Royal Decree Holiday: A Day in Cairo (Part 2)

I’m sitting here almost completely packed and waiting to go to the airport to leave Saudi and start the next chapter of my adventures. I have 5 more hours to kill before I can go to the airport, where I will wait some more, before flying to my connecting airport and wait 5 more hours for my flight out of the Kingdom. So as a semi-productive use of all that time, I’m going to try to finish up the last stories from my time in the Middle East. So here’s the final chapter in the Royal Decree Holiday Series (March 19-27, 2015).


After our Nile river cruise and a buffet lunch it was time to head off toward the main attraction, the Great Pyramids at Giza! We had to drive quite a ways through the city and it was disparaging to see the half built state of the buildings. Our guide told us that the buildings were mostly left unfinished and people moved into them anyway. The government tried to smooth over the unrest caused by this condition by providing free or cheap satellite tv to the residents, but it backfired because they ended up seeing much more of the world that way, and it only served to highlight their situation.

Unsurprisingly, the tour took us to a shop. It’s not unusual for tours to take groups to the shops of their friends and family. I found out that for Arabs this is actually an anticipated part of the tour, and they are sad when it is left out, whereas Westerners tend to get a little annoyed and feel like they are being scammed. I didn’t mind this one because it was also quite instructional. It was a papyrus art store, and they had really cool little demonstration booths that showed us how traditional papyrus paper is made from the papyrus plant. The plant is naturally fibrous, so they slice it into long strips (the size they want the finished scroll to be), soak them for ages (the longer the soak, the darker the paper will be), then weave them together and press them for more ages.

The whole thing takes a couple of weeks. The sugars in the plant act like a glue and bind all the fibers together while they are pressed. When it comes out, it has a clear and visible texture showing the woven strips of papyrus. And, as it turns out, you can wash papyrus paper once it’s all finished and it won’t disintegrate like tree paper. Pretty cool. I was also totally suckered in and bought a family tree and had them write the names of my mother, my sister and her two little kids into the cartouches in hieroglyphs. I don’t often souvenir for myself, but I did promise to be the crazy aunt who travels all over the world and brings back cool stuff.

IMG_1838Shortly after we left the shop, the guide pointed out to us that we could see the tops of the pyramids in the distance, which was really surreal. All the movies and photos make it look like they are in the middle of nowhere in the desert, but they’re really right on the edge of the city. Cairo is actually only on the east side of the Nile, so the city we were in now was technically Giza, once reserved only for the dead, the western side of the Nile started accommodating living residents when the population in Cairo became too dense. Our first glimpses of the pyramids were still quite far away and the amount of driving we still had to go gave some slight indication of the massive scale.

IMG_1848The closer we got, the larger the structures loomed and the worse the neighborhoods got. Garbage on the streets, shacks and shanty buildings, increasingly run down cars and also more horses or mule drawn carts. Our guide told us that there were almost no new cars in Egypt because of the high taxes on new imported cars (and there are no Egyptian car companies). Since petrol is really cheap in the region, most people see no benefit in buying newer, more fuel efficient cars and just drive their old gas guzzlers until even duct tape can’t hold them together anymore.

The pyramids themselves are of course a massive tourist attraction, but to be honest, I had expected to see more people. It wasn’t like we had them all to ourselves, but I don’t think there were more than a few dozen tourists out there. In fact, there may have been more locals in the form of tour guides, security guards, and trinket sellers than there were tourists. We had to pass through some security, a standard bag scanner and metal detector, and then we were in the park. Our guide did a good job of making sure we always had plenty of time to take pictures at all the best picture spots. And he took some silly pictures for us, using perspective to make it look like a person was touching the tip of the pyramid with their outstretched finger. These photo ops only get more ridiculous as we go on.

IMG_1861I think for a while, my brain was just rejecting the idea that it was real. All the experiential data I ever had with the pyramids was in 2d representation, after all. It’s a very strange feeling when your brain takes something so familiar and has to rewrite the entire thing. I really did try to listen to the guide, but most of what he was saying was stuff I already knew from decades of documentary watching. Instead I kept staring at the pyramid next to us, watching people climbing on the lower blocks and boggling at how easy it is too completely loose perspective without something for scale. I mean, we know the blocks are big, but since all the blocks are big and the backdrop is a desert (the city was behind us) it’s hard to keep in mind just how big, and then you see a person who is standing next to a block that is as tall as they are.

I know it sounds trite, but it really makes you marvel at the people who built it. I mean, the Great Wall is also a marvelous feat of engineering, but at least the stone blocks that make it up could be moved by a small team of men at most. It’s a lot of labor, but it’s labor that makes sense. It’s that stunning difference between knowing a fact from a book or tv, and feeling that idea for yourself. I will never get tired of that.

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We climbed over the front of the large pyramid for a while, taking pictures and feeling the stones, examining the well known spaces between which a piece of paper cannot fit and just generally feeling giddy (nope, that wasn’t just me) then we piled back in the van to drive around to a viewing platform where we could see them a little better. This was a pretty surreal view, because from this place, we could see the grouping of pyramids but with the city as the backdrop instead of the desert. I met an au pair there from Spain who was with the family she worked for on holiday in Sharm. Her boss had given her the day off to come to Cairo and she was near tears with the excitement of actually being at the pyramids.

We took more pictures, and she and I talked about what the pyramids meant to us. I really can’t say enough how different being there is from seeing it, even in IMAX. It’s like waking up from a really cool dream to find out that it’s real after all. It was so nice to find another person who felt the same way about it. Sometimes I think travelers can get inured to the wonders, or simply go to places to check them off a list. Lists can be great, but not if they’re the only reason you’re going. There are things that, when you see them, they will change you if you let them. Your world gets bigger and more amazing than it was before, and even if you forget sometimes, the memory can remind you that amazing stuff is out there, and you can see it.

From the viewing platform, we had a choice. We could pay a little extra to take a camel ride or horse-drawn carriage ride all the way out and around to the “classic” view of the 9 pyramids against the desert backdrop, or we could stay with the van and head to the next stop. I think there are places that spending the extra money is a scam, and I almost always think a camel ride is a scam (maybe I just don’t like camels), however if you find yourself in this position to choose… do it.

IMG_1876I opted for the horse-drawn carriage ride, and got one with a little shade cover, which was nice because the afternoon sun was coming on strong and we were starting to feel the heat. The driver was very courteous and the horse was a little flatulent, but it was a side excursion so very well worth taking. This post is so challenging because I continued to find myself at a complete loss for words, my mind (so rarely quiet) stilled into complete shock by the spectacle in front of me. You’ve seen the pictures before, and I’m sure as you look at mine, they don’t seem that different (perhaps even slightly inferior) to others you have seen. I don’t know to relay the feeling, because nothing anyone said to me before conveyed it.

IMG_1884Plus, out there on the little path through the desert, the tourists and the city and the poverty and the centuries sort of faded away. I couldn’t hear them, and all I could see were the occasional camel and rider shape in the distance. It was a really great way to get some time to myself with the pyramids. The driver stopped several times, some were clearly planned and other times he just noticed I was taking pictures and stopped to make it easier for me. IMG_1905He also took a wide variety of pictures of me in front of the pyramids in increasingly silly poses, most of which will never ever be shown to anyone over the age of 5. The guide had suggested a reasonable tip for this service, and since I felt like he did a good service (and I have intense privilege-guilt) I acquiesced to the extra money above the ride fare.

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As we rode back toward the pyramids, the views continued to shift and change, and although the afternoon is the hottest part of the day, the bright sun and deep blue sky made for some wonderful photos. IMG_1913We finally reunited with the tour group. While we were waiting for everyone to get back, the guide pointed out a small mound of rock between us and the city skyline. That, he told us, is the Sphinx. As my perspective shifted, I realized I was indeed looking at the back of the Sphinx’s head,IMG_1933 it’s body hidden by the high walls of the pit that it lies in, it’s face looking out over the city. It was so small compared to the mammoth buildings next to us. Even the smaller three pyramids in the complex made the nearby Sphinx look tiny.

IMG_1936Once everyone was assembled, we headed over to one of the smaller pyramids where we would be allowed to climb down into the burial chamber itself. Inside a pyramid! Entrance into a small pyramid was included in the ticket price (which was part of my tour package). A person could go inside the Great Pyramid for an extra cost. Our guide suggested that we try the small one first to see what we thought. He pointed out that the chambers were not terribly different, and that we would be better off with the free version. Considering the not very hidden extra fees for the river boat and the horse carriage, I was a little surprised that he wasn’t pimping the Great Pyramid more, but it also made me less inclined to go.

