For the first time on the trip we slept in until about 8am. The Winter Palace’s continental breakfast was a massive assortment of rolls, breads, pastries, and specialty croissants, along with trays full of hummus and other yummy local dips. A waiter soon noticed my penchant for consuming tea in mass quantities, so he brought me my own private pot.
We then headed off for a walk to the Luxor Temple, which was just down the street from the hotel, but as it so happened we picked the wrong side of the temple to walk along, for we were unable to find an accessible entrance. Because turning around meant running again a gauntlet of hawkers and taxi folks, we flagged down a horse and carriage to take us to the temple of Karnak first, two miles up the Nile along the corniche. At first the old man driving the carriage was quiet, which was nice, but soon enough he began to insist that we hire him for the morning. We declined again and again, so after half a dozen reaffirmations of our lack of interest, he got the hint.
It was hard to get a solid sense of the true grandeur of Karnak from the outside – it looked like another Ramasseum at a distance. But as we paid for our tickets and entered the gate, it became obvious that this site was the granddaddy temple of them all. The sheer walls of the front of the temple were just as dominant as the walls of the great Hassan mosque in Cairo. Dozens of sphinx and heads of kinds lined the streets. What amazed me the most was that no matter how far we seemed to walk into the temple, there was always more structure looming in front of us than behind, as if the temple went on indefinitely.
But above all, it was the Karnak colonnade that left the strongest impression on me. As we approached it, we could see five or six columns standing intact, each well over 100 feet high and at least 10 feet in diameter. From where we were standing, it appeared that most of the other columns had toppled over the centuries. “Imagine what it would be like to see scores of these columns still standing,” I said to Susanne. “It must have been awesome.” Then, we passed through an archway and saw them: over 120 columns, row after row, fully intact. I was dumfounded. This was the image of ancient Egypt I remember from all of those old PBS documentaries, with David Attenborough or some narrator of the like strolling around from column to column, saying, “This temple was the heart of Thebes,” etc. Now, I was actually here. I wish it had hit me as much as it’s hitting me now as I write this, but no matter what, the sight of all those columns, capped off with the obelisks and endless rows of glyphed walls, will remain etched in me as long as I live.
After working around several large tour groups to get that perfect photo, we headed out, hailed a cab, and drove back down the corniche to the correct entrance to Luxor temple. We had planned originally to take a carriage back, but we had to be at the airport in three ours and we wanted to squeeze in the time necessary to get some lunch after the temple tour.
Luxor temple is a much smaller site than Karnak, but equally magnificent. It has withstood the aging process better, for most of the statutory halls and colonnades were close to intact. At the top of the left wall were the colorful remains of a Mosque which appeared to be of Turkish influence. I surmised that when the Seljuk Turks controlled Egypt, they thought it would be a good idea to add their stamp to Egypt’s symbol of former greatness. Who knows. Susanne had a few black-and-white shots left in her camera from Thebes, so we went around looking for good lighting. We never really found what we had in mind, but we got a few decent shots nevertheless.
With about 90 minutes before we needed to be back at the airport, we visited our old haunt, the Palace Cafe, one last time for a salad bar, chicken sandwich and hummus feast. We also swung by a local gift shop, perhaps the only one in Luxor where aggressive sales techniques are prohibited. Susanne bought some wood carvings, while I purchased a book on Egypt.
When we got to the airport, we were told to sit for a while until they were ready for check-in. After an hour or so, I went up to the counter and got our boarding passes, but when the porter asked where my bags were going and I said Cairo, he said, which flight? Before I could answer, he said never mind, grabbed my bags, and vanished. I became very paranoid but I wasn’t able to find him again, so we headed off to the gate, hoping for the best. As it turns out, the plane was 90 minutes late, which also worried me since we had a bus to catch in Cairo to take us across Sinai to the border crossing of Taba.
As we sat there with about 100 French teenagers, Susanne and I worked on our journals for a bit. I continued once we got on the plane, while Susanne talked with the man next to us, who coincidentally designed all of the graphics used at the Winter Palace. Our flight landed in Cairo with plenty of time to spare but our bags came out of the luggage system rather late, which had me freaking out do to that incident with the porter early that afternoon. Eventually, we cabbed back into Cairo in a slow, smoggy traffic jam.
