Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cairo, Final Take

The Sphinx and one of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Betty, Thea, and my return to Cairo almost proved to be difficult. The website had said that they do pickups and drop off in Cairo. However, when we had first arrived, the owner said that returning might be tough because their taxis were not allowed in the city. I really wanted to know why their website said something different, but had learned not to ask these questions. Anyway, our guide got us back on time. Then, the owner who subcontracted us out to our guide was subcontracting our ride back to Cairo out to another guy. He made it very clear that if anything didn't go right with the ride that it was not his problem because he was going to have us pay the driver and not him. He gave extra money to the driver in case the police did stop him. Later, we asked an Egyptian guy about this later and he said he had never heard of it. He suspected that they didn't know the address or didn't want to deal with traffic.

Half way to Cairo, we stopped to go to the bathroom. While I waited by the car with the driver, he tried to get me to pay him. Having learned from my earlier mistakes of paying people before services were delivered, I told him that I would pay him when we got to the bike shop. He grumbled about it, but we continued to Cairo. When we arrived in Cairo, he didn't know where we were going. He stopped at a taxi stand. I thought he was going to try and put us in with someone else. He didn't. He picked up another driver to show him the way. Together, they still didn't know the way. They paid another driver to guide us in his cab. After a few phone calls, we eventually made it to the bike shop.

A fancy bike rack and pump at the bike shop.

The bike shop was the first high end bike shop I had seen in the Middle East. We wanted to them to take apart our bikes and box them. We could do it, but we preferred to go play tourist. We tried to negotiate the price. They didn't budge. They were friendly. They were helpful. It was like being at a bike shop in the states. We told them we needed our bikes that day and arranged for them to be dropped off at Thea's house. We didn't want to have to come back later. It was easy. It was probably our best business transactions in Egypt.

From there, Thea went home and Betty and I went to see the Pyramids of Giza. We found a driver to take us down and also pick us up. When he dropped us off, he told us where he would be waiting and to talk to no one because it was not safe. Giza is a poorer area, but I didn't think it was that dangerous. We hopped out, didn't buy the fake tickets that Thea warned us about, and proceeded to the main entrance where we got our real tickets.

The Sphinx.

Our first stop was the Sphinx. It is big. It is grand. It stares east out over the streets of Giza. I would guess that the streets start less than 200 yards away. I can't imagine the changes that the Sphinx has watched there over 5 millennia. To the west, the Sahara Desert begins. After crossing the desert highway, I don't think there is anything except sand until you get to the Siwa Oasis near the border of Libya. To the north, were the pyramids that I had traveled so far to see.

The Sphinx looks east over Giza.

The pyramids were why I had come to Egypt. Way back when I conceived of my bike trip, I saw a ferry from Athens to Cairo and thought biking to the pyramids would be a great way to end my trip instead of stopping in Athens. From there, I realized just how close Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and so many other great treasures were and my trip grew. It was a bummer to not bike up to the pyramids as planned. However, I don't think I would have been able to anyway since I can't imagine they let bikes through the gate. Unfortunately, despite causing the most excitement during the planning of my trip, the pyramids were a let down.

A very unhappy camel.

Unhappy camel (turn your sound up).

As soon as you left the Sphinx area, camel riders approached you to take their picture in front of a pyramid and charge you for it. The camel mounted police wanted to do the same thing. Some guys wanted to give you camel, horse, or carriage rides. Others wanted to sell you stuff. If you didn't want any of those services, they would happily take your picture from what they considered the best spot to get a picture of you and the pyramids. I can only imagine what the tip is like once they have your camera in their hand. It was a nonstop barrage of trying to extract money from tourists. Essentially, it was Egypt. If only we had seen this part first to brace ourselves instead of visiting the rather timid, in comparison, Sinai Peninsula.

In front of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the policeman asked for baksheesh for looking pretty on their camels.

The first pyramid that you arrive at is the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Khufu. It is the largest and oldest pyramid. It is the only surviving structure of the 7 ancient wonders of the world. It is an honorary member of the new 7 wonders of the world. It was the tallest man made structure in the world for almost 3,800 years. The only surviving relic that shows Khufu's face is in the Egyptian museum in Cairo. It is approximately a one inch statue. I guess it is a good thing he built a huge pyramid to be remembered by. Betty and I heard that going into the pyramid was a waste of time so we skipped it and headed back to the second pyramid.

