A Student in Babylon


This blog entry about the events of Saturday, June 05, 2004 was originally posted on June 12, 2004.

DAY 231:  I surrendered my passport to the security guard like I did the day before.  It sufficed for the lack of a student ID card for entrance within the American University of Cairo’s campus, just off of downtown’s Tahrir Square.  No I wasn’t posing as a student (yet); I just wanted access to their American bookstore.  Fed up with Lonely Planet’s Shoestring Guide to Africa, I bought Let’s Go’s Middle East guidebook so I could further investigate my options for a 2-3 jaunt through Jordan after my Egyptian tour.  Lonely Planet’s Shoestring Guide, trying to pack too much in one sitting, rushed and skipping a lot of things.

After research, I found out that while there were daily buses to go from the border to Petra, they all left in the morning and with my tight schedule, I wouldn’t arrive at the border until three in the afternoon.  I had no time to wait for the morning bus and would have to take an expensive taxi ride to journey the three hours northbound — possibly having to take another expensive one to Amman afterwards. 

In the end, the three-day Jordanian jaunt was doable, but only with about a twenty-minute window for error.  Plus, (the kicker) the flight from Amman to Casablanca was over a thousand bucks, over six hundred than my already-paid for flight from Cairo to Casablanca.  With Hassan at Citigo — a different Hassan from the day before, but just as helpful — I even explore the option of a connecting flight from Amman to Cairo, but nothing was cost-effective at all in the short amount of time I had.  Like Lonely Planet’s Shoestring Guide, I was trying to pack too much in one sitting.  As much as I wanted to see the location of the Holy Grail as seen in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it would have to wait for another trip — perhaps when my Jordanian-American friend Sam could take me around. 

In the end, I swapped my ferry ticket to Jordan for a bus back to Cairo.

BY THE TIME ALL THIS WAS FIGURED OUT, the Hassan from the day before still hadn’t showed.  I waited and waited and it was passed noon already.  Originally my day tour of Old Cairo and Islamic Cairo was to start at ten, until Hassan said starting at twelve would give me enough time.  Half passed twelve, nothing.  Hassan #2 assured me that Hassan #1 and a driver were en route, just stuck in traffic.  They arrived by one and there wasn’t a minute to lose with sites closing at five. 

I left the Hassans and rode off with driver Mohammed and escort Michael to the ISIC office so that I could get an official International Student Identity Card (as oppose to the fake ones sold in internet cafes), since everyone said that it would be no problem for me to use one with my young-looking appearance.  I was worried that they might run a background check to see if I was actually enrolled anywhere, but they never bothered.  And so, without the hassles of bursars, registrars and financial aid, I was instantly a student of Rutgers University once again.  Michael paid for the card and sent me off to spend the rest of the day with driver/guide Mohammed.

MEMBERSHIP HAD ITS PRIVILEGES, as I used my new student status to get half off admission of the sites the rest of the day.  The first site was Old Cairo, formerly known as the biblical city of Babylon, just south of downtown Cairo, where Coptic Christianity was practiced amongst Jews before the rise of Islam.  Evidence of Egypt’s Coptic Christian past still exists today with its several churches and a nunnery lining its narrow cobblestone streets.  I visited the Churches of Saint Sergio, Saint Barbara and Saint Mary, but the big daddy of them all was the tremendous and spectacular Church of Saint George, built on the former site of the legendary Tower of Babylon.  As for Babylon’s Jewish past; evidence of it is seen in the Ben Ezra Synagogue, a still-active synagogue for the few remaining Jewish families residing in Old Cairo. 

While all this may seem interesting, I pretty much was cranky seeing everything.  Mohammed wasn’t much of a guide either; he just dropped me off at the entry gate and told me to read the signs — if only most of them were in English!  Plus it was hot and my bag was weighing me down and my pants were sagging since I lost weight since Ethiopia, love handles, beer gut and all.  Wait a minute, I’m complaining that my gut is finally gone?  Get WITH it, man!  Snap out of it!

“How was it?” Mohammed asked me back in his taxi.

“Okay.  I didn’t know what was what though.”

“I told you there were signs.”

“But they were in Arabic!”

My driver saw that I was a little perturbed and tried to make up for it; he knew my assessment back to Hassan at the office would determine how much he’d get paid.  And so, he explained some of the history of our next destination, the Citadel in Islamic Cairo, the city’s medieval Muslim district.  Again he just dropped me off at the gate for me to explore the compound on my own for an hour.  I was in better spirits this time around — I “snapped out of it” when I saw the signs were in English — and I wandered the impressive Mosque of Sultan Al-Nasser and the stupendous Mosque of Muhammed ‘Ali (picture above), Islamic Cairo’s postcard centerpiece built in 1830 after Aya Sophia in Istanbul, inside and out

After an hour of mosques and a former sultan palace-turned-museum that didn’t permit photography, Mohammed my driver picked me up and tried to earn his keep with Egyptian hospitality.  “We go back downtown now?” he asked.

“Isn’t there more of Islamic Cairo to see?”

