Explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton was quite possibly the greatest vagabond in history. In his lifetime he lived diverse cultures, broke boundaries, and did most of it without much in the way of resources or travel money.
As I listen to the call to prayer outside my window, I can’t help reflecting on the amazing life of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Quite possibly the greatest explorer and adventurer the world has ever known.
Burton was born on the 19th of March, 1821 in England and died at the age of 69 in Austria-Hungary on October 20, 1890. During his life Burton was a writer, explorer, anthropologist, ethnographer, soldier, spy, linguist, and poet.
He is said to have spoken twenty nine languages and was the first European man to go to many places in Asia, Africa,and even to the United States where he infiltrated and exposed the bizarre beliefs and customs of the Mormons in Salt Lake City.
Why does the call to prayer remind me of him? For one because he was the first European to make the hajj and disguised as an Arab he entered Mecca. For two because Burton was in fact, a Muslim. Third, Burton was the translator of The Thousand and One Nights which is probably the best known collection of stories concerned with Arab and Muslim cultures ever written.
In addition to these achievements he also translated the Kama Sutra and was the first European to see the source of the Nile River. His writings included studies of human behavior, ethnographies, travel writing, books about sexual practices, and more. He was a cofounder of the Anthropological Society of London before most people had any idea what anthropology was (although most still don’t).
To a certain extent, Burton was hated and persecuted for his honesty, his refusal to bend before the man, and the suspicion that rather than having masqueraded as a Muslim, he might have actually been one.
Burton always claimed to be a Muslim, but after his death, in an attempt to save her reputation, his wife Isabel published a biography that most believe to be false in which she claimed he was always a strong believer in Christ- like her. She also burned all of his unpublished writings so that her account was the only one which people could turn to. This went specifically against Burton’s wishes, but he probably didn’t care much since he was already dead.
To understand just how many books Burton wrote, how much ground he covered, and how incredible the man was you need only read his fascinating biography.
Quite a title to hold “The Father of History” and yet, it is quite firmly in the dead cold fingers of Herodotus. Nephew of the poet Payasis and not only the father of history but of anthropology, and one can equally (but not so forcefully) argue he is the father of all travel writers and vagabonds. One should also point out that because of his sometimes fanciful tales he has also been known as the ‘father of liars’ which also seems to make him the patron saint of modern travel writers.
Born at Halicarnasus, which is modern day Bodrum, Turkey in the year 484 B.C. He was a rich kid and we can guess like modern rich kids in Bodrum, he spent plenty of time on his parent’s yacht and enjoyed the perfect summer climate there. At 20 years of age, he left, not for a gap year travel, but to explore and document as much of the known and unknown world of his time. As far as we know, he was the first to undertake such a journey with such a goal.
He first headed towards Memphis – no silly, not the home of the King of Rock and Roll (Memphis, Tennessee) but Memphis, Egypt. He visited the pyramids, watched the Nile overflow its banks, and wrote of Heliopolis and Thebes. It’s he who was really the first tourist of the world. He described the religious rituals, the daily life, the food, and the culture of Egypt and in the process, he set the foundation of anthropology.
From Egypt he set out to Libya where he was amazed by snakes, elephants, and an animal he described as “having no head but eyes on the chest” – from this we can guess he wasn’t averse to trying out the local psychedelics. From there to Ethiopia before leaving Africa and heading back towards Bodrum by way of Phoenicia (Lebanon), Syria, Palestine, and Arabia.
He described Arabs as the people who ‘kept any vow they might have made’ and wrote lyrically of their spices and religion in Assyria and Babylon (Iraq). Next he went to Persia (Iran) because he wanted to document as much as possible about the wars between the Persians and the Greeks – at the time, Persia wasn’t a Muslim place and Herodotus notes that the Persians of that time didn’t like their gods to be depicted in human form either. He was enthusiastic about the Persian custom of transacting business over too much wine – something that would probably make the mullahs of Iran a bit mellower today if they adopted it.
Next, Herodotus ventured into India, the Punjab, and Afghanistan. From there he ventured into the ancient country of Media – which today is what we call ‘the ‘stans’ of Central Asia. From Central Asia he ventured around the Caspian and Black Seas and into the Caucasian Mountains. He explored a considerable portion of what is today European Russia including stretches of the Volga, the Don, and the Danube.
Around the Black Sea and to the Bosphorus before returning back to the Aegean Sea where he explored the many Greek isles and introduced his readers (later of course) to the Amazons, Lesbians, and Cretans – three terms today which have very different meanings than in his time.
After eight long years – he returned to Halicarnassus and read his travels at the Olympic games in 456 BC. At this time he was exiled to Samos by a dictator who was obviously threatened by what he represented (an open travelers’ mind perhaps) – he returned in rebellion and the tyrant was overthrown – at which point he was again exiled to Samos.
Finally, he retired to Italy (like all good travelers should) and died in the year 406 B.C. – one can imagine that he was completely unaware of the iimpact he would have on the world, but as you can see – as I write this nearly 2,500 years later – he was one very kick ass vagabond.
You know those great musicians who die when they are 27 and live on forever as the greatest even though the musicians who live into their 80’s probably are a whole lot better?
Eudoxus of Cyzicus wasn’t one of those guys. He was really one of the best, one of the greatest and though the facts are quite obvious and obviously speak for themselves, he has largely been forgotten by history. In fact, if you start a conversation about either Eudoxus or Cyzicus – you are likely to immediately asked Who? What? or Huh?
Who was he? He was a 2nd century (B.C.) Greek navigator who tried to circumnavigate Africa about 1700 years before anyone else tried again. By the way, he probably failed since he disappeared along with all of his ships and crew on his 2nd attempt. Of course, maybe he found paradise and decided not to return home.
Cyzicus, by the way is located near the present day Bandirma in Turkey and while there isn’t any evidence to say that it is where the scissors were invented – I like to think it might be true. The ampitheatre there was considered as one of the seven wonders of the world and was the largest ever built – at least until a larger one was made. The monuments of this great city were carted off to build the Hagia Sophia and later Ottoman monuments. The site is now an uninhabited wet land.
