Tag Archives: Egypt

Welcome to the Fairmont Heliopolis

Crystal Chandeliers in the Fairmont Lobby

TRAVEL THERE: MY LUXURY VACATION BEGINS

If you read this blog with any regularity then you’re well aware that I don’t spend a lot of time in swanky hotels.  I’m more the quaint bed & breakfast type, when I can find it, or I’m bragging about the huge discount I found on Expedia.  However, on this trip we were in top hotels all the way.  In Cairo, we checked into the Fairmont Heliopolis.

Leaving the Airport

One of the things I remembered from my previous trip to Egypt was the wide open spaces between the airport and Heliopolis.  Once we had dealt with the absence of our luggage on that trip, I’d sat the backseat of a car wondering just how far we were going to drive before we got to anything.

It’s not that way anymore.  It’s like the stretch of LBJ between I-35 and DFW Airport.  While it used to be out in the middle of nowhere, it’s now chock-a-block with restaurants, hotels and other buildings.  Outside the Cairo Airport was the same thing.  What’s more, I barely blinked before we were entering the main thoroughfare of Heliopolis and almost immediately we arrived at the Fairmont. So the first thing you might want to know about the Fairmont is that it’s close to the airport.

Between two lobbies

The Security Routine

Here’s the drill for most hotel properties in Egypt.  (The Cecil in Alexandria and the Dahab Paradise were exceptions to the rule, but pretty much anyplace else put you through this.)  The properties are all fenced and gated.  You pull up to a guard house with a barrier across the driveway.  Your car is thoroughly checked.

First they get the ID of the driver and question him.  Then he has to fill in a log.  Then they do a physical check of the exterior of the car which includes looking under it with a mirror.  Some places also had sniffer dogs.  The driver opens the trunk and the dogs and/or metal detectors are used to check out the contents.  There are usually a group of guards and after they’ve conferred with one another, the barrier is lifted and you drive through.  Someone is usually standing nearby with a machine gun.  Some kind of welcome, huh?

Ayman, our niece’s husband, assumed we were in the newer part of the hotel and drove through the older portico to deliver us to the Towers.  Only we weren’t in the Towers.  The bags were pulled out by the bell staff and Ayman drove away, but once inside we were directed across the way to the original part of the lobby.  It was late and I was ready for bed.

Now the reason we were staying at the Fairmont is that we were part of the wedding party and that’s where they were staying.  We like to keep our accommodations in two digits if we can, but we were splurging.  I have to confess that I was glad we stayed in the older part of the hotel.  The new part had that edgy clean look, but I’m a sucker for crystal chandeliers and other gaudy looking hotel lobby decor, like the replica of a pharaonic boat in the Fairmont lobby.

The check-in hasn’t even begun, but I’ve already run out of words, so come back next week to see how we liked our room.

 

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The Airport Adventure Continues

TRAVEL THERE: WHERE’S AYMAN?

Now that I’m home, I’ve tried to educate myself about the pilgrims who crowded into the Cairo Airport the same night I arrived.  I shared some of the answers last week, but I left Bill and I standing with our niece in a huge, noisy crowd.  At first there was the initial small talk of arrival, but soon it was apparent Mirette thought it was high time for Ayman to rescue us from our perch among the milling pilgrims.

Looking for Ayman

After a few minutes of chatting, Mirette began to scan the passing cars for her husband, with the international expression of, “where is he?”  Soon she was describing the car Ayman was driving to Bill.  Then they began to discuss how far away the car had been parked.  When they moved the conversation into Arabic, I got worried.

Then Ayman himself hurried up, but on foot, not in the car, which was perplexing in and of itself. He explained the crowds became too large, so the police shut down one of the roads. He’d found another parking spot as close as he could get, but we still had to walk some.

Midnight Rambles

Even though the time was nearing midnight, walking didn’t sound like a problem, as long as we had a cart for the luggage.  Then we came to a set of stairs and I wasn’t really happy about that. The collapsing handle on one of the bags quit working before we ever left Dallas and would have to be carried. The condition of the sidewalks and streets suggested rolling the checked bags would also be a challenge, but I saw no other alternative.

Each of the girls grabbed a carry-on bag, leaving the larger bags to the men. Then, at the bottom of the stairs, I found a cart!  Either someone had left it or God had deposited there for my benefit. Either way we were saved. We loaded up the new cart and continued on our way.

Ayman and Bill pushed the luggage-laden cart through the obstacle course.  A few feet along the sidewalk and then down a curb.  Then a good long haul through parking areas, weaving in-between cars when necessary.  Up a curb, over a sidewalk, down a curb, across a street, up a curb and finally we could see the car.

