Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Day 6: Chicken Rocks, Hot Springs, and Hot Hot Springs (Bahariya Oasis Tour)

Gathered around fire watching sunrise
I woke up to the sunrise this morning. It was a beautiful sight.  As the sun rose, somehow the temperature seemed to drop even more and for about a half hour a strong wind blew across our campsite. It was a surreal experience. After a quick breakfast, our group began our journey back. On the way back, we stopped to 
view a couple famous rock formations; my favorite is one that looks like a chicken!
Famous rocks, mushroom rock and chicken rock
We arrived back at the oasis and spent the next hour exploring the surrounding area. All around were small fields where skinny farm animals were grazing. It was evident that being literally in the middle of nowhere, agriculture was a vital part to the Bedouin’s culture. All of the life in this village was supported by hot springs. We found a spring nearby that was pumped from a hole in the ground, where it flowed through a 4 foot deep pool for the locals to bathe in and then diverted into irrigation channels. Some of the other tourists joined us in “swimming” in the pool. The pool was exactly like a natural hottub, complete with bubbles. I noticed that the water in it evaporated a lot quicker than normal water and gave a cooling sensation similar to alcohol.
Farm animals in the oasis
I went back to relax for a little in our hotel room while before beginning our tour of the town.  Each hotel room was its own separate building. Ours was made of brick and stucco, and had domed roofs. Walking inside, I was greeted with a blast of cold air. It was cold inside! (For those of you stuck in the snow storm right now, 50 degrees is cold for daytime in the desert :P) The whole building was cooled with wind towers, which were basically holes in the roof designed to circulate air through the rooms. The rooms were decorated with paintings of the oasis on the walls and a really neat painting on the wall of camels made from colored sand. Oh yeah and my room key was a big brass key that looked like it came from an 18th century mansion.
Our house in the oasis
Sand painting of camels
A couple hours later, we set out to explore the town. Our first stop was to another hot spring. This one was a little hotter than the first one, and by a little hotter, I mean almost boiling. I learned this after I put my foot in. One of the kids in our group was all set to dive in but was stopped just in time by our guide. We then went to a lake and to Pyramid Mountain. On top of the mountain, we had an amazing view of the oasis and watched the sun set in the distance. Leaving the desert, the stench of rotting flesh filled the air. A minute later, we passed the carcass of a dead donkey.
Lake in oasis
Pyramid Mountain

Sunrise from Pyramid Mountain
The last stop of our tour was a third hot spring. The spring was behind a barn, but when we walked back, we saw that it was full of locals bathing. They stared at us and were probably offended that a group of tourists were watching them. Our guide kept telling us to get it and didn’t want us to leave. Clearly, no one in our group was going to get in. For some reason, he seemed really intent on us going in the spring. He even called up the hotel manager and put him on the phone with Allie, who spent the next 5 minutes telling him that we didn’t want to swim. It was a pretty awkward situation.
Hot hot spring

We arrived back at the hotel, where we had a dinner similar to the one made the night before in the desert. The rest of the night, we spent playing cards in our bedroom. It was nice to have some time to relax. What made the night even better was that we discovered that what appeared to be an air conditioner on the wall was actually a heater. This was great news because with the wind towers, it would have probably been as cold as our previous night in the desert. Our beds were covered with bug nets. I didn’t think I really needed mine in the middle of winter, but I thought I’d use mine just for the experience. Sleeping on a real bed, I got a great night’s sleep that night.
Bedroom with bug net over my bed

Day 5: Bahariya Oasis

Our hostel staff woke up us at 5AM this morning so we could be ready to leave by 6 to catch our bus. We were going to spend the next two days in the Bahariya Oasis. After an Egyptian/American breakfast combo, each of us stuffed some clothing into our backpacks and left for the desert. The bus stop was a bench underneath a highway overpass. The city was just starting to wake up as we sat on the bench, waiting. Across the street, cab drivers woke up from sleeping in their cabs the night before. Even if they were poor, they made the best of their situations and cheerfully greeted one another. As it was starting to get sunny outside, the bus showed up.

Our driver had waited around with us, but was sitting in his car. He walked over to the bus driver, who made room for 4 seats on the overbooked bus. For some reason, walking onto the bus reminded me of a sad movie. The air was dusty, stuffy, and hazy. Passengers gazed at us with half awake eyes. Japanese passengers had dust masks over their mouths, but the way they reacted when we walked by was like they would contract a disease at the slightest glance. One lady covered her face with a tissue when Allie's backpack swung her way. We made our way to the back of the bus, where 4 seats had been emptied. One of the Egyptian passengers had to sit on a seat cushion on the floor between Kristin and me.

