Egyptian notes Tyler Folsom

Cairo, 28 August, 1978. Bicycled 15 miles today

Last night Venita and I biked out to the airport at Nairobi, Kenya and slept on the floor. We had an early morning flight today and that was the best way to get ourselves and our bikes to the airport. The Nairobi airport is new, clean and spacious and we got some decent sleep. We had a good flight and I had my favorite seat: a window seat next to the emergency exit with lots of leg room. Mt. Kenya stood out above the clouds, then forested hills gave way to desert. We followed the Nile most of the way. We landed at 11:00 AM, a perfect time.

After changing money and reassembling the bikes, we got oriented and biked into town. The suburbs are faceless apartments with no signs of shops, markets or restaurants. Cairo is by far the biggest city we have visited since coming to Africa in January. It has the worst traffic, though there are enough lanes to handle it. There is constant honking and the air makes my eyes water. We took a break at a statue of Ramses which has been set up in the square by the railway station. We continued to the Nile and biked along it until we came to the youth hostel. It looks like Egypt will be much cheaper than East Africa. Though we crossed both the Equator and Tropic of Cancer today, Egypt is much hotter than Kenya.

Cairo, 29 August Bicycled 4 miles

I have my usual border-crossing problem of being plopped down amid a new language and money. Though I could mostly use English in Kenya, I had acquired enough Swahili to read menus, great people and make and understand simple statements. I never did learn much Arabic and that has retreated to the far corners of my memory. It takes more than a glance to read signs.

Cairo seems to keep late hours. After dark there were a lot of shops and auto workshops still going strong. I was up before 7:00 this morning and found that the hostel doesn't unlock its doors until 8:00. I let myself out and took a walk. There were some bakeries open, but most shops were closed and some people were still asleep on the street. Garbage is collected here by donkey carts in contrast to modern mechanized trucks used in Nairobi and Mombassa.

We registered with the police, then went to the Ministry of Tourism for a good map of Cairo and a booklet containing the rather useless information common to tourist office publications. At the U.S. embassy, we presented our fake student cards and got letters saying that we were students; this could be useful in getting reduced prices. In Kenya we had bought air tickets Nairobi-Cairo-Athens since that was cheaper than just getting tickets to Cairo. We investigated some other possible routes to get to Israel, but didn't find anything real promising. We don't stay at the fancy hotels, but occasionally it is useful to swing by one for some shopping. At the Hilton Hotel I was delighted to find an excellent guide book to Egypt, a map, ancient Egyptian history and a book "How to Read Hieroglyphs". We had lunch at an Italian restaurant at the hotel. Outside the museum, I could make out names in hieroglyphics on some of the steles. Once again, Venita says that I am moving around a strange city as if I had lived there all my life.

Cairo, 30 August Biked 3 miles

Today was the Egyptian museum, or at least half of it. I didn't get upstairs to see King Tut's treasure or the mummies. I wouldn't be able to stand being rushed through this place by a guide. It was really fascinating to be able to decipher hieroglyphics; I could use them to tell which Pharaoh the monuments belonged to. Often one of them would chisel off the name of his predecessor and inscribe his own. The inscriptions tend to be very deeply cut and in excellent condition, like most of the statues, steles and sarcophagi. Some are painted in brilliant colors and do not look 4500 years old. In the evening I did some shopping between 8:00 and 10:00 -- bought new socks and ordered a new pair of glasses.

Cairo, 31 August 15 miles biked

A fruitless day. Our objectives were to get student discount forms for railways and for archeological sites. On the way, the valve sheared off Venita's front tube and since we were not carrying tools or spares we needed to find a bike shop. Two boys helped us locate one. They refused the tip that Venita offered and the shop gave a new valve gratis. At the train station we did a lot of running around looking for the office to get student concessions. We couldn't find anyone who spoke good enough English to understand exactly what we wanted and we finally concluded that a concession form was not needed. We then went to the Antiquities Department hoping to get 95% reductions but by the time we got there it was after 1:00 and they had closed. The office will stay closed for a week until the end of Ramadan festivities. [Ramadan is the Moslem month of fasting. There is an extended holiday when it is over.] The next stop was the Islamic museum which was also closed. We did get to wander through the bazaar.

