Monday, May 10, 2010

Welcome to Egypt, now get out!!

April 20th to 26th, 2010 by Jason

So we arrived at the Delhi airport around 2.30am and checked in, all very smooth. Besides the fact that security at Delhi airport was slow and bureaucratic as usual, we were at the gate and waiting with plenty of time to spare (2.50am for a 5.45am departure!) Our flights were with Kuwait Airways, which of course required a connection in Kuwait City to get to Cairo. Conveniently they do not serve alcohol on Kuwait, which made the flights much more boring. That coupled with the fact that the food was mediocre at best (OK, not really that good) and the in-flight entertainment system was, well, non-existent, made the whole experience just long and boring.

Unfortunately Swiss was not feeling too well during the first flight so when we arrived for our 4 hour layover in Kuwait City so he sprawled out and attempted to sleep on some chairs while I, with nothing better to do (and hungry since I didn’t eat the crappy breakfast they served us in flight) headed over to McDonald’s for breakfast and a read of the newspaper (it was a better choice than Pizza Hut at least!)

Kuwaiti McDonald'sBreakfast in Kuwait, I was starving!

We boarded our second flight and it was uneventful, again with crap food and another non-functioning entertainment system. Oh well, it got us where we needed to go. Of course our hunt was still on to pay for the upgraded economy fare on our Turkish Airlines flights to Brazil, now just 2 weeks away. So upon landing in Cairo and purchasing the $15 USD entry visa we met our driver from our hostel and swung by Terminal 3 to visit the Turkish office. I walked up to the office at 3.02pm and asked the woman if I could pay for our upgrades only for her to say that the office closed at 3pm and that I’d have to come back tomorrow. What?!?! Strike 2 Turkish Airlines, strike 2!! I was not pleased but they wouldn’t budge, trust me I pleaded. They gave me their address in downtown Cairo but they closed at 5 and they were certain I wouldn’t make it. I hopped back into our car and off we went…it had been a long day of traveling thus far.

Welcome to Egypt, taxi from the airport

Luckily we arrived at our hostel and quickly learned a new term, “baksheesh.” It’s an Arabic term for a small tip, and as we’d quickly learn, everyone expects to be tipped in Egypt, everyone!

Luckily the friendly folks at the Nubian Hostel in Cairo informed us that the Turkish Airlines office was just a 5 minute walk away and one of the hostel staff even walked us there (without requesting a tip even!) and we arrived almost an hour before they closed, renewing our faith in the kindness of Egyptian people. It was a lengthy process (they stuck us with the new guy, and to be fair, taking an existing ticket and re-issuing as a new fare class and paying the difference is probably not a standard part of training) but we eventually got our new tickets issued as “B” class economy fares, tickets that could be upgraded using United Airlines miles, or so we’d been told before we started this adventure. We each paid $231 USD for the privilege. We quickly returned back to the hostel to Skype United Airlines and apply our miles to upgrade both flights (Cairo to Istanbul and Istanbul to Sao Paulo.) Since we had separate tickets/reservations for the remainder of the trip it had to be done in two steps. The United agent promptly applied my miles and upgraded both segments to business class (25,000 miles for the first flight, 30,000 miles for the second flight) and we moved on to Swiss’s ticket. She upgraded the first (and much shorter) flight but for the second flight came back with a response of “upgrade cabin full!” A real let down after all the work, the phone calls and multiple office visits in three locations and the money spent solely to do this upgrade. She kindly said that we could try again later and that Turkish may open more seats for upgrade as the travel date drew closer. Dejected and a little depressed (and Swiss still not feeling well from the morning) we took a little nap. That nap turned into 8.30pm and with Swiss still not doing well I went out to get him some water and we called it a really early evening and got some rest so we’d be ready to tackle Cairo full of energy the next day!

Come take a peek at Egyptian Bureaucracy!!

