Monday, January 31, 2011

Walk like an Egyptian

Walk like an Egyptian

Seeing the pyramids in Egypt had been a lifelong dream of mine. Briana and I started looking into the possibility of going to Egypt months ago. My host mom, Antonia, recommended a travel agency that she used for other travel throughout Europe and the Middle East. We decided to bite the bullet and sign up. We got what I think was a very reasonable deal considering all of the flying we did. We intended to sign up for a group tour to help bring the costs down.

Our flight left from Madrid, which made getting to Cairo a very full day of travel. We left our house early in the morning to catch the Ave (the high speed train) to Madrid. Once we arrived in Madrid we hopped on the metro to head to the airport. Once we got to the airport and were sitting by our gate we began guessing who else would be in our tour group. Since a Spanish travel agency organized the trip we were able to limit our guesses to Spaniards. The flight to Cairo was a little longer than I was expecting. We were in one of those huge planes with two aisles. On the plane we started to talk to the guy sitting next to us. At first his nationality was a mystery. When we boarded the plane he was speaking Spanish and he’d speak with the flight attendants in broken English. I think we must have started talking with him in English and then he suddenly lost the accent. Very puzzled, we finally asked where he was from. We were surprised to find out he was from Canada. We never did learn his name. He gave us some advice and for the rest of the trip we just referred to him as Canada.

After finally getting into Egypt we had to stop to purchase visas and exchange our money. The visa cost $15. It’s a really cool sticker that goes in your passport. It quickly gained rank, and now it’s my favorite page in my passport. After going through customs we met Emad, the representative from the travel agency. He walked with us to get our luggage and we asked if he needed to wait for the other people on our trip. He informed us that it was just the two of us. It was hard to understand his broken English and Spanish to begin with and on top of that he would practically whisper. It left us very lost and confused for the majority of the trip. Emad helped us pick up our bag and we met our driver and the 15-passenger van waiting for us outside. The whole time we just kept thinking that we couldn’t be the only ones on this “group tour!” From the airport we were driven to our hotel, which was conveniently on the other side of Cairo. To avoid traffic, mind you it was about 11pm, we took the ring road, which goes all the way around the city. I caught my first glance of the pyramids and was very happy to arrive at the hotel after our full day of traveling.

When we signed up we were told that the guides were only Spanish speaking, so we were prepared to listen, or doze off. Since it was just the two of us we were very lucky and everyone they hired to be our guide spoke English. Wednesday morning Emad and our awesome tour guide Andrew picked us up in the hotel. In a typically confusing fashion (please note this on going trend) we literally dropped Emad off somewhere on the side of the road. He just said, “ Ok, see you later!” and got out of the car. We didn’t dwell on it too much because we were headed to the pyramids! I can now officially cross it off my list of things to do before I die. (Side note: this has been a very successful four months. I’ve been able to cross off two items and still plan on crossing off several more!)

The pyramids were mind-blowing. While we were there I was thinking back to fourth grade, which was the first time we learned about ancient Egypt. It was great to see these amazing structures in person after being fascinated about them for so many years. In case your ancient Egyptian history is escaping you, the pyramids were constructed by the Pharaohs to serve as their burial grounds. The construction began as soon as a Pharaoh began his rule. Sadly, virtually all of the pyramids and tombs were looted. After walking around the pyramids we drove to a site a little further out to get some great photos of the pyramids. While there we couldn’t resist the temptation to go on a camel ride.

This was rip off number one of the trip. We quickly got used to being taken advantage of in Egypt. For virtually everything there is a tourist price and then a price for Egyptians. You can clearly guess what category we fell into—and boy did we fall had. We asked our guide how much the camel rides cost and he told us it depended, but that he’d set a price before we got on. He spoke with the camel owner in Arabic before we got on and we assumed it was to set a price. Nope. When we got back the camel owner said, “ok, 450 Egyptian pounds.” That’s the equivalent to about $90. My jaw dropped. The night before Briana and I had had a discussion about how bartering makes me uncomfortable. It brings me back to an unpleasant experience I had as a child on some Caribbean island where I was yelled at and shooed away from attempting to barter with a street vendor. Briana reassured me that she had fine-tuned bartering skills. Sadly, they didn’t make an appearance at this event. I looked at her panicked, but she wasn’t able to say anything. We were so confused because we thought our guide had set a price and we didn’t know if the 450 Egyptian pounds was negotiable. (Word to the wise: everything is negotiable in Egypt.) At this point in time I also didn’t really understand how bartering worked. Us Americans are too worried about offending people. All in all, we were royally ripped off. Our camel ride ended up costing about $35 a piece. While it was an absurdly expensive camel ride, I’m really glad we did it and now I have some amazing memories and photos! From the camel ride we got back in the van and drove to the Sphinx, another really cool sight.

