Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Cairo

We visited Egypt in May of 2013, when it was very stable.  We were not worried about physical security, but we knew it could be a chaotic place for Westerners, so it was one of three places in our travels where we chose to travel with a tour group (day trips aside). The other two were the Inca Trail hike and our boat trip in the Galapagos, both of which you can't do any other way than on a tour.  After some research, and passing (and being passed by) the groups from G Adventures on the Inca Trail and being very impressed by their gear and organization, we picked a three week G Adventures overland tour of Egypt and Jordan. Originally Lana had been looking at a tour that would have taken them from Egypt, through Jordan and Syria, ending in Turkey. Unfortunately, while things were stable in Egypt in May of 2013, they certainly weren't in Syria, and G Adventures had stopped offering that tour a while before we could have chosen it.  We couldn't have been more happy with our choice of tour company--but more on that later.

We spent 11 days in Egypt before continuing on to Jordan for another week.  Here’s an overview of where we traveled inside Egypt, with subtitled travel modes:
And to give you a bit of an idea of what G Adventures tours are like, here's a group shot that our guide insisted on:
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There were nine of us, plus our tour guide.  From the left, Dell, Taka, April, Wendy, Mudi (our guide), RJ, Cat, Chris, and us.  The photo was taken with Wendy’s camera; we all shared our pictures at the end of the tour, which was another first for us. It guaranteed us all a lot better chance at getting decent shots of ourselves various places, between the 10-12 cameras we were carrying collectively, and we all went out of our way to take pictures of each other.

We couldn't have asked for a better group of traveling companions than our "Mudis," which is what we ended up dubbing ourselves.  Dell, RJ, Cat and Chris are Australian, Taka is Japanese, Wendy was born in China but is Canadian, and April was our fellow countryman, although she was born in the Phillipines. There were some interesting overlaps too--RJ, Cat, and April were all nurses. We were well taken care of--anytime anyone needed a pharmacy, they had their choice of someone to go with them and make sure they got the right thing. As it happened, we were some of the only people in the group who didn't have gut issues, but perhaps that was because we'd each had our turn at that previously in our travels, or were more vigilant as a result.

Generally, in any tour, there’s at least one person who makes the tour less pleasant, somehow.  You know what we're talking about. Either someone is loud, rude, bored, or just annoying--sometimes all of the above. But there wasn't any of that in this group. We kept asking each other “Is it me?” because we couldn't believe there wasn't that someone.  We were all reasonably adventurous, open-minded, and very, very interested in Egypt.  We knit as a group pretty quickly, which made some of the long treks between sites fun instead of tedious.  We played music in the bus, asked each other questions, talked politics, movies, books, music--everything.  Mudi, our guide, was also incredibly enthusiastic about his job and his country.  He has a masters degree in Egyptology, and could answer any question we had—and several people in the group were hard-core Egypt geeks, so they had some detailed questions.  He really loved his job, and made us feel like family.  We felt comfortable asking him about Egyptian culture and Islamic Egypt, and he was always very open, without being evangelical.  And, he was really good at shepherding us through the gauntlet of touts at every site and city, while still allowing us a reasonable amount of freedom. In short, we lucked out, big time with both our group and our guide.  We'd like to think that all G Adventures groups are like this, and they probably are to some extent, but those on our tour that had taken other G Adventures tours said not completely. We were just a good group.

The tour was designed for a maximum of 15, not including Mudi, so we were also very lucky to have some extra elbow room in various mini-busses, as well as being a little more nimble at navigating sites efficiently.  Mudi mentioned that tourism was at about 10% of the levels it had been before the revolution in 2011, so we had far fewer tourist to contend with at all of the sites we visited.  And, as everyone knows, less than two months after we left, Egypt became genuinely chaotic, so we really picked an ideal time to go.

