I'll give you two chances to guess where we've been. Wait… No I won't. If you can't tell from the pictures, then you've been locked in a closet your whole life (and if that's the case, I'm impressed you've found our blog). We've spent the past 6 days in Cairo, Egypt. It was a spur of the moment plan. We got the idea one day, did a lot of research, and booked a package deal the next afternoon.
We begin our journey at the airport. It's not too much of a surprise, but we stood out a bit. Aside from our height, we are much fairer than most of the people in the airport (despite our attempts to become as brown as possible on the beach). Similarly, Egypt's majority is Muslim, so about 95% of the women wear a head scarf, if not fully covered. There were women ranging from wearing western clothes and a head scarf, all the way to women completely covered, except for their eyes. Some women even wore gloves and their dresses dragged on the floor. Then, we ended up waiting a long while for our bags. It turns out that we arrived in time for the breaking of the fast. See, it's Ramadan right now, so Muslims are fasting, but break the fast at about 7pm. So, our escort implied that the people who were handling our luggage might have stopped to take a break to have a bite to eat. All around us people were breaking open boxes to break the fast. Although we really wanted to leave the airport, it was interesting to people watch.
We were walked to an air conditioned van to be driven to our hotel in the city. The ride was described to a "T" by our coordinator, Mohammed, "Like Playstation!" Exactly. Our driver, also Mohammed, weaved in and out of the cars, honking at anyone who got in his way, and even those who stayed away (as a warning, perhaps). Nonetheless, we made it to our hotel unscathed.
Our hotel is right by the Nile River, the Pyramisa Hotel Casino. Though it is very nice, it seems as if it used to be super chic and fancy. After discussing tour plans with Mohammed, we found our way up to our room. Room? No, SUITE! I'm pretty sure that this hotel room is bigger than our apartment in LA, but that's not saying too much. Anyhow, it is comprised of a bedroom with a big bed, a living room, a 'kitchen' and a bathroom. But, a real bathroom. I'm not sure if I mentioned it before, but on the Greek islands we dealt with plumbing where you can not put toilet paper in the toilet, but have a trash can for it, and I know I mentioned all the shower situations. Anyhow, normal toilet, actual shower, central air conditioning (not barely functioning wall unit), real big bed, and a TV, a functioning one. Nice.
We walked around the hotel a bit and found a store with jewelry and essential oils, aka perfume. We didn't have any Egyptian money yet and were just expecting to look, but the man in the shop insisted we take a bottle and pay him later, when we got money. He said he could trust us, because we were Americans, not Russians. Alright, we were a bit nervous, but we figured that since it was in the hotel, we would be ok.
After a good night's sleep, we made our way to the included breakfast. It turns out that the included breakfast is a real buffet breakfast, with things you'd find in the US and things that were more intriguing. My omelet consisted of eggs and some spices mixed in. It turned out to be pretty good, a different flavor. There were different types of soft cheeses rolled in spices (cumin, fennel, and chill), a savory pastry with an array of sauces (honey, oil, cheese, and tahini), but there were also tons of breads, cakes, and pastries. Seth went straight for the chocolate cake. Chocolate cake, it has all the things you need! Eggs, milk, flour, it's the perfect breakfast food! (if you can recognize my reference I'll be impressed)
Following breakfast we met up with our tour guide for the day, Wa'al (sp?). He turned out to be lovely, a very informative, genial man. Our first stop was the piece du resistance! We went to the Giza Desert to see the pyramids!! Oh man. It was an experience we will not forget. I mean, it's the pyramids! Everybody learns about ancient Egypt in school, but who actually travels to Egypt and sees, touches, and climbs about the pyramids! Well, apparently, we do! They were massive. And, there are more than the three you see in all the pictures. There were 9 in total in Giza. After walking around the largest pyramid (the name escapes me) we made our way into one of the smaller pyramids to see where the burial chamber was like. It was hot and stuffy all the way down there in the middle of the pyramid. Something that intrigued us were all the wild dogs that live in the shady crevices of the pyramid. It was kinda cool to watch the dogs bounding up the blocks of the pyramid.
