fredag 21. januar 2011

An exciting day, in the worse meaning of exciting

Today was one of those days that deserve the occasional blog spot. One of those days when everything has gone so incredible ridiculously wrong that it would be selfish to keep it to myself.
Tollef was going on a bachelor-party-trip for the weekend, and I was planning to give the dog a long walk, before going to a boardgame night with some friends. The next two days I am going to a course on mental health for dogs, and really looking forward to that.

In the morning, I had breakfast with our houseguest, one of the bachelor's friends coming from Denmark to join the party/trip. He needed some things from the shopping centre, so I decided to take the car and buy the food I needed for the weekend at the same time. A week ago I ordered some dog equipment that I would like to have for our long walk today. I didn't get any tracking number, so I called the customer services to ask if they could get it for me, so I could pick the parcel up at the post office on our way. The woman was not used to being on support line, and couldn't get the number, but she could tell me that my parcel was sent three days ago, and was not likely to get here before the weekend. We went shopping, the boys left for their trip, and I went on a nice, long walk with Kovu (the only dog for the time being, Odin is at my parents on "vacation" for another two weeks). I came home and checked the mailbox, which kept just a single note - the delivery note for my parcel. No big deal really, but particularly annoying since I actually checked up on it!

After a good lunch, a shower and some rest, I was ready to leave for the boardgame night. On my way out, I couldn't find my wallet. I had to buy some snack to bring, besides my travelcard for getting there and back, and not the least for getting to and from the course during the weekend. The last time I knew I had it was in the car after shopping, and the car was three hours drive away! Tollef didn't answer the phone, and I hoped he was not without signal for the whole trip. I searched the house for cash, and found enough to at least get me through the first day, hoping some of my friends could loan me some cash when I got there.

I also had forgotten the address of my friends place. I asked on IRC, but didn't get any answer before I had to leave to get there in time. I knew the street, and had the phone number (not registered with any address on online services of course). On my way down, I called, but didn't get any answer. After getting another two numbers for people who would be there from common aquaintances, and calling again with no answers, I checked a house number that lurked in the back of my mind, and came right.

I'd just gotten to my friends place when Tollef called me from a strange number. He hadn't gotten my sms, but called to tell me that the car had broken down, about 10 km from their destination, and his cell was out of battery. He'd called NAF (Norwegian Automobile Association) for help, but needed the membership card, which, I told him, was in the car. He also had forgotten the pin-code for his cell, so I had to help him getting it when I got home. The wallet was apparently not in the car. I left my friends after a short time, going home to look for my wallet once again, and check up some other things for Tollef. The next time he called, he'd found my wallet, and was waiting to be picked up by his friends. Luckily they had enough cars to get around for the weekend. Tomorrow, He'll call our car salesman, as the used car sales guarantee is still valid, and ask for advice on what to do. Whether to get the car fixed up there, 3 hours drive from home, or get it transported here some way and have the sales people fix the problems.

A slightly too exciting start of the weekend, I'll be happy enough with the course being a bit boring and nothing much else happening for the next couple of days.

fredag 14. januar 2011

Simira's Guide to Egypt

Going to Egypt
Every winter we usually go away to some warmer and sunnier place than Norway. The last week were spent in Hurghada in Egypt, on the Red Sea coast. We went to Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt two years ago, and I loved it. Warm weather, clear water, unfamiliar and exciting culture. This year, I was excited but a bit unsure of what to expect, as January is the worst month weather-wise, to go to Egypt. The temperatures are about 20-22 degrees Celsius during daytime. That wouldn't have been so bad, if it hadn't been for the somewhat chilly wind that blows constantly. As we have been to Egypt before I had an idea of what to expect. But during our week there were quite a few things I wish I had remembered or known beforehand, so I decided to make this mainly a guide for myself and others going to Egypt.

The place
Hurghada consists of mainly three parts. El Dahar is the old city centre where mostly locals live. Sekkala is considered "downtown", with some hotels, a lovely new marina with good restaurants, and Sheraton road for shopping. There are a number of "normal, everyday" stores that even the locals use, for electrics, home ware etc., and an enormous number of shops offering the general tourist goods selection. The choice of restaurants and clubs is quite good.

"New Hurghada”, which we stayed in, is solely built because of the tourists, and consists mostly of all-inclusive hotel-resorts. There are a few restaurants aside from the hotel ones, which I recommend to try out. The food is cheaper, and in our case, a lot better, than in the hotels. There's also a small shopping street, with enough tourist stores and supermarkets to cover everything you actually would want to buy from touristy stuff. It's all the same fake products everywhere anyway.

Hurghada is supposed to be a diver's paradise, and a lot of people come here for diving and snorkelling. Contrary to Sharm el Sheikh, there was little coral reef and fish right out from the beach, so I didn't do any snorkelling this time. There are plenty of operators offering snorkelling trips out on the sea though, which can be quite good. If you're lucky, you may even see dolphins.

Based on Tripadvisor reviews, we stayed at Steigenberger Al Dau Beach Hotel. It is a rather new and large resort, with very nice grounds. They have a large pool, with a lazy river, a smaller saltwater pool that is heated in wintertime, a jacuzzi island with three jacuzzis, and a kid's club with a children's pool and playground. On the organized schedule there's water gym, beach volley, bocchia, Arabic courses, belly dance courses, and more. I have written a review that can be read on the Tripadvisor site.

