From Cairo to the Red Sea: 3 weeks in Egypt - Andy Webb (2005)
Tuesday 15th February - London to Cairo
Arrived in Cairo via Milan around 3.30pm after a relatively uneventful flight only accenuated by some spectacular view of the Alps. We had arranged for someone to meet us at the airport who would then take us on to our lodgings with Martin's workmates' sister Jo, someone we both hadn't actually met! I must confess this was the first time I have been met at the airport by a plaque with the name WEBB on it, but it enabled us to get out of the airport within 10 minutes. Before we knew it we had visas and our passports had been stamped before I'd even had time to shout "Allah!" and adjust my watch to the new timezone. Once all the formalities were complete and we had retrieved our luggage the plaque with the name WEBB on it (sorry our driver) drove us to our destination through the urban sprawl of Cairo to Maadi where Jo lived. I was first of all struck with the similarities to Lima in Peru with excessive car horn use, suicidal car manoeuvres and blatant disregard for pedestrians. One car went past with half a car strapped to its roof, god only knows what happened to the other half! We passed through the City of Dead where approxiametly half a million people inhabit a massive, 7km long cemetery that borders the easter side of Cairo. They form a complete civilization living on top of, within, and around the graves of their ancestors. Eventually crumbling, half complete apartment blocks give way to more leafy suburbs and almost a more European aspect as we reached Maadi.
Jo has been living in Cairo now for about 4 years and teaches at one of the local Egyptian Schools in the area along with many other English colleagues most of which live in the same block. I was amazed to find out that most Egyptian kids get taught in english here. After a few beers and a shower we were met by one of Jo's friends' for dinner at Abu as Sid, an authentic Egyptian restaurant which served great Mezze, Egyptian appitizers. Among the favourites were tahini (a paste made from Sesame seeds), stuffed vine leaves, various different types of bread, Fuul (made from Fava beans), falafel and also stuffed pigeon which I confess doesn't score that much more highly than guinea pig!
We battled away the tiredness (only 1.5hrs sleep in 36 hours) to meet a few of Jo's teaching colleagues at the Red Onion apparently their version of the Queen Vic! A couple of expensive JD's salvaged the night and at one point some of the locals seem to take offence at one of us and started throwing peanuts at us. Needless to say this didn't progress to much more than a staring contest between myself and this guy at the door as he left. Those troubles aside we were treated to beer juggling by one of the teachers (of which I failed miserably and ended up throwing it all over somebody), brother juggling (this one didn't last long as a table was almost demolished in the process) and some more beers. My attempts to leave early were rejected and I think we left at some time after two. Back at Jo's, we had a nightcap, I took loads of pictures of cats and a heater and then went to sleep.
Wednesday 16th February - Pyramids & Camels
One of my dreams my lifelong obsessions, the Pyramids was to be our destination today. Our 'driver' Hany picked us up at 11 allowing us time to eradicate most of the hangover and lack of sleep from the last couple of nights. The journey from Maadi to Giza took about 35 minutes and took us over to the West side of Cairo, the pyramids themselves were visible as soon as we crossed over the Nile juxtaposed between the stretch of suburban apartment blocks. The Sahara Desert starts at the Pyramids who now form a boundary between city and desert.
Before we knew it we were dropped off at a camel 'shop' deciding that it might be an interesting way to see the Pyramids, it was only later we realised that we had unwittingly agreed to an extremely expensive camel tour where I had to actually divert the tour so we got to look in the Pyramids! Our tour started being hoisted onto 2 effortless beasts of camels nicknamed Robbie Williams and mine, unfortunately, Michael Jackson! We were led through untarmacked streets in the poorer part of Giza being overtook by young Egyptians mastering their horseriding skills. From here we struck out onto a small dirt track littered with rubbish and the occasional dead goat until we came to the supposed entrance that involved unwittingly being given a soft drink that wasn't free but a price that we deemed Allah would approve of. After severely disappointing the coca-cola man with his drink fee we headed off towards the Pyramids. It was certainty an impressive way to approach these old wonder's of the world, and although I would have preferred to have done them independently there was some feeling of being a Victorian explorer arriving to survey this massive archaeological site.
