Monday, May 21, 2007

Crazy Talkers

Some people make me laugh. And confuse me at the same time. Everytime I talk about my trip to Egypt with people I get both positive and negative feedback. Some of this feedback is surreal. Where some people get perceptions about places like north Africa and the middle east is down right slanted. Where do some of you get these notions? I've already heard a half dozen times comments like, "I think I'd feel safer in Europe or Australia" Or "I'll stick to the United States, it's safer".
ARE YOU KIDDING ME???? Someone tell another joke. Where do you come up with these?
I felt the most safe in Egypt and Morocco. The U.S. is the scariest place in the free world. Maybe Chicago alone can be re-named SCARYVILLE one day. You people really need to read a book or get a video. These people are great. Get out all those crazy ideas in your head, paralyzing you from travel to these fine places.
Just do yourself a favor and have a chat with someone who has been to these regions.
You'll see that your thoughts are unwarranted. No I'm not an Arab. Or an Arab American trying to get people to go to my country. I'm an American and my parents are too. So I'm not biased. I just speak the truth.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Saturday, May 05, 2007

My Budget Egyptian Vacation

I came back from Egypt unscathed. And I sure did wander around by my lonesome too.
Went all the way south near the Sudan border to the city of Abu Simbel in upper Egypt to see Rameses II. It was awesome. I took so many photos. I made my way through Egypt backward. Flying south from Cairo then making my way back up north to lower Egypt. I went to Philae Temple from there then, to Kom Ombo, Idfu, Luxor and the whole Valley of Kings and Queens area, Karnak temple, Saqqara, Memphis, then Cairo and the Giza pyramids and sphinx.
It's just awesome. The nice hot weather, the people, the food. There were more pros than cons in Egypt. There were a few things that were annoying and quite different from life in the states, that is only note worthy for those who plan on traveling there, you need to have this information.
First of all the people are fantastic and very helpful. But there are so many hawkers that you don't know who is and who isn't at times. There are people who will be standing there at a park or a rest area, who you'll think is just there resting like you. But NO, they'll chat with you and then BAM they're telling you to come and browse in their shop. Good grief! Like I really want to walk 4 streets out of my way for essential oils.
I also had an experience with an all male owned private hotel where the staff was either over protective or intrusive. They were always asking me my business, like, where I was going etc. (I don't like that). But a friend has since told me that it was out of concern. Then, there's the chronic tipping syndrome that everyone has. You're tipping practically everyone you come in contact with. For instance if you want to take a picture with a camel in front of the pyramids, that costs extra, even if you're paying to ride it through the desert. You have to tip most owners if you just want a picture of the camel period. Then there's a person who comes just to put your suitcase in the car you're entering. Drivers will not touch your luggage. They will let the luggage person put it in the trunk. There are attendants who direct you into a parking spot and attendants who direct you out of your parking spot. There are people who just hang around them, hoping a dopy tourist will give them baksheesh as well. Yes they are what I referred to as the "KLINGON'S" The assistants of the attendants. There are people just everywhere in Egypt hoping to make a pound or two tip. They hang around attendants and will interact with you and the attendant hoping that you'll give them a little something too. Then there are toilet attendants who require tipping as well. There is an attendant in practically every public toilet, even McDonalds. If you just want to wash your hands you have to pay a tip. And even if you have your own toilet paper you have to pay one. There is an attendant (mostly male) even in the ladies rooms. These attendants will give you a wad of toilet paper when you walk in and you must pay a dime tip each and every time. This tip is called "bakhsheesh" and it's expected. They'll tell you either "tip" or "bakhsheesh" but you pay it or you'll be hounded. I've seen people be hounded for dogging on a tip. It's not pretty. You really get an argument. A long and loud one. There are attendants also who direct you into a parking space and direct you out of this space. Each time you tip. The tips are usually between 9 and 18 cents but you need to walk around with a bag of notes for this. This does border ridiculous but this is the way it is.
