Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I totally got interrogated at the Cairo airport today!

The burly immigration officer examined my passport quizzically then asked - 'Ma'am, what is your maiden name?'

Me - "Shamma."

'And Aziza?'

"That's my middle name"

'You are aware that is an Arabic name, right?'




"Cause my father is from here."

I opted to skip the part where he was born in Syria and grew up here, in order to not further complicate things.

'Your father is Egyptian?'


The gentleman, clearly displeased, flipped to my Visa page and eyed it suspiciously.

'You have been here since July.'


Note, our original Egyptian visas expired in three weeks ago. My cousin insisted we could just pay a fine at the airport and be on our way, no sense to go through the trouble of renewing it at the embassy. Luckily, we opted NOT to listen to that advice.

'Ma'am, I am going to need to see some documentation that proves you are a resident here.'

"I am not a resident. I am traveling on a tourist visa." (That is both current and unexpired. Thank GOD.)

'But you are Egyptian?'

"Yes, and I was born in America."

He mulled over his thoughts for a few minutes, fingering the pages of my passport. I racked my brain for my uncles phone number, preparing to call in reinforcements.

'Here you go, have a nice trip."

Thanks Egypt. It's been real.

Family Portrait

Visiting family you have never met before, halfway across the globe, really can go either way. Will it be awkward? Will we have fun together? Will we recognize each other at the airport? Will they like me? Will we like them?

For those of you who don't know, my father was born in Syria. His family moved to Cairo when he was young, and he lived here until he ventured off to America in his early twenties. The rest of his family still resides in Egypt, and for years I have looked forward to someday making the visit.

My grandmother and my two uncles, Mohaymen and Norman, have visited the U.S. in the years since I've been born, so I have met them each two or three times. Now, I got to meet Mohaymen's wife and three children, my cousins who I've only seen through pictures pasted into childhood letters and, more recently, facebook.

Fady (33), his wife Vaalden, and their gorgeous two year old daughter Giselle. Yasmin (29), her husband Mohammed, and their adorable and hilarious three year old son Alleh. And the youngest daughter, Yomna (22).

After much anticipation, I was delighted by the ease of spending time with my Egyptian family. The separation of decades and continents melted away through cooking and eating together, lounging on beaches and in cafes, playing Nintendo Wii and feircly competitive games of Monopoly.

They have been so generous and hospitable over the course of our visit. We must have been enjoying ourselves, cause we managed to stick around for SEVEN WEEKS! After all this time here, it was definitely a little sad to say goodbye. Egypt is now one of the few countries I can safely say we will be returning to someday.

Getting a family photo is more challenging than you think.
Either someone is missing, or covering her face.
A little photoshop could combine these two pics into one great shot!

Accommodations - Egypt Edition

Staying in someone's home in Nairobi was so nice, we decided to do it again in Egypt ;) 

We were so lucky to have the opportunity to stay and travel with my family here, we've gotten quite spoiled in the past few months.  Getting back into the hostel lifestyle isn't going to be easy!

Cairo, Egypt

Stepping off of a red eye flight from Kenya and walking into an apartment halfway across the world to find your photo displayed prominantly atop the livingroom TV is a surreal experience.  This is my granmother's flat (which she no longer uses as she stays with my uncle) and our home base for our lengthy time in Egypt.

Alexandria, Egypt

My uncle's wife was raised in Alexandria, and there are few places she still adores more than her beachfront balcony in their apartment here. With strong sea breezes six floors up, it was a cool escape from the mayhem of Alexandria's streets below.

North Coast, Egypt

From Alexandria, we traveled to the luxurious North Coast. The large group of us didn't fit in just one apartment, so Reece and I got Fady's place all to ourselves. I forgot to take photos there, so here's some shots of the Mohaymen's sparkling new flat, where we spent most of our time, instead.

Badawiya Hotel
120 pounds (approx $22)/night
Farafra Oasis, Egypt

This is where we stayed for one sweaty, discounted night in the White Desert before turning around and taking our cashless pockets home. Bummer. Nice place.

Yasmina Hotel
160 pounds (approx $29)/night

Ah, Dahab. Have I mentioned how much we loved it there? Not only is it fantastic, but it's cheap. This perfectly legitimate hotel was steps from the beach and came complete with blasting A/C (very important) and a fantastic pool. Now, if only they'd fix up the outside a bit to match the inside...

Cairo, Egypt

Last, but certainly not least, my cousin Fady's apartment. While we never actually slept here, it's super freaking cool so I thought it deserved a shout out. Our last two nights in Egypt, we did stay in the rooftop apartment upstairs, so it almost counts.

PS - Here is my uncle Mohaymen's place just above him. Slightly different styles, eh? ;)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Cairo, Egypt

Since we spent so much time hopping around Egypt with Cairo as our home base, my album of the city was quite a work in progress.  Without further ado, click HERE for photos of our amazing Cairo experience.