The bus terminal we needed to get to was right across from the Ramses Hilton and Casino, a true monument to western excess. So, we went into the bar with our backpacks, looking scruffy and totally out of place, and proceeded to have a dinner of peanuts, chips, and a large bottle of Stella – certainly not gourmet dining in my book, but it sufficed.
Over at the bus terminal, we sat outside for about an hour waiting for our coach. Initially, we were the only westerners there, but as time past, more and more backpackers showed up, up to the point that when we boarded the bus, the only language spoken on it was English. It seemed the night would be an eight hour party express, but after 45 minutes of driving, the bus pulled over and the driver said “Taba and Nuweiba?” A few of us looked up and said, yes, that’s us. He then said, “Off bus, you change here.” Fine by us, we thought, but when we boarded the other coach, we saw it was full of chain-smoking locals. Again, I thought, that’s fine. As averse as I am to smokers within my personal space, I’d learn to deal with the fact that everyone in Egypt smokes, and that the concept of non-smoking space was a joke. So, I figured I’d live with it.
Susanne and I put on our night blinders and I stuck in my earplugs, but just as I began to doze off, the driver turned on a TV and began to blast these awful Egyptian commercials, one after another, for well over an hour. Even with my earplugs in place the volume was hurting my ears.
It seemed so strange – here we were in a bus trekking across the Sinai past midnight, yet no one else seemed to mind that the bus driver was going to play loud TV all night. Around 1am, they started some horrible film that was like a cross between a John Woo flick and some low budget Indian melodrama. Lots of guns, screams, and women being mistreated. The sound quality was about as awful as I’ve ever experienced, with high pitched music an increase in volume anytime a gun went off or a person screamed. Meanwhile, the bus temperature plunged into the 50s as we entered the cold desert of Sinai, and I sat there in my short sleeve shirt, freezing, dehydrated, and giddy from my exhaustion and cynicism.
By 4am the movie had ended and I passed out. While I was in the midst of some odd dream about a plane crash, I was woken up by Susanne, who was shaking me and yelling, “Andy! Andy!” Apparently my earplugs were working too well. Some Egyptian border policeman wanted my passports, which was tucked neatly in my neckpouch under my shirt. Susanne and the man were unable for some time to either wake me up or to get the passport out. According to Susanne, I was thoroughly confused and freaked out when she woke me up, because I forgot I was wearing my night blinders, so I was clawing at my face, trying to regain my vision. It would also seem that I forever changed the psyche of that poor border guy as I went nuts. Sorry about that.
November 2, 1995
For the first time on the trip we slept in until about 8am. The Winter Palace’s continental breakfast was a massive assortment of rolls, breads, pastries, and specialty croissants, along with trays full of hummus and other yummy local dips. A waiter soon noticed my penchant for consuming tea in mass quantities, so he brought me my own private pot.
November 1, 1995
At 5:30 am we got up and packed as fast as possible. We figured we could go downstairs for breakfast, keep our mouths shut, then run up, get our bags, and check out. I was fully prepared to bribe our way out just so we could get away from this pit of despair.
We quickly downed some stale bread and tea, then ran back up to get our things, for Mamdouk’s office was still empty. When we got downstairs again, some young boy was tending the front desk, so anti-climactically, we checked out and left without a fuss.
Despite the size of our backpacks, we decided a long walk would do us some good, so we trotted the mile trek to the shore of the Nile and got our first incredible view of the Valley of the Kings, which lied in the distance on the west bank of the river. Because of our hellish first night in Luxor, Susanne and I agreed that we need to spend that next night somewhere nice and safe in order to unwind and get back our sanity. On a lark, I said we should check out the Winter Palace Hotel, Luxor’s grandest and most famous hotel, as well as the former palace of Egypt’s last king, Farouk. We walked into the atrium of the New Palace, which is just to the left of the hotel’s original structure, the Old Palace. It was a beautiful building that wreaked of British colonialism and Victorian splendour.
