Tuesday, February 20, 2007 Home

Egypt is Awesome

Egypt really is awesome and amazing:

The Beginning (Monday, February 7)

Frankfurt (Tuesday, February 8)
The Cairo Airport
Dinner in Cario

The Egyptian Museum (Wednesday, February 9)
In Search of the Holy Family

The Night Train to Luxor (Thursday, February 9)

Arrival in Luxor (Friday, February 10)
Karnak
Medinet Habu
Hatshepsut's Temple
The Alabaster Factory
The Valley of the Kings
Luxor City
The Evening Convoy to Hurghada

The Red Sea (Saturday, February 11)

Leaving Makadi (Sunday, February 12)
Crossing the Red Sea
The Charm of Sharm
The Road to St. Catherine's
Evening at the Monastery

Dawn (Monday, February 13)
A Tour of the Monastery
From the Outside Looking In

Through the Sinai (Tuesday, February 13)
Back in Cairo

Morning Above the Nile (Wednesday, February 14)
Traveling Through the City
Sultan Hassan Mosque
The Citadel
Al-Azhar Park
Blessed
The Wednesday Lecture
Saint Mark

Saqqara (Thursday, February 15)
Magic Carpets
The Pyramids of Giza

The Coptic Museum (Friday, February 16)
The Hanging Church
Religious Architecture Galore
El Azhar Mosque and the Khan El Khalili Market

Into the Western Desert (Saturday, February 17)
The Monastery of St. Macarius
The Monastery of the Syrians
The Monastery of St. Bishoy
Wadi Naturn
Ragui

Cairo's Christian Garbage Collectors (Sunday, February 18)
On Foot
4 p.m.
The End

The Details

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Monday, February 19, 2007 Home

Egypt Details

General info
This trip was an alumni tour sponsored by Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. I was only on the trip because one of the leaders was Larry Alderink, a favorite professor of mine in college. I've wanted to go to Egypt for a long time, but the only reason I went now, on this trip, was because Larry was involved in it. . . it just happened to turn out to be a great trip!

Arrangements in Egypt were handled by Romani Gaballa of Egyptian Educational Travel. Romani is everything you could want in a guide - intelligent, knowledgeable, resourceful, witty, patient, and kind. In addition, Romani's expertise was occasionally supplemented by that of his brother Eshak and fellow tour-guide Osama, both of whom have a deep understanding of Coptic Christian belief, practices, and history.

I plan to return to Egypt with my spouse and a few friends in a couple of years and will definitely work with Romani again. However, at that time I hope to also visit the deserts, sail on the Nile, see Abu Simbel, and add an extension to Petra in Jordan.

Safety and security: Most of my friends expressed concern when I announced I was going to Egypt - is it safe?

While we were in Egypt the political situation seemed stable, with no signs of the unrest of a few years ago. Whatever one thinks of the government's policies, they have kept the county stable and safe for tourism.

None-the-less, there apparently are relatively few American tourists in Egypt these days and we were often met with surprise when people discovered we were American. At the same time, we were met with genuine warmth and friendliness.

Apparently a police escort is required for American tour groups, although it seems superfluous. I thought it would be off-putting, but our security folks were usually pretty invisible. They could be handy though, as at one point they directed traffic to get the bus backed up and out of a traffic jam!

As we approached the Sinai our police escort was supplemented by an armed guard. The police presence in general was more obvious on the Sinai. Still, it seemed a little silly to see our guard, gun tucked in his belt, barefoot, with his pant legs rolled-up, keeping an eye on us at the almost deserted beach on Giftun Island.

Getting Around: Within Egypt we traveled by motor coach, mini-bus, train, and ferry. While Egypt doesn't have an extensive network of maintained roadways, those they have seem generally well designed and maintained. On the other hand, there was a great variation in the traffic that could be encountered, everything from semi-trailers to donkey carts.

Tipping: On a day-to-day basis, the biggest hassle you are likely to encounter will be the seemingly constant demand for baksheesh - which the Egyptians prefer to call "tipping." Some days it will seem that every person you meet has their hand out looking for a tip and it will make you crazy. The rest of the time it's manageable. Egyptians are generally warm and friendly and often they will help without expecting anything in return, but rich tourists (and by virtue of being a tourist, you are rich) can be seen as fair game. So don't be surprised if you are shown a slight kindness that turns out to be a service for which a tip is demanded. If you didn't ask for the service, just say no, otherwise keep in mind the fact that it isn't a lot of money.

Like many other places in the world, toilets either require a set fee or payment of a tip. In Egypt the payment is tiny and in most places they actually make some effort to have toilet paper and soap. Just pay up and don't whine about it.