After taking our time with pictures, and turning down a million and a half requests to buy chachkies, we then went to what they call the panorama spot, where we could see the pyramids amidst the desert without the view being marred by the nearby city. And it is nearby. I know that I envisioned the pyramids to be deep in the middle of a vast desert. The desert quite possibly may be vast, but the pyramids are no longer deep within the desert. The city of Cairo almost reaches the desert. Anyhow, we made it to this panorama spot to see the unmarred view, but for another reason yet. We were on a mission to haggle a deal to ride a camel alongside the pyramids. The first offer was, I think something like 600 Egyptian Pounds. No way. We gave the man our price, but when he refused we walked away. The next man had a higher price of 900EP per person, on one camel. Bigger no way. Luckily I have Seth, and he can haggle. We ended up paying 300EP which got us each a camel, then we gave the man a 50EP tip at the end. And we were able to take tons of pictures. It was pretty amazing. My word of the day was, "awesome!".
After the pyramids of Giza we made our way to the Great Sphinx. Though it was not as large as I had expected, it was still quite a sight to see. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the Great Sphinx, I was greatly disappointed by our American franchises. Just outside the gates of the Great Sphinx were Pizza Hut, McDonalds, and KFC. It cheapened the experience. Similarly, I want to give a firm kick in the butt to any American who enters one of those, or those type, of places in a foreign country. If that's where you choose to eat when traveling, you probably deserve the coronary problems that follow. That's my rant for the day.
After that, we went to a papyrus factory where we were given a brief tutorial on how papyrus, the ancient Egyptian paper, was made. I remember making papyrus in middle school in Ms. Garratt's class (Shout out to my ER peeps!). Anyhow, we looked for a while before deciding on some prints that suited us.
We, then went for lunch on the Nile River. There was a restaurant called Imperial that was included in our tour. It was nothing special, but it was nice to be out of the sun, with some cool water.
For our final destination we made our way to the Kahn al Kalili market. This is a maze of winding streets crowded with shops. It also happens to be rife with pickpockets and scams. I was already a bit nervous to visit this market, but when our guide offered to meet us in an hour at a meeting point, I nearly ran for the van. But, that was unnecessary, because Wa'el reluctantly entered the labyrinth with us. We probably spent about forty five minutes to an hour walking through the jam packed streets, passing stalls with sweet smelling sugars, head scarfs, metal works, and more. Because the breaking of the fast was nearing, the streets were becoming more and more congested. Little cars filled with pre packed boxes of food continuously squeezed their way through the throngs of people. We made our way out to the square alongside the market, where people were setting up tables and food carts for the upcoming meal. We, then, bid Wa'el good bye and held on tight for the Playstation ride home.
When we got back to the hotel we washed the day's sand and sweat from our bodies before heading down to the perfume shop to pay 'our friend'. It turned out that he wasn't there, but 'his friend' was there. And, he was a bit confused about the price we were paying for what we were telling him we bought. It sounded like we had paid a price for 6 bottles in a box, when we only purchased one. From the guy's reaction and confusion we decided that we were given the 'American price'. We'll know better next time.
After that it was time to check out the hookah cafe. We sat and smoked mint and apple shisha, a sweet, sticky pipe tobacco that when smoked creates thick white clouds of smoke. Our hookah was a traditional three foot tall tapped metal water pipe that cools the smoke before it hits your mouth. Our charcoal boy came violently swinging a metal basket full of hot coals like an altar boy in a catholic church.
The television was on and we watched a few intriguing music videos. For the most part they all had a story line. I obviously couldn't understand the Arabic words, but I understood that one song was describing a man's love for his wife. It started out with him wooing her, taking her on their first date, and ended with his daughter running to embrace him, followed by an embrace by this woman. I, also, noted a theme in the commercials that were airing. They were all like mini musicals. Once again, I couldn't understand the Arabic, but there would be a group of people dancing and singing around washing machines, before a logo/brand name would pop up on the screen, and I can only guess that they were singing an ode to the washing machine. Real interesting. Our waiters walked over the the television and changed the channel, the show that came on that was quite disturbing. It was somewhat like Ashton Kutcher's Punk'd, except it was not a funny joke. At least to us it wasn't. I'm not sure what they intended, but we were the only white people in the restaurant and we were front and center in relation to the TV. In this prank there were about 4 masked gunmen that overtook a bus in the desert. They blindfolded the two women who were the butt of their joke, screamed in their faces, hand cuffed them, shot realistic guns, and had them on their knees. Not my idea of a funny joke, and I don't think these screaming crying women thought it was too funny, either. But, before we could see the end of this 'lovely' show, two men turned off the tube and sat down in front of it, to play a guitar like instrument, a tambourine, and sing. Much better.