We asked the reception desk attendant how much a room would be, though we assumed he would say something along the lines of 1000 pounds (i.e., at least 300 dollars). Instead, we were offered a double with a balcony view of the Nile for only $130, Visa or Mastercard accepted. We whipped out our plastic before we could say shukran (thank you) and checked in.
Since our room wouldn’t be ready until mid afternoon, we stored our backpacks and headed out for Thebes, taking a ferry across the river for about 30 cents apiece. We started to walk toward the direction of the Valley, ignoring numerous offers from overzealous cabbies, until we realized that as we walked along, the mountains weren’t getting any closer. We finally jumped aboard a taxi and rode about four miles to the ticket center, purchasing passes for the Valley, the Temple of Hatshepsut, the Ramasseum, and several other sites. We then found the same cabby and asked for a one-way ride to the Valley of the Kings, which was a circuitous five mile ride around the mountains. Our plan was to spend a couple of hours in the Valley’s tombs, then to climb the 1000-foot peak that separated the Valley from the Temple of Hatshepsut, and then to work our way through the sites of Thebes. Our driver, to no surprise, insisted that we hire him for the day for only 100 pounds, but we had gotten pretty good at saying no thanks in Arabic, so we thanked him, paid him his 18 pounds, and got out at the Valley entrance.
I had been warned as to what we should expect upon entering the Valley – many tombs, all teaming with dazed American, Japanese, and EU tourists, all in shorts and safari hats, following talkative tour guides. The warnings were right on the money. The bright landscape of sand and vertical walls of rock were dotted with hundreds of westerners being shuffled along from tomb to tomb. But we figured we weren’t in the neighborhood very often, so we did our best to not let the crowds bug us while we hiked around, trying to choose the three tombs we could visit on our ticket. King Tut’s tomb was an extra five bucks, and I had been told that there wasn’t much to see inside, so we opted out on it. So first, we went to see the tomb of Ramses IX. It was a long, straight underground passageway with incredibly vivid murals and mosaics on the ceiling and walls. A guide from an American tour group explained how the pictures were actually chapters from the legendary Book of the Dead.
Next, we moved along several hundred yards to the isolated passageway that leads to the tomb of Thutmoses III. In order to prevent robbers from breaking into the tomb, the Egyptians built it into the face of a cliff, about 60 feet off the ground. After ascending the metal stairs to the entrance, we climbed downward, over 150 feet into the cliff rock. The tomb must have been at least 110 degrees, and the fans installed inside did little to alleviate the discomfort. But the passageway itself, with its inscriptions and colorful frescos, was magnificent – certainly a suitable home for Thutmoses and the eight other pharaohs that were buried there.
We rested briefly after the sweaty climb out from the tomb, then moved on to the site of Amenhotep III, but we were disappointed to find out that the tomb was temporarily closed. We then chose to visit Ramses III’s grave, a crypt so small that only 10 people were allowed inside at a time. The walls of the tomb were de rigeur Book of the Dead mosaics, but in the middle of the room was an immense stone sarcophagus, one of the few that wasn’t moved down the Nile to the Egyptian Museum. I was surprised it wasn’t roped off in any way – we could touch it, even lean against it, if we had wished. The lone guard didn’t seem like he’d react, no matter what we did.
Having ingested our fill of tombs and tourists, we decided it was time to climb the mountain that split the Valley from the rest of Thebes. I had been under the impression that there was a well-trodden path by which we would follow to get to the other side. Instead, there were dozens of almost invisible paths going upward, all of them beginning literally at the small wall that protected tourists from falling rocks. Susanne and I concluded that we could just go up to the top by way of the closest path, and then figure out how to get down once we reached the summit.
The ascent to the top took less than an hour. We probably could have cut that time in half if we hadn’t paused every five minutes for water breaks and photo ops. I did my best to put my vertigo aside and to enjoy the view – overall, I was rather successful. The vistas from the various stages of the climb increased proportionally to our altitude. We also encountered several Bedouin locals perched in strategic spots, waiting for the kill – or in this case, to pounce on vulnerable tourists and try to sell them papyrus or to offer hints on how to get back down without getting killed, in exchange for a few pounds baksheesh.
