The Last Supp…er…. Lunch & Shopping Time!…
Friday, May 8th 2010: Sakkara & Cairo, Egypt
We pulled into Cairo, and I was in much better shape than I was when we arrived in Aswan a couple of days ago. I managed to sleep and, typically, the ride back seemed a lot quicker than the ride going.
It was our last day and we had quite a bit to do in what felt like the shortest time ever now. Our first stop would be at the Citadel of Salah Al-Din Mosque in the middle of Cairo proper. Approaching the mosque, you could see the huge surrounding wall that was built ages ago giving it the external appearance of a fortress or castle. From one side of the building, not too far away, you could see the tops of the mosques of Muhammad Ali and Qalawun in the distance. At the entrance on the west side, we were required to either take off our shoes or we were given something that looked sort of like a showercap to wear on our feet over our shoes, and some were given robes as well to wear over their clothes. We walked into an open courtyard with an elaborately decorated fountain where those who came to worship had to wash each time before entering the mosque itself. Each wall was carved into a walkway of arches and columns with rounded white domes above, and on the far wall there was an old iron clock tower that was apparently a gift from the French that didn’t work at the moment, or ever actually. The walls looked as if they were made from pure marble and had an antique appearance and feel to it. Inside, the floor was carpeted and people were milling around as they stared upwards, some through their camera lenses. The first thing I noticed was the lighting – there were round globe-like lights strung up in circular patterns all around the room with two ornate chandeliers hanging down, one near the front doorway and one in the middle. But the ceiling is what stole the show. There were concave domes that were a deep green, intricately designed with gold and bronze tones and some were lined all the way round with stained glass windows. In the ‘corners’ where the edges of each dome met, were circles in which inscriptions in Islamic (I think) were painted in gold that were absolutely beautiful. Sherif showed us the physical actions of praying, which explained the dark mark on the forehead of some Muslims from constantly bending forward to the floor while praying. Left on our own for a bit of free time, I wandered out a side door and ended up on a long ledge overlooking the entire city of Cairo – literally an amazing 180° view.
Once again we were on the bus, sleeping our way out Sakkara to see the Step Pyramid, or the Pyramid of Djoser. There was a wall (made of limestone I believe) that seemed less damaged or worn than most of the structures we’d seen all week. With the Pyramid off to our left we followed a long path to the “Tomb of Idut”. No pictures were allowed inside, but there wasn’t much to photograph anyway. Just a couple of rooms with the same detailed paintings and artwork as we had seen before. I distinctly remember that people were on boats and were fishing in these pictures. The rooms were small enough that Sherif had to split us into two groups, taking one into each room at a time. It was yet another interesting sight to see, but I think everyone was just mostly relieved to get out of the direct sunlight for a bit. Even though we were back up north, where the temperature seemed to be a bit less intense, it was still relatively hot. This tomb didn’t take long and we were on the move again shortly after. We passed by a deep trench, deep enough to make me a little nervous leaning over to look down in, believed to have possibly been a burial tomb but now just provided a home to small birds in the cracks and niches of the walls. From where we now were we could see the fuzzy outline of the Pyramids at Giza in the far distance, opposite the Step Pyramid. The rest of the desert lay in front of us – small dunes of rock and sand leading out to an expanse of hazy nothingness where you couldn’t even make out the line of the horizon. It was incredible to be standing on the edge of this expanse of land where you could get lost in the middle of absolutely nowhere and nothing but sand for miles. We circled around to see the Step Pyramid, and descended down a flight of stairs that dropped us right in front of the crumbling mass of six layers. The top four layers facing us were covered in piles of sand and the two lowers levels were lined with scaffolding that was, perhaps, an attempt at preservation. As I walked over to the shaded area supported by stone columns, I could feel the sand leak into my shoes and between my toes with every step. Had to make a quick stop to knock it all out before getting back on the bus.
Our next stop would be our last meal all together as a group =(. We stopped at the Sakkara Restaurant for a little ‘barbecue’ and were greeted by a mini band of sorts with a tambourine player, a guy on a small drum and a guy with a kind of flute instrument that made me think of a snake charmer. We inhaled a spread of kebabs, rice, fries, pita bread, tahini, babaganoush and I can’t remember what else, I just knew I was stuffed after. Good thing we had a chance to walk it off after at the Khan El Khalili Bazaar. On our way there we passed through downtown Cairo and saw several crowded flea markets and I wondered if that was what the bazaar would be like, and I puzzled a bit about how we would fare in that kind of unknown chaos.
This was, I think, the first time we were going to be left somewhere without Sherif. There were no parking lots, so the bus had to drop us off and come back for us later. We agreed on a time and place to meet up again and were left on one side of the square to venture off and do our own thing. Some of us opted to hang around the square for a while to witness the prayer time in the market. To our right, across the square, were a large group of people kneeling together along the side of a mosque-looking building, under tall slender fixtures that stretched upwards and opened up (something like an inverted umbrella) providing shade. They closely resembled the lotus flowers Sherif spoke about during the week, that some of the columns at the temples were built to look like, growing toward the sun. On the posts of each one there were speakers through which the voice of man spoke loudly to the crowd in Arabic and I assume it was his equivalent to a sermon or homily. The adjacent block was lined with small fast food eateries and coffee shops, all of which had someone out front greeting and trying to usher people inside. From what I could see, it was block after block, like a maze, of shops, stores, booths and stalls but just as I was getting distracted by all the shopping possibilities I heard the lows horns. The preaching man started singing, and the crowd began singing with him. I don’t know how to describe watching this mass of people. This was already one of my favourite things to see while being here, and the devotion multiplied by this many definitely made me reconsider not being a regular practitioner of my own religion.
