Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Third world annoyances at first world prices.

On May 22, I took a ferry from Aqaba, Jordan to Nuweiba, Egypt. I had gotten my visa for Egypt the day before at the Consulate's office in Aqaba. The one hour ferry ride cost $70, which I thought was an exorbitant sum and couldn't believe everyone on the boat had paid that much. It ended up being about 3.5 hours from the time we boarded to the time we got off in Egypt.

I purchased my ticket at the ferry station as well as my exit stamp for Jordan. I took a bus down to the boat and showed my passport to the inspector. He said, "No stamp". I showed him my stamp (the kind you stick on) but he repeated, "No stamp". I think that was the only English he knew. He talked to a group of guys and motioned for me to go with them. They spoke a bit of English and were from Syria. We had to go back to the place I purchased the ticket to get an exit stamp (the kind with ink and a stamper) for Jordan. So we returned to the boat with our exit stamps in place.

The four Syrians were really, really nice guys. They had obtained one year visas to work in Libya, which has more and better paying jobs than Syria. Two were computer technicians and one was a chef. I don't know what the fourth one did. One of the guys didn't speak English as well as the others and they would cut on him and give him grief like guys do. We talked about what American music they liked, most of them were older artists. They loved Lionel Ritchie. They asked me what Americans thought of Syrians. I had to think about that for a second. They said laughingly, "that we're a bunch of terrorists?" I didn't have the heart to tell them that that probably wasn't too far off the mark. Like everyone I encountered in the Middle East, they didn't hate America or the West.

During the ferry ride, two men came around with an ear thermometer. They took the temperature of all western-looking (i.e., white) people on the boat. I hope there aren't any ear to ear transmittable diseases. If there are, I probably have one. Shortly before, the government of Egypt ordered the slaughter of all 300,000 hogs in the country as a precaution against swine flu. I thought 300,000 hogs in a mostly Muslim country sounded like a lot, but about 10% of Egyptians are not Muslim. There weren't any swine flu cases in Egypt, and many people thought it was a bit of a drastic step. I think there might be some prejudice against hogs.

When the boat was approaching the dock on the Egypt side, they went around one by one and asked the foreign passengers (i.e., white) people to go to the front of the boat. The boat stayed docked for what seemed like over an hour. They interviewed all the western people, mainly asking us how we were feeling. We presented the form given to us when they took our temperature. Finally they let us off the boat.

It was pretty little late in the afternoon when we finally got off the boat. It was really hot. Much hotter than in Jordan. I split a taxi to Dahab with an American and two Canadians. I had dinner with Rick, the American. He was living in Jordan and moved over here to study Arabic because he wanted to be a translator. He said he had been spending his time trading stocks online and hadn't been keeping up with his Arabic. He was kind of an odd guy and reminded me of Michael Bolton from the movie Office Space.

People traveling in the middle east tend to be older and on tour buses. It's more unusual and a bit more difficult to travel independently, definitely the path of most resistance. If I had it all to do over again, I would have skipped Egypt on this trip and done an organized trip later in life.

I spent the next three nights in Dahab. Dahab is a resort town on the Red Sea, more specifically the Gulf of Aqaba. Saudi Arabia was visible across the water. Diving is popular here. I went for another introductory dive and have to say that the Red Sea is the best diving out of the three places I've been (the other two being the Cayman Islands and Great Barrier Reef, Australia). It was the clearest, bluest water I've ever seen. However, having said that, now that I've been diving three times and gotten over the novelty of breathing under water, I can't say that I'm dying to do it again or get certified.

On May 25 I left Dahab and took a bus to Cairo. I took a cab from the bus station to my hotel in the Talat Haarb section of the city. Cairo is a large, modern city with few crosswalks. Crossing the street is absolutely mad. I've crossed some pretty crazy streets before, but Cairo takes the cake. It's like playing chicken with the cars. You have to put yourself out there and confidently walk out there. If you wait for a comfortable crossing distance between cars, you'll stand there all day. I found the best way to cross the street is to wait for some locals to go and walk on the opposite side of them from the cars so they act like a human body shield.

Egypt is sort of a democracy. In 1981, the country declared a state of emergency and has been under it ever since. The government has the right to imprison any individuals for any period of time for any reason. Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, has been president since the former president Anwar Sedat was assassinated in 1981. Elections have been held over the years, but he was usually the only candidate on the ballot due to restrictions. This is a good example of how giving up liberties for safety is a slippery slope.

