Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Today we got on an early morning flight back to Cairo. At the airport we hopped in a van and began a tour through the old city of Cairo with Azza. It’s strange, we’ve been in Egypt a long time not to have seen the pyramids or anything of the city of Cairo, other than the museum we saw on the first day. Joining us was a police officer in plain clothes, and Azza casually mentioned “Oh, we always have security with us when touring the city.” This man never spoke to us, he sat on a row to himself in the van, and looked very bored.

The traffic in Cairo is just horrible. I am a nervous wreck, two cars share the same lane and pass each other so close I can see the person’s ear hair in the next car. I can’t look out the front, I’m afraid I’ll startle the driver with all my gasping, so I focus on the back of the seat or the side window, and grip the seat tight. There are so many cars and trucks, and still the occasional donkey, it’s unbelievable. Often we sit for ages in one spot before inching along, and if a free spot is seen it is grabbed, the driver floors it and we speed to the next stopping point.

The first thing we did was visit the Mohammad Ali mosque. We were surprised to be able to enter the mosque, I had read somewhere that nonbelievers were seldom allowed to go inside a mosque. This one was built to resemble the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, when the Turkish invaders were occupying Egypt and the Turkish ruler wanted a bit of home close by.

We took off our shoes and stepped onto the carpets which covered the entire floor. Globes of Venetian glass hung from the ceiling all around, filled with electric lights. There were no chairs because worshippers only kneel, and Azza explained that although women could pray from the balcony if they wanted their privacy, they were allowed to pray wherever they chose, even down near the front with the men. She also explained that Muslim women are instructed by the Quran to cover their heads and arms for modesty, she claimed there was nothing that stated they must cover their faces. There was some stained glass and decorations on the walls, but no images, only patterns.

After the mosque, we put on our shoes and went to another. This time they gave us shoe covers to wear over our shoes, and we shuffled around in our big feet. I felt like Ronald McDonald in his big red shoes. This mosque had beautiful plaster windows, each one delicately carved like snowflakes. Like a snowflake, each one was carved differently. We were able to climb the steps of the minaret, which curled up and up until our calves and thighs ached. The outside walls were very low, and we made the boys hold our hands and walk on the inside. The view from the top of Cairo was really cool, it is a huge city.

On the top of one building we saw an interesting-looking structure, bright blue on top of a gray building. We thought it might be a greenhouse or sun room, but Azza explained it was a pigeon house. People all over the city keep these pigeons, breeding them for racing, and teaching them to deliver messages. She said they were trained to return to their own home and its particular flag, and if someone wanted to steal their neighbor’s pigeon they would copy their flag so the pigeons would come to them instead.

We’ve passed many pigeon houses on this trip, many in the country. Most were round buildings with holes all along the walls. These pigeons were raised to be eaten, just like we raise chickens, pigeons are a favorite in Egypt. They are often served stuffed with olives, nuts, or a mixture of rice and vegetables. She explained that the best pigeons, the tenderest, are killed as babies, before they do much flying and toughen up. We couldn’t help but feel sorry for the pigeons, maybe because we’ve spent so much time on this trip feeding them and letting them sit on our heads.

After leaving this second mosque, we continued on to a Coptic church. We were really excited about this visit, the legend says that Mary, Joseph, and young Jesus hid in this particular church when on the run from Herod. Azza said they stayed here a couple months, hidden below in the crypt. When the Holy Family came, it had been a Greek temple that wasn’t being used, but later when it was discovered that they had hidden there, it was converted to a Coptic Christian church. The word ‘Coptic’ has the same roots as the word ‘Egypt’. Coptic Christians are Egyptian Christians who trace their roots to a visit to Egypt by St. Mark in the first century AD and they make about 15% of Egyptians. Clay read that Coptics fast for more than two hundred days a year, not eating any animals or animal products. We thought about attending a Coptic church service, but found out that services last from four to six hours, and are in Arabic or ancient Coptic.

