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Travelogue of a Trip Through Egypt

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Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and the sights around each

Monday November 17, 2003
This morning I went to the Citadel. A taxi from behind the Nile Hilton cost me 8P. The drivers all began by asking for 20. It was only when I turned to walk away to go to Midan Tahrir to catch a bus that one driver agreed to accept 8.
The interesting things inside the Citadel were the Mosque of Mohammed Ali (visible from all around the Citadel), the Mosque of Al Nasr Mohammed, and the Mosque of Sulayman Pasha. Also, the garden museum is quite nice.

Outside the Citadel and around to the other side from the entrance are the Mosques of Sultan Hassan and El Rifay. The Mosque of Sultan Hassan was the largest structure of its time. Its enormous costs of construction were thought to be paid in part from wealth acquired from familyless victims of the Black Plague. From there I wandered toward what I hoped would be Bab Zwayla, but there are no street signs. During my walk, I discovered the covered market of Khiamia. From here I bought one of the sewn fabrics with an Islamic decoration.

 

November 18, 2003
I have to say that many Egyptians have beautiful eyes. That stunning National Geo shot of the Afghan woman is typical of many Egyptians.

Last night I wandered around Cairo from about 9 till midnight. On the main shopping streets it was shoulder-to-shoulder with crowds of people out celebrating Ramadan I guess. I think Egyptian people must be very social. Everywhere I go I see groups of 4 and 5 men sitting together at a table sharing tea (if it’s after sundown) or a smoke from those huge interesting water pipes.

I didn’t get to sleep last night until after midnight, only to be woken at 3:30 so that I could get to the airport by 4:30 AM to catch the flight to Luxor. I spent the day wandering around Luxor and seeing Luxor Temple on only 2-3 hours sleep.

A thing that is quaint about Luxor and Cairo is that there are still many mule-pulled carts used. Also in Luxor there are “caliches” everywhere. These are horse drawn carriages. To me these seem to be the Egyptian version of a tuk tuk. Like tuk tuks, the caliches are all individually decorated. The irritating thing is that, like Cambodia, the drivers assail tourists at every step. But in addition, they lure you in with offers of a ride anywhere for 5 EP but always demand more.

Yesterday after leaving the Citadel and neighboring mosques I wandered through Cairo in the direction of Bab Zwayla. I did find the covered market and also the tent bizarre where I bought a weaving. I don’t think I did a very good job of negotiating though, because I only got the owner to reduce his price from 150 to 110. But I do like the item I purchased. The “art” in his shop had motifs of physical things – boats, people, etc, but made from Arabic script which have some Islamic religious message. Mine is something like – God shape me inside and shape me outside and my life after death.

While browsing the market I encountered some guy who “befriended” me so smoothly I didn’t realize he was one of the people that take you to select markets to pay inflated prices for goods. Nevertheless, the fellow was quite entertaining – very good at what he does. He claimed to be studying international law.

Some of the trivia he shared – washing for prayers – 3 times each body, face, feet, and 5 times hands (I think). Also, I had doubts about this one – a camel on display in a gold or silver shop indicates gold or silver coating, not pure gold or silver.

We saw the Blue Mosque – I was amazed because this is one I wanted to see and it was nearly nothing worth seeing. He told me it was badly destroyed in the 1992 earthquake.

Walking the streets of Cairo and Luxor I notice that few women will make eye contact with me. Some do, but far fewer than half. My taxi driver from the Luxor airport this morning (30 EP) told me about Ramadan – the obvious of fasting – but also that they’re not supposed to look at women or sin in other ways. I told him I was tyring to do the fast out of respect (true the first day – except tea) but that I had a hard time doing the part about not looking at women. But I have a feeling that many of these Egyptian women in traditional dress probably wouldn’t look at me even if it wasn’t Ramadan.

Unless the upscale hotels in Luxor aren’t so upmarket – and I don’t think this is true – the Gaddis isn’t upscale (despite what the Rough Guide says). One channel on the TV (in German) and a fridge that doesn’t work. Later, I spoke with someone at the desk and they sent a guy that fixed my TV – so that now I have 5 channels.

I went today and made plans to rent a motorbike and have had a debate with myself about whether to actually get it as planned. The negatives – getting it on and off the ferry that crosses the Nile and whether it would be safe while I tour the temples. To overcome these concerns I’m considering riding the 7 km south and crossing the bridge. Once to the area of the temples and tombs I could just cruise around to get the big picture of the area – photos of scenics and decide which places deserve my time and also maybe do a tomb or two. Also, when I go pick up the bike, I can ask about security for the bike. Or I could just cancel – but I don’t have any way to contact them, it’d require a trip back to the shop. Since I negotiated hard to get the price down to 60EP and we did shake on the deal, I should speak to them if I decide not to take it.

