About deborahdon

We love to travel and explore the world around us. In 2012 we are spent an entire year on the road, wandering through Central and South America. In 2017-2018 we spent another year on the road taking in the Mediterranean, Southern Africa, SE Asia, and Australia. We have also spent some time in places like Denmark, Ghana, the UK, Indonesia, Japan, and Eastern Europe. Our profile picture was taken in early February 2011, deep in the City of the Dead in Cairo; later we joined the remarkable March of a Million at Tahrir Square.

five favourite birding sites

We’re newcomers to birding. Of course we have always noticed the unknown and unusual birds we encountered in our travels. However, it was during our year in Latin America that we started to pay closer attention to our feathered friends. It helped that our wandering that year took us into the rainforests of the Amazon, down to Patagonia, across the water to the Galapagos Islands, and to both coasts of Costa Rica. That might also explain why these locations are among our favourite places for bird watching.

King Penguins near the Strait of Magellan.

Number 5. Patagonia (Chile and Argentina)

Quite frankly, we include Patagonia because we saw two of our favourite birds here: penguins and flamingos.  On Tierra del Fuego, Chile, we crawled along a sandy ridge to get close, but not too close, to watch a small group of King Penguins hanging out in the grass near the water. We also saw hundreds of Greater Flamingos gathered in a lake on the island, it’s quite something to see them in flight. Later we watched penguins congregating along the beach on Isla Martillo in the Beagle channel near Ushuaia, Argentina. Mostly Megellanic penguins except for a goofy Gentoo penguin that popped up out of the water and seemed to stagger around perhaps feeling a bit of place. [Watch them here!]

Unknown Amazon eagle about to grab lunch.

Number 4: Amazon (Brazil)

We managed to visit three regions of the Amazon River – the basin in Ecuador, the mouth of the river in Brazil, and the area where the Amazon and Negro rivers merge, 1500 km inland. All featured lots of birds, but the rainforest upriver from the junction at Manaus yielded the greatest variety of birds. We travelled into the rainforest by boat and on foot to see numerous species of parrots, herons, kingfishers, and egrets, along with the wattled Jicana, whistling ducks, grey-necked cormorants, Caracara hawks, Anhinga, Hoatzin, and the orange-fronted yellow finch, just to name a few. We also got bit by fire ants and stung by tiny gold bees!

Blue-footed booby showing off the blue!

Number 3: Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)

This will surprise no one! There is an almost overwhelming richness of wildlife here, including large colonies of birds such as the Wavy Albatross and frigatebirds. We also saw Galapagos penguins and flamingos, and you know by now how we feel about that! We toured around the islands by boat, regularly landing to hike into areas and islands that are entirely dedicated to wildlife conservation and observation. We came across brown pelicans, blue-footed, red-footed, and Nasca boobys, brown noddys, finches, various herons and gulls, smooth-billed anis, red-billed tropic birds, a short-eared owl.

Marabou storks scavenge for food, sometimes fighting with vultures over carcasses.

Number 2: The Serengeti (Tanzania)

The Serengeti is a vast open gravelly plain, with rivers and lakes scattered here and there that provide the large animals with water to drink and a place to cool off. In or near the water is where you also will find the birds, although often just one or in a small group. What they lacked in number they made up for in their sometimes very wild appearance. Vultures, secretary birds, Kori Bustads, ostriches, superb starlings, helmeted guineafowl, red-billed cranes, Mariboo storks, and blue herons. Also have to mention nearby Mangara national park and the thousands of flamingos feeding in shallow water of Lake Mangara. 

One of many keel-billed toucans that dropped by to say hello.

Number 1: Puerto Viejo (Costa Rica)

The truth is, there are birds all over Costa Rica. It is hard to single out one national park or conservation area for special mention. We have been in the country four times and have hiked into the Monteverde Cloud Forest, walked along both coastlines, and got up before dawn to see a Resplendent Quetzal in the rainforests near San Gerardo de dota. But it was our repeat visits to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast that ended up being quite remarkable for birding. There was a variety of shrubs near the small house we were staying in and trees all around. Every morning over coffee we would watch different birds perch nearby, eat bugs, berries or tree fruit, hang out, and eventually fly away. We enjoyed seeing keel-billed toucans, black-necked Aracaris, black-cheeked woodpeckers, social flycatchers, long-tailed hermit hummingbirds, blue-grey tanagers, streak-headed woodpeckers, blue-black Grassquits, and those are just the ones we were able to identify. In the “neighbourhood” we also spotted brown pelicans, whimbels, frigatebirds, kingfishers, and the exquisitely named Montezuma Oropendola.

five favourite big cities

Continuing to recall our favourite places on earth, we now come to a request we often hear: to name our favourite cities. It seems unfair to compare the small cities we love to the big ones, so this post will describe our favourite large cities, we’ll come back to the smaller cities in a future post. Our absolute favourites were easy to agree on, we had to work hard to narrow down the rest of our top five, and here they are!

