Friday, June 1, 2007

Egypt: Cairo

"Holy crap, I'm in The Middle East..." That was my, very mature, first thought upon arrival at the airport in Bahrain. After coming from the lands of bare feet, shorts, and t-shirts, I was now walking past women wearing "abayas" and men in "dishdashahs" (dress-like garments that cover the body from the shoulders down to the feet). Luckily, I had chosen my most conservative looking outfit for the flight, however, having packed for "summer weather", my most conservative outfit consisted of capris and a t-shirt, so I felt a bit like a street-walker with my now four inch roots (tough to travel for long periods of time with highlights) and outfit, compared to the ladies in the scarves covering their hair, "hajabs", and sometimes even faces (leaving only their eyes showing).

After another four hour flight from Bahrain to Egypt (twelve hour travel time, in total, from Cambodia) I arrived in Cairo at 2:10 a.m. Luckily, I had obtained an Egyptian visa in Sydney as apparently there are "no guarantees" that the visa office will be open at the airport, and was taken by van to the Indiana Hotel in the center of Cairo.

I had the entire next day to myself, before joining the eight-day tour and group, the following day. While wondering the streets of Cairo, trying to find The Sheraton where it was recommended to change your currency, an Egyptian guy named Mohammad (it seems as though 98% of men in Egypt are named Mohammad or Ali - which is what we were also told by the locals - but I'm not sure if it is just to make it easier on the tourists, as in Bali where all the women told me their names were Debbie, Linda, Barbara, etc.). Mohammad gave me directions to the Sheraton and then asked what I had planned for the day. He took me over to his shop, a family owned business (the family unit is extremely important in Egypt and most families are fairly large and live close to each other) selling papyrus, essence, and various tourist souvenirs. He told me their business also gives tourists rides to some of the pyramids and sights around Giza. After agreeing on a price for a driver to take me around Giza for the day ($20) I told Mohammad I would be back after some breakfast. He told me to wait and pushed a small button on the wall next to him. A few seconds later, a young guy appeared at the door and after Mohammad asked me how hungry I was, he said something in Egyptian to the young guy who then nodded, left, and then returned a few minutes later carrying two small bags, which he then handed to me. Inside, was the typical Egyptian breakfast: fallafel and re fried beans inside a pita. Mohammad then asked me what I would like to drink, and again pushed the button on the wall and the young guy appeared with a Diet Coke. When I asked how much I owed for the breakfast, Mohammad told me, "No! This is Egyptian hospitality!" This is honestly how it works in Egypt. Everywhere you go, you are offered a drink of tea, coffee, soda, etc. and it is all chalked up to Egyptian hospitality, regardless of whether you buy something or not. After breakfast, an older man drove up to the shop to pick me up. He was, of course, a cousin of Mohammad and would be my driver for the day.

Driving down the freeways in Cairo was definitely a unique experience. You can see the pyramids of Giza in the distance, close to the city, and all of the "residential" buildings you pass look like unfinished warehouses. We later learned from our tour guide that the outsides of the buildings look as though they are unfinished but the insides are really quite nice and very much complete. Apparently, this is due to the fact that the government imposes high taxes on those living in the building once it is complete, but if it is unfinished, there are no taxes imposed - so much of Cairo appears to be buildings under development when in actuality they will remain unfinished in appearance, to beat the tax laws.

While driving along the freeway at 75 mph, you are also passing men riding in carts pulled by donkeys... It was absolutely crazy to be sharing an eight lane freeway with donkey-drawn carts carrying watermelons, peaches, herbs, etc.

Our first stop for the day, was a gold and silver shop / factory. The merchant at the shop explained what each letter of my name means in hieroglyphics and I had a "cartouche" (an oblong enclosure sort of oval in shape that used to indicate that the text inside is a royal name, but is now used in necklaces, key chains, etc.) made with my name inscribed inside. I asked to watch it being made and the picture (left) is from inside the factory.

