A Travellerspoint blog

There's this island...

sunny 35 °C

After a rather long, rough travel day (food poisoning for both of us) which included fainting in an airport (Lee-Ann) and a pickpocket attempt on the metro (Warren), we arrived exhausted from Turkey at our hotel in Athens. However, after a good night’s sleep and a breakfast of the long awaited thick, creamy Greek yogurt, we were ready to hit the sights of this historic city.

We made our way through the narrow cobblestone streets, slowly winding our way toward the Acropolis, perched high on the escarpment overlooking the city. Straying from the main tourist area as we approached, we found the streets almost completely deserted – it was the weekend and all the shops were closed. We were shocked at the graffiti that covered everything… literally on every building, on walls, doors, statues and signs. We had never seen so much graffiti. It reminded us of images from 1970s New York before its massive turn around. We can only surmise that much the graffiti in Athens was an outpouring of anger and grief from the disadvantaged youth as a result of Greece’s current economic climate. With the recent riots in London fresh in our minds, the graffiti along with the empty streets created an eerie sense of an abandoned city.

However, as we climbed the Acropolis, we left the graffiti behind and stepped into the wondrous past of ancient Athens. After taking our obligatory photo op with the Parthenon as a backdrop, wandering through the ruins and enjoying the panoramic 360 degree view of the city, we climbed down from the Acropolis and headed to the nearby Acropolis Museum. Built with glass floors to provide viewing of the ongoing excavations of the ancient city below, the building in itself was amazing. On the top floor, both original pieces and restoration casts of the pediments and the facia of the Parthenon were installed to scale in a manner that provided a view of the Parthenon itself. It created a unique perspective to add context and appreciation, along with small scale models of the details of the Acropolis through various ages and stages of development. The museum was in fact a highlight for us. We finished off our day in Athens with a delicious dinner at a lively little taverna tucked away in a courtyard, set under trellises covered in grapevines, as the full moon lit up the Acropolis and spread a warm, silver glow over the city.

From Athens, we moved on to the port of Piraeus where we caught an early morning fast ferry to Naxos – the Cycladic island where we would spend the next month. Although the majority of our journey has been decided as we traveled, we had planned before we left home to spend a month on Naxos and had rented a little villa with a pool and a stunning view across the water to the islands of Paros, Iraklia, Koufonissi and Ios. We quickly settled into the rhythm of the island - enjoying long leisurely mornings, reading countless books (luckily the villa had a couple of large well-stocked bookshelves), strolling on the miles of golden sandy beaches, swimming in the clear, turquoise water…

Some days… well, most days, it took a substantial effort to leave our little villa where we could look out from our pool onto miles of beach and brilliant blue water, watching the sailboats, windsurfers and kiteboarders ride the strong late summer winds known as the Meltemi. But we occasionally found the drive to leave our little haven, even attempting to engage the winds ourselves. While the Meltemi thoroughly trounced Warren while windsurfing, we had much better success sailing to and from the island of Paros, revelling in the rambunctious 25–30 knot winds and 6’–8’ seas.

It was a real treat after months of eating in restaurants to have a kitchen and an outdoor grill, and a bounty of fresh, locally grown ingredients, to enjoy home-cooked meals al fresco, watching the evening sky slowly turn from brilliant burnt orange to a rich blue-black over the Aegean Sea as we sipped locally made barrel wine by candlelight. Our nightly ritual included climbing the stairs to our rooftop after the sun set to watch a shepherd herd his sheep up the hill to a pasture above our villa. We even had a local field cat adopt us, stretching out in the shade on our flagstone deck, making us feel truly at home.

We have a long history with Naxos - Lee-Ann spent two months here during her first trip to Europe, celebrating her 21st birthday on the island; several years later, we came to Naxos for our long delayed honeymoon. This time, we were thrilled to have our daughter Chelsey join us for two wonderful weeks to celebrate Warren’s 50th birthday. While Chelsey was here, we took her for a tour around the island, through the little villages and into Chora (Naxos Town) to explore the ancient narrow, winding streets and tremendous landscape of this beautifully rugged island. We were happy to discover that while there has been some growth, very little has changed over the years. Tourism plays an enormous part in the island’s economy, but the agricultural and seafaring soul of Naxos is very much alive and well, keeping its pulse strong long after the last summertime tourists have left for the year.

Our month in Naxos was a wonderful hiatus from our traveling adventures, but all good things must come to an end in order for new opportunities to unfold. So it was with mixed feelings that we left our lovely home away from home behind, and took the slow boat (we were in no rush…) back to Athens, where we are excitedly preparing for “la dolce vita”; tomorrow morning we fly to… Naples, Italy!

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Posted by Baxters 17:25 Archived in Greece Tagged naxos Comments (0)

Turkish Delight

Turkey

sunny 35 °C

After almost missing our initial flight out of Egypt (Warren asked our Dahab taxi driver how long it would be until we reached the airport. Turns out he was taking us in the opposite direction… to Israel. A high-speed u-turn and an hour of white-knuckle driving...), we arrived at the Sharm El Sheikh airport in time for our flight, connecting through Cairo and finally landing in Istanbul, Turkey.

We were delighted as we began to explore the narrow, cobbled streets around our hotel in Sultanahmet (the heart of Old Istanbul) as we took in the ambiance and architecture of old world Europe. We have held a great love and appreciation of old European cities for many years, and it had been too long since we had last traveled in Europe. However, we noted in Istanbul something a little different… amid the winding, cobblestone streets and sidewalk cafes were towering mosques and hookah stalls. It was if someone had selected our favourite Western European ingredients and blended them with a traditional Middle Eastern recipe, resulting in a delicious blend of both.

