Saturday, May 30, 2009
Relaxing with the Pharaohs
Last August, we took a trip that was quite unlike any other I had ever taken before. We went to a place that everyone knows and everyone would probably consider a cool place to go on some level. It is also a place that hardly any Americans ever venture to (especially not lately) yet many other countries (especially European countries) think of as a fairly standard vacation destination.
I am talking about Egypt.
Why did we even think about Egypt? One of the main reasons for me to go was water sports, and in particular windsurfing. I love to windsurf, but in Houston it is difficult to do (at least in the way I like to do it). So I have gone quite a few places in search for good windsurfing conditions. From Maui to Hood River, to Costa Rica and to Greece. Most of those places have one thing in common: You generally spend a lot of time waiting for wind, and with only a week or 2 or even 3 on location, one always runs the danger of not having any wind at all. So my hope was that in Egypt, things might be different. And to make a long story short: they were!
But let’s start at the beginning: We started our trip in Salzburg, as we already were in Europe (our second home) rather than in Houston. We had a direct flight from Salzburg to Hurghada, our destination of choice. Hurghada is on the Red Sea and a windsurfing and scuba diving paradise. The flight wasn’t long and it also wasn’t expensive. In Europe, one can always find a pretty inexpensive charter flight to all major vacation destinations, as long as one can live with the set schedule. Charter flights usually leave on weekends and one mostly books such vacations in one week increments. If you want to go for 10 days, you are out of luck, but otherwise, this deal is great is it is a very inexpensive way to go. We stayed for 2 weeks.
Note: I am not sure what the least expensive way would be to get to Egypt from the United States. I am sure there must be decent ways to do this, although in some ways, it may not hurt to first go to London, Munich, or Amsterdam and try for a charter flight and hotel package from there on. I would not at all be surprised if that turned out to be the least expensive option.
After a few hours flight that turned out to be very pleasant (and the plane being one of the most modern I have ever flown on… the airline was “Fly Nicky”, Nicky Lauda’s new airline). Entrance into Egypt was also straightforward. One buys an entry visa on the spot (for cheap) and there was nothing to it. I had some concerns at first, because most people on this flight were either Austrian or German, yet Ellen is American, so I wondered if being American could make it more difficult to go to a middle-eastern country. (One of the many advantages to being Austrian is that one is welcome just about anywhere in the world). However, it turned out to be no problem whatsoever.
In fact, let me get this out of the way before I go on: Egypt is a tourist destination. Other than the Suez Canal, tourism is their main income stream and Egyptians generally welcome all foreigners, regardless of where they are from. This was my first trip to a Muslim country (or “mostly Muslim” I should say, as about one fifth of the population is Christians… and they all seem to get along just fine) and I wasn’t sure what to expect. There were many unknowns, such as the overall culture and the attitude towards Westerners (especially Americans) or little things, such as drinking alcoholic beverages. As it turns out however, the Egyptians are a fun bunch of people. They always have a joke on their lips and seem generally in good spirits. They are very communicative. And they were genuinely happy to see Americans. (As it turns out, the US now is the country with the fewest visitors to Egypt and they would love to change that).
We took several trips last year, and I have to say that this was one of my favorite ones, and being pleasantly surprised about the people was a big part of that. Over the last 12 months, we went to places such as Costa Rica, Hawaii, Alaska, Jamaica, Greece, and more. And I have to say that while Costa Rican’s seem to have been the friendliest and the people I was most comfortable with (except for perhaps the Greek, but I have spent so much time there, it would be an unfair comparison), the Egyptians run a close second in my list. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have anything against the Caribbean, but I much prefer Egyptian people over pushy Jamaican drug dealers and other weirdoes.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand: After we cleared customs, we went on a bus trip to the Intercontinental Abu Soma Hotel in Soma Bay, a little south of Hurghada. As is common in these types of arranged trips, the transfer to the hotels can be lengthy, as a few buses drop people off at various hotels and our hotel was one of the furthest from the airport. So this was a bit of an ordeal, but it was not too bad. We arrived at our hotel and were pleasantly surprised. It was a very nice facility, and it was somewhat sizable, with not a lot going on (only crazy people like us Houstonians venture into the African desert in the middle of August).
