sending postcards
a travelogue by alex and mina

mena house oberoi

• 15 notes •

After spending the day in the hot hot sun, the opulent, if not superannuated, Mena House Oberoi provided us with some much appreciated a/c. The restaurant came highly recommended by several other travellers and we were looking forward to seeing the hotel for ourselves.

We ordered 'Egyptian appetizers', including: marinated feta cheese, stuffed cabbage, eggplant with garlic, babaghanoug, tehina, and pickled cucumbers. For the main entree, we had kebab and kofta served with oriental rice, which they served in the shape of a pyramid.

Again, the Egyptian food was great. We used our time after diner to stroll around the gorgeous hotel. Mena House Oberoi been in operation for more than 100 years, and the decor pays homage to the hotel's illustrious past (and present).

The food and atmosphere helped us unwind after a somewhat hectic day of dealing with corrupt cabbies, aggressive merchants, and the desert climate.

the pyramids

• 22 notes •

After our action-packed taxi ride, we were relieved when we finally made it to the gate of the pyramid complex. Online, we had read that you shouldn't give your tickets to anyone before the gate. The gist of the scam is that shady tour guides will take your tickets, under the auspices of "checking them", and then force you on their overpriced, and laughably inaccurate, tour.

When we approached the gate a man asked for our tickets. We gave him our tickets and then immediately remembered what we read. We asked for our tickets back, but he withheld them. We grabbed the cheap tickets and moved ahead to the security guards. The security guards didn't seem concerned that we were ignoring him, so it confirmed to us that he was a tour guide, and not legit. After some heated discussion back and forth it seemed he was allegedly authorized to ask for our tickets. It would have been nice if there were some signs to prevent misunderstandings, especially considering there are so many people who are happy to add a premium to tourists. When we finally went through the metal detectors and were leaving the security area the guard said, with a smirk, "Welcome to Egypt".

We entered at the Sphinx gate, which meant that once we went through "security", we were right at the feet of the famous statue (or as close as you can get). We worked our way through a steady line of tourists having their photo taken with the mythical lion-man in the background. These were followed by the people using perspective, and their fingers, to take cheesy photos that look as if they're touching the top of the pyramids (same thing happens in Piza, we're told).

With each step we took up the hill towards the pyramid, we were offered camel rides or the opportunity to buy "quality" souvenirs at a "fair" price.

Eventually we made our way up the hill to the base of the largest of the 3 pyramids, the Great Pyramid of Giza. It seems like an odd thing to say, but it actually seemed a little smaller in person. It stands, a not insignificant, 450ft high, but for some reason it seem a lot larger in our imaginations.

The downside of not availing ourselves of either the camel rides or a bus tour, was that we had to walk around in the stifling heat. Couple that with the lack of beverage facilities (we only saw two vendors near the Great Pyramid) and it made for some less than comfortable walking. At least the unrelenting heat of the sun was as we imagined it.

We made our way from the Great Pyramid up to an observation plateau. From this vantage point we could see the 3 pyramids against the backdrop of the city of Giza. Since it was hardly the traditional photo we were looking for, we began hiking to the south where the camel rides were heading.

This led us on a wide arc that eventually returned us to the side of the Great Pyramid. By this point the sun was setting and the security guards were chasing people out. We exited through the main gate and made our way to the venerable Mena House Oberoi Hotel for a relaxing early dinner.

We had heard in advance of touring the site that many other tourists found visiting the pyramids to be an empty experience. Despite this, we both went in with open minds. The Pyramids, like Easter Island or Stonehenge, are things you read about growing up that not only pique your historical curiosity, but also offer limitless possibilities for a child's imagination. In reality, we found the site to be poorly managed/organized/staffed, and there is no appearance of wanting to have visitors be educated or engaged in the history or culture. Sadly, we would not recommend visiting them. The historical sites in Luxor are moderately better organized and make for a much more enjoyable visit, but we felt the pyramid complex was designed in a manner that reduced the experience of visiting the pyramids to a feeling that we were merely crossing them off a list of places to see (and not understand or appreciate).

guess where?

