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Two-Second Travelogue - Egypt

Egypt - March & April 2001 (Egypt photos)

March 16 - Cairo -
Maggie: Mom, how do you flush this toilet?
Monica: I think it's the same way as at home.
Maggie: How's that?
Monica: There's a handle right on it.
Maggie: Oh yeah. Thanks.

Mark: How do you say "yes" and "no" in Arabic?
Monica: "No" is "la." I don't know what "yes" is.
Duncan: That's because we never needed to say yes in Morocco!

I am in a felucca sailing down the middle of the Nile. The children are discussing pirate ships and watching three Laser sailboats race. I am trying to think about what it means to be the longest river in the world, the explorers who found the headwaters below the equator, the annual floods, the origin of irrigation, or something, anything edifying, but the cool breeze, the quiet, the creaking boat, and the sun sparkling on the water keep getting in the way. -- Mark

March 17 - Cairo - My favorite thing in the Egyptian Museum was a small decoration in the middle of a large necklace. It was a small scarab with the wings of Horus sticking out and the tail of Horus sticking out. It was all made of gold and lapiz lazuli and some light blue stone and some red stone. I liked it because it was different. There were lots of good scarabs in the museum and lots of statues of Horus, but no others showed the two of them put together. I liked the way it looked like a robed person, because it had sleeves on the back of the falcons arms and the tail feathers looked like the bottom of a robe. -- Duncan

They use real arabic numerals here. -- Mark

March 18 - Cairo - The streets of Cairo are dirty but have a friendly atmosphere. Sometimes people ask if you need a taxi, but they are not persistant. Cairo is a lot more modern than I thought and a lot more dirty. It is in the middle of the desert, but you can't see the desert. Can you believe that? -- Tote

We didn't do all that much. First we walked through a really dirty part of town on the way to the Indian Embassy for visas. When we got there they told us that the office that issues them is right next to our hotel. Mom and Dad were smiling. Then we went to the American Embassy library to work, but they wouldn't let us take the computer in. We said we wanted to do schoolwork. They said we should watch movies or TV instead. We spent the rest of the day at the American University in a courtyard. It didn't look like it would be that nice, but when we walked out into the courtyard, there were birds singing, a fountain, and flowers. So we wrote and read and visited the well-stocked bookstore. -- Duncan

Every block in downtown Cairo has a handful of soldiers guarding various things. Soldiers guard banks (fundamentalists have bombed those that charge interest), important buildings, buildings that might be targets (the Goethe Institute?), places where tourists congregate --markets and museums (a bomb blew up tourists and their bus outside the Egyptian museum), train stations, some ticket counters, and every hotel. (All hotels have metal detectors, though only in the fancy ones does anyone pay attention when the buzzer goes off.) -- Mark

March 19 - Cairo - I liked seeing the pyramids and looking inside them, but I hated being surrounded by touts. They mostly tried to sell drinks, camel rides, horse rides, and fake blue scarabs. Inside the big pyramid, the only one we could go inside, was a low tunnel that went sharply up to a split letting you go up the main passage on a steep passage to the King's Chamber or a lower tunnel into what is called the Queen's Chamber. The queens weren't actually buried there. They just called it the Queen's Chamber for some stupid reason unknown to me. The queens were buried in smaller pyramids alongside the main one. -- Duncan

We're sitting in a large, street-level coffeehouse, late afternoon sun streaming in the windows, haze from the Cairo dust and grime dancing between shadows. Chess players hang out here. The kids immediately went to find a chess board but were told people brought their own. Several minutes later, a man appeared beside our table and began extracting a tattered bundle from his weathered leather bag. Mark immediately began, "no, no, no, thank you . . . " (We were at the pyramids today and were inundated with camel touts, hourse touts, soda touts, postcard/souvenir touts.) Seeing this old fellow pulling something out of a bag, we assumed someone was again trying to sell us something. But no, he had a very well-used chess set to lend and the children are now playing and drinking 7-Up. A well-dressed fellow from a neighboring table is teaching Maggie how the pieces move.

The pyramids themselves were stunning . . . immense, powerful, awe-inspiring, quiet, ancient, somewhat like mountains . . . only created by man, for a purpose, with meaning, with beauty. As we climbed into the chambers at the Great Pyramid, I tried to picture them filled with the incredible treasures we've seen in museums. What's left there at Giza are the empty, powerful shells.

