Region: Africa >> Egypt
Travel time: 2010, December 30th to 2011, January 11th
Picture Gallery: Link
To be invited into a foreign country and not worry about anything except the flight to get in is certainly something great. What if, however, your friend does not pick you up from the airport and you end up doing a two week trip completely on your own without even seeing him once? Keep on reading to follow my journey between Cairo and Dahab, one of the most memorable trips I’ve had so far.
I’m sitting in the train to the Airport in Frankfurt and for the first time ever, I will begin a trip without planning every detail beforehand. The reason is my friend Mustafa, who invited me to visit him and his family in Cairo, including an all-inclusive treatment by himself and his cousin, who owns a travel agency there. I walk towards the main hall of the airport to meet up with an American friend, who is actually on the same plane to Cairo – a very pleasant coincidence. Seat 28A offers me some nice views out of the window and I pass the time reading a new book.
It is already dark as we touch down and I’m supposed to meet Mustafa now, but he is nowhere to be seen in the Arrival hall. I give him a call – unanswered. Might be a problem with my German phone, so I borrow a local one – without any luck as well. My friend is also picked up by a friend and we are starting to worry that Mustafa will not show up at all. Patiently waiting for about an hour, we then decide that I should join their group to celebrate New Years on Moon Beach about two hours south east from Cairo. I’m incredible lucky that we were on the same plane and to get the lift into the city. I keep ringing Mustafa while we drive to the city center, but eventually give up as it is getting late.
Not too late for us though, turns out that we are directly heading to a private party from one of the my friends friend friend. I meet a lot of interesting people there and am surprised about the fact that nearly everyone speaks perfect English. We have a great time and eventually head back to an old flat in the night. Spotting the Arabic numbers on the door confuses me, as a 7 looks like a 1 for instance. I receive some lessons in Arabic before we eventually call it a day and go to bed.
It’s New Year’s Eve and it will be a very special one compared to the last years in Frankfurt. The Arabic world does not actually celebrate it on the 31st of December, so in general it will be very quiet for us. We are driving down to the moon beach resort on the Sinai Peninsula and will have nothing but a bonfire, BBQ and the stars in the night sky to celebrate the special occasion. The Resort seems empty and we are the only guests in there. I am finally able to reach Mustafa for the first time and he tells me that his brother was involved into a car accident and he has to care of him and the car for a few days. I wish him the best of luck and we decide to meet up in Sharm-el-Sheik.
I’m meeting up with the rest and we join another group to have some drinks first before heading down to the beach. The resort set up a huge grill and spread candles in the sand, which made up for a real nice atmosphere. The food is delicious and I have a couple of plates before heading to the big bonfire to count down the last seconds of 2010. The fire was lit up even more and I film everything, just to accidentally delete it again a couple of hours later, as the preview picture was just black and I thought it was a picture taken with the lens cap on – shit happens.
The next morning brings a lot of sun and it is very hot compared to yesterday. We take a swim in the ocean and then head back to the closest village on one of the main routes going from Cairo in the north to Sharm-el-Sheik in the south. My friend’s friend helps me to purchase the bus ticket, since nobody was able to talk English in the shop. It’s time to say goodbye and while the rest is heading back to Cairo, I will make my way down south and hope that my non existing Arabic will not cause me any problems.
The bus ride takes about five hours and costs around two dollars. That’s the price you pay to drive in a bus which actually has some holes on the side, for example in the seat I am occupying at this moment. Having a constant flow of fresh air right next to me is not a bad thing though, considering the fact that it is brutally hot right now. It is eight and I finally arrive in Sharm-el-Sheik without any clue where to go. Mustafa was supposed to pick me up again and once more, he is not around. Its dark and I am far away from the city center apparently – the bus dropped us at some sort of petrol station outside the city and now everyone seems to get picked up by cars. What about me??
Realizing that I need to find a way into the city, I scan through the people leaving the bus and get in contact with the only English speaking person. His name is Mohamed and turns out to be an extremely nice and helpful person. Not only does he offer me a ride to the city, but he also has a spare Egyptian SIM card with him which I can now call mine. I use it instantly to call up Mustafa, who is still stuck in Cairo to handle some problems with the insurance of the car. We will meet up tomorrow morning instead and I have to stay in Sharm for a night. Finding a place without any booking turns out to be rather complicated though and I end up in a very shabby hotel. The hotel wants to charge me a ridiculous amount to leave my big backpack behind while I would check out the beach, so I pack up everything instead and head down to the street to get a first orientation.