Number 5: Havana, Cuba

We’ve visited Havana several times over the years. Twice on daytrips from beach resorts, and twice for extended stays, and we have loved every minute we roamed this historic and vibrant city. Around every corner of old Havana is an old school arts venue or museum, a crumbling apartment building or government office complex, Che billboards, and an endless parade of big old American cars from the 1950s. The city is not without challenges around poverty and other inequities, although during our last visit it was clear a middle class was emerging. One reason is Cubans are allowed to operate small businesses including casa particulares – bed and breakfast for tourists. We stayed in several across the country, but our room in old Havana was the best. We’ll go back! 

Number 4: Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne might not be the most famous city in Australia, but it is our favourite. It is very walkable, has a beach along one side, a concentrated downtown core, a vibrant arts scene, lots of buses, and numerous neighbourhoods featuring independent shops and craft brewpubs. Maybe it simply reminds us of Vancouver, and the comparisons don’t end there. While the scenic escape from Vancouver is the Sea-to-Sky Highway, Melbourne is the perfect jumping off point for the Great Ocean Road. Two outstanding art galleries not to miss, both free and operated by the National Government of Victoria: the International Gallery, the country’s largest and most visited gallery, and the nearby Ian Potter Centre with a focus on Australian artists, especially Aborigine art.

Number 3: Barcelona, Spain

We really enjoyed our stay in Barcelona. The gothic quarter is dark and haunting, the tourist strips are busy and noisy, and the cultural vibe is lively and defiant. Many tourists are fascinated by the numerous buildings designed by Antoni Gaudi, including the massive, still-under-construction sagrada familia church. But we appreciated seeing the rest of the city. A big chunk of the city was laid out according to progressive urban design ideas back in the mid-1800s. Each block features apartment building all the same height, with shops and cafes on the angled corners and common space inside. By the way, happy hour is done right throughout Spain, including in Barcelona – a small plate of complimentary food accompanies every pint of beer or glass of wine! 

Number 2: Rome, Italy

Rome is the ultimate city of antiquities. You can’t walk long before encountering everything from the ruins of ancient walls and “minor” temples to the magnificent and iconic Coliseum and nearby hilltop Palatino complex, the terme di caracalla (Roman baths), and of course the Vatican. After all, this was the centre of power for the Roman Empire, an ancient empire that reached far and wide. We have encountered evidence of Roman rule throughout Europe, and as far away as northern England. It was well worth it to purchase 72-hour Roma Passes: a helpful map and guide booklet, free access to the first two archaeological sites we visited and a discount on additional sites. The pass also gave us free use of city buses and trams – we were able to see a lot over 72 hours!

Number 1: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Latin America has a lot of offer, but one city is in a class of its own, Buenos Aires. It’s been said that it is the most European city outside Europe, but there is more to it than that. It has a long and sometimes difficult history – curbside markers commemorate the names of those taken away by secret police through the 1980s, and former sites of torture have been opened as museums. The city continues to be a centre for resistance – and this shows up in street protests, strikes and school occupations. But it feels very livable as well. Out for a walk in the morning, what you thought was an apartment entryway opens and a vender offers up a bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Later, Tango dancers put on shows for the afternoon outdoor happy-hour café crowd. Our biggest challenge was finding a place for dinner – many restaurants didn’t open until 9 pm or later, that was hard to get used to! 

our favourite places on earth

The pandemic has clipped our wings and kept us very close to home since last March. We look at our photos, read through our posts, and long to be back on the road. Some of you are likely feeling similarly restless and travel is likely many months away. And when we are able to head out again, who knows what the terrible spread of COVID will have done to the world.

In the meantime, with this post we’re beginning a series that draws on time spent in dozens of countries across six continents to share with you our favourite places and experiences. We’re going to proceed with a new category every post and describe our top five picks. 

We’ll begin with a category we’re going to call our favourite ancient mysteries. These are sites that inspire significant awe and are swathed in mystery, even if historians and archeologists offer clues about the site or the people who created or lived at the sites.

Number 5: Nazca Lines (Peru)

These ancient lines have intrigued us ever since they were featured in the 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. Erich von Daaniken wrote about sites around the world that supposedly celebrated ancient astronauts who had brought advanced technologies to societies of the past. As for the lines themselves, including numerous large figures, von Daaniken proposed that they were created to signal to aliens to please return. His thesis was widely popular but just as widely discredited by the scientific community who favour earth-bound explanations for the ancient sites and events he described. Recently, even more figures have been discovered in the region.

There is a tower by the highway that provides a view of a small area of the lines, but the best way to fully appreciate them is from the air.

Number 4: Stonehenge (England)

The biggest mystery associated with Stonehenge is how exactly, thousands of years ago, did people manage to move and erect such large stones? It’s clear the structure lines up with important solar and lunar moments, but these are big stones, many traced to a quarry in Wales. Were they dragged here or perhaps brought by boat? The latest theory is that they were actually prefabricated: cut and erected elsewhere, taken down, moved, and reassembled at Stonehenge. 

