Originally posted October 17, 2009
We started our adventure late Thursday night, at the bus station. By ‘we’ I mean myself, Rachel, my suitemate from CT, and Niall, who is Canadian. We took the midnight bus from Haifa to Eilat, and there we met our first hic up. I had thought about buying tickets early but decided to just deal with it at the bus station.
Well at the bus station, turned out that we had to buy tickets from the bus driver, and that most of the seats were taken. So I ended up on the floor for half the time, feeling a bit like a bum. It was actually not too bad because I had more space and could lie down a bit, and only got stepped on once.
We arrived in Eilat at 6am, bleary-eyed and still limping from the blisters on our feet. After stopping briefly we continued on to the border, where we met hic up number two. I had tried to do all of the research possible, but still could not figure out the deal with visas. So we took a gamble and turned out to be a bit wrong. We did need to go to the Egyptian embassy to get visas ahead of time, but only found this out at the border, and since it was a Friday, the embassy was closed. Just a note, in Israel, the weekend is Friday and Saturday, and the workweek is Sunday through Thursday.
We were still able to get through, it just cost us each a bunch more for our mistake. Soon enough we were on the Egyptian side and waiting for a bus to Cairo. We didn’t wait too long, as I had coordinated that part well, and we were off to Cairo on an air-conditioned bus. I was finally tired enough to nap, and nap I did!
We arrived in Cairo after about 6 hours and took a taxi to the hostel, and met hic up number three. I had directions to the hostel, but the taxi driver did not speak English well, so it took us about 15 minutes of trial and error before finally finding our hostel. Luckily it wasn’t too far from where we first thought the hostel was, and soon we had collapsed on our bunk beds with cartoon character sheets.
We had a relaxed evening walking around Giza, got some pizza and slept well. We had the hostel to ourselves, actually, since it’s a new hostel and has only been open since July. Saturday was a slow morning; we had breakfast provided by the hostel and took a taxi downtown to book sleeping-train tickets. It took a while to find the station, but eventually we did and booked tickets for all three of us as well as Madison and Christina, who had been planning on coming but later backed out.
We took the metro back to Giza like regular Egyptians, and it was pretty exciting. We were definitely the only tourists on the metro but it was shockingly cheap (20 cents each way) so we dealt with the stares and saved ourselves time and money and hassle.
From the metro we took a taxi to a store that does pyramid trips for students, and soon we were each on a camel, on our way to the pyramids! We got turbans to wear too, which did help with the sun. Our guide kept telling us to do the “Egyptian Belly Dance”, which is where you separate your legs from your upper body and let your legs follow the camel’s motion but keep your upper body steady. I got pretty good at it after a bit, so the guide unhooked my camel from the rest and I actually rode by myself for most of the time! It was pretty exciting. I couldn’t really convince my camel to go any faster than he wanted, so we went at his pace, swaying back and forth. Our guide was on a horse and it was cool to see how the camel’s feet are designed so well for walking in sand in comparison to the horse’s hooves which sunk in the sand.
Not gonna lie, the pyramids were really really awesome. We didn’t go around the front, but more the back. I still got some great pictures, as you can see. We also went to the sphinx temple, basically the place to get the best pictures of the sphinx, which we did. It was near to closing time so we didn’t dawdle much.
We headed back to the office on our camels and en route stopped to climb one of the smaller pyramids. Yes, climb! We didn’t go all the way up but about halfway and it was really fun. We rode off into the sunset, swaying and getting a bit saddle sore before finally dismounting and saying goodbye to our camels. We went to a papyrus museum and it was pretty cool, though we were getting hungry. So we left the pyramids behind us and headed back near our hostel for some food and sleep.
Sunday was an early morning so we could get downtown to return two of the train tickets we had bought. We tried to catch a taxi to the metro but the traffic was horrendous so we ended up walking the 3k to the metro and taking it downtown. It took a while to figure out the refunds; they did the reservations by paper and the electricity kept going out, but eventually we were on our way to see some more sights.
We went to Saladins Citadel and the Coptic Church nearby, just exploring around on our own. From the Citadel we got a good view of Cairo, and wow is it covered in smog! I could feel the weight of it in my lungs while we walked around, and by the end I was just exhausted. We stopped by a store near to our hostel and hung out with the owners who were very friendly. We had dinner with them and stopped at a bakery before bed. I love the bakeries in Egypt, and Israel too. Everything is baked right in the shop very fresh, tasting and smelling delicious.
