Margaret and Dick   


September 2011: The Cairo chronicles
We had crossed Egypt off our travel list for 2011 when CNN was showing the riots in Tahrir Square, the city center.  Then we started reading the happy reports of tourists who had gone and loved it and had especially loved the lack of crowds at the pyramids.  Our friend Arnaud, who knows Egypt well, strongly encouraged an immediate visit.  We're so glad we went now!  We encourage you to do the same, and here are some stories to help you with your decision.

Koshary Abou Tarek 
Pyramid Power

Welcome to Egypt!  
The touts 
Den of iniquity 


Koshary Abou Tarek

We decided to walk to dinner this evening.  This afternoon we finally gave up on our cab driver finding our hotel.  We were in the general area so we got out and walked – or perhaps wandered would be a more accurate description.  Eventually a kind man asked us if we were looking for the Hotel Osiris.  YES!  He walked us a couple of blocks to point out the hotel and laughed when I offered baksheesh as thanks.  Just another helpful local.

Must get oriented!  It turns out that there are many establishments that make terrible landmarks because they are everywhere:  mosques, Pizza Huts and KFCs, guys in cafes smoking tobacco in hookahs, clusters of cats.  Street signs, when they can be found, might be only in Arabic.  Must develop homing instincts.

I logged on to TripAdvisor to locate a good restaurant within walking distance.  Lo and behold, the most promising place, Koshary Abou Tarek, had been featured on No Reservations and has all rave reviews.  Koshary is a sort of national dish of Egypt and a must-do while in Cairo.  As a general rule, if Tony Bourdain liked it, we’ll probably find our heart’s desire:  culinary delights as defined by locals. We were ushered up to the third floor, where most of the women (in pairs or with men) dine, and were seated at a table with three men, two Saudis and a Cairo local.  The waitron explained that we could order the regular koshary or the special.  Special, please.  The waiter delivered it moments later and demonstrated the technique.  A bowl filled with rice/noodles/lentils was served with sides of fresh tomato sauce, garbanzos, crisp-grilled onions, chili sauce, and cumin salt.  It all ends up in the big bowl and mixed up together.  It reminded me of my mother’s slumgullion, or at least a vegetarian version thereof.  It was magnificent.  We washed it down with water and wished for beer  – but hey, this is a locals’ restaurant.

I was telling Dick the other neighborhood dining options that I had found on TripAdvisor.  Our Saudi neighbor kept nodding in agreement, then asked how I knew about all these places.  I told him my secret source. “One place we won’t be going is the fancy Indonesian restaurant in the Intercontinental Hotel,” I said. “Where are you staying?” he asked.

“A tiny hotel on the 12th floor of a commercial building.”
Incredulity.  “Why?  Why aren't you in a real hotel?”
“We prefer the tiny places.  Where are you staying?”
The Intercontinental, of course.

Our friendly tablemates left and their places were filled by two young Cairo women, also happy to chat and to offer whatever assistance we might need while in town.  About this time, we were finishing our fabulous rice pudding dessert and, feeling stuffed, asked for our check.  When it came, I stared at it, stunned.  “I don’t understand.”  The manager rushed over to see if there was a problem.  I calculated several times and kept coming up with $5.  Total.  For the two of us.
“This place is so delicious and so cheap!” I said to our tablemates.
“You don’t understand.  For you, from the USA, this is inexpensive.  For people of Cairo, this is not an inexpensive restaurant.”

Point taken, and lesson learned.  We may feel we were dining on the cheap – passing up the InterContinental in favor of the locals’ place – but for our friendly neighbors around the restaurant, this is a significant night out on the town.  This realization made the meal even more memorable.


Pyramid power

Coolest.  Thing.  Ever.

To be entirely alone, in utter silence, in the center of the Red Pyramid.  So alone and so deeply buried that no one would hear me scream.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Like most Americans, my knowledge of ancient Egypt was based primarily on Yul Brynner’s rendition of Pharaoh Ramses II in The Ten Commandments.  Yeah, yeah, pure Hollywood, right?  We realized as we toured the great Egyptian Museum that the set designers had spent a lot of time there with sketchpads, because at times we felt we were walking through the movie set.  But the budget of Ramses II was a lot bigger than Cecil B. DeMille’s.