I was surprised to see Cairo, or at least an extension of the city, crowded right up to the plateau. For some reason, I pictured in my mind the whole plateau and pyramid site farther out. Beyond is desert, but I guess I thought it would be desert before and after. After reading the guidebooks, I imagined more intense touts than we encountered, and I also expected greater hoards of tourists than we saw today. Perhaps there were fewer than usual, but all in all, it was a welcome surprise. In fact, the whole day was much calmer, quieter, more pleasant, and less overwhelming than I expected. -- Monica

The first pyramid I saw was the Great Pyramid. I saw it from the taxi. It was towering above the buildings in the haze. It was big. When we got there, we went past the biggest one (the Great Pyramid) to a ruined temple right next to my favorite pyramid. My favorite is the second biggest. It still has some of its original limestone covering on the top. The first temple we went into was the one where the guy buried in the second pyramid was mummified. The blocks inside that temple were huge, and they fit together so well. The Sphinx was not as big as I had thought, and from the side it looked like a monkey. It would have been amazing to see the Sphinx all painted up. We went inside the giant pyramid. They were so amazing. -- Tote

Another great pyramid mystery is why the best view of the pyramids is from the windows of a Pizza Hut. -- Mark

March 20 - Cairo - Mom wants to go somewhere today. I think we should just hang out. We haven't had a stay home day in Cairo yet. I'm annoyed when Mom wants us to do our writing, because it seems to just appear, or get brought up, right when we're about to do something fun like when Tote and I were going to make D&D characters. Tote threw his rock-solid pillow at the floor. We wandered around the hotel complaining. I hope we get lunch soon; we didn't get much breakfast. -- Duncan

When we went to the mosque, the first thing we had to do was take our shoes off, because they weren't allowed in the mosque. It was like walking around barefoot. The rooms we went into didn't have much in them. The praying room was really big. -- Maggie

Our visit to the Al-Azhar Mosque was our first mosque tour. In Morocco, non-muslims were not welcome. Here in Egypt, it's different. As we sat in the shade of the courtyard awaiting the end of 3:30 prayers in the haram, we chatted with a man who took it on himself to be our guide. We reviewed some of the things we learned at the Chester Beatty Museum in Dublin, the one with the huge collection of holy books from around the world - the five pillars of Islam, the five daily prayer times, the niche or mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca, the roles of the imam and muezzin, the wooden minbar, etc. After prayers, we saw the imam and the muezzin emerge and stroll across the courtyard. Our guide told us that the imam would hang out in his office for the rest of the afternoon, available to counsel anyone - worldly or other-worldly - either in person or by phone.

I've noticed that although women must cover most, if not all, of their bodies, they almost all distinguish themselves with a particular touch that gives them each a personal style, whether it is the cloth used as the head covering, the way the head covering is wrapped, their shoes, their glasses, etc. -- Monica
There are two things that make Cairo different than anywhere else we have visited. First is the dirt. The air, when it is still, is filthy. When the air moves, it is dirtier still, picking up grit and feeling as if it has become semi-solid. The sidewalks are grimy. In fact, everyplace two surfaces meet, there is a coal-black patch or line of grime. At the end of the day, my hair is stiff with dirt. My socks are grey with grime. When I smooth their wrinkles, my socks look striped. Even after I scrub my head, a Q-tip run over my ears comes up grey. Soot collects on windowsills and in the corners of lobbies. On stairwells, the common way is outlined by dirt. The details of the white chessmen are highlighted with grit. At night, I dream of black drifts of coal dust blowing in under the doors.
Yet, despite the grime, I love this place. The people in Cairo seem constitutionally friendly, and they love Cairo. If we need directions, no one refuses to help or says they don't know the way. They either tell us -- several times people have walked a block or two, leaving business unattended, to make sure we find the way -- or they go in search of someone who might know or might know English well enough to translate. Yesterday, we closed the security checkpoint at Bank of Cairo and tied up half the counter personnel for ten minutes while we sorted out an address 3 blocks away. Unlike Morocco, no one expects to receive pay for helping in this way. They usually say good-bye, then "Welcome to Egypt," and then walk away. At the local internet cafe, the owner refuses to take my money, because he enjoyed talking about computers with me. The Cairo Library bends the rules and lets us in with computer and books and then the children's librarian produces toys, colored pencils, and paper for the kids to use. Today we visited Al Azhar Mosque and spent about an hour walking around with a guide. We then spent another hour just sitting around with some students talking about religion, television, movies, and of course, the Palestinians. -- Mark

March 21 - Cairo -
Monica: This money is so filthy, it's just absolutely gross to touch. I need to wash my hands before I cut up the apples.

