What a hot time these past few days have been. It’s been interesting though. So I wanted to leave Aswan. I was told that there were several buses heading north, so in the morning, I got up early and headed to the station. Nope. Nothing until 3:30pm. Damnit…I went to the train station. The guy told me that there would be a train at 9:30AM and I just had to wait an hour – and that I could buy a ticket on the train. No worries. I went to a cafe and had 4 coffees (really strong Turkish coffees) which was funny because the waiter got freaked out after I ordered my 3rd and was in disbelief after I ordered the 4th. But coffee doesn’t really affect me, so I can just keep drinking it. After a while, I headed back to the train station and tried to buy a ticket at the counter, but he said I could only take the train at 4:30. “Bullshit!” I thought, and I just went and took a seat on the train without a ticket. I sat next to some 15 year old kids who seemed really uncomfortable with me being on the train (foreigners aren’t allowed on it for security, I suppose – and the bullet hole in the window beside me wasn’t comforting…) but after the conductor sold me the ticket (less than 40 cents US for a 6 hour train ride), they lightened up and we tried to communicate through a guy who spoke English. They liked listening to my mp3 player and making jokes. The train ride itself was miserable because it was so long and there was no AC and I had no clue where I was going or how long it would take. I just knew a name of a city from some guy who knew where I was going. It was complicated because I had to get off the train and take a bus to my final destination. I finally arrived, had a chat with the local police officer who told me stuff I already knew and then took a microbus to the bus station. Once there, another police officer escorted me to the counter. It was at least 106°F outside and there wasn’t a bus for two hours. I tried to put up my hammock, but it was so hot that the plastic kept melting and slipping. Everyone just stared at me and I almost created an international incident by stepping on their (dirty and leaf covered) prayer mat with my shoes.
“Sir! That is prayer mat! That is prayer mat!” the guy yelled.
I stepped off quickly and looked up, “Sorry, I didn’t know,” I said apologetically. I didn’t. You never would have known. Some dirty mat in the middle of a desert bus station.
“Where you from?” he asked.
“America,” I replied.
“Ohhhh, America,” he said to everyone at the bus station. They all shook their heads as if to say, “That makes sense. Those fucking Americans. If they aren’t bombing Muslims, they are stepping on our prayer mats.”
I sat there for a while in the heat, paid too much for some water and eventually (thank Allah), the bus finally arrived. When I got on, there wasn’t a seat for me so I had to stand, but it was air conditioned. There was also some Intrepid tour group on the bus which consisted of Australians, Americans and Canadians my age who seemed to be endlessly fascinated with the fact that I was traveling alone and had been gone for so long. We chatted and joked around and I eventually arrived to Hurgada. Once there, I went to my hotel, chatted with the owners (who swore they weren’t making a commission on the ferry ticket to Sinai that they wanted to sell me, but eventually admitted it – which is no big deal, it’s just sad how people continually lie to you in these countries). I checked my email and met a Columbian guy with whom I chatted and had dinner.
The next day, I got up early, headed to the ferry, paid for my ticket and was on my way to Sinai. The ride was 2 hours more or less, but everyone I met on the bus and the Columbian guy, Oscar, was on the boat, so I had people to chat with. When we arrived, I headed with Oscar to find a place to stay and we found a youth hostel for $8 bucks each a night for a dorm bed, which is a lot, but it had AC. We then headed out on the town to check out Sinai. Sinai is the tourist and resort mecca of Egypt. There are resorts and hotels and rich Egyptian and European tourists everywhere. The place is beautiful though, and you can spend hours just walking around and admiring the desert along the Red Sea, and the coral and crystal clear deep blue water just off the shore. I didn’t do that much that day except walk around and admire the girls in their bikin—I mean the mountains and stuff. But the next day, Oscar and I took a snorkeling tour to Tiran Island which was pretty awesome – and stunningly beautiful. The coral wasn’t as good as the coral in Australia at the Great Barrier Reef, but the beaches were incredible. Like the stuff you see in the movies – white sand beaches half in the light blue water (creating that crazy mixed effect between sand and water). You could see 20 feet down in the water. When we got back, I bought some antibiotics for Chris, a Danish guy who was sick back in the hostel and couldn’t leave the room and we took them back to him. After a shower and a nap, we headed back into town and chatted. Oscar has a PhD in Psychology and works for a university in Barcelona, Spain. As you can imagine, we had some interesting conversations over sheesha as I stared in awe at the girls walking by. And today I head up to Dahab and then tomorrow to Israel. I’ll meet up with Zach and do some traveling to Jerusalem.
