Egypt – Ancient Kingdom of the Touts

The travel guides try to warn you. It usually goes something like, “X monument/town is amazing, but be prepared to be treated like a walking wallet. At best.” Other travelers relayed stories that mirrored this, but hey, we travel by the adopted motto “Militant Optimism” and a place like Egypt that offered so much to see couldn’t be THAT bad could it. It could and honestly, it broke our optimism.

Was it all bad? Absolutely not. It started off amazingly well in a little backpacker beach burgh, we saw some of the world’s great historical treasures, and the southern Nile Valley could rightly be called an ecological paradise. Additionally we met a handful wonderful people who showed us the absolute best of their country. But wonderful encounters aside, the truth isn’t gentle. Today’s Egypt for almost all of the travelers we met was little more than brushstrokes of magnificence in a panorama of harassment and heckle. From the moment you step out of your hotel room to the minute you sound retreat you are bombard by the touts, sold everything at 2-5x the local price, and if you’re unlucky enough to be in the majority of the world’s population, female, harassed endlessly. Though the offer of 2,000,000 camels to “take your wife” was quite generous we understand.

With some literal and figurative distance from it all (hello from the Himalayas!) the scams and hassle are already fading into memory and those magical brushstrokes are shining through on the canvas of our memory. We’ll try not to dwell on the bad, but some of the story can’t be told without it. So, without further ado, welcome to The Arab Republic of Egypt.

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And what a welcome it was. We boarded our ferry for the Sinai at Aqaba, Jordan, with all of the usual chaos of trying to board transport that rarely serves tourists from a country that strictly tracks when and where tourists enter/exit. After some hoop jumping and stamped out of Jordan we were on a ferry to Egypt (“their problem now”). One of the masses no longer, we were VIP. Scooped up by the ferry employees immediately upon entering the boat, our passports and immigration documents were processed before anyone else was even seated and we were whisked up to a totally empty first class cabin. After sipping free drinks and sleeping on plush leather couches we were escorted off the boat, along with two Frenchmen, an hour before anyone else was allowed to disembark. A tourist police officer holding our passports the entire time walked us from the boat, to buy our visas, through security, through passport control, to an ATM across the street, to a bathroom (seriously), hailed our cab for us, put us inside, told the driver where we were going and how much we’d be paying, shut the door, and only then through the window, finally, returned our passports to us. We should have hired that man right on the spot for the remaining three weeks.

We decided not to ask the lingering question: Was this because it’s a complicated process and the stupid tourists usually screw it up – or – Is this because the North Sinai is a hotbed of conflict and a few hundred people with cell phones just saw four “westerners” get off the boat? We didn’t ask because it didn’t matter, we were safely on our way to the quiet and heavily protected South Sinai diver paradise of Dahab.

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You remember all of those nasty sounding things we said at the beginning of this? Forget all of them when we’re talking about Dahab. The multicultural melting pot of Arab Egyptians, Bedouin Egyptians, Kiwis, Aussies, and a few lost backpackers and diving enthusiasts bumming around is what can only be described as a sweltering paradise on earth.

By day one of a planned 3 days in Dahab we already loved it so much that we reorganized our travel plans and stayed two more days. So, for four days (one day eaten by travel) we snorkeled the amazing waters of the red sea, ate, relaxed, drank cold beverages, and just generally played in paradise.

Neither of us ever thought we’d watch the sunrise over Saudi Arabia…

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4-star resort hotel, the only guests in the whole place, $25 usd per night. We took full advantage of the pool during the 110 degree afternoons.

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In less than 24-hours we were “regulars” at Planet Cafe

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Kate even went on her first SCUBA dive! While we failed miserably to get a picture of us in our dive gear, we did steal one after the fact with the best dive instructor in the world (so says we anyway 🙂 ) Khalid from Sea Dancer Dive Center.

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On one of our favorite days of the trip, we pulled in to the local cafe at 7:30a for a morning espresso and didn’t leave our booth until 5:30 that night. Sharing some space with another backpacker for the day (shout-out to Sam, wherever in the world you are) we’d talk for a while about life, spearfishing and travel, swim for thirty minutes or so, come back, read for a bit, swim, eat, drink, swim, rinse and repeat multiple times. Our total bill for the day, $12 USD.

Very well rested and relaxed the treasures of pharaonic Egypt were calling us from across the Red Sea in the lush Nile Valley. Luxor, ancient Thebes, is both the heart of the ancient Egyptians treasure trove and widely regarded as the hassle capital of the tourist world. We were greeted with the morning call for prayer on a hilariously tiny minibus at 4am. Even at this hour, the hassle started immediately. Within an hour the whistles and Egyptian versions of cat calls had made Kate visibly uncomfortable, we’d already been hit up for a thousand forms of different transportation, and had the classic “you can’t walk there it’s closed” scam attempted on us. Strong start Luxor. Thanks to Lonely Planet having preparing us for this (thanks again Sam for the book!) and a little Googling, we deftly combated the hassle.

