A Travellerspoint blog

Alexandria and Cairo

Pigs in Spaaaaaaace.... Well, not quite.

sunny 28 °C
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We arrive in Alexandria feeling a bit run-over… tired from a long 8-hour journey in a bus, still more than a little dodgy from our run-in with food poisoning (we came to the conclusion it was the tinned tuna our drivers served us), and feeling like we’ve just walked out of the desert after 5 or 6 days of dust and heat.

Right from the get-go however, Alex (as the locals like to call it), is a very different city than any other we have experienced in Egypt. The beautiful harbour and corniche (road along the river/water front) look nothing like anything else in Egypt. The architecture would be more at home in France or Italy. Even the people are slightly different (no - not in a duelling banjos way) - more fair, light-eyed and European looking than Egyptian or Arabic (stemming, we are told, from the Greek and Roman gene pool of 2000 years ago). The city feels relaxing, which is a nice change after the desert.

Alexandria's corniche
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Our accommodation is a lovely old hotel (“Crillon”) on a side street off the Corniche. We dip out on a waterfront view much to Chalky’s disgust. Just up the road is the “Cecil”, where the likes of Winston have stayed (Churchill, not Peters).

Our modest 'Hotel Crillion'
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Where we would've liked to be, 'Hotel Cecil'
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That evening we let the bulk of our group head out for seafood (seriously? After 48-hours of stomach??) and a footy game, as our Egyptian group leader Soltan was eager to catch his nation's team playing in the African Nations Cup. Feeling adventurous, we head off into the wilds of Alexandria in search of food. It is rumoured the rare delicacy, the legendary “Chicken Big Mac” is to be found in the surrounding streets. Indeed, sidestepping cheering, jubilant Egyptian men (Egypt score a goal to make it 1-1 against Nigeria) we strike out to find the holy grail - processed food, figuring the repercussions can’t be any worse than those of the previous 48 hours. Pigs we were indeed… “Supersize Me” didn’t take into account Westerners in a foreign country with empty stomachs and the mighty NZ Dollar. And the Big Mac Chicken does indeed deliver satisfaction!

Nicely sated, and trying not to waddle too much we ease our way home, at which point Chalky noticed, directly across from the hotel, a local barber. Feeling woolly and adventurous he asked for a trim, in sign-language, with Jac trying very hard not to laugh out loud. A very nervous half hour later he emerged with a nice 80’s blow waved, brushed-back and razor-straight-parted hairdo… Nice one fella!! One lesson learned - a large Arab man, cutthroat razor, and Egypt playing football in the background makes for a nervous haircut experience… but hey! It grows back right?

Chalky's 80s coiff
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Greed is good
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The following day's highlight sauntering along the Corniche, taking in the waterfront sights - fishing boats, seaside cats, the kids fishing with basic rods, and drinking the BEST freshy-squeezed mango juice ever!

Seaside souvenirs
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Jac, Chalky, Sioau-Mai, Mavis and Eric and tasty juice
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'Abu Ashrat' juice bar
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This was also the final day of the Intrepid tour, and culminated in a meal at a seafood restaurant (again - seriously? We are still getting over being ill!!). This particular seafood restaurant had no menu, and no prices… you simply walked up to a display of various fish, cephalopods, crustaceans, and ‘things’ and pointed. If you mumbled words like “cooked” or “gutted” you seemed to get a better looking meal…

Back in Cairo the group disbanded… A fantastic crew we had, and sad to see everyone disappear back into their normal lives. Thanks guys - we had a ball meeting you all!! And thank you Soltan, our group leader, for putting up with us all.

Our group at Giza
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With Mavis’ flight not for another couple of days we settled in to see some more of Cairo. We hit the famous Khan el Kalili souq - soft-toy singing camels for Africa (literally) and other interesting sights.

Busy entrance to Khan el-Kalili souq
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An antique Arabic telephone
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A friendly family near El-Azhar mosque
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El-Azhar mosque
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We also took a day trip to Saqqara and Memphis South of Cairo, with Louise, also from our tour group, and also with another couple of days to spare. Saqqara has the Stepped Pyramid - an early attempt at pyramid building till they got the construction down pat. Climbed inside the Red Pyramid, and saw the Bent Pyramid in the distance (still off limits in a military zone). Figured out why the Egyptians finally stopped building pyramids… the penthouse is absolutely tiny!!

Stepped Pyramid at Saqqara, Memphis
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Ancient grafitti, some thousands of years old
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Jac, smiling in the ruins despite a troubled tummy
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A crumbly pyramid
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The Red Pyramid
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Chalky climbing the Red Pyramid
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Mavis at the entrance of the Red Pyramid
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The Bent Pyramid, Saqarra
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In Memphis we spent some time in a papyrus factory - learning the ins and outs of making papyrus - could be a handy skill back in NZ? Having spent an hour or so perusing the wares Mavis and Louise made purchases, and over tea and a chat afterwards Mavis received a very romantic marriage proposal! An astronomical amount of camels were offered, the deal only falling through once it became apparent that Mavis would be wife #2, an unacceptable situation! Wife #1 and the deal may well have been struck!

