Sunday, February 21, 2010

Egypt December 2009 - January 2010

(Pictures and Video at the bottom)
The flight from Botswana to Cairo was long and uneventful. Margarite and Jen decided to join me. Jen is a teacher and works with Margarite at the village orphanage.

The casino had a driver pick us up and take us directly to the hotel. As I mentioned we are staying at the Cairo Marriott Hotel & Omar Khayyam Casino. It was 1:00 pm by the time we arrived and got settled in. The poker tournament was not starting until midnight so we had some time to kill.

I had been warned about the traffic in Cairo, but the reality was nothing like the warnings. I have been to many places where the traffic is a controlled chaos however in Cairo it is pure chaos! A city of more then 20,000,000 people, has only 4 traffic lights, none of which work. They do have lines painted on the roads or lane markers what a waste of paint since clearly the drivers all make their own lanes. In regards to pedestrians trying to cross the street, I have never seen anything like it. I can only equate it to a game of frogger, where the people are the frogs. You have to just close your eyes and hope you make it but across, but what ever you do, DO NOT make eye contact with the driver! If they know you see them coming they will not stop and they will expect you to get out of their way.

Unbelievable, we ran into Dan and Naomi in downtown Cairo. I ran the Wineglass Marathon with Naomi back in October. While at the marathon, I had spoken to Dan about my poker play and he ended taking up the sport. When he saw there was a tournament in Egypt, he decided to enter. Naomi is Egyptian and they had wanted to visit so this way they could kill two birds with one stone.

We had several hours before the tourney so we all decided to walk around Cairo. What a crowded, filthy, dirty, city. The pollution (smog) is the worst I have ever seen. Greenhouse gases do not seem to worry Egyptians? I guess why worry about breathing dirty air when 90% of the men in Egypt smoke. As it got later, more and more street vendors came out and so did the people. It got crazier and crazier, how no one got killed (hit by a car), I have no idea.

We had dinner at L'Aubergine, but it was just ok. The restaurant we had wanted to go did not have a table for 5 so we made reservations for the next night. As it approached midnight, Dan and I headed back to the hotel for the tournament.

It was a three day (night) tournament that ran from midnight to 4:00 am each day. There were 1,000 players each paying a $5,000 entry fee (which I had won). So the prize pool is $5,000,000 50% or $2,500,000 going to first place. But the top 200 players 20% are guaranteed to win $6,000, $5,000 entry plus $1,000.

In my first hand I was the small blind as I had AK. I had one limper and a raiser before me. The raiser raised 10 blinds, I felt it was a steal so I pushed all in to end the hand. The limper folded and the raiser called and turned over pocket aces. The flop was 38K. I had 2 outs. I needed a king or I would be out of tourney on the first hand. Then another player said he folded a king so I had one out a 4 came on the turn and a King on the river I had a 2% chance to win and hit. Doubling up on my first hand and knocking a player out who had AA.

From that point on, the night was some what slow as I started with $3,000 in chips and ended the night with $5,200. Plus we were down to 500 players, half the players were gone. Dan was still in with $4,800 in chips.

We all got up early the next morning and headed to the Giza Necropolis (Pyramids) just outside Cairo. What a slum. I would say it was more like a trash dump that had some Pyramids and a Sphinx in it. Trash was everywhere. The taxi took us off the beaten path where we rented three horses and two camels so we could see the complete area. I am glad we went, but I have been to the Inca Pyramids in Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru and both blow the Giza Pyramids away. The worst part was at the end when our guide told us we needed to tip him before we got back. He just stopped the animals and demanded a tip. He had no clue Naomi is both a camel and horse whisperer and she simply asked the animals to take as back to our taxi. Much to the guide's displeasure, the animals quickly followed Naomi’s request. If we had not had Naomi with us, we might still be at the Pyramids since the guide had not earned a tip and we were not going to give him one.

From the Pyramids, we headed back to downtown Cairo, Dan and I both felt one of us, if not both, would make it into the top 200 but we doubted we would make it much past that. We just did not have the stack size to last.

We decided we would head to Luxor once we chipped out of the tournament. There was an overnight train with sleeper cars we wanted to take to get the full local experience.

Once back in Cairo, we headed to the train station to find out about train tickets. You can only buy these tickets at the train station and you can not call to even see if there is room on the train, you have to just show up and hope there are tickets.

