Suitcase and World: First day in Cairo.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

First day in Cairo.

Our first full day in Cairo began with a call to prayer being blasted over the neighborhood mosque's loudspeakers. Lei was already stirring about and ready to start the day. I wanted a few more minutes of sleep and so I buried my head into the pillow and tried to catch a few more zzzzz's over the sound of the prayer which was REALLLLY loud. The constant sound of cars honking (something unique to Cairo) added to the cacophany of noise.

We had the morning to explore the city before having to meet up with the rest of the tour group at 1pm. We decided to make the most of it and got up bright and early.

My first view of Cairo in the daylight came from the bathroom window - I had to balance atop the toilet to capture these pictures. The second picture shows the poverty that would be more evident as we roamed the streets.

We headed down to breakfast at 7am and devoured what would become our "traditional" breakfast on tour - ayish (pita bread) served with hard boiled eggs, strawberry jam and cheese, an orange and a cup of tea.

Our goal was to get to the Khan al Khalili bazaar - THE souk (marketplace) in Cairo. We asked the hotel receptionist for walking directions and with a vague set of directions in hand, we set out.

Once on the street, the abject poverty of the city was evident with every footstep - sidewalks and streets are not necessarily paved or flat, there are countless ramshackled buildings and there is trash strewn over every surface imaginable. Though it is always difficult to see such poverty, the really sad part is that you become immune to it the longer you spend in its midst.

As expected, we got lost trying to find our way to the Khan al Khalili. Fortunately, neither Lei or I are shy about asking for help so eventually, we came across a very helpful woman who all but walked us there.

The Khan al Khalili bazaar is a large labyrinth of narrow streets and passage ways bordered by store after store selling everything from trinkets and souvenirs for tourists to household and cooking supplies used by Caireans in their everyday life.

We started to ask for directions to get to El Fishawy - a cafe that has been in existence for more than two hundred years. At Fishawy, we ordered mint teas and apple flavored sheesha. Perhaps it was a bit too early in the day to be "smoking and drinking" but what the heck, we're at a famous cafe in Cairo and who knows when we would have the opportunity again! The mint tea was delicious and the sheesha intoxicating - our treat cost us 15 EG which coverts to a little over $2!

After our stop at Fishawy, we decided to see if we could find an Internet cafe to send a few emails to friends and families. Again we asked for directions, got lost in the maze that is the Khan al Khalili. Eventually, we found an Internet cafe and for 5 EG (less than $1) per hour, did our email duties.

By the time our hour was up, the stores were starting to open up. We stayed in the Khan until around 11:30aor so and then headed back to the hotel via taxi. On the way to catch the cab, Lei, who is eternally hungry could not resist the scent of roasted sweet potato wafting from a street vendor's cart and so she bought one. I couldn't help but steal a nibble - it was yummy and just what we needed to tie us over until we could get lunch!!

Back at the hotel, we freshened up and met with the rest of the tour group at 1pm. In addition to Bridget and Daniel, the young New Zealand couple whom we had met the night before, there was Kirsten and Alex (both from Australia), Laura (from New Zealand), Dora and Sandy (both from Toronto) and our Intrepid tour leader, Daniel (from Australia). Another member of the group, Zdena (from the Czech Republic) would not join us until the next day. We also met our local guide for the day - Hoda, a young Egyptian working towards being a tour guide herself.

Daniel briefed us on the tour itinerary, did the needful administrative tasks and then escorted us out to get a bite of lunch. Lunch for me was a felafel sandwich which cost 75 piastres - about 13 cents. As I would soon learn, you can eat like a king in Egypt for a pittance!

After lunch, we hopped into several cabs and headed to Islamic Cairo. We were dropped off near the Citadel and got our first history lesson from Hoda about the Citadel - a place that Lei and I would visit a week later.

She also briefed us about the about differences in the architecture of mosques built by the Ottomans vs. those built by the Mamlukes (Egyptian slaves). It's all in the design of the minarets. Ottoman mosques have minarets that are pencil shaped and end in a sharp point.

Mamluke mosques have minarets that are not pencil shaped and are topped with a crescent shaped ornament.

Seeing the surroundings, we soon discover that Muslim architecture is simple but can be ornate in its decoration.

We then headed for the famous al Azhar mosque via the souk in Islamic Cairo. Typical of many neighborhood souks, the one in Isalamic Cairo sells everything from live chickens and fresh meat to vegetables to bales of cotton to materials needed to construct your own Bedouin style tent!

....and as you walk through the souk, you have to be mindful of vehicles rumbling down the street and of men, women, and children transporting goods atop their heads - poor Daniel had his toe run over by the horse cart and both Lei and I got whacked in the head by carpets and bread trays that were being balanced atop a scurryng person's head!

Just a few seconds after this photo was taken, Daniel had his toe run over....and it hurt!

....the souk was also where both Lei and I got our butts grabbed....yep, you read that right, our butts grabbed! We had read in our guide books that that could happen but as usual, you don't expect it to happen to you. Nothing painful, just something pinching your butt followed by minutes of wondering whether or not you got grabbed followed by cries of "Eww, I just got my butt grabbed!" as reality finally sinks in. On the other hand, I guess I should be flattered that my butt is "grab worthy":-)

We soon arrive at the al Azhar mosque and prepare to enter. As women, our heads have to covered and Hoda did us the honor of properly folding and pinning the scarf to each of our heads. We also had to take our shoes off and leave them in pigeon holes at the entrance to the mosque.

Don't we look like locals?

....what a beautiful and serene place we entered! Hoda gave us a brief on Islam and how it's practiced in Egypt vs other areas in the Middle East. Afterwards, we had a few minutes to wander around and soak in the tranquility of our surroundings and to admire the architecture of the al Azhar.

We headed out of the al Azhar and walked a short distance back to the Khan al Khalili bazaar. Daniel briefed us on the itinerary for the next day and then left us to explore the bazaar. Lei and I did a bit of shopping and then meandered our way back to the hotel. On the way, we smiled at the sight of a donkey eating dinner - the marketplace at night!

We rested a few minutes and then headed to dinner. We were attempting to find a restaurant that Daniel recommended but Lei's nose diverted us to another place where the smell of "basta meat"was irresistible. After a long and tiring day of walking around Cairo, a bowl of pasta with meat sauce (as Egyptians say "b's"instead of "p's") was the perfect comfort food.

Yep, it's pasta bolognese, Egyptian style. The bowl of red sauce next to the can of Pepsi is some really fiery hot chiili sauce!

After dinner, we went in search of a bakery and luckily, we found one just a couple of blocks from the restaurant where we ate dinner. We treated ourselves to some baklava for desert later. Back at the hotel, we started what would become a nightly ritual for us - taking showers, doing the laundry and recording the day's events in our journals. I was tired and I don't remember anything after my head hit the pillow!

Here are Lei's recollections of Day 1 and her first impressions of Egypt.