04 November 2006

Egypt: I Went So You Don't Have To!

(Slide show is here.)

I don’t know where to begin. Our Eid Holiday was amazing, and I mean that in both good and bad ways. It began on the last night of fasting. My neighbor knocked on my door and asked me if I was ready to go. I got my purse and walked out of my apartment. He said, “That’s all you’re taking to Aqaba?” He wanted to get on a bus and head 5 hours south of Amman when none of us had eaten or had water for 12 hours. I packed my bag like I was evacuating the building because of fire. We got to the bus station, and got our tickets, and then went across the street to Domino’s Pizza (the only thing open) and got Cheesy Stix and a liter of Pepsi. Bluck. 5 hours later we were in Aqaba after a terrible and loud bus ride.

Aqaba is beautiful. It’s also freaking’ hot. My neighbor’s brother and his family have lived down there for a long time. The brother, M, works for the port authority. He’s the dude in the big tower in the Gulf that makes sure ships coming in actually have on them what their paperwork indicates they should have. Needless to say, M has a baseball cap from every country in the world, I think. I met his wife and their 4 kids. Kids ages range from 4 to 11ish. They live in a one bedroom apartment away from the tourist part of town. Aqaba is an interesting town. It’s clean and beautiful, and the people are friendly, but more and more foreign interests are moving in and I can’t see how the locals are going to sustain there. Jordan has something like 11 miles of coastline. It’s not much, and they way it’s used seems stupid to me. They’ve got a royal palace on the beach. Fair enough. Then there are a zillion nice hotels (Movenpick, etc.) that have private beach. One of the last bits of beach was sold to the Lebanese president’s daughter, or something. Thus, there is about half a mile of public shoreline in the whole country. Weird.

M had us over to their apartment for lunch two times during our stay. I have to say, that was the best food I have ever had in Jordan. This was a problem because we had this amazing food, and then went to Egypt where we had few good meals. We were spoiled. I should remind you this is a Bedouin family. We go into their apartment, take our shoes off, kiss the kids, and sit on the floor in a foyer where there is a TV, and at night this is where the kids sleep. M’s wife made so much food. She made fish and chicken and salad and hibiscus juice, and tea, and they got us some cold coke at “I’s” request. I ate two pieces of chicken, about a cup of yogurt, about a cup of salad, and probably three pounds of bread. Neither the wife nor the kids eats with us. (This is the one thing I don’t like.) Mrs. M sat in the kitchen around the corner and kept asking M to report to her how much L and I were eating. When she finally emerged from the kitchen, and looked at me, and said “Koolie, koolie,” which I have learned means “Eat all of this including the table cloth; you’re too skinny,” in Arabic. We moved into the reception room and by this time a cold had settled into my sinuses. M’s wife made me tea with Gurfa, which is cinnamon. Cinnamon in Jordan is different (and better) than what we have in the States. It’s like wood chips instead of tubes, and in tea it’s amazing. I drank all of it. Then she made me tea with thyme. It was so good. I fell asleep right on the spot. This is ok. I’ve learned, traveling with a Bedouin, that they disdain water and sleep. In fact, the first night we visited M and his family we were there until 3 am, and when one of the kids yawned, everyone made fun of her. This quickly shifted to me over the next week-point-five as I was made fun of when I was tired or thirsty. The only time it’s ok to sleep is after a meal. We went back to M’s apartment the next day for another amazing meal, and M’s wife made me so much tea. It was so good on my throat. I was sad to leave their apartment. This is a poor family, and I’m hard pressed to think of people who are more generous. M told me that when Kevin visits, we have a standing invitation to Aqaba. I really miss sitting in their apartment drinking tea and watching the family interact. The only room with furniture is the reception room, but everyone sits on the floor. Classic Bedouin.

