Technically, this should probably be called “5 Days 4 Nights in Egypt,” but since we arrived at our hotel after 4:00 P.M. and were completely jet lagged, I am not going to count the first day.
Egypt is amazing! I wanted to come, I didn’t want to come, I was excited, I was nervous, my feelings were all in a jumble, but Jeremy talked me into it. Am I glad he did! There is so much here, but so many people are afraid of traveling in this region. Our craziness payed off and we have had some of the best 4 days of our lives!
Tuesday, June 5, 2018
Our arrival in Cairo marks the day that we made it to the six inhabited continents in 1 year. Woo hoo! If you are like us and have never been to Africa, Cairo appears to be a great starting place. While landing, we got an awesome view of the pyramids, the people are friendly, and the city was much cleaner than I was expecting.
Usually we like to travel on our own. Big bus tours are not our thing. We are fast paced, we dislike long shopping excursions, and we avoid big buffets of mediocre food. But we have found that some places really need a guide to make a first trip enjoyable. Our first trip to Russia, we did it on our own. At that point, we understood what it must feel like to be illiterate. The alphabet was foreign, very few people spoke any English, plus we looked like we should speak Russian, so most people wouldn’t even try to help us figure things out. Some things were really nice about the trip, but when we left we said we probably wouldn’t come back. Who knew that we would take several more trips there and come to love the country. Fast forward to when we decided to go to China for the first time. We knew that we would have the same illiteracy problem, so we decided to hire a private guide. Luckily everything was very inexpensive. This worked our beautifully, and by the time we came back for a second trip, we were confident enough to travel on our own, and knowledgeable about the country enough to enjoy it.
When thinking about coming to Egypt, we were torn. We knew with the vast number of important historic sites that we could get a lot out of a guide. Or we could save money by reading up on each site and doing it ourselves. But then again, I was nervous about safety and having an English-speaking Egyptian with a car on call made me feel better. What cinched the deal was when we read about tour companies that continuously pester people without a guide, this turned out to not be a big issue, but maybe its just because we are traveling during Ramadan. In any case, it was a good decision! Our trip has been easy and we have learned a ton! Our experience has been very positive, so we would highly recommend Egypt Tailor Made Tours. Of course, it probably depends on which guide they assign to you, but Sabry was awesome.
When we stepped off the plane, a guide (not our regular tour guide) met us before we entered passport control. He took us to the Visa counter and we got our “Visa on Arrival” stamp, then continued through passport control. Having him with us helped us breeze through customs. During the drive he gave us a brief introduction to Cairo, told us that the city is fairly safe at all hours, told us not to drink the tap water, and other helpful tips.
On arrival at our hotel, we liked the location, but were disappointed to learn that our room with a balcony was actually a room with a window that couldn’t be opened or even be seen through. Upon questioning, we were told that the balcony rooms did not fit 4 people, and even if they did, they were already taken. They said that we may be able to move to a room with a real window the next day, but we decided that it was probably too much trouble to be worthwhile. We were later disappointed that our shower had a slightly dysfunctional head and that at best, lukewarm water would come out of it. We later found the switch for the hot water heater, which resolved half the problem. On the plus side, the hotel seemed clean and the breakfast room had a nice balcony.
We decided to explore the immediate area around the hotel. It was already 4:30 in the afternoon, but our hotel was between the Egyptian Museum and Tahrir Square, so we thought it would be fun. We started by wandering to the Square, then we continued to the Nile River. The streets were a bit challenging to cross, but we have learned just to take it one car at a time and to use the locals as shields if we really get stuck.
The Nile is beautiful! The city is quite dry, but as soon as you get close to the river, it turns quite lush. The Nile really is life giving.
We wandered around until sunset, learned about how traffic worked, and managed to avoid getting run over. Our trip to India gave us some practice, and while the Egyptian drivers are slightly more tame than the Indian drivers, the speeds in Egypt are higher, so there is less room for error.
With tours set for the next 3 days, we weren’t sure where we were going to be for dinner. Since Jeremy likes to try McDonald’s in each new country, and even more importantly, each new continent, we decided that this would be the best day to do it. Since it is the middle of Ramadan, a month of fasting from sunup to sundown, we though 20 minutes before sunset would be perfect. Boy, were we wrong! We arrived and there were a ton of people sitting at tables, not eating their food. It looked like there was an upstairs, so we went ahead and ordered. When we went to get a table, it turned out that the only thing upstairs was bathrooms, so we decided that we would take our food to the park. Then we waited, and waited, and waited. 25 minutes later our “fast-food” was finally done. Since everyone at the tables just started eating 5 minutes before, and since they were all in party mood, we knew there was no hope that a table would be open anytime soon. We took our stuff and headed for Tahrir Square where a bunch of people were picnic-ing. It was super fun!