We negotiate with a taxi driver for 40 Egyptian pounds (about $8.00 USD). He will take us to the Ramses Train Station and wait for us and then take us back to the hotel. As one might expect, most cars in Egypt are on the small side and our taxi was no exception. Off we went with the driver and me in the front, Dan and the 3 women (sardines) in the back. As I had mentioned, the traffic is pure chaos, add in an over loaded compact car to the mix. Thank god, Allah was looking out for us in our more than 20 near life ending close calls or we would have surly died.

Once we arrived at the train station, all was simple. NOT. There were very few signs, even in Arabic, no schedules posted or printed timetables. After about an hour of going to several different areas to buy tickets, (the first for Egyptians only, the second for non-sleeper car, the third for the non-air-conditioned sleeper car, finally the air-conditioned sleeper car, each window in different buildings), we found the train was sold out for the next 5 days. So we found our driver and headed back to the hotel. We realized we had not had lunch so we found a great local street vendor who made us great local food: Falafels, lamb sandwiches on Egyptian bread and foul which is an Egyptian seasoned bean concoction, (very good.)

After we had recharged our batteries with food, we found and Internet cafe to plan our travels. The issue we had was once we chipped out of the tournament, we would lose our hotel rooms. The hotel was over booked so even if we wanted to pay there were no room available. The biggest issue we all had tired of the dirt filth and bad attitude of Cairo and needed to get out of town ASAP.

The Internet was very slow and expensive compared to our other travels. We found out that all planes to Luxor, Alexandria, Aswan, and Sharm El-Sheikh were sold out for the next 3 days. At this point we realized we hit Egypt during its highest tourist season.

We figured "it is what it is" and we would deal with it later. It was now getting late and we did not want to miss our dinner reservation with the awesome authentic Egyptian restaurant called Abou El Sid. It was very good. The only complaint was Jen's veal was rather fatty, everything else was excellent.

After dinner, we headed to an area of Cairo known for it's shops, gold, silver, spices, and crafts, called The Khan El-Khalili Bazaar. This area was very nice in a section called Old Cairo, a lot less hustle and bustle from where we are staying on the Nile. We walked around the markets, what a great sight as it was more of what I expected of Cairo. It was still a little dirty and the shop owners were very aggressive, but better then what we had been experiencing. We also found out Naomi is also cat whisperer. A kitten was abandoned in a market and somehow it found Naomi and convinced her to buy it milk. Cairo has stray cats and dogs everywhere hundreds of them we later found out this was true of most of Egypt.

It was getting close to tournament time so we headed back to the hotel.

Dan and I both chipped out the second night, and there weren’t any real exciting hands until my last hand. I had pocket kings in early position I raised 3 blinds which was 1,500 of my 7,000 chip stack. The table had been tight so I was hoping to get one caller or a raiser and I would push all in. I got 2 callers, one of which was the big blind. The flop was K of spades, 7 of spades and 6 of clubs. I had no choice but push all in here there were too many draws. I knew I had the best hand at this point but I could easily be beat with a straight or a flush. The next player called me at this point. I figured I had him beat, as he maybe had a smaller set, King X or 2 pair. There was no hand he could be drawing with that so he got the right odds to call. The big blind call scared me as he was getting great odds to call he could have any thing, but what worried me was he might have a straight or flush draw. The turn was a 2 of hearts I that could not help anybody, so the board at this point is K or spades, 7 or spades, 6 of clubs and 2 of hearts. The river was a 10 of hearts, the big blind bet half the pot I knew I was beat by a straight the other player pushed all in and the big blind instantly called. Both players having more chips then me.

The guy that pushed all in yells "shipem" meaning ship him the chips and turns over a pair of 6’s for a set, the big blind turns over 89 of spades for the nuts, and knocks 2 players out.

I mucked my hand, got up and walked away.

That second player could have helped me triple up if he would have pushed all in on the flop like he should have, or at least pushed on the turn. Instead he slow played what he thought was the best hand and gave the drawing hand a free card to win.

The good news is Dan and I made it into the top 200 and we walked away with $6,000 each.

So now we could tour Egypt in style, if we could just get out of Cairo.

It was now Monday December 27th and we had been in Cairo for 2 days. We were very happy to be leaving or at least hoping we could leave. The only thing we knew is we had no hotel for that night and we all were done with Cairo.

