Monthly Archives: February 2009

First Thoughts on Egypt

Posted by on February 19, 2009

I haven’t really written anything since I’ve arrived in Egypt. Usually when I arrive in a new place it takes a while to adjust to things. That adjustment period can be as short as an hour or as long as a few days. Egypt has taken a lot longer than normal.

While it is ostensibly an Arab country like Gulf countries where I’ve spent the last month, it feels like a totally different culture. For starters, there is no oil money in Egypt. This alone makes it a much poorer country than the small states of the Gulf. Second, there are no guest workers. One could confuse most of the many of the Gulf nations as being ruled by Indian Rajahs if they didn’t know any better, but Egypt is full of just Egyptians.

The first thing most visitors to Cairo will describe to you is the traffic. I’ve seen crazy traffic before, but Cairo might be the worst. The difference between Cairo and someplace like Saigon is that everyone in Cairo drives a car, not a motorbike. This makes things exceptionally crowded. Also, there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of parking rules. I’ve not only seen a lot of double parking, but triple and quadruple parking as well. Anywhere there is not a car is a potential parking spot.

The cars here are much older than I’ve seen anywhere else. The average taxi seems to be a Fiat made in the 1970’s and the taxi meter are all non-functioning and about 40-50 years old.

Since I arrived, I’ve been to the Egyptian Museum, the Cairo Citadel and Mohammed Ali Mosque (not the boxer), and the pyramids. I’ll probably be writing more on the pyramids later on, but what I saw at the Egyptian Museum is pretty indicative what I’ve seen all over Cairo.

The Egyptian Museum is both the best and worst museum I’ve been to on my trip. It is the best in terms of the items and artifacts on display. This is the permanent home of the King Tut exhibit, and has every manner of item you’d expect for a museum on Egypt. However, it sort of seems like a warehouse. The building is falling apart and doesn’t seem to have been painted or repaired in decades. The display of items is poorly done and there doesn’t appear to be any money reinvested back into the museum. You can’t help but wonder where it all goes.

There are police everywhere. Everyone seems to smoke. I haven’t seen a building in Cairo built within the last 30 years.

It is a very different place from what I’ve experience so far on my trip. Very different.

I don’t forsee uploading photos soon. The bandwidth where I’m staying is pretty poor. My current plan is to leave Cairo tomorrow for Alexandria, and I’ll see how things go there.

The Kuwait Is Over

Posted by on February 14, 2009

My brief stay in Kuwait is almost over. I screwed up and accidentally booked a flight to Cairo at 11:00pm not am, so I’m here for 12 hours more than I had planned.

There isn’t a whole lot to see in Kuwait. It is a small country, it’s mostly desert, and there isn’t a lot in the way of ancient history here. That being said, Kuwait is probably the most livable country in the Gulf. I’d describe Kuwait as an American suburb that was populated by Arabs. You can find almost every chain restaurant you can think of in Kuwait and much of the layout of streets and houses has a similar American feel to it.

Kuwait is also probably the most liberal of the countries in the Gulf. I’ve seen some Arab men and women dressed in western clothing. Much of that has to do with the area I’m staying in, but it does exist. The internet here is censored, but the quality of the connection seems better than anything else I’ve had in the Gulf.

Kuwait is also expensive. 1 Kuwait Dinar is US$3.42. It is about US$5 for a McDonald’s value meal. There are lots of westerners here for business, but it doesn’t have anything like the vibe that Dubai does. Kuwait is building and growing as needed, not trying to create its own demand.

I had the pleasure of exploring around Kuwait City with Bader, a Kuwati blogger, who I met via Twitter. He took me out to for a Kuwati lunch, to see the Kuwait towers and a drive around Kuwait City. I was nice to meet an actual Kuwaiti who knew the region as well as someone who had spent significant time in the US (he went to college in Seattle).

With that, my time in the Persian Gulf is over. I’ll have more to say, but as for now, it is on to Egypt!

UNESCO World Heritage Site #54: Bahla Fort

Posted by on February 14, 2009

World Heritage Site #54: Bahla Fort

World Heritage Site #54: Bahla Fort

From the World Heritage inscription:

The oasis of Bahla owes its prosperity to the Banu Nebhan, the dominant tribe in the area from the 12th to the end of the 15th century. The ruins of the immense fort, with its walls and towers of unbaked brick and its stone foundations, is a remarkable example of this type of fortification and attests to the power of the Banu Nebhan.