Halting the cart, each of the fellows picked up a bag to put in the trunk. While their backs were turned, the cart took off like a rocket. I shouted and ran after the careening cart, but my shouts were lost in the other noises around us. The cart skewed off the sidewalk, fell to its side and dumped the bags into the street.

A couple of pilgrims watched from afar. You’d have thought they were watching moss grow on a stone for all the reaction the cart and I got. Bill and Ayman looked at me as if the bags strewn in the middle of the street were somehow my fault. All I could think of was the bottles of scotch.  You do remember the scotch, don’t you? Would my suitcases be full of glass shards and alcohol-soaked clothes?

We’ll find out together. Come back next week for my first impressions of Cairo outside the airport.

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Lost in a Sea of Pilgrims

Will we ever make it out of the airport?

TRAVEL THERE: AIRPORT ANXIETY

So, we’ve landed at the Cairo Airport.  We’ve been through Customs and found all our luggage in baggage claim.  We should be fine right?  Well, I certainly would have guessed that to be true, but instead Bill and I are standing outside the terminal, in a huge crowd of people, many of whom look like they are dressed in togas.  I’m wondering where the riot squad is.  Were all my security fears going to come true in the first hour I was in Egypt?

Dismay and Distress

There Bill and I stood, trying to stay connected to each other and to our luggage cart, while being knocked about by the press of the crowd.  Part of me was worried about mundane things like pickpockets, but another part was trying to understand what was going on.  The toga-dressed people and their friends didn’t actually seem threatening, but I couldn’t understand a word they were saying.

What if we inadvertently angered someone?  Would the crowd turn on us?  And where were Mirette and Ayman?  Had Bill given them the right information and confirmed they’d be there?  Had something happened to prevent them coming?

Bill has a gift for appearing calm in a crisis, even when he’s exploding inside.  Like me he’d missed the crowd at first, but he’d continued to overlook it until we were in the middle of it.  Had I realized how worried he was, I would have been even more concerned.  Just when I was ready to hail a cab, our family members found us.

Instant Relief

I’m not quite sure where they came from but suddenly my niece and her husband were there. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so glad to see anyone, with the exception, perhaps, of Bill the two times he came home from Iraq. Once they had located us, Ayman headed off to get the car.  We were still being jostled, but we’d been found, so things didn’t seem quite so threatening.

While we waited, I tried asking Mirette what was going on with all the white outfits. She said they were pilgrims on Hajj as if that explained everything, but it didn’t.  Even I knew the Hajj was taken to Mecca, which is in Saudi Arabia, not Egypt. Something was getting lost in translation.

Why would people on a plane from Saudi Arabia be coming TO Egypt for the Hajj at Easter time? No one could ever tell me.  They just kept patiently explaining the pilgrims were on Hajj, as if that was the definitive answer. Once I got home, I tried Google and Wikipedia, but could find no straight-forward answers.

I’m probably on some watch list by now.  Not only was I in Egypt while this pilgrimage was going on, I was also there for the Pope’s visit.  Since I got back, I’ve been googling every question I could think of to figure it all out.

I educated myself on traditional ihram clothing, which is the toga-like outfit worn by the pilgrims.  I satisfied myself April was not the date for Hajj this year or for any of the major Muslim holidays, for that matter.  I found out pilgrimages taken at times other than Hajj are something called Umrah and I finally found some Umrah locations in Egypt.  Most of what I found when I Googled were travel packages available for Hajj and Umrah, but all of them that I read sounded like a travelogue for people who already know why they are going.  Nothing there to explain exactly what was going on.

So come back next week and find out our other adventures at the Cairo Airport.  Since I’m here writing this blog post we obviously made it out, but not until after a little more craziness.

 

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Touchdown in Cairo

Niece Mirette and her husband, Ayman

TRAVEL THERE:  LET THE CRAZINESS BEGIN

It was a late night arrival in Cairo, so the activity inside the terminal was actually pretty calm.  A flight arrived from Saudi Arabia about the same time as ours, but otherwise customs and baggage claim was empty.  Preoccupied with my own arrival I wasn’t really focused on other passengers, but it was clear we were in the Middle East.  

What’s With the Guys Wearing Towels?

In the terminal, hajibs and galabeyas were more frequent than blue jeans and yoga pants, but one guy really got my attention.  To my uninformed eye, it looked as if he were dressed for a toga party.  His white garment came to about mid-calf and had been torn all the way around the bottom.  The texture was towel-like and it appeared one shoulder might be bare.  Something like a a shawl was pinned around his other shoulder. He was definitely wearing shower shoes, but whatever the reason for his outfit, staring would be rude, so I kept my eyes down.

Islamic Pilgrim Wear

If there had only been one guy like that, I might have forgotten about it in the hustle and bustle, but I began to realize there were a lot of men wearing variations of the same thing.  Some ‘togas’ were longer than others. Some men had both shoulders wrapped.  One hem would look freshly torn with ratty looking strings hanging around the bottom, while another hem would be so smooth I wondered whether it were torn at all.

There were also variations in the textures of the garments.  The first ‘toga’ I had spied looked like a laundry mistake.  If you’ve ever washed a few towels and then discovered them still in the washer several days later – damp, wrinkled and soured – then you know what I mean.  I didn’t get close enough to smell him, of course, but that’s what it looked like.  He was the anomaly in the crowd, but there were other subtle differences.  While some had the lush looped-terry of a luxury hotel’s complimentary robe, a few had the even more exclusive look of a waffle-woven linen hand-towel  No loops there.

Please understand, I’m making all these observations out of the corner of my eye or from under lowered eyelids.  I didn’t want to appear to be a gawking tourist, even if that was exactly what I was.  I started trying to figure out if this was totally a male thing and I was able to ascertain very quickly it was.  The women wore traditional galabeyas and hajibs, and most were of the gloved, head-to-toe, black variety  mentioned in my initial blog about this trip.  Days later, I would begin to realize there were women dressed in simple white variations of this head-to-toe manner, traveling with some of the men, but if they were at the airport I missed them.

I kept quiet and kept my eyes to myself as much as I could, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the deal was.  Did an entire group of conventioneers get their luggage stolen and this was the best the hotel could offer?  Your imagination does weird things in a vacuum of information.

Where are Mirette and Ayman?

Step-by-step we made it through customs and retrieved our luggage.  We were almost out of the terminal, but with the exception of professional drivers holding signs, we hadn’t seen anyone greeting our fellow arrivals.  Just outside the sidewalk was busy with people cuing up for cabs.

Have you ever looked around a place, trying to get your bearings and missed the most obvious thing.  I was looking so hard to find my niece or her husband, that I missed a wild cacophony right in front of me.  When I finally got my bearings, I started to wonder if I was about to get caught up in a riot.

On the other side of a thoroughfare filled with cabs was a huge crowd.  Many of the men had on the togas I had noticed inside the terminal.  Bill headed across the street and I followed him, wondering if he’d even noticed the rowdy crowd.  They weren’t rowdy in a soccer fan kind of way, it was more purposeful and less emotional, but nonetheless quite loud.  What a kaleidoscope of sight and sound to begin our sojourn in Egypt!

I’ll tell you about it next week.

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Grateful for the Yawn Factor

Picture from aa.com

TRAVEL THERE: BLISSFULLY BORING FLIGHTS

I’m of the opinion that travel is more interesting if there are problems.  “Everything was perfect,” might make for a great vacation, but you could bore your friends to death with that kind of travelogue.  Lost luggage, crazy GPS instructions and rude hotel clerks make better copy.  Hopefully, I won’t put you to sleep today, but our travel to Egypt was without incident.  That all changed once we got to Cairo, but that’s for later.

I Flew on American and I Liked It

This may not be a newsworthy item for you, but it was for me.  I’ve sort of hated American for a long time.  For years, every travel horror story I lived through began with, “I was on an American flight…”  I carried that anti-American chip on my shoulder for a long time, but in recent years I noticed that other airlines were doing their part to be as awful as I thought American was.

Most recently that was Lufthansa.  I’d always counted them on my favorites list, but then I flew them to Frankfurt.  The plane rattled so much I thought it was made out of Tinker-Toys.  Bill claims the flight wasn’t that bad, but if I hadn’t been sitting next to him, I would think he must have been on another plane.  Bottom line, I could no longer say my worst flights were American.

My other problem with American had to do with Love Field and the Wright Amendment.  As a Dallasite, I love Southwest Airlines and Love Field.  The Wright Amendment tied the hands and feet of both, in favor of DFW, and I didn’t like it.  I also loved Legend Air, which was a Love Field underdog that I maintain was run out of business by American.  I’m always for the underdog.  I go out of my way to avoid Walmart.  I won’t buy anything on Amazon.  I hate most chain restaurants, too.

This American flight snuck up on me.  (Yes, I know snuck isn’t really a word, but I like it better than sneaked.)  I wasn’t the one to make the reservations and I thought we were flying British Airways.  It wasn’t until a few days before the flight, when I was researching baggage allowances, that I realized my British Airways flight was going to be on American.  By then it was too late to do anything about it and I knew Bill was tired of hearing American Airlines Hysteria.  I just lived with the revelation.

