November 4, 2008

Egypt - Hot, Wet and Tasty

:: Luxor ::

And onto Egypt... bring it on! We were ready to meet the very renowned worst of the world's touts, tricksters and scams artists.

Our first stop was the backpacking diving mecca of Dahab. We intended staying a few days but that quickly stretched to over a week. It was a great opportunity to get a few dives under our belts. So for our stay in Dahab we threw ourselves into a pretty rigourous diving schedule. From a recreational diving perspective Dahab and the Red Sea have some fantastic dive sites full of tropical fish and coral ranging in difficulty. All the dives are shore dives so the full geared walk to the water can be demanding. An added bonus is the affordability of the dive packages (6 dives for 100 euros) and Dahab itself is a pretty little cheap and cheerful town full of guesthouses and restaurants that suit every budget.

Dahab is famous for it's Blue Hole a "bottomless" hole revered by technical and freestyle divers. You don't have to be around Dahab for long before you hear all the stories of bodies being recovered from the bottom of the hole after technical dives have gone badly wrong with fatal results. (youtube for more - including some beautiful freediving efforts here)

We spent the early mornings diving and afternoons hanging out in Bishi Bishi guesthouse enjoying cheap beers and great food with Dave. We had a great opportunity to take a side trip and dive the Thistlegorm wreck lying off the coast of Sharm El Shiek. As wreck sites go it was a facinating dive, the World War 2 ship went down and still lies at the bottom complete of its cargo - motorbikes, motorcars, tires, boots, cannonballs etc. As Always a picture tells a 1000 words so here is a little video of someones dive on the Thistlegorm to give you a visual of how cool it is.

You can even swim through captian's quarters. It's an interesting wreck although very challenging due to currents and groups of mixed ability divers. We got a lucky day where there wern't too many boats from Sharm El Sheik so it wasn't as busy as it could have been. We took a customary two hour recovery period in Sharm El Shiek before heading back over the mountains to Dahab. It was certainly long enough to see Sharm for the horrible touristy resort it has become and everyone was delighted to get back to little-ol Dahab. After saying goodbye to our diving buddy Dave we decided it was time to hit the road again.

:: Dave vs Hookah ::

The next stop was Suez which turned out to be a lot more hassle than it was worth. Arriving in the late afternoon we had enormously difficulty finding a bed for the night. Every single hotel was full to capacity. By the time we found the very last room in the city it was too dark to go and see the Suez canal up close - we saw the ships gliding through the desert from afar. We departed the following morning early in an attempt to get to Luxor in daylight hours. Getting from Suez to Luxor was a huge challenge, we managed to find a bus going to a place 30 km from Luxor. We arrived and found the terminus where minivans left every hour or so for Luxor. The drivers agreed to take us but only if we paid three times the fare. Their reason being that we'd (tourists) would just be hassle going through the checkpoints. The scene turned nasty and the men got openly hostile and changed their stance to point blank refusing to take us anywhere. Cue tears from me (half staged, half genuine!) followed by Marcus addressing the crowd saying "are you all happy now, you've made my wife cry?". After lots of guilty looks and shuffling around they finally agreed to take us. There was a stage pretears where we thought we'd be stuck there indefinitely. As it happens there was zero hassle at any of the checkpoints and an hour or so later we were dropped on the outskirts of Luxor.

:: Luxor Temple ::

Luxor is hassle, hassle, hassle. The taxis, the shopkeepers and the horse and cart men constantly tout their business and aggresively follow you around waiting for you to finally give in and hand your money over. We found the key to an easy life was to get on a bike, the lesson is only the walkers get solicitated. So luckily we saw the whole of Luxor unhassled, in 47 degree heat, on a couple of rickity rented bikes. On one very long hot day we set out for the Valley of the Kings, as we neared the entrance gates the security guards cheered us on. We were definitely the novelty of the day, most of the tourists were in big airconditioned coaches. We'd a great day panting around the ancient tombs. Most of the time we had the tombs to ourselves but where we didn't it was ok as we mostly overlapped with Russian tour groups, they tend to visit things at such a rate that they create a breeze that benefits everyone else.

