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Africa, Destinations, Middle East

Two Days in Cairo

February 13, 2009 • By

I spent the last two days wandering the neighborhoods of Cairo.  It was a lovely experience and good to get away from the mobs of tourists.  My exploring led me to a cute little neighborhood on the island of Zamalek and Gezira.  Both areas are not what you would expect in terms of Egyptian culture.  Zamalek houses many upper class Egyptians as well as foreigners and a number of embassies.  There are beautiful flats and high rises in mint condition, quaint little coffee shops and a divine bookstore.  I spent hours just roaming past the shops and houses and trying to get a sense of how people lived.  Needless to say, the shops in Zamalek are much different than the bazaars for the tourists.  Here I found finely crafted furniture and jewels that would have made even Cleopatra jealous.  It was a real eye opening experience as many of these stores contain expensive antiques and fine linens. Again, if only I could ship a truck home.

From Zamalek, I ventured to the Cairo Tower.  It was a clear day so I decided it was worth a trip to the top.  I had 360 panoramic views of the city and enjoyed taking it all in.  In the distance, the pyramids stood as they did thousands of years ago only now mildly ignored by the locals.  Other than a brief encounter with an Arabic tourist, I found this to be a very peaceful and pleasurable experience.  The tourist – a father- thought it would be a good idea to put his (maybe) two-year-old daughter on the top of the safety fence.  We are talking Eiffel Tower, C&N Tower, Empire State Building tall.  At least in other countries, the fences are efficient but this was not enclosed and her mother who was being bossed around let go of the child and I nearly had a heart attack.  I guess my screaming at the father didn’t do much since I saw him taking her photo again on the other side.  Some people are so stupid.

After I sipped my mocha and devoured my chocolate cake, I made for the local shopping district.  It’s in the center of downtown.  The area consists of coffee shops, stores and restaurants, banks, etc. and caters to locals.  There were families eating ice cream, young couples courting each other, women shopping and men in the coffee houses smoking and watching soccer(football).  It seemed like a great place to eat and people watch and I was craving Greek food.

Egypt has a very large Greek presence dating back to Alexander the Great. It’s reflective in their history and also the Christian Church. Coptic Christians are essentially Greek Orthodox. As a result, there is a sphere of Greek influence in the food and culture.  I had heard rave reviews about the Greek Club and wanted to check it out. I must have been pretty determined as I walked around for two hours trying to find the restaurant. It seemed every person I asked for directions had a relative in either Texas or Minnesota and they all had very famous perfume shops right around the corner. The first time I felt obligated but by the 5th time I was downright ornery.

What kind of tourist police don’t speak a word of English? Even with my little cheat sheet telling them the name of the street and restaurant they were clueless.  I really flipped out when I realized the cop IN FRONT OF THE GREEK CLUB sent me on another hour tour. Eventually, I ran across another man -who has a brother in Minnesota with a store in the Mall of America- and he escorted me to the very hidden side entrance of the restaurant. I did take his business card and promise to visit (ooops).

Grumpy and starving, I walked up two flights of stairs excited to eat. This was an exhaustive endeavor. Before I could take my seat, a “doorman” asked me to pay 35 pounds or 15 USD cover charge on top of the cost of my meal.  Out of energy, I could not argue and paid the entrance fee. It seems I stumbled upon the Hellenic Center of Cairo and my cover charge didn’t even include entertainment. I scarfed down the saganaki and tsziiki and called it a night.

The Local Experience:

Today, I decided to stroll through Islamic Cairo. There is a tourist component but it’s pretty isolated to the market and 2 mosques. I arrived at noon just in time for prayer and the loud speakers blaring. The walk through the markets proved too much for my patience. After about the tenth whisper of “I love you,” I changed direction and lost myself in the narrow alleys of where the locals live. There are about 10 old mosques and 2 mausoleums and the architecture is quite unique to Egypt. My aimless wandering took me off the beaten path where I watched locals buying and selling fruits and vegetables, women with children admiring the galabayas and people going about their daily business. No one bothered me for a change.

Having walked for 2 hours, I was in desperate need for a bathroom(all can atest to my small bladder). I rushed to the Islamic Museum knowing tourist destinations had bathrooms and to my chagrin the Museum was closed. Now in a panic I turned and noticed a large inviting building with lots of Egyptian flags. I begged a guardhouse full of men to let me pass but the absence of English was not helping my cause. Squating, air drawing a toilet and saying WC, bathroom and toilet in every language I knew -Arabic excluded- produced results. One man led me to another security point and eventually an office with a very official looking man behind a desk. A bit concerned as I was surrounded by 3 armed guards, I could only focus on my bladder. Thankfully, this man spoke English and informed me he was the Minister of the Interior. Ummm my first thought– I’m about to get arrested and my second I’m going to piss on this guy’s floor and then get arrested. After some finger snapping and loud Arabic, I was taken to what looked like a locked public bathroom. It smelled dreadful but it worked. Completely baffled by this 5 minute exchange, I bolted out of the building and past the guards and wondered how I just did what I did. One thing I was certain…an Egyptian woman would have never pulled off that maneuver.

