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Occasionally updated personal site and blog

Monthly Archives: May 2018

Abu Dhabi: Sheikh Zayed Mosque

Of all things named Zayed in Abu Dhabi, the most interesting one for tourists: The huge, bright and amazing Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

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For those yelling “copy of the Taj Majahl”: yes, it is officially “inspired” by the Taj – but also the Alhambra (in the ornamental wooden roofs of the domes) and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul (in the interior). Not a bad pedigree.

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Not much need for words – it really is just amazingly beautiful. Sorry for the low-res pictures that don’t really do it justice – I’m writing this from Nepal, where the internet is rather slow and interrupted by power cuts.

mosque interior.JPG

The one thing one could criticise aesthetically is that it’s not exactly subtle or modest – the Sheikh definitely went all-out. So I’d say it’s not the most beautiful mosque in the world for me –  the Blue Mosque or the Sulemaniye in Istanbul, or even the plain but honest Jama Masjid in Delhi take that crown. But wow, it is amazing.

The niche showing the direction to Mecca for prayer, and around it the 99 names of Allah (I thought that was just a saying, but our friendly guide explained that there actually are 99 specific official names).

mosque water

The pools around the mosque are not just for romantic reflections, but supposed to cool down the air a bit.

 

The ornamental flowers on the floor and the columns are not painted, but actually inlaid with precious stones (same technique as in the Taj Mahal).

 

Straight out of Arabian Nights.

Abu Dhabi: Ferrari World

In the last few years, Abu Dhabi has apparently decided that they need to show that uppity young upstart Dubai that they, too, can play a giant game of Sim City, using a few billions of oil money here and there to see what crazy kinds of tourist attractions and luxury entertainment they can come up with – preferably on new, man-made islands (because there is not enough desert already?), and with at least a few “World’s biggest/fastest/highest/newest”.

abudhabi leaning tower

First up: the world’s most leaning tower in the form of an office/hotel building. Not sure why – it certainly does not HAVE to lean for any reason. But “world’s mostest” is alway good, right?

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Personally, I would also add “most things named Zayed” (Zayed as in the founder of the emirate, and the U.A.E). “How to get to Zayed port? Just take Zayed bridge into the city, then continue along zayed road, and turn right after Zayed grand mosque.”

Most people, from my Indian taxi driver to the emirati guide at the mosque, seem genuinely cool with the political leadership, and lots of people come here from neighbouring countries because a democracy is quite low on your list of priorities  compared to “living in a place that’s safe, not completely shitty, and allows me to make a living”, and the U.A.E. does a much better job of that than, sadly, quite a lot of countries.

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But you should not forget that this is very much a “real” kingdom – not as in “a king as figurehead with some political power”, but  as in “the king literally owns the country, and can do whatever he wants”. For example censorship on the internet is very much a thing.

But now for today’s main event:

ferrariworld entrance

Ferrari World, a.k.a.:

  • world’s first Ferrari theme park
  • world’s largest indoor theme park
  • housed in the world’s largest steel-framed building

but, most importantly:

  • home to the world’s fastest rollercoaster

ferrari worlds fastest

Goes to over 200 km/h in less in four seconds or so, by using technology similar to the steam catapults used to launch planes on aircraft carriers.

ferrari exit

Not sure if that sign is necessary, or only exists so 15-year-old kids can feel all macho for riding this thing. Probably a little bit of both. They do make you empty your pockets before the ride (a cell phone leaving your pocket at 200 km/h becomes a projectile…), and make you wear plastic googles (so hitting an insect won’t hurt your eyes).

What does the ride look like? There is an observation platform to watch the coaster, but since it’s outside, it was way too hot even in the shade to stand there for minutes to take a video – but luckily there’s plenty of examples on youtube, like here:

In a word: pretty damn freaking fast!

Not sure if it’s worth the price of admission to the park (a rather steep 250 dirhams, i.e. almost 60 euros), but I have a soft spot for weird and extreme things, so yay!

What else is there in ferrari world? It’s a rather weird mix of a temple to the brand of ferrari (rather lost an me, but the cars exhibited do look cool), theme park rides (mostly other pretty wild rollercoasters), kid’s playground, and fake Italian disneyland.

ferrari italy street

One fake Italian street, complete with bookstore, plastic vespa scooters, flower shop and ristorante, coming right up. Well, it’s actually pretty nicely done if you don’t know the real thing.

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And you can e.g. ride a little red car through a landscape full of scale models of famous Italian landmarks. It’s not exactly Miniatur-Wunderland, but nicely done.

