Egypt is dirty, exciting, chaotic, frenetic and steeped in a multitude of ancient historical monuments! The people are as varied as the country itself…….kind, helpful, out for your money, and always hassling you. People want to chat! People want “baksheesh” (tips) for everything from lifting a bag to giving you directions! We met a plethora of supremely kind folk who were willing to give us their hearts! We met an equal amount who were eager to rip you off in a heartbeat! You work it out! We still haven’t, and we have been here just over three weeks. So, go figure…..we are still trying to!
Our introduction to Egypt was a good one. We met a young Egyptian doctor, called Basem, on the plane, and before we knew it, he was offering to drive us to our hotel. I must add here that we arrived in Cairo at midnight. So, upon arrival, he was picked up by his Dad, who was equally as sweet and helpful, and they proceeded to drive us to “our hotel”, which by the way, was not on the way back to their home. Our hotel was one that we had picked from our guide book. I mean, at 1.00am, it’s hard to do the usual check and scourge for a decent place to stay.
As we drove towards downtown, our heads were reeling. Everywhere around us, all the signs and publicity were in Arabic! Yes, yes, we know that that’s obvious, but we still could not read it! What a change from the, “This is easy, I understand Spanish” that we had experienced over the last several months. Everything looked so different, but we were too tired to take it all in. Upon reaching our hotel, we checked in and crashed!
If Cairo was confronting in the quiet and early hours of the morning, you should have seen it at 10.00am! Smoggy, polluted, car horns honking incessantly, and people trying to sell you anything from perfume to “sheeshas” (a typical Egyptian, water filled smoking pipe)….. and Ombi trying to take this all in, wearing a pair of (long) shorts and a singlet top, which clearly covered my cleavage. But, uh-uh, this was not going to cut it, and I was soon inside my hotel room slipping on a long pair of pants, and a longer sleeved t-shirt. I would soon add a scarf around my shoulders to that repertoire! It was either that, or be constantly stared at! Not trusting my Italian temper…..I opted for the scarf! Let me tell you that wearing long pants (which I did for almost my entire duration in Egypt) has been yet another challenge. I never knew that I had it in me to do this in nearing (and sometimes more than) 40 degree temperatures!
One of the first things that Alex and I both sadly observed about Egypt is how very, very dirty it is. Trash absolutely everywhere! In the streets, in museums, at outdoor archaeological sites, and pretty much anywhere else that bits and pieces could be shoved and thrown! Trash cans? What and where were they? Surely the government should thus assume some of the responsibility of a nation hidden beneath layers of rubbish. To be honest, it took away from many of the places we visited. When we went to the Great Pyramids at Giza, for example, we probably spent an equal amount of time viewing the garbage beneath us, as the spectacular pyramids above us!
Cairo is certainly a place that would take weeks to explore, so I think that we gave it our best shot in the 4 or 5 days that we spent there. There are so many components to the city, and we knew that seeing it all would be impossible. Before I go on, I would like to mention that, although statistics vary, the religious breakup of the country is as follows: 85% Muslim, 10% Coptic Orthodox and 5% other. Although there were so many absolutely beautiful and architecturally ornate mosques, there were also some equally as beautiful churches. We spent our first day wandering about, observing both the architecture and the people. We also wandered over to the historical Khan Al-Khalili, where there is a huge bazaar. It really is exactly like you see in those Indiana Jones adventure type movies……narrow cobblestoned streets, with vendors selling everything under the sun, from spices to stone statuettes of Tutankhamen. And let me tell you, here I was really able to gain a new insight into what it was like to be hassled. They would NOT let up….. I tried ignoring, hiding under my scarf, speaking in a made up language…all to no avail! They persisted on hassling and subsequently fraying my nerves!
A magic moment, or a magic few hours, was sitting outside one of the mosques near Khan Al-Khalili bazaar and chatting to some enchanting ladies and young women we met there. They could barely speak English, and our Arabic was pretty appalling (although by the end of our stay in Egypt, we had learnt quite a few words). They were beautiful people, and shared their food with us as well as buying us some more! Sign language, gestures and our guide book’s basic Arabic section, all helped out, and we were able to make ourselves understood. The moral of the story is that if your desire is to be understood, you will be! We felt humbled and honoured, and as we left, one of the young ladies hugged me and told me that she loved me! I walked away and cried! To touch someone’s heart in such a significant way, and then have them touch yours is a feeling beyond description. To feel the moment! I will cherish that forever!
