Go to Egypt.
Start planning now, for any time in October through mid May. Pick 10 to 30 days in that time and go to Egypt. Buy the latest Rough Guide or Lonely Planet and go to Egypt. Particularly if you are from the U.S., you need to go to Egypt. You NEED to go. Forget Disney World or Universal Studios or Sea World or other mass marketed places that you have been to already and spend way too much money on and for which you will have a dozen opportunities to visit again. Take all that same amount of money and go to Egypt. The crowds won't be as bad, the weather is just as good if not better, everything is much cheaper, you will see things that will touch the depths of your soul, you will understand International news and Islamic culture much more than you do now, and your pictures of your trip afterwards will be like works of art, with you in them.
What's stopping you?
Yes, I went back to Egypt. I fell in love with it during my four days there last year. I wanted to see it again, and see more of it.
Before I continue, I want to say I feel unworthy to even write about it, really. Who am I try to follow in the footsteps of Heroditus? Or Mark Twain? What can I say that hasn't been said already? I guess that, in addition to helping you visualize fantastic places, I'm also trying to show what it's like, good and bad, to take a trip like this, to not only know about the beautiful places but also to see what it takes to get there and back. I ultimately hope to inspire more people to go.
On my last trip to Egypt, I was there on business, so my hotel and transportation were taken care of by someone else -- both the finances as well as the coordination. For this trip, I used the Rough Guide for Egypt I had bought last year, and the message boards on Lonely Planet (The Thorn Tree) to make a short list of hotels for Cairo and Luxor; then I searched each short-listed hotel on Google to find out anything else I should know about them, particularly if someone else had written about them. The choice for Luxor, based on all of the above, was obvious: the Nefertiti Hotel (more on that later). The choice for Cairo was much harder; nothing obviously jumped out. I wanted a place that was at least a step above a back packer hotel, with some character, a helpful staff, clean rooms, breakfast included and some interesting feature like a roof terrace. I didn't care about a TV in the room or a pool. I finally decided to go with the Pension Roma -- very glad of that choice, and more on that later.
The trip to get to Egypt was looooong -- it began on April 16, with train to Koblenz, another to Mainz, another to Frankfurt, then a flight to Heathrow, and another to Cairo. Security personnel at Frankfurt were confused by the purpose of my sea bands (a pantomime of throwing up explained it all) and my bra kept setting off the hand-held metal detectors. Stefan had taken my advice to book flights that gave us two hours delays in London, rather than just one hour, and per all the security and walking we had to do, why a travel agent would believe a person could make it with an hour layover is beyond me.
We landed in Cairo and walked out into the craziness of the airport. We saw our American Express guy right away, with my name on a board. I paid about $165 to have him there, to exchange money for us, get us through customs, and have a paid-for driver waiting for us. Expensive, but I just didn't feel like negotiating or figuring out anything on our first night in Egypt, particularly with us arriving close to midnight. It was, by far, the most expensive thing we bought other than plane tickets for the entire trip.
Our driver was a nice guy, who, ofcourse, immediately started trying to sell us a tour package and to use him as a driver for all of our trip. It took a while for him to find the entrance to the Pension Roma, as it's off the street, down an alley between two department stores. As we approached on foot, a guy hanging out with three other guys on a blanket jumped up and went to the entrance and "called" the elevator, an ancient, wonderful wooden and metal contraption from who knows when, that creaks and grinds and has few safety features. It has room for only four people inside, sans luggage. The guy rode up with us, and when we arrived at the fourth floor, he opened the two wooden doors and then the gate. We stepped out into a worn-down but clean and still grand 1940s hallway of high ceilings, cement floors covered in long carpets, and wooden furniture. I loved it immediately. I'd made the right choice. The Rough Guide had said, "The stylish 1940s ambience, immaculately maintained by Madame Cressaty, comes highly recommended and reservations are essential. Constant hot water." There was a lot of antique wood everywhere. We had a HUGE room, with three one-person beds -- all uncomfortable, but I can sleep anywhere. Our room had a vast high ceiling, old wood furniture, a creaky wooden floor, and a sink in the room. No bathroom in the room, but there were two just a few steps away, and we never once waited to use them. It was all CLEAN and friendly, and that's truly what is most important.
