Category Archives: Personal

Letters from Egypt: Top Five surprises

Honking

Cars in Egypt, especially Cairo honk all the time. Day and night. If we woke up at 4 am in the hotel room, there would be cars honking outside. The honk to wake up pedestrians or other cars, taxis honk to attract the attention of potential customers, and often, it seems like they honk just for the fun of it.

Security

There’s a ton of policemen in Cairo, easily recognizable by their white uniforms. Most are in their early twenties. All have mustaches. Any ATM, bank or hotel will have stationed at least two policemen, usually with guns and a metal detector. Major tourist attractions will have much more (we saw a lot of policemen on the street, pluss five cars on standby by Midan Hussein). There will usually be assault shields (manned by black-uniformed police). Five-star hotels will have bomb dogs. Busy intersections have police officers directing the traffic.

And it does make you feel safer, I think. I was never afraid of being pickpocketed or mugged in Cairo. But I am not sure about the metal detectors. Nobody asks to to empty you pockets and try again when you beep. They just kinda glance up at you and resume their… watchfulness.

Curbs

The curbs to the sidewalks in Egypt are about 20 centimeters tall. I imagine this is the only reason taxi drivers don’t use sidewalks as shortcuts when the traffic is bad. The result if there are a lot of side streets is that pedestrians will constantly have to step on and off the sidewalk. Since people are lazy, most places, they walk in the street instead.

Abandoned buildings

All over Egypt, but especially on the Giza-side of the Nile, there are a huge number of what looks like buildings where they abandoned the construction before they were done. In many cases, this doesn’t stop people from living there. But the phenomenon is not limited to Giza. Alexandria, and even Dahab has a lot of these buildings. We tried asking a few locals what was up with these, but we didn’t manage to make anyone understand the question. I imagine this is the way it’s always been in Egypt.

Pedestrians

The thickness of pedestrians on streets like Sharia Talaat Harb, Corniche el-Nil (during Eid) og Sharia 26th of July was extreme. And pedestrians in Egypt are very aggressive. With the slow moving traffic of the inner city streets, they weave in and out between the honking cars without considering pedestrian crossings. Usually cars swerve organically around the flood of pedestrians if there is enough room.

There were also things I expected would be very different, but really didn’t live up to my fantasies:

Prayers

The minarets call out for prayer five times every day. You can hear the prayer calls anywhere in Cairo, and probably most other places in Egypt, too. However, I expected more people to stop up or more things to slow down during these times. In general, it seems like it’s just a backdrop for most egyptians most of the time.

Women’s clothing

Most women in Cairo, even in the central parts, seem to be wearing head scarfs. Beside this, however, most young women wear almost the same kind of clothes as in the west. We noticed a lot of tight-fitting clothing, for example. But most women cover up most of their skin.

Finally, there were a few minor surprises:

Cats

There are almost as many cats in Egypt as there are police officers. When we were sitting in the small outdoors lounge in our hotel, we saw five different cats within the same hour. In the breakfast balcony on our Dahab hotel, there were about ten. The cats don’t seem to belong to anyone, but people don’t mistreat them, either. They are usually tame, and will come up to you for bits of food or pets.

There are also many dogs that are … strays? no…. wild? .. no… independent, maybe. Most of these seem to be pretty healthy and wholesome, and they seem to like to stick around people.

Taxis

Taxis proved very useful for both long and short trips in Egypt. Usually, if you’re a westerner and you walk along a street, taxis will honk at you, slow down and say “taxi?” If you need a taxi, you just pop you head in the window and state you destination: “Midan Ramsees”. We have found it most useful to negotiate the fare before we get in. And whatever you do: You should always state the price first. So he nods and I say: “ten?” If the driver doesn’t agree, just say “maalesh” (never mind) and walk away. If your initial price was right, this often will have the driver change his price.

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Letters from Egypt 6: Our last day in Cairo

After a rather unsuccessful day, we decided to have a more aggressive program the last day in Cairo. We started out early with a subway trip to Coptic Cairo. It seems that very few tourists are using the subways, which is a pity because it is a pretty good system. If they only could have any information in English. We had to trust the ticket guy who said it was LE 2 for both of us.



Sarah takes the subway

Coptic Cairo has a few churches and a museum. It is one of the most ancient Christian sects in the world. The museum was the technically best we’ve seen in Cairo, but not really that interesting in its contents.

We took a walk from Coptic Cairo through parts of Old Cairo. It was quite obvious that not many westerners come here, either. Buildings in this part of town are like the rest of Cairo: Well-maintained buildings standing next to old husks.

There are nice footbridges connecting Old Cairo with the south tip of the Roda island. We walked here and took a quick look at the Nilometer. It’s a really deep hole with a pole in it. The pole was used to measure the depth of the Nile. The area around the Nilometer is a very quiet oasis in the middle (weeell, actually not in the middle) of Cairo. This was the first place this week where we could sit for several minutes without meeting someone.



Footbridge to Old Cairo



Nilometer park

Roda looks a bit nicer than much of Cairo, which means that the frequency of old husks to nice buildings will be slightly lower.

