Saturday, October 24, 2009

Hisssss! Dodging traffic on our way to the Pyramids in Cairo, Egypt


Destination: Cairo, Egypt

Number of Days Spent: 3 days

Where we stayed: Juliana Hotel (130EP or $22) Nice, clean place in the Garden District. Free WIFI. Hard to find, especially at night since it's on the third floor of a bank building with a small sign. If you are looking for peace and quiet in the middle of Cairo this is about as good as it gets. That does mean, however, a short walk to restaurants, shops, etc.

Best restaurant: Egyptian food is widely regarded as the worlds worst cuisine but there can still be a few diamonds in the rough. Koshary El Tahrir had excellent koshary ( 5EP/$1 I like to call it leftover surprise - think spaghetti with rice and lentils topped with fried onions & a garlicky vinegar with optional hot sauce - weird but tasty), Falfela is a bit touristy and a tad overpriced, but the hummus and roasted chicken are both excellent. Lastly, the roasted eggplant sandwiches (about $.25-.50) at At Tabei ad-Dumyati was great for an on the go meal before jumping on the train to Aswan!

Best of: 4000 year old burial chambers in the shape of pyramids, rich treasures of the Pharaohs, get "lost" in Islamic Cairo - never a dull moment

Worst of: 20 million people + little to no rainfall + very little government regulation = one of the most polluted locations on the face of the earth. After just one day in the city your snot turns black and coughing is about as common as breathing. The museum could stand some AC.

Most Memorable: Watching the circus like show between touts and package tourists that goes on at the base of the world's best known monuments...The Impressive Pyramids of Giza.

Useful Tip: Always negotiate everywhere in Egypt, for everything unless a price is clearly stated in writing (and even then sometimes). This includes taxis, tours, water, the use of toilets, etc. In the Egyptian Museum there are two mummy rooms included for the price of one ticket - two people can split one ticket as both rooms are similar. Generally speaking, the more aggressive the tout, the more they will attempt to rip you off. Look for the guy who doesn't seem to care - they will usually be your best bet in getting the "local" price.

Bumper to bumper traffic. Streets lines with thousands of black taxis. Pedestrians intermingled in the fray doing a real life version of Frogger. Cars driving without lights on at night. Welcome to Cairo, home to over 20 million people making it the largest city in Africa. It's noisy, polluted, dirty and yet somehow manages to exude a little charm in between the layers of grime. One side of town boasts the famous pyramids of Giza, nearly engulfed by the ever growing city. On the other side lies the heart and soul of Cairo, the chaotic charm of Islamic Cairo. Sandwiched in-between the two the old collides with the new. The oldest river in the world and sustainer of Egyptian life, the Nile, meanders past an ever growing center of business and modernization. Many come and go right to the Pyramids and leave, but giving the city even a moments glance will reveal a side you don't expect.

Upon stepping off the bus at around 11:30pm, we were immediately surrounded by taxi touts. There are an estimated 80,000 taxis in the city and finding one is hardly a question. Finding one with a working meter, however, is virtually impossible. To compound problems, anyone can be a taxi driver, all you need is a car that runs...sorta. Our cabbie didn't have any clue where our hotel was but yet still had the calls for "Baksheesh!" (the word for tip in Arabic) in full gear. A hour later, a tour of Cairo included in the price, and we still hadn't arrived. Not until we got out of the car and walked around deserted streets looking for a small sign that was on the third floor of a bank building did we finally find the place. Once again the cries for Baksheesh came but we didn't have small change to begin with so the pissed off, inept driver sped off. Welcome to Cairo.