His career included much more than just his disappearance, however. He made successful voyages to India from the Red Sea for the Egyptian Pharoah-King Ptolemy Euergetes II and loved to party down with the locals (okay, I just added that part in though it could be true.)
He sailed the monsoon system of the Indian Ocean 120 years before the baby Jesus let out his first wail and he was written about by Poseidenius as a hero of yore back when yore was considered to be pre-yore. The story goes that a shipwrecked Indian sailor found his way to Ptolemy’s court and offered to guide a ship to his homeland in turn for passage. Ptolemy thought about it for a second before saying “Get Eudoxus – that guy can sail anything. I think he’s in Cyzicus.”
Much to the surprise of everyone Eudoxus not only accepted the challenge but also came home with a load of herbs, teas, spices, and precious stones. Needless to say, he was sent back. One story has it that he was in love with Ptolemy’s queen and she returned the feelings – of course, that is a story I just made up because it sounds rather nice. There is no historical record of it – but if it were true, you can imagine why he kept getting sent away on dangerous missions.
While some early historians thought it was all a pack of lies (the whole voyage to India, not just the part I made up), modern scholars are pretty sure he really did make the trips. One reason is that during the 2nd century BC, Greek and Indian ships plied their trade with one another in ports like the modern Turkish city of Aden. By the year 50 BC there were plenty of Greek and Roman ships sailing the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.
Of course, if he kept returning to have the King’s queen swooning over him, it was necessary to have more dangerous missions placed before him. Ptolemy next said something like “Why don’t you go West and just keep going…” So, Eudoxus, not one to really understand a hint, got in his ships and went to Spain where he built more ships and set out to go around Africa – something else that no one else had done and something that he probably had no reason to suspect was even possible – so we have to think that maybe some of the herbs from India were smokable and of the sativa variety. Or maybe not. Here’s a bit from Wikipedia – not the most reliable source but for this story, it probably is worth the weight in gold.
When Eudoxus was returning from his second voyage to India the wind forced him south of the Gulf of Aden and down the coast of Africa for some distance. Somewhere along the coast of East Africa, he found the remains of a ship. Due to its appearance and the story told by the natives, Eudoxus concluded that the ship was from Gades (today’s Cádiz in Spain) and had sailed south around Africa. This inspired him to attempt a circumnavigation of Africa.
Personally, I like the story with Ptolemy’s queen a bit better, but what we know for certain is that he shipwrecked somewhere South of Morocco, probably in modern Mauritania and then spent some time making repairs before once again heading back to Greece where he was told once again to get lost.
So, once again, he set out to circumnavigate Africa and this time it is presumed that he was lost forever though some, such as Pliny, claim that Eudoxus went all the way around and came home. The truth is probably that he finally got the hint and went and found a queen of his own somewhere.
Again, not a lot of time to write, but we are having a wonderful time in Turkey. From cruising the Bosporus to marveling at the Iskander Kebap in Bursa, this trip has been filed with adventures stretching across the Black Sea, the Marmara Sea, and soon the Aegean Sea, and of course a bit of the Mediterranean Sea too.
I’ll be writing about all of our adventures when I have some time to put things together and pick the best photos. In the meantime, here is a small piece I’ve put together on this amazing land we are trekking across by ferry, bus, taxi, and more.
As a guy who loves the ocean, I can hardly imagine a place that offers more variety than Turkey. While very different from places like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Hawaii; Turkey is filled with more Greek and Roman ruins than Greece and Italy and is surrounded by four seas and several straits.
The Black Sea which the Turkish people call Karadeniz borders the northern part of Turkey. It’s an inland sea that takes up more than 420,000 kilometers. Geologists say it was formed when Asia crashed into Europe and opened up the Bosporus Strait and flooded an inland plain. It is about 2200 feet deep in places and is warm in the summer and extremely cold during the winter. It is fed by many rivers and empties into the Bosporus. While no one seems to be certain why it is called the Black Sea some say it is because of the dangers that exist in it and others that it is because of the deep dark waters. It is the youngest sea on earth and is kept saline through inflows from the Mediterranean Sea through the Bosporus.
The Sea of Marmara which Turkish people call Denizi is a small inland sea connected to the Black Sea by the Bosphorus Strait. The Marmara Sea’s name comes from the Greek work for marble (marmar) and is about 11,000 square kilometers. It is relatively small being only 280 by 80 kilometers at its widest points. It is filled with many islands. To the south the Dardanelles Strait connects the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean Sea.
Turkish people call it Ege Denizi, but in English it is known as the Aegean Sea. Legend says that it was named for a famous drowning but whether that was Queen Aegea of the Amazon or Aegeus, the father of Thesius isn’t totally clear. It’s waters however, are very clear and while it is only 214,000 square kilometers and often included as a part of the Mediterainean, it has over 3000 islands within it including Crete, Rhodes, Lesbos. It sits between Turkey and Greece. It’s shores were home to Trojans, Mycenaean, Persians, Minoans, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, Ottomans, and many others. You can’t take a step without stepping on ancient stories and history.
And finally, there is the mighty Mediterranean Sea. Bridging the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe and the many countries that exist on it’s shores. It fills the area between The straits of Gibraltar in the West which lead to the Atlantic Ocean and the Suez Canal in the East which connect it to the Red Sea. The Turkish name for the Med is Akdeniz which means White Sea. Mediterranean actually comes closer to meaning Middle Earth in Latin. That explains all the hobbits. Despite the Latin origins of the name, the Romans called it Mare Nostrum- Our Sea.
The Mediterranean is nearly 2.5 million square kilometers. Just about everyone you read about in ancient history class lived on its shores. Phoenicians, Egyptians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Lycians, Arabs, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, Ottomans, and all those Europeans during the Renaissance. That’s because it has a massive 46,000 kilometer long coastline that is shared by Spain, France, Monaco, Italy, Malta, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, Albania, Greece,Turkey, Syria, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Tunis, Algeria, and Morocco.
4. Don’t Read
To me, reading is an essential part of travel. As far as I’m concerned, if you are one of those people who ‘doesn’t like to read’ than you are one of those people who should stay home and not travel.
