|Location: Cairo, Egypt|
|Local time: Monday, 6pm|
Well Egypt has been a blast so far. I've covered the country from East to West, and North to South. It's a very cheap country, yet somehow I've managed to spend an absolute fortune!
At two in the morning a few weeks back, I made the pilgrimage and climbed Mt. Sinai (the 2,285m high mountain upon which Moses is supposed to have received the Ten Commandments from God) along with a hundred other tourists. It was a surreal experience, climbing this huge rock in total darkness (I hooked up with five American students who are studying in Cairo - they had a torch which helped me considerably!). Ten minutes into the climb, we passed through a 'garden' of camels, if you will. (there are many Bedouin guides who want to give you a camel ride to the top) It was very, very weird, walking along a track surrounded by maybe 50 camels on either side, sitting silently in a large group just grinding their teeth and watching us through the dark. Once again I felt like I was strolling through another Dr. Suess book! The last 30 mins of the climb was rather gruelling (I foresee a cable car within 10 years!), but myself and two others were the first people to reach the top. Thus at 3:30am we were sitting there alone at the top of Mt. Sinai, freezing our bollocks off. It wasn't exactly a holy experience, wathing the sun rise from Mt. Sinai, surrounded by a bunch of jabbering Russians (boy, those guys are everywhere!), but I'm glad that I can now say I've been there done that. I found walking through St. Katherine's Monastery at the foot of the mountain (built on the site of the Burning Bush) to be a bit of a hum-drum experience.
While in Dahab I went for a dive in the Red Sea, and unfortunately was dissappointed with this too. I think that all the diving I did in the Caribbean has taken away much of the shine for me. If I ever return to Egypt, I'd venture to Sharm El Shiek to dive the Ras Mohammed wreck. Inshallah. (a very very typical Arabic saying which means 'God willing' - it's usually dropped into a conversation at least two or three times!)
Regarding the language, my Arabic skills now incorporate perhaps 20 words, not including being able to count from 1 to 10 (and read Arabic numbers). It's always good to let out a few Arabic sayings to make the locals laugh. Go me.
The Dahab to Cairo bus trip was 9 hours of hell, and included no less than six separate security checkpoints (which involved stopping the bus, waking up everybody lucky enough to be sleeping in the first place, and going through everybody's passports). It seems that the Egyptian government has employed thousands too many soldiers... I noticed that at every checkpoint (usually some rediculously random location in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but sand and rock), for every two soldiers actually working, there were 10 more sitting around smoking or dozing.
Egypt is a country of some 70 million people. 95% of the land here is un-inhabitable desert. Thus the population is almost entirely concentrated along the Nile, which splits the country in two, running South to North. There would be no Egypt without the Nile. And there would be no Egypt without Cairo - the 'Mother of the World'. They are one and the same. Founded in the 10th century, it is home to about 17 million people, and is one of the most densely-populated cities in the world. Traffic pollution forms an ever-present hazey cloud that hangs over the city often obscuring the sky, and the constant background noise of car horns is something you just have to get used to. I've never heard the car horn used so much as I have here. Indeed, if a taxi's horn were to quit working, the driver would surely pull over, unable to continue! Other than that, Cairo's taxi drivers must be the most fearless men in the world! Sitting in the front seat ('suicide seat') of a taxi here is an unforgettable experience. Heck, just standing on a street corner in Islamic Cairo (the oldest part of the city) is a total trip. There's no way I could even begin to describe what it's like to stroll through this city, to those of you out there in the Western World that haven't visited here before. A cacophony of sound, sights and smells. An all-out assault on the senses. And if I hear one more "Welcome! Where are you from" I swear I'm gonna crack.
Unfortunately, I've come to suspect every Egyptian person I meet. They see us white tourists as walking money bags, and will try to squeeze every last dollar they can out of us. It's often very wearying to just walk the streets. "La'a shukran" ("no thanks") now rolls off my tongue without even thinking. With 20/20 hindsight, I know for a fact I've been ripped off here several times, but they're so devious that at the time of purchase I've walked away thinking "damn, I really screwed that guy down!". Oh well. Money comes and money goes. Inshallah.
The first day I got to Cairo I just had to visit the Pyramids at Giza. And wow, they were everything I'd imagined. It was a real emotional rush for me, rounding the street corner (I had no idea that they were right on the very edge of the city!) and seeing them standing there in the distance. It was like "oh my God, I'm finally here, finally standing at the edge of some 5,000 years of history". A similar feeling to how I'd felt when I saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time, or when I first stood in Red Square in Moscow.
The hostel I'm staying at organised for me to buy an ISIC card (International Student Identity Card) for about US$20. It's totally legit, and I've saved so much more just using it for entrance fees and train travel etc. And I'm not even a student (sshhh!). Sorted!
At first I wasn't liking Cairo so much, but now that I know the prices, know how to bargain properly, and know a bit about how life goes on here, I think this place is really growing on me. It's such a crazy, crazy city.
