“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Egypt Travelogue: Karnak and Luxor - 7 Oct 2006

Hypostyle Hall at Karnak
In the afternoon, we crossed back to the east bank and visited the temple of Karnak, the granddaddy of all ancient temples. It was the largest cult center in the world at its time. The sheer scale of this entire complex was amazing.  You may recognize Karnak best from its most famous feature, the columns in the Hypostyle Hall.  This temple complex was built upon by numerous Pharoahs over many dynasties, making it one of the oldest most-continuously constructed and used buildings in ancient Egypt.  As of today, there is still restoration going on a the site.  For as much time as we spent here, we maybe covered half the complex. 

Luxor Temple
Then on to the temple of Luxor.  This temple lies in the heart of modern Luxor.  At its peak, there was a walkway lined with stone lions that stretched between Karnak and Luxor.  There are some features of this complex that were also added during Greek rule which are easily recognizable.  At this point, near the rear of the temple, we were at our final site after 4 days of continuously touring temples (and retrieving me from them).  Finally, our guide said, "Thank you for being with me this week, for touring together.  Would you like to take some time, perhaps another hour to look around, or should we head back to the boat?"  Every head turned to look at me (since I had the reputation to linger), and I said, "You know what, nope.  I'm good.  I'm templed-out."  :)  We certainly got our money's worth! 
Sunset in Luxor

As we were leaving the Valley of the Kings, we heard someone shout, "Go Cubbies!"  We turned around, realizing it was in English and that we were wearing our Cubs hats, and a man walked over to us. He was wearing a Red Sox hat.  We introduced ourselves, and he explained that he was an American soldier stationed at the Israeli-Egypt border and was on leave for a couple days.  Two days later, as we were in the Luxor airport preparing to return to Cairo, we heard someone again, "Hey Chicago!"  It was the same soldier we say two days earlier in the Valley. 

Muhammad Ali Mosque at the Citadel
This morning we left our boat, flew back to Cairo, and went to the Muhammad Ali mosque in the Citadel. Gorgeous.  The carpets were original and hundreds of years old, and the chandelier was a gift from Spain.  We were dressed appropriately to come in and didn't have to cover further, as I had a sheer scarf on me with which I covered my head.  It was here that our guide sat with us and gave us a overview of Islam, and he said his prayers.  The Citadel sits atop a cliff that overlooks Cairo so we could see nearly to the Pyramids save the smog, but it was still a beautiful view.
Inside the mosque

Later we walked through the main gate of the old city walls that surrounded Old Islamic Cairo, through Khan El Khalili bazaar, and dined at Naghib Mahfouz, named after Egypt's famous Nobel Laureate who used to pass his days writing in this cafe.  We really breezed through the bazaar, and I wish I had spoken up to take more time to shop and explore the tiny alleyways.  Old Cairo is like a time warp, the streets are still dirt, and small stones cross the street so pedestrians can walk from side to side without stepping down into the dirt, just like in medieval European cities (think Pompeii).  I saw a man in a doorway dispensing milk for cheese out of a goat's stomach (no goat, just the stomach lining).  You could have told me the year was 1400 and I would have believed you.
Overlooking Cairo

Now we're back at the Four Seasons. Unfortunately our room this time doesn't face the Pyramids - I was hoping for a last look goodbye, but it's only for 2 nights and we head back home at 4am Monday morning.

A note about mummy tummy: it hit us both.  After that initial punch, I was fine for the rest of the week, pretty much. All the pain and discomfort was gone. AND, after 5 days, the jet lag wore off and we were able to have 4 consecutive really good nights' sleep.  Thank goodness. We've had a few bouts of uncomfortable g/i issues, but nothing major. Luckily the food on the boat was a little more like what we're used to, so we settled in quickly. As I re-read that statement, oh boy, I've come a long way in 4.5 years, from eating Western food to craving spicy street food in Bangkok.  I'm sure it'll all catch up with me again some day.

A note about our tour company, Abercrombie and Kent. If you EVER have a chance to travel with them, DO IT! We had a 3:1 staff ratio on Cairo with them. Our private guide, our coordinator, and our driver. They checked us onto the plane, carried our luggage, passed us through every security checkpoint seamlessly, we NEVER waited in a line for entry. On the boat, they waited on us hand and foot. We had private transfers to and from the airports, and a coordinator and guide met us at every flight.  Although I'm not partial to guided tours now that I've traveled independently, I will travel with A&K for an African safari. 