The church was small, but appealing, decorated with garlands of flowers and shiny wooden pews to sit in. Icons of Jesus and Mary and the disciples decorated the walls, and near the crypt there was a tapestry of Jesus. A group of young teenage girls came into the room, and each one kissed and rubbed their faces on this tapestry. Our kids were mesmerized by this, they watched each girl as she did it. Several of the girls tried to strike up a conversation with Alayna, asking the few questions they knew. “What is your name? How old are you?” They were shy, giggling and smiling in place of the words they did not know. Alayna smiled right back, her eyes sparkling at this opportunity of a girl her age being near. Outside the church was an old man in a black robe, gray beard, and a large wooden cross hanging around his neck. He was a Coptic priest, and smiled and introduced himself to us with Azza’s help as translator.

He asked if we had any questions. How we would have loved to sit down and talk to this man, but on the spot, no intelligent questions came to my mind. Nate asked “Why did everyone kiss that picture of Jesus?” The priest explained that they were loving Jesus, kissing him to show their love and respect and hoping that by being near and touching this icon, they might get blessings. He smiled a friendly smile and we smiled back. My eyes lingered on his cross, we haven’t seen many of them in Egypt. On the way out I tried to buy a Coptic cross, which has twelve points representing the twelve disciples, but I grew disgusted with the saleswoman who lied and haggled in typical fashion. I didn’t feel right, haggling over a cross, and we walked away empty-handed.

We visited a synagogue, all of us pretty hungry by now. We had eaten breakfast at 7:30 that morning, and it was now 3:30 in the afternoon. The synagogue was simple, and had a sad story of how the Jewish population left at the time when Russia came in and Egypt started becoming a socialist/communist state. Many people had two choices, either let the government take their things as part of nationalization or liquidate their assets and leave the country. That’s what most Jews did, today there are very few Jews in the city. There is one synagogue, but they can only pray when there are twelve or thirteen gathered, which doesn’t always happen.

We were ready for lunch, and Azza brought us to a wonderful place. We were a little worried at first, it was in the middle of a bazaar where every souvenir we had seen over the past ten days was being sold in one place. We followed Azza down a narrow alley with shops on both sides, everyone trying to catch our eye, saying “Welcome, hello, where are you from . . .” and then you’re caught. Azza kept a steady pace and we stayed close, making our way to the restaurant without a single purchase. I noticed many men staring at me in a not-so-nice way, and for the first time I was a little self conscious about my bare arms. Most of the times I wear a jacket, but it was hot that afternoon and I’d left it in the car. I hadn’t thought there was any danger of looking too sexy in my travel clothes, but apparently the sight of my bare arm was enough to raise some interest.

Lunch/dinner was fabulous, we feasted on lentil soup, meat, the best rice I’ve ever had (it had some sort of dried fruit and almonds in it), and rice pudding for dessert. To drink we tried a blend of hibiscus juice (normally very bitter if without sugar) mixed with tamarind, which was delicious. Red and foamy, it looked like a daiquiri. After we ate, we went back down that busy street, with the same people selling the same stuff. Clay said one man called, “I know what you want,” and when Clay called, “Oh yeah, what?” he replied either “A new life” or “A new wife”. Clay wasn’t sure which and told him his was happy with both. I told him I knew I should have put on makeup that morning, the guy probably felt sorry for Clay following his ragged old wife. Clay assured me he wasn’t interested in a new life or a new wife any more than he was interested in another galabia or a head scarf.

By the time we got back to our hotel we were all so tired and stuffed we just lay around on the beds and were lazy until bedtime, which came early that night. Cairo is such a shock from the rest of the Egypt, with its traffic and noise and big buildings and people everywhere. We are thirty floors up and overlook the Nile and the city below. Across the way a TGI Friday’s blinks at us, it could be any big city from this high up, except for the muezzin call. And the minarets. Azza joked that between every two minarets in Cairo, there is another minaret. We brushed our teeth with bottled water and climbed into bed, wondering what tomorrow will hold.


Thursday, 13 December 2007

“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, some crackers and a can of easy cheese . . .”

Today we went to the pyramids at Giza. It was really exciting, getting our first glimpse of them. They are so huge and unexpected, springing up in the middle of the city. I had been warned that the pyramids weren’t so great, they were surrounded by souvenir hawkers and crowds and pushy camel ride peddlers, and the city and smog were all around. Hardly a place to experience an antiquity. Maybe it’s like a movie that’s gotten such bad reviews you have low expectations, and then are pleasantly surprised, because I thought the pyramids were pretty cool.