There were several tour groups gathered at the entrance to the small pyramid we were allowed to enter. They were supposed to be regulating the number of people who would go down at a time, but that didn’t always work out. The majority of my group went down, but I was told to wait because there were too many inside. Some came back rather quickly, deciding the steeply slanting climb down in the narrow passage was just too claustrophobic. When I got my chance, I was surprised at how warm it was. I thought that the thick stone would protect the interior from the heat, but there were also a lot of people. There was a small landing at the bottom of the main passage and then another downward slant at a 90 degree angle to the small chamber. The passages were too narrow for people to pass one another, so we clustered together on the landing waiting for the last of the people coming down from the outside, so that those in the chamber below could get out.

I did say there weren’t too many tourists, but this confined space was too much for more than a dozen people at a time, and everyone wanted to see. There was a guide or guard in the chamber, but he was having a hard time regulating people. To be honest, I’m really glad no one panicked because it is a little unnerving to be under tons and tons of rock with a press of bodies and no way out. I finally got into the chamber. There were some ziggurat style “stairs” in one corner, perhaps used as shelving, and there was clearly the carved out pit where the sarcophagus would have lain. These were the two preferred photo-op spots,  and some tourists and I traded cameras so we could take pictures for one another and avoid handing our camera off to the native.

It was very strange. I think I would have liked to see it alone, to get a sense of the space. It was smaller than I pictured burial chambers being, particularly in comparison with the size of the building that housed it. Climbing down into the sarcophagus pit was fascinating. I’ve always loved graveyards, crypts and mausoleums, and although the stone has been brushed by probably millions of hands since it was carved for it’s only resident, if anything that added to the experience, knowing how many people across time and geography had shared this moment with me. A moment preserved where no sun or rain or wind could carry it away.

At some point the room started becoming far too full, and we were running out of safe places to stand. I had become completely cut off from the rest of my group, but I also knew that our guide had been counting heads every time we got on the van and that he wouldn’t leave without me. It took some wrangling and eventually some yelling between guides in Arabic to get the downward flow of tourists to stop and let me back up to the top where my guide was having a heated argument with another guide that sounded roughly like, “see I told you I still had someone down there you idiot”. He was clearly upset with the other guide for not waiting for our whole group to get out before theirs went in, but not upset with me at all.

IMG_1957Our time at the pyramids was finished and it was time to head next door to the Sphinx. We piled back in the van and drove through some more shanty-shack neighborhoods and pulled into the tourist parking area for the Sphinx park. We used our ticket stubs from the Pyramid park to gain entrance and headed toward the great lion-man past a gauntlet of trinket sellers. However bad I may have felt about the Egyptian economy, almost nothing gets me to stop for cheap trinkets, which is sadly what they all had on offer. I was definitely pleased with my art purchase from earlier, and I gotta say, if you need a souvenir from Cairo, go find a nice shop or two and leave the gew-gaws behind with a firm but polite “La, shukran”.

IMG_1961First we entered the temple where we saw the fine stonework that assembled the walls, floors and pillars. Stones here are carved in very irregular shapes, not regular blocks like bricks or legoes, and not even different sized blocks, but really 3D jigsaw style shapes. Each one had to have been carved as part of a larger plan so that they would still fit together so neatly that the proverbial paper could not come between them. Modern engineers and architects think that this kind of assembly gave the structure more stability over time, making it resistant to natural disasters such as floods, high winds or earthquakes.

IMG_1965In many ways, standing the the pillared hallways of the temple was just as thrilling as being inside a pyramid. I know there are a few manmade things on earth that are older than this place, but not many, and none as sophisticated. Somebody needs to shrink the fMRI to a portable size, because I really want to know what the brain is doing differently when we see an image of a thing vs when we see the thing. Our guide did some more historical explaining and warned us once again about the scammers lurking around before setting us loose at the Sphinx viewing area.

IMG_1966This were a lot of tourists, or at least it felt like it. The Sphinx is made of much more fragile rock than the pyramids, and has worn away and been rebuilt many many times since it’s original construction. As a result, tourists are not allowed to climb on the Sphinx the way we are on the pyramids. There is a wall and fence to keep people out of the pit where the Sphinx was dug out. Nonetheless, there was a tiny little corner where, if you stood on the very edge and leaned into the fence, you could get a spectacular shot of the statue that was totally bereft of people. IMG_1983As I made my way along the railing, admiring the work of the flank and paws, a local noticed me trying to take some selfies (because Sphinx selfie, you’d do it too) and more or less took my camera out of my hand to take pictures for me. I did try to stop this from happening, but eventually gave up arguing and let him take the photos, which were the most ridiculous by far, including me punching the sphinx, me kissing the sphinx and the sphinx kissing my bum. No, you cannot see them.

About this time, I decided that it was getting out of hand and took my camera back. This was an argument with some force, because he wanted paying for taking these pictures that I had not requested. I finally got the camera back, simply by refusing to let go. When he asked for money, I gave him the only Egyptian currency I had on me (having left most of my money back on the tour van where it was safe), a whopping 5 Egyptian Pounds (less than 2$). He was also not happy about this and asked for dollars or British Pounds (being used to tourists, the British Pound is widely sought after in Egypt), but I explained that I had no such currency, and that this was all the money I had on me, and perhaps he should be more cautious about taking pictures for people that didn’t ask him to. He left in bad grace and I returned to happily walking up and down the length of the viewing area, dodging children and other people’s photo-ops. I did get my selfie after all, as well as some very nice pictures and a giant amazing memory.

IMG_1980With some reluctance, we said farewell to the ancient mysteries and wended our way back to the tour bus. The Sphinx had certainly been worth the efforts of fighting the crowds, but it was a little disappointing not to be able to explore it more after having so much freedom at the pyramids, ah preservation. The tour was over, but we still had a little time before we had to go to the airport, and so we were escorted to another small shop. This was actually somewhat of a relief, because they were pleased to let us use their restroom and wash some of the dust off before we were all seated for the sales pitch.

The young man attending us was from a Bedouin family that made their business in trading perfume oils. They mostly supplied the fragrance oils to major brand perfumeries (and some off brand too, I’m sure), but were selling the oils directly in their shop. I have no idea if they were really supplying Chanel or Jean Patou with the base flower oils for their perfume or not. I do know that a lot of those oils do come from Egypt, so it’s possible, and it was air conditioned, so I didn’t mind too much.

They offered us a choice of coffee or tea, and some of the other folks were hesitant to accept, believing it was a ruse to put them under obligation to buy. He tried to explain the Bedouin tradition and assure them, but even still, I had to whisper to a few that it really was ok to accept the tea.

Once the drinks were passed around and we had exchanged some pleasantries, he began to tell us more about the oils. There were many scents that were individual flowers or spices, and others that were blends. He sampled out several of them and showed us how to use the oil in small drops instead of spraying as normal perfume. At the end of the presentation he asked us what our favorite perfumes were to see if they had a match. At first I couldn’t think of anything because I don’t wear perfume very often, but then I remembered my mother’s tiny little bottle of Shiseido that I had loved as a little girl. He had to go research the name since it isn’t one of the top brands anymore, but he finally came back with a product they called Isis (the goddess not the terrorists), and while I can’t tell you if it was a match, I did really like it, so I bought a small bottle for about 25$, and I can tell it’s going to last me a really long time because I’ve been using it most days since then and the level has hardly gone down at all. So, all in all, another good choice for a shopping stop.

Finally we headed back to the airport where we clustered together and talked about the day, comparing notes and feelings, talking about where we had been and where we were going. It was quite late by the time I got back to the hotel in Sharm, and I only had time for a few hours of rest before I had to catch my ride back to the ferry at Taba that would take me across the Red Sea.

Although I only spent one day in Cairo, it was a spectacularly amazing trip. I hope to go back again someday, to spend more time in the museum and perhaps see some other parts of the city, but whatever happens, I will cherish the memories of the day my childhood dreams came true.

Royal Decree Holiday: A Day in Cairo (Part 1)

Having postponed my trip to Cairo until my last full day in Egypt, I was pretty darn excited when I woke up before dawn Thursday morning. As I child, one of my very first books was a book of Egyptian mythology. I knew about Isis and Osiris (along with the Norse and Greek gods) before I knew about Jehovah or any of the Abrhamic religious stories. Our family didn’t worship them, they were just fun stories, but the fascination with ancient Egypt gripped me at an early age.

I went through a phase of life where I really thought I wanted to be an archaeologist (I think Indiana Jones did that to a lot of kids in the 80s) and especially and Egyptologist. I have written book reports, given speeches, and made dioramas about ancient Egypt. I have also watched nearly every documentary out there on the topic of the pyramids and the sphinx (yes, even some of the nutty ones about aliens). Stargate SG-1 was my sci-fi tv show hero for delving into the more obscure gods and myths to create characters. I lived in Memphis, TN which is named after the necropolis on the western side of the river Nile. I watched the glass and steel pyramid on the Mississippi River imagining the real things. I wanted to go to Cairo. Really bad. So when I saw a day trip from my resort to Cairo that included the museum, the pyramids and the sphinx for about 200$ including airfare, buses, ticket entries, and lunch… well it was an opportunity not to be missed.

