Essential Cairo Attractions: Planned and Unplanned Adventures in “The City of 1000 Minarets”

Essential Cairo Attractions: Planned and Unplanned Adventures in “The City of 1000 Minarets”

I don’t like big cities so planning to spend 3 days in Cairo probably wasn’t my best travel decision but it allowed me to catch up with some old friends and experience the good, bad and the ugly of Egypt as opposed to a place like Dahab, which I probably would have enjoyed more but would have been a touristy-seaside-paradise that doesn’t reflect the country as a whole.  Nevertheless, Cairo attractions are pretty fascinating… you can cover the highlights in a day or two but make time for experiences that just kind of happened, as many memorable moments do. The Ultimate Tourist Evening in Cairo: Khan El Khalili Bazaar, Feluccas and Koshary When an old couch surfing friend had one night to show me Cairo, he came up with “the plan” that almost everyone recommends for one night in Cairo. He told me to invite the Aussie and Japanese guy and sternly warned us to be prepared to stay up late because Egyptians don’t like to sleep until after the sun comes up. We decided to head into the city early to do some independent explorations before we met Omar and his Egyptian friend after fast breaking. Somehow, we got off the metro at a random square, bazaar and busy bus station so we wasted a couple hours walking around in circles trying to figure out to get to Tahrir Square, where we’d be meeting our Egyptain tour guides. Somewhere along the journey, we found a huge tent covered in royal purple carpets. We poked our heads in, realized it was a Ramadan-fasting breaking tent and tried to excuse ourselves but it was too late: someone had spotted us, gladly greeting us with the typical “Welcome to Egypt” and all the tent’s occupants mobilized to convince us to stay. They found us a seat in the corner, near some English-“speakers”. Before we knew it, the members of the army delivered bright pink boxes with our free dinner: guava juice, dried dates, pasta, peas and some fried balls soaked in sweet stuff. We took selfies with the people at the table, enjoyed our meal as we tried to figure out whether we were eating with poor people, prisoners or mentally unstable people then concluded that they were nice and it didn’t matter. Everyone scarfed down their meals at lightining speeds and they invited us out for coffee but we excused ourselves and continued our search for Tahrir Square. On the way, a few people handed us free treats for Ramadan: a drink of dates in coconut milk and apple juice boxes. We kind of felt guilty because we weren’t Muslim but when we saw how happy they were to give it to us, we gladly accepted (although nothing’s open during Ramadan, it’s a good time of year for hungry backpackers to travel through Islamic countries because everyone’s especially generous!). Eventually we figured out were at the wrong metro station the whole time so we backtracked to get to our meeting point. As the location of the start of the Egyptian Revolution, the government removed the main metro stop to Tahrir Square and it still has security guards and movable gates covered in barbed wire throughout the area. To meet Omar, we passed a memorial for the people who died and lots of intense, freshly painted graffiti showing starving and abused Egyptians. Our first stop was Khan El Khalili bazaar in Islamic Cairo, a place that helped me understand the nickname, “city of a thousand minarets” . Unlike the non-descript, crumbling architecture elsewhere in the city, this area was filled with cobblestone streets, cozy passageways, lined with small shops of people selling spices, hookah pipes, bold-colored tapestries, ornate metal lamps and mother-of-pearl chess sets. The whole place smelled delicious: the sweet scent of shisha, street-side falafel, nectar of prickly pear cactus, dusty old books and waves of cumin wafting around corners. We watched Egyptian families with three generations and a dozen people crowd into closet-sized jewelry stores to help the bride-to-be pick out her wedding ring. Although the areas we were in appeared to be bustling, Omar pointed across the bazaar to a line of shops that had to close their doors after the revolution. Considering the bazaar was bombed during the revolution, the area recovered remarkably well. After we wound ourselves out of the maze, we headed into the car for a felucca ride on the Nile. I couldn’t believe that a 15-minute drive and a sailboat ride was all you need to find serenity in this crazy city but floating on the Nile is an undeniably tranquil experience. I felt like Baby Moses in a basket...

