End of part II

Trip Start Aug 14, 2007
Trip End May 23, 2008

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Cairo, Egypt
GMT +2hrs

Every visitor to Egypt comes here, to reel at the Pyramids' baleful mass and the seething immensity of Cairo, with its bazaars, mosques and Citadel and extraordinary Antiquities Museum. It's equally impossible not to find yourself carried away by the street life, where medieval trades and customs coexist with a modern, cosmopolitan mix of Arab, African and European influences.
- The Rough Guide to Egypt

Tourist overdrive
We'd like to think we went into tourist overdrive, in a very relaxed, freewheeling sort of way, since getting back to the seething megalopolis that is Cairo from Luxor early yesterday morning. We've kept ourselves busy, especially today; we've been to the Cairo's Citadel to see its nice Mohammed Ali mosque (we sort of expected to find a boxing ring in the middle of the mosque but of course that was a stupid expectation), we've walked amongst the dead - and the living - in the Northern cemetery and we've paid yet another visit to the cities Islamic district to walk amongst and around its mosques & souqs (markets) (btw, am I the only one who finds it weird that there is a so-called Islamic district in the greatest city in the Islamic world?... it's akin to having a Chinatown in Beijing). Of course we continued to dodge the traffic and the touts on Cairo's streets, paid a few more visits to Drinkies (we're not, and never will be, on 1st name terms with the staff... I don't think they like us... I suspect they might think we're alcoholics), ate more Gad shwarmas & Egyptian pizzas (Gad is a national western-style fast food eatery which serves, emm Egyptian food), picked up our suits (we've still to make a final judgement on their quality but first impression aren't good), haggled with taxi drivers and spent the last two nights viewing, from our Hotel Luna balcony, the night time scene of illegal t-shirt sellers dodging the authorities on the always busy menswear & shoe shop infested Talaat Harb street. With a Drinkies Stella beer in hand it's as enjoyable an activity as one can do in Cairo.

Not forgetting

'All things dread time, but time dreads the Pyramids'
- Anonymous proverb

Oh, least I forget, yesterday we've paid a visit to the Cairo suburb of Giza to see those ultimate monuments of antiquity, and arguably the most famous monuments in the world, the Giza Pyramids. Getting there, only 10km from downtown Cairo, via public transport was an exercie in time wasting if ever there was one. And of course it goes without saying that attempting to take in the sight Pyramids themselves once we eventually got to the foot of them was the usual exercise in dealing, badly or otherwise, with the touts who even here, at the countries main tourist attraction, are as ubiquitous and relentless as ever. As for the pyramids themselves. Yes, they are big, yes they are impressive and yes, they are still a mystery. Questions and answers as to how and why they have been built have inspired scholarly and crackpot speculations for centuries. We failed to come up with any answers ourselves during the limited time we spend gazing up at the 4600 year old structures, both from their bases and from atop camels. We also had no answers as to how the authorities could allow so many touts (my entries always seem to gravitate back to the touts) into the Giza plateau, the desert like plateau that is home to the 3 pyramids of Giza, to endlessly harass tourists. Our decision to take a 20 minute camel ride was taken mainly to avoid any further tout approaches more than it was taken for our own enjoyment (it was, however a thoroughly enjoyable experience and the highlight of our trip to the Giza plateau). Check out the pictures to get the full story (just be careful; there is a bit of reading involved... sorry).

Too much or too little?
Tomorrow we leave Cairo for good. By the time we leave in the morning we'll have spent a total of 4 nights here, 4 nights that neatly sandwiched the 3 nights we spent getting to, from and in Luxor. We think 4 nights is long enough to spend here. Of course there are those who would disagree, advocating that with so much to see and do you could spend weeks and merely scratch the surface of the city. And they'd be right (clearly insane, but right nonetheless). Then there are those who would have a string of reasons why 4 nights here is too long, chief amongst them being the city's density, pollution and maybe even the culture shock one could conceivably suffer here. None of that really bothered us (the touts on the other hand did, but they, we regretfully suspect, are not only limited to Cairo or Luxor). We just feel it's time to move on. And we've still quite a bit of ground to cover. We'll be heading north to the Mediterranean coast and to Alexandria, where we hear there is a 'different' kind of feel to the place. Different. Umm, we've absolutely no idea what that means. No touts maybe? Could we be that lucky?

Day 244 & 245 Observations (April 13th & 14th 2008)

Take your pick
Maybe it was the Stella's we had. Maybe we were just too anxious to get out of Luxor. Maybe it was the fact that no one in Luxor train station seemed to know when the 11pm train to Cairo, the train we had tickets for, was due to arrive. Or maybe, just maybe, it was a combination of all three. Whatever the reason we ended up hopping on the wrong train out of Luxor 2 nights ago. That caused quite a bit of consternation with the carriage attendant who, in fairness to him, did an amicable job of 1- hiding his shock at seeing two westerners on his train, and 2- informing us that we had to get off the train in a place called Qena, the next stop, and wait there for the train, the one we were supposed to be on, to arrive. The travel restrictions placed on foreigners travelling to and from Luxor, the ones I spoke of in an earlier entry, was the obvious reason why we couldn't just stay on the Cairo bound train we found ourselves on and we knew that, meaning we didn't even bother to question why we couldn't just stay where we were. The hour or so we spent in Qena station at 1am was an interesting hour an I doubt our remaining Egyptian itinerary will see us gracing such a nondescript, lawless, symbolic looking place again, even it is was the platform of a train station. Well, here's hoping.