Chalky admiring the papyruses at the factory
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Negotiating a good deal for Mavis' and Louise's papyrus purchases
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A deal is struck with all parties happy
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Celebrating Mavis' marriage proposal with some tea
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Very sadly, it was time to bid farewell to Mavis. Tairua called… camping winning out over more adventures in Sinai and beyond. Thank you Mavis for being such a fantastic travel companion… and drinking buddy! Guinness and mulled wine (not to mention Old Bushmills whiskey) in Belfast; putting up with the rain and sharing sneaky, quasi-illegal Xmas wines in Chefchaouen; and magnificient sights and cold Stella in Egypt. How about joining us again in South America later in the year for some Chilean vino and Argentinean steak?

Time to get wet… Dahab and diving in the Red Sea next stop!

Posted by JacChalky 03:11 Archived in Egypt Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Western Deserts - Luxor to Alexandria

Sun and endless sand....

sunny 28 °C
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OK, that’s a lie… the deserts of Egypt certainly do have lots of sun and sand, but there was no sign of Andrew Ridgely at all. Our travels West from the Nile Valley involved hours of driving, and some stunning scenery.

West of the Nile the ‘desert’ is actually comprised of several deserts, each quite unique, but all desolate and unforgiving, save the oases.

First stop on our tour de sand is the oasis of Dahkla, about 8 hours drive by mini-bus, punctuated only by the occasional ‘pit-stop’. Surprisingly, small oases are everywhere, and wherever there is water there are people. The contrast between the wall-to-wall brown of sand, rock and dirt, and the areas of irrigation and farming is stark. The green almost looks artificial against the harsh arid surrounds. Our romantic notions of an oasis are shattered upon arrival to Dahkla - although there are indeed palm trees and water, the oases of the Egyptian desert (at least the ones we see) are actually small towns which have grown over the centuries at the caravan watering holes.

Dahkla Oasis - the green looks out of place
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Sunset from the rooftop of our lodgings
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Off again, and another day of driving, this time switching from bus to 4WD to tackle the off-road desert terrain. We first visit an ancient Egyptian Village dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries.

11th & 12th century mud brick village
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The ancient mosque
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Allah appearing or a trick of light?
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An ancient olive press
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Detour, anyone?
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Leaving our lunchtime pit-stop town we even have an armed police guard and escort to see us into the White Desert (we don’t dwell on the reason for this - just accept it). The White Desert is aptly named as it turns out… quite white, and definitely a desert. After the browns of the landscape thus far, the white stone and sand looks uncannily like egg white or drifts of snow. Wind-carved sculptures loom overhead, looking like giant mushrooms sprouting from the surrounding desert.

We're on a road to nowhere...
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Jac and some shadowplay
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Our trusty desert steeds
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Us in the White Desert
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Fellow travellers Sally, Lyrian and Penny
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Our travelling buddies - Eric and Markus (Mariah behind the camera)
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It is here we camp under the stars for a night - an experience to remember. Like the old Coconut Rough song, it’s cold in the desert tonight, so cold in the desert tonight! 30+ degree days (its winter thankfully, else we’d have been looking at 50+ during the day) give way to near zero nights. We are prepared with thermals and toasty warm sleeping bags. We are visited by a desert fox who comes right into our campsite seeking scraps, and are warned these cheeky beggars will steal our shoes at night (they have a real thing for Nikes apparently). Night in the desert is eerily beautiful, with a starry sky unblemished by pollution or light.

Sunset in the White Desert
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Our camp
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A foxy visitor
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The next day sees us enter the Black Desert. Like it’s White neighbour, the Black Desert is also aptly named, being, well… Black(ish). The landscape changes however - looking very much like a sea of volcanic cones. Everywhere we stop, we can see reminders of the fact the desert was once a sea - fossil shells litter the entire Western desert region.

Another overnighter in another dusty, littered desert oasis (Bawiti this time) and our 4WD journey hit’s the ‘real’desert… sand dune country!! This is the Great Sand Sea, bordering Libya not far West of here.

Thus far, as a group, we have not been prone to complaint, preferring to suck up any shortcomings in our transport, accommodation and food as “cultural” experiences. Incompetence, however, warrants a mention. The 4WD Mavis had been in the previous day had sprung a fuel leak - thankfully diesel, so it was never about to burst into flames, but enough to fill the vehicle with diesel fumes, making for a very uncomfortable day for those on board. The same vehicle also suffered from a flat battery after the night in the desert, requiring a tow-start. Assured the fuel leak had been fixed, we switch vehicles only to find there also seems to be an exhaust leak (i.e. into the car). Nice! A tyre blowout slowed proceedings somewhat, as did running our of fuel completely later in the afternoon. Guess that fuel leak is not as fixed as one would have hoped eh?