Our van picked us up in the dark small hours of the morning, collecting tourists from several resorts around Sharm before taking us to the airport. We rode a tiny little plane for about an hour, crossing over the vast emptiness of the desert of eastern Egypt that lies between the Red Sea and the Nile river. As we approached Cairo, I was really struck by the contrast of the river valley with the desert around it. There was so much green, and what was clearly acres and acres of flourishing farmland around the winding water that ended abruptly in sand. I was also struck by how long we flew over developed land. Along with the agriculture, there were buildings, extensions of the city that is overflowing it’s borders. Wikipedia says Cairo is 7.7 million people, but our guide told us that if you count the whole metropolitan area that it’s closer to 25 million. Looking down from the air I certainly could not have told you where one “city” ended and another began.

We were told about Old and New Cairo, but also that “old Cairo” is still only about 200-300 years old, and “new”Cairo is about 15-20 years old. Of course people have been living there much, much longer. And there’s also Giza, formerly Memphis. It used to be strictly a necropolis, no one lived on the west bank of the river. But as population pressures continued, people eventually had to join the dead and build housing for the living there too. The government is so concerned with the population pressures in Cairo that they are building a new capital city even farther out and plan to move the seat of government there. It would be astonishingly huge, but hopefully alleviate some of the population squeeze and attract more tourists to the region. Construction is set to begin by 2020 and since “New Cairo” is already in use, there isn’t a name for it yet.

Driving through Cairo

When we arrived at the airport we were divided up by tour group and shown to our buses, where we then waited for a very long time. The Egyptian government is still mightily concerned for the safety of tourists, so we had to get the entire caravan assembled and a police escort readied before we could make the drive from the airport to the museum at Tahrir square. This gave us plenty of time to talk to the guide. It was quite interesting to hear about the last 5 years of Egyptian history from the inside. He didn’t actually intend to get in to a political discussion but there was more than one person who asked questions about it, but it also set up a curious and respectful tone for the trip, and our guide was a font of information with a good sense of humor.

As we drove through the city, he pointed out various landmarks and told us about some of the history of the city. Egypt has been a part of many Empires and colonized by many outsiders over the millenia and it shows strongly in the architecture. There were parts of the city that reminded me of French baroque, Italian Renaissance, and Ottoman Arabic. It was fascinating to see them all side by side.  There were former palaces of Egyptian royalty (ruling as recently as 1952), and the once reserved necropolis sites that were a blend of ancient, medieval, and modern graveyards interspersed with post modern apartment buildings an businesses. We saw the city’s only synagogue (the Ben Ezra) and passed by a Coptic cathedral, but since we were only in town for a day, there was no stopping at any of these wonderful cultural sites, just quick explanations from the highway.

Tahrir Square

IMG_1812Eventually we arrived at our first stop and our police and security escorts took their leave. We were in the famous Tahrir square where both revolutions of 2011 and 2013 held massive protests. I looked around and saw a huge amount of military hardware around the square including a long line of tanks. I have no idea if they were there to protect the museum or to ward off any further mass gatherings in the area. I was a little surprised at how small the square felt. I realize that after being in Tienanmen, that (other than maybe Moscow) all public squares are going to seem a little small, but the numbers of protesters cited in the media made it feel huge. So I did some research when I got home, you should too because the images of the protests are very striking. I realize now that they must have done the same thing to Tahrir that Beijing did to Tienanmen, which was to use cleverly placed monuments and gardens to break up what had once been a wide open space.

Our guide pointed out with pride that the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities had not been damaged at all during the protests and then showed us a building right next to it that remained a burnt out concrete husk. That building had once been the headquarters of the Mubarak regime that was brought down in 2011. It is a stone’s throw from the museum, the blackened and abandoned remains loom large over the square and the gardens and remain a vivid monument to the struggles and success of the revolution.

We were escorted through the gates of the museum and into the surrounding gardens to enjoy the view and take pictures while our guide arranged our tickets and our group headsets. Cameras, alas, are not allowed inside the museum, so I only have my memories there, but you can generally find the most amazing displays have been recorded by an approved media outlet for a magazine or documentary. There are so many tourists at the museum that guides get a special microphone and headset arrangement so that only their group will hear them talking (so they don’t have to shout) and tourists can clearly hear their own guide no matter where they are standing). It was kind of neat actually.

The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities

As I recall the space in an attempt to describe to you what I experienced, my eyes are misting up a little. I love museums. I have a love affair that goes back to my childhood days in the Smithsonian. I love them all, big and small, but oh my god this museum is amazing. If you don’t love museums, feel free to skip to the next section, because I am going to gush. Although I usually use my own photographs here, I was not allowed to take pictures inside the museum, so I tried to find some photos from the web for perspective and to break up the wall of text.

The building itself is enormous and some of the artifacts housed within are so large that the vaulted ceilings go up 3 stories to accommodate them. There are enormous stone statues rescued from dig sites that had been nearly entirely pillaged. There are halls and side rooms and pillars and stacks and rows and buckets of ancient Egyptian artifacts. I went to the travelling Tut exhibit when it was in the US and just.. no. If you love all things ancient Egypt, this place is your temple. I could probably have spent the entire day happily exploring all the rooms and exhibits there, but we only had a couple hours.

The tour guide said he would explain a few highlights to us and then turn us loose for the remainder of the time. (we were free to wander really at any time, but I liked his explanations and stories so far, so I stuck around) Our first stop was a statue of a king where he explained the traditional imagery of the statues, why one foot was always taking a step forward, why the hands were always down at the sides and holding something, and what the meaning of the beard shapes was. It turns out most of these are design features to make it easier to carve strong, long lasting and above all huge statues. The foot forward makes a more stable base than feet together, and the closed hands are both easier to carve (less detail) and stronger. The left foot became the standard because the heart is on the left side of the body, and some significance was attached to that. Square beards indicated humans and curved ones belonged to gods. Since pharos were born human and ascended to godhood, statues of them in life may have square beards while statues of them after death will have curved ones.

The next stop was the Rosetta Stone, only it wasn’t because the British Museum won’t give it back to the Egyptian government. So the most important artifact in helping us to understand the civilization of ancient Egypt is a replica in it’s own country. There were beautiful alabaster sarcophagi that weighed several tons each. Alabaster was chosen because it was the only stone that light could pass through. Specially carved lids required equal lifting from four corners to remove, preventing lone grave robbers from desecrating the bodies. Tombs were often found with two such sarcophagi, but it was not the king and his queen, but rather the body and the organs. No more than one person was ever entombed in single pyramid. We saw the only surviving relic from the tomb of Khufu (Cheops) that had been so thoroughly looted before the sites became protected that all that remained to find was a tiny carved figurine only 7cm high.

I think I may have glazed out for a few things, because honestly there was a lot to take in. At some point I began to get tired from standing still and trying to pay attention and caught myself leaning against the nearest thing, which happened to be a small (less than 3m) sphinx. We passed into the part of the museum that housed the Tut exhibit. Our guide explained that our perceptions in the West that Tut was very important stemmed from the fact that the find was important, being untouched by looters or grave robbers. Tut himself was a child king and only ruled for 9 years. Yet there is over a ton of gold among his treasures. How much more elaborate then would have been the tombs of kings who ruled for decades and accomplished great deeds?

We passed by the nesting boxes of Tut’s tomb, these were small room sized boxes of gold, covered with writing that nested within one another. This was the only way they could create enough wall space to write everything down apparently, since the actual burial chamber sections of the tombs are rather small. There were loads and loads of display cases that showed smaller items, jewelry, clothing and sundries. Our guide stopped at one with a particularly amused look on his face and pointed out a small item of indeterminate form or function. He asked us if we could tell what it was for with a slight smirk and finally revealed that the item was King Tut’s condom. They knew this, he explained, not just because of the material (animal intestine) or shape (and no, Egyptian men aren’t that small, he said, the material has shrunk and dried out over time), but also because they found a residue of semen inside the condom which they were able to DNA match to Tut himself.

Guides are not allowed in the room with Tut’s most famous treasures, so ours pointed out the exit and told us when to meet there to catch the bus to our next stop. I took a quick peek into the Tut treasure room and was not disappointed. All of the most famous and rich treasures including the mask are in this room. Jewelry made from gold and precious stones were in cases all around the mask and it was really only the glowering gazes of two old men at the back of the room that kept me from trying to whip out my phone for a Tut selfie. It really doesn’t seem to matter how often you see these things in pictures or movies, there is just no substitute for the real thing.