We woke up Wednesday morning full of energy although a little later than planned. It was too late to start a day trip out to the pyramids at Giza and also a little late to hit up Cairo Egyptian Museum we decided to make plans for the pyramids for Thursday (driver booked through our hostel, only $20 USD for a full day!) and we headed over to Mugamma, a hub of Egyptian bureaucracy and home to the office where foreigners can modify their entry visas. Since we’d settled on only spending about 10 days in Egypt so that we could squeeze in a trip to Petra/Jordan on the side, we decided to go get our visas changed to multi-entry kind. Reports were conflicting, somewhere between free to 10 USD to make the change but we figured we’d give it a shot. We arrived and eventually went to window 42, where we thought we could get it done. The woman there did not speak much English and sent us to window 43. The lady there informed us we’d need to head down to Window 5 in order to start the paperwork for a multi-entry visa. While waiting in line for Window 5 we were informed by a nice gentleman in line that we were at the wrong window and that we needed to head over to Window 3 but unsure of the whole process we decided to stick it out and see what they said, sure enough we were directed to Window 5. The woman at Window 5 spoke little English and directed us to Window 4 where the nice gentleman spoke excellent English and gave us the form to fill out and told us to complete it and head back to Window 43 in order to pay. We filled out the form like good little kids and went to Window 43 down the hall, where the lady again spoke little English and told us we needed to go back to Window 5 for something, but we weren’t really sure what we needed to do there. Luckily a woman who spoke Arabic (although covered in full burqa, so we’re not sure if she was Egyptian or a westerner that moved to the middle east as she spoke English with no accent at all…either well a very welcome assistance) told us that the man at Window 4 needed to write the amount due on our form so that the payment collection lady at Window 43 knew how much to get from us. We went back and he wrote “51.50 LE” on the top of each of our forms (just under 10 USD) and we went back to Window 43. There she took our money and affixed what looked like postage stamps to the top of each of our forms, for the amount of 51.50 LE. Trust me, at this point if we could’ve taken a picture we would have (they kept our cameras back at security!) Now BACK to Window 4 where he took our forms and passports and told us to return in 1 hour. Given that we were touring the pyramids the next day and all government offices are closed on Fridays, we had to pick them up that day or we’d be without passports! So this situation resulted in a quick walk around the area, with a stop by the museum to make sure they’re open on Fridays (they are) and a quick view of the Nile River, as seen below:

Part of downtown Cairo On the Nile River Mogamma...the Russian era beauracratic building where we got upgraded to multi entry visa

That last picture above is of Mugamma, the large Russian built behemoth where we ran around inside for an hour! Sure enough we returned an hour later and had our passports with a re-entry visa included. Now given that it was nearly 10 USD for the re-entry visa and it would’ve been only 15 USD to just buy a new visa when we got back into Egypt, was it really worth it?! Probably not, but it was an interesting adventure! I grabbed a small snack on the way back to the hostel (the chicken shawarma sandwiches are tasty!) and we started at figuring out what was next for Egypt. It took us a few hours and I’ll spare you the details but we now had a plan: up to Alexandria on Saturday for a few days on the Mediterranean, an overnight bus down to Dahab on the Sinai Peninsula where Swiss could go diving in the Red Sea and I could relax on the beach, over to Jordan via a ferry (more costly but a little more direct/easier than going through Israel to get to Jordan, one border crossing instead of two) up to Petra and then finally catch a flight we just bought from Amman back to Cairo so we could make our flight on to Brazil! A little tired and stressed after all that planning it was time for a tea and some sheesha (or a hooka as we call it back in the states.)

The first death threat of the trip

So we headed to a little local place for some tea (our second stop after the first place tried to charge us almost 4 USD for a cup of tea, come on now!) and Swiss got a sheesha.

