Friday, November 19, 2004

Adventures in Egypt

Spent 2 weeks in Egypt and had an absolutely fabulous time! I highly recommend traveling to Egypt to everyone at least once in their lifetime. As an American woman traveling, I felt totally safe the entire time I was there...actually felt safer than I have in a few of our cities here in the States.

Whenever I travel, I like to see the typical tourist sites but also like to have as much contact with the locals as possible so I can really understand the culture first hand. On this trip, I was able to spend a little time with the locals but would like to return and get to know the Egyptians better. One of the things that struck me the most was the genuine generosity and kindness of the Egyptian people (very few people did I feel were being nice just to get a baksheesh (tip) out of me). Several times throughout the trip I had to personally rely on the kindness of strangers and was overcome by the kindness shown to me.
Normally I travel independently but this time, I traveled with 12 friends on a private tour and enjoyed having a plan and not being the one that had to plan everything (my usual role).  Egypt has always been on my list of places to visit but didn't think it would be a place I'd go by myself (admittedly I fell prey to the over-sensationalizing of the media regarding the Middle East and the perception of Americans) so when this opportunity knocked, I quickly opened the door! After having been to Egypt, I would have no reservations about recommending independent travel but would recommend having a guide.

A good guide makes all the difference. While we were in Lower (Northern) Egypt, we had the most amazing guide! His name was Amr Salem (I have his email if you're interested)...he was very knowledgeable and a lot of fun. With all the information there is to learn about each temple, mosque, tomb, pyramid, etc, a guide is really the best way to decipher the important stuff and spark questions for further discussion. The Egyptian Museum was completely overwhelming and our guide did a great job of pointing out the really important stuff and keeping us focused. Our guide in Upper (Southern) Egypt was not so great. His command of the English language was not so good and he didn't seem to have much knowledge about the sites. He wasn't able to read the group very well and didn't seem to pick up on our boredom or lack of interest in what he was saying. Fortunately, the guide we had in Lower Egypt had provided us with a lot of info on the sites we'd see in Upper Egypt so I was able to piece things together and create a list of questions for him upon our return to Cairo. I was disappointed to know that if we had paid a little more money, we could have had him with us the whole trip. I would recommend having one guide for the entire trip as the rapport you build helps so much in the entire experience.

There was so much that I learned on this trip about Egypt, its culture, its people, Islam, my traveling buddies and myself. Most of my international travel has been to Europe so going to Egypt was really an experience. One thing I learned the moment I checked into my hotel was the difference in star ratings between the US and Egypt. We had booked a 4 and 5 star tour and I'm really glad we did, as I couldn't imagine staying in anything less than and Egyptian 4 star! While the hotels were all acceptable, they were not my idea of 4 or 5 star hotel (admittedly, I am a bit critical having spent 8 years in the hotel industry). I will say I was terribly disappointed with our Nile cruise accommodations... it was billed as a 4 star but on a good day, it would at best be a 2 star by US standard (FYI, we were on the M/S Rosetta).
I love a good deal and absolutely love to bargain so Egypt was a real treat for me! I think my favorite bargaining was with the taxis throughout the country. While every taxi in Egypt has a meter, none of them work so you have to negotiate the fare before you start the trip. It's always a good idea to get a ballpark figure from the hotel and then go about 10 pounds lower when you start your negotiations with the driver or the taxi pimp (that's what we started calling the guy that would actually hail the taxi and do the negotiating).

Here's a tip...stand firm on your offer (of course, be fair with the price) and if the driver won't accept it, just say thank you and start to walk to your destination (if possible) and you can pretty much guarantee that the driver will accept your offer every time. Riding in a taxi is not for the faint of heart in Egypt as there are rarely any traffic lights, no lines in the road and drivers don't use lights while driving at night as general rule. However, it is a lot fun, as you never know what to expect!

The best value I found in Egypt was at the Spa at the Ritz Carlton in Sharm. After dinner at a local Bedouin restaurant, Tam Tam (a definite must while in Sharm), a friend  (Lee) and I headed over to the Ritz for dessert and tea. While at the Ritz, we popped down to the Spa to see what services they offered in the off chance they would be affordable. Imagine our surprise when we discovered we could get a 2½ hour spa treatment called Rameses Reign (2 scrubs and a massage) for only $95 thats right only $95...the price you pay for a massage alone in the States. Needless to say, we booked our appointments and it was fabulous!

A bit of advice I received from the travel clinic prior to leaving was to get my doctor to write a script for a basic antibiotic. My doctor gave me a 15-day supply of a standard antibiotic (Sumycin) and told me to start taking it two times a day everyday starting two days before my trip. I did as instructed and had absolutely no problems during the entire trip and I ate everything except leafy veggies on the trip. Unfortunately some of my travel buddies didn't do the same and 6 of the 12 suffered from TD for a good portion of the trip. The others were not as adventurous with their eating which is probably why they didn't have any problems. But my theory is if you're in Egypt, why not eat as the Egyptians rather than going to McDonalds, Hard Rock or other places you have at home...unless you can eat at the Ritz or Four Seasons as cheap as we did!!

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