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Into the Wilderness of Egypt: Climbing Mount Sinai

Into the Wilderness of Egypt: Climbing Mount Sinai

January 10. 3 pm. The summit of Mount Sinai, Egypt.

I’m sitting at the top of a mountain I’ve only ever read about…and certainly never thought I’d climb. From this vantage point, I can see a huge portion of the Sinai Peninsula. I can also see the wide open plain where Moses, Aaron, and the ancient Israelites camped at the base of the mountain over 3,000 years ago.

In every direction, nothing but desert spreads out before me. The landscape is stark but strikingly beautiful, changing colors every few seconds as clouds drift by overhead. It was almost a 3-hour hike to get here, but the rewards far outweigh the effort.

This, dear readers, is my journey to Mount Sinai.

mt sinai

Our day began at the not-terribly early hour of 7 am. We awoke in our seaside bungalow at Amanda Hotel, an absolutely delightful place to stay. The owners, Mohammed and Rita, warmly welcomed us in and treated us like family.

dahab

dahab

dahab

The hotel sits right on the coast of the Red Sea, which is a stunning shade of deep blue. Tall desert peaks surround the coastal town of Dahab, our home for the next five days. And across the water, we had perfect views of the craggy coast of Saudi Arabia.

dahab

dahab

dahab

dahab

The best part of our morning (and every morning we were there)? Ali’s incredible Egyptian breakfasts. Each day there were different, but each day they were literally a work of art — ful, omelets, cheese, veggies, the works.

dahab

Fueled up for the day, we climbed inside our waiting car with our driver for the day, Ahmed. It took about two hours to get through at least 10 security roadside checkpoints and into the interior of the Sinai Peninsula. At every checkpoint, we had to show our passports while heavily armed guards with German shepherds sniffed our car (the dogs sniffed, not the guards).

With such heavy security here — and everywhere in Egypt — you’d think it would make you feel leery. If anything, it’s just the opposite. They’re protecting these sites and the people who live there, and they’re doing a darn good job of it. We wondered if there would be any sort of negative reaction to our American passports because — let’s face it — America’s not exactly the most loved country at the moment.

Especially in this part of the world.

To our surprise, though, we were met with nothing but smiles, hellos, and warm welcomes (from the guards, not the dogs). In fact, that’s pretty much been the reaction everywhere in Egypt. The locals make a few jabs at Trump, we agree, and everyone gets a good laugh out of it.

Seriously, Egyptians are some of the most open-minded people I’ve met anywhere. Nothing at all like they’re portrayed in the media.

But anyway, that’s another tale for another blog.

Onward and onward we drove, past miles and miles of barren mountains and sand, before we arrived at last at St. Katherine’s Monastery.

sinai

Located at the base of Mount Sinai, this is the oldest working Orthodox monastery in the world. It also contains the world’s oldest continually-operating library. It’s home to the 4th-century Syriac Sinaiticus and the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus, considered to be one of the best-preserved Greek texts of the New Testament.

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

After a brief tour of the monastery, we fueled up for our climb with two hearty bowls of vegetable soup and a few cups of delicious Bedouin tea. This delicious concoction is made with black tea, sage, thyme, mint, cardamom, and plenty of sugar. No joke — I drank about 5 cups a day while we were in Sinai, and I brought a big bag home with me!

Anyway, I digress. We pass security checkpoint #247 (they are thorough, I give them that!) before we meet our Bedouin guide for the day, Abdul. As we began our hike past St. Katherine’s and into the wilderness, we quickly got a sense of just how isolated and alone we were.

sinai egypt

There was no one — literally NO ONE — on the entire trail. Abdul explained that most visitors make the trek overnight so they can see the sunrise. That’s actually how our tour company had it set up for us, but I nixed that one real fast.

Climb a deserted mountain in the middle of the night? In near-freezing temperatures? And forfeit an entire night of sleep when we’re already exhausted?

No thanks. I don’t value the sunrise that much — not even on Mount Sinai.

Because we chose to make our climb in the middle of the day (trust me, it was still PLENTY cold enough), we had the entire mountain to ourselves. It was just us, Abdul, and a camel named Paris (more on him later) for six hours up and down the mountain. We did not pass another soul!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s return to the base of the mountain near St. Katherine’s, where I found myself wishing I really, REALLY didn’t have to climb this mountain today. Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to — badly. But after a long travel day the day before and eight straight days of a crazy tour schedule, I was exhausted.

sinai egypt

Yes, I was gonna do it. But I was exhausted.

Well, miracles have happened in this region before. In a way, one kinda happened for me too. Right at that moment, out of nowhere, a Bedouin man and a camel appear and begin walking alongside us.

sinai egypt

At first, I don’t pay them much attention. I figure Mr. Bedouin and Mr. Camel live somewhere nearby and they’re headed home for lunch or something. Nope. As fate would have it, the kindly Bedouin man asked if I would like to ride his camel (Paris) to the top of Mount Sinai.

