Cairo, Lost in the Desert, Egyptian Museum

Wow.

The ups and down of Cairo have pushed us to the brink of insanity, while kind people have pulled us back with their hospitality and compassion. The last couple days have been very long, and very trying in many regards, and so consequently we will be flying back to the States immediately.

Just kidding – we’re taking a morning bus to the Bahariyya Oasis for some much needed relaxation, at least one night of camping in the White Desert, as well as a drive between there and the adjacent Black Desert. Obviously the desert names refer to the color of the sand, and both are supposed to be beautiful. But since we never seem to know what the future will hold at all, enough about what should happen, let us tell you about what has happened:

After our lengthy first Egyptian day, including our Giza adventure, we slept in until after noon, getting some much needed rest. Due to Ramadan, finding food before the first evening prayer at 5:30 p.m. is quite difficult, and arguably culturally inconsiderate, so we hung around our hostel, before taking a walk shortly before 5 p.m. in order to see the surrounding area for the first time. The streets of downtown Cairo are filled with many touts, selling all sorts of papyrus and perfume/flower essence, and being non-Egyptians means they seek us out like no other. It is further complicated by the fact that they all act like nice men who just want to chat, and obviously it is in our nature to oblige people, since we want to make new friends and meet real people, not just other tourists/foreigners/travellers. We met a man named Ayman, who swore he had nothing to sell when he invited us to dinner at his cousin’s house. Technically he was correct, but after our delicious dinner of spicy vegetables, rice, meat, the omnipresent pita bread, and some tea, his cousin (of course) took us upstairs for a perfume sales pitch. We minorly obliged him, since we needed a travel container, and the strength of the dollar here means that the 20 Egyptian Pounds that we spent comes to under $4. We also realized that Mohammad Ali (the boxer) came here in the 70s/80s, and apparently met everyone’s uncle/father/brother/cousin, since all the shops we have been in have framed, faded, and oft-used photos. After the sale, Ayman invited us to a bar, so we ended up on a 7th floor hotel’s rooftop bar, where we drank the strong (and supposed 10%) local brew: Sakara (which ought to be spelled Saqqara, but ‘q’ and ‘k’ are substitutable when transliterating between Arabic and English). They had a ping-pong table, and since we were pretty much the only customers, the two otherwise bored employees, Sharif and Meenah, definitely had a good time with us, getting their picture taken, being videotaped, and smoking way too many of the local favorite Cleopatra cigarettes.
One of the first things that you learn as a foreigner here, is that everything gets rounded up, against you, since the money is very confusing (many small bills, in terrible condition), and prices are rarely, if ever, posted. But we had a fun time, and Ayman was at least a reasonably nice companion, though it is tough because you never know what people are saying right in front of you in Arabic. So we decided to go with the flow, which was to take a taxi to his friend’s house for some peach brandy (gotten by us at a duty-free shop) and some card-playing. But the cab ride took forever, of course, and we basically ended up on the edge of Cairo’s suburbs, which is to say way, way out in the desert. But obviously that’s where we were, so we hung out, were treated to another nice Egyptian meal, and in addition to his friend Omar (who turned out to be a rather chauvanistic douchebag), there was Omar’s girlfriend Dana (from Germany who could certainly do much better), and an Egyptian-turned-Frenchman (he lives with his French wife near Marseilles) named Hassan, who is honestly one of the nicest people we have met on our trip yet. After some card playing, which was basically old-maid and rather boring, we had run out of mineral water, and since we were assured that the “Swiss market” was very close, Anderson volunteered to ride their bicycle there, since our hosts had been kindly and friendly to us.
So, while Liz remained, Anderson’s descent into the desert started off alright, as the road where their apartment was quickly led to the main road, and the directions of “take a left and follow the lights to the market” seemed pretty simple. But after much riding (and with both pedals casually breaking off on the gear-less pedal bike that they had) the only sign of civilization had been a closed “Smile” gas station, which though ironically named, was very unhelpful concerning the rapidly increasing dehydration and exhaustion. So, (switching to first person for a moment, sorry for the break in continuity) I headed back the way I had came, figuring that worse things could happen than returning without any water, since we could certainly boil some, or just take a cab ride home and drink to our hearts’ content there. But the road seemed to go on forever, and then a larger-than-remembered hill had to be conquered, and soon the scenery began looking not-quite-right. Then bad turned to worse, and the bike ceased to work – the pedals were still going, or rather the remaining stubs of what had once been pedals, but the bike was not moving at all. There