Monthly Archives: January 2011

Egypt 2010: Day 10

Day 10

A late start to this morning brought us to see the Catacombs of Alexandria, nestled again like other historic sights we’ve seen, in the middle of the city. As we stepped down 30 feet below ground, we found ourselves below sea level, looking at a familial burial chamber built around the second century. At the base of a central spiral of stairs was a hole, filled by ground water and used to lower bodies into for final burial.

The column of Pompey’s Pillar, which we visited next was also impressive, its single mass standing in the rubble of which it was found, a historic site again surrounded by modern Alexandria. Around us were low rent government housing complexes, inhabitants going about their daily life hanging laundry, to face the thousands of years old granite antiquity from 297 AD.

Alexandria continues to be different, its cool crisp air forming a pristine blue backdrop for us to view its treasures. We spent the rest of the day at the new Alexandria Library, built in 2002 in tribute of the thousands of year old original which was completely burnt down. Its clean stylish lines formed an cavernous yet airy roof over thousands of desks for students and scholars.

The Library aims to be a repository for the worlds books– including many prominent Canadian authors like Margaret Atwood and Timothy Findley in the aisle we walked down. However, the millions of books inside also include a fairly complete collection of Sweet Valley High, much to our surprise.

We walked around the downtown markets of Alexandria in the late afternoon, then followed the Corniche, the crescent shaped arc of the harbour that all the buildings are placed, to find dinner.

On the way, we found the Unknown Soldier Memorial in El-Shohada Square, commemorating Egypt’s war casualties. An honour guard stood there at attention, facing the Mediterranean Sea.

Tomorrow is our last day in Egypt. As with all travel, the waning days of a trip always seems sad as our time in a new world of language, customs and sights seems to draw to a close and we return to our normal lives. Egypt has been an eyeopening experience. Unlike many of the places where I’ve visited, I have never seen such a distant gap between rich and poor, of ancient relics set against a backdrop of daily urban life, of such familiar modern conveniences set to different cultural contexts. It is at both beautiful yet unsettling, which as a result makes it a valuable experience in the end.

Egypt 2010: Day 9

Day 9

The smog in Cairo is very evident in the morning, as the sunrise is obscured by the opaque haze that surrounds the city. Today we ventured by tourist bus to the port city of Alexandria, the western end of the Nile delta as it touches the Mediterreanean. Alexandria in contrast, is cool and clear, the sea bringing in a crisp wind that seems to cleanse the dirt and dust from our breath.

I suspect it is unfair to observe Egyptian life through the lens of Canadian culture and norms. Like the Facts and Arguments page of the Globe, it seems trite to highlight the quirks of things we’ve seen here. For example, today I saw a donkey going up the stairs of a highway pedestrian overhead walkway pass. That seems weird, but if you’ve for to get your donkey and your goods to the other side and some urban planner left a major artery to block your daily commute, how else will you do it? Three workmen sitting on the back of a flatbed truck, chatting away at 80km/h. Why not? Everyone loves a mid morning break to catch up with coworkers.

Driving out to Alexandria, there is a tire shop selling tires to people over the concrete barrier wall of the freeway. Absurd? Well no, it seems to work for them, tires are being sold.

What is really unusual? Drivers attaching random logos to their cars. I understand the occasional VTEC or Mugen decal, but last night I saw a ReMax vinyl cutout over the windshield of a car. Is he a real estate agent? I don’t think so. I’ve seen Sunbeam appliance logos, recycling symbols, and one proclaiming loudly the owner loves house music. My favourite so far is a row of icons on the back of some of the buses here. At first, I thought these icons symbolized features of the tourist bus that would make you pick this bus over another. Instead, they seem to be random pictograms including No Smoking, VCD, Brightness, Contrast, and Temperature. Why they are so popular is anyone’s guess, although when I was younger I had a sweat shirt from Hong Kong which proclaimed “Amy Loves to Paint!” with a picture of a cartoon rabbit, who presumably was named Amy. Someone in a clothing factory thought it was a good design and someone else thought it would make a good gift to a teenager in Canada.