Getting to the Bahla Fort is pretty easy to do. It is a short drive from Nizwa, which is itself an easy 90 minute drive from Muscat. However, the view you get in this photo is about as much of the fort as you are going to see for the time being. They are renovating the fort so you can’t go inside. There are no signs or anything set up around the fort for tourists. If you are in Nizwa it is probably worth taking a look as it is so close, but a much better experience can be found at the Nizwa Fort.

Currencies I Have Known

Posted by on February 13, 2009

I was going through a bag of coins and small bills I’ve collected over the last several months. I thought it would be fun to compile a list of all the currencies I’ve had to deal with since my trip started. The conversion rates are all listed as the amount of the currency which can be purchased with US$1. The rates are also as of today, not when I was there. Exchange rates have gotten better in Australia and New Zealand, but have gotten worse in Japan.

Countries in italics are places I’ll be in the next few months. Cambodia is listed twice as the US Dollar is the common form of currency, but the Cambodia Riel is used in place of coins.

CurencyCodeConversion Rate
US Dollars
– United States
– Guam
– Marshall Islands
– American Samoa
– Federated States of Micronesia
– East Timor
– Cambodia*
USD 1.000000
Pacific Francs
– French Polynesia
– New Caledonia
XPF 94.59758
New Zealand Dollar NZD1.91531
Fijian Dollars FJD1.84575
Samoan Tala WST3.12600
Tongan Pa’anga TOP2.07469
Solomon Dollars SBD 7.63359
Vanuatu Vatu VUV120.100
Australian Dollars
– Nauru
– Kiribati
– Australia
Philippine Peso PHP47.30832
Taiwanese Dollar TWD 34.06717
Japanese YenJPY90.23698
South Korean Won KRW1,402.52
Hong Kong Dollar HKD7.75201
Macau Pataca MOP 8.14741
Brunei Dollar BND1.52931
Malaysian Ringgit MYR3.61745
Indonesian Rupiah IDR11,919.0
Papua New Guinea Kina PGK2.72808
Singapore DollarSGD1.50995
Thailand Bhat THB35.33876
Cambodia Riel KHR4,204.92
Vietnam Dong VND17,643.9
Laos Kip LAK8,702.74
UAE Dirham AED 3.67394
Oman Rial OMR 0.38619
Qatari Riyal QAR3.64444
Bahrain Dinar BHD 0.37840
Kuwaiti Dinar KWD0.29325
Egypt PoundEGP5.59453
Jordan Dinar JOD0.71244
Israel SheckleILS4.06134
European Euro EUR0.77762
British Pound GBP0.69981
Iceland Kronar ISK114.952
Canadian Dollar CND1.24451

Daily Travel Photo – Dubai, UAE

Posted by on February 12, 2009

Fish in Mall Aquarium, Dubai

Fish in Mall Aquarium, Dubai

This is one of the only daily photos I’ve posted that wasn’t taken with my SLR. This was taken with my pocket point and shoot at the Mall of Dubai.

I have no idea why this turned out as well as it did. The background wasn’t black when I took it. I think the flash caused that effect and the glare in the eyes of the smaller fish. Because of the high ISO, this is a photo which doesn’t look better in a larger version.

Kuwaiting Is The Hardest Part

Posted by on February 12, 2009

I arrived in Kuwait last night only to find that the dust storm which had descended over Bahrain was even worse in Kuwait. I looked out of the window of the plane and it was a wall of beige.

All of the countries in the Gulf which I’ve visited so far have had very easy and common sense policies for tourist visas. Getting into Kuwait made no sense. Like several countries I’ve visited, you need to get a visa on arrival in Kuwait. The other countries which require that have been PNG, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos. I can understand if a country makes you apply for a visa, but when you are getting one at the airport, it is just needless paperwork. If they want to charge an entry fee, then they can just charge an entry fee. Filling out a form with the exact same information that is on your passport and requiring a photocopy of the passport is sort of redundant. Just scan the passport like every other country and you can get all the information you want instantly. Then just stamp the passport as if it were a visa.

The dust storm as seen in Bahrain. It was worse in Kuwait.

The dust storm as seen in Bahrain. It was worse in Kuwait.

Once I got that taken care of, I was surprised to see my hotel had a shuttle, so I didn’t have to pay for a cab. Nice to see something was going right. I was talking to the hotel employee who was from Morocco and he had raised his hands in the air while gesturing while a Kuwaiti man was walking past him from behind. He accidentally hit him in the face. It wasn’t very hard and it was totally an accident. I know I’ve had that happen to me and I’ve done it to other people. It happens. The Kuwaiti guy starts to go nuts and punches the Moroccan guy in the throat and walks off.

