Saturday, May 6, 2017

Egypt Pt. 3: Snorkeling in Sharm El Sheikh

Our flight from the beach resort town of Sharm El Sheikh from Luxor was at a ridiculously early time and we were all exhausted. What's interesting about all of our internal flights, which we booked via Expedia on Egypt Air, was that all of us were in "Business class." The whole cost of all the internal flights was right at $300, so not bad at all!

Can I just say that the road leading into Luxor Airport is probably one of the most well maintained roads I saw while in Egypt. Kudos to them!

I was not familiar with Sharm El Sheikh or much of the Red Sea resort aspect until recently. Most of you probably know about the Russian airliner that was blown up in the fall of 2015. The plane, carrying mostly Russian tourists, took off from Sharm el-Sheikh when it blew up over the Sinai Peninsula. Ever since that crash, Russia stopped flights to the resort worried that the airport wasn't doing enough in terms of security. Apparently a lot of the tourism into this resort town was from Europe/Eastern Europe and with nary any flights coming in, the tourism industry has plummeted.

Throughout this blog, I'll show you the various locations that were once bustling areas are now desolate. There are still some European countries with direct flights to Sharm, but they are few and far between. While there, we saw some Ukranians and Italians, but not that many.

The Basics
Time there: 2 nights
Where we stayed: Hilton Sharm El Sheikh Fayrouz Resort (we got it for a family discount, which was $50/night)

When we landed at the airport, we got picked up by our new tour group we hired. Since we were able to get a good deal at the Hilton Fayrouz, we stayed there.

The hotel, while older, still has beautiful grounds and is on the beach. You can't beat that. After a whirlwind trip through Egypt, I was ready for some beach time... but we had our first trip planned at 11 a.m. There's no rest for the weary!

Because of the 2015 plane crash, the tour groups insist on hiring a tourism police officer to go with tourists on trips throughout the Sinai Peninsula--regardless of where you're headed. Obviously, their biggest concerns are in the areas closer to the northern part of the peninsula where there ISIS is conducting attacks. I didn't have a problem with the officer, it just made for a tight ride on the minvan!

Day 1

After we checked in, I toured the grounds for a bit before donning my swimsuit for our snorkeling trip at Ras Muhammad National Park. Prior to the park, our guide stopped off a location in town where we rented our snorkel gear.

I really didn't do much research on the snorkeling in the Red Sea but I knew it was supposed to be pretty. I JUST DIDN'T KNOW HOW PRETTY. Within Ras Muhammad Park, we snorkeled in two locations. One in a smaller cove that was pretty shallow and then one in an area where you could easily get swept away or thrown against the rocks if you're not paying attention. Both were equally majestic.

First snorkeling location

At the first location we had it to ourselves. No one else was there... which is crazy. When my friend Sarah came in early 2011, she said all of Sharm and its tourist locations were packed. How quickly things change when a plane falls out of the air. Yikes.

The second location was even MORE amazing than the first. I saw so many beautiful and colorful fish that I couldn't keep count. If you remember, I snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef (albeit a very small section of the GBR), which was great, but the Red Sea was 100 times more impressive. I can't say enough good things about everything I saw. The corals were all so vibrant!

Also, they have jellyfish that don't sting. What's that all about?

Mangrove area at Ras Muhammed Park
After snorkeling, we made our way back into town to get some dinner. Everyone told us Fares was the best restaurant for seafood so that's where we went, wet clothes and all.

Since the seafood was so fresh, we all chipped in for this monster of a fish! I don't know the name, but it was a firm white flesh fish.

You know what else was good? This bread. We inhaled probably 6 baskets. No joke. So airy and light. 

I also had to try their seafood soup, which was chockful of seafood. They serve the soup with plenty of limes and it's a great sweet/sour mix.

The chef prepared the big fish three ways and all three ways were delicious. I particularly liked the baked dish with potatoes.

