Thursday, January 6, 2011

Visiting Cairo

(Alternate Heading: The Reason We Moved to Abu Dhabi)
Yes! This was the intent behind the big move- the opportunity to travel. We made our first big trip over the Christmas holidays, and chose to spend the 14 days in Egypt and Jordan. Abby had lots to do with our choice of destination- she said she wanted to see the pyramids the day I told her about moving here.  Well, now she has done that and many more amazing things as well. In fact, we did so much that I’m having a hard time contemplating writing about them all. I think my plan will be to write about some highlights of each place we went and then give my general impressions. I will probably have to make this several posts to be able to include any details at all.

We started our trip in Cairo, arriving after dark on the first day. A driver from the hotel picked us up: Abby, Mark, my dad, myself, and all of our luggage. He was a bit dismayed at the amount of luggage, which included a huge suitcase of Mark’s diving gear in addition to our clothes, and we had a very tight squeeze. Then we set off and had our first taste of traffic in Cairo. Let’s just say we felt incredibly lucky to make it to the hotel alive and without having mashed any pedestrians. (More about Egyptian driving later.) The hotel was actually a hostel that had great reviews on TripAdvisor and, the Isis Hotel. It lived up to, and exceeded expectations. Our room was huge, with four beds and a private bath. We had a view of the Nile and were served tea whenever we asked for it and breakfast each morning. The best part of the Isis, however, was the proprietor, Mehdad. He arranged all of our sightseeing for Cairo and Luxor, including a flight and a train ride.  And he did it all with such a beautiful attitude and smile! That said, the hostel was quite basic. There was no heat, and the draft that came through the windows each night was very cold. The entrance to the building, in which the Isis is located on the top two floors, is unmarked and has only one tiny working elevator. The elevator only went to the fourteenth floor, so we had to get out there and walk up another flight of stairs, dragging all of our bags. And the view of the Nile was over the top of a serious slum, with trash and half-finished buildings that had piles of rubble at their bases. Still, we paid only $180 for the four of us for four nights. It was a great deal, especially once we ventured out and enjoyed the local neighborhood. We found the best pizza ever (Pizza Al Quds) right around the corner, and could walk to the Talat Harb area, which was always crowded at night with shoppers. It was relaxing to walk there because it’s not a tourist area, so no one asked us for money or tried to get us to buy things we didn’t want.

The view from our hotel.

In the Cairo area, we saw the pyramids at Sakkara, the Memphis museum, the pyramids at Giza, a perfumery, a papyrus factory, a carpet school, the old Cairo Coptic area, the Citadel, and the Egyptian Museum. The pyramids at Sakkara are step pyramids, some of the oldest structures in Egypt. They were mostly crumbling. We saw inside some of the tombs there, with amazing reliefs that were minutely detailed. We made the mistake of inadvertently acquiring a guide for the tombs, who then insisted we pay him separately from the entrance fee we had already paid. We vowed not to make that mistake again, but then, there were no interpretive signs on anything.  The Memphis museum was rather sparse, consisting mainly of a few statues. The highlight there was a sphinx in very good condition.

Our next three stops were sales pitches: carpet, perfume, and papyrus. We were awed at the intricate patterns of the silk and wool carpets, which are mainly made by children. It made me sad to see the kids working at tying knots. The perfumes were all natural essences, but very expensive. At the papyrus factory, we had a demonstration of papyrus-making, then were invited to peruse the shop’s stock of painted papyrus.

Finally, we headed to Giza, where we negotiated to pay $32 each for horses and a guide. Abdul Karim and his sidekick, Abdullah, took us on a roundabout route to the pyramids. We had seen them in the distance from the highway on our way to Giza, so it was surprising to find they had disappeared in the city. We rounded a bend, crested a dune, and looked out across that familiar sight- the three huge pyramids and the much smaller sphinx. Abdul Karim didn’t talk too much about the pyramids, but just led us to great vantage points for pictures and let us explore. We walked right up to the base of the Great Pyramid , feeling magnificently dwarfed.  The sun was on its way down, so we hurried to the sphinx and the temple. The sphinx seems so small when you’re up close to it. We were separated by about twenty feet, and had a great view of the whole thing from a platform just outside the megalithic temple. There were hundreds of chairs set up just outside the area near the sphinx for the sound and light show each evening, which we declined to attend.

Instead, we went that night to a dinner cruise on the Nile in a boat called Memphis. It was a buffet with belly dancing and Egyptian folk dancing (sort of a whirling dervish with a colorful skirt) for entertainment. There was a huge crowd of people from  Japan who rushed the buffet and almost left us with none! Thanks to Mark’s elbows, we all got some dessert. The belly dancer seemed miffed when an Arab family joined her on the dance floor and basically took it over. We thought it was funny, but by then, we were falling asleep at our table.

The next day, we headed out early to Old Cairo. It was just like you’d imagine, with twisty, narrow streets, hidden gems of churches, nunneries, tombs, and a synagogue. We met a shopkeeper whose son had been born that morning, and who invited us for a celebratory cup of tea. We bought some beautiful scarves from him, then met our driver to go to the Citadel. It was a fortress named for Saladin perched on a mountain top overlooking the whole city. We enjoyed meeting the groups of schoolchildren on field trips. They invariably wanted to practice their English on us, and were delighted when I spoke some Arabic back.

We spent the whole afternoon and early evening at the Egyptian Museum. It was a gargantuan hodge-podge of artifacts, few of which had any explanatory signage.  Apparently you are supposed to engage a local guide if you want to know about any of the millions of items inside the cavernous space. We raced through thousands of years’ worth of treasures, and only really slowed down for the King Tut exhibit. Many of the Tut artifacts had been shown in Dallas, and Abby and I had already seen them with my sister, Sandy. We were glad that Mark and my dad got the chance to goggle at the sheer weight of gold used to cover so many of the grave goods. No cameras were allowed inside, so we have no pictures, only memories. Afterwards, we returned to the hostel to relax for a few hours before being picked up at 11:00 PM for our ride across the Sinai Peninsula to the Jordan ferry. That will have o be another post.

Cairo was crowded, dirty, unfinished, and hectic. There is always traffic, except for early on Friday mornings. No one bothers with lanes while driving. I’m not sure why there are marked lanes on the roads. Perhaps as suggestions? Everyone honks as they begin to pass another vehicle, as a warning, which is crucial since you can never count on your lane staying clear. There were piles of trash and stray animals picking through it. The well-built buildings were the older ones. The newer construction is one brick-thickness and a covering of plaster on a concrete frame.  Every person who helped us in any way expected a tip, and would tell us if the offered amount was not enough. There were security police on almost every corner. But Cairo was also wonderful, cheap food, friendly people, and awesome sights. The people in the shopping districts looked well-dressed and happy. History is also on every street corner, and there is an energy that pervades the place, like in New York City. We’re so glad we had the chance to feel it for ourselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment