I still can't really believe that I just spent a weekend in Egypt, but I did. When I came to Greece I never thought I would be traveling to Africa, especially being able to go in just a weekend! It was incredible I don't really know how else to describe it. My pictures look fake and photo shopped but I swear they aren't :)
So I'll just start at the beginning, bear with me this might get long. We flew out very early Friday morning, 6am, and had a short layover in Athens which is now my favorite airport. Having been there about 6 times now I am quite familiar with it.
We got to Egypt at noon so as far as flying time is was just about 3 hours which isn't bad at all. When we got to Cairo we were met by someone from the tour who helped us get our entry visa (very cool looking!) and then through customs. It turned out to be very good we had him there because the hotel that we were staying at had recently changed names, so the guard almost didn't let us through because he said it did not exist. He only let us go when we called our guide over and he was able to explain it to him. We had no idea that it changed names, all we had was what the tour had sent us with the name. Once we got through we met our tour coordinator and discovered that it was not exactly the tour we expected, it was better. We asked how many people were in the group and he said it was just us! A private tour! Did not see that coming. It was great because we got to go at our own pace and had a personal guide the whole time.
Our coordinator, Mohamed took us to the hotel and gave us some pointers on the way about getting around and dealing with the locals. We stayed in Giza which is pretty much Cairo but not because it is on the opposite side of the Nile River. It took over an hour to drive from the airport to the hotel and we got our first look at Egyptian driving!
Mostly there is just mass amounts of traffic. We thought the driving here in Greece was bad but we were way wrong. The rule in Egypt is that there are no rules. People drive where ever and however they want to. There was three lanes painted on the road but probably about 4 or 5 lanes of cars and not really an easy way to distinguish which direction they were trying to go. Trying to cross the street is like playing Frogger; no joke. You have to just start walking and make it by one lane then hope you can get a break before another car comes. It is amazing too because I did not see a single accident the whole time we were there. There were a few close calls but that was it they were always just really close and would then go back to being very aggressive drivers.
All the women are completely covered almost head to toe since they are primarily Muslims so we stuck out like sore thumbs. The men stared and smiled at us where ever we would go. The good thing was that they do like Americans there unlike in Greece where they don't like us because of our government. The Egyptians say leave the politics to the government and therefore they don't hold that us against us. There are also tourism police everywhere and they are there to protect us and ensure our safety. Our hotel had security at the entrance that we had to go through each time we went in, and whenever we left the hotel the police needed to know where we were going, when we were coming back, and took down the contact info of our tour coordinator, Mohamed, only the most common name on the planet, he told us to just call him Mo. All the security worked at making us feel safe, but we still avoided going out on our own too much. When we did go out we just had to make sure that we didn't answer everyone that would try and talk to us, and certainly not follow them anywhere.
At the airport, we had changed a bit of money while purchasing our entry visa. They use the Egyptian pound there but will pretty much accept anything you give them. Everyone expects to be tipped, even in the bathroom where they don't provide toilet paper or paper towels. A woman will offer you some but expects a tip in return. Even if she doesn't do anything for you because your brought your handy dandy Charmin to go! (probably the best thing I packed). The whole weekend we were thinking in three currencies, Dollars, Euros and Pounds. Talk about a headache. The conversions got pretty confusing. Mo would tell us what the price was in Dollars but then we would try and pay him in pounds by converting enough Euros. Ugh. I'm glad to be back to just Dollars and Euros.
When we got to the hotel and checked in we were offered a complementary drink (this was a 5 star hotel mind you...we really hit the jackpot with this tour) of hibiscus juice which is really big there. It was really good and we got to have it a few times over the weekend. Since it was only about 2:30 we asked for suggestions on things we could do that night before the tour started the next morning. Mo offered to take us out to dinner and a boat ride on the Nile. It was not really easy to get around from where we were by just walking so we accepted his offer and decided to meet him in the lobby at 9.
We took a nap and settled in and then got ready for our first taste of night life in Egypt. He got us a cab and took us to a restaurant for some authentic Egyptian food. It was really good. I ended up being the brave one of the group and tried everything to let them know if it was good or not. The only name that I remember of what they gave us was the felafel which was on thing that we all liked. They gave us so much food, the picture here is just the appetizers and then we got a main meal which was various meats and french fries. There was even dessert! A custard and very delicious.
After dinner we made our way to downtown Cairo and the Nile river. We walked along for a while and got a taste of the craziness going on over the big soccer match the next day against Algeria. Egypt is still in the running to qualify for the World Cup and they needed to win 3-0 on Saturday. Everyone was outside with drums and flags cheering and honking. Kids were selling flags everywhere and cars would driver by with it hanging off the back or out the door of the bus. It was a great show of national pride and Mo kept telling us how great a time it was to come and be able to see this. Saturday night when we were back in our hotel we heard the crowd outside celebrating the win!! They only won 2-0 though so there will be another match today to break the tie. In fact it may already have taken place, I will have to look it up.
