Our Egyptian Adventure


We just got back from an incredible week in Egypt and I have been dying to pen down my thoughts before the trip becomes a distant memory.

Naren has always loved all things Egyptian (Pyramids, Tombs, bodies in varying states of decay (read: Mummies) etc), and since we have a couple of friends living in Cairo right now on work attachment, we thought this was the perfect opportunity to visit them AND to explore Cairo.

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Sorry couldn’t resist.

We got a really good deal on air tickets to Cairo on Qatar, with a 4 hour layover in Doha. The flight there was completely unremarkable, save for the fact that it was our first flight together. I learnt a few things about my darling husband on the flight that I thought I should share as a public service announcement for anyone intending to travel with him in the near future.

  1. He must, under no circumstances, be disturbed while he is watching movies on the in-flight entertainment system. He typically has a quota of 2 to 3 movies, depending on how long the flight is, and you will be rewarded with a the dirtiest of looks should you infringe on this sacred ritual.
  2. Ok actually that’s all. He isn’t all that exciting :p

The Hamad International Airport in Doha was actually pretty awesome. Its huge and they have  a much wider range for Duty Free Shopping compared to Singapore, and the prices were much better too.The one exciting bit about the airport was this huge…thing…that we saw in the middle of the airport.

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People were actually morbidly fascinated with this, and I later found out (from a kind soul on Facebook) that this is actually the Freedom Bear of Doha. When expats here see it they rejoice for it means they have passed through customs and can go on their holiday. I suppose I do see how it can grow on you.

We landed in Cairo slightly past noon, right in the midst of a sandstorm. Our friend had arranged transportation for us, and so we could immediately leave the airport and leave for their home. I can safely say that my first impression of Egypt is one that I wont ever forget. The cab ride passed by in a blur because I was so incredibly fascinated by the chaos that was Egypt. The traffic situation was incredible. There was such a massive jam in the middle of the day, and NO one signaled when they were changing lanes or turning. The magic of it all is that the drivers seemed to know exactly what they were doing, constantly hitting their horns and maneuvering their way around the cars.

As one of our guides succinctly put it…

“When you drive in Egypt, you need 3 things. A good horn, a good brake and good luck”

Also, we found that practically every building we saw was brown. Dark brown, light brown, medium brown, brown brown…you get the drift. And this is mostly so as to minimize maintenance, especially after sandstorms and the dust.

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Zamalek in West Cairo, where we stayed. It is an Island, surrounded by the Nile River, and is a rather affluent district.

Our friends’ apartment was huge. OK huge is an understatement. It was enormagigahuge. We were told that Egyptians typically had large families and hence most apartments there are huge. The apartment also had a really nice view of the Nile River.

The most exciting bit about the first day was during dinner. See when we reached Cairo, our driver told us that it only rains in Cairo 3 to 4 times a year, and for 5 minutes max. So restaurants and most other places in Cairo are not quite prepared for rain. CAIRO as a whole isn’t prepared for rain, because they do not even have drainage systems on their roads.

So when we went out for dinner at this nice restaurant by the Nile, guess what happened? It RAINED. It was a storm that lasted for much longer than 5 minutes, and the restaurant, which had a roof made out of a white tent, was completely caught off guard. It was incredible how brownish water just pushed its way through holes in the tent and drenched some of the customers. There was loads of screaming and running involved, and because it wasn’t exciting enough, they also had to switch off the electricity.

We decided to make a beeline for the entrance (we had already finished most of the food anyways), and Naren was tagging behind us dragging along his Shisha thingy, determined to get the last few puffs in. It was insanely hilarious and one hell of a start to the trip.

Egyptians

The first thing I noticed about Egyptians is how damn good-looking the women are. Its like one huge massive Ms Universe competition, except nobody is aware that they are involved. The women have the most beautiful eyes, gorgeous smiles, and are just, in general, breathtaking. And the best part is, they don’t really know how beautiful they are, and so come across as being very humble and unassuming. I also spent the week stupidly blabbering on about how I can see how these women are descendants of Cleopatra, but I then found out that Cleopatra is of Greek origins. GO figure.

