Egypt 2009

Lea in Egypt, 2009

Lea in a caleche

This is the long version – sit back, relax and sip a glass of wine; enjoy.

After wanting to visit Egypt for 30 years, I finally decided to ‘just do it.’ I booked a tour with a Dutch company, Djoser, that does small group cultural tours, with an extra week on my own at the beginning. My Egyptian trip got off to a disastrous start. No; no broken bones. But after receiving only the briefest of arrival and hotel info from the American travel agent, two hours before I left, two nights of little sleep travelling, I arrived at the Cairo airport at 3:30 am to be faced with a

Egyptian flag

Special Police cordon. Lots and lots of Special Police standing shoulder to shoulder, preventing a riot as the Egyptian football/soccer team and fans arrived home after the World Cup qualifying match against Algeria. Egypt had lost and the team and fans had been attacked and injured by Algerian fans in Khartoum, Sudan – go figure. No-one to meet me. Eventually, amidst tears (mine) I bargained for a taxi for the most hair-raising ride into the city and my hotel, who had never heard of me. I paid with my credit card, crashed into bed by 4:30 am to not sleep – I was annoyed, just a little.

Next morning was spent at the reception while the wheels of Egyptian bureaucracy creaked along with the hotel staff being incredibly helpful. Eventually, the travel agency in Cairo discovered me and told me to go to a five-star hotel out near the pyramids. When I found out how remote it was (half hour taxi ride from the centre), I phoned them back and told them that I would stay in a three-star hotel near the centre of this huge and chaotic city. They, of course, thought I was crazy; they were/are probably correct. Oh the perils of travel but I did sleep well on the fourth night despite the background sounds of this noisy, frantic, lively, interesting megopolis.

The Bent and Red pyramids at Dahshur

Things improved. Djoser’s Egypt partner, Anubis Travel, wanted to make me happy. So, on two successive days, they provided me with a minivan, driver and guide to go south to the original pyramids at Saqqara and Dahshur — only a few tourists and really interesting.

Bored and lonely tourist policeman at the Red pyramid, Dahshur

Also a trip north into the delta to the town of Zagazig (great name for a cat), to the archaeological site of Bubastis where the cat goddess Bast was worshipped, and once a year, 700,000 Egyptians had one bang-up party “consuming more wine than throughout the rest of the year.” According to that most unreliable but entertaining of historians, Herodotus. Prior to these two day trips, I had spent two days walking in Cairo, visiting the largest mosque, a marvellous restored Fatimid house, walking, many hours at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities (no guide except my own guide books so I wandered around in peace at my own pace).

Lea at the Red pyramid, Dahshur

I have also walked and walked, the Coptic area of churches and museum (the contents were moderately interesting, well displayed and captioned in English, but the buildings, which are two restored ancient merchant houses with marvellously detailed wooden inlaid ceilings, were marvellous) and the old Islamic area and souk.

Two days in Alexandria, again walking but also using the tram system. Wonderfully slow, quaint and friendly. For 5c the tram trundles the length of the city. For each trip I rode in the women’s car, and my fellow passengers always helped me find my correct stop, with, of course, the entire car discussing my situation of where I was going, that I should take a taxi the three long blocks to my hotel at night, where I was from and so on. When I was trying to find the Alex National Museum which was incorrectly located on the city map, a young lady, university student, stopped to assist me, phoned for information (everyone, but everyone has a cell phone) and walked with me several blocks to the museum. So kind. Everyone but everyone wants my attention, my business and my money, except those who are most helpful. It’s sort of like: Egyptians are black or white (usury or helpful) but I’m seeing the world in colour. It’s difficult to sort out.

The new Alex Biblioteque is really dramatic and filled with many art sculptures. And I walked and walked, absorbing the atmosphere of the city, much changed, but the lead character in ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ by Lawrence Durrell. I did find LD’s dilapidated house and writing tower that may be demolished, sooner or later.