Family definitely comes first here in Egypt. They spend alot of time together, and even seem to enjoy it! Haha, I kid.

Anyhow, it is customary for a woman to live with her parents until the day she marries, and even then she usually doesn't stray too far...

This is my uncle Mohaymen's home in Cairo. He built this place from the ground up, and it consists of four separate apartments. His son lives in the ground floor unit with his wife and daughter. The second floor belongs to his eldest daughter (but she and her husband are currently living in their own place). He and his wife reside on the third. And the top unit will be given to his youngest as soon as she gets married. While certainly not for everyone, I think it's a pretty cool concept. An entire apartment complex inhabited by one big family, yet each with their own personalized space.

They also have a cute little swimming pool, and a fantastic rooftop deck with a TV/movie projector. Fun for the whole family.

2,000 Camels!!

Remember what I said about then men here not being that bad??  I take it back.  Oh, how I take it back!

If I have to hear one more time what a lucky man Reece is or how many camels I am worth, I am going to punch someone in the face.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Nile Cruise Photos

Our Nile cruise was so jam packed with amazing places, I had to break it down into four fabulous albums.  While we may not have been huge fans of the cruising part, the rest was a truly incredible experience.  How lucky we are to be seeing this stuff.  To check out our photos, click on the three links below.




Taken for a ride. On a train.

There are about 140 opportunities to get scammed every day in Egypt. Navigating our way through it for the past seven weeks has been absolutely exhausting, but we're getting pretty good it. It's irritating when you let your gaurd down and get taken for a ride, but it's downright infuriating when you KNOW your being scammed and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.

Take for example purchasing train tickets in Luxor. First we asked our tour guide if he could arrange tickets for us. He called his train ticket contact, who said it would be 130 pounds. I inquired how much of that was for the actual ticket, and how much was his commission. 100/30 respectively. The train ticket was a short walk away, so we opted to head over to buy them ourselves.

"Two tickets to Cairo please."

'Sold out.'



"You didn't even ask what day I wanted!"

'Sold out for three days.'

"It's low season, there is nobody here. That's impossible."

Dismissive hand wave.

We asked around and absolutely nobody was willing to help us. So, with our tail between our legs, we called the tour guide's train man back. Miraculously, they weren't sold out for him. We met him a few hours later and coughed up the 120 pounds (of course the guide was trying to skim ten off the top) and got two crisp tickets.

When we arrived at the station the following morning, we were relieved when we were granted access to the platform. Until the friendly "tourist police" strolled over to inspect our tickets. According to this lovely gentleman, ours were "resident tickets" so he could not let us on the train. Of course, he had sympathy for our plight and would "help us out" even though the situation made "big problems for him". In other words, "Pay me a bunch of money or I'm going to make this very unpleasant for you." Our hands were tied.

We called the ticket guy and gave him hell for his questionable involvement. I argued with officer that we understood what's going on, everybody's getting a piece of the pie and we already over-paid for our tickets. But there is a fine line here between pleading your case and getting thrown in an Egyptian prison. So we bit our tongues and thanked the man for his "help" and, insisting we had no more money, managed to get rid of him with a five dollar tip.

SO frustrating. We talked to several other travelers, and it's the same story. The railway system is not run by the government, so there is no regulation whatsoever. Hence, a black market for train tickets has taken over the proper procedures. A tourist will always get turned away trying to buy his own tickets. An officer will always tell you that the ticket you have is unacceptable for some reason and require a bribe to let you on. Welcome to Egypt.

The hassle is absolutely maddening. If you want to force me to pay more, fine. Triple the ticket price for tourists. I don't care. Honestly. Just let me buy a fucking ticket at the counter and let me board the damn train without getting harrased and paying off three middle men along the way. Arrg.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bon Voyage

We've learned something very important on this little Nile cruise... We hate cruises.

You know how I feel about being part of a tour group. The need to report to certain places at certain times. Contact with locals reduced to the touts trying to sell you crap. Sites seen from behind twenty seven bobbing heads. It reads a bit more "field trip" than "trip around the world".

A cruise, in my humble opinion, is like being in a tour group surrounded by a moat that keeps you from ever leaving the confines of your pre-packaged holiday. Receiving your morning wake up calls. Getting shoved aside at each port of call by the folks who want to be the first off the boat. Eating the same meal served eight different ways at the same table in the same dining room with the same sunburned people day after day. It feels a bit soulless and generic.

Reece and I were contemplating why we're so turned off by it. After the bed-bug infested hostels we've experienced, you'd think we'd be thanking our lucky stars and kissing the freshly buffed marble floors of this ship. Surely, sleeping under an actual comforter and having a toilet with an actual seat are luxuries we appreciate. Still, something's amiss.

