Sunday, June 10, 2012

Photos: Egyptian traffic

i saw a wide range of traffic conditions in my time in Egypt. i stayed in Giza, and traveled through Cairo, Saqaara, Memphis and Dashur. These are some of the pics i snapped to try to show what it was like. i had several drivers, but Sharif was by far the best. You should definitely look him up (info in that link) if you are going to be traveling there.

On the road to Saqqara.
 That kid had just jumped out of one truck back at the intersection and then hitched a ride with this other one, climbing up onto the bumper when it slowed down, and then climbing all the way in at another light.

Tahir Square

Tahir Square was the site of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak from power. It is right near the Egyptian Museum, so we drove right by it. It was closed off to traffic and there were some people and lots of vendors around. i met some people who were staying in a hotel on the square and they said it was loud and crowded at night but they hadn't had any problems.

Cairo traffic
 This is what it was like most of the time in Cairo, stopped or crawling traffic. i asked the driver if he got tired of the traffic being so bad and he said this was a good day!

Highway ends in a ditch, outside Giza.
If that looks like 4 lanes of traffic coming towards us, that's because it is. We were crusing along at about 50miles per hour when Sharif had to slam on the brakes because the road construction crew had dug a 3foot-deep, 1foot wide ditch all the way across the street!! There was no sign or anything! So he had to turn around and drive back like 500yards and do a u-turn on to the other side of the divider!

Saqaara Road.

Pyramid Road, Giza.
 That's The Great Pyramid of Giza on the left and The Pyramid of Khufu on the right. Big intersections being controlled by armed traffic cops were nice, but rare.

Giza village street.
 This is the street where Sharif lived. The smallish car seemed huge in these crowded streets. Luckily, there were very few other cars. The bigger traffic problems here were store merchandise in the streets, children playing, and camels!!

"Fucking camel!" 
That's what Sharif said at this moment, with a smile. After he got to know me, he loved to say "Fucking," it really amused him.

Saqaara traffic (or at least i think that's where it was)
 So much heavy traffic! It reminded me of India, though it was not actually THAT chaotic, just almost. The way it worked was, everybody just drove wherever they wanted, and everyone else would shift to help them make it happen. BUT, as soon as anyone else made their move, everyone would shift to letting THEM go, including the other person who had just gone. It seemed to work out remarkably well actually.

Dashur village road

This narrow thing is a two way street. We were coming up behind the lady not too slowly, and the on coming car has just skidded to slow down. i happened to catch it in a moment when he was flashing his lights, indicating that we should all get out of his way!
Egyptian gas price.
i struggled pretty hard figuring out how to do all the math to convert this from liters to gallons and from Egyptian pounds into American dollars. i'd be glad if someone would check it for me, because if i did it right, they're paying $.56 per gallon of Unleaded gas!! Just 56cents!

Egyptian traffic.
We came up behind this truck going a lot faster than it was, so we crossed out into the other lane to pass, which is when we found this three-wheeled tut coming towards as at like 25mph. The craziest thing is, we went left and the tut passed BETWEEN us and and that trucking thundering next to us!!

Pyarmid Road, Giza
The road outside my hotel in Giza was full of fast-moving traffic probably 18hours per day. It was hard to get a night shot to come out, but on the right you can see people jumping out of that van. They would just slow down and let people on or off whenever and where ever they felt like. Caused chaos, drove my drivers batty.

Downtown Cairo at dawn.

My flight out left at 9.30am, so to get there two hours early we had to leave the hotel at 6.30am. In a completely un-Cairo-like way, the streets were empty and we drove straight through downtown to get there.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Meditating & chanting OM in The Great Pyramid of Cheops, in Giza, Egypt :-)

The Great Pyramid of Cheops, Giza, Egypt.
The modern entrance is where you see people about 6steps up on the lower left.

