Egypt 2007: Overview

Lyn and I: our actual experience

A problem with these records of our visits to sundry places on the planet is that they emphasize details rather than the experience of our trips. Lyn and I enjoy each other’s company anyway and the additional buzz (and sometimes anxieties) of being with new people in new cultures and places makes for great memories...

But our experience of the trip is only faintly captured here. The reason is simple mechanics: it takes about 150 hours to scramble down (this) barely readable record of details, add the edited photos and get it posted. At the end of it I have neither time nor energy (nor frankly perhaps the talent) to rewrite and reorganize to give the proper flavour of our trip.

The factual details are necessary (a) because we tend to forget those, and (b) later those trigger our memory of a great experience. Trouble is that doesn't help you, dear reader, grinding through reams of dross trivia that trigger nothing. If I was a better note-taker and writer I’d be able to capture this better and it would no doubt make better reading. For now, let the problem at least be acknowledged; the notes that follow are some attempt to capture a broader view of the trip.

History and Google Earth

Before I get going on more general topics, the following additional pages may be of interest:

  • A Brief History of Egypt might be useful if you know nothing about the places and people documented at length in the details.
  • A Google Earth View might be of interest if you want to take a close look at some of the sites that we visited.

The Group; the bus

Ramblers groups are always fun. Usually there are about twenty of us and a group leader. Because we spend a lot of time together—at meals, on walks, on the bus etc—we get to know each other pretty well and it always amazes me that a group of strangers seem to enjoy each other more by the end of the trip, rather than less. These are invariably interesting people. We seem to be among the few who are not retired.

We have a group leader from Ramblers with us to take care of details. Anne looks after all hassles and hold-ups and tips. We also have an Egyptian guide, Max, who was with us throughout the trip. In addition to providing knowledgeable guiding around the various sites that we visit Max also gave us running commentary on a variety of topics, including his favourite soccer team. We have "representatives" from the Egyptian Department of Tourism. More on this under “Security” (below).

We travel by our own private bus, driven by "Schumacher" Mustapha; more details on driving in Egypt below.

This was a “D/Sightseeing” level tour, and the group was a little older than other groups we’ve traveled with. As we age, we’re less up to the more strenuous hiking and more interested in sightseeing. There are a few people younger than us, but most are a bit older and two of the gents here are over 80! Yet age doesn’t slow this crowd down much. Most were grumbling about the lack of walking and showed no sign of flagging on an often gruelling schedule. When we did the 9km/900m climb up Mount Sinai, only two people didn’t make it to the top, and that was mostly because they had the horrible cold that was going around. (Both 80 year olds made it without much trouble at all).

Going back to that horrible cold: it seemed to go slowly round the whole group, which is not surprising given that we spent so much time in that enclosed space of the bus. Most people weathered it without being slowed down, but I was not looking forward to coming down with it. Such things usually go to my chest and I’m laid up for a week. However, other than an hour or two of feeling “something” both Lyn and I managed to avoid it.

General Notes about Egypt

Population 80 million. 98% are Egyptian, Bedouin (approximately 400,000 Bedouins), Nubian or Beja. Religion: 90% Islamic, 10%* Coptic/other Christian. Egypt is a secular society, currently fighting the Islamists who would like to see Egypt under Shariah (strict Islamic) law. The fertile valley of the Nile is home to most of the population but accounts for only 6% of the land area; the other 94% is made up of  Egypt’s three desert regions: the Western Desert (west of the Nile); the Eastern Desert (east of but still in Africa); the Sinai Desert.

*Max and other Coptic Christian sources claim the figure for Coptic Christians to be 15-20% of the population, but this flies in the face of official figures. It may include those who have left Egypt or more recently, the faith, in the face of persecution from Muslim sects.

The Egypt Experience

poverty...and satellite dishes? Realize that with our dull itemization of went-here-saw that, you might not be able to tell whether we were in Norway or Nigeria, so here’s a shoot-from-the-hip view of our experience.

How to sum up an experience of Egypt? Surprisingly pleasant, actually. I suppose we were primed (in part by our tour leader) to run a gamut of aggressive shysters looking to rob us blind at every opportunity and the rampant security everywhere doesn’t help. But after a while, we not only adjusted to what hassles there were but found it was possible to walk the streets without feeling unsafe. Indeed, while the hassle factor is high, we realized that there seemed to be no real personal safety issue anywhere that we experienced.

