Archive for the ‘Egypt’ Category

Sundry Pics from Egypt and Ethiopia

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Tombs of Mohammed’s Family – Cairo, Egypt

Tombs of Mohamads Family From Outside

Mohammed Family Tombs

  Ceiling of Tomb

These tombs are located in an obscure crypt located within the City of the Dead in Cairo.  A local guy from that city took me in his old beat up pickup truck.

Mr. Welsh & Mr. Poland – My Travelling Companions in Egypto

Matt and Nick in Dahab

Nick and Tomasz

Matt and I both rendezvoused in Eliat, Israel before entering Egypt.  We hit town the same evening and amazingly upon showing up (neither of us having hotel reservations) we ended in the same hostel – in the same dorm room!  Not planned, and we didn’t even know until that night when we saw each other.  Especially odd considering there were a plethora of hostels in the neighborhood to choose from. 

But then Matt and I split again and crossed into Egypt independently on separate days (Matt wanted to go a day earlier). 

Since crossing borders is always an adventure, this resulted in us both having unique adventures.  Turns out Matt ended up spending a night as the only tourist in a Bedouin camp when he couldn’t find through transportation.  Later we met up again in Dahab, Egypt but this time we didn’t have the fortune to pick the same hostel… ended up at opposite sides of town.  But after a couple days later Matt moved over to my hostel.  So we were travelling together, kinda.

Regardless, Matt and I did have a great time together and one day the two of us went snorkeling and Matt stepped on a sea urchin and got thorny spines all over the top AND bottom of of his foot!  Ouch.  What’s worse is it was later that night we hiked up Mt. Sinai… hehe.

So then I went on to Cairo and Matt back to Israel.  But after a a few days I took an antiquated train up to Alexandria where, lo and behold – who was waiting for me at the station but good ol’ Poland himself!!  Mr. Tomasz.  The two of us then explored Alexandria and Western Egypt together.

Guess I’ll always remember taking an overnight bus ride with Tomasz from Alexandria to the Siwa Oasis.  During the night as we crossed the desert and temps inside the bus got downright frigid and neither of us could sleep well.  Every now and again I’d look out the window and see this full moon lighting up the dune landscape in amazing detail.  I remember thinking, “We’d better not have bus trouble because we are at the back side of nowhere.”

At pre-dawn we pulled into our destination – this hole in the wall small town called Siwa.  Both of us were bleary-eyed as we stumbled from the bus, but no time to sit around, we had to navigate to find a hotel.  Found one Tomasz had in mind but it was locked up.  So I called the owner and woke him.  He came down and unlocked the door – checked us in.  Tomasz and I groggily found our way to a third floor room.  There were two beds, and immediately we both crashed to sleep without unpacking or anything.  We were just soo tired.   

When I did the reverse overnight bus ride (by myself this time, straight back to Cairo) I brought my sleeping bag onboard the bus and snuggled into it for the night and slept quite soundly.  Upon arriving at the Cairo bus station at the crack of dawn I was immediately thrust into the non-stop nutty traffic and forced to navigate across the city via subway, etc. but, unlike before, I wasn’t so tired and was able to hit the ground running.   

Citadel – Cairo, Egypt

Massive ancient fortress; replete with several mosques within the compound.  I visited this briefly one day while in Cairo. 

Mosque Courtyard

Prayer Calling Seat for the Iman

Men Praying in Mosque

From the ramparts of the Citadel was a striking view of Cairo with the Giza Pyramids outside town in the desert:

Pyramids Across Cairo Skyline

Here is another skyline photo below, check out how many minarets there are… The “call to prayer” time in Cairo is ridiculously obnoxious (at least from my limited perspective as an infiedel) with the nonstop cacophony of a ka-billion discordant singers through squawking megaphones.

Minarets in Cairo

The Nile / Sailing a Felucca – Cairo, Egypt

The Nile

Felucca Sail

Sailing a Felucca

I was walking along the Nile river and saw these Felucca’s just aching to be sailed. 

There was a guy sitting on a park bench up by the main road offering rides for 100 EGP ($17).  I sat on the bench beside him for awhile and thought about it – watching the boats and the Nile. 

Finally I decided to walk down and look at the boats up close.  There was another man down by the boats so I asked him how much a ride would cost?  He said 50 EGP for an hour.  Whatta deal!  Half what the first guy offered, so I told him I’d do it.

To my chagrin, Mr. Cheapo hollered up to Mr. Expensivo guy on the picnic bench to come on down as they had a customer.  Turns out Mr. Expensivo was the captain who took me on my ride.  Slightly awkward.  The fellow who offered me the half off rate was the boat manager and didn’t care much about the Captain getting a tip.

Felucca Captian

Another thing I saw walking along the boardwalk was a hip café where apparently all the guys take their girlfriends.  Reminded me of the “dating room” at BJU I’ve heard about.

Couples Hanging Out by the Nile

The Famous Egypt Museum – Tahrir Square – Cairo, Egypt

The Famous Egyptian Musuem in Tahrir Square

It looks nicer on the outside than the inside.  The exhibits are poorly labeled (or not labeled) and it has the feel of a musty old warehouse.  Outside touts are swarming about, seeking whom they may swindle a dollar from.  No joke, I was outright lied to by touts.  For instance, one of them insisted the museum was closed to individuals right now and only groups could enter (not true).  Then he suggested that while I was waiting maybe I could go see his shop?  I forget what I told him, but it wasn’t what I wanted to tell him, that’s for sure. 