Pyramid of Khafre.

The Pyramid of Khafre and a museum that holds a boat they found on site.

The second pyramid is the Pyramid of Khafre. It looks larger because it is on a hill, but is actually smaller. This pyramid still has some of its casing stones near the top. The casing stones were originally white polished limestone that must have added quite a bit of flash to the pyramids. Unfortunately, they are almost all gone. You can see some piled up at the bottom of the pyramids, especially at the last pyramid that a later Pharaoh tried to destroy.

Two of the pyramids of Giza.

The outer casing stones of the pyramids.

The last pyramid, the Pyramid of Menkaure, is the smallest. However, because it is the longest walk away and the least impressive, it is also the quietest. Right next to it, there are three queen's pyramids which are dwarfed by any of the Pharaoh's pyramids. While these were not the most impressive, you had a chance to really spend time with them and not get harassed by anyone. It was nice. In fact, it is so quiet back there we even saw one guard sleeping.

After these few pyramids, the desert opened up. There were a few hills that you could see camels and horses taking tourists to the top of. However, there wasn't anything else. I am sure you could walk right to the pyramids for free if you came from that direction. If I ever go back, I'll be sure to head in that way. I think looking at the pyramids from the peace and quiet of the desert would be a much better way to go. In the movie Cairo Time, that I watched on my flight back, they showed a sunrise visit to the pyramids. It was peaceful. It looked precious. If it is possible, I'd recommend it.

A mosque near the highway in Cairo.

From the Pyramids, we went back to Thea's and her fiance, Sami's, apartment. They lived near an expatriate area. It was a lot quieter than the rest of Cairo. After a couple hours to nap and get cleaned up from our desert adventure, we went out for dinner. We drove and drove and drove to find a place. It was funny to hear them try to decide where to take us for our one meal. The meal was alright, but the dessert was the memorable part. They took us to a fruit smoothie place pronounced far-ga-lee. Don't let anyone else say otherwise. I can't even remember what I had. They put arugula and avocados and all types of crazy stuff in shakes. It was great.

Great green plants along the Nile.

After dinner, it was time to sleep. Betty had to be up early to leave. Her cab showed up early, we loaded up her bike, and she was off for her one day solo birthday adventure in Amsterdam where her layover was. She had tried to book a flight around the same time as me, but ended up booking one 12 hours too soon. Oddly enough, I had a direct flight to New York, where she was going, before I connected to Wisconsin. The best she could find was the Amsterdam layover which she made as long as possible so she could get out and play without rechecking her bags. That still left me with an extra day to explore.

The Red Pyramid in Dashur.

The Red Pyramid of Dashur had been recommended me to so Thea and I decided to catch a cab down there. When we got to the entry gates, some guy in a suit got in the car with us. We were not given any explanation of why. Not every car got someone. I expected to shortly be harassed for him to guide us or sell us something or some new inventive way to get our money. As it turned out, he was a gun carrying security guy. When we got to the site, he didn't do anything. He hung out by the car while we walked wherever we wanted.

Descending into the Red Pyramid.

The inside of the Red Pyramid.

I had expected the Red Pyramid to be red like the rocks of Petra. It wasn't. Because of that, it was a bit of a disappointment. Expectations ruin everything. However, Thea and I did go inside this pyramid which was neat since I had skipped going in the day before. After climbing up a few meters up, we entered the pyramid and started descending down. To do this, you could only be less than three feet tall so we had to hunch over. As I did, the first thing to hit me was smell of the stale air. It was terrible. Thea said, it smelled like urine. I think she was on to something. After descending 68m in the crouch position, we were at the bottom. It was hot. Hot and smelly, my favorite combination. On the other hand, there were only about 5 other people down there with us and we could explore the 3 chambers at our leisure. The walls down there looked a bit red. Two of the rooms had very tall walls that slowly came together near the ceiling. The other one was a regular room. It was neat to try imagine where these small rooms were inside these huge structures.

The Bent Pyramid.

