. While we were driving around Cairo we had seen glimpses of them in-between buildings and from a distance through the hazy smog in the desert. Today was the day where we would see them up close and even inside (not me though!). All the pictures in the world cannot prepare you for the experience of being in front of these huge structures that have been standing for thousands of years. This amazing experience definitely lived up to my expectations.

In front of the Pyramids, not looking very happy? I think I must've been grumpy because of the heat

The Egyptologist told us the history of the Pyramids of Giza and told us if we wanted to go inside one we could. The Egyptologist warned anyone who was claustrophobic to think twice about entering. So after my Budapest caving experience I wasn’t quite ready to be in the narrow passageways of a pyramid. Alex and most of the group opted to go inside so I waited outside taking pictures.

They are huge!

The Pyramids from afar

I thought I would regret not going in but when the group emerged they said I didn’t miss much as the antiquities from the tomb were taken to the Egyptian Museum so it was quite bare inside. We were then told we had some free time for more pictures until they would take us on a bus a little bit further away. They would take us to a lookout where we could get some nice landscape photos and we went to see the Sphinx.

The Sphinx, the largest one, quite a bit bigger than the other one hey?

The Sphinx and Pyramid

After the Pyramids we had a nice (and cheap) lunch at this takeaway shop where we could get cheap pitas and kebabs. I had the most delicious falafel pita, it was so good I had two. We also went to a papyrus shop where we were shown the process of making papyrus. I also ended up buying a papyrus and having my friend Janice’s name written in hieroglyphics (Jan if you are reading this; I will send it soon! Ok I have been a teensy bit slack on the postcard/souvenir part of my trip).

Part of the papyrus making process

Last stop of the day was the Egyptian Museum where we saw such priceless artefacts such as the mask of Tutankhamun and actual Egyptian mummies. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any pictures in the museum but there some amazing examples of the extravagance of Ancient Egypt such as Tutankhamun’s several gold and precious stone carriages and his gold burial mask. The mummies' were also very fascinating as many of them still had tufts of hair, eyelashes and fingernails. It was such a surreal experience that these people live thousands of years ago and they are still so well preserved, a testament to the advanced embalming techniques of the Ancient Egyptians.

Finished papyrus with a picture of the Eye of Horus and Janice's name in hieroglyphics

Thursday, January 20, 2011

EGYPT: Memphis, not quite Graceland but still was home to a King

2nd largest Sphinx, little bit of a difference between this one and the largest

Our first day tour in Egypt took us out to see the ancient capital of Memphis and the first pyramids in Saqqara. We travelled well out of Cairo and we arrived in Memphis by mid-morning. The temperature was already well into the late 30’s and it would only get hotter. Memphis was the ancient capital of of the Old Kingdom of Egypt and was founded by the Pharaoh Menes. We saw ancient statues and artifacts such as the second largest Sphinx and an alabaster statue of Ramses II.

Statue of Ramses II

By the time we arrived in Saqqara it was almost noon and were sweltering out in the middle of the desert, where the temperature was already in the 40's. I read a lot about Egypt before I arrived as I knew it was a Muslim country and modest clothing was required in order to not attract attention and be respectful. In a lot of the guides it said that I was to cover the top of my arms and knees to prevent any offense or unwanted attention. So I made sure I packed a lot of light coloured modest clothing to battle the heat.

Unfortunately we would be visiting at the hottest time of the year and while we were there we did visit some places where the temperature hit 48 degrees. Little did I know there are so many tourists in Egypt that at the main tourist sights it was common for females to wear whatever they wanted. At the pyramids I witnessed butt scraping hotpants and mid-driff baring tops, I know it's hot but it's just a tad inappropriate!

Even the camels and donkeys were trying not to exert too much energy

All over Egypt there were tourists who couldn't handle the heat wearing very revealing clothing. After witnessing that, I gave up being completely covered up and just tried to be somewhat modest while trying to keep as cool as possible. Keeping cool was definitely proving to be difficult. Thankfully we had a great insulating backpack that kept our water cool but drinking about three 1 litre bottles of water each a day just to stave off heat exhaustion and dehydration.

