Carjacked in Cairo

It was a bright Saturday morning. We were standing on the sidewalk outside our hotel, ready to use a wonder of technology that is revolutionizing the concept of public transport the world over – Uber. We had arrived the previous night after a long flight into Cairo and checked into the Novotel Airport Hotel, not wanting to mess with the idea of haggling with a cab in a foreign country that evening. The feeling carried itself over the next morning – hence Uber.

It was a busy road, as seem to be most roads in Cairo. It did have a dusty sidewalk, but at least it had a sidewalk. Every few seconds, a cab (or a cab lookalike) would pull up to us pestering us to use their ride. I turned to J to ask him how far out our Uber was. Apparently, once you request an Uber, its likely the driver might stop for a tea break before picking up his ride, or so it seemed. J said

“well, lookout for a Red Mitsubishi, driven by a bearded Ahmed. The car is headed towards us, but its moving at a glacial pace”

Although in the Cairo heat, you would think a glacier would be receding at a breakneck pace, but that’s besides the point here.

Finally to my delight I noticed a red Mitsubishi moving along the side of the road at a somewhat slower and uncertain pace towards us. I identified the bearded driver, we made eye-contact, I smiled and waived and he pulled over. I leaned into the window of the passenger side and asked

“Ahmed?”

He nodded in affirmation.

I opened the passenger side door as I turned around and gestured to J and B to jump into the backseat of the car.

“That wasn’t bad at all”

exclaimed B. J meanwhile, a hard to impress Korean curmudgeon and also Uber-virgin finally had a gleeful expression on his face.

I turned to Ahmed and said “Let’s go”, excited to be heading for our first day of adventure in this ancient city while at the same time not mindful of the fact that english is not expected to be understood by everyone everywhere in the world. Ahmed mumbled something in Arabic, which I assumed was a greeting. I decided to show off my Arabic with “As-salaam-alaikum”, and again pointed towards the road asking him to drive.

Ahmed drove, but drove too straight for Cairo trafic. Within a few yards, he drove into another car. This immediately wiped the gleeful expression off of J’s face. I think we all at this point might have yelled at him, perhaps in three different languages none of which Ahmed understood. They all amounted to saying

“What the F#@$”?

Having regained his composure, Ahmed again turned to me and mumbled something in Arabic. I figured he was apologizing. I could sense that from the fact that by now he was beginning to sweat. I said something like ” That’s okay, be careful now, and drive”. Ahmed, I thought began to apologize some more in Arabic. Since I couldn’t understand, and didn’t care all that much, I told him to just drive.

Having realized we weren’t interested in his apology, Ahmed decided to start driving, albeit at a slower pace. Well a slow Uber is better than a no-Uber or a reckless-Uber I thought. About a mile down, we come to an intersection, and Ahmed again turned to me mumbling something  in Arabic – from the tone I could tell it was a question! Having spent years in Bombay, where it was a common trick for cab drivers to ask their passengers which route they wanted to take (and in the process figure out how clueless they were), I assumed Ahmed was playing the same trick. Trying to sound like a confident local (who apparently didn’t speak a word in Arabic), I asked him to make a left.

Clearly I had no clue which way our destination was. However, knowing we had the power of technology, I turned to J whose phone we had used to request the Uber, and asked him to make sure Ahmed was taking us in the right direction. Perhaps Ahmed didn’t know how to use his Uber App that would have  given him the right direction, and hence he was a little ashamed and nervous in front of foreign tourist, and that might explain his extreme sweat and shivers.

So J’s expression, as I noted earlier had turned from glee to horror. Now as I turned back to look at him for direction hints, I could sense it had changed once again, now to one of confusion. The confusion once again turned to horror, this time for all three of us when he exclaimed

“Hey, why does this app show that our car is still where we were waiting for our pick up?”

