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Cairo, Egypt

Map%20of%20EgyptEgypt in general, and Cairo in particular is the ultimate land of contrasts.  I have variously been impressed, interested, amused, frustrated and terribly angry with the place.  At times, I felt like I'd never be happier to leave a place, and at other times I felt like I just scratched the surface of what there is to see.  Where else in the world can you see 5,000 year old monuments, mud huts with extremely poor people living in them, and glass and steel skyscrapers all by simply turning around in a half circle?  Cairo is the ultimate Old meets New, East meets West, Rich meets Poor destination.

You can learn some facts about Egypt from the usual FactBook.  Egypt is about 10% the size of the U.S., or about 2.5 times the size of California.  Its population is about 25% of the U.S. population, so that makes it's population density about 2.5 times that of the U.S.  The vast majority of the people live along the Nile, and in fact about 30% live in Cairo, so the average population density for the populated areas is much higher than the U.S.  Most of the western half of the country is the virtually uninhabited Western Desert.

Cairo is huge.  It has a population of 20 million.  That makes it more than double the size of New York City (8 million), and about 2/3 the population of California (30 million).  It also has a very high population density, although not as high as many Asian cities. This somewhat distorted skyline view shows Cairo from the top of the 50 story Cairo Tower.  It's distorted because it's a merged shot that looks about 1/3 of the way around in a circle.  You'll see more of those as we go along. A better image of the first 1/3 of the picture shows the pyramids in relation to the city.  The population density is so high that there are some unusual housing situations.  For example, in the City Of The Dead, people live in the middle of a graveyard.

As with any city, Cairo has lots of different districts, each of which has a different character.  In some parts, people live in shacks made of mud, or old bombed out shells of buildings.  In other areas, people live in grand mansions as ostentatious as any in the world.  In some places, you can cross from an outright impoverished area to a fairly prosperous area by simply crossing a road.

In general, Cairo is not a green city at all.  There are a few of the better districts that have tree along some of the streets, and there may be a park or two, but for the most part it looks like a place carved out of the desert a thousand years ago.  Any trees that were here are long gone, and only the very rich areas have any greenery at all.  It's also a pretty grimy city.  In most areas, the streets are relatively clean because of an army of people that go along and sweep them with long bristled straw brooms, but the grime of pollution and badly repaired buildings is fairly pervasive.

While I'm on the subject of roads, I should mention the traffic in Cairo.  It's absolutely chaotic.  If you're ever tempted to drive in Egypt take a rest until you get over it.  Watching the traffic, it seems like there should be an accident every five minutes, but it all seems to work out.  Lane markers in the road are merely suggestions, and a traffic signal is only an opinion.  All drivers drive like madmen.  It's quite common for a car to simply start driving down the middle between two lanes of traffic, honking his horn and expect the two cars on each side to make room if it's possible.  This is not considered rude or in any way out of place.  If you need to cross five lanes of traffic, you simply start turning and honking and force your way across.  At uncontrolled intersections, people just come in from all directions and fight their way across, assuming the other traffic will make a hole, which it does.  It's not at all uncommon for two cars to merge into the same lane of fast moving traffic at the same time.  Honking and dodging around anything in your path is considered absolutely normal. The horn is considered an absolutely essential piece of equipment.  Drivers appear to use some bat-like sonar to navigate.  The basic rule is that the person in front, even if it's only a few cm has the right of way.  People behind signal their presence with the horn, and the person in front tries to make room.  Headlights are not used at night, except to flash at people that are too far away to hear your horn.  There are a few traffic lights, and cars do tend to respect them a bit more than they do in Rome, but quite a few of the lights have policemen stationed there all the time, and they're just as likely to override the signal as to let it be.  They look at the traffic, and using a whistle and baton, start or stop it as appropriate.

Now for pedestrians, crossing this chaotic mix of cars is something like a high stakes game of Chicken.  You look for an opening big enough for you to move across a single lane of traffic.  It's considered quite normal to cross one lane when that's all you can cross, and then stand in the middle of a bunch of whizzing cars waiting for the next opening.  Mothers do this with young children that can barely walk, and think nothing of it.  The most gutsy thing I saw was a young woman crossing the traffic on 26th of July bridge.  This is five lanes of traffic in each direction (more or less), going around 55 kph (35 MPH), with the typically Egyptian chaotic flow.  She simply moved across all five lanes, standing for about a minute between each lane.  I simply stared in awe.