When we made it back to the hotel and got cleaned up, most people went to bed but I wanted to check out the area so I made my way down the walkway that connects the resorts to Naama Bay, which is where most of the nightlife is. I never felt unsafe walking alone.

I stopped in a hookah bar that had bedouin seating and hung out there and chatted with the business owner. I was one of only a handful of customers there on a Thursday night. Granted, March isn't peak season for them, but the owner said before the plane crash, his place would be packed and he would easily make several thousand Egyptian pounds a night.

He also told me most of the resorts have also closed because of the tourism downturn. When the European tourists stopped coming, several resorts/group started offering Egyptians deals to come to Sharm at a deeply discounted rate. I think someone said something along the lines of less than 100USD for a 2-3 night stay with food, etc. While it's great for Egyptians to see the rest of their country, the people who live and work in Sharm says the ones that came on the deal didn't give two-F's about the environment, etc. and would just tear things up when they would go snorkeling, etc.

Naama Bay area
After getting my shisha on, I made it back to the hotel for our second day in the Sinai Peninsula.

Day 2

This day also started off early but thankfully our tour guide brought homemade foul and falafels to get us ready for the long and bumpy off-roading trip to the Colored Canyon and then Dahab for more snorkeling.

Most groups that go out to to Colored Canyon take Jeeps that don't have normal seats but rather bench seats. It was a tight fit for our group, but I still managed to take power naps throughout the ride. I am blessed to be able to sleep almost anywhere.

After about two hours, we got to the Canyon. Now, it's not as big as the Grand Canyon, obviously. But it's still pretty nice to visit. What's so depressing is that we were the only ones there! 

The shops are not in operation anymore and all the bedouins (Arab nomads) who use to setup shop here to make money off greeting guests with tea and snacks all left when tourism dropped. What's left are sad remnants of once was a profitable business.

You start the hike at the peak and make your way down into the canyon where you can look at the old rock formations. The hike we did was a little less than 2 hours (if I remember correctly) but make sure you pack plenty of sun screen and water! I can't imagine hiking this in peak summer. Pass.

 Let me out of here!

We are now all warriors!! Or playing football. One or the other. The natural color is from the red rock mixed with a smidge of water. It's basically mineral make-up!

Huzzah! We made it.

After hiking, we made our way to Dahab to snorkle in the Blue Hole. We picked up snorkeling gear right on the outskirts of time at a gas station/convenience store.

Part of the trip included a short ride on camels along the beach to the Blue Hole snorkeling site.

I finally relented and got on a camel. It was fine. But I don't need to do it every time I go to the Middle East. I'm just saying. Why do I look like a weirdo in the above picture?

Once we got to the Blue Hole site, we put on our snorkeling gear and made our way into the water. The water depth drops quick, so you're constantly going in and out of warm/cold water. What's amazing about the snorkeling in the Red Sea and South Sinai Peninsula, it's literally right off the beach. You just get in the water, swim a few feet and you're among the corals. No need for boats or anything!

A lot of divers dive in the Blue Hole but a lot of people have also died doing that. I'll just stick to snorkeling.

The fish that we came across here were even more plentiful than at Ras Muhammed, but just as beautiful. We even saw a barracuda! 

My videos barely do justice for what you see in real life. It's kind of surreal to swim in the middle of a sea of tropical fish.

The Blue Hole was definitely busier than Ras Muhammed. There were probably a couple of hundred people there that day, but apparently still a lot less busy than it was several years ago.

After snorkeling, our guide set us up with a late lunch at a cafe on the beach where we could change and relax for a bit.

Friday night consisted of dinner and we all kept it low key the rest of the night since half of our group were going to St. Catherine Saturday morning. I opted out of that for a chill last day on the beach.

Day 3

Our flight out of Sharm back to Cairo was around 9 p.m. so I had some time to explore Sharm some more.

I started with a few hours on the beach, but I didn't really get in the water because it was so breezy and cold.

In the evening, I spent some more quality time at my new favorite hookah bar in Sharm, Moonlight Cafe.

