Hakata and Back

March 16th, 2018 No comments

In order to celebrate Kuniko’s birthday, we had made a plan in February to head to Hakata, a district in the big city of Fukuoka in Kyushu, in order to partake in the food culture there. When someone mentions Hakata, the conversation inevitably leads to food. Being pretty hardcore foodies ourselves we wanted to taste it firsthand. In a sort of coincidental discovery, Kuniko had come across an article on the internet describing a Chinese restaurant in Hakata that served what they called a “dai-rompo” – a bigger version of one of our favorite dim sum dishes, “sho-rompo” (“dai” means big and “sho” means small) so that served as an anchor for the trip.

In advance of the trip in February we booked bullet train tickets and a hotel, and then while trying to make a reservation at the “dai-rompo” restaurant they told us that their Chinese chef was planning a trip home to China for the Chinese New Year, and the restaurant would be closed during our planned visit. We are so serious about food that we rescheduled the bullet train tickets and the hotel, and shifted the whole trip to March, instead.

So it was with great anticipation that we got out of bed very early on Saturday morning and took the first train out to Nishi Akashi station, and then caught a bullet train southwest to the “third” island of Japan, Kyushu.

On the train there was sort of a party atmosphere – most people were traveling for sightseeing and fun – and we couldn’t resist buying a couple of Minoh beers from the passing vendor trolley. We’ve been a fan of Minoh Beer for a long time – Yoshi and I even paid a visit to the tiny brewery for a tour and tasting – so it was sort of an imperative to drink their limited edition pale ale (with cute little bullet trains on the label) while traveling at high speed towards culinary bliss.

Traveling in Japan always feels a little too “easy” for me. We can speak the language, our phones can access the internet at all times, and we are exploring one of the safest countries in the world. So although I get the sense of travel, I also feel a little like we’re just on a regular old shopping trip. Going into Hakata station I felt just like going into Osaka station – except everyone stood on the escalator in the opposite side.

Our first stop was for beef tongue and (another) morning beer at a place right inside the station. Kuniko did all the research for this trip, and she billed this place as one of the only places we could eat and drink before lunchtime near the station (the “and drink” is the important part of this requirement). There was already a pretty long line of people waiting to get in, so we lined up and put in some waiting time. The tongue was great – sliced into thin strips and grilled, with some local side dishes and slices of lemon. We negotiated the dishes without the rice (which is apparently an unusual request) and then dug in. The “morning beer” turned out to be a tiny beer served in the morning, so we ended up with another round of those, and then we were feeling damn good walking out of the restaurant and ready to explore a new city.

Fukuoka (and the Hakata area within it) is a port town, just like Kobe and Osaka, and so was subject to more foreign influence than other Japanese cities over time. It felt very similar to what we are used to where we live, from the rivers running through the town, to the large groups of Korean and Chinese tours, and everything was laid out to make it easy to perambulate.

Kuniko led us through a fairly regimented schedule of delicious foods based on hours and hours of extensive research. Rather than eat full meals at each place we did spot ordering to be able to enjoy more variety without overfilling our poor tummies. It wasn’t all food, though – we got in some shrines, gardens and temples, and we even made a journey into Buddhist hell. More on that later.

We ate gyoza in an interesting café at the top of a shopping mall, which apparently was serving a Chinese lunch buffet. Although purportedly a Chinese restaurant it felt more like a modern Italian bar, but they had no problems serving us only a big plate of gyoza and some beer to wash them down. The gyoza here was rated number one in the city by the citizens of Fukuoka (not quite sure about the validity of the voting system) and they were certainly delicious. The wrappers of the gyoza we ate on this trip were generally thicker than the wrappers we normally eat in Kansai. I liked the thicker wrappers, Kuniko preferred the thinner ones. The thicker wrappers did absorb a lot more oil however, so I fear we went over the recommended daily calorie intake after the first two bites.

Other stops on Saturday included a few supermarkets, a standing bar to sip sparkling and taste the local oden variation, and a beautiful expansive park surrounded a lake in the center of the city. We sat on some benches and enjoyed the warm, sunny weather. It felt good after what seemed like a long winter. Finally the time had come to make the pilgrimage to our main event – the dai-rompo. We found the restaurant, Marco Kitchen, which had an odd sort of atmosphere more like a coffee shop, and our server (who had a very un-Japanese mohawk haircut and small bones pushed through his earlobes) led us to our table. We were the first customers of what looked like many to come – they had slips of paper on the table for all the upcoming reservations that night.

We kept things simple, with a couple of warmup gyoza, a few crab and shrimp shumai, and then the server brought over a big basket and we could behold the splendor of the dai-rompo. Our Mohican/Japanese server seemed to sense our excitement with the event (maybe the scramble for my camera tipped him off) and he placed the basket in front of us with a dramatic flair, and then kindly served each dai-rompo into a small bowl in front of us. He picked up the softball-sized soup dumpling with just two chopsticks and a lot of confidence, and when the dai-rompo was lifted the bottom of the dumpling bulged and strained downward under the weight of all the soup inside. Luckily we could go to work on the dai-rompo while it was safely in a bowl. It was a fun experience to eat a new dish, and try to figure out the best way to go about it. With sho-rompo we bite into the edge, suck out all the steaming hot soup, and then swallow the rest in one go. Obviously the traditional technique wasn’t going to work here, but we ended up breaking the wrapper and then eating the rest as if it was a wonton soup or something similar. Fun, delicious, and well worth the effort it took to make it happen.

From there we went back out into Hakata to see what else the city had to offer. Walking past a video arcade I saw a huge display of “Space Invaders” – a ten foot tall screen and two “laser” guns mounted several feet in front with seats. We had to play it – and it was a blast. It was called “Space Invaders Frenzy” and it was a great combination of retro-nostalgic graphics, LED lights and frantic twitch gaming. Out on the riverside we wanted to try the food stands that are a symbol of the food culture in Hakata, and so we walked along an area that was lined with about 10-12 temporary restaurants outdoors. We love eating outside when we travel, and it was nice to give it a try in Japan. For some reason it really hasn’t caught on in Japan (maybe because of the extreme weather in winter and summer) so it was a rare chance. We chose a place at random, and were immediately surprised how brusque and decidedly un-friendly our Japanese cooks were. They had a sort of “rough” feeling about them, and I wondered vaguely if there was an organized crime angle here that I didn’t know about. Didn’t stop us from eating more food though, and we ordered some yakiramen (basically fried noodles, no soup) and some tamagoyaki with spicy cod roe rolled up inside. Washed down with two beers and then we were on our way. We probably would have stayed longer if the atmosphere had been more friendly, but hospitality was not the priority at this particular food stand. They were probably grumpy because customers always leave after just one dish.

That night we ended up at two more places – again, just picking and choosing specific dishes and then moving on. We had bite-sized gyoza at a place called Tetsunabe. These gyoza were much smaller than the ones we had eaten earlier in the day (still can’t believe this was all in the same day), and the thick wrappers had kind of fused together during cooking making it hard to divide them into the aforementioned bite size.

Our last stop was at an izakaya with a unique ordering system. At the front of the restaurant you paid for slips of paper that correspond with the dish you want at a digital machine using cash, take the slips to the kitchen (or the bar, depending on what you ordered) and then the staff handed over your food and/or drink when it was ready. It was really cheap, with a lively atmosphere and I had a good time there. The food was salty and simple and really about promoting more drinking which at this stage we were happy to do. Good times!

So we did a little more drunken shopping at the local convenience store, took a couple of painkillers and some stomach settling medicine just in case, and then crashed out in our business hotel for the evening.

We woke up fairly early with our stomachs still full from the previous day’s food-a-thon. It was a very long and very high calorie day, but we were pleased to discover that according to our phone we had managed to offset the damage a little with 33,000 steps for the day.

As you might expect we had a little slower start to the day, and we began by taking a short train ride out of town to visit the Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine – a famous shrine that attracts people because of its founder’s philosophy of education and success. We didn’t have any particular educational requirements to overcome however the location proved to be a great place to see plum blossoms. The street approaching the shrine was lined with shops, many of them selling umegae-mochi – sweet beans wrapped in mochi and then fried inside a pancake griddle until browned. Even with my full stomach I was able to pack down a couple of those.

The founder of Dazaifu Tenmangu was a big fan of plum trees, and it showed. We enjoyed walking around seeing the different colors and stages of the blossoms, and also petting metal cows and photographing a demonic unicorn statue. Things were interesting around the shrine.

We spent a while strolling through the grounds, we sent a little prayer up to the god of education, and then wandered back down the shopping street to the main train station. Believe it or not I felt like I could eat a hot bowl of noodles, so we stepped into Ichiran, a local chain of ramen restaurants that recently made the jump to the national level. They have a unique serving system that was more memorable than the noodles we ate there.

After buying a ticket we sat down at an individual booth with walls on the side and a small curtain in front. Imagine eating lunch in a voting booth and you get the general idea. The curtain opens at some point, and two arms come out of the curtain and point out various things including some paperwork to fill out so that you receive the noodles exactly the way you want them. I started on my paperwork and the arms disappeared and the curtain closed, while the female staff behind the curtain said that what was happening behind the curtain “is a secret”.

After finishing more paperwork than I typically associate with a bowl of noodles the disembodied arms reappeared to take the information away and there was nothing left to do but stare at the curtain and wait for the food. It didn’t take long, and soon Kuniko and I were slurping noodles side by side in our respective voting booths, with both the design of the booth and the mouthfuls of noodles preventing any sort of conversation. It was an interesting system, but the noodles didn’t seem all that special to me. I guess I’m not a big ramen fan in general.

Back to Hakata, and this time we walked from the train station, through what seemed to be a red-light district, and then found our way to Tochoji Temple. Kuniko led the way inside where we could see the largest wooden Buddha in Japan (sorry, no pictures allowed). The workmanship of the Buddha was detailed and exceptionally done. I stood for a long time admiring the lines and creases of the wood that formed the serene face.

The real treat was behind the Buddha, as there was an exhibit explaining the concept of hell as described by some Buddhist texts, which turned out to be being cast into the darkness. You had the opportunity to walk through total darkness, with only a handrail to guide you to the end. I assume in real hell you don’t get the handrail.

I walked into the situation with none of this knowledge, so I had to kind of figure this out later. We walked through the darkness, and Kuniko quickly went out ahead of me. I was much slower, and used my right hand to wave around in front of me and perhaps prevent any major collisions or demon attacks. About halfway through my hand hit a metal ring attached to the wall at about waist level, and I thought it an odd sort of thing to run into in the dark. Later Kuniko asked me if I had found the ring – she hadn’t – and I realized that apparently there was a goal to the exercise other than to merely escape. Buddhist hell was pretty cool.

Our last stop in Hakata was back at the train station. We had tickets on an early afternoon slow bullet train back home, so we did some souvenir shopping for the neighbors. With about a half hour to kill before departure we stopped at an odd little gyoza place that served gyoza with cilantro and gyoza with plum sauce, and cheap sparkling wine by the glass. Our server poured the glasses to the top which was nice, but as we were leaving we discovered two cockroaches running around behind us which was not so nice. I think the server realized what had happened and she looked a little broken hearted.

Before boarding the slower bullet train we picked up some beer and a lunch box stuffed with interesting things we rarely eat (deep fried pork cutlet wrapped in sushi rice? Sure!) and then caught a ride home. The slower train had much bigger seats, so I even got in some sleep on the way back.  There was a rare power outage somewhere down the bullet train line leading to an hour delay – something pretty unusual in Japan – but we had enough beer and food to avoid starvation.

Fukuoka was nice, and I think we got a good sense of the area and the food culture there. I guess we’ll need to put our mind to the problem of which city in Japan we need to visit next. Back to the internet for some more food research!


Spring Is Here

March 6th, 2018 No comments

With the end of February came an abrupt rush of warm air, and suddenly I find myself going to work without long underwear or gloves.  It is hard to believe that winter is over. The cold season always seems to last the longest for me – even longer than the humid Japanese summers.  So with the warmer weather comes more pleasant walks to and from work. I’ve even seen some plum trees blooming, which means the cherry trees can’t be too far behind.

These past few months have brought some news to my company, in both the good and the bad varieties.  First the good news – the company was able to land a huge contract for New York subway cars, and it looks like they’ll be keeping our production lines running in our American factories for the mid to long term.  This was a huge event for the company, and it means that they were able to hold off lower priced Chinese competition from the coveted New York metro market – the biggest market in North America for train cars. If they can turn a profit on the subway cars it will do a great deal to keep everyone happy with the financial results.

However recently there was some unexpected bad news.  A Japanese customer discovered some defects in the train trucks (the frame that rides over the wheels and supports the train car body) and these defects were traced back to problems with our company’s manufacturing process from almost ten years ago.  These trucks are vital parts of any train and the defects had the potential to lead to a derailment of the Japanese bullet train – the crown jewel of Japanese technology and a symbol of Japanese pride. Luckily the defect was discovered before anyone was hurt, but unluckily for my company it was the customer who discovered the problem, not our own quality control teams. Our company is on the hook to replace all the affected trucks, which I heard was a substantial amount. This will mean a big hit for the balance sheets, and that always makes stockholders nervous.

So this odd balance of very good and very bad news in such close proximity has caused a bit of confusion at work, with regular employees not sure how this will affect their jobs and their futures.

In times like these, my policy is to just focus on doing my own job to the best of my abilities, and so I’ve been teaching up a storm at work. Kind of like a teacher/psychologist I help the students deal with all this news and try to give it a positive spin where possible. Now my class schedules are winding down for the end of the term, and I’ll start with a whole new group of students beginning in April.

Usually Kuniko and I take the time between terms to do a short trip somewhere – but this year we decided to skip it. Kuniko’s belated birthday trip will happen next week, and so I’ll use that trip as sort of a mental page turn instead.  We’ll be taking the aforementioned bullet train to Fukuoka, in Kyushu.  Our top priority is food – I think Kuniko has a plan for us to eat about five meals a day while we are there for the weekend. It will be my first time to Kyushu, and traveling in Japan is always a stress-free and easy experience so it’ll be nice to just relax and enjoy the change in scene.

We also managed to nail down some other trips this year. In July we’ll head to America again, this time to spend a week with my folks in Glen Ellen, do a little wine tasting, and see what the area looks like after the big wildfires last year.  Then in August we’ll be off to northeastern Europe for a couple of weeks. We’ll fly from Osaka directly to Helsinki, Finland, and then make short stops in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, and finally end up in Warsaw, Poland before flying back to Japan. The trip will be interesting from a traveler’s perspective – we’ll be traveling by plane, ferry, and bus during the journey through six countries.

I’ll try to write up our trip to Kyushu when we get back – along with some food pictures to show what we saw, ate, and conquered. More soon!


Chilling Out

February 2nd, 2018 No comments

It has really started to get cold around here. This morning we had a layer of frost on the ground for the first time this winter, and I guess that February is preparing some more of this kind of weather for us. We’re thankful for the electric blankets and heated floors downstairs.

