Egyptian Excursions - Part I


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Africa » Egypt » Lower Egypt » Cairo
September 11th 2020
Published: September 11th 2020
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Hello everyone,

I hope this blog finds you and your loved ones well. I have started, stopped, and restarted this blog more times than I can count. At first I delayed out of normal procrastination habits; then every month since life-as-we-knew-it was interrupted, I've questioned if the timing and message of this post were right. I was holding out for some glorious day when this virus would be gone, this pandemic would be over, and travel would be able to safely resume. But it's becoming increasingly clear that I don't know when that day will be, and I don't know that the luxury of international travel will ever exist in the same capacity it did before. And so for that reason, I've realized that any day is a good day to share a blog with you, because I would like to be reminded of a time when I was fortunate enough to roam the world, explore foreign places, understand new cultures, and embrace the beauty of the planet beyond my national borders. While I do have many thoughts on the current state of the world, I am also still processing these global changes and adapting to a more rooted lifestyle. So without any hidden political agenda, any attempt to persuade, or any speculation on what is yet to come, I'd love to momentarily suspend all the fear, anxiety, uncertainty, panic, and/or depression you may be feeling, and simply share some memories that make me smile. Memories that make the current challenges worth it. Memories that give me hope for opportunities ahead. I don't know how long this season of sheltering in our places will last, but I can't wait for the day we are able to explore again. I have hope for trips and adventures and laughs and sunsets, in places near and far, still to come. I hope these memories spark as much joy in you as they do in me.

Early last year, my dear friend Christy and I had been discussing taking an overseas adventure, when the universe presented us with the perfect opportunity- a deeply discounted dive trip in the Red Sea. (If you don't remember the connection from earlier blogs, Christy and I were co-workers and dive buddies at Sea Life aquarium back in 2014. We became fast friends and our spontaneous souls spent many weekends hiking, camping and road-tripping throughout the southwest.) We've lived apart for a few years now so we were incredibly excited to reunite AND dive a bucket-list destination together! And thus, an Egyptian Excursion was born. Once the motivation was set, the rest of the pieces fell into place quite nicely. We did our research, talked to friends and strangers who had previous experience, found affordable flights, and set ourselves up for a 14-day adventure. The anticipation leading up to this trip was enormous- it would be my first time flying internationally in more than 3 years , my first time in Africa, my first time in the Middle East, my 22nd country visited, and my 5th continent reached. I couldn't decide if I was more thrilled about seeing 4000 year old architecture or swimming with endemic species on some of the world's most pristine reefs. It's still honestly a tie.

Christy and I joined forces at JFK and made the long, non-stop flight to Cairo. Flying with EgyptAir was fantastic and we got an instant sense of Egyptian hospitality; I think they rival the Kiwis for kindest nationality. As both of us were new to this region of the world, we booked a 4-night Cairo accommodation and day-trip package through the highly recommended Ramasside Tours. We were greeted upon arrival at the gate, and whisked away, luggage cart and all, through security and out into the arid midday heat. Even after many hours of travel, we were ecstatic to arrive at our destination. The ride to the hotel was full of chaos as cars, trucks, motorbikes, and donkey carts raced each other for position in the flow of traffic. In Cairo, lanes and lights hold less significance than the location and speed of your bumper. Our guides escorted us safely through the madness, over the Nile, and directly to our hotel. Exhausted from the journey thus far, we decided to check out the room and decompress, only to be happily surprised that our balcony had a view of the Great Pyramid at Giza. That evening we ventured down the road to exchange currencies and found a quiet spot for dinner next to the hotel. The open air seating offered a nice space to enjoy the setting sun, and we sipped fresh mango smoothies as locals gathered for casual, post-work hookah sessions. We practiced the few Arabic words we had learned from our lovely flight attendant with our waiter. Instantly, he was impressed and practiced some of his English with us. We all parted with smiles.