Our next stop was a museum that housed a giant sculpture of Ramses II (one of, if not the most, famous Pharaohs in Egypt). Before getting out of the car, at every stop, my driver would tell me not to talk to anyone or let them tell me anything about where I was visiting because afterwards they would then tell me I needed to give them money (apparently some men stand around the sites acting as tour guides and pray on people walking alone - of which there were very few - and begin following people around telling them about the site, only to afterwards demand to be paid) so I was slightly nervous when the police officer with a machine gun on his back - all of the police where the same white uniform and have a machine gun slung over their shoulder (pictured left) - beckoned for me to come over to him. I hesitated, but he kept telling me to come forward and then, after asking where I was from, asked to shake my hand. With a fully extended arm (so I didn't have to get too close) I shook his hand, only to then be asked for $1 (while he was still holding my hand). I was slightly shocked to be being asked this by a police officer, one holding a machine gun no less, and I pretended to "not really get" what he meant as I backed away (I only had a $20 bill that I had to keep as a departure tax that must be paid in USD when leaving the country and I was not about to get into a discussion about currency exchange with a man holding a gun).

The next stop was a carpet school. There are many carpet schools around Cairo as the Egyptian government, in an effort to keep alive tradition as well as create more jobs for young people in particular, has played a big role in setting up programs for children to go from school to work in the carpet warehouses learning how to make the silk and wool carpets while also earning wages and helping to support their families. It is amazing how quickly they work with each knot being done by hand and even a small section taking a few months to complete due to how tightly they weave the carpets.

After carpet school, and prayer time for my driver (80% of Egypt is Muslim, which means the speakers calling to prayer go off five times a day and many of the men have what appear to be welts on their forehead from the amount of time their heads touch the ground in prayer), we headed to The Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, which rises to a height of around 197 feet and noted for many reasons, most namely the use of limestone being utilized for the first time on a large scale as a construction material, and it is thought that this was the first time the idea of a royal tomb in the form of a pyramid was first employed.

After returning to Cairo, Mohammad took me to lunch a local cafe where the menu was written entirely in Arabic and I was given more than a few stares considering I was both the only "Western" person in the place, but also the only woman. After asking me how hungry I was, the waiter brought me a huge bowl of "koushrey" (a traditional Egyptian dish of pasta, beans, marinara sauce, topped with bacon), which I then needed to walk off and decided to take a walk along The Nile, through the center of Cairo. I again received several stares, considering that I was wearing a tank top and shorts, and walking alone, compared to the few other women I saw on the streets and who were wearing the long dress-garments and scarves covering their heads and faces.

That night, back at the Hotel Indiana, I met the tour group and my roommate, Amy, an incredibly sweet Aussie girl my age who had been living and working in London for the past year and was taking some time to travel, as well. The rest of the group consisted of: Yanel and Ange (Aussie couple); Sarah and Andy(Scottish couple); Jody and Michelle (two friends from New Zealand); Tony, Simon, and Andy (three British friends), and Mark (American - and our comic relief on the tour as he was constantly in a state of panic about not being in a "westernized" place and kept asking questions like, "If I go outside right now, am I going to die?" in all seriousness...) and our tour guide, Rafike.

We had two full days in Cairo, beginning with a visit to the oldest section of Cairo, known as "Coptic Cairo", where three of the four, what are considered today the "major religions of the modern world: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism" are represented with a church (Christianity), mosque (Islam), and Synagogue (Judaism)

We next headed to the market - busy alleyways lined with shops selling water pipes, belly-dancing outfits, gold, silver, carpets, etc. There was an enormous mosque near the entrance to the market, so at 5:00 prayer, it became complete chaos with men leaving the mosque and tourists coming in and out of the market. Mark (the other American in our group) managed to buy a stuffed camel and ask our guide, "Why are there Egyptian people who aren't selling things, walking around the market?"... I am serious... he asked this. Our guide responded by saying, "Isn't it like that in the U.S.? People walk around wearing clothes and buying things, etc.?" in a very sarcastic tone. If it wasn't so hilarious a question and response, I would have been more embarrassed that we were sharing "American representation" in the group.

Our last day in Cairo, we had an early start to get to the Pyramids at Giza and The Sphinx. The Great Pyramid at Giza is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (it is actually the oldest, and only remaining member of the seven ancient wonders), and absolutely incredible to behold. It's sheer size was overpowering. It is believed to have been completed over a 20 year period of time, finishing in the year 2560 B.C. While standing in awe at the base of the pyramid, there was a sudden chase between an Egyptian police officer and a local man selling camel rides. They were both on camels and neither Amy or I had an idea how fast those things could move until the whole Indiana Jones-esque chase unfolded before our eyes.

