Monthly Archives: June 2011

Cairo, last full day (EG)

Today I was (and still am) blissfully lazy. I got up late, took a taxi to the post office to send off the box of crap I no longer need, got lost in the Islamic part again (all I saw was lamp shades and light switches), walked back through downtown where I couldn’t find one interesting shop…and finally crashed in my hotel room where I’ve done absolutely nothing since. Somehow that was necessary.

 

Demonstrations at Tahrir Square are still in effect but traffic is flowing through again.

 

 

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Alexandria and El Alamain (EG)

Tuesday night Mark and I went on a Nile Cruise. It was a classic boat tour with mediocre food, a cheesy show and an even worse keyboard player/singer. First we thought we would have the huge boat to ourselves but then a tour bus pulled up and dropped off a Malaysian and an Indian group off, and a bunch of local families joined as well.

There was a food buffet and we did well by stocking up on everything early as the Malaysians were piling on food to their plates and eating it while they were still in line. By the time I had finished with my starter there were already no desserts left.
No alcoholic drinks were served so we ordered ‘birell’ which is a disgusting non alcoholic malt beer that tastes like a foul apple cider. I had no problem nursing it all night, especially after I heard that it was 40 pounds ($7), something the waiter didn’t even want to tell me until after the cruise was over and it was paying time. Luckily I had already expected overpriced beverages, if not that outrageous though.
There was a keyboard player and singer combo but you wouldn’t have known that they worked there because they were so uninterested, didn’t ever look up and most of the work was done by the automatic keyboard anyway. They butchered some fine songs though, it was quite amusing.
After dinner the obligatory show came on, a belly dancer that looked like Octomom and that spent more time posing for pictures with passengers than dancing. I never saw the display of official photos when I left so they missed out on my 10 pounds.

There were also two dancing dervishes, one of them a midget…it was painful as he also looked as if he had down syndrome. The dervishes basically spin around in a circle for hours and lift their long skirts to create shapes. It looks great but I wondered how they didn’t hurl in the audience a few times. The second dancer looked a bit like Robert Downey Jr. and he was quite the clown. The Indians had the most fun.


We didn’t really spend much time on the water, maybe a little over an hour or so. The boat didn’t get far but it was still nice.

We returned to the hotel at 9.30pm and saw beginnings of a demonstration forming on Tahrir Square. I didn’t think much of it and went into my room to watch tv but an hour later the more loud than usual traffic made me open my window and check what was going on again. They were in the process of closing the square for traffic, hence the horns, and tons of people were yelling slogans at this point.
I basically ended up watching these new demonstrations until 2 am from various windows and the roof along with hotel staff and other guests. We saw molotov cocktails being thrown, lots of smoke, injured people being carried away, protesters throwing rocks, the police marching in but not doing much else, ambulances appearing on the scene, people running towards a building – then running away from it when shots were fired – then running back in again right away. There were tons of bystanders and even people who sold coffee and tea. TV crews came in and at some point I even felt the tear gas on my face. That stuff must be strong if I can even feel it up the on the 10th floor.


I never felt like this would escalate or it would get dangerous for me.

None of the guys in the hotel approved of the protests, in fact nobody I met had had a problem with Mubarak or the previous government. Maybe that’s because all of them had jobs that are now badly affected by the decrease in tourism as a result of it.
The protests went on all night and I poked my head out of the window every hour or so. On Wednesday morning I bought some bread across the road and surveyed the area. There were traffic barriers, tons of rocks and trash everywhere and a mix of protesters and people going to work. For once nobody bothered me.

Mark had booked a private car to take us on a day trip to Alexandria. I wanted to take a coach there but we would have had to organize transportation in Alex then, and I had no desire to drive here myself although the boys thought that would be a good idea. In the end the boys didn’t come along anyway so we split the car and it wasn’t too bad. Unfortunately the driver had a different idea of what a relaxing day break would be so we spent pretty much all day in the car and saw almost nothing.

For starters we were 90 minutes late which then put us in traffic and it took longer than expected to get to Alex. We arrived at noon and were dropped off at the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa. (They are considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages.)
From Wikipedia:
“The necropolis consists of a series of Alexandrian tombs, statues and archaeological objects of the Pharaonic funeral cult with Hellenistic and early Imperial Roman influences. Due to the time period, many of the features of the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa merge Roman, Greek and Egyptian cultural points; some statues are Egyptian in style, yet bear Roman clothes and hair style whilst other features share a similar style. A circular staircase, which was often used to transport deceased bodies down the middle of it, leads down into the tombs that were tunneled into the bedrock during the age of the Antonine emperors (2nd century AD). The facility was then used as a burial chamber from the 2nd century to the 4th century, before being rediscovered in 1900 when a donkey accidentally fell into the access shaft. To date, three sarcophagi have been found, along with other human and animal remains which were added later. It is believed that the catacombs were only intended for a single family, but it is unclear why the site was expanded in order to house numerous other individuals. One of the more gruesome features of the catacombs is the so called Hall of Caracalla. According to tradition, this is a mass burial chamber for the humans and animals massacred by order of the Emperor Caracalla.”
It was a must see site, very erie!

