Connect the dots

Monday, October 31, 2011

Salt, Sand, Siwa Oasis

Dali-esque 13th Century Shali Town

Most Egyptians tried to convince us to go to the closer (to Cairo) oasis of Bahariya, but other travelers urged us to go to the further, and therefore more isolated oasis of Siwa. An effort it was. The only direct way to get there from Cairo is a super chilly air conditioned 9 hour overnight bus ride. Otherwise, it's bus hopping from Alexandria, along the Mediterranean coast to Marsa Matruh and then away from the sea and into the desert 350km south.

Although we hardly slept on the bus, seeing the sunrise over sandstone formations in the desert already made the trip worthwhile.  Still groggy, we were tuk-tuk'ed to the Albabenshal Hotel right in the center of Siwa and directly next to the melted Old Shali Town. Understanding how tired we were, we were immediately escorted to our rooms and demanded to sleep! Where else can you get a 6:30am check-in? Already, this was a sign of good things to come. 

As much as we would have loved to stay in the posh Adrere Amellal, we were happy to settle with its budget attainable sister hotel. We weren't getting all the bells and whistles, just simple, comfortable and authentic construction typical to Siwa and containing original handicrafts. Naturally insulated walls constructed of mud, salt and straw, ceilings with thick palm tree trunk beams, reddish rugs handwoven by Berbers, palm-frond bed frames and tables, neutral wool blankets for the cool desert nights, and the room warmly lit with light fixtures made out of salt blocks.

Our cozy room at Albabenshal Hotel

Each morning we were offered the best breakfast we've had so far in Egypt. Hot bread, fresh farmer's cheese, falafel, eggs, guava, fresh squeezed lemon juice and a house made salty-sweet olive-rosemary jam.

More olive rosemary jam, please
Our view at breakfast

Siwa is renowned for its laid back attitude and slow pace compared to the rest of Egypt. You almost forget that you're still in Egypt. Being so far and isolated has it's benefits. Filled with date palm and olive trees, salt lakes, hot springs, ancient Egyptian sites, and the Great Sand Sea right next door, Siwa is paradise in the desert. You also can't help but enter its many bazaars and fall in love with its crafts which are world renowned and collected such as those in our hotel room as well as hand crafted heavy silver jewelry and colorful hand embroidered typical wedding dresses. We hired a donkey and cart to explore it's sights for the day.

Mahmoud and Ali Baba our hardworking donkey
Alexander to the Oracle: Am I the son of Zeus?
One of many crafty stalls
A dip in Cleopatra's hot spring?
A sunset drink at Siwa lake 
Beyond the oasis is the Great Sand Sea, approximately 195,000 sq km of sand dunes shared by Egypt and Libya. You can't miss spending the day in the desert visiting an archeological site containing early human footprints, remnants of the former sea, meteorites, a dip in a cold salt water lake and hot sulfur spring, and of course, riding the dunes in a jeep and on a sand board. Mohammed and Ahmed, from Albabenshal, were our gracious guides who made sure we had a full dose of what the desert offered.

Early humans
Our little collector
Remnants of the former sea

Going over the edge
Looking for shells in the salty lake
Delicious lakeside lunch
Ahmed - dune driver and tea maker
Sitting between meteorites
Sulfur hot springs
A warm, medicinal dip

Going down sandboard style
Sunset tea
*A huge thanks to Jurgen who was able to capture our time in Siwa when our camera gave up on us! 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Squeaky Wheel

So, after reading raving reviews about a tour company called Memphis Tours, we decided to let them decide our fate on our tour of Upper Egypt's incredible temples and tombs. Big mistake.