We've gotten really good at greasing palms, too.  Here, you tip EVERYONE (aka "baksheesh"), even the dude that's standing outside the tombs doing nothing. He's actually doing something - making sure you have a pleasant stay. It was a foreign concept to us at first, but you quickly get the hang of it. I was initially uncomfortable at the idea of what appeared to be bribing officials, but eventually we came to understand the subtleties.

Oh yes, deep into the countryside, we stopped at a carpet school. Here, they hand-pick kids from age 12 and they go to regular school in the morning, and carpet school in the afternoon. It's a skilled job where they grow up and make the most beautiful eastern/Persian carpets I have ever seen. Wool, cotton, and silk. I SO wanted to bring a silk carpet home, but they're EXPENSIVE, even if you bargain.  As I look back, I wonder if this was a facade for the tourists.  I'm still unsure.  And the rugs weren't that expensive.  I could haggled down even further, and really wish I had.  Unfortunately I was over-ruled on buying anything.  Guess I'll have to go back, then, when there's no one to tell me no.

What I wish I could bring back with me was the sound of the call to prayer from the mosques as it echoed over the countryside, over the Nile, and off the columns of the temples. Some sights, sounds, and smells will stay with me forever as memories.  Materials things can buy you momentary happiness, but travel and experience lasts a lifetime.

Egypt Travelogue: Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut's Temple, Tut's Tomb - 7 Oct 2006

Balloons over the Valley of the Kings
Luxor - What can I say? After docking overnight in Luxor, the morning started out with a breathtaking view of sunrise reflecting off the west bank where the Valley of the Kings is. At 6am, hot air balloons filled the sky (we didn't take one, though). We traveled first to the Colossi of Memnon.  These statues were cracked and nearly destroyed in an earthquake, so when the wind blows through them, they emit an eerie whistling sound.  It's just a photo stop for most people, but I had really been looking forward to seeing these statues.  Eventually, and as usual, someone from the group had to go retrieve me because I was late back to the bus because of my shutterbugging self.  From there, on to the
Colossi of Memnon
Valley of the Queens, in which we went into Queen Teti's tomb. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside any tombs.  We went into her son's tomb, as well, but I forget his name. Drat.

Then on to the temple of Queen Hatsepshut!!! We could see this temple from our room on the boat, so I was all hyper to see this. If this temple weren't on our tour's itinerary, I would have chosen another tour company. This was a must-see. Absolutely gorgeous. This was built in the Pharonic era in the New Kingdom, well before the Greeks came. Queen Hatshepsut was Egypt's only female Pharoah.  The statues of her likeness depict her wearing an ornamental beard, which was regalia. I spent far too much time at my leisure exploring the temple
Hatshepsut's Temple
and taking photographs, so once again someone from the group back at the bus had to retrieve me from the temple and usher me back to the group.  This would become an on-going joke in the bus, but the joke plays out later in Luxor.  Stay tuned.

From here, we traveled behind the cliffs into the Valley of the Kings where the majority of New Kingdom Pharoahs and other statesmen (and women) were buried. Let me just say that we started the morning off at 7am, and already by 9am it was over 100 degrees. Now 100 down there wasn't so bad at the other temples, but in this valley in Luxor, the sun reflecting off the cliffs made it plain brutal. Especially when we descended into some of the tombs, 100 degrees rose to 125 degrees nearly 100 feet below ground. 

Valley of the Kings
Here we went into 4 tombs: Ramses IV, Merenptah, Ramses I, and Tutankhamun. The tombs were gorgeous, but with the heat, they smelled of a 4000-year old locker room.  Centuries of human perspiration and heat had definitely left its mark. 

This is where I lost it. The entire trip finally built up and for some odd reason, in this tomb of Ramses IV, I just stopped and sobbed. It all hit me at once. Everything was too beautiful for words, and there I was, standing inside a Pharoah's tomb, seeing the colorful paint on the walls as if it were applied yesterday.  The people in my group were very sympathetic - we spent so much time together for so many days that they came to know what this trip meant to me.  One of the women put her arm around me, and at the end of the trip, they said it made it all the more special for them to share it with me, knowing that I was realizing my dream.  

