|Travelogue: P&L’s Travels in Egypt||
(2/11/00 - 2/23/00)
By A Fearless Traveler
Conversion Factor: $1 US = 3.33 LE (Egyptian Pounds)
Leave our house knowing we will be checking into our Cairo hotel in about 28 hours. LV- LAX flight slightly delayed leaving us a 2 hour layover at LAX. Our Cairo flight is boarding nearby as we exit our plane at JF We’re one of the last people aboard our TWA Cairo flight. We pray our luggage makes the transfer with us.
2 ½ hours into JFK to Cairo flight I realize we’ve long past the ‘JFK triangle’. I was worried about the take-off, then proceeded to forget about my flight stress for awhile. I think about the safety of the flight attendants’ jobs to calm my stresses. The plane is packed with Arabs and Americans. Sleep only 3 hours, L. sleeps about 7 of the 10 hour flight, small child across the aisle throws up on herself during Cairo landing. Have to wait 1 ½ hours in the Cairo airport immigration line. About 30 teenage students in front of us, each having complex passport situations, absolutely brutal to witness!
While our hotel cabby is waiting to introduce us to the Cairo driving experience, we fend off numerous taxi offers. These folks are infamous for dropping you off at the hotels they recommend, not the hotel you have reservations for. They have name tags and look like airport employees.
No words can describe the rollercoaster on tires we went through to get to the hotel. Driving in Cairo is one hand on the horn, with the other waving out the window. Street lanes are clearly painted, and clearly disregarded. Beep, beep, beep everywhere you go. This is Cairo, land of 12 million. We wonder how the elderly could possibly get behind the wheel.
Our hotel is the Windsor-Cairo, old in appearance & upkeep. The room is mediocre with a 3-4 minute delay for the hot water to reach our 4th floor. However the location is key, only 200 meters from the friendly Cairo subway. At $35US it is our most expensive accommodation of the three we’ll stay in.
We arrive at 4:00pm, unpack, adjust to new time schedule by eating dinner at a local food joint, and hitting the Cairo Tower. Our guidebook (‘ Lonely Planet ’) recommends a local Egyptian restaurant, the ‘Alfy Bey’. Definitely an abrupt introduction to Egyptian food. The one thing we like right away in Egypt is the fresh squeezed OJ anywhere & everywhere in this country. The bad thing is the slabs of lamb meat on bland rice. Fresh flat bread is served with every meal with a wonderful dip called babaganoush.
The host of the ‘Alfy Bey’ approaches us at our table inquiring about our homeland. He is thrilled to meet us on our first day in Egypt. He explains to us that he is ‘Nubian’. They are a long-standing South Egyptian culture, much of whose land has been engulfed by Lake Nasser, the result of the Aswan Dam. Since then, the Nubian people have been forced to look for work within Cairo. He has very dark skin in which he often points to. He tells us he lives in Egypt, but he is Nubian. He is disappointed that we will not be visiting the temple of Abu Simbel in Aswan (S. Egypt). He claims Abu Simbel is his ‘house’, the greatest place in all of Egypt. We would run into him 9 days later. Dinner = 60LE after good tip, stomachs filled mainly with bread and Bobaganoush.
We’ve heard great stories about the Cairo Metro system, so we decide to give it a crack by taking a ride to Gezira Island on the Nile. This large river island is home to exclusive resorts and the beautiful Cairo Tower. We buy the elevator tickets & extra drink coupon redeemed in their revolving lounge (35LE each). In the elevator ride up the operator asks where we are from while explaining the height and age of the tower. His next maneuver is organizing his wad of cash while telling how great the people of America are. 1LE makes him happy, but he didn’t put his money away until my wallet was completely in my pocket. Spectacular night views from the tower. This makes us excited about the Cairo days to come. On the way down we hear the same story from our lift operator "elevator is 14 seconds up, 14 seconds down". A group of local teenagers in the elevator laughs at his English and he turns red. He tells the kids he can speak many languages, which makes them laugh even more. As we leave the elevator I tell him "adios", his complexion lights up and he yells "adios, sayanara, good-bye". Hilarious!
We’ve been swamped in the subway and on the streets by passerby's saying "welcome to Egypt" & "hallo". We’re definitely the only tourists on the subway, and we seem to be the only tourists on the streets of downtown Cairo. We will also come to realize that Cairo has virtually no foreign residents and very few ethnic restaurants outside the 5* hotels. Extremely strange for one of the biggest cities in the world.
Wake up at 7:00am for a self guided tour of the only existing ‘wonder of the world’. We take the metro to Cairo University in order to cut down on taxi costs. Subway costs us 1LE for the two of us each trip (30 cents US total). Grab a taxi outside subway station to the pyramids.
On the way, the pre-warned ceremony begins. The taxi driver picks up a local guy about 2 miles outside the pyramids. His name is Mohammed and he wants to take us to a camel stable for a ‘round the pyramids trip’. We know what’s up, but we had planned on renting camels, so we go with the game. We end up in a remote camel/horse stable alley. Pay taxi 10LE, and walk with Mohammed into the office of the stable manager. Mohammed disappears while the manager explains the short/medium/long journey options; L. on a camel, me on a horse. I like the ‘medium’ a 2-3 hour trek with two guides. The manager refused to discuss prices at that point and time. An answer I accepted for some an unexplained reason. I knew I would be paying an inflated price being dumped here, but didn’t realize the further tactics coming our way.