We stopped at a prime 'photo point' so we could 'make a picture', this did annoy me, I hate being treated like a dumb tourist any day and had to bust a gut to convince the guide that I actually wanted pictures without myself and Martin in them. While I was taking some shots I noticed we had inadvertently been 'bought' some arab headdresses for our 'picture', rather than cause a scene we obliged, I figured at least the picture would get a few laughs back home. So a few more Egyptian Pounds down we headed towards the Queen's Pyramids, the smaller of the Pyramids, here we were introduced to another guide who was to show us some tombs, we were told under no circumstances that we were to pay him any money as this was included in the price of the tour! I would say this bit of the tour was a bit unnecessary as there wasn't much to see, although I did get to climb up a portion of one of the Queen's Pyramids so all was not lost.
At this point, it looked like we were going to miss the Pyramids altogether, when I pointed this out to the guide he explained that there was nothing inside the Pyramids and that they were a big disappointment. I told him that having waited 29 years to see the Pyramids I was going to set foot inside them, looking slightly put out he agreed to wait while we went to check them out.
Away from the shackles of our guide it was a liberating experience, up close to the Pyramids you can really appreciate the sheer size of the project and how much work must have gone into making them. We bought a ticket to the Middle Pyramids, Khafre, and after depositing my camera with a lady at the door we headed diagonally down a steep narrow slope into the heart of the Pyramid. Inside there wasn't much to see except an empty tomb and in retrospect the tombs at the Valley of Kings are more impressive but just being inside a Pyramid made it for me. Realising we were running out of time before our driver came we decided to save the Pyramid of Khufu to another time and headed back to our camels, not before I had handed some Baksheesh to the lady with my camera. (Baksheesh is a small monetary payment that is expected as a gift/tip)
Just before we got back to the Camel Shop our guide then began to talk about his payment, explaining that our price was for the camels only, tired of arguing cases we paid him and his boy helper a small fee that they both looked disappointed by, but I knew they were only trying to make us feel guilty into giving them even more. After dropping of the camels our guide mentioned that he could get us into a shop where there was good view of the Sphinx and the Pyramids, a nice ploy to get us into a Papyrus Shop! Strangely I had no problem with this I was quite interested and the guy making the paper was a genuine guy, practically a 20 year old art student, we had tea with him admiring his paper making skills but let him know that we were also students and didn't have the money to buy anything. Leaving empty handed we returned to pay the camel guy who tried to make us pay double because we had taken so long, but then decided to that he'd do us a favour as we were his friends and accept the agreed amount.
After the Pyramids we set off to the Egypt Museum on the way we were joined by a Canadian Guy who Hany was dropping off elsewhere in town. We chatted about the various places he had lived in the world and his general dislike of London as a place. I told in no uncertain terms that he probably should have ventured out of his hotel when he was there. We must have chatted for a while because we seemed to be stuck in traffic most of the afternoon finally arriving at the Museum at 4pm.
After 3 false entrances I finally got into the Egypt Museum, not realising that first my camera and then my video camera were not allowed, well I did but I couldn't be bothered to remove them both from my bag at the same time! The museum is full of a wealth of Egyptian history most of it not labelled only numbered making it quite difficult to understand what you are looking at without a guide, something we had enough after the Pyramids. The highlights for me were the golden sarcophagi, Tutankhamen's Mask and room and the mummified animals.
That evening we drove to Zamalek, an inner city upper class neighbourhood of Cairo for dinner at La Bodega with some of Jo's teacher friends. Housed in the Balmoral Hotel the entrance to the restaurant is not apparent, look for the name Baehler above the building's main entrance, then go around the impressive old lift cage before taking the stairs.
The restaurant itself was an epitome of Cairene upper class style with beautiful oil and copper murals by artists Mira Shihada and the American Elizabeth Washburn adorning the walls. The food was served in style with prices to match but still cheap by english standards and was a nice relaxing was to unwind after the onslaught of Egyptian history we had faced during the day.