I find there are many times (like even today) I think rotten things in my head I wish to tell annoying touts that somehow gets filtered to comments fairly civil by the time the words exit my mouth.  I guess that’s progress, but it would be better if I were less bitter towards them in the first place.  They’re just trying to make a living.  Dishonestly is all.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Friends I made in Addis.  The guy with his arm around me, Abraham, is someone I hung out with for a several days and even later met his Dad in Bahir Dar. 

Drogba Nick Abraham Simon

Did you know that in Ethiopia it is normal for guys to walk around hand-in-hand to show friendship?  Seemed wrong to me, but that’s what they do.

Lake Tana – Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Lake Tana is the lake where the headwaters of the Blue Nile comes from.  Tana also has a number of islands with ancient monasteries on them.  I took a boat trip out on the lake to visit several of the monasteries.  The lake was cool, but the monasteries weren’t much to write home about: big circular huts that didn’t look that old. 

I thought the papyrus boats were the most interesting part.  That, and taking our boat up the first bit of the Blue Nile river.

Lake Tana Island

Lake Tana - Papyrus Boats

Lake Tana Papyrus Boat

Lake Tana Kids on Papyrus Boat

Lake Tana Monastery Dock

Lake Tana Monastery Deacon

Lake Tana No Entrance

I don’t endorse the “No Lady” entrance above.  Just found it interesting.  Several of the monasteries were open to men only. 

Honestly, I feel that much of what I saw of Orthodoxy in Ethiopia was counter to teachings in the Bible.  Crosses are everywhere (including at the top of the sign above), but I feel the symbology is too often misused.

Blue Nile / Birds / Hippos – Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Blue Nile Early Morning

Blue Nile Birds

Hippo in the Blue Nile

Hippos Kissing in the Blue Nile

Tis Issat Falls – Tis Abay, Ethiopia

Tis Issat Falls March 2012

John the Guide

Tis Issat Falls with Boys

The kids above are eating sugar cane, a popular snack.

As far as touristy type things go, Tis Issat Falls was the coolest thing I saw in Ethiopia.  The waterfall was thunderously loud and impressive and shot out mist a long ways and probably ruined my white T-shirt.  And this is the dry season… in the rainy season I was told everything is far more impressive.

Not as large as Niagara Falls, Blue Nile Falls more than makes up for it by its’ remote location.  The Falls are in the middle of nowhere, a bouncy 45 minute ride from the nearest town (Bahir Dar) on dirt roads.  During the couple hours I hiked around the falls I was the only foreign person I saw.

Not to mention…. notice how there are no rails at the top like at Niagara?  Not as much safety stuff.  Not to mention I even went swimming down in the pool at the bottom which I’m sure isn’t allowed at Niagara Falls.

The Rock-Hewn Churches – Lalibela, Ethiopia

Eleven massive churches have been chiseled from single large pieces of rock.  They date back to the 12th and 13th centuries.  Here are pictures I took of two of them:

Rock Hewn Church at Lalibela

Women Praying at Rock Hewn Church

Inside the church’s were massive vaulted ceilings with perfectly formed arches inlaid with designs.  All this chiseled from one piece of rock!  No room for mistakes.  I was impressed.

Arches Inside Church 

Ceremony at Rock-Hewn Churches Celebrating St. Mary’s Day

One thing to remember about the town of Lalibela (pop. ~14,000) is that it is located at the backside of nowhere.  About a two hour drive on dirt roads from the nearest sketchy paved road in northern Ethiopia.

So this is the real deal and many of the local houses are made from earth and sticks.  Coming to Lalibela in some ways feels like stepping backwards in history a millennium.

The day I was visiting the churches there were many people praying and worshipping because it was St. Mary’s Day.  From what I gathered they have Saint’s Days quite regularly. 

But their carrying on wasn’t only for show because there were hardly any other tourists.  It’s just what they do.  Tradition.

Priests Reading and Singing

Men Singing

Perhaps the High Priest

Man Reading

Women at Church

Woman at Church

Walking Sticks

Funeral in Lalibela

During my time in Lalibela there was a funeral.  I took some pictures of the processional from an adjoining hill (that was also part of the cemetery).  I was wandering around out there seeing what I might see and lo and behold I saw a funeral procession.

What you can’t hear from the pictures is the continual trumpet blasts and literal screaming by certain mourners.  As Christians I thought we were supposed to have hope for the future?  Maybe screaming is therapeutic.

Funeral Sepia

Funeral Procession

Some Fellow Tourists

Two Gentleman Chaps

These old boys were travelling together.  Maybe they were brothers?  Often I would see them deep in discussion about some particular point of interest.  This made me wish I had a travelling companion myself. 

Maybe when I’m old and grey like these guys I can go on a trip with my brothers to exotic places like Lalibela, eh?

And Finally… Avocado Fruit Juice!

IMG_7063

This has become an addiction for me.  Every restaurant I visit the first thing I do is ask if they have Avocado Fruit Juice.  Most don’t.  But this one did.  It’s scrumptiously healthily sugarly deliciously wonderful.  Says I.

Sahara-Ho!

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

When I think desert, I think sand.  In particular, sand dunes.

