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22 April 2011

Giza's Need Excitement

A trip to Egypt isn’t complete without a visit to one of the seven wonders of the world, the pyramids of Giza. For 100 Egyptian pounds ($16) each, C and I managed to get a driver to drive us around for a day.

Our driver picked us up from central Cairo and dropped us off in a quiet street in Giza. He walked us into a small room and together, with his dear friend, a camel-tour operator, tried to rip us off. They told us that after travelling all the way to Giza, we could only access the pyramids by camel, or the more expensive option, limousine. We were agitated and knew this was part of a well-rehearsed profit-making scheme. The driver had strategically driven us to an extremely tourist-unfriendly area – there were no signs of the pyramids, other tourists, or anything in English. In other words, we didn’t want to be stranded here.

Our driver dropped us off in this street.  This was where our camel tour begun.
After bartering and paying about a quarter of the original obscene camel-riding fee, we found ourselves at the back of the building surrounded by unhealthy-looking camels. It was at this point that I deeply regretted my decision to ride these camels. I had ridden camels in Morocco just weeks before this adventure, and knew that the ones in Giza were horribly neglected – they seemed weak, malnourished and heavily scarred. Nevertheless, as we reached the desert plateau overlooking the Giza pyramids, it was a breathtaking sight. As our camel guide dropped us off at the site, he unsurprisingly tried to scam us again, asking us for an extra payment.

One of the three large pyramids of Giza
One of the things to be careful about in Egypt are scams. Every time you sign up for something and agree on a price, there will undoubtedly be a reason why more money needs to be paid over at a later time. In our instance, this applied to taxi rides, tours, driver’s fees and the like. The extra payments will be for reasons such as fictional road tolls, road taxes and additional service fees.
The Sphinx
A large pack of tourist buses were crowded together between the pyramids. As we walked around the pyramids, security officers warned us not to get too close. At this site, there are nine pyramids altogether. Each one is worth marvelling at. How they were constructed, I still don’t know. Unfortunately, there was no information regarding the history of the pyramids at the site. The famous Sphinx was only a few hundred metres away. It was tiny compared to the Great Pyramid of Giza and was somewhat disappointing considering how well publicised it is.
The Red Pyramid of Dahshur
Later that afternoon we drove to Dahshur to see the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid. As you would expect from its name, the Bent Pyramid has bent sides. It looks funny, as if it were made by some bored kids who were no good at Jenga. I managed to delve into the centre of the Red Pyramid through a small tunnel. It was dark, hot and tiny inside…and the smells were putrid. I had never felt so claustrophobic in my life. It was an anti-climax once I made it to the end of the tunnel; there was a small room with boulders scattered around.

This is the entrance to the tunnel leading into the Red Pyramid...it's tiny!
We finished off the day with a quick visit to the Step Pyramid of Djoser.  That's a pyramid with six giant steps on each of its walls.

15 April 2011

Hangin' Lo in Cairo - Part 1

The first thing to notice about Cairo is that the city is alive. There are people, cars and bikes everywhere, anytime. Without lanes marked on many of the city’s roads, cars and bikes vie for their share of the roads. As a result of this, the city is engulfed with the sounds of incessant honking and some of the worst traffic congestion in the world.


The air of Cairo has an enveloping profound warmth in it. This warmth is certainly visible; it's orange and its tinge permeates through every inch of the city. It’s comprised of smog and dirt. I struggle to fathom the adverse health impacts of this toxic concoction on Cairo’s people. I was once told while living in Hong Kong that the air pollution is so bad that spending one day there is equivalent to smoking 7 cigarettes a day. In Cairo, I believe the air is as bad as smoking 7 packs of cigarettes a day.


Another thing to note about Cairo is that there are incomplete buildings everywhere. It’s a common sight to see a building lacking a roof. I was told that the reason for this is because of a loophole in the tax system: an Egyptian can avoid paying taxes of up to 6,000 Egyptian pounds on their building if they don't complete the building. This doesn’t stop locals from occupying/running businesses on every floor below the top floor of the building!

As mentioned in my last post, the food in Egypt is brilliant. In Cairo we followed some of the recommendations in Cindy’s Lonely Planet guide. Before I continue, I should mention that, to my surprise, there were hardly any tourists in Cairo. For example, we were the only occupants in our hostel which was highly rated on Hostelworld. Being tourists, it was quite nerve-racking to walk into a restaurant full of locals. There were generally no English menus nor English-speaking staff. For our first meal, in a restaurant hidden upstairs to a bakery, everybody stared at us (in particular, they stared at Cindy). She felt uncomfortable but I teased her about it. We ordered enough food to feed a family. We tried a few different types of foul and salads, as well as a giant pizza-like dish. It was delicious.


 We followed another recommendation one night and went to a fast food joint in a shopping centre. We got lost several times before finding the shopping centre. It’s tricky finding places with Arabic names when you aren’t Arabic-literate. As we approached this particular shopping centre, we lined up to get our bags screened and walked through metal detectors just like you would at an airport – this is apparently normal in Cairo’s shopping centres. We then discovered the best fast food joint in the world. They offered a large variety of foul, salads, grilled meat and all sorts of other things I can’t even describe. There were no English menus so we just ordered some grilled chicken and anything that had a cool name. Whilst this fast food joint was not so fast, it was well worth the wait.


Following Cairo, we went on a trip to the pyramids and to the Sahara Desert. But that’s for next time.

08 April 2011

Hurghada

After a brief stay in a small town on the French/Swiss border, I was so happy to leave behind the frosty weather of Europe to arrive in Egypt. Upon landing at Hurghada airport, we were forced into a large bustling hall where bank and customs officials vied for our business. After purchasing a cheap shiny sticker (ie. an Egyptian visa) for my passport, we experienced an awkward taxi ride to our hotel where our taxi driver continuously argued with us over the agreed price of our lift.

It didn’t take long for us to notice the ghost town feel of this beach resort town on the Red Sea. A small number of run down, abandoned shops and loitering locals filled the streets of Hurghada, giving the place a bleak feel during this off-season. We visited some amazing beachside resorts whereby dozens of neatly placed deck chairs were left deserted. The desolate resorts, normally home to massive parties of beach-goers, were instead met by strong, eerie gusts of wind.  This didn't stop us from dipping our feet in the Red Sea and running around on one of the town's many beaches.


Notwithstanding the lack of tourists in this city, there was still an abundance of colourful and tacky tourist shops in the surrounding streets. Every time a cab drove past us it would endlessly (and hopelessly) beep at us in the hope we would hail it.


The food in this place (or Egypt in general) is amazing. In was in Hurghada where I discovered one of my new favourite meals, foul, a rich cuisine made from beans. During our night in Hurghada we ate at a strange family-owned restaurant that was decked out in Spongebob Squarepants d├ęcor.