Culture shock! To put it mildly...
31.08.2010 - 11.09.2010 39 °C
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Egypt is part of the first dialogue between Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly in the movie Blood Diamond:
Connelly: Unless… their smuggler gets caught…
DiCaprio: Well, what do you want from me? Hunh?
Connelly: You know all about Van de Kamp. Help me out. Off the record…
DiCaprio: Well off the record I like to get kissed before I get f*****, huhn!
That last line sums up my initial feeling about Egypt. Of course, that is a very limited view and a certain amount of insight (some of which was borrowed) has somewhat changed my initial feeling, though the feeling still remains quite strong.
Also note that your mileage may vary. I visited Egypt on a tight budget by some standards, staying in a youth hostel/very cheap hotel (cockroaches included - oops! I meant to say breakfast included… Oh well, both were, though fortunately, separately ;-), traveling by public transportation (the subway system has cars for women only!) and mostly walking from site to site when possible - some walks over two hours in 38-39C temperature (summer!), car pollution etc. Rather than an a pre-planned package trip, this was a piecemeal construct. No five, four or three star hotel for me! It meant taking the subway to Old Cairo. It meant taking a taxi to Cairo Tower. It meant walking to the Salah ad-Din (Saladin) Citadel. It also meant eating in the shops or restaurants used by Cairenes. (though ultimately, as usual with me, the food aspect ended up being rather enjoyable ;-)
So for a change, rather than indicating what I did in Egypt, let's start with what I didn't like about it… (Don't worry, the post does not remain negative, I just want to get this out of the way and not rehash it in the description of my days…)
Cairo is… dirty (there is something you want to throw out? Simply drop it on the ground, or better yet, into the Nile), polluted, overcrowded, excessively chaotic and seems to have a lot of "chacun pour soi" (everyone for himself). First impression, for example, is that nobody respects the lines on the road. This is not just an impression, this is fact. But the reason behind it is that Cairo with nearly 20 million people and nearly half as many cars is just too overcrowded for its road, so people drive where… they fit! So if you can fit 5 car widths in three lanes, then that is what happens. The astounding thing is the dexterity with which Cairenes manage to avoid hitting each other most of the time.
This also applies with the traffic in the city and pedestrians. Typically, the drivers don't respect the red and green lights at all which is why most intersections in the downtown core have police officers doing the traffic (and they are only slightly more respected than the traffic lights and lanes on the road). Crossing at an intersection or jaywalking brings back to mind a wonderful computer game dating back to the mid 80's. Frogger. Except in the bonus "Cairo" level of Frogger, the cars will also change lanes while you try to dodge them. I hear this is sort of what it is like in Bangkok. I look forward to comparing the experiences!
And… the haggling or systematic institutionalized tourist price gauging. Sigh! Ok, basically, I suck at haggling, so no big surprise that mostly always ending up on the loosing side of a transaction might leave me slightly bitter. The only time I did really well, lowering the price by a factor of 12 was when a guy tried to sell me papyrus that I didn't really want. It could be seen that he still won with me buying them when I don't really know what to do with them (ie, how to send them to Canada…), though ultimately, he didn't seem thrilled with the way the deal went. So if the secret to haggling is not caring about getting the object, that is a problem for me, because I usually only approach a vendor when it is something that I need or really want. Ok, ok… So are they really out to fleece all tourists? Partially, yes. But then put into perspective the unofficial unemployment rate of 40%, the fact that the average income is 70$ a month when the cost of living in Cairo is closer to 150$ a month. Can you really blame them? So a wealthy tourist who pays 21.50$ for 5 papyrus on his one week all inclusive trip where he is spending a couple of 1000s probably isn't suffering all that much and that money will go a long way to make a Cairene's month better. On the other hand, when you are traveling on a budget, paying 1.80$ for the same 5 is a better deal… And I'm assuming that he still made some money, or else he could have simply walked away…
And the taxi drivers… I won't even start. That being said, I intend to read a book about the plight of being a taxi driver in Cairo before expressing an opinion.
So was the experience entirely negative? Certainly not! On my first night in Cairo, I got invited to iftar, the evening breaking of fast during Ramadan (for free) by the staff of the hostel. I then got to meet some great people that eased me into the whole Egyptian experience (many thanks to Alison, Harry, Tharwat and Mahmoud "Steven"!).
Guess what time it is based on this picture of a Cairo subway station?
Iftar! (breaking of the fast during Ramadan... They are all home eating!)
