Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Egypt Vacation Pictures

The full set of pictures are now uploaded to Flickr here.

Salaams from Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt

We left our tour for a 2 day excursion to Sharm el Sheikh to continue our diving adventures. This town is built for the European vacation destination. Resorts are lit up with blinking lights much like you'd see in Las Vegas (but at a more modest scale). Naama Bay has a long promenade that's fronted by cafes, shops, restaurants, and about 20,000 shisha bars. I've decided that the hookah must be the #2 export from Egypt, after oil.

The old market is more traditional with less glitz and glamour but more of the 2nd world charm. By this time though, the nonstop hordes of hassling vendors made those shops staffed with little pressure to buy things were a huge breath of fresh air.

Here we were trying to get a good camel toe picture, but failed miserably.

For straight up Western style shopping, Il Mercato rivals any open air mall I've seen. Not fully open when we got there, you could see the potential for some serious commerce to take place here. Sharm was definitely the most comfortable town we visited in Egypt.

The diving was whirlwind as we only had the afternoon to dive. We get off the plane and are in the water in about 2 hours. One dive at sunset, and another at night. The shore dives we did weren't the best spot (Shark Bay), but were still excellent. What a great place to get checked out for your open water cert. Pictures hard to come by at night, but we saw an octopus, another huge moray (this time swimming along the reef), lionfish, eagle ray, pufferfish.

Some of the best snorkeling I've ever done was off the shores of Sharm. The steep dropoff after entering the water (at least 50') looks like a great wall dive. In shallow waters, the lighting was tremendous. Just beautiful.

Coming back to fully explore Ras Mohammed National Park in all its glory would be reason enough for us to return one day to Egypt. Maybe on the way to Palestine/Israel?

Here's me almost crushing a fish!

Salaams from Hurghada, Egypt

Hurghada is a coastal town on the Red Sea. Just 18 years ago there was nothing here. Then some German divers working for an oil drilling company swam past the reef close off shore and realized the vacation potential of the area. Boom! Hurghada is now a resort town.

Being so close to the ocean makes the air crispy clean, a welcome relief from our days in Luxor and Cairo. For some, thoughts instantly turn to relaxing on the beach and long trips to the masseuse. For others, like me, I can't wait to get in the water. Diving in the Red Sea was one of the main reasons for coming to Egypt since I had heard the high salt content and sparse water runoff from shore (it is a desert out here after all) have made the coral and sea life watching gorgeous. It did not disappoint.

We took a day tripper out to dive sites about 45 min south of Hurghada since much of the reef in close to the shore has sadly seen better days. This boat ride was into some serious chop as the wind kicked up but good - probably 3-4' swells (I know I"m a landlubber). Fortunately for me and much of our group, I was packing the bonine. This wonderdrug comes highly endorsed by me.

The symbolism in Egypt's flag is rooted very much in its more modern history (as opposed to pharaonic times). The red represents the period of occupation by foreign rulers (British). The white represents the peaceful revolution with which the monarchy was removed from power. The black represents the end of oppression for Egyptian peoples. The eagle shield is the crest of Saladin a 12th century Sultan that led the Muslim resistance against European crusaders in the Middle East.

The water here is as blue as any I've seen at other warm water dive sites. Here, a lighthouse has been built on the reef to warn ships from wrecking. Hmmmm.

Looking into the water here is like looking into an aquarium. So crazy to see the desolate desert lands around us where virtually nothing grows, then poking your head underwater to see a whole world teeming with life. I swear it's like exploring alien worlds.

Some fun stuff we saw:
Sleeping blue spotted eagle ray (those spots are like neon blue!)

Blue moray eel (huge, about 10" diameter)

The following day in Hurghada we spent on an ATV/Camel tour to a bedouin town. This was a pretty amazing experience actually as you cruise your ATV across the desert into a foothills of the mountains 25km away. Staring out across the desert was some of my favorite moments of our trip. The fact that you had to be dressed like a ninja only heightened this experience.

Here's video of what it's like to be on a camel. Bumpy bumpy - and then there's the camel!

Salaams from Valley of the Kings, Egypt

Our tour likes to do things early. It's quite nice actually as we usually beat the rush of tourists at monuments and finish before the heat of the day kicks in. Today we visited the Valley of the Kings, famous for being the final resting place of the Pharoahs. The only way to get there is by donkey. Actually, that's a lie, lots of people just take a bus. But we choose to ride donkeys. This is why I'm hot.