 

November 19
It’s 7:20 PM and I can hear the chants of the imams over the loudspeakers and the people responding in a kind of chorus after each phrase from the imam. One TV station in Cairo had a young boy about 8 or 9 doing chants with maybe 6 or 8 older men listening. I don’t know if they where his teachers and rating his chanting ability or what. But it’s clear that a strong, good sounding voice would be highly valued and respected.

Ultimately, I didn’t rent the motorbike. I got a taxi instead, first going back to the shop to cancel the deal. The taxi driver agreed to take me anywhere on the west side for 50 EP. The bike was gonna cost me 60. But after driving me to the shop, he said that would cost me an additional 10. Then on the way back he said he should get baksheesh so that 80 would be fair. Then he recommended a restaurant and said he would wait for me while I ate and drive me back to the hotel for another 20 for a total of 100. When were were at 60, I knew the price would go up and decided that 100 would probably be fair and didn’t plan to spend more. I think making the trip by motorbike would’ve been very difficult – finding my way and finding the ticket offices, etc.

Of the things I saw today, the most outstanding was the Medinet Habu. This is a temple that cannot be missed. The columns are all beautifully carved and many still have excellent color. Second to MH I enjoyed the tomb of Khaemweset. Although the walls are covered in glass to protect them, the colors are spectacular.

Deir el-Bahri, even though in a very nice setting, was not that spectacular. From the outside of each I also photographed the Ramesseum and Deir el-Medina.

 

November 21
Spent the morning walking through Gezira. This is a depressing little place along the Nile. Really just a taxi stand for the Theban Necropolis. There are hotels here but I don’t know why anyone would stay here. I wandered the streets and photographed some old women and gave granola bars to some children. I took the ferry across and back for 2EP.

When I returned I wandered through the market in Luxor. As a few days ago, it was very crowded. Impossible to get any photos worthwhile.

I found a boat for a cruise down the Nile yesterday and transferred my luggage this morning. The cost is $30/day and includes meals. Not a bad price considering it is also taking me where I want to go. The dining room is nice, the sun deck ok and the rooms becoming just a bit run down. The boat is the Nile Treasure.

In the afternoon I took a felluca ride for two hours to and back from Banana Island. Unfortunately, there was no wind. But it was peaceful and enjoyable. The boat was the Zena, captained by Ahmed Nooby. I wonder about the legitimacy of his name since he also says he is Nubian.

There is an effeminate, obese Englishmen at this restaurant I’m at and he is telling someone that Nubian women in Aswan are as beautiful as any women anywhere in the world. I seriously doubt that he is a reliable judge of women, nevertheless I look forward to finding out. There was a young woman at the Gaddis Hotel – not Nubian, but Egyptian, that I thought was quite beautiful and we flirted with each other quite a bit.

Just south of the Gaddis there’s a place called the Royal Oak Pub. Had to try it out since I lived in a place called Royal Oak once. There was a sign inside that said that no Egyptians were allowed during the month of Ramadan, that they could lose their license and be shut down.

 

November 22
Now on the Nile Treasure, anchored off of Esna, waiting to get through one of the gates on the Nile. We won’t visit Esna, which disappoints me a bit, though I was told this in the beginning before the cruise.

Esna seems to be encircled by city walls, at least on the Nile side. And the wall looks new, or if not new, then well maintained. I can see two guard towers about 200 meters apart. There were a few children here on the beach by the boat. When I first saw them, they had a herd of sheep, which seem to have disappeared somewhere.

This boat is pretty dead. I’m guessing there are 30 passengers – all apparently German (except for me, of course!). So they have given me a dining table to myself for each meal. This has left me feeling pretty isolated. Lunch and dinner last night were pretty good. For lunch they started with a piece of pizza and then a thin piece of beef with French fried potato chunks and a vegetable like squash. Dinner was a buffet with salad, a fruit salad, beef, mashed potatoes, fried chicken and peas. Also a choice of about five deserts – one banana-based, one apple, one strawberry merangue type thing and another a cake with chocolate.

So many of the buildings here in Egypt are unfinished, with exposed cement framework partly filled in with poorly laid bricks. Even those that seem finished on the façade often have exposed cement with steel reinforcement projecting from the top. This leaves the impression that Egypt is in a state of progress or decline – I’m not sure which.

On the ferries across the Nile, the women sit in one section of the boat and the men in another. Upon arriving at the bank, the men exit the boat first.

The Egyptians all drive at night with their headlights off. Don’t know why. And instead of the horn (sometimes), which is used extensively during the day, they flash the lights at night.

Today I took the ferry to Elephantine Island and from there a felucca to the West Bank, where I got a camel to take me to St. Simeons and then on across a stretch of desert to the tombs of the nobles.

 

November 25
I seem to have acquired two nicknames here in Aswan – Ali Baba and Mustache – pronounced Moostache. Once again the white goatee seems to draw attention.

