Spring Break Egypt

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Apr 16th, 2010, 08:09 PM
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Spring Break Egypt

OK - so we got back a couple of weeks ago from a fabulous trip to Egypt and before it goes out of my brain too much, I am going to try to post as complete a trip report as I can. We debated for quite a while where to go. We considered Turkey, but dh had already been there so finding someplace new to both was preferable. We also looked into Peru and Machu Pichu, but I read that it was the rainy season in March and then when I read about the train being washed out in the rains I guess it was good we decided against that. As I was checking out possibilities I came across a perfectly scheduled 10 day trip to Egypt.

We have generally done independent travel, but with a set time frame a package tour seemed like a decent idea and dh was concerned about safety in Egypt and had said that he would prefer to do a group tour when we went there. Once we found out that he had enough miles on United to travel free, we were sold.

One thing led to another and several friends decieded to go with us and then we found out that another couple we know had booked the same trip independently of us. So there were 9 of us gathered at O'Hare airport on March 26th ready to head off on a Trafalgar Real Egypt trip.

The flight with United/Lufthansa was pretty much uneventful except for a brief scare in Frankfurt when 4 of us discovered that we did not actually have seats because they had oversold the flight. Fortunately there were some people willing to give up theirs for 400 euros and we arrived in Cairo on time Saturday evening.

We were picked up at the airport by a very friendly and helpful Trafalgar agent who took us on the hour drive to our hotel near the Pyramids. Seeing them ghostly in the night as we arrived was amazing. We checked in to the Sofitel le Sphynx and pretty much crashed. The hotel was quite nice and the room was comfortable.

Sunday:
We were up early and after a fabulous breakfast buffet we met out tour guide for the next week and joined up with about 20 other folks. The one thing that we decided we didn't like about group tours was the waiting around for everyone to gather. But on the whole we were pleased with the experience.

Our first stop was at the Pyramids and that was quite the culture shock. We had read about the aggressiveness of the touts near the Pyramids and people weren't just kidding. Unfortunately it took a bit away from the experience of the Pyramids, but once we learned to relax, be firm, and laugh it got better. It also got better as we got away from the Great Pyramid - that was the worst.

The pyramids are amazing. Our tour guide (Mohammed Attia) was very knowledgeable and very enthusiastic. He made everything come alive for us with his stories and information. After spending some time at the Great Pyramid we went to the plateau and many of us did a camel ride. The funniest part of that was when dh found that he couldn't get his leg up and over the camel's back. The guy with the camels literally picked him up and put him on the camel (and he is not a small man). Unfortunately it happened too quickly for me to get a pic of it, but it is not something I will forget. After the camels we went to the middle pyramid and some went inside while the rest of us went to the Solar boat museum. Those who went inside said it was OK so I don't know that we missed much and the boat was really cool. Then it was off to the Sphinx which was also amazing - although a bit smaller than I expected.

We didn't have a lot of time for lunch so we ended up having pizza in the bus (from Pizza Hut - but then I didn't come to Egypt for the food: although more about that later!). We headed off to Memphis to see the Colossi of Ramses II, the sarcophagus of Amun Hotep, the alabaster Sphinx and various other statues. Our next stop was Sakkara to see the Step Pyramid. In the distance we could see various other ones including the Bent Pyramid.

A stop at the Akhnaten Carpet School proved very expensive for some of our group (not us). The work being done by the students was beautiful and several people bought carpets of varying sizes and qualities. We then headed back into the city to catch the night train to Aswan. We ended up on two different trains and our group was on the later one so we had lots of time to hang around the train station - which was actually fairly intriguing to just people watch. I was pleasantly surprised by the train. The bunks were comfortable, we had a compartment all to ourselves with a door that closed and locked, and it was bumpy, but not all that different from Amtrak. The food was a bit mediocre at best, but it was edible. We had bought some sandwiches at a convenience store early so fortunately weren't very hungry. So far the cuisine has not been impressive (except for breakfast at the hotel). We allowed the train to rock us to sleep and woke to the countryside going by and glimpses of the Nile that got more and more regular as we headed further south. We arrived in Aswan a bit late, but glad for the train experience.