Desert Sleepovers and Sunrise Chakra Alignment in Giza, Egypt

Desert Sleepovers and Sunrise Chakra Alignment in Giza, Egypt

When I was young, I liked to read the book, “Are you my mother?” by PD Eastman. The story is about a baby bird who hatches when his mother flies off to look for food. He peers around, then walks on wobbly legs to search for her, asking a kitten, hen, dog, cow and giant machine, “are you my mother?”. Eventually the bird gets scooped up by a noisy, big and scary digging machine and once the poor bird thinks that things can’t get worse, he gets dropped back in the nest where his mother is waiting to hear about his adventure. On this trip, I’ve felt like the wobbly little bird, but instead asking, “is this real life?” as I look for the place that I belong. Is real life skyping in for research meetings from Bocas del Toro beach in Panama, the microphone picking up the breeze blowing through palm trees? Is real life teaching Indian brainiacs how to make kick-ass PVC catapults? Is real life cutting up cucumbers and tomatoes with Orhan’s mother and sisters for the perpetually present salads that keep the eight people in his family fed, three times a day? Is real life writing about crazy places that most people are too scared to go, and inspiring people to take a chance and travel? Experiencing Giza, Egypt with my spiritual Bedouin host was one of my most bizarre travel experiences but also surprisingly powerful. We slept in the desert next to one of the oldest ceremonial sites on the planet and woke up before sunrise to align our chakras with the help of the proper essential oils by the temple. When you’re alone in a place so ancient, absorbing the energy from such a sacred site, ordinary existence seems laughably trivial. Is this real life? Personally, I aspire to do more than meditate my life away but checking in with yourself is important: living out of alignment and off-balance isn’t the way we’re supposed to exist. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Cast: A Random Assortment of International Misfits So how did I get here? I accepted a couch surfing invitation from Rami, a 35-year old Bedouin man who lived near the pyramids whose family has guided people around the desert for decades. It sounded to me the ultimate authentic experience of Egypt and I couldn’t wait to meet him at the train station. I guess I envisioned my arrival in Giza to be instantly exotic: a lanky camel waiting in the sand to escort me to a cloth tent under a palm tree in a desert oasis. That is NOT what happened. I disembarked the train and waded through the trash on a concrete sidewalk to meet Rami, who led me down a dirty street, parted some curtains and invited me for coffee at a fly-covered street-side “coffee shop” where old men looked at me suspiciously as they puffed on hookah. Although the place looked sketchy, the shot of Turkish coffee startled me with its deliciousness: the thick espresso had a surprising complexity and almost tasted spice-filled. I instantly warmed up to the man who caffeinated me after a 10-hour overnight train ride and listened to Rami explain his connection to the area. His grandfather and father had been giving tours of the pyramids from the early 1900s (and he had pictures to prove it). In addition to having extensive knowledge of the desert, Rami briefly mentioned that his father and grandfather had a heightened sense of people’s souls, a trait that Rami had also inherited. He paused to look deeply in my eyes, “you have a very strong spirit. It’s a bit strangled at the moment but we’ll work on that”. “Hummph,” I replied and I asked him about his other family members, which saturated the city. He had uncles with rooftops where we could watch the Light and Sound show at the Great Pyramids, cousins in hookah bars, and was currently planning a wedding for his brother, which he promptly invited me to. I felt special until I learned I was one of 1600 invited guests. We finished up our coffees and Rami brought me home where he introduced me to two other current surfers. One was Daymo (“Like the song! Daymo… I say Daymo…”), a male nurse from Australia who was perpetually singing, quacking and unsuccessfully attempting to make armpit farts. He hadn’t planned to be in Egypt but his ex-girlfriend expelled him out of Mexico then after a miserable week with her in Canada, Egypt was a cheap place to escape. The other was Mino, a young Japanese guy in swishy wind...