In Israel I never saw sand dunes.  Neither the Judean Desert nor the Negev had the type of desert I consider proper. 

But thanks be, finally I saw the real deal at the Siwa oasis.  Siwa is located in the heart of the Sahara, about 150 miles from any major town.  While the area around the springs are fairly lush, it doesn’t take much of a walk before you’re into the outback.  In Egypt, once you go East or West of the Nile river you’re into desert, as the satellite photo below shows.

Siwa is a long way from Nowhere

Yesterday Tomasz and I hiked about 12 miles around Siwa…  on this hike we tramped through town, across the desert, over sand dunes, then had lunch and took a nap in the midst of this remote sand-swept Sahara. 

On our circuitous route home we traipsed across salt-encrusted wastelands, leaped irrigation ditches, trekked through cool palm-tree forests, and finished off with a swim in the salty oasis.  Quite a day. 

Nick and Tomasz

The heat, wind, sand, and walking was wipeout tiring, but I still say it beat a day at the office.

The Siwa Oasis itself is more of a lake than a pretty well surrounded by palm fronds, as I imagined an oasis to be (my impressions no doubt tainted from Kings Quest V). 

The lake itself is below sea level and quite salty, though freshwater abounds in the marshes nearby.  Tomasz and I were surprised to find we floated about the same in this lake as we did in the Dead Sea.

Siwa Oasis

Out in the desert, the scenery was breathtaking.  So far in my travels I think it is the most exotic place I’ve been.  Knowing this was the real deal, the real Sahara, made it all the more surreal. 

Tomasz Walking

Climbing a dune is more difficult than it looks.  I was huffing and puffing by the top of each one.  Believe it or not, I saw snowboards for rent in town…  not for snow of course, but for sand dunes!  It looked fun, but also dangerous.

Up a Dune 1Up a Dune 2

Being out in such large open spaces brings a bit of a lonesome feeling.  When I got up after my nap break there was sand built up around my backpack from the wind, and sand in my clothes.  Made me realize one single person is insignificant next to this vast tract of bleak, inhospitable wasteland. 

It’s said an entire Persian army sent by Cyrus the Great, 50,000 strong, was headed toward Siwa to capture it when they totally disappeared, swallowed up by the desert.  Recently their bodies have been found.

The Sahara is a Big Place

My personal archaeology research wasn’t quite so impressive, but I did come across a bunch of bullets.  Not casings, but the actual bullets.  Most were old and rusty, but some were recent with no corrosion.

Bullets

Along with my point above regarding the lonesome feeling in being so long a ways from no-where, I found comfort in remembering God still has tabs on me.  Nothing escapes his notice, I believe.

“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand.”
(Psalm 139:17-18)

10 Experiences from Egypt

Friday, March 16th, 2012

Right now I’m at the Siwa Oasis – about fifty miles from the Libyan border.  See map below, which shows the 1,000 mile route I’ve taken so far since entering Egypt.  From Taba (the border of Israel) down to Dahab, then on to Cairo, Alexandria, and now Siwa.  All Egypt is desert except along the Nile and the scattered oasis’s.

My Bus Route through Egypt

Here are some events that have happened or things I’ve observed since posting on here last, in no particular order.

1) Visiting the world famous Cairo Museum.  It may be world famous, but the inside resembles more of a musty old storage warehouse than anything else: thick layers of dust, poor lighting, and many exhibits unmarked.  However, I was happy to see King Tut’s golden mask and sarcophagus, as well as a bunch of mummies. 

I didn’t see King Tut himself, but amazingly did see both his mother and grandmother.  While some mummies look like freak props out of a horror flick, it is surprising to see others remarkably well preserved.  For instance, King Tut’s grandmother Queen Tiye had more hair left on her at the ripe age of 3,402 then some people do at the ripe age of 50.  Here she is:

Tiye

The craziest thing about Queen Tiye (I thought) was how she was just laid out in this old glass/wood box that looked like something I could have cobbled together!  No sealed, air conditioned exhibit case for her.  The pride and care the Egyptians take of their antiquities is astounding.  I’ve heard this lack of concern is partially to be blamed because modern Egyptians aren’t descendants of the ancients, but that may not be true.

2) Had multiple locals try to scam me and also openly lie, which has been upsetting.  The good news is the Berbers out here in western Egypt are honest folk.  They are restoring some of the faith in this country I had hitherto lost.

3) Spent a couple days at the port city of Alexandria.  There I visited an ancient Roman amphitheater (and stood right where the gladiators of old enacted their macabre deeds), the mighty Citadel fortress guarding the harbor (and explored the ramparts and towers therein), the underground catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, and the massive Alexandrian library (which replaced the famous one burnt to the ground back in the 3rd century).  In the Alexandrian library I saw a section of Louis L’amour books, which convinced me the new library is undoubtedly superior to the old.

4) Have observed abject poverty and squalor… some places coming close to rivaling Port-au Prince (my gold standard for misery).  I’ve seen areas pictures wouldn’t do justice, and that couldn’t be appreciated unless you visited them yourself.  Also, many buildings in Cairo and Alexandria are old and crumbling apart while the occupants remain inside!  I saw one occupied high-rise apartment building leaning at a pronounced angle!  Not safe. 

