While you’re reading this, I am underwater. (Note: I didn’t finish this before we left, so we are no longer underwater. The whale shark is still cool, though, right?)
With any luck, I am underwater with this guy.
Despite the fact that the lead-up to this trip was a clusterfuck of entirely our making, I am convinced that I am currently having a fabulous time. A certain degree of complacency and hubris led to our running around at the last minute to get absolutely necessary things done:
acquiring the actual gear we needed to actually be able to scuba dive
trying to fix my scratched wide-angle lens and purchasing an emergency backup
getting the dog’s medication refilled
ordering a bleeping travel pillow so I wouldn’t have to borrow a co-workers…again
locating all the camera equipment, charging batteries, clearing memory cards
locating our dive cards, logs, computers
printing out our entry visas, copies of our passports, downloading everything to my phone
BUYING TRAVEL INSURANCE
In sum, I treated this slightly complicated trip no more seriously than I treated a 5-day trip to France (where I’ve been numerous times) that I took last year. And that was foolish of me.
However, now that we are on a boat and, I assume, seeing all manner of amazing critters (and my camera is working perfectly – let’s be super optimistic), allow me to tell you why you should go to the Red Sea or, at the very least, if you are not a diver, Egypt.
We went to Egypt in 2009 and 2016. In 2009 the country was still headed by Mubarak and several weeks before we left, a bomb went off in Khan el-Khalili, the major souk in the heart of Cairo. Our primary destination was Sharm el Sheikh, a diving mecca at the bottom of the Sinai Peninsula, a location I may add, that has been devastated by terrorist attacks and travel warning issued by the countries responsible for its major sources of tourism, England and Russia. What we remembered as a kind of tacky (but in a fun kitschy way) super touristy place that differed little in form or function from a place like Cozumel, is apparently now a ghost town. (This article is a year old, but you’ll get the idea.) Which is tragic. Because we had an amazing trip there and I deeply want to return, especially since I’m now a much, much better diver!
But we also got to briefly explore some of Cairo and some of Luxor – both of which should be must-sees on any traveler’s bucket list. I know it borders on sacrilege to be not that impressed by the pyramids, but that’s not exactly what I mean. The pyramids are amazing and it is amazing to actually get to go to the pyramids, but you kind of know what you’re getting. Or put another way, you’re not surprised by the pyramids. They’re still awesome, but they’re awesome in exactly the way you thought they’d be awesome. I fully intend to return to Cairo for a nice long visit – I’m not sure I’ll have to return to Giza. (God, this sounds kind of awful – I’ve just dissed the only extant wonder of the world. I was so incredibly psyched to be able to see the pyramids, to be able to go to Egypt. We were lucky in that it was not terribly crowded (possibly bomb related) and we took a nice long stroll. If we had been spending multiple days in Cairo, I don’t know if we would have stayed longer at the pyramids – I do know we were not going to take camel or donkey rides around them cause that isn’t our bag. I know that there have been new discoveries since we were there and that there’s more to see, so I’m definitely going back. I would also be super interested in getting a tour from an actual archaeologist. We’re pretty nerdy and would enjoy getting an insider look into the complex.)
With a very tight schedule, we elected to skip the Egyptian Museum, and this I do feel badly about, especially since our guide looked at us like we were the two worst people on the face of the planet. Here was (and remains) my rationale: I grew up several blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which has a pretty dope Egyptology department. With a total of 12 hours in Cairo, I didn’t want to spend 3 of them in a museum. I wanted to get as much boots-on-the-ground walking through it as was humanly possible, to get a feel for the place despite our very short visit. It was, in retrospect, the absolutely right decision.
Also, in retrospect, we should have made it clear to our guide that under no circumstances did we want to visit any souvenir shop. We wasted some time and some mental anguish on this before leveling with the guy. Egypt is one of those places where kickbacks are common – the guide received a portion of every sale of every worthless knickknack we bought; we should have let him know up front that we were going to tip and tip well and that our tip was entirely dependent on not being hustled to junk stores. We also had to pull the ripcord on the “continental buffet” that served as our lunch stop (also a place we were brought so that our guide could get a kickback). We told him we wanted koshari and we wanted to eat it next to actual Cairenes. And we did. And it was everything we wanted.
Picture a really busy diner, or a lunch joint that cab drivers go to for a quick meal before they return to work. That’s where we ate. I’m pretty sure it was at the famous Koshary Abou Tarek, but like an idiot, I didn’t take a photo. We were the only tourists there (again, a function of recent unrest, I’m sure the place can be overrun with tourists), and the other patrons were mostly office workers on their lunch breaks. The food was delicious (koshari/koshary sounds like a ridiculous concoction – it’s pretty much all the starch you can imagine covered in fried onions and tomato sauce – but it’s scrumptious) and getting a little closer to a day in the life of Cairo was what we were after – it’s what whets our appetites for more.
We spent the rest of the day touring the Armenian quarter and making our way to Khan el Khalili at night – not enough time to stay and browse, sadly, but traffic in Cairo is no joke.
And then you get to the Valley of the Kings. And you think to yourself, “how the hell is this here and why don’t I know how much of this there is?” Picture Rome: the grandeur of the coliseum and the forum. Now picture that on a 10x scale and you’re starting to get an idea of what I’m talking about. In the middle of relative nowhere are these enormous temple complexes featuring the tombs of the pharaohs you’ve heard of, and you can go in and take a look. The preservation of the art is incredible – this stuff is all over 3000 years old. And wait. there’s also the Valley of the Queens. People: we spent a short day here – one that included enforced lunch – we could have spent several and still not seen everything.
Because we haven’t even made it to the east bank of the Nile which is where the Luxor and Karnak temple complexes are. That’s right complexes. And they filmed a scene from a Bond film here – that alone should convince you, right? (Aside: Barbara Bach’s dress in that scene was killer.) Over successive reigns and dynasties, these complexes increased in size and scope, and you get to explore them all, on foot, up close, and it’s magic. You’re in the desert, it’s midday, and you take shelter in the cool stone shade of a 25 foot 3000 year old statue. Sure, you’re not an expert in hieroglyphics, but you get the gist and the gist is remarkably preserved.
I’m not doing this justice. Probably because even though it’s 10 years ago, I still can’t quite wrap my head around it – it nearly defies comprehension. But I am eager to return and try to do some more comprehending.
Egypt is a bucket list destination that is easily affordable – though I would caution you that you might want a flight with a stopover rather than take the nonstop on Egypt Air. We just took that flight in December and it was…not good. Like a lot not good. Like Spirit Airlines levels of not good.
Despite what you read in the news, Egypt is safe – or the places that are unsafe aren’t the places you’ll be going. The EU just had a huge conference in Sharm el Sheikh and that’s one of the “less safe” places. Cairo is going to be as safe as any other big city. According to travel.state.gov, Egypt has the same alert level as France. So if you’d consider going to France, you should consider going to Egypt.
And if you happen to be a scuba diver and you haven’t been to Egypt, STOP READING ME RIGHT NOW AND BOOK A TRIP. You will absolutely not be disappointed.