A Lightening Tour: Luxor, Egypt in 24 hours

A Lightening Tour: Luxor, Egypt in 24 hours

Immediately after getting off the train in Luxor, I was swarmed: taxi drivers, hostel owners, souvenir sellers and cafe owners. I waved them away, called my host, but they followed me thinking that if they waved their hands more vigorously, I might actually buy something. So that’s how I traveled down the street of Luxor: talking on my phone to Ernesto, leading a parade of skinny Egyptian guys, brochure flags a-flying to shouts of “welcome!” And “maybe later?”. Fighting my way to the café where Ernesto (my host) told me to wait for him, a Finnish woman came to my rescue and shooed my followers away. She asked, “I saw that you needed help. Can I sit and wait with you? I wanted to go shopping but with Ramadan all the stores are closed. They’ll reopen in an hour. Maybe”. I happily made room and we chatted under the shade, covering our juices with our hands to keep out the leaves and bird poop that was raining down from the tree above. She married an Egyptian, owns a café and has lived in Luxor the past four years. When I asked her whether she lived living here, she shrugged. “It’s cheap, it’s where my husband is from and we built a house. I still don’t understand them- they’re always praying, shops are never open when you want them to be but Luxor’s nice. Even during the revolution, Luxor was safe”. I asked her if she spoke Arabic, and she sighed apologetically, “I know a few words. I should learn. Building my house taught me that. I thought I could communicate with the workers and tell them to paint the walls gold- I showed them too. I turned my back and all of a sudden, the interior of my home was bright orange”. I get the impression that ex-pats don’t make too much of an effort to integrate themselves and resign themselves to a chaotic existence. But at least it doesn’t cost much. Dripping with sweat, the pale-skinned, redheaded Ernesto eventually arrived, panting and complaining about finding a bus around the fast-breaking time. Since nothing operates as it should during Ramadan (somehow I doubt things operate on schedule, ever in Egypt). We bid farewell and good luck to the Finnish woman, stowed my luggage at Ernesto’s favorite café then headed across the street to the Luxor temple, which they keep open after dark. From a young age, back home in Uruguay, Egyptian culture fascinated Ernesto and all he wanted for his birthdays were books about this ancient civilization. He first came to Luxor in 2004 to study Egyptology, stayed near the Valley of the King with locals and was treated as one of the family. He returned twice since then, and when the government relocated the family out of the hills to new land in the middle of nowhere, Ernesto decided to build a house in the family complex and stay. I asked him whether he planned to stay forever and he replied, “who knows? Moving here just kind of happened. It only cost a couple month’s rent in Uruguay to build this house. I’m here now. Where I’ll be permanently, God only knows”. Approaching the temple, I felt instantly dwarfed by the massive structure. I walked backward, trying to zoom out enough to capture the entrance in a photograph. Ernesto gestured for me to walk further back, down a pathway lined with sphinxes, for a more dramatic shot. He claimed that the government hopes to continue this path from to the enormous Karnak Temple Complex, which makes this one look teeny. He explained how ordinary citizens weren’t allowed inside the temple and how the temple got smaller the farther you walked back, because of increasing restrictions about who can access it. Local Life in Luxor Our conversations about Egypt continued well after we finished the temple tour and took the ferry to his home on the West Bank. He told me about how his host family lost their tourist shop and source of income when the government relocated them but their hospitality for Ernesto never waned. In their current village, they deal with daily power outages, unannounced water shortages and even the “supermarket” was a sad sight: no bread, no fruits and veggies and you’ll have to battle your neighbors for chicken which sells out quickly after a shipment arrives. However, the family works through these difficulties together and Ernesto was proud to be a part of it. When we returned to his home, he pulled books out of his Egyptian library to show me pictures of what I would be seeing in my...