We found a travel agent in our hotel, we had one simple request. We would like to leave Cairo TODAY! Going to Luxor, Alexandria, or Sharm El-Sheikh, we do not care if we fly, take a train or bus, or even drive.

After many phone calls and banging away on her computer the travel agent told us we could get to Sharm El-Sheikh by a six hour bus ride leaving at 4:00 pm that day, and she could get us a hotel on the beach in an area called Na'ama Bay which is a bay on the Red Sea. She offered to plan the rest of our trip and we gladly agreed. She said come back in a few hours and she would have everything set.

Margarite, Jen and I headed to the Coptic Cairo. This is an area mostly dominated by Coptic Christians and there are many churches in this area as well as the first Muslim mosque and a Jewish synagogue. In fact there are still about 1,000 Jews living in Egypt.

The area was rich with history and had several cemeteries. The area seemed to be in the mist of a long term restoration (very long term).
So some sites were in great shape while others were in great disarray.
In one cemetery, we found a crypt that had a huge hole in it as we looked down the hole, we could see a human bone!

Touring the mosque was awesome! The men and women have separate entrances and the women had to wear these green hooded robes. Everybody had to remove their shoes before entering. Inside there was a huge open air area for praying.

After the mosque we got a taxi back to the hotel. We found Jen was an awesome taxi negotiator. In Egypt you negotiate everything, even a bottle of water at a mini market. The taxi started at 50 pounds ($10) and Jen got it down to 12 pounds ($2.40). The traffic back was horrific (I think every car in Cairo was on the streets we needed to be on). Forty-five minutes later, we got to our hotel about a 30 min walk from where we started.

We grabbed some food checked out of the hotel and got a taxi to the bus station. The taxi driver just put the luggage on the roof rack.
No tie downs just throws it on the roof and he swore it would stay. It somehow did.

The bus was a new high end Mercedes bus, way above Cairo standards.
The comfort made the ride go by fast. We basically drove across a huge desert crossed under the Suez Canal and onto the Sinai Peninsula.

When we arrived at Sharm El-Sheikh, we had to take 2 taxis to our hotel. I almost got in a big fight with our driver. Neither driver knew where our hotel was but they would not ask directions and kept driving around until finally I yelled at them to pull over and I got directions.

It was 1:00 am we were all very tired but wound up from the taxi ride, so we headed out for a drink before we hit the hay.

Our hotel, Tropitel in Na'ama Bay was right were the action was! As we walked out of the hotel, it was as if we were on the Vegas Strip or in Cancun Mexico. Toto we are no longer in Egypt we were seeing the wild side of a conservative predominantly Muslim country.

It was now Tuesday December 29 and we had been in Egypt for 3 full days but it seemed as if we had been here a month.

All the negotiating just wears on you. From buying a cup of coffee at Starbucks which is listed as 10 pounds ($2.00) that you end up paying only 2 pounds ($.40) to every taxi ride and even when you check into a hotel. Then every store or shop you walk by there is a barker begging you to come in and buy something. If you make the mistake of going in and do not buy anything you really get hassled.

So we all agreed a day of Rest and Relaxation was in order, a day at the beach after a nice run. For dinner we headed to the old market in Sharm El-Sheikh. Jen knew of some local fish restaurants and we picked one that ended up being a fine restaurant called Sinai Star. The one unique characteristic was the restaurant had one menu for the whole restaurant and this is a restaurant that sat about 150 people. You got the menu when the table ahead of you was done.

The waiter tried to over bill us and was shocked to find out that Naomi understood and read Arabic Naomi got the owner involved and all was corrected. The waiter got a good tongue lashing from Naomi and the owner.

Next we set Jen to work. The next day our plan was to climb Mount Sinai which was 250 kilometers away. We needed a car that could carry 5 passengers comfortably and a good driver. Jen found a luxury van for 700 pounds. That is $140.00 USD for 6 hours of driving and to wait 3 hours as we hike the mountain, what a deal.

We just hope he shows up the next morning.

Our driver showed up right on time 7:00 am and we started our 250 kilometer drive to Mount Sinai. Our driver wasted no time. By law, cars in Egypt have a warning beep when the car goes over 100 kilometers per hour. The only time the beep went was not sounding, was on a few sharp curves. The posted speed limit was 70 kilometers per hour. After we traveled about 125 kilometers we stopped at a Bedouin rest stop.

