30 January 2006

Sadness in the South

I'm sure everyone's heard about the roof collapse in Katowice, which is about 200 miles south-east of Poznan. I don't really know what to say about it. I just keep thinking about the horror of the people who may have survived the collapse but couldn't get out of the building, so they slowly froze to death. I think that would be my personal version of hell.

There are a lot of Polish flags flying with a black ribbon tied above them - the Polish version of flags at half staff.

One of my students brought up an interesting point this evening. After a roof collapses, everyone starts looking into the safety of roofs all over the country. But there are daily fatalities on the Polish roads - why isn't anyone trying to make the roads safer?

Just something to think about. Stay as safe and warm as possible.

22 January 2006

Egypt - The Adventure Continues

Having realized that I have way too many things to do & not enough time to do them, I decided the most logical thing to do right now would be to blog the rest of my Egypt trip. Also, I've added a link to the pix over on the right, in the links section. This is a little long, because I want to include as much as I can. So here goes...

I believe I left off with a promise to write about the Egyyptian museum. It's incredible on many levels. The mummy room is really amazing - some of them still have hair, one of them dyed his hair blonde. There's an unbelievable amount of stuff in the displays, and most of it isn't labeled, so we had very little idea what we were looking at. Our conversations ranged along the lines of, "Oh wow, look at that!" "What is it?" "I don't know, but it looks really cool. Why don't they label any of this stuff??" The animal mummies were really bizarre - why would anyone mummify a snake? And is 'mummify' an actual word? There was a little German kid who kept bumping into me in the animal mummy room, so we had to leave before I got violent, but we saw enough to be suitably impressed and baffled.

That evening, we took a short boat ride on the Nile. During the ride there was a call to prayer, so the guy driving the boat (I'm sure there's another word for this, but I'm blanking on it right now) stopped driving, walked up to the bow, and went through his prayer ritual. It consisted of a lot of kneeling & standing. I'm really glad we got to see it, especially while floating on the Nile.

The next day, we headed out to Giza. We had the driver who didn't speak English, which ended up being a bit of a disadvantage when we arranged the camel & horse rides. The guy only had one camel, so Mari & I had to switch halfway through, which wasn't a big deal, but apparently the guide told our driver that we wanted him to come with us. Then he told us that the driver wanted to come with us. The driver didn't actually want to come with us, but we had no way of knowing that.

We couldn't get very close to the pyramids, because we happened to be there on the same day as Vladimir Putin. But we still got some great pictures & we got to ride on a camel! At the end of the tour, Mari & I were taken to a papyrus shop, even though we'd already told them we didn't want to buy any papyrus, and they tried to make us pay for the driver's horse in addition to our own, even though we had already agreed on a price. We held firm & paid what we had agreed to pay, but it was a learning experience for next time - make sure you know ahead of time whether the driver wants to ride a horse!

We wanted to see the sound & light show at the pyramids that evening, & we thought that Tomasz & Gabi (the Hungarian couple) were joining us, so we headed back to the B&B. When we were just about there, we talked to the owner of the B&B, who told us they weren't joining us, so we turned around & drove back to Giza. We felt really bad for the driver, since the traffic was pretty ugly, but we didn't really know how to apologize & explain the situation.

The sound & light show is worth seeing, for the chance to see the pyramids & Sphinx all lit up at night. It's also worth it for the cheesy, melodramatic narration about the history of the area. To quote our favorite passage, "Having achieved all their aims, the 4th dynasty collapsed." I still don't understand why we were the only ones laughing! Also, before the show, there was a group of bagpipers. In Pharonic costume. Not sure why.

On to the next day, our last in Cairo, when we saw some mosques, then did a little shopping in the Bazaar. Since you have to take your shoes off in the mosques, and since Mari was in a walking cast, they gave her a shower cap to put over her cast. Mohammed (the owner of the B&B) came with us to the Bazaar, to show us the best shops & help with bartering, and also because we didn't have a lot of time, we had to catch a train to Alexandria at 6pm. The shopping was fun, if a bit overwhelming - every shopkeeper wanted us to come into their shop & let us know it in no uncertain terms.

After our shopping excursion, we went back to the B&B to finish packing up our stuff & Mohammed decided we'd take the metro to the train station since the traffic was bad. So we started driving to the metro station, but for some reason ended up driving to the train station anyway, through the terrible traffic. We did make the train, with about 2 minutes to spare. It was a 2 hour ride to Alexandria, very uneventful, and then we took a cab to our hotel.

I love hotels. Especially when they have huge pillows you can sink into, and a view of the Mediterranean sea outside the window. OK, I love the Ramada Renaissance in Alexandria. I don't think I've ever had better service, the staff is amazing at this place! We did a lot of "We're on the Mediterranean! It's right there!!" Then we ordered room service, watched a dumb game show in Italian, & went to sleep to prepare ourselves for what I consider the high point of the trip.

The new library in Alexandria. I want to live there. Just set up a little bed in a corner somewhere & spend the rest of my life there. The pictures really don't do it justice. It's huge and spacious and well lit and beautiful! I really don't have words for it, suffice it to say that I'll definitely be going there again.