The tomb of Merenptah had a passageway was a looooooooooooooooong way down. Long. And a looooooooooooooong way back up. As I reached the massive internal burial chamber, I looked back up the passageway and wished I had brought my inhaler.  We were nearly 200 feet underground staring up at a nearly 45 degree incline
Layout of Merenptah's Tomb
back to the surface, in 125 degree heat.  This was going to be a rough climb if I didn't take it slowly.  I think a sloth passed me on the way up.  Ramses I: This tomb had the most spectacular art. It looked even more vibrant than pictures can describe. I really wish I had snuck in my camera and slipped the attendant some baksheesh so I could snap a few pictures without the flash.  

And then, Tutankhamun. It was miniscule compared to the others, but it was even more special because his coffin and body still lie in rest where it was set 2500 years ago.  I stood for a long time at the rail to the internal burial chamber, staring at his mummy, and recognizing every detail.  I walked through the tomb as though I were Howard Carter seeing it for the first time, trying to visualize the treasures as it they were discovered.   
"What do you see?" 
"Beautiful things."

Egypt Travelogue: Abu Simbel, Aswan, Philae, Kom Ombo, Esna, Edfu - 7 Oct 2006

I apologize for the lapse in travel updates. We were on our Nile Cruise and the boat had just undergone a renovation (we were the 2nd cruise) and they didn't have the internet hooked up yet. So where to begin... so much!! I have no idea what today is. All I know is that it's October.  When did we go to Abu Simbel? Tuesday? Sure.

Abu Simbel

On 3 Oct we flew from Cairo to Aswan, then continued on Abu Simbel.  This site is on Lake Nasser, just 25km from the Sudan border in a region known as Nubia.  As we landed in Abu Simbel, we circled and flew over Lake Nasser, built as the result of the construction of the Aswan Damn by Abdul Nasser in the 1960s (this damn was constructed with massive assistance from the USSR.  Nearby the damn stands a monument to the Soviet's assistance).  As the Nile backed up and formed a lake behind the dam, many ancient temples were covered with water and now rest at the bottom of the lake (in addition to thousands of Nubians who were displaced when their villages were swallowed by the rising waters). Only a few temples were moved to higher ground - Abu Simbel (temple of Ramses II and
Aswan High Damn
Nefertari) and the temple of Philae were among those saved.  Another temple that was saved from the inundation now resides in reconstructed form in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Abu Simbel was a must-see on my Egyptian itinerary.  The village only has one airport of which the terminal is not much larger than my apartment.  As we landed, we saw bunkers in the dunes along the runway, and from within them came the Egyptian air force flying fighter jet patrols over the southern region of the country.

Sun Boat IV Lounge

As for Abu Simbel, holy cow - it was HUGE! And I had no idea how beautiful the inside was.  From Abu Simbel, we flew up to Aswan where we boarded our cruise boat, the Sun Boat IV.  In the afternoon took a felucca ride on the Nile. SO RELAXING!  The boat was newly renovated. They had a staff of 70, and we were only 20 guests!! This is what we get for traveling during tourist off-season.  We were paired into 2 groups, mostly by age. Our group rocked. We toured everywhere together. We met a couple from LA in our hotel in Cairo, then saw them again on our boat. We hit it off immediately. then we became friends with a couple from London. We were all roughly in our 30's, and a couple from Mexico in their 40s maybe. There were 2 other guys from Atlanta in our group.
Temple of Philae

Our guide was in his 30s, also, and he was fantastic and funny. We've been on lots of cruises, but this was the first time we ever exchanged email addresses to keep in touch and swap photos. The couple from LA are staying in our hotel tonight (back in Cairo at the end of the trip), so we might meet for a drink later before their late night flight back, as we decided to stay an extra day in Cairo to unwind.

Felucca ride in Aswan
So on Wednesday we visited the Aswan High Dam in the morning, then on to the temple of Philae.  This was one of the temples saved from Lake Nasser and placed on an island near the dam. 