Once we got going, the bus ride was pretty fun, for a bus ride. The shocks on the back of the bus were blown, and my reclining seat was broken. Any time we hit the slightest bump, I would fly up and down while my seat rocked forward and backward. It reminded me of being on a boat. Eventually we arrived at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere. Everyone stopped for a bathroom break, which consisted of squat toilets (porcelain holes in the ground) overflowing with...poopy. It made me once again realize how fortunate we Americans are. A couple hours later, we reached civilization. A small town had sprung up around an oasis, even after being in Dubai, it was a surreal sight seeing grooves of trees and vegetation in the middle of desert.
Our "hotel" in the Oasis

We arrived at our hostel, and were served a "typical" oasis lunch: pita and tuna fish served with a side of flies. The tuna fish was severed  straight out of the can still in the liquid. Flies were everywhere, we did our best to ignore them, but I counted 30 on one window.
Typical Oasis lunch
After lunch, four Toyota Land Cruisers were waiting outside, packed with camping equipment. Two Australians joined us in a silver Land Cruiser. The caravan of suv's set out into the desert.
Our landcruiser loaded with camping equipment
For the scenery, I'll let the pictures do the talking. First stop: Black desert. As the name suggests, the black desert is in fact a black desert created from a volcanic eruption a long long time ago. Our group stopped to walk up a hill. When the time came to leave, there were still about 15 Japanese people at the top of the hill. For some reason, the Japanese people with us weren't very good at following directions. Even after blowing the horns, yelling, shouting "Japanese!", and blowing whistle, our guides couldn't get their attention.  A half hour later, they finally came down.
Black desert
Next stop: Old white desert. The sand here was the color of a typical beach. There were some interesting rocks in it that were really sharp.
Sharp rocks in old white desert
Old white desert

Next stop: sunset. We stopped to watch the sunset, but the green Land Cruisers got stuck before we arrived at the top of the hill so we didn't get to see the entire spectacle. To the driver's credit, his SUV was about 20 years older than the Land Cruiser we were in, and it was way overloaded with people and supplies, which made it difficult making it up inclines. Still it was really pretty watching the reflection of the sun on the sand change colors. The temperature dropped really quickly as soon as the sun went down.

Green SUV getting pushed by other Landcruiser
Next stop: driving. We drove for a while. Even at night, our driver drove with his lights off most of the time. In the desert. He was a really fun guy and smiled all the time. While we were driving, he played Arabic music while singing along and clapping his hands. He loved his job, and we could tell. At one point Allie had to pee so badly that we stopped 50 meters away from the only building around so she could go in the desert. 

Next stop: New white desert. At this point, it was completely dark. The SUV's all split up and took different paths through the sand. Our driver left his lights on because there were large chalk white rock formations all around us. At nighttime, it felt like we were dune-bugging across the moon. Definitely one of my favorite memories from the entire trip. To scare the girls, our driver would drive right towards a pile of rocks. At the last second, he would swerve the SUV around the side.

I'm not sure how all of the drivers knew where the heck they were going, but somehow we all ended up at the same place. The stars were incredible. It was impossible to take a picture, so hopefully my words will be enough: There was zero light from any other source than the sky. The sky looked like a black sheet covered with billions of glowing dots. Most of the star's light was so faint that they normally can't be seen at night. The big dipper was showing, but was rotated so it looked like a giant question mark. For the full effect, you'll just have to go see for yourself.
Campsite made from wall of suv's
Our guides parked the vehicles into a "C" shape, and covered the sides with blankets. They laid cushions and carpets across the ground in between the vehicles. A fire was lit, and people gathered around it. By this point, it was pretty cold outside. We sat on the carpets talking to the Austrian tourists, a mom and her daughter. The mom was a travel agent, and had been all across the world. After a couple of hours, dinner was served. All of the meal was made from scratch. There was spicy soup, stewed vegetables, and barbecue chicken. My mouth is still watering thinking about it! Dinner was cleaned up, and everyone huddled around the fire. The guides played Bedowyn music and danced while we drank tea. Sleeping bags and blankets were dragged out. Within minutes, everyone rushed over to get warm. At this point, it was probably in the high 30's. Too tired to care about the cold, I passed out immediately with the stars draped overhead.
Group gathered around dinner table

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Day 4: Cairo Tour

French clock tower
Today we toured the city of Cairo. We were again driven around by our personal driver. While he was driving, he would teach us Arabic words. Our first stop for the day was the Muhammad Ali Mosque. Again, we didn't have a tour guide, but I'm pretty sure that it wasn't named after the boxer. There were lots of tour buses and with them, tour guides, so we tried sneaking into to some tours. We didn't exactly blend in because everyone else was from Europe and wore much nicer clothing than all of us. But it didn't matter anyway, because most tours were not in English. However, I did overhear one English speaking tour guide mention that a clock tour in the courtyard was donated by the French. Her next remark was "It never worked." Good job, France.

Bombs at Military museum
Connected to the mosque was the Egyptian Military museum.  It was an outdoor exhibit full of war vehicles. Some of them were from other countries, including a "cuptured American tank." Another sign read something along the lines of "this tank was used in tank battles." Very descriptive. Along one of the museum walls was a row full of assorted bombs and such.

Our next stop was the Coptic area of Cairo. The entire area was walled in, and security guards manned the entrance, a sign that tension against the Christians still existed. Near the entrance was a cemetery full of elaborate gravestones depicting Jesus, angels, and saints. There were also buildings that contained the remains of entire families. At one side of the cemetery entrance, a nativity scene was set up inside of a small mud-brick hut.  The entire area was quite and peaceful; a world apart from the busy streets right outside the Coptic area walls.
Coptic cemetery
From the cemetery, we walked into a church nearby. The church was much more elaborate than any Roman Catholic church I have seen. The most noticeable difference between Coptic and Roman churches was the icons all along the church walls. The icons were paintings, most accented with gold left, of prominent religious figures. As Coptic Christians walked by an icon, they would kiss their fingers, then place their fingers on the icon.