5) Have walked through crowded, tight little streets.  One I was walking yesterday was lined with open market stalls and jam packed with two-way car traffic, two-way animal cart traffic, thousands of pedestrians, and two-way tram lines!  All this in a street half the width of Maize back home.  Incredible.  At one point I saw a man with his back to the street (not a good idea) looking over a table of merchandise when a car literally backed into him, squeezing his legs against the table.  Luckily the car wasn’t moving fast, and when it moved forward again the man was released and seemed to be OK, just quite angry and yelling at the driver, “what for.”

6) Hardly seen any Westerners (except at the Pyramids).  The tourists I do see are mainly Egyptian.  Egyptian tourists seem nice enough, and, believe it or not, frequently want their picture taken with me.  This has happened quite a few times.  Celebrity status is a new one…  Maybe I should start charging money?  Once, to be funny, Tomasz and I stepped into the edge of a group picture some Egyptian tourists were posing for.  They all seemed to think this was quite hilarious and moved us to the center of their group so we could be front stage in their photo!

6) Played soccer with a group of teenage locals I ran into on the street.  That was fun, except my team lost.  The game ended by my shooting on goal and the goalie deflecting it into the Mediterranean sea!  I was glad they recovered it without incident.  Before I left, they wanted a photo-shoot:

Playing Soccer with Egyptian Youth

7) Astoundingly inexpensive food.  Here are two examples, for the mathematically inclined:

Ex 1: This morning I purchased a stack of ten pieces of pita bread hot right out of the oven for only 1/2 EGP (9 cents).  Then a bunch of cheese for 6 EGP (50 cents).  That fed Tomasz and I both lunch and supper today, for the grand total of 59 cents!  Granted, the meals weren’t balanced, but we were both stuffed for both meals.

Ex 2: Foul (pronounced “fool”) is something like a bean burrito you can buy in cafes here.  They only cost 1 EGP (9 cents).  A nice supper of three fouls and a can of coca-cola fills me up and only costs 6 EGP total (about 1 US dollar).

How in the world food can be sold so cheap is beyond me.  I’m guessing it has to do with gasoline being ridiculously cheap.  Which reminds me that I heard the #1 money maker for Egypt is tourism, followed by #2 money maker being fees on the Suez Canal, followed by #3 being oil exports.  None of those three they have to work for much.  If the local gasoline prices ever go up, I’m afraid the millions here who live in poverty will be really hurting.

8 ) Hearing the call to prayer multiple times a day.  This evening here at the Siwa Oasis Tomasz and I climbed up high to see the sunset… then the deafening call to prayer began from the loudspeakers of every minaret in town and we decided the calamituitous noise was more impressive than the sunset, though it too was impressive: 

Mosque Sunset

9) Travelling by every which way of locomotion.  So far in Egypt I’ve been transported on tram, subway, train, bus, shuttle, taxi, camel, horse, and my own two feet… I leave the country by plane.

Horse Riding in the Sinai

10) Sights I’m not used to seeing…

1) All the women wear head shawls in public: some covering just their hair, some covering all their face except the eyes, and some (the Berbers here out west) covering their entire face – these latter resemble wraiths.  Here is a picture of the “slit-for-my-eyes” variety:

Veiled Woman in Dahab

2) Women talking on their cell phones hands free… by sticking the phone into their head shawls! 

(I don’t have a picture of the hands free head shawl trick, but here is a picture of two Berber men jabbering away)

Two Men Talking on Cell Phones

3) Donkey carts everywhere… they look fun

Donkey Cart

4) Men dressed up funny-like…

Robed Guys

5) Restaurant chain spinoffs…

Pizza Hot

Ok, sorry for the abrupt ending, but it’s late now – so that’s my update!

Visiting the Pyramids of Giza

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Today I had quite the adventure… I went to visit the pyramids.

First let me talk about Cairo.  It is a pretty amazing place.  A mass of humanity, something to the tune of 17 million.  I suppose it’s like New York City that never sleeps, where the horns never stop, where multitudes of people are constantly milling about everywhere, and in short, a pulsating mass of activity.  Not for the faint of heart, but supposedly one of the safest big cities in Africa.  They say pickpocketing and getting scammed is common enough, but violent crimes are relatively rare.  One thing that has surprised me is the beggars.  I’ve seen a lady with a deformed hand, a guy who had serious problems, another guy who appeared to be blind, etc.  In America, these types of cases are in hospitals, not lying by the side of the road with their hands out.  On another note, the bazaars here are something else: the sensory overload of walking through one is overwhelming: cars, motorbikes, blaring horns, trash, vendors, and the ubiquitous masses of people.  It’s like the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on steroids.

Ok, back to the pyramids.  Because visiting them is as much an exercise in wading neck deep through commercialization as it is being awed at the site itself, I thought I’d start this post off with a break-down of the cost of my trip today.  Maybe it will be helpful to some traveler who stumbles across my blog.

Item Cost
Metro 1
Taxi 1 10
Taxi 2  15
Entry Fee 60
First Guide 20
Camel Ride 145
Tea 10
Can of Coke 5
Donations 4
Taxi 3 20
Metro 1
KFC 13
   
Total EGP 304
Total US Dollars $50.66

To put the cost of 304 EGP in perspective, I talked with an Irish lad the other day who, like me, went by himself to see the pyramids.  He spent 250 EGP just on transportation, then another 750 EGP on a camel ride – so it can easily cost more.  He told me at the end he was so upset he wasn’t speaking.  But Irish are known to have an unusual-sharp temper anyway.

