Egypt | Post date – October 2004
Our passports received their Egyptian entry stamp on a ferry traveling through a branch of the Red Sea from Aqaba, Jordan to Nuweiba, Egypt. The ferry ride was pleasant… the port of Nuweiba was pretty miserable. After disembarking and exiting the terminal building, no one was allowed to depart the port area for the next 45 minutes. No particular reason was given – tour buses were sitting on the other side of the fence, people were sitting in their cars in queues… it was an interesting introduction to Egypt. In hindsight, we should have taken it as an omen of the total non-sense of much of what we would encounter in our Egyptian travels.
Our waiting in the port area was not for departure from the terminal, but for the representative from the bus company from which we were planning to buy our bus tickets to Cairo to arrive. After sitting for close to 90 minutes with two Jordanian air force officers on holiday and an Egyptian businessman, we were informed by the tourist police (there are police for everything in the Middle East!) that there would be no Superjet bus to Cairo that day. (This information came about 20 minutes after the other bus leaving for Cairo had departed.) Frustrated, Bram and the other three stranded passengers agreed that we should seek out a taxi or some other sort of transport for which we could split the costs. Twenty minutes later we left the port area and were greeted by a beat-up bus that was heading for Cairo. Without too many other options, frazzled by the 40C heat, and unwilling to spend the night in Nuweiba, we boarded the bus for an eight and a half hour journey to Cairo.
Needless to say, that was not our best travel day of the trip. Breakfast in Aqaba had consisted of dry pita bread and jam, lunch sitting in the port of Nuweiba had been a bottle of water and a sleeve of cookies, and dinner on the bus was a couple of small bags of chips, soft drinks and a few more cookies. Travel across the Sinai was truly a desolate, miserable experience, surrounded by a land that was equally as desolate and miserable. It is no wonder that this had been a place of exile … it is bleak, barren, and depressing terrain. We also entered a whole new security experience – we were stopped at least a half dozen times for passport checks. And after leaving the Red Sea area, the next seven hours was broken with only one rest stop (remember, these buses have no washroom facilities) at a settlement called Nakhl. Without getting into too many graphic details, the Nakhl 'rest' stop now ranks as the absolute worst facilities in the most depressing place we've been in the past three and a half months. Bram is convinced that the ultimate lowest rung on the global career ladder is to be the restroom attendant in Nakhl!
We arrived in Cairo close to midnight – not our favourite time to arrive anywhere. After haggling with a taxi driver to take us to the hotel we'd chosen in our guide book (in the mid-range category rather than budget, since we didn't want to forfeit air-conditioning) we arrived to find that the only room they had available was a shabby small space with two twin beds. When asked where the children would sleep, the clerk indicated they could sleep on the threadbare carpet (through which you could see the floorboards). And for this privilege, he wanted only $70US for the night!! Frustrated, we left, haggled with another cabbie, and headed for the Hilton. We figured the budget could take a hit for the night if it meant we had somewhere decent to stay. "Sorry, no rooms available," was the phrase that pushed Bram somewhere close to the edge, and Sharon took over the hotel room quest.
Off to the concierge desk, she called close to half a dozen hotels before finding a room. Another taxi dropped us, disheveled and tired, and more than a little bit grubby, in the doorway of the Conrad Hotel. $169US was the price we paid, before taxes and service charges, for the opportunity to stay on the executive floor of one of the signature luxury hotels of the Hilton chain. We quickly ate a meal (it's kind of weird ordering a main course at 1:45 am) and then dashed to our room. There the card outlining the types of pillows one could order from the 'pillow service' of the hotel was only one of the indicators that we were a long way from our usual style of digs. But we happily slipped between the Egyptian cotton cover of the down duvet and the similarly decked bed sheet, and slept like babies.
Given our 1:00 am hotel arrival, we were really not interested in loading ourselves into another taxi nine hours later when we woke the next morning. So we threw our carefully tended budget to the wind and booked in for another night. We took full advantage of all the hotel had to offer that day – pool, executive lounge with all attendant privileges, 24-hour teletoons station on TV, superlative shower, luxurious tub … it was hard to leave the next morning! But we did, relocating to a more familiar genre of hotel, that was about 75% cheaper. (No hotels are cheap in Cairo, and all of them quote rates in US dollars rather than the local currency of Egyptian pounds.)
For those of you planning a stay in Cairo make sure your hotel quotes rates inclusive of service charges and taxes. In fact, hard as it is for a Canadian to admit it, we don't pay anywhere near as much tax as foreigners do in Cairo. On the hotel bill they tack on a 10% service charge, a 12% tax, a flat fee head tax, a 2% municipal tax and a stamp tax (no idea what that is).
By the time we got to our second hotel, we'd decided to curtail our original plans for Egypt and simply 'do' Cairo. The travel times and costs to head south to Luxor and east to Mount Sinai seemed just a little insurmountable. So we headed out that afternoon to the Egyptian Museum. We'd understood it to be a 'must see,' and the guidebook said that it housed "more than 100,000 relics and antiquities from almost every period of ancient Egypt …" (Lonely Planet, Middle East)
Arriving after another haggle with another taxi driver, we climbed the stairs into a rather gloomy, overcrowded, un-air-conditioned building with 'relics' seemingly dumped into every possible nook and cranny. Any interpretive material that could be found looked like it had been typed on a 1960s Underwood manual typewriter, and it wasn't always evident which nearby piece it was referring to. The only exception in the museum was in the Tutankhamun Gallery, which was air-conditioned, well lit, and full of interpretive information. It's evident which is the most profitable touring corner of the museum.
Our last day in Cairo was spent at the pyramids in Giza. The Giza Plateau overlooks greater Cairo, and is home to some of the most amazing wonders of history. Over 5,000 years old, the three Pyramids on this plateau are the oldest, largest and most accurate stone structures ever made. They are stunning in their size and magnificence. The largest pyramid is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which stood 146.5 metres high when it was built. The Sphinx, which seems to stand guard over the three pyramids, is an awesome sight. It was carved almost entirely from a huge piece of limestone that was left after the carving of the stones for Khufu's Pyramid. The trip to the pyramids was the highlight of our time in Egypt.
Our last day in Egypt was a repeat (although on a slightly nicer bus) trip through the desolate Sinai to the border town of Taba, where we crossed by foot into Israel. As we arrived close to the Taba area, we were again struck by the high security levels and passport checks. This added to our incredulity as we watched, only ten days after being there, the tragedy of the bombings at the Hilton Hotel – we had walked right by the entrance on our way to the border.