Another day was spent at the infamous and extraordinary Egyptian museum of Cairo. More than 120,000 relics and antiquities from almost every period of ancient Egyptian history are housed here. Despite its fame, however, we were saddened , yet again, by the haphazard way that everything was thrown together, often leaving large slabs of history, literally, within arms reach of its visitors, many of whom took up the opportunity, to touch. As a result, many pieces are damaged and well on their way to becoming destroyed. Having said that, nothing can take away from what this museum actually houses. The highlights were the Tutankhamen Galleries and the Royal Mummy Room. We have seen the treasures of this young king a million times before on the likes of National Geographic, but seeing it live was something else. This young pharaoh ruled during the 14th century before Christ, from 1336 BC to 1327BC. I felt like I had become one with history, and was blown away by the antiquity! The Mummy Room…how does one explain what it feels like to be separated, by merely inches, from mummified beings that existed so very long ago! Five and a half hours later, and still not having seen the entire museum, Alex and I were hungry, thirsty, tired and suffering from “Pharaonic phatigue”. Time to leave. Of course, as soon as we stepped out the hassling would begin yet again…taxis, perfume, papyrus……..”La, shokran” (no thank-you in Arabic) would end up being a phrase that I would use endlessly and tirelessly, and eventually firmly, in a bid to alleviate the rigours of a country where…….to hassle or to hassle MORE….that is TRULY the question!
No trip to Egypt would be complete without a trip to the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, of course. Think Egypt, think pyramids! It would be like coming to Australia and not visiting the Sydney Opera House! Only 12 kilometres from central Cairo, the pyramids are actually the last survivors of the Seven Wonders of the World. The structures are monstrous, and their age and outstanding shapes truly illicit taking your breath away. I tried to ignore both the excessive trash as well as the lack of trash cans, and try to fathom what my eyes were beholding. Again, seeing them in documentaries paled in comparison to the vision that beheld me! There are many theories, but what we do know about these pyramids is that they were massive tombs ordered to be constructed by the pharaohs. What we don’t know was how they were built! As I looked up and stared, it was a magic moment! My mind wandered, and along with it a multitude of thoughts flooded my brain cavity! Alien constructions? As I peered skyward, the idea did not seem all that foreign! Perhaps even more spectacular than viewing them from the outside, was what we saw when we went inside. The lengths gone to, to ensure a safe and sacred central burial, were again, beyond comprehension. Tiny, cramped and lacking air, with thousands of tons of stone surrounding it on all sides………this is what the ancients had seen fit for their nobility!
It only took us a few days to work out how very hot and dry Egypt was. After all, besides the cities and towns that lie along the Nile, the rest of the country is total desert. To be more specific, the entire country is a desert, with the places along the Nile being more fertile. It is in this country where we learnt that water truly was our best friend! Alex and I had been drinking no less than 4 to 6 litres each per day! Any less, and exhaustion, dehydration , fatigue and headaches seemed to set in. Needles to say, we have had our share of all of the above during our stay here.
The food has been great too, with several vegetarian options. Falafel (fried broad bean paste), fuul ( beans), tahina (swsame seed paste) , baba ganoush (made from eggplant), lentil soup, aish (bread), shawarma (kebabs). As usual, Alex and I try and get to the local hangouts – much cheaper, and usually tastier than the tourist options. Lipton’s must love Egypt! They drink lots of tea here (specifically Lipton’s), as well as ahwa (coffee). Ahwas are also the names give to the local coffee houses, where in addition to Lipton’ tea, which is usually drunk without milk but with sugar, you can also smoke a sheesha, or water pipe. We did not try it, as neither of us smoke, but it’s quite interesting to watch the locals.
Coffee houses are mainly frequented by Egyptian males, and foreigners, although we noticed that some young women are making inroads into this ancient pastime, which seems to be so very much a man’s world in Egypt! I must add that we have both been bowled over by the amount of men that smoke in this country…and that’s just cigarettes! You rarely see women smoking!
This has been only a sliver of what we saw, felt and experienced in Cairo. Where to next? We looked at the map, and figured that an oasis sounded exotic, and figured that it certainly would be fun! But which one? The Siwa Oasis, of course! Why? Of all of the oases it was the farthest away, and so we figured that it may be a little less touristy and isolated. But, did we know how hot it would be?
“The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings.” – Okakura Kakuzo.
Until the next installment, Ombi.