Revised 09 January 2004,
Photos & Text © 2004 by Len Schwer
I traveled to Cairo, 30 & 31 December 2003, to attend the wedding of my God-Daughter, Melissa Jeuck.
I also took this opportunity to do some sight seeing including cruising the Nile River.
I departed from SFO at 8:45 AM en route to Dulles Airport (IAD) in Washington DC, then to Frankfurt Airport (FRA) in Germany, with a final destination of Cairo Airport (CAI) Egypt. After flying 5 hours to IAD, 7 hours to FRA, and 3.5 hours to CAI, all preceded by a 2 hour bus ride from Windsor to SFO and a 3 hour layover in FRA, I arrived in Cairo. The flights were all essentially on time, and the first two legs on United were fairly empty; no one sat next to me in business class on either leg. The last leg to Cairo on Lufthansa was a different story, with a full house in cattle class.
My travel arranger, Mohamed from Mena Tours, met me at the airport, inside security, and whisked me through immigration and out to the van. After about a 30 minute driving experience through the streets of Cairo, he helped to check me in at the Conrad Hotel at about 5 PM. I tipped him 70LE (Pound Egypt) about $12. I think this was a good tip, since the cost of the transfer was $17.50.
The Conrad Hotel is superb. For $95 per night I got a great room with a view of the Nile, which in the city looks like a canal or similar to the Seine in Paris. The hotel has wireless high speed internet (150LE per day) in the room. Hilton gave me a complementary 1 year VIP Pass that entitles me to use the Executive Lounge where breakfast, snacks, light meals and drinks are served during the day.
I left a message for Suzanne, mother of the bride, and told her my room number. After unpacking I made my way to the Executive Lounge to get the lay of the land. I then went to the business center and signed up for the wireless internet service, after checking that the signal strength in my room was good; I have been in hotels where the signal is so weak you are better off with a dial-up line. I changed my voicemail greeting to inform Suzanne that I would be in the Executive Lounge if she called, and took my laptop to the lounge to catch up on the past day of emails and sip some wine while looking out over the Nile and parts of Cairo.
I returned to my room about 8 PM and shortly received a call from Suzanne. They had return from a day of helping Melissa move and touring the Pyramids. I went down to their room and met Suzanne’s mother, sister, brother, son, and Melissa. We had a nice chat until about 10 PM when I said I needed some sleep and would see them in the morning for our 11 AM museum tour. No way was I going to stay up for the New Year’s Eve ‘balloon drop’ sponsored by the hotel.
Happy New Year from Cairo!
I awoke at about 5 AM, my regular wake up time, and was surprised that jet-lag did not interrupt my sleep. I guess not sleeping on the flights, except for a few cat naps on the leg into Cairo, helped reset my body clock. I have also become a believer in using the dietary supplement Melatonin to help adjust to the new time zone. I stayed in bed until 6 AM and then showered and dressed and headed to the lounge for some breakfast. I was fairly hungry as I had only a snack the night before including two apples that were from the fruit tray in my room. The breakfast in the lounge was very nice with a large selection fruits, cereals, breads, and pastries. But I helped myself to some luncheon meats and cheese, al la a German style breakfast, as I felt the need for protein. I also tried a few Egyptian items that were tasty, but I will need Melissa to tell me what they were.
I called the others at 8:30 AM only to find they were still sleeping. They have plenty of time today as the wedding does not start until 9 PM. In Egypt everything is geared toward the end of the day; after work and after evening prayers. I did some work on my computer until I received a call from the Conrad group after 11 AM that they were going to the nearby shopping center, and associated food court, for lunch. I was not too hungry, but I joined the group as part of the day’s entertainment. Back in the Conrad group room after lunch, I met Hady’s Mother & Father when they stopped by to check on final arrangements. We spent a few hours preparing the guest gifts, incense burners, by wrapping them with bows and ribbons. Melissa left the group shortly after lunch as she had appointments with a hair dresser and makeup lady that occupied her for the remainder of the day. Suzanne soon disappeared on a similar mission. Somehow time passed until it was time to get dressed and down to the lobby to greet the guests with Hady’s Father at 8 PM. A few guests arrived between 8:30 and 9 PM, but the majority arrived closer to 10 PM.
