Thursday, June 24, 2004

Walking with Egyptians

Let me start by saying that I am in love, no, dare I say, yes, in RAPTURE with Egypt. It is one of the most interesting places I have visited and the people are unbelievably nice. Seriously. People are 99% more likely to offer me falafel that harass me about the United States. No one has given me any problems, either for being a woman traveling alone, or for being an American.

I am currently in the Siwa Oasis, in the middle of the desert about 35 miles from the Libyan border. It is really a bizarre place. Hours in the bus of nothing but sand, then all of a sudden, BAM! village lit up like a Christmas tree. I guess it is like when people describe coming upon Las Vegas in the Nevada desert. (I wouldn’t know. I am scared of states that don’t touch oceans.) I am out here hiding from tourism. I have been running around at a breakneck pace looking at the sites, so I came somewhere where there was nothing to see to relax for a while.

I have been in Cairo since I last spoke to you. It would take a week to run through everything I saw, but I'll give you the highlights.

Whirling Dervishes - I thought they were something my grandmother made up (Kristen Anne - stop spinning like that! You’d think you are a whirling dervish!), but they are real. Basically you spin around really fast for an hour, then you see God. I went to tourist show, so they were a little less concerned with seeing God, but man they sure spun around. With their huge colorful skirts flashing. At up to 100 revolutions per minute. To the point of tedium at times.

Citadel - A massive building on top of a hill (hence citadel) with some old defensive strategic importance, and some neat mosques. I thought that I was sufficiently covered, tee shirt and pants, but the two inches of upper arm I was showing was a problem. They were nice enough to give me a bright green floor length polyester cloak to wear. With the other tourists, walking around this richly furnished interior, we looked like a bunch of extras from a Harry Potter movie. Other highlights included the palace where one of the sultans invited all the major political figures in the land to dinner and desert, locked the doors and killed them. Gruesome but efficient. There was also the Rifa’ir mosque, which was significant it is where the Shah of Iran and the last monarch of Egypt are buried. For those in the know, Rifa’ir is the THE place this season to entomb your deposed despots.

Coptic Cairo - The Christian section of the city with elaborate churches and small winding alleys. The Copts are a sect started by the Apostle Mark back in the day. I don’t know much about their beliefs, but the churches make even the most ornate Greek Orthodox church look like a Calvinist meeting hall. The Hanging Church was a little disappointing, as it is no longer hanging. There was, however, a rather impressive synagogue in the area, but it is no longer used. It is interesting that religion was both the impetus to build this incredible building, and the reason for its abandonment.

PYRAMIDS - Okay, there is a reason that these bad boys are a wonder of the world. In - flipping - credible. Do you know how BIG these things are? Serious. The bases are bigger than a city block and they are about the height of a 30 story building. They let you run around the inside some of them. It is a little creepy inside (who'd a thunk that a 3000 year old tomb would be creepy inside?), but fun nonetheless. The passages are low (no more than 3 foot square) and you have to scurry around in them. Outside it is brutally hot and camels are eating whatever little vegetation they can find - when they are not toting tourists around. The Sphinx was especially cool. You don’t really think of it as being real, just a cultural icon people slap on things, but here it was. I was traveling with a Canadian I picked up in the Egyptian Museum (hey, can I see your Lonely Planet?), and he and I were on a bit of a budget for the adventure. Instead of hiring an expensive camel, or car, or horse to shuttle us between tombs, we walked and hitch-hiked, sometimes with nice air conditioned cars of Irish tourists, sometimes on the back of backhoes. You know.

Carpet “School” – After the pyramids and a couple of other sights in the area, the taxi driver wanted to take us, the happy couple, carpet shopping. We weren’t exactly jazzed, but he promised we could be in and out in 15 minutes and it might be neat to see the carpet school, so okay. The owner proudly showed us 35 or so underage children hand-knotting carpets, some as young as 8 or 9. Look honey, take my picture next to the slave labor. The owner explained that they were on vacation from school, learning the ancient art of carpet making. Yeah right.

Islamic Cairo - This is the old city, mosques, vegetable stands, men carrying hundreds of loaves of pita bread on top on their head on racks... I visited a few mosques here, including the oldest university in the Cairo, al-Azhar, which is still very strictly Islamist and made me wrap up, not too much unlike the mummies in the museum... I really liked this section of town. And no one hassled me or bothered me in anyway. I got a couple of looks when I went into a local restaurant, but I just sat in the woman's section and ate my kushari (it involves lentils and noodles) and drank my kakaday ( known as biisap in West Africa, it is made of dried red leaves boiled and sweetened. In the Corps, we used to call it African Kool Aid).

Yesterday I went to Alexandria for a few hours before connecting to the bus for the Oasis. Alexandria is like a different country. Cool, breezy, Mediterranean, filled with Greek and Roman ruins in addition to the hieroglyphs. I went to an old Roman theater, the catacombs and a museum (where again, things are labeled in either Arabic, French, English or Braille, but only one. Braille especially makes sense since everything in the museum is under glass.) Nothing too exciting.

So I am loving Egypt. It is a completely modern country, on par with maybe Vietnam or even Thailand. The street food is delicious. Who knew a race of people could come up with so many delicious ways to serve chick peas? And the best part is the juice stands on every corner. If I am having a frustrating moment, I just go to the corner, give them the equivalent of a quarter, and they give me a huge glass of mango juice. Then things are better.

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