Friday, July 12, 2013

Tourism during the Egyptian Coup d'état

Viva the Revolution!  Egyptian Protest in Luxor
My 23 year old daughter Meredith and I recently completed (June 26 through July 4th 2013) a "bucket list" trip to Egypt that happened to coincide with the ouster of Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi on July 3rd by the military.  This blog is part travel review, part general observations, and part story telling for all those friends who have asked what we saw during this crazy time.

First some background.  We are US citizens and call Reno, NV home, although Meredith currently lives in Hong Kong.  Meredith was invited by a friend to visit Turkey and she discovered the plane trips from Istanbul to Cairo and from Cairo back to her home city of Hong Kong were quite cheap.  When she floated the idea of visiting Egypt to us, I decided it would be a good idea for her to have a body guard.  Besides, I've wanted to see the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx from the time I learned about them in grade school. Who hasn't dreamed of seeing them in person? I did a little research and learned that Egypt was a bit restive.  The U.K. had officially recommended their citizens not go there but the U.S. had not issued a similar warning.  There were some basic warnings about being careful but I've traveled in the middle east before so I figured "why not?".  I didn't have time to research what to see and where to stay, so I figured a prearranged tour would be the way to do this trip. I googled for a tour and found TSC travel and was helped by Melek Ada, who was responsive to my requirements and patient with my changes.   I give TSC a 7 out of 10 as they delivered what they promised and kept us safe during the trip.  There was one snafu where we landed in Aswan and weren't greeted by anyone with a sign, which produced some minor stress.  My other minor complaints were the quality of the hotels and food.  Also I do wish our guides spoke a little better English but in general they did well enough that I could recommend them to fellow travelers.

There will be a lot of negative comments in this write up and for that I apologize.  I'll try to throw in the cool things too.  I guess negative comments are partially because those are the memorable things and as Americans there are many things in Egypt that are just "not quite right" to me.  But overall I would say Meredith and I agree the trip was a "once in a lifetime" and worth doing.
Our Route through Egypt. Green section was Nile cruise
Rest of the legs were by air

May 26th - I flew from Reno to San Francisco and then Frankfurt Germany and then on to Cairo.  I'm glad I showed up in Reno 2.5 hours early because flights were running 2 hours late and I got lucky and got a standby seat on an "earlier" flight, meaning I arrived in San Francisco right on time to make my International flight. On the flight over I thought about how foolish it was that I didn't order Egyptian pounds at Wells Fargo before I left Reno.  I decided I'd rather convert some money at the Frankfort airport than risk being ripped off by Egyptians.  First mistake. Second mistake was failing to check the going conversion rate before going to the counter.  I'm an experienced traveler so I knew that airport conversions are a rip off, but decided to convert $1000 rather than just a small amount because I really hadn't done my homework and didn't want to be in an unsettled place like Egypt with no local currency.  I can only attribute the stupidity of converting so much to the 11 hour plane ride and already being exhausted.  I assume the conversion would carry stiff  fees but would be fair.  The attractive girl at the shiny Frankfurt kiosk seemed pleased by the proposed transaction and assured me that she would waive the commission and also I'd get their guarantee of being able to convert back any money I didn't use at full price if I saved my receipt.  What she didn't tell me is that to do this transaction they had to first convert dollars to Euros and then convert Euros to Egyptian Pounds.  Each conversion carried a 15% hit from the published Internet rate meaning I ended up losing 30% total.  Ouch! Long story short after leaving the kiosk and checking my iphone for the conversion rate I discovered it was approximately 7 to $1.  I texted my daughter that I was on my way and that I'd just converted a lot of money but felt I was ripped off.  When she scolded me with a "DAD!" I got that awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. I realized it was time to man up, go back to the kiosk and undo the whole transaction per their guarantee.  For some reason I've always had an aversion to returning things or asking for money back. They didn't want to do it, and made me come back to see the exact clerk that had helped me but after waiting for her to return I got it done.  So I started out the trip feeling like a sucker already but I felt good that I undid the damage.

One other mistake I made was having a wallet full of $50 and $100 bills, and only a few $20 and no small change. Here is a tip if you go to Egypt (or most other places) - bring about $200 worth of $1 bills.  It turns out that tipping various people and dealing with beggars is a big stress creator on international trips.  You're unfamiliar with their currency, get stuck without small change, and are unsure of the conversion rate.  In addition you're often unsure how much to tip.  Don't even deal with it.  Just smile and pass out $1 bills like you would in the U.S. and count it as part of an enjoyable trip.  You can also use $1 for street beggars and some vendors.  I don't give money to beggars in the US as a matter of principle.  But on my last trip a fellow traveler from Australia told me he brings a few hundred to 3rd world countries just planning to be "generous of spirit" and he has a much better time when he just counts it as part of his trip expense.  I decided it was good advice and would make me feel less stingy and guilty.  Anyway, back to the $1 bills. I can't think of a country I've been to where tips and donations in dollar bills aren't taken and appreciated and you'll have a much better understanding of what you're giving them.    Of course having local currency for other reasons can be important.  In China almost no one except for big hotels took credit cards, so I didn't even use the card that much in Egypt, preferring to have cash.  Also remember when you travel you can't easily convert coins. Give any coins to beggars or use them before you come back.