I spent the rest of the afternoon with a local man I met on my walk. Eheb watched me examine my map and asked me if I knew I was not in the tourist market. I thought that was pretty obvious by my surroundings but I informed him the market proved to be a hassle and I wanted to try something different. We talked for a bit and I learned he studied in the US and had actually spent 6 months at Kansas University(Patrick’s school). He seemed to know the campus so when he offered to walk me to some interesting historic buildings free of charge I went. After being pushed and pulled and tricked for days, I kept waiting for the punch line but it never came. He seemed open to my questions — I got to the basics right away. While I believe Egypt is becoming more conservative, he says it’s quite the opposite. He contends the women cover more but underneath they wear lingerie and more provocative clothing. I had to agree with him as I noticed several slinky outfits in the local markets and wondered who might be purchasing them.

He also reaffirmed my theory about the satellites. People don’t have money to eat here but everyone has a satellite dish. Apparently there are 3 levels of cable one can get for a total of 85 channels. The full package even includes 10 porn channels. He must have said porn 5 times before I got it. Like every other educated Egyptian, he believes satellites have ruined the people. The country is greatly influenced by Western ways more now than ever because of cable. It took me awhile to convince him every 14-year-old girl is not sexually active in the US. They watch a little too much Oprah, Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer. On several occasions, local Egyptians have told me they think American women are loose. Well after hearing Eheb tell me about Jerry Springer I put two and two together.

Eheb is a physical therapist/massage therapist at a local hospital. After some prodding, he told me he often feels like a hair dresser because the minute a woman starts talking she tells him her life story. He seems amazed at how many married Egyptian women cheat or have significant others on the side. I was surprised that he admitted most men have one wife but also one mistress. In his opinion, the women have watched too much TV and demand things be differently at home. (My mind instantly flashed to the porn channels!!!) He doesn’t trust the fully covered women and said,”the more covered the more they hide.” That is one loaded response.

On our walk, a few women approached me to pet my hair and said some gamala word. The second time it happened Eheb translated and informed me that the women do this because blond hair is not real here and they wanted to feel whether or not I was wearing a wig. Oh and it’s meant to be flattering.

Starting to show fatigue, Eheb suggested we sit for coffee or tea. We settled on this little cafe overlooking one of the ancient mosques. After a few blank stares from locals, we picked up where we left off. Ehen is 36, never been married and cares for his mother. He was very poor growing up since his father suffered a paralyzing injury. Therefore, it was up to Eheb to support the family. The government pays for school and he seemed to understand at 16 that he needed to finish university to get a decent job. He has 2 younger sisters and until they were married he supported them. One married at 17 and the other at 21. It disappointed him that the one sister never finished school. Both sisters each have 3 kids.

Eheb lived in Switzerland for 2 years, thinks Saudis are awful-they come to Egypt and drink alcohol and hire prostitutes so he says- and seems to live a conservative life. He wanted to learn all about American women and dating. Of course, he wanted to know what was wrong with me since I was not married. “You not like men?” Um I like them but they don’t like me. Then I turned it around on him and said well you are 36. You should nearly be a grandfather and that’s when I learned he works to support his family and can’t find a woman willing to marry him and live with his mother. He was very proud of the fact that he maintains a nice savings and he enjoys his job immensely.

After a call to his mother(so he said), he invited me to dinner with his family. Thursday night is family night since the weekend is Friday and Saturday. It would be his 2 sisters, their husbands and the 6 grandchildren. I really wanted to go and thought it would be an amazing opportunity but after a call to Joyce I decided against it. She reminded me the sad truth of the world we live in today. I don’t know who I can trust and to go alone could be jeopardizing my safety.

Eheb paid for our lunch, put me in a cab -negotiating a mere 5 Egyptian pounds and we said good bye. After spending 5 hours with him, I know I learned a great deal more about the life of an Egyptian and I hope I did the same for him. We exchanged emails and I’m sure we will keep in touch making the world even a little bit smaller.

Destinations, Middle East


February 10, 2009 • By

I’ve decided since I was such a big hit at the Egyptian party I would go ahead and assume a new identity. From this day forward, please refer to me as Nefertiti, the Queen of Egypt. I also like the Queen of the Nile but there is a bit too much pollution in the river and we all know I can’t have any references to anything less than perfect. The ancient Egyptians declared themselves gods and kings all the time why can’t I? It seems like a pretty straightforward process. Now I need some sucker willing to spend the next 25 years chiseling me a temple. I think my boat mates referring to me as the beautiful Nefertiti may have gone to my head. Egyptians dig me. It’s fun to be admired and even the boat crew wanted to take my picture. Of course I was totally into posing like an Egyptian with the cobra movements and all. I even have the pictures to prove it. (I did indeed pay $6 for pictures of myself). I guess my brother thinks I’ve lost my mind but I contend it’s been years in the making as I was completely overlooked as homecoming queen in high school. (NO I AM NOT BITTER).

