Our last post covered our journey from Buenos Aires to Portugal, France, Belgium, Cape Verde, Senegal, and South Africa. Since then we have spent our time travelling in the colourful and fascinating country of Egypt. From the Pyramids of Giza in the north, to the grandeur of Abu Simbel in the far south, we took trains, planes, “Deluxe Plus” buses, and a relaxing Nile River cruise to see the best (and at times, worst) that Egypt has to offer.
A quick trip update – we are heading off to start the 540km Lycian Way hike in Turkey so we figured we would publish a post before going offline for our long walk. By the time this post goes live, we will likely be part way into our journey, Inshallah.
Indeed, Egypt is one of those countries that quickly reminds you that long term travel is not always glamorous; rather, it can be one string of frustrating, and at times even terrifying experiences that one can have after another. Of course the good always beats out the bad or else we wouldn’t subject ourselves to such pernicious endeavours, but Egypt left us both bewildered and exhausted, and not always in a good way.
Perhaps we have been spoiled on our RTW trip by having been lucky enough to experience very few truly awful occurrences besides a tick infestation in Bolivia, a foiled pick-pocketing in Ecuador, the worst car rental experience imaginable with Budget/Avis South Africa, and a couple of online booking fails in both France and Portugal. In fact, our trip has been almost serendipitous until now, so we were likely overdue for some trouble. Nevertheless, we would have preferred to not endure some of what we experienced in Egypt. Below is our itinerary and a glimpse into why we are so glad that we are in Turkey right now.
Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza
After a beautiful time discovering the island of Sal, Cabo Verde, reconnecting with Thea’s Malian family in Senegal and touring endlessly beautiful South Africa, scoring a direct flight from Johannesburg to Cairo on points seemed like a dream come true. Ancient Egypt is one of those topics that unites erstwhile foes in a common interest. There is just something both so enchanting and uniting about marvelling over monuments that were built by societies that are over 4000 years old. With this in mind, our first stop was naturally the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx.
A bucket-list destination for many, Egypt is home to the remnants of one of the most interesting and long lasting civilisations of all time. At the top of most people’s bucket-list is seeing the World Heritage Site Pyramids of Giza and Sphinx. Located just outside the craziness of Cairo, seeing the pyramids and sphinx is its own brand of crazy because of the schuckters and scammers. The worst of all these scams is the ticket grabbers at the entrance who claim to work there and try to take your tickets from you so as to force you to pay for their “guiding” services to get them back. We had read about this beforehand but the guy and his accomplice were so forceful in their efforts, they almost succeeded. Luckily, a tourism police officer took mercy on me and escorted me away from them.
Once in the site, the craziness didn’t end. Horse and camel drivers tried to scam us at every turn (a 100egp camel ride quickly became 600egp with these guys), sellers shove their wares in your face, and mobs of kids ask to pose for pictures with you as if you’re some kind of minor celebrity. The latter is relatively harmless, but I also caught men both taking pictures of me and filming without my consent. The hassling and harassment at the site is overwhelming which is unfortunate because it detracts from both the beauty and grandeur of the site. The pyramids and sphinx are truly wonders of the world and rightfully draw the tens of thousands of visitors per year that they do. That said,you can visit the ancient splendour Machu Picchu without having to say “no thank you” over and over again the entire time…
Regardless of these frustrations, in person there is no limit to how much the pyramids and sphinx can impress. They rise out of the desert like ancient sand castles and conjure images of a long forgotten time. Even with all the insanity surrounded the site, they remain as awe-inspiring as they ever were. If I had it my way, the tourism industry would be better regulated so that both tourists and Egyptians could better benefit from people visiting these sites.
Saqqara and all the way to Memphis
From Giza, we drove to Saqqara to see the very first pyramid that was built in Egypt. Although not as impressive as its successors, it was amazing to see the iconic practice begin. After taking in the sights and sounds for a while with a little more peace than we encountered in Giza, we moved onto Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt, where an enormous statue of Ramses II lies.
There I had a moment with the ticket guy who I thought was scamming me. Neither of us spoke the other person’s language so when he took my tickets, I grabbed them back thinking that he was going to do to me what the scammers at Giza had tried to go just a few hours earlier. Then he did the same, and we went back and forth pulling on the tickets until a tourist police came over and explained that I had to give the tickets to the ticket guy with a giant eye roll. This would become a theme in Egypt. Nevertheless, the artefacts at Memphis impressed us immensely and we tried to tell ourselves that the craziness of Giza was a one-off in Egypt.
