Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A full report

So the last time I wrote anything of substance here was... Saturday afternoon, I think. That evening I just went back to the hostel and slept. Sunday, I hung out with Sundae, Kenzie, Lisa, and her roommate Shahrina (sp?) since it was Sundae and Kenzie's last day in Egypt.

Basically, they were just shopping for souveniers, but it was a fun time nonetheless. See, Sundae and Kenzie were looking for Mobaco cotton shirts. They're polo shirts, but instead of a guy on a horse with a polo hammer, it's a guy on a camel. There's a store in downtown, actually pretty near my hostel, that they knew about--in fact had walked by before--so we tried walking there. After maybe 5 minutes going down the street, the girls realize that they've missed it somehow. Apparently it's normally hard to miss, but somehow we had.

So we walk back down the street, until we get to the store: it's closed. Now, Egypt is a muslim country, and their sabbath day is Friday, so there's no reason it should be closed, unless for some reason it's run by Christians. Maybe they went out of business?

No worries, Lisa knows of one near-ish to her apartment. So we head down to Ma'adii, Shahrina and I go to a coffee shop and get beverages while the rest of them head towards the store. Except they come back sooner than we expect. This one's closed too. I think someone said something to the effect of, "The Copts secretly run everything around here!" Kenzie is frustrated, since apparently her relatives are hard to get gifts for, and the shirts were about the only thing that could work. We go to get ice cream to de-stress and think about other plans.

Lisa remembers that there's some hotel downtown that has a mall that carries the shirts, but they don't want to head all the way back up there, only to find that it too is closed. So they decide to try calling ahead. Lisa thinks it's the Nile Hilton, and gets the number from (yet another) roommate, who's actually at home. Kenzie calls over ice cream, the number we think for the Nile Hilton. "Hello, can I be transferred to the mall?" Some waiting, a click. She's been disconnected. She tries again. We conclude that maybe it's the Ramses Hilton. No luck there either (call-disconnect, call-interminable hold, wash, rinse, repeat). When they do finally get through, they discover that the mall doesn't sell clothing at all. D'oh!

Finally, I remmber that I've actually been to this place before, and I thought it was on the island Zamalek. I poke through my guide book, and find a number. After a few more calls, they manage to get through to the right store (after almost asking for "Mubarak Cotton"). What I hear goes something like this: "Hello, is this Mobaco Cotton? Yes, what are your hours? ... 'Yes' isn't an answer to my question. When are you open? ..." Then, muttered, "how can he not know... Yes, hi. What are your hours? ... YES, of course the hours you're open for business... Until midnight? Today, you're open until midnight?" So, the moral of the story is, I think they got their shirts. I don't actually know, since I had to leave before they could actually go by the store.

Triumphant, we went to Lisa and Shahrina's apartment to gather up some of their stuff. Now, Lisa, Shahrina, and their roommates are actually moving, since they've been having trouble with the local boys hassling them, lying in wait to harass them on their way home from school. The police have been totally inept at stopping it. Since I'm around, they ask me to walk back to their apartment, basically to ward away the troublemakers. Apparently having someone who's a) male, b) vaguely egyptian-looking, and c) freakin' huge kept them from running into too much trouble. But they pointed out to me which kids would have hassled them had I not been there. It feels good to be Knight in Shining Armor, even though it does suck that I have to be.

After that, I went back to my hostel. Me and another guy I had met there decided to go to Siwa together. So we go to the bus station, and after some fumbling around showing people our ticket, find our bus (the problem? the bus didn't arrive at the terminal until about half an hour after the scheduled departure time). So we get on the bus, and curl up and try to go to sleep. At first it's all right, but as the night goes on, it gets colder and colder. I feel around, and they actually have the air conditioning on. At night. In the already-cold desert. We think it got down to 40 in the bus. So we spend most of the night shivering, trying to sleep on the 9 hour ride.