After experiencing the desert in Saqqara, the one thing I always kept covered were my feet. I was wearing sandals and I kept coming across these huge ants scurrying everywhere. I had to keep dodging them as I was walking and couldn't stay in the same spot for too long because I'm allergic to insect bites. When I'm bitten my skin blows up, becomes bruised and scars easily. I was once bitten by a bullant on my forehead as a kid and it was not a pretty sight, I looked like a Star Trek character.

In front of the Step Pyramid,of Djoser. Paranoid packer, far too overdressed for the weather!

In Saqqara we saw the first pyramids such the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser (which was under reconstruction) and went into some underground tombs and also saw hieroglyphic graffiti. We then headed out to a carpet making school where children are taught this skill for the future and help earn money for their families.

The children trying to teach me how to weave the carpet

When we went back to the hotel we were all famished and thirsty so we went to a local restaurant and ate a great meal. Unfortunately I didn’t take pictures (other than the bread and dip) because I was so hungry!

The freshly made bread

The dips, whoops couldn't wait to get into it

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Cuisine of Cairo = Koshary?

In the hour it took to get to our hotel we saw some strange sights from the car window. Amongst them were:

  • A man in his little hatchback with a motorbike taking up the rest of the space in the car
  • Donkeys pulling carts barely holding the weight of their load holding up the traffic
  • Clinically insane pedestrians such as families of seven people dodging and weaving through the hectic traffic altogether

It was a sensory overload; it made your head dizzy trying to take in everything at once. For a Northern African city of approximately 17 million people, with a such a contrasting culture to any other that we had experienced so far, I'm not surprised at the extent of our wonderment.

Another not so amusing sight (and smell!) you would come across very often is smoking, everyone in Egypt smokes, constantly. They smoke in their vehicles (thank god we ordered a car or I would’ve been stuck in a smoky taxi for over an hour), they smoke inside restaurants, in shops, museums, everywhere! I felt like I was put into a time warp where smoking was still allowed and the stale cigarette smell is a common occurence. Not only do they smoke cigarettes, but there are sisha cafes everywhere, a lot of them men’s only affairs where they meet up to socialise over sisha. Smoking in any form is big in Egypt.

Melon sisha

On the way to the hotel we wanted to try the local food, so we asked our guide to help us find some. I had done some research and in particular wanted to try Koshary which is a mix of pasta, lentils, chickpeas and onions. We bought a serving each which only cost approx AUD$5! We also received two bags of sauce each, one was spicy tomato and the other one was some sort of vinegar mix.


I was surprised that this strange mix of ingredient actually tasted really good! The tomato and pasta of course went well together, with the lentils and chickpeas adding a nice texture along with the crunch of the fried onions. It was lucky we did like the Koshary as we would encounter quite a lot during our 2 week stay. Unfortunately the rest of the food in Egypt was less than inspiring, it was hard to find any good restaurants with quality food.

Koshary condiments

We were set to meet the rest of our Gecko’s tour group the next night at a group meeting. Unfortunately we were a little late as I forgot to change the time on everything! Luckily we didn’t miss much and we had a run through about what we would expect on our 12 day stay. I was so restless with excitement because I just couldn’t wait until we could begin to see some sights. So we decided to book in an optional extra to see the first pyramids of Memphis and Saqqara the next day.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Chaos of Cairo

Pyramid and the Sphinx

As we were flying into Cairo, we were peering out of the aeroplane window frantically trying to get a glimpse of the famed pyramids in the dying light of the Egyptian sunset. Unfortunately Cairo was blanketed by a thick haze of smog, making it difficult to see anything from the viewpoint of the plane. We had a transfer car pick us up to drop us off at our accommodation, the Pharaoh Hotel in Dokki. The transfer company sent us a driver and a guide/translator, she was friendly girl who told us about the buildings we were passing as we went along.

Nile View from Pharaoh Hotel Restaurant

The newly redeveloped area near the airport and President’s Cairo residence was a stark contrast to the 3rd world reality of the rest of the city. Cairo is a chaotic jumble of unfinished buildings, transport, sand, people, rubbish, noises, and smells and of course the Nile. The transport and traffic is another whole insane story. Cars, camels, donkeys and trucks are all vying for a space on the overcrowded roads with no rules. Traffic signals and lanes are not even acknowledged let alone adhered to. Somehow all this manages to function in its own crazy way.

