We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto!

Trip Start Oct 24, 2010
Trip End Jan 16, 2011

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Where I stayed
Cairo Moon Hotel

Flag of Egypt  ,
Friday, December 10, 2010

We finally made it onto the Air France plane and it departed toward Cairo one hour behind schedule. We had a comfortable four hour 1/2 flight and landed in Cairo around 9:30 PM. The people here call Cairo, Umm ad Dunya , which means the "Mother of the world". Today, it has 20 million inhabitants, who struggle daily to keep the ever present desert from encroaching. They are winning, most of the time.

I planned this portion of the trip, so Barb is going to relax a bit, and sit back and judge how well I did it.  I have made the reservations and laid out the plan of approach. We will collectively modify it as we roll along.

Our hotel had sent a driver to the airport to pick us up. As we exited the airport luggage claim area we recognized him with a placard from the Cairo Moon, with my name on it. He smiled and introduced himself, "Sharif," he said. "Like Omar Sharif? " I replied." Yes, he was my father" was his response. "Right", I thought to myself. He pulled my wheely bag, and left Barb to lug her backpack to the parking area. I carried the small carry on bags. As we exited the airport we entered the blue - grey fugue that is the atmosphere in Cairo. It is the exhaust of 20 million humans mixed with the desert sand. I gagged at the though of spending a couple of days here. As we reached Shari's old beater car, he handed my bag to a older Egyptian who had appeared from nowhere. The old fella quickly loaded my bag in to the trunk , and quicker than that, turned to me smiling with his hand out. "Damn" , I thought as I handed him a small coin and he looked down into his hand disappointingly.  I thought yo myself " I should have seen that coming.  I have to step up my game, here."

Sherif drove his old beater at great speed. I think he gets paid by the load, so the faster he goes, the more money he makes.  The car had vibrations at speed, and were were rocking and rolling through the streets of Cairo. We drove down Rames Avenue, past a large statue of the famous Pharaoh. We drove past the Mosque and University of Al Anzar, center of Sunni Islam religious studies for over a millennium. Sherif was driving very fast pointing out sites as we flew past them. In between sites he  was explaining that he had a Master's Degree in Business Administration, had five other cabs on the street, and worked for 14 hotels.  He was driving very fast and explained Egyptian traffic etiquette by saying simply " You see three lines, you get seven cars" with a quick grin.  He was cranking left turn, then right, then left again, as we wound through the maze of vehicles on the road. We cautiously asked about the line lane dividers, and he replied,
 " Decorations!" without looking up from the blur in front of him. We were really flying as we entered the long curving tunnel in the middle of Cairo. I thought he would slow down, but no, not Sherif, he really put the hammer down in there.  It was very thrilling and terrifying at the same time. After surviving the episode and arriving at the hotel, I made mention of the tunnel experience to Barb. I was surprised that she too had thought about the tragic ending of Princess Di' s life, as we were careening through the tube under Cairo.  Barb added, "Princess Di had an Egyptian driver too."

Our hotel in Cairo is the Cairo Moon, a real budget place. We are paying around $25 US a night. It is basic, centrally located near the Museum of Antiquities, and has a helpful manager, named Mohamed. A bit scary from the outside, it sits on the top floor of an eight story building. There is a watchman at the front door near the old elevator that has no doors on the inside. He sleeps there on a bed during the nights. I think his wife is there with him. This hotel will be the cheapest of our trip and will be our base for the next two days. The coffee at breakfast is pretty strange. It is hot, but tastes like ground cardoman. We quickly discovered that the local McDonald's has the best coffee we have found here. When I  took a photo of the Arabic Mc Donald's sign for a big breakfast, the manager frowned and said, :Not allowed!" I had already taken it.

At mid\ day we hired a cab for 15 Egyptian pounds. Their pound (a legacy left by the Brits) runs 5.7 Egyptian  Pounds to the $1 US . We had the driver take us up to the Citadel. It sits on a limestone ledge on the eastern side of the city, and was home to Egypt's rulers for over 700 years. There are three mosques up there and fantastic views of the city. The cab ride was relaxing and leisurely as our Grey haired driver brought us to the entry gate. (I like Grey haired taxi drivers)

We cued up in the entry line with a crowd of school kids. Even though this was Friday, the kids were here with their teachers for a field trip to visit the Citadel and the mosques that are located here.The kids were excited and anxious to use their English language skills.
 "Where are are you from? What is your name? , Welcome to my country, Welcome to Cairo." The teachers were having a hard time keeping the energetic mass of kids in a group without loosing any. A` guard from the security booth ahead came up to us, directed us out of line and ushered us through the security point. The security is needed here. Two women opened fire on a tour bus here in April of 2005.  At first I thought we had been in the wrong line, but I quickly got the drift when the guard put out his hand after we passed through the gate, with out visiting the scanner. I didn't pay him, and we walked in to the ticket booth for the ancient walled  complex. To be fair there were other checkpoints after the ticket booth, but this was the first time I have ever had an officer of the law want a tip for service. I don't tip for looser security.