Our first evening in Istanbul coincided with our wedding anniversary, so on a whim, we opted for one of the many rooftop terraces for dinner. We eyeballed that perfect corner table only to be informed it was reserved. Lee-Ann quickly informed them that nothing else would be suitable as it was our anniversary and – poof! – the reservation was gone and we scored the primo table of the night, enjoying a stupendous meal with wine (!!) overlooking the Blue Mosque.

We spent the next couple of days hoofing it around some of Istanbul’s requisite sights. While thoroughly enjoyable and often awe-inspiring, we finally encountered what we had been able to avoid for the previous six months… tourists - hordes and hordes of summer tourists. We dodged and darted and, for the most part, managed to stay out of the throngs. However, we couldn’t avoid the touts – both the restaurant ones (in some of the narrow café-lined lanes, it was like running a gauntlet) and the infamous uber-friendly “hello my friend - where are you from - just want to chat - no I’m not selling anything - would you like to buy a carpet?” touts. We persevered, visiting a number of the key historic sights, but spent much of our time wandering away from the tourist areas. During our meandering strolls we encountered many unexpected sights (such as an outdoor market devoted entirely to tools and construction supplies), met some gracious and friendly Turkish people (such as the café owner who sent over complimentary cookies to accompany our coffee during one of our many refreshment breaks) and enjoyed many glimpses of daily life in Istanbul.

As remarkable as Istanbul was, we found ourselves pining for something a little more authentic, with perhaps a little less tourist frenzy. We didn’t have to look far… just across the water to… Istanbul. We took the 15 minute ferry from Sultanahmet (European Istanbul) across the Bosphorus to Kadıköy (Asian Istanbul) and found exactly what we were looking for. Described as a “typically middle class” neighbourhood, we wandered the market area watching locals barter over fresh fish and octopus, bought cherries from one of the many stalls and, in the evening, hung with the locals eating traditional mezes at a street-side table. Ordering dinner turned into an unexpected adventure. Being a non-tourist area, English was not spoken and certainly not on the menus. When it became apparent we had no idea what any of the food was on the menu, we were lead - with great showmanship - into the kitchen to point out what we wanted while the raki drinking crowd around us watched with good humoured amusement. Choices made, we settled back into our chairs and proceeded to enjoy an exquisitely simple meal and an evening of smiles and laughter amongst the neighbourhood locals. Good thing we were well fueled up – body and soul – as we had a long day ahead. Up early the next morning for our 20 minute walk to the train station, we started on our ten hour train/train/taxi/bus trip, finally arriving under a starlit sky in the town of Göreme in Turkey’s central Cappadocia region.

Göreme looks as though it might have been created by Walt Disney. The town is home to some of the most other worldly, towering rock formations imaginable, made even more unique by many of them being carved out centuries ago to serve as homes and churches, many of which have now been converted to hotels and restaurants. It’s as if some characters from Lord of the Rings (the pleasant ones) had made this place their home in some distant, magical past. Evening brought an even more fairy tale-like quality to the town. Gazing up the hillside from the town square, the interplay of light and shadow among the eclectic mix of buildings and fairy chimneys was surreal. We spent the next couple of days exploring the Cappadocia region, from the Derinkuyu underground city (exploring some 7 levels below ground), to climbing the hand carved caves of the 13th century Selime Monastery (looking every bit, as claimed, like it could have been young Anakin Skywalker’s hometown), to the Göreme Open Air Museum (a complex of medieval painted cave churches and dwellings, which formed a large monastic complex carved in the hillside). However, our favourite time by far was spent hiking through the valleys just outside of Göreme, enjoying the fantasy like landscape that ranged in appearance from soft-serve vanilla ice-cream, to rather impressive phallic-like towers to craggy spires that looked like they were snapped off the top of the Swiss Alps. We explored several of the caves, discovering ancient frescoes, cooking areas and even a spiral-stair case inside an exceptionally moody cluster of crumbling chambers.

We discovered that Turkey has an incredible bus system, very cheap, with buses going constantly to anywhere in the country you might want to go (and even some places where you might not want to go). We also realized what a huge country Turkey is and, through our hours of traveling across its vast countryside, how similar much of its landscape is to parts of Canada… endless flat prairies, soaring mountains and pine forests leading down to the sea. For those who are familiar – think Saskatchewan, Kamloops, Okanagan and Howe Sound.

After a few days of Cappadocia’s stunning scenery and history, we found ourselves back on a bus for another 10 hour ride south-west to Antalya, where we spent two nights in the city’s old town on the edge of the Mediterranean. Although touristy, the town was charming with its mix of beautifully restored buildings next to crumbling Ottoman mansions (many for sale, ready to be turned into another hotel/restaurant/shop/travel agency). However, it wasn’t 100% tourist-driven; we managed to find a couple of local meyhanes (taverns) where we spent our evenings street-side drinking chilled red wine and listening to live music while kids cruised by the tables hawking fresh mussels and old men pushed carts along the cobblestone streets selling whole peeled cucumbers to consume with the ever-present raki (Turkey’s version of Ouzo or Sambuca – anise flavoured liquor that is mixed with water, making it look a bit like skim milk).

Back on yet another bus (this time on a smaller, regional bus or “dolmus” – think mini-van on steroids), we headed west along the mountainous Mediterranean coast and then down into a box canyon to the village of Cirali where we parked ourselves for a few days at the Canada Hotel (yes, you read that right). Run by a Turkish/Canadian couple (she’s from Calgary), the hotel looks like it was transplanted from the Okanagan, complete with families on summer vacation. Any similarities ended a five minute walk down the road where the canyon walls opened up onto a 4km long beach. As has often happened, our planned two day stay stretched to five as we lounged on the beach and swam in the warm Med Sea, explored the beautifully unrestored ruins of Olympos, an ancient port town, and hiked by flashlight one night up through the pines to experience the Chimaera, where for centuries fires have burned from crevasses in the rocks on the slopes of Mount Olympos.

