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10/07 - At Sea
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Returning to the Greek Isles from Egypt meant another full day at sea so I'll talk about some of the other strange things around the ship at the end.

After stuffing ourselves repeatedly for days on end, I found that my appetite was not as strong as previously. I would get a little hungry, but would never just want to devour everything. In fact, sometimes I had to force myself to go to dinner, especially since my parents preferred to eat earlier to get the early bird discounts. In the following days, I even had to force myself to try local foods b/c I just wasn't hungry!

So on this day, my sister and I slept in again. We decided to skip breakfast and instead planned to meet our mom for a fancy jazz brunch at Le Bistro. They were charging the full $15 cover price so I wanted to get the most out of it, but I ran out of steam pretty quickly.

Brunch was a combination of a buffet and an a la carte menu. Either one alone would be enough for a full meal, but putting them both together is just an act of cruelty because you end up with one of two outcomes. 1) You feel guilty not eating enough and passing up all this good food and spending money or 2) You feel horrible eating WAY too much. No wait, there's one more option which is what happened to me: I felt horrible for eating WAY too much but also felt guilty b/c I should have been able to eat more!

After lunch my sister and I vowed to do something semi-active instead of sleeping. Of course we were so full that we had to spend some time watching some movies to digest before we managed to get ourselves to the ship's gym. The gym had several treadmills and a few bikes and elliptical machines, all overlooking the sea through large glass windows. They also had several weight machines and, much to my surprise, a set of free weights (dumb-bells).

After working out, I took a shower... which is a nice segue into another note about ship life. When they converted the ship to the Norwegian Jade (it was previously the Pride of Hawaii) they decided to remove the self-service laundry room and put in more staterooms. Being on vacation for three weeks and trying to pack light means that at some point, you have to do laundry somehow.

You could do it yourself in your sink, but that's pretty slow and tedious. But using the ship laundry service is expensive since they charge per the item. A pair of socks or knickers are $1.50, Regular shirts are $1.75 and pressed shirts are $2.50. Slacks and skirts go up from there, so laundry can add up pretty quickly. When the ship announced a special, all the clothes you can fit in a laundry bag for $19.99, my sister and I crammed our bag as full as possible.

That was two days ago so this was the day that our laundry was supposed to come back. Alas, it did not arrive on this day and unfortunately, this was also the day that I ran out of shirts. And socks. And knickers.

Since I had expected my laundry, I didn't bother hand washing anything as a backup, so I was stuck. I decided to hand washed a set, but they had to dry overnight, so what was I to do until then? The answer, if it isn't obvious to you, is disposable underwear.

Disposable underwear? I didn't know such a thing existed but apparently my Dad picked up a set when he was in China and they are a perfect last resort on a long vacation. They are made of the thinnest cotton possible and compressed into 1.5" long x 1" diameter rolls. I couldn't tell which direction was the front but I don't think it could have been any less comfortable either way. They were kind of like semi-translucent white speedos. I imagine this is what girls underwear must be like, except these were not flattering in any way. I actually considered going commando for a moment...

Next was dinner. It was about time for us to check out the Asian food selections. The Jade Garden offered Teppan-yaki, Shabu-Shabu, Sushi and Chinese/Pan-Asian fare. I really wanted to check out the Shabu-Shabu but I got poo-pooed by everyone else. They all said that the quality wouldn't be good, but since when is that important? Shabu-Shabu is all about the QUANTITY and based on some of the other patrons' carts of food, the ship would not have disappointed (ooh, with winter coming, I guess I'll have to satisfy my craving with a trip to Lao Szechuan in Chinatown).

I was so enamored by the Shabu-Shabu that a couple noticed me leaning over to look at their table. The wife smiled at me so I asked if I could take a look at their food. Apparently, you can pick from a few different themes for your Shabu-Shabu and they had picked noodles. Their spread included udon noodles, ramen noodles, bean noodles, rice noodles, shu-mai and dumplings, on top of chicken and Chinese cabbage. I assume they probably had a meat lovers theme too so I'm pretty bummed that I didn't get a chance to have it.

