The Pyramids: Part Two

Hello Dear Readers!

So I’ve just finished talking to you guys about my visit inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. It was certainly an experience, I’ll tell you that much. However! There’s more to the area than simply going inside, as there are multiple pyramids and (obviously) the sphinx to look at. The rest of our journey around the Pyramids was a lot better, and we got some awesome photos, except for one tiny detail.

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You see, there are a lot of hawkers around the Pyramids. You know, people who will “give you camel ride, best price, for you my friend the Egyptian price!”

They’re everywhere. And they’re vicious. The best thing for you to do is keep your head down, shake your head firmly no, and pretend like you can’t understand their English.

The worst thing to do is engage.

And the worst worst thing?

Let me tell you. Here we all are, meandering our way around the base of the pyramid (immediately after our hike inside), covered in sweat and still trying to make sense of what had just occurred. We’ve been solicited a dozen times already, but as long as you cling together in a large enough pack, they can’t really come at you.

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Safety in numbers

We’re like a herd of antelope, and they’re the lions, looking for the weakest link.

So here’s the thing. We’re here to better our Arabic, we really are. And to that end, we often go out, practice our language, and try to speak with people. And we have this friend, his name is Evan, whose Arabic is amazing. He loves meeting new people and improving his language.

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Except Evan is a little too enthusiastic sometimes. So we’re walking and chatting and all of a sudden we notice Evan has gone missing. After a moment’s search we spot him, taking selfies with a bunch of Egyptians and chatting with them in Arabic. He’s basically famous, this random white guy speaking like a local.

And we can sense it. There’s blood in the water.

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The rest of us huddle even more tightly together and begin hissing at Evan “come here! Come back!”

It’s too late.

Evan says his goodbyes to these guys and begins to walk away, at which point one of the hawkers shouts to the entire world“Hey! This foreigner can speak Arabic!”

And the hordes descend, a million men on camels and donkeys and horses all crowding forward, shouting at Evan (in Arabic) “You want a ride? You speak Arabic? Where did you learn it? We’ll give you the Egyptian price!”

And hapless Evan, finally sensing the danger, tries to scurry back into our herd and lose himself amongst us. And instead we’re targeted, all of us, harassed repeatedly while Evan pulls his hat down over his forehead and tries to look innocent.

One man followed us for half an hour with his horse and cart, even stopping when we stopped, to the point that he got out of his cart and followed us when we tried a diversionary tactic to lose him. He only left when we managed the entire walk without him and he realized there was nowhere left for him to drive.

But, y’know, the sphinx was pretty cool.

-Carissa “The Antelope” Rawson

The Pyramids: Part One

Dear Friends,

Oh my dear dear friends.

A few weeks ago we went to the pyramids. I mean, living in Cairo that’s obviously something you need to check off the list, right? My friend Carlos had been before, and from his grim expression whenever he spoke of the pyramids, I was a little bit apprehensive.

My dear friends. You have no idea.

It took us roughly twice as long as usual to actually get to the pyramids, because the president of Portugal happened to be visiting and they shut down the roads entirely. Four of us were in a cab, sweating as our driver chain smoked and the meter ran in the parking lot of cars. It was an auspicious start, I’ll tell you that much.

But we made it there safely, bought our tickets, and, with bated breath, wended our way up to the Great Pyramid of Giza.

It’s breathtaking, it really is. The sheer size of it is mind-boggling, and when you walk up, the ancient stones above you looming large, you can’t help but be filled with awe.

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We had bought tickets to go inside to have a look around the Great Gallery. “Be careful,” they warned us, “it’s a bit of a climb.”

And yes, yes it was.

Let me lay the scene for you here.

It’s Cairo, mid-April, and a group of eight of us have just purchased our tickets to go inside. We make our way up the ancient stones, where a roughly hewn opening has been cut into the wall.

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Just inside, it’s cooler, as the rock shades the sun and a nice cross breeze drifts into the mouth of the pyramid.

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“This is lovely,” you think, snapping a photo before making your way deeper into the pyramid.