Right afterwards we went to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a new very modern looking building right by the university, that is supposed to house 9 million books but so far only has a few thousand. It is right by the corniche, so we saw the Alexandria waterfront as well and I was hoping we could spent some more time here as it is beautiful. Alas, we only had 30 minutes to check out the library from inside before we hopped in the car again and were unexpectedly taken away to go to El Alamein.

Reflecting pool in front of library

Library from the inside

It wasn’t unexpected that we were to go there, but we kinda thought that we would have more time in Alexandria. Since tourism is down many things close at 4pm hence the mad rush to make it in time. Unfortunately El Alamein was another 150 km or so away so we had to drive again and couldn’t stay. Had I been given a choice I would have skipped it altogether. The driver was also keen to get us back to Cairo at a certain time as he wanted to watch a football match at 8.30pm. Another misunderstanding, my expectation was to be back in the city at midnight.

So basically Alexandria gave me the impression that I should return because it looks beautiful and despite the mad traffic a little more relaxed than Cairo. There is plenty to see but I would need a dayor two for it, not just an hour. I will have to come back.

So we raced on. The driver called himself ‘Schuhmacher’ (after Michael, the German race car driver) and indeed he was nuts. 180km/h all the way, no seat belt, on a hand held phone most of the time, zooming in and out of lanes and squeezing in where there was hardly any space, honking at everyone. He was very proud of his skills and kept mentioning them to us numerous times with both of us almost begging him to slow down. I had my eyes shut for most of the trip as I was scared shitless. It was not a pleasant experience at all. We also saw bad accidents, in one of them a car was in two pieces on opposite ends of the lanes with a second car, totaled, on the side and a human hand hanging out of the window on the driver’s side. There was no ambulance or police around and nobody stopped for them either, so it had either just happened or these kind of accidents are normal here.

From Wiki:
“El Alamein has a war museum with collectibles from “the civil war” and other North African battles. Visitors can also go to the Italian and German Military Cemetery on Tel el-Eisa Hill just outside the town. The German cemetery is an ossuary with the remains of 4,200 German soldiers, built in the style of a medieval fortress. The Italian cemetery is a mausoleum containing many galleries of tombs. Many tombs bear the soldier’s name; many are simply marked “IGNOTO”, unknown.
There is also a Commonwealth war cemetery with graves of soldiers from various countries who fought on the British side. This has monuments commemorating Greek, New Zealand, Australia, South African, Indian and Canadian forces. The names of 213 Canadian airmen appear on the El Alamein Memorial in Egypt. Two important World War II battles were fought in the area. At the First Battle of El Alamein (July 1 – July 27, 1942) the advance of Axis troops on Alexandria was blunted by the Allies, when the German Panzers tried to outflank the allied position. At the Second Battle of El Alamein (October 23 – November 4, 1942) Allied forces broke the Axis line and forced them all the way back to Tunisia. Winston Churchill said of this victory: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” After the war, he wrote: “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”

I could have done without this stop. The city looks like the extension of the Las Vegas strip, new plasticky looking apartment buildings in the middle of the desert along the highway (with the Mediterranean in the distance though) and no signs of life anywhere. We made it in time for the Military Museum and I needed all of one minute for it, I had zero interest. I waited for Mark outside and then we raced back to Cairo, 280km in less than two hours, and this includes the city jams we were stuck in for a while.

The protests at Tahrir Square were still going on all night, but parts of traffic was going through the square again.

Cairo madness (EG)

I’m trying to get rid of a box of the stuff I no longer need for the next leg of my trip, e.g. sleeping bag, warm socks, running shoes, the blanket I bought in Ethiopia, etc. Except for the shoes and the blanket I bought nothing new and my bag should really be lighter rather than fuller but somehow that’s not the case. It hasn’t been a problem so far as we didn’t have to carry anything around with us but going forward I will have to use public transport so it’ll be easier to consolidate my stuff and get rid of the bags that I would normally just clip on to my big backpack. The catch is that all of this stuff cost me quite a bit and I would prefer to keep it rather than toss it altogether. So today I went on a mission to find the post office.
I knew that the post office is at Ataba Square but it was impossible to find the Square or any other clarification on Google Maps. Most street names are in Arabic even on the international version and no website had a decent map either. The nice guy at the hotel reception (non- creepy but no less Egyptian. Sample line: “Are you always like this?” “Like what?” “So sweet”) tried to find it on a printed map and eventually ended up offering a ride as it was easier than to explain. It isn’t that far from here but I only kinda knew the way for the first two main blocks, after that I was following my gut feeling and very confusing instructions.