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Being towed, 10 feet from the vehicle in front, in desert temperatures, over the dustiest piece of road in the entire Middle East, with the windows open was pretty cultural alright… but not as cultural as we were feeling about 1am the next morning…

Chalky woke feeling nauseous around 1am and had an unexpected chat to the great white telephone, followed by several more 'conversations' throughout the course of the night. By morning Chalky had graduated to the other end, and Jac was equally ill - requiring a tag-team approach to the bathroom. Upon emerging from the room we discovered that 9 of the 15 group members were also very ill… the result of a nasty bout of food poisoning. Some slick detective work led us to the conclusion that our friendly drivers were as good at food preparation as they were at vehicle maintenance. Welcome to Siwa, have a nice day! Up to this point we had done rather well - not drinking the water (bottled only), not brushing our teeth with tap water, not eating the yellow snow etc. Poor Jac had to write the entire day off, bed-ridden.

Siwa turned out to be a lovely town, surrounded by large lakes (quite an eye-opener seeing a lake in the middle of the desert). Chalky opened up a can of harden-the-fk-up, and joined Mavis and the few still-standing group members on a bike-tour of the Siwa Oasis, including a stop at the temple of the legendary Oracle of Siwa.

Our last day of travel through the desert (with more than a couple of people still feeling rather less than 100%) involved a 6 hour drive North to the Mediterranean coast and Alexandria, stopping at the second world war memorial at El Alamein on route. The coast itself is a a funny mix of resorts, the majority of which appear to be abandoned mid-construction. In between however are the top-end resorts where Egypt’s wealthy come to holiday.

The Commonwealth war memorial was a sobering stop on an otherwise tedious day. Thousands of graves of the young men of the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are set out in rows on a sandy slope. It was something of a shock to see so many unknown soldiers buried there, and it saddened us to think that although the nations these men came from are all green, they are buried so far from home in barren, sandy soil.

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Our arrival in Alexandria ended our 6 day desert sojourn. A vast empty place of landscapes to set George Lucas‘ heart racing, long hours in the car, and dodgy mechanical skills.

Posted by JacChalky 11:35 Archived in Egypt Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Aswan to Luxor

Tomb Raider - Featuring Jac and Mavis as an Oriental Lara Croft mother/daughter combo, and Chalky as their semi-competent sidekick

sunny 27 °C
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Arriving in Aswan, tired, dirty, and with kinks in places we didn’t know you could get kinks (overnight trains in Egypt are a necessary evil unfortunately) we finally embark on our few days of tombs, temples and touristy travel.

Aswan is the source of all the granite quarried in ancient Egypt for temple building, statue carving, and obelisk obeslisking. It is the gateway to Abu Simbel, and the start of all Nile cruises. Being in the South, it is also HOT, even in the middle of ‘winter’. We amuse ourselves by constantly quoting Eddie Izzard as an Egyptian news anchor: “And here’s Jean with the weather: ‘The forecast is, sunny, forever.’ ‘Thanks Jean…”.

We started our trip by taking a cruise on the Nile towards a Nubean (indigenous Egyptian Africans) village where we had traditional local fare followed by some dancing with our hosts:

Our group climbing a huge dune, extremely hard to do!
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Mavis and Chalky on our felluca
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Chalky and his desert wheels
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Camel riding silhouette
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Nubean hospitality
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Jac and Chalky dancing with a cute Nubean kid
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Aswan is also ‘famous’ for being the site of two dams built to control the annual flooding of the Nile. The first, built by the British, is the imaginatively named Aswan Low Dam. It didn’t work all that well, as the Brits seemed to have forgotten that the annual Nile floods brought huge amounts of silt with them, and, coincidently perhaps, it silted up. The Egyptians subsequently constructed the Aswan High Dam (wow - imagine the brain-storming that went into that name!), but this came with its own set of problems - namely the flooding of a vast area containing some of Egypt’s most precious ancient monuments.

The Temple of Ramses II (yep him of the 90-odd kids) was one of the soon-to-be victims of the rising waters of Lake Nasser (formed by the High Dam) back in the 60s, and an incredible multi-national effort, headed by UNESCO was undertaken to move the enormous temple to higher, safe ground (they literally cut the entire complex into pieces and reassembled it further up the valley). With four gigantic statues of the Pharaoh glaring down at the water, it must have given pause to any travellers sailing down the Nile in ancient times. However, old Ramses wasn’t thinking of the tourist trade back then, and the temple is an inconsiderate 3 hours drive from Aswan, in convoy (there are bandits in them thar hills). A 3am start is what it takes to see the Temple of Ramses (see? - inconsiderate), but soooo worth the drive. This is to be the first of what seems like dozens of temples we are to see in the next 3 days.

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We also indulge in the usual touristy things to do in Aswan… Camel riding in the desert, boat cruise on the Nile, sheeshah water-pipe) in a dodgy back-alley coffee shop (thanks Eric and Mariah for our introduction to Egyptian sheesah. Mavis takes to haggling in the souqs and market shops like a pro, having had some practice in Morocco… Take pity on the poor souls in Aswan who are still explaining to their wives how they happened to get stitched up on the sale of so many scarves!