We had been longing to get out on the water and were able to secure a cabin on a gullet (a Turkish wooden sailboat) for a 4 day cruise from Olympos to Fethiye. It’s always a crapshoot when you join a tour or a group of strangers for a few days, especially on a small boat which limits personal space and privacy and requires interaction between everyone aboard … we were very lucky. Our fellow passengers included travellers from Turkey, Italy, France, Holland, Brazil, Australia and Ireland, and the multi-language group blended well to create a fun and friendly voyage. Due to the heat (a balmy 36 degrees), we all slept on deck at night under a blanket of stars, and quickly dove into the crystal clear blue waters as soon as we set the anchor at any of the many bays in which we stopped. The cruise culminated on the final night with a frenzy of Turkish dancing, something the Europeans and Brazilians seemed much more comfortable with than the English speaking Commonwealth folks!

We spent a day in Fethiye, a low key Mediterranean harbour town, exploring the waterfront and marinas and drooling over the beautiful sailboats and gullets, then got back on a bus for the five hour journey to Pammukale to see the famous travertine cliffs. If you could imagine a glacier in the summertime, with meltwater coursing over its surface, then plunk the glacier down on an arid hillside overlooking a lush, green valley, you would have the image of the travertine at Pammukale. Now imagine that the ice is stone, and the water is warm… This incredible landscape was created over centuries when warm mineral water deposited calcium as it flowed over the cliff edge, creating shelves and pools and “icicles” very similar in appearance to glaciers. It was really trippy to walk over the stone in bare feet with the water flowing over it as our brains were telling us it should be cold and slippery, but our senses were telling us it was warm and grippy!! The bonus was, after we climbed over the travertine to the top of the cliff, we discovered we were at the site of Hierapolis – a 2nd century BC Roman city. An amazing amount of the ancient city remains intact, and we explored the ruins and the stunning view over the valley below as evening began to fall.

A short three hour bus ride took us the next morning to Selcuk, where we would spend our final couple of days in Turkey. Selcuk contained just the right balance of historical sights and quiet village vibe for us to enjoy the end of our Turkish adventure at a leisurely pace. We strolled down the well preserved streets of Ephesus, a Mediterranean trading city established 2000 years ago, marvelling at the remains of the “modern” facilities (latrines, baths, condos, library, concert halls, gymnasiums); wandered through the market in the Selcuk’s town centre and watched the tourists barter to buy the same tourist “treasures” we had seen everywhere since we began our travels six months ago; and sipped Efes beer in outdoor cafes at the outskirts of town, enjoying the stunning view of orchard covered hillsides rolling down to the red tiled rooftops of this quiet, Turkish village.

We came to Turkey with no plan, no idea of what we might find, and no idea how long we might stay… three and a half weeks later, we leave with fond memories of unique experiences, new friends and yet more photos to add to our ever-growing collection.

We are now on our way to Greece, where we will spend a month on one of our favourite islands… pausing in our journey, spending some time with our daughter who will be joining us for a couple of weeks, and, eventually, deciding where to head to next to continue our adventures. Enjoy the rest of the summer – you’ll hear from us again in late September when we’re once again on the road…

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Posted by Baxters 00:17 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Walk Like An Egyptian*

Egypt

sunny 45 °C

We exited Southeast Asia at the halfway point of our World Tour – not because we were tired of SEA (far from it!) but because it was time to move on to new adventures. We selected a destination that we thought would throw us a nice curveball after out time in the tropics… Egypt!

If you’ve been following our blog, you know we’re not “packaged tour” people, preferring to do things on our own. However, we’ve learned that in some instances it’s better to let someone else do the work and just enjoy the ride – which we did for our first week in Egypt. We were met at the Cairo airport upon our 6:30am arrival (17 hours after departing Singapore) with the first day scheduled to “chill by the pool” at our hotel and get accustomed to the heat. We felt comfortably acclimatized after our time in SEA, so we decided to jump right into ancient Egypt that morning.

After throwing our bags in our hotel room, we were off…for about 4 blocks…where we arrived at the Pyramids of Giza (you could actually see them from the front of our hotel). We won’t bother with detail about the Pyramids – they’re a far too familiar icon to pretty much everyone on the planet. However, what we were not prepared for was how big – HUGE – they are. Standing at the foot of the Great Pyramid with your hand resting on one of the millions of two-ton blocks of sandstone, looking up the peak, the enormity of the Pyramids takes over. And it’s not just enormity of size; it’s the recoil recognition that they were built thousands of years ago by hand – perhaps with the aid of oxen, but no more. It was in a sense humbling to see – to touch – what people were able to create so long ago without the aid of modern machinery (and, we were assured, without the aid of alien spaceships). What was also news to us was the Pyramids of Giza are only three of over one hundred (and counting) across the Western Desert. During the day, we visited Sakkara, home to Egypt’s first pyramid known as the “Step-Pyramid”. From this location, we could see another 15 pyramids spread out across the horizon, including some more very early attempts to master the perfect pyramid shape such as the “Bent Pyramid” (the top half slopes in at a more shallow angle) and the “Tower-Pyramid (which – you guessed – increases its angle halfway up). By the way, if you’re wondering, the ancient pharaoh’s desire for the perfect pyramid shape in which to house their mummified remains was due in part to the shape being the same as the sun’s (and therefore the god Ra’s) rays, and so as much of the surface area of the tomb would be bathed in these rays as possible.

