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|Tuesday, May 8th, day 309 of our travels, we flew from Nairobi, Kenya to Cairo, Egypt (via a short layover in Khartoum, Sudan). All told we were in the plane just over 6 hours and we landed in Cairo at 10:15 PM local time.
After getting through Egyptian customs and immigration (you can obtain an Egyptian visa on arrival for $15.00 US), we were attacked by touts. They were very aggressive (right up there with India) and it was tough not to lose your cool. With touts mauling us from every angle we still managed to exchange money ($1.00 US = 3.90 Egyptian Pounds (Ep)) and make a local phone call to The Lotus Hotel. They said rooms were available, so we grabbed a taxi (after some hard bargaining) into Central Cairo.
During the 30 minute drive into the center of the city, the taxi driver kept trying to talk us into going to another hotel which he said would be cheaper (and of course he would receive a commission). We insisted he just take us to The Lotus Hotel. Then when we finally arrived at The Lotus, the driver tried to go into the hotel with us, probably to get a commission for taking us there (which would mean we would pay a higher price). This guy didn't know what he was messing with. After 309 days on the road, we fancy ourselves as savvy travel vets. He didn't get in the door.
The room was decent, but not spectacular by any means, and cost us 115 Ep for the night (with breakfast). We probably could have found something cheaper but we were hashed so we took it.
Wednesday, May 9th, day 310 of Lisa and Joel's Excellent Adventure we awoke and walked upstairs for breakfast. The morning meal that comes with the room turned out to be coffee, toast and jam -- what a rip. We hate when they do that -- they quote you a price "with breakfast" and then breakfast turns out to be worth nothing at all. We ended up having to pay extra for some scrambled eggs.
After our disappointing meal we headed to a nearby cyber cafe. (Do you think this journal just appears by magic?) Later we ended up going to a movie, The Mexican, with Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt. It was pretty good. Brad Pitt has to do some traveling in Mexico and he runs into all kinds of trouble. It reminded us of some of the mishaps and adventures we have had along the way. The movie was showing in this old-time really plush theater. Guys with funny outfits and cylindrical hats ushered us to our seats. There was even an intermission where everyone went out to lounge on plush couches and chairs. All this for only 15 Egyptian pounds each.
After another night at The Lotus, this time without breakfast (which got the room rate down to 100 Ep per night), we started day 311 of our travels, Thursday, May 10th, by going to the Embassy of Jordan. We applied for a one month, single entry tourist visa (88 Ep each). They told us to come pick them up at 1:30 PM, only one and a half hours later! We killed some time by having some Egyptian street food (lamb sandwiches) and then went to the Syrian Embassy to find out about getting a visa to visit that country. We knew we wouldn't be able to actually get the visa, because our passports were at the Embassy of Jordan, but we thought we could find out all the details.
When we got there we found out they were closing at 1:00 PM and that tomorrow, Friday, they were closed. Since we couldn't get our passports back from the Embassy of Jordan until 1:30 PM we were going to have to come all the way back to the Syrian Embassy on Saturday, to actually apply for the visa, and then again on Sunday to pick it up. We didn't want to stay in Cairo that long so we asked to speak to the "head man", with the hope that we could talk him into letting us come back at 1:30 PM with our passports, after they had already closed for the day.
The "head man" turned out to be a total grump (all his employees were afraid of him). After looking us up and down and asking us what are employment was back home (what does that have to do with anything?) he informed us we would have to come back on Saturday -- "No exceptions!" The gate will be locked at 1:00 PM!". Ok, relax -- we took an application form and said we would be back on Saturday.