We then headed over to The Sphinx, the largest single stone statue in the world, and in between battling for space with the thousands of French tourists (again, tricky photography to leave out all the other tourists) learned that one particular legend of why the nose of the Sphinx is missing, is that Napolean had his troops use the Sphinx as a firing target and the nose was knocked off by a cannonball after such practice.

We ended our time in Cairo with a trip to The Egyptian Museum, where we saw the death mask of Tutankamen and the tomb in which his mummy was kept, along with many other fascinating Egyptian relics, tombs, mummies, etc.

After a whirlwind tour of Cairo, we were scheduled to board an overnight train down to Aswan, so that we could then board a boat to sail down The Nile for the next few days. Before boarding the train, we learned from our tour guide, Rafike, that the U.S., Aussie, and British embassies all require that the Egyptian police know where all of their visiting citizens are at all times (meaning everything from what time we leave our hotel, to what train car we will be sitting in, etc.). After telling us this, we watched and realized that everywhere we went, an Egyptian police officer met us upon arrival and spoke with our guide to give us clearance to continue on and log that we had in fact travelled to where our guide had submitted a request and received approval from the government. It was crazy to learn how much we had to be monitored and Rafike explained to me that it was actually illegal that the day before I had gone on my own with a private taxi and no police approval beforehand, to Giza and The Step Pyramid (that explained why I saw my driver give the police officer money, while shaking his hand, when we had arrived - it was to bribe for my entry). Rafike also told everyone not to eat any pasta for at least two days, as our systems needed to get used to the water that is used to wash the pasta. After I told him I had eaten "koushrey" for one of my first meals, he had a brief look of shock and then laughed and went and bought a bowl for he and I for the train ride to Aswan. Everyone gave me looks of sympathy and some with fear for what I was likely to go through in the sickness category, but apparently Cambodia and the rest of S.E. Asia had already prepared me for whatever water The Middle East had to offer and now "koushrey" is a favorite dish of mine.

More to come on Egypt and our cruise down The Nile.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


After obtaining a Cambodian visa and a crazy cab ride where the driver and I debated where he would actually be dropping us off (despite having paid in advance at the airport taxi stand) we made it to our guest house in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

We had left Laos at 6:00 a.m. so after having checked-in to our guest house we still had most of the morning and the rest of the day to explore Angkor Wat, the single largest religious structure in the world. We arranged a tuk-tuk driver to take us for the day to explore Angkor and after driving through wooded and tree-lined roads, we approached the large moat surrounding the temple.

Thousands of people from all over the world come to visit Angkor Wat each day and it is believed that in the not too distant future, the government will have to impose regulations restricting people from certain areas and from climbing and / or touching the temple grounds and architecture, but currently, you are able to explore at will - occasionally being notified that you are climbing the rater steep staircases at "your own risk" (I had read in the guide book that many a tourist falls to break bones and sometimes even death...).

We spent the day exploring the temple grounds which were so big that despite the number of tourists, you could find your own section and find yourself alone for lengthy periods of time.

Large murals are carved into the outer walls of the temple, reflecting stories of the Gods and of the history of those who inhabited Angkor and their battles with surrounding forces.

We decided to take a quick break from the heat and a rest before further exploration, and on our way to a cafe across from the temple, we were accosted by Cambodian children. Literally, we each had around five or six surrounding us and after asking where we were from and immediately telling us, "Oh, the capital of America is Washington D.C.!" they tried to sell us whatever they had in their hands. We had read and heard that you shouldn't buy anything from them or give them any money as they give it directly to their parents who then make the kids go back out begging / selling, which only perpetuates the problem, but it is not easy when an adorable little girl who looks about five-years-old is holding on to your arm and telling you she likes your hair and earrings... no wonder Angelina Jolie adopted from here.

Before heading back to our guest house, we spent more time wandering the grounds and watching wild monkeys run from the surrounding woods and through the ruins. We made sure to stick to the paths as we had all read that much of Cambodia is still covered in land mines and it is advised that you never leave a well-worn path. I'm sure that Angkor Wat is 100% safe, with the number of tourists that visit each day, but the warnings were enough for us to only follow the paths.

