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Published: April 6th 2013
Prior to leaving for Egypt I had a vague idea that I wanted to go there on this particular holiday. I debated about Japan or Cambodia and Vietnam but Egypt was calling me. I was nervous about the political situation there, but having read a few blogs from other travellers to Egypt I decided it was safe enough. Now was the time. I definitely procrastinated about booking, so everything was left to the last minute. Like visas. Information on whether or not Canadians need a visa is remarkably hard to find, and what I did find was often contradictory. I live in Alberta, and would have had to send my passport via purolator to Ottawa in order to get a visa through the consulate in time for the trip...at least in time if there were no delays. It would have been expensive and not guaranteed to make it back to me on time. I hoped that I could get one upon entry, and that at midnight there would be someone there to grant it to me. How easy it turned out to be! When we arrived in Cairo, we walked into the terminal building and straight ahead of us were a
row of currency exchange windows. They will exchange your currency if you need it AND issue you the necessary visa. It was $20 (US) and they didn´t even look at my passport or ask where I was from. So if there are other Canadians planning to go to Egypt and are facing the same dilemma, you don´t have to get it ahead of time.
The bonus of arriving at midnight is that there is very little traffic. It only took us 20 minutes to get to our hotel, whereas others in our group took 2 hours during the day to make the same trip. After such a long flight, that is something to be grateful for!
The other thing that seemed to be an issue prior to leaving was the question of safety. I wasn´t personally worried, but I was consistently asked "Is it safe to be going there?" I say, yes its safe. However, the same as travelling in any country you will be as safe as you make yourself. Knowing the culture, I brought modest clothing. I booked with a group (Gadventures - they are an amazing company) because I knew it would be overwhelming and probably not so safe travelling alone. I felt safe the entire time, in part beacuse it was so quiet there and in part because we had an excellent guide who always put our safety first.
What did I think of Cairo? Like any large city I thought it was dirty, but around our hotel wasn´t so bad. I felt safe walking around there to find restaurants, grocery stores or banks and I really didn´t feel to worried about pick-pockets in that area. It wasn´t too close to any touristy places though, so that always helps.
There are still Friday afternoon protests in Tahir square, so being there on a Friday we went to the museum in the morning to avoid the protesters. We could see the burned out headquarters of Mubarak from the museum...definitely a reminder of recent events.
The museum was fantastic. Having an expert in egyptology leading us around and explaining different pieces to us added to the experience. I wouldn´t have had nearly as an enjoyable experience if I had just wandered in and started looking at things on my own. For instance, I had no idea the Rosetta stone is only one of several copies of the same tablet. Its famous because it was the first one found and it was the one used to first crack the meaning of heiroglyphics. Later, there were other more complete copies found at other temples. And the Cairo museum has a complete one.
I first went to the British Museum in London about ten years ago. I remember being completely awed by the Egyptian exhibits there. I went there last week after having been in Egypt...definitely not the same feeling. I felt like things just didn´t belong there, and weren´t complete. They were just stolen bits and pieces that didn´t tell a complete story. Of course, thats what museums generally are and they do their best to preserve what they have...but the British Museum pales in comparison to the Egytian Museum in Cairo. The museum is also preparing to move into a new building, so if you want to go to the Egyptian Museum in its current historic building you´d better get there soon.
After the museum, we headed over to the pyramids. I was aware that the city goes right up to the pyramids so it wasn´t a shock to see cairo crowded right up to the site. What I wasn´t prepared for was the ratio of of people trying to sell you crap to the number of tourists. We were bombarded by "postcards $1!" "camel rides here!" etc. It was overwhelming. Our guide took us to the far side of the pyramids where we escaped the brunt of the bombardment, but there were still people trying to get your money from you in any way they could. The positive part of this experience was that there were very few other tourists, so we got some great pictures. It was also windy and dusty so the dust obscured the city. I almost felt like we were in the desert and Cairo wasn´t really there. I did the tourist thing and took a camel ride, and the guys our tour company arranges this with actually takes you behind the pyramids where there are no other people wandering around. There were literally 2 other tourists on the far side with us. It was great.
The lack of tourists is a blessing and a curse. The bonus is that there are no crowds, no lineups, no obnoxious people demanding special treatment because they´re foreign (ok there was still some of that, but it wasn´t crazy). The flip side is that there are still just as many people trying to make a living in the tourism industry...so you become more of a target for your money. And they don´t have any pretentions, they would tell me right out that they wanted my Canadian money. I learned quickly to ignore them if I wasn´t interested and a little hand wave and a head shake did wonders to dispell unwanted sales people. The bargaining process if I was interested wasn´t so easy for me! I found it very difficult to haggle. I guess I just need more practice.
Anyway we didn´t stay in Cairo very long. At the end of our very long day galavanting around the city we hopped on a sleeper train to Aswan, which I will continue with in another entry.
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