Tuesday, 27 May 2008

5 things about Egypt

Egypt was fabulous. Not only was it packed full of jaw-dropping monuments and temples (which Tane will write about later when I stop hogging the computer), but it has an incredibly vibrant and interesting culture. The people that we met were friendly and up for a laugh, the sky was blue, and the Nile really all that. These, however, are the top five things that spring to mind when I think about our time in what I now consider to be my third favourite country of the 28 that I have seen. (NB: one and two are New Zealand - naturally - and Turkey. Bulgaria still occupies last place)

1. The heat

Egypt was hot, hot, hot. And when we were at Aswan Dam, we were damn hot. (heh). The weather reached an impressive 44 degrees on the day we visited Valley of the Kings, and we all agreed that was well into the "nasty hot" category of heat. There wasn't much discussion about it though as the entire group of us were rendered useless by the heat so while not looking at sites, sat around like giant lethargic slugs. Due to the heat, it should not have been a surprise that in Egypt a cold beer costs the same as dinner. Tane, though, was still able to jump around in spite of the heat.

In the Valley of the Kings

2. Donkeys

While camels are a bit scary and gurgly, Donkeys are plain awesome. They are everywhere in Egypt, pulling massive carts and transporting around all sizes of people. They not only got the respect of a few travelling kiwis, but made the long drives more interesting by playing "spot the donkey".
We got to ride some while at the Valley of the Kings, which was hilarious. Not only are they sturdier than I thought but riding them is unpredictable and exciting. Will they stray off course to eat some plants? Will Sarah's one bite mine in the neck again? Will Tane's donkey (christened Sir Mange-alot) lead the pack and prove to be the Scott Dixon of donkeys? These are some of the exciting questions asked while riding a donkey.

3. Egyptian men

As an example of Egyptian men, while in Egypt I received 4 offers of marriage, numerous whistles and compliments, and one man say that for me he would kill his wife. Tane was asked on two occasions how many camels he would sell me for. At first it was annoying, but once we realised that it's not too serious, it was OK and sometimes very very funny. Having said that though, I still find it creepy that a man said he would kill his wife. Shudder. I have read that many Egyptian men assume that Western women are all easy, and given how rarely we saw women on the street, and that when we did they wore head veils 90% of the time and many were in hajabs, we certainly do appear immodest in comparison. While being hassled isn't always fun, if you keep a sense of humour it's no big deal at all. 4. Haggling

Haggling is a way of life in Egypt, especially in the markets. The markets are chaos, and at first the smells, sights and having to ignore Egyptian men is a little overwhelming. Visiting them is very rewarding, however, and some of the best laughs we had in Egypt were in the markets with locals trying to sell us their wares. Like many things, the haggling and hassling was annoying at times. Once our guide pointed out that these people make a living off selling to tourists though, coupled with the fact that we found Egypt to be much more impoverished than we realised, we became much more tolerant. Tane and I also found that shopkeepers and street sellers were often very humorous people, and the source of some very interesting conversations.

Sarah in Luxor

5. Mosquitoes

I'll let this photo of my legs in Aswan speak for itself.

What kind of traveller are you?

I read something once about how there are three types of traveller: the adventure traveller, the cultural traveller, and the traveller that seeks relaxation. Up until now, Tane and I firmly sat in the first two categories - cultural travellers with a bit of adventure thrown in every now and then. We are ashamed now to say that we have even mocked the third type in the past, not understanding why someone would lie around by a pool when there were exciting sites to be seen. That was, of course, before we lived in London through a winter. And before we travelled to a country with 40+ degree heat where we had our first hotel holiday yet.

The pool in Luxor - note the bar in the middle

We knew that Egypt in May was going to be hot. We didn't think too much about it at all, though, and given that we were travelling to Egypt to see cool old things and another Islamic country, pool side relaxation wasn't something that had occurred to us at all. With the heat around the 40 degree mark for most of the week, though, between seeing fabulous monuments and temples we spent a lot of time relaxing by hotel pools. And, while a holiday that was just about swimming pools and sun would turn be into a sun burnt bored person, I can well see the appeal of factoring in some relaxation by pools in future holidays.

A bit of artsy swimming in Cairo

What kind of traveller are you? I think we are still cultural-with-a-bit-of-adventure travellers, but in future should we find ourselves in such lovely hotels in similar heat again, I will be the first in line for my giant hotel beach towel to lie beside the sun burnt Brits at the pool. And with this view from the poolside restaurant in Luxor, who can complain about travelling to relax, really.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Walk like an Egyptian

We have been in Egypt for half a week now, and it's fabulous. Already there have been bites, burns and bad bellies, but we don't care as Egypt is so much fun in spite of all those things. I don't have much time to write at the moment as we are about to go and chill on the Nile for a bit as well as bask in the 40 degree heat, but here are a few pics taken so far in any case.

