Thursday, March 31, 2011

Happy Birthday, Candice! Our day in Aswan March 31, 2011

 Aswan Sightseeing

We went to bed very late, around 1am last night, so were glad to have a 10:30am start time. After a good breakfast, we crossed on the Movenpick ferry and met Mohammed, our guide for Upper Egypt. Khalid was there for the introductions along with a new driver.

Our first stop was the High Dam which is quite a feat of engineering and logistics. They are justifiably proud of this Dam and the benefits it has produced for Egypt (one is 30% of the country’s electricity). It displaced thousands of Nubians and would have flooded many Temples but they were relocated with help of UNESCO and foreign countries.

We went back to town over the Old Dam to tour Philae Temple. It is beautifully situated on a small island and was moved there before the Dam was built. Mohammed said it took 8 years to move it from its original perch a bit away. It is beautiful and what an introduction to the Temples of Upper Egypt! Mohammed told us about the history of the Temple and the gods involved. Very interesting but I won’t paraphrase since I’ll just get it wrong! We looked at everything and then some. Took loads of photos then boarded the boat again back to the dock.

Our next stop was the unfinished obelisk. It was massive and huge and lying in the granite. Mohammed said it would have been the tallest one had it been completed. He said there are lots of theories about how obelisks were made but no one knows for certain, obviously. It was a tough hike for me with the walking boot and it was very warm. Probably would have been ok with missing this one…

Afterwards, I was dropped off at the dock for the ferry while hubby, bro and Mohammed walked around the town a little. We had a sunset felucca trip scheduled for 4:30pm so there was not much time to relax. I went back to the room and iced my foot. When hubby and bro got back we all went up to the beautiful pool area (it is spectacular, an infinity pool overlooking the Nile, just wow!) and had a late lunch. My pizza was delish and hubby enjoyed his burger. The Sakkara Gold beer were good too!

We met Mohammed and our felucca captain and sun for our trip. It was just lovely to be on the Nile in the felucca--quiet, calm, peaceful, relaxing. I put my foot up on ice and enjoyed. Mohammed pointed out the Tombs of the Nobles, the Botanical Gardens, etc. The ride lasted about an hour and a half. The sunset was gorgeous. Lots of photos taken. The wind died down so our captain had to row for a little distance back to the dock. Loved it!

We asked Mohammed for help in shopping for galabeyas. Hubby and I definitely wanted one and bro was undecided. Mohammed led us to the souk and off we went. We heard vendors call out “just looking” “welcome to Alaska” “where are you from?” (one guy guessed every English speaking country but USA). If we answered with America we got “Obama” or “Yankee Doodle.” If they thought we were Canadian they called out “Canada Dry.” It’s never-ending and frankly exhausting just walking from one end of the souk to the other. There is no malice, it’s just a big cultural difference that takes a lot of getting used to. And we are definitely not used to it!

We were hooked by “my cousin” whose mother is from Florida. He was a charming older Galabeya seller. We led ourselves be led into his stall. He helped us decide on the items we wanted, took pictures with us, put scarves on hubby and bro and generally had fun with us. Then the negotiating began with a more serious man who spoke English with a German accent. We bargained hard and felt good with our purchases at the end. We’ll be sporting ’em at the galabiya party on the cruise ship!

We then made our way past hawkers to a tea shop and sat an had a glass of mint tea. It was a nice break and we could people watch. I was amazed at the beauty of the women and their clothes. Some were so ornate and elaborate while other women were completely covered, even their hands. I kept wondering how those ladies ate! Lots of people milling around but very few non-Arab faces.

We made our way back to the dock (felt proud of ourselves for safely crossing Aswan’s “busy” streets) and went up to the Panorama Bar to see the views and have a drink before leaving the Movenpick. The views were crazy lovely and we even saw a short burst of fireworks (for Candice’s 18th birthday, lol!). The nice bartenders gave me loads of ice for my foot.

Back in the room, packed, wrote for awhile, showered and in bed around 10pm for a 2:30am wake-up call so we can go to Abu Simbel Temple. It is by convoy only so we have to be on time (not Egyptian or Nubian time either!). Very much looking forward to seeing this Temple but not looking forward to the early wake-up time.

One more thing about the Movenpick--they have beautiful grounds, really, really gorgeous. The pool is fabulous, the outdoor dining areas are lovely. But it’s a big place and the walking on uneven cobbles is very tough for me. I’ve felt like I’ve inconvenienced the staff when I have requested golf cart rides and I don‘t know if that‘s not something they provide for guests or what (I‘ve mostly noticed one or more staffers in the carts). I asked for Dino, the manager, who I have heard great things about but unfortunately he has not been there during our stay. But this may be something they can improve upon for future “disabled” guests. I guess we were just spoiled by the outstanding attention at the Mena House Oberoi! Thanks again, Ahmed Hamed Yousif, for that incomparable experience!