They also don't seem very convinced that the new sidewalk innovation will ever catch on, so you end up just walking in the edge of the traffic a lot.  Cars whiz by you, and you just have to either get used to it, or take a taxi everywhere.  Since my new favorite thing is to just walk around in a city to see what I see, the taxi idea doesn't fly so we just got used to it.  I even got used to the suicidal traffic crossings after a while, although if you're patient you can usually get a pretty clear shot almost anywhere within a few minutes.  That gives you a minute to look around and see something, as well as giving time for the locals to look at you and mumble "Tourists!".

The busses are another matter.  They either don't stop at all and you're just supposed to jump onto the correct bus; or they stop in the oddest places.  It's not at all unusual for a bus to stop in the middle of a busy lane of traffic, wait for a few people to get on or off, and then go on it's way.  The cars behind just make their way around it as they can, and nobody thinks anything of it. The oddest place I saw one stop was in the middle of traffic, in the middle of a bridge.  This made absolutely no sense, since the only way people could get to that stop is to walk through traffic to the middle of the bridge, while passing at least one place that would have been a better stopping point.  Busses tend to have fixed routes, but no markings.  A bus goes by a stop, and someone at the door shouts out where it's going.  If you want to go there, you Bonzai it onto the bus and go, because it frequently doesn't stop.  Naturally, if people can be fit in, they are fit in, so it's not at all uncommon to have two or three people hanging outside the door.

Once you think you understand transportation in Cairo, you go to the Metro and find a big surprise.  Cairo has the only Metro in all of Africa, or the Middle East.  You go down and the Metro is frighteningly clean, well ordered and efficient.  It seems like a complete disconnect.  The front two cars on every train are reserved for women, and the ubiquitous Egyptian Smoking is not allowed.  You can't believe where you are.

Speaking of the Metro, on the first day of the visit, Noelle and I were trying to figure out how to go somewhere.  We walked for a while just to see the city a bit, then decided to get serious and get on the metro to go to the Egyptian Antiquities Museum.  We studied the metro map for a while, and decided we needed to go in a particular direction for two stops.  We did so, and then thought the street name sounded familiar.  Sure enough, we had managed to get on the Metro just to retrace our route back to our hotel, which was in fact three blocks from said museum.

Once you're in the museum, you start to get a real idea of what Egypt is all about.  The main thing to remember about Egypt is it's old.  It's hard as an American to get a real sense of age, because we're essentially a new country.  One saying that's kind of true is "The difference between an Englishman and an American is an Englishman thinks 100 miles is a long distance, and an American thinks 100 years is a long time."  The entire history of the United States is 225 years, and the entire history of Europeans in North America is 400 years.  When you read the abbreviated history of Egypt, you'll occasionally run across a dynasty that only lasted a few hundred years, and it's hardly worth a footnote unless they did something really spectacular.

Most historians think civilization originally started in Egypt along the Nile River, around 10,000 years ago. This is wrong.  It actually started in the Fertile Crescent, the region around modern day Palestine, Jordan and Iraq.  It came to Egypt later as a complete crop package.  Summer was the first real civilization, but you might argue that Egypt was the first Great civilization. As you probably know, growing crops in soil removes nutrients from the soil, and if you just plant and grow for a few years you deplete the soil, forcing you to move on.  This was the essential problem faced by the early inventors of agriculture, and it's still the main problem facing indigenous people in many parts of Vietnam, Brazil and other places.  In these places, the locals practice what's called "Slash and Burn" agriculture, which consists of cutting down and burning areas of the Rain Forest to plant crops.  The soil only lasts a couple of seasons, so they have to slash and burn another section.  This is one of the biggest reasons for the rapid depletion of the rain forests in the world. The Nile floods every year, covering the land with silt.  This silt renews the land by dumping new topsoil and nutrients in it.  This allowed the early beginnings of agriculture, and civilization follows agriculture.  Interestingly enough, a new dam named the Aswan High Dam has stopped the annual flooding, to allow more irrigation of the desert (see map).  This means that after 10,000 years of Egyptian agriculture, the Egyptians must now renew the soil using chemicals.

The Pyramids are 5,000 years old.  This means that when Herodotus, a Greek historian started writing about them in 500 B.C., they were already more than 2,000 years old.  For thousands of years, successive generations of Egyptian and Imperial rulers have been stealing the shiny outer casing from them, so that now they're only a pale shadow of what they used to be, and they're still magnificent.  You can read history books, and think about these things in the abstract, but you really need to be there to feel the age.  The ancient Greeks wrote about the Seven Wonders Of The World.  The Pyramids are the only one that's still here.  They're especially impressive, if you have moved a few big rocks around in your life as I have.  It's difficult for someone that hasn't worked with rock to fully appreciate how hard it is to move the gigantic blocks of rock that were used for their construction.  I keep reading about new theories about how they were built, and the theories seem to get upgraded every ten years or so, but the bottom line is that even today we don't really know exactly how they did it.  One thing we do know is that they used a lot of people (over 100,000 on a construction project).  One new bit of evidence that's come to light lately is that most of them were not slaves as had been previously thought, but free journeymen that were paid for their labor.  All this can give you an idea, and I could even write down the size of some of the stones used inside the burial chambers, but suffice it to say you just wouldn't quite get it until you stand there next to it, or inside it, and try to picture doing all that by hand using bronze tools.  It's a magnificent feat of construction, the like of which was never done before, and has never been done since.

