Egypt: desert, sea, and…frequent frustration

IMG_20190126_202502_195I’m sitting down to write this and I honestly still don’t know how to describe how I feel about Egypt.  Did I hate it?  No…but I didn’t love it either and I so desperately wanted to.  Ever since I was a little girl, I was fascinated with the wonders of Ancient Egypt:  heiroglyphics, the pyramids, papyrus, and the Rosetta Stone.  The thought of finally seeing it all for myself was thrilling and dizzying.  If only the reality had lived up to the expectations.

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We started our journey in Hurghada, a beach town known for its amazing coral reefs in the Red Sea.  Flights between Hurghada and Istanbul are cheap and the thought of some sunshine was welcome.  We booked a resort (which is pretty much your only good option in Hurghada) and prepared ourselves for a relaxing few days by the beach for the start of our trip.  If only.

IMG-20190120-WA0001Our first couple of days in Hurghada were alright.  The weather was great, the water was beautiful, and our room was comfortable enough.  On the other hand, the internet was non-existent, even if you paid a little extra for faster connection.  The food ranged from inedible to mediocre.  Attempting to lounge on a sunbed (which was the whole reason we wanted to go to Hurghada) felt less like a leisure activity and more like a game of whack-a-mole, as a whole slew of salesmen crowded along what was supposed to be a private beach trying to sell you tours.  At first, I just tossed on my sunglasses and pretended to be sleeping so they would leave me alone, but many of them still continued to loom over me and scream at me in various languages until I told them to piss off.  Not exactly a relaxing experience.  But these were the least of our problems in Hurghada.

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After a couple of days of attempting to relax in the sunshine, we decided to book a short day trip from one of the hotel’s on-site tour operators – a quad bike tour of the Sahara Desert.  Sounds awesome, right?

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In the beginning, it really was.  It was exhilarating to speed through the sand dunes under the sun with great views of the desert mountains.  I thought I had finally found the vacation I was looking for.  This quickly turned sour at the halfway point (about 40 km in) of the tour when we were guided to a small Bedouin village for a camel ride and tea and shisha.  The camel ride was essentially a one-minute walk in a circle, hardly worth the effort of mounting and dismounting.  We spent about ten minutes actually enjoying the tea before they quickly rushed us away to try to sell us random souvenirs and natural medicines.  By the time we finished, the sun was starting to set, meaning we had 40 km to go….in the dark.  As it turns out, my quad bike had no tail lights and my husband’s had no headlights.  When we pointed this out to the tour operator, he just laughed and said “yeah, that’s not a good bike to choose for nighttime,” as if he hadn’t been the one to assign us bikes.  We were terrified the whole time.  We could barely follow the guide and had no way to see if we were going to hit any rocks or bumps.  It was terrifying and frankly dangerous.  Strike two for Egypt.

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This was okay though…because I had an awesome tour planned for the following day that I had booked a month in advance and it had great reviews on TripAdvisor.  The thing I wanted to see most in Egypt (aside from the Pyramids, of course) was the Valley of the Kings and the Temple of Karnak.  As misfortune would have it, I got an email that night that our tour had been canceled due to safety issues and we could decide whether or not we wanted to schedule a different day.  Exhausted and frustrated, we decided to sleep on it and see if we could work something out.  4 A.M. rolls around – we get a call from the front desk.

“Your bus is waiting for you.”

Confused, we asked to speak with the tour operator.  We explained that we had been told the trip was canceled due to safety reasons.  He said we were mistaken – there were no safety issues.  The problem was that we had been the only English speakers to sign up for that day and it would be more convenient to move us to another date, but we could join a non-English tour if we desired.

I. Was. Livid.  First of all, I had booked a month in advance!  Secondly, I had just been lied to about safety, all so they could save a few bucks!  I told them not to bother and that I had no interest dealing with their sleazy tour company anymore and that I expected a full refund.  They said I would have to cancel through the website (again, a lie), so I’m still dealing with that mess as I write this.

At that point, I was so furious and hated Egypt so much I just wanted to turn around and go home.  But…the Pyramids.

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I hoped with all my heart that Cairo would turn things around for me.  For the most part, it did.  We stayed in Giza in a room with a view of the Pyramids and that managed to cheer us both up a bit.  Better yet, the food at that hotel was much better than the garbage we had encountered in Hurghada.  Nobody harassed me or tried to sell me anything.  Finally, some peace.

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We booked a private tour of the Great Pyramids through our hotel, which turned out to be the best experience of the whole trip.  Our tour guide was awesome, professional, and made our visit to the Pyramids a great experience.  This, I can recommend.  If you don’t go with a tour guide, expect to spend a long time in line and to be hassled frequently.

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As our time in Egypt came to an end, I felt apprehensive about leaving Cairo.  We were flying out of Sharm el Sheikh – another beach town- and I didn’t want to suffer through Hurghada all over again.

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Thankfully, the resort in Sharm was vastly more professional than the one in Hurghada, and we could indeed enjoy time on the white sand beach undisturbed.  On the downside, my husband did get food poisoning there, but managed to recover quickly enough to make our flight home.  Also, a guy selling trinkets at the airport tried to pretend I hadn’t already paid him when I tried to buy a bracelet on the way out.  Not cool.

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So is Egypt worth it?  I can’t say I regret having gone. I’m very glad I saw the Pyramids – that was truly an awesome experience.  On the other hand, I was so disappointed in the the way I was treated pretty much the whole time everywhere else.  It is disheartening because I know Egypt desperately needs tourists to help boost their economy, but in this regard, I must say they are not doing themselves any favors.

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Veni, vidi, vici, I suppose.

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A Magical Journey in Wadi Rum

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We woke up bright and early for our journey into Wadi Rum desert.  We quickly shoved the last of our delicious breakfast down our throats in Aqaba before our driver came to take us to the entrance.  The seaside highway quickly gave way to sandy mountains, and before long, the vast stretches of red desert were all we could see.  It was the stuff of dreams.

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It was a cold and cloudy day and our Bedouin travel guide reminded us to keep our coats within reach throughout the tour.  In the end, I was grateful for the chilly weather as it made the countless hiking stops much more enjoyable; I could not imagine doing it in the heat.

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The first few hours of the tour were spent hiking under the mystical fog, which somehow made the desert look even more amazing.  To be honest, I had not expected the tour to include so many great hikes (I imagined it more like a safari); it greatly exceeded my expectations.

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Around noon, we pulled over to have some lunch and warm up.  Along the way, we grabbed some dry pieces of bush for the fire, which was difficult since it had just rained.  We enjoyed a delicious stew of tomato, pepper, onion, peas, and beans, followed by some freshly brewed tea.  It was easily one of my best meal experiences to date.

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The sky started to clear a bit after lunch, and while I loved the way the clouds looked hanging over the desert, the sun on my face was a welcome sensation.

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The final hike on top of the arch bridge was an incredible way to end our desert tour.

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Above and below!

We headed towards our camp just in time to watch the sunset.

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As if we hadn’t already had an incredible day, our hiking adventure in the desert was followed by a fun and relaxing evening at a Bedouin camp, where we met some wonderful fellow travelers, ate a delicious meal, played several rounds of various card games, and learned more about Jordan and Bedouin life.

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It was a cold night in Wadi Rum, but we managed to sleep well under several thick blankets.  After a quick breakfast, we were ready for our final Wadi Rum adventure:  a camel ride across the desert.

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My husband may or may not want a puppy.

We traveled with Wadi Rum Nomads and loved every second of it.  Camping in Wadi Rum was a crazy, magical adventure of a lifetime that we will never forget.

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