We were on site for the summer solstice sunrise. Stonehenge was wide open to the public, something the authorities said was not going to be allowed again. It was crowded and festive, maybe that’s how they were originally experienced.

Number 3: Pompeii (Italy)

Hands up if you studied Pompeii in school! Don certainly remembers the dramatic story of a Roman town buried in volcanic ash and only rediscovered centuries later. As it turns out, Pompeii was actually a kind of resort town for wealthy Romans – they built mansions, numerous temples, baths, an amphitheatre, a coliseum, and more. The streets were lined with houses for the working class, markets, and brothels. And it was completely buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted, and then it was forgotten. Archaeologists have carefully revealed much of the city, uniquely preserved from the very moment it disappeared from sight. It’s a surprisingly massive site, a one-day visit does not do it justice.

Number 2: Chichen Itza (Mexico)

We’ve been out to the ancient Mayan site of Chichen Itza twice over the years. The first was a typical day-trip break from the beaches of Cancun, the second visit was years later and part of a week-long guided tour of Mayan sites located on the Yucatan Peninsula. The timing was such that we were on site for the 2012 winter solstice. This day marks the end of the Maya Long Count cycle of time, interpreted by some as a predication the world would also end that day. It was quite thrilling to join with so many thousands of others. Sure, some may have assembled here expecting to welcome the end of time, but most were obviously more interested in celebrating the promise of a new era for humankind.

Number 1: Machu Picchu (Peru)

Machu Picchu is an unparalleled wonder. Was it a mountaintop fortification, a religious retreat, or something else? And either way, why was it abandoned? The site is massive, breathtaking, and ultimately one of the world’s great human-made mysteries. Archeologists and scientists are still learning about the site to this day – a new documentary describes work to reveal a highly sophisticated drainage system built underneath all the structures, vital to keeping the whole thing from sliding down the mountainside during the rainy season. 

A word of advice. Stay the night in Aguas Calientes and catch the pre-dawn bus up to the entrance in order to take in the sunrise and spend the whole day on site. Many people we talked to that day or later who were with tour groups spent as little as 45 minutes exploring a site that needs hours to even begin to fully appreciate.

Watch for the next edition of Our favourite places on earth!

exploring the bc ale trail

The global pandemic brought our travel plans to a grinding halt, and of course we know we’re not the only ones experiencing cabin fever. So, with international travel still not possible, in June we skipped away for a week in Penticton, staying at a small motel with a pool and excellent cleaning protocols in place. Walking to the nearest brew pub, we discovered that we had also wandered onto the BC Ale Trail.

The BC Ale Trail is a cool way to promote the craft beer industry in British Columbia, created by Destination British Columbia and the BC Craft Brewers Guild. They have broken the province into 18 local ale trails – we were on the Penticton Ale Trail featuring seven craft breweries. We had previously visited some of them and this gave us directions to a couple more.

The Barley Mill Brewpub was our destination that first night in Penticton, and that’s where we picked up a Penticton Ale Trail map and downloaded the app. And get this – you collect 10 points for every visit that is at least 24 hours apart. Eventually you can redeem from 50 to 200 points, for branded glassware, growlers (with purchase of a fill), or growler fills (with purchase of a growler), or discounts on food and merchandise from the various breweries. It won’t take long for dedicated craft brew enthusiasts to collect enough points to start enjoying rewards!

We managed to make five stops along the Penticton Ale Trail. Our long time favourite in Penticton has been Bad Tattoo, and they remain our “go to” for great beer and fabulous pizzas. We also regularly drop by Cannery Brewing, it’s usually not too busy and has a relaxed neighbourhood vibe. New to us was Highway 97 Brewery and Slackwater Brewing. In our view, Slackwater offers the best IPA in Penticton, the hoppy 60 IBU-rated Intruder.

All the brewery restaurants and tasting rooms were in full COVID-19 cleaning and masking mode except the Barley Mill, not all servers were wearing masks and cleaning between guests was rather haphazard – not what you want to see at the best of times.

A few weeks later back in Vancouver, it was time to explore another local Ale Trail, this one on the North Shore. Although there are 14 participating breweries on the North Shore, there is a convenient concentration of breweries in and near the Lonsdale Quay. Very handy if you’re on foot and getting to the North Shore via the Seabus.

In fact the first brewpub is just a few steps from the Seabus terminal, the Greenleaf. Lucky for us on this sunny day, there was space for us on the outdoor patio. My flight featured a pale ale, two IPAs, and their grapefruit radler. The IPAs were disappointing, but I quite liked the Pie Hole pale ale.

The Tap and Barrel is a short walk from the other end of the Quay, but we skipped it because we’ve been to both the Tap and Barrels in Vancouver, and there was a line up. So our next stop was just to the east along an industrial strip of Esplanade. Father and son operated Beere Brewing has a small tasting room and lots of outdoor patio space. Deborah really enjoyed the Legit Snack IPA with hints of pineapple and grapefruit and I liked the Sure As Shoot IPA, creamy with citrus flavours.

