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Africa » Egypt » Lower Egypt » Cairo
May 17th 2008
Published: June 1st 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

So the plan was to make our way along the highly fragmented Egyptian transport network from Siwa to St. Katharine’s Monastery and Mount Sinai in far eastern Egypt. Three bus rides and a full day later, we arrived in Suez full of hope that we could catch the next bus out to St. Katharine’s in order to summit Mt. Sinai like our good friend Moses. Upon our arrival, I spoke to the ticket salesman (only after elbowing my way through a small crowd of people standing around the ticket booth) who informed me that I could purchase a ticket to Sinai once the Sinai bus arrived in Suez in roughly 4 hours. Long story short, we waiting and waiting until fifteen minutes before the bus was supposed to depart only to learn that the bus wasn’t going to arrive in Suez “today”. Our options at that point were to either wait until the next day to see if the bus arrived, or, take a bus back to Cairo and catch the bus at its origin (the following day as well). Frustrated we sat angrily at the bus station plotting our next move and ultimately decided to go back to our beloved Cairo in the hopes of catching the bus the next morning.

Back in Cairo, our bus dumped us at a random spot near Ramses Square (even after we asked them to drop us at the bus station) where we navigated our way to the station. Back in the station we confidently purchased a ticket to Sinai for the following morning and headed back to Talaat Harb in order to secure lodging for the evening. The next morning, Rozy woke up ill and couldn’t stomach the 9 hour bus ride required to get to Sinai, so, once again, we bagged Sinai (this time for good) and decided to relax for the day and make a plan to visit the rest of the sites in and around Cairo that we didn’t see in our first visit.

So, left with another 6 days to kill in Cairo (and lacking the motivation to make our way to any other major location) we dug in, and mapped out a plan to visit all the significant sights that we didn’t see in our first visit. First on the agenda, however, was to locate some real papyrus with some decent art on it as our official souvenir of Egypt. Our first attempt was to follow the Let’s Go guidebook to Dr. Raghab’s Papyrus Factory where we were promised to find authentic papyrus, (not the fake banana leaf crap that is pervasive in Cairo) possibly, with hand painted images on it. In retrospect, we realized that the directions “Let’s Go” provided us with were incorrect and we wandered around for an hour searching for the good Dr…we never found the rotten bastard and crawled back to our hostel a failure. We decided that we would wait for another day before searching for Raghab again.

Since we were “blessed” with all of the extra time in Cairo, I decided to find an ear doctor and take care of what had become an extremely blocked ear canal rendering me more deaf than usual. I contacted the US Consulate in Cairo and they provided me with a list of recommended specialists in Egypt. I chose the doctor closest to our hostel (a 30 minute cab ride away), called up Dr. Raafat Guindy Habib (of Heliopolis) and set an 8:30pm (seemed a bit late) for Thursday night. On Thursday, the cab we hired had no clue where he was going and drove around for an hour asking directions and troubleshooting his way to the doctor’s office. We finally arrived, sat for a few minutes in reception, then, Dr. Habib gave us the nod.

Sitting in the examination room, it felt as if the doctor’s visit was just an extension of our exploration of ancient Egypt. Aged, dirty metal tools sat atop an old metal credenza covered with what looked like paper towels. Dusty degrees and accolades hung from dismally grey-colored walls, and the lack of a proper examination table or reclining chair accentuated the lack of professionalism already in the air. Dr. Habib jumped right into a line of questioning that seemed reasonable in order to diagnose my condition, however, his constant interruptions and assumptions quickly nullified his attempt at understanding my issue. I backed off explaining my case and decided to let him tell me my history, after which, I hoped he would provide an adequate resolution. After finishing with his explanation, Dr. Habib gave a quick glance into my ears and told me he could not resolve my problem (remove ear wax) even though I have had the same procedure performed many times in the past. He gave me some ear drops and told me to contact an ear specialist once I got to Turkey. He then quickly wrote me up a bill and asked me for 100 pounds payment ($20 US). Shocked and confused (and not wanting to pressure an obvious imbecile to dig around with metal tools near one of my beloved 5 sensing organs) I handed the doctor 100 pounds and he quickly turned into a cashier, writing up a payment receipt for his “services”. Rozy and I walked out of the office a full four minutes after we arrived, stunned and without a word to say. This Egyptian “doctor” made the equivalent of $300 (US dollars) per hour doing nothing (that is 1,575 Egyptian pounds per hour!!). The joys of Egypt continue!!

