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04.11.2010, 17:45   ---   culture shock

Well… I really don’t know where to start! I was just used to the laid-back Greeks and then got into an airplane full of lively Egyptians. As the plane just touched the ground in Cairo everybody jumped up from their seats and grabbed their luggage – nobody cared about the demand to keep the seat belts fastened and the stewardesses were quite busy to re-organise the crowd. ;-)
Getting my visa didn’t take long and a bit later I found myself in a car towards my hostel in the middle of the craziest road traffic I’ve ever seen!! Cars wherever you look are kinda squeezing themselves through the streets, 4-lane roads are used at least in 6 lanes, scooters and motorbikes in between, pedestrians crossing the street and even a donkey cart on the highway is not uncommon. In parts the traffic only moves very slowly and of course everybody toots like hell! Insane!! My first impression of Cairo – apart from the traffic – was noisy, dirty, everybody’s trying to get you into his shop and people stare at you, especially at a white western woman with uncovered hair.

Next morning I got up in the middle of the night to see the sunrise at the pyramids with Rob (the Canadian I met in Athens ) and Dominic (we met him in the hostel). Aladin – an Egyptian that Dominic met on an earlier trip to Egypt – picked us up, took us to some friends and while drinking Egyptian tea we negotiated the tour. In Egypt you won’t find a fixed tour itinerary with a fixed price – everything’s a matter of negotiation! That took quite a while and finally we did a 3-hours camel ride through the desert to some old pyramids, temples and tombs. On our way out of the city we passed the outer suburbs of Cairo and the poverty was shocking. People live in scruffy houses, garbage everywhere, the riverbed completely filled up with rubbish, dead cows and horses rotting next to the street and you see more donkey carts on the unsealed roads than cars! That’s when you understand why you shouldn’t even think of drinking tab water in Egypt . I really can’t express what I felt in those moments. But the desert was a pretty cool experience! As far as you could see there was nothing else than sand dunes, our tour guide, the three camels and the rising sun – very impressive! After the ride we got picked up by car and taken to Saqqara and Dashur. In Saqqara we visited the Step Pyramid of Zoser, the oldest of all pyramids. The Bent Pyramid in Dashur had already kind of the form of the famous Pyramids of Giza. But they built it too steep in the beginning and had to finish it in a flatter angle, so it looks bent and that’s obviously what the name comes from. The Red Pyramid (doesn’t even look that red…) was kind of the prototype for the Pyramids of Giza and you can even visit the burial chamber. First you climb up the pyramid on it’s outside until the entrance and than a long, terribly low-ceilinged corridor (about hips-height) leads down to the pyramid’s bottom. So we had to climb down deeply stooped down, almost crawling, our legs felt horrible, the air inside smelled very old and dusty, but it was definitely an exciting experience! And the entrances to the burial chambers are not that low, because the ancient Egyptians were that short, but in this way people automatically had to bow in front of the pharaoh. This tour truly left its mark… My bum still hurts from the camel ride and I have the worst sore muscles of my life (probably of both, the camel and the pyramid).
In the evening we shortly caught up with Aladin for Dinner and a beer and learnt how to cross a street in Cairo : “Close your eyes, pray to go and walk!” with the first rule never to stop as soon as you stepped on the street. ;-)

Today Rob and I hired Aladins driver again to take us to several places around the city – it’s just a lot easier than on public transport! First we had an Egyptian tea again before heading off to the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza! WOW! It’s so exciting to stand in front of those monuments that you know from many history books and to realise how big they really are!! The single bricks that look quite small from the distance have almost the same height as we do. But wherever you go in that area people try to get your attention – Camel ride, horse ride, postcards, tour guides, souvenirs… they try to sell you just anything and are very persistent!
Afterwards we visited some other sights in Cairo . Coptic Cairo, the Citadel, a mosque… and in some places we as western people we’re kind of the biggest attraction in this Islamic world, especially young girls (obviously on a school trip) asked us several times totally excited to take a picture with us… weird! And while we were taken through the city we could again watch this different, Egyptian life. Donkey carts, overcrowded minibuses, people sitting on plastic chairs next to the street, having tea, smoking shisha, car drivers tooting crazily, stray cats rummaging around in the garbage, butchers preparing the meat just next to the dusty road… all these things that you’d never see anywhere in Germany!