Why, yes, good sir. You must have been reading my mind. I would like that very, very much!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

I gotta say — my mood improved considerably once I was seated on Paris’ tall back (hump?). Jeremy and Abdul continued on foot while the still-unnamed Bedouin led me and Paris up, up, and up the winding trail of Mount Sinai.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt
Camel selfie!

Gradually we overtook Abdul and Jeremy as we made a steady, lumbering trek up the mountainside. Not much for me to do except sit back, take pictures, and enjoy the scenery, including Paris’ long neck and adorably cute camel ears.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

When the Bible describes the barrenness of this wilderness, it’s hard to imagine just how barren it really is. Even now, thousands of years later, there’s still virtually nothing here. No water, no trees, not a single blade of grass. It truly was only by God’s power that the Israelites survived for 40 years here!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

At last we reached the shade of the mountain’s summit. All that remained was a dizzying 750 steps to reach the top! At this point, I bid farewell to Paris and my helpful Bedouin and enjoyed the view while waiting for Jeremy and Abdul to catch up.

sinai egypt
I’ll always have Paris!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

We’re nearing the end of our climb. The temperature’s dropping as the elevation increases, so we throw on an extra layer and prepare to continue. On foot, Jeremy, Abdul, and I begin the final steps that will take us to the glorious summit of Mount Sinai.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

And then…we’re there. Standing an impressive 7,496 feet (2,285 m) above sea level, on top of one of the most famous mountains in mankind’s history. The view was breath-taking…and not just because we were out of breath.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

What’s at the top of Mount Sinai, you may wonder? A monument to Moses?

Nope. When you reach the summit, all you’ll find is a small covered area for hikers to sleep, a few rundown Bedouin shacks, and the unfinished remains of both a church and a mosque (both started in 1865 and never completed).

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt
Bedouin tea atop Mount Sinai

sinai egypt

It was an epic day, an epic climb, and an epic sight. Abdul asked if we wanted to stay ’til sunset, but we didn’t feel equipped to hike back down the mountain after dark.

So instead we sat and enjoyed the views in the late afternoon sun, marveling at the fact that the view probably wasn’t much different all those millennia ago.

sinai egypt

How NOT to Cross the Thailand-Myanmar Border

How NOT to Cross the Thailand-Myanmar Border

Remember the time we illegally crossed the Thailand-Myanmar border…TWICE?

Oh, wait. That was today.

Since there’s already plenty of (boring) advice floating around about how to make visa runs from Bangkok to a neighboring country, let me share with you a humorous story of how NOT to do it.

kanchanaburi river kwai bridge thailand

Why visa runs?

Any foreigner who’s spent any time in Thailand knows the aggravation of visa runs. Truthfully, they’re the bane of our existence. While having a built-in vacation every 2-3 months SOUNDS wonderful, the reality is that they can be very expensive or stressful – or both.

But alas, it’s the price you pay to live in “paradise.” Every 60-90 days, you dutifully jump out of the country to get a fresh stamp in your passport and come back in for your next go-round. I don’t make the rules, I just follow them!

At least, I usually do, when I know about them. You see, Thai immigration laws change about as often as Taylor Swift’s boyfriends. Every other month, it seems like there’s some new rule or regulation to follow (translation = new way to get money from foreigners).

When we went to file our 30-day extensions yesterday (the only way to turn a 60-day stay into a 90-day stay), we were informed that because we hadn’t “registered” our address via our landlord, we would have to pay fines before we could get our extensions.

Like, several hundred DOLLARS in fines.

I love Thailand and everything, but I wasn’t too keen on paying through the nose just to get another 28 days in the country (since we already have our real visa run booked in late June). So we had three options: 1) Pay the fines, 2) Hop a quick flight to Malaysia, or 3), Drive out to the Myanmar border and do a land crossing.

Judging by the title of this post, you can probably guess we went with Option #3. Sounds easy enough, right? Hop in a car, drive out to the border, get a few stamps in the passport, and we’re good to go.

Not so fast, amigos. Not so fast.

Journey to Kanchanaburi

The day began innocently enough. Our South African friend Dee jumped at the opportunity to get out of Bangkok for the day and graciously offered to drive us the 120 or so miles to the border.

So we hop in his car around 6:30 am and begin the 4-hour drive out the Myanmar border, through lots of lush green farmland, palm trees, and banana trees. As we neared the border, the terrain grew increasingly hilly, with dramatic green karst cliffs pushing out of the earth.

Around 10:30, we begin nearing a series of checkpoints leading up to the Thailand-Myanmar border at Ban Phu Nam Ron. Security is lax at best – in one town, the soldiers were joining in with a passing street parade – so it was smooth sailing all the way until we lost reception on our cell phones.

In retrospect, that should have been our first clue.

Crossing the border at Ban Phu Nam Ron

Driving along past several makeshift security posts (translation = bored Thai policemen playing on their cell phones while traffic goes by), we reached a point where a pickup truck was stopped in the middle of the road. After waiting for several minutes, the cars behind us started to go around the truck and keep going.