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So excited!

Inside, an angry young Arab man is yelling at a line of tourists, insisting that the narrow path above is a two-way walkway. You look up, eyeing it, and wonder how small people must have been when they built it. It’s not simply narrow, no. It’s barely more than a tunnel, and people are bent over in half, crab walking up a steep incline as they attempt to avoid elbowing each other.

“Here goes nothing,” you mutter, lining up with your friends as you begin to climb. You soon realize you are becoming very well acquainted with your friend’s behind, as the angle of the hike has forced your head to become roughly level with his ass. You feel a moment of pity for the girl behind you, whom you’ve only just met and who is currently suffering the intense view of your sweaty Thailand pants.

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It’s getting hotter now, and humid, as the sweat of hundreds of people begins to condense on the walls of the pyramid. The air is rank with body odor, and you simply pray that your deodorant lasts the length of the climb. Harsh fluorescent lights from the eighties cast unforgiving glows on the people you pass, who prove, indeed, that it is a two way path. Several times you encounter men simply lying on the floor, for whom the walkway is too narrow for them to fit. They are waiting for the flow of people to ebb, so they can stagger down in relative peace. Little do they know that the stream of tourists is only intensifying, and you wonder how long they have before their sweating gives them dehydration.

On and on and on you climb, it’s a millennia of hiking, you with your back bowed and your contacts blurring and your breath coming in short, stuttered pants, punctuated with coughing as you inhale more of the fetid air.

Finally. Finally. You come to it.

The Great Gallery.

Tomb of Kings.

Ancient wonder of the world.

Home of history.

It is roughly the size of your bedroom back home, and empty save for a small stone coffin, devoid of markings, which sits in the back corner.

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Behold the glory.

You’re bent over, hands on your knees, attempting to regain your breath as you look around. “Is there more?” You ask aloud, and from the grimaces on the faces of the people around you, you know there isn’t.

Still, at least I’ve had the experience.

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So. Much. Regret.

-Carissa “You Can’t Pay Me To Go Back In There” Rawson

Ancient Alexandria

Hello Dear Readers!

My very first weekend in Cairo the university had set up an organized tour all the way up to Alexandria. I appreciated this for a multitude of reasons, not the least because transportation in Egypt is a nightmare.

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We started with lunch on the Nile

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It was a pretty good weekend overall, though definitely guided as we were shuffled from place to place:

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The catacombs, in which we explored ancient tombs covered with Roman-influenced hieroglyphics:

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Pompey’s Pillar, which is the largest freestanding pillar in the world:

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We also visited the new library of Alexandria, which was built in homage to the ancient library that was burned way back when:

 

 

The Citadel:

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Montazah’s Gardens:

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And last but not least, Starbucks, because I may be international but I’m still basic at heart. Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of it, but I’m sure you guys get the picture.

 

The tour was great, entirely in Arabic, and the food was good. Best part? It was free! The transportation, guide, food, entry tickets, and hotel were all given to us for the low cost of nothing. I call that a win.

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-Carissa “Um Excuse Me Where is the Starbucks” Rawson

The Scotland Diaries: Part 2

Hello Dear Readers!

Joni and I squeezed a ton of activities into her visit. My last post focused on Edinburgh and the things we did while there (we did approximately all the things). However, we also spent two days on a tour of the Highlands, which are absolutely stunning, and an entire day on an Outlander tour.

Now, I think it’s difficult to overstate how much we love Outlander.

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We love it this much

It’s a lot.

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Our guide took us to a bunch of random, gorgeous places. She was so cool all I want is to be her friend.

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At the Three Sisters in Glencoe

Standing stones! (No, she wasn’t sucked in)

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-Carissa

The Scotland Diaries: Part 1

Hello Dear Readers!

To say I’ve been overwhelmed here in Cairo is…an understatement. The amount of coursework we’re doing is *intensive*, to put it lightly. So I haven’t had much time to write.

But! I do have tons of photos from Joni’s (of Italy fame) visit to Scotland in the beginning of March. (I know, I’m way behind the times). I hope you guys enjoy!

