We exited Southeast Asia at the halfway point of our World Tour – not because we were tired of SEA (far from it!) but because it was time to move on to new adventures. We selected a destination that we thought would throw us a nice curveball after out time in the tropics… Egypt!
If you’ve been following our blog, you know we’re not “packaged tour” people, preferring to do things on our own. However, we’ve learned that in some instances it’s better to let someone else do the work and just enjoy the ride – which we did for our first week in Egypt. We were met at the Cairo airport upon our 6:30am arrival (17 hours after departing Singapore) with the first day scheduled to “chill by the pool” at our hotel and get accustomed to the heat. We felt comfortably acclimatized after our time in SEA, so we decided to jump right into ancient Egypt that morning.
After throwing our bags in our hotel room, we were off…for about 4 blocks…where we arrived at the Pyramids of Giza (you could actually see them from the front of our hotel). We won’t bother with detail about the Pyramids – they’re a far too familiar icon to pretty much everyone on the planet. However, what we were not prepared for was how big – HUGE – they are. Standing at the foot of the Great Pyramid with your hand resting on one of the millions of two-ton blocks of sandstone, looking up the peak, the enormity of the Pyramids takes over. And it’s not just enormity of size; it’s the recoil recognition that they were built thousands of years ago by hand – perhaps with the aid of oxen, but no more. It was in a sense humbling to see – to touch – what people were able to create so long ago without the aid of modern machinery (and, we were assured, without the aid of alien spaceships). What was also news to us was the Pyramids of Giza are only three of over one hundred (and counting) across the Western Desert. During the day, we visited Sakkara, home to Egypt’s first pyramid known as the “Step-Pyramid”. From this location, we could see another 15 pyramids spread out across the horizon, including some more very early attempts to master the perfect pyramid shape such as the “Bent Pyramid” (the top half slopes in at a more shallow angle) and the “Tower-Pyramid (which – you guessed – increases its angle halfway up). By the way, if you’re wondering, the ancient pharaoh’s desire for the perfect pyramid shape in which to house their mummified remains was due in part to the shape being the same as the sun’s (and therefore the god Ra’s) rays, and so as much of the surface area of the tomb would be bathed in these rays as possible.
Giza is on the western edge of Cairo. Cairo itself is not an attractive city. Home to 22M… or 25M… or 30M (depends what you read or who you talk to), it is crowded, congested with traffic and (as you would expect being sandwiched between two deserts) dusty; everything is sort of brown. Many of the buildings are rough, red-brown brick, with no outside finishing and rebar sticking out of the top. We later learned this is intentional. While unfinished on the outside, they are completely finished (and inhabited) on the inside; apparently the incomplete exterior means the building is not finished so no tax need be paid. One might wonder why this simple loophole wouldn’t be closed so the government could collect some badly needed tax to help restore the city’s crumbling infrastructure. However, like so many countries we’ve visited (and many others around our world), asking an economically bereft population to pay more money that they don’t have so that they could enjoy a better quality of life just isn’t possible. While not nearly as severe, there were a couple of elements of Cairo (and other parts of Egypt) that reminded us of India: the amount of garbage in the streets and in the river/canals (among other things – Warren counted 3 dead donkeys in one canal) and the lack of maintenance of, well… everything. If something breaks and you can get by without it being repaired, it doesn’t get fixed. If a repair is necessary, the bare minimum is done – so over time (just like India) things eventually fall into a general state of disrepair. Poverty is certainly not in short supply, but despite being told prior to our arrival that it is worse than India, we simply did not see anything that compared. We also had read about the conservative nature of the Egyptian people, particularly the 90% Muslim majority. We were surprised – pleasantly surprised - at how casual and relaxed everyone was (even with the ripples of the revolution still playing out). Yes, traditional dress reigned for the women (and maybe 50% of the men) and for the first time in our travels we saw people doing mid-day prayers in the street, airports and shops, but everything was just so…relaxed. We found our western media/cinema stereotypes vanishing before our eyes. And to makes things even better, we found that Egyptians have a wonderful sense of humour. They love to laugh at you, with you and at themselves. Yes, as “tourists”, most of them have an eye on your pocketbook and are hoping you’ll buy/eat/lodge… but even when it’s clear they’ll get nothing from you, their smiles and laughter usually don’t stop.
