Leaving the Emirates left us yet again a little sad, its difficult to explain a culture that is 50% immigrant. But in the Emirates multiculturalism not just works but thrives. Its amazing to see people from many different religions, backgrounds and countries all living together in absolute harmony. Fair enough, the Indians hate the Pakistani’s, the Pakistani’s hate the Indians, the Bangladeshi’s hate everyone and those from Sri Lanka couldn’t care less if they tried. But the in the United Arab Emirates everyone gets on, works together, lives together and laughs together. It’s almost as if when they checked out of their country they left all the hostility behind. Either that or the fact that the UAE takes a harsh stance on just about everything they realise they have no choice. In any case, it has succeeded where many countries have failed and cultural integration works and not just adds what we love about the Emirates, but makes it what it is. From the sterility of Dubai, the character of Abu Dhabi or the down to earth Sharjah, it still ranks high on our favourite countries in the world and as we left Sharjah Airport on the 0730 Air Arabia to Alexandria we certainly felt a little sad to be leaving.
But, through clear skies we headed to Africa. The view of Saudi Arabia from above was boring and when we touched down in Alexandria on the Northern Coast of Egypt it wasn’t too soon.
Egypt is a country that has changed, here they call it the revolution, and having been to Egypt some 6 years previous I have to agree – Things have certainly changed.
Alexandria is supposedly some amazing coastal city largely missed by most. The airport (Borj el Arab) is about an hour from town.
Turning up at the airport we headed straight for security, being the only foreigners on the plane I knew we needed a visa and so tried to find one. The place was closed and so after a bit of hassle we managed to knock someone up, convince him we were American (despite our British passports) and pay just $15 rather than the UK scam of £15. (A difference of £5 per passport)
Outside the airport the bus drivers of the buses that went to Alexandria tried telling me there were no buses that went to Alexandria and we must take a taxi. I was having none of it and soon enough we were headed, on a bus to Alexandria at almost twice the normal price of LE£10 each.
Egyptian currency has remained very stable against the UK £ since I was last there and it is 10:1. So 10 Egyptian pounds (LE£10) is the same as one British pound (£1)
To be honest what we saw of Alexandria was awful, littered streets, people arguing and a real sense of hostility. It wasn’t a nice place to be, but we were on the outskirts and so can’t really comment on the city proper. From the bus station (Maifa) we took the bus to Cairo. It cost LE£35 per seat and took about 3 hours.
The last time I was in Cairo I spent 7 nights at the Hilton, ventured out once, hated it and spent the rest of the week chilling out by the gorgeous pool. This time we had a reservation in Islamic Cairo and plenty to do on the agenda.
Tahrir Square – Maidan Tahrir, whatever your interpretation you must have been on the moon or seriously ignorant to have not heard that name touted in the news over the last two years. The centre of the Egyptian revolution, a million people protesting against the government and ultimate over throwers, the protesters in Tahrir Square are proof that in a democracy, the people do have the power. The whys and whats are complicated, but essentially people were pissed off with high unemployment, low standards of living and poverty. The previous government had decades to sort the struggle out but did nothing. Over time, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, an extreme Islamic party gained support as they offered the normal Egyptian hope. Despite being illegal the party gained seats in government. Citing that “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law, the prophet is our leader, Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations” Once Murbarak (the ex Egyptian PM) was booted out the party became legal and revamped itself according to a modern party that for the first time in history had a real chance at governing Egypt. The Freedom and Justice party was born and backed completely by the Muslim Brotherhood. The party won the 2012 elections and set about fulfilling promises made and putting Egypt not only on a path of Islam (which it overwhelmingly already was) but also looking after the average man.
Honestly, from my perspective I have noticed 3 prominent differences to my last visit.
The first is litter, the streets are dirty, litter is piled high and everywhere, it really does look like someone has lost control, or people simply aren’t bothered. But actually, that’s the only negative. The second thing is taxi’s, for decades notoriously dodgy black lada’s with a Mercedes Benz badge attached to the bonnet have been the absolute bane of tourists and locals alike. From extortionate fares, to arguments at the end of the journey about what was actually agreed, to going to places they decided you want to go to. They were awful, hated and thankfully are now a minority. Now the streets are filled with white taxis, all of which are metered and though the drivers speak little English, of the ten or so taxis I have taken not a single one has ripped me off (I know because I have been armed with Google maps) Yes the traffic is still awful, yes arriving at your destination is a blessing and near miracle but the fact is LE£10 will get you from one side of the city to another (a quid)
The third thing I have noticed is the overt friendliness of the people. “Welcome” is a very common thing to hear, people asking “do you need anything” or “can I help you” All with no scam attached, just pure friendliness. People have walked out of their way to help us, spent time advising us and warned us of places to avoid (the city is still tense in places) After chatting to a guy called Rami on the metro he invited us to his home for dinner, which overlooks the Pyramids, he suggested we come that night and watch the light show, for free whilst his wife cooked us dinner. I mean, where else in the world would you get that? And I think it’s all down to national pride. Egyptians are proud of who they are, of their country and that you want to visit their country makes them want to welcome you. Undoubtedly, without exception, we have found the inhabitants of Cairo to be the friendliest people we have ever come across, in any city we have ever visited. Which at the last count was near two hundred international cities. Such is the warmth and friendliness of the Cairenes and in many ways it really does make for the whole experience. Not once have we felt threatened, hostility or imminent trouble. We genuinely have been welcomed with open arms by everyone we have come across in the city.