There were a fair number of people in the park – but few enough that I wonder if they can possibly recoup their investment. Oh, silly me, oil money, I forgot – it’s not about having a profitable theme park, it’s about having the most world’s mostest, i forgot.

The nice thing for me was that I could ride all the rides with no queues at all, so I could try every single rollercoaster and ride in a few hours.

ferrari driving

The one thing I did not do ist take the offer to take this real Ferrari for a spin around the island – it was, ahem, somewhat out of my price range.

Did I mention that the whole city feels like it’s working hard to find new ways to allow bored, rich people to spend their money?

On a more light-hearted note, I will leave you with one more video of one of the more thrilling rollercoasters:

Yup, I did ride that thing, too – but then felt accelerated, spund and thrown around enough that I decided to head to a rather quieter place, the Sheikh Zayed mosque. (post about that coming up).

 

Abu Dhabi

Wow, what a difference! Coming from Cairo, everything in Abu Dhabi still feels arabic, but so much newer, cleaner and shinier. I guess billions and billions of oil money do make a difference…

abudhabi highway green

I don’t even want to think about how much water and manpower it takes to keep grass green in the middle of the desert. Well-maintained cars on well-maintained streets, traffic rules being (mostly) in effect (think “driving like Italians on adrenaline” rather than “oh god, oh god, what is even going on?!?”), air conditioning everywhere, about 99% less honking, being able to take a taxi without having to bargain the price down from super-ripoff to only-somewhat-ripoff – I felt myself significantly de-stressed in comparison with Cairo.

abudhabi downtown

Pretty it aint, though – downtown has lots of new and shiny skyscrapers, but they’re all somewhat cookie cutter generic, and VERY densely packed.

abudhabi highway skyline

The skyline coming in from the east – the “small” buildings in the picture are easily 10-15 stories high.

If you notice lots of pictures being taken from inside a car that’s because Abu Dhabi very much follows the American way of building a city, i.e. huge distances, endless suburbs, lots of multi-lane highways, built for cars – so everything in Abu Dhabi is a 30 minute taxi ride away. (Unlike Dubai, there’s no metro, and the bus network is very rudimentary).

Which was fine with me, because a) there is nothing interesting to walk to anyway – almost everything in the city did not exist yet 50 years ago, there are even whole neighbourhoods of skyscrapers on islands where even the island did not exist 10 years ago, so forget walkable charming old neighbourhoods. And b) it really is too damn freaking hot to walk anywhere, anyway.

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Dehydration is enough of a thing that the very first airport toilet educates you like this.

Without the smog of Cairo, 39 degrees in the burning sun feels like an oven – so sign me up for an air-conditioned taxi from my air-conditioned hotel to an air-conditioned building.

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And after a hot day, nothing like kicking back with a cold beer – eh, “non-alcoholic malt drink”. Not sure if it’s even non-alcoholic beer, the taste is rather forgettable.

abudhabi hotel prayer

While being all modern and cosmopolitan, the U.A.E. takes islam seriously. Like every hotel providing a helpful error on the ceiling giving the direction to Mecca.

goldsouk abaya shop

Or the mall being dominated by clothing stores specializing in dark, long and loose women’s clothing.

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Notice anything unusual about this mall’s house rules? “No overt display of affection” – I’m sorry, but outlawing kissing is just sad 😦

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On a happier note, since my hotel is not in the western expat bubble, but usually frequented by Indian businessmen, it comes with an excellent (and comparatively dirt cheap) Indian restaurant.

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So the equivalent of 6 euros bought me this excellent mutton biryani with a thick variant of Naan.

So much for first impressions – sightseeing will follow.

Coptic Cairo

Coptic, what’s that, you say? Well, I had to look it up, too – turns out Egypt has not only at least 10% Christians, but it’s a special branch of Christianity that’s unique to northern Africa, with their own language and their own pope – pardon, “Patriarch of Alexandria on the Holy See of Saint Mark“, but “Coptic pope” sounds much cooler.

So I went to so-called “Coptic Cairo”, an are full of coptic churches and monuments.

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Also conveniently reachable by the metro, since I was a little sick of walking in cairo traffic (crossing a roundabout? Imagine a giant game of Frogger. Like in other decidedly non-european places, waiting for a gap in traffic does not work. But unlike in e.g. India, there a too many big, fast-moving cars to just walk into traffic and rely on everybody to get out of your way. Waiting for a local to cross in the same direction, and using him as a human shield, works well, and you learn some road-crossing instincts at the same time.)