L. was immediately whisked away on her camel (‘Mickey Mouse’), I mounted my horse and was kept within eyesight, but not earshot of L. and her guide. About 500 meters later the manager drops a $120 US price tag for our tour. I argued the price, only to have the manager in my face claiming "disrespect me, camel, 2 horse, 2guide’. His fearless raised voice reminded me of our seclusion. Out in the middle of nowhere I agree to his $120 US.
Anyway... the tour was unbelievable. The Giza desert is littered with trash, but the views are incredible. Cruising through the sand with these 3 monster pyramids staring at you is extremely peaceful. The feeling of being here is baffling. The pyramids are disgustingly enormous is all I can say.
I was quickly trotted up to L.’s camel after I had agreed upon the price. We were stopped a few times by the guides at perfect photos opportunities. They then let us off at the Pyramid of Mycerinus for a climb into the pyramid’s burial tomb.
To enter the pyramid you must climb up a staircase then down an extremely narrow shaft for about 2-3 tourist filled minutes. Once in the tomb, you are free to stand, but two Japanese ladies refused to unwind from their tightly crouched postures. Everyone in their tour group was urging them to stand up. The ladies’ grunts of refusal had all of us other tourists in hysterics. They just continued crawling throughout the tomb. Meanwhile, being inside this huge stone structure gave off a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. No hieroglyphs in any of the 3 pyramids, but crawling down the steep decent was one of the highlights of the trip.
We switch animals for the ride bac Camel trotting is brutal on your legs. L. dealt with it the first half, I suffered through the second half. We would both pay tomorrow as well. The trip ends at a perfume shop, we tip the two guides $10 US total, then we’re led into the shop. Once inside we meet the pay-up man and we pay-up the $120US. We then avoid the sales pitch and immediately leave the shop to a nervous crowd still outside. The pay-up man and our two guides ask what is wrong. "We just want a taxi back to Cairo". The pay-up man begins to offer $40 US return, but we can’t trust him. So we grab the nearest cab out of dodge.
Rest awhile at the hotel while we figure our opinions of the Giza experience. We probably had the price tag written on the clothes we were wearing. We ended up being overcharged about $60 US. But the inflated price turned out to be worth it. A 3 hour tour of one of the most picturesque scenes in all of the world = $130 US with tip. Nasty tactics have our memory tainted with slight taste of bitterness, but if this attraction was located in the US we would’ve paid at least $300 for the 3 hours of 3 animals & 2 guides.
Next stop is the shopping bazaar ‘Kahn al Khalili’. After the haggling of Giza, we decide to go to the haggling capitol of the world. The ‘Khan’ is packed with both locals and organized tour groups. Many food joints, spice markets, and jewelry shops. Bargaining is difficult due to the bazaar’s tourist clientele. Bargain decently for an item for my sister & a wallet for myself at leather goods store. Bargained with a gold jeweler who refused to budge from his asking price. Our departure didn’t bother him one bit. No set rules in this country’s markets. Obligatory rhyme: Shwarma sandwich yummy… gives me mummy tummy. All other digestive troubles have been omitted from this travelogue.
Looking for ethnic food we are headed to the middle class suburb of ‘Doqqi’ for dinner. Subway lets us off on the main drag. Unfortunately no signs, shops, or people have any English in them. A manager of a nice hotel down a dark alley helps us. A luxury we would be taking advantage of in this city is its friendly people.
The manager called the restaurant we were looking for. He wrote it’s name in English and Arabic on a sheet of paper. 8LE with tip for our taxi driver. This Indian restaurant was at least 3 miles from where we were from. Restaurant run by a few Egyptians with decent Indian food. 70LE after tip.
We then take a 5LE taxi to the Nile Hilton for two expensive drinks on their beautiful roof-top lounge overlooking the Nile. Much deserved after today’s experiences! Easy subway ride home.
Wake up at 8:00am, walk to check if McDonald’s serves breakfast. No luck, off to the Nile Hilton, next door neighbor of our desT.tion, the Egyptian Museum. 3 fresh croissants, 2 OJ’s, and 1 coffee = 35LE with tip. Price definitely worth the convenience and service. This meal was important for our museum energy.
The museum opens at 9:00am, so we arrive at 8:30am to hoards of Japanese, French, and Germans. Their tour busses packed in like sardines.
Get into the museum at about 9:15am to find a huge collection from the earliest civilizations of all time. We’ve been told to split the museum tour into two days due to its immensity. However we manage to see just about everything in 3 hours (self-guided). Took some great photos, but our previous visits to the British Museum & the Louvre probably contributed to our abbreviated tour. The jewel of the museum was undoubtedly King Tut’s collection. The ‘mummy room’ was a costly 40LE each. No photos, or talking allowed. Temperature controlled cases leave a creepy feeling of death. Worth the cash!
We leave the museum at 12:00pm for lunch to find a crowd of taxi-hawkers to rival the Tijuana border. We feel slightly guilty in our ability to knock off the Egyptian Museum in less than 3 hours. The British & Louvre Museums have somehow amassed a large chunk of ancient Egyptian artifacts that can rival the Egyptian Museum itself. Sad, but true for sure.
Head back to hotel with sore legs and feet. The pain of the nonstop walking around Cairo and the Giza animals begins to set in. Sleep for a few hours knowing that we will need our legs for Luxor tomorrow.
Sleep for two hours and head out alone to find L. a blow-dryer that will fit the non-European electrical socket. I’m anxious to hit the downtown Cairo streets solo and ready for the challenge. I join the locals daring to cross the speeding streets. I need cash and end up on a three bank tour. At the second bank I was referred to a clearly busy man behind a counter. Understanding my ATM request he took at least 4 minutes of his time to write down a quick map and write the address of the bank in English & Arabic. He gets a well deserved "shokran gazillan" (thank you very much). Perfect map!