I name my donkey Owen Nolan and call him Cap'n for short. An names hers Sweetie. Tim names his Donkey (from Shrek). My mom rides Shadowfax. Oanh's donkey is too far ahead so we never learn his name. A donkey riding tip: if you see the tail of a donkey ahead of you suddenly rise, get your feet out of the way because something bad is about to happen. Also, if you're wondering, yes those are hot air balloons off in the distance.

The valley of the Kings is basically a small valley of limestone that was easy to dig into. They stopped the whole pyramid thing because it was just begging graverobbers to ransack your final resting place. Tomb size is directly proportional to a king's reign. Basically, soon as you become King, workers start digging your tomb and don't stop until you die. Then they throw your mummy in there and seal it up but good and try to make it look like nothing was ever there. As a result, current kings had no idea where past kings were buried. They just dug, sometimes hitting each other's tombs. Here's a picture of what it looks like underground (reverse topo map).

We visited the Boy King's tomb, King Tut. Dude was famous only because his tomb wasn't plundered by pirates. They think it was because it was built directly underneath another tomb that was ransacked and so graverobbers didn't think another large cache of treasures was so near at hand. Inside his tomb they've left his mummy lying in state in a dehumidified, temperature controlled environment. He's got a little blankie and everything. Looks reeeal comfortable. He was a pretty short kid for 19. I'd say something like 4'10" or so. Apparently he died of gangrene after getting a gash to the leg. That sucks. Sorry no pictures - apparently taking pictures in these tombs will get your camera confiscated and your memory card wiped so we didn't even try.

I wish I could post a picture of the hieroglyphics inside the tombs though. Being sealed up all this time, the colors are still very vibrant despite thousands of years. As if they were painted yesterday says our guide. More tombs I think exist undiscovered in these rocks. Hopefully behind trapdoors and secret walls of existing tombs.

On our drive out, we stop by the Collosi of Memnon which is a very cool name. Apparently all that's left of an old temple, the statue on the left back in the day used to hum as the wind blew through its cracks. Later, the statue was restored and stopped doing that. Boooo restoration. Booooo.

Salaams from Abu Simbel, Egypt

We woke up at 4am to take a 3hr bus ride to visit the famous temple of Abu Simbel for 2 hours. Yes, 6 hrs transit for a 2 hr trip. You're only in Egypt once right? I was all excited because I had seen a picture in this papyrus store in Cairo (behind the man holding a stalk of papyrus) and said to Tim, "Man I hope we see that." Because in my mind that's where the final scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade went down. Before people get all upset about my astounding lack of movie knowledge, An already told me that scene actually happened at Petra. Whatevs. "Hahaha very funny Dr. Jones!"

We travel to Abu Simbel in a large convoy of 10+ other tourist buses, all with police escorts. This is for security purposes as there have been recent attacks on tourists as early as July 2005.
I'm of the mind that going in more low key would be better, but we visited safe and sound so I can't complain.

The temple itself used to sit on much lower ground. When they decided to dam the Nile to finally wrest control of seasonal floods and droughts away from the Gods, the land behind the dam became one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, Lake Nasser. To save this famous temple, the Egyptians made a call to the world (UNESCO) after the dam had been built to help fund a project that would physically move the entire temple clear of the new lake. Clever Egyptians.

Temples all follow the same basic layout: huge facade, inner courtyard, some hippostyle halls (large column-bedecked halls with hyphy style), and then the holy-of-the-holies, the inner sanctuary where a statue of a god (and as such, the god itself) would sit.

This temple was cut into the actual moutainside. When they moved it, they literally cut the face of the mountain into bite-sized chunks and moved them one by one to the new site. Some of the fine cutting remarkably was done by handsaws. Incredible.

These temples were built by Ramses II, he of the burgeoning ego. He actually built his baby-mama, Nefertari, a temple too. This was the second temple ever built for a woman in Egypt (the first belonging to that sexy lady, Nefertiti). Ramses in his generosity had six huge statues cut into the facade of her temple. Four of them were of himself, two were of his ladyfriend.

Good stuff, Ramses! That's high comedy. See if you can find them!

Salaams from Aswan, Egypt

We took an overnight train from Cairo to Aswan, 13 hours long. The seats were nice and comfortable thank goodness. This train took us south from Cairo so that we can hop onto a boat and cruise down the Nile. It's weird. They call Cairo Lower Egypt since it's downriver and places south like Luxor and Aswan Upper Egypt since it's upstream on the Nile.