The atmosphere was lively, the city beautiful. A guy was wandering around selling cotton candy. The city was coming alive! Everyone was in celebration mood. Very fun!
We were exhausted and headed back to the hotel for sleep.
Wednesday, June 6, 2018
On Wednesday, we focused on the big name Cairo sight: the Giza Pyramids. I wrote a full post on this here, but I’ll put a few highlights in this post.
We started the morning with the Great Pyramid of Khufu, toured the inside, which was much more interesting and fun than I expected given that the guide books indicated that it was a plain, empty cavern. Afterwards, we walked to Khufu’s son’s pyramid, which was smaller, but in better condition.
Next up was a viewpoint of all three pyramids, including the smaller one of Khufu’s grandson, and a camel ride that was quite fun.
We stopped by the Cheops Boat Museum and continued on to the Sphinx.
Memphis had some nice history about Ramses II, then we made a stop at Saqqara, which has hundreds of tombs, including the famous Step Pyramid and the Broken Pyramid.
Thursday, June 7, 2018
On Thursday, we took a day trip to Alexandria. You can find my full post about this here, but again, I will give a few details in this post.
We arrived in Alexandria about 10:00 A.M. and stopped at the Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa. It was quite fascinating to learn various theories about why it is or why it isn’t Cleopatra’s tomb.
The manuscript room in the Great Library of Alexandria was also a hit for us. We were a bit disappointed that we couldn’t see any ruins of the old library, but given Jeremy’s love of language, this room made up for it quite a bit.
Qaitbay’s Citadel was fun to climb around and we had some nice views of the Mediterranean Sea.
Friday, June 8, 2018
On Friday, the first day of the weekend here, we had a later start. Since we are staying right across the street from the Egyptian Museum, we didn’t need to leave the hotel until the museum opened at 9:00. Breakfast was nice, and we even had time for the hotel staff to make omelettes for us. It was nice just being able to sit and enjoy a cup of tea rather than rushing out to see the sites.
Our guide met us at 9:00 and we walked to the Egyptian Museum. They are in the process of building a new museum and will move there at the end of the year. The new museum is supposed to have a lot of interactive technology, but the current one is a big jumble of really cool artifacts. We were glad we had a tour guide, otherwise there is so much that we would have missed. For example, he was able to explain the positioning of some of the statues to show whether a marriage was forced, or whether it was a love match. Or whether a particular sphinx had a human head or a ram head, like the one shown below.
The boys really liked the mummy room. We saw the giant statue of Ramses II in Memphis, and the boys thought it was really cool that he was likely the pharaoh of the 10 plagues in Moses’ time. Well, in the Egyptian Museum, they got to see his mummy and were really impressed that they could see the body of someone that they had read about in the Bible and who lived long before Jesus’ time.
The real highlight of the museum is the section on King Tutankhamen or King Tut for short. The gold face mask, about 11 kg of solid gold, was very impressive (alas, no pictures – and the guard made some people delete photos that they sneaked). The purpose of the mask was so when the gods came to take a person to the afterlife, the god would be able to recognize the person if the face had decayed. There were a lot of other gold artifacts that were really interesting as well. I really liked the intricate gold collars.
The attention of detail to the eyes in statues is quite interesting. They would insert precious stones into marble, then place the eye into the stone statue. If you shine a light into the eye, it will sparkle and reflect, almost like a real eye.
Other things the boys liked were the really uncomfortable looking gold headrest that was used in place of a pillow, a golden dagger of King Tut’s, and an umbrella with mechanical parts to raise and lower the spokes.
After the museum, we went back to the hotel to rest for a bit. It was noon, but we just gave the boys some soda and a couple of cookies. In Egypt, 2:00 is a much more normal lunchtime. We have also found that while traveling it works better to only eat two meals out. Restaurant food is usually portioned too large for three meals, so two meals plus snacks is much better on both our waistlines and on the budget. It also frees up calories for pastries, ice cream cones, or anything else that catches our eyes. Having a big buffet breakfast at a hotel, and a late, multi-course fixed price lunch is ideal.
After resting a bit, our guide picked us up and took us to Coptic Cairo, which is the Christian section of Cairo. We started with a quick view of the Babylon Fortress.