Photographing people will also often lead to a demand for a tip - even from security officers and park staff.


Money: Using Egyptian pounds is pretty straightforward and the currency is decorative, which makes smaller notes great souvenirs. However, keep in mind that there are 50 pound notes and 50 piaster notes, with the physically larger 50 pound note worth $9-$10 US dollars and the piaster worth 9-10 cents. As a friend discovered, tipping the bathroom attendant with a 50 pound note will get you all the toilet paper and soap you could want, but probably isn't something you want to do on a regular basis.

Guidebooks, websites, and other information: There are a plethora of guidebooks and websites focused on Egypt or some aspect of Egyptian culture.

The websites I found the most useful, enlightening, and entertaining include:
  • World Heritage Tour has panoramic 360 photos of St. Catherine's, the pyramids, and Luxor.
  • The website of the Association of Egyptian Travel Businesses on the Internet (Tour Egypt) is a great resource for all things Egypt. Far more than an advertising website, it includes an extensive section on Egyptian history and culture, with a vast number of in-depth articles. It's a fabulous resource. This site also seems to be part of or linked to another that bills itself as "Egypt's Virtual Khan el- Khalili,"but has a good index of Egyptian information.
  • Ask Aladin looks cutesy, but has a lot of good information.
  • The Guardian's Egypt is a personal web site with a wealth of information.
  • An excellent resource on Egyptology can be found at Egyptology Online.
  • Discovering Egypt is a personal site designed to interest everyone - and especially young people - in ancient Egypt.
  • Egyptian Monuments is another personal site with a wealth of information related to ancient Egyptian sites.
  • The Africa Study Center's Egypt page has a lot of good links.
  • The US State Department's Egypt page provides extensive background information on Egypt as well as security information.
  • The Egypt State Information Service provides news and some travel information.
  • For a far more detailed travelogue than mine that includes EVERYTHING you could ever want to know about planning your own trip to Egypt, see the Phouka Egypt page.
  • Postcards from Cairo portrays daily life in Egypt from the perspective of an Australian ex-pat.
Since I was on a group tour where all lodging, meals, and tours were provided, I skipped Lonely Planet and instead bought guides that were heavy on illustrations, historical information, and cultural material.
  • As a general guide, I bought the Knopf Guide: Egypt. This is a gorgeous book filled with historical drawings, commentary, and information. It's more a guide to tourism in Egypt more than a guide to Egypt, which is actually cool. As you page through it you see not only how Egypt has changed over time, but also how views of Egypt and Egyptian history have changed, giving you a sense of your place on the long continuum of Egyptian tourism. On the other hand, it is pretty useless for practical trip planning.
  • For information and insight on the age of the pharaohs, I used Robert Morkot's meticulously researched Egypt: Land of the Pharaohs.
  • The book Coptic Egypt: The Christians of the Nile by Christian Cannuyer provides a lovely, easy to follow overview of Coptic Christianity in Egypt.
  • Although it was temporarily out of print at the time, I also tracked down a copy of Culture Shock! Egypt, which is a particularly useful little book if you plan to travel on your own or occasionally give your guide the slip.
The online Africa Guide has a good list of books about Egypt.

Cairo
Cairo is a teaming urban area of perhaps16 million that has both gracious residential areas and squalid squatter settlements. I found it enticing place and wish I had gotten up early enough in the morning to do some exploring on my own. I'm looking forward to returning.
  • LEARN has social science curriculum that includes a section on housing and other issues confronting modern Cairo.
  • While I don't necessarily agree with the political philosophy that Urban Tours by Rental Car espouses, I do agree that tourists often miss the everyday reality of life in the places they visit. The Rental Car Tour packets help bring that part of the city light. The information is valuable, regardless of whether you agree with their position on why the world is the way it is and what, if anything, should be done about it.
A few random things about Cairo:

It is a LOUD city, although the government is trying to change that. Along with the sounds of the street and the continual honking of horns, music from the entertainment boats fill the air. This ongoing cacophony is regularly supplemented by the call to prayer, with each mosque trying to make sure their call is heard above all others. While the city government is trying to eliminate this call-to-prayer competition (indeed, has tried for years now to eliminate it), it is one of the things that makes Cairo the city it is. I loved the weirdness of it - it's like a wall of sound crashing down on you.

I've never traveled in an Islamic country before and was absolutely captivated by the number of minarets that pierce the skyline.

More oddly, the stones used to build the pyramids were quarried right at the edge of Cairo and the quarries are still there. Talk about historical continuity!

If you travel around the city at all, you'll probably notice that every roof seems piled with trash. Romani explained that no one really owns the roof of a multifamily complex, so that is where all the stuff people don't need - but aren't quite ready to get rid of - is stashed. It's not so different from the piles of junk stashed in unused corners of farmsteads throughout Minnesota.