Nubian Culture & Hospitality in Aswan, Egypt

Nubian Culture & Hospitality in Aswan, Egypt

Why did I chose Egypt? Well, that’s obvious. How could anyone resist the mysterious allure of glittering pharaohs, camel caravans in the desert anti-gravitational curling beards and mummy doctors who pull brains out of your noses. Why Aswan? Bloggers promised Aswan would be relaxing, felucca-filled (feluccas are Egyptian sailboats) city on the Nile and claimed it housed the majority of the Nubian population. Egypt would be my first trip to Africa and I thought these beautiful, dark people in flowing robes could give me more of an African experience than I would find in Cairo or Alexandria. When a Nubian couch surfer invited me to stay in his village on Elephantine Island, I couldn’t be more excited. Arrival in Aswan I arrived in Aswan slightly before midnight and the first person I met as I exited the airport was my Nubian taxi driver, Mohammad (who told me that every man in this country will be named Mohammad, Ahmed or Sherif). He hoisted my bags with a surprising amount of agility for a guy in a man-dress then warmly welcomed me to his beloved home of Aswan. After our preliminary introductions, he took it upon himself to teach me some Arabic and Nubian.  I promptly forgot both but Nubian is exclusively a spoken language and apparently not well-documented online so those words are lost forever.  The Internet helped me recovered some Arabic.  Firstly, I learned: “Welcome” (ahlan wa sahlan, which everyone says ALL THE TIME) and, secondly, “I love you” (ana b’hebbek). I didn’t know it at the time but this interaction uncovered the first grand truth of traveling in Egypt: if proclamation of love or marriage doesn’t come up within five minutes (usually less) of talking to a man, he’s not from around here. I’ve been called Madame and Shakira, had dozens of kisses blown my way and received over two dozen marriage proposals within 48 hours. Anyway, back to the taxi drive: Mohammad took me on an animated tour of Aswan, pointing out the new football stadium, an old-looking cemetery and a line of papyrus and perfume shops. Since I visited during Ramadan, the city really came alive at night. Blinking Christmas lights illuminated the mosques, shiny streamers decorated homes and everyone was outside: eating snacks, kicking around balls in the middle of street and smoking hookah in make-shift cafes. He dropped me at a dark ferry station where the teen fee-collector gorged himself on a plastic-bag full of pita bread. Sure enough, it was the wrong ferry station but Gasser, my host, sorted out the mix-up with a phone call to the attendant (once the boy stopped chewing) and came to my rescue. Brief History of the Nubian People Gasser is a 100% Nubian and proud of it. He had worked as a masseuse on cruise ships in Aswan but after the Egyptian Revolution, as with many working in tourism, he lost his job but now works in Sudan for a few months at a time. When the ferry dropped us off and we shuffled through dark, sandy streets to the house, Gasser shared the story of his people. Nubians used to rule the Pharaohs of Egypt in their kingdom between Egypt and Sudan but when the Pharaohs grew in strength they kicked Nubians out of Egypt. Although they lost their kingdom, Nubians slowly began to re-integrate themselves into Egyptian society but in 1960, when the Egyptian president decided to build the Aswan high dam, they lost their lands. Half returned to Northern Sudan and the remainder stayed in Southern Egypt. Gasser, like many of the Nubians who grew up on the banks of the Nile, was educated in Egyptian schools, learned Arabic and now Nubians peacefully co-exist with the Egyptian people. Gasser’s family lives on Elephantine Island, a small simple place without any cars. Gasser’s sister owns an incredible two-bedroom villa on the side of the Nile, which Gasser uses to host lucky couch surfers when no tourists occupy it. Nubians (and Egyptians in general) love Bob Marley (and Jamaicans claim to have Nubian roots) so he left me in paradise, with “Buffalo Soldier” playing softly. Essential Aswan: An Afternoon of Sightseeing Waking up to river breezes and the sounds of goats bleating, the next morning was incredible. I made myself instant coffee and watched Nubian boys fish from the shore with sticks and string and a felucca boat slowly sail by. Even though it was hard to tear myself away from this peaceful place, I packed my stuff, wandered through the Nubian village then took the ferry to the big city, which was basically deserted during Ramadan. I found a dusty...