Judy in Egypt, Day 1: Cairo and the Pyramids

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Crossroads senior web editor Judy Koutsky arrived in Cairo Jan. 29 to begin a two-week adventure in Egypt, sponsored by Wild Women Adventures. Armed with a laptop and digital camera, she is sending on-site reports and photographs back to Crossroads' New Jersey headquarters on a daily basis (or whenever she can get an Internet connection). Agents who have questions or advice for Judy during her trip can send email to [email protected]

CAIRO, Egypt -- Camel riding has a completely different feel from that of horseback riding. I learned that one hour into my Egypt sojourn.

I arrived here at 2 a.m. after more than 24 hours in transit from New York. (I had a 12-hour layover in London.) From the plane, I could see the green lights of the mosques, the twinkling glow from the roaring metropolis and then blackness, which, I realized later, was sand.

After a few hours' sleep, I found myself straddling an eight-foot-tall camel named Charlie outside the Pyramids of Giza. (A 15-minute ride costs eight Egyptian pounds, about three dollars.) Judy at the Pyramids!!The camel drivers -- who were more than happy to take countless pictures as long as we provided baksheesh, which literally means "presents," but refers mainly to tips -- were friendly, and they entertained our endless questions. (Yes, camels trot; yes, they really do spit vile fluids, and, no, they don't like to be petted on their heads.)

We walked around the pyramids, trying to comprehend their enormity. There's been so much written about the pyramids; I think it's sufficient to say that their sheer size inspires awe, as do the engineering skills of the ancient Egyptians.

We headed to the Sphinx after a look inside Queen Henutsen's pyramid. (Thanks to Crossroads reader Ellie Turner, from Happy Trails, for suggesting a look inside; our guide took us there only after I proposed the idea.) The total cost to enter the area of the pyramids and Sphinx is 20 Egyptian pounds (about seven dollars).

What was truly amazing -- the wonders before us notwithstanding -- was the lack of crowds. As agents who sell Egypt know, it's high season here because the weather is so accommodating (in the 70s during the day and 40s at night). Usually, we were told, there are lines in every direction to view these monuments up close. Yet we walked freely around the whole area, never having to slow down.

I overheard very little English (read: very few Americans). Our guide told us tourism has yet to recover from the highly publicized terrorist attacks on tourists that took place in 1997. In September of that year, nine German tourists were killed in an attack a tour bus outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Two months later, gunmen at the Temple of Hatshepsut ambushed tourists, killing more than 60. I was a bit anxious about this journey due to the travel announcement from the State Dept. on Jan. 5th, but after this morning, I was glad I came.

The No. 1 industry in Egypt is tourism, and officials have worked hard to heighten safety for its foreign visitors. There were numerous police officers stationed around the pyramids and Sphinx, and I felt quite safe.

SchoolgirlsBecause the schools in Cairo were on break, Egyptian families and travelers from neighboring countries were among our touring companions. From a client's standpoint, this would be a treat: no lines, no heat and a chance to fraternize with local families enjoying their holiday.

After spending the morning touring the pyramids and Sphinx, we headed to a local restaurant for lunch. The Caviar restaurant specializes in seafood served in spicy sauces. It's a great place to send clients, because there are many locals who eat here, and the food is quite good at reasonable prices. (A lunch complete with appetizers, main course and a beer is about $15).

The afternoon was spent at the Khan El Khalili bazaar. It's interesting how Cairo is a mixture of two very different worlds. It's a thriving metropolis complete with traffic jams and throngs of pedestrians, but one will also find donkey-drawn carts carrying produce alongside the speeding cars. And, of course, there is the occasional camel rider navigating the back streets of Cairo.

The Khan El Khalili bazaar is one of the largest outdoor markets in the Middle East, if not the world. There are hundreds of little shops selling everything from touristy tchotchkes to beautifully hand-painted silk scarves. Clients easily could spend an afternoon here strolling the labyrinth of narrow streets, watching artisans building, dyeing, carving and sewing. Shop after shop, bursting with woodwork, glassware, leather goods, perfumes, fabrics and Pharaonic trinkets can be found here.

One issue that might concern agents is selling Egypt packages to women travelers. I had heard that it's not wise for women to travel alone in this country. How bazaar...Although it is best for women to be a part of an organized tour, I was comfortable wandering away from the tour in certain locations. For instance, I walked around the bazaar with another woman (both of us nonintimidating figures under five-feet-three-inches), and we were fine. The men are a bit pushy trying to sell their goods, but that can be expected at any large open-air market. We found a polite "no thanks" and a smile was enough to defuse a persistent barker.

The dress code here for women, however, should be taken into consideration. Eighty-five percent of Egyptians are Muslim, and women dress very conservatively, in long, loose-fitting skirts and blouses as well as a veil for the hair. (Some also covered their faces, but I found them to be in the minority.) While I felt comfortable in loose-fitting pants and long skirts, one woman on our trip wore a knee-length skirt and was pestered throughout the bazaar.

In any event, my first day in Egypt was quite eventful. As I look out onto the Nile -- the Semiramis Inter-Continental, where I am staying tonight, offers some beautiful views -- I can't help but be grateful that I did not listen to those who tried to deter me from visiting such a "dangerous" place. If the rest of the trip is anything like the first day, I am for even more amazing and beautiful surprises.

Semiramis Inter-Continental Hotel: 840 Rooms. Phone: (011) 20-2 355-7171 Fax: (011) 20-2 356-3020. Commission: 10%. Rates: $170 to $190, single; $195 to $220, double. E-mail: [email protected]. Web: www.interconti.com.
The Semiramis Inter-Continental is the second-largest property after the Cairo Marriott. Its conference center purports to be the largest in the Middle East. Rooms have phones with data ports. The property overlooks the Nile and is within walking distance of the Museum of Egyptology. There are 12 restaurants, conference facilities for 2,000, a business center and a swimming pool. The hotel underwent renovations in 1998. This is a great place for business travelers. I had a few glitches with my laptop, and the front desk sent up an electrician within five minutes to solve the problem. The service here is friendly and fast.

Caviar Restaurant: 13 Cairo Alexandria Desert Road, Cairo Phone: (011) 20-2 384-0355.

The Khan El Khalili: Five El Badestan Lane, Khan El Khalili, Cairo.
This place is famous for its coffee, desserts and elegant setting. It's run by the owners of the Mena House (one of the nicer, if not nicest, hotels in Cairo) and is decorated in traditional Middle Eastern style. After an afternoon of shopping at the bazaar, this is a great place to unwind.

Shiraz Trading Co.: 17 om-El-Ghoulam St. Khan El Khalili, Cairo.
This was my favorite shop at the bazaar. It specializes in handmade carpets and wall tapestries.

Wild Women Adventures: 152 Bloomfield Road, Sebastopol, CA 95472. Phone (800) 992-1322. Fax: (707) 829-1999.

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