Friday, September 5, 2008

First Impressions of Cairo

It’s barely been a day and my head is already spinning…….
But first, indulge me with just a few last (I swear) notes about Tunisia.
The women do love their sparkle there, but it shows up mostly in t-shirts and shoes, both of which take nicely to rhinestones and glitter.
If you’re handicapped in Tunisia, the best I can say is good luck. I saw a very few ramps anywhere, and even the ones I did had a steep incline to them. And you’d be faced with stairs anywhere you go, including (maybe most importantly) any of the public transportation places like bus and train stations.
I think I’ve come to understand a bit more as to why I can often feel so “invisible’ in countries like this: It’s not so much that they don’t want to look at you, but more over that they’re terrified you’re going to ask them a question that they either won’t understand or won’t know the answer. That’s my newest theory on the matter.
Evidently, the wife of the President (Bel Ali) is a major businesswoman throughout Tunisia. One person told me should bought the national airline! But she also does charitable things, so I’m sure there’s some balance. (But man, do they ever have a cult for the President going in Tunisia – his picture is everywhere!)
Tempers seem to be a little shorter during Ramadan, or maybe I’m finally just getting used to how they argue here. It’s often short, but very intense, and then everyone just walks away. Maybe that’s because there are SO many police around, almost all toting a rifle or a gun.
During Ramadan, I do try and not drink in front of others out of respect. That doesn’t mean that I don’t sneak off and have the odd Diet Coke or half liter of water, mind you!
And I don’t think I’ve ever seen more luggage with broken wheels… All of those rickety sidewalks no doubt. But hey: the trains sure do run on time!
I took this as a sign that it was time to move on from Tunisia: just as I was getting ready to leave the hotel room, I turned off the light switch – and the lightbulb burned out. Time to go I’d say.

OK, so now onto Egypt.
Phew, let me catch my breath.
I got up at 4:30 am on the 4th of Sept. to get out of the hotel and out onto the street by 5 am to catch a taxi to the airport. No problems with that, surprisingly, and I was one of the first in line to check in for the 7:30 am flight to Cairo (or Le Caire en francais). The café at the airport was open so I snagged a café au lait with a nice pain au chocolat, and then headed on into duty free, where I bought nothing because they only took euros!
I sat there ruminating, however… about how bad I felt that I didn’t do more. There was the artist I met who did some very nice but average watercolors, and he only wanted 10 dinar for them… I should’ve just given him the money and told him to keep up the good work. Or I always try and tip the bathroom attendant ladies as much as possible. What’s a dollar on our end, but it means so much more to them.
Through Servas, the traveler network I belong to, I contacted Dr. Taher in Cairo, seeing if we could meet at least. He not only asked me to come stay at his home, but he also sent his driver to pick me up at the airport! All of our plans worked fine, and the driver was there and ready, which made getting into Cairo SO much easier. He brought me directly to the doctor’s home, and handed me the key to the place and was on his way. That’s what I love about Servas: the trust factor that you can’t find anywhere else.
Cairo is one of those mega-cuties of umpteen millions (15? 20?), which sprawls in every direction. At first it reminded me a bit of Mexico, but perhaps with a little India thrown in as well. It’s intense, never stopping for anything and I can see why the locals wouldn’t live anywhere else.
It’s going to take me a bit to learn the money here. Basically, one dollar is worth five Egyptian pounds, so a 100 EP is worth $20, and each pound is broken down into 100 piastres. But the problem is that many of the smaller amounts, like 5, 10 and even 50 are all paper currency for both pounds and piastres. In other words, I wasn’t sure if I was giving someone 50 pounds ($10) or 50 piastres (about 10 cents). I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it. This is one of those places where you need to hang onto the small bills cuz no one ever has any change, especially taxi drivers and shop keepers (and restaurants and food vendors… but I won’t go into that).
I sat up and chatted with the good doctor last night, but I did find that getting up so early had taken its toll so I headed to bed so that I could get up early for my first big adventure in Cairo…. The Egyptian Museum. It’s a fabled place, and one that I’ve read about for years and always wanted to visit.
I got up and left before the doc was up, before 9 am. I had directions to the metro that got me there in no time – and a one way metro (subway) ride from Dokki, where I’m staying, to downtown was one pound, or about 20 cents. Take that, London $8-one-way Underground!
Finding the museum isn’t difficult, since it’s monstrous and takes up at least four city blocks, in all its pink stone glory. I only had three guides ask me if I wanted an English-speaking guide for the museum, which I waved off since I wanted to experience it in my own time and my own pace (because guides tend to push you along so they can move onto the next victim). Oh, and a plus is that you can horn in on any of the many guides giving talks, so who needs a private guide?
The highlights are, of course King Tut, which toured the States a decade or two ago, and the mummies….. oh the mummies. So many of them, and it’s hard to keep all of the dynasties and ages straight. I did get the old, middle and new ages, plus the years after the Roman invasion and conquering, which became the Coptic years.
BTW, no picture taking is allowed in the museum (so this photo was NOT shot there.... yeah right). You go through a screener plus a guard pats you down. I did have my camera in my pocket, but he didn’t say anything. My thinking is that they know you might sneak in a few shots, but there’s also a bit of a side business (off the record) where the guards will show you a special exhibit or room, or some will even let you slip in a photo as they watch – but you then need to slip them five pounds or so….. (a buck). Many of the guards were also either reading the Koran (because it’s Ramadan) or just looking plain bored.
I did love the exhibits marked: This case is of little or no interest to the visitor.” No joke, it said that. So why is it there? It’s been said that this is one of the worst curated museums in the world, and I might have to agree. Dusty, poorly lit, with descriptions typed up in the 1920s and now on faded cards, or hand-written cards in their place. But don’t get me wrong! I spend almost five hours there!!
I loved some of the titles they ancient Egyptians gave to their staff: Master of the Secrets of the Toilets, called Ra-Wer; Seneb, the chief dwarf of all wardrobes (evidently dwarves were held in high esteen); the Overseer of the Fishing Boats; Khnoumhotep, the overseer of linen; the famous scribe, Mitri, who was honored with an effigy made of wood and gold (very expensive); and of course, Taweret, the goddess of fertility.
What else do I remember: the sandals made from reeds, over 2000 years old but still looking wearable; the alabaster candelabras from 300-600 AD; the fact that Egypians wore kilts – at least that’s what they called them in the descriptions; and how so many kings had beds ready and waiting for the after life… so many beds. I remember seeing the Tut show before, but this has far more of the pieces: many necklaces that I don’t remember ever seeing, bracelets, rings, arm bands, so much gold, often with lapis, and all of it takes up at least five or six rooms.
Also, seeing so much statuary in one place, it’s amazing how virtually ALL the men had broad shoulders, tiny waists and amazing pectoral muscles. How did they do it?
We have digital imaging available now to communicate who we are and what we’re doing, but all they had was mostly stone and wood. What an amazing trove of history, all in one place. There’s supposedly over 100,000 exhibits within the museum, and they say if you spent one minute at each one, it would take you nine months to see it all. OK, so I made five hours, but I’m super glad I made it!
Tomorrow: The pyramids of Giza!