"i am writing this from inside The Great Pyramid of Cheops. When i arrived to the King's tomb chamber, there were two cute Asian girls here. We smiled and waved hello and said hi in our non-corresponding languages and they giggled and covered their mouths. Then i sat to meditate and they sat too. Eventually i heard them get up to leave. Soon i realized i'd finally stopped sweating. i was by myself IN The Great Pyramid!! Now a pair of Spanish-speaking guys have arrived. The effect of the echo here is unbelievable. When i was by myself i got a little scared of the noise coming. Sounded like war was breaking out or the pyramid was crumbling or something! It was just these two guys climbing up the crazy, narrow, steep passage to get here. The echo is so intense and loud and long!!"

That is one entry from my journal from this trip. Later, another one:

"After i wrote that, those two guys left and i was alone again. i began to chant om. First, just once, shyly. But then three times, more confidently.. and it was amazing. It was as if an entire chorus joined in with me! Truly amazing. i chanted then for a long time, repeating OM (AUM) over and over, long and deep and meditatively. Finally i stopped, waited for my voice to finally stop reverberating and opened my eyes. i felt fantastic, my vision felt unusually sharp. i was energized and happy."

Which is good, because then i had to climb back down and out into the desert, where my government-licensed non-fluent tour guide was waiting.

Thank you for that, Cheops - i hope your pyramid and your funeral chamber have and is giving you what you hope. It certainly gave me something wonderful that day:-)

Exiting The Great Pyramid of Cheops, in Giza, Egypt, feeling good and happy:-)

Excellent car and driver services for Giza/Cairo/Dashur/Saqaara/Memphis, Egypt

Sharif, sharing lunch with me. Contact him on his Egyptian cell phone: 011.4501.4803, country code (0020)
i found Horizon Pyramids Hotel by searching for cheap hotels in Giza on TripAdvisor. i knew i wanted to stay near the pyramids and that i didn't want to spend a lot of money.

The hotel turned out to be okay and modern to European standards. And the neighborhood it was in is a bustling, commercial area where i found good food, both local and foreign, and great deals on American, Italian and Egyptian clothes and shoes.

But the real treat were the tour services subcontracted by the hotel to an agency called Golden Pyramid. Being a tour guide in Rome, and having some Egyptian friends, i was given a recommendation of a tour guide for Giza and Cairo to contact when i arrived. That tour guide wanted $90 for a full day of touring, and he wasn't even going to do it himself, he would pass the tour to a colleague.

The guys at Golden Pyramid offered the same tour (Great Pyramid, Sphinx and other Giza pyramids, Saqaara pyramids and Memphis Museum with car, driver and guide) for $40!.

So i tried it out and got what i expected: a government-licensed guide who could recite facts and figures, tell me how beautiful everything is and made every attempt to get me to the correct shops and camel drivers, but could not answer any questions because her English was not good enough to understand them (about the same as it works in Rome with the official guides.)

But then i met Sharif. He was one of the drivers for Golden Pyramid. He drove me to the (excellent and wonderful) Giza Light and Sound Show at the site of the Sphinx. i found that his English was conversational and i quickly felt like i was chatting with a friend.

On the drive home we arranged to get the agency's car again the next day to tour with him, without a guide - his English was better and he was far more interesting.

We met at lunch time and went directly to have a hardy Egyptian lunch of camel liver and camel heart cooked in a sauce of oil, tomatoes, peppers and spices at a very local lunch spot. It was delicious. We ate family style from the same dish, using surprisingly tasty, fresh chunks of unleavened bread to scoop up the meat and veggies. "No tourists has ever eaten camel meat with me before," he told me.

"i will write about it on the internet, and others will ask for it, inshallah," i said.

"Inshallah," he said with a boyish grin. ("Inshallah" is a common Arabic expression meaning, "God willing.")

Then we drove back past the pyramids of Giza to Saqaara road where Saqaara and Memphis, having not gotten my fill of these places with the shoddy tour guide a couple days earlier. Then to Dashur, where Sharif has a flat. He introduced me to some of his family there in their home. And he had a friend who took me walking out past where the town ends, right into the Sahara desert, to get an amazing view of four big pyramids, countless smaller ones, and the 7,000 year old tombs of the soldiers of an ancient Egyptian king right there beneath our feet.