A few doors door is the House of Funk with a much larger tasting room and lots of sidewalk and street patio space. Their Farmhouse IPA begins with a slightly medicinal taste, but gets better as you go. The House of Funk logo is the most striking on the trail today.

Up one street are two more breweries. At North Point on 1st Street, Deborah liked the sour, but I had mixed feelings about my flight of IPAs. They were okay but nothing stood out.

Our last tasting room was just up the street and down a flight of stairs. Streetcar Brewing’s hazy IPA was exactly what we were looking for: cloudy and juicy, with a strong and tangy citrus undercurrent. Our favourite beer of the day. By the way, the patio faces a quiet lane. It felt like we had stumbled across a secret neighbourhood hangout.

And yes, we collected lots of BC Ale Trail points!

world wanderers grounded by pandemic

Photo of Vancouver sunset

Recent sunset in Vancouver.

Like many world wanderers, we had to cancel our Spring travel plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We had booked our flights, reserved a rental car, and lined up some of the accommodation we would need. But just as we were about to organize further, travel restrictions started to be put into place, the nature of the outbreak became clearer, events were being cancelled or postponed, and finally, the Canadian government urged people to avoid all non-essential travel, and to come home if they were already out of the country. Sadly, we cancelled everything.

Our plan was to head back to the warmth and slow pace of the Caribbean. We have made several trips to colder parts of the world, last year to the UK in the spring and to Eastern Europe in the fall. We were overdue to follow the sun and lay on the beach for three weeks.

We’ve regularly enjoyed the sandy beaches of Cuba, Cancun and Belize, but of all our Caribbean destinations, Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica remains a favourite. Although, readers may recall that we have reported it has changed dramatically over the years. Once a laid-back backpackers paradise, it has become a crowded weekend getaway for SUV-driving families from the capital.

This time around, the beaches, tropical birds, and cultures of Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados, were calling. The Airbnb we lined up in Trinidad was a spacious cabin in the woods on a coastal mountainside, a 15-minute walk from a sandy Caribbean beach. We were looking forward to seclusion except for the birds, sandy beaches, and warmth.

We would then take a fast ferry to Tobago and be there for the Easter weekend. In addition to the usual festivities associated with Easter, the locals hold goat races that are apparently hilarious to witness. It’s from a time when plantation workers and others who could not afford to participate in horse racing culture, came up with an affordable option.

Then it would be time to island hop once again and head up to Barbados. It is promoted as the “most English” of the Caribbean islands once occupied by a variety of colonial powers – many are still overseas territories of European countries.

We were looking forward to seeing more beaches and birds, and enjoying more cultural experiences. But it was not to be. We still have our planning notes, so we’ll get there some day.

In the meantime, a big shout out to the health care professionals on the front-lines of fighting this pandemic, the corporations shifting production to manufacture much-needed medical supplies and equipment, scientists looking for a vaccine and better treatment options, and ordinary people keeping things going with a whole range of essential services and supplies.

Together, we’ll get through this!

Photo of sign supporting healthcare workers

not much left of ancient capital

Capital cities around the world usually offer visitors the most in terms of important attractions, good amenities, and easy travel connections. If your time is tight and you can’t venture outside the capital, you’re only seeing one aspect of the country you’re visiting. Sometimes that’s all we have time for too. But if we can, we strive to see some countryside and at least one other city or region before we move on.

That often means taking a chance on local transport and struggling with directions (and menus!) because fewer locals speak English. However, exploring beyond the capital also offers a less-constructed glimpse of community life with fewer shiny surfaces and as a bonus, fewer mindless tourists running around taking selfies and learning nothing about where they are.

We started our last trip in Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia. We described our encounter here with the Roman Empire in our last blog post. Sadly, unknown to us, Sofia is also the most polluted capital city in the European Union – it is hard to breathe in public spaces, the result of coal-fired power, uncontrolled vehicle emissions, and chain-smoking on a massive scale. So our plan to escape the city was perfect.

You hear and read about classic railway journeys. The train from Sofia to the interior of Bulgaria is not one of them. On the platform you are mostly on your own figuring out if this is the right train or not, and where you’re supposed to sit. And no restaurant car, not even a coffee cart or bar service. Good thing we brought snacks! The toilet at one end of the car looked like something you would find in a prison cell. But we had a red-velvet six-seat compartment to ourselves for the entire length of the four-hour ride. We pretended it was a luxury suite!

We took in the landscape – vast fields of harvested corn and other crops, decaying railway stations, abandoned manufacturing plants, quaint-looking hillside villages, and smoke-spewing coal-fired power plants.