Soon the attractions of more rooms of unseen artifacts pulled me forward into the museum. The further I wandered, the less it seemed like a well ordered display and the more I began to feel like I was wandering among the archives. Eventually I came across two men doing active restoration on a piece and watched them for a bit. Then I found a whole section of artifacts that were only partially unpacked, crates still stacked up around them. I walked through a tunnel that had been taken from a crumbling tomb and I stood at the feet of statues so tall that their big toes were at least a foot high. I felt surrounded by the history on all sides. The pressure and weight of civilizations past was overwhelming and eventually I couldn’t hold thoughts any longer but simply stared at the treasures around me. I noticed that there were people throughout the museum perched in front of one object or another making detailed sketches in lieu of photographs. I think that the next time I am able to go to Cairo I’ll be planning about two days for the museum alone and bringing my sketchbook too.

Royal Decree Holiday: The Resort at Sharm

This is the story of my stay in the Park Inn by Radisson. It was a pretty epic deal that I found online and not a bad place to relax. The story is a little less jam packed than most because unlike my previous trips, my stay at this resort was all about doing as little as possible.

The Food and the Grounds

I woke up Saturday morning rather early since my normal sleep schedule gets me up at 6am. The bed was gloriously huge, you know the kind you can roll over in a half dozen times before you reach the other side? I’m not sure if the sheets were Egyptian cotton (being in Egypt) but they were much nicer than the ones in my hotel in Saudi anyway. So I lounged around in bed while waiting for the dining hall to open for breakfast. My all inclusive deal there included 3 meals a day at scheduled intervals in the buffet style dining rooms, but judging from the hours these were open, I couldn’t actually imagine anyone ever having enough time to get hungry between meals.

20150321_075532Breakfast was a bit heavy on the carbs, being full to the brim of pastries, breads, porridges and potatoes, but I managed to get an omelette made to order, an apple cinnamon cheddar danish (omg make that for yourself!) and some fresh fruit including, much to my surprise, fresh dates. I’d never even seen a fresh date before, so I was guessing that these fruits that looked like well hydrated dates were in fact just that. They were quite interesting, and had about as much in common with the dried dates as grapes do with raisins. They were far less sweet and had a texture not unlike a persimmon or khaki fruit. On the whole, I think I prefer the dried ones, but it was a really cool experience to taste them fresh.

The food at the resort was not particularly remarkable otherwise. Despite it’s claim to 4.5 stars, the food was closer to 3. It was perfectly tasty food, but nothing besides the danish and the fresh dates was a new or fascinating taste experience.

20150321_071427After my first breakfast, I decided to wander around the grounds. The weather was simply perfect, sunny but not hot with a nice breeze coming in off the ocean. The water slides don’t get turned on until 10am, so I was able to take a lot of pictures without worrying about disturbing anyone’s privacy. Although Egypt is more open than Saudi, I still saw plenty of women there in modest Muslim dress, including several burkinis (the head to toe bathing outfit that replaces the abaya and hijab for water wear) and I wouldn’t have wanted to offend them by snapping pictures.

IMG_1743The resort compound was huge. It took me most of an hour to walk all the way around the grounds. There were two swimming pools, two restaurants, several bars (also not serving until 10am), an indoor and outdoor dry children’s play area, and of course the water park. Everything was done up in the architectural and decorative theme of ancient Egypt. Having lived in Memphis, TN for some time, I was sort of accustomed to this style. The Memphis (TN) zoo is totally Egypt themed, there are several buildings and restaurants that like to add Egyptian style architectural flourishes or cartouches, and there’s even a giant pyramid down town (concert hall and sports arena, as well as the site of the debaucherous Eyes Wide Shut style parties that the city’s elite hedonists throw). And of course Las Vegas has some similar Egypt themed attractions which may or may not be even more debaucherous. The point is that Americans like making Egypt themed stuff and I’ve seen and even lived with quite a bit of it.

IMG_1744Then suddenly it hit me. This wasn’t some knock off Egyptian history being subverted for marketing, this WAS Egypt. They were totally subverting their own history for marketing!

It was so luxurious to have a week of time in one place, to not have to hurry to see everything that I ended up having naps most days. In the afternoon, I settled into some drinking by the lazy river and met some other Americans (although they hadn’t been back to America for more than a decade) and spent a happy afternoon chatting and drinking having accomplished almost nothing at all.

The Beach and the Staff

IMG_1797The next day I decided to go find the private beach, which entailed crossing the road into the partner resort, the Radisson Blu. All resort guests had wristbands to show we were entitled to free food and drinks and use of the facilities, color coded by resort. It was another beautiful day, so I decided to walk down to the beach rather than wait for the shuttle bus. The Radisson Blu was definitley the more classy of the two resorts, and I’m sure more expensive as well, but it was nice to be able to wander the gardens freely on my way to the beach. There was no sign whatsoever of the over the top Egyptian decor that the Park Inn sported. My resort had a specific area of beach claimed, where I could get a towel with my towel card and where my wristband would be honored at the bar, but past that, I was really free to go where I liked.

IMG_1774The water was surprisingly cold and the ocean floor was covered with shells and rocks that made it uncomfortable to walk barefoot. So after a breif foray into the water, I settled down in a deck chair under a date palm umbrella with a gin and tonic to enjoy the view and the sea air. I spent a rather pleasant morning there alternating between reading my book and watching the water and finally decided to head back to my side of the road for lunch. If my days at the resort seem slow and idle, then I have accomplished my goal. After the February vacation of running around to three countries, I wanted to just lay on a beach or next to a pool and relax. It was blissful.

IMG_1763The Red Sea at this particular location is not at its most stunning, but there were still plenty of people trying to sell boat trips, diving excursions and even dolphin meetups. In fact, these sales people were one of the only downsides of the resorts, since they are constantly roaming the poolsides and beaches to try to sell you something. And maybe they have good deals, so if I was interested in a boat ride or a spa day, I think I would have been glad to see them, but I was not the only guest who felt that they were more pushy than helpful. After a couple days, they all recognized me so started bothering me less. However in the first couple of days at the resort I got invited out a lot, and not just by the sales staff (who invited me to go bar hopping with them) but also by the hotel staff who tried to get me to go out on a date! I might have done the former if I hadn’t been alone, going out to the bars with a group would have been ok, but I really couldn’t imagine going on a date. I also had several of the dining hall staff single me out for special treatment and some intensely over-friendly service until one said to me that he had dreamed about me the night before, to which I replied that I felt he was being inappropriate and the unwelcome attention stopped. I really can’t decide if they were really flirty (because of all the loose Western women in bathing suits running around) or if they just thought that all the women enjoyed this kind of attention. I can certainly imagine that some women would find it very flattering, I may have just been in Saudi too long to be comfortable with it. Either way, I was pleased to see that they desisted as soon as I expressed displeasure.

The cleaning staff were astonishingly persistent. If I forgot to hang up the do not disturb sign when I took a nap, they would knock and knock until I got up to tell them to go away. Once, after calling from the bed for them to go away (“no thank you”) they had the reception call my room to ask me to let them in! However, if I had the sign on the door, there was not so much as a peep. And when they did clean the room, they left beautiful arrangements of fresh spring flowers and folded my fresh towels in interesting patterns on the bed.

The Water Park

IMG_1759Other than a toe dip in the wave pool and a short wade in the sea, I hadn’t really done any swimming. The pools were actually rather chilly, which is probably awesome in the hot weather, but the mild spring weather meant that the pools were not quite comfortable. I never did get to take advantage of the swim up bar because it was just too cold to be both in the water and in the shade.

IMG_1753However, the friendly Americans (who live in Jordan) that I had made friends with were often at the poolside after lunch and invited me to join them and hang out. This was nice because I love meeting and talking to new people and it also meant that I got a lot less attention from all the male staff (because we were surrounded by children). It was really nice to see what looked like 3 or 4 separate families interchanging kid duties so that various adults could take turns doing other stuff, and it’s part of how I got the idea to try to organize a similar trip with my kid bearing friends.

IMG_1751So I sat with them and sipped my g&t and watched their children play. I had been looking longingly at the water slides for some time, determined to get in a few good rounds while I was there, but they seemed so intimidating to do alone. Not because the slides were scary, but because there were almost no people using them at all and a single woman still attracted a lot of attention. (sometimes I wonder how long it’s going to take me to be comfortable in mixed gender company again after all this). Fortunately, I was saved. The 8 year old boy was itching to go, but his mother had insisted all the children go with buddies and none of the other kids wanted to do the scary high slides he wanted to go on. IMG_1749So I asked if he would go with me instead and we had an absolute blast. I forgot to hold my glasses on the first slide down, and he happily dove to the bottom to retrieve them for me. We rode several slides and I always let him decide where we would go next, what order we would go down the slides in, and for the two person raft, who would sit in front. I felt totally safe from the attention of the male staff with an 8 yr old in tow and his mother told me later that I absolutely made his day because an adult wanted to hang out with him.

