Monday, June 30, 2014

Crossing Dubai off the bucket list

I finally made it to Dubai!  The city has been on my bucket list for years and when I accepted the job at KAUST in Saudi Arabia, I promised myself that I would go there and see what all the hype is about. 

Dubai is everything they said it would it be.  It’s super modern with creative skyscrapers and interesting shaped hotels that exude elegance and expense.  In a way it’s like a classy Vegas – but everything looks designer and is much bigger in scale than Vegas.  

But what else would you expect from the city with the tallest building in the world and hotels that cost thousands of dollars a night? There even is a dancing fountain at one of the malls – which makes the one at Bellagio look puny and lame in comparison.

I was there for the Arabnet Digital Conference so I stayed at the Atlantis hotel which was gorgeous.  In Vegas, my favorite hotel is the Wynn and I love the glass sculpture they have  in the lobby.  The Atlantis has similar glass sculpture, but there is even more of it.

And while people always say it’s expensive, dining out wasn’t any more expensive than eating in nice places in North America.  An average entrĂ©e was $8 to $14 and a glass of wine was around the same price.  Of course, if you ate at the steak house or an award winning restaurant, your entrees would run you closer to $20 to $40, but you would pay the same at a posh place in any big city.

My trip was quick, but what I saw of Dubai was amazing.  I’ll need to go back again to see even more. Like Vegas, it was everything from great food and shopping to desert adventures and theme hotels and clubs.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The other pyramids of Egypt

You can hear the wind and nothing else when at the Bent Pyramid

Did you know that the Great Pyramid of Giza is not in the middle of the desert?  I’m sure it was centuries ago, but now the city has expanded to the pyramid and The Sphinx looks out at a Pizza Hut.   It’s also the best place to go if you want to be mobbed by peddlers selling postcards, trinkets, camel rides and a bunch of other tourist stuff.

One of the many villages we passed along the way.
This didn’t sound fun for me.  

On my trip to Egypt, I wanted to savor the pyramids in silence and solitude to appreciate their greatness and wonder in my own leisurely way.  The good news is you can do this.  You just need to go to the OTHER pyramids.  It’s a bit of a drive, but it’s worth it.


 Before I begin, here’s a travel tip.  Don’t try to haggle your way through taxis unless you really, really love haggling. Instead hire a driver for a day or by the hour. 

My friend David and me by the Bent Pyramid
The owner of the houseboat we rented in Cairo (see previous blog) recommended a driver for us and it was the best decision we made that day.  Not only was he reasonably priced (approximately $7 USD an hour so we spent $50 for the day), but he drove us wherever we wanted, suggested places to visit and was flexible to make toilet and food stops along the way. 

He also did all the bartering for us with the pyramid guards on entrance fees and made sure we weren’t taken advantage of during our day.  Plus, you can store your extra water and stuff in the car rather than lugging it around all day long.  

The view of the Mud Pyramid in the distance from the Bent Pyramid
He took us places we probably would not have seen on our own – and we had a great time listening to his stories.


Sure, the Great Pyramid of Giza is the most visited pyramid in Egypt, but there are other pyramids to see that are less touristy and just as fantastic.

Just don’t wear flimsy sandals like I did as the sand is hot (really hot) and sandals are not exactly great for climbing up the pyramids – which I didn’t know we would get to do.  The sand is also soft and fine -- like walking on a nice beach.

However, do remember to dress so you are covered if you're a woman to respect the Muslim culture (so no shorts and tanks).

The guard guiding us up the Bent Pyramid.  
The first pyramid we visited was the Bent Pyramid.  It’s located at the royal necropolis of Dahshur and is about 40 km south of Cairo.  It takes about an hour to get there as the roads are busy and bumpy.  You also travel through a bunch of little villages on your way – so it’s kind of cool to see the countryside.

Unlike the Giza pyramids, the Bent Pyramid is located in the middle of the desert just like you see in the movies and we were the only visitors there.  Except for two guards, there were no peddlers harassing us and it was quiet and peaceful. 

I’m not sure if you can tell from my photos, but the reason they call it the Bent Pyramid is that they had to switch up the angles while building it.  So the bottom is at a 54 degree angle and then the top is 43 degrees, making it look bent.

For an extra couple of Egyptian pounds, the guard let us climb the pyramid and take photos in the temple area. 

Even though this one is not a “perfect” pyramid, the visit there was my favorite of the day.  From the Bent Pyramid, you could see the Red and the Mud pyramids in the distance, but it was really the tranquility of being alone in the desert with these massive structures that was so amazing.  


 From the Bent Pyramid, we visited the Red (aka the North pyramid).  This one was the largest of the three we saw that day and is the third largest Egyptian pyramid (the two at Giza are bigger).  But you have to give the builders credit because when it was made, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world (or at least historians believe it was). 

Our driver told us that the Red Pyramid was the first successful attempt at constructing a true pyramid.  The mud pyramid was a practice run and the Bent Pyramid didn’t quite work out the way they planned because of the extreme angle.