More later! Spoiler alert - the food gets MUCH better.
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Apr 16th, 2010, 10:16 PM
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Thanks for your report. Been to Egypt only once for two days, like to go back.
So, this might just tempt me that for next years Spring Break I may -not- go to Ft. Lauderdale, get plastered bonkers, and run up and down Ocean Ave naked!!!! Whaddya think?

regards - tom
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Apr 17th, 2010, 04:17 AM
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Can't wait for more of your trip report!! Lucky others were willing to give up your seats.. doesn't overbooking bug the hell out of you!!
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Apr 17th, 2010, 09:27 AM
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Surprisingly, as a tourist in Egypt you could get plastered bonkers, cary999, but I wouldn't recommend running anywhere naked ;-)!

Several members of our group tried to get their boarding passes early for the return flight hoping they could get bumped. Figures that the overbooking ONLY happens when you are trying to get somewhere!

So to continue:

Monday:
We were waked up early for a very mediocre breakfast (thankfully we had lots of granola bars with us!). We had bought some cheap washcloths and were able to take a bit of a "sponge" bath in the sink in our compartment and then spent the morning watching the world go by. We arrived in Aswan at about 11:30 and were suposed to go for a felucca sail but there was NO wind so Attia said we would postpone that to later.

We checked in the the MS Giselle - our home for the next four days. It is beautiful with very large cabins and a gorgeous sundeck with a small pool. We went to lunch and discovered that we were going to eat VERY well on the boat. There were always lots of salads and Egyptian style veggies (lots of chick peas, lentils, tahina, and great seasonings). There was also always a fabulous fish choice along with lots of other items. Each meal we said we were going to eat lighter and each meal we were tempted by everything. The deserts were, of course, lots of honey, nuts, and filo.

Our afternoon traveling included going to see the unfinished obelisk (it is still partly attached to the quarry and I don't see HOW they would manage to get something that big out of there and transported to where they wanted without heavy equipment!) and visiting the Aswan Dam. Having been to Hoover Dam, the Aswan Dam was a bit of a disappointment. DH has wanted to see it since her was young and he was, in his words, underwhelmed. But it was cool to see it anyway.

After the dam we took a small boat over to the Temple of Philae which was built to honor Isis. It was our first temple and it was a marvelous one to start with. I never ceased to be amazed at how well preserved the temples and everything else there was. These things were ancient when the Colloseum was being built! We were able to see the temple in the late afternoon light with very few people around which made it just magical.

On the way back to the boat we stopped at a perfumery and saw how they make the essential oils. It was very interesting and several of our group decided to try some of the aromatherapy oils for sinuses and for arthritis. We arrived back at the boat with a little time to go up on the top deck and have a drink (Egyptian beer is quite good - dh and I preferred Sakkara and the rest swore by Stella) before dinner. Dinner was fabulous again and then there was a show in the bar with a whirling dervish (interesting since I have heard about them, but I'm sure it was very "gimicky") and a belly dancer who wasn't very good at all. One of the audience members that she pulled up on stage was better than she was! Oh well, it was still fun. Then off to bed for a wonderful night being rocked to sleep.

Tuesday:
Up early for breakfast and to catch our flight to Abu Simbel. Our flight was supposed to leave at 9 and ended up being an hour and a half delayed. We were getting very anxious and concerned about missing time at Abu Simbel. We relaxed a bit when Attia said that no matter when we got there we would have the full 2 hours. As it turned out, the delay worked to our advantage. Everyone was leaving as we were getting there and we have a picture of dh and I in from of Ramses's temple with NO other people in the picture at all. We were amazed by the temples and the engineering required to move them from their place in the cliff up on to the plateau to keep them from being flooded by Lake Nasser. We wandered and gawked and took tons of pictures outside (they don't allow pictures inside the temple). We could have stayed there all day, but we had a plane to catch so we headed out.