Deciding to follow suit, we also pulled around the parked (and empty, we discovered) pickup truck and continued on our way. A moment later we hit a slightly more official-looking roadblock. Dee waits in the car (since he’s not making the crossing) while Jeremy and I get out to ask the officers in the bamboo hut about exit formalities.

As you can imagine, not much English is spoken, and our Thai is definitely not advanced enough to be asking questions about immigration. The officers looked at our passports and then waved us onward, so onward we went. The same thing happened at the next checkpoint down the road, and the next, where the road suddenly turned from smooth pavement to bumpy red clay.

Faithfully we stop at every checkpoint and show our passports, and every time we’re waved further onward. At last, we spot a dilapidated building with the word “IMMIGRATION” written on a wooden sign. We’d made it!

So Dee parks the car and waits while Jeremy and I head inside to get our exit stamps out of Thailand. The immigration “office” is basically a dusty wooden shed with a makeshift desk, two bored-looking officers, and four sleeping dogs. With smiles on our faces (this has been the easiest visa run EVER!), we hand over our passports to officer #1.

“Exit stamp?” he asks.

Our smiles fade. “We get stamp here,” we reply.

The language barrier limits understanding for both parties. “Thailand stamp?” he tries again.

Jeremy and I are thoroughly confused at this point. “We get stamp here?” we repeat, but this time it’s a question.

Officer #2 comes in at this point, and they spend the next 10 minutes pouring through our passports for exit stamps that don’t exist. It’s at this point we finally realize:

We have crossed into Myanmar…ILLEGALLY.

We are almost THREE MILES into Myanmar…ILLEGALLY.

(Let me stress that Myanmar is not like Thailand. Until about 10 years ago, it was a socialist country completely cut off from the outside world. The Burmese experienced decades of oppression and harsh rule under a military regime. Even now, Myanmar is light years behind the rest of Asia).

And we’ve just unwittingly entered it…ILLEGALLY.

This is a big enough problem for Jeremy and I, as American citizens. But for our South African friend Dee (whose passport hasn’t been checked once during this whole process), it presents a whole new problem.

South Africans are NOT eligible for visas on arrival in Myanmar like Americans are. So not only is Dee illegally across the border, but he’s not even ALLOWED to receive a visa to be there!

There and Back Again

Fortunately, the immigration officers were in a fabulous mood today. Rather than throwing us all in Burmese prison, he returned our passports and instructed us to drive back to Thailand to get our exit stamps. (And then return to Myanmar.)

And at which of the 27 checkpoints were we supposed to do this? That part, of course, got lost in translation.

So we began the bumpy journey back through all those lovely checkpoints, half laughing at and half terrified by our current predicament. Jeremy and I hop out again at – checkpoint #3, maybe? – and use Google translate to try to get our point across.

Again, communication is limited. But we manage to understand that we need to keep going until we reach (something?) that looks like an official building.

So back we go, until the dirt road turns to pavement again. We pass through another checkpoint before we FINALLY see a little blue building with a thatched roof that says “IMMIGRATION” on it. To our surprise, there’s now a queue of cars leading up to the building, and the road is now blocked by a gigantic red and white striped gate.

Where the heck was THAT when we drove through earlier?

So yes…we had unknowingly driven right past the border patrol, right past the immigration office, and almost three miles into another country. AND NOBODY NOTICED.

Crossing Ban Phu Nam Ron Border – Take Two!

Now that Dee (and his car) were safely back on Thai soil, he wisely decided to park and let us sort ourselves out. Jeremy and I walk over to the immigration office and fill out the appropriate paperwork before we’re herded onto a “shuttle” (translation = pickup truck) to take us across the border.

We’re crammed into the truck with 3 young women and the surly old driver. It doesn’t take us long to realize that everyone on both sides of the border has heard our story by now.

At every checkpoint along the way, the soldiers all laugh and wave at us, like we’re visiting celebrities. Our fellow passengers are snickering with the driver and *secretly* taking photos of us (as if we wouldn’t notice). Once we receive our much-awaited Myanmar entry and exit stamps, even we’re starting to laugh.

We’re about to make our 4th trip across the border in under an hour…and only the 2nd legal crossing!

At last, we arrive back at the Thai immigration office, where we’re stamped in for another 60 days (in this case, 28 days, since we’re already booked to go to Bali at the end of June). And then we do what any relieved persons would do in this instance – celebrate with cold, frothy, heavenly cups of Thai iced tea.

After all, you know what they say: Any day you DON’T end up in Burmese prison is a good day!

Visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai

Astonishingly, it’s not even NOON. We’ve driven 4 hours from Bangkok and crossed the border a record 4 times…before noon.

Dang, we’re good.

Dee has been loyally waiting for us in the small parking lot near the immigration office. Famished and relieved, we backtrack an hour to the city of Kanchanaburi. After a quick lunch on the river, we set off to tour the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.

