Friday, December 11, 2009


Getting into Egypt was no problem for us. Unlike England, we just paid $15 each for a pretty visa and were stamped through. Our luggage showed up pretty quickly. Next thing, we were out the front door looking for our pick-up guy. It was midnight when we came into Cairo, but the hostel said that it would be no problem to have someone there to get us. There was a large crowd of men holding signs with various names on them, but we found our name pretty easily, right at the front. He loaded our luggage into the trunk of his car, shut the lid and said "Bye bye" as he walked off. I'm not sure what anyone else's facial expression was, but I just blankly stared after him for the three seconds he was walking away from us. Luckily he turned back around with a big grin and a chuckle and I realized he was just pulling our legs. If he had been serious though, I would have been out of luck! I'm so gullible sometimes. The drive to the hostel was interesting. Driving in Cairo (possibly all of Egypt as well) is very different than anywhere else we've been so far. The only lane lines they might bother with obeying are the ones dividing opposite directions of traffic. Otherwise, it's every man for himself. Wherever your car fits, stick it in. If there were technically three lanes, then you'd typically find about five cars squeezed in, fighting to get ahead of each other. Honking is absolutely necessary in this sort of environment, otherwise they'd be constantly crashing into each other I think. And their safety standards are different than I am used to. For example, we saw a pick-up truck piled 6 feet high with furniture and boxes, all tentatively secured in place with ropes. On the top ledge of one of the boxes was a boy! He was laying down, holding on with just his hands! If the driver had taken off a bit too quickly then the kid would have gone flying off his little shelf into traffic! And lastly, the street lights are mostly ignored. A red light means "glance to the left or right as you cross the intersection, if you feel like it." Somehow, it all works out though. We saw one accident during our whole trip, and it was just a tap from behind. No damage. So, our trip to the hotel was a nice introduction to Cairo driving! We met one of our awesome hostel "guides" when we arrived: Mohamed. He was nice enough to let us hang out in the hostel common area until morning, when our room would be available. Robyn and Chuck ended up falling asleep for a while on the cushions that lined the floor, but I managed to push through and stay awake. Once we were in our room though (which was actually really nice, especially for a hostel) I crashed for most of the day. When I woke up later in the afternoon Robyn told me about a Nile River Dinner Cruise that Mohamed mentioned. We decided it sounded like fun! We were picked up by a driver who weaseled his way through the congested traffic to our little boat. When I say little, I mean little-er than some of the other boats that were docked along the water front. Our boat was big enough to fit two large dining rooms, one on each floor. I think we were all seated according to nationality because we ended up at a table with another American couple and a British couple. We talked with the British couple over the course of the night - they were very nice. Dinner was buffet style and mostly very tasty, but wasn't really the highlight of the evening. The highlight was the dancing! After dinner the lights dimmed and the drums started and a scantily clad woman struts into the center of the room and begins to gyrate. Her hips seemed to be dislocated from the rest of her body at times. She shimmied around the center of the room, spinning and popping for a good 30 minutes before she was done. Belly dancing is such a cool form of dance. After she made her grand exit, a very short man (ie: a little person) marched his way to the center of the room. He was dressed in the traditional Sufi dancing costume: two long multicolored skirts, a short blue jacket with gold embroidery along every edge, and a white beanie-like hat with a white scarf tucked around it. The drums still going, he began to spin in place. The colorful skirts flared out around him as he spun in circles. After a bit he untied the top-most skirt, still spinning. He slipped it off over his head, folded it up and passed it quickly to one of his buddies. Without missing a beat, be unwrapped his white scarf from his head, stuffed it into the little beanie, and tossed that to his friend as well. Then he untied the last skirt (don't worry, he had clothes on underneath), lowered it until it was almost dragging on the floor - still spinning mind you - then pulled it over his head and suddenly stopped. He gave a feigned sigh of exasperation to another Sufi dancer who had made his way to the center of the room, and stomped off. I think it was all a little comedy routine before the "real" performance started? It made everyone laugh at least. And then the new dancer (all 6 feet of him) began spinning, his pretty skirts billowing around him like a colorful tea saucer. He was really incredible! The whole dance lasted about 30 minutes I think, and he was spinning the entire time. He used spotting (I think that's what it's called) - like how ballerinas do - to keep from getting dizzy. His head would whip around to the same point after his body had already begun to turn, always focused on a particular spot. His spot would change frequently though because he liked to interact with the audience and chat at people. When he took off his top skirt and folded it up, he folded it as though it were a swaddled baby, then whipped out a bottle and pretended to feed it. At another point he was given a serving tray, an empty glass and a bottle of water (yes, all while still spinning). Holding the tray at an angle, he set the glass on it and poured himself a drink of water! Nothing was spilled. And at the end of the routine when he lifted his second skirt over his head, instead of dropping it and being done, he spun it around and around over his head, like a big lasso. He wandered around to everyone's table, chatting amiably, spinning his skirt, making jokes. It reminded me of a UFO. When he came near us, we could feel the wind it was generating. He must have some serious strength to keep it up for the 15 minutes he did. It was a very good show and made the cruise worth it. On our way back to the hostel our car was motioned to the side of the road by one of the many police-men that are always present. Our driver seemed a tad nervous, but mostly annoyed as he gathered his necessary paperwork and handed it over. I have to admit that I was a bit nervous myself. I prayed that our driver wasn't in any kind of trouble and we wouldn't be stranded in the company of a bunch of Egyptian police. Of course, everything turned out fine and it was just a random stop. Back at the hotel we were all quick to fall asleep for the night.