We leave Aswan in Nile-style - on a felucca for an overnight journey North, downriver (we find it hard reconciling ‘North’ and ‘down’ - such is coming from the Southern Hemisphere). Ahhh… the silence on the river is heavenly after the hustle and bustle of the Aswan souqs, the sun is warm, the beer cold (BYO of course).

Our Nile Fellucca
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Mavis on the Fellucca
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Sunset on the Nile Fellucca
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We overnight on board, with a fire and more beers on the shore in the evening. The indigenous Nubian crew entertain us with drums and singing, and Chalky entertains in kind with a haka (the multinational tour group also lap it up - one of the benefits of growing up in Rotorua eh?).

Dancing to Nubean music by the fire
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Chalky answers the Nubeans with the Haka
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Temples, temples, temples… Edfu sees us wandering a Ptolemaic (Greco-Roman era) temple. Luxor however, is the mother of all temple cities, with the sprawling Karnak temple on the East bank, and the funerary temples on the West bank, with of course, the necropolis of all necropolises (sp?) - the Valley of the Kings.

Collossi of Memnon
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Valley of the Kings - unfortunately no cameras allowed inside the decorative tomb
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Karnak is an open air museum, and a timeline of the Pharaonic era of Egypt, with the temple having been added to by virtually every pharaoh over a period of thousands of years (makes NZ seem VERY young). We are lucky to be on site at closing time, and get some very rare snaps of the temple virtually tourist free.

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The following day sees us climbing, scrambling, descending and ascending into tombs cut into the very rock of the Valley of the Kings. Spectacular and beautiful, it probably captures the essence of what we think of as Ancient Egypt as much as the Pyramids do.

Our few days of temples and tombs ends on a high… The real highlight is something quite unexpected, and remarkably simple compared to the splendour and grandeur of the royal and religious sites. The Valley of the Workers is the site of the small community of workers that laboured for generations to construct and decorate the royal tombs in the Valleys of the Kings - a place where they lived and died, and buried their own. Two small tombs in the Valley of the Workers are so beautifully decorated (by the men who built them for themselves) that they make the Kings’ tombs look almost ordinary by comparison. A real treat to see them.

There are only so many hieroglyphs, columns, obelisks, statues and sphinxes one can see before one becomes a bit jaded however. Man, cat, cat with a dog face, dog with a cat face etc (to paraphrase our buddy Eddie again)… So we bid a farewell to the Nile Valley, and head deep, deep, deep into the deserts of Western Egypt!

Posted by JacChalky 09:53 Archived in Egypt Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

A New Decade... Egyptian Style

How to spend a lot of time in vehicles in Egypt

sunny 25 °C
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Happy New Year! Well... that is where we are up to...

After the reasonably quiet NY celebrations with our new travel buddies, its straight into the nitty-gritty of Egypt, namely temples, tombs, and transport.

The first day proper of our Intrepid tour of Egypt is a whirlwind tour of Cairo. Up early and crammed into a bus, we are whisked off to the Giza Plateau, and the Pyramids. Holy sheet Batman! 3 words sum up the pyramids... Really Fkn Big. Standing in front of them is a reminder of how small and fleeting we are, when they have stood there silently observing for 3 millenia. The sheer size is enough to make you take a deep breath. Not too deep though, as the smog of Cairo can't be good for you. Reality check, as we realise just how close the suburb of Giza is to these ancient wonders (can almost smell the McDonalds). The three of us opt to pay the extra and enter the Great Pyramid, which is a really special experience. Although the interior is completely without decoration of any kind, the buzz of bending double to scrabble through the narrow corridors and ramps is really something to experience (as was the idiot - not me - who intoned "Im-ho-tep" repeatedly for 10 mins while ascending - too many Mummy movies methinks). Keen to prove the amazing engineering that went into building the pyramids, I remove my credit card to try to slip it between the blocks in the Kings Chamber. Incredibly, the blocks are so precisely laid that I can't get it in there, however unfortunately purchase a couple of camels in the process.

After some harried photo-taking (tight time frame), we are whisked to the panoramic viewing site to overview the entire Giza sight, before its off to greet the Sphinx. The word enigmatic is often used to describe the Sphinx. Dunno about enigmatic. It certainly is something to be standing next to an ancient treasure, but its a bit smaller than you imagine. I think its more a case of iconic, than enigmatic...

The afternoon is spent battling the traffic (more on that), and wandering the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. This is one spot where the security is actually awake, vigilant, and alert (we quickly discover on this trip that metal detectors and automatic weapons are omnipresent, but the security guards themselves are more often texting or watching TV). A couple of hours in here is enough to spin one's head, but never enough. Even if you have a bit of an Ancient Egypt thing going on, its easy to become overwhelmed and blase about what you are seeing. However, two rooms are so stunning that they are must sees. The treasure room of Tutankamun is a dazzling sea of gold, lapiz, precious stones, more gold, sarcophogai, more gold, and the most iconic of all Egyptian archaeological discoveries... the funeral mask of the boy king. So stunning and lifelike is it, that the rest of the museum pales in comparison... you can almost feel yourself staring into his eyes. Needless to say the room is silent as tourists stare in wonder, transfixed by its beauty and history. The other is the Royal Mummy room, in which you can peer in awe at the rulers of the ancient world. The most staggering of the Royal Mummies, at least to me, is that of Ramses II... Incredible to gaze at the actual face of the man who erected so much of what we can see of Ancient Egypt today (and a real stud with something like 90 kids!!).