Since we had skipped ahead a day of our tour program, we used the next day to slide in an additional destination - Alexandria. We hadn’t intended to go to Alexandria as it is a 3 hour drive from Cairo and every travel advisory we read said to not travel by road. However, after a day of exploring areas of Cairo and learning about the revolution from our guide and other Egyptians, we felt the security risk was very low (we’ll come back to this shortly).
Alexandria is Egypt’s second largest city with 6M people spread along 20km of Mediterranean coast. While rich in history (its name comes from Alexander the Great), most of its ancient wonders are now gone, including the Pharos Lighthouse (one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World), the location of which is now home to the imposing Quaitbay Citadel, built to protect Alexandria’s harbour. Also gone is the Library of Alexandria, possibly the world’s first library, long since sacked and burned to the ground by Egypt’s enemies (but newly reborn as the Bibliotheque Alexandria – a marvel of both scholarly research and of modern architecture). We did visit Alexandria’s catacombs. While smaller than those in Rome, it was fascinating to see how the Roman’s blended their artistic and religious sensibilities with those of the Egyptians. This was apparently done as both a nod of respect by the Romans to the sophistication of the Egyptian civilization as well as a subversive attempt over many, many years to slowly win the Egyptians over to the Roman point of view.
Our drive to and from Alexandria was uneventful. However, a heightened sense of security is everywhere. For example, entering our hotel we were required to put our luggage through an x-ray machine and walk through a metal detector. Our car was not allowed to drive up to the front of the hotel; you are forced to stop and get out on the street, away from the lobby. Everywhere, there are police and military with submachine guns and AK47s, along with the occasional tank. However, we never once felt at risk during our time in Egypt. Despite what it looked like on the news, Cairo (and the rest of Egypt) did not burn down during the January revolution. There was violence in Cairo (apparently some 800 people died) but it was mostly contained within one small area of the city – and for the most part, the demonstrations were very peaceful. In other cities we visited, such as Aswan, the revolution was not much more than people hanging out in the town square until they got word that President Mubarak had succumbed and was stepping down. With Mubarak’s departure, government leadership had been ousted and now the Egyptian people need to see if things will in fact change. The dramatic difference between today and the upheaval 5-6 years ago that saw many tourists injured or killed is that the unrest at that time was designed to put pressure on the government by disrupting a primary economic input - tourism. Put simply, that’s not necessary right now as the government is in transition as demanded by the people. The reality is that while we are aware things could flare up, the Egyptian focus is internal and not on external forces such as tourism. And there has been an upside for us; with sensationalist media reporting scaring hordes of tourists away from Egypt, sites that would normally be packed with people were virtually empty, leaving us in some instances being the sole visitors to some of Egypt’s most famous temples and tombs.
We moved on from Cairo by air to Aswan, where we boarded a cruise ship for a three-day cruise down the Nile River to Luxor. Again, the impact of the media on tourism in Egypt was apparent. Of the 300+ cruise ships that operate on the Nile, only 17 were in operation while we were here – and none were filled to capacity. We sat back and enjoyed a leisurely cruise on the Nile, spending afternoons on the ship’s deck watching the desert drift slowly past. The vast starkness of the arid desert contrasting against the vivid green of the irrigated shores of the river was stunning. Given that the temperature during our time on the cruise averaged 46C, we were quite happy to be on an air-conditioned cruise ship rather than sailing on a felucca. Stopping several times along the way between Aswan and Luxor, we explored of some of the oldest, most impressive sites in Egypt, including the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Karnak and Luxor Temples. We were astounded by the massive scale of these ancient monuments – from solid granite monoliths forty meters high to tombs carved hundreds of meters down into the rock. Like the pyramids, their size cannot begin to be comprehended without seeing them in person. We both became fascinated by the hieroglyphic carvings and were surprised to learn that the temples and tombs had originally been colourfully painted. Any images we had previously seen showed them to be golden, red or brown sandstone. However, in reality, many of the tombs and temples we saw retained their vivid, beautifully painted images from 3,000 - 4,000 years ago, with a richness of hue that still takes one’s breath away.