Don’t read anything about the country of place you are going to. That way you won’t understand the culture, the traditions, the history, the climate, or anything else. You will be able to have a completely one dimensional experience. If you should read, for example, about how it is rude to point the bottoms of your feet at someone in Thailand, then you’ll miss out on the ass kicking that results when the kick-boxer tells you to stop pointing your feet at him and you continue to do it. You wouldn’t want to miss that.
Or if you read, you might feel compelled to go fifteen kilometers out of your way on the way between Seattle, Washingon and Vancouver, British Columbia and visit the remote and gorgeous Scenic Hot Springs. Wouldn’t that suck?
Don’t read on your trip. Don’t discover that Mark Twain stayed in the same hotel you are visiting in Honolulu (The Moana Surfrider) or that the lovely looking picnic spot in Cebu, Philippines is where Lapu Lapu ate a famous explorer. Who needs to know details like that?
Don’t read when you are stuck at the airport. It’s much better to just sit and get angry at the workers or eat overpriced food. Don’t read at the beach because it’s much better to sit there wondering what to do now that you are done swimming.
Yes, if you don’t want to enjoy world travel, it is essential that you not read.
5) Don’t talk to anyone unless you have to
If you want to have horrible and meaningless travels, don’t talk to anyone unless you have to. Don’t talk to the man next to you on the airplane or bus, he might be a Chinese businessman who would invite you to visit his home and stay with his family.
Don’t talk to the guy who works at the hotel unless you need towels or directions. If he thinks “Hey, this is a nice person” he might actually tell you someplace that he doesn’t recommend to every other rude tourist. You might end up going to a tiny temple in Penang, Malaysia instead of going to the big one that has eighteen tourist buses outside it.
Don’t talk to people in the street. They might try to sell you something. They might want to practice English with you. They might want to share a bit of their culture or learn something about yours. Wow, wouldn’t it be a bummer if that Indonesian guy learned that the USA is not just like Bay Watch and Jerry Springer? Don’t talk to him.
If you want to NOT enjoy your travels, do not talk unless you need something.
6) Don’t learn any of the local language
Finally, if you want to be absolutely certain that you don’t enjoy your world travel, pretend your a British Colonist and refuse to speak the local language.
Don’t say Tarima Kasih in Indonesia, don’t ask where to get the gonggongcheecha in China, don’t say Yvet in Turkey, don’t show the grocer in Barcelona you can understand the uno, dos, tres, don’t speak French in Paris (I found Parisians to be very gracious about my bad French), don’t say shukran in Morocco, kapcun kap in Thailand, daijobu in Japan, bollacks in England, dude in California, wienerschnitzel in Germany, or Mahalo in Hawaii.
Speaking the language encourages people to learn about you, to teach about their culture, to make friends, to have relationships, to even fall in love. There is nothing miserable about any of that. So if you want to Not enjoy the world of travel…don’t speak the local language.
Got more tips about how to NOT enjoy world travel, why not leave a comment below or send your tips to me using the contact form.
The hustle in Egypt is relentless and from my perspective anyway, downright shameful. Don’t get me wrong, I call both Morocco and Turkey home, so I understand the hustle from the carpet vendors in the Grand Bazaar asking three times the price they want because the guidebooks say tourists should ask for half price to the Moroccan haggler that will overcharge you by 1000% just because he can. I don’t dig that stuff, but they at least have something in common that I can respect. Once you agree on a price, that’s the price. Not so in Egypt.
Granted, my experience is limited to airport hustlers and taxi touts but within a short time, I noticed something that offended me far more deeply than being over charged. Egyptians continue to try to gouge you for higher prices even after you have agreed on a price. The price goes up when you pull out your wallet, if you pay in advance they then tack on extras like the ‘airport ticket’, and even if you shake on it – they will tell you a higher price immediately and try to wheedle it from you. That, to me is offensive. The violation of the agreement.
I can live with Egyptians (and Moroccans and Southern Italians, Greeks, and other North Africans) violating my ideas of what the que (line) should be and why it should be respected. Frankly, I think it is a reason why their societies are less successful than say those of Turks, Northern Italians, Brits, Germans, or Americans. So, I hate my idea of the line being violated, but I loathe the idea of the handshake being nulled. The most classic example of a deal done. When an American shakes my hand, looks me in the eye and tells me something – and then it changes – I honestly feel a desire to maim and hurt them. With the Egyptians, I just feel an intense sadness because the handshake isn’t even worthy of a lie. The agreement of a price, isn’t even an agreement.Certainly, a society where agreeing on a negotiated price holds no weight – isn’t a society I want to be in for even a day more – no matter how cool the Pyramids might be.
The Oasis Hotel in Heliopolis
The name certainly sounds nice, but like the agreement on price, the name holds no meaning at this particular establishment. I’m certain that I’ve stayed in worse hotels. The hard part is remembering where and when that was. The one positive thing I can say is that I didn’t get bit by any bugs – but, I did have to sleep in a room that smelled like it had been fumigated hours before I arrived. I woke up coughing Raid fumes at 3 am. In fact, I woke up a lot. This wasn’t due to anything buy my own paranoia.
The door had been kicked in so didn’t close securely and the security bolt had been ripped off but replaced with just one undersized screw so that didn’t make me feel any better. The windows didn’t bolt or secure and the one chair in the room was too small to fit under the doorknob and the clothes bar from the closet wasn’t long enough to make the windows close.
The bathroom appeared to have not been cleaned in years – if it had been, it was only a bad cleaning. In terms of the room itself, it was a 1980’s TV and an air-conditioning unit that continually dripped water on the carpet (and had been doing so for years) while rattling and banging. The noise from the street was too much to sleep with the window open and besides, I had odd security fears since I am traveling with cash and jewelry I bought for my wife in Turkey – not something I usually do, but I expected a short layover with a controlled environment – not this madness.
The sheets had about a hundred holes in them and the shower curtain was covered in mold. This is a 3-star, they assured me at the airport before I foolishly handed over my $50 without seeing the room. Not something I would normally do, but I needed to be back at the airport to catch a connecting flight. And there I was – sleeping on a massive mattress covered with holes and waking every thirty minutes as doors slammed and lights flashed across the windows. At 6:30 – I was fully awake feeling cleaner without a shower, besides no towels. Breakfast was unrecognizable meat cooked with onions and some sort of awful beans. I like middle eastern food. I’ve had delicious Egyptian food, I’ve had breakfast all over the world – but this, I don’t know what this was except awful.
