Day 4, Alexandria and the Lost Passports

For our final day in Cairo, Sara and I decided to take a train to Alexandria.  It is about a three hour trip, each way, and our sleeper train did not leave Cairo for Aswan until 8pm, so we felt we could have a good day by the Mediterranean before hitting the extreme heat of Upper Egypt.

Alexandria was founded by none other than Alexander the Great, who was the first Greek to conquer and rule Egypt.  Because the pharaohs were considered gods, Alexander came to Egypt to become a pharaoh and therefore, a god.  Quite an ego this guy Alexander.

The whole story of Alexander is quite a bit long for a simple blog post, but I thought I would share a story that I learned by listening to Bob Brier on cd from The Teaching Company's The History of Ancient Egypt.  He recounts that Alexander conquered all the way to India and then decided to turn back and return to Greece.  On his way home, he paused for quite some time in Babylon, where he met his unfortunate demise (there is still quite a debate amongst Historians as to the cause of his death, but for our purposes, he is just dead).  His generals commissioned a huge portable gold tomb in which to temporarily place his body until it could be returned and buried in Greece.  After a year of building this great mausoleum, they finally carried it throughout the conquered lands amongst an enormous procession on the way to the homeland.

In Egypt, Alexander had left one of his finest generals in charge in his absence, General Ptolemy.  When the procession neared Egypt, General Ptolemy brought his entire army out to greet it and pay their respects.  Unfortunately, Ptolemy felt that since Alexander was a god in Egypt and merely a mortal in Greece, he should be buried properly in Egypt like all the other pharaohs before him.  Ptolemy and his army took the tomb by force and brought it back to Alexandria for burial.  He was not challenged by the Greeks and Alexander was buried in his gold tomb in Egypt.  The tomb has never been found.

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Day 3, The Original Pyramid Scheme: Giza and The Great Pyramid

Day 3 found Sara feeling refreshed and we were motivated to see the ultimate tourist destination:  the Great Pyramid.  There is graffiti there from Ancient Greek tourists, so this tells you that these pyramids have inspired wonder for millennia.  In fact, they were already 2500 years old (or older if you believe the alien thing) at that point.

We hailed a cab for the forty-five minute ride from our hotel (downtown Cairo) to the Giza Plateau.  Somehow we managed to find the only cab driver who had never been to the pyramids, and as we got closer it was obvious that he did not know where he was going.  Of course, he knew no English, and unfortunately the only place I knew how to get to was Midan Falaki.  Not to worry, though, because we were saved by another scam artist.  About a mile from the entrance, some guy just hopped in the cab with us when we were stopped at a stoplight.  He was fluent in English and very friendly.  In fact, his family owned a camel stable and today they were offering a special price for camel rentals.

We blew past the main entrance to the pyramids and ended up coincidentally right near his family's stables.  We had planned to get tickets to go inside the Great Pyramid, of which only 150 were offered and which went on sale at 7:30 am.  It was already past 8 and we entered the plateau at the opposite end from the ticket booth.  Both of us were a bit pissed at our 'friend', but we thought we would make the best of it and hurry over to the main entrance.

On our walk, past the Sphinx, we actually met a nice local, who only wanted to talk to us because he liked Obama so much.  He was the only one we met that day that didn't want money from us.

Next we were approached by a guy on a camel.  The next minute or two are kind of a blur, but I'll recall it as best I can.  He said something like, "Hey, take my picture."  Sara got her camera ready, but then he pointed to me and said, "Hey, come over here and get a picture next to me."  I obliged, but then he sat the camel down and said, "Here, why don't you put on this turban."  OK, so now I looked the part, but then he said, "How about getting on the camel."  OK, so now I was on a sitting camel.  Then, "Pretty lady, why don't you come over and get on it and I'll take the picture."  Now Sara and I are both on a sitting camel, I have on a turban and some random guy has our camera.  Of course, you know what is coming next...up goes the camel.  Now, I have a pretty decent fear of heights that includes small ladders.  I won't ride a horse, and all of a sudden I am up on a camel, which, by the way is really high up.  Sara screams, "Get me down from here right now."  She kept yelling different choice things and by now our new friend had been joined by his own friend.  It was obvious that they panicked a bit at the rage and vehemence spewing from such a little 'pretty lady'.  They got us down quickly.  We were mad, but not as mad as they got when they realized that they were not going to get a baksheesh (Arabic for tip - everybody wants a baksheesh...everybody).  I gave them two pounds and walked off.