The best hookah bar owner, Mahmoud! Hooking me up with the best hookah!

Before we left for the night, we picked up some jewelry from this lovely shop owner! He even threw in some legit turquoise (from the Sinai Peninsula) earrings for us since we each bought several things.

That evening, we all loaded up and made our way to the Sharm Airport to head back to Cairo. Before I get into my ordeal that was Cairo Airport, I would highly recommend Sharm and the southern Sinai Peninsula. It is beautiful. The people were amazing and so unbelievably friendly. I can't say it enough: don't be scared to visit. 

What I Thought Was My Last Day in Egypt

When we all got to Sharm Airport we would find out that our flight to Cairo was running about 1.5 hours late. This really put me in a pickle because I had the earliest flight out of Cairo back home (1:30 a.m.). If our flight would've been on time, we would've landed at Cairo Airport at 10:35 p.m., giving me three hours to get to the other terminal and check my bag for the international flight. However, we didn't land back in Cairo until right before midnight.

I hurriedly grabbed my bag, said bye to my friends and high-tailed it to Terminal 2, where Air France flies out of. I got to the security line at 12:10 a.m. In my mind, I thought "whew, I made it with more than an hour to spare."

As I threw my bag onto the security belt (bag goes through security first, before you go to the check-in counter), the airport security worker said I was already too late for that flight. He said for international flights out of Cairo, you have to be there with your bag 2 hours before departure--regardless of whether you checked in online or not (which I had checked in online).

I pressured him into letting me through and I made my way to the counter, where another Cairo Airport employee said I was too late. He escorted me back out to the security gate where there were six other random people who couldn't get on the same flight as me because of the same reason.

The crazy thing was that there was no Air France rep to talk to. Just Cairo Airport employees who were useless. I could've checked my bag through and made it on the plane in plenty of time (more than 1 hour!). But alas, they're pretty strict about their rules. One Parisian man who travels to Cairo frequently for work was surprised about the changes as well.

The airport folks tried to get us resolution but nothing happened so we were stuck without any recourse. The next Air France flight to Paris was 24 hours later. One Russian girl was almost in tears because she was so ready to get home. Neither one of us had internet on our phones (the WIFI at the airport doesn't work) so I had to use my charm to get an airport employee to call my friend Salma to ask if I could crash at her place overnight as I figure out my next flight situation.

I took the Cairo Shuttle Bus to Salma's house where she woke up in the middle of the night to greet me. She was my angel that night. I immediately got in contact with Micah back home and asked him to call Air France for me and get me on the next flight. They were able to rebook me for $150 fee--I should've fought it after the fact but I was so over it.

I finally fell asleep as 4 a.m. And I slept until noon.

Although I technically had another day in Cairo, I didn't do much. I just hung around Salma's house and helped her make dinner that evening. So thankful for her and her family's hospitality!

That night, Salma and her father drove me to the airport... EARLY. I'm not going through that again. Her father even thought it was weird that they wouldn't let me on the plane the other night. Anyhow, I made it through and was finally on my way back home.

Let's just say that last 24 hours was my least favorite part of my trip. Everything else about Egypt was fantastic.

In parting, these were the only words I was able to learn in Arabic while there:
-Yella (let's go! We used this a lot when it came to Sarah. Ha!)
-Shukran (thank you)
-Bikam (how much?)
-Laa (no)
-Salaam (hi)

That's all I got! I'll learn more the next time I visit. There will be a next time.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Scaling down the Pho Party!

This post is long overdue, but better late than never, right?

At the end of January we held our annual Pho Party for hungry friends. This year, I scaled it back a bit and had a smaller invite list. Once I'm making two pots of pho--which was the situation last year--that was probably a bit too much.

The menu was pretty much the same except that I added homemade veggie eggrolls to the mix! My next task will be to write up the recipe for my mom's veggie eggrolls.