So something interesting about Egypt that I didn’t notice. I say that this place is incredible and interesting, which it is – but it is also annoying. I didn’t notice it, but there is always someone bothering you or a police man escorting you. You can never get a moment’s peace (unless you pay to go sleep at a sand dune…). Seeing as I have put up with it for the past year as I travel through Asia, I kind of adapted and just think of it as normal – but it has been driving everyone else I’ve met crazy. They aren’t used to it and so they can’t tune it out. But because they all complain, I’ve started to notice it (like someone pointing out an annoying sound that you didn’t notice but after that it starts getting on your nerves) and it’s getting worse here in Sinai. You can’t really blame them or do anything about it (it’s not nearly as bad as India), but just be warned if you come here and expect the magical place I’ve described. It’s here – you just have to look beyond the annoying touts. But even so, I’m not sure I like Sinai as a place to learn more about Egypt. Sinai is a vacation destination. There are beautiful beaches to relax on, nice restaurants, beautiful people, tons of activities (hiking, diving, snorkeling, parasailing, etc…) and lots of other stuff to spend lots of money on. We walked all around the resorts and they are stunning – and about $200 bucks a night. You can spend lots of money here if you want, or you can pay 18 cents a meal like I do from the street vendors and take microbuses for 20 cents around town instead of 5 dollar taxis. You can find free beaches and what not, but the problem is that then you are in the middle of nowhere and you have no shade. If you want shade and access to facilities, you have to pay some restaurant to use “their” beach and then buy their expensive drinks. You can’t really do anything yourself here since it’s more expensive to hire a car and what not, so you have to take tours. Seeing as I don’t have much money, that is really difficult for me. But if I were to come here on a vacation with my family, it would be a much nicer place. If I were prepared to spend several thousand dollars on a vacation, I would gladly come here and hang out.
So my time in Egypt is just about coming to an end. I’ll be in Israel soon, hanging out with my friend Zach and then I head for Greece. I have really enjoyed Egypt, but like I said, if you come here, get ready to be overcharged and put up with thousands of touts asking you the same damned things over and over and over and over. It helps when you think that they are just trying to get by and make a buck like everyone else, I think. Seeing the home of the world’s oldest continuous civilization was well worth it though. I think Egypt is a great place – but if you come, come when it’s cooler…
So I left off with me getting dumped off in Luxor. I left the nice air conditioned train for the heat of southern Egypt and braced myself for the onslaught of touts trying to get me to their hotels. I have to say, it is a fairly surreal experience to hop off a train or plane in a place that you know nearly nothing about and walk alone to the street, not knowing how you are going to get to where you are going (or sometimes even where you’re going). I just kind of walk with my backpack like a turtle with full confidence into the unknown and I love the feeling every time. Egypt though, like I’ve mentioned, is filled with touts trying to get you to go with them. It isn’t anything near like what you experience in India, but it is annoying and energy consuming to fight them all off nonetheless. All the train passengers filed out of the train station into the bazaar that was the street and I walked south. I always carry a compass with me and it is one of the most helpful tools I think you can have while traveling. You can look at a map and get exactly where you want to go without having to stop and ask directions or even pause as you can just face the map towards north and walk in the direction of your hotel. Stopping and looking lost in Egypt is dangerous because you will very quickly get 5 “friends” offering to “help” you get to your hostel (a service for which they will demand baksheesh or a commission from the hotel). It is kind of sad, really, that it is this way. There are some incredibly helpful and friendly people in Egypt and some of them really just want to help you because they like helping, but because there are such an incredible amount of people who just want money even though they say they don’t until they are done helping you (maybe 20 for every one genuinely helpful person), you are immediately on guard and doubtful of their friendliness, and they can feel that, which can insult them. Any act of kindness immediately gets looked upon with suspicion and that is indeed quite sad. At the pyramids, people walk up to you and give you “free gifts” and when you walk away, they run up and demand a gift in return. People on the street say “no money” but then hold their hands out. It’s quite difficult (nay, impossible) to distinguish between the two.
But I had already picked out my hotel and fought off the taxis and touts and was walking directly to the hotel. But wait…should I make a left here?
I paused for a moment.
A robed Muslim man came up to me. “Excuse me sir, you need some help? Don’t worry, no money,” he said. This is code for “you have to give me money,” just in case you ever come to Egypt.
“No I’m okay,” I said. I looked around.
“It’s okay. Where you go?” he said with a smile. For a second I thought he might just being friendly.
“Where is this street?” I asked.
“Which hotel are you going to?”
I hesitated, but then I said it’s name.
“No problem, I’m going that way anyways. I show you. No money,” he said.
“No really, you can just point the direction,” I said. He insisted that I follow him. After about 10 feet, I saw a sign with the hotel name on it and told him I could go from there. He insisted he take me. I couldn’t shake him. When we arrived, he looked at me and said, “you have something for me?” I said I didn’t as I didn’t want him to follow me. He then said he would just pop into the hotel and say hi to a friend (code for “I’m going to signal the hotel owner that he should hike up your rate as I need to get my commission”). I put my hand on his shoulder and in a very frustrated voice said, “no. just…please don’t.” I walked in the hotel and told the manager that there was a guy harassing me. He went out and looked around and then came back in and got behind his desk. We negotiated the price (from $10 US a night to $5) and then he started leaning on me to take one of his tours. He then started trying to pressure me to buy dinner from his hotel and then beer. I had jumped from the frying pan to the fire, but I’m pretty good with getting these guys off my back and so I did. I checked into my room and then went out and walked around town to hunt down some street food and then went back and slept (God bless AC!).
So in the morning, I headed to Luxor temple, which was incredible. I met an Australian and English guy there and we visited a few museums, Karnack Temple, and then got some food which was cool. The museums were great and we had a great time. I then randomly bumped into my American friends from Cairo as I walked by an internet cafe. I happened to look in and saw Michael and Katie responding to an email I had sent earlier that day. I just so happened that Michael had just clicked “send” on his response telling me where he was when I walked in the door.
