Casablanca, Morocco

Casablanca/Rabat, Morocco
September 22nd, 23rd, 24th 2010

I once watched the movie ‘Casablanca’ and still recall a shot from the movie, a picture of a river beside an old looking town. I did not see that in Casablanca. It’s all modern now.

My days were spent getting lost once in the medina alleyways (and not returning again), finding a good fresh-fried begne joint, sitting in the park during the late evenings to people watch, walking to find the Hassan II mosque (it was a long walk! Didn’t help that I went in the wrong direction for a while), taking the 1-hour train to Rabat and finding a great couscous joint there. Not much to see sights-wise in Casablanca and Rabat, just passing time until my flight to Cape Town.

I wrote this entry real short because at this moment, I still haven’t posted any of my other Morocco entries and they all have better stories than this.

Go on…you know you want to see food pics!

Casa-Rabat Pics

Marrakesh, Morocco

Marrakesh, Morocco
September 20th, 21st 2010

Why do I do this to myself?

It was extremely cramped. There was no air circulation. The A/C, when working, blew out lukewarm to warm air. It smelled very funky. There were hardly any toilet breaks. (Toward the end, I was holding my pee in so long it hurt so to take my mind off the discomfort, I watched Hard Knocks on my mp3 player). And the driving was terrible. I almost threw up a few times and it took me all my willpower not to (I had a bag ready in front of me JIC). I don’t know if we were traveling at slightly higher altitude or it was just the very windy roads but it was nauseating.

I could’ve picked a shorter leg of my journey to ‘brave the waters of serious local transportation’ (see Fes entry), maybe from Marrakesh to Casablanca (4 hours)? Why did I pick the absolute longest leg of my journey to do it? I seriously think I am a masochist. But I told myself to man up. If the locals could do it, so could I. Next time, don’t drink anything before getting on the bus. Next time, pack snacks. Next time, don’t pick a seat in the farthest corner of the bus, where you are closed off from all angles.

After enduring everything, while enjoying the beautiful landscapes, we arrive at a rest stop where we had 45 minutes to relieve ourselves and get something to eat. The lamb tagine was spectacular. Fresh air, stretched legs, good food, and empty bladder. I felt like a new man! Come on, bring on another 9 hours in that bus! Ok, just kidding. I tried to converse with some locals I sat to next to the bus, but they just smiled at me because they had no idea what I was trying to say or sign to them.

Another 2 hours or so, and I arrived in Marrakesh. Good thing my neighbors woke me up (they knew I was going to Marrakesh) because this wasn’t the final stop and I could’ve ended up God knows where. It was 12:00 am. It was dark and I didn’t know where the heck I was. The map in my Lonely Planet guidebook had no street names. Not that I could find street names due to lack of, as well as darkness, even with streetlamps.

I walked slowly toward what I was told is the direction of the medina. Or was it Djemaa El F’na? Either way, that’s where I needed to go. A teenager saw me, walked up to me, and asked where I’d like to go. At this point, I could’ve said, ‘No thanks, I’m taking a petit taxi to where I need to go’ but no, I said ‘Riad 02 Hotel’. He offered to take me there and I accepted. I knew he was a faux guide and I knew I had to tip him at the end. It was 12:20 am, we were in an area where there weren’t that many people, the streets were almost empty, and it was dark. What could possibly go wrong?

We started walking and chatting a little bit, mostly because I felt slightly nervous. His English was pretty good. His name was Kareem (are they all named Mohammed or Kareem?). He was 15. He liked Real Madrid and I told him I went to watch a game at Barnabeu. His favorite player was Cristiano Ronaldo and his hairstyle was similar.

Kareem then took me off the main road (if you could call it that) and we began to make our way into the small, dark alleyways. I grew more and more nervous, walked slightly behind Kareem and constantly looked over my shoulder, especially when I saw a few random guys around, and a few followed us. They eventually turned off into another alleyway and we were alone again. Kareem kept assuring me ‘No problem, no problem’ when I stopped walking because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to follow him anymore. Scooters sometimes rode past us. We came to a tunnel that was so damned dark that I was convinced that was the place I was going to get mugged by a group of guys. I stopped and turned around and looked at a guy who was following us. He looked at me and knew what I was thinking so he assured me ‘No problem, no problem’ and ushered me on, trying to tell me he wasn’t a bad guy. I took yet another leap of faith and continued following Kareem until we eventually reached a small door which had a sign on top saying ‘Riad 02’. Apparently this place charged USD$50 a night but it didn’t look it. I expected a small, nice looking hotel but this was hidden away in a dark alley. I was a bit relieved to find it but I didn’t let up yet. Kareem knocked on the door and rang the bell but there was no answer. We tried for 5 minutes until I told Kareem that it was late and that no one was going to help me. As we walked away, the door opened and a man stuck his head out. He told me there were no rooms available so I thanked him and we walked away. I told Kareem I wanted to head toward the taxis. At that point, I was so lost in the maze that I needed his help to get out. He asked me how much I was going to give him. I offered him ‘10’ and he asked ’10 Euros?’ and I replied ‘No, 10 Dirhams’. He laughed it off, saying it was the equivalent of 1 Euro. Demanding fucker. He said 10 Euros was an acceptable price and I said ‘Let’s talk when we get to the taxis’. I obviously wasn’t going to offer him anything close but I needed to get to the taxis first. After a while, we heard the sound of a car and Kareem knew it was a taxi. We found one dropping some Westerners off and I offered the driver 20 Dirhams to get me to Djemaa El F’na, a bit over market value but whatever. Then Kareem started asking for his money and I handed him 30 Dirhams. He looked shocked, continually saying that ‘It’s nothing!’ and eventually asked for 50 Dirhams. I kept saying ‘No, I don’t have anymore, that’s it, I have to give the rest to the taxi driver’ and we went on for a few minutes, much to the annoyance of the waiting taxi driver. In the end, Kareem gave in, said ‘Welcome!’ in a gracious tone and I triumphantly got into the taxi. I didn’t really win. I could’ve chosen to get into a taxi in the first place, saving myself 30 Dirhams and all that nerve-wrecking moments but no, I am an adrenaline junkie of sorts. Or an idiot. Did I want to get mugged? Did I want to feel nervous and scared? Did I want to do all this so I could tell my readers about my experiences walking through those dark, quiet, maze of alleyways? Maybe. But what price would or could I have paid for the experience? All I know is, I won’t be doing anything like that ever again.