09.11.2010, 15:00   ---   Mummies, foxes, shooting stars…

Well, Rob left already, instead Nathan (I met him in Italy ) found the way to Cairo and by now we gained a few more experiences. Very interesting was the Egyptian Museum . It’s absolutely not what you expect of a museum… it’s dirty, dusty, badly signposted and just packed – but absolutely interesting and fascinating! There are heaps of statutes, coffins, jewellery, tools and animal mummies. One of the museum’s highlights is the Tutankhamun Gallery – packed with the possessions and treasures, that were found in the tomb of this young pharaoh (died in the age of 19) and even his coffins (each one of them fitting into another) and the golden death mask of his mummy. But the probably most valuable treasures in the museum are found in the “Royal Mummy Room” – there are the mummies of several Egyptian pharaohs like Tuthmosis, Ramses and Hatshepsut. Unbelievable how well preserved these bodies are after some thousand years!

On Saturday Nathan and I left Cairo for a jeep-safari to the desert with Aladin and Wagdi, a Bedouin from the Bahariya oasis. After a four hour drive through varying desert landscapes all of a sudden the oasis was in front of us with its creeks, springs and palm forests – beautiful! The people in these villages live a very simple life in small mud brick houses, but they seem to have everything they need and look very happy. At Wagdi’s home we had tea and a Bedouin meal (several bowls with different dips, salads and mashes with pita bread and no cutlery) before heading towards the desert. We’ve been to the White Desert with its bizarre rock formations and white salt plains, the black desert looking like a volcanic landscape, swam in hot springs , visited a Bedouin Camp and had a really good time! At night we camped in the desert with thick sleeping bags (it can get very cold!), Wagdi cooked delicious traditional meals and with beer and Sibiba (Egyptian shot) we enjoyed the silence of the desert, the bright stars at the sky and lots of shooting stars. And even a fox stopped by looking for food. :-) On Monday morning we had a traditional Bedouin-style breakfast at the oasis, surrounded by cigarette smoke and listening to the sound of the Koran from some old speakers in the corner and then we made our way back to hectic, noisy Cairo .

It was an awesome tour, if there wasn’t Aladin… Just the short version: He was always nice and helpful and always emphasized to be a friend. But during these three days our opinion about him changed more and more. He was rude and respectless towards Wagdi, asked weird questions and always pushed us to let him organise our onward trip through the Nile Valley . We tried to explain him that we prefer to be flexible and independent instead of rushing through a fixed itinerary (apart from that it seemed to be quite overpriced), but he was still pushing and trying to make us think it’s too difficult to organise it ourselves… In the end we told him we’re not gonna do the tour with him, but if he really wants to do us a favour he could get us the train tickets for Aswan, so we could leave at night straight-away. He told us to come to his office later to get the tickets, but all he came up with we’re some totally overpriced black market tickets, explaining that there’s an Egyptian public holiday coming up and for that reason all trains are completely booked until November 17th, no way to get a regular ticket. By then we were already very suspicious and told him we’re not gonna take those tickets. He still tried to convince us it’s the only option, but we just left. A moment later he followed us with another guy who actually sold the tickets. The price was lower now and they pressured us to take the ride to the station straight away to make sure we can get on the train (we still had 2 hours…), but we we’re done with that. Aladin was obviously pissed! ;-) So Nathan and I went to the station ourselves. Truly there were no more tickets for the same day, but we could easily buy some for tonight for the regular price (even though buying a train ticket in Cairo is an adventure itself). Let’s see this as an experience for a lifetime. ;-)

So we spent one more day in Cairo and I took the chance to extend my visa before we head off. It wasn’t actually necessary yet but at least I don’t need to worry about it any more now and the Egyptian administration is another interesting experience on my journey. First rule: As few signs as possible and don’t queue at a counter, but just squeeze through the huge crowd! :-D

13.11.2010, 11:50   ---   Away from the city

Tuesday night we finally took the train to Aswan . Just before departure we witnessed the craziest train ever at the station: Very very old, rusty waggons, almost no doors, people just squeezed in like an animal transport, no light (only some people with flashlights), people jumped through open windows or just held to the door frames when the train started… unbelievable! Thanks that tourists are only allowed to travel on first-class trains in Egypt !!

