Saturday, November 26, 2011

[Angie Travels] - Egypt (Cairo to Mt Sinai)

        Continuing on from our adventures in Cairo. It's an early wake up call and we say good bye to the Nile River and the city of Cairo and head south east into the desert headed for Mount Sinai. We were warned that it was going to be a long trip - around 6 hours. It was a very very long bus ride, looking out at nothing but desert sands. Thank goodness for pit stops.

        It's time for a toilet break, and snacks, and one of the guides from the other bus gives a presentation on the Suez Canal, which we'll be going under in order to cross the Gulf of Suez to get to Mount Sinai. There seemed to be a queue at the bar for freshly brewed Egyptian coffee so Ryan decides to join it. It's a very thick coffee and gets quite sludgy towards the bottom but the aroma was quite magical and the taste was not like what we're used to at home, almost chocolatey to me.

        Before we continue our journey, we're each given a papyrus painting depicting the journey of Israel's exodus from ancient Egypt, which we are following on this pilgrimage. 

Our next stop is Ayun Musa, also known as Moses' SpringExodus 15:22-26.

        And wherever we go, there are bedouins selling trinkets and souvineers. While waiting around, our tour organisers pull out some portable speakers and pump up some music, roving entertainment in the middle of the desert!

        Our stomachs are telling us that it's lunchtime - all 100 or so of them. On the way to our lunch stop our guides  have to take our orders on the bus and phone ahead with them just so that the restaurant can get ready for our arrival. I think we filled the place to capacity.

        Plates start flying out onto the tables, we have sides of pickled vegetables, and a plate of beige sauce which tasted like tahini to me but never got a chance to confirm it.

        Soft fluffy pita bread comes out in little wooden baskets and we're also given a bowl of potatoes cooked in a tomato based sauce.

        We also get given some rice and the meat options we had were either grilled chicken (photo didn't come out right) or lamb koftas which is what I opted for. Apart from those amazing falafel sandwiches we had in Cairo, this was another fantastic meal to be had in Egypt.

        We eventually cross under the Suez Canal at the Gulf of Suez and are in the Sinai Peninsula. We stop by the Feiran oasis which is said to be the site of Rafadim - battlefield between the Hebrews and the Amellecti (Exodus 17). Atop a near by hill, there are also the ruins of an ancient church. 

        Some bedouin children approach us with bags of hand made jewellery and crafts. Lots of photo opportunities with the sweet kids.

        We're running a little behind schedule but we finally make it to our final pit stop, St Catherine's Monastary which is based at the foot of Mount Sinai. They say that this is also the site of the original burning bush (Exodus 3:1-13). We spend quite a bit of time here as this site also has a world renowned collection of ancient manuscripts and valuable icons. By the time we leave it's already dark. We get to our accommodation for the night, have a quick dinner and then get ready for bed, it's only a couple of hours before we have to get up again.

        We've barely slept a wink before we are awoken by our alarm clocks ringing and loud knocks on our doors at midnight. We get back on the bus for a short ride back to the base of Mount Sinai and then it's a short walk up hill in darkness to the camel station.
        We're told to line up single file as the bedouin camel owners allocate us our camels. We can't use our torches or take photos with the flash as the camel's eyes are very sensitive. This was my first time ever riding a camel and I admit that I was not all that keen on the idea. But the only other option was to walk up the mountain, which was 2285 metres high. We were a big group which meant that there were at least 80-90 camels going up the mountain that night.

        I can still remember struggling to get onto my camel's back. I was wearing jeans and also because I am short I found it difficult to get my leg over the hump and the wooden peg that was strapped onto it's back. There was no harness, no footrest, all I had were the pegs on the saddle at the back and to the front of me to hold on to.
        The moment that the camel stood up, I squealed.  It was an awkward few jerks, I had no warning that my camel was getting up so I had to quickly grab on to the wooden peg to stop myself from falling. As the camel has such long legs it took quite a few goes before it was standing on our four legs. I had to lean back and try to balance myself so that I wouldn't fall off.

        The journey up the mountain is definitely something I will never forget. Travelling in pitch darkness, with nothing but the million stars in the sky guiding our way. It was just a magical moment, whether you are religious or not, there was definably a spiritual presence in this place. It was just amazing.
       The camels were quite well behaved most of the time, following a path that they have most probably walked all their lives though there were some moments when I was sure my camel would just fall off the edge of the path into the valley below. I'm glad that I couldn't see my surroundings because if I did, I don't think I would have made it to the top.