After eating at the Nile Peking House restaurant (a floating restaurant, which sadly didn’t cast anchor before we had to leave), we hurried on to Cairo Tower.

The line at Cairo Tower was very long, and with only one elevator serving this popular vantage point, we had to wait a while to get to the top. But it was worth it. From here, you can see the Citadel, Giza pyramids, Ma’ad (a westernized suburb south of Cairo), and even the Saqqara pyramids. Between Roda and Cairo Tower, we took a lot of pictures.



Roda island from Cairo Tower



In this picture, you can actually make out both the pyramids of Saqqara (to the left), and Giza (to the right)

We still had a little time, so we took another stop by Khal il-Khalili. As we get out of the taxi, we’re greeted by our friend Beter from yesterday. (Seems like more of a coincidence than it is, I think people who work with tourist on an ad-hoc basis tend to stick to one area). He offered us a trip of the Old Islamic Cairo marked “free of charge,” because he’d noticed (couldn’t help but notice) that Sarah had been pissed off about the situation yesterday. As we’re not sure that Beter’s definition of “free of charge” is congruent with our own, and because we were running low on time, we politely declined.

Khan il-Khalili was much quieter this day. Nobody asked to smell my money this time. It had more the feel of a cross between a theme park and a normal mall in the west. I did get a wallet and a figurine suveneer, and I haggled the price down quite a bit too. Seeing how easy it was to bring the figurine down from LE 65 to LE 45, the probably have an insane markup on their prices.



Khan il-Khalili

I think next time, I would like to try the old marked, with the help of Beter.

Then started the real adventure: Train ride to Alexandria. First lesson: Turbini (the express-train) is appearantly not called Turbini in Arabic. Second lesson: Just because a lot of people get off, doesn’t mean this is the last stop (Mahattat Misr). Third lesson: We are overpaying taxies even when we haggle. We figured LE 10 from the station we though we were at (no signs in anything but Arabic). When the driver wanted to renegotiate the price and we hardballed him, he accepted it. Which probably means it was the correct amount. Heheh. Also: The children standing by seeing the spectacle seemed to be cheering for us, so I take that as further evidence that we were in the right when we just walked away.

They say: It’s much easier to bluff when you don’t know you’re bluffling.

We checked in at the Union Hotel and went pretty much straight to sleep.

Next day was a whistle stop tour of the Kom Ash-Shuqafa catacombs, Qaitbey castle, the Fish Marked Restaurant for lunch, the Bibilioteca Alexandrina, and back at the hotel for our luggage. We ran into Norwegians at Kom Ash-Shuqafa, the library and the Fish Marked restaurant. They were probably here for the Ibsen happening, and I didn’t want to seem unpatriotic by admitting that I was not, so I didn’t talk to any of them.

The only thing worth mentioning about the sighs was the fact that the architecture of the library has a few very Norwegian touches. The wood and chrome finish looks a lot like the Oslo airport. This is not too surprising, seeing as how it was drawn by a norwegian architect company.



The Library of Alexandria

Now for the interesting part: Taxis in Alexandria.

As it turns out, people in Alexandria speak much, much less English than Caireenes. My feeble attempts at “bititkalleem ingleezee” were met by shrugs and at the best with a “swaya” (a little). And “swaya” in Alexandria means something other than “swaya” in Cairo.

Our trip from the library to the hotel was the most entertaining one. A young driver stops (and this is outside a major tourist attraction, mind you), we try and communicate destination and price, and with the help of a few friendly (but sadly, just as inept in English) stranger, we agree on LE 10 and start off. After about 2 minutes down Al-Corniche along the Mediterranian cost, we realize that he doesn’t know where we’re going. I get out the guidebook phrenetically and look up the word for “stop” again. Sarah is able to write down “Union” in Arabic (well, more or less. She wrote “oonion”, but he understood it).

Another nice thing to know about Egyptian taxi rides: If you go the wrong way, it seems like the passenger should pay for the extra ride. The driver wasn’t too happy with the price, even when I gave him an extra one. He smiled, gave me the finger and held up two fingers. We both chucked and I gave him another one. I like that: Communication by friendly insult.

And now for the really big adventure: We had stopped by the train station in the morning in hope of scoring a ticket on the Turbini back to Cairo, but they were all full (I think, communication wasn’t too easy). But according to the guidebook: No need to worry: The Superjet (Subrjeet) buses go directly to the airport, and they only take 2,5 hours.

Only they don’t. The ticket clerk was the best english-speaker we’ve met in Alexandria, and he informed us that, “no five hours”. Oops. Our plane leaves in exactly five hours.

At this point in time, I felt a certain desperation. Being stuck in a city with very few english-speakers, our arabic being horrendous, even when we page through the phrasebook like madmen, with five hours until the plane.

But things have a way of working themselves out in Egypt. With the offer by taxi driver Ahmed from Wednesday to take us to Alexandria for LE 200, we figured it was possible to do the reverse, with just a bit of luck.