After picking up our Jordan visas and our passports we decided to go back to the Syrian Embassy to see if it wasn't too late to drop off the application (which we completed while waiting in the Embassy of Jordan), our passports and of course the 245 Ep each for processing fees. To our surprise the gate was still open so we walked right into the visa application office. The "head man" was no where to be seen, but his assistant was presented. The assistant looked almost frightened to see us. He seemed like a really nice young man and he didn't want to turn us away but he said in a whispered voice as he pointed at the head man's door, "He said to come back on Saturday. That is best." Suddenly the office door opened and the head man stormed out, obviously on a mission to complete some important task. He looked at us in disbelief. How dare we go against his wishes. This was obviously a man used to being obeyed. Joel stepped forward, with the application, passports and money in hand and said, "We came back on the off change you could take our application."
He didn't say a word he just walked back into his office and motioned for his assistant to follow. We had a seat and listened to "Mr. Head Man" bark and yell at the assistant for a good 5 minutes. Then he got on the phone and let the guards at the front gate have it. What an ill-tempered man. Well, we didn't expect to be getting our applications in today and we began to wonder if our coming back, against orders, would endanger our chances of getting our visas at all. Miraculously, the assistant came out of the office and whispered to us, "Come back on Saturday at 12 noon. Your visas will be ready." We whispered back, "Thank you" and scurried out the door like mice avoiding the cat. Well, at least that's one less day we have to spend in Cairo. One thing this adventure has taught us is to expect the unexpected. We will see on Saturday.
We spent the afternoon in the Egyptian National Museum. It cost 10 Ep each to get in, if you are a student that is. Those fake international student ID cards we got in Bangkok are worth their weight in gold here. All the ruins, sites, museums, transportation, even internet access is cheaper if you are a student -- even if you are a fake one!
The museum is massive! The guidebook says that, "if you spent only one minute at each exhibit it would take more than nine months to see everything." Some of the highlights of what we saw were the golden death mask of King Tutankhamun and the double statue of the royal couple, Rahotep and Nofret, which is over 4,000 years old.
Friday, May 11th, day 312 of Lisa and Joel's Excellent Adventure we explored The Pyramids of Giza. The Pyramids of Cheops (the biggest one), Chephren (the one with the limestone casing still on top) and Mycerinus (the smallest one) were amazing. Just thinking about how and why they were made boggles the mind. You can walk all around them (if you can dodge all the touts) and you can even go inside. The Sphinx is really cool too. This is one of the places we most wanted to go to on our around the world circuit and it didn't disappoint. There is a reason it is the most popular tourist site on the planet -- it's awesome! One strange thing was the presence of a Pizza Hut right outside the entrance. There is something disturbing about the rampant course Westernization is taking. With that said, the pizza was yummy.
Saturday, May 12th, day 313 of our travels we went to pick up our Syrian visas. The "Head Man" was in a surprisingly good mood and we got our visas no problem. They are good for 3 months from date of issue, single entry, and once we get into Syria we're allowed to stay for two weeks -- perfect for our needs.
Looking ahead, our plans are to leave tonight on an overnight train for Upper Egypt and explore around Luxor for a couple days. Then we will cross the Red Sea by ferry and travel through the Sinai Peninsula, stopping off for some world class scuba diving in Dahab. From there we will cross into Jordan, by ferry across the Gulf of Aqaba, visit Petra and a few other of the highlights in Jordan, before crossing by land into Syria. After visitng the "must sees" of Syria we will travel through Turkey, probably sticking to the coast of the Mediterranean, into Istanbul. We have a flight booked, from Istanbul to Moscow (via a layover in Amsterdam), for June 21st.
In Russia we have arranged 16 days to explore Moscow and St. Petersburgh. That will probably be more than enough time, so we might bump up our flight out of St. Petersburgh to Amsterdam. When we land in Amsterdam (probably around July 1st), we have about one month before we have to fly to Boston, completing our Around The World Adventure. We plan on using that month to spend some time in Amsterdam, Paris and London (so we can visit our friends Emily and Simon (who we meet and traveled with in India) before returning to the States.
