Monthly Archives: April 2009

How to Survive a Visit to the Pyramids

Posted by on April 30, 2009

The pryamids border a residential neighborhood, which is seldom the view you see on the Discovery Channel

The pryamids border a residential neighborhood, which is seldom the view you see on the Discovery Channel

I am not going to write about the history, the mystery or the grandeur of the pyramids. For over 4,000 years the pyramids have been one of the best known structures on Earth. We have probably all seen TV shows, read books, or did a fourth grade report on them so there is nothing I can really add that you can’t get somewhere else.

What I am going to talk about is the physical act of visiting the pyramids. I confess right up front that my experience to the pyramids might not be representative of the experience others have had. I went on a day there were few tourists and by myself. Had I been with a group or on a day with more people, then it might have been a totally different experience. It is one of the few attractions I’ve visited where I can say it is better to go when it is crowded. This is written from my first hand experience and talking to dozens of other tourists in Egypt who had experiences similar to mine.

From a straight tourist visitation perspective, my trip to the pyramids was the worst I’ve had. The management of the Giza Pyramids site is horrible and little to no investment has been put into even basic things like garbage cans or signs. Other locations in Egypt under the oversight of the The Supreme Council of Antiquities are not in this poor of shape or run this poorly. Abu Simbel was was a great example of how an attraction like this should be administered. In fact every other temple I went to in Egypt wasn’t really that bad. $1,000 investment (which is probably less than one day of admissions to the pyramids) could pay for garbage bins and a crew of people to walk around the ground to pick up litter.

This is the cop who shook me down fro 20 Egyptian Pounds

This is the cop who shook me down for 20 Egyptian Pounds

The nightmare of visiting the pyramids began with the taxi ride. EVERY taxi in Egypt is going to try and put the screws to you on the amount they charge to take you there. The pyramids are tourist attraction #1 and they know it. The advantage to being on a group tour is that you never have to deal with taxis. If you do take a taxi, make sure to set the price before you go. The cab driver will try to just get you to get in the car without setting a price. There are tons of taxis and they all want your money. Pass and take another if they wont commit to a price. You shouldn’t pay more than 20-30LE (Egyptian Pounds) for a ride. Also make sure they take you directly to the entrance gate, with no stops in between. There is a Giza stop in the Cairo subway system. It doesn’t go directly to the pyramids, but there is a mini bus you can get on at the station that will take you there. It is a much cheaper option (about 1LE for the subway fare) and you don’t have to worry about everything I listed above. The subway is what I should have done.

You will notice as you approach the pyramids that it is not like what you have seen in pictures all your life. While one side of the pyramids are up against the desert, the other side is right up against a residential neighborhood. In fact right across the street from the main gate to the pyramids is a Pizza Hut. That that is literally what the Sphinx is looking at.

When the taxi was still a kilometer away from the entrance, I had the first run in with the most aggressive and annoying touts I’ve seen at any tourist location in the world: the camel riders. There is a huge business built around giving tourists rides on camels, and they are very aggressive about getting business. When my taxi was still driving down the street, when we had to slow at a speed bump, one of the camel guys jumped into the taxi to try and tried to sell me on a camel.

Litter at the base of the pyramids

Litter at the base of the pyramids

The fact that this guy was willing to jump into a moving vehicle should give you an idea of just how aggressive they are. The taxi driver will get a cut of whatever the camel rider gets, so they have no incentive to protect you from them. They will do anything and everything up to, but not quite, theft. They will lie to you, they will scam you, they will try to con you. You need to know that before you get there because in typical con man fashion, they have developed a routine to try to be friendly with the tourists.

The first question they will always ask you is where you are from. This is not because they are interested in learning about your culture. They encounter thousands of tourists every month. They’ve seen it all before. They ask the question so they can a) set a price for how much to charge you, and b) use it as a hook to start a conversation to make you think they are your friend. If you say you are American, they will say “Obama!”. If you say you are Canadian, they will say “Canada Dry!”. No matter where you say you are from, they will say “Good people from xxxxx!” They are surprisingly adept at negotiating price and engaging in small talk and a wide number of languages.