Day 1 May 27th - I arrived at the Cairo airport around 9 pm.  Total travel time
Many buildings in Cairo leave rebar
sticking out from roofs so they
don't get taxed as finished buildings
was about 24 hours so I was beat. Meredith had arrived a few hours earlier and our TSC tour guide met each of us.  Baggage came out incredibly slowly and I could tell the guide was anxious to get home as the hour was late but he was very patient.  He and a driver transported to the Barcelo Cairo Pyramids Hotel in Giza.  This was a good hour drive from the airport, which was fundamentally stupid because we had to turn around and go back to the airport at 6am the next morning to catch a flight to the southern part of the country (Our itinerary took us from the south part of Egypt to the North over the course of 7 days).  I casually commented on how it might have been wiser to select a hotel next to the airport but the logic of it seemed to be lost on him.  On the way in I noticed long lines of cars in the right hand lane and men waiting.  I was told that was the line for gasoline and that some people were waiting up to 2 days.
Tut Tuts line up for gas in Cairo
 I was astonished that anyone would do this and baffled why it was necessary. Later I learned that people were fueling up in anticipation of the protests that became a revolution and that was part of the reason for the length of the lines. My tour guide explained that Cairo is a city of 23 million people and that life is hard here, especially since the Muslim brotherhood took over a year ago, seriously impacting tourism.  This was the first of many times that people we came into contact with expressed dissatisfaction with president Morsy.  He then took the time on the way in to instruct me in Baksheesh - the art of tipping in Egypt.  Baksheesh is also used to describe bribes and by the end of the trip it became apparent that the line between tipping, bribing, and begging is a thin one.  We were asked for Baksheesh by people giving us services we didn't even want, such as taking our picture, or pointing out a particular hieroglyphic on a tomb wall.  The most annoying was having to tip for using bathrooms when you had no 1 pound or 5 pound notes(they hold the toilet paper and give it to you if you tip).  I once ended up paying $5 for the privilege of peeing because I had no other change.  I was trying to live up to my Australian friend's advice to be generous of spirit and enjoy.

I had read a Clive Cussler novel years ago about how cab drivers in Cairo use their horns more than their brakes.  I laughed at this line and assumed it was an exaggeration.  But it turns out horns are used more like echo location systems as 2 lane roads that have no painted lane lines often accommodate 3 lanes of traffic with cars and motorcycles weaving around each other crazily, using their horns to basically say "I'm back here brother".

The Barcelo hotel was advertised to us by TSC as "4 star".  Meredith
Barcelo Pyramids Hotel
and I agreed that it was closer to "3 star", if that. We endured quite a bit of second hand smoke, including some being circulated through the AC system that was very unpleasant.   The air conditioner in the room we stayed in the first night worked just enough to be tolerable. On the return trip to Cairo 5 days later we got a room where the air conditioner was unacceptable and endured one hot night before asking to move.  Meredith would probably have moved us us earlier but I was too exhausted to go through the hassle of complaining.

Our hotel was, as the name implies, fairly close to the Pyramids of Giza.  I had not realized that the Pyramids were on the edge of the city and also where the Sahara desert starts.  More on this later.

Day 2–June 28th: Cairo to Aswan to Abu Simbel Back to Aswan
Meredith boards the EgyptAir flight
to Aswan from Cairo
5AM trip to airport shows Cairo
We were picked up at the hotel at 5am and taken to the Cairo airport for the flight south to Aswan and then a second flight to the small town of Abu Simbel. It turns out Abu Simbel is very close to the Sudan border. Certainly as close to Sudan as I ever want to get.  We were there to see the Rock Temples of Ramses II and his wife Nefertari. These were carved into solid rock around 1264 BCE.   Upon landing in Abu Simbel Meredith and I were amused that we deplaned and were loaded onto a bus that drove approximately 30 yards to the terminal.  We could have walked there faster but I suppose they didn't want passengers walking around on the tarmac.
Cross the border to Sudan anyone?

Ramses II was said to be egotistical,
 creating multiple statues of himself
to show how powerful he was
Meredith in front of Ramses II temple
If you look at a map you will see that the largest man made reservoir in the world is Lake Nasser, created when the Egyptians dammed up the Nile in the 1950s.  This had the unfortunate side effect of flooding much of the southern peoples (known as the Nubian people) ancient homes, as well as potentially putting the historic temples under water.  UNESCO intervened and literally "moved mountains" to save the Ramses temples by moving them to higher ground a few hundred yards away and up the hill. The temples were built by Ramses II partially to mark the southern boundry of his land

Lake Nasser - Largest reservoir in the world

After touring the temples, our guide took us back to the airport and we flew write back to Aswan where we were picked up by yet another guide and transferred to our Nile cruise ship.  The picture nearby shows a moment of comedy when we were greeted at the Aswan airport with a sign saying "Barren" instead of Darren.
Who the heck is "Barren" ?
We were pretty tired and end up hanging out in our room and at the pool that evening.  One creepy feature of the pool is that it has round "portals" on all sides that allow patrons of the bar/lounge on the floor below to oogle the bikinis in the pool. Arabs are odd in thinking this is an amusing feature of a cruise ship.  The result is that Meredith didn't go swimming once.
Traditional Feluccas - Egyptian
Sailboats on the Nile in Aswan
Meredith in front of our Nile cruiser
the Tower Prestige
The elegant dining room of the Tower Prestige Nile
cruiser.  I wish the food was as nice.

