Journal Entry # 63 - Road Entry#53 (Mom's House – La Canada, CA - March 8, 2011)

wRite iT... wRite
5:35pm ... ... ...

The four of us wake up, exit the bus, and enter the bus station. The first thing we find is the terminal in which our 8:00am bus is leaving from the station to the boarder crossing. We have almost 3 hours to kill so we slept. I positioned my bags in a way so that I could spread across the seats comfortably and lean back.

You can see Sam's strategy for sleeping in the bus terminal, but Johnny and Jackie decided to sleep on the ground away from us vigilantes and our make-shift blindfolds. I slept until about 6:45am when I got up and walked around the bus terminal to find an internet cafe. I paid the nice lady to use the computer for an hour and sent some e-mails back home and checked my subscribed websites I love so dearly. It was here that I got my first real understanding and view of the Ducks National Championship game against Auburn and all the highlights. It was brief, but I understood what happened and was somewhat relieved not to have seen the whole game because of the severe disappointment that a lot of my friends must have felt afterwards. It was an incredible season and I can't wait for the Ducks to do it again later on in my lifetime.

I got off the computer, got my things, and then boarded the local bus to the border crossing. We each paid 6 shekels for this 10 minute bus ride through Eilat to the border. On the bus, we met this British guy who was on his way to Nuweiba to go scuba diving for the day.

Once the local bus arrived at the border, the five of us got off and casually started to walk to the gates. The British guy walked much faster and by the time we got to the gates, he was already on the other side of customs and in Israel. He knew exactly what he was doing, where to pay, who to talk to, and didn't have a bag quite like ours. We walked through the first patrolled area to the departure zone of the Israeli border. We each paid 101 shekels to leave the country. The border tax here is actually the lowest amongst the entire country. I found out later that the departure tax from Israel to Jordan in Aqaba and through to Amman are higher than 101 shekels.

I was the first to pay, and I stopped to set my bags down and change my clothes once I got through to the "limbo" zone between Israel and Egypt. I was completely changed and refreshed with my lenses in my eyes once the three of them got through and we walked into the Egyptian customs/border control area next.

The entry into the Egyptian customs station from the Israeli customs station was a like stepping through the closet into Narnia in terms of differences. The Egyptian x-ray machine wasn't stationed with an attendant and we didn't even scan our bags. We walked straight through to the next area where there was just a podium and a man in a blazer jacket standing there. There were maybe a dozen or so Egyptians scattered throughout the station, collectively in groups of two or three, and either smoking, drinking tea, or just staring in ____________(curiosity, angst, frustration, awe, adjectives).

There were only two military/police personnel there. We had to fill out some papers and talk to the only Egyptian customs agent that spoke English. He told us that he had to make some phone calls on our behalf regarding our intended trip to Cairo and what we had booked through Masada Tours in Tel Aviv. He confirmed our story and prescence in Egypt so he allowed us to purchase our visas in the border control station for $15. We all left the customs station relieved that we were allowed to enter and find our private ride to Cairo.

It was our first experience with the touts of Egypt while walking to the private van. The taxi drivers and shuttle providers were all yelling at us to take their ride ("Sharm El Sheik!", "Dahab", "Cairo", they all yelled). We got to the van, showed the driver our receipt from Masada Tours and Tel Aviv, and started driving to Cairo. The total cost in getting from Tel Aviv to Cairo was $160, much higher than I anticipated in going by land and through a "cheap" country. The distance was only 480 miles and it was taking us 15 hours approximately. Nevertheless, we have a whole experience of getting through and across the Negev and Sinai deserts and through the Suez to Cairo. The most interesting part of this experience came when we got into the private van with this Egyptian driver.

Collectively, we were very excited to get on the road and on our way to Cairo. We took pictures before and during the first 20 minutes of the car ride until the luster wore off. Then our personal states indicated that we were still tired. Jackie, Sam, and Johnny slept at different times all the way to Cairo. The ride to Cairo from the border was a little more than 6 hours. We stopped along the way to eat lunch at this oasis cafe right before the Suez crossing. We didn't know that until later, the food was severely overpriced for us "tourists" (we all had to get used to this).

The array of sand, dust, checkpoints, and limitedly populated villages were continuously within our peripheral for the drive. I stayed awake the whole time writing and jotting down cliff notes. With 96km left, I dozed off until we entered city limits of Cairo (waking up with 25km to go). As we entered the city limits, our enthusiasm, curiosity, and demeanor lifted to the point where we entered the country earlier. The four of us found a recommended hotel online for backpackers and last-minute arrivals called the Osiris Hotel. We gave the driver the name and general vicinity to where the hotel was, and he weaved our vehicle through the immense amounts of traffic to the city center. Along the way, I took a picture of this huge mosque silhouetted against the afternoon sun.

The driver finally pulled over to where our hotel was so Sam and I could run upstairs to the hotel and check if they had room vacancy for the four of us. The Osiris hotel was on the top floor of this building and staffed by two french owners. They told us there was no vacancy so we asked for a local recommendation. They were very nice and pointed us in the direction of the Paris Hotel around the block near Tahrir Square (the central square of Cairo). We were in the thick of the tourist area where we got out of our van and met Walid outside on the street. Walid escorted the four of us up the lift to the hotel and explained that he was the owner of the hotel. He and his brother owned the hotel and named it the 'Paris Hotel' because the area in which it is located was colonized and influenced by the French. The squares and the architecture of the area reflected this influence. I somewhat felt like I was in the film 'Inception' because of the buildings and the fact that I knew I wasn't in France (an identity conflict scenario).