I’ve learned the trick to get rid of the felucca touts that won’t take no for an answer. I simply tell them I’m going to Cairo today and they desist. It’s exasperating. There have been so many times I could just walk in peace.

The other aggravating thing about Aswan is the flies. In the Nubian villages on Elephantine, they are everywhere. I saw children with flies all over them and they seemed not to notice.

During the felucca rides you get treated to hot tea. It’s a relaxing experience in contrast to all of the hawking that precedes it.

I wonder if caliche isn’t an Egyptian mispronunciation of the English word carriage.

It’s my last day in Aswan. I’m wasting it away sitting five feet from the Nile as a riverside seat in the Aswan Moon, my favorite restaurant here in Aswan. This is a really pleasant place – in the shade, a pleasant breeze and a nice view. Food’s not bad and they serve the local beer – Stella.

This morning I walked the Fatimid Cemetery. It was full of locals and I think I was the only foreigner there. An old man talked with me and gave me two candies and wouldn’t take a granola bar in return.

Before coming here to the Aswan Moon I went to the quarry and saw the unfinished Obelisk – a total waste of time and money.

 

November 27
I spent my last day in Egypt making a trip down to Dahshur, then made my way back up through Saqqara and Giza – with Giza planned for sunset. I bargained hard for a taxi, getting Sayed to agree to accept $20. And I insisted on no papyrus or alabaster shops. This price also included returning to my hotel to get my luggage and then taking me to the airport, which would’ve cost me 40EP by itself.

Ramadan ended on my last day in Aswan, but the following three days are celebrated with festivals. Consequently, many things close early – including the tombs. I had hoped to get back in to see the Sphinx one more time, but couldn’t.

In Giza I hired a horse to go up into the hills SW of the pyramids. From there I got a shot of the three major pyramids of Giza. Also a couple of the sunset over the desert. I paid 60 EP for the horse – about an hour and a half ride – and had to bargain hard to get that. While riding back, we passed a dead horse in the sand. It hadn’t been dead long and clearly had a broken leg. A dog sniffed at it and nosed some sand up over it, as if it tried to give it a burial. It’s a wonder this doesn’t happen often – or maybe it does. There were hundreds of Egyptians riding horses here, and riding them hard in this soft sand that is full of large stones. It has to be very hard on the horses. Some of the riders whip them hard. My horse began to trot every time it heard the crack of a whip.

On the way to the airport, Sayed took some detours to show me the City of the Dead (I was sorry I didn’t get here) and past Sadat’s tomb. Across from his tomb is a large viewing stand, past which the army parades on a special day – Oct. 6 I think.

The international terminal at Cairo has very little to offer. I arrived at 8 PM for a flight that didn’t depart until 2:55AM. They wouldn’t let me past the security checkpoint, insisting I come back at midnight. Unfortunately, I still didn’t have a boarding pass – for some reason, one can’t be had via internet for NW flights out of Cairo. There was a small café in the basement and a few perimeter seats upstairs, but nothing else.

There is a sign that says that those arriving and departing Cairo are limited to carrying 1000 EP.

The breakfast at the Golden Tulip Flamenco (on Zamelek) was pretty nice – quite a selection of things – sweet rolls and cereal with milk, a cook for eggs and also sausage and some Egyptian food. I only wish I’d seen the beautiful woman at the desk again – Amel. When I checked in we flirted a bit and I took her picture with my cell phone.

Popular American restaurants here include McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut. As a matter of fact, McDonald’s delivers here – I encountered the delivery boy in the elevator at the Flamenco. I also saw a Chili’s on the backside of the Blue Nile, a river boat docked on the Nile just downstream of the Nile Hilton.

Security is pretty obvious throughout Egypt. Soldiers or police with rifles are visible virtually everywhere. If not standing out in the open then standing behind shoulder height barricades just wider than a man – a shield of sorts. On the way into Saqqara they were stopping cars and searching trunks. When one of the guys doing the searching bent over into the trunk of the car in front of us, his shirt ros and I could see a concealed pistol.

At all of the hotels there are metal detectors. This was so at the Nile Hilton, at the Flamenco, the Isis in Aswan and the Gaddis in Luxor.

I’ve tried the McDonald’s and the KFC here (this was the choice of Sayed). The fast food here is much saltier than in the US.

I asked Sayed about which cars are best in Egypt and he said BMW and Mercedes. This is the second person to name these two. But he also pointed out that there is everything to choose from now – Peugot, Fiat, Daewoo….on and on. And also like the first person that I asked about cars, Sayed pointed out the same reason why American cars don’t sell – because the price of parts are too high. I believe the first guy was driving a Lada and bought brake parts while I was at the tombs in Saqqara.

While on the top of the hill overlooking the Giza pyramids at sunset, I think I could hear the voices of every imam in Giza and Cairo. It was an eerie, but pleasant kind of sound – as if everyone of those millions of people were in some kind of synch with each other.

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