When you think of Egypt, you think of the pyramids, camels, deserts, and mummies. Stereotypical. I'm here to confirm that Cairo lives up to its stereotype (mummies included)
Note: yikes, this is another beast of a post. But, hang in there, this is one of my very favorites and it's filled with all my wild misfortunes and the "I swear, only sydney..." experiences
We packed up and left Luxor early Sunday morning, much to my dismay. For the most part, we truly had seen and done all that Luxor offered, sans a few smaller attractions. Mohamed offered to tour Allie and I around the rest of the city that morning, but we elected to begin the haul back to Cairo early so we could spend the few remaining hours of daylight exploring the heart of Egypt.
On our way out, we grabbed falafel to go- a true plot twist, I know. At this point, our breakfast ritual was so ridiculous that it was funny. Here in the USA, we’re all suckers for a fast food drive through. Yet in Egypt, I think I saw maybe one McDonalds. Seriously, Falafel is Egypt’s version of breakfast on-the-go, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m not at all upset about it.
Breakfast that morning was the equivalent of a home-cooked feast. Mohamed ran across the street to purchase pitas that a local baker had made fresh that morning. He then toted the pitas to the other side of the street and paid for the falafel. While the falafel was cooking, he scurried next door and picked up four massive water bottles. Impressively, we were back on the road and breaking into our magically assembled pitas all under five minutes. Another five minutes, and any trace of breakfast had been erased. Breakfast was gooood.
The drive from Luxor to Cairo was much more enjoyable than the drive to Luxor a few days prior. Probably something to do with not blowing chunks in the backseat of a car for 6 hours, but that’s purely speculative, ha.
Our music for the ride was… eclectic. We had some weird aux-chord roulette thing going in which we all four took turns playing our favorite music. It was cute in theory, though psychotically chaotic in practice. Allie is studying abroad in Guatemala next year, so she’s super into Latin music. Like latin-latin music. Like, I-am-nearly-fluent-in-Spanish-but-didn’t-understand-this-music-latin-music. Mohamed kept requesting the deepest, most Egyptian arabic music, most of which Spotify didn’t even have in its system. Co-pilot Ahmed was a fan of the early 2000s jams, which was funny in itself before you wedged it between heavy latin bangers and Arab jams. I stayed in my music lane and played the mellow indie music that my friends hate. Every now and then, an Indian tune would come on, and we’d all break out in obnoxious (and really bad) Indian dancing. It was seriously the ugliest sight and sound, but every moment of it was perfect.
We didn’t stop for lunch during our 8 hour trip. The meal schedule in Egypt is way different than what we’re used to in the USA. Breakfast is around 8 or 9, as it is here, though lunch ins’t until 4 and then dinner is served around 9. There’s always a snack in between breakfast and lunch (around when our lunch time would be). Fun fact about Ahmed and Mohamed’s snack time habits: they eat the same damn thing every day: chocolate croissants. I swear, these grown men consumed a factory’s worth of chocolate-filled croissants in a week.
At first, it was like, “Ah, cool! A new treat to try from a foreign country”. By the third or fourth consecutive Malto croissant, I wanted to drop kick them across the country. It was a love-hate thing- I mean, God bless these boys for feeding us so diligently, but damn, my body was not made for such chocolate croissant consumption. You can only imagine what I was thinking on chocolate croissant number 57.
An unrelated, though funny story about the day I was sick and riding to Luxor: Ahmed stopped about an hour outside of Luxor and bought everyone food. He came out totting a bag full of the god forsaken Maltos for me, assuming I needed something in my stomach. I think it was at that point that my body just decided to be done. I didn’t even eat it, it just sat in my lap. After that, I didn’t throw up- it was like my deep set anger towards the damn croissants cured me.
Anyway, I would write about what kind of snacks we ate in Egypt, but there's really not much to report on. I will say, however, that we did throw in a few new snacks to the mix that day- some Egyptian bagel bite things, a variety of flavored wafers, and some salt and vinegar and falafel flavored chips. If you’re thinking that’s a disgusting amount of food, it was. What's possibly even more disgusting was how we put it away. Whoops.
