Cairo in a nutshell

I’ve been poking around the back alleys and the big-ticket drawcards of Cairo for a decade now (How did that happen? One minute I was setting up this blog on a tiny little Juliet balcony in a pensione in downtown Cairo, the next minute, it’s 10 years later!)

In that time, Cairo’s fortunes have flowed, ebbed, and are now flowing again, after revolutions, currency flotations, elections and a whole vortex of world events that have shaped the old traditions and new fashions in this maniacal city of 20 million (give or take a few million).

It still blows me away, every time I visit. There’s the City of the Dead, which may be home to as many as a million undocumented (living) souls, the rock-carved cathedrals of Mokattam, the wild nights of horseriding around the Pyramids beneath a full moon, and the Nile. There’s always the Nile.

It scratches only the surface, but here are 10 of my tips on visiting the City that Sleeps In Shifts, published in this weekend’s Traveller section in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers.

 

Of pharaohs and heroes: Journey to Egypt

The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt.
Photo: Belinda Jackson

I am so pleased to publish this blog about my recent article in Luxury Travel magazine. This is the first story I’ve written for a mainstream publication about Egypt since its revolution, back in 2011. The feature had the invaluable support of Abercrombie & Kent, which maintains
its Cairo office, staffed by charming, knowledgeable Cairenes.


While
other countries affected by civil unrest and terrorism events have
slipped back onto the travel pages within weeks of the events, I feel
Egypt – where I have lived and continue to return to every year – has
been punished too harshly, and it suffers deeply the loss of one of its
key sources of income.


The people lean heavily on
tourism with good reason: their undeniable treasures include the Pyramids
of Giza, the colossi at Abu Simbel, the gracious and eternal Nile. And
they’re just three of its riches.


Egyptians
say that once you’ve drunk from the Nile, you’ll always return.

Maybe
you’re not up for a cup of river water, hopefully this article will
inspire you to visit – or to return.


‘We
come to visit the gods. Stern of face, empty of eye, they stare. Blank,
sightless eyes see nothing, yet see everything in the future and back to
the ancient world. The colossal sculptures of Abu Simbel are in Egypt’s deep south, touching on the border with Sudan, and are the jewel of the appropriately named Nile in Style journey with Abercrombie & Kent.

“Nowhere
are there so many marvellous things, nor in the whole world beside are
there to be seen so many works of unspeakable greatness,” wrote
Herodotus of Egypt in the fifth century BC. Fifteen centuries later,
he’s still on the money.’

Click here to read on about my journey down the Nile.

Sign of the times at the pointy end of Egyptian tourism

Photo: Belinda Jackson

The first
time I visited the Pyramids, I went through the front door with several hundred
other foreigners, all lining up for a photo of ‘kissing’ the Sphinx or ‘holding’
a pyramid by the fingertips. 
The other
day,  I went round the back, where a
handful of guards nearly fell over to see someone, and the touts couldn’t
believe their luck at not one, but two carloads of visitors, even if they were
all Egyptian (including one suspiciously blonde one in the middle).   
Sitting on the boot of our cars, they
literally corralled us into a private car park to negotiate the hire of two caretas (carriages) and two horses. 
Those who
have been held hostage high on a camel until they paid up big will be pleased
to know not even the locals can resist the Giza Pyramid mafia. 
A camel driver. Photo: Belinda Jackson
Let me tell
you this: Egyptians visit the Pyramids in a whole different way to us foreigners.
Toss the guidebook, forget about learning kings’ names and studying informative
plaques earnestly. 
It’s all about the photos, the freedom of the desert
surrounds and the physicality of being beside something so magnificent, that
you forget about the traffic jams, the pollution, the protests and the curfews
that see you trapped indoors after 7pm on a Friday night thanks to the current army
curfew. 
The
newspapers are reporting an 80 percent drop in tourism to Egypt, which, based
on what I saw at the Pyramids on a sunny autumn afternoon, should read more
like 95 percent. 
There were three young Americans, skinny, bearded and wearing
the obligatory Arafat scarf, there was a Euro-couple celebrating the
end of a Cape Town to Cairo adventure, and a small tour group of Russians
snavelling basement-bargain travel. That’s all. 
Forlorn
camel owners perked up when they saw us coming, and Giza’s notoriously
overworked and underfed horses were fleet of foot and ready to run. My little
grey mare, Sousou, is surely the fastest pony in Giza. 
It’s been a
very long time since I rode around the Pyramids in the daylight. Usually, I’d
ride on a full moon, flat out down the plateau at full gallop, breathing in the
cool desert night air. In broad daylight, it’s a whole different ballgame. You
see the stones the size of basketballs that your horse is dodging. You see the
concrete wall that the horses aim for at full tilt, before swerving left to
pass through the exit gate. You see the snarling curs that lick around the
ponies’ hooves, snapping at ankles as you pass.
It’s
consoling to know that the Pyramids remain unchanged while Egypt twists and
wrenches itself into a new form. But the lesson from Afghanistan and China is
that you can never take even heroic art and architecture for granted. 