We went to the Great Cairo Library today. The children's librarian took us all into a little room where all the foreign books were. They had a wonderful collection of Eyewitness books and visual dictionaries. When we were leaving, we gave the librarian some pictures we had drawn, and she told Mom it's Mother's Day today. Mom got nice and excited. -- Duncan

I have never seen driving like the driving in Cairo. It is something different than what we call driving. In the United States, we drive mainly with our eyes and the goal is to get one's own car from one place to another as fast as possible. We watch the road and our mirrors. If there's an open spot, we grab it. Most people take delight in a victory of inches over the "jerks" in the other cars. In Cairo, drivers watch their mirrors and the road, but they also use their ears. Nearly every maneuver is signaled by a beep or two. Moving through a blind spot? Give a couple beeps. Moving fast through an intersection? A long hard honk. Impatient? A short hard honk. At night, flashing headlights are added to the mix. Most people drive around with their lights off. They seem to use them merely to signal other drivers and pedestrians. After wandering around in traffic for a few days (there's no other way to wander around Cairo) and taking several taxi rides, I have yet to see anyone genuinely angry with another driver or any accidents, though the streets are jammed, and the cars often move within inches of each other. Driving seems to be some sort of cooperative process. It's like the traffic is a giant collective organism that uses horns and flashing lights as neurons. If Cairo drivers behaved like U.S. drivers the whole town would instantly seize up in a massive case of blood boiling gridlock. -- Mark

March 22 - Cairo to Luxor - I waited with Duncan and our bags while Mark, Tote, and Maggie went hotel hunting. Mahmoud, a machine gun toting guard, sat in his chair beside us. (Later, Mark chuckled and told me it looked like we had our own private guard.) Mahmoud and I communicated until he exhausted his English and I, my Arabic. Finally, out of desperation to speak English, he sang "Happy Birthday" to me. -- Monica

The train trip was marvelous. Drinking tea while watching farmers, fields, and garbage piles pass. The fields are full of people - very different than the vast, vacant, monocultures in the United States. The garbage piles flow down the banks and into the Nile - bright, multi-colored plastics mixed in with the dirty mass. There's enough legroom between our seats to accomodate one's legs and even to recline the seat without crippling a neighbor -- why haven't the airlines thought of this? The floor is not too dirty - not as dirty as the train from London to Calais. There are venetian blinds and curtains on the windows. The seats vibrate and something nearby in the car chatters with the staccato characteristic of old equipment. A red-headed German tourist comes on board, insisting that this train - which is very definitely on platform 8 - is not on platform 8. She demands that the porter, who speaks enough English to get by, find her "someone who speaks English!" -- Mark

March 23 - Luxor -
(At the English language Luxor Light show, attended mainly by tour groups)
Maggie: Mom, these guys keep bumping into me with their stomachs.

Having been a tourist town for hundreds of years has not helped Luxor. Trying to admire the Nile (genuinely beautiful) while a tout stands a yard from you repeating the same sales pitch again and again for fifteen minutes, though you have already said no and displayed not an iota of interest, is difficult. Duncan has decided there is a school for touts in which they are all issued the same phrasebook. With only a single exception, their pitches are identical. I am disappointed. They are so unoriginal, humorless, pervasive, and persistent. (I wonder whether I am the only tourist in the world who loves Cairo?) Maggie learned the pitch by heart in a few minutes and put the hotel people into hysterics when she repeated it. Do some people actually change their mind after hearing the same pitch six or seven times or is it just some sort of tout mantra?

The exception is a fellow who asks us whether we want a boat ride. When we say no, he says sorry, falls silent, and lets us pass in peace. The next time we walk past him, he tells us, "Look, I just want to make a few bucks from you. So, if there is anything you need, let me know. If you're not interested, okay. I'd be happy to answer other questions, practice my English - I can do American or British - or just recite Shakespeare. I can do it, too. Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate." -- Mark

Partly because of her age, perhaps because she is a girl, at least in part because of her personality, Maggie has had the easiest time making new "friends" along the way. People are always asking her name, ruffling her hair, smiling at her, giving her little things, doing magic tricks for her, making jokes with her, etc. She certainly has come out of her stranger anxiety phase. She loves to go off and do errands. (She asks to go by herself, but I rarely allow it . . . except in Casa Castalda and Apollonia.) -- Monica

March 24 - Luxor -
Tout: How many times have you been asked about a felucca ride today?
Mark: About 35.
Tout: Then let me make it 36.

The Karnak Temple was amazing, almost as amazing as the Giza pyramids. When you first walk through the giant wall, you stand in a courtyard with small temples on either side of you. Then you walk toward a large doorway. On the doorway, you see some of your first hieroglyphics. Inside the doorway, there are huge pillars everywhere. They are covered in hieroglyphics and still have some original paint. All around the room the walls are covered in stories. Farther into the temple, which every pharoah seems to have added to, is a room covered in smaller pillars. The ceiling is blue with stars and the pillars are also painted. Painted over some of the pictures are pictures of Jesus that the Christians painted on. Past that room is the botanical gardens, covered in reliefs of wildlife and two papyrus pillars. There is a huge picture of a heron or crane. Farther on is a very detailed picture of a duck - the feathers are amazing. After we walked past the sacred lake, we went back to the room of giant pillars and played an assassination game. We secretly followed Dad and when we tapped him on the shoulder, he was assassinated. The whole place was just so amazing. -- Tote

I expected that if we stayed in cheaper places, we would be closer to the countries we were visiting. I was wrong. The places at the low end of the scale are filled with backpacking tourists not locals. You meet similar people in a budget place in Luxor as you would meet in Edinburgh -- young, cheerful, excited, and typically on a two or three week trip that involves four or five countries. The crowd and the atmosphere are more uniform than that in the McDonald's that you can find down the street in each place. The signs, even if they weren't all in English, say the same things. If you didn't notice the pictures on the wall, you'd be hard-pressed to tell which country you were in.