The pool with an pool-side restaurant and bar at the Abu Soma Intercontinental Hotel.
This shows a little less than half of the hotel’s beach. Blue skies, nice sand, and turquoise water. And you won’t see a cloud during the entire trip.
I was very pleased with the service and our room and everything else in general. The only bad thing about the hotel is the food. For some reason, the standard restaurant everyone goes to tries to cook international food, and it just isn’t very good. (It was quite an experience to have Tex-Mex night in Egypt, with all the Egyptian girls wearing jeans and cowboy boots and sombreros). As it turns out however, the local food they prepare is quite good. And all the separate restaurants were also very good. I really enjoyed their Arab-themed restaurant and really like that type of food. It is a very tasty combination of meats and pastries (well, at least the dishes I ordered were… Ellen stuck more to the vegetable things). We also enjoyed the Greek restaurant as well as the Italian restaurant the hotel had. (Note: There is nothing but dessert around the hotels, so you are likely to eat most of your meals in one of the hotel’s restaurants). On our next trip to Egypt (and we are def. planning to go back), we will probably only buy the breakfast package and just go to the different restaurants and pay every night.
The other thing a I heard people complain about was the beds. Egyptian beds are hard as a board. That’s just the way it is. I have heard the same thing about other Egyptian hotels. Get used to it and don’t let it ruin your vacation. I personally like firm beds, but this was a bit beyond firm. But you get used to it after a few days. (I actually read the Terry Pratchett book “Pyramids” while I was there and even that book made fun of the hard Egyptian beds… it was quite funny, actually).
We spent a lot of time just relaxing and hanging out at the beach. We slept late, went windsurfing until the early afternoon (I will post a separate entry on windsurfing as it was easily good enough to deserve its own post), and then we just relaxed on the beach. There are tons of water sport things to do. You can rent sailing boats for instance. You also absolutely MUST at least take one of the boats out to go snorkeling. The Red Sea has to be just about the best place to do that. I have snorkeled in places like the Caribbean, Costa Rica, and Hawaii, but the Red Sea is orders of magnitude better! There literally are times when you can’t see the bottom of the sea 10 feet below you, because there are just too many fish. It is absolutely unbelievable and one must experience it to believe it.
Note: Due to our windsurfing activities, we missed the regular snorkeling and scuba diving boats that leave from the hotel. However, we ended up paying one of the boys that operated the boats a little bakshish (tip) and he took us out for a few hours later in the day all by ourselves. We went to 3 different locations, and it was awesome. The guys operating the boat being very friendly and even getting into the water with us to have some fun themselves and showing us the good places. I think the next time around, I will avoid the boat with all the people on it, and spend a few bucks again to get my own private ride.
You can also take scuba lessons and tests right on location. We had originally considered doing that, but the windsurfing was jut too good and left us too little time. It is def. something you should consider doing there if you are interested. The schools are either German or British-run, and the licenses you get are regular international licenses.
They even had their very own camel at the beach (and horses), which I thought was very funny. For a small fee, one was allowed to ride the camel up and down the beach. Camels have quickly become one of my favorite animals. With their odd legs (apparently they must be very intelligent, but most of their brainpower is used up operating their awkward legs… at least according to Terry Pratchet) and funny faces. They always look like they are smiling. (I think they are planning something…)
A Camel in action. Well, they never move very fast.
Of course this is Egypt, and we didn’t just sit on the beach and windsurf every day. We went on several trips to see the sights the world has enjoyed for the last 5,000 years. After all, one can’t go to Egypt and not visit the Pharaos, right? (Especially if you, like me, enjoy Egyptian history).
Here I am, proving that my head indeed is bigger than the Sphinx’es. And we apparently also have the same hairdresser. I do have a much nicer nose though…
At first, I wondered whether we could just rent a car and drive around to see some of the sights on our own. That wasn’t possible however, since tourists can’t drive cars in Egypt. Instead, one has to rent a local driver and drive in convoys. We ended up going to Luxor that way. We could have gone with a larger tourist group, but for very little money, we rented a car with driver and a guide for the sights. We saw the temple of Hatshepsut and the Valley of the Kings that way. We also went on a short Nile cruise that day. On a different day, we took a small plane to Cairo to see the Egyptian museum and (of course!) the Pyramids and the Sphinx.