The sounds of Cairo last until about 3 a.m., and then resume at dawn with the calls to prayer. It's part of the flavor and wonder of the city, and for some reason, it doesn't keep me awake. What I wasn't happy about were the mosquitos; they were awful in our room each night. We had a bug thing plugged into the wall, we bathed our ears and faces in bug spray, but two or three would still get through and torture us a few times in the night. Still, I loved the nights -- I loved hearing the call to prayer, "Allahu Akbar," meaning "God is most great," as sounds of other call to prayers rumble in the background from all over the city. It's what I missed so much on my first trip to Cairo -- I heard it so seldom then, from the resort where my business meeting was. This trip, I would lay there in the night and the dawn, roused from a dream by that sound, and when it was over, I would drift right back off. It's an amazing sound.
At one point that first night, I got up to go to the bathroom, and in the hallway was a kitten -- almost a cat -- laying on a sofa. I tried to make friends, but he/she ran away quickly. Cats are everywhere, and have free reign of many buildings, including hotels, but they are quite skittish.
We slept until 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, our first full day in Egypt (the latest we ever slept on the whole trip). Our room was one floor up from the main floor, and we took the wide, formerly-grand cement steps down each time, then through the long hallway and on to the dining room for breakfast, which wasn't much -- just bread and coffee. Still, it was enough to get going. I kept going on and on about how much I loved the place -- to me, it felt like a 1940s movie. And I just love 1940s movies... We met THE Madame Cressaty, a no-nonsense business woman who truly knows how to run a hotel. She and Alexandra's mother should write a book about their experiences managing hotels in exotic locations... best seller, for sure.
This day, we were going to have coffee with a woman from a field office of my company. A driver arrived and took us to Cairo's World Trade Center, where we met up with friends and then went to the swanky hotel next door for coffee and chat. I was reminded again of the contrasts of Cairo, with most everything run down and worn and, sometimes, grungy looking, while the luxury hotels right next door are opulent and completely Westernized. We dropped by the American Express office so we could make arrangements to travel to Luxor. It turned out that there was a round trip flight cheaper than the round-trip sleeper train. Then it was time to really begin our vacation, to strike out completely on our own and see a sight or two. We flagged down a black and white (the beat-up cabs of Cairo), asked for the Citadel, and off we went. And we quickly realized the driver did not know where he was going, as he was constantly stopping and asking people directions. But this is not unusual. Cairo is the largest city in Africa, and no one knows where everything is, and even if they do, no one is sure exactly how to get there. But he did get us there! Driving around the lower walls and looking inside, I saw some of the most intense poverty I have ever seen in my life. It was mind-boggling and jaw-dropping. People living in absolute filth, piles of trash everywhere. I wanted to cry.
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The Citadel is not an ancient site, but is dang old, and I missed it on my last trip. It is a massive stone fortress begun by Salah al-Din, known in the West as Saladin, the Medieval Christian Crusaders' foe -- though greatly respected by the enemy (see Terry Gilliam's videos about the Crusades for a really education and very entertaining retelling of this). Salah al-Din's reign was from 1171-93. But the Citadel is associated primarily with Mohammed Ali -- not the boxer. In 1811, he held a feast for 470 Mamelukes, the guys that were controlling Cairo at that time, in the Citadel palace. He bade them farewell with honors, then had them ambushed just outside.
We stayed outside the Citadel at first to visit Rafai Mosque and Mosque of Sultan Hassan. The mosques are right next to each other, with just a thin, long walkway between them. You feel like you could be smashed between the two. We sat in the shade between the mosques, eating some breakfast bars, drinking water, and reading from the Rough guide to get some history. After breaking down and buying some postcards from a guy desperate to sell us such, we went into the Rafai Mosque, which was a kind of royal mosque. We took our shoes off, gave them to the guy that keeps such, and strolled around the massive rooms, taking it all in. I had never been in a mosque before, and it felt similar in many ways to a cathedral, but with no obvious central point of worship and, ofcourse, no furniture. There's no pictures of any kind, just vast amounts of space, with every wall covered in intricate patterns. I must have been dressed appropriately, because unlike some other female tourists, they didn't ask me to put on a robe. King Fouad, who reigned from 1917 - 36, and the last King of Egypt, Farouk, who was overthrown in the 1950s and died in exile, have their tombs here. We walked into the tomb room and found a small old man praying in front of Farouk. We turned to leave but he encouraged us to come in with a wave us his hand. He never stopped praying. I wonder if he was praying for Farouk's soul... A tomb that confused me greatly was the Shah of Iran -- yes, he's there too. I never could get a straight answer as to why.