We went on a boat ride in the Gulf. The water is like glass, I could see to the sea floor. It’s really unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The boat guy told us that after World War II ended some military vehicles were dumped off in the Gulf. Now they are habitat. You can see a tank in some of the pictures. It’s interesting to be in this part of the Middle East. From the boat we could see Egypt, Eliat (sp?), a gaudy city in Israel, Aqaba, and Saudi Arabia. The Israelis must be a bit nervous. Some Jordanian’s sent a rocket (or two) into Israel from Aqaba last year. It’s so close.

After 3 days in Aqaba we decided to try and go to Egypt. Again, this was done rather like we were evacuating from a fire. We left the hotel and took a taxi down to the port where we wanted to catch a boat to Nueibaa, Egypt. There are two options to get there. The slow boat, and the fast boat. The slow boat is the one that sank last year on its way from Saudi to Egypt. So, we got our slow boat tickets, and then we were stamped out of Jordan and let into a large parking lot that had only one mosque and one Pepsi vendor. There were about a billion people there. We were told that they were returning from Umrah (that’s going to Mecca at any time other than the Hajj). M called us and told us we were idiots for doing this. The slow boat was really delayed, possibly for a few days. We decided to just go back to Aqaba. But, wait, we were stamped out of the country, and Jordan would not let us back in until we came from another country. In other words, we were stuck there. Some people had been there 5 days already. One Palestinian woman told us she’d come from the West Bank 3 days before. Her baby was sick, and no one was going to let her out, or offer her help. “I” called M back, and M told us to walk to one person in particular and hand him our phone. We did this, and within one hour we (and the Palestinian family) were on a bus to the dock of the fast boat. We were in the port for about 4 hours total. We got on the boat and were escorted to the head of the line, and put in First Class. “I” said it was because we had American passports. That’s kinda’ gross to me. The boat ride took about an hour. During that time we got one stamp (but no visas) for Egypt, and the rep confiscated our passports and said we could pick them up at the police station after we paid our entrance fee. That made me really nervous! From the boat we walked into a parking lot the side of a football field (the standard American measurement) that was covered in luggage. Some where in there was my suitcase! Did I mention it was about 1:30 am? We still had to find where to buy visas, where to find our passports, and where TF my suitcase was. (Actually, it’s my parents suitcase!) Our priority was finding our passports. We found the popo station after an hour of asking and getting conflicting directions. We paid, and received our visas and passports. Whew. Then we spend over an hour combing through mountains of luggage until we actually found my suitcase. Honestly, I cannot think of a more retarded system that what they do there. It’s really stupid. As we tried to leave the port, the cop stopped us and wanted to know where “I” is from, and what he’s doing with two [white] Americans. This was just the beginning of our time in Egypt. We told most people that L is his wife, and I’m her sister. People were confused since we all had wedding rings.

I don’t know how to adequately describe Nueibaa to you. The port was a microcosm of the town. The place is filthy, and the people are hostile. We asked a hotel worker if we could use his restroom and he said, “buy a room, there are toilets in there.” Much to “I’s” horror, both L and I pissed in his parking lot. What a jerk! As we walked out, I said to him, “I told you I going to piss at your hotel either way!” Welcome to Egypt! Then we needed a taxi to Sharm Al Sheikh (“Sharm” means “crack,” btw). The taxi drivers surrounded us, and proceeded to tell us that we’re cheap and that we’re all liars. They literally surrounded us, and ganged up. Everyone was yelling. For the first time in the Middle East I was actually scared for my safety. There were about 8 men, and only 3 of us. Eventually we found a guy who drove us to the Sheikh’s crack. At 3 am he stopped his car in the middle of a 4 lane road and told us to “get out”. I asked if he might take us, oh, I don’t know… to a hotel? “Get out of my taxi.” We were standing on an island on a highway in a busy part of S al S. Welcome to Egypt! We eventually crossed through the traffic, and went into hotel after hotel. We were denied. We decided that “I” should go in and speak English instead of Arabic, and see if our luck changed. On our 5th hotel (and by 4am) L went in to a hotel that had just turned down “I”. She got us two rooms. When “I” and I walked in the guy behind the desk looked really upset. He had told “I” 5 minutes before that there were no rooms. “I” asked him what changed, and the guy said, “Look, you came in here speaking English, but you’re Arab, and I didn’t know what was going on!” In this guys defense, S al S is bombed every year now, and last year it was done by English-speaking Bedouin guys (such as “I”). “I” pushed it, and said, “I think you know I’m Muslim, just like I know you’re Coptic and that’s why you didn’t give me a room. You people don’t like Arabs.” The hotel guy said, “I don’t like Arabs.” Wow. The hotel was actually nice. We had little cottages that were done up in colorful mosaics, and were right on the beach. Bottom line: if you’re Coptic or white, you’re welcome in S al S. Everywhere we went the tourist police stopped us and asked “I” where he’s from, and why he’s with us. He stopped carrying his Jordanian ID and carried his American passport with him. That shuts them up! S al S is Palm Springs on the Red Sea. I didn’t care for it there. Too many Westerners. Too much bullshit.