After the church, we toured the Coptic museum, which contains the largest collection of Egyptian Christian artifacts in the world. It housed everything from artwork, to early copies of the New Testament, to royal crowns, furniture, and a foot-long metal key that had extremely elaborate decorations. Most of the artifacts were very well preserved. While we were touring the museum, Fly Dubai tried calling us again. They explained that we could get a full refund or book an earlier flight.

Apparently the Holy Family stayed in a church in Coptic Cairo while they were hiding from King Herod.  We tried to find it but instead wound up at the Hanging Church. As the name mentions, the church literally overhangs over top a passageway of the Babylon Fortress. Both have amazing architecture, I'll let the pictures do the talking:
Hanging Church
Babylon Fortress
Leaving the Coptic area, we went to the Egyptian museum, which is actually a short walk from our hostel. A line of people waited before a security checkpoint before entering the museum courtyard. There was no messing around at this place. I think I went through 4 or 5 metal detectors and was patted down at each one. Waiting in line at the first metal detector, Allie turned to me and said, "Did you just see that?" I hadn't, so she added, "the security guard just kneed some guy (green shirt) in the back of the legs!" I looked up at the security guard. He looked really upset. By this time, there were only a couple of people in front of us. The security guard began yelling at an Egyptian woman who seemed to be associated with green shirt. The woman, either frightened or angry, left and passed by us. Still angry, the guard paced about. Suddenly, he started shouting and pulled out his gun. He placed it above his head and hurled it down on top of the table. The gun landed, pointed directly at us and other tourists. Thankfully it didn't go off. Concerned, another guard came over and immediately pulled the magazine out of the chamber. Just when we thought it was over, green shirt came walking quickly out from within the courtyard. He passed out of the security area, picked up a bag, and ran back in. Immediately, a guard the size of a wall apprehended him. Green shirt began arguing in Arabic, and they forcefully patted him down. By this point, I was the first one in line. I awkwardly placed my items on the table and stood there waiting for their quarrel to end. Finally, they let him go and I walked through without incident.
Nativity scene in Coptic cemetery

The journey of the Holy Family
After buying our tickets, an elderly man with a slight limp approached us and asked if we would like a tour. At first we were skeptical that he was not associated with the museum, but he seemed sincere. We agreed. It was a great decision. The museum was full of half a million artifacts, and very few were labeled. Without the guide, we would have had no idea what we were looking at. Our guide knew his stuff too. He told us the story of King Tut and explained the meaning of Egyptian symbols and customs. There is an entire room full of gold items found in King Tut's tomb including an entirely gold coffin which weighs over 240lbs.

Once the tour was done, our guide showed us to a papyrus store nearby. He explained that most papyrus sold in the markets is fake, and is made from banana leaves that dry out. Real papyrus can last for lifetimes, and many papyrus paintings survived from ancient Egyptian times. This store was "government certified" with real papyrus. We watched the owner explain how papyrus was made, afterwards he gave us a tour through his store showcasing his paintings. The owner offered us tea, which he explained was "a gesture of Egyptian hospitality" (we encountered this everywhere, and while tea is customary it is also offered to keep possible buyers from leaving as quickly). Each painting had its own story, which he explained to us. The paintings were really interesting, and even though we knew we were getting ripped off, each one of us bought one. I figure I might as well pay extra for a painting that will outlive me.

Male Belly Dancer with "tree skirt"
The last part of our day was a Nile dinner cruise featuring belly dancers. The first belly dancer came out, to my surprise it was a man. Luckily he kept his clothing on. He was actually really talented and spun in place for at least a half hour while spinning something that resembled a Christmas tree skirt above his head like a pizza. Walking around to all of the tables, he greeted each guest. When he approached our table, he saw me surrounded by three girls and said something along the lines of "You are lucky, my friend." The best part of his  act was, while spinning, he took a wooden tray, an empty glass, and a water bottle. Because he was spinning the glass stuck to the tray without him holding it. He opened the water and poured it into the glass without spilling or dropping any of it.  Then the woman belly dancer came out. As bad as this sounds, she seemed kind of trashy. She was scantily clad and had a pair of hands drawn on her bra. The food arrived, and thankfully our table was the first allowed to go up to the buffet. We hadn't eaten anything since breakfast and by this time it was 9 or 10 at night. Overall the entire night was pretty fun.
Group with our driver

Day 3: Walking Like An Egyptian (12/25)

Today is Christmas morning! Its a bittersweet day, because its the first time I won't be celebrating Christmas at home but at least I'm spending it touring Egypt.

We sat around the breakfast table watching the city wake up.  Breakfast was served; our host informed us that it was not one but two breakfasts: Egyptian and American.  The Egyptian portion consisted of pita bread, falafel, a bean dish similar to refried beans, and cheese. The American portion was fried eggs and rolls. Lots of rolls.  It wasn't quite the typical Christmas morning breakfast, but it was still delicious.

A personal driver awaited us outside in a black entry-level Hyundai to chauffeur us to our days adventures. I say chauffeur, because compared to all of the other cars in Egypt, our car seemed like a limo, in both size and quality. Our first stop was the pyramids of Giza. It was the place I had been looking forward to the most since we first started planning our trip. As far as I know, there are only three ways to travel to the pyramids: tour bus, horse, or camel. Since all of us had ridden tour buses before, we decided to take camels.  We arrived at the "government" camel stables, where we had been told give a fair price. An older man walked out to greet us to explain the different tour packages. He then asked us our names, but before I told him mine he looked at me and asked if I was Obama. I'm pretty sure he was joking, but I do have remarkable similarities with Obama, such as that he is black and I'm....not.  When I told him my name, he said "Ahhh, Michael Jackson!!" This was the common response from most people when I told them my name. Egyptians definitely have a sense of humor!