Spread of spring rolls, veg egg rolls and turkey meatballs.

And of course banh pate chaud (meat filled puff pastry).

And then there was this beauty.

After I cook people's noodles, I let them put whatever additions they want into their bowl. This is cooked brisket and raw eye of round. I put the raw meat into a double nesting ice container to keep it cold! Pro Tip: I cut the big chunk of eye of round into four smaller sections and then I wrap them in foil and plastic wrap and put them in the freezer for 30 minutes before I make slices with a very sharp nice. It's the best you can do for thin slices without a machine.

Sliced onion (red and white!), green onion and cilantro for garnish.

Another great time was had by all!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Egypt Pt. 2: Cruising the Nile River!

On Monday morning, we loaded up and took a short flight to Aswan, where we would embark on our 3-night Nile River cruise aboard the Steigenberger Minerva.

We used Luxor for You for our Nile River cruise and it was a great experience. The owner of the company, Ahmed, was able to work out a deal where for $450USD/person, we got to go on a 3-night cruise  which includes all the tours and pick-up and dropoffs. That price also included a hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings. It was an incredible deal!

The Basics
Time there: 3 night river cruise starting in Aswan and ending in Luxor
Where we stayed: Steigenberger Minerva
Tour Group: Luxor for You

Day 1 of Cruise

When we landed in Aswan, the tour group picked us up and our first stop was the Aswan High Dam which was built in the 1960s to protect the cities along the Nile River from flooding.

When they built the dam, they had to "relocate" the Nubian people who lived in the area. There were also some ancient temples that also had to be moved because the new lake/dam would've put a lot of them underwater.

After the dam, we visited the Temple of Philae, which is only accessible via boat.

It's one of the temples that had to be relocated to higher ground when the High Dam was built.

The temple was built for Isis during 380-362 BC. So it's not even that old compared to all the other old buildings up in this country. However, it is still quite impressive.

After we got back onto stable land, our tour guide took us to an essence oil shop.

Aswan is known for their oils and hibiscus teas. Of course, these stops are included since tour guides make money off these stops, so you do have to sit through the shop owner's scripted talk about why their product is awesome.

I must say, the shop smelled wonderful. Lotus oil was one of my favorites so I picked up some of that as well as a mix of eucalyptus and peppermint for my mom (it's basically like Chinese oil, but no alcohol mixed in).

Also, why is hibiscus tea so darn delicious in Egypt?!

After we all got doused with a slew of oils and were smelling nice, we headed over to a papyrus shop to learn how old-school papyrus paper was made and to check out some of the artwork available.

I picked up an amazing Tree of Life artwork on papyrus that I plan on framing and placing in the house! For a fairly large piece, I only paid around $60USD.

After those two big stops, we finally made it to our cruise ship and checked in.

The ship is one of the nicer ones on the Nile River, according to guides that I spoke to throughout the trip. In another sign of tourism being extremely down, during the peak of tourism, there were 300 or so cruise liners going up and down the Nile. Currently, there are around 50!

I can't say enough about the Minerva and its staff. The boat was clean, the beds were comfortable, the buffet had good food and the staff were so friendly and accommodating. Big shout out to Khalid, the bartender up in the cocktail lounge and Mohammed in the overnight reception desk. They were my two faves on the boat!

After a full day, it wasn't over. Most of group decided to pay a little extra money to visit the Nubian Village. To access the Nubian Village, you have to go by boat up the Nile. The people who live here were relocated here by the government and the government paid for them to build their homes there since they had to move out of the area where the High Dam would leave underwater. 

The boat ride out to the Nubian Village was probably one of my favorite parts of the trip because this section of the Nile River is so beautiful and refreshing. 

Whereas the Nile in Cairo is murky (and full of dead animals), this section is clear and cool. I just loved being able to enjoy the sunset with an amazing view. 

You know you're approaching the Nubian Village once you see the brightly-colored buildings. 

The colors are just breathtaking! The blue powder is indigo and the rest are just a slew of spices.