Regarded as one of the most important museums in the world, the Egyptian Museum sits square in the heart of Cairo and contains some of the greatest archeological finds of all time. King Tut's treasure (what is not out on loan that is), two rooms of mummies, and loads and loads of statues, bowls and just about everything under the Egyptian sun found along the banks of the Nile over the past 200 years all sit in this aging building. Entrance fees are steep (about $28 per person for museum and mummy rooms), but that's mainly a fundraising effort to build a much needed state of the art museum out near the pyramids. One could spend days here exploring and researching, and some do. For the casual travelers such as ourselves, a half day covers the highlights without too much rushing around. King Tut's treasure trove is simply stunning and overwhelming. Like Russian Stacking Dolls, the boy king was laid to rest under three sarcophagi which were then placed in four shrines. His mask and inner sarcophagi weigh a combined 121 kilos (266 pounds) of solid gold! At the other end of the museum lies the other major highlight...the mummy rooms. Although they cost extra to get into, it's worth it to see them so well preserved after 3000 years, albeit a little bizarre. Sandwiched in between are literally thousands of exhibits that would in most museums be the focal points, but in this one, more of a footnote. The only downside to the museum at the moment is the building itself. Little money has went into it since all the money is being saved for the new place. Many of the display labels are from the 50's or earlier, the building lacks AC - a major drawback in the summer heat, and the whole place has a fine layer of dust. Perhaps sometime in the year 2020 these treasures will finally get a climate controlled home they deserve.

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After getting our feel of ancient history, it was time to step outside and into the 21st Century. A short cab ride away from the modern hotels and buildings cropping up around the Nile, lies the heart of Islamic Cairo. Here, the modern business suits give way to the traditional robes. Aish (Bread) is freshly baked for pennies. No matter the time of day, the streets are alive. This part of town is also a good place to practice, or at least, experience the unique "language" of Cairo. While Arabic is the official language, Cairenes have a couple of unique ways to "say" common phrases. To ask for the check at a restaurant, simply make a slashing motion with one hand across the palm of the other. A nod with the head in conjunction with a "tsk" sound is the way to say no. Our favorite, however, is when they need to come through and you're in the way, they make a "hiss" sound. While in our culture that may be a little rude, here it's normal.

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A trip to Egypt would not be complete without seeing the famous pyramids. Upon seeing these massive monuments it is easy to see how some people may believe them to not be man made, but rather, by aliens or gods. Research has shown however that during the months when the Nile became flooded, thousands of farmers could have been routed away from their lands to build these mausoleums of the pharaohs. With the waters being high, it would also aid in transporting the stones from quarries up stream. While the pyramids at Giza grab all the attention and hoards of tourists, there are over 90 pyramids scattered across the desert plains and a few of them are well worth the effort. We dedicated a full day to visiting a few of the lesser known pyramids as well as the must see ones at Giza.

We started the day at the oldest pyramid known as the Step Pyramid of Saqqara. Built by Zoser in 2650 B.C.E., the Step pyramid consists of six levels rising to a height of 60 meters (about 200 feet) and is made entirely of stone making it the oldest stone monument in the world. The pyramid is the centerpiece of a vast funerary complex that includes courtyards, temples and halls connecting them all together. The structure represents the earliest attempt to move away from perishable building materials like mud and wood and gave birth to later Egyptian achievements. As an interesting footnote, the complex is also home to the oldest known graffiti. A visitor to the tomb during the reign of Ramses II (1500 years later, 3000 years ago) scribbled on one of the walls his admiration for Zoser. With Saqqara being the burial place of the ancient city of Memphis (capital of Lower Egypt) the entire area is covered in not only other pyramids, but also more common burial tombs. The social elite would also have elaborate burial tombs built. While they don't match the pyramids in size and height, these other tombs surpass the pyramids in paintings and giving detailed accounts of more day to day life. Most of the walls are adorned with hieroglyphs and scenes of just about everything from battles to birthing.

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Just a little farther South from Saqqara lies a couple of other significant pyramids: The Bent and the Red Pyramids. After successfully mastering the step pyramid concept, the Egyptians would try and build them taller and completely smooth sided. Their first attempt came about 50 years later in the form of what is known today as the Bent Pyramid. Starting at a 54 degree angle, the architects realized halfway up that the building was becoming unstable and could not continue at this angle. The rest of the building was then completed at the more gentle slope of 43 degrees giving the structure a "bent" appearance. Undeterred, the architects began building another pyramid next door, this time starting at a 43 degree angle. The results are known today as the Red Pyramid and represent the first true pyramid ever built. Both pyramids are the same height at 105 meters (about 345 feet) making them the third largest pyramids, only the ones at Giza are larger. As an added bonus, the entrance fee and fee to climb inside are both about half as much as they charge in Giza plus there are no touts and you are likely to have the place to yourself. We played tomb raider and climbed the steep 125 steps down into the inner chambers. Word of warning - stretch before you climb - we didn't and the awkward angle you are forced to climb will leave you a little sore for a couple of kidding. While it was a neat experience to be wandering around inside a 4500 year old building, there was not much to look at. While the architects finally got the right angle, the interior decorators must have had more important things to do. The walls are completely void of any adornment.