According to the Internet, the Red Pyramid got its name because the outer limestone is red tinted. I did not see it. Originally, it was not red at all. It had the same outer casing that the other pyramids had. This was the largest man made structure in the world before the Great Pyramid was built. It is also the first true pyramid. Before this, according to Thea's architecture classes, they were still figuring out how to make them. Also at the site of Dashur is the Bent Pyramid where it was clear they were still learning. While it was being built, its angle of inclination changed from 54 to 43 degrees. It makes it look like it has sagged over time, but it was built that way.

A kindred spirit, this guy attracted all the dogs in the parking lot when he fed one them his lunch.

We returned to Thea's apartment by noon. I had eight hours before my flight. I looked up a few 'must sees' in Cairo and was going to visit them. However, it didn't happen. The train line was right there and would have taken me to town quickly, but I wasn't feeling it. I was enjoying the peace and quiet of their expatriate neighborhood. It had trees. I walked until I found an area where the expatriate area was butting up against the more Egyptian part. I found a great bagel shop for lunch. I found a great falafel shop for dinner. I read. I watched the world go by.

Palm trees along the Nile.

As I wrote this post, I realize just how many times I've written about peace and quiet. I was missing it. It isn't much of a surprise that I didn't go back into Cairo proper for more sight seeing. It wasn't that I was done exploring, I just needed to do a different type of exploring. I also needed time to think. The idea of being home in a day seemed ridiculous.

After being gone so long and traveling the way I had for so long, that was my life. Even though I was craving stability (in the form of people or location or employment), I couldn't really fathom having it. In a way, I had become institutionalized again, just like when I was in Antarctica for a year. I just got used to things and made them part of me and part of my rhythm. I think that ability to adapt and make the current circumstance be my circumstances are why this trip went so well. Yes, the touts and other things got on my nerves, but I never lost it. I adjusted and found a way to keep enjoying myself.

When it came time to head to the airport, I got a ride from the same guy that took Betty and I to the pyramids and Thea and I to the Red Pyramid. He drove slow. He didn't scare me. I was able to really look around and soak in my final views of Egypt. It was a wonderful way to go.

Me and the Sphinx.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The White Desert, Egypt

I tried to fit our three day desert tour into one blog, but there were just too many photos that I wanted to share. Day two of our tour took us to the White Desert, a small part of the giant continent spanning Sahara Desert. The White Desert was the reason I had heard about the desert road and why we booked the tour in the first place.

Desert panorama.

Our morning started off with the standard Egyptian breakfast. It didn't matter that we were camping. We had almost the exact same breakfast we had every time someone else provided breakfast for us. I think the one difference is that we had cookies and that happened to be the same cookie that Betty kept buying for me based on weight. A lot of the Egyptian cookies were wafer based and not cutting for it what I wanted it taste or calories (calories = weight).

Me at the bottom of a dune.

After breakfast we were back on the road for 4x4 in the sand shenanigans. They weren't nearly as nerve wracking the second time. I was definitely enjoying more of them today until he tried to turn right off a dune where there was vegetation he could not run over on the bottom. He had to slam on the breaks. We stopped where the dune starts to angle down, but were not facing down yet. I felt like we were going to tip over. We couldn't back up. As he inched us forward, I felt like we tipped more. Eventually, he got out to dig a little. Then, he zigged. Then, he shimmied and, since I am writing this, we made it down the dune. After that adventure and trying to go as fast as possible (>55mph) on the sand straightaways, his shenanigans took us to two different springs in the desert.

Driving down the sand dunes.

The first spring we stopped at was the Magic Spring. Near it, there were two decaying bodies from the Roman era. Our guide didn't have any history on them. I am guessing they ran out of supplies and chose to at least stay near water. In addition to the dead guys, there was a palm tree and two trucks full of guys enjoying their holiday. Somehow, the holiday of Eid was STILL going on. We think that was the last day, but we thought that too many other times to be sure.

Dead bodies near the Magic Spring.

The Magic Spring.

I can't remember the name of the second spring. It had a lot more stuff growing there. We also saw dog tracks there. I know the spring is a source of water, but I can't imagine where it gets food. This spring was more pleasant. That might have been because the group of guys at the Magic Spring were not around to ogle Thea and Betty. In Egypt, they have both grown accustomed that behavior, but still don't appreciate it. It was extraordinary to see these springs with vegetation, even a palm tree, in the middle of no where.