Azza talked about how they were built 1,500 years before the next ancient Wonder of the World came on the scene. She claims they are “the only Wonder of the World”, she is very proud of her Egypt, and perhaps she is right. The amount of work it took to make them is staggering. They built a ramp around and around to get the stones placed on top, and to do this they used as much sand as was dug out of the Suez Canal to make their ramps. The huge stones were lugged from the east side of the Nile to the West, because the sun sets on the west so that’s where bodies are buried. She claims that no slaves were used to build these wonders, that it was considered an honor and the labor came from farmers during the flood season, when they couldn’t work in their fields. It took twenty summers to build, not twenty years, because they were only constructed during the summers after the harvest. The farmers were even compensated, and considered it a privilege to work on Cheops tomb. His is the biggest pyramid at Giza. The biggest pyramid anywhere.

As we got out to take our first pictures, Clay realized he had forgotten to put the memory card in the camera and we could only take ten pictures that day using the camera’s internal memory. We composed these pictures very carefully. One of them was taken of our entire family by a nearby policeman who offered.  After taking several to get just the right one (we deleted the others) Clay offered him a tip. The policeman turned his back and held his hand out behind him for Clay to put the money in, apparently he’s not supposed to take the money but didn’t mind sneaking it.

While the outside of the pyramids was impressive, the inside wasn’t that great. We climbed down a long, low ramp, all of us hunched over double except Benji, who was able to walk the whole way upright. He gloated about this, finally finding an advantage to being little. Benji is actually going to get a complex if we aren’t careful, he’s treated like a king by everyone he encounters. They rub his head and kiss his cheeks and smile at him and talk to him. His ego grows by the day.

After climbing down the ramp, we entered a small, sterile room. No paintings on the walls, no statues, only an open marble coffin at one end, that once held the mummy. It was really humid. Then we climbed back out. I had expected passages that led different directions, and carvings and statues on the wall, some sort of treasure or indication that royalty had once rested here. All we got was a workout.

Next we visited the Solar Boat Museum, which was way more exciting than the name implies. See, the Egyptians believed that the dead king would return and ride on his solar boat from the east to the west, following the sun (hence the word “solar”). For a long time archeologists thought this boat must be buried somewhere in the pyramid, but after repeated diggings and some damage to the pyramid structures, they finally figured out that it was buried outside the tomb, on the south side. There they found it. When they lifted the first of the rocks that was covering the hole a hiss of hot air escaped, and they realized they had broken a seal. Inside they found the unassembled boat, wood that was 4,500 years old. They were able to reassemble the boat, using 60 percent of the original wood, fastening it together with rope. A coil of the original rope is on display. They did not use any nails. The assembled boat hangs from the ceiling of the museum, and it is huge.

After the pyramids we visited the sphinx. This was the only place that was crowded and full of salespeople. Kids were visiting with their schools and it was a crowded and pushy atmosphere, but the sphinx itself was very cool. It was once used for target practice during the Turkish occupation, so the nose and beard were blown off, but the rest is still amazingly intact. After taking our last precious pictures, we piled into the car and headed back to the hotel.

Our plan was to hang out that afternoon, maybe let the kids swim and get some lunch by the pool. When we got back, I headed to the business center to see how much it would cost to ship back our souvenirs by Fed Ex, the only way the hotel would send things. We really wanted to mail our things home before leaving Cairo, and mailing things is always an undertaking. When I was told it would cost over $700 to mail our flimsy little souvenirs, I almost fainted. I hurried back to the room and we made plan B, to head to the post office together and try and mail them from there. We had been told the post office closed at 2:30, and it was 1:30, so we hurried out.

The hotel gave us a map and showed us where the closest local postal branch was. We had three bags, a banana, and a $2 musical instrument that didn’t fit in any of the bags. Clay reminded us that he was against this purchase, but the kids have loved sawing away on it and Alayna was elected to hold it. We all trooped down across a bridge and down the road, trying to avoid getting run over when crossing the street. I knew it wasn’t going to work out when we arrived at the small post office. There were no boxes or envelopes, and when we went to the counter and each held up our bulging bags of junk, the man shook his head and showed Clay on our map where the main post office was.

