I had a busy traveling schedule this past month. A few days after my return from the States, I got on a plane for a twenty-two hour flight for Cairo, stopping in Singapore and Dubai for hours along the way. Officially, I was in Egypt to visit and survey its medical program and healthcare facilities as a medical student—the first medical student exchange program in Egypt with Asia in fact. But, we all know my real motivation for this trip: It is Egypt. And, despite the recent riots and potential dangers of Egypt these days, it is Egypt.
So, many pictures and some stories.
Benha, where I stayed for the majority of our trip, is about an hour drive from Cairo. The hostel is walking distance from Benha University, the host of this exchange program. The welcoming party was held at a fancy private club overseeing a branch of the Nile River.
Egypt is not a well-developed country, and its streets reflect that. The drive from the airport to Benha presented a stark, bleak, and sandy impression.
This is the roof—or rather top floor—of the hostel. Many buildings are missing their top floors, as if constructions were abandoned midway. The walls are rundown and the city desperately needs better civil engineering. I soon learned that there is no traffic light. Pedestrians, donkeys, horses, goats, and the ubiquitous microbus (the white vans often with their doors open) share the streets in any way they can. This is only one of the many inconveniences of living in Egypt. Plumbing, water, garbage, and other basic elements of a good city are all sorely lacking.
Still, the people of Benha are incredibly kind. I was treated to breakfast one morning by some local strangers while taking a stroll.
The Pyramids and the Sphinx need no words. My poor photography does them and their visceral presence little justice.
I kind of fell in love with the Sphinx for a little bit.
A word of warning for those who plan on visiting Egypt: Be careful of the merchants and the people, especially around major tourist attractions. At the entrance to the Pyramids, I was circled by a group of men, who shoved a souvenir pyramid replica into my hands. Then they asked for a a tip. When I refused and attempted to return my “gift,” they started yelling and grabbed my bag. They would not allow me to leave. When I gave them five Egyptian pounds, they demanded more: twenty American dollars. Luckily, my university appointed body guard noticed that I had deviated from the group and found me before things turned uglier. And, of course, the Egyptian merchants took back their present.
My brief time in downtown Cairo is scarier and more chaotic than even that ordeal at the Pyramids. Merchants in the streets are dangerously aggressive. I remember almost being dragged into a shoddy shop in a narrow alley when I gave a shisha a second look. That night, I did my tourist thing—post cards, souvenirs, cloth, cotton, and bargains (with the help of our Egyptian friends)—and left.
The presence of Islam is easily felt, and it is not just from the Hijab and mosques on every other block. As an aside, Cairo is also known as the city of a thousand minarets, which are the spire structures of mosques. Fascinating cultural differences and subtler gender tensions followed my stay in Islamic Egypt.
The architecture of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali in Cairo Citadel is breathtaking. The details and intricacies of all the arabesque designs are radiant, luxurious, but unobstrusive.
I lied down—shoes off—on the gentle rug, and stared at the high ceilings for about an hour.
The Village and Wedding
One day, an Egyptian friends from Benha University invited me to a little farm out in rural Egypt that he owned. Shisha (water pipe) and rustic delicacies were had. The skies were studded bright with twinkles unlike any sky I have seen. After all, the Village is in the middle of nowhere and far from city lights.
One night, my friends and I crashed a wedding. Egyptian weddings are quite the spectacle. They are open to all visitors, and we were the uninvited star guests from the Far East. There was plenty of dancing and a few knives.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina is built on the site of the past wonder, Library of Alexandria. I love the lighting and the modern design. Sitting down at a table and writing post cards there was a highlight of this trip. Few offer a more relaxing time than that.
Close to the Mediterranean and a popular city among European tourists, Dahab has a uniquely relaxed, touristy atmosphere compared to Cairo. I spent the last three days by the Blue Hole of the Red Sea in a upscale (relatively) hotel in this quiet, Middle Eastern coastal town.
There are gobs of stray cats in Egypt.
“And the Lord came downe upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the Lord called Moses up to the top of the mount, and Moses went up.” – Exodus 19:20, King James Bible
The Bible makes it sound so easy. Moses just went up. What the Bible did not mention was that it was a six hour walk and climb to the top either under the scorching sun during the day or subzero temperatures in the night. And that is today, with the trail already loosely defined (though only barely).