I have to report that my usually perfect sense of orientation badly let me down today. At the critical junction I probably took the wrong way. I went out of my way for a while still thinking I’m doing ok but when I finally asked someone he sent me back where I came from. I had to ask about 11 more people until I finally found what according to the metro stop sign was Ataba Square but according to a small post office there (not the main one I was looking for) was only Opera Square. They are close to each other but the entire area was a clusterfuck of construction, a bazaar, shops and traffic. And harrassment of course, all day I was hassled to death. At one point I even had to change direction on purpose as some creepy dude with a plastic bag had been following me since the hotel and I just couldn’t shake him off. When I took the most random street somewhere and he was still not gone I hid behind a car and saw him looking for me, proof that I hadn’t been imagining it.
I finally found the post office by coincidence because it was definitely not where the last guy said it was. The building is hidden by a noisy and congested overpass, I had been traipsing around that area for almost two hours at this point. There is scaffolding on it which didn’t help, and there are at least 6 entrances with every desk in these rooms doing something other than the last but with nobody knowing where I needed to go. I was sent around the building to the back entrance, across the road to another place and back to the main entrance. Finally a nice guy walked me over to the perfectly hidden room that deals with parcels and another nice guy explained to me in perfect English what my options are. It’s not too expensive and he can help me wrap the box as well (I had already dreaded looking for tape) so on Thursday I will take a cab (!) back and send the damn thing off.

The post office is at a corner that marks the beginning of Islamic Cairo, a huge old area of town with tons of mosques and anything else muslimic that the stereotype requires. I wanted to check that out anyway so I just blindly headed back in. Unfortunately I had no clue where I was. If I marked all the streets I went to on a map I wouldn’t be surprised if I walked in a small circle three times. It was utter chaos everywhere and I was between hoping to find the food row, a cold drink and a bag or some tshirts somewhere, dodging annoying men and trying not to get run over by pushcarts, donkeys or motorbikes. The streets come in two varieties here: main roads that are totally congested or small alleyways that can barely take cars but still have plenty of traffic regardless.

 

On the bazaar there seems to be an alley for individual items, i.e. I found one for shoe soles only, one for belt buckles and one for small kitschy porcelain animals. I would have loved to know where I was or where I would be going as by then I was pretty tired, very hot, getting annoyed and my back hurt like hell. I had passed bread and fruit stands earlier but none were here now and there was nothing that looked like a nice place to sit in unhassled. The coffee shops typically house men who smoke sheesha, I would not be left alone here.
I decided to try my luck with the metro but sure enough now now I couldn’t find a stop anywhere so I followed a street sign to Tahrir Square and magically made it back to the hotel much faster than expected. On the way I passed a bunch of high end stores (incl. Adidas) and something that looked like an area in which only colorblind gay men would shop. Very bizarre.

Cool, but empty department store

 

Doing a dinner cruise tonight. More to come on that later.

Pyramids, Memphis, Tombs (EG)

The very last day on our beloved truck! We did a tour to the obvious sights of Cairo. We started at Saqqara, the cemetry of the ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis. Here we walked into two tombs and admired once again the beautiful hieroglyphics and huge carvings. Our guide was very enthusiastic and pointed out the meaning of all of them, she read them like we read the alphabet. Some of the tombs at this place were not underground but appeared to have regular entries, however the burial chambers would have been dug far deeper and obscured. Many tombs have been robbed in the past unfortunately. These mud brick structures are called mastabas.


Saqqara also has Djoser, the step pyramid with the rectangular base, as well as a few other smaller pyramids in not so great states – there are many more which have not been excavated yet.

In Memphis we spent some time at the open air museum that now houses a huge lying statue of Ramses II and a whole lot of other ancient stuff, too much to remember…google it.

 

Somehow we had bumbled away 6 hours already, a good two of them in traffic on the way here – only 12 miles away. We made it to the pyramids at 2.30 pm and had few time to see it all and still be at the sphinx by 4pm.

 

People say that the pyramids are not as impressive when you finally stand in front of them. I think that’s BS. They are huge and you can see them from miles away.

