Around the world in 125 days
To go from Jerusalem to Cairo by bus involves several stages. The first stage is the trip from Jerusalem to Egyptian border at Rafah, close to the Gaza Strip. At the border crossing between Israel and Egypt, we got off and went thru immigration and customs etc. The luggage was unloaded into a cart so that it could be trundled across the border, thru the no man's land. The workers just stacked them up on top of each other, sometimes 10 or 12 on one stack. That was really bad news for the bottom stuff. In this case, one of our suitcases, the one with hard frame, was at the bottom and did not survive. Crushed pretty good. One corner was pressed in and damaged. It occurred to me a soft-shell one might be able to take a lot of more abuse like this without being destroyed. Definitely needed to do some suitcase shopping in Cairo.
The Egyptian immigration area consisted of a low rise building with a big window. Several immigration officers sat inside and travelers outside handed their travel documents thru this window to be processed. While waiting for the passport check, I peeped thru the window. What I saw was pretty amazing. In front of each officer, there appeared to be piles of phone books at each desk. They were busily flipping thru the books. Then it dawned on me that these folks did not have the luxury of computers. They were checking the name from the passport against the books. Boy, that must be tough for them, having to work in such low-tech way. In the West, we all have computers, taking them for granted. It is so easy to forget what life was like before computers.
Once we were on the Egyptian side, we boarded on another bus to continue. The next stage took us thru the Western Sinai Desert to the Suez Canal in the Sinai Peninsula. The Suez Canal is not as complicated as the Panama one, since it is sea-level. There are no locks required to lower or raise ships. It is more like a river with reddish-brown sandbanks on both side. The ferry itself was a low barge that carried both cars and passengers. It took only a few minutes to cross. By the time we got there, there were quite a lot of cars there already waiting to cross. Luckily, buses had a higher priority. Instead of waiting at the end of the lines, the bus took a turn and went to the other side to face the first row of cars. When it was time to board, the bus went in before the cars. After crossing Suez, finally we proceeded to Cairo. The whole trip, from Jerusalem to Cairo, took about 12 hours.
One thing that immediately strikes you about Egypt is that the government is very worried about terrorists. So everywhere you go, there are armed men. Military vehicles with machine guns mounted on the front or top always escort buses between cities. Basically tourists are only allowed to travel by road in convoys between cities. Cairo itself is also full of soldiers with serious weapons. They are in front of government buildings, bridges, banks, embassies, big hotels, etc. Another thing that were very common is metal-detector gates like those you see at airports. Maybe they were required by law. Almost all hotel entrances have one. In theory, anyone entering the hotel will need to go thru a gate and maybe trigger the alarm if they carry any metal. But from I could tell, they were really more for show than doing anything useful. People often just walked around it if there was a way. If not, people simply going thru them without anyone checking or nobody ever triggered any alarm. So I believe none of them was even turned on at all.
Egypt has some very aggressive street vendors. In tourist areas. often they harass you all the time, using all the tricks they know to sell you fruits or souvenirs. And they, more often than not, overcharge as much as they can. So it is important to learn the Arabic word for No (La!) when approached. And if buying things, find out the fair price or at least the price that the locals are paying before you buy. Of course this would not help if you are buying tourist stuff. It is annoying but you will get used to it after overpaying a few times. They are still simply better at overcharging you than you are in bargaining ability and knowledge. Another trick they use is to give you unsolicited help, whether you want it or not, such as offer advice to where to take a good picture, and then asking you to give them a tip later.
In Egypt, we booked a group tour with a Canadian company called Sunquest. The tour has three segments. There is a couple days of sightseeing in Cairo, followed by a Nile River cruise and finally a few days at a Red Sea resort called Haghagda. It turned out that the entire tour group consisted of just two people - us. I guessed nobody wanted to go to Egypt in the middle of summer. Because we arrived a couple of days ahead of the tour, we temporarily checked into a smaller hotel. Once the tour started, we requested the guide to pick us up from our hotel and transfer us to the Sheraton, right by the Nile. From our balcony, we had a wonderful view. Especially at night you could see the whole city lit up, and all kinds of boats going up and down the river.
Cairo is very hot, chaotic, and overcrowded. Like some other countries, the population here is getting a bit out of hand. But it is not as bad as India. Another thing you will notice is the way people drive. Basically, people just make their own lanes. Two lanes will become three if they can make it so. Pretty much 'free for all' when come to traffic.