Everywhere in Egypt had a very noticeable police/military presence, and terrorist attacks had happened just days and weeks before we had arrived. While in a way, we welcomed seeing people in uniform protecting the sites that we were visiting, it also was a little unnerving since the places that we have travelled to so far did not have such an ostentatious presence. In one cute moment though, we saw a uniformed policeman take his time-honoured cat petting duties seriously by tenderly attending to the feline that had jumped on his lap. We told ourselves in that moment that maybe things weren’t so bad if you can still let your guard down to pet the kitty.
Cairo Day Two
Also while in Cairo, we toured the amazing Egyptian museum that we didn’t have enough time to get through on the first try so we would consider coming back to Cairo just for that. The collection of antiquities and mummies is endlessly impressive but there isn’t a lot of effort being put into animation or maintenance of the museum right now because a “Mega-Museum” is being built by Giza and everything currently in the Egyptian museum will be relocated there. I can only imagine how incredible that museum will be once it is finished.
Lastly, we spent a very long day walking to Khan Al-Khalili to gaze on all the colourful wares on offer by local merchants. We of course were on the receiving end of non-stop callouts and solicitations, but in this case it was more entertaining than anything else. One man even asked us straight up “How can I take your money?” which elicited full belly laughs from us. We might have just met the most honest man in Egypt.
From seeing both the “Made in China” and “Made in Egypt” sides of the bazaar, we continued on to Al-Azhar park to breathe some fresh air and get away from the sounds sales pitches and car horns honking. The park was a delightful reprieve from Cairo’s craziness and the most beautiful place to watch the sunset. If we strained our eyes just so, we could even make out the Great Pyramid off in the distance, bookended by sky scrapers. A somewhat surreal sight.
We continued that experience of bizarre contradictions by heading to the Nile district, where we dined on a patio overlooking neon lights from restaurants and tourist boats on the banks of one of the world’s oldest rivers, while locals sang Arabic folk songs over sheesha around us.
Rome, Greece, and Egypt Meet in Alexandria
From Cairo, we took a train to Alexandria and enjoyed the seaside city’s fresher air compared to the capital. There we saw “Pompey’s Pillar”, a pillar from an old temple that was built after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, some catacombs where you can see 3 different kinds of art represented, and toured the expansive new Library of Alexandria. During this time, we learned of a terrible accident in the Cairo train station where 22 people were killed and many more were injured. This was so terrifying for us since we had been through there just a few days earlier.
After two days of jam-packed sightseeing in Alexandria, we just about missed our “Deluxe Plus” Go Bus to Hurghada. We put “Deluxe Plus” in quotes because they do not live up to their marketing. It was a very cramped 8 hour drive between the two cities.
Hurghada and Diving the Red Sea
Once in Hurghada, we rented an apartment from the sweetest family who spoiled us with cups of tea, fresh fruit, and cookies. We enjoyed having the opportunity to cook for ourselves and keeping costs low so we could spend some money on SCUBA diving in the Red Sea. We joined the fun gang over at Dive Hurghada and did 6 dives with them over three days. While divng, we saw countless moray eels, blue-spotted rays, lionfish, angelfish, clownfish, and wrecks. It wasn’t quite as amazing as the diving in Cozumel, but the reefs were in pretty good shape and there was plenty of different fish life to see.
We had a slightly scary moment back at our apartment when a young man tailgated us into the building and then pounded on the door off and on for about 20 minutes. We refused to open and called the family to come help us. When they didn’t come right away, we called the tourism police who said “they would call us back” but then never did. I guess they’re just good for tickets. The family came and reassured us that everything was ok and gave us a second number to call in case he came back which he never did. This was the worst thing to happen in to us in Egypt until we got to Edfu… but first lovely Luxor!
Lovely, Historic Luxor
Blissed out from diving and seaside dining, we took another “Deluxe Plus” Go-Bus to Luxor where we made the wise choice to stay on the West Bank rather than the busier East Bank. There, we rented a beautiful studio apartment on a quiet street and enjoyed some peace and tranquillity for the first time since landing in Egypt. We could actually here crickets chirping and birds singing outside of the windows instead of car horns and other city noise. Of course as soon as we left our apartment people were trying to sell us taxi rides, charge us triple the actual price for ferry rides across the river, and just generally give us more attention that we both would have liked.