On the 24th we did the Pyramids thing. We wanted to save money and decided taking the bus would be an optimal money-saving strategy. We went for the more expensive bus though: 2 LE instead of .50 LE. In other words, we could have spent $0.09 US cents as opposed to our $0.36, but we decided the luxury would be worth the extra $0.27. We managed to find the bus stop with the help of a few hyper-friendly Egyptians. Gosh, Egyptians are friendly! Some in an altruistic way, and others in a let-me-get-business-for-my-brother-by-helping-these-poor-saps-and-leading-them-to-his-shop sort of way. So, we caught the bus and settled in for the hour-or-so journey to the great ancient sight. We had no idea where to get off - would we be able to see the pyramids from the stop? Would there be a sign? Would they announce it? Robyn fell into conversation with one of those friendly Egyptian men as we neared the hour mark. He told us that we should get off at the next stop, that he knows all about the sphinx because he lives right next to it. He will help us and show us where to go. His second name, he informed us, is No Problem. Mr. No Problem. So we follow him off, a bit apprehensive, but willing to try this out. He guides us across the crazy ass Cairo traffic (you're really testing the fates when crossing big roads) by holding his arms up, palm out, seemingly forcing cars to stop by sheer willpower. He tells us his help is not free. That we should pay him by helping him - like he is helping us - if we ever see him in America. Everything he says is accompanied by a big, genuine smile. He's a genuinely friendly guy, who genuinely wants to help us. He hails thing to take us to the pyramids. The cab looked like an old, rusty, white VW van. The seats were barely hanging on, figuratively and literally. They were torn up with pieces missing, and as we discovered when the van jolted forward into traffic, they weren't bolted to the floor very well. Mr. No Problem drew us a hasty, child-like map of the pyramids with a lopsided sun in the sky and pointed out all the places we should make sure to see. Once we arrived at the pyramids - or as it turned out, his friends travel shop right by the pyramids - we paid the van-driver .50 LE each for the ride. Inside the travel shop we were all treated to a hospitable round of drinks before any transactions and package deals were even thought about. Tea for Robyn (they kept laughing and calling it Egyptian whiskey), water for me, and 7-Up (or 7-Down as our friend called it) for Chuck. After about 10 minutes the tour-guide-fellow got down to business and started talking tours with us. He was a robust guy, with a happy but calculating face and wore one of those long beige man-dresses. Unfortunately I don't know what they're called, so "man-dress" will have to suffice. He rattled off the options and then the prices and inside I hug my head in annoyance. It looked like we weren't going to get away with a cheap day. We haggled a bit with him and finally settled on $40 per person to get a panoramic view of all 9 pyramids (yes, there are 9 pyramids at Giza, 3 huge and 6 tiny ones that you can't actually see from this oh-so-wonderful view point), see the 3 big ones, touch one of the smaller ones, and see the sphinx. Oh, and all this on a camel. So we get our camels first thing. They were pitiful creatures that broke my heart. I was more fascinated by them than the pyramids half the time. Mine had a gaping neck wound that was hidden under a writhing mass of flies and I couldn't stop staring at it. Robyn's was kind of cute and would occasionally press his face against my leg, reminding me of a cat rubbing against me in affection. He probably just had an itch on his face, but I liked to think that he liked me. Robyn's camel was tethered to mine which was tethered to Chuck's and the whole procession was led by a young man on foot. Our tour guide rode a horse along side us and would occasionally give Chuck's camel a good thwack on the behind with a stick. Sometimes the creature would obey and pick up the pace momentarily, but more often he would just fart. Egyptian music our tour guide called it. Farting camels. Robyn was praised as the best camel-rider among us. He said that if she ever wanted a job she could come and teach people to ride camels. I think he meant it too. Not the job part, but that she was a good rider. He commented on it to me when she was out of earshot saying that she goes with the flow of the camel. He would make remarks to us about being a good belly dancer if you ride camels well. I can't compare it to riding a horse because the last and possibly only time I was on one was over 10 years ago. But he told us to sit up very straight and to let your hips rock under you with the camels movement, trying to detach the movement from your torso. Those weren't his exact words, but I