Sharif and i bonded over our common work background and became good friends. Several times we sat together to drink tea or smoke flavored tobacco through houka water pipes. In Giza, he brought me to his home to met his wife and 3 year old son.

i know he does not make such a close and personal connection to all clients, but i do highly recommend his professional services to anyone visiting this region. Having met many guides, drivers and tourism professionals there, he was the most respectful, fluent, happy and interesting among them. He does not read English (Arabic has a whole other alphabet) and i don't think the agency has a web site, but you can reach Sharif directly by phone at 011.4501.4803 on his Egyptian cell phone.

The car he drives belongs to the agency, so you will still end up working through them. Prices varied based on...i don't know which variable, but i found having the car for a full day ran between $40 and $50. Then the drivers work just for tips. For our first full day together i gave Sharif $20 and he seemed pretty happy with that.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Photos: Food in Egypt: camel meat, koshari, Om Ali, fast food, etc.

Breakfast in my hotel the first morning. This cost me 50 Egyptian Pounds (at this point there is about $8 or 6Euro to the Egyptian Pound.) It was an okay breakfast, but terrible price, and i did not make this mistake again.

Koshari (Koshary, i've seen several spellings.)
Before going to Egypt several of my friends recommended i eat this. They were so right! It is an awesome, healthy meal of pasta, rice, lentils, some sort of crunchy fried leaves and tomato sauce. Delicious, and super cheap: this plate cost me 5Egyptian pound, less than $1, and it made me very full for many hours!:-)

A new friend there in Giza recommended me this particular Koshari shop. As you can see, it was quite a local place!
 i ate here several times and had a good experience each time!:-)

Egyptian beer.
i found the Egyptian beers to be available nearly everywhere. It's fairly low quality stuff (think PBR or Schlitz), but sometimes that's exactly what one needs after a day in the Sahara desert!:-)
Egyptian fast food rip off at Hardees.
My Egyptian tour guide, in an attempt to be helpful, informed me that the meals in my hotel were too expensive. She suggested i walk down the road to where there was a McDonalds and a KFC. These places did seem always busy, and they actually provided home delivery, as you can see here below. On my final day in Giza i got curious about how expensive this fast food was compared to local stuff. i couldn't bring myself to go to those monstrosities, so i told myself Hardees was a step up. This meal cost 30Egyptian Pounds, or 6 times as much as the delicious, healthy koshari i got at the local place. Curiosity satisfied, i won't be back there again!
McDelivery in Giza, Egypt. Blah.
Om Ali.
 i ordered this Om Ali from the dessert menu of the hotel room service menu not knowing what it was. Turned out to be delicious! It was a warm, creamy soup with raisins, almonds, coconut, and i don't know what else in it! Fantastic!:-)
Cold oatmeal with walnuts and apple in the Cairo airport.
 My flight back to Rome left at 9.30am, so i was out of the hotel by 6.30am - no time for breakfast. So i was thrilled in the airport to find such fresh, whole, delicious breakfast food for something like $2!
Vegetarian lunch on EgyptAir.
i long ago learned that ordering the vegetarian meal on flights a) usually gets your meal to you sooner than the others and b) eliminates the decision between mystery meat and dried out chicken. i was pretty thrilled with this meal, it was all fresh and delicious:-)
Roadside stand in Giza for camel meat.
While giving me a ride to The Light and Sound Show in Giza, my driver Sharif mentioned that many Egyptians eat camel meat. i immediately responded, "We have to do that. Some place not-touristy. Tomorrow." This is the place he took me to.
Camel liver being prepared in Giza, Egypt.
Turns out that by "camel meat" he meant the liver and heart of the camel. Here is the man of the shop preparing camel liver for me to eat!

Preparing Egyptian camel liver and camel heart.
So we get to this shop not too far from the tour entrance to the Great Pyramid, on a road leading out of town. The guy in white runs the place, and he's got a barrel of hearts and livers there next to him. He and the young boy prepare a sauce of oil, tomato, peppers and spices and saute the meat in that.