* * *
When we arrived in Cairo, it was about 4pm. Mohamed and Ahmed were both rubbing their eyes from sheer exhaustion, and rightfully so. The funny thing about Cairo is that saying you’re in the vicinity of the city doesn’t mean anything. Cairo is huge- I bet we spent 45 minutes getting from one side to the heart of the city, which is where Mohamed’s vacation home is located.
On a similar note, the traffic is Cairo is berserk. There’s no real acknowledgment of traffic lights or lanes, much like India, and the mad bravery of the drivers is horrifying. I can’t tell you how many times our car would go from a standstill to full out gas to sudden breaks. Allie and I got all too accustomed to bracing ourselves on the seats in front of us.
When we finally pulled up to Mohamed’s house- “The Magic House” as he called it- I was quite literally speechless. Ahmed had told me on the way over that this house was under the pyramids- I laughed and teased him for confusing “under” for “in front of”. Precious Egyptians and their mixed up prepositions.
Alas. Turns out, this house was quite literally under the pyramids. Ahmed had the final laugh.
We were welcomed at the gate of the house by Mohamed’s property manager of sorts, Salem. Salem acted as a tour guide, the house security and a caretaker for Mohamed’s Arabian horses. When we arrived, he had prepared Allie and I mint tea (some of the best mint tea I have ever tasted, might I add). Mohamed and Ahmed bid us adieu and left us with Salem for the night- Ahmed had work that night, and Mohamed was in need of some serious rest after his long week of driving. Allie and I got right down to touring the property.
The house itself was disproportionately more yard than house. Lush green grass (a rarity in Egypt) sprawled to the concrete wall-fences. Hammocks were strung in the corner, and a table was situated under a canopy of lights. All parts of the yard had perfect pyramid visibility- the great pyramid quite literally towered over the entire span of the front fence. To the left side of the lot was a narrow guest house made of two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom, all of which had doors that opened to the outside.
Allie and I originally planned on getting out and exploring Cairo, but the more we stood in the yard and admired the pyramids, the less and less we wanted to leave. Finally, we admitted to ourselves we were more content with the idea of vegging at the magic house than we were braving the streets of Cairo at dusk. From there, our night consisted of a photo session, an Instagram live video in which we attempted to recreate the mint tea Salem had prepared for us earlier (and utterly failed), and a pure Egyptian feast curtesy of Salem, two to-go boxes, and a local restaurant down the street.
* * *
The next morning, the two of us were up with the sun. Allie awoke earlier than I did to snap some pictures of the sunrise over the pyramids. I rolled out of bed just a tad too late to make the sunrise (regrets, man), though I was up early. We had a lazy morning of filled with hammocks and breakfast falafel (lol).
When we got ready for our last full day, we were playing defense against the harsh desert elements. Mohamed had a big day planned for us exploring the Pyramids. Allie and I wrapped our heads in scarves to protect against the sand and sun and threw on long sleeves. We packed our backpack with heavy-duty sunscreen and every camera we owned and hurried out. Salem was waiting outside the gates with three of Mohamed’s horses- we were riding them to the pyramids!! (cue strobe lights and confetti)
Back story on that- on our drive to Cairo, Allie and Mohamed got on the topic of horses. Allie talked of her horses at home and how she had practically ridden them since birth. Mohamed causally mentioned his stable of horses and offered us the option to ride his horses through the pyramids instead of paying to ride camels. Of course, Allie was all over the idea. I had no experience riding horses, but if we’re being honest, I hate riding camels more than just about anything (I vowed to never ride them again after Morocco), so the idea didn't seem terrible.
My one stipulation as we hiked ourselves up on our horses was that Salem would hold my horses reins and guide me the entire time. I felt like a diva for the first stretch, my horse being steered for me. We made it all the way to the Great Pyramid ticket booth before Salem suggested I take control of my horse’s reins. I was still pretty opposed, and begged an amused Allie and Salem to stay in control. After purchasing our tickets and getting cat called by the security guards and the entire native Egyptian population inside the pyramids (no seriously, I think we got a combined 10 wedding proposals by total strangers), Allie and I hooked back up with Salem on the other side of the entrance gate.