This kid was my favorite. He was running around and playing with his little sister as his mom was preparing some hibiscus tea for us.

On our way back to the cruise ship from the Nubian Village, we stopped off at the Old Cataract hotel in Aswan.

This place is adorned beautifully. Apparently this hotel inspired Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile. The hotel is now recently getting a lot of tourists because the popular Arabic TV show Grand Hotel is filmed there.

After we got back to the cruise ship, we were all ready for dinner and a good night's sleep! 

Day 2:

As we slept, the ship sailed and when we woke up, we were docked in Kom Ombo. Our tour of Kom Ombo Temple started at 7 a.m. and we only had a little over an hour to see the site before everyone had to board back onto the ship.

The Kom Ombo temple is dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god, and Horus, the falcon-headed god. At this location there's also a crocodile museum. 

I will say, while I don't normally like to use tour guides, the guides that took us through the temples are very helpful. They are Egyptologists and have studied hieroglyphics, so they can explain the writings on the wall and give you better perspective on the timeline of the temple and what was happening in Ancient Egypt during the time of the temple and the changes it saw throughout the years.

Some of the carvings still have color!

My offering to an Egyptian goddess (obviously!). 

After we got back onto the ship, the ship started sailing to Edfu. The 3-4 hours it took us to get to Edfu finally allowed most of us to take a breather. For the past 5 days, we'd be running non-stop and most of us were tired. 

Once we got to Edfu, we had one of the best tour guides on the trip! 

To get to Edfu temple, everyone went by horse buggy.

After a short buggy ride (and a kid stow-away that kept bugging us for money), we were at one of the most impressive temples I've ever seen.

Just outside the main temple though are these ancient mud brick homes.

Can you believe all this was buried under sand and only excavated in the mid-19th century? 

Looking up towards the ceiling, the dark spots are from people who camped inside the temples during the Roman Empire and it's the soot from their cooking fires.

I really just cannot believe I'm seeing all this ancient civilization in real life. Shout out to San Antonio's Freetail Brewing as well! As you walk around the temple you'll notice that throughout various occupations, the temple has changed. When Christians came through, they scratched up all the gods' faces, since they don't believe in pagans.


After Edfu, we made it back to the cruise ship and set sail for Luxor.

AND I FINALLY GOT TO HAVE A BEER. Mama was thirsty! 

This is Egypt's Stella. A nice and clean lager. I approve! 

On the second evening, as the ship makes its way towards Luxor, it has to go through the channel lock in Esna. It was kind of fun to see the ship traffic waiting for their turn to go through.

After that, it was time for the Galibaya party on the ship! It was nice the ship provided entertainment throughout the evenings. 

Luckily, I had picked up a few galibayas the first day we were in Cairo. I was prepared!

Mary, left, and Tricia, right, got the fun outfits with jingles on them! This picture cracks me up.

My new Kuwaiti friend teaching me how to dance to Arabic music.

The closest thing Sarah had to a galibaya. She fails at being Egyptian! 

While some folks called it a night (we had to wake up early the following morning for hot air ballooning), I stayed up a little later and took in the fun!

Even in Arabic, Marc Anthony's Vivir Mi Vida still gets people up and dancing!

After getting in my dancing exercise, I hit the hay for a busy third day!

Day 3

On our last full day, we had to wake up before dawn to make our way to our sunrise hot air balloon ride over Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. When they picked us up, we had to get on a boat to access the western side of the Nile (it's apparently faster than a drive around the town).

It was dark when we started.

The group handling the hot air balloon rides were fast and efficient. There were probably 8-10 balloons all going up at the same time.

There were a total of 16 people in the balloon. Our group took up one side and another 8 people took up the other side.

The view from above was breathtaking. You're able to see the lush landscape along the Nile, but just to the west is the desert and rock. The morning we were up, you could also see the agriculture burns going on.

