A sleepless night in Cairo partly in thanks to the first visit to McDonald’s in over four years for dinner last night, and to the lack of a proper vibrating alarm clock to wake me up for the scheduled 8:15 bus tour of Memphis, Sakkat, the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza. When I willed myself to sleep for the final time at around 3:45am, I found myself positively ecstatic in a dream surrounded by close friends and family while seated around a pool in the blistering summer heat. Pleasant conversation and smiles soon turned to all eyes being on me, which gave way to a scene where everyone chases me out of the front gate so I could return to my car for something important. MoKo (*grins*) slammed on the hood of my car, a yellow VW Golf (future car, maybe?) and I found myself awake with my eyes wide open in my Cairo hotel room. The clock showed 6:45am. Perfect. Thank you, my friends and family for waking me up on time.
I made it down to the concierge at 8:00, paid the 350 LE necessary to go aboard the American Express shuttle that would be driving us around on the tour for the day. Who ‘us’ would be, I had no clue but I knew it would make for an interesting day. As soon as I entered the car, two short southern-European looking men crawled into the shuttle followed by a tall, clearly Egyptian looking man who got into the front seat and introduced himself as Sharif. It felt like the first day of Orientation at CSUN all of a sudden as we went around introducing ourselves and where we hailed from. Ricardo and Garcion, as they introduced themselves, were from Portugal. It was only the three of us with Sharif as our tour guide. A small group. Excellent. The extra effort put into speaking English made it all the easier for me to follow everything that was being said. It was everything I could ask for. Sharif shared that he attended the University of Luxor (or was it Cairo?) for 4 years, majoring in Egyptology which is the study of ancient Egypt. Yes, this also meant that he was fluent, or as near-fluent as one could possibly become in an ancient and dead language, in reading the hieroglyphics. Many curious stories and tidbits about the places we attended and the artifacts we witnessed flowed like wine out of this intriguing character.
Our first stop was to Memphis, the first capital of the united Upper and Lower Egypt. Memphis is located less than an hour outside of the bustling Cairo capital. Once off the highway, bumpy rural roads and swerving through the multitude of donkey powered medieval food carts became the new norm. All of this was while driving alongside a canal with frequent sights of the local youths taking dips into the water. It would have been a beautiful sight had the canal not been the literal wastebasket that it is for the neighborhood. It was a surreal sight seeing a cow carcass floating down the canal in the same vicinity as some children were swimming in.
All along the while, I was happily listening to Sherif intelligently ramble on about the history of Memphis and Ramses II, one of the greatest pharaohs of them all. Damn my memory for failing me on the specific dates and facts but once upon a time Egypt was divided in Lower Egypt, which is modernly Cairo and northwards, and Upper Egypt, which is southward of Cairo all the way to Aswan. King Ramses II united the two halves and ruled until he was 94 years old. We entered the small museum paying tribute to the ancient capital of Memphis, and to its ruler Ramses II. Immediately, we could see a massive sandstone statue of Ramses II lying on its back. Sharif avidly explained that the statue had an inscription of Ramses II’s birth name and his coronation name. He also explained that every single statue of Ramses II looks exactly the same because, even though Ramses lived to be 94, it was the artistic style at the time. The two objects in the statue’s grip was only present to put emphasis on the muscles, and the left foot is placed forward in 100% of the statues to make manifest of the wish for the heart to follow them into the afterlife. (The heart is on the left side of the body, for those whom didn’t realize or happens to have that rare condition where the heart is on their right side.) That was just a bit of the wealth of information that Sharif had to share. Eventually, we meandered out into the courtyard where there was a scattering of random pillars, stone tablets, sarcophagi, and a small sphinx.
A quick drive took us to our second visit. The Sakkat is the location of the Titi pyramid. Imagine all the restrained humor that was flying around inside my head regarding the name. All humor was vanquished when Sharif read a strip of hieroglyphs that said something about the King Titi and his daily life. The hieroglyphs translated to T T I but westerners dubbed the king with the name T I T I. As we sidestepped downwards into my first pyramid, which looked more like a worn down hill than it did an actual pyramid, I felt my heart race for I was entering the tomb of someone whom had deceased over two millennia past. Two thousand years – that’s insane to even comprehend that a team of humans worked together to create a structure that still stands in the present day. Walls covered in hieroglyphs awaited us at the bottom. Sharif looked like a child opening a present on his birthday when I asked him to translate a few of the hieroglyphs. We ducked into another room which turned out to be King Titi’s tomb. A black basalt sarcophagus sat gloomily in the middle of a room with a starred ceiling and hieroglyphs on every wall. The stars signified the heavens. I can only imagine how the first people who broke into the tomb must have felt.