We get into Siwa, a sleepy little village, around 6 in the morning. The sun is not up so we're still cold. However, none of the hotels are open either. So we wander around for a bit, trying to find a good spot for the sunrise, then sit down in the first 'ahua to open and get some tea.

Finally, the hotels start to open, so we check in, then wander around town for a bit. Now, the first thing a visitor notices about Siwa is the Shali, a giant, 13th century mud fortress. There really are no words to describe it. We wandered up, then surveyed the land around. Then, we rented some bikes and went out to the Temple of the Oracle, where Alexander went to be declared the son of Amun-Zeus. Ah, the good ol' days when you could do that.

By now, it was maybe 11 AM, and we hadn't eaten since the night before, so we went back to town and got some chicken-and-couscous stew. While sitting down, we start chatting with a random tourist off the street, and it turns out he's trying to find people to go into the Great Sand Sea, since his hotel would run a trip, but only if there were enough people. We say we'll think about it, but want more details. After Jun (the guy we just met) leaves, we decide that at the price quoted, it would be a great idea no matter what. We then go back to our hotel to rest up. Evan (the fellow I met in Cairo) goes out to check his email, when Jun comes over to our hotel and says that we need to leave at 3, but to meet at 2 pm at the other hotel to pay for the permits. Trying to hunt Evan down, I shot him an email, then posted here on the blog (that's the before the desert post). Eventually, we all meet up, pay for everything, then head out into the desert.

And now I'm actually kinda tired, so I'll finish this later...

Still alive in Siwa

It occurred to me that the last post gave the impression my trip was more fly-by-night than it was. I have a bus soon, and this keyboard doesn't work well, but I wanted to let everyone know that I was in the desert, and am back!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Siwa is Awesome

Hey everyone! Just a quick post, since I will probably have to leave soon. Siwa Oasis is awesome, a huge change of pace from Cairo. I came out here with a guy I met in the hostel there. Anyways, we've arranged to go camping out in the Sahara with some other people we met here. I will post when I get back (though I may need to get a bus to Alexandria *right* as we get back, so maybe from Alexandria.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Coptic Cairo and the Pyramids

So the picture yesterday was of St George, slaying the dragon. He's kind of a big deal around here (among the Christian community, anyways). In fact, the subway stop that Coptic Cairo is at is called "Mar Girgis", which translates to, you guessed it, St George. There's a long history of Christianity here. Some of the first Monks were from Egypt. The Coptic Museum is actually quite enjoyable, and covers a lot of the history of the Christian Community here. Unfortunately, they don't allow cameras (as with many of the museums), so I don't have much to show for it. But trust me, it's worthwhile.

Old Cairo itself is built around an old Roman fort, of which the walls are still mostly standing today (with others being excavated). It was founded in the 2nd century AD.

Then today, I went to the Pyramids. I spent a little while wandering around the main square downtown, trying to find the bus to the Pyramids. I had it on reliable word that it should be 2 L.E., and it was air conditioned, but after interrogating a few people in my broken arabic, gesticulating Pyramid with my hands, I got onto a bus that was only 50 piasters*... a quarter of what the other bus was. There wasn't any A/C, but the weather here has been pretty cool (for the desert, that is), so that wasn't a huge problem. It was also crowded, but I think the other one would have been too, so no loss there.

I wandered around the Pyramids, taking lots of pictures and waving away people who wanted me to ride their camels... Someone else in my Hostel is doing something of the reverse of my route, so he just came from Jordan and he said that they're much cheaper at Petra, and not nearly so pushy. Anyways, yeah, lots of pictures.

I've also noticed that I've become very suspicious of Egyptian people, often in proportion to how well they speak English. It's not that I think they'll cause me any harm, but I can't tell you how many times I've had someone come up to me, very friendly-like, and after a few minute spiel, try to sell me something. I suppose it's a side effect of thousands upon thousands of tourists coming to the country, but it's still quite irritating. What's worse, though, is that not every one is trying to sell me something, but because of the ones who do, I end up suspicious of everyone.

