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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Back to Egypt Again - After 12 years!

Full flight on Egyptair to Cairo. Arrived at 6pm local time. Flight took about 3 hours. Looks like there is summer time (+ 1 hour) in force in Egypt. Visa upon arrival costs US$15. I took a taxi (LE 80) to Hotel Luna near Thahir Square in Downtown Cairo.
It¡¯s good to be back in Egypt after my last visit in 1996. It is very refreshing to be here after a multiple months¡¯ stint in backward Africa. Gary and Kenneth were amused by my wow-wow about street lights, paved sidewalks, safe streets and modern city amenities in Libya. I told them they have to forgive me because sub-Saharan Africa was extremely backward and deficient even in what most of us in rich and middle income countries would find fairly ordinary conveniences of modern living.
Now Egypt is one level up from Libya. Downtown Cairo is the preeminent metropolis on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. The airport I landed in is definitely much more modern than the hot and stuffy one I flew from in 1996. There is even an enormous modern shopping mall next to the terminal building. The whole airport looks very clean, modern and even resort-like, with palm trees, flunky sculptures and so on. Cafes, ATMs and all the usual stuff one finds at home. The road to the city centre was lined with palms trees, public murals and statues, which fits in well with many of the old stately mansions in nearby Heliopolis. We passed new malls and glass towers, and bustling streets. Lots of shops, restaurants and buzz that the rest of Africa lacks. I am elated!
I checked into a single room at Luna Hotel, which costs LE 150 (US$30) and there is strong WIFI signal in my room. Fantastic! Luna is located right at the heart of Cairo¡¯s shopping district. I had rice wth great seafood soup for dinner, then ice cream and roast walnuts in a sweets shop nearby.
What has changed in Cairo? The airport as described above is one. There are also lots of mobile shops ¨C like anywhere else in the world¡­ Smartly dressed Egyptians everywhere and the shops are full of buzz. The country seemed to have moved forward significantly from the poor and messy one I saw 12 years ago. Or maybe it was because I had spent too much time in West Africa that Egypt seemed like a land of gold.
What has not changed? The timeless Egyptian habit of asking for baksheesh (or tips) remains the same. Everybody who does even the smallest favour (or nothing at all) asks for baksheesh. There seems to be no shame in even asking for a tip when giving directions.
Tomorrow I shall drop by the Sudan Embassy to enquire about visa and requirements. I will apply for the Sudanese visa if they are willing to issue it within a short time, and I could either visit Sudan within a week, or if the situation in Khartoum remains unsettled, visit Sudan after I have done Iran, perhaps from Dubai. If they have stopped issuing visa, I will spend a few more days relaxing in Cairo, then proceed to either eastern Turkey or direct to Tehran.
While I am in Egypt, I will visit the Pyramids which I did visit before in 1996, and probably visit a few places I didn¡¯t visit back then, such as Alexandria, the Suez Canal and the Sinai Peninsula. Alternatively, I may just hand around Cairo, chill out here and clear up my writing backlog. Yes, I must look for a Chinese restaurant too! No Chinese food since I left Ethiopia.

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