Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Adventures in Egypt - Day 11 Sharm el Sheikh

Another lazy day and a return trip to Tam Tam for lunch...it was really very good!  We spent our afternoon lounging around the pool at the Ritz Carlton before our spa treatment.  Only in Egypt can you get a 2.5 hour spa treatment for only $95!  We had one more for the road and returned to Tam Tam for dinner (couldn't help ourselves, it was so yummy)!  Back at the hotel, we packed up our things for our 11:00 pm check out so we could take the 3 hour drive to Mount Sinai. 

Monday, November 29, 2004

Adventures in Egypt - Day 10 Sharm el Sheikh/White Canyon

Most of our time in Sharm was unscheduled which was a nice break.  Most of the group opted for snorkeling and horseback riding on the beach but Lee and I decided to go to the White Canyon.   
Our excursion began with a jeep safari into the Sinai Desert en route to the White Canyon.  There were two jeeps in our group and ours was most definitely the party jeep!  Said was our guide, Mohommad was our driver and our fellow travelers were Paul and Bee from the UK and Me and Ro from Belgium. 

The ride through the desert was not for the faint of heart (a common theme in Egypt I discovered) as we were bounced around and became very familiar with each other as we ended up in each other's laps on more than one occasion.  We took one sand dune, landed too hard and ended up stuck in the middle of the Sinai!  It was quite funny to see the wheels moving but not going anywhere.  I tried my best to give it a boost but to no avail!

Moses, the driver from the other Jeep, came to our rescue.

Finally we were dug out of the sand and after a very bumpy ride arrived at the White Canyon!  Now those of you that know me know I am so NOT an outdoorsy mountain climbing kind of girl so imagine my surprise when we arrived at the entrance and were told we'd be climbing down into the canyon!  The brochure so did not lead me to believe we'd be climbing up and down the sides of a canyon...let alone
without any safety gear or a guide without a first aid kit or cell phone!! 

Our three hour hike began by climbing down in to the canyon that just a week before was flooded...again, love it when the guide tells you this after you've descended the side of the canyon!  Said was a great guide and quickly I became very comfortable trusting him as we climb to the top of cliff when we could not see the other side.


Said our canyon guide
The only "modern" convenience
on the excursion.

Bedouin Graves
Oasis at the end of White Canyon
After a brief visit with a bedouin tribe (and it wasn't one of those cheesy "this is what it's like to be a bedouin" kind of things), we headed to Nuwebia on the Red Sea for lunch and then to Dahab for shopping and coffee (gotta love the thick Arab coffee).

View from lunch...the very faint outline
at water's edge is Saudia Arabia

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Adventures in Egypt - Day 9 Sharm el Sheikh

Today was spent by the pool and getting a massage...they definitely do things differently in Egypt!  For dinner, our crew headed to another Hard Rock Cafe but Lee and I ventured over to Tam Tam for some Bedouin style dining.  For dessert we went to the Ritz Carlton where we discovered their very amazing spa and made an appointment for later in the week!

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Adventures in Egypt - Day 4 Aswan

After an almost 12 hour train ride, we finally arrived in Aswan.  We were greeted by our new guide (Sharif) and I immediately knew I would be missing Amr for the next few days as this guy did not make a good first impression.

We hopped on our mini-coach and headed to Aswan High Dam.  It's a dam...'bout all you can say about it. 

This is the monument to the Russians for their assistance with funding the dam.

The afternoon was spent at the Temple of Philae and it began with my first boat ride on the Nile.  The captains play a game of bumper boats when approached the dock at the Temple and we actually thought we might end up in the Nile.

When we arrived back in Aswan at the dock,
it was the attack of the Nubian salesmen.

Finally after a very long 24 hours, we arrived at our hotel. After getting settled in and having some dinner Sharif took us to a local souk where we did some major bargaining and had fresh sugar cane juice...definitely brought a pucker to the lips as it was so very sweet.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Adventures in Egypt - Day 3 Cairo

Today was one of the highlights of the trip for me because we visited the Egyptian Museum!  So very thankful to have our guide as he made this giant archaeological dig site manageable.  The museum was like nothing I had ever seen.  Most museums I've visited have been so perfect and pristine...the Egyptian Museum had little handwritten signs below some of the most ancient artifacts and I fully expected to see Indiana Jones to come strolling by at any moment.

Alabaster Mosque (a.k.a. Mosque of Mohammed Ali) was next on our agenda for today.  This was my first visit to a mosque and while I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting, it wasn't what I was expecting if that makes any sense.

We arrived just as the mid-day call to prayers were being called.  It was definitely one of those "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore" moments as you could hear the call from all over Cairo.  Amr gave us an outside tour while prayers were taking place and then we headed inside at the appropriate time.  Upon entering we all placed our shoes by the door and some of us placed a scarf over our hair out of respect.  The mosque was prepared for any tourists not dressed appropriately for a house of worship and had loaner skirts/shirts for men and women.
After wandering around the inside, we all gathered on the floor and Amr gave us a brief introduction to Islam and opening answered any questions we had about his religion.  

Qeblah (niche)...every mosque has a
qeblah which points toward Mecca.