Giza is on the western edge of Cairo. Cairo itself is not an attractive city. Home to 22M… or 25M… or 30M (depends what you read or who you talk to), it is crowded, congested with traffic and (as you would expect being sandwiched between two deserts) dusty; everything is sort of brown. Many of the buildings are rough, red-brown brick, with no outside finishing and rebar sticking out of the top. We later learned this is intentional. While unfinished on the outside, they are completely finished (and inhabited) on the inside; apparently the incomplete exterior means the building is not finished so no tax need be paid. One might wonder why this simple loophole wouldn’t be closed so the government could collect some badly needed tax to help restore the city’s crumbling infrastructure. However, like so many countries we’ve visited (and many others around our world), asking an economically bereft population to pay more money that they don’t have so that they could enjoy a better quality of life just isn’t possible. While not nearly as severe, there were a couple of elements of Cairo (and other parts of Egypt) that reminded us of India: the amount of garbage in the streets and in the river/canals (among other things – Warren counted 3 dead donkeys in one canal) and the lack of maintenance of, well… everything. If something breaks and you can get by without it being repaired, it doesn’t get fixed. If a repair is necessary, the bare minimum is done – so over time (just like India) things eventually fall into a general state of disrepair. Poverty is certainly not in short supply, but despite being told prior to our arrival that it is worse than India, we simply did not see anything that compared. We also had read about the conservative nature of the Egyptian people, particularly the 90% Muslim majority. We were surprised – pleasantly surprised - at how casual and relaxed everyone was (even with the ripples of the revolution still playing out). Yes, traditional dress reigned for the women (and maybe 50% of the men) and for the first time in our travels we saw people doing mid-day prayers in the street, airports and shops, but everything was just so…relaxed. We found our western media/cinema stereotypes vanishing before our eyes. And to makes things even better, we found that Egyptians have a wonderful sense of humour. They love to laugh at you, with you and at themselves. Yes, as “tourists”, most of them have an eye on your pocketbook and are hoping you’ll buy/eat/lodge… but even when it’s clear they’ll get nothing from you, their smiles and laughter usually don’t stop.

Since we had skipped ahead a day of our tour program, we used the next day to slide in an additional destination - Alexandria. We hadn’t intended to go to Alexandria as it is a 3 hour drive from Cairo and every travel advisory we read said to not travel by road. However, after a day of exploring areas of Cairo and learning about the revolution from our guide and other Egyptians, we felt the security risk was very low (we’ll come back to this shortly).

Alexandria is Egypt’s second largest city with 6M people spread along 20km of Mediterranean coast. While rich in history (its name comes from Alexander the Great), most of its ancient wonders are now gone, including the Pharos Lighthouse (one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World), the location of which is now home to the imposing Quaitbay Citadel, built to protect Alexandria’s harbour. Also gone is the Library of Alexandria, possibly the world’s first library, long since sacked and burned to the ground by Egypt’s enemies (but newly reborn as the Bibliotheque Alexandria – a marvel of both scholarly research and of modern architecture). We did visit Alexandria’s catacombs. While smaller than those in Rome, it was fascinating to see how the Roman’s blended their artistic and religious sensibilities with those of the Egyptians. This was apparently done as both a nod of respect by the Romans to the sophistication of the Egyptian civilization as well as a subversive attempt over many, many years to slowly win the Egyptians over to the Roman point of view.

Our drive to and from Alexandria was uneventful. However, a heightened sense of security is everywhere. For example, entering our hotel we were required to put our luggage through an x-ray machine and walk through a metal detector. Our car was not allowed to drive up to the front of the hotel; you are forced to stop and get out on the street, away from the lobby. Everywhere, there are police and military with submachine guns and AK47s, along with the occasional tank. However, we never once felt at risk during our time in Egypt. Despite what it looked like on the news, Cairo (and the rest of Egypt) did not burn down during the January revolution. There was violence in Cairo (apparently some 800 people died) but it was mostly contained within one small area of the city – and for the most part, the demonstrations were very peaceful. In other cities we visited, such as Aswan, the revolution was not much more than people hanging out in the town square until they got word that President Mubarak had succumbed and was stepping down. With Mubarak’s departure, government leadership had been ousted and now the Egyptian people need to see if things will in fact change. The dramatic difference between today and the upheaval 5-6 years ago that saw many tourists injured or killed is that the unrest at that time was designed to put pressure on the government by disrupting a primary economic input - tourism. Put simply, that’s not necessary right now as the government is in transition as demanded by the people. The reality is that while we are aware things could flare up, the Egyptian focus is internal and not on external forces such as tourism. And there has been an upside for us; with sensationalist media reporting scaring hordes of tourists away from Egypt, sites that would normally be packed with people were virtually empty, leaving us in some instances being the sole visitors to some of Egypt’s most famous temples and tombs.

We moved on from Cairo by air to Aswan, where we boarded a cruise ship for a three-day cruise down the Nile River to Luxor. Again, the impact of the media on tourism in Egypt was apparent. Of the 300+ cruise ships that operate on the Nile, only 17 were in operation while we were here – and none were filled to capacity. We sat back and enjoyed a leisurely cruise on the Nile, spending afternoons on the ship’s deck watching the desert drift slowly past. The vast starkness of the arid desert contrasting against the vivid green of the irrigated shores of the river was stunning. Given that the temperature during our time on the cruise averaged 46C, we were quite happy to be on an air-conditioned cruise ship rather than sailing on a felucca. Stopping several times along the way between Aswan and Luxor, we explored of some of the oldest, most impressive sites in Egypt, including the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Karnak and Luxor Temples. We were astounded by the massive scale of these ancient monuments – from solid granite monoliths forty meters high to tombs carved hundreds of meters down into the rock. Like the pyramids, their size cannot begin to be comprehended without seeing them in person. We both became fascinated by the hieroglyphic carvings and were surprised to learn that the temples and tombs had originally been colourfully painted. Any images we had previously seen showed them to be golden, red or brown sandstone. However, in reality, many of the tombs and temples we saw retained their vivid, beautifully painted images from 3,000 - 4,000 years ago, with a richness of hue that still takes one’s breath away.