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Fuzzy dice are peanuts compared to a fuzzy tissue cozy, on a fuzzy dash mat

Our very first experience with G Adventures was just a few moments after stepping off the jetway at Cairo’s airport, at 5:45 in the morning.  We'd opted to book the optional transportation from the airport to the hotel through G Adventures, on their strong recommendation. Ahmet was standing front and center with our names on a sign, and he took us under his wing and guided us through what would have been a somewhat confusing Visa permit and Immigration control at the best of times, let alone early in the morning after a long overnight flight.  He offered us some gum while we were waiting for our bags (we would find this to be a hospitality we were often offered in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey), herded us out to a private car with a driver, which sped into the city on a highway at 90 miles an hour weaving in and out of traffic--who needs coffee anyway?  When we arrived at our hotel, Ahmet came in with us and negotiated a temporary room for us to drop our bags, shower, and nap in until our regular room would be ready at check-in time—a wonderful start. 

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We had three full days in Cairo before out tour started, counting the day we arrived.  We felt revived by noon, and switched rooms then, and headed out to explore.  We weren't even out of sight of the hotel before a man named Tommy struck up conversation with us.  We knew it was a conversational gambit from the start—we've become pretty attuned to it—but we also choose not to rudely shut it down when it happens.  Sure enough, as we walked with him, we just happened to reach his shop, where he insisted we come in for free drinks (which we successfully declined, though he was admirably persistent), and he showed us both his notebook of hand-written recommendations from other tourists, and his tour packages.  He was certainly a skilled salesman—he detected early on that we were not going to buy any souvenirs, and didn't waste any of our collective time trying to sell us any.  We were actually interested in a tour for one or both of the remaining free days, so we had no objections to hearing his prices and descriptions of tours.  Later, we Googled him, and he really is genuine—many people really love his tours, and they were about half the cost we’d pay to arrange the same exact outing through G Adventures.  We agreed to think about it, and he offered to buy us drinks at a café right next to the hotel later.  We did meet him, and had a very nice lunch.  Like most good salesmen, he was pleasant to talk to, and he did give us some good tips about the neighborhood, as well as a pretty mild introduction to the relentless sales pitch any foreigner will meet in Egypt.  We ended up going with G Adventures instead of Tommy, partly because they were a known quantity, and partly it was a good opportunity to meet some of the other people who would be in our group, who were also in Cairo early.

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We got to meet Chris, Wendy, and Taka, and visited Saqqara, the step pyramids that were predecessors to the great pyramids.  Lana had actually corresponded with Wendy online before we arrived in Egypt, via G Adventures travel boards, where you can chat with the other people in your tour in advance.  Even before we actually met Wendy, we were the recipients of her incredible sweetness of spirit and generous soul. When she found out we'd been gone from the States for so long, she offered to bring us anything we needed. This worked out very well for David, as we were able to purchase a replacement electric razor (you'll remember his disappeared when our bags went missing between Nairobi and Antananarivo) and have it delivered to her before she left Canada; she delivered it to us the morning we headed out together.  These are the last stubbly pictures you’ll see of David on this trip (and thanks again, Wendy!).

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The step pyramids were neat, but not huge.  The information at the visitor’s center (including a short film, narrated by Omar Sharif) was excellent, and some of the structures around the pyramids were very impressive.   Above, you can see the reflection in the polished surface of the limestone, which is original.  The entire surface of the great pyramids used to be covered in the same polished stone.  The step pyramids, however, were always stepped, like a huge, tiered cake.  They were actively working on them to try and keep them from completely degrading (hence all the scaffolding), but when you think about how old they are, approximately 2686 to 2613 BCE, it's hard to believe that there would be anything left at all.

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The big rock star in Memphis
We drove a short distance to Memphis, where the massive statue of Rameses II lies on its back (the base is broken).  The craftsmanship is awesome.  Outside central Cairo, many streets are dirt, and animal traffic is routine.  This scene is about as colorful as Cairo gets.  The city sprawls out around the green corridor of the Nile, into the surrounding desert, and blowing sand coats everything in a uniform tan.

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The next day we met the rest of our group, and set off for the Egyptian Museum, which is on Tahrir square, right next to the building that used to house the National Democratic Party headquarters, which was burned during the revolution.  It was a little sobering to see that.  Photography is prohibited inside the museum; there are some excellent sanctioned pictures in the Wiki article linked above, however.  The museum was incredible, and unlike any museum we've seen before.  It is crammed full of amazing things, but there are also many objects still entombed in huge, wooden packing crates.  It reminded us a little of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Also, only a few things had labels, and those few labels were the only text we saw—no descriptions or explanations.  Without a guide, you’d be fascinated but very confused.  The museum was built in 1902, and it just isn't large enough for the volume of artifacts that have been discovered yet not pilfered by private collectors or foreign museums.