We decided to forgo the horrible food on our boat, which luckily would remain parked in Aswan for the night.  We hired a horse drawn buggie and then took a free boat ride to take us to Ad-Dukka, which was a Nubian restaurant on Essa Island on the Nile.  Both the cab and boat driver were thrilled to see us as not many tourists were brave enough to venture out given the building protests in the country against president Morsi.  Our tour guides were a bit concerned we weren't on the boat but glad we survied our adventure alone.

Our cabbie pointed out the nearby Sofitel Old Cataract Hotel where Agatha Christie was said to have written the 1937 story "Death on the Nile" which later became a movie. The nearby video is our horse drawn cabbie helpfully explaining a rip off where sometimes people give you smaller piestre bills as change instead of Egyptian pounds, hoping you won't notice. There are 100 piestres in 1 Egyptian pound, making a piestre only worth .001 cents.  I believe this advice wasn't needed, as we never saw one of these bills.  Even finding 5 and 10 pound notes was difficult.  We never did find out the reason for the lack of small bills in the country.  After eating a wonderful meal we shopped at the gift shop, negotiated and purchased some small statues, and then caught the dingy ride back to the Nile where our cabbie had waited patiently for us to take us the long way back to the boat.  We witnessed an Egyptian wedding celebration, picked up the cabbies young daughter, and generally enjoyed ourselves immensely as the horse clopped through the back streets of Aswan.
8:48 PM June 28th at Ad-Dukka  for Nubian food
Egyptian wedding dancing on the
streets of Aswan.
Day 3 –June 29th 2013; Saturday:: High dam and Philae temple. The high dam created Lake Nasser back in the 1950s, built with the assistance of the Russians. As mentioned before, it also swamped a lot of Nubian homeland and ancient historical sites. In the morning we went and visited the top of the High dam.  Security was tight and we were only allowed to take pictures on the Lake Nasser side of the dam.  It was a mediocre experience, as we are Nevada natives who have seen Hoover dam.  Now That's a dam.

They didn't let us take pictures of
this side of the dam so I grabbed
this off the Internet
We took a boat ride to Philae temple, on an island in lake Nasser very near the dam that created the lake.   This flooded the original Philae Island but the relocated temple was our next destination.  What we refer to today as Philae is the main temple complex relocated from that island, after the High Dam was built, to the island of Agilika. It was the center of the cult of the goddess Isis and her connection with Osiris, Horus, and the Kingship, during the Ptolemaic period of Egyptian History.
Our tour Guide Muhammed was with us for 4 days of
our trip, staying on the boat and showing us around.
Here we take the boat ride to Isis temple of Philae
Approaching the temple of Isis, built over 500 years
from 246 BC to 305 AD
relocated in the 1970s to Agilika
Island so it wouldn't be under water

Aswan Botanical Gardens on Elephantine Island
Aswan-Kom Ombo-Edfu
Coptic christians "hacked" at many ancient egyptian carvings,
which is what all the pock marks are about.
Day 4 –June 30th 2013; Sunday :: Luxor
Morning Visit West Bank of the Nile including The Valley of Kings, The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir El-Bahari and the two colossi of Memnon. Go on with the visits of Karnak & Luxor Temples in the West Bank.Overnight at Luxor.

Day 5 –July 01st 2013; Monday Luxor & Disembarkation
Breakfast and disembarkation from the cruiser.. After visits you will be transferred to airport to take the flight to Cairo. Arrive Cairo and transfer to hotel.
Kids sell Egyptian flags on the streets of Cairo
which was a symbol of the protest

Day 6– July 02nd 2013; Tuesday Full Day Pyramids Tour 
We benefit from the revolution - Very few tourists at the
Pyramids of Giza

I was amused to bribe the guard to let me lie in
the SarcophagusNote the T-shirt.
Perhaps this stunt is why I got a severe case
of  "Pharaohs curse"
Pick up from hotel to discover Necropolis of Saqqara, Step Pyramid of King Zoser,three Pyramids of Giza, Valley Temple, Sphinx.

Day 7–July 03rd 2013; Wednesday:: Departure
Watched the revolution unfold on TV and from our hotel roof top.  Had a nice meal and took lots of pictures of the celebration in the street.  Checked out of hotel at around 10:30 pm and headed to the airport for Meredith's 3 am flight.  I spent an awful night in the Cairo airport. Several time Egyptian men in full Muslim garb sat down next to me with their luggage, only to wander off and leave their suitcases unattended next to me.  Nerve wracking!  All told I was up for over 48 hours getting home.  Longest travel time without sleep ever.

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