Monday, May 18, 2015

Egypt! A Report: Part 1

Well that was a lot of fun! One of my dreams came true this past week and it involves Moses. I'll explain later.

I arrived in Alexandria late Saturday night/ early Sunday morning. I found the little money exchange/Visa window my friend told me about and bought my visa. I packed 20€ for the visa but they told me it costs $25. I didn't have dollars on me though so I convinced them to take 24€ and give me the sticker.

I had been warned that they might ask me questions as to the nature of my visit and might want to check my luggage but I got through all the stations so quickly that I was outside the airport waiting for my friends before they arrived 10 minutes later. They were both shocked to already see me waiting outside. Only passengers with tickets are allowed to enter the airport. So anyone arriving will meet their people outside and anyone leaving has to say their goodbyes before entering the airport. 

My friend Amira from Germany and her boyfriend picked me up. We drove about a half an hour to arrive at his family's beach house on the Mediterranean coast. We spent the night there and made a quick stop on the beach the next morning so I could get an idea of what awaited us a week later.


Our first day was spent in Alexandria with one of Amira's best friends. In Egypt, the weekend is on Friday and Saturday and everyone is usually back at work on Sunday. Gina took the day off to spend the day with us as they showed me some great spots in Alexandria.

Montazah Palace Gardens: the palace and the surrounding gardens were built by Khedive Abbas Hilmy (1892-1914) as his summer retreat from the hot Cairo. The palace itself is off limits but the palm tree filled gardens surrounding the place are full of courting couples. Being a couple in Egypt is quite different than being a couple in Europe. Public Displays of Affection are a big no-no. Most parents don't know that the person their child is dating exists until the engagement is announced (or they know but it's not really talked about). The grounds of this palace also has little bungalows along the water that can be rented. These and the parks are places for couples to escape to to have a bit of privacy and sit close to eachother without feeling judged. Gina told us that Hilmy had deer put on the huge property exclusively to hunt them. (Sounds a bit like my dad getting Scottish highlander cows for the sole purpose of seeing cows in the front yard upon returning from work. Men mustn't always be understood).

Bibliotheca Alexandrina: Oh, every nerds dream! Friends of ours organized a private tour of the library for us. In all reality it was mainly for me. I, being the huge nerd that I am, had a great time listening to every single fact the tour guide told me while Gina and Amira (both of whom have been to the library multiple times), seemed beyond bored with the whole thing. Oh to be in college again and have the opportunity to study for hours in the largest reading room of the world! Some fun facts (for the nerds)

- the granite exterior wall is covered in letters, pictogram, hieroglyphs and symbols from over 120 human scripts
- the reading room can accommodate 8 million books and 2500 readers
- the windows flood the room with natural light but don't actually let the rays enter the room
- the windows are meant to look like eyes while the metal in front of them are supposed to remind you of eyelashes
- the reading room contains Egypt's first printing press
-there are multiple art exhibits within the library
-the complex consists of the library which is meant to look like the rising sun, the planetarium which is positioned to look like the earth revolving around the sun (library) and the conference center which integrates ancient and modern Egyptian architecture.

Fort Qaitbey: built in 1480 by the Mamluk sultan Quitbey, this fairytale like fort sits on the peninsula where the famous Pharos lighthouse used to stand. The lighthouse (one of the seven ancient wonders of the world), was destroyed by an earth quake and laid as ruins for over a hundred years before the Fort was built using materials from the fallen lighthouse. I didn't enter the fort due to many visits to various forts in my life and the grumbling of my stomach to get some food. 

Greek Club: as the name might suggest, it's a club for Greeks. But even without a membership because you aren't Greek, there is a great restaurant at the top and one level below that with a great view of the harbor and yummy Greek food for a fairly descent price. The top level is more expensive than the lower but the lower level has a lovely terrace overlooking the harbor as well. 


The next morning, Amira and I were picked up by a driver who drove us to Cairo (450E£). The drive takes about 2.5-3.5 hours depending on traffic. We both slept most of the way after sever sleep deprivation the last few nights. The first stop was a childhood dream come true for me! As a child, ancient Egyptian culture and mythology fascinated me! Ancient Egypt was one of the first countries we learned about besides the repetition of the short history of the U.S. in school. Many, many years later, I was finally standing in front of the pyramids!

One of my main wishes was to ride on a camel around the pyramids. Our driver told us that he had a friend who was a tour guide there. It seems every Egyptian has a friend working somewhere you plan to visit. Of course, they are helping each other out by bringing tourists to each other for business. We weren't even asked, the tour guide just showed up and told us to follow him. We were fully aware of what was going on and slightly annoyed that we weren't asked. Ever since the revolution in Egypt, the country has been hit hard with a fall back in tourist numbers and this atmosphere was clearly felt. We weren't hounded by many because we already had our driver and tour guide with us. It seems as though everyone is trying to make a dollar (ok, Egyptian pound) by showing you the way or telling you some fact about a structure although you didn't ask. Amira and I didn't let them fool us though. We clearly stated that we didn't want a full blown tour and that we were just looking to take in the environment and ride a camel. Karim, our tour guide, introduced us to two camels. The two men wrapped our scarfs around our heads and told us to jump on the camel. It all happened so quickly that I totally forgot to ask what all of this would cost. If there is one thing that I learned before coming to Egypt was that you always have to bargain. Thus, I wasn't to worried about the current situation. I was riding on Bebsi and Amira sat on Moses. Moses and I became good friend really quickly. He would always nudge my leg, nibble on my purse and enjoy me petting him. Bebsi on the other hand was a full on drama queen. She was basically dragged along by Karim most of the way.