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Last day in Cairo; March 30th

Old Cairo: Coptic, Islamic, Khan al-Khalili Bazaar

After we got back to the lovely Mena House Oberoi yesterday, we decided to check out the pool. Hubby and bro went in and said it was great. I laid on a comfy chair and napped. It was brilliant! At sunset the pool closed so after we took some sunset pictures, we retreated to the rooms to change for dinner.

We decided on the Moghul Room for dinner. It is reputed to be one of the best Indian restaurants in Egypt and the world. We sat down at 9pm and were very impressed with the d├ęcor of the restaurant, the attentiveness of the staff, and the delicious food. We had a great dinner but ordered too much food, and then ate it up since it was all so good. We may return on our last night in Cairo!

We slept well and had a 10am meeting time with Ahmed Hamed Yousif for our last day’s tour in Cairo. He was on-time as always and had 50LE worth of change for us (as requested since we had to give too much in baksheesh at the bathrooms the previous day). Those 1LE coins are hard to come by and disappear very quickly. We checked out of the hotel with no problems and then were off for our day.

Let me say again how much we all enjoyed the Mena House Oberoi. Our rooms were lovely (big, modern, clean, comfortable, well appointed); the views were to die for (I mean, seriously, I could see the pyramids from the bed!); we enjoyed the gorgeous flower arrangement and delicious celebratory cake to welcome us; and the staff were unfailingly friendly and helpful. Each morning my golf cart ride was waiting before we even called. We probably thanked Ahmed Hamed Yousif 1,000 times for the upgrade and really mean it. It was a wonderful way to start out trip!

Moghul Room dinner

Moghul Room dinner--delicious!

On our balcony

Bye, bye room #334

Loved my flowers

View of the pyramids from the Ring Road
 First stop on today’s tour was Coptic Cairo. We walked through the old street, took pictures of the old doors, and toured Sts. Simeon and Bacchus church. It is, per Ahmed, the oldest Christian Church in Egypt and the holy family hid in the crypt on their travels. The crypt was closed for restoration, though.
Then we went to Ben Ezra synagogue, the oldest Jewish temple in Egypt. Recently restored and resplendent. In this area we also heeded the sounds of mass and stood in St. Barpara for a little while. I love the smell of the incense used in churches. When we left the church we could hear the call to prayer as well as the mass and it was very harmonic together. Ahmed has pointed out that mosques and churches are built next to each other in symbolism of friendship and acceptance. The Metro station in this area had a neat symbol of two hands joined which he said is another symbol of this tolerance and acceptance and coexistence.

Afterwards we walked past the old castle on the left and new metro station on the left to the Hanging Church. It is really beautiful. We took lots of photos. We then walked back down the hill to peek in St. George’s Cemetery--above ground tombs like in NOLA. I noticed a car parked and covered under a tree on a small road in the cemetery--the entrance to the small area was nowhere to be seen. I figured the car was a Mercedes or BMW but it was a Chevy! Such an amazingly well protected parking spot for such a modest car. Ahmed said no one had checked for the model of the car before me--so now we all know!

Oldest Street

Beautiful Old Doors

The Hanging Church


Chevy's perfect parking spot

Symbol of coexistence and friendship
We drove a short ways to the Amro Mosque. Ahmed Hamed Yousif said it’s the oldest in Egypt and that it is still in use today, unlike Ibn Toulon mosque which is more of a tourist site. I was allowed to wear my boot, nice that. We walked around the large mosque and took pictures. It was very peaceful.

 We then drove through the busy streets (Tamer doing a great job) and could see daily life in Cairo. The streets were busy with all kinds of people, animals, cars, motorbikes, everything you can imagine. It was great! We passed a souk--all kinds of merchandise and foods : we were all impressed with the beautiful displays of fruit in particular. We arrived after awhile to Ibn Toulon mosque and toured it. Sincerely a little bit of a let down after Amro mosque. But its minaret is on the 5LE note so it was nice to see it in person. Hubby and bro decided against the climbing the tower--legs still not recovered from the Red pyramid tomb raid yesterday!

I was very disappointed to see that the Gayer Anderson Museum was closed. We have really enjoyed visiting museums that were former homes with the furniture and art and collections of the time they lived there in other on other trips but no luck in Cairo. Cant win ‘em all, right?

