Holiday getaway in Egypt

Aleta Fimbres 09/01/2009

Egypt is an absolutely memorable trip to take and place to be in.

Holiday getaway in EgyptOld and new world collide yet still live side by side in a repressed society where the need to explore out and experience the ‘sins’ of the western world is a great desire of the younger generation. To see more, feel more, want more is what the locals and tourists reverberate at the same time.

Locals want to learn from the foreigners and foreigners want to go through the everyday life of the locals. A place of an ancient civilisation that ruled the world of yesteryear, at one time rich in history and culture that still exists today despite the Islamic influence in the nation.

I didn’t see any poverty or much begging and yet the country is considered third world. Beautiful or ‘Nefer’ is only one of the ways to describe this magnificent country. ‘Neferegypt’ (beautiful women are referred to as Nefer in the old times followed by their name as in the names of goddesses and wives of pharaohs like Nefertiti or Nefertari) is the appropriate thing to say.

Here’s a digestible run down of a great holiday and my experiences shared with you. I highly recommend it to you for a holiday getaway!

Cairo is the hustle and bustle of Egypt. Some call it the run down version of Dubai. Chaotic roads with buses, cars, horse and donkey driven carriages and people interweaving, packed next to each other moving with ease and beeps, toots and horns from vehicles make the soundtrack to everyday travelling. With 22 million commuters crossing each other everyday in a population of 18 million alone in the capital, traffic jams and people watching take on a whole new meaning.

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The old agricultural world stuck in a time of village life and the new modern fast paced world moving forward with the trends definitely co exists equally in Cairo. My family insisted it was a lot like India especially when it came to traffic and smells. Pedestrians are all over the place and road rules don’t exist. Crossing the road is an adventure in itself. It’s completely magnoon (crazy in Arabic)!

Cairo is also a city that doesn’t sleep. The night streets are just as crowded as the day ones and a lot goes on within the night life. Cafes with shisha, (that tasted smooth and silky), food and shops open really late or are 24 hours. Try an Egyptian beverage called Sahlab which is a milk and banana based drink.

The whole Arab world apparently likes this brew that started in Lebanon. It’s a warm infusion, sweet tasting with a roasted seed, called sem sem, flavour to it; something like pistachio but still not quite.

Sugarcane is another favourite thirst quencher and it’s soothingly cold. Walking on the streets is never dull, although do be careful. I sprained my ankle with the towerous pavements they have. There are clubs, called discos, which can get expensive to get in as they are mostly catered to foreigners. Alcohol is not common and only available in hotels and discos.

Also, do not confuse discos with night clubs. Night clubs are the equivalent to clubs with lady dancers you tip (much like the Hindi pubs) and a no go area for singletons especially females. Travelling the streets at night is recommended with a male companion. Egypt is a very safe place but common sense can never go amiss. It’s still an Islamic country with traditional thoughts when it comes to women who are alone.

The author enjoying a break from the heat in an underground tunnelTo go to Egypt is to go to the pyramids. The Giza Pyramids are magnificent. The first pyramids were the step pyramids, kind of like the trial pyramids before the real thing, in the Saqqara area and the Giza district was the old capital during the Pharaoh times.

Giza has 99 pyramids, three of which are the main huge ones next to the legendary Sphinx. Although my reaction to the pyramids seemed somewhat mild, I blame it on the desensitising of seeing it on the telly all the time, the Sphinx didn’t seem to be as grand as I expected.

I thought it would be bigger but it was still an experience to witness one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The one great thing we did was the trek into a tomb.

Walking into a tunnel with your back bent forwards, walking through another tunnel where you felt you couldn’t breathe and then down another set of tunnels that is half your height (and I’m short!) to get into a room where an old stone coffin is and a mummy used to be, was certainly not the goal at the end of the tunnel I expected.

Despite the “that’s it?” feeling at the end of the trek within, the trek itself was a commendable experience. The trek back up and coming out into fresh air made the whole trudge worth while.

