Thursday, January 17, 2008

Cairo, Egypt, Part II

On our last day in Egypt, we saw the Citadel, an enclosure in the district of Islamic Cairo where many past rulers of post-pharonic Egypt lived. Part of the Citadel is a huge mosque where the prophet of Islam, Muhommed Ali is entombed. We were slightly disappointed that the mosque (and many others in Cairo) are in disrepair, needing a good cleaning and a lot of lightbulbs replaced.

We also visited the National Police Museum where we read about famous murders and assassinations in Egypt’s history.

Many sections of the Citadel were closed for restoration so we decided to move along to one of the largest mosques in Cairo, Ibn Tulun. We paid a bit of baksheesh (tips) and were allowed to climb the minaret, which can be likened to the steeple of a church. This is where the speakers that announce Islamic calls to prayer are placed in order to achieve maximum distribution of sound. Muslims are called to prayer five times a day, starting with sunrise and ending with sunset.

The view from the Ibn Tulun minaret unimpressive at best. Cairo is very crowded and dirty and many of the building are almost in ruins despite the fact that many people are living them. The rooftops and spaces between buildings are crammed with garbage and seeing the filth made me wish I was home in Madison.

We stopped for lunch at the hole-in-the-wall Egyptian Pancake house, where we had our first taste of Egyptian fiteers – baked phyllo dough stuffed with whatever you desire – cheese, mushrooms, olives, powdered sugar, raisins, jam and more. They were definitely greasy and reminded us of a cross between pizza and a thin pastry.

After lunch we headed to Khan al-Khalili, Cairo’s famous souk. The souk was different from other souks we had visited because it was like a labyrinth, with many narrow, winding passageways instead of one large street. Because we’d already done most of our shopping we picked up a few last minute items but mostly just browsed. We did have a nice shopkeeper take us to an off-the-beaten-path gold factory where all the gold from the souk is made. Eva bought a couple silver charms and got a great deal on them. Plus the guys polished our rings that we already have so they're nice and shiny. It was fun to see where all the jewelry that we've been seeing is made:

We also got henna tattoos on our hands which are supposed to last for a month, but we’ll see. It’s not like we’ll be going back to the shop to complain if it doesn’t!

On the way back to the hotel, I stopped in a beauty parlor because I wanted to get my legs waxed. I was taken to the upstairs, women-only floor where I sat in my underwear in front of seven non-English speaking women. The waxing procedure itself was very rustic – a ball of wax was heated up over a candle and then spread on my legs and pulled off quickly. Not very glamorous, but it got the job done! It also cost about one tenth of the price it would have in the United States.

We met Tyler back at the hotel and ate kushari (Egyptian takeout), cakes from the bakery next door, and a selection of Egyptian beers. It was cheap, but definitely hit the spot for our last dinner in Egypt.

This morning, we had to wake up at 4am to get to the airport for our flight home. Right now, Eva and I are sitting in a coffee shop in the Heathrow Airport writing this on my laptop. By the time I have internet access to put this online, we’ll already be safely home.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Cairo, Egypt, Part I

Eva and I rolled into Cairo on the sleeper train at 6:45 in the morning.

Unfortunately, when we got to Hotel Luna, we were told our room wouldn’t be available until noon. We ended up staying the in freezing cold lobby until 11:30 waiting and waiting.

We finally got into our room, did a quick shower and headed to see the famous Egyptian Antiquities Museum, which houses such things as King Tut’s death mask and all the treasures found in his tomb along with many, many statues, papyrus scrolls and other artifacts – even a colossal mummified fish. We also bought an extra ticket that allowed us to visit the royal mummies. It was cool to see the remains of the royalty whose tombs we toured in Luxor. As you can imagine, no cameras were allowed. In fact they confiscated cameras at the gate, so we had to sneak Eva’s inside in my sunglasses case.

Today was the big day – we toured the Pyramids!!! We’ve been in Egypt for over a week and we finally got to see the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of Egypt – the pyramids and the Sphinx!

We decided to see all three major groups of pyramids near Cairo: Giza, Saqqara, and Dashur. We had to hire a driver, which would have been tricky, but fortunately we met a guy in our hostel who speaks Arabic and wanted to hang out with us today touring the pyramids. Tyler, a guy from Washington D.C. who is in Cairo touring and practicing his Arabic, was great to have around. Without him, we never would have made it!

Dashur was our first stop. The biggest of the three pyramids at Dashur is the Red Pyramid. It is the world’s oldest “true” pyramid (with flat sides). We chose to go inside this pyramid instead of the Great Pyramid at Giza because the ticket was very inexpensive and there was virtually no one there. From what we’ve been told, the view inside is equivalent to the Great Pyramid and we had the place to ourselves. To get inside we descended into a narrow tunnel 125 steps into the pyramid. When we neared the bottom, it was very hot and smelled like ammonia.

Also a part of Dashur is the Bent Pyramid, which we couldn’t get to close to because it was in a restricted military zone. As much fun as dodging landmines sounded, we decided not to try to sneak past the guards and check it out. The Bent Pyramid got its name because ancient Egyptians started building it at an angle too steep for it to remain intact, so they had to decrease the angle partway through construction.

At the next pyramid group, Saqqara, we saw the Step Pyramid, the World’s oldest pyramid.

The last pyramid group, Giza, is closest to Cairo and is the most famous of the three. We rented camels and saw the pyramids in style.

