August 30, 2009

Allergies are for Wimps

Since the age of 13, milk has been the enemy. One glass of the stuff and I would buckle over in pain. Oddly enough, bi-products were okay. Cheese, ice-cream, yogurt and small amounts of cream were all fine. As of 8 months ago, my allergy became more aggressive and now a teaspoon of butter is like poison.

When I was living in Sydney, allergies in general (let alone one as common as lactose intolerance), were quite manageable. There are many options for people with my condition, and almost every cafe and restaurant serves an alternative. In essence, life without dairy wasn’t a big deal.

Now I’m in Egypt. Which means my allergy no longer exists. As my cousin so bluntly put it, “allergies are a figment of the imagination… if you believe you are allergic to milk then of course you will be.” Quite a nice theory if you are a Zen master and practice the art of ‘mind over matter.’ In one instance I was told “allergies are for wimps.”

I find these comments quite curious, given the fact that several members of my extended family suffer from the same condition, and yet insist that it is the “weather.” As a matter of fact, the symptoms suffered from food allergies are most commonly blamed on:

1. The Flu
2. Fatigue
3. Lack of health in general
4. Poor diet

Family outings have thus become a challenge, especially when food is involved (100% if outings in Egypt involve food in some way…) When I eat out, I always ask for a non-dairy option. I actually need to list every dairy item under the sun for the waiter and chef to comprehend the meaning of ‘milk product.’ I also need to state that any mistake will result in death. This of course is an exaggeration, but even then can you believe that mistakes are still made? Despite these precautions, I almost always still receive my order wrong. So for all my fellow lactose intolerantinos, here are some tips for surviving a milk-free life:

* Brown bread is milk-free. If you like white bread, always check the ingredients (there are brands that sell dairy free white bread) and if you are buying from a bakery, ‘balady’ and Lebanese bread are also usually milk-free.

* Goats cheese and goat’s milk seems to have little to no effect. Might be different on a case by case basis, so test it first before going crazy!

* Camels milk is rumoured to be a good alternative, although I haven’t brought myself to try it! Anyone who has tried it, please let me know the outcome.

* Many foods are cooked in butter, so make sure you ask the chef to cook it in vegetable or olive oil instead. Don’t rely on the waiter, they usually have no clue and like to make assumptions. Always ask to speak to the chef or at least tell the waiter that it is life-threatening so that he doesn’t forget to ask.

* Soy milk is available in specialty stores – stock up on this at home to ensure you get your calcium intake. Caution: soy milk does crazy things for your hormones, so drink in moderation.

* Take soy milk with you to coffee shops - they have no problem making your favourite latte with it.

* Coptic Egyptians fast during particular times of the year, abstaining from eating anything that was living or a bi-product of living animals. This includes milk and dairy. Thus there are stores which cater to this, from bakeries and sweet shops to mini markets.

* Finally, always give your relatives and friends the heads up when attending dinner parties and lunches. This usually has to be done before every visit, to avoid statements such as “I forgot” or “Do you still have that problem?”

And if nothing works, then just remember - "there's no point crying over spilt milk!"

August 22, 2009

Happy Ramadan!

It's the first day of Ramadan and I am again reminded of the beauty of my religion. This time round I have the opportunity to celebrate it in an Islamic country and experience the charity, prayers and celebration first hand.

Here's a quick run down of Ramadan:

* It is the month in which the Quran (Islamic Holy Book) was revealed to the prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

* Every day during this month, Muslims spend the daylight hours in a complete fast. The Arabic word for "fasting" (sawm) literally means "to refrain" - and it means not only refraining from food and drink, but from evil actions, thoughts, and words. Therefore, fasting is not merely physical, but is rather the total commitment of the person's body and soul to the spirit of the fast. Ramadan is a time to practice self-restraint; a time to cleanse the body and soul from impurities and re-focus one's self on the worship of God.

* Muslims are called to re-evaluate their lives in light of Islamic guidance. This includes making peace with those who have wronged us, strengthening ties with family and friends and doing away with bad habits.

* Through fasting, a Muslim experiences hunger and thirst, and sympathises with those in the world who have little to eat every day. Thus, through increased charity, Muslims develop feelings of generosity and good-will toward others.

* Muslims have a breakfast called "Sohoor" before the sun comes up and complete the first of five prayers for the day (more info here) Here is a video I took last night (or should I say, this morning at 3am!) of the "Masaharatti" - the guy who walks the streets banging on a drum to wake people up. So if you don't have an alarm, this will do the job!

More about Ramadan (and what it means) here.
My own personal experience of Ramadan here

August 15, 2009

Turkey Anyone?

Whenever I heard the word Turkey, I thought of smoked meaty goodness on freshly baked bread with cranberry sauce. Now I think of castles, seafood restaurants, pretzels and my dad (whose name is Mostafa – a very popular name in Turkey as I later discovered).

If you love history and culture but don’t fancy being too adventurous, then add Istanbul to your list of holiday destinations. It’s one of those unique places which offers modernised living in the setting of an ancient city. Very much like a giant, open-air museum. My first visit to Istanbul was when I was 8 with my parents. There was a lot of greenery, very few tourists and people hardly spoke any English. Now, 20 years later, Istanbul has very much become a ‘European’ city, making it more accessible to mainstream sightseeing. This time round I was in Istanbul for work, but luckily had a few days in between to do some sightseeing and shopping. Here is a brief description of the places I had time to visit, with links to my online photo album.