There is a residential area (and not a pretty one) right by their first steps and you have the best view of everything from the Pizza Hut outside. I bought an extra ticket to go inside the Cheops pyramid, the biggest one of the three.

How they found the tiny entry to the Cheops pyramid is beyond me

It was a bone crunching 10 minute ascent bent over from the waist as it’s not high in there, and then another very steep ascent to the top. All you see are perfectly smooth walls. Here’s a pic I found on Google that may give you an idea:


Up top there is a burial chamber, basically a big dark room with a big sarcophagus but no hieroglyphics or anything interesting. The way to the top is the real attraction, the way down is no less entertaining. I loved it…and I was once again glad that there were virtually no other tourists around. This was the place where too many people would have spoiled the experience completely.


After a quick in and out I walked around the Cheops (20 minutes!), then we took the truck to the classic photo spot from which the three famous giants all fit into the shot.

It was all a bit rushed, but to be fair there really isn’t much else you can do there anyway. You could of course buy a lot of kitsch, do a camel ride or check out the tombs and the boat museum at the base of the pyramids but …who cares…

We then legged it to the Sphinx just in time for closing. This is the statue I would have said is smaller than expected, though still pretty huge.

 

The next three and a half hours we were stuck in Cairo traffic back to the hotel.

Traffic – and a helpful sign for pedestrians how to cross the road: fast!

Nothing else happened after that, I was shot. It was a good day.
For historic information you can consult Google as always 🙂

Egyptian Museum (EG)

The Egyptian Museum is a must see on any Cairo visit. I already knew that I would need at least a day to even begin to scratch the surface of it so after I stocked up on some fruit in the morning I walked over and went inside shortly after it opened. There weren’t any long lines so I could have come later, Egypt’s tourism industry has really taken a hit since January.

Egyptian Museum and a building that was destroyed during the riots in January

It’s a five minute walk from the hotel to the museum but the real challenges were to cross the busy road by Tahrir Square and to dodge all the ‘helpful’ men. The museum is a huge pink building prominently placed by the square so I really didn’t need three guys pointing it out to me. I have become fairly good at ignoring people, it seems to be the only way to fend people off who will follow you for blocks to offer their services, from honest to shady. I still can’t help the occasional sarcastic comment when someone states the obvious or is just plain annoying. Unfortunately nice people will get the same arrogant treatment than the idiots this way but it’s not possible to tell who wants what beforehand.

 

The museum has two levels and is so full of stuff that it quickly became overwhelming. Most displays have absolutely no descriptions and the ones that do are badly lit and almost too small to read. Everything interesting exists in multitudes, there isn’t just a coffin of some king but hundreds of them. After less than two hours I already needed a break and some sugar. In true Egyptian style I got hassled throughout my break outside of the fenced in museum as well. It’s great when even the official employees have something to say.

 

My break only restored me enough to breeze through the rest of the museum without actually paying attention to anything specific. It’s really a shame but it was just too much to take in. The cultural wealth in this country is incredible. The museum as such definitely needs either 8 more floors or hundreds of items removed. There was randomly placed stuff everywhere. When I first walked in I saw a skeleton of a horse…I assume it should have been placed in the animal mummies section instead. There were unnamed mummies, sarcophagi, statues and pottery without a particular order simply tucked away in corners. Without a guide I was simply lost.

 

The best exhibition I saw was the one that came to New York in 2010, King Tutankhamun’s tomb and its contents. Unbelievable treasures were put in his relatively small tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Entire chariots (5 of them), jewellery, furniture. The burial chamber alone had four compartments that were big enough to fit my entire apartment in. The burial mask over the mummy’s head is in pristine condition. This part of the museum alone would be worth a visit. (Also interesting: The burned out building next door – from January 25 when Cairo was protesting and causing mayhem).

 

Nevertheless I left around lunchtime, had a chicken shwarma across the road and checked out the nearby Intercontinental hotel for prices of the gym (daily use 35$, a bit too steep for me).

Then I went on a shopping mission on the road by the hotel, it has plenty of fashion shops that all look like a small ‘Strawberry’ inside – racks and racks of cheap polyester clothes in similar styles. I wanted to buy some cheap tshirts or short sleeved blouses and maybe a skirt or dress but I couldn’t quite find someting that wasn’t too hot or had nice colors that don’t burn your retina. It was also quite challenging to dodge the sales ladies. They were relentlessly following me around and holding up any item I happened to brush with my hands. Some places I had to leave as they just wouldn’t leave me alone even after I asked them to.
The variety of cheap clothes was endless, long dresses tied in the back (some of which actually looked good on me if I was on a casual beach and I took my bra off), heavy frilly long skirts, tshirts with too much bling or ‘diva’ prints on them. I added a pair of happy pants to my collection, these pants are not open on the side though, they just have plenty of material. I had to stop myself from buying more as they eventually came to $30 which I consider a bit too much if I buy three pairs just for fun. It’s also easy for me to never feel bad about my weight gain anymore if I continue dressing in flexible nonfitting spandex clothes going forward, that’s acceptable for this vacation but not for the future.