A little after 10 PM, Melissa’s brother Steven led Melissa down the spiral staircase in the lobby of the Conrad Hotel to the accompaniment of an Egyptian bagpipe player. At the base of the staircase was Hady and his Father waiting to accept Melissa into their family. The exchanging of the bride was the signal for the Zither to start their music of drums and tambourines accompanied by singing of traditional Egyptian wedding songs. This was accompanied by spontaneous dancing of several of Hady’s friends in a gesture of joyous celebration of the union. After about 15 minutes of the ear splitting music, the procession entered the outer hall of the reception room. Here the guest were ushered into the reception room while the bride and groom wait outside for their formal introduction and grand entrance.
Egyptian weddings are reminiscent of a staged MTV music video. The loud, DJ provided, disco music in the reception room is accompanied by flashing lights and even stage smoke to dramatize the entrance of the bride & groom. After the grand entrance, the bride & groom are briefly seated on decorated chairs (thrones?) and then there ensued about two hours of dancing with various combination of the bride & groom, family & friends, groups of males, and groups of females. During all of this dancing the bride & groom participate pretty much non-stop. The time is now well after midnight and the festivities are about at the mid-point.
There were a few things of note about the Egyptian wedding ceremony: 1. The pair of videographers were essentially in the face of the bride & room the entire time. This blocks most peoples view of the couple and is a known ‘problem.’ The solution to this is to have two screens, at opposite ends of the reception room, where everything the videographers record, and have mixed/edited live, is projected.
2. The introduction of the wedding cake, a five foot high multiple layer foam edifice, was worthy of any rock star introduction. The flashing lights, dramatic disco music, DJ’s pitch, and stage smoke made me certain some Egyptian celebrity was going to appear from within or behind the cake. After the cake alone has its '15 minutes of fame', the bride & groom make their way behind the cake for their ring ceremony and cutting of the fake cake.
3. The ring ceremony is quite simple but very nice. Apparently engagement rings are worn on the right hand and the ring ceremony consists of moving of these rings from the right to the left hands.
4. Being accustomed to western style weddings, I noted that rather than being bride-centric, Egyptian wedding celebrations are groom focused. It seemed Hady & his friends had more time center stage during the dancing intervals than did the bride & groom and certainly a lot more than the bride herself.
5. The segment of the ceremony I liked the best was a pre-taped video interlude of pictures of the bride & groom spanning their lives. The baby photos were certainly humorous, but as the age in the pictures progressed, and various family members were depicted in the photographs, a real sense of a common beginning emerged and a uniting of two families. I would like to see this aspect of Egyptian wedding adopted in western ceremonies.
The wedding finally wrapped up about 3 AM after another fairly lengthy period of dancing. Apparently the Conrad group continued on in their room until about 5 AM, but I retired to my room and much need sleep.
At 8 AM I awoke to a sun filled room and readied myself to go up to the lounge for coffee & breakfast. Before going to breakfast I decided to check with the concierge about the possibility of a tour that day to the Giza Pyramids. He said a tour would be possible and that it would leave in five minutes. I returned to my room, got my camera and met my driver at the hotel entrance.
It took about 15 minutes to drive to the Pyramids which was much less than the normal 1 hour the driver told me it would take if it had not been Friday, the Islamic day of prayer. While a very expensive way to see the Great Pyramids, this turned out to be an efficient use of time as the drive between pyramids was quite short, while having to walk among these giants, and visiting the Sphinx, would have easily taken most of the day. The only pyramid open for public entrance was the small of the three, the Pyramid of Mycerinus. The entrance fee was 10LE and once into the pyramid I would have gladly paid 50LE to exit promptly. The tunnel that serves as an entrance is bout 3-4 feet high and inclined at about 1 15 degree angle. Thus one has to squat-walk for about 100 yards to reach the base. Not only is the walking uncomfortable, but the entrance is not quite wide enough for two people to pass without touching, and the two people width is needed as the return to the surface is via the same narrow and short sloped entrance. To further add to the experience, the temperature inside the pyramid is about 20 degrees warmer then the already warm outside temperature. The final touch to the experience is the thought that there is not much (no?) ventilation in the entrance. But the irony of the experience is when you get to the base, there is really nothing to see but an opening in the rocks. It is a memorable experience, especially for the next several days as the muscles in your thighs, that are apparently only exercised when you squat-walk for a long distance, remind you constantly of the folly of this experience.