After 14 hours in a highly air-conditioned train we arrived tired in the heat of Aswan – around 35 degrees during the day. We pretty much slept for the rest of the day to get up very early next morning. We got picked up at 3am to go to Abu Simbel . That’s just before the Sudanese border and to avoid kidnapping no vehicle is allowed to cross this part of the desert on its own. For that reason we had to join the police convoy at 4am. The Egyptian government takes the safety of their tourists very serious. You find metal detectors at all touristy places such as temples, pyramids and museums and everywhere are heaps of policemen around.
In Abu Simbel we visited the impressive temples of Ramses and Hathor. Especially the temple of Ramses was overwhelming with its huge statutes at the entrance and heaps of images of the Egyptian gods and hieroglyphs carved into the stone walls.
Afterwards we stopped at the Big Dam. When it was built many Nubian villages (a separate indigenous group) were flooded and now there is Lake Nasser , the biggest man-made lake in the world. Last but not least we visited another temple: Philae, on a little island in the Nile .

Yesterday we took the ferry to Elephantine Island , a little island in the Nile only 5 minutes from Aswan . The island is inhabited by Nubian people und you feel like being hundreds of years back in time. Small mud brick houses, many without roofs, but colourfully painted. I doubt that there’s electricity in most of the houses, there are no cars, no sealed roads… We just wandered around the villages, I got a traditional henna-tattoo painted on my hand and we took a boat to another island with a botanical garden. We had a perfectly relaxed day, far away from all the touts and captains in Aswan trying to sell you a boat trip.

Now we’re just back from the Souq, the Egyptian market. Many people, you can buy pretty much everything from souvenirs, to sheeshas or even live chicken and the air has an interesting smell of oriental spices. And now we’re heading towards Luxor , 3 days on a felucca (Egyptian sailing boat) down the Nile . :-)

18.11.2010, 12:30   ---   The different kind of Felucca sailing  

Sailing the Nile sounds pretty relaxing in general and it also started very good. A nice, big boat, nice crew, good food, funny people… We left Aswan slowly towards Luxor , but suddenly a police boat stopped us, they discussed in Arabic with our crew, passed several papers , another police boat arrived and we had to sail back to the police station. We spent the night at a little island in the Nile and next morning there was a new Captain on our boat. Apparently our captain didn’t get the necessary police permit before leaving, he got arrested and the boat confiscated. We had to move to another boat to continue the tour with a new crew. After spending plenty of time at the police office again, just because they didn’t let us leave for no reason, we finally left Aswan . From that moment on it was a totally relaxed sailing trip down the Nile and we spent the night at a bonfire on the beach. Next day we got picked up by a minibus to get to Luxor , visiting the temples of Kom Ombo and Edfu on the way.

All over Egypt people celebrate the Eid al-Adha (offering feast) right now, an Islamic public holiday and everybody who can afford it slaughters a sheep as an offering to Allah. When Nathan and I left our hostel in the morning we found to beheaded sheep in a huge paddle of blood right in front of us, a happy family sitting next to it and it smelled like blood everywhere in town… definitely no celebration that I could enjoy. But the streets were full of happy people, Arabic music everywhere and from the mosques we could hear the sound of the Koran. And apparently most of the annoying touts were too busy with their families, so we made it to Karnak temple, one of the biggest and most impressive of all, with only little hassle.