Then we walked over to the much older mosque of Sultan Hassan, begun in 1356. It didn't feel like it was still in use, but someone later told me it was. You walk through long corridors and come to a huge open courtyard, with massive carpeted prayer areas on four sides. It felt weird to do so much walking in bare feet. Let me correct that -- it felt GREAT to do so much walking in bare feet, but also strange. There were three Muslim girls in one of the prayer areas, sitting in a corner, taking a break from the heat and noise and other people. We were the only other people there in the massive, vast space, and had one of the prayer chambers all to ourselves.
We left and I was scary hungry. My sugar level had suddenly plummeted, and I realized I had way overdone it. We ask the guard for a recommendation of a place to eat, NOT a western place, and he sent us around the long block all the way around the mosques, into Islamic Cairo, to a very traditional neighborhood cafe. It was wide open, no doors or windows. Our outdoor table had a perfect view of the front of the massive mosques we had just visited. We ate kushari, a traditional Egyptian cheap meal that is a mixtures of noodles, rice, macaroni, lentils and onions. You mix it with a spicy tomato sauce. We also had a second ultra hot spice that was beyond good. Stefan devoured his; I ate about half mine. It was delicious, but I had been so weak, I had to give myself time for my sugar and salt levels to catch up. We drank a coke, as well as water we had brought ourselves, and sat there taking in the craziness of the tiny, winding street, with a constant stream of passing donkeys and beat up vans, beat up cars and beat up Suzuki motorcycles. Every child that passed said hello, and when a small crowd of them gathered, the owner came out and shooed them away. When I was ready to go, I went to the bathroom, which was incredibly dark but no more scary than some bathrooms I've seen in Austin bars, and when I came out, Stefan was smoking a shisha with a group of guys. A reminder to my mother that Shishas are not drugs -- it's a mixture of tobacco and apple, usually. Total bill was 16 Egyptian pounds. That's less than $3.
Actually, now is a good time to do some currency notes, so you understand just how cheap things are. As of Sunday, April 27, 2003:
I read these numbers and become ashamed for my attempts at bargaining in Luxor... but more about that later.
We began walking back through the streets, and stopped at a road side stand to get water and cokes, realizing that we had a long, long walk around the Citadel to the entrance in the full sun. But just as we were getting going, a guy asked us where we were going and, being stupid, we told him. And he said, oh, the Citadel entrance is closed now. We talked to him for a while, and he seemed so nice and friendly. He implied that he was on his way home and that he would be happy for us to walk with him, since he would be passing the "Blue Mosque", which was a really great thing to see.
Now, I want to say up front that we weren't robbed, and that more than likely, the entrance to the Citadel would have, indeed, been closed by the time we made it around. But midway through the winding streets of Islamic Cairo, I realized we'd been "fished." Being fished actually isn't always or even usually a bad thing: the guys are usually just to get you to go to some site where they will get a commission on what you pay to get in, or the hotel you go to instead of the one you originally intended to stay at. But when I realized we'd been fished, and realized we were being lead way off the well-beaten tourist track, I got scared. Islamic Cairo is not on most tourists agenda, and there were no tourist police anywhere. I'll let the guidebook describe it: "Few foreigners enter its maw without equal measures of excitement and trepidation. Streets are narrow and congested, slimy underfoot with donkey shit and burst water mains." Few people called out to us to buy anything, because we were in a real neighborhood, with people busily working on old bicycles or scooters, pounding out ironworks, navigating goats through the streets -- I wish I hadn't been so scared so I could have enjoyed it more. Little girls touched my hand or arms as I went by -- I guess they were just curious to touch a Western woman, or to touch my clothes. At one point, an old woman was coming towards us, covered completely in black except for her face, and she was just as pale as a woman could be, with pink flushed cheeks. Oh, the history that runs through the veins of Egyptians, conquered by the Nubians, Persians, the Mamelukes, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the French, the British...