This sucks. I never wanted to visit Egypt like this. I wanted to have wonder and excitement, not frustration, disappointment and complete and total uncertainty. This is my fault – I pressed the buy button. I took the single leg of the flight. I blew it.
Even the coffee I got in the airport was a hustle. 21 Egyptain pounds it said on the board and when I gave the barrista 21 EGP, he told me, “No” you have to pay the tax and rang it up as 26 EGP. I told him “If you have to pay a 25% tax on a cup of coffee, it’s time for another revolution” and he didn’t smile but said “This is the airport, there is a service charge.” This after making me wait ten minutes, go back to the counter and ask for my cup of brewed coffee. I’m not at all in love with this place. Huge no smoking signs and three people smoking under them. They told me to wait until 8 AM for standby but then made me wait until 8:30 AM and then said “There’s no space, this is a full flight” but they knew that at 6:30 AM when they told me to wait until 8 AM.
The driver last night was on the phone with someone and kept saying “No money” and it was quite surely in reference to me since I was paying as cheaply as possible. He asked for a $1 million dollar tip. He got nothing. Nor did the hotel. Nor did the barrista, except he took it in the service charge. It’s amazingly difficult to get out of Cairo and I just want to confirm when and if so that I can make plans – take a tour, go somewhere else, figure something else out – anything. It’s this limbo situation in a hustler touristic hell that is unbearable. Maybe all of Egypt is like this, I hope not, but so far, this is what all of Egypt is like to me…ugly.
The wifi in the airport is the sort that doesn’t work on my netbook or my phone or my kindle. It comes up as limited connection. So I can’t plan anything here either. The hijabi ladies at the reservations center told me to wait for one hour to see if I can confirm a flight for tomorrow or the next day. It’s going to cost me something like $400 but it will be first class – hahaha. Shit. I can at least afford it, but I’d rather use that for something else since I’ve already paid for one ticket.
But shit, I’m in Egypt. No matter what they tell me, I’m going to sort things out after that. I’m going to find a hotel, get a decent room, use the internet, visit the Cairo Museum, see the Pyramids, visit Luxor, buy my wife a Nefertitti necklace like Granddaddy used to get for Ganny and move onwards. Dammit, I just want to go home and see my daughter. I’m trapped in tourism hell.
My head hurts – the bad AC, the bug spray, the lousy sleep, the lumpy mattress, and constant feeling that I might be robbed or molested by bedbugs in the Roach Oasis. I found my Raybans though – that’s a good thing. Maybe these ladies will find a solution for me. Maybe this can all be turned around. I hope so.
Awful ideas come a thousand at a time to me. For $400, I can fly to Tunis and then onward to Casablanca. At least I think so. Or maybe I could figure out a way to go to Libya. Maybe I can discover a way to traverse all of North Africa in a shitty yellow cab.
Quite frankly, it is tourism that has ruined the world. Capitalism first, then tourism. People should just stay home. I should just stay home. I don’t even think that’s possible for me – especially since I don’t have a home. Where is my home?
Big Bear? Nope. Bellingham? Maybe, sort of, but not really. Myrtle Creek? Nope. Portland? Not really. Honolulu? Might be the best bet, but I’m a mainland Haole so it can never truly be mine. Seattle/Tacoma – Not at all despite being born there. Sefrou? I hope not. Istanbul? I like it, but I’m not even Turkish. Redding? Jesus – almost worse, no definitely worse than Sefrou. But at the end of the day, home is where my hat is hanging and it’s hanging in Sefrou with my wife and daughter – so for the moment. Sefrou is home. I want to go home – I don’t care about the hat, I care about my girls.
I should develop some sort of plan.
1) Talk with the reservations girls and see if they can help me
Find someplace with internet or rent a nice hotel room
Arrange some kind of tour, since I’m here
If necessary – find an alternate flight home or just pay the necessary total
Go home and never leave on a solo trip again unless my way home is already secured
And it turns out that the girls at the reservations office in Terminal 1 were able to help me. They got me a flight two days later for a $38 change fee. I used the internet and found a nice, cheap hotel near Tahirer Square – Invitation Hotel for $38 for two days including breakfast and a night cruise dinner on the Nile, an all day Pyramid Tour, and a private car back to the airport the morning I leave for about $72 more. So, $150 more and I have a very nice Egypt trip. Yes, I would have paid $200 at any time in my life to see the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum.
The Egyptian Museum
Overwhelming is an overwhelmingly understated word when it comes to the Egyptian Museum. Over 130,000 artifacts dating from Egypt’s massive history. Yes the King Tut mask is magnificent. Yes the mummies are creepy and cool. And yes, it is an amazing journey through a history that most of us are at least passingly familiar with. I spent an afternoon just bopping and bouncing from room to room and letting whatever caught my attention catch my attention.
A statue of a pharaoh with an incubus on one side and an Anubis (I think) on the other. Perhaps it was two gods – one with jackal head and one with falcon head.
The household items and furniture. A beautiful folding chair with a leather back and a detailed design of the symbol of eternity (a man sitting cross legged with arms outstretched) embossed upon it. The still comfortable looking couches and neck rests – I want to try one.
King Tut’s knife with the golden sheath and handle.
A funerary box with a ‘family’ of tiny blue sarcophagi mummy boxes arranged peeking over like Moroccans on a rooftop.
An incredibly fine marble statue of a Roman or Greek.
The mummified animals. The massive crocodiles were wondrous but the dog and monkey arranged staring at one another really blew my mind.
The burned out shell of the former governments ‘Democratic’ headquarters next door and the completely stripped out Museum shop. The lack of uniformed guards inside but the eyes of the very watchful men in each of the rooms who are assigned security duty.
These, no doubt, are the men who, when fires were burning as the coup/revolution took place – took the truncheons and guns of the police they had been fighting and lined up around the museum – reportedly saying “This is our history and if it disappears, we will never get it back.” They were unable to stop the first looters who stole a reported (but probably more) 50-100 items but they kept the bulk of the collections (and the most important pieces) safe for 12 hours until the army sent troops to take over. All of that was part of what blew my mind. The burned out cars in the parking lot next door, the eyes and lack of uniforms of the guards, and the real story behind the history.