With Ahmed at Ibn Toulon Mosque

The minaret is on the 5LE note

 From here we made our very, very slow way to Tahrir Square. Traffic was atrocious--it took forever to get there. I had requested this be included and do not regret seeing in person the place we saw on TV for those 18 days. It was empty of tents and protesters but still had a few hardy vendors selling Egyptian themed items. It’s really a traffic circle, kind of like Place de la Concorde in Paris, that connects several different streets. We got pictures and a video, particularly of the pink Egyptian Museum with the burned our National Party Headquarters in the background. Ahmed Hamed Yousif said he and his friends were some of the many Cairenes who protected the museum during the troubles.

Tahrir Square:  Egyptian Museum and National Party Headquarters in background

No one camped out; flowers waiting to be planted.  Terrible traffic

Curious girls as we arrived at Khan al-Khalili bazaar

Some of the wares for sale

The streets were teeming with people

We had our first Egyptian “fast food” al Felfella since we were running out of time due to the terrible traffic: shwarma chicken sandwiches, delicious! We arrived at Khan al-Khalili bazaar and it was teeming with people. Ahmed pointed Al-Azhar mosque but we choose not to enter. We noticed lots of people in galabeyas and Ahmed said many from the countryside had come in to the Hussein mosque for a celebration of the birth of Mohammed’s grandson (I think). It was a very interesting scene.

Khan al-Khalili was as we expected--busy, lots of vendors asking for attention, close quarters, colorful and fun. We made a beeline for Guzlan and ordered cartouche pendants for our girl friends and stuff for ourselves. We left Guzlan and got hooked by a Christmas ornament seller and bargained for some cute ones with Ahmed’s help and supervision. We then had mint tea at El Fishawy which was delicious and scenic. Hubby got his shoes shined (the young man wanted to take the shoes away to shine them but we were all reluctant at that. Ahmed suggested he take only one at a time and made us all laugh and produced a good result).

I requested a bathroom break and our excellent guide lead us to the “one 5 star toilet” in the market (Oberoi tea room). Another props for Ahmed Hamed Yousif! We then made our way to the square where our driver met us for our ride to the airport and flight to Aswan. We had a little time to wait and I realized I misplaced my sunglasses. The last time I remembered having them was at tea. But we figured one of the cute little girls who were milling around playing with my hair picked them up and went off with them.

No big deal as they were only $5; easily replaceable. But Ahmed wasn’t satisfied and ran back to El Fishawy to check. Alas, the sunglasses were not there (found ‘em later in a shopping bag) but he wanted to do everything he could to make sure we had a good time.

Our drive to the airport was interesting. So many near misses! Mohamed and Mo(hamed) met us along the way to ensure a smooth check-in. The flight was on time and very easy. We were met at the airport by Khalid who escorted us to the Movenpick Aswan.

Khalid did a good introduction to Aswan and smoothed our check-in. Unfortunately the only room with a king sized bed, with a lovely Nile view was not suitable for my ears. The AC had a high pitched whine that gave me a headache. We switched rooms a couple of times and it’s better AC whine-wise but has two double beds. Just for two nights so no biggie. The room is clean and large and very beautifully located on an island. The staff are nice but not like the excellently attentive group at Mena House. Very long and tiring day so off to sleep with a 10:30am meeting time with our guide for the next few days, Mohammed.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

More Pyramids!

 Dahshur, Saqqara

After a really great night’s sleep (our room was cool, comfortable and quiet with the windows open), we had breakfast then we met by Ahmed Hamed Yousif at 9am for our day’s tour in the countryside. Our excellent driver again was Tamer. I’ve been very well pleased with the staff at the Mena House Oberoi--all very friendly, nice and accommodating. Each morning there is someone in a golf cart waiting to drive me to the main lobby for breakfast--I’ve never prearranged that but every morning so far one of the carts has been waiting. Really super nice.

About the breakfasts--buffet style with tons of selections including pastries with homemade jams (guava!, strawberry), cereals, yoghurts and fruit, meats, hot cooked eggs, sausages, fuul, falafels, etc., etc. The hibiscus juice is delicious and the coffee is strong. We fill up to a lovely view of the pyramids. What more can you ask?

Khan al-Khalili Restaurant: breakfast with the pyramids!

