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Weekend in Sant Cugat (Barcelona)

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Email and RSS subscribers will need to click over to klugusamy.com to view some content below.

We kicked the trip off with Vancouver to Heathrow in British Airways First class (after a one way Avis rental in a tiny Nissan Versa from ZAAZ).  This was our second international first class experience, and our Cathay Pacific flights last year to South Africa set a pretty high bar.

Nonetheless, there was a “who am I?” moment when we were served our post take-off bowl of nuts.  Two pressing questions immediately crossed my mind:  (1) why haven’t these nuts been warmed? and (2) kinda cheap to only have cashews---where are the macadamias?

Otherwise, the pajamas and lay flat bed were totally fine.  And you can’t beat sitting in the first row of a 747 in the nosecone with windows that face slightly forward.  I’ll share some photos of the cabin in a future post on the way home.

After our 15-minute back massages/facials at the British Airways lounge, we were on our way to our first destination of Barcelona.  Ten years ago, Lillie was an au pair for a family there, and we’ve stayed in touch and visited many times since.  The little infant from back then turns ten this year—crazy.

So we spent the past two days at the family’s house gorging ourselves on Catalan food—best food on the continent, for my money.  I made a big mistake not taking a picture of the homemade paella we ate on Saturday—comprised of rabbit, chicken, squid, clam, and prawns.  So take our word it was delicious.  Even our friend Mark from Toronto happened to stop by to have a bite (he coincidentally was in town for the Mobile World Congress).

We had a late dinner at Braseria la Bolera in Sant Cugat, where we enjoyed just in season calçots.  They are a young, green onion chargrilled then served with a sort of romesco sauce.  Here is our paella chef Marcel demonstrating the Catalan eating technique:

Sunday morning was quite the breakfast of champions—xurros/churros dunked in your own personal bowl of thick chocolate soup.  It was obviously delicious, but you can’t help but but think the whole time that it’s not something you should be eating at 9am.

Jet lag aside, we had an amazingly enjoyable time hanging out with the family in little Sant Cugat.  We even managed to watch two of the kids play basketball on Saturday morning at the local gym!

Huge thanks to Marcel, Montse, Joana, Laia, and Pep for hosting us.  And also to Teresa for making the 2 hour trek from Lleida to spend Saturday with us.  This was an incredibly pleasant way to start our trip.

I’ll end this now with some selected shots taken with my camera (with a new 50mm f/1.4 lens) by 13-year old Joana:

“Why you go to Yemen?”

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Email and RSS subscribers will need to click over to klugusamy.com to view some content below.

So said a Royal Jordanian employee.  Variations of this question have also been asked by our mothers, and other’s mothers.

Nevertheless, here we are at the Sheraton in Sana’a—the capital of Yemen sitting at 7,500 feet and 80 degree sunshine.  And apparently there is some sort of protesting going on here?

The flight in from Amman was uneventful—though one point of intrigue was the large family with us in the business class cabin.  Said large family presumably consisted of a Yemeni man, his many burqa’d wives, a couple of teenage sons, and a toddler who ran around the cabin for all four hours of the flight and once turned my caps lock on for me.

Anyway, for more background on this country I point you to a segment of Steven Colbert’s Better Know an Enemy.  Worth watching at least for the Cool Runnings cameo:

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Better Know an Enemy - Yemen
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive


Not a lot of firm plans for our day in Sana’a, but we’ll let you know what we end up doing here soon.  Happy President’s Day!

Day in Sana’a

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After 21 hours, we easily avoiding whatever anti-Saleh protests might be going on here in the capital—and we accomplished what we wanted to do here in the process.  If you’ve ever heard us gush about how nice people were in Jordan, we have the same things to say here in Sana’a…

First mission was to head to the Felix Airways office to pay for some ticket reservations I made over Skype several weeks back.  The woman behind the desk quickly said: “are you Vinod?  I talked to you on the phone!”  She was incredibly efficient and nice, but then the mood soured when she suggested we be at the airport at 4am tomorrow.

Next we set off for our only planned tourist jaunt of the day—a stroll through the Souq al-Milh.  It’s a giant market with stall after stall selling everything from saffron to knockoff Arsenal jerseys to donkeys.  We weaved through the narrow alleys of the Souk to a constant yelling of ‘welcome to Yemen!’ from the shopkeepers and not an ounce of pressure to purchase something.

Then this guy randomly introduced himself to us asking us where we were from—his name is Mohammed:

What did we learn about Mohammed?  All you need to know is that we learned that he once studied in Tucson, Arizona and enjoyed eating chimichangas there.  We got some fresh lemon juice at this little juice shop in the souk with him:

I’m terribly uncomfortable taking pictures of people (especially with pricey photo gear in hand), so I sadly don’t have any other pictures of the Souq.  Which is really terrible because there were so many amazing sights (and smells) here.