After a good night's sleep and a gorgeous, smoggy sunrise over the pyramids, we got dressed, packed up, and scurried to breakfast, thrilled about the full day of adventure ahead. The spread included mango juice, hard boiled eggs with bread, olives, hummus, and an array of earthen-colored spices for each of us, plus a coffee for me. We pondered the flavor of each spice individually as we relished the morning fuel. Our guide for the day, Ahmed, was prompt to greet us at the hotel door, and our driver zipped off instantly into the workday bustle. First stop, the ancient capital city of Memphis, to see the 2nd largest statue of Ramses II, the Memphis Sphinx, and dozens of other remains/artifacts from the Old Kingdom. I felt like we had walked into a history textbook; I couldn't believe I was standing next to columns carved with hieroglyphics nearly 3500 years ago. We weaved our way through the relics, learning cultural factoids and mythology along the way. With more sites to see, our driver collected us and we cruised through the date palm farms of Saqqara to the Pyramid of Djoser. The royal complex features ceremonial structures, courtyards, a temple, and several tombs for Pharaoh Djoser and his family. This 3rd dynasty ruler's burial chamber lies below the magnificent Steppe Pyramid, which is considered the world's first monumental stone structure. Construction of this scale (base= 397 ft x 358 ft, height= 205 ft) had previously only been completed in mud-brick. Ahmed led us through the roofed colonnade, and I ran my fingers over polished stone walls the color of the sunburned sand outside. Inside the entrance way stood a row of limestone columns, mimicking the towering palms of the surrounding Nile delta. The corridor led back out into the bright mid-morning sun, and our jaws dropped in awe of this massive 6-tiered archaeological anomaly. As if, the day couldn't escalate further (oh, it did), our guide brought us to a ground-level entrance at what appeared to be a pile of rubble, formerly a small pyramid. With a final nod to Ahmed, we crept down the stone chute into the belly of a tomb. I don't know how to express what it feels like to stand inside something so old; it's like understanding the scope of time on a new scale. The walls were covered in perfectly discernible hieroglyphs, protected from the eroding sand and winds outside for thousands of years. When the shock subsided and the tomb began to flood with fresh waves of tourists, we climbed out of the crowded ruins and continued onward with the day's adventures.

We made a pit stop at The Papyrus Museum, where we observed a local docent explain the ancient technique of turning river reeds into paper: peel, slice, soak, layer, press. The end result is a beautiful golden canvas, strong, structured, and ready for paint. We observed the gallery of art and purchased a few prints to gift before carrying on to our next stop. On the outskirts of the vast urban Cairo spread, facing the Western Desert, lies the Giza Necropolis. This 62 mi2 complex features two cemeteries, an assortment of rock-cut tombs, and several funerary chambers, but is best known as the site of The Great Pyramid of Khufu, the only remaining structure from the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. Even from a distance, you are keenly aware that these stone giants are of unearthly scale. The near-perfect triangular sides of the pyramids race toward the sky, each stretching to a juncture once capped in gold. As we approached the base of the largest structure, the high-noon sun disappeared behind it's peak, offering respite from the heat. Surprisingly, the massive stone slabs remained cool to the touch, whispering secrets of an inexplicably advanced ancient civilization. The echo of Earth's timeline rang out again, in ways only Einstein could begin to grasp. 4000 years have barely changed the strongest of shapes. Christy and I clambered up the base of the pyramid to get some perspective and were instantly dwarfed by each brick. I could've spent all day in the shadow of these beasts, contemplating my sheer insignificance, but soon we were ushered onward to visit another Great- the majestic Sphinx. Though her nose is gone, The Great Sphinx of Giza stands watchful guard of the plaza, sure to entice you with her riddle, if you dare. We paused for photos and farewell kisses, then hurried out of the pressing heat back into the van.

After an eventful first day, we retreated to the hotel to rest and edit photos. The whole experience still felt surreal, a feeling that still hasn’t passed. Once we had recuperated a bit, we gathered our head scarves and money belts and braved the evening bustle in search of food. For our first time since arriving in Cairo, we decided to cross the street. In frogger-like fashion, Christy seized an opening, weaving gracefully between the speeding vehicles. Being a chicken, I hesitated and missed this window, but was fortunate enough to be joined by an older man who politely let me scurry along behind him at the next pause in traffic. Safely on the other side of the road, we wandered down the sidewalk past heaps of trash waiting for pick up, carefully being scoured by stray cats for food scraps. We found a convenience stand to replenish our water and snack supply, practicing both our dollar-to-pound conversion and our growing Arabic vocabulary. Then it was finally time to eat, popping into a restaurant recommended by our guide for a very traditional meal. I had grilled chicken and vegetables over rice, while Christy the Brave opted for a local favorite, the stuffed pigeon. The pigeon was quite gamey and offered little meat, so we ended up splitting my portion after she polished off hers. With full bellies and full hearts, we concluded our first complete day in Egypt and tucked in for the night.