Found Hotel CTM, which was listed in my book. Good location, quite cheap but boy, what a dump, especially the bathroom but what I pay for is what I get. It was 1 am, the Djemaa El F’na was bustling with activity but I chose to lie in bed, in wait for a fresh start the next day.

I had initially wanted to spend 3 nights in Marrakesh but from the looks of things, I think 2 nights is plenty. I bought my ticket at the train station (holy crap, it’s a nice looking station, thank you Frenchies), checked emails, walked around the souqs (outdoor markets), and bought some stuff. I was mainly waiting for dusk to arrive, when the main square becomes filled with stalls selling all kinds of foods and when street performers are out in full force.

(Spice man)

(Djemaa El F’na at night)

I started off with a cheap option, something a lot of locals seem to eat because that’s what they can afford; an egg sandwich. A man will turn a piece of Moroccan bread into a pocket. Then he spread cream cheese, put a hard-boiled egg in there, cut/mashed it up with his knife, put a whole potato, mashed that up, and added some salt/pepper mix, hot sauce, and onions. Pretty good stuff and surprisingly, quite filling. I walked past other stalls, all selling different kinds of foods they throw on the grill on demand. One stall had sheep’s head, brain, and tongue on display. These foods were featured on Bizarre Foods (on Travel Channel) and I just had to try it out. So I sat down next to a few locals, no doubt enjoying their bizarre foods, watched the chef chop up some brain and some tongue, dish out a little curry sauce on top of it, and I ate it with a piece of bread. It wasn’t bad at all. The brain had the texture of yogurt, didn’t have much taste, and the tongue looked like pieces of beef. Baaaaaa!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(Tasty looking or what?)

(Sheep tongue and brain)

I was pretty stuffed so after being hassled by street performers for taking pictures, I went to rest in my room. (They asked for 10 Dirhams, I offered 1, they said no, I told them I’d rather delete the picture, and they usually let it go for 1 Dirham. It worked every time.) After an hour, I went back to the square and scoured the place for more foods. Ate a bowl of harira, which reminded me a lot of one of the Campbell soups, and drank a glass of piping hot mint tea that had so much mint. After this, I was stuffed. I really wanted to eat other foods but I just couldn’t.

I could not sleep that night. The room was hot and stuffy and I was sweating a lot. I guess I could have counted sheep. (Get it?!) The next day, I hung around until my train left for Casablanca at 1 pm.

Marrakesh, Morocco Pics

Fes, Morocco

Fes, Morocco
September 18th, 19th 2010

After exchanging emails and saying goodbye to Yumi, I left to catch my 10 am bus to Fes. Instead of allowing us to load our bags directly into the baggage compartment of the bus, they made us pay 5 dH (dirhams, USD$1 = 8.5 dH) to check our bags in and they would load it for us. As one of the Canadian tourists I met there said, ‘Boy, they get us one way or another don’t they?’ But then again, this was common practice in Egypt and also parts of Eastern Europe, although they usually tag our bags and receive payment at the bus itself, instead of funneling them through a separate room.

The 6-hour journey took us through the towns of Tetouan and Chefchaouen, some popular tourist stops but I decided to skip those towns due to time. I have to be in Casablanca to catch a flight to Cape Town (South Africa) on the 25th. The plan was 2 nights in Fes, 3 nights in Marrakesh, and 2 nights in Casablanca.

Sat beside a Moroccan man who was very nice. He apparently spoke Arabic and German, but no French. Most Moroccans speak Arabic and French so his was an interesting case.

The journey on the bus allowed us to see a lot of Moroccan landscapes. What surprised me was how mountainous the regions we passed through were. The mix of colors was amazing as well. A couple different hues of brown, yellow, green splashed onto a canvas. I wish I had a better vocabulary to describe it all. Pictures say a thousand words but on a bus, it wasn’t easy taking pictures. The reflections from the window don’t help at all.

One thing I told myself before getting to Morocco was to ‘just let it be’. By that, I mean that I should just accept what prices people tell me their product and services are. I don’t mean I should be a pushover and overpay greatly if I know how much it should roughly be. I just mean that I shouldn’t go around stressing out at getting the best possible prices. If I do that, I lose my focus on enjoying everything else around me. In Egypt, I had spent a lot of time feeling stressed because I felt like I was constantly being cheated. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t but I had no point of reference. I automatically felt that way because the culture and reputation of the country made me feel it. I am a tourist; I will be a target to be cheated by people trying to make a living. I try to remind myself of that last fact; that these people are just trying to make a living. But it remains a fact; no one likes being cheated.

To sum my feelings up, I will ask about the prices. If it’s a little more than what I think I should be paying but I want it, then I will go for it. If it’s severely overpriced, I will just say no and move on. If I have no point of reference, I will have to think about it for a bit, how much do I really want it then and there?