All these things were awesome, and I will create separate blog posts for all these things. It was the trip of a lifetime, and I am sure to come back, if for nothing else but the windsurfing.
The author, enjoying himself tremendously…
This post belongs to a series of post about our Egypt trip:
Posted @ 8:15 PM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com)
Monday, May 25, 2009
An Indian Wedding in Jamaica
In a previous post, I wrote about our trip to Jamaica. As mentioned in that post, the real reason we went there was that a very good friend of mine, Nick Landry, was getting married to his lovely bride (Ishani). And this was quite the get-together. One could almost start a joke that way: “A Canadian, an Indian, an Israeli, an Austrian, someone from Dubai, and an American walk into a bar…”. But that is what it was like. People from all over the place came together for this event. Most people of course were either from India (Ishani’s family and friends) or from Canada (Nick’s entourage) with a good helping of Americans or people transplanted either from or to America, mixed in.
As I mentioned in the previous post, this all took place at the Dunn’s River Sandals Resort, which turned out to be an excellent place for a wedding. This of course was a bit of a special case, as I am sure Hindu weddings are not quite the norm in Jamaica. And I have to admit, I knew nothing about Hindu weddings myself either. In fact, my knowledge about India is limited to a school project when I was about 12 years old (although this went on for half a year, so we learned a lot) and my experience with Indian software outsourcing. The later leaving me with a less than favorable impression, but the former bringing up fond memories of Indian mysteries and wonders. And as I am an enthusiastic traveler (and mesmerized by different cultures and generally fascinated by differences and change more than anything else), I have always wanted to visit India (as you can see in my bucket list). So I was looking forward to this tremendously.
And I wasn’t to be disappointed. In fact, I was quite surprised by a few things. The evening before the wedding the couple held a reception. It was really cool to see a lot of people in traditional Indian outfits (and even Nick looked good in his Indian/American fusion suit). Personally, I made the mistake of wearing a long sleeved white shirt, thinking that being used to Houston temperatures, how bad could Jamaica be? Well, it was bad, and I had to change my shirt several times. I was sweating like a horse! (How romantic…).
Anyway: The reception was a blast. I really didn’t expect the Indian culture so happy, outgoing, and welcoming outsiders. They all partied the night away. People danced, drinks were consumed, and henna tattoos applied. In that very order, which made for some interesting tattoos :-) Luckily, they were not permanent.
Ishani and Nick dancing the night away at the reception.
So this was great fun and entertaining much beyond my expectations.
The next afternoon was the day of the actual wedding. It was to be held outside. It is my understanding that this was the first Hindu wedding put on by the resort, so they had to do quite a bit of research and preparations. From what I can tell (as I am obviously no expert on Hindu weddings), they did an excellent job, and everyone seemed very happy with it.
The wedding itself was – from what I understand – a simplified or shortened version of a traditional Hindu wedding, as the traditional ceremony apparently is a lengthy affair. The way it was done here, it was all over in a few hours, which worked out really well considering the temperature and humidity level. (At some point, there was rice sprinkled over the groom, and it simply got stuck on Nick’s bald and sweaty head. It was quite the sight ;-)).
The ceremony started with the groom on “stage” by himself and the bride coming out about 10 or 15 minutes later.
Here comes the bride…
The “stage” was quite elaborate, and it gave it all a real interesting flair. And a lot of the customs and ceremonies were quite nice with a lot of symbolic character (like the mixing of 2 different colored waters the families perform, symbolizing the inseparable result).
Nick and Ishani on “stage” (for want of a better term).
After the ceremony, we headed back into the hotel (their “back yard” made for a perfect setting for the wedding) for another reception, which turned into another fun party.
Mr. and Mrs. Laundry, right after the end of the ceremony.
All in all, this was a very very nice wedding. The setting was great, and the Indian style wedding was a very festive ceremony. I am glad I got invited, and I am happy I got to see Indian culture from an angle I would otherwise probably not have had the opportunity to.