Jet lag had me up before the sun on day three, a blessing that allowed me to capture a time-lapse of the sunrise over the city skyline. We stretched, dressed, and fueled up for another day of discovery just in time to be greeted by our new guide, Mohammed. Thrust into the morning mayhem, we headed into the heart of downtown Cairo to a salmon-colored building lovingly known as The Egyptian Museum. Home to 5,000 years of history, the museum can display only a fraction of it's antiquities; in fact, this collection is so large, a new museum complex is being constructed in Giza, whose total area surpasses that of the entire Vatican City. Mohammed gave us the SparkNotes version of ancient Egyptian history before leading us through the waves of fellow foreigners, vying for position to snap photos of each artifact. The next few hours were spent roaming the rooms and halls of jewelry, art, furniture, and pottery. Inside we found sculptures with translucent eyes that followed you, a large bust honoring a queen who became king, and an ironically action-figure-sized statue of Khufu, namesake of the Great Pyramid. We were even fortunate enough to enter the wing containing King Tut's personal belongings- sarcophagus, gold headdress, gifts for the afterlife and all (photos strictly forbidden). As the museum filled up with visitors, we snuck out the back exit to the car, and our driver made a swift getaway. We whizzed through the city to the southeast corner until we reached Cairo's Citadel, home of the magnificent Alabaster Mosque. Located on a hill and flanked by twin minarets, this landmark can be seen from every direction in the city. The Albanian Ottoman governor and former ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, had this monument constructed for his son Tusun Pasha, who passed in 1816, though it wasn't completed until 1857, and more recently received a major restoration in the 1930's. While it's towering size and distinguished silhouette are a sight to behold, the most impressive work lies inside this mosque. Per proper etiquette, we donned disposable blue shoe covers and slipped inside the grand structure. The walls were lined with towering carved alabaster columns, reaching towards the heavens. Several stories later, the walls join a radial cluster of concave domes, bathed in emerald green paint and embellished with intricate gold details. We marveled the ceiling patterns, spinning in circles across the red-carpeted floor. When we had absorbed as much beauty as our minds could comprehend, we followed Mohammed outside to an open terrace overlooking Cairo's hazy skyline. We paused for photos and more informative stories with our guide before making our way over the cracked ceramic walkway to the Citadel gates, meeting our driver once again.

Continuing on the spiritual journey, our day beckoned onward to Old Cairo. The driver dropped us on the curb and Mohammed steered us through a crowded street of shops and cafes to a set of stairs descending below ground, similar to a subway entrance. We followed him down the stone steps and through an archway, emerging into the hidden world known as Coptic Cairo. This highly concentrated holy compound holds a congregation of varying religious historical sites and places of worship. Christy and I padded down the cobblestone alleyway lined with books and artwork, suddenly immersed in a very different part of the city. We turned a corner to find a wooden-framed doorway leading into the chapel of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus Church (Abu Serga). Notably the oldest church in Coptic Cairo, this brick building was constructed on top of a crypt said to have housed Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus at the end of their pilgrimage through Egypt. We walked down the pews, turned left past the altar, and followed the trickle of patient observers down a narrow staircase carved into the bedrock. Underneath the church sits a damp cave, dimly lit and sparsely decorated with relics honoring the Holy Family. The air is musty with a manger-esque smell, probably from years when the Nile rises high enough to flood this subterranean chamber. After reverent pause, we climbed the reciprocal stairs back up into the chapel and continued through the arches out to the alley. We sauntered by street cats basking in the sunshine to arrive at our final stop for the day, the glorious Ben Ezra Synagogue. According to local legend, this holy site is believed to be where baby Moses was discovered. Whether or not this is true, the synagogue itself has been built, torn down, and rebuilt on this ground since about 882. No, I did not forget a "1" in front of that date. It's hard to deny the beauty and mystery surrounding such an old establishment, especially one whose congregation has long since moved on. Today the building serves as a museum and tourist attraction, and due to its age and significance, photography is strictly prohibited inside. The three of us glided over the intricate ceramic-tiled floors and found a pew along the far wall of the temple. Mohammed shared his relevant historical knowledge as well as some of his cultural and religious views. The resulting conversation danced so gracefully through the differences in our own personal spiritual practices in ways that honored each other's varying truths. The three of us delved into concepts of love and faith without making assumptions or triggering defenses. More than just a tour guide, Mohammed was a shepherd into the insight of a completely foreign mindset. As the afternoon dwindled down, we paid our respects to each other and the sanctuary that allowed such authentic interactions, and made our return trip down the alleys of Coptic Cairo. We weaved back to the hotel through the increasing traffic, discussing seafood, donuts, and Netflix along the way.

At the hotel once more, we paused to reflect on yet another overwhelmingly saturated day. We took more naps and edited photos until the evening air cooled down and the hunger kicked in. Christy and I ventured down the street to a local chain for modern Egyptian entrées of kebab, kofta, grilled vegetables, and of course, mango smoothies. Although the restaurant was fairly populated with families enjoying an evening out, we received ample attention from the young but eager servers, who took turns visiting our table to practice their English. After our meal, we found a Vodaphone outlet (think AT&T) to get an Egyptian sim card with 4G data capabilities. This handy tool would allow us to roam the city sans-tourguide on our final day, with the luxury of Google Maps and Uber at our fingertips. Ah, the simplicity of travel in 2019. Feeling reconnected, we skipped home to plan our solo adventures and get some much needed rest.