I did my first successful bartering for an Egyptian shirt with embroidery (probably machine done, but it was very pretty). I debated getting a galabea for the Egyptian night dinner that night, but decided that I would be much more likely to wear the shirt when I got home.

We got back to the boat in time for a very late lunch and to head off down the Nile. Our next stop was the Temple at Kom Ombo and because we were late getting back to the boat from Abu Simbel we ended up getting there at sunset. What was very cool about that was that we not only got the see the temple lit up at night, we also got to see the full moon coming up over it as we headed back to the boat. I guess the delayed plane was a blessing in disguise!

The Egyptian night was a lot of fun. Some people were REALLY dressed - others not so much. The food was fabulous. We loved the kushary and the Om Mali was to die for! I had read about both before coming to Egypt and was thrilled to try them. There was some dancing in the bar to Egytpian music and then we headed to bed. What a great day!!
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Apr 18th, 2010, 01:12 PM
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Wednesday:
This was another early morning (they all were - no problem, sleep vs. temples? No debate). DH decided to forgo the temple as his knees were giving him trouble from all of the stairs. We headed off before breakfast for the Temple of Hathor at Edfu. The temple was beautiful, but VERY crowded. These were the kind of crowds we would have had at Abu Simbel if our flight had been on time. Yet again we are thankful for plane delays! There is a replica of the boat that was in the original sanctuary (the original is at the Louvre, I think). I managed to get through the crowd to see it - not sure it was worth it. Several of our crew headed back as they were getting claustrophobic.

We then headed back to the boat for breakfast and a relaxing day of floating down the Nile. We sat and read, sunned, chatted - all very pleasant. As we were going through the locks there were lots of sellers throwing rugs and towels up to the boat and bargaining with folks on board. It was lots of fun to watch and our friend who bargained and bought a table covering said it was the most fun she has had shopping in a long time. Plus she got a very good deal.

We arrived at Luxor at about 5pm along with at least 20 other boats. We immediately went to the Temple of Luxor. The sun was just going down across the Nile and the temple lights were coming on. Then we heard the call to prayer from the mosque right next door. It made for a very spiritual and memorable experience! After the temple we went to a papyrus factory and museum and saw how they make papyrus. We typically don't buy at these kinds of stops but the prices were so reasonable and the items so unique that we bought one and had our names put on it in hieroglyphics. It is Tut and his wife and they put underneath the picture the words "eternal love" also in hieroglyphics for no extra charge. Very romantic! Then back to the boat for our final dinner and to bed.

Thursday:
Up early again and this time we had to pack up since we were leaving the boat. After breakfast and bidding the staff farewell we were off to the Valley of the Kings. We were told that we could not even take our cameras into the site and so we bought a set of postcards and just experienced it with our eyes. It was a very memorable experience as a result. We can get too wrapped up in taking pictures and miss the experience itself.

The tombs are amazing considering that they are over 3,000 years old. We went into three recommended by our guide (he could go in with us): Nahwat, Ramses III, and Ramses IX. The colors are still bright and the art work is amazing. We had to skip the Valley of the Queens as none of the tombs were open (only a few of the minor princesses).

We went to the Temple built by Hatshepsut which has actually been restored - it had been badly damaged by the next Pharaoh. There were several school groups there and the kids were so fun to watch as they raced down the ramps yelling all the way. They were also quite interested in talking with us and one little girl announced in perfect English "I like toilets!" Very cute - some little boy probably put her up to it !