Our Egyptian party was a total blast. The DJ played music and we slithered around practicing our belly dancing moves to Egyptian hip-hop. Couples played a “dirty” game –I thought as we are in a Muslim country– the men wore blindfolds and pinched a beer bottle in between their legs maneuvering forward based on the awaiting woman’s directions. The key was for the man to pour his beer into the woman’s glass. Basically, this was a crotch-to-crotch game or as an onlooker exclaimed, “OH there’s beer in his glass and he poured it all over her pants.” Obviously she never played kings or pyramid or even quarters for that matter. Didn’t they have that game in 1930?

As the Queen, I participated in the single ladies game and something more appropriate for royalty. I won a bottle of water (a real jewel in Egypt). When the thumping music stopped, I was item less which meant I was the winner. Mind you there were 3 of us left so we all won. Our boat was big on prizes.

The only remaining mystery of my Nile Cruise involved a 20 something year old guy who seemed to accompany 7 other 70+ women. He never left their side dining with them at every meal, tanning and swimming with them on the boat and accompanying them to bed much earlier than anyone his age. My group had various theories…caretaker, grandson, son, etc. By the end of the trip, I got everyone to agree on “servicer.” This was after I pointed out he carried her purse on several occasions and I didn’t see many sex pot 70+ year old women frolicking in the sun in high heels. I tried like crazy to figure it out and my group decided I needed to corner him. It was a tough mission as he never left his lady’s side but the last night he wore a t-shirt that read, “I’m a Virgin.” I saw my chance. Half way out the door and alone I shouted to him, “hey how could you be a virgin when you’re on a cruise with 7 women?” His response left me speechless; “there’s always room for 8.”  I guess he told me.

My boat docked in the magical land of Luxor, former Kingdom of Thebes. It’s about 4 hours from Aswan and 11 from Cairo. It’s quite a historical city as it’s filled with some of the most magnificent ruins to ever be discovered. Egyptologists and archaeologists continue to find new remains on a fairly regular basis.

The city is divided by the Nile. The East Bank is the main thoroughfare of the city and contains two towering temples called the Temple of Karnak and the Temple of Luxor. The West Bank is home to the Valley of the Kings, the site for many of the tombs of pharaohs from the New Kingdom, including Tutankhamen and Ramses the Great.  Much of these sites has been amazingly preserved.  It is my feeling that these works are even more impressive than the pyramids.  To see the workmanship on the walls at the Valley of the Kings is almost unbelievable.  Imagine coming to work each day -blindfolded by the priests (so they never knew the exact location) and crafting the tomb of a king. These people worked in low light and likely desert conditions chiseling these hieroglyphics masterpieces.

Thirty-seven tombs have been discovered at the Valley of the Kings and most of the insides are still very much intact. The colors on the walls in addition to the “artwork” are gorgeous.  The ancient Egyptians possessed wisdom unmatched by anyone of their time and I might go as far to say no single group has come close since that time (I haven’t been to India yet so we’ll see).

Another little factoid worth sharing about the ancient Egyptians involves the sun. They believed the sun died every night in the west and was reborn each morning in the east. Hence, the temples celebrating life are located on the East Bank and the tombs embracing death on the West Bank. This also confirms their understanding of life and death. Everything dies but comes back again.

The Temple of Karnak is an equally empowering visit and I would have loved to see its splendor in the day.  Completed entirely in Egyptian style there are columns a fixed with the lotus and the papyrus– powerful Egyptian symbols even now.  The temple’s columns are immense and I cannot do it justice on paper. It’s the size of two football fields with statues and columns sectioning off various worship rooms. Ancient Egyptians built their temples from the inside and out so likely columns and rooms were added over hundreds of years.  The temple also houses a few remaining obelisks. The rest have been stolen, destroyed or reside in other countries.  There is one particular granite slab that I paid great attention to at the Temple. It represents the god of marriage. The legend says a woman who walked around the statue 7 times would soon find herself married. I did make the obligatory walk. It can’t hurt might help. Don’t worry I skipped the god of fertility’s slab. I figure I have enough problems right now.

I’m boarding the mouse-infested train back to Cairo. THE TRAIN I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR 3 HOURS TO TAKE BECAUSE I DIDN’T KNOW 21:50 WAS 9:50 AND GOT HERE IN PLENTY OF TIME FOR THE 8:50. The train that just cost me an extra $20 in baksheesh tips to use the toilet and get some tea. These people are persistent.

Before I sign off, here are a few more Egyptianisms:

Me to our guide: Do your “priests” or whatever they’re called have to try out to speak 5 times a day on the megaphone?
Guide: (very pissed off). We don’t have priests.

Me: I know but your leaders or whatever. The calls to prayer– I mean don’t people have alarm clocks?
Guide: They have clocks this is just a reminder.

Me: Well it’s really annoying and I think if someone doesn’t want to pray they should not be forced to.
Guide: It’s ok that you don’t live here then and you should know the voices are much better than they used to be.

Me: Great so they used to be loud, annoying and tone deaf.
Guide: Silence.

Haggler: Felucca, motorboat, taxi, horse carriage? Maybe tomorrow.
Me: maybe never

New Haggler: Felucca, motorboat, taxi, horse carriage?
Me: (turning around in haggler’s face) where you from? $1, 5 Egyptian pounds, maybe tomorrow, felucca?
Haggler: Speechless
Haggler friend: laughing hysterical
Me: priceless