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Joni tried (and liked!) haggis

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We visited Edinburgh Castle, Calton Hill, and my school

 We did it up proper with a whisky tasting

I even took her to poutine, which as a Canadian should be her favorite dish. (If my sources are correct)

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Last but not least, we enjoyed a very fancy afternoon tea at the Dome, which was exactly as posh as it sounds.

Tomorrow, more photos!

 

-Carissa

Hello From Cairo!

Hello Dear Readers!

I’m writing to you from the middle of downtown Cairo, where I’ll be living for the next six weeks!

I know I mentioned this before, so none of you should be surprised. I’m studying here in order to improve my Arabic, and so far it’s been great! And by great I mean really really hard but also effective. Granted, I’ve only been here for three days so far, so we’ll see what lies ahead.

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The view from my balcony

Apologies for the lack of pictures thus far. The inside of a classroom isn’t all that exciting.

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Ooooh, Tahrir Square

See you soon!

-Carissa “نور” Rawson

Swimming With Whale Sharks

Hello Dear Readers!

Today I want to tell you about our day spent snorkeling with whale sharks. For those of you who don’t know, whale sharks are absolutely massive, and the Maldives happens to be a hot spot for them. We spent most of our time snorkeling on the house reef (or eating. There was a lot of eating.), so ended up only doing this one excursion. Plus, as you can imagine, it was obscenely expensive.

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Heading to catch our speedboat

So what did it entail? Well, to be honest, it was pretty cool. We hopped into a speedboat with about six other people and a guide and sped away from the resort. It was about an hour long ride to our whale shark spotting destination, so we settled down and enjoyed the breeze, the waves, and the islands we were passing. Probably the coolest part was that in our wake, thousands of flying fish skipped away from us. Have you ever seen a flying fish? I hadn’t but they’re really cool, and watching them soar across the water, like skipping stones, was really neat.

The way shark spotting works is that you get to the hotspot and your guide literally climbs up on top of the boat, searching for enormous shadows in the water.

Unfortunately for us, there didn’t seem to be any sharks around. We spent hours trawling the water, slowly, searching for these guys. And it’s not like you can miss them, right? The problem is that whale sharks don’t normally swim so close to the surface, and they can (and do) dive right down and stay there.

They’d told us that the young males were the ones who usually swam up near the surface, but we had no luck.

So. One guy.

One guy had a drone. Brand new, top of the line, really cool. So he volunteered to fire up the ol’ drone and see if he could spot any whale sharks from high up. A cool idea, in theory.

He sent it up, and away we went, following after it as he searched. See, the problem though, was that drones can only fly for about twenty minutes at a time. Twenty minutes pass and we slow down, coming to a stop as he attempted to land it.

I mentioned we were in a speedboat, right? And that his drone was new, brand new?

Yeah. So there he goes, trying several times to lower it to the deck, only for it to- finally- hit the edge of the boat and *splash* right into the water.

And no, it didn’t float. Immediate panic ensues and he runs to grab a diving mask. He jumps in and flails around, while the guide leaps into the water- and- I kid you not, just dives.

It’d had time to sink by now, so I don’t know how far down she went. But she was under there for a while. A long while. I began to wonder if she was dead or simply lost, but then- miracle of miracles- up she popped from the depths, drone in hand.

You guys, this woman freedived into the Indian Ocean to find a lost drone. I can’t even find my goggles in a swimming pool.

The jury’s still out if he ever got it working again, since it wasn’t waterproof, but he did mutter angrily that it was a $1200 waste of money.

Shortly thereafter, we started to make our way back, disappointed at not finding any whale sharks- when- to our immense joy, we ran into a boat that had found one.

And once you find one, you gotta jump in ASAP because they don’t stay at the surface for very long. So in we went, flippers on, choking on saltwater and swimming furiously after this guy.

I’m going to take a moment now to thank my parents for all the swimming lessons they forced me to take, because I managed to stay in the front of the group and get an uninterrupted view. It was incredible.