They will charge higher prices if you are from the UK, US, Germany, or Netherlands. If you can somehow pass yourself off as being from a different country that isn’t very developed, do it. The pyramids were the only time on my trip where I resorted to lying about where I was from. I went from America to Canada, to Slovenia and finally to the fictional country of Karkozia. I’d speak some gibberish sounding Eastern European language and pretend not to know English. If they tell you they are with the government or that it is illegal to walk around the pyramids, they are lying. If you do want to do the camel thing, I recommend doing it early. That way you aren’t just buying a camel ride, you are also paying protection money so the other camel guys don’t harass you. I should make clear that the camel guys are not just outside the entrance, they are walking all over the pyramid grounds as well.

Camels: the source of all trouble at the pyramids

Camels: the source of all trouble at the pyramids

At every tourist attraction in Egypt they have metal detectors. The pyramids was the only place where they even bothered to have them turned on. I had a Leatherman in my camera bag and the guy working the x-ray machine tried to steal it. I put up a fuss and he relented. The lesson here is that even the officials who work there for the government can’t be trusted. While I was walking along the Great Pyramid, there was a small rope barrier. One of the tourist police said it was OK to go over the rope and climb up one flight of the blocks. The moment I got back down he demanded 20LE. Lesson: no one does anything out of the goodness of their heart. They want a tip no matter how inconsequential the advice they give (“stand here to take a picture….5LE please!”)

On top of all that, you have people trying to sell you cheap crap on the pyramid grounds. I didn’t find them nearly as annoying, just because they are stuck in one place because of their inventory. You should just know that all the trinkets they sell are made in China and can be purchased at other shops in Cairo. Despite the fact it is hot and it is in a desert, there was a surprising shortage of people selling beverages. I had one lady (and there are very few women you meet as a tourist in Egypt) who said to me “Sir, would you like to buy a Pepsi Cola?” I was so shocked at her honest and direct approach of not trying to con me that I bought a drink from her.

My other tip is to bring small bills. If you expect to get change from any of these vendors, they will come up with excuses about not having enough money to make change. I had one guy tell me that he pulled out a 100LE bill and the camel guy just ripped it out of his hand. He almost got into a fight with the guy. Most tourists are not that assertive and end up getting taken advantage of. You have to be very aggressive and if need be come across as a total asshole. Another scam I encountered, but never went along with to figure out how it worked, was the guy who gives you the free t-shirt. They will “give” it to you as a gift and shove it in your hands. I always just let it fall to the ground. I assumed they had partner up the road who would accuse you of stealing or something. If anyone has information on how the scam works, let me know.

In summary, for one of the greatest wonders of the world, the pyramids are a horrible place to visit. I put the blame for the squarely on the shoulders of the The Supreme Council of Antiquities which runs the pyramids. I suspect there is some political reason why they let the lunatics run the asylum. They really should be ashamed. They clearly know how to run these properties as I saw in almost every other attraction in Egypt. After a few hours, I was willing to forgo some photos I was hoping to get just because I wanted to leave….which meant getting another taxi.

Most of the independent travelers I met in Egypt had an experience similar to mine. If you do get a chance to visit someday, I hope you can learn something from my visit to make it more enjoyable.

McArabia: McDonald’s in the Arab World

Posted by on April 29, 2009

McDonalds in Muscat, Oman

McDonald's in Muscat, Oman

Since I last wrote about McDonald’s when I was in Dubai, I’ve been in Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan. As all of the McDonald’s in the Arabian Peninsula are owned by the same company, there isn’t a whole lot to add to what I had to say about McDonald’s in Dubai. I managed to have at least something at a McDonald’s in every country except Qatar. I saw a McDonald’s sign from the window of my taxi, but never found one when I was walking around. Oddly enough, I did manage to eat at a Hardee’s in Qatar, which I thought was really bizarre. It appears that the only place in the world that has Hardee’s outside of the Midwest United States are the Gulf States.

What I want to focus on is McDonald’s Egypt, which was slightly different in substance than what I saw in the Gulf, and very different in the role it served in society. The Gulf states are all rather rich, and even Jordan is not too bad off considering it isn’t an oil producing nation. Egypt is much larger, much more crowded, and much poorer than the other Arab countries I visited. Also, in all of the above countries I listed, I ate maybe one or two meals at McDonald’s, and even then I only did it for the purpose of writing this article (the things I go through for my readers…) In Kuwait, I only got an ice cream cone and just went in to check out the menu.

McArabia Sandwich: Burger + flatbread

McArabia Sandwich: Burger + flatbread

In Egypt, I ended up going to McDonald’s more than I have in any other country, and it had nothing to do with food. I would go every day depending what city I was in for one simple reason: McDonald’s had free wifi.