“That was quick,” he said with a smile when I walked in.
I introduced him to Yanick and Charlie (my new friends from the temple) and we went and got some coffee and smoked the traditional water pipe (sheesha, as they call it here) as we caught up. Michael gave me tips for visiting some other sights in Luxor and later that night we went back to Luxor temple to see it again all lit up. We went to a pub that night and had a great time.
I went back that night and found that I didn’t have any water in my room. They guy was a real jerk and said it wasn’t his problem since his water worked. It must be out in the street, he said. He also told me I had to leave the next morning because he had “other people coming” and when I left in dismay and started packing my bags, planning on writing Lonely Planet to complain (several bad reviews can cause Lonely Planet to give the place a bad review and destroy it’s business base). He then came up and tested my water and told me it didn’t work. I told him that I knew that. He told me I could use his shower and said that I “must have misunderstood” him about leaving after I told him how unprofessional it was. It turns out that he “didn’t say” that I had to leave. I could stay if I wanted. So I said I would.
The next morning at 5:00AM, I went to leave. The same guy told me to sit down. I told him I had to leave.
“Listen,” he said. “If anyone asks, you are just checking in today and are staying one night.”
“Why?” I asked.
“The money you paid me for the previous two days…I lost it,” he said as he emptied his pockets for me.
I’m sure. That explains why you wanted me to leave. You want to cover up the fact that you “lost” the money. I’m sure this happens all the time and if he gets away with it, he keeps the money. He wasn’t the owner.
“Well, I am an honest man. I’m not going to lie,” I said.
He thought for a moment. “Okay,” he said. “You can say you’ve been here two nights.”
“Okay,” I said (stuff like this doesn’t even phase me anymore) and I left to meet up with Yanick and Charlie. We were headed for The Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens and the Tombs of the Nobles. It entailed taking the early morning ferry and then renting a taxi on the other side to haul us around all day. Well, the tombs and temples were mind numbingly incredible. It is just so fascinating to walk around things so incredibly old. You just can feel the history of this place and the size of the monuments and temples makes you feel like an ant as you walk though and around them.
But the problem is that it is as hot as it is incredible, and one can only see so much before you are literally burned out from the incredibly hot southern Egypt sun.
We headed back to the town and met back up with Michael and Katie and got some food. Later that day we headed back to the pub and relaxed. The next day, I slept in until noon and then met up with the guys again for coffee. We got some lunch and then it was time to go our separate ways. Michael burned some CDs for me of my pictures and then I headed on the train to Aswan. Everything went off without a hitch and after 3 hours, I repeated the process of arriving in a new place. I eventually made it to my hotel without problems, negotiated the price and went out of the town in search of food. Today, I went and saw a few museums, visited some islands (where I spent a while chatting with the people and letting kids listen to my music and stuff) and sat around smoking sheesha and drinking coffee. The sheesha is really cool because it doesn’t feel like you’re smoking anything, but it is usually apple flavored and really good. I read the technology quarterly edition of The Economist and watched people walk by. I’ve come up with quite a few observations in my Egyptian travels. Here they go:
For one, little kids are everywhere here, playing around, selling stuff, helping their parents, smiling and yelling hello whenever you walk by. They always stare at me as I walk by and when I smile and say hello, they grin and reply in kind. It’s great. Men sit in cafes lining the street smoking sheesha in big groups and sipping coffee and tea as they chat or observe the action in the streets. Touts try their hardest to sell every imaginable thing from spices to drinks, water pipes to silk, tourist goods to cigarettes, food to rides on their boats. They aren’t as persistent in Aswan as they are in Luxor or Cairo, which is much more convenient for everyone involved. They ask if you want something and if you say no they say “okay, have a nice day!” and usually walk away (but of course not always). Aswan seems much more laid back than the other places, but that doesn’t mean that everyone doesn’t try to overcharge you for everything. It seems like they do even moreso in Aswan – why, I have no clue. When something should cost 10 cents, they try to charge you a dollar. That’s quite a markup, indeed. And the heat of the south is incredible. The streets are nearly deserted in the afternoon, but come alive at night. People fill the streets – families and children included – until well after midnight. And you can see all sorts of stuff happening in the streets. In addition to selling everything imaginable, people are performing all sorts of services. There are shoe shiners, coffee grinders, bread bakers, solderers, tailors, bike repair men, artists and a host of other tradesmen in the streets offering their services. It’s quite entertaining just to walk down the street and watch the chaos. You have to dodge the taxis, trucks, donkeys with carts attached hauling anything from watermelons to popcorn to people as you walk down the street, but you get used to it. Men and women are all dressed very distinctly, from normal street clothes to Islamic robes to rags and when the call to prayer comes over the loudspeakers spread throughout the town, you can see people everywhere bowing in prayer on mats they carry around with them. Sometimes you see entire roads filled with people praying. Lots of men have bruises on their foreheads from pounding their heads to the floor in prayer. The Islamic women all wear dark black robes and sometimes have everything but their eyes covered, which I imagine must be incredibly hot. No one can explain to me why they must be in black. Maybe something like original sin? The men seem to be able to wear any color they want (but it must be white on Fridays from what I gather). Arabic is everywhere, and you only see English script at tourist places. Even the numbers are distinct. Arabic is interesting in that it goes from left to right, except the numbers which go from right to left. One thing I have noticed about Arabic though is that at times it actually sounds a lot like Spanish. In addition, there seem to be some similar words, like “Ustez” which is alot like the Spanish “usted” and the “el” which means “the” in both languages. Maybe it’s coincidence though.
