Egypt: pyramids, snorkeling, and living that cafe lyfe

October 14, 2018
by Christina

Our Aegean Airlines flight delivered us to the Cairo International Airport without incident, feeding us spanakopita and Greek yogurt for breakfast. Was that the easiest thing for them to feed us, or was it performative Greek-ness? We may never know.

We found the signage in the Cairo airport lacking, and waited through the line in passport control to be told to go to one of the banks nearby to buy a visa, but there were no signs saying that this one particular bank was where you had to go, you just went to where the long line was. The visa was just a sticker you bought, that you stuck in your passport yourself, and got it stamped at passport control, which was easy once we had the visa.

Outside of customs we went to hail an Uber to go to my friend Ahdab’s house. The taxi drivers were very pushy, but after the tuk tuk drivers in Agra I think nothing may phase me. My favorite line was “Uber expensive. Good taxi, small price!” When our Uber driver arrived but remained stationary and far away from us for a while, we ultimately had to get Ahdab to call him for us. He was waiting in the shade? If not for Ahdab’s intervention, it would likely have been easier to just take a bus into town and take Uber from there, as we got charged additional parking fees to have the Uber enter the airport.

The ride to Ahdab’s was fascinating. First there were the views of the deserts surrounding the airport, then the many empty or half-empty and unfinished red brick buildings along the highway. We also go a sneak peek at the Pyramids and the Nile en route.

Ahdab was one of my classmates in my yoga teacher training, and I was really excited to get to see her. She lives in 6th of October City, and was there to greet us and feed us breakfast, which was delicious.

After that she had work, and we were exhausted from getting up so early and having spent a night on the ferry before that, so we more or less collapsed until dinner time, when we got to have a home-cooked dinner with the family, which was soooo nice. Ahdab’s mom made green sauce-veg dish called mulukhiyah, chicken and rice, which was all very delicious and very Egyptian.

The next day Ahdab and her friend Salim took us for a walk around the part of town called Zamalak. It’s located on the north end of Gezira Island on the Nile in Cairo and it used to be a garden housing exotic plants from all over the world. We went to a small market, saw a pottery art show and sculpture garden at the Gezira Art Center, got fresh juice (pomegranate! mango! cane juice!), and then took a rest at a cafe to have tea and shisha. The juice shops and the cafes are something that seem to be very common in Egypt, and something that we enjoyed a lot.

After that some of Salim’s friends joined us for a boat ride on the Nile, which is, in fact, a river in Egypt.

After that we went to dinner at Abou El Sid where our friend Sameh joined us as well. Sameh was our neighbor back in Washington, DC, same floor of our building, but had since moved back to Cairo not long before we left for our trip, so it was fun to see him again!

And Dan got to eat pigeon! This was especially comical given that he had recently been heard exclaiming at pigeons who annoyed him that someone should eat them, why does no one eat pigeons?! Well, it turns out Egpytians eat pigeons, and they are pretty tasty. The flavor is stronger than chicken, closer to turkey, but more tender. However, there’s less meat and you’ve got smaller bones to navigate, but all in all, pigeon gets a thumbs up as a meal!

After dinner we went to Roof Top Bar which had a great view of Cairo for a few drinks, and then dropped in to Jazz Club, which sees a lot of really good music acts and is a Cairo institution in the music scene.

Of course, we had to go pay a visit to the Pyramids of Giza, possibly one of the most iconic archaeological and tourist sites in the world. We took an uber from Ahdab’s place to get there, and walked to the entrance. You might imagine that the pyramids are remote, but they are actually surrounded by city, but still in a large swath of dessert. We bought a general entry ticket, and an entry into the smallest pyramid, Menkaure. There are warnings to count your change: heed them. If we hadn’t we would have gotten short changed, and evidently it’s pretty common.

There’s a particular point near the pyramids called “the panorama” that men hawking camel and horse rides say they will take you to for the photograph of all the pyramids in a row. Well, you can walk there, so we did, and in total we ended up spending almost 5 hours and walking 8 km around the place, which is much longer than necessary to see everything, but we were having fun.

It’s amazing to think that after 3000 years the pyramids are still standing, and it felt surreal to be walking around them. The tour into the Menkaure Pyramid was a little underwhelming however, and the guards were encouraging people to take photos (against the rules) and then asking for tips (because they let you break the rules). But also there isn’t much to photograph. On our way out a tour group arrived and it caused a serious traffic jam. Maybe touring the bigger pyramids would be worth it? Dunno.


The sphinx was the most crowded location, mostly because it was the most compact. It was very cool to see something so iconic in real life, but the atmosphere was a lot of tourists elbowing each other for pictures, so that part doesn’t live up to the glamour of it.