Economy in Egypt is very different from Western economy. The differences between rich and poor is great, and there are huge differences in life styles. Tourism is the third largest "industry" (The Suez channel and oil being the two more important). They have Egyptian Pounds, worth about 8 for one Euro or 5.5 for a dollar. Coins are rare, and restaurants will even cut a couple of pounds of your bill rather than give you smaller change back. The most common is notes of 100, 50, 20 and 10 pounds, 5 pound notes also goes around. One pound coins (which would be nice for tipping) are rare. Advise: Split notes whenever you have the chance. Euros and dollars are also accepted by most tourist-related places, so you might want to bring euro/cents and dollars/cents for tipping.

A lot of Egyptians depend their income on "baksheesh", that is a kind of tipping or economical contribution. They expect tipping for showing you anything, letting you through to a toilet, opening doors, handling luggage, helping with your sun bed on the beach, or anything you can think of. A couple of pounds are normally accepted, if you happen to have the coins...

WARNING: There's also a 50 Piaster note, which is half a pound. Do not get them confused with 50 pound notes, and do check your change when you get a note with a 50 on it!!! (yes, I speak from experience). Also, avoid people that ask you how much their Euros are worth and asks you to do a (apparently lucrative) change for Egyptian Money. They will try to confuse you to end up with giving them too much money in some way.

All places that have tourists have tourist shops and salesmen. In Egypt, they are quite aggressive, and will approach you whenever you pass within a certain distance from their shop. They often ask where you are from, and present some lines in your language. Then they will show you something, or just try this shawl on you, and no matter how many times they say "no pressure", "no buy", they do want to sell you something.
The best tactic is to ignore them. "La shukran" (Lah shockran) means "no thank you", and works sometimes. It feels incredible impolite to just pass through despite "where are you from", "please, just be nice", "give a smile", but it's the only way.

If you do want to buy anything, know this: 95% of everything you get in shops around tourist areas is fake (or just bad quality), and 95% is over-priced. Learn to know real papyrus from banana papyrus copies, real leather from fake, and see different qualities of fabrics. If you ask about the price of anything, the seller will give up an unreasonable high price. The meaning is for you to protest and give an unreasonable low price, and start haggling. "Too expensive" is a very effective line, along with "it's cheaper in the other store", "you are very nice, but...". Pretending to walk away often has a good effect on the price, if you just turn back in time. If you are getting close to accepting, they will also try to offer you something else, or two of whatever. Don't feel bad about arguing and even lying. They will never sell anything below cost, no matter what they say, and they mostly earn very good on tourists. Some shopkeepers will also serve you tea, even before trying to sell you anything. It does not oblige you to buy anything.

Despite big plans on my part, we ended up doing just one excursion this time, to Luxor and Valley of the Kings. Most of these tourist places offer trips to Cairo (about 500km each way from Sharm or Hurghada), quad driving in the desert, beguine visits, and of course snorkelling and diving excursions. The quad driving, snorkelling and diving depends a bit on your interest in it. The bedouin visits can be good, but are often typical tourist traps with lot of sad-looking poor children that wants you to give them your nice pen, money, or anything else you have that they think looks nice. And how could you not give it to them, poor children (of course they know this)!?

The trips to the famous pyramids in Giza (on the Cairo trip) and Valley of the Kings (on the Luxor trip) are probably among the most popular. We left early in the morning (about 4-5) by bus, with one stop for breakfast about half way. From the bus we could see settlements of farmers along the Nile on the last part of the way, and fields with what, sugar cane and other crops. The Valley of the Kings is of course famous for the pharaoh tombs. Unfortunately cameras are forbidden to take through the security, but understandable enough. You get to buy postcards or guidebooks anywhere along the way there, so the memories are saved. The tombs are fascinatingly decorated and well kept. They are closed every 2-3 years to preserve them.

We had several other stops on our trip. The Karnack temple was maybe the world's largest temple complex, and there's much of it left even today. In evenings they have light shows, although I did prefer being able to look around in the ancient structures during daylight. We also visited papyrus and alabaster factories, and was shown the progress of making products from them, and how to separate fake or machine work from real/hand work.

There are taxies everywhere in the tourist areas. They drive slowly along the streets, honking whenever passing someone on foot. They are cheap, and we paid about 20 pounds for a 7 km trip (although that was expensive, according to our guide later on). Make sure to agree on a price before getting into a taxi. There are also minibuses that the local use, that costs about 1-2 pounds per person. A recommendable experience if you have a man to travel with, not something to do for lone woman. Else, you'd better check what shuttle services your hotel offers.

To get in to Egypt, you need a visa. When going by charter, you normally get a form on the plane, to fill out and deliver together with your passport in the visa control, after the passport control on the airport. Getting out of Egypt is a slightly different matter. The airports are busy, and charter trips tend to start and end on the same day. First, everyone has to go through a general security control, to make sure weapons don't come through. Then there is the worst part, the check-in. The counters and queues are rather chaotic, and on our trip they changed counters several times during our 1-hour queue stay for check-in. The whole airport was rather busy and chaotic, and even though we had enough time, the flight was delayed with an hour, which appears to be quite normal.

Our trip
I really enjoyed this trip. Despite the chilly wind I sunbathed and swam in the pool every day. I also got started with some exercise that I hope to keep up back home. I ended up not going on any excursions except to Luxor. The first day, we joined a half day local sightseeing with the charter company, which was very nice. The other days I spent by the pool, while Tollef went on diving excursions. Every night we went out for dinner and tried different local restaurants. I missed snorkelling by coral reefs on the beach like I did in Sharm two years ago. For some reason I also found Sharm more relaxed, but I can't tell just why. The trip to Luxor was even more exciting than expected, and was really my highlight of the trip. The airport experience one the last day was really a downfall again, but by then the vacation was really over anyway.