The sunrise made it all worth it.
Canyon and the Oasis
A brief walk and climb in a canyon and a drink and food on the rugs of a hut in an oasis.
The food tended toward too salty and sweet for my palate, and almost everything is eaten with bare hands. Once I got used to the cuisine and customs—and I did so quickly—the meals were a delicious part of my Egyptian experience. I especially love their cheeses and olives.
I have much more to say about my fantastic adventures in Egypt, but school and work start again tomorrow. Maybe I will get another chance to talk about shopping in Egypt—aside from those unsavory moments—and the precious gifts for my lovelies. As well, I might talk about their healthcare and medical education, which is the main purpose of our trip. For now though, I retire back into the busy life.
Seems like one hell of a trip and experience 😀
It is! And it will stay with me for a long, long time. One hell of a trip, and oh so exhausting! ^ ^
Sounds like you had fun aside from those forceful merchants and last i checked in Egypt cats aren’t really strays more like highly worshipped deitys
Yep yep! It was an eye-opening experience. And, In hindsight, 5 pounds for a good, exciting story is worth it.
Unless the last time you checked was millenia ago, cats are not deified at all. 😉 It is long past the Pharonic age. Egypt is an Islamic nation now (and has been for centuries). Although not hated, those strays are not treated exceptionally well either.
I’m glad you’re safe, sweetie. These pictures are wonderful, and count me supremely jealous of your experiences.
Thanks vuc darling. ^ ^
If you get the chance, definitely visit. I wouls stay in Alexandria though, as it is much more civilized.
Wow, that’s awesome.
I think you really had one heck of a time in Egypt. Would be interesting to check out the place. However, your stories of getting mobbed as a tourist sounds scary. It sort of reminded me of my trip to Bali where monkeys (supposedly trained by unscrupulous parties) steal your things without warning and you had to pay ‘caretakers’ to get the monkeys to return your stuff.
It must have been great visiting the pyramids and the like. I hope to see it up close, it is a wonder that men in the past could build at this scale.
P.S. I played a cool series of games based off Egyptian mythology. I think some of you know this series, but I think this particular game would make even the most hardcore of gamers interested:
Yea, Egypt can be dangerous—just as any place unfamiliar—but that’s part of traveling abroad. The danger gives a little bit of that edge, thrill, and adventure. Still, those experiences never feel that good. Although the amount I lost is insignificant, it’s a matter of impression. I’m glad I have stories to tell though. ^ ^
I remember going to Bali with my family when I was young child, and I have forgotten most of it. My parents did tell me of similar semi-mugging, cheats, and deceit there. I don’t think monkeys were involved though.
I guess it’s always important to be alert and if possible, travel with someone with a slight understanding of the environment. If you do go to Egypt (or anywhere), I wish you a safe journey. ^ ^
The pyramids were incredible up close, and not even the blatant tourism and commercialism that now plagues the area could lessen its magnificence. The Sphinx especially. He is just so regal and beautiful. I could not take my eyes off of him.
p.s. The game looks really fun! This is the type of game I would play actually.
“Insert Serious Sam reference here”. You’re not a gamer so it is nothing to think too much about.
Cool mini-tour of Egypt dood. It was a pleasant preview of what to expect should anyone want to visit sometime. Hope you get that diploma soon.
It was a pretty fun mini-trip indeed. I have reservations about recommending certain people visit at this time because of the instability, but Egypt is worth seeing in one’s lifetime at least once.
Thanks! There is no diploma for the short exchange program. It is really just to build relationship between medical programs in Asia and Egypt. As for my medical degree, I should hopefully get it in a few long years.
Hope to see you again someday. For now, keep up the good work with your studies and hopefully you won’t change your “Yuri Nation’s Fashion Diva/consultant” gimmick when analyzing shows.
I hope I still get to write somewhat regularly as things become even busier. My writing schedule is already all pretty loose now though. 😦
Sounded like a hell of a trip. Count me as a bit jealous. My favorite part was the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Oh how I could spend all day there…
Anyway, great pics, too. What did you use as your camera?
