Saturday, January 30, 2010

Cairo Wrap Up

By Claire and Chuck

Weather report today:

It's been nice and sunny and warm for the last few days but today is "overcast" with a haze and we can actually taste the sand.

It's our last day and we are relaxing and recovering from our jam-packed week. We wandered around the city for a bit and we are gearing up for a 6 day desert trek starting tomorrow.

Our week was wonderfully planned by a woman named Debbie Senter at Casual Cairo Detours. I realized early on that there was no way we could see Cairo on our own and that has turned out to be so true. Besides figuring out what to see, the actual transportation part of getting to all the places we wanted to see would have been really difficult. Our rides with taxis were far more daunting: no seat belts, crazy driving, no English and my favorite, the windshield covered with six different suction cup items including a pair of dice, each with it's own suction cup, an entire box of kleenex and various other decorations. Visibility was limited to a small portion of the driver's side. I really loved the fact that we could just relax and enjoy our day knowing that our guide had everything under control and carefully planned to fit the entire day including great lunch spots. We avoided a lot of stress.

Debbie gave us very detailed instructions about using the train to get to Alexandria and purchased the tickets for us in advance. Again, this saved us lots of stress and confusion. In fact, everything went very smoothly and we were able to see so much. The down side is that we had less control about what we saw in the streets. We were often in a car driving by when I saw things I would love to photograph. But, being on the streets on our own would have been a challenge so it's a toss up. I definitely would go for the guide and driver.

I stressed a lot over the plans for our month in Egypt. I knew we didn't want a package tour, especially since we had the time to do much more. Putting together different legs of the trip was challenging since each one had to work with the other. I used several forums, including Fromer's Egypt forum and Thorn Tree Travel Forum. I learned everything I needed to know and also found Casual Cairo Detours.

Our hotel is so-so. I don't know that I would recommend it but it's clean (they are cleaning all the time), the price is right, it has free WiFi and it's in a great location. Our driver recommended another one, Hotel Longchamps. It's only a couple of blocks from here and I wish I'd known about it. It books up though so it's possible we wouldn't have been able to get a room.

We stopped by the Marriott because it was built around a palace. If you're looking for high end comfort in a great location on Zamalek, this is the place. We decided to put our money into a private guides and driver.

We have really enjoyed this week and Cairo in general but it's very different from Turkey. The people are nice enough but there is an edge and money is almost always expected for anything they do. Finding a toilet and coming up with the money required to pay the woman keeping them clean is difficult. We are constantly searching for coins and small bills for tipping but mostly end up with fifties and hundreds (€13-26). I saw one tourist in a restroom completely stressing out while the attendant stood there waiting. The poor woman was beside herself trying to come up with some change. I was unable to help her because I had the same problem as well and had to give up my beloved 1 pound note that Tarek had given me with a picture of the mosque we had seen.

An interesting phenomenon about the driving is the fact that many of the cars do not use headlights at night. We were puzzled by this and asked several of our drivers. We received various answers. This is what I remember: "It saves on the battery," and "I don't like the reflections from the mirrors." We have learned to wade through semi-moving traffic to get to the other side of the road (or stay there for the rest of our lives) but doing that with cars without lights just added to the challenge. We also noticed that cars often double park, blocking another car. No problem. They just leave the handbrake off and you can push the blocking car out of the way. We experienced this first hand at the airport when our driver had to enlist the help of a guard who pushed the large Mercedes blocking our exit. The honking is the most incredible part of the traffic situation here. We just had to laugh; it is constant, loud, and blaring and comes in several styles: BEEEEEEEEEEP, beep beep, BEEP BEEP BEEP, beepbeepbeepbeepbeep. Joined together, it forms a cacaphony of noise that never stops. Whenever a driver is passing by another, he beeps to announce his presence. The reason? They don't use their side mirrors. Ah, Cairo. We will miss it. In fact, 7 days was not enough. We wish we could have another couple of days to wander on our own now that we know what things we would want to re-visit. I would very much like to walk through Coptic Cairo in the Old City on our own now that we feel more comfortable here and know what we want to see.

Many men have a circular brown lump on their foreheads. This is a raised callus from frequent prostration called zabib which means "raisin." It is a symbol of piety and devotion. Some men fake it by rubbing their forehead with a course cloth to build up the zabib more quickly.

I noticed that the women here use hat pins to secure their scarves. I never saw this in Turkey. Some of them are quite decorative and it almost seems like an art.

Here are some random shots I have taken during the week:

The ubiquitous taxi

This was inside one of the mosques. The spiral is an interesting and unique style of decoration.

I love these train tickets. They're so beautiful.