Men greet each other with a warm embrace and a double kiss on the cheek. Sacha Baron Cohen always did this as his character Borat. I thought it was just a comedic bit to make westerners squirm. But men in the Middle East really greet each other this way.

Aluminum cans in the Middle East have the old pull tabs that I hadn't seen since the 70's. Pull tabs are all over the place and litter the streets.

On May 26, I visited the Egypt Museum. The museum had the best collection of artifacts, some dating back 4,000 years, I've seen, but the museum is really old and badly in need of updating. The descriptions of the artifacts are either inadequate or non-existent. Cameras were not allowed inside.

The Mummy Room cost an extra $20 to enter. But it was well worth it. The ancient Egyptians really had the whole mummification process down. It's one thing to see statues, carvings, and paintings, of ancient Egyptians, but it's another thing altogether to see King Ramses II in the flesh. I got the below picture from the internet.

King Ramses the second ruled from 1278 to 1213 BC and is the most famous of the ancient Pharaoh kings. He had 200 wives (some of whom were also his daughters) and over 150 children. Incest was common and quite acceptable in ancient Egypt.

With spending so many resources on temples and tombs and so much inbreeding, it's no shock that the ancient Egyptians died out. Very little of the ancient Pharaohs is apparent in today's Egyptians, with centuries of invasions by Greeks, Romans, Persians, and Arabs. However, that doesn't stop them from cashing in on it.

For my first few days in Egypt in Dahab and Cairo, I was really kind of digging it. On May 27 I visited the pyramids. I won't say my opinion of Egypt went downhill from there so much as it went off a cliff. I've never seen more touts, scammers and people wanting backsheesh than at the pyramids. I expect there to be some hassle at a site as famous as this, but it was really off the charts.

I had two goals for the day. See the pyramids and really spend some quality time there, and do it cheaply. Most people spend only one or two hours at the pyramids, which seems like a really short time to spend on the only remaining of the seven wonders. Organized tours were running about $50 plus admission prices. I decided to try my hand at taking the bus. Tourists don't take buses in Cairo because all the writing was in Arabic. I went to the main bus stop and tried to find the right bus using my limited knowledge of Arabic numbers. I was about to give up when I guy saw me and asked me if I was going to the pyramids. He said he was going there as well and he'd show me what to do. I smelled tout on this guy, but I had absolutely no idea what I was doing so I went along. He had a good story. He was living and working in Dubai as a manager of a Pizza Hut and was here visiting home on a holiday. His wife was Hungarian and he had an early morning training session in downtown Cairo and was returning home to Giza from that. He would point out things along the way, like the Nile River, Cairo University (where President Obama was to speak in a few days), and the only Pizza Hut in Giza. It was about a 40 minute bus ride and at about 30 minutes he mentioned a government run place where I could buy a tour that would include all entrance fees. I knew it. He was being entirely too nice to be helpful. So we got to the bus stop in Giza by the pyramids and he took me to this place. It just didn't have the look and feel of a government run tourist place. I then sat though the hard sales pitch. I said no thanks several times and that I wanted to see the pyramids on my own. He said you can't See the pyramids on your own. It's too far to walk. I finally got up and left. The guy on the bus with me tried to give me the hard sell again. I asked him why he was doing it and he said he was just trying to help me out. I thanked him for his help (he was really helpful and I was pretty clueless about which bus to take) and went to see the pyramids.

It was no better once inside. There were tons of people selling postcards, trinkets, miniature pyramids, etc. I despised how they come up to you and, after asking the first time, start walking along beside me invading my space asking me to buy their crap seven or eight times.

One of the scams is someone in the park asking to see your ticket. You show them your ticket and they say "follow me". They take you a few feet to where you can get a good picture. They will keep this going for as long as they can. They will then ask for backsheesh. Anything you give them they will say it's an insult and ask for exactly twice as much. You can give them $100 and they'll ask for $200. If you don't give them backsheesh they will follow you around and pester you until you do. I got roped into this one time before I realized what was going on. The guy really didn't even do anything. He asked for backsheesh and I told him he didn't do anything. He kept following me around and finally I went up to a uniformed tourist policeman and told him to get the guy off me. After telling the guy to get lost, he then asked me for backsheesh for getting the guy to leave. Oh yeah. The police are in on the whole backsheesh bit too. Anyone in Egypt who is being nice or helpful to you only wants to sell you something or wants backsheesh. You can't ask someone for directions. If you do, they will say follow me and take you there. Then they'll want backsheesh. You really have to be on top of your game to avoid this. I would be at a sight and some guy would point me to a place to take a photo that I was going to anyway. Then he would want money.

