Sunday, July 25, 2010

Week 32: Cairo

As can be seen from the photograph of the four of us here, Kris and I have reunited with our daughter Mira and her friend Naomi in Egypt! It had been six weeks since we were last together in Rome….

Kris and I took two days instead of one to travel to Cairo from Israel, arriving three days ahead of Mira and Naomi. Since we were traveling by bus (cheap, cheap!), we had to get our visas at the Egyptian consulate in Eilat. What we had been told would be a one hour procedure took all afternoon when a key official decided to go home early for the weekend. So we decided to stay the night in Eilat, a prime tourist vacation area on the Red Sea, and rest up for the second of two 5-hour bus rides. The first had taken us along the length of the Dead Sea. The second took us across the breadth of the Sinai Desert. Thank heaven that both buses were air-conditioned! Good conversations with two U.N. soldiers (from Chile, stationed on Cyprus) and a young student (Daniel) from the U.S. helped time pass quickly on day 2.

Our accommodation for the week was the Arabian Nights Hostel, located in an older area that was called Islamic Cairo. An incredibly small room, with a tiny refrigerator, AC, and private bathroom had no window and was a little on the smelly side. A very friendly staff provided a very poor breakfast as part of the $10/person/night price (cheap, cheap!). Visiting with other guests there was part of the benefit, as they could often provide tips about where to sight-see and how to do so with less hassle and expense. One such guest was Len who was with his two daughters Medea and Lena. These three came from Australia where Len had built a mud-brick home on 30 acres of land some 26 km from the coast near Brisbane. Len was a self-described old hippie who now produced his own electricity, living a simple life with his wife and occasional visitors – and without any nearby neighbors.

Len and his daughters joined the four of us on a dinner cruise on the Nile. $30/person seemed a good splurge for 2 hours, until we discovered the ship only traveled about one mile (very slowly) before it turned around and that we had to pay for any refreshment (including water – at ten times the street price)! Still, the views of downtown Cairo from the top deck were very fine, and the on board entertainment very bizarre: music so loud speech was nearly impossible, a belly dancer whose costume left little to the imagination, and a dancing male dwarf in a skirt (whirling dervish) with a companion able to pour and drink water while spinning himself in circles. Memorable. Strange, but memorable. Some older folks (including Kris and I) preferred the more quiet scene on the top deck, which also included having water poured on us by some pranksters as we passed with just inches of clearance under a bridge. Strange also, but memorable!

Our day at the Pyramids was the highlight of the week, as we hired a taxi to transport the 4 of us to three sites: Giza, Sakkara, and Dashur (14 pyramids in all!). At Giza we spent over two hours on horseback (Kris and I) and camel (Mira and Naomi) being guided around the three great pyramids and six smaller ones. Reaching into the sky nearly 1,000 feet, the two largest (shown in the picture) are breathtaking. Up close one can see that most of the building measure 10-12 cubic feet (small enough to make them manually moveable, with great difficulty. This is not to entirely discount the possibility of alien assistance (ha), as they were constructed with almost unbelievable mathematical precision – and 4,500 years ago!!! The Sphinx was also impressive (even without his nose), and gave us a little break from the riding. It may well be the camels will be remembered by us as fondly as these wonders of the world. When Naomi`s camel sneezed and nearly blew green slimy stuff all over Mira too, well, that was an event also for history to record! At Sakkara the girls and I were able to walk around inside several tombs with ancient hieroglyphics and paintings (sadly available to be touched and corrupted) and a smaller pyramid (through passageways not more than 4 feet high and not designed for the claustrophobic). There also was to Immotep Museum at Sakkara where photos were not allowed but where the one employee could not enforce the rule – and Mira and Naomi could see their first mummy! At Dashur Kris watched while the three of us climbed 200 steps (about 1/4th the way up a large pyramid) in hopes of being able to enter, only to find the door installed there to be locked! Still, the view was great from up there, and you know a great time is being had even when the disappointments are fantastic!

The four of also took a day trip to Alexandria this week, with Mohammad (the same taxi driver who took us to the pyramids). During the 3 hour ride there (and 3 hours back) there were remnants of no fewer than 10 major accidents to be seen – including the burned out skeleton of a car still smoldering. Mohammad explained that too many people drive far too fast on this 6 lane highway, with too little sleep (especially truck drivers), often with either alcohol or drugs involved. I also learned from him that a monthly salary for a contracted driver like himself is about 1,200 Egyptian pounds ($240) – much better than what he made as a cook in a restaurant ($120), or what a fruit vendor on the street might earn (about $60: $2/day). Alexandria itself had a Mediterranean shoreline reminiscent of Chicago at Lake Michigan, only with literally tens of thousands of people packing the miles of sandy beaches! Walking the seaside promenade near the Citadel of Quast Bay (dating from the days of Alexander the Great), and viewing Pompey`s Pillar (from Roman Times), were also highlights.

Other activities worth mentioning would include Kris and I attending St. Joseph`s Catholic Church (on the Island of Zamalek in Cairo) for Sunday Mass (in French), the girls and I going to the Egyptian National Museum (while Kris was feeling ill for a day): there viewing a great many amazing displays including mummified crocodiles (20 feet long), King Tut`s 50 lb. golden mask/headpiece, thrones, chariots, and other artifacts too numerous to mention. Of course, there were also the hours spent shopping in the Khan el Khalily bazaar getting harassed by shopkeepers desperate for a sale and by men whose stereotypical humor too often included `` how many camels may I pay for your daughter``? Male expressions clearly crossed the line on at least two occasions when 1) an older man quietly proposed an encounter with Mira (receiving instead a severe scolding from me) and 2) a young man pulled down his pants and exposed himself (when I was not nearby the two girls). It would seem that in big cities like Cairo (20 million) and Alexandria (4 million), the behaviors of some Muslim men fall far short of what the Prophet would (an did) prescribe as honorable.

As we now approach Aswan by night train from Cairo (a 13 hour ride), the morning sun reveals a Nile river with date palms, stone rural homes, and people riding donkeys. Here is an ancient land now in economically hard times, where 137 pharaohs ruled during 300 dynasties for a period of 3,000 years. Humbled by Greek, Roma, and Turkish rule, by Napoleon and the supposedly civilized British, there remains a proud people who deserve to be proud of their past and are working together to build a better life for themselves and their children. Guided by Allah, there is no reason why they cannot succeed.

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