The Food Poisoning

I debated about putting this in, because I feel like it was otherwise an absolutely stunning trip, but for the sake of posterity and narrative tension, here it goes (don’t worry, there aren’t any  pictures). I was staying at the resort from Friday to Friday (although realistically, that was 2am Saturday morning to 2am Friday morning) and figured that an entire week of relaxing was just too much, so I had scheduled a day trip to Cairo for Tuesday thinking that would give me three days of getting adjusted and relaxing before, and another two days to relax afterward. I think this would have been a great plan, except that Monday night I fell astonishingly ill.

You can make jokes about the free booze and overdrinking, but really, I had never gone beyond lightly tipsy at any point, I don’t really like being drunk and certainly not when I am alone among strangers. This was not a booze related puking. Also, with booze you generally throw up and then feel better. I almost couldn’t stop, and even a sip of water would bring it on again. I spent hours like this and worse, I couldn’t get anyone from reception to pick up the phone. Although at the time, I only wanted to order peppermint tea, I can’t imagine if it had been a real emergency how they would have handled that. I guess they aren’t used to single guests there and rely on a family member to be able to run for help. Insane.

Somewhere around 3am I realized I was not going to be able to go to Cairo. The shuttle to the airport was supposed to arrive around 5am and I had had zero sleep and the vomiting wasn’t stopping. So I called the travel agency and said I couldn’t go and asked about rescheduling. Eventually I realized that I had to stop putting anything in my stomach, even water, and was able to get a few hours of sleep. When I woke up, I tried the water again with better results and went down to the dining hall to make myself some hydration fluid (salt, sugar and lemon in water). Armed with several bottles of this concoction and a couple of white bread rolls, I went back to the room and dozed in and out of consciousness while trying to make myself drink slooooowly. There was no way I could have gone to Cairo that day.

I won’t accost you with the remaining symptoms of the food poisoning, but suffice it to say I was concerned about dehydration and ate only very plain foods in tiny amounts. Tuesday was entirely lost. Wednesday wasn’t a whole lot better. I was able to eat a bit more food, but I don’t think I was digesting it well, I still slept a lot and felt weak and tired the rest of the time. Thursday was my last day in Egypt and the day I’d rescheduled my trip to Cairo for, and come hell or high water, I wasn’t going to miss out on that, so Wednesday evening I asked the hotel to prepare a boxed breakfast for me and I packed my backpack up for a day trip. Thankfully, the lingering effects of my illness were mostly a complete lack of appetite and the excitement made up for any lack of energy that may have remained.

By the time we got back to the resort late Thursday night I had only a few hours to repack my bags and nap before the bus back to Taba arrived, where I would catch the early morning ferry to take me back to Jordan, where I would await my driver to take me back to Tabuk, ending my (mostly) magical adventure.


The rest of the story will be continued in “A Day in Cairo”… don’t forget to check out all the pictures on my facebook page and thanks for reading! 🙂

Royal Decree Holiday: Getting to Sharm el Sheikh

When I found out we were maybe going to have an extra week of vacation, I started considering my options. I’d originally planned my March outing to be a weekend trip to the iris fields outside of Riyadh, but since that tour was the weekend before our holiday, I decided I’d take a longer trip outside Saudi again instead. Turns out I got to see some pretty beautiful flowers anyway, and a whole lot more.

I went to my friendly Saudi expat Facebook page for advice on where I could go for a week and not spend a fortune. I felt like I was pretty much done with Dubai for the moment, plus it is not cheap there. I thought about Bahrain, but the airfare was becoming prohibitively expensive. Then several folks suggested a place called Sharm el Sheikh. I did some research and found out that this is a beach resort town on the southern part of the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. Although our holiday hadn’t been confirmed yet, I found a resort online that was going to cost me less than 300$ for the whole week, and was all inclusive and had a waterpark on site. Since it was free to cancel, I booked it.

I then went through the dance that results from nothing being sure until the last minute. By the time we were confirmed for our holiday, ALL flights going anywhere from Tabuk were sold out. It was literally impossible for me to fly out of Tabuk. I further found that it’s not allowed for women to take the public intercity buses without a male escort. I remembered one of my co-teachers had hired a driver to take her to and from Jordan, so I asked her for the contact information and began to arrange a private car to Aqaba. But the resort is not in Aqaba, it’s in Sharm. So then I had to figure out how to get from Jordan to Egypt. I looked at flights, but they were more than 600$ and went through 2 stops on the way, Amman and Cairo. I thought about giving up my great resort deal and just spending my vacation in Aqaba, but Jordan is much more expensive than Egypt, and I could not get anything like the accommodation for anything like the price, so I’d probably end up paying just as much to fly and stay in Sharm as I would not to fly but stay in Aqaba.

Finally, my searching led me to discover the existence of ferries that run from Aqaba to the Sinai peninsula. For some reason, tourism websites for the Middle East aren’t well maintained or updated, so I found a lot of false leads and no way at all to book a ferry ticket online, despite finding several places that said that tickets had to be purchased days in advance of the trip. After many emails and phone calls, I finally found a company that would arrange the boat, as well as the car drive from the ferry terminal to my resort. It was almost as expensive as the flight, but I was running out of options. So I agreed to pay the fare and asked them to confirm the booking… then never heard from them again. I hadn’t actually given them any money, so that was pretty strange. At nearly the last minute, I found another company with much better prices and booked with them instead, saving myself several hundred dollars. (aqaba@sindbadjo.com)

You can read about my days in Aqaba here.

Friday evening, I left my Aqaba hotel and headed down to the marina to meet my boat to Egypt. I couldn’t find the slip, but was able to call the company who told me where to go and sent the ship’s captain out to meet me. They made me some coffee while we were waiting, and we had to run up to the immigration office since the official decided not to come down to the slip. There I paid my exit tax for Jordan and was allowed to board the boat. The captain showed me up to the bridge, saying I got the VIP seat.

The captain talked to me for a while about the change in Egypt over the last 5 years, the fall of the Mubarak regime and two revolutions. The collapse of the economy and the death of the tourist trade that made up 34% of their economy before. He was not a young man, and I can only imagine all of the things that he has seen Egypt go through in his lifetime. He seemed to love his country despite all it’s problems and he was proud that they had learned from other democracies and finally arrived at a limited term presidency. He told me about the new capital city that’s being built outside Cairo, and he seemed genuinely hopeful for Egypt’s future.

When his attention was required to navigate the international waters, he returned to his instruments and doused the light in the room. I stepped into the doorway that led onto the deck, remembering the advice of another captain I know “one hand for you, one hand for the boat”. So it was that I found myself crossing the Red Sea by starlight from bridge of a yacht. As I looked up at the stars, I found the familiar constellation of Orion, and then reminded myself that here he was known as Osiris. I am so glad I didn’t fly.

As we reached the far shore, the bare rock mountains of Sinai loomed suddenly out of the water, lit by the streetlights along the narrow road between the sea and the cliffs. In no time at all we were pulling into the port at Taba. I bid farewell to my host and joined the shuffling mass of tourists heading toward customs and immigration. We passed through with little ado, but when I got clear of the border post, tourists were being rounded up into buses by tour guides. I asked several if they knew where my bus was, but no one did. I think before coming to the Middle East this situation would have made me really nervous, instead I was just exasperated. I called the company back and explained the issue, they gave me the name of the driver I should ask for and I proceeded to. Another driver said he knew the man, but that he wasn’t there that night, so he called him for me. The driver who was supposed to collect me denied that he had been scheduled, so I called the company again. After a few more calls and some offers from other drivers to buy a seat on their bus (not an option I wanted to pursue, since I’d already paid one company for a round trip), the Jordanian manager of my company arranged for another driver to take me that night, effluving apologies and making rather disparaging comments about the Egyptian workforce.

Take home lesson, if you’re lost in the Middle East, make your tour guide sort it out. I’m not a huge fan of tour guides in most situations, but these guys were really helpful in navigating the paperwork and arranging the transportation that would have definitely been more expensive had I tried to simply take a taxi from the port. Plus they do trips both ways, so on my way back a week later, I was amid a group that was headed to Petra for a day before returning to their resorts in Sharm. Shameless plug, but the countries need the tourism and the Sindbad guys really were nice, efficient and well priced.

The drive from Taba to Sharm is 3 hours according to Google maps, but took us more like 4.5. Not only are the roads in terrible repair, making it very hard to rest for all the bumping, but we had to stop at every checkpoint and wait for the entire caravan of vehicles to catch up before we were allowed to move on. I understand this is a security measure to keep isolated vehicles full of tourists from being lost on the road. I don’t know if it’s a normal thing, or if we got extra security because of the 26th Arab Summit that was going on while I was there.

