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.