Egypt

December 10, 2007 at 5:22 pm | Posted in Egypt | 1 Comment

Egypt October 2-11

We left Bucharest, Romania via train at 6:00pm for our 15 hour train ride back to Budapest, Hungary. The train ride was lovely again and we slept comfortably (much more comfortable than a plane) and awoke in Budapest. Our plane to Cairo wasn’t until midnight so we spent the day in Budapest. At the train station, there was a convenient luggage storage facility so we packed our daily essentials into one daypack and left the rest. We take a deep breath every time we leave our stuff. We had a lovely breakfast and strolled the city. We were lucky that the Titanic exhibit was in town so we were able to take that in. Oliver had taken a keen interest in the Titanic before we left so it was especially fascinating for him. We made our way back to the train station, picked up our luggage and took a taxi to the airport. With only a catnap on the three hour flight, we arrived at 3:00am. In Budapest, we had called and made reservations at a Cairo hotel and they picked us up at the airport. The boys easily adjusted to sleeping and waking at odd times as the excitement of the adventure outweighed the inconvenience, just like the adults – plus they love shuttle vans! In retrospect, it was a blessing to arrive in the middle of the night when the roads were clear so we would not be immediately exposed to the death-defying chaotic driving that takes place in Egypt.

We arrived at the Windsor hotel in an “interesting” part of Cairo. Later we would label it the “real” Cairo and be glad we experienced it but, at first, it was jolting. Because we just wanted to get to bed, we put our blinders on and headed for the room. The Windsor is a hotel that has been featured in many classic movies for its British decor as though it has stood still in time from the earlier part of the 20th century. The small reception area was equipped with an authentic telephone operator’s switchbox which the host used to route the incoming calls while a hand-operated elevator awaited us. This was juxtaposed with the metal detector at the entrance and the armed guard which we concluded seemed unnecessary based upon our experience (but comforting, sort of). After we finished our interrupted sleep, we ventured out towards what was considered Islamic Cairo – full of market streets, mosques and outdoor restaurants. Our hotel was not situated in the tourist section of Cairo along the Nile with lights, clean streets, restaurants and museums. It was surrounded by dirty streets, whizzing cars, pandemonium and people, people and more people. We had not experienced anything like this to date and although it was chaotic, it was still exciting.

Everyone was very friendly towards us and could see us coming a mile away and would yell “Welcome”, “Go Yankees”, and, of course, “Come…I make good price for you.” They wanted us to take their picture or buy their wares. They wanted to talk to us or pinch the boys’ cheeks. We were not only the only Americans, we were the only white people that we saw for hours. People were jammed into buses, jammed on the sidewalks, and you needed a masters degree in the art of street crossing to get anywhere. Folks carried such large bundles on their heads that you could barely see their heads at all. The smiles and gentle bantering kept us moving forward. We headed up the crowded Muski Street which was a dirt lane lined with everything you could ever want to buy. Not only souvenirs, this was where the locals shopped – you could buy dresses, umbrellas, scarves, razors, oranges, toys, and pyramid paperweights. It seemed a mile long and it took us a few hours to get from one end to the other. The later it got, the more people started to fill the streets. During Ramadan, folks are quiet and contemplative during the day then they come out in droves at night in Cairo. Some of the stores stay open all night for shopping. As we approached the end of Muski Street at sundown, it became silent as store owners and shoppers all settled down in either a restaurant chair or on a mat on the ground to end their daily fast for Ramadan and eat. Suddenly the large square outside of the mosque filled with hundreds of people at once. Persuasive restauranteurs stand vigil along the sidewalks coaxing people into their eatery. We hesitantly took a seat not knowing what we were going to be served in Egypt for dinner. As we ate kebabs and pizza (phew), children and mothers approached our table offering popcorn, bracelets, songs and other useful things in hopes of a small payment. The restauranteur kept an eye to ensure no one was too insistent with us or he would shoo them away. The boys were playing with their army men on the table while we awaited our food and that attracted some young vendors who were temporarily distracted from their task of selling cigarettes. The boys wondered why children were selling cigarettes.

Traffic lights are disregarded in Cairo. It took at least 5 minutes of standing on the sidewalk to gain the courage and opportunity to dart in between the cars to cross the street. Some streets were four lanes across. Traffic lights were apparantly installed within the past decade or so and their purpose still has not yet been fully accepted. The other “interesting” traffic fact is that at night, cars do not drive with their headlights on because they believe it makes it difficult for other cars to see well from the glare. We regarded these differences with complete shock! How can a major city conduct itself this way! Sometimes we try to imagine what America was like before traffic lights and Cairo gave us a glimpse of what it might have been like.