When we reached the top, we could see the Nile in the distance and several miles of papyrus and rice paddies that separated us from it. Closer to our location were bone dry cliffs dotted with caves and empty tombs- perhaps 50 or 60 of them. We could also see some of the ruins of Thebes, but from that distance, we had no idea what was what. But where was the Temple of Hatshepsut?, I wondered. I expected it to be directly below us, but when we looked down, we saw nothing but rock. Perhaps as we wound our way down, I concluded, it would magically appear before us. We would have to wait and see.
As we had feared, the climb down was much more treacherous than the way up, for the paths were all made of small, slippery rocks, mostly pumice and chunks of a cloudy, obsidian-like glass. But after 15 minutes or so, we reached a sandy plateau riddled with donkey dung, which I took as a good sign. The right side of the plateau was a sheer drop, and at first I steered a good 20 feet away from it at all times. But curiosity got the best of me and I cautiously ventured closer to the edge, only to be shocked by the sight of the gloriously massive Temple of Hatshepsut, directly below us, with its marble causeway extending hundreds of feet ahead of it. It also became clear that the path we were following would take us around and to the left of the temple, which would offer us a view that most people see in coffee table books or postcards.
Our excitement grew as we descended the rock cliff. As we neared the final slope, we could see the temple in all of its wonder, from about 250 feet above the ground. We also noticed two tourists climbing towards us with two Bedouin, whom we assumed were hired guides from the way they were gesturing to each other. When they finally reached us, the man said to us in a German accent, “Do you know the best way to get these people off our backs? They keep following us.” Susanne and I then began to explain the fine art of shooing off Egyptian hucksters, using great Arabic words like La! (No!) a lot. The two Bedouin were clearly making fun of the fact that we weren’t able to explain to these tourists that it’s sometimes necessary to be a bit rude when dealing with people who are after your money, so eventually Susanne and I raised our voices at them while the husband and wife attempted to scurry off. But they weren’t fast enough and the Bedouin soon caught up with them again, while one of the Egyptians gave me a cunning smile that seemed to say to me “Don’t you just love playing this game?” The poor couple continued to respond in English, but their politeness did not cease, so they were still unsuccessful. Clearly they had yet to understand the ugly American skill of telling people to get lost in any language.
At the bottom of the mountain we loaded up on Coke and water and headed to Hatshepsut. As amazing as the temple was, I think I enjoyed the view from above more than the upclose visit. In addition, the marble causeway that lead up to the center of the temple was closed, so we were only able to explore the colonnade on each side of the temple.
Having explored Hatshepsut, we began the 45 minute walk to the Ramasseum, built by the infamously vain Ramses II around the time of Moses. I saw a small cave off to the side of the road and I convinced Susanne we should take a look. In the end, it wasn’t anything special, but when I realized that there were hundreds of caves scattered throughout Thebes, I began to think it would be nice to have a few days here just to delve into every nook and cranny. Another trip, perhaps.
We walked through a long village and were surrounded quickly by small children, some with backpacks from school, just wanting to say hello, others trying to sell us dolls or trinkets with surprisingly precise English and French skills. Susanne must have had at least eight or nine of them around her at once – it looked like a seen from some movie set in the heart of an African village. Admittedly, I was beginning to lose my patience with some of these kids, especially when I saw one of them attempt to unzip a jacket pocket. But as quickly as they had flocked to us, they moved on, and we were left no worse off and with some pictures to boot.
We reached the Ramasseum, which from a distance resembled an open-air warehouse for temple masonry supplies. But upon our entry into the temple itself, we were enveloped by the remains of massive shattered columns, piles of hieroglyphic rubble, and toppled statues of the nom-du-temple himself, Ramses II. To the left of the main temple lay the fallen head and torso of Ramses, whose neck alone was about the size of a VW minibus. Standing on the entrance to the colonnade was a British camera crew who appeared to be interviewing an Arab egyptologist for a documentary. Ever the producer, Susanne insisted on some innocent eavesdropping in order to get a better look of the equipment they were using – Sony Betacam SP, as it turned out.
It was now about 2pm and Susanne and I were beat. Granted, we had barely scratched the surface of Thebes that day, but we wanted to stay healthy as long as possible and rest up when we could. Besides, we had both the Temples of Luxor and Karnak to visit the following day, and we didn’t want to be templed out so quickly, in the same way we had each become cathedraled out and castled out on previous trips to Europe.