So the first lesson was to never show the ticket once on the inside of the park. After the first time I would simply say I showed my ticket at the gate already. Then they would ask if I wanted a camel ride or a horse ride. Also when getting a picture taken they will rush in right as the picture is being taken and then they would want backsheesh for posing in the picture. It was so sleazy there I couldn't stand it. That scene in The Bucket List with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman sitting on a hill looking at the pyramids in silence could never happen. In reality, they would have been surrounded by touts selling postcards, crappy souvenirs, or camel rides. President Obama was in Cairo a few days after I left and I saw on TV that he toured the pyramids. I'm guessing he probably didn't have to deal with the touts. In fact, I bet they shut down the whole park that morning.

I paid about $25 to go inside the the two largest pyramids. Going inside the pyramids is a complete waste of time and money. There is nothing, I repeat, nothing to see inside the pyramids. There is a low tunnel that leads to a chamber. That's it! There were no carvings on the walls, no statues....nothing. It took maybe about ten minutes tops at each pyramid.

Looking back, I think I would have preferred to have seen the pyramids for an hour on a guided tour.

That night, I went to a bar with two Canadians and a Costa Rican to see the Manchester United - Barcelona football match. This was apparently the biggest game of the year and was for the world championship. The Costa Rican was the only one who really cared about the game, the rest of us just didn't really have anything better to do. Alcohol is legal in Egypt but not really part of the culture. A night out usually means men going to a cafe to drink tea and smoke sheesha. We walked around for a while and finally decided to try the Cairo Hilton. Luckily for us, there was an English pub there with a big screen TV. Unluckily for us, it was really expensive. I had a $20 shepherd's pie and two $6.50 pints of Stella beer (not to be confused with Stella Artois). Barcelona won and I still don't care about soccer. Soccer, hot tea, and the metric system are three things the rest of the world is crazy about but never really caught on in America.

On May 28, I went to visit the Islamic Quarter and Coptic Cairo. The Islamic quarter consisted of a bunch of narrow, jumbled streets, mosques, and markets.

I thought this was useful as a reference for identifying Arabic numbers.

I walked around a bit and then took the subway to Coptic Cairo. The Cairo subway system is pretty good. Some of the cars are for women only. I unintentionally got on one of the women-only subway cars. I was looking at the map, thinking about where I needed to get off when a lady came up to me and told me that it was a women-only car and I was forbidden from riding on it. She was nice, but direct. I jumped off right before the doors closed and waited for the next car to come along.

Coptic Cairo is the city's Christian quarter. In ancient times, the Holy Family spent a few years here in hiding from King Herod.

The tourist cop in the below picture was trying to scam me for backsheesh because he pointed me in the direction of one of the churches I was looking for and told me the closing time.

On the evening of May 28, I took an overnight train to Aswan. I had gone to the train station earlier that day to buy a ticket. The sleeper train was $60 for a shared sleeping compartment. The lady at the station wrote this amount down on a piece of paper and also wrote down "tip". "Whatever you like," she said. I asked why she wanted a tip. It wasn't like she was a delivery person delivering the tickets to my hotel room. I came down to the station to buy the ticket. She responded, "Whatever you like." I thought about it. Well, maybe there's some way to screw me if I don't giver her a tip. So I gave her $1. I was getting fed up with this. I was tired of being viewed as a walking ATM. I guess I didn't mind the hassle so much in India because everything was so cheap. But in Egypt things were expensive.

Cairo train station.

I boarded the train and got settled in. There was no other person in my compartment. The waiter (I guess for lack of a better term) came in and said if I wanted the compartment for myself he could arrange it. I said that wouldn't be necessary. I paid for a ticket for a double and I fully expected another person. There were not enough people on the train to require another person and he was trying to scam me for some backsheesh. He came back in a few minutes later and said that he didn't mind arranging for a private compartment and if not, he might have to put an Egyptian in with me. That statement disgusted me on several levels. After the train took off he came back and said he had taken care of securing me the private compartment. I said thanks.

I got into Aswan in the morning of May 29. I thought I could walk to the hotel from the train station. After walking around about 15 minutes I accepted a ride on horse drawn carriage for 5 pounds (about $1). I didn't even haggle with him. I was probably fairly close to the hotel, but was really lost. It seemed like a good deal and I took it without even haggling. When we got to the hotel, I paid the guy five pounds. looked at it and said, "No, five English pounds". I said not just no, but hell no. He then said ok and asked me for backsheesh for the horse. I said no and went to my hotel. At this point, I came to the realization that I really didn't want to be here.