So far on our travels, we have seen very few homeless on the streets or sidewalk. There were more in Cairo but less proportional to the number of people that filled the streets. The boys were attentive and concerned about someone on the street and always very generous to either the homeless or a talented street performer by donating any coins they had in their pocket.

Interestingly enough, where we should have been shocked and frightened of the crowds, litter, grime and dust, there was a constant reminder that this land and culture preexists our culture by thousands of years and even though they do things differently than us, their way is just as valid and appropriate as ours. Even the driving – we could not believe the chances that drivers took driving towards a group of people crossing the street but somehow they are able to successfully predict the actions of others where we would never attempt. It is an interesting dilemma to decide when you are putting your family at a real risk versus accepting the judgements of a different culture that you are unable to understand fully.

We ventured over towards the Egyptian Museum where the streets were clean and the Hilton and the Four Seasons hotels overlook the Nile. There are mostly tourists and fewer locals. It was a different world from where we were staying. The Egyptian Museum was fascinating even for novice Egyptologists like us. Most of the second floor is dedicated to the treasures found in King Tutankamen’s tomb. It is hard to describe the sheer volume of things that were stuffed into the tomb, each item painstakingly created to celebrate the King’s life and ensure a successful afterlife. The children were very intrigued with everything the museum had to offer. We had to make it a bit more motivating by asking them to find certain pieces in each room. At one point Henry’s actions afforded him a time-out behind one of the many sarcophagus relics. As he was standing there pondering his misdeeds, a group of Egyptian girls clambered around him admiring his golden hair and American looks. Two kissed him on the cheek (a common practice even between strangers when one of them is especially cute looking) and took his picture hardly acknowledging his mother’s presence. With that, it was difficult to continue with the time-out so we resumed our tour of the museum.

The next day we toured a papyrus institute and learned how papyrus can be made into paper. Oliver successfully wove papyrus strips into a paper and was very proud. We were gently but persistently reminded of all of the lovely artwork we could buy but had settled on some artwork of King Tut that included the boys’ names in both arabic and hieroglyphics. We toured an Islamic mosque and climbed to the top of its minaret to overlook the city aptly called the City of A Thousand Minarets and learned how to distinquish an ornate Egyptian styled minaret from a simple Turkish minaret. Then it was onto the Great Pyramids of Giza. We could hardly maintain our composure. The Pyramids, the only remaining one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, rose faintly beyond the haze and sad pollution strangely adjacent to the urban streets. One side of the road were houses and stores and across the street was the desert upon which the pyramids were built. We were glad to have survived the drive there and were happily greeted by a group of men and their willing camels. The boys were unaware of our prior arrangements to take camels out to the pyramids instead of the more typical drop-off area where you walk to them with the hoards of tourists. Each boy rode with one of us on a camel and we were escorted by a young man who pulled each camel by foot and by two men on horses. Mounting the camels was a trick in that first you get on when the camel is resting on the ground. Then he straightens his back legs so you are leaning forward so far that your head was about 45 degrees lower than your rear-end and then you have to hold on for dear life when he straightens his front legs and you are catapulted up from your formerly awkward position to the now not so much more comfortable position of strattling a camel`s hump. We didn’t anticipate that we would first have to ride these lumbering creatures through a small Giza tenement community so that we could enter the pyramids from a back gate and avoid the crowds. This was very strange especially when we were seeing other locals riding camels as a normal form of transportation. Not only that but they were chatting on their cell phones while doing so. This definitely wasn’t Kansas anymore.

When we finally reached the sands of the Pyramids, it was what fantasies are made of – endless sand in the distances, lonely caravans plodding between them, three pyramids graduating in size and a sunny day with no wind which is helpful in this environment. Were it not for the constant “Giddyup” and “Yahoo” and “Look Dad, yours is pooping!”, we would have felt like we were in the movies. We toured the Pyramids in a perfect way and even went inside one of them and avoided the crowds the entire time.