Egypt supposedly has a democracy but the current president keeps an iron grip on who can run against him. You see his pictures everywhere all throughout the country (sometimes one every few hundred feet) which seems very strange. I’ve talked to some people who want a true democracy but I’ve talked to taxi drivers who love him.
Everything here is incredibly cheap if you can get the local price. The other day, 4 of us ate for less than a dollar. The coffees and an hour of sheesha was less than a dollar. There are always animals everywhere, too. Men ride full on old school carriages around and try to get you to go for a ride. “You go for ride? Cheap price! No? Why not???” they say as they gallop beside you. There are cats everywhere too. There seem to be actually very few stray dogs, but an insane amount of stray cats out. From what I gather, cats have had a special status in Egypt since ancient times. And Egyptian sweets are incredible. If you ever come to Egypt, you have to go to one of the thousands of stores that specialize in sweets. They are all made of nuts, pastry and honey and every one of them is phenomenally good. Take my word for it.
All the hotel rooms in Egypt have really hard pillows.
And people in Egypt love to talk to you as you walk by. The most common question is “Where are you from?” They always want to know that. The next popular question is “what is your name?” I don’t know what they do with this information or why there is such a compulsion to know, but I suspect that it has a lot to do with the fact that they are very social and those happen to be the only two phrases most people know. I feel a little exposed when I say I am from the US (I’ve had a variety of responses to my response, some good, some bad) and so it gets a bit annoying after a while – but tolerably so.
The elevators here are hardcore. They are the kind that the door is open on and you could totally lose an arm. It adds to the excitement. And the toilets all have a little pipe coming from inside the bowl and facing your bum so you can “spray” wash. The only problem is (besides them freaking me out) that they are directly in the line of fire, so to speak, and so they are always filthy as they don’t get cleaned with the flush. Yeah…
Little kids try to sell everything here. One kid tried to sell me random rocks he had just picked up off the street. I resisted the temptation to buy.
And because everything is so cheap, you always need small change. But it is hard to come by here. You try to pay with even a 10 pound note (less than two dollars) and people cringe and ask for smaller bills. Seeing as you get 100 pound notes out of the ATMs and even hotels don’t seem to have change, it’s quite a challenge to keep a hoard of small cash here. Sometimes it takes 20 minutes to wait for change.
I was in the museum museum today and I noticed the Egyptian sarcophagus. Crazy, huh? I also noticed that in Cairo, they talked a lot of uniting upper and lower Egypt in the ancient Egypt, but in southern Egypt (what they call upper Egypt), they make no real mention of it. Upper Egypt (the south) used to be a place called Nubia way back in the day and the people here are much darker and African looking. It’s quite interesting.
Has this series of observations been sufficiently random for you? Tomorrow I head for Sinai and then Israel. Yes, Israel. No worries. Remember I’m here to bring peace. There hasn’t been a bombing there for over a year and there is actually a cease fire at the moment. I won’t go to the trouble areas and will be taken around by my buddy Zach. The slight risk of danger I do run (which is probably no greater than in southern Thailand, if no less) is worth seeing the place where one of the worlds oldest and most influential religions was born – or several of them, rather.
So it was time to hop on a bus and head for the west. To the desert, to the sand dunes, to the area I most wanted to see of the middle east. I really wanted to see the pyramids – of course that goes without saying – but I’ve wanted to see those huge rolling sand dunes I have seen in movies and documentaries my whole life in person and in the flesh (errr…sand), as it were. So I got up early and headed for the bus station. I got there too early and waited around before trying to fortify a position in the mob waiting in “line”. Finally a guard came and angrily forced everyone to get in line (his loaded AK47 probably helped sway the crowd) and then we all waited nice and comfortably. One thing you notice about poorer countries is that everyone cuts and tries to play it off. So I just get right in the cutter’s face, look him in the eyes (confidently, not aggressively) and put my foot in between him and the guy in front of him. When they guy in front moves, I step in. It works every time. The other thing you notice in Egypt is that there are guards with big guns EVERYWHERE. This place is on constant alert.
So I got my ticket, got on the bus and was off – through the desert to the Farafra Oasis. It was quite a trip, indeed. Miles and miles of sand for hours at a time, with the occasional stop at the tourist police so they could count the foreigners on the bus, which were…me. Egypt has tourist police checkpoints set up about every 70 miles or so and their sole purpose is to make sure the tourists are okay. It’s incredible. The drive was comfortable though, and the scenery was great, although I was a bit hungry. One of the coolest effects I’ve seen to date was the sand lightly blowing over the surface of the road in front of the bus with the wind, giving it a mystical smoke-like effect. The sky was perfectly blue and it was hot. Damned hot. But we finally made it and I was dumped out of the bus in middle of nowhere. Well, technically, it had a name: Farafra, but it might as well have been nowhere. The way the Egyptian desert works is like this. Sannnnnnnnnnnnnnnd…Sannnnnnnnnnnnnd…Sannnnnnnnnnd, greenwatertown…Sannnnnnnd………..Sannnnnnnd…greenwatertown.
