Reflections on holiday travel 2011: Part 2, Egypt

In my last blog post I spoke about my travels to Kenya. When we departed, we stopped over in Cairo for a couple of days. We flew in on the 4:00 am Air Egypt flight from Nairobi. Egypt was nice, and arriving at the new terminal at CAI was smooth. A few interesting things were noticeable–first of all, almost the entire plane was transfers.  Also at the arrivals (it was 8:30 am when we arrived) we were like the only people picking up baggage–I guess nobody was travelling to Egypt? I’ll get back to this later but where was I? Ah, yes, check-in was smooth as I’d arranged for airport pickup via Memphis Tours–Memphis tours were with us the whole trip for daily private transportation and guide. They organized pickup which included check-in through immigration and customs, then dropped us off at our hotel, which was the Four Seasons at Nile Plaza.

Now the Four Seasons was a little more expensive than an hotel I’d typically stay at, I did stretch a little. My thinking for this trip though was I’ll pay a little more, and in the end it paid off. Outstanding service and attention to details, just like pickup at the airport I never had to worry about anything at all.  I wouldn’t always travel in such luxury, I think part of the charm of travelling is also the street level hustle-n-bustle that backpackers experience. There’s virtues to both I guess.  But yeah, the Four Seasons at the Nile Plaza is at a central location in Cairo, and it overlooks the Nile river.  Memphis would pick us up and drop us here every day that we were there.

Cairo is a crazy city, it is a dense city that takes a while for your mind to adjust to–for me it was more of an urban setting than even New York, in New York or a Hong Kong stuff is ordered, and more predictable.  Cairo is ‘organized chaos’  and is actually like a hyper-version of Nairobi, so it’s a good thing that I’d visited Nairobi first as I think it prepared me. It has got to be the toughest city in the world to drive in. Lanes? What Lanes. Traffic lights are ignored. Every car has scratches and dents, that’s just how they roll!  

We didn’t waste time getting onto our agenda, at night on the day of our arrival we started out with the Sound and Light show at the Pyramids. I wanted to see the Pyramids at night first, plus it was a chill way to get into the flow of things. On the way back we stopped by Tahir square, which was near our hotel. For me as a student of international relations, it was a memorable occasion. I chatted with a young gentleman who had been part of the revolution in Egypt–it was surreal to do that and then buy some Hardees (the French fries were actually the ‘excuse’ that I’d used to get us into Tahir square).  By the way I didn’t feel unsafe there–again I’ll get to this at the end. 

The next day, Memphis took us on a full day tour of the pyramids at Giza and the surrounding areas that included the ancient capital of Egypt. They provided us with a very knowledgeable tour guide (for the whole trip we had the tour guide, and also the coordinator who’d met us at the airport).  Because we were touring with a company, getting into sites was smooth, we didn’t have to worry about anything.  Highlights from day one included the pyramids, and the majestic statue of Ramses. 

I admit, I was afraid at one point in my life–after I returned from Rome, Italy, that that had been such a peak experience that I’d never have that much fun again. Memorable as it was, that was the wrong approach to have, and was proved wrong by the new memories created in Kenya and Egypt. This has taught me to smile and cherish good times, but to not despair when they end as the future holds new adventures.

Time does seem to stand still when you see these wonders of the world.

 

It was not just the major landmarks that were a highlight, but also we went to a carpet school and a perfumery.  When I travel, in addition to the touristy things, I try to get some street-level unique experience that is representative of everyday culture, and chatting with people at the carpet school and perfumery were highlights in this regard.  We were able to vibe with the people, and hear them–they’ve been hit hard by dip in tourism to Egypt which was unfortunate to hear. 

Day two was the Egyptian museum in the morning.  In there I saw more gold and ancient statues than I ever had before, and to imagine that is just the stuff that was found! Who knows how many more treasures there left to discover.  The afternoon focused on religious landmarks.  We visited the imposing Citadel in Islamic Cairo, and then after that we saw two important churches in coptic cairo–including the church in which the holy family (jesus, mary & joseph) fled from King Herrod. It is humbling to visit places like these–Egypt is so much more than just the Pyramids as I found out. 

I first learned of this in the movie "Kingdom of Heaven" (the one with Orlando Bloom)

Our last day was something special.  We did a “Desert Safari“. By the pyramids. At the edge of the Sahara desert. Now you know everyone does the camel at the pyramids, right? But this is a lesser known secret. What an adrenaline rush, I’ve never been as pumped, the desert safari was basically us riding and RACING on sand dunes in the desert on ATV motorbikes, with the pyramids as a backdrop.  Those three hours felt like thirty hours, it was such pure bliss.  If you ever go to any country in North Africa or the Middle East, be sure to do a desert safari. 

So that was the end of the trip, Memphis dropped us of later, and they played a big part in making this trip memorable.  The coordinator and the tour guide were both outstanding.  On Egypt, there were a few observations:

– It is cheap! It’s a very affordable country to visit.  I’d come from Nairobi, and I found Kenya to be much more expensive.  In fact I’d be surprised if there is a cheaper major world city than Cairo. 

– The media has definitely overplayed the safety situation.  It is not unsafe there.  Unless one planned to take part in protests, there is nothing to fear.  Take chances in life! There’s a million reasons not to do anything, but don’t let doubt and fear ruin the opportunities.  The hotel was not at capacity, and many of the sites had about half the tourists they normally would.  This made it better for us to get around, but then many people are missing out on a great time. 

Hope this has resonated with others that have been to Egypt! For those that are planning a vacation and looking for a place definitely consider there! Egypt becomes the 2nd country on my list of countries that I’ll visit again in my lifetime (the other one being Italy).