Admittedly we are not history buffs. At most, we expected that it would be “interesting” to tour the sites of Giza and the Nile River. However, after walking through these ancient places and hearing stories of the pharaohs, the richness of their civilization and of the many cultures that impacted this country’s development, our appreciation for the “Cradle of Civilization” skyrocketed. With this in mind we returned to Cairo with a new found excitement as our plans included a visit to the famous Egyptian Museum. Unfortunately, yet another revolution / demonstration was taking place in the square in front of the museum, so the museum was closed for security reasons. However, we travelled into other areas of the city, including Old Cairo, getting a taste of local life. Throughout the city that day, one would never know that a “revolution” was taking place, and the next day as we drove by the Square on our way to the airport, there was little evidence that anything had happened.

As unlikely as it would seem, our decision to travel to Egypt was the result of two discussions. The first was with a Lufthansa pilot in Kochi, India, who told us about a Nile River cruise he had taken. The second was with a freedive instructor in Gili Trawangan in Indonesia. She told us that she had taken her instructor’s training in the Red Sea in Dahab, Egypt, and several other divers we had met throughout our travels had also talked about diving in Dahab. As we were intrigued with the idea of trying freediving, it played a key role in our decision to come to Egypt. So, from Cairo we flew to the Sinai Peninsula and traveled to the east coast to Dahab. Our one hour drive from the airport in Sharm El Sheikh took us through barren, craggy rocky mountains and arid desert with just a few tiny Bedouin villages to the dive-crazy town of Dahab. Situated across the Gulf of Aqaba from Saudi Arabia (which is temptingly close), a once sleepy backpackers’ hangout, Dahab’s popularity with divers grew along with the plethora of dive shops. Taking our usual approach of trying to leave our expectations behind, our appreciation for Dahab grew slowly over time. Yes – its town center is very touristy; yes – every shop and restaurant owner tries to draw you in every time you walk by, yes – there are more dive shops than there are Starbucks in Vancouver, but given a chance… Dahab has a way of getting under your skin.

The Red Sea is beautiful, with crystal - and we do mean crystal - clear water. However, beaches...not so much. You can spend your days lounging on pillows smoking shishas (which we tried – traditional apple flavour) in one of the zillion restaurants along the water, but we decided to save our lungs and spend our time pursuing some of the water-based activities.

To begin, we signed up for a free diving course and, although Warren was very sceptical that he would ever be able to hold his breath for more than 30 seconds, in two days we were free diving to over 10 meters and Warren was able to hold his breath for over 2 ½ minutes! (Note: For our loved ones reading this – please be assured that we are not on a mission to free dive to great depths. Our intention for doing this was just to increase our abilities and enjoyment for snorkelling.) With that under our belts, and having seen for ourselves the amazing visibility under water, we signed up to do some scuba diving. On our first day, we saw a hawksbill turtle, octopi, moray eel, lionfish and much more sea life along with some incredible underwater terrain. The most famous dive site in the Red Sea is the Blue Hole, literally a hole in the coral reef right off shore the drops straight down to 110 meters. We couldn’t leave without giving it a try. We were required to do a little bit of study to up our certification to include deep dives – up from a maximum depth of 18m to 30m. It turned out to be even better than we hoped as, along with a crazy amount of aquatic life and surreal terrain, we were able to experience the amazing “floating in space” sensation of being suspended in water with no bottom visible below. We are not yet “dive crazy”; however, we are certainly enjoying our time under water.

Egypt has been a remarkable experience; jaw-dropping historic sites, starkly beautiful desert scenery, the hypnotic blues of the Red Sea, the lilting call to prayers, women on the beach covered head-to-toe in black with only their eyes uncovered, men walking around with machine guns…and laughter…lots and lots of laughter. It is this last one that is the most impactful. Egypt is struggling. On top of its previous political and economic challenges, the revolution (and the media) has scared away the tourists, creating even more struggles. Yet through it all, the Egyptians keep smiling and laughing…at us, with us and at themselves.

Tomorrow we leave Egypt behind and seek out some new adventures. Istanbul, here we come…

  • Thanks to the Bangles http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWP-AsG5DRk

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Posted by Baxters 05:19 Archived in Egypt Tagged cairo dahab Comments (0)

From Big Bintangs to Singapore Slings

sunny 33 °C

Less than 24 hours after arriving back in Ubud from our Bali road trip, we were on the move again. Our destination: the Gili Islands, just off the coast of Lombok. We had intended to travel via one of the “fast boats” to the Islands but the few recommended carriers were booked solid. We could have chosen one of the countless other fast boats available, but after reading several stories about the complete lack of safety and sea-worthiness of both craft and crew, we opted to take one of the much larger slow boats. Ironically, we later learned that a recent sinking (where several people drowned) was in fact the very company we chose. However, after a rocky five hour crossing, ending with a “not-for-the-timid” mid-channel transfer from boat to launch, we landed on the beach of Gili Trawangan, one of the three tiny Gili Islands famed for the white sand that sets them floating like pearls within the surrounding turquoise water.

The Gilis stand in stark contrast to Bali. For starters, there are no motorized vehicles; transportation is by horse drawn cart and bicycle. The dogs that roam everywhere on Bali are nowhere to be seen, their presence completely replaced by cats (complete with stubby, gnarled tails, the result of many generations of inbreeding). Accommodations are simple; most offer only cold showers, in some cases only salt, not fresh water. And while there are a few larger resorts, they are not overly imposing, kept partly in check by a requirement that no building can exceed the height of a palm tree.