After Philae, we set sail for Kom Ombo. Cruising down the Nile in the afternoon with the wind in our hair and sun on our shoulders was amazing. Along the shore we saw water buffalo, donkeys, and kids swimming in the river. The river backdrop was palm and date trees set against starkly contrasting desert cliffs.  It was at this portion of our trip that I experienced the most beautiful moment of my life.  Standing alone at the helm of the boat, the hot sun
Nile shoreline
beating down on my shoulders, a slight breeze, silence all around, nearby date and palm trees along with tall green grasses growing on the shoreline, starkly set against the fine desert cliffs behind them.  Green-on-yellow.  Immediately I felt transported back 4000 years.  This is the place I've dreamt of my whole life, the experience I wanted, the feeling that I was alone with my thoughts, and that unique scent of Egypt air filling my lungs. 

We really began to feel how dependent the entire country is on the river. 97% of the population lives on 3% of the land, all along the Nile. We passed farmers in galabeyas riding their donkey carts, children playing along the shore, and fishermen bringing home dinner. It felt as if things have never changed in 6000 years.

Kom Ombo
Wednesday afternoon we docked at Kom Ombo just before sunset.  Kom Ombo was dedicated to two gods, and the walls were filled with stories and instructions about the practice of medicine in ancient Egypt.  Where some of the stones had fallen away, we saw dovetails of 2500-year old wood in between the stones that helped hold the temple walls together.  From Kom Ombo we watched the sun set over the western cliffs, then set sail for Edfu.

Thursday morning brought us to a tour of Edfu, the best-preserved temple in Egypt. So far, Philae, Edfu, Kom Ombo, and later Esna, were all built during Greek rule under the Ptolemys, including some of the 7 CleopatrasIt was at Kom Ombo where I was able to successfully read my first hieroglyphs right off the temple walls. It's where I took a picture of some of these glyphs which later became one of my tattoos.  My left wrist holds the cartouche of Cleopatra, which marks the occasion at Kom Ombo. It isn't until we reached Luxor and Karnak were we saw pharonic temples (aside from the pyramids of Saqqara, Giza, Abusir, and Dashur).

Horus at Edfu
After Edfu (which was amazing) and where I ran into some bats hanging over my head in an entryway, we had lunch and set afternoon sail for Esna. This temple isn't on many cruise itineraries, so when we arrived, we were the only group there. I think it was one of my favorite temples because the colors were still so bright and the entire temple full of so much amazing detail. In Esna is where I captured some of my favorite photos, as well as video footage of the athan from a nearby mosque echoing off the empty temple walls.  It was a haunting yet beautiful sound.

Docking at Luxor
These temples don't look like much from the outside, but inside they've been shaded from the sun and many are still vibrant with color. After visiting Esna, we sailed through a lock on the Nile, then up to Luxor. This is where we'd spend all of Friday and then this morning (Saturday). Karnak is the site of Thebes, the former capital of ancient Egypt.  The east bank holds the major temples and site of city government and daily life, and the west bank holds the funerary temples and New Kingdom burial grounds, such as the Valley of the Queens, Hatshepsut's Temple, and the Valley of the Kings (including Tutankhamun's tomb).

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Egypt Travelogue: The Pyramids and Sphinx - 2 Oct 2006

Saqqara Step Pyramid
It's official. I've been indoctrinated - I'm a real traveler. Yes folks, I have Mummy Tummy. It's not bad, but my goodness, ain't no fun, either. I left Chicago with a flat stomach. Now I look like I'm about to birth a baboon. I've drank water all day, and managed to get down a few forkfulls of plain rice and some salad. Tea is a nice change from water.

Today was our trip to the Pyramids!! They're so magnificently amazing. We met our guide at 7am, before the Monday rush hour traffic and all the tourist crowds. We were the first ones to Memphis and Saqqara. By the time we got to Giza, there were barely any crowds. We went into a pyramid! You know the one, the "Great" Pyramid - the center one. Since we arrived so early, there was no line. Which meant there was no superb
Hugging Khafre's Pyramid
claustrophobia going in. We passed a few people on their way back out, including and elderly woman with a cane.  It made me grateful that I had the means, time, and ability to visit this site while I was still young and in shape. We had to squat to descend and to climb back up into the secondary chamber. If you're claustrophobic, it's no place you want to be. I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other and not looking ahead to the fact that I was surrounded by billions of tons of stone, no windows, and no air. In only a 4' x 4' shaft. When we arrived in the center, we were the only ones in the burial chamber. The construction is magnificent. It's so fine, that you can't even fit a piece of paper between  the stones. You really get an appreciation for 4600 year old construction. There's picture of me hugging the pyramid.