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The only remaining "Seven Wonders of the World". Evidence of aliens? Arguably the most recognized man made structure on earth. Whatever you know or have heard of the Pyramids of Giza cannot prepare you for the sight. Here they stand, the largest of which contains 2.3 million blocks each weighing in at around 2.5 tons reaching a height of 146 meters (around 480 feet), as they have for 46 centuries. Standing guard is the iconic Sphinx. With the body of a lion and the face of...well, the Pharaoh himself, the Sphinx is overshadowed by the pyramids but still quite large. Probably the best and worst part of visiting the pyramids today are all the tourists...followed by all the touts. We like to refer to it as somewhat of a circus. Don't get me wrong, the pyramids are impressive and well worth the visit, but watching the touts go to work on the bus loads of overpaying tourists was equally as entertaining. When 1/5 of your economy comes from tourism, and your number one tourist attraction (volume wise) is within easy reach of 20 million people, most of which are at the poverty level or borderline poverty, you have a recipe for hoards of trinket peddlers and camel jockeys all trying to get your attention and separate you from your cash. "Want camel ride?" "Why not?" "I have nice Camel." "It's too hot to walk" "Long walk, take Camel?" "I give you Egyptian price!" "Ok, you don't want to ride, how about lady?" "Come on, nice experience!" I think you get the picture. After finding a shady spot, which are few and far between by the way, we sat down and watched the spectacle ourselves. We recommend doing the same. Sit, have some water, and watch the interactions that occurs. The pyramids themselves are a must see, but the circus that goes on at the bottom will give you a story to tell if nothing else.

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Having our feel of Pyramids and highly congested Cairo, we packed our bags and hit the night train all the way down (or up depending on your perspective) to Aswan.

To see more photos of Cairo click here!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Does it look like we are trying to swim 8 miles underwater to the border? Diving the Red Sea - Aqaba, Jordan!


Destination: Aqaba, Jordan

Number of Days Spent: 4 days

Where we stayed: Bedouin Garden Village - 25 JD - $33/night with breakfast, a pool (a godsend in the heat), AC & wifi

Who we dove with: Arab Divers - 22 JD/dive ($30/dive - you must book direct, negotiate and complete at least 6 dives to get this rate - we highly recommend this company, the dive master was terrific and the equipment in excellent condition)

Best restaurant: Arabic Moon - cold & creamy hummous (with meat & without), falafel, salad & Arabic bread...a feast for 2 with drinks (beers are sold elsewhere) was 6 JD ($9). This was hands down our favorite restaurant in the Middle East. The hordes of locals streaming in for lunch & dinner seem to agree! While we were in Israel (see future post) we seriously thought about crossing back across the border for another meal at this great local joint. It would have been worth it aside from the visa costs and border formalities...I wonder if they would have delivered to the border? Do you have anything to declare? I digress.

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Best of: Warm water, crystal clear visibility & very few tourists make diving here a pleasure (Aqaba is supposedly what Sharm & Dahab were like 10-15 years ago).

Worst of: The "cool" ocean breeze felt like it was coming from a hot hair dryer. The local perverts like to hang out at the beach to catch a glimpse of the western women in bathing suits (the local women swim covered head to toe so we were quite the sensation in our "shocking" swimsuits).

Most Memorable: While we were preparing to dive near the Saudi Arabian border a jeep with a gun mounted on the top pulled up to us and soldiers (holding guns as well) jumped out to see what we were up to. Meanwhile we're standing there in our swimsuits, wetsuits half on and oxygen tanks in the sure sounds like a mystery. No worries though, they just wanted to confirm that we had no plans to swim the 11 kilometers to the border to cross illegally. No thank you.

Useful tips: If you are heading to the beaches (ie Bedouin Garden Village) take the shared van for .50 JD instead of the taxi for 5JD. They leave from just next to the fort. Don't forget to negotiate to get that rate!

