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


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 !!

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 !

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.

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.

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

Abu Simbel: A Pharoah’s warning post for Nubia

Most tourists do only a day visit to this town, starting out from Aswan in a 3am convoy for a 3 hr road trip, spending 2-3 hrs in town and returning by noon.  Personally I think this is the worst way to experience these amazing temple as you will be fighting the crowds for the 2 hours you are there to take a half-decent selfie.  It warrants a night stay in the town for two reasons: 1) the light show at the temple is by far the best I saw in all of Egypt, and 2) this temple faces directly east, giving you a reason to revisit it the next morning.  Since it opens at 5AM, we got to spend 3 hours all by ourselves before the tour buses arrived.

The fact that most tourists choose to return to Aswan also gives Abu-Simbel a ghost-town feeling.  We stayed at Hotel Nefertari, which is walking distance from the temple.  A sprawling property that has been frequented by likes of the King and Queen of Sweden in the past, it now lies derelict.  Its almost a living museum frozen in time.  All the signs, including the “Welcome 2010” point to the fact that since the revolution of 2011, nothing much has happened here. The three of us were the only guests the night we stayed there.  Imagine having the entire hotel staff just serving you; or being asked this quesion at lunch:

“Sir, what would you like for dinner.  It will help us shop for the ingredients”

The staff were so excited to have us that they let us check in at 8am the day of our arrival, which was greeted with a hurried frenzy amongst the hotel staff (that probably had not seen any guest in 6 years).  A welcome drink was summoned (perhaps from the same bottle that was served to the Swedish Royalty), and the lobby toiled was unlocked (perhaps in response to the knowledge of that fact). In fact I’m not even certain the staff was living humans or some spirits. I’m waiting for someone to tell me one of these days that the hotel was long shut down after some devastating tragedy and is now just a haunted villa.

The pool is nice and looks straight out to Lake Nasseer and Sudan in the south.  It was nice enough that J decided to park himself permanently next to the pool (the real reason was that he was too freaked out by this whole experience to enter his room).  He decided he would sleep by the pool, were it not for the two stray dogs that showed up in the middle of the night.

Our Hotel pool looking straight into Lake Nasser and Sudan.

History Lesson

Ramesses II pretty much overshadows everything we see about ancient Egypt today. Born around 1300BC, he lived and ruled Egypt to a ripe old age of 96, something very remarkable for that era.  With all that time, and the bounty of the Nile, he had at his disposal more resources and time to build and carve his name (literally in the form of cartouches) for posterity than any other pharaoh.

Amongst his most famous constructs in the Temple of Ramesses, beloved of Amun at Abu Simbel.  The location of the temple is at the border of Nubia (modern day Sudan) on the banks of the Nile.  Its purpose was more political than religious – to warn the Nubians entering from Nubia of his power.  To that effect, he placed four massive statutes of himself right outisde the temple. These would have created awe in any traveler passing that area.

Four massive statues of Ramses (note the size as I’m dwarfed next to them)

The inside of the temple is also lined with statues.  At the far end of the corridor are three statues, one of himself, one of Amun and one of Set (the evil God). The corridor was aligned so that two days in a year, his birthday and the day of his coronation, the sun would shine directly at his statue and the statue of Amun.

The interior of the temple of Ramesses

Next to his temple is also a temple of his favorite wife, Nefertari.  Being Nubian, he levereaged her heritage to advertise to the Nubians that they were entering the land ruled by their queen.  However, his ego (as with most pharoahs) demanded that even her temple have his statutes placed right by hers.

The temple of Nefertari, wife of Ramesses II