Sunday, March 2, 2008

Quite Possibly My Favorite City

While there has certainly been something I have loved about each destination I have visited so far, there are certain cities that just draw you back. Each place, having a unique ambiance and feel, can be better suited for different trips, depending on what one's goal and expectations are in visiting. Some are more romantic, while others cater to the young and young-at-heart by providing an exciting and eclectic nightlife. Certain regions provide an unbridled glimpse into exotic cultures and way of life, while another is famous for it's period architecture, and yet another is appreciated for it's unparalleled natural beauty.

While I can't say that I have "one" favorite because of these reasons, there is one city that surprisingly to some, hits the top of my list: Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul really seems to have it all. It boasts a wonderful blend of history & culture combined with a unique and bustling cosmopolitan life. If that weren't enough, even the romantics can find what they're searching for, as a short boat-ride away are several Turkish islands brimming with exotic beauty.

Since Istanbul literally straddles
both Europe and Asia, being divided by the Bosphorous river, it provides middle-Eastern flair without losing the 'comfort zone' that Europe provides for us less-traveled westerners. Of the three cities my friend and I visited on this particular trip which also included Athens, Greece and Cairo, Egypt, we both favored Istanbul.

I will get into specifics in a near-future post, but for now I would like to leave you with just a handful of the 350 photographs I took in just 3 days!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Attention: Westerners... Meet Cairo, Egypt

Many people probably aren't aware that Cairo, Egypt actually demonstrates some cutting-edge economic concepts that we westerners might want to consider adopting. Unfortunately, there is no way to portray the atmosphere of this advanced, bustling city without also addressing the chaotic conditions. I hope this helps to paint a picture of the good and the bad of the daily life on the streets of Cairo.

Admit it. You stereotype bad drivers--Asian drivers, women drivers, drunk drivers. Each one is as dangerous as the next. Well, imagine an entire population where every driver's skills are unilaterally horrible, and worse, equally aggressive. Enter: Cairo, Egypt. Not diluting this deadly cocktail any, is that anarchy is the only rule of the road. No visible lanes. No discernible traffic laws. No rights of way or apparent concern for pedestrians (this one scared me a wee bit). Then there is the constant, blaring sound of horns honking. It is a literal free-for-all once you hit the streets. This was my sobering first impression of Egypt (and I had just come from Istanbul). Yet, one thing perplexed me--there was an obvious lack of any remnants of accidents, bodies, or debris.

The first morning my friend, Heather and I waited in the lobby for our Egyptologist. She did not arrive until twenty minutes passed the designated time. Apologizing profusely, she pleaded with us to accept the condition of the vehicle, as the back window was busted out. They had had the misfortune of being in an accident on the way to our hotel. Fancy that. Now amp up the blaring sound to deafening proportions since our only barrier from the noise pollution was in a million pieces.

To aid in a truly authentic virtual experience of what it's like to get around in Cairo, continue to imagine the ear-splitting honking of horns, while also whipping yourself from side to side since there are no lanes, consistent speeds, or rules of any kind. What the streets do have is plenty of dirt, dust and trash. To complete the image, conjure in your mind a random donkey cart with a 10-year-old “driver” and miscellaneous goods traveling approximately 1/10 the rate as everyone else.

To be fair, not all donkey carts were driven by children. There were many drivers in the 75-80 year age range (personally, I found it refreshing that Egyptians do not engage in age-discrimination). Especially amusing was seeing these donkey drivers putting the peddle to the metal on the entrance ramps to the freeway. That was a sight to behold. Even months later, no matter how horrible a day I've had, recollecting that priceless image turns my frown upside-down.

This got me to thinking. With gas prices soaring, donkeys just may be an affordable solution for car owners and businesses alike. Now, before you run out and buy one, understand that there are pros and cons to owning a donkey as your primary vehicle. One benefit is that they are disposable. I haven't researched donkeys' life expectancies (in a city such as Cairo, I imagine it to be significantly less than their run-of-the-mill country cousin), but I'm sure they give any American make and model a run for it's money on longevity. When it does finally kick the bucket, you don't have to hassle with a trade or worry about it's blue book. You simply dump it in the Nile...or the Mississippi, or the get the point. Never mind the water supply; that's what purification is for. Besides, if it merely died from something such as old age or getting T-boned at that infamously dangerous intersection, it's not like the rotting carcass is going to contaminate anything. Right?