Today's expenses:

Breakfast: dates: 12 , 2 flat bread 2 .

Lunch: 2 plates spaghetti: 15 , cola 7.5 , yogurt 15 , bread 1.5 .

T-shirt purchased for $1.35.

Dinner: Watermelon 22.5 , 150 grams white cheese, 22.5 , bread 1 .

Youth hostel: $.90

Cairo, 1 September 6 miles

In the morning we visited the misnamed Museum of Egyptian Civilization. It had some dusty Islamic glassware, Chinese porcelain, Belgian tapestries and European paintings, some of them dealing with Oriental subjects. Next stop was Old Cairo Al Muallaqa Church and the Coptic Museum. The church is one of the world's oldest, dating back to 420. The old city is reminiscent of Asia with narrow littered streets, animals and tea houses. We sat at a table in front of a tea house and ate the sandwiches bought next door and were served water. I don't see how these places can make any money - men will sit for hours, maybe play dominoes or backgammon and not consume anything but a glass or two of tea and maybe smoke a water pipe.

Cairo, 2 Sept. 3 miles

After reserving a flight to Athens for 27 September and changing money, the day was devoted to the second floor of the Egyptian Museum. The gold from the tomb of Tut Ankh Amen, Neb Kheperu Ra was beautiful but I was more impressed by the objects that would normally decompose in much less than 3300 years -- cheetah skin shields, ostrich feather fans, inlaid wooden chests, bows with strings, clothing, baskets, wood and string beds (like those now in use in India), raisins, dates, onions and complete chariots. Also there were some remarkable painted terra cotta models showing ships with sails and crew, an army of 40 7-inch soldiers and carpenters and weavers at work in their shops. These are ancient models found in tombs.

I got a shock when I picked up my glasses this evening. The opticians are good at English, but the Latin 'OS' and 'OD' [occulus sinister and occulus dexter] on the prescription had meant nothing to them. The lenses were in the wrong sides. He was able to take a frame with smaller lenses and grind the lenses down to fit for the proper left and right eyes. They are an improvement over my scratched and glue spattered old glasses.

Cairo, 3 Sept. 17 miles

Today we loaded our bikes and checked out of the youth hostel. We went to a Coptic mass. There was a lot of incense and Muslim-sounding chanting while the priests did their thing behind the iconostasis. Next we biked out to the Giza pyramids and climbed to the top of the biggest one. I had never realized how huge these things are! The place was mobbed due to the end of Ramadan holiday, though Egyptians are not all that strict about following the Ramadan fast. On the way down a crowd of boys not looking to be over 10 or 12 had their hands all over Venita. After going inside Khufu's pyramid we found that all five of our water bottles had been stolen though our bags, pumps and Venita's 2 liter canteen were not touched. We went into the other two big pyramids and visited the Sphinx and its temple. The Giza hostel was closed so we went back to Cairo and I bought two bottles that came filled with fruit juice.

Saqqara, 4 Sept. 16 miles

Venita at Abu Sir

Once we left Cairo we were soon in rural land where oxen or donkeys turned water wheels or men cranked Archimedian screws. We turned off to see the Abu Sir pyramids. Turning through the narrow dirt streets of the village we were trailed by a mob of unruly kids who grabbed clothing from Venita's bag. A young man came to our assistance; the older people have to use sticks and rocks to keep the kids at bay. He led us to a small store where we could leave the bikes under the owner's eye. We walked to the edge of the fields and into the desert to the pyramids. On the way back we rode donkeys. One of my bottles of fruit juice had been taken. I passed around a bottle of syrupy mango juice which was grabbed and gulped greedily. The savages unzipped my bag pocket several times and one got my first aid kit but another returned it later. When I rewarded him everyone crowded in with their hands out. The donkey boy insisted on having my mango juice and I had to chase him to recover the bottle after he grabbed it. We walked back to the pavement. I was brandishing my pump and would need little additional provocation to start cracking heads. Abu Sir was the worst village we have been in anywhere, a complete contrast to black Africa where I never felt I had to watch anything. A university student on a bike intercepted us later to return Venita's stolen towel, but she lost clothes, cream, toothbrush and the guide book.