After that, a camel and horse ride round the pyramids is a beautiful thing to do although beware of being conned or persuaded into tipping and make sure when you ask for a camel, you get it! (long story…)

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is something like the calibre of the British Museum in London, for those of you familiar with it. A must see with a summary of Egyptian mythology all under one dome. King Tutankhamen’s treasures were the main scene in the museum and it’s astonishing how much gold that existed back then.

rhamses sphinxKing Tut’s mummy mask alone weighed 14kg in gold. The chests where coffins were kept, stone tombs and even an ancient condom (!) were amongst the artefacts displayed. With so much wealth and material present in ancient times, it’s no wonder why thievery back then was so common.

Every European country that passed through Egypt wanted to own a piece of it and they surely did. Go to the British Museum to see what I mean – one example, the Rosetta Stone, where a lost language was found by a Frenchman, and now half the original rock is in the British Museum while the other half is in the Egyptian Museum!

How’s that for thievery… but seeing the real thing beats it all! Luxor seemed more the place to be than Cairo.

It also seemed to be the posher version of Cairo. The Karnak Temple was my highlight for the whole trip. An enormous 70 hectares of land filled with towering pillars and columns, hieroglyphics to the skies on almost every surface of stone and carvings of all the Gods and Pharaohs and their stories put together.

Karnak was more breathtaking for me than the pyramids and that is one place I completely recommend to see. It took an hour and a half to walk the area and see what we could and that was done in a hurry as the older counterparts of our group were waiting for us to come back and collect their tired bodies.

I could have spent a whole day there and still not get tired of exploring or have seen every single detail. Such beauty, such wonder, such awe, I’m still taken away by it when I think of Karnak till now. Something so great like the pyramids that cannot be reconstructed today and the temples makes you wonder who the more sophisticated period of humankind is.

All these towering enormous constructions to the gods and for the gods that still attract people thousands of years later makes you think if they knew something a bit more about belief than we do today.Aswan was another beautiful place much like Luxor.

Shopping was great with lots of cafes and places to hang out. One big highlight was the Aswan Dam that is 40km long and runs into Sudan. The water that this dam holds in Lake Nasar is 163 billion cubic meters and is responsible for all agriculture in Egypt. The wow factor went off the scale over here. Abu Simbel, a 3 hour drive from Aswan, is commonly known as those 4 huge statues, placed in the middle of nowhere, that are constantly featured in National Geographic magazines and travel channels.

Step pyramidSunrise was the time to get there and the view was out of this world. It was awesome, you are but a tiny speck next to these four wonders of art, and to imagine the painstaking construction is beyond belief and reason.

The River Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan briefly stopping in Esna and Edfu was also another highlight.

The boat ride was continuously filled with spectacular views, and to be out in nature with all that fresh air made you feel you were really in Africa.

Whether it was along the roads or the river, for a certain distance the greenery, such as along the river, would be a rich deep green and then it would suddenly stop and there would only be sand. Along the roads, one side of the road would be a profound green and then on the other side a complete desert.

This was significant throughout the country. The Valley of the Kings seemed to go on for miles and miles on this cruise, and you could see why the name was so appropriate for such a valley. The valley seems to surround the country. It was a romantic ride even if you’re single, and a real relaxing part of the holiday. To sun bathe and absorb all the sights and sounds was too good to be true. One significance of the journey was going up river.

The River Nile travels northwards meaning upwards, not common for rivers, and at one bit our boat had to go through a Loch. This is where one part of the river is lower than the next part and the boat has to go through an alley like area where it stays and waits for water to be filled so that the boat rises to the correct level of the next part of the river.

Karnak carvingWhen this is complete, the boat flows out of the loch into the higher part of the river. Very educational. Egyptian shopping. Luxor was where we bought our papyrus art.

Papyrus is the paper made from the papyrus plant used back then for hieroglyphic writings and drawings. Mohammed, a Nubian from carriage #276, was our guide for the night shops, and we were brought, by horse driven carriage of course, to a shop that had everything Egyptian.

From papyrus illustrations of every ancient creature in Egyptian mythology to souvenirs of every kind, like photo albums with ancient depictions on their covers, to mugs to figurines, was under this roof.

Prices were also reasonable at this particular shop as it was only opened to tourists once a week and you get discounts since you are brought there by the local transport. Bargaining is an integral part of shopping in Egypt.

