Al Igaza! (A brief and incomplete account of my spring break adventures)

So we just got back to Alexandria a few hours ago, and rather than dive into my homework I have decided to write up my spring break adventures while they are still fresh in my mind. Spring break could honestly not have been more wonderful. I managed to strike an excellent balance of relaxing and completely insane adventures, and it was wonderful. If I were to tell all of the stories, this post would be insanely long…but I will try to hit the highlights. First though, a basic overview:

We took a train to Cairo on Thursday night, and didn’t make the return trip until Monday night, though we spent Saturday on a safari type trip in El Fayoum, an oasis south of Cairo. We had a day to regroup before we left at 5 in the morning on Wednesday for Hurghada, where I spent the first two days swimming and enjoying the beach and the next day on another desert safari tour. Unfortunately far too many stories to relate in one post but between a few stories and a few pictures hopefully you can get an idea.

El Fayoum:

So our El Fayoum day was a tour organized by the hostel we stayed at in Cairo (Dina’s Hostel by the way, I highly recommend it). We grumblingly rolled out of bed to board our 7 am bus to drive us down to El Fayoum. After a brief moment when the partner hotel in El Fayoum didn’t seem to think we had reserved a tour, our driver arrived, and we headed off into the desert. Very, very far into the desert…at which point our tire decided it was done.

We had been driving deep into the desert for at least an hour by the time this tire simply exploded...

We had been driving deep into the desert for at least an hour by the time this tire simply exploded…

Luckily we were able to hitch a ride with our police escort!

Luckily we were able to hitch a ride with our police escort!

Now I know from already having discussed this story with some people back home, the police escort sounds a bit sketchy at first but it really is not. Egypt is heavily reliant on its tourism, which currently is still struggling to bounce back after the revolution, and so goes to great lengths to protect tourists while they are in Egypt. It is standard procedure to send a police escort with tour groups, particularly in rural areas. Mostly they were there so someone would be around if something happened to our vehicle in the middle of the desert (and look, it did!). As it turned out, our ride with the police ended up being one of the best parts of the day. The guys climbed in the back with the armed police (as you can see in the picture) and the four girls piled into the back seat of the interior. The two police up front with us were extremely animated and excited also that we could speak Arabic. They started asking us about our opinion on Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood (which we refrained from expressing given our current position inside an Egyptian police car), and various other topics. As we were rolling along they suddenly pointed to what appeared to be a vertical wall and told us we were about to drive up it. We all started laughing, but then as we noticed the car was still headed straight for it we realized he had not been joking. I grabbed my friend’s hand as we accelerated up the hill (and I hoped the boys would manage not to fall out the back, seeing as they had had no warning about our vertical path). We made it to the top and the car felt as if it were teetering on the edge of rolling back down the way we came or plummeting forward. Nonetheless, we climbed out to take some pictures of the amazing view this windy perch afforded us.

This is the best shot I managed to snap of the hill/wall our police friends chose to drive us up, though I must say it looked more intimidating in real life. Also note how unnecessary it is to choose this path as it is quite easy to drive around...only in Egypt...

This is the best shot I managed to snap of the hill/wall our police friends chose to drive us up, though I must say it looked more intimidating in real life. Also note how unnecessary it is to choose this path as it is quite easy to drive around…only in Egypt…

Our car perched precariously on said hill...

Our car perched precariously on said hill…

And the view from the top of said hill...okay pretty worth it I suppose (and I lived to tell the tale, so definitely worth it)

And the view from the top of said hill…okay pretty worth it I suppose (and I lived to tell the tale, so definitely worth it)

We then proceeded to our official destination, Wadi El Hitan, or Valley of the Whales, which is a UNESCO world heritage site that has several whale fossils that help to demonstrate the evolution of the whale. It is also just a lovely walk in the desert, so we enjoyed both things.

A whale spine in the desert!

A whale spine in the desert!

Such a cool landscape...the designs in the rocks by the way are completely natural even though some of them almost look like carvings.

Such a cool landscape…the designs in the rocks by the way are completely natural even though some of them almost look like carvings.

Oh my goodness an oasis!

Oh my goodness an oasis!