Gili Trawangan – known as Gili T - is the most developed of the three and the largest (though you can walk around the entire island in only two hours). It is also the party island. There is no shortage of venues along its beach side “strip” to party hard from dusk to dawn, with liberal access to a plethora drugs if the never ending supply of booze is not enough. You can also watch (and buy) the latest movies on DVD that have yet to be released elsewhere. However, despite the flagrant illegal endeavours, the Village Chief makes it known that at least one activity isn’t welcome; beach wear - specifically bikinis – are not to be worn anywhere but the beach.

We spent four days on Gili T, hanging with the mainly Aussie (surprise) crowd at the Irish (yup) Pub and the Sama-Sama Reggae Bar, catching the rays at the beach in front of our bungalow and enjoying a full moon bonfire and BBQ organized by a rather colourful Parisian ex-pat. As great as it was, Gili T was not quite the serene paradise we were searching for. There was quite a bit of construction going on, building more accommodation for the increasing number of tourists (yet another “victim of its own success” scenario underway…) and the hard-charging party crew and constant hawkers (of things legal and illegal) wore somewhat thin after a few days. So we decided to look for change of venue…and didn’t have to look very far. Just across the channel, a quick $2.00 boat ride away, sat Gili T’s alter ego - Gili Meno.

Gili Meno is the epitome of what we dream of when we think of tropical islands. It is unspoiled, quiet, uncrowded… There are very few accommodations on the island and even fewer warungs (restaurants). There are no paved roads; only dirt and sand lanes for the horse drawn carts where you are just as likely to come across a cow or goat or rooster as another person. Food is simple island fare – fresh tropical fruits, fresh grilled fish (Snapper, Barracuda,Tuna) and ice cold Bintang beer. And the water… crystal clear, with snorkelling over lively reefs right off the beach. For the first time in our travels, the ocean glowed with luminescent colour that rivalled our beloved BVI (well…almost). We choose a little bungalow on the northwest coast, complete with no furniture other than a bed and a cold (but fresh!) water bathroom with nothing but a sink, toilet and shower head (oh…and one scorpion). It was as plain as plain can be – and we loved it!! Our couple of days on Gili Meno stretched to a week. We walked around the island, watched the sunsets from our little deck with the volcanoes of Bali shimmering far off in the distance, ate fresh BBQ fish at the little warung down the beach, and snorkelled the warm, clear waters every single day, including exploring the famous Meno Wall. We felt as close as we have ever come to living a castaway lifestyle and found that we are rather good at it (which will come as no surprise to those who know us). But…all good things must come to an end. With the days on our visa ticking down, we finally – reluctantly – bade farewell to Gili Meno and returned to Bail. While we made much better time crossing back to Bali by way of a fast boat (one hour instead of five), we quickly rediscovered the traffic snarls of south-central Bali and watched our 45 minute taxi transfer stretch to over two hours by the time we finally arrived at the surfing mecca of Bingin on Bali’s southern peninsula.

Bingin was unlike anything we had previously experienced on the island. Accommodations of all shapes and sizes were clustered together along the sides of narrow dirt lanes. Our room for the first night was actually a private garden complete with an outside dining area and three thatch-roofed, open-walled “bales” consisting of a living room area, sleeping area and bathroom, making for a cozy 1000 square feet of living space (not including the garden). Feeling a little lost in all that space, we moved right next door and spent our last 2 nights in a traditional Balinese family-style compound where guests and family mingled together. It was something to see – surfboards next to deities next to a beer fridge next to a nursing mother next to a TV playing surf movies... While we were in one of the most popular surf areas in Bali, the beach was not exactly right next door; it was down a rather haphazard series of broken steps, under dangling electrical wires (and the occasional flight of monkeys), through a warren of warungs and rooms-for-rent clinging to the limestone cliffs that run down to the water. For those who carted their surfboards down this obstacle course to the ocean, their efforts were well rewarded.

As much as he chomped to get out there, Warren opted to stay onshore as he recognized that the size, speed and hollowness of the waves over the very hard limestone reef would probably lead to much more pain than pleasure. Instead, we ate fresh Mahi-Mahi burgers, drank cold beer and watched the offshore spectacle as riders ripped up 12’-15’waves, throwing backslides, aerials and 360s, mixed with the occasional tube and frequent “Holy shit!” wipe-out. It was a great finish to our time in Bali, made even better by spending our final evening eating yet more fresh grilled fish on the beach, watching the phosphorescence glow created by the waves crashing just offshore.

The next morning, we woke to thick, low grey clouds and rain, our first bout of unpleasant weather since our trip began in January. It was of no concern though, as just a few hours later, the gloom was far behind us and we were again enjoying sun…in Singapore.
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Three years ago, Lee-Ann spent half a day in Singapore enroute to India. She was immediately enthralled by the city and insisted that she wanted to return with Warren someday, sure that he would love it… Well, someday finally arrived, and she was right.

Singapore is a clean, quiet modern city, with a diverse mix of soaring skyscrapers and charming shophouses from the 19th century, generously sprinkled with green – trees and shrubs are everywhere throughout the city. The streets are wide and well paved, and even during rush hour there is really very little traffic (and virtually no honking – quite a change from every other Asian city we have visited). We spent several days exploring the city, mostly on foot despite a cheap and very efficient public transit system (although the MTR might have been a better choice over the slippery tiled sidewalks after a thundershower). We were somewhat taken aback as we walked the streets by what we did not find: no garbage, no broken sidewalks, no honking horns, no stray animals, no beggars…even the alleys are pristine. We could hardly believe we were still in Asia! However, despite the general “orderliness” and points of “sterility” within the city (for example, Little India was notably devoid of any market street chaos) due to its notorious list of fully enforced fine inducing laws (no littering, no spitting, to gum chewing, no jaywalking… and on and on…), Singapore emits a tangible street level energy, the basis of which is clearly derived from the city’s ethnic blend

Singapore is a teeming mix of Chinese, Indians, Malays, Arabs and westerners – all richly engaged in their own customs and cultural identities while simultaneously working and socializing as Singaporians; the focal point of this convergence being the city’s passion for food. The head-spinning number of restaurants, food stalls, hawker’s market and pubs truly lends credence to Singapore’s reputation as a foodie’s paradise. We ate as much as we could during our time in the city, sampling a variety of the locals’ favourites including the famous Chili Crab at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant we discovered. Unfortunately, while a few days is enough to see the city and get a feel for its vibe, months would be required to begin to do justice to all culinary options that Singapore has to offer.