Our choice for dinner that night was sushi. The edamame was odd b/c it wasn't the same as what you get in a regular restaurant (which btw, don't look like the soy beans used to make soy milk which are yellow and rounder). These edamame looked like thin kidney beans, or maybe long red/green (azuki) beans. They tasted and had the same texture as azuki beans too, just not sweet. The miso soup was salty, but I thought it was acceptable. My mom, on the other hand, considered it inedible.

For the sushi, we found the quality of the fish to be good overall. An interesting item on the menu was a funny long Japanese name that was translated as crab. I had a hunch that it was just a way to make Krab sound better, and that turned out to be the case.

They also offered bonito as a sushi option. Normally, bonito is smoked, dried and shaved thin for use as the primary aromatic, along with kampyo (kelp), for dashi, the most basic Japanese stock and the primary ingredient in miso soup. To have it as a fresh fish seemed a bit odd to me so I tried it. It came seared on the outside and had a similar color and texture as tuna, but it was not as firm and slightly fishy tasting.

They also had an item listed translated as tuna belly, but it was not chu-toro or o-toro. When it arrived, it looked, smelled, felt and tasted exactly the same as regular tuna. The white tuna and hamachi were both good and the unagi was average, about the same as Todai in Schaumburg. My mom did not like the unagi, or the terriyaki sauce on it.

We also had California rolls but apparently the cucumber had seeds in it and my mom considered that unacceptable as well. For dessert we had green tea and coconut ice cream which were good, but most likely out of a 3 gallon tub (Edy's maybe? Nothing wrong with that!)

When the manager asked us how we were doing, my mom let him know about all the things she didn't like. This resulted in a rather long conversation where she explained all the things that seemed wrong. She was pretty nice about it and when the bill came several minutes later we discovered he had given us 50% off the bill.

The last note I wanted to make about living on a cruise ship is the strange emphasis on sanitation. Being on a ship with thousands of people for an extended amount of time makes disease transmission very easy. To reduce this, they've implemented some interesting sanitary measures.

Any person boarding the ship must use hand sanitizer and there is always someone standing at the gangway with an alcohol spray. Any person entering a restaurant must also use hand sanitizer and every entrance has an automated sanitizing gel dispenser. At buffets, passengers may not serve themselves: only gloved crew members can hand out dinnerware, handle tongs, touch food and pour drinks. On top of that, one of the first things they announced on day one was that passengers should avoid shaking hands with anyone.

It all sounds pretty OCD, but it's not. The handling of food at buffets makes sense, but the use of hand sanitizer is improper. A quick spritz of alcohol or a squirt of gel rubbed between the hands is not enough to sanitize your hands. The rule of thumb is soap or sanitizer must be in contact with your hands for 30 seconds to be sanitary (60-90 seconds to be considered sterile). A single squirt is not enough to last 30 seconds and may actually increase the chance that only resistant bacteria survive.

In reality, the sanitation policies on ships like this may be creating the perfect environment for a super bug, just like the resistant bacteria that have resulted from excessive and improper use of antibiotics. As usual, it's a ploy to make people think they're safer, regardless of whether they actually are. The funny thing is, now that I'm back to the real world, I'm less inclined to wash my hands than before the cruise!

10/07 pictures are here.
Posted 10/24/2008 07:03 PM in Egypt, Food, Greece, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/06 - Alexandria
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In Alexandria, my sister and I signed up for a half day tour so that we would have free time to search for some local eats. After breakfast, we hopped on the tour bus and went the Alexandria catacombs.

The catacombs were pretty interesting, but they do not allow pictures inside. The catacombs are a family grave site that was accidentally discovered when a drunk man lost his donkey down a hole. When he sobered up the following morning and went to find his donkey, he discovered the tomb.

The tomb was of a Roman citizen who had moved to Egypt and begun to adopt Egyptian traditions. This is apparent in the primary tombs for the Roman and his wife which were decorated in a combination of Roman and Egyptian designs and artwork. Additionally, both bodies were embalmed in Egyptian fashion. After this time, the tombs were expanded for the rest of the family and possibly for public use as well.