While the Great Pyramids are inspiring and impressive structures to view in person, I found the Sphinx to be a slight disappointment. Like many of the world’s wonders, when you see them in photos, or in television documentaries, they are depicted from the best viewing angles, close up, with exceptional lighting, and without crowds. I was a bit surprised that the Sphinx is located in a depression and appeared smaller than I had imagined. I had a similar experience when visiting the Terra Cotta Soldiers in Xian.
After leaving Giza my driver headed south for about a 20 minute drive to North Saqqara to view the famous “Step Pyramid” which is thought to have started the era of pyramid building. I enjoyed this site as there were very few tourists and no vendors trying endlessly to sell you typical tourist items. From this site I could see further to the south the famous “Bent Pyramid” at Dahshur. I thought of asking my driver to take me further south, but I was not sure of how much flexibility he had in the route and if I really wanted to spend the additional time traveling to and from this distant site.
I returned to the Conrad Hotel at about 1 PM after a 3 hour tour of the only remaining Wonders of the Ancient World. While the trip was very expensive by Egyptian standards, the approximately $70 I spent for the driver was well worth it to me for both the experience and time savings.
On my way to my room I stopped to see if the others were awake yet but noticed they still had their “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging from the door. However when I got to my room the message light was flashing and they had just left a messages saying they were walking to the nearby mall to have lunch in the food court. Since I had not had time for breakfast, I happily joined this group and enjoyed the rather poor quality pizza we had for lunch.
After lunch we spent sometime chatting with Melissa and Hady who joined the group in the room occupied by Suzanne, and her mother & sister. The time passed quickly and it was soon about 5 PM when we planned to travel to the large (tourist) shopping area near the city center and the famous Mosque of Hussein. This area is a maze of narrow streets with shops and vendors lining both side hawking everything any tourist could ever want. While I enjoyed the spectacle, the constant harangue became an annoyance in a short amount of time. We eventually stopped for tea at a famous coffee house in this area and Hady linked up with his parents via cell phone and his brother who met us in the coffee house. We next caught a few taxies to an Egyptian restaurant where Hady’s father treated us to a very nice farewell dinner. After dinner I retired while the remaining Conrad group readied themselves for their 6 AM departure to Cairo Airport and home.
A 6 AM wake up to pack and have breakfast before meeting my arranged transport to Cairo airport for my flight to Luxor. As today was a Saturday, the traffic was quite light and we arrived at the airport a little before 9 AM for my 10:15 AM Egyptian Air flight. The plane was a Boeing 747, which surprised me as the flight time to Luxor is only 1 hour. The plane also looked as if it had been in service for quite awhile as everything appeared a bit used and tattered around the edges. I arrived at Luxor airport and met my arranged transportation to the Nile River cruise ship. It was an interesting 20 minute drive, most through the country side, to the river side dock near the center of Luxor.
My room on the Radamis I was on the top floor of cabins at the port side bow of the ship. The room was quite spacious with two twin beds and a small sitting room with two arm chairs. The bathroom was quite large by cruise ship standards. However, everything was quite well worn, although clean. After a quick survey of the ship, I went to the dinning room for lunch. At this point the ship was probably only about half full, judging by the number of empty tables in the dinning room.
At about 2:30 PM the passengers gathered in the lobby and were organized into two groups for our tours of Karnack and Luxor Temples. There was a bit of a mix up on the location of the bus, and this type of mix up or delay was to become an all too common an occurrence on this cruise.
The Karnak Temple site is large at about 60 acres and includes a “Sacred Lake” which resembles a very large swimming pool. The impressive structures on this site are the forest of columns and the two obelisks. I believe the guide said there were 168 columns and their purpose was to represent the bounty of life; no significance is attached to the number of columns, only they are intended to represent a vast amount. The two obelisks are about 23 and 27 meters in height, they are the remaining half of two pairs of obelisks erected on this site. The guide books tout Karnak as the best pharaonic monument, after only the Pyramids of Giza, and from my limited exposure to such monuments, I agree with the guide book assessment.