The trip started to feel long after a week—I’m getting old—but there are memories of everyday that will stay with me for a long time. A hell of a trip. Exhausting, but oh so fantastic.
The library was one of my favorite spots too. I wish I could spend more time there, but we had a schedule. I could read all day under those high ceilings and under that beautiful, gentle lighting.
I just used my cell phone (Samsung Galaxy S3). I am not a photographer, and I am really bad at taking pictures. I took so many, but the majority are blurred or are poor quality. Even these could use some work.
Looks like a memorable trip with quite a few high points and some culture shock moments too. ^^
Glad to read it was quite the experience for you.
Quite the experience and so many memories indeed. The culture shock, the fascination, the adventure… It’s all there. I had a lot of fun~
Anyways, hope you had a good winter too, Smithy darling. ^ ^
Congratulations on accomplishing one of my life goals. Next you should visit Italy and go into all of the churches there!
Thanks! I definitely want to take a trip to Italy one day. And also see the Vatican. Just enjoy the culture, art, food, and relaxation. Europe is pretty expensive though, so the trip might not happen for a while. I should start saving up.
Wow, this sounds (and looks!) so exotic and thrilling just from the post! I can’t imagine what the actual experience must have been like. Thanks so much for sharing, this is really cool!
P.S. Those pictures are amazing!
It really was a thrill and an adventure. There is just so much I want to talk about, but I have not the skills or the time, so this post is my little outlet. I hope you enjoyed it. ^ ^
p.s. I hope you enjoyed your winter as well~ I should have sent you a postcard. I’ll remember that next time I go on a trip. ^ ^
Now I am extremely jealous of the opportunity to participate in an exchange to exotic locations. Every exchange here is based on a lottery system for medical students across the whole country. As a fellow medical student, I am also interested in learning about the medical undergraduate education in Egypt. If you do not mind sharing, what was surprising for you?
Exchange here is based on applications mostly, which I’m pretty good at. I have quite the impressive resume, experience, and charm. ^ ^
Good luck on your exchange endeavors if you do take up some, Will of the Wisps. Lottery system can be so tough!
The biggest surprise for me is simply how undeveloped Egypt is. The infrastructure and basic amenities of cities are just so lacking. As for their medical program and hospitals, it’s also not up to par with developed nations (U.S., Taiwan… etc.). The facilities are poor, and the hospitals, chaotic. There are even flies within the hospital floors.
Thank you for the best wishes! I certainly sounds like a different world all together.
Oh cool, that must have been an overall nice trip (exchange program)
I liked you pictures very much, especially cairo cityscape from above.
Ah man these greedy merchants doesn’t sound very nice, I was worried about you just from reading.m glad you made it back safe. Good that this didn’t gave you an totally bad image of Egypt, after experiencing this for a second time I had probably been fed up with it ^w^
Yea, I really enjoyed the trip. There’s a little bit of everything: adventure, thrill, danger, drama, excitement, frustrations… etc.
I did not like those merchants, but I can understand their aggression. Most of them live in poverty and desperately need money. Still, it doesn’t feel good to be on the receiving end of that. 😦
Admittedly, those experiences did taint my impression of Egypt, but it’s all part of the experience. And I still love that. ^ ^
When I was a kid, Egypt was an obsession after dinosaurs. The ancient history and religion is fascinating!
If you were there on vacations I would suggest to travel northern to the beautiful Rhodes- you could stay at an empty room we have! Well, next time, if I’m still here, you can pay a visit 🙂
P.S.: out of curiosity, were you instructed to wear headcover?
Ooh. Thank you so much for the offer, my love. ^ ^ Greece is definitely a place I aspire. The stuff I have read about it: its culture, people, food, beauty… etc. Rhodes seem like a prime vacation spot!
None of our group needed to wear a hijab. It’s part of their custom, and not ours, and they recognize that. In fact, not everyone in Egypt subscribes to the traditional head wear either. Gender issues certainly exist, and can be felt, but it is no so extreme as it is in other Islamic nations.
Look amazing, I hope you had a (mostly) wonderful time.
