Africa Part 6 – Egypt & Jordan (Jordan not technically being part of Africa)
Flying into Cairo you realise that it’s mostly desert in Egypt more than anything else. Rocky desert with roads snaking to nowhere, and then the emergence of a huge, unbelievably huge city.
Cairo has over 20 million people, immediately obvious as you go into the mire from the airport, Visa purchased by the many bank offices before customs.
The road from the airport to the hotel was strangely quiet, but the roads and driving more than terrifying. There’s no road markings. The median barrier broken in most places. Rubbish piled up on the sides of the road. Between buildings. Cars scream past, donkeys pulling carts on the side.
All the apartments look half finished, most appear empty. Colours on the sides of some external walls to make some differentiation between the sea of red brick and grey concrete. The unfinished ones have no glass in them, it’s like a final interior design feature.
Some buildings have these beautiful ornate balconies that remind me of Paris. But I’m definitely not anywhere near there.
Friday (similar to Sunday in a muslim country) we arrived during afternoon prayers, going straight to our strange hotel.
We were joining a tour with a company we’d been on a few tours before, their initial hotels always a little unusual, but we wanted to get in a day early just in case we had any issues with flights etc.
The dry heat was intense, the sun overly bright, with a bit of a snooze we ventured to the pool, which was more the temperature of a bath than any kind of refreshing.
We wandered the hotel, looking for the advertised rooftop bar, internet area, Italian café – all closed and dusty, like it hadn’t been available for years, making for a slightly unnerving first part of our trip.
Eating at the hotel buffet reminded me of how much I love food from this region. Pita & baba ganoush. Tahini & Halva. Falafels. Kebabs. I should have been in foodie heaven!
Strangely our timing was totally out – Our flight, phones all mentioned that the time was 1hr later than it actually was, so we missed the group meeting and first dinner, making for a slightly awkward start to our first day. Being pointed out from a dear friend of ours (thanks Monique) meant our tour leader Sam already knew who we were, ha!
These tours are really different to our previous one. Most of the tour leaders are guides as well, meaning you get a deeper experience around whatever you end up seeing from both a historical and general country culture perspective.
Day1: Sakkara, the oldest pyramid in Egypt. 2700 BC. That’s nearly 5,000 years old. The age of everything in Egypt still blows my mind. Here in India (where we are now) looking back puts it in an even more incredible light. These places are treasured, the people proud, and you get an amazing sense of scale and almost disbelief at seeing these places you’ve read about.
The more famous pyramids (Cheops et al) tower over you up close. They seem small from far away, especially with the backdrop of the huge city that edges close, through the pollution and heat haze their huge blocks don’t shimmer, but stand out, angular in the sunlight.
We couldn’t get travel insurance for Egypt, it’s still classed as incredibly dangerous, and the consequent effect on tourism there is obvious around the pyramids. It felt like we almost had them to ourselves, maybe 5, 6 busses – where at the height they would have 80 at a time.
It makes the associated tourist hawkers & shops desperate to sell to you. Scarves, ornaments, all kinds of plastic kitsch with no one stopping to buy.
The sphinx is sort of strange. Yes smaller than you think it will be after the awe-inspiring pyramids, and almost impossible to photograph within the angle you’re standing, but still a beautiful sculpture carved out of a single piece of rock all the same.
On we journeyed to Hurgada – the Russian resort part of Egypt.
The drive was bizarre – again through check points, absolutely crazy drivers, there’s no passing rule except to speed. All well and good until we slowed down in one part, passing a burning tyre out the window. I thought it was the prelude to something far worse, but was a truck, lying on it’s side – a huge crash.
Tired and likely still a bit jetlagged and stressed, you can’t even imagine what this place was like, surreal and bizarre are the only way to describe it.
Young women walking around dressed to the ABSOLUTE 9’s, 4 inch heels, skirt/dress lengths finishing above the mid-thigh, drunk strangely unattractive men watching and accompanying
The place was all inclusive, and of course had the odor of sickly sweet vomit everywhere. Free booze or not, I couldn’t be bothered drinking – the rest of our group went out till all hours at a foam party.
Lunchtimeish we left for Luxor, old Thebes – probably the centre of tourism and tourist sites within Egypt.
It’s bizarre being in some of these places, beyond the Colossi of Memnon, to the Valley of the Kings, which is surprisingly small, with some of the tombs almost crossing over each other.
You can’t take photos which is a bit disappointing, and they close some of the tombs to ensure they get a break from the constant moisture from every tourist breathing.
