Egypt - Awe and Angst!!!
Trip Start Oct 13, 2004
23Trip End Jun 21, 2005
It has been brought to my attention that there may have been a time stamping issue on the submissions for "Name that Song" in our Phuket post. So in a spirit of fairness, drinks go to both Nancy AND Cheryl. Cheers and thanks to all of you that played...it's nice to know people are actually reading this stuff :-)
Let's be honest, up to this point this trip has really been pretty much idyllic so I guess we were due for a bit of a shocker...we were so unprepared! We should have known based on our welcome to Cairo when we were transiting thru to Tanzania. Here we were systematically removed of our tickets, luggage and passports with the suggested requirement of a little 'gift' to help expedite things thru.
We arrived from Tanzania all rosy-faced and ebullient, fresh from one of the most amazing experiences of our lives. The contrast was shocking to say the least! Cairo - $17M people packed into a noisy, dirty, ugly city...a far cry from night sounds of lions roaring and buffalo munching outside our tent. All nite long, even on the 10th floor I heard traffic noise...that is until 4:30 am when the Mosque next door blared the call to prayer on their loud speakers...talk about Conversion Tactics :) It really is the weirdest city - so much traffic vying for road supremacy with seemingly no road rules and then on the very same busy streets are donkeys pulling carts of vegetables and camels sauntering along. Surreal.
All I can say is we made the right decision in deciding to hire a driver and guide for this portion of our travels - I cannot imagine what a trip this would have been without them! From the minute we landed at the airport, we had a representative at our side whisking us thru "The Gauntlet". After our transit experience, I have no doubt in my mind that a significant amount of 'gift' money would have been required to get us thru the 4 different stations we had to pass thru just to get our luggage. Bribery is just a part of the game here and certainly not a game I understand at all
It became very clear from the onset that this was not a friendly country. I have never been in a country where you are despised simply because of the color of your skin. You knew it, you felt it, even as you walked down the street. It became very clear how serious the extremists are in their demented hatred when the first day we arrived in Cairo a suicide bomber blew himself up in a popular shopping bazaar in Cairo, killing 3 people and injuring 18 others. We had spent that whole day exploring Cairo and I had full intentions of shopping there too, but luckily we decided our schedule was already too full. A sobering start to this leg to say the least.
Anyway, enough horror stories (for now)...if there were no redeeming factors we would have left right then, but after much prayer and analysis the decision was made to continue our exploration of this country. It really is a fascinating place from a history perspective - where else do you see things over 5000 years old, still intact. Some of the things we explored were:
·The Egyptian Museum is an amazing place showcasing incredible displays of Mummies, Tombs and Palace artifacts - it was amazing to see the remains of King Tut's tomb
·Old Cairo was totally cool, especially seeing where three religions meet, Islamic Mosques, Coptic Churches and Jewish Synagogues. The El Movallaqa Church is believed to be a place where Jesus and his family stayed here while traveling thru Egypt - bizarre to actually sit in a place where Jesus once stood. The synagogue was presumably built on the place where Moses was found by the Pharaoh's daughter floating down the Nile, after all the male babies were sentenced to be killed - so rich in history, it's mind blowing. But hey, imagine the security in a location flanked by a Christian Church and a Jewish Synagogue, I've never experienced anything like it.
·Of course the Pyramids and the famous Sphinx, were a highlight.
·Overnight on board Sleeper Train to Aswan. This was a totally cool experience for the whole family - we all loved it. We even had adjoining sleepers so it was like a big pajama party. When I awoke and looked out the window we were now in village areas...I looked in the fields and everyone was in robes, riding donkeys...I felt like I had been transported back into Biblical times...it was incredible.
·Aswan in itself was ok, tho' the Temple of Philae was special
·Luxor is a really beautiful old town with some amazing temples and the Avenue of the Sphinxes. In it's time there was miles of road joining the temples lined on either side with huge sphinxes....unbelievable to see even the little bit that has been unearthed.
·After it was decided that pyramids were a bit of an obvious landmark for grave robbers the ancient Egyptians tried a new strategy of elaborate underground tombs. These were found at the Valley of the Kings and Queens which were really interesting to explore.
Well we were toured-out at this point and starting to get strung out from the open hostility so it was a welcome change as we set off on our second leg in Egypt - diving and beaches of the Red Sea. Of course to get there we had to join up with a military convoy to go across the Eastern Desert
Destination: Hurghada which was basically built over the past 10 years as a tourist destination for Europeans. It feels less hostile as it's only purpose is tourism, but here most everyone at our resort was either from Germany or Russia. When it was determined that we were English, a whole new wave of discrimination started. The general consensus seems to be that everyone from North America are war-mongers and anti-Muslim. The only thing any of them seem to know about Canada was Canada Dry, a drink apparently no longer imported since 9/11. I eventually started 'speaking' French (Bonjour, Merci, etc) just to avoid hassle which for any of you that know me is a TOTAL joke...I speak about as much French as George Bush. However, the locals didn't know that and as long as they thought we were from Europe we seemed to fare better. The kids thought I was completely insane and initially would blow my cover - "why are you saying that mom?" I had difficulty explaining.
