Last December marked the date during which my wife and I had been married for 5 years, and we decided to celebrate this landmark by taking a trip. We quickly decided on Egypt as our destination. We scheduled the trip for February 2011, and of course, the citizens of Egypt had to choose that month to decide to have a revolution.
In the weeks leading up to our trip, the protests in Cairo kept escalating, and I kept trying to calm my wife by telling her that I was sure they would die down before it was time for us to leave. Then the opposite happened, and just a week before we were supposed to depart the US Embassy advised all Americans to evacuate the country temporarily. Luckily, our travel agency cancelled the trip before we had to, and we were given credit to reschedule for any time in the next year. Egypt is too hot to visit in the summer (like 130°F hot), and elections were scheduled for November, so we chose October as the latest date we could that we thought would see relative peace in the country. One minor detail worth mentioning is that between when the original trip was scheduled and when we actually went on the trip, my wife became pregnant with a baby girl that is expected to arrive in February. I’m sure she would prefer me mention this so that you don’t just think she looks fat in the photos below. She was somewhere between 4 and 5 months along when we left, which was actually the perfect time to go.
On October 6th, we left on a trip to Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Sharm El Sheikh, and Amman and Petra in Jordan, and arrived back home on October 19th. If you’ve seen the news at all in the last week, it is a good thing we got the trip in. The following is a long winded summary of what I saw. I have added several pictures to break it up, some of which are relevant to the text around it, some of which are just pretty pictures.
Cairo is a major modern city, with satellites cluttering every rooftop (click the above photo, a view from our hotel room, and you might be able to see some), cell phone retailers on almost every street, internet cafes with pay-per-minute wi-fi, a subway system, and a population of almost 20 Million, but it is totally common to be share the highway with man sitting on top of a huge pile of reeds being pulled by a donkey. It is a city simultaneously living in two different centuries, and I don’t necessarily get the feeling that it is a split in population (or wealth). That man being pulled by the donkey is just as likely to whip his cell phone out as anybody, and will likely return home to watch a football (soccer) game on his satellite tv. It creates a very strange atmosphere to say the least.The city has just trace amounts of Western culture. English is everywhere, but only in a supporting role to Arabic. I saw one McDonald’s and one KFC in Cairo, which, again, is a city of almost 20 Million people. Western fast food is almost as omnipresent in China as it is in the US, and while I wasn’t expecting the same from Cairo, I was expecting more of it. China had Starbucks, Burger King, Nike Town, and an enormous store for pretty much every luxury brand you could name, they had a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company at the highest point in Hong Kong, while I didn’t see a single store for any American brand on the entire trip to Egypt.This could have something to do with the fact that almost all of the men wear Gellabiyas (a full length man-dress). There isn’t much need for the Gap when you wear the same thing every single day. This was another thing that surprised me about Egypt. I know that Muslims have dress codes, and that women are supposed to cover their heads or wear burkas. But I had assumed that this was a bit faded, and that the 21st century had caught up with them, like I heard they had in Afghanistan. Not so. A large majority of the women had head scarves on, and several of them were wearing full small-slit-for-the-eyes-to-see-out-of burkas.
The poverty in Egypt is palpable. The streets do not have homeless people begging for money, but they do have swarms of locals trying to sell you 10 cent stone pyramids pretty much anywhere you go. The city is starving for tourism right now and you can tell. There seemed to be as many locals selling glossy postcards, beaded jewelry made to look as though it was handmade locally but were likely manufactured in China, more “hand-made” carpets, jars, maps, and wood carved camels than there were actual tourists. However, even though they all must be desperate for money, they were all much more respectfully of a simple “no thanks” than any vendor I came across earlier this summer in China.There are unfinished buildings EVERYWHERE in Egypt. Mostly it comes in the form of a mostly finished building with a shell of a top floor, like Aliens swept through the annihilated the top floor of most buildings. It was also common to see buildings the had brick in place and nothing else.Though I’m told that it is something that has gotten worse since the fall of the government, garbage pickup seems to be a major problem. Though it seems more like a littering problem. There are moderate amounts of garbage pretty much everywhere, but I didn’t see any major buildups of full garbage bags anywhere. New York City the day before trash is picked up smells of garbage worse, but the consistent sprinkle of garbage everywhere you looked definitely contributed to the perception of poverty throughout the entire country, though it was the most noticeable in Cairo.