My work is going very smoothly, and my classes have settled into a nice rhythm. February is the last full month of classes for this term, and March is about 75% full, with some extra time in there for administration, final projects and wrap ups. Kuniko and I usually take a trip in March between terms, but this year we decided to hold off. We’re traveling a bit in Japan later this month, and we’ve got at least three overseas trips coming later this year, so we should save our travel money for that.

Usually February and March are stressful months for me because it is during this time that I hear whether or not I will have a contract for the next year. I had anticipated this year would be even more stressful because of the employment law that goes into effect this April that compels companies to either hire their contract workers as full time permanent, or fire them and replace them with someone else. The way the law was designed was unintentionally cruel towards the very workers they are trying to protect, and some here in Japan are predicting a very messy “massacre” at the end of March.

Luckily, the whole thing is moot for me, and with my shiny new permanent contract in hand I have a whole lot less stress these days. The big suspense for me is whether my work will fundamentally change once we start the new term. There are no signs that it will, but I’m not getting too comfortable. Flexibility is the key, and maybe something new would be good to shake up my routine.

This weekend I am going to focus on setting up some new audio equipment in the living room so that it is sounding good and operating smoothly. We’ll celebrate the official start of spring on Saturday by silently eating big rolls of sushi while facing the lucky direction, and Sunday we’ll try to enjoy Kuniko’s only day off this week by exercising, watching some movies, and possible opening some bubbles. Should be nice!


New Chapter

January 25th, 2018 No comments

We’re back from a great trip to Egypt, and there was a lot to write about. Below you can find the journal entries for our trip – which may or may not interest you. They’re really for my own memory, so it may make for less-than-interesting reading for other folks.

One other piece of news is that upon returning to work in 2018, I began working as a permanent employee of Kawasaki Heavy Industries. This is a big change for a lot of reasons.

When I first started working at KHI as a dispatch employee my place here was very tenuous. Working at the whim of not one company but two, I could lose my job at any minute, and it made making long term plans pretty difficult. Later I was able to cut out the dispatch company and start working for KHI directly, and I worked like this for about seven years. As a contract employee my job security was year by year, and I always had to be ready to jump somewhere else as my contract wrapped up. This was more job security, but still a little stressful at the end of each contract.

So this new status is “permanent employee”, which is exactly like it sounds. I’ll be working here at KHI until I retire, or until I would like to leave for another job. Permanent employees are very rarely fired (it would take murder convictions, terrorist acts, things like that) and the employees are expected to put the company first and be loyal workers. I’m not sure I’ll put the company in first place (but it’ll be in my top ten!)

In return for this loyalty I’ll be able to get the same benefits as before (plenty of vacation days, freedom to leave on time, a fair salary) with a few more that come with permanent employment (much bigger quarterly(!) bonuses, eligibility for promotions and career advancement, a retirement fund, union membership, almost infinite job security).

Maybe the biggest benefit for me day to day is that instead of being an outsider working at a company and trying to stay in their good graces, I will be an equal employee with everyone else. This helps a lot with that feeling of camaraderie and teamwork – one that I haven’t really felt since I was working in the USA. Foreigners in Japan tend to be treated as disposable resources by companies (especially foreign teachers, with more young people looking for adventure and coming off the boat every year), so this job situation is kind of like the Holy Grail for me.

Still, with a new status may come new responsibilities and it is still early – who knows what strange things I may be called upon to do? As long as the work is challenging, the students are motivated, and the overtime is at a rational level, I’m in.


Egypt Day 11 and 12 – Return and Wrap Up

January 3rd, 2018 No comments

Our morning started with a new café, amusingly called Beano’s, and this time we tried some unusual coffees. I had a cinnamon, turmeric and cashew milk latte, and Kuniko had a cardamom coffee with a real kick. They were interesting, but not something I’d drink every day. For the second round we switched to two regular coffees and shared a pretty standard omelet for breakfast, and a Nutella cookie to make the meal more calorically exciting.

Back in the hotel we got organized and did our final packing. Our suitcase had plenty of space to fit all the candy bars and other snacks we had bought, and as usual we tossed out old toothpaste kits, toiletries and underwear and shirts that we didn’t want any more. The suitcase is starting to show its age – it has traveled through around twenty countries by my count. It might be time to retire this old road warrior.

Our London Cab was waiting for us downstairs, and he drove us to the airport without any accidents. It was our last time driving through Egyptian traffic, and I couldn’t say that I would miss it. You wonder if people will ever be able to change back to driving within their own lanes – once a society gets used to driving all over the road I think you probably can’t go back to following the rules. It’ll be nice to drive in Japan where drivers are at least predictable.

We paid our driver in cash, he tipped us a smile and drove off, and I was pleased to see that I had exactly one Egyptian pound remaining in my wallet. I had already reserved one each of the Egyptian notes as a souvenir, and we had just one Egyptian pound left. Egypt ended up being very easy on our wallet – we used less than half of our daily budget for expenses during this trip.

We had arrived a full five hours before our flight, thinking that we would hit some restaurants or bars at the airport before checking in, do some shopping at the airport shops for last minute souvenirs, and then finally check in and go to the gate. From outside security we could see a Starbucks and McDonald’s display, so we went ahead and went through the thoroughly confusing airport security rigmarole. This time we were at Terminal 2, and international terminal of the Cairo airport, but it was still the same. Nobody really focused on their job and the side conversations quickly distracted people causing more delays.

The joke was on us after getting through all the security and finding that the restaurant displays that we had seen from outside the terminal were in fact on video screens above the empty check-in counters. All the restaurants were located beyond the next level of security, and we would need a boarding pass to get there. Unfortunately our check in didn’t start for another three hours, and so we were kind of stuck. There were some seats and some restrooms, so we ended up killing time reading and waiting. Whoops! But one thing we know how to do well is kill time in airports.

Check-in opened and we were right there to get it done quickly. With boarding passes in hand (and our luggage safely checked all the way to Osaka) we went through our final security gate, and then it was time to eat and drink. We ate at Burger King – a rare treat for us, drank our last Egyptian beers, and did a little shopping to kill the time remaining before our flight.

It was a quicker trip back – just two and half hours to Dubai, and eight and a half hours to Osaka from Dubai. Our stopover in Dubai was short – we barely had time for some buffalo wings and cocktails at a sports bar in Dubai airport and then were off to our gate. Suddenly we were surrounded by Japanese people – and that’s when I really felt like the vacation was over.

It was an easy flight on Emirates to Kansai airport, we cleared immigration and customs in record time, and then we were on the bus and heading home. It was very cold in Japan – we had been lucky to enjoy comfortable weather for the entire trip in Egypt – and I could tell we’d need to use the electric blankets when we got home.

So we were back in Japan after an interesting, and challenging trip. We had always expected that Egypt wouldn’t be easy, and we wanted to try it while we were younger (and more flexible). It turned out to be less difficult than I expected, but no walk in the park.

It was tough to see how the tourism-based economy was struggling and to see the desperation in the faces of the people of Luxor whose incomes had dried right up. We really stood out when we walked around and sometimes I worried that we would end up being targets for some unsavory types. There were some communication problems at critical times but mainly people spoke English well and I often didn’t need to resort to my crappy pronunciation of Arabic expressions.

The thing I’ll remember most is that so many people called out to us out of the blue, and said, “Welcome to Egypt!” Kids smiled at us and people were proud of their culture and their city. I really felt like all the elements are there for Egypt to come back as a popular tourist destination – they just need someone to organize it and make it happen. I’m glad we were brave enough to take the trip, because it really left a big impression on us, and it will be these memories of our adventures in Egypt that we’ll be reminiscing about for years to come.


Egypt Day 10 – New Year, New Foods

January 1st, 2018 No comments

It was the first day of 2018, and as usual we started the New Year by putting on brand new underwear after our morning shower. We started out fresh, in every sense of the word.

I was feeling much better in the morning, and we were craving some coffee to start the day, so we walked down the road, past an empty Tahrir Square, and found a Cilantro Café. This was a chain restaurant in Cairo – there had been one inside our previous hotel in Cairo – and they served simple food with their coffees. We made a small breakfast out of a cheese panini sandwich, and just lounged in the mainly empty café. At one point a customer came down the stairs from the second floor and passed us as he left, and he was white like me – a rare thing to see in Cairo. He nodded at me as he walked by and said, “It’s good to see another pale face!” I nodded back but didn’t really have an appropriate response to that.

We spent most of the morning lounging at the café and the hotel. Kuniko had stayed up late (later than me) for New Year’s and so she took a nap, I did some reading and wrote in my journal, and we took things slow.

In the late afternoon we decided to walk all the way to Zamalek, the island in the Nile River, and try again to go to the elusive Abou El Sid restaurant. This was our third try to visit – and the third time was indeed a charm. By now we were crossing busy streets effortlessly, not even noticing all the honking horns and stepping easily over broken sidewalks and trash on the street. We spent about thirty minutes walking to Zamalek, and found Abou El Sid still with the front door closed. This time we had the courage to walk up and open it, and stepped into the dark room inside.

I really liked the atmosphere of Abou El Sid in Zamalek. The place had an old feel, with a classic bar, waiters in formal suits, and ancient chandeliers illuminating old artwork advertising alcohol brands long forgotten. I spent some time walking around the restaurant taking pictures of the décor, and the waiters joked around with me by posing in front of furniture and insisting on selfies together.

We ordered several dishes to cross off some items and finish off our “to-eat” list for the trip. Kuniko ordered the roasted rabbit with molokhia sauce. Molokhia sauce turned out to be a green sauce, made with a leafy green that had the consistency of okra – thick and almost sticky. The sauce itself was slightly spicy and filling in a vegetarian sort of way. As usual the rabbit was a little bony, but with great flavor, and combining it with the sauce was the way to go. I ordered the chicken served over rice with a walnut sauce. The chef had ground up walnuts into a cream sauce that was rich and decadent. The chicken was well-spiced and layered over rice so that you could enjoy every drop of the sauce. This also felt like comfort food, and according to the staff it was a very old Egyptian recipe that they had “brought back to life”. For dessert we had an “oriental pancake”, which consisted of layers of phyllo dough formed into a sort of pizza crust topped with dried fruits, nuts and a sweet honey glaze. There were also on the side two kinds of honey and a big chunk of butter if you wanted to make it even more hardcore. Of course we made the hardcore version, because we’re on vacation.

After dinner we strolled all the way back to our hotel, following a slightly different path. This time we walked back along the bank of the Nile River, using walkways filled with young couples walking hand in hand, vendors selling grilled corn, and colorful graffiti on the walls. The view was nice, too – with Zamalek island on the other side of the river, and Cairo Tower standing out alone in the central park. We kept the pace slow and enjoyed the walk – I think we both could feel the end of the trip coming and it was hard to keep thoughts of going back to work out of our heads.

Back at the hotel we cracked open our bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate. I had slept through New Year’s so we were a day late, but it was nice to open up the bottle and catch up. I wasn’t a big fan of the bubbles, but it is hard to complain – I was surprised to even have the option of drinking any kind of sparkling wine in Cairo, let alone Egyptian sparkling wine.

This was a nice relaxing day, but tomorrow we’ll be checking out and traveling back to Japan. It was good to get our rest while we could.


Egypt Day 9 – Egyptian Museum and New Year’s Eve

December 31st, 2017 No comments

We woke up to our new surroundings at the hotel, and it was absolutely quiet. We slept in a bit since we were located right next to today’s destination, the Egyptian Museum. I left my camera behind because I had read that the museum does not allow cameras at all and I figured it would just end up in a locker somewhere.

From our hotel it was just across the street to the museum. That sounds simple enough, but the street was six lanes of traffic going in opposite ways, which means a risky crossing putting your faith in the drivers who may or may not be completely awake at the moment. We tried to gauge the narrowest point, and then walked assertively through the cars and ended up on the correct side of the street. We went through a perimeter security check, and then another check entering the grounds, and later we did a third and final check when entering the building. I think that the security checks were more about having us feel safe than actually being any safer, but who knows?

We bought our tickets, and were able to evade the aggressive tour guides standing in the grounds clutching licenses on lanyards and pitching their services. Unlike our previous guides these ones had impeccable English and some of them appeared to be foreign. I’m sure you’d get your money’s worth by hiring one of these freelancers, but we always prefer the freedom of our own exploration so we lined up and entered the museum on our own.

When we were in Cairo previously, a driver had pointed out the construction site of the new Egyptian Museum. The building was huge and looked more like a sports arena than a museum. It looked to be about 80% complete, but according to the driver it always looks 80% complete and it had become a very long term project. So, with this fact in mind, we entered the original museum that was built in a very European style in 1902. The place was surprisingly low-tech, almost like visiting someone’s house that happened to have a lot of Egyptian artifacts sitting around. There were two floors, and things were arranged by original time period, so I was glad that I had done my studies before we arrived. We started in the Early Period, and then generally went forward in history from there. It was a huge place and hard to do justice here so instead I’ll just list a couple of sights that made the biggest impression.

First, there were mummies. I knew that there was a special room that contained the mummies of the pharaohs and other royalty from long ago, but there were also other mummies that didn’t rate the special room, and they could be found in glass boxes here and there. It felt weird to be gazing through some jewelry and then look in the next box and see a preserved dead body from thousands of years ago.

Everything had simple tags to explain the significance, and some of these tags were yellowed with age and typed (using a typewriter!). It was clear that everyone expected that when the new museum building opened everything would be updated and modernized, but until then maintaining the exhibits clearly had a low priority.

We enjoyed seeing the room that held Egyptian artifacts from the Roman occupation era, and seeing some Roman god’s face carved into stone with a pharaoh’s crown and hood was really mind-blowing. Two worlds were colliding here and I think it would have been an interesting time to live in Egypt.

As you might expect animals played a big part in the artwork and artifacts of ancient Egypt, and we really enjoyed seeing all the golden cats, the beautifully painted and richly ornamented cows, and snakes carved from alabaster. It was apparent that Japan did not have a monopoly on cute animals – Egypt had been doing it long before.

Our final stop was the special room dedicated to holding the most valuable treasures of King Tut’s tomb. Besides an extra plate of glass and a guard standing watch, there was nothing else to distinguish it from other exhibits. I stood and looked at the golden mask straight on – something I still remember doing when my father took me to see the exhibit when it came to San Francisco years ago, and it was nice feeling of closing the circle. The mask made a big impression on me then and also now, and to find myself standing in Egypt looking at it again gave me chills. The other treasures were also impressive, and we spent quite a bit more time perusing them.

So the museum was a little surprising but very satisfying, and we left feeling like we got a good survey of what was inside. People who are really, really into Egyptian history could spend a week there. It is a vast collection.

At our current hotel we did not get the breakfast option. That meant that each day we’d have to rove out and source some morning grub and/or coffee. Since we were already out and about, we went to another restaurant recommended online. It was called Kazaz, and like most Egyptian restaurants the biggest business was being done on the ground floor as takeout food. We asked a cook manning the kebabs outside if there were any tables, and he pointed us to a staircase in the back and we went up and found a table.