“Where you want to go?”

“I don’t know.  That’s why I’m paying for a tour, so I don’t have to think about it.” 

With that said, he took me to drive by more sights, many of which were closed by the time of our arrival.  From the Sultan Hassan Complex, we drove out to one of Cairo’s Cities of the Dead, cemeteries populated by poor people when it was their only option to combat overpopulation — they lived in emptied mausoleums and worked as caretakers.  From there, we saw some sites in modern Cairo, from the observatory Cairo Tower to the Cairo Opera House.  For a little fun, Mohammed drove through the narrow streets of the Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar, most of which was closed since it was Sunday.

In the end, Mohammed turned out to be a decent guide after all, and I reported to Hassan accordingly. 

THE INTERNET HELPED KILL TIME between the day tour and my night train to Aswan, the southernmost city of Egypt, and the first part of my tour of nine-day tour.  Peter, the friendly guy at Citigo Travel, escorted me in a taxi to my first class seat on the train and told me his colleague from affiliate Amigo Travel would pick me up in Aswan.  This was welcome news to hear; Amigo Tours was recommended by Let’s Go.  With a row to myself in a big comfy, reclining chair in an air-conditioned car, I rode through the night.  A guided overland tour group of presumably all 1981ers on vacation from school got on at one of the stops before leaving Cairo, and I blended in fairly well.  I had a student ID card in my wallet after all.

Next entry: My Nubian Rights

Previous entry: Dates in Egypt

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Comments for “A Student in Babylon”

  • 1981ers….not too bad…if they were 1982ers you would be sooo out of place….


    go get that beer gut back in europe!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/11  at  11:49 PM

  • The pictures are great. I would have been upset too if someone had attempted to just kind of pawn me off on the signs and I hadn’t been able to read them. Sheesh!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/12  at  12:05 AM

  • Erik….glad to hear you are having better days..Glad you are back blogging….I have been going through withdrawl the past week!!! Keep up the great writing.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/12  at  12:28 AM

  • some nice ass weather out here in San Francisco….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/12  at  11:42 PM

  • great post once again. peace!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/13  at  06:24 AM

  • Oh, and the picture at the top is AWESOME! Sorry, forgot to mention that. Perhaps I was having a blonde moment.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/13  at  09:40 AM

  • Hey, they just found a 5,000 year old necropolis in some ‘burb of Cairo.  There’s an adventure for you Erik - go check it out smile  You could be one of the first non-archaeologists (sp?) there!

    Posted by Liz  on  06/13  at  10:07 AM

  • ERIK: Great pics man. Keep on. Excellent stuff. You need to chio nob so that the love handles return to proper form!

    MARKYT: I said scrambled!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/13  at  07:09 PM

  • READER POLL:  Ok, to get the comments going again and to give Erik some more encouragement, here’s a question for everyone:

    Of all the destinations Erik has gone to so far, which one would you like to go to the most?  Why?

    Posted by Liz  on  06/13  at  07:43 PM

  • I want to go to the Bolivian salt flats right after a big rain.  The landscape is amazing and the reflection from the surface water just brings it over the top.  I want to live in a Dali painting for a day!
    Ethiopia is a close second smile

    Posted by Liz  on  06/13  at  07:45 PM

  • LIZ:  Great question!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/13  at  07:51 PM

  • LIZ/ERIK:  Definitely want to party at Carnaval in Brazil =)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/13  at  08:12 PM

  • My pick is the Amazon trip.  All those strange creatures and plants - plus you get to swing the machete!  The Bolivian salt flats are a close second.  Who knew salt flats would be so cool? 

    I love the entries are any where you bond with the other travellers.  Especially when you hang with them for a few days and we feel like we know them too.  And when the locals tell you stories.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/13  at  10:05 PM

  • All of South/Latin America. Esp. the spanish language school.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/13  at  10:43 PM

  • Toss up between Carnaval and Kilimanjaro

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/13  at  10:55 PM

  • Carnaval and also diving off Zanzibar… those are my tops!!

    I’ve only gone diving off of Nicaragua and I’m interested in going to carnaval for next year…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/14  at  04:26 AM

  • Liz took mine. If I go, (let me rephrase that!) When I go, I’m waiting until after a rain shower. Because the salt flats that Global trekker showed me can’t touch the same salt flats that Blog showed me! Thanks Erik!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/14  at  06:29 AM

  • ALL: Having had a bit part in Erik’s carnaval episodes, ex-that I’d have to say that it would’ve been nice to see the Bolivian salt flats, taken dancing lessons in Buenos Aires, and party in South Africa. My $0.02

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/14  at  02:32 PM

  • I would have loved to drive over chickens in Zanzibar…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/14  at  07:14 PM

  • Egypt & Zanzibar for me!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/18  at  04:18 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today, RickSteves.com, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.

Next entry:
My Nubian Rights

Previous entry:
Dates in Egypt


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1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year — I guess you could call them "1991ers" in 2013 — young, entitled millennials on the road these days, essentially.

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