Cairo Traffic... some sort of Arab joke that Westerners don't get. Two fundamental concepts seem to be at play here...
a) You must travel as fast as possible, limited only by the relative state of disrepair of your vehicle (and the laws of physics);
b) Lanes are for pussies

Cairo drivers are profoundly confident of the fact that that gap IS big enough to squeeze into, regardless of the size of said gap / car. Headlights are optional (yes, even at night), and their predominant use appears to be to signal anger, frustration, imminent contact. Indicators - WTF are indicators?? I suspect an Egyptian Warrant of Fitness check goes something like "Horn works y/n?". The horn is without fail the most important component of any vehicle, allowing you to alert the vehicle ahead of your intention to pass, to signal a turn ahead, to let fellow drivers know that they are too slow / should get out of your way, or to express your frustration at having to slow to 100kph (in city) or 200kph (on freeway), and most importantly, to scare the bejesus out of tourists.

Tips for crossing the road as a pedestrian in Cairo
- Take a deep breath
- Look both ways (it won't help, but looks good on an accident report)
- Step in front of speeding (select one of the following: Bus; Car; Scooter; Taxi)
- Try not to flinch at horn / flashing headlights
- Do NOT stop moving
- Do NOT make eye contact with the crazy people (motorists)

Cairo... Done!

Overnight train from Cairo to Aswan - an interesting experience (that is quite literally the nicest thing I can say about it). 15 hours of filth and discomfort punctuated by periods of listless sleep. Arrive Aswan to warmer weather (around 30 degs C.) with a sense of adventure...

Posted by JacChalky 02:22 Archived in Egypt Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Casablanca to Cairo

Here's looking at you kid...

sunny 23 °C
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We thought we'd start this entry with a handy algebraic formula on bus journey times in Morocco:

X = 1.5nY +Fba

Where:
X = the number of actual hours' journey
n = the ticket office guy's propensity to overstate
Y = a random number between 1 and 50
F = whether or not the ticket office guy has had a fight with his wife that day
b = whether he's had his breakfast
a = whether you asked him contritely enough or not

And then... just throw a dice and be done with it.

We decided to glam it and take the more expensive national bus service from Chefchaouen to Casablanca. It was only a little more comfortable but we arrived to a much warmer and sunnier Casablanca.

There's not much to see in Casablanca, being more of a commercial hub. It has lots of old art deco buildings and lots of unfinished ones too (credit crunch? laissez-faire construction timetables?). Feeling a little unsure of what we'd do for two and a half days in Casa, we immediatly did what any bus-weary, hungry traveller would do - we headed to the comfort of a bar. In our case, it was 'Rick's Bar'. It was not really authentic, as the actual Rick's Bar in the movie Casablanca was a studio set, but it has been recreated by an American woman to be sort of near the real thing - piano in the bar, lounges to smoke cigars, and the black-and-white movie silently projected on a wall. We were so happy to have a drink and non-traditional food for once (Burgers! T-bone steak! Pasta!) that we ignored the Auckland-prices and settled in for the afternoon. We were crestfallen when we realised that the place was shut between 3-6pm and we had to leave.

The rest of our time was spent walking around the city, seeing the Central Market (horsemeat anyone? Cow carcasses with ahem, apendages attached? Box of thirsty kittens?), fair to low-quality artisan shops and shops selling everything and anything.

The 30th of December was an auspicious day - Jac's Mum's 60th - so we checked out of our modest hotel and into.... the Sheraton. It was five stars, in the 80s sense, but shad all the comfort, amenities and attentive barmen required for a celebratory stay. Throw in several wines, a bottle of Moet and lounge singers seranding Mavis with Happy Birthday, and we did little but sit at the bar all day and night.

On the 31st, we took a red-eye flight to Cairo. Interestingly, at Casablanca airport security was very lax - the check-in desk didn't even open our passports, the security check involved a bribe solicitation, and immigration was the most casual and cheerful we've ever experienced.

However - Cairo! Busy!!! Cab drivers driving 140 kms an hour! Non-stop tooting in a city of 9 million (last census taken 1992 however)! Certainly a wake up call, literally, as we arrived at 6am. We checked into a very unpalacial Capsis Palace Hotel and slept and wiled away the hours until we met our Intrepid Group.

Our group of 14 were made up of a trio of Aussie girls, travelling through Bangladesh and India together; a Sydneysider; an American couple for Silicone Valley; two Canadians; another Mother/daughter pair from Hawaii and California; and oddly, a lone Austrian guy - who seemed as surprised with us as we were with him. New Years Eve was spent getting to know each other over dinner, then half of the group came up to Chalky and Jac's room (the only with a balcony) to drink Stella (not Artois, but the Egyptian local) and cheer over the swarming, beeping traffic below. Needless to day, Cairo wasn't overly festive, being a non-Western country, but we still managed to rouse some of the passersby below us. Here's to a good two weeks together!