Our day at the pyramids was our second day with excellent guide Hamada and intrepid driver Mohamed.  We started with the pyramids at Giza.  Hamada said it was the biggest crowd he had seen since the revolution, an auspicious sign at the beginning of high season.  But this wasn’t a crowd at the pharaonic scale – the photo shows the morning crowd at the Great Pyramid.  Be very jealous.  

I wept with joy at the grandeur.  Nothing I’ve ever read about the pyramids was able to prepare me for the sight, so there is no sense in my trying it here.  You must come.

It’s possible to go inside the Great Pyramid, but Hamada advised against it.  “It costs extra.  There is another pyramid that you can enter, that we will see later today, and the crowds will be smaller.  And there is no extra cost.”  We took his advice.

After the pyramids of Giza, we visited the pyramids of Sakkara and admired the bas-relief figures in the antechambers.  Unlike the pharaonic scenes depicted elsewhere, these figures depicted everyday life.  In this way the spirit could return for sustenance to life just as it was before death.

Our final destination was Dahshur, with the Red Pyramid and Bent Pyramid.  At the Red Pyramid there was one other car in the parking lot, plus three camels waiting for tourists.  We climbed the stone stairway that led a third of the way up the pyramid to the shaft that leads down to the core.  The tourists from the other car were visiting with the guardian and left soon after we arrived.

“Entering the pyramid isn’t a good thing to do if you have heart problems or if you are claustrophobic,” Hamada warned.  Dick gave me a look that I recognize as oh hell no.   
Hamada, my trusted guide, demurred as well.

“You walk down into one chamber, then you go through a tunnel to another chamber, then you climb some stairs to a third chamber.”  
“Are there ghosts?”
“No ghosts.  Possibly mummies.  Please tell us if you see any.”
The guardian handed me a flashlight.
“Oh yes, and there is the smell of ammonia.”  Ammonia?
“It’s from the bats.”

I stepped into the sloping shaft that descends into the pyramid.  More accurately, I stooped into the shaft, which at a height of about a meter requires you to descend in a crouching squat through the long, impossibly long, shaft.  A plastic tube, about 10 cm in diameter, ran along the side of the ramp and implied ventilation down below.  Lights were placed intermittently along the shaft, but I was glad to have the flashlight.  After descending for a long time, with the bottom of the shaft still looking far away, I looked over my shoulder to the entrance.  I was less than halfway down.

Eventually I reached the bottom, stoop-walked through a tunnel, and finally stood erect in an eerie oddly-shaped antechamber.  Elation, mixed with just a bit of fear.  Thousands of tons of precisely-aligned rock were bearing down on that narrow ceiling, so far above my head.  I told myself, aloud, that the pyramid had stood for 4,500 years and it wouldn’t come crashing down today.  Then I said it again.  There was utterly no sound but my own voice.

I stooped again and made my way into the second antechamber, same shape as the first, but now the stench of ammonia couldn’t be ignored.  (I later learned that the ventilation system was out of order.)  I realized that if I screamed this deep into the pyramid, nobody would hear me...but I was too spooked to try it anyway.  I looked across the chamber and was dismayed to see, instead of the few steps I had expected, a long winding wooden stairway up to the third chamber, the burial chamber.  I couldn’t come all this way and see only two chambers.  Must climb the stairs.  Must count the stairs.  Anything to distract me from that ceiling that is so far above me.

I think it was after forty-five stairs that I reached the burial chamber.  Same shape, but now I was much closer to that ceiling that was so strangely spooky.  The room felt muggy; I had expected it to be cool.  I forced myself to pause for a moment, then realized that my legs were shaking.  Time to head out.

By the time I had climbed back up the shaft – reportedly 149 steps – elation had returned.  I was alive and drunk with endorphins and adrenaline.  