gathered that's basically what he meant. Despite my guilt at enabling what I can only imagine is an unpleasant life for the camels, I enjoyed the ride. Poor beasts. As I mentioned, the panoramic view was less than astounding. We had to ask where the other small pyramids were, and even then I couldn't see them. In front of us were the pyramids and behind was a swath of desert as far as the eye could see. We were told it's the beginning of the Sahara desert. I looked it up - the Sahara is the same size as the USA: 3,500,000 square miles. Holy crap! Just imagine the ancient people who were able to make homes there, or those who ventured to cross it, many of them dying I'm sure. Man, what a life that must have been. We crossed the tiny-in-comparison bit of desert towards the pyramids and got up close to the one belonging to Menkaure and the three nearby Pyramids of Queens. We got to climb on the 3 small ones and Robyn climbed up a bit on Menkaure before one of the pyramid-police blew his whistle and started yelling. Our guides didn't seem to care, but I guess we're not supposed to climb on the big pyramid. I can understand that. I suppose before we could climb on the pyramids we had to get off our camels, so let me explain how that's done. The camel-handler grabs the reins and drags the camels head down towards the ground while sort of beating his front legs for further "encouragement." The beast lurches forward as it drops to it's knees, giving you just a bit of whiplash as you hang on tightly. Then it drops it's back legs to the ground, springing you back the other direction. All the while the camel is making these horrible gurgling noises and sounding something like an angry clogged sink. So they beat all our camels into a sitting position so we could get down, and then again to mount back up and move on toward the Sphinx. Chuck got on his camel and the 10 year old boy that had replaced our camel-walker had the creature get up before I had gotten on mine. This forced my camel to rise as well due to the fact that they were tethered together and the poor boy got a bit of a yelling-at by our tour guide for his mistake. Luckily I was just preparing to get on my camel and hadn't actually swung my leg over yet, so I avoided being tossed off or anything like that. As we cantered around the side of the pyramids towards the Sphinx I noticed that it seemed like we were being shouted at by the white-uniformed police on a couple of occasions. I'm not sure why, but looking back I suspect that perhaps we weren't actually authorized to be there. I wouldn't be surprised if our guide pocketed most of the money and didn't actually pay the entrance fees he was supposed to. We always stayed just far enough away from any authority figures that it would take them a bit of time to run out to question us. And our visit to the Sphinx was from quite a distance away, once again leading me think that he didn't actually pay the entrance fee to officially see the thing. I was feeling a bit ripped off to be honest. I paid him $40 for something I could have done on my own. In fact, we could have paid the standard admission price for the pyramids and the Sphinx at $20 a person and gone right up close. So we basically paid for an expensive camel ride and the company of a guide, who didn't actually give much information about the pyramids. There were no history lessons, no geography lessons, just jokes about belly-dancing camel-riding. I mean, he was a nice enough fellow and I understand the... relaxed nature of Egyptian culture, but I felt ripped off. I was also annoyed with the fact that I couldn't just freely wander around to good view points and pose for pictures. Being stuck on a camel meant that positioning yourself for a good photo was near impossible. And the fact that we viewed the Sphinx from so far away meant getting a picture with it wasn't going to happen. Grr. We made our way back to the travel shop for another round of laid back Egyptian whiskey - er, tea I mean. He invited us to come see an Egyptian wedding that was being held right by the pyramids and said that it would go all night. That was pretty tempting, but we were in a hurry to get back and make it to a free dancing show that evening. Unfortunately I ended up eating a 6 hour old cheeseburger from McDonald's that I had stuffed in my purse and I got sick on the ride home. The poor taxi driver... I puked out the window as we were passing over the bridge across the Nile. I looked back at the door in shame when we got out at our stop and saw threads of vomit streaking the door. He charged us 10 LE extra for the trouble... I was so embarrassed. Why me?? Ah well. And after all that we missed our dancing show. Traffic in Cairo does not move quickly. But I think we were all relieved to be able to relax after such a long day. I know I was happy to have a nearby bathroom...