Another pet peeve would be the lack of itineraries and receipts. You will not get one unless you ask. Don't forget to ask either. Most people are incredibly honest but you want an itinerary for your day tour or half day tour or cruise that you may pay for at an agent. Even though you see a guy at a desk with a computer, most likely you still wont get an itinerary on paper. Make them write down all the things that your cruise or tour will include on their stationary or their business card and sign it. Get a mobile number always in case something goes wrong, you'll have a contact person. This happened to me once. My pick up in Aswan didn't show up. I had a mobile number and a calling card. A quick phone call after waiting almost a half hour saved my sanity. I was told that the driver had car problems and I should get a cab. I did do this trip on a budget (not bag packer/hostel budget) but I wasn't at 4 or 5 star hotels either. I stayed in small private Egyptian hotels. Staying at small private owned Egyptian hotels can be good, but the booking agents make over booking a tourists nightmare. These hotels get over booked and you may end up at another hotel that didn't get as good reviews as the one that you took forever to choose. Booking agents just don't have it together. This happens frequently I was told by a couple hoteliers. There probably is no solution to perfect budget travel. The list of things that can go wrong will be endless.
One thing one must remember to bring these things to third world countries (And they don't hurt in our counrty either) are the following: A mag light for all the poorly lit places you will be and stay at. Great for looking at the goods that vendors sell on the street at night and also great for switching on quickly during black outs. These do occur in third world countries quite often. It's best to be prepared. Touch lights are a great gift to people in third world countries too. I remember my friend in Indonesia (and her family) just loved them. You can use them and then leave them as gifts before departing.
After a mag light my number 2 pick would be disinfectant wipes with bleach to sanitize your room. Doorknobs, light switches, remote controls, toilet bowl, basin etc. Anytime you stay at any budget hotel the quality of cleanliness and sanitization is questionable. I bought my towel. For two dollars you can get a great heavy duty face towel with great absorbancy that you can use it to just dry your body. Hotel towels looked dingy and drab. Buy or bring your own. Hotel towels are not sanitized with bleach which I think is gross. Number 3 must have is shower shoes. You can go to a dollar store or anywhere in Egypt and get a cheap pair of flip flop thong sandals for standing in the shower and walking around your hotel room.
#5 In Egypt there is obviously a paper shortage and toilet paper is something that they are quite frugal about. Their rolls can last a woman 5 sittings and then it's gone. My suggestion before going is get a few of those travel rolls to take with you. It's cheap out there too but you may want to take your own. Next bring your own soap or you can buy soap there cheap. I found some awesome home made olive oil soaps and brought them back with me. I also found soap leaves by Woods of Windsor that come in a travel packet that's the size of a credit card. These are great for the many many restrooms that don't have soap. If you can't find this brand Crabtree and Evelyn make some too.
Now remember you're limited to space if you're only doing the carry on bag thing. So put the most important in your carry on and the extras in the check in luggage. I took everything on 1 carry on. And another big bag slung over my shoulder. I was limited to the one zip loc so I got creative. I went to
Lush Cosmetics and found a great solid shampoo in a tin. Got a shea butter solid lotion bar (AKA massage bar) as well. Then I found at a Mexican corner store, solid detergent soap. I hand washed the same old things basically in the basin and hung them up to dry. So I had more space in my bag for my combo bottle of sunscreen/bug repellent. There are mosquitos galore in Cairo. As you go south into upper Egypt there are less. I slept in Buzz Off clothing in Cairo because I learned my lesson in Indonesia way back in 2000. They attack worse in your sleep even if you don't see them flying around in your room. They're there or will be when the lights go out. 7. Take hangers. Take some with clips. The kind with clips work good for hanging your socks and underwear. You will need to hang your clothes on something because lots of private small hotels do not have hangers and if they do they're not good ones. If you don't want to do the clothes in the basin thing, it's real cheap to get clothes cleaned and ironed out there. In upper Egypt it's less than 50 cents for them to wash and iron something. But still bring soap to wash your undergarments. You will want to wash your own since lots of things are washed by hand in a bucket with other people's things.