The other thing we wanted to see in Alexandria, the royal jewelry museum, was closed for remodeling, so we had a nice relaxing day, played a little Scrabble, ate a nice dinner & settled in to wait for our driver to pick us up & take us to the airport in Cairo. Our flights were leaving the next morning at 4am, so we figured it would be just as well to drive back late at night. Our driver was supposed to be there around 9:30pm, which would give us more than ample time to get back to Cairo. At 10pm, Mari called Mohammed to find out why the driver wasn't there yet. Mohammed thought we needed a ride the next night. Whoops. No worries, he called someone he knew in Alexandria who came & got us. Our top speed during the drive was 160km/hr. And we made it to the airport in plenty of time.

So, that was my trip to Egypt. I loved it, I highly recommend it, and I know exactly where you should stay if you go.

20 January 2006

LIttle by Little

Click here to see some Egypt pix. I'll be adding more soon!

13 January 2006

Egypt - Days 1-2

While waiting for the picture glitch to be worked out, it occurred to me that I really ought to get down some of the things that happened in Egypt, since they're starting to fade from my memory, much like a really good dream slips away once you wake up & start your day. I'm working on a photo album, and will keep you posted when I figure out how to share it without having to specifically invite people, or if you can't wait just send me an e-mail & I'll invite you.

OK, so I arrived in Cairo around 4am, after my plane from Milan took off about an hour late. As arranged, someone was at the airport to meet me & get me through passport control and customs - I've never in my life cleared customs that fast, they barely even glanced at me! The same guy who met me at the airport drove me to the B&B, we got there just before 5am, & I crashed into bed just in time to hear the first call to prayer. Rather a unique way to start my first day in Cairo.

Mohammed, the guy who runs the B&B, woke me at 9:30 to ask me about what I wanted for breakfast, and to tell me he was leaving with the other guests. I was a bit groggy from lack of sleep, so I was perfectly happy to spend the day alone at the B&B, reading a book out on the balcony. In the sunshine. Looking up every so often to see the pyramids at Giza. And the pyramids at Saqqara. And the Nile. And realizing that I was actually in EGYPT!!

Mari arrived that evening, and we spent a good deal of time being amazed by the fact that we were in EGYPT!!! To put a slight damper on things, Mari was in a walking cast, having slipped on the stairs a few days before leaving San Francisco, but still determined to make the most of the trip.

The next morning, after enjoying breakfast with a view of Giza out the window, we decided to go to Saqqara, Dahshur & Memphis (the one without Graceland) with a Hungarian couple, Gabi & Tomasz, who were staying at the B&B with us. We took 2 cars, Mari & I got the driver who spoke English. The drivers got a little lost, taking a scenic route which really let us see how people actually live in the area - bathing & washing their clothes in incredibly polluted water, living in buildings that would be considered slums in any Western country, but in Egypt are just the norm.

Seeing the pyramids was really quite awe-inspiring. Just the idea of them was amazing, and then to be there, right next to them - I really don't know how to express it. A lot of them aren't open for people to go in, but the Red Pyramid at Dahshur was. I'm not sure it was worth the climb, except that I now get to say I've been inside a pyramid. It was 125 steps up to the entrance, after which we went down an equal distance on a ramp with metal rungs - couldn't they just put in a door at the bottom? It smelled really strongly of ammonia inside, and there wasn't actually anything to see, but I've been inside a pyramid!

Just as we came out, a lovely sand storm started up - sand is really quite painful when it blows into your face at high velocity. And strong winds are not particularly good for car doors - the driver of the other car opened his door, the wind took it, and it refused to close from then on. Keep in mind, this is a lime green car, apparently made in China, and belongs to Mohammed's wife, Ruth, who was out of town. One of the pyramid workers came over with a hammer, which no one used, but we were still expected to tip him. The driver ended up holding the door closed through the open window while we drove to a local mechanic. They managed to get the door to stay shut on its own, but the car's hazard lights remained on for the rest of the week, providing us with comic relief whenever we needed a giggle.

We made an early night of it, with plans to spend the next day at the Egyptian museum, which will be covered in my next installment. I can't be expected to reveal everything all at once, you'd have no reason to return!

01 January 2006

How to Die on New Year's Day

As many of you know, I'm afraid of my oven. I have no problem with gas stove burners, but the whole uncertainty factor of temperature control makes me wary of gas ovens. But I still decided that I wanted to make biscuits today. I'm usually ok with using the oven for anything that requires a high temperature, since I can just turn it on & let it heat up as much as it wants, and my food (chicken, potato, whatever) will eventually be done. Biscuits also bake at a fairly high temp, so I thought it was a good choice, but I also wanted to experiment a bit & see if I could exert the least little bit of control over the temperature.

So I turned on the oven, let it heat up to where I wanted it, then turned the knob down so that it would, theoretically, maintain the temperature without getting any hotter. Unfortunately, when the oven door is closed there's no way to see if the flame is still on, or if gas is just streaming out unhindered. After about 5 minutes I decided I should probably check, just to make sure I wasn't going to pass out from gas fumes. Sure enough, the flame was out. I lit it again, then opened the window to enjoy the balmy 3 degree air outside.

What have we learned from this experience? I was right to be afraid of my oven.

Happy New Year!