Egypt – Part I
Egypt: it feels like it was aeons ago that my husband, Bubbles and I went on a holiday to Cairo and Sharm-el-Sheikh but I remember minute details of the trip like it was yesterday, for both good and bad reasons. The trip left an indelible mark on me, quite literally, as you’ll soon find out*.
This was our first trip that we booked our holiday via a travel agency. This covered the flights, hotel and airport transfers. We also organised a tour guide and driver, as even the most seasoned traveller would tell you that you need, at the very least, a driver to take you around Cairo. Do not attempt to travel on your own unless you are overly ambitious and adventurous…and brave! It is one thing trying to navigate your way on the labyrinthine roads of a foreign country, but quite another to dodge the local predators that lurk around tourist sites! Street vendors can be pretty aggressive at peddling their wares to you and there are lots of touts waiting to cheat an unsuspecting tourist.
I must say we felt very pampered from the moment we arrived in Cairo as the travel agency representative greeted us at the airport and sent us straight to the hotel. Until then, we were used to finding our own way to the hotel, checking in and doing everything ourselves. Our rep did all this while we lounged in the waiting area sipping on welcome drinks.
Since we had arrived in the evening, our tour was to only start the next day with our guide, Emad. We decided to have dinner at the hotel restaurant. I’ve never mentioned this before, but each holiday we unintentionally end up spending on something on a whim that is an utter and complete waste of money. We learnt a big lesson after our first ever holiday together to Rome when we returned with a clay model of the Colloseum and gladiator figurines. A week later we wondered: why the hell did we buy these? Ever since then, we decided that we would only buy fridge magnets or the odd t-shirt, but somehow some wasteful expenditure deceptively creeps in in another form. On this holiday, it came a bit too early! Of course, it should come as no surprise that eating at a hotel restaurant will set you back at least double the amount of eating out. In fact, Bubbles warned me that it was going to be expensive, but drilling sense into me when I’m famished is akin to asking the Japanese to stop whaling: it won’t work! Anyway, we chose a restaurant that beckoned to us with the aroma of fried Indian spices and sweet sitar music. We ordered enough food to last us the whole trip. See, this is what happens when you order ‘under the influence’ (of hunger). Suffice to say, the food was nice, the ambience royal and the bill a whopping £50++ equivalent! It’s a lot to pay for an Indian meal in a hotel in Egypt, but I suppose the high price tag came with eating at Oberoi Hotel’s restaurant. So, we retreated to our room making a mental note to survive on beans on toast for a week after our holiday!
The next day, we started our tour of Cairo. Emad came bright and early to fetch us from the hotel. We headed to Cairo museum first as Emad said we would otherwise get caught in mid-day traffic jams. Cairo museum transported us thousands of years back in time, to an era when Egyptian civilisation was transfixed by the unknowns of the afterlife (not that any of us aren’t now) and centred their daily lives around preparing for this day. To this day, their mysterious practices are the subject of constant research. We soaked in all the facts about ancient Egypt as we traversed the halls of the museum. Every now and then I chanted “Imhotep! Imhotep!” (ala The Mummy) with my arms outstretched, which Bubbles found hilarious!
After the museum, Emad took us to Ibn Tulun mosque. It was a choice between the citadel and the mosque and disliking crowds, we chose the less popular mosque. On the way there, we went past graveyards by the roadside. One legacy the ancient Egyptians left behind is a penchant for building graveyards and we could see brick graveyards everywhere. These were nowhere near the grandiose “graves” once built for their rulers, but still quite significant nonetheless.
Ibn Tulun mosque’s claim to fame is that it is Cairo’s largest mosque in terms of land area. The James Bond flick “The Spy who Loved me” was also filmed there. We were given fabric shoes to cover our feet and I was given a floor-length green garb to put on. Emad explained the history of the mosque to us but after soaking in all the facts at the museum, I could absorb no more. If I were cartoonised, this is where you’d see doughnuts in my thought-bubble!
Finally came the moment we had been waiting for: time to go to the Pyramids of Giza! It was around 2pm and it was oppressively hot. We went to Egypt in the summer when it gets to around 40C at least. The heat was unbearable. The humid mid-day heat of Malaysia feels like a pleasant spring day in comparison! I can’t remember why we hadn’t decided to go there later in the evening, but I wish we had. I have to confess there is nothing beautiful about the pyramids. They are nothing but huge concrete slabs of stone. At one time they would have had an outer shell or casing stone made of polished white limestone and I suppose it would have looked more opulent, but most of them were removed during the Islamic era. However, what makes this site awe-inspiring is the surrealism of standing in front of a four thousand year old structure that is the only standing ancient wonder of the world. It also remained the tallest in the world until the Lincoln Cathedral was built in 1300.
Not far away was the Sphinx with its face disfigured. During the Islamic era, the faces of statues were disfigured as Islam is against idol worship. We had to queue to be photographed with this ancient celebrity! By this time we could take the heat no more so we quickly took some obligatory photos for the “we were here” stamp on our trip and retreated to the van Emad was waiting in. Emad insisted we had to go to another side of the site so we could get some good photos of both pyramids. So there we were further exposed to the sun and I was pretty certain we were going to get a heat stroke any minute! As if that wasn’t bad enough, Emad made us pose for silly shots – like we were touching the tip of the pyramid -mortifying!
That was the end of our tour for the day. We spent the rest of the evening chilling by the hotel pool. Bubbles had a swim while I, with the aversion to (deep) water of a cat, glued my butt to the deck chair.
The next day we covered “Coptic Cairo” which is a part of old Cairo. It is believed that the Holy Family visited this area and stayed at the Saint Sergius and Bacchus Church (Abu Serga). I would highly recommend visiting this church and other places like the Hanging Church and Babylon Fortress, for they are so rich in history. Then we went to el-Khalili market, where we wandered around till we got lost. You see, the market encompasses a tourist section and a locals section and is such a maize you don’t know where one ends and the other starts. We didn’t want to expose our vulnerability of being lost (remember the predators I mentioned?) so we continued walking whilst trying to find familiar landmarks, but we couldn’t fool the locals that we were one of them, with backpacks and all. So a man approached us asking if we were lost and needed help finding our way. Thank God he was a decent man and gave us directions back to the main square, rather than harassing us with offers of being our guide!
Our stay in Cairo was drawing to an end. The next afternoon we had a flight to Sharm-el-Sheikh. I think the second part of our Egypt holiday deserves a separate post, so do pop back to my blog sometime soon to read that! (Better yet, please ‘follow’ my blog so you’ll be pinged when a new article is posted) 🙂
*to be continued in the next post!