An hour or so out of Cairo is the Smart Village, a corporate industrial park filled with big technology names emblazoned on sleek new office buildings, like Microsoft and Oracle. Just down the road, new housing developments and home furnishing stores offering Natuzzi sofas. It seems the middle and upper classes of Egypt are moving to the suburbs.

Touring around Alexandria is quite picturesque compared to Cairo. Conquered and attacked by the Romans, the Greeks, the British, and the French, the city has an unusual international style to it, perhaps based on all the influence from around the sea. We visited Montazah Palace, now a home of the President, and drove around the gardens built by Abbas Hilmi Pasha. We then visited the Citadel of Qaitbay at the western end of the harbour, which was built in the 1400’s, destroyed, then rebuilt after the British left. Inside is a mosque and a cistern for water underground, surrounded overall by a double thick wall to protect from defenders.

Today, the only the fort defends against is tourists and locals looking for a place to hang out. Hundreds of couples nestled into the nooks and crannies of the fort, along with a few amateur fishermen looking for a catch. Alongside the fort there, hundreds of artifacts and stone blocks from the old Lighthouse of Alexandria were found underwater. The Lighthouse, a wonder of the ancient world alongside the Pyramids, used to stand several stories tall, guiding ships of commerce to ancient Egypt and identifying potential attackers from the sea ahead of time. Their pieces are cataloged and periodically excavated to be displayed at another site, the Roman Theatre.

The Roman Theatre ruins, now nestled in the middle of the city, were unearthed in the 1960’s. Here, a circular amphitheatre was discovered, along with twenty lecture halls and a bath complex. A row of Roman columns decorated one side of a central street alongside the theatre. For lunch today, I noticed a local fast food chain called Mo’man. Intrigued, we went for lunch, after previous day’s encounter with the McDonalds McArabia, a beef kofteh affair wrapped in Lebanese flatbread and characteristic special sauce. It was pretty good, so we decided to try some more Egyptian fast food today. Mo’man is a local chain with several thousand restaurants around the country and was founded by two Egyptian brothers in anticipation of American investment and expansion in the 1980’s. Surprisingly, Mo’man has prospered in comparison to its American counterparts, in part by offering a mix of local flavours with fast food cooking techniques.

The night in Alexandria, like all of Egypt, is vibrant. Walking into the fresh cool evening, we took a taxi to the downtown square and walked to dinner at Mohammed Ahmed, a local restaurant we found in the guidebook. The taxis here appear to be old Ladas, direct from Russia and as we swerved along the Corniche, the bright signage entranced visitors to this seaside resort town. If I had to describe the atmosphere at Ahmed’s, it would be like the venerable Schwartz’s Delicatessen in Montreal. Waiters, mostly middle aged to older men, bring you unadorned plates of beets, pickles and foul, a bean dish served with a fried egg. The place has a local charm to it, friendly and unassuming. I really liked the ambience there, it made us feel like city dwellers and not tourists, despite the fact on ocassion, admist the old couples dining out, the families with their push-strollers, and the occassional take out order, there would be the stranger holding a wrinkled Lonely Planet.

Sitting in the aisle near the door gave is a prime view of the clientele and the staff pulling out giant pots of tahini to be cleaned and returning empty beverage crates to suppliers waiting outside.

Around the corner, was a street filled with cellphone shops. Their bright flourescent lights and hundreds of phone boxes covered the storefronts, with purchasers peering at the handwritten signs attached to each saranwrapped box. Upon greater inspection, many of the phones were used, suggesting a large volume of second hand resale. Amongst the stores, curbsiders with a handful of old phones placed upon upturned crates stood between cars, quietly waiting for buyers to come up and look for a phone.

Along another street was a brightly lit alleyway, with a few gents sitting around a giant upturned disco ball. What they were doing or advertising, it is unknown, though the corridor was filled with shoe and clothing stores.