But here at least is a high-noon photo taken from the top of the Burj Al Salam Hotel inside the Old City.  Killer photos could probably be had here with better light, but we were much too tired to drag ourselves back over again at sunset. 

Our day ended very oddly shortly ago at the “Broadway” restaurant in the Sheraton Sana’a.  I’ll try to paint the picture for you as it was too dark (and empty) to surreptitiously take photos in there.  Imagine a 70s looking lounge/bar.  Then hang up all kinds of random American stuff on the walls—New York Fire Department t-shirts, Boston Red Sox and Houston Texans signs, a Martin Luther King poster, etc.

Then it gets weirder when three Koreans start performing.  And we’re the only people dining.  (Amazingly, we have actually witnessed a Korean singing trio at the Sheraton in Kampala, Uganda as well!)  While there is no photographic proof, I did snag a minute of audio on my iPhone.  You might notice that between songs we forgot to clap.


I’ll probably post later some logistical practicalities about moving around the city, but otherwise that’s all there is to say about Sana’a for now.  Internet access will be severely limited at our next destination, so please check back in on Friday.

Back in Sana'a

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After being offline for a few days, we are now catching up on all the Charlie Sheen and Libya related news.  During this time, we've been hanging out on the little island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean:
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I first read about this place a few years ago in this NY Times article.  We always discounted it as a destination because of the need to transit through mainland Yemen, but with the way things are going in Yemen it seemed like now or never...

We'll be working on the full trip report in a few hours during the flight to our final destination in Africa.  Sadly, no pictures to share right now of Socotra as the Wi-Fi here at SAH airport is uploading at an excruciating 0.17 Mbps.  So stay tuned!

Destination Juxtaposition (Des Jux)

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Email and RSS subscribers will need to click over to klugusamy.com to view some content below.  And props to the ~1 reader who will get the title's reference to a bad indie rap label...

Our two primary destinations were quite a bit different from one another.  To illustrate, I shot 60 second iPhone videos in each location.  (This is sorta inspired by the excellent Sunrise Earth series on Discovery HD.)

First, here's the Shuab Bay beach in Socotra, Yemen.  If you like your beaches with soft sand, crystal clear water, and complete privacy then you'd probably enjoy this:


And in contrast, here's Cairo and Tahrir Square as viewed from our hotel room's balcony at the Intercontinental Semiramis.  It's a bit difficult to make out the couple of tanks stationed on the street but the traffic, modest crowd gathered at Tahrir Square, and the sparks flying from the welder across the street makes for a nice contrast to life on Socotra:

First Day on Socotra

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After a minor airport pickup hiccup, we were straightened out with our guide, driver, and Land Cruiser for the next few days.  First stop was the Ayaft Gorge.
 

Lillie was really pumped about this place, but it turned out to be a pretty big let down.  The sun was blazing, and the natural swimming pools that are advertised in this area apparently dried up a few weeks back.  We ended up just walking a pretty short distance along a two track road.

While we did get a first glimpse of some endemic trees/plants, we both had started to get a very sinking feeling that this island could turn out to be a bust.  Not a good feeling to have in your first few hours in such a remote place.

Our next stop was the Di Hamri Marine Conservation Area for snorkeling and camping overnight.  Happy to report that things took a nice 180 here.  Here's the scene from our campsite at dusk:

If you want to snorkel, you walk about three feet out from shore and you're trampling on coral reef.  The snorkeling was shockingly good in this warm and crystal clear water.  We've got a waterproof case for a super old digital camera, and the quality of the photos reflect that.

Tough to see this guy as this was in deeper water, but I'm claiming it was a coelacanth--it was huge and disgusting. 

So yeah, the photos aren't great but this was great times.  We'd have the water pretty much entirely to ourselves, and we could go in/out at our leisure.  I'll note that you can rent snorkel equipment here for a few bucks, though we only rented fins as we packed our own snorkels/masks (in addition to my youth snorkel vest--I'm not embarrassed as a real wuss wouldn't even step foot in the water if he couldn't swim!).

If you're curious about the accommodations, below are our provided sleeping quarters.  Sadly I don't have a close up of the thin sleeping mat that even our dog might have been unsatisfied with.  I also didn't take a photo of the bathroom facilities. Just know that they are pretty terrible.

What weren't terrible were the daily breakfasts.  Fire grilled bread/chapati, white cheese, a jar of honey, and the awesome sweet tea we've found everywhere in the Middle East (that we've been) but with condensed milk added to it.  Delicious.

And in full disclosure, I also tried chewing some qat here.  I was offered some by the locals, so how could I refuse?  After about ten minutes I felt nothing more than lots of little leaves stuck in my teeth.