Markets in Aswan.

The guy at the hotel asked me if I wanted to book a trip to Abu Simbel. It left a 3:15 the next morning. That was a little bit earlier than I was wanting to get up, but it was something I wanted to see. Abu Simbel is about 3 hours from Aswan, near the Sudanese border. Leaving at that hour would put me there at sunrise. Then there would be about three more stops to some temples and a dam and I'd be back around 3:00pm.

On May 30 I got up at 3:00 am and left for Abu Simbel. Abu Simbel has been totally relocated to avoid floodwaters caused by a dam on the Nile. The statues are real, but the mountain is constructed of blocks and mortar.

The next stop was the Philea temple. The tour van dropped us off. We bought tickets. We had to take a boat to the island. Of course that involved haggling. It hurts your bargaining position since they knew we'd already paid to get in, but an Egyptian girl from London did the bargaining and got us the boat ride for about $1 each.

When we got back to Aswan, we took a feluca (sailboat) ride on the Nile.

On May 31, I took a van tour from Aswan to Luxor, stopping at the Kom Obo & Edfu Temples on the way. Egypt is all desert except for the areas around the Nile. The Nile valley is very fertile farmland, unlike any of the rest of the country, which is the driest, most barren desert you can imagine.

Kom Obo Temple.

Edfu Temple.

I was really kind of tired of temples at this point. They all started to look the same and I was growing more and more tired of dealing with touts.

I got into Luxor fairly early in the afternoon. I checked into the Bob Marley Hotel, which is exactly what you would picture, with posters all over the walls and a chilled out staff. It seemed a bit out of place in Egypt. Signs on the door indicated it was a no hassle zone. I bought a train ticket and arranged a tour of the tombs of the West Bank for the next day. I walked to the Karnak temple and Luxor temple that evening. They were the most spectacular of the temples I saw. I definitely saved the best for last.

Karkak Temple.

Luxor Temple.

On June 1 I took a tour of the tombs of the Valley of the Kings in the West Bank. No photos posted as camera were not permitted inside the tombs. But the paint on the images was remarkably intact and the colors were brilliant.

The Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple.

I noticed the below eye symbol all over Egypt. It looked familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on it. It is the Eye of Horus an ancient Egyptian symbol of protection. Finally it hit me....

It was from the cover of 1982 album Eye In The Sky by the Alan Parsons Project.

The evening of June 1 I took an overnight train back to Cairo. I got into Cairo on the morning of the 2nd. I would have stayed another night or two in Luxor, but President Obama was giving a speech in Cairo on June 4 and I wanted to get out of town before the big "O" rolled into town. On normal days security in Egypt is pretty tight. I went through more police checkpoints than I could count. I can't imagine what it would be like with the current US president in town. I went to the bus station and caught a bus to Mt. Sinai. At the bus station, I met Jeff, a paleontologist from Michigan, who was also going to Mt. Sinai. He had been working in Egypt on a grant and spoke a bit of Arabic. We got into Mt. Sinai about 10:00pm and went to the base near St. Katherine's Monastery. We wanted to hike up the mountain but they told us we needed a guide. It was a full moon outside and the path was well-marked. I wondered if this was another scam. The tourist policeman at the office said we did, indeed need a guide and it would cost $15. This still seemed like a scam, but he wasn't letting us go up without one. The guide showed up in about 10 minutes and took us up the mountain. We got up there about 2:00am. It was about a two hour hike and was pretty steep. I was spent. We rented some blankets from a local shopkeeper at the top and slept on top of the mountain.

Mt. Sinai is the place where Moses climbed and received the two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments from God. We woke up about 5:30 to see the sunrise. I did not see two stone tablets, but I did see hoards of German and French tourists. Most people climb the mountain early in the morning while it is not too hot and to see the sunrise. That was a good idea as the views were incredible.

St. Katherine's Monestary is at the foot of the mountain and was built on the site of the burning bush.

On June 3 I came down from the mountain and took a taxi to Nuweiba. There was no bus service from St. Katherines to the east, despite what the Lonely Planet guidebook said. I then took a bus from Nuweiba to Taba and then walked to the Israeli border.

I was looking forward to Israel and Europe. I was getting a little weary of the hassles of traveling in Egypt, and maybe the third world in general.