It was time to wander through the colours of the bazaar and I was in the company of our very own Sarah-Jessica-Parker-look-alike, Elisa, from Canada. First we changed our money and got smaller denominations at a nearby store, which isn’t always easy to do, so we took the chance when we had it. Though the singing was over, there were still some people kneeling on their mats and praying – in the small walkways, in front of stores, inside stores. Walking down the streets, I was surrounded by storekeepers and vendors eager to catch the attention of potential customers, and trying to sell their ware. There were the typical touristy t-shirts, traditional robes for men and burqas for women, belly dancing costumes, jewellery, decorated shoulder bags, leather goods, throw rugs, gold and bronze plates, tea pots and cups, shot glasses, trinkets made from alabaster, Pyramid and Sphinx paperweights, maps, paintings, stamps, postcards, stuffed toy camels, and I could go on. Almost every store had scarves made from various material in many different colours and, once I finally found the ones I wanted, I managed to get a hold of 10 for the bargain price of 150E£ for my mom and aunts. The smell in the air was a mix of the fabrics on sale everywhere and occasionally the sheesha some were smoking outside their shops. There were places that only sold glass items, like perfume bottles and sheesha pipes, tall and short, decorated and plain. We perused, wandered and circled for quite a while and still had at least another half hour left before the bus came back, so we walked down a side street we hadn’t gone down before only to find the same souvenirs and a dead-end. On our way back to the meeting point we ran into two other girls from our tour group and stopped to wait as one of them ran down the side street for a last-minute purchase. Imagine our surprise to notice the *ahem* “gentleman” staring at us from barely 20ft away while he ‘enjoyed’ himself not so subtly and let’s just say, he didn’t really leave much up to our imagination. Definitely not something we expected to see while we were here at all! Needless to say we grabbed girl #4 and made a hasty retreat back to our group and away from the village pervert.
Everyone climbed back onto the bus with purchases in hand. Except for Sherif pointing out a few landmarks, it was quiet ride back to the Victoria Hotel. For some of us, the real world was patiently waiting only several hours away. We passed by more markets where people busily went about their routine Friday shopping (forgot to mention that Friday & Saturday are the weekend here, and the work week is Sunday through Thursday). We saw residential buildings and roof tops covered in satellite dishes. If I didn’t mention this before, apparently everyone has a satellite dish here, and for some reason, I found myself singing a little Lovindeer in my head, ‘Unu see mi dish? Unu see mi dish? Anybody unu see mi sat-allite d-dish…’ LoL 🙂 Back at the hotel we had our farewell meeting, and I will admit I was sap and had to bite back some tears. We got our group pictures, exchanged the lists of phone numbers and emails for facebook and arranged times for our shuttles back to the airport. Sherif did his little monologue, and we literally got in a line to each tell him goodbye – he was easily one of the best parts of this whole trip, and we couldn’t have asked for a better tour guide. And then the 28 of us went our separate ways…
Some went to pack since they were leaving that night, some went back out to Khan El Khalili, and a few of us paid for some internet time at the hotel. I sat in the computer room next to the garden and spoke to my mom and Lewis online. Turns out they weren’t getting the text message I thought they were getting the whole week! So they hadn’t heard from me since I left JFK seven days ago and were kinda worried, while I was having the time of my freaking life. They seemed so far away, and talking to them from here made it feel even farther away than it already was. While some went to the Sound & light show that night, we didn’t but our last night was still eventful enough – Nirvani and I felt brave enough to venture to Gad by ourselves since we knew how to get there this time. It was the same scene walking there as it was the first night, only now it was two of us instead of about sixteen. We had to quickly dip into a random Ross-like department store to try lose a guy that I noticed closely following our every move and the creep even waited outside the store for about 15 minutes before giving up and leaving. So we hurried to the restaurant, were seated, ordered and started eating. Apparently the waiter thought the two of us girls needed some company at our table for four, and seated a man with his wife, fully covered in burqa and hijab, at our table. Can we say a-w-k-w-a-r-d? And though they were polite, they looked just as weirded out as we did despite all of us trying to hide it, so we took the rest of our food to go and I made sure to get on order of pancakes with honey to go. We spent the rest of the night eating, chatting and packing. The night was cool enough to leave the window open again…
Saturday, May 9th: Florida via New York & Cairo
… but we were so tired we slept right through the sunrise prayers, which was quite disappointing. Once we checked out, grabbed Reggie (who was on the same flight as us back to NY) and got on our shuttle back to the airport it was real, it was over. But it was 8 of the greatest days of my life so far =)