Then, it was onwards to the most famous pyramids in the entire known world – the Pyramids of Giza. I had only two words for when I saw the pyramids up close: ‘massive’ and ‘inspiring’. I think massive speaks for itself. I found the pyramids to be inspiring because the structure is such an astounding feat for its day, impossible even but they achieved the impossible. The pyramids, up close, were actually not as smooth as I imagined them to be. Thanks to Sharif’s extensive knowledge, we knew the answer to why. In ancient Egypt, the pyramids were built with blocks and then covered in an encasement of alabaster, I believe it was. In any case, it was some sort of encasement that smoothed the pyramid. Over the years, the encasement eroded. In the case of the Great Pyramid of Giza, though, one of the invading countries (I cannot remember which because there were the Greeks, Romans, Turks, and the Islam who all invaded at one point or another.) dismantled the encasement to create the Citadel. (I visited the Citadel later in the day and recollect it being of Islamic origin so common sense would dictate that the Islamists dismantled the encasement but don’t quote me on that.)
The tour was officially concluded upon passing the Sphinx, which I found to be a little unremarkable after the glory of the pyramids. The broken nose and missing beard certainly didn’t help matters any but I still appreciated seeing one of the most well-known images on Earth. The sight became quite breathtaking when seeing the Sphinx in line with the Pyramids of Giza in the background. Sharif suggested we visit a small perfume shop that created their essences the same way that the ancient Egyptians did. We took a small back alley route to this obscure perfume shop, which literally lifted my olfactory senses out of the gutter. We were greeted by a Bedouin man and shown samples of their oil essences. Lotus Flower, Papyrus, Arabian Night, Omar Sheref, and Scent of Araby in that order. The Lotus Flower and Arabian Night ones were described as being for women. The Bedouin said that women can only put on Arabian Night after midnight and when she does, she will keep many a men awake from simply having a whiff of the scent. We all shared a laugh. Omar Sheref and Scent of Araby were the other two ‘male’ scents but I immediately fell in love with the musky scent of Papyrus and thought to buy a bottle to use as my own cologne. Alas, my bags are full for Kenya but they had an email address and they deliver! We were served warm peppermint tea followed by a cool hibiscus tea while sampling the nosy treats. I can still smell the five distinct smells placed on separate spots on my wrists and arms even after jumping in the pool thrice and a warm shower with papyrus still being the strongest of them all.
We returned to the hotel after the visit to The Thousand and One Night Flower Extract Palace, where I swam for an hour. I made plans with Ricardo and Garcion to visit the Citadel and the Bazaar. Outside the Hilton, after a good 15 minutes, we managed to bargain with a taxi driver down to 40 LE for a round trip. Travel Tip: NEVER bargain in front of a luxury hotel. It’ll get you all sorts of trouble and worst of all; the driver will act all the more justified to the money sitting in your wallet.
According to the concierge, the Citadel wasn’t due to be closed until 5pm but when we reached the location the guards were shooing us away. After a brief time of us standing around trying to figure out what to do (we had a round-trip deal with the driver, after all), the guards waved us in and told us to pay 50 LE even though there was only 30 minutes left. We speed walked to the booth and sweet talked our way into paying half price on the basis that the sign said 8am – 5pm and it was only 3:30pm. Of course, we were aiming for free but not everything works out in our favor. In this case, it was definitely a win-win situation. It was Garcion’s idea for us to go to the Citadel and props to him because I don’t think I would have found this place. I came into this trip wholly unprepared except for the preparedness to go entirely with the flow. A young woman in a headscarf ripped our tickets for us, and we made our way up to the mosque on a hill overlooking all of Cairo. The Pyramids of Giza could be seen in the hazy distance.
