Published: June 6th 2009June 4th 2009
Kevin and Ammi
Pyramid of Khafre
We decided to skip Europe for the time being as we'd already seen it and it was a bit too expensive. So we booked a cheap flight to Cairo. Sometimes cheap plane tickets are cheap for a reason. Take for instance our flight to Cairo, there is nothing quite like arriving in a new country at 1 o'clock in the morning, trying to navigate immigration and arrange transport when the hotel van fails to show up. Oh well, did I mention the flight was cheap? Right when we landed all the passengers were photographed with an infrared camera by technicians wearing surgical masks. Swine flu? If I sneeze and then oink I'll know I'll be in trouble. Then we paid $25 for our “$15” entry stamp, and we were officially in Egypt.
We realize right away that we are going to have to be on our toes in this country. When our ride turns out to be MIA at the airport, a couple of guys “help” us to find a taxi for $25—only double what it should actually cost. After a sob story from us and some hard bargaining we agreed on a ride for 55 Egyptian pounds
(roughly E£5.5 to the dollar). We are actually pretty proud of ourselves until of course we arrive at the hotel and the taxi driver asks for more money. “I drive 30 km and there is much traffic,” he whines and tears up like Paris Hilton on the way to the slammer. We give him an extra E£5 not the E£15 he was demanding and walk away. Whatever else it may be we can tell straight off that Egypt will not be boring!
You quickly learn a few things about Cairo. 1) Cairo is huge! By the latest estimates Cairo contains 20 million people and is gaining a million people every 9 months! So we guess our previous estimate of São Paulo being the third largest city must be incorrect but we are never quite sure where they draw the line of who lives in a city. 2) Crossing the street is an interesting if not potentially deadly pass time that would take some getting used to. Of course we had been warned of this be a variety of sources prior to our arrival. You see similar to other third world countries obeying traffic laws ranges from lax to non-existent,
and Egypt even more so. In Peru there were no streetlights, well in Egypt there are no stop signs or lane lines because no one would ever us them. Therefore, crosswalks of course don't exist and the locals cross whenever and wherever they please even when cars are barreling down on them. The best advise we where given about crossing the street was just close your eyes and pray to Allah--and it works! Cars really do their best not to hit anyone and everything somehow works out. Though riding in a taxi is always thrilling as a result. 3) Egypt is a virtually devoid of good beer. Aaagghh!! For all practical purposes there are only two brands of beer Stella and Sakkra and they are both mediocre lagers brrewed by foreign companies and they are fairly expensive by local standard because adherent Muslins don't drink. We hear the wine situation is even worse. So for the most part we learned to embrace the Sheesha (water tobacco pipe) as a way to de-stress from the day's adventures. 4) The next thing, I'm sorry to say, is that you have to assume everyone is lying to you. People will tell you museums
Pyramid of Khufu, the largest in Egypt
And Kevin wearing the highest high-waters in Egypt
are closed for prayer time, but “while you're waiting why not look at my shop?” or “Your hotel burned down last month, my brother has a much very nice hotel.” Sometimes people will give you “free” drinks or whatever, “Egyptian hospitality!” and then ask you to pay up after you finish the drink. Sometimes touts will attach themselves to you and try to get you into shops for a commission, and no matter what you say they WILL NOT GO AWAY! They're on you like white on rice on a paper plate in a snowstorm. On our anniversary we just want to sit in a coffee spend and talk together and this tout would not leave. He sat down at our table and smoked a sheesha and just stared at us while we completely ignored him. We ended paying the bill for everything and he still insisted that we visit his "Dad's" papyrus factory. It is also annoying when every taxi pulls up to you and honks his excessively loud horn right in your ear. It can be very challenging just to go out and see stuff and not want to just go back to the hotel for some peace.