I bounce around the streets of downtown for another hour to finally find a shop that sells blow-dyers, 40LE. Funny thing, I don’t get the long stares I receive when I’m with L.. Egyptian men like to stare at women, but they seem to be intrigued even more by both of us together on the subways & streets.
I finally have a chance to explain a bit about Arab culture. Prayers are announced over loudspeakers throughout the afternoon, evening, and the inconceivable 4:00am prayer call. We find later that all prayer calls are read live by separate speakers in each mosque. With a mosque on almost on every corner, the loudspeaker prayers can bleed together. Either way the prayers are very loud, but only one 4:00am prayer would wake us. We must admit our feelings of disappointment at these prayers, especially after finding the prayer readers are paid by the mosque, which in turn are funded by the government. No peace for any other religion in Egypt.
Tonight’s dinner is another ethnic restaurant, the guide book recommended ‘Le Bistro’. Very nice atmosphere. Decent food served by their French & English speaking Egyptian staff, 70LE after tip.
Getting into a taxi in front of the nearby tourist filled ‘Felfella’ restaurant we are interrupted by a guy trying to get us into the restaurant. We tell him we just ate at ‘Le Bistro’ and he soon finds out where we are from the U.S. "America? You must meet my good American friend". Literally dragging me into the restaurant, he shows me a photo on the wall of Jimmy Carter. We laughed and he actually let us go on our way. I figured we would come back to eat here when we returned after Luxor. However we would never return to the ‘felfella’ after seeing this ‘friend’ just 6 days later.
Good night sleep, wake up at 5:00am to catch a 7:30am flight to Luxor, Egypt. We make arrangements at the front desk for Friday pick-up at Cairo Airport and we’re off.
Much to my surprise and L.’s sudden recollection, we have 1st Class tickets to Luxor. Only $20 US extra each for the round trip. Service was wonderful, but I had to wonder about the pilots’ opinions of their comrade Gamil al-Bahtouti. The suspected suicidal Egypt Air pilot of Flight #990 (10/31/99). Call it American media & flight paranoia all mixed up into worthless stress, but I’d kill to for 30 minutes of private conversation with our three pilots. 1st Class offers a TV screen showing plane’s progressing position on a map of Northern Africa, with elevation updated every 30 seconds. Only 50 minutes (2 days by boat)!
Negotiate half-assed to get a 25LE after tip cab fare to our hotel. Decent contemporary room with bed lamps and refrigerator, only 80LE ($22 US/night). Found out later we could have negotiated the room rate even lower, but we’ll nickel & dime elsewhere. We unpack as quickly as possible to hit the unreal Karnak Temple. We arrange an expensive horse carriage driver to take us three miles down the road, wait for two hours, take us to McDonald’s, then back to our hotel (55LE). By the way, our hotel manager played the middleman between us and the carriage driver, Mustafa. Upon our return to the hotel, the same manager asks us if we want to take his tour of Luxor’s West Bank tomorrow. Needless to say, we decline.
That aside, Karnak was tremendous to say the least. This 4,000 year old temple is not as famous as it should be. Very large, very impressive! Unfortunately there is no way to take a photo that shows just how many monster columns this temple holds. Over 100 columns at least 15 feet in diameter. Hyrogliphs from the ground to the top of these 60ft tall columns. The avenue of the sphinxes leads into the entrance, which used to lead three more miles to the entrance of Luxor Temple. The feeling of getting lost amongst these columns was fantastic!
Crash back at the hotel for a bit then hit the ‘Corniche’, Luxor’s main drag along the Nile’s East Ban With felucca boat, horse carriage, and taxi hawkers every 5 steps, we’re intrigued by one guy offering a felucca ride. He is adorned in a Muslim robe speaking fluent English. "10LE each for one hour" he announces. Sounds good, this includes his sailing assistant.
Our felucca captain’s name is ‘Tyeb’. He is very calm & collected and interested in our future tourism in Luxor. He tells us his brother can give us a driven tour of Luxor’s West Bank, home of most of Luxor’s attractions. His ridiculously low price of 60LE cannot be a scam, so we decide to meet Tyeb & his brother at a tea house 2 hours later at 6:00pm. 30LE after tip for 1 ¼ hour felucca tour. The Nile sail was very relaxing, recommended, and obligatory.
We meet up with Tyeb at 6:00pm, drink tea, and smoke a honey flavored tobacco shish pipe (bong). 30 minutes later his brother ‘Mohammed’ arrives with a large smile and pure fluent English. He is also clad in a fashionable Muslim robe. He is very charismatic, and down to earth. We spend almost another 1 ½ hours discussing social differences between our two cultures. Both brothers are well spoken in English, French, and German, all of these languages are taught in their secondary schools.
Mohammed mentions a possible stop at a papyrus shop, so we quickly tell him that we’re not interested. "Okay, no problem", he assures us. They then convince us to join them for dinner at the West Bank, ‘Tut-Ankh-Amon’ (King Tut).
We order ‘safe’ chicken dishes with fresh bread & Bobaganoush. The brothers leave for 30 minutes while we eat. Mohammed & Tyeb admit they enjoy a beer every now and then, "bad Muslims" they proclaim (dinner = 50LE after tip). Arrange meeting time with Tyeb the next morning to take us across the Nile to the famous West Bank’s temples and tombs.
We meet Tyeb at exactly 9:00am, hop an a motorboat where Mohammed and his Peugeot wait for us on the West Ban A quick stop at the ticket ‘shack’ in order to purchase all of the day’s tickets. Don’t understand how one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world can sell its tickets out of a shack with no service personnel to help you.