A quick aside to anyone who ever plans on visiting Egypt on your own:
Do your research on average prices of common items/attractions. We ended up paying 400 pounds ($70) each for 2.5 hours of riding. That's a lot more than we should have paid. We would have saved a couple hundred dollars during our trip had we known the normal price to pay for things, and the acceptable tipping rate. Knowing how to barter is essential, because as Americans, we are used to paying the price told. In Egypt, there are no set prices.

Our tour guide, Hanny, came out to meet us, and showed us to the camels. He was a funny guy, and made jokes the entire time. Hanny explained that we would rotate between riding two camels and two horses. I got to ride one of the camels; suitably his name was Obama (or so I was told). It was awesome to see a camel up close. I felt like we were NYC kids who were going to the countryside to see their first cow. Camels are really tall, so I stupidly thought that we would use a platform or something to get on. Instead you get on the camel when its lying down, but its still about 4 or 5 feet off the ground. Being taller, I was able to swing myself on the saddle. The saddle is covered in blankets, and has small wooden knobs in the front and back. Almost immediately after I sat down and took hold of the knob, the guide made a noise to the camel and it stood up. I was still getting my seating when I was pitched forward at least 45 degrees, then backward, then forward again.To avoid falling off, you have to lean in the opposite direction of the camel. It was an awesome experience! 
Obama the camel

We started off to the pyramids, with two younger boys pulling our camels and horses. Obama was linked to the back of Kristin's camel and would routinely wipe his droll on the back of her jacket. Another fun fact about camels; they don't walk like dogs or horses do. Instead of moving alternate feet (i.e. front left and back right) like horses, camels move alternate sides (front left and back left). This made for a bumpy ride. Arriving at the pyramid entrance, there was a camel traffic jam blocking the gates.
Camel traffic jam
 After some waiting, we made our way into the desert surrounding the pyramids. Funny enough, they looked exactly as I had expected them to. It was still really incredible being able to see them up close. At one point, we got scammed again, this time into buying sodas that were handed to us already opened, which we mistakingly though was part of our tour. The entire trip, Hanny would periodically say "Miikal, where you are?" I guess because I wasn't screaming like the girls were, he wanted to check in on me.
Awesome picture in front of pyramid
When we got close, Hanny told us to touch the pyramids and to ignore the police who might stop us; promising to leave us stranded if we didn't touch them. Fifty feet before the pyramid were ropes and signs saying "Do not enter." We walked past the ropes and sure enough, two police officers started yelling at us. Ignoring their warnings, we walked up to the edge of the pyramid. Oddly, one of the police officers stopped yelling and offered to take our picture.
Picture in front of pyramid taken by police officer
On the way back, we stopped by the Great Sphinx. At first I didn't believe that it was the real one. In the pictures it always appeared much bigger. Compared to the pyramids it looks tiny, but still enormous for a statue: 65 feet tall and 200 feet long. Arriving back at the stables, Hanny hinted several times that we should tip him. However, he was suggesting ridiculously high numbers like 150 from each person. Going to an ATM for more money, a slight argument broke out, with everyone suggesting different numbers to tip. During the commotion, Allie forgot to take her credit card from the ATM. When we returned, it was gone. The next half hour was pretty stressful for everyone, but in the end Allie canceled her card and didn't lose any money. (Most likely, the machine took the card back in)  We probably ended up tipping them over half their monthly salaries, but I considered it a Christmas gift.

Our next stop was Memphis. None of us had any idea what the historical significance was, but it was full of interesting artifacts and statues. The most interesting piece of history was a 33ft tall statue of Ramses II carved out of a single block of limestone. During our visit, Allie received a call from an unknown number. It was Fly Dubai calling to say that our flight had been canceled.  Unfortunately, her phone ran out of minutes so we had no idea what our options were to rebook our flight.
Ramses II statue

The last stop of the day was Sakkara burial grounds. There is a ton of history there, because it is in the ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis. We could have spent an entire day there. Highlights are the step pyramid of King Djoser, which was the first pyramid built. Although a little crumbly and weathered, it was still standing some 5000 years later.
First pyramid built
There were also underground tombs, one of which we were able to enter. The entrance was a narrow shaft, maybe 4 feet high that angled downward for a long ways. This was the first place that I saw authentic hieroglyphics. Even after thousands of years, most were still intact and painted, although faded. Once again, people tried to take our money; in one of the tombs a man walked up to me, pointed at a hole and said "Hole 50 meters deep", then held out his hand for money.
Allie descending into the underground tomb
Arriving back at the hostel around 5pm, one of the employees told me that Saint Joseph's Roman Catholic church, the only one in Cairo, had a mass at 6pm. I changed into my one pair of dress clothes, which was followed with retorts from the girls saying that I made them look bad because I was dressed up. The church was small but had "classic" church architecture, which was a big (but welcoming) contrast to the rest of Egypt. Most people seemed to be tourists or nuns. During communion, one of the nuns saw that Allie and Kristin weren't singing, so she put a book in their hands and made them sing. It was pretty funny. I was glad we had to opportunity to go to mass, because it gave me a chance to reflect upon Christmas and get away from our hectic schedules.