It's pretty stunning how pervasive qat is amongst the men in Yemen.  How serious is it?  Beyond life grinding to a halt every day mid-afternoon to chew qat, it's also contributing to Sana'a being on pace to run out of water in 20 years.

A Really Nice Beach

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Coming up a rocky road, you catch your first glimpse of Detwah.  Not bad.

I'm not real sure if this is the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, or the Indian Ocean.  But it's nothing except clean sand and clear/warm water that we had all to ourselves.  I don't even know how to swim but still had an amazing time goofing around in the water.

Here's the scene at dusk:

There's also an adjacent lagoon (that the campground we stayed at this night overlooks)—this is also at dusk:

These boys had drawn lines in the sand on the beach, and were kicking the soccer ball around—not a bad little venue.

The kid in the front rocking the Real Madrid jersey was for whatever reason very excited when he saw me and Lillie—he raced over to us and took a picture of us on a little camera phone. This made it easy to get a photo of them in return, though.

Touched on breakfast in the last post, so here's what lunch and dinner would look like for every meal.  Fresh grilled fish of some variety, rice, and a vegetable curry.  If you don't like those things, you're going to be in real trouble.  While somewhat monotonous, it was actually totally satisfying.  Though with so many chances, I don't know how I only ended up with this one terrible photo of the meal..

Accommodations at the Detwah camp were identical to the night before—same pink tent and flimsy mattress.A nice perk was that this camp had generators until 9pm—so it wasn't completely pitch black at 6pm, and you could charge up any batteries. The bathrooms were again terrible, but a different kind of terrible.  I don't suggest the low-flow shower for anyone over 5'6.

Shoab Beach - Another Nice Beach

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On our last full day on the island, we woke up early to hop on a fisherman's boat from Qalansiyah to head to the western shores and Shoab Beach.

Right off the bat, a pod of dolphins entertained us with jumps and flips.  While this couldn't compare to the magnitude of our dolphin sighting in the Galapagos, it did show I'm consistently unable to get a good photo of such events.  So again, take our word that it was pretty sweet.

The boat ride itself was quite scenic alongside steep cliffs adorned with sea birds like cormorants and boobies.  At full speed, the ride was also incredibly bumpy.  Lillie and I had to hold on with all our might to avoid falling out—meanwhile you'll see in a photo below how casual our awesome captain was while steering the ship. 

I posted the below video of Shoab earlier, but it's pleasant enough that I'll post it again.  There were about five other people on this beach, so pretty crowded compared to what we were used to!  We left just in time to avoid the multiple boats of Chinese tourists we shared the plane ride in with. 

One of the things I loved about this island was that the insane tipping culture is completely unknown.  I actually wanted to hit our fisherman off with a big stack of Rials, but as soon as we disembarked he was happily on his way back out to sea.

This little side excursion is easily a must do on the island...

The Dragon Blood Tree

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High up in the Dixam Plateau you start to feel like you're in a Dr. Seuss book.  I'm not sure what my favorite tree was before (the Buckeye tree?), but there's no doubt about what my favorite is now.

Here's the very first one we came upon alongside the road--it's the most distinctive form of life on the island.  As you climb in elevation, you can see them everywhere dotting the landscape.

This was our final tourist activity before heading to the airport the next morning, and it's the perfect way to cap the trip.  There are other pristine beaches in the world, but there's certainly nothing like these trees anywhere else on the planet.

During this outing we also dropped down into a canyon to have lunch, where Lillie had a swim in a sketchy algae pool.  I was not interested in contracting leptospirosis or the like.

Here's a nice contrast of date trees with the dragon bloods high up in the distance:

The photo I totally forgot to take in this little area was of the ugly side of Socotra.  Folks aren't too keen on putting trash in a trash can, and the picnic area around here was absolutely disgusting.  Madagascar isn't the most affluent of places, but I don't think we encountered anything even remotely close to this filth there.  And I'm not sure if trash even exists in the Galapagos.  (And if there was a speck of trash, the guides are quick to put it in their pocket there.)

Anyway, I'll save further comments on that for another time.  From the Dixam area, we descended back to Hadibo for our final night to be spent at Adeeb's Eco Lodge.  While this was the nicest place we stayed on the island, you wouldn't get it confused for the eco lodges you'd encounter on an African safari.

Our tent was nicely enclosed and even featured a power strip!  This was a great place to end the trip because there were mats all around our tent that allowed us a fairly clean space to unload/reload the suitcases.

Amazingly, the only other Americans we encountered on the trip turned out to be a young couple teaching English in Aden, Yemen.  The kicker being they were also from Seattle.  Crazy.  We spent some time catching up with them at the fine dining room at Adeeb's:

And that's pretty much our time on Socotra.  I'll round out one more quick post on the island, but then we still need to get over to Cairo...