Egypt 2010: Day 8

Day 8

Cairo is a world away from the modern day tourist towns of Aswan and Luxor. It’s even further away than the rural towns like Korombo, nestled in it’s agrarian surrounds. Flying back to Cairo means a trip to the Luxor Airport, where we got onto an EgyptAir A321 for a short hour long flight. The city has all the elements of the huge metropolis: the increase in human energy of commotion and noise, the smog and dust, and the complexity and density created by wealth and investment.

We decided to find “Islamic Cairo”, a neighbourhood filled with mosques. We eventually found the Al-Azhar mosque, which we went inside to see. From the outside, the world is noisy with cars and people moving about. From inside, a tranquil courtyard and students of Islam reading and praying.

We also found ourselves walking through the market hawkers of El-Muski street, which sell scarves, clothes, belts and plastic trinkets. For the first block or two, it is colour items intended for tourists. Much of it is made in China, which I’m sure could be found at any good ol’ Chinese mall in Canada too. By now, a full week into our trip we are used to the strange tactics used by salespeople here, deliberately blocking your path, tapping you on the shoulder, and calling out words like “Hello! Excuse me! Look at me!” and now we appropriately ignore just about everyone while walking along. Many try and gauge the nationality of each visitor, and adjust their pitch to their assumed language, which for me is Japanese or Korean. I think its probably better if these hucksters used a less invasive approach that a Western tourist would appreciate it, but its obviously working, because they continue to use it.

A little further into the street, it seemed the market switched from tacky tourist souvenirs like thin gauzy belly dancer outfits to more local basics like ears of corn being grilled on a metal rack above open flame. I spotted a Fulla doll in a window, as prayers and incantations in Arabic played from the boombox atop a seller’s stand. One seller came up and said “This is the wrong market for you, you need to go back to the other side”, which was perhaps true for most, but much more interesting for me to see what the average Cairo-dweller was buying than to pick up a fake Hard Rock Cafe Cairo shirt for my sister.

Upon returning to the city’s downtown core this morning, I thought I could see the marked contrast now of completed, finished buildings and cleaner streets versus the style and construction of Aswan and Luxor. However, as we set off to find the Citadel of Cairo, we eventually found ourselves walking through a very run down area of the city, with collapsed buildings and dirt roads. Each shop front contained a basic necessity of daily life: A man sorting pitas for delivery to snack bars on a car, barbers waiting for their next cut on their chair and falafels being made in the street.

The community was out in the streets this Sunday, which is a working day from what I can tell, men smoking and having tea, children running along after school has let out. Children seem to genuinely find visitors to be novel, stealing away smile or wave for most and a pitched Hello and run alongside for the more extroverted. Here they don’t seem to ask for anything, just a look at someone different. I’ve noticed many of the kids run around with some sort of treat, be it sugar cane or baked goods from the street sellers, their mise en place sitting in bowls on a table out in the road.

Tonight, we saw perhaps a different side of Cairo, walking along the Nile to a restaurant for dinner. The riverside is lined with benches and verandahs, which face the water. It seemed like a spot for a romantic evening for the city: there is a bakery which sells desserts you can take out, a little girl sells flowers and tissue, and there are nice restaurants along the shore. Tonight it seemed Cairo’s middle class gents were out taking their loved ones for dinner at TGI Fridays and to sit quietly to talk while watching the city lights on the water.

Egypt 2010: Day 7

Day 7

One of the more interesting features of the tour company we are with is the fact strange forms of transport are being used. On this tour, we have been on riverboats, pickup trucks and in one crazy instance the night before, a small Luxor city minibus. I think these buses, which are really sub sized minivans with a side door, similar to Hong Kong or Japan, are somehow privately operated but on public routes. We all piled into one after dinner due to scheduling issues, and the bus raced around Luxor’s downtown district, it’s door permanently bolted open as the locals typically jump in and out at their predetermined stops. It was a lot of fun, fueled by the fact we were fearing falling out and we lurched around the crowded streets, eyeing among other things a bride and groom in Western wedding attire being shot by a videographer using a 1990’s era VHS camcorder, in the traffic roundabout no less.