Baksheesh (tipping or bribery, depending on your point of view) is a normal way of life here and this can feel awkward if you don’t know the ropes. Generally speaking, the acceptable amount is pitiful—about 20 Canadian cents or one (invariably grimy) Egyptian pound—but if you gave even that to all the people who asked you’d be poor all the same when you left. Most disconcerting was having the police or other officials ask for money! Fortunately, Max (our guide) handled tipping and we’d mostly just point to Max.

Many people are just friendly—kids especially would always wave as our bus whizzed by. People in southern Egypt also seem subtly different, in the way that you might find people from Nova Scotia different from those in Vancouver. Everyone seems to have a sense of humour in the south.

Food was good—excellent vegetarian fare—where we got real Egyptian food.

Weather? Hardly saw a cloud in the two weeks we were there, although you still couldn’t see much of the sky in Cairo because of the pollution. It was very cool though and could be cold in the desert. Warmed up a bit as we moved south but not a lot. The sun could still toast you in a minute though. We were putting on sunblock 40 and still ending the day with a tan!

Hassles, safety and security

On our first day, we were boarding the bus in the morning to head to the Museum of Antiquities and were introduced to a new person on the bus: our “bodyguard” from the Ministry of Tourism. There are murmurs of surprise; our Egyptian guide hastens to assure us that the prime role of the bodyguard is to ensure that the antiquities are protected and that we do not inadvertently transgress the rules.

But this turned out to be only partly true. We had naively assumed that Ramblers wouldn’t go anywhere unsafe but if had been concerned about such things we probably should have done better research. In 1997, hard-line Islamists began to press their position by targeting tourists with bomb attacks, one at the very Museum of Antiquities that we were now heading towards and another at the Tomb of Hatshepsut in Luxor with significant death toll. The attacks backfired, souring the public on the Muslim Brotherhood; a ceasefire was declared. But in 2005, further attacks, this time at the plush tourist resorts of Taba and Sharm El-Sheikh resulted in large numbers of Egyptian dead. The tourism business has plummeted, which hasn’t helped the economy, and the government stepped up security again. Bombing Bedouin hashish farms in the South and annoying the drug lords has added to the tensions

The government’s protection measures may be necessary but are disconcerting in their own way. The bodyguard actually fulfils both roles above. They (we had different people at different stages of our trip) kept a close eye on us whenever we were around the monuments and were not happy when at one point the group split into two (so he couldn’t keep an eye on all of us).

But they do act as our bodyguards.  We spent a total of 5 days traveling across Egypt in the bus, an experience which was interesting for its ever-changing views of the desert (and haphazard, scrappy development taking place there). But it required constant stops at the many checkpoints on major highways. The stops may have often been  little more than a shout and a wave-through, but the manned machine-gun turret or the soldier lurking nervously behind a barrier were clear signs that things could get serious. We had to travel through isolated mountain valleys frequented by the Bedouins, and whenever we did so there was often a requirement to join a convoy or to have a bodyguard on board. Most of the time we had only the bodyguard and one couldn’t help wondering what protection a single guard armed with a revolver would have been against a marauding group of drug dealers with automatic weapons and SUV’s. But perhaps things are settling down because there have been no recent attacks.

On some days, we’d seen a radically increased presence of army and police personnel along the streets or outside our hotel and a heightened sense of vigilance. Had there been reports of a threat?

Was this the reason that we did so little walking? We asked this and received indirect answers. Negotiating lunch

The hassles from street vendors were constant but actually turned out to be less than we’d expected. One gradually learns to not show the slightest interest in people pressing wares into one’s view. A common strategy is for a shop owner to sit in a chair on the opposite side of the street from his/her shop and when a tourist approaches, to walk aggressively into their path. The mug changes course to avoid a collision without realizing they are being steered toward said shop where real bargaining begins. The trick is to walk straight ahead; the marauder will simply fade to avoid serious confrontation and will lose interest. In practice nine out of ten vendors are harmless and you can banter with them harmlessly. Only the occasional person is really aggressive (see calesh).

In spite of all this, the threat of serious crimes seems to be almost absent. Whether this is because of severe penalties or Islam is hard to say. Our Ramblers Leader wound us up before all of our sorties into heavily trafficked bazaars and tourist areas and if her goal was to ensure that our experience always fell below our expectations, she succeeded.