Egyptians in general are really very nice people, and for some reason, they ADORE Indians.  Probably because they worship Bollywood and Amitabh Bachan. When we were in Hurghada, people kept asking us if we were from India, and when we tried to explain that no, we were from Singapore, they just looked disinterested and walked off. When we finally realized no one there knew where Singapore was, and decided to just say yes we are from India, people’s demeanor towards us completely changed and they looked at us with reverence. We soon caught on, and Naren started telling people his name was Amitabh.

I also had girls clustering around me in the Egyptian museum wanting to take photographs with me. Something very similar happened in China, where random people stopped me in the streets wanting to take photos OF me. However, the difference is, in China I felt like an animal on display in the Zoo, and in Egypt, I felt like a Goddess.

Speaking of Naren, Egyptians are so friendly, that he actually thought the airport security was trying to hug him when he reached out to pat him down for a security check. What transpired next was an awkward moment where Naren reached out to reciprocate the ‘hug’ and the security guy quickly made it clear he was just checking him. (I FB-ed this story, but i intend to blog it, and write about it in my diary and maybe engrave it on the walls in my house, because i don’t want to ever forget this story. My great-grandchildren will know about this.

Hurghada

Although it was a really short trip, we were told that we HAD to squeeze in a visit to one of the red sea resorts in Hurghada. We had to take an hour long internal flight (Egyptian Air), and it was one of the most terrifying plane rides of my life. The plane was SO bumpy (even without any turbulence) and for the first time, I actually felt nauseated during a plane ride.

Hurghada itself reminded me a little of Bintan in that it was a tourist town filled to the brim with resorts. However, the sad state of tourism in Egypt meant that many resorts were in different states of completion, with most abandoned mid-way.

We stayed in Tropitel Sahl Hasheesh. a 5 star resort and it was one of the last few resorts in the stretch furthest from the airport. Security was reasonably tight, and they had various checkpoints before we could reach the resort.

The entrance to Tropitel.

Our 3 days in Hurghada were magical. They gave us the honeymoon room, which had a spectacular view of the red sea. We couldn’t tell where the sparkling blue-green waters ended and where the skies began.

We took the all inclusive package, which meant that all meant that all meals and most beverages were included in our package. We spent most of our time eating, lazing by the pool and taking long walks along the beach. In the evenings, after dinner, we spent time in the sports bar. I think the resort is a must go for anyone who visits Egypt. Its a respite from the chaos of Cairo, and you get to enjoy a much more peaceful and calm side of Egypt.

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We took long walks on this pier every day, sometimes more than twice.
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The view from our room
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A view of our resort from the end of the pier during sunset.

Shopping @ Khan El Khalili

When we got back to Cairo, we made a trip to down to Khan El Khalili. It is a huge shopping district in Islamic Cairo, and is mostly geared towards tourists. It is filled with shops selling souvenirs, jewellery, papyrus paintings, coffee houses, restaurants and street food vendors. While the place wasn’t as crowded as we thought it might be, we couldn’t feel all that happy because it meant that the vendors were really struggling to sell off their goods. After the terrorist attacks in 2005 and 2009, the number of tourists to Egypt in general, and Khan El Khalili in particular took a plunge and the despair in the faces of the vendors reflected this.

Otherwise, we found the market to be a delight and loved getting lost in the little lanes and alleys.

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Glass stained lamps. I wanted to get about 50 of these for my house because I couldn’t keep my eyes off them, but unfortunately, the wiring for the bulbs was just messy and I couldn’t deal with it.

For us, the highlight of the market was the Papyrus paintings we saw. The paintings were so intricate, with each of them depicting a scene found in the ancient tombs. The vendors were more than happy to regale us with the stories behind the paintings and to explain to us the symbolism behind them. We went crazy buying paintings for the house and for our friends and were SO excited when we manage to match the paintings to actual artifacts when we visited the Egyptian Museum.

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Glow in the dark paintings.
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Authentic Papyrus paintings.
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One of my favourite paintings. A map of part of the Nile River. Spot Cairo and Hurghada!