Camel liver and camel heart sauteed in oil based tomatoe sauce with Egyptian spices, in Giza.
i was amazed by how tender the liver especially was. It was really heavy and gamey, the taste was strong and good. And the sauce was fantastic. The heart meat was a bit more chewey and had some difficult pieces of fat stuck to it, but i ate that too and it was pretty good. i paid 50 Egyptian pounds, or about $15 for more than the two of us could eat - and i'll do it again every time i get back to Egypt!:-)
Eating camel heart and camel liver family style!
Here is my driver and new friend Sharif digging into our lunch of sauteed camel organs! It was actually really good! As you see, we ate it by scooping up the meat and veggies in chunks of that surprisingly fresh and tasty unleavened bread.

Sharif has been a tour driver his entire adult life, but told me that no tourist had ever eaten camel meat with him before. i told him i wasn't surprised. But then, after i thought about it, i wondered if i put this on the internet if more people might call him interested in doing exactly that on their Egyptian vacation to Giza or Cairo. Interested? Give him a call, his Egyptian cell phone number is: 011.4501.4803.
Egyptian tea.
And then there is the omnipresent tea. In Egypt, it seemed anytime you go anywhere, do anything, or meet anyone, most likely someone is going to offer you tea. i made habit of always accepting. What they called "Egyptian tea" was quite strong and bitter in taste, but sugar helped in the fresh mint in this case was ideal. Sometimes there were lighter, flavored teas, but i preferred the local strong stuff most of the time:-)

All photos by the author.

Ghastly Nile River cruise entertainment

Nile River cruise boat

i paid $40 to a hotel-based travel agency to go on a Nile River dinner cruise. This is exorbitantly expensive in a place where local meals cost about $1 and full-day guided tours with car and driver cost just $40 as well. The selling points, they described, was a big meal and 4 types of entertainment: Arabic music, English music, Whirling Dervishes and a belly dancer.

Well, the meal turned out to be pretty good - reminded me of a high quality wedding banquet. But the entertainment was horrendous:

The Arabic music was sung by a college-aged kid in street clothes. i don't know anything about this music, maybe he was a savant, i have no idea.

The English music turned out to be a middle-aged chubby guy with a comb-over literally doing skaraoke to Santana songs.

Then the Whirling Dervishes. These performances are constantly promoted wherever the Arabian world gets tourists. The Dervishes are men that wear fancy costumes and long flowing skirts that twirl around and around in the pursuit of spiritual ecstasy, as taught by the Sufi mystic Rumi. From what i'd seen in photos, they perform this in large groups for audiences. On the cruise, however, there were just two of them. One Dervish was the Egyptian version of Cam from Modern Family.
The other one was a mongoloid midget (no joke.) (He danced/whirled precisely as well as you'd imagine he would.)

Somehow, in hindsight, i'm glad that photos were not allowed.

The captain (sorta) at the wheel, seen from the front of the boat.
At this point i realized that i did not have to sit there and subject myself to this. The boat had a roof deck so i went up stairs to the open-air deck, went to the front of the boat and had a really great, silent time, just being aware that i was floating on the Nile. But after a good amount of time, a couple of couples each wandered into my space. And i got curious about the belly dancer.

i went back downstairs into that crowd of mostly Arabian and, for some reason, Indian people and found a fat old lady belly dancing on the dance floor, and i thought, "THAT is their idea of a belly dancer?!?" But then i realized that was just a random old Arabian lady gettin' down. The busty, not-quite-Egyptian-looking belly dancer was shoving bald guys' heads between her nearly bare boobs while a staff photographer snapped pictures.

Realizing she was working the room, and anticipating the pushy sales pitch to buy the photos that would surely follow, i bounced and went back up stairs. At that point i realized the silence of the Nile was better than anything that could possibly be happening in the cruise entertainment!

The view of Cairo from the Nile greatly surprised me for how modern it appeared. There was a lot of boat traffic, but it was basically peaceful and beautiful and worth the trip for that.

