31 August 2007

Walk like an Egyptian...

Cairo, which means “The Vanquisher” or “The Triumphant,” is the largest city in the Middle East and Africa. It may not be beautiful, but Cairo is definitely amazing. Flying over the city, all one can see is desert cut through with a strip of green surrounding the massive snake of the River Nile. Throughout the green one can see both farmland and city buildings, all mingled together.

Off in the distance, on the edge of the desert and the outskirts of the city, one can glimpse the pyramids rising in the distance.

When I touched down in the Cairo airport, Andrew’s plane was supposed to land only 10 minutes later. We were to meet at baggage claim and were being picked up by someone from GM (where Andrew will be working this week). After feeling stranded and lost in the Cairo airport for about 10 minutes (and not having seen him for three weeks), Andrew was a sight for sore eyes when he strolled up to baggage claim. We clambered into the van that would drive us to our hotel and began the long trek to our hotel in Giza, near the city centre. As we were driving out, it looked as though the Cairo airport had been hit by a bomb. Desert sand everywhere, construction and tumbling walls filled our line of sight. Driving through the city wasn’t much better. We could see straight through many of the buildings because of holes; many of them looked as though they could tumble down at any moment, but it was obvious that people actually lived there, despite the holes. I had to wonder: were they paying rent to live in these decrepit buildings, or were they squatters who just found an empty building and moved in? Either way, it was really quite sad.

The city of Cairo was built to hold around two million residents. There are approximately 16 million people living in the city today, which, as you can imagine, has caused a serious housing problem. The shortage of suitable, inexpensive housing for the rapidly increasing population forces many underprivileged Cairenes to live in shacks and hovels within the cemeteries, the main of which they call the City of the Dead. Among the graves lives an entire community of Egypt’s urban poor, instituting an illegal, but tolerated, society who has formed their own enterprises to exist almost wholly separate from the city. More than five million Egyptians live in these cemeteries, and their numbers are growing rapidly. We drove past the City of the Dead on our last day, though of course we didn’t go inside.

I wanted to explain all that so that you could understand the utter deterioration and poverty that we met in Cairo. Many of the buildings in the city centre were so bad that I didn’t think they were doing much better than the people in the cemeteries. Wikipedia refers to it as a “housing problem,” but it’s more like a crisis. To give you another idea, the exchange rate is £1 Egyptian equals about 20 US cents (10 UK pence).

The GM driver took us straight to our hotel, our own little oasis that probably spoiled us forever: the Four Seasons.

It was the best hotel in which Andrew or I have ever stayed (except for the Presidential Suite at Ross Bridge in Birmingham, where we spent our wedding night). Our room looked out over the Nile; the air conditioning was like an invisible heaven. We quickly changed out of our business suits and hit the road. Andrew had taken care of all the travel arrangements, and I was in charge of the sightseeing. I had planned on spending the afternoon (it was after four when we arrived at the hotel) in Old Cairo (Masr el Kadima), the oldest part of the city, before heading for our reservation at La Bodega, supposed to be one of the hottest restaurants where the young Cairenes go to party! We quickly learned that Cairo is NOT a walking city. Here is a picture of the Nile.

After wandering around lost and suffocating in the heat through some probably-not-so-good areas of Cairo for a couple of hours, we grabbed a taxi and headed back to the hotel after never even getting a glimpse of Old Cairo.

Ahh… The Cairo taxis. What an experience! All the cars are very, very old, and I think the only thing that works in them is the motor, apparently, because they do run (well, at least the ones not broken down on the side of the road). Before getting into one of these taxis, you have to bargain for a price to get you where you want to go because, of course, the meters are all broken, and they openly charge more for foreigners. Andrew quickly learned to bargain, something he doesn’t enjoy doing, because they start out asking for about three times what you actually end up paying. Most of the taxis have fake fur and other strange decorations on the dashboards, and they drive so fast, weaving onto the lines on the roads to go up the middle of two lanes between two cars driving in those lanes and honking all the way (we assume because most of their blinkers don’t work that it’s their way of signaling). We feared for our lives every time we got into one of these cars. It was actually worse than riding with Andrew!

We showered, changed, and booked one of the hotel’s cars (BMW 5 series – high rollin’, especially after our cab ride) to take us to La Bodega. We arrived at the restaurant to find that we were the only people there. Andrew didn’t make me privy to the information that the Cairenes don’t have dinner until around 10pm, so our reservation was at eight. We didn’t need a lot of people there, though. We hadn’t seen each other in three weeks, and it was really nice to have a quiet dinner and talk. By the time we left, there were still only about three other couples there. We went back to the hotel bar (the Library) and had a cocktail before heading to bed early so that we could get up and head to the pyramids!