Another desert spring.

Somewhere in our day, we stopped for lunch under a tree. Our guide told us to be sure to watch our for snakes. As I walked around to go to the bathroom, I kept my eye on the sand. Suddenly, something slinky fell out of the tree on a branch a few feet in front of me and surprised me. It was a snake. I know snakes can live in trees, but that is not where I instinctively look for them. The rest of lunch went on without incident. We even saw some butterflies in the tree. Having snakes and butterflies in the tree seems a little weird.

The Sahara Desert.

Something that I did not expect was how easy going to the bathroom in the desert would be. It is just like camping where you dig a hole and bury your waste. However, the digging is a lot easier. I found it kind of funny that going to the bathroom in the desert required less thought than most places in Egypt. At most places, I would wonder if there were squat toilets, if they had toilet paper, or the last year they had been cleaned. In the desert, you have none of those issues. It reminded me of Antarctica where I didn't have choices so I didn't care, but if I do have choices, I am pickier.

Thea and Betty hiking in the White Desert.

Mushroom and chicken (the second rock) in the White Desert.

The finale of our day was the White Desert. It seemed manic compared to the rest of the serene desert that we had been visiting. There were these giant white cliff formations everywhere. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to them. The yellow sand surrounds these white rocks that just shoot up into the sky. That area is the most crowded part of that part of the desert. We had only seen 2 other trucks the entire day, but as it got darker, we saw more and more. Our guide drove for twenty minutes before he found a campsite where no one else was in sight to preserve the idea of being alone out there.

Looking for cool rocks near the White Desert.

The White Desert.

Our second night was similar to the first. Peace. Quiet. Good food. Full bellies. Bedouin tea. I slept well in the desert. None of us had tents. Just sleeping bags and blankets. It is so nice to be able to camp out and not worry about being harassed or the elements. It was a great way to wind down the trip before heading back to the craziness of Cairo.

Sunset in the White Desert.

Moonrise in the White Desert.

Teatime in the White Desert.

The next morning, we were up at 4am to start heading back. We wanted to get back to Cairo by noon so that we had enough time to get Betty ready to go the next morning. We made a quick stop at Crystal Mountain. It is a large rock that, as far as I can tell in the dark, is one giant geode. I would love to go back there at some point and see it in daylight. It wouldn't be the coolest thing you would see on the tour, but it is definitely worth a stop.

Crystal Mountain.

Crystal Mountain close up.

On our way back to the oasis to get our ride to Cairo, two things happened of note. First, we did not run out of gas despite Betty worrying about it for the past day (she's a city dweller who never drives). Two, we had to cross three police checkpoints. Our guide had lived in the area his entire life and resented the checkpoints. When we were approaching two of them, he turned off his lights and went off the road and around them. He said the police don't like it. They didn't give any kind of pursuit or raise any kind of alarm though. Maybe it is the same type of security as the Temple of Philae. Maybe they didn't see us because our lights were off. I don't know. Time to go Cairo.

Getting crushed in the White Desert (Yes, this is staged).

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Black Desert and Agabat Valley, Egypt

Wind lines in the sand of the eastern Sahara Desert

Leaving Abu Simbel set into motion the longest day of traveling of my entire trip. We drove three hours from Abu Simbel, checked out of our hotel, and got a ridiculously good Egyptian pizza. It was like regular pizza, but had two layers of crust. One thick and one thin on top. It was greasy. It was cheesy. It was delicious and completely filled me up for our overnight train ride to Cairo. The train was supposed to leave at 6:30pm and get in at 5am. The guys working on the train laughed and said that they never get in at 5am. They said 6:30, if we were lucky.

Our sleeper car.

Our sleeper car was not nearly as posh as our first class car had been. However, it was good enough for me. It was a lot more comfortable to stretch out in a bed to sleep for eight hours than trying to figure out how to get comfortable in a bus seat. They even served us dinner and breakfast. In the early morning, we rolled into Giza and hopped off the train.

Thea in the Black Desert.

We met our driver who was going to take us to our desert tour at the station. Unfortunately, we didn't meet Betty's mom's friend's friend, Thea, there. They went to the station that was actually in Cairo. After too many phone calls and a ton of confusion, we met up with Thea and were off to the desert.