So they dropped me off in greenwatertown, but I had no idea where to go. A man with a gun came and escorted me to the hotel of my choice and I sat and waited for someone who spoke English so I could see what my options were for getting into the desert. A guy named Hamdi finally showed up and sat around looking at me for a while. Then he said, “Come, we go to my house and eat. Then business.” Godfather music started playing and he walked through the town kissing babies and giving old ladies money. Well, not really. But we did go to his house. And his mother served us food and we made a few jokes. He told me how he was sexually frustrated and needed a woman. There were none in his town to choose from unless he wanted to marry into the family. Hmm…sex, or a baby with two heads. Tough choice, I know!
“CK (he couldn’t get my name right). These houses here are all for my family. We are 400. How many people in your family?”
“…5…,” I replied.
After a few minutes of silence, I added that, “but, you know, that doesn’t include me…”
He nodded in approval. We went to the office and chatted about numbers and options. I decided that I would opt for a one night stint at the sand dunes, which would allow me to photograph the sunset and sunrise and sleep under the stars, gazing up at the Milky Way. An hour later, we were driving around town, picking up supplies and stuff (like firewood and food) and before long, we were in a 4×4 Jeep romping through the desert.
Man, the desert is cool. I grew up in the desert, but I still love it. I say that, but really my desert was a bunch of concrete and palm trees. I didn’t get to play in any sand dunes. But I’ve always really wanted to. I was excited at the prospect of sleeping in front of it with the sand blowing all over me and even moreso the opportunity that I would have to snap some incredible photos. Sand dunes are magical for a photographer (and aspiring ones, too!). So we finally arrived and I was out the door snapping photos before the Jeep even stopped. My assistant (my driver’s nephew) followed me and posed for lots of pictures and I came back after dark to a fire and tea. The driver, his “assistant” (a guy to talk to so he wouldn’t get bored) and I all sat around drinking tea and chatting. We talked about the American sponsored Israeli genocide of the Palistineans and how America pays for little children to be murdered in Iraq. We talked about how peaceful the Iranians and Sadaam were.
Actually, I don’t know if you’ve gathered this, but by “we”, I mean my driver. It was more like him telling me. Seeing as he probably had a gun somewhere, I just kind of thoughtfully listened. Israelis don’t travel too far in Egypt except for Sinai (which was only recently handed back to Egypt in a peace deal). I don’t think you’ve ever seen antisemitism until you’ve come here. But regardless of my views on the topic, I listened and tried to get a grasp on the Arab perspective. It wasn’t so much enlightening as it was scary, but hey, that’s all part of the adventure of traveling! But to be fair, I’m sure that’s not everyone’s perspective (God, don’t be so politically correct). I can’t really sort out who really likes the U.S. and who doesn’t, but there have got to be a few that do. I’ve gotten “You from US?? Good US! It help Egypt a lot!” many times. Who knows what the average Egyptian thinks – but seeing as this place is quite a mixture of Christians and Muslims, it’s got to be quite varied.
We eventually had our dinner (cheese, bread and watermelon) and I pulled my mat out, bundled up in my sleeping bag and listened to some music as I gazed up at the stars. They were brilliant. The majority of the people in the developed world have never seen the Milky Way and that is a shame. Have you any idea what it’s like to stare up at the sky and see a million stars shining everywhere you look – and behind that, a dense cloud-like band of stars splashing from one horizon to the next?
It’s breathtaking…worth a trip to nowhere just for that! My buddy Nick told me a story of how he and his friend went outside one night in Riverside and said that they would smoke one cigarette for every star they saw. The smoked four that night…What a shame.
In the morning, I woke up covered in sand at sunrise and commenced the snapping of yet more pictures. I’ve taken so many pictures in Egypt that I can’t believe it. I just want to photograph everything – it’s like a feeding frenzy! Eventually, I went back to camp, had breakfast (bread and jam) and hopped back in the Jeep for the ride back to town. Once we arrived, I paid, tipped the guy and went to sleep in the hotel for a few hours before my bus south was to arrive. I took a shower and headed out to the bus stop/cafe. This town is pretty small, and it didn’t take long to walk the length of it to where I was to wait. The bus eventually showed up and I was off to Dakla. I was going to catch another bus in Dakla but it turned out that it was too late to continue on so I stayed the night there.
I really am glad that I did. In the middle of Dakla, there just happens to be a 1000 year old “old city” made of mud and clay bricks perched up on a hill. It has trails woven throughout it seeing as many people still squat in a lot of the ruins and they just happened to be perfect for wandering around and snapping photos. I walked around at sunset and check it out so I would know where to go for sunrise the next morning. Kids ran after me screaming hello and with huge smiles pasted on their faces. Our conversations would follow this pattern, more or less:
“Hello!” they would say.
“Hello!” I would reply.
At this point, the conversation would go in one of two directions. The first option was “hello” about 15 more times, with me responding in kind. They knew no other words, but loved communicating with a foreigner. The smiles made it worth it.