With the temperature in the 90's and the sun beating down on us, I was eager to descend the spiral staircase surrounding the well to the bottom, unfortunately, the small passages full of tourists turned out to be hot, humid and stuffy. Several tour buses arrived at the same time so there were hundreds of people in the catacombs which had multiple passages and levels to accommodate hundreds of tombs. My sister and I explored several passageways before returning to the surface.

The next stop was the Alexandria National Museum. The building once belonged to the US Embassy but after they moved to a larger, newer building, this location remained uninhabited until Alexandria purchased it from the US at half the asking price. This building is fairly modern and, unlike the big museum in Cairo, is air conditioned. The three levels are dedicated to different eras in Egyptian history with the Pharaonic era in the basement, the Greco-Roman period on the ground floor and the Coptic (Christian) and Islamic periods on the first floor. I was pretty tired so after we perused the basement and first floor, I took a 15 minute nap on a bench while my sister explored the ground floor.

The next stop was the Montaza Gardens, which belonged to the Royal Family until Egypt became a Republic. Since then the grounds have been a national park and the Montaza Palace has been used for foreign dignities because the Egyptian President is not royal or divine and therefore should not be given such a luxurious residence.

The gardens are full of huge date palm trees and lie on the coast line where a boardwalk is decorated with lion sculptures leading to a hotel and lighthouse. On the other side of the gardens lies the Palace and another hotel and casino.

Next we piled back on the bus and drove on the Alexandrian coastal road along miles and miles of beaches. We saw all sorts of things from a statue of Muhammad Ali (founder of modern Egypt), the tram system, the football stadium, the Alexandria Library and more.

The next stop was Fort Qaitbay but we only had time to explore the boardwalk and vendors in the area outside of the fort. I saw some interesting ice cream carts and potato chips and some local sweets that some vendors were carrying around in clear plastic boxes. I didn't have a chance to buy any of them, besides the tour guide warned us about the lack of hygiene in Egypt, especially from random street vendors.

Our last stop on the tour was Abu el Abbas mosque. Our tour was almost 1 hour behind schedule (which is a good thing since it means our 4 hour tour was 5 hours) and my sister and I were concerned we wouldn't have enough time to explore Alexandria on our own so we requested that the tour guide leave us behind at the mosque. We then walked to a nearby bank to get some Egyptian pounds and then headed west in search of food.

We had only walked a couple blocks when we started smelling something tasty. It was a trio of small restaurants so we walked up to the single host desk and asked for a table. They stared at us blankly as they apparently knew no English. After some useless gesturing, they somehow figured out what we wanted and gave us a table.

A few moments later, the waiter came by and I asked what they had. His answer was, "Pizza, Koshari." At the mention of Koshari, a word I learned from Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations," I quickly repeated it and asked for one order. After the waiter left, my sister took a look at the restaurants sign and discovered that their logo was Fido Dido holding up a pizza.

When the waiter brought our koshari (see pictures) I read a list of Egyptian foods off my list to see if they had any of them. He acknowledged two desserts: belial and sahleb, both of which turned out to be excellent and tasty. In terms of local food, I think these three Egyptian foods top my list as my favorite items during the whole trip (and I'm starting to drool over them as I type this).

I finished the meal with a Turkish coffee and then we flagged down a taxi. The driver did not speak English but the tour guide had been nice enough to write down directions in Arabic so we could get back to the port. The driver took us there and waved us out of the taxi. We weren't sure how much the ride was so I just waived a 10 pound note ($2) which he grabbed and drove off with.

Back on the ship, we cleaned up and took a nap before heading to dinner at Paniolo's, the TexMex and tapas restaurant with the rents a few family friends. They were all interested in tapas so I went ahead and ordered two of everything for our appetizers. Unfortunately, they weren't that good. Most of us ate light for dinner since we'd all been eating a lot recently.