Guide Hamada learned a new expression when I emerged:
Coolest.  Thing.  Ever.  

No kidding, you’ve got to go do this.  You probably won’t be alone – the lack of crowds is a temporary post-revolution phenomenon.  But I guarantee it will a spooky memory that will stick with you.  And keep an eye out for mummies.

Photo credits:
Red Pyramid internal plans:  Jon Bodsworth, Wikimedia Commons, used by permission.
Red Pyramid second chamber:  NeferKaRe, Wikimedia Commons, used by permission.


Welcome to Egypt!

I can’t tell you how many times we heard “Welcome to Egypt!” as we walked the streets of Cairo – and not just from people looking to sell us something.  Folks sitting near us in restaurants, men on the street, families on a stroll, people passing by in cars, or (our favorite) little kids practicing their English.  Egyptians are an open friendly people, and hospitality is literally part of their religion.

During and after the January 2011 revolution that ended Mubarak’s 30-year regime, tourism fell precipitously.  News reports have a tendency to describe localized disturbances as country-wide chaos, which doesn’t help.  Evolution to the post-revolutionary government is in full swing, and life has largely returned to normal.  We saw a couple of peaceful demonstrations outside certain businesses and a peaceful gathering at Tahrir Square but nothing of note.  In any case, in this city of 20 million people, you can walk a few blocks from any disturbance and find life continuing normally.  Normal is good.

Egypt needs tourism to bounce back.  It’s a major source of foreign exchange and an important component of the GDP.  We took two day-trips with a guide and driver (to Alexandria, to the Pyramids) and heard about the lean times they experienced when tourism plummeted. 

All this is why we chose to visit now.  It’s an exciting time to be in Egypt and sense the tremendous optimism in the air.  And imagine the pyramids of Giza without a crush of tour buses!  We encountered a few small tourist groups – guide Hamada called them the largest crowds since the revolution – but nothing like the huge throngs that these spectacular sites merit.  At less-visited Sakkara and Dahshur, we were almost alone.  Margaret had the thrill of descending deep into the burial chamber of the Red Pyramid completely alone – but that’s another story.

We received the red-carpet treatment everywhere.  As we walked into the Citadel in Alexandria, four young women politely approached us, notebooks in hand, and asked if they could interview us.  Sure, but who are you and what is this project?  Seed of Hope is a group of Alexandrian youths sharing a love of Egypt and collecting tourist critiques in hopes of making Egypt more welcoming.  We were stumped.  How do you make the most welcoming place on the planet even more welcoming?  We did identify one issue:  too much garbage on the streets of Alexandria.  Chagrined, they nodded in agreement.  “Since the revolution, the police are keeping a low profile, and garbage collection has not been well enforced.”  

We chatted, promised to email photos, and now we’re all friends on Facebook.  The younger generation is plugged in, and indeed the revolution was fueled by Facebook and Twitter.  Young revolutionaries were able to share plans for the next demonstration or warn of locations where police were approaching.  The much older entrenched politicians, oblivious, didn’t stand a chance.  

These four college-educated women, wearing head scarves with jeans, were self-confident, independent, and hopeful for the future of Egypt.  We wish them well.

Back in Cairo, we were wandering around the base of the Citadel trying to determine how to gain access to the fortress.  A well-dressed older man stepped up to advise us.  “The direction you’re going is shorter but passes through the cemetery.  Go the other way.  Turn left, then left, then left.  Welcome to Egypt!”

The first left didn’t look promising, as it led into a maze of little alleys.  Two girls, en route home for lunch, stepped in to take over navigation.  They pointed and waved and insisted on leading us to the right road.  A man thought they were pestering us and tried to chase them away.  The alpha-female of the pair was outraged, and we reassured him (Mafish mushkele!  No problem!) that they were helping us.  The girls occasionally practiced their English, consisting of the single word “Hello!”, and would collapse into giggles when we would add another word or two.  