My next bit of advice to forewarn you all of, is that when you take a day tour or any tour with an operator, this operator gets a commission for anything you buy in the store they take you to. This is how it goes in places like Turkey, Morocco and Egypt. If you don't want to pay jacked up prices on things then you must shop alone. You can haggle a good price. I bought a great 18k gold Isis pendant because someone told me it was cheaper at the airport. If you tell merchants this, they will give you the big fat discount you want. The Isis at the airport was $98 dollars. Merchants were quoting me between $140 to $165. Papyrus was also a good quality at the airport and quite cheap as well. Shopping bargains were beads (for jewelry making). Precious and semi precious were a steal. Findings were very hard to find though. Scarves and pashminas were cheap also. Silver jewelry was a good price. Usually you're finding pure silver not the cheap sterling that you find in abundance here. It is also very heavy. So be careful when buying gifts for others. Essential oils were a deep bargain as well. If you like Egyptian art you can find beautiful reliefs and papyrus for great prices. If you're a mask fan, you will be disappointed. The Nubian masks are really poorly made. You may find one that suits you though. Shoes and clothing are tat. Lots of junk so don't waste your time. Table cloth and sheets sets were a good bargain as well. Table cloth sets were gorgeous but I opted to pass up on this. I prefer polyester, so I don't have to fart around with stains. You just Shout it out and stick it it in the wash machine. And lastly the drugs are cheaper too. I stocked up on antibiotics. And got some Xanax for my flight back. I got a little anxious on my flight out there, but then it could have been from watching 3 episodes of 24 that got me going. Antibiotics were around 2 and 4 dollars. LOL Whatever your addiction, you can stock up here. Sorry, I didn't check for prices on Vicodin or Viagra folks.
This was a do it yourself trip for me. Even though I did have a contact person there in Cairo I planned it my self. Using
Trip Advisor and the net as my bible, I fared well. Basic accomodations in Upper Egypt were about 12 dollars for a basic room with clean sheets and air conditioning. You can't book these online using Expedia or Orbitz etc but you have to book them yourself using a booking agent. Then email them to confirm and save the confirmations to show them at check in. Request hotel pick up with the hotel. It is cheaper to order the pick up through the hotel. Take a few sheets of paper with you so that the person you book a day tour with, can write down the details if they can't print it out for you. I spoke with some tourists who were disappointed that they didn't get an English speaking tour guide with them when getting a private tour to some temple or tomb they booked. Their hotel ordered a driver in a nice air conditioned car but he didn't speak English and there was no guide at the Temple site. Wow, it could have been me. Also do not go on an overnight or two day felucca trip without asking if there are toilets and showers on it. I saw feluccas in Cairo. Doesn't look like there was a toilet or shower on board. And you CAN NOT go or swim in the Nile. You will get schistosomiasis. If you saw the Grey's Anatomy penis fish episode you'll know it's unpleasant to have a parasite inside you.
Also know that things run like many places in Europe. Slow motion. Going into a restaurant can be frazzling. If you tell your waiter that you are in a hurry for a play or show or tour they may speed things up. Tell them that you would like your drinks first and what you'd like to order if you don't want to be sitting there forever. When the food arrives if you know you wont be having dessert ask for your bill at that time as well. Everywhere I went when they'd say just a couple minutes I was surely waiting for 30 or 40. This is how it is. I tell you this because you will need to allow yourself enough time to see all the things you want. They don't like to disturb people while they are dining so they stay away so you can be undisturbed. They stay away too long so you have to wave them down. Do this by waiving (like you're waiving hi and avoid snapping fingers or pointing with finger for attention, it's rude in some countries).
Then before dinner one day, I went to an Internet cafe to have my photos transferred to disk, it took the guy almost an hour to get his one computer running to start the project. (Only one computer worked for photo transfer) I was furious. I would have done this at night when I wasn't in a hurry or hungry. They mostly all do it and there's nothing you can do about it, except go with the flow and take a book or I-Pod or check your email while you're waiting.
Another thing that I've discovered out there is that people, mostly guys, will not say, "I don't know". They'll give you wrong information but won't say, "I don't know". (I'm seeing a world wide pattern here). Anyway. I decided to ask a half dozen people along the way, where a certain restaurant was before taking some long hike. I asked a hotelier about this and asked why they do it. He said it's because we are ashamed to say, "I don't know". All righty then!
Before you depart from home, go to a place that sells you foreign currency. I found one downtown and pre ordered my small tipping bills before my trip. I got a giant wad full of small bills. 50 piaster notes and 1, 5 and 10 pound notes. Then I went to a cash station with my debit card and got the bigger bills once there. One giant tip is when using ATM's use a numeric pin number. I made the mistake of having a card with a word pin. I didn't remember the numeric version so I had to use a strangers cell phone to figure it out.