10/06 pictures are here.
Posted 10/21/2008 08:12 PM in Dessert, Egypt, Food, Pictures, Ramblings, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel
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10/05 - Cairo
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The ship docked in Alexandria but we took a 12 hour excursion to Cairo. The tour started at 7:15am, though my sister and I almost missed it because it was so early. We made it to the bus in time for the two hour drive to Cairo, or more specifically, Giza, where the major pyramids are.

Now, Egypt as a country is not that poor, but according to our tour guide, corruption has caused a huge gap between the lower class and upper class. As a result, the poor are extremely poor and it's quite apparent. Driving through Cairo you can see the poverty and the guides also warned us that everywhere we go, people would be doing their best to get money from us.

What that means is that if you ask someone to take a picture of you, or you ask someone to be in a picture with you, or you drop something and someone picks it up for you, they will expect a tip and be quite persistent about it. They will also hike up prices to make as much profit as possible, though they will negotiate back to a reasonable price. They will also be happy to accept any form of currency whether it be Euros, Dollars or British Pounds since they're all worth more than the Egyptian Pound.

For instance, I saw a couple having trouble pushing their baby stroller through the sand (who brings a stroller to the desert?) so an Egyptian man helped them pick the stroller up onto a walkway, after which he demanded a tip. Then there are the historical artifacts security guards who watch the pyramids. You are not allowed to cross lines, touch or climb on the pyramids or you will be reprimanded by security. However, they eagerly indicate they will let you go, or will allow you to cross lines if you simply provide them with a tip.

Once you've realized how things work, Egypt is not that difficult to navigate. Since we were on a guided tour, the day was pretty much laid out for us so I pretty much sat back and snapped an excessive number of pictures while absorbing random tidbits of info.

First we saw the most famous pyramids of Khafre and Khufu along with the Sphinx. We then drove to Saqqara to see the funery grounds of Ka-Gmni including hieroglyphics and artwork that still exhibits the original paint from thousands of years ago.

After that was a buffet lunch at a large restaurant. It didn't look like that good a place and I wasn't surprised that the food was a bit disappointing. Not only was most of the food mediocre, none of it was labeled so I have no idea what some of it was. One interesting thing about the restaurant was the traditional oven they had outside to bake a pita-like bread. Too bad none of that bread was at the buffet.

After lunch we checked out Zoser's Step Pyramid complex where a gust of wind blew away my sister's new visor. We then went on to the Jeep tour where we piled into a series of 4x4 vehicles. Most prevalent were Jeep Cherokees and Toyota Land Cruisers. My sister and I ended up in a Land Cruiser which is supposed to be the preferred model for nomadic Bedouins as the FJ chassis coded Land Cruisers are well known for their off-road abilities (hence Toyota's homage to the old Land Cruiser, by releasing the new FJ Cruiser).

The Jeep tour was pretty fun, particularly driving up and down blind dunes as can be see in the video below. I was fortunately enough to get the front seat, though the back was probably rougher. The people talking in the video are other passengers.

After the Jeep tour was the Camel tour. Getting on the camel was a bit hairy. They lay on the ground and when they get up, they lift up their back end first, then their front end, giving the sensation that you're going to fall forward off the camel, then back off the camel, before leveling out. The camel's gait isn't the most pleasant either, it's much less smooth than a horse and rocks quite a bit front and back, requiring you to shift your hips a lot to compensate. The saddles aren't that comfortable either and after 20 minutes I was starting to get saddle sore.

At the end of the camel tour, getting off the camel was equally precarious. There was no warning either; one second I was sitting on top of the camel, the next second I thought I was falling off as the camel pitched forward, then pitched backwards, then after leveling out the remaining foot of descent was even and smooth, like a hydraulic platform. You can sort of see it in this vid summary.

After the camel tour we went to a papyrus shop where they demonstrated how papyrus reeds were turned into paper then turned us "free" to browse the papyrus art so we could buy some. After that we took the 2 hour trip back to Alexandria. For dinner my family ate at Grand Pacific, the formal restaurant where we had an excellent meal.

10/05 pictures are here.
Posted 10/19/2008 02:01 AM in Egypt, Food, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel, Videos
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