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Captivating Cairo

January 17, 2011

On Sunday we had one full day down in Cairo. We woke up wondering what, after such an eventful first day, we would experience.

We determined to go to the Egyptian Museum to add some context to the places we were going to visit. In all of the “guide” type of information they say to arrive by 9 a.m. to avoid the tour buses. I think the tour buses also plan to arrive by 9 a.m. to avoid the tour buses, because by the time we got there, which was just after 9, it was crazy crowded. It was also enormous, and the security to get there was amazing. The hotel offers to hold a person’s passport, but we decided that we wanted ours with us – good thing, because it seemed that everywhere we went, we had to have our passports at the ready! The security consisted of the following: Passport check, purse check (and some people get a pat down). Then to the next area, where your purse/bag is scanned and you go through another metal detector.

The museum – as I said, huge. Not well laid out, and no guidebooks until you get to the gift shop at the end. Perhaps this is a way for them to “encourage” you to hire a guide, many of whom are willing and waiting, and approach people who are not part of large groups as soon as you buy your ticket. You can walk around for hours and try to figure out what is what – we did a little bit of that, and then hit the “hot spots”. We bypassed the mummies, as we had paid a 60 pound (Egyptian) entrance fee and to see the mummies was an additional 50. Then we got up to the Tut area, where everyone was crowding around. It was amazing – this huge library, and everyone wanted to see the Tut things, and pretty much only those – it was like they did the rest of it just to get to that part.

We spent two hours there, then decided it was time to move on. The crowds were getting to me. It was not crowded like it was on the street, with everyone having a sense of purpose. It was crowded with foreigners (I was not stared at once while we were there) who did not know where they were going or what they were doing – it was like without their tour guides, they were lost lambs, with a somewhat terrified look in their eyes. In trying to remember how many languages I heard that day as we were walking around, I count at least seven, but that may be a low estimate.

Interestingly enough, the whole time were were in Cairo, I kept hearing Russian! I recognized the tour logo on the buses outside. I did not, however, engage in a conversation with anyone who spoke Russian.

After getting charged 5 pounds to use the ladies’ room (Terry was charged nothing, AND there were two sets of mens’ rooms for every one set of ladies’) we were off to get some lunch. Time to try the well-known dish of koshary.

Terry had tried koshary on Saturday, but I had satisfied myself with falafel that day. For those who have never heard of it, koshary (KOO-sha-ree) is a dish made with chickpeas, lentils, 2 kinds of pasta, rice, onions, and sauce (tomato and garlic based, hot sauce optional). At some places you can also add chicken or beef to it, but it is traditionally eaten without meat. It is cheap and filling, and I ate it three times while in Cairo (I had falafel more often). It sounds a bit strange but is actually rather tasty, and everyone has their own spin on it.

With my koshary I had a soda, which turned out to be a bit of a blast from the past, as they use pull tabs on the tops of their soda cans. I have not seen pull tabs since I was a child, before they were outlawed in the U.S. I also indulged in Coke Zero while I was there, something that is not found in Ukraine.

So with full bellies, we decided to get on the Metro and visit Coptic Cairo. While getting TO Coptic Cairo was easy (the Metro dropped us off right across the street from the Coptic Museum), getting IN was not. We walked down the street, looking for the entrance, which turned out to be down some stairs and through a tunnel. None of which was marked. In looking for it, we passed through the security gate, then realized we had to go back in, so even though we had just gone through, we had to then re-enter through the scanning area! The irony of having to do this is that when we used the Metro, there was no security to pass through!

Also in Coptic Cairo I saw what I would call the “typical Americans” and really wanted to take out my camera and capture them. They were sitting at a table outside a restaurant that clearly catered to Americans (serving pizza and hamburgers). The man was sitting there, having his shoes shined and one of the women was showing off some souvenirs to another one. Sigh.

But in Coptic Cairo I got to see the Ben Ezra Synagogue – the second of the two synagogues left in Cairo. Unfortunately I could not take any photos (not even for “baksheesh”) – the synagogue, though tiny, is so beautiful.

After Coptic Cairo, we decided to look for the Nilometer. It was clear, even with our poor map, that we had to take a taxi over to Roda Island to see the Nilometer. However, none of the taxi drivers knew where it was! We finally found one (with a meter in the cab, no less, which meant no haggling about price) who seemed to understand where we wanted to go, we were mystified at how he drove. Apparently, there are some really unusual rules in Cairo about turning left, and we ended up going in what seemed to be a strange direction, turned around, came back, and reached the Nilometer site…as it was closing. Hell.

After that, we gave up, called it a day, went back to the hotel, and went out for Chinese food that night. Of course, after that we went to a local patisserie for gelato. It was so interesting to me to be a Western woman in this culture – generally, if there was a crowd of people coming or going anywhere, and it was men, the women would stand back and allow them to pass. Not me. It was also interesting to see the veiled women eat their gelato – they had to lift their veil and bring the gelato under it to do so. I thought, there is no way I could do that and not get that veil filthy by the end of the day.

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