We opted to go with the owner of our cute apartment and toured the amazing tombs of the Valley of the Kings and Queens, and Hatshepsut’s impressive temple on the west bank. There was still some hassling both inside and outside the tombs which again, for us it detracted from the experience of taking in all the splendour of something that was built out of devotion some 4000 years ago. Some of the hassling was just plain sad. A man outside the Valley of the Queens tried to sell me a scarf that I didn’t want for less than 20egp which is $1.50 CAD dollars. I had said no thank you but he was so desperate to make a sale that he had bargained himself down to such a small sum. And moments like this are important to reflect upon while travelling in Egypt. Most people are not trying to scam you because they are bad people, but rather because they are not very wealthy and if you are lucky enough to be able to travel to Egypt, even if it’s on a budget, you are luckier than them.
From the West Bank, we then visited the Karnak and Luxor temples on the East Bank. There I had another awkward moment with a ticket guy who apologized to me for what had happened to me in Giza and assured me that he was here to help if we needed anything. In essence, it was me being an untrusting jerk in this moment, but this man still took the time to both validate and reassure me. And that in a nutshell, is how it is in Egypt for every person who tries to scam you or sell you something that you don’t want, there is always another who will be willing to help you.
Of all the places we visited, we were never asked to pose for more selfies than when we were at Luxor Temple. One mob of school children surrounded me and everyone had to get a picture and ask me what my name was. One girl even said “I love you” to me in a way that was rather darling. I had no problem indulging the kids in a picture since it seemed to make them happy, but even their teacher got in on it.
Apparently, you can earn big bragging rights if you take a picture with a tourist in Egypt so it’s a game that many people, including families, adults, and kids love to play. For the most part it was all done in good fun so we hammed it up for the pictures and it was infinitely better than trying to deal with some of the more pushy hawkers, or catching someone filming you not so much in secret as we did. I even ended posing in pictures with whole families that made me wonder if I would be in their family photo album.
Nile Cruise from Luxor to Aswan
After walking a total of 15kms over 2 days touring the temples, we boarded a lovely cruise ship from Luxor to Aswan. A much more relaxed way of travelling, we loved the time we spent slowly making our way down the longest river in the world.
While on the ship we received exactly zero hassling which was anathema to our previous 2 weeks experience travelling in Egypt. We ate our meals in peace, people were nice to us without strings, and it was positively delightful to sit on the upper deck and see life go by on the banks of the Nile. While most of Egypt is a barren, desert landscape, the idyllic scenes along the Nile were a breath of fresh air and tranquillity.
Horror in Horus
On our second day of the cruise, we hopped off in Edfu to see the Horus Temple which is one of the most well-preserved temples in Egypt and is dedicated to the falcon-headed god named Horus. He was of course, a favourite of Thea’s since she freaking loves birds.
We decided to walk to the temple instead of taking a horse-drawn carriage to stretch our legs a little since it was hard to do on that on the ship. Everything was going fine until a rickshaw driver started following us and wouldn’t leave.
To be clear, most interactions a tourist will have with a local in Eygyt will follow a script, since many people asking you for something generally want the same thing: for you to take a ride in their cab, stop in their shop, visit their restaurant, so we found that regardless of where we were, we could usually get people to leave us alone with a simple smile followed by a “no thank you” or “la shukran” and keep walking. Many salesmen would respond with “maybe later?” to which we would sometimes respond with “maybe” or “Inshallah” (aka a religious variety of “hopefully”).
So we thought that this rickshaw driver was just being very persistent in asking for us to take a fare with him, to which we said no for several minutes. I thought that he was saying “Maybe later” in response to our saying no, so I repeated “maybe” back a few times. Apparently, this human garbage decided to hear “baby(?)” and took it to mean that I wanted to make a baby with him? I really don’t know how else to explain what happens next.