The Church appeared to be in the nice part of the city, and there were lots of restaurants and bakeries around. As we walked along, some people shouted Merry Christmas. An American school was even strung with Christmas lights. My viewpoint on Egypt began to change. I realized that my first impression in Alexandria didn't represent all of Egypt. People were actually a lot friendly than I had originally thought.

We found an delicious Italian restaurant (in Egypt since 1895!) and ate pizza. For dessert, we had Egyptian ice cream (tackier than normal ice cream) and a selection pastries topped with pistachios at a place suitably called La Delicious. One of the pastry chefs did some cool trick with his hands and wrapped our dessert in about 2 seconds. Then I ate it, and it was good. That concludes day 3.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Day 2: Catacombs, Forts, and Riots

Today we set out to explore Alexandria.  I woke up at 7 to discover that the shower consisted of 1 square foot of standing room, due to the fact that the sink was rudely occupying the rest of my space.  The shower curtain (covered with blue Garfield the cat heads, and quotes such as "Let's drink some milk" and "Hiiimmmmm") took up the remainder of my space. But there was water, and it was hot so it was good enough.

After eating breakfast, we left the hotel and once again continued our pursuit of train tickets.  A helpful pedestrian who spoke English pointed us in the right direction.  We didn't get too far before the road that he pointed us down ended and we were stuck.  Another pedestrian saw us and pointed for us to follow him to the train station.  After walking about a kilometer, he lead us to the tram station that we had been to before, which was still not the correct station.  We decided to take a cab, which ended up being a smart decision because the train station was not within walking distance.

Arriving at the station, we walked in to discover that none of the signs at the ticket windows were in English, and no one spoke English. Thankfully, a friendly cashier noticed we were clueless Americans and pointed at us to follow him.  Carrying an enormous bag of coins, he lead us through the train station.  The trains were covered by an enormous pavilion.  Glancing into the cars at the end of a train, I saw through broken glass windows that the seating consisted of benches covered with straw.  I felt fortunate that our first class seating would be considerably nicer than these cars reserved for locals.  Finally, the cashier pointed us to a room in which first class tickets were sold.  We successfully purchased our tickets for 6pm that night, and then set out in a cab towards our first sight for the day: the catacombs.

Driving no more than 50 feet, the driver stopped the car and strolled over to a iron fence alongside the street.  He stuck his hand between the bars, and about 5 minutes later walked back with a small cup of a tea. Handing the cup to me, he began driving.  Immediately, the tea spilled onto my pants. Perhaps realizing that it was a bad idea, the driver took the tea and placed it in between the seats.  The drive took us through the poor area of the city.  Men pulled carts loaded with vegetables, and the dirt streets were packed with markets selling pigeons for food. Somewhere during the ride, I looked to my right and saw a shouting Egyptian holding a metal pipe.  Behind him were 50 civilians waving assorted weapons in the air.  On the other side of the street was another mob of people also waving various blunt objects and yelling.  I glanced at our driver.  He kept on driving and apparently didn't notice or didn't care as a riot broke out behind us.
Entrance to Catacombs

Aside from the riot, the rest of the ride was uneventful.  We arrived at the catacombs, and realized that we didn't have enough money to go inside. Or to take a cab ride back. There were no atms within walking distance either. Fortunately, what Kristin called a Christmas miracle, a random man walked up to us and asked if we needed change. Kristin and Nina had some American money that they exchanged with him.  Money in hand, we ventured into the depths of the catacombs. Supposedly the tombs were discovered when a donkey cart fell into a pit, leading to their discovery. A spiral staircase wound 3 levels deep around a central well that was used to lower dead. The catacombs, built in 1st century A.D., once contained the bodies of around 300 Roman notables, including entire families.
Fort Qaitbay
We made our way to Fort Quaitbay, which we had seen in the distance the day before. The fort was built over top the Alexandria Lighthouse, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.  At the time  the lighthouse was the tallest building in the world.  According to the trusted source, Wikipedia, (as I mentioned, we didn't have a tour guide) the Citadel was built in 15th century AD and "is considered one of the most important defensive strongholds, not only in Egypt, but also along the Mediterranean Sea coast."  The fort was incredible, for being 500 years old, it looked fairly new.  Walking into the fort, Kristin, Nina, and Allie were immediately surrounded by swarms of local Egyptian girls. All of the girls wanted pictures with Americans. I mean they literally mobbed around them and took pictures. It was pretty cute but got old after they followed us around for an hour. Eventually Nina charged at them and they finally took the hint. Outside the fort, local vendors were selling really cool souvenirs, and people were fishing with really long fishing poles.
Nina and Kristin surrounded by girls
After the fort, we walked around and found a mosque that appeared to be a big tourist attraction, so we decided to have a look. Outside the entrance, by chance, we meet a tourist who was a school teacher from Syracuse. It was somewhat comforting talking to another American, and it was our first time conversing with someone fluent in English. Although there are mosques everywhere in Dubai, none of us had actually been inside one.  The girls had to go around to a separate side entrance, so I walked up to the main entrance, removed my shoes, paid the "shoe keeper" to store them, and stepped inside. 