For the first couple of hours, I actually didn’t even mind. The view was really beautiful with the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. The stars overhead were stunning so far from any large urban areas. But after a while, the stars disappeared and the weariness of the day began to sink in. We stopped at a little gas station/rest stop to get coffee and use the bathroom. There was a fee for the restroom, and I hadn’t had a chance to change any currency since leaving Saudi. The employees there were accepting British pounds and US dollars in addition to Egyptian pounds, but looked shocked when I told them I only had Saudi riyal. Not to be deprived of money, they figured it out, and I got a few Egyptian pounds in change and access to the the toilets. Considering the exchange rates, I think they were charging us less than 20 cents each, but they must have made out like bandits having several busloads of road weary tourists with nowhere else to pee.

After a further couple hours, we finally arrived. The driver took us around to all the resorts on his list, dropping a few tourists off at a time. Most of the people on my bus were Russian. It seems that Sharm is a very popular vacation destination for Russians. I later learned that all of the vacation literature is published in English and Russian, and most of the staff speak one or both languages as well. I finally got to the Radisson Park Inn around 2am. When I told the gate guard I was there to check in, he asked about my luggage and was really surprised that I only had a backpack. Apparently most people arrive with loads of bags (I often saw piles of luggage outside the reception area awaiting delivery to rooms) and leave with even more, since shopping is a popular Arab pastime.

After a full day that had included scuba diving, crossing the Red Sea and driving the Sinai coastline, I was totally worn out, but I knew I had a full week ahead of me and so I headed to my room and zonked out.


To be continued…

Explore the resort, the beach and the people of Sharm el Sheikh with me in the next installment of the Royal Decree Holiday. 

Hotels and Hostels, Spring of 2015

So, I meant to do this before I went on my second spring break, also known as the “Royal Decree Holiday”, but I’m clearly not motivated to write every day, which is probably why I’m still not getting paid for my words. Alas. So without further ado, let me tell you all about the places that I stayed during the two (separate) weeks of holiday in the Middle East this spring. Although this is mainly a “review” post to help other people decide where to stay, I still hope some of you will enjoy the stories.


Al Ula ARAC Resort, Saudi Arabia

This was my hotel in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia when I decided to go see Madain Saleh. Al Ula is a very small town and has only 2 hotels. (Booking.com swears now there is a “tent camp” option, ooo.) I scoured the internet for reviews, but neither one was well spoken of. It seems that since they basically know that they have a monopoly on a world heritage site that they don’t actually have to provide service and can charge whatever they like.

I will admit, the resort was very pretty. The grounds had well cared for trees and lawns (actual grass!) and even some flowers trying to bloom. The view was stunning, but I get the impression that would be true nearly anywhere in Al Ula since it is surrounded by great sweeping cliff-like mountains. And the room was clean, which has not always been my experience in travelling. However, my positive things to say basically end there.

When I arrived with my guide who had picked me up from the airport, the receptionist was unable to find my reservation, even though I had printed out a copy of the website’s receipt and confirmation number. After keeping me standing around in the lobby for a while (this is after my all day travel and 7 hour layover stuck inside the Madinah airport), my guide told them to just find a room for me and sort it out later. So they did. However, the room had not been prepared? I guess, since the hot water tank was switched off when I arrived so I had no hot water to bathe with, and would have to wait several hours for the tank to heat up.

I also avoided the restaurant entirely because of the price gouging. My guide took me by a local restaurant where I got a very tasty dinner for much cheaper. The prices are rather insane and the quality of the food, from what I gather from others, is nothing to write home about.

Having to bathe cold, I was somewhat grateful for the blankets, but had to put both bed’s blankets on me to get warm, since the room lacked heat as well. I know it’s Saudi, but February in the desert at night is NOT warm.

At breakfast, I went into the lobby to get some coffee from the little shop there whose sign proclaimed it to open at 8am, however it was completely dark and the receptionist told me they didn’t open until 2pm… which would have been less of an issue if they had bothered to update the rather large sign in front of the counter. So I slunk into the restaurant which only served buffet style breakfast (90 SAR) and had no a la carte options. There I purloined a cup of the “American” coffee, but since there was no staff anywhere to ask the price, I gave up and went back out to the courtyard to enjoy my leftovers and coffee with the stunning mountain view.

As if all of this weren’t disappointing enough, a couple weeks after my holiday, I got an email from booking.com telling me that since I hadn’t stayed in the room or cancelled that I would be charged anyway. Whut? The fine folks at Al Ula ARAC who couldn’t find my booking registration at check in apparently found it later and filed a claim for payment, despite having been paid when I checked out. And this is why, even though I pay a foreign transaction fee, I like to use my MasterCard to pay for big items like hotel rooms. Papertrail.

After a couple more weeks of sending the original receipt, a print screen of my bank statement and a photo of the room I stayed in, booking.com finally agreed that yes, I really had stayed there and they would inform the hotel.

And the rub? I don’t think I can in good conscience recommend the other hotel any better, because it has even lower ratings and more complaints. So, if you’re going to Madain Saleh (which you should if you get the chance cause it’s quite cool), just resign yourself to a cold shower and an overpriced dining experience with unhelpful staff, then get out and enjoy the city where there are cool people, nice restaurants and excellent things to see.

The Jordan Tower Hotel, Amman

My next stop was in Amman, Jordan. I really wasn’t planning on staying there long, just one night before heading out to Petra, so my criteria in booking were primarily about cost. I booked a bed in the all female dorm at the Jordan Tower because it was going to cost all of 7$ (5JD) and included breakfast. I wasn’t expecting too much, but boy was I surprised.

A staff member contacted me shortly after I made my reservation and introduced himself and what services the hotel offered, asking if there was anything else they could do to help. We exchanged a few emails about my plans in Jordan and he gave me tons of information about transportation options and ideas for what else to do. I ended up using their driver service to pick me up from the airport, which was nice since it was about 3am when I came in and was saved all the trouble of looking for or haggling with a taxi.

The manager decided not to bother with the official check in that night and simply showed me to the room so I could go to sleep. My one and only complaint of this whole place is that the dorm was listed as 4 bed and turned out to be 4 bunk beds, so 8 people. I think in the end that didn’t matter too much because all the ladies were super polite and I didn’t even hear them when they got up a few hours after I came in to go on their own adventures, but it still would have been nice to know.

Picture 101Breakfast was really nice, bread and cake with lebnah and jam, also fresh egg and veggies and bottomless hot coffee or tea. I sat by the window enjoying the downdown view as I soaked upt the good food and coffee. During breakfast the staff helped me feel out my options for getting to Petra, looking up prices for rental cars and private drivers as well as bus station information. They really were awesome. When I checked out that morning, heading off to see the Roman Theater and then on to Petra, I didn’t really expect to see them again.

The next day, when I returned to Amman from my overnight in Petra, I had several hours to kill between when the bus arrived and when I needed to be at the airport. I had sort of considered heading back to the hotel simply because it was familiar and I knew they would help me find a place to eat and possibly something to do. I headed off the bus considering how best to flag down a taxi, but to my surprise there was a driver there with my name on a sign!

The Jordan Tower had sent their driver to pick me up at the bus stop based on our emails of my plans, even though I had not made any specific arrangements. I suppose if I hadn’t wanted a lift, I could have just said no thank you, but it was dark and cold by then, and I loved the idea of a car waiting to take me somewhere warm. The driver had thought he was taking me to the airport, but I explained that I still had a long time yet and would he mind taking me back to the hotel instead?

There I got a huge bowl of steaming soup, some kind of flavorful broth with what seemed like giant couscous and a heaping plate of bread. I also met a fellow traveler, who you can read a little more about in Spring Break Vol. 6. We hung out in the lobby chatting and drinking coffee until it was time to go and were also able to split the cost of the car back to the airport.

I cannot recommend this place enough. It’s small, and up a flight of stairs behind some kind of junk shop, but it’s amazing. Best service, really above and beyond, plus clean rooms, good food and nice fellow guests. If you are ever in Amman, go check them out.

The Rocky Mountain Hotel, Wadi Musa (Petra)

Picture 150This place also turned out to be pretty amazing. I decided I needed 2 days in Petra, so I booked an overnight room in the nearby town of Wadi Musa (nearby meaning a few minutes drive from the park entrance, if you felt like adding another 20 minutes of walking to your hours of park exploring, you could even walk there). My bus dropped me off right at the door, and they got me checked in pretty fast, since I wanted to get up to the park quickly. I had planned to get to Petra earlier, but as events transpired it was already after 3pm. When I couldn’t find a taxi to take me down to the park entrance, Jane (the owner) said she had to run down to the market anyway, and gave me a ride the short way.