A note about our friends at the shop: Niall has this habit of being very friendly with anyone who would say hi or ask where we were from, and that’s how we ended up meeting these storeowners. Sometimes it was fun and we met cool people, but other times it got really frustrating, and Rachel and I just wanted to keep walking and not stop to talk with every person who asked where we were from, in order to make a sale. Eventually we got our revenge by bugging him about how whenever he said he was from Canada, everyone said oh, Canada Dry! Interestingly enough, we did not see Canada Dry sold in a single store during our entire time in Egypt.
Monday was another slow morning, and we made our way over to the Egyptian museum. Unfortunately we were not allowed cameras, so I’ll just have to describe the immense number of artifacts and tombs (and tourists) that were there. We decided to forgo the guide and just enjoyed ourselves by wandering around and reading the plaques for ourselves. I amused myself by trying to read the French version of the descriptions and then comparing it to the English one to see how much I could understand, which was a fair amount.
Part of me was torn between being fascinated with how old and intricate the sculptures and tombs and statues were, but the cynical side of me just kept saying “yeah but it’s been reconstructed and that’s not really what it looked like when it was discovered”. I know that it’s important to get an idea of what artifacts were supposed to look like, but it really bothers me sometimes to see how much they’ve rebuilt and recovered things. Like on Masada, there was a black line drawn horizontally on the buildings there, marking what was original and what had been rebuilt, and most of it had been rebuilt. It just feels like a little white lie the museum is telling, trying to make things more impressive than they are by filling in the details and super gluing it back together. I did enjoy it still, especially seeing a stone that was like the Rosetta stone, with one passage written in hieroglyphics, Greek and some other language.
After the museum we wandered around a lot. It was freeing, getting lost in the city and not caring where we went. We wandered around lots of shops, walked by stores that sold everything from luggage to freshly squeezed fruit juice to modest clothing for women to puppies. That last store, I almost up and bought one of them. It was a little white fluff of a puppy, it licked my finger, and oh it was heartbreaking to walk away.
A few notes on my general impressions of Egypt: wow, the women are so fashionable! Most of them covered their heads, so we stuck out a fair amount just based on that, but everything they wore matched. Their headscarves matched their clothing, which matched their accessories and even their shoes. I was quite surprised to notice this once I got past the traditional wear. The men were also dressed very nicely on a whole, a style you could almost call preppy.
Overall the people were very hospitable to us, offering us something to drink when we went into a shop, though we were hustled and hassled more in the tourist areas, which was an unfortunate annoyance. It was also very interesting to see how nearly everyone had a cell phone, but yet again having a toilet with toilet paper was a luxury. Other interesting things were that coffee didn’t really exist, there was only Nescafe, Laughing Cow cheese was everywhere, and you had to watch out for fees that you didn’t actually have to pay. A few times when we were getting on buses someone would try and charge us an extra pound or 5 or even 10 for our luggage, but soon we figured out that we were the only ones that they were charging and refused to pay. It also bothered me a lot that store hawkers would yell after you “excuse me” in very annoyed and angry voices, like you were doing something wrong, which you weren’t. It was disconcerting because it was the kind of tone only used in the US when someone was justifiably angry and upset over something, not used when trying to make someone buy something.
Another shocking thing was the sheer number of over-priced sound and light shows at every single monument! Id been to a few while in Jerusalem and more then two and I never wanted to see one ever again. Its interesting how they market history to the public these days. All part of the experience, in the end.
Back to the story: after all of our wandering and window-shopping we walked to the metro and took it back to Giza. We’d become pros at it by now and knew how to discreetly push to the front of the line to buy tickets; everyone else was doing it, and if you waited your turn you never got anywhere. Back at the hostel we packed and took a taxi back to the metro with all of our stuff to take the sleeping-train down to Aswan. We were quite exhausted and a bit frustrated with each other by that point, but the novelty of the train helped us rally and definitely lightened our moods. None of us had ever been on one before so we enjoyed exploring our car (Rachel and I shared one and Niall shared one with a guy traveling alone). We had dinner and read a lot before sleeping. It was a relatively hard to fall asleep with the motion of the train being uneven, but eventually we did and we woke up close to Aswan.
It was nice to be out of Cairo, the constant attention of looking different was exhausting and I was glad to get away from it. It was Tuesday morning when we got off the train to meet the captain of the crew. We did a little shopping first and saw the temple of Philae, which we all really enjoyed, and soon we were on our very own Felucca! It’s a sailboat with a few mattresses in the middle instead of seats, and was our home for two and a half days.