Since arriving in Egypt, we’ve only taken the van that was sent for us by the tour agency we booked through, we hadn’t taken a regular cab. It was time for an adventure. In other places, fitting all five of us in a car was often an issue, car drivers wouldn’t allow it. Here, it didn’t seem to be a problem. We found a cab right outside the post office and all squeezed in, Clay up front. He showed the driver, who spoke no English, where we wanted to go on the map. Another man who spoke a little English poked his head through the window, and with a lot of gesturing and jabbering we finally set off.

Into the traffic. Clay tried to follow our route on the map, we were stopped more than we moved in the endless line of cars. At one point we were stuck right next to the back of a truck and the diesel fumes came pouring into the car. When I tried to close the window the driver smiled and pantomimed that I needed to leave it open because it was so hot. He offered Clay a cigarette, who refused, so the driver smoked alone. It was hot and stinky, and I was still holding Benji’s wilted banana peel in my hand (I had tried in vain to find a trash can before getting in the cab). Alayna had the musical instrument, and the other plastic bags rattled around us in the back seat. Nate fell asleep on my shoulder, Benji passed out on my lap, and still we drove.

I was beginning to get worried. When Clay tried to ask the driver where we were by pointing at the map, he pointed to a place that Clay knew we were not. Were we getting duped? Clay looked back over his shoulder and rolled his eyes. We had been so stupid, to jump into this cab in a strange city and just take off. Not speaking the language. No good map. Three kids. Our stomachs were rumbling, but I was worried about more than lunch. I said a prayer, that God would watch over us and send someone to help us, that we would find the post office and everything would be all right.

Lo and behold, the driver swerved around a parked car, darted down an empty street, and we finally emerged at our destination. Clay prepared to haggle over the inevitable unfair fare, we were sure by this time that he had taken a long way around to get a higher fare, while I gathered the kids on the traffic median, with cars zipping past on either side. Benji’s hair was soaked and plastered to his head on one side from his nap in the sun, and he had a funky pattern from Nate’s shorts on his arm. Both boys were a little groggy and unsure of where exactly we were and why. They were hungry, too. I was still holding Benji’s wilting banana peel, it was getting very juicy after the hot cab ride, and we must have looked ridiculous all huddled on this skinny piece of concrete among the zipping traffic. Alayna still clutched the $2 instrument and we had all our other bags as well.

Enter wise Solomon. A man walked up and began talking to us, and at first, I was annoyed. Another guy trying to sell us something, would it ever stop? Clay was still talking to the cab driver, I found out later that our hour in the car cost only the equivalent of $1.75, he wasn’t trying to cheat us. Clay handed him a fifty, thinking it was a 50 pound note when it was just a piaster note (Egyptian money is confusing because they have paper money for very small amounts of money like 5 cents, handing the driver a 50 piaster note was like handing him 10 cents, and Clay kept asking for change while the driver kept trying to hand back the piaster note, shaking his head). Meanwhile, Solomon was telling me all about the post office, and offered to help us mail our things. Thank you, God. I didn’t care what this man would eventually sell us, he was willing to help us when we really needed some help.

Clay figured out what he was doing and finished up in the cab, was quickly introduced to Solomon who flashed a “tourist guide” badge (we had read about faux tour guides, that make their living from guiding tourists even though they are not officially registered with the government), and we made our way across the street, Solomon holding Nate’s hand. We tried the post office, which was closed (it was 3 by now, still no lunch), but Solomon found a DHL place close by, talked in Arabic to the man behind the counter, found us a box, and we agreed to the price ($100, which sounded like a bargain after the $700 Fed Ex price we’d been quoted).

Solomon urged us that it was too expensive, we should wait until Saturday (the post office would be closed on Friday) and mail it from the post office when it was open, it would be half the price, but we no longer wanted this junk. We had resigned ourselves in the cab to just leaving it all behind in the hotel, so this seemed like a good alternative. Besides, I was beginning to see that Solomon wanted to take us shopping, perhaps we would be more willing to buy if we still had to mail our stuff? We declined and began filling out the labels to mail. Meanwhile, a kind post office man offered to take the banana peel off my hands, for which I will be eternally grateful. Everything fit in the box but the musical instrument, which Alayna continued to carry the rest of the day. Clay reminded us again, he never wanted to buy that thing in the first place.

