Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cairo, Take One

What you might find wandering the streets of Cairo (those are cut up plastic bags on that line).

Once we returned to Dahab, we found out that our hostel guy, Jimmy, was blowing smoke up our butts. Pessimistically, I had thought this all along based on experience and because our own research found nothing. However, Betty was leading the charge on this and I was happy to try and be optimistic. We ended up in a cab to Cairo. It was not much more than the bus and it was a lot faster so I didn't complain. We went through that great valley north of Dabah for a 4th time and right past Mount Sinai again. When we got to the west coast of the Sinai peninsula we saw a very different Sinai. You could see oil rigs in the Gulf of Suez arm of the Red Sea and the coast was lined with oil refineries. This was not the tourist side of Egypt. The final step to leaving the Sinai Peninsula was to go under the Gulf of Suez via Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel (or whatever the name of the tunnel is inside that tunnel because the first tunnel was leaking). The access points to this tunnel were the most heavily guarded part of Egypt that we saw.

Crossing the Sinai desert one last time.

An oasis in the Sinai desert.

Even though we had finally got off the peninsula, the problem was that we had no connection in Cairo to get to Luxor. Jimmy had said he was checking on the trains, but never called us back. We had to call him. He had nothing for us. The final hitch in our plan was that our driver, after flashing everyone with his high beams for two hours from the tunnel to Cairo, let us off about 3km from the train station. He fed us a line that he wasn't allowed to go all the way into the city. 3km is not far when you have a bike and you know where you are going. We had bikes. We had no idea where we were going. It was dark. We didn't speak the language. The traffic was worse that Istanbul.

This Cairo crosswalk sign shows just one small example of the crazy traffic.

As I lead the indirect charge to the train station, Betty told me that I almost got hit a few times. I didn't notice. I was just trying to focus on the road ahead. We asked for directions multiple times and got sent in every which way. When we finally found the train station, we found out there were no trains for that night. The holiday feast of Eid was still going on. We went to the bus station and got the same story. Trying to find the bus station was great because it has an Egyptian name, but our guide book and the tourist signs in Cairo call it the Cairo Gateway instead.

Egyptian bicycles all have the double horizontal crossbar.

Outside of almost being run over, the most interesting site that night was watching a horse act up on the road about a block from the bus station. It had a cart. It backed up and spilled the cart. Then, it started to pull forward into traffic. It was weird to see livestock in such a larger city, but it was only the very start of what we were about to see. I'm not sure if it is always this way or if there was only so much livestock in the city for the holiday feast of Eid al-Adha. Greater Eid requires each family kill an animal to eat and share, usually a ram.

Of course, there is a herd of sheep in a major city.

So, despite our best efforts to get out of Cairo, we were going to be spending the night and an entire day there. We would catch an overnight bus to Luxor the next night. Everyone I talked to, that knows me well, said I would hate Cairo. I decided to trust them and not plan to spend much time there so it was a little bit frustrating to be spending an extra day there. However, we made the most of it.

This typical scene makes me question my stereotype that the Middle East has water shortage.

First up, we signed up for some local food. We went to a random restaurant near our hostel. They were billed as a vegetarian restaurant. It was late and they had run out of a lot of their food, so they only had two vegetarian entrees left. Betty ordered one. I ordered an appetizer. When the food came out, Betty received the entree she did not order. She said she ordered the other one. Our waiter said that was impossible because there was only one available. This is the same waiter who gave us two options over an hour earlier. Did I mention the service was incredibly slow? The quality service followed us back to our hostel where we had been told we would have 24 Internet access. When I woke up at 4am, I wanted to kill some time until Betty woke up. The Internet was not working. In fact, the computer was not working. I touched it and felt an electrical current going through me. I don't think that problem happened overnight. So many of the businessman seem incredibly hospitable. They will say anything they think you want to hear. I used to think it was a language barrier, but more and more I think it is a choice because there are very few repercussions from tourists who are always on the move to the next stop and don't want to waste time arguing.

Slaughtering sheep on the street.

Weighing the sheep.

I have never seen these fat-tailed sheep before.

The next day, we continued to try and make the most of it. We headed over to the Islamic Quarter. I wanted Betty to experience the bazaar and a couple mosques. She had not been in any yet and it is definitely part of the Middle Eastern experience. On the way over, we got to see what I can only guess is an impromptu slaughter house on the street because of the number of animals needed for Eid.

This might be the shoe quarter of Cairo.

Pick a bike, any bike.

Fireworks area of the locals market.

After that, we headed for Khan al-Khalili, the grand bazaar. I think this bazaar is mainly for tourists so it was lucky that on the way over, we ran into a few other bazaars that, I believe, were directed towards locals. They had everyday supplies instead of souvenirs. They didn't hassle us as much either. It was unbelievably crowded, even on a week day.