Or they would say, “What is your name?!”, to which I would respond, “Mike!”
But Casey, your name is Casey. Don’t you remember? Why would you say Mike? Well, it just so happens that “Casey” sounds a lot like the Arabic word for “vagina”. So I try to avoid it. Thanks mom and dad.
So that was cool. And the old city was nothing short of incredible. I grabbed a 13 cent falafel sandwhich (my god, what incredible food!) on the street corner and headed to my hotel for some sleep. But before I could get to sleep, I spent about an hour picking at the huge callous on my foot. It started as a little bump and is now huge, getting bigger every day as it wears against my flip flops. I tried sanding it down but finally just busted out the pocket knife and gashed away until I hit blood. Hopefully it will go away now. But the other problem I’m having is that my feet are so dry with the weather and calloused from the flip flops that the thickest skin is starting to get deep cracks (gashes) in it on both heels. I don’t know if I am describing this well enough (haha), but it’s quite painful to walk. The only shoes I have were the ones I bought in China (which are way too small for me and hurt my toes) and I don’t like wearing them unless I absolutely have to. Let’s just hope my feet don’t fall off.
So in the morning I woke up at sunrise again and wandering through the old city for hours snapping photos. I was in heaven. You could see how these people lived in these houses from so long ago and there is no way that the pictures could ever capture the feeling of wandering through a three story mud/brick house at sunrise amidst hundreds of others. Imagine one of the most random and adventurous things you’ve ever done and multiply it by 5. It was like that. I didn’t even know this place was there until I arrived! I got lost and asked a guy with a huge knife which way my hotel was. He walked me through a few narrow mud walled alley ways and pointed toward my hotel.
I got my luggage and headed for the bus station (*ahem*, corner of the street). I waited and waited and waited but to no avail. No bus appeared. Finally some guys walked by and explained “No bus!” “Why not?” I asked. “Don’t know,” they replied. Makes sense. We took a mini bus, and before I knew it (and after many tourist police stops), I was in Karga. There, I tried to get another bus. A tourist police man helped me out.
“Get in this car,” he said as he pointed at a car. I put my bag in the back and stood beside it.
“No more. Now get in this car,” he said. I was confused, but obeyed. The previous car was full, so it seemed. I put my bag in the new car.
“Ummm…car full. Wait,” he said. I waited. “Get in THAT car!” he told me.
“No, wait. No more.” I took my bag out.
“Okay, this has got to be a joke,” I thought. But what could I do? I really needed to go. I waited around for a while and he finally came back with a grin and pointed at a van. “Okay, this one.”
I ran to it, threw my bag on top and hopped in before anyone could take my seat (even though the story might have been funnier had I been told that this one was full too). I got a seat and we were off. The driver was crazy and nearly flipped the van a few times, but we eventually arrived to Asyut and were greeted by two police cars.
“Oh great,” I thought. “Interpol finally tracked me down…” I took off my watch so the handcuffs wouldn’t scratch it and they came up to me and tapped on the window.
“Where you from?” they asked me.
“America,” I replied.
“Okay,” they said and left. The escorted us into town with siren and all. When we arrived at the bus station, I got out and they got out and they asked me what I wanted to do. Do I take bus? Train? Walk? I opted for the train. No problem, they replied. They would escort me to the train station. The taxi driver had to follow quite close behind them and every time a car would cut in between, the cops would motion frantically for them to move aside (with their guns). When we arrived at the train station, they escorted me to the ticket office, bought my ticket for me, escorted me to the train, escorted me to my seat and with a big smile said, “Enjoy Egypt!” They wouldn’t take any tips, they just were doing their jobs. One explained to me why.
“14 Years ago we have problems with people kill dee tourist. My boss say we always stay with tourist ever since.”
Egypt has a very clear understanding of how much they need the tourist dollar. And they defend it with every opportunity.
I hadn’t eaten all day and a girl on the train gave me a Twinky and some chips. I was soooo thankful, you wouldn’t believe. I hadn’t eaten all day.
And so here I am in Luxor after the long train ride down here. Lots of crazy things have happened since, but that is another post in and of itself.
And so now the random observations…
I’ve forgotten how to speak English. One of the Americans I was traveling with noticed immediately. I have forgotten the proper usage of the following things:
Maybe: I use maybe with everything. I have forgotten how to use “might”. A common thing you might hear me say is the following, “maybe we do this tomorrow”.
I use the present tense way too often.
I just speak in the present tense now. “So where do we go now?” or “I go here now” are very common examples of things I might say.
I use “this” way too often. “What is this?”, “How is this possible?”, or “have you seen this movie?” are things I say regularly. Does this make any sense?
I use many way more often than “a lot”. “There are many cars on the street tonight”, I might comment.
I have visions of getting back home and trying to chat up a girl, only to have her ask me, “So…which country are you from?”
“Well, I’m from here,” I would reply.
I wonder how long it will take for me to get back to normal once I get back home…
I’m in Cairo, Egypt. The land of Sphinxes, pyramids, huge red deserts with seemingly endless miles of flowing sand dunes and a people which can boast the longest continuous civilization in the history of the world. As I walk down the streets of downtown Cairo, I stare up in awe. Beautiful 1920’s New York style 10 story gray and white buildings with massive pillars, huge windows, and terraces tower above me and line the sides of the road for as far as I can see and a statue of someone famous stands tall and proud at the intersection roundabout. The air is cool and the breeze flows through the buildings like it would through a valley, gently soothing me as I walk.
