Egypt and the life-giving Nile
Trip Start Feb 18, 2004
80Trip End Dec 05, 2005
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The culture here is definately different from home. Women still seem to have a secondary role to men. Most every shop you come across will be run by men and most of the bars or places they hang out are filled with only men. Property taxes are really high so many building are left unfinished (e.g., top floor not done) but are still occupied so the owners don't have to pay taxes. One of our guides was telling us cars are more expensive here than Europe or the U.S. People have to take out 30 year loans to buy a car. There's no car insurance - if you're in an accident, you just have to pay for your own damages whether it's your fault or not. The guide also said people are only allowed to work 5 hours per day, but they work 6 days a week. I'm not sure how true that is as I saw some people working at restaurants and shops in the mornings and again later that day. Bob Barker needs to come over here and start a spay and neuter campaign - there are stray cats all over. There are very harsh penalties for crime which makes Egypt quite safe. You don't need to worry much about being pickpocketed or hurt, but it still pays to be cautious (especially of all those trying to scam you). For those of you that saw the scenes from Arafat's funeral, I was nowhere near Cairo at the time so didn't experience any of that. But...
Cairo is a crazy city. From the minute I got out at the arrivals gate at the airport I was inundated with people offering me a taxi ride. Luckily, I had already arranged for a pickup from the hostel I was staying at. Even after I was walking with the driver people were still offering me taxi rides. The driving in Cairo is by far the worst I've seen to date. It makes Italy look orderly and calm. Cars swerve in and out, horns are constantly honking, lane lines don't serve any purpose, they drive on whatever side of the road is convenient for them at the time, lights are an option at night (used more to signal when approaching an intersection), lots of uncontrolled intersections where cars will just barrel through or at best slow for a quick look, etc... Somehow there aren't too many traffic accidents. Once I got checked into the hotel and out into the city it was evening so I just took a wander around. The area I was in was very, very crowded with people shopping (Cairo has 17.5 million people and 9.5 million cars to give you an idea of the size). I found crossing the streets to be a little like the game of Frogger...especially since the busiest streets had no crosswalks. It was quite overwhelming and the most culture shock I've had thus far. Getting back to my room at the hostel was a relief.
My first full day in Cairo I started off with a trip out to the pyramids. I got suckered into doing a horse ride around them, which probably wasn't that bad a thing considering it's quite a ways from the sphinx to the pyramids. Just did a quick look around as I knew I'd be going back with the tour I'd start soon.
After the pyramids I needed another break from Cairo in the hostel. You're constantly honked at by taxis offering you rides and people trying to get you to buy stuff, so you need to get away from that and relax. After my break, I took a taxi out to the Khan al-Khalili bazaar. The taxi drivers all try to rip you off on prices (they don't have meters). I later talked to the people at the hotel and found the best thing to do is find out how much it should be ahead of time by asking the hotel then when the taxi ride is over, just get out and give them that much. It's important that you get out before you pay too as they'll continue to try to cheat you if you stay in the car. Anyways, I wandered around the bazaar which was pretty cool. I wasn't bothered too much to buy stuff. It was funny to see the older tourists all banding together and looking like they were trying to escape some horrible nightmare. The streets were swarming with people once again that evening. I found out it was Ramadan so that meant people were fasting during the day so they'd eat at sunset and stay out later at night than usual. Also no alcohol, which would prove to be a bit of a bummer when going out with the tour group later.
The next day I checked out the Egyptian Museum - heaps of Egyptian artifacts plus the stuff of Tutankhamen's. There were some really cool sculptures and I liked some of the little carved boats. But like most museums, you get a bit tired of seeing so many similar things. I checked out of the [cheap] hostel I was staying in and went over to the hotel I was in for my tour on the other side of the Nile (the taxi driver didn't know the way and had to stop for directions a couple times). This first day was a free day so I went out to the Citadel and a couple mosques by taxi. The Citadel was closed early due to Ramadan so I only got pics of the outside. I wandered around a bit from there back towards town then caught a taxi back. Traffic was horrendous (pretty much not moving). My taxi driver tried to cut over but got trapped between cars. We sat stuck there a while then he started yelling at the taxi driver next to him. My driver got out went over to the other taxi and started hitting it. The other driver got out and they were yelling at each other. Bypassers tried to calm down my driver and keep him away but he pushed them away. I was sitting in the taxi thinking my driver was psycho then I looked over and saw that the other driver had a knife out and my driver was still trying to get him. At that point, I got out and walked off in a hurry. Fortunately, I wasn't too far from familiar territory so was able to find my way back alright. That evening, I met with the tour leader and went out to dinner with some of the group.