Still reeling from our camel experience, we were next approached by another guy who wanted to be our friend.  He handed me a plastic bag with a white towel in it (it turned out to be a tourist turban).  "Keep it, this is a gift from my country to you."  I explained that I really didn't want it, and he got really, really offended that I would not take his gift.  So offended, in fact that he gave me more things:  some post cards, some toy pyramids for the kids and another bag with a towel in it for Sara.  He was very insistent, even taking pictures for us and with us.  Then, when it was time to go, it was time for baksheesh.  I offered him five pounds (about $1) and then he really got offended.  "I paid $5 for all that stuff."  I gave most of it back and let him keep the five pounds.

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Day 2, Sara Passes Out…Cold

Our second day in Cairo started poorly almost from the time we awoke.  Sara had developed a case of 'King Tut's Revenge' during the night and it was hitting her pretty hard.  It was so bad that we did not think a full day on the Giza plateau would be very smart, especially since the temperature was forecast to be over 100 degrees and there is no shade there.  We had four days scheduled for Cairo, so we figured we would postpone the pyramids a day and spend this one in relative comfort.

Instead, we thought we would try to go get a student ID so all of the sites would be discounted.  We had read that almost every museum and historic site throughout Egypt was half price for students, so before we left San Diego, we paid a visit to a local free Continuing Education school and got student IDs.  The office that would give us the official Student Card was a few miles from our hotel.  Sara was feeling better, so we decided to walk.  After about 45 minutes, we decided that we were lost and needed directions.  We found a nice Egyptian lady who spoke broken English and she explained to us that we were still miles from our destination and needed to find a taxi.

The taxi dropped us in front of the office building and we climbed to the second floor to get our cards.  Sara was now feeling a little woozy, but we were here so all was well.  Except that they would not accept our Student Cards without some more official documentation.  I guess others have tried this before.  We decided to move on and Sara scanned the guidebook for any nearby sites.  Within a mile or so was a Nilometer that was recommended viewing.

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Day 1, Mummy Dearest: The Egyptian Museum

Sara and I planned to spend our first full day in Cairo at the Egyptian Museum, home of the world's greatest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts.  You could probably spend a week there, to be truthful, especially if you are a true Egyptologist and really know your stuff.  As it was, we had studied quite a bit so it was very interesting, but a day was plenty.  If you plan to go, at least read up on some of the major Egyptian pharaohs, or you will really not appreciate much of what the museum has to offer.

Ancient Egyptian history covers over 3000 years and is divided into three major periods:  the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom.  These periods are separated by Intermediate Periods of lawlessness or foreign rule.  The museum is divided into each of these periods, so as one walks through it, one travels through time from the beginning of recorded history, up to Cleopatra, the final pharaoh.

Egyptians did not like change and it is evidenced in their art.  Starting from the early pharaohs of the Old Kingdom, it is difficult to tell the statues from the ones created thousands of years later in the New Kingdom.  There are two major exceptions:  the art of Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh, and the art of the Ptolemies, who were really Greeks, so their art has a very Greek look to it.  Interestingly, the art of Akhenaten is, in my opinion, the most beautiful of all of the Egyptian art.

The entrance to the museum features the Narmer Palette, which is the oldest written document ever discovered.  It is a stone tablet that is quite stunning.  A fact that you might not have thought of is that history is considered to be events that are written. Therefore, everything that occured before the Narmer Palette is considered pre-historic.  Its creation is the exact moment that we separate pre-historic from historic events, at least in Egypt.  Every civilization has its own 'first recorded event', so while Egypt may no longer be in pre-historic times, Italy or Britain still might be.  I bet you never really thought about that, eh?