We met a wonderful taxi driver whom we hired to take us to Cairo the next day. It’s quite a drive from S al S to Cairo. The best meal I had in Egypt was in Mt. Sinai Village. The taxi driver insisted on stopping for food. We had these wonderful pitas filled with veggies, falafel, and a dressing that had the consistency of good mustard, but it was spicy. Eventually, we drove under the Suez Canal (!) and entered Africa proper. The taxi driver showed us the paper money he keeps folded into little squares to pay bribes. We had to bribe some dude to gain access to the Canal traffic. What a country! Once at Cairo, the driver had to hand us off to a Cairo taxi. I was sad to see him go. We drove around Cairo for several hours trying to find a hotel. It was much like S al S. The people were not bashful about their hostility toward “I” and their desire for “tips”.

We ended up at a hotel in New Cairo. The next morning we went to Giza. We hired a private car, and it even had AC! The pyramids in Giza now sit right next to the squalid poverty of Eastern Cairo. We drove up to the Pyramids along side an open canal (sewer?) filled with trash and I saw three dead horses and two dead dogs right on the road. Seriously. WTF? The Pyramids were both amazing and tiring. The locals have quite a racket with pictures. Going as individuals, they descended upon us. We were told that we couldn’t take any pictures unless they said it was ok, and unless we had their camels, horses, etc. in the picture, for which there is a fee. I just wanted a picture of me standing in front of them, but I had to have this fucking camel in the picture. I told the guy I’d give him 20 if he’d just go away. But, they insist on peddling these horrific Orientalist images of Egypt. When it was said and done he said, “You can pay me what ever you want to for this.” “I will pay you nothing then.” He had a chance for a 20. He yelled at me. He told me I’m cheap, and I’m shameful. Welcome to Egypt! The Sphinx is neat. Did you know he has a tail? I didn’t know that. The one thing Egypt does right is they fence off most of their monuments, and they don’t let the guys in who sell souvenirs. From the Sphinx we could see men lined up with their arms stretched through the fence holding bags, hats, shirts, and post cards. But they couldn’t get in! My advice: the Pyramids have lost all mystery for me thanks to the Discovery Channel. Skip it, and save yourself from going to Cairo!

After that we went to the one thing in Cairo I really loved: the Cairo Castle, it’s a big mosque on a hill with a killer view of the city. I think this is the same mosque on a piece of currency, but don’t quote me on that. It was beautiful and quiet. We had trouble getting in since all the cops wanted to know who “I” is and why he was with us. American passports are good for something! The mosque was beautiful, but I was shocked that they let in the tourists, and we didn’t have to cover our hair. Toward the time of sunset the cops started yelling at “I” to stop taking pictures and for us to leave. They were questioning him, and generally being bitches. “I” took my camera and jumped over the rope to access the cliff edge and snap some killer pictures of the view. I took the picture of the city with the Pyramids in the hazy back ground, and he took the pictures of the city after that. The tourist police, as far as I can tell, make a living by being shitty to tourists. One cop cornered me, told me I’m beautiful, and tried to touch my hair! “I” said I’m not allowed to punch the men here, so I shoved the guy back and yelled for “I”. When the cop saw “I” he booked it out of there. Nice. Other than the people, I really liked it up there. I could appreciate how massive Cairo is without smelling diesel. It was beautiful!

