Our Days in the Cairo Area
12.28.2007 18 °C
Getting to Cairo from Mumbai, about seven hours total flying, was a grueling 24 hour process. The main feature of this trip was a nine-hour layover in Abu Dhabi from midnight until morning. It's not that big or interesting an airport, but it was open all night. More importantly, a comfortable lounge in the transit hotel was open (for a fee of $46 U.S.). So we got free buffet, drinks and wireless internet and couches for sleeping. By the time we had a real night's sleep in Cairo, I'd had nine meals. Jenn and Anica said no to a few of these opportunities, like on the plane, which turned out to be wise. Anica got airsick just before we landed, from a combination of turbulence and being queasy from being overtired.
Our first impressions of Cairo were: it's so clean, it's so spacious, it's so pretty! Well, we had just spent two months in India. There's nothing we saw in India like the grand, spotlessly litter-free bouvelards that lead from Cairo's airport. And, when we did see more of the hectic jumble of Cairo and Giza, it still seemed so different from India that we felt reinvigorated and ready to explore this unique nation and its cultures.
There's nothing better than being shown around by the local residents, and, for our first two days in Cairo, that's exactly what happened. It was the tour-before-the-tour, as we met the son and daughter of Jenn's Dad's co-worker (got that?), who live in Cairo. Jenn's Dad works in Saudi Arabia, and although we'd never met Taha, let alone his children, they graciously arranged to meet us...and treat us! Salma and Kareem took us for dinner on our first night at an Egyptian restaurant along the popular strip called "El Mohandeseen."
We had, among the other kebabs and spreads, our first-ever pigeon. It was stuffed with rice and served whole (except the head), with crispy skin. After a lot of food, we walked it off a little along Mohandeseen before stopping at an extremely popular hangout that served fresh fruit drinks (kind of like a smoothy with fresh fruit on top). We also sampled some of the bulk nuts and seeds for sale (and got a few paper flutes full of these to take away). We were simply not allowed to pay for a cent of this ourselves. Before helping us get a taxi (much cheaper than the hotel's car), we saw the apartment block where Salma and Kareem live and which their grandfather began building when he first came to Cairo.
The next morning (my birthday, incidentally) we met Salma outside the Coptic Museum. She chose it as one of the most interesting sites to see that we wouldn't get to on our Imaginative Traveller tour. Good choice! The museum itself is beautiful, with painted carved wooden ceilings, stained glass, Islamic-style wooden screen windows, and palmed-treed courtyards. The early Coptic Christian finds show how the Ankh was linked to the Cross, and Isis was likened to Mary. There's a painted niche that, surprisingly, shows Mary breast-feeding Jesus (who of course looks like a tiny adult). Most amazing to me was the collection of books from the Nag Hammadi library. Found in the 20th century, they include Gnostic gospels, and a Gospel of Thomas from the 4th or 5th century. The leather covers are even intact.
The Coptic Museum part of a larger complex, closed to most traffic, where we got to see six churches and one synagogue. One church is called "The Hanging Church" because its foundation is a Roman-era Tower, cut away at one end. There's also a monastery dedicated to St. George, St. Sergius Church, St. Barbara Church, and a nunnery.
From this district, we got on the subway with Salma. The Cairo Metro sets aside the first two cars for women only, and the rest are mixed. We got on the mixed so I wouldn't be alone. We went for lunch and had kushary, a delicious dish of pasta, beans, chick peas, and dried onions, which you then mix up all together in a bowl and pour tomato sauce over. There's also a spicier red sauce, which Jenn and I used. For dessert, we went to a corner place that served "sopia," a coconut pudding sprinkled with cinnamon. That was more of a hit for Anica than the kushary. Both places were extremely popular, and we were the only tourists there.
Finally, Salma took us on a walk through a traditional Cairo neighborhood in the Islamic quarter (judging from all the mosques), and we went in one. I had to go in on the men's side, so I wandered through the mosque alone, in my sock-feet of course.
On December 24th, our tour began. The previous evening we had met everyone. There are lots of kids Anica's age, which is nice. There are three families from Australia, and one family from England, and us, totalling twenty people. Our tour leader, Jackie, is Canadian, and her husband is Egyptian, also a tour leader with Imaginative Traveller. So, in a sense, Jackie has local knowledge, like Manu did in India.
The first stop was the Citadel, and the Mosque of Mohammad Ali (not the boxer, but the 19th century Egyptian nationalist), which is modelled on the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
The Mosque of Mohammad Ali, The Citadel, Cairo
Also, from the top of the Citadel there is a great panoramic view of Cairo. I was a little surprised at how the local guide, Aladdin, gave everyone a long lecture about Islam, as we sat on the carpeted but still cold floor of the Mosque. Actually I was a little surprised that we all could just go in together, males and females, and that the only visitors seemed to be tourists, because that's completely different from the mosque we visited yesterday.
Next we went to the Egyptian Museum, after a forgettable falafel sandwich lunch in a touristy market area. The contents of the Egyptian Museum are embarassingly good. It would be even more mind-blowing if it weren't so amateurishly displayed. Almost all the King Tut objects are there, for instance, only the identical pieces are loaned out to other museums. We saw the famous golden death mask, the four shrines that fit inside each other like Russian dolls to hold Tut's sarcophagus, and many, many other objects. The real highlight, however is the Mummies room. This holds only royal mummies, and you can get up really close to them (right across the glass, which has no alarm or perimeter). I was nose to nose with Ramses II, the great pharoah who ruled Egypt for 67 years, for example. Another favourite of mine was the Narmer Palette, on the first floor, which illustrates how Narmer (King Menes, the first dynasty) unified Upper and Lower Egypt. Here is recorded history on display from 3100 BC (more than 5,000 years ago)!