It's also crazy to see Hatshepsut's temple from above and to really understand how large those temples are. Just beyond the temple is the Valley of the Kings--where we'll head to in a few hours.

After an hour or so up in the air, we made a gentle landing in a field of sugar cane.

After our balloon ride, Ahmed from the tour group picked us up and we started the rest of our tour. These are the Colossus of Memnon and Ahmenotep. In the background, you can see there are several other colossus that are still being repaired and put back together. They say only a small percentage of ancient treasures have been discovered! 

Hatshepsut's Temple! I'd like to equate Hatsheptsut to Cersei from Game of Thrones. She was Ancient Egypt's FIRST female pharaoh. Her history to the throne is quite interesting. She did whatever it took to rule and only became ruler because she banished her stepson to another part of Egypt when he was little so he wouldn't take the throne.

Inside the temple the colors are still very well maintained.

So, when her step-son became old enough to understand that throne was really his, he came back and apparently destroyed all images of her that he could get her hands on. At her temple, he lobbed her the heads of her statues and scratched up all carvings of her face

Before we made it over to the Valley of the Kings, we stopped off a shop that makes stone products. These two men are carving away at limestone. Limestone is plentiful in the area!

On the right hand side is the fertility god! Can you tell?

Your ticket to the Valley of the Kings includes three tombs--currently there are a dozen or so out of the 60-ish tombs that have been discovered in the valley dating back thousands of years. It's so crazy that they've identified dozens but have really only excavated and maintained a dozen of the tombs where people can actually visit.

You're actually not allowed to take photos inside the tombs, so we don't have that many (some got in trouble for sneaking in the pics!). The tombs are so well preserved and the colored writing is incredibly vibrant.

We did pay extra to go inside King Tut's tomb--which was one of the tombs that hadn't been pillaged. That's why we know so much about him! 

Inside his tomb lies his mummy. I didn't get cursed... 

Interestingly enough, while we were there, a research team made a possible discovery that King Tut's mom's tomb could potentially be adjacent to his tomb. They were actively using sonar to determine what were on the other side of the wall. 

It's amazing how much energy the pharaohs put into their tombs for their afterlife. In their case, they believed you can take everything with you when you die. 

After the Valley, we went back to the ship for lunch and then made our way out to see Karnak and Luxor temples.

Karnak is the largest religious building ever built and it's 4,000 years old! Once again, I can't believe this whole site was under sand just until a few hundred years ago.

This sphinx lined walkway into the Karnak temple. Several years ago, archaeologists made the discovery that a similar lined street towards Luxor--which builds upon the idea that Luxor and Karnak were connected via a long sphinx-lined street that built a whole community.

This is the new section that was discovered.

The government is currently working on excavating the other sections and eventually make the two temples connect for a pedestrian walkway like in the ancient times.

Since they didn't have cranes back in the old days, how did they build such high buildings? This mud mound at the base of this wall shows that they would build these mud stairs to allow workers to climb higher and higher. 

A pup basking in the sun at the Karnak Temple!

The Luxor Temple before sunset.

Luxor Temple at night. Magical!

My cameras can't encapsulate the greatness of the temple at night.

This is a mosque that was built on top of the Luxor Temple in the 13th century when the temple was still covered in sand. When they excavated the Luxor Temple in the 1700s, they kept the mosque intact and just moved the front door to the street side.

It's amazing to think that so many of the current homes/buildings in these areas probably are built on top of ancient buildings that have yet to be discovered or may not be discovered at all.

Our last night on the ship ended with an entertaining one-man show! This is traditional Turkish/Egyptian dancing! To me it's a mix of magic and dancing! Very impressive!

I would say the Nile River cruise was one of the highlights of the trip. I thoroughly enjoyed the stops and the cruise ship itself. I would highly recommend it! I think you get to visit great places via boat--it's so much better than driving around Egypt!

After only a few hours of sleep, we woke up at 4 a.m. to get to the Luxor Airport for the last leg of our trip: Sharm El Sheikh.