A Brand Spanking New 777

So we got to the airport, parked our car, rode the shuttle to the terminal and checked our luggage curbside.  It was easy.  It was a late-night flight, so the airport was pretty boring.  We had a nice chat with a lady in the L’Occitane En Provence store.  In fact, she sensed my concern and we actually prayed together.  Finally it was time to board.

Let me tell you, our plane was so new I think it just rolled off the assembly line.  Nothing rattled.  Everything was pristine.  There were bells and whistles I hadn’t even thought to wish for – and we were in economy.  Even the food was decent.  I watched a couple of movies.  I was even able to sleep!

So, American Airlines, I know you weren’t losing any sleep over my grudge against you, but I want you to know it’s over now.  I can easily say my best flight ever was on American.  Singapore Air still holds my best-food-on-an-airline award, but the shepherd’s pie on American’s return flight was pretty decent.  (BTW Sing Air, I liked your old paint job better.  This new one is boring.)

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The Packing Predictament

Evening clothes take up a lot of your suitcase

TRAVEL THERE: GETTING IT ALL IN THE LUGGAGE

One of the worst things about this trip was packing for it.  Along with everything else you need for a 16-day trip in a third world country, we needed room for formal wear and lots of gifts.  I needed conservative arm- & leg-covering outfits for the cities and resort wear for beaches.  I got everything in the bags pretty early on the day before we left, but my husband didn’t join me for the weighing ritual until evening.  The lights stayed on pretty late that night.

The Midnight Hysteria

If you have a luggage scale then you know the weighing ritual.  You put everything you need in the bags, strap on the scale and then weigh.  It takes awhile for the scale to register the weight, so I need my husband to hold up the bags while we wait for the scale to do its thing.   Then you know how much you have to take out of the suitcase. We hate this, but as you know, it has to be done.

I started out with one bag weighing right at 50 pounds, but the other bag was more than 10 pounds over.  The first step was to cram even more into the carry-on bags, which were already full of the gifts.  On our last trip to Egypt, our luggage had gotten lost and we’d arrived without any gifts – bad form for Egyptians and I wasn’t going to repeat that mistake.  If nothing else got there, I was going to have the appropriate gifts and because my husband believes presentation is everything, we had gift bags, tissue and ribbon for each one.

What Could We Live Without

To me the greatest weight offender was the three gift-bottles of scotch.  I wasn’t only worried about the weight.  I envisioned suitcases full of scotch-soaked clothing waiting for us on the conveyor belt in Cairo.  I had suggested we pick these gifts up in the duty-free shops of the airport before we ever bought them, but Bill was having none of it.

The main problem with the scotch was that the bottles had to go in the checked luggage, which was already heavy with toiletry bags. I have to admit that my husband, who packs light anyway, was very generous about giving up items I thought were vital for him, like that second pair of jeans, but I resented those bottles of scotch every time I had to remove another item from the suitcase.

There were tears before we were through, but we got it done.  Does anyone besides me remember when you got TWO checked bags per person – even in economy?  The airlines may have downsized their allowances, but my needs have not been reduced.

The Final Verdict

The packing experts brag about cramming everything they need for a month-long trip into a carry-on, but while that method sounds like a good idea to some, I have to remember I’m married to a guy who thinks presentation is everything.  You would not want to travel with me if I had to keep juggling the same two yoga pants and three t-shirts around day after day.  I sort my pictures by what I’m wearing!

There’s one more thing I have to tell you.  I was right about the scotch.  Hubby had been convinced the duty-free shops wouldn’t have the right brand and if they did, the prices would be prohibitive.  Wrong on both counts.  They had exactly what he wanted and the price was good.  So, if you need liquor gifts at your final international destination, go with the duty-free option.  And come back next week for the next step in our jouney.

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And She’s Back

In the Fairmont Heliopolis

TRAVEL THERE: AN EXTRAORDINARY EGYPTIAN ADVENTURE

I just got back from Egypt and I want you to visit this amazing country.  You’re not going to believe some of the exciting adventures I had while I was there.  I hope that as you read my blog in the coming months, you’ll start planning your own trip in your head.  As much as I want you to go, I have always been totally honest with you – sharing the good and the bad.  So it is only fair that I start this series by warning you that Egypt is not an easy country to visit.  You have to overlook a lot to see what is valuable, but there is great value.  In the coming weeks I will rave about spectacular hotels and jaw-dropping sites, but I have to start here, with the not-so-pleasant reality of Egypt today.