Next was the Hanging Church, which was built, literally, on top of the southern gate of the Fortress.
There is even a window in the floor that you can look down to see the ruins of the ancient fortress.
The church had some really nice mosaics on the outer walkway leading to the doors of the church. Once inside, there were a ton of icons that were really well done. The roof of the church was in the shape of Noah’s Ark (upside-down) and was considered a sign of protection. Other protective features were a wooden barrier between the main seating and the altar. There were two windows where priests would sit and watch for invaders. If they were attacked, all the people would rush behind the wooden barrier and escape into a secret 3 km long tunnel.
When Jesus was a baby, Mary and Joseph fled their home to escape Herod’s edict that all boys under the age of 2 be killed. It is believed that they sheltered in a cave along the Nile and that the Saint Sergius and Bacchus Church is built on that site. We entered the cavern and the kids were thrilled to see the rock bed where baby Jesus may have slept.
We wandered by some other churches and a Jewish synagog, then hopped in the car and went to lunch at a buffet place. The fish was delicious, as was the eggplant appetizer and a few of the other salads. Everything else was fine, but not outstanding. Definitely a place where big tour busses could get dropped off. Oh well.
We drove next to an area of town nick named “The City of the Dead.” Apparently when some people lost their houses to a flood, they moved into the old tombs and people still live in them today. It is not a good neighborhood and our guide told us that one time he was with some tourists who decided it would be great fun to wander around the tombs and take pictures of the neighborhood. Apparently our guide tried to convince them it was a bad idea, but didn’t want to lose his job and was shaking in his boots as he went along with them. Luckily, they came out okay. He said he would much rather lead tours on the Sinai Peninsula and hike Mount Sinai during Ramadan (without water) than go into this particular neighborhood. I wonder what else people ask tour guides to do.
Islamic Cairo was next. There were tons of beautiful mosques with elaborate hand carved wooden windows. The windows were designed so that women could look out onto the streets without anyone being able to see their faces.
Our guide had an interesting story about women who choose to hide their entire face, rather than just their hair. Apparently tradition is that the most beautiful women are the ones to hide their faces. However, some women decide that they are not particularly pretty and cover their faces in hopes of finding a husband faster.
He also told us that babies are expected 9 months after getting married. If after 3 months, there is no sign of pregnancy, family members might drag the couple off to a doctor to figure out what is wrong.
We wandered through the Khan el Khalili Bazaar and James found a t-shirt he liked. I think we were supposed to bargain, but since the starting price was only $3, we felt a bit bad about paying less. Hopefully the shirt lasts more than a couple of washings…
This was the end of our tour, so our guide took us back to our hotel. We passed a few interesting looking markets on the way.
Saturday, June 9, 2018
On Saturday, we were on our own, but after three days with a guide we were fairly confident that we could do it and have fun. Our morning started by shutting off our alarm clocks and sleeping another half hour. We discovered that sleeping in made our breakfast much less hygienic. The staff had taken a few items from the buffet, mostly meat, cheese, yogurt, some veggies, and a hard boiled egg, transferred them to plates, covered them with saran wrap, and left them in the very warm breakfast room. We picked up a plate, took it outside to the balcony, toasted some bread and hoped that we wouldn’t get food poisoning.
By 9:45 we were ready to go. Our guide had told us that Uber is considered very safe, where taxis are usually fine, but sometimes you will get a scammy one that will take you somewhere you don’t want to go, then demand extra payment to take you to where you intended. We called an Uber to go to the Citadel of Saladin. The drive was a bit odd. First, the driver kept his flashers on for the entire 30 minute ride. Additionally, he didn’t quite know the way, so he followed his map program and we ended up driving through the City of the Dead. A bit nerve wracking, given our guide’s comments the day before, but we made it out without incident.
On arrival we purchased our tickets and started wandering the grounds. The fort was quite impressive and had very sturdy walls with nice window decorations. We followed the path to the mosque at the very top and enjoyed the city views. If nothing else, this is an amazing place to get good views of the city, and the entrance fee is a fraction of the Cairo Tower. The mosque was one of the few in the city that allowed non-muslims to enter during Ramadan, so we decided to take a peak. The inside was nice, but with the exception of the hand carved windows, a bit plain.