Here is a picture of Christie and I in front of one of the Great Pyramids:
Side note: I grew a beard in preparation for our trip, half-jokingly and half seriously with the hopes that it might make me appear less American. Immediately upon our arrival, I was assumed to be Egyptian by one of our guides, and was not infrequently told that I looked like a light skinned Egyptian (which are a minority, but existent).
The streets in Cairo are almost total chaos. I saw maybe 4 traffic lights total in the entire city and they had all been turned off. I was told that they don’t use lights because nobody would respect the signal anyway, so there is no use in trying. Cairo therefore has a few more roundabout intersections than most cities, yet most intersections, even relatively major ones, either have a traffic guard doing something I hesitate to call “controlling” the traffic. These intersections barely function any better than the other major intersections they are absent at, where one direction moves until the other eventually takes over by force through a kind of miniature game of chicken.The actual driving is just as chaotic as the traffic management. Lane lines are present on the road, but seem to serve merely as a suggestion. The flow of cars reminds me of a sidewalk in Manhattan when crowds are at their strongest in that cars move around traffic erratically. They will cross into the wrong direction of traffic without hesitation, and will stop to release a passenger into traffic with no warning. Pedestrians also flood the streets at all times, playing a kind of human Frogger game yet with more courage and seemingly less concern about cars hitting them. I didn’t see a single crosswalk during the entire trip. Pedestrians appear to feel they have just as much right to use the streets at any time as the cars do, despite the existence of sidewalks. Here is a picture I took in Tahrir Square in an attempt to capture what the streets felt like, but honestly, it still doesn’t really do it justice…
The most interesting aspect of the traffic issues was that along some major roads elsewhere in Egypt (I didn’t see this in Cairo), there would be large makeshift blockades, designed to make traffic do a little swerve. They were made to force traffic to slow down so that nearby roads could enter the highway without having to deal with cars going dangerously fast. The interesting part is that they were basically just big rocks put in the road, obviously put there temporarily and with the minimum effort. This is because these roads used to be patrolled by government police, but after the revolution the government doesn’t really have the bandwidth to handle things like speeding, so these blockades were built by locals, taking a problem with speeding into their own hands while the government attempts to transition. It made me wonder what I might do differently if someone told me that starting immediately Chicago had turned completely lawless. Obviously, I wouldn’t just go out and murder someone just because I could (lucky for you, fake homeless guy who always hangs out begging near my house, but who I’ve seen actually take out keys and go into a nearby apartment). And when I really think about it, I think the only thing I would do differently is speed all the time and park wherever I wanted to.
I was somewhat unaware of the effect the last 10 years of news coverage depicting Arab nations as the terrorists had on me. For the first few days, I would have several anxious moments when I would look around a see Arabic graffiti and men that looked the ones I’ve been told are terrorists since 9/11. I am not some old lady living in Georgia who doesn’t realize that it is no longer acceptable to use the “n word”, and I am perfectly aware that there is a big different between the thousands of men crowding the streets of Cairo with their Thawbs (what might be more easily described as a “man dress”) on and the small amount of Arabs who are full-fledged Al-Quaida. But I definitely had a few moments in Cairo where I sat back and thought “why did I voluntarily bring my pregnant wife to a country populated by people that might hate us?” then reclaimed my cool and went and bought a Coke. These moments vanished as soon as we left Cairo on day 3, as the rest of Egypt was populated in the same way, but the sizes of every other city were much less intimidating and had far less of a “they could kidnap both of you and nobody would ever find your bodies” vibe to them.