The streets of Cairo

Our guide told us ‘The traffic here has its own flow and you need to drive with that flow, if you were to drive according to the road rules in Egypt, that is when you would get into an accident’. I think this a great metaphor for this city that defies any definition. In Egypt you need to go with the flow and do what feels right because if you don’t that’s when something will go wrong.

Traditional feluccas on the Nile

Friday, January 14, 2011

Queensland Floods - Please Help or Donate

So I’ve been failing at my New Year’s resolutions quite terribly this week. My resolution to be more regular with my blog posts has fallen by the wayside, but I have a good reason. The floods in Queensland, Australia have demanded my attention, I’ve been reading articles, first hands experiences, looked at pictures, and watched videos of this horrifying tragedy unfolding.

Everything I have seen has proceeded to give me shivers and makes me feel helpless being halfway across the world. It is so saddening to see the familiar landscapes and buildings of Brisbane wrecked by the destructive flood waters. Many have already lost their lives and loved ones, while others have lost their homes and livelihoods.

The one positive thing about tragedies such as this is that Australians have a way of banding together and supporting each when in need. The selfless acts that I have read about have been so heartening that gives everyone affected much-needed hope in the difficult rebuilding process. I shall be donating as soon as possible and I hope anyone who reads this can find a way to help too.

$54 million dollars has been raised so far

In Australia, supermarket chain Woolworths is matching dollar for dollar donations at their checkouts.
$4 million dollars combined has already been raised so far

Please don't forget about the animals affected, donate to the RSPCA who are going to a huge effort of rescuing and saving the animals

Volunteering Queensland is registering volunteers who want to help in the massive Queensland floods clean-up. The recovery efforts for Queensland floods will be slow and complex process, with volunteers required to help in the weeks and months to come.

Volunteering Queensland maintains continual contact with key disaster management agencies and will notify registered volunteers as new opportunites to help become available via this CREW (Community Response to Extreme Weather) page.

Register now, be prepared to help later.
To offer your assistance call our CREW team on 1800 994 100 or fill in the online form at

(Images are from the Ninemsn website)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Tour of the Vatican

The view from the cupola of St Peter's Basilica

I left Budapest to go back to Rome for a week where I met up with Alex again and we did a few things we missed out on the first time. One of the highlights of not only Rome, but my whole Europe trip was our 4 hour Vatican tour. It sounds like a long time to be in one place but it was filled with so much interesting history and beautiful artwork that the time just flew by so quickly.

The Vatican is the smallest country in the world, complete with their own services amongst them a Post Office (which is said to be far more reliable than the rest of Italy and possibly the world), medical care and police force. The Pope also has his own force of personal bodyguards, the Pontifical Swiss Guard. The criteria for becoming a Swiss Guard are very strict. They must be Roman Catholic, unmarried Swiss males who have completed training with the Swiss Army. They have to be between the ages of 19 and 30, be at least 5 ft 9 in height, had a record of good behaviour and apparently good looking

The Swiss Guards, don't let the uniform fool you, they are highly trained by the Swiss Army and are also trained in a variety of martial arts.

St Peter's Square

The tour was great as we
didn't have to wait in any lines and our guide was fantastic. She have us such a thorough and absorbing account of the history of the Vatican and managed to answer any questions we had. We made our way through the grounds of Vatican City and into the rooms where all the priceless artwork is on display. The artwork throughout was stunning but Raphael Rooms and Sistine Chapel just blew me away.

Sneaky shots inside the Sistine Chapel, I promise I didn't use my flash

Disputation of the Holy Sacrament in the Raphael Rooms

After the guided part of the tour was completed we had the option to climb to the cupola of St Peter’s Basilica. We cheated a little bit and paid the extra 1 Euro to take the elevator up but we still had to climb the 320 steps to reach the top. I thoroughly recommend taking the elevator, especially in summer. Just the last 320 steps that you have to climb, are enough to take the wind out of you.