In case you missed the old movie with Alec Guinness, this bridge was built during World War II and is part of what’s known as “The Death Railway.” An estimated 9,000 laborers lost their lives constructing the railway line that ran between Thailand and Myanmar (then Burma).

After our visit to Kanchanaburi, we headed for Bangkok and arrived home around 6 pm – twelve hours after we left! Not only did we get an incredible story out of the ordeal, but the entire day cost us around $50. (Considering the fines and extensions would’ve cost us $230, I’d say we made out pretty well!)

In conclusion, dear friends, now you know how NOT to do a visa run across the Thailand-Myanmar border.

Please note: This travel tale is meant to entertain, and also shed some light on the realities of living abroad. I am in NO WAY suggesting that you ever attempt to cross this border (or any other border) illegally. The truth is that we are all very, VERY fortunate that there were no repercussions for our blunder!

Introduction to Nepal: Exploring the Colorful Streets of Kathmandu

Introduction to Nepal: Exploring the Colorful Streets of Kathmandu

I’m currently sitting under 2 duvets, wearing 3 pairs of socks, a furry beanie, and 4 layers of long-sleeved shirts. I’m doing this because the hotel I’m staying in – like nearly all structures in Nepal – has NO HEAT.

By the way, did I mention it’s the first of January? Whose brilliant idea was it to come to Nepal – the “rooftop of the world” – in JANUARY?

Oh, wait. It was my idea.

Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive…

And it seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. Because I’m telling ya…eighteen months of nonstop 90F (30C) weather in Thailand and Malaysia makes a week of “cooler” weather sound mighty appealing.

At the moment, though, it’s about 40F (4C) outside, and it feels like about MINUS 40 inside this icebox of a hotel room. That brilliant idea I had to escape the heat of Bangkok is suddenly sounding more like a suicide mission. If this blog ends halfway through, assume the worst…that I am a frozen cadaver, a lanky blond icicle somewhere in downtown Kathmandu.

But I digress.

You might be shocked to learn that Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal (and, if today is any indication, one of the coldest cities on earth), is less than a 3-hour plane ride from Bangkok (which is literally the HOTTEST city on earth, mean temperature). This is especially surprising that Nepal sits at the same latitude (27 degrees north) as the sunny, tropical state of Florida.

Don’t believe me? Check a map!

Anyway, the flight out of Bangkok takes you through scenic northern Thailand, skirts the turquoise blue coastline of Myanmar and the gray haze of Bangladesh, and finally descends over the surprisingly green Kathmandu Valley and the foothills of the Himalayas. Then again, maybe all the green shouldn’t be so surprising – this is a tropical country. It just happens to have the world’s tallest mountains in its backyard!

Over the Myanmar Coast
Kathmandu Valley
Landing in Kathmandu

Immigration was a breeze, too – one of the fastest and most efficient I’ve seen anywhere. You enter the quiet, cozy airport and queue up at a row of kiosks, where you scan your passport and enter all pertinent info. Then you walk over to the payment counter and hand over US$25 for a 15-day tourist visa. Finally you head over to the Mr. Nepalese Customs Officer, who places a shiny little sticker in your passport and wishes you a pleasant stay in his country.

The whole process took less than 15 minutes. Brilliant.

Exiting the airport wasn’t as much of a zoo as I’d expected, and while there were a handful of touts offering taxis and hotels, they were far less aggressive than those you find in other Asian locales. Our guesthouse arranged a free pickup for us, and we were delighted to find a smiling man holding up a sign that read “Amy Rogers.”

Easy as 1, 2, 3.

It was a disappointingly cloudy day as we climbed into the waiting car, but the gray skies did little to diminish from the vibrant colors that surrounded us. From silk scarves to prayer flags, from brightly painted guesthouses and temples to shops full of trekking gear and handicrafts – even on a gray winter day, the city of Kathmandu was bustling with color and energy.

Before we even reached our guesthouse, we knew we were going to love it here.

We chose to stay near Thamel, the backpacker quarter, for easy access to restaurants, shops, and the Thai Embassy (which we will visit tomorrow to renew our visas). Our check-in at Kathmandu Madhuban Guesthouse (conveniently located next to the top-ranked restaurant in Kathmandu) was just as painless as the rest of the journey, where we were quickly whisked up to our simple (and freezing) but clean and spacious room.

Kathmandu Madhuban Guesthouse
Rooftop of Madhuban Guesthouse
I have no idea what’s up with the random shoe…

Lunch (and dinner, for that matter) were next door at Blueberry Kitchen, a new restaurant known for its awesome selection of both traditional Nepalese and Italian/American offerings. We warmed ourselves with a delicious masala chai tea and honey latte before our first meals in Nepal arrived.

I’d chosen a fusion dish of homemade tagliatelle with eggplant, peppers, and yak cheese. Don’t let the yak scare you; it’s mild, salty, and creamy, very much like a fresh mozzarella.