After another bizarre mix up with the buses, which included the other half of our tour group commandeering our, bus after not being able to locate their bus, and thus leaving us without a bus, we arrived at the Temple of Luxor, a short 5 – 10 minute ride away from Karnak. As it was after sunset, Luxor Temple was illuminated by external lighting which added to the drama of viewing the site, but was not optimal for taking pictures.
Awoke to a 5 AM wake up call to prepare for our 6 AM departure across to the West side of the Nile to visit the famous Valley of the Kings and associated Valley of the Queens. After a hurried breakfast, we waited for about 30 minutes for the breakfast stragglers to join us for the river ferry ride across the Nile. The brief transient ended at a rocky bank where the driver held the small craft against the rocks as we scurried from the 30 person boat to the shore. We then boarded buses that took us first to the Valley of the Queens.
When we arrived at the entrance to the valley there were about 6 hot air balloons ascending into the cool early morning air. While these balloons added color and drama to our arrival they seemed to me to be very incongruous with the idea of visiting an ancient burial site. However, I am sure my arrival on a large motor coach also seems rather odd to others.
There are many tombs in this area and a few are used for the tourist traffic and a rotation system is used among the tombs to lessen the impact of the tourist on any particular tomb. Since the tombs are quite crowded, the guides do not enter the tombs with their groups, as there is no practical way to conduct a guided tour; also no photographs are allowed in the tombs. Going into your first tomb is mildly interesting. It is interesting to see the carvings on the walls and ceiling, but without the guide to provide some interpretation of what you are seeing, the continuity, number, and expanse of the tombs and their carvings soon tires the mind. The few open tombs are also quite mob by groups of tourists all pretending to be junior archeologists, of “Discover Channel” Egyptology experts.
One of the tombs I entered in the Valley of the Kings had a section of the tomb that was either uncompleted or had not been restored. You could look down a long corridor and see several more rooms with piles of sand, and rock rubble from the roof, on the floor.
In between the Valley of the Queens and Kings we stopped at the Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple which looks more like a Roman colonnade structure than something constructed as a temple site for an Egyptian. Our guide explained this was constructed by a rather odd female ruler of Egypt who dressed like a man and had her tomb constructed in the Valley of the Kings, rather than the Valley of the Queens.
After visiting the Valley of the Kings, we boarded our bus and reversed our route back to the Radamis with another river ferry ride. The crossing in this direction was made more interesting as the police on the river apparently wanted the driver to come back to shore, but he seemed to protest enough to allow him to complete the trip across and deposit his load of tourists on the eastern shore. We boarded our ship and in short order set sail up the Nile for our over night stop in Edfu.
At lunch I discovered that the Radamis I charges for all drinks served in the dinning room, including water! My table partners are an Australian couple from Sydney named Nick & Margaret. They are about my age and very interesting to chat with. I also tag along with them much of the time on the guided tours. They had told me previously that they had to sign for the two Pepsi’s they had on the first day at lunch; I too had a Pepsi at lunch, but ate alone and left right after finishing my meal. At dinner I ate with Nick & Margaret but we ordered water to drink, so I assumed there would be no charge as there was nothing else provided to drink. I left the dinner early too, and inadvertently stuck them with signing for the water. Charging for water on a cruise ship seems to be about as low as you can go on the trafficking in tourism scale.
We anchored for the evening to await our turn to pass through the lock at Ensa. As soon as we anchored local boat men arrived to literally ‘pitch’ their wares to the tourists. The boats are manned by two men, one with oars who keeps the small rowboat a distance from the cruise ship, and the other is the ‘pitcher.’ The ‘pitcher’ shows his wares, typically cloth goods, to the tourists on the sundeck and to those that express an interest he wraps the good in a plastic bag and pitches them up to the sundeck (about 4 stories). The tourists then haggle with the boatman and when a proceed is agreed upon the boatman tosses another smaller clothing bag up and the tourists places their cash in the bag and throws it down to the boatman. It makes for a great show even if you do not buy anything.
