Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Intro to Cairo

Posted by Melissa

Our ship made an overnight stop in Alexandria to allow us time to visit Cairo. A small group of us booked a private tour through Ramses Tours. This was a great option as we had our own private Egyptologist with our little group of eight instead of being on a big bus of 40 people. If any of you are considering a trip to Egypt, I highly recommend Ramses. Their prices are great (much lower than the large group tour through the cruise company) and our guide, Mohamed, had a master's degree in Egyptian studies.

This was our first time in Egypt, and furthermore, our first visit to an Islamic country. We do not usually chose to go on group tours, but I am so glad that we did. The traffic was intense and the sights were as well. First impressions include the overwhelmingly drab appearance of most of the buildings in both Alexandria and Cairo.

I'm sure there are prettier sections of these cities, but what we saw from the main roads was pretty bleak.

As we traveled out of town and through the country side, we were reminded of the area around Indio or Cabezon in southern California as far as vegetation and terrain. Most of the buildings were saw appeared to be unfinished shells, just concrete block with no windows or doors. Buildings that appear to be somewhat finished frequently had an unfinished upper floor. We also saw lots of ramshackle, almost lean to style buildings that appear to have been made of scavenged materials, much like some of the poor sections of Mexico.

We also noted the majority of women wore extremely conservative clothing. We saw lots of stores like this in Alexandria and Cairo. The women in the foreground is wearing a typical hijab.

We also saw lots of little tiny lingerie stores with brightly colored and fancy undergarments.  Looks like some of these ladies are wearing some pretty extravagant items under those drab exteriors.

A couple more pics of what seemed to be typical dress for women in the area.


Our first major stop in Cairo was the The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.  This museum was NOT air conditioned, had several broken windows and poor lighting.  Again, I'll remind you that we were in 100+ temps (mid August heat wave).  The Egyptians loved to remind us that many of their original treasures are in the The British Museum.  Our guide told us that a new museum is in the works, so maybe England will return some artifacts after that is completed.  After touring this museum, I understand why some items have not been returned.  That said, the collections here are amazing!!!  Included in all that we saw were the items from King Tutankhamen.

All 4 museum pics pulled from the web
We crossed the Nile river on our way to our hotel. The water looked cool and refreshing, but I had been informed by an expert (That's you George) that the water carries dangerous parasites this time of year - so this is the closest I came.

Our visit to Egypt coincided with Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Both our guide and our driver were fasting. We enjoyed learning as much as we could about the purpose of Ramadan from these lovely, thoughtful people. I felt so bad for them though as the temp was CRAZY hot and they could not drink at all from sunrise to sunset and at the same time they were handing us bottled water and taking us to lunch.

Mohamed took us to the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, one of the world's oldest bazaars. The crowds are a bit intense as are the shop keepers, each trying to entice us into their stores. One even asked Thane "How can I take your money?" It was a bit difficult to window shop because if we stopped to look, then we had to either buy something or explain that we weren't interested in buying. I missed being able to just window shop or even walk through a store easily. The stores were generally very small, specializing in just one type of product. I would liked to have strolled around slowly and looked at more, but it was a bit too high on the intensity meter to take for very long.
Typical street in the bazaar

Another great contrast to the typical clothing of women in the area.  These fabrics and costumes were beautiful!

I like this picture because it shows the minaret of a mosque towering over the market.  We found that mosques were located every few blocks throughout the city and even out in the countryside every few miles - or less!

Another difference between our American culture and that in Egypt is our/their modes of transportation - which ranges from sleek, expensive import cars to donkey carts and hand pulled carts - even baskets on the head all sharing the same roadways.  The motor vehicles had no regard for striping which seemed so dangerous to us, but normal to our driver.  We also noted that it seemed to work very well.
Street at the edge of the bazaar
Snapped from our moving vehicle - a little blurry...
Bread baskets like this were all over, stacked on the street with flies buzzing around them.
Our tour was supposed to include a couple of the nicest Mosques in Cairo, however we found that, although usually open to visitors, they were closed to visitors due to Ramadan. Our guide told us that about 95% of the people in Cairo are devout Muslims, fasting and praying several times a day. During Ramadan the mosques are very crowded so that we were not allowed in. We took this picture from the door of the mosque at the bazaar.

One of the five pillars of Islam is Zakāt. Zakāt is a financial obligation and includes taking care of those who are less fortunate. Mohamed told us that this table is for people in need - they will be provided a meal at the end of the day, when the fast is broken.  This meal is called Iftar. As we walked past, several of these people waved at us to sit down and join them.

We found a small, local restaurant where we enjoyed a typical Egyptian meal of mixed grill (lamb and pigeon cooked over a grill, brought still sizzling to our table), hummus, falafel, babaganoush and flat bread. Mohamed told us not to look when he ate, because he was sooo hungry. He drank 2 canned sodas in just seconds. After that, he didn't actually eat too much because he was full from the soda. He told us that many Muslims stay up quite late during Ramadan so that they can eat and drink (no liquor!) - he planned to eat something later, before going to bed.
Our intrepid group at dinner (low light conditions, best shot I had)
At the end of a long, hot, intense day, we headed to our home for the night, the Mena House in Giza. This hotel was a luxury splurge for us. Their website says "This palatial hotel in the shadow of the Great Pyramids in Cairo has enchanted guests since 1869. Located in forty acres of jasmine scented gardens, Mena House Oberoi has played host to kings and emperors, Heads of State and celebrities." I don't think they were exaggerating. We felt very lucky to be able to stay there. We enjoyed a quick dip in their pool and headed off to bed. Looking forward to visiting the Pyramids and Sphinx tomorrow.
We snuck into this pool after dark for a lovely swim.
Three story chandelier in our hotel
View of the Great Pyramid from our balcony


larry1960 said...

Thanks again for sharing your trip. Great stuff.

Jane said...

Hi Melissa,
Just clicked over from your comment on my blog. Loved reading this--helps rev up the already high anticipation. Now on to your other link. Oh, we were not able to stay at the Mena House because they don't have triple rooms. But we are at the new Kempinski which looks to be really nice-not the same but nice.