We took a local ferry back to the hotel. This time, it was a truly local boat, packed with hundreds of Luxoreen, especially young boys with bikes who clearly seemed to be discussing the nature of Susanne’s blondeness behind our backs. Back at the Winter Palace, we napped a bit and had some salad at the hotel cafe, which was a wonderful blessing, since this was the first time on our trip that we could consume raw vegetables without the fear of catching Pharaoh’s Revenge, so to speak. Around 5pm, we hit the pool deck – an enormous pond surrounded by Brighton-like folding chairs, waiters in tuxedos, enormous palm trees, and cages of black and white pigeons. What the hell are we doing here?, we thought in unison, but we concluded that a taste of imperialist Victorian living would scar our psyches permanently.
Back upstairs on our balcony, we watched the sun set over the Nile as ferries and feluccas shimmered along the water. The Temple of Luxor, normally a brilliant site from the right of our balcony, was simply exquisite at this time of day, with an innumerable variety of shadow patterns reflecting of its stones.
Dinner again was at the Palace Cafe. I dared to actually get a cheeseburger, something I normally wouldn’t even do back at home. We crashed around 10pm, eager to get a fresh start the next day.
October 31, 1995
Today we must catch our flight to Luxor at 5pm, so we’re killing the morning by returning to the alleyway souks that radiate from Midan Ramsis in order to take pictures of Cairene life. Admittedly, I was feeling a bit nervous about this, since some Egyptian women are very uncomfortable about having their picture taken. We’ve already had some angry reactions to our shutterbuggery, too.
But as we meandered the bazaar, we found that many people, especially young women, were eager to have their pictures taken by us. One girl selling fruit yelled “Hello!” and waved to us. Susanne motioned to her camera and the young woman smiled and waved us towards her. Others joined the portrait, and suddenly it seemed like we were taking photos of a high school class reunion.
Two roles of film later, we went off to the bank to exchange more money and then walked underground in the new metro tubes to the Ramses rail station for a quick Coke and a look around. Back at the hotel, we stopped to check out some postcards, which were sold at a small hotel shop. The old man who owned the shop sold us the cards and some stamps, and then invited us in his back room for a fresh cup of Egyptian Turkish coffee. We talked to him as he showed off some of his finer small trinkets of ankhs and scarabs. Susanne and I bought a few things, and then he offered us an earring and a small statue as a gift. We asked what we could offer him in return, and he said he collected ball-point pens, but we weren’t carrying any. Then, out of the blue, Susanne pulled out a wrist watch she never wore and put it on the table in front of him. He looked shocked, as did I, be cause it seemed a bit too generous of a gift. Susanne said she didn’t want it and that it would make her happy if he would accept it, so after several moments, he took it, with a pleasantly embarrassed look on his face.
With our bags in hand, we headed outside to catch a taxi to the airport, and lo and behold, it was our old friend Ibrahim, who had taken us to the pyramids the day before. We then parted Cairo and hit the airport, where we had enough time to complete about a dozen postcards and work on our journals. The flight itself was highlighted by a wobbling soundtrack of muzak hits, including “I Love You Just the Way You Are” and “My Way.” Beyond that, the one-hour ride was uneventful.
The real adventure began when we arrived at the St. Caterine Hotel, which had been recommended to us by the manager of the Fontana in Cairo. Normally, I’d take such recommendations with a grain of salt, but because the manager, had been quite helpful and never tried to rip us off, we acquiesced. The hotel itself seemed fine for Egyptian standards, but when the manager of the Caterine, Mamdouk, insisted that we come down for some tea and a glass of rosewater, we both got a bit nervous….
As we sat uncomfortably in Mamdouk’s office, waiting for the tea, we lied our way through a conversation. When we first arrived at the St. Caterine, we were asked where we were from, and out of habit I said Canada, for we had learned we could handle hagglers and street vendors a lot better if they didn’t know we were from the U.S. But this time they needed our passports for registration, so I had to improv a story that we were American citizens residing in Canada. Of course, Mamdouk happened to speak fluent French, having spent five years in Paris, so I was forced to admit that we lived in Toronto and rarely ever traveled to Quebec.