Once at the bus station, I take a taxi service to the medina (the Islamic version of Old Towns in Europe, it’s really a town square). It’s packed with people watching street performers. There is also some sort of fair going on. I am initially lost but some guy offered to take me to where I wanted to go, Hotel Lamrani, a budget hotel. (Hostelworld, the website which I usually book accommodation through, has very few, if any, listings for hostels in Morocco, mostly because there probably aren’t any. All the website lists are overpriced hotels. So I look at my Lonely Planet guidebook for listings for recommended hotels, choose the cheapest ones, then go look for them upon arrival. If there is space, great. If not, go look for another one. If I run out of options from the book, which are few to begin with, I just walk around and find a random hotel, inquire about prices, check out rooms, then decide if I want to stay there or not.) Of course, he works for another hotel so he first tries to get me to stay at his hotel but I decline. Then he continues to take me to Lamrani. It’s just inside the Blue Gates, past a plethora of street hawkers and restaurants selling Moroccan foods. There is space, a triple-bed room but the hotel owner, ‘grumpy’ Mohammed (words from Lonely Planet), a man probably in his 60s or 70s, kindly charges me for a single. It’s nothing fancy, just a room with some old beds, a table, a sink and a window. The showers and toilet are communal but right next to my room.

I go take a walk that first night, intending to find a particular restaurant but there are too many small alleyways with no signs intertwining and I immediately get lost. I ask for directions from a teenager standing around and he hands me off to a kid, whom I immediately recognize as a faux guide. I know if he leads me to the place, I’ll have to tip him. I felt like a cheap bastard that night so I declined and set off on my own. The kid constantly followed me around trying to convince me to use his services. I continue declining nicely until one point I turn around and warn him to stop following me or I will call the police, a lie of course. The kid then starts yelling at me in Arabic, something about ‘Japon’, ‘shit’, and ‘fuck you’. I am amused but worry slightly that he’ll go find some thugs to find me and beat me up. A random guy, Kareem, apparently who owns one of the many shops on Taala Seghira (one of the two main alleyways), offers to take me to the restaurant but we find it is closed. He takes me to an alternative, which looked high class, had no one eating in it, and charged exorbitant prices. I declined eating there and Kareem kept asking me why. I mentioned that I though he was taking me to a friends’ place to get a commission. He immediately became angry and told me he felt insulted I would accuse him of such a thing. He told me to find my own way back but I told him I was sorry, and that my suspicions are due to my experiences in Egypt. He eventually accepts my apology and we shake hands and part from there on good terms. I eat at a random restaurant near my hotel and head to bed, despite the night being relatively early. I was tired from my bus ride, and also felt I needed to get away from the crowded night streets and regroup. What a night! All night long, I could hear the sounds of the streets within my walls but the melatonin soon kicked in and I was dreaming strange things.

The next day was spent exploring the areas within the walls of Fes, checking out a couple of the main sights. A lot of interesting places were off-limits to tourists and non-Muslims (like mosques) so there really wasn’t much to look at. For me, Morocco was a place I visited to walk the streets, smell the smells, hear the sounds, taste the food, and see how the people lived, not to visit any tourist sights, because unlike Europe, there aren’t many, at least which interested me.

(Beautiful woodwork, was tempted to buy a chess set)

(Coffee shop, Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid)

Let’s talk food. I had b’sara, ‘a garlic and butterbean soup topped with a dash of olive oil, eaten with a hunk of bread, a favorite breakfast food amongst the locals’. Lonely Planet gets the credit for the description as I would have no clue what it actually was. I actually sat at a table, in a cramped little space, eating with a bunch of locals so that was fun. I sampled different street foods ranging from sweets to fruit to different breads, one of them being very similar to roti canai (Malaysians know what this is) but eaten with Nutella or honey. I had tagine (of course), pastilla (a Fes creation, basically chicken, almonds, veggies and other things all stuffed inside layers of pastry, topped with sprinkles of cinnamon and powdered sugar, so delicious and filling despite its deceiving size), sweet mint tea (why take drugs when you can have mint tea?), and the best chicken couscous I’ve had so far, all at a restaurant called ‘Thaami’, spread over a couple of meals of course. All the local restaurant workers and shopkeepers constantly try to draw tourists into their establishments by waving their menus or wares in front of your face as you pass, and that’s really how I ended up eating there and liking it.

(Having b’sara with the locals)

(Pastilla, a Fes specialty, so good)

(Couscous with chicken)

Sometimes I cannot believe how different a country can be when it’s in a different continent and only separated by 2 hours on a ferry.

I booked a ticket to Marrakesh at the main bus station. Had to use all kinds of sign language and even writing down some Arabic numbers to try to get the ticket-guy to understand what I wanted. I didn’t book a CTM bus ticket (run by Eurolines, a bit more pricey but also nicer) because I decided I wanted to brave the waters of serious local transportation. This is the cheapest option for locals, so I knew discomfort was imminent but I must like pain. Oh boy…9 hours.

Fes, Morroco Pics

Tangier, Morocco

Tangier, Morocco
September 17th 2010

On the bus to Algeciras, the port city where I would take a ferry to Tangier, I sat beside a Japanese girl named Yumi. Before anyone says anything, she wasn’t my type. She has been traveling around the world for 6 months so we had that in common (4 months for me). She was friendly and going the same direction so we teamed up for Tangier. In my mind, I didn’t want to go beyond Tangier with anyone. She probably didn’t either, judging from the conversation we had on how long we each planned to stay in Tangier and where we would be going next and for how long. It’s as if we were scouting and picking each other for information so we could plan on not running into each other after Tangier. It’s not that we hated each other; it’s just that I’m sure we both enjoyed our freedoms as a solo traveler. If I’ve never mentioned this before, I much prefer to travel solo. If I travel with someone, I have to compromise and think of the other person. Yeah, selfish, I know. But I’m not traveling with good friends or family, I’m traveling with total strangers, so that contributes to my discomfort traveling with others. It would be different in the other cases.

Getting on the ferry was simple enough; buy a ticket from one the many counters, get past a passport check point, wait, get on ferry, fill up a customs form, get off ferry, wait for free shuttle to Tangier city, get on bus and arrive.