Many Middle Eastern/Mediterranean cities employ similar approaches to haggling, ‘gift-giving’ & thievery, & you quickly learn to avoid certain issues; eg never go into a shop on your own or accept something from a stranger in the street. One bitten, twice I guess. I instinctively walk with my hands in my pockets when travelling abroad.
One of my brothers has already spent a few weeks in the same places in Egypt, & recalled similar experiences to you: the poverty & bartering occasionally led to some uncomfortable & rather frightening situations, but this was mostly negated by the generous & warm natured people he befriended there. Having yet to visit the country, I’m rather jealous! ^^
Ps. apparently the unfinished design of many buildings in the Mediterranean/East often is less the result of simply running out of money, but a practical consideration. Many houses deliberately design roofs that way, to make it easier if they decide to add another floor to accommodate for more family members or guests (in the case of a hotel). Many people just build the basic structure as soon as they can, then add additional layers once they save the money. Rarely is it the case of simply running out of cash midway through the project. There’s also an urban myth about people being able to avoid property tax that way. The end result is a rather clever, if not particularly attractive method of future expansion.
Since that incident in front of the Pyramids, I walked around Egypt constantly aware of where my arms are and of the people around me. It’s a good lesson to learn indeed, even if it’s learned the hard way. Well, 5 Egyptian pounds is hardly much. ^ ^
And, of course, the whole experience is made much better by all the friends I had there. My Egyptian hosts were most wonderful!
I actually asked one of my Egyptian friends in Benha about the buildings. He said much of the same. It is to allow additional floors added later on. But he also mentions the economic reasons, and that this style is seen more in areas of poverty. There are things of higher priority for many of the buildings besides the aesthetics of having a finished roof.
p.s. Best of luck to your brother. I hope he’s loving it there. ^ ^
The streets does look dangerous with all those aggressive merchants ^^” Glad to see you’re still safe^^
I had seen people eating with bare hands here as well since there are a lot of local Islamic Malays here where I’m staying. I’m used to such a sight, but I’m not sure if I’m really used to do that myself though.
I was genuinely pretty scared in both incidents in Cairo. I also didn’t mention another thing that happened in downtown. While our group gathered and waited for everyone to sort themselves into groups, some random group of children—about 5 or 6 kids—ran towards us, charging full speed. They then proceeded to tackle several of us repeatedly. It was an awkward situation that none of us knew how to deal with. We feared deviating from the group, and we did not actually want to lay any hands on those kids for fear of false accusations to come. So we just stood there, holding tight to our purses and stuff, and took their tackles for a good minute until our bodyguard and Egyptian friends came over to disperse them… physically. Cairo is an odd place.
I surprisingly had little qualms about eating with my hands. I’m a bit of a neat freak, so I tend to hate having food or oily stuff on my fingers and hands, and I wash them obsessively. Yet, within that culture and immersed in that environment, I didn’t have too much problem with getting my hands dirty… Deliciously dirty.
Ahh those kids. I experienced several incidents as well. While driving, some kids like those in the neighborhood look at us and ran towards my car’s rear, they then proceeded to bang the car’s rear for no good reason. Driving slowly in fear of hitting them, they did that for a few good times before they started getting bored and moved away. Awkward, but luckily they didn’t actually try to break the car glass.
Yea, it’s always hard to know just what to do against unruly kids. They are kids after all, but then again, they do pose danger. I’m glad you got out of that sticky situation safely though. ^ ^
With the exception of almost being accosted, it sounds like you had fun.
“The Bible makes it sound so easy. Moses just went up. What the Bible did not mention was that it was a six hour walk and climb to the top either under the scorching sun during the day or subzero temperatures in the night.”
To be fair, he also apparently parted a sea. I guess it’s all relative, right?
Hope you’re staying afloat, in spite of work and school. Take care of yourself, wouldn’t you?
Indeed. And now that I am safe in my comfortable first-world home, I can even look back on those unsavory experiences and color them as adventurous, thrilling, exotic time!
It’s very true what you say about Moses. If he can part the Red Sea and lead the Jews out of Egypt, a mere walk up the mountain should not break a sweat. I wish I had that kind of stamina.