Nile River Cruise view of Cairo.
All photos by the author.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Photos: Light & Sound Show, Giza, Egypt. Pyramids, Sphinx! A must see!

Light and Sound Show, Giza, Egypt

With just three days in Egypt, i did not have time to do everything i would have liked to. But i am incredibly glad that i did go to The Light and Sound Show at the Sphinx, in Giza. They have lights and lasers rigged and a sound system that tells the story of these three major pyramids (there's a fourth one visible too, in front of The Great Pyramid on the right) and the Sphinx in more detail and with more interesting story than my Government endorsed official tour guide. i literally learned more from the show than from the tour!

Light and Sound Show, Giza, Egypt
i was visiting in early June, 2012, between their first Presidential election and the resulting run-off, that comes up later this month. As you see, it is a great time to visit - there was very little tourists crowds anywhere!

Light and Sound Show, Giza, Egypt
Though this event is definitely a must-see, one of my favorite experiences of the 3-day trip, it was also exceptionally difficult to photograph clearly! They do the show in many languages in rotation, but it doesn't matter because they give you a little radio with headphones to listen to the presentation in the language of your choice.

Light and Sound Show, Giza, Egypt
i thought it was going to be really cheesy. i cannot stress how much it is not. It is remarkably well done, educational and interesting!

Light and Sound Show, Giza, Egypt
You can see green lasers creating some image right there on the The Great Pyramid of Cheops!

Light and Sound Show, Giza, Egypt
Here they reenact a conversation between an Egyptian Pharaoh and his wife.

Definitely check this out on any trip to Cairo. The entrance is at the site of the Sphinx, it cost just 100 Egyptian Pounds, which right now is something like 12euros or $14 or so. 

Need a ride? Call Sharif at  phone number 011.4501.4803. 
i had several cars and drivers during my time there, and was by far the most polite, 
fluent, and on-top-of-things driver that i had!:-)

All photos by author.

Egyptians on Egyptian politics (and hope in America)

My taxi driver from the Cairo Airport to my hotel in Giza (a $25 ride), told me that before The Revolution (the Egyptian part of the Arab Spring in 2011), tourism was very good. There was a constant flow of visitors, they all thought he did a good job and they would return to him for more than one day, he said.

So i asked him if things are better for the country now, after the Revolution, which chased former president/dictator Hosni Mubarak from power. He quickly and emphatically answered yes. "But now are just waiting for a good President," he said. "If the Brotherhood gets it, forget about it. Forget about Egypt as a country.
Election ads (for Mohamed Morsi on lower
right) covered over by gym fitness ads
in Giza, Egypt. Photo by author.
At the moment i am here in Egypt, (early June, 2012), Egypt has held a first round of elections to choose the first President after Mubarak. They have narrowed it down to two front runners: Ahmed Shafik, the final Prime Minister under Mubarak, he is seen as the Old Guard's choice; and Mohamed Morsi, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, he was their 2nd choice candidate after their first choice broke off and ran on his own. (Good background on the politics of this election can be found in this article from The Economist and in this one from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.)

George, my taxi driver, was very upset about Morsi and the Brotherhood because they were bad for his business. Morsi went on TV before the first set of elections a couple of weeks ago, George said, and announced that if he wins, there will be no more tourists in Egypt.

"Why would he do that?" i asked. "They bring revenue and money is money, right?"

"Yes," George said, "but the extremists among the Brotherhood see tourists at Sharm Al Sheikh in shorts and bikinis and think it is inappropriate in their country." (Morsi may well have said that, i'm taking it just from George. But Morsi also came out right after the first round of elections had narrowed the field down to just two and said that he would work together with the Revolutionary <ie, anti-Mubarak, pro-democracy, relatively liberal> parties, as quoted in the Carnegie article here above.)

In fact, every single Egyptian i spoke to about politics said they were hoping against the Muslim Brotherhood candidate. i realized however that, not speaking Arabic, i was able to communicate with only a small portion of the people in Egypt, and those that would support the Brotherhood are specifically less likely to be learning a foreign language to talk to visitors in.