The most famous sight in Egypt is of course the pyramids. A Sunquest local lady tour guide picked us up for a one-day sightseeing tour that included the Cairo Antiquities Museum in the morning and pyramids in the afternoon. The museum was fairly big, with all kind of artefacts and antiquities from ancient Egypt. There is a big section, displaying the items from Tutankhamen, like the magnificent golden mask which I am sure you have seen in pictures. The unfortunate thing about this place is there wasn't any air-conditioning inside. It was extremely hot and mucky. Luckily next to the museum is a small modern indoor mall with, yes, air-conditioning. We went there for lunch and had a cold orange soda. Boy, a cold soda definitely tasted a lot better when the weather is really really hot. I never had a cold soda that tasted this good.
After the museum, we rode to the outskirts of Cairo, to a town called Giza to see the pyramids and the sphinxes. After seeing them in pictures all these years, seeing them finally with your own eyes made this trip worthwhile.
Our tour guide arranged a camel ride for us. It was really more for photo taking more than anything else. We got on the camel and handed the camera to the guide, who took a couple of pictures for us. I had no idea how good his photographic skill was, especially his composition ability. Who knows, he might 'chop off' our head, or have us blocking the pyramids etc. Luckily, he did an excellent job. In fact, he did such an excellent job, maybe too good! Here is why. We took a lot of photos during this trip. Sure a picture is worth a thousand words but I also find that they could be very misleading too. Depending how you frame your photo, you can easily have a totally different impression, compared to what was really going on. One good example is our picture in front of the pyramids. It appears from it that we were the only ones in front of the pyramids out in the middle of the desert. In reality, there were thousands of other tourists there at the same time, not to mention hundreds of vendors selling souvenirs, plus camels everywhere and even some horses running around. In addition, the pyramids are located right next to the town of Giza, definitely not out in the middle of nowhere. But looking at this picture you would never never guess it!
There are three pyramids at Giza, and two of them you could actually go inside. The biggest one, called Cheops, allowed only the first 40 visitors each day to go in and it costs 40 US dollars per person. Going into its center must be quite an experience. So we got the tickets and joined the rest of the visitors, climbing up to the passageway. From the entrance, which is located near the base of the pyramid, there is a long shaft that goes straight into a small empty chamber. The climb was not easy since it was slanted at a steep angle plus it was extremely humid inside. We were sweating like crazy, literally dripping. The chamber is about 20 feet by 20 feet with absolutely nothing inside so it was rather not what I expected. However, it was still something that I did not want to miss! It is one of those 'how many have ever done that' kind of things.
After the pyramids, we went to see the Sphinx. As everyone knows, the nose is now broken. Heard somewhere you could go inside somehow. But we did not see anybody doing this or find a way to go in. So don't know if it is true. We also saw a wooden boat that was supposedly from pharaonic times. After sightseeing, not surprisingly, we were taken to a souvenir shop where they demonstrated how to make papyrus paper. There were also paintings on papyrus with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics for sale. Some were quite interesting, so Estrella bought a small one to bring home.
Then next day we flew to Luxor to continue our tour with Sunquest. At the end of the tour, we came back to Cairo. Here we waited five days for our next tour to start. With those few extra days, we were able to explore quite a bit of Cairo on our own. Of course we also had to check out from Sheraton and back into the smaller hotel we stayed when we had first arrived. This particular hotel, about six stories tall but kind of narrow, was also used by The Imaginative Tour company so their groups all stayed there. It was owned and run by locals and was a very popular place to have wedding banquets. In the few days we were there, we saw at least three weddings. For one we were invited into the reception hall and to join the festivities as well. It was a bit surprising to me that the bride and groom dressed in Western style, bride in white wedding dress and groom in dark suit.