This morning we took a taxi on our own to Karnack temple, a sixty acre complex which used to feature several temples. Unfortunately over time, the complex has fallen apart, but what’s left are stunning giant columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnack. They are simply, magnificent and just sitting in their massive grandeur makes you feel very small.

In the afternoon, one of the suggested activities was to take a horse carriage ride around the city. I think usually the people take it to see monuments and temples, but our tour guide suggested we take it to see the real people’s market, versus the tourist souk behind the row of hotels. The general consensus was that the market street frequented by locals was far too crowded.

The trip through this district was nothing short of heartbreaking, to see in what conditions, the people, especially the children, of Luxor live in. As we bumbled along the dirt roads, kids waved to us on our carriage, which seemed to amplify the absurdity of foreigners touring around their streets high up from the dust and commotion. Some would come running up and begging, which made it more difficult. Many seemed genuinely happy to see strangers come and visit.

However difficult to watch, the trip did illuminate many facets of Egyptian life. For one, there is a vibrant market in fresh produce and active farming for sugar cane and cotton. There are schools that the kids attend, and strong family life, primarily driven by the women of the community. I wondered, in our travels so far, why almost none of the business men and tourist industry workers were women.

There’s also a pretty active business in repairing old cars and using more Bondo than metal in the vehicles, which neatly hides the aggressive driving style here.

As the sun set and we walked alongside Luxor Temple to eventually get to the McDonalds in search of McLentil Soup, the major worry came to mind: Are we, as relatively rich Canadians, participating in what is effectively “poverty tourism”? In any other situation, we go to a place and we trade our money for experiences: Like visiting Cedar Point or Disneyland, we give our dollars and we have fun riding the amusement rides. It was very unsettling, however eye opening, the premise that I may be paying money to see people suffering, at least from my perspective.

Egypt 2010: Day 6

Day 6

There is an indescribable phenomena here in Egypt– the unbuilt building. While I am sure there are many shanty towns constructed from random materials where people struggle to make ends meet, and there certainly are those here, the unbuilt building is quite unique. Countless structures, certainly the majority of them, are missing windows or roofs. The rest of it is finished, floors of poured concrete, brick neatly laid, everything except they have large openings unfilled, spires of rebar from the supporting pillars in each corner arching bent into the sky.

It is as if the giant Lego set of Egypt has too many basic bricks and not enough window, door and slope packs. Apparently this phenomena is due to a taxation loophole: if you don’t finish the building, you don’t have to pay taxes on it. In a fairly poor country, this makes complete sense to only cover up what you need and live in some of the structure. Another issue is that you never know when you might run out of funds, so if you do, you might as well keep options open for building later.

Today we walked out to the Nile River and got onto a boat to take us to the West Bank. From there, a set of trucks took us onwards to see some of the temples that populate the countryside. Along the way we got to ride part of the distance on donkeys, of which the tour group had a ridiculous amount of fun riding. Our first stop was the Valley of the Kings, the tomb burial site of the many rules of Egypt. Uncovered about a hundred years ago, the site is nestled in dusty tan mountains where these intricate underground structures were unearthed. There are nearly sixty tomb entrances which have been found but our guide recommended three for us to try.

The tombs are chiseled out of the rock of the mountain, then covered in plaster on the walls to unusually exacting precision, then the walls painted or chiseled with inscriptions and hieroglyphics. At various times, robbers of various kinds have raided them– the Coptics, who left graffitti, for example, stole from one of the tombs we visited.

Some of the tombs are extremely complicated with scores of rooms for the burial of various descendants. Others were found empty, due to political or familial infighting before death.

One of the key tourist industries here is alabaster production. In the past, the tourist industry focused on selling artifacts to tourists, which is now banned. Faced with the criminalization of their key industry, there are now small “factories” which find alabaster rock, mill it down, then polish it into urns and vases for travellers to buy. I really enjoyed watching the craftsman ship of the locals making these pieces, each of which seems unique with handmade qualities.