Traffic in Cairo is frightening, the most chaotic-looking of any place I've been. (Worse than Bangkok, where there was lots of congestion, but seemingly comprehensible rules of conduct.) There appear to be only a handful of stop lights in the entire city and NO one drives in the marked lanes. It's chaos: Picture a mob pushing its way forward - only it is a mob comprised of cars, trucks, buses, scooters, donkey carts, and pedestrians. Even after hearing explanations of how it all works, I can't imagine driving there.

Initially, however, it was the pedestrians that most shocked me: Men, women, and even children simply wade into this sea of erratically moving vehicles. I continually expected to see them mowed over. I later learned that there is actually a system to crossing the street and that people who live here don't fear it nearly as much as they fear actually trying to drive.

Cairo does have a metro system, but I didn't get a chance to check it out.

Things to do in Cairo:
The Egyptian Museum has an amazing collection and provides a good introduction to the sites you will visit. You will NOT be able to see everything in a day. (The Virtual Egyptian Museum provides a wealth of information you can peruse at any time.) The museum is in the process of building new facilities around Egypt to allow a better display of more materials. They should be fabulous.

Islamic Cairo: Cairo is filled with wonderful mosques, most of which can be visited by non-Muslim tourists. (Avoid visiting on Fridays.) While western women are not generally required to cover their hair, I did and felt the gesture was appreciated. Shoes are not allowed in any of the mosques. Above all, be RESPECTFUL!

Within the Citadel, the Mohammad Ali "Alabaster" Mosque is just one of many. I didn't get to see the Suleyman Pasha Mosque, but my guidebook makes me wish I had. Most of the Qaser El-Gawhara or "Jewel" Palace was closed for restoration, but the bit I saw consisted of uninspiring French-colonial rooms - I should have stayed outside and taken in the spectacular view. Speaking of which, I'm guessing that morning is the time to get the best views of the city (and distant pyramids) from the plaza behind Mohammad Ali Mosque.

Information on Islamic architecture can be found at Islamic Architecture and the Heritage of Islamic Egypt sites.

Coptic Cairo: Most of the older Christian churches are clustered in the Coptic area of Cairo. Most seem to be open to visitors even when worship is underway. Women are not required to cover their heads and shoes are generally allowed, although some places (particularly small chapels) prohibit shoes. Buying a candle to light is always appreciated and the donation helps support the church and its work in the community. As in a mosque, be respectful!

Even if you have no interest in Christianity, the Coptic Museum is worth a stop just to see the stunning facility in which the artifacts are housed. The collection on display is also pretty stunning and provides a peek into Egypt at a time when Christianity was young and growing in influence.

English language information on the Coptic Church can be found at the Coptic Church website as well as at the Coptic Centre, Coptic Architecture (including lots of photos), Tour Egypt, and Egyptology Online.

The St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society has a lot of resources for Coptic studies, including links to other Coptic and general Christian sites.

While we thought we had stumbled across an unknown part of Cairo with the Mokattam Zabaleen, this is actually a thoroughly researched and oft-visited community. Indeed, when I came home I discovered that Ragui had done research on this topic. (I wish I had known enough to ask him about it when we met in Cairo.) While the area is poor, the garbage sorting provides a livelihood for many people and gives Cairo one of the highest recycling rates in the world.

Besides the Sisters of Charity and the Coptic Church, there are a number of non-profit organizations that work in the community, including the Association for Protection of the Environment, which operates programs that provide employment and services to women and children here.

The main religious site in the community is the Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner. It is a large complex with a number of churches, chapels, and other structures, including a restaurant.

Saqqara (Sakkara) is located at the edge of Cario. The site is well-known and there is lots of information available, including at Tour Egypt and Leiden University's excavation page.

We were not allowed to take pictures inside the Tomb of Mereruka and, unfortunately, there seem to be very few good pictures available and none that capture the intimate details that bring out the humanity of this ancient family. You simply have to see them for yourself.

Giza today is a sprawling suburb of Cairo. Although camels aren't particularly comfortable to ride, it does seem to be the appropriate way to see the pyramids.

photo from the Mathre's camera
Don't skip the boat museum located near the Great Pyramid.

Wadi Natron, to the north of Cairo, is best-known today for its monasteries. Al Ahram has a lovely report on the monasteries of Wadi Natron.

The Monastery of St. Marcarius (or Abu Makar, Abu Magar, or St. Makorios) is not generally open to the public.