Later, more to rid ourselves of the tobacco feeling than out of hunger, we had an evening snack. We both ordered lentil soup, which was good garnished with key limes and salt, and we shared some grape leaves which were also good. But, once again, we were pleasantly surprised. Almost in an instant the area by the lounge in which we were eating was filled with smartly dressed people. It turns out there was a wedding going on. At least we're pretty sure it was a wedding. We talked to Mohammed and though confused by a wedding during Ramadan, what we described to him was a wedding. Anyhow, it began with bagpipes, which we thought was odd, but is apparently quite common. Then, that was replaced by drums, tambourines, and a piercing, 'nasal' horn that led the music. There was dancing in a circle around the couple, and eventually movement to another location. It definitely was not a wedding ceremony, but we think that it was the celebration after the consummation of the marriage. Once again, we can't be sure, but this is how it appeared. Once the loud music migrated elsewhere we, ourselves, migrated off to bed.
We woke up in the morning, and headed down to our breakfast buffet. Much more of the same, but we noticed olives. I've finally found an olive I truly don't care for. Seth compared it to an olive that tastes like gunpowder. Why he knows what gunpowder tastes like is still a concern, but either way, I didn't even eat a whole olive. Just one bite was enough. But, once again the chocolate cake was good. I like the one with dates and chocolate on the inside and coconut on the outside. Fruit!
We, then, made our way to the pyramids that date to before the famous Pyramids of Giza. The first pyramids are in Sakkara, and the oldest and first pyramid is known as the step pyramid. It is the burial site for King Zoser, but his remains were never found. But, the star of this site was not the king, it was Imhotep, the architect for the burial site. He is the one who designed the first pyramid, and if you think about it, gave Egypt it's world renowned icons. So, thank you Imhotep, they are amazing. Especially on camelback.
After checking out the Sakkara complex and the museum, we made our way to a carpet factory. Though we had high hopes of gifting small silk carpets to our family and friends back home, those hopes were squelched when we found out that it was a 'school for children to learn how to make carpets' (aka child labor). Boo. I know that it is a different country with different cultural values and the like, but I can't get behind that. The boys we saw working on the carpets ranged from probably 5 through 14. I understand that it is a different way of life, but a child's place is not in a factory. (I understand that these are my views and other's may be different. Tough crap, it's my blog) If the rugs were not made by children, we might have bought some of the likely overpriced rugs, because they were quite pretty.
We then headed off to Memphis, to a sacred burial ground. We didn't see much of burials, but there were some really nice statues. Our guide, Heidi, said that UNESCO stopped funding the projects so exploration halted. The statues we did see, of King Ramses, were pretty impressive though.
After that we went to a perfume oil shop where we were given a very brief explanation on the process before being led to smell some essential oils. Though we found some we liked, they were being sold for 'American prices' as well. But, they were 8 times more than what we paid for our little bottle at the hotel. Our overpriced hotel bottle was 80 EP and this place was selling the same bottle for 200EP. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
When we got back to the hotel we paid our perfume shop friend a little visit. He was so happy to see us. He immediately ushered us in to sit and have some tea. He made us some hibiscus tea before talking business. He wanted to sell us more, so we told him about our visit to the shop earlier in the day and he ended up cutting us a deal. We checked the internet and decided that we would not pay more than 30EP for the smallest bottle. And, we were supposed to ask for a smaller bottle after he showed us his 'smallest bottle'. Man, I love the internet. We purchased 4 of the actual smallest bottles (we were going to buy 6 but he ran out of small bottles) for 25 EP each, plus a 20 for him. This is how it works in Egypt. Everyone needs a bit for themselves. It's a different culture here. You just have to know what you're dealing with. After this seemingly honest talk with the shop keeper, we wonder about the prices of all the shops we've been taken to. I'm not so sure about this 'government regulated' stuff that we've been told, and we're pretty sure that the tour company, the tour guides, or our driver get a kickback when we buy something. Either way, we like our papyrus paintings, and the shop keeper said that since they have signatures then they are higher quality. The more you know...