Funny things about the cairo metro:

  • There are no ticket vending machines. The human vendors can, unlike most vending machines, unfortunately not be switched to English 🙂 I gave up enquiring about zones or fares, just signed how many trips I wanted to take, and ended up with a bunch of single tickets. Which worked, and cost about 10 eurocents each.
  • The platforms have big signs saying “Ladies”. Which, after some initial confustion, is not a sign for a conveniently located toilet, but indicates that the middle part of the train is reserved for ladies only. (Unfortunately, a policeman on the platform prevented me from photographing said sign. “no taking pictures of infrastructure” is another of those weird but universally applicable out-of-Europe things)
  • Oh, there’s cops everywhere. And metal detectors at each metro entrance. I wonder how well that works during rush hour…although I’d say the vast majority of the at least dozen bag searches and metal detector checks at various entrances today was extremely half-assed. The police presence feels more like a combination of jobs program and showing presence to assure tourists than checking for any real danger.

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Entrance to the coptic museum. So clean! and well-maintained! and quiet! with actual green spaces! – sorry cairo, but most of you is not exactly like that, so I almost wept with joy..

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Most of the coptic churches look like a mosque at first glance, with the typical ornamental and decorative artwork – beautiful! But then you notice the icons of saints, and crosses, and other church-like things. Sort of a weird combination, but beautiful.

maze.JPGMost of the coptic monuments are inside an old fortress, connected by a maze of narrow alleys. This one has a bookseller offering everything from arabic languae courses to the latest Stephen King novel, or a bootleg DVD of the pyramids’ light and sound show.

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The stairs on the left are the entrance to 90% of the coptic area – did I mention most of the cool stuff in Egypt seems to be hidden in some out of the way corner?

There was a fair number of tourists around, but mostly Egyptians. Most foreigners (of which there are generally very few – not sure if out of season, or scared off by the political situation) only seem to make it to the pyramids and the egyptian museum.

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A quite pretty park, found behind an busy ugly bus station. No idea why there’s goats wandering around the park – there was nobody around besides a few gardeners, who did not seem to mind me wandering around, but whose English did not extend beyond “Which country?” and “Welcome to Egypt”.

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Not another coptic church, but an actual mosque – the oldest one in Cairo. Could not go inside, since it was just starting prayer time. But note the impressive loudspeaker array on the minaret – when they call to prayer, they mean it!

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An “Ahwa”, as in a coffee place where people hang out and smoke Shishah. Unfortunately, I never found one as relaxing as often described in guidebooks – most seem to be nothing but a whole in the wall, and a few plastic chairs on the sidewalk. This is pretty much as cozy as it gets.

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Guy on the street selling tiny, but super tasty, bananas. The endless variety of people is really the coolest thing to see. But it feels intrusive to just take pictures of people on the street – though when asked, people you buy something from are cool with it.

Pro tip: When travelling to a country with a non-roman alphabet, it’s a good idea to at least learn the numbers. Arabic digits are everywhere, and NOT comprehensible..

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The area around Cairo has a lot of date palms, and people sure take their dates seriously. The guy here was happy to let me try a few varieties – though do be honest I could not detect much difference in flavor. The ones I chose randomly were good, though.

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Some beautiful inlaid wood boxes in the window of a shop selling everything from perfumes to kitchenware. Picked up a nice little plate with calligraphic ornaments here. Almost failed due to the shopkeepers complete lack of English, and my complete lack of Arabic – but his wife turned out to speak some French.

With this, enough Cairo – tomorrow I’ll be off to Abu Dhabi.

Cairo: Pyramids

This will be a pretty straight-up touristic post, so why not start with the obligatory me-in-front-of-famous-stuff photo?

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The pyramids of Gizah – the big league, the grand slam and the olympics all rolled into one – not just of antiques, but also of tourist touts, “guides”, trinket sellers, hawkers of camel rides, and everybody else after some tourist dollars.

Which is understandable given the state of the Egyptian economy, and the crazy exchange rates for hard currency, but still super annoying. I hired a driver for the day, and the first thing he did was warn me about all the scams – the solution to which would be, of course, to hire a tour with a guide, who would then shoo all the other would-be guides away…

I respectfully declined – a good decision, since most people who book a tour or a ride just go to the same few obvious photo spots, while I found the unexplored nooks and crannies the most interesting parts. The pyramids are fine – but, well, it’s just a big-ass mountain made of rocks, that looks not that different from the standard postcard view.