I come across a Russian girl and she ends up escorting me all the way down to the beach, which is about 15 minutes away! All I asked for was the right direction but she insisted to walk me there. The luck in terms of meeting the right people really seems to be on my side so far. She also gives me the advice that I can leave my luggage at a local police hut right at the beach while I go out to buy food. I follow the advice; get everything I need including snorkeling equipment for the great reefs along the beach and set up my camp to wait for Mustafa.
After hours of waiting, Mustafa is still not here and the day slowly begins to fade away. I jump into the sea for another round of snorkeling in the bizarre and wonderful world under water, glimpsing back to my little corner from time to time to see if anyone is coming too close to my stuff. Still no word from my “friend” and I eventually pack up my stuff after a police guy told me to get the hell out of here, it already feels like home! I have some Kebab sticks for dinner with two Germans that came across the beach earlier and check into a hostel. Being the only person in my room, I still have a lot of company: About 50 mosquitoes make sure to keep me awake and I only get about an hour of sleep after becoming so tried from chasing and killing about 45 of them. The remaining five keep surring around my ear as I surrender myself to them.
The horrible night is followed by an awful breakfast in some kind of backyard: A plain Naan with an Egg and disgusting tea. Nice! I’m quickly out of the so called hostel and walk down to the bus station to buy myself a ticket to Dahab. It works and I’m happy that some people can talk enough English to sell me the ticket. A quick phone call later I slowly start to doubt that Mustafa will come at all, he just told me that he won’t make it before tonight in Dahab for yet another delay. But hey who needs him if you meet some cool people along the way? “There is a great backpacker hostel in Dahab and it’s very cheap”, says a girl from Austria, who traveled in the same bus. I reply with “Sounds great, but hopefully my friend will pick me up tonight so I won’t need to check in there”. However, having the possibility of another postpone-call from Mustafa in mind, I decide to check it out with her and see how her two-dollar room looks like.
The very open and welcoming manager of the seven heaven’s hostel asks me if I would like to have a juice and even though I tell him that I do not plan to stay here, he still insists to have the drink as he shows us the facilities. The lobby is full with backpackers from all over the world and they even have a guitar there! The rooms look amazing as well for the ridiculous cheap price and I do not hesitate to book the last remaining bed for myself in a 6-bed dorm.
I immediately start to meet a lot of people and head out to check out the area around the hostel. The beach is just around the corner and it turns out that Dahab is THE place to be for diving and snorkeling – can’t wait to get into the water in the morning! Karim and yet another Mohamed from Cairo are two of the guys I met in the lobby yesterday and they join us to check out the Blue Hole of Dahab, which is the deepest of its kind (130m) and also the diving spot with the highest death rate, because divers over estimate their skills in the attempt of diving through a tunnel located at 56m of the hole. “You better hold on tight.” says the driver of our 4×4 jeep and the ride turns out to be a highlight for itself, very fast and bumpy – just the way I like it.
Once there, we are assigned to our own private chill out area and soon start snorkeling. It’s a bummer that I don’t know how to dive yet, but Mustafa apparently organized a course for us in Hurghada… if he should ever show up. We drive back after five hours and I’m looking forward to the evening program as one of the girls from the Hostel/Diving school just passed her exam as an instructor and she now has to pass one final test as part of their ritual, drinking a lot of alcohol out of a snorkel in a short time.
Tuesday starts very early for me, It’s just 1 AM and I need to get ready for something I was looking forward to since the beginning of the trip: climbing Mount Sinai and witness the sunrise on the spot where Moses received the ten commandments. Mohamed joins me for the trip and we pack some Stella beer to hopefully celebrate reaching the top later. There are a lot of people lining up to walk the mountain, it is actually a big tourist draw and good source of money for the locals by offering Camel rides, blankets and gloves for those who came unprepared.
I’m in a good shape conditionally and eventually outpace the rest which allows me to take longer breaks to stare at the night sky. I spot at least a dozen amazingly long shooting stars on the brightest sky I ever witnessed in my life. Staring at the same spot for 20 seconds or so allows my eyes to adept to the sight and suddenly the whole sky is just covered with them and there is barely any black left in between anymore, I am both stunned and extremely happy to witness this live as I have not imaged just how great climbing up the mountain would be under these circumstances.
Arriving just in time for the very first signs of the sunrise at 5:30 AM, both of us are freezing cold and neither would even think about opening up the cold beer to celebrate. We are also very tired and therefore just wait, hoping that the sunrise will be both visually good and physically warming. It takes a full hour until the sun finally pops up on the horizon and all the torture on the -15 °C cold summit was worth it, this is truly the nicest sun rise I have ever seen! It is also getting warmer now from minute to minute and we spent another full hour on the summit before heading down. “You will be left on your own now if you decide to stay longer” are the last words from our guide as he vanishes to catch up with the rest of the groups. We don’t care and rather go down on our own to have some more warming sun, and finally, our well-deserved Stella.