Apartment Buildings

Then and Now

This was my second trip to Egypt.  The first was in 1996 when terrorism was an occasional, rather than a daily, thing and the only terror incident associated with Egypt was an attack on a busload of tourists in 1990.  The world has changed a lot since then.  Days before I was scheduled to leave for this trip, bombs went off in two different Coptic Churches.  It didn’t stop us from going, but it did give us pause.  It shouldn’t stop you from going either, but you need to know what you’re getting into.

The imminent threat of violence was the most obvious difference between this trip and the one we enjoyed twenty years ago.  Security was a pervasive presence, everywhere we went – whether we were visiting a museum, an airport or a church.  Every time we entered our hotel we had to put all our belongings through a scanner and ourselves through a metal detector.  I was glad for the security, but saddened by the need for it.

It was the same thing pretty much everywhere we went and you just got tired of it.  Take a romantic walk on the beach and come back to the hotel for a thorough search.  By the time you prove you have a right to be there and you don’t have any WMD’s, the romance has dissipated.  This adds to the stress of travel and distracts from your ability to really relax.

One evening we accompanied a niece and her husband to a hotel where they stayed on their honeymoon.  They wanted to take a walk down memory lane.  Our taxi went through one inspection at the gate to the property and we were put through a thorough search at the front door.  Then as we headed out to the pool to look around, we were stopped because we were not actually guests at the hotel.  We had to go to the front desk, explain ourselves, show them our room keys to a sister property in town and give them a passport to hold before we were allowed into the pool area.  By the time we actually made it down there, we had more thoughts about the intrusion of security than we did Maggie and Shady’s honeymoon.

Forget Lowe’s or Home Depot, Shop for Home Improvements Streetside

Related Changes

The threat of terrorism has devastated the country.  Tourism has been at the center of Egypt’s economy for a very long time, but  they have nothing to take its place and little with which to woo the tourists who actually show up.  Yes, they have some of the most splendid sights in the world, like The Pyramids, Luxor Temple, The Valley of the Kings and such, but the hassle associated with visiting them is challenging.

I thought Egypt was the dirtiest place I had ever visited the last time I went.  Well, now it is beyond dirty.  It’s down right filthy and much of it has been abandoned.  Whole blocks of Cairo and Alexandria’s city centers are just empty graffiti-covered buildings, surrounded by piles of trash.  Everywhere we went, unfinished new construction showed signs of being abandoned years ago, when their hope of an Arab Spring turned into a nightmare.  Don’t plan on wearing the same clothes over and over.  A day of touring will render you and everything you are wearing disgusting.  You either need to pack more or plan on a budget for laundry.

An Egyptian Family on a Motorcycle

And Then There’s the People

Egyptians, as a whole, are wonderful.  They are happy people who want to get to know you and they love pleasing you.  They want you to love their country the way they do, but right now they are a little embarrassed – as if you caught them between working in the yard and getting a shower.  They’ll point you towards the freshly planted flowers, hoping you won’t notice how dirty and sweaty they are.

However, they are also frustrated and tired.  At almost every hotel we observed someone having a meltdown in the lobby and it was usually an Egyptian guest.  Life is hard.  The economy is impossible.  Traffic is horrendous.  Everything is harder to do than it should be and after a ten minute walk your white shirt just isn’t white anymore.  Still, given the chance, most of them will bend over backwards to accommodate you and try to create a smile.

At the same time, we noticed there is also a trend that distances the female population from visitors.  There was a greater number of women completely covered from head to toe.  During our last visit, most women dressed very conservatively and the majority covered their heads, often with a bright colorful scarf.  Many would be sharply dressed, while sporting a more conservative hijab.  There were some who wore the more old-fashioned gallabeya  and hijab, but only a rare woman was covered and veiled in black.

This time gallabeyas and hijabs were the norm.  Young women wore leggings or jeans with a tunic, but the hijabs were everywhere and they were not brightly colored scarves, but solid blocks of neutral colors.  However, women covered from head to toe in black were no longer rare and I noticed most of them also wore black gloves.  They were moving shadows with just a sliver of their eyes showing – distant, aloof, unapproachable.

In the Cairo Museum we saw a young couple taking a selfie.  The woman was completely covered in black.  We wondered at the incongruity of hiding yourself and then taking a selfie.  The young man’s outfit was standard casual fare, but she was covered in plain black without even a bit of embroidery.  A lot of mixed messages there.

So I will tell you the story of our trip.  I’ll remind you of the difficulties from time to time, but I’ll leave it to you to remember that everything was dirty, inconvenient and noisy, whether I mention it or not.  Come back next week and we’ll hit the road.

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