Luxor
To fully appreciate the sites around Luxor, it is helpful to have some sense of who ruled ancient Egypt and how those rulers relate to each other. However, the history of ancient Egypt is overwhelming. For me it only began to come together AFTER I started to visit the monuments and tombs. My recommendation would be to spend a couple days in Luxor, with some time each evening spent reading about what you have seen. Suddenly all ancient rulers will start to fall into place and you'll have a sense of the person behind each tomb or temple.

Today the entrance to Karnak is crowded by a clutter of tourist shops, but you quickly forget them when you enter this grand temple.

The temple itself has been expanded and altered for generations. Today excavation and renovation continue.

The site is huge. Give yourself plenty of time and hire a good guide - there are stories recorded everywhere here if you have someone who can read and understand them.

Visitors to the Valley of the Kings are given tickets that allow one to visit any three of the tombs currently open to the public. (Only a few tombs are open at a time to give these delicate archaeological marvels a respite from the tourist hordes.) Once inside, you can stay as long as you like and your guide allows.

Begin your visit in the visitors' center, which has a display showing the tombs in a glass model of the valley. It is fabulous! It shows how each tomb is laid out and how it relates to the others - a tool the ancient Egyptians could have used, as they occasionally broke through the wall of an existing tomb while creating a new one.

The Theban Mapping Project has gorgeous images from inside the tombs, where photography is not allowed. Photos from inside the tombs can also be found at Crystalinks.

The Red Sea Resorts
An escorted convoy runs between Luxor and the Red Sea Coast. The convoy seems intended as a practical safety measure (a breakdown in this desolate stretch could be deadly) more than a security measure. It makes a single stop at a designated rest area.

The area between Luxor and the coast is harsh and sparsely inhabited until you reach the coast. The coast itself (both on the Egyptian mainland and especially the Sinai) is a rapidly developing resort area. That is not such a pretty sight.

Hurghada: Described negatively in the guidebooks, we never actually saw the town itself. Instead, we spent our limited time ensconced in the lovely Iberotel Makadi Saraya Resort.

Besides Tour Egypt, information on the Hurghada area can be found at Go Red Sea, Divernet, and World 66.

I believe our snorkeling and diving day was conducted through Undersea Adventures, which appears to be a British company with operations at the Dana Beach Resort. Their specialty is diving, not snorkeling, but the first spot they took us to was wonderful. (Evidently many of the "snorkeling" trips out of Hurghada are drinking parties where most of the time is spent at Giftun Island. If you want to snorkel, look for a dive boat and see if they have trips suitable for snorkelers.) Our outing was an enjoyable, well-run excursion focused on seeing fish and eating good food!

Equipment varies with the quality of the operator - a well-fitted mask is essential. Undersea Adventures really made an effort to ensure everyone had properly fitting gear. However, I didn't have a wet suit, was assured I wouldn't need one (although friends told me I would), and nearly developed hypothermia from the cold.

We snorkeled at a wonderful spot called "the aquarium." It was a fabulous, even better than Fiji, with great clarity and a large number and variety of fish and coral. There were a number of other boats here, but the reef is large and it did not feel crowded. The divers in our group seemed satisfied with the location as well. The second spot was better for diving, but it was late enough in the day that few of us were interested in going back in anyway. The operator gave us the option of doing both dive spots first and then going to Giftun Island, but the group opted to do the beach first. (There is nothing on the island except the beach, a few cheap souvenirs, and a rather poorly-stocked bar/snack shop.)

From Hurghada we took the "fast ferry"across the Red Sea to Sharm Al Sheikh. The trip is smooth and quick, but you are trapped inside because passengers generally are not allowed on deck.

Sharm el Sheikh: This over-developed, but still lovely resort town sits on the Sinai Peninsula. It overflows with interesting shops and enticing restaurants, but also faces incredible development pressure.


The Sinai and the Monastery of St. Catherine

The Sinai is a mountainous desert that rises weirdly above the clear water of the Red Sea. It's both stark and breathtaking.

The monastery itself is amazing. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, portions are open to the public, but others, such as the library, are not. We saw only a fraction of the compound, perhaps because we were late to begin our tour or maybe because we were too noisy. (We had a terrible time remembering to keep our voices down when we were outside, marking us as loud and disruptive when we didn't mean to be. If you visit a monastery, remember that the ENTIRE compound is a place of quiet contemplation, even outdoor spaces.)

Most people staying at the monastery are there either as students or to climb Mount Sinai. I chose to skip the Mount Sinai excursion simply because it didn't particularly interest me (sunrise with a view to knock your socks off is apparently visible from Mt. Catherine, not from Sinai) and because I didn't bring appropriate clothing.