Cabs and caleshes

In Cairo you will notice that every other vehicle is a either a (Volkswagen) bus or a cab. Competition is so fierce among cab drivers that normal business revenue must be augmented by methods we would refer to as shady. For example, you hire a cab to take you to central Cairo but find yourself getting a tour of the pyramids (“for you, good price”); you get a quote for a fare in what you assume to be Egyptian pounds but are asked for payment in the equivalent of English pounds (ten times as much).

In the tourist cities of Luxor and Aswan cabs are matched by an even more aggressive blight, the calesh. The calesh is a horsedrawn carriage; they such a problem for drivers and tourists alike that the government is trying to eliminate them; again too many caleshs for the business available. Passing a phalanx of parked caleshes one must endure the entreaties of each driver you pass and then the muttered insults and character slurs of those you have already rejected.

Driving and Traffic

My favourite topic! Traffic consumes a large percentage of one’s life in Cairo and driving the highways between cities is only different in quality not quantity of adrenaline thrills. It takes an hour to negotiate the logjam of traffic that squirms its way into Cairo every day: great writhing snakes of honking cars competing fiercely for every inch of space. One suspects that it is an offence to keep to the same lane for more than a minute at a time.

Ah lanes; here’s how to count them: take the number of theoretical or actually marked lanes; multiply this by 1.3 for slow moving traffic and 0.66 for fast-moving traffic. That is, if you have three lanes marked, there will be four lanes of cars if it’s slow, and only two if things are moving along (because everyone drives with their wheels astride the lane lines in order not to miss out on a deak left or right). Now, take away one lane from your count to allow for a lane at the curb for broken down taxis with their hoods up; and in every city block, allow a section where you subtract three lanes taken up by a crowd of potential bus passengers who have moved out into the road so as to be the one person in a hundred who can actually snag a place on a passing bus (or what passes for one). On Fridays (the Holy Day), add two bus crowd lanes back in, but subtract three for the lanes of cars parked outside each mosque (those who arrived first presumably are in no hurry to leave).

Lack of traffic lights adds spice to the already fascinating stew of activity on the streets. Consider in this new light the now intriguing problem of cross-street traffic or left turns; consider the puzzle of how four lanes (two in each direction) of road-raged drivers interact with a major and continuous cross-flow of pedestrians in two directions. One gathers by a lack of exotic blood spatter patterns covering the roads that it is considered bad sportsmanship to actually drive your car into a pedestrian, but that minor restriction barely impacts the broad spectrum of entertainment possible from near misses.

Out on the highways things get even more interesting. As in the city of course the engine is kept running by pressing continuously on one’s horn, particularly should another vehicle commit the outrage of driving at the speed limit (or having a very small donkey pulling a large wagon piled with vegetables) to impede your own hell-bent progress. In such circumstances, the accepted practice is to wait for a blind bend or better still, a hairpin, and then pull out into the oncoming lane. Thankfully, Egyptians seem squeamish about this game of chicken and the overtakee will usually pull off the road and drive in the desert for the few seconds necessary to let you pass. Should that not happen (because, for example, that driver is already overtaking someone), then you can surely count on the self-preservation insticts of the vehicle appearing in the other direction to save the day...again.

The marvel is that none of this incites the kind of aggravation that it might in Europe or North America. At home, such incidents would give rise to outrage, angry light-flashing and horn-sounding, fingered insults, and even the occasional attempt to force you into a head-on collision just to prove a point. Yet Egyptian drivers treat these continual threats to life as relief from boredom rather than sign of enmity. Our driver will wave and chat to the person he is passing; the other driver will honk his thanks to Allah that you avoided actually hitting him; the driver coming in the other direction will flash his lights to indicate that all is clear (he now has two wheels over the canal). It’s all such fun!

Flowers and Birds

We are emerging from the Egyptian winter so not everything was either green or in bloom but this definitely isn't Kansas. There was the usual colorful blooms of the tropics: (that Lynda knows about but I can never remember the names). Yet there were more exotic blooms, like Jasmine and this tree that always seemed to have two colors.

Africa Hoopoe...oh, and The Sphynx

Birds a-plenty. There was one other avid bird-spotter in the group who, like me, didn't want to jeopardize his amateur status and become known as a "bird-watcher", but who enjoys keeping an eye out all the same. We managed to find a good bird book, but I—veering close to the aforementioned curse—actually noted in the book the ones we saw during the trip and ended up with about 40 species. A problem here though is that Egypt is a good stopping place on a migration path, especially for raptors, and so we saw a great number of birds that we couldn't pin down.