I took some brochures titled ‘About Islam’, ‘The Qur’an’, and ‘God in Islam’. Yes, I took the brochures and put them in my messenger bag to read later. I haven’t had much exposure to the Islamic faith during my upbringing what with being raised Catholic, living in a predominantly Christian nation, and having visited Europe and Australia, both also of Christian and Catholic faiths. My first true exposures occurred in Kenya and I honestly find some aspects of the Islamic traditions to be beautiful. The call to prayer where the mosques sing hauntingly beautiful prayers over loudspeakers to be spread out to all directions at once or the way that I have seen Muslim men worship with such tenderness and love. I felt a sense of reverence fill me as I took my shoes off to enter the mosque and was immediately greeted by the low chanting prayer of a line of eight men praying, all facing Mecca. I saw the same tenderness and love in their prayer that I saw with the men in Kenya. I absorbed everything I saw inside that temple – the beautiful Arabic writing, the domed ceilings, the stained windows, the carpet, the song with eight voices in unison. Soon enough, we were forced to leave the mosque for our 30 minutes had expired.
The Bazaar came next but first, a small meal. I hadn’t had food since the two apples, from Susi’s tree in the front of her house, I ate in the morning. Rodrigo went ahead and chose a restaurant rather in the middle of a line of places that offered more or less the same menu selections. Fried chicken with french fries for Rodrigo, a Coca-cola for Garcion, and a falafel sandwich complete with a spicy tomato-cucumber topping for me. I love falafel, hummus, pita bread, and all that jazz. Did I mention how much I love Arabian food? Afterwards came a walk through the bazaar. It struck me how similar it was in every country – there is always a place that sells touristy stuff and we had fallen right into it. I fleetingly looked at each shop’s wares, filled with busts of the Queens Cleopatra and Nefertiti, little stone scarab beetles, bracelets, rings, and miniature pyramids. We spent some time meandering around but quickly grew tired, so we returned to the hotel. We made an agreement to meet at 9 in the lobby for dinner. How surprisingly quickly these two strangers had become something resembling friends.
I spent an hour and a half soaking in a lukewarm bathtub, contemplating on the events of the day. 9 o’clock rolled around soon enough and I found myself in the hotel lobby meeting Ricardo and Garcion once more. We opted to go by foot into the downtown area for dinner. On the way there, we walked past some demonstrations. Images of last year’s Tahir Square incidents flashed back into my mind. We walked on and picked a nice looking place. I ended up getting stuffed pigeon. I had been seeing pigeon on the menu since I arrived into Cairo last night. The restaurant seemed to be a fine one so I thought why not. It turned out to be one of the more interesting things I’ve eaten in my life. I also got cold artichokes, always a good thing. On the way back to the hotel, we walked along the Nile and experienced a taste of what it’s like to live in Cairo. Boats with flashing fluorescent lights were docked, waiting for passengers while blasting current music. Carts of cactus pears and stands with Egyptians fanning at corn roasting away on the fire while mopeds beeped for people to get the hell out of the way ON the sidewalk. It was no easy feat crossing the streets here as they are far more hazardous than even the roads in Kenya. The cars do not stop and they come FAST. Sometimes, I feel as if they actually steer towards me but that must be my imagination. I think. I stopped to watch a group of adolescent Egyptians dance along to the music from the boats for a time. While walking parallel to the Nile, I contemplated on what I saw around me. I could clearly identify the European architecture from the Middle Eastern ones. The population was a range of skin tones from white skin, with Arab features, to a chestnut brown, with pale green eyes. All in all, Egypt is a melting pot of European, Middle Eastern, and African origins. I felt like I could point out the distinctly European behaviors apart from the African or Middle Eastern ones, and vice versa. I passed a black man with European features and blue-green eyes; a perfect medley of the representation of three continents merging together.
I’m back in my room and ready to hit the sack. Tomorrow there is supposed to be an official demonstration against the official government all over Cairo, with the main one happening in Heliopolis. The Muslim Brotherhood just became elected into the first democratic government since Mubarack’s dictatorship and some people want to make their complaints known. I’m severely ignorant about the topic but intend to learn more. I have a direct view of Tahir Square from my hotel room window. It’s less than 1 km away. I’m very curious to see how things pan out.