Back in the car we head to our first stop the Temple of Ramses III. Once a huge temple is now only about 50% intact, but still impressive with only a couple of German tourists. 20 minutes is plenty of time.
Second stop is the Valley of the Queens. Much of our memories of these two tombs are blended together. Not one tomb stood out as breathtaking, but they were beautiful and a good warm-up for the tombs of Valley of the Kings.
Third stop - Surprise, an Alabaster shop. As mentioned earlier, we declined Mohammed’s suggestion of a stop a papyrus shop. Thus we find ourselves at an alabaster shop. Alabaster is an ancient Egyptian man-made rock mixture used in the construction of many of their remaining structures. We’re shown a quick demonstration by the shop’s workers of how alabaster is compiled. Then the game begins. A salesman shadows us while we browse the store. The employee’s American references of ‘Mambo #5’ & ‘Clinton’ remind of us of the pressure situation we’re in. I decide to make everyone happy by choosing a small Onyx vase. The employee starts his bidding at $110 US. I laugh and begin with a generous bid of $20 US. After 30 minutes of Arabic bickering between Mohammed and the employee, we decline and walk out. The sale is finally made at $30 US when Mohammed puts the car in reverse. Even though I haggled the salesman down almost 300%, I was later quoted the same price at the Nile Hilton (set price, no haggling). The salesman passes us three cheap necklaces through our car window as we drive away. A gigantic smile upon his face! We wonder what percent Mohammed receives. 45 minutes for a $30 US sale.
5th Stop - Hatshepsut Temple. Extremely crowded with tourists and crap peddlers. Huge, beautiful temple, but tough to snap a good photo with hundreds of tourists surrounding you throughout. The temple was built into the mountains with three separate levels, 3,600 years ago. Not even the pictures we took could give justice to the size and beauty of this masterpiece. This is also the spot of a massacre of 70 tourists in 1997. Egypt, especially Luxor tourism has yet to recover from this catastrophe. Asked about the massacre, Mohammed said the murderers were killed (didn’t specify method). Then he spoke of his sadness for the victims and Luxor’s economy in this ‘political’ mess.
6th Stop- Valley of the Kings, home of the ‘Pharaohs’ Treasures’. With your ticket purchase you are allowed entrance into just 3 of the 7-8 open tombs.
All 3 of the tombs’ walls are lit up from below to illuminate the vibrant drawings because flash photography is not allowed. This causes photo taking dilemmas because the lights are too bright. The lower halves of the walls don’t develop clearly. Only the ceilings are fully developed. The amount of tourists posing for their own photos doesn’t help either.
First tomb is Ramses III - great start to our 3 tomb tour. Hyrogliphs and huge drawings with amazing intact colors, blanket 100% of the walls. My only photo ticket was taken away at the entrance (should have bought two more).
Second tomb is Seti II - absolutely nobody within the tomb (good & bad ). Knowing I was out of photo tickets I tried to tip the guard 2LE, but he told me the price of a photo ticket is 5LE. I couldn’t argue with the set price. So after giving him 6LE, we have a new friend. The only guard leaves his post to follow us throughout the tomb. He constantly points out photo angles and says ‘flash okay’, but I keep my flash off. He takes a photo of us together with Seti II’s sarcophagus. More ‘baksheesh’ was asked for, but nothing more would come his way.
Third stop is the tomb of Ramses IV - The most amazing of all the tombs we have visited on the West Ban Steep decent underground leads us down into a narrow hallway into large room with a monster sarcophagus of the king. A French tour group crowds the room which allows me to blend into the photo takers. With no more photo tickets, I’m able to hide behind the sarcophagus and snap unbelievable photos of the fascinating ceiling. This ceiling has a sky blue painted background with the sun goddess's arms stretched across the ‘evening sky’.
The Valley of the Kings was simply mandatory in retrospect. The sense of human history and evolution is indescribable. Being so deep into the mountain’s tombs was creepy, but witnessing all the detailed work was perhaps the greatest feeling of our trip.
Back to waiting Mohammed, we’re bombarded with offers of dinner at his family’s home. We feel guilty of course, but stand strong on our polite denials. Mohammed takes us by boat to the East Bank and writes his address for possible references. A friendly good-bye knowing we’ll never see each other again (75LE for 5 hours of work and car).
Crash for a bit, then hit the ‘night scene’ at Luxor Temple. This Temple is basically in the middle of a crowded city. Although small, Luxor’s population is growing despite their recent troubles.
Luxor temple is lit up at night which makes great photo opportunities. The temple is clearly visible, being in the middle of the city’s hotels and main drags. However, at night the temple takes on a different attitude. The height and detail of this temple is gorgeous with lights from below, making the temple seem even larger. Great photos taken.
Absolutely incredible! Luxor Temple & Karnak are only 3 miles apart. The 2 temples of Luxor’s East Bank accompanied by its West Bank treasures are supposedly 1/6 of the earth’s ancient monuments. Fantastic day!!!!!
Good night sleep. Head to breakfast with plans to head to the ‘Old Winter Palace’ to view train schedule to the Edfu Temple. We run into the redhead K. & his wife T., which we had briefly met two days ago on the hotel’s rooftop lounge.
Find out that K. writes for travel magazines, while T. is in the jewelry business. Their homes are Bangkok, Thailand, and Perth, Australia. K. is originally from Canada and his wife is from Taiwan. L. quickly proclaims her jealousy of their lifestyle. K. eloquently explains how they themselves meet people that they’re jealous of, so we need not worry.