Writing positively about Luxor is hard. You don’t want to step out of your hotel room because you know what follows. The scams, the harassment, the constant unwelcome attention towards Kate, and an inability to go anywhere in peace. Your guard goes up so high, you block everyone out, also eliminating the chance for real human-to-human interaction. The primary culprit is the push for “baksheesh”, a tip of sorts, generally stubbornly demanded for no reason at all from almost anyone within a kilometer of tourist sights. It makes genuine interactions nearly impossible. Thankfully sandstone monuments don’t hound you for money, so you can still enjoy the sights.

Luxor is home to the words-aren’t-enough Karnak Temple. It was our first experience with ruins in Egypt and it delivered.

Ram headed Sphinx line the entrance.

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Principle god, Amun-Ra

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The ruins of the temple complex spread out forever. It’s a full day adventure.

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One of the most interesting surprises was all the color! Popular culture portrays ancient Egypt in two shades, Gold and Sandstone Brown. The real ancient Egyptians lived life in technicolor though! Osiris & Horus pour the water of life over a chiseled out Female Pharaoh Hatshepsut. She wasn’t so popular with her stepson whom she displaced as ruler until he rode an army back to power.20150828_155945

After a long day, we settled in and watched our first Nile Sunset.

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Day two was more of the same, only this time the scam attempts were by a tour guide who our hotel had assured us was just wonderful. Friendly as a box of rabid porcupines he drove the two of us and another unsuspecting traveler (shoutout for Eanna!) around to the major sights, offering no explanation, except when he had a deep knowledge of his buddies buffet restaurant and stone carving workshop. Good news, even this chump couldn’t make a day of travel to some of history’s greatest sights go sour. The three of us spent the day at Medinet Habu, Temple of Hatshepsut, The Valley of the Kings (famous for King Tut’s Tomb, among dozens others), heckling the “tour guide” and generally enjoying ourselves despite his best efforts. (If this doesn’t scare you away from going to Egypt, and it probably shouldn’t, read Toby Wilkinson’s Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt before going. It’s invaluable as an educational foundation for your trip, especially when your tour guide can’t guide.)

Recently renovated Temple of Hatsepshut.

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See how deep these hieroglyphs are carved? Ramesses II had seen enough monuments co-opted or carved over that he had his stone masons carve his inscriptions up to 3″ deep at Medinet Habu (and several other of his cult temples). Take that vandals!

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We finished off the night at Luxor Temple which is beautifully lit up into the evening hours.

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Wising up by day three, we haggled a super cheap driver who did nothing but drive us around the west bank for the day, not exactly a ray of sunshine, but a no “BS” kind of dude. He got us efficiently around to a bunch of the remaining sights on our list including Tombs of the Nobles (often overlooked, but an absolute must if you visit), the Rammeseum, and two other cult temples, Seti & Merenptah.

No pictures were allowed at The Valley of the Kings, but this photo from the Tombs of the Nobles shows what many of the insides of the tombs in both areas looked like.

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Hangin’ with Ramesses II at the Ramesseum

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Pondering at Temple of Seti II

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By day four, the harassment was really getting to Kate. Grant, still trying with the Militant Optimism, was keeping a happy face until a just ridiculous walk to the Luxor Museum. After running the gauntlet of touts we found that the museum had decided to take a few midday hours off. Maybe kind of mildly losing it on the one museum guy around, militant optimism was officially gone.

But then, as if by Amun-Ra himself, we were delivered to this motley crew of sunshine.

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Walking through a rough looking alley that led to a temple we’d decided to visit in place of the museum, we stumbled across this group of kids and were promptly swarmed. We spent the next 2 hours playing soccer, showing them their town in the Lonely Planet Guide (you could see Karnak Temple from their apartment, but they couldn’t believe their town was in a book haha!), and just enjoying their company while their mothers watched, smiling from the window above. Grant with his two left feet even managed to score a goal. We shared tea, a million goodbye hugs, and left with our spirits renewed. Life has a way of delivering those moments just when you need them most.

We called it quits on a high note after a good temple visit and retired to the hotel. We headed out the next morning with our driver from day three and his cousin, whom we rewarded with our travel down to Aswan. The trip to the southern outpost of the ancient Egyptian empire is littered with temples and rather than just steaming down there on a bus or train, we wanted to stop and hit a couple.

Bulwark of the Ptolemaic Temple at Edfu. Dedicated to the falcon god, Horus.

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Another Ptolemaic masterpiece at Kom Ombo

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With some seriously weird hieroglyphs…

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Stunning view from the “porch” of Kom Ombo looking south down the Nile.

