Monday, November 30, 2015

Cairo, Egypt, Part 2: Egypt is Safe!

Ok maybe I shouldn't write that title, mainly because I feel like I'm inviting trouble that way. Knocking on the wooden back of my chair as we speak. But I wanted to start my blog post today about the safety of being a girl by myself traveling through Egypt, because I feel like that's the number one question I've gotten. 

It's been pretty well-publicized that the Middle East may not be the safest place to be right now.  I started out uncertain about how long I was going to stay in Egypt after Thai & Maria left. I was waiting to feel it out - if it didn't feel safe, I was planning on heading somewhere else.  

But having spent the last couple of days in Cairo wandering around alone, not only have I totally felt safe, but I've met a ton of locals/tourists/Westerners who have all said it's a media problem that paints Egypt in a bad light. Yes, some parts of Egypt are likely not safe to be tromping around (cough Northern Sinai Peninsula), but for the most part, the rest of the country has been completely wonderful. Not only have not felt threatened a single time, but I've found the Egyptian people to be totally lovely.  Yes, you will see metal detectors, checkpoints, and guards with guns everywhere - it's an adjustment, but you honestly just get used to it, and it seems like just a part of life after awhile. 

The thing that breaks my heart the most is how empty all the touristy things are, and how dying for tourists the locals seem. If you look around, you see remnants of old tour companies that have shut down, hotels that have closed, etc. It's so sad. COME TO EGYPT. Every day, I will hear at least one sad story from a local about the drop in tourism, with some imploring me to tell others it's fine.  In fact, as a sad aftereffect, it seems some of the vendors are even a little more harass-y because they really need the business. 

As a small caveat - I will say that you will absolutely get stared at by the men here (and given you're really the only person who looks different than others, it's not hard to be noticed), but not overly different from Sri Lanka or other parts of the world where being a single female is rarer.  To my surprise, however, I've encountered genuinely lovely and helpful locals for the most part.  And it's encouraged me to stay here and explore more (because trust me, no one is more concerned with my safety than me). As a side note, I've met a lot of other tourists - and surprisingly, many solo females! (just none from the States).  

You can't see with the size of the photo, but here's a tour group - for their group photo, they are all holding signs that say "EGYPT IS SAFE", distributed by the tour so they can post the photo on their website. Break. my. heart.

Cliffnotes of the Past 3 Days:
  • My first day alone, I laid low and organized a bunch of stuff in our fancy Marriott room (I was moving to a hostel that night, so I savored every last second of fancy life).  Later, I met a guy named Eric - he's from New Jersey but currently lives in Cairo working as a journalist. We sat on a terrace and had drinks - it was such a nice night out and I loved getting to hear about local Cairo life. I forgot to take a photo, but trust I don't need a certificate of authenticity.
  • The next day, I went to go wander the Old City of Cairo, in an area called Coptic Cairo. This area has tons and tons of churches, and is where the original Egyptians (called the Copts, who were all Christian - before Egypt became Muslim) lived and still do today. It is a neighborhood packed full of history (it was thought that Jesus, Mary and Joseph came to this area when escaping from Herod) and is super historic and cute to walk. Get ready for a million church photos.

Getting to the Coptic Quarter also involved a fun little jaunt on the Cairo Metro. This is a terrible photo of what I discovered later is a ladies-only car of the train (INFO THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN HELPFUL EARLIER). According to the Lonely Planet - if you're a solo female and you're getting harassed - as consolation, it apparently happens to local women too. Thanks, LP. Also, not only did I NOT get harassed (I did get stared down though), but two separate lovely locals made room for me on the totally packed train and gestured for me to take their spots, both on the way there and back. I have now deduced that I must constantly look very helpless.
A very old, very historic fortress from Roman times

And here are the cute narrow passageways of the Coptic quarter!
Church of St. George. I think this was a Greek Orthodox church. I fail at religious buildings.

And then I somehow got roped into the Coptic Museum. I didn't even know what it was but was suddenly ushered in. This museum was HUGE and housed tons of artifacts (buildings, reliefs, paintings, clothing, materials, etc.) from the Coptic people. It was actually really cool because since this stuff pre-dates all the Muslim stuff, it is REALLY old.
Artsy window
A view of St. George's church from the Coptic Museum
And this is the famous Hanging Church! It's one of the oldest churches in Egypt (3rd century AD)

And here is the Hanging Church's altar
And the pretty facade
A relief in the courtyard of the Hanging Church

  • After being inundated with churches, I headed back to downtown Cairo - the sun was setting and it was gorgeous.  I went to dinner with some guys from the hostel at a local joint nearby, then met up with Eric (from the day before) to go to a Cairo jazz club. It was super cool (there were all these cover bands, the last of which seemed to have a Maroon 5 obsession) - and I loved getting to be somewhere "local." Small side note, it's super weird being somewhere where people are allowed to smoke indoors again. 