I guarantee you my Irish friend didn’t get to see as much cool stuff as I did.  For one thing, I saw the inside of a pyramid many people don’t even know they can visit!  More on that later.

But first off, it’s easy to get frustrated in Egypt by how everyone is out to get your money.  We take trust for granted in the US, but – not to be too harsh – here trust seems to be a precious rare commodity.  Wariness has become the watchword for me.  I dislike being suspicious of others, and usually I’m a pretty trusting guy, but I’ve got to the point I don’t trust anyone in Egypt.  Even this guy last night who, during his spiel, told me he was an honest Christian.  I asked him if he was going to church this Sunday (today) and he said no.  He also told me a taxi to the pyramids from the metro would cost 50 pounds when in actuality it costs under 20.  So much for honesty. 

I’ve only been in the country a week, but I’m already getting savvy to their tricks.  Basically, the rule of thumb is that anyone who approaches you to make chitchat or offer help is just trying to make a buck off your ignorance, at the best – or at the worst, an outright con.  It’s always a bad idea to stop and look like you’re lost, or to consult a map, or to acknowledge the existence of anyone who wants to talk with you.  Sounds rude, but it’s true.  I’ve got to where I keep a pair of headphones in my ears, walk quick, and kindly brush aside anybody who wants to talk with me by ignoring them, and if that doesn’t work I give a friendly wave of my hand, a smile, and a polite, “La Shukran” (No Thanks) while continue walking.  Even then, some are persistent and will walk along for awhile.  In Dahab I’ve had shop owners place themselves up the street from their store and then start walking along with me making idle chit-chat as if they are a fellow tourist, then when we got up to their shop they were like, “Oh, what do you know, here we are at my shop, do please come in!”  One guy added the twist, “I have a guest book in my shop that you MUST sign!”  No thanks.  

The exception to all this shameless baloney is the people who I have approached asking for information.  To a man, they have all been genuinely friendly and helpful.  So I’m thinking the average Egyptian is indeed a nice chap, it’s just the minority of their entrepreneur minded peers that ruins the overall image. 

Ok, on to the story of the pyramids.  Just getting there was an adventure.  Riding the metro out to the Giza plateau, brushing past all the Pyramid scammers waiting for suckers like me at the metro exit, hailing a taxi from the street, weaving through insane Cairo traffic, having the taxi get a flat tire in the middle of the road, switching to another driver, having that guy make a phone call to his camel buddies to tell them I was coming, stopping to talk with said buddies who insisted I take a camel ride from THEM and me flatly refusing, all that to finally arrive at Giza!

After buying a ticket, I entered the grounds.  I was immediately approached by an official looking man asking to see my ticket.  He took it and then proceeded to tell me I had to get a camel or horse ride in order to see the pyramids.  I told him I just wanted to walk and he said I couldn’t, it was against the rules.  He told me he was not lying, he was not affiliated with the stables, he was in fact the Pyramid police. 

Of course, this was all bluff and I’d already been tipped off to this particular scam by reading ahead online.  I pointed out to this “policeman” the other tourists who were walking around and he said they were only walking in this little overlook area and would not be allowed up to the pyramids unless they paid for a ride.  I said I only wanted to walk around in this little area too, would he please give me my ticket back? (which he did) and then I left him as politely as I could, though by the end he was quite angry with me for all my pains to be polite.

The first stop on the grounds was the Sphinx, but in order to get up to it one first has to walk through an aisle of tourist shops about a football field long.  No joke, we’re out in the desert and there is this long line of tents hawking wares on both sides.  I walked through the aisle fast, keeping my earbuds in and pretending I couldn’t hear any of their begging for me to come look at their stuff.

Finally!  The Sphinx!  I walked up as close as I thought I could, but then a friendly official man (let’s call him Mustafa) told me my ticket included entrance to get up closer.  Wary, I entered, and turns out he was honest.  Finally, perhaps someone I could trust? 

So I entered this courtyard and joined a tour group to listen in.  (Yes, there were other tourists here)  Not much interesting to see, so I turned to leave when another man stopped me and told me there was more around the corner.  Was he trustworthy?  Turns out he was, around the corner was a great view of the Sphinx from up high! 

Cool, but then this man noticed my shirt read, “Dahab” on it and proceeded to tell me his wife’s brother lived in Dahab and his name was Mohammad and did I know him?  Why yes, of course I’m sure I ran into him.  “Then would you please like to buy some of these trinkets I’m selling?”  And so it continued…

The Sphinx IS pretty incredible.  The Sphinx is buried about halfway below the level of the ground, but they have excavated down to the base.  You can see lower on the statue is well-preserved.  At the base that used to be far underground you can still see the original paving stones.  The face is most eroded, and they have a bunch of contraptions mounted on it to repair or preserve it or something.  Makes the Sphinx look like it has chicken pox. 

While other tourists snapped an inordinate amount of photos, I sat there admiring it quietly, thinking about the people who built such a monolith in this desert wasteland some 4,500 years before.  Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always wanted to visit the pyramids and the Sphinx.  Egyptology has always held a mysterious fascination with me.