The place had a cool atmosphere, kind of like a diner decorated with cheap Christmas decorations. There were lots of local people at the tables, and on the TV there was a dedicated 24/7 broadcast showing the pilgrims circling Mecca, with haunting prayers playing at low volume. A friendly woman wearing a headscarf, traditional blouse and leather pants(!) took our order, and we had what we think would be called an Egyptian brunch. It started with a salad of pickled vegetables, a plate of wheat flatbreads, and then I had a salty beef strip omelet, we had some fried Egyptian cheese, and Kuniko ordered a beef shawarma that turned out more like a sandwich than a wrap. We drank hot milk tea (served in glassware so we had to avoid burning our fingers when drinking), and just reveled in the atmosphere. It was really affordable, and the food was good value. No Michelin stars are forthcoming, but it served our needs perfectly.

After brunch we stopped by our hotel to pick up my camera, and then we searched unsuccessfully again for a supermarket in the neighborhood. There were plenty of tiny little convenience store kinds of places, but nothing like the bigger, clean supermarkets we kept finding in Dokki. So naturally, we decided to go back to Dokki.

We took the subway, and it was only two stops from our station (Sadat). The subway system was really cheap, but primitive – you had to wait in line and buy tickets from a real human being. We got on board the traincar and I was interested to see that it was made in Japan by Kinki Sharyo, one of my company’s competitors. The train looked, sounded, and smelled old, so it must have been manufactured a long time ago. As we stepped aboard we got a lot of looks. Especially Kuniko got attention from the men, and just in case we stood next to a couple of older ladies minding their kids. There was no problem but if I were a foreign woman traveling alone I might think twice about using the subway.

After two stops we disembarked at Dokki station, and we went up the stairs and emerged in our old neighborhood. It was an oddly happy feeling to be back in Dokki, even though we had spent just a few days here before it felt like a homecoming. We moved quickly through the streets, feeling like locals and making a beeline for the nearest supermarket. We spent quite a long time shopping for souvenirs for students, friends and family back in Japan. The clerk’s eyes got big when he saw how many candy bars we were buying.

With several big bags of souvenirs we walked back to the station, said a final goodbye to Dokki, and caught the subway back to Sadat. I tried to take a picture of the platform clock, which had Arabic numbers rather western ones, but a soldier saw me and waved me off. Sometimes that happens, so I ducked my head in apology and quickly put away my camera. We were just leaving, sir.

We made another stop at Drinkies on the way back to the hotel, and then finally unloaded our bountiful supplies in the room and opened up a cold beer. It was a proper reward for surviving the subway system and major shopping trip.

Since we expected a late night for New Year’s Eve we snuck in an afternoon nap, and then decided to go out and try a new place for dinner. It turned out to be pretty good. We went to Taboula, located in the Garden City district of Cairo, near many foreign embassies. We passed the American embassy while walking, with two soldiers standing guard in full military gear and surrounded by big spiky roadblocks – American embassies always have the most intense security. We also passed a lot of activity – more and more police and military were out setting up spotlights and metal detectors. We never found out why, and so we chalked it up to being New Year’s Eve. There were more people on Tahrir Square, but mainly it was just young couples out on a date. Strangely there were young men selling Santa Claus hats to people walking by, even though we were well past Christmas.

The restaurant was busy that night, and since we didn’t have reservations we were told to finish within one hour. It turned out to be plenty of time for us. The restaurant was decorated with strobe-light flashing blue and white Christmas lights, and we were surrounded by an interesting mix of customers. Tables full of young Egyptian women smoking shish pipes, groups of foreign women who may have been embassy staff, and larger groups (maybe families?) that were having a big night out. We enjoyed a beef kofta dish with plenty of vegetables and flatbread, a much better lineup of falafel that had a rich, meaty center as well as bean filling, and then a plate of garlic mushrooms that was extremely garlicky. And of course, Stella made an appearance. Oh yeah!

After dinner we thought it might be interesting to walk around the center of Cairo and see what was going on as we built up to the New Year’s Eve countdown. We walked up and down the streets and more and more people were gathering. Oddly, they weren’t really going anywhere in particular, just enjoying being outside together. I suddenly noticed a strange pain in the back of my throat, and I started to worry about maybe catching a New Year cold. We bought some ice cream from a vendor on the street, and that dampened the pain a bit.

As we walked around more and more people appeared around us, up and down the streets. Groups of younger people were getting a little wild – yelling to each other, and a couple of people spoke to me in Arabic out of the blue, which was a first. Usually people called out to us in English. It is hard to put my finger on it exactly, but something made me feel a little uncomfortable and I thought it might be better to get away from the rapidly building crowds. I wouldn’t say I was afraid, but I knew that staying away from big crowds as a foreigner is always a good idea, and I had no idea what happens during a usual New Year’s Eve in Cairo.

So I told Kuniko that between this weird feeling and a sore throat, it might be best to head back to the hotel. She agreed, and we made our back safely and without incident. Since I was still feeling the sore throat I wrapped myself up in warm blankets to rest, and we just vegged out for the rest of the evening. I even fell asleep before the actual stroke of midnight, so I guess I’m showing my age a little bit. Kuniko said that there were no special events and things were pretty quiet right at midnight – the (non-alcohol) hotel party didn’t even pause for the countdown. I guess the New Year isn’t as big a deal as in other countries.

I’m sure we would have been fine out on the street until midnight, but I make it a point to listen to my instincts while traveling, even more so in a place like Egypt, and I think it was the right choice. Luckily by the time I woke up the next morning, my sore throat had almost completely disappeared.


Egypt Day 8 – Bond Pilgrimage and Drinkies

December 30th, 2017 No comments

Saturday morning, and we got ourselves out of bed early to try to go see the Temple of Karnak with the sunrise and avoid the crowds. Our taxi driver from the previous day was waiting for us outside at 6 am, and we drive off into the darkness, passing armored personnel carriers with soldiers dozing at the gun placements. I asked the driver the price for the 10 minute drive, and he was purposely vague about it – and said it is really up to me. He is depending on guilt for profit – it seems like a weird way to make a living.

We arrived at the gate to Karnak Temple, and we are the first ones there. The guards were drinking coffee and shuffling their feet trying to wake up, and we bought our tickets and go through the main lobby. Unlike the Pyramids, there were a lot of educational displays and a giant model of the temple layout in the center of the room. After we passed the main room there was a huge assembly square – the size and scale remind me of Red Square in Moscow. With no crowds to follow we kind of drifted towards some buildings in the distance, and it turned out to be in the right direction. Another security check, and then we’re in.

There was a lot to see in the Temple of Karnak. Originally I had wanted to go here and walk through thanks to a scene from “The Spy Who Loved Me”. James Bond and the Russian agent “Triple X” sneak on board a repair truck driven by the evil henchman “Jaws”, and they make their way stealthily around the tall pillars in a tense situation. Here we could see the same pillars, and understand the sheer size of the structure – it was impressive. The grounds were quite extensive, and you could probably spend a half a day at least if you are really into stone blocks and hieroglyphics. We walked deep into the area, finding stone ruins, structures, obelisks and stone pharaohs standing guard. At one point we saw some old guys off in the distance smoking, and when they saw us they made a beeline for us calling out. I was reminded of sharks speeding towards their prey, and we were able to turn a few corners and leave them behind – we didn’t need anything pointed out to us.

After about a half hour of looking around the sun rose over the horizon, and started casting a golden light on the Temple, making the pictures I took even more dramatic. The bonus here was that there weren’t many people around and it was much easier to get the pictures that I wanted. It really does pay to get up early!

With our tour of the temple concluded, it marked the end of our sightseeing adventures in Luxor. We walked back to our taxi driver who was waiting for us patiently outside the gate, and he took us back to our hotel with the sun still rising. We noticed many children on the streets with their parents, because according to our driver there was a big test today for all Egyptian students. He said his wife was bringing their own child to school today and he hoped that his son would do well. When we arrived at the hotel I paid him what I thought was fair, and it didn’t get much reaction from our driver. I told him we’d be going to the airport later at 2 pm, and he said he’d be happy to do it for 200 pounds.  I told him that we had paid just 100 to get from the airport to our hotel, but our driver said that he would have to pay to enter the airport grounds, and so that is why it was higher. It sounded fishy, but I was getting a little tired of debating and negotiating every time we got in a taxi, so we agreed on the 200 pound fee right there.

Since we had been out early, now we could go have a big hotel breakfast and take it easy in the morning. The previous day we had arranged a late check-out, so we had plenty of time to lounge in our room, make plans for the next few days in Cairo, and write in this journal. Even though we had arranged a late checkout we received a phone call from the front desk asking why we hadn’t left our room, so we explained that the previous day we had made the late-checkout arrangements. They said OK, and around thirty minutes later we got a knock on the door from the housekeeper, and he wanted to know why we were still in the room. So we explained again, and he said OK. There were apparently some communication issues at our hotel.

So we checked out, caught our cab to Luxor airport, and said goodbye to our taxi driver at the airport. I never saw him pay to enter the airport, but maybe he had to pay when leaving, right? Hmm…

Airport security was again a pain in the neck. At the front door we had to show our info, and once past there we needed to go through pre-security. I was able to go through immediately, but since they had no women security officers available to search the female passengers, Kuniko and several other women had to wait outside while the men waited inside. While I was waiting they did a chemical inspection of our bag, and I was worried about the result considering the ripeness of some of my socks in there. Luckily, it was a pass. Meanwhile a female security officer wandered over, and then Kuniko made it through. Not a smooth process.

Finally we got through all the hurdles, and we celebrated by buying a slice of pizza and a couple beers from an “Italian” shop in the waiting area. We were both happy to be leaving Luxor – it seemed like all kinds of weird things happened here, and the constant pressure of fighting off touts, negotiating with drivers, and generally trying not to get ripped off was a little stressful. Now it was back to Cairo, where at least there were lots of other things going on and businesses weren’t 100% depending on tourists like us.

The flight left about thirty minutes late, but we took it in stride and just read and relaxed in the waiting area. The flight was just an hour back to Cairo, and it went pretty smoothly. The only hitch was a very long wait at the baggage carousel – the suitcases just weren’t showing up. The wait was for around thirty minutes here, and the bored kids from our flight kept sitting on the empty carousel as it went around and around.

Once again I had booked a taxi ride from the airport by internet, this time using the London Cab company. The driver wasn’t waiting for us when we came out the arrival gate, but I saw a booth for the cab company so we talked to them and they made some calls. Our driver soon showed up and took our bag, and led us out to a parking lot that was completely crammed with cars. I’m not sure why everyone was at the airport, but it took quite a while to extract ourselves from the mess. The driver was a pro, though, and he got us to our next hotel without a problem.

We were staying at the Steigenberger Hotel, apparently a Belgian hotel, and it was located right in the center of Cairo next to Tahrir Square, the center of the Arab Spring protests that brought about a change in the government recently. The hotel was pretty nice and decorated in a modern style, and the check-in went smoothly. We went up to our room and found it comfortable and clean. There were little electronic gizmos and amenities around to play with, but really just a standard hotel room. For some reason our suitcase didn’t make it up with us, so on the way out to dinner we pointed it out to the bellhop who hustled it off towards the elevators.

We chose a nearby restaurant recommended by my research and also Kuniko’s. It was called Falfela, and when we arrived there was a young cook right up in front who promptly demonstrated how he makes falafel for us. Inside, there were a lot of foreigners, and for the first time we saw a lot of Japanese people on this trip. We sat down to dinner and soon had a couple of Stella beers in front of us. After ordering we had the opportunity to do some people watching. There was a mural on the wall with some illustrations of people enjoying dinner, and one of them looked remarkably like the famous Japanese celebrity Tamori-san – I wondered if it was him? We also saw some Japanese women dining with Egyptian men, in a very unusual match up. Gigolos at work?

The place was pretty busy with almost all the customers using English to order, and so it took a while for our food to arrive. Once it did, we were a little disappointed. I had a rice dish topped with a garlic sauce and grilled lamb that was pretty good, but the falafel that we ordered was cooked too long and dry as a bone inside. We also ordered some mushrooms, but they weren’t so exciting – a bit watery.

It took a long time to get our bill, and an even longer time to try to pay it by credit card. We’d ask the staff to bring the credit card machine, and they’d say OK and then we’d never see them again. Kuniko was getting a little pissed off about it – and told one poor waiter that they need to bring the bill or we’d just walk out. That seemed to do the trick and we finally paid and left. Falfela was disappointing.

We walked a bit around the neighborhood, and it certainly had a different feel from the Dokki neighborhood where we had stayed before. This area was built up with lots of mid-range fashion shops, more European-looking buildings, and wider streets with faster-moving cars. There were fewer small shops and we couldn’t find any supermarkets nearby for our souvenir shopping. However, we did stumble on a tiny little shop called “Drinkies”. They only sold alcoholic beverages, and so that night we bought a couple of beers and a bottle of Egyptian sparkling wine for the upcoming New Year’s Eve. The prices weren’t bad at all, and it was just a few minutes from our hotel – excellent! Hooray for Drinkies!

It had been a busy day of travel, so we headed back to the hotel to relax and hit the sack early. It was nice to be back in the big city.


Egypt Day 7 – Valley of the Kings and Stella

December 29th, 2017 No comments

We slept like the dead back in our comfortable hotel, and despite a possible case of domestic violence down the hallway (some guy was very unhappy with his family) and a couple of power outages it was a normal night. We had breakfast and there were more tourists today. Some were pretty demanding, complaining about how their eggs were cooked among other things. The way I see it, it is hard to complain about a free breakfast, and we happily drank our coffee and ate our Egyptian yogurt. We were in a pretty good mood.

Our plan for the day was to cross over to the west bank of the Nile River to see a dramatic temple and then to go to the Valley of the Kings and explore some underground tombs. We walked outside and selected a driver from the many who were waiting, and I started the negotiation dance. We ended up hiring our driver for 400 pounds for the day. He was a nice enough guy, and interestingly enough he stopped at the same sort of convenience store that we had visited with our previous tour guide to buy us a “welcome drink”. It must be a standard Egyptian hospitality thing.

It was a short drive south to the first bridge over the Nile, and then a ten or fifteen minute drive to Hatshepsut Temple. The driver dropped us off at the gate, we walked past a line of shops just getting started for the day, and then paid and went inside. It was a pretty good walk to get to the Temple itself, and there were trams around taking people who didn’t have the leg power. It was really not that far and we were happy to get our legs moving again after so much time in the car the past few days.

The Temple was very striking, built right in front of a canyon with dramatic pillars and stone statues of pharaohs. As we got closer details appeared and it got more dramatic, and I really enjoyed the slow approach. We walked around the grounds and up the steps to the upper floors to explore the place. As usual there were “guides” who tried to pull you over and explain something, and we did our best to avoid them. One “guide” plucked my camera from my hands, stepped over the railing and took some pictures and then held out his hand for money. Even the guards carrying machine guns kept asking us if they could take our picture. It is easy to turn down old men who want to get a tip, but a different story when armed guards are looking for tips, too. Kind of sad, really – apparently even security guards don’t get paid enough in Egypt.

