Week 70 - Egypt Part 1

This week, it’s adventures in Egypt… A break from our adventures in Greece cruising the Mediterranean on our boat Matilda.

Week 70 - Egypt Part 1
The sarcophagus in the centre of the step pyramid was some 50 metres below the pyramid and filled in with rubble to prevent robbery. There are also 3 kms of passages under ground.

This week, it’s adventures in Egypt… A break from our adventures in Greece cruising the Mediterranean on our boat Matilda.

“Hello, my friend, where are you from? You look Egyptian! You could be an Egyptian… Austria? Ahh… Woher kommst du, Wien? Oh you said Australian — Newtown, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, where do you come from? I have visited Melbourne. I love Melbourne. Melbourne number one. No, no it’s OK, I’m not selling you anything, I am a retired lawyer and I just want to practice my English… OK, OK, you don’t want help? No problem, but watch out for that man, he will try scam you. I am not a scammer, but that man, he will try to take you to his store and sell you things.”

Since we arrived in Egypt Wednesday morning at 3AM, I feel like we’ve had some variant of this conversation an uncountable number of times. The roles vary, from young men who say “I am a law student and I just want to practice my English”, to older men who say “I’m a retired lawyer and I just want to practice my English” to a man who said “I work at the Egyptian Museum and I just want to practice my English.”

Spoiler alert. They don’t want to practice their English. What they do want to do is offer a “personal tour” that miraculously ends up in cousin Falak’s Incense / Silver / Carpet / Restaurant / Clothing Shop, where you’ll be offered amazing “discounts” as my personal friend.

So far it’s been an incredible, if at times somewhat surreal experience.

To take a step back — there’s a couple of salient backstory pieces here. The first is that when it comes to accommodation in Egypt, most people book a tour of some description which includes transfers etc. with everything arranged, but we decided to go off script a bit and make our own way. We were required to have our accommodation pre-planned, so had arranged an Airbnb in Cairo, a Resort Hotel in Hurgadah and another Airbnb in Luxor.

The second important point is that originally we planned to arrive at 2PM on Tuesday afternoon-plenty of time to get ourselves ripped off by a cab driver going to our Airbnb, but the airline cancelled our flight and the only one available landed instead at 2AM on Wednesday.

Due to the ungodly arrival time, we decided last minute that we’d be better off taking the transfer that our host offered us. It seemed prudent to be delivered door to door instead of trying to find an address somewhere in Giza at 3AM in the morning with no real idea of where we are going. This proved to be a good idea.

At the last moment the host asked for our passports so they could meet us, which seemed a little weird, but then we realised we were actually met inside security! A guide was standing there with our name on a sign as we exited the gate and passed the COVID check. He guided us through the airport, picked the fastest queue with the border guards, handled the conversation with immigration and then walked us right to the driver.

The driver then drove us across Cairo and took us directly to the Airbnb. It was about 2.30AM in the morning and there was still traffic everywhere and people wandering the streets and the freeways, horns tooting, occasional lights and people out playing tennis. Cairo is a city that never sleeps.

A mosque in the distance. A terrible photo, but I include it because our driver literally did a u-turn then STOPPED in the middle of the road so I could take it.

When we pulled up outside the Airbnb, which was advertised as a luxury apartment with Pyramid Views, we thought initially that perhaps something was wrong. We were deposited in what felt like a war zone. People huddled on the street, stray dogs roaming around, piles of rubbish and broken footpaths. It was quite the experience. But shortly our host Mohamed came down to greet us and walked us into the building.

Unfortunately he tells us, “there is a problem with your apartment, the key is not working, so I am giving you this apartment instead. Don’t worry it’s very nice.” In my defence, my opinion of “Mr. Mohamed” has changed over the few days we got to know him, but at that moment in time he was giving off major Russian Gangster vibes. Being told “don’t worry” at 3AM in the morning in a strange city as the host changes your booking is not very reassuring.

He opened the door to the apartment and we were amazed. Remember that there’s literally just two of us. This place was palatial in scale and in the main living area had no less than three complete lounge settings (arm chairs, couches etc.) a table for 8 and the entire theme was black and silver. The photos just don’t capture the sparkle — the wallpaper was black velvet with crystals embedded, the cornices were all painted with silver paint. Mohamed gave us a brief tour, including the leopard print bathroom, the zebra themed powder room, the master bedroom with domed silver ceiling, oversized double beds to sleep 6 and another full lounge set and the kitchen with a floor rug made from army camo netting.

