Travel Tips and Notes

MONEY

Usually we use ATMs to get local currency when we travel. This worked for Australia and New Zealand, England, France and Italy, even Hong Kong and mainland China. Even in Lhasa in Tibet, we walked up to a bank machine to get a refill of local currency. Not so in Egypt.

*** MY BANK CARD DID NOT WORK !! ***
I got an upgrade to my bank account at the TD Bank. It meant a new monthly service fee of $24.99, about $10 more; otherwise, a fee of $5 would apply for each foreign ATM withdrawal. In the end, what a waste! My bank card worked nowhere, except in one Jordanian ATM – which used the chip technology instead of the magnetic stripe. Inside the bank branches relied on the same swipe technology, so even going into a local bank branch did not work. I called the TD Bank card’s collect number. Even they had no answer why the card could not work; we had a 4-digit PIN, it was not blocked, there was no problem with the card, the account, or the country… Everything was fine. It just did not work.

Fortunately, my Visa card’s mag stripe worked fine for cash advances, everywhere. We also had the internet so we could put a nice lump sum down on the card to offset the cash advances.

Egyptians seem to have an aversion to making change for big bills. (and even change at all, sometimes) even at McDonalds when I presented 100LE for a 70LE purchase, they asked if I had smaller bills. I suppose this is because everyone, even merchants, don’t typically deal with banks. We forget that merchants at home here pay for the privilege of getting small bills and change from banks…

All the 5-star hotels we stayed in had a small bank branch in an office near the lobby. This is where you can exchange the big notes from the ATM (100LE and 200LE). We got a huge stack of 10’s and even a roll of 1-pound coins.

Everyone expects a tip. The bellboy, the guy loading your bag into the cab, the drivers, the attendants or guards at tourist attractions. 10LE is about $1.60, a nice round number for these sorts of tips. For washroom attendants, the one pound coin is good.

Alternatively, they are happy to receive US dollars, euros, or British pounds. Other than the US dollar, the smallest bills are too big – 5 Euros (40LE) or 5 UK Pounds (50LE) is a lot of money for most tips. Foreign coins are not as useful, unless someone collect enough to trade with a foreigner for bills.

One thing Egyptians also like about foreign bills – compared to most Egyptian currency they are new and crisp. Some local currency looks like it’s ready to crumble to pieces. We brought with us a wad of brand new, sequentially numbered US bills of various denominations.

ELECTRONICS

Rogers and Unlocking: We wanted a phone to use in Egypt (and Jordan). However, we both had iPhones but both were purchased in Canada through Rogers. In Canada, the mobile business is a cartel or kleptocracy – there are only a few players and the rates are highway robbery, customer service is non-existant. I wanted to get my phone unlocked – the only way to do this was to take the upgrade special ($219 for a new iPhone 4S) then pay $50 for Rogers to send a code to the Apple store to tell my old iPhone (via iTunes) that it was unlocked. Fortunately, this is better than a year earlier where according to the internet, there was no such service; and fortunately, I was in the last year of my contract and eligible for the upgrade. As for just roaming – why do phone companies even offer this? A dollar per text, $4 per minute to call home, $3/megabyte according to the (almost impossible to find) service plans!

Our guide, Ahmed Hamed Yousif, got us a SIM card with some pre-paid capacity on it. This gave us a local number to phone and text from. The card was through Etisalat, who offered service in both Egypt and Jordan. After a few days, it started popping up messages in Arabic telling us… something. Even the people at the hotel desk, and our guide in Luxor, had trouble deciphering it. They thought at one time it was telling us we could buy ring tones, another time warning us the credit would expire in a while. Etisalat has stores and booths everywhere. We reloaded at a store in Aswan, and again at a booth in a grocery store in Sharm el Sheik.

For calling home – we had left Kellie’s phone with her parents, so we could text when necessary. For voice communications, we bought Skype-out time to make long distance calls when we were in a hotel with internet (and we cared to pay for it). The least we could buy was $14 credit, and at 5 cents a minute this was far more than we needed.

This is the plug found in most rooms in Egypt. The same adapter with two round prongs, that is used in France, Netherlands, or Italy also works here. Since all the electronics we brought with us worked with 250V as well as 120V, all we needed was that adapter.


The adapter we took for Egypt, the adapter we should have taken for Jordan (but didn’t!)
Unfortunately, it never occurred to us that Jordan would use a different system – Jordan uses the same plugs as Britain, big clunky ones with a thick square third prong for ground. In most five-star hotels the plug in the washroom for shavers is shaped to accept North American and European plugs too; in a few rooms, the plug by the desk also allowed this. So for our two nights in Jordan, we used the bathroom shaver plug and the desk plug.  The modern traveller is lost without electricity – we charged the iPhone, iPad, and two cameras usually every night or two.