Day 1: Eat breakfast, dive in the Red Sea, spend the afternoon sitting in the pool reading & chatting with friends (this was the only place we could stand to be in the heat), late afternoon dive again, eat dinner, have a beer & go to bed.

Day 2: Repeat day 1.

Day 3: Repeat day 1.

A fantastic time was had by all :-) Here are the pictures to prove it!

Seriously, aside from diving/snorkeling Aqaba does not offer much else to the independent traveler. There are a few places offering water sports mainly to package tourists from Amman; but there are far better beaches in the world...and you don't have to worry about the perverts. Good thing the diving is pretty good.

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After recharging our batteries a bit it was time to hit the trail. Next stop, off to the largest city in Africa: Cairo, Egypt.

To see more photos of Aqaba click here!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Where's my Donkey? Hiking in the "Lost" City of Petra, Jordan


Destination: Wadi Musa (Petra), Jordan

Number of Days Spent: 3 days

Where we stayed: Valentine Hotel - 15 JD ($24) The rooms were among the cheapest in Wadi Musa but the real appeal is the great group of travelers this place attracts. Every night they offer a dinner buffet and almost everyone attends. Stories are swapped and recommendations are traded for future travel. They also offer free transport to and from Petra, a blessing at the end of a hard day. As if that were not enough perks, they also show Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade every single night (the last scenes were filmed here in Petra).

Best restaurant: The hotel offered a 4JD ($6) dinner buffet each night with more than 20 different mezzes. It was excellent and we took advantage of it each night.

Best of: Emerging from the Siq to reveal the stunning Treasury, multi-colored layers of Sandstone, excellent hikes around Petra

Worst of: Most of the Bedouin treat animals with respect but we did notice that some animals were tied up in the hot sun and left for hours (without any water to make matters worse). We also saw way too many young boys whipping donkeys with plastic rods & coat hangers. If you do decide to take a camel, donkey or horse during your stay there make sure it's with someone that treats the animals with the respect they deserve. Trash - some of the less often visited tombs are littered with plastic bottles & many smell like urinals. Traditionally the Bedouin live in them but now that that the government charges 20 JD - $30 per day for a 1 day ticket I think they can certainly hire someone to pick up the trash that has been collecting there for years.

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Most Memorable: Nearly exhausted after walking and climbing all over the ancient city we succumbed and took a donkey to the top of the monastery (4 JD & we tipped 1 JD extra). As we rested at the top and had a picnic lunch we both agreed it was money well spent!

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All it takes is one look to see why so many people have fallen in love with the "lost" city of Petra. The Nabataeans were expert traders and took over the city in the 6th century BCE. For the next 600 years they would turn this stunningly beautiful natural collection of canyons and valleys into a sprawling metropolis of over 30,000 people. Carving directly into the multi-hued cliff faces, they would build their homes, carve out places of worship and even bury their dead. After some additions thanks to those ever present Romans the city began its slow decline. Shifting trade routes and a couple of earthquakes over the next 500 years signaled the end and the city was abandoned. The famous Swiss explorer, Burckhardt (who also found Luxor in Egypt), pretending to be Muslim and on his way to worship at Aaron's tomb (also located here), talked the local Bedouin into taking him here and the secret was out. Recently named as one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World", Petra is once again on a bustling trade route...the tourist route. Petra has become one of the must sees in the Middle East and today's trade is in the form of hoards of former Bedouin hawking souvenirs to the ever increasing number of visitors.

We had a little time left with our rental car so we took a quick detour out to see Little Petra. The site was somewhat of a refueling station as caravans would stop one last time as they departed Petra before embarking across the desert. While the ruins are more impressive at Petra, the site is never crowded and there are some rare Nabataean frescoes on the ceilings making it worth a quick stop for those with their own transport.