Abu Simbel’s time to shine: Egyptian antiquities

At the feet of the gods, Abu Simbel, Egypt. Photo: Belinda Jackson.
There’s a lot of change going on in Cairo at the moment, but some things, thankfully, remain the same. 
Later this morning, the sun will touch the face of King Ramses II in the magnificent Abu Simbel temple, south of Aswan, by the Sudanese border. 
The temple, built in 1257BC, was constructed so that twice a year, the sun’s rays would shine into the inner sanctuary and light all but the statue of Ptah, the god of the Underworld, reports the Ministry of Tourism today. The two days of the year are October 22 and February 22.
The temple is dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-
Horakhty and Ptah and also to Ramses, who rather fancied himself as a deity.
You can see a live streaming of the event on www.youtube.com/egypt or on local television, if you’re in Egypt. The phenomenon will occur at 5.53am local time, and last for 20 minutes.

We will remember them: Anzac Day tourism

Momentous: 2015 will be the 100th anniversary of the Anzac
landing at Gallipolli. Photo: Reuters
Anzac Day tours remain
strong, but many people are saving for Gallipoli’s 100th anniversary,
writes Belinda Jackson.
Commemorating Australia’s war dead at Gallipoli’s Dawn
Service on Anzac Day is now an established travel experience, and tour
operators say the numbers are growing each year.
However, specialist battlefield tour operators say
bookings for 2013 and 2014 are weaker as travellers save their money for 2015,
the 100th anniversary of the Anzac landings at Gallipoli.
In anticipation of the high demand expected in 2015, the
Australian and New Zealand governments have capped the number of attendees permitted
at the dawn service at Gallipoli. There will be only 8000 tickets available to Australians,
to be chosen by ballot drawn early next year, the Department of Veterans
Affairs says.
In comparison, it’s expected about 6000 Australians will
attend Dawn Service in Gallipoli next week.
Veterans’ Affairs minister Warren Snowdon is warning tour
operators not to promise seats at the 2015 commemorative services. While the
details are yet to be announced, tour operators will not be able to apply for a
ticket on a traveller’s behalf.
John Waller of Boronia Battlefield Tours (boroniabattlefieldtours.com.au),
which runs tours for the Australian War Memorial, says interest in 2015 is still
very high, despite the uncertainty. “Some people are booking their seats
already on the hope they’re successful in the ballot, but many are holding off,”
he says.
Both specialist and mainstream tour operators agree the
popularity of Anzac Day tours continues to rise, but while Gallipoli is still
the star destination, it’s not all quiet on the Western Front. British-based
Back Roads Touring, which caters for the over-50 market, says the European
battlefields are popular with older travellers wanting to trace the whereabouts
of family members who fell on the battlefields of the Somme, and London-based
Aussies. The main site, the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux,
is 140km north of Paris.
“It’s an easy trip on the Eurostar out of London when
compared with the longer haul to Turkey,” agrees Ben Ittensohn of Top Deck bus
tours, which cater for 18 to 39 year olds. Top Deck added a Western Front tour
two years ago as it was “struggling to cope with the sheer volume” on its
Gallipoli tours, while Trafalgar this year launched a new 12-day tour through
the battlefields of the UK, France and Netherlands (trafalgar.com).
“Attendees are hovering around 4,000 at
Villers-Bretonneaux,” says Peter Norton of Western Front Tours
(westernfronttours.com.au), figures that are expected to rise as the Somme
commemorates its own centenary in 2016.
Battlefield historian Mat McLachlan of Mat McLachlan
Battlefield Tours (battlefields.com.au) agrees. He says those wanting to avoid
the crowds head to the Menin Gate in Ieper (Ypres), Belgium, where there is a
smaller Anzac Day service. Villers-Bretonneux town and the nearby village of
Bullecourt will also conduct ceremonies later in the day.
“There are also services in other places where
Australians have served, including Vietnam, Korea and El Alamein in Egypt,”
adds Mat.
The Australian government also conducts a ceremony at
Hellfire Pass, Thailand, commemorating the prisoners of war who worked on the
Thailand-Burma Railway in the Second World War. Services have been held in the
past at Sandakan, Malaysia, although
political unrest in the region means there will be no government service in
2013.

