Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pyramids & Palm Trees

“Egypt, or baksheesh for everyone” is what I really wanted to use as the title for this post, and while I think it is a fair assessment of reality, it doesn’t set a nice tone for my blog! As the mini guide book that the Egypt Air flight attendants distributed when we boarded our flight from Istanbul to Cairo states “In Arabic, tipping is called baksheesh and although not obligatory, it is expected in most situations.” I had been warned about this by my friends who had traveled to Egypt and it is mentioned in every guidebook and discussed on every travel website’s forum. But nothing can really prepare you for the daily hassle of determining how much money you should give each person you come into contact with or how to politely but effectively ignore all the random requests for money. From drivers, guides, handlers, attendants, and hangers-on at every tourist sight (including the tourist police!), everyone will ask for your “appreciation” and may even follow or harass you until they receive a satisfactory tip.

In addition to baksheesh, there are numerous businesses targeting the tourism industry: papyrus museums, perfume & incense factories, alabaster or other stone carving facilities, etc. Once you enter one of these places they make it very hard for you to leave. First there are personal introductions, followed by a demonstration of the method of production. Usually you are offered a complimentary beverage (tea or something similar), and there is a grandiose presentation of special “works of art” in their showroom. Then the hard sell begins and every attempt is made to counter any argument you might have about the cost, ability to transport the item, quality, etc. The salesmen will often act personally affronted if you do not purchase something from them or if you try to bargain to a very low price. Note that stops at these places are often included in group tours as many tour companies have contracts which make such visits mandatory.

Also, the Egyptian government basically forces tourists to exit each sight via a bazaar with semi-aggressive salesmen holding up clothing, scarves, statues, postcards, guidebooks, etc. and quoting a ridiculously low price to spark your interest. For example, 1 Egyptian Pound (less the US$0.20) for an embroidered white cotton scarf. However, if you try to give them just 1EGP the offer is quickly retracted or an excuse given as to why that is not the correct price for that particular item. So, in reality, if you really want the scarf you’d end up bargaining and paying something like 15EGP, possibly more. A fair price? Perhaps, but not exactly an enjoyable way of doing business!
the only exit from Hatshepsut's Mortuary Temple site
These were some of the reasons I chose to work with a local travel agent to put together an itinerary for the Egypt portion of our RTW trip. I hoped that our personal guides would shield us from as much of the haggling as possible. Based on recommendations from friends & guidebooks, I first contacted (via email) five different companies this past July. Three are based here in Egypt, one is in the UK, and one in the U.S. I provided each of them with the same information: dates & flexibility of our travel plans, a detailed list of the sights I wanted to see, activities I did or did not want to do, some general info about Greg & I and how we are traveling, and a budget range. Based on their responses, I quickly narrowed the list down to two companies, one Egyptian, one British. And after a few more weeks of emails, I ultimately selected the Egyptian travel agent, Ramses Tours, to book our trip. This was primarily because they offered us more excursions, the Nile river cruise on a comfortable ship, and 5 star hotels for a comparable price as the UK agent quoted for a similar itinerary but with fewer excursions, the cruise on a felucca with no facilities and 3-4 star hotels. The other companies either could not provide the services I requested, did not respond in a timely manner, or quoted much higher prices.

We spent a total of $2688 for 9 nights/10 days in Egypt which was $488 more than the base price of $1100 per person for our tour. The additional cost was comprised of approximately $120 for meals & drinks not included in the tour, $200+ in tips, $104 for add-on activities (camel ride & felucca), and the remaining $60 included our Egyptian visas and miscellaneous costs like replacement sunglasses for Greg’s broken ones and restocking toiletries or other supplies.