was, however, a row of lights in the distance, which seemed to possibly be where I needed to be, but they were definately a way off in the distance, so I immediately began trying to flag down the occasional passing vehicles. It probably should be mentioned that by now it was at least 5 a.m., and I had been gone for what seemed like forever, but must have been around an hour, if not longer. So with legs burning, and a mind filled with despair, I finally flagged down a dumptruck, since no cars had deemed me worthy of a stop. There were two Egyptian men in the truck, and one helped me toss the defective bike in the back bed, and so I squeezed in between two kindly Arabic-speakers, and began the struggle of trying to explain my predicament. They offered me some water, though since it was assuredly from a local tap, as much as I craved it I knew I could not consume it.
We headed to the semi-distant row of lights, but before too long we hit a round-about, which I had most definitely not encountered during my ride, so I had them stop, and explained that things were “not right,” and “very bad,” which they did understand, and so they nicely pulled over, and attempted to help me call our hostel, which I fortunately had all the information for in my pocket since carrying the guide book around all the time is a little too touristy for our tastes. But between my bad handwriting, and (I learned later) the addition of the unnecessary country code, the call did not go through. But just then a taxi was spotted in the distance, and so we all three ran to try and flag it down. Of course we did not arrive in time, and at that moment the most awful sickness hit me, and I had to empty my entire stomach contents, mostly on the road, but due to the suddenness of it all somewhat on my shoes and pants. After three such awful moments, my kindly Egyptian saviors quickly pulled out a cushion from their truck, and gave me the water, which at that point I drank regardless of future consequences, since the present situation trumped any future illness that might result (which fortunately none have). After resting for a while, and missing yet another taxi, finally as the rays of dawn (and the heat of the day) hit, a third taxi came by and it shuddered to a halt. Taxis here, by the way, are primarily beaten up early 80s diesel Fiats. How they even still run is quite the conundrum, particularly given the road conditions here, but at that current moment thoughts like that were the furthest thing from my mind. The taxi driver only spoke Arabic as well, obviously, and so “Downtown Cairo,” and the “Egyptian Museum” – which are hostel is quite near, meant nothing to him, nor did our hostel address in written or verbal form. But we finally ran into a semi-English speaker, who was headed in the same direction, and so I returned, in quite the exhausted daze, to Cairo and then finally our hostel, after a quick stop at a market for some much-anticipated water (several hours after I went to get some!). Meanwhile, elsewhere in Egypt, Liz was having a fun time as well:
Fun is not the exact term of what was happening back at that suburban apartment where I was left to worry my brains out about what was happening to Anderson. After an hour and still no sign of Anderson I couldn’t help but start to ask questions to my new friends: “Would it take this long?” and “Do you think he’s okay?” No one seemed particularly concerned so for another half an hour I worked myself up in silence. By then it was obvious that things were not right and Hassan was clearly starting to worry, too. I began pacing back and forth to the balcony in hopes of that first sighting but with no luck. The options were pretty slim as to what could have happened since either it was something really bad (kidnapped or hurt) or he was hopelessly lost. Everyone there insisted that the Egyptians (especailly in the suburbs) would never hurt him, but they were in agreement that he was likely to be lost (or in Omar’s case smoking sheesha somewhere). Of course nothing made me feel better since Anderson would never leave me without notification in an odd situation, so I knew without a doubt that whatever he WAS doing, he was not having fun. Soon after, Hassan left to go and look for him. He was gone a good 45 minutes and asked all the neighbors if they had seen Anderson. Since Hassan was unsuccessful that made him, and me, worry a bit more. To be honest, I was near crazy with worry and almost made myself sick from it (but I had to keep it together since I needed these people’s help). By this time the sun was up (not fun to watch the sunrise while overcome with a stress headache) and something needed to change. Dana was the first to suggest that we take a taxi back to the hostel and wait, since anyone lost would go to where they know. I was thinking this but didn’t have a penny on me, so I jumped at the oppurtunity to borrow some from her. Omar, being the wonderful guy that he is, barked at the idea since we are both “Western women.” But, since he didn’t like that idea he was willing to surrender his phone so I could call the hostel. Luckily I had the backpack with our dear notebook so I had all the information at my fingertips. The first call was unsuccessful since his phone almost ran out while I was waiting for the hostel worker to “wake up Mr. Anderson.” Clearly I knew that Anderson couldn’t be sleeping in our room (since I had the only key) so things were looking quite dim. I called back five minutes later just in case though, and lo’ and behold Mr. Anderson had walked in that same instant. What a relief to hear his voice!! He gave me a quick rundown of the situation and now I was more than excited to leave that dreary apartment and reunite with him back at the room. But first, I had to get there. Thankfully, that dear Hassan was willing to escort me to our door, and after an hour-or-so journey, first by foot, then by minibus, then by foot again, I saw a ragged Anderson (and a giant bottle of water) waiting outside. It was 8:30 a.m. at this point and we had just had one of the (if not THE) craziest nights of our life, and certainly the most unusual of our trip thus far!