Inside St Peter's Basilica

Once you come out of the elevator and before you arrive at the stairs you are given a bird’s eye view of inside St Peter’s Basilica. We were lucky enough to be in there while a mass was being held so we could see the proceedings below. St Peter’s Basilica is the second largest Christian church in the world but it was built to appear smaller so when you were inside it
didn’t feel like a huge empty space. When you look down from the height we were at, it was only then you realise how mammoth this building is, the people below looking like tiny ants.

Mass being held in the Basilica. Look how small the people below look! Those letters on the wall are 6ft tall

We kept going until we reached the start of our 320 step climb to the top. In the humid summer heat of Rome the stairs can be quite overwhelming. You are climbing claustrophobic stairs, sometimes only the width of one person. It is also dimly lit on the way up with only intermittent small windows in which you can catch a breath of fresh air and natural daylight. The steady stream of tourists also means there
aren’t a lot of opportunities to take a breather.

After our 320 step long and hot climb. A bit sweaty and worse for wear but the view made it all worthwhile

Once you reach the top it is worth every effort you have made, as you are rewarded with the most spectacular views of Rome. You can see such famous landmarks such as the Coliseum, which was a mere speck on the horizon. You also have a view of the Pope’s very lush private gardens and you can see the perfect key shape of the Basilica and the Square.

The Pope's beautiful green gardens

Bernini's St Peter's Baldachin

After snapping some great pictures of the view, we made our way down. We then explored inside the Basilica where we saw more great artworks and sculptures among them St Peter’s
Baldachin, a huge bronze canopy by Bernini. We also saw Michelangelo’s Pieta which is now housed behind bulletproof glass, since a mentally disturbed man attacked the sculpture and damaged it in the 1970's. We then ventured underneath the Basilica where we had a few solemn moments as we visited the tombs of past Popes in Vatican Grottoes ending a tour of one of the most fascinating places in the world.

Michelangelo's Pieta, now safely housed behind bulletproof glass

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Baths of Budapest

The sight you are greeted with once you enter

One thing Budapest is renowned for is the amazing indoor and outdoor baths all over the city. They are a legacy from the era when the Ottoman Turks ruled Hungary. What a gift to leave behind! These baths are not only aesthetically beautiful but also have therapeutic and relaxing properties. The waters are said to help ease ailments such as arthritis and aching joints by immersing yourself into them while relaxing your body. The waters, if drunk, are also meant to aid those with digestive problems. Though I can’t say I tried this myself, others I had met said the water tasted like hot rotten eggs, not exactly appealing to my sensitive stomach.

The facade of the Szechenyi Baths

The Whirpool Bath

I went to the Szechenyi Baths, built in 1881, have both indoor and outdoor facilities and are absolutely beautiful. There were 3 large outdoor pools of differing water temperatures and several different sized baths inside. Some baths also had novelties such as having a whirpool in the middle, floor jets which shoot out water to massage your weary legs or mini waterfalls. It was my last day in Budapest so I spent a good few hours just chilling out, enjoying the sun and soaking up those therapeutic healing waters. What a way to say goodbye to such an amazing city!

The outdoor Szechenyi Baths

Budapesssscht: A lot of Eating, not a lot of Caving

Baked Duck with Ginger and Orange with Rice Salad

So after a full day of walking around I went to my hostel to chill out until dinner. Back in the hostel I ended up meeting an Aussie guy called Danny who had lived in Budapest before so we went out to get dinner at this local place he knew about it. I ended getting Baked Duck with Ginger and Orange with Rice Salad with the Hungarian beer Dreher. Then we went bar hopping to some awesome bars around Budapest drinking beer and wine.

Dreher, Hungarian Beer

The next day I ended up having to change hostels as Home Made was fully booked. I ended up lugging my huge suitcase for a 20 minute walk through the streets of Budapest. Then when I arrived at HomePlus Hostel and was exasperated to find there were more stairs and no lift this time. Thankfully Andrew, the lovely owner, carried my heavy suitcase up the stairs for me! The hostel was very chilled and laid-back with a lot of great people to talk to.

