Going to Dahab

Since very early in my trip preparation, it had been in my plan to go to Dahab at the end of my stay in Egypt and before entering Jordan.

Last week’s events have had me thinking a bit if it was still the right thing to do.

With respect to the bombing. I am not an expert in the question but here is my take. This is an attack against the Egyptians before even being against the tourists. Killing tourists is hitting the economy and the government more than killing Egyptians but I think it is important to notice that it is most likely not an act of hatred against foreigners. A lot of Egyptians cried when they heard about the bombing because they know it will have an effect on tourism and the overall economy.  

I decided to go forward with the plan and go to Dahab. Some people that are dear to my heart have expressed some issues with that idea and while I understand and appreciate their apprehension, I still want to go and I will try to explain here.

First, I have never felt as much safe than since I am in Egypt. Police and army troops are everywhere and very friendly. Tourism is the number one source of currency for the Egyptians and the government is doing everything it can to protect this. Crime is almost nonexistent in Egypt. While I would feel stressed while walking in Paris alone at 2AM, I have been going around and even withdrawing money at an ATM very late in the night without feeling bad at all. Most of the Egyptians will go out of their way to bring you something you forgot! The last time I felt as safe as here was in 2001 when I visited Japan. The only time you could fear for your life in Egypt is when you are taking a cab or a bus and it seems like the street is close to get into a destruction derby.

Second, Dahab is now safer than ever since police and army presence has been increased tremendously. It might be difficult to go around without going through many checkpoints actually. And because of the terrible events of last week, there will be less people there too so it should be very nice.

Third, I had friends and family members expressing issues when I told them I was going to visit Middle East including Syria and Lebanon. We are back to the same point. Terrorism can strike anywhere at any point. It stroke many times in Paris in the 80s and again in the 90s while I was living there. It stroke on 9/11/2000 in the USA while I was living in the suburbs of San Francisco. It stroke again later in Madrid and then in London. There is no way to be safe in any country except if you stay put in your little town in the middle of nowhere. I do not live my life fearing about possible terrorist attacks. It is like thinking you are going to die every time you cross the street, take your car or get into a plane!

Finally, while you cannot really fight terrorism the same way you fight a war, the best way in my opinion is to show that it does not have any effect. Terrorists win when people flee or are scared and when the economy is hit. New York should have just rebuild the twin towers complex the same way (with some structural changes maybe) it was before. Dahab should do that too. Fix the damages, give the people that die proper remembrance and make sure their families are taken care of, investigate and find who is behind these acts and then go on with business as usual (sorry if it sounds harsh). Without wanting to sound presumptuous, I think Gandhi would say something similar.

Anyway, I try to be careful when I am going somewhere and will be even more while I am in Dahab. I have been staying away from tourist buses and big resort hotels for example. If I ever feel unsafe, I will get out and take every measure necessary to insure my protection. Everything will be alright :). I will report from Dahab soon.

Buying a Papyrus

Friday, I wanted to buy some pieces of papyrus paper before leaving Cairo. These are the only souvenirs I really wanted for myself so it was time to get onto it.

Of course, it is impossible to buy real ancient papyrus since first it is rare and second, it is forbidden to take away anything that is older than 100 years from Egypt.

Before buying, I read a bit about how to buy, what to look for and discussed with some people including some egyptologs I met during my trip as well as one of the clerk at my hotel that is going to the guide school.

When looking for papyrus here, you usually can find four quality grades.

  • The worst grade is not even made of papyrus. It is actually banana leaves that are processed to create the paper. The design is then printed directly on the paper. These can be purchased for some pounds. A large 30cmX10cm would cost EGP5.
  • The second grade is made of real papyrus leaves but the design is still stamped. It is a bit more expensive, maybe EGP10-15 for the same size.
  • The third grade is made of real papyrus leaves. The design contours is stamped but it is then colored by hand. A bit more expensive still. Maybe EGP20-40 for our 30X10 piece.
  • The best grade is made of real papyrus leaves and is fully painted by hand. It usually bears the signature of the artist that made it. I consider that as almost buying art. Prices are way higher and it is difficult to give numbers.

I was looking to buy some of the best grade and had made my choices on what I would like to get.

I went early to Dr Ragab Papyrus Institute. Dr Ragab was an engineer that reintroduced the papyrus plant in Egypt after he realized it had completely disappeared. He then rediscovered the way to make papyrus paper and got the patent for it. Dr Ragab is now dead but he left a company that manufactures papyrus paper and creates very fine reproduction of famous ancient papyrus or famous temple murals. All the papyrus there are fully hand painted so I knew it would give me a good idea of how it should look and practice looking at the details. I got the address from one of my guide books.