With all these benefits, it's hard to imagine a down side. I can only think of two. For one, you do have to feed the thing on a regular basis, probably daily, or you're sure to reduce it's life-span, or at very least, it's horse-power. Now, don't go shopping for a Prius just yet. On the bright side, these animals are happy as hell with hay. I don't know the first thing about the value of a bale of straw, but surely a dollar of alfalfa gets you more mileage than a dollar of petroleum gasoline. The one other drawback is that once it has gone belly-up (like the one I saw in the Nile), it is not often you are able to salvage spare parts from your dead donkey...although I'm sure that hasn't stopped people from trying.

In addition to people of all ages working, as well as the ingenuity in transportation, another attribute to life in Cairo is that even many of the unemployed are employed. Like any hierarchy, there are the trainers, and those in training, the delegator, and the doers. The unemployed working-class specializes in eliciting charity from passers-by using speed, persistence, and a mastery of their five senses. For example: One afternoon we were en route to our Nile dinner cruise, riding in the back of what would most closely resemble a minivan when, stopped at an intersection, Heather decided to get something out of her purse. Out of nowhere, and literally as fast as you can say “Allah”, there was a barrage of faces pressed against each of our windows! Startling the crap out of me, I unintentionally screamed, providing some laughter and amusement for the two Egyptian men in the front seat. There was a young girl on my side selling boxes of Kleenex, and since she wasn't straight-up begging (and the price was right for a buck), I decided to take one. I opened the window and went to hand her the dollar and like a magic trick, she vanished, without even handing me the tissues! I looked at my hand and the dollar was gone. I looked down by my feet, and there was the box of tissue. Damn, that girl was fast! Afterward, I jokingly chided my friend for not knowing better than to get into her purse in broad daylight. Completely forgetting the rules, I foolishly committed the same offense the very next day. I hadn't even pulled my hand out of my purse yet, when “Aah!” There they were again. I planned to ignore the onslaught of beggars this time, but Heather couldn't resist the mother with the pleading eyes, holding a baby. I opened the window so she could give her a dollar, and before I was able to get it closed again, a kid I hadn't even noticed before had his arm in my face! Pleading for a handout, he wouldn't take no for an answer. We knew that if we gave him something, there would just be another hand in my face and the cycle would never end. I started to close the window, thinking he would remove his arm, to no avail. Finally our driver starting cursing the boy in Arabic, and eventually began driving off with his hand still inside before he retreated.

These kids are good. With the unemployment training they have already received and perfected, they may never have to hold down a legitimate job. They probably even have an arrangement to get free public transportation to and from work by simply hopping on the back of an empty cargo wagon. Heck, if they're really smart and they start investing their money while they're young, they could build quite the little egg's nest by the time the lazy kids here in the States are just graduating middle school. Instead of sitting in climate-controlled conditions all day, socializing with their friends, they ought to be out earning their xbox money.

The moral of this rambling: The first two C's of Cairo may be Crowded and Chaotic, but it's Cutting-edge resourcefulness is something to be reckoned with. Consider my previous points:

--They encourage citizens of all ages to work. They avoid prejudicial laws that prohibit child labor. Furthermore, they do not provide retirement funds which advocate the elderly to quit working.

--They implement ingenious resourcefulness by utilizing their livestock to double as their family vehicle or company car.

--They have a lenient policy allowing for cheap and easy disposal of shotty transportation.

--It's massive unemployed population are leading entrepreneurs in the begging industry, using honed skills of relentless persistence, x-ray vision, and super-human speed to turn a buck.

Now don't just take my word that we have something to learn from all this, go check it out for yourself! If you've never been to a second or third-world country, you are truly missing out. It's an experience more spoiled American's should have.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Planes, Trains, Automobiles, Hydrofoils, Funiculars, and....Italian Wine

Who wouldn't love an exciting and romantic trip to Italy? I presume very few. As incredible as Italy is, this narrative is not the flowery sort. It is a tale entailing the nightmarishly long journey I unwittingly set us up to endure when I booked our flights. Yes, all roads lead to Rome, but I learned the hard way that Capri is not at the other end. Well, not in a direct route sort of way. So, how does one arrive at their hotel on the Italian isle where Roman Emporer's once basked? With a great big pain in their ass.

I had contemplated flying into Naples, since we'd be utilizing it's port, but we were flying out of Rome, so it was cheaper to make it a round-trip ticket. My failed logic was, “Naples is only two-hours from Rome by rail. It should be easy enough to get their on our own.” Right. Let's add to the already astounding litany of means necessary to reach our destination. The trek to Capri probably isn't so arduous if you aren't attempting it immediately following the red-eye to Rome, which followed a layover, which followed the first segment of the flight, which left at noon on the day before. It doesn't help to have copious amounts of luggage, the biggest piece of which was designed by a logically-inept moron. It's wheels were placed toward the middle, so of course, the seventy pound p.o.s. was constantly tipping over!