The coolest thing about this pyramid is you get to go inside and climb 200 feet down this narrow chute to the bottom.  Be warned that the chute is squishy (only 3 ft high) and you’ll need to crouch down the whole time. So if you are claustrophobic, then you might want to skip it.  I’m not, so I loved it. Plus, it was nice and cool inside.

Again this pyramid was practically deserted.  There were maybe six other people there who were just climbing out of the chute when we arrived. Bonus!

The little falafel place

 Our final pyramid of the day was the Step Pyramid.  I admit that by this time, I was hot and getting hungry as we had been looking at pyramids for hours. I also had a bad case of bronchitis on the trip (so bad my lungs hurt so much that it felt like my back was bruised) and my medication was no longer working.

But I’m glad I sucked it up as this place was where we got to see all the ancient Egypt hieroglyphics.   
Chowing down while taking in the Cairo skyline
Because we were the only visitors at the site, the guard let us into all the burial chambers to take photos even though the signs said not too. 

I really didn’t expect the images to  to be so clear and easy to see.  I had assumed they would be weathered and faint like the Native Indian drawings in Arizona. 


 From there our driver took us back to Cairo and showed us the citadel and their oldest mosque.  They were beautiful, but honestly after 6 hours of pyramids, we were burnt out and our driver could see it. To end our journey, he brought us to a tiny falafel place where they make everything in front of you.  Then he drove us to the top Mokattam Mountain to watch the sunset while we ate our food.

It was the perfect way to end the perfect day of pyramid touring.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Sleeping on a houseboat in Egypt

The little bridges leading to each houseboat.
You can sleep in a hotel any time, but how often do you get to sleep on a houseboat in Egypt?

When I saw the property on AirBnb, I couldn’t resist.  At just over $100 a night the price was right and so was the location as it was docked in the heart Cairo right on the Nile River.

Let me just say that it was a fantastic experience that I highly recommend if you want to experience Cairo like a local.  On one side of us we had an upper scale area of Cairo, and on the other side we had Kitkat Square, which we learned was one of the poorest and busiest parts of the city. 

Shop in Kitkat Square in Cairo
Taking a stroll in the meandering streets behind the big yellow mosque was like walking into a different world.  The narrow streets are lined with fruit and vegetables stands, breads, spices, clothing and anything else the residents think they could sell.  It’s dirty, with piles of garbage, but that’s Cairo.  It’s also crowded with people walking, riding bikes and tuks tuks and the occasional car.  We also saw a couple people on camels.  However, we felt safe walking around and welcomed. 

My absolute favorite thing about the market was the people with things on their heads.  

One of the many market streets
I have no idea how they balanced the stuff on their heads without using their hands, but we saw big plastic jugs, boxes and my ultimate balancer with this guy weaving his bike through the crowd with a giant flat tray of bread perched on his head. I tried to get a photo, but with me being a tall blonde and my friend David being 7 foot tall, we were already turning heads.

If you do go to Cairo, you must get koshary.  This is a traditional Egypt dish and cheap.  

Consisting of lentils, pasta, rice, chickpeas, spices and a tasty marinara sauce you’ll find it at any authentic little place in the market areas.  It sounds terrible, but it is so good.  We paid the equivalent of $4 for something that filled my friend and I up—and still had enough for breakfast the next morning. Plus, we loved it so much, we got more the following day.


The houseboat is a totally unique way to stay in Cairo.  Ours was two bedrooms and was larger than I thought it was going to be. 

View from the houseboat deck
Living on the boat, you get an idea of what it’s like to live in Cairo.  The city is noisier than you think it would be as people honk a lot.  It’s their way of letting people know they are passing, changing lanes, turning, or simply just because they want to honk.  

People also talk loud. I'm used to it after living in Saudi for 5 months.  My friend thought they sounded angry and were yelling, but really Middle Eastern people are passionate talkers. They are highly expressive, using gestures, body language and words to express everything. After a while you adjust and it will seem normal.

The river is also noisy at night as there are party boat cruises that go up and down the river,
but somehow you sleep through this all – and really, there is nothing like sitting on the deck of the boat and watching the sun go down after a day of checking out the sites.

There are times when you'll be sitting on the deck relaxing and forget you are on a boat - until a motorboat rushes by sending waves your way.  Then you'll feel the slight rocking of the houseboat in the wake.  It's a cool feeling.


Living room area of the houseboat
  • It was poorer than I thought it would be. I had assumed it would be as modern as Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and as mixed in culture as Dubai, but it's not.  
  • There were few Westerners and the Muslim culture is dominant (so as a woman, make sure you bring long skirts and something to cover your shoulders (no tank tops). And you won't be wearing a wearing bathing suit in public.  
  • You cannot buy alcohol in many places (unless you are at a hotel or select bars) so it’s best to pick up at the duty free at the airport if you plan to enjoy a beer or a glass of wine on the houseboat.
  • Everything is bartered - including the taxi rides.
  • It's fairly inexpensive as they currently don't have many tourists visiting.

Thursday, June 19, 2014