Here's my review of Memphis Tours:
When you hire a tour company, you expect them to always to act in your best interests, right? Well, after being in Africa for 9 months, to 15 different countries, and taking both the independent route and using 3 FANTASTIC tour companies (ORIGO in Burkina Faso, Viola Car Hire in Tanzania, and GETTS in Ethiopia) we were highly disappointed with the service that Memphis Tours provided.
They CLAIM that they can cater to your needs and requests but really, you are just a pawn in a chess game where they move you around from place to place. And you pay lots for them to do this!
We booked a 3 night Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor and added an extra night in Aswan for a day trip to Abu Simbel. We got to Aswan by sleeper train which was clean and efficient.
Prior to our train trip, a representative from Memphis, Tamer Gouda, met us to give us our train tickets and collect the balance by credit card. We were also provided a cell phone but we requested the airtime credits instead. When he returned with the airtime card, he immediately grabbed our cell phone to supposedly put in the credits. Upon receiving my phone back, there was no text message indicating my new balance. When I asked him for the airtime card so that I could re-enter the numbers, he brusquely stated that it would not work. But when I entered the numbers and pressed send, it immediately gave me a text with my new balance. He was trying to STEAL the 10 Egyptian Pound airtime credit!
We started with one guide in Aswan and the company ended up changing our guides 2 more times (3 different guides?) Honestly, one was not better than the other.
The Royal Viking ship was luxurious and they had food that was good quality and variety. Don’t expect any Egyptian food, just the European/Continental variety.
No matter what company you take, the itinerary and procedures will be the same. They shuttle you to the sites, lecture you on the basic information and give you very LITTLE time to actually see the sites. At Kom-Ombo, we had a total of 10 minutes to walk around the huge temple! If you have already read about Egyptian civilization or even watched a National Geographic program on it, the information they give you (if even accurate) doesn’t enhance the experience. They have a SCRIPT that they regurgitate to tourists. At the Valley of the Kings, we rushed through 5 tombs in a matter of 1 hour. It’s just not enough time to take in the grandeur or the beauty of these monuments.
They also don’t encourage you to visit other sites such as the AMAZING Valley of the Nobles on the West Bank of Luxor. In fact, instead they offer to take you to an alabaster factory where they try to sell you objects at inflated tourist prices! We had to take the time one afternoon to do it ourselves and there were hardly any other tourists there.
Independent and seasoned travelers: take the train to Aswan or Luxor, hire a driver to take you to the sites in between, and take a lovely felucca ride to experience the beautiful Nile. And if you have the cash, rent out a dahabiyaa (traditional sailing boat) and take your time to soak in the amazing ancient Egyptian culture!

But I just couldn't stop there. Having spent a good amount on this tour and not being happy in the end with their services, I just couldn't let it go. I had forwarded this review to customer service and the owners of Memphis. We had ONLY worked with fantastic companies in Africa. Had our luck run out?

Immediately after my review, which was also posted on their facebook site,  I received a phone call from their customer service representative. Here was the guy whose job it was to do damage control. And clearly, they thought my review was harmful. The bigger picture is that Egypt tourism is only at 10% capacity with tourists still weary of traveling to this area. But after being here, all is relatively quiet. We'll see what happens come election time. But back to my review. The customer representative was concerned about my discontent. He immediately asked if we had received all the services that were in the original contract. I stated that we received almost everything (just a felucca ride left out). But I emphasized that it wasn't just about the quantity of the services, that the quality also mattered to us. Having a few minutes at an awe-inspiring temple is just not acceptable. He agreed with me, but could still sense that I was not going to be a repeat customer or passing them onto my friends and family. Next strategy: pay a visit to the customer at their hotel and try to appease them in person.

He arrived the following day and who comes along with him? The guy who tried to steal the airtime credits! My blood was boiling at that point.  Well, after over 1 hour of going back and forth about how they needed to improve the tour and him boasting about how well they train their staff (maybe they need some new methods), we were basically at the same place we started. I tried to end it amicably by telling him that his company was just not for travelers like me.

Here's where it gets good. About an hour after the meeting, we get a phone call from the same customer rep offering to pick us up from the hotel and provide us with a complimentary evening boat ride on the Nile complete with dinner and entertainment (belly dancing and a whirling dervish). Here was the company's effort to erase the less than satisfactory experience from our minds. And that evening, we graciously accepted and thanked him for the gesture. But that was not all... He then offered us a day excursion around Cairo with a private driver.