In Aswan we got to sail a felucca at sunset which is a really picturesque sailboat used on the Nile. Funny because I didn't feel much wind out there. This sorta turned into a problem when we became stranded, sails luffing without wind. I think this happens pretty often because a motorboat soon came along to give us a nudge. Later, we would ditch the felucca altogether and ride the motorboat home. If I were captain of this ship, I would have paddled us home with the rudder. For those wondering, yes, pirate jokes were made. Note to self: bring Jolly Roger on vacation. Also, plank.

That night we decided to pay and see a "Sound and Light Show" at an ancient Egyptian Temple. If you are ever in Egypt and are offered such an opportunity, prepare to be underwhelmed. First off, anytime something is advertised as a light show and doesn't included freaking laser beams has got to be kidding me.

The temple at night was very pretty to look at, but you couldn't help but wonder - doesn't this stuff look sorta new? This temple was supposed to be 4000 yrs old but some of these carvings looked like they were put in yesterday. Turns out much of the structure was moved and reconstructed once the river was dammed. More on this later. The sound part of the show was the best part since it was narrated by these over-the-top voices of the Gods speaking in the first person. "Let the river and its bounties fill my granaries!" Little bit of Civ, anyone?

The cruise along the Nile was filled with some of the most peaceful moments on our trip. Sunny with a slight breeze, we whiled away the days reading books and relaxing.
Along the way we checked another temple at sunset. This one we found some asian filmmakers waiting for that magic hour where the lighting conditions are perfect. Curious, I asked one what they were filming about. In response, he stared at me hard for a solid second before answering, "Japan" and turned to walk away. Those japanese are so crazy sometimes.

Here's something cool we found at the temple: a Nilometer. It measures the depth of the Nile. Depending on where the river is on these steps, taxes would be calculated. The higher the Nile, the better the crops and thus higher taxes. Now that I think about it, this looks a little too close for comfort to the well in The Ring for me. Don't be scared Lee.

Salaams from Cairo, Egypt

Jumping into the time machine now...

We flew KLM from SFO - Amsterdam and let me say KLM gets a glowing recommendation from me. Everybody's got their own personal monitor with on demand movies, tv, music, games, and more! And more, I mean beginning lessons in the basics of 15+ languages. That's right, all I know about the arabic language I learned from the back of an airplane seat in front of me. We learned numbers, days, months, and some basic conversational stuff like Thank you, Hello, and Where's the Bathroom? They even had Vietnamese in there. Good stuff.

An excellent movie for the plane before going on a spiritual journey: Darjeeling Limited. I've never wanted a laminating machine more. Wes Anderson - kudos to you. And Tim for making me watch that instead of Spiderman 3. Networked videogames people. Tim and I played Tetrix, crazy Connect4 and Reversi. I made some nubber in seat 40F cry in backgammon. It was awesome.

So I hear Egypt is a 2nd world country. And what does that mean really? Well I guess judging from its capital it means you have a city that's clearly modern and developed, but still has a very large population of impoverished people. The gap between the two you can see in these two pictures. Note however the importance of satellite tv. There's a dish for every single apartment in the picture on the left. Everybody's gotta have TV right?

Cairo is very urban with a thick smog layer that seems to permeate everything. It's nothing new, but it makes you appreciate the clean air when you can get it. Excellent snacks can be had for crazy cheap. We were only here for a day, but it seemed like the culture allowed women to walk around freely. I saw some young girls who looked as if they could have walked out any typical American mall, very trendy, all with the traditional hijab or headscarf. Later in the trip, I would see virtually no young women out and about. Didn't even see them working during the day. Definitely a male-oriented society here. But Cairo still had that metropolis thing going for it.

Hyundai owns the Egyptian market. They are everywhere. All taxis are Hyundai it seems. Best looking car we found - BMW 3 series. A few Mercedes here and there. The taxi cabs like to flash blue and red lights to help them maneuver through traffic. Oh, lane markers are suggestions here as you'll frequently see cars pass one another between lanes. Though honestly, I've seen much worse traffic chaos in Vietnam.

There are fantastic sunsets in Egypt I think due to the smog and dust that permeates everything. I like to call this the Milpitas Effect. They always have nice sunsets there.