I’m so excited to share about my travels from my break that I’m skipping my usual neuroscience introduction this week but promise to include it in my next blog (I’m sure many of you missed it)! Here are some of my favorite pics:
DAY 1, TEL AVIV/SOFIA:
Woke up early (4:30 AM!) and went to the airport with Alex and Jesse. When we got there, we were interviewed by security agents about our history, where we were going, why were we in Israel, etc. Once we got through security (Jesse and Alex had a long wait at the baggage check—I went carry-on), we found some food and made it to the gate with a few minutes to spare.
When we landed, we took a taxi to our hostel before running to catch a (free!) food tour of Sofia! It was pretty bomb. We thought we had missed it because we were late, so we went directly to the first location (a soup place) and no one was there, but the tour group ended up arriving a few minutes after we did, so we got to join them. Coincidentally, three friends from our program in Jerusalem were on the tour, so after the official thing ended, we continued on our own with them.
After we finally finished eating our way through the town, Alex, Jesse, and I checked into our hostel and relaxed. To be honest, we went to so many great places I can’t list them all. The food in Sofia is SUPER cheap, which was amazing. We wound up getting some great gelatos, crepes, traditional Bulgarian food (a mix between Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food?) and—of course—I made a pit stop at a sushi bar.
After resting, we met up with our friends at their Airbnb where we just hung out for a little but before some of us went to a bar. It was this cute, quiet place called Sputnik with a cool light fixture. We all hung out and, with WiFi (!), Jesse and I talked to our girlfriends—no phone service on our trip sadly.
After that, Alex and our friend decided to go to another bar, and Jesse and I made our way back to the hostel (yay for walking half an hour in a cold, foreign country!). When we finally got back around 1:30-2:00AM, our other friends from HebrewU were just arriving at our hostel, so we all said hello and goodnight!
Day 2, Sofia:
Woke up and went on a (free!) walking tour of Sofia. We learned a fair bit about the history of the city (it’s really old) and then went to a SUPER nice (and cheap!) lunch before heading to the synagogue in Sofia, the second largest in Europe I believe, which was beautiful. It reminded me of many ornate churches, with lots of geometric designs, large columns, and stained glass windows.
After that, Jesse, Alex, and I went with one of our new travel companions, Aviel, for a communist tour of Sofia. Apparently, the communist party was formed in Bulgaria in 1891, though it wasn’t until 1944 that they first interacted with the government, taking power around 1946. The regime lasted until 1989. I was fascinated to learn about communism in practice where everything was built the same and every person was treated the same, essentially.
Some fun facts from the tour include Santa Claus being rebranded as Grandpa Frost, though I don’t remember why (sorry), and religious freedom being slowly expunged by the strategic placement of policemen outside churches on Christmas and Easter to promote conformity. This had a mental effect where people felt like they were doing something wrong by going so they didn’t go!
Anyway, we left the tour early because we weren’t really looking for the level of detail they provided (though it was fascinating). I then went into my first Starbucks in another country (there isn’t one in Israel from what I can tell), checked out a little library, and bought some Bulgarian yogurt with Jesse (apparently, they have patented specific bacteria that has wonderful probiotic benefits).
After eating some (it just tasted like regular yogurt), we took a little nap before meeting up with Alex and Aviel on one of the main streets and just went to find food. This one place had the BEST cheese I’ve eaten in my life. It was baked goat cheese with almond slices and honey, and it was amazing (cheese will be a recurring theme of this vacation!).
After dinner, we met up with Dahlia and her boyfriend and went to a club. We met a lot of nice Sofia-ites, including one named Alexandra, with whom we shared stories. We hung out for a while, and then went off to bed!
Day 3, Sofia/Athens:
Early morning wake-up for me, Jesse, Alex, and Aviel. We flew to Athens where we took a bus to our hostel and found some lunch (I tried gyro for the first time)! From there, we walked around town, bought some cool souvenirs, and went on a hike to a hill with a great view of Athens and the Acropolis! Super pretty. From there (where we had an impromptu photoshoot), we went to see the Library of Hadrian before going to a traditional Greek dinner/show.
The food was good and the show relatively entertaining, but I wouldn’t feel the need to see it again. After that, we went for dessert at a SUPER good gelato/ice cream place called Maniera! They make their own waffle cones with cinnamon sugar, and they are delicious. We talked to the workers for a while, learning about life in Greece, and then headed off to bed!