The day after the “doctor” visit, we decided to lay low and spend some more time strolling around Cairo and avoiding situations that end in frustration (taking any transport, ordering food, buying anything, etc). As we walked along, we decided to head in the direction of Dr. Raghab (once again, the papyrus guy) since we had realized the flaw in our previous directions. We headed straight for the location of his store only to find that it had been replaced by a Gold’s Gym (of all places!). The sign in front of Gold’s Gym indicated that Dr. Raghab was located a short 1 km walk down the Nile situated on a little island in the middle of the river. We walked for about 45 minutes (I’d guestimate about 5km) and still, there was no sign of Dr. Raghab. Annoyed and hungry, we decided to end our hunt for papyrus and retire to the relative comfort of a Hardees for clean food and fixed prices.

Our next day, we woke up chockers with ambition and ready to tackle the Birqash Camel Market for which we made reservations to visit earlier in the week. The camel market was about an hour and a half outside of Cairo by taxi and featured thousands of camels being traded by predominately Sudanese men. Heading towards the market, the final stretch of road is replete with dead, rotting camel carcasses being picked at by birds for your viewing entertainment. Upon arrival at the market, camels can be seen everywhere….loaded on trucks, lying on the ground marked with paint, in small pens, roaming around, etc. The scene is rather intense and the camel brutality is completely out of control.

Men wielding canes circle around several camels at a time and take turns beating the camels on the head, in the face, on the backside, on the neck, basically anywhere. The camels, (most malnourished, beaten or otherwise abused) looking scared and huddling together, bleat and scream in what sounds like a combination of fear and pain as they take their blows from a pathetic bunch of men light on the grey matter and heavy on the testosterone. “Disobedient” camels receive a puncture in the nose and are subsequently led around by a stretch of rope laced through the bloody hole. Camels are prevented from running away by folding one front leg up at the “knee” and tying it (see the picture)…the camels still try to flee as they are being beaten and, sadly, limp about in a futile escape attempt. The camels, when not being beaten, would peacefully sit (or stand) in place and just look around with a strong sense of curiosity. They were gentle and completely non-aggressive when approached, only, it was necessary to keep an eye out in case some jerk started beating the camels (as this would cause the large animals to begin stampeding in fear). We found out from one person that the men beat the camels to show prospective buyers the strength of the camels…it seemed a ridiculous way to show strength, and, the bleating, bloody noses, limping and caning was altogether depressing after witnessing it for about an hour.

Our taxi driver (Jimmie) from the morning seemed a decent bloke, so, we hired him on for the afternoon to take us to the “lesser” pyramids of Saqqara, Abu Sir and Dashur, south of the better-known pyramids of Giza. The day started off nicely as Jimmie was jovial, chatty and happily pointing out things of interest along the way. Our first stop was in Saqqara to view the unique “stepped” pyramid of Zoser and the surrounding complex. The pyramid was spectacular and an interesting contrast to the “newer” pyramids at Giza; unfortunately, there was a significant amount of decrepit-looking scaffolding hanging off a couple sides of the pyramid detracting from its grandeur and giving the impression of a construction site. Even still, the complex was nice to explore and the crowds were a fair bit less than at Giza.