After our ludicrously expensive camel ride and the trip to the Sphinx we went to a papyrus factory to see how it’s made. It was interesting, but definitely a tourist trap. With our little camel excursion in recent history we were feeling slightly vulnerable, so we didn’t buy anything and grabbed our purses for dear life. We returned to the hotel for lunch. It was a delicious buffet with hummus and other sauces galore. After lunch we decided to sit out by the pool. We sat shivering for about an hour and I was even using my towel as a blanket to keep me warm. Briana and I turned to each other and decided it probably made sense to go inside. We ventured to our hotel room and ended up taking a three hour-long nap. Woops. Luckily the hotel had some good movie channels, so we were able to watch some quality American movies. It helped pass the time since the hotel was so far out of the city and we couldn’t explore Cairo. A cab would have cost $50 each way and there was absolutely nothing in our area to do.

The next day we woke up early, had breakfast at the hotel and met Emad in the lobby. We were off to the Egyptian Museum. It was interesting, but at a certain time once you’ve seen one ancient Egyptian artifact, you’ve seen them all. The coolest thing we saw there was Tutankhamen’s burial sarcophagus and mask. In 1922, Howard Carter accidentally discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb, which had never been looted. If I remember correctly, this was the only tomb to be discovered which wasn’t looted. The most important items found in his tomb are in the Egyptian Museum. It was really neat being able to see his burial mask after having seen pictures of it for years.

After the museum we drove to Old Cairo to see the old churches and synagogue. When we entered our driver and Andrew needed to talk with the Tourism Police, who are absolutely everywhere and appear to do absolutely nothing. We heard Andrew tell the officer we were from Spain. After we got through I asked why he had said that. He said that if he told him we were American the guard would have asked a lot of questions like where we were coming from, where we were going, etc. This part of town was really interesting. We visited two churches, one of which was Orthodox and I don’t remember what the other was. They were built with traditional Islamic architecture, so it was humorous to see a church built in that style. The synagogue is no longer used. Andrew told us that during biblical times the Nile used to run all the way up to the back of the temple. In fact, he said that was where Moses was found. Whether you believe that to be true or not I thought it was interesting because it fell under the category of hearing about one thing for years and then being able to see it.

From Old Cairo we drove to the Citadel. It’s up on a hill/mountain and it has great views looking down on the city. There are several mosques there, one of which Mohammed Ali (no, not the boxer) built. I had seen pictures of it from a friend’s trip, so I was glad I made it there. It has hundreds of hanging lights and it’s just a pretty place. After visiting the Citadel we went to lunch. I was expecting Egyptian food to be more Middle Eastern and was surprised when it just seemed like a hodge-podge of everything. It ranged from pasta to soup to chicken. I was expecting it to be a little more “exotic.”

Right down the block from lunch was a perfume store. Supposedly Egypt is famous for perfumes, or essences, as they call them. They claim not to add anything to the fragrances. They had tons of different scents. After smelling a few, the man helping us asked if we wanted to hear the prices in Egyptian pounds or dollars. We said Egyptian pounds because that was the currency we had, but that it made sense for him to tell us in dollars as well so we’d know the price in a currency we were familiar with. As he was going through the prices Briana and I were in awe! No way could it be that cheap, we thought to ourselves. We decided on getting the smallest bottles. It came in a package of four and with a burner. We thought we were paying 100 Egyptian pounds, or about $20. We walked up to the register to pay after they had already packaged everything and saw the guy had American money on the table. That’s when it hit us. It wasn’t 100 Egyptian pounds, but $100. Either way, I’m really glad I got it, but I definitely wasn’t expecting it to cost quite as much. So much for trying to travel cheaply. Immediately after realizing our mess up we ran into the bathroom to laugh (or cry.)

Our last stop of the day was at the bazaar, or market. We had been looking particularly forward to it since getting there. I was expecting it to be a little bigger, but it was still interesting. I’ve never been hassled so much in my life!