That night, after a swim and dinner in the main part of town, we called it an early night as we had a 5:00 a.m. wake-up call the next morning in order to explore some of the other temples (there are so many in Siem Reap, I don't think you could adequately cover them all even in a week's time).

The next morning, we made it to Bayon, an ornate temple at the center of Angkor Thom, before sunrise as we had heard that catching a sunrise at the temples is amazing.

Unfortunately, the day turned out to be slightly overcast but that did not take away from how spectacular the grounds are.

Bayon was my favorite of the temples as it is much more isolated than Angkor Wat and the surrounding forest combined with the ornate carvings in the temple walls, and faces carved into the facades of the tops of all the pillars in the temple, causes feelings both eery and awe-inspiring.

Two local women who looked to be in their eighties, handed the three of us sticks of incense and instructed us to bow our heads as they said a prayer aloud, telling us as we left that we should now have, "good luck".

We spent a bit of time exploring some of the other temples in Siem Reap, before jumping in our tuk-tuk to head back to the airport and our flight to Bangkok.

Once we landed in Bangkok Airport, I had to say goodbye to Jen and Kari as they were headed home to San Francisco and I would be leaving S.E. Asia to head to The Middle East. Next stop, Cairo!

Monday, May 21, 2007


After being given a frozen towelette and a deep fried crab on croissant sandwich, combined with enough turbulence that I couldn't look at Jen and Kari because I knew they were freaking out as well, we landed in Luang Prabang, Laos. Our flight arrived ten minutes early and it took approximately ten minutes to get our visas (one passport sized photo and $35 USD) and luggage - it's amazing that some of these developing countries in Asia seem to be more efficient (or maybe just more lenient) at some things than the U.S. We jumped in the back of a tuk-tuk and rode into town.

Laos (pronounced "Lao" it was originally named Lao and the French later added the silent "s") is sandwiched between Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia so it is landlocked in terms of oceans/seas, but it does have rivers flowing throughout, including the Mekong River, which flows down into Cambodia. Luang Prabang is a quiet and quaint town situated between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, with surrounding limestone cliffs. You can still see much of the French influence (the French occupied Laos until they gained their independence in 1953) with signs written in Lao and in French, and many of the buildings lining the main streets constructed in the French colonial style.

After several days of non-stop rain in Thailand, we were more than excited to have the abundance of sunshine in Luang Prabang. Laos was also my first country in a month-and-a-half that drives on the right side of the road like back home! (Of course, after I had finally gotten used to looking opposite ways when crossing the street...).

We went to check-in at The Sayo Guest House and although they were full, they told us they had a new location along the river if we would like to see that one (at guest houses and hostels in Asia and Indonesia, they sow you the rooms first before you agree to stay). I jumped on the back of the guy's motorbike to rid to the other location and after a quick look, we returned without bags in a tuk-tuk and checked in to the Sayo II Guest House - a huge room with large windows throughout, a marble tiled bathroom and a sitting area with a view of the Mekong, all for the price of $10 each a night.

That night, we headed to the infamous Luang Prabang night market - blankets and red tents set along the ground with lamps lighting your way as you bargain over handmade duvet covers, bags, jewelry, t-shirts, etc. Paying in Kip (the currency of Laos) can get a bit confusing as the exchange is roughly 9,600 LAK (Kip) so you receive such a large stack of bills for exchanging even a relatively small amount of US Dollars, you feel like you are in the mafia.

The next morning, Kari and I rented bikes ($1 for the entire day) and rode along the riverside and throughout the town passing wats, outdoor markets and cafes, as the locals rode past on motorbikes holding umbrellas to protect them from the sun and many young monks walked along the streets (the monks we saw in Laos all seemed to be in their late teens / early twenties, as compared to Thailand where most we saw seemed to be in their fifties or sixties).
Later in the afternoon, we took a van ride with several other travellers to the Kwang Si waterfalls and animal rescue. At the base of the falls, a rescue has been set up for bears and tigers to save them from poachers and black market trading for their fur.
After hiking up to see the waterfall, we walked along a wooded path down to several "swimming holes" - turquoise water situated around smaller waterfalls and surrounded by trees, including one in particular that had a rope swing. Jen, Kari, and I decided to start the rope out and we each climbed the tree and swung off, landing in the pool below. Soon after, people were lining up to swing, although they looked much more graceful than us (but we get points for being the first).