Now the Moroccan guy wasn’t really hurt either. He goes off to find the police, but the Kuwaiti guy disappeared. When he gets back to the car, he seems pissed, which is not surprising. The reason he’s pissed off, however is because he felt as if the guy who punched him thought he was an Indian.

That was my first hour in Kuwait.

Other than that I have little to say. It was dark by the time I left the airport and there is still heavy dust in the air which really reduces visibility. Everything here seems very nice, but I can’t see much at this point. Hopefully I’ll be able to get out and see some of the sights in Kuwait City without having to look through a wall of dust.

Last Day in Bahrain

Posted by on February 10, 2009

Today I had an interview with Nina Lauri from the Bahrain Tribune. We went to Fort Bahrain, a World Heritage Site and talked for two hours. I learned more about Bahrain in those two hours than I did during the several days I’ve been here. It is good to have a local explain things to you that you can’t see in only a few days.

Among the many things I learned about was the religious divide in the country (Sunni vs Shia), and saw some anti-government graffiti on the way out from the fort and some photos of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. (he is the head Shia official in Iraq)

Tonight is my last night in Bahrain. Tomorrow I’m off to Kuwait for two days and then Egypt. The flights from Kuwait to Cairo are very cheap, so the stay over in Kuwait City with hotel is almost the same a flight from Bahrain.

There isn’t a ton in Kuwait I’m that interested in seeing. I’ll do a day tour of Kuwait city or something similar and unless something exciting comes up, my primary focus for the next few weeks is obviously Egypt. The great pyramids and the ancient Egyptian ruins on the Nile are near the top of things to see in the entire world. I also plan on going diving in the Red Sea, which is something I haven’t done since last September in Phuket, Thailand.

I am crossing my fingers that bandwidth in Cairo will be better than in the Gulf states. I realize I have no reason to believe it will be so, but a guy can hope.

Question & Answer #2

Posted by on February 9, 2009

Ryan Ricard via Facebook: What is the weirdest thing you ate? Tastiest thing you ate?

Weirdest thing would probably have to be grasshopper (which gave me food poisoning) or some BBQ pig intestines I got from street vendors in Bangkok. I also had some Mekong river weed in Luang Prabang, Laos, which was actually pretty good. It was like a very light cracker.

I had fish and chips in Rarotonga made out of parrot fish, which I thought was sort of odd.

The best foods I’ve had would include:

  • Foie gras from Piccaso’s restaurant in Las Vegas. I ate there at the very start of my trip. I had always seen it used on the Iron Chef and wanted to taste it myself. It was great.
  • Samgyupsal in Busan, South Korea. It basically giant slabs of bacon you cook at your table. You cut the pork with a scissorsand wrap it in lettuce. It was a memorable meal because I was taken there by a woman I met on the boat from Fukuoka to Busan.
  • Poisson Cru in Tahiti. This is the national dish of French Polynesia and it was great. I had it at a Roulette (lunch wagon) in Papeete. It is raw or seared tuna in a coconut sauce with cucumber and onion. It is really good.
  • Hommos with shawarma. I’ve been eating this all the time in the Middle East. It is just hommos with lamb and sometimes pine nuts mixed in. Simple but good. (FYI, Hommos is how I’ve seen it spelled in the Gulf, not hummus.)
  • Rambutan. I have discovered this fruit on my travels. I love it. I could eat it all day.
  • Japanese set dinner. I had several while I was in Japan. The courses may very, but every one was amazing. In Yakushima I had a crystal clear fish soup that was the best soup I’ve ever had in my life.

Bill Zalenski via Facebook: What do you carry on your daily excursions?

If I am just walking around I will usually have my wallet with me inside a special zippered pocket inside my front pockets, my iPod touch and my point and shoot camera.

If I am out at some tourist attraction, I will also have my camera bag with me. The contents of my camera bag is probably worthy of an entire post by itself. The bag just goes over one shoulder and has my SLR and my video camera.

If I am going out to eat I will bring my small backpack with me with a book and/or my laptop inside. If I bring my laptop I also bring a laptop cable.

@jessiev I’d love to know why you choose where you’re headed next. thanks!