:: Luxor ::

Our final stop was the capital, Cairo, a city not half as hectic as we expected. Taking it's chaotic traffic out of the equation, Cairo is a very civilised city with a fantastic vibe. It ticked all the boxes for us, fantastic food, interesting streets, old buildings and lots of different diverse areas. We found a great room with a balcony overlooking a quiet street right in the centre of the city and settled in very quickly. Everything was on our doorstep including the amazing Egyptian museum - well worth the visit to see the treasures of the country and of course the infamous gold mask of King Tut.

:: Muslim area in Cairo ::

Our trip to the pyramids didn't quite pan out as expected. We decided to go in the afternoon, hoping to avoid the tour groups. When we got there the place was desserted save for a handful of tourists. A further surprise was that we were only offered two camel rides and one postcard. Declination was met with respect and no further bothering - to our utter amazement/disappointment. We found ourselves asking "aren't these guys supposed to be the most hardnosed touts on the planet? Why aren't they hassling us? What's wrong with our money?". So our experience of the Pyramids was a tranquil one, no hassle, no crowds we wandered around the site, watched the sunset and practically closed to the place down. A very memorable afternoon.

:: Simply Stunning::

From there our next stop was Dublin for Katherine and Niall's wedding, another welcome break from the road to a soft bed and fridge full of unusual things such as cheddar cheese and rashers!

Our time in Ireland coincided with two sad family deaths. My Aunty Mary, herself a well travelled person and avid reader of our blog, sadly passed away after a long illness. A few short weeks later my Granny also died after reaching the remarkable age of 95 years. Losing these two people fundamental in my family's life was a reminder of how important it is to make the most of the time we've got in this world. For us, this translates into completing what we started - seeing our trip through to the end and enjoying the opportunity that we've been given.

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Jordanian um....well.. read it and see

:: Wow - Petra made it all worth it ::

::Rant Ahead - be warned::
What goes up must come down; after an amazing time in Syria we slipped over the border into Jordan and into what turned out to be our least favourite country in all our travels. I'll start by stressing that the things that irked us most were typical "independent traveller" gripes and also bad experiences that were specific to us. We were rubbed up the wrong way once too many times and our tolerance to see the country though properly, quickly waned, so we made the decision to power through the must-sees and out of Jordan as quick as possible. Admittedly this meant we did a whistlestop fly-through bouyant on negativity and didn't leave Jordan or Jordians much room for redemption. That being said we've covered a lot of ground over the past two years, always unearthing the good in places and we class ourselves as people who are easy to please. Disappointingly, this demonstates to us that our gripes weren't totally futile and unfounded.

High on the list of annoyances was the rip-off attitude towards tourists. We've experienced this in some shape or form in every place we've ever visited. When it comes to a premium Magnum icecream, teeshirt, Diet Coke, or a chilled bottle of water at the gate of the Taj Mahal, inflated prices can be tolerated, in fact they're expected. For basic items necessary to survive such as bread and water, bought far from the gates of a tourist attractions, there can be no such mandate. The difference in Jordan was that it was done in the absolute extreme. The price of a bottle of water (necessary to fend off dehydration in 40 degree plus heat) could differ by as much as two US dollars between shops for the same bottle. It was a constant battle to find water that wasn't being sold at tourist inflated extortionist prices. We went into a busy bakery one morning where locals were in buying huge bags of bread. The price for 10 rolls for them turned out to be the price quoted to us for one roll. When challenged the owner simply indicated that "You´re not Jordanian". It would have been cheaper for us to eat in a restaurant. Exasperated it was on to a small restaurant for a takeaway falafel, no prices on the menu, when we asked no one was quite sure what the price was (please note this was there core business) eventually a pathetically scanty falafel appeared. It was so ridiculous it was funny. We normally don't eat in white table cloth touristy restaurants preferring instead to eat where ever locals are. In Jordan we quickly began to realise that if you wanted to experience the real Jordan, away from the bus tours and pizza restaurants then it was an uphill battle the whole way.

Getting around Jordan proved to be just as annoying. Arriving to take a bus without a prebooked ticket from an agency or hotel was frowned upon, someone somewhere had lost out on commission. We got a bus early one morning only to be told that as we hadn't booked seats we might be thrown off. That's fair enough only the buses were far from full. Lots of locals turned up to take the same service. Getting the honest price on a bus ticket was another barrel of laughs, nobody knew the proper price of a ticket, not a local, not a hotel, not the tourist office, it was a lucky dip.