In Cairo and in Luxor, we seem to have fallen into a slightly different system. In both places we have shared hotels with Egyptian tour groups and Arabic businessmen and tourists. At breakfast we ran into a family from Tunisia that we had originally met in one of our hotels in Cairo. (Curiously, and despite our preconceptions, we seem to be get a better deal on our room and the hotel restaurant than they do -- probably because we have established that we are outrageously cheap.) We also realized at breakfast that we could escape the semi-stale rolls, butter, and jam of the omnipresent continental breakfast by asking for an Egyptian breakfast - pita, local cheese, bean stew. (If that actually sounds worse than rolls and jam, you haven't been traveling as long as we have.) -- Mark

March 25 - Luxor - The first two tombs we visited in the Valley of the Kings were the most impressive. Ramses IV's tomb has retained much of its vivid color. Two figures of Nut, the sky goddess, stretched across the ceiling of his burial chamber. The walls, columns, and ceilings of Tuthmosis III's tomb had a very different style. They looked like a first draft in black magic marker. The walls resembled an animated flip book with its pages laid end to end.

After checking out tombs, we scrambled up a steep climb to a ridge at the edge of the valley. It was the middle of the day and very hot, but there was a breeze, so we drank lots of water and took it slowly. The children had been wanting to hike in the desert since we arrived in Egypt. It wasn't the sandy, dune desert we envision when we think of the Sahara but a dusty place strewn with small rocks and crumbling outcrops. We took the wrong route and ended up overlooking Deir al-Medina (the coptic Monastery of the Town). It was named by early Christian monks who occupied a temple there. It includes the ruins of the village in which some of the workmen and artists who created the royal tombs lived. We headed back up the mountain, found the correct path and descended to the Temple of Hatshepsut -- Queen Hatshepsut's mortuary temple. She was the third woman ruler of Egypt, the first to declare herself divine and a pharoah. She reigned as "king" for 20 peaceful years, assuming the manner and dress of a man. She even depicted herself with the traditional false beard of the pharoahs. Her successor, Thutmosis III defaced many of her images. -- Monica

We seem to be a bit of a tourist attraction. Some men shout "nice family" when we pass. I am a bit puzzled by it. (Perhaps, what sounds to me like "nice family" is actually Arabic for "Want a felucca ride?") There's never any follow-up, save a smile. Young Egyptian tourists often ask us where we are from and stop to chat with us. I enjoy this, and I am starting to know a fair amount about Egyptian soccer teams. The oddest thing though is the frequent request for photographs. Young people, usually visiting from northern Egypt, ask whether they can take our picture. Sometimes we've chatted with them a bit; sometimes they are just passing us on the street. They pose in the midst of us, as if we are old friends. I told Monica that I am starting to feel like one of the pyramids. Monica says we will appear in scrapbooks right alongside the Temple of Karnak and the Tomb of Ramses IV. One good thing: I now understand much better how odd it must feel to the woman selling spices or the sweet potato salesman, when tourists continually snap their photos. They must ask themselves, just as I do, "Are we really that strange looking?" -- Mark

March 26 - Luxor - There are certain streets in Luxor that are not where the tourists go. They are not paved and have trash all along the edges. The grafitti in Luxor is written in chalk. Duncan says it doesn't matter, because it never rains, but someone could just wash it off. They apparently don't. If you're in one of those side streets and turn a certain corner, you appear in tourist row. It really is funny how tourists only follow certain paths. -- Tote

March 27 - Luxor - The hotel's evening receptionist, Ragab, has become a friend over the past week and asked us to come to his house for tea. Ragab lives on the West Bank and met us at the ferry. We walked through the brown, mud-brick village to the primary school. It was two stories and looked much like Liberian schools, well worn and tattered. The children, with big shy smiles, were seated at their benches learning lessons or playing soccer on the packed dirt playground. Two of Ragab's best friends are teachers at the school. We were able to ask questions. I think everyone was delighted with the diversion.

We stopped for cold soft drinks at the house of one of the teachers. It was a fine house with big couches, a wall of shelves containing books and a big tv. It was cool. We chatted, asking questions about schools, teaching, courtship and marriage. They asked us about politics in the Middle East.