I had put on a head scarf to enter, but when we saw tourist groups sitting in circles wearing shorts and tank tops, I realized it wasn’t necessary. This city is very conservative, so I was a bit surprised they were allowed to enter. It seems like in the city, almost everyone covers up, the locals usually from ankle to collarbone to wrist. In the main tourist sites, knees and shoulders are a bit more common. Foreigners seem to mostly wear short sleeves (revealing elbows seem to be fine), with slightly lower collars (revealing the collar bone is okay, while cleavage is not), and with long pants or skirts (shorts are okay in major tourist sites like the pyramids). Kids can get away with a lot more than adults and since it got up to 104 degrees, we allowed them to wear shorts the entire time we were here. They were grateful. Fortunately, my long skirts both keep me cool and seemed to be appropriate. I wore a tank top one day, but kept a lightweight coverup with me in addition to the super lightweight scarf that I kept in my purse the entire trip. Jeremy suffered in his jeans. My Rothy’s shoes have been fabulous! They look great, I can walk all day without killing my feet, and I can hand wash the inserts in cold water when they get stinky. If I press them with a used towel, they don’t quite finish drying by morning, but I have a spare set of inserts that I can trade and they are dry by the next day.
After soaking in the views of the city, we realized we were running low on baksheesh, or money payed out as “tips.” Everyone here expects a tip. The bathroom attendant, the person holding the door to the elevator, the guards that let you snap a picture, etc. The expected amount is usually 5-20 L.E., which is about $0.25-$1.00, so it isn’t bad, but it is annoying when the ATM usually gives 200 L.E. notes. To get our desired baksheesh, stopped to get the boys an overpriced soda, but we demanded small bills for change. Luckily they eagerly complied and we had a large stack of 5 and 10 L.E. notes.
We continued back down and stopped by the National Military Museum, which was unfortunately “closed for cleaning.” While we weren’t able to go inside the building, there were a lot of really cool outdoor exhibits. Both boys loved the impressive collection of old airplanes and tanks. There were some cool cannons, and a few other exhibits.
A few minutes walk took us to the Police Museum, which was open. John loved it! Weapons galore. He got his fill of guns, knives, swords, and baby crocodile sword sheaths, complete with the crocodile’s head. I think if we could have read Arabic, we may have gotten more of the police history, but given that it was included with the very inexpensive Citadel admission, it was a fine stop.
At this point, we debated taking an Uber that we may have to wait a while for, or risking a taxi. We took the taxi route. We were nervous for a few minutes when the driver tried to convince us that we wanted to to go to the top of the Broken Mountain instead of the Cairo Tower, but we told him we had a flight and he backed off, transferred us to another taxi driver that did not speak English, and we had a peaceful ride.
Speaking of the Broken Mountain, our guide told us an interesting story about it. Nobody knows how it got its shape, but one story is that while Abraham was passing through Egypt, he told people that prayer could move mountains. Everyone got together and prayed, but nothing happened. Someone got a vision that a single crippled man would come along and pray and that the mountain would be picked up and moved elsewhere. Sure enough, the man came and prayed, and half the mountain was picked up and flew away. Who knows if it is true, but it makes a good story. If this was a story in common circulation, Jesus’ statement about faith as small as a mustard seed moving mountains could have made a lot of sense to the people.
We arrived at the Cairo Tower, but given that we just had amazing views of the city, the admission was more than we felt like paying, so we wandered around a bit. Our intent was to go wander by the Nile, but the heat was picking up, so we just went back by the hotel and continued on to a nearby restaurant that was recommended to us, Felfella. Jeremy got a schawarma sandwich, I got one of the special meals that included some very delicious beef, very good rice, a salad, soup, mango juice, and bottled water, and the boys settled on hamburgers. The food was delicious, but the tables were mostly designed for standing. There were about 1-2 chairs per table, so since it wasn’t crowded, we spread out and enjoyed our food.
Our driver was picking us up at 3 PM to take us to the airport, so we considered wandering around for an hour or so, but it was so hot that we decided just to go back to the hotel instead. Our conclusion from the day was that, yes, we could have seen Egypt on our own, but having the guide was more pleasant. We enjoyed the history lessons, and when we were done with a site, we always had an air conditioned car waiting for us. It’s a bit silly, but I think the periodic air conditioned transportation helped make the days very enjoyable.
All in all, Egypt was amazing! I was nervous coming into the trip, but I had such a good time that I would definitely consider coming back – for instance, there’s supposed to be a lot to see in Luxor and Aswan, as well as the famous Mt Sinai. Between Ramadan and the (early summer) heat, the sites were mostly empty. I’m not sure how traveling during peak season would have changed things, but I think it still would have been a lot of fun.