Seeing all this in person... it's hard to describe. It's hard to take in and really feel all of it. It's so grand and historic that it was really hard to wrap my brain around it all, even being inside. Hell, at that point I was just concentrating on breathing and not freaking out. But at the same time, it was cool to be inside of the only standing wonder of  the ancient world. I started to panic before we went in, but knew if I backed out that I'd forever regret it. So I pulled my visor down over my eyes and only stared at my feet on the way in. If I looked up, I'd get claustrophobia. It's a tight squeeze, especially with two-way traffic coming and going inside. At least we beat the crowds. I pretty much had to squat and walk. Some people descended backwards. Think of doing the "crab walk" in gym class, that was about it. Or bent completely in half and then some.

We saw a 4600 year old cedar boat that was recovered from alongside Khufu's pyramid. The wood is in almost perfect shape. The boat is massive. Google "solar boat museum" for info.  Then we went down to the Sphinx. It's smaller than I had thought, but the view is like a postcard. The floors of the temple around it are of alabaster!  As we descended from the pyramid plateau into lower ground where the Sphinx was, we were coming from behind it, around its north side, then pulling around to the front.  I kept my eyes fixed on the Sphinx for just those few minutes. As we drove around front, I gazed upon the face for the first time, and peculiar, eerie feeling enveloped me.  Deja vu.  I felt as though I knew this place, as though I had been here before.  It was an overwhelming sense of familiarity that I had never experienced.  Had I been here before?  Why was this so familiar?  Why only the Sphinx?  Why had I not felt this way when I first saw the Pyramids of which I had numerous dreams in my life?  Why now?  We could get existential here and think perhaps I really was there when it was first built.  Maybe, we'll never know.  But the Sphinx's magic captured me.
Solar Boat
It's a shame, though, the city of Giza/Cairo is built right up to the Sphinx. Step out of the temple complex, and you're staring at a Pizza Hut and KFC not 1000 yards away. Grafitti everywhere from as early as last week. Damn shame. Our guide even yelled at a "guard" at the step pyramid because there was new grafitti. Where is the conservation and protection here? It's a shame. The city just sprouts around the monuments, and they build over farmland and even into the desert, alongside the Pyramids. We came to learn that there is no sense of urban planning or government controls over urban sprawl.

We had lunch at the Mena House Oberoi. It used to be a vacation palace (and former hunting palace), built in 1896. It's about 2000 yards from the base of Khufu. Such an amazing hotel. I ate what I could, despite my condition. Tea, salad, rice.  Looking back, what was I thinking?  The Oberoi is an Indian-owned luxury hotel chain.  Here was some fine Indian food, and I didn't eat it.  I had barely had any Indian food in my life.  Next to that, I had salad.  Again, what was I thinking?  I was already battling Mummy Tummy and here I was eating produce that was rinsed in local water.  I have learned my lesson since, and haven't had any g/i issues in Dubai, Thailand, or Cambodia, if I follow 4 basic food rules: only eat it if it's boiled, peeled, sealed, or cooked.

Interestingly, despite the overwhelming poverty here, everyone seems to have a job or task or a place to go, even farmers. There really aren't any beggars in the streets. Farmers ride donkey carts into Cairo to sell their veggies and fruits in the streets (which it's a pain to get stuck behind a donkey or ox cart).

The western desert is breathtakingly beautiful. Miles of sand stretching to Libya. Just sand and sky. They have funny-looking ants here. Larger, almost look like mini scorpions. People try to peddle their wares (statues, pyramids, little gifts and trinkets), but a simple "le" and they leave you alone.