Our next adventure was to take an overnight train south to Luxor which involved negotiating the streets to get to one train station to buy the tickets, buying some flashlights from the street vendors (because they say you need them to visit the tombs in the Valley of the Kings) and hanging out at the Windsor Hotel the rest of the afternoon because they had internet access and we needed to upload our photos and make hotel reservations. After saying good-bye to the extra friendly staff who had helped us clean and hang our laundry and even sewed Oliver’s pants for us, we made our way to Luxor. We survived the ride to the train station and chatted with a couple of policemen from Australia who were also on a round-the-world trip (albeit in six weeks). They had just come from Rwanda where they viewed the mountain gorillas and showed us their pictures and gave us some tips for when we visit Australia. The most travelers we have met have been from Australia. We woke up on the train to view all of the Egyptians tending to their crops along the railway and living in small square mud homes with a donkey out back and a bright white satellite dish on top. This was the land that truly looked like the Egypt of your dreams (except for the satellite dishes). Papyrus fields stretching out from a gently rolling Nile river compared to the Nile in Cairo could have been the East River in Manhattan it was so busy with lights and commerce.

The ambitious taxi drivers practically knock on your cabin door upon arrival and after checking to see what the appropriate price was for getting into town, we took the short cab ride to the luxurious St George Hotel. It was an oasis from all of the chaos of Cairo – marble floors, swimming pool overlooking the Nile, and a bathroom that supplied soap and shampoo. Ah, yes, how quickly we run back to our creature comforts after suffering from a mere four days of “old world” living, and then some. Yes, the swim-up bar and the four international restaurants should do the trick. We suddenly decided that we were going to enjoy Egypt as vacationers rather than nomads. We hit the swimming pool for hours and sat on the floating deck on the Nile and had drinks and then sat beneath the stars and had a perfect dinner while listening to a zither player play classic Egyptian tunes.

The next day, we headed over to the famous Luxor Temple and had to constantly reject offers to get there by horse-and-carriage which we eventually succumbed to when we realized you could talk them down from $20.00 to about $2.00 for the ride for all of us. We hired a private guide for about $6.00 to show us around the temple and he had small children of his own so he was quite adept at explaining things in “kid-talk”. Most of all of the Egyptians spoke English so it was easy to travel and communicate. Despite the warnings against the intense heat, the next day we ventured to the Valley of the Kings where the great kings of Egypt are buried deep within the dry desert sands in hidden tombs. We had to negotiate the price for the horse and carriage, then for a taxi to transport us all day, and we even had to bargain for water and ice pops! We were experts at the end of our stay! The heat was very intense – like an oven – but the excitement of our surroundings outweighed the temperature. Even the children held up like champs.

We learned a lot about Egyptian history and hieroglyphics while in Luxor. Even without the benefits of tour guides, we were so impacted by the sheer undertaking of transporting all of the treasures we saw in the Egyptian Museum to a secret location in the heat of the desert into tombs only accessible by small passageways with no light. And the extent of the engravings along the miles of passageways forever celebrating the life of the king and ensuring his successful afterlife was mindblowing. We are sure the organized tour groups learned a lot more than we did about all of the sights and all of the tombs and sometimes we would try to eavesdrop on their lectures but tours were expensive and we would not be able to participate with the children and we enjoyed going at our own pace. We started to take pride in our ability to independently get our way from the hotel to a place like the Valley of the Kings for the cheapest price and navigate the horses, ferries, taxis and trams to get there which was part of the adventure rather than being whisked there on an air-conditioned coach. It is because of the gift of time that has allowed us to take our preferred way to get anywhere and has allowed us to interact with Egyptians at all levels and thus has been a sweeter experience, albeit sometimes requiring a lot more patience.

We were encouraged to travel further down the Nile via cruise to lovely Aswan but we didn’t want to change our flights to stay longer in Egypt because we didn`t want to have a long visit in some places and spread ourselves thin. Even though independent travel is sweeter, it takes a lot of energy to actually travel and we are still training ourselves to not try to see everything. We are finding that a place impacts our memories more if we perhaps walk the same path many times and pass by familiar sights more than once, especially for the children. We are taking our time – or at least trying to. It is a constant balancing act. So, we sat on the floating deck of our hotel, once again, and watched the Egyptian feluccas sail up and down the Nile at sunset and, once again, listened to the zither player who had shown the boys how to play, and sipped our last cup of fragrant tea before we caught our night train back to Cairo where we would catch a flight to our next destination.

click photo for slideshow)

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  1. this sounds and looks incredile, i especially enjoyed the anicdote about henry in the museum and him mackin the egyptian babes. as my brother pointed out the traffic seems a lot like nepal, they didnt really follow any written law either. i kenw the great pyramids were big, but i didnt know they were that big, i guess they didnt have anything better do at the time… well i hope you are all having a slammin awesome time and i look forward to the next post – love from all the kennedys!


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