Chuck and I had decided that we were going to go to India after Cairo (Robyn wouldn't be joining us because she was going home), so on the 25th we walked to the Indian consulate to the start the visa process. It was a simple matter of filling out some paperwork to get the ball rolling that morning. Around lunch-time the three of us headed towards the Egyptian Museum (or the British Museum as I kept calling it). Before leaving, Mohamed suggested we try a place called Abou Tarek for lunch. We had to ask directions from a couple of helpful people along the way, but it was easy to spot once the big white building with neon blue signage was in view. The specialty - and possibly only - meal at Abou Tarek is a dish called kushari. Oh man, is it good! They bring out a big bowl of pasta, vermicelli rice, and lentils. You top this with a special tomato sauce, chick peas, and fried onions. Mix well and enjoy! I think it would be a great food for a college town. The waiters at the restaurant were funny. When they saw our camera they wanted us to take a picture with them, and when we left they were sure to ask if we were going to come back the next day. It was so good that I thought perhaps we would. We went to the museum after that. We had to go through three different security checkpoints, and weren't allowed to even bring our cameras in the museum with us. They're very strict about the no-photos policy. I wish I had been able to get some pictures though, because the museum was an interesting place. It was like an antique in and of itself. It felt like perhaps some archaeologists had dropped off loads of finds and just tucked them into the corners of the building wherever they would fit. The signs on the exhibits were dark brown with age, and looked as though they had been typed up on a typewriter. It just felt very old. Quite a unique museum! And the amount of stuff they have is astounding. The museum itself really isn't all that big, but they have so many objects on display that it takes two hours just to walk past everything, much less actually look at it all. I admit that after the first half hour, Chuck and I ended up just breezing past most of everything. I mean, it's really special stuff they have there, but it's so overwhelming that it drains you. And it all starts to look the same. And you don't really know the cool story behind each piece. We were excited to see the mummies, but the "Royal Mummy Room" was an extra 100 LE, so we skipped that. We did get to see the mummified animals room, which we thought was pretty cool. They had mummified crocodiles, cows, birds, cats, dogs, etc. And on a cultural note, Chuck and I witnessed a young lady in full black head-dress and garb lift her veil and smile for a photo (how they smuggled their camera in, I don't know) with some artifact. Her boyfriend, or brother, or whoever it was snapped the picture and she dropped her veil back in place. I couldn't help but wonder if she had just broken a sacred religious law, or if it's big deal. I mean, rationally speaking it would all depend on the "strength of her convictions," or perhaps the strength of her father's convictions in the case of Islam. I mean, in Christianity there are different levels of devotion that people will go to, depending on how strict they are in their beliefs, so I imagine it would be the same for any other religion. It was just strange to actually see the face behind the veil for once! She was pretty too. So after walking around the museum for a couple of hours we went back to the hostel. Mohamed noticed us sitting around being lazy (he always noticed when we were being lazy) and told us about the Khan el Khalili. It's a big bazaar that is busy until 11:00 PM or so. He gave us directions on how to walk there and we headed out. We came to a crazy, crowded, bustling market and figured it must be the bazaar. We walked through and were immediately accosted by vendors trying to get us to check out their goods. They were all very aggressive and the young guys would eye us girls with that...look. The kind of look that ladies don't actually like to get because it makes one feel somewhat uncomfortable. And they would follow us a bit too, asking where we were from, and maybe sometimes saying "Beautiful" or things like that. Robyn got this treatment more than me and after walking down one leg of the market she was about ready to explode. She pretty much demanded that we leave, and with the tension being rather high by that point there was a bit of snapping at each other as we headed back towards the hostel. It wasn't the nicest experience. We stopped by a place called GAD for food on the way. It's an Egyptian chain eatery. The first time that Chuck and I went was a bit scary. It's a very busy place, and ordering works differently than we were used to. First, we had to find an English menu because I'm still not quite solid with my Arabic. Luckily a nice guy who worked there noticed us looking incredibly lost and gave us one. Then you order at the cashier and he gives you various receipts. You take the receipts to the appropriate stations. I'm really not sure where each receipt goes and we always had to ask, but I think meat dishes are at one station, pancakes at another, sandwiches at another, etc. It's actually pretty confusing! But we managed to somehow figure it out each time we went. So to go back to the current night, we tried some new dishes. I got a honey smothered pancake called fatir and Chuck got something called fuul (or as they spell it on the English menu: foul). It's like Egyptian chilli. But my pancake, I have to say, was awesome! It's more crepe-y than fluffy, and it's about two feet across. They fold it all up so it's about 5x8 inches. Then they drizzle a ton of honey over the whole thing, making a delicious, warm pile of goodness. When we got back to the hostel Mohamed asked us why we were back so soon. We told hi we'd gone to the bazaar and it was too crazy for us. He sighed once we described where we had gone and told us we didn't go to the right bazaar. Oops! But he offered to take us there the next night if we wanted.

We were lazy on the 26th. We went for lunch at a new place where we tried some taamia (felafel) and hawawshi. While we were there we met an older gentleman from California. He was studying in Egypt and seemed happy to see some American faces. He seemed a bit anxious to be out of Egypt and back to the States. And after lunch we stopped into McDonald's for some sweet treats: a Coke, McFlurry, and a Shake. It even rained a tiny bit while we were out! I don't know if that was unusual, but I figured being in a desert would mean rain isn't that common. That night Mohamed was true to his word. He took us out to the real Khan el Khalili bazaar. It was much nicer than the market we had ended up at the night before. I mean, there were still some people trying to get us to look at their goods, but they weren't nearly as aggressive about it. I suspect having Mohamed with us might have helped a bit, but perhaps the atmosphere of the bazaar was just a bit nicer. Robyn haggled for a necklace and got the deal she wanted. We went to a coffee shop and sat down for some sahlep, which was different than the sahlep we had in Turkey. It was a thick, creamy drink topped with peanuts and dried fruits - very good and filling. Many people came around trying to sell us stuff: henna tattoos, Qurans, plastic glasses with attached moustache, bracelets, etc. I learned that the best way to tell them no is just to say "Thank you," or "Shukran" with a nod of the head. After we finished our drinks Mohamed took us to see some of the old, big mosques that are in that part of the city. Although it was dark, the mosques were gently lit with colored spot lights that made them very pretty. Some of them looked huge and others and others had really gorgeous embellishments. We weren't able to go into any, of course, but it was nice to see them from the outside. One of the back roads that Mohamed took us down was interesting - it was the sort of road that we wouldn't have gone down on our own. Not so much because it looked particularly dangerous, but more that it was completely torn up! It looked like a bulldozer had come through, torn up the road, and hadn't gotten around to patching it back up again. We had to step carefully as we made our way down the short street, but I thought it was pretty cool! I like to see places that I wouldn't have gone without the help of a local. And seeing the city and bazaar at night wouldn't have happened without Mohamed's help either. It was very cool.