Mint tea and sheesha

We were just minding our own business when a local man came up and pulled up a chair to our table. “Oh no, here we go” is all we could think. He started off nice enough, asking us where we were from and when we had arrived in Egypt. Once he heard what he wanted to hear (we’d just arrived yesterday) he started in on his little speech (as we later figured out.) Go figure, his sister was getting married that weekend and they wanted to have a proper party with nice imported alcohol, not the locally made, less than tasty whiskey, etc. He wanted to give us cash and have us go into a local duty free store where foreigners can buy alcohol up to 48 hours after arrival with their passports (although his story changed between 72 and 48 hours a few times, the first thing that made us a little suspicious.) We explained to him that we didn’t have our passports with us and that we weren’t entirely comfortable with the request considering that we were foreigners in a new country and we’d need some time to think about it (and if it really was 48 hours, we had until the next night to execute the transaction, we’d need time to think about it.) He was a little annoyed but gave us his business card and his shop was just a few doors down…he told us he’d return in 30 minutes (Egyptians are persistent!) We talked it over and decided we didn’t want anything to do with it. He came back over as promised in 30 minutes and we informed him that we didn’t want to do it. He was more than a little annoyed and started to get a little aggressive with his words, when we warned him that he was being a little threatening he quickly apologized and again turned polite, but was still persisting. He told us that it was a little rude as foreigners, visitors to HIS country, that we didn’t comply with his request and didn’t trust. We (mainly Swiss) tried to tell him that it wasn’t anything personal, just that as foreigners in a new country (and having traveled for 8 months and seen quite a few scams) we didn’t know who we could trust nor understand the local laws fully and thus we didn’t feel comfortable with the request. He grew more agitated and finally started stamping his foot, letting us know that we were visitors in HIS country, HIS city and that we were no longer welcome there. We were told that it was best if we packed up our bags and left immediately and he directly told Swiss that if he saw him around the area again that he’d kill him! WELL, we’d had about enough and decided it was time to go! We paid our bill (to add insult to injury the shop owner insisted we pay him 1 USD for the unopened bottle of water he set on our table which we’d never ordered!) and we headed home. We told the kind staff at our hostel about the request and he immediately asked us if the guys sister was getting married this weekend. Apparently it’s a common request and of no harm or consequence to the people in the area. It’s a racket of locals that buy alcohol duty free off of foreigners and then sell it to Egyptians for a profit. There would’ve been no harm in us helping him and no consequence to us, but we had no way to know it at the time. Honestly, if he had left us alone, let us talk to our hostel staff on our own and let us come back the next day I almost (read, almost! but most likely not) would’ve helped home, but certainly not after a death threat. Needless to say it soured the evening and in all honestly overshadowed the rest of our stay in Cairo. Cairo is now on my list of places I’ll likely never return to, sadly because of one bad apple. Such is the experience.

The Great Pyramids of Giza

Thursday morning we woke up early and were ready to go just after 8am for our full day of touring Giza, Saqqara and the museum at Memphis. After the previous evening we were excited just to be out of Cairo proper. Our driver was a very nice Egyptian man who throughout the day was very polite and courteous and did his best through broken English to explain to us what he could. A really great guy! Here’s a few pics from our drive out to Giza:

The Nile River The Pyramids at Giza

Now here’s the thing with Egypt…entry costs are ridiculous! And of course each site is a different high price ticket. Entrance to the grounds of Giza themselves is 60 LE and that doesn’t include entrance inside any of the actual pyramids themselves, just the privilege to walk around them and get hassled by touts and salespeople the whole time. Given my claustrophobia and our desire to have some of our bank account left for other items we skipped going inside the pyramids at Giza (which I’m very comfortable with!) From others we met we found out that it’s actually quite plain, almost 100 LE to enter and really not worth it. Guess we called that one correctly. So we walked around the pyramids and of course got plenty of photos. One note before I show you the photos: any policeman or security officer who politely tries to show you a spot for a good photo will always want baksheesh, or a tip, if you actually take a picture at “their” spot…quite the annoyance. And now for a few photos:

Swiss and the Pyramid of Khafre The Sphinx and the Pyramid of Khafre In front of the Sphinx In front of a lot of sand The Sphinx and the Pyramid of Khafre Swiss goes all Arab Desert The Sphinx and the Pyramids A local camel tout