It looks much smaller in real life
We were afraid we wouldn't meet anyone here because we'd assume they had some ulterior motive. I didn't find out until later but apparently Egypt has a policy of jailing bloggers that print unflattering things about their country. That's why we waited until we were out of the country, now we can say whatever the heck we want. POWER OF FREE SPEECH, BABY!
Our hotel had a free taxi to the pyramids, so we decided to take advantage since it was our five year anniversary. What they really meant was a free ride to expensive camel stables that would then go to the pyramids. I'm sure the hotel owner got a commission. We didn't mind, however, since we were hoping to get a camel anyways. Riding a camel is much different than riding a horse. We were sore for four days afterwards. Our hotel owner saw us coming in and laughed, “Now you know what it means to really walk like an Egyptian!” The pyramids were OK, I'd just seen so many pictures of them before. The Sphinx was smaller than expected, especially being right next to the giant pyramids.
Another thing we had to come to terms
Ammi and Kevin
A wedding anniversary to remember!
with was that in a Muslim country people generally follow certain rules that are very different from what we are used to. Women tend to walk behind a man and not look any other man in the eyes. Women are for the most part covered from ankle to wrist and guys don't wear shorts. Guys usually do all the negotiating. In an attempt to be culturally sensitive we did our best to follow these rules for a few days before the 100 degree heat got to us. We felt like we were stepping on eggshells and despite our best attempts we never felt like we were treated like anything other than human cash dispensers anyway.
Another thing you notice is that many men here have a unique genetic trait. They have a large black circle on their foreheads. It made me think of Cain and Abel. Also, just coming from South America you realize that this country has no dogs. Instead, hundreds of mangy cats that will root through garbage or hump in public. These cats are not shy.
We did see some nice things in Cairo. We saw a free show with musicians and dancers. Traditional music
and whirling Dervish type guys. I kept expecting them to charge us to get out of the building, but nope, it was actually 100% free. Islamic Cairo is very nice. There are not many people and they are genuinely friendly and helpful, the streets are wide, there's amazing mosques, and lots of kittens running around. The Egyptian museum was nice, 500,000 pieces of Egyptian artifacts. One of the things I wanted to see was the Rosetta Stone. Ammi looked in the guidebook. “It's in the British museum, the museum we were just in a week ago and you decided not to go into the Egyptian section because you said we'd be in Egypt next week.” The last thing we decided to do was to take a Felucca boat down the Nile. It was very relaxing with the sun setting in the background.
Our next stop was going to be Luxor, but the guy at the station was trying to milk us for 3 times the going rate. You see we looked up the price on the internet at the official Egyptian Railways site and it said the ticket should cost 55 Egyptian pounds but at the station they were
charging 165! We didn't even have anyone to turn to because the guys at the tourist information booth were trying to get their commission on the whole scam and our hotel owner was trying to get us to buy his tour. Plus it was going to be 120 degrees there. “Screw it, we're going to Alexandria.”
Alexandria was conquered by Alexander the Great, and named after him. This was also the seat of power for Cleopatra and is where she killed herself. Although some modern historians think she was killed by Octavian's soldiers. This was also the home of one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, The Great Lighthouse, which stood for 17 centuries before falling during an earthquake. If you've ever seen HBO's 'Rome Season 2' there is a scene where you see Alexandria from the past with the lighthouse in the background and war ships in the harbor. When we saw the view from our hotel I realized it was the exact same view, minus the lighthouse and ships of course. It's always fun to realize you're in one of those places where so much history has taken place.
We got off
Camel trek to the pyramids
Almost feels like we're back in time
the bus in Alexandria and Ammi said, “I'm curious about one thing.” We asked about the tickets from Alexandria to Luxor. It was only 70 Egyptian Pounds! Why, when Alexandria is two hours further away from Luxor than Cairo is it almost half as much as from Cairo to Luxor? We confirmed that the guys in Cairo tried to fleece us. However, even with the lesser price we couldn't go because the train was full for a week. Ammi was sad. She really wanted to see Luxor and Aswan, but we would be further into their territory and it might be three times as much to get out. In the end, we decided maybe the fates were telling us that we weren't meant to go. It was disappointing but some things just aren't meant to be.