Our customized itinerary included:
  • Guides & drivers, gas, parking, tolls, all transfers
  • 1 full day tour in Cairo (which was really only a half day tour so we paid extra for a felucca ride to kill some time before being dropped off at the train station)
  • 1 full day tour in Alexandria
  • Admission fees per person (EGP): Pyramids 60, Egyptian Museum 60, High Dam 20, Philae Temple 50, Kom Ombo Temple 30, Edfu Temple 50, Valley of the Kings: Three Tombs 80, Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple (Hatshepsut) 30, Karnak Temple 65, Luxor Temple 50, Montazah 6, Kom El-Shuqafa 35, Roman Theatre 20, Library 10 = total 566EGP = $98USD
  • Horse drawn carriage to/from Edfu temple
  • Motorboat to/from Philae Temple
  • 1 day use of Luxor Little Garden Hotel (not on original itinerary, complimentary add on by Ramses $35*)
  • 2 nights at Mercure Le Sphinx, Cairo w/breakfast (total value of $275*)
  • 1 night at Iberotel Aswan Hotel w/breakfast $200*
  • 1 night at Alexandria Azur Hotel w/breakfast $350*
  • 3 nights on Nile Saray river boat full board $500*
  • 2 nights on sleeper train including dinner & breakfast $240
*Note that I checked the hotel websites for their rates during the dates of our stay to help estimate if our tour represented an overall good value. We had the option to stay in 3-star hotels for $940 or 4-star hotels for $1020 (instead of $1100 for 5-star) but based on what we saw of 3* versus 5* properties, I definitely recommend the upgrade. 3* hotels in Egypt are comparable to backpacker hostels with private rooms and ensuite baths. They are not especially modern and can be a bit shabby, but seemed safe enough. A Four Seasons which is rated 5* in the U.S. would be more like 10* based on what we experienced. Bottom line, the rating system is strictly based on facilities, not on standards!
our room at the 5-star Iberotel Aswan
Not included:
Egypt visa $15pp
Tips - at our discretion…
Optional add-ons per person: inside pyramid $20, 15min camel ride $15 (we paid $25 for 30+min), mummy room at Egyptian Museum $20, felucca ride $20 for 30min (we paid $25 for 45min), sound & light show at pyramids $30, Abu Simbel day trip $90, Luxor hot air balloon $100, full day Sakkara pyramids + Memphis + Old Cairo $60, Cairo-Nile dinner cruise $45-60

Our tour did not start out as smoothly as I would have liked, but eventually we learned that things would fall into place, even if not exactly as we expected. Amongst other things, the person that greeted us at the airport in Cairo and transferred us to our hotel did not give us any information, particularly our final detailed itinerary which I only had as an email from Ramses (not a PDF attachment or anything more formal and excluding details like the name & location of our hotels, the tour start & end times each day, etc.). Also, the representative told us to check out of the hotel and to meet our guide in the lobby the next day at 10:00AM. The next morning our guide was quite upset when he arrived at 8:30AM and spent the next hour looking for us (while we were eating breakfast) as he had been instructed to pick us up at 9:00AM, not 10:00AM. Every day there was some issue related to the tour that was a bit annoying for us (e.g. we finally were given a printed itinerary on day 7 but it was the same as what had been sent via email and still had no details about pick-up & drop-off times, hotels, etc.). I have written a detailed review of the pros & cons of working with Ramses Tours on Trip Advisor for those of you reading this who are considering a trip to Egypt.

I really do not want to dwell on the negatives, as I have mentioned them to some extent in my daily log. Instead it is better to focus on the most enjoyable aspects of our tour of Egypt:
  • Riding camels at the Giza Pyramids
  • Kushari for lunch with our guide Hesham in Cairo
  • Steering a felucca on my own
  • Our suite on the Nile Saray (plus large, modern hotel rooms throughout our tour compared to the budget backpacker accommodations we’re more accustomed to on our RTW trip)
  • Vivid colors, drawings and hieroglyphics in the tombs in the Valley of Kings
  • Our helpful and informative guides who really educated us as to what we were seeing

Some factual information related to the sights we visited:

We traveled 899km from Cairo to Aswan one way or 1798km round trip via train & Nile river cruise. We then traveled 221km from Cairo to Alexandria one way or 442km round trip via private van.