In my own defense, I couldn't have foreseen the unfortunate situations that managed to befall us. In attempts to ease some of our fatigue and discomfort, we decided to splurge and upgrade to first-class en route to Naples, entitling us to a semi-private, climate-controlled cabin with extra cushy seats and food service. Yet we boarded the miserably hot and stuffy train to discover that the godforsaken air conditioning was broken! So, not only did we have the hassle of removing all of our luggage from said cabin after the initial hassle of getting it in there, we lost a fair amount of money in our first exchange with the Euro considering our upgraded first-class tickets purchased us seats to an insufferably hot two and a half hour coach. They promised to refund us, but it must have gotten lost in translation.

We eventually arrived in Naples and disembarked from our 150-minute sauna. Starving and exhausted, we secured a cab to take us to the port. I, myself, don't particularly believe in the power of prayer; however, inside this cab which made a NYC taxi ride feel like a stroll through Central Park, I figured it couldn't hurt. Finally at the port of Naples, we got in line to buy our tickets to the hydrofoil. For anyone considering an escape to Capri, I strongly advise you read my post entitled, “No Cuts, No Buts, No Coconuts,” before attempting to purchase these passes. Otherwise, your journey ends here.

Despite it only being forty-five minutes, the sardine factor made the conditions on the hydrofoil even more atrocious than that of the train. En voyage of this miserable floating vessel, finally headed for the dad blasted island, in our 25th hour of traveling, having been deprived of food, rest, or a cool breeze for quite some time, my demeanor became less than amiable. I began to develop immense regret for ever having left home. In other words, I lost it. I thoroughly expressed to my husband that I wanted off the damn boat and not when we arrived at Capri. Now. No amount of natural beauty could possibly be worth this hell. Luckily he was able to make his way to a refreshment counter, and in obtaining a much-needed beverage, saved me from jumping ship. It's amazing what a few sips of tepid Coca-Cola can do for the weak and weary.

As we approached the resplendent sight that is Capri, with glimmers of sunlight reflecting from the azure-colored water, enough optimism crept in to bring a sigh of hope. Docked, and basking in the awe of the magnificent landscape and Mediterranean architecture, we were greeted by our hotel staff who then relieved us of our burdensome luggage. I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But it wasn't over yet. We still had to wait with the masses for the funicular which ascends to the island's epicenter. How the 'fun' got in funicular is apparent to anyone who has ridden one of these tortoise-paced apparatuses during summer in a tropical climate, which proves additionally entertaining in a country that does not appear to maintain passenger quotas. Thank God it didn't have far to go.

Reaching the plateau, the doors opened. Alas! We had arrived! The two-day journey was over! Had I not been so depleted, I would have reveled in my excitement. We haggardly disembarked the incline to discover that our transfer would not only deliver us directly to the front doors of our hotel, but didn't cost a penny! The method of transport taking us to our oasis after this ridiculously long pilgrimage, was not what I had in mind. In Italian it is referred to as, “nostri piedi.” Translation: our feet. As in walking the mile of hilly terrain. Hiking. Hoofing. Inching.

Then I was struck with the bad news. I realized that in the midst of my fatigue and the hurry to disembark the hydrofoil, I had failed to collect my garment bag containing all of my favorite clothes. According to my calculations, we were no longer in the green by flying into Rome.

The very next moment commenced my passion for Italian wine. Any available variety of Italian wine.

Monday, January 21, 2008

My Stint At the Prime Time Emmy's

I know, I know. This clearly does not qualify as “abroad”, although considering I live on the East Coast, it may as well be. Since I don't have a blog called, “Domestic Adventures: Culture shock from all over the States”, this blog adopted the orphan post.

So, I was lucky to attend the Red Carpet Arrivals @ the Prime Time Emmy's this past September. It was cool. It was fun. It was all that. But there was a catch. The procedure we had to go through was like something out of the Twilight Zone. For starters, we had to get up really early on a Sunday morning (like 7:30) to get dressed up and drive across town. Once at our destination we were made to sit in rows on these really uncomfortable benches, one behind another, crammed in between a bunch of other people who were all there for the same purpose. This is when I developed an unfortunate case of bleacher butt. It was the one and only time I was wishing I had more junk in the trunk. I know it's wrong to covet, but I sure envied the few that were hoarding all of the cushion, if you know what I mean. As we continued to sit as one big congregation, I tried to keep my faith by reminding myself that I would be rewarded for this later.