He, and the driver, who’d also come up into the apartment with us, then proceeded to try sell us various services. “Would you like some food, do you want to arrange a tour of the Pyramids — don’t go with anyone else, they are all scammers, can I get you coffee?”. Thank you, but no, we really just want to sleep. It’s 3:30am.

“Oh OK — I will invite you for an Egyptian Breakfast in the morning” and then he left.

We’re rarely overwhelmed when we travel, but this was definitely a WTF moment to top all the WTF moments we’ve experienced to date. We made the best of it, and hopped into the giant bed (which had very clean sheets) and tried to sleep with the roar of traffic outside the window.

If you’ve not experienced traffic in Cairo, there’s a couple of things to understand. One is that as you’d expect, it’s suitably chaotic at the best of times — tuk-tuks, endless mini-vans (countless old VW Combi vans) full of people swerving randomly to pick up or drop off passengers, taxis, private cars, motor bikes, donkeys, horses, pedestrians and even the occasional camel all weave in and out of each other. If the white lines on the road serve a purpose, then no-one can remember what it is. To be fair, lanes randomly end and start — the police put out road blocks for no reason, sometimes a random turning lane appears or the edge has worn away and rubble is collapsed on the roads. As a tool for guiding traffic into lanes, the white lines are spectacular ineffective and appropriately ignored.

The second thing to understand is that the horn is a critical part of what makes your vehicle drive. In order of importance you have the accelerator, steering wheel, the horn and then maybe brakes. Turn indicators and seatbelts are pointless things that should be tucked out of the way so as to not interrupt the driving experience.

There are a countless number of beeps, all with different meanings. A brief “beep” to indicate that I’m coming up beside you and you need to move out of the lane, a more aggressive “beep” to show that I’m forcing my way in here, a long “beep” which is expressing my displeasure at your complete ineptitude at driving and inability to understand that I needed to turn right across three lanes of traffic from the left lane and then there’s just a rhythmic, almost musical series of toots which is “I’m bored, but this amuses me and possibly helps my heap of junk go faster”.

We’ve driven in taxis which have had truck horns fitted inside of them, passed trucks that have entire orchestras that play, and heard cars where the horn is on its last legs with a pitiful wheeze. Egypt is possibly one of the few places in the world where your car horn wears out faster than your tires.

Back to the apartment — this is what we could hear passing outside our window. I woke Karina up one morning because I was laughing out loud at a particularly expressive truck horn that had just passed by. Why it was me laughing and not the insane traffic noise that woke her, I’m not sure. Anyway, suffice to say that while the apartment was actually not too bad all things considered, the noise meant little quality sleep for the few days we were there.

View of the pyramids from our apartment, road not included.

Wednesday morning around 9AM we headed off to the Pyramids. In fact the apartment DOES have a pyramid view and we were suitably wowed by them towering over 6 lanes of traffic and the broken down apartments across from us, it was time to get a closer look.

The pyramids are NOT set up for tourists. There’s no signage, the entrance is down a very decrepit street full of kids galloping on horses, camels, donkeys pulling carts full of food for the horses and camels, touts yelling at you…. all in all it’s an insult to the senses. It stinks of horse piss and horse shit and definitely does not scream “wonder of the world”. Packs of stray dogs and some people rifling through the fresh garbage thrown onto the street corner. Eventually you walk past all the buildings, you turn a corner and there’s a fence with desert behind it and the sphinx and pyramids in the distance. But there’s no signs, no visible entrance, there are crowds of locals, school kids and horse operators milling around. Tour buses arrive and get whizzed through the gates, but it’s not clear where the independent traveller should go.

As we’re standing there a tout starts trying to push Arabic head dresses on to us… “oh you are Australian, my friend you look Egyptian, this is my gift to you”. And as we’re trying to politely decline them, an officious man with an official looking “tourist guide” ID around his neck comes charging over, slaps them out of our hands and yells at the guy.

“Hello my friends, where are you from? Come I will help you.” We were bundled up to the front of the queue at which point he told us how much the ticket prices were (which was correct, it was listed on the board), and took our money and bought us the tickets. He then tells us to “watch your pockets” charged past the hordes of people into a small building where there was a security screen — here he took us to the head of the queue again and we past into the Pyramid complex.

It turns out this is very common — we saw in other locations that guides seem to get a pass for bringing their “guests” in directly, jumping ahead of everyone else waiting. Also foreigners pay something like 5x as much as locals, so the sentiment seems to be that this entitles you to at least jump the queue.