We woke up early on the 27th to catch the train to Alexandria. The walk to the train station was a little bit crazy. The area around the station was packed with people on their way to work as well as vendors setting up to sell sunglasses and CD's. The tickets for the train were printed on a fairly old-fashioned looking device that got jammed when it was our turn, but they were some of the prettiest tickets I've seen. The train we took was the air-conditioned one, thank goodness. After two and a half hours we pulled into Alexandria. We walked north towards the coast, looking for the old Roman amphitheater along the way. We never did find it. We ate lunch at a hotel-cafe with a view of the sea. We headed east to try and find the library. Chuck stopped and asked a young girl if we were headed the right way and she got very shy and giggly. She vaguely motioned us off to the east as she turned away, trying to avoid talking to us in embarrassment. Afterward I realized that it was probably a breach of protocol for Chuck - a strange man - to have talked to her! Or she was just really shy, but I bet it was because Chuck was a guy. Whoops! In the most extreme of cases, could a woman get in trouble for that? Hmm. So we finally got to the library, which is a very modern glass building that requires paid admission to get in. Although the original Great Library was destroyed long ago, they're keeping up the tradition. We didn't go inside, but we can now say that we've seen where the Great Library at Alexandria once stood. We caught a cab to take us to the other side of the harbor where the Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque is. It's a beautiful building - many mosques are. We walked toward the front entrance and the men started directing Robyn and I around the side of the building. Turns out there's a separate entrance for women. So we said goodbye to Chuck and let ourselves be led to the side entrance. We dropped our shoes with the shoe-man and stepped inside. It was lovely, but a bit hard to appreciate what with the little wall that separated us women from the men. We were in a small area that took up about... 15-20% of the whole mosque, surrounded by a 6 foot wooden wall with pretty designs carved out of it. There was a large woman sitting in the center, fanning herself and directing people who looked lost (ie: Robyn and me). Only problem was that we couldn't understand a word she said. So we ooh-ed and ahh-ed for a few minutes, feeling rather uncomfortable and then left. Our shoes were held hostage until we paid a tip. Chuck later told us he ended up paying 5LE to his shoe kidnapper because he didn't have any smaller change. The guy who had shown Robyn and me to the side entrance took us a bit behind the mosque for a photo op. He took two pictures of us with the building and then led us back around to the front to meet up with Chuck. I would have tipped the guy, but I was fresh out of small money thanks to the shoe guys! Tipping gets to be difficult because it's hard to get small change to begin with. Vendors and stores ask you for exact change, depleting your already small supply of little bills. So when it's time to give tips all you have are big bills. Very frustrating sometimes. So we finished with the mosque - I know I left feeling a bit shunned by the experience - and headed towards the Qaitbey Fort. It wasn't as exciting looking as we had hoped and we decided to just look at it from the outside and not bother paying to go in. After our fill of the fort we grabbed a taxi to the Catacombs. The taxi ride was a harrowing experience on its own, but our visit to the Catacombs trumped it by far. We paid the entrance fee and dropped off our camera (they're very strict about cameras in some places). As we headed towards to main catacomb one of the Antiquities Police Officers motioned us off to a monument hidden in the back. I wasn't sure what was going on at first and it took me a few minutes to realize that he was trying to give us a tour. This would mean paying him a baksheesh (a tip) and that worried me a bit. We couldn't understand what he was saying, and to be honest I'm not sure he was actually saying anything coherent. It just sounded like he said "mummy" and "catacomb" over and over. He was very enthusiastic though, and plunged ahead without giving us a chance to get a word in edgewise. He led us further and further back until we were at the edge of a steep slope covered in debris. To my surprise he charged right down into the pit, waving us along after him. At this point I started to worry about more than just how much of a tip he would expect. We followed him down and my eyes flicked to his pistol as he helped me navigate through the palm leaves and rocks that littered the slope. The pit opened into the bottom part of the catacombs and he happily pointed out all the body-sized bunkers that had been carved out of the rock, mumbling something about "mummies" and "catacombs." We all nodded and said "Yes, yes" whenever he seemed to ask if we understood. He took us deeper in and I resigned myself to whatever might happen. I was pretty sure this was just a way for him to earn an extra buck, but my overactive imagination couldn't help picturing him pulling his little pistol and demanding all our money, or maybe something worse. He guided us up some stairs, closer to the surface. Despite my nervousness I couldn't help but notice how cool the catacombs were. Imagine coming upon the scene when it was filled with old skeletons, and maybe a few treasures if they hadn't been looted already. And the sand made delicate little piles in every nook and cranny. It was so soft to the touch that it somehow reminded me of down feathers. He led us around a sand-piled slope that I thought I might fall off of and down another staircase into a pitch black room. Oh man, this is where my nerves really worked themselves up. If he wanted to do anything terrible to us, this would be his opportunity. Oh well! I remembered that I had a flashlight in my purse and whipped it out. Isn't it great to actually find a use for the random things you bring along?? The room was filled with junk - modern and ancient. As he led us towards a dark tunnel in the back my light shone on a skeleton of what looked to be a cat. We all laughed nervously as we continued past. Our officer-guide didn't seem too phased by it. If anything, perhaps he seemed a bit embarrassed by it. He led us down the narrow, dark tunnel at the end of which was an even more pleasant sight: a dead dog, about the size of a border collie. This carcass still had flesh attached. Dried, brittle flesh that had rotted through in places, but flesh none the less. I could see the hollow eye sockets and they made me feel guilty