07 September 2011

The Capital of the Arab World


A name that conjures up visions of spice filled markets, minarets, mosques and pyramids. A civilization with a history as long as any other on Earth. Just thinking about going to Egypt overwhelms the senses...The Nile, pharoahs, sphinxes, mummies....

Throw in a good amount of nervousness and caution about visiting a country in the midst of a revolution, with no government in office...and you get one hell of a lot to think about.

....but with plane tickets at a third of their usual prices, screw caution!....off to Egypt I went!

View of Cairo from the hostel

I arrived on an early flight from Bangkok and was very happy to find a driver from my hostel waiting for me. The last thing I wanted to do after a long flight, was figure out how to get downtown in a city of 17 million people...in 100+ degree heat.

I picked the Wake Up Cairo hostel partly due to its unbeatable location downtown across the street from the Egyptian Museum, partly due to its extremely reasonable rates, and mostly due to the reviews I read online.

I have stayed in a LOT of hostels....everywhere from Denmark to Malaysia...but I have never read such glowing reviews of a hostel. They all said the same thing. At first look the building is pretty run down, its in a great location and the staff are the best in the world.

Really? Well...I'll be the judge of that!

View of the Nile from the hostel
So I get to the hostel, and the first thing I think is "What a shithole of a building", a 15 story or so old high rise near the Nile. As I read online, the elevator feels like an amusement park ride that is gonna snap off the cable and plummet to the basement at any second.

I get off the elevator at the 10th floor, walk into the hostel and am immediately smacked in the face by super over the top but genuine friendliness. My room wasn't ready, would I like to take some tea in the common room? Why sure. Thats where I snapped the pictures above from.

For the next 3 days, I had excellent conversations with some of the warmest, most sincere and nicest people I have encountered anywhere. They couldn't have been more helpful. Places to eat, cautions on scams, arranging sightseeing.

One night I was in the lounge by myself (the hostel was pretty empty due to the lack of tourists since the revolution) when the owner came in with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red. We sat, chatted and had an all around nice evening.

I could go on and on about all of the staff...I just wish I had thought to take pictures!

My first day out in Cairo was a basic reconnoitering of my surroundings and a quick trip through the Egyptian Museum. If you have ever seen a display of Egyptian artifacts, multiply that by 1000 and thats what this Museum looks like.

After hours of mindnumbing ancient Egyptian info in the stuffy museum (no air conditioning, really Egyptian Museum...really?) I asked one of the guys at the hostel for a lunch recommendation. As usual, he came through with a gem. He sent me on a small adventure down the street with a note written in Arabic to a place that sells only Koshari.

Koshari is probably the most popular and common dish in Egypt. Its cheap and available all over the place. Its a mix of rice, macaroni, chick peas, lentils, spciy tomato sauce, garlic, and vinegar.

So I walk into this place, that only sells Koshari, with a note that says "Koshari" and the name of the place. Noone speaks English and it basically looks like a group of 40 guys trying to rob the place. It turns out, you pay at the register (which I did, 30 cents or something crazy), then take your recepit to the counter and bully your way to the front, yell and scream and wave your receipt until someone hands you a container of Koshari.

I watched for a moment...picked my spot, then dove in using a combination of the element of surprise, my superior size and the fact that everyone was looking at me like "What the hell is he doing here"

Victory was mine!

Luckily, the dude at the hostel had warned me about the fiery sauce that comes on the side..and suggested that I might not want to dump it in. I tasted the sauce and agreed with him....that sauce is now forever nicknamed the Fiery Sauce from Satan's Underpants...no way was I eating that stuff...no way.

After lunch, I made a trip down to Tahrir Square, the center of the revolution and site of constant protests, which was only a short walk from the hostel. At the square I was immediately confronted by civilian "security" guys...young guys making sure no police or spies slip into the square. After a tense minute or two of them demanding my passport, I made a graceful exit and went back to the hostel. Once again, the helpful staff explained the whole deal to me, and said it is ok to show them my passport and even offered to take me down there.

Undeterred and now emboldened, I went back to the square, showed the local toughs my passport and then wandered around the epicenter of the Egyptian Revolution. Complete mind bender...scary-ish, awesome, amazing, empowering...It was a great experience. Noone really hassled me and I knew better than to start snapping pics...so I just enjoyed being there.

Good for them. A great taste of history in the making.