We had booked a tour guide through the hotel, and we met her, Emmy, at 7:30am. She had a driver with her who would take us to the ancient sites and wait for us while we viewed them. We walked up to the pyramids, which were so much bigger than I ever imagined. It was really amazing. There was this strange hazey fog over everything, so our visibility wasn't that great. You'll see in the pictures. We kept joking because we couldn't see the tops of the pyramids for the fog but were taking pictures of them anyway saying, "We know they're there, right? Hahaha." Emmy gave us the background and history as we walked around.

Apparently it’s only a myth that the workers who built the pyramids were mere slaves; actually, they were strong, well taken care of workers who were proud to be working to build their Pharaoh’s final resting place. Many of them were even allowed to be buried in very modest tombs around the pyramids.

We saw the larger pyramid of Cheops, or the Great Pyramid, as well as the smaller pyramid of Menkaure, but Emmy recommended that we actually go into the second one, the pyramid of Khafre, son of Cheops, which was Andrew’s favorite anyway. It’s the one with the casing still on the tip of the pyramid.

Though neither of us are claustrophobic, Andrew and I both found going down quite difficult. The opening tunnel is only about four feet squared, so you have to crouch down really low as you make your way through. You cannot pass one another, especially as the way in is also the way out, and there are people coming from the other direction as you’re trying to make your way into the pyramid. The woman in front of us kept stopping to fiddle with her sunglasses, and I was about to kill her! On the way down the narrow passageway, I was convinced that I was going to suffocate and wouldn’t make it to the burial chamber, but I pressed onward. The passageway is carved completely out of the bedrock, descending, running horizontal for a few meters during which we could stand at full height, then growing small again and ascending to join the horizontal passage leading to the burial chamber. The middle, horizontal chamber, there is a subsidiary chamber opens to the west, the purpose of which is uncertain. In this part, we could stand upright for a moment, which came as such a relief, only to discover that we were only halfway there and had to enter another tunnel. Some people thought that the second tunnel was only a closed exit and turned back, but Andrew and I were determined to see all that we could in that literal death chamber and kept going. The burial chamber at the end of the passage is carved out of a pit in the bedrock, and the roof is constructed of gabled limestone beams. The chamber is rectangular, 14.15 m by 5 m, and is oriented east-west. Khafre’s sarcophagus is carved out of a solid block of granite and sunk partially in the floor. On the back wall of the chamber, written in black paint, we saw “Scoperta da G. Belzoni. 2 Mar. 1818.” Not knowing that “scoperta da” translates to “discovered by” I commented that it was the oldest graffiti I’d ever seen.

When we exited the tunnel and emerged into the hot sunlight again, were once again able to breathe freely, we were happy. Emmy asked us what we thought, and we told her, and then she asked whether we would ever repeat the feat. Our reply was, “No way in Hell!”

To the east of the Pyramid sat the mortuary temple. It is larger than previous temples and is the first to include all five standard elements of later mortuary temples: an entrance hall, a columned court, five niches for statues of the pharaoh, five storage chambers, and an inner sanctuary. There were over 52 life size statues of Khafre, but these were removed and recycled, possibly by Ramesses II. The temple was built of megalithic blocks, but it is now largely in ruins. A causeway runs 494.6 m to the valley temple. The valley temple is very similar to the mortuary temple. The valley temple is built of megalithic blocks sheathed in red granite. The square pillars of the T shaped hallway were made of solid granite and the floor was paved in alabaster. There are sockets in the floor that would have fixed 23 statues of Khafre, but these have since been plundered. The mortuary temple is remarkably well preserved. Here is a picture taken inside the temple.

We visited the sphinx and the solar boats next, both of which were also amazing. The sphinx was particularly remarkable, hearing about all it’s been through and still stands. It was carved from soft limestone and was buried in sand in sand for years. In the eighties, they tried a million-dollar restoration project on the sphinx, which only did more to damage it. Though much smaller than the pyramids, it was still incredible.

The solar boats were buried next to the pharaoh to lead his soul to the sun after death. They’ve never touched water, though they supposedly would float if they had, and they were made out of nothing but wood and ropes: no metal, no plaster, nothing.

Also built into our tour was a camel ride, to which Andrew and I had really been looking forward, just for the strangeness of it. Emmy led us to the place where all the camels and their guides were resting, spoke to one of the “Camel Pimps,” and sent us of on a five-minute ride. She had explained that they would take us about 100 yards out, stop, ask for our cameras, take our pictures, and then ask for baksheesh, or a tip. She said that we could tip them or not, whatever we chose, but not to let them fool us into thinking that we had to pay, because it had already been paid for. Everything went accordingly, and they asked for our camera, took our picture, and even made us kiss for a picture.