It was mildly entertaining to watch the behind-the-scenes activity involved in airing the live footage to all of the networks covering the Emmy's. I can not deny that there was a certain intoxication in the air. However, there was an abundance of celebrities, paparazzi, and crew members, so perhaps the aura of intoxication had nothing to do with the excitement. We were provided refreshments and a goody tote loaded with what I suspect, were the same effects given to the stars. The contents included a magazine, ball cap, Emmy's t-shirt, mascara, AND, hold on.....let me build some suspense, a bag of chips. As if seeing droves of celebrities wasn't enough, I was privileged to experience, first-hand, a moment so special, that it's very essence has been coined. The cliché clearly originates from this red carpet event, whereby the audience gets ALL THAT the stars get AND a bag of chips. Doritos, to be specific.

One by one, the stars eventually made their way down the red carpet. Some were friendlier than others, and I was disappointed that Steve Carell was the least personable. To his credit, he did arrive in the same manner as the rest of the garden variety stars. Some celebs, one in particular, was simply too famous for all the fuss and had to be privately escorted through a trap door. It is true, he probably would have been recognized and, chances are, have ended up in the tabloids. Of the oodles of celebrities on site (Dr. McDreamy, Kevin Bacon, Michelle Pfiefer, to name a few), Alec Baldwin knew that he would have shone brighter than the rest, causing unfair press and attention and was, therefore, unable to walk the red carpet due to the unfortunate curse of super-stardom that has befallen him.

I did encounter one odd moment when a man from the paparazzi who was standing in front of me, turned and unexpectedly took my picture, almost point blank, mind you. I have no idea what his objective was, but I'm fairly certain it didn't score any front covers.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Giza, Cairo's Ugly Stepsister

Culture shock took on a whole new meaning during my quest to see the Great Pyramids. The Nile divides the huge metropolis of Cairo and Giza, and you do not want to be on the wrong side of the Nile. Filthy, insanely populated, freakishly loud, and distinctly impoverished Giza is the side I am referring to. Yes, getting to the pyramids will be more challenging if you stay in Cairo since the traffic is literally murder (you nor I would survive for 2 minutes as a pedestrian), but it is well worth the commute.

Our 5-star accommodations (by Egyptian standards) were inconspicuously situated on a side-street, not in the preferred sector. Once through it's doors (and security check), it was a welcomed oasis from the surrounding elements. We ventured out into the alley once to peruse the adjacent shops and were greeted by many eager and chatty store-owners (even receiving a dinner invitation, which we graciously declined). We conversed, and shopped, and laughed with the locals. That was prior to dusk. Once the sun began to set, however, like Cinderella, we frantically scrambled to make our way back before all that was good turned bad.

Our hotel boasted a lovely internal courtyard with a beautiful pool and a variety of eating options, which provided both excellent food, as well as service. Be that as it may, when I someday return to this place of inspiring structures and intriguing antiquities, I will reserve a nice little room in the heart of Cairo, overlooking the Nile, where one can stroll along the river and patronize the local eateries. It will prove to be an even lovelier experience.

Italians Really Do Have Big Ones

I experienced culture shock for the first time within minutes of arriving in Rome. We had just exited the plane from our ten-hour, transatlantic flight when I was taken aback. It wasn't the language barrier, although I didn't speak a lick of Italian. It was the airport security officer standing before me, sporting some very heavy artillery. “My, what big guns you have!” shrieked my mind, not referring to the muscular mass bulging through his sleeve. Yes, these guns were bona fide assault rifles. Unsure whether the purpose of such machinery was to intimidate or annihilate, I knew one thing for certain: Italians don't jack around with homeland security.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My Italian Stallion......To The Rescue!

Lazy and optimistic me. I did not take the time to learn a little Italian before embarking on our romantic Roman holiday. I speak un peu French, but that didn't get me far in France, and I imagine would be significantly less helpful in Italy. I was more concerned with the statistical possibility of the two of us dying in a suicide bombing on Capri than I was the language barrier. Luckily, one of us planned ahead.

As it turns out, Italy boasts a wealth of English-speakers who do not seem to mind using it. However, that is not to say that learning a little Italian won't make things easier. For instance, eager to make his impressive European debut, my husband listened to “Italian on CD” relentlessly for three weeks. I'm ashamed to admit I did tease him. However, I was forced to eat my words when his Italian saved the day while buying train passes. With his wealth of communication skills and extensive knowledge of numbers 1-10, he was thus able to indicate precisely how many tickets we needed while simultaneously showing the ticket clerk two fingers. I fear what may have taken place without his newly acquired verbiage. Instead of indicating a quantity, his gesture may have been misconstrued as simply, “peace out.”

Moral of the story: if you're going to take the time to learn a foreign language, focus on numbers representing quantities greater than your available digits.