Saturday, 22 November 2008

Egypt 11.14.08-11.21.08

I spent most the week with a pen in hand and camera within reach, in fear that I would miss something of the peculiarities, differences, and beauties of Egypt.

Every night before I went to sleep, I wrote down all the sights and sounds I could remember from that day. So here you have a compilation of all my random moments throughout the trip, documented each day, which I hope will provide you a glimpse into the fast pace and friendly faces, along with the unusual hustle and bustle of Egypt.

11.14.08 ….day one…. (buses and taxis)

Welcome to Egypt. First impression: don’t tell me that this whole country is devoid of toilet paper and soap!! However, we came to find out it is. Let’s just say hand sanitizer becomes your best friend and you carry toilet paper with you everywhere!!

Today we arrived at the border, went through the most unofficial of entrances, bartered for a taxi, and winded our way past the Red Sea and through the Sinai Peninsula. As we were driving the sun began to set in all its golden glory which was even more glorious as it sunk behind the jagged mountains of the dusty, sand-swept Sinai.

We quickly discovered that we weren’t the only ones on the road. We passed a few herds (or groups, or families, or schools, or flocks, or whatever the word is. you know what I mean, nevertheless!!) of camels. These awesome but awkward animals stumbled around the freeway as our fearless taxi driver maneuvered his way around and through them. Darkness set in fast and the moon appeared big, round, and orange, orange like a pumpkin in the black sky. It was a full moon and massive at that. I have never seen the likes of it before. It was spectacular.

We continued snaking our way around the corners and holding onto our stomachs as we plummeted down and soared up over the abrupt terrain. The windows were down. Our hair was blowing all over the place. And the driver was blaring Arabic radio most of the way. Along the way the driver made constant road-side stops and we had our passports checked multiple times.

We finally arrived in Cairo close to midnight and found a youth hostel to stay in. Sun Hostel. 25 Egyptian pounds a night. Folks, that’s about $5. Now is that a deal or is that a deal?? However, as you can assume from the cost, it was pretty basic. By that I mean community bathrooms, no toilet paper, no towels, and sheets that had their fair share of use. But hey, 5 bucks!! We just tried not to think about whether or not the sheets had been washed (ever?) or if we were sharing our pillow with lice.

I fell asleep tonight to the hustle and bustle of the roads of Cairo.

11.15.08 ….day two…. (pyramids, camels, and mummies, oh my!!)

There was a heavy haze in the air today. I assume it’s the pollution, no doubt from the crowded roads of this crowded city.

We took the metro this morning. All of us girls in the group wore our headscarves, in an attempt to blend in. Still though we were the object of many a stare. Big brown eyes glared at us wherever we went.

I saw my first (and probably last) pyramids today. They are just like the photos. Large and triangular, placed randomly, standing tall on the sand. They aren’t just any ole sand castles though. You wonder as you look at them how they were constructed and how they have lasted all these thousands of years. It really is quite incredible. And as my friend Mayra and I were walking around these magnificent monuments of history, we were stopped by young Muslim girls for a photo shoot every few yards. “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “Will you take photo with us?”, they ask. It was quite adorable. I tell you, we are famous here. Before we knew it we were surrounded by a sea of brightly coloured headscarves and ready cameras. Just because you have blue eyes makes you an automatic photo target here. But we didn’t mind. Actually, we loved the opportunities we had to exchange a few words with these young girls. We at least smiled in the same language. And then we were bombarded by a long procession of kisses on both cheeks, as they said “thank you, thank you.” We returned the kisses and replied in our best Egyptian accent “Shukran” which means thank you.

I also rode my first (and probably last) camel today. It stooped awkwardly to my level and I got on, behind a Bedouin man. I tried to do so gracefully but couldn’t, and felt a bit ridiculous as I could barely do so in pants, and he was in a long dress. But hey, he’s had more practice than me, right? So, after finally mounting this awkward, lanky legged creature, I enjoyed a ride around the pyramids. I bumped back and forth and up and down. But what an experience!! And to complete the entire Egyptian experience, we topped the day off with a trip to Cairo Museum. Elaborate tombs, artifacts galore, intricate jewelry, and…. drum roll please for the main attraction: mummies!!!! We saw about a dozen, the coolest one being: Hatshepsut, the woman supposed to have raised Moses after saving him out of his basket in the river. We spent three hours wandering the endless hallways of this museum. So much history preserved and displayed within these walls, that one could get lost for hours, imagining the life and lives of ancient Egypt.

Tonight, after all our adventures, we decided to get a flavour of the city, best done by walking through the city streets. So we did. We braved the crowds of people and dared to cross streets, which can be a life-threatening activity here in Egypt. During this walk, as I watched and listened to the impatient cars, honking loudly and often, I created what I believe to be an Egyptian driver’s test. And here you have it:

  1. How often should you sound your horn? (As often as possible.)
  2. Is there such a thing as lanes? (No!!)
  3. When a turn seems near impossible and space is limited, what should you do? (Turn anyways!!)
  4. When should you stop? (Never!!)
  5. Who has right of road? The pedestrian or the car? (The car, always!!)
  6. What is the speed limit? (Whatever you decide it to be!!)
  7. Is there a limit to the amount of passengers in your car or taxi? (Of course not!! Pile them in!!)