In the end, due to a lack of time, we didn't take the day trip. But I did inform the customer service rep that we appreciated his effort and hoped that Memphis would try to get to know their customers a little bit better. Forgiven but not forgotten.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pyramid Scams

After traveling through Africa for 9 months and in 15 countries, Egypt is the first country on our trip that has required constant vigilance. In even the poorest countries of Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, we never felt as if couldn’t trust anyone. But in Egypt, be aware, be very aware. And be aware all the time!
Not only does every transaction involve serious and energy-sapping haggling, you constantly still feel cheated at the end. I understand that as tourists we will always be paying more than locals. However, inflated prices such as taxi rides that are 4-6 times the tourist price, we have not encountered until here.
If they have the opportunity to scam you, they will.  The techniques used are usually the same, down to the exact words used to reel you in.
Scam #1: The Old Switch-A-Roo
Normally skeptical and thinking that we are fairly good at avoiding touts, we unfortunately hired a tour guide at the pyramids. He seemed harmless enough as some of them do and he was going at a decent price, so we decided to go with him. He initially was able to fend off camel ride touts and souvenir sellers. He even offered to buy the tickets for us to enter the pyramid so that we wouldn’t have to make the long trek to the ticket office in the hot sun. Seems okay so far, huh? Well, Marc handed over the 200LE for the 150LE tickets and the guide passed it to a guy on a camel. Tip#1: Never hand over money to ANYONE other than the official ticket seller at the booth. Well, the guide apparently handed it to a camel guy who was going to ride to the ticket booth to help get the tickets. I sent Marc to go with the guide. We waited for nearly 20 minutes for the 2 to return. By Marc gestures, something had gone wrong.  Here’s the story.  The camel guy hands the money to the guide who then hands it to Marc. Without checking how much was handed to him, Marc hands the money to the ticket seller who then tells him he only gave him 50LE – with 100LE still lacking and 50LE missing! Tip#2: Check the bills that you are handing over and make sure they gave you the right change. They love to give the WRONG change. (Even more confusing is that the bills are in Arabic on one side and English on the other.) So by now, the 200LE is long gone and Marc must pay the difference of 100LE for the tickets.
Scam #2: Free = We’ll Find A Way to Get Something Out of You
Again at the pyramids, a camel guy wraps a cloth around my head and hauls me onto  a camel. He then proceeds to grab Alex and do the same. I tell him that I would like to get off and that we don’t want a camel ride. He continues to tell me that it’s only for a picture, that it’s free and we don’t have to pay for the camel ride. Before we know it, Marc is also on the camel and we are taking a ride a few hundred meters along the pyramid. He even offers to take pictures on our camera. I agree and continue to insist that we be let off the camel. As soon as we get down, Alex and I immediately run away, but the camel guy and his friend try to trap Marc to pay for the ride and the pictures. We tell him back that it was his choice to place us on the camel and not ours.

Starts with the turban
Scam #3: The Cardboard Box or “Free Gift T-Shirt” Over Your Bag
Persistent “souvenir” sellers around the world love this one. They take the box or t-shirt and try to cover your bag to get into your bag or place it over your waist to get to your wallet in your pant’s pocket. This time, Marc was accosted by one of these guys who was slick enough to open his bag, but only get his glasses. Marc spotted this immediately and slapped the guy in the face with his glasses while yelling at him. Tourist police nearby defended the thief/souvenir seller saying that he was a good guy and only wanted to sell souvenirs.
Scam#4: “Let Me Show You How To Get To The Egyptian Museum”
On your way to the museum, there is a very busy street to cross. A supposedly helpful local decides he “just wants to help” and that he “doesn’t want to bother you” and that he “doesn’t want anything from you”.  A few variations on this theme include: “I’m a student at the university” or “I work at the museum”. They even offer to lead you to the underground walkway that leads to the museum even though there isn’t one from that street.  In addition, they try to convince you to “wait another half hour before going to the museum because it’s too crowded with groups.” After this speech, they try to walk with you towards the non-existent underground walkway and then tell about a shop that is cheaper than the tourist market at Khan El-Khalili. They then try to trap you at a store. If not, they walk you across the street and try to lead you to the non-tour group entrance, which also doesn’t exist but to the tourist store that does.
Scam #4: “There’s Nothing There” or “It’s Closed”
You’ve hired a taxi driver (or maybe worse, a tour guide) for the day to take you to the sites outside Cairo proper. When you get to a site like Saqqara, you request to see the lovely tombs of Mereruka or Ti. What does the taxi driver tell you? They’re closed. You request to drive toward the tombs and he refuses. Insist they go anyway because most of the time, they are lying because they just don’t want to go. Often also, when there is “nothing there,” it’s the complete opposite.  Such was the case with the eastern section of Karnak – nothing there but beautifully painted columns, ceilings, and statues.