George was very glad to be working with an American visitor. It was his dream to move to the United States, he told me. i ask him why and said that he had a University degree but could not find a job, so he is just a driver. In America, he said, he'd be able to get any job he wanted.

This photo from The Vulgar Eye shows an Occupy Wall Street Movement
protester expressing the same sentiment expressed throughout
the Arab Spring. 
i told him that there is a lot of unemployment in the States and that many people with degrees there can get either no job, or nothing in their degree field, just like him. i told him that it was such a big problem that massive protests were being held in New York City, the Occupy Wall Street movement. He said he had never heard of this (and i thought of the Districts in the Hunger Games not being allowed contact with each other. i wish i would have found out what George would have said if i told him that the Revolutionary protests in Egypt and around Arabia had inspired similarly themed protests in the United States, Israel, and other parts of the world!)

But, in the States, he said, "if I am poor and cannot work, the government will take care of me."

At the time i just told him that it certainly isn't that simple, that the American government can sure not be depended on by everyone who needs it. By wonderful coincidence, the hotel TV that night ran a CNN story about many people who have been on unemployment and still not finding jobs getting their benefits cut soon.

Then, checking in at the hotel, i asked the receptionist (an Egyptian woman about my age wearing no headdress) how she was doing. She seemed surprised by the question but just said, "Good thanks." Then, tapping away at her console she said, "Not so good actually." i asked her why and she said, "The political situation in Egypt is not good.

i asked her if there was new news today, causing her eyes to jump to the TV behind her showing solid throngs of protesters filling Tahir Square. i had already the headlines in English newspapers: "Hosni Mubarak sentenced to life in prison." But i was not expecting her reaction:

"Only 25years prison for Mubarak. And only 25years for his assistant. His two sons and other staff, all free. It is the corruption in Egypt, it continues." Turns out, the said, that most of the protesters that night were out because what they saw as the light handling of the official aggressiveness against protesters during the Revolution the year before.

She looked genuinely sad and dejected as she wished me a good stay and goodnight.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Italian politics by a Roman taxi driver

Roman street art.
A few days ago i did a Rome-in-a-Day tour for a nice couple from northern Florida. Colosseum, Vatican, downtown highlights: bam bam bam. While in a cab between sites, the man of the couple asked me about the situation in Italian politics. i could certainly tell him what i thought, if he'd like, but instead i suggested we ask the cab driver what he thought and the client agreed.

So, acting as a translator i asked the driver what he thought of the current situation in Italian politics. And he showed his middle finger.

After asking him if he minded if i translate the conversation, i did so and they cracked up when i said he had shown his middle finger (they were in the back of the cab and couldn't see.) The driver got a kick out of that and offered to explain.

He said the current Prime Minister, Mario Monti, was putting Italy deeper into the European situation, and he didn't like that. He is too involved with Merkel, the driver said, referring to the Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany.

Plus, he said, Monti was not democratically elected. He made it clear he did not want to be misunderstood - he was glad Berlusconi gone. He said he had overheard me mentioning already in English that Berlusconi was famous for scandals and gaffs and was glad i knew to say that, because everyone was glad he is gone, he said

But it should have been done by the people of Italy, he said. He then expressed a view i've heard widely expressed here, though usually without so much rancor: the Italian parliament had been pressured by the international banks to put Monti in power to sure up the Italian economy, so it would not end up with the potentially divisive problems coming out of Greece.

But you know what the problem is with Monti?, the driver asked me. Goldman Sachs, he said.

i asked him what he meant and he said that it was clear the banks had created the global economic crises we are all going through, and now Italy has put the banks at the head of the government.

"That's a good point," said the American guy, when i'd translated all this.

"But, what about Greece?" he asked. "Will there by the violence and revolts in Italy like there was there?"

No, the driver said. Italy is not such a poor country as Greece is. They feel real poverty. In Italy, some people are annoyed, some are even fed up he said, but the people are still eating. Nobody makes rebellion while they are eating well, he said.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...