Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel; February 26 – March 15, 2009
2/26/09 - 3/15/09 88 °F
As the plane prepared to land in Cairo, Egypt, I felt a tinge of excitement. After all, it's a new country, a new culture, and a new continent.
The culture of modern Egypt may be new to me, but its ancient sights are definitely not. It was really cool to actually see all the things I've seen/ heard about for so long. Our first stop was, of course, the pyramids at Giza. Some people say it's disappointing because it's not in the middle of an empty desert (you can, however, take a picture from a certain angle to make it look like it is).
For me, that didn't matter. It was still amazing. It's actually pretty cool to see the ancient pyramids tower over the modern apartment buildings (imagine saying “why yes, I have a view of the pyramids from my balcony”). What was more surprising and made the pyramids more difficult to appreciate were all the touts inside the entrance that won't leave you alone, especially since we didn't have a tour guide. At one point one of the camel drivers tried to pick up Ashok and put him on the camel (the trick is that once Ashok's on, the camel will take off and then the driver can demand payment even though we never wanted to ride it in the first place).
In fact, it seems like the modern Egyptians conspire to not let you enjoy the ancient sites. We've seen our share of touts – they can get pretty bad in Vietnam and India – but in Egypt it's a whole different league. Here it's more like a very friendly, long, and persistent sell. They think nothing of spending 15-20 minutes and walking several blocks with you to try to strike up a conversation (Ashok's new name is "Hey India!"). In fact, they get offended when you try to brush them off. It gets tiring after a while because they take up soooo much time, and it's the same conversation over and over again. It's the only country where we had our guard up everytime someone approached us because everyone's in on it - the cops, the security guards at the sites, the "friendly local" that's just practicing his English but somehow always has a friend who owns a shop or hotel or is a tour guide. I guess you can't really blame them since they've had several hundred years to hone their touting skills and perfect their scams.
Here's one where the baksheesh (tip) was worth it. At Sakkara there's a "peeping hole" where you can see the statue of the king inside the tomb which the security guard showed us (unsolicited) in exchange for some baksheesh. It's in the guidebook so it's not that secretive, but we wouldn't have found it without the guy:
Of all the places, we liked Aswan because it was relatively low key in terms of the touts, and is situated on a scenic part of the Nile. We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon sailing on the Nile on a felluca (traditional wooden sailing boat):
Here are some other highlights, even though pictures really can't capture the grandness of the structures and need to be seen in person to be appreciated:
The Sakkara pyramid - this one really is in the middle of an empty desert:
The Hypostyle Hall at the Karnak Temple in Luxor:
Ashok at the Medina Habu Temple in Luxor (mortuary temple for Ramses III), where the wall reliefs are still clearly visible after thousands of years:
Abu Simbel. Judging by the graffiti we saw on the statues (from several hundred years ago), they were not as strict about not letting visitors climb all over the statues as they are today.
Philae Temple (in Aswan) at night - we decided to do a Sound & Light Show, and realized that we're really not Sound & Light show people. At least the view of the temple was nice:
We also biked around the west bank of Luxor one day. Since the sun sets in the west, the ancient Egyptians associated the West Bank with death so all the tombs and mortuary temples are on that side. These Egyptians were seriously obsessed with life after death. Just think about the amount of time and energy and money that went into the building of the pyramids and the tombs, the collection of the treasures that are buried with the dead, and the detailed rituals of the mummification and funerary process! Ironically, after all that, none of the tombs survived intact.
Despite the touts, Cairo is a fascinating city to explore: mosques with their domes and minarets dot the skyline instead of church steeples, mannequins in shops showcasing the latest fashion in black formfitting long dresses (all of the outfits come with matching head cover), men in traditional dress sitting in local coffee shops smoking sheeshas (water pipes), and boys cruising down the street on bikes in the middle of traffic with a rack of Egyptian bread on their heads.
Taking taxis around town was another interesting experience. Anyone who's traveled knows to negotiate the price beforehand if the cab does not have a meter. In Cairo, however, one does not talk price at all before getting into the taxi. One is supposed to just know the market rate and give that amount to the taxi driver at the end (we figured out the rate by asking our hotel staff). Basically the idea is that you're supposed to pay whatever you think is right. The magic number for us was 7 EGP - when we pay that, the drivers just take the money and leave (and we feel like such locals). We think it's because the local price is really 5 or 6 pounds so the extra pound makes it worthwhile for the driver not to argue.
Due to some mix up with the Moroccan visa application process which is a long story in itself, we ended up spending an extra week in Cairo. A couple of things helped to make it easier to cope with the touts - our hotel, and sheeshas (for Ashok anyway). Our hotel, the Paris Hotel (email@example.com), was our sanctuary during our stay in Cairo. It was quiet, cozy, relaxing (a premium when traveling on a budget in Cairo), and it was the one place where no one tried to sell us anything. At the same time, the owners and staff were always there to help, or at least offer tea or coffee.
The one Egyptian habit that we liked was the coffee house culture. EVERYONE in Egypt smokes sheeshas... at any time, morning or night... and the coffee houses are everywhere. These are not hip Starbucks looking cafes, although some can be really nice, like Cafe Fishawi at the Khan el Khalili square. Most are just tiny store fronts with a few tables and chairs that spill out into the sidewalk, and offer only Egyptian coffee (similar to Turkish coffee), Egyptian tea, and sheesha. It's a great way to relax and while away a few hours in the evening. I tried the sheesha but stuck to the tea (with fresh mint and sugar) since the smoking was not helping me recover from the bronchitis I had in India.
Ashok, on the other hand, really took to sheesha and, like the Egyptians, was smoking it several times a day. Luckily for him sheesha-smoking is a part of Muslim culture so he got to enjoy it all the way through to Turkey. I may have to do a post just on all the different places where he smoked sheesha.