Being desperate, we accepted the first offer that came along. Seeing our confusion, a man who obviously preys on tourists approached and asked if we needed a taxi. We told him we wanted to go to Cairo airport, and after a bit of discussion with a driver, they offered LE 300 to Cairo airport. Under the circumstances, I would be happy to accept it, but one of the reasons I came to Egypt was to haggle. So I say, “well, I think we’d do it if you said LE 200, but we’re going to check out our options a bit more first”. This tactic reduced the price to LE 250 very quickly, and we were on our way with Omar the driver, after a small discussion about reasonable baksheesh for the helper. We suggested five and he accepted, but only having a ten, he decided to keep the rest. (This is actually the first time an egyptian has not honored a deal)

A few things I learned on the Cairo Delta Highway: 1. Just because there are painted three lanes on the road doesn’t mean you can’t have five, 2. you can get the 220 km from Alexandria to Cairo in 2 hours, and through Cairo to the airport in another 1 hour. 3. a Lada can keep 110 km/h for this period of time.



Cairo Delta Highway (seen from a Lada moving at 110 km/h)

We also learned a few things about Omar the driver: 1. He likes to listen to tapes of Islamic chants, 2. he speaks a little English, and 3. he drives like a fricking madman. I started counting the number of maneuovers that you never would see in Norway (or the US), but I quickly lost count. Instead: 8 times he did something I think no sane person would try, and 5 times, I was certain that “this is it, we’re all gonna die now”.

But I promised I’d give him the extra 50 he wanted as a tip “if he got us to the airport alive” (I reminded him of this when he had to back off an exit ramp into the highway). But we got there in good time, alive, and Omar got a LE 50 tip.

The plane to Sharm il-Sheekh and car drive from Sharm to Daahab (where I’m writing this) was fairly eventless. And I hope Daahab will be equally eventless. So this is probably the last letter from Egypt.



Johannes in Dahab

I’d though I’d leave with a few observations of Cairo from the airplane: The city is a patchwork of lit and unlit areas. We have driven through some of the unlit areas, and they seem to be one of three categories: Areas with no streetlights, areas with no electricity, and areas that are so ruined that nobody lives there. In many of the areas, you will see the green lights of the minarets, though.

Secondly, from the plane you can see the smog. It hangs like a cloud over the whole city, maybe half a kilometer high. They say that living a day in Cairo is the equivallent of smoking 30 cigarettes. I think it must be more.



The black cloud of Cairo (on a clear day)

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Letters from Cairo 5: Islamic Cairo

We had a late start on Wednesday. We are going to take the train to Alexandria, and we want to make sure that we get the tickets, so we start with a trip to Ramsees railway station. I had expected the trains (which seem nice from the guidebook) to be much used by tourists, but as it turned out, all the information was in Arabic, with the platform numbers, and the word “platform” as the only thing in English.

Again, we relied on the help of strangers. This time, a police officer helped us. His English was passably good, and we were able to score two tickets to Alexandria on first class on Friday with little problems. The tickets had nice holographic anti-fraud stuff on them, and luckily, had all relevant information printed in English.

Leaving the train station, we got a further reminder of how intrinsic religion is to everything in Egypt. As it was drawing near on the mid-day prayers, the prayer chants could be heard over the loudspeaker in the station. Some people stopped up to pray in a public area designated for this, but most just continued their daily affairs.

We took the subway to Attaba station. According to the guidebook, we should be able to walk up Sharia el-Muski from here to Midan Hussein, which is the “hub” of (tourist) Islamic Cairo. It turned out that we were not following el-Muski, but again, the ubiquitous police were able to help us out. Only one of the five police officers loitering in the area we ended up spoke English. But they all rolled their eyes when we said we were going to Midan Hussein (which appearantly is also pronounced Husseen). Heh. We took a taxi.



Sarah and our guide to Al-Azhar mosque: Muhammed (Sarah in hijaab to appease the natives)

In Islamic Cairo, we had a tour of the Al-Ahzar mosque, possibly one of the most important ones (but not the largest) in Cairo. Our guide was named, you guessed it, Muhammed. The building is quite beautiful, and was well worth the visit.



Sarah in the main prayer hall of the Al-Azhar mosque

Next stop: Khan il-Khalili and El-Fishawi coffee house. We later learned the the craziness of the Khan was probably mostly attributed to the fact this this was still Eid il-Fitr, but it is still a very peculiar place. It consists of small streets, if you can fall them that, full of shops. The streets are more like corridors between buildings, with just allowing about three people to stand beside each other in the street. The vendors are pushy: One guy said the usually pleasantries (“welcome to Egypt, where are you from”), and shook my hand. Then he wouldn’t let go of my hand and tried to physically lead me into his store. Another guy yelled after me: “What can I do to smell your money.” No joke!

El-Fishawi’s was nice, and more quiet than the rest of the Khan. We sat for a while, enjoying a sheesha and a drink of water. You can’t really get anything to eat here, though, so we decided to head to what we thought was the nearby Al-Ahzar park for lunch at the Citadel View Restaurant.