Special price for you! Spice girls! Will you marry me? We have [fill in the blank knock-off product here] for really cheap. American? You from America?

I tried my best to look straight and avoid the constant questions. The problem was as soon as I saw a booth I liked I’d look in and that’s when the owner started to harass me with countless questions. I realize this might be their way of doing business, but in the end I think it causes them to lose business! Westerners get deterred from this and then just walk away. Our guide, Andrew, pretended to be our Egyptian husband to help us get better prices. As I mentioned, there’s a price for Egyptians and then a tourist price. It was really nice of Andrew to help us get as close as possible to the Egyptian price. For a few of the items we purchased we were able to get them down to 1/3 of the original asking price. Let’s just say I got much more confident with my haggling skills. All in all, I found the bazaar to be a little disappointing. I did, however, end up with two new scarves (surprise, surprise.)

I have never experienced anything like driving through Cairo. If a street is marked with three lanes there will be five cars jammed into it. There are very few stoplights so you have to cross the street cautiously and lane by lane. Also because there are no stoplights you can’t make left-hand turns. That being the case you have to make a right, find a place to turn around and then head back in the direction you originally intended to go. It makes the trip much longer than it should be. I’m not sure which was scarier, driving in the city or on the highways. On the highways people would be trying to run across to get to the other side. Lanes were not obeyed. Our driver drove in the middle of two the majority of time we were in the car. They drivers don’t seem to use their side mirrors because every time you pass someone you have to give a little beep so they don’t come plowing into you. Our driver also flashed his brights like it was his job! I couldn’t get a good handle on when he used them. They seemed to serve as a hey, watch out, don’t move I’m here, what’s up, and virtually any other greeting one would find on the road. Driving there was mass chaos.

The following morning is the perfect example of how I had no clue what was going on 90% of our trip. Emad picked us up at the hotel to take us to the airport. The problem, or funny thing rather, was that I had no clue where we were going. My bag was packed and I had my passport in hand, but it wasn’t until I got my boarding pass that I knew what our next destination was. Again, very representative of our week in Egypt. We were insanely early for our flight and there wasn’t much to do in the domestic terminal. Out of boredom, I managed to pass out for a few hours, also representative of our trip. It was nap central. I even napped twice in one day once. All of a sudden we heard over the loudspeaker last call for our flight. We were really confused since it was still 20 minutes until we were supposed to board. Either way, we ran to our gate to find everyone just sitting there. It wouldn’t be travel if your heart didn’t get to an uncontrollably high speed every once in awhile.

It was a smooth flight to Aswan (turned out that was our destination.) Mohammed from the travel agency picked us up and we were off to the boat. We had to pay a supplemental fee for a nicer boat because supposedly the normal one was full. We were expecting a nice boat, but what we ended up on was out of this world. It was by far the fanciest cruise I’ve ever been on. Mahogany everything with gorgeous granite tiled bathrooms. Another oops. And we thought we were going on a budget group trip. Mohammed told us what our schedule would be. While we were touring Cairo with our guide Andrew we asked him if it made sense for us to sign up for the trip to Abu Simbel. He said yes, but warned us that we’d have to wake up at 3am. Briana and I thought he was exaggerating and Briana made a very appropriate comment saying that she’d never heard of a tourist attraction that was open 24-hours. Mohammed confirmed our worst fear. We had to leave the boat at 3:00am, so that meant waking up at 2:30am (a time we both consider a reasonable bedtime!) Well, how many times am I going to be in Egypt? Probably only once and on top of that we had already paid for it, so there was no turning back.

After hearing about how early our next morning was we ate dinner and went to bed. 2:30am came before we knew it. Tons of people on the boat were going on the same excursion so they were very nice and packed us breakfast boxes. Our guide told us that everyone had to travel from Aswan to Abu Simbel by caravan and that there were two to three caravans a day. I’m not really sure why, but I assume it’s for safety purposes. Once we got in the car we were all corralled into this one area after being checked by approximately 20 tourism police officers. Then we were finally on our way to Abu Simbel. Thankfully, I was able to sleep for a good portion of the car ride there. We got to Abu Simbel at about 6:30am; right after the sun started to rise. We still never got a good explanation of their opening hours. I think our guide got confused with open and closed because she said it was always closed. Either way, we made it in. It’s escaping me as to which gods this temple was built for. The monument is gargantuan.