Afterwards we walked out of town on the sunny road through fields of wheat, sugar cane, okra, cabbage, cucumbers, fava beans, and onions. Carts pulled by donkeys passed us. We stopped at a dark colored mud brick house beside the road between fields. Ragab introduced us to his mom, his father, his teenage nephew, and his 3-year old nephew. Then he led us to his room. He excused himself for a moment and reappeared wearing a gelabayya. His room contained two beds, clothes hung above the beds against the mud brick wall, a refrigerator, a window into another room, a ceiling fan, a tape player, and several mats. We sat on the beds - made from palm branches - and Ragab sat barefooted on one of the mats. We chatted, drank tea, joked, played with 3-year old Ahmed, went out to the yard to learn about the bread oven, about crops, about grain storage, about traditional construction, about goats, sheep, pigeons, and chickens. Ahmed showed the children three tiny, new kittens. Later we washed up and sat down to a low table of delicious lunch: traditional bread, chunks of salted tomatoes, fuul, baked egg, pickled vegetables, and roasted and salted sesame seeds.

After lunch we chatted with Ragab's brother and sister who had come home by this time. Ragab's brother works cleaning tomb paintings. His sister has a university degree in philosophy and is now an English teacher in a primary school in the village next to El Coom. She was absolutely delightful. She and I sat beside each other and chatted together as if we had know each other for years. -- Monica

That was the best meal of the trip. -- Maggie

After visiting El Coom, the hotel seems close and dirty and artificial. This is the first time that I have noticed that all the staff is thin, and only the manager is fat. -- Mark

March 28 - Luxor - In a dingy alley, there is nice building being built next to a touristy hotel row. I wonder how the new hotel will transform the block or if tourists will need to search up the trash-filled back alley, as we have done a few times. Next to the construction site were some kids who put up their hands for money as if they had been told to do so and didn't quite understand what they were doing. -- Duncan

Most of the buildings here are not complete. Their roofs aren't done. Maybe they will finish later or add another level. Maybe it is just cheaper. -- Tote

I could have a wonderful time in Egypt without ever going near a pyramid or pharaoh. I go along to the tombs and temples and am genuinely impressed. But just walking around town, chatting with people, or drinking a cup of tea is much, much more interesting and fun. Butchers hang a quarter of a cow, dark red and white, from a hook in front of their shop, amidst the street dust and the heat, and simply hack off what someone wants. When I passed a butcher shop last night I heard bones cracking and saw the butcher, a pile of absolutely white bones at his feet and brown tripe hanging from a hook above his head, working tiny scraps of meat from ribs. White and blue mini-buses ferry us around town, packed shoulder to shoulder with anyone else who wants onboard, in exchange for 25 piastres (the equivalent of 6 cents) apiece. People move over to make room for each other and for us. When I pass the mini-bus driver a 50 piastre note, he dutifully passes me the change. (The hotel manager wants to charge me for the lights, if I want to use an empty office at night.) Use and reuse and accumulated grime have made the banknotes grow until they feel three times as thick as a dollar. To make sure we don't get lost, a pharmacist abandons his store, without locking it, and leads us for blocks. Barbers trim facial hair and eyebrows with grey thread strung between their hands and teeth in a triangular pattern which they work like some sort of nightmarish cat's cradle over the surface of your face. At the bread shop, women and men wait in different lines for the soft flat bread to come out of the oven and cool in a cage made from split sticks. Maggie has learned the system and insists I come with her so I can see how well she does. On a mini-bus we sit next to a man with a huge, bushy, grey and white mustache wearing a brilliant white turban and an olive drab wool robe. He is clearly pleased with himself when he threads his way, leading all of us, past the tourist-hungry touts. He never says a word in English. A bicyclist rides between cars while carrying a long tray - made of split palm branches - of bread on his head. -- Mark

I've noticed how hotels have very fake touristy names like Papyrus and how the buildings themselves seem to be studded with pictures of hieroglyphics, scarabs, and pharaohs. -- Duncan

March 29 - Luxor to Cairo -
Maggie: "Want to know my favorite places so far."
Mark: "Okay. I'll bet one of them is Luxor."
Maggie: "Yep. Luxor and Siphnos and Venice and Francis and David's house."

As we get closer to Cairo, more people wearing suits get on. I automatically scan them to see how their jackets hang. I feel a bit surprised when I discover the jackets fit naturally. They are missing that subtle but odd flat spot just above their waist caused by a folded submachine gun. In 1997, islamic fundamentalists massacred 60 tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut on the West Bank. The terrorists apparently descended from the ridge we climbed earlier in the week. (At night, when we looked across at the cliffs surrounding the Valley of the Kings, we could see the lights of guard houses, linked by irregular strings of lights. It looked like a ski lift.) For the last few days, just about the only people we have seen wearing suits have been tourist police carrying machine guns slung beneath one arm. I got rather used to them.