No trip to Egypt would be complete without at least one Cheesy Pyramid Shot.  I went out at dawn one day to see sunrise at the pyramids, but it turned out to be foggy so I ended up just seeing some fog.  I did however ride around on this horse for a while, and am reminded why everyone changed over to cars and bicycles as soon as they were available.  It's just not that good of an idea to go charging around on an 800 pound animal, that has the intellect of a gray squirrel.  The funny part is that if I'd gotten a better map of the area and researched better, I could have covered the same ground in less time and more comfort on my bike.  Lesson learned.

One thing I never realized is that most of the major pyramids and the Sphinx are very close together, and the Sphinx isn't all that big (relatively).  It's big for the level of technology used to build it, but not very big compared to the pyramids, and certainly not as big as the photographs of it would generally lead you to believe.  You can see the Sphinx and three pyramids from this shot.  You can get an idea of the size of them from this shot, or perhaps this, or this.  Keep in mind, these were built by hand, when all of Europe was populated by hunter-gatherer societies living in tents, or very small villages.  Most of the major pyramids are concentrated in an area called the Valley of the Pyramids which is only a few miles long, and only a few miles outside Cairo.  At the time they were built, Cairo didn't exist.  The capitol of Egypt at the time was in the lost city of Memphis, of which pretty much nothing remains.  As the history of Egypt unfolded, the capital was moved from place to place based on the current ruler's whims, with Alexandria and Cairo being the most recent.

You may notice a hazy smog layer around the pyramids.  That's because Cairo is an exceedingly smoggy city.  It's very overcrowded, has too many cars and smokers, and almost all of the cars run poorly and spit out huge amounts of pollution.  The typical Taxi was made sometime in the early 60s, and doesn't appear to have had a tune-up since.  The busses are even worse.  In addition to that, cars have a 200% import duty.  That means to  buy a $10,000 car, you'd have to pay $20,000 in taxes.  This is probably intended to keep the number of cars down, which is a good idea since there are too many for their infrastructure now; but it has the side effect of keeping cars that should be retired in service for way too long.

If you go to Cairo, there are two museums of note.  I don't have a lot of pictures, because pictures taken in museums are almost always boring as can be, but there are a few examples worth seeing.  This Flint Knife is an excellent example of copper-age stone carving.  These cabinets show some Jewelry and Necklaces that are several thousand years old, but wouldn't appear out of place today.  Note that I say "several thousand".  That's because the museums in Egypt are all exceedingly badly labeled, or not labeled at all.  The funniest bit of labeling Noelle found was in Alexandria, where a museum was labeled in Arabic and Braille, but not in English or French.  The labeling tends to be very sporadic.  You'll come to an area where the person that set up the exhibit was on the ball, and everything is in three languages.  Then you go to the next room, and nothing's labeled at all.  The other oddity I saw in Egypt was museums where the lights aren't on all the time.  Old men hang out and follow you around the museum turning on lights, and mugging for a tip.

The most popular museum is the Museum of Antiquities.  This is the one that includes the King Tutenkamen (or King Tut as he's commonly known) display.  He died at 10 years of age.  I suspect he's currently famous mostly because his burial ground was extremely well preserved to the present day.  The display was worth looking at, but I nuked my pictures of it somewhere along the line.  However, here are a few things of note.  The part of the Sarcophagus that covered JUST his head contains over 11 kg (about 24 pounds or 400 ounces) of gold.  That's a lot of gold, and that's just the covering for his head.  They had one interesting looking medallion, and I somewhat facetiously called it the "Buzzard God Medallion" because it looked just like a buzzard (real name Vulture, for those of you that have more class than I do).  When I found an actual sign, I found out that they did in fact revere the Vulture somehow, and the medallion looked like a Vulture because it was supposed to.

They also had a very extensive collection of painted, and sculpted artwork going back a few thousand years.  I didn't photograph most of it, and nothing really stands out a lot except the general progression of technique.  For example, you can clearly see where perspective was incorporated into the paintings.  You can also see lots of small techniques that evolved over time into a generally better quality of work, although it's sometimes hard to tell when the earlier pieces are of lower quality just because of the damage of time.

