And we’re back…
Greetings from Egypt. Or more like There and Back Again. Despite my hopes, internet connectivity was spotty right up through the end of the trip.
When we’ve been away before I have tended to provide detailed reports from the road but with a trip of this length, that’s really not practical.
Instead, let’s go to the highlights over the next few days:
Thursday/Friday: Getting from JFK to Egypt involved a six hour layover in Madrid where we discovered there wasn’t much to do with little in the way of shops and only two restaurants. The entire 18+ hour trip was uneventful and right on schedule. Kate met us at the airport and we went to her apartment.
Saturday: Deb was still battling a horrendous cold and we were both sluggishly adjusting to the time change. We each took an afternoon nap which helped. We walked around Zamalek, the island she lives on, and had dinner with her GWU and dance pals Hesh and Sarah at a fine Indian restaurant.
Sunday: We were up and out and on our way to the train station for a ride to Alexandria. The train ride gave us a chance to check out the lifestyles between cities. Lots of tiny villages and farms, little sign of electricity. Got to Alexandria, checked in at the hotel and hit the streets. Our one stop was at the new Alexandria Library which was equally impressive inside and out. We took a long stroll along the road back the hotel and had dinner with Kate’s pal Kristen and her mom.
Monday: We were up and moving to fit a lot in before going back to Cairo. After securing train tickets, we hit the Roman amphitheatre. While there a tourist police officer took us into the live archeological site and showed off some fresh digging, a collection of bones and the like. Apparently, this sort of service is done in of the hope of earning baksheesh — tips – to supplement their income. He was the only one all day to offer something out of the ordinary and really earn his money.
We then went to see Pompey’s Tower which is tall and impressive. From there we strolled through a more typical section of town en route to the Catacombs. The Catacombs are very impressive: down 99 steps, cool, dry, and eerily silent. Over 300 crypts were down there along with banquet hall and we enjoyed it. Our last stop was the Fort built on the site of the ancient lighthouse, one of the 7 Wonders of the World. It would benefit from some signage but here, a helpful officer proved useful. Deb took a million pictures of the Mediterranean Sea and enjoyed herself a lot. On the way back to collecting our luggage, we made an impulsive stop at a seafood restaurant which was amazing. As we walked in, before being seated, we were taken to a table festooned with all manner of fish. They held up the day’s catch piece by piece and we selected one of this, three of that and so on. They held up still wriggling shrimp which was a first. Seated, we were given eight plates with different salads that were all pretty yummy, followed by an oily and peppery seafood soup. We made quite a mess cracking open crabs and shelling shrimp and loving every moment. It was our most expensive meal and still totaled a reasonable price when converted to dollars.
We ventured out on our own for the first time, wandering the streets of Zamalek. It’s a mix of embassies, schools, businesses, and apartments, some very quiet and traditional neighborhood streets and some chockablock with small shops and busy people.
When Kate got back from a dance class (in preparation for playing Adelaide this spring in AUC’s production of Guys & Dolls) we rode over to the Egyptian Museum. Given how poorly the state pays its staff, the Egyptologists double as tour guides and we hired one for a two hour trip through the building. To do it right probably requires twice that amount but the two hours were fine. It was a well done tour and we learned quite a bit. The evening was spent with Kristen and her mom, first enjoying a felucca ride (sailboat) on the Nile and then dinner.
With Kate at class, we were deposited at Costa Coffee, the chain in Cairo that most resembles Starbucks and has the most recognizable coffee. We enjoyed lattes until the internet café opened across the street. Then we dipped our toes back into the real world until we were joined by Kate. She took us to her favorite falafel stand, where she was recognized as a regular. From there, we headed out to Giza. We arrived somewhat late in the afternoon and were immediately hassled by aggressive hucksters selling everything from camel rides to the pyramids to trinkets. We had just enough to time to take a good long look around the Great Pyramid, the substantially smaller Queen’s pyramid and the Sphinx. By 4:30 as the sun began to set, we were shooed out by the Tourism Police. If anything, this was a disappointment in that we did not allow enough time to see the entire site and the constant harassment grew tiresome very quickly. Having said that, I need to stress that the pyramids remain incredible to stand beside, to walk where the ancients did, and marvel at what they managed to construct with the help of nothing more than human hands (unless you believe my paper, then aliens had something to do with it). The Sphinx, from our vantage point, was smaller than expected and struck me as somewhat lesser in stature than expected.
We returned to Zamalek and did what parents around the world do when visiting students: take them grocery shopping to stock up the apartment. We followed that with dinner at Sequoia, a trendy spot on the water with couches and overstuffed chairs, dim lighting and an extensive menu. Expensive, even by American standards, but tasty.
After a somewhat lazy morning, with Kate skipping dance, we headed for the Citadel, home to the original Muhammad Ali’s mosque. This incredible facility houses two mosques and several other buildings including museums dedicated to the police and the military. Deb adored the mosques and this may have been her favorite attraction of the trip, it’s certainly Katie’s favorite part of Cairo. We carefully saw all there was to see and then headed for a vastly different part of town.
Imagine an Egyptian lower east side and you can start to picture Khan el Khalili, the shopping bazaar. This is where locals and tourists come to shop with bargaining a part of the fun. Deb was hunting for some specific things which gave her some focus but we took in the sights, sounds and smells. Everywhere we went we were invited to come look. I tried to find some t-shirt souvenirs and one vendor lured me in with a 1-pound offer and suddenly by the time I was ready to pay, 1 had become 30. Kate surprised most merchants with bargaining in Arabic and playing hardball with them. I was impressed at her skills, from wide-eyed shock at their audacity to her willing to walk away. And every time we walked, they agreed to our price. By the end, though, I was feeling a little overwhelmed while Deb was exhilarated. We finished the night with simple take away shawarma from the place on her corner.
Next: Cruising the Nile