Eventually we headed back to our taxi and moved on to the next stop, the Valley of the Kings. On the way our taxi driver had to suddenly swerve when a donkey pulling a cart made an unexpected move into our lane. I liked the gesture that our taxi driver made to the man on the donkey cart- it was like, “Don’t you even know how to drive a donkey?”

The Valley of the Kings is a major tourist destination, and there were a lot of tourists there already. We bought our tickets, and I decided not to buy a photography ticket, which allows you to take pictures inside. It wasn’t so expensive, but I felt like it would be better to put the camera away and just absorb the experience, and I’m glad I did. There are more than fifty ancient tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and they are opened to the public on sort of a rotation to minimize the impact of all those tourists exhaling and bringing in moisture to the tombs. We could choose to enter three tombs for our ticket price, and if we wanted to visit more we could pay for a separate ticket. The system was a little odd, but it turned out that three tombs was plenty for us.

The tombs had codes, we visited KV8 and KV11, and I’m not sure about the code for the third one. You descended on a platform deep into the mountain, passing stone walls with surprisingly colorful paintings and hieroglyphics – showing scenes from the history of the dead pharaoh. Despite being 5,000 years old some tombs were in excellent condition. As you proceeded deeper you would eventually find the burial chamber, and in some tombs they had the original sarcophagus still there, lying empty. The occupants had either been stolen, sold, eaten(!), disintegrated over time or had been taken to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo for safekeeping. We’d get there in just a couple of days.

I liked poking around but you did tend to feel like you were deep underground and a little bit of claustrophobia sets in. The air is slightly warm and moist from all the tourists, and soon we were taking off layers for comfort. And the photo ticket system was oddly enforced – staff walked around and demanded to see a ticket from each person who took a picture. Some people had the ticket, some people didn’t and weren’t aware of the system – they just saw other people taking pictures and thought it was OK. The photo police looked busy and there were a few angry confrontations just in the short time that we were there. Maybe they should re-think how they do that.

So we got our fill of the Valley of the Kings, headed back to the taxi, and had him drive us back to the hotel. We figured we deserved a little relaxation time, so we found the hotel pool, and lounged poolside in comfortable chairs like proper tourists. There was a surprising amount of plump white people around the pool, and the staff were going out of their way to chat with the foreign tourists and trying to make friends, perhaps in the hopes of getting some kind of tip down the road.

For lunch we decided to go out and look for some good local food. We originally were targeting a specific restaurant, but when we couldn’t find it we walked into a hole-in-the-wall kind of place. We got a good vibe from the owner who was standing in front of the shop cooking his food. Inside we sat at a table and realized that we had no way to read any menu, but I went up and talked to the owner, and he knew just enough English to describe what he could make for us. We ended up with some taamiya sandwiches – three kinds: ground lamb, eggplant and onion, and falafel with spicy vegetables. The food was really good there. This is what the locals eat and it was priced accordingly. We got out of there for only 20 pounds ($1.20), and just to compare – our hotel was charging 75 pounds for a can of beer.

On our walk back to the hotel we noticed that the traffic and amount of touts was significantly less. Today was Friday, and that is a day of rest in Egypt, so it was nice not to have to say “No thanks” as often when we walked around town.

Back at our hotel our room was not ready, so we decided to go drink expensive beers by the poolside. We were drinking our go-to Egyptian beer called “Stella”. The beer can featured some line-drawn characters enjoying themselves, and our favorite character was a woman with her hand held horizontally in front of her nose and her tongue sticking up and out – almost touching the bottom of her hand. Is she singing? Being seductive? About to puke? Who knows, but we were cracking each other up by doing the “Stella pose” the rest of the trip.

With a small side dish of bruschetta on some delicious bread we downed five Stella beers and enjoyed some quiet relaxation. Thanks to those five beers we felt like a nap soon enough, and when we went back to our room it was all ready to go.

We woke up from our nap with the sound of some kind of spooky prayer music coming in from outside our window. I guess there was a special event at a mosque nearby and the music was really strange – I don’t know how to describe it more than it sounded like it was from a cult horror movie soundtrack. For all I know it was wedding music but it gave me a creepy feeling.

So back out on the streets we made good on our promise and went back to Sofra for dinner. The touts were waiting at the front of the hotel but their pleas for money were starting to get a little half-hearted. Maybe our reputation was spreading as stingy tourists who never ride horse carriages.

In Sofra the staff remembered us from the previous night and were happy to see us again. We had another good meal, although not quite as good as the previous night. This time we ate an egg omelet with salty beef strips and onion inside, shrimp boiled in garlic oil and vegetables that was really good – we dipped all our bread in there and ate every last bite. Kuniko ordered a stewed duck dish that wasn’t beautiful but quite delicious. We washed it all down with fresh melon juice and strawberry juice. It was a busy night at Sofra, and two solo-dining Asian guys who had arrived about the same time ended up having to share a table with each other. Luckily they had smartphones to stare at and avoid accidental eye contact.

Today was a good day with a lot more relaxation (and beer) and it was our last full day in Luxor. We went back to our hotel, had a couple more cold Stella beers as a nightcap, and then went to bed for some rest before the last bit of Luxor sightseeing tomorrow morning.


Egypt Day 6 – Abu Simbel The Hard Way

December 28th, 2017 No comments

Apparently I had no problem sleeping in a spooky hotel, but for Kuniko it was another story. While I lay on the bed snoring, she was unable to get comfortable enough to sleep. She told me the next day that soon after I fell asleep she heard some music coming from down the hall, possibly from the four musicians that we had passed on our way out of the restaurant. The music was faint but occasionally moved around, sometimes coming from other directions as if the musicians were walking around the hotel grounds in the dark. Despite putting out the “Do Not Disturb” sign on our door, there was a knock quite late at night, which Kuniko decided to ignore. Apparently the knocking was persistent for a few minutes, and then finally they stopped. Now and then sounds of some sort of party somewhere in the hotel could be heard.

Meanwhile, I was dozing away oblivious. At around 3:45 am my alarm woke me up but I don’t think Kuniko had slept at all. I got the shower running, but there was no hot water. I did my best in the chilly shower and Kuniko skipped it altogether. At 4:15 am we left our room, eager to leave this hotel as soon as possible.

We checked out at the desk, and we were able to pick up our breakfast pack – to eat on the road because of our early start. It was nice of them to put that together. We sat at the designated meeting spot and waited patiently for our tour guide to meet us. Surprisingly, other people were checking out as well, and it appeared as though a Chinese tour group had stayed the night – they must have checked in after we went to bed. They all left at the same time. The hotel bellhop said that we should go too, but I assured him that we had made arrangements with our tour guide to meet at this spot.

But ten minutes past our agreed upon meeting time there was no sign of our guide. Uh-oh. The desk staff looked as worried as we did, and so I looked up the guide’s cellphone number and went to the front desk to have them call and remind him to pick us up. However, when I arrived at the desk the clerk was on the phone already with our guide, and he told us that we needed to go on the boat to Aswan and meet the guide there. Apparently the plan had changed. We took our suitcase down to the dark shoreline of the river, and the hotel staff kind of woke up a boat pilot who groggily led us to his boat. We got on board, and had our third Nile Cruise of the trip in the cold darkness of the morning. At least we were leaving Isis Island.

The boat took us down the river in almost complete darkness. Our suitcase sat in the center of the boat in front of us and I idly wondered where the life jackets might be kept and thought about how hard it would be to find them in the dark. But the boat arrived safely, and while the pilot futzed with the engine we eagerly grabbed our suitcase and got off the boat. There was a shout from behind me as the pilot realized that I had taken the suitcase and deprived him of a tipping opportunity. I didn’t care – I just wanted to find our guide and get to Abu Simbel. I carried the suitcase up the hill, and we found our guide and driver standing around waiting for us. The driver offered to take the suitcase but I brushed by him and put it in the car myself – it was a little childish to be honest but I wanted to show them that we were unhappy. We all got in the car, and finally we were underway. The guide explained that he had tried to come meet us, but there were some “government restrictions” and he couldn’t take the boat over to the hotel. It sounded to me like something from the Egyptian tour guide handbook – if you need an excuse for something, blame “government restrictions”. Why would the government care if a tour guide took a 5 minute boat ride to pick up his customers at their hotel?

Anyway, now that we were in a car and driving towards our goal, our mood improved dramatically. This would be another long drive – almost 300 kilometers. We drove over a big dam, waited through a very thorough military checkpoint for almost half an hour, and then got out into the open desert heading south. The desert was empty and beautiful. It really had a “Mad Max” kind of feeling, with occasional buildings or burnt out buses partially visible as we sped by. While our tour guide slept in the front seat I kept an eye on the driver but he seemed to be thoroughly awake. With the long straight roads it would be easy to doze off. We had a visual treat when the sun rose over our left shoulder as we headed south. The sunrise was slow enough that we could enjoy the whole thing even while traveling at 120 km/hr. We drove past a bus full of Chinese tourists pulled over, and the tourists were dashing across the road to get pictures of the sunrise. Our tour guide offered us the chance to stop, but we declined. Pressing onward!

The driver turned out to be a trouper. He was drinking tea and water to stay awake and that meant a couple of toilet stops in the middle of the desert, but otherwise he was solid. The guide and the driver spent most of the trip talking to each other in Arabic, and we were happy to not have to keep up small talk with them and to be left alone in the back seat. Our tour guide did receive lots of phone calls during the trip, and apparently he was doing some arrangements for tours later on in the week. It sounded like business was good for him.

Finally, we arrived at Abu Simbel. This was Kuniko’s only request for our trip to Egypt. The temple has a long history among explorers of Egypt and it featured prominently in both of the books on Egypt that I had read before we came. The temple was originally in a low valley, but construction of the Aswan High Dam would mean that the Temple would be submerged, so UNESCO led a major project to completely relocate the temple to a place above the waterline. The temple was methodically and carefully cut up by archaeologists and Egyptian history experts and moved block by block to the new location. It was quite an undertaking, and so we were really looking forward to seeing it for ourselves.

The location of the temple is quite dramatic: on the shore of Lake Nasser (formed by the dam) it is carved out of stone and built into a mountain, and then surrounded by blue sky and blue water. Four temple guardians sit outside protecting the entrance, but the second one from the left has been partially obliterated at some point in history. Our guide was kind enough to take our picture out front, and we had an immense feeling of satisfaction on reaching our goal. We stood in sight of the border with Sudan, just on the other side of the lake, pretty much the southernmost part of Egypt. What a journey!

It turned out that tour guides were not allowed inside the temple, so we got a welcome respite from our guide’s slightly confusing explanations. We were just happy to walk through and see the remarkable carvings inside. As with most temples in Egypt that we visited, photos inside were prohibited. Apparently you could bend the rules by tipping the right guys, but we stuck to the high road and just took in the sights for ourselves.

Before leaving the temple our guide asked us to take his picture in front of Abu Simbel with our camera, which was kind of weird. He looked in the camera without smiling, sort of like a determined look of satisfaction. I’m not sure why he made the request, but it was the only firm request he made the whole trip. Maybe it was some sort of proof that he actually took us there? Not sure, but I still have the pictures and it is an odd reminder of an odd trip.

So, we had accomplished our goal for the tour – we saw Abu Simbel Temple, and really every other activity on the itinerary was just icing on the cake. As far as we were concerned we were done and completely satisfied, despite our spooky hotel stay. We got in the car, stopped for breakfast for the driver and the guide (we had our breakfast packs still) and then started driving back through the desert to Aswan. This time there was more daylight to see things on the return drive. In the middle of nowhere there was a huge housing development, completely deserted, cooking in the sun. Some dunes appeared now and then, and it really felt like a wasteland out here. I kept my fingers crossed that our car wouldn’t suffer any breakdowns.

The basic plan that day was to drive back to Aswan, we would stop there and eat lunch, see the Aswan High Dam, and then spend the afternoon driving back to our hotel in Luxor, hoping to be back around 7-8 pm. Our lunch was not an inclusion on the trip, so I was looking forward to something a little more exciting than koshary. We talked with the guide and requested maybe stopping at a nicer restaurant or even a hotel restaurant, someplace a little upscale with better food (and clean toilets). He said that he knew many cheap restaurants, and that seafood was the most popular in Aswan. We assured him that we were not interested in seafood having come from Japan, and would prefer something else – price was not an issue. He seemed to understand, but later we found out that he in fact did not.

A few hours of driving later, we arrived back in Aswan. We drove through town on crowded streets, and we had a chance to witness a near-fight when a motorcyclist and driver got into a confrontation. They stood toe to toe yelling at each other and effectively blocking three lanes of traffic as people slowed to watch. Road rage is apparently universal. Eventually they cooled off and we could continue driving.

Our car stopped in a market area, which looked like an interesting place. There were stores and restaurants lining a big shopping street. It wasn’t really upscale, but this kind of location is just the kind of place where we would find great street food. I didn’t think we’d find a clean toilet here, but you have to keep an open mind when traveling. Our guide led us down the street, and right into a seafood restaurant. Kuniko and I looked at each other and realized that he hadn’t understood our request at all. The guide sat us down at table splashed with water, next to a fish tank full of goldfish, and there was a fishy smell in the air – not the fresh kind of fishy smell. The waiter saw us and handed us a special menu that was all in English – the place with the prices written had been covered with stickers, and the prices on the stickers were more than double what we had paid at nicer restaurants in Cairo. Ah-ha. The guide pointed to the bottom of the menu where it said that there was a 12% service charge and said he could probably get the restaurant to waive the charge for us.

We weren’t concerned about price – we just wanted a nice dining experience with a clean toilet – and we were willing to pay whatever to get it. But the guide was really hung up on a “cheap restaurant”. There was clearly a communication problem here, and we were getting fed up with the way things were going with our tour guide.

I figured since we were here we ought to just order and get it over with, but Kuniko was tougher than me. She told our guide clearly and to his face, “We said we don’t want seafood, and this place smells terrible! And we’d rather not eat with you.” The guide sensed something was up, and he said he could recommend another place. We stood up and left, and the waiter looked disappointed as we walked out his door. Our guide led us around the corner and to another restaurant, this one also advertising seafood in the window. We were shaking our heads and the guide couldn’t understand why we didn’t want cheap seafood.

So that was really the final straw for us, and we told him just to take us back to Luxor. We’ll skip lunch, we’ll skip the Aswan Dam, and we don’t need a toilet at the moment. We just wanted to get back and finish the tour. The guide was surprised but he said OK, and the driver had to give up his lunch break and get back behind the wheel again.

As we left Aswan the driver and the guide were talking rapidly back and forth in Arabic and the guide was clearly unhappy with how things were going with his tour and the strange couple sitting in the back seat with no taste for seafood or getting their picture taken with a live alligator or Cleopatra papyrus paintings. They talked back and forth in a sort of debate, and behind them we dug into our breakfast packs. There were some rolls – some sweet and some filled with beef bacon, and a boiled egg. Nobody would starve to death, and we were OK for the rest of the trip.