somehow. As you can imagine, our nervous chuckles were a bit hysterical at this point and we hurriedly turned around in as nonchalant a way as we could. A dark tunnel on it's own makes one just a smidge nervous. An armed officer-guide as well. Finding a dead, half rotted dog also. Put the three together and it's enough to make you glad for the experience, but happy to end it. We emerged at the top of the stairs into the sunlight and fresh air to complete our tour. The officer now wanted his baksheesh and we gave him a disappointing 30LE. I could tell it was a disappointing amount because his face fell and he seemed rather sullen. We went to explore the other catacomb on our own after that. It must have been the main catacombs because it much bigger than the one we had just been in. There were rooms and tunnels all over the place. I imagine it would be pretty easy to get lost in there. Chuck and I split up from Robyn and ended up being curious about some rooms that were off of the path. We stepped off the platform and headed down the corridor, looking into the side rooms to see if there was anything interesting that had been left behind. We had gone about 50 feet when suddenly the lights went out. Holy crap, let me tell you that I freaked out a tad. Luckily, I only really freaked in my head. My body decided to react more rationally. But that first instant when you're walking off the path in an ancient underground tomb and the lights cut out leaving you in utter pitch blackness, your mind explodes with fear. It's all irrational and you know that there aren't really ghosts waiting to steal your soul, or creepy, double-jointed creatures with dripping hair waiting to rip out your heart, or savage vengeful hell-monsters that have been waiting for centuries to disembowel unsuspecting tourists who have wandered off the path. But for some reason your heart constricts with fear, even though your mind says the most dangerous thing that could happen is getting lost. So first thing we did was find each other in the dark by calmly walking towards the sound of each others voices. Next step was to get out my trusty flashlight, and let me just say thank goodness for that! We switched it on and swept the light around to get our bearings. As soon as we were sure where the path was, we dashed back down the corridor to safety. Everyone knows that monsters can't get you when you're on a designated path. The lights were still out as we made our way out of the room to the main stairway. We could hear others doing the same as we got closer. We were assured by someone who worked there that the lights would be back in just a few minutes so we hung around to wait. We found Robyn and she told us that she had used the light from her cell phone to find her way back to the entrance. I didn't get her full story, so I don't know how nervous she got about the black out. All I know is that if I had been alone while wandering off the path and the lights went out I would have been much more frightened. Gosh, I think I'm afraid of the dark! Shhh, don't tell anyone. Once the lights came back on we explored the rest of the catacombs, staying on the path this time. They're kind of cool, but I think the experience could be enhanced by having old skeletons tucked into the burial shelves. But still, it was a neat place. After that we had some bottled waters at a cafe just outside the Catacomb complex. We used that time to double-check the directions to get back to the train station seeing as we were done for the day. The walk back was very interesting. The streets were pretty filthy - piles of food scraps and other piles of just garbage. Not huge, steaming piles or anything, just little piles here and there. The buildings weren't in the best shape, some worse than others. Despite that it was business as usual. People were walking around doing their shopping. A few goats were grazing wherever they could find a scrap of grass. Every now and then a donkey drawn cart would meander down the road. People were very welcoming to us white folk. At least I assume it was the color of our skin that tipped them off to our foreign status. We were bombarded with "Welcomes" from every side. Some said it with genuine sincerity while others seemed to be trying to welcome us into their store rather than their country. I recall one 10 or 12 year old boy saying it with contempt and a sneer. It was very strange to be perfectly honest. We walked for about 30 minutes and couldn't go for a full minute without being welcomed by at least two people. I was very torn as to whether I should feel annoyed or special. On the one hand it's nice to feel so welcome, and on the other it's annoying to stand out so much. So at the very least it was definitely interesting. Back at the station we got our tickets and boarded our train. Chuck talked with an incredibly sweet older gentleman for much of the trip. He was an Egyptian man who had lived in Miami, Florida for 20 years now and was back visiting Egypt for a few weeks. He was so nice and had lovely thoughts on how the world would be so much better off if we could all be peaceful with each other. For reasons unknown to me, the train trip lasted about twice as long as it should have. By the time we got back it had been dark for quite a while. Oh, one more interesting thing! We were waiting at one station and I got to see how people get on and off trains. These were probably commuter trains because they were so packed. People don't actually wait for the train to stop to get on. As soon as it's going slow enough that they can grab the rail next to the opening where there should be a door (the doors are long gone, or perhaps there never were doors), they pull themselves up and inside. And just because the train my be full, that doesn't stop them from continuing to try and get on. There may be 3 or 4 people hanging out of the doorway, their feet barely finding purchase on the little stairway that leads onto the train as it's rolling into the station. Craziness! This is how the buses work too. You don't have to wait for a bus to stop. As long as you can jump on or off, that's all that matters. Anyways, we made our way back to the hostel, stopping at GAD for food. Back at the hostel we discovered that it was like party night and they had a giant spread of food for everyone. I think it was all thanks to some of the guests that were leaving the next day. Mohamed brought us a hookah to use for the night. He doesn't actually smoke himself due to his religion, but he was happy to set it up for us and everyone else at the hostel to use. So we hung out smoking shisha with a nice German girl, some Polish girls, and random other people. It was a good day over all! And my feet were filthy by the end of it.