On Day 2, I had arranged (for $25) a full day driving tour of the Pyramids at Giza and some outlying areas. My guide was Mohammed, who according to the hostel review forums is the coolest dude in all of Egypt.

They forums were right.

Mohammed....super cool Egyptian tour dude extraordinaire
So, heading out on a full day of driving and sightseeing with someone you don't know can be a full on disaster. It can easily ruin a trip. Getting in the car with Mohammed was like getting in a car with an old friend who was excited I finally got a chance to visit him in Cairo. He couldn't wait to show me around.

As soon as we started driving, he was rattling off info about everything...that buiding, that citadel, the aqueducts, this district, the crusades, Saladin...you name it. It was like a condensed moving history lesson.

At one point he says to me "We are going to go to the Red Pyramid first, then the Stepped Pyramid...they look different than those over there"...so i look out the window to my right...and this is what I saw.

Holy Crap! Stop the car!

Thats it...my first look at the Pyramids. I was so engrossed in our conversation, I DIDN'T EVEN NOTICE THE FREAKIN' PYRAMIDS!

We stopped and took a coupe of pics...talked about the Pyramids..and off we went.

First major stop: The Red Pyramid.

We get to the Red Pyramid and Mohammed tells me why I am so lucky to be in Egypt now....no tourists!

I had the whole Pyramid to myself...thats right...my own PERSONAL Pyramid!

"Oh yeah, you can climb up and go inside if you like" Mohammed says...."Hell yeah I like!"...he said it would be a tough climb though. I thought to myself "Whatever...I'm not some old , out of shape senior citizen pal!"

Then I got to the entrance to the pyramid tomb halfway up and I knew what he meant.

A 3 foot square tunnel that goes 200 feet down into the Pyramid's burial chambers....he was talking about the climb out!

Few things in my life have completely freaked me out...but basically crawling down into a pyramid...alone....and hanging out...alone....in a pyramid...was surreal. It was an odd experience. I was only down there for 20 mins and I was already talking to myself just to keep my sanity. "Well...I could put a sofa over here...and maybe a tapestry over there"....I gotta get the hell out of here!

As soon as I got out of the Pyramid and back to the car, a busload of Japanese tourists pulled up...see ya later suckers! Enjoy my Pyramid!

It was already sweltering by 11am, so Mohammed stopped at a roadside stand to get us cool glasses of sugarcane juice....thats right, sugarcane juice! Its a very popular side of the road thing not only in Egypt but much of Asia. After all, you just need some sugarcane and a press (ice and lemon optional)...boom, sugarcane juice!

Cool, thick, creamy sugarcane juice...power meter, recharge!
 We drove around the country outside Cairo and Giza. I was just taking it all in. Egypt is a truly beautiful place.

We also had a short stop while a train crossed the road. Its amazing how green it is in an area surrounded by desert.

Next stop, the Pyramids at Giza.

The Giza Necropolis on a plateau 15 miles southwest of downtown Cairo, is probably the most famous and important of all archaeological sites in the world. It is a massive complex of ancient monuments, cemeteries, workers villages, The Sphinx and of course the three Great Pyramids.

Usually this area is smothered in tourists....but not during the Revolution! Wooooooohoooooooo!

There were approximately only 100 tourists in this huge area....how lucky is that?

I met an English guy who was also sight seeing alone. Once we were both convinced that neither of us was trying to scam the other (scams on tourists are sadly very common in Egypt), we hiked around the Necropolis together.

The Pyramids are...well, amazing. The oldest and last surviving member of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World.

Breathtakingly beautiful. Marvels of engineering...you just can't stop trying to wrap your mind around how they were built.......4500 years ago! What! I can't understand! Owwwww my head!

English Guy (Can't remember his name) and I were also giddy with the fact that we had them basically to ourselves. We didn't know what to do...we just stood in silence.

We also of course took loads of pics, and took pics for each other.

Pyramids are really big....I'm just sayin.
It was an amazing day...in an amazing place.

Thanks to Egypt and everyone who made my visit so very special.

(...especially Mohammed)


Carolyn said...

Awesome Chris! I envy your travel spirit.

Tina Haltigan said...

love your stories chris...felt like i was there

Beautyhairem said...

Your photos are incredible. I love them ALL

Anonymous said...

Since I know that I will never, ever go to almost any of the places you have visited; I love seeing and reading about your visits. If I get to Italy at least, I'll die happy!