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My Big Fat Egyptian Beard

Among other things that our research turned up was the idea that, because of the aggressive nature of the typical Egyptian street vendor, it is best to try as hard as possible to blend with the natives. Now, I had no illusions of looking Egyptian, or even Muslim, but my goal was to look as if maybe I lived there at least semi-permanently and they would leave us alone. One tip we read was to never wear shorts and even try to wear long sleeves. That was easy. Next, I read somewhere that the Arab culture really respects a beard. A few weeks before our trip, I started growing one. By the time we reached Egypt, I had a pretty nice one going.

At first, I liked the change and felt it made me look a little more distinguished. Unfortunately, I quickly grew tired of it: It was itchy. I figured I would get through Egypt and then shave it.

We arrived in Egypt and toured for a few days when Sara made the observation, "You know, we've been here for several days and no one has a beard.". Whoa, I really had not been paying attention, but she was right. There were less beards than in the U.S. Aaahhh, but what everyone did have was the 80's mustache. I would say at least 85% of the men had a mustache, but no beard.

Well, when in Rome...

And one more thing, when it's 110 friggin' degrees out, I'm wearing shorts.

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Swine Flu Without the Swine

Sara surprised me at Christmas with the announcement that we would be going to Egypt in May and we would do it on a budget of under $3000 total for the two of us, including airfare.  In keeping with our travel mantra of traveling light and more importantly traveling cheap, Sara planned the trip for my 40th birthday that included using every possible airline mile we had earned over the past few years.  When she called to get plane tickets, she discovered that it was going to cost $3000 each for us just to fly there.  It seems that frequent flier miles were our only option.

After a great many phone calls, Sara finally got us two tickets using all of the miles from both of our credit cards.  Unfortunately, they were on two separate airlines, but only an hour apart on each end.  She then developed an itinerary that we changed at least 40 times before we booked everything.

My job was to fully research the history of Ancient Egypt.  As I have mentioned before, I am a bit of a history buff and, in my opinion, Egypt is the mecca for history buffs (other notable mentions include Rome, Greece and China, okay and maybe Turkey as well).  I drive around a lot for my job, consequently, I listen to a lot of books on CD.  I was able to find a course from The Teaching Company called, The History of Ancient Egypt, taught by Bob Brier.  It is 48 lessons of some of the most interesting history you will ever hear.  Fascinating stuff, not only about the pharaohs and the pyramids, but how they made mummies (Bob Brier is the only modern Egyptologist to actually mummify a person using the Ancient Egyptian technique), how they made obelisks, the Egyptian gods and goddesses and so much more.  If you have any interest in Egyptian history, this is the easy way to learn it.

Sara was busy planning and booking, while I was busy studying, when the swine flu hit.  I'm sure you all remember the media hype from the swine flu.  Hundreds of people dead in Mexico, the disease rapidly hopping the border to the US, schools shut down, people quarantined.  Only it turns out that it (at least at this point) is not even as deadly as the regular flu.  However, we did not know it at the time and we were a bit worried.  I watched our Vice President warn us not to get on an airplane (and then quickly backpedal when the airline industry threw a fit).  Sara and I knew we were safe, though, when Egypt, the exact country we had already made plans to visit, announced that it was rolling out the red carpet for us by slaughtering every pig in the country.  Every pig.  Something like 300,000 of them.  No shit.  We might get blown up or kidnapped, but we damn sure weren't going to catch swine flu from eating pork...in a Muslim country that doesn't serve pork...from pigs that don't pass the disease anyway.  Whew.  We felt much better knowing that if we survived the plane ride over, we were safe.

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Our Next Big Trip: Egypt

Our big trip in the summer of 2009 was the land of the pharaohs: Egypt. We had 15 days of adventures, some good, some bad. We learned about ourselves and a new culture. We met several cool new friends. But most of all we renewed our passion for travel. Over the next few weeks we will be sharing our stories and our pictures. We hope you enjoy them. Read More