That evening, we were walking around and saw a street food truck that had many locals surrounding it. We checked it out and everyone was eating escargots (small snails) in broth. So, we shared a bowl. They gave us toothpicks to pick out the escargot from their shells, and they were so tasty. The broth was spicy but delicious. I think this was my first time having escargots so it was a good experience.

We found a place selling tagine and couscous so we sat down and feasted. It was 9 pm. I only had a very light breakfast earlier in the day and Yumi had only had a snack bar so we were starving. Needless to say, our stomachs made us over-order. I had one chicken tagine and one chicken couscous while she had the same. We shared a plate of salad and we both had mint tea, a Moroccan favorite, which was downright fantastic. Hot, minty, and sweet would be how I would describe it. The tagine and couscous was fantastic as well and I just managed to finish mine but Yumi couldn’t get through half her couscous and we had a good laugh about how we were pigs.

Tangier, Morocco Pics

Dahab, Egypt

Dahab, Egypt
August 6th, 7th, 8th 2010

Took a 3-hour train back from Aswan to Luxor and stayed a night because I couldn’t possibly catch the next bus to Dahab. However, I found out that the Luxor-Dahab bus was sold out and my other alternative was to take the bus to Suez and then buy a ticket there to Dahab.

After an 8 hour journey, I arrive in Suez at 5:30 am or so. The bus station is dumpy. There’s a coffee shop open to serve the night bus customers stopping by. A boy is preparing ingredients to sell falafel sandwiches at a nearby stand. Flies are buzzing around and he doesn’t pay any attention to those which land on the food. I park myself outside the coffee shop and notice that Batman (with Van Kilmer and Chris O’ Donnell) was playing, and in English! A nice way to kill a few hours until my 8 am bus to Dahab. I finish watching the movie around 7, head over to buy a ticket, and am told that the next bus to Dahab is actually at 11 am. Oh, I was mad. The past two hours have been an eternity at this station and I will have to spend another four? I had no choice. I was feeling irrational at the same time and bought a felafel sandwich. The guy crushed the falafel inside the sandwich with his bare hands. And I ate it. Hope the guy washed his hands! I didn’t have any dinner last night, and now I would have to wait until evening time to get any food. I might as well play Egyptian roulette. I can’t imagine there being any health inspectors around this part of town.

Time passed very slowly. At 10, I got back in “line” (imaginary) for the ticket and was told the bus would be late. I ended up getting the ticket around 11, boarded the bus around 11:30 am. Now, to face another 7 hours to Dahab…

Dahab is a pretty little seaside town. I put my stuff down and went to check out the sea. That evening, there was hardly any wind so the sea was dead calm. The sun was almost done setting so there was a beautiful pinkish orange color in the sky. There’s a slight mist but I could make out land across the far side of the sea…was it Jordan? The tide was low and some people ventured out pretty far to play in the waters.

My room at the Penguin Village had no A/C and it was extremely hot and stuffy inside, perfect conditions for a sleepless night. I was so tired I managed to knock off a few hours before succumbing to the heat. I woke up around 5 am, figured I’d take a shower and head to the sea to watch the sun rise. There was a cat, lying lazily on the table facing the shore. Egyptian cat beach bum.

(Cat chilling by the beach)

A little side note, please don’t get too repulsed as I think it’s quite funny. The toilets flush levers were broken so people had to manually open the toilet tops and pull the mechanism that triggered the flush. But a lot of people didn’t seem to know that so when pressing the button didn’t work, they left their kids swimming in the pool to surprise the next person. And there were signs that said “Please don’t throw toilet paper into toilets, throw them into bin.” WTF? Good thing I’m a rebel.

I spent the day doing a refresher course for Open Water diving, having already been certified in Austin two years back. It was just me and my dive instructor Tamer. We went out to the Lighthouse, one of many popular diving/snorkelling spots along the shore. I have no talent for diving, so Tamer had to deal with my lack of buoyancy control skills. It’s one of the most important diving skills to have as having good control means you don’t start destroying corals by swimming into them. And equalizing pressure, oh God. Never mind, I will work on everything when I get back to the States because I love diving.

Most humans see life on land. It’s definitely refreshing to see life under and over land, by diving and climbing mountains. The corals and sea life were spectacular. I recommend everyone to learn to dive. Ok, maybe I just want to encourage my friends out there to get certified so we can all go diving together. Diving isn’t an individual activity, you ALWAYS have to have a dive buddy.

After that morning dive, I decided to do an afternoon one. A small group of us headed out to Moray Gardens, about 30 minutes drive out. Again, spectacular sea life. We got to see a school of young barracudas, among everything else which I can’t name. I was disappointed we did not have time to go farther east as one of my dive buddies said that he was told by people there were whales (or was it whale sharks?) sighted there. I am hoping that during my lifetime, I will get to be in the water with a gentle giant whale shark.

(Moray Gardens)

I spent the evening watching the sun set. I decided I wasn’t going to sleep in my room that night. The restaurant attached to my hostel had an open air roof with plenty of giant cushions so that night, I slept under the stars, going to sleep as the warm breeze constantly blew and the waves washing onto the shore sounded like God’s lullaby.

(Top right side is where I slept)

Next day, went snorkelling at Blue Hole. It’s a massive deep blue hole (what gave that away??) surrounded by coral reef. Wasn’t that impressive to be honest, despite the hype. Was fun though, but after an hour, I was ready to go back. That night, I packed my fleece, some water, biscuits, and headed out with the group to Mt Sinai. We set off around 11 pm, arrived around 1 am, met our Bedouin guide (a tall, thin, skinny guy named Hamuda) who would guide us up the dark slopes.