Admittedly we are not history buffs. At most, we expected that it would be “interesting” to tour the sites of Giza and the Nile River. However, after walking through these ancient places and hearing stories of the pharaohs, the richness of their civilization and of the many cultures that impacted this country’s development, our appreciation for the “Cradle of Civilization” skyrocketed. With this in mind we returned to Cairo with a new found excitement as our plans included a visit to the famous Egyptian Museum. Unfortunately, yet another revolution / demonstration was taking place in the square in front of the museum, so the museum was closed for security reasons. However, we travelled into other areas of the city, including Old Cairo, getting a taste of local life. Throughout the city that day, one would never know that a “revolution” was taking place, and the next day as we drove by the Square on our way to the airport, there was little evidence that anything had happened.
As unlikely as it would seem, our decision to travel to Egypt was the result of two discussions. The first was with a Lufthansa pilot in Kochi, India, who told us about a Nile River cruise he had taken. The second was with a freedive instructor in Gili Trawangan in Indonesia. She told us that she had taken her instructor’s training in the Red Sea in Dahab, Egypt, and several other divers we had met throughout our travels had also talked about diving in Dahab. As we were intrigued with the idea of trying freediving, it played a key role in our decision to come to Egypt. So, from Cairo we flew to the Sinai Peninsula and traveled to the east coast to Dahab. Our one hour drive from the airport in Sharm El Sheikh took us through barren, craggy rocky mountains and arid desert with just a few tiny Bedouin villages to the dive-crazy town of Dahab. Situated across the Gulf of Aqaba from Saudi Arabia (which is temptingly close), a once sleepy backpackers’ hangout, Dahab’s popularity with divers grew along with the plethora of dive shops. Taking our usual approach of trying to leave our expectations behind, our appreciation for Dahab grew slowly over time. Yes – its town center is very touristy; yes – every shop and restaurant owner tries to draw you in every time you walk by, yes – there are more dive shops than there are Starbucks in Vancouver, but given a chance… Dahab has a way of getting under your skin.
The Red Sea is beautiful, with crystal - and we do mean crystal - clear water. However, beaches...not so much. You can spend your days lounging on pillows smoking shishas (which we tried – traditional apple flavour) in one of the zillion restaurants along the water, but we decided to save our lungs and spend our time pursuing some of the water-based activities.
To begin, we signed up for a free diving course and, although Warren was very sceptical that he would ever be able to hold his breath for more than 30 seconds, in two days we were free diving to over 10 meters and Warren was able to hold his breath for over 2 ½ minutes! (Note: For our loved ones reading this – please be assured that we are not on a mission to free dive to great depths. Our intention for doing this was just to increase our abilities and enjoyment for snorkelling.) With that under our belts, and having seen for ourselves the amazing visibility under water, we signed up to do some scuba diving. On our first day, we saw a hawksbill turtle, octopi, moray eel, lionfish and much more sea life along with some incredible underwater terrain. The most famous dive site in the Red Sea is the Blue Hole, literally a hole in the coral reef right off shore the drops straight down to 110 meters. We couldn’t leave without giving it a try. We were required to do a little bit of study to up our certification to include deep dives – up from a maximum depth of 18m to 30m. It turned out to be even better than we hoped as, along with a crazy amount of aquatic life and surreal terrain, we were able to experience the amazing “floating in space” sensation of being suspended in water with no bottom visible below. We are not yet “dive crazy”; however, we are certainly enjoying our time under water.
Egypt has been a remarkable experience; jaw-dropping historic sites, starkly beautiful desert scenery, the hypnotic blues of the Red Sea, the lilting call to prayers, women on the beach covered head-to-toe in black with only their eyes uncovered, men walking around with machine guns…and laughter…lots and lots of laughter. It is this last one that is the most impactful. Egypt is struggling. On top of its previous political and economic challenges, the revolution (and the media) has scared away the tourists, creating even more struggles. Yet through it all, the Egyptians keep smiling and laughing…at us, with us and at themselves.
Tomorrow we leave Egypt behind and seek out some new adventures. Istanbul, here we come…
- Thanks to the Bangles http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWP-AsG5DRk