It was a good decision for me, not only because I felt blessed to have attended the prayer service, but also because I likely would have hated the cold and the chaos associated with the climb/ride up Sinai. With literally a thousand or more people and hundreds of camels converging in the dark hours of early morning, the scene is apparently one of utter chaos. Few members of our group were able to remain together and some ended up riding up without a guide (and on a RUNNING camel in one instance). I would have been cold, miserable, and freaked out. And I wouldn't have had the stamina to make it to the top of the mountain anyway. I would have hated every minute of it. On the other hand, those who did it, loved it.

Tour Egypt has a number of different pages on the monastery. In addition, other good sources of information include the World Heritage Tour's panoramic images, Egptology Online's beautiful site, and Sacred Destination's photo-filled site. The monastery's own web site will be a good source of information. . . if they ever get the English language section completed.

The Monastery of St. Catherine sits in a protected area. The park's visitor center is, apparently, not complete - or at least not generally open to the public. However, if you can find someone to let you in, these small buildings house extremely well-designed and informative exhibits about the area and its traditional resident, the Bedouin.

Further information on the monastery, Mount Sinai, and the surrounding area can be found at Sacred Sites, Tour Egypt, Sacred Land, El Ahram, Womens Aid, Sinai Net, Travel Watch, and St. Katherine Net.

For another, more religious, version of a similar trip (probably lead by the same Osama who spent some time with us), scroll down on the December 2006 Gen X Rising page to Egypt Journal #10.

Wadi Firan and the Convent of the Seven Nuns (or Seven Sisters or Seven Girls) is a lovely place. The convent is operated by the Greek Orthodox church and appears to be open only on a limited basis. There is a well-stocked gift shop with religious-themed items, some of which are produced locally.

Lodging
Cairo: Most of the time we were in Cairo we stayed at the Nile Hilton (a much older hotel than I would have guessed), which is located near the Egyptian museum. My room was large and pleasant with a good internet connection (but for a fee) and a deck with a splendid view over the Nile. It was great and I would definitely would stay there again.

Hurghada has lots of places to stay, most of which totally isolate the visitor from anything related to the local culture. Our hotel was the Makadi Saraya Resort Painted in cheery Mediterranean colors and swathed in bougainvillea, it was such a lovely, dreamy spot that I really didn't want to leave it for any reason. (Although the complex is so large and so similar to the adjoining resorts that a friend a got lost and almost missed our snorkel expedition.)

My room was a suite, with a giant bedroom, living and dining rooms, laundry area, and a mini-kitchen. Two large decks overlook the beautifully maintained grounds. I could have lived here indefinitely. Someday, when I return here with Lane, this is where we are staying - for a week, or maybe a month. . .

Sinai: St. Catherine's Guesthouse is located at the entrance to the monastery. The rooms were simple to the point of being spartan and you have to remember to turn the hot water on before you intend to shower, but they were clean, warm (thanks to space heaters), and comfortable. They also had the advantage of being located in one of the most starkly beautiful places imaginable.

Food and Beverages
Our tour included all meals, which is something I do NOT like because I don't need that much food, but will eat it anyway. Lunch was usually very late in the afternoon (anywhere between 2-4 p.m.) and dinner was always after 8:00 p.m. and sometimes as late as 10:00. Had dinner not been included, I usually would have skipped it or opted for something light elsewhere.

Having said that, the food itself was excellent.

Breakfast and dinner were usually taken at our hotel. The Nile Hilton and the Makadi Sayara both had exceptional buffets, with delicious Egyptian foods along with well-prepared international cuisine.

Lunches and dinners were generally accompanied by a whole array of starters, with lovely pita breads to scoop up any one of a number of flavorful sauces. I could have easily have had enough to eat just with the starters!

Every restaurant Romani took us to was absolutely wonderful and I wish I had a complete list, but I wasn't that organized. Here is what I do have:

Cairo:
  • Al Azhar Park has a couple of lovely restaurants with very good food.
  • Restaurant Andrea has an outdoor eating area that is very pleasant at night. The restaurant specializes in the most amazing grilled chicken over a huge grill. The chicken was beautifully seasoned and perfectly cooked.

  • The Sea Horse Club is an Egyptian version of a supper club with huge windows overlooking the Nile and lovely seafood.
  • Felfela is an in expensive local chain serving a variety of traditional foods. We ate at the downtown location not far from out hotel. It was an eclectic and sort exotic feeling place with fabulous falafel!

  • Sakkara (near the site of the same name) was a touristy place, but pleasant with nice food.

Sharm el Sheik:
Safsafa was amazing. As described in my post, we had a multi-course seafood lunch that was simply incredible.

We were also had a couple of meals at monasteries, which varied from basic international fare to a simple lunch of bread and olives.