We eventually came within sight of the entrance to the Citadel.  We gave each girl a one-pound coin with our thanks, and Margaret asked if she could take their picture.  They were delighted.  As Margaret lined up the shot, I spotted a dozen kids running down the hill toward us.  “You have ten seconds before you’re inundated with kids,” I said.  She snapped just before we were swamped with munchkins.  Ms. Alpha took over and cleared a passage so we could continue up the hill alone.  She’ll go far.  

Welcome to the new Egypt!


The touts

We would be misleading you if we didn’t mention that some “Welcome to Egypt!” greetings come from touts (hustlers) hoping to make a buck.  

As we were heading toward the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square, a friendly well-dressed man welcomed us to Egypt, told us he was “an engineer, an agricultural engineer” and struck up a conversation.  He wanted to make sure that we knew how to reach the museum, which was just across the street at a particularly hazardous crossing.  “Better to go during lunch when crowds are smaller.”  When is the best time?  “In about an hour, hour and a half.  In the meantime you can visit a government shop for fixed prices, very reasonable and no haggling.  I’m walking that direction and I can show you where it is.”  Argh!  We were in the hands of a skillful tout who would get a commission if we entered the shop of his choice.  Besides, the guide books had not mentioned any “government shops” in Egypt.  We politely waved him away.  (Note the burned-out building behind the Egyptian museum in the photo.  This is the former headquarters of Mubarek's party that burned during the January 2011 revolution.)

“But why did he say he was an engineer?” I asked Margaret.  
“Because you look like an engineer,” she laughed.  And it worked!  I suspect he said agricultural engineer to avoid further inquiry.  I may look like an engineer, but I don’t look like a farmer.  

We were looking for a café that reportedly serves beer (a rarity outside tourist establishments in Egypt), using an address found on the Internet.  The place at that address had a different name, and as we stood consulting notes a well-dressed middle-aged man asked if he could help.  “Oh, that café is closed.  There’s another one down the street that I’ll be happy to show you.”  By now we were tuned to this tactic.  I noted that the café door was open and patrons were coming out, so I bade our tout farewell.  We really enjoyed that beer, our first in Egypt.  

Approaching our first mosque on a morning of mosque visiting, another well-dressed middle aged man (see a pattern here?) blocked my way at the doorway as I was removing my shoes.  
“Where are you from?  Welcome to Egypt.  Are you Christian or Muslim?”
“Christian,” I said, perhaps a slight exaggeration.  
“So sorry, this mosque is for Muslims only.  We are not anti-Christian, but reserve entry here to Muslims.  But you can enter tourist mosques such as XYZ.  Step aside with me and I’ll direct you.”
“No, thank you,” and I turned and walked away.  After a minute or two, the supposed guardian was nowhere in sight.  I took off my shoes and walked in; no one objected.  There are a few Muslim-only mosques in Cairo, but this isn’t one of them.

Tout avoidance became a game, like bargaining with a car salesman.  Armed with this attitude, we were less annoyed by the pressure.  Everybody has to make a living – we just needed to take charge of the negotiation.  Upon hearing the words “Where are you from?”, our guard would go up and we would enter tout deflection mode.  Of course one good way to avoid touts is to avoid looking like a tourist (e.g. Margaret in the Khan el Khalili market, photo).

Touts aside, the majority of folks who wished us “Welcome to Egypt” and “Can I help direct you?” really meant it and were happy to steer us in the right direction with no con games. 

On our first day, we were wandering around our street trying (unsuccessfully) to find our hotel.  A gentleman asked, in French, if we were looking for Hotel Osiris (yes!) and walked us to the door.  He laughingly refused the EP1 coin that we offered as baksheesh.  He greeted us each time we passed his shop thereafter.  On our last day, we made a point to walk down the sidewalk in front of his shop, where he sat all day, every day, smoking shisha (flavored tobacco) in a hookah (waterpipe).  His French is limited, but we had enjoyed our daily exchanges and handshakes.  Today we asked if we could take his picture.  Oui, no problem!  (Note the spot on his forehead.  Quite common on Egyptian men, this is a callous that has developed from praying, five times a day, with forehead to ground.)