The sad part really is that since the government does nothing to keep touts out of the area, you’re constantly hounded by people selling trinkets, postcards, camel rides, etc if you’re not their with a large tour group (and even then they still get bothered a little bit.) At the end we both said that if we were ever to return it would be in a large tour group to avoid the hassle, which is a real shame. Next up was Saqqara only about a half hour away and is a good place to see some of the Egyptian’s early attempts at pyramid building. (Oh, and another 60 LE entry fee.) A few highlights:

The exterior of Kagemni's Tomb? Carvings inside Mereruka's Tomb In front of the Step Pyramid of Djoser A cool trifecta shot The main walkway in

After all that it was time for lunch. The place our driver took us too was a little pricey, 60 LE/person…but so tasty it was worth it! Grilled meats and tasty mezze with loads of bread hit the spot (trust me, we both walked out ready for a nice nap!)

One fantastic lunch!

But alas, we had one more sight to see. This time it was off to Memphis for their museum, an homage to a large statue of King Memphis that was uncovered (and left to stay on it’s side for some reason.)

That's one big statue (Ramesses II) More giant statues! Swiss and the little Sphinx What a beautiful place to live!

Museum entry was another 35 LE, so in case you’re keeping count that’s now 155 LE in entrance fees and if you add in 10 USD each for the driver, it came to 40 USD per person for the day, not including lunch (don’t forget a tip for our driver too!) Of course it’s a once in a lifetime experience and much cheaper than doing a large group tour, but it’s a little outside most budget traveler’s means. Luckily, as Swiss mentioned earlier, we’re flashpackers, haha, and we could do it, but Egypt is not much of a backpacker’s destination at these rates! After our large late lunch and a long day of sightseeing we were exhausted and called it an early evening.

The Cairo Egyptian Museum

Fridays are quiet days in Muslim countries, it’s like a Sunday in a Christian country with most offices and many shops closed. Luckily, though, the Egyptian Museum is open every day of the week and we decided to head over for a day. It’s a huge place with an amazing amount of artifacts and requires almost a full day of viewing. Thing is, it’s a lot to take in in a single day, so many people recommend you split it over two days. With it’s high admission price I don’t think many backpackers can justify paying the admission twice. We decided to do one day and also pay the extra ticket for the Royal Mummy rooms also (in total 160 LE or 29 USD!) No cameras are allowed inside but this is definitely one museum in the world you can’t miss! Some pics from outside at least:

The Egyptian Museum (no cameras inside) Outside the Egyptian Museum Outside the Egyptian Museum

We stayed in the museum about 4 hours and had a bit of overload. It’s a very cool place but after a while there’s only so much you can take in/absorb/read. Afterwards we took the subway (our first subway in Africa!) a few stops away and had a nice Egyptian lunch (a very late lunch though) and the rest of the day was fairly quiet and uneventful.

Off to Alexandria and some time on the Mediterranean!

So of course we had to choose between Alexandria and heading south to Luxor the next day. We’d heard that Luxor would be quite hot and full of tourists and annoying touts, so we made the decision to head north to Alexandria. While some would argue it’s a mistake to miss Luxor, on a trip this long you can’t see every sight and sometimes you just don’t want to be hassled anymore! We’re both young and I’m certain I’ll make it back to Egypt (minus Cairo of course ;-) at some point in the future to see Luxor. So Alexandria it is! We hopped into a cab over to the train station and took the next departure up to Alexandria. We left at 11am and it’s about a 3 hour journey up there, so we arrived around 2pm.

Our train to Alexandria

We hadn’t booked a place ahead of time as reviews ranged wildly online and all the places were in a small area. We checked out three different places and settled on the Swiss Canal Hotel for 2 nights. It was the best value for money and a nice room (newly remodeled with TV, refrigerator and private en suite bathroom.) It was already after 4pm, so of course we were ready for lunch (which really became dinner.) In a nice change from Cairo, a nice man running a barber shop next to our hotel recommended a restaurant down an alley from our place. Turned out to be a delicious grilled meat place with wonderful mezze and a fantastic owner, an Egyptian married to an American from Michigan. He was so very nice and treated us so well, Alexandria was looking up compared with Cairo. After a huge linner (lunch/dinner) it was time for a walk around town.

