Wednesday, November 25, 2009
After Mayan pyramids, it was only logical to head over to the place where it all began. I jumped at the first chance to visit Egypt. Egypt it turned out was nothing like Mexico!(stating the obvious)
What I mean to say is that Egypt never felt like vacation. It was hard work. Tourism is a big industry here and touts of every form are everywhere wanting to make a quick buck out of you. So it becomes hard to let your guard down and go with the flow. Baksheesh is the very fabric of daily life. Baksheesh was never an alien concept to me, but the intensity and pervasiveness of it surprised me. Baksheesh Stress Syndrome is a real health hazard for tourists! I will qualify that by saying that it is not as bad as the Restless Leg Syndrome ads on TV. The only cure...wads of small change.
In retrospect, the things I did wrong was to go with a sub par tour operator and a punishing schedule. From Alexandria in the north, to Abu Simbel in south, Mt Sinai in the east to Bahariya in the west, I covered almost the length and breadth of the country in just two weeks.
Cairo was the base camp for all ventures around the country. Cairo is a lot like Mumbai. Very bad first impression. Noisy, crowded and choking with pollution. Treehuggers are sure to get a severe heartburn seeing the amount of plastic bottles that float around. But after a while, people say Cairo is a city to like. Two weeks is definitely not enough time for that. Although the last day in Cairo was a memorable one. I was at Abu Tarek restaurant gulping down the popular Egyptian dish Koshari. Made with lentils,rice, chickpeas, noodles, tomato sauce, and caramalized onions it is a delight to eat or in my case gulp. I was in a great mood that day. Maybe it was the Koshari, maybe it was because I knew I was going back to the comforts of my home or maybe it was the fact that I experienced Egypt and survived it.
All said and done, I don't mean to be a scrooge about my trip. I did meet a lot of nice and kind people. I remember being lost one day. When I finally decided to ask for directions, a young married couple tried to explain it the best they could. Then they walked with me it till I got there. That is how kind some people are here. The common man here is like anywhere else, hard working and decent.
Any post about Egypt cannot be complete without crooning about its history. There is so much of it that I was trying hard to learn it all. Carefully listening to all that the guide would say. Hoping to remember everything! Now thinking about it....How foolish of me! There is a reason why an entire field of study called Egyptology exist.
Egyptian history continues to unfold with new excavations and findings every other day. But an ever increasing population is putting a lot of pressure on land and resources. I sincerely hope Egypt is able to build its future while not destroying its fascinating past.
The rest of the pictures are here
PS: Sustainable travel options are few in Egypt. I am guessing the environmental movement is in its very infant stages. Here are a few recommendations.
1) The western part of the country is largely a desert. Here, close to the Libyan border, is the pristine Siwa oasis. Here you will find the highly recommended(Lonely Planet) ecolodge Adrere Amellal. This is a public private partnership aimed at preserving the oasis, its ecosystem and culture. I couldn't make it there but all the reviews I have read about it are great!
2) Bahariya oasis is much more accessible when compared to Siwa. I did go there and I would highly recommend camping in the White desert national park for a night. Ashraf was the tour guide and he was simply the best. Although his tour company planofsafari is owned by his brother-in-law Hany, Ashraf is in fact the heart and soul of the operation. He drives, he is the guide, he cooks, he puts up the camp, he sings and finally when you are tired and ready to sleep he will tuck you in. He is very conscious about cleaning up the camp site. Since this is a family run business, all profits directly benefit their family and the local economy.