Day 4, Athens:
Woke up early and went to the Acropolis. We saw many Ancient Greek monuments, including the Parthenon and the Herodes and Dionysos theaters (partaking in more impromptu photoshoots). They were really cool, but I was a little underwhelmed in all honesty. After grabbing a bite to eat (the best omelet of my life) we headed to the Acropolis Museum, which was built on top of ancient ruins. Really interesting exhibit.
After we left the museum, we took a nap and then went to the hostel bar to hangout before walking to another restaurant. On the way, I stopped in my second foreign Starbucks, saw some cool art galleries, and Jesse bought an alabaster (I think?) statue of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, with an owl on her shoulder (her symbol) as a souvenir!
The food at this restaurant was good (Jesse and I split a cheese plate, whoop!), but the service was horrible. They also ran out of almost everything on their menu (including rabbit which we were excited to try), so we only ended up getting appetizers. Still hungry, we walked to another place which ALSO ran out of rabbit, but we stayed and had some gyros and hung out.
After that, we went to a rooftop bar with a GREAT view of the Acropolis before heading to bed.
Day 5, Athens/Aegina:
Woke up, had a quick breakfast at the hostel, and took the metro to the docks. We were late and ran in an unsuccessful attempt to catch a ferry to Pourous, and instead waited an hour for the ferry to Aegina. As soon as we got off, we were engaged by workers from two stands that have pistachio delicacies. They were INCREDIBLE. If you’ve ever had cookie butter from Trader Joe’s, imagine that but better!
Though it wasn’t exactly hot out, the sun was beating down on us, so we made our first priorities lunch and sunscreen. At the restaurant, we finally tried rabbit—basically tastes like Chicken—and split a feta cheese coated with sesame seed crust and honey (incredible)! After that, we found a nice beach and wound up renting bikes and riding to this cute little restaurant/bar with a gorgeous view of the water and mountains off the island. I had this really good fruit punch (no alcohol, though, since I don’t drink). We stayed there just hanging out on the chairs overlooking this gorgeous expanse of water and mountains. It was really surreal.
The water was crystal clear (although cold) with little schools of fish swimming around us as we waded in. There were some rocky patches close to the shore, but once we moved about ten feet out there was some really soft sand. I remember turning to look at all the colorful houses on Aegina, and thinking “I know where I plan to retire!” There was also this swing that I sat on for a long time after swimming just relaxing and enjoying the view. As the sun started setting in between the two mountains, the whole area lit up in a warm glow. Beautiful.
I was sad to leave, but we rode the bikes back to the rental place (in another rush ‘cause we stopped for more impromptu photoshoots) and bought some pistachio butter before boarding the ferry. The sunset was gorgeous as we left Aegina, an exquisite rainbow of oranges, reds, pinks, and blues. We stood on the deck of the boat, totally transfixed, until the sun gradually faded into the water, leaving the deck in shadows. After the sun set, we spent the rest of the trip inside. When we got back to Athens, we found some dinner and took the metro back to our hostel (meeting some Israelis along the way!) and went to sleep early.
Day 6, Cairo/Giza:
We got up early again (3:30AM!) and went to the airport where I was dismayed to discover that the security people wouldn’t let me take my pistachio butter through security! (HUGE sad). It turned out that they objected to the size of the container, not the pistachio butter itself, so I found two paper cups and managed to salvage at least some of the pistachio butter. Of all the new foods I’ve tried thus far, pistachio butter is one of my favorites! While I had WIFI I called my Mom and girlfriend, then grabbed some breakfast before boarding the plane.
When we got to Egypt, we were met by our tour representative who helped us through the Visa process and introduced us to our driver/tour guide. We went straight to the Egyptian museum in Cairo (which was cool as heck!) and went through the history of Pharaonic Egypt. It is separated into thirty dynasties and three main periods.
The oldest period, The Old Kingdom, spanning approximately 2700 – 2200 BCE, was the main period when the pyramids were built. This faded into an intermediate period after a decentralization of power and subsequent reunification of Egypt ushering in the Middle Kingdom, which lasted from approximately 2050 – 1650 BCE. From there, power decentralized again before being reunified during the New Kingdom, which lasted from approximately 1550 – 1070 BCE. The New Kingdom was what my tour guide described as the best of the Pharaonic times, including famous rulers such as Ramses II, Akhenaten, Tutankhamen, and Hatshepsut.