It's still Ramadan, but it hasn't hindered our tour any. Our guide does not eat with us - normally he would. He retires to another room to fit in a prayer. The restaurants are basically empty during the day save for Westerners dining.  Tomorrow we board an early flight to Aswan then to Abu Simbel, then back to Aswan where we pick up our 5-day cruise. I sure hope this Mummy Tummy passes soon. Luckily it hasn't completely crippled me, but it isn't cozy.
Mena House Oberoi

We watched football on tv last night! Yes, it was 10pm and showing live, where it was about 2pm Chicago time. Got to watch the Dolphins game, then luckily it switched over to the Colts/Jets so I could catch the
last quarter. Did the Bears play? I didn't stay up late enough to know.

Egypt Travelogue: Tahrir Square, Museum - 1 Oct 2006

We just returned from the Egyptian Museum, located on the north end of Tahrir Square, site of the main democratic protests in Cairo. They have a fraction of artifacts on "display" compared to what's stashed in their basement. I use the term "display" loosely. As much as they had, and the amazing Tut exhibit, the museum is so old - almost 100 years old, and still all the original display cases. There is so much stuff that it's just piled in corners, stashed behind other exhibits, everything just stacked and lying about with no descriptions and in most cases, not even any ropes, barriers, or glass encasements to keep people from touching them. What used to be pink granite and cedar sarcophagi are now tarnished black from decades of people touching them. Our guide took it upon himself to shoo people that were touching artifacts. It's so very sad. The government plans to build a new larger museum out by the Pyramids. I hope it happens soon. These artifacts in their current museum have no real climate or environmental control. The museum has no a/c.

As of 2011, the museum in Giza still isn't complete.  Like most any government project in Egypt, it's all talk and no action.  There have been discussions of the museum opening this year or next, but so far it hasn't happened.  The need for the new modern museum in Giza is more important than ever since thugs broke into the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square and damaged artifacts.  The current museum has no security or environmental controls.  The collection is in a dangerous state.

On the other hand, we did get to see the mummies. It's amazing to gaze down on what might have possibly been the face that spoke to Moses. Ramses II, Seti I, Tutmoses II and III, etc. So incredibly well-preserved. These were the only air-conditioned rooms, very small. The Tut exhibit was amazing. We saw his throne, the golden mask, and the 4 massive encasements that held his sarcophagi. They're so large that they were assembled inside his tomb. The scale of the artifacts is stunning. The gold is blinding. You know what's funny, though... that in some places, there's just a picture of an artifact. Beneath it reads "artifact is traveling abroad." Ha! That's because it's on tour in Chicago!  It was neat to see the Tut exhibit at the Field Museum then to come here and see where it fits in with the overall collection. If only you could be here to see it all, though. I was also excited to see the actual palette of Narmer (of which I have a replica), and the only existing statue/image of Khufu! Such a small thing 2.5" tall for such a large pyramid that he built.

Having a personal guide is worth its weight in gold. He greased a few palms and we slipped past guards, never stood in a line, and got the personal attention at the museum so we didn't have to crane our necks to see or hear anything. He's very well-educated and a really nice guy. Tomorrow he takes us out to Saqqara, Memphis, and the Pyramids and Sphinx. I asked him if we get to go into a pyramid. He said, "sure." I asked which one. He said, "Which one do you want?" We leave bright and early at 7am to beat the heat and crowds. 

This trip was the first time I had ventured so far from North America, across the ocean.   I had never been in a country where I did not speak some of the local language and be able to find my bearings.  Also, since this was my dream trip of a lifetime, I wanted to "go big".  A private guide, driver, coordinator, a corner suite at the Four Seasons, a beautiful Nile river cruise, upgraded flights; it was perfect.  It was great to have such personal service and someone to guide us through the chaos that is Cairo.  

However, after traveling independently in other countries, I much prefer being on my own without a guide.  In some ways, I feel as thought I missed out on the real Cairo.  We were sheltered.  We ate in the finest Cairene restaurants, but I wanted to pop a squat on a sidewalk and nosh on some fuul.  I wanted to explore alleys, side streets, and markets.  I wanted to interact more with locals.  I wanted to wander into a neighborhood mosque.  I like figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B, relying on a few words in the local language, a map, a compass, a guidebook, and sheer instinct.  I feel as through travel in foreign lands is the ultimate test of survival.  Strip away the internet, cell phones, computers, and the ability to communicate, and we're left with raw instinct, intuition, logic, and luck.  I plan on returning to Egypt soon, and next time, I want to fly solo (and/or with friends, of course).  Now that I have a feel for the country and rudimentary Arabic skills, I want to tackle it on my own... and probably to the dismay and fear of my parents.  But I would think by now they'd know that I can make my own way in the big wide world.