So our limited dealings with Jordians were fraught and met with out and out rudeness. Everyone was quick on the defensive, moaned about how hard life was and generally came across as a nation coping with a miserable lot. Blatent bitching and moaning about people, or things or prices of this and that, left most travellers we spent time around with a gutful of the whingers. It was at that point we decided we'd had enough. Our efforts to get along and enjoy the country were getting nowhere fast and we were only getting more and more disillusioned and annoyed.

: The Monastery ::

On a positive side we were absolutely blown away by Petra. As you walk through the long narrow canyon leading up to the Treasury builing you think you're fully prepared to see the famous sight, the first glimpse you catch however total exceeds expectations. The highlight of a long hot day at Petra was without a doubt climbing up to the monastery which magestically stands on the top of a hill.

:: The Monastery ::

Amusingly around Petra there's a collective whistling or humming of the Indiana Jones theme song. At one stage we heard the theme song being belted out enthuasistically only to round the corner to the site of a family coming the other way on mules. Thoroughly enjoying the moment was the dad leading the troupe, hat in hand, singing away.... on a small mule, his feet were inches from dragging through the sand. The mule was slowly meandering it's way along the road oblivous to his oversized riders ambitions or reinacting the final scene of the "Lost Chalice" movie.

:: First Sight ::

Our next stop was a night in the desert at Wadi rum. After picking our tent for the night we set off on a long 15km walk across the hot desert sands towards a rock that loomed on the horizon. Arriving before the midday heat struck we decided to take a nap in a shady canyon before starting the return journey. We got comfortable at the canyon and ended up staying there all day watching other tourist groups coming and going. In fact at one point I woke from a snooze to the scary sight of a couple of cameras in my face - Japanese tourists. One thing we learnt that day was how hard it is to gauge distances in the desert. You see a something in the distance and set off for it but it can take hours to actually reach it. As dusk was falling we finally made it back to our little tent. A good day out in the desert but after dragging ourselves through heavy sand all day we were glad to get back to the tarmacked road.

:: Desert Sands ::

The final port of call in Jordan was the seaside city of Aquba, arriving one day before a big holiday we found that everywhere had a room available but for one night only. Easy decision made to spend a night, take a look around and catch a morning ferry across to Egypt. Aquba turned out to be fairly unremarkable, a standard touristy town full of tacky souvenir shops and restaurants. It's beach was a little strange, the entire strip was one empty drinks restaurant after another all covered their frontage in tables and chairs, there wasn't an inch of sand to be seen. Even weirder was the awning that covered the whole beach. Whatever concept was in play just didn't work, as the tide came in tables and chairs kind of floated unattractively in murky water.

:: Sea View ? ::

The following morning we set off for the port to catch the ferry to Egypt. Generally the word on the street was to get to the ferry terminal 2 hours in advance of a departure. We arrived for our 10am departure an hour and a half in advance - no thanks to our bus overshooting the drop off point and only grinding to a halt and throwing us out on the highway after we pointed questioningly back a few large ferries we'd zoomed past. Panting up to the window Marcus asked for two tickets to Egypt, the seller reponded by wagging his finger in a schoolmaster fashion and tapping his watch three times before generally ignoring him. Marcus tapped the window and said "Can you sell me a ticket the ferry doesn't leave for one and a half hours?" the guy shrugged noncommitedly. After a lot of pointless to-ing and fro-ing the ticket man decided he'd made enough of a scene and finally backed down on the ferry company's intolerance for tardiness in the punctuality department. Ironically the boat departed two hours late. There is a point to making people turn up two hours before departure - a total chaotic system exists to check in, get stamped out of Jordan, buy a stamp for this, get a receipt for that and finally pay for everything at the other end of the building. We didn't even get to experience the full fiasco, when we got to the gate of the ferry there was a large crowd (on dry land) pushing forward to the boarding gate in a frantic queue - it was as if there was a ship sinking and there weren't enough lifeboats. An uniformed guy with a large gun spotted us looking on bewilderment at the scene and motioned us forward and through the boarding gate. During the two hour delay, five hour crossing and three hour wait for them to open the doors and release us onto dry land we had plenty of time to make friends with Dave, a fellow bewildered passenger with who we kicked on and had some great adventures the next episode.

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