We also saw the Sphinx, which stands guard in front of the Great Pyramid.

Tomorrow, our last day in Egypt, we’re going to see Islamic Cairo and the famous Khan al-Khalili souk. Wednesday morning, bright and early we’ll be on our way back to the United States.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Luxor, Egypt, Part II

Friday morning, we hired a car and a private guide to take us to the West Bank of Luxor, where many of the tombs and temples that Luxor is famous for are located. We were approached by a fellow American, Franceso Dominick Arbolino (no really, he was American!) who asked if he could join us on our tour. He seemed fun enough, so we gladly agreed because it meant we saved five Egyptian pounds each ($0.80) on the tour, and hey, we’re all about living cheaply!

First stop was Valley of the Kings, which is, according to Lonely Planet, “A place of death, where nothing grows on its scorching cliffs.” Here we visited the tombs of Ramses IX, Ramses II, Seti II, and of course, the newly opened tomb of King Tutankhamun – King Tut! Unfortunately, no photography was allowed inside the tombs, but they were gorgeous with floor to ceiling painting of hieroglyphics and murals depicting the ruler’s lives. King Tut’s mummy, coffin and sarcophagus were also on display in his tomb – we were surprised as to how small he was!

We also visited Deira Al-Bahria, a temple built by Hatshepsut, the only female Pharo(ess) of Egypt.

Medinat Habu is a huge temple built by three pharos to glorify the god Amun.

Last was the disappointing Colossi of Memnon, which was covered in scaffolding and falling apart. They used to be part of a huge temple bigger even than Karnak but it was all destroyed a long time ago (27 B.C.) by an earthquake.

After lunch we did a bit of shopping at the Luxor souk. The shop owners enjoyed giving Francesco a hard time, telling him how lucky he was to have two wives (Eva and I) and offering to buy us in exchange for camels or chickens. He put up with the attention good naturedly, replying, “They are lucky to be with me!”

We ate dinner at a 1920’s-style international cuisine restaurant because we’re getting a little sick of the local food we’ve been having. Eva had soup and potato salad, Francesco had a burger and French fries and I had an omelet with a side of bacon – made with real pork! It’s funny that I rarely eat pork at home, but because it’s so hard to find here I’ve been craving it for days!

After dinner we found a sheesha place in the souk that promised us good quality Egyptian molasses tobacco and enjoyed sitting outside people watching and sipping Karkaday, a traditional drink infused with hibiscus flowers.

This morning, we hired another taxi to get back to the west bank and saw Tombs of the Nobles, Valley of the Queens, and the Ramesseum. My favorite part was the stunning tomb of Sennofer, which had a ceiling painted with vibrant grape vines and leaves.

While visiting the Tombs of the Nobles, we were told that George Bush is also in Egypt right now, who knew? He’ll be in Cairo when we are on some sort of Middle East tour bonanza.

On the way back, our cab driver stopped at a sugarcane field and grabbed us seven huge stalks of sugarcane. Because he was parked alongside the road, the police came and started questioning us, but luckily Eva and I were able to use our charm to keep us from getting in to any trouble. The situation ended with the police helping peel my sugarcane for me and taking pictures for us:

Tonight, Francesco and I convinced Eva (by paying for her meal) to have dinner at the vegetarian-unfriendly Japanese restaurant in St. George’s Hotel, Miyako. It was definitely pricey and the quality of the sushi wasn’t amazing, but all things considered it was good enough to satisfy the craving for sushi that I’ve had since we ate it last in Dubai. For dessert, I had a slightly disturbing looking white and chocolate mousse dish in the shape of a swan:

Right now Eva and I are on an overnight sleeper train to head to Cairo for our last four days! Things are winding down and we’re starting to come to terms with the fact that we’ll be back in the awful Wisconsin snow all too soon.

Luxor, Egypt, Part I

Our three days in Luxor were over before we knew it! After checking into "Happyland" hotel Wednesday night, Thursday we hit the ground running, seeing two of the biggest attractions Luxor has to offer – Luxor Temple and Karnak. We were astounded at the size and scope of these two temples dedicated to Thebian gods and the glory of the pharaohs.

This obelisk has its mate in Paris in the Place de la Concorde:

It’s hard to convey how massive these monuments really were. It literally took us two hours to see all of Karnak and after seeing both we agreed it would be best to take a caleche (horse drawn carriage) back to our hotel as we were so tired walking was out of the question.

We even saw some bee hieroglyphics:

Our driver, Friday, and his trusty steed, Cinderella escorted us safely back to Happyland, our budget hotel (emphasis on budget) that we stayed at in Luxor. We even got to take a shot at driving the buggy.

For dinner, we went to Sofra, a traditional-style restaurant that made us feel like we were in the middle of one the 1001 Arabian nights. On our way there, we walked past a chocolate shop that grabbed our attention and ended up picking up some delicious Arabian chocolate to bring back to the States as well as some oriental desserts for ourselves!

After dessert, we weren’t that hungry, so we just had lentil soup and a bit of cucumber salad for dinner. Noticing sheesha was on the menu, we decided to try it but were disappointed that we were given a cheap, watered-down version that is probably meant to fool tourists. Luckily, it only cost fifty cents so we cut our losses and decided to try sheesha at a more authentic place that we had seen in the souk the next night.