Did you ever wonder why Chicago cab drivers drive the way they do? Because they're probably all Egyptian! There are no traffic lights here. You drive your car wherever there's a space on the road. Want to get on the
bus? Run and jump on when it passes. Sometimes it doesn't stop. Want to cross the street? Just close your eyes and walk into traffic. Oddly enough, we hadn't seen any accidents (yet). Waiting for a taxi? Stand in the
street, literally. It's insane. The only American car we saw in 3 days was the only car we saw broken down in the middle of rush-hour traffic. We had a good chuckle.

Day 3 and no sign of Mummy Tummy. *Thumbs up* Coca-cola tastes just the same, except written like "kookah-koole" in Arabic. Jet lag has set in. This morning I was up before sunrise. I saw a man in a rowboat on the river doing ablutions ("wudhu") then the first prayer. We had come to see that when it was time for prayer, it was time for prayer, no matter where someone was.  We saw a soldier step out of his truck, place a prayer rug on the sidewalk, and pray. The sentry outside the French Embassy next door never moved for 3 hours. The Russian Embassy looks like Fort Knox. The President's palace is really damn nice. This is the same Presidential palace in Heliopolis (between Cairo and the airport) that the protesters have discussed marching to from Tahrir Square.  Anwar Sadat's widow's palace is really nice, too, I think she has made it into a museum. 

About security: I feel no fear here. I don't feel at risk or like there's unrest. It's just a lot of people going about their own business, taking time to laugh, shop, work, and pray. There are no demonstrations, no fights, no unrest. They're so nice here it's hard to imagine why anyone would want to cause trouble.

Wow, aren't those ironic words.  Little did we know that 4.5 years later we'd see a democratic uprising in Egypt, right on the very ground on which we walked.  Re-reading this, I was so naive back then.  Up to 2006, I had only studied Ancient Egyptian history up to Greek rule under the Ptolemys.  I had no idea what was going on in Egypt, the political climate, or the opinions of the populace.  We had a superficial discussion w/ our guide about President Mubarak, and he said that the President wasn't very popular at all.  In fact, he was widely disliked.  This trip had opened my eyes and had given me a new appreciation for the modern Egypt.  When I returned to Chicago was when I started a new study of modern history and politics of the modern Middle East and Islam.  I believed that what I saw and experienced, I wanted to bring back to the US, learn more, and talk to other Americans to help shatter stereotypes and blanket judgments.

Egypt Travelogue: Cairo - 30 Sep 2006

It's almost 10pm. We're settling in for the evening. We went for a 1.5 hour walk up the Nile corniche, across bridge to Roda Island, and back again. EVERYONE is out on the street. couples, friends, men and women alike walking arm-in-arm. It seems much more relaxed and friendly than any city in the US. As much as we try to blend in, someone yelled to us from a passing car "Welcome to Egypt!!". Lots of people are out standing on the bridge (at night) just talking, there are random chairs out there for you to sit, people are fishing, playing cards, talking, smoking (everyone smokes), laughing, strolling... there are xmas-like lights up
everywhere and Ramadan lanterns hanging from every entryway. Nile cruises up and down the river filled with people partying. We passed a gorgeous mosque with the wonderful sound of what I believe is a prayer
coming from the loudspeakers. I came to learn that during Ramadan, after breaking the fast at sunset, people spend the evenings visiting friends and family, and going out into the city for parties and socializing.  We did hear the call to prayer, the athan, which was the final prayer of the day.

I love it here. I feel so comfortable. It's just so warm and friendly. Tonight we had dinner just after sunset. It's called the Ramadan iftar dinner. So much good food... hummus, taboulleh, babaganoush, dolmeh, veal, and lots of stuff I've never heard of. We had some sort of traditional Egyptian dessert (om ali) that was like a milky almond pastry soupy thingy. I've just taken to tea since I know the water's been boiled. Day 2 and no sign of Mummy Tummy.