We loved Singapore. It was the perfect transition from the chilled atmosphere of Bali into a larger, faster and more populous environment, setting us up (hopefully) with the headspace we will definitely need for the next chapter of our adventure.

When we began our journey five months ago, we envisioned that Singapore would be a turning point of some kind and that has indeed turned out to be the case. We’ve reached the halfway point of our tour and it is here that we have chosen to say goodbye to Asia, taking with us thousands of pictures and millions of memories. But before we step on the plane and bid farewell, we would like to wish Happy Canada Day to all our fellow Canadians and a Happy Fourth of July to our American friends!

Now, we're off…to Cairo and the Land of the Pharaohs!

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Posted by Baxters 21:52 Tagged bali singapore Comments (1)

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time…*

sunny 30 °C

The narcotic effect of Koh Phangan is highly addictive, and we seriously debated whether we should do a quick visa run over the border and extend our stay in Thailand for another month. Eventually, we decided to continue on our journey, knowing that more adventures (and beaches) lie ahead for us to discover.

We ferried from Koh Phangan to spend our last few days in Thailand on Koh Samui, a larger and more developed island, chock full of package and high-end resorts (both W and the Four Seasons have properties here). To ease the transition of stepping off the beach for the first time in weeks, we began with a little exploration to gear us up for the next phase of our travels. We rented a scooter to tour the island, starting with the hectic main town/beach resort of Chaweng. If you can imagine taking Khao San Road and infusing it with beach resort piled on top of beach resort, you would have Chaweng. The beach was stunning, but after listening to the jet skis and hawkers for all of 10 minutes, it was time to move on. It didn’t take too long to leave the noise behind and find ourselves on the empty rural roads of the southwest coast where small fishing villages are scattered along empty stretches of coastline. We spent the majority of the day exploring some of the lesser traveled areas of the island, covering approximately 100 kilometers on our little Airblade scooter. To celebrate, we treated ourselves to a glorious dinner of pasta at a restaurant run by an Italian ex-pat. Those of you who know Warren know he is particular about his spaghetti – and he gave the Bolognese (and the wine) a delicious two thumbs up.

With our time in Thailand at an end (we left on the 30th day of our 30 day visa), we flew to the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (known locally as KL), where we spent a few days planning our next move. While a bit of a system shock to be in a modern, cosmopolitan city after a month on island time, it was comforting in that KL is not unlike the other Asian cities we have visited. KL is not large by Asian standards, so we were able to tour some of the main areas of interest (Chinatown, the Colonial Quarter, the Lake Gardens and the Golden Triangle) in a single day. We even managed to squeeze in a movie (“Pirates of the Caribbean 4”) while walking through one of the city’s enormous malls (retail therapy is definitely a high priority in KL). While the city is perhaps not as large or dynamic as Hong Kong or Saigon, the Petronas Towers and KL City Centre (KLCC) development is truly spectacular. Every evening, we sat with hundreds of locals in the park and watched the sunset behind the towers, listening to the Muslim call to prayers. We had grown quite accustomed to the sound in India and realized how much we had really missed listening to the beautifully haunting prayers being carried on the wind. Hearing the ancient words while looking up at the modern technological marvel of the towers was magical. As we had read, Malaysia is in fact a very conservative country with Muslims comprising the majority of the population. It was interesting to observe such a high percentage of women either in full burkas or, at minimum, with their heads covered. However, it is also a tolerant city, not only evident by the huge ethnic mix that make up the population, all working, living and laughing side-by-side, but also noted in our mistaken choice of stopping for a drink at the Rum Jungle, where there were a noticeable number of very friendly women…that were not women...looking for new gentlemen friends. To finalize our re-introduction to city life, we indulged on our last evening and went for drinks with the beautiful people at the SkyBar in Traders Hotel, enjoying a stunning view of the Petronas Towers and the city at night. So did we in fact find time to plan? We did. After a wonderful interlude in KL, we taxied the 50km back to the airport and hopped on a flight for the mystical island of Bali.

Finally – we made it to the southern hemisphere! Located 8o south of the equator, between Java and Lombok, Bali had always been on our “bucket list”. And now we were finally here! We headed first to Ubud, the cultural and artistic centre of Bali, which has been firmly planted on the tourist trail (for better or worse…actually, just worse) thanks to “Eat Pray Love”. However, much like Hoi An in Vietnam, it just takes a modicum of effort to move past the tourist traps and the Starbucks, Polo and Billabong stores and find the beauty and tranquility of Bali. We spent a few days in Ubud, trekking through the rice fields and jungle ravines, wandering through the narrow lanes between family compounds and temple grounds (so alike it was impossible to tell them apart), and just sitting on our balcony overlooking the rice paddies, watching the birds, bats and kites fill the sky at their appointed times. At night, we listened to the symphony of frogs, crickets, cicadas and lizards and were lulled to sleep by the rain and thunder. Our planned three nights led to four as we were so enjoying the quiet energy and relaxed vibe of the town (including an evening watching a Balinese blues band called the Magic Mushrooms – Janis Joplin has been reincarnated as a Balinese woman!). On our last night in Ubud, we finally spotted the Southern Cross in the crowded night sky. Much to our surprise, we could also see the Big Dipper. We realized that being so close to the equator afforded us the opportunity to enjoy the stars in both hemispheres.