I suppose it is not a coincidence that the eight tourists in our train car are all assigned seats surrounding a plainclothes security guard. No one says anything about the policemen or the semi-automatic pistols they wear at their waists. Soldiers and other policemen check in periodically with our guard. (I think we may have a whole carload of soldiers with us.) He seems to be running the show. Unlike many of the soldiers we have seen, these fellows are alert. At one stop, the guards move to the door and pull a submachine gun from their gym bag. We don't know why. Perhaps it's routine, but they are very serious. The precautions make me edgy, but I have grown accustomed to them. -- Mark

We saw Mahmoud on the platform standing with a bunch of other soldiers. We all greeted him like old friends and shook hands. He beamed. His friends stared in amazement. -- Monica

March 30 - Cairo - When we arrived again in Cairo, it was so different from Luxor. It was way more crowded and less touristy. When we were in Luxor, if there wasn't someone bugging you about a felucca, someone was bugging you about a carriage ride. When we were in the Valley of the Kings, we saw people from Cairo. They laughed, joked, and wanted us to be in pictures with them. They were altogether nicer. -- Tote

March 31 - Cairo
Monica: Wow. For the first time I saw a silver anthropoid coffin in the room full of stuff from Tanis.
Tote: Seti I. My favorite mummy in the mummy room.
Duncan: He was totally pitch black and his chin was so sharp it looked like you could cut leather with it.
Monica: Duncan. That's so gross because he looked like leather himself. Did you see Nut? Under someone's coffin.
Maggie: I liked the blue hippo with black designs on it.
Duncan: The Nut thing was cool because she had stars all over because she was the sky god.
Monica: I have a picture of her naked with stars all over her.
Duncan: Good. We can put that in our ancient Egyptian pornography section.
Monica: Maggie found a whole section of little guys with erect penises.
Duncan: She said, "Come on Duncan, here's a whole bunch of those guys again."
Tote: I hate those. Everything is so detailed until after their thing, then it just isn't detailed by their legs and feet.
Monica: When we left, one of the guards said "Good-bye Maggie" and patted her on the head. How does she do that?

(Lobby of the Cairo Hilton - No, we're not staying there!)
Mark: Hello. Do you mind if I sit down here, so I can work for a bit?
Ex-Pat: No. Not at all.
Mark: Where are you from?
Ex-Pat: Well. I live here. I teach at a school here.
Mark: How do you like it?
Ex-Pat: Well. We've gotten to travel quite a bit. That's been great. I have liked some of my students, too. But, this is our last year. We've been here a year and that's enough. Education here is a mess. Don't get me started on that. The attitude toward education is shocking. I teach kids that are driven to school by chauffeurs. When they're late, they say, "My driver was late." And private schools are big business here. There's loads of money in it, and when there's a conflict between education and making money, money wins.
Mark: We have some of those in the States, too.
Ex-Pat: Yeah, but not as many. It's just unbelievable. There's no way this school should be accredited but . . . baksheesh . . . you know. That takes care of it. I think I am teaching maybe the top 2% that has everything in this country. They dress in Gap clothing and want to be just like Americans. They get these nubians up here to work for them and put them in, well, literally a shack - no water, no toilet. It just sits next to their house. The public schools have 50 or 60 in a class. I cannot tell you how difficult it is to be an American here. I've been making a list of the things I like about Egypt and the things I don't. The list of the things I like is pretty short - potato chips, these plastic folders . . . and the beer . . . I think that's pretty much it. The fights I've had with cab drivers and the hustlers. In October during this Palestinian thing, we had to be really careful. There was a commotion outside my window at school in October, and my students were burning an Israeli flag. Outside the supermarket, you have to run the gauntlet of these urchins dressed in rags that are trying to do something for you, so you feel guilty enough to give them some money. And the muslim culture. . . women are just nobodies here. At a certain time they just disappear and the men sit around drinking tea and smoking. Every male smokes here. Sometimes you get in a taxi and the guy will offer you a cigarette, a Cleopatra. That would knock your socks off. I cannot believe these are the same people who created the pyramids and pharonic art. Something must have happened to the gene pool. They just put up a huge metal tower next to Cheops . . . communications . . . I said, "You couldn't find a better place for it than right next to one of the greatest landmarks in the world?" My wife is a runner, and she would run in the morning with a couple other girls that live in our building. They finally had to stop because of the harassment. . . .
Mark: Harassment, like yelling or harassment like grabbing?
Ex-Pat: Both. Grabbing and yelling. These street urchins would just come up and grab their breasts and yell things. People would try to trip them. They finally ended up living like prisoners. They'd only go out when someone like me would go along with them. . . It's not like we haven't met some nice Egyptians. I've met some. When I was interviewing, I had an offer from a suburb here that is just like living in the States. I didn't want to do it, because I wanted something more exotic. I didn't really expect this though. I am not a big fan of muslim culture.

