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

Short update.

I can’t upload pictures on these crappy internet connections so here’s a short update.

Was in Cairo for a few, went to Luxor for a few, then Aswan/Abu Simbel, and am now back in Luxor. About to leave on the 6:30 pm overnight bus to Suez Canal where I’ll be catching a connecting bus to Dahab where I’m ready for some Red Sea diving.

I have an annoying cough now and bought some cheap cough syrup from one of the many pharmacies around here in Luxor. Pharmacies aren’t like the USA ones, they’re just a place full of medicines and toiletries and some (probably) unqualified person working the counter, randomly prescribing stuff. Hopefully cough will go away before Dahab because I don’t want to be coughing 30 m under the sea.

Hi folks.

Been quite crazy and eventful the past week or two and I’ve been trying to find some time to sort out my Istanbul photos. I’ll post up Istanbul soon, as well as Goreme.

I’m in Cairo, Egypt now. It’s been quite a ride to say the least. I’m hoping to catch a train to Luxor tomorrow.