We opted to continue our exploration of Bali on our own, renting a vehicle and setting off on a 10 day road trip around the island. It took less than 20 minutes for us to get lost and realize that a road trip in Bali would be much different from one at home. To start with, our vehicle was a right-hand drive with a left hand stick-shift – a new experience for Warren. The roads are very narrow and winding; the Balinese tend to drive smack in the middle of the road; and motorcycles pass on both the left and right side. Add to that the occasional vehicle driving on the wrong side of the road and people, dogs, chickens (and occasionally monkeys) all occupying the road for various reasons (including sleeping) and the “typical” North American road trip is pretty much history. For the navigator (Lee-Ann), signage is practically non-existent. When road signs do exist, they are often obscured by other signs or trees. Signs only indicate the main towns and villages, but there are usually a number of routes to reach them, so finding the small villages in between is generally a matter of luck. However, we set off on our journey with the same approach we have taken with sailing – start with a general idea of where we want to go, then adjust as weather, wind and whim dictate – and see where we end up. And as in sailing, sometimes the most unexpected, seemingly unfortunate circumstances have ended up leading us to the most wonderful experiences.

On our second day, our car broke down late in the afternoon (did we mention we’re only paying $11/day?). We set off on foot to search for accommodation, but did not find anything so we returned to the car. Warren managed to get the vehicle running (again, if you know Warren, you know that in itself is a miracle). Given the road conditions and locals’ driving habits, we did not want to be driving at night. Now racing the sun, we continued in search of a place to stay. We followed signs from the main road to a guesthouse, which was rather less than appealing. We drove to the end of the road to turn around when Lee-Ann spotted a small sign on a rather imposing 10 foot high fence. Being curious – and with no one around to ask (or say “no”) - we pushed open the gate, stepped inside and found… paradise! In a lush garden overlooking the ocean sat a beautiful Balinese-style home, complete with a guest room that would not be out of place in a 5 star hotel. What had begun as a search to simply find a place to sleep turned into a two day stay as we lounged in of the most beautiful pools we have ever seen, ate home cooked meals, chatted with our serene hostess about our shared experiences in India (she lived there for 9 years) and laid on silk covered loungers in the velvety darkness, mesmerized by more stars than we could have ever imagined.

This was only one of an ongoing parade of treasures we uncovered. Bali astounded us with its diversity and beauty. Like many parts of India, the landscape of Bali has an almost ethereal, dreamlike quality to it. Each and every day, the panoramas through which we travelled would be the most beautiful we had seen. Then the next day, the scenery would surpass the previous: lush, dense jungles; soaring volcanoes reflected in tranquil crater lakes; vivid green terraces of rice paddies stepping up mountainsides and down into steep ravines; glittering black sand beaches with furious, churning surf crashing against giant lava boulders; brilliant flowers in shades of colours you didn’t know existed, punctuating the infinite shades of green…

To make things even better, we were able to recoup each evening from this ongoing sensory explosion by stumbling upon some truly unique and captivating accommodations, including: our “Garden of Eden” sanctuary (noted above); a cozy little cottage high in the mountains (which required long pants and fleeces due to the cold temperatures) with its own little strawberry farm; a small oceanside resort constructed of reclaimed Indonesian antiques with the most amazing details (and included the best outdoor bathroom we have encountered to date); and, a little cottage in a surfer’s hangout only a stone’s throw from the waves. Each tempted us to linger for a few more days…or weeks. However, as each new day exposed us to new treasures, we were compelled to continue on to see what lay ahead – and in doing so, achieved a milestone of sorts for Warren.

Some 35 years ago, Warren first read about Bali in a surfing magazine when surfers were just discovering some of the now classic breaks. It sparked a dream that he held on to for decades; one day, somehow, someway, he was going to surf in Bali. Well, that time had finally come. Our final two stops of our Bali road trip were at two well-known breaks on the southwest coast. While not undiscovered, they have yet to yield to the pressure of “progress” and remain funky, old school surfer hangouts, with – even more important – uncrowded waves. Warren fulfilled his dream, surfing at both locations in picture perfect conditions while the volcanoes of Java stood watch in the background.

Bali has gotten under our skin. It didn’t happen immediately – the rampant tourist melee of Ubud that assaulted us when we first arrived was more than a little disarming. But as we noted earlier, once we got past the hype and started to experience a more real Bali, it opened up to us. Ultimately, we have realized that Bali’s greatest asset – what has touched us the most – is the people. Despite the positive experiences we have had in other countries - not just on this trip, but everywhere we have ever travelled – we have never encountered such sweet, friendly, happy people as the Balinese… a sentiment that many fellow travelers and expats we spoke to here have agreed with. Bright smiles and warm welcomes have greeted us everywhere, which typically also include the following:
 What is your name?
 Where are you from?
 Where are you going?
Almost without exception, we get asked at least one, if not all three questions. We quickly learned it is not the Balinese being intrusive. It is simply their way of wanting to connect with us; to understand just a little be more about us as people beyond simply saying “hello”. And once a visitor understands what’s behind these questions, the true intent, you will begin to ingest just a little of the real soul of Bali.

We are now back in Ubud, having completed our tour of the island and feeling that we have truly tasted a good part of Bali. We’ve explored a good portion of the volcanic mountains and valleys that make up the heart of the island, as well as circumnavigated the entire coast. Well almost. We have one more section to see - the southern peninsula. But that will have to wait for a week or so because tomorrow morning, we’re heading to the white sands and turquoise waters of the Gili Islands!

With thanks to CSNY*

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Posted by Baxters 03:41 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bali Comments (0)

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