We knew the train didn’t stop at our destination, so the first challenge was finding the bus from the village of Gorna Oriahovitsa to the city of Veliko Tarnova. No one spoke English, but one van driver seemed to be indicating that the bus we needed was due shortly. That worked out, although we did end up missing our stop in V.T. because we couldn’t figure out where we were along the way. Fortunately we pack lightly, it was a long walk back to the place we were staying!

Veliko Tarnova is one of the oldest cities in Bulgaria, and was once the capital although there is little left to show for it. A hilltop fortification, Tsarevets, suffered numerous attacks over the centuries, finally sacked and destroyed by invading Turks in 1393. It has been only partially reconstructed. On the day we were on site, it was a free-entry day but strangely deserted. We enjoyed walking along the walls and through the foundations.

Similarly deserted was the archeological museum, oddly tucked into the basement of a grim-looking library, entry by knocking on the door and waiting for someone to let you into several dusty rooms of Roman, Medieval, and Bulgarian artifacts in old glass cabinets. Then we had to search and call for the attendant to let us out.

We particularly enjoyed our interactions with young shopkeepers and servers – there weren’t many tourists around and they were happy to see us and tell us about their lives – and practice their English. Not surprisingly the wages are very low and prospects for better work quite limited. In the meantime, they are making it through the day with cheap black-market cigarettes from Moldova. But they are hoping for a better future, and we hope that for them too.

Finding our seats


Lots of rundown railway stations and abandoned factories along the way.

And miles and miles of recently harvested crops.

Markets once lined this ancient Veliko Tarnova street.

View of Veliko Tarnova from Tsarevets Fortress.

Tsarevets Fortress

Tsarevets Fortress

Tsarevets Fortress

Tsarevets Fortress — Patriarch’s Complex (church) on the highest ground behind us.

hanging with dracula in transylvania

We’re in, we replied. My oldest son and his partner had invited us to join them for a Halloween dinner and party at “Dracula’s Castle”.

Indeed, there is a castle in Transylvania that is widely promoted as the “home” of Bram Stroker’s fictional Count Dracula. Legend suggests that Vlad the Impaler, a possible model for Dracula himself, once stayed here, although most likely as a prisoner and not an honoured guest.

Bran Castle, completed in 1388, is perched on a rocky hillside with a commanding view of the narrow valley below, and the rural landscape all around. It served various political and military roles over the centuries, but much of the time it was a toll booth of sorts, collecting a tax on goods and livestock being moved along the valley.

The castle fell into disrepair in the early 1900s, and when Transylvania joined Romania at the end of the First World War, Bran city council gave it to Princess Maria of Romania — here, you fix it up! Which she did through the 1920s, turning it into a splendid summer residence. In 1938 it was inherited by Princess Ileana, but ten years later when the communists took Romania, the royal family was forced to flee.

Eventually the abandoned castle was repaired and run as a museum. And then, following the fall of the dictatorship, a long legal battle resulted in the royal family finally regaining ownership. Along the way, someone realized promoting the admittedly tenuous connections between Bran castle, Vlad, and Dracula would draw tourists to this otherwise sleepy little valley.

In fact, the whole town of Bran gets in on the act over the Halloween weekend — centred around an eclectic outdoor market with all manner of Halloween and especially Dracula-themed crafts and mass produced trinkets. The stores, restaurants, and bars in Bran are decked out with bats and pumpkins, and we accidentally wandered into (and immediately out of) a huge Chucky Cheese-style family-funhouse Halloween party.

And then there is the castle overlooking Bran, complete with steep narrow stairwells, dimly-lit rooms, and for the Halloween party, stocked with creepy decorations and creepy actors playing all sorts of creepy characters.

The gourmet dinner we signed up for featured a lot of dark red vegetables, sauces, and desserts, and a very bloody steak. Okay, we get it!

The after party was lively and loud with every simple and elaborate costume imaginable, with an emphasis on creepy!

The next day we were having lunch a few kilometres down the road and we mentioned we had attended the Halloween party at Dracula’s Castle. Our server blamed “the west” for all this Dracula nonsense that was corrupting their children and displacing traditional Romanian values. Oh, right, like the family values held by the powerful and murderous Vlad the Impaler. Or the fact that the story of Dracula draws heavily from local beliefs about ghosts and evil spirits that were still held close here in the first half of the 20th century!

Bran Castle

Inside Bran Castle

Deadly knives on display

Ready for Halloween dinner!

First course included blood sausage and red currant sauce

After party!

More after party!

remains of the roman empire

Back in high school we briefly studied the Roman Empire. Having to draw and describe some of the battle gear is all I recall, otherwise the idea of empire and what that might mean was utterly remote and abstract.

At it’s height some 1500-1900 years ago, the Roman Empire controlled a huge expanse of territory including a big chunk of Europe and part of what is now the Middle East and North Africa.

Ancient empires have come and gone, most without much to show for their occupation of foreign lands. Not so with the Romans, it seems everywhere they went, they brought technology with them. Just think aqueducts, public baths, temples, amphitheatres, roads, tile mosaics, statues, and memorials. Oh, and Roman numerals!