Concluding our Saqqara exploration, we piled back in the taxi to head for lunch, stupidly putting faith in our taxi driver Jimmie. As we rocked up into the airy restaurant to the sounds of two boys beating drums at our sides, we stressed to Jimmie that we really didn’t want to eat at a touristy place and preferred to eat at a low-key local restaurant. Jimmie, yelling over the sound of beating drums and boys requesting baksheesh for their drumming service, reassured us that this wasn’t a tourist place and that “Egyptians eat here too”. After sitting, we inquired about the price of food and our honest and trustworthy taxi driver said the meal included many mezes and shish and would probably be somewhere between 35 and 40 pounds each (at this point I really don’t know why we didn’t object and leave). Anyhow, as our food is being prepared, Jimmie is running back and forth between us and the manager (about 4 or 5 times) obviously negotiating and receiving his financial cut out of our over-priced meal for which he delivered us to eat (at this point, Egypt has just exhausted us too much to whinge over a few bucks). The meal is served, we eat it up (it actually was decent food), and to our amazement, our bill arrives as a shred of paper with the number “80” written on it….Jimmie magically knew just how much our bill would sum up to!

After was has since been dubbed the “con-meal”, Jimmie was kind enough to take us to the toilet across the street at his friends’ carpet shop, where kids between the ages of 6 and 14 were busily knotting away making handwoven carpets…nothing like a little bit of child labor after a delicious con-meal. Jimmie encouraged us to watch the kids working and perhaps enquire about a carpet if we were interested. Disgusted, we told Jimmie we weren’t interested, didn’t support child labour and wanted to continue on with the route discussed at the outset of the day. Scumbag Jimmie obliged but not before attempting to sell us on the idea that the kids go to school to learn how to make carpets and only work for four hours per day. At this point we reiterated our position that child labour is inherently wrong and that selling it off as a “school” was even more deplorable. Ironically enough, Jimmie switched sides, agreed with us on the child labour issue and said that the kids should be in school, an obvious tactic to keep the peace and remain attached to our wallets.

Our next taxi stop was at the pyramids of Abu Sir. Absentminded Jimmie forgot to mention that this site is not open to visitors (though we knew this ahead of time and just thought we’d go along with it and see what happened). Upon our arrival though, Jimmie was quick to inform us that we could make our way into the site by bribing the guards watching the gate. Jimmie hailed the guards, and, they approached, more than happy to entertain our bribe. Our assumption was that the guards were going to ask for a few pounds (maybe ten) to go around and explore the site. As it turned out, the guards wanted 25 pounds each for us to enter the site for 20 minutes! They quickly adjusted their extortion to 20 pounds each when we balked at 25, however, at the point, we were annoyed with both them and Jimmie so we decided to write it off.

Next stop on our taxi tour was the magnificent Red Pyramid at Dashur. This was meant to be the highlight of our day as they pyramid is just a few meters shorter than the great pyramid (Khufu), considerably cheaper to get into and much less crowded. As we pulled up to the base of the pyramid (after paying our 25 pound entrance fee), we looked around and only saw one other person at the pyramid, and, surprisingly enough no touts whatsoever!!! The pyramid from the outside was beautiful with no scaffolding, crowds, touts, etc. We were almost completely alone in the desert with the pyramid, the feeling which was incredible when compared to basically every other site we visited in Egypt. We clambered up the side of the pyramid and into the shaft that sat a little less than halfway up, ignoring a lone baksheesh request by the guard at the shaft’s entrance. Inside the shaft, we descended at a 45 degree angle for what felt like about 80 meters until we arrived in a large triangular shaped chamber, burning hot, empty and wreaking of ammonia. Standing below the pyramid was quite unreal, however, the fleeting thought of a collapse was a bit unnerving. We explored around the vast chamber, then, climbed a wooden staircase to an adjacent chamber. The second chamber, although not as large, was even more hot and strewn with rubble. No artifacts or wall carvings were present, however, the enormity, silence and emptiness inside the massive pyramid was itself the reward (and a pretty damn good one) for the taxi pain endured to get there. Don’t pay to enter Khufu (they want 100 or 150 pounds to get in I think), go to the Red instead!!

Sites finished, the last stop of our day was supposed to be a nice wide open shot of the Giza pyramids promised by Jimmie. Jimmie’s concept of a “wide-open” shot seemed to vary significantly from what we considered wide-open as he paused briefly on the side of the road in Giza suburb for a “spectacular” photo of the Giza pyramids, complete with power-lines, apartment buildings, a suspended roadway, and street lights adorning the foreground. Jimmie, apart from being morally challenged, has a terrible eye for photographic composure.

