A Travellerspoint blog

November 2010

Cairo - Alexandria - Siwa

An arduous 1500km trip in two days that cost $70!

sunny 26 °C

How's everyone doing? I recently pulled off a 1500km journey in 72 hours. It was tiring as hell and painful at times but it was worth it, pushing yourself is what traveling on a budget is all about.

Nov 18th - I hadn't slept a wink the night before, mostly because I was goofing around on the internet. My train was due to leave Cairo at 8am, I knew this was going to be an interesting journey given that I didn't have any maps, no route charted out or even a basic plan as to where my final destination was going to be. I took the local metro (train) from 'Sakanat El Maadi' to 'Mubarak' - the central train station. When I reached the railway station my ticket from Cairo to Alexandria (which I bought a few days before) was printed in Arabic so I had to ask around to figure out what platform the train arrived at, the coach and seat number I was going to be sitting in. While the train station was pretty run down, the train itself was pretty decent with comfortable seats and ample sitting space (35LE one way, well spent).
When I reached Alexandria 2 hours later at 10am, I was swarmed by taxi drivers so I walked a few streets down and tried to figure out what I wanted to do from here on. I didn't know anyone in Alexandria, and a friend told me a few days earlier to go to Siwa instead because it was better. I was quite interested to check it out once I heard that Siwa was close to the border of Libya, this would be a good chance to get a good feel for any cultural potpourri that happened across the border. I figured I'd buy a bus/train or whatever ticket I could get to Siwa and travel overnight while checking out Alexandria during the day. I walked up to a couple locals (Ahmed Ali and Ahmed) and asked them where the bus station was to buy a ticket to Siwa. They didn't really speak much English and I don't speak any Arabic; however they were quite helpful and actually got into a taxi (10LE) and took me to Moharam Bay bus station. I didn't quite get what was going on because they were haggling with a bunch of taxi and bus drivers for a while. Ten minutes later they came up to me and asked me to get into a shared taxi and said it was taking me to Matsah Matruh! I thought about trying to explain to them that I wasn't ready to go yet...but was it worth it at that point? I decided to change plans and head to Matsah Matruh right then, there were 8 people in that taxi including the driver. Three of us sat up front and I was cramped in the middle...seat belts were thrown across the torso when we reached a checkpoint, I didn't quite understand why the driver didn't wear seatbelts but when I checked I realized that the belts were actually broken. Anyhow 5 hours and 16LE later we were at Matsah Matruh, now I didn't know how to get to Siwa from here since I didn't do any prior planning. Rasheem, a middle aged man in the shared cab spoke a bit of English and was kind enough to show me where to buy my next ticket. Most people seem to love Indians here which is quite nice...they all know about Amitabh Bachchan and sometimes Shah Rukh Khan (both being popular actors from Bollywood). Rasheem even offered to give me money in case I didn't have enough on me, this was very kind of him. He requested me to read about Islam if I got a chance, it takes a while to realize how important religion is people's lives here...I wish him well for he was very kind.
My next bus which was 4 hours long and cost 17LE reached Siwa at 9PM at night. Siwa is a village that is famous for its agriculture (dates mostly), handicrafts and tourism. It had a very vintage feel to it but I couldn't see much since it was dark outside. As soon as I stepped out of the bus, a bunch of donkey cart drivers approached me and asked me if I needed to find a hotel to stay - Donkey carts are a very popular form of transport here in Siwa. The cheapest place I could find at that point in time was 50LE which was a single room with two beds, big enough for two people. Mohammed (the driver) and Ali baba (his 15 year old donkey, yes... I asked) said they would come around at 10AM the next morning and show me around Siwa, we negotiated a price of 150LE for all the touristy stuff. I didn't really mind at that point so I took it and grabbed a quick hot meal which included rice, meat, veggies and salad (20LE) since I didn't get a chance to eat all day.

