Welcome to the Land of the Pharaohs
Trip Start Feb 28, 2013
10Trip End Mar 22, 2013
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After a smooth 6.5 hour flight from Bombay, Cairo appeared like a dusty maze in the desert tan sand from the sky.
Egypt at last! Memories of stories and legends learned from school, movies and National Geographic danced in our heads. It is our first time here and we were excited that we would soon see the country of the Nile, Pharaohs, Cleopatra, 5000 year old temples, pyramids, sphinx and Tutankhamun.
There was no line at the Immigration desk at all! They sent us to the bank window to buy our $15 Visa (10 seconds) and processed us within seconds while being friendly and efficient. We got our luggage, Egyptian Pounds at the ATM, and a Vodafone SIM card at the airport arrival hall.
On the curb, we met Alexander, a young Arabic speaking Canadian Muslim guy who teaches
English and studies Islamic Sciences in Jordan. We shared a taxi to the center of Cairo. He came to Egypt to spend the 48 hours statutory time before reentering Jordan on another 1 year visa. He has the, easily agitated, 'New Yorker" demeanor and had an attitude about the people of Jordan, they are all Bedouins, he explained as if no more needed to be said.
In Cairo, Minarets protrude on the skyline instead of Hindu Temples most common in India.. Alexander said Cairo is known as a city of mosques! Most people here are Muslim but there are many Coptic Christians and a few Jews, no other denominations, he told us.
More trees and grassy fields line Cairo's roads than was apparent from the plane. "It because of the Nile River" Alexander explained. Driving is plenty crazy here too sans the persistent honking. Actually I wish they did more of that here. Maybe a little India withdrawal on my part;)
It is cooler here, quite perfect, and evening is sweater time.:)
We saw no indications of extra security at the airport or in the city where the unrest has been.
Hotel from Yesteryear
Our hotel "Pension Roma" is rated very highly on TripAdvisor.com and for good reason. The 'only in the movies' style caged elevator adds to the ambiance of yesteryear, took us to the 4th floor. The hotel has super high ceilings and plenty of settees to get sociable or private as we wish.
People, especially the men, are super friendly even touts seem more soft spoken and, so far, one "no thank you" is enough. Maybe beginners luck.
First meal here was not a big hit. We chose the wrong thing. We thought we ordered Kushari, an Egyptian vegetarian pasta dish. We asked if we could get it with mutton. The waiter said "yes". What we got was more spaghetti like tomato sauce on overcooked macaroni with mutton. It was not the Kushari dish at all. Egyptians like to finish meals with something sweet and we got a killer rice pudding type dessert.
It had been an early start for a long day of traveling and we fell asleep as soon as our heads hit our pillows.
1 March 2013 - Cairo
Let's Go Surfing
We spent the morning responding to all the overwhelming amount of invitations we received from Egyptians through Couch-Surfing. We posted our itinerary on the site which is a new feature. People can see your itinerary and invite you over. We have had good luck with Couch-Surfing hosts before and thought it would be a great way to meet a local friend. We picked 'Rami’ because he is near the Giza Pyramids and had good references. We accepted his invitation by sending him a message though the site.
The Train, The Train!
The next order of the day was to get our train tickets for the daytime train to Aswan near the source of the Nile. There have been travel restrictions preventing foreigners from taking the daytime train to Aswan in the past. The desk man at our hotel said he did not know if they would sell us tickets for the daytime train to Aswan at the station but we should try, at least a day in advance. The alternative is to board the train and buy a ticket after it departs, a problem if the train is full.
We started with Tourist Information office in the train station. The woman promptly pulled out a binder with the price lists for the sleeper class train and the seat class option. Both depart at night and arrive in the morning. We specifically asked 'what about the 8 AM train?' There are only trains at night, she insisted.
In the big train hall, the electronic signboard displayed that the next train to Aswan departs at 12:00. "No train in the day" claimed at the tourist office was conflicting and clearly bogus. We asked around and eventually found window 1 which sells tickets for the 8 am train. "No seats" the window woman stated. We left dejected.
Whoops, We Went to Tahir Square
We took the metro to the stop next to Tahrir Square and popped out of the exit right at the site of Egypts Arab Spring uprising and subsequent demonstrations and violence. There were a few people milling about and it looked merely like an ‘occupy wall street’ location with a few tents with squatters. We didn't intend to end up in the square and beat it quickly away toward the highly recommended ‘Hati Al Geish’ restaurant.
Best Lunch EVER
Hati Al Geish was totally empty to the point that we thought it was closed. We went in and ordered Middle Eastern food the likes of which we haven’t seen since Michigan. It was the best. Lamb shanks, babaganoush, and humus, they called tahini. The pictures tell the story. After eating overly spicy Indian cuisine for months, this was a welcome treat. We felt like a parched people returning from the desert to find abundant cool water. We lingered over the feast.
Now, That’s the Ticket
During lunch, I checked seat61.com which gave evidence that western tourists can take the 8 am train to Aswan. The site said one can simply buy the tickets on-line. We registered immediately for an account at www.egr.com.eg and found the Cairo to Aswan train listed with seat availability. But the system threw an error message when using our smart phone to order. (Later the same evening, using the netbook computer, we successfully made a new reservation and confirmed payment. The site said to print the reservation page and board the train. No other ticket or check-in was needed.)
Taken for Ride
We planned to spend the afternoon over a Khan al-Khalili market, a bazaar for spices, perfumes, fez and carpet-makers, as well as typical tourist stuff. It was just 3 km away and we decided to go by taxi.
The white taxies are known to be the metered taxies and the black ones for un-metered negotiated fares. We know people who swear by negotiated rides which take any incentive away from the drivers who might otherwise take the long way. We swear by meter rate and insisted our white taxi guy use his meter. He reluctantly turned on his meter after we told him to pull over. He put the meter on and proceeded to take us on a 10 kilometer, 30 minute ride, the super long way to the nearby Khan al-Khalili bazaar. We told him during the ride to pull over and let us out. We knew this wasn't the right way. He refused and promised that everything was ‘okay’. He rang up 30 EGP ($4.50). We figured the ride should have been less than 15 but offered him 20. Dave accused guy of taking us around Cairo and he argued “no English’ ‘no English’. ‘Let’s go see the police,’ Dave said. “No English’ ‘No English’ the cabby retorted. His taxi was blocking traffic and Dave put on a shrug and walked off…. Dave swore he saw the guy pull away with a mischievous half smiling look on his face.
We threw ourselves in the heart of the busy tourist section of the bazaar with Persian slippers, Pharaoh tee-shirts, shishas, and plastic pyramids. Nothing we couldn't pass by. We found the spice section with large open top sacks of colorful and aromatic spices. Yumm.
Then we went on to the perfume section. We let ourselves be pulled into one shop and let the perfumer pick some scents he though we might love like jasmine, rose, sandalwood, etc. I told him what I liked and he picked something. No, he didn't hit any of the right notes. Then as we decided to part, he put one more on my arm and asked me to guess what it was… Opium! That was my favorite in years past. There are tons of other sections in the market we skipped. We’d seen enough for one day and we walked home to our hotel. And it wasn't very far.
So far the most annoying thing here is the fact that people smoke everywhere. There do not appear to be any laws to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. And smoking foreigners who "suffer" restrictions back home do not apologize when they light up here.