To walk back to the parking lot you have to walk through several sections of vendors. I would have liked to look at the stuff, but after being hounded every step I took I quickly lost interest. One guy somehow hooked us into coming into his shop. He wouldn’t let go of my arm, so I really didn’t have a choice. I also didn’t have a choice when he put some strange head wrap on my head. He asked if I wanted to take a picture and fortunately I knew that if I said yes he would then charge me for the photo. I threw the headpiece off and we got the heck out of there. I decided to give one last vendor a try. He was selling these cool wall hangings. While negotiating I was holding one of them in my hand. I decided I didn’t like his price and that I was ready to leave so I tried to hand him the tapestry. He wouldn’t take it because he wanted me to buy it. This continued for far too long and my only option was to put it on the dirty sidewalk, which upset him.

Hey Egyptians, let me give you a piece of advice. If you’re looking for business try being nice to your customers and not harass them.

The drive back to Aswan was scarier than the drive there because I could actually see what was around us—nothing for miles and miles. There weren’t road stops or gas stations or anything really. We did pass one bizarre building, which we thank god stopped in to go to the bathroom. Needless to say, I was very glad when we made it back to Aswan and I don’t think I’ll be taking any more trips through the desert any time soon.

When we got back into town we went to the high dam. I’m not quite sure why it’s a tourist attraction to be honest. It’s just an ordinary dam. If I remember correctly, Russian engineers helped the Egyptians build it. After that mind-blowing attraction we went into town to visit an Egyptian cotton factory. Yet another rip off designed specifically for tourists. We felt like they were trying to pressure us to buy something. It left us wondering if our guide got a cut of our purchases. Everything was overpriced and not even that good so we happily left empty handed. Our last sight in Aswan was going on a short boat ride down the Nile. Our trip included a ride on a felucca, similar to a sailboat. Our guide claimed that the weather wasn’t right (I have a feeling she was lying since there were plenty of other feluccas on the river) and suggested we go on a motorboat instead. We said that would be ok. It was fun to be cruising down the Nile. Neither of us were surprised when the guy who took us out on the boat pulled out five bags of jewelry and tried to sell it to us. Reminder, Egypt=rip off. I was getting nervous about getting back to the ship because we were cutting it awful close and still on the motorboat ride. They ended up pulling up right next to the boat and we ran over right before our scheduled departure.

We sailed for only a few hours because our next stop was just up the river to visit Kom Ombo temple. We met our guide Sara and explored for little while. Yet again, the site was swarmed with vendors trying to sell things. There was even a man sitting on the ground with a cobra charging tourists for photos. We even saw one woman pose with it around her shoulders. I’m going to venture to guess she’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. On the walk back to the boat our guide left us because she said the driver wanted to leave. It made me a little nervous to have to walk through all of the vendors alone. I stopped to buy a pair of earrings at one booth. I agreed on a price with the owner and then after I paid him he said well what about money for my five kids? He kept begging, but I wasn’t budging. Finally, I just decided to leave. I honestly wasn’t trying to be rude, but I kept getting so frustrated every time we tried to buy something. Feeling like you’re being constantly ripped off and that there’s nothing you can do to change it isn’t a fun feeling. I also wasn’t prepared for having to open my wallet every other step. You had to pay to use the bathrooms/leave a tip for the women working there. This was the case in practically every bathroom. Even inside the museums and airports! Then you had to tip the guides, the drivers, the guy who wouldn’t let you carry your suitcase by yourself. Needless to say, it got to be a little excessive. Especially since I really didn’t have a lot of money to spend to begin with! When we disembarked from the boat on the last day two employees from the boat wouldn’t let us carry our bag ourselves and insisted on carrying it to the car. We didn’t have much money left, and only a couple of big bills which we were not willing to use. We gave them all of the change we had. Since we don’t know Arabic we weren’t exactly sure what they said, but Briana saw them looking at the coins in their hands and talking to our guide. We’re pretty certain it was asking for more money! Just be prepared for this if you go to Egypt.

That night dinner was Egyptian themed. Somehow Briana and I didn’t get the memo so we were the only ones that didn’t dress up in traditional garb. Some people got really into it and bought dresses, head pieces—the whole nine yards. There was a photographer taking pictures of each table. We laughed when we saw all of the pictured laying out the next day. We stuck out like sore thumbs since we were the only two not dressed up. Again, remember how confused we were the entire time we were in Egypt.