For anyone who is as ignorant about mosques as I was, here's what it looked inside: 
As you can see, there was little furniture; instead of pews, there was soft carpet that the Muslims kneel on during prayer.  The other notable difference was that men and women were separated into two different areas in the prayer hall by a wooden divider. However, the women's portion of the hall was only about an eight of the men's. Kristin, Nina, and Allie were unable to see the majority of the mosque.  They also had to wear scarves before entry into the prayer room.

Meeting back outside, we walked to our last stop in Alexandria, the Bibliotheca Alexandria. The library was built to commemorate the ancient great Library of Alexandria, which burnt down a long time ago. On our walk over, we experience the same staring as before.  Halfway there, we were stopped by a group of 6 Egyptian guys who wanted pictures with us (although I'm pretty sure that it was the girls, not me, they wanted pictures with) They seemed friendly, so we agreed. At some point they began videotaping us on their cellphones; I heard one of them mention to another "to record our American accents." Roughly 100 pictures later, we were back on our way to the library. Upon arriving at the library, we didn't have too much time because we had to catch our train so by the time we purchased our tickets, and went through 4 sets of metal detectors/ security, we only had about 20 minutes to explore.Oh yeah, I almost forgot, walking up to the library some little kids started told the girls they were beautiful.
Inside of Alexandria Library
The library is enormous, again my trusted friend Mr. Wikipedia told me that it contains room for 8 million books. That is a lot of books! It was full of books from all languages, and there were sections on just about anything you could think of.  Due to the shape of the library, the floors cascade downward. (Note: see picture for better explaination.) Although we didn't have much time, there appeared to be a lot of famous collections/rare books.  There are several museums and art exhibit inside; we were able to briefly tour through one art exhibit. 
Interesting statue in art exhibit

After that, we did a lot of walking, yadah, yadah, and were on our way to the train station.

If you remember, the cabs are tiny in Egypt. With all of our bodies and luggage crammed into the car, my suitcase ended hanging out the back of the car with the trunk open. On the bright side, our driver had at least 6 additional rear view mirrors mounted on the front windshield, presumably, to help him keep an eye on my suitcase. The downside was that these mirrors and a large assortment of stickers and other hanging decorations prevented him from seeing out of the front windshield. My suitcase survived the trip thankfully!

Walking along the platform to our car, I was approached by the ticket collector, who took my ticket from me.  He lead us to our car and seats, and motioned for us to sit down. After storing our luggage, he then held out his hand for money.  I waved him away, but he wouldn't leave so I eventually gave him money. Two minutes later, the real ticket collector showed up. Turns out the first guy didn't work for the train company. At least he had shown us to our correct seats.

The train arrived in the Cairo station 3 hours later. Stepping out of the train, I realized that this was not the best place to be at night.  I don't mean to only discuss the bad parts of the trip, but this was the only time in Egypt that I actually felt like I was in an unwelcome area. In some areas, in place of the sidewalk, there were deep holes covered with narrow wooden planks. The entire station was dimly lit, expect for flood lights in one corner where construction workers were working. Again the stares returned, but this time people followed us around and called to us. Leaving the station, we were surrounded by a mob of cab drivers asking us if we needed a ride. We picked one and called our hostel to translate the address in Arabic to him. He then motioned for us to walk with him . A foot-wide dirt path strewn with rubble and a bank of dirt on the left side straddled a deep trench on the right side.  It wound across an empty lot some 200 yards long. It wasn't exactly the most ideal path for carrying suitcases, and a lot of travelers had difficultly.

We eventually arrived at our hostel, which resided on the 15th floor of a building  nestled in between two indoor car dealerships. A collection of trash and spare tires filled a corner of the 1st floor lobby. A friendly man met us in front of the elevator. He explained that only one elevator worked, pointing to the other and wiping his hands saying "Finished, finished". We took the elevator up to the hostel, and were immediately greeted with smiles and warm tea. The hostel staff was very welcoming and accommodating and helped us plan the remainder of our travels. Thus ended our adventures of Day 2.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Day1: Welcome to Egypt!

For those of you reading this, my blog has been somewhat backwards.  I just "officially" announced my blog, so if you're wondering why there are a bunch of other entries that you weren't aware of, that's why.  Anyway, these next few blogs will be able my winter break, which I spent all of in Egypt. Also, feel free to check out my previous blogs which are about my first few weeks in Dubai!

Day 1:
I flew out of Dubai on December 23rd with 3 other classmates, Kristin, Alli, and Nina.  I was the only guy, so I had done intense training the previous weeks to ward off any attackers or kidnappers. Leaving Dubai, we flew over Palm Jumira, the man-made islands shaped like a palm tree, which was pretty cool because an aerial view is needed in order to see what they actually look like.  We landed in Alexandria, Egypt in the afternoon; the landscape looked essentially identical to Dubai, although we had flown over partitioned farmland that was fed by irrigation channels from the Nile.  The Nile plays a huge role in sustaining Egyptian life, and as I found out later, a lot of the Egyptian hyrogliphics depict scenes about the Nile.