We're both coffee fans so we know exactly how long ago it was that we had our last semi-decent cup of the stuff (for the record it was in Goa, India, almost 2 weeks ago). Here in Egypt you either get weak sachet coffee (called Nescafe) or the gritty, bitter Turkish variety (it tastes nothing like coffee and is, without doubt, an acquired taste, a taste neither of has acquired, nor are we likely to acquire). There are a few 'havens' here where you can get a coffee looking, although not necessarily coffee tasting, drink but even those havens can be too much work. Take for example our most recent visit to one such establishment, a western-style coffee house complete with glossy English menu and western prices. It was shortly after getting off the train from Luxor yesterday morning. Pat ordered an Americano, only to be told that there was emm, no Americano coffee even though it was clearly printed on the menu of coffees available.

"Finished," we were told.

Finished? What does that mean we wondered.

Pat then went to work on the poor waiter, who had obviously drawn the short straw; he was petrified by having to communicate in any way with alien looking foreigners.

"Do you have espresso?" Pat asked a few times, before finally receiving a rather nervous looking response of "yes."

It took Pat a while, but he eventually managed to inform the waiter that the coffee he was looking for was simply an espresso with boiled water... a watered down espresso. It took a few more minutes for us to be told a few more times that Americano coffees were "finished" and another few minutes after that for Pat to actually convince the by now sweating waiter to bring him an espresso and a cup of boiling water. It worked and though Pat enjoyed his DIY Americano and I enjoyed my cappuccino we'll be sticking with tea from now on. In Egypt it's just easier, and easier here is good. Oh so good.

Scamming - An Update
A few updates on the scamming. Yes, we're still been short-changed and by and large the prices we're paying for stuff is still arbitrary at best. But plain overcharging and arbitrary pricing is old news by now, almost 7 days into our Egyptian adventure. A few new approaches, if you will. A trolley boy on the train back to Cairo from Luxor simply didn't have change after we made a purchase of two sandwiches, and neither did the taxi driver who played dumb today when we asked for our change... and this was after he had brought us nowhere near where we actually requested to go. Both got a nice, albeit unwarranted, tip. Oh, and how about the metro employee who obviously made a mistake by giving us the correct change in the first place but in doing so made sure to give us the most tattered, disheveled notes he could find, notes we've subsequently found hard to pass off to anyone else, including the bus driver on the bus to the pyramids who took exception to the condition of the notes we used to pay our fare and thus let us off nowhere near the entrance to the pyramids (oh, he knew where we wanted to go alright). Tattered notes - just something else to watch out for.

2 firsts
We had two firsts yesterday. It was first time we rode in one of Cairo's beat-up Peugeot taxis, one whose roof rather alarmingly dropped to meet us once the car did any kind of speed. That was something the taxi driver found hilarious. Either that or it was our reaction to the collapsing roof that he found hilarious. The other first was not getting ripped off. It was by the same taxi driver who, surprise surprise, didn't actually take us to where we wanted to go but took us somewhere more convenient, and only for a slightly inflated fare. He was a good guy, proving that not all Egyptians are scammers.

Put them away
I was lambasted earlier today by an elderly Egyptian lady on the streets of the city for wearing shorts. Yep, it happened well away from the tourist frequented areas of the city (meaning we were lost), somewhere we walked to in search of the Northern cemetery. Our guidebook reminds those who care to read it (seemingly none of other many tourists on Cairo's streets), that

'shorts are socially acceptable only at beach resorts and shirts (for both sexes) should cover your shoulders. Many tourists ignore these conventions, unaware of how it demeans them in the eyes of the Egyptians.'

Fair enough but I'd recommend that nice elderly lady, who is no doubt having nightmares tonight over the sight of my legs and cursing me to Allah, not to go near the Kham al-Khalili bazaar area of Islamic Cairo where she would see western girls in skimpy string-vests and shorts that would make a beach-volleyball player blush.

Killing the Goose

"Unless you visit Egypt on a pay-up front/package/guided tour, spending your time in 5-star hotels and getting ferried from sight to sight in air-conditioned buses with an accompanying tour guide then be prepared to be endlessly harassed and ripped off by everyone you encounter."
- David Byrne, Author of Travelpods 'The Honeymoon' ... that's me folks!

Sad to say but we believe Egypt is slowly killing the Goose (its tourist industry) that lays the golden egg (it's myriad and timeless attractions). Of course we don't actually believe that; Egypt is the oldest tourist destination on earth and its attractions are bigger than any opinions anyone might express and we have no doubt that people will continue to flock to those attractions no matter how much hassle those same people receive and may report on. But one thing is for sure, as an independent traveller, one who is not sheltered by the package tour/5-star hotel/tour guide bubble, Egypt is a testing place to travel. And that's all I'll say on that. Sorry to harp on.
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