Jeremy chose a local dish, chicken chiolla – basically a spicy “stew” of grilled chicken, garlic, and ginger, served with steamed rice.

Fantastic.

Dinner was just as good (maybe even better). We went all local this time with dishes of chicken and vegetable momos (spicy pan fried dumplings, not totally unlike perogies), butter paneer masala, and aloo sadeko (a cold, spicy potato salad). Dessert was a homemade yogurt-based cheesecake with graham cracker crust and a drizzle of chocolate.

I now officially understand why this humble little establishment has been ranked and reviewed so highly. The food and service were both OUTSTANDING.

The little bit of time that remained was spent wandering the narrow, colorful streets of Thamel, past all sorts of touristy shops, cafes, hotels, and tour companies.

Although Kathmandu is undeniably busy (and a little dirty), it’s nowhere near the scale of activity you’d find in a city like, say, New Delhi or Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a “good” level of energy – enough to invigorate you as a traveler without overwhelming or exhausting you.

The people are just lovely, too, and the level of spoken English here is impressive. After more than a year of struggling to understand (and be understood) in Bangkok, it’s a breath of fresh air to come to Kathmandu and be able to have a real, meaningful conversation with the locals. Everyone we’ve met so far has been polite, quiet, and friendly, always with a smile on their face.

Aside from the imminent threat of hypothermia, what’s not to love?

My Love Affair With Singapore (And Its Food)

My Love Affair With Singapore (And Its Food)

Allow me to warn you in advance that I may start waxing poetic during this blog. After a 6 year absence, I’ve just spent 3 days in one of my favorite countries, and the love affair with Singapore has started up all over again. So please forgive me if I start overusing such words as love, awesome, beautiful, spectacular, delicious, perfect, and incredible.

Because, well…Singapore just naturally IS all of those things.

downtown singapore

It can’t help itself. We’re talking about an independent country that is actually just a big city on a tiny island at the southern tip of Malaysia. Does 5.5 million people on an island that’s only 276 square miles (half the size of LA or NYC) sound like total and utter chaos to you? If it were anywhere else, it probably would be.

But not Singapore. Singapore is an incredible (overused adjective #1) blend of very different cultures – Chinese, Indian, Malay, and British – that has somehow produced the cleanest, quietest, safest, and most orderly city on the planet. Sound boring or dull? It’s just the opposite. The effortless blend of so many cultures, the unique and impressive feats of architecture, the vibrant colors of perfectly manicured lawns, gardens, and tropical trees, and a mouth-watering array of the freshest, spiciest, most flavorful dishes you’ve ever tasted…

singapore

Hey! Put that suitcase down. You can buy your plane ticket and pack your bags AFTER you finish reading this, thank you very much. Besides, I haven’t even told you one of the best parts. Guess what the official language of Singapore is?

Yep. It’s English. Not the broken-sorta-kinda-maybe-a-little English you get in Malaysia or India, but straight up, first language, fluent (British) English. So forget the language barrier, because there is NONE. That makes navigating this little island-city-paradise a total breeze!

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. Saying how awesome (overused adjective #37) this place is.

The historic Raffles Hotel
The historic Raffles Hotel

Singapore Food Crawl 101

We touched down in Singapore on Friday after a smooth 2-hour flight from Bangkok. Our friend SherMay was there to greet us and escort us to lunch – because, after all, the official pastime of Singapore is EATING. You think Americans eat a lot? Ha! We got nothin’ on the Singaporeans. They eat a minimum of 5 meals a day, not to mention all the snacks in-between. They wander from hawker center to hawker center like devotees making pilgrimages to holy sites, because let’s face it…in Singapore, food IS the national religion.

So we sit down in a blissfully air conditioned restaurant and jump right into the good stuff. SherMay orders a very traditional Singaporean starter called ota, basically a spicy fish “cake” made out of chopped up mackerel and lots of chili. Entrees arrive in the form of char kway teow (thick rice noodles with shrimp, clams, egg, sprouts, scallions, and chili, wok fried until slightly charred) and assam laksa (a spicy, sour fish soup with rice vermicelli). Dessert is cendol, a colorful blend of shaved ice, grass jelly, red beans, assorted fruit, and a generous, heavenly dollop of gula melaka (sweet palm sugar). We waddle out of the restaurant in food-induced comas, stuffed to the gills but already eagerly anticipating our next meals.

Char Kway Teow
Char Kway Teow

By the way, we haven’t even left the AIRPORT yet.

When we do at last venture to the outside world, we’re greeted with a blast of humidity and warm (but not TOO hot) tropical air. At only 2 degrees north of the equator, Singapore is the epitome of endless summer. Currently they’re moving into their rainiest season, which made for some killer thunderstorms and cooler temperatures (translation = 85 instead of 95).

singapore rain tree

We drive down a gorgeous tree-lined (rain trees, I later learned) road that looks like it belongs in a Disney theme park. Seriously, not a single blade of grass was out of place. To our left was a narrow strip of beach and dozens of enormous cargo ships and, off on the horizon, the Indonesian island of Batam. A short drive took us to our Airbnb accommodation for the weekend, where we dumped our bags and proceeded to head almost immediately to dinner.