All I know is that he kept calling me “baby” and making gestures I didn’t understand and wasn’t being dispatched with a few “la shokrans” like you could with the other hawkers. Eventually, after about 15 solid minutes of him following us while we told him no, he started making very graphically clear sexual gestures at me and went to pull his pecker out of his pants. At this point we screamed at him to GTFO while sporting one-figured salutes. Saying “NO” for almost 20 minutes straight wasn’t enough to send this piece of trash away, but yelling loudly within earshot of the police who were guarding the Temple of Horus finally did. But chew on this for a second, you can’t walk down the street in Egypt with your husband beside you without worrying about some loser deciding that you need to see his (what I can only assume is an) uninspiring unit.
The ugliness of arriving aside, the temple was yet another awe-inspiring site and we tried our best to enjoy it despite the sexual harassment I had just received. We marvelled at the extensive carvings and scale of the structure that had been built over 200 years ago.
When Justice is a Stone’s Throw Away
Despite how endlessly impressive the Temple of Horus was, I was rattled and did not want to experience any further harassment on the way back to the cruise ship. So fearing that the rickshaw dickwad might come back and try his garbage behaviour again, I picked up a rock while leaving the temple just in case I needed it and stuffed it in my pocket. Remember, we’ve already established that this guy doesn’t respond to words and the Egyptian tourist police aren’t going to call you back so you quite literally need to take things into your own hands.
Morning awfulness in mind, we opted to take a horse-drawn carriage back to our ship in case we ran into Sexual Harassment Bro again and sure enough, he came back and pulled up beside us sporting a sheepish grin. At which point I stood up in the carriage and hucked a rock straight at his stupid rickshaw while we both screamed “FUCK YOU!!!” as loudly as we could him. The rock hit the back of his seat instead of him then bounced around in the his rickshaw making a mighty satisfying racket. We both wished that the rock had hit his window to make our retaliation sting a little more, but this would have to do. With that, he finally left us alone by speeding away on his little tut tut as fast as he could while we pretty much gave everybody in that street something to talk about that day. Now I get that there are so many situations in the world where you just can’t simply throw a rock at your enemies, but this was not one of them. Remember folks, especially my travel sisters, when someone won’t leave you alone, fuck politeness and cast a stone.
Oh No, Rickshaw Mafia! What Have We Done?
In response to our rather rocky interaction with the tuk tuk driver, the calèche driver asked us what happened and when we explained his face went sullen and he apologized profusely to us stating that he would punch the guy for us if he saw him again. He went on to explain that he wanted us to think that “Egypt is Number One.”
He also stated that he thought that the guy was “mafia.” This sent a chill down our spines because now we thought that a gang of comically terrifying rickshaw drivers would end up chasing us through the streets of Edfu to get their revenge, but he clarified that “mafia” was marijuana. Phew. Safely back at our boat, our calèche apologized again, but not without trying to charge us double what we agreed on for the ride before accepting our initial price with a small tip. He waved goodbye and held his hand to his heart afterwards. Again, despite the Horus Horror, we like to believe that most Egyptians are more like the latter than the former. They’ve been dealt a crappy hand economically, but are holding a historical flush. I can’t help but feel that with a little investment and training, Egypt could do away with the constant hassling and turn itself into a world class destination. One that encourages both numerous repeat visits from tourists, as well as stewardship from the people charged with protecting these truly invaluable sites.
From Edfu to Abu Simbel
Once back on the boat, sailing from Edfu to Aswan was positively delightful. We gazed upon more idlylic scenes, swam in the onboard pool, and tried our best to forget the unfortunate experience that we had in Edfu. The temples of Abu Simbel was before us afterall, and for some this site is even more impressive than the Pyramids of Giza.
The site is in the far south of Egypt where it’s a stone’s throw from the Sudanese border (don’t worry, no more rocks were thrown at Abu Simbel) and it required us leaving the ship at 4am to make the 4.5 hour drive to site from Aswan.
Built by Ramses II who reigned from 1279-13BCE, the temples were only rediscovered in 1813 so they were well-preserved. Then in the 1960s, Egypt decided to build a dam in the area that would have put the temples at the bottom of a very large lake. Pretty much the entire world thought that this was quite possibly, the worst idea that anyone has ever had and rallied together to help Egypt move the temples to where they remain today. Over the course of several years, the two temples were painstakingly disassembled, relocated, and reassembled to continue to inspire people to this day in what can only be described as one of the most impressive feats of engineering the world has ever seen.