An hour out of Aswan, they stopped the car suddenly in a small village, and without explanation they both left the car and crossed the street towards some shops. It was the first time they had done that – usually they asked us if we needed a stop, so we guessed they were angry and probably pretty hungry. We didn’t mind – they needed to eat and take a break and that was fine by us. We sat in the back of the car and watched the villagers walking around conducting their business and ignoring the two foreigners sitting in the car.

Suddenly our guide appeared back at the car, this time holding two big glass mugs of sugar cane juice. He offered them to us, but we turned them down. We just wanted to get this trip over with, and it seemed a little risky to drink a whole mug of freshly pressed sugar cane juice with a two hour drive ahead of us. The guide looked confused that we didn’t accept his peace offering, and he walked back across the street with the mugs – I hope he could give them back to the vendor. The driver and the guide came back and we continued down the road. The guide spent more time on the phone, and we imagined that he was consulting with someone: “No, the sugar cane juice trick didn’t work – what should I do next?”

Finally we got back into Luxor, and we were ever so happy to see it again. As we approached the hotel our guide asked us if we would like to arrange a tour of the Luxor area with him tomorrow, and I admired his audacity. Maybe there is a one in a million chance that we would accept, but you have to try! We thanked him for his kind offer but we said that we would make some other arrangements. At our hotel we got out of the car, collected our bag, and I tipped both the driver and the tour guide 200 pounds each – not a lot but (hopefully) not insulting. It was nice to see them drive off.

So we were back at the Sofitel Winter Pavilion, the same hotel, and we checked in again, and we even got the same room, so that was convenient. It felt good to be back in control of our own destiny, and so we hit the streets to go get dinner. We first stopped at the hotel next door, also by Sofitel, but the place was a bit too upscale. The restaurant required a dinner jacket and we felt a more relaxed atmosphere would be best. We walked a few blocks to a restaurant called Sofra, recommended by several guidebooks, and it turned out to be perfect.

Sofra was located in a busy part of the older downtown, and when we arrived there were prayers blaring from a nearby mosque. Kids were playing on the street and cars rushed by, but inside the restaurant things were very calm. It turned out to be one of the best meals we had of the whole trip. The restaurant had beautiful tilework and we ate off of copper dinner tables in an arbor off the main dining room. We started with some falafel as an appetizer – they contained some unique herbs and had a very light taste. For dinner we ate an eggplant dish that consisted of two thick cuts of eggplant sautéed in oil until golden, then layered with cumin rice and spicy beef like a sort of hamburger. The rice spilled out across the plate and the flavors layered together to bring the whole dish into the comfort food category. Kuniko ordered a roasted lamb shank, also liberally herbed and perfectly tender. We had fresh squeezed fruit juices (guava and banana) and for dessert some rice pudding with dried fruits and rosewater – a great finish. It was one of those perfect meals that makes you want to come back again, so we planned right there to come back the next night, too.

So that meal was a very nice way to close out our day. We were so happy to be able to see Abu Simbel and to be back in a comfortable hotel on our own – and already we were laughing about the tour and tour guide – in our experience the problems that come up on a trip end up making the best memories.


Egypt Day 5 – Kooky and Spooky in Aswan

December 27th, 2017 No comments

We slept well in our hotel in Luxor. In the morning we went downstairs to eat breakfast, but as we kind of expected there was no comparison to what we had enjoyed back at the Safir Hotel in Cairo. Still, it was more than adequate for our needs and they had odd candy sculptures decorating the buffet area, including a Bugs Bunny kind of character that was made out of cake(?) a long, long time ago. Very, uh, unique.

Despite having just arrived in Luxor we were already leaving. The plan was to meet with a tour guide – we had arranged a tour and transportation for an overnight trip all the way down to see Abu Simbel and Aswan, and then to return to Luxor the next day. We checked out of the hotel and sat in the lobby waiting for our tour guide to show. He appeared about ten minutes late, but seemed like a nice enough guy. His name was Achmed, and his English was a bit confusing but with some effort we could understand it. It turned out he was studying Japanese as well, but I think he was in the very early stages of it as he didn’t understand Kuniko when she talked to him using Japanese. Achmed led us out to the street and introduced us to our driver, who spoke only Arabic and a bit of Chinese. We got in the car, looked for the non-existent seatbelts, and then settled back in our seats. Road trip!

We made a quick pit stop at the Egyptian equivalent of a convenience store before we left and Achmed bought us some bottled water and some snacks for the road. It was a nice gesture – it is always good to have a lot of water when traveling through the desert.

Driving outside of the big city was really fun. There was a lot to see on the trip, and since we had almost five hours of driving ahead of us it helped that there were so many interesting things to look at. Outside the city life was a little more primitive, and that was reflected in the scenes that we took in. It is hard to get a sense of how people live when you drive by in a car – but I think we got a nice survey of Egyptian life. We passed lots of houses, but out in the countryside there was much more space between them. An odd thing I noticed was that many Egyptian houses were built up floor by floor, and there was rarely an actual roof. The roof was the top-most uncompleted floor, complete with rebar sticking out of the supports and into the sky. I guess the idea is that if the family wants to expand it is easier to expand up than out – just build another floor.

We also saw a lot of donkeys out in the countryside, and I realized just how much the rural lifestyle in Egypt still depended on the humble donkey. The donkeys we saw often pulled carts on the road, and they carried farmers from their home to the family plot of land, and sometimes they were just carrying kids around.  The road ran south along the Nile River, and you could quickly understand that the Nile was the source of life out here. The soil was black along the Nile, but the further from the river the more the soil became worthless sand. The people with land on the river were the ones who had the biggest houses and (probably) the more comfortable lives.

Along the road were all kinds of sights: big piles of cut rock, trash and debris everywhere, tiny markets and small roadside restaurants with dirt floors, and many white bricks – I’m not sure what they were made of – that lay around the roadside but sometimes appeared as part of someone’s house. Also as we drove we had to slow down for big speed bumps every few minutes. The speed bumps really slowed down all the traffic, and given the lack of traffic signals I could see why they put in the bumps. There were also quite a few military security checkpoints. Our driver had a collection of cards, and at each checkpoint he flashed a card, talked with the soldiers, and then we were waved through.

The checkpoints were interesting to me because some of the soldiers wore uniforms and carried AK-47 machine guns, and other soldiers wore regular casual clothes and carried AK-47 machine guns. They all stood around looking bored, and some elevated sniper points were built to shoot from high up down on any bad guys that might appear. At each checkpoint we drove over a metal cable that apparently could be raised by the soldiers to contain any vehicles that needed to be stopped. It was a primitive security system but interesting – I don’t have a lot of life experience driving through military checkpoints.

After driving for a couple hours nature began to call. We informed Achmed, and they stopped at a small town called Idfu. There Achmed took us to what seemed to be a restaurant, but for some reason the toilet was not available to us. Then he tried an office across the street, and an old man granted us permission to use the toilet. I was bracing myself for a scary toilet experience, but for what it’s worth, I can say that I’ve used worse.

Achmed expected us to eat breakfast here, but we had eaten our breakfast at the hotel already and so we recommended pressing on. That caught him by surprise, and I think the driver had already gone off to eat breakfast somewhere when Achmed called him and said that the customers would like to leave now. We got back underway after a while, and the driver had some takeout bread and beans for breakfast that they nicely shared with us.

Towards the end of our long drive we approached the town of Aswan, and there was some serious road construction going on. The last 45 minutes or so were on dirt roads, and I was surprised that the driver preferred to have his window open, letting in road dust, insects and exhaust from the other cars. We could really taste and smell Egypt!

Finally we reached the town of Aswan, home of the Aswan High Dam, and drove to our first sightseeing location on the agenda, the Philae Temple. What we didn’t know until we arrived (but we probably should have) was that the Temple is on an island. We walked down to the water with Achmed, and he arranged a boat from the hundreds of boats docked there. It was nice to have a private boat ride, but a little bit of a surprise since I didn’t expect to have a Nile cruise on this trip. Little did I know at the time that it wouldn’t be our last Nile excursion.

The Philae Temple was really beautiful. There were elaborate carvings of pharaohs and gods, Isis, Set, and all the biggies made an appearance. Achmed was eager to explain the significance of the hieroglyphics, but to be honest we struggled to understand him. Finally we asked him for a little time on our own to look around, and that was much better. We spent about half an hour going through the ruins of the Temple and I thought it was well worth the short boat ride.

We met back up with Achmed, and he asked us what was next. It was a slightly strange question since I had already paid for the package tour and their website had listed the complete itinerary so I assumed that the tour company employee would have previously worked out which things we would see. Achmed asked me to show him the itinerary from the website, and I honestly think it was the first time he had seen it. But he kept nodding and said “no problem” and suggested heading to see the obelisk quarry in town. Great!

It was a short drive back into town and we could start to feel the day heating up.  It was the first time during the trip that we had felt hot in the winter weather of Egypt – we were a lot farther south than we had been before. Luckily we wore layers of clothing so it was easy to adjust.

We had seen obelisks from Egypt in two places previously in our travels, one in London and one in Paris. The obelisk quarry was the place where they carved the obelisk out of the ground – one giant continuous piece of stone, and then loaded them on boats and floated them down the river to Luxor, Cairo or Alexandria. There was a partially finished obelisk still lying in the quarry – half-carved out of stone and from that you could understand the sheer amount of work and skill it had taken to make one.

Next on the agenda was lunch.  Being foodies we were pretty excited about what might be in store for us. Since the tour guide was covering lunch I wasn’t expecting much, but at least he would be there to help us select something interesting off the menu and explain about things that we otherwise might not have tried. They took us to a restaurant, and it looked pretty interesting – a real local kind of place. It was reasonably clean, and so we sat down at the table to eat. Achmed started talking to the waiter, and then after the waiter left our guide told us that he had ordered some koshary for us. We were a little disappointed as we had already tried koshary in Cairo, but he was picking up the tab. The koshary was pretty good though, similar to what we ate before, and it did the job of filling our stomachs. Cheap and delicious!

After lunch Achmed said that we should postpone the visit to the Aswan High Dam until the next day, and instead wanted to take us to something not on our original itinerary: a “Nubian Village” where we could make Nubian crafts, have our picture taken with a live alligator, and see Nubian culture. We vetoed it straight away – it sounded touristy as hell and really not our cup of tea. Then he suggested a place where we could see papyrus being made which sounded interesting until we saw that it was a shop that sold cheesy paintings on papyrus to tourists. Many tour guides pad their income by bringing tourists into these kinds of places – giant rooms selling perfume, papyrus, pearls, tea, you name it. We’ve seen them in China, Bali and other places and really it is just a sales presentation masquerading as a cultural experience. But we felt bad for Achmed and it seemed like he was running out of ideas for things to do, so we went along to see the papyrus making and help him get his kickback.

The setup was just like we expected with completely cheesy paintings (think black velvet Elvis paintings with a King Tut mask instead) but the papyrus demonstration was slightly interesting. The guy cut up the papyrus root and showed how they smashed it down and soaked it to give it strength. After his demonstration he abruptly placed a price list in front of us and left, which was a weird sort of sales pitch. We walked around looking at the artwork for about thirty seconds and then said that we were ready to leave.

It was becoming clear to us that the itinerary that was provided by the company I had hired was not really connected to what we were doing, and there was a great deal of improvisation and disorganization, which we tend to disdain. I was starting to worry about the “accommodation at a five star hotel” that the tour company had advertised for tonight’s stay. We decided to make it easy for Achmed and asked him to take us to the hotel a bit earlier, figuring that we could set out on our own without the guide and do whatever we liked later that night.

Achmed was happy enough to do that, so we drove through Aswan one last time. I kept looking around at the buildings and thinking that there weren’t many that seemed like they’d house a five star hotel. Our driver pulled off the road and drove down a short stretch to the side of the Nile River. Achmed indicated that we would ride a ferry, and my stomach dropped a little. Our hotel wasn’t in town, but on an island.

We rode the boat for about 10 minutes across the Nile to Isis Island, and the Isis Island Hotel. The hotel looked nice enough as we approached, and the bellhop came onto the boat and took our suitcase. Achmed led us up a short hillside to the entrance, and then we went into the lobby for check-in. The hotel had a weird vibe. Picture a hotel with 400 rooms, but with only 20 being occupied. You could tell that someone back in the 1970’s put a lot of money into this venture, but that was a long time ago. There was something creepy about it – the lobby had a real “Overwatch Hotel” feel, there was an abundance of staff with nothing to do and big empty spaces. Achmed checked us in, we got the key, and then we arranged to meet him in the lobby the next morning at 4:30 am for a very early start. We confirmed the time and location with him twice, because we weren’t sure about his English comprehension level and I didn’t want any mistakes. But we were very happy about the early start – we wanted to get to Abu Simbel as soon as possible.

So Achmed caught a boat back to town (he said he and the driver were going to sleep in the car that night) and we went up to our room. It was clean but old, with some odd stains here and there. There was no Wi-Fi so we had no communication link with the outside world, and all we could do was hope that Achmed would be there tomorrow at 4:30 to rescue us from Isis Island.

Since we had so much free time, we decided to walk around and review the hotel amenities. It was a little lonely to walk the grounds and see all the things that were built long ago but no longer in use. There was a big pool that stretched around half the hotel, with a bar long since cleared out (maybe due to changing attitudes about alcohol), something called an Art Café that was sitting empty, and a deserted building with a sign saying “Arabic Restaurant” on the south side of the island standing alone – dark and spooky among a clump of trees. All of things don’t sound too spooky on their own but on the grounds of this really big hotel that was almost completely deserted… yikes.

Speaking of restaurants, it was looking like our eating options were going to be limited. We were lucky that the hotel lobby restaurant was open – it was our only choice – and they served mainly western style food like hamburgers and club sandwiches. Even luckier was the fact that they served beer and they took credit cards. Hallelujah!

So we sat out on a nice outdoor terrace, surrounded by a hundred empty tables, and ordered some Stella beers while watching the sun slowly set over the mountains to the west of the Nile. Kuniko and I had one of those travel “moments” that I will always remember. Having shared in the same disorganized road trip adventure and then to be totally relaxed on some little island that nobody has ever heard of, sitting on a lonely terrace of an empty restaurant in Egypt of all places, and to watch the sunset with the Nile River and the big sky above us burning orange and then purple – it was just a perfect moment.

After dinner we went back up to our room, passing a quartet of musicians setting up for a performance with no audience in sight, and went to bed. What a strange place to end the day!


Egypt Day 4 – Travel to Luxor

December 26th, 2017 No comments

We got up early once again in order to eat our last big breakfast at the phenomenal hotel buffet. Our plan for the day was simply traveling by air from Cairo to Luxor, and we had plenty of time to make the flight. So we ate the biggest breakfast yet, and then said goodbye to all that great food and went back to our room to pack. Our last hours in the hotel room meant final charging and downloading to our phones, and using the toilet because, well, just in case. It is always good to be near a clean, functioning toilet while traveling.