Johannes at El-Fishawi’s coffee house

As it turns out, the park is pretty close, but the enterance is on the opposite side of where we were. As we were trying to orient ourselves, a pleasant young man, who spoke English very well, came up and offered his help. As we were pretty sick of people leeching onto us for money, we tried to avoid him at first (to which he said, “don’t be afraid, I am not a terrorist or anything” – oookay?). He finally reeled us in when he told us that he was studying English and was looking at this as a opportunity to practice. He took us to the park, and we had a pleasant chat along the way. The name of our guide was, you guessed it, Muhammed. But as he said: Everyone has called him Beter (Arabic doesn’t have P’s) since childhood. We ended up tipping Beter the LE 20 he asked for in the end, despite the fact that when he first me us he insisted that he didn’t want our money. Oh well. Welcome to Cairo.

The Al-Ahzar park is a beautifull spot with an excellent view of much of the city. Surprisingly, there are hardly any tourists that visits it. The hillside restaurant had a good, but overpriced buffet. The service was extremely slow. But the views were to die for. Sitting here during sunset, we realized the sun doesn’t set in the horizon, in Cairo, it sets in the smog!



View of Sal ad-Sin Citadel from the Al-Azhar park



Islamic Cairo in twilight from the Al-Azhar park

After the park, we took a taxi back to the hotel. The day had made us pretty tired, so we just sat down in the hotel tea garden for a few hours. Like everywhere else in Egypt, this place is full of cats, most of which will come up to you your table to beg for food or petting.

We decided to go for one last adventure this day. Especially Sarah had enjoyed the fast-food restaurant Gad on Sharia 26th of July. She also enjoys the fact that she’s better able to cross the street in the wild traffic of Sharia 26th of July than I am. This place is extremely popular with the Caireens, but you won’t see a European face there (unless you bring it yourself). The food is good and cheap and the service is very fast. When it is busy, different groups of guests will share the same table.



(Blurry) Sarah in front of pedestians on Sharia 26th of July

On our way back, I took a few pictures from the more quiet areas of Sharia 26th of July (I didn’t want people to feel like I was taking pictures of them). A few kids came and wanted to be part of the shot, and they thought it was really cool when I took a picture of them. They did hi-fives afterwards, and I mistook the gesture of one of them as a request for Baksheesh, so I gave him a pound, much to his friends amusement.



A group of boys on Sharia 26th of July

As we walked home, I came to think about the theories of new urbanism about the important of sidewalks that are being used. In the teeming mass of pedestrians that is Cairo streets, we never feel unsafe. Then again, maybe it’s just the constant police presence.

For much of this day, Sarah decided to wear a hijab (scarf). It was interesting to notice the different reactions we got. Many people would assume we were Muslims, and many people would look at me strangely for accompanying her. She said that she felt people reacted more positive to her, though.

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Letters from Cairo 4: New-Colonialism

In Cairo, we have noticed a recurring theme. Many places that are visited a lot by westerners are sectioned off from the rest of the city. When Egypt was a British colony, the colonialism was expressed by importing British culture into Egypt. With modern colonialism, a section of the western world is placed wholesale as a small colony inside the city.

After a rather tiresome day, we didn’t feel like we had the energy to go egyptian style again for dinner. Instead, we decided to indulge ourselves in this New-Colonialism. We made reservations at the Hard Rock Cafe, which is located in the Grand Hyatt Hotel at the northernmost tip of the Roda island.

To make the night complete, we had the doorman hail a cab for us. He negotiated the fee for us and we got in. We spoke with each other in Norwegian the whole time, and let the driver drive. Recurring observation: Corniche el-Nil and Sharia 26th July are madhouses, at least during Eid il-Fitr. The taxi took 15 minutes to get the 2 kilometers from the gardens by Ataba station to Sharia Tahrir. I recorded the noise from the traffic on my cellphone, and I hope the sound quality will be good. It will tell more than many pictures. Corniche el-Nil was flowing nicely in the Garden City, however, and after passing the Tahrir bridge, we soon arrived at the hotel.



The view of the Nile and Gezira from Grand Hyatt Hotel

This is where the world “New Colonialism” first popped into my head. Grand Hyatt has it’s own bridge across the Nile on the northern tip of Roda. The river acts as a moat, and armed guards stop each car, and check it with bomb dogs. No kidding! The hotel entrace itself has a metal detector and two armed guards standing next to it. After successfully getting though the metal detector, we arrived at the Hard Rock Cafe Cairo.

The restaurant is a blueprint copy of any Hard Rock Cafe around the world. They play the same music, serve the same food and wear the same uniforms. The only difference is the magnificient (for a ground floor establishment) view of the Nile. We were watching pleasure barges and felucas float pass as we ate.



Sarah in Cairo Hard Rock Cafe

After this New Colonial Splurge, we did make amends. We have now gotten more used to how to do taxis in Cairo, and we felt much more genuine with the taxis than with the meal

As the guidebooks say, taking a taxi from a 5 star hotel like the Grand Hyatt will bring up the fare substantially, so we crossed the “moat” back to Garden City on foot. The taxis leaving the hotel without a fare will honk and stop and ask “do you need a taxi”. Approach the drivers window and say “Midan Ramsees” (or whereever – and this time: Pray that there’s only one Midan Ramsees in Cairo!). They seem to say either “Okay”, or “How much?” You state an amount. From Roda to Midan Ramsees aboud LE 10 is reasonable. Seeing as it was late at night, a holiday, and bad traffic, we suggested LE 15. The first driver laughed artificially and said “No, 30!” To which I just say “Maalesh” (never mind) and walk away. The taxi drives off.