This is all tentative though. If we have learned anything on this trip it is that plans can change very quickly when you are on the road. One good thing is that we think we have all the necessary visas for the rest of the trip. We have Jordan, Syria and Russia in our pocket and every other country we plan on visiting you can get the visa at the border or the airport. What a relief!
After picking up our Syrian visas, we had a couple beers on the terrace of the Nile Hilton Hotel. It was interesting to watch the locals smoke tobacco out of their sheesha water pipes. We had some time to kill before our 10:00 PM train, so we decided to go bowling. Then we went to a movie, The Watchers, but we didn’t get to see the end because the 6:30 PM movie didn’t start until 7:20 PM. After grabbing a couple of lamb sandwiches from a local street vendor, we took a taxi to pick up our bags back at The Lotus, then another taxi to the train station and jumped on the train heading to Luxor.
Sunday, May 15th, day 314 of our travels, we awoke inside the train as it pulled into Luxor at 7:00 AM. We walked from the train station to the Saint Mina Hotel and took a double room for 35 Ep per night (with breakfast). After a nap, we went to see The Temples of Karnak and then Luxor Temple. After dinner at McDonald's (Yes, they have McDonald's here!) it was time for nighty night.
Monday, May 14th, day 315, we took a local ferry across the Nile River to the West Bank. A pickup truck taxi took us to the ticket office and our fake student identification cards got us half price tickets for -- The Tomb of Nefertari (in The Valley of the Queens), The Temple of Hatshepsut (Deir al-Bahri), three tombs in The Valley of the Kings, Ramesseum, The Temple of Seti, The Temple of Ramses III and The Colossi of Memnon (this one is free).
A taxi drove us to all these sites and back to the ferry for 40 Ep. It was a great day. The ancient sites were amazing. It was blazing hot, but the lack of other tourists (they mostly go early in the morning) made it worth it. We had some sites totally to ourselves.
After taking the ferry back to the East Bank of the Nile, we returned to the hotel to take a nap. After gathering our energy we went to the sound and light show back at the Temples of Karnak which was a spectacular 90 minute show.
Tuesday, May 15th, day 316 of Lisa and Joel’s Excellent Adventure, we each bought an 18k gold ankh, to wear around our necks. Hopefully the Egyptian symbol of life will protect us for the remainder of our adventure.
After mailing home some things we bought and gear we don’t need, Lisa grabbed some food from a street vendor while Joel opted for McDonalds (smart move - read below) and we jumped on a bus heading to Hurghada at high noon.
After a 5 hour drive (lengthened by numerous security checkpoints) we arrived in Hurghada. Trying to find the ferry that would take us across The Red Sea to the Sinai Peninsula proved difficult. After three separate minibus rides, each to the wrong place, we finally found out that the ferry was not leaving tonight (as our guidebook had erroneously informed us) and in fact would not be leaving again until Thursday morning! Well, we guess we’ll be staying in Hurghada for a few days.
We got a room for two nights at The Fantasia Hotel, right next to the ferry terminal, for 70 Ep per night. We also went ahead and bought our tickets for the ferry for $40.00 US each – pricey!
After doing a little Internet we crashed for the night.
Wednesday, May 16th, “Malaria Day” (That’s what we call the one day a week we take our anti-malaria pills), day 317 of our travels, the plan was to go into Hurghada and check things out. Once we got into town Lisa started getting really sick. We had to return to the room where Lisa was laid up all day vomiting and with diarrhea. Poor girl – it must have been the street food she ate yesterday.
Thursday, May 17th, day 318 of Lisa and Joel's Excellent Adventure, we awoke (Well, we didn't even really sleep -- Lisa was up all night vomiting and with diarrhea.) early to get on the ferry which would take us to Sharm El Sheik. After filing through a long queue to get our bags checked by security we found a seat on board which was close to the bathroom, for Lisa's sake. The trip across the stretch of water, where the Gulf of Suez pours into the Red Sea was very turbulent. Lisa spent most of the time in the bathroom -- you guessed it, vomiting and with diarrhea. When we arrived in "Sharm", we haggled with a cab driver, who eventually took us to Na'ama Bay (adjacent to Sharm), and checked into The Oasis Hotel.