Salem tied the horses up to a fence along the premise (where every other horse and camel in the vicinity had also been “parked” for lack of better words), and escorted us to the first small wives' tomb. Allie and I climbed down, careful to crouch down extra low as the tunnels were extra tight. Once in the bottom, our self-proclaimed tomb "guide" offered to take pictures of us in exchange for money. We both consented to the deal, partly because we’re sleazy americans and partly because we wanted photo memories of the experience. The air in these tombs was thick and very musty. It’s kinda creepy, to be honest, and after we had our picture, we made moves to get out.
From the tombs, we climbed back on our horses and navigated to the second pyramid- not that you needed any help locating it. I agreed to guiding my own horse against my better judgement, and we slowly but surely began the trip to pyramid number two. About halfway there, Salem picked up the speed and my horse went from a slow walk to a pretty serious trot. All was manageable on my end, though. I felt pretty cool trotting through the dessert, and Allie and Salem’s “you’re a natural!” compliments surely didn’t hurt.
Where I ran into trouble- or better yet, confronted death- was when we hit the second pyramid mark and decided to go to the pyramid “overlook” area a mile or so into the open desert. At this point, Salem instructed me to hold on tight, and it was at that moment when I made peace with all my unfinished business on earth and prepared for the end.
“Are you ready?” he flashed a devilish grin and kicked his horse. Just as I had opened my mouth, our caravan of horses lurched forward into a full gallop. At this point, I reinvented my understanding of the death grip and held on for dear life, half of my brain focusing on the up down riding motion I had just been taught, the other half preoccupied with my impending death. I also completely neglected to close my mouth, which was problematic when I got too close to the Allie's horse in front of me.
Apparently I yelled something in a ridiculously dramatic tone to the extent of “I’ve got sanddddddddddd in my mouth!!!!” to which Allie turned around, horrified and consumed with laughter all at the same time. I was too concerned with the sandbox on my tongue to really notice.
As our horses slowed down and we approached the overlook, I was breathing heavy. The three pyramids were aligned perfectly- a photo-op to rival all photo-ops. Salem helped me off my horse, curious what I thought of my experience galloping through the desert. Meanwhile, Allie was still making fun of my “I’ve got sanddd in my mouth" monologue. However ridiculous, I am happy to say that I did earn the approval of two very legit horsemen: Allie and Salem, both of whom grew up on horses, sung my praises and said I was a natural. As I learned later, the horses were going so fast, they broke their stride. Apparently, horses only break their stride when they go as fast as physically possible. And I held on. Ha.
At the overlook, we walked over to a camel that Mohamed had arranged to wait on us, my legs more shaky than the rest of my crew. I silently cursed myself... so much for my resolve to never ride another camel after my hour long commute on one in Morocco. I had ridden a camel not once, but twice this trip in Egypt. What the heck!
Our camel was more of a photo prop than anything else, if we're being honest. I sure as hell wasn't riding that thing anywhere. After we wrapped up our photo session- and I regret to inform you that took much longer than anticipated- we hopped back on our trusty steeds and rode (scratch that, raced) over to the other edge of the desert to the Sphinx. This time around, my psycho fast horse ride was much more enjoyable, given I was a little more at ease and well-prepared for the ride (sans my poor decision to wear sandals that kept trying to slide off my feet). Pretty soon, I was having the time of my life.
Once we neared the Sphinx, things got interesting. Salem, who was riding/training Mohamed's new and rowdy horse, started having issues. In the blink of an eye, Salem was suddenly catapulting from his horse’s back onto the sand. That freaked me out, and I think my horse got a little confused by our sudden lack of a line leader and my shift in mood. I recalled from childhood that horses are very keen to their rider’s mood, and I quickly tried to collect myself. It only halfway worked, and I ended up being intercepted by this god of a man on horseback. It felt like one of those ridiculous scenes where a girl throws herself into a pool solely to be saved by the hot lifeguard, the only difference being that my situation was for real… or was it?;) (it was, haha).
