Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Egypt: In and Out of the Bubble

I’m Tom and a volunteer at the HI Chicago Hostel. I mostly work the Info Desk, but also occasionally lead outings to places like the Green Mill Lounge and Smoke Daddy. I just returned from a tour of Egypt with my son and daughter and we had a great time. Our itinerary started with arrivals in Cairo. My daughter overland by bus from Jerusalem and my son and I from Chicago via Istanbul. We started our sightseeing in Cairo with the Sphynx and pyramids in Giza and then headed south to Aswan via the overnight “sleeping train”. We arrived late morning in Aswan and then had four days down the Nile on a cruise boat. We went from Aswan to Luxor and visited the Temple of Isis, the Aswan Dams, the Unfinished Obelisk, the Temple at Kom Ombo, then down the river further to Edfu and the Temple of Horus. On the third day we saw the Colossi of Memnon, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the largely restored Temple of Hatshepsut.(the queen who became a Pharoah) on the west bank of Luxor. We left the boat and our tour guide in Luxor and checked out the Temples of Luxor and Karnak, as well as, the wonderful Luxor Museum. The next day we went by train to Alexandria for four days to check out the Alexandria Library and other sites including the National Museum, Fort Qaitbay and the Presidential Palace at Montazah. After Alexandria a 3 hour evening train ride got us back to Cairo four days and the Egyptian Museum, Coptic Cairo, Old (Islamic) Cairo.

Most of the trip we made up our itinerary as we went using Lonely Planet and other resources for guides as to what to see and how to get there. The obvious exception was the cruise which included our own guide and prescheduled and prepaid outings and tours with still a fair amount of free time. In general the cost was higher, but more time efficient compared to going on our own. The package tour also allowed us to ease into the Egyptian way instead of a sink or swim approach of doing everything on our own. It also helped that my daughter Sara has a pretty good command of Arabic and is used to negotiating with taxi drivers in the West Bank in Palestine.

My favorite experiences there included Alexandria in general for it’s combination of Middle Eastern and European influences and great museums including the new Library which is an architectural masterpiece and the region’s great seafood. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is a must as are at least some of the temples, tombs and pyramids in the Nile Valley. They all can be somewhat overwhelming, but taking them in manageable chunks and not trying to see them all is a good strategy. Getting around on foot can seem a little scary at first, but despite all the honking and lack of traffic control and structure that we are used to in the US, pedestrian and vehicular traffic moves fairly efficiently even in the busiest sections of Cairo. I highly recommend walking as much as you are comfortable in all of the cities. Follow the natives and keep an eye out, but drivers are highly aware of where the pedestrians are and will usually give tourists just a little more room to get through the traffic. I never saw outright road rage and in general drivers and walkers operate from a position of enlightened self-interest. When you get tired there are plenty of cheap minibuses and taxis that will get you to most places in the cities for a few cents to three or four dollars.

Food was great, inexpensive and easy to access without going near any western hotel chain dining rooms. Shammie is most like Greek or Lebanese pita, baladie is similar but darker with more whole grain and bran on the bottom. Schwarma of all kinds is available on the street and in restaurants. Egyptian pancakes tend to be fairly plain, but in some places are on the same menus with more standard Italian style thin crust pizza. The pancakes tend to have the ingredients baked totally inside the enveloping crust and are more like pizza than western style pancakes. Everywhere you go mezzes (salads and appetizers) are available. Some are served on a complimentary basis or can be ordered in combination plates. They vary from baba gannouj to green salads to pickled vegetables and various kinds of humus and tahina, as well as kibbeh and felafel. One dish unique to Egypt is kushari that contains lentils, pasta, rice, chick peas, onions and is topped with vinegar sauce and/or hot sauce made with chilies and tomatoes. Essentially vegetarian or in most cases vegan it can also be topped with schwarma, shish kabob or kibbeh. It is served in tiny street stalls and shiny, clean fast food places. One thing I did not see anywhere in Egypt is hot dogs, but there is the occasional McDonald’s and lots of KFC’s including across the street from the Sphynx in Giza. In Alexandria seafood reigns with street vendors and white table cloth fine dining. Many places you pick out what you want from either the raw catch on display or point to it as its pulled from the deep fryer and then piled on your platter. For a great selection of Egyptian fast food in Cairo or Alexandria go to GAD. The bakeries are not that plentiful, but very popular, particularly at night and many have great cheap gelato. Food and beer (when you can find it) is amazingly cheap in restaurants. Nice lunches will run to
15-25 Egyptian Pounds ($3-5) and easily feed two. Half liter beers are usually ten poounds. Even in nicer restaurants bills were typically under 100 pounds for two for dinner. Tips are often itemized and included on the bill.

Hotels tend to run from big city western rates for Sofitels and Hiltons to hostels for about $5 per person for a shared room to less than $25 for a private ensuite for two or three. Budget hotels in Alexandria are not plentiful, but the one we found was brand new (in an old building) and less than $50 per night for a private ensuite for three. Almost everybody includes breakfast in the rate as well as all the taxes. Our hostel/budget hotels in Alexandria and Cairo were both in the top floors of apartment/office buildings built in the late 19th century with lots of charm and floor to ceiling french doors with louvers and balconies and great views. The only downside seemed to be the lack of dependability of the elevators which were old cage style ones with slightly modernized cars. All of our hotel/hostel reservations were done through Hostelworld or Expedia and there were no problems with the reservations or the rates quoted. Hostelworld charges a small booking fee and prepaid deposit.

So if you go to Egypt, you don’t have to do the package tour. You can mix and match with cruises and side trips or even do it all ad hoc. Just one other piece of advice–take your ATM card. ATM’s are everywhere in Egypt and generally the fees are less than exchanging US$ travelers checks or cash and almost no one takes credit cards outside of the big hotels.

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