Posted by JacChalky 03:15 Archived in Morocco Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Fez and Chefchaoen

Will this rain ever end?

storm 15 °C

La Gare du Fez , being only an hour's journey from Meknes by train, greeted us with surprising modernity and the sunny day.

Fez's medina is huge, with over 9,000 windy streets, and is 15kms in circumference. Our Riad was located in the south east, right near a main Bab (gate). After our happy stay in Meknes, our Riad was less cosy in atmosphere - too many white walls - and service. After enjoying a sweet mint tea welcome, we set out to find the heart of the Medina. That first sunny afternoon however, soon turned to rain, and we were quick to 'take refuge' in... a Westernised bar - many of the bars in Morocco are stricly men-only, where men are men and women are strictly unwelcome, unless they're prostitutes. It was the first modern bar we'd found since Belfast (Chalky was beside himself!). We're not ashamed to say we then spent about six hours drinking white Morrocan wine and eating olives.

Our days were spent wandering the souqs, getting hopelessly lost (in the rain!), and a little annoyed at the touts. Alas, Marrakesh and Meknes had not prepared us for the barrage of polite but persistant young men who tried to get us to visit their father/uncle/brother's carpet/ceramic/artisan/leather shop. Even the little kids have a punt. Again, they back off quickly but there are more of them here in Fez. We did allow one guy to get us 'unlost' amidst a downpour which turned the lanes into small rivers. At one corner it was so flooded, we stood alongside the locals who were all unsure of how to ford the ankle-deep muddy (and probably donkey poo-filled) water. Speaking of donkeys, they were everywhere in Fez, scrawny poor creatures, burdened with sacks and being lead through the souq lanes. Many lanes ingeniously had a plank of wood nailed donkey-head-height to prevent them from entering.

We also let one guy lead us to a Tannery, as it was wet and we couldn't find the leather quarter. He didn't want any cash, being employed by the Leather Co-operative that he took us to. We were given sprigs of mint to ward off the stench and walked up to get roof-top views of the outdoor sludgy dyeing pits, with animal skins heaped and hung everywhere. Unfortunately we didn't get to see any of the colours though, due to the rain, which meant the colours would be changed for the next day. Back below in the Co-op, there were two floors full of brightly coloured leather bags, jackets, ottomans, purses and shoes, but alas our packs don't allow purchases!

Our highlight of Fez would have to have been 'Thami's', a little street-food cafe near the main gate of the Medina. Our Lonely Planet had raved on about Thami's modest cafe, and when we stumbled upon it he rushed out, brimming with a wide grin and proudly showed us write-ups from The Guardian and other travel articles in a ratty plastic cover. We weren't terribly hungry, but soon gobbled down his tasty makoda (potato fritters), loubia (round beans in a lamb-stew-tasting sauce) and spicy ladies finger and tomato dip. His small outdoor table was occupied so he welcomed us to dine right in his kitchen, his wife Sandy busying herself around us. It was so delicious we returned the next day and ordered his 'rost chicken' (broiled before deepfried, rather than actually roasted) and his speciality, kefta (meatball) tajine. He doesn't have space for a drinks fridge so gets orange juice, soft drinks and mint tea from neighbouring cafes. Such a cheerful, lovely couple - she cheekily pushing him away when we took photos of them.

Another must-do in Fez was to procure some very rare alcohol for Christmas Day, which would be spent in a very small village called Chefchaouen. We headed to the Ville Nouvelle, which every town has in contrast to their ancient medina, (and every Ville Nouvelle without fail has the ubiquitious Avenue Mohammed V, named after Morocco's King). We checked out the Central Market, which was crammed with trays of foreign fish, shiny fruit and veges and rows of turn-you-vegetarian butcher shops. Our Lonely Planet said there was an alcohol shop right nearby so we searched the neighbouring streets. We were about to give up when we found it and bought three bottles of cheap plonk - two white semillants and a red - for only NZD23! Then, we realised we didn't have a bottle opener (note to self, must buy Swiss Army knife next time if only for that purpose) so returned to the souqs to unfortunately scour the stalls without any luck.

So on Christmas Day we took a bus to Chefchauoen, which was about 4 hours away. We'd gone to the bus station the day before to buy tickets in advance, but were greeted with a grumpy ticket officer and frustrated tourists who were upset that the roads were closed due to the rain! Uh oh. We were advised to just return the following day. Which we did, at 7am, hoping to catch the 8am bus. Again the ticket officer was still grumpy and told us the roads were closed (likely because Chefchaouen was in the mountains) but we could catch the bus to Ouzzane or Tetouan, which curiously were the stops before and after Chaouen. We befriended an German guy who was in the same situation as us, and sat patiently in the cafe for the 10am bus, which a friendly local had said was the true bus time....

