Published: The Best Way To Go Travel Magazine. July 1999
Salaam alekum (peace upon you) are the welcoming words of this enchanting land. Egypt is a world of expanse and wonders that cannot be forgotten, for its blazing red sunsets and architectural structures that dominate the land and the minds of those who visit.
My 10-day excursion took me from the bustling roads of Cairo, with its beeping horns and helpful inhabitants, to sitting in one of the many open-air cafes of the waters edge of Dahab, watching a perfect sunset.
It is a place where a person learns a lot about themselves, their ups and downs, their strengths and weaknesses. To travel this country on you own as a Westerner can be a daunting task and can cause an emotional fatigue never felt before. When speaking to fellow travellers, it will always be said: “Cairo is a city of chaos, where you only stay long enough to see the sights, then move on”.
Cairo, in the streets alone you come up against so many barriers. First the people, the traffic, and finally the food. As you walk through the doors of the airport the first words heard are ‘taxi?’ and then it never ends. They fight over your fare, amongst themselves, then with you until finally a fare is settled upon then you hit the roads.
The drive from the airport can leave you wondering and wide-eyed from fear. Road rules do not seem to exist in this country. Even when the lights are red or there is a pedestrian crossing, the traffic never stops. To cross the road on foot can be a nightmare of weaving between moving vehicles with no respect for one another’s space. Also be aware of the ‘Egyptian catilacs’ or more widely known to the western world ‘donkeys’.
Even finding food can be a time-consuming chore. Most little cafes can look like they have moved the horses out and placed chairs in for you to sit on. Hygiene is not an especially important thing to them, as you walk by, the dust that flies into your eyes is also attaching itself to your food on offer. Besides all this, when you do taste the traditional food you will find it an exotic blend of wonderful spices, meats and vegetables that is certainly worth the trouble of searching for the right place to eat.
Be sure after the meal to try a Shisha. This is a pipe of sorts with coal on top for heating, water in the bottom for filtering, and shisha in the centre for smoking, with many different flavours to taste, apple being my favourite. It has a long tube with a filter attached on the end so you can sit back in your chair and enjoy the warm fuzzy feeling that you get from it.
One thing you will notice about the old and new Cairo, is that they are slowly becoming one. Areas are so run down and falling down around you as you venture through them. Pollution is high, smog is thick, dust is everywhere and poverty exists.
Moving away from the city centre, I hired a cab for the day and travelled to Saqqara and Giza. Saqqara is an amazing sight with its temples and tombs in full view as you approach. The most noticeable feature is the Step Pyramid that was constructed in the 27th century BC and was the largest stone structure ever. It dominates Zoser’s Mortuary complex that is partially surrounded by the remnants of the limestone wall. The entrance is a large colonnaded hall where you walk through the original pillars. The surrounding land is barren and the only inhabitants are the beggars offering rides on donkeys or photos with them for a small fee.
The Pyramids of Giza are the alluring images that we travel all this way for and are certainly not a disappointment. I hired a camel and was led into the enclosure and directly toward the first and largest pyramid. What a sight to behold! Everything is so big, and the thoughts that come to mind are, how did they build these marvellous structures? Standing at the base of such a massive feature of craftsmanship, the colours and contrasts of sky, stone and sand have a serene feel to them. Think of the period of time they have existed, the power they held and the secrets that lay behind those walls, then you are brought back to the reality of tourists and guides as yet another camel passes you by. These animals are certainly the best way to view these wonders, they enable you to pass to the far side of the pyramids and look back towards Cairo which from this distance looks like rubble that stretches on forever in a haze of smog. The pyramids have an overbearing feel about them, standing above the rubble, surrounded by varying shades of blue which will eventually turn into a brilliant tone of orange as the sun disappears down over the never-ending expanse of desert that is behind you.
Another do not miss place is the Egyptian Museum. It doesn’t open until 10am, so enjoy a sleep-in if you desire. The exhibits are arranged chronologically from the Old Kingdom to the Roman Empire and can take anywhere from 1 to 5 hours to totally take it all is. The best way to explain ‘it is the place with all the bits that have left all the holes, as you will discover by going to all the sights…there are only holes where things once were. The individual artwork on the relics and antiquities, the carvings, displays and tombs of Tutankhamun are there to be admired by all.
Another thing you will notice is the incessant calling of prayers. These resound from loudspeakers at the top of the minaret in the Mosques five times a day. They may pray wherever they are at the time, but the Friday noon service should be conducted in the Mosque.
After about four days I bought myself a bus ticket and left Cairo for Dahab. The bus trip alone is an experience in itself. Prepare yourself with a pair of earplugs or the Arabic movie at full volume does eventually become quite annoying. I rode the overnight bus, told it would take seven hours, and after nine and a half hours made our final decent into the sleepy beachside resort. In that time we had to show our passports at five different check spots, stopped at a tin shed for a 45min rest stop, and again were left at another tin shed at Sharmel Sheikh to wait for our connecting bus which was running an hour and a half late. But I am pleased to say that the trek to get there was certainly worth it in the end. This was the ideal spot to unwind after the last few days in Cairo. Palm huts, coloured rugs on the water’s edge and no shoes required. If you fancy just lying in the sun and relaxing, well this is just the place to do it. The gentle breeze, the comfy deck chairs and the year-round sun is just perfect; all that is missing are the cocktails.
As you lie there and watch the world go by, you absorb your surroundings and forget the outside world. The fresh sea air, the waves lapping on the pebble beach, men having Shisha on the beach in front and the sound of divers emerging from the depths. The lights of the restaurants start to appear as the sun goes down behind the mountains and the serenity and the calm of the evening approaching consumes. You realise what a magical place Dahab is.
This is a popular place for scuba diving. No boat required, just a short walk across the dirt road that follows the water edge and you are on the reef in the Red Sea. Other options are to go to the many other dive spots available along the coastline, and any one of the dive shops have vehicles to transport you to the various places. Chairs don’t exactly exist here; cushions are placed in a seating arrangement around tables in open-air restaurants dotted along the road from where your food is carried. The people in Dahab are wonderful, they are used to the tourists and you find they don’t bother you so much in the street as they do in Cairo. Take the time out to talk to some of the shop owners and learn a little of the lingo if you can. One important word to learn is ‘la shukran’ (no thank you). This is put into practice quite often.
Dahab is a traveller’s haven; it’s a place where you go to escape the real tales of life. It is cheap living with accommodation costing not much more than a pound per person, the rooms aren’t flash by any means but if you are after the simple life for a while, this is the place. A meal will cost between 1-2 pounds and the food can be quite nice if you choose your place well. The only thing to spoil your trip would to get bubbly belly, which take my word for it isn’t nice.
Egypt is an enchanting country, definitely worth a visit if you ever get the chance.
Copyright Kristine Cook / Maiorana 2012