Buy a Menatel phone card as soon as possible. These yellow phones are everywhere in all of Egypt. Call to tell your hotel what time you'll be arriving to avoid losing your room. Call to confirm a restaurant reservation. Call your driver. Get his/her mobile number in case you can't find your car at parking lot. Also write your tour bus/van/car license number down. License plates are in Arabic.
Learn a few words of Egyptian Arabic. You can find them online and download a sample mp3 on your computer and listen to it. This is all you'll need. Yes. No. Please and Thank you. It doesn't cost anything and it goes a long way. Be polite and learn and say thank you where ever you go.
Drink bottled water. But you can drink the ice cold sodas at any American chain restaurant. The water is filtered. I drank Cokes at TGIF's, Hard Rock Cafe, McDonalds and KFC. No tummy trouble. NO I didn't eat at McDonalds or KFC!, just ran in to get a soda and wash my hands after petting a camel.
If you take a digital camera there are places all over that will put your photos on disk for about a quarter. Disk included. Bring your own if you're worried about the quality of the disk. The one I got from them worked fine. Just bring a couple jewel cases for your cd's if you do. You'll just get a paper case from the internet cafe's here and well if you want to keep it from getting damaged you can buy cases cheap in Cairo but if you bring them that'll save you the time of trying to find out who sells them and where.
Boredom prevention items are 1. i-Pod (don't forget your charger) and 2. a book or magazine. I downloaded the entire 5th season of 24. OMG that was brilliant and thrilling. Great season Kiefer! It was great entertainment whilst waiting in airport terminals, and waiting for tours to start. Great for the airplane too and the long drives in the Arabian desert. There's nothing to see in the desert except sand and more sand. This is not a scenic drive to the Sudan border. It's also fun to bring the car adapter. You never know when you'll find some fun driver who won't mind listening to your Sean Paul, Christina Aguilera or Shakira songs. (They love Shakira). I had some good fun sharing my songs with the Egyptians. The i-Pod also kept photos of my family and boyfriend. So you can show any new friend you meet your family or loved ones in just a few seconds. The i-Pod earbuds also come in handy for blowing off the hawkers. They're everywhere. They will walk up and down the street or they're outside their shop asking you where you're from and come inside. If it looks like you're jammin', they give up quicker.
I met some new friends from Egypt, the U.K. and Sri Lanka out there. Egyptians are really nice people and you don't feel like when you're taking a walk through some dark, poor residential neighborhood that you're going to get cut or mugged or both, like you might in Chicago, New York, Las Vegas, New Orleans, L.A. or Miami. I felt so safe among them. They are family people like you and me. Maybe more than you and me. They are good pious folks who value human life and like American's. If you saw Babel, you'll see an example of how caring people in north Africa are. Like the bus driver who took the gun shot American woman to his village to care for her. And he stayed there til the end. They are genuine caring people who want nothing more than to make you happy and safe. They take pride in their cooking and they sure do it well. The food was so good, I put on 5 pounds. And I hate food since I've returned. It's hard to find good food after a trip like that. I've been going to posh places to take the edge off. LOL Fruit is so fresh out there. I now know what a real orange is supposed to taste like. Don't get me started with the strawberries. I ate so much fresh fruit and I'm so chokked full of vitamins, that I'm the only one at work that didn't get a spring head cold in the last two weeks, which everyone got. I had a great time and I loved walking around in mid 80 degree weather. In Chicago I was knackered after walking around in the Botanical gardens for two hours in 80 degree Chicago heat. I came home and slept for two hours. Hmmmmmmmmm. In Cairo I'd be on my feet for 12 hours and still have the energy to go to the Hard Rock Cafe for dancing at 11. Guess I'm Cleopatra at heart! In the end I saw 2 and 3000 year old tombs and places. Places more awesome than the pyramids at Giza. I saw some great hieroglyphs and sarcophagus' statues. The colossi of Memnon was giant. Karnak/Thebes and Philae temples spellbinding. Folks, my recommendation is just GO! It's a cake walk. Signs are in both Arabic and English. You can navigate on your own. Trust me. It's do able. If you're healthy and have two good legs just GO. Get your visa before going if at all possible, so you can just leave the airport ASAP and to avoid long lines at the visa counter where most people go to get them upon arrival.