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After checking into our hotel and dropping off our rental car, we bought tickets to the Petra by Night Tour (12JD about $18 each), and here, I emphasize the word tour. We had read it was crowded, don't expect too much, it's kitsch. Figuring we had done far more kitsch things (the gladiators in Jerash come to mind) along with the prospect of seeing the ancient Treasury lit up at night was enough for us to plunk down the cash. After gathering as a group at the entrance we set off down the rock road to the Siq with 300 of our closest friends. Upon arriving at the beginning of the Siq, we are once again gathered and bunched so that we can all be herded down the canyon single file eliminating any shred of hope at a quiet stroll. Hundreds of paper bag covered tea candles light the way until you reach the Treasury. Our dreams were dashed when we realized there were no lights shining on the monument. Only the random flash from a futile attempt at getting a good shot would light the wall up enough to see it. After a small cup of tea and two songs, you are marched right back out and the experience is over. Hardly worth the hour walk and $18 in our opinion.

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In the daylight however, the site is truly amazing. Winding through the Siq is an experience of its own, turning each corner in anticipation until the "Holy Grail" is revealed. Getting here before 8am (arrive at the park at 7 or earlier) will assure you of a relatively quiet experience. The Treasury stands over 120 feet high and dominates the small space it sits in. Actually a tomb for a Nabataean King, the Treasury derives it's name from a legend that the Urn sitting on top contains Egyptian treasures. Despite the fact that the Urn is a solid piece of carved sandstone, the sides are riddled with bullet marks; vain attempts to "break" open the treasure.

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A hour or so hike up the valley wall leads to the High Place of Sacrifice. While it does not look like much, the site is actually one of the best preserved sacrificial site of ancient times. To build the site, the Nabataeans chopped off the top of the mountain leveling it out. Two 18ft high obelisks, carved directly from the mountain, stand as a testament to the amount of mountain that was removed. Wash basins, altars, and channels to catch the blood are still highly visible and one can easily imagine the activities that went on here over 2000 years ago. If that's not enough to get your blood going, the panoramic views from here are stunning. After making a few pretend sacrifices, we sat down and enjoyed our breakfast with a view.

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Returning to the valley floor, we went down a different path passing though Butterfly Valley (Wadi Farasa). Listed as one of the best hikes in a park with lots of great hikes, the path passes though well veined rock formations and overhangs. Along the way you pass several lesser known tombs, one of which was being excavated still when we passed by.

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After hiking all day long, as well as the night before, we made our way to the start of the climb to the Monastery. Already feeling a bit tired and staring down over 800 steps to the top along with about a 1 1/2 hike out of the park from the top of the Monastery we took the lazy man's approach and hired a donkey. While it does feel a bit like cheating, we get to tick another form of transportation off our list and were in much better shape at the end of the day than others who tackled the whole park in one day. No matter how you choose to get here, do make the effort as we found the Monastery to be just as impressive as the Treasury...if not slightly more. Towering to over 150 feet, the Monastery derives its name from the crosses carved inside, but it too was also built to be a tomb.

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The next day we took a slightly different entrance to Petra. Instead of walking straight to the Treasury through the Siq, we took a right just at the entrance to the Siq and followed Wadi Muthlim which dumps you in the park at the end of the Royal Tombs. The path is rather straightforward and not too difficult, aside from a couple of huge boulders you have to lower yourself down from. Towards the end is where the trail is most exciting. The path narrows to about three feet wide and you can really get the feeling of water gushing though here carving a winding path in its wake. The added bonus of being the only ones around added a sense of adventure to the detour.

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Emerging from the canyon, we made our way to the top of the hill, this time on the other side of the valley to get a good look at the Theater & Treasury from above.

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Surrounded by all the natural beauty and the ancient ruins, one other aspect of Petra worth mentioning are its people. The Bedouin have lived here for hundreds of years eking out existences mainly as substance farmers until recent times. With tensions easing up between Israel and Jordan, tourism has changed the landscape. While most of the people who used to live in the caves and tombs of Petra have been relocated, there are still a dozen or so families still living in the park. Their entire lives are based on selling trinkets and animal rides to the ever increasing hoards of tourists. While they can get a little overbearing, just keep in mind they are just trying to make a living, keep a smile on your face and they will return the favor.

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While all tourists have to hike in, the locals get around by other means.

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The Royal Tombs were our last major stop. Opening to the main valley in Petra the Royal Tombs are an impressive collection of facades that are striking in the evening sun.

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After wearing ourselves out hiking all over Petra for two days it was time for a little R&R down by the sea. Next stop: Diving in the Red Sea at Aqaba, Jordan.

To see more photos of Petra click here!