Friday, June 1, 2007

Egypt: Cairo

"Holy crap, I'm in The Middle East..." That was my, very mature, first thought upon arrival at the airport in Bahrain. After coming from the lands of bare feet, shorts, and t-shirts, I was now walking past women wearing "abayas" and men in "dishdashahs" (dress-like garments that cover the body from the shoulders down to the feet). Luckily, I had chosen my most conservative looking outfit for the flight, however, having packed for "summer weather", my most conservative outfit consisted of capris and a t-shirt, so I felt a bit like a street-walker with my now four inch roots (tough to travel for long periods of time with highlights) and outfit, compared to the ladies in the scarves covering their hair, "hajabs", and sometimes even faces (leaving only their eyes showing).

After another four hour flight from Bahrain to Egypt (twelve hour travel time, in total, from Cambodia) I arrived in Cairo at 2:10 a.m. Luckily, I had obtained an Egyptian visa in Sydney as apparently there are "no guarantees" that the visa office will be open at the airport, and was taken by van to the Indiana Hotel in the center of Cairo.

I had the entire next day to myself, before joining the eight-day tour and group, the following day. While wondering the streets of Cairo, trying to find The Sheraton where it was recommended to change your currency, an Egyptian guy named Mohammad (it seems as though 98% of men in Egypt are named Mohammad or Ali - which is what we were also told by the locals - but I'm not sure if it is just to make it easier on the tourists, as in Bali where all the women told me their names were Debbie, Linda, Barbara, etc.). Mohammad gave me directions to the Sheraton and then asked what I had planned for the day. He took me over to his shop, a family owned business (the family unit is extremely important in Egypt and most families are fairly large and live close to each other) selling papyrus, essence, and various tourist souvenirs. He told me their business also gives tourists rides to some of the pyramids and sights around Giza. After agreeing on a price for a driver to take me around Giza for the day ($20) I told Mohammad I would be back after some breakfast. He told me to wait and pushed a small button on the wall next to him. A few seconds later, a young guy appeared at the door and after Mohammad asked me how hungry I was, he said something in Egyptian to the young guy who then nodded, left, and then returned a few minutes later carrying two small bags, which he then handed to me. Inside, was the typical Egyptian breakfast: fallafel and re fried beans inside a pita. Mohammad then asked me what I would like to drink, and again pushed the button on the wall and the young guy appeared with a Diet Coke. When I asked how much I owed for the breakfast, Mohammad told me, "No! This is Egyptian hospitality!" This is honestly how it works in Egypt. Everywhere you go, you are offered a drink of tea, coffee, soda, etc. and it is all chalked up to Egyptian hospitality, regardless of whether you buy something or not. After breakfast, an older man drove up to the shop to pick me up. He was, of course, a cousin of Mohammad and would be my driver for the day.

Driving down the freeways in Cairo was definitely a unique experience. You can see the pyramids of Giza in the distance, close to the city, and all of the "residential" buildings you pass look like unfinished warehouses. We later learned from our tour guide that the outsides of the buildings look as though they are unfinished but the insides are really quite nice and very much complete. Apparently, this is due to the fact that the government imposes high taxes on those living in the building once it is complete, but if it is unfinished, there are no taxes imposed - so much of Cairo appears to be buildings under development when in actuality they will remain unfinished in appearance, to beat the tax laws.

While driving along the freeway at 75 mph, you are also passing men riding in carts pulled by donkeys... It was absolutely crazy to be sharing an eight lane freeway with donkey-drawn carts carrying watermelons, peaches, herbs, etc.

Our first stop for the day, was a gold and silver shop / factory. The merchant at the shop explained what each letter of my name means in hieroglyphics and I had a "cartouche" (an oblong enclosure sort of oval in shape that used to indicate that the text inside is a royal name, but is now used in necklaces, key chains, etc.) made with my name inscribed inside. I asked to watch it being made and the picture (left) is from inside the factory.

Our next stop was a museum that housed a giant sculpture of Ramses II (one of, if not the most, famous Pharaohs in Egypt). Before getting out of the car, at every stop, my driver would tell me not to talk to anyone or let them tell me anything about where I was visiting because afterwards they would then tell me I needed to give them money (apparently some men stand around the sites acting as tour guides and pray on people walking alone - of which there were very few - and begin following people around telling them about the site, only to afterwards demand to be paid) so I was slightly nervous when the police officer with a machine gun on his back - all of the police where the same white uniform and have a machine gun slung over their shoulder (pictured left) - beckoned for me to come over to him. I hesitated, but he kept telling me to come forward and then, after asking where I was from, asked to shake my hand. With a fully extended arm (so I didn't have to get too close) I shook his hand, only to then be asked for $1 (while he was still holding my hand). I was slightly shocked to be being asked this by a police officer, one holding a machine gun no less, and I pretended to "not really get" what he meant as I backed away (I only had a $20 bill that I had to keep as a departure tax that must be paid in USD when leaving the country and I was not about to get into a discussion about currency exchange with a man holding a gun).

The next stop was a carpet school. There are many carpet schools around Cairo as the Egyptian government, in an effort to keep alive tradition as well as create more jobs for young people in particular, has played a big role in setting up programs for children to go from school to work in the carpet warehouses learning how to make the silk and wool carpets while also earning wages and helping to support their families. It is amazing how quickly they work with each knot being done by hand and even a small section taking a few months to complete due to how tightly they weave the carpets.

After carpet school, and prayer time for my driver (80% of Egypt is Muslim, which means the speakers calling to prayer go off five times a day and many of the men have what appear to be welts on their forehead from the amount of time their heads touch the ground in prayer), we headed to The Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, which rises to a height of around 197 feet and noted for many reasons, most namely the use of limestone being utilized for the first time on a large scale as a construction material, and it is thought that this was the first time the idea of a royal tomb in the form of a pyramid was first employed.