We went on to Saqqara whose step pyramid is the world's oldest stone structure. The tomb of Ti has a lot of painted bas-relief and hieroglyphics. We visited a long tunnel complex with 24 big sarcophagi. We slept at the gate and the night watchman shared his bread, tomatoes and tea. He is 26 and married the wife selected by his parents 11 years ago but has selected a prettier 19 year-old second wife.

Beni Suef, 5 Sept. 62 miles

We looked at the few remains of the ancient capital of Memphis. We missed the turnoff for the Dakshur pyramids but didn't really care. I had planned to go to the Faizoum oasis but the desert road to it was apparently unpaved. We had hot going along canals in which naked boys swam. The hotel proprietor in Beni Suef sent us to register with the police but we sat there for over an hour and they didn't have to register us. In the evening we met three students and went to their families' homes, not returning until midnight. Though tired, mosquitoes made it hard to sleep.

Beni Mazar, 6 Sept. 47 miles

We got up late and happened to meet Sayed again for a noon breakfast and he taught me backgammon. It was about 1:00 when we left (my watch has broken again). The reliable north wind, flat country and smooth road made more fast going. We stopped for lunch at Maghahga and were ushered into an eating shack while a man stood guard over the bikes with a whip. We were treated to a meal of bread and porridge. At an earlier stop the colas had also been free and a man bought us some more drinks when we stopped at Beni Mazar. The hotel there was full, but he offered to take us to his apartment, first going to the police. Again this took over an hour and they didn't like the idea of us staying with him. After suggesting a lift to El Minya or trying to find us a rest house, we put up the tent at the police station. Salah took us into town to find a restaurant; they were closed but we sheltered from the crowds of kids in one of them while his brother went out for liver sandwiches.

El Minya, 7 Sept. 30 miles

We rolled into town by noon but the heat got too much for me and I decided not to go farther. After lunch of fruit juice, watermelon, ice cream and a dozen glasses of water we checked into a nice hotel ($1 each) and took the afternoon off. This is the largest town in Middle Egypt and we didn't have to call on the police. Of course the big news item is the Camp David meeting of Carter and Sadat. Sometimes Begen is also mentioned. We are told that Egypt wants peace but "Israel wants both peace and land". [At the time the leaders of Egypt and Israel were meeting in the U.S. and eventually agreed to a peace treaty under which Israel withdrew from the Sinai.]

Mallawi, 8 Sept. 30 miles

We continued through farmland along canals with frequent mud villages. There are plenty of buffalo, donkeys, camels, goats, sheep, horses and cows unlike south of the Sahara where the tsetse fly does in most of them. The middle part of the day was spent in visiting the rock cut tombs of Beni Hasan on the other side of the Nile. They have some nice paintings, some bearing ancient Greek graffiti. The kids here ride bikes recklessly and have a game of cutting in front of you and swerving. A boy tried that on me and I forced him off the road.

Assyout, 9 Sept. 54 miles

We spent the morning at Tel el Amarna on the other side of the Nile where Akhnaton made his capital We accepted the inevitability of a guide; besides keeping off the kids, the way was not obvious and he had the keys. Akhnaton was a heretical pharaoh who abandoned the pantheon in favor of a single God. Instead of making his capital at Memphis or Luxor, he moved it to the middle of Egypt. His art is more naturalistic and less stylized. Akhnaton's tomb was cut from rock, three pillars deep and four off to one side. On the other side work had been started but not finished; most of the ceiling had been chiseled out and the tops of the pillars begun to emerge. In another tomb the wall engravings had not been completed and what appeared to be the original cartoon for carving drawings and hieroglyphics was clear.