As Margaret laboriously lined up her shot, I looked into his shop to see what he sold:  luggage.  Just moments before, Margaret (clever girl) had asked me to consider improving my daily carry sack to look less like a tourist.  I spotted the perfect light fabric briefcase.  Soon the photo session evolved to include me inside his shop.  “How much?” I asked, pointing to my perfect sack.  I expected EP100 ($16).  He asked EP30 ($5).  I accepted without bargaining, of course, and added a US dollar bill on which we signed our names.  We got his address and promised photos.  The last goodbye involved kisses on both cheeks for both me and Margaret.  “Until next visit, inch’Allah.” Welcome to Egypt!

Toward the end of our visit, we noticed that our encounters with touts had almost disappeared.  Were we walking with greater confidence?  Were we now recognized in the neighborhood?  On our last night, Margaret had one more encounter of note.  She went back to Tahrir Square after dark for a last photo safari.  She was standing on the median strip of Tahrir Street lining up a shot when a friendly man said, “Be careful!”, then “Where are you from?”

“Cairo!” and she smiled at him.  He was gone in a moment.


Den of iniquity

With apologies to our new Muslim friends, sometimes we really want a beer.  Especially when it’s hot.  Like, for example, September in Cairo.

It’s not impossible to find beer in Cairo, but it isn’t easy, either.  Most Egyptians are Muslims and generally nondrinkers, so restaurants frequented by locals – the places we usually seek – are unlikely to serve beer.  Restaurants that cater to tourists have beer, but the food is designed to avoid surprise, ergo usually not very interesting.  Beer was available at our hotel, but the whole point is to get out of the safe nest of the hotel.  What to do?

We turned to the expert:  Anthony Bourdain and his travel blog from Egypt.  Voi
là! Cafeteria Stella, right nearby.  Our milling around the specified intersection (either wrong or closed, by the way) resulted only in attracting a tout promising nearby beer, but that’s another story.  But indeed, a couple of blocks away in the popular Al-Falaki square, I peered over some plywood that partially obscured the view into a large café and spotted a large sign, “STELLA”.  Success!

We walked in and headed for a table near the door.  A friendly waiter said, “You want beer?  Over here.”  He steered us well into the café out of view from the outside.  There, behind the partially obscured windows, we settled in to a rather grotty table.  “You want chips? Salt or plain?  You pay for chips now, beer later.”  Both are plenty cheap.  

The café became our destination at the end of each hot day.  Egyptians (mostly men, but also couples and pairs of women), backpackers, Johnny-Depp wannabes, British expats – everybody appeared happy and comfortable in this somewhat sleazy joint.  The plywood or decorative covering on the lower portions of the windows reminded us that this world is very different from the Muslim norm just outside, and most of our photos were taken discreetly with my iPod Touch.  But our friendly waiter was happy to pose as he delivered another round of half-liter bottles of Stella beer, as was his boss.

There was one mystery that we pondered each evening:  a man in traditional dress of gallabia and skullcap would stroll around the café slapping his hand against a piece of cardboard and looking down toward the floor.  Is he here to give some reminder about the evils of alcohol?  Why isn’t there anything written on his cardboard sign?  His demeanor didn’t seem to imply disapproval, but he sure wasn’t serving beer or busing tables.  

On our last visit, we approached three Brits who were finishing their second round and looked like they had been here many times before.  Faculty at the American University, they’ve been in Cairo for twenty, sixteen, and seven years, respectively, and they love it.  We asked about the mystery man.  He shines your shoes!  You give him your shoes, put your feet on the cardboard, and then he brings back nicely shined shoes!  

Any residual feelings of guilt washed away.  We’ll be back next trip, and you should make this den of iniquity a regular stop on your next trip to Egypt.  Go to Al-Falaki square and look for the plywood-covered windows, just behind the flower stall.  Have a beer, chips – and a shoe shine, too!

As always, you can find Margaret's hotel and restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor.

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