Anyways, thank you, darling, for your care. I’m taking on more and more stuff, and this semester has been busier than ever. My days are long, and the course and workloads are slightly overwhelming. But I hope I’ll manage, especially when I get supportive comments like this. Thank you! ❤
“This is only one of the many inconveniences of living in Egypt. Plumbing, water, garbage, and other basic elements of a good city are all sorely lacking.” Haha, I love the way you are describing things, Yi – it’s deadpan and poetic at the same time!
“I kind of fell in love with the Sphinx for a little bit.” That’s so cute! But awesome she is indeed.
The pictures look great! I particularly like the mosque. The place seems to be pretty much like Magi in RL. I don’t know much about Islamic art but recently it came to me that there even seem to be some similarities to Japanese art. The importance of patterns, in particular, and of decorative writing.
Oh thanks for the kind words jreding! You’re making me blush. ^///^ I’m glad you enjoyed the post~
The mosque is absolutely beautiful. The details and the designs are so gorgeously complex. Mathematical!! I definitely see some parallels in those arabesque aesthetics and Japanese traditional art.
As an aside, I bought a bunch of scarves and cloth there that have some very pretty designs in some of my favorite colors. The floral patterns are another wonderful motif. ❤
This looks like an amazing journey! Hopefully one day I’ll be able to see the Sphinx and the Pyramids – the pictures don’t seem to do them justice (although they’re fantastic nonetheless!).
I hope you do too. There are some photographs out there far better than my poorly taken, blurry, terribly positioned ones, but those still don’t quite compare to seeing them in person. The real, visceral impression the massive ancient historic structures impose… One has to be there. ^ ^
Lucky, I want to visit the pyramids of Giza sometime in my life. I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed your time in Egypt.
I hope you get a chance to visit sometime! The situation in Egypt right now isn’t the most stable, so I’d wait a bit on going there. But yea, the pyramids are truly a marvel to behold! ^ ^
How did I miss this?
My parents live in Egypt and I’ve visited them a number of times in the past (though not since the recent upheaval). Your pictures certainly capture much of the flavor of the country.
As for your experiences with the merchants – yes, they are certainly aggressive, particularly in touristy areas. There’s an obvious difference between how they act near the Pyramids, for instance, than in other parts of Cairo. And some touristy spots are even more difficult than others. That said, I grew to enjoy my team with store owners and other merchants whenever I visited – the challenge of getting the price you wanted and being willing to walk away and take a chance with another vendor was something I really enjoyed doing!
Also, that’s wonderful that you visited the library at Alexandria. I went to that city (my favorite in Egypt) a number of times and always drove by the library (beautiful architecture!), but never went in.
Ooh, I didn’t know your parents live in Egypt.
It’s been over two months since I got back, and I am craving Egyptian food. The flavors are what I miss about the flavors of the country. My Taiwanese friends may have found the food too salty, but I kind of really like it. Flavors here can sometimes be too timid. I love the bold saltiness and the strong cheeses! In any case, the few restaurants with middle-eastern cuisine here are still too afraid…
My experience in Dahab and Alexandria and Benha is a lot kinder than Cairo indeed. At Benha, especially, where I spent most of my days, the people could not have been kinder. Although we were mostly met with curiosity, it was a pleasant curiosity. I remember visiting an ice cream shop one time with three other friends, and the owner just gave us a free meal along with a bag of sweets for each of us. Being away from super commercialized tourism is nice.
You should definitely go inside Bibliotheca Alexandrina. It’s wonderful in there, and there are several museums quite worth visiting. ^ ^
Cheers, TWWK! And thanks for shedding some light on your experiences with Egypt.
It’s kind of weird, living so close to Egypt and never having been there, but then again, I guess it’s kind of the story of living in Israel. Many Israelis had been to Sinai, vacationing, until recent years when terrorist nests have taken control of the area, but I myself had never been.
I remember being surprised a few years back when an Israeli reporter went to Egypt to cover the almost war between Egypt and Algyria over soccer, and I marvelled at how the street architecture, the street life, and everything else was just so alien from Israel, when Syria and Lebanon feel a lot closer – the big cities to our big cities, the villages to the Druzi villages in the north. Egypt felt very different, closer to Morroco and the rest of North Africa than to the rest of the Middle East.