• 9 notes •

If you read our last post, you can probably guess where these were taken. It could be mistaken for a landfill, but it's actually an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We didn't only take pictures of garbage though, we also trudged through the sand and snapped photos of the camel-ride mongers, the mysterious sphinx, and of course the legendary pyramids... coming up soon. 

typical taxi troubles in egypt

• 22 notes •

When we got in a taxi near our hotel to visit the Giza Pyramid complex, we expected the ride to take 5 minutes. Thirty minutes later we still hadn't arrived at the gates to pyramids, our taxi had left us, and the sun was mercilessly hot. This is how it all went down:

Not long after arriving in Cairo, we observed that there are far more taxis driving around than passengers. Some drivers would say 'no' to a fair price and drive off, but another taxi would quickly pull up and eventually one of them would agree to the fare.

Our plan for getting to the pyramids was simple: offer the driver 5 LE (Egyptian pounds) for the ride. Now, we know that offering a taxi less than $1 might seem absurd, but the locals pay less than that amount, and it was a short ride straight up the street.

Our daily strategy was to walk about 100 feet away from the hotel and then hail a cab driving by (avoid anyone hanging around the hotel lobby). An older taxi pulled up (the newer taxis always wanted 3-4 times as much) and the negotiations began. English was not widely spoken by most of the cabbies that we dealt with, so we would hold up the actual bills that we were going to pay with to ensure that there was no "confusion" about the fare.

Describing to the taxi driver where we wanted him to drive us necessitated pointing in the direction of the pyramids and making a pyramid-like shape with our hands. Eventually we were confident that the price and destination were understood and off we went!

After a few minutes of driving, with the pyramids looming in front of us, a man from the street jumped on the back of the cab. An argument ensued between the cabbie and the man (while the taxi was still in motion). The cabbie stopped and the man got into the front passenger seat. He began telling us in English that the taxi was not allowed to go further into the pyramid complex and that we would have to continue on his camel into the site. We had heard of this scam before and firmly denied his offer. He continued to repeat his lies, but the cabbie pushed him out of the taxi after we yelled at the man to get out.

The taxi continued on, but the driver began saying something to us in Arabic. As he pulled the cab over we understood that one of the tires was flat. He got out and spent a few minutes changing the tire.

The pyramids looked so close at this point, we really hoped this was the last delay in the ride.

No such luck. The taxi turned off the main street and began driving through back alleys. We could still see the pyramids, so we weren't too worried, but something didn't quite seem right. As we rounded a corner we saw 5 men sitting in the alley ahead. When they noticed the taxi they stood up and the cabbie stopped. They came over to the cab and told us the taxi couldn't go any further and that we had to continue on their camels into the site. This time the taxi driver seemed unwilling to proceed (the men were physically blocking the alley). We left the cab (reluctantly paying him the agreed fare) and walked away from the men.

At this point we were in what looked like a residential area. Even though the pyramids were right ahead of us, we weren't quite sure how to get to the entrance gate and the 35+ Celsuis (95+ Fahrenheit) weather wasn't helping the situation.

An Egyptian boy yelled at us and gestured for us to follow him down a narrow corridor between 2 buildings. We initially ignored him (since another kid had earlier tried to sell us a camel ride) but with no other viable option in mind we decided to head down the corridor.

When we finally emerged at the other end there was no sign of the helpful kid, but what we did see was tour buses. At last, we had reached the gates of the pyramid complex. We still had to endure a few more frustrations before finally seeing the Great Pyramids...

people watching / peeping

• 9 notes •

Our hotel was located on the very busy Pyramids Rd. in Giza. The traffic never let up. Eventually, we learned to tune out the constant noise of horns, but the occasional screech and crash would always have us running to the window to see what happened.

It was also amusing to watch as pedestrians did their best to cross the road. With our birds-eye view it almost seemed like we were watching a game of Frogger:

Coincidentally, we were watching CNN in our hotel room and they ran a very succinct piece on the traffic in Cairo:

A loosely organized game of soccer, and a race, between kids took our attention away from the street and onto (what we assumed was) a sports facility across the street.

The view wasn't great, but Cairo isn't a very pretty city so, we think you'd be hard-pressed to find one. We could see the pyramids in the distance though, which was pretty cool.

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