In the morning I met the rest of the group at breakfast. There are three couples [Mark and Olivia (NZ), Lee and Karina (Aus), Andrew and Louise (Aus)], a father and daughter [Jim and Louisa], a pair of Aussie friends [Lee-Anne and Lyndal] and several solo travelers [Helen (Aus), Jodie (SA), Esther (Switz), Caron (SA)]. Turns out most everybody is living and working in London. And, no, I was not complaining that there were so many women on the tour. We went out to the pyramids that morning (Nov 7) and had an Egyptologist along to give us info. Didn't exactly get a lot of free time to look around, but we got to go into one of the burial chambers (hot as a sauna but told it's actually really cool if it's left sealed) and wander around a pyramid. Lots of people on camels offering you a ride or a picture with the camel. We went up on a bluff for a view of the three pyramids then down by the Sphinx. Afterwards, we stopped by a local restaurant chain for lunch. You'll be proud to know I was the only one to order the Egyptian lunch. I think most everyone just kind of hung out at the hotel and rested after the pyramids (the Egyptian Museum closes early for Ramadan so people couldn't go there). We went out for dinner again then caught the overnight train to Aswan. The seats on the train were wide and reclined quite a bit so it wasn't too bad. Having a pretty Australian sitting next to me improved the circumstances significantly as well.
Aswan is located along the Nile about 900km south of Cairo. Our hotel was a block away from the river and a block away from a street with a bazaar. There we got to haggle with the shopkeepers. They start with outrageous prices so you have to get them down in price by at least half. We took a tour out to Nile High Dam (not too exciting) and Philae Temple (dedicated to Isis) that afternoon. Our tour guide was interesting - we couldn't understand her that well and she ordered us around ("go to temple now!"). Anyway, it's cool to get to see the ancient temple and so many hieroglyphics still intact. In the evening, we took a boat ride upstream a bit to a Nubian village and had dinner there. Some of the ladies were selling stuff and giving henna tattoos.
We had to be up bright and early the next day (3am) for a bus ride with police convoy out to Abu Simbel. It's pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Already the breakfasts of bread, cheese and a hard boiled egg are getting old and boring (we would continue to get this as breakfast in days to come). The temples at Abu Simbel were under threat of being flooded with the building of the Nile High Dam, but were completely taken apart and reconstructed at higher level as part of a UNESCO project in the 1960s. The Great Temple with the four huge statues of Ramses II is the one most people would recognize.
Inside, the temples had lots of hieroglyphics and murals. The other temple (Temple of Hathor) is dedicated to his wife, Nefertari. Once back in Aswan, most everybody needed a nap due to the early start. Helen, Jodie and I went to the Old Cataract Hotel (Agatha Christie supposedly wrote "Death on the Nile" here) later on and discovered Egyptians don't know how to make dessert.
The next morning was the start of our felucca journey. The group was split onto two boats.
The next three days were spent being lazy - napping, reading, playing cards, an occasional swim. I had caught myself a cold so I welcomed the relaxing days. There was no bathroom of any sort on the boats so we'd pull over now and then to do our business in the bushes. Sometimes the locals would ride by on donkeys and watch. The sunrises and sunsets were quite lovely, and the stars at night were brilliant. One of the days we stopped by Kom Ombo Temple (dedicated to Horus and Sobek). The guards at the temples, when they're not asleep in the shade, will try to get you to follow them so they can point out something obvious - "look, hieroglyphics" - then ask you for bakheesh (a tip). Another day we stopped by a small village for provisions. As soon as we landed, there were kids around our boats and they followed us to the village. More people came out to see us there and the kids were all smiles and jostling for our attention. Our last day, we stopped a bit early which gave us some daylight to play around. That night the crews of the various boats built a bonfire and sang for us.
The crews got the feluccas going bright and early so we woke up in Edfu. Helen wasn't feeling so well this morning and my stomach was a bit iffy too. From where we landed, it was just a short bus ride to the temple. Edfu Temple is dedicated to the god, Horus, and is the best preserved of the ancient Egyptian temples. Continued on the bus to Luxor, checked into our hotel and had some time for lunch before we went out to Karnak Temple. The guide we had was good and even showed us the best picture spots. Helen had to go back to the hotel 'cuz she was feeling so bad and Esther had to go sit down in the shade since she wasn't feeling so well either. :( Karnak Temple has an area with 134 huge columns still intact. Our guide was telling us some Egyptoligists consider this a greater feat than the Great Pyramid. We had some time in the evening for dinner, to see Luxor Temple and wander a little.
We were up early again for a donkey ride to the Valley of the Kings. Esther couldn't make it 'cuz she was very ill. My first donkey was a bit temperamental so I was given another. This one liked to keep to the left (near traffic) and weave back and forth on the road. The bridle was broken making it really difficult to turn right...and since you want to keep to the right to stay out of traffic, this made my ride quite interesting.
Once to the valley, the donkey plowed right through the throngs of tourists (go donkey!). We saw three tombs with really well-preserved colorful murals. It's hard to believe they're like 3000 years old! After that we hiked up and around the hill to the workers' camp to see examples of their tombs. Back on the donkeys for the ride to Luxor. I had a different donkey this time that was much better. Along the way, we stopped at the Colossi of Memnon.