When I got back to the hotel after dark, I waited briefly with some other guests in the lobby for our ride over to her husband’s property, an outdoorsy tent hotel (heated tents, and a generator for wi-fi) up in the mountains, where we had a Bedouin dinner. The dinner was pretty standard for me, but would probably be a cool experience for someone who doesn’t live in a half Bedouin town already. And the setting was astonishly beautiful. Far from town we had a great view of the stars, and they had set up paper lanterns on one of the nearby rock faces.

Sadly, my one complaint about the Rocky Mountain is the timing of their hot water. I understand the need to conserve both water and electricity where they are, so hot water is only on for a few hours each morning and evening. In theory, I have no issue with this, but since her husband’s hotel’s dinner didn’t get us back to our hotel until after hot water time, it seemed like poor planning. I know a lot of people prefer to shower in the morning, but I like a hot shower before bed, especially when I’ve been travelling all day and want to wash the road dust off before climbing in clean sheets. This was the 3rd hotel in a row with no pre-bed hot shower for me, so it was a little disappointing.

Picture 152Everything else was great. Although the heater in the room was off until I got back (did I mention Petra is cold at night in February?), it worked really quickly and I was soon warm and slept comfortably. Breakfast was again included on the rooftop restaurant where we had a stunning view of the valley with our traditional Jordanian breakfast (eggs, fresh veggies, bread, lebnah and jam).

The hotel also provides a shuttle service to the Petra gate 2 times each morning and each evening, so I got another ride back to the park. I was also able to request a packed lunch for my day, since there’s only a few places to eat inside Petra and all are expensive. I got a simple sandwich with some snack cakes, a candy bar, a juice box and come “all natural” corn puffs. It sounds like a lot of junk food, but when you’re hiking all day, high sugar and carbs is actually pretty welcome. There was enough food for my lunch in the park, a snack on the way out of the park, and a dinner on the bus back to Amman for 8JD.

Jane was also really helpful with information about the area. I asked her several questions about the locals I had met on my first day including safety, general expectations and trustworthiness as tour guides as well as what I should expect to pay for certain tour services. She also helped me figure out the bus schedules to make sure I wouldn’t miss the only bus out of town that afternoon, and kept my bag for me after I’d checked out until I was ready to leave town.

Maybe there’s a better place in Wadi Musa (there is a Movenpick after all), but I can’t imagine you’ll get a better deal for the price than the Rocky Mountain, plus you’ll be supporting small business so it’s really win-win.

Tamani Marina Hotel, Dubai

IMG_1476This was the last stop on my February trip. I had planned to spend 3 days in Dubai, and after being highly disappointed in the quality and price of hostels there, I went into fantasy mode and just started randomly checking the prices of hotels near the beach. Most of them were way outside of my price range, but then suddenly my cursor hovered over one that popped up a really reasonable rate! I checked about 4 more times incase there was a catch, but since booking.com has free cancellation, I decided to go ahead and book it, then do more research. If it turned out to have a horrible reputation later, I could always cancel and find something else. However as I continued to research the hotel, it looked like it was a pretty nice place, and moreover that I had something close to a 60% discount on their normal rate.

And thank goodness I did. Because if I had paid full price for that, I would have almost certainly been outraged. As it was, I was just a little miffed.

When I first arrived I had quite a wait while another guest harangued the girl behind the counter about having to show his passport again. I kind of thought he was being a douche and felt bad for her, so I tried to just relax in the lobby and wait it out rather than complain and add to her problems. When they finally did get someone to me, I was chastised for “checking in late”. I had arrived at the hotel around 2pm, which is standard check in start time for most hotels in the world. I flew into Dubai around 9am and knew I wanted to do some shopping, but wasn’t sure how long it would take. Apparently because I had told them I might arrive early, that meant I was now late. And they had given my room away.

The clerk said they were all out of singles now, but I could have a larger suite for just the increase in city tax. I guess I could have stuck to my guns, but I really wanted a bath and a bed after so much travelling, and the tax wasn’t all that much so I agreed. The room was insanely huge. I think two families could have stayed there comfortably. Picture 173There were two furnished bedrooms, plus what seemed like another empty room, four bathrooms, a giant living room, dining room and expansive kitchen. There was also a washer/dryer combo unit, so I dumped in my clothes and went off to bathe. The baths win all the stars. I also took a short nap. But even after all of this, my clothes weren’t done. I managed to pull out everything but two lightweight items so they dried faster, but this left me with a pile of wet laundry.

Why not just leave it running while I went out for the evening? Well, it seems even in luxury hotels, you have to put the key card in the wall to turn on the power, so as soon as I took the key to leave, the machine would stop running, leaving my wet laundry to get stinky. So I called down to ask for another key. This shouldn’t be hard, and it really shouldn’t be a negotiation or an argument, but it took a really long time to explain the situation and make it clear that I was not going to be held hostage in my room by their stupid electricity issues, so they needed to bring me a key.

The next day, I tried to ask their tourism desk, the people whose job it is to know what tourists staying at their hotel can do, where the Big Red Bus stop near their hotel was. I should point out that it’s less than a block away, and one of the largest tour bus operators in Dubai. They actually knew the company, but insisted that there was no stop near them, pulling out an outdated map to try and prove it to me. I had to cut and run, since debating the issue with them was just going to make me miss the bus they knew nothing about. Later on, when I brought them an updated map for their records to help future guests, they treated me like I was something on the bottom of their shoes.

Housekeeping managed to steal or throw away some of the groceries that I’d bought at the Carrefour next door, while at the same time leaving trash and dishes that needed cleaning. One evening I decided to order food in because I was just too tired to go anywhere, but there wasn’t a room service menu in the room. I called down to ask for one and they told me, rather annoyed, that it was in the binder next to the television. Now, the suite is the size of a large house, so not being able to find something right away isn’t all that odd, but there was no menu in the binder. So I called back, and had to argue with them, again. I feel like if I was asking for something odd or unreasonable that the staff might need to disagree, but if you’re asking for something like an extra key, a menu or a towel, there shouldn’t need to be a discussion. The guest says ‘please bring me x’ and the hotel staff say ‘sure no problem’. Even when someone finally showed up with a menu, I had to show them the menuless binder before they would hand it over! At least the food was tasty.

Also, on the day I needed to take a taxi instead of the bus, one of the hotel staff stepped up to me as I headed for the line of taxis and asked if I needed one. I replied that yes I did. This didn’t seem odd at the time since I’ve seen lots of places have deals with drivers or queues and try to make sure that guests get into waiting taxis in order. The guy told me they had metered hotel taxis, stressing the meter. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a standard meter and ran almost double the city taxi rate. The car may have been nicer, but I felt lied to. They could easily have been upfront about offering “luxury” or “private” cars at a higher rate, that’s what Uber does and it works just fine. And I might even expect local drivers to try to claim they’re homemade meter is just as good as a taxi. But I was pretty upset about having been deceived by the hotel staff where I was a paying guest.

By the time I was ready to leave, I had more sympathy for the guest I’d seen on the first day than the staff. After several days of being treated this way in a supposedly luxury hotel, it was about all I could do not to loose my cool with the staff too. The only thing that really made it bearable was my discount, but this place is no way worth it’s normal price tag. The best thing about it? Walking distance from the Barasti Beach Bar and Carrefour.


Thus concludes the Spring Break portion of my accommodation reviews. During the Royal Decree Holiday I stayed in 2 more places.

Bedouin Garden Hotel, Aqaba

I have a lot of good things to say about this place. However, when I first arrived I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. I came in after dark, having driven from Tabuk after school Thursday and planning to leave for Egypt on the next day. Aqaba was just meant to be a resting spot in my journey from Tabuk to Sharm el Sheikh. When I was shown my “single” it had three beds crammed in, and there was no TV or (far more important) wi-fi, despite the fact that both of these had been advertised on the website. There were also several large flies in my room.

wpid-20150320_162111.jpgReminding myself that it was just one night, I gritted my teeth and decided to bear it. I got some dinner (which was quite generous and delicious), chatted with the Filapina server and went to bed. My ferry to Egypt didn’t leave until around 6:30 the next evening, but the hostel looked much better in the light. wpid-20150320_094947.jpgThere were flowers in bloom and lots of “Bedouin tent” style outdoor seating areas. I figured I could just enjoy the weather and read my book until it was time to go. Breakfast was simple but good and I got to chat with some Pakistani guests who were also out of Saudi for the holiday and heading to Petra.

There was a dive shop there, but since I don’t have my license, I kind of ignored it. I bid good travels to my breakfast companions and took my coffee over to some cushions in the shade to relax and read. The full story of my Friday adventure will be told in another post, but my plans of quiet reading were fully and enjoyably foiled. I had a great day at the Bedouin Gardens, and as it turned out accidentally ran off with their key, so I came back again the following Friday as I was making the reverse journey and spent several more hours there.

