From Uganda we flew up to Cairo, Egypt. Since we were still in Africa we didn't think it would as much of a huge change for us as it was. Overall, we have to admit, we didn't like Egypt very much. We were glad we had only schedule one week in the country before heading on to Europe. We were very ready to leave after a week. But, having said that, there were a couple things that we really liked. The first was the food.
There's a lot of wonderful things about traveling in East Africa, but the food is not one of them. While it was usually edible (though I still contend that the polony in Malawi was not meant for human consumption) it was impressively bland and uninspired. We were very tired of plain rice or boiled potatoes and plain meat. All the new flavors and spices in Egypt were wonderous! So many different meats to chose from, all prepared in different ways with different spices. And the bread...soooo yummy, dipped in the tahina sauce--sort of a runny humus with more flavor. We were in heaven. Suddenly meals were more of a fun adventure rather than just to subdue the hunger pangs. We usually picked small, local places that didn't have menus in English. There was a lot of pointing, smiling, and hoping for the best. We were never disappointed. And the bill typically came to about $4 for the two of us.
The other nice thing about Egypt is that, other than petty theft, ie pick-pocketing, it is very safe. We freely walked around in Cairo at all hours and were totally safe. There is an impressive police presence everywhere. There were also metal detectors at the entrances of all the big hotels and malls. However, they didn't really seem to pay much attention to them. We walked through with our camera, which, of course set it off and they just waved us through. But there were plenty of security people monitoring them. Walking back to our hotel after a movie (we saw a couple--Along Came Polly and Troy, appropriately, the day before we headed to Greece) at 10 pm was facinating. It's so hot during the day that not that many people seem to be out. But at night, around 8 or 9 pm, the whole city seems to wake up. All the stores, cafes and restaurants were open after 10. And tons of street vendors had their wares out on display. The city was alive with activity. It was really fun to wander and watch all the people.
Of course, the main reason anyone comes to Egypt is for all the history. And Egypt did deliver on that. We spent about 1/2 a day wandering around the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx on the edge of Cairo. The fact that they were built 4000 years ago is hard to fully comprehend. And, that all that work was put into building a tomb. That is the purpose of the Great Pyramids. They are built on the west side of the Nile which is where all the tombs and funerary complexes are built. They built anything to celebrate the living on the east side of the Nile, believing the east celebrated the living and the west the dead. The Sphinx was built after the pyramids were finished. It was where the sandstone had been quarried to use to build the pyramids. When they were done a huge rock was left that wasn't good enough quality to be used for the pyramids. A later king decided it needed to be dressed up so it was made into the Sphinx. It's been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the years.
One thing that was a bit overwhelming to us is the shear number of tourists in Egypt. In Southern and East Africa we occasionally saw other foreigners, but not in huge numbers. And they tended to be British, Dutch, German, Aussie, or Kiwi in Africa. We were blown away by incredible masses of people---thousands and thousands---swarming the pyramids. Lots of Spanish, heaps of Americans, loads of eastern Europeans, tons of French...it was kind of a shock to us. Now that we're in Greece we are getting more used to masses of other tourists, but when we first got to Egypt we weren't really ready for it.
After a couple of days in Cairo, we headed south (which is known as "upper Egypt" since it's "up" the Nile). We traveled to Luxor on the overnight train. In Luxor, we headed to five main historical sites: the Luxor Temple, the Temple of Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of Queens and the Temple of Deir el-Bahari, built by Queen Hatshepsut. The temples were impressive for their massive scale and detail throughout. Unfortunately, while the Valleys of the Kings and Queens are both quite impressive, they are underground tombs where flash photography is prohibited. Thus, we don't have any photos of the spectacular wall paintings showing so many of the ancient Egyptian gods in full color. They are well worth visiting but to see them for yourself, you're going to have to do a little Google image searching on your own. The temple of Queen Hatshepsut is shown in several of the photos here. It had a long, long stairway to the temple built at the edge of a cliff. The Queen built this temple to solidify her position of power as both queen and a god after her husband, the king, permaturely died, and she imprisoned her son for 20 years so she could reign as queen. The history of ancient Egypt is filled with lively tales like this one. And what makes the temples so amazing is remembering how they were built 4000 - 2000 B.C., and the impressive scale of everything. Everything is giant, even by modern day standards.
Luxor was quite a bit hotter than Cairo which meant walking a lot at midday which can be very exhausting. In fact, we left for our tour of the sites at 6 am in order to beat the midday heat.
Following Luxor, we bussed out to the Red Sea coastline for a day and half in Hurghada. Hurghada is an overdeveloped beach resort destination that is largely frequented by Russians looking for a cheap beach resort destination. There appeared to be just as many hotels in various states of construction as there were hotels that were open for business. There was also noticeably a lack trash removal and there seemed to be no construction zoning restrictions (i.e. behind the gates of the hotels was nice but the city itself was an array of unfinished construction built upon unfinished construction).
We then headed back to Cairo by bus and flew on to Athens.
Overall, we didn't enjoy our time in Egpyt due to the attitudes of many of the locals "working" in tourism towards tourists. Street vendors, taxi drivers, and many restauranteurs clearly view tourists as merely fat wallets with legs. Vendors can be hyper aggressive about selling and can be quite deceptive or outright dishonest. I'll provide our worst example of this: We arrived by bus to Hurghada after dark. We did not have an Egypt guidebook since we weren't spending long in Egypt. We'd borrowed an Aussie's guidebook on the bus and picked out a hotel. Upon exiting the bus, we met a taxi driver and another man and told them the hotel we wished to go to. The man with good English said he was actually the owner of that hotel and could take us there. While skeptical that he was in fact the owner, it didn't matter if he took us there. So we climbed in the cab. Along the drive, he tried to get us to stay in a nicer hotel as we passed it. We arrived at the hotel of our choice (or so we thought), and the man said it was closed up for the night since it was totally booked with a group, but there was a hotel next door that had rooms available. As it quickly became clear, we were nowhere close to the hotel of our intention, the "hotel" that was closed up wasn't a hotel at all, and the man had simply taken us to the hotel of his choosing for a high taxi fare. The driver eventually admitted we were at the wrong hotel but the other man stuck to his completely dishonest story about being the owner of the hotel we wanted and that it was simply overbooked. All of this after dark, when we hadn't yet had dinner, had been on a hot bus for many hours, and didn't have a guidebook or map to know when we were being lied to. This is an extreme example we encountered but all the time we dealt with men following us down the street trying to lure us into their papyrus or trinket shop, men "guiding" us and then expecting a tip, and mild "tourist pricing" on bills. We did not buy a single souvenir in Egypt. I found my desire to purchase had completely evaporated.
My advice for those you eager to see Egypt's ancient splendor: book a packaged tour that isolates you from the hassle of the street vendors. I really hate to recommend a packaged tour over doing your own thing but doing your own thing in Egypt will really, really try your patience. Cairo was far more enjoyable for us since we ran into far fewer "tourist sharks" within the city. One more pro for Egypt is that everything is quite affordable. Rooms were ~$8-15/night. The exchange rate is definitely in our favor now.
More to come from Athens!