In the afternoon after the donkey ride, we had a bus trip out to Hurghada (on the Red Sea). We arrived in the evening so only had time for dinner. We knew we had to be up early the next day so no one stayed up late.
Up at 2:30am for a bus ride to the ferry that left at 4am. That took us to Sharm el-Sheik and we caught a bus from there to Dahab. We had three and a half days total in Dahab to chillout next to the sea. Dahab is just a small little town right on the Red Sea. There are quite a few restaurants with cushioned seating areas right on the beach and shops with lots of t-shirts and jewelry. Jodie, Helen and I went for massages in the late afternoon. I went in just as Helen came out and she looked terrified. She told me I was in for a surprise. She wasn't expecting to have to take all her clothes off, but I was so it didn't seem like a big deal to me. It was a bit awkward having a female masseuse though. Just had to make sure that towel didn't fall off. Jodie got to have the Egyptian guy for her scraping massage so I felt worse for her. That night we went to a good restaurant with the group (prices are cheap here so you can get good meals).
The second day we took jeeps out to Blue Hole for some snorkeling. Everyone relaxed a bit then some of us went in. Helen and I snorkelled quite a long ways and saw some pretty fish along the way (the coral wasn't too colorful though). Chilled out in the sun back at the cushioned seating, had some lunch then went back in for more snorkeling but this time went the opposite direction. Relaxed in the sun more before going back to town. Some of us went out to dinner at the same spot again. Group kinda tired so we just went to a place on the beach to relax afterwards.
I was up early the next morning so got some breakfast, rented some snorkeling gear and went out for a swim. There was quite a bit of wind so it was wavy making it a bit harder to get out. Once to the drop off, I saw lots of fish and quite a few big, colorful ones. Shopped around a bit and hung out with the ladies again. Had dinner with the group at a different restaurant this time. Afterwards, some of us went to a bar with a chillout spot in back. On our way out, the ladies spotted the dancefloor so we stayed a bit longer dancing.
We had most the morning on Thursday to do whatever in Dahab. I found the ladies and we had lunch, got in some last minute shopping and chilled out by the beach for a bit.
That afternoon we took a bus out to St Katherine. Just had dinner and were to bed early again as we knew we had to be up in just a few hours. Woken up at 2:15am for ascent of Mt Sinai. We hiked up the trail and stairs to a teahouse near the top. We waited there a little bit to stay warm before sunrise. Then went up to the top with the rest of the group to watch the sunrise. It was freezing up there! Can't say that the sunrise was too spectacular but it was nice.
Once the sun was up, the temperature wasn't as bad. Some of us took the stairs the whole way on the way back (get better view of monastery). Back to hotel for breakfast and shower. Bus back out to St Katherine's Monastery to see the "burning bush". No, it's not on fire and, no, it's not very exciting. No voices spoke to me either....except maybe Spanky.
Long bus ride back to Cairo from St Katherine's. We checked in to hotel then had kind of a farewell dinner and drinks on the rooftop terrace. It's sad to have to say goodbye to everyone after having a fun couple weeks. And it's hard to go from being surrounded by new friends each day to being alone again. Almost everyone in the group was flying back on Saturday and everyone was looking forward to getting out of Egypt and to somewhere "normal". I can't say that I had much desire to stay here, especially with everybody leaving. At least I got to spend some more time with Esther and Jodie Saturday morning going out to the bazaar.
Saturday afternoon I took the train to Alexandria. The hotel room I got has a great view overlooking the harbor (and only $13 per night).
There were plenty of people out that evening, but not much going on. The people here are nicer than Cairo and for the most part just leave you alone to go about your business. My original thought when I booked my airline tix was that I would hang out at the beach here, but it turns out it's not warm enough for that. I went to see some of the sights instead - Roman Amphitheatre, Graeco-Roman Museum and Alexandrian Library. The library is huge and very modern (I think it's the only thing modern I've seen in Egypt). It actually rained here Sunday afternoon then was really windy...that trend continued on Monday with a bit of added cold. Definately not beach weather. I'd go back to Cairo sooner, but that city gives me a headache. The novelty of Egypt is wearing off - I cross traffic w/o much thought that there are cars going by on either side of me, don't look twice when a donkey and cart go by, tune out the people saying "hello" "come look in my store", and the Arabic music doesn't even grate my nerves the way it used to. I think that means it's time to move on.
What's coming up? A lot. I fly back to London to pick up my round-the-world plane tix then head out to Cape Town, South Africa, the next day (Nov 26). I have a couple weeks to go up the coast to Durban before cutting across to Johannesburg for a flight to Nairobi. I start my overland tour Dec 12 there and finish in Jo'burg Jan 12. I'd like to fly to Australia right away, but unfortunately there aren't seats available for the One World Explorer fare 'til early February...I have to bug Qantas to see if I can get out sooner.
Click here for more information on my Africa safari itinerary.