Resting at the top of a tower after the arduous climb up the mountain/hill left time for reflection and two predominant thoughts.

First, we simply hiked the 800m up to get to the top. Imagining the quantity of human labor needed to move rocks/bricks to the top and build the walls seemed very “pyramid-like” in effort.

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My second thought was what would it be like living up here as a soldier? Kilometers of empty wall to patrol as you watched for the hordes from the north. Looking out across the mountain from our tower you can see the wall snake it’s way along a ridge. In this area, a strategic pass between the mountains, the Chinese had built walls along different ridges.

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A 300mm shot. You can see the wall making it’s way up some very steep terrain. According to our guide, that area of the wall is like mountain climbing and quite treacherous, for some deadly.

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Imagine sitting on that tower 700 years ago, watching for an invasion in January.


The second stage of the sales cycle was to show us how they made a carpet.

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Hand woven and then burned with a torch to remove the extra silk.

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An intricate process of burning (to tighten and seal the knots) and shaving. With the wool carpets he took a blade to the fibers to finish the process.

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While it is all staged to facilitate the sales process just like in other places such as Murano, Italy, it was interesting to watch. The problem I have as a “tourist” is what is the right price? This vendor was pitching us rugs that ran from $5K-$12K USD. While I know silk rugs in downtown Toronto often go for that price (or more), I was instantly on the defensive. Certainly they send those to foreign markets at a fraction of the cost – so what is the right price?

In the end, that is why we did not buy. Perhaps we would have if we felt there was a compelling reason and a deal to be had due to the “buy from the source” scenario.


Being Expats our propensity to “consume” is quite low. Beside the fact that we are living in Tokyo, we have entered into a phase in our lives where we are getting rid of things – not adding. It has to be pretty special to get into our suitcase on a trip.

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Our guide had scheduled a stop at a textile shop which is a collective and one that he trusts. I have a long sales background and appreciate a good selling process. Their process is all about creating that emotional tie, letting us know the background on the collective and walking us through how the carpets are made.

The selling process started with showing us how they print silk by hand. Amazing to watch.

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The finished process.

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Made me wish that we needed something. Carpets, their high price item, were next.


Outside of Agra is Fatehpur Sikri, a small city that would often serve as the summer capital:

The city was founded in 1569 by the Mughal emperor Akbar, and served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585.[1] After his military victories over Chittor and Ranthambore, Akbar decided to shift his capital from Agra to a new location 23 miles (37 km) W.S.W on the Sikri ridge, to honor the Sufi saint Salim Chishti. Here he commenced the construction of a planned walled city which took the next fifteen years in planning and construction of a series of royal palaces, harem, courts, a mosque, private quarters and other utility buildings.[2] He named the city, Fatehabad, with Fateh, a word of Arabic origin in Persian, meaning "victorious." it was later called Fatehpur Sikri.[3] It is at Fatehpur Sikri that the legends of Akbar and his famed courtiers, the nine jewels or Navaratnas, were born.[citation needed] Fatehpur Sikri is one of the best preserved collections of Mughal architecture in India.[4]

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Ornately built with incredible detail everywhere. It is an architectural wonder, and quite the “summer home”.

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While we were there it was quite cloudy and foggy. We are just fortunate that the entire trip was not that way.

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The most interesting part of the fort was the insight into the male/female lifestyle. At different spots through the fort Anu (our guide) would point out where they celebrated – with dancers and musicians – always pointing to where the women would be located/segregated, often behind some type of screen or up on one of the balconies.

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Interesting insight into a Moghul’s summer life. As an aside – a point on literacy embedded in the Wikipedia entry:

Fatehpur Sikri has a population of 28,754. Males constitute 53% of the population and females 47%. Fatehpur Sikri has an average literacy rate of 46%, lower than the national average of 59.5%: male literacy is 57%, and female literacy is 34%. In Fatehpur Sikri, 19% of the population is under 6 years of age

We had many conversations with our guide on literacy, education and the class system in India. It became apparent that there is a lot of local skepticism around the claimed national literacy average of 72%.


It is a question I asked many people before we traveled there for 10 days with a wide range of answers; what is the right amount of time?

Reflecting on our time in the country, I would pass on the following opinions (feel free to disagree):

The tourist sites become repetitive:  The pink city, the blue city, Delhi. The architecture of India is surprisingly consistent. Once you see a couple temples, forts and Tajs, they begin to look the same. Therefore if you are planning, remember that. We went to Agra, Jaipur and Delhi. I do not feel that we missed much by not hitting the other northern cities and am very glad that we didn’t make the very long trips.

That isn’t to say that the south isn’t different. It is and we will make another trip to hit the south of India.

It isn’t about the tourist sites:  Had we followed the itineraries that were presented to us by travel companies we would have missed out. I spent a lot of time searching different locations on Tripadvisor and opportunities to take us off the beaten path. Into villages, on to locations that others don’t usually go to. The Taj Mahal was interesting, but I wouldn’t call it the highlight of the trip. The highlights for us were often down side streets.