Here’s a sample of what the connected traveller needs – a 3-way outlet plug for the adapter; 2 iPhone/iPad chargers with i-USB Cables. Noise cancelling headphones.(actually, we brought 2 sets, plus the 1-to-2 headphone jack doubler in case we wanted to listen to the iPad together) The noise cancelling headphones were useful on transaltlantic flights for neutralizing some of the background noice of the flight. Just below the AirPort there’s an iPad camera card adapter for dumping our camera cards onto the iPad – something we did each night to review the photos. We also brought a standard USB for our cameras just in case. You see the two battery chargers for the cameras. There’s an Apple AirPort Express, preprogrammed to be a hotspot with NAT. Our hotels all had internet, however they only had wired internet – which the iPad doesn’t. Plug the Airport in to power and the ethernet cable; open browser on the iPad, connect to the wireless and open the hotel login screen. Note the two styles of i-Whatever chargers; the tiny sharp-cornered square is completely useless with 220V, confirming our China trip experience; the bigger, rounded one worked no problem.

We took a nice package of AAA batteries from Costco – notice them in the photo above. We had 2 LED flashlights (in case tombs or pyramids were dark) and 3 LED headlamps (for the climb up Mt. Sinai). As it turns out, the batteries included with the headlamps lasted fine. We started at 2AM and the light was still going strong at dawn. We rarely used the flashlights. The only thing the package of batteries was good for – to get the guards at the airports excited. Twice after Xrays of luggage they wanted to see what that was; I think the guards at Abu Simbel airport thought they were a magazine of bullets.

For the first time in our travels, no cameras used AA batteries, so we did not take a regular battery charger.

PHOTOGRAPHY

We bought a separate small camera capable of underwater photography in preparation for this trip – a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS3. It was recommended by dpreview.com as the best underwater camera. It also doubled as a discreet and pocketable camera for occassions when the Canon Rebel T2i with a big zoom lens was simply too much.

A blue parrot fish
Several problems with underwater photography – first, in bright sunlight the camera screen was very difficult to see – basically, as often as not I just pointed in the general direction and shot. The Lumix does not have a viewfinder, and you would not be able to use it with a snorkel mask anyway. Second, between wave action near the surface and my excessive bouyancy (no comment), it was difficult to remain steady to line up a good shot. This motion also tended to confuse the autofocus and anti-shake features on the camera. Also, the fish tend to be skittish if you get near enough to get a full frame, and at full zoom it’s often difficult to point accurately. My best results were with the camera at full arms length away so I could get it nearer the fish without scaring them. On the plus side, the Lumix has an underwater mode to get rid of the blue cast to the pictures, quite a few turned out well, and the waterproof worked as advertised, even with Red Sea mud. Just soak for a while afterwards in fresh water to dissolve away any lingering salts.

This is what happens if you forget to set “underwater” scene selection… all blue.

In many of the best tourist sites in Egypt, photography is forbidden. In the Cairo Museum, you must check your camera at the kiosk inside the gate. At Valley of the Kings, we did not even take the cameras to the gate, we left them in the van.  Some of the internet postings suggested you would be lucky if all the authorities did was delete illicit photos; some suggested your camera could be confiscated. In general, we decided not to find out. Photos are forbidden inside the various underground tombs where it was logical – the flash could ruin 3,000-year-old paintings. In other locations, like inside the Great Pyramids at Giza, there is nothing to ruin, it’s plain rock; not even heiroglyphics in most pyramids. The cynical suggest the ban is designed to help postcard sales.

Over the last few years I have accumulated a number of SD cards and we took them all; We almost filled all but the 32GB card with the two cameras. Our first trip with a digital camera was to Italy in 2001, where we acumulated 1.05GB of pictures (4MP each) over 3 weeks. When we went to Australia and New Zealand in 2004, we accumulated 3GB of photos in 21 days using a newer 4MP Canon A80. Our trip to China in 2010, we accumulated 18.4GB of photos in 2 weeks using the Canon Rebel T2i. This trip, over 17 days, we accumulated 32GB of photos. A fine JPG at 15MP is about 6 to 7 MegaBytes. Oh, well, digits are free. Our guide Ahmed said he knew he was keeping us happy if he kept hearing the click-click-click of the camera.

I had several lenses the Canon T2i – a Tamron 10-24 SP zoom for wide angle, and a Tamron 18-270 VC for normal to telephoto. Hint to phtographers – bring a wide angle for the tight quarters; and learn to take low-light shots hand-held. (With practice, I can get passable shots as low as 1/5 sometimes). Some locations, like the Treasury in Petra or inside some temples, you need wide angle to get the shot.

I left the Canon kit lenses behind at home, which was a bad choice. The long zoom had always been a bit stiff near full extension. At Queen Hapshepsut’s temple, when I extended it fully, something snapped and the “twist to zoom” feature stopped working. Eventually I guess, whatever broke also jammed inside the lens. While I could still zoom by pulling on the lens, it would not fully retract.