Because, you know, it had been about 2 hours since we last ate. That’s like 2 days in Singapore time!

Singapore Strait
Singapore Strait

So SherMay and her husband Fred take us to a nearby Chinese restaurant, assuring us that it was more “Singaporean Chinese” than “China Chinese.” This is no small point; the Singaporeans take great pride in their unique and delicious food, as they should!

Over a pot of freshly brewed chrysanthemum tea, we savor course after course of Singaporean specialties – BBQ-honey fried pork, cereal shrimp (as the name suggests, it is shrimp rolled in crushed breakfast cereal and deep fried to a perfect crisp), olive fried rice (had to try that one), ginger-glazed grouper, and broccoli sautéed with fresh lump crab meat.

singapore dinner

Dessert was a warm yam paste topped with cashews and sweetened condensed milk – think an Asian version of sweet potato casserole, and you’re on the right track.

The verdict? AMAZING. (Overused adjective #62).

After a night in our Airbnb under neon pink Minion sheets (hey, it’s budget accommodation, okay?) we awaken to a truly awesome thunderstorm. Fred is kind enough to dash over to our building with an umbrella before we journey down the street for breakfast in a VERY local hawker center (translation = I haven’t been stared at that much since India). In case the term is unfamiliar, hawker centers are simply a collection of street food vendors that have been moved into one big area (like an outdoor cafeteria) so that they can be monitored for quality and food safety. Works for me – less walking, better food!

sinagpore

So Fred takes us on the grand culinary tour of Lot 16 Hawker Center, from Singaporean to Indian to Chinese to Muslim Malay. Some of it, like nasi lemak, we know very well from our time in Malaysia. Other dishes, like fried carrot cake, are totally new to us.

Wait a second, did you say…FRIED CARROT CAKE?

Yes, I did, although let me add that it’s not the frosting-covered carrot cake you’re picturing from home. Singaporean fried carrot cake is, in fact, a delectable blend of white carrots (or white radish) and rice flour, pounded into a neat cake-like texture, then wok-fried to a slight char with egg, scallions, and plenty of hot chili.

Singaporean fried carrot cake
Singaporean fried carrot cake

Sound delicious? IT IS. So much, in fact, that I nearly cried when I couldn’t find it for lunch yesterday.

After breakfast, we bid farewell to Fred and took the train downtown to play tourists for the day. The sights were all wonderfully familiar to us – the jaw-dropping skyline of the business district, the water spewing out of the mouth of the Merlion fountain, the flying “ship” atop Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the colorful, quirky eateries at Clarke Quay, and the nostalgia of the century-old Raffles Hotel, where writers like Ernest Hemingway used to frequent.

Singapore Harbor and Marina Sands Hotel
Singapore Harbor and Marina Bay Sands Hotel
"Cloud Nine" Contemporary Art
“Cloud Nine” Contemporary Art
Singapore River
Singapore River
Clarke Quay
Clarke Quay
Traveler's palms in the courtyard of Raffles Hotel
Traveler’s palms in the courtyard of Raffles Hotel

(Fun fact: Ever heard of a cocktail called the Singapore Sling? It was invented by a bartender at the Raffles in 1915, back when men hung out at the bar and drank in droves but it was still socially unacceptable for women to consume alcohol in public. The bartender invented a delicious concoction of gin, cherry brandy, Cointreau, fruit juices, and grenadine for the ladies to drink, and because of its bright pink color, everyone just assumed the girls were drinking juice. BRILLIANT.)

Anyway, strolling through the tree-lined streets of Singapore was like visiting an old friend. We were struck all over again by how clean and quiet and orderly it is. There’s no graffiti, no honking horns, no litter, nothing to spoil the perfection of its appearance. With so little land area to work with, the city is almost entirely vertical, with glittering high-rise hotels and office buildings as far as the eye can see. Down below, you can still catch a glimpse of the Singapore of old – a tucked-away Chinese restaurant with bright red lanterns dangling at the entrance, or a long row of joined townhouses with slanted rooves and brightly painted shutters.

singapore

singapore

St. Andrew's Cathedral
St. Andrew’s Cathedral

It doesn’t matter where you look or which street you turn down. There’s no perfect city on earth, but if there WAS one, it would be Singapore.