After that temple we went to see the Colossi of Memnon and then headed down to the docks for our felucca sail (finally). There still wasn't much wind but I loved sailing up and then across the Nile back to our hotel. When we docked I dipped my feet briefly into the Nile. I have this thing about putting my feet in water all over the world. I had been told not to put my hands in as I would likely get sick, but I figured my feet are tough. Plus they were hot and dusty and it felt great! Our hotel is the Sonesta St. George and it is beautiful. Way better than what we are used to! All of the rooms have a view at an angle of the Nile.

We cleaned up a bit and then headed off to find lunch. We ended up right across from the papyrus factory at a restaurant called Bon Apetit. Doesn't sound Egyptian, but the menu was. DH and I really liked our food, but some of the others were disappointed. One thing that surprised us was that we could get a beer there. We had figured that we would only be able to get one in the hotels and on the boat, not in a local restaurant, but we were incorrect. The owner/host flirted with the young woman in our group unmercifully. I think she ended up feeling rather embarrassed by the whole thing. He went a bit too far when he picked up her fork and started feeding her. The problem is that she continually smiles and laughs, even when she is nervous so I don't think he realized he had gone too far.

We headed back to our hotel and relaxed a bit and then went out for a carriage ride into the more "local" market area and residential streets of Cairo. Very cool to see how people live. We noticed that people like to sit on the curb in front of their houses, very much like an American woudl use a front porch (or garage and driveway if you are from Chicago). After our ride we went to the pool bar for a drink and light supper. We ended up with entertainment by a group of dancers who were quite good. Then off to bed.
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Apr 19th, 2010, 10:31 AM
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Thanks for the reports. They're fun to read.

Is there a place to check your cameras and packpack at the Valley of the King since they don't let you bring cameras into the area?

This is kind of an off question but when you had pizzas at the Pizza Hut near the Giza Pyramids, did you notice anyone eating on the roof of the Pizza Hut?
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Apr 19th, 2010, 12:53 PM
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Axel, I don't know if the rule is new, but we weren't prohibited from bringing cameras into the Valley of the Kings, just from taking pictures IN the tombs.
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Apr 19th, 2010, 05:19 PM
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I think the rule is quite new. They used to let you bring them in and just not use them in the tombs, but people still did so they decided to prevent them altogether. They X-ray your bags as you go through and if you have a camera you have to take it back to the bus. Regarding places to check them - we were told to leave them in the bus. I would assume that if people came by car they would lock them in the car.

I can't say that I noticed anyone eating on the roof - that might have been kind of cool actually!

We're starting to weed through our pictures and it's fun to relive it! Of course getting our pictures down to something people will want to sit through may be a challenge. We ended up with close to 1500!
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Apr 19th, 2010, 08:13 PM
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Thanks for the info. Hmm, I don't think I want to leave my camera out of my sight, much less inside a locked car under the hot sun. I'll have to figure out what I'm going to do that day when I have the VOTK tour.

The reason I asked about the Pizza hut roof is that a guide book I read suggested to ask to eat on the roof for the view of the pyramids. I'll have to see if I can check that out when I'm in Egypt next month
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Apr 20th, 2010, 01:48 PM
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If you have time to check out the roof overlooking the pyramids, I think that would be fabulous.

On with the report....

Friday:
We can't believe that we are getting so close to the end of our time here, but there is still a lot to see and do. Yesterday and today we really saw the benefits of how Attia re-arranged the itinerary to suit our needs and desires. Yesterday we were supposed to do the Temple of Karnak along with the VOTK and all of the related sites which would have meant that we would not have time to go on the carriage ride (and would have been tired by the time we hit Karnak). Instead he arranged for an afternoon flight to Cairo that still got us there in plenty of time to enjoy the evening, but that allowed us time to sleep in a little this morning (until almost 8!!!), have a leisurely breakfast and then go to Karnak (where we had almost an hour of free time to wander). What a magnificent temple! We had been concerned that we would be "templed out" by this point, but it is hard to see Karnak with it's 134 columns in the hypostyle hall along with the obalisks and carvings and not be wowed. I walked 7 times around the big statue of a scarab to bring good luck to my life (since my car battery just died I'm not sure it worked, but maybe the car problems would have been worse!). We sat for a while just gazing at the columns and imagining what it would like to come to the temple when it was first built.

