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Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Egypt Part 4 - The Great Pyramids & The Sphinx at Giza and Cairo and its "Egyptian Museum".

(...Continued from Egypt Part 3)

As we came out of the Western Desert and approached Giza the difference couldn’t have been more stark to what we’d seen over the previous week: the cars whizzed by and tooted incessantly and unnecessarily, the city of Cairo sprawled out in front of us and the smog choked the air leaving a hazy stale yellow cloud above the city. The haze was so thick, we could barely see ‘The Great Pyramids’ that we’d heard would dominate the Giza skyline. Eventually we did get to see them in passing...again...

and again...

...and again as we got a little bit lost trying to find the right route to the campsite – “Salma Camp.”

Salma Camp was no oasis, but it did the job – hot water has proved enough for a place to get my endorsement. There were a few other caravans and 4X4 campers interesting bunch actually: there was a wheelchair-bound British guy doing the route down the African east coast all on his own; there was an elderly Scottish couple bombing around in their Range Rover and doing their bit for the Scottish Alzheimer’s sufferers (I think it was Alzheimer Scotland – Action on Dementia - but I can’t be sure...and I mean that genuinely, not as some smart-ass joke about Alzheimer’s); there were also a couple of guys with cameras and a scantily clad model flashing various body parts...disappointingly, I never saw this but some of the other guys told me that they’re pretty sure this was part of a “romantic film for one” being produced on the site.

Not to get sidetracked, it was time for a “truck clean” on that beautiful sunny afternoon. I was gutted that Kenji and I were on cook group that night and had to leave the truck clean to the others and do an arduous cook group shop in town...

Truck cleans have happened regularly (roughly once a month) on the trip and normally take a morning or afternoon to complete. All the pots and pans are made spotless, the truck is cleared out, swept and all of the lockers are emptied, blitzed and re-organised. This is of particular importance when passing through the Tropics where the truck’s “kitchen” can quickly and easily become a breeding ground for germs.

As you can imagine, Kenji and I were thrilled that the truck clean hadn’t yet finished by the time we’d returned from the cook group shop so we were able to join in with the cleaning...and as soon as the truck clean was over, we were cooking up another one of the Kenji & AK fusion dishes: southern fried chicken with tempura vegetables.

We put on a good feed that night – not just for the rest of the gang, but also for the swarms of mozzies that seemed to love that campsite...and our blood. No joke, the place was teeming with them. So much so that the next morning, I opened up the flysheet and close to fifty of the little bastards rolled dead into the tent. Seemed a little weird getting so many of them after a relative respite (res-Bite) in Ethiopia and Sudan, but then again, there was a rancid canal right outside the back entrance to the campgrounds complete with a bloated and fetid donkey carcass. 

After a breakfast of champions (cereal with REAL milk rather than just the powdered stuff for once) we were off to see the Pyramids. Marjane took us there in the truck but due to a few diversions along the way, we didn't make it to the queue in time to get one of the 150 tickets to get inside the world's largest pyramid - The Great Pyramid - built by Pharaoh Khufu. If we did want to go in that day, we had to wait for the next batch of tickets to become available after lunch. Instead of waiting half a day, we snapped up some of the tickets for the smallest of the three 'Great Pyramids' (the one built by Pharaoh Menkaure) at a cost of 30 Egyptian Pounds (5USD) on top of the general site entrance fee of 60 Egyptian Pounds (10USD). There were a few grumbles about having to settle for the smallest one and a few more about how we couldn’t actually see the Pyramids because of the smog (which soon lifted over the course of the morning) but regardless, we took off to investigate these majestic ancient monuments. However...

We did it with a difference...

Not satisfied with just going to see them in our shorts and vests like all the other tourists, we reprised our Sheikh roles from Son’s birthday party back in Aswan and went dressed as Arabs – fully kitted out in our jellabiyas and keffiyehs. It was the Skommel Bros and Berber Dave who started it off and for a long time it looked like it would just be the three of them. I was hesitant at first as I didn’t want to offend the locals but in a last minute change of heart, I dived back into the truck pulled the gear out from the bottom of my locker and resurrected my role as Abu Hassan. As I did so, silent nods of understanding were shared with Ronaldo and Kenj and three Arabs became six. Before long, the entire gang was in Arab get-up and we felt like kings pharaohs

It just. 

Looking back out over Giza with the back of the Sphinx in the middle distance on the left.

Contrary to my concerns, the locals loved it and it was a constant ice-breaker with touts and tourists alike. With all of us climbing down from the truck (emblazoned with “London to Istanbul via Cape Town”) right outside the Pyramids, at one point it seemed like more people were taking photos of us than of the Pyramids. 

The locals loved our Arab attire.

The truck was parked right outside The Pyramids and got just as much attention.

"We built this city!"

"The Sphinx" at Giza

Pyramids? Whatever man.

A romantic gesture between two geezers (Berbs & Skommel Sr.).