This statue was in front of the New Alexandria Library. It was found underwater where it and many other artifacts have rested since an earthquake sent everything tumbling into the sea back in 320 A.D.

This poor tram driver was trapped on the rails because cars were packed in around him and no one could move.

Egyptian keyboard

Tires anyone?

Engine repair and cat.

I was fascinated by this way of making people pay for their parking. Once you pull into the spot, the yellow guard pops up via a sensor and you can't get out until you put a card that you have previously purchased into the slot.

We went out for a last lunch in Cairo on a boat on the Nile called "Nile City." Tarek had recommended it so we went. I don't know, it was great food and it was Egyptian, but it was very touristy. However, we're rather obsessed with NOT getting sick so we wanted a place where we didn't have to worry. We felt quite smug being independent travelers when the hoards of tour groups came dragging in shortly after us, glazed expressions or a kind of deer caught in headlights look, all receiving a set lunch, "Beef?" Chicken?" It really confirmed our love of doing things on our own or with a private guide. I can't tell you how many khaki, many-pocketed vests we saw. However, I will say that the Rick Steves' tour, with far fewer people and dinners in small, local restaurants, is an exception to this. We did have a great meal but I'm sure all you vegetarians are gagging at all this meat.

Bread. Some restaurants charge by the piece.

Eggplant dip and some kind of cheese dip. Both delicious.

Fresh mango juice. So thick, it was chewy--the kind where you take a sip and a string of mango is attached to a chunk that hangs out of your mouth and lands on your chin.

Grilled veal cutlet with garlic potatoes, vegetables and Oriental rice. The rice tasted almost like a baked item with cinnamon and cardamon topped with golden raisins.

Meatballs, grilled lamb, fries, vegetables and Oriental rice.

Beautiful bird hanging out on the bridge crossing the Nile.

We decided to grab a cab to Khan el Khalili, the shopping bazaar. We've learned what an acceptable amount is, usually 20-25 pounds (€2.58-€3.23) going in and 25-30 coming back. We did have to bargain each time. It's a place to get easily lost but it was fun and the pressure to buy isn't terrible.

Bread guy balancing bread like it is nothing.

Chuck tried on another gallabia and it looked gorgeous on him with the addition of the elegant black robe but he's happy with what he has.

Total Cost for 7 days in Cairo including every visit to the W.C.: €1,344.41 ($1863.56).

The Westerner in me was discomposed. ~ Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes

Friday, January 29, 2010

From Africa to Asia and Back

By Claire
We enjoyed another long, fantastic day visiting the Suez Canal. Tarek picked us up and acted as guide and driver today. We drove along the Suez Highway to Suez City where we saw the Red Sea for the first time and a tiny view of the canal from a park. Foreigners are not allowed in that area. A bit disappointing.

Red Sea in Suez City

Suez Canal

We came to the first of two checkpoints and had to show our passports; we were on our way to Sinai, on the Asia side of Africa. We drove through a tunnel under the canal and arrived on the other side to almost complete desert with the occasional green area.

First sighting of a "ship in the desert."

Camels along the way--a classic with palm trees included.

We came to the Suez Canal Bridge, also known as the Mubarak Peace Bridge or the Egyptian-Japanese Friendship Bridge.

This is the bridge with the best views of the canal--but you aren't allowed to stop or take photos! Tarek told me when I could get a quick shot and when to put my camera down.

Signage along the way

We arrived to green farms and far less desert back on the African side and stopped for lunch. We ordered chicken sandwiches, at least that is what the waiter translated for us, and fresh mango juice. We had seen miles and miles of mango farms along the way. It was the best mango juice I've ever had.

We enjoyed lots of interesting sightings along the way. Far too many for me to capture from a moving car. I wish I could have gotten the one of the bus with men literally hanging off the sides.

Tarek asked if we would like to see where typical Egyptians live, including himself. He gave us a tour of his neighborhood and showed off all the amenities.

Giant mall with everything you could possibly need.

Another mall with huge food court that seats hundreds with outside seating.

Back in the city, we saw the Baron Palace, named for a famous Egyptologist from Belgium and done in a Hindu style.

I never thought I'd see all that we did this week. It's been a very active week and we are frankly amazed at how much we saw. We really enjoyed being with Tarek today. He's a wonderful driver!