Cairo, being the biggest city in Africa, actually has a lot of other landmarks and attractions to offer beside the Pyramids. But then, of course everything pales compared to these Great Pyramids. We spent one day checking out Khan el-Khalili, their big outdoor bazaar, and Cairo's Citadel. The Khan el-Khalili is a vast maze of shops that offer fantastic opportunities for souvenir hunting and tons of other things, certainly an exotic place to get lost. If you want to buy anything, you will have to haggle and bargain like crazy! We mostly just looked, and did what we enjoy the most, wandering and wondering among the locals. It was always fun watching the locals go about their daily business, buying what they need or relaxing in their coffee shops with water pipes. Usually, you could not do this without being interrupted every few steps by sellers pressing you to buy something. Interestingly, at this place we did not feel like taking pictures. One reason is simply because at a market place, there are a lot of activities, so much to absorb, to see, to hear, and to watch. That keeps your senses fully loaded. Another reason is we did not really want to look like tourists and became a target for street vendors. At the process of trying to blend in as much as possible and behaving as cool as possible, like we have seen this a thousand times before, like we are just like the locals, so the last thing I could do was to whip out a camera and start taking pictures. But unfortunately this is also usually in the most exotic and colorful place. More often I have regretted not taking pictures than having done so.
From here, we went over to the Citadel. This place used to be the residence of the Egyptian rulers. It is a big complex with some mosques, some palaces, and some museums. We ended spent most of our time in the Military museum. A lot of armory stuffs were on display, from pharaonic to the modern time. You could see an impressive collection of weapons and costumes, illustrating the warfare in Egypt. They also have displays on the wars that Egypt engaged in. They tried to show how brave their soldiers fought in battles even though they did not achieve their objectives in the recent wars against Israel. It looked a bit awkward to me when they tried to put a positive spin on wars that they did not win. There is also an outdoor section showing some of the tanks they used. I suppose the military artefacts fascinated me much more than some other antiquities.
The other place we visted was Old Cairo or Coptic Cairo. Egyptian Christians are known as Copts, and were there before the Muslims, since sometime in the First Century. So in a country like Egypt where the majority is Muslim, still some decided to non-conform and swim against the tide to stay Christian, worshipping differently from their fellow citizens. Not surprising, this is a area one expects churches instead of mosques. There is even a 'hanging church' because it is built over a river. Not just Roman Catholic ones too; there is also a Greek Orthodox one as well. Good to know some people of different religions can live together peacefully.
Beside sightseeing, we also lived like locals sometimes. Every day in the afternoon, we would go to a nearby mom & pop store to buy freshly-squeezed mango juice. You picked the mango you want, paid for it, and then the store owner would extract the juice in front of you. Needless to say, it was such a treat.
We even found a very decent public library not far from our hotel. There was an English section that I could browse and read the books. To go in, I had to give the guard a photocopy of my passport. One afternoon, we went downtown and we popped into Cairo's American University, during their open house. (Many Middle Eastern capitals once had an 'American University'.) I don't know whether I should say surprisingly, or not, some of the students were speaking English with each other. Most of the notices on the bulletin wall were also in English. The bookstore was selling a lot of English-language books, and I was able to buy a computer book to read. Next to the university was a MacDonald's where we went for lunch.
We also had an interesting experience looking for the Canadian embassy. We had to go there because Estrella's passport was running out of pages. The tour book showed a map of the embassy and listed the address. But the map was out of date. The embassy moved recently too. Found the place eventually. It had a computer on which you could enjoy some free web surfing. Cairo does have some nice shopping malls. We went to a high-end one with nice air-conditioning. Stuff there was expensive, so you could tell most the shoppers are either tourists or ex-patriots who work there for Western wages. Because of the prices, we did not buy our replacement luggage there. We did find one middle-class department store that carried good quality suitcases. We bought a grey soft-shell one with wheels.
From our tour book, we read about a camel market outside Cairo. The book told us exactly where to go to book the trip. There was this Egyptian entrepreneur located inside a downtown youth hostel who organized a shared taxi trip to see the market. We went early in the morning to meet the taxi and were joined by a German who was in Cairo for business and a young French couple. After driving thru the countryside, we came to a camel market. There were hundreds of camels on display, and being bought and sold. Some were apparently shipped all the way from Sudan. Here they were separated in different groups, probably because they had different owners. Some of them had a front leg curled up and tied with a rope. Looked kind of cruel to me. Presumably they did it to prevent them from running away.
It was kind of amusing to see a prospective buyer checking out a camel, inspecting their teeth, looking at the body, skin, etc. Not unlike what you would do when at the car dealer. You know, at every market we went in Egypt, some locals always tried to sell us something, except here. No one approached us at all, maybe because no one thought we could carry a camel home!