Despite having been taken apart and put back together the temples do not disappoint. The first and largest temple is dedicated to Ramses II for the purpose of worshipping the sun gods and is adorned by two 20m tall statues of the Pharoah guarding the entrance. The second is dedicated to his wife Nefertari for the purpose of worshipping the goddess Hathor and features 10m tall statues of both Ramses and Nefertari. Again, it is a challenge to put into words the awe that these places inspire but the grandeur of Abu Simbel was a great last ancient Egyptian site to start winding down our time in Egypt.
Following our visit to the temples, we enjoyed a nap back on the ship and settled in for our last night onboard. The next day, we reluctantly checked out of the Semiramis II and headed for the Aswan to Elephantine Island ferry terminal. Along the way we fended off multiple taximen and Felucca-captains who wanted our business and found ourselves once again being photographed without our consent by some unscrupulous young man. Now if tourists were to go around taking pictures of the locals without permission, they would be universally derided but some reason, some Egyptians think this an acceptable thing to do to. Once on Elephantine Island, we were rewarded with some peace and tranquillity in this quiet, Nubian village for one night. While people paid good money to float by our hotel on Feluccas, we enjoyed the million dollar view from the terrace of our little guesthouse. After Abu Simbel we felt like for the first time in our RTW trip, that we really didn’t need any more time in Egypt, but we could have spent one more day on Elephantine Island.
Don’t let us discourage you too much though. Egypt is tough to travel in but it does reward that effort. The ruins are simply stunning and nowhere else on earth can you find ancient ruins that are as old and as well preserved. Keep your wits about you and make smart decisions, especially with transportation. Paying more for flights in this case, is worth it. Go with a good plan (this is a good Egypt itinerary to start your planning with) and you’ll probably have a great time.
While we were travelling through Egypt, a deadly train crash had occurred as well as a bus accident that injured over 20 people. Feeling rattled because we had recently travelled both by train and bus, we took a plane from Aswan to Cairo and spent a night there before heading to our next destination, Turkey.
Istanbul not Constantinople
After an uneventful flight from Cairo to Athens where I’m pretty sure we flew over Istanbul, and then onward from Athens to Istanbul, we landed in the beautiful city that is famous for straddling two continents. In light of the craziness that we had experienced in Cairo and Egypt in general, it was wonderful to trade dusty, trash-lined streets and the cacophony of car horns and solicitations, for charming, clean cobblestone walkways and good coffee. Istanbul impressed instantly despite being cold and stormy when we arrived. Indeed, going from temperatures in the 30s in Cairo to highs of 8c was a jolt to system, but you know a city is good when you love it even when it’s cast in a cloudy pall.
We filled ourselves up with Turkish breakfasts and bottomless tea, baklava, and even sampled some local wines, including the tongue-twisting Öküzgözü variety. Say that 3 times fast!
We picked up some last-minute supplies for our hike such as sleeping bags but our luck ran out at finding a shovel for, well you know…
Empty-handed on a few things, we packed up and made our journey toward Fethiye where we planned to start the Lycian Way, a 540km scenic long trail that follows the ancient trails set by the Lycian people. While Fethiye is a gorgeous town, it all but shuts down on Sunday so we were delayed by a couple days in starting the trail. We also ran into some unpleasantness when trying to find a hotel that would store our luggage while we trekked. One man went so far as to cancel our reservation because he thought we were “suspicious” for making such a request. Seriously, while this place is known for being the supply stop before starting the Lycian Way, it still has a long way to go before it can rival trail towns around the world which are famous for accommodating thru-hikers.
Because of this, we lingered longer than we wanted to trying to find a small shovel, a place that would store our luggage (to be clear, this was something that was not even a thing in among others, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, South Africa, Morocco, and Argentina) without treating us like criminals, and a place that sold (what ended up being the most useless) guidebook to the Lycian Way. We should have had the foresight to order it when we were in France and had access to the ever-convenient, Amazon.com but we still weren’t sure if this was going to be long-hike that we did.
Last-minute logistical arrangements finally made, we started our journey south and east along what is considered one of the best long hikes in the world. We are also 2019 Granite Gear Grounds Keepers so we will be picking up trash along the way as Grounds Keepers the world over clean up the trails that they love. Wish us luck!