Our tour representative organized a Nile River dinner cruise for us. He told us that the price that our tour company offered was really high, and that he had a friend who could get us less expensive tickets. So, he met us at the corner by our hotel to pick us up with his friend. But, then he asked for the money for the cruise. 666 Egyptian Pounds. We were already catching on to the fluid price charts here in Egypt, so we did a bit of questioning. He assured us that it was a really nice boat, and that this was a very good price. But, since we hadn't anticipated that high a price, we didn't have enough to cover the entire bill. He told us we could pay him the rest later. When we got to the dock, he had us wait while he went and bought the tickets. That was it, we knew we were getting ripped. He told us that when his friend drove us back to the hotel we could get the rest of the money for the tickets and give it to him. Obviously, this meant that the tickets were paid for and he was pocketing the rest of the money. But, we still hadn't seen any price signs and hadn't seen the boat, so maybe we weren't getting too bad of a deal.
Seth's quote, "This is the most depressing boat I've ever been on, and I've been on a lot of boats" sums it up quite nicely. Though everyone kept reminding us that it was a 5 star boat, with 5 star food, and 5 star entertainment, we were not convinced. Then again, I don't know who was giving out the stars. The food was pretty bad, aside from the baba ganoush, and you had to pay extra for drinks, even water. I don't know of any 5 star anything where you have to pay for your water. The kicker, we were 2 of about 20 or less passengers on the boat, all of whom were tourists, on a boat that could have easily fit 1,000 people. It's like going to a party and no one's there. Lovely. Oh, and then there was the entertainment. The first act was a couple singing to karaoke tunes. The woman was pretty good, but I have no idea why they were singing all old American pop songs. You've never heard Patsy Cline's Crazy until you've heard it on a felucca floating down the Nile. And the man, I really don't know why he bothered. He was reading the words, but I don't think he could read English, or even knew the songs. My Way was hummed, poorly, except for the word Way. And then there were two poor examples of belly dancing (I've seen belly dancing in the south of Spain that could blow these women out of the water), and one was accompanied by some people in a horse costume that would 'nuzzle' people's heads while a photographer took pictures to sell to you later. The best part about the boat was the last act. This guy in 3 layers of wide skirts came onto the 'stage' and began spinning. And he ended up spinning for at least 10 minutes straight. He spun and did things with his skirt, including taking pieces off and spinning them over his head, and the 'crowd' (I use that word lightly).
The main problem about being on a boat excursion of any kind is that you are stuck. You can't just leave if you are done. Although, in this case it might have been possible, since we didn't exactly take a cruse down the Nile as the name implied. We kind of just paced back in forth in front of the dock for about 2 hours. And man that was a long 2 hours.
When we got off the boat, we were a little bit nervous, because Mohammed was not going to be the one to pick us up, his friend who drove us there was to pick us up, and we couldn't remember what he or his car looked like. But, since there was not a crowd of people exiting the boat, we were able to find him amongst the 15 other tourists that disembarked with us. That evening we did an internet search to find out actual prices for the nile cruise we took. It turns out that it costs 150 EP per person. So, we paid over double the listed price. Once again, the shiesty nature of the culture prevailed. It's really left a bad taste in our mouths. At no time have I felt a threat to my physical safety (unless you count the reckless nature of the traffic here), but I am constantly worried that my wallet is under attack. It's too bad. When we were in Greece, our couch surfing host made a very interesting statement, " The new Greeks don't deserve their country." I feel this is the case for Egypt as well. It is the cradle of civilization, rife with amazing natural wonders, and the people have made it difficult for the world to share in it's wonder.