Nov 19th - Woke up quite late that morning, non stop travel had taken it's toll on me. I quickly walked out to the common bathrooms (cleanliness in the bathrooms was optional here) and took a quick shower. After a quick breakfast that consisted of a sausage omlette and some chocolate milk (11LE), we set off to visit Siwa. I won't describe this in detail since there is much to write, but mostly because you can google "Siwa, Egypt" and find reviews for sights to see online quite easily. The tour consisted of the following: Mountain of the dead, Oracle temple, Cleopatra hot springs, Sand dunes of the Sahara, Siwa's salt lake and finally the sunset at Fatnas Island. Between these, I ate lunch at a Bedouin restaurant (a desert dwelling arab ethnic group) which included rice, meat, veggies and salad (20LE).

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The best part of all the sight seeing was definitely the sunset at Fatnas Island, definitely a worthwhile experience. It's interesting how a beautiful scenery brings out deep conversations in people, three Americans who sat next to me were discussing their concept of God and love. I sat there and listened as I watched the sun set and disappear into the horizon.

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Anyway, at this point I'd had enough of Siwa and was ready to head back. I took the 8pm night bus out of Siwa (65LE) and headed to Cairo direct (I should've done this on the way there as well but I didn't really plan too well...). I reached Cairo at 5am and took a cab back to the apartment in Maadi (30LE). This was a long arduous trip that stretched over 1500km and cost just $70 - this could've been cheaper if I had planned better. Anyway, personally I thought Siwa was over rated except for the sunset but then again coming from India, I've already seen many villages there which I personally think are far more beautiful. Then again, Siwa is near a desert so it is endowed with it's own beauty in certain ways. I don't think I'll be going back though :)

As always, thanks again for reading.

This is Sandeep, signing out.

Posted by 2011 11:21 Archived in Egypt Tagged alexandria siwa matsah matruh Comments (0)

Visiting the Pyramids on Eid-Al-Adha

One of the greatest civilizations of the past comes to a halt in the present to celebrate a 'festival of sacrifice' this week...

sunny 27 °C

Eid Al Adha is a festival of sacrifice...I'll let wikipedia do the honours here

"Eid al-Adha (Arabic: عيد الأضحى‎ ‘Īdu l-’Aḍḥā) or "Festival of Sacrifice" or "Greater Eid" is an important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide to commemorate the willingness of Abraham (Ibrahim) to sacrifice his son Ishmael (Isma'il) as an act of obedience to God, before God intervened to provide him with a ram to sacrifice instead.[1] The meat is divided into three parts to be distributed to others. The family retains one third of the share, another third is given to relatives, friends and neighbors, and the other third is given to the poor & needy."

I decided to take the train to the Mosque early in the AM to check things out for myself. Filled with chants of "Allah hu Akbar", from end to end the chorus resonated through every compartment of the train. Every time the train made a scheduled stop at the station, the crowd kept pouring in and the Mosque itself was quite packed. It was a mad rush towards the mosque, much like the mayhem you can expect to see at Hindu temples during festivals in a few parts of India. I stayed for less than an hour, clicked a few pictures and was on my way...figured I'd catch the train back before the crowd started leaving the mosque. On the way back, I was witness to the slaughter of a sheep and a buffalo. A group of people wrestled a struggling buffalo to the ground, tied up it's legs and with the words "Allah hu Akbar", a slit was made to the jugular vein...it was all over. Children ran from all directions while calling their friends so they could watch the slaughter together. I must mention that the thought of taking a video/picture with my camera crossed my mind but then I didn't want to subject anyone to the gore and violence, some things are better left unseen...I stood there silently dazed and confused, part of me wanted to leave but the other part was intrigued about the process. I realize that life and death is part of a cycle, but I cannot comprehend why there is a need to take another life in the name of religion. Before we point fingers at each other, we should realize this happens everywhere in the world...religiously or culturally. From rituals in Hinduism that promote slaughtering of animals as offerings to Gods/Goddesses to Thanksgiving in the US when turkeys are mass slaughtered for one day, the human race has slaughtered animals for food/sacrifice for eons now. Don't get me wrong, I'm no advocate of PETA...being a foodie myself, I do enjoy my meat. People who know me probably already know I'm not religious by any means and along those lines, I definitely don't approve of festivals that are organized around the slaughtering of animals - especially in the name of religion. I find it a bit ridiculous that animals have to suffer for stories written by men. Reaching back to the story from wikipedia above, I ask you this - if God created the Ram and also created Man. Why would he choose one of his own creations to be sacrificed over the other? God (if he/she/it even exists) should not see any difference between an animal or a human's life...it's obvious that this distinction is made only by the people that wrote these stories. If religion is pure and loving in every manner, then it's followers should learn to love - one another and people from other religions equally. We have divided ourselves a million times over with caste systems, cultural differences, skin colour, social status among many other things...religion does not need to be another reason for a divide. I hope we will someday learn to treat everyone as an equal - we are all human beings first, everything else follows later.