After going to the Egyptian museum, we went to the Pyramids of Giza, built in the Old Kingdom by the Pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. This was SUPER cool! It’s absolutely incredible that these structures were built so long ago and are still here today. I remember a truly awesome (awe inspiring) feeling standing before them and gazing up at the sheer grandiosity of them. I felt a that lot throughout Egypt.
We learned to be wary of scammers, especially men with camels who offered free rides (I got great photographs but lost about $18)! We also went to the Valley Temple (cool but not amazing) and the Sphinx, which was impressive in its size, but I still preferred the pyramids. Maybe because you could get so close to the pyramids, experiencing more first-hand the largesse of them, whereas you view the Sphinx from a platform.
Day 7, Saqqara/Memphis/Giza:
We went on a day trip to Saqqara and Memphis where we visited the Step Pyramid, the first pyramid-shaped structure ever built! It was built by the Pharaoh Djoser, the first king of the third dynasty, around 2700 BCE. It is considered to be a giant stairway, which King Djoser would climb after being resurrected to join the sun god Ra in the sky. That was really cool to see!
After that, we went into a pyramid (!!!) built by King Unas in the fifth dynasty and then some tombs before making our way to the Bent Pyramid. It’s bent because it was constructed first at one angle and then revised during construction. This pyramid, and the Red Pyramid (which we also went inside of!) were built by Pharaoh Khufu’s father, Sneferu. Long story short, after this visit, my new moniker can be ‘Indiana Jonesathan’.
After that, we went to Memphis to see the ruins, the most impressive of which was a gigantic statue of Ramses II. Its height was approximately 10m, but it was so massive that it seemed way larger. That night we ate at a restaurant with an incredible view of the Giza Pyramids, and saw the light and sound show at the Giza Plateau, which was entertaining but not extraordinary. After that, Alex and I headed to the airport where we caught a flight to Aswan, which is maybe 800 km south, much closer to the border of Sudan. We checked into our hotel around 12:45AM and proceeded to get three hours of sleep.
Day 8/10, Aswan/Abu Simbel/Luxor:
4:00AM wake up call for a three hour drive to the temples of Abu Simbel (extremely close to Sudan). This was super cool and again awe-inspiring. The temples were grandiose and beautiful. Gigantic statues of Pharaohs and Egyptian Queens guarded the entrances. Inside, in both temples from what I remember, there was a grand hall with massive columns and statues supporting a ceiling and a labyrinth of rooms (with surprisingly low ceilings) that had embossed and painted stones decorating the walls.
After Abu Simbel, we went back to Aswan for lunch (I got Alex a cake for his birthday!) and then took a train to Luxor.
Day 9/10, Luxor:
We started the day at the Temple of Hatshepsut, which was beautiful in its own right. Hatshepsut was one of (seven?) female Pharaohs. However, she was the only one who ruled alone for more than a few months; her reign in the New Kingdom exceeded eighteen years.
From there, we went to the Valley of the Kings, where Pharaohs from the New Kingdom were buried. I got the opportunity to go into the tombs of Ramses IV, Ramses IX, Merneptah (the 13th son of Ramses II), and Tutankhamen.
Ramses IV’s tomb was my favorite. It was the most elaborately decorated with well-preserved paintings/stone carvings. Merneptah’s tomb was the largest, and quite impressive simply for its size. I honestly don’t know a good scale to explain it, but let’s say Ramses IV’s was the size of one football field and Merneptah’s was the size of three? It was cool because they tunneled downwards in an elaborate system, with a hall leading down to the main burial room(s). King Tut’s tomb was really cool, despite being the smallest. Because he died when he was 19 (one theory is due to Malaria, not murder) he was buried in a tomb meant for a High Priestess who is essentially the religious leader during Pharaonic times.
From the Valley of the Kings, we stopped by the Colossi of Memnon, which are twin statues of King Amenhotep III constructed to guard his mortuary temple (which was destroyed). After the quick stop, we got lunch (traveling to the restaurant by boat on the Nile!) and went to the Karnak Temple, which was the largest Temple Complex and was built by many Pharaohs. There was the largest hypostyle hall which consisted of 134 columns representing the papyrus flower. It was REALLY cool. These columns were very tall and elaborately decorated with hieroglyphs etched into the stone.
