Planes, Trains and Camels?
Trip Start Dec 22, 2009
76Trip End Jun 22, 2010
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My guess is that the answer lies in Economics. Unlike other competitors, Egypt is primarily a desert. Being that a dessert has little (or no) exportable natural resources (save for gas, if available) I believe Egypt's prognosis can only be sourced from the fact the country itself does not really have a ton of export revenue coming in. In contrast, it does pull in Billions from regulating the Suez Canal as well as exploiting its national treasures (its ancient ruins). So, at this point you are probably wondering why the tone of this entry is different? Well, it's not because Laura and I are having anything but an exceptional time so far, it is because I want you to understand the true face of Cairo.
With tourism being the source for more than 25% of the nation's incoming currency, seemingly everyone is involved. On every street corner you see dirty children and men in traditional Muslim dress hawking plaster pharaoh heads or replicas of the pyramids. There are touts (though not too bad so far) trying to get you to stay at their hotel or eat at their restaurant. There are loud Arabic melodies coming from cell phones at every direction and a continuous chaos that keeps you constantly at guard as you reflect on the fact that you are truly in a place that is the polar opposite of the United States.
The run down on our stay in Cairo…
Amidst the mania of the Cairo International Airport was our smiling guide Naglaa with placard in hand. Naglaa held out a sign reflecting "Lora Kalman" in a sloppy mess of capital and lower case letters. After jumping in the car with her we were informed that the plans needed to be modified slightly as the Muslim holiday had the trains packed to the gills. The new plans would be that we would have to take a seated chair car and that we were going to need to leave Cairo tomorrow evening for Aswan. Before heading to our hotel, we were going to have to hit the train station to grab the tickets.
I have to say that even I was a little nervous driving through the neighborhoods on our night ride through Cairo. Our car seemed like it was no match for the mix ominous traffic, men on cell phones , veiled women, beggars and trash that littered the streets. Cairo was in all sense of the word chaotic. No one (and I mean no one) obeyed any type of traffic law. No one was afraid to walk out in front of a bus or blindly throw a broken ladder or oily carbonator into the street. This was no mans land where everybody was out for survival; raw life in a primitive form.
The train station was a storm of taxi cabs, sand and smelled of urine. Since it was night and many street lights were broken, the station had an eerie bombed out airplane hanger feel to it. I followed Naglaa close as we walked up to the ticket window. The line was a mixed up mess of people trying to force themselves to the semicircle break in the glass that no attendant was standing at. The crowd swayed back and forth like a rugby scrum as each person jockeyed for the next in line position. Beyond the glass was a large dirty office space with three illiterate looking middle aged men who did not seem to care that anyone was waiting. After 30 minutes of pushing our way to the front we were able to secure two pieces of cardboard with handwritten blue ink numbers. "This is your ticket" Naglaa said. "Don't lose it"
After procuring the tickets we headed back to a literal palace, the Gezera Palace to be exact. This site, now owned by Marriott , was build to accommodate the royals during the inauguration of the Suez Canal in the 1800's. The hotel now hosts many dignitaries and was the center for a large NATO conference when we attended. While pulling up the guard gate opened and our car was inspected with an undercar mirror and German Shepherd dogs for explosives. After we passed the checkpoint, we pulled up in front of one of the nicest hotels that we have stayed at since the trip began. Thank you Marriott reward points!!!!! The hotel had a large entry way with a veranda that is very reminiscent of the University of Tampa plant hall entrance. It had pillars, wooden framing, hanging lamps and marble statues in the entry way.
Naglaa followed us into the lobby so that we had a chance to finalize our Nile Cruise details and pay a deposit. "I will ensure upper cabin 5 star deluxe" Naglaa stated. In Egypt most boats are rated 5 stars. This roughly equates to 2-3 stars in the US. In order to get a 4 star US equivalent, you need 5 star deluxe and if you want a 5 star equivalent you need to order 5 star super deluxe. Based on the timing ahead, we wanted a 3 night 4 day cruise from Aswan to Luxor. How our trip was going to go down is detailed below:
1. Arrive in Cairo (Stay at Marriott)
2. Take guided tour of Pyramids and Cairo Museum (Overnight Train to Aswan)
3. Board boat in Aswan ; meet guide for afternoon trip to unfinished obelisk and temple of Philae (Night
1 on Boat)
4. Wake up at 3:00 am and take 3.5 hour bus through the desert to Abu Simbel. Cruise to Kom Ombo and visit in afternoon (Night 2 on boat)
5 Cruise to Luxor; Visit Edfu at night (Night 3 in Luxor)
6. Wake up check out and meet guide for trip to Valley of the Kings, Karnak Temple and Hapshuset Temple (take overnight train from Luxor to Cairo)
7. Check back into the Marriott (yay!) tour Old Cairo including the Citadel, Muhammad Ali Mosque and Kalif-a-Kalilli (old bazaar area) Spend night in the Marriott