In the Middle East, camel is a relatively expensive commodity. People cannot survive without them in the desert. So there is no such thing as a wild or free camel as far as I know. If there was a wild camel, it would not be very long before some local decided to claim it. Not so in Australia; its desert is full of wild camels. The reason is Australians do well enough that they do not need the camel to survive. The Australian camels originally came from the Middle East and some managed to escape and go wild. I heard rumor there was talk about shipping camels from Australia back to the Middle East.
The day after we went to Giza, we flew to Luxor to start our 4-day river cruise going upstream from Luxor to Aswan. The Nile is the longest river in the world, flowing northward from East Africa, thru the Egyptian desert to the Mediterranean Sea, from the source to the end a distance of 6,695 km (4,180 miles). Because it is flowing North, the upper part of Nile is below the Lower Nile if you look at the map. I know. It sounds rather confusing. On the plane flying to Luxor, I saw this wide span of empty dry desert with a narrow strip of green miraculously created by the Nile. The ancient Egyptian civilization that sprang up here was mostly the result of this river. Water means life. Without the Nile River water for irrigation and boats, there would be no life, no plant, no people, and no civilization there for sure.
We were told that the Nile is full of parasites. Not sure by who. One is a kind of worm, called Schistosomiasis or Bilharzia, that can drill through your skin and multiply in your body. One New Zealand couple we met told us they had a friend who got horribly sick after swimming in the Nile. So we were quite concerned and make absolutely sure we kept away from the water. We did not even want to dip our toes. Interestingly, when we were back to Cairo, we met a Canadian couple who had also just finished a Nile voyage. The trip was organized by The Imaginative Traveler, but instead going by cruise ship, they sailed on a small sail boat called felluca, slept on the open deck and took their baths in the Nile. So, these people were swimming in the Nile every day! Well, I hope they were okay at the end.
To start our river cruise, the rep picked us up from the hotel and took us to the airport. There we met an American family, a couple with two daughters. They were on a two-week tour that covered Eastern Africa and Egypt. They told us that while they had had a good time in Kenya, they did see a disturbing thing. They saw a dead body in Nyrobi, just lying in the street for a couple of days and nobody bothered to do anything.
The ships they use on Nile are relatively small, about four stories high above waterline, and having about 50 staterooms. Some ships are more luxurious than others. We were able to check out some other ships because of the way they docked. In some places, you had to go across three other ships before you could get to your own. Movenpick ran the one we were on, called H.S Ramadis. The room was small but very nice. Each stateroom had a big window. It even had a small pool on deck. Along the way, we visited several temples. But it was so hot that the only time we could sight see was 6AM in the morning and 4PM at night. You pretty much had to hide inside the boat during the middle of the day.
The dining room on board was very nice with white table clothes and fine utensils. The food was a combination of Middle Eastern and Western foods. Mostly buffet. Very delicious, comparable to what you get in a four-star hotel.
After we checked into our ship, we were given a tour of Luxor. Luxor has some of the most amazing ancient Egyptian temples on one side of the river and royal tombs on the other side. Some of these sites just completely blew me away. No wonder thousands of visitors from all over the world come every year to see these monuments. Ancient Egyptians believed the East side of Nile, where the Sun rises, was the area for birth and growth while the setting-sun West side was for death. As a result, most of the temples and monuments are located on the East side while the tombs are on the West side.
The temples at Luxor are near the downtown. As expected, we saw a lot of impressive pylons, statues, shrines and obelisks. Here the most imposing sights are the two big statues of Ramses II. In front of them, there once was two big obelisks but now only one is left. The other one ended up in the Place de la Concorde, Paris. There is a Sphinxes Avenue, so called because it has a series of them lining each side. By the way, these particular pylons are two tall broad columns with a gate-like opening between.
Next we visited the Karnak temple which is few km outside Luxor. This huge complex consists of multiple temples dedicated to different gods. The three main temples are for: Mut, Monthum, and Amun. There is even a small sacred lake toward the back. But the heart of Karnak is the hypostyle hall, the most astonishing and breath-taking part. Here you will see twelve enormous columns, nearly 24 m (80 feet) high. Just imagine how amazing it was that people over 3,000 years ago were able to build things on such dramatic scale and even more amazing these structures survived all these years for us to see.
