We touched down late at night in Cairo where we had pre-arranged an airport pick-up. The driver was tall and lanky, a fast-talking, fast-walking, middle-aged Egyptian man who kept apologizing for his poor grasp of the English language. "Walk like an Egyptian," he would offer up. His command of our mother tongue, without saying, was infinitely better than ours of his. At 2 in the morning, he pulled over at a juice stand where he bought us each a cup of freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, a popular drink among Egyptians, and insisted that, as his guests, we give it a taste. The level of sweetness was beyond my comprehension and I could all but keep it from spilling as he pressed toward our hostel.
We set out to explore the surroundings the next afternoon and planned out the rest of our stay over falafels and chicken shawarma. Above the noise remains an ancient civilization with endless treasures to boast and a people whose warmth radiates like that of a sweet, old grandmother.
Breakfast at the hostel was a simple serving of boiled eggs, cheese spread, bread with butter and confiture, and coffee.
Just minutes outside of our hostel, we were solicited by a smile that persuaded us into a shop of natural perfume oils. The shopkeeper was proud of his selection of alcohol-free scents, lighting a fire under them to substantiate his claim, then dabbing vanilla on one wrist and jasmine on the other. He presented a wide spectrum of bottle sizes friendly for all types of travelers. Next to one another they looked like the Matryoshka dolls of Egyptian oils and when we thought the bottles couldn't get any smaller, he pulled out a thimble-sized one for the not-yet-ready-to-commit traveler.
Standing in Tahrir Square was surreal. A renowned site, it's been marked by many a political demonstration, including the revolution in 2011 that led to the fall of Mubarak, the country's oppressive leader for 30 consecutive years. It was hard to imagine thousands of people, provoked by frustration, anger, hope for change and for the future, swarmed in this space, bound by a common optimism.
Next we visited the Egyptian Museum, though perhaps shameful to admit, we decided not to go inside. For one, it was an hour from closing time, which we deemed was not enough time to wander, but also, we were simply not motivated. We later learned that some of the tombs excavated from their original burial sites in Luxor are housed here. For those interested in visiting the museum, it's recommended to arrive earlier in the day to ensure entry since operating hours listed online or in guide books may vary from actual operating hours. Keep in mind that visitors must pass through security screening. Cameras are not allowed inside the museum and must be checked in before entering, but outside is fair game.
The late afternoon was spent walking along the Nile down Corniche-el-Nil, crossing over to the Agouza side by way of the Cairo Tower on Gezira Island. Feluccas lined the riverfront, blasting techno as a way, one could only suppose, to entice the young and romantic to cruise down the river just as the sun was setting. Our aimless promenade concluded at a small café where locals came to sip on fruit smoothies and smoke shisha among friends. We were like fish out of water, but were treated with the same enthusiasm as other patrons. By evening, we found ourselves in the Zamalek district, a more affluent and happening neighborhood where hip restaurants and cafés abound, a popular area for visitors and ex-pats.
We attempted to take a bus to the Pyramids of Giza, but ultimately took a cab to and from. (The metro would have been a viable option had we figured it out sooner.) Arriving at the gate, it felt like a marketplace ripe with pickpockets and hustlers. We made the rookie mistake of walking down a relatively empty dirt road where we were nearly swindled by a young man offering tours through the grounds atop his homely camels. The constant pressure to move quickly alerted us to cut ties as soon as we had the chance, which resulted in hefty savings once we learned that inside, the same tours were touted at a fifth the price we had settled on.
The pyramids lived up to their hype, forever riddled with mystery as to how a civilization with such basic and limited resources was able to construct such perfect edifices. We were enchanted by the scene of horse carriages drawn across the desert landscape and camels trotting about in their traditional Bedouin garb.
For dinner we headed downtown to the dine-in Felfela location and had shakshouka to start, followed by foul, koshary, grilled vegetables, and sausages. We were famished.
By now, we'd figured out the metro system, just in time to do a day trip by train up to Alexandria, the birthplace of Cleopatra. On the way to the station, a bakery was casually cooling their freshly baked sweets on stacked metal trays just in the way of our path, as though inviting us to taste a treat or two. A man appeared out of nowhere, the kind look on his face encouraged us to generously take our pick.
In Alexandria the main attraction for us was the Biblioteca Alexandrina, located just a stone's throw from the Mediterranean shore. An architectural beauty housing millions of books, students flock to this contemporary library to study and socialize. We must have spent a couple of hours perusing the multi-level complex, in awe of its grandeur.
From there, we boarded a bus, stopping in Cairo for a quick break - I'll spare the stressful details of our flat en route - before continuing overnight to Luxor.