We wandered the city streets for hours – snapping pictures, enjoying the views, and grabbing $1 cups of sweet yam and red bean ice cream from a street vendor (because we hadn’t already eaten 4 times that day).

singapore

Dinner was at a new upscale hawker center called Glutton’s Bay – appropriate, since Singapore turns you into a glutton as soon as you arrive. Jeremy got a gargantuan portion of Peking duck fried rice (pausing here to allow you to wipe the drool from your screen) while I sampled one of Singapore’s most famous dishes…chili crabs! We’re talking massive Sri Lankan crabs swimming in a pool of tomato-based “gravy” loaded with chili and other delectable spices. Fiery hot, slightly sweet, perfectly savory…in a word, DELICIOUS (overused adjective #88).

gluttons-bay-hawker-center-singapore

chili crabs singapore

In case you haven’t noticed yet, we like the food in Singapore. A LOT. Why there isn’t a Singaporean restaurant on every corner in every city around the globe, I’ll never know. The world is seriously missing out!!

singapore

Yesterday we hung out with SherMay and Fred and (you guessed it) ate more food. For breakfast I tried wheat toast with kaya spread (a locally made coconut jam). Then we wandered through a local grocery store for a while before we found a goldmine of imported New Zealand-made Cadbury chocolate, including our two favorite flavors – Mint Bubbly, and Hokey Pokey (crispy butterscotch bits in milk chocolate). We bought embarrassingly large bars for ourselves and will be eating Cadbury for weeks (okay, maybe a few days) to come.

Last night included (shockingly) more culinary exploration. Because of Jeremy’s gluten allergy, we’ve never wandered into any of those steamed bun/dumpling places that are all over Asia. Last night I grabbed a few steamed BBQ pork buns and OH MY…where have they been all my life??

singapore pork bun

I washed them down with a Malaysian dish of nasi lemak – fragrant pandan rice cooked in coconut milk, topped with fried chicken, fried eggs, peanuts, and a red hot sambal sauce. Taste bud heaven.

Jeremy snagged a dish we’ve been wanting to try for a long time now – black chicken soup! No, it’s not black soup; the CHICKEN is black. The breed is a Chinese silky, and if you look it up, you will see that the chicken’s feathers and skin are naturally ALL BLACK. The Chinese traditionally use it in a “healthy” soup filled with lots of yummy vegetables and herbs.

black chicken soup singapore

Verdict? Insanely good. (And yes…black chicken tastes like chicken!)

To sum it all up: We love, love, LOVE Singapore, and it’s always sad when we have to leave. If money were no object, we’d be living there in a heartbeat and I’d need a wheelchair to roll my morbidly obese body from hawker center to hawker center. (Seriously, how do the locals stay so thin? All they do is eat!)

Anyway, I’m rambling. I tend to do that. And if I haven’t convinced you by now that Singapore is an awesome place, then I have failed as a writer. I should just quit and stick to what I’m good at.

Which is…ummmmm…eating?

Seriously, though, Singapore rocks, and it belongs at the top of the list of any trip through Southeast Asia. It may not be as cheap as its neighbors to the north, but trust me, guys…it’s worth it. Factor a weekend into your budget and go for it. You will most definitely NOT be disappointed.

singapore

A (Slightly Terrifying) Rickshaw Ride Through Old Delhi

A (Slightly Terrifying) Rickshaw Ride Through Old Delhi

This post is a snippet from my new eBook, Gypsy Giraffe: Travel Tales From India. To learn more about the book, click here!

Please be advised – DO NOT visit Delhi if you have any of the following medical conditions:

Anxiety, nervousness, sensitivity to loud noises, sensitivity to dust or smog, claustrophobia, fear of crowds, fear of honking horns, fear of rogue cows, fear of stray dogs, fear of spiders, fear of traffic accidents, fear of crazy drivers, fear of having a toe or an arm amputated by a passing motorbike, fear of imminent death…

Basically, if you are afraid of ANYTHING at all, Delhi will be your worst nightmare. Chances are very good that you will NOT survive.

If, on the other hand, you thrive on chaos, if you’ve been known to waste away in front of exotic travel shows, and if you’re not afraid to put your life into the hands of some totally random, mentally unstable rickshaw driver…you might just have an AWESOME time exploring this city!

In fact, look up the word “insanity” in your closest dictionary. You won’t find a photo of a mental hospital or Grigori Rasputin. I guarantee that you will find a picture of Delhi.

Because this city is – in one word – INSANE.

But not in a bad way. Oh, we had a few scary moments today for sure, but our reactions were more along the lines of “Wow, this is so crazy and cool!” instead of “Wow, we just almost died!”

Our day technically began in Agra with checking out of our hotel and catching a 2.5-hour train ride up to Delhi. Our arrival into the city’s southern Hazrat Nizamuddin train station was pretty much what we expected – PANDEMONIUM.

There is nothing quite like stepping off a quiet, peaceful train and into a bustling third-world metropolis of 25 MILLION PEOPLE. We’re talking three times the total population of New York City! There is simply nothing (not even 10 days in other parts of India) to prepare you for the madness, the noise, the smells, and the chaos of New Delhi. It’s like going from a tiny, peaceful cabin in the woods to Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Except it’s not New Year’s Eve. It’s like this EVERY SINGLE DAY.