If you was to sit and think of ten historical or global landmarks, you would probably end up drawing the Pyramids. If you then went and showed your ten landmarks to any child in the UK over the age of 7 they would probably recognise the Pyramids first.
The Pyramids of Giza are probably the most iconic, recognisable, historical monuments on earth. In fact, as I sit here I cannot think of a single thing more recognisable, neither can the kids.
Egyptian history has been fascinating people since day one and in their wake they left behind some of the most mysterious landmarks civilisation has ever seen. Some people believe they are so geometrically impossible they were built by aliens. others don’t know or care and archeologists change their mind every decade or so. The current grain of thought is this… Science has proven they were built about 2500BC and were tombs for Pharaohs. One of the seven wonders of the world, how they were constructed baffles even the construction experts of today. Boffins reckon it would take around 100,000 people to construct a Pyramid and Hollywood says these were all slaves. When I was a kid that was also passed off as fact. However, now historians believe that they were built by farmers as part of a nationwide work programme. The Nile is why Egypt exists, that much is fact. During winter it floods, then in summer the dry, salty flooded ground makes for perfect crops. But this would only provide income for the farmers for half of the year. It is reckoned that when the floods came people got skint and so would help bang up Pyramids, using the flooded plains as the perfect means of transport for the hefty blocks required for construction.
Historians will probably change their mind, but what has remained fact ever since the Pyramids were first discovered is their awesomeness. Seriously, few things on earth hold such a ‘wow-factor’ as the pyramids of Giza.
Unfortunately this for most visitors is ruined by the hardcore scams in force.
We took the metro to Giza (LE£1) each and then hopped in a Taxi and were seemingly the first people to ever as for a taxi to the Pyramids. Ask for ‘Taz Ka Het, Sharia al-Haram’ you’re basically asking for the ticket office as close as possible to the pyramids. The driver of course has never heard of probably the most visited place in the whole country and perhaps even Africa and will take you to the Southern end near the Sphinx. Here you will be sold a counterfeit ticket and end up being refused entry. Do not get out of the taxi until you reach the ticket office, no Sphinx in sight, just a Pyramid. When the driver finally realises he wont get paid unless you get to where you know you need to be he will try stopping at all the people on the way waving him down, claiming they are the police. The police in Egypt look like 70’s porn stars and wear complete white. Simply wind the windows up, lock the doors and and tell the driver not to stop. Its not a nice situation to be in as they bang and spit on the car knowing you have sussed them.
Once at the ticket office kids are free, and adults pay LE£60 but try getting free kids tickets. I did and failed having to pay LE£30 each.
None of the guards at the Pyramids wear uniform and the police are as bent as a hairpin. Upon entrance people would grab my arm, aggressively asking me for my ticket. Do not give it to anyone, always keep hold. Once inside the area you do not have to give your ticket to, or pay for entrance to anything other than inside the pyramids. Despite our paths being blocked by people assuring us we had to pay and people getting aggressive that I had hired them as a guide because they pointed me in some direction I never took we paid for nothing. I can fully understand people hating the experience and thats before you talk about the hardcore camel touts claiming they’re riding Charlie Brown and the most handsome Camel in Egypt.
To us they were lame compared to what we had come across in India and so with a smile and a bit of humour we found the experience to be quite manageable. We spent around five hours in the complex, we walked everywhere, to parts most don’t bother with and found isolated places where there was no one else to be found. We climbed, explored, and at one point sat on the sand looking up to a Pyramid, complete silence other than our conversation and laughter. With temperatures around 30 degrees we found it perfect, some 20 degrees below what we had become accustomed to it was great, really. We came across places not even listed in our guide. We found one Pyramid, completely abandoned by everyone else and a guy popped out of no where claiming to be a guard and insisting we went inside. The tiny corridor descended sharply downwards and took us into a tiny tomb area. It was claustrophobic but amazing, almost surreal. As expected on the way out I slipped the guy a couple of quid baksheesh and we went off on our way.
Making our way down to the Sphinx we exited the area and hopped in a taxi back to Giza. Fare each way was about LE£15 (£1.50)
The remainder of the afternoon was spent exploring coptic Cairo, and area with old churches and a really relaxing place. In a country that is run by a Muslim party and is 90% Muslim it felt kind of odd to see Christian buildings in an Islamic country.
But then you only have to look back to the revolution and see the Muslims making a human chain around the Christians protecting them whilst they prayed to realise the tolerance and understanding of these people. It doesn’t take long to realise that though “Welcome” is overused the world over, Cairo is one of the few place where it exudes it’s very meaning. Welcome to Cairo, welcome to Egypt, I hope you enjoy my country.