Tane of Arabia

I think this was the only time I let go of the camel ..

Walk like an Egyptian

An Aswan sunset

Monday, 12 May 2008

Mad dogs and Englishmen

It's the hottest May on record (which means since the 1700s) and boy, are the English enjoying it. Rather like in Wellington, where warm, still days are also rare treasures, everyone rushes out to lie in the sun. There being no beaches to mooch on short of a train ride to Brighton, in London that means they hit the parks.

Kensington Gardens

Unlike in New Zealand though, the ozone layer still exists and no one seems to much care about skin cancer, so the parks become filled with every shade of brown, pink and pasty white. While playing football I offered some sun cream to a pale-skinned topless, red-headed Pom. "No, I want to get burnt," was his reply.

Mad dogs ...

Lewis and Lauren think the sun is, on balance, a good thing.

Last weekend also saw Manchester United seal the Premier League title in a photo finish with Chelsea. Inside a Kensington pub (deep in Chelsea territory, but filled with Man U fans), when Ryan Giggs scored the clinching goal, grown men yelled, lept out of their seats, hugged and jumped up and down. At the same time. It was a beautiful thing.

The highlight of the weekend though was frisbee at Ealing Common, which was rudely interrupted by a deluge of Noah proportions that was confined to the suburb apparently just to spite us and our guests from central London. We offered them towels and alcohol, but they will probably never visit the hinterlands again.

"Right, I think I can get two squirrels, but the rest of the animal kingdom could be a problem."

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Krakow - what the crack, au?

Okay, sorry, that's the worst Irish-Polish-Maori pun ever. Even in my long and inglorious history of awful puns, that would be hard to beat.

Krakow, our favourite Eastern European city, deserves better. It's a lovely city, with a classy, compact Old Town graced by Europe's biggest medieval square and ringed with parks. Prague and Budapest have many charms, but for atmosphere, Krakow has them beat.

Florian's Gate

Polish paradise - beer, the flag and a Catholic church. All that's missing is a meal involving mountains of potato and meat.

The castle and the banks of the Vistula River, a great spot for sunbathing

And they even have a dragon!

Of course, a large part of what makes Krakow such a superb destination is the day trips you can take out of the city. There's Auschwitz, of course, and also the Wieliczka salt mine, which used to provide 70% of Poland's wealth. Even before the invention of the potato chip. Apparently life got a bit dull chipping away in the darkness, so the miners spent their spare time carving statues and churches. The Polish tourist board will be eternally grateful that they did.

The Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, which even has a version of Michaelangelo's The Last Supper

Krakow also blows away the stereotype I had of Poland as a rather ugly place clawing its way out of communist bleakdom. The countryside looked prosperous and pretty, and across the road from our hostel the best shopping mall we've discovered in Europe. And our hostel, Greg-Tom, was the best we've ever stayed in. Really friendly staff, flat screen tvs and a huge selection of DVDs, tasty breakfast and supper, free broadband internet - and even Playstation 3. We could have just stayed there and been glad we came.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Auschwitz: meeting a survivor, visiting the camp

Tane and I spent the May bank holiday in Krakow, Poland. Krakow is a fabulous place, and while there we took the time to visit what is probably the most horrific yet fascinating place I have ever visited, Auschwitz concentration camp.

Standing on the spot where the trains were unloaded at Birkenau

When I was 18, I met an Auschwitz survivor. I was on a boat from Capri to Naples, and being the Coca-Cola fiend that I still am today, struck up a conversation with the man sitting opposite me about the strange writing on his Coke label. Turns out it was Hebrew, the man had been living in Israel since the war, and was a Holocaust survivor. We ended up having a long conversation about his experiences - how he was at Auschwitz for 6 weeks then moved to another camp, how his mother and sister were gassed and he was saved by a man telling him to lie about his age, and how while he grew up in Czechoslovakia he had no desire to go back. I asked him if he had numbers tattooed on his arm, but he didn't.Eventually, we were joined at our table by three of his travelling companions. They had a conversation in Hebrew, and then all four turned to me. "Our friend here says your interested in the holocaust and asked to see his tattoo" one of them, a women, said. When I confirmed that yes I was and yes I did, she nodded and rolled up her sleeve. The other two people that had just joined us did the same, and I was confronted with three people's forearms that were tattooed with the little dark blue numbers that most people who survived Auschwitz were given. It was an intense experience to say the least. Everyone knows that Auschwitz existed and that bad things happened there, but to actually be faced with the physical evidence in the form of three people's tattoos makes it all very real in a way that is quite upsetting to say the least. Almost ten years later, visiting Auschwitz itself felt much the same way.