As is usually the case with my McDonald’s articles, I really don’t want to talk about McDonald’s or for that matter Egypt. I want to talk about something bigger. I need to back up as I often do in these articles and address the complaint that I always get. Some people will turn their nose up and say how they would never eat at a McDonald’s when traveling because they want a real cultural experience, and they wouldn’t want to eat garbage food, if you are going to a foreign country they’d want to experience local cuisine. While I understand where they are coming from, their view of fast food restaurants like McDonald’s is a very western view and they are projecting their view of these restaurants on to the places they visit. It might be completely reasonable if you are a westerner visiting, but it isn’t the whole story.

If someone were to make the claim that fast food was the bottom of the barrel of dining in a western country, I don’t think I’d argue with them. Fast food isn’t supposed to be high cuisine. It is supposed to very utilitarian. You get in, you get food, you get out. It is cheap and fast. Much of the fast food experience is totally lost on most westerners, however. The fact that every Big Mac is identical, is by design. Creating a consistent experience means that you know what you are getting, for better or worse, when you go to a chain restaurant.

Qatar has a Hardees. Dont ask me why.

Qatar has a Hardee's. Don't ask me why.

In a world were every restaurant has clean toilets and sanitary kitchen, that might not be a big deal. In many countries I’ve visited, restaurants like McDonald’s are the high end dining option. The average person might never afford to eat at the nice restaurant at the hotel for foreigners, but they might be able to take the kids to McDonald’s once or twice a year for a birthday party and get some free toys in a Happy Meal. (and the birthday parties seem to be a much bigger deal than they are in the US) It isn’t an option for dining that you exercise every day or even every week. The role of the fast food restaurant is sort of turned on its head in a world where you don’t have many restaurants at all.

When the first McDonald’s opened up in the Soviet Union, they had lines around the block. Families would get dressed up and spend a week’s or more income to have a meal that people in the west would turn their noses up at. Part of it was certainly the taboo of eating food from the west, but another part of it was having something of consistent quality, in a clean environment.

When I was in Phnom Penh Cambodia, I visited the KFC. As far as I knew, it was the only western fast food restaurant in the entire country (another KFC was being built in Sieam Reap, but wasn’t open yet). I was struck by something: all the kids who worked there seemed very bright, had nice clothes and spoke English exceptionally well. These were the smart kids and probably children of the Cambodian elite. Asking “do you want fries with that” is actually a pretty good job when there aren’t many other options. Where as most kids in the west would consider working at McDonald’s a crummy job, in Cambodia it was the job for the best and the brightest.

McDonalds in Cairo

McDonald's in Cairo

Which brings me back to Egypt. While Egypt is not as destitute as Cambodia, it isn’t as rich as Kuwait either. There are plenty of restaurants all over the place where you can eat that are perfectly fine. In fact I came to really like many Egyptian dishes like Foul (or fool depending on the spelling). McDonald’s is neither the best nor the worst option in Egypt. McDonald’s niche in Egypt dining ecosystem seemed to be a hangout for high school kids and young adults. Something which I also saw when I was in Taiwan. It was a place to study and a place you could bring a computer (usually cheap netbooks) to surf with your friends.

Every McDonald’s in Egypt ran McDonald’s radio. It was their own station which was a mix of western and Arab music. Most of the McDonald’s I visited were in tourists areas (because I’m a tourist) and it just added to the “western” vibe you’d get if you were an Egyptian youth.

What is the lesson can we take from this? McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants are a constant like the speed of light. They have a certain consistency which exists no matter where they are. How they fit into a particular country is a function of the development level of the country in question. The richer the country, the lower they are looked upon as a food option. The poorer the country, the more respectable dining option is it. I realize this isn’t quite as simple as sneering at every McDonald’s, but reality is never cut and dry.

Read more articles in my McDonald’s Around the World series.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #60: Saint Catherine Area

Posted by on April 29, 2009

World Heritage Site #60: Saint Catherine Area

World Heritage Site #60: Saint Catherine Area

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Orthodox Monastery of St Catherine stands at the foot of Mount Horeb where, the Old Testament records, Moses received the Tablets of the Law. The mountain is known and revered by Muslims as Jebel Musa. The entire area is sacred to three world religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The Monastery, founded in the 6th century, is the oldest Christian monastery still in use for its initial function. Its walls and buildings of great significace to studies of Byzantine architecture and the Monastery houses outstanding collections of early Christian manuscripts and icons. The rugged mountainous landscape, containing numerous archaeological and religious sites and monuments, forms a perfect backdrop to the Monastery.