The Citadel itself is a large walled complex atop the hill overlooking the old Islamic quarter of Cairo. It was built in 1176 to defend against the Crusaders who were pillaging Palestine at the time. The city was enlarged over the years by the Mamluks and by the Ottomans. When Mohamed Ali came to power after the French left, he completely remodeled the place, destroying most of what was there previously. He built the huge mosque named after him, which now dominates the Cairo skyline. His tomb is located inside the mosque, but was off limits due to restoration efforts.

We first visited the Mosque of An Nasir Mohamed, which is the sole surviving structure built by the Mamluks, the others being destroyed by Mohamed Ali. This Mosque of An Nasir Mohamed had twisted carvings on the finials of the minarets, something which is rarely seen in Egypt.

The Mosque of Mohamed Ali took 18 years to build. It is based on the Turkish design, with domes, upon domes, striped stonework, and many chandeliers to light the dim vacuous interior. The school kids we had met outside were now calling out my name as we attempted to take a few photographs. "Hello Thomas!" Hello Barbara!" Welcome to Egypt!"

After visiting the mosques, we walked across the plaza and out in front of the building that once housed Mohamed Ali's 's Harem. There, along the wall was a spectacular view of Cairo. Through the blue grey haze that passes as air here, I had my first look at the Great Pyramids of Giza. We won't visit them yet, but we will return to Cairo, God Willing,  in a month and will finish our trip there.

We then walked down from the Citadel , passed the Ibn Tulun Mosque toward the ancient Islamic market of Khan al Khalli.As we left the Citadel fortress and started walking toward the road below, several kids sitting o a wall nearby shouted "Hello Thomas! Hello Barbara! We laughed and said goodbye to them politely. We certainly felt welcome here by this time. We walked along Mohamed An street which curved down and around under the old fortress. The road was clogged with tourist buses , cars, motorcycles and people. We would ask people "Khan al Khalli?" and they would point a direction, if they understood us. At one point we asked a fellow in a blue shirt which way to go. He explained in good English, then said he was going that way anyway and he said, "Follow me, I will show you." Off we went, leaving the main street and moving down through the old Islamic quarter on our way to the market. Our volunteer guide was named Mahmoud.  He was school teacher and taught Arabic. He was a wealth of information about the culture and history. It was a fascinating tour of the old Islamic quarter, past workshops, living areas, and life as it goes on a daily basis in the back streets of Cairo. I asked many of the people if I could take a photo and all but one obliged me. They were very gracious in allowing my prying camera lens to intrude into their space. We were able to see the real oriental lifestyle in the streets that have contained it for centuries.  I got some terrific photos.

Our volunteer guide Mahmoud, took us to yet another mosque, known as the Blue Mosque.We were met at the entrance by the gate keeper, who informed us that we would need to remove our shoes as is required in all mosques. In addition, he informed us through Mahmoud that we would need to pay a small fee to be used by the mosque for the poor or infirm. Barb and I reluctantly dropped 10 USD each in the Gatekeeper's hands. Our guide then explained that this mosque was built in 1314. We were then shown the al membar, a stairway and platform made of sandalwood, which the Imam uses to speak to the worshipers. This Al Membar was located on the right side of the niche towards which all Muslim worshipers pray. The niche is called Al Mihrab, and is placed on the wall facing in the direction of Mecca, Saudia Arabia. These niches, usually have graphics and tile work in addition to inscriptions from the Koran embossed on the wall. There is also a separation wall inside the mosque worship area. It's purpose is to separate the men from the women. The separation wall is called the Masrabia.