        There was one incident where I thought my life was about to end with me falling off my camel. Our small group of camels came to a bit of a road block caused by another group of camels which had stopped in the middle of the track. It was a chaotic moment where I was holding onto my wooden peg for dear life as my camel went off track and up and over a large boulder on the side of the path in confusion.
        I was glad when my guide pulled the camel back onto the path but I could feel my heart beating a million times over for quite some time after that.

        We finally reach the last camel station at the top of the mountain. The actual peak is another 750 steps further up. A small handful of us decided to stay behind due to various reasons. After squatting down all those steps to the bottom of the pyramid my thighs were absolutely too sore to be climbing any stairs. I still had to walk all the way down the mountain later on. Ryan went on ahead and conquered the 750 steps.
        We sat for a moment in complete darkness, just watching the sky slowly change colour, listening to the sound of silence all around us. Cardinal George Pell lead some prayers and then we sung a couple of songs. 
         There was a group of African pilgrims who had also made the trek to Mount Sinai. Some of them went to the top and some of them joined our group at the camel station with prayers and song. It was amazing how religion can bring people together no matter where in the world they come from.

        Top photo is of a small chapel at the top of Mount Sinai which Ryan took. Bottom photo is one that I shot while we were waiting for the sunrise. 

        The moment we were all waiting for, a glimpse of the first light of day. It was quite tranquil, the silence all around us as we watched the sun grow.

An unforgettable moment with an unforgettable sunrise.

        Not the best photo of me but the only one I have of me on Mount Sinai. It was too dark to take one when I was on the camel.

        As the sun gets higher we prepare for the long walk down to the bottom. It's amazing to keep looking up at this huge mountain and to think that we had just climbed up to the top of it.

        When everyone finally reaches the bottom we make our way back to our accomodation for some well earned breakfast. Along the way we stop by the  Plain of El Raha (Plain of Rest) where the Chapel of the Golden Calf was built to commemorate the false idol made by Aaron while Moses was on Mount Sinai.

        After breakfast we collect our bags, leave our little Mount Sinai hotel and hop back on the coach for a long ride up to the Egyptian/Israeli border city of  Taba where we stay the night at a luxurious resort by the Red Sea. The next day we will be entering into the Holy Land of Israel.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Belgian Waffles - It's a Waffle Party!

        Do you LOVE waffles? Crisp on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside. Heck I think that's how I like a lot of my food, it's about the contrasting textures!
        I was actually never a huge fan of waffles to start with and only ever liked the Vietnamese pandan waffles but I will make an exceptian for the Belgian ones.

        At work, we have a rewards program where we are rewarded with points for our good work and also for service recognition/anniversary with the company. You can trade in your points at any time in exchange for something from the catalogue which ranges from things like movie vouchers, homewares, electronics, even overseas trips. 
        I had accumulated enough points to claim a compact digital camera with super zoom however it wasn't quite what I was after so I donated my camera to Grandpa who had lost his during the Queensland floods. I had enough points left over to claim a Sunbeam Belgian waffle maker, which I had been eyeing off for a while now.

        One cold rainy Friday evening Ryan was called into work, so earlier that day I sent out a message to some friends for an impromptu waffle party at my place, what better way to christen my waffle machine? With some eager reponses I went about researching online for a recipe for Belgian waffles and found this recipe. I remember I had to make a few changes to it but never wrote down exactly what those changes were. 
        The batter that I ended up with resulted in some pretty tasty waffles. It's a yeast based waffle batter which meant that I had to sit my mixing bowl next to a heater to help it rise on this particular cold night. It was well worth it though.

        My fellow wafflers came and we fired up the waffle machine to start making some hot waffles. I had plenty of chocolate at home to make a sauce and also had some strawberries in the fridge. I requested my guests to bring some additional toppings of choice, and a tub of vanilla ice cream too.

        The chocolate sauce is simply some milk chocolate melts and milk, melted over a double boiler and stired until combined.

        So our toppings of choice are 'maple' syrup (shame it wasn't the real deal), strawberries and a mix of crushed walnuts and cashew nuts. Chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream not shown in this pic.

        Golden goodness. I actually doubled the batch and we were eating waffles a few days in a row, such indulgence.

        DIY waffle assembling. All on with the toppings for most of us. It's more fun that way, and everyone gets to pick and choose what they want to go with their waffles. Great for those picky eaters. I've got to say I was actually a little skeptical about the crushed walnuts and cashews but they went so well with the chocolate and strawberries and vanilla ice cream. We didn't have any bananas that evening but the next day I was able to have a waffle with some ripe sugar bananas from the garden - it was delicious.