After talking with an expatriate in the lobby of the Hilton, I wonder whether I am blind, naive, or too much of a newcomer to see what he sees. Are our perceptions different, because we are different? Or is he simply right about this country, and I am wrong? -- Mark

April 1 - Cairo - I smell the immense dusty pollution cloud that silently drifts over Cairo. I feel the cool night air as it soothes what the desert inferno does to my face. I hear the call to prayer, as it streams through the city, sounding like an ancient death song. I see the sun's shadow on the moon, sideways. I see the dim red desert glow under the dark blue sky. Suddenly there's a swift wind, and I hear the rustle of paper and plastic on the next roof. -- Tote

We visited christian churches and a synagogue in the Coptic Christian part of Cairo. Today Egypt is so overwhelmingly islamic that I have trouble remembering that the Christians were in Egypt before the Arab invasion. Egyptian christians now speak Arabic and dress just as other Arabs dress. Some churches are decorated with Arabic writing. It is disconcerting to realize that the cases full of things that look like velvet bolster pillows contain the relics of Christian martyrs. We visited the place where Mary and Joseph supposedly hid Jesus from Herod, tried on St. George's chains (after removing our shoes as a sign of respect, just like in a mosque), and walked around where Moses was plucked from the Nile by the pharaoh's daughter. There was a guy on the sidewalk who would tattoo a murky blue cross on your hand for a small amount. -- Mark

There was a lot of restoration work going on at the Hanging Church (Al-Muallaqa' The Suspended)(dedicated to the Virgin Mary) so called because it was built on top of the Roman water gate . . . so it is suspended without a foundation. I like the wooden, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Our guide named three styles of roof on Coptic churches and claimed this one represented an upside down Noah's ark. The church had over 100 icons but only a couple dozen were visible to me. A steady stream of visitors came in and kissed and touched the displayed icons, as in Greek Orthodox churches. -- Monica

Mark: Is there discrimination against Coptics in Egypt?
Coptic guide: "Discrimination"? I don't understand. Do you mean persecution?
Mark: Yes. Persecution.
Guide: Nothing in the open. For finding a job it might be harder.
Mark: How do you get along with the muslims?
Guide: I don't. At school all my friends are christians and then I come here. And I don't have job yet. So, I don't associate with them at all.

In the hanging church there were wood and ivory wall covers/carvings with patterns of 10 for the commandments and 12 for the apostles. There were lots of icons made of silver or painted with glass coverings. The ceiling was like a boat - for Noah's ark. -- Duncan

April 2 - Cairo - My favorite thing was seeing the Princess Bride at the American University. We went to American University to do some of our math and writing. I want to go there again, because I liked running up and down all the pathways. I talked to someone who asked me if I were lost, I said I wasn't I just needed to know where the toilet is, so she showed me. -- Maggie

All the children love Karkadey (hibiscus tea); Duncan particularly likes kushari (a mix of noodles, rice, lentils, garbanzo beans, fried onions, in a red sauce); Mark and I especially like comparing the many versions of ta'amiyya and fuul (falafel and beans). Maggie likes grilled chicken and rice, and Tote mainly eats cheese sandwiches. -- Monica

I am sitting on the edge of a false leather couch that, because of the humidity is somewhat sticky. A rug in front of me adds to the dusty scent in the air. The heat ripples over to me from the window on the edge of my sight. Cooler gusts periodically rush from the building's interior to battle the heat where I am. Cars are continually honking on the roundabout just outside - honks in bunches or long continuous ones. With the warm gusts of air come wafts signaling the alley garbage piles. -- Duncan

April 3 - Cairo - Maggie has discovered that Fanta sells for 60 piastres. This is good because no one has small change, so she often gets Chiclets gum as change if she gives the man 75 or 100 piastres. Good thing she doesn't have too many permanent teeth yet. -- Mark

I thought City of the Dead seemed like a cross between walking between the graves in Chefchauen and walking around in a market and walking around in El Koom. The graves were brightly-colored like in Chefchauen and periodically we walked into what would be a courtyard in some cities but here it was just a graveyard. It seemed like one of the big markets, because we sometimes just followed paths and had to look for footprints to show us the most traveled paths which were the ways out.In one of these courtyards, there was a coffin-sized pit. The buildings in El Koom seemed incomplete, like the buildings in the City of the Dead. I had mental pictures of grave robbers at work. People live in some of the tombs, and we saw a shop in one of them. -- Duncan

One afternoon, when we were hiking along the cliffs north of Kastro on Sifnos, Maggie told me she liked to talk to imaginary friends . . . holding long dialogues and playing games and making up scenarios. Of course I knew this because I have listened to her murmur since Scotland. Today we were walking through the noisy Cairo streets, and Maggie was having one of those in-depth conversations. The funny thing, to me, was that Maggie was having this dialogue at the top of her voice. She had to be able to hear herself over the traffic and people.

