Sunday, March 15, 2009

Egypt in 4 Days

So two weekends ago, Dezi, Dana, Martin and I traveled to EGYPT. Originally, Lauren, Kelly, and Erin (Lauren's friend from home who was visiting) were going to come too, but the terrorist attack at the bazaar in Cairo shook them up a bit and they decided not to go. It stunk for them because they all really wanted to go but figured it wouldn't be worth the worry. So Friday afternoon Dez and I were all packed and ready to go, thinking that we would want to arrive at the airport about 1.5 hours before take off. I guess things are different in Cyprus, because the guy who was taking us to the airport (Martin's friend) showed up at our apartment around 5:30-our flight was at 6:50 and it took 45 minutes to get to the Larnaca airport. Surprisingly, we arrived at the airport with enough time to get checked in and everything. Our flight with Egypt Air went by so fast-we were in the air for a little less than an hour. They gave us dinner and told us we were landing just as we finished eating. We arrived in Cairo and went through some security before we met up with Abdoul, our tour guide for the weekend. We hopped in our tour van and it took us to the President Hotel in the center of the city. Seeing the Nile and the Cairo tower on our way was mega exciting-I never ever ever in a million years thought that I would make it to Egypt.

We got to our hotel around 9:30-10ish and were surprised to see metal detectors outside. Better safe than sorry, I guess. While the hallways on our floor seemed to be under construction (?), we were all pleasantly surprised to find that our rooms were super clean. We were all starving (even though we ate a full meal on the plane) so we moseyed down to the 24 hour(!) hotel restaurant. I had taken out some Egyptian pounds at the atm in the lobby, not really sure how expensive things would be. We ordered full meals and tried all sorts of new things-tahini, some random potato salad, tomato and cucumber salad, different dips, chicken, etc. It was all AMAZING. For the 4 of us to eat it was about 300 pounds (roughly 42 euros;1 euro=7 pounds), so it wasn’t a bad deal for the amount of food that we got. We woke up the next morning around 8 to shower and get breakfast before meeting Abdoul in the lobby at 9. The breakfast available was very interesting-there were lots of tomatoes and cucumbers, tahini, some cereal and danishes, bread, and other things that I couldn’t identify. Dez, Dana and I made it to breakfast and the lobby by the time we needed but of course Martin was 15 minutes late (still running on Cyprus time, where everyone is late for everything). We got in the tour van and drove to a fancy hotel to pick up Mr. Christos, the only other person in our tiny tour group, who happened to be the Director of the Chamber of Commerce in Limassol, Cyprus. It was cool having someone else from Cyprus travel around with us. We then drove for about 20 minutes on the busy streets of the city until we reached the pyramids, which are right outside the city. I have to stop here to talk a little bit about the traffic. I thought driving in Cyprus was awful-everyone speeds everywhere and hits the brakes at the last second, people are ALWAYS tailgating, and drivers always go through red lights (including taxi drivers!). The driving in Cairo was even worse. In a city of 20 million people (the entire island of Cyprus has 800,000!!) NO ONE drives inside the lines, and, when we were out at least, it seems like everyone in the entire city is always driving and going to the same place at the exact same time-we sat through at least 20 minutes of traffic to get to every place we went. Everyone was always beeping and weaving in and out of one another, but no one seemed legitimately angry about anything (unlike in the US), I guess because everyone drove the same way. Anyway, arriving at the pyramids was super cool-I had seen them so many times in books and in movies and now I was HERE seeing them for myself. There was security all around, and some of the guards were on camels. Abdoul warned us about the many tourist traps around the pyramids and very specifically told us not to buy anything. He also told us that there would be many men offering camel rides to us but that we should say no because they would rip us off-he knew someone who would charge us a fair price later in the tour. We had about an hour to walk around the pyramids and take pictures before we had to get back on the bus, and within 10 minutes of being on our own, Dana was riding a camel. Apparently the man had only offered to take pictures of Dana and the camel, and before he knew it, the camel was up and walking around. It was at the end of the ride that the owner demanded 200 pounds, or about 28 euros(!) Before I knew it, Martin and Dezi had gotten sucked in as well. After everyone else had lost some money, we continued to walk around. Some Egyptian girls on a school trip were very excited to meet us, and asked if we would take pictures with them. All sorts of people-other tourists and Egyptians-asked us where we were from, and since we were told not to tell people that we