The next morning followed the normal routine: sunrise, yoga, breakfast. Christy ordered our first ride of the day, and we double checked our intended sight-seeing route. Being solo was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking, but we swallowed the fear and hopped into our assigned Uber. Our driver didn't quite understand our first destination; the vague title "The City of the Dead" must not be a usual request, so we looked up a landmark within the boundaries of this former-cemetery-turned-residences suburb of Cairo. We ended up outside Sultan Al-Ashraf Qaytbay Mosque in the heart of the necropolis, and despite some apprehension, I coaxed Christy out of the car and onto the winding dirt roads of this impoverished part of the city. The mosque was closed so we roamed the surrounding alleys, swapping smiles with the locals who clearly found our presence out of place. Men tended to their shops, loading donkey-drawn carts of produce and stocking shelves, while women gathered in doorways, catching up on current events in the soft morning light. Children waved out of windows and hollered "hello" as they ran past us, scaring stray cats off the piling heaps of rubbish. We both remained alert, but never felt anything less than welcome, and I relished the opportunity to admire the antiquated architecture and snap photos of street art. We navigated slowly back towards the main highway, eventually finding a paved street. The road was lined with plot after plot of family burial sites, some with raised box-like tombs, others with headstones locked behind wooden doors or metal gates. It was unfamiliar to see houses and apartments so close to, even on top of, hallowed resting grounds. When we reached a familiar intersection with ample room to loiter, we hailed our next Uber and set off for Gezira Island, a little strip of land in the middle of the Nile.

Our driver dropped us in front of the city's tallest structure, the Cairo Tower, and we strolled through the surrounding botanical gardens, greeted by a massive banyan tree. Birds shrilled happily in the tangled branches as we literally stopped to smell the roses. Marching toward the river bank in search of El Andalos Park, we wound up circling the exterior wall of the gardens to find every entrance locked; it was closed for renovations. We trudged on, dodging cheerful locals each offering help in the form of a business pitch, and zigzagged our way across the various bridges linking this Nile island to the mainland. After unsuccessfully finding a place to rest along the shoreline, we stumbled upon a mosque with an open gate leading into yet another park. We chased butterflies down the path until we finally found a bench in the shade and paused to rehydrate and refuel. Even after this pitstop we were quickly wilting in the midday heat, so Christy scouted a place for lunch at a nearby floating restaurant. Somehow in our brief respite we had gotten locked inside the compound and were forced to hop the spear-topped gate to escape! Safely free, we clambered onto the Nile City Boat and made our way to the top deck for a three-course seafood feast. We selected fresh caught shrimp, snapper, and scallops, which the chefs fried, grilled, buttered, and stewed to perfection. We gorged on fish, rice, and soup until we were too uncomfortable to move, at which point we simply enjoyed the summer breeze pouring in the bay windows and watched the boats float by below. The staff outdid themselves on both their service and culinary skills, and though tipping is not customary, we showed our gratitude accordingly. Feeling revived and beyond satisfied, we continued on our solo walking tour of the city, this time in search of this infamous Bazaar Khan El Khalili, an open air market known for its stalls of traditional spices, textiles, and goods. We were disheartened to find that our Google search led us to a storefront by the same name as the desired market place, which was, in fact, located at the opposite end of the city. Though the day didn't go quite as planned, we made the best of it, and ventured into a local grocery store to load up on cookies, chips, and mango juice for our travels the next day. We called our final Uber for the day and zipped back through the busy city, swaying to the Egyptian Top 40's bumping from our driver's stereo (also worth noting- the world LOVES Ed Sheeran). Our last night in Cairo was spent doing laundry in the bathtub, sampling desserts from the bakery next door, and re-packing our bags for the journey ahead. Cairo was an absolutely unforgettable city and I sincerely hope that I have the fortune of returning again someday.



If you've made it this far in what has to be my wordiest blog to date, thank you for taking the time to read my stories. Please stay tuned for part 2 of the saga, in which Christy and I depart to the coastal city of Hurghada and explore the Red Sea! Until then, please be well and keep adventuring. Shukran.


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11th September 2020

Your opening paragraph captured so much of what we are feeling now with such eloquence...
I had to keep reading. This may be your longest blog, but it is your best, creating the visual descriptions again with such eloquence that I was with you every step. My wife and I had the same itinerary you did for the first two days in January 1979, but my blog pales in comparison to yours. Welcome back to blogging. I look forward to reading about your dives.
12th September 2020

Thank you
I'm so glad you appreciated the blog, I truly enjoying hearing from you! Cairo is such a unique place, I wanted to convey those feelings as much as possible. Strange times for our wanderlusting souls, but I'll keep the travel bug alive through my writing until we're able to roam free again!!

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