We took it pretty easy and had some good times. Kayla and I participated in Environment Day, where we went snorkeling and cleaned garbage out of the ocean. They made a contest out of it and we ended up taking 3rd prize which won us a snorkeling trip out on a Glass Bottom boat
We took in some diving one day which was beautiful, but I realized what pampered divers we have become. The German company that ran the dive company was extremely efficient but clearly expected you to do everything yourself...sadly I haven't rigged up my own dive gear in over 5 years and felt pretty helpless trying to remember all the stuff. We realized later that it's a safety precaution as the Egyptian assistants really aren't to be trusted, but I felt quite unprepared at the time.
Most of the time you just felt like you had to be on guard. People seemed to be trying to stiff you at every turn. We know that we were hugely cushioned by our guide - as long as we were with him people pretty much left us alone
And then there's the tipping...an Egyptian colloquialism for bribery and harassment. They expect to be tipped for freaking EVERYTHING. Again, we were cushioned to some degree by our guide but it was still horrendous. We heard stories of people being severely hassled for not 'tipping' someone who had pointed out a rock to them at the temple. At one of the tombs where guides weren't allowed, we went in and one of the guards would stand in front of you, wave a piece of cardboard in your face and then not let you by until you tipped him for fanning you. I'm serious...I'm laughing at the absurdity as I write this, but let me tell you at the time I had reached my limit. It wouldn't be so bad except most things are done with some element of hostility....you really don't know to what level they will go to. An undercurrent of animosity at all times, you could almost feel it in the air...and this is a moderate Muslim country. I can NOT imagine what it must be like in the more fundamentalist Muslim countries like Iran or what is was like in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Soooo, I loved the history lesson, the amazing archeological wonders found in the pyramids, tombs and temples from BC but hey, let's face it - there is a lot of hostility here. I would say the tourism industry survives here in spite of the culture. That said, we did meet some really good people and the government is clearly trying to do their part ... there are more Tourism and Artifact Police than you can imagine
·Our guide and tour company...they really went out of their way to ensure our safety and comfort at every level. I can not say enough about how well they treated us.
·Sleeper Train Pajama Party
·The Art and History
·Environment Day with Kayla
·The Red Sea
·Kids Club at Le Pacha Resort
·The suicide bombing in Cairo
·The animosity towards westerners. A woman in her full Burka (Moslem dress covering head/body) actually spat on the street when we walked by.
·The tipping nightmares & feeling like people are out to get you
·The food - we complained in Germany but we had NO idea
·I'm not even going to start with my treatment of women section, tho' I got significant fodder while getting a massage from an Egyptian Muslim woman who married a German. Horrible stuff.
1.The sheer magnitude of the history going back 5000 years...
2.The Pyramids of Giza
3.Visiting the hanging church & another church where the Holy family stayed in Old Cairo
4.The Valley of the Kings
5.The Temples of Karnak and Luxor
6.The Egyptian Museum in Cairo
8.Our guide who was awesome in steering us along and providing a ton of history
9.Our Tour company - this leg would have been a complete disaster without them
10.Kids Club at La Pacha in Hirghada
11.Kayla's stage debut as Mister Mistopholes in the German Production of Cats at La Pacha :)
12.Tyler participating in the Cats Production
13.Diving in the Red Sea
1.The general disdain/contempt for English speaking Westerners
2.The bombing in Old Cairo after our first full day in Cairo. This is just a little too close to the action for me.
3.Being in pretty much a constant state of anxiety, always on edge and never really feeling like I could relax.
4.Blowing my safety stop during my dive in the Red Sea. You'd think I had never dove before... it just punctuated how tightly wound I was while in Egypt.
5.The never ending supply of people who seem to have their hand out looking for a tip. It is absolutely insane and completely annoying. They have contempt for you on one hand but they sure want to get some of your money.
6.Culture Shock/Home Sick - I have never felt so stretched while traveling.
Well I am writing this with a couple days left in our Egyptian adventure but really we're done. We have 6 hour ride across the desert in a convoy/caravan with full military escort back to Cairo and then the next day we head to the airport to catch our plane back to Frankfurt. I can honestly say that I will never have been so happy to get on a plane in all my life as I will be on Tuesday.