The rest of the day Lisa was laid up in the room (do we even need to say it) vomiting and with diarrhea, while Joel explored Sharm.
The Sinai Peninsula coastline, all along the Gulf of Aqaba, from Taba to Sharm El Sheik, is a haven for package tour groups flown in from Europe. They come on one or two week holidays and stay in luxury hotels on the Gulf of Aqaba, to enjoy the sun and sand and the world class scuba diving and snorkeling. They buy packages which include air fare, transportation, accomodations, food and maybe a couple of dive trips. If you stay on the coast between Taba and Sharm you don't even need a Egyptian visa, you can get a 14 day pass, for free, upon arrival.
The prevalence of these package tourists does not lume well for the independent traveler. With the exception of Dahab (even here the package tourists are starting to take over) backpackers are not well catered for along the eastern coast of Sinai. This doesn't mean the intrepid traveler can not have a good time. You just have to be a little resourceful. The Oasis Hotel cost us 140 Ep per night with breakfast. This might be the cheapest place in all of Sharm. The room is nothing spectacular, but it has hot water (some of the time) and AC. If you don't mind the ocassional visit from a little mouse, it will work just fine.
Directly across the highway from The Oasis is the Five Star Sonesta Beach Resort. With its magnificent pool and private beach, it will run you more than $200.00 US a night! On Friday, May 18th, day 319 of our travels, guess who got to use the pool and the beach free of charge -- we did! Lisa was feeling much better today, so we ventured out and just walked right through the front door and plopped ourselves down by the pool and blended right in with all the Euro Trash. There was one tense moment when a pool attendant asked us what room we were staying in. We just pretended we couldn't speak English and eventually he gave up trying and walked away. The private beach was also very nice. The view of the rocky cliffs as they fall into the clear, blue waters of The Red Sea is amazing.
Later we walked up and down the entire stretch of beach which covers Na'ama Bay and after another relaxing stretch at "our" private beach and pool, it was time for bed.
Saturday, May 19th, day 320 of our adventure, it was back on the road, at least for a little while. We grabbed a local minibus taxi to the bus station. After inquiring as to what time the next bus to Dahab was leaving, we found out, to our dismay, that it wasn't for five hours. We decided to pay the 60 extra Ep (80 Ep versus 20 Ep) for a private taxi over waiting for the next bus.
Our driver didn't speak a word of English and worse yet he drove the taxi as if it was the first time he had ever driven a car. The amazinging scenery helped soften some of the nervousness created by our terrible driver. Imagine a flat, hot, baking dust and rock filled landscape, without a speck of green anywhere to been seen, leading into huge, magnificent, red rock cliffs rising straight into the clear blue sky.
Once we arrived in Dahab -- after going through a security check where three armed guards checked the credentials of our driver and only then raised the gate to let us through -- we struggled to make our driver understand where we wanted to be dropped off and finally just gave up and had him dump us in the middle of town. We were immediately swarmed by touts and decided to give one of them a shot. We jumped in the back of his pickup truck and he took us to The Jasimine Pension Hotel. It's a decent place with a double, with attached bath, hot water and a fan for 40 Ep. And it's right on the water, which is a nice plus.
Dahab is (or at least was) the backpacker, freaky traveler spot in Egypt -- kind of a Ko Samui (Thailand) wannabe. There are terraces that line the coral reefs, looking out into the Gulf of Aquaba, with the rock cliffs of Saudi Arabia nestled on the other side. We had heard that marijuana was openly sold and used on the terraces, but we didn't find that to be the case.
