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Trip Report The Patrick Family* Goes to Cairo

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*DH had organized a short work trip to Cairo for a portion of the school spring holiday in the event that DD and I might be able to join him. DDog’s favorite sitter was available, and so the holiday was planned.  DH's Egyptian colleagues arranged the accommodations for us and somehow his middle name became the Family Name in the registry, so for three days I was addressed as, "Madame Patrick." I played my role well, forgetting only once and signing a spa receipt with my name and causing but a tiny kerfuffle that was quickly resolved.

For this holiday we hired both a driver and a guide. Cairo doesn't really lend itself to being a do-it-yourself destination; plus, tackling 4.000 years of history on our own seemed daunting. It is a large and populous city; the public transportation mainly consists of microbuses and ad hoc slug lines (though there is an overcrowded subway system if one is so inclined); and my Arabic language skills are honed just enough for basic greetings, identifying "shai" (tea) and "koshary" (an Egyptian national dish) on a menu, and otherwise staying out of trouble.

Aegean Airlines, EgyptAir and the Egyptian Visa Process

By the time we had confirmed DDog’s sitter, no seats were available on the direct flights with DH on Austrian Airlines. No big deal; DD and I flew VIE to ATH on Aegean; and ATH to CAI on EgyptAir with short layovers.

Aegean Airlines was named the Best Regional Carrier for 2015, an accolade with which DD and I wholeheartedly agreed. To start, the seat aisles are wide enough for very tall people, a rarity! While there is no personal in-flight entertainment, there is a running travel promotional video for Greece, so one can look at pretty scenery for 90 minutes. The selling point? The food. But for it being presented in little boxes, we put the selection and taste on par with a business class meal.

EgyptAir was a bit hit-and-miss. The seat aisles were of regular size; the reclining pitch of the seats was terrible, though. On the return from CAI to ATH, the woman in front of DD reclined for the duration of the flight, including during the meal, making it impossible for DD to unfold her tray table. The flight crew did not seem sympathetic to her, but it mattered little because we both declined the “food” served on the inbound, a box containing two cold pieces of bread, a small cheese, and a jam that was thrusted at us. The meal was in far contrast to the outbound selection, a delicious plate of grilled chicken and roasted vegetables.

Obtaining an Egyptian Visa

What a hoot. One must purchase their visa stamp before proceeding to Passport Control (so very many people who had been standing in the long, long passport control lane (in the singular) were rejected and had to begin anew). Though the two or three banks in the control area had signs indicating that they exchange currency and sell stamps, they fib.

DD and I foolishly thought we could purchase our Egyptian visas with Egyptian Pounds. ‘Twas not to be, and thank goodness we had Euros on us (the only other accepted currency is USD, and no Bankomat purchase is possible, either). Of course, we were given change for our visa purchase in Egyptian Pounds.

Sightseeing

Our first day of sightseeing started out, well, an hour early. We had arrived on the night of European daylight savings; Egypt no longer observes daylight savings, but my iPhone (and hence, the alarm) somehow missed that memo. On the following morning we awoke, enjoyed the first of many worthy-of-a-pharaoh's-visit breakfasts, and presented in the lobby at 0825 to meet our guide, Rania. Except, the time was only 0725. With an hour to spare (!), we walked about the neighborhood, watching the morning routine. Soon enough our guide arrived, and off we went.

What follows is not a day-by-day account; rather, our observations and notes on our activities.

The Giza Pyramid Complex

The part of Cairo nearing Giza is shabby, to put it politely.  Efforts to convert the mounds of refuse into a green island along this road are underway, but the process is certain to be a lengthy one.

Though some travelers dismiss it as "expensive" or not "worth it," it was never a doubt that we would take a camel ride to see the pyramids. "Expensive" is relative, given the history we would be experiencing for likely the one and only time.  One can barter with "independent" camel guides, but that activity is discouraged for a number of reasons. Our guide arranged the tour for us with the government-owned and licensed camel guides, as the camels are well cared for and the guides are knowledgeable.  

DH is tall (over two meters) and his camel, Ali Baba, needed a little coaxing to join the caravan. In the interest of respecting my husband's dignity, I will only share photos of him getting on or off of the camel with family and close friends.

A short and wobbly walk later, the oldest of the seven ancient wonders of the world comes into view.  At that moment, the question of "Worth it?" blew across the desert with the sands.

No Internet photos or virtual tours will ever compare to standing in front of the Great Sphinx of Giza.