We tell K. & T. of our plans to check the train schedules. They then tell us that if we hurry we can catch the 9:00am 1st class train to Efdu. We’re off to Luxor train station.
A 15 minute walk has us at confusion headquarters. Of course no posted prices. The guy at the ticket window tells us to buy our tickets on the train (‘1st class = 16LE’). Find our way to the right track, then head to the furthest most train car. 1st class simply means padded seat. Ticket collector demands 19LE instead of the quoted 16LE. Little objection leads to no results (19LE). Find out later that tourists are not allowed to actually buy tickets at the ticket office. You should have a local buy your ticket which in turn gets you the local price. Takes 2 hours to reach Edfu.
Some confusion as to whether we can walk to the temple from the station. Amazingly not one employee understands English. Find the nearest taxi for 3LE after tip (pick-up truck with large shell and padded benches). The driver drops us off at tourist central. Every tourist was from Nile cruise ships, their docking port just 2 miles away. Tourist busses and horse carriages crowd this narrow, pothole filled street.
It soon became evident that this one day jaunt was well worth our time. Only 2,500 years old, the Temple Horus at Edfu was one of the last Ancient Egyptian style temples built. It was built by Ptolymes, the mother of Cleopatra. We took many photos of the elaborate interior and of each other with superb backgrounds.
We finish our 1 ½ hour tour with 3 hours to spare before our train departs back to Luxor. Kill some time at the temple’s overpriced snack bar. Then decide to head to the train station, having to face the hawkers along the way to the taxi depot. One ‘salesman’ began to grab L.’s arm. My jump to the situation made all the locals nervous. A dirty look lets us walk freely the remainder of the bloc Go figure.
Back at the train station we find that our train is 1 hour late. 2 ½ hour wait for a train that offers 3rd class only. We sit on chairs outside with the station manager, 2 of his employees, and appx. 5 policemen. The sun shined so bright on this February day that we preferred the shade.
In the meantime, we had conversation with the only the English speaker, the station manager. He spoke little English, but he knew what to say when he found out we were from the U.S. "I would love to live in America", he immediately says. He mentioned "freedom" when describing our homeland. However he was quick to mention his dissatisfaction with Israel’s treatment of Palestine and the U.S.’s tolerance of this. They played music on a small radio while the manager told the story behind each song’s plot. The manager also translated our stories to the policemen. They frequently laughed and were clearly interested in us. They all made the time pass quickly.
Say good-bye to our friends and hop on an Egyptian 3rd class train car. A wooden bench is our seat in a car that apparently doesn’t need doors. The floor is littered with sugar cane with which the few locals in the train chew away. Later that night, K. would joke that perhaps we were on the dining car. One fellow on the train practices his English on us, he also loves ‘America’.
The train ‘ticket man’ soon sees us and asks whether or not we are students. I tell him no, then he begins to shake is head. The Giza feeling of ‘out in the middle of nowhere’ sets in. The ticket man is sad to tell us that our trip to Luxor will cost us 3LE ($1 US total, no student discount). 3 ¼ hours on the way back with about 20 stops. Nothing but poor farmers and a few school children getting on and off at each station.
We missed the sunset on the rooftop bar, but we head up to see whether or not the previous night’s crowd is still there. K., T., 2 stereotypical beer drinking Canadians, and the most traveled John & his new wife Dee are there once again.. We spend the next 4 hours having drinks, talking travel, and world politics with John, K., & T.. An absolutely unforgettable night, full of mutual enjoyment and education.
K. & T. tell us of the South East Asian cultures and tourism, while John tells us of his travels to Morocco, Turkey, India, and Australia. Simply a wealth of knowledge that we tried to soak up during the night. Our waiter ‘George’ hovered over us trying to jump into conversations he could understand. A few photos and we’re off to bed.
This morning the hotel was anxious to get us out, with a French tour group arriving today. Our flight doesn’t leave until 8:30pm, so K. & T. offer to hold our luggage in their room for the day after breakfast. We will meet them on the rooftop at 5:00pm for sunset.
We walk to the beautiful ‘Winter Palace’ on the Corniche. This hotel was home to Egypt’s last king, King Farouk (1960’s). A true 5 star hotel, it offers a spectacular garden in the back, a relaxing get away from its street front.
Next stop is the ‘Brooke Hospital for Animals’. Ironically located on a horse carriage packed street. This small open aired hospital is now home to appx. a dozen injured horses and donkeys. The hospital puts life into perspective when you see some of their patients. A collage of recent surgery photos sends a French woman into tears. L., the cause of this detour, drops the 50LE donation bomb upon the hospital. The veterinarian tells L. that he must give her a receipt according to the hospital rules. The hospital gave us a very informative pamphlet explaining their relief efforts throughout the Middle-East.
Feeling as though we’ve ‘done’ Luxor we head to the rooftop bar for Lunch and a few cokes. The Friday prayers are in full effect with the loudspeaker clan speaking their minds. It’s difficult to tune them out while they clear their throats into the microphone and argue over which passage to read.
About 3:00pm an American Egyptology student joins us. Her name is Katie and has been separated from her husband for a 3 month study in Luxor. We talk of her separation difficulties, Egypt’s history, and social problems. She also tells us that her favorite local bookstore is the only shop with price tags.
5:00pm rolls around and like clockwork K. arrives after a speedwalk from Karnak Temple. T. was angry because she wanted to arrive earlier in case L. & I wanted to shower. We reassured her that showers were not necessary. Apparently K. took too many photo opportunities on their walk from Karna Only one hour of conversation between the four of us before we must leave for the Luxor airport. Wonderful people to meet and share our time with in Luxor, sad to leave.