Fayoum is also famous for its pottery--this shop is in a village called Tunis

Fayoum is also famous for its pottery–this shop is in a village called Tunis

The day had one final adventure in store for us. As we were in the bus headed back to Cairo we had to stop for gas. I am not sure how widely this has been reported outside of Egypt, but Egypt currently is undergoing a pretty serious fuel shortage that was explained quite well in this article. Basically this means that if you pass a gas station in Egypt in the past few weeks, it is either completely empty (having run out of fuel) or has an impossibly long line of cars stretching blocks from it all waiting for their fuel ration. Though this problem exists in Alexandria, it is far more pronounced in Cairo, and even worse in rural regions like El Fayoum. The line for fuel at this gas station was at least a mile long, and two or three cars wide for that whole length, but as our driver pulled up to the front next to the ambulance, we realized why he hadn’t bothered to fuel up while we were in the desert. We watched, shocked, as our van was ushered in front of, not only the tragically long line of Egyptians waiting on fuel, but even in front of the ambulance, and all because or bus was full of foreigners. We caught a few death stares, notably from the ambulance driver, but we fueled up quickly and were back on our way to Cairo.

We had a bit more time to spend in Cairo, and we saw some quite lovely things. Here are a few photographic highlights!

The Mosque of Ibn Tulun (as seen from halfway up its minaret)

The Mosque of Ibn Tulun (as seen from halfway up its minaret)

The view of Cairo from the top of the minaret

The view of Cairo from the top of the minaret

A bead store in Islamic Cairo/Khan al Khalili

A bead store in Islamic Cairo/Khan al Khalili

The courtyard at Al Azhar Mosque

The courtyard at Al Azhar Mosque

Another shot of Al Azhar Mosque

Another shot of Al Azhar Mosque

Hurghada

After a day back in Alexandria to get ready and packed for Hurghada, we boarded our 5 am bus and settled in for an 11 hour ride. I am always a bit weird about cameras on the beach, so I am afraid I don’t have pictures to show you from the beach I lounged on for two days. We also went in a semi-submarine boat where we looked out at coral reefs and all sorts of fish and snorkeled off the side. It was really lovely. The Red Sea is a stunning turquoise and the water was the perfect temperature for swimming. But one can only handle so much relaxation, so the last day we were there a group of students and a few professors headed off for another desert safari where we rode sand buggies, camels and a car called spiders (and also rode on top, rather than inside of our safari vehicle for a bit). This area of desert was quite different than the deserts around El Fayoum and was characterized mostly by dark colored mountains. This safari was definitely very touristy (makes sense–Hurghada is a major tourist spot), but it was still a lot of fun, mostly because of the company. I can’t emphasize enough how much I love the people affiliated  with this program–the other students, the professors and the Egyptian language partners. By far the best part of the Hurghada trip was spending time with them.

Of course we also enjoyed our fair share of feeling-like-foreigners moments–don’t we always? Perhaps the best was when a bunch of us had gone out to a cafe and were all headed back in a microbus which our group pretty much filled. We pulled over for another man and as he opened the door, three different people in our group, with the intention of suggesting he take the front seat instead, said “Mumkin fo’?” which, rather than “Maybe up front?” translates to “Maybe on top?” and the Egyptians among us enjoyed mocking our suggestion that this poor stranger ride on top of the microbus. We also got lots of opportunity to laugh at ourselves as one of the Egyptian guys attempted to teach us shaabi dance moves (shaabi means “popular” and is a genre of music that I typically encounter as young guys zoom past on motorcycles blasting music at inconceivably high volumes). Basically, this dancing involved lot of moving of the arms “like you have a knife” he kept telling us, and as you progress to level two you do these arm movements while hopping like a frog. This looked a lot more like dancing when he did it than when we tried, but it was still a lot of fun laughing at our pitiful attempts and busting out our “moves” in the middle of the desert or really anytime the situation needed livening. Basically this break was a great chance to hang out and relax and see more of Egypt, and it was just the thing I needed.

Me being my cheesy self in the desert

Me being my cheesy self in the desert

Ready to be blasted in the face by sand on our sand buggy ride...also we just look cool...

Ready to be blasted in the face by sand on our sand buggy ride…also we just look cool…

A picture I snapped as we flew away from the Red Sea and back to classes...it really was a perfect break...

A picture I snapped as we flew away from the Red Sea and back to classes…it really was a perfect break…

Until next time!

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