I began to form this opinion at Sikandra tomb, the tomb of Akbar the great. Magnificent building? Yes. Did it have anything different than the other tombs we had seen? Not really. It was at this point in the tour that we started to actively push away from the top, commonly visited sites in the cities.

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It is tiring.  India is a full on assault on the senses. A 100km drive can take 5 hours. Everything is caked in dust. You will see flaunted wealth and the saddest of poverty. We booked in breaks at our hotel to just relax or it would have been to much.

As I said in a previous post, our private guide gave us this flexibility and truly explained India to us. The culture, the rich history and he was very flexible as we evolved our itinerary as we went.

And to answer the question again on safety – just be smart. We had a few run ins, but we were never in danger. We stood out in the crowd (My wife and boys are blonde), so expect lots of stairs, people asking for money and a few other things. As a group, it was safe. It is just about being smart.

India is an incredible place, but it is not for the first time traveler. 

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The Crete adventure continued on with a day trip north to the Island of Spinalonga. Our first stop was the quaint town of Elounda across from the island.

As is the case with most of Greece, dogs and cats were abundant and this one seemed to enjoy hanging out on the fishing nets.

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Fishing boats had been repurposed to shuttle us back and forth … with a little fishing thrown in between.

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Across from the town is the island which was a fort during the Turkish times and later a leper colony until 1957.

Following the Turkish occupation of Crete in 1669, only the fortresses of Gramvousa , Souda and Spinalonga remained in Venetian hands; they would remain so for almost half a century. Many Christians found refuge in these fortresses to escape persecution. In 1715, the Turks came to terms with the Venetians and occupied the island. At the end of the Turkish occupation the island was the refuge of many Ottoman families that feared the Christian reprisals. After the revolution of 1866 other Ottoman families came to the island from all the region of Mirabello. In 1881 the 1112 Ottomans formed their own community and Later, in 1903, the last Turks left the island.

The island was subsequently used as a leper colony, from 1903 to 1957. It is notable for being one of the last active leper colonies in Europe. The last inhabitant, a priest, left the island in 1962. This was to maintain the religious tradition of the Greek Orthodox church, in which a buried person has to be commemorated 40 days, 6 months, 1, 3 and 5 years after their death. Other leper colonies that have survived Spinalonga include Tichilesti in Eastern Romania, Fontilles in Spain and Talsi in Latvia. As of 2002, few lazarettos remain in Europe.[1])

It must have been heartbreaking for the people to be bound to the rock, even if the government did take care of them.

The island itself is magnificent. Huge walls jutting out of the sea. A commanding point to control the sea around it and another great family hiking opportunity ….

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It never ceases to amazing me how life will pop out in the oddest of places. This is a picture straight up a wall that must be 15m high. What are the odds?

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Inside the walls is a well preserved town with a small museum dedicated to the previous inhabitants.

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Unfortunately, the leper grave is without a single marker to identify those who have passed on.

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The below gives you an idea of how steep the island is. Fantastic adventure hiking to the top, but very steep. Of course, the view from the top is amazing.

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I can see the soldiers standing on the parapet, bored out of their minds….

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All in all .. a great adventure for the day. We topped it off with dinner on the shore at a local sea food restaurant who served great lobster and scallops.

I miss Crete already.


I have talked with many people about how my transition from Canada to the UK changed my view in many ways. The first change being my definition of old. In Canada I thought that our house was old – a 110 year old Victorian. When I came to the UK that changed dramatically as one of my first experiences in a pub was The Bull in Sonning built in the 1400s.

Over the last few weeks our family went on an 11 day trip to Egypt which changed my definition of old and expanded this simple Canadian’s view of the world dramatically.

The trip had 3 stages, a few days in Cairo (pyramids), a few days in Luxor (temples & tombs) and then 6 days on the beach in Sharm el-Sheikh relaxing. Over the week as I dig through the videos and pictures I will blog on each adventure, but thought to start with my impressions of Egypt:

1. Safety:  It was one of the first things that came up in conversation – is it safe? You have the terrorists who are from the region, the 1997 Luxor massacre of tourists and a lot of poverty which leads to crime as people do what they can to survive.

The first thing you notice when you land in Egypt is the armed presence. The military is not as prevalent as in other counties (most notable in Cuba) but the police are everywhere and heavily armed (the below was a common sight).


Guards at the pyramids (They must have been hot, it was 40C that day).


The end verdict? It is safe, probably one of the safest in the region. But you also need to be smart.

2. The people: The second thing that we noticed was how the people treated us. In all of our travels, the Egyptian people are the most tourist friendly we have ever encountered. In many of the conversations we had, there seemed to be a genuine appreciation of the tourist and the economy that they have created within Egypt. It has taken Egypt a long time to recover their tourist business and it is clear, they are working hard to protect it.

If you read the Luxor massacre story, the most interesting thing is that the Islamic terrorists turned the Egyptian public opinion against them after the event – and it is clear that the Egyptian government has used that opportunity to rebuild the tourism business and create an air of safety.

In conversation and in the newspaper, public opinion against the Islamic terrorists and the negative impact that they have had on the view of Muslims was a hot topic. After all, the Islamic law is that if you have a guest come to you (even if he is your enemy), you must shelter him.

Which brings up another topic – family. Both of our tour guides still lived with their extended family. One lived on the bottom floor of the house with his mother and sister (his dad had passed away). His brother lived with his wife on the second floor and the third floor was where they kept the pig and chickens. The family ties remain very strong in Egypt, I would imagine in part due to economic reasons and in part due to culture (the concept of the village bonding together to help each other).

3. BIG TIP – our tour guide: One brilliant thing that we did on the trip was pre-book all of our tourist events with a local company. Instead of doing the ‘mass tour’ thing where you get on a bus with you and 50 of your closest friends, we booked a private tour guide, driver and private car (usually a minivan). Four days and personalized airport pickup and delivery cost us about £550 for the trip. This made ALL the difference. The tour guide personalized every single outing (when we wanted to start, where we went) and helped us avoid the crowds and do things that others would not have done. For example, when in Luxor the guide said ‘We need to start at 730 am to beat the heat and crowds’. No thanks, we did not come on vacation to get up early. So, we started at 830 am. We did hit a hot time of the day but just took it slower and had more breaks in the shade … which the guide accommodated without issue.

The second biggest benefit was the experience at each site. Unlike the tour groups where the ‘pack’ listened with little interaction because of the unwieldy size, our tours were a dialogue where we asked questions, discussed and gained real insight. Turns out that to be a certified Egyptian tour guide you need to go through 3 years of University training on history, hieroglyphics, etc. They were VERY knowledgeable.

I cannot recommend this route highly enough, we did it through Carrier. Worth every single penny on a tour of a lifetime – it made the trip.

4. Side topic – the police: One last note on the police. In a conversation with our guide, he talked about the police and how the people respect them deeply. However, corruption does happen for one simple reason – income. These guys make nothing. To put it all into perspective, an Egyptian dentist makes $63 per month on average. So the tour guides were constantly tipping the police with one simple point – you can call it corruption but they called it doing the right thing. They provide a valuable service and are not adequately taken care of so the tour guides do what they can.

5. The hot topics in Egypt: Each day I read the Egyptian Gazette. It was a fascinating insight into the culture and what is going on in Egypt. It was also an interesting study in cultural differences. In the western world we are worried about housing prices and the stock market. In Egypt, the big election topic is the wheat and bread shortage. It definitely puts life into perspective – many people in Egypt are still at the survival stage. While I was there, a few interesting articles that caught my attention:

  • Dentists demand higher pay:  the starting monthly salary for a dentist is $23USD per month.
  • Donkey butcher caught red handed:From their web site: Are we heading towards a total moral disaster? The other day a butcher was found selling dead donkeys to restaurants and individual consumers after chopping them into minced meat, adding spices to hide the rotten smell.  (We only ate at places recommended by our guide!)
  • Bread crisis highlights income gap: More than 20 percent of Egypt’s 76M live below the poverty line according to the UN. In the markets, unsubsidised bread sells for more than 10X the subsidized price (sub $0.01 USD) and clashes began to break out due to long lines and waits (One man was killed in a fight). This quote was particularly poignant:  ‘Our life has become miserable’ said one worker … he said he and his coworkers can’t afford unsubsidised bread ‘or any food to eat with it’. The army had been called in to distribute bread and use their bakeries to improve bread output.

6. Infrastructure: This is a country of polarity. On one hand you have magnificent hotels and areas of strong infrastructure development (business communications capability, office buildings, modern shops) and then down the street you have abject poverty and feel like you are driving through 1820 where the people are riding donkeys, are without sewage and living in dilapidated apartment buildings. In no other place is this more obvious than in Cairo – a city of 27M with a huge gap between the haves and have nots. On our way to the pyramids, we drove through a poor part of town and it really did look like the 1800s. A few pictures below …

An open ditch in the city.


A view of the apartments from the highway.


An alley in the slum.

Alley in a poor part of Cairo

On the ‘other side’ of the Nile.


The clash of old and new, the 700 year old Cairo aqueduct through old Cairo bordered by the slum.

Aquaduct in Cairo

The mode of transport for many in a city of 27M.


It is a different world, so far away from how we live today in our clean homes, with Internet, lots of food, stores around us and 5 computers. A world away … be thankful. I also ran through a lot of cash in tips – I tipped everyone, frequently. It is the least we can do.