But the worst was yet to come. Two burly toothless men entered Mamdouk’s office and they spoke to him briefly in Arabic. Mamdouk then smiled and said, “Because I offer you tea, you will now do a simple favor for us.” What favor, I cringed. He then put 100 pounds in front of me and said we should go with a young boy to buy him some Johnny Walker. He explained that they couldn’t buy alcohol because the local store would only sell to westerners. I felt wholly surrounded by these men, so I said we would do it as long as the boy didn’t join us, fearing that some scam would be specifically linked to him. We headed out the door and one of the toothless men followed, saying he’d show us the way.
Why it took us so long to get a clue and wake up from our naiveté, I don’t know, but after walking about 50 feet, we turned around to him and said “We won’t do this. We’re going back to the hotel.” Surprisingly, he smiled and said OK, forget it, and took us back to Mamdouk’s office. There, we sat some more, still waiting for that damn tea, until I began to run out of Canada stories, so Susanne faked a coughing fit, which allowed us to leave politely and go back upstairs for bed. The tea arrived just as we were leaving, so I grabbed both glasses and enjoyed them upstairs, even though Susanne was worried Mamdouk might slip us a mickey in order to steal our backpacks, shave our heads, shanghai us into the Upper Egypt Freedom Forces, or something of the like.
Sleeping at the St. Caterine was a task in its own right. The beds were hard, the a/c didn’t work, and at four in the morning, a mosque across the street broadcast an incredibly morose call to prayer for a good 15 minutes. Susanne and I sat up trying to find a strategy to check out the next morning at 6am without provoking a fight with Mamdouk, who we were sure would try to keep us to stay another night. We dreaded the coming of dawn.
October 30, 1995
After another early morning Egyptian breakfast of breads, cheese, and caffeine, we hired a taxi for the entire morning to take us to the pyramids of Saqqara and Giza. Our driver, Ibrahim, spoke some English, but kept to himself most of the time, except to point out the occasional landmark (“Israeli Embassy – very nice….”)
We first went to Saqqara, about 15 miles south of Cairo at the edge of the Libyan Sahara desert. The drive took us through numerous fabric and vegetable markets, which I observed while Susanne tried to catch up on lost sleep. As we approached Saqqara, I noticed the first signs of the impending desert: caravans of camels marched in and out of the bazaars, trekking along the road against a backdrop of never-ending palm groves. Behind the trees, though, you couldn’t see much, but soon it became clear that this nothingness was really the empty, sandy shore of the Sahara itself.
As we reached the road to the desert, Saqqara’s most famous site, the Zoser Step Pyramid, loomed in the distance. Zoser is the oldest standing pyramid on earth, built around 2700 BCE. The pyramid complex was surrounded by the remains of fallen temples, whose broken columns are reportedly the oldest know. The pyramid itself, with its aging steps holding up rather well despite their age, dominated the entire site. The basic dimensions were somewhat reminiscent of the Great Temple of Kulkulkan at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan of Mexico.
About seven kilometers south of the pyramid you could see the smaller, younger pyramids of South Saqqara, which were too far out of the way for us to visit. So after our taking of too many pictures, including some shots of a policeman on a camel (for small baksheesh, of course), we got back in our taxi and headed north to Giza.
The 10km drive to Giza took about an hour, as we were stuck behind numerous lorries which kicked up enormous amounts of limestone dust and debris, turning the taxi, the surrounding trees, and passing camels to a strange shade of yellowish white. We drove through the urban neighborhoods of Giza (east Cairo), which is packed with row after row of apartments, tenements, and tourist traps. Once at the entrance of the pyramids, though, we could see in all of their glory the three main pyramids of Cheops, Chefren and Mycerinus, guarded by the infamous Sphinx. The Sphinx itself was smaller than I imagined – only 22m high – but was impressive and inspiring nonetheless. Three gay men from the states took our pictures for us there and joked about how the photos would definitely end up as “this year’s Christmas cards,” my Jewish heritage not withstanding.