After visiting the temples, we crossed the river to the other side to see the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. The first visit was to see the Colossi of Memnon. They are two big statues in the middle of nowhere. Apparently they are the only remains of a huge temple complex. The valleys are big dusty spaces with hundreds of tombs located mostly at the edges. All tombs look very similar: three corridors, an antechamber, and a sunken sarcophagus chamber. Some of these chambers have elaborate carving and colorful reliefs. The tomb of Tutankhamen was also found here. This tomb was discovered in 1922 almost unrobbed. If you wanted to take photos inside tombs, you have to pay extra and buy a 'camera ticket'.
Hatshepsut was the only known queen or 'woman pharaoh' to rule the ancient Egypt. We were supposed to see her temple but the tour guide was lazy. He asked if it was okay for us to stop at a distance and take picture and not go in. Some people in our bus just nodded their head and but most kept silence. So we went on without seeing the place. I was pretty annoyed and upset afterward, thinking I should have insisted that we go inside. All I got was just a photo taken from a distance. There are two things about this temple, first from a distance, it looks much more like a modern building rather than an ancient temple. Second, it was at this spot that in 1997, 60 tourists were killed during a terrorist attack. That explains why there were so many soldiers here just in case.
After touring Luxor, we began our river cruise. At Esna, outside Luxor, the ship stopped and waited to go through a lock. While we were waiting, just before dinner time, we heard come commotion on the top deck, so we went up to have a look. When we got there, we were amazed to see a lot of flying objects coming up from the side of the deck rail. Looking down over the rail, we saw several rowboats below. These were vendors trying to sell Egyptian clothing and table cloths. Since we were standing on the deck, high above them, the vendors could not reach us. But that was not a problem for them. They simply threw their stuff onto the deck. You would catch something, examine it and bargain with the vendors. If you did not like the item or the price, you just threw it back. The items were wrapped in plastic bags to protect them just in case one missed the deck or the rowboat, falling into the water. A few did end up in the water. It was a rather interesting experience, standing on the deck and watching for and catching all these flying objects. At one point, they were landing everywhere on the deck like flying fish. One passenger bought a nice tablecloth after bargaining from 500 down to 20 Egyptian pounds.
The first stop of our river cruise was at Edfu. Here we visited the best preserved classic temple in Egypt: the temple of Horus. It has two high pylons with numerous reliefs, depicting events and stories happening in the old days. Some of these were built by Ptolemy, the father of Cleopatra, for the Egyptian falcon god Horus.
Then we went to Kom Ombo to see the temple. Another classic temple. This temple is actually two temples consisting of one for Sobek and one for Haroeris. In ancient times, they even had 'sacred crocodiles' basking in the sun on the river bank near here.
Our cruise ended at Aswan. We spent couple of days staying at the beautiful Oberoi Hotel, which is really neat because the hotel is situated on the northern tip of the ancient Elephantine Island, with the Nile flowing by on both sides. The hotel provided a complimentary water taxi in the shape of a gondola to transport guests to the town and back. The hotel was rather quiet, with few guests, since this was the middle of summer, their low season. A couple of times, we used their nice pool and were the only ones there. It also had a nice restaurant but the weird thing is they located it in such a way so that you must go outside in order to get to it. It was annoying, since after you had showered and changed to nice clothes for dinner, it did not make sense to hit the very hot and muggy outdoor air before sitting down to enjoy a meal.
Almost everyone said the Nile looks the best around Aswan and I totally agree. Because here there is no high-rise buildings. Most of the shores are just natural brownish sandbanks. From our hotel window, we had a classic view of Nile with fellucas going up and down the river. A felluca is a special type of sailboat they use on the Nile.
At the afternoon after checking into the hotel, we were given a felluca sailboat ride along the the river and I was able to take some nice photos. As a sailor myself, I certainly appreciate the beauties of sailing - the views and the sensation of peacefulness that it provides. It is always such pleasure to watch other sailboats quietly gliding by. In addition, the scene was simply unsurpassed.
Sharing the ride with us was an American couple. The lady was a waitress from California. I was surprised to find how much she made a day just from tips.