The next countries I’ll be visiting:

  • Kuwait. I don’t plan on spending too much time here, but give the importance of the country in the last two decades, I thought I should visit if I was going to be in the region.
  • Egypt. You can’t really go around the world and not see the Great Pyramid. I am also going to cruise down the Nile, visit Alexandria, dive in the Red Sea and maybe visit a monastery in the Sinai.
  • Jordan. Petra is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Also, my favorite movie of all time is Lawrence of Arabia, which was shot in Jordan, so I’d like to see Wadi Rum.
  • Israel. Again, its the Holy Land. Its kind of a big deal. I’d like to swim in the Dead Sea and visit all the religious sights of Jerusalem.
  • Italy. I’m a sucker for Roman ruins and I’ve always wanted to visit the Vatican.

A better question might be why I am not visiting certain places. I want to get back to the US for a few months this spring, so I’m skipping some places like Turkey and Syria for a later time.

@urpisdream Any advice for people trying to figure out how they can start up their own ‘everywhere trip’?

Don’t worry about planning for the trip. Worry about taking care of things at home. There are a million reasons why people don’t take extended trips like this: job, home, family, etc. The actual traveling part is easy. Overcoming what is keeping you from traveling is the hard part.

Figure out how long you are going to be gone and what you need to take care of before you leave. It will be hard to take care of them once you are gone. Make sure you have access to money, talk to your bank, etc.

Don’t worry what people think about you leaving. They will change their mind once you are on the road.

Daily Travel Photo – Musandam, Oman

Posted by on February 9, 2009

Thee shot panorama of a fjord in the Hajar Mountains, Musandam, Oman

Panorama of a fjord in Musandam, Oman

This is one of those photos you will want to click to see the larger version.

I took this while on a mountain safari in Khasab, Oman. This the stereotypical photo on all the Musandam postcards. Getting to this spot takes about 7 hours by boat because of the winding nature of the fjords. It took about an hour by car.

This was created with three photo taken by hand and stitched together on my laptop.

Travel and Tragedy

Posted by on February 9, 2009

Brush Fire in Western Australia

Brush Fire in Western Australia

If you’ve paid attention to the news in the last several days, you’ve probably heard about the brushfires in Australia. I’ve been paying closer attention to that story than I normally would have because I’ve been to many of the places which have been damaged by the fire. I’ve driven through country Victoria, I’ve seen first hand what the conditions are like and I’ve even seen brush fires (albeit nothing on the scale of what is happening now). I even got to see a rather large brush fire up close in Western Australia on my drive from Darwin to Perth.

There are tragedies which happen all around the world all the time. Floods, mudslides, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and fire are natural disasters which occur every few months and probably will never end. When you hear these things, there is a ceratin intellectual sympathy for the victims which exists, but it is nothing on par with what you experience when something happens to someone you know. To quote Adam Smith from The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

Travel changes that equation. Travel creates a link and changes how you perceive far away events. Everyone in the world saw the events of 9/11 on television. The previous year I had visited the World Trade Center. I had been in the buildings and had a personal grasp of just how big they were. When they were destroyed, it wasn’t just an intellectual outrage at people dying, I was personally flabbergasted at how it was possible for something so large to disappear. That extra feeling came from having been there. Obviously, the closer you were to the event, the bigger the impact would be.

On New Year’s Eve there was a fire in Bangkok which killed 60 people. It was about a kilometer from where I was staying at the time. That night I heard sirens and sounds but had no idea what was going on. The next morning when I read the news, it sort of hit me harder than it would have if I had read about somewhere else. 60 people died……right over there. I heard the sirens. Maybe I met one of the people who died. It drove the story home a bit more than if I had been somewhere else.

Sometimes this can backfire. In the tsunami of 2004, a disproportionate amount of media attention was given to Thailand, in particular Phuket. The tsunami killed almost a quarter of a million people around the world. The death toll in Thailand was over 5,000 which would be a horrible disaster by itself on any other day. Of those 5,000, about half were western tourists. Most of the video of the tsunami which made it to the internet was from Thailand. Thailand was by far the biggest tourist destination hit by the tsunami.

The 5,000 deaths in Thailand, however, were dwarfed by the over 130,000 killed in Indonesia, 35,000 killed in Sri Lanka, and 12,000 killed in India. Yet, a disproportionate amount of attention was given to Thailand because that is where the westerners were and where everyone goes on vacation.

On balance, the ties and connections made by travel are beneficial. The more people can see other places and meet other people, the impact of disasters like these will be more than intellectual curiosities which are quickly forgotten.