One somewhat odd practice is that they charge you for bringing in a camera to all Egyptian museums, and charge you ten times as much for a video camera.  A camera costs 10 LE (US$ 2.50).  (Note: LE =Egyptian Pounds.  About 4 LE = 1 US$).  A video camera costs 100 LE (US$10.00).  This is in a place where you can get a hotel room for $10.  Personally, I think it's a bit silly, but since video cameras on vacations invariably produce exceedingly dull travel videos anyway, it's probably not such a bad practice.

The museum I ended up liking more was the Islamic Art Museum.  Unfortunately, I nuked all my pictures from there.  It had some absolutely beautiful woodworking, as well as stone work, pottery and glasswork.  Most of it was stuff that didn't photograph well anyway, and the usual abysmal quality of the labeling left me guessing at what a lot of it was.  It was a better museum to visit than the main one, I think, particularly if you have any  interest in history or woodwork.

Cairo also had a couple of very interesting market areas.  Some haven't changed much of anything except the mix of merchandise for hundreds of years.  Most stores are very small by U.S. standards.  Most seem to be around 3m x 5m (9' x 15') or smaller, with some having an upstairs.  They tend to either have exclusively one thing, or a weird eclectic mix of items.  For example, it's not at all uncommon to see a display window containing Walkmans, Cell Phones, Deodorant and Tooth Paste.  It's also quite common to have to go to five or six widely scattered to find what you'd see down one isle of an Orchard Supply. The shopping areas of the city generally fall into two categories.  The streets in the tourist areas tend to have lots of stores along the street just like in the U.S., except for the size and the mix of clothing.  They also have a very big "market" that I mentioned above.  You have to see this place to really experience it.  All of the shops are very small, the market is mostly a walking area, although they drive trucks, bikes and motorcycles through all the time, it's noisy, it's loud, and it's intense.  It was kind of fun to walk through.  They also have one side that's pretty much upscale.  It's relatively clean and the merchandise is relatively nice.  You get to one spot and cross a road though, and it seems like you're back in the middle ages.  The roads are unpaved and muddy, the shops aren't nearly as clean, and the merchandise is much less upscale.

One interesting thing about most of the shops I happened to see is that a lot of them are selling things that Egyptians never seem to wear, but I see Egyptians looking in the windows at them all the time.  For example, it's very difficult to find an Egyptian woman dressed in anything resembling western clothes.  Almost all men wear western style clothes, but women don't.  However, everywhere I went I saw store after store offering western style clothes.  This probably indicates that I never really got outside of the tourist areas, despite my best efforts, but when I looked around I never saw very many tourists, and the number and density of the shops was way to dense for the tourist volume I could see.  I never quite figured that one out.

Shopping in Egypt can be very inexpensive, particularly if you're willing to bargain.  I'm generally not, but some people live for that stuff.  For reference, a very nice dress or wool skirt costs around 20-30 LE (US $5-7.50) before bargaining, and you can probably reduce that by half if you want to bother.  I bought Noelle a pretty nice silver ring as a fake wedding band for 10 LE (US$2.50).

Travel TipTake a good map with you for each city you're going to visit.  Try to find one that has the Metro or local equivalent.  Assume the maps in the guidebooks will be too small, the wrong scale, and inaccurate.  One of my biggest frustrations on this trip has been that I didn't do that before I left, and finding a decent map in my travels has been difficult.  Hanoi is the first city where I've actually pulled it off.  If you're staying more than two weeks, take two because the first one will look like you drug it behind your car after a week.

Cairo's Aggravations

No description of Cairo would be complete without mentioning the extremely maddening aspects of visiting the place.  I've dubbed Egypt "The Land Of The Scams", because  I have never in my life encountered so many people trying to scam me for money.  The first guy to try to scam me was leaning against the wall of the passport control booth, and the last guy was after customs on the way out.  The scamming, lying, cheating and aggressiveness is pervasive, institutionalized and unrelenting.  Most of the time, I felt like the average Egyptian that I encountered considered me nothing but a big wallet to exploit.  I tend to be a trusting and easygoing guy, but this place turned me into a cynical and guarded person that had to mistrust almost everyone I talked to.  This is exceedingly unfortunate,  because the vast majority of Egyptians are quite friendly, honest and generous.  However, the bad elements are attracted to tourists like a magnet, we're easy to spot, and it's very hard to get away from them.  Mark Twain wrote ill things about them in the 1800s, and nothing has changed since.