Since it is a very famous place thanks to Dr Ragab’s story, prices are set high and it is impossible to discuss the prices with the store clerks. I tried a bit and managed to get 10% discount but the guy would not go lower. It was still too much expensive to my liking so I left.

I met with Karim a bit later and he took me to a place in Giza where I could bargain for a better price. To give you an idea of how big the market is, there are tens, maybe hundreds, of papyrus shops in Giza. All prices in these shops are marked up to include a huge commission for guides that take you there. It is in the order of 50 to 60% based on what I have heard. I selected the 2 pieces I wanted and I started discussing the price. Since Karim told them he did not want a commission, we got the price sharply down and then discussed a bit longer until they reached a price I was happy with. The clerks just serve you the worst lies and tells I have ever heard of since last time I went to shop for a brand new car but I just ignored everything and laughed at it.

I might have paid too much. And if you discuss with some people after you bought something here, you will always end up with some of them telling you you overpaid but at the end, it is not that important. The only important thing is to set a price for yourself and stick to it. If you can strike a deal for your price or lower, then everybody is happy. You did not pay more than you wanted and the shop is making money. If they were not, they would not sell! They will tell you you are killing them but this is just part of the folklore.

Anyway, I am very happy with my acquisitions. I will now be hauling a long cylinder for the rest of my trip. I am sure it will be a great conversation opener! 

For those of you that wonder, I chose the scene of the last judgement of the heart by Anubis and the other one is based on the Dendara Zodiac I so much liked at the temple of Hathor in Dendara.


[Edited on 5/18/2006 to fix the link and add a link to my own picture of the Dendara Zodiac]

Visa extension

On Thursday, I took care of my visa since it was more than 25 days I was in Egypt and I got a 1 month automatic visa when I arrived on the 2nd.

I went to the Magoma. It is huge building housing around 20 000 state employees that is located close to my hotel downtown on Al-Tahrir square (very close from the Egyptian museum). It went better than I hoped.

I had some trouble finding the right window spending some time in the wrong line first. But I finally made it to the right place. It is window 12, 13 or 14 on the second floor. The information in English over these windows is not helping.

Buying the necessary EGP11.10 in stamps was a bit more chaotic since Egyptian people are even less respectful of lines than French people and one has to police a bit if he does not want to get trampled. I had Karim demonstrating the first day I was in Cairo when we bought my train ticket to Aswan so I knew it was not just because I am a foreigner.

Anyway, I finally got my stamps, filled the application, stapled a picture and submit the paper alongside my passport.

I got my passport back 1 hour later at window 38 with a new visa valid until October 1st! Well, I had asked for 1 month, they gave me 6. And all for the great price of EGP11.

I thought this made my day and the rest of it was spent taking it easy and recovering from my trip to Bahareya :).

The Bahareya Oasis and the White Desert


I took a short trip to the Bahareya Oasis with the intent to go see the White desert.

I left on Monday morning with the 8AM bus from the Turgoman station in Cairo with the intent to find a safari to join once in Bahareya (Winging it!). Unlike the other times I had taken buses, the proportion of foreigners in this bus was quite high, maybe 25 or 30%. As I cannot read the ticket, I sat where I could thinking it was my seat and ended up talking with a French man on a 2 weeks visit.

We talked for a bit before I got asked to move to my real seat and I ended up close to a young white man. I had seen him enter the bus with his 2 friends and he was sporting some purple colors mired on his face in a tribal way and one of his friend had an eruption of pimples all over the face and body. As he asked me later what I thought when I saw them, I replied I thought someone had a crazy night and the girl had quite a case of Acne!

As it is usually the case, and got reminded once more, things are usually not like they appear. Crystal (the woman) had contracted chicken pox while setting foot in Egypt. She had been taken to the hospital where they had prescribed her a purple cream she had to cover most of her body with. And as a sign of support, Alex (my neighbor) had put some of this cream on his face. The third person in their party being Andy. We had a nice conversation with Alex and we decided I would try to join their tour once in Bahareya (Translation: I kind of sneaked in on these poor American fellows that would learn to regret to have accepted me joining them.. ah ah ah!). For the little story, Alex and Andy are actually volunteers with the Peace Corp in Bulgaria helping with different projects. Is that not cool or what?

Anyway, I negotiated the price for the tour with the guys at Ahmed Safari Camp once in Bahareya. I ended up paying less than the guys since I jumped the middle man…

We got served lunch (Tuna with some soft cheese with tomatoes and cucumbers as every lunch we had at the Camp from that point forward!) and then checked into our rooms.