We enjoyed some tea at Marriott Mena House, which has a lovely tea room with a view of the great pyramid, then headed to downtown Cairo where we got a lunch at Abou Tarek, which only serves koshary and is famous for it. It’s a mix of pasta, rice, chic peas, lentils, marinara sauce, fried onions and vinegar, and it’s delicious comfort food. It’s something I have plans to approximate in my own kitchen at home (once I have one of those again, and by that I mean both “home” and “kitchen”).

We had some tea and shisha at a nearby cafe, took a stroll around Tahrir Square, where the revolution happened in 2011, then headed back to Ahdab’s place after our long day of touristing.

The next day we bid Ahdab farewell to go pay a visit to the Red Sea. It was really nice getting to see her again, and so kind of her and her family to host us during our visit! Thank you guys so much! We had a wonderful time.

From Cairo we took Go Bus to the city of Hurghada, which is about 7 hours south of Cairo situated on the Red Sea. We got in late and I had managed to come down with a cold, so we slept in late. We stayed at Sea Waves hostel, which offered breakfast included with the room, and I really enjoyed taking my meal on the roof deck.

We went to Star Beach (for a small fee) in the afternoon. The water was beautiful, but very shallow for a long time, until a steep drop, but I braved it and went for a nice swim,  and did NOT step on any of the enormous sea urchins I found at the entry to the deeper water.

That evening we explored the markets and got something to eat, and more juice of course. We found Hurghada to be very lively at night, just as Cairo had been, but despite it being a much smaller town, there were lots of people out and about later in the day.

Something that we were constantly harangued about on the streets was snorkeling or diving, but mostly it was people not involved in the dive shops trying to herd us in and take a cut. After looking at reviews we decided to book a trip directly from Diamond Divers.  Our trip was first thing the next day, and we were transported from the shop along with the diver’s oxygen tanks to the boat. There was a lot of hanging around, which made us worry at first that we had chosen the wrong company, but our fears were for naught.

We were the only snorkelers on a fairly large dive trip, and basically turned loose to swim as much as we wanted at the first location. The water was so clear that I didn’t feel like I missed seeing anything by staying close to the surface, and there were areas that might have been cumbersome to swim over with all the diving gear. And I’ve never seen so many fish in my life, it was amazing. I was so excited about them schooling around me, until one of them decided to bite me on the elbow and it’s amazing how quickly things changed from serene to ominous, but ultimately it was just the one fish who took a nibble.

After that we had a lovely buffet lunch, really good actually, I wasn’t expecting much, so it was a nice surprise and we were really hungry.

Then it was off to the second dive spot. For this one I got my camera loaded into a waterproof pouch to try and take some underwater pictures, which turned out more or less okay. The second location was beautiful, but generally deeper and with fewer fish. Still lovely though.

After three nights in Hurghada we headed back to Cairo to stay a few nights with Sameh. We got to meet his two German shepherds and spent some time hanging out at the house and relaxing.

The next day we went to the Egyptian museum, which was interesting in several ways. One of these was that the museum is preparing to move to a new and fancy location adjacent to the pyramids, and so seemed like a bit of an archaeological site itself, with its old architecture and cases, and certain areas roped off or boxed up. I kind of liked the strange feeling of the space, and I was happy to see if before it metamorphoses into something else entirely.

There were lots of really cool artifacts, but of course, the highlight was the mummies (which you aren’t supposed to photograph, sigh). It was really amazing and almost unbelievable to be looking at the body of a person who died thousands of years ago. Skin, hair, nails, etc all thousands of years old. It’s amazing that human remains can last so long. Mind totally blown.

After the museum we stopped at a cafe and then to get some juice before heading back to Sameh’s place. We took the metro which was nice, but warning: don’t accidentally get in the women’s car with a dude. It was both “awww”  inducing and hilarious to watch Dan terrified at the rain of “La! La! La!” (“la” is “no” in Arabic) that came down upon him from the female passengers, but the doors closed right behind us and we were trapped until the next stop. And as we were trying to switch cars we missed the train… sigh.

That night Sameh invited some other friends over and we had a little gathering and snacks. As we were chatting with his friends, we discovered an amazing coincidence: one of them knew Ahdab, totally independently!

The next day we were lazy and slept in, played soduku and snacked, then finally got out of the house to go see a few sights in the evening. First we visited Al Azhar Park, which is a popular place for couples to take engagement photos (as it turns out).

Finally, we went for a tour of Khan el-Khalili market and Moez Street. It’s full of vendors selling all kinds of cool goods, and it’s got some really amazing architecture. In general, Egyptians seem to stay up late and everything is very lively after dark, almost to the point that there seem to be more people out and about in the streets at night than during the day.

We ended our tour of the market with a bountiful meal at Naguib Mahfouz restaurant, where we got to try pigeon a second time, and then hung out to watch an oud player and drink some tea.

The next morning Sameh very kindly drove us to the airport before heading to work. It was delightful getting to catch up with our old neighbor. Thank you so much Sameh for having us and showing us around!

We checked in with Aegean and got through security without incident, then from there we were headed back to Athens and our delayed visit to the Acropolis…


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