Shake it, spa it, catwalk it: Travel deals 9 September 2012

Four-Diamond Hyatt Regency Waikiki Resort & Spa 
Nostalgic surfer chic meets Miami swim catwalk on the Gold Coast and learn to shake what your mama gave you at the home of samba, salsa and tango. 

VICTORIA
Quest’s five new studio apartment properties in
inner-urban Sydney and Melbourne include a kitchenette, workspace and free
wi-fi. They’re kicking off with deals such as $175 a night, down from $300, at
Quest Studios East Melbourne, close to the shopping strip of Bridge Road and
Melbourne’s top sports arenas. Includes breakfast for two at a local café. Stay
until October 30, quote ‘SHSO’ when booking. (03)
9413 0000, questapartments.com.au.
TASMANIA
Save 40 per cent when you book a night at Launceston’s
Country Club Tasmania, on the edge of the state’s second city. A night in a 4.5-star
deluxe room for two includes a bottle of Tasmanian wine, 18 holes of golf and a
30-minute massage as well as breakfast in the Links restaurant. Go horse
riding, take a wine tour or fish for trout in its private lake. Costs $299 a
night, until September 30.  1800 635 344,
countryclubtasmania.com.au 
QT Gold Coast
 QUEENSLAND
Get the party started on the Gold Coast with a two-night
stay in the slinky QT Gold Coast, self-described as ‘nostalgic surfer chic
meets Miami swim catwalk’. That’ll help you choose your wardrobe. On top of a
saving of $384, you’ll get breakfast, an exploratory dinner for two in its hugely
popular signature restaurant, Bazaar and $50 spa credit or a party starter at
the happening Stingray Lounge. Costs from $450 a room for two nights until
November 30.  (07) 5584 1200, qtgoldcoast.com.au.
Seashells Resort Mandurah
WESTERN AUSTRALIA
Mandurah is only an hour south of Fremantle, which is
gearing up for the return of the replica Dutch ship Duyfken, the first European
ship to reach Australia in 1606, on Sunday 23 September. Stay three, pay for
two nights in a one-bedroom apartment at the 4.5-star Seashells Resort Mandurah
until November 30. Costs from $210 a person, three nights, twin share.  132 757, harveyworld.com.au.
NORTHERN TERRITORY
Watch the sun rise on Uluru, discover galleries of
Aboriginal rock art and visit the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Book 12 months
advance for your journey into the red centre, saving up to $450 a couple on a
six-day Red Centre Discovery. Included is a dinner and a discovery tour of the
Earth Sanctuary World National Centre, airport transfers and guiding. Deal
valid on departures until December 28, 2013. Earlybird special costs from $1689 a person, twin
share. 1300 228 546, aatkings.com.au.
NSW
Spring has sprung so put a wiggle in your walk with a
visit to the town of love and light, Byron Bay. Normally $780 room only, the
sleek Byron at Byron resort’s spring package gets you 10 per cent off in the
spa, restaurant and bar, as well as free yoga, wifi, daily breakfast buffet and
bike hire to cruise the rainforest trails down to the beach. Valid for stays
until December 10. Costs $794 for two nights in a standard suite. 1300 554 362, thebyronatbyron.com.au.
FRANCE
B&B, 
Île Saint-Louis, Paris
You may still be shopping for the wardrobe to suit your
Parisian jaunt, but your apartment will certainly come up to scratch. Set on
the Île Saint-Louis, an island in the middle of the Seine, the B&B is on
the third floor of a traditional Haussmann building, and despite its antique
interiors, its owners welcome kids. There are two rooms, great for families or
two couples. Save from E44 a night on stays between November 1 and March 30.
Costs from E175 a night. petiteparis.com.au.
HAWAI’I
Hit the sands of Waikiki beach and stay eight nights at the Four-Diamond Hyatt Regency Waikiki Resort & Spa, with breakfast, flights and airport transfers. Kids under 17 stay free, under-12s get free lunch and dinner with a paying adult. Bonuses include a tour of Pearl Harbour and Honolulu city and one entertainment show or catamaran dinner cruise. Costs from $1990 a person, twin share, eight nights and return airfares with Hawaiian Airlines. 1300 00 42 92, myholidaycentre.com.au/hawaii.