Here’s a hint that I bet most people have already figured out: take photos of the tourist signs.

Photo of a sign (Hapshepsut’s Temple)


Modern digital cameras in a good light are quite capable of capturing readable detail from even the small print on a sign. This lets you remember more about the sights you saw… and also “labels” your photos since the photos are numbered in sequence.

The actual photogrpah is quite legible


The text is quite readable when you zoom on a computer. The only downside is trying to find an angle without reflections if the sign is under glass.

HOW DO YOU STORE YOUR PICTURES?

I have my photos broken down by folder into year, then occasions – “Egypt Trip”; Then by date with hints “Apr 21 Ballon Ramsesseum Luxor Temple”. The camera downloads into date directories so I’m halfway there already. The only downside? I had to tidy up the photos and move them around because I forgot to set the clock on the big camera until halfway through the trip, so I spent a while finding the ones that happened after midnight N. American time and move them to the correct day with the rest of the tour.

Then I back them up to a second drive (USB disk) so that I have 2 copies of everything. Whatever editing I do is with copies, I never change the original photo file. I take highest quality JPGs, I’m not that great that I can tell the difference with RAW – even if I had the dsk space.

BOOKS

I found a few books very useful for understanding what we were seeing.

Our guide Ahmed took us to this bookstore, where I bought the museum guide, a DVD about moving Abu Simbel, and some prints of old photographs. Consider this bookstore one of the hidden gems we came across. It helps to have a guide.

Lehnert And Landrock Bookstore, Cairo

Lehnert And Landrock Bookstore, Cairo

Lehnert and Landrock (since 1904), their website, lists an address in downtown Cairo. This particular store is located just outside the exit gate of the Giza pyramid site, under the gaze of the Sphinx, right next door to the KFC – or as the locals joke, “Kentucky Fried Camel”. (Warning- These guidebooks are not cheap. I think in Egyptian currency, I paid about $US60 or more for each of the books Amazon lists it for $358 and only 1 copy available!!!). Sadly, when we were at the Cairo Museum, the bookstore kiosk seemed to be empty, closed, and “under construction”. Lehnert and Landrock sells a massive range of helpful material – maps, books and picture books in a dozen languages about Egypt and its attractions, postcards, DVD’s, and a few handicrafts and souvenirs.

Cairo Museum Guide Luxor Guide

The Luxor Guide I found at the bookstore of the Mummification Museum in Luxor. It is also by the American University in Cairo Press, but not even listed on Amazon since the AUiCP website listing says “only for sale in the Middle East” – however, there was a stack of over a dozen just in the small store where I bought it. Note the mark-up for tourists – the website lists it for only $34. The cover photo is the “Grapevine Tomb”, a tomb for a nobleman from Luxor whose holding included a winery. Both books are 600+ pages of glossy photos and illustrations. They cover more than the average tourist cares to know. When the guidebooks tell you that you could spend several days in the Cairo Museum and still not see it all – they do not exaggerate!

 

 
If you want to read up ahead of time and figure out what you are going to see – the “Complete …” series are in the category of TMI (LOL!). Again, none of these are notable for colour illustrations – more for the detailed information presented. There are:
The Complete Pyramids – by Mark Lerner – contains a survey of pyramids in gneral, the evolution of the design, their construction and archeological discoveries, and a specific discussion of almost every significant pyramid in Egypt – including diagrams of the complex passageways in or beneath many of them.
The Complete Valley of the Kings – by Nicholas ReevesThis book has diagrams of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, plus a discussion of the history and thier discovery. Also, it discusses some of the other tombs, such as the tombs of the Nobles and Valley of the Queens. It is strong on explanation, but short on colour illustrations. If you want colour photos, see the “Luxor Guide” above.
The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt – by Richard H Wilkinson - This is a survey of the temples and a discussion of each of the more prominent ones in the Nile valley. It too discusses the evolution of the architecture from simple enclosures to the massive complex enclosures like Karnak.
The Complete Tutankhamen – by Nicholas Reeves I almost bought this book twice. It is a very detailed discussion of the discovery and contents of the tomb of “King Tut”, including the detailed drawings showing the placement of the artifacts found in the tomb and a discussion of each. I forgot I had bought a copy while visiting the travelling exhibit in New York in 2010; so I almost ordered it when ordering the ones above.

Some others in the series:
The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt – by Richard H Wilkinson There are several hundred deities in the ancient heiroglyphics and wall decorations. They have multiple appearances, and each has a set of stories associated with them.
The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt – by Aidan Dodson With 30 dynasties spanning about 3,000 years, there’s a lot of people to cover on this topic. Fortunately, the Egyptians left a lot of information carved and lying about.
Note: the books are useful to prepare you for what you are going to see. However, wandering around with your nose in the book is not the way to visit these sites. Hire a guide and let him explain things and point out the little details that even the guide book does not go into, or cannot locate for you.

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