We had a ticket for 3 tombs, and I’m definitely regretting not paying the extra to go into Tutankhamun’s tomb as well.
Our 3 tombs were http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KV6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KV7 & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KV9 and amazing to really see them. They’re bright, coloured, deep – it’s had to put into words the feeling you get as you descend deeper, 5-pointed stars painted on the ceiling to represent souls, each pharaoh’s name in cartouche surrounding the walls. The paintings are bright, the colours incredibly vibrant, which I think will be my lasting image of Egypt. While it looks like it’s still disputed exactly how ancient Egyptians created the paint, minerals and egg solution have been suggested – I think it’s amazing that we’ve been essentially making paint the same way for thousands of years.
Some of these tombs had 10s of people, some of them 2 or 3 plus us. Previously you’d have to wait 15/20 minutes in the hot sun to get into the tombs – tourism is so low these days we pretty much had them to ourselves..
The afternoon was dedicated to Hatchepsut’s temple, almost arrogantly placed next door to the Valley of the Kings, she presented herself as a man to rule as Pharaoh. It’s actually a really interesting temple, particularly as her son tried to erase her from everywhere. The wall colours are bright, inscriptions and carvings incredible. More about her and the temple and Hatchepsut herself here! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mortuary_Temple_of_Hatshepsut http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatshepsut
Luxor to Aswan, for an early night and an incredibly early start the next day to get to Abu Simbel.
Security is tight in Egypt. There are checkpoints everywhere. At one stage we took a “non-tourist bus road” and had to close all the curtains on the bus to ensure we weren’t spotted. We had an armed guard on our bus at some stages, nowhere was this more prevalent than our journey to Abu Simbel.
You have to join an early convoy to ensure all the buses go together, it’s nothing bus desert out the window – if you breakdown (as we did) you at least know there will be another tour bus that can hopefully pick you up. It’s disconcerting seeing nothing for miles and checkpoints of men with massive assault weapons.
But Abu Simbel is beautiful. Incredible that they shifted the entire structure due to the damming of the Nile for the High Dam & creation of Lake Nasser. 4 huge figures of Ramesses II loom at the start of the temple. The sun is too bright for them to cast much of a shadow, but as you walk between them you really do feel in awe of these great god-like figures.
The interior is stunning, impossible to photograph. The original was built to let light into the temple on October 21 & February, illuminating 3 of 4 sculptures (the 4th, God of the Underworld was left in the dark). An incredible feat of planning, structure design and building to exacting measurements. I always find these structures more incredible than buildings in modern times with modern tools, especially considering how terrible I am at mathematics myself.
As far as sculptures and the internal art goes, I actually preferred the smaller temple, dedicated to Hathor & Nefertari (Ramsses II chief consort) it’s not that it was smaller or more delicate, it seemed brighter in some way.
The journey to-from Abu Simbel is long. 6 hours. We were picked up in smaller vans to venture on to Philae temple, crossing the river Nile by boat to a small landmass in the middle.
Again 20/30 completely empty boats, we had the entire complex to ourselves.
That afternoon I started to feel a little sick. I’ve got what I affectionately call and Iron Stomach, didn’t get sick at all on our Kenya – South Africa leg, and rarely get stomach problems at all. I’m more of a headache/migraine type, so be struck down with a terrible case of travellers illness was the last thing I expected.
I skipped our delicious Nubian dinner, and battled with tummy cramps and nausea (and everything else) for about a week before I was finally convinced to take something for it. (Which of course is over the counter antibiotics that aren’t legal to take anywhere, it sure as hell cleared me up within a day tho!)
Apparently Egypt has terrible food hygiene so after a few discussions with everyone, most people had been effected in some way. Gah.
On our felucca trip I was still feeling pretty average so spent the whole time pretty quiet, either chatting to people, playing a combined crossword with everyone, and generally snoozing, lying about and the odd swim in the Nile. It’s a much more fast moving river than I expected – only a few metres out from the bank and you’re pulled into the flow, much much harder to swim against than I thought! To risky for me thanks, so I huddled closer to the felucca, trying to stop my legs getting tangled up in weeds.
Usually the Nile would have been full, but it was mostly our two Felucca, zig zagging down the Nile.
Our last morning we went back to Luxor, seeing Edfu and Karnak temples, and Luxor temple from the road. It’s hard seeing so many cultural sites in such a short amount of time. They start rolling together, and even looking through photos it can be hard to discern the differences.
I wish I’d understood more about the gods, the death process, and image representations – sure our guide points out a lot, but I’m sure there’s interesting subtleties we miss that would make the temples even more inspiring.