Alexandria — the house in which Lawrence Durrell lived

Also, a lovely image of a lady petting a cat in an apartment window. She saw me watching and waved with empathy. For each of the two evenings I went to the Monty Bar at the Cecil Hotel (a favourite hangout of LD)

Alexandria — the Cecil Hotel

and enjoyed a glass of wine while chatting to the charming bartender Alaa — he could have been out of colonial Egypt.

Back to Cairo on the train, back into the Happy City Hotel with its friendly staff. Again, I walked and walked and walked (never actually lost but often mislaid and taking the long scenic/sensory route) to the Khan/souk to look at the area described in ‘The Cairo Trilogy’ by Mahfouz.

Narrow street in old CairoI arrived at the Al-Azhar Mosque to find two ladies waiting to be allowed entrance at the end of the afternoon prayers. It just so happened that Susan was visiting her daughter who is teaching English to the religious students at the Al-Azhar University, and six of those students joined her, and Renate (from Germany) and myself to show us around — up the minaret, around the mosque, through the souk — all the time talking and talking about the mosques, Islam, Cairo, politics, their university, what they are studying, why they are learning English, what they are hoping to do when they graduate, and so on. A fascinating glimpse into young Egypt.

Around 6 pm, Renate, myself and three of the students went to a local restaurant for supper (falafel pita for me), and then the students took us to an ancient square where Turkish coffee was served as we sat on low overstuffed couches in the warm evening. It was here in this movie clichéd setting that I was able to ask each of our Egyptian student friends about their families and their lives.

Cairo — veiled

Nearby was a Mamaluk caravanserai, wonderfully preserved, all five floors with an inner courtyard, and this being Wednesday, I knew that the Whirling Dervishes show was on at 8:30. This we attended and it was spectacular — this ancient setting with pulsating ethereal music, I was visually absorbed in the ancient courtyard, the elegance of the musicians contrasted by the continual movement of the unfathomably whirling dervishes emphasized by their oversized multicoloured skirts that were used to enhance the whole effect. One man whirling for over 15 minutes, then there were three; if there had been two dimensions, now there were four. Spectacular. Then out into the hussle and cacophony of Cairo, more insights and learning and laughter as we talked and walked as the students escorted Renate and I back to our respective hotels.

Cairo — within head scarves

This is the type of experience that makes my travels not just worthwhile but valuable, educational, enjoyable and memorable. To meet and talk with intelligent and thoughtful people; to glimpse some insights and to see such a show — these things I cannot get from books, movies or the web; these experiences are from people.

The next day, I needed a little peace — not available in Cairo, but I podcasted my walk around Geziha Island, an upper class area filled with trees and embassies and high priced apartments. Infrastructure? We think we have a problem here in Winnipeg: not a bit. Cairo with 25 million people give or take a million: here is an infrastructure nightmare.

Cairo skyline

However, Cairo and Egypt is safe for tourists with the hassles being from people wanting to sell stuff and make a living. I never felt threatened or insulted but then I wore very conservative clothes – loose slacks covered by a long-sleeved, neck-buttoned, thigh-long shirt: unattractive, boring, appropriate. And, I don’t understand Arabic; sometimes ignorance is bliss.

The Djoser group of seven guests (and me) and one guide arrived, and they proved to be delightful. Birbel, the guide is fabulous. She is an experienced group leader, knows the good drivers, Egyptian guides and restaurants.

White Desert — Berbel, Tour Leader

She is super knowledgeable about Egypt and the historical sites, speaks functional Arabic, and loves sharing her information. Also very funny. They all were — funny, fun, intelligent, informed and interesting.

Lea at the Pyramids

To the pyramids (yes, they are spectacular when you’re standing beside them) and into the desert, west and south.

Lea at the Pyramids

Lots of driving through spectacular desert scenery with Rob informing us with his geology knowledge (he made interesting what I had previously found boring). Some graveyards and small temples, but it was the scenery that was the primary interest here. The Black Desert followed by the White Desert

White Desert sculpture

(in which we slept one night), followed by the grey flat desert and into the Nubian Desert of sand (in which we slept another night).