So what did I do? Visit the pyramids and Dashur, Saqqara and Giza (Giza is impressive, but the touts are irritating! But once again, they are just trying to make a living and like spam, if only one person in 500 accepts their offers, they've done well! My first reaction was to the trip to Dashur (admittedly I splurged the first day with a private driver as to visit all three sites is impossible by public transportation and a taxi would have cost the same but without giving me insight on the historical facts from a tour guide) where we drove in a serious traffic jam (including smog) then through the farm land where, I have to admit, I saw the poorest people I've ever seen. It was a big eye opener and I was so shocked I couldn't bring out my camera… Then, I fell in love with the date trees (it always comes back to food with me, apparently…)… So many of them and it was date season! Some of the beautiful mansions by the side of the street apparently belong to farmers, so some are doing better than others.
I also got to spot some "carpet schools" and had a discussion with Yasser, my tour guide for the day. From his perspective, carpet schools, where young girls start to work (at an age between 12 and 14 - child labour!) is a good thing, as when the girl gets a bit older, she shouldn't be walking around, but rather stay at home until she gets a husband - and make some income at the same time. Hmm… Suffice it to say, I'm a guest in the country, so I felt it better to just acquire the information, rather than pass an opinion on it…
In Dashur, I was able to enter the Red Pyramid. You basically crawl (I'm tall, the tunnel is not! Plus I foolishly didn't trust my driver with my 20lbs pack sack so carried it in with me… The crouch walk used mostly unused muscles in my legs which ached for the next three days) down a 60m tunnel into what appears to be the dark. At the bottom, three empty chambers, but two of which have a corbel-vaulted ceiling. It was nice to be there, as I was in the pyramid alone. On the plus side, great place to be if World War 3 starts (from a protection perspective), but not that great otherwise. Huge pyramid - small rooms. I can understand people thinking that there are still rooms to be found as really, all of that work (220 meter base and 104 meter height) for an inner space smaller than my flat!
Upon exiting, a moment of disorientation. But oddly, it was nice and cool outside in the sun at 39C vs whatever the temperature was inside the pyramid.
Then off to Saqqara. Nice stepped-pyramid, though being renovated at this point. Got to enter the Titi pyramid which had a thankfully shorter tunnel (10 meters or so) and had ornate walls on the inside. There also, nice to be alone with the ghost of Titi and her husband!
Then got the mandatory stop in a Papyrus shop. Ok, so some of them were really beautiful. I got a demonstration on how they were done, then a guide to explain the story behind the pictograms. But the prices… Anywhere from 30$ for an A3 sized one up to 1500$ for an A1 sized one. Um… As mentioned early, I got five A3 sized ones for about 1.80$… My driver seemed unhappy that I didn't buy any as he would probably have obtained some for of kickback… This is how Egypt works… Everybody get's his cut (I use "his" intentionally here…)!
Then off to Giza. My driver suggested a camel ride as this would avoid the "dangerous" touts. Um, no thanks! I walked around and was fine, though I was approached by several touts, including those that try to hand you something for "free" and then end up wanting money for it. They redefine the term free! :-)
After that, a few picture opportunities behind the pyramids and back to Cairo. It is really funny how the demarcation between the deserts, both east and west and the green of Cairo is so small. You go from lush green to nothing over a distance of a meter.
The next day, I visited the Egyptian Museum. Somehow, it strikes me odd to see all of the artefacts in the museum rather than in the pyramids or their original location. But then I guess it would be hard to organize proper security in the pyramids not to mention, it wouldn't leave much space to fit cohorts of tourists… Yes, the museum is nice, but Egypt never was my favourite part of history class, though some small obsidian pyramids didn't leave me cold. BTW, if ever any of you want to visit the Egyptian Museum, please note that cameras aren't allowed (you have to give them to the reception) and it isn't air conditioned (therefore, early in the day is best) though they do air condition the Treasury room and the Tutankhamun room on the second floor.
Next day, I started by visiting Old Cairo or Coptic Cairo. I saw what I considered the first beauty of my trip to Egypt, beauty which I found at the Hanging Church. Funny that I'd be struck by its beauty like that. When I arrived at the church, a service was in progress and people were getting communion. They gave out big pieces of bread. One lady, upon exiting the church noticed me, split her communion bread in two and gave me half. So nice!
I wandered around more of Coptic Cairo which has several other beautiful churches. What is striking, though, is that on the other side of the train tracks, it is a slum...