We took our time to explore the site for a couple of hours before piling on to the truck again to take off to a car park at the bottom end of the site (down by The Sphinx). As if we couldn’t get any cooler, Son hit the truck’s stereo (at that point in time, my iPod) and failing to find The Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian”, put on “We built this city (on rock ‘n’ roll)” by Starship....very loudly. Lacking in any kind of Egyptian connection, it wasn’t quite as apt as The Bangles’ classic, but it worked. We felt awesome and we looked awesome. I’m pretty sure that at that moment in time, the several thousand other tourists at the Pyramids wanted to be us. 

The truck pulled up at the car park by the Sphinx and Kenj and I went to “‘ave a butcher’s” whilst the others went to find a decent place to take in a coffee and a shisha. After a few snaps of the legendary monument and fending off gangs of kids asking to take our photo with our cameras (and asking for our money for the pleasure), we wondered back to join the others.

Party time on the truck roof with the music still blaring out.

We made loose plans to “meet them at the best-looking shisha house they could find near KFC” and as soon as we neared KFC, we had no trouble seeing them. The Skommel Bros had draped the South African flag over the side of the terrace bar they were at and Marjane and a few of the others were waving. For anybody that's interested, the name of the place was Albadawia Cafe & Restaurant and we were told that the terrace provided prime viewing of the Giza 'Sound & Light Show' but without the fee!

Over coffee, everybody was beaming. I don’t think it was really spoken about, it just seemed like everybody wanted the sense of elation to just fill the air for a while of its own accord. We’d spent the morning marvelling and being marvelled at. After anywhere between two and nine months on the truck, it was the end of the road for some and the last true African landmark for all of us. We’d reached The Great Pyramids and the experience there really didn’t disappoint. I just don’t know if it was the place itself or the circumstances. 

What a morning. 

Another trip highlight.

Back at camp, Spence and Skommel Jr (Hendrik) cooked us up some fantastic burgers. I don’t know if it was Spence’s veggie burger cooking skills or (Skommel’s accusations of) Spencer’s meat sabotage, but that night we could have all been converted to herbivores. After grub, those that were willing to face the mozzie onslaught spent the night shooting the breeze either in the bar or on one of the campsite’s picnic benches.

The next day we darted off into the heart of Cairo for a week long stay over at the ‘Sun Hotel’ on Talaatharb Street by 'El Tahrir Square' (now famous as the 'Million Man March' on Feb 1st 2011) – a satisfactory little place with free wi-fi that had us bloggers salivating. The only downside was that the hotel was situated on the 9th floor of an 11 storey building. If you couldn’t squeeze into the tiny elevators and weren’t patient enough to wait for it to go up and come back down, you had to give your calves a workout.

After leaving Giza early to avoid the notorious Cairo traffic, we arrived at about 8am. The hotel was very well situated: there was a large, empty but secure parking lot within 5 minutes from the place, so the truck could stay there for the duration; we were less than ten minutes’ walk from the Egyptian Museum and we had my favourite shisha den in the whole of Africa right around the corner. This was going to be a good week...

Kenj, Pat, Son, Saffer Rob (Skommel Sr.) & I chilling in my favourite shisha den in the whole of Africa.
Once we’d settled in to the hotel , my room buddies (Son, The Skommelers, Kenji and Rob D) ventured out into the city...somewhere along the way we bumped into Berbs who had made a dash from the truck to go straight to the museum earlier that morning, (except it was only 8am when he left and nobody had told him the museum didn’t open til 9am!). 

We wondered around a bit, doing our best to fend off the touts – all of them opening with the “I’m just here to help a tourist” approach but inevitably finishing with the hard sell. After a small bout of indecisiveness (that only those who have ever tried wondering a city in a group larger than two people will know about), Son, the Skommelers and I caught a taxi to Zamalek (an apparently affluent and therefore, ‘swanky’ Cairo district) whilst Rob D and Berbs explored the unknown on foot.

The Skommel Bros had a ‘playboy/jetset’ cousin (or at least, that’s how his enviable lifestyle sounded) who had recommended the Zamalek district and in particular, a little-known bar called “Abou El Sid”. The taxi driver dropped us off at a spot he said was ‘right outside’ the place but when we couldn’t find it, we put the curse of King Tut upon him as we wondered aimlessly trying to find this seemingly mythical restaurant.

After doing a full circle of the area, we were back where we had been dropped off and looking back and forth between each other and the street sign saying “Abou El Sid” attached to a building with a clean but non-descript facade. Within seconds, the big studded doors that looked more at home on the Castle of Grayskull creaked open and a big Egyptian fella, having no doubt seen the confused look on our faces, asked “restaurant? Abou El Sid? Come! Come!

As a marketing guy, I kind of felt like such a place could be doing a little bit more promotion, but when we got inside, I figured out what it was all about. The whole ‘non-descript’ thing was all about keeping out the riff-raff (like us). The place had stunning traditional Egyptian decor and was full of a good blend of (mainly male) clientele that would have looked just as at home at an Egyptian gangster get-together as at a global peacetalk. How’s that for irony?