8. Wake up and tour the city of the dead before heading back to the airport for India.
After bidding goodbye to Naglaa, we headed straight to the Spa and spent an hour at the Sauna (not naked this time!) The Jacuzzi, steam room and pool under a moonlit sky shall be remembered forever!
A quick shower later, we grabbed dinner at one of the 5 restaurants on the complex situated in the rear garden next to the casino. The food was way too expensive (as expected) and nothing to write a blog about. The Saqqara beer was pretty tasty though!
The whole hotel experience was pretty cool, you had your mix of dignitaries, Sheiks in white robes with red checkered head scarves peppered in with older American tourists, sleezy looking Egyptian business men and fully veiled Muslim women. The hotel had a definite Arab feel to it with great inlaid wooden furniture and spots of Arabic writing here and there. We were certainly glad that we could stay there!
Day 1 in Cairo - The Giza Pyramids
Unfortunately due to back problems, Naglaa had to farm out her guide duties to colleague Asma. Laura was not in the least pleased with this since she had done all of her due diligence on Naglaa and had referenced her. I assured her that Naglaa would not risk her reputation with some amateur and that everything was going to be fine. Our private driver met us at the hotel around 8:00 a.m. and we scooped Asma near Giza City. Asma was in her early 30s and seemed genuinely interested in meeting with us to show us the Pyramids. Asma gave a general rundown on how the pyramids were constructed and their significance to both the historical and current Egyptians. Once the history lesson was over we walked around the site and shimmied our way down a very low partially narrow tunnel to the inner chamber. The sarcophagus room was small and stuffy with not much to see save for an empty marble tomb. Then again, we didn't really go in there for splendor; hell, I just wanted to say that I made it into a pyramid. A couple minutes of quad burns back up the narrow pass, we met back up with Asma and headed over to some nearby temple dedicated to Horus the Sun God. The temple was largely outdoor (get it, the sun god….) and had some great columns, etc. After a brief explanation later it was off to the Sphinx and then on to the Cairo Museum.
The Cairo Museum is HUGE. It has thousands and thousands of artifacts. Big, small, short, tall, you name it. King Tut's tomb treasures were amazing and the entire museum was filled with true gems.
After making a slight detour to look for some canopic jars, we gathered our bags and headed out for the overnight train.
What do you mean 14 hours?
Funny fact: in Arabic the alphabet isn't the only thing that consists of squiggly lines, the number system does as well ٠١٢٣٤٥٦٧٨٩. As you can imagine, trying to decipher Arabic script on a dirty train in the dark is not an easy task. Once you manage to actually determine that this is your train (note you only have about 120 seconds to make the right call) you have to find the right train car and the right seat. Meanwhile there are all kinds of Egyptian people looking to "help you"; "Help you" out of any money that you might possess that is… So with guard up and cardboard tickets we made it into a small 6 chair seating car with a 4 some of Australian boys with more luggage than the Miley Cyrus world tour. Laura immediately proceeded to break their balls for having brought so much for such a short trip through Egypt. "Are you kidding me, your bag is bigger than mine and I am a girl traveling across the world for 6 months!" Insert shame … (here).
After being hammered by his boys we and the Australians tried out best to tuck it in while sitting up for the overnight travel. The only problem now was all of the in incredibly loud Egyptian people and their annoying habit to play loud Arabic music as if they were walking through Brooklyn in the late 70's. There was also the fact that we didn't have a door to our car and we were constantly intruded on by Tea hawkers or snack vendors.
After struggling through an ugly night, we awoke to the fact that our train was really ٠٣ hours instead of ٠١hours (14 instead of 12). Needless to say Laura was not very pleased.