After about 15 minutes of riding and a few photo ops, the camel owner showed up and wanted to negotiate prices for various tours. They started off wanting 400E£ ($53) per person for the big tour. We bargained back and forth and I finally got them down to 100E£ ($13) p.P. for the big tour. Karim jumped on Bebsi with me and we went on our tour. Moses was being absolutely adorable for the photo ops. If my face was near him, he'd nudge the side of my face with his nose and tickle me with his whiskers. The tour took us to a spot in the dessert that gave us the "9 pyramid view". Sounds more spectacular, and is advertised by the guides as a must see, than it actually is but I guess if we are there, we might as well see it. I didn't go into the pyramid because I am saving that for my next trip when I can spend as much time as I want there. 

Cairo is huge. And it's always growing. It took us quite a while to get from the pyramids to our hotel. The hotel owner is a close friend of Amira's dad and put us up in a room for the two nights we were there. We were pretty tired from the early morning, long drive and pyramid shenanigans that we grabbed something to eat and relaxed a bit in the hotel.

The next morning, we were picked up by a different driver that we hired for the day (350E£). 

Coptic Cairo: confined in the walls of a former Roman fortress, this is a collection of ancient and modern churches with cute little alley ways and impressive patterns. The most impressive patterns were found in the Hanging Church (named so because it is suspended over the Water Gate of Roman Babylon). Make sure you cover your shoulders and knees if you visit this area (but also generally a good idea when you are in Egyptian cities). 

Egyptian Museum: A pink building of about 15,000 sq m packed to the brim with more than 100,000 objects. The building seems a bit overwhelmed with the masses of artifacts. Each little nook and cranny is used to display something. At times, it feels like walking through a museum warehouse. Sarcophagi even stand outside exposed to the weather and environment. I did a quick 1.5 hour walk around, avoiding the offers of personal tour guides and getting an impression of everything and keeping a look out for patterns. Students pay 35E£ to get in, regular price is 65E£. Cameras are technically supposed to be checked at the entrance but I still saw people walking around with their big cameras. I snuck a picture here and there with my iPhone when I saw a cool pattern. The must see is definitely Tutankhamun's Sarcophagi and all his treasures!

Khan al-Khalili: Built in the 14th century, this market can easily become a tourist trap but can also supply you with hours of shopping and bargaining fun! Amira's boyfriend gave me two pieces of advice before coming here. 

1. ALWAYS bargain. If he says it costs 20E£, it should cost 5E£. Have fun bargaining and settle on a price you are comfortable with. "Eh! If I wasn't a woman or our (non-existing) Egyptian husbands were with us, we wouldn't be paying that much! It is far to high of a price my friend!"

2. ALWAYS ask for a present! "Oh, you don't want to give me a present? The nice sellers in Luxor always gave me a present. But I guess its okay, I'll just tell my friends back home that they should shop in Luxor.".....worked every time.

Amira and I spent 3.5 hours in the market, shopping, making friends, bargaining our butts off and being rewarded with some great buys and little presents. I stopped for some Turkish coffee and Amira for Shisha in between. 

Al-Azhar Park: This green oasis sits on land that used to be a huge landfill that collected trash over centuries. Thanks to funds from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the area is now a beloved get away from all the noise and craziness of the city that surrounds the place. The air seems a tad less smoggy than in the rest of the city as well. You can climb to the top of the hill for a 360º view of the city. You can even see the Pyramids in the background if the smog isn't too bad. 
A group of Egyptian boys were on top of the hill and started talking about us in Arabic when we arrived. Little did they know that one of "those Germans" understood enough Arabic to call them out on it. That, of course, was Amira. The boys wanted to have their picture taken with me. I said it would be okay but it would cost them 100E£. They didn't take me up on that offer and didn't even really bargain. The little sister of one of the boys came to talk to me while I was taking pictures of the view. She had such piercing beautiful eyes. With a lot of language barriers, she told me she also wanted to become a doctor. I told her not to let the boys bother her and work hard if she really wants to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. The hard work pays off.

New Cairo: We drove out to a couple's place in New Cairo. New Cairo is basically its own city adjacent to Cairo. The roads are packed with one huge house after another! I don't know where all the people are supposed to be coming from to move into them. There are so many! We went and had dinner at Festival City. Its a ginormous mall build on what used to be desert. Its insane. It really, really is. We ate at Leila, a very delicious Lebanese restaurant. 

We didn't get back to the hotel until really late that night. After breakfast the next morning, we headed back to Alexandria. 

The next few days were spent hanging out with friends, attending a 4-year-old's birthday party and then heading out to the summer place Thursday night. 

The summer place has not Internet but a TV. The next 3 days were spent sleeping, eating, watching movies, drawing, talking, sun bathing and going to the beach. It was relaxing to be off the grid and spend time watching movies you haven't seen in years (for example, Clueless! As if!)

The week was an absolute treat! Not to completely overload on information (although I already did), I will post another post the coming days talking about travel tips in Egypt and give you a lesson on all the yummy food I ate! 

Tomorrow, it's back to the hospital and the start of my trauma surgery rotation.

Stay healthy!

Viktoria (فيكتوريا)

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