Salem got back on his horse totally unphased, and I was sent back on my way by my lover. Allie and I spent the rest of the ride drooling over my Egyptian lifeguard’s good looks. At the Sphinx, Salem tied up our horses and walked us over to a strip of vendors. We purchased waters and reclaimed the backpack that Salem had kindly carried for us. He sent us on our way to explore the Sphinx and the ruins around it.
Our first bit of exploring was the structure next to the sphinx. I am still not 100 % sure what it was- it felt like an ancient maze.
Up next was the showstopper attraction- The Sphinx. I was enamored by its presence- I was looking at the sphinx! The statue- if you can call it that- was a little smaller than I expected and there really wasn’t an unobstructed view of it, so that was kinda annoying. Allie and I attempted to get a better vantage point by backing up in the sand. Our efforts were to some success, and I swung off my backpack so we could our cameras out and snap pics.
What followed was a series of very unexpected yet ridiculous occurrences.
First, we unzipped my backpack to find an oozing mess off white goop. Turns out, the top on our tube of sunscreen had come loose during our horse race and sunscreen had exploded everywhere. Allie and I went into panic mode- our cameras were dripping with sunscreen. No joke, the entirety of my backpack lining was coated.
Freaking out, we hurriedly scouted the first elevated surface to assess the situation, which happened to be a massive above ground light. As we were cleaning off our cameras and praising jesus allah and buddha that our cameras still functioned properly, I noticed this Egyptian guy running like a manic, his arms flailing and pure arabic spewing from his mouth.
I didn’t think much of it until I realized he was absolutely, 100% running towards us. Now, I’m not going to say I was scared, because he very clearly wasn't threatening, but something told me he was trying to communicate with us. Problem was, I had no idea what the heck he was trying to say. This guy stopped in front of me, just shouting in arabic and flinging around his arms, repeatedly pointing to where I was standing.
So there I was, my face an open book to my utter confusion. I just stood there, this dumb, blank expression painted on my face. Eventually I found my English words and attempted to explain that we were just cleaning out the busted sunscreen in my bag. At that point, it dawned on mr. shouter, as we’ll call him, that I didn’t speak Arabic.
“Where are you from?” He asked- a question Allie and I were all too familiar with.
I opted to forgo my witty “I am Egyptian” reply, and instead, I hit him with the “I’m from the USA” card that produces the most awe-struck reactions. I then watched his face physically change from this angry scowl to one of a delightfully, unbothered man. Mr. Shouter had turned into Mr. Cool.
“American” he said, drawing out the last syllable as though he had solved some massive puzzle. “American, yes- I thought you were Egyptian,” he explained. “Egyptians aren’t allowed here, it’s tourist only. The hair, the eyes- you look very Egyptian.”
I nodded and laughed, all too familiar with this observation.
Mr. Shouter then took notice of the sunscreen disaster (little late to that one, bud) and ran off to get towels. He returned a few minutes later bearing a handful of tissues, which was great considering I had been using my scarf to clean everything. Once our bag was cleaned and our cameras salvaged, our new and unlikely friend explained he was a tourist photographer. Before we could reply, he was dragging Allie and I in front of the Sphinx, spitting out pose after pose.
I must say, the guy knew what he was doing. After Allie, it was my turn. In one of my pictures, Mr. Screamer posed me to where I was kissing the Sphinx. Little did I know that as he was telling me to close my eyes and pucker up, homeboy was leaning in and puckering up, too. Those suave Egyptians- thank god I opened my eyes and swerved last minute.
After that, he proceeded to ask for mine and Allie’s hand in marriage in exchange for camels. No joke. We firmly held that we would require at least one million camels in payment, and laughed about the situation the whole way back to our horses and Salem. I guess we were so entertained by our little sphinx fiasco that we didn’t even think to explore the rest of the area. I suppose you might could have gone into the sphinx? Honestly I have no idea.