Then they asked for money. Andrew pulled out some Egyptian pounds and tried to give them to them, but they wouldn’t take them. “You’re American, right? We want American dollars!” Of course, living in London, we didn’t have American dollars, and they didn’t seem to want British pounds, either. All of sudden, they started speaking to each other in Arabic, and one of them started leading me and my camel back up toward the people and Emmy, while the other started leading Andrew in the opposite direction, deeper into the desert! I was freaking out; I didn’t know what was going on. I looked up to Emmy for support, who started yelling to me and asking what was going on. I signaled that I didn’t know, and she took off down the hill toward us, screaming all the way. Andrew wasn’t really worried. He had planned on just jumping down if the guy didn’t turn him around soon, but I was shaking in my saddle. Emmy came screaming down the hill and made the guy bring Andrew’s camel back, and as we were leaving she railed into the Camel Pimp who set us up with our ride, as well as every other Camel Pimp and guide in the park! She apologized profusely to us, but I was still a little shaken. Andrew, of course, just thought it was funny.

After we had visited all there was to see at the site of the pyramids, Emmy took us to several shops, which I can only assume were owned by her family and friends. If not, I’m sure she got some kind of kickback for taking her tours there, because these places weren’t listed on the tour guide. We first visited a perfume shop, where we learned all about flower and plant essences. The man who gave us a demonstration kept rubbing the essences on our hands and arms so that we could sample them. We left smelling like French whores and never bought any of it. We next visited a linen shop where Andrew and I bought a cheap set of 800-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets and two beautiful wraps for me to wear. Afterward, we went to a jewelry store where a man tried and tried to sell me a gold necklace, which I also did not purchase.

Emmy offered to take us to place to buy papyrus, but by that time, we were tired and hungry and only wanted to head back to the hotel and have lunch. When we got to the hotel, we’re ashamed to admit that we showered, ordered cheeseburgers and French fries from room service for lunch, and then we napped until dinner! The hot, unforgiving Egyptian sun really drained us, and we were exhausted after our long morning.

That night we attended the Sound and Light Show at the pyramids. Beginning strangely with a herd of bagpipers all dressed in Egyptian Pharaoh costumes...

The show was narrated partially by the sphinx, partially by the Pharaohs of the past, and penetrated with laser beams and eerie Egyptian music (not Scottish bagpipes).

When we left, we headed to dinner at a place called Abu as-Sid. According to our Footprints tour book, “Egyptian men admit that Abu as-Sid as close as it gets to their mum’s cooking.” The atmosphere was wonderful, low lights, locals everywhere, and the food was so, so good. Andrew had lamb, and I had beef, and both were indescribably yummy.

After dinner, we finished the night at the hotel bar again, where they served scrumptious strawberry mojitos, then we went up to bed to prepare for the next day to be spent at the Egyptian museum!

We had the car pick us up at 8:30am to take us to the museum. When we arrived, we were sorely disappointed to find that the Footprints guide had failed us, yet again (it got a lot of things wrong over the weekend). The book quoted the entry fee as 40 Egyptian pounds per person; it was 150. The book said that we could pay an extra 10 to take in our cameras; cameras were not allowed. The book told us there would be guides outside who would charge 40 per hour to give a 3–4-hour tour of the museum; the ones we found charged 140 for a 1.5-hour tour. I immediately did not like our guide and wanted to hold out for another, but Andrew insisted we go with him since we had told him we would. He took us to a small hut at the entrance to the grounds and told us we would have to leave our camera there, which really ticked me off because I was sure I had seen others entering with their cameras. We got to the window and tried to leave our camera, and the guy in the hut told us that we’d have to leave the entire groups cameras together and to go find our guide and group. Our guide had already left us to push his way to the front of the line at the entrance to the museum. Pissed off, I grabbed my camera, thrust it deep into my bag to Andrew’s protests, and we made our way to guide, only to discover that they were checking bags through an x-ray machine at the entrance. We were nervous as I put my bag through the machine, but they didn’t stop me, just handed my bag back to me on the other side. That’s when we discovered that the museum was not air conditioned and that the museum was a hole. It was run down, old, falling apart, dirty, and a lot of the exhibits weren’t even protected from wandering hands. Our guide sped us through much of the museum and took his time as we went through the main event, the Tutankhamen treasures. It was astonishing to see what the ancient Egyptians went through for their dead kings. There were boxes to hold boxes to hold boxes to hold jars of their “innards” and sarcophagi (coffins) and there were boxes to hold all those boxes inside more boxes that went inside the burial chambers. I had the most trouble trying to figure out how they got all this stuff out a tiny four-foot-squared tunnel! Of course, these treasures had originally been housed at the Valley of the Kings, where I’m sure the passageways must be bigger, and they dismantled all the boxes, of course, to remove them. To visit the Mummy Room was an extra 100 pounds and wasn’t included in our guided tour, so Andrew and I opted not to see the mummies. We wandered around the rest of the museum without a guide and admired the ancient treasures, utensils, tools, and toys, and then we decided to leave and have lunch.

