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My trip to Egypt, part 1 · 25 January 06

I am travelling with two friends from work (Chris and Josh) to Egypt to take photos on a trip organized as part of the Mentor Series by American Photo magazine. A lot of my friends and family wanted to know how things are going and we actually have Internet access in this first hotel, so I figured that I would get started…

Note: for a more succinct (and probably more colorful) version of what we are up to, check our Chris’s blog.)

The flight from Seattle to Amsterdam was loonng (especially since I couldn’t sleep). The nice thing was that the plane was not full and in the four-seat center section there were only two of us (one on each aisle seat), so we each got to spread out a bit (but not enough to lie down). I watched a couple of movies (not a great selection) and tried to doze quite a few times and they brought three meals… none of which tasted very good.

In Amsterdam, we went through customs to get out of the airport (where it was 25 degrees) and easily got a cab to take us to Steve’s house (a friend of Josh). Steve owns the bottom two stories of one of the typical residential buildings that you see all over Amsterdam. It sounds like he has done a ton of work to refurbish the inside. He lives only a couple of blocks from the Rijk’s Museum (and another block from the Van Gogh museum), and shared a wall with the world headquarters for Heineken. Strange. We talked for a bit and then decided to take a nap. Chris and I went to sleep on two sofas in a sitting room (I could fit if I curled up a bit, but it was a lost cause for Chris :) ). Josh slept downstairs in Steve’s bed. We ended up sleeping for just over four hours. I actually woke up about two hours in and wandered around for a bit, but was able to fall back to sleep quickly once I laid back down. After the nap we went for a walk (it wasn’t any warmer… I was wishing that I had my fleece insert for my jacket, but then I wouldn’t need it for the rest of the trip). We walked through some kind of street market and then back to a pub to get something to eat (which wasn’t great either, but I was hungry). After eating, we walked back to Steve’s place and he called for a cab. One cab ride later we were back in the airport waiting for the plane. Getting on the plane was easy (security is much more relaxed in Amsterdam than in the states).

After we got on the plane they announced that they were having problems with the computer and didn’t know when it would be fixed. Josh, I found out later, fell right to sleep and didn’t really wake up until we landed (missing dinner). I was in another aisle seat in a three-seat section and the woman in the center seat was trying to get me to trade places with her husband (in the center seat in front of us). I felt bad, but I declined… trying to keep my aisle seat. The computer problem didn’t take too long to fix and we took off with only about a half hour delay. After takeoff, the woman and her husband were able to move to the row behind us, so I had another empty seat beside me for that flight as well. The seats on the KLM flight (the first Boeing 777 that I had flown on) were a bit more comfortable than on the previous flight and I almost fell asleep a couple of times. I watched two more movies: Flight Plan (it’s not bad) and Madagascar. The meal that they served was much better than the previous flight (and was served with real silverware and a warm damp cloth to freshen up – much like you get in business class). There was some kind of chocolate mousse / truffle pie thing for dessert which was pretty rich, but good.

Towards the end of the flight I ended up talking to the other guy in my row. His name was Sherif and he looks Arabic, but he was born in New Jersey. He lives in Cairo now and was returning home from a month-long vacation to the United States (visiting some friends and taking a long road-trip). He strange thing was that he had been on our flight from Seattle (with the 12-hour layover in Amsterdam) as well. His friend lives in the city. He talked a lot about night life around Cairo. Even though he looked like an Arab, Sherif doesn’t speak Arabic. He works for the US embassy here as some kind of real estate manager to manage the rental properties that US citizens stay in when they are working here.

They unloaded the plane right out on the tarmac and we walked onto buses that drove us to the terminal. In the terminal, there was a guy with an American Photo sign (which I wasn’t expecting). He basically sold us the visas that we needed and walked us through customs and immigration. He had a porter that managed all of our bags and got us onto a shuttle that took us straight to the hotel. I have heard that the airport is a mad house during the day… given what I saw, I can’t really imagine how it would get much worse. The expediter made things pretty easy though.

I also heard (from Sherif) that traffic is insane during the day… I can now verify that. The problem is that it isn’t much better at night. The roads here (at least most of the ones that I have seen) don’t really have lines to separate the lanes. People just kind of weave in and out of traffic (using some kind of strange escalation system of flashing lights and honking to various degrees) in an insane manner. We were weaving in between buses and other cars at an alarming rate and I have no idea how we didn’t hit half a dozen other cars getting to the hotel. It was also strange to see how much traffic was on the roads at well past 2:00am in the morning. We drove past several mini-vans full of 12-15 men that were either wearing what looked like military uniforms or scruffy clothes. Kind of makes you wonder where they are going. There is an “Africa cup” (as opposed to “World cup”) competition going on here this week, so maybe they are here for the games. I can hope.

After the harrowing ride, we arrived at the hotel, got our rooms, and crashed. After about 5 hours of sleep (about 10:00am) we got up with the intention of going around and taking pictures. We got a map and found that the hotel is right next to Giza (which we knew), which puts it far away from any of the real “city” of Cairo (which we didn’t realize). We figured that we could just walk over to the Giza plateau but were informed that there would be a lot of walking (everything is far apart) and we would be better off with a driver. We were told that the price was only 110EP (egyptian pounds), or less than $20, for three hours so we agreed.

The driver took us on another driving adventure on these dizzying streets. (During the day there is a constant cacophony of horns blaring that can be heard anywhere in the city… or even from my hotel room.) For going somewhere that is only supposed to be a few blocks away, the drive was pretty long. Our guide was talking about stuff the whole time, but I only understood about a third of it. He asked for money to purchase our tickets to the pyramids and then drove us up to a vantage point that looks out over the whole plateau. It was extremely windy and actually pretty cold (given that I was only wearing a short-sleeve shirt and no jacket (something that I was regretting at that point). Dust and sand (and sometimes garbage) were swirling everywhere in the strong winds. The day was very overcast (virtually no blue sky to serve as a nice background for photos), but bright. We took a bunch of pictures and then were driven to several different points around the Giza plateau (eventually ending up down by the Sphinx).

There isn’t a whole lot to say about the pyramids that hasn’t already been written in hundreds of books. They are big. Very big. There’s lots of sand, rocks, and dust around (as well as garbage and cigarette butts left by the tourists). I have yet to see if I actually like any of the pictures that I have taken today.

There are locals trying to hustle you everywhere. They will try and force you to take items as a “gift” and then demand that you pay for them. We (Chris, Josh, and I) ended up getting pushed into getting our pictures taken on some camels by a few guys (as a “gift”) who then demanded payment before they would let us down off of the camels or give me my camera back. When I offered a token payment (20EP), they refused, asked for more, and wanted American dollars. I finally ended up paying $40US, but they were demanding $100US from Chris (they had purposely moved Chris, Josh, and I apart to separate corners of a collapsed temple to do this high-pressure deal. In the end we each paid $40US, at which point the camel hustlers kept asking if we were “happy” (because if not, they would give us the money back… yeah, right). I have to say that the whole experience made me feel quite unsafe.

I am back in the hotel room now, waiting for the rest of the tour group to arrive any minute. I am feeling a bit noxious, but I don’t know if that is from lack of sleep (I don’t feel particularly exhausted, but I constantly feel a bit run down), a touch of the stomach flu that was going around, or some combination. I don’t think that it has anything to do with the water here (yet) because I haven’t eaten much here and have been very careful. We’ll see how long that lasts.

That’s all for now. More to come as this experience unfolds. :)