So, yeah, the rooms aren’t much. You’re not going to watch movies on satellite TV in your room or surf the web from your laptop, but if you give it a chance, you won’t miss those things at all and you’ll only be in your room to shower or sleep. Wonderful people, amazing place, beautiful beaches. I recommend it to anyone who wants to get out of the city and see the beach in Aqaba.

Park Inn by Radisson at Sharm el Sheikh

This was another one of the luxury deals that I found online. Not quite as big a discount as Tamani, but Sharm is so insanely cheap because the Egyptian Pound is very weak and business are dropping prices to attract tourists back after two revolutions destabilized the country. I should mention, I felt totally safe the whole time.

wpid-20150321_071427.jpgThe resort is insanely huge. Buildings and buildings full of rooms, two swimming pools, two restaurants, 5 bars, a private beach across the road, a water park on the premises, and a gym + spa. It took me about 45 minutes to walk around the whole thing. Plus there were shops and bars outside too.

My very low price tag included 3 meals a day (but really more, because poolside snacks were served all day) and free local booze, which amounted to pretty low end stuff, but free and unlimited goes a long way to making up for quality. It was a really beautiful place, the staff were if anything too friendly, the food was decent, although not 4 star. In terms of value for money I can’t say enough.

I had a few issues, since nothing is ever perfect. I had some trouble with overly flirty staff pushing me for a phone number or to come out with them after work to some local bars. I think if I had been with a group, that might have been fun, going out with the locals and seeing local bars, but since I was alone it just made me uncomfortable, especially coming from people I would see every day in the dining room or bar. The good news is that the one time I felt something went to far, I commented that I thought it was not appropriate and he stopped instantly, so I think they have just found that more often than not, guests respond well to the attention and so do it to everyone.

I also got food poisoning. Normally this might be enough to turn one off of a restaurant, but I know that it’s a normal hazard of international travel. Honestly, considering everywhere I’ve gone in the last few months, I’m surprised this is the only time it’s happened. I’m less upset about the illness than how the hotel handled it. I know I was already getting a cheap deal, but it would have been appropriate for them to offer some kind of recompense, especially since I had to delay my trip to Cairo at extra expense. Instead they just awkwardly tried to change the subject when I brought it up.

wpid-20150325_095331.jpgHousekeeping was adorable, if overly persistent. If I forgot to put up the do not disturb sign when I went to take a nap, they would just knock and knock and knock. Once they even had reception call me to ask me to let them in. But, to be fair, any time I had that sign up, they were quiet as mice. They also would shape my new towels into various animals on the bed and bring fresh flowers into the room.

I also noticed there was plenty of kid specific entertainment, as well as nightly activities on site like karaoke or dance performances, and daily poolside activities like yoga and water aerobics. I myself was mostly a bum, sitting poolside with a gin and tonic in hand, but there seemed to be a lot to choose from.

wpid-20150321_163956.jpgOverall, I still would recommend this place. It’s a really nice resort with lots to do and it’s easy to see many places around Egypt on day trips from Sharm. It’s less pricey than some of the swankier places, but it’s still more than nice enough to make you feel like you’re on a pampered lux vacation and you can easily spend a week or two there without breaking the bank.


So what have we learned? Well, I can tell you for sure that all my best vacation experiences are shaping up to be at tiny hole in the wall mom and pop stop type places, while the big fancy resorts are somewhere between just ok and a let down. I’m still planning to drag friends and family to some of the resorts because I think they’ll be more fun in groups and easier to do with kids than my solo traveler preferences, but it is sort of a relief to know that I not only don’t have expensive tastes, but might actually enjoy myself more at the cheaper options!

Thanks for reading, I hope it was entertaining or maybe even helpful. Check out all the adventures surrounding these hotels in any of the Spring Break 2015 posts or the soon to be published Royal Decree Holiday posts! 🙂

Spring Break 2015: Overview

My English program in Saudi is not a normal University program, but an intensive 21 week all day English course. This means we don’t get the regular university breaks. So aside from the religious holidays of Eid, and the State holiday of National Day, our only other holiday was a week between the two 21 week semesters. I have opted to think of this as “spring break”. I know it isn’t spring yet, but “winter break” has connotations of holidays and going to see family and is usually longer, whereas “spring break” is typically only a week long and used by most to run off an have raucous party times in tropical beaches (which I did at least a little of).

Today is my first day back from the vacation, and tomorrow school starts again, so I’m mostly laying on the couch trying to get my feet to unswell and gathering my strength for a new batch of students. One valuable thing I learned from this is that I really don’t have the fortitude to run around 3 countries in 7 days without proper rest. And I certainly don’t have time to stop and write about it. But since the summer travels will be restricted by money, rather than time, and staying put for a day is one of the least expensive things you can do while travelling, I should be able to take more regular downtime days where I can rest, reflect and share.

But for now, I have to do those things after the trip is finished. Over the next several weeks, I’ll be organizing my photos and stories and putting them here and on my facebook page. Until then, here’s a brief overview of the trip and what stories you can look forward to.

Day 1

This day was entirely spent travelling. There’s a sort of horrible irony to the fact that it took me almost 12 hours of travelling to get somewhere 3 hours away by car. Oh, Saudi. I had a loooong layover in the Medina airport, the highlight of which was meeting the Filapina bathroom attendant and learning the story of her life and how she came to convert to Islam and work in Saudi. Mostly it’s a story about insane economic inequality, but still worth hearing.

Day 2

This day was spent in Al Ula and Madain Saleh. I had to hire a guide because of the travel and driving restrictions in Saudi, but he turned out to be quite nice and very responsible. My original intent was just to see Madain Saleh, the southern capitol of the Nabatean civilization, but I ended up seeing some other cool stuff around Al Ula as well. I ended the evening with a Bedouin style dinner out at the base of some of the high rocks, and had an interesting encounter with the local police and the French Cultural Attache.

Day 3

I also spent mostly travelling. I had an overnight flight to Amman and only crashed for a couple hours in the hostel before catching the local bus to Petra (yay local public transportation). I made it into Petra before the park closed, and since a 2 day pass is only 5JD more than a 1 day, I decided it was worth it for a couple of hours. Petra is the northern capital of the Nabateans, and made famous by Indiana Jones. I met a local Bedouin man who was closing up shop for the evening and just spent some time walking and talking with me. I learned a great deal about the local Bedouin tribe there and even walked up to their village with him at sunset. Dinner was another Bedouin style tent affair up in the rocks, similar to the one at Madain Saleh, but more commercial. However the effect of the paper lanterns on the cliffside was beautiful, and the number of stars visible in the sky was stunning.

Day 4

This was an all day hike into Petra. I have to do some research to find out how far I walked, but it was a looong hike with many many steps carved into the rocks. I walked up to the monastery with another American I’d met in the hostel, and walked back with a variety of trail partners from many different places. I also sat and had tea with several of the Bedouin ladies who were selling handmade goods (and other trinkets) along the trail. Turns out, they still barter as well as haggle. In the evening I took a charter bus back to Amman and waited for my plane in the hostel with another traveler from Australia.

Day 5

Another overnight flight, I arrived in Dubai in the morning and managed to check out the metro transit system and finish up some shopping before having a short nap and heading to a nearby beach bar where I met a lady from two neighborhoods over in Seattle! She turns out to also have an amazing story, btw.

Day 6

Sightseeing in Dubai. I started the day with a boat tour of the marina, where I met a lovely lady from Slovenia because we both had matching high top converse “chucks”. We had the same itinerary for the day, so we stayed travel buddies, and so hopefully, I’ll get some cool pictures from her as well when she’s all done. We went to the Atlantis Aquarium and then ended the day with a desert  sunset  tour. That was especially strange as my third evening in “Bedouin style” entertainment, but Dubai was by far the most touristy and least authentic. Afterward, we parted ways and I went to see the Global Village, which I can only describe as Disney meets Model UN.

Day 7

More sightseeing in Dubai. I made it to the Museum, the Heritage Village, the Gold Souk, the Jumeirah Mosque, the Burj Arab and ended with the Dubai Mall dancing fountain show (I got video and pictures this time!). Traffic was abysmal, and by the time I got back to the hotel I was exhausted, but there  was so much music playing around, that I couldn’t sleep, so I headed back to the beach bar where I ended up sitting on the sand and watching crazy drunk people.

Day 8

Finishing off Dubai without a champagne brunch was sad, but I headed once more to the nearby beach bar and had a lovely breakfast with a single glass of sparkling rose overlooking the marina. Glorious. Then headed back to the airport for the long journey back to Tabuk.

READ MORE

This is all just the quickest of overviews, a teaser, a trailer, a tantalizing glimpse of the wonders I experienced in the last 8 days. Those of you who read regularly know that each tale will be spun in detail and color as time allows, and those of you who may be new or who I met on this trip, I hope you’ll come back and see the full stories.

🙂