We got onto our own little boat and went for a short ride along the Nile. All the boats are lit up with ridiculous neon colors blinking all sorts of ways.
It was really fun and the boat played music so naturally dancing ensued! When we got back to the shore Mo wanted to give us a gift and took us on a short horse and buggy ride over the bridge again where we were meeting our cab to take us back. As we were getting into the buggy, a group of young guys cheering with tambourines and drums noticed us and started cheering to us. Mohamed translated and said that they were appreciating our beauty, saying how sweet like milk we are, and how lucky he is to be with us.
As soon as they made any advancement in our direction a tourist police officer came and pulled them away. It was so unexpected to see such a quick reaction. Then when we got off on the other side of the bridge, we stopped to take a few pictures and low and behold they same group was right behind us and came over singing more. Our driver and Mohamed got in an argument with them and we thought for a minute there might be a fight. They finally continued on their way and we made our way back to the hotel to rest up for the Pyramids in the morning!
Saturday morning we woke up and had a nice breakfast at the hotel before meeting our tour guide, Dahlia. She was going to be with us for the 2 days and was very knowledgeable and friendly. When we needed to pay for an extra ticket or the camel ride and all we had were large bills she covered it for us so we could pay her later.
We started at the Pyramids of Giza which were really close to our hotel. I don't know how to describe it to you because there aren't really words. It was breathtaking to stand next to them and we even got to climb up a bit. The blocks were bigger than us and then you look up and see how many there are and you're even more amazed. We spent some time at the Great pyramid and then went over to the second one where we were able to go in.
The passage way is really small so you have to crouch over the whole way down till you get to a long passage where you can stand for a min. Then its back to crouching as you make the final steps to the room inside where the king would have been buried. These pyramids are all empty because the thieves looted them well before we came around but it was still really cool to see what the room looked like. it had a high ceiling and was pretty plain looking but then we stopped and thought hey, we're in a Pyramid right now! Very cool.
Then we went up to the plateau where we got a view of all three of the Pyramids, including the smaller one. Our guide helped us get a camel ride. Its a lot higher than riding a horse and much calming. The camel man, as they are called, lead us around towards the pyramids and took a few pictures for us and then led us back to where we started. It was really fun and something totally different, just like the donkey in Santorini. The last stop in Giza was the Sphinx. We spent some time taking our pictures and making our way through the temple to get closer to it. It was really crowded around there but still impressive.
Next stop was Memphis, an outdoor museum which was pretty small but it has the second largest sphinx. But on the way we stopped at a shop to see how papyrus was made. One of the men in the store showed us the different steps from the full plant to peeling it apart, then soaking it in water, laying it in a woven pattern and finally pressing it and leaving it to dry in the sun. It was really impressive because the paper is re-usable and can hold water. It doesn't rip and the papyrus has a lot of starch in it so you can peel off a strip then just wet it and let it dry back in place and it will be good as new. After the demonstration we browsed the store to see all the different paintings they had made of ancient scenes or symbols. A lot of them you can even have names written on in hieroglyphics. We spent more time than expected in that store because they were quite the aggressive salesmen but we finally made it out and back to our guide to continue on to Memphis. Besides the Sphinx, Memphis also has a giant statue of Ramses II that was found standing straight up in the ground which leads them to believed that there is still more undiscovered there. Our guide explained to us about why they showed him the way they did, not just for this sculpture but for all their statues. The beard, if it is straight means that it was created while the person reflected was still alive. If it is curled then it was made after their death. Also the fingers were believed to be very fragile so they would always be shown with their hand holding something to keep their fingers curled and protected. This also meant that the arm would be flexed and showing the muscles. Also displayed somewhere on the statue are his names as a prince and as a king. The cobra on the headdress is meant to signify royalty because it was believed it would protect them.