After what seemed like an eternity, we got to the "Blue Mosque," and the hard, hard sell began, as the guy was now magically joined by others. And the hard sell was totally overboard and even threatening, with vastly inflated prices and outright lies (like that the Mosque was the oldest in Cairo). And I got MAD. I refused to pay, I opened up my guidebook to look up how to get out of there and they told me I had to close it because it wasn't allowed in the mosque, so I grabbed Stefan's hand and stormed out. The guy followed us, yelling about how he'd brought us here, he had a family to feed, blah blah, and I threw a 10 at him and told him it was all he was getting and he should be absolutely ashamed. I wish I had yelled it. And I continued to storm off. He let us go, and it took forever to find out where we were, but we did, ultimately. The first black and white refused to take us to our hotel; I don't know why. The second agreed. As angry as I was for being fished, I have to agree with Stefan -- we saw an amazing part of Cairo and, ultimately, I'm glad to have seen it.
Back at the hotel, I suggested we go to Khan El-Khalili, the maze of shopping stalls I'd loved so much when I toured them on my last trip. The guy at the front desk told us that they stayed open until 9. We got a black and white (they pretty much always saw us before we saw them, so we rarely had to wave them down) and headed to "The Khan." And I'm sorry to say that I didn't enjoy it as much as I had the times before, because everyone just latched on to Stefan like there was no tomorrow. They were all over him, like flies. He wanted to quietly look and consider things, but you just can't do that when you are a tourist guy in the Khan. Compounding the assault of sellers, I was, again, seriously starving; I was not managing myself well at all this trip so far, when it came to food. We wandered around looking for places to eat, and I finally dragged us into Cafeteria Khan El-Khalili, which is a proper restaurant and quite expensive by Cairo standards -- just under 100 Egyptian Pounds. But still cheap by Western standards, and a good (and much-needed) meal.
The next day, we headed for the Marriott, where we were to meet the American Express tour. The Marriott is a former palace, and is ULTRA expensive -- $200 a night. I was bent on eating breakfast there, which is expensive by Egypt standards: 48 Egyptian pounds for the full breakfast buffet. But I knew that if I could have a really good, strong breakfast with lots of sugar and salt, I would be fine all day. Then we sat in the lobby until it was time for the tour. The tour is expensive -- like 800 Egyptian Pounds or so (less than $200). The Rough Guide calls it overpriced. But here's everything you get:
True, they try to take you to a carpet school (we refused) and they make you go to a Papyrus "Museum", which we did (because they really do make great gifts). It was almost exactly the same as the tour I did last year, so I won't go into details of what you have already heard. I will say that I wanted to take home a puppy running around Memphis sooooooooo badly.... This time, I paid a lot more attention to the farmland we passed through as we drove to far away Memphis and Saqqara. I discovered that the four-story buildings I had thought empty on the previous trip were actually where the kids that work in the carpet schools do their work -- I could see the looms and the floor supervisors this time, probably because I knew what to look for. I looked closely at the homes, some hovels, some lovely, all along a lush canal of the Nile. I would love to have taken a ton of pictures, but I just don't know how people along the way feel about that.
On the subject of child labor -- it is, ofcourse, abhorrent. But as I've learned from my development studies, it is a necessary reality in developing countries. Families depend on child labor to sustain the entire family. Children begin working at a very early age, tending cattle, tending farmland, or going to work to make carpets. I'm NOT excusing child labor -- not at all. But I do understand now that to stop child labor, we have to stop the conditions that create the requirement of child labor to sustain a family. In developed countries, children cost the family money; in developing countries, they must make money for the family.
In the middle of the tour, we stopped at the Marriott for a quick lunch. We sat drinking water and eating sandwich raps. Stefan was in the bathroom, and I was sitting in the lobby, watching people come through security. A woman came in completely covered, wearing colors of desert brown and some white. Only her eyes were visible. Even her hands were covered. She floated through security, and every guy in the place watched her glide through the lobby, those dark eyes revealing nothing but mystery. And I knew that, underneath that veil was an absolute beauty, someone that would put a supermodel to shame. After she was gone, Stefan returned, and said, "Did you see that woman covered in brown?" He had thought the same thing -- that she was gorgeous. And we had an interesting conversation about how sexy being covered actually could be. Not that I think women should be covered -- but if it makes her happy and its her choice, fine. I wonder what kind of magic she works with those eyes...
One difference on this trip to my visit last time was that we went into the Pyramid of Mycerinus, rather than Chephren. It turns out that the authorities rotate which pyramid will be open on a year or bi-yearly basis, as the moisture from the breath of tourists, as well as the wear and tear of their shoes and hands, take a toll on the structures. Not as badly as the outside pollution, ofcourse... Mycerinus is the smallest of the three "great" pyramids of Giza.