We hiked the steep hill between the Sphinx and Cheops and hooked to the right, walking along the foot of the pyramid. There were many well-dressed Egyptian teenagers hanging out with portable radios, singing along as they went. When we reached the entrance to Cheops, the guards shook their heads and said “need extra ticket,” a ticket which we didn’t have, and the ticket booth was a good kilometer away back at the entrance of the site. Since we had to go back down hill anyway, we decided to go back and take a rest stop at the Egypt House cafe, which sits about 100 yards in front of the Sphinx. We stayed there for a good two hours, downing cokes, bottled water, and overcooked kufta kabob sandwiches. A stray dog kept Susanne occupied as I worried half seriously about the potential illnesses it might pass on to us.
Around 3pm we started to hike into the desert south of the pyramids complex and were immediately pummeled by groups of camel guides jockeying for our patronage. As annoying and rude as most of them were, we concluded that a trip to the pyramids without the obligatory camel ride would gnaw at our guts for years to come. Susanne and I mounted a camel, which growled and farted incessantly. I never realized how high off the ground camels’ humps were until I started to fear for my safety as we swayed back and forth to the camel’s gait. Soon enough, though, we were surrounded by the Eastern Sahara, though in reality the strips of souvenir shops were less than a mile away beyond the high sand dunes.
Sore from the experience, we limped back to the cafe after parting from our guide and our flatulating dromedary friend. The sun was beginning to set, so the crowds at the foot of the Sphinx increased dramatically as they all attempted to get that postcard-perfect shot to show off to their friends back in Pittsburgh, Osaka, Frankfurt, or from wherever else they hailed.
The cab ride back to Midan Ramsis and our hotel was a continuos horn-blast through traffic. After killing some time in the room, we went upstairs to the Fontana Cafe. I drank some Stella while Susanne enjoyed a 7-Up while we both munched on peanuts and this wonderful meat and rice dish, surrounded by a small crowd of subdued, sophisticated Cairenes. The dark cafe was an incredible contrast to the din and activity in Midan Ramsis below us, where cars twisted and turned in every directions like lemmings on amphetamines. Another night in the life of el-Qahira, Misr.
October 29, 1995
After a pleasant breakfast of breads, cheeses, and heavy Cairene instant coffee, we started to walk in a direction we though would lead us from Midan Ramsis, in the north end of New Cairo, through old Islamic Cairo to Muhammad Ali’s Citadel, four miles down towards the southeast corner of the city. Instead, we got lost in a seemingly endless maze of alleys. Cairenes crowded every corner, some smoking sheeshas and playing backgammon at an impromptu cafe stand, others selling fruit, spices, or freshly killed meat, directly off of their mule-driven carts. Kids played football with cans or plastic bottles, and everything carried the same incredible smell, a curious melange of tahina, roasted yams, tobacco, and trash. Despite the fact that we were the only two Anglos in a sea of North Africans, we felt quite comfortable and not self-conscious. On the whole, our presence was ignored apart from occasional groups of small boys who would walk by yelling, “Hello! Hello!” Not an uncommon occurrence in Cairo, as it turns out.
After soaking in the sights and smells of this north Cairo souk, unmolested by other khawagas such as ourselves, we found a main street teaming with buses and black and white taxis. To our chagrin, all of the street signs were in Arabic, so we soon lost track of our exact position on our map.
I hailed a taxi and we climbed in. The man spoke no English whatsoever, and I couldn’t remember the Arabic word for Citadel, so I naively assumed that he might at least recognize the word Citadel in English. I was proven wrong, though he refused to admit he didn’t know. We drove around in circles for about 45 minutes and eventually got out of the car, paying the man about five pounds for our circuitous excursion.
We walked along the street and soon stopped in a cafe for a coke and some pitas. The locals were all dressed up in suits and fashionable clothing, so it was pretty clear to us we had reached the business district of downtown modern Cairo. This helped us get our bearings on the map and we walked over to the local tourist office to get a more detailed map. We also swung around the corner to the Windsor Hotel, where Michael Palin stayed while filming Around the World in 80 Days.
We continued to walk west for about 30 minutes and soon found ourselves in the heart of Khan al-Khalili, Cairo’s famous bazaar and the largest souk in the Islamic world. We were regularly hounded by people trying to drag us into one of the many Mamluk mosques that peppered the neighborhoods. Nonetheless, the alleyways and streets were teaming with life and people, especially kids selling fresh fruit and trinkets.
We walked further along, past the edge of Al-Ahzar, the oldest university in the world. A half-blinded old man convinced us to enter a mosque, where he said a group of Sufi women were about to dance, but there was no one there apart from a small study group encircled on the floor. Ironically, when I tried to pay him the several pounds he had requested for our uneventful tour of the mosque, the change he handed me back equaled the amount I gave him in the first place.
We then walked south through the heart of Islamic Cairo, where Susanne was the only woman not fully draped from head to toe in the traditional black garb worn by many Muslim women in the Arab world. Yet on the whole, we weren’t singled out by anyone, except by more kids who pummeled us with cries of “Hello! Hello!” and “Welcome!” But before we knew it, we found ourselves standing in front of the great Hassan Mosque, the enormous madrassa built by the Mamluk sultan Hassan. The inside was like a deserted sephardic synagogue on a much grander scale, with ceilings easily reaching over 100 feet. A muezzin demonstrated the call to prayer, which echoed throughout the building, and then asked us for baksheesh of 50 piastres, which seemed well worth the price.
Behind the Hassan Mosque stands the Citadel, perhaps Cairo’s most famous landmark. Upon reaching the entrance at the top of a hill, I was reminded of Edinburgh Castle, with its similar fortress design and collections of military museums. The centerpiece of the Citadel, the Muhammad Ali Mosque, is an ornate gem of 19th century architecture, a combination of traditional Islamic design and French decorated, which Ali admired greatly.
After descending the winding hill road from the top of the Citadel, we walked back about three miles to Tahrir Square, the central hub of downtown Cairo. We tried in vain to find a restaurant recommended by our guidebook, so we walked north to Talaat Harb Street into the Felfella Restaurant. We feasted on plates of felafel, foul, and pita, so much so that when we returned to the hotel, Susanne got ill and had trouble falling asleep.
October 28, 1995
Eventually I landed at Heathrow on a cold Saturday morning. On my inter-airport bus ride to Gatwick, I observed the rolling hills of Sussex, stereotypically blanketed in a thick layer of English fog.
Gatwick was an hour or so away from Heathrow. I found the meeting point lounge fairly quickly, and Susanne was sitting there reading a book, having arrived directly at Gatwick about 90 minutes before. We hugged and said our hellos, having not seen each other in about six months, and we wondered off for some orange juice at an airport cafe. We then decided to call London for a hotel, using Let’s Go as our guide. We’d be back in England on November 11, and two weeks seemed like ample time to make a reservation. Well, at least 6 calls and about eight shillings later, we were able to find a B&B with vacancies, so we booked a room in Westminster near the Paddington tube stop.
Security at Gatwick wasn’t too bad. We were asked questions about our luggage, searched, and then searched again by metal detector and frisking. Some bloke with an automatic rifle patrolled our secured gate while we waited to board the plane.
We then boarded the 737 for the four hour flight, which passed by quickly as we chatted away, dozed a bit, and made up for lost time. Our flight plan took us over the former Yugoslavia and Greece, past Crete, and then into Israel. The sun was setting as we arrived in Tel Aviv around 5pm local time, yet we were informed by the flight crew that taking pictures of the dusk sky over Israel was prohibited for national defense reasons.
Security at Ben Gurion Airport was tight as expected. In the end, we sat for about four hours before catching our plane to Cairo. We boarded the Air Sinai jet and took off around 9:30pm. In Cairo, security was surprisingly lax – but at the time, little did we know how lax Egypt is in general.
After being harassed by a man with an unlicensed taxi, we found a legit black and white city taxi and got in. The driver soon pulled the car over and picked up a friend, a policeman with a rifle. As we sat back absorbing the scenes and smells of nighttime Cairo, they chain-smoked and laughed a lot while the driver swerved us in and out of the city’s notorious traffic mayhem. The driver kept his hand strategically situated by the horn, which he honked incessantly, as did the rest of Cairo’s drivers. By 11:30 pm, we checked into the Fontana Hotel off of Midan Ramsis (Rameses Square), and promptly passed out.