After finished at the post office, we were so grateful to Solomon and the help he had offered that we could hardly say “no” when he offered to show us around the city. “Maybe just a short walk,” said Clay, we haven’t eaten yet. Solomon agreed, a short walk, “And I know of a good restaurant,” he said. What followed were an amazing couple of hours, winding through a part of Cairo we had not seen. Skinny little streets where real people shopped, no tourists. Where brides came to outfit their new homes with furniture and blankets and things she might need. Where trucks negotiate their way through passages so narrow it looked impossible. Benji and I narrowly escaped being run over by a truck that was backing up, I picked up Benji and held him high while I leaned over a pile of clothes nearby, the truck stopped just as it touched my leg.

We passed cows and sheep tied up outside buildings, in preparation for the feast week next week. This is a big celebration and holiday, where every family slaughters an animal and keeps a third of the meat, gives a third to friends and family, and gives another third to the poor. Everywhere people smiled and said “Big welcome to our country.” Many stared at us, as if they couldn’t believe we were walking around there. We saw a fight up ahead and a gathering crowd, and Solomon guided us to a side street, “To avoid the trouble,” he said. He held either Nate or Benji’s hand the whole way, watching over them closely to make sure they didn’t get lost or run over.

It was amazing, the things we saw and smelled that afternoon, but we were really getting hungry. We’d eaten at 8 that morning, and other than the banana, we hadn’t had anything else. Clay caught up to Solomon and suggested that we needed to get the kids back, but Solomon pushed us further into the market. “You must see the tent maker first, and I know of a restaurant,” he said with a smile. We followed on, admiring the tents and weavings and other things we saw. Although I knew he wanted us to buy something, I never felt the pressure. He was always friendly, always eager to show us the “real Cairo”. He said he loves showing people more than just the pyramids, to show them how the people really live.

He took us through a slum, where open doors revealed bare, dirty floors and old people lying against the walls. Where men smoked water pipes, looking ridiculous to me sucking on tubes that looked like garden hoses, attached to giant pipes on the ground. Where children guided large livestock through the streets and desperate chickens squawked, where parts of animals hung from butcher shops and men sat cross-legged, working in their shop entrances. I told Solomon, when he proceeded to lead us through another narrow street, “This has been wonderful, we loved seeing this part of the city, but we really need to get the kids back to the hotel.”

He agreed, telling us he wanted to show us one more place. A wood-working shop. “Prepare to buy some wood product,” I told Clay. But it still felt like an adventure, it didn’t feel like a scam. Solomon seemed genuine, we planned to tip him when we found our way back to a cab, and we felt no big pressure to buy anything other than a few more minutes. We entered this shop, no bigger than my closet back home, where two men made exquisite little boxes, inlaying mother of pearl on the lids. He showed us how he used the insides of iridescent shells, chipping off tiny pieces and carefully placing them in intricate patterns. He showed us several things he had made, while a man in the back continued to cover tiny boxes with lacquer to make them shiny. I was sure these things were going to be expensive, I picked out a small one I especially liked and asked how much. When he told us 100 Egyptian pounds (equivalent to $20), we quickly said we’d take it, no haggling.

Solomon told us he would make us a good deal on two, but we insisted one was enough. This would fit just right in our suitcase until the next time we shipped. The man gave each kid a small shell to keep, tiny pieces missing that he had chipped out to make the boxes. I decided to wrap their shells up and keep them in our little treasure chest, and each time I look at it on the shelf back home I will remember our afternoon with Solomon in the streets of Cairo. True to his words, Solomon popped us out on a major road. It was like walking on an access road, cars were everywhere, and it was quite the adventure just getting across to the right side to hail a cab. Imagine walking across the access road of 35 with three kids, near Sixth Street, on Saturday night. We tipped Solomon and waved goodbye out the back window, heading home.

By the time we got back to the hotel, we were starving, so we all plopped down on the floor and feasted on easy cheese, squirted out of the can onto crackers. Thanks to Rhonda and family, who sent it to us for a Christmas gift to give us a little taste of junk food from home. When their packages, each gift had been ripped opened. I rewrapped all but the cheese and crackers, worried the can might explode everywhere on the plane. We carried it with us, and this moment was the perfect time to indulge.