Expenses for today:
Tarek, €150 plus €13 tip
Lunch, €6.45

All men dream; but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act out other dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. ~ T. E. Lawrence

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Alexandria in a Day

By Claire
We grabbed a taxi at 7:45 am to catch a 9 am train to Alexandria where we would be meeting our guide and driver for the day. Chuck negotiated the price down from LE 30 to LE 20, €2.58, and we jumped into the cab, which reeked of gasoline. No seat belts, of course. The driver tried to drop us near a pedestrian overpass to the train station but we were warned not to let this happen—we still would have had to negotiate a very busy 5 lane highway to get across to the station. The traffic was insane, albeit structured insanity, but no way did we want to walk through it. He argued but we were firm and he had to drive another kilometer, taking a U-turn to get us to the front door. We hung out in the coffee shop then used the services of one of the blue uniformed men to take us to our train and help us find our seats. Our tickets had been purchased for us and delivered a couple of days ago. The price on the tickets said LE 50 but this was included in the day’s costs. We were also given detailed instructions about getting to the train station, finding a blue uniformed guy to help us, etc.

Everything went very smoothly and we settled in to read our Kindles.

The ride was uneventful and took 2-1/2 hours with nice views of the Delta.

Simple house along the Delta--no matter how poor, there are satellite dishes.

This once-great city is named after Alexander the Great. It once housed two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World--The Lighthouse at Pharos and the Library of Alexandria. It aspires to greatness again, as evidenced by, for example, the New Library of Alexandria.

Arriving at the last stop in Alexandria, we easily found Tamer, who was holding up a sign with our names on it. Tamer escorted us to our car and explained what we would be seeing and doing today. We started with the Catacombs—No photos allowed. They were discovered in 1900 by accident when a donkey disappeared through the ground in an area that had been explored for 7 years as the possible site of a Roman tomb. In fact, the archeologist was ready to give up. It is the largest known Roman burial site in Egypt. It was an interesting mix of Pharaonic, Greek and Roman styles. Originally it was a private family tomb but it was expanded and turned into a public cemetery housing 300 bodies with family members put into crypts together.

Next on the agenda was the Roman amphitheatre, this one just different enough to make it exciting. First, it was made of marble; second, there was a flat, round stone that when standing on it, our voices were amplified in a way that was simply fantastic. We each tried it several times. If you step off the stone, the amplification stops. Boy, those Romans…they really knew how to do things. The first music academy was at this amphitheatre and classes were held in adjoining rooms, designed much like the amphitheatre.

Chuck and Tamer discussing


The Qait Bey Citadel fortress was our next stop and it was right on the water. Driving there we started really appreciating Alexandria. The weather was perfect and it has far less pollution than Cairo. The architecture is French and Italian and it has a very cosmopolitan mix of people. We had fun wandering around this fort and Tamer is a wealth of knowledge.

Qait Bey Citadel

By now it was almost 3 and time for a seafood lunch on the Mediterranean. We chose our fish from a glass case then sat down to be served numerous appetizers including baba ganoosh, green bean dip, garlic dip, humus and many more. The pita bread was almost too hot to handle. A plate of huge shrimp arrived and then our Gray Mullet, similar to sea bass, arrived. I regret not taking any photos but was so caught up in the view and the food and the conversation, I completely forgot. It was all delicious and once again, it’s a no-dinner night.

We drove all the way across town to a small island where King Farouk had this eccentric Victorian style bridge built so that he could drive to take high tea on the island.

We wandered around the beach area and then through gardens to the Presidential palace. The architect was Italian and the design is Turkish Florentine. I loved it.

Our final and probably favorite stop was the New Alexandria Library. This library is a world class venue that includes a planetarium, museums, temporary exhibits, WiFi, computers and 700,000 books with the capacity for 8 million. It was built with private donations. It is gorgeous and right up there with the Amsterdam Bibliotheek.


We watched the sunset over the water then headed for the train station and back to Cairo.

Tamer escorted us to our train and found our seats for us. This is a tremendous service. Everything is in Arabic and we would not have been able to figure out which train it was let alone which car and which seats. We really enjoyed our day with him and highly recommend him as a guide for Alexandria. You can reach him at

Another uneventful ride home until we got into the taxi heading back to our hotel. First, the driver couldn’t get the cab started. I had visions of all the taxis leaving and there we would be with a stalled out cab. But, it finally roared to life and we were off. However, he had no idea where the hotel was and called his father then stopped and asked people on the street as we went along. Amazingly, he took us right to the door.

We really loved Alexandria and recommend the trip. It was a long day, we were finally home at 10 pm but you can even spend the night there. There was so much to see and we only wish we could have seen more. I would love to have seen a Planetarium show.

Catacombs, €5.16
Roman Theatre, €4.52
Qait Bey Fort, €6.45
Lunch, €22.19
Park, €1.55
Library, €2.52
Tamer, €150 plus tip €6.45
Driver tip, €6.45

There is nothing impossible to him who will try. ~ Alexander the Great