St. Catherine’s Monastery is one of my Seven Wonder Egypt.

Everything Everywhere Rewind: Hawaii and Australia

Posted by on April 29, 2009

Most of my readers haven’t been following me since the start of my trip. What I’m going to try to do is periodic updates where I can share some of the things I was doing/seeing one and two years ago, in late April of 2007 and 2008.

It also gives me a good excuse to go back and correct the formatting of the photos I originally posted and move the links from Flickr to SmugMug. (My early photos didn’t even fit on the page).

Two Years Ago: Hawaii

One Year Ago: Australia

Help me plan my trip to Rome

Posted by on April 29, 2009

According the Most Traveled People website, Italy is the most popular place in the world to visit…… which I’ve never visited.

As I finally enter Europe in a few days, I’ll like to tap the collective mind of the internet to help me plan my trip to Rome. There are some things I’ll see that are pretty obvious: the Vatican, the Colosseum, the Pantheon. I’d like to get the opinions of people who have been there before me to help me plan my time there.

Here is what I’m looking for from you:

1) What should I see in Rome? What are the out of the way places I should see and what should I take time to see at the popular spots? Where/what should I eat?

2) If you live in Rome let me know. I’d like to schedule a time to meet with people in Rome at a cafe or pub.

Win a Free Signed Print from Scott Kurtz

Posted by on April 28, 2009

Back in April of 2007 when I was starting my trip, I stopped in Dallas to visit my friend Scott Kurtz, who writes PVPonline.com. I spent a few days in Dallas and he did his April 10, 2007 comic strip about me, which was a real honor.

I’m teaming up with Scott to give away a FREE signed 11×17 print of this cartoon. You should also know that you can get a 11×17 print of each and every PVP comic for only $9.99.

If you are a PVP reader, all you have do to win is leave a comment saying who your favorite character from PVP is, and you are not a PVP reader you really should be. You can atone for yours sins by just naming your favorite cartoon character.

Winner of the Dead Sea mud was entry #23, Jackie.

Video: Moment of Silence on Israel’s Memorial Day

Posted by on April 28, 2009

Israel has a very unique tradition on Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). An air raid siren will go off and everyone will stop what they are doing for 2 minutes. People in their cars will stop wherever they are and get out to stand.

This video was taken at 10:58am today (Yom HaZikaron) just before and during the siren which went off at 11am. At about the 1:25 mark in the video the siren goes off. The sound isn’t very good so beware. The video covers the entire length of the siren. You can see the motorists standing along side their cars, and then getting back in and moving once the siren is over.

The video is also in High Definition. Click on the HD button.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #59: Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis

Posted by on April 28, 2009

World Heritage Site #59: Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis

World Heritage Site #59: Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis

From the World Heritage inscription:

Thebes, the city of the god Amon, was the capital of Egypt during the period of the Middle and New Kingdoms. With the temples and palaces at Karnak and Luxor, and the necropolises of the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, Thebes is a striking testimony to Egyptian civilization at its height.

The Temples of Karnak and Luxor, together with the Valley of the kings and Queens are some of the most impressive sights in all of Egypt. You can read more about Karnak in my Seven Wonders of Egypt.

Leaving Tel Aviv

Posted by on April 28, 2009

Don’t get me wrong, Tel Aviv is a nice city, but I didn’t have any plans to stay here for two weeks. My laptop battery finally came in and everything is now fine in computerland. I’ve been here so long I ended being in Tel Aviv during Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day. Unlike memorial day in the US all the businesses closed down in Tel Aviv all the businesses shut down the evening the day started (in the Jewish calendar days start at sundown). Like they did last week for Holocaust Remberance Day, at 8pm there is a siren that sounds and everything stops for two minutes. Cars in the street stop and people get out and stand during the duration of the siren. There is also another siren which goes off at 11am today.

Memorial Day is the day before Yom Ha’atzmaut, or independence day. Between Passover, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day, I’ve been in Israel during a ton of the major holidays in the country.

Because I’ve been here so long I’m going to skip my trip to Malta. I’m not too worried because I plan on coming back to the Mediterranean in the future. My last things in Israel will be a short trip up to Haifa and Acre where I’ll get to take photos of some crusader ruins and the Baha’i Terraces. (both of which are World Heritage Sites).