“This place isn’t as hot as I thought it would be,” I think to myself. And of course – it is only 8:00AM, and that is how the desert is. Hot during the day and very cold at night. But even so, the heat is a different heat. A dry heat and a calm heat. I mean, you know it’s strong and you know you should drink a lot of water – but it doesn’t force you to plan your day around it as you can easily withstand the midday sun. It’s not like the Indian heat, which is more like an evil tyrannical dictator commanding you to stay indoors from 10:00 – 3:00 and punishing you severely if you disobey. No, I would prefer the Cairo heat any day.
People meander down the streets and go about their days. Most women have brightly colored head scarves and the pinks and neon greens catch your eye as they walk by. Former Soviet Union style taxi cars zip by and slow when they pass so they can lean over and ask you where you want to go. Shade can easily be found under one of the many trees lining the sidewalk and two jolly Muslim men take the opportunity to chat beneath the healthy cover. Arabic is everywhere and it is impossible to read just about anything, including addresses, but no matter – someone is always willing to help you out with the little bit of English they know. People here are prideful and busy, but they can always find time for you – but you must always be careful of those who offer their services, “No charge, friend! Follow me!” You may find yourself paying a commission for something you didn’t really want. Down the road, two more men walk casually into a massive and beautiful mosque, with huge pillars topped with a moon shooting up to the sky. The sweet musky smell of incense and spices wafts by with the cool breeze.
But the sun will soon heat up and I want to see the pyramids, so I need to hurry. I flag down a taxi.
“How much for the day? I want to see the three main sites.”
The taxi driver thinks for a moment and pulls out a pen and a paper.
“100 Egyptian pounds ($16 dollars),” he writes on the paper. Excellent. I hop in and we are off.
Cairo zips by my taxi and I stare out in wonder. The gentle Nile, the worlds longest river, snakes through the city and vegetation protects it from the city – green insulates the river and the city (still, very green) provides the second layer of defense. And the architecture is incredible here. It really is like the building style developed until 1929 and then was stunted. Even new buildings look like something from Ghost Busters and it provides a distinct character to Cairo that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.
We pass the Muslim Quarter of the city and I am in awe. Hundreds (maybe thousands) of mosques line the streets – large onion shaped spires and massive pillars peak out from the mass of buildings with the symbol of Islam proudly displayed. To my right, I see a mountain (or is it more like a cliff?) with seemingly thousands of tiny houses painted before it like something out of a movie, and above, some sort of a castle, overlooking the “soldiers”. Next comes Coptic Cairo: the Christian area of the city. We fly past churches and synagogues, old black robed and bearded men walk with solemnly with massive crosses around their necks. Beautifully decorated cemeteries are a common sight, and the architecture of the churches makes my heart beat in awe. Never before have I been so thoroughly impressed with buildings as I have here.
We soon zip past old Cairo – dilapidated old half finished buildings lie on either side of the raised highway, which allows you to peak in to the squalor. I’ve never seen so much trash in my life and it seems like hundreds of buildings have sprung up in the middle of the landfill. It’s quite different from the Cairo I first saw which is squeaky clean, I can tell you that much. Children play in the trash and others pick through it. Most ignore it, but there is no denying that there is a lot of it. I would like to wander through the mess.
The taxi continues on, we leave it behind and get closer to the pyramids. Ahh, yes! There’s one! A triangular peak juts out from amidst the buildings. There’s another! I can see half of two pyramids lying on a sand hill from the crop of buildings before me. We slowly descend on the highway a bit and I lose sight of the ancient wonders.
My taxi driver looks at me and smiles. “Very soon!” he proclaims.
A lot of people don’t realize how close the pyramids are to downtown Cairo. They aren’t very far and all it takes is a 20 minute taxi ride to the edge of town to get to them. But unlike back home, where cities and towns blur and blend and it’s hard to distinguish where one starts and the other stops, in Cairo, there is no such difficulty. When you arrive to the end of Cairo, you have some pyramids and then sand. Miles and miles and tons and tons of sand. Nothing more…just more of nothing. And so, when you finally arrive, it is indeed a bit of a shock. The buildings suddenly stop and a mile out are the pyramids, majestically overlooking the city they have watched developed over the past 3000 years. Quiet observers, they have seen much. If only they could talk…
Well, they don’t disappoint. My taxi pulled up to the first pyramid and I hopped out and headed for the ticket counter. I paid my for my ticket, passed through a metal detector and was stopped by a jovial guard. He put his hand on my shoulder and looked into my eyes.
“You have any knife?” he asked.
“No sir,” I reply.
“No gun?” he asked.
“No sir,” I reply, nodding my head.
“And no bombs?” he asked, in a more serious yet completely joking way.
“Not even one,” I reply, nodding my head with a smile.
“Welcome to Egypt. Enjoy the pyramids,” and with that let me loose to explore.
I spent the day wandering around, snapping pictures, visiting tombs, fending off touts offering “free gifts” (which they then demand payment for) and camel jockeys attempting to coax me into going for a ride, marveling in awe and the superstructures before me, and of course, sweating.