We arrived at St Catherine's Monastery at 10:00am. Normally a Bedouin guide is required to hike the mountain but our driver gave us a tip on how to avoid the guide.

The Monastery was very cool as it was right in the middle of a high desert far from everything and close to nothing. The first room we visited was full of human skulls and bones. Over the years when the monks die, they are buried but once their bodies decompose, they are dug up and the bones are put in this room.

Once we were done the tour which included the "Burning Bush" we headed up Mount Sinai a 3.5 mile hike with the elevation raising 2,000 feet from 5,000 to over 7,000 feet.

The climb to the top of Mount Sinai was just beautiful. We took the camel path up which took us an hour and forty minutes. The last part of the climb is 750 uneven stone steps. This was tough but well worth it. At the top is a small monastery you can look out and see all of the Sinai Peninsula.

Naomi and Dan were a little behind us but since it was getting cold we started to head back down. On the side of the trail they had a compost toilet much like the one we have back at our village though ours is not on the top of a mountain. We passed Naomi and Dan and told them we would take the stairs all the way down. There are two routes that come together where we picked up the 750 steps: The camel trail we took or a trail that is made up of 3,000 uneven stone steps. This trail was and is still used as penitence for the monks.

Once we got down the 750 steps we realized there was no way we could do another 3,000 steps so we took the camel trail down. We made it down in one hour and I only fell once.

Dan and Naomi showed up an hour later and they had taken the 3,000 step trail. It took then 2 hours to get down and they were beat.

We made the right decision on which trail to take. The driver made great time on the way home covering the 250 kilometers in 2 hours flat. Mount Sinai had to be in the top ten most beautiful places to hike. I highly recommend it to everyone.

This was our last night in Na'ama Bay so we decided to go to a very nice Egyptian restaurant on the beach. So far everything has been very inexpensive except the hotel on Na'ama Bay as long as you do not mind negotiating for EVERYTHING. For example, this great Egyptian dinner on the beach was 110 pounds about $22 USD. Not quite as cheap as Botswana but a lot cheaper then in America or Europe.

We flew to Luxor and it was only a 50 minute flight. While there was security, clearly it was far less then in the United States. You can keep your shoes on, you can take water on the flight and you can pretty much walk wherever you wanted in the airport.

We stayed at the Sofitel in Karnak, just a few minutes from the airport. The hotel is right on the Nile; the grounds are just beautiful; but the rooms need some upgrading. The room rate was very reasonable. The only strange thing was that the room required a $120.00 USD New Years Eve dinner party. So the room was $75.00 USD with Jen, Margarite, and I sharing a room, which meant we spent $25.00 on the room per night and $120.00 on one dinner. I am not sure we had paid $120.00 on all the dinners combined so far.

We arrived at the hotel at 9:00am and walked to the Karnak Temple a 2 kilometer walk through Karnak. The temple was huge. Just unreal… I have been to Rome, Petra, and Machu Picchu and the Karnak Temple is right up there with all those sites.

We headed back the hotel after spending several hours touring the temple.

Jen, Dan, and I laid out on the grass and took a nap by the Nile River.

The dinner party was fine, not worth $120.00. The food was ok, the desserts great, and the entertainment was very good with performers performing culture dances from all over the world.

Happy New Year, 2010.

We got up early and went for a run. We ran south along the Nile from our hotel by the Karnak Temple and on to the Luxor Temple. All along the Nile are river cruise ships - hundreds of them. The temperature was 60 degrees and skies as blue as could be. Though the blue skies did not last long as the pollution and haze found it’s way back. We were on the east bank as we looked across the Nile River to the west bank we could see about a dozen hot air balloons rising into the sky and across the Nile Valley.

After breakfast, we took a taxi to Luxor where we got on a local ferry to cross the Nile to the west bank. We were heading to the Valley of the Kings. We now had a choice. It was 8 kilometers to the Valley of the Kings from the ferry dock. The choices were walk, rent bikes, take a taxi, or a bus. We voted and walking won.

About 3 kilometers into the walk I hitched a ride on a donkey cart.
The temperature was rising so why walk when a perfectly good donkey cart is available? At about 5 kilometers, the entire group changed their vote and we caught a taxi the last few kilometers to the Valley of the Kings. This was an amazing area where Egyptian kings are buried far beneath the earth and many had very ornate entry ways. These tombs were built when the king took his thrown with a goal of completing them before the king died. In some cases the king died shortly after taking the thrown so their tombs were smaller than others.