We rode our horses from the foot of the sphinx through the local village back to the “magical house”. I felt like a female Indiana Jones- the whole scenario was just ridiculous. I was trotting on my horse through these cobblestone streets, locals turning heads and gathering at their doors as we passed. I’d be willing to bet this area never sees tourists- especially two American women dressed as though they’ve been cast in some tomb-raider movie.
* * *
Mohamed came to retrieve us at 1:00- it was the first and only time the two of us girls had done anything without Ahmed. Allie and I were packed up and showered from our pyramid adventure earlier. My luggage, along with Allie’s, was loaded into the back of Mohamed’s car- we were going straight to the airport after our afternoon of adventures.
Our first stop was the Cairo museum. This is where all of the discovered artifacts from tombs and pyramids is showcased, mummified bodies included. Mohamed paid for a english-speaking tour guide for Allie and I because he knew how interested in Ancient Egyptian history we were. There was no comparison between our snap-happy tour guide at the Karnak temple and this walking Egyptian encyclopedia. We ventured through the tombs and excavated statues, through the papyrus writings and the solid gold and gem embellished thrones. My favorite part of the museum was the King Tut Exhibit.
I’d be lying if I pretended I hadn’t known a ridiculous amount of facts about King Tut before coming to Egypt. But, to relay this information- his tomb is the only tomb that archaeologists discovered before tomb-raiders; to put it simply, Tut’s tomb is the only tomb we’ve found in it’s original state. What we know of Egyptian King’s burials and lifestyles, we know largely because of King Tut. So basically, when archeologists accidentally discovered tut’s untouched tomb, they also discovered everything he was buried with, all of which now resides at the Cairo Museum.
From the king Tut wing, we went over to pay a visit to some mummies. The mummy room was creepy cool. They were all enclosed in a glass box and completely preserved- hair, toenails, everything. Otherwise, they were exactly as you’d imagine a mummy to look. Except a lot shorter- ancient Egyptians were so short.
From the Cairo museum, we went to snatch Ahmed from his work. Traffic was horrendous (as it always is in Cairo), so we improvised and had ourselves an early 2000’s dance party in the car. I think all of Egypt saw our dance moves. People in other cars pointed and laughed (with us or at us, I'm still not sure...) but we were laughing too hard to care.
Our next order of business was dinner at a world famous koshari restaurant. This place is two floors and only serves one dish: koshari. Koshari is the national dish of Egypt, consisting of rice, a mix of noodles, chickpeas, lentils, tomato sauce, a spicy dressing, and fried onions. This stuff is to die for- Allie and I went into the meal fully planning on stuffing ourselves silly- it was our last meal in Egypt, after all.
Following dinner, we ventured into the renowned Egyptian market called Khan Al-Khalili. I regret we didn’t get to spend more time here- we came on a two hour time frame. Lord knows I'm good at shopping. The narrow market paths were ornate and with the setting sun, the scenery was oh so whimsical. Artisan lamps illuminated storefronts, and beautiful mosques were partially decorated for ramadan with brightly colored lights that were reminiscent of a disney castle. Sadly, our main mission here was to buy souvenirs, so we really didn’t have much time to explore.
* * *
I can’t begin to explain how bittersweet our last few moments at the market were. Loading up into Mohamed’s car and driving to the airport was even harder. We had one final jam session, full of dumb dancing and off-key singing. You can imagine the discord of sounds- my tone-deaf wails and two thick Egyptian accents do not make for an appealing soundtrack.
Saying goodbye to my people was next to impossible. I can’t tell you how close I became with Mohamed and Ahmed, and especially Allie. I feel fortunate beyond measure to have found such beautiful souls to share my Egypt adventure with, and especially lucky to have found such an incredible friend and future travel companion in Allie.
The plane ride home was a long one, but hugging my momma in the Atlanta airport when I landed made it all worth it.
Keep on the lookout for some future guide-style posts. One of my goals for the summer is to blog about many of the questions I am asked over and over. For everyone wondering how I travel on a college girl’s budget, if the middle east is safe, what to expect when traveling alone, and so much more, I have answers and opinions I am dying to share.
As always, I am more than happy to give travel advice or answers to travel-related questions. I’m an email away!