After playing the human pinball machine with 10,000 other people exiting the train station, we made our way to the rickshaw stand and proceeded to hire a certifiably insane driver to take us to our hotel. He looked like a normal human being, but the resemblance ended there.

We exited the train station by driving the WRONG WAY through the bus entrance, squeezing between gigantic tour buses with only millimeters to spare (into blind traffic, of course). En route, our driver forms nothing less than a personal murderous vendetta against one of his fellow rickshaw drivers. The two are competing for space in the same lane, trying to pass the same cars/buses at the same time, even going into oncoming traffic to “beat” one another.

We endure – not one, not two – but THREE collisions with this other (equally manic) rickshaw driver before the two finally pull over, step out of their vehicles, and start screaming at each other. Things heat up, fist bangs on each other’s rickshaws ensue, gestures grow more wild, and we’re pretty certain a full-on fistfight (or worse) is about to break out at any second.

It was like a Bollywood version of West Side Story…without the singing and dancing.

So we did what any sane passengers would do in that scenario – we grabbed our bags, got out, and ran for it!! (Seriously, guys, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.)

Luckily it wasn’t much farther to our hotel, Bloomrooms, which is a beautiful, serene oasis in the middle of the city. We are located almost directly across from the busiest train/metro station in all of Delhi, but you’d never know it with these thick walls and courtyard-facing rooms.

It’s amazingly quiet for how NOT quiet it is once you step outside! This is the first “backpacker” type place we’ve stayed at the entire trip, and I gotta say…it’s great to be back. Downstairs is an awesome cafe with great food, board games on every table, and an endless array of your favorite 80’s music. If it was less than 100 degrees outside (in the shade), we’d be hanging out on the plush wicker furniture in the very zen-like inner courtyard, but due to the threat of imminent heat stroke, we’re opting for AC.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes.

We arrive at our hotel with the last of our rupees and set out in search of an ATM. About 2 blocks away, Jeremy has the terrible misfortune of being pooped on by a passing pigeon. All over his head. (And he’s terrified of birds and their germs to begin with). Yeah…pretty gross. So we backtracked to the hotel so he could take shower #3 of the day (you take A LOT of showers in India) before we set out again.

At this point it’s about 4pm – too late to explore any of the touristy sights. The security guard suggests a “scenic” bicycle rickshaw ride up into Old Delhi (the Muslim Quarter). “Good for photos,” he says. “Great for me,” I respond. Plus, we had yet to actually experience a bicycle rickshaw ride – we’ve only done the motorized kind – so it would be something new.

So he flags down a passing bicycle rickshaw, we hand over 100 rupees (about $1.60), and we set off for what will forever be etched in my memory as one of the most insane hours of my life. Traffic conditions like this simply don’t exist anywhere else on earth. We’re talking cars, buses, motorbikes, rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, bulls, goats, stray dogs, children, men pulling vegetable carts, women balancing enormous bags of who-knows-what on their heads…all competing for the same space on what’s barely a two-lane road.

Add in some mountains of trash on the roadsides and some dangerously sagging electrical wires that barely miss your head, and you’re starting to get the picture.

While we were going through an “intersection,” we proceeded to crash into the bicycle rickshaw ahead of us, while another one creamed us from the side. Now, this all sounds very scary, but keep in mind that you’re traveling MAYBE three miles an hour, so these are not high-speed or injury-causing crashes. Even the highways have maximum speed limits of 40km/hour (about 25MPH), so while the traffic is crazy, there’s so much of it that no one is actually going that fast. You can usually walk faster than traffic is traveling.

This is probably the only place in the world where you can get into five accidents in one day and come away completely unscathed!

So our rickshaw drops us on Chandni Chowk, the main thoroughfare through the old quarter. This road has been the center of religious and commercial activity in the city for the past 400 years, and not much has changed over time. It’s still insanely busy and it’s still lined with temples, mosques, and bazaars selling everything from silks to jewelry to electronics to wedding attire.

It is a shopper’s heaven and a claustrophobe’s hell.

I don’t particularly love shopping or tight spaces, but somehow the maniacal atmosphere of the old city didn’t bother me one bit. After our harrowing rickshaw ride, we spent another hour or two just wandering through the bazaar, getting completely and utterly lost, gawking at the powerlines that by all logical reasoning SHOULDN’T work, and trying not to lose any fingers or toes to passing motorbikes.

The shopkeepers in the bazaar are surprisingly not pushy – you can actually walk along and “window shop” without being hounded to death like we were in Agra. It was a nice, refreshing breath of (heavily polluted) air.

So, back to my earlier warnings. Is Delhi chaotic? Yes. Overwhelming? Certainly.

And yet…there’s something magical about it, too. It’s so wildly different than the western world, such a constant assault on your senses, that it almost feels like you’ve been in a bubble your entire life. Then that bubble bursts, and you’re surrounded by more colors and sounds and smells and sights than you knew existed in one country, let alone one city street.

But you know what? It’s pretty darn awesome.