On our walk, we also met a pick-pocket. He was a lovely wee lad; even helping us bewildered tourists make it across the street alive and in one piece. We chatted with him a bit, in his limited English. You know, the basic conversation, exchanging names and ages. Later on though, we caught him out of the corner of our eye reach into a man’s pocket and take his wallet. The crime committed, he jetted off. No wonder he was so friendly to us. It’s a pity though, to see a little kid so desperate like that.

We stayed tonight again at Sun Hostel. 9th floor. Our window was broken and so we were left to hear the cars talk to each other all night. I don’t think this city ever sleeps and I didn’t know if I would be able to either. I was dead tired but looking forward to the adventures in store the rest the week. Both the commotion outside and my thoughts inside kept me up for a while.

11.16.08 ….day three….

Today I wore a blue headscarf (one that I bartered for) and have officially decided that I like wearing headscarves. It solves a bad hair day any day, instantly!! haha.

Up early this morning but enjoyed a rushed cuppa tea at the train station, which was as you imagine all train stations to be: big and busy. This one had high ceilings, blue rimmed and rusty. Busy business men walked hurriedly by. And the woman were all dressed in their traditional wear, some in the traditional black with their piercing almond eyes peaking and peering through the slits, while others were dressed in all sorts of wonderful scarves, silky and colourful.

We boarded the train at 9:00 and settled in for a few hours trip. I listened to the rattling and rolling of the wheels and watched the world speed by my window. My eyes were heavy but too curious too close. I saw loads of old deserted brick buildings, hundreds of flats with floors stacked one on top of another stories high, distressed shutters all sorts of colours, clothes draped over the balconies being blown dry by a faint wind, boxy cars, rickety old motorbikes, turbaned men, women balancing barrels on their head, horse-drawn carts, litter everywhere, ripped remains of posters pasted on cement walls, mosques, overgrown dried grass, green vegetation, Arabic graffiti, stubborn and scattered cattle, the Nile River, and people working, picking, tending the land. I saw poverty. I saw extravagance. I noticed people walk everywhere, either that, or they pile as many people as humanly possible into cars or on top of motorbikes. Women sometimes walk hand in hand and men often walk arm in arm. I feel as though I am just beginning to get a taste of the peculiar flavour of this country and its cities. It’s only a country away from Israel, but o so different.

We reached our destination right around lunch time. Alexandria!! We saw the Roman catacombs which were interesting and eerie. We also saw Pompei’s pillar which stands tall and terrific. And then we headed to Qaitbey Fort which was gorgeous. We explored its many hallways and rooms, and then sat on rocks by the Mediterranean to watch the sun sink into the water. Our feet dangled over the edge of the rocks and we breathed in deep the ocean air. It was a bit cloudy so that a slight a gold glimmer sparkled on the calm waves. And there was an empty wooden canoe bobbing back and forth on the waves. It was picturesque.

As if the day hadn’t been busy enough, we headed to a local mall for dinner, followed by chocolate ice-cream, not to mention a few Galaxy chocolate bars. I was in heaven as far as I was concerned. Can’t get enough chocolate!!

We then caught a bus back to Cairo and once there headed to the train station, again. It was 3 AM by this point. We sat on our luggage in the middle of the somewhat empty train station, waiting to hear if there were tickets still available for Luxor. The lights were brighter than usual and harsh on our exhausted eyes. Come to find out that there were no train tickets available till the next morning and so we were escorted by a policeman to the nearest hostel. We had the luxury of toilet paper here but had to brave a cold shower. Finally crawled into bed around 4 AM only to catch a nap before boarding the train to Luxor at 8:00 AM sharp. What a day. What a night!!

11.17.08 ….day four ….

Today entailed a ten hour train ride from Cairo to Luxor. I sat across from a man with leathery worn skin, stained by many years of the hot Egypt sun. he was wearing a forest green dress from neck to toe and a small white turban on his head. His hands were clasped, resting on his stomach. He spat on the floor of the train a few times and smeared it in with his shoe. Two Muslim women sat diagonally behind me. they were in all black, head to toe. All that was visible were their eyes, peering through the tiny black slits in their head-dress. One dozes off and begins to snore. I glance back, meet eyes with the awake woman, smile, and laugh a little at the loud snores. Her eyes told me that she was laughing too. By now, you’d think I’d be tired enough to sleep, but my curiosity to watch these people who are watching me keeps me awake. That and their cell phones went off every few minutes, blaring something in Arabic for a ringtone. I heard Arabic chatter all around me as I watch the green land roll by, alongside the Nile. It really is the longest river in the world. We were alongside it for those ten hours in the train. Newspaper boys went up and down the aisles of the train, yelling the price I assume. Every hour or so a man would walk by saying “Chai or cafĂ©?” I had a cuppa tea, or two.