Our turn to pass through the Ensa lock came at about 7 AM. We joined one other cruise ship and entered the lock and cleared in less than 30 minutes. Once on the other side of the lock we had to anchor again to await the 10 AM opening a second upstream lock. Although this lock is maintained at the same river level, i.e. it is not used to raise or lower ships, the lock door is part of a roadway that allows one of the few bridge crossing of the Nile. Apparently the bridge is only open to navigation at certain times of the day.
After passing through this lock we had a four hour cruise to our next stop in the city of Edfu. The lengthy cruise period was quite enjoyable as the weather was warm and sunny and most of the passengers passed the time on the sun deck reading, chatting, and sunning. I took this opportunity to take several pictures of the river side scenery that I think were typical of the sights along the Nile River.
We arrived in Edfu at about 3 PM and took horse carriages (Caleche) to the temple at Edfu. This site differed from the others that we had seen as it was constructed during the period when the Greeks and Romans ruled Egypt. Although these western cultures ruled Egypt, the temple was designed and crafted by Egyptians to honor their ancient gods. The exterior of the temple is in excellent condition and it’s high wall and carvings are very impressive. The temple is a bit of a box-in-a-box with the sanctuary in the inner most box, which is in turn surrounded by a build and then the total inside the high walls.
The day began with a 6 AM wake up call and packing my bag in preparation for checking out of the Radamis I and prepared for my morning tour. The boat arrived in Aswan at about 3 AM, as best I could tell, as I assumed it was the docking process that woke me at that time of the morning.
The first stop on the tour was the Philae Temple. This is one of 16 temples that were moved prior to the completion of the Aswan High Dam which formed the world’s largest reservoir, and flooded many ancient sites. The temple is on an island, and in addition to moving the temple, this island was also created as part of the reconstruction since the original temple was built on an island. I found this reconstruction of the temple to be a bit unsettling. I would not have guessed that the temple had been disassembled and reassembled, as it looked as if it had been there forever; this in turn adds doubt to the authenticity of the other ancient sites I visited.. Our guide said the only significant change in the reconstructed temple was that mortar was used to joint the stones rather than the wood doweling the ancient Egyptians used. As a result of this use of mortar in the joints, the reconstructed temple was about 7 centimeters taller than the original. The short boat ride to and from the island was probably as interesting as the temple.
The next stop on the tour was the unfinished obelisk in a pink granite quarry in Aswan. Apparently all the obelisks are one piece of granite and there are only a few granite outcrops in Egypt. As the unfinished obelisk was being quarried, a crack developed along the length of the upper portion of the obelisk rendering it useless, so the quarrying stopped. The obelisk is 47 meters long and would have been the tallest obelisk if completed. I found it interesting that the exposed surfaces of the obelisk were finished to a smooth surface, but without inscriptions. I would have thought only rough work would be performed in the quarry.
Our last stop of the day was the famous High Aswan Dam. This dam was built with the help of the Russians and completed in the 1960’s. The dam has no locks so ships cannot navigate the Nile beyond the dam. The lower, or low, Aswan dam is still in place and used to generate electricity. This dam was completed in 1890 with the help of the British. This older dam does have a lock, but it is seldom used as ship could only navigate the reservoir between the Low and High dams.