After Memphis we drove out a bit more to Sakkara to see the step pyramid there. The temple there is also still mostly together. It was cool to see a different kind of pyramid but unfortunately this one is really crumbling so they are doing a lot of restoration work to keep it from falling apart anymore. There was hardly anyone around it either so we took the opportunity to take a few shots, I mean, when in Egypt right? Sakkara was the last main stop of the day and we headed back to the hotel. On the way back we stopped again but this time at a store that makes the perfume oils from the lotus flowers and other flowers. We got to try a bunch of different scents and learned how they used the oil to fragrance the whole home. Since the oil will never evaporate, jars of it have been found in many of the tombs. We may have made a few purchases there as well, who knows. After a quick stop to grab our jackets from the hotel we went to the sound and lights show at the pyramids. It sounded like it would be really cool, but it wasn't. Don't get me wrong, seeing them at night was really amazing and I'm glad we got to go, but the show itself was really cheesy and overly dramatic. So much so that we had to try to keep from laughing out loud. I think they just tried way to hard and it showed. Oh well, at least the pyramids still looked as impressive as ever. As we turned in for the night we heard all the cheers of the people out in the streets celebrating Egypt's win!
Sunday morning Jamie work up feeling really sick, probably from something she ate the day before but we weren't sure what because we all had the same things. She took some medication she had brought with her from home and decided to stick it out not wanting to miss anything. Dahlia, our tour guide, told her that anything from the states wouldn't work for her so she went to a pharmacy and bought her something that is specifically for travelers to Egypt. Told you she was nice :) We started at the Cairo museum, no cameras allowed past the garden unfortunately. The garden was really pretty, papyrus and lotus plants right in the middle and a lot of statues all around. It was a really nice day too so that just made it better. The Museum was amazing! 60% of the treasure from King Tuts tomb from the valley of the kings is on display and it is some of the coolest things I've ever seen. During the mummification process the body is put on three different beds all of which were completely together and looked like they had been made a week ago. One of the small beds even had metal hinges that looked like they were from Home Depot. There was also a display of jewelery and then two mummy rooms. I saw 25 mummies including Ramses II. I'm still amazed.
After the museum we went to the Muhammad Ali Mosque in the Citadel. It's not the most famous mosque in Cairo but it is the most beautifully decorated one. We made sure that we were dressed appropriately so all we had to do was take off our shoes to go inside. It was really crowded but once we got our free time we just sat on the carpets and looked up and the beautiful ceiling. Outside the mosque you got a nice view of the city as well. From there we made our last stop of the day at the market. Dahlia had warned us that the attention we already experienced would be worse in the market and that we might not want to stay too long. She offered to take us for a drink in a small cafe toward the center of the market in honor of the Egyptian's win the previous night so we followed her lead and sat for an hour having some nice conversation. She was able to answer a lot of our questions about life in Egypt and the Muslim culture. The topic of arranged marriage came up and she informed us that she had attempted marriage 34 times so far! Either she has said no or he has. But apparently that is fine and that's the whole idea of it, you aren't really forced, you get to say yes or no.
We headed out into the market with what was left of our money and her predictions were correct. We pretty much just walked straight through only stopping at one place. Most of the men would just hold out things for just to look at like scarves or replicas of the Sphinx. But then there were the ones that told us we broke his heart, or that today he would call us his wife. They also asked “how many camels for her?” in reference to a dowry and trading camels for one of us. By the time we made it out again we were quite happy to head back to the bus and the hotel. We planned on taking an extra excursion for a dinner cruise on the Nile with traditional dancing but since Jamie was still not feeling well we decided against it to not leave her alone. It was a quiet and relaxing night resting up for another day of traveling. I was actually happy to come back to Greece, back to something at least somewhat familiar. It was a lot to do in just one weekend but I would love to go back and see more than just Cairo. Maybe someday.
There has been a lot going on in Thessaloniki this week as well. Tuesday was Polytechnic day so schools were closed and we were advised to stay indoors to avoid being caught in the riots. Its a day in remembrance of events in the 40's in Athens when students protested the government at the time and it turned into a rather bloody affair. Every year on the 17th of November though, students will continue the protests. We did venture out later in the evening to try and go see a movie because till Sunday there is and International Film festival! One of my friends here has a volunteer position there through and independent study he is doing so he has kept is up to date on whats going on. Most of the movies that are premiering the director and main actors have been present. Unfortunately I won't be able to go to any of the big ones because of classes but we are going to one tomorrow and another on Friday. I don't remember the names off hand but I'll write about that later.
Anyway, the movie we tried to see was already sold out, so we started walking back to our building and on the way passed through the remnants of tear gas and wound up at a police barricade a block from our dorm. They were all dressed in their riot gear waiting for the students to come out of Aristotle University, the main college here. We didn't stick around too long because nothing was actually going on because it happened earlier in the day. Our RA told us that this year was pretty calm compared to others in the past which is good.
Last thing! I hope you enjoyed the little quiz I left you last week. As promised here are the answers. Hope you did well, and if not, don't feel too bad its not like it counts for anything :)
For the pictures you can follow the links to see them on Facebook. I'll add a few to this post tomorrow. Album 1 Album 2