As we stuffed ourselves, spelling our names on the crackers and making designs, and when running out of crackers squirting the stuff directly in our mouths, we reflected on our day and made up lyrics to the 12 Days of Christmas. We’ve decided on the first day, “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, some crackers and a can of easy cheese.” It is twelve days until Christmas, we’ll try and come up with a verse each day.

Believe it or not, after catching our breath, we hailed another cab. On the way to Cairo a few days ago, Azza asked Nate what he missed most about home, and he said “The molten lava cake at Chili’s,” (sorry grandparents!). Azza said, “Why, we have a Chili’s in Cairo.” At that moment it was decided that we would visit this Chili’s, the kids were ecstatic. Clay and I realized while munching our crackers that this night might be our last chance to go, so we figured we better take it or risk crushing the kids.

It was amazing, the Chili’s was exactly like the one back home. Tile table tops, same pictures on the wall from the Chili Cook off, and the same kid menus. Country music played over the speakers, and we reveled in our little taste of home. The place was packed with Egyptians, there wasn’t an American or European in the bunch. They must have all been at the traditional Egyptian restaurant down the road. We topped our night off with a molten lava cake and caught another cab home. We feel like we’ve mastered a little bit of Cairo on our own, we thanked God that night for Solomon and watching out for us, and for molten lava cake. Amen.


Friday, 14 December 2007

“On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me, two pyramids . . .”

Today we headed out with Azza for our last real day of sight-seeing. Tomorrow we fly out, and while our plane doesn’t leave until 11 at night, we have no real plans other than packing, school and last minute things. We drove to some different pyramids, the Sakkara step pyramid and the Dashur pyramid. The step pyramid is the only one of its kind, it is built by putting one platform on top of another, and was once crowned with a golden top. The kids enjoyed the soft sand at its base, practicing the palm trees that our camel guide back in Morocco showed them how to make. It’s amazing the pyramid is still standing, it is made of sandstone that would have dissolved with rain and humidity, but the Egyptians were smart. They put bits of wood between the stone to absorb the water, and it stands to this day. We couldn’t go inside this one because the tunnel leading into it is collapsing, so we headed to our next destination.

We were able to go inside the Dashur pyramid, but it was a similar experience to the one the day before. After a lot of climbing, a steep ramp down, and then stairs back up, we saw an empty room. No decorations on the walls, no hint that this room once held a king. But it has an impressive step ceiling and Clay was amazed at the tight seams of the huge granite stones. It smelled of strong ammonia, Benji said, “This smells like the inside of a hamster cage!” Azza told us this is because of the chemicals they use to preserve the inside. We hurried back out into sunshine and fresh air and admired it from the outside.

We stopped again to look at some artifacts that have been dug up in the Memphis area. Most impressive was a giant statue of Ramses the second. His legs had been broken off at the knees and he was lying on his back like he was on an operating table. The details were really amazing, the knife in his belt and the muscles in his legs. When we look at these things that are so well preserved, it’s hard to believe they are so old. We wandered around to see some other artifacts, bases of columns and bits of statues, a little half-heartedly. We’re all a little tired, even Azza, who waited on a bench under a tree.

After declining a visit to the local shops where they weave and embroider, we stopped for lunch at a place in the country. Inside the front gate Azza led us to an oven where two women were baking fresh bread for the restaurant. It reminded me of a Mexican food restaurant back home, where they make fresh tortillas, only these women sat in the sand and tossed the bread dough to each other, putting it in the earth oven on wooden paddles. We got to sample some hot out of the oven, it was delicious. Lunch was good, too. I shared mine with a little cat that snuck in under the canvas walls of the restaurant, and it enjoyed it thoroughly.

On the way home, Azza stopped at several pharmacies so I could get some necessary things we’ve run out of. We were looking for detergent, and we pulled up to one store, where a man sat outside. We rolled down the window and called, in Arabic, “Any detergent?” (or something like that, Azza did the talking), and he got some from inside the store, we handed the money through the window, and we were off. Azza called it “window shopping”, and we laughed at how different it all is here. And how quickly we grow accustomed to things that are so different.

We came back to the hotel, and had the afternoon we thought we were going to have the day before. The kids played legos, Alayna caught up on her email, Clay read, I did this and that, and now this. Keeping this journal is a joy, as I relive what we’ve done and try and capture it all before it fades.