The next day we arrived in Luxor. We met our guide Moustafa who took us to Luxor Temple. I was very surprised to see that the University of Chicago was a part of the restoration process. The temple was cool, but we were kind of at that point when you’ve seen five ancient Egyptian temples, you’ve seen them all. We explored for a little while and then headed back to the boat. That night on the boat there was a very underwhelming belly dancing show. After the belly dancer this young guy had a performance. It’s kind of hard to explain, but he was wearing this large colorful skirt and turned in circles without stopping for about 15 minutes all the while doing different tricks. It was mesmerizing to watch, but it also made me extremely dizzy. We went to bed right after the show to prepare for our last full day in Egypt.

The next morning our first stop was the Valley of the Kings. That is where Tutankhamen’s tomb was found. There are a total of 62 tombs that have been discovered there. It was really fascinating to see and I wish cameras were been permitted. After the Valley of the Kings we stopped at an alabaster factory. Again one of those places the tour company sets up, they give you their very well rehearsed spiel and then the guide potentially gets a cut of your purchases. We fell for it again and got two beads that we’re going to put on necklaces and bracelets. When in Egypt, right? From the alabaster factory we went to Queen Hatshepsut’s (pronounced hot chicken soup) Tomb. It is a huge monument carved right into the side of the mountain. There are visible caves carved into the surrounding mountainside. Our guide told us that is where the soldiers and workers were buried to help protect and serve the Queen in the afterlife.

On the way back to the boat we made a very quick stop at the Pillars of Memnon. I really have no clue what their significance is. Needless to say, it was absolutely fascinating. After lunch we had our last stop of the trip at Karnak Temple. I really enjoyed walking around there. It had an insane amount of huge pillars. It was fun to take pictures next to them because we were about 1/6 their size. After exploring the temple for a while we asked Moustafa if we could get henna. He made a couple of phone calls and found out there was a place in the market. We asked how much it would cost and he told us about five euros. When we got there the guy was asking for 25 euros. We bartered him down to about 12, which was still a major rip off. While in the bartering process I asked how long it would stay for. He said 60 days. When Briana was getting hers done I asked the guy doing it how long it would stay on. Suddenly it dropped to only 30 days with a warning that it depends on how your skin reacts to it and that it could be as few as 20 days. My henna wasn’t even close to seeing 20 days. Either way, it was cool while it lasted. I got a design that combined the Egyptian symbols of the key of life and the eye of protection. It was pretty awesome looking. While our henna was drying Moustafa took us to his cousin’s shop that had just opened. There was a fair amount of pressure to purchase something, but at this point in time we had developed a joking relationship with him so we were able to make fun of it. I ended up purchasing a beautiful glass camel perfume bottle to hold the perfume I bought in Cairo. Even though he was pressuring us to purchase something, it only ended up being about $3, so I was happy to get it since it had been something I was looking for.

We had to rush back to the boat to grab our suitcase and head to the airport. The travel agency insisted on us being 2.5-3 hours early for every flight, so you can say we got to know each of the airports well. When we landed in Cairo Emad greeted us and brought us to our driver. The driver only spoke Arabic and Spanish, so we were forced to use our Spanish for the first time. Unfortunately, we were staying at the same hotel out in the boonies so we had a long drive there. The driver yet again insisted that we leave unnecessarily early for our flight back to Madrid the following morning. The hotel was about an hour from the airport and he picked us up FOUR hours before our flight left. I tried my best to beg and plead for a little more sleep, but he insisted. He said there might be traffic (at 6am?) and that it might take us three hours to check in. Yeahhh. He was way off on both. No traffic and it took us about five minutes to check in. The airport didn’t have any seating in the terminals, so we were forced to sit on the cold floor. It was a rough morning that consisted of a nap on the dirty floor (don’t judge.)

We made it back to Madrid without any problems. It took us longer than we had anticipated to go through customs and get our bag. We still had to take the metro to the train station to catch our train back to Sevilla. We literally ran through the airport to the metro station and ran between all of the transfers. We were so lucky that we didn’t have to wait more than three minutes for a train each time. We caught our train back to Sevilla with literally two minutes to spare. Out of breath, sweaty and extremely tired, I was very happy to be seated on the train back to Sevilla.

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