I think three people yelling in three different languages probably caused Ahmed to get a heart attack, if not partial deafness. He slammed on the brakes in the middle of the busy road. I didn’t get a chance to look at his facial expression, as all of us jumped out of the car like a bat of hell.

That was our “Welcome to Cairo”

ps. I can only imagine Ahmed’s side of the story when he went home to tell his wife and friends

Ahmed: “Hey three foreigners tried to abduct me today”
Wife: “Really? where do you think they were from”
Ahmed: “Hard to tell”
Wife: “describe them”
Ahmed: ” One was White, one was Asian and one was brown”
Wife: ” You been drinking again??? Its the couch for you again tonight !”

pps. In our defense, we discovered later that half the Uber Cars in Cairo are Mitsubishis (or so it seems)
We also discovered that half the men in Cairo are named Ahmed.
Finally half the men in Cairo have beards..

Now you do the math !!

Aswan: Ancient temples to modern dams

Aswan is one place in Egypt that is famous for more than just history: the famous Aswan High Dam.  Though a visit to this Dam features on most tourist itineraries, I wasn’t too impressed.  The dam may be larger that Hoover dam, but the views aren’t that great. After buying our entrance ticket, our driver parked the car close to what seemed like the viewing spot, judging by the number of tourist trying to take selfies.  Once we disembarked, we were pointed in the direction of a security office on the opposite side where we put our bags through and x-ray and walked through a metal detector.  The exit of this security office, funny enough spit us back out at where our car was parked… hmmm wonder how this security works !!

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The Aswan Hight dam

 

The other reason a lot of tourists come here is the Felucca ride: a small vessel propelled by oars or sails used on the Nile as the traditional means of transport.  From what I could tell, the sails were just an added weight to the boat.  The ride typically lasts an hour.  Our Felucca captain first took the boat downstream, where he zig-zagged the boat from bank to bank explaining the purpose of doing so was to give us a longer ride.  Our return, however, was more of a challenge.  Having to go upstream, there was really no wind to propel the boat.  We waited.. and waited.. until it became apparent to  the boat captain that we were all going to fall asleep if something didn’t happen soon.   However, the boat captain had other plans;  having gained captive audience, he decided this would be a good time to make a sale for some wares that they are always prepared for to deal with these scenarios.  As he dug into his supplies, I realized why he wasn’t that excited to see us when we initially boarded  his felucca; all his wares were women’s jewelry items.  He might as well be trying to sell a calculator to a bushman !

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A felucca on the nile

Finally we had to intervene and come up with a rescue plan… which involved abandoning the boat at the nearest shore instead of trying to make it back upstream.  This allowed us to make it in tine for our sound and light show at the Philae temple.

A little bit about the Philae temple: Its built on an island in what is now the reservoir of the original Aswan dam.  With the construction of the new Aswan high dam, it would have drowned due to the rerouting of the river, and so it was moved piece by piece to its new location.  The temple itself is relatively new (built around 200BC;  only in Egypt would I refer to a construction from BC as new !!).

The sound and light show at the temple take place every night starting 6:30pm.  Due to the lack of tourists, they had to cancel the 2nd and 3rd shows for the evening.  Our show only had a dozen or so tourists.  The ones that chose not to come did not miss much.  The Luxor temple (without the light show) and the sound and light show and Abu Simbel were of much better quality.

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Temple of Philae lit up for the sound and light show

 

Tourist Tips

A great place to stay in town is the Old Cataract Hotel (Agatha Christie lived here for a while, and a portion of the novel “death on the nile” is also set here) .  They have some amazing restaurants too, and the hotel is right outside the Nubian Museum, which you can walk to.

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The old cataract hotel, setting for Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile
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Aswan at Night

Africa’s largest open air market in Addis

Feven, our local guide referred to by Professor Rebecca was very deftly driving through the streets of Merkato, the Italian name for a market.  This was our highlight for the Adis tour.  We had read a little about it, but you only get the sense of the magnitude of organized chaos when you are in it.  She had given us express instructions to not roll down the windows and keep our expensive camera gear out of sight.  I think even if she hadn’t told us that, there is no way we would have done otherwise.

After some 30 min of driving through narrow alleyways where we passed several hawkers peddling a local hallucinogen called khat, she pulled the car to a gated parking and exclaimed “I *think* here the car will be *somewhat* safe”.  We had been discussing how everything under the sun could be found selling in this market.  The supply chain laws dictate no matter what the source or destination of goods within Ethiopia, the goods have to pass through this market.  Now this may seem highly inefficient,  but if you are driving a car in the market (or for that matter bringing an expensive camera here), you have just cut out the inefficiency.  The source of the goods is right here in the market, and all they need is a destination.  In fact, people walking around with used tires on their heads gave us a clue that this place would be a haven of chop shops.

Riding shot gun, I turned around to see if J & B had put away their gizmos, only to discover a pale sweating J clutching onto the door.  Not as much as giving me a chance to speak, he exclaimed “there is no way in hell I am getting out of this car.  And keep the car moving !”  I think all of us were secretly relieved that he made the call.  As a compromise though, we decided to drive to a safer part of the market to step out and explore.

Now safer is just a relative term.  Within  minutes of us stepping out, I was attacked by a person yelling something in Amharic that was so obscence that even though we understood nothing of what he said, Feven felt the need to profusely apologize.  For some odd reason, it wasn’t the white or the Asian looking guy who were the target in this market, but this brown dude.  It wasn’t long before 3 kids literally jumped on me, holding and pulling my arm with the intent to move it so they could get to my wallet.

It was a relief when we finally got to our restaurant where we intended to eat dinner.  Now this was a complete contrast to the Merkato.  It was a very large restaurant, but we were the only patrons.  Sadly this is what we encountered everywhere we went in Ethiopia – the country has been under an “Emergency” since last year that has taken a toll on its economy and tourism.  We encountered empty restaurants and empty hotels wherever we went.  The food was delicious though, perfect to fill us for the flight out of Addis.  And we were all looking forward to the airport security drill.

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Our completely deserted restaurant in Addis

If you ever complain of TSA procedures in the US, Addis airport procedures make TSA seem like airport security pre 911 – there is a full security check before you enter the airport building, one after  you check-in and finally one before your board the aircraft.  Traveler tip: wear shoes that are easy to take off.

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The Cathedral of St. George in Addis Ababa

The Road to Lalibela

The road noise due to the lack of pavement almost drowned out the constant shutter clicks of B’s camera, as the van bounced along at a somewhat reasonable speed towards the airport, on the road to lalibela.  There was nothing unusual when the driver’s phone rang and he answered in the local Amharic, one hand clutching the phone, the other barely making contact with the steering wheel. His reaction to the call, however, was a little alarming.  After hanging up, he looked back at us, clutched the steering wheel tightly with both hands, and started racing the van down the road as if we were going to miss the flight.

Unable to take any more pictures due to the fact that the van ride had just been converted to what seemed like a roller coaster ride, B  turned to me and exclaimed “isn’t he flying down the road a little too fast”.  Sensing the concern on our faces after a few minutes, as even I put on my seat belt, he turned to us to explain that our plane was waiting on the tarmac for us, and we were (at normal speeds) still a good 30min from the airport.

“That’s not possible” we exclaimed in unison.  After all both J and I have a penchant of getting to the airport way too early.  Not ready to take any chances in Africa (after my previous experience in Tanzania of several breakdowns), we were heading to the airport a whole 3.5 hrs before our scheduled departure.  In most countries, flights get delayed, or people get bumped to later flights.  Here, you could get bumped to an earlier flight… welcome to Ethiopia !!

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Lalibela

Lalibela is a town in the northern region of Ethiopia, famous for 11 monolithic rock-cut churches.  Most people in this town are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, a form of Christianity and predates modern Christianity.  The town is located at a fairly  high elevation of 8500 ft (2600m).  Even so, it is fairly warm, and there are mosquitoes to battle at night.