We also went to the Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple, which is also built into the side of a mountain. A sprawling three story affair with large expansive terraces, if you looked back towards the city, you saw the green carpet of irrigated foiliage spread before you along the Nile. The Habu Temple was another similarly huge structure, with large billboard like walls covered in inscriptions. This site’s key attribute is that it is largely intact unlike some of the ruins which have since been destroyed or pillaged. Along the way, we ate falafel wrapped in Arabic newspapers, bumping along the dirt roads through the various rural villages.

The rest of the day was filled with a trip on the Nile on a felucca, a wide beamed sailboat used to trade and travel along the river. With an assymetrical sail tilted to the side, we pushed off along the river in the characteristic zig zag track that sailors are attuned to following the wind for. The bright sun set in the distance, illuminating with a warm glow as the wind blew across the water.

As it was New Year’s Eve, we finished the year off together at a hotel roof top overlooking the river back to the West Bank, traditional belly dancing and Nubian synth pop echoing across the city.

Egypt 2010: Day 5

Day 5

We decided to walk out this morning to the Souk, or market street. Most of the vendors here on the street are really for tourists, but once in a while, you find a shop which is strictly for locals. One such is the butcher, who unlike all the rest of the pushy salesmen invading your private space, doesn’t even look up at you since it’s unlikely you will want a slice of raw meat from the hook. Another is the outboard motor store, which features brand new four stroke Yamaha and Honda engines for your boat. Also unlikely. My favourite store, denoted by its logo of two men connecting with heads shaped like AC receptacles, is the electric shop.

While watching, a local brought in a strand of rope, missing connectors. It appeared someone had cut his power cord, so the shopkeeper helped him find new jacks to splice to the ends. The back of his shop was filled with hundreds of dusty old colourful boxes of plugs. My kind of shop.

We woke up today late and were supposed to go onto the Nile in a felucca, a sail boat that would take us North towards Luxor. Unfortunately due to high winds this plan needed to be cancelled and instead we took a bus out of Aswan and into the countryside, stopping at Korombo, a small town about an hour away to see the temple.

The temple at Korombo is now mostly ruins, but has rather intricate hieroglyphics on almost every surface, making it a heavily textured structure. As the cool winds blew across from the river, the sun began to set, casting the stone in a warm colour.

This is a calendar of offerings for the gods, the right side counting the week and days, the left describing the offering required by the priests. The inscribing here are all outward, making it much more detailed and difficult to craft.

Alongside the Nile, at this temple, the Pharoah would use a stairwell with the bottom end open to the river as a method of gauging its flooding. This was used to gauge taxes as the flooding of the river on either side meant increased crop production.

The slow bus ride is perhaps a lucky circumstance in these agrarian places, as we get to drive past the sugar cane fields, their lime green bladed tufts sticking upwards above their tan cane bodies. As we passed the narrow gauge railway tracks used to bring cane back for processing, we watched workers in the fields.

I also appreciated the slow approach to look into all the shops and homes along the way. It is very interesting to see common townfolk, getting a haircut or a new set of tractor tires. The only downfall is that being in a bus presents itself as a diorama and you don’t get to actually meet or see the people face to face.

On the way to Luxor tonight, we found ourselves in a dilemma, that perhaps outlines a certain character to people here: a transport truck had overturned on the roadway. Drivers in Egypt tend to all fend for themselves, efficient but anarchic in their own driving goal. As a result, cars and motorcycles all scurried around the truck, which, from what I can tell, carried several cylinders of propane.

Our driver decided to cross the canal, which was parallel, to a side dirt road, which was only a single lane. Soon after, a row of other vehicles started coming down the line opposite to us. Now, I think Canadians, given their driving character would stop and wait for authority, if they were from Waterloo, or honk if they were from Toronto. In the case of these Egyptians, they began to attempt to pass each other in a very slow race to pass alongside us, making the single lane into two. We were precariously perched only a foot or two from the edge of the canal, and each bus or truck dispatched their own negotiator to direct everyone else.