The White Desert

One little glitch was my stupid food preference; all meals in Egypt contain meat. Breakfast was no problem as there was cheese (mostly processed, yuck); lunch, I was usually able to fudge the food; but supper was a problem.

Pita bakery

In the desert the meals were at our hotels or made by the drivers. After two failures in which all I ate was a small salad, I elected to miss supper and eat my almonds in my room.

Spice seller

This solitary choice was also encouraged by my travelling companions who spoke Dutch exclusively throughout the evening meal even when I introduced a topic. The other meals and during the day were largely bilingual but supper wasn’t. I was a little wary that this was going to be a problem (it was my decision to join a Dutch trip) but I didn’t say anything to anyone, just occasionally I asked what was being discussed.

At Abu Simbel the huge statues of Ramses II are truly huge and impressive as are the temples to him and his wife. Now that we were in towns along the Nile River, it became evident that Gerald and Siska (married retired couple) and Rob (geologist now environmental advisor) and I spent more time and interest looking around the temples, walked more and talked in English more than the others in our group. In Aswan the suppers were not arranged and each evening the four of us went off to find a restaurant that served beer (Egyptian beer is good and suitably weak for rehydrating — it’s therapeutic) and reasonable food. Thank goodness for falafel, and the tomatoes were delicious. Walking around Aswan we were, of course, hassled by people wanting our money — trying to sell us everything from kitsch to rides in caliches, feluccas, taxis. But we also came across some delightful people who were friendly, just wanted to talk or have their photo taken with a tourist (they all have cell phones and hence cell phone cameras), or assist us.

A day and night on a felucca (sail boat on the Nile) was interesting — floating down the Nile River at a glacial pace watching the palm trees and desert hills glide by while chatting and reading. The meals were awful but I had two interesting offers after we all lay down to sleep. I was nearest to the front cabin in which the Egyptians slept. First offer was to share some hash; second was to share the cabin. Both declined — my novel was safer, and more interesting.

Karnak at sunrise

Luxor: The Valley of the Kings and their burial chambers were truly amazing. The wall sculptured paintings are vivid, gorgeous, elegant and eloquent. Luxor Museum has the best of the best (except for King Tut) of the sculptures, all well displayed, lit and explained. Not too many; just too wonderful. We spent 3 hours in this relatively small, selective museum. Then, Karnak — the huge temple complex. The group went at 8 am but I got up at 5 am and was there when it opened at 6 am — alone for the sunrise. Considering that this is one of the ‘big three’ of Egypt, along with the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings (each cope with 10,000 tourist per day in high season, usually), I was surprised but most groups arrived from 8–10 am.

Karnak at sunrise

I loved it with the ethereal morning light, the quiet, the solitude, the enormous size of the temples, the pillars, the obelisks, the everything. I actually took some photos as I had plenty of time to both enjoy, appreciate, wander, and photograph, before I met the group at 11 am to leave.

Although December is the high tourist season, there were not that many large groups, about half the usual number — the local economy is hurting but it was nicer for us. The weather was gorgeous; about 18-22 C with cool nights. From Luxor, we flew to Sharm el Sheik and minivan north to Dahab. Four days on the Red Sea beside the Sinai mountainous desert — starkly beautiful and varied. We stayed in a resort where Europeans come for sun, sand and scuba diving, while I went hiking in the Coloured and White Canyons, followed by climbing the 7 k and 700 steps up Mt Sinai for sunset (Moses and the 10 commandments; the lad must have been in pretty fine fettle for 110 years), and down in the dark, and I mean dark, with only the gazillion stars of our Milky Way galaxy (and my flashlight) to show the way. I was quite fit; now I’m fitter, but I wasn’t carrying any tablets of stone, let me assure you.