It pays to check every bit of information you get given though! Jac decided at 7:50am to double check this benevolent piece of advice, and luckily she did, as the bus was leaving in 10 minutes! We scrambled to down our coffees and teas, gathered our packs and quickly purchased tickets. As we hopped on the bus we met an Australian woman who was surprised to hear that the road to Chaouen was closed, as she hadn't been told that by grumpy ticket officer. We hopped off the bus at Ouzzane, an unremarkable and shabby town, and the ticket lady knew no such thing about roads being closed. We think its because the bus was pretty empty and the Fez ticket officer must have tried to discourage us from going, perhaps to save a bus trip.

We arrived in the rain to Chefchaoen, which is a cute village nestled amongst the Rif Mountains in Northern Morocco. Its name literally means 'look at the peaks', the Chef (look at) only added to its name in the 70s. We gave small gasps as we first glimpsed it rounding the corner, as it's entirely blue and white, with tiled terracotta rooves which is a nod to its Andalucian roots. 'What a charming place ' we thought... until we were told by a Canadian traveller that the water was shut off the previous day. And we saw two of the previous day's frustrated tourists board our bus headed out of the town. Uh oh.

Thankfully our hotel, although suffering heavily from leaky-building-syndrome, had running (and hot!) water. We ventured into the main square Plaza Uta el-Hamman for lunch, and ate amongst a horde of snotty-nosed, manky cats who tried every trick in the book to snaffle a bit off our plate. We had few Christmas beverages at a nearby hotel (why, after that afternoon in Fez we realised we missed having our beer-o'clocks!) before retreating from the pouring rain to spend Christmas afternoon/evening in our room. Jac had two Christmas carols on her iPod (one, a Mariah Carey, the other a John and Yoko Lennon) so we played them on repeat, to create that 'department store' festive feeling. The previous day we'd bought not-so-secret santa presents, to be not more than 25 dirham (NZD4.50) and each blindly pulled out a present from a bag. I received a Fez keyring, Mum two small blue and white ceramic bowls, and Chalky a dodgy-English tajine cooking book (with recipies like 'Chicken with Cardoons', and instructions to cut courgettes 'at their extremities'). Chalky managed to open the bottles of wine using his bare hands and a chopstick (don't ask why we had chopsticks on us) and we had a cosy and thunderstormy night in.

We were in Chaouen for three days, two of which were absolutely pouring with rain. We were kept company by our books and the steady stream of straight-to-video American movies on telly (box office hits such as "Narc" and "Half Light" and "Bloodrayne"), while the hotel staff ran around with mops and terracotta pots to stop the leaks.

The third day, thankfully, blissfully had sun - which made us so excited after 7 solid days of rain and patchy sun. We roamed the compact medina, saw its markets and mosques and - made sure we bought our tickets to Casablanca, a day early, afraid that more rains would come and trap us into this charming, but small village.

The only downer to our visit was the hotel management, who tried to pull a fast one and make us pay for the extra night, even though they were okay with us staying 3 instead of 4 nights. They tried to say the one-night deposit we paid over the internet was a 'booking fee' paid to the online 'travel agency', and then when we vehemently protested at the fallacy of that, changed their story to say that actually we still had to pay for the fourth night because they couldn't give our room away. When Jac sternly told them off for bad customer service in not advising us of that on our first night, they then rang the booking agency and said that they (i.e. the Manager's buddy, probably) said that we could instead try to get 25% off the final night back off the agency. As we'd treated ourselves to a 'luxury' hotel, we were not pleased.... time to get the fluck out of here and onto Casablanca!

Posted by JacChalky 09:09 Archived in Morocco Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Meknes

Rain, rain, go away...

rain 15 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

So after our 10-hour bus ride, we arrived in the dark, pouring rain to Meknes bus station. We tried flagging a 'petit taxi' into the Medina, but we were repeatedly ignored in favour of locals until someone picked us up. Probably because they're metered, so why pick up someone who can't speak Arabic and will pay you the same?

Our gratefulness wore off though, when we received the 'Just Arrived Tourist treatment' - instead of being ripped off, we were dropped off... in the middle of nowhere. We even had written instructions for our driver. So we sought shelter and waited, drenched, unsure of what to do next, when Mavis' cellphone rang! It was the owner, wondering where we were. While his English was good, we had difficulty describing where we were (as 'nowhere' and 'in a dark street' didn't really suffice) so he asked us to pass the phone to someone who could speak Arabic. The only people around were little kids, so Jac picked a responsible looking girl and gave her the phone... poor girl had to try and speak while an untrusting Jac's gripped with vice-like determination.

Within 10 minutes, Omar the Manager cheerfully turned up and lead us into the Old Town and to our Riad. We were kinda wondering what we'd booked, as the alleyway we arrived at was dark and dingy, but to our surprise when he lead us through the nondescript front door, a beautiful and homely Riad greeted us! The central courtyard had lovely marble floors, there were little salons with plush sitting areas and cushions, and huge, antique doors and carpets adorning the walls. Omar and his staff were the most accomodating and lovely people ever.