We negotiate a 20LE fare to the airport. Our driver tells us that he loves America, a place he could practice his Christian religion. He is clearly frustrated by the Egyptian government’s treatment of the Copts. Standing room only in the few Christian churches of Luxor. I stupidly fuel his fire by telling him of the little tension between religions in the U.S. He raises his voice even more to agree with us, then suddenly becomes quiet for the rest of the drive.
Pulling up to the airport we park next to a few armed guards. Our driver turns to us and basically yells "I don’t want any problems!" Baffled by this outburst, we wonder whether he’s talking about the armed guards or using an aggressive tip tactic. Giving him a very nervous look, he clarifies himself by reaffirming his anger with the Egyptian government. A sigh of relief and a 5LE tip settles him down and sends us on our way to a 3 ½ hour delay for a simple 1hour domestic flight.
With no explanation given, our flight won’t depart until 12:00 midnight. At 10:00pm we’re allowed to check in. We’re told that we no longer have 1st class seats. Our seats are now the 49th row. I’m directed to the manager’s office for refund after making a scene. The manager tells me that I’ll receive a refund at the Cairo airport. With no energy to argue further, we sit in the waiting area. After another 1 ½ we’re given our original 1st class tickets while waiting at the gate.
1st class is full of Egyptians which makes us wonder if preference might have played a factor in their attempt to downgrade our tickets. I sleep through the flight, not taking advantage of the perks, fortunately L. did. Very unfortunate and aggravating 4 ½ hours.
Negotiate for 35LE ride to our newly scheduled hotel, the ‘Berlin Hotel’ in downtown Cairo. The hotel is located down an alley and up a sketchy elevator on the 4th floor. We wake a 16 year old boy in the lobby that tells us the hotel is full. We use the hotel phone to call a few hotels in our guide boo I negotiate with the Carlton Hotel to get a 90LE rate. Expensive, but it’s now 1:30am. The boy has the nerve to charge us 3LE for use of his phones. An ‘in the face’ chuckle backs him off his ridiculous effort. In bed at 2:45am.
We sleep until 11:00am. I head down stairs and tell the manager that we cannot afford another night. He then lowers the rate to 65LE which I agree upon. Its actually nice to be back in downtown Cairo, after the hawkers of Luxor. We are constantly stared at in Cairo, but there are no street hawkers to hassle us.
The Citadel is this afternoon’s desT.tion. The Citadel is a 900 year old Muslim fortress. Its 100ft walls were built to protect its mosques from the Crusaders. It’s main attraction is the Mohammed Ali Mosque, the only mosque we’ve been allowed to enter (shoes off). It’s exterior and interior are unbelievable. Comparable to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The fortress sits on a hill which allows great photo opportunities and 360 degree views of Cairo. Entrance was 20LE each, the same price as ancient Egyptian attractions. They have to charge the same for Muslim history, of course!
Next stop is the Gayer-Anderson Museum (a large house), made famous by ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’. Our guide book misleads us by claiming the museum is virtually across the street from the Citadel. Unfortunately it is at least two miles down the narrow ‘Sharia Ibn-Tulun’, a run-down street full of children, wild roosters, and a guy taking a leak in full public view. This wild walk would prove to be gratifying once we reached our desT.tion. Having just a crude city map we found our way with no need for help or U-turns.
The museum’s 20LE entrance allows L. in, I decline the expensive fee. I wait in a corridor underneath a bridge connecting two separate sections of the home. I begin to snap a few photos of the beautiful Ibn-Tulun Mosque, the museum’s next door neighbor. A few German tourists see my shot angles and begin shooting away themselves. While the Germans take their photos I hear L. calling my name from the bridge above, and her guide joining in. "Patwaa", "Patwaa", the guide yells, not able to pronounce ‘P.’. I could hear L. laughing at her guide’s pronunciation. A 5LE tip given in private to L.’s guide puts a large smile on his face. He spoke zero English!
We grab a 10LE taxi back to downtown. A 20LE phone card allows me to call home to L.’s mom for an update of our dogs and another call to my parents.
Tonight’s dinner was at the Nile Hilton’s shopping mall. The downstairs plaza offers 5 or 6 ethnic counters to choose from. Nice atmosphere, terrible Greek gyro, great Greek salad, good Thai curry, and 2 very expensive small cokes = 60LE. We then head to the Hilton’s rooftop bar for more ridiculously overpriced drinks and beautiful Nile view.
Sleep until 10:00am, decide to hit ‘Texas Chicken’ for American fast food. We walk into an empty place with 3 employees. Of the 3, there is a young man that welcomes us and two young women that decide to start ‘tonguing’ each other for our amusement. We immediately depart, trying to figure what the hell was going on. We still have no clue as to what that was about. They definitely wanted to startle us. Very, very strange!!! We settle on the local McDonald’s, once again.
We then head south, down Talaat Harb street to reach the American Express travel agency to try and purchase a 1 day tour to Saqqara. The next 2 hours in this neighborhood would become an adventure.
South Talaat Harb street is full of travel agencies. Stops to look at our guide book maps turned out to be terrible decisions. We were pounced upon by ‘helpful’ locals trying to drag us into their travel agencies and perfume shops.
The second offer was from a 30 year old well dressed local. Discovering we’re from the U.S. he says "what’s uuuuup?". I suddenly realize that this is the guy from the ‘Felfella restaurant’ that showed me the photo of Jimmy Carter. I don’t admit my recollection. He tells us he just finished his afternoon prayers which includes a prayer to help people like ourselves. To no surprise we end up at a perfume shop. "No, but shokran" we proclaim. He then says "No shokran, you leave now!". No problem, thanks for nothing! A career tourist hustler giving a bad name to his religion.