Our guide had a GoPro with her. Take a look at the video below.

-Carissa “This Is Why I Don’t Have a Drone” Rawson

I Survived Snorkeling: A Tale of True Bravery

Hello Dear Readers!

When trying to figure out what to talk about, I usually scroll through my photos. I try to take a fair few, and use them to spur the stories I tell you guys. And that usually works out well for me.

But I realized something while going through my photos of the Maldives.

Paradise looks great:

But it also looks pretty similar in every photo. And we spent most of our time in the water, which meant we took no photos at all.

So you’re going to have to rely on my story telling skills more than my visuals, I’m afraid.

In that same vein, let me tell you about our snorkeling.

Now, I’ve been to a fair few places for snorkeling (and even once dived successfully in Australia), so I’ve always figured I knew what snorkeling was about. You go in,  see some cool fish, swim around a reef, try to not touch the urchin and get poisoned. You know, normal things. So when they told us they had a reef just off the beach of the resort, I was excited but not expecting much.

I cannot even tell you how badly I misjudged this reef. It stretched the entire length of the island, and during our time there we saw more different aquatic animals than I’ve seen in all my previous snorkeling put together.

We spent so much time snorkeling that, while my face was completely unburnt, I was unable to sit comfortably for over a week. And yes, I was wearing sunscreen.

The best part about this reef was that you could walk right out to it. The water was so close to it, and it was so expansive, that at times your belly was about an inch away from the coral and the reef stretched on literally as far as you could see. You had to be a good swimmer (or at least floater) in order to avoid getting caught up on the coral.

And this place was packed. Aside from all the regular recognizable fish (Nemo? Dory?), we also spent hours swimming with giant schools of fish, found an octopus hiding inside some coral, followed a sea turtle for over twenty minutes, and even swam out over the “drop-off” which was exactly like the one in Finding Nemo and exactly as terrifying as you’d think.

But my favorite part, which Harrison completely missed (he was frolicking in a school of fish), was when I was wandering along and happened upon a barracuda- or at least that’s what I thought it was. Turns out it was a Moray Eel, but at the time all I could think was “oh god please don’t bite me.”

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You can forgive the confusion

He was a mere few inches from my face and I frantically backpedaled, getting far enough away to wheel around and begin swimming in the opposite direction.

At which point I encountered two reef sharks.

And ok. Reef sharks aren’t huge. But they were sharks! And I was panicking! Alone!

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Ahhhhhhhh!

At this point I wheeled just 90 degrees (still avoiding the barracuda) and began swimming in towards the shore as quickly as possible.

Of course nothing happened to me. I mean come on, you think the Hilton is gonna let a shark eat their customers? No.

But it was scary!

– Carissa “The Bravest” Rawson

The Magnificent Maldives- Reserving a Room (For Free!)

Hello Dear Readers!

I’ve made so much fuss over the last year about the Maldives, and previously when I wrote about going, I detailed how I would spend points for nights at the Park Hyatt Maldives. Well, like I told you before, I ended up trading in those nights for a 4 day stay at the Conrad, simply because it was easier (and I wanted to go to their underwater restaurant.)

So how did I do it?

Well, the Conrad Maldives is the absolute highest category hotel that they’ve got, clocking in at an astonishing 95,000 points/ night. For reference, their cheapest hotels (Category 1) go for a mere 10,000 points/ night.

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I spent all year saving up for this, using sign up bonuses from the Hilton Honors Ascend card (which offers 100k points after 3k spend in 6 months) and the now defunct Citi Hilton Reserve card, which offered two free weekend nights at any hotel after 3k spend in the first three months.

I also saved up all the points I’d ever earned from doing my Diamond status challenge and made sure most of my stays during the last year were at Hiltons. This wasn’t just to earn points (though the earning ratio is vastly improved when you have status), but also because being a Diamond member means I get better perks here than at any other chain.