Robyn woke up really early on the 28th to catch her flight back to Florida. She woke me up to say goodbye and I quickly fell back asleep with a sad feeling in my chest. There had been some rough times during our time traveling together, but I was sad to see her go. When Chuck and I woke up again later that morning we headed to the Indian Consulate to pay our ridiculous visa fee: 750 LE. No visas yet - we would have to come back the next day to finally get them. We grabbed some McDonald's for convenience sake on the way back. Chuck wasn't feeling well that so we didn't do anything during the day. He wasn't keeling over the toilet or anything. He just didn't feel very good. We did go out to see a show that evening with Mohamed, the two Polish girls, and another good-tempered American guy though. We caught a taxi to Old Cairo and got in line for a free Sufi dancing show. Despite showing up nearly an hour and a half before, it was still quite a scene getting in. When we got to the door they suddenly shut it on us, leaving everyone wondering if they were full already or just waiting to get people seated. The door opened a crack and everyone pushed forward expecting to be able to go through, but instead they sent two people back out and shut the door again. We were all squished together like sardines in a tin. I was probably sandwiched between and touching 5 other people, all of us leaning towards the door. At one point I had to put my hand against the door to keep from being knocked over. Most of the people in the crowd were tourists and there was a lot of nervous laughter at the situation. But finally, we were let in! All the seats were taken so we chose a place to stand on the right side of the open-air theater. Then we waited for almost an hour. The show started with a line up of the instrumentalists. There were a few different kinds of drums, some interesting wind instruments, and a finger cymbalist. A few of them stepped forward and showed off their skills. They were all fun to watch, but the best one was the finger cymbalist. He constantly had a huge, almost goofy smile on his face and looked like he was having so much fun. He was great! Then they progressed through a few different Sufi dancers, spinning around and around with skirts flying. One of them spun for almost 40 minutes! I don't know how he did it. He didn't even spot. In fact, he looked a tad green sometimes. You could tell it was a religious experience for him though. He was lip-syncing along with the lyrics and making hand motions towards the heavens and looking full of conviction. It felt very personal at times. It was cool. And the last dance involved three Sufi dancers spinning around each other on the stage. It was a very good show. Perhaps not as "professional" as the guy we saw on our river cruise, but still very good. And in the middle of the performance one of the little boys who was sitting in the last chair in the row very chivalrously got up and offered me his seat for the rest of the show. I thought that was very sweet! I even tried to offer it back to him after a bit, but he refused. Such nice manners, hehe.

The next day was simple. We went and picked up our Indian visas finally and got McDonald's once again. I suppose the fact that it's really close to the hostel, it's fast, and it's a comfort-brand makes it an easy choice. We tried the McArabia. You could say it's a hamburger, but in a pita rather than on a bun. It was decent enough, but it didn't quite satisfy that addict-like craving that an American Big Mac does. That's probably a good thing though. We putzed around the hostel all day, taking full advantage of their awesome wifi. Working wifi is such a luxury while traveling. We got delivery from an Egyptian place for dinner. Good stuff, and a great price.