Finally I left the Sphinx.  As I was leaving, Mustafa, the helpful guy who had let me in, proffered for free that my ticket also included a look at the catacombs.  I was suspicious, but followed him around the corner to an area that at first glance looked cordoned off, but actually wasn’t.  Sure enough, there was a large area of tombs cut into the rocks (perhaps ten acres?) at the base of the pyramids that are called the catacombs.  There were no tourists in this catacombs area.  But this man led me up to the first one and we looked into this cave area where there were original hieroglyphics etched in stone and little cave openings where dead people had been buried.  It was pretty amazing.

Of course I knew this guy was going to want money, so I nipped it in the bud and told him I didn’t have much to pay him (which was more or less true, I hadn’t brought tons of cash with me).  Anyways, he could tell I wasn’t the average tourist because I had brought nothing with me: no camera, no backpack, no water bottle, nothing (of course I had wallet and passport in my pockets, but nothing visible).  The point is, I don’t think I looked that rich.  And honestly, Mustafa genuinely seemed interested in just introducing people to more than what they usually see.  He told me that was fine if I didn’t have money, I was free to look around for myself, but he would like at least a little dough for what he had shown me so far… I gave him a 20 spot for his trouble (about $3) and he went back to the Sphinx.

Ok, so this catacombs area was about the coolest thing ever.  There were totally no tourists here – not that I was in any danger of getting lost as I was right in between two roads, but as long as I stayed down in the cutout rocks nobody bothered me and I could explore to my hearts content, though following the rule to not go in anywhere I didn’t think I could easily get out of.  So I wandered all around… through little aisles running ever which way, tunnels going here and there, tombs in little caves, shafts that dropped down into labyrinths below, hieroglyphics everywhere, including sculpted paleo-Egyptians, rock hewn rectangular tombs, etc.  It was incredible.  But it was still plenty adventurous as there were places that were dark and I had to use my flashlight.  It totally felt like Indiana Jones as I blew sandy dust off old rock-hewn box-tombs and examined the mysterious symbols beneath.  A common motif was the All-Seeing Eye (found on our $1 bill).  Also I saw the sun God Isis – the same god mentioned in the Zietgiest movie I blogged about recently.  I’m pretty sure that some of the symbols were etched into gold overlaid on the rock – they were shiny and yellow anyways.  Also, in one little room I entered, all the walls and ceiling reflected shiny specks which was pretty.

Before I came I’d read online the pyramids are often an anti-climax for visitors when they realize there isn’t much to see and it’s just an over-commercialized trap.  But I found it plenty exciting.

When I had worked my way incognito-like through the catacombs almost all the way up to the base of the pyramids, I was finally routed out by one of the workers who told me I wasn’t allowed in that area (even though I’d been told by Mustafa I was) and to please come back on the road.  Obligingly I did, without arguing, seeing as I had already explored pretty much the whole thing.  If only I’d had a rope ladder I could have dropped down into some shafts that were about ten feet deep and explored where they turned horizontal to who knows where.  Though at one point I did find myself at the bottom of a deep shaft that went up about 40′ feet!

So back on the road, I merged in with a group of Egyptian tourists who were walking up to the Middle pyramid.  I was wondering a little when I noticed the only tourists up by the pyramids were Egyptian, not a single white person there.  I wondered if perhaps you needed connections to get up that close?  I don’t know, anyways, I was able to get right up to the base, though I didn’t climb up, because that’s not allowed.  Though one annoying guy told me his dad or grandpa or something was a pyramid climbing fool who could get to the top in seven minutes, and for the right fee I too would be taken to the top.  I got rid of that guy.

As I sat at the base of the pyramid looking up in wonderment at its ancient grandeur, a camel guy named Abdul started pestering me.  He offered a camel ride starting at 300 and when I informed him I wasn’t interested, he kept coming down.  While I sat there continuing to refuse, he went on down to 60 pounds.  This was really a good price and since I was pretty dusty and hot and tired and didn’t feel like walking back anyhow, I caved and accepted, against my better judgment. 

Taking the camel ride turned out to be a good decision though, even if I paid 145 pounds at the end (through high pressure guilt) and not the initial price agreed upon.  Still, it wasn’t a bad price for a an hour long camel ride around the pyramids… I can’t complain.  Also, it was nice knowing the money was going directly to a camel guy and not to five middle men (like my taxi driver who was hoping to make a cut off me through his buddies).

Abdul and I rode on the same camel out to the far end of know-where-ville where he showed me six more smaller pyramids and also we got an amazing view of the three big ones.  I think he was flabbergasted I didn’t have a camera with me.  My reasoning on this issue was there are plenty of pictures of the pyramids already, I wanted to see them for myself.  Plus, I was trying to keep as low a tourist profile as possible.  That’s why I didn’t bring a backpack either.

We stopped the camel for a break in the dessert and Abdul and myself joined a group of three Egyptian guards sitting around a campfire on top of a sand dune – they put a teapot of water on the fire and boiled up some Egyptian tea for me.  Quite nice chaps, and a great view of the pyramids, the desert, and smoggy Cairo in the distance, even if flies were swarming around me.  While sitting around, the call to prayer started up in Cairo and we could clearly hear the noise wafting over to us across the desert dunes.

Abdul seemed to be a good egg.  The camel was his own that he had bought three years ago.  Each day he takes it back to his home to care for it and then rides it out again to the pyramids in the morning.  He said a camel costs about 10,000 EGP (about $1500). 