        What could possibly be better than this? Definately beats heading out to Max Brenner to queue up on a cold and wet Friday night! And we had much more fun at home making our own waffles.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Best Banana Bread Ever!

       Who doesn't love banana bread?? Banana bread is the best way to use up old black bananas, the blacker the better. Well one of the ways, the other would probably be banana cake... or hummingbird cake!
         I've plopped a bit of butter on the slice above for photography purposes but this recipe really doesn't need the extra butter because it's nice, rich and moist. Unless you feel like you really need it, then I won't stop you ;) I had been searching around for banana bread recipes and have not moved on since I landed on this one. I actually originally came across it on the blog Ohh-Look by Belle which was taken from an old issue of delicious magazine, but have tweaked it over time and always use it as more of a guide than following it exactly.
        I've made it time and time again and every loaf that comes out of the oven doesn't take long to disappear, which is why I always bake two at a time. I know there are many recipes out there that take their claim as the best banana bread, but trust me with this one. It's the most easiest recipe ever, melt, mash and stir. Exactly what I like. And I've even had a request for it so here it is.

Recipe: Banana Bread
1 1/3 cups self raising flour
1/2 - 1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2/3 cup brown sugar
150 grams chopped walnuts
3-4 large over ripe bananas
2 large eggs lightly whisked
1 - 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
100 grams unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1. Preheat oven to 175 degrees celcius, grease and line a small loaf tin.
2. Sift all the dry ingredients into a bowl together with the sugar and chopped walnuts. Stir until combined.
3. In another bowl, mash the bananas and then stir in the melted butter, eggs and vanilla.
4. Fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until just combined.
5. Pour into the tin and bake for one hour or until golden and a skewer inserted comes out clean.

        I've actually made my banana bread with sugar bananas and it gives a very different texture and taste compared to using regular bananas. I actually prefer the banana bread made with sugar bananas and even Ryan agrees it gives a much sweeter and better textured loaf. As they are generally smaller than your regular bananas I add a couple extra just to make sure there's enough banana in there.
        With the Queensland flood at the beginning of this year affecting the prices of bananas I guess I can count myself lucky that we have a sugar banana tree at home which has been giving us plenty of fruit all year round. Sometimes mum will also bring home the blackened bananas which have failed to sell at my uncle's grocery store, score for free bananas!

        Walnuts, I looooove walnuts and Mum says that they are what make the banana bread. I actually use a packet of whole walnuts and roughly bang them with a cleaver so that they are not all completely crushed or chopped. It helps to add another texture to the banana bread. And I usually add plenty of nice fragrant cinnamon.

        Um yes, mashed banana and melted butter looks really appealing. But I love the fact that I don't have to wait to soften the butter (or over do it in the microwave), and creaming the butter is just too tedious of a task.

        I find that if I grease the loaf tin well I don't need to line it and it just pops straight out. Tap it a couple of times on the counter to move any air bubbles around and up to the surface.

        I always love the moment when the timer tells me they are done. And then I pull out two of these beautiful loaves from the oven. The smell around the house is just blissful.

        It's always hard to resist temptation not to wait, hot straight from the oven is best. That way you get a nice thin crispy edge and a wonderfully soft fluffy interior with bits of crunch from the walnuts.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

[Angie Travels] - Dubai and Egypt (Cairo)

(Top: Dubai Airport (biggest in the world), Bottom: Dubai Highway)

        Good Day Habibi! If you've been following my blog you'll know that I've been overseas for a month and have had the time of my life visiting 5 countries over 4 weeks. It's been about 6 weeks since I've returned home but it has been a hectic 6 weeks. The first few weeks were spent recovering from jet lag, exhaustion and trying to get myself off cloud 9 (dreaming of still being in Paris) and we've also had many events to attend and people to catch up with. The few weeks after that have also been tough for my family with the loss of an aunty to cancer. And to top all that off, all my spare time in the last two weeks has been taken up making my very first wedding cake, and a special first birthday cake for a good friend's little boy.
         It's been quite a task to find the time and energy to sort through my thousands and thousands of travel photos and trying to conjur up the energy and time to compose a blog post is another great task in itself. It's only taken me about 6 weeks to complete this first instalment on my travels. So here goes...