It’s also a common “scam”. We’re not novice travellers, but from what I’ve been reading and researching there are basically two sorts of tourists in Egypt — those who get scammed and know about it, and those that get scammed and don’t. Or those that get scammed and those that lie about it. You’re going to get scammed. Giza is also a scammers paradise. It’s typically the first place that tourists go and it’s crowded, poorly organised and overwhelming.
Our tour guide (who was a legit guide at least) had his hooks set — he’d already offered what was frankly an invaluable service in getting us inside the doors through the locals and he was going to get his take. At this point I mentally shrugged and resigned myself to it — it was about damage control and making sure it didn’t get too bad.

To be fair to him (another Mohamed) he did look after us very well. This is another common trait we’ve noticed amongst scammers in Egypt — once they think they have their hooks or their “in” to you, then they want to keep others away. As we were guided around the complex, he kept up a running commentary “watch out for these people they will offer to take your photo then pick your pocket, or ask baksheesh”… “walk through here, just say la’a shu’kron loud to anyone that speaks to you”… “go to that tomb there, give the guard this AFTER he takes you through…” We were being scammed, but at least we were getting value for it.

The hilarious part of all of this came when we were being shown through a tomb by a guard. He very seriously says to us “Mohamed is a good guide, but he will try to take you to a ‘lotus museum’ after. This is not real perfume, do not buy anything. You must not tell him I told you this”. When we left we heard him yelling at Mohamed after he saw the tip we gave him (which Mohamed had provided). Mohamed laughing explained to us that he basically shouted “Who are these cheap skates you bring me Mohamed, where is the green (US dollars)?”

Anyway, Mohamed was entertaining, got us access to a few things that the regular tours don’t, including having us take photos inside tombs or even scale the outside of the pyramids a little — “you are our guests, it is OK for you”.
And yes, when we finished the tour he took us to his museum against our wishes “well, we have to go because you want to pay with card so…” and then his wife got seriously pissed off and upset at us when we refused to sit and basically insisted on paying and leaving. “I am a doctor of aromatherapy, I want to teach you about the ancient lotus flower.”

When we spoke with our Mohamed (the Airbnb host) later, it seems we got away relatively lightly — at least for the horse and cart tour we only paid a small amount over the government set rate. And for us, we’d enjoyed the tour of the pyramids, we saw what we wanted to see without being further harassed and felt like we’d received a good education on the sorts of things to continue to look out for.

I don’t want anyone to think that I’m really complaining that much about the scammers. Ultimately it’s all part of the experience. Karina and I have long held a rule when travelling which is that Day One you’re going to get ripped off — you just have to roll with it. And to be honest, most of the scammers are fairly charming and actually fun to talk to — once they realise that you’re not going to take the bait, they move on quickly enough. It’s not worth their time. It does get wearying hearing the same story over and over again, but at the same time you also have to treat it as a game — it’s part of the culture, haggling and trying to get one over the other is all how the game is played.

I’ve read that the less English they speak the more honest they are! And this has proven to be true. We’ve found many Egyptians to be gracious hosts and proud of their country. From the street falafel sellers who were just excited to have a foreigner come into their store and proceeded to make exact change for us (when they could have taken far more and I’d never have known), to the man on his motorbike who went out of his way to guide our Uber driver to Saqqarah when we got lost and then refused our money. And even Mohamed, our Airbnb host whom I ungraciously referred to as a Russian Mobster on my first impression, once he knew us, was generous and helpful without expecting a great deal in return.

After Giza we headed into old Cairo and wandered through the souks for a bit which is a fascinating experience. Ultimately it’s all window shopping for us as we have no desire for any of the typical tourist trinkets people might buy, but we found some good street food and enjoyed the hustle and bustle of markets. It’s amazing just how much here is still made by hand, people creating wooden buckets, butchers tables, welding pots, pans and all sorts of other things made in the souks. And of course, we met our share of scammers, but we become quite proficient at brushing them off.

Thursday morning we headed into the Egyptian Museum (the “Mummy museum” the locals call it), to see Tutankhamun and a lot of other “old shit”. They are building a new museum out at Giza where all the displays from the “Mummy Museum” will be relocated which frankly makes a heap of sense. It means tourists won’t need to hit the centre of the city now, and instead can just go to Giza, see the Pyramids and the “Mummy Museum” and get on out of there. The museum is due an update as well — the displays are literally 100 years old in some cases and it’s poorly maintained and with a distinct lack of coherence as to how it’s put together. They’ve also started to pack it up ready for the move, so it was actually interesting to see how some exhibits are all padded up ready for the relocation.

In the afternoon we went to Saqqarah. This has the famous Step Pyramid — the oldest one in Egypt and we really enjoyed it. The centre of the Step Pyramid is a lot more dramatic than the ones at Giza (which were full of ‘hippies’ meditating and recharging their chakras or something… lots of fancy hand waving and weaving things out of the air) and the site itself feels a lot more cohesive than Giza — better displays, a better sense of how it plugged together.

