Friday, October 5, 2007

Egypt - Day 1

We woke up Thursday morning freaked out about money. We tried another ATM close to the hotel, but again: no money. We went to Citibank in Garden City, a lovely little neighborhood—leafy, narrow streets easy to get lost in—because I had a U.S. Citibank account and we also had a Citibank credit card we figured we could take money out against if everything else failed. Our trip happened to coincide with Ramadan, which was sort of unfortunate, but we figured it would be easy enough to work around it. The bank was supposed to open at 8:30, but because of the holiday opened an hour later than normal, so we killed an hour walking around. Then one of the tellers told it was both impossible to access my U.S. account and to take an advance out against our credit card. She advised getting the PIN number to our credit card over the phone, which I was pretty sure was impossible to do, but she assured us to the contrary.

Ignoring our financial woes, we exchanged what little U.S. currency we had left (Citibank couldn’t even do that for us – they sent us around the corner to another bank) and went to the Egyptian Museum, nearly killing ourselves crossing six lanes of traffic instead of taking the underground tunnel. But before going inside we needed to find some water. It was nearly 10:30 and we’d been walking since 8:30 and only now had the currency to buy a bottle of water. Except between Garden City and the Egyptian Museum there are NO places to buy a bottle of water. We took a side street near the museum looking desperately for some sort of convenience store. Nothing. We were accosted by an older man who wanted to know where we were from (what turned out to be the most common question ever uttered in all of Egypt). Friendly dude, sure, and he continued to follow us down the street talking to us. Finally we asked him for help finding a bottle of water, completely unsure what he really wanted from us. He brought us down another street to a blessed oasis in the dessert of downtown Cairo. I was so thirsty at that point I would have married the old man, but instead all he wanted us to do was buy some perfume.

We felt obliged to go into his store (classy place, as you can see) and let him smear oil up and down our arms—he got as far as gardenia and lotus, at which point I offered to buy the smallest amount possible. This turned out to be too small an amount for him, thankfully, and he let us go. Lesson learned: never talk to strangers unless you’re really, super desperate.

Finally, the Egyptian Museum. We couldn’t take pictures inside, but here it is from the outside, that pink building in the distance there...

The museum feels more like a storeroom for newly excavated treasures, with all the pieces waiting to be labeled and properly displayed. It’s just a mass of old shit, basically. Really cool, old shit. There is an imposter Rosetta Stone as soon as you walk in the front door—the original is in London—but everything else is the real deal. Outside the museum a bevy of freelance guides attack all visitors who are not obviously traveling with a tour group and offer their services. Even though I imagine a guide can come in handy since little in the museum is labeled, J and I were not interested.

This might be a good opportunity to describe the type of tourists J and I are. We fortunately fall into the same category, otherwise I doubt we would ever take another vacation together again. J and I do not like tours. We do not like to stand around and listen to someone drone on for long periods of time. We do not like to rough it. We like to wander around at our own pace. We like to take it easy. We like to look at a thing and move on. If we really like it, we’ll read about it later. I suppose you could call us lazy tourists. I like to think of us more as laid back. To me, there are two types of vacations: beach vacations and ski vacations. The separate occasions J and I backpacked around Europe we do not consider vacations. That was work. Egypt was not really a vacation either. It was down and dirty business. Do you know how much there is to see in that freaking country? This is one reason I might recommend the tour group package for all but the most laid back tourist, if you’re really concerned about seeing everything. J and I had resigned ourselves to the impossibility of seeing everything and had decided to be content with whatever fit into our laid back schedule. The other reason I would suggest this option is the harassment. You will get harassed for everything in Egypt: museum tours, sure, but also taxi rides, boat rides, camel rides, horse-drawn carriage rides, bathroom attendant tips, to buy postcards, laser-printed papyrus, small sandstone pyramids, kaftans, statues …whatever. And these dudes don’t take no for an answer. Not ever. It gets really, really tiring, especially when you’re just trying to take a leisurely stroll along the river at sunset. I imagine if you’re in a tour group you get harassed less for taxi rides and more to buy souvenirs, but safety in numbers might help even that.

The fantastic thing about sunset and Ramadan, though, is once that sun dips below the horizon: freedom. Everyone goes off to eat and J and I were left in peace. Bliss.

So anyway, we fought off the museum tour guide offers and made our way inside. To avoid the crowds we went upstairs and checked out the animal mummies, various sarcophagi, jewelry, scrolls of hieroglyphics, what-have-you. I believe we’ve discussed my issues with really crowded spaces, plus the museum was hot, so I had a little sit-down to calm the nerves and contemplate the truly tragic wardrobes of most Europeans while J sussed out the duds from the must-sees. The must-sees included the colossus of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, about 30 feet tall, the Amarna Room, which showed the new style of art that developed under Akhenaten’s 15-year rule with figures with elongated faces, and the Tutankhamun galleries—1,700 items from the boy king’s reign.

We left the museum shortly before noon and stepped out into the blinding heat with the intention of walking a short distance to a restaurant S. had recommended. S., who you will recall was in Uganda for the summer working with J and N., once lived in Cairo and had emailed us a list of places to eat and things to see. (Very kind of him and very handy.) On the way we passed an Egypt Air office so we stopped in to book a flight back from Luxor (we took the overnight train there). By the time we left it was approaching 1:00 PM and we were beginning to feel the early gnawing of hunger. We found the restaurant, but only the take-away section was open. The sit-down part appeared to be closed, the cause of which we took to be Ramadan. No biggie: we were in downtown Cairo; there was bound to be at least ONE restaurant open despite the holiday.