We had left our bikes on board the boat so that they would be watched. We sailed back on the other boat so we rendezvoused at an island to transfer the bikes. This was the first time on the trip that we have traveled under sail power. We biked steadily in the afternoon and reached the hostel after dark. Going out to eat we again attracted an unruly mob of kids. When we got to a restaurant our bikes were placed against a wall on a side lane and a table and two chairs plopped down next to them. Afterwards we escaped to a student's room to have tea. They sent us on our way with a bag of home-made holiday cookies.

Sohaq, 10 Sept. 61 miles

Today's distance was 10 miles less than shown on the map so we sat out the hot part of the day in a rooftop cafe in Tima, playing several games of backgammon. Highgearing with the tailwind we reached Sohaq early enough to relax before going out to eat. I met a Coptic medical student who took me to his house and told of the difficulties of being in the Christian minority.

El Balyana, 11 Sept. 30 miles

We were slowed by poor pavement and stopped at noon since Venita was not feeling well. We ate a watermelon and made sandwiches of white cheese, tomato and cucumbers. In the evening we were marched off to the police to register.

El Balyana, 12 Sept.

Venita spent the day in bed and I went off to visit Abydos temple, going by cab since it costs the same as baksheeshing someone to watch my bike. [Baksheesh is a gift or bribe. Egypt was the only country of the whole trip where I did not feel safe leaving the bikes unwatched.] The temple is 3,300 years old and in good condition (better than almost any Greek temple) though the roof has been restored. It is huge. The stone roof is supported by massive pillars (about 5 feet in diameter and 30 feet high) arranged in 5 rows of 11 plus additional side rooms. There are colorfully painted bas-reliefs on almost all the walls and pillars.

Qena, 13 Sept. 53 miles.

After crossing the dam to the east bank of the Nile we left irrigated farmland. The river was on our right and the desert on the left with only a ribbon of green between them. Rejoining farmland we once again had children greeting us with "baksheesh!" or "what is your name" and some half-hearted stone throwing. We went nonstop this morning and checked into a hotel here at 1:15. Two hours later, after lunch and a rest, we tried to get a cab to Dendera temple. They were asking too much, so we will bike there tomorrow morning. The three countries that Venita had most wanted to visit were Greece, Spain and Egypt. Greece met and surpassed expectations, but she has decided that of all the places we've been she likes Egypt the least.

Luxor, 14 Sept. 48 miles

We spent the morning visiting the Temple of Hathor at Dendera. It does not look as big as Abydos from the front but it goes way back. This is one of Egypt's new temples, just over 2000 years old. It is in excellent condition and most of the ceiling is original. We spent the hot part of the day back at the hotel where I replaced a broken spoke. Seven of the spoke that I bought in Tanzania are now in my back wheel. We biked into Luxor in the afternoon, rolling along quickly. On the way a donkey cart driver decided he wanted baksheesh and sent a stone my direction when it was not forthcoming. I reached into my handlebar bag for my own rock supply and turned around. He took off and ran, leaving his donkeys plodding along.

Luxor, 15 Sept. 4 miles

Luxor temple

Today was devoted to visiting the temples of Luxor and Karnak [also known as Thebes, but there is also a Thebes in Greece]. Both of them are a bit hard to take in because of the size. The Karnak Temple is about a quarter mile long. Ramses' II Hypostyle hall of 134 colossal columns is only a part of this. The hall does not give the sense of space that it might since the pillars take up about 1/4 of its volume.

