29 October, 2011

Gluttony, Reverence, and Chilly Awesomeness

On October 20th to 23rd, Scott and I joined a group of people from his work as well as representatives from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, and Italy (to name a few) to attend a World War II memorial service.

We took a 3ish hour drive to northern Egypt to a small town on the Mediterranean coast called El Alamein.  Now if you are better informed about our history (which assuming you are a 4th grader or more, you most likely are), perhaps you already know all about this place.

Just in case, here's the lowdown:  Commonwealth Forces (and a couple others) fought German and Italian Forces there between 1940 and 1942.  Winston Churchill has an allegedly famous (I'd never heard it before...) quote about the battles fought there: "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat." Well, many people on both sides were killed so there is a war cemetery there as well as memorials for the Commonwealth, the Germans, and the Italians.  There are 37 Canadians buried at the Al Alemein War Cemetery where we went to attend the service.

Before tending to the solemn purpose of our trip, we were treated to a wonderful, marvelous hotel stay.  A rather grand hotel that literally stepped out onto the beach.  Being that it was the ONLY hotel open around (everything else was closed for the winter - yes, apparently even in the dessert this happens), we were awfully lucky that it was so great.

Neither Scott nor I had ever visited the Mediterranean before and truly it was spectacular.  White sand, turquoise waters.  Here is a view from our balcony.  Though the evenings are cooling off a bit, we were able to sleep with our patio door open and fall asleep to the sound of the crashing waves.  Yes, you should definitely feel sorry for us and the time we are having here.

We were actually treated to lots of free time and Scott was needed for only a small part of our time there.  We lounged and walked by the sea, played Phase 10 (it's a fun card game!), chatted with friends, and ate our FACES OFF.  That's right we're talkin' three buffets a day, each and every day.  There were so many salads and desserts that I rarely made it to the hot entrees.  But melon sculptures and banana swans just keep calling me back up for seconds and thirds.

Despite all the eating, when we finally gave swimming in the sea a try, we did indeed still float.  It was freezing, but the blue water and rockless bottom was amazing!  We bobbed in the waves and even did a bit of official swimming to work up an appetite.  Bring on the next buffet...

Staying at the hotel with us were people from all the other countries involved.  It was really pretty neat to see and meet the others and especially good to see people from the historically opposing sides all eating and enjoying the beach together.  What a difference 69 years makes.

On Saturday Scott and another co-worker went to set up for the memorial service while the rest of us lounged a little more.  In the afternoon we visited the El Alamein War Museum that had information and various articles from the war displayed.  Then off to the Commonwealth Memorial site.

The space was pristine and maintained year round by a team of gardeners.  There were pale tomb stones as far as the eye could see, several monuments and a huge archway watched by Egyptian soldiers.  A few other quick facts:  there are 7,367 buried in this cemetery and 821 of those are unidentified personnel.

The service was much like a remembrance day ceremony in Canada with a few hymns, the laying of the wreaths, the moment of silence.  And yet it was quite different because we were actually in the region where the people we were remembering fought and died.  The other major difference was that it was not just the Canadians we were remembering - there were people in uniform from so many countries there to pay their respects and represent their country - Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Kenya were all in the rows right near me for example.  It was a pretty special experience that I shan't sully here with my "deep thoughts" - just that I pondered that the world is a fair bit smaller than I  thought before and that it was encouraging to gather here with this diverse group and remember our common need for peace.  Shoot - I just "thought deeply" didn't I?

It could not be helped...  I must also mention that I was very proud to be there Scott.  A handsome young man in his uniform that came to represent Canada and to remember. 

27 October, 2011

I Got Dizzy Just Watching...

In a city where you can't always walk down the street without someone trying to sell you something, we recently got to enjoy a refreshingly FREE experience.  In fact, our entire evening was choc full of delightful new discoveries in Cairo.

The social coordinator at Scott's work organized a fantastic night for us which included visiting Al Azhar Park, eating some superfly Egyptian food, and watching a whirling dervish show (which was FREE.  I know!  I love free).

First of all, walking around Cairo, one comes to accept a certain amount of physical obstacles.  I am talking about animal poo, sandy dirt, and bits of garbage.  Thus our trip to Al Azhar Park was a lovely brief respite of cleanliness.  The ability to walk in a straight line without having to dart around illegally parked cars and the possibility of keeping your eyes on the sights rather than continually looking down to check for poo were both such welcome treats.