About 50 yards before our final travel agency desT.tion, we’re approached by the 3rd ‘helper’. "No thank you", as we point out our desT.tion directly across the street. He walks along with us as we cross the street. L. joking tells him "you might take us to a perfume shop". His jaw almost hit the ground!
"No, I have a flower shop", he says.
After two dirty looks, we duck into the MISR Travel Agency to find that they don’t offer the one day tour we’re looking for. We head to another AMEX agency at the Nile Hilton and settle upon their Saqqara ½ day excursion $52 US.
This neighborhood along Talaat-Harb street completely drained our energy and simply aggravated our perception of Egypt’s tourism. 95% of the Cairo locals went out of their way to assist us in getting to our desT.tion. Helping us clearly made them extremely happy and then off they went. The other 5% basically prey on the tourists to receive commissions on whatever shop they can get the people into. Once again, we’re constantly bombarded by friendly smiles and "welcome to Egypt" as we travel the streets & subways of Cairo. Many ambivalent feelings.
From the Hilton we head to the town of Zamalek for pizza at ‘Maison Thomas’. Excellent large pizza, shitty salad, and two dinky cokes = 50LE. No bathroom facilities, so we have to wash our hands in their kitchen. We probably walked 6-7 miles today, so we buy a few oranges and a few beers on the way home, for an early night to bed.
6:30am wake up call, 2 ½ hours after the most brutal 4:00am prayer call. We’ve been able to sleep through the 4:00am calls, but this prayer seemed to come from the devil rather than ‘Allah’. The same monotonous scream every five seconds for at least 5 minutes straight. Imagine somebody yelling into a bullhorn outside your bedroom window at 4:00am in the morning.
We head to the subway for pick-up at the Hilton and an odd incident. As we hop on the subway, we notice an albino Egyptian man getting a lot of stares. Suddenly, L. and I notice all eyes begin to turn towards us. The new freak show has arrived!!! Flashing a friendly face for the onlookers, I turn toward the albino. He has joined his friends with the now familiar Egyptian stare. The locals have ‘curious’ stares. These aren’t snooty stares, just a chance for them to see something they rarely see. Of the eight days in Cairo, we rode the subway at least 6 times per day. The only foreigner we saw was a Caucasian woman in business clothes. Other than her, we saw zero foreigners, not even a backpacking tourist on this subway.
At the Nile Hilton we’re put into a mini-van with two British women, a strange looking American man, and a French couple. We have a driver and a great English speaking guide named ‘Abel’. He wastes no time busting out the ancient Egyptian jokes. "Ramses II had 150 children which began the population problem you see here in Cairo’s traffic." And "Ramses II lived to be 90 years old which is amazing considering he had 70 wives."
First stop was Southern Memphis, one of the city centers of Ancient Egypt. A small tourist site with a few stone pieces where Ramses II had written his name over the previous Pharaohs’ names. The second largest sphinx is here, but pales in comparison to the Great Sphinx. The centerpiece of this site is the gigantic statue of Ramses II that would have stood at least 75 feet tall. Unfortunately it has since fallen and is only intact from the kneecap and up. I regret leaving my camera in the van.
Abel was well versed in Egyptology. He presented us with a few mysteries of Egyptian feats. For example, a 350 ton obelisk at the Temple of Hatshepsut has writing on it explaining its transport down the Nile by boat. This is almost inconceivable. He then explains that the mystery can only be solved by the Egyptians’ devotion to their kings & queens. He follows this up by saying that Europe no longer builds elaborate cathedrals due to the decline in belief.
Next stop is Saqqara, home of the first pyramid ever erected 6,000 years ago, Zoser’s Step Pyramid. Attempts to refurbish a once standing wall around the pyramid was not very impressive, only about 10% is genuine. A French architect by the name of Jean-Phillipe Laure has spent over 75 years of his life on this project. Sadly he is now 97 years old and the completion will not be seen in his lifetime.
Abel tell us of the Step Pyramid’s architect, Imhotep, perhaps the founder of chemistry. Abel was kind enough to snap a few photos of us with the huge pyramid in the background. Fabulous site with that same indescribable feeling we got at Giza.
While Abel allowed us to roam the grounds of the pyramid’s surroundings, we struck up conversation of tourism in Egypt with him. Admitting our frustrations of the hawkers in Luxor, Abel tells us that Egypt has major tourism problems. He himself sees no hope for change in the country’s attitude toward tourism. He mentioned that only 3 million tourists visit Egypt each year, and that Spain by itself enjoys 20 million per year. I didn’t dare mention our home town’s 30 million/year intake because Abel was very sad while explaining his statistics.
Next stop was the nearby Pyramid of Teti, now a large mound of rubble. Unlike the pyramids of Giza, this pyramid is covered with hyrogliphs and drawings inside. King Teti’s sarcophagus still remains inside his underground burial chamber. Snap a few shots then head to his next door neighbor.
The tomb of King Kagemni was the highlight of the Saqqara tombs. With no other tourists or groups around, Abel was able to explain the ornate drawings on the tombs’ walls with no interruptions. Abel walked us through at least five rooms, explaining each detailed drawing. The portrait of pulling a calf across the Nile which made the calf’s mother follow along with her herd. A man force feeding swans while another swan tried to bite the feeder. A hippo biting an alligator that had a hold of another hippo’s leg. Men dragging heavy loads on sleighs while one man pours oil in front of the sleigh. This gives evidence that rollers were not used to transport heavy objects such as pyramid stones, since rollers would be worthless in the desert sand. Abel earned his 20LE tip at this site alone.