At Giza, there are three main big pyramids and a few smaller ones. Interestingly, the pyramids are actually a few meters shorter than they were when they were built because people have spent the past few thousand years removing the bricks to build their houses. One of the smaller pyramids actually has a huge gash in it and a man explained to me why. It turns out that when the Turks invaded Egypt, they wanted to destroy the pyramids and so they tackled the smallest of the bunch first. 8 years later, they had only dented the surface of one and so they gave up. Now that is craftsmanship!
I really wanted to go inside of one pyramid to see what it was like and I paid for the ticket and entered. Pyramids are mostly solid stone with a very small passageway (through which you almost need to crawl) leading to two main chambers, barely 50×50 feet in the middle. It’s quite interesting that they built such massive structures and the only hollow parts are those two rooms. It is an incredible feeling to stand within, examining the hieroglyphics etched into the walls with the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of tons of solid brick completely surround you. Back outside, I wandered around a bit more and visited a building housing a massive boat that they found buried in a tomb which had been left so the pharaoh could get around in the afterlife. It had been found dismantled and they carefully reconstructed it and put it on display. It stretches over 150 feet and is completely original – and more remarkably, uses no nails to hold the parts together, only rope. It was pretty remarkable to see something so old yet looking nearly new before me.
Later that day, I also visited Saqqara: the site of the world’s first “pyramid”, which isn’t really a pyramid because it is made up of many steps. The pharaoh wanted to make something new instead of little clay tombs and so he came up with the step pyramid – and it was this design which led to the pyramids in Giza. It was all pretty remarkable.
I’ve been traveling with a few Americans and have been having a great time. We met on the plane and have stuck together ever since, even though I am staying at another hostel very close to theirs. I haven’t traveled with too many Americans on this trip mostly because I haven’t found many, but those that I have found are usually too caught up in the fact that they are the only Americans traveling to be any fun. But these guys are great (a couple from Wisconsin and a guy from New York). I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much as I have in the past few days. So the first day we arrived, we went and saw the Cairo museum (which is incredible) and then went and saw the sunset at the pyramids. They wouldn’t let us in because it was after 5:00pm, so we went to a 4 story restaurant right in front of them which allowed us to see over the gate and watch the sunset while enjoying a few nice beers. It was then off to get some dinner at an Arabic restaurant, and then off to bed. We walked home and observed Cairo. This place is incredible. It’s alive during the day, but it is even moreso at night. Families are out at all hours of the night, even past midnight on weekdays, wandering around and having a good time. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in my life. Perhaps it’s because it’s so much cooler than in the day. The next day we rented a taxi and went and saw the pyramids. I’ve described them above – they were incredible. For lunch, we stopped and had some of the most incredible food I’ve ever eaten. Arabic food is simply incredible.
That night we went and saw belly dancing. We didn’t want to see the expensive shows at the hotels because…well, they are expensive, so we went to a cheesy club in the heart of downtown Cairo. It certainly was an experience, I can say that much. The girls didn’t know how to belly dance very well and the entire night consisted of an Arab attempt at stripping, but without any of the clothes coming off – and in very modest dress. We all just made jokes the entire night.
Yesterday, we spent the entire day wandering around Coptic Cairo. The architecture of the houses, mansions, churches, cemeteries, etc., was breathtaking. I took lots of pictures. After that, we went to the Citadel to see Sufi dancing. I can honestly say that this dance show was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in my life. It consisted of a bunch of guys with drums, flutes and bells dancing and spinning, and guys coming out in brilliantly colored multilayered dresses (I guess you would call them that) who spun around in circles the entire time. As they spun, the dresses caught in the air and would rise up. They would disconnect them and the air would make them rise higher, over their heads and they would do all sorts of moves with them. It was breathtaking and there is no way I could ever describe completely what I saw. Simply phenomenal. Best of all, the admission was completely free! I don’t get it, we would have paid for this show and actually, these guys tour the world and charge quite a bit for international shows.
So here I am today, getting ready to see more of Cairo. I’ve never seen a city that has so many different things and regions and stuff to see. I’ve seen cities that you should spend a few days in to get a feel for it, but I feel like I could spend a month here and still not see it all. There is just such an incredible amount to see and learn about. This place has such a remarkable and distinct history. It has such an incredible feel and atmosphere to it, to top it off. I am floored.
Today I will wander around a bit more and then take off for the desert tomorrow. I want to see the desert and may take a two day four wheel drive trip through the black and white sand deserts. Get ready for some incredible pictures. Then it’s off to south Egypt to see Luxor and Aswan before heading to Sanai.
The only annoying thing about Egypt is that although it is filled with friendly people who really want to help you out, it is also filled with just as many touts and con men pretending to be your friend and “help you out”, but who are really just taking you around to collect commission off of your purchases and get you to take a look at their “shops”, which are really not theirs, they just want commission. It is very difficult to distinguish between those genuine and those not, but in general, I’ve found that if they say, “no money”, they generally want money. I’ve got quite a few experiences that I’ll share when I do a summary post of Egypt. But this post is long enough as it is, so I’ll spare you for the moment.
But I love this place. It took me by surprise – and what a pleasant surprise it has been.