We did the almost-obligatory camel ride photos, and the guys really tried to take advantage of us. I think Egyptians see Western men as easier marks than women. If a guy is taken advantage of, he's less likely to complain because his pride is hurt, and he doesn't want to admit he's been taken; a woman from the West will scream, throw a fit and complain to any supervisor she can find. Which I almost did at one point. The camel guys tried to take us for a literal and figurative ride, and it's because I started yelling that the ride was OVER that they stopped. Then they separated us and tried to get each of us to pay for both of our rides -- luckily, Stefan knew somehow I was being asked for the same thing.
While standing at the Sphinx, listening to our guide give some background, I kept thinking that I was feeling very faint droplets of water occasionally, one maybe seven seconds or so. And when a tiny droplet did appear on my sun glasses, I thought someone was throwing water at us, trying to get us to drink. But it was, every so slightly, raining! I'm not sure most people noticed, but our guide, Stefan and I did, and we had a big laugh about it -- how many people have been rained on at the Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza?!
Egypt is hurting for tourists badly. Our guides told us that the week before our visit, Giza was empty. Part of that sounds appealing, but also a little scary -- it would have meant that we were the focus of EVERY vendor. I guess that once the war started, people stopped cancelling reservations, so we were getting the first round of people who hadn't cancelled their travel plans.
It was around 3 when the tour ended, and the guide said she could drop us nearer to our hotel by dropping us at a hotel near the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. And I got it into my head that I was going to pay 3 Egyptian pounds to go home. That's the proper rate according to our guide, although the tourist rate is 5. I was DETERMINED to pay only three. I'd say 3, the driver would say 20, I'd walk off. People were begging, yelling, "5! 5!" A guy followed us in his taxi and finally relented and said he'd do it for three. After that little victory, I never tried again. It's just not worth it to haggle over what, for me, are pennies. Particularly given how desperate folks are here for income.
The day wasn't over: we were to have dinner with friends! Before hand, since we were ready early, we walked around the neighborhood of our hotel, which is a major shopping area. It was CRAZY. Friday is the Sabbath, and everyone is hitting the shops. I found it overwhelming, mostly because I just did not want to get grabbed. Then we headed by black and white for Zamalek Island, where my friends live. It's where most of the Embassy staff live, and it features the trendiest, most Western night spots (none of which we went to, ofcourse -- "trendy" isn't an attractive word for me, for the most part...).
My friends would have been happy to have had us stay with them at their wonderful apartment on Zamalek, but they are forbidden from having male non-family members stay over. As usual, the driver of the black and white had no idea of our ultimate destination and we saw a lot more of the area than we had intended. Once we found the street, it was tiny and narrow. As we approached the building, a guy who looked like someone who had wandered in from the desert (traditional long gray dress and white turban) walked up to us -- turned out he was sitting on a chair across the street. He took us up to the top floor only after we said the name of one of my friends. They were thrilled that we brought German white wine. We were joined by three more people, and were served an AMAZING meal (thank you, Riham!). It was a nice, but too short, evening. I did not want to leave -- I was so happy to be sitting on that rooftop terrace, looking out over Cairo, eating good food and being with good people. But we had a very early day in the morning. So we left, with so much food still untouched.
Saturday, we headed out very early with the intent to be one of the 150 people let into the Great Pyramid, Cheops, each morning (our American Express guide had let us in on this information -- yet another reason I say they are worth the price). On the way there by black and white, a guy jumped into the passenger seat and started chatting away to the driver, and turned to us and apologized, said he thought we were Egyptian, that he just needed to be dropped off nearby, hoped we didn't mind. Actually, I didn't. I chatted him up, since I knew he wouldn't be asking for baksheesh. He works as a security guard at a nearby hospital, and only just recently got out of the army. He kept telling Stefan he was nearly Egyptian for having a mustache, and when I said this was my second trip to Egypt, he announced that I am now Egyptian. Cool. According to Alexandra's relatives, I'm Catalyn too.