For a while during my stay, it got so tiring I just wanted to go somewhere-anywhere that wasn't Cairo.  In fact, my trip to Alexandria was very pleasant, primarily because it wasn't Cairo.  Now that I've cooled off a bit, it's probably worth mentioning a few things about the specific scams that are very popular so you can avoid them if you visit here (which I still recommend).  I won't go into a lot of detail, but the "Lonely Planet Guide To Egypt" lists most of them, and it's an excellent guidebook, except for it's maps which are worthless.  The general rule of thumb though, is to assume that anyone that initiates conversation with you is likely to be trying to scam you.  Anyone that initiates conversation within site of a tourist attraction like the pyramids is almost 100% certain to be trying to scam you.  I didn't believe this, until I had a very large representative sample, but have come to think it's true.  About half of the people I ran into were simply very aggressive marketers, who were annoying but at least honest.  They'd grab hold of you and drag you into their shop to try to sell you some kind of junk, and hope you'd buy some just to get out of there.  The other half seemed perfectly happy to say or do anything for money.  It's no particular secret that they do that, and the officials apparently don't care at all.  For example, within five feet of the customs stand in the airport, some guy with an official "government" looking badge will claim to work for the Tourism Bureau and try to sell you a tour.  They'll tell you the hotel you reserved is closed, or doesn't send out cars, or is bad, or just about anything to get you to go somewhere else.  Once you believe them and go somewhere else, they will take you to the place paying the highest commission, period.  There were three sets of such people to go through between Passport Control and the street where our pre-arranged taxi was waiting.

As you walk down the street, people will come along and initiate conversations out of the blue.  This happened to me probably a dozen times in any particular day.  Since I'm not on this trip to hide in a hole and not meet anyone, I went along and talked with most of them.  In almost every case, they ended up trying to get some money for something.  The most common keyword, was if they ask where you're from or what hotel you're staying at, they're trying to scam you.

To understand the reasons for this, you should understand something of the economics of the situation.  Americans and Europeans tend to get a very good exchange rate for our money in these places, so everything is very cheap.  The people working at the hotel made 100-200 LE (US $25-50) per month.  They also get money from tips, but look at the basic equation there.  If you give someone the same amount of money you'd tip a coffee shop in the U.S., say US$ 1, that's a little over a day's wages.  That's the reason that they assume all Americans or Europeans are rich.  From their perspective, we are.

Part of this is because the average standard of living in these places is lower, and part of it is just because of how good the exchange rate is for dollars.  For an example going the other way, if you visit Switzerland, which has a standard of living comparable to the U.S., things are hideously expensive, because the dollar doesn't trade well against the Swiss Franc.  The last time I was in Switzerland, a McDonalds Happy Meal cost $9.00.  The Swiss had correspondingly higher wages, so everything works out for them to about the same standard of living, but it doesn't work out well for Americans visiting Switzerland, because of the exchange rate.

For countries like Egypt and Vietnam, it works the other way.  Wages are low, and costs are correspondingly low.  This gives Americans or Europeans an advantage because the factors work in our favor.  These countries also have a lower standard of living (that's a dollar comparison - not a judgment about their style of life), and that makes it even less expensive.

This is part of the reason that I think traveling in these kinds of places is a great thing to do.  First off, it's very cheap so you can stay longer.  There's also a bigger cultural difference between the two worlds, so there's a better chance you'll actually learn something new or experience something different during the trip.

Another thing you should understand is how staffing is done in places like Egypt.  In the U.S., we have lots of capital (that means lots of money laying around), but one of our biggest problems is finding skilled workers to fill our jobs.  So our natural tendency is to try to automate everything, since we have the money to buy the equipment and that eliminates the need to find the people to do it.  In countries like Egypt, the problem is the opposite.  They don't have a lot of capital, and one of the worst problems is unemployment.  Therefore, it doesn't make sense to spend a bunch of money you don't have to try to automate something, which would just result in someone losing a job that they really need.  For this reason, you'll see lots of people in a place like this doing jobs that just don't exist in the U.S.  From our perspective, this seems like a waste of time and effort, but from their perspective it makes perfect sense.  The upshot of this is that any time you're traveling, there will be lots of people around that do a simple job and don't get a lot of money for it.  In lots of cases, they rely primarily on tips to make a living, so you'll see them trying to do small services for you all the time in the hopes of getting a tip.

Once you understand what to expect, and the reasons behind, then you'll be a bit better prepared to deal with it.  I have to confess that I read about it before the trip, but didn't really understand it until I'd been cheated a bunch of times.  In the end, all of it didn't cost me all that much money, but it was draining to have to deal with it all the time.