We finally arrived at Luxor as the sun was beginning to set. After a day of only eating dried fruit, for that’s all we had in our back-packs, we were craving a Big Mac!! So yes, we decided on McDonalds for a late dinner. Typical tourists, I know, but we needed some American food after a long Egyptian day.

Afterwards, we roamed the streets of Luxor. The shop-owners were relentless and so we had to barter more stubbornly than all the times before. But I ended up getting a pair of red flats for 50 Egyptian pound. That’s $10 people!!

We then went to our hotel, which I would rate 5 star!! Toilet paper, soap, AND hot water!! Now we’re talkin’ luxurious!! The owner of the hotel was a man called Nasser. He was great. He spoke decent English, made us laugh, told us stories, and offered us bananas. Our room was painted a cheery lemon yellow. The floor was tiled teal. There was a red rug and green floral bedding. The pillow slips and sheets appeared clean, for once, and there was a tiny oak wardrobe and vanity. All to say it was enchanting. Not to mention we were a few stories up with a small balcony. Below us were men playing checkers and smoking hookah. It was near midnight. The music was blaring and the night had only begun for these men. I was tired enough nevertheless to fall asleep to the lullaby of Egyptian night-life.

11.18.08 …. day five ….

We had a roll with jam, a boiled egg, and another banana for breakfast and caught the 7 AM bus. We first headed to the Valley of the Kings, where many Egyptian kings were buried. We went deep into the ground, into these tombs. The engravings were intricate and colourful and the walls were covered in hieroglyphics. Funny to think we saw the king’s body mummified in Cairo and then their tomb in Luxor. Usually the two aren’t separated. After this we went to Hatshepsut’s (remember, the woman who saved and raised Moses) temple. And then caught another taxi to Karnek Temple, which was incredible. It was as massive as could be. The pillars were intimidating, as there were over 100 still standing, which only whisper the grandeur of what this temple would have once been. Ancient stone statues and gods were everywhere.

By now we were starving. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast and so we had the taxi driver drop us of at this little restaurant, a ‘hole in the wall’ type of place. We had rice and chicken smothered in sauces, with a mango concoction to wash it all down. Our stomachs now satisfied, we hit the streets again for some more shopping. I really think I’m getting the hang of this whole bartering thing. I bartered a scarf down from 95 LE to 25 LE. Now that’s some pretty darn good bartering, if I do say so myself!!

We then took a stroll through Luxor Temple and went back to the lovely hostel and to our friend Nassar. He said we could chill on the roof-top till our train departure. So, we did. The night air was cool and the city lights lit up the dark. We met fellow travelers, two guys from New York. So we chatted with them for about two hours and exchanged our experiences. We also talked about life and what we believe about this world, life now and life after. It was a sad reminder that most people in this world deny, ignore, or belittle the existence of God. We told them about Hope and parted with them, only praying that God would open their blind eyes to His truth.

We then went to the train station and settled in for another trip through the night.

11.19.08 ….day six ….

I had a restless night aboard the train but slept some nonetheless. I ate a half a roll for breakfast and gulped down leftover water from the previous day. We got off the train only to get on a bus for 7 more hours. I was exhausted of traveling by this point but I just kept telling myself it was all part of the experience.

We arrived in the Sinai Peninsula by nightfall and stayed at the first hotel we spotted. I literally fell into bed and didn’t wake up until nine o clock the next morning. I woke up to a crisp blue sky spotted with scattered white clouds. The mountains were standing gold against the sky. I took a photo in my mind, to have forever.

Mid-afternoon we hopped on probably our 50th bus. Onward to Nuweba, a beach along the Red Sea. We sat by the seaside and talked. I also went rock collecting along the shore. There were all sorts of colourful rocks, all shapes and sizes.

We then stayed in huts, yards away from the water. We slept under a large canopy mosquito net and luckily woke up the next morning alive. The bed bugs didn’t eat us.

11.20.08 ….day seven ….

7:30 AM bus to the border. 10:00 AM bus to Jerusalem. Caught a taxi 3:00 PM to Moshav YadHaShmonah. Home sweet home.

So it was a full week as you can read. A week full of experiences and adventures. Walking and waiting. Taxis and trains. Sights and sounds. Fun and firsts. Smoke and sun. People and pyramids. Museums and mummies. Camels and Cairo. Bartering and buses. Driving and dodging. Late nights and early mornings. All the while, trying to store it all away in my memory, realizing I’d probably never be back again.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

Once again I am regretting not taking advantage of this opportunity when I was at Master's. Perhaps one day we will be able to visit the ancient lands as a family and share the experience with our boys.

Guess what, Miss Angela - we are having another baby! Our 5th BOY! :o)

I loved this entry and felt like I could see what you saw ... heard what you heard. Is your major English/Journalism by any chance?

Enjoy your last few weeks and keep soaking it all in. And I will be in the FRONT ROW when you do your slideshow presentation when you come home! hee hee