A very very long road back to Cairo, trying to stay warm under the constant air conditioning, our bus, again, puttered out.
On the side of a hill, on a road in the dusk, with crazy drivers left, right and centre.
Our bus was pulled to the side of the road, but still mostly on it – rather than slowing down to check something wasn’t coming the other way, cars and trucks were speeding up and pulling out to pass. I swear one crash was down to mere centimetres, we all thought we were about to see another huge accident right in front of us.
Thankfully the only issue was dirty fuel, within 10 minutes we were back on the road (of course not before a truck full of people yelled “Welcome to Egypt” out the window).
Somehow Cairo was a bit cooler, but again we stayed at this strange half closed hotel, and ventured out earlyish to head to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, which is situated on Tahrir Sqaure.
Razor wire and tanks greeted us. It’s likely much more secure than we felt, but it added to the overall feeling of security stepped up a notch we felt right across Egypt. I don’t think tension is the right word for it? But knowing Syria was still facing civil war, Iraq imploding again, and the suddenly ever present word ISIS I was almost thankful for the extra security.
So, the museum. It’s old, not that well cared for. Hot, dusty, and these old type written infocards within every exhibit – but in all of that it’s absolutely wonderful.
Busier than anywhere we’d been, we saw statues with rock crystal eyes, that seem to follow you as you walk around, pupil spot included. Sarcophagi richly inlaid with lapis lazuli, carnelian and turquoise, of course with bright gold. Jewels and necklaces, canopic jars, mummifiedfish, statues and papyrus. It was (like the rest of Egypt) hard to take it all in.
The most incredible section of course were the treasures of Tutankhamun. Huge gold plated coffins inside coffins inside coffins with sarcophagi inside sarcophagi. Jewellery like you couldn’t believe. And not just the famous funerary mask we all know but several, each more ornate than the last, with the final one of solid gold having pride of place in the centre.
Sadly you can’t take photographs inside the museum, we saw an older gentleman get caught snapping the funerary mask on his phone, he was pulled aside by guards, and made to delete all his pictures.
Even tho it was a bit extra, we decided to see the mummified kings and queens. Death and reverence of death is interesting to me – and standing amongst the kings and queens whose temples I’d visited was so strange. They were short. Hair and fingernails intact. Hatchepsut was only discovered to be her recently, when they found a tooth in a canopic jar that matched the mummy’s missing tooth space.
One mummy was nearly destroyed in the Arab Spring uprisings, 50 items within the museum went missing, only 25 returned. 2 mummy’s completely destroyed.
You couldn’t otherwise tell, but I’m glad the as many of the museums treasures were protected and saved as possible, but there’s no gift shop. No restaurant. Big empty rooms gathering dust as you exit. Empty bookshelves and display cases.
The afternoon was a quick visit to the hanging church (one of the most amazing displays of Coptic Christianity in Egypt) Khan el Killi tourist market (2 scarves for less than £5 thanks!) and a last dinner with all of our tour group (23 people and I still didn’t know everyones names) before heading to Dahab on the red sea the next day.
Through the Suez were more tanks and armed guards than even Tahrir Square. The Sinai has become a prime training camp for ISIS sadly, and even with all of the check points and all of the guards I still felt a little nervous.
The red sea is actually pretty blue. Bluer than I remember the Mediterranean being. With the backdrop of the bright blue sky, rocky desert cliffs at the waters edge, Saudi Arabia just over there – it all makes for a pretty awe inspiring sight.
First day was a snorkel in the Blue Hole. After my last experience snorkelling with a mask that didn’t fit, and awful fins, I was dreading this a little, but as we wanted to go diving later that day, it was actually the best thing to do to get a little water confidence back.
Diving and snorkelling in the Red Sea is straight off the beach, weird to be walking slowly through water with all your kit!
The blue hole in Dahab is famous for being the deadliest dive site in the world, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Hole_(Red_Sea) but it’s actually a wonderful snorkel.
You enter on one side through a narrow crack called “The Bells” (so named for the divers that bump the sides with their tanks), floating around the side of the reef until you get to “The Saddle” which is a dip in the reef where you can enter the Blue Hole. It’s really disconcerting as you can only see blue, and it feels like you’re heading over an ocean cliff into an abyss.
One of the people we were travelling with started to panic as they approached the saddle, I rescue swam him back to the beach. Sort of bizarre experience really, I’ve not had to do that before, but okay. Oh heh I forgot to mention that Dan and I were the eldest by quite a long shot on the trip, so we were affectionately termed mum & dad. Definitely made me feel old hanging out people as young as 23, and interestingly most of the people one our trip were on their way home from living in London.