We have a romatic notion that this trip has begun to instill within us a sense of unification with those around us. Each and every day is filled with numerous interactions - be it the pleasantries of getting to know another traveler, the philosophical chat with a fellow waiting for the train, the religious discussion with the man at the Indian embassy. Our life has become a routine of exploring not just places, but people. There is a certain joy in deciphering the erratic hand gestured directions to the nearest temple, helping an entire family pile onto the back of a motorcycle, eating unidentifiable treats from grinning sidewalk vendors. A cruise has a way of wiping your trip clean of all of these things.

Don't get me wrong, we had a great time. But now that it's behind us, we're really excited to hit the pavement again.

Day Four

People told us it was going to be hot in Luxor. Really, really hot. People were not lying.

Our day of sight-seeing here consisted of a morning and an afternoon tour, including visits to five different places of interest. Temperatures exceeding 110 degrees and not a single square inch of shade. Steep descents into unventhilated underground tombs. By the end of it, I could barely stand. Heat + Exhaustion + A lack of sunglasses = A brutal combination. And note, our tour guides are doing this during Ramadan. Sweating their balls off, without a bite of food OR sip of water all day. Unbelievable.

#1 - Valley of the Kings

Just about all of the notable pharaoh mummies once called this valley home. Built under a pyramid shaped mountain in dense limestone and hidden from the population of the time, this valley was chosen as the noble resting place for dozens of important figures in Egypt's history. We were able to venture underground into the ancient and elaborate burial chambers, and see the still vibrant artwork on the solid stone walls. But we weren't able to take any photos. So I've enlisted the help of google.

It was a super cool experience, but I couldn't help but be haunted by how mortified these kings would be to see what has become of their eternal resting place. These people took preservation in death and the afterlife really seriously, and here we are stomping all over their sacred tombs in trucker hats and flip flops. Not to mention the fact that the contents of these chambers have been shipped off to various exhibits around the world for tourists to peep on. King Ramses would turn over in his sarcofogus, if he wasn't confined to a clear temperature-controled box in the Cairo Museum.

#2 - Temple of Hatshepsut

Hatshepsut was the first woman pharaoh to rule Ancient Egypt. From what they tell us, she was pretty bad ass. She spent her life devising ways to get closer to the throne, eventually obtaining the seat and garnering the respect of her citizens by creating a story of her immaculate conception. Egypt enjoyed a period of great wealth and harmony under her rule, and the site of her temple is only slightly cooler than the surface of the sun.

#3 - Valley of the Queens

What visit to a Valley of Kings is complete without a visit to a Valley of Queens? Same story, different gender. And smaller burial chambers. I was tired and hungry by then and could have given this one a miss. However, I did learn that hand binoculars are surprisingly helpful in the absence of proper eyewear.

On the way home we got to see this old thing just hangin on the side of the road, which was pretty freakin cool.

#4 - Temple of Karnak
The neat thing about Luxor is that the (relatively) modern day city was build around all of these ancient ruins.  A walk down a short street will take you from a travel agency to a pub to a 3,000 year old temple to a McDonalds.  You don't have to venture far to get your history on, it's all around you.  The experience is a little surreal. 
Karnak is actually a series of temples, the largest of its kind ever built by man, and it was completed over a period of THIRTEEN HUNDRED years.  My favorite section of it was a hall of seemingly endless, absolutely enormous columns.  Getting lost amongst them really felt like you were wandering around in a visual effects environment.  Super cool.

Look at Reece!

#5 - Luxor Temple
The best thing about this place is that we got to see it as the sun was setting and capture some really cool night time photos.  Another feature of note is that Egyptians have built a mosque smack dab in the middle of the ruins, which makes for quite the captivating setting.

Last, but by no means least my friends...

#6 - Sakara Gold

Reece and I were DYING by the time this day was over (similarly to how you probably feel after finishing this lengthy entry).  And for the past few beer-less weeks, we have begun to fantasize about an ice cold one.  Our cruise ship was an oasis of alcohol consumption, but it was so damned expensive we couldn't bring ourselves to buy it, purely on principal. 

Imagine the sheer joy of finally stumbling upon a place, in public, that served the coldest beers we've had since Argentina.  The experience almost moved me to tears.


Friday, August 27, 2010

Day Two Point Five and Three

We finally set sail. Our home for four days is a fairly legit little cruise ship, complete with Nile views, a sundeck, buffet dining and in-room towel art.

Our first port of call was an evening visit to Kom Ombo Temple. We were treated with a gorgeous full moon and had a shadow-fun photoshoot.

The following morning, we arrived in Edfu and traveled by horse drawn carriage to the Temple of Horus, the falcon headed god responsible for flying the sun across the sky. It's truly astonishing to see the size of these temples in person, the front wall towers impossibly high over visitors trying desperately to capture it's magnificence on camera.

Again, look how small the people are!

We had some more photoshoot fun, then I showed off my carriage driving skills behind the reigns.