Also overwhelming was the massive hugeness of the collections and the arrangement though without placards, audio tours, or a guide – I found myself enjoying it and able to simply wander and let my eyes fix on a treasure and then discover it. I see wonderful things.
This had the potential to become yet another layer of hell and upon setting foot on the massive boat, I almost immediately felt regret at booking this dinner cruise – especially since I was on my own and everyone else on the cruise was in large groups. One wedding group, a couple of birthday groups, some traveler groups – but no one else on their own.
The big boat and the mediocre buffet along with the tacky dining room, the unsmiling waiters, and what certainly promised to be unremarkable dance had me sitting on the edge of a table for eight with a party of four on the other end unable to look out the window and feeling slightly creepy as the karaoke began in the saloon. So, I ate my meal – the most remarkable piece of which was a pickle salad with small red peppers – and then I went up on the main open deck and decided to skip the entertainment. After all, I can see whirling dervishes, a dancing dwarf (yes they had one and I’m a bit sorry I missed that ) and belly dancers (okay, I admit it, I also regret missing them because they might have been sexy, but then they may have been old and wrinkly too with flabby elderly bellies – somehow I doubt that, but it makes me feel better) anywhere but I can only see the Nile and Cairo in Cairo on the Nile.
I don’t regret my decision to go to the upper deck because night on the Nile was both magical, real, and surreal. Small party boats with blaring speakers and a profusion of neon lights zipped by with guests sitting on them. Egyptian sail boats (I want to know how they are rigged) and windsurfers tacked by us at amazing speeds. The lights of the city, the skyscrapers, but mostly – it was my new friend Ibrahim, an Egyptian artist who sells souvenirs on the boat (though I must admit, he didn’t sell any that I saw – not even to me.) It was extremely enjoyable to feel the wind from the Nile and talk to this guy about life in Egypt, his home near Giza, the revolution, and his art. His art is pouring colored sand into bottles and then using wire to make pictures with it, building ships in bottles, and creating sand paintings of Nefertiti and other Egyptian scenes. His work was beautiful but the themes were so kitschy that I couldn’t even bring myself to ask about the prices. Maybe it was the bright colors or maybe it was something else – but I simply didn’t really want his work, even though I almost convinced myself that I did. The one thing I considered buying was a sand painting of Nefertiti – okay, I admit it, I regret not buying it.
As we left the boat, I saw the dwarf in his costume and a couple of guys showing each other pictures of the belly dancers – I have the memory of cruising on the Nile and making a new friend. No regrets.
I don’t know how mind blowing the pyramids must have been before there was tourist infrastructure and aggressive touts, but judging by how astounding they still are today they must have completely blown the fucking minds of every person who came upon them. I know they blew my mind.
My driver picked me up at 8 am and we drove out towards Giza but continued on to Saqqara, home of the oldest of all the pyramids, the famous step pyramid which the Egyptian government (or someone) seems to be in the act of rebuilding. This pyramid is considered to be the one that started the whole trend. Nearly 7000 years old, it was built for King Djosar by the great Egyptian architect Imhotep. Surrounding the pyramid are many complexes of buildings which it seems no Egyptologists have firmly labeled yet. In other words, nobody knows – except for perhaps the touts who will be more than likely to tell you the definitive answer.
Despite my driver’s warnings about the aggressive touts – I found them to be much less hassle than the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or the medinas in Fez or Marrakesh – of course, there were only about ten touts there and I was the only tourist that I saw – I was dressed in black like the foremen of the construction and I spoke enough Arabic I think they all thought I was an engineer working there. Now is the time to come to Egypt if you want to experience the Pyramids, Luxor, or other amazing ancient places without crowds. The touts though, are tricky – several asked for my ticket and then said come with me – which sounded official but was actually just a way to give me a tour and grab a tip or fee – but I already know that trick and took my ticket back and walked away ignoring them. In fact, I may have ignored some real security as I walked past the construction fence and into the areas marked closed. It was just me on the ground and all the slaves, eh, workers doing whatever they were doing to the pyramids above. Just me and a 7000 year old pyramid – leather bags full of pot shards, an open door that led down into where-ever it led – the tomb? The burial chamber? I don’t know. It was dark and I didn’t have a light. I didn’t really want to fall into a 500 foot shaft and have some future archaeologist find me and say “Hey, what’s this guy doing here?” as he picks apart my bones. But, I touched the pyramid. In fact, I pissed on it. I marked it as my territory.
The step pyramid is only one part of a vast burial complex that served the city of Memphis (not Tennessee). There are several more pyramids in various states of disrepair in the area. Our next stop was a series of old kingdom tombs where the touts were slightly more aggressive and annoying. I attribute this to a busload of Mexican tourists who arrived at the same time as I did.The touts began directing people where to go, closing doors to parts of the complex, and enforcing the no picture and no camera rules – until they would get a tourist alone and then they would say “You want me to take your picture in here? It’s okay.” Frankly, this offended me more than the touting – the rule is there to protect these treasures and preserve the feeling of specialness inside the monuments – I therefore declined, as did most of the Mexicans. I saw one of the touts manage to get a couple of bucks from one old woman, but mostly, they were just annoying. The police ignore it and I’ve heard, they sometimes even participate.In post Arab-Spring Egypt, tourism is way down and the economy isn’t doing so hot either. People have to make a buck and support their families, that’s not always so pleasant for those of us who are fortunate enough to be visiting.
In fact, though, it’s less pleasant for the Egyptians. As we drove to Saqqara, we passed dozens of Carpet Schools. I asked my driver and he said that in this region, people are very poor and can’t afford to send their children to school. The children have to work at an early age. Families send them to ‘Carpet School’ where they work 9-12 hour days weaving rugs. As the driver explained “You and I can’t do that work for that long because it will destroy our eyesight and give us arthritis.” My heart broke as I realized what he was telling me – these ‘Carpet Schools’ are child sweat shops to make Egyptian rugs.