It took a while to find the ticket booth for the Great Pyramid, and I was worried that we wouldn't get in -- there were already three tourist buses there. But we did get a ticket (40 Egyptian pounds each), and we climbed up the pyramid and went inside. That's the difference in this and the others -- you don't go under it, you go IN IT. There is no proof that the other pyramids also have such inner chambers, but I suspect the other large pyramid, Chephren, also has such. All of the mysteries and conspiracy theories of the pyramids center around Cheops, and this visit was one of Stefan's life-long dreams. He looked like a child in the greatest toy store ever. It was an interesting sensation to walk into the pyramid, instead of down into a shaft, and after walking in, to then go UP. It was a bit stifling, and my heart was pounding, but I wanted to see!! Inside of a structure that's more than 4,000 years old... it was the same feeling I had at New Grange in Ireland. Up and up we climbed to the King's Chamber, and we stayed in the tomb for a long time, so long that the guide inside quit bothering us, realizing that Stefan had as much to say, if not more, about where we were, than he did. Other people came in, looked around and then simply left. We explored with Stefan's flashlight, even getting down on the ground when necessary. We lingered over any hole or line in the rock that we found. There are no hieroglyphics in pyramids, which is probably a shock to visitors. What you admire, at the least, is the construction. But there is an air of mystery, whether you read conspiracy theories or not, that cannot be denied. When we left, I realized the pyramid was closed -- I think we were some of the last people to get inside that day.
So, I have now been into all three of the great Pyramids of Giza. Impressed?
We walked around and lingered as we liked at the foot of Cheops, which was so terrific to do -- no guides, no itinerary, just our whims and will. We decided to go into the solar boat museum, which was quite interesting. It is next to the great pyramid, housed in a massive air-conditioned complex. The boat is made of cedarwood (that shows you how dry the desert is, that such an ancient thing is still preserved), and was discovered in 1954. It's a massive barge -- the theory is that it was the ceremonial, symbolic boat to take dead kings into the heavens. The solar boat museum also gives you a better view of the attempted entrance to Cheops on the South side.
We walked around the complex more, next to the "Queens' Pyramids", though we didn't go in. Then we walked the long road all the way down past the Sphinx. Then we went to Kentucky Fried Chicken. What a bizarre paragraph to write.
Why KFC? Because I knew I could get a lot of food there, I would not have to think while ordering, and I did not want to get hungry like I had gotten two days before -- that had just about ruined that first day.
We headed to the Egyptian Antiquities Museum to finish the day. This time, there were lots of people, unlike when I was there last time. Still, there were no lines. It was not as overwhelming to me this time as last time, but, then again, I didn't try to see it all. We did the most ancient exhibits first, then went to the Tut exhibits, which are just mind-boggling -- I spent a little more time over particularly things this visit, rather than trying to see absolutely everything. But when you realize that Tut's treasures take up half of an entire floor, and that this is the only tomb that has been found un-robbed, that were they to find another such tomb, what incredible things would be revealed... amazing. I also got to linger over the Amarna Gallery this time. Once you see the statues and reliefs from this period (1379-1362), you will be able to pick them out whenever you see them -- they are really different from anything else. Akhenaten rejected Amun and the other deities and decreed the supremacy of a single god, the Aten. His wife was Nefertiti. His statues feature an elongated head, a very narrow face and a realistic belly. The Armana art focuses on "this" world -- like the royal family having breakfast -- rather than the afterlife. Nefertiti searched for allies after the death of Akhenaten, to counter those who pressed Tutankhamen to reverse the Amarna religion. She failed.
We went to a room of ancient papyrus, trying to find the Satirical Papyrus, which shows mice being served by cats in a parody of offerings to the gods, but we never found it. Neither of us had any interest in paying the additional fee to see the mummy exhibit (we find the sarcohphague much more interesting). The room of mummified animals, which is interesting in that its easy for most tourists to miss and it feels like an old 1940s museum in and of itself, was closed for some reason. There is a new exhibit of items from the basement, presented in a basement-storage kind of style, that is supposed to be neat, but we were tired, and decided to just visit the gift shop and then head home for a siesta -- and, by the way, Egyptians understand this word. They laugh when you say it and say, "Yes, yes! We do that too." We woke to the noon call to prayer, an extraordinary experience in a dark room of high ceilings and previous grandeur from the 1940s.