Trekking in the dark is quite fun as you can’t see how much is ahead of you and get overwhelmed. Looking up at the sky, I saw countless stars. Bedoiuns would gather at random spots along the way up trying to sell camel rides to tiring trekkers. I think it’s a cop out. I personally like to earn my way to the top, on my own two feet. I understand some trekkers are old or out-of-shape but I don’t care. There are 80 year old men who earn their way up Mt Everest (30000 ft). What’s 7500 ft on a mountain catered for tourists?

Anyway, after several pit stops, lots of hiking and conquering the 750 steps to the top, we reach the summit around 4:30 am. Some people brought their sleeping bags. I sat in crouching position under a small rock cave and took a 30 minute nap. The sun was supposed to rise around 6:10 am so I made sure I was ready for it. And it’s quite something to watch a sunrise from a mountain top. Not just the sunrise itself but how it begins to color the surrounding landscape.

(Prior to sunrise)

(Some people enjoying the sunrise)

(Me and a random Bedouin guide)

(One of several pit stops located on Mt Sinai)

We headed down around 7 am. Everyone had two choices : Head down the way we came or head down 3750 steps (built by some crazy monk a long time ago) to St Catherine’s monastery. I chose the 3750 steps (750 down the way we came, then 3000 more). What a grueling 3750 steps they were but there were some great views to be had. We walked in small canyons and between rocky cliffs/hills until we finally reached the bottom around 9 am. I went into the monastery just to check out the “burning bush” from the Bible. Very unimpressive. It’s just a massive hanging plant in a blocked off portion of the monastery. Yawn. Snapped a picture, got out of there.

(Climbing down the 3750 steps route)

The bus from Dahab to Cairo was at 3:30 pm. Another 8 hours on a cold, stuffy, ugly-colored bus blaring horrible Arabic music and movies. Fun times.

Random Pictures:

(I ate this for at least 4-5 meals, just so good)

Aswan/Abu Simbel, Egypt

Aswan, Egypt
August 3rd 2010

Took the morning train from Luxor to Aswan. Journey was about 3 hours, after a train delay. Travelled with Shannon, an American girl I met from the West Bank tour in Luxor. Seemed like a pretty cool person. Did not have accomodation and was hoping to get a room upon arrival. Was lucky to get accomodation at first choice hostel (Keylaney). It was quite a long walk down the souk street under the hot sun and blazing Aswan temperature to get the the hostel.

(Mustafa in front of his home and place of business)

(Some kids who were curious of us tourists)

(Nubian women chatting with each other)

(Felucca on the Nile)

(A local Nubian pick-up soccer game)

Took a short ferry ride across the Nile to the Nubian Elephantine Island. Interesting to see life in a Nubian village. Everyone was greeting us and saying “Welcome to Nubia”. The Nubians like to discern themselves from Egypt I guess. Met a guy named Mustafa, who ran a hotel on that island. He invited Shannon and I in for some tea. I was hesitant but Shannon looked like she wanted to go in so I did as well. It was a nice home. He lived in one room, and any tourists wanting to stay rented the other. He also did felucca tours. As we were drinking some great tea, which helped my headache, I was getting ready for him to make a sales pitch. To my surprise, he didn’t. He was showing us pictures of the tourists he had taken in and around, their testimonies in his notebooks, his face in a Japanese magazine (some Japanese did a story on Elephantine and he was features in the story). But not once did he try to do a sales pitch. He gave us his business card, that was it. It had his name and website, tasteful and professional. I was surprised that this man knew Western business practice. He said websites were the way to go these days. I was impressed to say the least. At least this man knew how to move forward, unlike many Egyptian business owners.

(The kind man who helped us out)

We tried to find our way back to the ferry dock via a different route but got lost instead. As it was getting late, we sought the help of a man parking his felucca and he graciously helped us for no charge to cross the river. I tried offering a tip but he flat out refused. It’s always nice to find people who want to help you out just to help you out, which is quite rare in this country.

The main reason I went to Aswan was to visit Abu Simbel. I was contemplating skipping it but the Abu Simbel temple was apparently the “most striking temple” in Egypt. I was in the general area already, might as well travel another 3 hours to Aswan, and another 3 hours day-trip to Abu Simbel. Woke up at 2:45 am to get ready for the 3:30 am minivan. After meeting the rest of the convoy (yes, we had to travel with a group of other buses/minivans, and headed/backed by police cars), we journeyed 3 hours across what was mostly vast empty desert to Abu Simbel. I was stuffed into the rear corner and had trouble sleeping, unlike most of my van-mates. How do they do it…

(Abu Simbel Temple front entrance)

The temple itself was indeed pretty impressive looking. It was built into the side of a massive hill. Outside were several massive statues of the great Ramses II. Again, with no guide, hieroglyphics could only be appreciated for what they were, cool drawings. I’m sure archaelogists who knew what it all meant would appreciate it even further since they can understand the stories. The Temple of Hathor, right next to Abu Simbel temple, was also pretty “striking”. But the coolest part about the area? Lake Nasser. At least I think it was Lake Nasser. Massive body of water behind the temple, so blue and serene.

Decided to take the evening train back to Luxor, stay the night there, and leave the next evening for a long journey to Dahab (22 hour bus ride anyone? FML).

Luxor, Egypt

Luxor, Egypt
August 1st, 2nd 2010

Took the overnight train from Cairo. Bought a 1st class seat but it’s just a cabin with 6 seats (3 facing 3) and was crammed in there with 5 other tourists. Was very cold on board as well as uncomfortable, as the seats had no head support to lean against, worse in the middle as the sides had a wall to lean against. I was constantly waking up trying to keep my head warm. Ended up wrapping my long sleeve undershirt around my head and sleeping (barely) on my arms on my lap. Welcome to Egypt.

Luxor had even more hotel/tour solicitors at the train station. The moment I stepped out, a swarm of them came toward me asking if I had accomodation and if so, where at. I brushed them off very quickly and a few still chased after me. Let’s not forget the next wave of solicitors, the taxi drivers. I ended up telling one hotel guy that I was at the Boomerang and he said the hotel he worked for, the Nubian Oasis, was next to the Boomerang. He told me to follow him and I hesitated but did. He took me through some alleyway and I stopped to ask him where we were going, he said it was a shortcut. I kept my distance behind him just in case but turns out, it really was a shortcut and he took me to the Boomerang. I guess I should’ve tipped him but I didn’t because I didn’t ask for it, he had insisted on taking me there. I dislike those who force their services upon you and expect you to be grateful.

Boomerang Hotel was pretty damn nice for US$8/night. It was opened March 2010 and looked it. Nice, clean, decorative. The single room (with A/C!) I booked had two twins joined together so it was like a king. Showers (it’s a shower/toilet combination) were nice although I do question the person who designed it since the toilet paper was located close to the ground, the shower floor had no barrier to prevent water from spilling outside if someone showers carelessly. So I basically took care to shower in the corner where the drain hole was located. The hostel owners were an Aussie/Egyptian husband/wife duo but the Aussie wife was in Australia at the time so Mohammed was the guy running the show.

I was going to take my time to explore Luxor so I booked for three nights. The first day, I explored Luxor Temple. It was in ruins and was small. Ran into a guy who claimed he worked for the temple and he insisted on showing me around. I thought, ok, if he worked for the temple, why not. Guy took me around showing me random pictures, got me to touch a few and then touch my head for luck, etc. After a few minutes of non-sensicle shit, he asked for baksheesh. I told him I only had E£1 and he looked disappointed. A guard at the temple came up and asked for baksheesh too (where the f*** did he come from? He didn’t do anything but watch) but I told him I didn’t have anything. That same day, I visited the mummification museum which was decent but overpriced.

Next day was spent on a tour of the West Bank, which included the Valley of the Kings/Queens, which would have been better if our guide wasn’t such a lazy bitch. She was knowledgeable but she spoke very fast, usually briefed us on the area, then told us to walk into the tombs ourselves while she waited in the shade outside. How should we learn anything about the hieroglyphics in the tombs by ourselves? Of course, maybe the tombs were too narrow, crowded, and it was difficult to keep the tour group together. Maybe she just wanted us to have the freedom to check things out separately. I didn’t get to appreciate a lot of places I’ve visited in Egypt because I didn’t understand what it all meant.

I should mention something about Egyptian work ethic. It’s not just me but even the LP guide has mentioned it. Egyptians are very lazy people. Anyone will realize this as they travel throughout Egypt. In addition to the chaotic ticket lines at train/bus stations where people cut line incessantly, the ticket sellers will not only take their time selling tickets but sometimes stop to take breaks as people are waiting. They will stand there, chat with coworkers, drink tea, smoke etc in front of the line of people. This is accepted practice. If only train/bus stations would learn how to maintain order (form lines, have updated sign boards of train/bus times, better computer systems) maybe this country wouldn’t be so backwards. Maybe their once glorious empire has come to an end because of this work ethic and lack of good leadership. They need more efficiency, they need education, they need proper leadership. They need a lot of things to be honest but I don’t think the Egyptian people care to take their country forward. They just accept that this is life and stay complacent. Oh well, who am I to say anything, I am just an observer who’s only here for 2 weeks, if they want to live this way for many generations, counting on their glorious past to continue bringing tourism, that’s their problem.

I spent the next day checking out Karnak Temple around 7 am (lots of places open at 6 am or sometimes, 5 am, to allow crowds to visit during the cool period of the day). The place was already full of tourists. Karnak was one of the cooler sites I’ve visited in Luxor, a very impressive, massive temple that makes you wonder, again, how it was all built. I really need to read up on engineering of those times.

One of Gabriel’s (a guy I met in Cairo, who travelled with me to Luxor) and my favorite drinks was sugar cane juice from a shop located around the corner from our hotel. I’ve tried sugar cane at various other places and this was the best. I also enjoyed eating at a local roast chicken joint. Half a chicken, rice, salad, potatos, bread was only E£20 which was a bargain for such a satisfyingly delicious meal. I had it three times. There isn’t quite a lot of variety I find when it comes to Egyptian food, at least from the restaurants I’ve visited. All basically had the same line up, the same prices, the same upselling scheme (touch anything you did not specifically order, it’s extra). There isn’t much of a point trying a particular dish at several locations because they’re all the same. Just stick to a place you like. Maybe it’s just my tastebuds.

The souks were filled with aggressive solicitors. If there are 5 shops in a row, selling the same exact things, and I reject the 1st one, what makes the other 4 shops think I’d buy the same item from them? But they still try anyway. These guys don’t have a clue that Western tourists prefer not to be hassled. If they see a shop that doesn’t solicit aggressively, they usually stop to have a look. Otherwise, the aggressiveness usually scares people away. If only they knew…

Random Pictures:

(Shop selling unidentified dried produce)

(“Souks”, or market, at night)

(Locals hanging out late at night)

(Shannon and Gabriel, at our local sugar cane stop)

(“Kofte”…looks a lot like something else doesn’t it…)

(“Don’t try anything funny cuz I’m watching you…”)

Luxor, Egypt Pics

Cairo, Egypt

Cairo, Egypt
July 28th, 29th, 30th 2010
August 9th 2010

Cairo definitely gave me a culture shock. After being in Europe for a while, upon exiting the airport, I was immediately swarmed with taxi drivers offering their services. I took a shuttle bus to the bus station and was greeted with a fleet of old, junky looking buses that polluted the air very badly. Of course, numbers and letters were in Arabic so I had to get locals to point me to the right place to wait for my bus. I was a bit surprised the locals could understand English (not all of them, but a surprising number). I guess it’s the British influence from when they colonized parts of Egypt.

The bus ride to downtown Cairo was interesting. A guy whom I had given my bottle of water to, got into a huge argument with a lady. It went on for minutes, with the lady yelling very loud in the bus at the man. The bus driver later intervened when he yelled at them to stop and got the lady to change seats (she was sitting in front of the man). She continued yelling at the man from across the bus. They both pleaded their cases to the bus driver, who seemed to be the mediator in all of this. I wish I knew what they were arguing about. I’ve read that Egyptian women wear the pants in most households. I used to think women from Arab nations were submissive and men ruled over them but it’s not quite so in Egypt.

There are no laws when it comes to driving in Egypt. It’s even worse than Malaysia. The dotted lines that mark lanes on roads don’t matter. Cross the streets at your own risk as drivers will look to beat you to the punch. And everyone honks their horns constantly. I can count at least 20 honks in a single minute of being in an Egyptian car, I kid you not.

(Streets of Cairo at 11 pm)

I was dropped off in the middle of Cairo and had to navigate the streets at 11 pm to my hostel. Cairo doesn’t sleep at 11 pm, it only starts waking up then. The streets are packed, the roads are jammed with traffic. Most people wait until night to go shopping and walking around downtown, when it’s much cooler than the day. Street vendors, coffee/tea/shisha shops litter the alley ways and are always packed with locals winding down from the day.

The next day, I set off to find the Indian Embassy with hopes of securing a visa. I was looking at the map in my guidebook when I heard a man comment on the title of it (“Africa”). I look up and see a dark-skinned Egyptian man with dirty looking teeth, smiling at me. I struck up a conversation with him. Omar (see man on left in picture above) spoke fluent English, lived in Chicago for a few years where he met his wife, moved back to Cairo with her where they both work now. He runs a hotel down the street. He told me that I didn’t have to go all the way to Zamalek to apply for an Indian visa since the consular office was just a few steps away, literally. He told me to follow him so I did. He took me all the way to his hotel first, invited me up, then tried to sell me tours. I declined for all of them except a one-way ticket to the pyramids of Giza (he was charging E£ 20, which was what taxis charged if you bargained hard). I told him I’d meet him at 1 pm and he pointed me to the Indian consular office, a few buildings down. I tried to apply for my Indian visa but got rejected as the trip was too far away, I didn’t have proof of flight, and that I wasn’t an Egyptian citizen. No use arguing so I left. I ran into Omar and he said he was heading to breakfast with a friend. I asked him if I could join him, he said ok. Little did I know I may have invited myself into a weird sequence of events throughout the day.

(Omar, left, and his driver friend in papyrus shop)

(Mustafa, papyrus shop owner and perhaps, scammer extraodinaire)

We met Omar’s friend, headed over to a popular local felafel joint called “Felfalel” and bought some takeaway sandwiches. We went to Omar’s other friend’s papyrus shop (I was starting to become wary now) where we ate our sandwiches. The owner, Mustafa, offered to show me how papyrus art was made. I agreed to the demo, after telling him I wasn’t going to buy anything. His reply? “No pressure, no pressure”. I would subsequently hear this phrase pretty frequently throughout my trip in Egypt. The demo was pretty interesting, so was the art on the walls. He insisted I look through his collection and pick something that interested me. I insisted I wasn’t going to buy anything but a piece caught my eye that I thought would make a good gift for my sister and brother-in-law. So I picked that, asked how much it was. The price seemed a bit much but I didn’t know what the going price outside was nor did I know whether it was original or not. I ended up buying it but didn’t feel too good about the purchase. It wasn’t the money, it’s the principle. I do not like overpaying for something. I usually do research beforehand. But I didn’t get a chance to do so.

Anyway, told Omar I’d meet him for that one-way taxi ride to the pyramids. Went back to my hostel, asked the guy at the desk if I overpaid, he said most probably I was ripped off since all the fakes on the street were at most E£ 20 or much less. Anyway, feeling slightly mad, I went to meet Omar. I told him about my feelings about the whole thing and he was absolutely disgusted that I accused him of taking me around to get ripped off. He was adament that wasn’t his intention but I continually expressed my doubt. Omar had earlier asked me if I wanted to make an ISIC card (international student card, used by students to save 50% on most museums in the world). He took me there, escorted me inside, insisting this was a legit office. The people there refused my attempt at applying for one without documentation that I was a student. Ok, legit enough. If it had been fake, I’m sure they’d let me apply, fork over E£ 90, then give me a fake card. Not that it would have been a problem since most museums probably can’t tell if something is fake or not at a glance.

Omar was continuously trying to prove his innocence and again, he took me to a popular papyrus art shop on the Giza strip and asked me to look at the prices. Yeah, I paid half of what the going rate was for an original. The question was, was mine an original? From what I was told about the difference between a real papyrus art and a fake, I later determined mine to be of original papyrus. But there’s more to this which I’ll come back to later…

Omar’s friend, the driver, dropped us off at a random intersection on Giza, citing that he had to go pick up more tourists. Earlier in the day, Omar had said that I was going in a group but when I showed up for my ride, it was just me. Yeah, talk about suspicious. Anyway, I follow Omar who takes me to some residential alleyway where another of his “friends” (or possibly business associate) invites me in for some tea. He seemed nice enough but of course, I knew what was coming. He started trying to sell me his camel tours and the prices were a bit steep, US $135 for the priciest option. I knew everything was overpriced but I felt cornered. In hindsight, I should have just walked out of there, even if I didn’t know where the hell I was. I wanted to ride the camel on the desert, I wanted to visit the pyramids, but I wasn’t about to be ripped off again. My hesitance led this man, whose name I forgot and who apparently sold Arabian horses to rich American businessmen, to drop his prices even further. In the end, I agreed to the mid-range tour. I didn’t know if I was getting ripped off or not to be honest because once again, I didn’t do enough research beforehand of prices. The tour included a 3-4 hour camel ride to the pyramids/Sphinx, a guide, no baksheesh paid to corrupt tourism police patrolling the deserts, entry fee to Giza.