Alcohol is not available in retail shops (outside the airport), but is available by the bottle in most restaurants likely to be frequented by tourists - even in those that also have a local cliental. At least in hotel restaurants, it was possible to buy bottles to take back to our rooms, thus fueling our after dinner soirées. (We usually spent $12-18 for a bottle from a restaurant and took turns buying.) We mostly drank Egyptian wines because they were both widely available and affordable. The whites were pretty bad, so we generally drank reds - most frequently the Obelisk Cabernet Sauvignon or the Gianaclis "Omar el Khayam" Cabernet Sauvignon - neither of which are likely to win any prizes, but which were quite drinkable.

I'm not a beer drinker, but beer was also generally available in most restaurants.

Shopping
I found shopping to be a frustrating experience.

Like sightseeing, shops that sell anything beyond cheap tourist souvenirs either cater to wealthy connoisseurs or large tourist groups that are given an introduction to a product and then an opportunity to purchase ok quality, but generic items from that company's stock of rugs, alabaster, papyrus, or even jewelry. The merchandise isn't bad, it just isn't generally very interesting or unique. Serious shopping for unique local items just isn't on the mass tourism radar.

Furthermore, bartering is expected everywhere and, unlike Thailand, where Chris told us at every market how hard to bargain, here I had no idea whether the final price should be 20% less or 80% less. That made bargaining hard - I don't want to get ripped off, but I don't want to be insulting either. In the big tourist shops where Romani helped, I usually got the merchant to go at a little lower than the price Romani recommended. Next time I'm going to try to do a lot more advance research on prices because there would be lots of cool things to shop for here!

There are vendors at historic sites and they can be persistent and annoying. However, they seem pretty benign compared to the nasty and aggressive children working the historic sites in Cambodia. Just say no firmly and keep moving. (Or have some fun listening to their tall tales about the great bargains you are getting and buy a few cheap souvenirs.)

Similarly, in the markets you can expect to be besieged with people trying to sell you everything under the sun if you show even the slightest interest in an object. If you really are just looking, wear dark glasses, keep moving, and don't touch anything. If you are actually interested in looking at merchandise, be prepared for lots of attention and don't be afraid to walk away if you really can't agree on a fair price. However, don't be a jerk and waste a merchant's time bargaining over something you have no intention of buying.

If you are on a group tour, you likely will be taken to shops specializing in each of these:

An alabaster shop where carving is demonstrated.

There are a number of brightly colored homes and cheery shops selling alabaster along the main road near the Valley of the Kings.

While picturesque, do not shop there! The government is trying to relocate these settlements because many are damaging nearby tombs. Shopping there just encourages the residents to continue to resist relocation. There are plenty of other places to buy alabaster.

Most tours will also visit a carpet school, where rug-making will be demonstrated. (Seeing how they wash the rugs in a big concrete tub made me feel much less worried about getting mine dirty from use.) As we left, Romani jokingly thanked us for spending so much, telling us that he will get a much better discount now on carpets for his own new apartment. Of course, that actually is the way it works pretty much everywhere in the world. While I hadn't planned to buy a rug, I am very pleased with my purchase.

A papyrus institute (like the carpet "schools", there seem to be a lot of papyrus "institutes" around) will also be on most itineraries. I learned a lot from the quick, but interesting, lecture and demonstration on papyrus. The shop was well-stocked with interesting, affordable work - so affordable that I assumed the images were silk screened onto the papyrus, but no, they are hand painted. (Most images are copies from ancient tomb paintings or scrolls.)

Like many other places outside the United States, as you enter any store you will be given a shopping assistant. While their job is to get you to spend more, they can be helpful in answering questions and in most places they are unavoidable.

I really wanted to shop for older jewelry, but had few opportunities to do so. When I did find a selection of older pieces, the prices were MUCH higher than my research had led me to expect and I wasn't able to bargain them down nearly as far as I would have liked. It appeared that there was much less flexibility in the pricing of previously owned pieces (I suppose since they can't just make a bunch more of whatever sells best). I did find a few Bedouin pieces and paid a premium for my purchase. (Bedouin jewelry is traditionally melted down when the owner dies and new patterns are valued over old ones, so few older pieces are available and little traditional-style work is being done today.) I also found a few pieces of Persian filigree, which were pretty reasonably priced.

I wasn't prepared to buy gold while in Egypt and really wish I had been. The selection was vast, the workmanship exquisite, and the pricing based largely on the value of the gold, rather than on the workmanship. Not buying anything was a mistake.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007 Home

The End

Previous Post: 4 p.m.

After a few quick errands - including shopping for last minute gifts (yes, Brian, it took me this long to get your camel), I head up to the hotel bar to meet Larry and Lynda and others from our group. We talk some, but the conversation is subdued. Perhaps no one wants to leave.