I took a shower, and then we ventured out so I could shop a little and we could find a place to eat, preferably one that served BEER. I found a long-sleeved bluejean dress that I liked very much, and the green-grey-eyed salesman was beyond happy to make a sale. I paid the ticket price -- even at that it was a steal. Plus, I don't think the shops around our hotel are the kind of places you bargain, since tourists don't go there, though the salespeople will often quote a tourist a higher price than is on the tags. I would have liked to have bought a more summery long-sleeved shirt that went below my waist -- it's an incredibly handy thing to have in an Islamic country. But I never found anything I liked. Not in a shop, anyway -- I saw all sorts of women WEARING what I wanted. Ain't that the way it always is?!
We tried a restaurant two doors down from one of the only Synagogues left in Egypt -- a massive stone structure used by only a handful of people every Saturday and guarded by black helmeted military men ready to shoot first and ask questions later. The restaurant was in the New Hotel lobby, and only after we ordered drinks did they inform us that they weren't serving food. At first I thought they were refusing to serve us, but I think they really weren't serving anyone, largely because a major football game was on and no one wanted to miss it, including the cook. We walked some more and found a run down diner that served Stella beer, an Egyptian brew that isn't as good as the Saqqara brand we had at my friend's place, but I was fine with it. Not a great meal, but a filling one. I ate chicken and rice at almost every meal, because it was good and because I figured it was as safe as it could be.
I spent the rest of the evening in the room studying, which I desperately needed to do. It provided incredible context to re-read a chapter on employment in Egypt -- I had just seen everything the book talked about.
Although this was a vacation, I did have to work one day, Easter Sunday, to make a presentation and do a little consulting. We got up early, ate breakfast, and I completely forgot that a driver was coming to fetch me for my one day of work. Thank goodness he got there before I went downstairs and got a black and white! After the presentation and various meetings, I was starting to feel faint from hunger (yes, it happened again -- last time, I promise), so we hurried to meet a co-worker back at the World Trade Center, then to a restaurant that she said had good kushari -- I, however, had pizza. She asked us an interesting question: "People always get asked by Egyptians what they like about Cairo. I want you to tell me what you don't like." Without hesitation, I named two things: the pollution, and never being able to assume, outside of people I met through work, that someone is being friendly rather than trying to sell me something or take advantage of me. I'm not sure she understood the second point entirely -- it doesn't happen to her as much, because she's Egyptian.
I really like this person, but like many Arabs -- and, I fear, most Arabs -- she doesn't believe it was Arab men, and certainly not an Egyptian man, that hijacked the planes on September 11, she doesn't believe in the Holocaust of WWII (certainly doesn't believe it was that bad , she totally buys the whole Elders of Zion NONSENSE, and she believes this all in the calm way that so many Americans believe there were Iraqis on the planes on September 11. I was just flabbergasted to have it right there in front of me, by a woman with a college education and experience outside of Egypt. When I mentioned that I was re-reading the book of Genesis, and had just finished the story of Ishmael being told he would be the father of a great nation, she said she had heard that wasn't in the Jewish or Christian Bibles anymore -- I assured her it was, and told her she might want to read Genesis for herself, even a couple of different versions -- she might be surprised what's there that she's been told by others was purged. I told her about how I was told all sorts of things about Catholicism growing up, and when I got older and investigated it for myself, I found out that most of it wasn't true or had been misrepresented. I was never angry, never pushy; I tried to talk as a friend. But geesh, it was depressing to encounter such beliefs from someone with her education and background. I steered the conversation to something else whenever possible; we started talking about projects we wanted to do, and I told her I really wanted to be a part of a media literacy project in telecenters in developing countries. Media literacy means teaching people, particularly kids, how to read and watch the news with a critical eye, teaching them how propaganda can be used for a variety of causes and how to recognize it, how to weigh facts, how to find balance in news reporting, etc. With the proliferation of misinformation on the Internet, I think such is more important than ever before. I told her about how much I love folklore, and how often I have to point out that some email everyone is forwarding to everyone else is a hoax. She seemed really intrigued by it all, but I don't believe she ever got the overall point I was alluding to. I was so frustrated -- with so many people in so many places letting themselves be manipulated by so much misinformation and prejudice, whether they are in the U.S. or Egypt, how are we ever going to come to understand and respect one another? I don't like finding out the misdeeds of my own countrymen, or the horrors perpetuated by the U.S. against so many people, including its own people, but I accept it, I don't deny it, and I try to learn from it. I left lunch outwardly upbeat, but I was completely disheartened. I just wanted to crawl under a rock and cry. I wanted to give up on trying to get people to think for themselves. I wanted to go live far away from everyone, and began to fantasize about such... which I am prone to do at moments like this, which is why I no longer watch CNN.