Walid said that we could pay 75 Egyptian Pounds a night ($15) for the room. He showed us a multi-bed room for the four of us. This dorm style room came with a shared bathroom and plenty of space to make it a 'home base' for our time in Cairo. I was insistent that I needed to Couch Surf in Egypt, so I kept sending messages to hosts in the area hoping that I didn't have to stay multiple nights in this hotel. The four of us were satisfied with the accommodations, settled in, and then left to walk around during sunset. As the navigator, I led us towards the Nile river and the cairo tower. We had to walk like an Egyptian through the streets to get to the Nile. That meant that we had to strategically dodge, maneuver, and weasel our way through the city streets.

We made it to one of the bridges that connect the east side of Cairo to one of the Nile islands. We stood on the bridge and took pictures (group and individual) like quintessential tourists. We then made it across the bridge to the island and started walking south past the Chilis restaurant. We were amused with the fact there was a Chilis in the middle of the Nile river, Egypt. We actually tried to go inside the river boat where the Chilis restaurant was because I had to use the bathroom. We were denied because there was a formal, guest-listed event going on inside.

The four of us walked further south along a river parkway to the point where we hit another bridge that connect the island with the east bank. We then looked right and saw the facade to Cairo's opera building and another large mosque. We took a chance to get closer and look at both of the buildings from outside until walking further towards the west bank and a different bridge.

I was getting somewhat tired and hungry, so I was the first one to suggest that we turn around and head back to the hotel. We stopped by an ATM on the way back and then crossed the southern bridge over to the east bank to where the other main square was.

That is when we met Dr. Maggr on the street. Actually, he introduced himself to Sam, Jackie, and Johnny when I was walking ahead (across the street). I went back across the street to see why Sam, Jackie,and Johnny had stopped to talk. This was when he introduced himself and revealed that he was a business man and had been to the United States many times. He inquired to our hotel location, where we were from in the United States, and to our purpose in Egypt. He then told us that his daughter was getting married the next evening on a Nile Cruise and we were all invited.

I was so thrilled that we were being accepted and greeted in such a kind manner. Dr. Maggr asked us if we would come to the wedding and I was first to blurt out,"Of Course, I would love to!". He then proceeded to ask us back to his shop next to the Intercontinental Hotel so he could give us his card, directions to the wedding, and drink some tea. I remember feeling dignified, joyous, and thankful to have met such a hospitable and generous Egyptian man so quickly.

He escorted the four of us around the corner of one street and then through a ally-looking street to his corner shop - directly across from the Intercontinental. He invited us to sit down and drink tea, with his son going to fetch/make the tea for us. At this point, Sam started to refuse to enter, sit down, and drink tea with everyone. I mistook his discomfort with the idea that he was being a pessimistic American that needed to open up his realm of opportunities, possibilities, and cultures.

I sat closest to Dr. Maggr with Jackie immediately to my right and my other two friends to the right of her. Dr. Maggr's associate/son brought in the tea and he began showing us the variety of artwork throughout the shop. There were huge papyrus pieces on the walls varying in price from $50-$500. He then began by saying that he like us so much that he was going to give us a free smaller piece from his collection. He said that he hand painted every one of these papyrus designs and each one took more than 4 months to complete because of the intricate detail. He then provided us with the option of adding a specialized hand-caligraphy of hieroglyphics on each piece as a gift for a friend or family member back in the United States. I said it would be nice to give one to my brother and have his name written on the artwork. Then he suggested that we could have our names written on another piece of artwork for ourselves.

After all the names were written and the tea luke-warm, Dr. Maggr then pronounced another monologue addressing that it is very expensive and time consuming to produce each hand-painted papyrus. He politely asked us to contribute whatever we thought the artwork was worth in respect to our budget. He sympathized with the young and fresh outlook we had on the cost of travel and our backgrounds. By that time, he knew that we wouldn't be able to afford the $100-$200 asking prices displayed amongst other artwork hanging on the wall.

I was first to act and I offered up 400 Egyptian Pounds for my two customized souvenirs ($70 USD) thinking I was getting a great bargain. I felt so good about this purchased and the fact that we were attending a Egyptian wedding the next night! Then Jackie paid 200 EGP, then Johnny paid 80 EGP, and Sam paid 40 EGP. It took me about 20 steps to realize I had been bamboozled for ridiculous artifacts I didn't even need. I was so enthralled by the hospitality and wedding option I was more than happy to offer up $70. Dr. Maggr was and still is an official Egyptian enemy to myself and the United States of America.

The fury in my eyes finally subsided when I spoke with Ahmed back at the hotel. I explained the story and he settled my anger with a solution to getting my money back the next day. Although he provided a solution to my problem, I still felt residual effects from my anger while we went downstairs to order dinner for 9 EGP. The food was mediocre and the only resonating quality was the price. I was off it by the time I turned myself in for sleep. I sent out some e-mails a posted a blog/journal entry before going to bed.

Welcome to Egypt.