The Pyramids of Giza

We knew from the start that this was going to be one of the highlights of our trip, and we weren’t wrong. We had a guide for the trip to the Pyramids, Ibrahim and he drove us to Giza, which was about an hour away.

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View of the City from the Giza Plateu
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The Great Pyramid of Khufu

I think this is the picture that comes closest to illustrating the awe I felt when I first laid my eyes on the Pyramids. I couldn’t get over the fact that each of the stones making up the Pyramids were about 3/4 my height and workers used 2.3 million blocks of stones to build the Pyramids using nothing more than simple machines made up of wood and rope. Also, while the common perception is that the pyramids were built by slaves, the pyramids were actually built by skilled craftsmen who took great pride in the constructing these massive tombs for their Gods. I don’t think I am doing any justice in describing how colossal and perfectly symmetrical the whole structure really is, so I shall let the pictures speak for themselves.

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View of the Pyramids from further in the desert.

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We also visited the various tombs within the Pyramids. Though all artifacts have been removed for display in museums around the world, it was still quite fascinated looking at the hieroglyphics and have Ibrahim explain their significance to us.

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This one in particular was interesting because apparently, this is how Obama reacted when    he saw this stone….                                                                                                                                   “That looks like me!” he said. “Look at those ears!”

 

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We also caught sight of the Sphinx, but it was slightly underwhelming after the Pyramids.

Having read up on the Pyramids before we went, I fully expected the plateau to be packed with tourists, and for us to have a hard time maneuvering around. However, the place had but a handful of visitors, with just one tour bus parked in the largely empty car park. Ibrahim shared with us that, like the rest of Egypt, the Pyramids have also failed to attract much tourists after the terror attacks in Egypt. This was evident in the way vendors were hassling us throughout the visit to the Pyramids to buy their wares. They were so desperate to make the slightest bit of money that they were following us around constantly, and willing to let go of their products for ridiculous prices like 5 Egyptian pounds (slightly under one Singapore dollar) for beautiful statues.

Not only has Egypt’s tourism industry been torn apart by the likes of ISIS and the brotherhood, the country is faced with the critical risk of not being able to preserve its ancient heritage.

 

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When we visited the Egyptian museum, the way in which the artifacts were strewn about was such a travesty. While there was an attempt at some form of security, with some of the smaller statues kept in glass enclosures, many of the much larger findings from archaeological  digs are left out in the open, subject to abuse from visitors.

It was my first visit to a country ravaged by the evils of terrorism and it was heartbreaking to see this happen to such a beautiful country.  By and large, the media highlights the immediate death and destruction caused by acts of terrorism, but for the first time, I could see firsthand the long term repercussions on the lives of ordinary Egyptians. We saw so many people begging on the streets, with little children tagging behind us for money.

Ibrahim kept telling us to share stories of how beautiful Egypt is with people back home, so that more tourists would come over. I wish it was as simple as that. Before ISIS and Al-Qaeda, life really was that much more simple. You like a place, you visit it. Now, you have so many different considerations, primarily, the risk of terrorist activities taking place in the country.

I am going to end off this entry doing exactly what he told me to do. Egypt is gorgeous, and Egyptians are really sweet, kind-hearted people. There are many travel journals on Egypt talking about how people are persistent and keep hassling you to purchase things from them. While I do agree that this does happen, when I think about how each tourist might represent some hope for these people when it comes to earning enough money to feed themselves and their families for the day, that momentary inconvenience I face is nothing.

But is Egypt safe? I don’t know. Is any country safe any more? We had a safe trip in Egypt thanks to the immaculate planning and guidance of our friends, and as one of them put it, you just have to pray that you’ll be in the right place at the right time.

Having said that, I really hope that the world will be rid of the sub-par humans who make it their life’s goal to spread terror and destruction, and that the rest of the world can enjoy Egypt and its rich history and heritage as it deserves to be enjoyed.

When we asked our guide how Egypt was going to survive, he gave such a simple, poignant reply.

“We will be OK. The good people will always win.”

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