Riding back to the Sphinx, Abdul informed me my ticket included entry to one of the smaller pyramids.  There is no way I would have known that on my own!  Though I was beginning to wonder if the power of my “ticket” was totally at the discretion of whoever I happened to be talking with at the moment.

So we stopped the camel by that pyramid and I went in.  There was a steep hallway proceeding downwards at perhaps a 45 degree angle.  It went a long ways down, I’m guessing to the center of the pyramid, underneath the peak.  The hallway wasn’t tall and you had to duck your head as you clambered down.  At the bottom there was a right turn through a passageway into a square-shaped room, and in the center of that room was a mummy-shaped enclave chiseled into the rock.  Pretty amazing, though the sarcophagus was long gone.  It was even cooler as I was the only one in there.  Perched up on a stone shelf about twenty feet over the sarcophagus rock, I popped open a Coca Cola I’d bought up at the top (while still on my camel in fact, I had Abdul ride over to this guy selling pop out of a cooler in the middle of the desert and bought one from him without even dismounting) and wondered if that tomb had ever had a can of Coke popped open in it before?  If the mummy were still in there, I bet it would have rolled over.

Coming back to my hostel was taxis and metro in reverse.  You wouldn’t believe the traffic here in Cairo.  It’s not as bad as Port-au Prince, Haiti, but it’s mighty close.  There doesn’t appear to be traffic rules or official lanes.  Just a big free for all.

One funny thing that happened yesterday was my driver needed a light for his cigarette, and asked me for one.  I didn’t have a lighter with me, so this guy got one from a neighboring car!  As he was jostling through traffic, shooting through gaps I didn’t think humanly possible, he also somehow managed to signal to a nearby vehicle that he was in desperate need of a smoke and they passed him a lighter through the window.  He lit up and gave the lighter back through the window; all while driving through traffic, I was impressed.

Speaking of traffic, crossing the street here is something else.  The right of way goes to traffic, not pedestrians.  I usually wait to cross a street until the traffic clears a bit, but I’ve seen others walk straight into a flowing stream of vehicles and just begin dodging between some six lanes of traffic in a hair raising, death-defying stunt.  Yesterday, my taxi driver nearly hit several people.  One in particular I’ll remember for awhile.  He had quite the shocked expression right before he literally leaped backwards out of the way. 

Anyways, I’m glad to be back at my hostel relaxing.  Travelling can be a lot of work.  Thankfully there is a Kentucky Fried Chicken right around the corner.

There are more stories, but I’m getting tired writing them, and I’m sure you’re getting tired reading them.

Climbing Mount Sinai

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

The most recent adventure around here has been hiking up Mount Sinai with my Welsh companion Matt. 

We went with a tour group leaving from our hostel.  The cost for going was $15 – that included round-trip transportation, a guide, and admission costs (everything, as we found out, but the fees for using the bathroom).

Our trip started at 11pm last night.  The green taxi below picked us up.  The Japanese fellow already onboard is one of my bunkmates and was quite sleepy.  In preparation for climbing the mountain, he had drunk many bottles of beer.  Why? I don’t know.

Dahab Taxi

So we were taken by taxi to a mini-bus shuttle (think 15-passenger van) and off we headed across the Sinai Peninsula to St. Catherine’s monastery.

The drive took about three hours, including several lengthy stops at security checkpoints.

Around 2am we arrived and started the trek up the mountain, along with about 100 other tourists.  That is probably only a fraction of the tourists who usually make the trek, but if solitude was any type of goal, 100 is still too many. 

Matt and I were assigned a local guide and put into a small group of eight.  Represented among us were nationalities from USA, Canada, Taiwan, Japan, German, and Wales.  Later, an older Dutch man joined our group after his group left him in the dust.  He wasn’t with us long though as we soon left him in the dust as well.  Poor guy.

The trek up to the peak took our group two hours.  The elevation is 7,500 feet.  Not super high, but I saw snow up there, and it was cold. I was wearing six layers…  far cry from earlier in the day when Matt and I had been comfortably snorkeling in the Red Sea.

From the moment we arrived at the base of the mountain we were faced with shameless commercialization.  I wasn’t out of the car five seconds before wares were being hawked in my face. 

I discovered the big thing Bedouins try selling at Mount Sinai is a camel ride to the top.  About every ten steps we were pestered by yet another Bedouin standing by his camel asking if we would care for a ride?  They would strategically place themselves at the top of every difficult stretch.  There were enough camels amassed on the mountain to easily transport a small army.

I was constantly barraged with yet ever more solicitations: “Sure you don’t want a camel ride now?”  And their sales tactics were on the shameless side… our guide practically raced up the mountain; I’m convinced he was purposely trying to wear us out such that we would purchase a camel ride.  Two hours is a long time to hike straight up the side of a mountain at breakneck speed!  We did take several breaks, and at each break they tried selling us more stuff. As it turned out, there was no big rush to reach the top as we arrived a full hour and a half before sunrise.

Here are some tourists availing themselves of the camel riding service on the way down:

Tourists on Camels

I didn’t ride a camel.  I don’t think Moses rode a camel.  But the prices were right.  I was offered a ride for as little as five dollars!  Or if I only wanted my picture on one, as little as one dollar.