In the foreground of the Giza Pyramid complex is an auditorium, from where a light show is held nearly every evening. Seemed a little too, "Yanni Performs at the Acropolis" for us.

Tourism in Cairo is dismally low (no complaints from us, though!) Our camel guide shared with us that he used to give 4-5 tours each day during tourist season; now, he gives a tour every other day or so. 

Coptic Cairo

The afternoon of our first day was spent exploring Coptic, or Old Cairo and its medieval streets upon which sit Orthodox, Christian, Muslim and Jewish houses of worship. That people of different religions could worship peacefully together in ancient times made us wonder why it is so difficult in contemporary times. We thoroughly enjoyed our tour through the various houses of worship and the medieval lanes of this part of Cairo, but would no doubt hate it during peak tourist season.

The sheer amount of history and beauty we absorbed on this first day in Cairo mentally exhausted and thrilled us at the same time, but also exposed the large gaps in our personal knowledge of ancient Egyptian history.

The Citadel and Alabaster Mosque

High atop a hill in Cairo sits the Islamic fortress, built in the 1100s to protect the city from Crusaders. If that alone does not impress, within the fortress walls and atop the summit is the Mosque of Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman ruler over Egypt in the early 1800s. Muhammad Ali was not exactly the most benevolent ruler.  Because he did not want anyone of the previous Mamluk Sultanate to attempt to reclaim the throne, so to speak, he arranged for the execution of all males of the Mamluk clans. Nice.  Oddly enough, he was also the first ruler to institute formal education for Egyptian females.

The construction of the Alabaster Mosque was modeled after the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and was Muhammad's way of erasing any trace of the Mamluk. As with the Blue Mosque (we toured Istanbul in 2013), the interior contains 365 lanterns, one of which is lit each day starting with the beginning of the Islamic New Year.

During our visit there were also a number of school groups on field trips. DD is a tall teenager with long blonde hair and seemed to fascinate both female and male school students. Many girls close to her age would ask her name, or unabashedly take her photo. The boys were a different story, but not in a negative manner. Trying to be “cool,” they would pretend to take a selfie with her in the background. One boy called out to her in Arabic, telling her she was, “White sugar of the desert.” Even our guide laughed when she translated the comment to us! Overall, DD was fine with the curiosity and the attention; none of it was threatening, and it was a bit amusing to note that teenagers are teenagers everywhere.

Khan-el-Khalili Souk

On our final day in Cairo, with DH off doing his work thing, DD and I had great confidence that we could navigate the nearly 1.000 year old market without a guide. We have bargained our way through the souk in Sarajevo and the Grande Dame of markets, Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, so we knew what to expect. (Though, because that was also the day the EgyptAir hijacking story was developing, we asked our driver to remain at the market while we shopped, as a precaution.)

Once upon a time Cairo was an Islamic, medieval walled city; today, three of the ancient gates remain, and it was through one of them that we began our adventure.  At first we followed our senses, past spice stalls and savory grills tucked down shabby lanes, trying desperately to take in everything around us.  "Everything," that is, except for the horrid fresh-pressed sugar cane "soda" we thought would be fun to try. It was not fun to try.

Though tajines are used across North Africa for cooking, they are not widely popular in Egypt, so I set my expectations accordingly as DD and I wandered the market in search of the cookware. As very good fortune would have it, I spied the dusty clay pot inside a small store.  I probably didn't bargain for it as much as I could, or should have, but €20 (equivalent) seemed beyond reasonable for this latest addition to my kitchen!  Though hunger pangs had begun, and I now had the burden of carrying what felt like a 20kg weight through the market, we still managed to get sidetracked by a store selling delightfully fancy glass tea and coffee cup sets. I asked the proprietor if it was at all possible to purchase individual cups. He smiled, invited us to the back of the store and down creaking steps, to a room that glittered when he turned on the lights with shelf after shelf of beautiful cups!  How I left the sparkly cave of wonder with only four tea glasses is a mystery.

All too soon it was time to connect with our driver. By this point of our holiday he was comfortable enough with us to take us back to the hotel via neighborhood roads rather than the highway, giving us a sample of local culture.  Camel traffic is an actual thing! Traffic in Cairo is unlike anything we have witnessed on the worst of the worst days when we lived in Washington, DC. (It took us one hour to travel 7 kilometers in Cairo.) Three traffic lanes routinely became five lanes of cars, bicycles, and donkey and horse carts with vendors selling items in between and along the sides, and people crossing every which way (even on the highways). DD referred to our experiences in traffic as, "Human Frogger." 

