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


Holly said...

Claire and Chuck,

I am so in awe of this adventure you are on. Reading your notes and seeing the photos of Egypt made me want to hop on a plane tomorrow. No...tonight! I can't thank you enough for this delicious world tour I am on with you. I love every detail, from the beautiful train tickets, to knowing that Cairo-ians (?)drive at night without lights. I can feel the gritty sand in my teeth as I write. Since I just got back from Hawaii, I'll say Mahalo (thank you!).

Till tomorrow night...
Love, Holly

Diane said...

Your experiences in Egypt remind me of travels in India where I just embraced it all and became resigned to my fate . . . it's a delicious feeling in its own way. Seems like the people are much more survival-oriented than in Turkey. You are poised for some more great adventures--thanks for taking all of us along!

Chuck and Claire said...

Hi Holly,
The people of Cairo are called Cairenes. Everyone should see Egypt once in their lifetime.

Carol said...

Claire and Chuck.

Just FYI. The beautiful bird you took a photo of is a Kingfisher and related to our Belted Kingfisher here in the States.