Now before I just start ranting I am going to do my best to provide a balanced and as objective view of our time in Egypt as I can
Now before I go off and bash Egypt to badly, it is not without its highlights. Egypt is clearly a place steeped in history. 5000 years of it to be exact. And visiting the various icons of this amazing past like the Pyramids of Gyza, The Valley of the Kings, Old Cairo, the Temples of Luxor and Karnak all bring home just how amazing the accomplishments of the Ancient Egyptians really were. This was an advanced society, a learned society and a very talented society when it came to things like the arts. The fact that anything left is a testament to them, the fact that some of what is left is so well preserved defies belief. Their stonework and carvings are stunning. They actually carved the rock off to form their carvings giving the feeling that the images were coming out of the stone rather than carving the images into the stone. This contrast was clearly visible in the temple at Luxor where you had ancient carvings done by the Egyptians, side by side with some done later on by the Greeks. All in all this aspect of our Egyptian Odyssey was totally amazing.
This part of our Egyptian experience was made even better by our tour guide who will remain nameless
And after the bombing in Old Cairo, which we had visited earlier that day, having a Christian guide in a Muslim country was very comforting indeed. The thing that struck me the most about our guide was the pride with which he told us he was a Christian. In fact many of the Christians in Egypt have a small cross tattooed on the inside of one of their wrists and they are clearly plugged into other Christians throughout Egypt as we came into contact with several other Christians via our guide along the way.
It was both amazing and shocking for me being from Canada that Christians would need to be so cautious. That said, that honor/pride in the face of what I'm sure is some fairly serious persecution is a testament to their faith
Anyway, our first few days in Egypt were a flurry of activity the first full day spent heading out to the Egyptian Museum complete with the Treasures of King Tut's tomb which were very cool and some great lessons in history from our guide who took us through the various times of Ancient Egypt from Old Kingdom thru to New Kingdom. It was amazing to hear about all the different machinations these kingdoms went through over time and the accomplishments and religions that flourished and died over a 3000 year period. It struck me that most of the history that I have focused on is Western History sort of post Jesus. Anything prior to that I must confess I never really paid much attention to and even most of what came after that I never paid much mind to. This trip has changed that as I have learned a lot about history from the various places we have visited and mind myself intrigued by human history and the history of our planet more so than ever before. So, this part of the Egyptian leg was fascinating.
After the museum we visited the Citadel and the Mohammed Ali Mosque which is huge and then over to Old Cairo where there is some amazing Christian Heritage, the hanging church and another ancient Christian Church that is said to have been one of the places of refuge for the Holy Family when the fled to Egypt
So much I don't know.
That first night as we were lounging in our Hotel we saw the news story about the Suicide Bombing in Old Cairo. That was indeed a bit of wake up call to say the least. I mean we have done our very best to stay away from areas that could be perceived as overly dangerous and quite frankly have been very blessed on this trip so far. So, the news that a bomb had gone off somewhere in the vicinity of an area we had visited earlier in the day was completely surreal for me. I just kind of laid on the bed in shock not really knowing what to say or do. Do we just get the heck out of Dodge or what?
Anyway we talked it through, prayed about and made the decision to stay, it was probably the right decision but by the time we arrived in Hirghada I was thinking we should have pulled the plug and what was I thinking extending our stay in Egypt an extra few days
Now after we spent the next day checking out the Pyramids and The Sphinx etc. we caught the night train to Aswan which for me was totally awesome. We had not done the sleeper train thing yet and this turned out to be a blast for all of us. It is a twelve hour ride and I personally would do it again. As far as Aswan itself goes I could take it or leave it but the unfinished Obelisk is pretty cool and going for a boat cruise on the Nile was a highlight. We also did a carriage ride around Aswan and got to see some areas off the tourist trail if you will. These people don't have much so on one hand I found myself very judgmental of the general attitude of the people etc. but at the same time I realized I live in a completely different world than they do. Different in pretty much every way possible, so it is probably unfair to be so hard on the people
Luxor was a highlight with the Temples of Karnak and Luxor and the Avenue of the Sphinx and the Hotel in Luxor was great. Luxor is also where we parted company with our amazing guide. I was sad to see him go as I knew he had been our shield and protector and I must confess to being a bit worried about not having him with us going forward. That said our driver in Luxor, also a Christian, was going to be the driver to take us in the Military Escorted Convoy across the desert to Hirghada. Now, if there was a slim chance that you had not felt uneasy so far, the knowledge that you and a whole bunch of other tour and mini-buses required a Military Escort, for your safety, to cross the desert surely would have put an end to that. :)
Happily the journey to Hurghada was a non-event with the highlight being the various mini-bus drivers who, I'm sure out of shear boredom, spent much of the trip passing each other and jockeying for position as if we were in some desert rally race. It was quite amusing and all in good fun, most of the time anyway.
