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"
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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