We sailed down river first and took a swim, which was very refreshing. We then sailed to the Nubian village where our captain was from; there was a wedding that night (the 2nd night of the wedding) and we were invited to come along, which we accepted. First we went to his house and had dinner, which was a lovely house. We played with his kids, dancing around to Bob Marley for more than an hour before eating. They were just adorable and so much fun. After dinner we went up to the roof and nearly fell asleep on a random bed up there, feeling the wind and looking out over the town.
Finally it was time to go to the wedding and we watched the men watch a football (soccer) game between Egypt and Costa Rica. It was very funny to see them react in the same ways that you would see a group of sports fans in the US react when watching the Superbowl, for example. The music started then, so we went to watch. Niall and Rach started dancing a bit and soon swarms of kids came over to dance with them, so I joined in. Wow did they love us! They actually fought over who got to hold our hands. They were adorable, and would not let us stop dancing for a long long time. It was probably the first time they’ve really seen white people up close, and they took tons of pictures of us to remember us by. It was hilarious, just dancing with tons of little kids. I think there were close to thirty all vying for our attention.
After that exhausting excitement and dancing we walked back to the felucca to sleep. We had a pretty relaxing day on Wednesday, just chillin as we sailed up the Nile. We read a lot, slept when we felt like it, and stuck our feet in the Nile to cool down. It was really fun to just do nothing and feel no guilt for doing nothing. We ended up sailing back to Aswan because it was more convenient to get a bus from Aswan to Luxor than wherever we would have ended up if we had kept going. So we sailed back and had dinner across the Nile from the bus station. After dinner we, Niall, Rach and I, played some cards for a bit. Our three crew members taught us a card game after, basically a game of secretive hot-potato with cards. We had a good time with it, playing by candlelight.
It was an early (5am) morning so that we could catch the bus at 6am. We took the bus from Aswan to Luxor, arriving at 10am, and grabbed a taxi to the main part of Luxor. We stopped off at a hotel while trying to figure out our options and decided that since the ferry between Hurgadah and Sharm El-Shiek was broken, we would take a bus up to Cairo and then down to Dahab. In the meantime, we hired a cab for the day and did some sightseeing in the Valley of Kings and surrounding area. The Valley of Kings was really cool, walking into the tombs of different pharaohs and their children. Unfortunately we were not allowed to bring in cameras, so I’ll just have to describe it as best I can. It was very hot out, so we were glad to walk down the many steps into the tombs. They were lit up and as we walked through corridors and into main chambers we could see on the walls the carvings and painted figures. Again I wondered how much had been repainted and reconstructed but I was unable to find out.
We went into three tombs, which was the limit, and then made our way back to meet the driver. From there we went to the temple of Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh. Our final stop was the Karnak temple, which really impressed us. It was very large and generally in quite good condition. It was interesting to see the different contributions by different pharaohs, and just to wander around looking at everything. We were quite tired by then and content to sit and wait for the bus. The bus came at 6pm and we were on our way.
We finally arrived in Cairo 14 hours later, which was exhausting but we survived. Not long into the bus ride I started to feel sick, so it was not too pleasant for me. In Cairo (now Friday) we went to the bus station but found we’d have to wait a long time for a bus to Dahab, so we ended up hiring a cab. For the 7 hour trip that it was and the distance we covered, paying $40 each was a real deal. I was still sick, but it was a stomach thing now, so I just tried to sleep as much as possible.
Not a moment too soon we arrived in Dahab, and I promptly fell asleep for the rest of the night, 7pm until 8am. I felt only a little better when I woke up on Saturday, but still quite sick. I could successfully eat some toast and juice, an accomplishment over the previous two days when I hadn’t eaten anything. Rachel and Niall had wanted to climb Mount Sinai but it turned out that if we were to catch the bus back to Taba they would have gotten back a half hour too late. So they sacrificed their climb for the bus and by 2pm we were back in Israel.
I’ve got to say, I breathed a huge sigh of relief to be back and to be able to drink the tap water again. We didn’t have anything to do until our bus left at midnight, so we had some sushi, which I kept down, and hung out talking for a long while. We saw a movie, Surrogates, that evening and then made our way to the bus station. This time we had seats on the bus (we’d learned our lesson and ordered them early), and 6 hours later we were back in Haifa.
To be continued: the first week of classes.