We decided we'd better get off our butts on the 30th. We still hadn't seen the Citadel yet, so decided that's where we should go. We grabbed some kushari from Abou Tarek first, then got a taxi to the Citadel. The taxi driver was nice. He was curious about us and was happy to tell us the Egyptian words for all sorts of things. Of course, I can't remember them now... But he was very friendly. We bought our tickets and made our way to the main attraction: a big, beautiful mosque. Before being allowed to go in I was shrouded in a green robe. I was wearing a short sleeved shirt, and I guess too much arm is not allowed inside. I didn't have to cover my hair though. It was a bit opposite from the Turkish mosques. It was pretty inside, of course but that's not what interested me most. What I found interesting was a group of school girls who ran up to us with a big smiles and asked if we would take a picture of them. I feel badly now that I didn't, but I've learned to be so wary of people asking anything of you or trying to help you. I faltered as they asked me, unsure of whether there would be a catch or not. When I did say no thanks their faces fell, but they just moved on to another woman with a camera. I think they just wanted to be in peoples' pictures with no strings attached. Now I wish I had their photo to scrap book or something! After we left the mosque we were surprised to be approached by two Muslim ladies. They held up a camera phone and looked as us questioningly, as if to ask if they could take our picture. Um, ok? So we posed with a smile and wondered what was up with that. We got a few more pictures of the mosque and the surrounding city and then explored more of the Citadel complex. As we were walking down one of the roads we were stopped by a couple with a baby. The woman held her baby out to me and I took the kid, feeling very confused. Does she want us to take a picture of them without their kid? That's weird. Then they turn their camera on us. Oh my. They want a picture of us holding their baby... So they take the picture and smile and thank us very kindly and go on their way. It was so weird!!! This kid's gonna grow up and look through his old baby pictures and be like "Who are those people Mom?" What is she gonna say to that? "Some of those crazy white people"? I wish I could be there to see how that question is answered. My best guess is that white folks are a rare sight in the Arab world. We had one more "photo op" with a father and his two sons. This time we decided we would get something out of it too and after they took their picture, we took our own picture. So there's a picture of Chuck with a very happy looking Dad and his two sons, both looking a bit more unsure than Dad. It was all rather funny to be honest. Quite different than how we've been treated anywhere else. There wasn't much else to see at the Citadel seeing as a section of it was off limits. There was a waiter who kept trying to get us to come have coffee at his restaurant, and used flirting to try and convince us. He said I needed to bring my sister back for him and for a moment I was wondering how on Earth he knew i had a sister. Then I realized he was just messing around and didn't know anything about whether or not I had a sister. He came surprisingly close to the mark though, and I was almost tempted to tell him that she just left. We did some hard core bartering for our taxi ride back to the hostel. We ordered in again for dinner and called it a night.

And the 31st - or Halloween - was an uneventful day. Once again, we did nothing. We got some delivery again that evening. The Egyptian-style rice is so good. It's got those vermicelli things in it. I don't know what they are exactly, but they're in Rice-a-Roni. Good stuff! And the beef meal is good stuff too. A group of four Belgian guys joined us in the common area. I was in a quiet mood, so Chuck did most of the talking, but they had an interesting story. They were traveling by car from Belgium to South Africa. That's a long drive! They drove to Italy, ferried to Africa, drove east to Egypt, and will be heading all the way down to South Africa. They bought the car a year before their trip and spent that whole time fixing it up. They said gas (or petrol) prices once they hit Africa dropped significantly. We also noticed that in Egypt - gas was cheap! It sounds like they'd had quite an experience so far and had quite a it more to go. Very cool. I'd be scared as hell to drive through Africa.

The 1st was leaving day for us. I know I was a bit sad to leave the hostel because it had been such a great place - the staff was awesome, great internet, comfortable beds, hot water. We got a ride to the airport, organized by our hostel. The driver was a cool guy. He chatted with us about Egypt and tried to teach us some Egyptian words. There was a ton of traffic on the way - more than usual that is. Finally we were detoured at a big bridge and had to do some round-about driving to get to the airport. The problem was a ton of military guys making way for the President of Egypt. Apparently he was coming to town that day and they set up nearly 1000 military guards at 20 foot intervals along the roads and medians. The whole bridge was shut down for the event. You could even see guys patrolling roof tops, rifles strapped to their backs. It was pretty impressive. Luckily we got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. It took us a few tries to finally get through the right security point, get our tickets, and go to the gate. The plane ride was very nice. We flew Gulf Air and had wonderful service. We got a meal on each of our two flights, and when I asked if it cost extra to get an alcoholic drink the stewardess chuckled and told me "No." She asked where we were from. "America." She just smiled a secret smile and said "Welcome to Gulf Air." I wondered if she frequently had Americans asking how much it costs for alcohol. We stopped in Bahrain for a couple of hours, which was cool. They have a sweet airport there! It's so shiny and clean and modern. Nice place. Some time in the early hours of the morning we boarded our second and final flight to New Delhi, India. Whole new adventures await us!


  1. (by adam loyal)sarah you had me on the edge of my seat while read that. you should really think about being a writer. my god id be scared shitless geing in any one of those situations. I wish you and chuck a safe journey. Adela and I owe you a fantastic all american meal when you get back....but you owe us more stories like that :)

  2. I also loved this blog. The self-deprecating humor is wonderful and the descriptions of your responses are transparent and touching. I look forward to hearing some of your adventures in India and beyond.


  3. Gosh, I didn't realize anyone had commented on this blog! Thank you so much to the both of you! It's so nice to hear compliments sometimes :-) And Adam, I will hold you two to that promise of a meal.