Anyway, enough of my rants...later that evening I went to the three pyramids and caught a glimpse of them before they closed. Getting there was fun, we caught the train to Giza and then took the mini bus (shared-cab style buses driven by private owners, they stop and pick you up and drop you off if youre route is along their way) Walking in, the huge pyramids were a majestic sight - the Sphinx was a bit smaller than I imagined it to be but a great sight to behold none the less. I was a bit sad to see that there was no organization though, once you bought a ticket you were on your own...it took me over 45 mins to try and find the Sphinx. There was a lot of activity in the site, people were constantly trying to offer you horse/camel rides or sell you things. I didn't get a chance to go inside the pyramids since they were closed but hopefully I'll go back another day.

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After returning home, I met up with a local friend here and we chatted for an hour about things to see in Egypt, the local government, religion (one of my favourite topics to debate) among a few other things...

I'll write again when I get a chance...Thank you for reading. This is Sandeep...signing out!

Posted by 2011 11:21 Archived in Egypt Tagged religion sphinx pyramids eid Comments (0)

Organized Chaos

A basic pattern in most developing countries

sunny 26 °C

I have a theory that says most developing countries run on the basic pattern of "Organized Chaos". This is quite simple really, in a developing country there are usually problems with regards to infrastructure, lack of resources and population. This makes people more competitive because they have to struggle a lot harder than people living in developed countries for basic needs. Often times, something so simple such as getting an internet connection, a sim card for your cell phone or electricty can be quite a challenge...having lived in the US for the last 10 years I've become a little spoiled with regards to taking these things for granted.
Being able to pay your bills online, calling taxis from a number found on a website, ordering food/electronics/magazines online etc make life so much easier, so why is it that these things aren't in place everywhere in the world? A lot of factors are to be blamed here, when a government is efficient in it's governance, it smooths out the basic processes in life - for example, having a good metro system with easy ways to buy or cancel tickets, make reservations will make things simpler for the people. When everyday living becomes a simple process, the people of that country can then focus their efforts on being more productive - improving their business, being more efficient at work, sending their kids to school etc. If it's a struggle to get to work everyday because of traffic jams/water logged streets/bad roads, it normally means your workforce is already mentally drained by the time they reach work. This is a serious long term problem that needs to be tackled now, this is not easy obviously given that corrupt and tangled procedures that have been established for generations will take much longer to untwine.