For any graphic designers out there, you may appreciate what the FedEx logo looks like in Arabic. The integration of the arrow isn’t quite as graceful (keep in mind that Arabic reads from right to left), but I suppose they did what they could…
Security throughout the country was something I could never quite get a handle on. There were metal detectors everywhere, but many were unmanned, and others I could walk through, set them off, and not even have anyone turn their head. I had the feeling of a system put in place by the previous regime, and since February nobody cared anymore. Every major tour site required you to go through a metal detector and run any bag you might be carrying through an x-ray, but not once did I ever get frisked or stopped for anything, even though I frequently got buzzed by the metal detector. Many of them were pretty clearly just turned off. Security at our hotel was another story. At most of the hotels we stayed at (we stayed at 5), any vehicle entering had to have the undercarriage cleared by one of those guys with a mirror on a stick and sniffed by a bomb-sniffing dog. Every hotel had those cylindrical metal barricades that disappear into the road when lowered. These barricades were installed to actually keep unwanted vehicles out, and weren’t just some ridiculous wooden gate that could be easily breached by a Mini Cooper going 20 miles per hour.
On our last night in Cairo, there was a major protest in which 24 people were killed. This occurred in Tahrir Square, less than 15 minutes from our hotel. We passed through Tahrir Square just hours before on the way back from dinner and saw locals having what I’ll call “a disagreement” with some military personnel. We asked our guide what the story was and he told us that people come to the square almost nightly to protest these days, and that it was absolutely nothing. Perhaps what we saw was just a regular Sunday night in Cairo and perhaps our guide knew that this was not good but told us it was normal so we wouldn’t freak out, but somewhere between what we saw and rise of the sun the next morning, 24 people died in this clash.
Here is a picture of Christie and I in front of a government building that was burnt during the initial protests/riots in February 2011:
I’ve now written two and a half pages without even mentioning any of the sites we came to see. The pyramids are worth the price of admission. They are as huge and as impressive as advertised. It is really the supporting sites that are more interesting, as those have the carvings that provide a window into who these people were, but there is nothing quite like just a fucking huge thing. The Temple at Karnac is both of these things, and was my favorite site in Egypt. It doesn’t contain a pyramid, but it is one of the most enormous structures I’ve ever seen, and there are hieroglyphics carved on every inch of it. Being from a country with such a relatively short history, I couldn’t help but laugh when we would enter a temple and see graffiti on one of the stone walls with someone’s name and the date 1809 next to it. All of these sites are so old that even their graffiti could be considered historical.
Every one of the temples and tombs is impressive, and almost every one of them has some interesting quirk to it, from later inscriptions by Napoleon’s army, to a road of just recently discovered Sphinxes that can’t be fully seen because they accidentally built their train station above a large section of it, yet at a certain point I did experience some burnout on seeing the same hieroglyphics and hearing the same king names at every site. Here are some of the highlights…
It is well known that I am a devoted McDonald’s fan, so I sought out a McDonald’s near Luxor Temple. I’m always interested to see if there are any local twists, and there was: the McArabia…a pita-based sandwich, and the famous Royale With Cheese. Ironically, I went to McDonald’s to get a good refuel, as I had been eating light due to my extremely picky eating habits, and of all of the meals I had on our trip, McDonald’s was the one that gave me food poisoning, causing me to vomit several bottles of water on all sorts of important landmarks the next day.
After two days in Cairo and a 5 day trip down the sites of the Nile, we left Egypt and went to Jordan for 2 days. The subtle differences of Jordan were refreshing. We stayed our first night in Amman, where it is a law for every building to be made of stone. While there were traces of ancient Roman culture throughout Egypt, it was mainly seen in the reappropriation of Egyptian landmarks, such as Egyptian temples with Roman engravings over original Egyptian carvings. In Jordan, the Roman ruins were original and very well preserved. Entire city centers had been rebuilt for our touring pleasure.
The real jewel of Jordan tourism is Petra. You may know Petra from the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where they are entering the final temple holding the holy grail. That entrance is The Treasury in the city of Petra, which is a city entirely carved into a narrow valley by the Nabataeans. It is certainly a unique site to see, and was a great change of pace to end the trip after seeing so many Egyptian sites for the previous week.
With such uncertainty in Egypt’s future, Christie and I feel particularly lucky to have gotten the trip in while we did. It’s hard to believe that a leadership will emerge that will oppose American tourism (since it is such a huge part of the country’s financial well being), but it certainly isn’t out the question.