First glimpse of the pyramids
As seen from the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, Cairo
Finally peeling ourselves away from India, we landed in Cairo anxious to see what Egypt had in store for us. The plan was to meet up with Anna's parents and Bestafar (grandfather) for a trip up the Nile and then to hit Dahab on the Sinai peninsula for a week or so of relaxation and diving.
Touching down, the Cairo airport provided an early introduction to the concept of baksheesh, one that would become intimately familiar by the end of our time in Egypt. We watched as those "in the know" pushed their way into the "diplomatic queue" in the customs area. Passports took air as handlers in three-piece-suits, customs officials, and tourists threw them back and forth through a small window as those of us clueless and/or baksheeshless haps stood in long lines, slowly inching our way toward the "official" customs officials. Once through, we hopped in a cab and were ushered into the center of dusty Cairo and its countless minarets, immediately struck by the aesthetic difference between Cairo with its dusty brown hues and sedately dressed population and intense, polychrome India.
We decided to head immediately to the Nile, which cuts right through Cairo,
Cruising by night
with smoke from burning fields. Near Edfu
dividing its 18 million residents (and reported 1 million mosques) from the 6 million residents of Giza, on the other side of the river. The idea was to find a felucca captain to take us on a sunset sail along the river. Finding our captain was easy; bargaining a good price was not. Leave it to us to find a captain whose "Boss Man" reportedly has six wives and 29 children at home to support ... not a lot of room for negotiation with that many mouths to feed. After a breezy ride and views of Cairo's many five-star resorts along the riverfront, we retreated to our cozy place, the Talisman Hotel, to await the arrival of the 'rents.
Arrive they did, and the next day we all headed out to see the sights of Cairo with a local guide. We took in Coptic Cairo -- home of the Hanging Church, a Coptic Orthodox church dating from the 3rd century A.D., where 13 marble pillars -- 12 white one black -- signify Jesus and his apostles. Guess who the black one stands for. At the Church of St. George, we saw the first of countless images of St. George
slaying a dragon, as well as the chains and "nail sandals" venerated as the chains worn by St. George himself. We also took in the Ottoman-period Mosque of Muhammad Ali, aka the "Alabaster Mosque," where we saw our first view of the Great Pyramids off in the distance and were accosted by a class of students eager to practice their English conversational skills. Come lunchtime, we had our first run-in with the mass tourism that dominates travel in Egypt. Our guide ushered us to a lunch place complete with a runway-size parking lot full of chugging and snorting tourist buses, where we could get a "great local buffet" along with hundreds of fellow tourists (and where he could probably get a commission). The five of us were unanimous in our desire to pass by the tourist buffet in favor of a local spot near the Khan el-Khallii bazaar, but our guide insisted that all the local restaurants were either closed, had no chairs, or required reservations. Rolling our eyes, we told the guide to drop us at the bazaar and let us wander our way to a lunch spot on our own. We found plenty of chairs, great ambiance and
Check out the teeth
Stinky camel at the Pyramids
an open Lebanese restaurant at the bazaar before wandering the alleyways, impressing ourselves with our ability to pass by the local ("made in China") goods strewing the stalls, and partaking in a post-lunch strawberry Hookah and mint tea at el Fishawi's, a Kan el-Khalili establishment.
The following day we set out for the Egyptian Museum, only to be told by a carpet shop owner that the museum was "closed for renovations." Luckily, we could see across the street where hundreds of tourists poured in and out the main doors. The museum was an amazing collection of really, really old stuff. It seemed almost overflowing with hieroglyph-covered rocks and relics, somewhat haphazardly arranged and piled against walls, and the museum was notable for its lack of signage and its difficulty to navigate without a guide. But we found our way to floor 2, which houses the beautiful, golden relics from King Tut's tomb. It was thrilling to see Tut's death mask and throne, images that were already seared in our minds from the mid-80s tour of the Tut relics through the US and the corresponding National Geographic cover. Later that day, it was time for a major upgrade. We headed
out to Giza and checked into the Mena House, the Oberoi Hotel that sits right at the foot of the Pyramids. We both immediately vowed to travel with parents and Bestafar more often as we sipped sophisticated cocktails (that may have exceeded our daily budget) on a manicured lawn in the shadow of a world wonder. We toured the Pyramids the next morning, marveling at their sheer size. All five of us managed our way onto the backs of camels and attempted to circumnavigate the sight. After it became clear that certain of us were more equipped for camel riding than others, the men bailed and Anna and her mom finished the ride. Not even the thousands of package tourists could damper our enthusiasm over the eye-popping scenery at the Pyramids. They were spectacular.
The next stop on our Egypt tour was the southern river city of Aswan, where we boarded a cruise boat for a three night trip up the Nile to Luxor, with stops along the way at several of Egypt's most ancient temples, including the Temple of Khnum in Esna, the Temple of Horus in Edfu and the Temple of Sobek & Haroeris in Kom Ombo.
Bestafar on the Nile
After 25 hours of travel, my 87-year-old bestafar had more energy than we did.
We finished in Luxor, where we visited the Valley of the Kings (and Queen Hatshepsut's gorgeous funerary temple), Karnak and the Luxor Temple. Aside from taking in the magnificent though crowded temples and learning buckets of Egyptian history from our knowledgeable (and totally cute) guide, we loved chilling on our boat, the "Nile Ambassador," by far the most comfortable boat either of us had travelled on (thanks again, mom and dad!), and watching life along the Nile river flow by. One highlight for our cheesy family was the boat's "Jelabiya Night," which gave us the opportunity to dress in brightly embroidered "local" clothing and dance along to the DJ's many creepy "shake your boooodddy! . . . shake it!" exclamations. Needless to say, we never saw a local rocking brightly-embroidered tunics and beaded head scarves or dancing to Michael Jackson, but dressing up was a good time.
In Luxor, we said goodbye to the relatives and put our backpacker hats back on, leaving the beautiful Winter Palace Hotel and boarding a grungy 18 hour bus around the Sinai to the laid-back and picturesque diving town of Dahab. It was easy for our planned four-day stay there to lengthen to
a week. In fact, we contemplated staying in Dahab for the rest of our time abroad as we looked out on the sparkling blue water, then swam and basked in the sun under our hotel's umbrellas while sipping chilled and cheap beers. Dahab was all about blue skies, great diving, good food and nice people. It was, for us, the perfect paradise. We especially liked hanging at the comfy, pillow-filed "Funny Mummy" and watching its sure-footed cat population climb up and down its beams in search of fresh fish while its waiters made (mostly futile) efforts to keep them away from tourists' plates. We later discovered that a few local residents, including one dive master, keep some of the cats fed with once-a-day giant tubs of hot dogs. On Anna's birthday, we stuffed ourselves with a fantastic breakfast only to be surprised afterwards with a gigantic birthday cake prepared by the staff at Nesima who gleaned the birthday off of her passport. It turns out that birthday cake at 8 in the morning is pretty damn good.
So, that's it for our time in Egypt. Alas, we forced ourselves off of our beach chairs in Dahab and onto a
Jordan-bound ferry boat. Stay tuned.
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