We were met by our cab driver to take us to our hostel.  Leaving the small airport, I immediately noticed two things.  The airport security in Egypt doesn't carry pistols, they carry Ak-47s.  (Mental note: do not get into any disputes with law enforcement.)  The second thing I noticed were the cars and road system (or should I say lack of). The majority of cars there were tiny black and yellow cabs that appeared to be from the 70's.  They were old, slow, loud, and smelled.  If pollution drove a car, it would drive one of these. But there was something about them; they all had character. Each driver had decorated their car with colored flashing lights and "Westernized" bumper stickers.  I say "Westernized" because they were supposed to be American phrases but most were poorly worded and didn't make a whole lot of sense.  A common bumper sticker depicted a pink cowboy hat with the words "Cowboy Up" scrolled underneath.  Also, these cars don't die; we passed several broken down cars along the side of the road.  Their drivers would work on their cars (sometimes while in the middle traffic lane) until they were in drivable condition and go on their way again.  Apparently stopping in the middle lane was OK because there wasn't much of a traffic system.  Actually, lanes appeared to be more of a guide-line.  At one point, there had to be at least 7-8 cars crammed next to each other in a 3 lane highway.  Cars would dart in and out of lanes suddenly, but would beep their horn before passing, while passing, and after passing somebody.  To add on to the noise, the driver's being passed would also beep, whether to acknowledge the other car or to say "Don't pass me!" or some obscene phrase, I'm not sure.  Essentially there was lots and lots of beeping.  All the time.

We arrived at our hostel in the middle of the city, and proceeded to take the elevator up to the 4th floor.  Words don't do justice for how sketchy this elevator was.  There was no door on the elevator, and also no roof.  Which would have been pretty cool had this elevator not been ancient.  The counterweight was connected by one rusty steel chain, which I could both watch and hear clank and creak the entire way up.  My first trip up, the elevator got stuck on floor 3.5.  At which point it went back down to the ground floor before going back up.  I don't mind heights, but my engineering senses were going off like crazy. I felt like I was riding the tower of terror, just waiting to fall at any second. Luckily, I didn't plummet to my death, and I arrived on the 4th floor still alive.  The hostel was on one half of the floor, and my room was pretty nice.  It had two beds, a bathroom, and a pretty nice view of the city.  The hostel staff greeted us with a drink, which I think was Tang.  We unpacked, blah blah blah, and ended up walked around aimlessly in the city.

Deciding we should actually go somewhere, we attempted to find the train station to purchase our tickets to Cairo for the next day.  Unfortunately, we couldn't get help from any of the locals, as they all spoke Arabic, and the one lady who did speak English only wanted to know whether we could stay in Alexandria for 3 months to teach her son English so that he would have an "American" accent.  We ended up at the local Alexandria train station (as I found out later is the oldest running train in all of Africa). Turns out it does not go to Cairo but it took us a while to figure out because nothing was written in English.  We then set out in search of food, but we were promised by several of the Egyptian RIT Dubai students that we would get food poisoning.  Determined to prove them wrong, I decided not to eat.  Or at least not at any of the local food vendors. Not finding any "real" restaurants (except for KFC), we went back to the hostel to come up with a plan.  By this point, all of us were somewhat overwhelmed and hungry.

Here's why: After our short walk, I was beginning to already loath Alexandria.  The entire city made a bad first impression on me.   There was trash, stray cats, trash, pollution, and trash everywhere. At one point I saw a guy attempting to sweep a pile of dirt with a broom but all it did was rearrange the dirt into different piles.  Also, we were constantly stared at.  I don't mean quick glances.  I'm talking obvious, 180 degree head turns.  Some people would call out "welcome to Alexandria." Sometimes they were being friendly, but usually they would turn to their friends and laugh.  As I found out, there are 3 English phrases everyone knows how to say.  "Welcome to Egypt, where are you from, and what is your name." Sometimes even these 3 phrases were spoken in broken English, so at one point one of the locals thought Alli's name was America.

Our hotel lent us a guide book on Alexandria, which listed restaurants that did not give people food poisoning.  We decided on a Greek restaurant that was near Fort Qaitbay, a huge fort only a few kilometers from us that could be seen from our hotel, and figured that a cab driver would be able to take us there. The one nice thing about cabs in Egpyt is that they are everywhere.  It actually takes more effort to not get a cab than to get one.  Being tourists, cab and horse-draw carriages seemed to magically draw towards us. Cabs would flash their lights while blowing their horns and start pulling over to the side of the road.  At which point I would have to shake my head "No" so that they would keep going.  Many times throughout the trip, drivers would see us, pull over, walk across the street, and ask us if we needed a ride.  Most of the time if we said "No" they would still hang around anyway, just in case. Anyway, we found a cab with a meter inside, the driver rolled down the window and I asked if he knew where the restaurant, was.  It took a few tries because he didn't speak English but finally he nodded his head and we squeezed in.  I say squeezed because cabs in Egypt are smaller than subcompacts in America. Luckily for me, the custom is for men to sit in the front, so I got shotgun seat for our entire trip.

I learned several things about driving in Egypt this trip.  First, as we started driving away out of instinct I reached to buckle my seatbelt. The driver yelled something in Arabic to me, and held his hand over my seatbelt buckle. Confused, I finally figured out that he didn't want me to buckle.  This happened with my next cab encounter as well.  Whether it was considered an insult to the driver's road skills or whether the ancient seatbelts just didn't work I never figured out.  For the remainder of the trip, I never got buckled in any cabs.