Instead, I just stayed quiet and we went to Cairo Tower, a Soviet-funded monstrosity at the Southern tip of Zamalek Island. It is surrounded by lovely gardens and the most incredibly opulent and huge sports club I have ever seen in my life. The ticket counter guy hard-sold us to take the dinner package or, at least, the drink and cake package, but we kept saying no no ("la la") -- we just wanted to see the top of the tower. Finally, he sold us these cheapest tickets, and we dawdled down below a bit because we were trying to catch the sunset at the top, and feared there was some sort of time-limit up there. It turned out there wasn't. On the way in, once again, the guy checking our bags made a bomb joke. "No bombs?" he said with a smile. This was not the first time this happened, and other than at the airport, it happened ALL THE TIME. I did not find it funny. I found it profoundly strange.
The view from Cairo Tower was spectacular. I didn't think it would be, but it was, even with all the pollution. We were surrounded by very young Egyptian lovers -- teen agers or people in their 20s. We had a perfect view of the sunset and even the pyramids in the far, hazy distance. There was a girl next to us with her boyfriend, and she was crying -- I was imaging why she would cry -- were her parents sending her away?. Most Egyptian women you see on the street cover their hair, but even so, you will see young lovers strolling arm-and-arm along the Nile, and they were all over the top of the tower, holding each other. No kissing though. With sunset came the calls to prayer (it comes five times a day, actually), and if everyone at the top had been quiet, we could have heard them all over the city. It was chilly before the sunset, and then downright cold afterwards, with the wind blowing hard, so we headed downstairs when darkness had truly fallen and decided to take a walk through the garden grounds. It was so romantic. Then we took a black and white back to the hotel, and then went for a walk over to the restaurant on the second floor of the Grand Hotel. The Grand used to be grand. Now it's as worn out as the Pension Roma, but still a hint of that grandness. I would like to stay there on my next trip, I think. It's got all of its original art deco furnishings, lots of beautiful wood and iron, and an original elevator in better shape than Pension Roma's. Plus, it's got all private baths and even air conditioning. It was just over 100 Egyptian pounds a night.
Its dining room was, sadly, completely empty. But the food was good. We sat overlooking a major intersection and just marvelled at the flow of frantic, rule-less traffic. There are stoplights in Cairo, but no one uses them. There are marked lanes, but no one uses them either. And remarkably, it works, for the most part. Close calls abound, and when you see people cross the street -- oh, god, my heart just pounds. We would sit there for several minutes not saying a word, just watching the chaos... all the constant crowds of cars and people -- I agree with the Rough Guide that, were it not for the Egyptian tolerance and sense of humor, this place would be a powder keg. But it's not. They've been at this for 5,000 years -- I guess they know what they are doing. The TV was blaring, and there was some strange 1960s black and white Egyptian show on where a marching band came out of a wardrobe and a guy magically and mistakenly appeared in various places, and the music was from all sorts of American and British movies, including the theme from James Bond movies.
In any Egyptian TV show from this period, women don't cover their hair. Now, a growing number of women in Cairo cover their hair, perhaps even most women. In Cairo, their head coverings are usually GORGEOUS. Some look quite expensive, and often they accentuate a woman's face and profile in a really flattering way. I have practiced a few times wearing a head scarf. I look AWFUL.
Our flight to Luxor was at 7 the next morning, so we packed up the night before and paid our bill, so that all we had to do in the morning was walk out the door. Except for the mosquitos, I loved the Pension Roma, and was really sad that they were booked up for our last night in Cairo on the 25th. We decided we'd call them from Luxor on the offhand chance they had a cancellation.
Monday morning, we roused ourselves and headed out. A black and white was already parked outside on the street -- he was loading bread in the back of his car, but he was more than happy to delay delivery to take us to the airport. He never did offer us any bread, and we both wanted a piece but didn't know how to ask.
We got to the terminal for Luxor and it was madness. It took forever to figure out where we were supposed to be at each point. They sell cokes for 12 Egyptian Pounds (they are 3 on the streets of Cairo). And to announce the flight, a guy stands in the door way and yells out the flight number and destination. The flight was on Egyptian Air, and was quite comfortable -- better than American. It took less than an hour.
And then we arrived in Luxor... (part 2 of this trip)
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