were American, we said New Zealand. Sometimes. Other times we said Australia, Dana said Sweden a few times, and I was asked if I was German. The worst was when someone would ask us and we hadn’t previously agreed on a fake nationality-we would look at each other like, “I don’t know, you make some place up.” After we saw the pyramids up-close and personal, we hopped in our van and drove a little further away to get a legit camel ride. It was relatively inexpensive . I rode with Martin and Dez rode with Dana, and we were led around by 2 little Egyptian boys who were happy to take all sorts of pictures of us. After our awesome camel rides we drove not too far away to the sphinx, which was a lot smaller than expected, but still extraordinary. A little boy tried to sell me some bookmarks with hieroglyphics on them, and I felt so bad saying no. His father eventually grabbed him by the shirt and dragged him away . After the sphinx we traveled to a perfume shop, where we sat through a small presentation on Egyptian perfumes. Of course they all smelled amazing but were out of everyone’s price range, so the owner of the shop decided to give us some “student deals”. We left the perfume shop to go to a government-run papyrus shop, where they showed us how to make the papyrus that ancient Egyptians painted on. Of course they had paintings hung all around the shop for us to buy, and of course we bought some. I forgot to mention that at this shop and the perfume shop they offered us karkade, a tea/juice made from the hibiscus flower, and it was awesome and unlike anything I’ve ever had before. After the papyrus shop we traveled to an indoor bazaar that sold mostly jewelry, but also other small trinkets and gifts. We happened to be the only people in there at the time, so the sales people were following us around so closely that it was uncomfortable. The guy at the jewelry counter lured Dez and I over and tried to sell us some charms, but not before he wrote our names in hieroglyphics and told us how beautiful we were. He ended up being too pushy and the charms too expensive, so we slyly walked away. Everything else was too expensive too, so we left the bazaar about 20 minutes after we arrived. Since we were in a rush to make it to the Egyptian Museum before it closed and we were starving, we stopped at a McDonald’s on the way. I was surprised and excited to see a McArabia on the menu (like the Greek Mac here). We took our food to go and ate in the van on the way to the museum. There were guards and metal detectors all around the entrance, and we weren’t even allowed to bring our cameras inside. The museum was packed with tour groups from all different countries speaking all different languages. We saw so many unbelievable artifacts, like beds and tombs of pharaohs, old papyrus paintings, jewelry, and statues of gods created to protect the dead-it felt unreal to be so close to things that had such a big place in history. I was surprised to find that the inside of the museum was a bit run down, much like the rest of the city. Most of the exhibits weren’t even roped off- they were available for people to touch and admire up close. Even the glass cases that contained relics and things had fingerprints all over them and could be touched and leaned on. It was hella strange. Anywho, after our short but fascinating visit to the museum, Abdoul took us to the open-air bazaar where the terrorist attack took place the weekend before. It was a bit eerie knowing that all that crazy stuff happened there so recently, especially since we were basically targets. It was super cool looking, because it was mega crowded and it was all lit up and there was a beautiful mosque across the street. Abdoul dropped us off and told us that we ONLY had 30 minutes there because we had a Nile dinner cruise scheduled and we couldn’t be late. Dez and I had already been cat-called many times in the day even though we always traveled with Dana and Martin, so we were very careful not to go into the bazaar without them. We headed in and were surprised at the amount of store owners that called to us and kind of harassed us into coming into their shops. They said things like, “I have exactly what you’re looking for!” or, “You are so beautiful, where are you from? I’ll give you a good deal!” At one point Martin stopped to look at some shishas, so Dezi and I decided to walk a little bit by ourselves. We walked in and out of a few shops that carried pretty much the same things, like souvenirs and other trinkets that were obscenely over priced. The hardest part about shopping there was that every store owner was trying to rip us off, and we didn’t know how high the prices were until we did our mental math conversions of pounds to euros (turns out 7 is an awful number to divide by without a calculator). We were almost sucked in to an awful sale when Martin found us and yelled at us for leaving him. He told us that we were getting ripped off by the shop owner and heckled the price way down for us (thanks Martin!). At that point it was almost time to go back and meet Abdoul, so the three of us headed toward the main street. We