Main lobby of Mena House, Oberoi

One of the drivers who kindly schlepped me to/from my room to main lobby 

Today the plan is to visit Dahshur and Saqqara where pyramid building began. The drive from the hotel to Dahshur takes you through the countryside. We drove along canals and saw lots of activity--people going about their daily lives. The canals were unfortunately very littered and I noticed people drawing water out of them--it didn’t look suitable for drinking so I hope they were just wetting down the road to keep the dust out… I also noticed some dead animals in the canals which was upsetting. I am trying to remember to just accept what I’m seeing without judgment but it’s hard when it comes to animals.

Donkeys are common forms of transportation

Dahshur is home of the Bent Pyramid--they started it at an unsustainable angle so changed course and completed it at another. Looks bent or broken, hence the name. Dahshur is also home of the Red Pyramid so called because of the granite that covered it long ago (iirc from Ahmed’s discussion). We were the only tourists around so hubby and bro ventured into the tomb. I didn’t because of the ankle--there’s no way I would have made it. Hubby was a little nervous and turned back once before he was convinced to go on. He said it was worth it but didn’t need to do another.

Us and the Bent Pyramid

Red Pyramid

Hiking up to the entrance of the Red Pyramid

Bro inside Red Pyramid

Hubby inside Red Pyramid

Hubby and pyramid guardian

It's huge!  No one around.

 We lingered a little while, about 8 other tourists showed up, the guys walked around the side of the pyramid while I read a little and enjoyed the amazingly gorgeous weather. We then met back up with Ahmed and Tamer to go to Saqqara, home of the Step Pyramid, the first pyramid that was built in the Old Kingdom. It is under restoration so lots of scafolding around it and men banging on stuff. We also toured the site which consists of ruins of tombs of Kings and their family members. Ahmed helped bring the site to life but there’s really not a whole lot there right now.

We wandered to a higher spot for a panoramic view and could see the pyramids at Giza way off in the hazy distance, the pyramids at Abu Sir (per Ahmed still closed to tourists), the pyramids at Dahshur and of course the Step pyramid right there. We could make out a number of smaller pyramids, Ahmed said there are 110 total. Hubby decided he wanted a photo with a camel and the Step pyramid and the ensuing negotiation resulted in both of us getting on camels, posing for pictures (the camels “kissed”), then getting a short little ride before getting off. The camel guys were very nice and had fun with us--Ahmed Hamed Yousif made sure we didn’t pay too much for this little adventure and they seemed to respect that we bargained. It was fun! I really like the camels! Egyptians are really very nice people and seem to want tourists to have a good time. We are getting a lot of “We love Obama” when we tell them we’re from the USA. Nice to not have anti-americanism…

Hubby and me on camels at the Step Pyramid!

After another wander on our own, we were treated to our first tour by a tourist policeman. He showed us some statues and “the feet” around the back of the site. He then directed us out by the half columms. No picture though, he said, since he is police. Hubby then bargained with “Mustafa” for postcards and a souvenir book. We are all getting better at it. We then drove back to the Imhotep Museum and toured that on our own. It is really well done and the antiquities are lovely. The displays are in four languages and it’s well worth the time.

Tourist Police
"The feet"

The very worthwhile Imhotep Museum

It was now around 2pm so time for lunch. The drive to Sakkara Restaurant was about half an hour. We noticed some guys around a silver refrigerator looking thing on the side of the road with a couple of spigots. Ahmed said that was for water for the poor of the community and a way of helping out. This lead to an interesting discussion of the importance of helping those in need in muslim culture/religion. Ahmed said there’s not a lot of homelessness because someone helps out those who can’t help themselves.

Bread lady at Sakkara Restaurant; delicious.

We had a delicious lunch at Sakkara Restaurant. I had the roasted chicken, hubby had mixed chicken and meat and bro had meat. Along with the appetizers, it was great. The bread was fresh out of the oven. Everything was delicious. I am loving the food so far--and you guys know that I’m pretty picky. Afterwards we decided against any shopping (only interested in jewelry) and instead headed back to our beautiful hotel to spend a little while at the gorgeous pool. It was so nice to nap, with an ice bag on my ankle, in the sun, while hubby and bro enjoyed the pool. We watched the sunset and headed back to the room for showers before dinner.

At the pool
Gorgeous sunset

Tomorrow we’ll check out of the Mena House Oberoi--sadly, no more pyramid views from the bed--and tour Old Cairo (Coptic and Islamic) and the Bazaar before getting on the plane for Aswan. We’ll be in Upper Egypt for the rest of our trip--no more pyramids instead we’ll be seeing elaborate tombs. So far/so great! Ahmed Hamed Yousif has already made us super happy and he promises the same for the rest of our time!