There are a few common terms that I'll use throughout the narrative:

One other thing worth mentioning about the Middle East in general, is that single women traveling alone are not treated very well.  This is based on Noelle's experience walking alone, and on both guidebooks I checked.  It's quite common for Egyptian men to say rude things, or try to grab them, or to touch inappropriate parts of your body.  Noelle found it much less comfortable walking around in Cairo alone than when she was with me. It's not impossible to travel alone there as a woman, but it's probably not the most comfortable place you'll ever visit.  Note that I don't know of any really bad things happening.  It's not unsafe for women to travel here, just annoying as heck.

So having said all that, I don't want to make it appear that I'm not recommending a visit. This is just something I wasn't prepared for, despite having read about it in the guidebook.  I still think more people should visit the places I'm visiting.

The last word on this topic is my latest strategy for dealing with touts, which seems to work pretty well:

  1. If someone offers something you don't want, look their way so they know you saw them, and give a very short, sharp, half shake of the head.  If you don't look at them, they'll keep at you until you get out of earshot.
  2. Refuse to further acknowledge that they exist, and go about your business.  Don't engage in conversation with them, argue with them, look at them, or in any way encourage them.

I realize this sounds harsh and rude, but if you can't even walk a single block without being hassled by these guys, you tend to get a bit cranky after a while.

Note: I'm currently writing this in Hanoi, and the touts here are as bad as in Cairo, but the scammers are much less plentiful.

Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria is generally known as the "City with the most history but the least to show for it".  It once contained one of the Seven Wonders Of The World.  At one time it had the biggest and best library in the world (burned by religious fanatics, naturally).  At several times it's been an extremely cosmopolitan and multi-cultural center of learning and the arts.  But, it's basically been sacked, torn down, discarded and rebuilt at least three times. At least twice, it was one of the highest centers of learning in the world, and all the scholars left after a particularly harsh change of government.  If you're after touristy things to take pictures of, it's not the place to go.  Most of the interesting things it once had were either torn down to build something else, or were damaged by natural disasters.

However, as an antidote to a week in Cairo, it was exactly the place to be.  My general feeling after a few days there is that they basically pack up all the scumbags and ship them to Cairo.  It's not a huge tourist town, so they don't have as many people there to take advantage of them.  It's currently mainly a destination for well-off Egyptians to escape the heat of southern Egypt.  They have a very large market, that was similar to the better markets in Cairo, but the goods are much more upscale, and the staff are much less aggressive.  It was actually fun to wander the markets and look at stuff.  They had exceedingly nice stuff for sale at what appear to be bargain prices.  You can get gold, silver, silk, and other very nice things here.

Most of the time in Alexandria was spent decompressing from Cairo, and working.  In Alexandria, Noelle and I found my favorite place to eat in Egypt.  The funniest part is that I suspect it's Egyptian Fast Food, equivalent to McDonalds.  We ate Egyptian Pita Bread, which is similar to the Pita bread you'd get in the states, but a little fluffier in texture and not quite so tough.  We had that with a dish of Hummus, which was very good and another dish of Tehini which is another spread well worth recommending.  Then we had sliced tomatoes and cucumbers for a salad, and a plate of very large beans called Foul (pronounced like fool), topped with a fried egg.  The beans were about three times the size of the beans you would get in chili at home.  It was my favorite meal, and cost a whopping LE 14 (US$ 3.50) for both of us.

Back in Cairo, Noelle's favorite place was a vegetarian restaurant that had an entire vegetarian menu.  We went there all the time, and just worked our way through the menu.  The best was a pasta dish with goat cheese. It sounds strange, but it was good.  They also had a very good vegetarian lasagna.  The interesting thing about this restaurant was their choice of music.  It was very strange to say the least.  Most of it was in English, and in fact over 2/3 of all the music I've heard in any public place during my whole trip has been in English.  These guys played everything from a very funny CD of Irish Pub Songs, to some Perry Como style 50's music. There were other choices, but all very strange.

Travel TipIf you're doing budget traveling, sooner or later you'll end up at a place with a shared bathroom and no towels.  In this case, bicycle jerseys make an excellent travel towel.  You can use it to dry off, and it'll be completely dry in about an hour, or you can just put it on and wear it.  If you don't bring that, bring along a travel towel.

Random Thoughts and Observations

We went back to Cairo for just one night before flying out, so let me finish out Egypt with just a few random thoughts.