They tried selling tea to me all the way up too (as well as Snickers bars), but I held out until the top.  It was cold up there, and a hot drink hit the spot, though the price tag was gouging.  Luckily I’d brought my own Snickers bar.  A bad taste was left in my mouth though after they made a stink about how one in our group hadn’t paid for their tea – I volunteered to be the sacrificial lamb who paid twice, covering the transgressions of the Judas and silencing the murmurings of the Bedouins.

The moon was full as we walked up the steep mountain.  The desert was bright and I felt like I was living Arabian nights.  The terrain was just exactly like the Wichita Mountains. I was expecting one single mountain rising from the valley floor, but nothing further could be true. Mount Sinai (at least the Mount Sinai I climbed) is only one in a series of rugged peaks surrounded by canyons, gulches, and steep, rocky terrain.  

So like I mentioned already, our guide rushed up to beat the band.  We passed a number of other slow-poke groups as well as constantly scuttling around camels.  I got bumped by a camel once or twice as they take up more than their fair share of the trail.  Getting stuck behind a camel is like getting stuck behind a semi-trailer on the highway.  You’ve constantly trying to peer around their backside to see if there’s room to scamper past.

Up close, camels are taller than I remembered.  Of course, never having seen a camel up close, my memory isn’t that good.  These camels stood much much taller than me, and were intimidating.  Especially when they nearly ran me over.  Their legs are long and gangly, while their hooves resemble soft massive pads.  Unlike a horse, their walking gait follows a lilting back and forth motion as they lift up both feet on each side at the same time, followed by their two feet on the other side. 

There is a nice chapel at the top. Thankfully, it’s closed to the public. I’ve seen too many chapels.

From up there, we shivered an hour waiting for sunrise.  Or at least, some of us watched the sunrise.  Others, after having scaled the summit in the dark, turned around and headed straight back down in the dark! They missed the glorious breaking of dawn!  Oh, the capriciousness of some.

Sunrise was beautiful. 

Sunrise from on top Mount Sinai

For the record, here are Matt and I on top:

Nick and Matt on top of Mount Sinai

The emphasis on the Biblical importance of Mount Sinai by our guide was… how shall I put this?  negligible?  non-existent? 

Yet what should I have expected? I’m in Egypt, and this is Mount Sinai I’m visiting. The very Mount Sinai that was the Israelites first stop out of Egypt-town as they wished good riddance to Pharaoh and his minions.

But regarding the educational aspect of the tour.  Our Bedouin guide knew absolutely nothing about Mount Sinai except how to race up it like a Billy goat.  And that his family had lived as nomads in the area for five hundred years.  Before making a living off out-of-shape tourists needing a Snickers bar and camel lift, I have no idea what his family did to survive in this desolate wasteland. 

Among other things our guide didn’t know, the age of St. Catherine’s was one of them.  This was the first question I posed, and he just shrugged his shoulders and told me it was old. Turns out he was right, I could see as much.

At the top, wheezing and sputtering, we had lots of time to kill (on account of our group having arrived in such record time). Matt began debating whether it was appropriate to sneak a smoke?  I told him it wouldn’t be the first time fire had rested on this mountain, and that it would probably be OK.  He agreed and lit up. 

I used the time to read in the Bible about the giving of the 10 Commandments by God to Moses.  Matt wanted to know if smoking was a sin?  I assured him it wasn’t. At lesat, it wasn’t one of the Big Ten. Sin aside, he already knows my opinion about the health risks.

The story of Mount Sinai doesn’t begin with the 10 Commandments, but with God meeting with Moses in a burning bush that didn’t burn up. In an area devoid of firewood, I could see how this type of bush would be a serious boon to the local economy. 

“Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 

There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, ‘I will go over and see this strange sight-why the bush does not burn up.’” (Exodus 3:1-2)

Amazingly, they still have that same bush down in the monastery.  Lucky for the monkish business, it never burnt up and is on display to this day.

In the passage above, I find it interesting Mount Sinai is called the “Mountain of God.”  It sure is a barren mountain.  And this is where God met Moses in the bush, and where God later led the Israelites to receive the Law.  I had the thought that God often meets us in the barren places, where he has our attention and only He gets the glory.

But continuing with the story… as you remember, Moses resisted his calling, but God promised Moses a sign:

And God said, "I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.  (Exodus 3:11-12)

Fast forward to the Israelites leaving Egypt.  As promised by God, they returned to this very mountain to worship God.

Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said,

"This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak.

The people all responded together, "We will do everything the LORD has said."  (Exodus 19)

There seems to be a close link between obedience and worship.  The Israelites worshipped the Lord that day through pledging their obedience.  Unfortunately, not too much later they were worshipping a golden calf instead. 

Probably a lesson is in here somewhere.  Maybe one lesson is to keep our eyes on God because it’s easy to worship for awhile and pledge our obedience, but it requires sobriety and steadfastness to follow God for the long-haul.

As I climbed up the mountain, I of course had to think about how there was a time when God had said anyone who touched this mountain would die (man or beast).  And now here I was, not only touching the mountain, but merrily skipping right up to the tippy top!

Fortunately, we are under a New Covenant now.  The writer of Hebrews paints a striking picture of the contrasts between the terror of the Old Covenant, represented by Mount Sinai, with the joy of the New Covenant, sealed in Christ Jesus. 

I’ll end this post with these words and sober warning from Hebrews:

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned."

The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am trembling with fear."

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?

At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens." (Hebrew 12)

Local Bedouins