After we saw several tombs, we climbed over the mountain to visit Queen Hatshepsut's Temple. At the top of the mountain, you could see far north and south along the Nile Valley. We then descended the steep mountain side down to the temple.

After that tour, we were all wiped out so we got a taxi back to where the ferry was for one pound (about 20 cents) and we crossed the Nile. Locals pay even less for the ferry. Back at the hotel, we all vegged out for a few hours. For dinner, we decided to go into Luxor. At our New Years Eve party, one of the guests at our table had recommended a local restaurant, Chez Omar. The Temple of Luxor is lit up at night and we all wanted to see it.

Jen negotiated a 15 pound cab fair to the restaurant that is $3 USD.
Dinner was awesome and it was great local food. The people were very friendly. The cost 200 pounds $40 USD for 5 people 3 course meals.

From dinner we walked through the local market where there were a lot of textile shops Jen and Naomi bought scarfs. As we kept walking we notice a huge pick up in activity almost like a swarm of bees. What we found out was the police were on their way and the shop owners were not allowed to have any goods on display outside their shops which all of them did. Some had huge displays that had to be disassembled and put inside. All this was done in a matter of minutes, a true Chinese (Egyptian) fire drill.

From the market we arrived at the Temple. As we approached the Temple we noticed a mosque built into the ancient temple, Mosque of Abu Haggag. The imam invited us in and gave us a private tour along with the history of the mosque.

At this point, we were all cooked so Jen beat the crap out of another taxi driver and for 8 pounds we were back at our hotel.

Outside the hotel was a small mini market where we stopped to get some water. The owner was Yusuf. It was clear that Dan and Yusuf were buddies. We later found out the story, apparently Naomi had been constipated since we arrived in Egypt. Five days at this point (now that is camper belly). To help Naomi out Dan wanted to get her an enema he first tried the hotel gift shop and struck out I guess an enema is not a popular gift in Egypt. From there he went to Yusuf’s mini market. Now remember Yusuf speaks no English and Dan knows maybe 10 words of Arabic none of which is enema. Between Dan's situational Arabic and Yusuf’s situational English Yusuf figured out what Dan needed. I think the word caca was involved in the conversation.

Yusuf got on his motorcycle which was parked outside his shop and motioned to Dan to get on the back which he did. Yusuf took Dan to a pharmacy and all was good.

We decided to take an easy day as this is Dan, Naomi, and Jen's last day in Luxor. They will be heading to Alexandria that evening while Margarite and I will be going on a 4 day Nile cruise.

The hotel had a beautiful pool area so the plan was for Margarite and I to see if we could find our boat. All we had was the ships name. After we found the boat, we would meet back at the pool.

We found a taxi that said he had no clue where the boat might be but for a fee he would find it for us. We agreed 30 pounds if it was close 70 pounds if it was far. Clearly, we needed Jen to negotiate for us.

We drove into Karnak where we started asking people if they knew where our boat was. We found a guy that told our driver the boat would be near the west bank bridge about 10 kilometers from where we were. So off we went 20 minutes later, we arrived at the private dock of the Presidential Nile Cruise Line only to find out the water was too low at this dock for our boat to pull in. Our boat was actually back at the Luxor Sheraton about 2 kilometers from where we originally asked where our boat might be.

We finally found our ship the M/S Nile Admiral. We registered, dropped off our bags, and then headed back to the hotel pool. What should have been maybe a 30 minute event actually took 1 hour 30 minutes, all because the travel agent only gave us the boats name. We found out later anybody that did not hire a driver through the cruise line had the same problems we had.

At 5:00 PM we all said our goodbyes. Margarite and I headed back to our boat and everybody else was off to the airport.

The cruise was very inexpensive so our expectations were very low.
What we had been experiencing but not realizing was the cost of living in Egypt was just slightly higher then Botswana. You get a lot more for your dollar then in Europe or America.

The ship was great plenty of room, very clean, and all the crew were very pleasant. Margarite and I decided to eat dinner out even though meals are included with the cruise because we felt the local restaurants would be more enjoyable. We found another great local restaurant, Maxime (what I would call high end Egyptian restaurant). For the 2 of us the cost was 79 pound $16 USD.