I then had an evening cruise on the Nile. Sat next to 5 iraqi engineers. They were rather funny as they spent more time trying to take pictures of all of the guests than doing anything else. I assumed that they would only take pictures of the women (and they did a lot of that - not all that much revealing clothing in Iraq?) but they also took lots of pictures of the men, me included, which felt odd, but anyhow. As the evening progressed, what started out rather lame got better…
The day after that, I tried my first meal in a standard Egyptian restaurant called Gad. It was fairly close to the hotel which was convenient, but upon getting there, I noticed that the menus, posted up on the wall, were exclusively in arabic… The cooks worked behind panels so there was nothing to point to… Sigh… Went to the cash, asked for Falafel (as I knew they had it) and then presented the tickets to the cook. Unfortunately, falafels in Egypt have sesame seeds on the outside of them… 1.25 EGP or 22 cents.
I wandered around, and made it to the Cairo Tower. Nice view on Cairo, and found my first really moment of peace in Cairo. It was quiet up there with few people and the view onto the Nile was beautiful!
The next day, I started my day by having my second meal, and it was foul. (pun intended) I would describe "foul" as a tomatoless chili that is put in a pita bread. Excellent! And at a very reasonable price of 18 cents.
Then I decided I would walk to the souk. Wow! The crowds and piles of useless (to me) stuff. But then I'm not in the market for anything! Then, I walked to the Salah ad-Din citadel (I wouldn't recommend walking from one to the other as it is a long walk… At least I wouldn't recommend it in the Summer because of the heat!) And make sure you have a good map or even better, an iPhone with GPS having preloaded the map! The Citadel was very nice and I got to experience my first Egyptian official asking for a bribe. And here I would have thought the "tourism police" would be there to protect tourists… Oh, naive me! Nice place, the Citadel, though not sure it is worth its entrance fee!
Second truly Egyptian meal at Felfela with Koshary Top Foil. Basically, it is a bed of pasta covered by a layer of rice-lentil-fried onions, covered by a layer of tasty tomato sauce covered by yet another layer of fried (hard) onions. It was really good, for 4.25EGP or 80 cents and it was more than enough as a meal!
Then… Off to Sharm!
Hmm… Sharm. I made a strategical mistake. I accepted Tharwat's offer for organizing an apartment for me in Sharm. There was nothing wrong with either the price of the quality of the apartment, just that I tend to like things more central and really, without taking a micro-bus, you can't really walk anywhere… But then Sharm is very spread out and is basically a jungle of hotels… I don't have much to say about Sharm, other than not really liking it (seems to be a common theme for Egypt, but I guess I can't like every place on Earth…), but then on the positive side, a great restaurant and the Old Market (Fares - try the seafood soup, the mixed shrimp platter and also their mezes are good…
Second mistake - not reserving my tours before arriving (though it might not have been easy and would have cost more, as Tharwat's influence managed to not only get me reduced room rates, but also reduced activity rates… Thanks Tharwat!!) but the problem was that I wanted to both dive and climb Mount Sinai (referred to as Mount Moses here). Anyhow, the restrictions between diving and altitude made it such that it was impractical for me to dive, so I chose Mt-Sinai and then snorkelling the next day.
I also got to swim a little on my first day in the public beach at Naa-ma beach. First time I'd found healthy plentiful coral within 40 meters of shore, teaming with fish including lion fish and stone fish (watch your step!)
Mount-Sinai… Imagine taking a small van-bus at 11 pm and driving for 2.5 hours in the desert, with nothing but the stars (with little light pollution, so the stars were very clear and plentiful), the outline of hills and mountains and Egyptian music to keep you awake. So around 2am (after the mandatory stop in a souvenir shop…) we start the climb following our bedouin guide, Mustafa up the path in the dark using flashlights. Six km up (and later 6 km down), plus the goal of arriving there before sunrise. It was quite a climb, quite an adventure! I rate it easier than the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in NZ, but the challenge for me is the physical exertion when in really, I should be sleeping. I also kept wondering why I was hungry as I had a plentiful supper. But then realized that was many hours ago! Anyhow, just a little before the top, before sunrise, a bit of ambient light appears and the mountain looks magical like something out of a movie. Made it just in time, rushing up the last 750 steps. Elation!
And then the climb down… It is even more beautiful in the day when we could see where we were going. The only irritation was the constant (on the way up and down) "Camel?!?" "Camel?!?" "Do you want a camel?!?" "Camel, good price!"… Every 30 meters… Hey, this is Egypt! ;-) On the way down, a quick visit to St-Katharine's monastery.
The next day, I went snorkelling to the Tiran islands. Beautiful healthy coral full of fish. It was exquisite, and with so much of it close to the surface, snorkelling was more than good enough! A nice quiet relaxing day on the slowest boat I've ever been on. Sigh! Finally found a reason to return to Egypt, and Sharm no less… The Red Sea!