I’ve never been a fan of hookahs, sure they look pretty, but I dislike them, then again, I really dislike smoking
And I’m glad you made it out fine out of your encounters with overzealous merchants. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Giza part aren’t as much merchants as they are a gang that uses this modus operandi. Many countries such as Egypt also work with bribes, where giving a bribe for anything and everything is the normal and accepted way to do things, even at official levels.
Israel is definitely another place I want to visit sometime. The Middle East hold so much mysticism, mystery, and allure for me (and for so many growing up in the US) that it all feels very—as you said—alien indeed. I expect Israel, Lebanon, and Syria all to be just as alien for me as Egypt is for you (and for me as well).
Comparatively, I think Sinai is a tourist spot. It feels a lot more commercialized and catered toward European tourists. It doesn’t quite have that grimy, “real” feel that Cairo has.
Interesting story, while driving to Sinai, we were actually stopped multiple times by roadblocks. Egyptian soldiers with AK47s were patrolling all the entrances. Our hosts told us to pull up the curtains and hide in the car. It kind of freaked me out a bit, but I suppose they’re just avoiding unnecessary delay and explanations. It’s still a bit unstable there.
And so true on the bribes. That was another low point. We were solicited for bribes at the airport even. They didn’t let our baggage through, and when we refused tip, they gave us a bunch of troubles: going through our luggage and just being jerks. Some custom officials even tried to take our wallets… 😦 Luckily, by the time I was leaving, I had pretty good awareness, and didn’t get harassed.
I find Hookah quite lovely, but mostly as a social bonding agent. Then again, my years at Hippie Berkeley bred that into my culture. I like my little cute Egyptian hookah. ^ ^
Hookah is unhealthy, we’ve had a lot of attention given to it over the years after all the kids from elementary to high school began using it.
The easiest way to work with bribes is to just accept them, pay, and be on your way. Sinai is quite dangerous right now, it’s always been somewhat out of the central government’s control, and since Mubarack’s fall it’s been worse, with bedouin tribes and supposedly Al-Queda infiltrators running around.
Supposedly Israel and Beirut are very “Western cities”, Israel in many locations is extremely western-like, but I guess the museums will be quite different.
I guess Israel would be more “alien” in little ways, I’ll share a story from when I visited the USA to explain what I mean – when I was in the USA there was a guard in the entrance to many malls, convention centers, hotels, etc. I would approach the entrance, stop, look at the guard, he’d look at me, and it’d take me a couple of seconds to realize he’s not going to search my bag or use a metal detector to check me for guns. In Israel, you undergo this whenever you enter any big building, train station, etc.
I’ve also heard one of my Sociology professors say that when he had a friend over he commented on all the people walking the streets with uniforms and guns – soldiers en route to their bases or on their way back home. Imagine an army city in Texas, say. To us they’re almost invisible because it’s “normal”.
If you visit Israel and I still live here, give me a holler.
Hookah is unhealthy! But so is a bunch of other risky behaviors: eating unhealthy, staying up late, alcohol, coffee… etc. This isn’t really a good argument, but we all choose our poisons.
What I didn’t like about the situation at the airport is that it wasn’t even a bribe. It was an extortion/ robbery. We were being harassed for not paying for something we should not have to pay. The easiest way is to just pay, but it sure does not feel at all good or right.
Dahab was actually really lovely (and I attribute it to the high amounts of European tourist commercialism there), but yes, the drive to Sinai was scarily and heavily patrolled. I guess I’m just not used to this level of security.
Also, times have changed in the past years (ever since 9/11). Nowadays, guards do check baggage at any major buildings. Governmental halls, museums, landmark sites, commercial skyscrapers are all heavily guarded.
Of course, an army city in California would still be a pretty odd (and possibly disturbing for many) sight.
Anyways, I’ll definitely give a shout out if I visit Israel. The trip probably won’t happen any time soon though. Days are busy and budgets are thin. ^ ^
I’m also not fond of hookahs and smoking in general.
Weird, no one asked for my bag when I’ve entered buildings in Indiannapolis/NYC in 2007 :3
Then again, they stopped and asked to check my bag every single flight I’ve taken on British Airways, England to USA and the other way around.