Not sure what else to do, we wander out to the bar's patio to watch the sun set as night begins to cloak the city in darkness.

This story should end here, a group of friends reflecting on an amazing trip as night falls over the city. . . but it does not.

Because our flight does not leave until very late, Romani has arranged for us to end our trip at one of the ubiquitous dinner and entertainment barges anchored on the Nile.

The whole thing sounds tacky, but I am hoping for the best.

Inside, the river barge reminds me of the fake luxury paddlewheelers that ply the Mississippi back at home. The whole boat is taken up be a large, glass-walled room with long tables set up around a makeshift stage.

Most of us are seated together at one of these very long tables. It is impossible to talk to anyone except those seated immediately at hand.

It also turns out to be nearly impossible to get a bottle of wine. Not that they don't serve wine - indeed, the other end of the table has wine - we just can't get the wait staff to serve my end of the table. I finally make enough of a scene that Romani intervenes and, eventually, we are able to order wine.

And, believe me, I need the wine.

The food is the bland international fare of tourist class hotels worldwide. While not horrible, it is about the most uninspired food we have had on the entire trip.

The less-than-stellar food is accompanied by entertainment so bad it is almost humorous. (If only I had a little better sense of humor.) It begins with a couple of young women (probably Russian). Neither has any discernible talent, but one is clearly out of her element, unable to sing or slither around the stage without looking clumsy. She seems particularly pathetic. They attempt to sing a mix of bad American and European pop songs (John Denver's Country Roads is among them. I'm sure Muskrat Love is coming) in a variety of languages - none of which they seem proficient in.

While I am appalled and embarrassed for these young women, the large group of Russians seated across the room are clearly delighted. They shout and cheer (and make salacious gestures) between draws on their strong cigarettes. Ugh.

We are also treated to a little interlude of traditional music. I find it delightful. However, I don't think all of my traveling companions are as fond of the unfamiliar sounds.

The next entertainer is a male dancer who performs a showy whirling dervish type of dance, with over-the-top costuming. While it lacks authenticity, he is a flashy performer and an absolutely amazing athlete.

photo by Rachel Mathre

The highlight of the night is, of course, the belly dancer. Let's just say she is not very good. Ok, so she is really, really bad - and that is before a "wardrobe malfunction" early in the performance sends her running from the stage, her confidence clearly shattered when she later reappears and soldiers on. (A paycheck is good incentive for completing a job no matter how distasteful.) I really want her to be good. I love watching Cassandra perform at home, but now I realize how rare her artistry may be.

We are not allowed outside on the narrow deck that surrounds the dinning area, but I can't take it any longer and I flee the bad music, worse dancing, and impenetrable cigarette smoke. At the open entrance to the boat, I gulp in both the cool night air and the glorious view of the city slowly passing by.

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4 p.m.

Previous Post: On Foot

There is still one hour until checkout and I am spending it on my deck, the Nile sprawled out below me and the city's wonderful cacophony of sound swirling all around. I love it here.

It seems odd to be leaving - somehow it has come to feel normal to be here and it is odd to think that tomorrow I will be gone and someone else will take my place. It doesn't seem right.

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On Foot

Previous Post: Cairo's Christian Garbage Collectors

After a simple, lovely lunch, we walk back to the hotel. Our security detail drives alongside, always keeping an eye on us, but I'm happy to be out in the city. We've had few opportunities to walk here, so it is a treat just to be out in the city's streets.

All cities are best encountered on foot!

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Cairo's Christian Garbage Collectors

Previous Post: Ragui

Romani has been cagey about what he has planned for us today, saying only that he is taking us to the "other side of the world."

We leave downtown Cairo, our mini-bus working its way up a narrow roadway that twists up into the hills at Cairo's edge. The hills close in around us until we are in a narrow canyon of dilapidated buildings, the rocky hill towering above. The maze of narrow streets is made even narrower by bundles piled high along the buildings. The scene seems disconnected from the city where we have spent the past few days.

Romani has indeed taken us to the other side of the world, both literally and figuratively, taking us from the streets of modern Cairo to the other side of Mokattam Mountain and the place where Cairo's Christian garbage collectors live.

Yes, Cairo's Christian garbage collectors: For about 50 years now, a group of Christians (usually referred to simply as the Zabbaleen), have gathered and made use of much of the garbage created by this city's millions of inhabitants.

It looks poor, although it doesn't have the desperate look of the shanty towns outside Suva in Fiji. The buildings here are substantial (although dangerous, should an earthquake strike), with living quarters on the upper floors and space for storing both the unsorted garbage and items salvaged for recycling. There are small shops and other businesses scattered throughout. It doesn't look so different from other poor places.