We actually met the same driver again while we’re on the bridge. We shared a snicker when we didn’t recognize each other, and decided to continue to agree to disagree.

Getting down on Corniche el-Nil, our first attempt at the same strategy paid off. We say “maalesh” and start walking off, and he’d call after us: “Okay, 15 pounds”. I think I’m getting the hang of this.

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Letters from Cairo III: Abou el-Sid, traffic and ancient artifacts

Abou el-Sid is located in Zamalek along the Sharia 26th of July. The doorman for the hotel hailed a cab for us (and got a bit of baksheesh for that, I don’t know if that was right), and negotiated an overpriced fee. :-)

The traffic is seeming more and more what people warn that Cairo traffic will be like. Previously, we’ve felt that despite the messiness of the picture, things have been managable. Going across the Nile on 26th of July bridge definately did not feel that way. The view of the Nile was stunning, though. Through the smog, we could make out the Cairo World Trade Center (picture is coming) and touristy pleasure boats. The music from the cruises was practically so loud that through the smog, we could practically hear them longer than we could see them.

The driver didn’t know where the restaurant was, so we got an introduction to Cairo asking for directions: The cab will stop, the driver will yell “Asalamu Alayikum, do you know where Abou el-Sid is?” out of the window at unsuspecting bystanders until he gets a response. We got there in the end, though!

Abou el-Sid was a very cool place (although Sarah found it too trendy). It’s namesake (and probably founder) is depicted on the menu and in fresces on the wall. Wearing a big mustache, a red fez, matching tie and suit, he invokes a colonial area Egypt. The place is decorated much in the same style. The patrons can roughly be divided into three: Typical Caireenes (we saw a party with three women wearing Nikab – the dress that covers everything except the eyes), trendy caireenes, like four young women out for a night at the time, and foreigners. The crowd is not touristy at all, you can expect the European-looking guy listening to his Ipod while smoking a Sheesha to talk on his phone in English, only to order another beer in fluent arabic.



Abou el-Sid

The food was good. Expensive by Cairo standards, dirt cheap by Norwegian.

We felt up for another adventure, so we decided to walk home. Abou el-Sid is right next to the 26th of July bridge, and like all Cairo bridges, it has a good sidewalk. Across the bridge is a Metro-station (I don’t remember which one), one stop on which will take you to Orabi, which is 5 minutes walk from our hotel. However, there were two things we hadn’t counted on: The dreaded Corniche el-Nil, and the Eid il-Fitr crowds.



8th October Bridge

We followed Corniche el-Nil south, away from our hotel, before we were finally able to cross the street by the 8th October bridge. The whole side of the Nile was packed with people, street vendors, people giving away flowers or corn on the cob (in return for an expectation of Baksheesh, of course). Sarah says I don’t know how to say “La’ Shookran” right, so it was only when she said it that the boy pushing the flowers in our face backed off.

Crossing Corniche el-Nil by the 8th October bridge faces us with another problem: The square-which-name-we-can-never-remember-but-that-we’re-unable-to-cross! We finally gave in when a taxi pulled up, honked and asked if we wanted a ride.

The taxi didn’t know where the Victoria hotel was, so I had to direct him. This whole trip had been without a map, so I felt pretty cool when I said: “Sharia Ramsees to Orabi Metro station, down Sharia Orabi and the first to your left. Left again on el-Gomhoyyra and we’re there”. Worked like a charm.

And we slept like babies.

Next morning, my navigation skills failed me. Instead of turning north towards Midan Ramsees and Mubarak station, we turned south towards Ataba station. However, we successfully navigated the (excellent, might I add) subway system to Sadat station by Midan Tahrir. The exit lead directly up to our next destination: The egyptian museum of antiques.

We ran into our friend Said, who’d taken us to the pyramids yesterday, in exactly the same spot as before. We didn’t notice us at first, but he shouted for our attention. By now, we have gotten pretty used to the “hello, my friend” shouts from touts and taxi drivers in Cairo, so it took a while before we found him. Based on his smile when he saw us, he wasn’t unhappy with yesterday’s tip after all.



Museum from Midan Tahrir

The security of the museum was the first thing that immidately struck me. On the 200 meter walk along the only road up the the museum (which is now bordered on one side by construction work), there were about 15 police officers, including one with a helmet, assault gear and a big stationary shield he was hiding behind. The entrace to the Museum complex has an X-ray + metal detector (at here, they actually pay attention to whether you beep or not, I was patted down). Sarah brough her little “multi-tool gadget”, which ws described by the X-ray operator as “a big knife”. It’s like a modern version of the Swiss army knife. The two police officers who instructed us to get it out were quite fascinated by the little gadget, too! Small observation: I think they at first wanted baksheesh to let us go, but instead, we opened the bag to show them the contents. The didn’t seem unhappy at the result.



