Egypt has landed on our vacation like a ton of jello. From Cairo to Aswan (our only two data points), Egyptians appear to be excessively noisy drivers and pushy shopkeepers, friendly but disrespectful, and helpful but they want their cut. Everything seems like a rip-off or a scam: "set" prices for tourists are at least doubled, and every ten feet some one will shout "Welcome! You want a [hotel, taxi, falucca, camel, donkey, guide, scarf, spices, or cigarette]?" Touts stand by the doors of tourists sites, demand to see your ticket, then guide you (all the while insisting that they are from the government, their services are free, and they just want you to be happy) into a waiting sale pitch. Flame is constantly getting cat-hisses, "I love you!"'s, honks, and other attention that ranges from irritating to frightening. The most chilling part for me is seeing women in full black hajabs looking like specters of death. The streets are a nightmare, with cars that accelerate at people crossing, and frequently too many lanes of traffic to cross without weaving between headlight-less cars. Cars honk for every reason and no reason, creating a constant cacophony reverberating for miles even in the middle of the night.
All that said, we've managed to do quite a bit in four days, and I think avoided the worst of it. Egypt has been exciting and intense for me as a culture shock-- a place I could easily imagine living, for all its problems, just to experience a life of such a different grit.
Our first impression of Cairo was of how dusty it is-- at times you can't see more than a couple of blocks through the haze. Our hostel in Cairo was super-helpful, calling dozens of other hotels to find us a room when we arrived too late for the one we reserved. That night we walked through a solid mile of clothing stands to the European expat island of Zamalek for some fine Italian dining at half the European price.
The second day was a huge string of successes. We uncovered the right bus and braved the camel-toting touts to see the pyramids. Then we used a microbus, a metro, and many people's broken English to find a recommended lunch restaurant. Then we struggled through solid humanity and nameless alleyways to find our way into and back out of the Khan Al-Khanili Bazarre. Then we secured two sleeper car tickets to Aswan, the details of which (e.g. that we would need to get them today), we only heard over breakfast this morning. And we finished the day with tea and sheesha at one spot and takeaway Mediterranean food from another. And finally we stumbled to the safety of our hostel in one piece, with the possible exception of our feet and calves.
Day three was for the tourist-crawling Egyptian museum, with so much exquisite ancient art that every step I wished we were able to use our camera. After another visit to the island for French-Italian delights, we wandered around Cairo's old city, a mix of cement-formed entrances to touristic markets, and a grid of run-down buildings, dirt roads, playing children, and hookah-smoking old men. The train to Aswan was a nerve-racking half-hour late (we watched each train pull out wondering if we should be on it), but an unexpected comfort as our hotel-room-on-wheels started and stopped without concerning us at all until the butler-like Joseph told us to pack our things out the next morning.
The area around Aswan is a fantastic discontinuity between barren desert and fertile farmland. The Nile is deep blue, peppered with small ferries and faluccas, and bordered with river-smoothed boulders and palm forests. The pedestrian market street down the middle of town is lively and colorful, but the attitudes of shopkeepers may have poisoned our experience there. We took the public ferry to Elephantine Island (we were the only ones who seemed to pay), and wandered blindly between mud-brick and herds of goats to Abu, a sprawling 3rd millennium BC city, lovingly excavated and reconstructed. Finally, a long walk along the hills south of town brought us within sight of the famed First Cataract at a quiet Nubian restaurant that all the tour buses had just left.