A Khan al-Khalili shop owner trying to make a sale.

A random street in Khan al-Khalili.

A bakery in Khan al-Khalili.

After wandering around a bit, we did find Khan al-Khalili. It was early enough that we were able to look around without getting harassed too much either. That was nice. After exploring and getting lost, we stopped for some chai at a 200 year old traditional coffeehouse. I'm not sure what that really means, but it there were people smoking sheesha, as always.

Shoe shiner trying to make a sale in the Khan al-Khalili

Fishawa coffee shop in Khan al-Khalili.

From the coffee shop, we wandered back into the Khan al-Khalili and through the Islamic Quarter to find the garlic and onion market. I wanted to see it because I couldn't conceive of an entire market dedicated to them. While we weren't finding it, we stopped in the most amazing mosque I have seen yet, the Al Hakim mosque. It was so beautiful and serene.

Al Hakim Mosque courtyard.

Al Hakim Mosque columns.

Islamic Cairo was my favorite part of the city. It was a little bit quieter because some of the streets were too narrow for honking cars to drive on. Of course, that just meant all the people were pushed together tighter instead. I'm not sure why the area is called Islamic Cairo. All of Cairo is Islamic. It might have to do with the high concentration of mosques in the area. I remember six, but I think one guide book said there are ten. In the City of 1,000 Minarets, I'm not sure if this is actually a lot of mosques for a small area. There is a lot and these are some of the grandest. One of them, Al-Azhar, claims to be the oldest university in the world, built in 970AD. Western definitions of university, not surprisingly, rule out Al-Azhar. The University of Nalanda in India is older, but was destroyed and rebuilt. There is also a university in Fez, Morroco that makes a claim back to 659 AD. Who knows. They are all old.

Bab El-Futuh (Gate of Conquest), a northern gate of the Old City, now the northern boundary of the Islamic Quarter.

Al Aqmar mosque

Islamic Quarter street.

When we finally left the Islamic Quarter, we headed for the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. I am not normally a museum guy, but this one did the trick. They had a ton of stuff from old temples and looted tombs. It was great to see so much old stuff preserved. However, Betty also pointed out how poorly it was protected. A lot of the stuff was out where anyone could touch it. Other stuff was just in a glass box. Maybe since it has lasted 4,000 years, they aren't worried about it suddenly falling apart. One of the most curious exhibits was a small section with curvy statues that had a more sexual presence. Most Pharaoh statues aren't as close to regular human form.

The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities (photo by Sailing Tours, because you are not allowed to take pictures in the museum and I actually obeyed.)

When we left the museum, we went looking for a koshary restaurant. Apparently, koshary restaurants only serve koshary and it is supposed to be a great vegetarian dish. On our way to find it, we asked directions. A guy insisted on walking with us a bit, which is always a bad sign. It usually means he is about to try to sell us something. He showed us his cab and told us that if we need a ride, we should come see him. I thought we were in the clear, but then he followed us a little farther. On the way to the koshary, he showed us where his shop was. Betty poked into another store and I was left alone with the guy. I wanted to wait on the street for her, but he forcibly pulled me into his shop by surprise. My anger rose. As soon as we were through the door though he let go, which was a good thing because I was just about to respond physically to get him to let go. That isn't my normal response, but the Middle East has been wearing my patience down and him grabbing me like that had put me over the edge. Somehow, I thanked him for guiding us part of the way to the koshary and left. He started whining, but I didn't hear him. I needed to leave.


We finally got to the koshary. Koshary is a great way to fill your belly. It won't be your best meal. It won't be your most nutritious meal, but it will be fast and it will be filling. At the restaurant, the only thing they make is koshary so you just tell them a size and they fill you up. They fill you up with short spaghetti looking noodles, brown rice, macaroni, fried onions, lentils, and chickpeas. You can top if with vinegar or a spicy tomato sauce. This became our go to meal for a couple days when we were looking for something quick.

Burqa mannequins with what might be every variation of the burqa.

Angry mannequins (photo by B. Cremmins).

After dinner, we wandered back to pick up our bikes out of storage at the hostel. We biked up our street which was a major shopping area with some crazy store displays for the last time. Then, it was back into the thick of traffic for our crazed ride back to the bus station. It was a lot easier this time at dusk and having been there once, but it was still pretty crazy. When we got there, our bus driver said nothing to us, which was fine. However, some other guys came by to ask about where we were going with our bikes. They were driving other buses and were just curious, but their questions made me think they were driving our bus. Only when our bus driver finally came over and made a stink about the bike did we realize our mistake. Luckily, one of those earlier guys was able to act as a middle man and we got our bikes on the bus to head down to Luxor.

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