1. Archeoloji Müzeleri (Archaeological Museums)
I spent a good 4 hours in this place, intent on seeing every single thing in each of the three museums. By the end of it, I was practically running down the halls with my camera on automatic capture. Seriously, I saw so much stuff from so many different time periods and cultures that the names and dates have all become hazy. After you’ve seen one statue of Alexander the Great, the rest seem so… well… not so great! Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge history buff, but I seriously started seeing double after my visit to these museums. In any case you definitely get your money’s worth. Here are a few snaps, the rest are uploaded to my Picasa Album here

2. The Blue Mosque – beautiful place of prayer, certainly a must see for people of all faiths. The crimson carpets which lined the entire inside of the mosque almost glowed under the light of the low hanging chandelier.
Picasa Album
More info here

3. Topkapi Palace – everything a Sultan’s Palace should be and more. Lush gardens, water views and a ton of chill out rooms with floor cushions and Turkish windows. The water fountains actually still work, and the Islamic treasures and artifacts are amazingly intact and well looked after. My heart skipped a beat when I saw Spoonmaker’s Diamond – a stunning 80+ carats (but who’s counting), which was found in 1669 by a street urchin in the garbage. He sold it for three spoons to a Spoonmaker, who then sold it to a jeweller. When it was later discovered to be a diamond, a dispute broke out and word reached the Sultan, who confiscated the diamond. Pictures weren’t allowed, so here’s one I found online of this thing:

Apart from the diamond, there were a ton of other treasures and jewels – this guy had furniture made from diamonds, rubies, emeralds and other precious stones. His wardrobe wasn’t bad either – I managed to take a picture of one of his coats before being told to put the camera away.

But the most amazing sight was that of the Islamic exhibit. Previous to my visit I didn’t actually know this exhibit existed – I saw Moses’ Rod for goodness sakes. Hi rod! Add to that David’s sword, Joseph’s turban, part of the Prophet Mohamed’s (pbuh) beard, his footprint and the swords that he and his Companions used in battle. If I could leave Istanbul with just one photograph, it would be of these. Darn me for following the rules…
Picasa Album
More info here

4. Basilica Cistern –huge underground store of water, with a tunnel that leads all the way to the Palace. They discovered it decades ago when people were found fishing through a hole in the floor of their home. The story sounded interesting enough, but once inside I discovered that it was dark, damp and really not much for me to see.

The coolest part (no pun intended) by far were the Medusa Heads. If you want a 15 minute tour of history, this is the perfect spot. Not really worth a second visit (unless you have a thing for underground stores of water….)

5. Bosphorus Cruise – a great ride along the Bosphorus, past classic villas, old towns and ancient castles. See the Asian side on the way there, and the European side on the way back. Fairly cheap for a return ticket (around 20 TL) and you can get off at one stop. We disembarked at Emininou where we enjoyed a seafood lunch (which was actually disappointing) and did some window shopping for sweets (which we didn’t actually get time to go back for!) My advice – take your time and enjoy what the town has to offer. If you are in a rush to get back to the main city, then you can buy a slightly cheaper ticket which doesn’t include a stopover.

The hotel I was staying at the first few days was within walking distance of all these attractions, but not close enough to be too pricy. So if you want a clean place to crash, and don’t mind foregoing the luxuries of a 5 star hotel, Sude Konak is your best bet. They charge something like 50 Euro a night with breakfast. For the remainder of the week I stayed at the Marmara Pera Hotel, which boasted an amazing view from the rooftop. I’d stay there again just for this feature – everything else was as it should be for $250 Euro a night.

So if you’re planning a trip to Istanbul, you don’t really need to do research – just get there and plan as you go. Any country with hygiene standards high enough to create 'revolving plastic toilet seats' is worth a visit. Happy travelling!

August 8, 2009

Happy Birthday Mum

This is a poem dedicated to my amazing mother.

When the sun rises each day, I am reminded of your spirit – as glorious and bright as she.

As does the sun warm the earth, so does your smile when you look upon your children with love

As does the sun give life to her creatures, so does your touch heal those in pain

As does the sun mean the world to the world, so do you, mother, mean the world to me.

Happy Birthday, may you have many more, filled with happiness and laughter.

My 1am

Before I begin, let’s cover a bit of background:

I’m Aussie/Egyptian. Born and bred in Sydney. Moved to Egypt in May 09, at the age of 27.

So what’s this blog about exactly? Well for starters, this isn’t a point of reference for aspiring expats looking to make the same move. So if you want advice, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place. On the plus side, I’ve saved you the hassle of reading beyond the first paragraph before realising this.

If you’re still reading, this isn’t a “day-in-the-life of” blog either – I have no intention of recording my every move, there are only a few individuals out there who can do this without boring everyone to death. In general, the whole ‘big brother’ concept is old and tired, but if that’s your thing there are a ton of re-runs on YouTube.

So why am I here? To be honest, I needed a place where I could record random thoughts, upload pictures and basically keep my friends and family up to date. I’m also travelling quite a bit these days, and some of the things I see along the way are definitely worth a mention (such as the mini mango in Egypt which is the size of your finger… but more on that later!)

So why not just create a Facebook profile? Well actually I have one of those, and a Linked In page, and a few others whose logins I’ve long misplaced and forgotten. And now with Twitter becoming the newest place to be online, I realised that I would forever be on the virtual move. Just as in reality, you can never truly be settled unless you have a place of your own. I was actually going to name this blog My Place and then I realised that it sounded too familiar….

As it so happens I am writing my first entry and it is 1am. Lack of imagination, or perhaps just fatigue, but I guess I’ve found my blog title. For those of you wanting to extract some sort of meaning, let me indulge your whim…

“1am is a representation of the here and now, the start of a new day at the end of the previous one. So close is one to the other, that one can compare it to the turning of a page. And because I have recently moved from Sydney to Egypt, this is the perfect analogy for my life as it currently stands. I am basically closing one chapter (Sydney) and starting a new one (Egypt). Thus 1am, my 1am, equals a new beginning.”

Welcome friends, family, bloggers and random passers-by. May your 1am be filled with excitement, learning and success.