The park was built on a rubbish dump site in the 1980s.  When they built it they excavated tons of debris and discovered an ancient wall and other cool things like stones with hieroglyphics.  It is beautiful, lush, green; has amazing views of the city; and did I mention it is impeccably clean.  There is a lot of neat information about it here:


After walking around the park, we went to a rather fancy restaurant within the grounds where we ate delicious egyptian food and watched the sunset over the Mohammed Ali mosque.

We then went on a "20 minute walk" to the theatre for the whirling dervish show.  Our friends who guided us were 7 feet tall marathon speed walkers (I may exagerate here slightly, but honestly they walked really fast) so it really did take only about 20 minutes, but if it had just been Scott and I it would have been pretty near 45 minutes (and/or we would have caved and hailed a cab).

 The theatre where the show was held probably has some cool historical story too because it looked really old and was located in the Khan El Khallili market.  I unfortunately don't know the story so feel free to be less lazy than me and google away.  It was a very old stone building with 4 walls but no top.  For some reason they give the tickets to everyone for free.  Yes, I think I mentioned that.

The show began with fantastic musicians playing traditional instruments with great gusto, huge smiles, and cantagious dancing about.

Then came the whirlers.  Some of them wearing as many as 3 or 4 skirts and twirling for an unreasonable length of time.

It was a feast for the eyes and ears and a must-do for anyone that ever comes to visit me.  Seriously guys, get over here!

26 October, 2011

Pretty much the best trip EVER

Somebody has to call 15 yr old Shannon and let her know I am finally addressing her list of hopes and dreams.  That's right.  I'm talking about Italy:  Been there; done some of that; bought the coffeetable book.

For our 10th wedding anniversary Scott and I visited ROME!  Really and truly, it was all that we ever hoped it would be:  narrow alleys, cobblestone streets, sun soaked beauty and to quote one of our new friends - "a bunch of really old stuff".

We stayed in a boutique hotel that was a converted defense tower built in 1247 and was called Rezidenza Torre Colonna:  http://www.torrecolonna.com/ .  Since we were staying right in ancient Rome we did a lotta lotta walkin'.  Good thing because this was accompanied by a lotta lotta eatin'.

Though there were more quaint little restaurants along the cobble stone streets than any one city should rightly contain, we still managed to visit the same place twice in our four short days there.  Scott was having an affair with the ham they had there which apparently "really does melt in your mouth".   I was content to drown myself in cheese.  Mmm cheese.
We also found it incredibly cool that there was free access to clean, cold drinking water everywhere from fountains all over town. A refreshing change from Cairo where drinking water off the streets is not necessarily a good idea and where restaurants serve only bottled water which is certainly not free.

We truly wanted to have a relaxing couple of days and tried hard not to overwhelm ourselves with too many touristy activities.  Half the time we did not totally know what we were seeing, just that it was beautiful and a whole lot older than a whole lot of other stuff.  One of our two truly touristy ventures was touring the Vatican - namely the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museum, and St Peter's Basilica.  We did the whole bit - tour guide, headsets, hundreds of pictures.  We even got to dress as Roman soldiers where we purchased tickets.  No dignity spared here folks.

That said, a person HAS to be a tourist in Rome.  Everything really does deserve a history lesson and a good handful of pictures.  Scott even nabbed a few in the Sistine Chapel which was strictly forbidden... So of course I can't show them here!

The second full out touring adventure was to the Colosseum. Did I mention we had a view of it from the rooftop jacuzzi at our medieval tower hotel? That's right. Whose life am I living?!

Anyway Scott was all 'touristed-out' by then so I got the headset guided tour while he relied solely on all the information he had learned while watching the movie Gladiator.  Upon comparing notes we discovered the movie yielded about the same information as the audio tour (which lost points due to the decided lack of Russell Crowe appeal... movie wins).

Speaking of movies, we got to put our hand in that face thing like that couple did that time in that movie.  You know the one...  It was actually rather anticlimactic and fairly unromantic compared to Roman Holiday (and later "Only You" for all you non-movie buffs).  The experience consisted of waiting in a 15 minute single file line, snapping one photo each, making sure your hand wasn't lopped off, and exiting immediately.  Checkout the legend for yourself at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bocca_della_Verit%C3%A0

 And speaking of legends, we also visited the Trevi fountain and each threw a coin in.  The word is that those who toss a coin in the fountain will someday return to Rome.  I really, really hope it's true.