We returned to the Radamis I a little after noon and this concluded the Nile River tour. I was to be transferred to the Aswan Airport by a representative from Mena Tours with a 12:45 PM pick up time. At about 1 PM a man arrived and said he was from Mena Tours and he would take me to the airport. He asked one of the ship’s porters to carry my bag from the ship, up the dock and load it into the taxi. Then when the porter wanted a tip the Mena man asked me to provide the tip. This was the second irregular thing about this transfer, i.e. being late was the other, as I had paid for a this transfer and expected it to include the baggage handling. After the taxi drove about two blocks it pulled to the curb and the Mena representative got out of the taxi and informed me the driver would take me to the airport where I would be met by his Mena Tour colleague. This was very disconcerting, but fortunately the morning tour had driven past the airport, which is out in a vast piece of the Sahara Dessert, so I knew the route to the airport and the driver was following the route. When the taxi arrived at the Aswan Airport there was no Mena Tour representative insight. After waiting for a few minutes, the taxi driver told one of the porter to go into the terminal and find the representative. The porter returned, loaded my bags onto a cart and the driver indicated I should follow my bags into the airport. The driver also wanted to be tipped, or paid, for the ride to the airport, but I refused. Immediately inside the airport was the security screening station and I had some difficulty clearing this station; apparently due to the presence of the dam, security at Aswan Airport is more strict than at Cairo Airport. While removing first my watch, then my belt, and subsequently my shoes, the porter who had loaded my bags onto the X-ray machine belt passed through the scanner. After the porter cleared the scanner, he picked up his watch, and my watch, and retrieved my bags from the X-ray scanner. Although I was slightly distracted by the security guards and trying to pass through the scanner, I noted the watch ploy and told the security man that the porter had my watch. The porter feigned he had picked up the watch by mistake, but it was a poor excuse as he had two watches visible when the security guard retrieved my watch for me. The porter led me to the Meta representative who apologized for not meeting me at the boat and asked for my ticket & passport to obtain my boarding pass. The porter now asked me for a tip for transporting my bags. I told him to get the tip from the Meta representative as I had paid for the transfer, he did not press the tip issue, I think because he had just minutes before been caught stealing my watch. The Meta man produced my boarding pass, passport, and baggage tag. He then escorted me to the guarded gate area and wished me a safe journey. I tipped 10LE was glad the travel adventure was over.
This was a rather poor beginning of a very long day.
Inside the gate area I discovered that my 2:20 PM departure to Cairo had been delayed until 4:30 PM. The flight left Aswan at about 5 PM and arrived in Cairo a little after 6 PM. I was greeted by my Cairo Meta transfer agent Mohamed; it was a relief to see a familiar face waiting to greet me. It took awhile to retrieve my bags and then to drive to the Conrad Hotel as traffic was fairly heavy at this time of the evening. There was a further delay in checking into the Conrad as my reservation was not in their computer system; this was my personal doing and not the fault of Meta Tours. Upon my initial arrival at the Conrad on New Year’s Eve I had changed my reservation from a continuous stay from 31 December until 7 January, to a 3 days stay, then away on my Nile cruise for 3 nights, and returning for one night on 6 January. Apparently the lady that checked me in on 31 January did not understand my instructions. I place a small amount of blame on my otherwise excellent Meta representative as at checkout I asked him to double check with the desk clerk that I did indeed have a one night reservation upon my return to Cairo. After much consultation, the Conrad clerk did provide me with a room which I entered at about 7:30 PM. My original plan was to return to the Conrad in the afternoon and connect with Suzanne & Melissa and then have a nap before my midnight transfer back to Cairo Airport for my 2:40 AM departure for Frankfurt and eventually home in Windsor.
I had some snacks in the Conrad Executive Lounge, and two glasses of wine, while I caught up on my email of the past four days via the high-speed wireless internet connection available at the Conrad; the +10 hour time difference between Cairo and California worked to my advantage as Ms Becky, Jim Gran, and Paul Senseny responded to my emails almost immediately. I then retired to my room for an hour’s rest, but no sleep, until I deemed it time to have a shower to get ready for my midnight transfer back to Cairo Airport.
My Cairo Meta man, Mohamed, arrived at the stroke of midnight just like Cinderella. The drive to the airport was fairly quick and the Lufthansa check-in line was short. I asked to upgrade my CAI-FRA leg and was told it would cost $150 which I agreed to pay; using miles was not an option for some reason. Rather than paying at the ticket counter I was invited to the Lufthansa offices behind the ticket counters to buy the upgrade. While I thought this a bit odd, it worked just fine. The Lufthansa ‘first class’ lounge at Cairo Airport is a dump, with shabby furniture and quite cramped quarters; not a place you would want to spend several hours.
The Cairo to Frankfurt flight departed and arrived on-time. The only oddity was passports were check when deplaning in Frankfurt. I can only assume this is part of the heightened security level? My flight to Chicago departed on-time and the business Class section was less than half full so I moved the to the middle seat in a center grouping of three seats. The ORD to SFO flight departed about 1 hour late due to a delayed aircraft. I slept most of the ORD-SFO leg. A two hour bus ride brought me back to Sonoma County and Wonderful Windsor!
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