We spent our remaining time in Cairo trying to find a decent meal. “I” asked one guy, “All the Egyptians make the best hummus in Jordan, why can’t they make good food in Egypt?” We tried to make plans to fly to Luxor, or back to Amman from Cairo. We learned the hard way that in Egypt an individual can do nothing. The only way to accomplish anything is to ask someone, and let them rip you off. Unless we were willing to pay “tips” we were going nowhere. L and I asked the hotel dude to see if we could go to Luxor, and then back to Amman. Though Luxor is an international airport, there are no direct flights (at least, not for us), so our trip took us to Luxor, back to Cairo, and then to Amman the next day. We flew to Luxor the next day.

Luxor is beautiful, and the people are wonderful. This is the only place in Egypt I would ever visit again if I had to go back. We stayed at a wonderful hotel called the Iberotel. I give them props, they were wonderful. The rooms were clean and nice, the buffet was amazing, and the folks there were helpful and friendly. The guy who cleaned my room made the bedspreads and towels into these amazing swan-origami sculptures, and made nature scenes. He even incorporated my nearly-finished knitting project into one of the scenes. My jacket made a wonderful set of wings for one swan!

We hired a taxi that took us from site to site. At the place where all the big tombs are, we argued with the ticket agent for almost ten minutes. Because “I” has a Jordanian ID, he can get into these sites for nearly free. L can as well because they are married. I have a student ID which should get me a good discount, but half the people in Luxor said my ID was not valid. “I” finally just started telling all the ticket people that L and I are both his wives. So, for many places I paid the “Arab” rate. We got our tickets, and hiked in. The walk from the ticket booth to the first tomb is about a mile, maybe a bit more. It’s hot there too. We got up there, and they allow no photography. Great! “I” talked them out of making me turn in my camera. He promised to take no photos. We went into two tombs, and they are amazing. I couldn’t stay long. They are deep into the mountains, and some were crowded; this sends me to the exit pretty quickly. We came upon the tomb for Tut, and we tried to go in. The guys there told us that we needed an extra ticket for 70 pounds to go in, and we needed to get that ticket at the gate (one mile away). There was no indication of this up until that moment. I couldn’t believe it! How fucked up! We decided to look at the other tombs and see how we felt. We tried to go in the 4th (of maybe 12) tombs, and the guy there said our tickets were good only for three, and we needed to get another ticket to see more. Again, I can’t think of a more disorganized and stupid way to do this. I was pissed. We left. I stood at the entrance to the tomb of King Tut, and never went in. Welcome to Egypt!

The temples are more agreeable. You can photograph anything, and go inside most. They are beautiful, and not as crowded. I think everyone wants to see the tombs. There are tour guides (sort of) who sit around the temples, but they don’t bug anyone. If you ask them a question, they gladly answer, but they don’t push themselves on anyone. (Were Jordan like this, it would be a perfect tourist destination.)

One night in Luxor we saw three weddings. They parade down by the water with loud drums and horns. It’s really cool. All three couples looked terrified! They were married on Halloween.