If you’re looking to acquire Hilton points, you can get the card I mentioned above as well as the Hilton Honors Aspire card, which earns you 100k points after 4k in spend in the first three months. (It also gives you Diamond status simply by owning it). There’s also the no annual fee Hilton Honors card, which gives you 50k bonus points after 1k in spend in the first three months.

Obtaining these three cards will net you a minimum of 250,000 points before spend (which will easily drive it up another 10-15k)- nearly enough for three nights at the Conrad Maldives. If you can get yourself up to 380,000 points (very doable in a year, as the Hilton cards earn rewards very quickly), you’ll have enough points for 4 nights. The Hilton Honors program gives the 5th night free on all hotel stays, so you’ll be able to stay for 5 nights for the cost of 4!

So, yes, it’s expensive. But you’re also redeeming your points at a hotel that regularly goes for over $2,000 a night, so you’re making it well worth your while.

The reward room you get is the beach villa, which is nice enough on its own. But a mere month before my arrival, Hilton accidentally made overwater villas (normally a $150-$300/ night upgrade) available for redemption for only 95,000 points a night- the same rate as a beach villa!

Unfortunately, I was past my cancellation window, so thought I had lost the opportunity to snag this. However, I still gave the Diamond desk a call and to my extreme surprise, they pulled some strings, replacing my 4 night stay in a beach villa with 4 nights in an overwater villa at no extra cost! I was more than a little pleased, and have continuously gloated since.

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For us!

Anyway, if you’re looking to stay, those three cards are the easiest way to earn large quantities of points, and once you’ve accumulated enough, it’s worth your while to aim for 4 nights and get 5. If you’re averse to too many cards, American Express transfers points to Hilton at a 2:1 ratio, so you’ll need a mere 190,000 American Express points for your 5 nights at the Maldives.

Up next, more fun and less points. See you soon!

– Carissa “Smug AF” Rawson

Maldivian Money- The Monopoly Money That Wasn’t

Hello Dear Readers!

I’ve got a great many things to say about the Maldives even though it was a relatively short trip, but half of them are to do with points and the other half are about what I actually did while I was there. And if you’re not into points- well, then, today is your lucky day!

Today I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a good story- a tale of both woe and triumph, (but mostly woe), where a girl learns a costly lesson but also has an amazing time. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive, are they?

So. I told you all how the Conrad Maldives is expensive, right? And I knew this going in. In fact, I broke down for you exactly how to save alllll kinds of money during your trip.

And yet.

And yet.

It was our first night, you see. Harrison and I had just arrived, met up in the Conrad Lounge at the airport, and made our jolly way via seaplane to the resort. (Which was amazing, by the way).

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Super cool!

And we’d enjoyed the bottle of sparkling wine that they’d left in our room. We’d taken a dip in our own private pool, and had already swam off the edge of our overwater villa down into the ocean.

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We were flying high, you could say.

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So we wended our hungry, tipsy, way down to dinner. It was gorgeous, an absolutely phenomenal view. The restaurant was built on a deck over the beach, and nearly no one else was there, which meant that the lights, softly glowing, fell only on us, the sand, and water, while the gentle crash of the waves kept us company. Such a scene paved the way for excess, as the magic was kept alive through small glasses of champagne, toasted tipsily to each other, to our fortune, and to our immense luck at being there in paradise, together.

One, two, perhaps three glasses of champagne each.

And dessert. You can’t have a luxurious dinner without dessert, right? Molten lava cake and ice cream, melting messily on our plates as we laughed, drank, and toasted.

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Such indulgence, the scene was almost fantastical, like something out of a movie. I could write you volumes about it, but suffice to say that it was so great I almost don’t regret what happened next.

You know those places that don’t publish their prices? And their saying is “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

Well, we should have asked. Because when that bill came- oh Lord did it come.

It was so expensive that at first glance I looked down, scoffed, and reached for my wallet, thinking that the prices were in “Maldivian Money-” some sort of Monopoly money that meant nothing to my mighty US dollar.

No, no they were not.

And that’s the story of how I spent my entire budget on my first dinner in the Maldives.

– Carissa “Worth It” Rawson