It was windy and waves were getting higher, but the snorkelling was the best I’d ever seen. Corals like giant lettuces, parrot fish sneaking about, little clown fish ducking between fingers of anemone, angel fish floating, triggerfish darting between the rocks the constant scratch scratch sound you can hear of fish nibbling at the reef. Incredible. Dan even saw a massive octopus!
We finished about 11:30am, had a quick bite and we were off to have 2 dives in the afternoon.
Our last experience diving was certifying, and being still quite new to it we were both approaching these dives with a lot of nervousness. I still haven’t got my breathing control down pat, and Dan manages to suck air through like nothing else.
I’m sure it will come with time and experience, but we still stepped in with a bit of trepidation.
Our first dive in the Coral Garden site we saw a turtle, huge! Gracefully swimming just beyond the reef. Huge corals, fish everywhere. It was a gentle step back into diving, we both loved it.
Second dive was into a Canyon, down to 30m. I struggled a bit with my ears not equalising, but still managed to get to the bottom. When you look up and move on a little it’s like a fish bowl. Hundreds of curious glassfish surround you, moving as if one being as you swim near them. As you exit the canyon, you can see air bubbles exiting bits of the canyon, like the ocean was a glass of champagne. Beautiful.
On our exit & safety stop, our guide leader saw a stonefish. Pretty creepy really, as they are the most venomous fish in the world – very glad no one got injured.
Exhausted, we got back to our hotel a little late, but was amazing to see the pictures we’d got under the sea.
The next morning was sort of an early start, crossing the Red Sea by boat into Jordan.
Jordan is much smaller than I realised, with a population of only 6million. An evening in Wadi Rum, what used to be an ocean millions of years ago and now are amazing rock formations with a deep desert.
We stayed at a Bedouin camp, with cats and a lot of relaxing, a jeep drive to check out some of the rocks and see them in the afternoon light, pinks, reds, oranges glowing in the sunset light.
I was also troubled by little lumps on my legs, like a weird rash. It was itchier than anything I’d experienced, and I think coral rash. My normal itchy bite cream would work, and it jut put me in a bit of a grumpy mood for a couple of days. It wasn’t massive, on my calf and a bit over, and while I do sort of remember something going into my leg I don’t remember brushing up against coral. Blurgh.
Next up a full day at Petra, a bit of a drive and a long day on my feet! Rather than the stone buildings I found the colours within the rocks more amazing. Blues, whites, blacks, yellows, alongside the pinks, reds and oranges.
The buildings or at least frontages are interesting. They take elements from Egyptian, Greek and Roman architecture (theatre for entertaining travellers, Corinthian columns, Nike statue) while it doesn’t feel like a cultural mish mash, it definitely is quite different from anything else we’d seen before.
We did the 800 step walk up to the monastery, exhausting in the heat – especially with the odor of stinky donkey and horse poop all the way up!
Petra is a huge site, we only saw probably less than half of it, and scrambled around the rocks for a different view point,
Our last meal in Jordan was amazing. Similar to food from Egypt with a few additions of fattoush salad & tabbouleh, and a thing they call “hot salad” which is cucumbers, tomatoes and mild to spicy chillies – I was in heaven. Their food hygiene is much better than Egypt’s apparently, so I happily chowed down.
Back to Dahab, random rave in the desert (where I managed to have a bit too much to drink and fell asleep. Fantastic). And then back to Cairo on the worst drive of the entire trip.
We picked up a Police escort, who decided to talk on his phone very loudly until 2:30am. The airconditioning was freezing, I covered Dan in one of my scarves as he was only in a singlet. At 3:30 the music suddenly went on, I assume to keep our driver awake.
We arrived back at the hotel I think about 7ish, and I proceeded pretty much straight to the pool to find some shelter in the shade to have a snooze.
Our last drive out to the airport was last, pleased to be out of the traffic; even the airport was complete madness. Getting on our next flight was a kind of peaceful bliss, knowing for the first time we were going to be on our own again for a few days in another crazy country – India.
On a side note – Egypt is desperate for tourism. If you’ve ever thought about going, it’s so quiet there at the moment, I’d really recommend going now. The sites are empty in comparison. Hotels are cheap (outside of Cairo). The people are friendly. It does feel a little tense – the day we left the Sinai peninsula there were 6 beheadings. The road we drove is no longer across the centre of the peninsula, but the long way round the edges. While we never felt specifically unsafe, I think the region in general still has concerns, and I genuinely hope for Egypt’s sake that it doesn’t get any worse.