After Mudi showed us what he considered the highlights that would benefit the most from explanation, we were free to wander on our own.  We tagged along with Chris, who was fairly knowledgeable about ancient Egypt, and walked through the King Tutankhamun hall.  Seeing the golden mask in person was an unforgettable experience.  Again, while we felt terrible that there were so few tourists, we were very pleased that we could just stand right in front of the mask (and behind it, to see what the inside looked like) for as long as we wished without crowds crushing against us.  Most of the group had grown up seeing pictures of the pieces that now surrounded us, and we could all imagine a little of what Howard Carter felt, peering into the tomb for the first time.

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We drove out of Cairo, towards Giza.  It was surreal to see the great pyramids looming in the distance, with brick construction taking place in the foreground.  We closed the final distance to the pyramids on camel back, which was really fun, and a little daunting.

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The gait of a camel is unlike any other beast either of us has ridden (horse, elephant, and donkey).  And getting on and off is exciting.  The camel stands up with its front legs first, so you need to lean forward, and hold on; it’s the reverse for sitting down, which feels even more awkward.


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The manipulated perspective shot was very popular with the camel tenders, who were happy to take pictures with our cameras, but who also insisted that we pose as if we were holding the pyramids.  Fortunately, we also got some good photos from them.

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Up close, the pyramids were staggering  The original, limestone casing is still visible at the top—though no longer polished, certainly.  There were very short sections that you could climb up on; we posed for a group photo on one.  The blocks are just massive.

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Also, despite what you may have heard, <insert fast food chain> isn’t right next to the pyramids.  You really have to know what you’re looking for, and look through a zoom lens to see one (we didn't see it, but I believe there is a red-roofed pizza chain in line of sight—though a good distance off).   You can see above how far the buildings are, and the closest fast food is likely a koshary place. 

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After the pyramids, the Sphinx seemed diminutive.  It’s still large (you can see two people on the left side of the photo), but it’s dwarfed in context.

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The manipulated perspective shot was popular here too; there were a dozen boys ready to take your picture for a small tip (Mudi recognized them, and vouched for them being trustworthy).  Lana engaged one while David was off photographing elsewhere.

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It happened to be David’s birthday, and a pretty fantastic day for it too—we didn't plan it that way, it’s just how the schedule turned out.  G Adventures had figured out that our birthdays would occur while we were on their tour (we had to give them a lot of information when we booked the tour), and Mudi arranged a cake for us, as a surprise, after an excellent dinner of kofte mixed grill.  The cake was quite tasty—though the traditional desert of oranges was also delicious.  We learned the pleasure of a piece of cool fruit on a hot day in Asia, and both the watermelon and oranges were so yummy in Egypt.

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We drove to the train station, and after Wendy showed us how good she was at haggling with one of the vendors (even we bought a deck of cards from him), we boarded, and found our sleeper cabin.  The bulge on the right is the sink, with the door/cover closed.  Below, is what it looks like opened.  It was tight, but fine.  We read and reviewed pictures, and chatted with some of the group for a while.

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The next time we saw the porter, we asked him to turn the beds out, which he did in a flash.  The ladder hooks onto something above the door, where the photo was taken from—so it’s simply leaning against the wall in this photo, but was quite stable in its intended position.  The bunks were reasonably comfortable, but the cabin was a little warm, as well as in motion.  It was not our most restful night of sleep, but it was far better than any other mode of overnight travel we've tried. You could actually put on pajamas, brush your teeth and sleep lying completely horizontally. As first class goes, a sleeper train to Aswan is not too bad.

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We were destined for Aswan in the morning (which is considered going "Up the Nile," even though we were headed South, because we were going toward the source), and though we’d be returning to Cairo later, we were done seeing the ancient sites there.  We’d seen little of the modern city, but it was an impressive start to our tour.