I found a taxi service on the Internet that would pick us up at our hotel and take us to the airport, and it was a lot cheaper than both the hotel service and the price that yesterday’s taxi driver had quoted. The best part was that there was no negotiation and hassle – I knew the price going in and that is what I would pay. We made a taxi reservation for noon. After checking out we walked outside with our suitcase, and our taxi driver from yesterday came running up to us hoping to drive us to the airport. He must have been waiting there all morning to try to catch us when we left the hotel. I told him we made other arrangements and the sad look he gave us just about broke my heart. The big, bad Internet squashes another small family business. Just about then our ordered taxi pulled up, and to his credit our clearly disappointed ex-taxi driver gave us a warm handshake and said goodbye and to enjoy the rest of our trip.

Our ride to the airport was with a service called London Taxi Cab, and they actually sent a black London-style taxi cab to pick us up. We sat in the back in a huge passenger area, and the driver silently drove us to the airport – no haggling, no discussion, but also no Egyptian hip-hop or hot coffee. The driver was very skilled and the ride to the airport wasn’t that far through the brutal traffic. On the freeway we encountered bumper to bumper traffic, and that slowed us down a bit. We were even rear-ended lightly by a medium sized truck at one point. Our driver sighed, stopped the car, and went out to talk it over with the other driver. Apparently this is no big deal, and after a very calm discussion he got back into our cab and continued driving, without making any comment to us. It was a minor bump, but we tried to recall just how extensive our traveler’s insurance was. Things could easily have been a lot worse.

He dropped us off at the airport, I gave him a little tip that seemed to surprise him (thanks for getting us in a car accident!?), and then we approached the entrance to Cairo Airport. We were using the domestic terminal, and I have never seen a more disorganized and unnecessarily complex security system in my life. I was glad we weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere. What a mess.

It started with the front door. Even before we enter the departure terminal, they are checking to see that each person has a paper ticket. We don’t have paper tickets, we have e-tickets. We need to show the guard our passport along with a screen on my phone that shows the flight number and luckily I have prepared an offline e-ticket and we get past the first hurdle. If I didn’t prepare that, what would have happened?

The next hurdle is a security check. This is before our check-in, which is an extra step of security that we’ve never seen before. Here there is one line for all departures for the entire terminal, but fortunately it is only 10-20 people long. We need to take off our shoes and jacket, and put them on the x-ray conveyor belt with our suitcase, electronics, etc. We line up to do that but there is a lot of discussion between the security workers and the passengers. The shoes, jackets, suitcases, electronics, and pocket change have all been through the x-ray machine long before their owners get to pass.

One cultural point we noticed was that anytime there was a person in charge helping someone, it was perfectly OK in Egypt to walk up while that person was helping someone else and ask them some question or make a request. Rather than refusing the request or pointing to the end of the line, the person would always handle that request, interrupting their previous activity. Then there was a visible point where you could see them trying to remember what they were doing before. This wasn’t just at the airport – it was everywhere. These “side conversations”, as Kuniko called them, caused lots of delays and inefficiencies, and led to a very long wait to get through our current security situation. At the front of our security line there were lots of people walking up and asking questions, and all these questions needed to be resolved before the next person could pass security. It was fascinating to watch.

For added excitement, suddenly a young woman sprinted to the front of the line, and shouted in English to the people waiting that she was about to miss her flight so she needed to get by. Many of the people waiting started to debate with her, and security guards were further confused, and … I think you get the picture.

We finally made it to the front of the line, and the guards were not satisfied with our e-tickets – they wanted paper. He held our passports and demanded paper tickets, and so I showed him the e-ticket, but this time he said it didn’t have both our names on the ticket. More people came to have a side conversation with the guard, and he forgot about us, and when he came back to us he said, go ahead. After we left with our stuff and lined up at the check-in counter we realized that the guard was still holding our passports, so Kuniko ran back and retrieved them. All this before we even check in to our flight.

Luckily, after this we were able to get paper boarding passes for our flight to Luxor. Using those we passed through the next security check, this one a little easier since our luggage was now checked in. We had arrived a little early at the airport to look around and survey the souvenir shopping situation, but things were grim here in the domestic terminal. We couldn’t leave to visit the other terminals, and so we were stuck in a waiting area with only a small shop. The good news was that they sold beer and wine. So we calmed our nerves with a couple of cold ones and relaxed until our flight time. The beers were expensive here – almost eight times the price that we paid in the secret liquor store back in Dokki. I think the only people buying beer here were either rich foreigners or the truly desperate secretly drinking locals – either way, no price was too high.

It was a simple one hour flight to Luxor, and by the time we arrived, night had fallen. It is always a little more scary to arrive at a new city in the nighttime – it has been that way for us since our visit to Florence, Italy for our honeymoon. The darkness makes you a bit nervous, but the next day in the daylight everything seems perfectly normal and safe.

We picked up our suitcase and above the baggage claim carousel was a sign saying the expected taxi prices to the center of town, which I thought was a very nice touch. The price said 60 pounds, so I prepared to pay around that after haggling. We talked to a taxi driver outside who started negotiation at 200 pounds, and I laughed out loud and kept walking. He chased me down and offered 150 pounds, and I said that the best I could do was 100 pounds. He acted like I was kidnapping his children at gunpoint, but he motioned to the car and we were off. Later I heard that the price of gasoline in Egypt had recently shot up 50 percent because of some kind of austerity deal, which meant that the sign that we had seen quoting taxi prices was a little out of date. Our taxi driver told us all about it, but I didn’t believe him until I confirmed it later on the internet.

It was a short drive to the Sofitel hotel, and we looked out the window and saw a much smaller city than Cairo. We went through a little mini security gate, and then checked in to our hotel without any issues. The hotel was a bit past its prime but the price was right and the grounds and location were exceptional. When we arrived there were two pastries waiting on a nice dish for us as a welcome, and we thought it made a good first impression.

The Sofitel was located one or two minutes’ walk from a sightseeing spot that I wanted to see, Luxor Temple. We drove by it on the way in and it was beautifully lit up and looked pretty dramatic. Since it was so close, we left our bags behind in the room and set out.

Outside our hotel there was a big group of touts waiting for us. They were trying to sell rides on horse-drawn carriages, taxi rides, trips to a nearby market, their guide services to local sites, and who knows what else. You could tell there was a big drop in tourism recently because these guys were desperate – more than we had seen anywhere in Cairo. As we walked we were followed by six or seven touts, two horse-drawn carriages, and even a couple of little kids. We were like walking ATMs, and interest was high. The touts spoke really good English, and they told the same jokes over and over to try to get your attention (“Want to ride in my Ferrari? It is one horsepower!”) We tried “No, thanks” repeatedly but after the tenth time it appeared to be ineffective. The touts wouldn’t let up.

Eventually we walked near a police checkpoint and then they ran off. I asked the police which way to the entrance to the temple, and they smiled and gestured off towards the northwest, so we walked along in the direction they indicated. We walked around the area back and forth a few times, and even went into a mosque by accident because we could not find the entrance. Many locals were sitting around the square in front of the temple, and men would constantly come up to us trying to sell their goods or a ride in their carriage. It got to the point where you were almost saying “No, thanks” as people walked up to you, which I think was frustrating for them as well as us – a real-life lose/lose situation. One younger kid eventually told us where to find the entrance, and we were so sure that he would demand money for the information that we almost flinched away from him. He didn’t ask for money though, and continued on his way. It is too bad the touts were so aggressive in Luxor because I’m sure that most people were kind-hearted and just wanted to help.

The Temple of Luxor was illuminated at night, and thanks to the advent of LED lights the structure was beautiful. They could position the tiny lights in various places to produce a highlighting effect on the carvings of the hieroglyphics in stone. You could really see the details and for us it was our first chance to really see and touch actual hieroglyphics. These are messages from people a long time ago, and you are free to run your hands over them. I got a little chill when I did. There are tall pillars throughout the temple, and also big statues of pharaohs standing guard here and there. Running from the temple all the way to the Temple of Karnak (which we visited later) ran the Avenue of the Sphinxes – which was just as it sounds – a wide walkway that had a Sphinxes lining each side. The Sphinxes were quite close together – hundreds of them stretching out of sight to the north – and it was interesting to imagine it in its heyday. It must have been a grand way to arrive at the temple.

Inside the temple were more detailed hieroglyphics, but unfortunately there were also local men standing around ready to point things out. Apparently this is a way to make money – stand there, point out some details to the tourists, and then ask for money. Some “guides” were quite physical and actually tried to hold your arm and pull you towards an engraving they wanted to talk about. When we go to museums and sightseeing spots we like to see it at our own pace, so we pulled away from the grabby hands of the locals and told them no thanks. They saw it as income lost, but we didn’t care so much about giving out the money – it was just that we wanted to control our experience ourselves. We bumped into these “guides” at every tourist spot in Luxor, and it served to remind us just how bad things have been for the tourist industry here. These were desperate men making money the only way they knew how.

After getting our fill of the temple, we left and walked into another part of town to get something to eat. There was a big loudspeaker tower nearby, broadcasting the sharp voice of a man speaking Arabic. Was it the president of the country making a decree? An announcement of military restrictions on travel outside of town? Maybe a bake sale at the local community center? Who knows, but the big booming voice and the military vehicles parked here and there made it feel like a scene from a military dictatorship. Just my imagination running wild, I suppose. I liked the feeling – this was adventuresome travel.

Not far from the temple we found a large restaurant that looked promising, with a big menu that had an English version. The manager urged us upstairs and we sat at a table in the center of a big room, with a few young couples around us. We chose from the menu, ordering a kofta plate and a small pot of simmered vegetables and garlic. It ended up coming with a soup, salad, hummus, bread, and the main dishes even had a little candle made from colored peppers to set the mood. I like the way the manager snapped his fingers at his staff and put them in position to serve us correctly each time. The manager talked with us a little and he seemed very grateful for the business. The food was quite good – better than we expected – and although we were expecting a padded bill at the end it was priced exactly like the menu said it would be.

We walked back to the hotel which was just a few minutes away. The touts still tried hard to get us to submit to a horse-drawn carriage ride, but we kept up our wall of “La, shukran (No, thanks)” and eventually they lost interest. Just as we arrived at the hotel, a ten or eleven-year old boy walked by pulling an unhappy donkey with a rope. The donkey was reluctant to move on and was digging in with its feet. The boy sighed, lit up a cigarette, and jumped on the poor animal’s back, and they took off. Donkey and rider zig-zagged across the road as honking cars swerved around them, and then they disappeared into the night. It was sort of a surreal end to our day.


Egypt Day 3 – A Christmas Pigeon

December 25th, 2017 No comments

We woke up on Christmas Day, looking forward to another day of sightseeing and of course that big breakfast buffet waiting for us on the second floor.

Originally I had penciled in a trip to the Egyptian Museum for today to see the artifacts, mummies and masks collected in Egypt over the years, but Kuniko noticed that our next hotel in Cairo at the end of the trip was located right next door to the museum.  So we postponed the museum for later, and instead decided to go visit some mosques around Cairo.

After a big breakfast of omelets, hibiscus juice, and plenty of fruits, bread and cheese we left the hotel and hired a driver on our own to take us to the Muhammad Ali Mosque in southeastern Cairo. The mosque is part of a fortress on a hillside overlooking the city, and it is pretty dramatic to see from a distance with its two bold minarets sticking up from the building. Since we were visiting several other sights in the area we went ahead and hired the driver to take us around to the next few places too. He was being deliberately vague about the price – “Pay me what you want to pay,” he said. Ugh.

He dropped us off at the base of the fortress complex, and we walked in on our own, past a few police checkpoints and military vehicles. Some soldiers attached to the security detail stood behind an upright bulletproof plate for cover, and a few soldiers wore ski masks to hide their identities from the local people. I felt safe the entire trip but it was a little unusual for me to be around so many soldiers and machine guns in my day to day activities. I guess like anything else, people get used to it.

The Muhammad Ali Mosque was quite impressive. The structure was made from beautiful stone and marble, with tilework and stained glass throughout. Unlike Catholic cathedrals through Europe the use of stained glass was more restrained, but when they used it they used it to great effect. Similar to other mosques there were lights and chandeliers hanging from the tall ceiling on chains, and light streamed in from some open windows on one side. The interior was big enough that one or two birds had taken residence. Outside the mosque we came across a booth with two young men distributing literature on Islamic religion, and they were very polite and friendly to us as we walked by. I imagine they would have a tough job doing that in some Western countries. Across from the mosque was an open area offering a dramatic view of the city of Cairo. We could even see the Pyramids, and even in the distance they gave an exotic look to the city.

We walked back down the hill to meet our taxi driver at the agreed time. Since we had arrived a bit early, we had to wait a few minutes, and other taxi drivers were chomping at the bit to steal away his customers. One guy offered to take us right now, and to charge us less than what we had promised to pay our driver. I told him that we’d stick with our agreement, and he understood, but told us that he’d be hanging around if our driver was late and he’d be happy to take over. I realized what a risk our driver was taking by letting us pay at the end – there was no real guarantee that we’d stick around – but I supposed he could probably find us back at our hotel since that was where we met him originally.

Soon enough our driver returned, and he took us to a few more mosques that were nearby that we wanted to see. At the entrance to the mosques there was a ticket booth – we were apparently the first customers, and when we paid the cashier made a big production about not having any change. She counted out some of our money back and then waited to see if I still wanted the rest. I kept my hand out, and she peeled a couple more bills off the roll she had in her hand, and stopped and said that was all she had. A bit hard to believe, but it was my fault for not breaking up the larger bills that I was carrying. Lesson learned, and she got an extra 30 pounds ($1.50) for her efforts.

The second mosque wasn’t quite as dramatic as the previous one, but next door was a third mosque that was really impressive. It had Skyrim-esque design with dark hallways, vaulted ceilings, and beautiful natural lighting running through some areas. The center of the mosque was open air, and again there were lanterns hanging from long chains attached all the way up on the ceiling way above us. I wondered how much they moved around during windy days. At each mosque there were people waiting to take our shoes so that we could walk in barefoot. Each shoe are “watcher” was also expecting a tip. Unfortunately my large notes were useless here, and I had to resort to giving the only small denominations that I had: 1 pound coins.  The staff were less than thrilled, but there wasn’t a lot I could do except cheerfully thank them.

Our last stop with our taxi driver was a popular “garden” that was recommended online. It was kind of a park, and it was landscaped nicely so that local people could walk around and get a break from the busy city. Mostly it was occupied by young couples, and I’d guess that it is some sort of romantic ritual to walk through this garden with the one you love.  Even in the late morning there were couples walking around in the nice weather. As far as parks go, to be honest, we’ve seen better and the place didn’t hold a lot of attraction for us.  Soon enough we went back out to our taxi driver who was patiently waiting, and he took us back to our hotel where I paid him what I hoped was a fair wage. I’m sure he did all right.

