Moving on from one legendary country (in my mind pre-trip) to another, Egypt is one that can easily catch a traveller’s imagination, right? The pyramids, right? Deserts, oasis, camels, Cairo, I half didn’t think it was possible to go there until I started planning this trip, and come mid-April 1999 I was on my way there.
At Frankfurt Airport I had a wait for my connection to Alexandria. I thought flying into Alexandria would save a bit of backtracking in Egypt, and it turned out to be a reasonable idea. I wasn’t going Egypt alone – my friend Greg was coming too, he had been living for half a year in Europe and at one point we were thinking of doing the entire trip together. We both acknowledge these days that months and months of travelling together would probably not work out, but for just under three weeks in Egypt, it was perfect.
Personally, after my experiences in India I was apprehensive about what I might find in Egypt, and it was certainly a good thing to have a friend along. However, it nearly didn’t work out that way. He was flying into Frankfurt from Hamburg, and his flight had been delayed a couple of hours. I had like seven or more hours at the airport and had found somewhere to sleep most of the day after not sleeping at the airport the previous night, but as the afternoon departure time drew near, I was at the gate and Greg was not.
They opened boarding and people started to file on. Still no Greg. Everyone but me was on the plane, still no Greg. I hung around the gate nervously with no idea what I should do, my bags were on the flight, my friend wasn’t anywhere to be seen, do I board or not. They were about to close the gate when through the throngs of passengers walking about the terminal, I saw Greg running like the wind. We went through the gate as it closed behind us, the closest call I’ve ever had boarding a plane, and before we knew it, with no time to catch up, we were on our way to Egypt.
I slept again on the plane. We touched down in Alexandria to I think still the smallest airport I have ever landed at. The smallest international one at least. It was just a shed. Greg’s baggage hadn’t made it, but soon we had changed some cash and were in a taxi to the YHA in Alexandria, where we had a double room booked. It was the most expensive room we’d have in Egypt, but it was also the nicest.
Finding it wasn’t easy for the taxi driver and seemed to take forever. It was evening too, so we had little idea of the area. We chatted the night away about our own adventures before managing to sleep somehow. We would hear the morning prayer call of the local mosque the next day, the first experience of this that I can recall in my life, although maybe in India I experienced but don’t remember it.
The YHA served a breakfast. I remember boiled eggs and pita bread. I’m sure there were more things. Greg and I are different in some ways – he’s an early morning guy, I am anything but. Still, we rose around the same time on the first day. Greg was to travel to the airport for his bag, but from memory no luck the first day, he got it the second.
We wondered the streets of Alexandria and saw some local sites, as well as were hassled a bit and people asked us for money. With two people we discovered it was much easier to laugh it off. There were a bit of Roman ruins, a beach, and some catacombs to explore. I remember we spent a whole afternoon looking for those darned catacombs and never found them!
Alexandria was a somewhat gentle introduction to Egypt, and after a few days we took the train southwards to Cairo, one of the world’s biggest cities (in 1999 it had around 20 million people) – big, chaotic, crazy. The train ride along the Nile must have passed through the Nile Delta area at one point (well we were coming from the Mediterranean Coast) because I remember it starting off very lush and green, before getting drier and sandier. It was only a few hours to Cairo, and BAM! It certainly was a hell of a place.
Despite appearing to have a romantic charm in some movies, to us it was so big it was hard to get your bearings or in a few days understand how the place worked. It was nice in places, around the Nile for example, and I had my bum pinched by a couple of girls in hijabs which I don’t need my sadly gone diary to remind me about.
Our hostel was very cheap, less than five bucks a night each. It also was about right for the price – it was a small room, crappy mattresses and clean is not a word you could truthfully use to describe the place. I would stay in the dorm the night before I flew out which was about $2.50 for a bed. Still, there was a communal kitchen and the staff were friendly and talkative.
One thing’s for sure – the hostel was a unique sort of place, with a dusty stairwell and a lift that didn’t work. I met Egyptians there – – young guys who were happy to chat about anything. They told me about how they didn’t like Israel, but every other country was fine (and for a naive young Australian, I was surprised to hear that), and a story about an American tourist who went to the pyramids one day, paid a whopping $300 for a camel ride, left his bag with the camel owner when he went inside one of the pyramids and then came out to find the owner, the camel and his bag gone.
Also at this hostel I met a Canadian called Stacey. I had discovered the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree in preparing for the trip, and I had met Stacey (a guy) on the Thorn Tree as he was also heading to Egypt. Our trips didn’t quite coincide but to accidently bump into him the night before he flew out was quite the coincidence.
He gave some great tips about what to do in Egypt, especially taking a boat on the Nile River – he suggested a captain who we would meet in Aswan from the journey to Luxor. After Stacey left, we visited the Egyptian Museum which was pretty amazing, a couple of mosques, McDonald’s (it was kind of a novelty), at a lot of falafel at a place where they were dirt cheap, oh and then we went to the pyramids.
We took a local bus to Giza, pretty late in the day. I think we got there at about 4pm. There was barely a tourist to see there, there were a few people trying to get us on a camel. We still remember the line ‘My brother has a camel’ and laugh.
There was a KFC opposite, and we walked around taking pictures and marvelling for an hour or so – it was sadly too late to go inside one of the pyramids. But – we had done it! We had seen one of the true marvels of this Earth.
We actually went to the cinemas a couple of times whilst in Cairo as a break from the insanity that is such a big city. Crossing the road was a supreme challenge, the pollution quickly took its toll with coughs and wheezes… so it was time after around 4 days to move on. A ticket on a train to the southern city of Aswan. Oh, and sorry – another blog entry in around a week. Until then – may the journey never end.