From Saqqara, we drove to Giza. My driver wanted to stop at a perfume factory but I told him I wasn’t interested. He wanted to go to the Papyrus Museum (another factory) but again I wasn’t interested. Suddenly, he was less interested. He told me the price to get in the pyramids, explained how big the complex was, told me about horse and camel rentals but wouldn’t tell me the total price. He was a nice guy, my driver. An old guy with a funny habit of saying “Do you understand?” where most people say “You know?” I don’t know how much he makes for the tour without the commission, but it must be disappointing when a cheapskate like me comes along.
The horse renter gave me his spiel and offered me a special discounted price of 280 EGP for a 1-2 hour horse ride around the complex. That’s about $45 – and it was about 100 EGP more than I paid for the tour I was told was all in. I told my driver never mind. My enjoyment was gone. I didn’t care about the pyramids anymore. Take me back to the hotel. I was done. We ended up at 160 EGP which is about $25 US and include $10 for the entry ticket. I’m so glad I did that.
My Bedouin guide, Alex, kept all the touts away from us and we took the long ride around the plateau so that I was able to truly experience the majesty of the pyramids at Giza and the feeling of what it is like to be alone in the desert with the Great Pyramids – on a horse. I’ve never specifically wondered what it would be like to ride an Arabian horse across the Giza Plateau and be alone with the Pyramids – but now I know.
As we rode up to the Sphinx, I saw the seats from the Sound and Light Show of the Pyramids – the seats don’t appear to have changed since the movie Moonraker where James Bond fights with ‘Jaws’ at the pyramids. Inside the temple of the Sphinx, there were no more than ten people. Jaws wasn’t there. The touts tried the ticket trick again, and failed again, and Alex waited outside with the horses. I asked the Sphinx a question and the answer was a riddle.
We rode back into Giza town like cowboy movie heroes on funny saddles with funny stirrups. My driver offered to take me to a few more locations to buy souvenirs, but I told him to just take me back to the hotel. We were supposed to see the famous Red Pyramid, but honestly, I’d already seen everything I needed to.
I’m not sure why, but I thought it would be very cheap to buy souvenirs and a small gold necklace for my wife in Egypt. I suppose my mistake was easy enough – with tourism down, the cost of hotels and tourist activities are lower than ever in Egypt. I made the assumption that this would also include tourist items and that the domestic economy would be such that buying some luxury items would also be cheaper. I think it was a fair assumption and it might even be true in some areas, but certainly it wasn’t true anywhere I went in Cairo.
I quickly determined that buying any sort of souvenirs near the pyramids was a huge mistake as the prices began at around $20 and I was pretty sure these were $1 items. My next stop was a small mall near Tahirir Square where I found a gold merchant who told me that gold was at a premium in Egypt because no one was certain about the currency. There went that idea, but I figured I might try at the airport and maybe I could actually find something unique in the airport shops or the duty free. Yeah, right – at the airport, a stuffed camel doll made in China was $20 with no room for negotiation. That was my other quest – something special for my daughter – a baby. I couldn’t bring myself to pay $20 for a toy that would be $3 in the USA, $5 in Turkey, $7 in Morocco, or less than $1 in China. As to the gold in the airport – a small pair of scarab earrings that must have weighed just a gram each were $276. With gold at $50 a gram or thereabouts – I couldn’t do it. Especially when he told me that they sold by the piece, offered no guarantee, and would not provide me with a weight or certification.
I’d been to a few of the souvenir shops around Tahirir Square and found that the prices were approximately 300-1000% of the price they should be. In addition, the gift shops at the Egyptian Museum, gift shops at the Pyramids, and elsewhere were poorly stocked. Cheap ‘papyrus’ scrolls and Chinese made junk souvenirs with ancient Egyptian themes seemed to be the things that were in abundance. None of which I was looking for. I visited a hijab shop, thinking that perhaps I could get my wife a fancy Egyptian hijab, but fashion, especially Islamic is so foreign to me that I couldn’t really find my way to purchase a hijab, besides which, I don’t really want to encourage her to wear a hijab anyway. Toy stores and kids stuff – I didn’t find anything. I thought about getting them fancy Egyptian djellabas but the truth is, to me, they looked just like Moroccan Djellabas. My wife doesn’t like perfumes – so that was out. Moroccans don’t really seem to appreciate souvenirs, so I skipped that. I thought I might buy a kilo of fancy Egyptian dates – but the dates were all fresh. I bought a bag and put them in my checked bag hoping customs wouldn’t take them from me. Still, I needed something. Egyptian glass seems beautiful and delicate so I bought four delicate little glass bottles for Hanane and a brass scarab for me. I actually would have loved to find a fancy reproduction of King Tut’s tomb knife for me but never saw anything like that. For my wife, I was looking for a necklace my grandmother used to wear – a gold disk with a bust of Nefertiti on it on a delicate gold chain. No luck.
Finally, I arrived at the airport with just the glass and the scarab. I still needed something so I purchased some expensive food products at duty free. $35 for some fancy dates, some sesame crackers, and some jasmine honey. More than I would pay for them in the USA, I’m fairly certain – but you can’t go home without presents and souvenirs of some kind. I’m still hopeful they might sell something decent on the plane….
The Invitation Hotel
I feel very fortunate to have found the Invitation Hotel. Wonderful location right near Tahirir Square, a great friendly staff, and best of all – a clean room, with nice sheets, satellite TV, internet, and air conditioning.
The manager when I arrived was friendly, helpful, and honest. There was no hustle with her. She smelled like my grandmother which I’ve managed to figure out is a smell of Gigi perfume and stale cigarette smoke. For me, it’s quite a nice smell when blended onto a woman with finely sculpted eyebrows and a friendly attitude. She helped me set up my tours, took payment, got me a cold drink and helped me with many things.