Also, this was my first encounter with driving at night with no lights on.  This is where I experienced what I will call the Alexandria light show.  Although drivers didn't leave their headlights on, they would have different color taillights (such as green, blue, yellow: essentially all of the cool colors banned in America), neon lights underneath and inside their cars, and flashing red and blue LEDs in their rear windows that looked like police lights at night.  Drivers would partake in the same beeping rituals as in the day, but this time accompanied with headlights.  Our driver constantly turned his lights on and off, and flashed his high beams. I was told later that it was considered courteous to other drivers to leave lights off, and only turn them on as needed to prevent from crashing.  However, the fact that drivers would flash their high beams in other driver's eyes seemed to me more distracting than just leaving the normal lights on in the first place.  To each his own.

Lastly, I got my first experience with bartering for a cab ride.  There are two sets of cabs in Egypt, one set government owned, one not.  It turns out that the black and yellow cabs are NOT government owned. Although there was a meter inside, it looked like it hadn't worked in 30 years.  I had been told that if I had to barter for a cab, to set a price before getting in. Otherwise the driver could charge us whatever he wanted.  I was also told that it should cost no more than 15 pounds to travel across the entire city of Cairo.  Since we were going a few kilometers and there were four of us, I offered 10.  I was expecting an insulted look on the driver's face for my offer of less than $2 for a cab ride, but fortunately he nodded his head in agreement. We drove for a few minutes, then the driver pulled over to the side of the road in front of a restaurant called Fish Market.  Turns out, he had misunderstood me because Fort Qaitbay could still be seen several kilometers away.  Prying ourselves out of the cab, we decided to take a look at the restaurants near Fish Market.

Stumbling upon Tikka Grill, which was mentioned in the guide book, we decided to give it a try.  It was an excellent choice.  Great food, great service, and some kind of puffy fried bread that tasted like the dinner version of a donut. After dinner, we decided to walk back because our cab had only driven about 1km from the hostel.  Walking back, I noticed that people in the city stay up late. Street vendors were still selling food, fresh beans and grilled corn were everywhere, and the sidewalks were still filled with people.  Oddly, most locals dress very nicely in name-brand clothing.  Strange for a poor country.  Upon closer inspection, it turns out the the clothing were fakes, some better than others.  At one point, I saw a PUMA jacket that looked identical to a real one except that the letters were rearranged to spell PAMU.

Well that's way more than enough writing for one day.  Congrats to those of you who read the entire blog! My visit to Egypt lasted 10 days, which may or may not be good news to you! 


As a last minute decision, a group of us (Maddie, Stan, Jimmy, and myself) and some of the local RIT Dubai students (Tito, Ahmed, and Ariel) decided to go to a concert called Creamfields in Abu Dhabi.  (I'm super slow on posting this, the concert was on Dec. 9th). It was a huge dance event with 15 live DJ’s, the most popular being David Guetta, Above and Beyond, and AfroJack.  To top it off, the concert was being held in Ferrari World, the brand new indoor theme park built by Ferrari. 

Start to finish, the trip ended up being almost 24 hours. Talk about a full day! To get tickets, we had to ride on the metro to the other side of the city to a Virgin Megastore in the Dubai Mall which was selling them in limited quantities.  When it was our turn in line to buy tickets, the cashier announced that there was only one ticket left.  Fortunately, he looked around for a couple minutes and was able to find an entire stack of them from under the counter.  Tickets purchased, we headed back with the intention of napping for a few hours and then taking a bus to Abu Dhabi.  Plans changed when one of the local students (Ariel) offered us a ride to the concert immediately after we got back to the dorm. I had enough time to change my shirt, then we hopped in the car and arrived at Ariel’s house around 8.  We weren’t there for long but it was a nice surprise to see the house decked out in Christmas decorations.  From there, we drove to Ferrari World on Yas Island which is essentially a tourist island.  

Upon entering the park, we were greeted with the sight of dancers dressed up/painted as leopards, which was pretty creepy. The first DJ's started at 6pm but the lack of people made it immediately obvious that we were early.  DJ’s were performing in 3 different stages from 6pm-3am.  David Guetta was listed to perform at 1:30.  After a few hours a lot more people showed up (25,000 total) and the better DJ’s started performing.  Another strange/interesting sight occurred about halfway through the night.  Dancers, this time wearing feathers, shimmied their way up 15 foot high poles. They put straps around their thighs to keep them from falling off and then raised a hollow cloth sphere (a Chinese lantern) up from the ground so that it completely cover their body so that only their head was sticking out.  They began swaying back and forth to the music so that the entire pole was bending.  I thought for sure the poles were going to snap at some point because, well, poles aren’t supposed to do that.

Some point around this time we were notified that David Guetta wouldn’t be performing until 3:00.  The night went on until 3:00 drew near.  3:00 came and went and we were notified that Guetta was running late. At some point around 4am, the screens flashed “Abu Dhabi, are you ready?” Some people started booing and rumors were going around that he wouldn’t show up.  Finally, at 4:30, David Guetta appeared on stage, said “Man, that was a long flight!," then proceeded to blow everyone’s minds with his DJing skills.  The crowd immediately forgot about his being late and everyone had a great time until 6am when he announced that the park would not let him perform any longer.  By this time, the sun was starting to rise and we were pretty tired.  We ended up driving back to Ariel’s house, calling a cab (which really ended up just being an Audi), and got dropped off at the bus stop to Dubai.  Tito used his bartering skills to get our group a good deal on a small taxi van that was parked near the buses.  Arriving at the dorms at 9am, I proceeded to pass out and woke up at 5pm that night. All in all, it was a great time!