What most people talk about as being Auschwitz was actually three camps, Auschwitz I, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Monowitz. We visited Auschwitz One along with about another mazillion people on tour groups, and while some of the things we saw there were very emotional, in many ways there were so many people around that it was hard to take it all in. Having said that, though, seeing piles of shoes, prosthetic limbs and glasses was very affecting. Not to mention, of course, the gas chamber and crematorium that still stand there.

The lock on the gas chamber door

If you are ever visiting Auschwitz, though, I cannot recommend enough that you do not take a tour and spend a decent amount of time at Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as Auschwitz One. Birkenau was the main camp, and while it is not as user friendly as the other camp and just over 3 km away, it was here that most people mean when they talk about Auschwitz. Tane and I spent a couple of hours wandering alone around Birkenau's grounds (for some reason most tours don't seem to come to this camp except to look at the watchtower by the main gate), which was a very haunting experience.

A destroyed gas chamber/Crematorium

The first thing that hits you about the camp is its sheer size - we spent about two hours there and only managed to walk around some of Birkenau. Most of the huts are gone and the gas chambers and crematoria were destroyed at the end of the war, but the remaining ruins somehow make the camp all the more haunting. One especially memorable thing that we did was walk the same route as the people that were unloaded from the trains and taken straight to the chambers, all the while very aware of never being terribly far from a watchtower or a barbed wire fence.
The one moment that Tane and I decided that resonated the most strongly with us, however, was when we were walking over a patch of grass behind one of the destroyed chambers. There were three very yucky photographs displayed of a group of people (I won't go into detail here) which made us shudder, even more so when we looked at the photos closely and realised that we were standing on the exact spot where the photographs were taken. There were a few of these photographs displayed around the camp, and each time I saw one it felt a little like seeing those tattooed numbers all over again.
Have you been to Auschwitz or anywhere similar? If so, I am interested in your impressions.

Schindler's Factory in Krakow, which we visited this morning as well as seeing lots of other scenes from the movie Schindler's List.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Tane's Reviews: Iron Man

Yes, it’s true. I am a comic book geek. It’s usually the first section I head to in a library, they’re what I’d waste lots of money on if I had lots of money to waste.

As such, it’s pretty hard to find a superhero movie I don’t like. Hell, I enjoyed Spiderman 3 and Ghost Rider. On a very slow evening, I might even watch Daredevil again. But not Batman and Robin. Even I have my limits.

Fortunately, Iron Man is no Batman and Robin. It’s a movie that I suspect many non-geeks will enjoy.

Iron Man is the alter-ego of billionaire playboy Tony Stark (a perfectly cast Robert Downey Jr). Stark is a brilliant inventor and CEO of a company that makes a lot of money from making things that kills people. His life revolves around drink, girls, creating gadgets and selling arms. A friend described him as ‘constitutionally incapable of responsibility’ – an attitude that changes a bit when he is kidnapped by an Afghani warlord. Some waterboarding later and Stark has agreed to build the warlord a missile. In fact, what he builds is a high-tech suit of armor.

Because it is armour, and not a glorified wetsuit, Iron Man looks cooler than any other on-screen superhero. And the CGI is so good it’s impossible to tell where real metal ends and pixels begin.

But for all the mechanical marvels, it’s the human elements that are the film’s strongest. The delightfully charismatic Downey is its heart and soul, striking the perfect balance between silliness and seriousness. He’s ably supported by Gwyneth Paltrow as his PA and Jeff Bridges as his business partner. There’s some snappy repartee between them all – and also a small but memorable role by Shaun Toub as an Afghani scientist. A few sentimental moments revolving around an Afghani village aside, it’s a sharp script, with enough comic book references to keep we geeks happily trainspotting.

Iron Man is not brilliant, and the action is not on of the first tier, but it’s a smart, amusing and surprisingly realistic film that makes a good start to blockbuster season.


Thursday, 1 May 2008

Peas, trees and a portable BBQ

Last weekend, London had the first day of summer. It was glorious, and the only bad part about the first day of summer was deciding which dust-covered-ignored-for-about-a-year t-shirt to wear. It was so glorious, we decided to spend the day with Megan and Clint in the woods of Wendover in near bye Buckinghamshire.

In the course of a long walk through the woods, a few things of note happened. First, we got lost.
Second, Tane found a massive field of peas.
And lastly, the Australians introduced us to the joys of a £1.50 portable BBQ.
Despite the fact that it looked like the £1.50 it was worth, it did the job. Afterwards we were happily filled with both sausages and the promises of many BBQs over the summer to come. Bliss.

P.S. the weather has gone yuck again but we live in hope that we have not already seen the best day England has to offer this summer!