I took an overnight train to Aswan, 1000km south of Cairo, and from there took a 3am bus ride the next morning to Abu Simbel, an incredible temple in the desert. Walking along the Nile around Aswan, I was asked the same question every ten steps: "Taxi? Marijuana?" or "Taxi? Smoke weed?" Boy, those Nubian Felucca captains are stoners! I managed to organise a cheap felucca (traditional Nile sailing boat with a very shallow draught so that it can safely cross shoals and can be easily rowed) trip to Kom Ombo, some 45km north up-river (had wantd to go all the way to Edfu, but they said that this was impossible at this time of year). So for 70 EGP Egyptian Pounds (about US$12) with all food included I sailed up the Nile for two days and two nights. It was brilliant. The first night we stopped at the river's edge along with 6 other feluccas, and I brought out my guitar and started singing beside the fire set up by one of the captains. Before I knew it I had a chorus-line of some 20 half-drunk Aussies and Kiwis singing along with me. And then the Nubians (natives of southern Egypt, of African descent, and with a different language) brought out their traditional drums etc and it turned into a big old riot, with singing, dancing, and stoned Felucca captains. I just stood there on the beach and watched, incredulous. Never expected this!
At Kom Ombo I checked out another amazing temple, then we headed to Edfu (I skipped this temple, knowing I'd soon be all 'templed-out') and arrived in Luxor that afternoon. I was loving being in Southern Egypt, as it was always 30-35 degrees during the day, and I was slowly starting to get brown. I visited the Temple of Karnak with Alan, a kiwi dude I'd met on the Felucca, and found this to be the most impressive temple I'd seen (and still is). Wow. The following day we rented a bike (US$2 for the day, but you get what you pay for!) and checked out more temples and the Valley of the Kings (we hiked over a mountain to get into this, and didn't pay the entrance fee, but instead paid 15EGP baksheesh (basically a tip) to one of the tomb guards when there were no other tourists around, and he let us into two of the tombs (hell, you've seen one Egyptian Pharonic tomb, you've seen em all, right?!). It worked out well for everybody - we got to see the Valley of the Kings super-cheaply, and he got 10% of his monthly wage in one go (the poor guy gets less than US$30 a month). He even shared some of his lunch with us. If the Egyptians aren't trying to get money out of you, they can actually be damned nice people.
After Luxor I took an overnight train back to Cairo, stayed the night, then headed out to Siwa Oasis early the next morning. This is one of Egypt's Western Oases, some 550km west of Cairo, and roughly 80km from the border of Libya. It seemed like a tiny place, but there are some 15,000 Berber people living here (indigenous tribes of North Africa, again with their own separate language). The oasis consists of 300,000 date palms and 70,000 olive trees. And there were more donkeys-and-carts than there were cars. Being in the desert I thought it might be nice and toasty, and I was looking forward to just loafing about and soaking up some sun beside a crystal-clear fresh water spring, but a cold wind continued to blow throughout my stay and I never felt warm, so I cut the trip short and left after a few days. I took the overnight bus back to Alexandria, and, being full, had to stand for the first four hours. I never knew I could fall asleep on my feet.
I was travelling with Josh from America (whom I had earlier dubbed 'Cowboy Jesus'), and he called some local friends upon our arrival in Alexandria, who showed us around the city and fed us until I could eat no more. Boy, I love Egyptian food. It would be really easy to be a vegetarian here too (I think I've had meat maybe five times in the last three weeks here).
So now I'm back in Cairo. Yesterday I visited Saqqara, the site of the oldest pyramids (7,000 years!) and ended up having a fantastic lunch on the floor of a local man's house, smoking sheesha (water pipe) and watching a bad but funny Egyptian movie. He showed me a way to get into the pyramid site without paying the entrance fee, via a hole in a fence. Nice to have some local insight now and then!
And tomorrow, I'm leaving. Back north to cold cold Estonia. But I'm looking forward to it. I'm excited to be again seeing some special people, but also I'm happy to be going back to a bit of familiarity. Not to mention... normality.
But I know a part of me will miss this crazy place.
This is a rediculously small collection of some of my photos. I've missed out many good ones coz I simply have no time to spend on these lengthy diary updates! I promise I'll put up many more photos soon...Inshallah!
A view of Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock, from the top of the Mt. of Olives.
An orthodox Jewish man walking back from praying at the Western (Wailing) Wall.
...and going. I just liked the 'artsy' factor of these shots!
Another man, sporting the unusual Jewish hairstyle.
Okay, so I was getting a little carried away, but I was just enjoying sitting there, watching the comings and goings of these guys.
Notes stuffed into the cracks of the Wailing Wall. You can read some of this one...
A young woman outside her home in Wadi Musa, Jordan.
The lonely desert of Wadi Araba, Jordan.
Watching the sun go down in Aqaba, Jordan, over the Gulf of Aqaba
(part of the Red Sea) while waiting for the ferry to Egypt.
The incredible Treasury building at Petra, Jordan.
An old Bedouin woman trying to sell us handcrafts.
Life in the desert.
The Monastery at Petra.
Sand stuff for sale in Dahab.
People watching the sun rise at the top of Mt. Sinai.
Yep, the Sphinx.
Well, what can I say?!...
One of the Seven Wonders of the World - the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), built around 2560 BC! It consists of
approximately 2 million blocks of stone, each weighing more than two tons. Originally 145m (481ft) high, it's since
lost 10m off the top. But I still think it's a bloody masterpiece.
One of the guards at the pyramids.
(They didn't seem to do much except get in the way of my photos!)
The capped Khefre's pyramid, with Khufu behind it.
The Eyptian Museum in Cairo.
An all-too-familiar street scene in Cairo.
Inside the Amr Ibn Al-Aas mosque in old Cairo. Founded in 642AD, it is the oldest mosque in Egypt and Africa.
A woman paints a scene in the Islamic Quarter of Cairo.
A new friend smokes his sheesha.
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