Next day, we had a day trip to see attractions in this area. We visited the Aswan High Dam which was built to harness the water flow for electricity and irrigation. Since the lake would flood a lot of ancient temples, the government worked with the UN to move them to higher ground. Some temples were completely dismantled and then carefully reassembled at new locations. The dam created the world's largest artificial lake, Lake Nasser. We also visited the Philae Temple, which was moved higher up to avoid being flooded. We saw an unfinished obelisk. Aswan was once a place for the main quarries that provided stone for other temples in Lower Egypt. In this case, workers were working to cut the biggest known obelisk from the stone but discovered a crack and were forced to abandon the idea. Today you can see this half-cut giant lying on the ground which has become an tourist attraction by itself. There is also a mausoleum of Mohammed Shah Aga Khan (Ismaili prince) that can be seen across the river, above the tall sand banks. We heard people could visit it. But we never got around to it.
Aswan is pretty small, with only three streets running parallel to the Nile. One street has a market where you can see the locals going about their daily lives. It was fascinating to watch them dressed in their traditional clothes, shopping for fruits, veggies, spices, and meats in the outdoor market. Just like an exotic movie. Coffee shops are also very popular places where people go for coffee or tea and/or to smoke tobacco. Donkey carts are still a popular mode of transportation, not just for things but for people too. The whole place was quite exotic. As usual, you will not be able to really shop in peace at a place like this. Often sellers try to detain you and sell you something.
On our second day, we went to visit a Nubian village. Nubians are the ancient inhabitants of this region. They had they own culture and traditions, more African and different from the Arab Egyptians in the North. A large population of Nubians were displaced from their land when Lake Nasser was created. The women seemed to like wearing all black and they tend to live in poor villages that consist mostly of rundown mud houses. We walked around a bit but there was really not that much to see. This village we visited was also on the Elephantine Island, but there was a tall solid wall that completely cut off the hotel from the rest of the island. I guess the wall was to ensure the separation of a five-star hotel property from that of a dirt-poor village. That meant, in order for us to go to the village, we had to first get off the island using the hotel's gondola, then go back to the island using a local ferry.
From Aswan, we went on to Hurghada, a beach resort by the Red Sea, and stayed for three days. Due to the extreme security measures implemented by the Egyptian government after a terrorist attack at the Hatshepsut Temple, we had to travel in a police/army escorted convoy. The hotel's bus dropped us on a side street where different tour groups assembled beside their buses, along with a few armed pickup trucks, the type you see in the movies with machine guns mounted at the top. Took about an hour before everyone arrived and the convoy left single-file to the highway, toward the Red Sea and thru the desert. Part of the desert is hilly and rocky while other parts are more sandy. Around lunch time, the entire convoy stopped at a roadside restaurant together for lunch. It took several hours to reach our destination.
The hotel we stayed was a big one of the Conrad Hilton chain right by the beach. A lot of European tourists were in this resort, including even Russians. The room was big and modern. The rooms were renovated just recently and there was still a lot of renovation going on. The hotel grounds are huge, so big that from our room you barely could see the sea and it would take about 15 minutes just to get to the water. On the first day, we did some snorkeling at the beach. The beach sand was not that great, when compared to those at the Caribbean or South Pacific. However this time it was much better than Aqaba. We definitely saw a lot of coral and tropical fishes.
While we were snorkeling, we ran into a older German lady. Usually anywhere we met German, they always seemed to be able to speak English. Not this one. As a result, could not talk to her too much.
Near the beach, there was a dive shop affiliated with our hotel. Since I wanted to do some Red Sea diving, I went over and talked to them. Eventually I signed up for a resort course with them. A resort course assumes you know nothing and teaches you from the beginning. I am not a regular diver so resort course is good to refresh what I learnt before. That afternoon, we went thru the practice with all equipment in the swimming pool. Here they teach you what you need to know before going out on a boat. On the second day, the boat took us out to the reef. Estrella also signed up to go for snorkeling. The boat was full of Europeans - Italians, Germans, and a British fellow called Peter who was also a casual diver like me. We made stops at two different reefs. The coral and fish were very colorful, simply spectacular. During the first stop, I did a one-tank scuba dive with Peter and our dive master.
When I was under the water, Estrella went snorkeling with an Italian lady and her kid. On the second stop, I was snorkeling with Estrella and accidentally dropped my mask (has my eyeglass prescription built in) into the water. Luckily it was not that deep, but there was no way for me to get it because I was wearing a wet suit without weights and also without my prescription mask I could hardly see. At the end, we got two Italian fellows to come over. After circling for a few minutes, one of them found the mask and was able to get it for me.