With such a secretive entry to the place (I wouldn’t be surprised if it has a secret knock next time I visit) and in this sort of company, I felt like James Bond...and when we heard the price of a Stella here, I very nearly fell to the floor clutching my chest like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. After recovering from the 31 Egyptian Pound per beer shock (that’s 5.3USD at time of writing), we decided the ambiance was worth it and ordered four, and since we were splashing out, we added the best shisha we’d tried yet to the bill. We went back to the hotel feeling thoroughly relaxed and kind of smug at having escaped the boisterousness of the city for the best part of the afternoon. We’d found a real gem that day (Jewel of the Nile, anybody???) and I’d highly recommend it to anybody visiting Cairo and needing an escape from kebabs, kushari and clamour.

The next day, we took off to the Egyptian Museum (60 Egyptian Pounds / 10USD) in a small troop and as soon as were inside, decided to split up and do our own thing – there was LOADS to see and it made sense to just take it all in on your own, spending more time on the exhibits that you find interesting rather than moving along as a group and skipping something you like or dwelling on something you don’t. 

As with "The Valley of the Kings" and "Abu Simbel", photography in the museum was forbidden but key highlights included: 
It was truly amazing in there, but there was just so much to take in and sadly, whilst it had some of the world's most important discoveries, it didn’t have the organisation to match. Admittedly, there were thousands of exhibits (there was a quote - apparently from the Lonely Planet - being retold over and over again that "if you allowed one minute to see each of the exhibits on public display. it would still take you 9 months to see everything") but you were lucky to find up-to-date labels on anything; there were artefacts missing (mostly because they were ‘on tour’, but some just didn’t appear where they were supposed to and there was no explanation why). There didn’t seem to be a designated/suggested ‘route’ around the rooms and halls. This made for chucklesome entertainment as you joined the rank and file of zombie-like tourists meandering aimlessly between the museum’s columns. Finally, there were the brazen toilet attendants demanding a tip immediately underneath the “do not tip the toilet attendants” sign.

Over the next couple of days everybody split up into smaller groups and did their own thing: a couple of people took the train to Alexandria; one afternoon a few of us took a 20 minute taxi ride towards the airport to visit the “City Stars” mall where we got our fix of Western influence (it sounds sad, but remember it had been a while for most of us); another morning we got walaid by a friendly guy offering us directions to the market who (predictably) ended up taking us to his shop ('The Lotus Palace' on Sha'rawy Street) and selling us some perfumes – which we were assured were better than the CK, YSL or Gucci ones that smelt the same as they were essences as opposed to extracts...or is that the other way around? We came away with the added bonus of learning a new phrase in Arabic: I'm not sure of the correct spelling, but the phnoetic spelling is "Anna mish kawagHa" which we were told means "I'm not a f**king tourist." A good one to use on the touts!

If we weren't out and about, we were up on the roof of the hotel at night taking the city's very own complimentary sound and light show. (The roof was also the spot where a couple of people whilst under the influence of some local delights, turned off the MASSIVE neon Coca-Cola names need be mentioned except Pasta and Rasta.)

Cairo by night.
The rooftop Coca-Cola sign that got turned off.

Cairo was also the place where the Skommel Brothers decided to end their northward journey from Jo’burg. For their last night (1st December) we were joined by a Canadian guy called Wes (whom they'd met at Lake Malawi) as we returned to Abou El Sid and splashed out on a selection of Egyptian dishes that I guess, closely resembled ‘mezes’. The same sort of clientele that we’d seen there the previous occasion were there again, but this time sprinkled with a few arrogant expats/travel journalist-looking guys (probably from The Telegraph) scoffing at our appearance and very presence in a place like this. The locals on the other hand, didn’t batter an eyelid.

To accompany the Egyptian feast, we had a couple of shishas, a good few beers and a healthy side order of laughs. Afterwards we stopped off at the shisha house next to the KFC next to our hotel (I would tell you the name if I could read the Arabic sign!) and had our customary coffee and shisha before bed...

Mid to late morning the next day we bid “Bon Voyage!” a les freres Skommelle who had provided quality company, great banter and good humour (not always intended) for their part of the trip and even before they joined us (when we stumbled across them in Uganda). We missed you boneheads after you left...arguments will never be the same unless they’re in Afrikaans and sound like somebody’s hawking up a furball.

But as they say, out with the old and in with the new - the same day the Skommel Bros left us, Pat's girlfriend Tanja joined us for the final six weeks of the trip and a direct descendent of Santa Claus joined us too...Elisa from Finland.

Elisa had a nice welcome to life in Africa when her luggage was held up at the airport...we were due to leave the next morning and couldn't hang around so Elisa (joined by Pat and Tanja) made plans to stay a little while longer in Cairo with a view to catch up with us for some SCUBA diving in Dahab...but that's after we visit Mount Sinai!


1 comment:

  1. Ah, it stops! I'm signed up for the 2011 London-Istanbul trans and this blog has done more than anything else to prepare me for what's coming. I've read it beginning to end over the course of about a week, I hope you put up the last bit before I leave ... in three weeks!