We took a little break at the hotel, making sure to get enough relaxation between meals and sightseeing. A big part of this trip was to decompress and get away from our routines back in Japan, and I think we did a pretty good job of it in Cairo. While we lounged around the hotel we did notice that there seemed to be a lot of power outages. The power would cut off and then on again immediately, two or three times, and then be OK for the rest of the day. Then the next day it would happen again. I don’t know if this was limited to our hotel or if it was happening everywhere, but it was a little odd, especially at night when all the lights blinked out momentarily.

After a little downtime we went back out on the street to do some sightseeing outside of the Dokki area and get some exercise walking around. We headed east out of our neighborhood (we were already thinking of it as “our” neighborhood) and past the tall, striking Islamic Bank with the penis shaped logo, and then we were crossing the bridge over to Nile to see the Zamalek district of Cairo.

Believe it or not, the same guy from yesterday who was supposedly getting married came up to us, asked us where we were from, and started the same spiel as yesterday. Where is your hotel, I know a guy who lives in Toronto, etc. At first I thought it was a different guy because there was no way that the same guy wouldn’t recognize us, right? I thought that he kind of looked like that guy – but Kuniko confirmed it – this was the same dude. We knew what was coming so we said we had to run and we (almost literally) ran off to the east and left him behind. It would have been fun to tease him about missing his wedding today but I just wanted to move on and see more of the city.

The Zamalek district is located on an island in the center of the Nile River, and was recommended online as an area that is a bit unique with more of a European, young, and nightlife-oriented vibe to it. We walked almost the length of the entire island, past upscale hotels, restaurants on big boats permanently moored on the Nile, and a couple of members-only sports clubs. The area was filled with nice places, but the streets were the same as elsewhere – full of cars and in disrepair. It was not easy to walk anywhere in Cairo as the city is really designed for cars not pedestrians, and Zamalek was no different. We eventually made our way to neighborhoods that did feel more European, and the number of restaurants and shops increased dramatically. I got the feeling that lots of foreign tourists stay in the area.

We were looking for a particular restaurant for lunch, called Abou El Sid, and when we found it the big doors were firmly closed and there were no windows to confirm whether it was open or not. We figured that it was closed (later we found out that it wasn’t) and went to our second choice restaurant, called Zooba. We entered the place and instantly liked it. The feel of the place was younger, with the strong smell of cumin and other herbs floating around. We sat at a table and across from me a cook was serving up big spoonfuls of koshary for to-go orders coming in on the phone. We ordered a tray of hummus with harissa, and two Egyptian flatbread (kind of like whole wheat pita bread) sandwiches. One was a taamiya (falafel) sandwich and the other had mainly herbed beef with spicy eggplant and onion. The hummus came with several rounds of flatbread to dip in there, and we drank a bottled juice/tea with everything to balance the flavors. It was a great meal, and once again very affordable.

Filled with food we decided to forgo a taxi and walk all the way back to the hotel, using regular streets and our downloaded street map on my phone. It turned out to be quite an adventure. We’d have to walk in a single file line sometimes to squeeze between cars, other times we’d try to cross fast-moving streets of traffic. I would cross and then realize that I left Kuniko behind (or vice versa). We stepped across broken sidewalks, through construction zones and empty cement buildings, over feral kittens playing on the corner, and around kids who bounced balls to each other and called out “Hello” to us in English.  We spent almost an hour walking, and it felt great. We were really getting accustomed to the flow of the city and the streets, and by the time we made it back to our Dokki neighborhood, we felt like locals.

Cairo was a place that really felt “foreign” to me – the only other time I felt like this was when we traveled in India. We enjoy that foreign feeling – it is one of the reasons that we travel to begin with. Traveling around Europe or through Asia there are a lot of similarities, but Cairo felt like a new category for us. I guess it made sense, since it was our first time in Africa.

Back at the hotel we put up our tired feet, had some hotel coffee and Christmas chocolate, and rested until dinner time. According to the internet there was a nearby branch of the restaurant that we had failed to enter, “Abou El Sid”, so we set off to go try it. Unfortunately when we arrived at the place on our map and searched the street we couldn’t find it. Maybe it was there, maybe it had moved, maybe the internet had bad information. We just rolled with it and search around the neighborhood until we found a sit-down restaurant that offered stuffed pigeon on their menu. The place was called the Saber Grill, and as we walked up the stairs to our dinner table we had to pass the cooks and a big cooking area with their dishes on display. Everything looked delicious. All that walking had built up our appetite.

We had the pigeon stuffed with herbed rice, and a chicken and rice roll that looked a little better than it tasted. The chicken roll was good but not revolutionary. The pigeon was good though – pretty bony as you might expect, but the skin was nicely browned from the rotisserie and it went well with the vegetables that came with it. As we ate our dinner one of the waiters laid out a prayer mat and started praying nearby. Staff at the restaurant were very friendly to us – they had a good sense of humor and they were nice enough to chat with us in English while we ate. It was a fun time considering we chose the place almost at random.

As we walked back to our hotel after dinner I would stop occasionally to take a photo of something interesting. At one point I stopped to take a picture and a young woman walking by was so distracted by watching me take the photo that she stumbled off the curb unexpectedly and Kuniko had to help her recover her footing. There were not a lot of tourists in Dokki and everywhere we made a big impression.

We headed to bed after another busy day – 24,000 steps according to our pedometer.


Egypt Day 2 – Pyramids, Scams and Shawarma

December 24th, 2017 No comments

We woke up early on Christmas Eve, eager to go out and do some sightseeing. The first step was to go downstairs and get breakfast, as it was included in the hotel reservation anyway. I’m usually not a big fan of breakfast, but during the vacation it can be a nice way to start the day.  We showed up right at 5:30 a.m., and we walked into the restaurant to a huge spread of breakfast items. The room was filled with a huge buffet – rows and rows of cheeses, fruits, cereals, breads, sweets, yogurts, and even lots of hummus and Egyptian spreads full of tomato, garlic, herbs and nuts. Our favorites were the big bowl of dates, and the guava juice was really delicious – sort of a tropical banana taste that really hit the spot. We were really impressed, and then we found out there was an entire other room next door that had all the hot foods, including a lonely chef waiting to cook omelets for the guests. We ordered some coffee and tucked in – what a meal! The good news was that this elaborate breakfast would be waiting for us the next two mornings as well.

In preparing for our trip we had read a lot about the scams, tricks and aggressiveness of touts in Egypt, and it was written that the ones around the Pyramids were the worst. We started mentally preparing for the trip out, and strengthened our fortitude and ability to say no. As it turns out it wasn’t as bad as I was led to believe, but it was no picnic, either.

We went down to the lobby to catch our taxi to the Pyramids at 6:30 am. The previous day I had arranged with the hotel concierge for a one-way taxi ride to the Pyramids. The concierge tried to sell us on a half day excursion, a Nile cruise, and various other activities but I just wanted a taxi – and paid for it through the hotel so there would be less hassle. Later I figured out that I didn’t really need to make appointments for taxis because the economy is so bad here that the taxis line up outside the hotels 24/7 hoping for foreigners like us to leave. But the front desk said that the taxi that we had paid for was just outside, motioning to the curb, and sure enough there was a taxi idling there. Kuniko and I walked outside to the taxi and asked about going to the Pyramids. The driver looked a little surprised but said he could do that and motioned to another guy walking up who was ready to drive. “Pyramids, no problem” said the newly arrived driver, and something felt off. I turned back to the hotel just as the doorman came out and pointed me down the street, where another taxi was pulling out of a parking spot. Oh, so that’s our taxi – got it. I said sorry to the guys who had been eager to get a job, and got into the taxi. Not a smooth system at the hotel for catching their cab.

Finally, with the correct driver, I instructed him on which entrance in Giza we’d like to use, and then we settled back to enjoy another frantic ride through Cairo traffic. The horns honked, the driver politely offered us some hot coffee that we politely declined (he held a glass filled to the brim with hot coffee, which looked like it was burning his fingers), and then he turned up the volume of some Egyptian hip-hop and we tore through the streets. Unfortunately our seatbelts weren’t working so we just kind of slid from side to side as we made our way across town.

We really liked the driver – he was much friendlier than the previous guy, and we also liked his taste in music. As we got closer to the Pyramids he pointed them out, and they looked strange looming over the local buildings. We got close to the gate, but the driver made an odd turn, took us down a narrow street that felt weird, and dropped us off in front of a shop.  Oh, I see – the old “kickback for bringing tourists” system. I was a little disappointed but I had heard that in Egypt this kind of thing happens a lot and you just have to push through. I tipped the driver a little money, and the driver thoughtfully pointed us towards the entrance a few minutes’ walk away.  We got out of the car, and I stepped around the shopkeeper who was trying to welcome me with his hand extended. I said, “La, shukran” which means “No, thank you” in Arabic, and walked around the car to get Kuniko and try to find the gate. Our sales clerk wasn’t giving up so easily though, and he followed behind us saying, “In Egypt when a man offers his hand for a handshake it is very bad to not shake his hand!” and more comments in an effort to try to get me to at least engage in his services. We just kept walking until we found the entrance.

If you try to make a mental picture of the entrance to the Pyramids, you might imagine a ticket office with a price board, a reception hallway filled with displays explaining the history of the area and outlining what you are about to see. You might even imagine some multimedia programs going on with interactive stuff for kids to play with while you waited in a long line to enter. And it was nothing like that.

The ticket office was just a small old building with three little windows that were boarded up when we arrived. The only reason we knew it was a ticket office was that there was a crowd of Egyptian men who pointed it out to us in the hope that we would give them some money as a gratuity. As we waited for clerks to appear at the windows, our sales guy, who had followed us all the way over from his shop, tried to sell us on a camel ride to the southern ridge, which apparently had a spectacular view of all the Pyramids together. Since we had no other place to escape to, we had to listen patiently to his pitch and then said no thanks. Not camels? How about horses? Eventually he sensed that we were not about to give in, so he suddenly put on a very human face, and explained that because tourism had dropped so significantly in Egypt he and his fellow shopkeepers were really hurting. He apologized for giving us the hard sell, and said that he hoped we enjoyed the sightseeing. I relaxed a bit when I finally saw a glimpse of the real person behind the sales pitch, but he couldn’t resist telling us that he’d be at his shop later if we changed our mind.

After a few minutes some young women wearing colorful headscarves walked through the crowd, opened a door to the small house and started selling tickets. There was no price list anywhere to be seen but inside a small chart showed the price for foreigners (120 pounds) and Egyptians (20 pounds).  We bought our tickets and then walked through a small security checkpoint. Then we went on in to see the Pyramids. We were the first people to enter, and there were only three or four people behind us in line. I guess it pays to get there early!

We walked up the mild embankment and were greeted with an expansive view of the Giza Plateau. Right in front of us was the Sphinx, and then behind it arrayed in a line were the three Great Pyramids. What I didn’t expect was quite a few smaller pyramids as well – varying in condition from good to falling apart. We had made it! It felt good to finally be here, and to be here pretty much alone was even better. We walked up the hillside to see the Pyramids up close. We spent time at all three of the biggest Pyramids, and they were even more impressive than I had imagined. They are huge, and it is hard to believe that tourists used to climb to the top of them – it certainly looked dangerous to me.

We spent a long time walking around the area and taking photos – it is quite large – and tried to burn off all the calories from our big breakfast. There was the option to go into the Pyramids themselves, but we had decided beforehand that it wasn’t something we wanted to do – I had read that it was a tight space, empty and not very interesting inside them. Later in the trip we would have a chance to enter the tombs of the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings, so we’d hold off on Pyramid spelunking. Just standing at the base of the giant structures and looking up at something that had lasted so long was humbling. The lack of other tourists made it feel even more special. To be alone with structures having 5,000 years of history – it made a big impact on me.

But we weren’t totally alone. Some touts had paid the admission fee to enter and brought a few camels with them. We were approached by camel riders offering a ride over and over again during our visit. Usually there are a lot more tourists, so all the touts had no choice but to concentrate on us. Thankfully we were in the desert so we could see them coming from a long way off. They couldn’t understand why anyone would want to walk when you could ride a camel. I had heard all kinds of horror stories about the tricks that they use to extract more money from their “guests” – paying a price to get on the camel and paying a much higher price to get down, to give one example. We weren’t interested and let everyone know that… “La, shukran.” There was even an old Egyptian lady with two little kids who saw us coming and then suddenly began struggling with a big bag, looking pleadingly at us for help. Why would an old lady be here in the middle of the Pyramid complex with a big package that she had apparently been able to manage until we arrived? These are the questions that you had to ask yourself before stepping unwittingly into an uncomfortable situation. Years of travel to other countries had really prepared us well for this trip.

Thoroughly invigorated from our walk among the Pyramids, we left the plateau after a couple hours, and found a taxi driver to take us back to the hotel. We negotiated a good price before getting in the cab, and he drove us back through heavy traffic. There was a pretty big car accident on the freeway blocking everything – a car had run right off the elevated expressway and they were trying to rebuild the guard rails while cars crawled by. The driver didn’t try to sell us anything or take us anyplace weird – just straight to our hotel so I gave him a big tip. I wanted to reward simple, professional service.  Back in our hotel we shook the desert sand out of our shoes, and spent some time resting up before setting off again.

Believe it or not we were hungry, and so Kuniko and I walked to a nearby kebab stand that had caught our eye the previous day and ordered some chicken kebab sandwiches. The shop was very casual and very cheap, and we sat in the back of the shop at a Formica table, eating off paper plates. Delicious! Our strategy when we are eating in a new country is to order lots of small things instead of one big meal, and so we left the shop in search of something else to eat.

For fun we walked east of the Dokki neighborhood to the banks of the Nile River. In this area the Nile split to surround an island, and so the river didn’t look quite as wide as you’d expect because you are seeing just half of it. We crossed big streets with fast moving cars – most intersections didn’t have pedestrian crosswalks or signals, and the streets that did have pedestrian signals simply never changed from “Stop”. You had to be brave and walk through the cars, trying to make eye contact with the drivers and judge whether they know you are there or not. It was very hard at first to cross the streets – but by the end of the trip we got better at it. It was kind of like crossing the street in Vietnam, but there it was only scooters you had to watch out for. In Egypt you had to watch for full size cars and trucks, which are a lot less forgiving.

As we were waiting to cross at one intersection a guy casually started a conversation with us. He asked where we were from and when I said Canada he said that he had a friend in Toronto (red flag #1). When we crossed the intersection he kind of tagged along making conversation. He asked which hotel we were staying at, and we told him our hotel name and he said that it was a coincidence because he works there as a painter (red flag #2). As we walked along he explained that tomorrow he is going to get married (red flag #3), and so he is running errands today before the big event. He was planning on driving to a village south of Cairo the next day for the ceremony. He asked us what we were doing at the moment, and since we weren’t really doing anything but walking around taking in the sights, we said as much. He recommended a market nearby (red flag #4), and when he said market I mentally envisioned a big open-air market with lots of food stalls where we could eat. He offered to show us the location and I said, “Sure, why not?” and we were off.  He led us down a few streets, still chatting the whole time and finally brought us to the doorstep of a painting shop where he said we could see his original artwork if we would just come inside and look (red flag #5).