Last stop is an obligatory Egyptian tour stop, an expensive rug factory. Small children hard at wor The factory’s guide tells us that the children are orphans that are given homes and 6 hours of education with 2 hours of daily rug weaving. Their fingers are clearly overworked with effects that will undoubtedly catch up to them later in their lives. A tour of their massive gallery reveals extremely expensive rug works ($700 - $120,000 US).
Our ½ day tour ends at the Nile Hilton. We cross the dangerous Midan Tahrir intersection to get to KFC for lunch. The place is jam packed with young Egyptians, ages 15-25. Many teenage girls in Western style outfits with cellular phones and a lot make-up. Knowing that their mothers didn’t enjoy this luxury, we wonder what the future holds for these girls. We are left to believe this Muslim government will have its hands full with this young generation.
A long day brings us back to our room even though it’s only 2:00pm. We sleep until 6:00pm, then hit a recommended vegetarian joint named ‘Al Tabei’. Great salads, soups and eggs fill our bellies for 24LE ($7 US after tip).
We then wander a local shopping district, shoes are a huge local industry. Then head to a recommended rooftop bar. The bar doesn’t offer glasses of wine, so we leave. Glasses of wine are only available at 5* hotels for about the same price as the bottle itself.
Head home for a long night sleep. We feel as though we’ve done Cairo, so tomorrow (our final day) has no set plans.
We sleep until 11:00am (much needed). Shower, pack, etc., then head down to pay our bill. I knew our bill should have been 210LE, but to no surprise the bill is 360LE. "No, 90LE for the first night, 65LE for the last 3 nights," I say. The manager tells me "nobody here offered you 65LE per night." A different manager that wasn’t on-duty had given us the lower rate, so this manager was right in Egyptian terms. I threw him 360LE while making a major scene. Their bellman ran around the corner and a few residents in the lobby got nervous along with the manager. Even the armed guards outside became amused by the scene. We can’t trust our luggage in the hotel’s possession while we tour Cairo until our 9:00pm flight.
We keep our luggage with us and head to our new vegetarian joint ‘Al Tabei’. They gladly allow us to store our 2 large bags and backpac We wish we would’ve found this place earlier. Although I prefer meat at each of my meals, I’m able to fill my protein intake with their eggs & beans. Our bill was 23LE after tip.
We decide to head to the airport 5 hours early with our full bellies. The hotel incident has me frazzled. The outdoor arena where President Anwar Sadat was gunned down was the only site I wanted to see. Being out of the way, I’ll have to pass on my morbid tour. We flag down a cabby outside the restaurant that can’t speak any English. A local cuts in, translates our desT.tion, and helps us with our luggage (simple generosity, tip not accepted). 40LE after tip once arriving at the airport.
The airport is very small by international standards. As we wait out our 7 hours, we meet an older couple (late 50’s-early 60’s). They approach us with JFK departure inquiries. Our company and conversation would fill the remaining 4 hours.
Their names were Tom & Helen from San Antonio, Texas. Their daughter met a Saudi man in Texas 14 years ago. They have since married 12 years ago and have since moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, giving their parents 2 grandsons.
They vacationed in Riyadh for 10 days and planned on another week in Egypt with their daughter & son and law. Their Egypt reservations being in shambles and their disappointment in salesmen’s policies caused a bitter feeling in their opinions of Egypt. However, they never left Cairo, not seeing much beyond the pyramids.
More importantly, here are their stories of the Middle East. Tom has traveled to the Middle East (UAE & Saudi Arabia), for the past 25 years in his computer related career. Knowing the ‘Arab Way’, Tom & Helen split their daughter & boyfriend for 6 months. "It was true love", Tom & Helen proclaim.
Their daughter battled to get dual citizenship for herself and their two boys. This allows their children to travel to the U.S., while the mother can leave Saudi Arabia if she were to be divorced by her husband. Many foreign wives have troubles with their native embassy trying to leave the country.
KFC & McDonald’s have reached S.A., but all television channels are under government control. Zero movie theaters exist in the entire country. On Fridays (holy day), hand severing and beheadings take place between prayers in the downtown Riyadh mosque parking lot.
Their daughter’s maid is from Indonesia; she is in S.A. to hide from her father’s dreams of her dowry. She is paid $160 US per month. She lives in a one room shed next to their chauffeur’s shed in the backyard. Women aren’t allowed to drive in S.A., so their Philippine chauffeur is much used by the American wife. They later said their daughter would have regrets if she had to raise a girl in S.A. The grandparents expressed hints the family might allow the grandchildren into the US once they turn 18.
Three separate security checkpoints before we are able to board the plane. We’re both able to sleep after playing ‘Gameboy Tetris’ and watching a Desi & Lucy 30-minute comedy. Awake for 3 hours, sleep for 7 hours, awake for the remaining 2 ½ hours. We couldn’t wait for every single meal that was served. Airplane food is just fine on long flights.
At JFK we meet our friends at the customs’ baggage carousel. We transfer our luggage onto different conveyor belts, then say our "good-byes". We met Tom & Helen just 21 hours ago and had unforgettable conversations.
NY-LA was a long 5 ½ hours with LAX pouring rain. 1 ½ rain delay for our LAX-Las Vegas flight. 32 hours after leaving our Cairo hotel, we arrive back to our home and two dogs.
We’d love to see the pyramids again and the other two chambers, but it’s doubtful we’ll be bac Highly recommended. The sites outside the Great Pyramids should be much more famous and appreciated. We did Egypt!
12 days spending = $1,300 (all expenses)
Grand total of $3,800
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