After returning to Cairo, Mohammad took me to lunch a local cafe where the menu was written entirely in Arabic and I was given more than a few stares considering I was both the only "Western" person in the place, but also the only woman. After asking me how hungry I was, the waiter brought me a huge bowl of "koushrey" (a traditional Egyptian dish of pasta, beans, marinara sauce, topped with bacon), which I then needed to walk off and decided to take a walk along The Nile, through the center of Cairo. I again received several stares, considering that I was wearing a tank top and shorts, and walking alone, compared to the few other women I saw on the streets and who were wearing the long dress-garments and scarves covering their heads and faces.

That night, back at the Hotel Indiana, I met the tour group and my roommate, Amy, an incredibly sweet Aussie girl my age who had been living and working in London for the past year and was taking some time to travel, as well. The rest of the group consisted of: Yanel and Ange (Aussie couple); Sarah and Andy(Scottish couple); Jody and Michelle (two friends from New Zealand); Tony, Simon, and Andy (three British friends), and Mark (American - and our comic relief on the tour as he was constantly in a state of panic about not being in a "westernized" place and kept asking questions like, "If I go outside right now, am I going to die?" in all seriousness...) and our tour guide, Rafike.

We had two full days in Cairo, beginning with a visit to the oldest section of Cairo, known as "Coptic Cairo", where three of the four, what are considered today the "major religions of the modern world: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism" are represented with a church (Christianity), mosque (Islam), and Synagogue (Judaism)

We next headed to the market - busy alleyways lined with shops selling water pipes, belly-dancing outfits, gold, silver, carpets, etc. There was an enormous mosque near the entrance to the market, so at 5:00 prayer, it became complete chaos with men leaving the mosque and tourists coming in and out of the market. Mark (the other American in our group) managed to buy a stuffed camel and ask our guide, "Why are there Egyptian people who aren't selling things, walking around the market?"... I am serious... he asked this. Our guide responded by saying, "Isn't it like that in the U.S.? People walk around wearing clothes and buying things, etc.?" in a very sarcastic tone. If it wasn't so hilarious a question and response, I would have been more embarrassed that we were sharing "American representation" in the group.

Our last day in Cairo, we had an early start to get to the Pyramids at Giza and The Sphinx. The Great Pyramid at Giza is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (it is actually the oldest, and only remaining member of the seven ancient wonders), and absolutely incredible to behold. It's sheer size was overpowering. It is believed to have been completed over a 20 year period of time, finishing in the year 2560 B.C. While standing in awe at the base of the pyramid, there was a sudden chase between an Egyptian police officer and a local man selling camel rides. They were both on camels and neither Amy or I had an idea how fast those things could move until the whole Indiana Jones-esque chase unfolded before our eyes.

We then headed over to The Sphinx, the largest single stone statue in the world, and in between battling for space with the thousands of French tourists (again, tricky photography to leave out all the other tourists) learned that one particular legend of why the nose of the Sphinx is missing, is that Napolean had his troops use the Sphinx as a firing target and the nose was knocked off by a cannonball after such practice.

We ended our time in Cairo with a trip to The Egyptian Museum, where we saw the death mask of Tutankamen and the tomb in which his mummy was kept, along with many other fascinating Egyptian relics, tombs, mummies, etc.

After a whirlwind tour of Cairo, we were scheduled to board an overnight train down to Aswan, so that we could then board a boat to sail down The Nile for the next few days. Before boarding the train, we learned from our tour guide, Rafike, that the U.S., Aussie, and British embassies all require that the Egyptian police know where all of their visiting citizens are at all times (meaning everything from what time we leave our hotel, to what train car we will be sitting in, etc.). After telling us this, we watched and realized that everywhere we went, an Egyptian police officer met us upon arrival and spoke with our guide to give us clearance to continue on and log that we had in fact travelled to where our guide had submitted a request and received approval from the government. It was crazy to learn how much we had to be monitored and Rafike explained to me that it was actually illegal that the day before I had gone on my own with a private taxi and no police approval beforehand, to Giza and The Step Pyramid (that explained why I saw my driver give the police officer money, while shaking his hand, when we had arrived - it was to bribe for my entry). Rafike also told everyone not to eat any pasta for at least two days, as our systems needed to get used to the water that is used to wash the pasta. After I told him I had eaten "koushrey" for one of my first meals, he had a brief look of shock and then laughed and went and bought a bowl for he and I for the train ride to Aswan. Everyone gave me looks of sympathy and some with fear for what I was likely to go through in the sickness category, but apparently Cambodia and the rest of S.E. Asia had already prepared me for whatever water The Middle East had to offer and now "koushrey" is a favorite dish of mine.

More to come on Egypt and our cruise down The Nile.

1 comment:

Lyndall said...

Hi Robyn - I know it's a while since your trip but I just saw your blog tonight. I am an Aussie who married and Egyptian that I met on my travels and live in Cairo now. I just thought that I would set the record straight about your koshery. Koshery is macaroni, lentils and rice and sometimes chick peas with a tangy tomato-based sauce (ingredients include vinegar), and at a koshery restaurant you will also get the opportunity to have a very hot sauce and a lemon and garlic sauce. The optional toppings are crispy fried onions, additional crispy lentil and extra chick peas and I'm sorry but NEVER bacon. Muslims believe the pig is an unclean animal and it is "haram" to eat or handle the meat. I have yet to see any sort of meat of a pig for sale or on a restaurant menu. Maybe at the big hotels. :-)

It sounds like you enjoyed Egypt, I'm so pleased you did, maybe we will see you back again one day

Lyndall El Masry