Lea atop Mt Sinai at sunset

Back to Cairo by minibus in a sand storm. More sights and sounds, enjoyable thanks to my wonderful friends in the Djoser group. Siska and Gerard, Rob and tour leader Berbel were such fun, so interesting and a joy to be with. Our conversation ranged from the silly through philosophy, politics, religion and sociology, encompassing teasing, enlightening concepts, hilarity and puns in both languages. The other four people on the tour were pleasant but tended to keep to themselves and speak predominantly Dutch. I had a really good time with some challenges as is to be expected in all interesting travels. And I was sad to leave my new Dutch friends.

Bahariya outlook; the Djoser group

My Egypt trip ended as it started — in a four star hotel due to disaster. I left Egypt a day after the rest of the group, reaching the Cairo airport to discover that my flight to Amsterdam had been cancelled due to a major snow storm in Europe. After seven hours of standing in a 200+ person scrum (football riots have nothing on desperate tired cranky cancelled airline passengers), I maybe had a rebooked ticket, and I did have a hotel voucher. I spent the day sleeping, literally, then back to the airport at 1 am to discover that I did not have any reservations. Three hours later, I did (although my flight from Toronto to Winnipeg was with Air Poland!), and I flew to Amsterdam with KLM, and onto London with BA, to link up with Air India. The AI flight to Toronto was late and only executive seats left – I will cope. Time in the AI lounge then a lovely overnight flight with delayed disembarkation while the RCMP arrived to arrest four guys who were drunk and disorderly in tourist class. Who knew? Not me.

No comment required

Of course, with all these ticket changes, my backpack was lost in transit. Three hours later, I had completed the lost luggage form and had a voucher for the last leg of my marathon (I’m pretty effective in a non-Canadian scrum by this stage). 5:30 am, after two hours reading in the lovely Terminal 1 of Pearson Airport, Toronto, I blearily presented myself to an Air Canada check-in counter. ”You can check-in at an automatic ticket machine,” I was told. “I’m not in your computer system” I replied as I handed over my voucher. Scowl. “Oh, (how stupid can passengers be, was the look) OK.” “Oh. You’re not in the computer system. Where have you come from?” She was actually very helpful to me when she heard. Flight to Winnipeg; taxi home; two days later my backpack arrived.

I had planned to travel on the Monday prior to Christmas, arriving home early evening (gaining 9 hours) and to work on Tuesday despite jet lag. From the Cairo airport hotel I had emailed my receptionist (and also my cat sitter) to cancel my appointments for the week. I knew that, whenever I arrived, I would be wasted with exhaustion and jet lag – I was but I survived my travel delays by reading “The Cairo Trilogy” by Naguib Mahfouz, a massive hard cover, three-in-one, family saga set in Cairo from 1915 to 1952. Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988; he is a wonderful writer. The family is a metaphor for Egypt so the two engaging stories kept me fascinated throughout my Egyptian trip, and particularly during my extended trip home. Note to self: always have a fascinating book to read when travelling. My disastrous trip to Cuba was made bearable, even through fractured pain with “The Blind Watchmaker.”

So what are my impressions and thoughts of Egypt?

Philae Temple at Aswan

Complex, overwhelming, ancient and still there. An amazing ancient civilization that was so confident in its superiority that it only looked inward to be defeated by a group of barbarians, the Hyksos, who used the wheel, horses and the composite bow and arrows. Yes, the empire of the pharaohs was defeated by the wheel. Now, Islam has taken over – rote learning even at university, subjugation of women even though they make up 60% of university students,

Aswan market

large families despite overpopulation, water insecurity and pending shortage, unemployment especially of young men, resentment of the current corrupt government while the only political opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood. Does this sound like just about every Muslim nation? Egypt makes me think of Europe during the Middle Ages prior to the Reformation. Will there be a revolution? A reformation? A revolt? A reversion?

And I really enjoyed myself in this fascinating, interesting, challenging country with my marvellous Dutch travelling companions. I hope we can meet again. Now I’m deep into Canada in winter with friends, music festivals, The Met operas, good books, a warm house, cuddly cats, my work (which I enjoy) and friends.

Sunset from Mt Sinae
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