This is a Muslim country, which means that Islam is the "official" state religion, and most people belong to it, or at least give it lip service.  They're nowhere near as fanatical about it as in Afghanistan or Iran, but it is pretty pervasive.  The Koran is everywhere you look, and five times per day starting at 5AM they have "Calls To Prayer".  This consists of a very loud P.A. system that you can hear all over the city, with a guy reciting Muslim chants.  If you're in a car, you turn off the radio, and lots of the men actually get out a prayer rug and get down and pray.  Notice that I said men.  Like most religions, Islam is very sexist.  The culture here follows this sexism much more closely than American culture follows the sexism inherent in Christianity.  Women don't get involved in the prayer and aren't allowed in mosques, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.  This isn't correct  Some readers pointed out that women go into mosques all the time, and later I saw that myself when I toured the Middle East. The sexism gets worse the more you know about it, but I won't go into it.  Suffice it to say some of their customs sound outright medieval.  Now for those Christians that are smiling smugly, I have plenty of bad things to say about them too, but if you know me you've already heard it.

The Muslims are in power here, because they were the group that managed to get together the army to boot out the imperial European powers.  If you read a lot of history, you'll find a lot of religious wars. Like most imperial colonies, Egypt was being terribly exploited by the colonial powers (most recently, France and Britain mainly, but Egypt has had lots of foreign intervention in it's history), and any group that booted out the foreigners was considered good.  There's a lot of merit to that line of reasoning, and it should be given some respect.

Egypt doesn't have any legally recognized civil marriage ceremony.  Only religious marriages are performed in Egypt.  I learned this from the Egyptian cabbie that took me to the airport in Paris.  He met and fell in love with a French woman.  When deciding whether to live in Egypt or France, one of the deciding factors was that she couldn't move to Egypt and marry him without becoming a full-on Muslim.  Such a thing just doesn't exist in their legal framework.  This meant they had to get married and stay in France, which I found to be interesting.  Again, interesting but wrong.  There is a place that performs civil unions, but I guess he just didn't know about it.

They have a small and interesting sect here called the "Coptic Christians".  They were much better known and prosperous in an earlier time, but have all but died out now.  The interesting digression they have from the main body of the Christian orthodoxy is that they don't believe in the whole idea of the Trinity.  They believe Jesus was just a man.  Now, the most amusing thing about the Coptic Christians is that everyone that knows me, knows that I don't like the whole Christmas season for various reasons.  This year I decided to boycott the whole thing by traveling on the 24th and 25th.  Noelle and I went to eat dinner at the hotel that was the location for "The English Patient", which is one of our favorite movies.  When we got there, we found that the Coptic Christians believe in a different date for Christmas too, so we ended up sitting in this hotel in the middle of January, decorated with Christmas decorations, and listening to cheesy Perry Como style Christmas songs.  I just can't win.

One of my readers pointed out that this paragraph wasn't quite correct.  The Coptic Christians do in fact believe in the trinity.  There are about 15 million Coptic Christians throughout the world.  Serves me right for copying stuff from the guidebooks :( 

As you can see, I made quite a few factual errors in this segment.  I got better at it as the trip went along, and I always make an effort to correct anything I find to be wrong.

Cairo has a lot of security.  Nearly every city block I went on, at least in the areas I was in, have 5-15 security men, carrying automatic weapons.  It also has 3-10 unarmed security men wandering around directing traffic, giving out tickets, and the like (and yes, the word men was deliberate.  They're all men).  If they want to check the papers for a taxi, or give someone a ticket, they just wander out into the street and stop the car at the edge of an intersection.  They'll stand there and check the papers, issue the ticket or whatever while the other cars just work their way around them.  Nobody thinks anything of it.  The cabbies take advantage of this, because most of them don't seem to know the city very well.   Since it's more than double the size of New York City, I guess it's excusable for them to not know everything.  At any rate, a cabbie will routinely tell you he knows the place you want, and then he'll drive to the general area of the spot they're looking for, then just pull up beside the nearest security guy and ask him for directions.  Traffic works around them, and everyone is happy.  They'll also do that if they need to find someone that can speak English to the ignorant tourists.  Part of the security is because of some terrorist activities that happened to tourists in the early 90s.  From what I understand, the authorities have it well in hand.  There are a few places foreigners shouldn't visit in Southern Egypt, but Cairo and everything north is perfectly safe.

Speaking of English, Egypt is very easy to get around without knowing Arabic.  I ran into lots of people that spoke English very well, and almost never found my lack of knowledge of Arabic to be a problem.  Most signs are in both Arabic and English, and it just didn't turn out to be any kind of real problem for me.  Generally, the worst case scenario was that I'd have to talk to someone 10 feet away, instead of the first person I tried.