Sarah by the Egyptian Museum police checkpoint

This let us into the garden in front of the museum, a surprisingly small area filled with tourist and tourist police. After buying a ticket to the museum proper, check-in our camera (damned!) and going through a second set of metal-detectors + X-ray, we were in.

I found the museum very interesting, but most of what’s good there is already in guidebooks, so I will leave that to better writers on egyptology. A few notes, though: Yes, the tomb of Tuthankamon really is amazing. It is a must see. The artwork and just the sheer amount of gold was jaw-dropping. Easily worth the whole enterance fee. We also paid an extra LE 100 (!) to visit the mummy-room with about 10 actual mummies. The detail on the long dead-corpses were amazing. You could see the state of their teeth (seems like ancient egypt had pretty good dental health), and the head that killed Seqenenre Taa II (150-1539 BC, 17th or 18th dynasty, I think) while he was rebelling against the invading Hyksos tribes of the second intermediate period. The mummy room has a feint smell of death to it, and it was probably the best experience of the whole museum.

We staggered through the rest of the museum, and noted as the guidebook said that the collection is sadly underlabeled. Many items only have a number, some have several, and many have none. Only a fraction of the artifacts has a text describing it, and many of these didn’t have a number (like the Ramsees III/Horus/Set statue (the only one I could find of Set, by the way) in room 14). If you go to the museum, be sure to bring a guide or a guidebook.



Johannes in front of the Egyptian Antiquities Museum

Going back, we wanted to try out At-Tabia ad-Dumyati again. We found a taxi on our way out the approach to the museum. Ahmed, the driver had to negotiate quite a bit with the guards to get through the museum area, showing papers and whatnot. As far as I could tell, no money exchanged hands, though.

Ahmed gave us probably the oldest spiel in the playbook. The guidebooks advice from discussing price before you get out of the taxi, which I wanted to try, we told him to go to Sharia Orabi (I even managed to say “waHid wa Talateen Sharia Orabi”, Orabi Street number 31!) However, as Ahmed later pointed out, we hadn’t specified Sharia Orabi in the Ramsees area, instead of Sharia Orabi in Mohandessin. Actually, we had, but he’d ignored us, driven across Gezira and ended up on the west bank before we could correct the error. He felt that LE 10 was too little for the trip we had (although I am pretty sure it was right, even with the detour). We haggled for a while, and when he seemed genuinely angry, we gave him the 20 pound and were done with it. Safe to say, we won’t take Ahmed up on his offer to drive us to Alexandria on Friday!

At the Dumyati, we ran into Muhammed from the first day again. He recognized us and we had a nice chat. I think Dumyati-Mohammed is probably the most honest seeming person we’ve met in Cairo, so it is nice with a safe face. The food was excellent and cheap again.

Sarah wanted to stop by a bakery from the notebook (which turned out to be closed because of Eid), and navigating back to the hotel, I made the same damned mistake on al-Gohmorrya, turning south instead of north. That street is extremely confusing. We ended up back at Ataba station, and had to navigate our way back.

By now, we’re shot from all the walking (and probably from all the polution), so we’re going to have a quiet night. We are accomplishing much less per day that I thought we would. Tomorrow, we should get up early, go Khan al-Khalili and see Islamic Cairo.

Oh, and the hotel clerk said that a driver had stopped by and said that he was going to pick us up for Saqqara and the pyramids tomorrow. She said the driver’s name was Said. Strange…. We’ll have to see what tomorrow brings.

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Letters from Cairo: Sand and pyramids

Today’s trip was like taken directly out of the lonely planet
guidebook. Our guide Said Azawi (todo: double check last name) picked
us up at the hotel at the appointed time. Driving over Gezira, past
the Cairo Opera house and into Giza we arrived at the pyramids at the
Giza Plateau early. We were a bit suspicious about the whole deal, but
the guide recommended we get horses or camels to take us across the
plateau.



Outside the K.G. stables

The price at K.G. stables seemed steep (LE 350 for both of us), but
when we calculated with the guide and entrance fees (LE 60 per person,
according to the guidebook) it wasn’t bad. We got a horse each. Mine
was named “Micheal Jackson” because he would whinny whenever a pretty
girl horse was around. Sarah’s horse was called “Maradonna”. The
guide, Mohammed, was chatting all the way, calling me “his brother,”
and Sarah “his sister”. The boy who lead my horse for most of the way
was also called Mohammed. He didn’t say much as he was too young to
speak english.



Big-Mohammed and Little-Mohammed

The Giza plateau by horseback is an experience I am glad to have had.
We were riding around for the better part of three hours. The pyramids
themselves are amazing, and getting up close to them and looking at
the masonry is very cool. The view of Giza city and the smog covered
Cairo as a background to the pyramids is a very interesting
combination.



Johannes and the pyramids



Sarah and the pyramids



Sarah, Johannes, the pyramids, and Giza city

When we got out of the Giza plateau, “Big Mohammed”, the guide, almost
pulled one over on us. He pulled us aside for hit tip (baksheesh), and
according to what he said, he didn’t get paid by the stable. When we
met up with Said (the driver) again, he asked if we were happy, and I
said I thought the tip was a bit steep. The result was that we got
most of the tip back, Muhammed apologized sheepishly, and probably got
in trouble with mr. K.G. the stable manager. In the end, we paid a
rather reasonable tip of USD 11, which I didn’t mind. I was a fun
trip.