We have watched a play seated in a Roman amphitheatre in Malaga, Spain, walked along Hadrian’s wall in the north of England, and around the Roman baths that gave Bath its name in the south of England. We explored Diocletian’s walled palace and military outpost in Split, Croatia. And we walked through numerous ancient Roman ruins in Rome itself, and made our way to the well preserved Roman holiday-getaway, Pompeii.

To now find evidence of Roman occupation and technology during our visit to Sophia is an unexpected treat. Numerous Roman villas were discovered and documented during the Communist era. However, perhaps the most astounding find was just a few years ago when the city was digging up a square to extend the Metro subway line. It was a uniquely preserved section of the Roman highway known as “via militaris”. The stone road was built to connect Roman territories in the Middle East and North Africa with central Europe, and passed right through the then-named Serdica.

They also found the foundations for stores that faced this road, another road in behind, more building foundations, and the city gate itself. At another site nearby they found an amphitheatre and more building remains.

Visiting ancient sites brings history alive, and sure beats sitting at a desk copying pictures out of an encyclopedia!

how did it come to this?

The man was about 20 years old and he was violently banging a heavy, two-foot-long machete on the roof of our taxi… just above Don’s head! The man was yelling something that I didn’t understand. I thought this is it! We are going to die!

How did it come to this?

It was early 2011 and we had been in Ghana for about three weeks, seeing the sights and meeting our in-laws in Zabzugu, in the north. During our final night in Accra, the hostel manager overheard us talking about heading next for Cairo. He told us that according to news reports, incredible violence had erupted in Egypt.

The next morning we left our luggage at the hostel and headed to the airport to change our travel plans. Egypt Air personnel told us that all was fine and to go get our luggage, they would be flying out in two hours. We dashed back to our hostel, grabbed our bags, but still ended up waiting five hours for take off.

Getting off the plane in Cairo, we noticed no other passengers were disembarking. That was strange to us but perhaps not remarkable, we knew the flight was continuing on to the Middle East.

What was remarkable, and utterly surprising, was that once we passed through immigration, we faced an airport full of people. Some sitting in chairs, many camped on the floor, luggage and stuff everywhere. Wall-to-wall.

Don called our hotel to see if the driver was here somewhere in the crowded airport and we were told the driver was on his way.

The driver soon arrived and spotted us. A young woman asked if it was okay to join us as she needed a ride to her hotel. As it turned out she was a journalist from Lebanon and she filled us in on what had been happening in Cairo over the previous 48 hours. On this late-night ride into the city, we were stopped every few hundred metres by either the army or rows of armed civilians at roadblocks, the police had gone into hiding. We noticed that sometimes we were waved through — the journalist explained that when they saw women in the car, they signaled to the driver not to stop.

Our journalist friend was excited for us… we were here at the best time to see the revolution! The Arab Spring had reached Egypt and the people would be happy to have us here as witnesses. She helped me feel brave, not scared.

As we neared our hotel, even in the dark we could see the fire still smouldering in the National Party headquarters building, scattered burnt and blackened police vehicles along the side of the road, and a water-soaked and virtually deserted Tahrir Square. I was quite in awe, as I had never seen anything like this. By the way, the drive that should have taken 20 minutes, took us 90.

When we checked into our hotel, on the seventh floor of an old office building, the other guests couldn’t believe people were arriving just as they were desperately trying to find a way out of the country.

In search of the Canadian embassy

The next morning was sunny, warmish and calm. The government had cut off the Internet and cel services, and we could not look-up or contact the Canadian embassy, so we decided to head for an area where a city map showed a concentration of embassies, in hopes of finding a Canadian flag. We walked through Tahrir Square — there were tanks and soldiers everywhere just watching as people started to gather. An English-speaking soldier kindly gave us directions to the Canadian embassy. At the embassy they advised us not to leave the city (we had planned a side-trip to Luxor) because the trains might not keep running. Sure enough, the trains in Egypt soon came to a grinding halt.

We walked over to see the Nile River, it was the only thing to do. There were no other tourists about; every restaurant, bar, shop, and tourist attraction was closed. The streets were quiet, eerily so. Along the river all the tourist boats were tied up and looking abandoned.

A taxi pulled over and the English-speaking driver stopped to chat with us. His name was Hesham and for three days he did his best to get us to into now-closed attractions, inside the city and beyond. He took us to the Coptic Church in the side of a mountain. It was really cool… and we were the only people there. He took us to the famous necropolis, resting place for 500,000 dead and home to thousands of people living in abandoned tombs. He drove us to ancient pyramids outside Cairo because the ones at Giza were closed (by the way, our blog title photo is as close as we got to them).

Hesham was really kind and we met his wife and had lunch with them in their apartment. Hesham even found us the only cash-giving atm in our part of Cairo. The banks were closed, shops were barricaded, and the streets were empty.