Everyone dresses conservatively here, and I recommend it for visitors as well.  This means you should leave your shorts and short dresses at home, unless you want to stand out even more than you will anyway. For men, long pants and a shirt with sleeves is the expected norm.  For women, either pants or long and loose skirts work.  Most but not all married women wear head-scarves here, but they aren't required and nobody seems to mind if they don't.  Nobody will really hassle you if you don't wear conservative clothing, but they will be bothered by it a bit, and it's just one more thing separating the tourist from the locals.  For women in particular, if you wear revealing western style clothes, Egyptian men will treat you even worse than they normally do.  Now there are parts of Egypt where people wear western style clothes.  For example, it's reputedly quite common to wear them to discos and the like, but I never tried that.

When traveling overseas, you run into the phenomena called "Internet Cafes".  These are places that you can rent a PC connected to the Internet to check your mail, or surf the web or whatever.  They're all over the place if you take the time to look, and even in Vietnam I haven't had any trouble finding one.  They exist in large numbers because most people can't afford to own a computer.  They tend to be pretty cheap, usually less than US$ 1.00 per hour.  In Bangkok, I also ran into the phenomena of Internet/Game Cafes, where people rent PCs to either surf the web or play games.  Picture taking about a dozen teenage boys from the local arcade.  Give them a PC instead, with complete control of the volume.  Then stuff them all in a 2m x 3m (6' x 9') room, and you have the idea.  It's like using the Net under battle conditions.  It's an interesting cultural phenomena, but not one I'd recommend on a regular basis.

Egypt seems to have completely given up on coins.  The bills go down to a very small amount, and I never saw a single coin while I was there.  There are reputed to be some small coins, but I don't remember seeing any.  The smallest bill is .25 LE (US$ .07).  The other funny thing is that most of the time when I paid for something, it seemed like the first time these guys had ever received any money.  If change was needed, there was literally never a change drawer like you'd see in the U.S.  If I paid with a bill that was too big, people would dig in their pockets, pull out a wad of bills, and try to make change.  If they didn't have it, which was often, they would go in search of someone that did.  This was even true in the ticket booths at museums, where you'd presume the problem came up before.  A lot of this is because they know if they take a while, lots of people will tell them to just keep the change, so they get a nice tip, but lots of it was just general disorganization.

Egypt has the most smoking I've ever seen.  They make the French look like a nation of obsessive non-smokers.  Everywhere I went, everyone smoked.  I was offered cigarettes about two to three times per day, and pretty much everywhere I went, the men were smoking left and right (that's right, I did say men.  I'm not sure if women smoke there, but I never noticed any).  They smoke lots of cigarettes, with an embarrassingly large number of them being American Big Tobacco.  They also smoke water pipes.  These are sort of like a giant bong, standing about a meter high (3').  The tobacco is soaked in honey, or molasses, or something like that.  A chunk of tobacco about 1/4 cup in size is placed on the top, and the smoker draws on it using a long tube, generally made out of old plumbing fixtures or rubber hoses.  The odor isn't quite as bad as cigarette smoke, and it's apparently a bit milder.  Lots of Egyptian men spend their evenings in a coffee shop, smoking and drinking coffee (and yes, I did say men.  Young girls are seen in these coffee shops, but almost never older women).

Travel Tip

Hotel space will probably be your most expensive travel item after airfare, so once you've dialed in a good airfare, you need to work on saving money on hotels.  If you want the best rates on hotels, you have to go to a city and find one. In most parts of the world, the infrastructure for taking reservations from outside the country, as well as the mechanism for taking Visa and all the other travel services we're used to are expensive, and only the most expensive hotels have them. If you make a reservation on the Internet or using a travel agent, you'll usually pay 30-200% more than the best price for similar levels of comfort.  For example, in Hanoi you can spend anywhere from US$ 30-120/night for the places you would reserve from outside Vietnam, with the average being about $40.  If you're here, a half hours search will find one for $10, and I've seen them as low as $6.

If you don't have the nerve to just go and take your chances, make reservations for only one night, and plan to find a cheaper place the next night.

Note that the least expensive hotels frequently don't accept Visa or Traveler's Checks, or they will charge you 4-6% extra to use them.  Visa charges merchants a surcharge, and Traveler's checks are a hassle for the merchant.  In the U.S., merchants always eat this surcharge or hassle to get the business.  That isn't true everywhere.  Some hotels insist on nothing but cash in the local currency, or they'll take foreign money but give you a bad exchange rate and charge you a surcharge as well.  If you're budget traveling, plan on paying in cash in local currency.  It's generally pretty easy to get at an ATM, and the exchange rate will be pretty good.