Amr surprised all of us when he hopped off our mini-coach and returned with lunch...falafel and foul in a pita which was very tasty.
After a little driving around Cairo, we stopped at the El Khahli Bazaar.  Amr camped out with coffee and his paper while we went in all directions through perhaps the largest market I've ever seen.  Lee and I quickly learned if you looked at something for more than three seconds the merchants were all over you trying to make a deal with you.  We stayed on the main aisles for a while and then decided to venture off the beaten path and head down some of the small alleys...must admit there were a few times when I was a little nervous  but it was here that we found some of the best shops and got some great deals!
Once everyone had their loot, we headed back to the hotel to collect our belongings and head to the train station for our overnight train to Aswan in the south (Upper Egypt).  En route to the train station we stopped at Momem (Egyptian fast food restaurant) to pick up food for the journey.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Adventures in Egypt - Day 2 Cairo

With everyone finally in Cairo, we began to explore the city.  First stop...the pyramids of Giza!  I always thought the great pyramids were in the middle of a desert...imagine the astonishment of walking in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Cairo and actually seeing one of the seven wonders of the ancient world!  Before going into the pyramids, we first went to a vista point so we could get a view of all of them...and ride a camel.

Rather than riding through the desert on a horse with no name, I rode through the Pyramids of Giza on a camel with no name.    Not normally a "been there done that check it off the list" traveler but I could not wait for this "magical" ride to end!  Not a big fan of sitting way up high wit the only thing keeping me on the beast of burden is a saddle horn too big for my hands...especially when the camel guide's idea of fun was to get the animal to gallop through the rocky terrain.

Often overlooked as they are much smaller than the Pyramids of Giza are the Queens Pyramids. The three are said to be named for Hensutsen (believed to be the mother of Khafre), Merites (sister and wife of Khufu) and lastly uncertain but thought to belong to the mother Redjedef (making her the Khufu's wife as well).

Me and my travel buddy, Lee

Next stop...inside they Pyramid of Khafre.  After stepping inside, I quickly understood why they call the pyramids "Egyptian Saunas"!  We were there in November and very early in the day and already it was stifling hot and humid...that added with the hoards of visitors made for a very interesting journey to the bottom of the pyramid.
They limit the number of people that can go inside the pyramid each day to help preserve this very ancient place so get there early to ensure you make it in. This is definitely not the place for folks with claustrophobia or trouble with steep inclines/declines.  To enter the pyramid, you share a plank about 3 feet wide with stumps every few feet to prevent slipping...the plank is the only way in and out.  Once you get to the bottom, there's a very small room and then you head back up the plank to some much needed fresh air at this point...just think small crowded space with a lot of travelers that don't appreciate the value and luxury of a daily bath or deodorant.

Next stop on the morning's itinerary was the Great Sphinx.  Once again I was struck by the contrast of the ancient world and modern society living in harmony. 
My travel buddies
Lee and I were actually interviewed by supposedly an American documentary team producing a film on Americans touring Eygpt.  They asked us about the safety of the city and if it was a tough decision to come to the Middle East in light of the events taking place in Iraq.

Amr, our most amazing guide, took to one of his favorite spots for lunch where we had the most unbelievable pita...fresh out of the oven!  What I so loved about Amr is that he showed us the touristy things but also gave us a peak into the life of a local.

After lunch we headed out to Saqqara.  The drive out of the city was very enlightening as we saw more of how the folks outside of the city lived.  Folks living outside of the city are pretty much farmers...a very daunting task in the desert.  The Step Pyramid of Saqqara is the precurser to the Pyramids of Giza design.

Our travel buddies were very keen on going to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner but that didn't really appeal to Lee and me.  More to our likely was dinner at the Four Seasons...I read they had a chef's tasting menu that consisted of four course for the equivalent of $20 so how could we pass up a swanky dinner?!

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Adventures in Egypt - Day 1 Cairo

My friend Lee and I arrived a day before the rest of our group so after getting settled in we decided to check out a little bit of the city before the offical kick-off of our tour.  The very first thing we learned about the streets of Cairo (and all of Egypt for that matter) is there are no lines in the roads...ergo, folks just drive wherever they want.  This also presents some fun times for pedistrians trying to cross the street as there are no crosswalks and little to no traffic lights...oh and did I mention they drive on the other side of the road?!  Being the savvy travelers we are, we quickly figured out if we just did what the locals did we would be just fine...or at least we prayed that was the case.  Basically you just start a game of traffic frogger and move as the cars zip around you. 

I read about a restaurant called Mena House at the foot of the pyramids so we made our way over there for a quick bite before heading back out.  After lunch, we did pick up a little stalker (harmless 15 year old boy) for about an hour.  He followed us back to the shopping mall across from our hotel and we finally ditched him as we went in and out of shops.

You never know what you'll see while traveling but must admit I was a bit surprised to see a policeman throwing bricks at a kid!  We decided the kid was probably trying to hone in on a tip the policeman was trying to get...after all it's all about tipping in Egypt.  The policeman didn't actually make contact with the kid but it did sending him running.

For dinner we headed over to the top of the Cairo Hilton as they supposed had some of the best views of the city.  Dinner came with a little show...a belly dancer but for us, the person that sold the show was the accordion player.  My picture doesn't do him justice but his face told the stories of his many many years.

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!!