Christmas Day was even better. Importantly, Santa Claus found Anica in Egypt and filled her stocking, and left a couple of gifts as well. Although it was less than other years, Anica was thrilled, because Santa knows we've been travelling light, so he brought more than she had even hoped for.
Then, it was off to the Great Pyramids of Giza. We'd seen them, driving by, several times. Mere glimpses really. As we got closer and closer, their enormity is revealed. It's not the height, but the fact that each stone block is taller than a person, and weighs at least two tons. All 12 million blocks. And for me, as a historian, it's their age. Built more than 4,500 years ago, the only wonder of the ancient world still standing. At the base of the biggest pyramid is one of the white marble slabs that was once the facing stone for all three pyramids. They must have been dazzlingly white in ancient times. Leaning back against that block also showed us how steep the angle really is. You can still climb up a little bit of the pyramid, but for our tour group, a special treat was climbing down into one of the three little pyramids.
Anica, back in daylight, after a trip down into one of the queen's pyramids at Giza
From a panoramic viewpoint some distance south of the pyramids, we had a camel ride to the other side, close to the Sphinx. The Sphinx, too, was impressive. Everybody says it's small, but that shows a poor understanding of this enormous figure carved directly from the quarry. Having this great experience, everybody soon forgot it was Christmas morning. The visit was very enjoyable, too, because the crowds were small, and the hawkers were very low-key, not interrupting us hardly at all.
In the afternoon, after a group lunch out, and a visit to a papyrus institute, Anica got to play with the other kids at the hotel's playground for a couple of hours. She was already making friends with a nine year old girl named Jacqui, and they were sitting together on the bus, but this free time to play really helped the kids get to know each other. This first hotel, the Oasis Hotel, has been excellent, despite being in the middle of nowhere (just like a real oasis!), and despite the fact that the weather's too cold for swimming (it's peaked at about 16 during the day, but it's closer to zero at night - this is the first time in five months we've needed to layer our clothing).
Christmas night, it was dinner on the train. Not exactly a Christmas dinner feast! In fact, since the cabins are for two people, I bunked with Wayne, the dad in another family of three. We were on our way overnight to Aswan, a thousand kilometres south of Cairo. I ranked the Egyptian train as nicer than India and Vietnam, but not as nice as China. Our Egyptian train, however, is a special train for tourists. We have armed guards. We will also travel in convoys of buses as we make our way north, also with armed escorts. Egypt takes no chances with its tourists.
We arrived in or at Cairo Internatinal Airport from Abu Dhabi at about 12:00. And we were very surprised when our driver from Imaginative Traveller meet us before Custems! So when we got to the Oasis hotel (a very nice 4 star hotel) we checked in, saw the playground (!) and swimming pool and finally arrived at our room. A beautifull room with two separate beds (they were going to add an extra one), tv, preatty nice washroom and a desk. We spent most of the day playing and resting before going out to see Salma and Kareem. We had a lovely Egyptian dinner which encluded Chicken cream soup for Mommy and Daddy and tomato soup for Salma and Kareem, Pita and 5 different kinds of sauces, pigeon stuffed with lightly seasoned rice and french fries and all diffrent types of kebab meat. Then they took us to a drink place and bought us sdink that had mango, strawberry and bana juice. g.n.
We got a taxi to the Coptic musem were we met Salma, and saw lots of Egyptian stuf, then went to 7 churches, 1 Islamic, 1 Jewish, all the rest Christen. Then she took us to lunch where we had a dish with pasta, chickpea, lentils, rice and dried onion. Then we went t this sweet place where we had cocunut pudding. Then went inside a mousqe, said goodbye to Salma, took a taxi back and had dinner, mett out tour leader Jackie. G.N.
"Christmas and Camel"
We had just arrived at a citadel in Cairo and we already had to take out shoes off. We had a very long talk with our local tour guide Aladdin about the religen, Islam. I also knew the story about Abraham! After that we took a little drive to a bazzar, where we tried to find an ATM, but no luck! So for lunch we had fallafel sandwhices with Aladdin, a girl named Jacqui, Tim, Lockie, Melanie, Phil, Wayne, Alce, Rachel and Rhiannon. When we were having lunch this man walked over to Alice, shaked her hand and kissed it!? Then we went to the Egyptian museum, drove home, had dinner. G.N.
Today we got up and saw presants! What I got for Christmas was in my stocking: airplane, English dictionary, 2 strawberry shortcake figures, chocolates, a big bag of mixed candy, scrabble cards, and a Polly Pockets car. And the big present was a BARBIE FASHION FEVER! which came with clothes, jelarey and shoes. From Mommy and Daddy, Harry Potter & the Half Blood Prince, a digital watch (!), a mouse, etc. P.S. Santa also gave me a duck too.
We arrived at the entrance to the Giza Pyramids at about 10:00 and Jackie got us tickets and entered! First, me, little Jacqui, Lockie and Tim climbed up some of the rocks on the pyramid, before the Tourist Police came along.
Not busted yet! Anica and some of the kids scamper up the north face of the Great Pyramid
Then we went into one of the little Queen's Pyramids, where you had to go down really steep steps. Then we went on a CAMEL!!! (very fun)! Then we went to see the Cat-King-Tut-like Sphinx (neat-o-rama). Then we had a yummy lunch of pita and sauces, falafel, chicken, french fries and pudding. Then we went to the papyrus institute, went home, played, had dinner (on the train)! G.N.