Anyway, today I tried to visit the Black and White desert at the El Bahariya Oasis. This is when Cairo's true colours came out, it was supposed to be an organized tour so I woke up at 5am and went to the place, after getting there the bus tickets weren't booked by the organizer so they asked if we would like to stand through the journey (6hrs one way). When our party refused there was some commotion, we were then taken to a mini bus terminus near the outskirts of the city. It was a double downgrade of koyambedu (a bus stand in Chennai, Tamil Nadu). It's amazing to see how similar Chennai is to Cairo in a lot of ways, then again most developing countries share similar problems which I've talked about earlier. Anyway I decided to pull out of the tour because that was more than enough excitement for a day for me, I took the metro (train) on the way back and that was not too bad really. It's a decent system, obviously not as advanced as NYC/London but way better than Houston :) Plus a one way ticket costs 1LE, on the other hand the taxi drivers charge 30-50 LE to go anywhere unless you can bargain quite well. Oh and I should probably mention that I was quite impressed by the way people buy train tickets here. There's an employee who sits behind a counter, everyone walks up to him and randomly shoves money into the slot...sometimes multiple people do this at once and the employee determines who gave what amount and how much change they should receive in return. All this happens in a matter of seconds, quite interesting that the system works - once again, organized chaos at it's very best. Much like driving on the streets in most developing countries, everyone just drives and finds their way home...there are no lane systems or speed limits.

Also, I'm still fighting to get a sim card here so I can have my own number. I bought a vodafone sim card and a recharge pack for it but for some convoluted reason no one knows why it doesn't work. I'm going back to the store again for the 3rd time tomorrow to get this fixed. There's no wifi in the apartment either, everyone here buys those usb sticks that you stick into your computer to access the internet. I finally got a vodafone usb stick that took about 2 hours of waiting at the shop to get everything set up. Finally, I'm trying to gather info on places to vist/see while I'm here and local people say Abu Simbel, Luxor, Alexandria and Aswan are good places to visit. To put things in perspective distance wise, it takes 10-12 hrs to travel by train from Cairo to Luxor (night train is obviously the better choice), Abu simbel is further south of Cairo so that will take longer. You can travel by plane as well which is faster, however ticket prices are quite different (Plane=$285, Train=$15, see this website for more info: http://www.ask-aladdin.com/luxor_travel__information.htm). Ok then, I guess that's it for now. I'll write more later when I get a chance.
Thanks for reading...this is sandeep signing out!

Posted by 2011 12:47 Archived in Egypt Tagged and oasis desert egypt white black el cairo chaos organized bahariya Comments (0)

The land of the Pharoahs!

Cairo, Egypt

sunny 25 °C

Day 1 – Nov 10, 2010
For those that don’t know, I recently moved to Cairo, Egypt for a short term assignment with my company. I consider myself very lucky to be here and am thankful for all the trips I’ve been able to make in 2010. My first day in Egypt was very interesting. I flew in from Amsterdam, tired but excited…the 12 hour transit at Amsterdam and no sleep had taken its toll on me. I must admit that I was surprised by KLM’s service, it was way better than British Airways and they flew in and out on time. I am a bit spoiled by my free upgrades to business class that Emirates keeps giving me so I do hold them with the highest regard. Walking down the runway we were ushered onto a large bus that took us towards immigrations in Cairo. Even though it was 2am when I reached, I immediately liked the sights and sounds of the city…the roads, buildings and people reminded me of India. It felt good to be in a familiar place and also close to home. A driver from the company was kind enough to pick me up and take me home, we exchanged a few words here and there since I don’t speak any Arabic and he didn’t speak too much English. I was interested to see that the way we thought about numbers and words – the company’s driver told me my apartment room number was 24 while it was actually 42. The same thing happened earlier while I was typing a search term on google, I knew that things were written in reverse order in Arabic but it was interesting to see that people’s thought patterns followed the same order as well.
Anyhow, the first day went by pretty uneventfully. It looks like I have the next week off because of “Eid Al Adha”. I intend to make the most of it by travelling as much as possible. I also need to get myself a cell phone and an internet connection since the apartment I’m staying at does not have either. I will try and continue to write as I go along so stay tuned for more updates.
Thanks for reading, this is Sandeep – signing out!

Posted by 2011 11:58 Archived in Egypt Tagged egypt cairo Comments (0)

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