We continue on, stopping only when we reach the gates of a monastery. Ah, yes, Romani did say we would be attending a Coptic worship service this morning.

We pass through the gates and find ourselves in an open area with a number of churches and other structures. Biblical stories are carved into the rocky hillsides. This place - the Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner - is otherworldly.

We have little time to look around though, as we are hustled off toward the entrance of a church.

Once through the church's entryway, we pass through a wide hall and then find ourselves in a huge cavern carved into the base of the mountain. It is a startling transition.

Worship is underway and the enormous cavern is nearly filled with worshipers.

We work our way through this busy place and end up at some open benches near the top of the cavern. Faded light and crisp air creep in from outside. The room is cool and damp. What is this place? The effort that must have gone into the construction of this place - the emptying out of this space - is almost incomprehensible. When was this done? Who did it? Why did they do it?

The worship service underway far across the room is equally incomprehensible. We have entered at some point mid-service (Romani didn't think we were capable of sitting through an entire three-hour Coptic service) and what I see seems to be a group of priests moving around a covered table or alter in an esoteric dance.

I have no idea what is going on, but as I continue to watch, I begin to realize that they are preparing for holy communion - the universal Christian act of preparing and blessing the host is obvious, even in this unfamiliar and elaborate form.

Men and women don't generally sit together at a Coptic service and, when communion begins, the men line up on one side while the women and most children go to the other. Although Coptic women are not required to cover their hair for worship (or otherwise), most here have either a scarf or prayer shawl and cover themselves as they go up for communion. Over on the men's side, one man has a young girl with him. Her head is not covered and, as they approach the front of the line, I see him looking around nervously, as if in search of something. . . when they reach the first of the servers, he takes an extra napkin and drops it on top of the little girl's head with a clear sense of relief. Problem solved.

Bread that has been blessed (but not consecrated) is available throughout the hall. It is sweet and flavorful - just the way holy bread should be!

And then, too soon, it is time to leave.

As we thread our way out, we pass a baby dressed for baptism. The miniature holy robes imply a knowing worldliness that contrasts with the innocence of the baby's face.

Back outside, we walk to another part of the complex, where a modern version of a traditional church stands.

Even though I should expect it, I'm still surprised to discover that this structure is also just a façade. It marks the entrance to the Virgin Mary and St. Simon Cathedral - another gigantic cave church cut into the mountain.

photo by Wes Mathre

Osama has joined us to explain the "history" of this church, the deeds of St. Simon, the travels of the Holy Family, and other miraculous facts.

Perhaps he senses my skepticism, as he keeps insisting that science has proved that these stories are true - or at least 80% (or was it 95%?) true, with scientists "studying" them even as we speak in order to further prove their basis in fact.

As it has throughout this trip, this insistence on the factual basis of miraculous events continues to perplex me. It's not just that I don't believe in these type of miracles, I don't even see why people would even want - or need - to believe them. Why is it so important that these miraculous tales of divine intervention be historically factual events? Why aren't the lessons they impart enough? Osama is a smart, well-educated man, but he truly believes these stories are historical facts that can and will be confirmed by modern science. As I listen, I wonder how he can believe in the legitimacy of scientific inquiry (which he clearly does) and, at the same time, believe in the historical accuracy of these miraculous stories. I can't imagine that. The idea is so alien that it makes my brain hurt.

Back in the buses again, we head back into the heart of the Zabbaleen community, where we stop at an outpost of Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity. Here the sisters care for sick and handicapped children and elderly women. While the elderly women (many of whom are mentally ill) are permanent residents, the children are temporary wards, cared for by the sisters while they are young, but still part of the families to which they will return to when they are older.

Romani wanted us to come here to visit the children, but it is Sunday. While Sunday in Egypt is a the equivalent of Monday back in the states (Copts are allowed some time off to worship, but it is a regular work and school day), the Catholic sisters send the children home on Sundays.

We are given a tour of the facility anyway. The small complex is a well-worn place, but scrupulously clean and carefully maintained - the Sisters make much of the little they have.

The few children left here today are severely handicapped and, while they are clearly being cared for, there is a stark contrast between the life they live and the life they would have, even as poor children, in the states. Despite the efforts of the Sisters, it is a sad place.

On the other hand, I think many of the women who live here may be luckier than their counterparts back in the states, where so many mentally ill women seem to end up destitute and homeless on the streets. At least these women are safe, their basic needs tended to.

It is time to leave this side of the world and head back to a more familiar world, but our return is delayed slightly, as now it is lunch time and the streets are swarming with school children. They fill the narrow streets, stopping by our buses to shout "hello!" and wave cheerfully to us.

I wish we could spend the day with them learning from them about their lives.

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