Luxor, 16 Sept. 14 miles

Not much luck with errands this morning. The railroad does not take reservations and we couldn't change the date of our flight from here since Egypt Air's telex is down. We visited the Seti I temple across the Nile after first seeing the tombs of six kings: Ramses IX, Tut Ankh Amon, Amenophis II, Tuthomosis III, Seti I, and Ramses VI. There are some fine wall paintings in these tombs with good colors. In the evening we went back to Karnak Temple for the sound and light show, which was excellent, the best one I've seen. The moon eclipsed during the show -- obviously Amon Ra was displeased with the crowd of unauthorized people violating his sanctuary.

Luxor, 17 Sept. 6 miles

We went across the river again to see the Ramasseum Temple and nine tombs of nobles including Menna, Nakht, Rekhmara, Sennofer, Ramose, Senedjem and Kiki.

Luxor, 18 Sept. 7 miles

We completed our sightseeing today with Ramses III Temple at Madinet Habu, tombs of Queen Titi and Prince Amenkhopsef and Queen Hatshepsaut's Temple of Deir El Bohari. In the evening we went to the Luxor museum.

On train Luxor-Cairo, 19 Sept.

We took it easy today before getting on the train at 9:00 PM. We are changing our flight date for Athens to 24 September. We still have a lot of territory to cover in the next two months before coming back home: Israel, Crete, Italy, Paris and London but I am planning to be home for Thanksgiving. [We wound up spending Thanksgiving in Rome.] I was really surprised to read about the Camp David agreement today. It wouldn't be unusual to be in the Middle East when war breaks out, but peace is unprecedented.

Cairo, 20 Sept. 3 miles

Despite sitting up on the train all last night we had enough energy to spend the day in the Egyptian Museum, correlating the displays with the sites. The earliest flight we could get was the 24th.

Cairo, 21 Sept. 8 miles

This morning we visited the Papyrus Institute to see how that is made. They had an 80 foot long boat made of papyrus bundles of the type Thor Hyerdale used for the Ra expedition. I found my over to the Islamic Museum but I only spent an hour there. More interesting was a row of used booksellers. I bought two coverless paperbacks for 15 .

Cairo, 22 Sept. 12 miles

To pass the four hours when the hostel is closed I biked out to the suburb of Ma'adi where someone I had met in Athens lives, but he wasn't home. I spent most of the day reading. We have had enough of this country and are ready to be somewhere else. I got my watched fixed again this evening. I also had two welds done to my luggage rack which had broken again.

Cairo, 23 Sept. 6 miles

I went down to the bazaar and got started on Christmas shopping. Since prices are so low here I bought myself another pair of socks ($.45) and a much needed pair of new shoes ($5.60). [The shoes lasted about 2 months]. In the process I discovered that Cairo really does have a downtown section with department stores and modern shops.

Today President Sadat makes his triumphant return from Camp David. Things hadn't really gotten started when I was out shopping but there were trucks of chanting, flag-waving supporters adding their noise to the traffic.

Pireas, Greece, 24 Sept. 30 miles

We had considered spending the night at the airport, but instead stayed at the hostel. We left at 6:00 AM and took only an hour and a half to get to the airport. Thus we had plenty of time to make the 9:30 check-in and 11:30 flight. Everything went smoothly though my bag got checked three times and passengers were frisked twice. Another 2 hours for the flight and 2 hours more at Athens airport for passport control, repacking, changing money and getting maps. Greece sure is a lot different than Egypt! It's much cleaner, more "civilized" and at least twice as expensive.

I was in Egypt for 27 days and spent a total of $182, not counting $352 for the flight from Nairobi to Cairo to Athens. Excluding purchases, daily living expenses averaged $4.15. The train from Luxor to Cairo cost $3.50. I bicycled 570 miles in Egypt. There has been world wide inflation since 1978. Prices in all countries tend to go up by about the same factor. Present prices are probably about 3 times as high as then. The secret of extended travel is that in many countries of Asia and Africa you can travel for much less than you would spend staying at home. The trick is being able to save enough money to be able to take off for a year or two.

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All photos copyright Ó Tyler Folsom