The ship stayed overnight in Luxor so the next day, tours were offered for the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut's, Since we had already saw these sights we went out on our own and visited the Valley of the Queens and the Medinet Habu Temple. After that, we toured the Luxor Temple and then walked back to the boat where I swam and napped at the pool and Margarite napped in the cabin.

We set sail at 1:00 pm and the boat was very nice. We saw a couple of boats that looked nicer but many that looked worse. The boat had 2 floors of cabins; the lowest floor was the dinning room; on the 4th floor was the bar, sun deck, and pool; then the top deck was a sun deck. The cabin was very clean and plenty of room. All the staff were very friendly and helpful.

As we set sail, we had a very nice lunch as it was assigned seating. At our table was Wendy and her husband, Mizen. They live in Kuwait but Wendy was born in Ecuador and grew up in Houston, Texas. Also joining us was Ramulis and his daughter Alisa Ramulis was born in Egypt and lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his family who are all Americans.

After lunch, I laid out at the pool and swam some. We had tea and cookies at 5:30 pm. Dinner was not until 8:00pm so I decided to take a nap in the cabin. I was sound asleep when I heard loud yelling. It was clearly coming from outside the ship. I looked out the cabin window to see us floating in the middle of the Nile with a half dozen wooden skiffs surrounding us. Each skiff had 2 people in them. I thought this must be what the ships off Somalia see when they are attacked by pirates. One person was rowing and the other was selling their goods. Yes, in the middle of the Nile! Not pirates but shop owners come out and sell stuff. I opened my cabin window to get a better look and in comes a t-shirt. They throw stuff on the boat and you are suppose to throw it back or give them money. We were in a section of the Nile that had a dam and a lock system. There were 20 cruise ships waiting their turn for the Esna lock. So we were sitting ducks for these very creative sales people. This yelling and bickering (negotiating) went on for an hour until it was our turn to enter the lock, then we were free. The lock was very interesting. With the full moon, the evening was well lit. Two boats fit at a time and we were the rear boat. Once in the lock, the doors close behind us and the lock is flooded. My guess is we rose 40 feet in 15 minutes. Once we were at the new water level the front of the lock opens and we went on our way.

In the morning we woke to find ourselves in Edfu. The day before I had met the ships masseuse and invited him on an early morning run. We met at 6:30 am. He was not a runner and most likely smoked as 90% of Egyptian men smoke. After a painfully slow mile Hi-Sam walked. I continued another half mile only to find a security check point where I was politely turned back.

After breakfast we took a tour of the Edfu Temple which is the only fully intact ancient Egyptian temple. It took 180 years to complete which in that day meant 10 generations. We have now seen several ancient Egyptian temples and yet each time I am amazed at how these massive structures could be built over 3,000 years ago and last all this time. I am positive they were all built by Martians. Today modern bridges, and buildings built by humans collapse under normal wear and tear and some fall because of natural disaster. These temples have out lasted all kinds or natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, the Martians know how to build a structure that will last.

We continued up the Nile for several hours (I have no idea how far we have or will traveled but the trip is just gorgeous). The banks of the Nile for the most part resemble Botswana lush palm trees except one area for few kilometers were the west bank looked like what I would expect the Sahara Desert to look like very large sand dunes.

After tea we stopped at Kom Ombo Temple this temple took over 400 years to complete and would still be intact except the locals over the years used the temple as a rock quarry. Over 40% of the temple has been dismantled this way.

After the tour, we went back to the boat and continued on our way to Aswan.

We arrived in Aswan sometime in the early morning while we slept. We are now just less than 1,000 kilometers south of Cairo and just over 300 kilometers north of the Sudan. We took an early tour of both the Aswan Dam and the High Dam both dams are longer than the Hoover Dam outside of Las Vegas but not nearly as spectacular. The High Dam was built by the Russians during the Cold War as a strategic water supply for Egypt.
This dam provides 15% of the electrical power to Egypt and virtually all the water.

I think our tour bus driver was from Cairo because on the drive he side swiped a car, hit the bridge over the dam twice and smashed into metal barrier that does not include many near misses.

From the dams we took a boat to the Island of Philae which is really Agilika Island. The Island of Philae flooded after the dams were built so Agilika Island was landscaped to look like the Island of Philae and all the temples and monuments were moved from Philae to Agilika all 40,000 blocks of stone. These monuments were put back together exactly as they had original stood on Philae.