We then got a car and a driver for the rest of the afternoon that took us to an oasis garden (some palm trees and fruit trees fighting their way through the sand) then we went to one of the oasis hot springs. It was actually a sort of pool with water at 30C flowing from a pump. Most, if not all, of the oasis springs are hot with temperatures ranging from 20C to 90C. Dipping in the spring was very nice. You just have to not mind the locals checking you out. Women should wear full bathing suit with a dark tee-shirt so as not to offend them (or not attract their attention if you want to see it like this).


After the hot spring, we got invited to a Bedouin tent that, accompanied of his kids, served us Bedouin tea. It was quite good (laziza) but still not as good as Raphaele’s! (Note for later: Get Raphaele to make some tea for me when I am back)


We then went to some sand dunes close by to play with some kids before finishing by catching the sunset from the top of the local highest pic called the English Mountain. It also gave us an opportunity of really seeing how the oasis is surrounded by the desert.

The evening was nice with a good dinner and some dancing with the Bedouins. I spent some time playing ping pong with the locals and Ahmed, an Egyptian teenager in vacation at the camp, whose younger sister Nehmet had shown being a great dancer.

We ended the day by going star seeing away from the lights of the camp since Alex had brought his star map. It reminded me of some trips to Yosemite I did in the past years. I learnt some cool stuff and am more than ever into learning more about Astronomy.

The next morning, we got the car and the driver again to go see the local monuments. We first went to see some of the golden mummies of the 26th dynasty that were recovered lately in the oasis. Then we visited two nice tombs with some great murals including a part similar to the famous weighting of the heart. The driver took us to another place that was not worth it and we ended up back at the camp to see the ruins of Alexander the Great’s temple that is situated 5 minutes away walking. Nothing very interesting for the non-expert I am though. The tombs and the mummies are more than worth the EGP30 ticket after all.


I then spent some time around the fountain located in the entrance hall of the hotel. I just dig the whole thing made from stones recovered from the desert. I want the same one for my home.

The main reason you come to Bahareya after all is to go in the desert so it is what we did in the afternoon. We got joined by an Indian man that had met the 3 guys in Cairo and the 5 of us packed in the Toyota 4×4 (For the story, Bahareya is nicknamed Toyota land due to the high number of Toyota 4x4s. The only other ways of transportation being donkey carts and bicycles.). Our goal was to reached the White desert and camp there.

On the way to the White desert, you go through many different landscapes.


The first one is the black desert that is quite a sight. We climbed to the top of one of the black mountain to check the surroundings and appreciate the warm wind blowing in your face.


The next stop was at the Crystal mountain where you can see quite impressive formation of crystals. I searched the sand for some cool samples and had some good finds. Some people not understanding preservation of sites were knocking directly on the crystal formations in order to get their own first grade pieces. No comment!


We also had some cool off road driving in the sand but no jumping of dunes as I was hoping for ;). Maybe you need to go to the Sahara to get limitless stretches of sand dunes.

We had some additional stops before reaching the white desert. It is actually a landscape of white rocks surrounded by sand. The white rocks have been eroded by the wind and sand over many centuries creating a landscape of funny shaped white sculptures. Quite impressive!


We finally settled a bit further in the white desert after some haggling with Mohamed (the driver) that had intended to join us with another group from the same safari camp while we wanted to be alone to enjoy our own piece of desert! Mohamed setup a camp and prepared some yummy food while we were roaming around. I set up to search for fossils that are plentiful around here since the whole place was once underwater. The sunset was hidden by clouds so no luck on that one. Dinner was great. Definitely the best Egyptian dinner I had since I am here. Mohamed cooked some great rice Middle Eastern style as well as great chicken and yummy vegetable stew. We were not the only one to think it smelt good since we got joined by a little fox after a while. Sadly, this little fellow was not afraid of us at all showing the effect of mass tourism on the ecosystem. Well, I was part of it!

We had a campfire and shared some campfire stories. Then Andy and I went for some star watching. It was really cool and I caught 4 shooting stars :).

The night went well. It was a bit windy at times but I was comfy in the sleeping bag with my clothes and fleece. We all woke up very early to catch the sunrise. Quite nice :).


We then made our way back to the oasis stopping in the garden desert where you can find flower shaped rocks. I think they are fossils of vegetation.

Some more ping-pong and pool playing before catching the bus back to Cairo.

This part of the trip was definitely very cool. Being the desert for one night was quite a feeling. If you come here, I definitely advise you to do the safari. It can be done in 2 days from and back to Cairo if you are in a hurry. The camp I ended up going with is recommended by the guide books and is good in my opinion. You just have to be careful with the price they want and make sure you are persistent with the different things you want to do and see.

[Edited on 5/17/2006 to add pictures]