After the official leg of the tour, Alex and I decided to go to the Luxor Temple which was grand but much smaller. On the way, we got sidetracked to an Egyptian market area by a staff member from our hotel who was kind enough to show us a non-tourist area of Luxor. We went to a little tea shop where Alex got some saffron and I got mango tea! It was really interesting seeing this area. The prices were significantly lower, which was nice, but the area was not the nicest. It was very run down, with a lot of dirt and dust blowing everywhere from bicycles and cars. It makes me really appreciate how fortunate I was to be born in America.
Day 10/10, Luxor/Cairo:
In the morning we caught a flight back to Cairo where we had a free day. We ended up having to wait for our tour’s driver to pick us up which was annoying because we got hounded by at least ten different taxi drivers trying to get us to go with them. Once we got picked up, though, we went back to our hotel and relaxed for a little bit.
I decided to go to the Pyramids of Giza again, which was a great choice (though I didn’t have phone service, which I would not recommend). I spent about two hours there and went to look at all 9 pyramids of the complex, once again getting that awesome sense of wonder. I went into some tombs there as well as one of the Queen’s pyramids!
I also climbed a few steps up (each step is roughly four feet) on the Great Pyramid and sat while reading my book, relaxing with a great view! After the complex closed, I wandered around trying to find the exit for a little bit and made my way to some taxis who all tried charging me double the price (I said no). I looked around for a place that had WiFi so I could call an Uber. This perfume shop, Alfayed Perfume Co, was super hospitable. They gave me WiFi, offered me drinks, and I chatted with one of the owners (who lives in California). I called my Uber and went back to the hotel where Alex and I hung out before dinner and just watched some TV the rest of the night.
Day 11/10 (I cannot count), Cairo/Amman/Tel Aviv:
We woke up and went to Old Cairo, an area where there are lots of churches and a synagogue. They were very pretty, with a lot of stained-glass windows, ornamental rugs, and religious reliefs.
From there, we went to Citadel of Cairo where we visited a few Mosques, including the Mosque of Mohammad Ali, which was very pretty! The sheer size of it was mind boggling. The room could have easily fit a couple thousand people, plus many more in the courtyard.
After that, we went back to the hotel and got driven to the airport. According to the chauffeur, when talking about the driving in Cairo (which is awful and scary), “The lines [for lanes] are road decorations.” So that was exciting.
We caught our flights with no problem from Cairo to Amman, whose airport is very modern, and then to Tel Aviv. We had to wait a solid two hours for a sherut (shuttle) to get back to our dorms, which wasn’t fun, but we made it back by 3:00AM!
This trip has opened my eyes to life outside of the U.S. Some of the people in my program have shared that they hate Americans because we’re stuck up and selfish. After some probing, I discovered that many Americans, who are used to a higher standard of living than they find when traveling to other countries, are vocally uncomfortable. Personally, I think traveling is a great way to grow a sense of gratitude—I REALLY appreciate everything that is available both in America and in Israel. Seeing how different people live is a definitely an eye-opening experience.
As I mentioned before, I have a greater appreciation for being an American citizen. I definitely appreciate more the quality of my life in America, even though I’m not “wealthy.” That term, as I’ve come to realize, is very relative. During this trip, I saw a lot of poverty, but I also saw people who are working hard to improve their conditions. I am glad I’ve been exposed to a small slice of life outside of America and look forward to traveling more in the future, to places of all cultures.
On a less serious note, I had a lot of fun, ate a lot of good food (yay cheese!) and saw a lot of cool historical sites. I would highly recommend Sofia, Bulgaria to anyone traveling in that area, as well as Aegina. Athens was very cool, but I personally think the islands are nicer. Egypt is great from an intellectual/historical perspective, but it was my least favorite place in terms of the people; many have an ulterior motive and don’t necessarily have your interests at heart. So, if you go to Egypt (which I would recommend!) go with people you trust, don’t talk to anyone with a camel, and enjoy being Indiana Jones!
P.S. If you want to see more pictures, send me an note at firstname.lastname@example.org! I only uploaded a tiny fraction of the amount I have.