The descent offers some great views on the surrounding mountains and ends in a visit of Saint Catherine’s Monastery before our driver takes us back to Dahab. We are chilling out in the lounge and I enjoy yet another great meal from the kitchen of the hostel while getting in contact with Mustafa again. He tells me that he got into a car accident himself now and that he can’t make it down to the south of Egypt anymore – we will meet in Cairo instead.
Getting there will be no problem, because both of my new companions will drive back tomorrow morning and offered me to join them. Karim is also able to host me in his house while Mohamed has some more days of holiday and will show me the city. It’s an ideal position for me and I can’t believe I much luck I had during this trip! The only thing that I have to sacrifice for my lift to Cairo is learning how to dive, but I will have time to do that in the future.
Time passes quickly during our journey to Cairo and a nice sunset awaits us as we are stuck in a traffic jam of this gigantic city, home to about 17 million people. Mustafa just called to let me know that he has to catch a flight back to Germany in the morning, so I will not meet him at all as unfortunately expected. We drop of Mohamed and head back to Karim’s flat, which he shares with his uncle. “Leave the stuff here, our house boy will take it up” he says, as I wanted to carry some bags upstairs. Besides carrying stuff, the boy also takes care of other tasks such as buying groceries – apparently this is normal here to my surprise.
Karim does not feel well the next morning and decides to stay home to rest while I meet up with Mohamed to check out the pyramids in Giza. We grab some breakfast in a very dodgy side street close to the Tahir Square and it pays out to have a local around as the food is actually very cheap and tasty, no tourist would ever find this place. Heading to the pyramids next, he makes sure that we are getting a good price for our horses and off we go! It’s my first time as an adult on a horse and even if the guide explains us the basic commands, these horses are trained to listen to him. Galloping turns out to be a lot of fun, in contrary to the unpleasant trotting.
Mixed feelings accompany me as I am riding along the sandy dunes. In front of me are these 4500 year old magical structures of unbelievable architectural work and behind me a wall that separates the pyramids from the rest of the spreading city. It would be much nicer if you had to travel half an hour through the desert to get to the pyramids, but anyway… it’s still great to be out here!
After passing some camels and their owners and repetitive denying any photograph offers from them, we reach the smallest of the three pyramids and climb up the first couple of steps. This is tolerated here, but not on the other two bigger pyramids, unless you are willing to bribe the police with a good tip and you have the condition to climb to the top.
We arrive at the great pyramid of Giza after 30 minutes on our horses and pay off the guide. Being free to walk now, we check out the Sphinx with her missing nose as well – it’s really cool to be so close to these famous buildings of human mankind. We’re not going inside the tombs of the pyramid though, as Mohamed tells me that it is not really worth the money and waiting time. Instead, we head down to some minor tomb in the area and all we see at the end of the corridor is an empty room and some paintings on the walls. I’m lucky that I did not pay for that!
It is getting late and we decide to head back downtown. Arriving at a busy street, several mini buses are passing us and a few moments later, Momahmed asks me “Are you ready, Chris?”. I am a bit confused, but tell him “Yes! for what?” and he just tells me that “we have to jump into the next bus”. Easier said than done, because the bus does not slow down a lot and I barely make it on board in after him. Certainly a fun way to travel around.
Getting off at some stop in the city, we walk for another ten minutes to reach a garage. Mohamed left his car here yesterday to get some repairs done and once again, I see a young boy doing all the hard work – this really turns into a routine! However, it only takes 30 minutes of driving until the car suddenly breaks down again in the middle of the road and we have to push it to the side. Seems like the boy still has a lot to learn…
Luckily one of Mohamed’s friends is around to pick us up. His car is very small and my legs are squeezed behind the driver seat, but at least we can get out of here. Mohamed is completely relaxed about the whole situation and does not even seem to car that his car broke down again. “I will pick it up tomorrow, don’t worry” he says and we get out on the street to get some drinks in a bar. Such a cool and friendly guy!
Two more friends of Mohamed meet us and we drive out to see Cairo from it’s highest point: Mokattam Hills. It’s dark already and most of the city is covered in smog, so the sight is not really impressive. However, it is nice to get out of the big city for once. We come across some local young people, illegally drinking alcohol in public and having a BBQ. They ask us to join them and we kindly accept. After a while, I suggest that we should “get some more beer!” and off we go to get them in the next supermarket.