Thursday 17th February - Coptic & Islamic Cairo
After spending the day before being chauffeured around and invariably being guided against our wishes we decided to explore some of Cairo by utilising what is actually a very efficient Metro system. From Maadi it was 5 stops through run down suburbs to Mar Girgis (our first stop, Coptic Cairo). We passed a group of kids playing football with a shoe on one at one of the stops, at one point the shoe came flying onto the train at which point my reaction was to execute a fine volley to send the shoe back out of the closing doors to the relieved owner. The carriage full of students and businessmen appeared to sit unfazed by the impromptu game of shoe football that had temporarily entered the train.
Coptic Cairo is the oldest part of Cairo, and predates what is now modern Cairo. It became a Christian stronghold after the spread of Christianity throughout Egypt and had around twenty churches built within an area of just one square mile. Nowadays only five churches remain, along with the earliest mosque ever built in Egypt. The area was populated by Jews after the fall of Jerusalem in around 70 AD and Egypt's oldest synagogue Ben Ezra can also be found here.
After initial confusion about where the entrance was we heading down some stairs into narrow windy streets with a rather vague guide book map to explain what everything was. This was eventually to be our downfall as soon enough we had been latched onto by a new 'friend' who started giving us an impromptu tour of the Greek Cemetery and surrounding buildings. I'm not sure I actually learned any new information from him, but nevertheless he was worth his 10LE Baksheesh for showing us around. After looking inside the Mar Girgis Church which contained the usual church paraphernalia we headed back on to the Metro to journey to Ramses Train Station where we were planning to buy our tickets to Luxor.
After negotiating the confusing pedestrian underpass with as many as 1000 exits we finally stumbled across the one for the station and headed to the Wagon Lit Office where we were told they would only accept Euros or US Dollars. Armed with this we headed out back through the underpass and aimed to come out by the 2 banks on the opposite of the square (after 3 failed attempts). After waiting unsuccessfully in a queue for 10 mins we were told we couldn't change money in one bank, we tried the other but all they could do was give us garbled directions to an exchange place 3 streets away. The street in question turned out to be full of just DIY Powertool shops with no bureau de change in sight. Eventually we found the place not far from the first bank we tried enabling us after about an hour and a half to get our train tickets for the following night.
From the station we followed the bustling streets towards Islamic Cairo accompanied by the obligatory "Welcome to Egypt!" or "Hello My Friend" at nearly every turn. Suddenly all Western street name references disappeared and any chance of accurately using a map was gone. Crossing the streets became something more akin to taking your life in your own hands as pedestrians seem to be virtually unnoticed, the best tip, it seems, is to act defiant, strike out and hope for the best! I was aiming to get us to the Khan Market(short for Khan-el-Khalili), in the end I think we ended up in a local market quite a distance from the Khan. The sounds, smells and colours were intoxicating with traders crammed into small plots selling anything from flip flops to fish heads.
We appeared to be reaching a dead end when an elderly guy stopped us and motioned that we should turn back. Guessing which direction in which we were lost we ended up finally getting some directions to the Al Azhar Mosque in the heart of the Khan, it turns out we had stumbled out on the correct road towards the mosque but it was a much further distance than we had anticipated. (in fact statisticians believe it to be in the region of 2000km)
When we finally reached Midan Hussein we decided that some refreshment was in order, we'd been walking non-stop for nearly 2 hours. We crossed Midan Hussein and ducked down the maze of alleys that start the Khan and into Feshawi's Coffee Shop. Feshawi's claims to have stayed open for nearly 200 years and is popular with locals, tourists and touts alike. While enjoying a mint tea we were offered at least 25 wallets (of which Martin bought one, on the grounds that he needed one), 5 sets of sunglasses and a large ceramic umbrella stand.