Our last day in Luang Prabang, we climbed over 200 steps to reach a temple and overlook with 360 degree views of the town below. While hiking down, we passed golden Buddhas, sculptures, and images within the hillside.

That night, we boarded an overnight bus to Vang Vieng. After strapping a motorcycle to the top of the bus (sitting upright, kickstand and all...) and realizing that when they make you pay extra for the "V.I.P." bus with air con, it really means that you will be riding in a bus that has air conditioning, and not that they will actually turn it on (which they didn't), we were off. Apparently, this stretch of road between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng is one of the most dangerous in S.E. Asia as there are frequent hijackings, so when we pulled to the side of the road at midnight, with nothing but a few wooden shack style buildings surrounding us, in order to repair a tire on the bus, everyone was a little on edge - only made worse when a local riding the bus got off carrying what looked like a machine gun on his back, to serve as "lookout / guard" while the driver worked on the tire. That roadside stop, in addition to the fact that once we were back on the bus the driver took the winding roads so fast you'd think he was driving a Ferrari and not a 30-year-old Greyhound bus, all made the seven hour bus ride a bit rough. The bus pulled off to the side of the road in what looked to be the middle of nowhere, at 2:00 a.m. (although it had been scheduled to arrive at 11:30 p.m.) and the bus driver told the seven or so of us going to Vang Vieng to get off. After unloading our bags and the bus driving off, the seven of us sat in silence for a few minutes trying to figure out what to do next - everything was closed and dark in the town without a person in sight and none of us knew which way to go to get to a place to stay. After coming to a consensus on which way to walk, we made our way down a road and spotted a light on at one of the guest houses. The security guard (or older local man smoking a cigarette in the front, that I took to be the security guard) awoke the guy who ran the place and after paying the extra $3 for air conditioning (bringing our total for the room to $15 - $5 each) we passed out.

The long and treacherous bus ride was worth it, however, when we were dropped off by tuk-tuk the next day, to tube down the river. Vang Vieng is a small town in Laos famous for it's tubing. Many a traveller raves about the tubing and in our tuk-tuk alone we were packed in with several who had done it the day before, as well.

After sitting in your inner tube, you float along the river until you come to the numerous swings, zip lines, bars, and cafes set up along the riversides. The locals working there run over to the banks with a bamboo pole to either pull you in , or they will reach it over the water for you to grab to pull yourself over. In some cases where it is more shallow and not too rocky (or for those who have had one too many "Beer Lao" and can't manage the energy to hold on to the bamboo stick) they will walk out into the water and pull you in by your leg. Ladders made of wood or bamboo are propped up against tall trees for you to climb. Once at the top, a local pulls back the trapeze-type bar and you stand on the edge of a wooden plank before swinging out and over the water and dropping into the river. The highest one on the river had everyone a little fearful and after Jen and I went, our hands were shaking from the adrenaline rush. We were so glad we did it, although happy just to make it a one time thing as the guy who went after us got a bloody nose with the force in which he hit the water...

The next few hours we floated along the river occasionally hitting some rapids or bumping into others in their tubes, and then stopping for a drink before getting back in our tubes.

Vang Vieng is infamous for it's "Friends bars" - Nearly all of the restaurants and bars along the main street play the T.V. show "Friends" non-stop and all hours they are open. After tuk-tuks picked us up at the river, we ate dinner in a big couch-style table and watched a few hours of "Friends."

The next day, we took a bus to Vientienne, the capital of Laos and also our last stop before Cambodia. We had read about a popular bowling alley near our hotel and after a look of shock from the girls behind the counter when I told them my shoe size (I may have what are considered big feet in the U.S. but in Laos I think they are more in the "unheard of" range) we bowled alongside the locals.
We arrived in style the next day to the Vientienne airport as we had decided to have a splurge night after all those bus rides, and the hotel drove us in their Dick Tracey-esque car.

Laos and the tubing, in particular, were experiences to add to the long list of highlights for me on this trip. Now on to Cambodia!