It’s also home to my two favourite signs. One for the tomb of the “two brothers” describes two friends who were the hairdressers to the king, who were buried together and who were inscribed in several portraits in intimate positions which are usually reserved for a man and women. Historians believe they were “close friends”. The other sign is at the entrance and includes a specific warning against conducting any of the rituals inscribed in the tombs. I’m intrigued by what caused this warning to be written — someone has seen some shit and they’re not having any more of it.

One of the interesting things about Saqqarah is that it’s the site of a lot of active excavation still. Just this year (January 2021) they discovered a new tomb which contained 8 million (approximately) mummified animals! It’s estimated that less than 1% of the archeological remains and tombs in Egypt have been discovered, but a lot is obviously being lost under the expansion of Cairo and the shifting desert sands.

It was then back to our palace, a nice local Egyptian dinner and packing for our car transfer on Friday.

If you want to go to Egypt, I’ve heard people say that 2–3 days in Cairo is enough and I agree. It’s huge — it’s a city with about 22 million people in the greater metro area, it’s the 6th largest mega city in the world. It’s filthy, dirty and tough to get around. It’s also one of the few places that I actually think it’s worth considering taking a guided tour. Karina and I consider ourselves more adventurous than most, but especially for Giza, you’d get just as much out of it, in a lot more comfort and with less stress with an organised group — and probably around the same price as dealing with the scammers! Saqqarah though, no issues.

A local hanging out at Saqqarah

Also for us Saqqarah was day two, so those early jitters of acclimatising to the scammers was now out of the way. In fact a guard in Saqqarah said to Karina “your husband tips like an Arab”, which he seemed to consider a compliment and rather than shake us off as being cheap, gave us a bonus tour of some extra things! As always a few local Arabic words (which have stuck with me from spending four years in Jordan growing up) go a long way too.

Friday morning at 9AM our ride to Hurghada arrived. We knew nothing of Hurghada, other than the marina was a “Top 3” in places to visit in Egypt, so we figured “why not” and that’s about as much planning as we put into it. Also marinas equal boats and we like boats. I vaguely thought there might be a live aboard community here and we could explore that a bit too (spoiler alert, there’s not).

As we’ve now discovered, Hurghada is very popular because it’s on the Red Sea, it’s close to coral reefs and it’s very popular for diving. The marina is FULL of diving boats — big, 30 meter, four story things that take 30 divers a trip to do 2–3 days diving tours of the reefs.

Karina had booked us into a resort which was listed on the printed Expedia reference we had with us as “Albatros White Sands”. This proved confusing to the driver as it turns out there are several Albatros hotels, but we persisted, found what we thought was the right one and he dutifully dropped us off outside as instructed.

The 6 hour journey from Cairo was tiring to say the least. Dead straight roads, desert and nothing really to see (we found out after this is the “beautiful route”, our upcoming trip to Luxor is considered even more dull). There are lots of security checkpoints and lots of scary traffic moments, including the driver looking like he was close to dozing off. But we made it.

These hills were an interesting, but far too brief a part of our journey to Hurghada

So when we looked up at our new hotel, our hearts sank. We came all the way here for this? After Cairo we were really looking forward to this resort that we’d booked. It was expensive and supposedly had a pool view and a junior suite, but this “White Albatros” was a dump. We pulled out my phone and decided that instead of searching the name, we’d look up the address. Turns out we were about 5 kilometres away and it was actually labelled “White Beach Resort” on the map. A quick taxi ride and we pulled up outside a resort that was in fact a delight.

When we walked in, we were given wrist bands to wear (feels a bit like we’re in a hospital said Karina), but it turns out that for the hotel, EVERYTHING was included. All the food, all the drinks, all the alcohol. It turned what was basically a luxury two nights stay into one that, while still luxurious, was a lot better value than we expected!

The funniest thing about the hotel is that all the guests are either German or Russian. The waiters (and they are ALL males — no visible female staff working here except in the beauty salon) all speak to us in German first, and then think we are from “Austria” instead of “Australia”.

It’s been overall a pleasant change — after Cairo it’s been lovely to be in this little oasis where there’s no baksheesh, no need to pull out your money with tips not accepted. Is it Egypt? Well it’s a different part of it, and it’s an exclusive one, but it’s certainly not how the locals live. We’ll enjoy our two days here swimming in the Red Sea, eating and relaxing in the sun then head today to Luxor to get back to experiencing the culture again.

I wonder what adventures the next Airbnb place will bring?

Until next time,

Tim & Karina