Next we stopped at an aroma museum/shop. Many perfume essences come from Egypt and here you can buy the undiluted scents and aromas used by the major perfume manufactures.

Our flight to Alexandria wasn’t until later in the day so we walked around Aswan. This city is economically the strongest we have seen so far. It is much cleaner and clearly there is less poverty. Some of this is do to the Aswan’s southern geography and its’ ability to serve as a port for Egypt. Also it has a natural resource of clay, so they have a nice ceramic industry in Aswan.

We made it. At 1:00 am we finally warmed at our hotel Helnan Palestine in Alexandria. Only one hiccup: the first taxi driver we talked to wanted to overcharge us and had no idea where our hotel was. After 11 days in Egypt we had learned to make sure the driver knows where we need to go and lock in the price before you get in the car!

The Helnan Palestine Hotel is in the middle of a beautifully manicured park. Though it appears to be a public park if you are not staying at the hotel there is a 6 pound fee to enter. Inside the grounds are palaces. I would think the park was once the gardens for these palaces. Our hotel is located on the water next to the al Montaza Palace. It is one of the few hotels in Alexandria on the water with a great beach on a small natural lagoon. The one negative was that it was about 12 kilometers from the center of town. Alexandria is a long thin city hugging the Mediterranean Coast with our hotel being at the far east part of town. We walked west along the walkway that runs along the sea. This walk way has the sea to one side and an 8 lane chaotic surface road on the other. Our first destination was the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (The Great Alexandria Library).After walking about 3 kilometers we decided to take a taxi. Before we got into the taxi we negotiated the price 15 pounds, but it was clear the driver had no clue where we wanted to go. I knew the library was along the coast so we decided to take this taxi even though he had no clue where we needed to go. The whole coast is lined with high rise apartments and hotels. Some buildings are only 5 - 7 floors and others such as the Four Season Hotel at least 25 floors tall. A few of them look new while most look as if there had been a recent war in Alexandria with windows missing pieces of the facade falling off and lack of up keep. Many apartments had that day’s laundry hanging off their balconies.

As we approached the library I pointed it out to our driver he politely smiled and kept driving naming each hotel as we passed. Since he knew zero English and he clearly did not understand my situational Arabic I decided the next hotel he mentioned I would motion for him to pull over. We were now a ten minute walk from the library but only a few blocks from the Coptic Church and Jewish Synagogue, two sights on our list to visit while in Alexandria. We hit the church first as I have always found it fascinating while visiting Muslim cultures how peaceful and gentle the people are and how tolerant they are to other religions. One day maybe the media will focus on this part of the culture rather then on the fundamental extremism. The church was somewhat hidden within the city. Once we found the main entrance, we asked if we could enter and take pictures we were enthusiastically invited in. The following day, January 7th is their Christmas so there was a lot of cleaning going on. The church was fascinating. We were invited to view the tomb of Saint Mark’s whom was buried beneath the church. Luckily my situational Arabic paid off and we were escorted through a locked entrance down 2 levels of stairs and through some tunnels to the tomb. Once we completed the tour we headed over to the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue. The main entrance had armed police. This was not private security but the same tourism police we have seen throughout Egypt. We asked about entering but with the language barrier and so many police we gave up, not for good, just for that entrance. It was clear the synagogue was not a tourist attraction, I knew I would be let in if I found the right person I am not sure how I know this but a Jewish synagogue can not refuse entry to a Jewish person that wishes to pray.

I explained this to Margarite and we continued our quest. Finally we found a small entrance with what appeared to be a private security person. He understood situational Arabic very well. Now how do I prove I am Jewish so he will let us in? I thought I could just drop my pants, but that might get us in the synagogue, it might also get me arrested. So instead I showed my passport and pointed out my last name. The security guard called a person over from the synagogue office who spoke English. He asked if I was Jewish and then we were in. I had to tell a white lie and say Margarite was converting to Judaism so they would let her in. They held our passports as we got our tour. Just like the church we were the only ones there. The synagogue was huge we learned it had been built in the late 1800's and now there are only 20 members 4 men and 16 women. The have a school building that they rent out to an Arabic private school. It is interesting because on the building the name is in both Arabic and Hebrew.