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The building on the left houses a wooden barge excavated near the pyramid. If the sky looks a little washed out, it’s due to the persistent smog in the air – which I today was very glad existed, if only because it disperses the sunlight – with temperatures close to 40 degrees, much welcome…

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Speaking of smog – in this view from the edge of the pyramid area, you can see the suburbs of Cairo in the hazy distance.

camels on horizon.JPGThe other direction IS actual desert – real movie cliche desert, utterly dry rocks and sand, with hot desert wind blowing from the hazy distance. Although the camels so romantically perched on the horizon are not exactly trading bedouins, but tourists being taken to a photo spot.

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Yup, I did get to go inside, too – although only tried two, because it’s at least as steep and cramped as it looks, and the inside is completely bare – more one of those things you do so you can say you’ve done it.

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While we’re at ugly realism: this is possibly the most unflattering shot of the sphinx you can get. It’s pretty eroded from the back, and to the left of it you can just about make out the neon sign of a local Pizza Hut franchise in the distance.

And yes, it is not that large, more a large statue than a mountain – you can almost see the thought bubbles saying “I had imagined it to be larger” going off everybody’s head..

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This one’s not at Gizah, but at Saqqara, a few kilometres further outside of Cairo. Also pretty huge, but not that impressive – except that it just happens to be the oldest pyramid in Egypt, and at the same time the oldest standing stone building in the world.

desert view dahshur

But much more interesting was the field of tombs and excavations off to the side of the step pyramid at Saqqara. In apparently typical egyptian fashion, there are no signs, maps or explanations – I almost would have missed it completely, if not for taking a random side turn and then ending up in a huge desert area full of more-or-less recognizable ruins. The pyramids in the distance seen in the picture above are yet more pyramids, the red pyramid and the bent pyramid at Dashur. Is it weird that I was most fascinated by the endless views of empty desert?

hole hieroglyphs.JPG

And then you come accross e.g. a completely unassuming hole in the ground, which in closer inspection reveals some intricate and finely preserved carving of hieroglyphs on the doorway. (Although it’s definitely a good idea to check for a way back up again before jumping down – pretty much nobody else was coming that far from the step pyramid, and it’s not like there’s any guards around).

tomb entrance.JPGNever mind, just another random entrance to a tomb that happens to be 4000 years old.

memphis road.JPGOn the road to another stop – Memphis. Things got decidedly less glamorous than in downtown Cairo…

ramses.JPGNot much left of old Memphis, and the excavations were all closed – but there’s a pretty good, if small, museum with e.g. a big-ass statue of Ramses II (who apparently was a bit of an egomaniac, and left big-ass statues of himself all over the place).

ramses egomaniac.JPG

Another Ramses, I think.

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I’ll finish with this picture of my friendly driver for the day, and an excellent roadside lunch. For which, since the driver took me there, I probably criminally overpaid – but that’s just a fact of life in Egypt, and rather than get mad about it it’s much better to just accept it, and enjoy the fact that even after criminal overcharging I enjoyed that feast for less than 8 euros.

Cairo museums

Benefits of a downtown hotel: Can walk to the first few attractions to visit without having to figure out public transport, or haggle with taxi drivers.

First up: Museum of Islamic art.

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A beautiful, recently renovated museum showcasing art in the islamic style (think lots of calligraphy, floral and geometric designs rather than pictures) from lots of different regions and time periods.

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Recently renovated? Ah yes – the sign with the red dot in the picture above says “This mark signifies exhibits restored after the bombing of 2015″… Apparenly that bombing targeted the police headquarters next door, but the museum was caught in the blast.

Things have been politically…volatile in recent years – although I saw no sign of unrest.

The only military presence I saw was a somewhat surreal battle tank standing in front of a bank that had long queues – no idea why, did not want to ask, since “never get involved with people in uniforms carrying guns” is one of the more universal travel instincts.

But you realize the impact of political turmoil in all sorts of little things – taxi drivers proudly pointing out that this is where the protests happened when crossing liberation square (which on normal days is just a giant, traffic-choked roundabout), or the plan for replacing the ageing Egyptian Museum with a grand new one being delayed indefinitely only because it was championed by the previous regime.

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Just one more beautiful carving from the museum of islamic art.

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As far as I cant tell, it’s the exclusive job of the two ladies sitting in the far corner to hand out a carefully measured three sheets of toilet papers to people entering the restrooms.

 

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Aaaah, a well-earned respite in the local overpriced Starbucks clone. Cairo is the kind of place that makes you wish teleporting was a thing – teleport in, wander around in wild-eyed wonder soaking in the sights, sounds and smells, and then two hours later when you’re overwhelmed teleport out to more familiar surroundings. Since teleportation has not been invented yet, I’ll take “overpriced coffee with A/C for rich hipsters” as a local Western escape.