A little history lesson:  A 12th century king by the name of Lalibela decided to create his own Jerusalem here in Ethiopia following the capture of Jerusalem by the Muslims.  So he commissioned these churches that were carved from within the earth.  The unique thing about these churches versus other historical sites – they have been in continuous use for worship till today.  The most famous of these is of course the Lalibela cross, or the Church of St. George.

 

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However, I found some of the other churches in town far more fascinating.  For example the biggest of them, Bete Medhane Alem in my personal view qualifies amongst the seven wonders.  The sheer size of it makes you wonder how someone could have carved something so intricate out of rock working into the ground !  I also noticed swastikas in the carvings in the churches, and hence the Indian influence :-).

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Being different from mainstream Christianity, they celebrate Christmas on January 7th.  We were lucky to be there during lent when we got to participate in local worship ceremonies.  For these ceremonies, they wear a white shawl over their clothes and sing while chanting, almost sounding like chants in a Hindu temple to my untrained ear.

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Practical Tips

Getting there

Two flights daily from Adis Ababa in a tiny turboprop are your best bet. The hardest part was getting from the international terminal to the domestic terminal in Adis.  Lets just say there are no shuttle buses, the terminal is under construction (as of 2017) and you have to walk out onto the road and drag your luggage a fair distance.  The domestic terminal itself is a museum; an airport frozen in time from 1940s or earlier. Getting the visa at the airport was a breeze though.  It cost $50.

Guide

I’m not much of a guide person, and believe in grabbing a book and discovering a place myself.  However, this is one place where it helped to have a local guide.  Be aware though that everyone in town pretends to be a guide; okay I like to exaggerate a little, so take that with a grain of salt, but in this case, it might be true.  Lucky for us, Professor Rebecca, whose interests in human and ape evolution take her to Ethiopia very often, set up up with a very able guide named Fish.

Food

I would recommend two restaurants: Ben Abeda for a spectacular sunset dinner and Seven Olives.

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Food in Ethiopia consists of Injira for breakfast, injira for lunch and injira again for dinner.   Every time we thought we would order something different, there would magically be a big loaded plate of injira on the table.  Needless to say, I’m out-jira-ed  for a while.  Beer is cheap and readily available, and they have a local “honey-wine” that is a must try.

Transport

The three wheeler Bajaj auto rickshaw (or as most tourists call tuck-tuk) is the king of the road (okay, the use of the word “road” is a bit of a stretch, but you get the point).  We hired one with a driver that fit all of us (4 people in total) and we took it off-roading on a mountain trail to get some scenic shots.  Lets just say a Jeep or an FJ Cruiser might not have made it there !!

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Kids

One thing that struck us from the beginning was that the town was full of kids.  I mean not just many kids, but pretty much only kids… and lots of them.  If you’ve ever watched “The moaning of Life” with Karl Pilkington, there is an episode about the sea gypsies that let the kids roam free to the point where the town seems to be run by them; I think I just discovered another similar town.

Do Not make the mistake of being nice to the kids.  You talk to one, and pretty soon you resemble the pied piper of Lalibela.  One morning, while still dark at 5 AM, J and I decided to step out to check out the church services.  Along the way, we met a young worshipper heading that way.  Assuming interacting that early with someone, that too a worshipper was perfectly safe, so I let my guard down.  Lets just say every time I passed by that intersection, no matter what time of the day, Mogees was waiting for me yelling “Mark, Mark” ; in case you are wondering, that was what I had told him my name was.  So I suppose he was just there to remind me what my name was.

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What my Travel Buddies have to add:

J (aka Kurmudgeon Korean):

“Ethiopia made me feel like a kid again; it made me shit my pants”

“I’m not sure what I am coughing up here, but I believe I can fix your shoes with it”