Cairo's Tahrir Square, site of the 2011 revolution
Streets of Cairo at sunset (which actually makes the city look really nice, if I do say so myself. Now imagine garbage and weird crumbling buildings down every other road you turn down).

  • The next day, I spent making plans for the rest of my time in Egypt (I made the decision to stay for the entire two weeks before heading to Tanzania because there's SO MANY things I want to do in Egypt still + I feel totally safe being here). That night, one of my hostel roommates, Mauricio, invited me to dinner with some of his local friends. Mauricio is a lawyer from Brazil (but more currently living in London), and has a local Egyptian friend named Mohamed: they went to law school in London together and Mohamed is now a local judge in Cairo. Anyhow, we went to the world's most delicious seafood restaurant, called Sea Gull, which is located conveniently on the Nile River. 

And we got a baller spot on the patio right on the water. Mauricio (next to me) and I just let Mohamed (a Cairo local), order everything. Which meant Mohamed ordered like 15 courses of seafood. It was out of control. 
None of these photos are going to do the meal justice, but to the left is a squid medley, and to the right is a mussel medley
You get a crab! You get a crab! EVERYONE GETS A CRAB!
Some kind of delicious creamy lobster/shrimp/seafood soup
This really doesn't look that appetizing, but it was delicious. Mohamed went down to the kitchen and personally chose each of us a fish. At the top is a shrimp, of which there were two entire plates full of (seasoned differently). I almost died of overeating.
The sun sets on the restaurant
  • It was one of those great, great nights - good food, good company, and totally random. I didn't know Mauricio that well, but ended up at a dinner with him and friends on a boat eating seafood (some friends of his law school friends showed up later, and they were the greatest, funniest girls). Nights like these are just another reason I love to travel.  The sweetest thing was that Mohamed secretly paid the bill without us knowing - I felt like a total freeloader given he was just probably trying to treat his friend (and not the hanger-on), but he rebuffed all my attempts to pay.

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • Egyptian elevators = no doors. Unless you're at a fancy hotel. Otherwise, get used to seeing the floors zoom by maniacally while going up or down floors.
  • On that note, most of the apartment/business buildings here look a little murder-alley-esque on the inside. Like my hostel is on the 4th floor of this very murder-y looking building - the inside is full of dusty staircases, cobwebbed windows, rando broken furniture sitting in the corner, trash, homeless people, (ELEVATORS WITHOUT DOORS) - but when you enter the actual hostel, it's like another world. I've found this is fairly standard for Cairo, and kind of the norm here. Which contributes to the fact that Cairo is just not a very pretty city from the outside. But it has definitely grown on me.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Cairo, Egypt, Part 1: Let's Just Start With The Pyramids

...because why wouldn't you just spend Day 1 in Cairo heading straight to the Pyramids?

I headed from Qatar to Egypt to meet up with my friend Thai - he's a good friend of mine from Austin, who was on a trip with his friend Maria. We had made plans to meet in Cairo earlier, which I was super glad for, only because I'm not sure I would have headed to Egypt by myself otherwise.

Maria, Thai, and me at the Great Pyramids!

What It's All About:
Cairo! Capital of Egypt, home of the Great Pyramids, and packed with people. This city is huge - over 20 million people in the metro area (can you imagine??)  Actually, you can imagine - because once you get here, there's sprawl everywhere. To be honest, it's not the prettiest city (I'm going to say smog and garbage were my first two impressions), but in terms of historical and cultural richness, Cairo can't be beat.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Met up with Thai and Maria! Fancy life, re-commence (and by "fancy life," I clearly just mean "normal hotels").  We started Day 1 with a tour with My Great Egypt Tours (which, very randomly, some guy I shared a taxi with in Jordan in July raved about to me and I happened to write down). 
Off the side of a busy road; a man shepherding his gigantic flock

And among all the crazy roads and drivers, random burro-pulled vehicles are also everywhere

  • Our tour started in the ancient city of Memphis (but not Tennessee!), which was a former capital city of Lower Egypt around 5,000 years ago (FIVE. THOUSAND. YEARS.) - back when Egypt was divided between Lower and Upper Egypt.

A tiny little Sphinx precursor in the ancient capital of Memphis City with Thai and Maria

The crowning jewel of Memphis is this statue they found of Rameses II, which is seriously gigantor - see tiny Thai in the back for reference

  • Next, we hit up Saqqara, the largest necropolis, aka lots of dead people are buried here, or the ancient burial grounds for the city of Memphis.
One of the famous step pyramids; the ancient king Djoser's tomb

And then we got to visit some of the tombs! Descending into one of the tombs in Saqqara

Which had a super tiny entrance you had to stoop down through for awhile

And inside, incredible hieroglyphics!!! The clarity of these were amazing

And the ceiling had tons of starfish carved into it!