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Kom Ombo is dedicated to a super cool Crocodile god, Sobek. It also had a croc museum with a bunch of crocodile mummies.  20150901_114523

We arrived in Aswan to oppressive heat and heavy traffic, but a town seemingly more concerned with its goings on than the few tourists in its midst. We hopped around to a couple of hotels before finally settling in at one that felt comfortable. It also happened to offer a stunning panoramic Nile view.

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A big red flag got raised upon our arrival to El Salam Hotel. Our hotelier gave us a speech from the tourist police which essentially said, talk to no one, trust no one, buy nothing. This from the ASWAN GOVERNMENT. Ruh-roh-Shaggy. We tried to knock around Aswan the next morning and by taking some decidedly nontouristy streets and the police’s recommendations we actually had a pretty good morning.

What would have been the largest obelisk ever raised to this day was abandoned around 2000 BCE in the eastern quarries of Aswan after a large crack formed.

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The Fatimid Dynasty Cemetery is still used today, but the 1000 plus year old tombs shown here are still the only of this style in the world.

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That all changed when in a total brain fart we walked through a murderer’s row of hecklers by taking a popular tourist road after our cemetery visit. Nearing our breaking point after less than 24-hours in Aswan, we did what we knew best to get away from stress, we punched the clock on Island Time.

Elephantine Island is a huge island in the middle of the Nile, less than 200 yards from the banks of Aswan. Those 200 yards had just as well been 200 miles or years apart. A large archaeological park buttresses the southern end of the island while a quaint Nubian village swallows up its center. We were greeted by the village’s chief at the docks who personally walked us through the village (ok, he was probably just chief tour guide, but whatever…he was kind and informative).

Walking the village (and the gardens shown here) was the first time we really felt like we were in Africa.

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We shared tea, stories, and explored an amazing collection of Nubian and random antiques with our new friend.

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What’s that? Oh, just some goats being allowed to destroy the mud bricks of a 5000 year old city. This was pretty commonplace, historical sight stewardship at everywhere but the most prominent locations was, at best, lax. There were give or take 100 goats running around the Old Kingdom ruins at Elephantine.

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At the end of our day, physically exhausted from the heat but mentally rejuvenated thanks to the peace of the island we sat and just watched the river make its way by. Then we were delivered another gift from the travel gods, Usama (like the terrorist, just as crazy, but good crazy…his quote). We’d discover later he’s something of a celebrity on his island, but at the time he was just a cool guy with a boat who offered us a ride with a great easy going personality. Easy peasy, we set a date for the following day at 3p. A sunset cruise up the Nile, back by 6.

We caught a few more sights the next morning and got a nice hike in to the top of a huge sand dune with sweeping views of the desert and Nile Valley.

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Far right corner of the dunes you can see the mausoleum we climbed to.

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We met up with Usama at the prescribed time, but we would not return on time. Our three hour cruise (A three hour tourrrrr…) turned into an 8-hour session of cruising up and then swimming in the Nile, tea, and hours chatting on the banks of the Nile miles from Aswan. We watched the sun set and stars come out before ending with a night cap back at Usama’s house on the island.

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Life checklist, swim in Nile. ✓

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Tea, camels, and new friends.

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Master of his craft in his personal paradise, Usama & his boat, Queen.

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We’ve met few people as genuinely kind and engaging as Usama. He loves his home, its truly his paradise. We are so very lucky to have found him and grateful that he shared the evening with us.

The rest of our time in Aswan would boil our blood all over again to go into detail. Suffice to say the local scam at the train station includes just about everyone from the scam artists lingering out front to the local officials, and the transport companies. We’d have lost a few hundred dollars if not for the sage advice of our hotelier who warned us before we made our way there. Losing a day of our life, but managing to hang onto our money we got a bus to Cairo for less than a Pharaoh’s ransom.

Because of, rather than in spite of, Cairo’s legendary chaos put us at ease. In this sea of people we could fade into the 20 million residents and thousands of other tourists, we hoped. Exhausted from our overnight bus ride we found our hotel, checked in early, napped, and took a little stroll around to orient ourselves to the city.

Cairo bombards the senses. Horns blaring everywhere, people dashing across traffic, and salesmen aggressively street hawking. We started referring to the road our hotel was on as “Jeans JEANS! Road” because that seemed to be the only thing anyone ever said to us as they tried, at times physically, to drag us into their stores. Thankfully it does lack the aggressive tourist touts or at least they’re far more diluted, this was a welcome change.

Dodging two quick scams on the way down (both attempts to simply lure us to an overpriced store, nothing too offensive) we were able to enjoy a pretty relaxed Saturday just kicking around Cairo. We saw Cairo Towers, the now legendary Tahrir Square from the Arab Spring, and strolled around Zamelek in the middle of the Nile. Maybe most importantly, we finally found the Egyptian stuff-yourself-on-a-budget-staple, Kushari at the legendary Abou Tarek

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A blend of noodles, tomato sauce, chickpeas and other “stuff” it sounds like spaghetti, but really is nothing at all like it. It’s just delicious.