Apparently, Dahab is succumbing to the package tourists mentality that is prevalent on the rest of the eastern coast of Sinai. The camps that once rented out seaside, thatch shacks for under $5.00 US per night are converting to a more hotel style room with modern conveniences like AC, bathroom, etc. As if his intention was to reinforce this ascertion, one day, after returning from snorkeling, the owner of The Jasmine greeted us with a warm smile and informed us that air conditioning had just been installed in our room. Ok, that's interesting. "Yah, but it will cost you 10 Ep extra per night, and since we have air conditioning now, we no longer provide fans." Well, I guess we are paying for air conditioning.
On both the north and south ends of Dahab big 5-star hotels are setting up shop. These power players have put pressure on local law enforcement to "clean up" Dahab. Many foreigners have been jailed for offenses as small as simple possesion and one foreigner was even executed for dealing. (But that was for heroin -- what an idiot!) The recent "clean up" effort combined with tighted security after the slaying of 50 tourists at The Temple of Hatshepsut (Deir al-Bahri), near Luxor, which makes it harder to get drugs into any place in Egypt, has created a situation where you are just as likely to see an older, very touristy-looking individual as you are to see an "FT" (freaky traveler) in a tiedie and dreadlocks. Another factor might be that there is just not a lot of people here. It's low season and the troubles and tensions in other places in The Middle East might be keeping people away, even though trouble is about the last thing you would encounter in Dahab. Drugs are probably still in Dahab, they are just not as out in the open. If you do decide to partake be discreet and careful.
Dahab is still a very cool place to hang out. The atmosphere is very relaxed and it is still much cheaper to stay here than anywhere else along the coast. With the changes of late maybe Dahab belongs on The Top Ten Best Places To Hang Out And Chill rather than The Top Ten Stoner Havens. At least those were our observations.
One Around The World Top Ten List that Dahab should definately be on is The Top Ten Best Places To Scuba Dive and Snorkel. We ended up doing two dives with an outfit called Club Red. They were excellent and the diving was fabulous -- but we are getting a little ahead of ourselves here.
Saturday day and night we basically just explored Dahab and "hung out and chilled" just like everyone else. Our place, like most other places here, has a waterfront restaurant/terrace with lots of comfy cushions on the floor and palm leaves for a shady cover. It makes a great place to read a book.
Sunday, May 20th, day 321 of our travels was another relaxing day. We walked down towards the lagoon on the south end, where you will find the only beach to speak of in Dahab. It was fun to watch the wind surfers do their thing and the water was crystal clear and many shades of beautiful blue. It's amazing how easy you float because of the high salt concentrations (just wait until we get to The Dead Sea). We finished off the day chilling on the terrace in front of The Jasmine, watching the cascading waves disolve into the reef. This is a nice setting.
Monday, May 21st, day 322 of our adventure, we spent most of the day snorkeling down at the south end in the lagoon.
Tuesday, May 22nd, day 323, we did the two dives with Club Red. Our first dive was at one of the most famous dive sites in the world -- The Blue Hole. It is a real rush to have so much open blue water underneath you. When we first got into the water, we had to make our way through a narrow passageway which was cut out of the coral wall. Our second dive was -- The Islands -- a much more relaxed and casual dive. After a day of fantastic diving it was easy to see why so many people hang out in Dahab, even though the drug scene might not be what it once was -- it is easy to get "high on life" in Dahab.
We dove with a couple from Norway, a couple from France and two German guys. In between dives we discovered they were all very nice and interesting to talk to. Richard, our Dive Master from the UK, was great. We definitely recommend Club Red.
Wednesday, May 23rd, day 324 of Lisa and Joel's Excellent Adventure, was another day of chilling in Dahab.
Friday, May 24th, day 325, was a day of travel. We took a minibus from Dahab, north up the coast of eastern Sinai, to Nuweiba. In Nuweiba we took a three hour ferry ride, north and east, across the Gulf of Aqaba, to Aqaba, Jordan, with the cliffs of Saudi Arabia and Egypt surrounding us to our east and west.
Goodbye Egypt, hello Jordan.