Little Adventures

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Travel Special: Egypt, Land of the Pharaohs

The Great Sphinx standing guard in front of the pyramid of Chefren. On the background is the pyramid of Cheops.

Our "Little Adventures" just got a lot bigger this time. No local restaurant, no little anecdotes, or simple stories to share. This time we packed our bags and flew to Cairo, Egypt for a 4-days holiday. Let me share our "big" adventure with you.

How do I sum up Egypt? It is perhaps one of the most exotic, if not the most exotic place on the face of this planet. There are just not enough words to describe the whole experience. Culture, history, the people, the warmth . . . I think there's something for everyone.

Lighting effects on the Sphinx during the lights and sounds show at night.

The single most important reason why my wife and I decided to visit this beautiful place is to see the Pyramids of Giza and the pharaonic ruins and antiquities. We have studied these in school during our elementary and high school days. And then for me and my wife, in college while we were completing our studies in architecture.

Laser illustrations and dramatic lighting during the lights and sounds show.

For this reason, I've decided not to bore you with the details and history of the sites we've visited. There are already enough documentaries in Discovery Channel and National Geographic, plus the hundreds (or maybe thousands) of books written about them, and then there are also information that you can find in Wikipedia and other Internet sites, and then add to that what you have already learned from school. This article, then, will be about how it was like for us to travel to this land. I will be sharing here what went wrong, what went right and what went great - touristically and photographically speaking.


The Nile River as viewed from the balcony of our Sheraton Cairo hotel room.

We went to Egypt by availing of one of Qatar Airways Holiday packages. It is true that we have many Egyptian colleagues and friends who could simply give us advise (which many of them did) and give us some kind of a tour plan. Photography is, of course, the other main reason for going there. I wanted a trouble free trip, where I can concentrate on enjoying the sites and taking lots of pictures, so I decided to have everything organized and bought a holiday package.

The pyramid of Chefren, the only pyramid that retained the smooth limestone finish at its apex.

The holiday package we got included airport-hotel transfer and vise versa, a bed-and-breakfast Nile-view room at the Cairo Sheraton, and guided tours to the Pyramids of Giza, Memphis and Saqqara plus the light and sounds show at the pyramids at night. Aside from the light show, all guided tours were scheduled in the morning. It was strange that the Qatar Airways personnel who made our bookings said to us that guided tours are available only on mornings, none in the afternoon. Now, past experiences taught me that airport transport provided by the travel agent is usually late so made sure that I have the local travel agent's contact number on the Egyptian end. It happened to us in Singapore and then again in Orlando - and these people are supposed to be efficient.


Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. This is where I "met" Ramses II face to face. It's a shame that cameras are not allowed inside, otherwise I'd have a souvenir photo to show.

Anyway, we landed in Cairo International Airport with that expectation, but then, on our way to passport control, I saw this tall dark man holding a placard with my name, "ATIENZA", spelled correctly. I mentioned this because, for some reason, Arabs have difficulty spelling my name correctly. But he got it right. He was on time and gladly assisted us with changing our Qatari Riyals (QR) to Egyptian Pounds (LE). He introduced himself as Mahmoud from Thomas Cook.

The fallen colossus of Ramses II in Memphis. Memphis was the capital of Egypt during the period of the old kingdom.

On the way to the hotel, he briefed us on how the tour will go, what time we will meet with the tour guide and then gave us his personal cellphone number so we can call him anytime we need anything during our tour. He also assisted us with the hotel check-in and left us only after we got the key to our hotel room.

The Step Pyramid in Saqqara. This was the first pyramid ever built in Egypt. It is basically 6 mastabas built on top of each other. Unlike the Giza pyramids, the lime stones used here are much smaller.

In all the tours we did (all private tours), the tour guide was always on time and sometimes even early. We felt ourselves trusting the people around us - driver and tour guide. Often times, we had to leave some of our items in the van we were using as transport because they were inconvenient to carry around and we felt confident that it will not be lost, stolen or something. We felt safe. I guess that's the difference between a reputable travel agent and a so so agent.

View of Cairo from the Citadel of Saladin.

Our tour guide was very good and was able to explain the sites we visited very professionally. On a couple of occasions, we offered to pay for both the driver and the tour guide's lunch but they refused. The tour guide said that they're lunch is already included in the fees that we paid. I liked that. On another occasion, he took us to a buffet restaurant and again, we did not have to pay for his lunch, because tour guides are entitled for a free lunch in that restaurant. Very professional, I have to say.

View of the Alabaster Mosque inside the Citadel of Saladin. Those who have seen the movie "Kingdom of Heaven" would remember Saladin as the Muslim leader and nemesis of the Crusaders.

The original program that we paid for only included tours in the morning so our afternoons were pretty much vacant. I decided to inquire from the tour guide if it would be possible for him to take us to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in the afternoon and to The Citadel of Saladin the next afternoon. He said yes and with that, he called his office to inquire how much for those tours. After informing us, (and we agreed on the price), we proceeded without any paper works, or advance payment. How nice it is to do away with red tape.
When it was time to go, again, our transport was in the hotel earlier than scheduled which is a good thing because on our way to the airport we got caught in a huge traffic jam. No worries since we have some time to spare. In the airport, Mahmoud even assisted us with checking in so my wife and I just had to sit comfortably and wait instead of standing and waiting in line. Mahmoud did that for us.

Overall, my wife and I enjoyed our trip and would actually consider it as one of the very best trips we've ever had. And the oppotunity to stand right next to the ancient monuments of human achievements is very humbling and quite an experience that is definitely like no other.

Also in this series:

2. Travel Special: Photography in Egypt

3. Travel Special: Egypt, the Giza Plateau




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