We've just spent the last few hours wandering around the Norther cemetary of Cairo . . . also known as the City of the Dead. When people buried their relatives there, they built mausoleums that included rooms in which to stay overnight when they visited to show their respect. Many mausoleums and graves are the basis of a living squatters' residence. There were a few shops, tea houses, a butcher, several mosques, quite a few car parts shops. We found two men who were using traditional thread-making machines, twisting long strands to sell to galabiyya makers for decorative stitching. -- Monica
We went to a necropolis. A long time ago people turned part of it into a town. We wandered through the labyrinth of graves and mausoleums. The town was very dirty. Trash was everywhere, and it was really dusty. There were stores but it was not touristy. I know it wasn't touristy for two reasons. One, the people could not speak English. When we are in a touristy place, such as Venice, everybody spoke English. Two, kids followed us, and they weren't asking for money. -- Tote

April 4 - Cairo - We saw sufi dancers. They spun in circles. There were two dancers that did the most spinning. The first dancer only had two skirts that he could take off, but he had his jacket and four tambourine-like drums. It looked so fun, I wanted to do it too. The dancers were sweating so hard, it reminded me of the Winnie the Pooh play that I was in, because we wore sweat pants and the lights were so hot. It also reminded me of spinning around in circles in the living room at home. It looked like it was a place that wasn't always used for sufi dancing. It looked like a mosque. The second twirler had three skirts, but one he lifted up and there was another part tucked in so that when he twirled it looked like he was inside a diamond. -- Maggie

We went to a Sufi dancing performance by the Al-Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troupe. It was held in the Mausoleum of al-Ghouri, near Cairo's main bazaar, Khan al-Khalili. Both the mausoleum and the nearby mosque-madrassa date from 1505. Qansuh Al-Ghouri was the second to last Mamluk ruler who in old age went to battle the Ottoman Turks in Syria. Following his defeat, the Turks ruled Egypt for 281 years. The performance was spectacular! The music was loud, riveting, and marvelous...horns with reeds (reminding me of bagpipes and Greek gaida), tambourines, small finger-cymbals, several kinds of drums, and one-stringed lute-like drone instruments. The musicians played for close to two hours, sometimes accompanied by one of two singers whose voices sounded like the addition of a new instrument. There were two dance performances, colorful twirling, smiling whirling, each lasting well over a half hour. I was mesmerized. I loved it! -- Monica

Duncan: I've just started to appreciate Greece. I don't think I will start to appreciate Egypt until we're in the middle of India.

We saw Sufi dancing. At first all it was were a couple of musicians playing. Then some of them stepped forward and turned in slow circles. I thought that this was all it was, just a guy with an instrument playing and turning. This went on for about 15 minutes, but then some dancers came out with tambourines. The dancers danced for a while, until someone came out in a colorful robe and some tambourine-looking things. He twirled. Mom called him a whirling dervish. After turning for about 15 minutes, he took off the bottom of his robe and it had a smaller one under it. There was a while when no one spun, then another whirling dervish came out. He didn't have the tambourine things. He had 3 robe bottoms. -- Tote

April 5 - Cairo - We went to see a free concert by Herbie Hancock and some other people. I liked it best when Herbie Hancock was playing without the singer. My favorite part was when the two piano players switched really fast in the middle of a song. -- Maggie

I feel like I've reached a new plateau on the trip . . . it's a subtle feeling. I feel more relaxed. I like the warmth. Even though Cairo is a hugely sprawling, filthy, noisy city, I like it a lot. I like its sense of exotic, Arabic Africa. People everywhere; friendliness, wanting to chat, smile, make connections. Even the constant haggling and bargaining seems familiar, something to be taken in stride. -- Monica

Mark: It will be really interesting to be back where people speak English again.
Duncan: You mean, like in Ireland, where you were almost the only one who could understand what Mike was saying?
Maggie: I could understand Mike AND I can understand English.

The boys loved running up and down the hills and mounds of Saqquara amidst ruins and mounds which might be ruins. It's a good place to get some sense of what the pyramids were like when they were seen by only a trickle of tourists. From Saqquara, you can see lots of other pyramids out in the desert. Tote and I even walked past pieces of a human skeleton. -- Mark

April 6 - Cairo to Bombay - At a Cairo Telecom office, another customer helped me explain to the clerk that I was looking for a fax. When I thanked him, he asked where I was from. I told him. Then he told me he was from Iraq. I had no idea what to say next. "How's life back home?" didn't seem like a good conversation starter. -- Mark

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