It can get tiring shop after shop, but in this particular one, cheap prices weren’t too hard to get especially when you’re a ‘modern’ woman and kissing on the cheeks becomes currency!Jewellery was my highlight of shopping bliss.

From the bazaar of Khan Al Khalili in Cairo to the Precious Stones shop along the pier opposite Luxor Temple where I got my hieroglyphic ring, jewellery was in abundance for me. Tahrir Square in Cairo has streets running parallel to each other dedicated to certain apparel such as Talaab Haab Street where all the shoes, bags and leather goods were sold and other streets specialising in winter clothes.

Most shops there allow price negotiating while some have fixed prices. My favourite spots were the bazaars in Aswan and Cairo. Hassling from shop owners is common, but haggling is great. You can get a great price and if you have an Egyptian friend with you, you can get Egyptian prices (thanks Mahmoud!). Egyptian food is mainly cold, from cold bread to hummus, falafel, lentils and potatoes as starters. The meat is mostly grilled with choices between chicken and beef. Avoid the local water and salads.

As there is not much fibre in their diet, expect to get runny, soft bowels. The restaurants we were brought to were mainly tourist spots and even though they served Egyptian food, it sometimes felt as if it wasn’t truly authentic.

The only street food I tasted was a shawarma (shredded grilled chicken stuffed into pita with salad and sauces), which I grabbed in Al Khalili bazaar and came in a normal bun, though (when I asked for pita, the server looked at me funny). The best food we received was on the River Nile cruise where we had something different everyday and my favourite on that trip was a beef stew that had flavours which were too good to my tongue.

karnak on the nile

Their barbequed chicken laced with plentiful of herbs was delicious too although spice wasn’t in any dish. Saffron is sold in bazaars but not used in food.

We Asians got to have spice! Some restaurants that were good, other than the boat food on the MS Rosetta, was Fish Boat Abou Zeid Restaurant on Alexandria Desert Road in Giza, Cairo, Soiree Restaurant and Cafe in Salah Salem Street in Cairo and Athineos Alexander Greek and Seafood Restaurant in Saad Zaghlul Square in Alexandria.

Their winters (December to February) can get cold since heating is practically non-existent. They are rather ill equipped with warmth in winter as they only experience a few months of it in the year and it’s not feasible to have heaters, resulting in sleeping in cold rooms every night. Indoors can get chilly, so wrap up warm. The day consists of a hot sun with gorgeous blue skies and a pleasant cool breeze. If you’re not warmly wrapped, it can get annoying in the nights, but the days are warm and sunny.

every country that passed through europe wanted to own a piece of it and they surely didThe weather is still pleasant otherwise. The further south you go the warmer it gets, so nights in Luxor and especially Aswan weren’t as cold as it was in Cairo.

Egyptian men deserve a paragraph of their own. They are very persistent and love foreign women. The younger generation are rather pleasant on the eye.

Offers of camels are the norm as it’s their way of wanting to marry you (my biggest offer was 150 camels and 20 chickens!). Tips for girls who are feeling down in the dumps about their looks; go to Egypt to have the men falling at your feet! Expect to be stared at all the time even by the women.

Looking Indian confused the poor Egyptians as they weren’t fully sure how to place me and what to expect of my family and I. They are still a friendly lot, and amongst the perverts (I have to be harsh – my guide kept constantly staring at my chest area) I was fortunate to have met a lovely young man who aided me in my bargaining tactics and was fantastic company.

Everyone on the boat thought he was my guide, ya, my night guide! Still, I can’t complain much, I did fully enjoy the attention from the men.

An amazing trip with a few hitches here and there, but still fantastically worth while. Egypt is one place you have to go to at least once in your life even though I am so going back to see what I missed again. The money is cheap for us, most things are affordable and the authenticity of the city is endearing. You can have two different trips – the real nitty gritty of Egyptian life staying in affordable hotels and going completely local or doing the rich version in 6 star hotels being driven around, and yet still managing to be touched by the beauty in the chaos of a magnificent country.

Go and have an adventure. Salaam!

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