So Meknes is fairly small and quiet, and often overshadowed by its bigger and more impressive neighbour, Fez which is only 60kms to the east. However the grand mosaic gates and enormous sand-coloured imperial walls make you feel like you're truly enclosed in an Imperial City. The souqs sell more modern goods, like shoes and clothing, but there are still the requisite artisan shops, with owners enticing you in.

The unfortunate thing about Meknes is that it rained. And rained. And rained. But we still managed to walk lots and see the sights, like the tomb of My Ismail, who was the first King to unify Morocco and pacify the Berber tribes. It was the first 'sacred' place that allowed entry to non-Muslims, and it while only Muslims could approcach the tomb itself, the mausoleum was beautifully tiled in mosaics and had wild mint growing in the corners. Another highlight was that Chalky and Jac also managed to order The Biggest Couscous dish ever in a local restaurant, which took some sleeve-rolling and space-saving burps :p

Despite the rain we stayed for two days and then took a train to Fez in search of better weather.... and computers that let us upload photos...

Posted by JacChalky 10:52 Archived in Morocco Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Marrakesh

Tajines, Couscous and sweet mint tea

sunny 27 °C
View Jac and Chalky's Excellent Adventure on JacChalky's travel map.

Es Salaam Alaykum / Hurroh

Our trusty sleazyJet delivered us Marrakesh with good humour: "Please ensure you take your luggage, belongs and children off the plane - we don't want them" but unlike our Belfast Ryanair flights, delivered the typical each-man-for-himself budget airline experience. After selecting The World's Longest Immigration Line (others zipping to freedom as we waited on what must have been an extremely thorough officer), and paying the expected Welcome, Naive Tourist taxi fare, we arrived near the main square of Marrakesh, Djemaa El-Fna.

Overwhelming was an understatement. As soon as we hopped out of our Grande Taxi, backs already groaning with our over-packed bags, we were hit with the sounds, smells and buzz that is Morocco - Arabic music blaring from flourescent-lit shops selling fake everything; spicy kebabs filling our nostrils; and dodging the crowd that either walked, motorbiked or pedal biked, all without collision. Did we say we were exceptionally out of place?

Our Riad (courtyard hotel) was located in the souqs - winding market lanes crammed with stalls selling beautiful ceramics, carpets, spices and small animals, however on actually studying our Google Map, it turned out the map was completely wrong. So, armed with our taxi driver's scrawled map we tried finding our Riad - you can guess how that went. Finally we gave in and reluctantly allowed two small boys to lead us to our Riad, who then snubbed the Chupa Chups that Jac offered.

Much to our delight we discovered that most Moroccans parlent Français, however their keyboards speak Arabic.

Our days were spent exploring the souqs, being invited in by vendors to smell (and sneeze at) all the different spices, including some that were Viagra and anti-Viagra (surely the latter is just Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day?) and indulging in the fine art of haggling over NZ50c - it's all in the win, with perspective of course. Actually, unlike other cultures experienced, Morrocans are a very easy-going and non-aggressive, who are happy to desist after you say 'La, shukran' or 'non, merci' and often reply with a genuine, 'Pas de problem'. However there were frequent calls of 'Ni Hao!' or 'Konichi Wa!' which surely must have been directed to Chalky.

Lunches consisted of tajines or couscous with mutton or chicken, and dinners were eaten in Djemaa El-Fna: skewered meats, bread, dips and olives, snail soup (just like mushrooms, but complete with face) and other goodies served on cutlery/dishes that you just knew had not seen a good wash since they were packed at the factory. Every evening Djemaa El-Fna springs up small makeshift restaurants, stands packed with dried fruits, fresh orange juice, and crowds of locals gambling or watching storytellers act out traditional tales to Arabesque music and dancing.

We decided to visit the Ourika Valley, near the Atlas Mountains, where we did some impromptu and unexpectedly tough rock climbing to see waterfalls and collect quartz. Not only did we discover muscles in our backs, arms, legs, and hell, little fingers that never existed, but we also seriously lagged our guide, Jamal who leapt gracefully up and down the mountain. We'd met Jamal while walking past his shop, and he guessed we were from New Zealand. He was such a lovely and gracious man, who is a devout Muslim - he dashed off a few times to pray, once entrusting us with his shop to mind, much to Mavis' delight... never have so many locals and tourists alike pulled double-takes at the small, Chinese woman dressed in Kathmandu, trying to entice visitors with "Bonsoir, entrez s'il vous plait?".

After being enchanted by Marrakesh, we decided to head to Meknes and booked a 7-hour bus north. Except it wasn't 7 hours, but more like 10. It was comfortable yes, but had highlights such as men hopping on to serve us long, impassioned pleas for money or Koranic sermons; and the delightful experience of having a local woman cradling a toddler have intermittent and loud screaming matches with the driver over the fact her husband was left behind at one of the stops. Every time the bus stopped it in fact, reminded her. Luckily they were reunited some hours later, where the he caught up with the bus somehow.

Tired and weary we finally arrived at a very rainy Meknes.

Posted by JacChalky 02:33 Archived in Morocco Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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