Hurgharda itself actually has a small downtown area consists of one main dusty street, lined with souvenir, fruit, and convenience stores, and cafes, etc. At night, our hotel provided a shuttle service to go there. We went a couple of nights, just to walk around and check out the locals. One time, we were strolling on the side walk and happened to be in front of a brightly lit fruit store and saw a huge rat crawling up to the top of a fruit pile. That was nothing unusual about that but what happened next was rather amusing. The vendor sitting in front of the store happened to see the rat too (for the first time?) and was obviously annoyed so he jumped up and rushed over and was ready to give it a whack. He raised his hand and slammed his hand down hard. But half way down, he stopped in mid air, realizing that hitting a dirty rat with his clean hand was probably not a good idea. You see. He hesitated for a few moments just waving his hands, trying to decide what to do. Of course nobody really wants to hit a rat with their bare hand. The rat knew that too. He just leisurely and calmly looked up at the vendor and gave him a 'dare you to hit me' look. Eventually the vendor ran to the back of the store and got himself a big stick. By that time the rat was long gone.
The last day at Hurgharda I went out without Estrella on a jeep safari to the desert. She did not want to go because there was some camel riding involved and she happened to be in a no more camel rides for me mood. Because of the heat, the group left in late afternoon around 3 PM. There were two jeeps from the company I booked with. As we left the main road and heading into desert, we met another eight jeeps from a different company. The jeep caravan took us deep into the Egyptian desert, bouncing up and down, over sand dunes, like a roller coaster ride, exactly what you see in movies. We stopped at one small village and had a short camel ride. It was really for those who just wanted to try getting on a camel because it did not actually go anywhere. After checking out the village, we headed out again, this time to watch the sunset. All ten jeep-loads roared up a sand dune to wait for the sun to set.
I really wished then I had taken a camera with me. For some reason I decided not to take it that afternoon. After the sunset, I got on top of the jeep and rode back to the village for a barbecue dinner, which was followed by a folk dance performance. Riding on top of a jeep was kind of dangerous but it was a lot of fun. Before the dinner, the tour guide showed us some local medicine. On a small table, there was a display of all kinds of herbal things that could be found in the desert for whatever health problems they had. Don't forget in the desert there is no hospital and no doctor. You are completely on your own if you get sick. Needless to say, they had things for common illness, from headache to stomach upset. He even showed us a Bedouin version of Viagra. Not sure if he was kidding.
One amazing thing was we had a young videographer riding with us. He would take video while hanging out the door or crouching on top of the jeep while the jeep was moving fast and bouncing up and down. He was a very friendly fellow, so we all feared for his life but he survived after all.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped in the desert, shut off all lights, and watched the night sky with its impressive Milky Way. That was one time I remember seeing it so clearly. Something I will never forget. I did see it again a second time during the trip to India's Thar Desert. After looking at the amazing galaxy, we had a long ride home. With me on the jeep was an Egyptian family on vacation. The guy was an ex-pat worker, working in Kuwait. This was his annual vacation back to Egypt to spend time with his family and do some R & R. They were obviously a pretty progressive family, since the wife and daughter did not wear head-scarves and were able to speak some English.
Driving in desert at night is a completely different driving experience. Remember there is no lane, no road, no sign, no light, no building, no tree, no other creature, no other car, and without the Moon it is pitch black everywhere in every direction you look. And what you see with your headlights is always the same: sand. The only other moving things that you see are the head lights of other jeeps heading more or less in the same direction. If I were to drive at a place like this by myself without a GPS, I am sure I would get hopelessly lost since there is absolutely nothing to give you a clue about where you are and where you are heading. I suppose that is why sailors and Bedouins are able to look at the sky and identify stars and their locations in the sky; this would be very helpful in this situation.
Hurghada is almost unique because it is one place that you can experience the beauties of ocean and desert together. One can actually come face to face with a colorful angel fish amid the coral, and then ride a camel pacing across sand dunes, all in one day.
After Hurghada, we flew back to Cairo for a few days before flying to Mumbai (once known as Bombay) in India to join another tour from The Imaginative Traveler
© Dave Cheng 2000