From the synagogue we walked to the library. What a place! It was very modern and high tech. There are over 300 PCs with free Internet access the library is 8 stories with 3 of them underground the terraced architecture allows a very open atmosphere but the walls are designed to absorb sound so the building is very quiet. The have a huge computer server farm and have been archiving everything on the internet since 1996. They also have one of the only super computers that can be used freely by the public. Currently they are working with the Library of Congress in the United States to digitize all the books and catalog them to be accessed through their web site.

What a fascinating place.

From there we decided to speed walk home 7 - 8 miles. It has been a few days since we ran and we needed some type of exercise. On our walk I started having a conversation with a gentleman that was walking in the same direction. Now picture this I am walking wearing a tee shirt and shorts I could not look any more like a tourist and I know NO Arabic and I am conversing with a man who is in dress clothes wearing a fall type coat and dress shoes who speaks very little English. All while walking 4 miles per hour a fairly brisk pace. We did this for 2 hours. Anybody listening to us had to laugh but my situational Arabic and his situational English got us by. I learned he was 48 had 4 children one of his daughters is an engineer possible both are. He walks for exercise and would like to run (I think). He invited us for tea at a little cafe which we accepted and he refused to let us pay.

After the tea he showed us how to use the local bus system which are little mini vans that carry about 12 people for one pound (about 20 cents US). They will take you any where on their route and he helped us get back to our hotel, again refusing to let us pay the bus fair. At that point, we parted ways. I gave him my email address and we decided his daughter would help him send us an email. I meet so many great people on my travels and most of the times never have any contact again. This is a perfect example walking the streets in Alexandria meet a great guy he buys us tea and helps us get home. As we say our goodbyes he says” you two made me smile". While we made him smile, he made us see how great a culture and people Egypt has.

This was our last full day in Egypt so we decided to just hang out and relax we had a late afternoon flight to Cairo where we would overnight before our morning flight back to Botswana and our village.

We took a taxi to the Alexandria airport which was clearly an airport of a third world country. While the Cairo, Sharm El-Sheikh, Luxor, and Aswan airports would rival most airports in any developed country, Alexandria might rival our airport in Botswana.

Once at the airport we found our flight was canceled and Egypt Air had arranged a bus to Cairo a scheduled three hour bus ride. This was fine with me as we would get to see some of the Nile Delta. I was amazed how industrial the area outside Alexandria was. Since we had been in Egypt, we have been mostly in the cities and towns so we had not seen any industry. I should have expected there had to be some but I was still surprised. An hour into the ride it was dark so I can not really say what life between Alexandria and Cairo is like except some swamp area with oil refineries.

We arrived at our hotel at 8:30 pm. We were supposed to land at 6:30 pm so the bus door to door was not to bad.

We decided to take a taxi to Old Cairo for some dinner and a walk through the bazaar. The hotel had their taxi service and demanded 150 pounds $30.00 USD. We knew the ride should be between 40 and 60 pounds but we had no way to get another taxi so we paid the blackmail. The bazaar seemed less crowded then our prior visit though it was later or maybe we had become numb to the overcrowding of Cairo.

After our meal and some shopping we found speed racer to give us a ride back for 60 pounds $12.00 USD. I call him speed racer because he would race as fast as he could and then break as hard as he could when he had to slow.

Our flight home was uneventful the best kind of flight.

The trip ended up being a lot less expensive then I thought so I have a good bit of my poker winnings left over.

Recap of Egypt:

Great country
Very inexpensive if you do not mind haggling for everything
Do not spend to much time in Cairo.
Set your expectations very low for the Giza Pyramids and a Sphinx.
Must go to and climb Mount Sinai
Must take a Nile River Cruise Aswan to Luxor or Luxor to Aswan
Must visit the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and get the free tour
Book all travel once you are in country this can save you 30 - 60%.
Carry a lot of small bills for taxi and shopping. (It is tough to negotiate when you only have 100 pound notes)
Always get a price before you commit to a transaction even if it is just buying a bottle of water at a mini mart.
Make sure you visit this great country it is worth the trip.

No more travels planned for a while I hope to get some quality poker in and start this year off strong. So I can build my travel stash as I have some exciting trips coming up this year.



Pictures Part 1

Pictures Part 2

Driving in Egypt

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post! Sounds like a very interesting trip -- including the run-in with a feral cat. If only America had better statistics on abandoned cats than Egypt, but it turns out we have 40 to 70 *million*. It's really a humane crisis.

C. Powell
The Cat Behavior Clinic