        (Left: Burj al Arab, Right: Burj Khalifa)

        On the way to Cairo, we stopped in Dubai where there was a 7 hour transit stop for our connecting flight. Our trip organisers Harvest, had kindly arranged for a coach (well 3 to be exact) to take our group around to see the city sights. Dubai is an extremely hot place, with maximum temperatures of around 40+ degrees celcius. It may have only been about 4 or 5 in the morning when we left the airport but I could feel the heat hit me in the face as I walked out the sliding doors.
        The city itself looked very artificial, there were so many high rises and everything was very modern in design. Ryan even went as far as describing it as 'having no soul'. It was all show but no substance, it was the biggest and the best of everything e.g biggest airport, biggest mall, tallest building etc. but didn't feel all that warm and inviting. It was like a concrete jungle in the middle of the desert. I would have liked to see the old Dubai. Probably doesn't help that we saw most of Dubai from the comfort of an air conditioned bus though.

(Top: Dubai Marina, Bottom: The Atlantis Hotel)

        As it was still quite early in the morning, and also being Ramadan, there was not very much activity going on around the city and everything was still closed. We mostly stayed in the coach with a few pitt stops at significant landmarks or places of interest. Shame as it would have been fun to go into some of the places or poke around some of the shops. The photo doesn't show it that clearly but Dubai marina is the also largest man made marina in the world (surprise surprise).

(Top: Entrance to the Souk Madinat Jumbirah, Bottom: Inside the Souk)

        We stop by the Souk Madinat Jumbirah which is a large indoor 'market', or shopping complex modelled on an Arabian theme, to use their toilets and also walked through to some points of interest inside the complex. Disappointed that all the stores were still closed but I loved the architecture of this place.

(Top: Man made canal inside the complex with a view of the Burj al Arab, Bottom: Stores and restaurants surrounding the canal)

(Top: Supermarket Bottom: Antipasto items)

        And what about the food you might ask? They tried to take us to McDonalds however as it was closed due to Ramadan, we were taken to a supermarket to grab a 'snack'. It was similar to the large chain supermarkets (Coles, Woolworths) back home in Sydney. Even though we were fed breakfast before we landed, travelling does take a lot out of you and sustenance is needed. Ryan and I just grabbed a couple of things to keep our energy levels up. As it was Ramadan, we were instructed to take our food back to the coach and eat on onboard as it was disrespectful and rude to eat around people who were fasting.

        (Top: Spicey corn and rice salad Ryan and I shared, Bottom: Box of baklava which we were lucky enough to sample)

(Top: Entrance to the 'Gold Market', Bottom: Gold/Jewellery shop with security guard out front)

        We were taken to the 'Gold Market', which is just store after store selling mainly gold and other jewellery. There were also other little stores selling clothing and various other items. It was definately a market environment here with a lot of haggling to be done (and being ripped off if you weren't on your guard). This area also seemed to be the poorer side of Dubai, a big contrast to the slick looking concrete jungle we had seen all morning.

(Top: Dubai Aquarium - inside Dubai Mall, Bottom: Biggest candy store I've ever seen)

        And of course we couldn't stop by Dubai without checking out the world's largest mall. It's just a quick (and long) walk through to the other side where we get a spectacular view of the Burj Khalifa. Inside the mall is also the Dubai Aquarium which is just mind blowing, just look at that first picture above to see how big it is. And that's just the outside of it. Opposite the aquarium is also the biggest candy store I've ever seen, we admired from afar though.
        We then head back to Dubai airport where we grab some lunch before boarding our flight to Cairo (and get fed by Emirates again).

(Top: Outside Cairo airport, Bottom: Cairo highway)

        Arriving in Cairo and walking out into the airport was quite a huge culture shock. You could tell it was a culture dominated by men, and as a foreigner  (and a female) you stuck out like a sore thumb. The men would seriously undress you with their eyes which made me feel ultra self concious. Cairo, capital of Egypt, looked the complete opposite of Dubai. You could see that Cairo was nothing like Dubai on an economical scale. And I think that being surrounded by desert did not help for the appearance of the city either. A lot of the buildings appeared very dirty (or dusty), helping aid the impression that it was a poor country.

(Top: Streets of Cairo, Bottom: Spotting a pyramid in the distance)

        One thing that caught me by surprise as we drove through the city to get to our hotel was how close the pyramids were to the city. As soon as I spotted a dark triangular shadow in the horizon, my heart skipped a beat and I almost squealed like a little girl. I studied ancient Egyptian history in high school and have always dreamed of visiting Egypt but I guess I never actually thought that dream would come true so soon in my life. And spotting that little dark triangle in the distant horizon just made me realise one of my dreams was about to become reality.