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Off to Cairo

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Writing this post many months later, I'm still impressed we popped in and out of Yemen with such ease.  Shortly after we left, I saw reports online of foreigners being deported on arrival.  And now you would be hard pressed to even have a visa issued.

I also just read that Somali pirates are taking advantage of the Yemeni disorder to leverage Socotra as a refueling point.  Oy.  It's going to be a long time before Westerners are going to be back on Socotra with ease, so we definitely count our lucky stars that our trip went so well there.

As a counterbalance to the Socotri primitiveness, we booked some nice accommodations in modern Cairo.  Our first night was at the newly remodeled Le Meridien Pyramids—a great deal with Starwood points.  We arrived very late at night, but this was our view from bed upon wakeup:

We woke up early to hit the Pyramids shortly after the gates opened.  Before heading out we grabbed breakfast in the hotel restaurant where there was one other table occupied by tourists.  This was just a few weeks after the Mubarak departure, and during that time the vast majority of travelers had cancelled their plans.

Our patience in deciding whether to continue on with our trip as planned paid off—we could count the number of other tourists at the Pyramids on our hands.  You won't see a lot of people in these photos (though picture taking wasn't a big priority for me on this leg as the pyramids are pretty well documented!):

Also on the grounds is the Khufu ship—it's a separate entrance fee but totally worth it. 

Before heading off the site, we grabbed one self portrait:

We always talked about visiting the Pyramids, but were always turned off by the potential crowds.  So shout out to the Egyptians for dumping Mubarak, and everyone who cancelled their trips in the wake of!

For the second half of the day, we'd arranged for a taxi to head south to some lesser visited pyramids.  We really were the only tourists at a couple of these sites.  For lunch snacks there was an excellent gas station / mini mart along the walk back to the Le Meridien where we stocked up on water, sandwiches, and strange flavors of Lays potato chips.  Despite our airplane and hotel preferences, our other tastes can be quite simple.

Here's Saqqara and its scaffolding:

Then there's the Red Pyramid at Dahshur which we actually went inside of.  I was sore for a few days after climbing up and down the little ladder/steps with my camera backpack on my front—it was brutal.  But as I was completely alone inside (Lillie was eager to get out ASAP), I quickly snapped a photo against the rules.

And the other part of Dashur is the Bent Pyramid:

And that's how you spend a full day looking at pyramids around Cairo!  Big shout out to Blue Cab Taxi—they had fixed/affordable prices, nice cars, and were responsive via email/phone.  We used them for both our airport transfers and our day trip to these southern Pyramids.

I'll have one final post on this trip, then we'll be ready to move onto other things...

Our Passports Are Full

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One final and picture less footnote to our Middle East/North Africa adventure...

While we saw only a tiny sliver of Egypt in the pyramids around Cairo, I'd say the odds of us going back for the rest of the sights are quite low.  The prevalence and pushiness of all the touts trying to pry Egyptian Pounds out of our wallets was too painful.  It's just not worth the hassle.

(Though I do take great pride in vigorously arguing with a Cairo cabbie on our final night of the trip who was trying to gouge us—I think he was left in complete disbelief that I had walked away paying the actual price for the service he provided.  I think Lillie was also in disbelief of my behavior.)

Thinking of our other visits in the region, there are better places to spend our dollars.  Every Jordanian in Jordan we encountered in 2009 couldn't have been nicer.  Even everyone in Sana'a, Yemen was incredibly warm to this interracial American couple!

Anyway, with our arrival back home, we successfully filled our passport's visa pages in less than 3.5 years of personal travel.  All within the sad confines of the normal two weeks/year of vacation policies.

It's been a helluva run touching five continents—and sitting in the front of the airplane en route:

  • Cyprus / North Cyprus – where we got engaged
  • Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe / Chobe, Botswana / Madagascar – where we "honeymooned"
  • Galapagos Islands – best bang for the ease in planning
  • Round the World – Paris / Jordan / Uganda / Rwanda / Japan – our best and most epic trip to date
  • Katmai National Park, Alaska – grizzly bears galore
  • Churchill, Manitoba – polar bears here and there
  • Cape Town / Hong Kong – Lillie's 30th birthday
  • Namibia – my 30th birthday
  • Barcelona, Spain / Socotra, Yemen / Cairo, Egypt – where we "babymooned"

There's still work to be done, though.  Two more continents to visit.  Dreams of an annual trip to the African continent.  Spotting a Bengal in India.  We'll continue to grow our frequent flyer mileage accounts in constant preparation for this and more.

But in the short term, we might have to curb some of the adventure and stick to LEGOLAND.  Old news to most everyone, but the Klugusamy family expects to grow in population in the coming days.  So please stay tuned for that news soon...