After the temple we headed to the airport at which point two of our people realized that they had left their passporst in the hotel safe. A call to the hotel and a cab fee and some baksheesh and they were back in business with time to grab a slice of pizza at the food court. Our flight back to Cairo was uneventful and we arrived back at our hotel by the pyramids (the Sofitel Le Sphynx again)in plent of time to relax and decide where to go for dinner. We had hoped to get a quick swim in but the pool closed at sunset and so we just missed it. Oh well - tomorrow morning we have time.

We asked Attia where he would go for a good dinner near our hotel and he sent us to a wonderful place. I can't recall the name, but I will look it up and add it later. It was about 5-6 blocks from our hotel and we enjoyed the walk. There were a few people who tried to get us to come to their shop or restaurant, but mostly they just smiled and waved us on when we said we were heading for a particular place. I'll fill in the details of dinner later tonight or tomorrow. Time for me to go get some dinner in real time!
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Apr 22nd, 2010, 12:22 PM
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OK, so I found the name of the restaurant we went to. It was Christo's and I highly recommend it if you are staying near the pyramids. It is a local place and there didn't seem to be an actual menu. Ask to sit upstairs on the patio so you have a view of the pyramids. After we sat down, the owner came up and told us that he had fish, shrimp and calamari and that they could be done either fried, grilled or Egyptian style with vegetables and seasonings. He said that what he recommended was all three with the calamari fried, the shrimp grilled and the fish Egyptian style and we would also get bread and salads - all for the equivelant of $15 USD. We decided that sounded good, along with a bottle of red wine and we began a feast that was amazing! The first thing they brought was a huge basket of hot Egyptian bread (pretty similar to pita) and lots of interesting items - tahina, yogurt, tomatos, marinated beans, etc. We all decided we weren't going ot worry about the veggies and ate everything. Then the seafood started to arrive - piles of calamari that was SO good that even those of us who don't like it were devouring it, mounds of huge shrimp, and then we each got a whole fish that was fileted and had a wonderful concoction of veggies and seasonings. We practically rolled out of there.

We appreciated the walk back since we had eaten so much. We noticed as we were walking that there was a very official looking Tourist police following behind us but not being obvious. He stayed with us until we hit a busy intersection right by the hotel and then he motioned us to wait while he stopped traffic for us and guided us across. We thanked him and headed in to our hotel. They really try to make sure that tourists are safe!
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Apr 22nd, 2010, 06:54 PM
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Jcasale: Your trip report sounds fantastic! I cannot wait to explore that section of the world. Mind telling me which tour/agent booked your 10 day Egyptian trip? Where can I find more information on this travel package?
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Apr 23rd, 2010, 08:43 AM
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Hi hobbitt! Another JRR fan? We booked our tour with Trafalgar and were very pleased with it. We usually do independent travel, but because of the time constraints and DH's concern about safety we went with a group tour. I would use them again in a heartbeat. I went to their website (www.trafalgar.com)and found the timeframe and dates we wanted and then just called the 800 number and we were set. Very easy and very reasonable.
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Apr 23rd, 2010, 12:02 PM
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Final installment!

Saturday:
Another early morning as we set off to tour Cairo. Our first stop was the Citadel and the Mohammed Ali Mosque (not the US boxer Ali). The mosque was beautiful and it was my first (DH has been to Turkey and Dubai). He said it was definitely a Turkish style, but with darker wood inside. Whatever - it was absolutely gorgeous. I had brought along a pashmina to cover my head with even though we were told we didn't have to. I wanted to be respectful.