were almost out when Martin got lured into a shop selling watches. We stood by him and waited because we didn’t want to leave alone, but even while we were waiting there with him men came up to us and touched our arms as asked us questions and told us we were beautiful. Some asked to kiss us, while others just asked where we were from. One man told Martin, who he assumed was my boyfriend, that he would trade him five watches for me. Another man asked me how many camels he would have to trade to make me his wife. We just laughed at all of these guys, assuming they were joking. We had no idea. After about 15 minutes of pushing Martin to pick a stupid watch, Dez and I decided that we didn’t want to wait anymore and that we needed to go and meet Abdoul. So we left the market alone, which turned out to be an awful idea. For some reason every man in the market saw us and harassed us, saying inappropriate things and telling us that they wanted a hug and that we were beautiful-many men also grabbed our arms or touched us in some way. Up until this point on the trip we hadn’t made much eye contact with any strangers, because it caused them to follow us or shout things at us. Leaving the market we both held each other’s hand and looked only at the ground. I’ve never felt so degraded in my life. We made it out of the market safely and met up with Abdoul, Dana, and Mr. Christos, who were all mad that we were so late. We told them that Martin was buying things and lost track of time. When he eventually emerged from the bazaar we took the van to the Nile River Cruise, which we for sure thought we were going to miss. We ended up making it on time and everything was fine. On the cruise there was a buffet and entertainment, which included traditional Egyptian dancing performed by a man in a costume embroidered much like an Irish dancing costume and belly dancing. It was kind of cheesy but all in all it was very entertaining and the food was good. Just the idea of cruising on the Nile River was absolutely mind-blowing to me. When the cruise ended around 10 we were taken back to our hotel. The next day we left the hotel around 8 to head for Alexandria, which was about 3 hours away.Alexandria was supposed to be one of the stops on the Semester at Sea voyage that Kell and I were originally going to take, but because of the terrorism in Egypt the program changed their route. It was really exciting that I was still going to get to see it. After 3 long hours in the van we arrived at Pompey’s Pillar, which is one of the few Classical monuments still standing. It stood amongst the ruins of the rest of the monument, and was the only part still left in one piece-there were also two sphinxes hanging out in front of it. It was super old and super cool so we took a lot of pictures. We went underground to a cave-like place that they said was a super old library. While the preserved monument area was clean and very well taken care of, the entire rest of the city was very dirty and run down, much like Cairo. There were stray dogs and cats everywhere, and goats even ran out in front of our tour bus. After the Pillar we drove to Fort Qaitbey Castle, which sat right on the Mediterranean Sea. The castle was hella majestic-looking and the waves crashed right up against it. It was such a gorgeous, sunny day that the water looked sea-foam green. While Dana, Dez and I were taking pictures by the water, Martin was off buying a stuffed shark (?). He was so impressed that he bought it for only 7 euros. He claimed that you couldn’t buy things like that in Cyprus because there are no sharks in the sea around Cyprus (?). We laughed at him and made fun of him all day for it. After leaving the castle we drove to the Library of Alexandria (now Bibliotheca Alexandrina), which was built in 2003 very close to where the historic old library once stood. It resembles a UFO almost, with crazy cool architecture, both inside and out. It sits right along the sea, which must be uber distracting to students trying to study there (I know I couldn’t do it). We took a scheduled tour and wandered around for a bit, then looked around in the museums inside the library. We left the library to go eat at a Greek buffet restaurant which of course was good. We drove for a little bit and ended up in the Royal Gardens, where the summer home of the President of Egypt is located. It was huge and awesome. It was absolutely gorgeous there, and of course the gardens sat right on the sea. We took lots of pictures, some with strangers that wanted to remember us (I guess), before getting in the van and going back to Cairo. It took way longer to get home than we thought because there was an unimaginable amount of traffic going back into the city. We got back and were pretty hungry, so the four of decided to get some food at a hookah bar a few doors down from our hotel. Everything was super cheap, so we got a bajillion courses. Dana and Martin smoked a bit, and even though Dez and I had never smoked anything before we decided that it would be cool to smoke shisha for the first time in Egypt. While we were hanging out, the waiters all wanted to take pictures with us, so we had to pretend that we weren’t completely creeped out by them. A bit later we met a group of American girls in the hookah bar who were studying abroad in Athens, and had decided like us to come to Egypt for the weekend. They told us all about how they didn’t have internet or a tv in their apartment, and they also didn’t have a washer or a dryer. They also said the nightlife wasn’t so good and that one of them had already been mugged. We asked about classes and stuff and they said that since all the classes at local universities were taught in Greek, they could only take classes with the other Americans in their program. It made me so happy that I decided to come to Cyprus. We hung out and smoked with them until pretty late, and then we went back to our rooms for our last night in the hotel. We woke up early Monday morning to go to the Cairo Mall, the first mall in the Middle East, before our flight. It was by the biggest and coolest mall I have ever been in. We said goodbye to Abdoul at the Cairo airport and hopped on a plane back to Larnaca.
Overall I had an absolutely amazing experience in Egypt and I would definitely do it all over again. Cairo and Alexandria were both surprisingly dirty, but it was still so cool to get to experience such a completely different culture. Seeing and hearing everything in Arabic and learning more about the Islamic religion was also very neat. Honestly, living in a place like Cairo for 4 days made me appreciate EVERYTHING in America (and even Cyprus) soo much more.

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