Question: Tow are Cairo and Chicago alike?
Answer: The cabs slow down and beep at you to get your attention if you want a ride.

We were surprised, we thought as foreigners that we'd be bombarded by beggars or people trying to sell us stuff. nothing of the like. We're left alone or welcomed as guests. Occasionally an "ahlan" (hello) as we pass. There are no whistles at women or jeers. It's so nice to see people so affectionate and friendly with each other. So many stereotypes of the Middle East that we wouldn't be welcomed as Americans, or that women weren't respected.  From what we experienced, these illusions were just that - illusions.  We were guests in their country and treated with the famous Arab hospitality. We were often randomly welcomed and greeted, and felt very comfortable.

Egypt Travelogue: Cairo - 29 Sep 2006

As I re-post this Travelogue from 2006, note that my 2011 comments are in italics in each blog entry.

We arrived safely with no issues. We went out for a walk this morning alone the Nile.  It's so beautiful here. I'm in love. The hustle and bustle, the people are so nice, I could go on.  Our room was upgraded, so we have a corner suite - one way faces the Nile and the rest of Cairo, and the other corner, when I threw the
The Nile River, facing East
curtains open at first daylight today and looked southwest - I saw the Pyramids! A view from our room!!! I'm so glad I brought some binoculars, too. They're just beautiful. a few miles away, but still massive in stature.

When we landed in Cairo last night, as soon as we touched down on the
runway, I broke into crying sobs. I can't believe I'm here. Obviously, some things are very different. Different clothing, language, armed guards everywhere, but everyone seems so warm and nice, smiling, and
the hotel staff is amazingly nice.  I'm trying to use what little Arabic I know - enough for formalities and making change at the bank.

The Pyramids in the distance
I got a no-no finger way from the police when I tried to take a picture of a donkey cart when we were on a bridge. Note to self: no photo-taking of or on a bridge. The young women here wear blue jeans, or camo pants, cute tops, much like Americans, except maybe a long-sleeved fitted shirt beneath, and hijab.

Not quite as many beggars here as in Chicago. I've been pestered more in front of my own house than I have here! It's as clean as, well, maybe on the same level as NYC. But it's not nearly as dirty, crowded, or crazy
No-No picture from the bridge
as I had imagined. Maybe because we haven't been into central Cairo yet - we will tomorrow.  And was I wrong... central Cairo wasn't as pristine as where we stayed on the west bank of the Nile by the zoo.

The sun in shining, and frankly, it's been hotter in Chicago. It's pleasantly warm and comfortable.

Egypt Travelogue

Since I was 8 years old, my lifelong dream was to visit Egypt.  In 2006 I finally realized this dream by traveling through Abercombie & Kent.  Throughout most of the trip, I blogged on another site about the places I visited and how it changed my life.  Unfortunately, a few months after I returned, the site crashed and the Travelogue was lost.  It was only until the other day that a friend helped retrieve the data for me, as it had been recovered a few years later off the server hard drive.  I cannot thank her enough for her effort to send my Travelogue back to me.  Re-reading about initial feelings and experiences had brought a tear to my eyes.  So now, in the 5th year since the initial visit (I say "initial" because I do plan on returning, and often), and given the political climate in Egypt, now couldn't be a more perfect time for the Travelogue to find a new home on Divine Tour, and to share with you what I wrote those many years ago.

Each subsequent post to come will be separated by date, starting on 29 September 2006, and ending on 8 October 2006.  There is a gap of time in the middle where I did not blog because we were cruising the Nile from Aswan to Luxor for 5 days without internet access.  In addition, I will post the Travelogue in regular font.  As I re-read what I wrote, I will post my current thoughts in italics as commentary.  And finally, as I wasn't able to do in the original Travelogue, I am now able to supplement the story with my own pictures.

I hope you enjoy reading about the experience, as Egypt is an eternally beautiful country, from her people to her villages, I hold it near and dear to my heart.  I also hope that through these writings, you can feel the emotion, amazement, and appreciation I hold for Egypt, and perhaps it will encourage you to someday visit, if you haven't had the fortune to do so yet.