Posted @ 7:52 PM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Monday, May 25, 2009
The Value of a Mile
If you travel a lot (as I do), you probably have collected a ton of air miles (and if you are not in a frequent traveller program, you probably should be, regardless of lowered return in recent years). Plus, there are tons of other ways to collect miles, such as credit card programs. The question that often arises however, is "how much is a mile worth, exactly?". In other words: If you have a $400 ticket or the alternative to pay with 25,000 miles, which is the better deal?
Well, the conventional wisdom used to be that a mile is worth about 2 cents U$. This is based on the fact that it generally takes 25,000 miles to purchase a domestic round-trip ticket, while the price of such a ticket used to be $500 on average. This has changed a bit however, since the price of an average domestic round-trip ticket is now about $360 (stats from late 2008). Therefore, $360 divided by 25,000 = just under 1.5 cents U$.
So in simple terms, if you were to pay with 25,000 miles for a $400 ticket, you would save about $40. However things aren't quite that simple (are they ever?). For one, you collect more miles on that flight. Say the flight is from Houston to Seattle and back, you would collect another 1,900 miles each way, or 3,800 miles round trip. Depending on your airline and frequent flyer program and actual fare class, you will collect that many miles, or a little less, or even twice as much. For the sake of argument, let's say you collect exactly 3,800 miles. That would be the equivalent of $55, so you now lost $15 on the whole deal. (Or you might have earned the equivalent of $110 if you are in a higher frequent flyer category, and thus lost $70 on the deal). Not to mention that the next time you go on the same flight, the fare may be twice the normal rate and now you could really safe significantly, but now your miles are gone. (For instance, going from the US to Europe, I have had $500 round trips and I have seen $2,500 round trips for the same flight... guess which one I would rather spend 50,000 miles for an international round trip on!)
Of course on the other hand, you may not be able to get a qualifying seat on the expensive flights. So there is something to be said about using your miles when you can. Often, I end up trying to pay with miles and there are no seats open for miles-based travel. In that case, you may end up paying a premium. Instead of flying to Europe and back for 50,000 miles, you may all of a sudden have to shell out 100,000. The equivalent of $1,500. Still not a bad deal if the ticket would otherwise have been $2,500, but if you are at all flexible with your schedule, it still is a bitter pill to swallow.
So bottom line, when should you use your miles? Personally, I am looking to get the equivalent of 2.5 to 3 cents per mile. If a domestic round trip ticket is above $600 or $650, it is probably worth paying 25,000 miles instead. Especially if it is a relatively short domestic trip and you wouldn't have earned all that many miles anyway. Internationally, if your round-trip is more than $1,000, you may consider using miles instead. Although keep in mind that a paid trip to Europe would also give you a ton of miles. A trip from Houston to Munich and back is 11,000 miles. If you are an elite frequent flyer (or whatever the airline of your choice might call your program), you may earn as much as 22,000 miles on that trip, or the equivalent of $350 (or almost a domestic round trip with miles alone, just for that one trip to Europe!). Besides, you may get other perks if you pay for your flight, such as a first class upgrade. So maybe make that international magic number $1,200.
Posted @ 3:34 PM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com)
Sunday, May 24, 2009
TechEd and a Hockey Game in L.A.
We just returned from a week-long trip to L.A., mainly to visit the Microsoft TechEd Conference. It was a decent (although not great... kinda slow, really) conference, and we were plenty busy with 2 different booths as part of the trade show, and I also presented my first ever TechEd session (which went very well and allowed me to check off another item of my bucket list). There were a few notes of general travel interest though:
First of all, the hotel. As all TechEd speakers, we stayed at the Sheraton down town, and I was somewhat disappointed with the hotel. For one, it always ticks me off when a hotel in this price class doesn't have a mini bar. It got even worse though, since they didn't have 24 hour room service. This may or may not matter to you, but if you are there to work (as we were), and you are trying to spend a few hours working in your room rather than going to lunch, it sucks that there is no room service between 10am and 5pm. And frankly, that's just weird! Why would they stop room service during lunch hours of all times?!? One other day, I managed to order room service, but they said they didn't have french fries that day and it would take them longer to get me french fries. Hu?!?