It was at this point that I finally registered all those little red flags that individually didn’t bother me the first time. It is easy to look back at the situation now and see it all clearly, but this guy was clearly a professional at this and he did a great job luring me in like a plump fish. Fortunately we knew enough not to go into the shop to see “his” paintings and he subsequently tried to get us into another “antique” shop nearby, but we weren’t having it. He was visibly frustrated by our unwillingness to enter these shops (the shop owners pay him a “finder’s fee” for each potential customer he brings in) and asked us what we were looking for. We told him the truth – we were looking for food. I told him what we wanted to eat, and he looked defeated. He recommended walking in a particular direction for about ten minutes and there we would find a restaurant that he said was good. He told us that he needed to get going and take care of his “wedding preparations”, and then asked us if we’d like to donate something to commemorate the big event and thank him for all his help that he gave us.  I offered him 10 pounds (50 cents), which I felt was about how much I valued his “services”, but he actually asked me for 200 pounds.  I laughed and gave him 20 pounds (about a dollar) and wished him good luck with his wedding.

Throughout our trip we met people who would start a nice conversation, and sooner or later mention a store or a shop that they would like to introduce you to. It became kind of a running joke between me and Kuniko – we’d start to see people coming and know they had a shop to recommend. Soon we figured out ways to break off the interaction quickly and not waste their time or ours.  But it just goes to show how tough things are there for the local people and how gullible some tourists must be. It is easy to make fun of the approach now, but it worked on me to the tune of 20 pounds.

While walking around with our “guide” Kuniko had spotted a supermarket that looked promising, so now on our own we could go check it out. The Alpha supermarket wasn’t quite as nice as the Metro supermarket that we had visited earlier, but it had more Egyptian products (and fewer imported items). Just down the street from the supermarket was a tree-lined avenue with carts selling fresh fruits and vegetables. The quality of the produce varied, and cars weaved around pedestrians honking their horns to create more chaos, but we like those kinds of environments. There was even an old lady sitting on a box cutting up fish (without refrigeration), surrounded by five or six cats patiently waiting for scraps.

Along the street we found a restaurant with an outdoor kebab stand selling shawarma wraps. We lined up at the register to pay. An old lady behind us in line asked the cashier to translate into English that I was a “beautiful boy”. Thanks, lady! We ordered two wraps and watched the process of making them. The wrapping material was thinner and wider than a tortilla, with a squared-off notch in the bottom The cook put in some sauce and then lined the wrap with meat from the kebabs and vegetables and spices. Then he dipped one edge of the wrapped meat in the puddle of meat juice and oil standing at the bottom of the kebab pan, and fried them on a hot plate until the outside browned like a panini sandwich. He handed over a bag containing one chicken and one beef shawarma, and we headed back to the hotel to enjoy the bounty of good food. This takeaway style was pretty common in Cairo, and so we often got food to go and brought it back to our place to eat it. When we got back to the hotel we had received a small Christmas present from the hotel staff – little stockings full of Egyptian chocolates. That was kind of them. The chocolates were pretty good, too.

For dinner we went to a takeout place that looked good online, called Semsema. It was traditional Egyptian food served fast food style. The place was swamped with takeout orders, and we waited in a big group for our food to be completed. The staff noticed that we were waiting a longer time than most and started shouting at the cooks, and before we knew it the food was in our hands ready to go. We had ordered an assortment of different dishes – hawawashi (a sort of fried lamb sandwich), grilled chicken on cinnamon infused rice, croquettes filled with ground lamb called kobeba shami, and salted vegetable pickles as a palate cleanser. As we walked back to the hotel with the food we stopped at a liquor store to buy a couple of Stella beers, too. One lady watched us walking by and begged for money or food, and when I shrugged and kept walking she had a few choice words shouted at our back in Arabic. Thanks to all of the shenanigans that we put up with today we really started to get comfortable with how things go on the streets of Cairo. Each time we came back to the hotel we felt like it was the end of a little adventure, and it was very satisfying to walk the streets easily by the end of the trip.

So we enjoyed our feast in our hotel room, and everything was great. I was surprised how tasty the food was in Egypt, maybe because our expectations were so low. It was heavier food than we are used to eating, but we are on vacation after all.


Egypt – Arrival in Cairo

December 22nd, 2017 No comments

For a long time, Kuniko and I have been considering a trip to Egypt. To see one of the ancient wonders of the world, to visit Africa for the first time in our lives, and to taste a food culture that we knew almost nothing about – it sounded like the perfect combination. Unfortunately, politics and safety played a large part in keeping us away for a long time. Just when we thought it was safe, Arab Spring rose up and put a big question mark on the future of Egypt.  We waited things out, and finally decided that this winter was the time to go.

My holiday began on Friday, but Kuniko had to go in to work and wrap things up with her students. That gave me a chance to leisurely clean up the house, prepare it for a couple of weeks without us, and then I went into Sannomiya to meet Kuniko at the bus stop. I bought a couple of cans of beer and some Jagarico – a potato snack that we’re addicted to – and then we hopped on the bus to Kansai airport. Surprisingly the bus wasn’t that full, and the traffic was light enough that we arrived on time.  We had dinner at a Chinese restaurant – dim sum and spicy chicken – and then a celebration cocktail at the airport café before heading to the gate. We flew on Emirates airlines, and they have a convenient flight every Friday night around midnight, which is perfect for our schedule and allows us to start the vacation right away on Saturday.  While we waited for our flight at the gate, we noticed a large group of students being led by a guide wearing a nametag that said “Megumi”. She looked a little stressed, and I wondered what she’ll look like after the trip – she was just getting started.

It was an easy overnight flight to Dubai, and surprisingly I got a lot of sleep. In the Dubai airport we killed time at a café drinking coffee and eating a shawarma wrap. We had one of these wraps the last time we were in Dubai on our way to Georgia, and they really got our attention. A warm wrap filled with spicy chicken, vegetables and yoghurt – yum.  It was a short layover in Dubai, so by the time we walked over to the gate they were already getting people on buses and taking them out to the airplane. We joined the crowd and got our seats onboard. The flight to Cairo was short, only three and a half hours, but there was a bit of drama on board. Around us were a lot of Chinese tourists, and they appeared to be rookie fliers. They switched seats with each other five or six times, they reached behind their seat and used our power outlet because they didn’t have one, they suddenly reclined several times causing the person next to us to get a lap full of coffee, and they fired up their own tablet computers and watched them with the volume on high so most of the front of the plane had to listen as well. I guess everyone is a rookie at some point, but it was still a little surprising to see the lack of awareness of the people around you. Maybe that’s just because I live in Japan where they suffer from maybe a little too much awareness of the people around them.

We flew into Cairo around noon local time on Saturday, but couldn’t really see anything interesting from the window as we landed. Immigration and customs were a snap and we could buy a visa-on-arrival for US dollars at a small bank window just before entering the country. There was no application to fill out, which was a little odd compared to other visa-on-arrival countries we have visited like Laos and Turkey. Once we got our suitcase, I changed about 50,000 yen into Egyptian pounds, and we got quite a lot of cash to carry out of there. The exchange rate was definitely in our favor here in Egypt.

During our research for the trip I heard that the taxi situation in Cairo (and Egypt in general) is particularly troublesome. Most taxis have no meter, and so you have to haggle over prices every time you ride. In order to avoid a potentially stressful start to our trip I had arranged a ride through the internet and paid in advance, and so we exited the arrivals gate looking for someone holding a sign with my name on it.  Unfortunately, no such person was there.

Of course there were plenty of other people standing around looking to make money. But I had already paid for my ride – I just had to find it. There were some desks for taxi services inside the building, but the company that I had reserved didn’t have a signboard there. When we stepped outside to see if the taxi driver was waiting at the curb we could see hundreds of guys standing around, but nobody with a sign for us. Plenty of guys came up to us and said, “Need a taxi?” but each time we had to say no thank you. Back inside we decided to approach the taxi service desk, and they were absolutely ready to arrange a taxi for us. I explained that I had reserved one already, and since I am kind of naturally suspicious in these situations I was really surprised when I gave him my name and he pointed to a list with Arabic writing on it and said, “Ah, here it is right here.”

He guided us out of the building and to a car that was waiting, and then talked a little to the driver who was sitting in the car looking bored. The clerk said that this was our driver and he would take it from there.  At this point I still wasn’t entirely sure I was in the taxi that I had reserved – I didn’t want to get to our destination and have to pay again. So I asked the clerk to confirm our hotel name – since I hadn’t told any of these guys our destination yet I figured it was a good test, and luckily the clerk knew our hotel and passed the test. Before closing the door he smiled and said, “If you like sir, you could give me something now for helping you with this situation.” So I passed him a ten pound note (about fifty cents) and he seemed satisfied and waved goodbye as we drove off.

So this was a good example of doing things to try to make your life easier and ending up with the stressful situation anyway.  Oh well, it turned out to be good practice for future taxi rides in Egypt.

Our driver got on the road and headed towards western Cairo. Driving in Egypt is a strange experience because people tend to ignore the lanes and drive wherever they feel is best at any given time. There are lines separating each street into distinct lanes of course, but everyone collectively just chooses to ignore them.  So on a “three lane road” at any given time you usually have five cars across, which physically is possible because the extra two cars take up all that safety buffer space that is normally a part of the driving experience in other countries. Cars dart in and out and honk and honk and honk, and by the end of our trip we had figured out the code for the honks for the most part. We saw quite a few accidents on the road, and we were even involved in one minor accident ourselves towards the end of our trip.  Driving in Egypt is not for wimps.

Our driver was surprisingly zen about the whole thing. One of his hands he kept almost exclusively in his mouth, as he chewed on his nails like some kind of cannibal. He didn’t stop eating his own nails the whole 30 minute drive, while listening to Egyptian pop music and he even managed to take a few phone calls. We kept one eye on the nail-consuming driver and the other eye on the fascinating landscape. Some areas of Cairo we saw looked like strip malls, others like war zones. Huge neighborhoods were made up of broken old red cement buildings, dusted with sand. From our position on the elevated expressway we couldn’t see the lower levels of the buildings but they must have been occupied because each building was decorated with hundreds of dirty satellite dishes arranged haphazardly on top. Some areas of Cairo are probably upscale, but on this particular journey we didn’t have a chance to see them.

We arrived at our hotel, the Safir Hotel, and the driver accepted a small tip and drove off, happy to get back to gnawing on his poor fingernails. We went inside the hotel and had to walk through a security gate and put our bags through an X-ray machine. This turned out to be standard operating procedure for most buildings in Egypt, and a sign that they are taking security quite seriously these days.

We hit a bit of a bump during check-in, when they had us reserved for two nights but we had reserved online for three nights. The clerk asked us to sit down while she made some calls and sorted things out, so we walked around the lobby to kill time. There were some decorations up for Christmas, which caught me a little by surprise because I had heard that Egypt is a primarily Islamic country. There were some events happening in the hotel ballrooms, and most of the people in the lobby seemed to be Egyptian rather than tourists like us. The hotel had an old feel to it, not rundown, but more of a classic feel. I walked by the concierge desk and took a casual look at the price list for taxi rides: $65 USD for a ride to the airport (I had just paid $10 USD), so I was a little suspicious of the other prices for tours of the Pyramids and such. My casual look was apparently not casual enough because soon the concierge came over and tried to sell us on a few package tours.

After a surprisingly long wait we lost patience and went back to the clerk, who said everything was sorted out and we were OK for the three nights. We checked in and the room looked just fine. After a brief freshening up we went back outside to do some exploring.

Our hotel was located in the Dokki area of Cairo. It is just west of the Nile River, and is a bit old and not at all touristy. In fact, we didn’t see many tourists at all, even around our hotel. The neighborhood was pretty run down, with broken streets, dirty parked cars jamming the avenues making it an adventure to cross the streets, lots of shops with mysterious goods lining the shelves, and even some street food down the sidestreets. We loved it. This kind of neighborhood is exactly what we usually look out for when traveling – it feels like the real deal and often you can find the most authentic experiences and delicious food in places like this.

We started our food experience by hitting a koshary restaurant that was recommended on the internet. Koshary is apparently the working man’s meal in Egypt – chickpeas, pasta, rice, spicy vegetables, and topped with garlic oil and tangy vinegar. We entered the place and the cashier pointed us upstairs, and as we sat down we noticed that we were the only foreigners here. The menu was written only in Arabic, but we were saved by the waiter who spoke English to us fluently and recommended their signature dish. We ordered two small plates, and then sat back to wait. I noticed that lots of people were watching us covertly, and the place was filled with younger people, especially couples. When the koshary came we added what we hoped was the right ratio of oil and vinegar and went to town. Very delicious – and very filling. It was a lot more carbohydrates than we normally eat, but what the hell – we’re on vacation!

We paid the bill (about $2 USD) and then went back out on the street to look around some more. We found a few upscale supermarkets that were almost deserted – apparently the prices were too high for the local people but they were quite affordable for tourists. The people everywhere were so nice to us – they called out, “Hello!” (and “Nihao!” to Kuniko – evidently they are more used to Chinese people than Japanese people). Mostly you could tell who was friendly to be friendly and who was friendly to try to sell you something. The longer we stayed in Egypt the better we were at making that distinction quickly, with one notable exception that I’ll talk about later.

In the evening we went back out on the street for dinner, and ended up going to a take-out restaurant that had some delicious looking foods on their menu. The place mainly served kebab and kofta – grilled meats – and the staff were very friendly. They asked about us and where we are from (I always said Canada, just in case). They took a liking to us so they put a bunch of free salads and side dishes into our bag. We found a place to buy alcohol (which is not easy to do in Egypt), and so we brought back the food and two tall cans of cold beer to the hotel for our first dinner in Cairo. As we brought the food and beer through the security check, the staff noticed the alcohol and had me sign a paper saying that I was fully responsible for any bad behavior that happened because I consumed alcohol on their premises. Religious reasons? It was very unusual and a nice snapshot of the social situation there.

The dinner turned out great – the meats were laid out on a bed of fragrant yellow rice and we enjoyed trying all the salads, soups and sauces that they included. We drank two Egyptian beers, Sakkara and Stella. Later Stella turned out to be a frequent companion for our stay in Egypt.

We were pretty tired from all the travel and walking around, so we ended up falling asleep at 8 pm, much earlier than usual. I forgot to hang out the do not disturb sign on our door, so I was startled out of bed when someone started knocking at our door urgently. I groggily answered the door in my pajamas, and a housekeeper handed me a plate with a couple of oranges on it and said “goodnight!” It was an unexpected event to wrap up a busy day.  From tomorrow we’ll hit the Pyramids and start the sightseeing.