I think the guy who came out really on top of the whole thing, was
“Little Mohammed”, the boy who lead the horse. We tipped him at the
similarly to “Big Mohammed”‘s top fee. But he deserved his money. He
was quite the sport running with the horse through the Saraha desert.

Observation: If you hire a driver for the day, as we did, be sure to
ask him what is reasonable to pay and tip at sites. After this
incident, Said gave us a good tip: If someone comes up and tries to
sell you something at the other sites, just say you left the money in
the car. (Or rather, “with the driver”)

We then went to South Saqqara to see the Zoser step pyramid and Teti’s
pyramid. The admission fee for South Saqqara was a reasonable LE 25
per person. At this point in time, K.G. stables had gotten most of our
available cash, but the excellent driver ended up lending us more than
twice his fee before we got to an ATM later in the day.

I enjoyed the Teti Pyramid, but the rest was not as interesting.
Walking around in sand is kind of tiresome, and we are not used to the
late Egyptian lunches. Observation: If you’re going for a pyramid
trip, be sure to pack food! The Teti pyramid allows you to crawl (or
walk hunched, as the case may be) into the actual tomb of the phareo.
At Giza, a similar experience in the Kheops pyramid will cost you LE
115! (Both Said and “Big Mohammed” adviced us to do Teti instead of
Kheops, and I am glad I did)



Johannes studies the hieroglyphs in the Teti Pyramid



Sarah comes out of the Teti Pyramid

We stopped by Memphis, where there’s a disappointing exhibit built
around a huge fallen status of Ramses II. Here, one of the ubiquitous
Tourist Police (who seem to be carrying assault rifles…) wanted
Baksheesh (tip) for showing us some hieroglyphs on the back of a
status. This was a bit much for Sarah. But she did appreciate the
experience of getting mad at a someone. :-) For real.



Two police officers hanging out in the Memphis museum

We drove back to Giza where we ate reasonably priced and well at the
Felfela. Going back to Cairo through Giza and through Zamalek, we got
to see more of the urban sprawl of Giza that is just a few decades
old. It seems like there are miles upon miles of red brick apartment
buildings in various stages of disrepair. The top stories would be
missing from some buildings, and most (but not all) of these looked
abandoned. According to Said, there are 9 million people in Giza (in
addition to the 15 million in Cairo). Seeing the tightly packed
buildings, I have no trouble believing it.

Said dropped us off back at the hotel. We were a bit nervous about his
settlement, because the price he quoted us was lower than we’d
expected. But he stuck to the deal. We tipped him 25 %, but by the
look on his face, he’d probably hoped for more.

Observation: Baksheesh is hard!

We’ve been resting and washing off the Saraha sand for the last while.
We have reservations for Abu el-Sid n Zamalek, which the guidebook
describes as fabulous. Now to brave the taxis of Cairo again.

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Letters from Cairo: Messy, friendly, opportunistic

(The “kobyuutr” on which I am writing this has an arab/english
keyboard, so I will write in english)

We arrived late at night at Cairo international airport, and got a
first impression of Egyptian bureaucracy that has remained. We ended
up standing in lines for a long time, and when we finally were
through, it was 2 am, and we did not feel like dealing with Cairo’s
infamous taxis. So we took a “limosin service” to the hotel. It ended
up costing very little, but the tip ended up being substantial
(“change for a hundred, sir?”, for a price of 66: “here is twenty, is
okay? Thank you, sir”)

The airport is on the far side of Heliopolis (or New Misr (=
Egypt/Cairo)) as it is called by the locals. It is a beautifull area,
with marble bridges and large palaces. The road system was good, and I
couldn’t figure out why cars behind us were honking at the driver the
whole time.

That was until I discovered the essential lesson of Cairo trafic:
Honking is what people do when they drive. It seems like cars honk to
let others know that they are there, to remind pedestrians that they
shouldn’t remain in the road, or taxis honk to get the attention of
potential customers. The next day confirmed it: Being out in Cairo
traffic is about 1 honk per ten seconds or so. Through the whole
night!



Victoria Hotel Lobby

We got in late, so we slept late and decided to do a quiet day. When
going out on the streets of a new city, the immidiate feeling of
helplessness is enormous. All the street signs were in arabic, cars
are honking, and it is generally messy. It turns out that the purely
arabic street signs is sort of a local thing in the Ramses area. In
large parts of Cairo, street names will be given in arabic and english
both.

Helped by the excellent Lonely Planet Guide to Egypt, we navigated
from our hotel, the Victoria Hotel in Sharia Al-Gomhuriyya via Naguib
al-Rikany. Essential lesson: Walking in the street is preferable to
walking on the sidewalks.

Lonely Planet recommends At-Tabic ad-Dumyati on Sharia Orabi (Orabi
street), and we have to agree. The food was good, and a bargain (LE 22
for the both of us), Muhammed was an excellent waiter. Tip: LE 5. From
his reaction: Too much.