Okay, so there might actually only have been ONE restaurant open for lunch in downtown Cairo. It took us another hour and a half to find it. I was saved only by the apples we stole from the breakfast buffet at the hotel that morning. We were really, super desperate, so we talked to another stranger. We asked him if he knew a restaurant that would be open and he pointed us down the street. In exchange he asked us to come into his perfume shop. We told him we’d come back after lunch. We never went back; we are such assholes. But we were hungry assholes.

We ate at a French restaurant with a lot of other white people. Afterwards we hopped in a cab to go back to the hotel and call various banks/credit card companies to try and figure out our money situation. On the way we stopped at the train station and picked up our train tickets to Luxor. Though we weren’t seeing much that day, at least we were taking care of business.

This is about how we felt upon arriving at the train station:

And we only had to wait an hour or so to get the tickets…

Back at the hotel, J called Citibank, who of course said they couldn’t give out PIN numbers over the phone and who also said the bank should have been able to give us an advance against our credit card. Awesome—because banks are closed on Fridays and Saturdays in Egypt and were already closed for the day because of Ramadan, so fat lot of good that did us. Our only hope lay with Bank of America.

Never put all your hope in Bank of America.

J talked to a woman in Customer Service who said a block had been put on our debit card as soon as we tried to use it in Egypt. J asked if she had any record of us being in Africa; she didn’t, even though J called back in January to alert the bank that we would be traveling around the continent. He asked if they had any clue we had been using the card in Uganda for the past eight months and that maybe this would indicate that we were in this part of the world and therefore less suspicious that we were using the card in Egypt. They had no clue. But she said she would take the block off and the card should work immediately at an ATM.

J went to the ATM. The card didn’t work.

J called BoA again. He talked to someone, explained the problem, and was then connected to a recorded message asking him to verify certain aspects of his account. He verified them, the recording thanked him, and then hung up. This happened twice more. On the fourth call, J told the person if he connected J to the recording again basically he would hunt the man down and pull out all his fingernails. The guy stayed on the line, listened to the problem, checked the account, and informed J that the woman he had originally talked to had “messed up” taking the block off the account. So they went through the whole rigmarole again. He seemed to ask a lot more questions than the original woman, including verification of recent purchases on the card.

“Do you know what a charge for $122 would be for?” J asked me.
“Amazon,” I said. “The day before we left.”
“You bought that many books?” he asked.
I planned on having books sent to my parent’s house to pick up when we are visiting in November. I should have just said yes and let him believe that (I certainly would have no problem spending that much on books), but instead I told the truth: “Your anniversary present.”

And now J knew exactly what I had bought him for our anniversary, still three days away. The Red Sox 2004 World Series DVD Collector’s Edition (plus a book or two for myself for consolidation in shipping purposes). Surprise officially ruined. We spent $50 on six phone calls to Bank of America. But the block finally came off and the ATM finally dispensed Egyptian pounds into our grubby mitts.

Awesome day in Cairo! Never fear, all was not lost. S. came through for us with his recommendation to eat at Abu Al-Sid in Zamalek, the same neighborhood as our hotel. A huge, unmarked door on a quiet side street led into a dimly lit, elegant/bohemian smoking den with low Victorian-style couches, thick wooden tables, and darkly painted walls seen through a haze of shisha smoke. We ate delicious Egyptian food—hummus and lamb kofta and a yoghurt salad—plus we tried Koushary, made of lentils, rice, pasta, and tomato sauce, which I can’t say I was all that into but was happy to try.

Once the meal was over, I was so exhausted from the day’s walking/non-eating/non-drinking/non-money-having, I nearly fell asleep sitting up. In our desperation to get back to the hotel and blessed sleep, we nearly sprinted out of the restaurant and into a cab. But we didn’t have to tell the cab driver to step on it because cab drivers in Cairo are crazy people and drive faster than one would think possible through openings one would think not big enough to fit the old Renault through and they dodge and weave better and faster, but no less nerve-wrackingly, than Christine Taylor in Dodgeball.

Not to worry, more (and better) pictures on the way. The rest of our trip we actually saw stuff…

Lessons learned in this blog post: When traveling to Egypt, call your bank before leaving not once, not twice, but perhaps three times to confirm that they have all info down pat; think about tour groups and whether you are that kind of person; when someone asks you where you are from, keep your head down and pretend you are deaf/don’t speak English/Spanish/Italian/French/German, but if you must talk to someone, perfume dealers are surprisingly helpful; carry lots and lots of snacks; close your eyes while traveling in taxis; remember that U.S. dollars are still magic, despite their declining value; upgrade your hotel—the more comfortable bed will be so worth it when you come home at the end of the day exhausted and dirty.

1 comment:

Fango said...

Thanks for the traveling tips. I might say some of them go in the "Always" category and not just "When in Egypt." They say Rome was not built in a day and I can guarantee it was not built without snacks. Oh, and $1 US can always be used to entertain strangers in perfume shops, plazas, jail - George Washington's head can be made to look like a mushroom.