We were told that photos weren't allowed - and then out of nowhere, the local guide scouted the scene for other people and seeing that we were alone, he let us take as many photos as we wanted (all while shouting "shhh!" as if we were all in on a big secret together), and lifted Maria into one of the tombs.  Um. Ok. Later on, we found out the reason when he asked for tips.

Some other talents of our local guide besides lifting us into sacred old tombs: fashioning our scarves into head scarves for us, and immediately changing his face from smiley-to-serial-killer as soon as anyone pulled out a camera

Entering another tomb for a high priest. Can you believe these years and how old these are?? ...Bueller?

This tomb was crazy because the carvings and color are all over 5,000 years old! Also, the carvings are all of the man whose tomb it is. Amazing.
  • And then......drumroll......the Pyramids of Giza!!! There are 3 main big ones (but 6 in total) - built over 5k years ago. The largest one is called the Great Pyramid, for the ancient Egyptian pharoah Cheops, and is almost 500 feet tall.  Its scale seriously defies belief.  The other two pyramids are for Cheops' son and grandson, which get slightly smaller in succession.

The Great Pyramid was huge - each brick weighs 1.5-2 tons, and the pyramid is made of more than 2.3 million of these bricks! It took over 100,000 workers over 20 years to construct this

Big pyramid, medium pyramid

Sitting on some of the Great Pyramids' GIANT 2-TON BRICKS

  • We then went to a panoramic overlook of all the pyramids, where our attempt to take some photos turned into a full-blown photo shoot guided by a local.

These were all posed by the man taking our photo, which tells me it wasn't his first rodeo

And then he let us do jumping photos

Group shot!

3 Asians go to Egypt

  • And one of the best parts.....camel riding!

Just casually taking a ridearoo on a camel next to the pyramids

My camel was the CUTEST

And my camel and Maria's camel were apparently in love. And by this time, Thai's camel had wandered off alone.

Thai's camel was fancy and would pose all elite

Eeeeeeee!  Please note my camel and Maria's camel are still in love.
Camel kisses! Fun fact, this is actually Maria's camel because apparently he is more attractive for photos

  • To top off the day, we ended at the Great (nose-less) Sphinx!

Hi, Great Sphinx!

We are doing great at these photos

Our tour guide for the day, Hamdy. Decked out in Thai-gangster-style.

  • The next day we spent chilling at our hotel, which is the most blinged-out/fancy Marriott known to man. Such a step up from the hostels (and because Thai is some kind of fancy member, we get free food and drinks from the super elite lounge)!

View of the Nile River from our room balcony

Hotel pool + more Cairo

The entrance to the lobby. Not complaining about how royal this hotel looks

  • We walked down to a Nile River-side restaurant called The Sequoia that was recommended to me by another guy I shared a taxi to the airport with in Nepal (I didn't even get the guy's name, but wrote down like 5 Cairo recommendations he gave me). To be honest, the Nile is not the prettiest river (OR JUST A RIVER IN EGYPT), but The Sequoia was gorrrrrrrgeous and open-air and such a great place to watch the sunset.

Dinner overlooking the Nile

The Sequoia interior = cutest

More waterside sunset restaurants

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • There are also tuk-tuks in Cairo!
  • Egypt is one of the countries that seems semi-unsafe to the Western world (and some parts definitely are). But the one thing that many locals, guides, hotel staff, etc. have been concerned with conveying to us is that Egypt is safe (except for the Sinai peninsula perhaps). Post the 2011 revolution, tourism in Egypt has dropped like crazy - in fact, as you can see in the photos, we are some of the only tourists in most of the places we went. Even in the pyramids, our guide said they used to be completely packed - you couldn't take a photo without 20 other tourists in it. And they were incredibly empty when we were there.  It's sad, and I can say we've felt fine so far (there's security checkpoints everywhere), but I guess the real test is when Thai/Maria leave tomorrow and I'm alone in Cairo.  No worries though, I will be super safe!

Moment of the Day:
Upon arrival at the Marriott, Thai had thoughtfully pre-ordered the world's most delicious birthday cake to the room! 

AND gifted me a hot pink power bank (given my power bank also died an instant death in Sri Lanka a couple weeks back; apparently when traveling your electronics have a ~6-month shelf life).  

Friends are seriously the best.

Please ignore the random pen, hotel phone from 1970, and fruit plate.