Luxor , in ancient times known as Thebes , was an important place in the lives of the ancient Egyptians and the west bank is full of tombs and temples. Nathan and I rented two old, rattly bikes and cycled past the Colossi of Memnon to the Valley of the Kings , where we spent some time inside the tombs of some Pharaohs. Some of them have long corridors, connecting different rooms, all carved into the mountains. According to the dynasty the walls very beautifully painted or carved and all the colours are surprisingly well preserved. The wall decorations even show whether the Pharaoh reigned for a long period or died already after a short time. During a long reign he had plenty of time to let his tomb be built and decorated, but when he died in a sudden the people had only 70 days (the time needed for the body’s mummification) to finish the tomb.
Last but not least we cycled to Deir al-Bahri, the temple of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut and now the time of Egyptian temples is over, we’re tired of them! ;-)

Nathan already left and tomorrow night I’ll also move on: To Dahab at the Red Sea , where we’ll probably meet again already.  

23.11.2010, 14:20   ---   In the footsteps of Moses

After a long 21-hour bus ride through half of Egypt , which was actually supposed to take only 12 hours (Egyptian hours obviously… ;-) ), I arrived in Dahab a few days ago. It’s totally touristy though, but very enjoyable. Laid-back people, relaxed restaurants along the waterfront, delicious food… and no hassle, touts, felucca captains and horse carriages! It’s just not the real Egypt any more, which I experienced during the last 3 weeks. By now I spent most of my time sitting in the seaside Restaurants, having good food, sipping milkshakes and going for a walk in town or to the beach from time to time.
The wind is pretty strong at the moment and in these sea conditions snorkelling is unfortunately impossible, diving is also a lot better in a calm sea and so Nathan and I decided to postpone it and hiked up Mt. Sinai for sunrise instead. It’s believed that Moses received the 10 commandments from God on the top of this mountain, which makes it a holy place for Christians, Jews and also Muslims.
The trip started at 11pm with a 2 hour bus ride to central Sinai. It was surprisingly cold there, and we weren’t even at the top yet! But during the hike in the moonlight we got warm pretty quickly. We had a cool group, a nice Bedouin guide and shared the path with hundreds of other people and plenty of camels. It was almost full moon, so we didn’t even need torches and 2 hours later we finished the first part. The next part consisted of about 700 steps hewn into the rocks until we reached a hut, where we could heat up ourselves with hot chocolate. From there we only had to climb a few more steps to the top and freezing like hell we’ve been waiting for the first rays of sunlight above the mountains. Breathtaking!!! As soon as the sun was up it got warm quickly and we made our way back down. And before getting back to Dahab terribly tired we had some time to visit St. Katherine’s Monastery and the “burning bush”.

For the next days we planned a short trip to Jordan and are just killing the time at the port of Nuweiba right now. Our ferry, scheduled departure at 12:30, was supposed to leave at delayed at 3pm, now they say it’s gonna be 4pm… let’s see when we’re gonna leave! ;-)

28.11.2010, 17:30   ---   Petra

In Egypt pretty much everything is late, unreliable and badly organised – that’s what I’ve learned already – but the ferry to Jordan was one of the Highlights so far! It was getting later and later, when 4pm had passed we were told “in one hour”, later “soon”… then all of a sudden all the Arabs jumped off their seats and squeezed onto a bus outside, which was apparently supposed to take us to the ferry – finally we’re leaving! But as soon as everybody had found a seat the engines stopped and all the Arabs jumped off the bus again. There were no announcements at all and the only information we got was “soon… in one hour…”
Well, I had spent better times of waiting in my life! The toilettes were just horribly disgusting, so I didn’t drink anymore to make sure I won’t have to use them, we were hungry but there was nothing else available than potato chips and we couldn’t even leave the port to buy something in town as we already had the exit stamp in our passport and therefore no valid visa anymore – perfect! ;-)
With a 7 hours delay the ferry finally left, the crossing was pretty quick and after circling around the port of Aqaba for another 1,5 hours we could finally set our feet on Jordan ground. Jordan is way cleaner and about 100 times better organised than Egypt , so after only a short time we had our visa and could find a taxi to Wadi Musa.