After seeing the normal sights (the fort, the shipyards, the great library, and the catacombs) we were approached by a man asking if we needed help. I thought to myself, 'Oh great, another salesman trying to get us into his shop.' We were looking for an internet cafe, he showed us one and asked if we wanted to have drinks afterwards. We said
I don't think the decorations make it any prettier
OK apprehensively. When we were done he was waiting for us. He paid for our cab, our drinks, and taught us to play dominoes. It turns out he was just looking for someone to talk to. Hasan really lifted our spirits because we had finally met one nice, honest person in all of Egypt.
Dahab is a small resort town in the Sinai Peninsula. If you look at a map the Red Sea kind of looks like a snail. Dahab is on the right eye stalk. There are a lot of fun activities, including scuba diving, snorkeling, kite boarding, wind surfing, ATV tours, or camel safaris. The only bad part is some of the salesmen are even more aggressive than in Cairo. Plus a terrorist bomb killed 60 people here back in 2006 so the the place has a ghost town feel to it at times. We were planning on having dinner with the Bedouins (group of desert nomads) and seeing St. Katherine's Monastery which is supposedly home to the actual burning bush that Moses saw. They say this same plant has been around longer than the monastery and won't die. I just wanted to get a
picture of the bush that ironically has a fire extinguisher right next to it. We wanted to go there independently without a tour but unfortunately the bus there stopped running a couple of months back because no one was using it. The Bedouin dinner turned out to be pricey and the St. Katherine's tour included a hike up Mt. Sinai to see the sunrise, but it was in the middle of the night and consisted of 3,750 steps. We decided to pass on both and take an ATV tour instead. On the tour we went to an Oasis and a guys there offered us Coke or tea. Well we had fallen for this a couple times already so we said no. As it turns out your tour guide spoke up and told us this guy makes 1000 pounds a day (about $190) sitting in the shade selling drinks to thirsty tourists. The guys responded in a pissy tone of voice that he does except when stupid American won't drink his Coke. The nerve! The guys makes more money than either one of us do and lives at Egyptian price and than has the audacity to complain that he couldn't trick
us into buying a $4 Coke that neither of us would drink if it was free. Despite our best efforts and having some wonderful experiences we had had enough. We couldn't wait to get out of this country. At the border the guard asked if we were coming back to Egypt after Israel and it took every ounce of restraint not to blurt out, "Not if it was the last place on Earth!" We decided that we would prefer a country--even if it was more expensive--where the people were genuine and honest rather than being in a place where you HAVE TO distrust everyone you meet.
Next stop: Israel
- Daily budget is about $10-$30 per person per day.
- There is no longer a bus from Dahab to St. Katherine's Monastery, you have to go with a tour. Although if you do want to go independently, "Lonely Planet" indicates you can go from Alex or Cairo straight to St. Katherine's (We are not sure if this is still true, ask around) and then to Dahab.
- Take whatever price someone quotes you and offer a 1/4 to 1/2 that price.
- The 'Great' Library in Alex isn't worth seeing unless you're a fan of architecture.
- Have your hotel owner write down the place you're going in Arabic for the taxi driver and either keep the hotel business card (in Arabic) or have them write the address so you can get back.
- When someone says 'It's free,” ask “How much?”
- Don't let anyone handle your bags unless you're willing to hand over a tip.
- The Normandy Hostel in Alex has sparse lodgings but a great view for only 50 L.E. for a private double with shared bath. 8 Gamal el-Din Yassen - Raml Station, tel. 034806830. email. firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Penguin Hostel in Dahab is good and only 50 L.E. for a private double with a private bath and A/C and the restaurant is pricey but has great service.
- If you can find it, a combination mint and lemon sheesha is awesome!
There are more photos below