Day two in Cairo brought us two more tourism Angels, Nashwa & Mohammed. Friends & Coworkers of Kate’s mom (Yea Globalization!) Nashwa and Mohammed guided us through their city as we explored all manner of wonderful places and delicious eats.

The crew after pulling up at the Fatimid Caliphate’s Citadel in Cairo.

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Slightly varying standards of dress for the sexes, but a great visit at the Mosque of Mohammed Ali inside the Citadel.

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We got a great architectural lesson at Gayer-Anderson House.

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Where the girls found secret passageways.

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Had a great photo session at Ibn Tulun mosque. The minaret is the oldest in Cairo.

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After a late lunch of delicious sausages we walked through the old city gates and found this mosque, whose name eludes us, but perfectly reflected the setting sun on its stark white marble facades and floors.

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An early evening stroll at Khan Al-Khallili, one of Cairo’s most popular markets.

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And last, but certainly not least, we were absolutely spoiled to a huge smorgasbord of every imaginable type of Egyptian delicacy at one of the cities most respected traditional Egyptian Restaurants, El Sid.

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Over twelve hours we explored Cairo and its food, got to know our wonderful hosts (whom we were briefly convinced worked for the CIA, KGB or some other shadow agency), and had many interesting conversations on Egypt, politics, and the current “State of Affairs.” Nashwa and Mohammed showed us a great blend of “real Cairo” and the sights while simply spoiling us rotten with a feast fit for pharaohs of some of the best food the city had to offer. They turned a bulging, unruly metropolis into a manageable, interesting, and delicious city with a heaping helping of humanity. We’ll remember Cairo fondly because of this day as we had the two best ambassadors in the city.

Our last two days in Cairo were par-for-the-course tourist stuff.

You may not recognize these, but they’re the Great Pyramids of Egypt. The only one of the 7-Ancient Wonders of the World still standin’.

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Kate taking goofy pictures “for Leesha”

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The Copts are a Christian sect in Egypt with a beautiful, heavily guarded, district of their own in the city. Beautiful churches and stained glass were a great throwback to Europe. 
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We didn’t really talk about this, but the constant stream of selfies that started in Jordan continued unabated in Egypt. We’d generally take 5-8 a day with people just randomly walking up and asking us for them. This incident topped it all though. While visiting The Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo, Kate was SWARMED by a group of Somali school girls visiting.

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This was the QUEUE to take a picture with her. Multiple people asked Grant “who is she?” Princess Kate he dutifully answered.

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The Egyptian National Museum of Antiquities is jaw dropping. Both because of its unrivaled collection and because it hasn’t changed much in the 100 years it’s been open. You feel transported back to 2000BCE and 1900CE when the museum first opened its doors all at once. Not pictured, because photos were strictly forbidden, the King Tut exhibit is just mind-blowingly cool.

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Photos were “prohibited” in the museum, but we snuck a few, including this one of our favorite random little piece. A high priest and Pharaonic  consort making an offering.

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Our final day was a travel day, technically, but the plane didn’t leave until 11:30p. So, needing a break, we holed up in the hotel for the day only emerging long enough to get more Kushari from Abu Tarek and to get in the car for the airport. It was wonderful.

To write a long conclusion to this story would be repetitive, so we’ll say this. Egypt has some serious issues it needs to address with its tourism infrastructure, the people who work in it, and the tanking economy that forces so many people, of whom no doubt are mostly good at heart, to spend their days hounding, scamming and cheating tourists as the only available means to feed their families. We will not excuse however, on any grounds, the rampant sexual harassment. No economic or cultural reasons excuse what we saw and Kate experienced first hand. Its on those cumulative grounds that we simply don’t recommend Egypt as a vacation destination at this time.

We say this with a heavy heart. The wonderful people we met, who cared for us, opened their homes, hearts, cars, and boats to us deserve so much better than that conclusion. They will form the backbone of the future Egypt when the country finally pulls itself up and rights its economic ship. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for being our saviors in the midst of the chaos.

So, TTFN, after this marathon post we promise a quick flip through the next one. We’ll tell you how to almost not get on your plane in Cairo, hop through an under appreciated Kuwait City, and skid in sideways (figuratively only, Mom, no plane crashes…promise) to another city famed for its chaos, New Delhi, India.

Happy Fall everyone!

G&K

P.s. Whether you were just being lazy on Labor Day or shared our post aggressively, the Jordan blog post was by far our highest trafficked yet! Thanks for reading everyone, we really appreciate your taking the time to learn and travel with us. If there’s ever anything you’d like to see in the blog, please don’t hesitate to drop us an email. You can reach us at the name of the blog at gmail.

Posted From: Kalpa, Himachal Pradesh, India,

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