Refreshed we hit out into the maze that is the Khan, the main market is effectively along one long road, the top part being more focused towards tourists while the furthest bit from Midan Hussein being for locals. Stalls sold a variety of good including glistening Shisha's, spices, clothing, souvenirs. At each step we were offered silks, spices, T-Shirts and carvings through various sales techniques like "Hello my friend!", "Where you from", "Hey English!", "American?", "For your lady", "You come look in my shop?", "You want to eat my puppies?" and of course the already celebrated, "Welcome to Egypt!". Needless to say we disappointed our would be traders by not buying a single thing, a few blasts of La Shukran (No thankyou) eventually send them packing. Eventually we were spat out at Atouba where we caught the Metro back to Maadi.
After a well earned shower in which I managed to pull the tap off the wall, almost flood the bathroom and burn my hand, we sat down to some take away Pizza. Ordering the pizza turned out to be an ordeal, none of the special offers appeared to actually exist and at one point I almost ended up with dog flavoured pizza.
Planned for the evening was a party at the Sakkara Country Club which was being arranged by Martin's friend Lucy's sister. Apparently it was quite a big event here, Nile FM the local Cairo radio station had been pushing it for weeks as well as giving away tickets in an array of competitions. The highlights of the show were to be Sonique and Judge Jules who was flying in last minute from London.
To get in we had to navigate past about 100 large Egyptian bouncers who seemed to devoid of any humour, but once we flashed our VIP stamps they soon parted like the Red Sea. The event was held in an open marquee with the VIP section to the left and drinks at London prices. The place soon began filling up with young Egyptian men while Brad, Lucy's boyfriend warmed up with a set. Sonique went down a storm, not that I'm a fan of her music but she puts her all into what she does and got the crowd into a frenzy.
Trips to the toilet involved going out of the whole complex and walking for five minutes, I guess it's just as well that most of the Egyptian's didn't drink, I can only begin to imagine the chaos if this had been in England. Near the end we got invited to stand backstage so we could get a face to face view of the writhing (and heavily smoking) crowd. Judge Jules was on next and generally disappointed us by basically playlisting CDs, at one point one guys stormed the stage until he was accosted by 5 of the biggest Egyptian's I'd ever seen, the end result was he was ejected horizontally but not after managing to shred one guys jacket into ribbons.
Not soon after Martin decided he was not a fan of Judge Jules and wanted to throw him off the stage for disgracing music in general, as a result, we called it a day our epic trek though Islamic Cairo also taking it toll. On leaving it took us about 40 minutes to find Hany, our taxi, due to the unreal amount of cars parked bumper to bumper around the venue.
Friday 18th February - Feluccas and onwards to Luxor
After spending the best part of the morning in bed we headed out for a much needed brunch at Nook, a pleasant English run restaurant in Maadi. With the weather looking pleasant we opted to spend an afternoon sailing on a felucca on the Nile. We met up with some of Jo's friends' at the riverside and didn't have to wait too long before a felucca became available.
Felucca's are a pleasant way to while away an afternoon away from the hustle and bustle of Cairo, take your own pleasures aboard and let your boatman steer you. The only problem was on a day like today there was no wind so we were out in the middle of the Nile when we realised we needed to get back for our train, in the end the boatman had to coax and boat into towing us back to shore.
We had a brief goodbye drink before getting a taxi to the Ramses Station to begin the next leg of our journey, the overnight sleeper train to Luxor. When we arrived I found that my arabic guidebook was essential as all the train destinations, platform numbers and times were in arabic. It's a good thing I checked as the platform number we had been given the day before had been changed. On finding our correct platform we battled through the crowds of Egyptians trying not to maim anyone with my rucksack.
Our cabin was on the small side with a collapsible chair/bunk, a couple of small cupboards and a reading light that promptly broke. For the journey we had invested in a bottle of ID Vodka and some bombay mix style crisps, this certainly helped to pass the time until our meal arrived. I should have known when I travelled the Indian Pacific two years ago that we wouldn't get the classic First Class image of people eating with china dinner sets, peacock feathered hats and monicles. Instead we got a tray each with airline standard food. Later on we ventured out to the 'bar' where a gin and tonic set us back £3 each, for this reason we stayed for a couple of rounds of blackjack before returning to sleep the rest of the journey off.
Part Two >>
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