After driving for a couple of minutes without any supermarket in sight, I ask Mohamed if he knows the way and he replies that “… we are not going back there. What they do is illegal and we could go into jail with them if the police will catch us.” This is a huge cultural difference to western Europe and even though I’m sad about not going back, it is certainly the right call to make! Mohamed drops me off and sadly Karim is still sick, however we are spending another very nice evening at home with his uncle before heading to bed.
I wake up early today and we are able to use Mohamed’s car again to drive to the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. The location offers great views on the city and we have a perfect blue sky to enjoy it. The mosque is also very impressive from the inside and well worth the time we spent there. Crossing the busy street close to it can be very demanding though, as the traffic never seems to stop on the 6 lanes and somehow you need to squeeze your self to the other side.
Traffic in general is just extremely insane in this city. There are no traffic lights, no traffic rules, people drive without light at night and everyone thinks he is the king of the road. Luckily, Mohamed is totally used to it and drives me safely from destination to destination. Our next one is the military museum, which displays the history of Egyptian conflicts, starting from the first Pharaohs and ending in recent history. Interesting but not one of my favorite museums in the world..
After two hours, we decide to drive to the Hanging Church of Cairo. It is one of the oldest in the city named for its location above a gatehouse of Babylon Fortress. My personal highlight though is well hidden behind the church: an amazingly beautiful graveyard with lot’s of impressive graves. Mohamed asks me if I’m hungry and people who know me are aware of the fact that I’m basically always hungry, so we head back downtown to have dinner at Lucille’s. According to the New York Times, this is the best Burger Restaurant in the world and they are proudly presenting their awards inside. The burger turns out to be really good, but certainly not the best I’ve had personally.
It’s my last day in Cairo and Karim is getting better as well. However, he has plans for today and since Mohamed has to go back to work, I will be on my own for the first time in Cairo. I walk to the main street in the area and start to stop taxis in order get to the Egyptian museum. Tourists will usually get ripped of from the drivers here, so I come up with a little trick in order to prevent this from happening from me. Karim told me how much it would usually cost a local to get a taxi from here to the Tahrir Square and I just keep this amount visible in my hands while talking to the driver – he will either take it or leave me.
After two failed attempts, I am lucky and get a cheap ride on the third. The driver is very big and looks like a bull, so I better don’t get into trouble with him! “Here you go” he says in a very bad English after 20 minutes of driving, kindly asking me to get the hell out of his cab now. I can’t see the Square or Museum anywhere though and so I try to explain to him that we are not at my destination yet.
His voice raises and I feel that he is pissed off now. However, I just don’t want to be stranded somewhere and take another cab, so I stay in the car and talk back to him for a minute until he finally starts to drive again. About eight to ten seconds later, we turn around a corner and I can see the museum! I get out before he decides to punch me in the face and am happy to reach my destination.
I’m not allowed to take my camera into the museum, but paying the money to get in here was definitely worth it. They showcase a lot of super interesting stuff, at least if you like the history of Egypt. I spend half the day inside and just decide to skip the holy mummies. Getting inside that area costs more than getting inside the museum in the first place and it just doesn’t seem worth it for me. Getting super close to the The Gold Mask of Tutankhamun is amazing though (and free of extra charge!).
The Saqqara pyramids are next on my ToDo list and this time it does not work to get a good price for a taxi – just too many people going there I guess! Realizing that I don’t have a lot of time left anyway, I decide to go to another cool place instead. The Al-Azhar Park overlooks a huge part of the city and I’m spending the last hours of my time in Cairo here.
My stomach is making me aware of the fact that lunch was quiet some time ago and wants food. However, there is no shop whatsoever anywhere close. All of the sudden, a women next to me asks me if I’m hungry and I can’t believe my eyes: she actually brought her two grand daughters and a massive pot of pasta up here and invites me to join them. I can’t refuse the offer and have a good conversation with them while we eat our food.
It is dark now and I need to get back down town again to meet Mohamed. Getting there means that I have to take one of the bigger taxis on my own and I ask two gentlemen for the quickest way back to the street. They are also very helpful and even give me some money to make sure I have enough. I refused first but then accepted the offer since they insisted twice. Must be my lucky day as I’m actually really low on money now.
Eventually I am reunited with both Mohamed and Karim, sitting in a bar and enjoying drinks with one of their friends from America, who turns out to be a great guy as well. Working as a Journalist and Reporter and also producing his own travel show, he has tons of interesting stories to share and it’s great company for my last night in Cairo.
That’s it! Sorry for the long text, but I had no time to think about shorter versions as I’m actually flying to South America for two months tomorrow morning and I really wanted to get this done before I’m gone. A big THANK YOU to all the people that helped me during this trip, especially Karim and Mohamed! Ah and by the way: My former friend Mustafa still owns me the money for this flight, I guess I will never see it again…