Since we were back together again, and semi-adequately hydrated, our main concern was to get some sleep, since our initial day’s plan of going to the Egyptian Museum was immediately postponed until Sunday. Ramadan even affects such a tourist-driven place, with the closing time at 3 p.m. instead of the usual 7 p.m. Instead, though, we slept most of the day, basking in our air-conditioned and shade-darkened hostel room, and enjoying every non-conscious second of it!
About all we did Saturday evening, was grab some food from a nearby stand-up Felfala place (which serves felafel, koushuri – an amazing noodle, rice, and chickpea dish, shawerma – kebob meat in a sandwich, and numerous other Middle Eastern favorites like mashed potatoes served in a pita), and accept the invitation of our hostel owner for a relaxing sheesha and mango puree drink.
Today, as in Sunday (which is not the weekend anymore, that being Friday and Saturday here), we finally hit up the Egyptian Museum, which is literally just down the block from our hostel. The museum is amazing, for several reasons. First, it houses what must be the largest collection of artifacts housed anywhere, at well over 120,000, with impressive highlights including the famed collection of artifacts from King Tutankhamen’s tomb (gold masks, sarcophogi, jewelry, etc.), as well as the two rooms filled with temperature-controlled royal mummies, and the Narmer Palette(the first written documentation of a united Upper & Lower Egypt). Secondly, the museum is so packed with artifacts, and so scarce on space, that most of the 100 + rooms are brimming with pharaonic paraphenalia. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the labelling system and storage techniques are all so hilariously outdated, that it borders on impossible to find the most impressive pieces, and when you finally do, there is often absolutely no information about them. Add on top of that the multi-lingual yelling guides, the hordes of tourists all over the massive two floors of the museum, and the plethora of museum security who don’t seem to do much at all, though at least one was getting some excellent sleep passed out at his post. In addition, many rooms are poorly lit, in the process of being cleaned or painted, and the floorplan itself means that even we almost missed out on the entire second room of the royal mummies, even though we had already bucked up for the seperate admission (which is oddly enough more than the regular museum admission itself). That all being said, it is still very informative, and the archeological wealth more than impressive, which in many ways just makes the current situation a giant shame both to the artifacts themselves as well as the visitors who are trying to enjoy them. But it isn’t called the Egyptian Museum for nothing, since everything about it is very, very Egyptian. After that odyssey, we relaxed at our hostel briefly, before eating dinner at the packed post-Ramadan-fast Gad Restaurant, where we enjoyed delicious authentic food, verified by our presence as the only non-locals in the entire place. We also grabbed some honey pastries from the local fav El-Abd Bakery, which made for a delicious dessert. By sheer chance, on our walk back, we encountered Liz’s savior from the day before, Hassan, who was out shopping for shoes with his younger brother. So we recounted our adventures for him, and then enjoyed some delicious hibiscus juice (or maybe it’s tea, we’re really not sure) at a local ahwa (coffeeshop), and he took us to a close friend of his who is a travel agent to secure our morning (well, 4-hour-away) trip to the Bahariyya Oasis. Assuming that that goes as planned – which obviously at this point we are hesitant to be sure of anything – we are very thankful for Hassan’s help, since travel shops are literally everywhere in Cairo, and they all look virtually identical, so telling the good ones from the bad ones is virtually impossible unless you actually know someone who is reliable. It is at this point, heading back to our hostel, that some more craziness involving our hostel itself occurred, but since we are still here, writing about it is a little inappropriate, so that will have to wait until our next update, which may be a few days off due to the lack of readily accessible internet access in the desert, but we will obviously try our best to keep you updated. Until then, peace be with you, and hopefully with us as well!

PS – Sorry about the Youtube invite, the system freaked out on us, and we currently cannot even load the website, so we are not sure what exactly is even going on!

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