Semara Resort & Spa
BALI
Hot to shop and the island’s best dining strip, Seminyak
is the fast-beating heart of Bali. The Semara Resort & Spa’s Winter Escape
deal saves $438 on stays until September 30. Book a two-night stay in a
superior poolside room, get daily buffet breakfast,  dinner for two at Finns Beach Club, two hours
for two in the spa, wifi, yoga  and
meditation classes and airport transfers. Costs from $484 for two people, two
nights. +62 (361) 847 6661, semararesorts.com.
MALAYSIA
Koto Kinabalu, Malaysia
Get a double dose of the tropics and a free Darwin stopover
on your way to Malaysia’s Kota Kinabalu. Price includes return flights to KK via
Darwin with Singapore Airlines and Virgin Australia, two nights at Darwin’s
Travel Lodge Mirambeena Resort and four nights at Novotel Kota Kinabalu.
They’ll throw in a free tour of Litchfield National Park, worth $149, full
breakfast daily and one free nightBook by end September, travel November 1 –
December 7. Costs from $1459 a person (land and air). 1300 747 400, creativeholidays.com/asiaonsale.
 
AFRICA &
MIDDLE EAST
Blend African wildlife with the craziness of Cairo and
Jordan’s deserts over 26 days from Cape Town to Cairo. Book before December 31
and your friend flies free (paying only taxes of $795), saving up to $2040 per
couple. Departs August – October 2013 and includes all flights within Africa,
two charter flights in Kenya, 4WD game viewing and accommodation in private
game lodges and luxury camps. Costs from $18,995 a person, twin share. 1300 229
804, aptouring.com.au.
TOURWATCH
Learn to shake what your mama gave you, and where better
than the home of samba, salsa and tango, South America? This 14-day dance-themed tour starts in
Santiago, Chile, where you’ll tackle the cueca and rumba, lubricated with wineries
visits, before hitting Buenos Aires’ La Boca district for up-close-and-personal
tango workshops. There’s samba and salsa classes in Rio de Janeiro as well as
visits to Copacabana Beach and Corcovado Mountain, to stand at the feet of
Christ the Redeemer, and the tour includes a trip to the Argentinean and
Brazilian sides of the magnificent Iguassu Falls. Departs March 3, 2013. Costs
from $3995 a person, twin share and includes some meals and all South American
flights. 1300 558 987, tempoholidays.com.
Source: Belinda Jackson Sun Herald

Hot to shop: Cairo

In the printed media business, we work with interesting timings: to wit the publication of the Sun Herald’s Hot to Shop: Cairo, just as the riots were taking hold, when shops were either closed against the demonstrations, or being forceably opened by looters.

As was said to me recently, it could have been worse: London’s The Guardian published a story on Cairo for kids at the height of the demonstrations. Damn those long lead times!

Look on the bright side, travellers! Cairo is going to be dirt cheap in the coming months – if the government gets its act together. Having read the news reports about the French supermarket chain Carrefour being looted to blazes, I have to wonder what the looters really thought they’d do with all that weird foreign food: pesto, risotto, thai curry paste…

Well, if Queensland can mount an advertising campaign to lure back lost tourists after a swathe of natural disasters (floods, cyclones, more floods), why not Cairo? It may be a few weeks to early, but the Occidental Tourist likes to stay ahead of the pack.

So if you’re heading for Egypt some time soon, here are my hot tips for the best shopping in the Victorious City, more

A different side of Egypt: from Alexandria to Marsa Matruh

So I stuffed photographer and a crate of beer in a red 1975 Landcruiser and we aimed for Libya. Here’s the result…

:Away from the famous sites and Red Sea resorts, stretches of Egypt’s coast are opening up to tourism.

The sky is bright blue, the sand bright white, the sea perfect, and there’s not a soul on the beach. The only other visitors are a couple of young goatherds in fluttering white gowns or djellabas, and football shirts, who pose for me as they lead their blank-eyed charges to freshwater wells. Could this really be the Mediterranean?