In downtown Alexandria The beautiful mosque just downtown

During the walk we found a nice place for tea and Swiss had another sheesha. We even got to enjoy the excitement of their tram system power connection coming loose and ripping off a bit of metal from an overhead support!

Oops, broken tram!

After a long day of travel and hotel searching we called it a day and enjoyed some bad movies and American TV on satellite in our room and relaxed.

Alexandria Sightseeing

We got up the next morning, Swiss a little earlier than me. He hit up the tea shop next door to our hotel for breakfast while I slowly got up and got ready for the day. We grabbed a quick lunch from GAD, an Egyptian quick food shop (think Egyptian style deli, with falafels and shawarma instead of sliced turkey and ham)

A park on El Corniche

We took a nice walk down El Corniche to the famous Alexandria Library. Unfortunately, as some may know, that original library was destroyed some years ago and today in it’s place is a very nice but very modern replacement. We took some shots of the area then avoided the crowds!

Alexandria Library Swiss at the Alexandria Library Me and Alexander the Great :)

From there it was over to see a set of Roman ruins a bit south of downtown!

Roman Amphitheatre Ruins Roman ruins in Alexandria Me and the Roman ruins Swiss takes an old school roman bath Roman Amphitheatre Ruins

A nice little break (we’ve hit the point where more than 2 sights a day and we’re overloaded) at the local tea shop turned into almost 3 hours of tea and talking to some locals. Swiss and our new friends:

Our new local friends from the tea shop

The guy on the right thinks he looks like Barack Obama, we tried to tell him otherwise ;-)

We then had a nice dinner at a little Egyptian/Italian place downtown (think Italian with an Egyptian twist.) A few drinks from our refrigerator and some Law & Order [oh man Selah, I miss Law & Order at the GNE gym!] and it was a night! :)

What did I eat last night?

Monday morning we were up and checked out of our room a little before 10am. It was a slow start as my stomach was not doing so well, something that I hoped would pass in a few hours or a day or so. Fingers crossed. We took the tram down to near the end to visit Qaitbay Fort or the Citadel of Qaitbay. But not before Swiss made a quick detour into the HSBC which was randomly located between an ice cream shop and abandoned building near the fort, but a great place to exchange for US dollars at a very good rate (relative to the commissions some exchange places charge!)

Qaitbay Fort and the Mediterranean Qaitbay Fort A view of the sea from in the fort

From there we took the leisurely stroll along the Corniche back towards downtown,

A walk back to downtown along El Corniche

with the hopes that we’d find a seafood place for lunch (for Swiss, at this point I still was not feeling well.) We ended up not finding anything (only one place was open and it was fairly pricey for what they offered) and we ended up near our hotel where a local place there actually did some seafood with accompanying sides for a pretty reasonable price. Not feeling well, it was decided that we’d go back to our usual for tea and to relax for the afternoon.

Sunset on Alexandria

Feeling just slightly better, but not wanting to risk it with Egyptian food (maybe something in one of the salads got me? meat? who knows…) We headed to McDonalds for a bite to eat. Remember, we have a tradition to uphold, to go once in each country and this was also our last chance in Egypt and we couldn’t let the streak die now! [Our next destination, Dahab, does not have any McDonalds.] Dinner went fairly well, I didn’t feel too bad afterwards and so we headed off to grab our luggage from the hotel and start heading towards the bus station for our trip to Dahab!


Chris said...

I am starring this post in my google reader. We are planning on taking a weekend trip to Cairo (from Rome) and I am looking for all the tips I can get. Take care!

Selah said...

Thank god you can watch Law & Order in Egypt! What would you have done for a whole year w/o it?!

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