Desert road.

I had wanted to bike the desert road since I had considered making this trip. It seemed like it would be a lot better biking because I would be avoiding the busy Nile Valley. However, I also liked the idea of biking through nothingness for days. However, since we ran out of time and the ferry wasn't running, biking it wasn't going to happen. Squeezing in a tour could. We searched the Internet for tour companies and finally settled on one marketed by a German woman. Normally, I try to go with locals, but I didn't want any miscommunications or questionable business practices to vex my last few days of my trip.

Desert panorama

Betty in the desert.

After our 5 hour drive through the desert to the Bahariya oasis, I got to meet the German woman. She spoke perfect English and then directed me to her Egyptian husband who actually ran the business. He did not speak perfect English and I quickly realized the website was to sucker in people like me. The best part is that the Egyptian guy didn't even guide the tour. He passed me off to a Bedouin guy with his own truck and supplies who spoke even less English. I felt bamboozled, but it didn't matter. Our guide was brilliant and we had a great time.

A close up of the Black Desert.

Black Desert panorama.

Thea and Betty hiking in the Black Desert.

After a quick late breakfast, Thea, Betty, and I set out with our guide, Reda. We drove on paved roads for a few minutes, but soon turned off into the sand. Our first stop was the Black Desert. It is black because of volcanic rocks that are in the area. I have no idea where the nearest active volcano is (maybe Etna in Italy or Uganda), but a volcano from long produced enough black rocks to still cover most of the area. I was envisioning pitch black desert just like the black beaches of Hawaii and Greece. This was just a dusting, but was still great.

Sand swept desert dune road.

Desert dune.

Desert rock formations.

After a short hike in the Black Desert, Reda took us who knows where to do off roading tricks like spinning his wheels out, up and down dunes, doing donuts, and fish tailing. I was definitely a little nervous. However, our guide had been doing this for 10 years and knew what he could and couldn't do. I had to keep reminding myself of that and eventually started to enjoy it.

Agabat Valley.

Agabat Valley.

Sand dunes in the Agabat Valley.

Our original plan had been to spend one night in the desert, that would have been at the White Desert. By staying a second night, we got to the visit and sleep in the beautiful Agabat Valley. The valley is where the yellow sands of the Sahara Desert meet the white cliffs of the White Desert to make brilliant formations. Betty found some sea shells lodged in these rock formations. This area used to be part of the ocean. There is something so serene about that part of the desert and the formations that we saw. I can't really say what.

An arch in the Agabat Valley.

I was going to just include this picture of Thea on an overhanging rock, then Betty showed me this photo of me taking the original photo.

The moon rising in the desert.

When we went to set up camp for the night, our guide would accept a little help but not much. He didn't need it. He was a machine and was used to doing this stuff. The first thing he would do was set up a three-sided wind shield. One side was against the car and the other two came our perpendicular from it. We ate, and later slept, in this space. After that, he got right to cooking dinner. He started a small fire to cook the meat in and used a gas cooker to cook everything else. The meal that he whipped up was one of the best of my entire trip, except for maybe the meal he made the next night.

Our view from the campsite in Agabat Valley.

Sunset in the Agabat Valley.

After dinner, we went for a stroll, but didn't do much else. We had Bedouin tea from the fire. We enjoyed the stars. We slept. It was wonderful. The calm and serene of the desert night was a great way to slow down the trip. We had been going, going, going since we left Dabab. Zoom to Cairo before leaving as fast as we could to see Luxor quickly, then Aswan, then Abu Simbel, then all the way back to Cairo, and finally down to the desert. The desert was the perfect place to unwind. I can't recommend it enough.

This is where we found some of the petrified coral and shells.

In the morning, we went for one last stroll around the area. Thea ventured the farthest and found the most interesting thing we saw in the desert. She found petrified coral. The first pieces we saw were very smooth and looked like wood. However, the second larger pieces that we found were clearly coral. It is so amazing to see these things from the sea in the middle of the desert. We always learn about these things in natural history classes, but it is another thing to see it. Look at those pictures and imagine it all being underwater.

Me hiking in the Black Desert.