Um el donya, the mother of the world, as the Egyptians call their country, has an embarrassment of attractions and sites that the world visits en masse, yet beyond the pyramids and tombs, Cairo and Luxor, glitzy Sharm el-Sheikh and the other diving and cruise hotspots on the Red Sea, there still remain superb areas that tourists are only just beginning to discover.

Click here to read the whole story in today’s Guardian, UK (!!!)

Egypt smokes 19 billion cigarettes: maybe it’s time to quit?

It’s been a long time between drinks, as we say, and life has overtaken the blog. But I was awoken from my somnambulant state by a link to a BBC story that Adam sent me.

In it, the story claims Egyptians smoke 19 billion cigarettes each year. And that doesn’t include shisha smoking. It also says people light up in the oddest places, including hospitals.

I checked this bizarre statement with my Egyptian doctor connections, who just nodded, said, “Of course we smoke in the hospitals,” and kept doing what they were doing before I put that ridiculous question to them.

Because you asked…

Well it’s been three weeks since I hit home after almost a year in Egypt. There’s a definite pattern in the questions I’ve been asked since I’ve been back, so let me run you through the answers (I probably should have done this weeks ago, which would have saved me sounding like a parrot).

Did you wear a headscarf? No. I’m Christian and I’m foreign. People don’t expect me to cover my hair. However, I did cover my knees and usually upper arms. Having said all that, in the chic nightclubs and private beaches, anything goes, from belly button rings to crop tops and miniskirts.

Were you scared living in Egypt as a lone woman? No. Cairo is an incredibly safe city. Like any place, there are some areas you don’t want to go (and not just women, but men, too!) – such as super-poor districts – but to get there, you’d really have to work hard: either take a cab or coax someone into to driving you. Hordes of drunks cruising the streets causing havoc are unheard of in Cairo. In fact, I attribute a large part of Cairo’s safety to the lack of alcohol in the country. Which brings me to the next question…

Could you drink alcohol? See Answer 1. Christian and foreign means alcohol is fine. However, wandering around drunk is very poor form. Some waiters were uncomfortable with serving women alcohol, but I am not quite sure why they were working in such establishments if they felt this way. Compared to average consumption in Australia, it was all severely curtailed. The local wine, friends, was generally dreadful, but alcopops, spirits and beer are in easy reach…24-hour delivery, if you really need it.

And what about pork? I think when you travel to places with different diets to your own, you either (a) obsess about the food you can’t eat – think Australians’ obsession with the thick, black, salty paste called Vegemite that we slather on our toast – or (b) you just forget about it. There was some pork floating around Cairo – most notably at the Italian Club and in an Italian-style café in Zamalek, but after Egypt knocked off all its pigs, ostensibly to prevent swine flu, neither love nor money would get you a slab of bacon. However, there were rumours going around the expat network recently there was a guy in Alexandria…

Work or holiday? Well, since my rich great-aunt died, I have spent my life on cruise ships and safari, without needing to work. That was sarcasm. Yes of course I worked, but Egypt being a far less expensive country to live in compared with Australia (no car registration, insurance, overpriced taxis and cheap, fresh food) meant I didn’t have to chain myself to a desk five days a week, and could instead travel to surrounding countries which I’m still publishing the stories for.

Did you learn any Arabic? Yes. Well, it was either learn Arabic or spend a year doing Marcel Marceau mime impersonations. While plenty of Egyptians told me I didn’t need to learn any Arabic, they are obviously delusional as to how much English is actually spoken in Egypt. And I think it’s pretty shoddy if you can’t at least say thanks. Also, if you can’t count, you’re just leaving yourself open to being fleeced (a nice way of saying ‘ripped off’).

So… were you fleeced? Of course. But then Egyptians are an indiscriminate bunch, and will try the same tricks on their fellow Egyptians. It’s just that as a foreigner, I’m obviously insanely wealthy and therefore fair game. The more Arabic I spoke, the less it happened.

Any essential travel things you would never go to Egypt without? An enormous cotton scarf. I bought an awesome one in Cairo and, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it has worked as a headscarf when entering mosques, to wrap up in freezing planes and um…. as an emergency towel. And Lonely Planet’s fantastic Egyptian phrasebook. I carried it every day. It is still recuperating from its year-long workout.

And finally, do you miss Egypt? Cairo’s a dirty, crazy city of 20 million people. The pollution is ridiculous, the noise intense, and you can stick out your finger and poke the energy. I miss it every day.