Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Trip, Part 1

(I realized I should just start writing about the trip, lest it start to seem like gigantic task and I never blog again. So here goes!)

The whole thing--including holiday travel in the US--was so rushed it felt like we were skidding from one place to another, and only if we were lucky would we screech to a halt in Jerusalem (ideally, in time for the work portion of the trip!), so I apologize in advance if this seems scattered.

We left NYC on December 28 (having been in DC that morning, and in Ohio the morning before that...), and arrived in Cairo the next day. We'd found a bed and breakfast online, and arranged for them to pick us up at the airport, and knew we were flying south to Luxor on New Year's Eve, but hadn't figured out anything in between (except that I knew I wanted to see the pyramids, and the Egyptian Museum). But, thanks to lucking into a great B and B with very helpful owners, it was fine.

I know bed and breakfasts are always a little bit like staying at someone's house, but this was really, really, really, someone's house--the Nileview Bed and Breakfast is a city apartment--big for a city apartment, but still, an apartment. There are only a couple of guest rooms, and the other guests were friends of the owners, so it was like we were their friends too, except that we didn't actually know them.

Interestingly, the owners' friends were from Qatar (one a native Qatari, the other Scottish... there was kind of an epidemic of Scots, considering we were in Egypt, since half of the couple that own the Nileview is Scottish too), and the husband was like a one-person Chamber of Commerce--not just "Visit Qatar!" but "Move to Qatar! Buy property! Convince the university where you work to open a campus there!" (I think he may have overestimated our income and our influence on those last two... although several US universities have programs in Qatar, Kevin and I are many levels removed from the ones who make those decisions!). So we heard all about Qatar, as well as Egypt.

That first afternoon, we set down our bags and took off for the pyramids--left to our own devices, we would have procrastinated and fallen asleep, so it was good to have someone else in charge. On the way, Muhammed (the owner of the Nileview) stopped to buy carrots off a vegetable cart parked on the side of the road.

The farmer peeled them, broke off most of the leaves, and handed them in through the window to eat like popsicles. Best tasting carrots ever. (We never would have been able to accomplish that ourselves, given that our attempt to buy oranges some oranges we saw on a farm truck in Sicily ended when the farmer gave us lemons... they were free, admittedly, but we'd wanted to buy oranges!)

There were carts like this--pulled by donkeys, and always with wobbly, about-to-fall-off wheels--all over, coexisting with cars on all but the biggest roads. Speaking of cars, everyone told us how scary the traffic in Cairo would be. It's definitely chaotic! There are no traffic lights or signs in most places... so drivers seemed to do whatever they wanted, mainly by honking and waving at each other.

Say you want to cross the near lane on a two-way street and turn into the far lane. Just drive into the near lane (blocking them entirely, although they can kind of drive behind you by veering into the cross street you came out of), then inch forward into the other lane till you get far enough that you're starting to block traffic there too--someone will let you in, or the police officer directing traffic will stop the far lane so you (and the other cars which have gathered around you--they're also trying to turn, but would like to pull in front of you at the same time) can get out of the way.

So, yes, chaos. And most of the cars are dented. But at the same time, it seemed more human than driving in the US--more like people interacting while inside cars (and bumping into each other--hence the dents), and yelling Hey! Watch out! with their horns than like cars interacting.

Anyway--we made it to the edge of the city, then onto camels, then out to the pyramids. Which are much smaller than I thought they'd be. And disappointingly, you can't go inside them--the passages are too narrow, the air quality is too bad, and all those people (breathing, touching the walls, radiating heat) would be too damaging. But it was amazing to see them, and to think of them having been made by people, stone by stone.

Our guide/camel wrangler took pictures:

(If you follow the link and see the equivalent picture of me, you'll notice that I look perplexed, and like I don't understand that my other arm and legs are part of the picture... that's because when I was posing, I had no idea what the picture was meant to be of, or why in the world the guide wanted me to hold my hand up like that. I didn't figure it out till I watched him pose Kevin the same way. Also, wow, is that sweater of mine unflattering! Definitely too short. And it pilled like crazy the whole trip.)

Not exactly the pictures we would have taken (we also took those, click on either of the pix above to see the whole set in Kevin's Flickr), but what's funny is that afterward, when we were in the ruins in front of the Sphinx, I overheard another tourist telling his friend about their guide taking the same picture. At least I assume that's what the conversation was about, because he was standing with his hand out in the same position, although I couldn't understand the language he was speaking.

I wonder if he knew what the picture would be while he was posing?

After the pyramids, we rode our camels back to the city, then I fended off a very aggressive perfume sales pitch by staging a coughing fit (I knew my coughing prowess would come in handy someday!), because we were too polite to just say that we didn't want any, then back we went to the bed and breakfast.

That night, we went with Muhammed and Mr. Qatar to a bazaar (where we fended off very aggressive souvenir sales pitches by walking very fast, constantly shaking our heads, and trying to avoid eye contact... no fake coughing fits needed!), and had tea and falafel sandwiches at a coffeehouse. Yet another food miracle--the sandwiches actually came from around the corner, but Muhammed sent a kid (who was trying to sell something to the coffeehouse customers, but was equally happy to run errands for tips) around the corner to buy them.

Now that I'm writing this, I remember that there was actually another food miracle that afternoon--after the pyramids, we stopped for kushari, at this place that looked like a complete dive (sawdust on the floor and everything) but was completely tasty. (And it turns out that I love kusheri.)

I suspect I'm going to keep harping on this, but it was like visiting a city known for amazing food with a friend who lives there, vs. wandering around on your own. On your own, you know there's great, cheap food (possibly only a few feet away from where you are, quietly starving), but at least 50% of the time, you pick a dive-y restaurant that actually turns out to be terrible. (Or if you are me, you eat at Sbarro, even though you hate their pizza at home, out of a mistaken illusion that being in a city where there are good pizza places will somehow improve Sbarro's pizza.) Whereas your local friend has already tested the dive-y places for you, and will only bring you to the yummy ones.

Multiply that by the fact that neither of us speaks even a syllable of Arabic, and you'll understand how excited we were by the kushari and falafel sandwiches.


jess said...

wow, becca, what an adventure! can't wait to hear more.

bookwoman said...

Sounds great. And those pyramids do look awfully small. Can't wait to hear the rest.

Anonymous said...

Love the post! Can't wait to read Part II. Marlene