As an aside - I was surprised (and somewhat apalled) by the number of women who were wearing short shorts and strappy tops all over Egypt. Our guide had said that we really didn't have to cover knees and shoulders (except in the mosque), but I wanted to be respectful of the country so wore capris that covered my knees or skirts that were calf length along with short sleeved tops. I was very comfortable and I felt that I would not offend most people. At the Temple of Karnak we saw a middle aged woman in basically a bikini top! I don't know if there is anyone reading this who is Egyptian, but I'd be curious how the local population reacts to the skimpy western dress I saw.

Anyway, from the mosque we went to the "Hanging Church" which is Coptic Christian (20% of the population is Christian). On the way we had to step aside as a funeral went by. The church was beautiful although smaller and more cramped than I had expected. There was the main sanctuary which was small and then several smaller chapels.

On the way to the Egyptian museum we got one of our best meals for about $5 USD. Our guide stoped at a local hole-in-the-wall place that only serves Kushari. OMG!!!! It was unbelievable. We got these huge plastic tubs full of it and all of us thought that we should have shared one between two people, but when we were done most of us had devoured a large portion of it. We decided we have to learn how to make it at home. The key is the seasonings, I suspect.

The Egyptian Museum was a bit of a disappointment to many of us. The statues and artwork is amazing, but it is not well displayed or organized. And there definitely isn't much in the way of explanation. But it was certainly worthwhile going and not just for the Tut exhibit (which was extensive and beautiful). We elected not to go into the mummy room - there are a few mummies in the main area. Our friends went into the room with animal mummies and said it was very interesting.

After the museum, four of us women wanted to go to the Khan al Khalili market so our guide hailed a taxi for us and told us how to get one back to our hotel. Off we went - and what a ride that was!!! I was in the front seat and it was definitely an experience as we swerved our way through the afternoon traffic. I also realized that Cairo is very much like the joke from a Maine humorist - "You can't get theah from heah!" We arrived at the market and at first we were underwhelmed and then we discovered the inner alleyways and shops! What an amazing place. We had fun bartering - paid too much for some things and probably not enough for others. Lots of fun and laughter. Suddenly (as we were losing energy) we found ourselves in front of a cafe that Frommer's recommended (the Faquid Mahfouz Cafe) and so stoop in to rest and fortify ourselves. We had tea, coffee and hibiscus juice (VERY good) along with some phenomenal falafel and tabouleh and bread. We then ventured off again and found our way back to the street and hailed a cab. We were very grateful for the instructions from our guide since we didn't allow ourselves to be taken advantage of. Our cabbie was extremely nice and took us through some of the neighborhoods on our way back. Plus he stopped on one of the bridges over the Nile so we could get some great night shots.

We got back to the hotel about 8 and found the men on the balconey of our room playing cards. DH and I had a beer with the gang and then went to the little cafe in the hotel and had pizza. Then off to bed for the last night in Cairo.

Sunday:
We had elected not to take the most direct flight back to Chicago which left at 3:30 in the morning. Instead we slept in, had breakfast, and then went for a swim in the pool. We headed to the airport at around 1 and checked in for our flight to Frankfurt. It left at 4pm and got in right on time. We checked in to the Sheraton at the Frankfurt airport, had a drink in the bar and shared our thoughts on all of the highlights (and some of the low points) of the trip. Then we flew the rest of the way back the next morning and arrived in Chicago at 10:30 and were home by noon.

All in all it was a fabulous trip and I would highly recommend it to anyone. The stairs are a bit of a strain for those with bad knees (and the elevators are few and far between), but the sites, sounds, smells, and tastes all made for a very memorable trip. We have gone through our pictures and edited the 1300 we took down to about 400 to share with friends and family. I would definitley go back to Egypt and would probably try to get to Alexandria and the Red Sea at a minimum. As cities go, we preferred Luxor, but I really grew to enjoy and appreciate Cairo after we got back from our adventures on the Nile. And the people all over were so wonderful.

ma'a salaema (goodbye!)
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