After our second day with Hesham, we went back to Tahrir Square. It was full of students with placards. A few of them came over to find out why we were there. They were all quite nice. They thought we might be journalists…we said no… just tourists. A secret service man came over to us and told me it wasn’t safe for us to be there. I asked him who should I be afraid of? Him?

The next day, February 1, 2011, we joined the march of a million. When we arrived at Tahrir Square, we were patted down to make sure we had no weapons. Female students patted me down, and male students patted Don. They appeared to be really well organized, and they were giving out water, dates, etc. There were also collecting and taking bags of garbage out of the square. I was quite impressed with this.

It was getting really crowded and a man on the wall above me told me not to worry, they would take care of me. I wasn’t afraid, but was concerned Don and I would get separated. We decided that should we get separated we would meet under the clock tower across the way.

We joined a line of people snaking through the huge crowd. Don was in front of me and there was a man behind me. I couldn’t see him, but definitely felt his penis being pushed into my lower back. I told Don I would jump in front of him as soon as possible because the guy was not stopping what he was doing. I found my opportunity and got in front of Don. Needless to say, the guy did not push his penis into Don’s back. Other than that incident it seemed to be a very peaceful protest. I am glad we went and witnessed it.

Mobs attack peaceful protesters

The next day after spending much of it with Hesham, he had to drop us off on the bridge as there were mobs of people taking over the end near Tahrir Square. The feeling on the bridge was polar opposite of the jubilation of the march the day before. These people were Mubarak’s and they were pissed off. The government had turned the cel phone networks back on, Mubarak rallied his supporters and there were busloads of Mubarak’s people coming over the bridge to taunt the protesters in the square.

As we were walking across the bridge, through the gathering mob, Don stopped to take a picture of graffiti that declared “Mubarak equals sadness”. Angry people surrounded him and started yelling and trying to grab his camera. I said nothing but grabbed Don’s arm and we walked away as fast as we could… people still yelling at us. A soldier obviously witnessed this and had a look in Don’s backpack before allowing us on our way.

When we were off the bridge and a few minutes from home, we saw a group of several dozen men wielding machetes, clubs, and sticks, running past us towards the square. They looked as angry as the people on the bridge.

Safely inside our hotel we watched BBC and Al Jazeera to see what was happening. We heard gunshots from the square in real time and then we heard the same pattern of shots on TV six seconds later. Many protesters were killed or badly wounded that night. The military had stepped aside while Mubarak’s thugs did their damage.

Time to get out of Cairo

This was not good, and in the morning we thought we better organize to leave Cairo as soon as possible, but the cel service was not reliable. The last of the other guests left before breakfast. We headed back to the Canadian embassy.

The atmosphere outside was very different. Protesters were regrouping behind makeshift barriers, and the army was still in the area, but the roadblocks we encountered around every corner were civilian and aggressive. One group told us to go around the block, and that’s where a very tall young man with a metal rod was standing guard and wouldn’t let us pass. He wanted to take us to his leader and of course we said no. He was very threatening and when we said “you wouldn’t hit a woman”, he started yelling and many other young men started running towards us.

Fortunately, Don had spotted a military jeep crossing a street about a block behind us, and this time he grabbed my arm, pulled me, and started yelling to attract the attention of the soldiers. Thankfully, it worked!

One of them spoke English and he called his supervisor to describe our situation. We were taken into the security zone around the Interior Ministry. The supervisor took our passports and started questioning us. Fortunately this was on the street and not in an interrogation room.

Another one of those dark-clothed secret service men came over to where we were being questioned. He said that he had seen us on Saturday coming out of the American University in a limo. I laughed at him and said we were Canadian, not American… sometimes saying weird things works…

Anyway, the supervisor gave us back our passports and even granted my request to have someone walk with us so we could pass through the military checkpoints on the way to the embassy.

When we did arrive at the Canadian Embassy, it was full of people. We took our number and I sat down next to an Egyptian man who told me his children were half Canadian. He was trying to get them out of Egypt. He was extremely upset. He told me that he had been with the protesters for about five days, but when Mubarak said he would step down, the man went home. His best friend had been one of the people killed the night before in Tahrir Square. He thought if he had stayed and fought maybe his friend would not have been killed. His grief was palpable. I listened, but didn’t say too much. I didn’t really know what to say.

While I was talking with the man, Don had been on the phone trying to reach KLM and lo and behold he got through… everything must work better in embassies! They booked us on a flight the next day (a day earlier than our planned departure).

With great relief, we left the embassy and decided to take one last look at the Nile. We sat for a while and then thought it best to take a taxi home to avoid repeating our scary morning experience.

We walked to a nearby high-end hotel and discussed the fee with a few taxi drivers parked out front. We agreed to an amount and got in the taxi. We told the driver to go to the ancient market closest to our place so we could hopefully buy a souvenir.

All was good… we were driving on the highway… then suddenly our driver took a turn onto a rough side road. We were immediately stopped and quickly surrounded by a large group of angry men and boys. The driver was dragged out of his seat and he disappeared into the crowd. A man about 20 years old was violently slamming a large machete on the roof of the taxi… right above Don’s head. I thought this is it! We are going to die!