Side note: People smoke in cafes and restaurants, everywhere. Seems really weird that that was happening at home not so many years ago.

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The Egyptian museum – not A egyptian museum, but THE egyptian museum, the big one, the grand-daddy of em all. Pretty much every famous piece of Egyptian art (that did not end up at the Louvre or British museum) is here – the most important statues and artworks from tombs, temples and excavations all over Egypt.

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Pretty much every single piece here would be a treasured centerstone of any art museum anywhere in the world. There’s just soooo much here – you inevitably end up going “yup, another priceless statue that’s thousands of years old, just like the other few dozens”.

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Some of the collections are a little less..ahem…organized – feels like some archeologist returning from a dig a hundred years ago just dumped a bunch of stuff in vitrines, and then never got around to going through it again. Combined with ongoing repairs and renovations, it feels a bit like digging through Indiana Jones’ attic.

em mask

Nope, not the famous one – King Tut’s mask is here, too, of course, but you cannot take pictures there. But as I said, there’s plenty of almost equally magnificent more of any kind of egyptian artifact.

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Though I did sneak in this picture in the royal mummies gallery. Even more creepy in real life than it looks here.

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On the way back to the hotel, just one of the many stores selling surprisingly racy lingerie in a conservative country. Let’s say things are extremely diverse here, in everything from luxury to poverty, skin color between almost european and deepest African, architecture from impressive to depressing, and everything else.

Cairo

Starting a world tour in Cairo definitely means starting by jumping into the very deep end of the pool.

Wednesday morning was spent having coffee on my quiet, peaceful balcony in Munich. Wednesday night saw me desperately scanning the taxi line at cairo airport, trying to figure out what had went wrong with the airport ticket promised by my hotel, while dodging all the other taxi drivers smelling the blood of a disoriented recent arrival.

One of the less reputable guys approaching me was waving a cell phone in my face, showing Whatsapp messages in arabic, when I realized that my name was spelled out in one of the messages in roman letters. A few seconds later it was clear that the guy spoke no English whatsoever, but communicated with a series of smiles and thumbsups that he would drive me to my hotel. A second guy joined him – possibilities for his participations flashed through my mind: Is it a) look at the crazy foreigner, b) use the opportunitiy for baksheesh, or c) team up to rob me in an alley. It turned out to be a little bit of a), but mostly d) sit on the passenger side, and wave his arm out the window to signal an intended lane change. I was not sure whether the driver was not aware of the existence of turn signals, or considered that just too impersonal. But it left the driver free to pull up to cars on the left (left “lane” being to fluid a concept to be accurate), to what I interpreted as a mix of asking for directions and trading colorful insults.

  • Crazy traffic? Check.
  • Crazy heat? Check.
  • Crazy exchange rate, leading to everything being either quite expensive if priced for tourists or expats, or dirt cheap if priced for locals? Check.
  • Communication reduced to pointing and smiling? Check.
  • Things are just….different? Check.
  • Sticking out as a white guy like a sore thumb? Check.

third world problems

Yup, definitely not in Kansas anymore.

I cannot thank my 23-year-old past self enough for having spent enough time in India to aquire some useful outside-of-the-rich-western-world instincts that mostly translate surprisingly well to Egypt.

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The street in the middle of downtown with my hotel – think “beautiful turn-of-the-century colonial architecture after a few decades of crumbling”.

 

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Speaking of crumbling: The elevator “shaft” leading up to my hotel room. Can confirm it works, but have used the stairs ever since.

hotel room.JPGAn actually very nice room for about 20 Euros a night. AC is my new best friend  – was taking a short walk around the hotel at 10 at night, in complete darkness, and returned sweaty as hell at only 34 degrees – supposed to go up to 40 degreees the next days. Sadly, the door leads to a beautiful balcony, but has no actual window pane in the window, so need to keep it closed and dark to keep out the heat and noise.

 

drinks snacksTrying out some local snacks is half the fun of travelling. With food, the good old method of “point at stuff that looks appealing, then shove money in small bills at the vendor until he smiles or gives change back” luckily works pretty universally.

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Food shopping, intermediate level: Took a minute of watching other people to figure out that yup, not a distributor, you can buy stuff here, and you’re supposed to just grab pastries off the racks, then pay the guy in the red shirt.

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Food shopping, expert level: Snack place round the corner that seemed popular with locals. Pointing and smiling not being sufficient to convey that I really wanted to eat, I escalated to the “seem lost enough to for them to call over a friend that speaks a few words of English” technique.

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And found myself with dinner for about 40 eurocents. Unidentified kind of meat or vegetables, but definitely fresh and tasty.