On our way to Jordan we met a nice Aussi couple – Tori and Michael – and the next two days we explored the ancient city of Petra together. I think I haven’t seen anything in the last 2 months as breathtaking as this!! Petra is one of the “new 7 world wonders”, in ancient times it was a trade city between Asia and Africa and all the buildings and tombs are carved into the rocks, just incredible! After hiking the entire first day, watching a brilliant sunset on a mountain at the very end of Petra and making our way back in the dark (we had no torches of course, only my cell phone to light up the path) we spent a relaxing evening at the hostel with a good meal and watching “Indiana Jones and the last crusade” which was partly filmed in Petra. The second day was planned to be mellow with only a few little hikes… finally we got lost on a track that we weren’t even allowed to walk without a guide (but nobody stopped us ;-) ) and found ourselves in the middle of the Jordanian mountains with no clue of the right direction. Luckily a young boy, living there with his little brother, his mum and a herd of sheep, led us out of the wild for some Dinar and a Snickers. :-)

The way back to Egypt was without any problems and now we’re back in Dahab. Yesterday I moved to another hostel, which belongs to a hotel resort. It’s fantastic, my room has a sea view, there’s a pool, a fitness centre, a small private beach stretch, a great buffet breakfast… I love it! :-) But unfortunately I caught a cold at Mt. Sinai and so I’m not able to dive at the moment. I hope it’s getting better soon und until then I spend my time with relaxing, snorkelling and sipping milkshakes. :-)  

05.12.2010, 18:00   ---   Gettin tired of relaxing

So far the last week was probably the least exciting one during the entire journey (apart from having to say goodbye to my travel buddy Nathan after 4 weeks) and it felt so good to do just nothing! After an extensive breakfast I have the choice between pool and beach, read a lot, got finally rid off my Egypt-tan (face, neck, hands and feet) and from time to time I refresh myself in the water. In the afternoon I usually have a milkshake or ice cream at one of the many seaside-restaurants and in the evenings I meet some people for a big Dinner. We already know the staff of most of the restaurants, so the deals we negotiate get better and better. ;-)
But the main reason for me to go to Dahab was the diving! Well, and then I caught a damn cold at Mt. Sinai and could completely forget about it for a while. :-/ Instead I went snorkelling, which is also really nice as the reefs are easily accessible from the shore, but still not comparable to diving of course! By now, I finally feel very good again and just booked my first dive for tomorrow!! :-) If I’m really back in good health as I think I am I’ll start with my Advanced Open Water Course on Tuesday. If not… well, then I’ll quickly have to find something else to kill the time, as I’m getting really bored of relaxing!!
But I was at least a little bit busy during the last days and booked an onward flight: Off to Cape Town on December 13th!

10.12.2010, 14:00   ---   Back to underwater-paradise

My first dive on Monday started quite funny, as I just didn’t sink. I got a long and pretty thick wetsuit at the dive center, but Emad, the dive master, gave me weights suitable for a shortie. So I was floating on the surface while Emad collected rocks on the bottom to put into my pockets. About 2 kg later we could finally start diving. ;-) The reefs in Dahab are absolutely beautiful!! It’s a pity that they have almost no big fishes or turtles (unlike Australia ), but heaps of huge schools of fish like I’ve never seen it elsewhere! And as the equalizing was almost no problem any more after my cold I could start with my Advanced Open Water Course straight away. :-)
Already in the evening I joined the nightdive and spent the next two days with diving and studying. Deepdives to 30m depth, underwater navigation, dive planning… The funniest lesson was Peak Performance Buoyancy. We practised to hover sitting and head-down, somersaults and rolling sideward, swam through different sized triangles (like a lion in a circus ;-) ) picked up and dropped off weights… and had a lot of fun! :-)
The only bummer were the crowds of divers around at the moment, as after several shark attacks in Sharm el Sheik the last days they closed all the beaches and dive spots in that area and now all the Sharm-divers come to Dahab.