Egypt’s history can be roughly divided into the following periods, and I have included the sights we visited from those times:
  • Old Kingdom c2700-2200BC: Giza Pyramids (Khufu, Khafra, Menkaura or Cheops, Chephern, Mycerinus) & Sphinx (represents strength & wisdom of Egypt)
  • Middle Kingdom c2080-1640BC: ancient city of Thebes/Luxor
  • New Kingdom c1550-1069BC: Temples of Luxor & Karnak, Tutankhamon’s tomb (only famous b/c of treasures), Valley of Kings tombs, Deir el Beheiri (Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple)
  • Ptolemaic & Greek era c305-30BC: temple of Horus at Edfu, Temple of Sobek & Haroeris at Kom Ombo, Temples on Philae Island
  • Roman & Christian Era c30BC-618AD: Roman Theatre in Alexandria
  • Arabic & Islamic Egypt 639-1517AD
Temple of Horus at Edfu
 Here are all of my photos from this leg of our RTW trip:
Egypt - Nile River Cruise

My Daily Log
Ramses contractor (Mostafa) met us at baggage claim exit; his only purpose was to retrieve us from the airport and check us into our hotel; both him & the driver talked on their cell phones at least half of the 1hr transit time
Interesting ride to hotel: wedding caravan with people piled on top of belongings in trucks and/or sitting on roof of vehicles, honking horns; donkey carts sharing 8 lane highway; camels & horses coming home from the Pyramids (it was almost dusk); people along side of highway waiting for or cramming into minivans
Nice, unexpected suite (3083) at Mercure Le Sphinx
I realized my contact lens solution had leaked during the flight and need to buy new bottle but nearest store (Carrefour) is 30min away according to concierge
Wanted to get some fresh air and look for something cheap to eat but concierge’s directions were not 100% clear and map wasn’t detailed enough; Greg attracted attention of tourist police (or guy dressed like them) who offered to lead us to the dining street but instead took us to a “papyrus museum” where we were practically forced to listen to salesman demonstrate the paper-making process and show us some artwork before the hard sell; drank complimentary hibiscus tea
Have already been asked multiple times where we are from, if we are married, have kids, etc.
After the papyrus hassle, plus it was completely dark, decided to return to hotel for dinner
Ate on rooftop terrace, disappointed pyramids were not well lit but still nice view when we could see them; listened to local musicians while I ate tabbouleh & hummus w/tahini and drank wine; discussed w/Greg how we could make up names & stories to tell touts just for fun

Buffet breakfast at hotel - busy, mostly Europeans
Went into lobby to use wifi; our guide Hesham found us there and was angry we weren’t ready to leave; we had been told 10am by yesterday’s guide and it was apparently supposed to be 9am…
Went to Giza Pyramids, walked around (not much to see unless you want to pay extra to go inside a pyramid), rode camels for about 30 minutes, returned to pyramids to see the Sphinx
Went to Egyptian Museum for about 2 hours, no cameras allowed inside, no air conditioning!, we didn’t pay extra to see the mummy rooms as there was enough to see otherwise
Had lunch at local kushari restaurant called Tom & Basal (garlic & onion)
Went on felucca ride; eventually driver asked if I wanted to steer the boat; I ended up “driving” it for at least 20 min of the 45min ride -- hard work on your back! -- at the end I even got to steer the boat into the parking spot, supposedly first time tourist has done that according to our guide
Drove to a supermarket so I could buy contact lens solution but they didn’t sell it; had to walk a long block to a mall that had a pharmacy; it was behind the counter so had to ask staff to retrieve it
Got dropped off at Giza train station; very dilapidated; no a/c seating area or safe place to store bags so sat at outdoor café surrounded by cigarette smoke to wait for 2 hours; had to pay 1LE to use toilets that were not exactly clean
Boarded train just after 8pm and had our own sleeper compartment with seats, fold down beds, sink; hot dinner was served within 30min of departure
Stayed up until 10:30pm then went to sleep