Andrew suggested a few activities for me as I had spent the past few days sightseeing already. One of the activities, Caving, sounded awesome and it was set to go ahead that afternoon. So I paid up (it came to around $20AUD) and went down to meet the rest of the Caving group down at the Bus Station. I found the group and met some very lovely people amongst them were these cool Canadians Mel, Lindsay and Evan. It took us a fair bit of waiting and 2 buses but we managed to get there in the end.

We changed into our climbing gear, complete with suits, helmets and lights. Evan’s and my suits looked like someone had rolled around in mud and let it dry; it was so filthy with caked dirt. Lindsay and Mel’s suits looked like they was brand spanking new and fresh! So we set off down the track into the cave, while our group leader Sven explained what we should expect. We heard that one of the girls in the group in front of us panicked as soon as she was inside and had to leave, we all felt so sorry for her as we were all pumped to go in.

Totally cute caving gear

There was a huge buzz of excitement before we got to the cave door, where Sven told us that we should expect quite a temperature drop as the cave was consistently around 10 degrees all year round as opposed to 30+ degrees we were experiencing outside. He opened the heavy door and ushered us all inside. Immediately we felt the cool temperature and darkness envelope us, with only meagre torchlight from our helmets to guide us. We started to walk single file and suddenly had to crouch to walk further into the cave. This was a bit an attack on my senses I had no depth perception, I was suddenly cold and it was extremely dark. We walked a little bit further down and I felt the panic rising up inside of me. I told everyone that I didn’t think I could do it.

I never knew I was claustrophobic, I guess you never know until you are put in a situation like that. We were down there for a few more minutes and Sven said that if I didn’t think I could do it now, well it was only going to get worse down there, where there were some spaces that were so tight that you had to go through sideways between the rocks or you had to get down on your stomach and commando crawl under. I really wish I wasn’t such a chicken shit and just did it, but I just couldn’t. Once I walked out of the cave door I exhaled the biggest sigh of relief!

I eventually caught up with the girl who walked out earlier who was with her friend and she felt exactly the same as me, she didn’t know she was claustrophobic either. We ended up catching the buses back to the city and I got some Indian food on the way home to make myself feel better. Thankfully Andrew from the hostel said I could get my money back if I didn’t enjoy the Caving which was very sweet of him.

Butter Chicken with Naan Bread and Raita (not very Hungarian I know!)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities: Buda & Pest

St Ivan Church

So after a bit of a hiccup at the start it could only get better from there and Budapest did not disappoint me in the slightest. Budapest is essentially two cities divided by the Danube River. Buda is the quieter, more historical part of the capital and Pest is livelier and has more nightlife. I stayed in Pest in a great location near a lot of bars and restaurants but during the day I saw the sights of Buda.

Pita Bread stuffed with Cheese and Turkish Sausage with a Herder Salad

As soon as I arrived in I pleased to see the weather was a bit cooler than in the cities I had previously travelled. There was a cool breeze which was perfect when you were walking all day and Budapest is definitely a walk-able city. I didn’t catch public transport while I was there (other than the novelty Funicular Tram to get up to Buda Castle and a bus to go outside the city to go Caving) but apparently transport was quite easy to navigate. I walked from Buda to Pest and all the way back again and my walks were lovely, soaking in the architecture and the sights and sounds of this amazing city.

Heroes' Square

In the morning I stopped by a cafe for a lazy brunch before I got my exploring underway starting in Pest. I headed out of Heroes' Square, a huge monument to the heroes of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Then I walked all the way to the Buda side, spending some time on the bridge, daydreaming as I walked over the Danube until I finally arrived in Buda. I decided it would fun (okay I admit, the walking was enough!) to get the Furnicular Tram up to the top of Buda Castle. Once I was at the summit I experienced the most spectacular view of the city.

Chain Bridge

Furnicular Tram to Buda Castle

I walked to a cafe ordered an Apple Strudel with Vanilla Cream and an espresso for some energy. I explored some more and found some more beautiful buildings and statues such as St Matthias Church where there were some more breathtaking views of the city and eye catching Hungarian Parliament Building.

Apple Strudel with Vanilla Cream

The castle grounds

St Matthias Church

Hungarian Parliament Building