Hurghada is destination place for Europeans looking for some place cheap to go that is warm with great diving. From what we gathered it is mostly Germans and eastern Europeans who now frequent Hirghada
We were booked in at La Pacha Resort which was a recommendation from a fellow we met in Bali while diving. It turned out to be an "All Inclusive" resort which seems to cater primarily to Germans and Russians. And was quite frankly a great refuge for me anyway. I didn't have to leave the hotel if I didn't want to and the kids were happy as they had a pool and a Kids Club which fortunately for us the coordinator spoke English as well as German. I must confess it was nice to have them go off to Kid's club for a few hours, it gave me some downtime and some time to work through my homesickness.
The highlight for me was one night the evenings activity was a performance of the Musical Cats, in German, by the Tour Staff who were lip-synching each of the songs. What made if fun was that the kids who had been in Kids Club, Kayla and Tyler included, were also participants in the production and had had their faces all made up for the show. As it turned out, Kayla got to take center stage during one song as "The Magical Mister Mistopholes" which was so great and Tyler the little shy boy that left Canada 6 months ago was up there as well having a blast
Now the reason we came to Hirghada in the first place was to Dive in the Red Sea. We have heard for years from numerous people that the Diving in the Red Sea is amazing. And one of the reasons we chose La Pacha is that there is a reputable dive company, Orca, located right at the Hotel. So, Shannon and I signed up for a day of diving and they were kind enough to let us bring the kids along for no charge. So with eager anticipation we boarded the dive boat for what I hoped would be an awesome day. In the end it turned to be my best day in Egypt but likely my worst dive experience since I got certified, all by my own hand I might add.
First of all I was probably a bit cocky after some great dives recently and the comfort that I had felt on those dives. What I was not prepared for was how pampered we have been diving recently. All the equipment prepped for you etc. all you have to do is put it on, make sure the air is working and get in the water. Not so with Orca, these guys (girls actually) run a serious diver operation for serious divers and serious divers take care of there own stuff
Anyway we finally got rigged up and into the water and from there until it was time to surface things went pretty smoothly, I got my neutral buoyancy figured out and away we went. That said, I can't tell you much of what I saw as I never really relaxed, like I said you'd think I had never dove before and at the end I just completely blew my safety stop. It was brutal, I was ashamed and embarrassed which was only punctuated by the Dive Master who upon returning to the boat looked at me and said with his wonderful German accent "Vat the hell vas dat Mark" , I could have just crawled under a bunch of tanks and died, actually I just slunk to the front of the boat and had a little pity party for myself. I mean he was right, I have no idea what I was thinking, I just wanted to get out so I did. Anyway, we ended up having a good chat with him later and I apologized for my actions and he was totally cool about it. That said, I had lost my desire to dive anymore that day and just skipped the second dive and instead chose to just relax in the sun on the deck of the boat
The other thing that occurred while on the dive boat was funny in those funny because it is not happening to me kind of ways. While we were finishing lunch we spotted this diver from another boat who gotten separated from his buddy and was way off the dive plan and several hundred yards out into the sea from where the boats were. He was clearly not in a good way as the current was pushing him out and he was fighting to stay even let alone make his way back in. Yet nobody from his boat was paying any attention. My favorite German dive master then had some very colorful comments which I will not include but the gist of which was "I know those guys, they could give a shit if that guy died". It just was a further reinforcement of how different life is valued or not valued in this case compared with Western values. In this case the story has a happy ending another dive boat actually moved out and picked the guy up and took him to his boat. Sadly, this same boat, a week or so prior had the misfortune of finding a couple of divers who had not been so fortunate, all I could think of were his comments... "they could give a shit..."
That pretty much summed up the sentiment I/We felt when we were out and about in the masses and sadly it is probably true. It is also the reason I will never return to Egypt or for that a matter likely anywhere in the middle-east. I just don't need that kind of stuff in my life. It is too bad because in many ways Egypt has much to offer the tourist and traveller but what you have to put up with is just not worth it for me. Like I said though, the Germans and Russians seemed to have a much easier time of it and seemed to be really enjoying their time in Hurghada. Am I being to hard on Egypt? Maybe but as good old Joe Sports likes to say "Those are my thoughts not yours..."
Kayla - The pyramids, the amazing 5000 year old culture, Kid's Club, Environment Day, being in "Cats", riding a camel
Tyler: - "same as Kayla" (she hates it when he 'copies' her but such is life...we'll get him to answer first next time)
Tyler: When Daddy was mad at me for not saying thank you & good bye to the teacher at Kid's Club
Kayla: Missing the Kid's Club Day at the Aqua Fun Park