(My guide and his young apprentice)

(Me and my ride)

I set off on my camel, with the guide and his apprentice on horses, and made the entry into the desert. It was cool, at the same time, underwhelming. Camel rides are slow, and nothing that exciting to be honest. But I’m in Egypt, I’m in the desert, I just HAD to do a camel ride. If I were to go back, I’d get a horse. If only I knew how to ride horses…it’d be amazing to ride full speed across the desert, which some of these kids working the tours could do, while controlling another horses by their side.

(The pyramids of three kings, and their wives)

The pyramids looked real cool. I wish I had gone closer and touched it, I wish I had gone inside, which some ppl said they did, but I didn’t. But no problems, I saw them with my own eyes, and I was satisfied. The place was packed with tourists of course. My guide, who also spoke fluent English, took excellent pictures. It is rare to find people who can take a proper picture. Apparently, his mom worked in television so that’s where he learned about composition. Who am I to doubt him?

On the way back, he takes me on another detour (here we go again) to a lotus flower essence shop. Apparently “No pressure” was used again, this time by the shop owner. The shop looked legit, full of tourist gifts, and a room filled with bottles of essence. I insisted again on not buying anything but he was desperate to end the day with a successful sale (superstition that the next business day would go well if the last sale went well). He showed me all these copies of receipts of huge sales by tourists, a book with lots of tourist testimonies on how happy they were with their purchases etc. I wasn’t buying it entirely but I wanted to get the hell out of this place (( just can’t stop the bleeding can I?) I was upstairs, in a remote building in who knows where, by myself, surrounded by Egyptian men. I am often paranoid in these situations, knowing full well that if I was very unlucky, I could be kidnapped by Muslim extremists who didn’t like Americans. This reason would be why I constantly tell people I am originally from Malaysia. It’s like an insurance, especially in Muslim countries. As I am typing this, many days from my Cairo experience, I learned that Egypt is not one of those countries I should be afraid of. Most people are friendly no matter where you are from. It all depends on how you approach it. But I digress.

I bought the smallest bottle available, got the heck out, and my guide took me to where I could take a bus back to downtown Cairo. Of course, I had to tip him and his apprentice. Tips, or “baksheesh” is a common theme in Egypt. Learn when and who you should tip. Everyone who does something for you will expect it. Everyone’s hustling. Everyone’s trying to sell you something. The hot spots for this are souks (street markets), and outside train/bus stations, where taxi drivers hassle you and tour/hotel operators badger you about whether you’ve found accomodation or not. The best is to smile, be friendly, but walk past them. I was very unfriendly for a while but I have recently changed my approach to making friends with them. I will say “Hi, how are you?”, “No thanks, already got a place booked.”, “Thanks but I know my way” etc. Everything with a sincere and friendly smile. I learned that these people are just trying to make a living and that they are usually very nice people behind their solicitations and will understand when you say no (albeit incessantly).

The rest of my Cairo experience paled in comparison with my first day. The other major site I visited was the Egyptian Museum where checking out unwrapped mummies of famous Egyptian kings was pretty darn cool. In hindsight, I would start the museum at the top and work my way down. The top contained the mummies and King Tut’s treasures. I think I breezed past Tut’s treasures because I was so damned sick of the museum from all the stuff downstairs. I don’t remember seeing most of it. I regret not paying more attention but oh well…

I got to hang out with some hostel mates. As most Egyptians don’t drink alcohol (religion), we had to walk around until we finally found a shop that sold some beer. We also watched “Inception” at an Egyptian cinema at 12:30 am. The place was packed, and we weren’t allowed in until just before the movie started. Seats were assigned, the cinema was real small, the movie was played with a projector that Americans usually install in their home theatres in their homes (instead of the big projector you get in American cinemas), the audio was quite lousy. They even had an intermission for goodness sake! We were getting to a really good part when all of a sudden, they cut the movie and the lights came on. Egyptian cinema is something else…

(Fuul,ta’amiya,felafel mix sandwich)


(The popular El Abd)

Of course, I have to talk about food. “Felfalel” would prove to be my favorite place as the felafel sandwiches were extremely cheap, filling but most importantly, delicious. If you are ever there, get the “fuul, ta’amiya mixed felafel sandwich”. I also had stuffed pidgeon in a sit-down restaurant. Beware of anyone putting a basket of Egyptian bread in front of you. It is extra if you touch it but they won’t tell you, in some cases, they tell you that it’s free but charge you at the end anyway so pay attention. I had some delicious desserts at a place called “El Abd” which was hugely popular with the locals. It’s always packed, and everyone’s filling up huge boxes with many cakes. Those Egyptians sure love their sweets. Don’t forget to try fruit juices sold in small shops. Freshly blended mango is delicious and so is sugar cane. Also ate a lot of koshary (rice, pasta, lentils, mixed with sweet hot sauce, very cheap and tasty).

Off to Luxor next.

edit : At 1 am, after an 8 hour bus ride from Dahab to Cairo, I am dumped in a bus station that I am not familiar with, whisked off by a taxi driver who was obviously ripping me off but I was too tired to bargain, dumped in a hostel which didn’t get my online reservation and thus, put me in a non-AC room I didn’t ask for while charging me extra (and at 1 am, I didn’t want to go wandering around looking for a bed)…all I can say is…”WELCOME BACK TO CAIRO KEN!”.

Cairo, Egypt Pics