There was a small boy about the age of seven on my side of the vehicle, looking in my window. I showed him my passport (keeping it very close to my body), pointed to the “Canada” on it and mouthed to him that we are tourists. Don did the same thing from his side of the vehicle.

I have no idea how long we were there… it seemed ages… then just as suddenly, our driver was pushed back in the taxi and we drove off. Though I was extremely thankful we were alive, I was really pissed off at him and yelled “Why did you do that? We were fine on the highway. What is wrong with you?” I was still stressed when we got to the market… found the back door locked and demanded he let me out. He did, probably not wanting this very stressed woman yelling at him more, but he wanted more money from Don… needless to say, we did not pay him extra…

One more encounter with thugs

After we bought a small souvenir, we headed home, only needing to walk about a kilometre to our hotel and thought that would be easy. Not… we were stopped once more by angry young men. This time though, Don yelled at them and made quite a scene… a few older men came running to help us… they had probably seen us walking in the neighbourhood and didn’t think we were a threat.

It seemed to us the older people had much more sense and understanding than the angry, young men.

The next day we got a ride with Hesham to the airport… a quick 20-minute ride this time. We think good thoughts for Hesham, with the politics and the tourism industry suffering it would be hard for him and his family. We hope he is well.

I did not relax on the plane until the wheels had left the ground. As it turned out, our flight was the last to leave Cairo before a 24-hour curfew was imposed. We were very lucky indeed!

National Party Headquarters

Burned out National Party headquarters near Tahrir Square.

Dreaded prisoner transport near Tahrir Square.

Water everywhere, Tahrir Square.

Inside the underground Coptic church.

Qasr Qaroun, outside Cairo.

This ancient market would normally be full of buyers and sellers.

Pyramid outside Cairo.

Pyramid outside Cairo.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, Tahrir Square.

March of a Million, near Tahrir Square.

A quiet moment: mint tea at a small cafe within the City of the Dead.

possibly the cleanest city on earth

Fear not dear readers, we did not drop off the ends of the earth near the end of our year away — we just got really busy adjusting back to life in Vancouver. Catching up with family and friends, setting up our apartment, and getting back to work and local volunteering.

In our last post we described our time in Vietnam and Laos. We mentioned that Vietnam is one of the most polluted and dirty countries we have ever visited. We did not realize that Hanoi is among the world’s most air polluted cities in the world. Smoke and other toxins everywhere from farmer’s burning their fields, huge manufacturing zones, coal-power, and no controls on vehicle emissions. Horns blasting everywhere and at all times of the day and night. Add to that men urinating in the streets and venders heaping trash along the broken sidewalks, and you are left with a general impression that no one cares about any aspect of the environment.

The contrast with our final destination before heading home was remarkable. The streets of Tokyo are utterly clean, well maintained, and strikingly quiet. We even wandered into back alleys to try and find the seedy underbelly. Clean and quiet. No littering anywhere, even though there are outdoor food and beverage vending machines throughout residential neighbourhoods. Signs remind locals and alert visitors that smoking is not allowed on the sidewalks. On the trains, signs encourage riders to not talk on their cel phones and to put them on vibrate. The trains themselves run very quietly, unlike Skytrain in Vancouver, which squeals and clacks along like an old amusement park ride.

Speaking of trains, we’ve never seen so many trains in one city. They are run by numerous competing companies so you sometimes pay two or three separate fares to get from one place to another. Likely the locals eventually figure out how to get around without paying as much as we were loading into ticket machines!

We took it easy in Tokyo. there are dozens of museums, art galleries, and historic sites, but we selected just a couple to visit, along with the central train station. The massive walls and gates around the Imperial Palace grounds are impressive, and although it was not the best time of year to visit the gardens, there are some interesting ruins, a few ancient buildings you can visit. You don’t get very close to the Imperial Palace itself.

And dear readers, you just know we checked out the craft beer scene in Tokyo! It seems undeveloped for a city this size, nothing was described as a tasting room but lots of places calling themselves beer halls. The few places that actively promoted craft beer were numerous train trips apart. Our favourite was WIZ, which offered us a wide selection of craft beers from around the world. Next up was a small hole in the wall called Titans Craft Beer Taproom. They had a smaller selection but they rotate the taps, perhaps they only get a keg of each beer at a time.

After lifting a final IPA and saying goodbye, we packed our bags for the last time, boarded a fast train to the airport, and closed the chapter on 51 weeks of life on the road (vida en el camino!). We hope you have enjoyed our posts as we wandered through 21 countries on four continents!

One of the towers along the walls of the Imperial Palace, surrounded by a wide moat.

Massive doors into the walled grounds of the Imperial Palace.

Quiet outside, but inside the stores, every display features loud audio urging you to buy, buy buy!

Cleanest back alleys we’ve ever seen!

Even the construction sites are neat and tidy!