(View from our hotel room)

        It was an exciting moment waking up the next day. I woke up quite early which was surprising because I barely slept a wink in the past 24 odd hours since we left Sydney, I thought I would have slept like a log. I do always have trouble sleeping in new beds though and probably because I was also super excited to know I was going to be ticking off one of my dream experiences.
        I could see the pyramids in the distance from the balcony of the hotel room which I shared with two other girls. I went out and sat on the balcony watching this dark triangle come to life as the sun rose in the sky. It was an amazing experience and I knew that it would probably only ever happen once in my life time.

(Largest out of 3, Pyramids at Giza)

        Things get even better with our first official day in Cairo. Leaving the office to embark on my 4 week adventure was quite surreal as I've never been away for so long before and it felt completely weird saying good bye to everyone. I was told something along the lines of 'in a few days time you'll be standing at the foot of a pyramid looking up and thinking 'wow' '. And when I stood at the foot of that pyramid and craned my neck up to see the top of it I thought to myself 'wow' and remembered what was said to me on my last day of work.
       I was absolutely giddy, kept grabbing Ryan's hand, pinching myself to just see if it was all real. It was absolutely amazing, to stand in front of this enormous structure, something I had ever only seen on documentaries and in text books. It was an absolute high light to start off my big adventure.

(Ryan and I in front of one of the smaller pyramids)

        We also got to go down one of the smaller pyramids, there wasn't much to see as it had been cleared out and the walls were bare but it was a cool experience to be able to walk into something that was only once a flat square diagram to me.

(Left: Sphinx, Right: Pizza Hit 200 metres from the Sphinx)

        We were also taken to see one of the last standing Sphinx in Giza. Was a little disappointed as I had imagined it to be a lot bigger. Still, it was pretty cool to see one in real life. And as I was informed by a food blogger that apparently there was a Pizza Hut only about 200 metres away from the Sphinx, we just had to see it for ourselves so our tour guide asked the bus driver to drive past it. It was closed for Ramadan though. 

(Left: Papyrus scroll production demonstration, Right: Previously made sheet of papyrus)

        We're taken to a papyrus house to check out some art works and for some souvineer opportunities. It was interesting to see a demonstration of how a papyrus sheet is made. There were many beautiful hand painted pieces, however I left empty handed.

(Top: St Joseph's Cathedral, Bottom: The inside of the cathedral)

        A pilgrimage is not a pilgrimage without daily Mass so after our visit to the papyrus factory, we high tail it through the city to downtown Cairo to St Joseph's Cathedral. It was quite a beautiful cathedral, the first of many more that I will see on my trip.

(Falafel pita sandwich)

        Our culinary experience in Cairo was limited to our hotel food, which was quite mediocre. That was until our kind tour guides provided us with some falafel sandwiches for lunch after Mass. One bite into the falafel and Ryan and I were in love. Crunchy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside, it was nothing like what we had experienced back home. The falafel in Cairo were out of this world!

(Top: Pita bread sold on the streets in mass, Bottom: Prickly mangoes in a cart)

        I did envy the locals, if only we were able to eat like the locals did without any repercussion. Would have been happy eating falafel sandwiches if they were all as good as the ones our tour guides bought for us.

(Left: Nunnery of Saint George, Right: The Hanging Church)

        So our pilgrimage of Egypt continues after Mass where we visit Old Cairo (Coptic Cairo) to see all the sacred sites important to Christianity in Egypt. We visited the St George Convent, St Barbara, The Hanging Church, and Abu Sarga. The Hanging Church got it's name because it was built on the southern gate of the Roman fortress.

(Abu Sarga, St Sargus Church)

       Abu Sarga is the oldest church in Egypt, it is believed that the crypt of the church is where the Holy Family took refuge while they were in Egypt.

(Top: Streets of Cairo, Bottom: Street side market)

        It was quite fascinating just observing the lifestyle of the Egyptians as we drove through the city.

(Cairo farm landscape with the city and Great Pyramids in the background)

        It's been a long and exhausting day, we're taken back to the hotel where we get the choice of free time to swim in the pool, or to stay on the bus which was heading off on a shopping expedition for essential oils and cheap t-shirts. Ryan and I decided the pool looked too good to say no to, and I'm glad we chose the latter.
        The next day is an early wake up call and a very long bus ride to St Catherine and Mount Sinai.