DAYS 4 & 5
Arriving in the morning, we didn't lose any time acquainting ourselves with the sites at Luxor. There was so much to see and our time there was limited. We found it was best to hire a private driver to take us around, but not without first stopping at a local restaurant for some lunch: rotisserie chicken and pickled vegetables. Some sites we skimmed through, others we took in at a more leisurely pace:
Temple of Edfu
Colossi of Memnon
Qurna: An abandoned village whose pastel façade is reminiscent of a ghost town painted against a soft desert landscape.
Temple of Hatshepsut
Valley of the Kings: Just one word - WOW. The paintings in the chambers leading to the tombs are just exquisite. (No photography allowed.)
Karnak Temple: This expansive temple has a sound and light show in the evening that narrates the history of ancient Thebes. It's an alternative way to visit the complex.
On the first evening we took a relaxing dip in the pool at the hotel where we stayed, a much welcomed luxury after extensive exposure to the heat, then gave in to a private felucca cruise down the Nile sans techno, of course. It's the way to go and we'd recommend it. (Don't forget to negotiate the price ahead of time.) We closed the night with a lovely, intimate dinner in town at the charming Sofra.
The second evening, after splurging on a couple of [maybe overpriced but] beautiful, delicate papyrus paintings at the Scarabe Papyrus Museum, we hopped back on the train and fled to Abu Simbel.
Our wild ride through Aswan to Abu Simbel could be found here.
The day was mostly spent sleeping off the musical chair ordeal of the previous night, but we did manage to make our way out to join society and enjoy a cappuccino at Simonds Bakery where we engaged in conversation with an Egyptian man sitting beside us. It was interesting to hear his perspective on how much the economy had improved since the years prior. Though politics were in a state of flux, he generally agreed that changes were headed in the right direction. Then, before leaving and as a welcoming gesture on behalf of his people, he gifted us a box of his favorite cookies since childhood: shortbread cookies filled with jelly. We were delighted.
We walked 2.5 kilometers to Khan-el-Khalili, a major marketplace for souvenirs ranging from lamps and lanterns to scarabs and statues, the equivalent of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar or Marrakech's souks, though not nearly as busy. It was a maze of shops selling all sorts of trinkets and we patronized the shopkeeper with the warmest eyes. Nearby was the Wekalet El Ghouri Arts Center where we caught the Al-Tannoura performance, a Sufi folk dance that was absolutely mesmerizing. We were captivated by the music and chanting as well as the costume and dancing. We arrived a few minutes late, purchased tickets at the door, but were still able to grab seats in the back. It was such a treat, almost like a spiritual voyage, and definitely a highlight for us in Cairo. Performances are held at 8:30 pm only 3 days a week (Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays). If you could get to and from the theater on your own, it's much cheaper than booking a tour.
DAYS 8 & 9
The last couple of days, we squeezed in a trip to the White Desert just outside the Bahariya Oasis. Joined by two other foreigners who had traveled through parts of the Middle East, then Egypt, we concurred that the white rock formations, crystal mountain, and Black Desert were rather underwhelming but that the Bedouin night under the stars playing Telephone was epic. With 2 people whose native language is English, 2 Mandarin, and 2 Arabic, the messages relayed from one person to the next were jumbled from the start, translated one too many times, and only laughable by the end.
Certainly don't let our experience hold you back from checking it out. To be fair, we were jaded by the unfolding of events whereby we felt there was some collusion between our guides to maximize their payout by cutting corners (for instance, recruiting us to help pick up 2 random tourists who were not originally part of the tour or attempting to evade paying the cost of entry to the park). Our research showed that those who went through Loly at Egypt Western Desert Tours had an exceptional time.
If you make your way to this part of the world, you'll find that the chaos in the everyday is just a way of life. There's a constant hustle and bustle on the streets at every hour of the day and night, making you wonder where everyone is going and what they are doing. It's the sort of place that could do anything, yet seems to be doing nothing. Around every corner is someone trying to make a quick living, hassling the first foreigner he sets eyes on and no matter where you're from, you could almost always count on his having a brother or cousin working or studying there, as if the key to any bric-a-brac rapport is this small world we live in.
Though our trip through Egypt was hectic at best, it made for some of the most unforgettable memories. Some of our favorite and most unique curios come from here. If you have the patience to look past its flaws, you'll be sure to find riches in the form of nature, history, culture, and human encounters. The country has not gotten great press over the last 12 months, let alone the last 12 years. Terrorist attacks and political unrest have really done a number on the country's tourism industry and the latest threat in the Sinai Peninsula (which we didn't visit) certainly hasn't helped matters. But for the adventurous who defy fear, disallowing it to paralyze them from leaving their homes, Egypt is a gem still waiting to be explored.