After lunch, we continued down Sharia Orabi to Midan Orabi (Orabi
Square) and from there to Midal Talaat Harb, which is a major shopping
street. Essential lesson: Cars don’t pay attention to traffic lights
AT ALL. Essential lesson #2: They usually don’t pay attention to the
ubiquitous traffic police officers, either.

At Midan Talaat Harb, a very effective “fisher” lured us in. Ismail
first welcomed us to Cairo, and when he learned that we were from
Norway, he told us that he had a friend who’d visited Oslo. Somehow,
he redirected us into his friend Baha’s shop. We had a nice chat with
the fellow, who served us tea, invited us for the Eid il-Fitr meal. We
ended up coming out with two bottles of flower extracts (“not perfume.
You know why? No alcohol”) and LE 240 less. Even though we were “had”
the experience was a fun and pleasant one and easily worth the
overprice.

We continued down to Midan Tahrir, where a friendly person tried
redirecting us into another shop (this one much more rinky-dink than
Baha the flower-extract/papyrus-dealer). “You come with me, government
shop, very nice”. This time we’d wised up and headed another way. In
retrospect, the man had noticed that we’d been trying to take stock of
the situation around Midan Tahrir and seized on us.



Midan Tahrir

Heading straight for the American Univerity, while being trailed by a
papyrus (or more likely, banana-leaves) seller who knew how to say
“God morgen” (good morning in norwegian), we ended up finding out that
the American University Bookstore, which is rumored to have the best
Cairo maps, was closed. We learned a few more things, though: Nobody
understands what I am saying when I say “bititkallim ingleezee”, and
Egyptian policemen are more afraid of you, than you are of them. Also:
Most policemen are fairly young. All have mustaches. (And I mean ALL)

With so much being closed on the end of Ramada, we decided to head for
the Hilton Mall, just by the Hilton Hotel, and right next to the
Egyptian Museum. Crossing Midan Tahrir from the American University
side turned out to be too much for us. We ended up going all the way
down to the Nile, crossing Corrice el-Nil (which turned out to be no
better, and we got separated for 5 minutes as Sarah made a mad dash
across the six lane traffic that I didn’t dare emulate). On the way
there, we ran into Madgee, who’s appearantly the director of an art
museum and a professor at a university. When he invited us to his
shop, Sarah had had enough, and we headed another way. I still don’t
know about him, though.

The Hilton Mall turned out to be absolutely the sadest thing I’ve seen
in Egypt so far. Styled on a (small) American-style mall (plus guards
and metal detector) it had hardly any visitors at all. We had two
juices and a coffee at the cafe and ended up paying LE 66! No wonder
it’s so unpopular.

Outside, we were approached by a taxi driver, and after our previous
experiences with aggressive salespeople, we were politely ignoring
him. But then he offered us a full day trip to Saqqara, Memfis and the
Pyramids tomorrow. This is something we wanted to do (hire a driver
for a day), so it worked out perfectly. Said gave us a good deal, and
will pick us up at 9 am sharp tomorrow. Essential lessons: Aggressive
sales tactics aren’t necessarily dishonest. They can really help if
they are offering what you want.

Said also offered to drive us back to the hotel, but we wanted to walk
some more. The sun was setting as we were walking up Sharia Ramses
towards Orabi subway station. The contrasts of the city are really
obvious along this road. Buildings that are practially wrecks are
standing next to marble buildings and areas that have been leveled.
Trash is littering the street. People are crossing in the middle of
the streets and cars are honking politely as they go by.



Cats by Midan adb al-Minim Riad

After some deliberation, we decided to eat at Gad, a local fast food
restaurant chain that serves arabic food. My navigation skills failed
me (I mistook two streets as we crossed a map section), and we ended
up having to backtrack quite a bit. As it turns out, Emad ad-Din has a
lot of fashion stores. I think it might be sort of alternative, too.
Essential lesson: Two egyptian men holding hands aren’t necessarily
gay. I think. Also: If someone says “welcome,” smile, say thank you,
but KEEP WALKING. ;-). In truth, though: Egyptians are extremely
friendly towards tourists, and most interactions have no hidden
agendas.

The food at Gad was good and inexpensive, but the service was rather
slow. We ate more than our fill for a total of LE 66 for the two of us
(tip: 7 pound 50 piastre).

Navigating back from Gad at 26th of July Street to the hotel was quite
easy: Walk down 26th of July until you hit Ezbehiyaa gardens, turn
right on al-Gomhuryya and just keep going until you’re there. But my
wife, who’s lost faith in my ability to navigate Cairo’s streets by
foot, asked “don’t you think we should reorient ourselves.” Responds
I, “Do you recognize that hospital across the street?” And we’re back
at the Victora Hotel.

It’s been a fun day. We have really started to get a feel for this
part of the city now. Cairo is a city that always feels very safe and
friendly, although the crowds and traffic can be very confusing. We’re
very much looking forward to tomorrow when Said will pick up us bright
and early for a full day of pyramids.



Cairo smog will discolor you feet if you wear sandals!

Oh, and one more thing: The money feels limp and wet. Strange

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