Another thing: lots of people have come up to me and said that I look Egyptian. Often, these are the ones who are trying to sell me something. I should point out, by the way, that they usually say this in English. I suppose it would be really weird if somebody just walked up to you at, say, the Winchester Mystery House or the Empire State Building and said, "Hey, you look like an American!" If you need to say it, it's probably not true. But there are some people who make me think I *do* look Egyptian. On the subway out to Coptic Cairo yesterday, someone leaned over to me and asked a question, in Arabic. He spoke too quickly for my rusty skills to comprehend, and even if I had, I probably wouldn't have known the answer, but it's things like that that maybe change your mind.

* A note on currency: 1 US Dollar is around 5.5 Egyptian pounds (L.E.). Each pound is broken into 100 piasters (P.T.), although I haven't seen anything smaller than 25 piasters. It's kind of odd to think about 1 penny bills, but that's what they have, more or less.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Words later, but for now: a picture from Coptic Cairo

The internet's slow so it isn't really reasonable to do more...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Islamic Cairo

Today had no really strict agenda... just wandering around, really. I spent most of the morning and afternoon doing just that. My guide book has a map of the area, so I used that as a rough guide, but basically just went up and down the streets. I have some pretty pictures of the tesselated carvings, but no really good way to post them. The internet cafe I'm at now has skype, but no visible USB ports. Neither did the last one I was at (they had taped over the front of the machine, presumably to avoid tampering). Having some time to kill, I ended up walking back, despite it being a pretty hot day, and reasonably far.

After resting a bit at the hostel, I went out to dinner and then sat in an 'ahua for a while, drinking tea, reading, and looking around at the other people.

I am amazed how quickly my sense of prices readjusts, though. Generally, things are priced approximately the same here as in the US, as long as you replace the L.E. with $. What this means in practice is that things cost about a fifth as much. Nevertheless, I tend to get indignant if I think someone is cheating me by a pound or two. Even though that means it's only 20-40 cents, which isn't really that much, when you consider how much I've spent on airfare alone (though even that was relatively cheap).

Other updates: I have tickets to Siwa. My bus leaves on Sunday at 7:45 PM. I think I'll buy my Aqaba tickets when I go to the bus station for that.

Quote from yesterday: Sundae: "I like the palm trees on that guys motorcycle seat"
Me: "Uhh... I don't think that's a palm tree." (It was a cannabis leaf design)

Well rested, and with a bit more of a plan

Yesterday, I mainly hung out at the Egyptian museum, alone for the first few hours, then meeting up with Sundae and her two former roommates after lunch. One of them, Kenzie, was a Classics major, so she had a lot of background on the history (and a guide book for the museum, explaining lots of things in detail), so that was pretty sweet. I've always enjoyed museum tours.

The ladies were also appreciative for my presence. Women in Egypt tend to be heckled at fairly often, but having a man around seems to make the hecklers less bold. Last time I was here, I often was the "designated husband" when people were going to markets and other various public places.

After that, we went out to dinner with some more AUC people, friends of Lisa (Sundae's other former roommate). At that point, having not slept for something like 24 hours, I was really flagging. I was, perhaps, not the best conversationalist, but when I got back to the hostel, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. I had set an alarm to wake me up at 8 this morning, but failed to arm it. Fortunately, I woke up at 8:30, for a total of probably 10 hours of sleep. It may not have been all the sleep I needed, but it's certainly a good start.

So here's the plan for the next few days, at least.

Today (Thursday): Wander around Islamic Cairo, in the neighborhood of Khan al-Khalili. Islamic Cairo is a bit of a misnomer, since really most of Cairo is Islamic, but this is some of the older architecture, complete with city gates and such-like. Also: lots of kitchy stores.

Tomorrow: Wander around Coptic Cairo. This is the older Christian quarter, with old churches and such-like.

Saturday: Sundae and friends are getting back from Alexandria on Friday at some point (time undecided as yet), and going to the Pyramids. I will probably join them.