Woke up around 4:45am as others were getting ready to disembark train at Luxor
Ate light breakfast (asst breads); arrived at Aswan around 8:30am
Our guide Mina met us right outside our car’s door
Visited High Dam (you can only go on top of it, must get special permission to tour inside) & Philae Temple (reached by motorboat)
Checked in at hotel but then requested that Mina take us to local place (ie, falafel stand) to get lunch and duty free shop to buy beer & wine
Returned to hotel; ate lunch & drank a beer, showered, took 2hr nap
Lounged by the pool to watch the sun set
Worked online in hotel room, chatted with Mom on Google Talk
Ate dinner in hotel restaurant (nothing else nearby); only option was 140LE buffet or small “snack” menu; I ordered a cheeseburger with fries, it was actually pretty good
Returned to room to drink another beer; went to bed around 11pm

Got up around 8am; ate buffet breakfast
Power out for 2 hours at hotel but still had internet access so uploaded pics, posted Turkey blog, etc.
Mina picked us up at 1pm for short drive to our river cruise boat; interesting boarding process involved walking thru lobbies of two other boats to reach ours
spent 30min talking to Ramses Tour operators on Mina’s cell phone to sort out issues with our itinerary plus found out that flight to Tel Aviv is on Air Sinai not Egypt Air as we previously thought
Ate buffet lunch and went to our room; soon discovered (after exploring the rest of the boat) that we were in one of two suites! We have king size bed, huge sitting area, armoire, full size dresser, two nightstands, flat screen tv (with 6 channels but only works when we‘re docked), full size couch, etc. PLUS huge private outdoor terrace on the front of the boat
Sat outside on terrace taking pictures until we reached Kom Ombo; met our guide Samuel in the boat’s lobby to walk to temple (approx 1hr tour); Samuel’s favorite word is habibi which means “beloved”
Had to wait for one boat to move and another to park before we could board our boat again
Drank a glass of wine in our room then had dinner with our tablemates: a couple from Winchester, England whose daughter & her family lives & works in Cairo and a girl from Tokyo, Japan; other cruisers are a British tour group and a German tour group plus a few other “independents”
Our boat holds approx 100 passengers
Returned to room for another glass of wine and to do some writing before going to bed
Every place we stop, our boat is boarded by one or two machine gun-toting tourist police

Awoken at 4:45am by call to prayer from multiple mosques by the boat dock in Edfu
Meet Samuel in lobby at 6:45am
Horse drawn carriage to/from Edfu Temple; 1hr tour
Return to boat; eat breakfast
For a reason not yet explained, our boat doesn’t leave Edfu until 1:45pm but was supposed to leave at 9am
This means that we didn’t reach the Esna lock until 5:45pm and thus it was already dark
River scenes: fishermen “beating” the water, donkeys braying, cows lowing, birds migrating, sunset
Crossing lock was interesting; since we were late, all boats were coming from opposite direction; much shouting and arguing, flashing of spotlights; had great view from our terrace
Ate dinner; drank wine on sundeck with our dining companions
Finally reached Luxor at 10pm; belly dancing & whirling dervish-type performance in lounge
Ramses operator called to confirm our schedule for tomorrow; his every other word is inshallah (god willing)

Got up at 7:30; ate breakfast
8:45 p/u by Mohammed to tour Valley of Kings (tombs of Ramses IV, XI, III), temple of Hatshepsut, Colossi of Memnon
Returned to boat by 12:30; ate lunch
Didn’t realize until Mohammed made brief mention of it during our tour that the Luxor massacre by Islamist militants on 17NOV1997 was at Hatshepsut’s temple; 62 people were killed including 58 foreign tourists
Took nap (have had constant headache since 11/1)
Mohammed retrieved us again at 3:45pm; toured Karnak & Luxor Temples
Went into old mosque attached to Luxor Temple; man followed us around, tried to get money from us (“donation for the mosque/imam“)
Ramses Tour staff (Ehab) picked us up and brought us back to boat at 7pm
Ate dinner, showered & packed