Overall, the hotel was a great place for the two days I was here and the price was perfect. About $25 per night. The night/morning guy was a hefty Egyptian with a pleasant demeanor but that unfathomable attitude of hating you while he smiles. He was a lazy dude. In the morning, I had confirmed that breakfast was at 8 am repeatedly, but at 8 when I woke up, he told me, “I’ll get it in 15-20 minutes.” Since I had pickup at 8:30, that wasn’t going to work. I asked him to get me some coffee right away and do his best to get breakfast – he flounced away in that huffy fat guy in his 20s kind of way. We had a bit of conversation but it was hard to take anything he said seriously, mainly because he was a spitting image of my former boss, Spencer at the ill-fated TechPlanet in dot com Seattle circa 2000. How in the world had Spencer ever been made my boss?
The hotel itself was good with some minor annoyances. The bathroom in my room was being redone and they opted to continue the work while I was out – when I returned it was still being worked on. I had to use the toilet, but had to wait twenty minutes. After the pyramid tour, I returned thirsty and asked for a bottle of water. The girl at reception told me she would bring it to my room. 30 minutes later, I was still waiting. It was only when I got in the elevator that I found the 8-year-old boy they had sent to fetch it returning with it.
To be fair, there is a mineral water shortage in Cairo. It can be hard to get and the prices have gone sky high, though the guy who charged me 20 EGP for a small bottle at the museum was a robber.
And then, the tour recommendations – I don’t recommend a dinner/dance cruise to any solo travelers – that was a mistake even if it was nice to be on the deck above looking at the Nile and Cairo. The pyramid tour didn’t include ticket prices, a guide, or water/lunch. It was budget, but I could have done better outside of the hotel.
Fly the Hajji Skies
As usually happens when I catch any flight to Morocco, and I can only assume as happens whenever you mix Moroccans and airplanes – chaos ensued. Add to that, the fact that most of the passengers were pilgrims returning from the Hajj (the sacred trip to Mecca that all Muslims are to conduct – if possible- at least one time in their lives) and hilarity quickly becomes a part of the equation. The hilarity is a result of the fact that most of these pilgrims are old, taking the one trip of their lifetime, and all very proud and happy that they have fulfilled their life’s mission. The waiting room at the airport rang with the calls of Ya Hajj and Ya Hajja (loosely translated as “Hey honored person who has completed your sacred duty (both male and female)). Once you have completed the Hajj, you are called Hajj or Hajja. It is a great honor and you can see it as these old Moroccans call each other Hajj, yell out the name to call their friends and loved ones, and every other oldster who is now a Hajj or Hajja turns to look.
Still, these are Moroccans and so regardless of respect, Hajj or not, when it comes time to form a queue and move forward, they press into a tight wedge shape and everyone begins shoving. I stood back out of respect for their age and their new status, but the other Moroccans I saw let the dynamic of the line push them forward. The Moroccan line is a living and pulsing thing of awfulness and if I didn’t need to sometimes get somewhere, I would refuse to take part. But, I need to get in the wedges to get a taxi, to buy food, to get government work done, and more. So, I am forced to be a wedgii as well. “Ya Wedgii” I managed to hold back until the second bus and then I was among the last to get on the plane, but this was a mistake because my seat was all the way in the rear.
Most Moroccans don’t know much about assigned seatings or the protocols that go with bag stowage, first class, economy class, or anything else that is fairly standard knowledge in the orderly western travel world. So, there was complete and total chaos as all the Hajj and Hajja tried to stow their pilgrim baggage anywhere they could, got told to go to their assigned seats, and made a muck of things. The young Lebanese guy in the seat next to me laughed himself silly. So did I. The poor flight crew came out of the cockpit and tried to order things, but it was next to impossible until one guy, possibly the Captain – started yelling and screaming about things. I’m glad it’s not just me that loses his patience with this stuff.
Finally they had all been seated and stowed their bags and then the constant trips to the bathroom began. The flight was, after all, delayed and these are old people with most likely weak bladders and swollen prostates. I decided to wait until the tide ebbed – but it was a near constant stream (haha). Finally I took my turn and was very glad I didn’t have to make #2 because I forgot that Moroccans (especially the old and the untraveled, don’t do well with no bucket to wash with.) The western toilet is a strange phenomenon to these folks and they soon had the spotless EgyptAir toilet looking like a toilet on a Moroccan train. The sink was filled with water of almost certain washing the bum provenience, water was all over the floor, the seat, and everywhere. Later I began to see old folks trekking into the bathroom with empty water bottles to use to wash. This is life – and it’s actually pretty funny from a outsider perspective.
They are sweet, nice people. The girl next to me has sweet, dreamy eyes behind a flowered scarf that covers all but her eyes. She is traveling with her husband and the henna on her hands plus their youth makes me think they are perhaps on their honeymoon. I’m fairly certain her husband is not Moroccan, but she may be. In any event, I try not to look at her out of respect for her veil and her husband, but it’s a bit hard.
Elsewhere on the plane, the flight crew is struggling to deal with the demands of the Hajj and Hajja but failing pretty badly. There was one European woman who ended up carrying her and her husband’s meal trays back for them. I can imagine that for anyone unfamiliar with the chaos of Moroccan travel, it must be completely insane and probably unbearable. Many of the old people smell like slightly stale pee. I suppose that’s normal for just about any old people. Of course, there is more chaos to come when we arrive in Morocco but I think I can outpace them to the immigration, but I may be stuck behind them in customs.
Cairo Burger King Doesn’t Do It Your Way
While it’s normal for travel hubs to be more expensive than the surrounding areas – I truly hate this practice. Why is it that I have to pay $10 for a $5 meal just because I am trapped behind security? Ah – wait…it’s because I’m trapped. Captive.
A chubby bald Brit with fake headphones (okay they were real but he wasn’t listening to anything just wearing them to avoid having to talk to people – I bet he read that in a guidebook somewhere) was in front of me and a bunch of Moroccans and other Arabs kept crowding to the front. I was a bit stuck because I couldn’t really just shove past him but as long as I was behind him, I was never going to get anywhere. Finally, after yet another group jumped in front of him – he left in disgust cussing under his breath. With relief, I shoved my way to the front and was the next served.