Heidi began our next day by inquiring about our boat tour from the night before (good job at remembering, 2 points!). We gave her the honest answer, telling her about our price research. We also gave her our account of the perfume shenanigans. She made it sound like the tours of the factories (aka carpets and perfume) were an extra that could be done if time permitted. She said she didn't know the prices of the places, but began telling us of the different classes in Egypt and the price discrepancies. She told us that for the most part, there is no fixed price in Egypt. Ya, that's difficult.
We made our way to see some Islamic Mosques. If I'm being completely honest, the mosques I've seen in Spain and Turkey have been much prettier, and way more impressive. The Islamic museum was interesting, but so hot that it was hard to concentrate. We, then, made our way to the Coptic area of Cairo. We thought it was curious that it was blocked off by a gate and some guards. We, also, found many guards inside. Though her answer was unclear to us (I think she may have left out some explanations that may be implicit to Egyptians, so she didn't realize we wouldn't understand right away) what I got from her response was that the area had groups of people in it that the majority may not necessarily want in Cairo. The Coptic Church seems to be the Egyptian branch of the Orthodox church. Her descriptions of the religion were similar and she pointed out similarities. Also, the art displayed was if not the same, dam near similar to the art of the Greek Orthodox Church. This makes sense because the Greeks inhabited Egypt for some time. Anyhow, we were in the Coptic center of Cairo and we felt much more at ease in this area than any other area we had been in Cairo. The people smiled at us and said hello, we weren't hassled to enter stores, and even their museum was more pleasant. Something we've noticed is that the state of the museums are not up to par with any other museums we've been in. The Cairo Museum, filled with mummies and ancient artifacts from the start of civilization, was hot, muggy, unorganized, and not properly secured in most cases. This Coptic Museum was like, what we would call, a normal museum. All items were properly displayed and numbered with explanations, there were little thermometers in the clean glass cases to regulate the temperature, and the whole place was properly air conditioned. If any artifacts are going to last through to the next few centuries it will be those in the Coptic Museum.
We visited a few of the churches in the area, but what surprised me was the Jewish Temple. We entered and it was pretty neat to see that the Jewish people were still represented in Egypt after so much persecution. And, for the most part, it was in tact and quite pretty.
Though our tour was complete, Heidi offered to escort us to Felfela Restaurant for lunch. We really wanted to experience Egyptian food outside of our hotel. It was pretty good. We ordered grilled meat with rice, felafel, and beans with an egg on top. It was all pretty good, but the felafel was the best. It was very nice of Heidi to accompany us there. She then took us to find a taxi. I can now say that I've walked the streets of Cairo. Because you have to walk in the street to find a taxi, and that's like walking though a nascar race track. Cairo Street Crossing should be an extreme sport. The taxi driver made our list of people we like in Cairo. The cab we found already had a woman in it so we shared the taxi. That was nice. And though the price for getting from point A to point B would have normally been 20EP he only accepted 10 of the 25 we were trying to give him. That was nice, and much appreciated. I am sending good Karma vibes to you sir!
We bid our farewells to Heidi and head up to our room. We turned our bath tub into a washing machine and hung clothes from anything we could. We turned our room into a clothes drying Christmas Tree. I wish I took a picture.
We have nothing planned for the day. We were going to either do a cooking class with Mohammed's friend or hire a car to take us around Cairo for the day, but after all the 'deals' we've been encountering, we decided against both. We spent the day relaxing, reading and catching up on things that needed to be done. In the evening we went for a walk to find a dinner spot recommended by the concierge. After being turned away and sent towards the Chilis (yes, they have a Chillis) we found a spot with a buffet where the locals were breaking their fast. That was pretty neat. What we noticed that they get there right as the buffet opens and pound the food and escape to the deck for shisha and tea. We had a variety of Egyptian cuisine,but we're pretty sure our entree selections consisted of mainly sauces and dips, the US equivalent would be eating mounds of salsa, butter, and ranch dressing, with a few veggies and a piece of bread of course. We head back to the hotel in the still sweltering heat, hit the showers and went to bed.
We truly enjoyed the sights of Egypt. The pyramids were amazing. We have some qualms, but that's for another post.