Random Cairo street

Black Desert and Cairo (EG)

We renamed the current trip ‘Cairo Express’ and that was the mission for the day. However we were not to skip any sights so we stopped at the Bahariyya Oasis to see the Mummy museum in the morning. This turned out to be a it of a joke as nobody knew it existed in the first place. The museum is only a couple of years old as the mummies had only been found in the late 90s. Supposedly over 200 mummies were excavated closeby but so far only 11 made it into the museum (which is a big room with glass boxes for the mummies but nothing else, not even explanations) and unfortunately they are not in great shape. Their bodies had decomposed hundreds of years ago already. We needed exactly 8 minutes to see it.

Then we drove through the Black Desert (black sand covering the red sand) to Cairo.

 

A full Cairo report is coming. I am currently in my single room (3 beds) with 1.074 tv channels again, and hopefully no bed bugs. We are overlooking Tahrir Square where in January the demonstrations basically shut the country down. The square is a huge (and round?!) traffic roundabout, nothing as big or magical as Tiananmen Square in Beijing or similar places. What I’ve seen from Cairo so far I really liked – it’s huge and the buzz of a big city makes me miss New York.

Tahrir Square as seen from my hotel room

 

The first thing we did was to buy two crates of beer, some wine and vodka across the street. That vendor closed his store right after we left (little does he know that we intend to go back tomorrow already). I then had a chicken shwarma from two different vendors – this shwarma being close to what you get in the States and completely different to the one I had in Aswan.

White Desert (EG)

Around 3 or 4 am even the desert can get a bit chilly. You don’t really need a sleeping bag but it’s better to cover up a bit. I slept really well in no-man’s-land. It’s spectacular to be in the desert at this time. The sun rises around 5 am and starting at 6 am it gets boiling hot again.
After a somewhat random breakfast we were driven back to the Dakhla Oasis from where we boarded the truck to the next destination. I had enjoyed my morning so far and I would have been happy to be left alone with my ipod for a couple of hours but the morning (and the entire day) actually turned out to be really nice considering the previous toxic atmosphere. The others launched into an unexpected birthday song and presented me with a tray of baklava. We were all on a sugar high before 9am.

We continued by playing cards (a first on this trip) and killing leftover vodka with Crystal Light Cranberry flavor (so classy) with spicy cheese crisps. We even listened to what I would consider decent music (Eminem, but no Michael Bolton) over the speakers, another first on the trip.
At lunchtime we had already reached our destination, the Farafra Oasis. Since it was Friday the place was deserted and everything was closed. We found an open shop that charged outrageous prices for crisps and water (you can’t get healthy snacks here, Egyptians love wafers and wrapped cakes and Twinkies) but then discovered a coffee shop whose owner spontaneously agreed to make us food from scratch for not much money. It took a while and we saw an employee or family member return from a shopping trip specifically for us but the food was great. Fresh falafel, salad, tuna, crisps, bread etc… a good find. Even better was our decision to bring out itineray forward and advance to Cairo tomorrow two days early. This partially had to do with the fact that we had one extra day to kill anyway and that the desert was interesting but not interesting enough for two more days, but it also showed that everyone was just itching for some quality time by themselves. We agreed on paying for the additional hotel rooms ourselves and decided to move on to the bushcamp intended for the next day which was another few hundred kilometers away.

 

The drive there took us through the White Desert. According to the Lonely Planet this place would be Egypt’s Grand Canyon if Egypt didn’t have so many other things to see. There are weird rock formations that have been shaped by wind erosion, some look like animals, others are huge and form small canyons.

Many are ‘famous’ and have names but we only stopped at the Crystal Mountain which is a quartz crystal (and had to be specifically pointed out to me as I failed to see what was so special about it).

We managed to get stuck in the sand with the truck and spent the next hour digging it out with a bunch of bystanders (drivers from daytrip safaris) watching and taking pictures of us.

Still, with the prospect of reaching Cairo tomorrow the mood was still great and we didn’t care how this day ended.

We bushcamped for the last time, making a meal with the remaining bulk food from the truck. I will miss bushcamping! Had it not been for the group fatigue I wouldn’t have minded sleeping outside for two more nights. But I was also glad that the day went by well without any frustrations and that there was a countdown in sight.