Also, the overall condition and upkeep of the hotel left much to be desired. The air conditioning unit above the bed looked like it was bought used from a Motel 6, and it sounded like a freight train. Oh, and don't even get me started about the Internet connection. 10k download speeds at best. A third of what a 20 year old dial-up modem can do?!? Outrageous. And for some reason, cell phone reception in the hotel was just about non existent too. Not sure why that would be.
So in short: If this wouldn't have been the MS conference hotel, I would have not stayed there, and I will try to avoid the hotel in the future.
One of the days we were there, we were in for quite the treat: We went to see game 6 in the NHL playoffs between the Anaheim Ducks and the Detroit Red Wings. It was an excellent game, and I can only recommend to anyone who has never seen a meaningful hockey game live, to go and see one. Ice Hockey is a great spectator sport! Of course unlike the last hockey game we saw in L.A., this one was not at the Staples Center right next to the conference center, but the Ducks play at the Honda Center in Anaheim. Getting there was a bit tricky, as the traffic in L.A. going that way in the evening is insane! So instead, we went by subway and Amtrak, which was quite the experience. (They should seriously review their check-in process which just seems to be retarded... but in a funny sort of way, rather than an annoying way). There is a stop right next to the Honda Center, so that worked out OK. However, I was glad that we had a right back with someone, rather than going through the mess it usually tends to be with public transportation after sporting events.
Another item of note was the excellent dinner we had at Takami. Actually, the food was pretty good, but not super-great (they have Sushi and other asian food such as Robata), but the setting is incredible. It is at the top of one of the high-rise buildings right down town L.A., and it seems to be one of the cool hang-outs these days. What makes the setting unusual is that one is basically outside at the top floor of the building, only shielded from the elements by wind screens. Pretty cool, and I recommend you check it out. (Note: You have to enter through the building's lobby, and yes, it looks like nobody is home and nothing is going on, but once you get to the restaurant, the place is rocking...)
Other than that, we also went to see the new Star Trek movie, which I liked a lot (and Ellen hated... but she just doesn't like Star Trek for some unfathomable reason...).
And that was about it. No cool parties or anything like that this year. The economy also took TechEd down a notch...
Posted @ 4:02 PM by Egger, Markus (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Saturday, May 02, 2009
Spending Easter Weekend in Phoenix
Ellen and I spent Easter Weekend 2009 in Phoenix (or more accurately: Mesa) with Ellen’s parents. It was an enjoyable trip, and I did a few things I would def. recommend.
Right when we got there, we went straight to see a hockey game. It was the last regular season game between the Phoenix Coyotes and the Anaheim Ducks. Phoenix isn’t exactly known as a hockey town, but this was a cool game to see and I would recommend that if you ever are in Phoenix and are remotely interested in ice hockey, go and see a game. Here’s why: First of all, you get to see Wayne Gretzky. I guess it must be frustrating for the players that their coach is more exciting than they are, but I guess that’s just the way it is. Secondly, tickets are more reasonably priced than in most other NHL towns, and the game actually was very exciting and the people seem to be into it a lot more than I would have thought, which always makes for a fun game.
Also, and this should be a major draw for most people, the area around the stadium has been developed to be a great happening place! There are bars and restaurants and live bands outside, and its generally a fun place to be.
Unfortunately, when we were there, it was actually very cold (well, relatively speaking… it was in the 50’s – just over 10 degrees centigrade). They could have almost played this game out of doors!
Anyway: The game was great fun and even went into overtime and shootout. The Coyotes were already eliminated from play-offs, but they still managed to be competitive and in the end beat the Ducks, who had played a great last 2 months of the season, and are arguably one of the best teams of the league at this point.
What else did we do? Well, we ate a lot. We went to a Cuban restaurant (Havana Cafe). It was an experience, and they have some very good Paella. Most of the rest of the food is meat and potatoes type of dishes. Lots of starches. I like starches and carbs, but there were a *lot* of starches. So most of the food was OK, but not great, but the paella was awesome.
We also went to the local Fogo de Chao restaurant in Scottsdale. Always a treat. It’s as good as everywhere else.
We also went to a small Thai restaurant called Siam Orchid. It is one of these small places in a strip mall, and it was excellent. I highly recommend it.
Posted @ 11:03 PM by Egger, Markus (email@example.com)