The call to prayer

If you open your curtains in most hotels in Egypt you’ll likely find yourself within a few feet of the spire of a mosque. This relieves the hotel front desk of the need for wake-up calls for the upper floors because the call to prayer at day-break (5am ish) will surely accomplish that task (those in the lower floors have not slept all night anyway because of the disco in the basement).

These days, the actual call to prayer is accomplished not by an aging mullah hiking to the top of the turret and wheezing out a now barely audible call to prayer. Rather, a young baritone with impressive lungs is hired to make a recording which is then played at full volume on the mother-of-all speakers mounted at top of the spire…at that hour on the clock marked ‘godawful’ on your clock.

Having had several seconds to quiet your pounding heart you have fresh in store, for lo there abideth close by yet another mosque,  not on quite the same internet time as the first, and there’s another one! Once that dies down, glory be! It seems that the first mosque has not quite finished yet, and here we go round again.

Yet eventually one comes to enjoy the call to prayer in the mornings. The haunting Arabic ululation gradually becomes as much a part of the day as the golden sunrise.

National character

all you can wear shopThe Egyptian character changes as one progresses up the Nile. The lower Nile fellow is a tenacious and scrappy entrepreneur always on the lookout for a way to make a buck (often at your expense) but he also seems aware of his “place” in society—perhaps based on more exposure to colonial oppression of the past or police/army oppression in the present. In the north however the Egyptian character changes a little. Many of the people around Aswan are from Nubia or descended of immigrants from many parts of Africa. They are more laid back, enjoy a joke, and consider themselves your equal. In hotels, one finds one’s waiter telling one where to sit, and cracking jokes as though he is part of your crowd; you half expect him to pull up a chair and join your group on his break.

Cynicism on the Sinai

The fact that Moses’ burning bush has not only survived for 3,000 years but can be definitely identified today from among the gazillion possibilities is a quaint story. However, such miraculous connections of myths with actual wells, rocks, books, bushes etc becomes routine in the Sinai and after a while one cannot help wonder whether people are seeking religion or magic…or whether a tourist machine doesn’t mind whether it cashes in on an opportunity to make a buck or a soul.

Useful reference sites

http://www.nemo.nu/ibisportal/0egyptintro/

An excellent site providing detailed layouts and descriptions of the various pyramids and pyramid types. The detailed list of kings/pharaohs also provides a list of the cartouches for each pharaoh. Unfortunately…and mysteriously, this site covers everything except the New Kingdom.

http://www.touregypt

A commercial site aimed primarily at launching you on river cruises but also providing a surprisingly detailed and conscientious range of information about the history of Egypt.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/pyramid/explore/howold.html

A discussion with Zahi Hawass, Director General of Giza, about accurate dating of the pyramids. Regrettably Mr. Hawass devotes his remarks largely to methodology (which may be of some interest) and avoids any details about his latest findings from carbon dating. Elsewhere on the internet, Mr. Hawass' interest in pursuing variations from the official truths has been questioned.

The Birthday Party (before we left)

We had a joint 60th birthday party on Feb 3, about a week before we were due to leave.

We made major preparations...mostly tasks we'd been meaning to get to for a while and needed any excuse to get them done. Lyn got all her family photo albums scanned and ready converted to DVD—this before the albums themselves are cannibalized by the kids taking a few out every time they come over. My task was music; I'd been meaning to organize my old vinyls and new CDs, so I bought a DVD writer and put together 9 hours of the great music from the fifties through the eighties. Lyn's other task was food, and so the food was of course superb.

But the real energy sink was preparing our "histories". We had both told each other pieces of our past lives many times, yet all we had was a pile of disembodied fragments rather than an integrated whole. So we decided that for our own benefit as well as for the family and friends we'd invited, we'd put together a "Life before we met" stories. We each painstakingly put together a hand-made timeline; Lyn created a brief movie out of her many photos; I resorted to Google Earth to show the house where I was born, Lagos, and so on.  On the night of the party we each did an hour's talk. It was exhausting to do, but judging by the comments that we received afterwards, people really seemed to enjoy it.

Our invite list was limited by the number of people we could seat to watch our "show", and so we only invited family and close friends. A few couldn't make it but the people who did come were great—Lyn's family plus a few close friends.

We also finally  redecorated the hallway and afterwards kicked ourselves for waiting so many years to do it. Too bad that Blake couldn't make it. We tried to video the whole thing but the camera didn't work and so we don't have anything to send him (in Thailand).