Sunday, April 27, 2008

Charming Sharm

After the madness of Cairo, a relax in Sharm el Skeikh (or 'Charming Sharm' as they called it) was definitely needed.

Sharm is a very strange place. Think of an endless desert with mountains and sand dunes and terrains and rocky bits, and then out of nowhere is the bluest sea you've ever seen, even from the plane, surrounded by reefs. Then add a couple of hundred (thousand?) white resort buildings in various formations with artificially cultivated bits of green, but still surrounded by an overwhelming desert at every point that hadn't been developed.

One of the most amazing things about being in Sharm was to take in the sight of the desert meeting the sea. I've been trying to dig out a pic that captures what an amazing contrast it was, but I don't have one, so try and imagine the one above and the one below combined together and you should just about have it!

The Patong Beach of Sharm was a place called Naama Bay, except obviously without the strip clubs! While it had enormous numbers of sheesa bars and lots to do, but it was a bit seedy for our liking and the Egyptian men that we had only just shaken off after Cairo were back in force. We ended up only going in there once and it didn't take much for us to get that drained feeling again and flee back to the resort.

In fact, in our effort to relax, we didn't get up to too much of anything. This was easy because our resort was all inclusive, including alcohol (although there wasn't much to it; it all seemed very watered down). The resort was nice enough although a little out of date - the singer in the bar was still churning out Backstreet Boys hits from the early 90's and things were falling apart a bit. But it had all the essentials so we couldn't complain.

One thing we did manage to get up to was a bit of snorkeling (Sharm is famous for its diving, but I was too wimpy/lazy for that). One day we went out on a lovely trip round various reefs, swam around in crystal blue water and feasted on a delicious food. Perfection!

So yes, a relaxing end to the madness of Cairo and Egypt in general. It was a lovely escape from it all, but it wasn't too hard to get back on the plane to somewhere more familiar...

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Bright lights of Cairo

When people have been asking me about Cairo, I have found myself saying repeatedly that it was exhilarating, exhausting, intense, fascinating, and really exhausting. That pretty much sums it up! I'm not easily daunted by big cities, but Cairo was something else.

First off, we spent an hour driving through the city on the way to the hotel. In all honesty, that hour was one of the most enlightening of my life. I saw donkeys and carts on the road next to the most insane traffic I have ever seen, military police swarming every block and huge army murals everywhere, the river Nile, strangely green median strips next to the encroaching desert and thousands of apartment blocks. There were men in Western clothes, others in traditional robes, women in the hajib and women who could have easily been plucked out of parts of London.

The Nile and downtown Cairo

Most of Cairo looks only half built. Apparently, this is because people are able to avoid paying land tax if they do not finish the outside of their buildings. I loved imagining these palatial residences with marble floors on the inside (though probably not) that looked life half-built brick shells from the outside.

On our first night, we had an amazing experience when we were sitting by the pool at our hotel and heard this low hum break out, which grew louder, more distinct and varied and felt like it was coming from every corner of the city: prayers. It was a moment of realisation that we really were in the Middle East.

We only had one full day in Cairo, so we decided to hire a guy to drive us around for £20 each to take us everywhere we wanted to go. If you think that sounds like a slightly dodgy thing to do in the biggest city in Africa, you'd be right. It was an invitation to be scammed at every turn, as we got shunted from one 'museum' (shop) and 'school' (shop) to the next. But we got to do the good stuff too. Firstly, the pyramids at Saqqara:

Yep, there's me getting scammed. But its okay, he only wanted money for his donkey.

Then onto the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx. Brenton was dying to go the whole hog with the Egyptian experience and approach the pyramids by camel. I was less keen, and my camel, whose name was Michael Jackson, obviously hated me and tried to throw me off every time he sat down.

We chose not to go inside the pyramids as I had a bit of a claustrophobic moment, but we were surprisingly given the option of climbing one of the smaller pyramids. Surprising as it's prohibited, but of course we didn't realise that. We both went up (well I gave up halfway but Brenton went up) only to be told on our descent that we had only been allowed to go up because our guide was friends with the policeman guarding that area, and now everyone needed to be paid off accordingly. We were cogs in a very well-oiled operation.

The corruption of the military police was incredibly blatant, so much so that we actually saw them dividing up their takings in the street. They were all over the place, at least a few for every corner in the city, swaggering around their patch, heavily armed and quite intimidating in their black uniforms and berets.

The final stop of the day was the Egyptian Museum, world renowned (as you'd expect) for its collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts and particularly the bounty from Tutankhamen's tomb. Their collection was amazing but unfortunately, a lot of it was very poorly lit and displayed.

A few other notables: being an Islamic country, you're told in all the guidebooks to dress modestly, i.e. trousers and long sleeves. Yes that's difficult in 35 degrees, but some tourists (and I can't assume as I normally would that they were American because there were none of them!) had a rather interesting interpretation of dressing modestly. For example, spaghetti straps were fine providing they're worn with a headscarf, and hotpantesque shorts also were fine providing they were worn with a long sleeve top. It was a wee bit baffling.

The traffic was seriously, seriously mad. There were thousands of ancient little tin cars on the roads that had been imported straight from the USSR. There were hardly any traffic lights and none of the ones I saw worked. And if you needed to overtake - not a problem! Just drive between two lanes of cars as fast as you can.

As a Western woman, you were also the object of a bit of dubious attention from the Egyptian men, who all refer to you as 'Princess' or 'Queen'. It wouldn't be a country I'd travel to without a guy. They all addressed Brenton about anything serious and I thought their politeness to me was feigned. But maybe that's my own preconceptions playing into it.

All of that amounted to this intense, crazy day that was fascinating and draining and overwhelming. I needed a break in more relaxing destination to recover (continued in the next post: the Red Sea and Sharm el Sheikh!)