In our travels we have often found that it's not just the destination that offers adventure, but also the getting there itself. And we certainly experienced that on our journey to Cairo. The first part was uneventful: a simple bus ride from Jerusalem to the Egyptian border. It's when we crossed the border that things got interesting. From here the options were the bus to Cairo, or a supposedly much more comfortable, much faster shared taxi. Since the "shorter" taxi ride was reputedly 7 hours itself, we splurged on this luxury for $40 per person. We found ourselves with front row seats to a symphony of blaring Egyptian music, mixed in with our cabbie's screaming phone conversations and excessive phlegm hacking. As the trip wore on we, as well as the two Palestinian men with whom we were sharing the van, started to get cozy and nap. But apparently so did our driver. All of the sudden the driver pulled over the van, paced around fervently outside and then returned to the driver's seat dripping yet, which we think was because he asked one of the other passengers to pour water over his head. A half hour later, we were parked in the middle of a highway off ramp near the Cairo airport, cars careening by, while he worked to get another cab to come and take us the rest of the way. (Keep in mind this was all happening in Arabic, and luckily our very kind co-passengers filled us in once in a while so we at least had a vague sense of what was going on.) Finally another taxi was found, an arrangement was made, and the four of us packed into a tiny, practically antique car with our luggage loosely tied on the roof. We spent the next two and a half hours driving every corner of Cairo, which is by no means a small city, before the other passengers were delivered to their destinations and our driver deposited us at ours.
When we finally arrived in Cairo we took just a few hours sleep before getting our feet wet...or dirty in this case. Most of our first day was spent walking the colorful, vibrant, and very rugged streets of "Islamic Cairo". All the signs are in Arabic (so there is no use even sounding anything out!) and you are playing an endless game of chicken with the traffic. Jaywalking in Boston is pre-school compared to crossing the street in Cairo. It's easy to get spun around in the wrong direction just dodging cars. Luckily we just hailed a cab and the driver was able to take us to the most visible sight in this part of town: the Citadel.
This huge fortification up on the hillside was originally constructed in the 12th century and hosts a complex of mosques and museums and offers panoramic, though very hazy views of downtown Cairo. The Mosque of Mohammed Aly, with its many domes, reminded us of Istanbul mosques more than what we typically saw in Cairo. Right next door is the more historical, less maintained Mosque of An-Nasir Mohammed dating to the 1300s. We found the Police Museum the most amusing sight with its odd smattering of exhibits including a drug-enforcement display and many stories about Egyptian assassins. The Military Museum was much larger and extensive with their exhibits, such as details of Egypt's contributions during World War I including 56,000 workers, 38,000 camels, and 18,000 donkeys.
Cairo's star museum, however, is downtown near Tahrir Square. The Egyptian Museum houses an overwhelming display of ancient sculptures and artifacts, with a huge collection from King Tut's tomb. Our favorite room was the one with his mummiform coffins, both because they were amazing to see but also because it was highly air conditioned. (With a few exceptions, most of the museum's rooms and halls are stiflingly hot--not offering the relief we expected from the brutal August sun.) The museum also has extensive exhibitions on mummies, both human royalty and animals. We learned that ancient Egyptians not only mummified their pets but also other animals to provide a food source to sustain them for the rest of eternity.
One of the great activities in "Islamic Cairo", the medieval part of the city, is to visit Khan al-Khalli. This huge market extends over a great network of streets and alleys, and we found the expected bazaar wares of jewelry and spices alongside strange toys, gadgets, and miniature plastic vegetables. We found some respite at Fishawi's Coffeehouse on one of the alleys and refueled with some delicious tea, but passed on the waterpipes.
Another big attraction in the neighborhood is the Al-Azhar Mosque. We were immediately greeted by Sayid, Al-Azhar's singer of prayers, who showed us where to leave our shoes, dressed Katrina in some more appropriate attire, and proceeded to take us on a personal tour of the mosque. He showed us the library and prayer halls, and explained that it is also a school and introduced us to students. Sayid also grabbed our camera and insisted on taking an absurd number of pictures of us in every room and with whatever mosque official was walking by. He loaded us up with literature on Islam then led us to the tomb of AL-Azhar himself where he got down to business. He requested, or more precisely insisted upon, a donation to the Mosque--which we were happy to give, but apparently not at an agreeable level. After resolving that issue he finished up the tour and asked us for another donation for himself, as our guide. As someone who has worked in fundraisig herself, Katrina could appreciate this novel approach, but we started to get the impression we were really getting shook down. We got out of there without dropping too much more money, but we did have to surrender our ballpoint pen in the process.
This was our first lesson in Cairo's excessively friendly residents. We were approached by many smiling Egyptians during our stay who wanted to know if they could help us, where we were from, and insisted that they love to welcome visitors and had nothing to sell. They all had something to sell and all somehow knew someone from the US from cities ranging from Santa Barbara to Seattle. We had many nice conversations but learned how to avoid getting ensnared pretty quickly. (Side note: consensus is that Egyptians love--really love--President Obama, but they don't think much of Bush. One even asked us if were from "Obama-Country")
Of course, what really drew us to Cairo were the pyramids. We wanted to get there before the day got too hot, so we arose bright and early to get to the Giza Plateau. The complex has a total of four larger pyramids as well as The Sphinx, and the backdrop is the Sahara Desert. We didn't really know what to expect--we've seen so many pictures of the pyramids over the years, would seeing them in person live up to the hype? But we were totally wowed and loved being allowed to roam freely over the grounds. By getting there early, we got to enjoy two hours or so of very pleasant weather before starting to melt, and were surprised to find areas where we were practically alone. Unfortunately the plateau is filled with people wanting to sell you camel rides, postcards, and ridiculous trinkets--along with scam artists pretending to be some sort of authority figure who walk around blowing whistles, asking to see your tickets, and alarming you that you can only go certain ways and take certain pictures by paying them. Simply ignoring them worked wonders, but we had to make sure we were ignoring the right people (the actual security personnel were very friendly). We took a local bus line to the pyramids in the morning, with our fares combined totaling 80 cents, but had trouble catching it home. Instead we haggled for a cab to drive us to Cairo for $4.
Cairo was the first place we visited on this trip where the US dollar really went far. Aside from cheap cabs, we enjoyed an inexpensive feluka ride (an Egyptian broad-sail boat) on the Nile and in general ate like kings. A kofta (meatballish kebab) sandwich went for 40 cents on the street, a large tub of kushari (a popular pasta, rice, and lentil dish) cost us 60 cents, and we feasted at At-Tabei ad-Dumyati for dinner for a combined total of $6.
Our hotel was no exception to the affordability of Cairo. Pensione Roma is a neat hotel located downtown, walking distance from the Egyptian Museum. Reception is four flights up an old building with an even older, ancient caged elevator. We were very happy to get a large (probably half the size of our old apartment), quiet room with private shower (shared toilets in the hall) for only $23 per night. We were not as happy that the beds were rock hard and no AC made for some tossing and turning at night, but who can complain at that rate? The staff was very friendly, they did our laundry for us for the price of a laundromat, and we overall had a very pleasant stay.
View more pictures from Cairo here.