Nothing to see at Valley of the Nobles
 Scam #5: “Only Two”
Only two what? Two Egyptian pounds? Two Dollars? After you’ve entered the shop, the price suddenly turns into two HUNDRED! Then you start haggling and magically, the price goes down to twenty Egyptian pounds.
Scam #6: “Where Are You From?”
Throughout Cairo (and other tourist cities), if you don’t look Egyptian, you will constantly be asked where you’re from. After they try to establish some commonality with you such as being able to speak a bit of your language, they walk with you to try to then lead you to their shop or their friend’s shop.
Scam #7: “You’re a lucky man, how many camels for your wife?” or “Is your wife Egyptian?”
Both are specific to men, clearly. The second one gets a follow-up of, “You look so Egyptian.” Both get you an escort to a shop.
Scam #8: “Okay, okay, five.”
So, you’ve gotten the guy down to 5LE for a shoe shine. When the guy finishes, you hand him a 5LE note. He then tells you, 5LE for EACH shoe. You laugh, say shukran, and then walk away with your newly polished shoes. 
Scam #9: Getting the bill at a local restaurant
ALWAYS ask for the price before ordering at a local restaurant and get an itemized bill before paying! We ate with a group of 5 other people from the tour in Luxor at a local establishment. When we asked for the bill, the guy quickly wrote down 420LE. We divided it, paid and realized that we each paid the equivalent of US$10 for the peasant dish of kushari (in Cairo we paid US$1), hibiscus tea, and salad. When I asked for an itemized bill, he had difficulty coming up with the figures. Ultimately, we paid US$10 just for a salad that he originally said was included in the meal! 

Has anyone else come across this? Is this a result of tourism? Is it cultural? 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

First Nation-State Still Amazing

The temples and tombs continue to amaze and baffle. But it's not just the size or scale of the works, it's the sheer volume produced. Much of it, seemingly, not just to make for those in the upper eschelons, but a work created out of love for beautiful objects. Talk about making to last - some are over 3000 years old.  There is just not enough time to see and contemplate all this beauty!

Here's what we ooh-ed and aah-ed about between Aswan and Luxor:

Tombs of the Nobles at Aswan

 Abu Simbel Temple
Key to the temple
Ramses II, ego problems?

Kom Ombo


Offerings for horus

Temple of Hatshepsut

The only female pharaoh

Karnak Temple
134 of these massive columns in the hypostyle hall

For Amun

Learning about plants and animals in the Botanical Hall

 Valley of the Nobles

Check out the braids on this girl
Inside my favorite Noble tomb: Menna

Tomb of Sennefer

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Can't Miss This In Cairo!

Of course you'll visit the pyramids at Giza and the Egyptian Museum will keep you constantly amazed (especially after being in Upper Egypt to see the temples and tombs) but here are some other things you should not miss while hanging out in Cairo.

The Citadel is a quiet refuge with its grand Mohammed Ali mosque, but the real treasure is the less visited Souleyman Pasha mosque and tombs. Pass the caretaker at the door some baksheesh and he'll lead you to the tombs with the simple and beautifully sculpted head stones.

A ceiling fit for Mohammed

You can't escape a trip to the Islamic district of Cairo and the Khan el-Khalili, a colorful bazaar. Make sure you look up at the beautiful jalousies and the plaster work on the buildings above. Stop at the famous El Fishawy cafe for a sheesha and coffee.

Often also overlooked are the tombs at Saqqara. We ooh-ed and aahh-ed at the relief work in the Tomb of Mereruka (very much at the top of my list of definite dos in Egypt). They are everyday scenes of cows, fish and hippos, but the reliefs are so delicate and intricate. And so much of it!

Finally, eat where the locals go and pay local prices. As we walked through downtown, we saw a packed restaurant, with the sign only in Arabic. We asked what was on the menu. Only one thing: hawawshy. Egypt's meatloaf in a pita. You get some pickled veggies and tahini on the side. Wash down with Coke or some karkade (cold, sweet hibiscus tea).

Best lunch and another cheap eat is kushari. Noodles, rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions, topped with a vinegary, tomato sauce. Abu Tarek is where the locals and tourists go. Don't forget to ask for the rice pudding for dessert.

Forget the big hotels. Stay downtown in a turn of the century building. You'll pay a lot less and get more ambience! We stayed at Cairo Downtown Hotel and Hotel Royal. Both are less than US$50, walking distance to the Egyptian Museum, the metro, and lots of shops and restaurants.