Egypt 2010: Day 4

Day 4

Driving out in the desert is a strange feeling. We woke up early, around 3AM, to get into buses to drive out to Abu Simbel. The convoy of a hundred buses were staged in the outskirts of Aswan, armed guards and police officers periodically stopping tour busses and getting them ready to go. From the sodium lit edges of the Aswan Dam, I fell asleep and when I woke up, we were driving along in pitch black, the stars and headlights only to guide is, with nothing on either side. It is unsettling how much light we are used to in a large city.

Abu Simbel, like Sandusky, Ohio, seems to exist only for the purpose of the main attraction. In this case, it is the Abu Simbel Temple, created by Pharoah Rameses II as a testament to his power and ego, as well as an indicator to the tribes in the south of his reign’s strength. Driving out 280km in the desert from Aswan, we now found ourselves at the southern edge of Egypt. The temple would have been flooded underneath the dammed Nile, had it not been for a major reconstruction which moved the entire structure 65m up onto a hill.

Visitors can go inside the temple and see the giant stone columns and hieroglyphics on the walls. Apparently near the solstices, alignment of the sun allows the illumination of the statues in the back. For us, they are lit quite elegantly with underlit lamps and tell the stories of victories of the Pharoah. There is also a nearby temple which is for the Queen, Nefertari, smaller yet still so impressive that these massive structures were literally carved out of the mountain in stone.

Driving back from Abu Simbel, it was interesting to see the security apparatus in the day light. At periodic intervals we found ourselves stopped at checkpoints consisting of several officers stationed in small brick huts, road barricaded with gates and guard towers overlooking the area. Otherwise, the desert road was completely barren, sand and hills in the distance, save for a few random objects including a tourist bus missing half its right side, the frame twisted and charred. Hard to say what happened there, but it was left to rot in the sun.

Returning to Aswan, we had a short lunch, with dishes of rice, okra and other vegetables in spices. I was a bit concerned about whether or not I would like the cuisine here, but I am enjoying it as we are eating varied meals often in small shops and eateries the locals seem to fill. I decided to walk around in the street and find the local mobile operator store, where I could get a SIM card.

I popped into the local Mobinil shop along the street overlooking the Nile and ended up chatting with the store employees who helped me to get my BlackBerry online again. They were very professional and friendly and almost a complete contrast to the street hawkers that colour the Egyptian streets. What’s interesting is despite the complete cultural differences, the fundamental part of running a telecoms business is for the most part, the same.

Walking around the shops in the streets is an interesting experience. The main streets are often filled with shops loaded with wares, colourful items and signage. Turn down a street and while often dirty and run down, you see people hanging their laundry and going on with daily life.

As always in tradition, I have tried different canned drinks. One of the best things about this trip so far is the abundance of guava juice, which is a tasty fruit drink. I’ve had quite a lot of guava nectar, as well as trying the local pop options including Marinda, a Fanta-like drink in apple and tangerine. It seems Coke lost the Soda War here in Egypt as the country is predominantly Pepsi.

This evening we took another boat across the Nile to the island of Philae, which was covered by the Aswan Dam underwater for much of the century. The complex on the nile is quite pretty and is well illustrated by a sound and light show, which sounds tacky from the description but is in fact quite moving. As the sun set and the winds picked up, the cool breeze of the river enveloped us and the age old stone structures now towered around us.

The tour group after went out for pizza, Egyptian style, spun by a cook out front of the establishment to the bemusement of tourists and locals alike. He spread the dough very thin, then flung it around to stretch it even more, then wrapped the filling with multiple folds, covering it over. It ended up tasting more like a Chinese onion pancake and less like a pizza. As we snapped our camera phones of him, a small boy waiting for takeout for his family gave us looks of ridicule. I’m sure he went home to his family and told them of how all the weird foreigners have never seen pizza before.