I ordered a Whopper meal, regular size. The cost was 41 EGP. He added something and the price went to 46 EGP – “What’s that?” I asked. “The tax” he told me and pointed to the sign. It said 10% will be added. Apparently they round up. Next he added 8 EGP more bringing it to 54 EGP. “What’s that?” I asked, more curious than angry. “Super size” he said. “I don’t want supersize” I told him. “Now we only have supersize” he replied “Nothing else.” “Can I have Barbecue Sauce?” I asked “3 EGP” he told me. “That’s okay, I told him, I don’t want it.” By getting a 41 EGP meal I thought I was saving a bit from the 60 EGP for breakfast at the next place – but actually, I should have gotten what I wanted to begin with – though it might have cost me 75-80 EGP with the tax, service and whatever other extras they might add on.
Here’s a fun video I put together that hits some of the video I shot on my travels during 2009-2012 in Serbia, South Korea, England, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Turkey, Egypt, and a whole bunch of other places – I wasn’t real sure what to do with these so I proudly present to you – Vagobond Travel Dramatic. Please be sure to subscribe to my You Tube Channel. I’ve had several people ask me who the singer is that is just chilling out next to the Thames and grooving – I have no idea, but I enjoyed his impromptu show. He could be someone very famous for all I know…
As a child, I was fascinated by the pyramids and the culture of the Egyptians. I used to sit on the floor of my grandmonther’s house and look through her vast collection of National Geographic magazines – it was the pyramids and Egyptians that fascinated me. Maybe it was because of Leonard Nemoy and that show he hosted in the 1970s ‘In Search of…” which obsessed about the mysteries of the pyramids, who built them, and how they were…impossible.
Or maybe it was being forced to go to church – the only interesting part of the bible for me was about the Egyptians, the pharaohs, and Egypt. Later, in my twenties, I became enamored of tarot cards – which generally are thought to have come from Egypt and encompass a lot of the esoteric lore connected there.
Lawrence of Arabia was my favorite movie for much of my life. The romance of the desert. I married my wife in the Sahara. All of it connected with these ancient wonders. I had my chance to go to Egypt just after the Arab Spring. Tahrir Square was still in turmoil. Tourist businesses were suffering – there were no tourists – except me. In the Egyptian Museum, I was alone except for the guards who followed me – whether to keep me from being kidnapped, to make sure I didn’t steal anything, or out of curiousity about what kind of person comes to Egypt at a time like that – I don’t really know.
There were seemingly far more guides than tourists – I picked one who was probably the same as many. My first guide was a driver, probably in his late fifties – he drove me to many locations where I seemed to be the only non-Egyptian. I went inside ancient tombs and wandered around freely. My driver was friendly, worried about the future. At Giza, he waited for me while I found a horse and a horseback guide. The young horseback guide was disinterested. We rode to the great pyramids. On the way, we saw five or less tourists – I probably could have climbed the pyramids – there were no guards – but there were signs- so I didn’t.
I walked around the Sphinx – I didn’t climb it either. None of it seems very real now…like a distant dream. I look at these pictures now though and I realize – I was there.
When I was a kid I loved all the books by Jules Verne. In fact, I still do. One of the best of them is Around the World in 80 Days. I’m not sure, but I think the combination of that book with all the National Geographics I used to pore over at my grandmother’s house led to the world traveler I am today.
I’m also guessing that based on the title of his book, photographer and writer Andy Davies was influenced by Mr. Verne as well. As some of you know, I’m engaged in a very slow journey around the world so when I first saw Andy’s book, I thought to myself that it was just too fast, but upon checking it out, I have to admit it. I’m jealous as hell. Andy made a very cool trip and saw more in 18 days than many travelers see in a lifetime. To cover that much ground that quickly and with a purpose…very cool.
Andy’s trip took him through Hong Kong, Singapore, Cairo, Istanbul, Venice, Zurich, Bruges, London, and Paris. His photos – astounding. You can check out some of them at Around the World Book. His book is more than the photos though.
I feel like in the short time he was in each place, he was able to take a glimpse into the souls of the people and the cultures. Maybe it’s from being so acutely aware of the shots he wanted to take, watching so closely. I’m not sure, but it works. The book/app works too. I especially like the clean maps and the references to how much he spent on transportation, where he went, and how he got there. Here’s one example of what I mean:
In Hong Kong I used my “business people” tracking skills to follow people who looked like they knew where they were going, in Singapore I found that most of the “suits” I followed were heading for
the numerous British pubs located along the Singapore River.
Nice. The funny thing about travel is that we all do it our own way. There are some people who spend months and months in a place and never get to see anything and there are others that can get to the point very quickly. When I got to the back end of the book, I was pleased to find that Andy had included his itinerary notes, packing notes, and travel notes. Like reading Burton’s Kama Sutra, sometimes the most interesting bits are to be found in the notes and it’s amazing how many writers and photographers leave out these bits. For example:
I traveled with a carry-on sized Victorinox convertible and expandable backpack/shoulder bag and a small shoulder bag with enough room to carry my cameras (two, compact) and spare lens as well as a laptop and charger.
It’s when you get into the specifics that things become interesting. Andy’s photos bring the life out on the page (or screen) and one of the cool things about using an iPad instead of a regular printed book is that when you buy Around the World in 18 Days you actually get two books since he used a completely different set of graphics and images for the horizontal and vertical versions of the book. Still, the price is the same at just $3.99. Less than the price of a latte will get you nine countries. (And actually on sale for a limited time at $2.99 if you use the links here)
As I mentioned, his photos are amazing and that’s why when I reached the back I was stoked to find that Andy had included 12 Travel Photography Tips. I’m a pretty decent amateur photographer, but I always want to be better. Andy’s tips gave me some tools to do that with. Simple things that I hadn’t thought of. I would share them, but in fact, I think the Travel Photography Tips alone make Andy’s book worth more than the price. If you notice that my camera skills are getting better, these tips are party responsible. You should buy his app/book.
In short, I highly recommend Andy’s iPad App/eBook to anyone. The price is right, the content is incredible, and whether you are traveling or just dreaming of travel Around the World in 18 Days will inspire you.
Andy Davies went around the world in 18 Days. When will you?
As always, in the interest of full disclosure, I want my readers to know that this is a sponsored review, however, as always, it is also an honest review. I’m picky about what goes on Vagobond.com and you can always trust my recommendations. If you want me to consider a sponsored review or post about your business, book, website, or product use the contact form to get ahold of me.