Wake up call at 7am (which we didn’t request); another call at 7:30 to “eat breakfast now”
Checked out at 8:30 and walked to main road to await Ehab
Drove into downtown Luxor, toured local market where Ehab bought us some fresh mint, picked up falafel sandwiches from street vendor
Dropped us off at 3* hotel at 10am; drank complimentary hibiscus tea/juice
Rested in our room all afternoon as I continue to have a headache & now also stomach cramps
Ehab picked us up at 6:45pm and took us to train station; helped us board our train which departed at 7:30pm
Ate dinner on the train (included with ticket) and took various meds so I could try to sleep

Rough night on the train - the jolting was so bad that I actually considered using my luggage strap as a “bed belt” to better secure me in my top bunk
Got up at 4:45am; disembarked in Cairo at 5:30
Slept off & on during 3hr drive to Alexandria; highway was rough at times and had lots of diversions and security checkpoints so driver had to slow down to go over speed bumps and make sharp turns
Arrived in Alexandria by 9:15; waited at coffee shop for Heba, our first female guide!
Spent full day walking around/touring Montazah (king‘s palace gardens/waterfront), Kom El-Shuqafa (catacombs), Roman Theatre, & huge, modern Library with stop for lunch at shopping mall and to buy more Lamisil from a pharmacy
I felt awful all day and could barely stand up straight by the time we checked into the hotel around 5pm
Rested in room until 7pm but when we tried to go to the Lebanese restaurant on hotel property were told it was closed; ate dinner at hotel’s outdoor café with everyone around us smoking shisha; I had to try the local specialty “beef liver Alex” despite not eating anything else all day because of my stomach issues

Actually slept pretty well and only had to get up once during the night; virus seems to be almost out of my system however Greg now has diarrhea but no other symptoms so his may only be from food
Ate very light buffet breakfast
Relaxed in room until noon p/u for transfer back to Cairo
Scenes on drive from Alex: natural gas refinery, salt fields, soft drinking bottling plants, commercial farms, trucks hauling produce, donkey cart almost caused pile up, ramshackle tea & snack stands in middle of highway; realized that reason for all the diversions is road construction stretching all the way from Alex to Cairo but not obvious as to exactly what the end result will be
One rest stop around halfway point; small zoo (various animals in pens) attached; note that parking lot attendants “wash” (really wipe) your car whether you want them to or not and, of course, then you have to tip!
Arrived in Cairo just after 3pm; took 30+min to check into hotel for no apparent reason; room not nearly as nice as our suite from the first night
Lounged by the pool until sunset drinking Ceralyte (oral rehydration concentrate) YUCK!
Used free wifi in lobby
Ate dinner at hotel’s Italian restaurant - ordered two types of simple pastas and shared as we’re still suffering from digestive problems

Up at 5:15 for pre-6am p/u for airport; at airport by 6:30
Checked in, cleared immigration, no real seating area in Terminal 1 so left Greg in coffee shop while I went to VIP Lounge
Cleared security at gate around 8am - made us dump all liquids even if purchased in the airport (ie, bottled water, canned soda, etc.)
Bused to our very remote pad around 8:45; they made everyone positive id our checked luggage prior to boarding the plane
Note: The flight is operated by EgyptAir staff, with EgyptAir boarding passes, EgyptAir equipment, catering, etc. but our tickets said Air Sinai. The exterior of the plane was solid white with no airline affiliated markings of any kind. When I had our tour guide call EgyptAir directly in Aswan to reconfirm the flight they said it didn’t exist. Later, I looked it up on their website EgyptAir.com and sure enough, you cannot find Tel Aviv as a destination nor is that route listed in their inflight magazine.
With no explanation ever given, we sat trapped on the plane until almost 11am before finally taxiing out to the runway for takeoff (our scheduled departure time was 9am).

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