There is so much to see around the town. It’s easy to travel to by taxi, and worth seeing. I loved the food at the hotel, and we were all sad to leave Luxor. We had to fly into Cairo and spend one more night until we could return to Amman the following evening. We arrived in Cairo at 1 am, and walked to the Movenpick where L had made on-line reservations a few evening prior. They had no record of my reservation. The guy behind the desk said that there were no rooms, and looked at me. I said, “This is my last night in Egypt. I will never return. If you would please get me a room without robbing me, or fucking with me any further than your countrymen have already done so I can go home without believing this entire city is populated with thieves.” “I” started laughing. The fellow told me that there was one room, but it was an executive suite, for 140 USD. It included free internet and a better breakfast in a room reserved for the executive suite people. Fine. The room was not as nice as most Motel 6 rooms are. It smelled like mold. The AC didn’t work. The tub did not drain. I went to the business center, and was told that my room was not an executive suite, but I could purchase internet access downstairs. The next morning I went back for breakfast, and was told that my room did not merit the special breakfast, but I could purchase the buffet from downstairs. The buffet, for 130 L.E. (25 USD or so) had fruit, yogurt and coco crispies. I had the same room as “I” and L had, but for 40 dollars more. When I went to check out I told the guy he needed to take the breakfast buffet charges off of my bill, or I would going to raise my voice. I asked for a discount on the room because it sucked, and instead of answering me he began to help other patrons. I don’t think I had left my invisibility cloak on. I paid with our American Express, and I plan on disputing the charge. Shame on the Movenpick, and shame on the thieves who work there!

We schlepped our crap to the airport. We had to argue to be allowed access to the ticket counter. Again, they wanted to know where “I” is from, and why he is with us. We just all insisted that we’re a married couple with American passports. They really don’t know what to do with that! We checked in, and as I was getting my ticket a man tried to push me aside to get his ticket. I forgot to tell you that everyone in Cairo pushes! I’ve never been shoved so much in my life. I grabbed his wrists and told him I’d break them if he didn’t step back. He was shorter than I am. His wife laughed quietly. He said something rude to me in Arabic. I got my ticket, and then to passport control. Our visas were expired by one day. I went up alone, and pretended not to understand anything anyone said to me. Both L and I got through easy, but “I” was again held up. Finally, we made it through. Hours later we boarded the plane. A woman behind me tried to cut in front of me, and I blocked her. She jabbed her 10 fingers into my back to hurry me onto the plane. I offered to break her fingers for her. What is it with pushing in Egypt? I was so happy to be on the plane. We flew business class back to Amman. I sat next to a nice Jordanian man who turned to me when we landed in Amman and said, “Welcome to Jordan.” I got my luggage and we took a cab back home. No arguments; people did not gang up on us.

I have an appreciation for Jordan beyond what I ever imagined I could have for this country. I really didn’t realize how user-friendly this place is for a tourist until I went to Egypt. The people here are so kind and friendly. No one has ever asked “I” why he is traveling with two [white] women here. I don’t know why there is not more tourism here. It makes me sad; this country is so nice. No one has ever pushed me. In fact, no one has ever touched me here. The food is amazing. The driving is not so crazy! Welcome to Jordan!


Blogger Weeping Sore said...

Welcome back to Jordan! Glad to see you made it safe and sound, and relatively sane.

Reading about your adventure was scary enough for us. We can't imagine doing it ourselves. It sounds as if much of your trouble arose because you were not in an organized group tour, because your group didn't fit a typical tourist profile, and especially because you were two "white" women travelling with an Arab man. It's a bit strange to realize that stereotyping Arab men isn't unique to the West, but still....

Your pictures are terrific! I particularly enjoy the way you write about your experiences, and the colorful details and people you describe. And you're right about going there so we don't have to.

9:02 PM  
Blogger Miss Carousel said...

wait: you kissed a kid?!!?!?

12:20 AM  
Blogger spudmarine said...


1:03 AM  
Blogger kathrynzano said...

Thanks for going through that for us! After hearing about all of your troubles, particularly with "I," it makes me realize yet again that even though this country is more messed up than it ever has been in my entire life, I still feel lucky to live here. I wore my Arabic shirt to the polls today--I don't even know WHAT would happen to me if I wore it in Egypt--let alone to a political event!

9:52 AM  

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