Our tour book (no, we hadn’t thrown it away, yet) recommended a place near the museum called Abu Tarek, which was supposed to serve “arguably the best kushari in town.” We got lost trying to find it because the tour book’s map was so terrible, so it took us nearly an hour of wandering in the hot sun before we finally found it. The restaurant was supposed to be “a good place to land with an empty belly after 6 hrs of aimless wandering” and told us to “rest assured that Abu Tarek is among the cleanest of kushari establishments.” If it was, I’d hate to see the dirty ones! I’m kidding; it wasn’t that bad, or we would have left. It was a hole-in-the-wall, and when the waiter came to our table, he informed us that they have no menus because they only serve one item, which we assume must have been kushari. It was a pasta dish with a rich tomato sauce and lots of seeds and other unidentifiables. After only a few bites, Andrew and I agreed that this would probably upset our tummies, although it tasted pretty good; I have to admit. Neither of us finished our dishes, and we left to find a cab to take us to the Citadel, although we both really wanted to head back to the hotel to shower and nap like we had the day before. We knew, though, that if we did that, we’d regret it because this was our last day in Cairo. Andrew was heading to work the next day, and I was heading home. After trying several taxis, some which didn’t understand English to understand where we wanted to go, and some of which didn’t want to go all the way to the Citadel because it was Cairo’s noon rush-hour, we finally found one who would take us there, and Andrew bargained the price.

We arrived at the Citadel to find many armed guards, of course, and we wandered around for a bit until we came across the Mosque of Mohammed Ali Pasha, which housed the tomb of Mohammed Ali (not the boxer).

Much to our delight we were allowed into the Mosque, despite the fact that I was wearing a skirt that showed my ankles. We were asked to remove our shoes and carry them in our bags, and I had to put on a long robe that covered me completely.

The mosque was really beautiful; there were people all around, sitting on the floor in circles like story hour, bowing to the temples in prayer, and just wandering around like we were. The place sounded like the Tower of Babel; there were so many voices everywhere, speaking so many various tongues. I know I keep saying this, but it’s the best word to describe the entire trip: amazing. Afterward, we wandered around the Citadel some more and entered another, open-air mosque, considered viewing a museum there, but we couldn’t find it, and we decided to head back. It was on that cab ride back to the hotel that we passed the City of the Dead. Our cab driver actually wanted to take us inside, but we declined. When we got back, we showered, took a short nap and prepared for our Nile dinner cruise aboard the Golden Pharaoh. It was hysterical. The boat was “decked out” (haha) in gold and turquoise and had golden statues of hawks on the bow.

The waiters were all wearing Egyptian costumes, and everything was swathed in turquoise and gold cloth. The food was better than we expected, but our rice was served in the shape of pyramid!

After the entertainment, we went on deck and had dessert at the front table on the bow of the ship so that we could enjoy the rich Nile breeze and see the sites of Cairo from one of the most powerful and mysterious rivers in the world.

As were docking, Andrew and I decided to play Leo and Kate in Titanic, and an Egyptian man sitting nearby with some friends recognized the act, got tickled with us, and offered to take our picture.

We ended the night with one more strawberry mojito at the hotel bar, the staff of which knew us well by then.

The next morning I had breakfast with Andrew in the hotel restaurant and saw him off to work. I had planned to visit the Cairo Zoo, which was right across the street from the hotel, before I had to leave for the airport, but when I asked the Concierge what time it opened, he recommended I skip that trip (he said it was dirty and not very nice), so I went to the gift shop and wandered around the hotel mall for a while before heading back upstairs to pack. I arrived at the airport to sheer madness and had no idea where to go or what to do, so I went into the Lufthansa ticketing office to ask, where I met an extremely helpful businessman from Australia who was heading out on the same flight I was. He guided me through the airport and showed me what to do. I swear I would have panicked three times over had it not been for him. We sat in the business class lounge together and then ended up having seats next to each other on one of the flights. He shared stories and pictures of his American wife, his three children and his dog, and I told him all about Andrew and Savannah and Hadley. He was severely impressed with Andrew and his position and work at PwC. Even when we arrived at Heathrow, we saw each other again in baggage claim and he did one last good deed by helping me with my suitcase. He was really a very genuinely nice person, and I hope he realized what a lifesaver he was to me.

All in all, our trip was (let’s say it together, everyone) AMAZING. It was strange and mysterious; it was dirty and yet beautiful. I know I’ve rambled on and on, but I hope I’ve done well enough to give everyone a taste of the experiences we had in amazing Cairo. All I can say is that it’s good to be home, and I can’t wait until Andrew is here with me and the girls.