Given our relative proximity to Dr. Raghab (the papyrus guy) and our failure to connect with him twice before, we asked Jimmie if he wouldn’t mind stopping by Raghab’s store on the way back into Cairo. Jimmie was happy to, and, a couple minutes later he pulled into a papyrus store (not Raghab) owned by his friend. As we pulled in, I told Jimmie I didn’t want to go to a random papyrus store but that I specifically wanted to go to Dr. Raghab because of a recommendation. Assuming that I was both blind and stupid, Jimmie insisted that the papyrus store he just pulled into was, in fact, Dr. Raghab. In disbelief, I reminded Jimmie that I was not neither blind nor stupid, and, in addition, I knew where Dr. Raghab was located and that the location he brought us to was not it. Jimmie came clean and finally said that this papyrus store was just as good as Dr. Raghab and that it was also cheaper (plus they were having a Friday sale…wow, what incredibly good luck we have). I figured “what the hell”, may as well look around and raise some hopes then walk out empty-handed after they do their dog and pony show. Rozy and I got a great explanation on how papyrus is made, and, smiled and said “not interested” after giving a “serious” look for about 20 minutes. It was all we could really do to fight back…waste peoples’ time and give a sense of false hope.

The visit to fake Dr. Raghab concluded our day with the useless, scam-artist cab driving fool, Jimmie. Our original idea in hiring the cab driver for the entire day, was to ally ourselves with a person plugged into tourism in order to avoid some of the pains we had been dealing with traveling through Egypt. Instead, we ended up trapped with the same con-artist all day long, instead of dealing with several in one day. Our experience underscored that it is basically impossible to have an enjoyable, relaxing time in Egypt, unless you don’t mind being way overcharged for everything you purchase and being constantly harassed by people trying to get into your wallet.

Our final day in Egypt, we decided to make a final trip to Khan al Khalili (big market) to sit back and watch the madness play out, and, to see if we could find some nice souvenir of Egypt. We watched as tourists flowed off of the buses buying up cheap metal sheeshas decorated with glitter paint, plastic miniatures of the pyramids, fake papyrus prints, low-quality pearl inlay boxes, and ill-fitting galabiyas. The whole scene was a bit of a joke and made us pine for some of the nicer markets we had been to during our travels. We searched around the shops looking to score that special something to hang on the wall or display proudly in our home, however, most everything was kitsch that would end up in a junk drawer a few weeks later. Rozy did stumble upon a clever little jewelry maker whose trademark was blending copper and silver into unique designs for necklaces and pendants. She bought a couple items, but I went away empty-handed as I simply could not find anything worth spending money on.

All up, Rozy and I agreed that Egypt has been (by far) the worst country we have visited both on this trip and all previous trips. The massive amount of tourism that Egypt draws (which represents over 20% of Egypt’s GDP), has created a thick layer of touts, scam artists, cons, and otherwise undesirable folks constantly bombard you in an attempt to squeeze every bit of money out of your pockets. With the exception of a small number of people we came in contact with, (two shop owners, one hotel manager, couple of college students at the bus station, and a few others I’m sure I’m forgetting) everyone we dealt with was sleazy and trying to cheat us…sadly, this is no exaggeration. This obviously only speaks about Egyptians in the tourist racket (or related fields), however, as a traveler, these are the people that you most often come into contact with. It was exhausting, un-enjoyable, and a constant irritant that had to be dealt with many, many times each day. Will we ever return to Egypt? Absolutely No. Did we have a good time in Egypt? No, not really. Were the sights amazing in Egypt? Yes, unfortunately they are really amazing. So, is it worth dealing with all of the irritation to see the wonderful sights in Egypt? Hmmmm, tough one, maybe? If you are a hard-core ancient Egypt buff with incredibly thick skin, you MAY find it worth a visit. Or, if you don’t mind paying way too much money and hanging out with irritating package tourists on a bus all day long, perhaps you could find just enough enjoyment to offset
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