The Egyptian National Museum

A humbling tour, at least it was for us as our guide wove an extraordinary two-hour long tale starting with the (copy of the) Rosetta Stone and moving through the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms of Egyptian history.  For shame, we thought of those whom we observed using the audio guide to self-tour; unless ancient Egyptian history is your thing, an audio guide would seem unsatisfying.

Certainly a highlight of the museum for us was the second floor, largely devoted to Tutankhamen.  DD and I stood thisclose to the Gold Mask of King Tutankhamen, and were in awe. Photography was not permitted in this gallery, and the temptation to sneak a snap with our iPhones was only tempered by the guards milling about who would likely have yelled at us in Arabic for having done so. 

Accommodations

Originally DH's hosts had suggested accommodations for us at an upscale, very Western, tiny skyscraper of "America" hotel on the River Nile, thoroughly scrubbed of any local character, and so very much not our travel style. No doubt they were surprised when we politely inquired about other accommodations, but did suggest another hotel in an "upmarket" Cairo neighborhood that was a perfect fit, even if DD and I were a little bit fussed over during our stay. We had a comfortable suite and simple luxuries of a rooftop pool and a spa (where I indulged in a Cleopatra-style mud soak), and window seats in the suite from which we could watch the extraordinarily mesmerizing rhythm of Egyptian life.

Eating like an Egyptian

We ate well in Cairo, even with cuisine options being much less numerous than at home. In fact, with the exception of dinners, we relished the mostly vegetarian "Mediterranean Diet." The Breakfast Room at the hotel was superlative, an epicurean Mecca for food lovers like the three of us. The freshest salads; Egyptian hummus and pita (though, in all honesty, we prefer Lebanese-style hummus a little more, as it is thicker and has more garlic); succulent olives and cheeses; and our new favorite falafel, prepared Egyptian-style with broad beans rather than the customary chick peas were available each morning, along with Halvah slices (and many other sweets) for me, a treat that I do not often indulge in at home. DH appreciates his omelets, which were also available, as was something called “Veal Stir-Fry” that I would have bet real Egyptian Pounds was tofu!

On one occasion we sat for Koshary, an Egyptian national dish of short macaroni, vermicelli, a bit of ground beef or lamb, chick peas, and crispy fried onions, accented with a dollop of Harissa or chili and a good slosh of a vinegar/garlic/lemon dressing. This dish was hands down beyond delicious, and is an extremely common "fast food" that I am eager to recreate at home.  

Intrigued by the constant traffic at "Tom and Basal," a Koshary chain near our hotel, on our first night we decided to "go local," insofar as much as three Western Caucasian folks can look local, and ordered Koshary to take back to our suite. And what do you know?  The staff spoke English and guided us through the menu!  Dinner was fantabulous!

On the subsequent evenings we followed our noses into the small passages between the apartment buildings across from our hotel in search of dinner. We stood out, again, not surprisingly. What humbled us, though, were the shop owners who would invite us into their stores, and comment upon learning we were American with, "Viva, America!" and "We love America!"  The more we travel, the smaller the world seems, and we were quite pleased with ourselves for not staying at the other hotel, eating fancy falafel on porcelain plates. Or worse.

One evening the aroma coming from a grill stand was heavenly, but we all suffered from a lack of Arabic/English translation abilities, alas, so whatever deliciousness was grilling was not ours to be. Nearby to the aromatic grill, though, a kindly gentleman overheard us and exclaimed that he spoke, "A little bit of English!"  Naturally his English was almost flawless. He directed us to his storefront and prepared grilled chicken and saffron rice that almost brought tears to our eyes. And when combined with Koshary from the local chain, we feasted every night. No doubt the room service staff shook their heads and raised an eyebrow or two when we requested dinner plates and flatware, but no food. Or perhaps they did not.

Final Notes

Security was visible, especially during the unfolding EgyptAir hijacking story; military with pointed weapons walked the streets and drove on the roads, and access to the Souk was restricted. We made friends with the dogs who sniffed the vehicles entering our hotel campus for explosives, but at no point did we ever feel unsafe, even walking about the neighborhood on our own and in the evenings.

To end, a toast to Cairo!  We have many friends for whom Cairo would never be a travel destination, and that is their loss. We certainly found the Egyptian people worth befriending and their culture worth experiencing. As such, the three of us departed Cairo a bit sad, as if we were saying, "Goodbye" to a friend we may never see again.

Thank you for reading.

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