Our friendly guide showed us toward a stairway which led to the roof top, then on to another that led to the top of a minaret. We climbed up the circular stairways until we reached the top. The roof of the minaret was held up by a series of long rectangular stones. Most were too narrow to pass  through, but there were two that were set a bit wider than the others. They were still quite close together. First the guide Mahmoud, then Barb slipped through and stepped a long step down to stand on a narrow platform on the outside top of the minaret. I tired and could not get my chest, let alone any other part of my anatomy through the narrow passage. That is one down side of being a "Man of dimension". I was left inside the stone cage atop the minaret and had to shoot my photos between the pillars.
It was at this time, atop the holy temple's minaret, that our friendly and informative guide Mahmoud, decided he would show Barbara some secret moves from the Sufi Dance culture. He would place himself directly behind her and carefully weave his fingers into hers, all the time humming and chanting lowly. Barb was giving me the "What the hell is going on look" between the pillars of my stone cage. Mahmoud was really enjoying himself. He was swooning in this Sufi bunny-hop atop the minaret. Soon after the first dance episode, he asked me, (I am not kidding here) "How many camels with you take for your wife?'  I replied, trying to keep it light, " Not for a million Camels Mahmoud, will I give you my wife." I then say "I think I am ready to go down." Barb is now grimacing letting me know this is NOT a good idea.  I tell her to get through the passage and we will go down.  Barb is having a hard time making the high step and is struggling to get purchase on the old stones, which have no handles. I offer a helping hand from inside.  Mahmoud is helping himself to numerous groping moves from her behind. I lend a hand and she passes through to my side, we descended, and incredibly , the friendly guide now turned jerk, asks me if I am happy. He further explains that he normally gets 60-70 US for the tour. After some heated exchange and haggling we reluctantly drop 10 US on him (He did provide a 1.5 hour walking tour of the old city and the mosque, not to mention the private dance lesson Barbara got) We then headed out on our own. Lesson learned.

The market area was a welcome relief to our friendly tour guide. The smells of the spices, colors of the fabrics and art wok were terrific. We walked until we reached Fishawi's . This is a famous restaurant in Khan AL Khailli  market that claims to have been in business since 1773, except for Ramadan, when everyone is fasting. We sat down next to three young women from Vancouver, BC. They are here teaching English to the children of affluent Egyptians. They were out for the evening and were enjoying a shisha, or water pipe at, Fishawi's. The restaurant provides a new clean mouthpiece, and some tobacco laced with apple and strawberry slices, and some hot charcoal to sit atop the pipe's bowl. We laughed together wondering why we need some smoke, the air quality being what it is here. We enjoyed their company for about 30 minutes. One of the woman, who I believe had been here a bit longer than any of us, gave us a phrase in Arabic, which has become our favorite and it is most effective in warding off the touts. The Phrase is : Mish I Zeen" and means- "I don't want it!" Thank you Vancouver, BC!

The next morning, we left the hotel to visit the National Museum. We walked the 10-12 blocks to the museum. The wind was blowing hard and sand was everywhere. I got some in my eyes, I think everyone did. There is a large multi lane freeway in front and crossing on foot it was difficult. People here just jaywalk through the traffic. A very scary scenario. We crossed and went through security , (there was an attack on tourists here in 2007). We entered the huge museum and spent five or more hours there. I think one could better see it all in two days rather than one. It was dusty inside, probably due in part to the sand storm raging outside. We saw the King Tutankhamen section but did not pay the additional $30 US for us to visit the actual mummy section. They clip you here, they clip you there, and it all begins to add up. The objects were many and varied.. The place is laid out chronologically.Many exhibits are in English. The big disappointment for me was that we had to check our cameras .NO cameras allowed. We may buy a book. As we left the museum to return to our hotel room, the storm had increased in intensity the wind was really blowing and more dust and sand.

Upon arrival at our hotel, we passed the ever present elevator watchman and entered the rickety elevator to take us up the eight stories to our hotel. Inside they were sweeping sand from the floors.Can you believe it? Sand blowing in on the deck 8 stories up. I think the sand was coming from the roof. On this day, I think the desert won the day.

We packed our bags as we had a 8:00 PM departure on the overnight sleeper train to Aswan.The train ride will take 13 hours. Barb and I booked a private room. The trains too have been attacked several years back. The Egyptians were so concerned that they created special tourist only trains. That way, there would be little change that they could be injured. We were taking one of the new tourist targets. Stay tinned, next post from Aswan on the Nile.

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Bro Don on

Glad you made it to warmer weather safely! Worked with a Coptic Christian Egyptian once, who claimed they are an oppressed minority in his homeland.

Don McKee on

What a post, Tom! We admire your resistance to being over-charged by the less scrupulous. You are so right. Europe really is Kansas compared to what you experience in this big cultural shift. Am I correct is detecting an undercurrent of concern for your safety? Statistically there probably isn't much likelihood of a terrorist encounter...but...
Australians we met in London who had just returned from some time spent in Morocco said they had never been treated with as much love and good attention any place else in their world travels.
Your high octane taxi drive through the tunnel in Cairo was reminiscent a speedy taxi ride Janis and I took years ago through the backstreets of Lisbon in a government subsidized beat up Mercedes...for twenty-five cents! Your well taken pictures catch the mystery and adventure of a genuinely unique culture.

joni on

1) poor barb and the dance "routine"
2) the crazy Di tunnel ride (glad you are safe)
3) pic of the food great !

thomasgillam on

I also met one in Luxor, who said only Christians would hire him. We hope to visit Coptic Cairo on the way out.
Thanks for the posts, bro tom

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