Sunday: At some point, I plan on heading over to Siwa, an Oasis in the west of Egypt. This trip will probably take a few days, but ideally I'll be back by wednesday, just in time to catch another bus to Aqaba, Jordan. I still need to buy tickets for this stuff, but that's the plan. Once in Jordan, I'll have a week to putter around, then head to Syria, where my friend Alex is studying (but gone to Istanbul until the 8th).

More updates soon, I hope.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

In Egypt! And I need to sleep!

Many of you already know the basic gist of this trip: I have 2 months, no set itinerary, a Eurail pass, and a nebulous wish list of places to go. My first leg was set, since my friend Sundae was taking a spring break trip to visit her friend in Cairo, studying at AUC. So I've decided to tag along for some of that trip. I'm now in Cairo, and we're going to meet at the Egyptian Museum later today.

But the interesting part, of course, is how I've gotten here. My flight left SFO at 17:15 PDT, where I connected through London Heathrow, to Cairo. Now, I had scheduled about 3 hours for the layover, during which I switched airlines, and because they were booked in separate chunks, I couldn't check my bags all the way through*, so I had to go through Customs, then back through security. I wasn't sure if it'd be enough, given how into standing in queues the Brits are, but I called British Airways and they said I'd be fine.

My first leg was 10 hours, and I slept a bit, but probably not more than 3 or so hours, then woke up and couldn't get back to sleep for the rest of the flight. I land in Heathrow, and in fact because of a favorable tailwind, we were half an hour early. Great! I spend some time trying to figure out where Egypt Air checks in, meandering around the terminal I arrived in, until I concluded that they probably weren't here. I finally found a help desk, which pointed me to the correct terminal, and I still had a little over 2 hours before my departure time, 14:00 GMT. In fact, they hadn't even selected the gate, so I was fine. I got some lunch, milled around the correct terminal, checked in, milled around some more. Finally, they assign the gate, so I head over there and dive into my book.

Boarding was supposed to start at 13:30 GMT, and oblivious to my watch, I just keep reading at the gate. Finally, I look down, and see that it's almost 13:45. "Huh, that's odd... but everyone's still here". About 10 minutes after that, they make an announcement that there's been some sort of mechanical... thing. So we have to wait, but they'll update us in 15 minutes. I jump back into my book. 15 minutes later, still no news, but they promise to update us in another 15 minutes. This continues a few times, and eventually they just stop updating us. But still, clearly no boarding. Some of the flight attendants bring around bottles of water and soda for the increasingly antsy passengers. But by this point, it's 16:00 and we haven't been updated for the last 45 minutes or more.

Finally, around 17:00, a full 3 hours after we were supposed to leave, they start letting us on the plane. I ask one of the flight attendants, "So what exactly was the problem." "Oh, I don't know. Probably some indicator light. If it was a real problem, though, they would've canceled the flight." I am somehow not reassured, but the flight goes on without a hitch. I doze for a little bit (maybe an hour around the beginning of the flight, I"m not sure), and then read for the rest of it. We land at just after midnight EET(?), when we were supposed to be down by 8PM. This is a problem for me, since I had planned on taking the bus to my hostel, but that stops running at 23:00. So instead of paying 2L.E. in bus fare (approximately 35 cents US), I have to haggle with a taxi driver and finally get it down to 70 L.E. I guess 15 bucks isn't so bad for a 15 mile taxi drive from an airport in the US, but still more than I was anticipating.

I get to my hostel at 1:30, where they chastise me for not letting them know I was going to be late, but show me into my room. And because my body slept for a bit on the plane, it decided, "Hey! I don't need to sleep". So I tossed and turned the whole night, on a lumpy bed. Finally, around 6:30 as it's getting light, I just say "aw screw it" and continue reading my book, take a shower, and write this blog post.


* I also wasn't sure I wanted to check my bags all the way through... the last time I went to Cairo, my main suitcase didn't show up for a few days, because while I made the connection in Moscow, it didn't. Damned Aeroflot. Russian efficiency for you.