Being advanced certified allows me to dive to a maximum depth of 30m, instead of only 18m, and opened my way to the Thistlegorm – a shipwreck close to Sharm el Sheik. During the second world war it was supposed to supply the British army with equipment (Amunition, tanks, trucks, steam locomotives, train carriages, motorcycles… ), got bombed by the Germans and lies now in a depth of 17-30m.
After three exhausting days I actually planned a lazy day on Friday, but apparently that was my only chance to get to the wreck before I’m leaving. So I got picked up at 3:30 in the morning and from Sharm el Sheik we headed towards the site on a huge boat with only 7 other divers. We tried to get some more sleep, dolphins followed us for a while, we had a good breakfast and at around 9am we got ready for the first dive. The current was very strong, so we were quite happy to have a rope for the descend and ascend, but close to the wreck it was alright and the two dives were truly amazing!! First we dived around the stern, to the propeller, to the bombed part, saw the two tanks and the ship’s gun, Ammunition… and lots of fish of course. The best one was a huge moray. She didn’t hide as usual, but swam around, so we could see her real size. She was about 2m in length and had a head as big as a football!! We also found octopuses, tunas, a crocodile fish… Back at the surface 3 more vessels packed with divers had arrived already – good idea to start that early!
On the second dive we took our torches and explored the wreck’s inside. The holds are full of motorcycles, trucks, ammunition, train carriages, airplane wings… we swam to the Captain’s cabin, to a bath in his bathroom, waved to the divers outside through the windows and in the kitchen we held our head into an blowhole – so much fun! Especially inside the holds it was quite narrow sometimes, but we really enjoyed it and it felt a little bit like being in the beginning of the Titanic movie. ;-)
For the third dive we went to Ras Mohamed National Park . It was full of beautiful coral, huge schools of fish, morays (this time hiding again), several rays and even a napoleon wrasse and a big grouper.
Back in Sharm we had to wait for 2 more hours before heading back to Dahab, as we had to cross some little mountains. Diving and mountains aren’t a good combination and it raises the risk of decompression sickness, so we better used the time to walk around the marked and enjoy an after-dive-beer.  

13.12.2010, 23:15   ---   Ma’a salaama

During my last week in Dahab the time was running. Since all my chill-buddies had already left Dahab (does that mean I just stayed too long??) I met Verity, Loveday and Jordy at the dive centre and we kept the habit of big daily dinners.
On Saturday, Jordy and I joined a tour to the Sinai’s canyons. It started with a rough jeep ride through the desert and our Bedouin guide Mohamed led us through the truly colourful Coloured Canyon . After crossing a damn sandstorm we got to an oasis, where a typical Bedouin lunch was waiting for us and afterwards we did another easy walk through the White Canyon .
The storm in the desert also reached Dahab and big waves flooded and destroyed several restaurants just opposite my hostel.
We spent our last night together with sheesha, beer and Johnny Waler-Coke (fake-brands only in Egypt ;-) ) and on Sunday I visited my favourite restaurants to say goodbye to the staff before taking the nightbus to Cairo . I just went straight to the airport and hoped to get one last aerial view of the pyramids, but I was just too tired and fell asleep before take-off…

The last six weeks in Egypt have partly been very exhausting, but also incredibly exciting. Too bad, it’s all about money wherever you go. The people seem to be very friendly and helpful, but they expect tips even for the tiniest help, everybody’s persistently trying to sell you anything and for this aim they don’t even mind lying… You seem to be just a walking wallet and exceptions are unfortunately very rare. Also quite difficult is the contrast of a western woman in an Islamic Country, eventhough it was probably easier for me with Nathan by my side than for most others. But I still enjoyed travelling and even felt absolutely safe! Egyptians would never mug anybody and if you lost your wallet, they would follow you to give it back, but as soon as it’s back in your pocket they want you money – back to business. ;-)
After a short stop-over in Abu Dhabi I’m now on my plane to Cape Town and just realised that the security on flights is not any more as it used to be. Scissors, knifes i.e. are still prohibited in carry-on baggage, but the meals come with proper knifes instead of plastic cutlery. I wonder who came up with this bright idea… ;-)  


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