Right, so my family is all gone: Sonia and Michael left a week ago last Friday and my brother a few hours after that (which is another story) and my parents left last Saturday night (really Sunday) at 2 am. I've already pretty much adjusted to them being gone. I have to admit, it was wonderful having my family around but also very stressful. So much of them time I felt like I was responsible for everything -- good or bad -- that happened to them. When traveling it's hard to control everything, and this is even more true in Egypt I'm guessing, so by the end of their visit I was pretty worn out. Not the best of situations to be in, since I also had around 2 weeks of work to catch up on. I still don't want to think about that.
Toby and me, some quality twin time in Helwan
Toby arrived first and I basically took him around Attaba for a while to see the markets. On Friday we slept in and then headed down towards Helwan, stopping in Ain Helwan to check out the humorously decrepit Wax Museum and walk around the remains of the natural springs which once used to be the focal point of a spa probably located around there -- you can still see remnants of buildings around the spring, as well as an old wooden pagoda that probably dates back to the same time as the museum, maybe the 1920s or so.
Then it was off to Helwan to meet up with my friend Samir, who is really a great guy. Since it was getting late he let us crash at his house. Toby got to eat real Egyptian food: eggplants, fuul, and ta'amiyya; all homemade and pretty good. Samir's mom isn't a bad cook. We slept alright and the next day went to walk around in the Japanese Garden, this monstrously huge park set up by the Japanese government, in Helwan of all places. There are little buddhas and pagodas all over the place, as well as some large ponds which at one time might have held fish but now hold empty plastic koshari containers. From there we jumped on the metro and met up with David at Sa'ad Zaghoul where we went to what is possibly the best fuul joint in town. I have no idea where it is, though. At some point during these meals is probably when Toby got sick (more on that later).
Mom and Dad have joined the party
So then it was time to get Mom and Dad. I'd picked out Hotel Osiris for them to stay at. It wasn't my first choice (I'd hoped to get them into a hotel closer to my apartment), but it had nice reviews and as it turned out is really an excellent hotel. They got us a taxi and we picked up Mom and Dad and brought them back to the hotel. For dinner we went to Felfela which is touristy and a bit kitschy and general overpriced, but good and a nice introduction to Egyptian food.
The next day we woke up early to jump in a microbus for the desert. It was a long trip and we got to the Golden Valley Hotel, the same people I'd had the first time out in the desert. After a small lunch we spent the afternoon in a jeep zooming through the desert. I'm not sure if this is the norm for these tours, or whether it makes sense to choose a different set of guides in the future, but it seems a lot of the time is spent in the jeep when you go on these things, being dragged from one place to another. We went to a natural hot spring, very hot in fact...it was difficult to keep your foot in the water for much longer than a few seconds before you could feel it being cooked. For the sunset we went up to something called the English mountain...apparently this is where the English army had put up a fort during one of the wars I should probably know something about...the views from there were very beautiful. We ended with some Bedouin tea. They took us to camp where we had a nice meal of grilled chicken and vegetables. Dad took a sleeping pill and slept like a baby. Mom did not fare as well, getting not much sleep at all. Toby, on the other hand, was very sick at this point. The next morning we went back to the hotel, where Toby booked a room and, we found out later, slept the entire day. While Toby slept we headed deeper into the desert, spending the afternoon at the house of one of our guides, the same olive/lemon/date grove from my last trip. This time I got to meet some of his family members and hold, if I remember correctly, his brother's baby, who was unfortunately very damp.
In the afternoon we went to a few more sights and stopped to harvest some peanuts before camping out in the middle of the white desert. This time dinner was a vegetable stew and large hunks of beef, served with rice. Later that evening we roasted the peanuts in the coals and at them, peeling off the charred shells and eating the roasted, slightly chewy peanuts in side.
The next day we went back to the Hotel, stopping by Crystal Mountain on the way. We got back to Cairo in the late afternoon. That evening me and Toby went off to pick up Sonia and Michael.
The next day we went to Coptic Cairo in the morning and my famed Islamic tour in the afternoon. This was a bit too much walking for most of them and everyone was very tired by the time the late afternoon came around, so unfortunately we did not get to check out the Sufi dancers as I'd hoped.
The next day was the trip to the pyramids. We got an early start and went to Giza first. It was fun to see the pyramids, and my mom and dad seemed particularly transfixed by the Sphinx. But Darshour was something else. Of the three pyramid sites near Cairo, it's the furthest, I think maybe 30-40km south of Cairo? Not exactly sure. It's not as well known as Saqqara and practically tourist-free. We had a late lunch there, sitting against the side of the Red Pyramid. Aside from two buses that paid brief visits, no one else came. The pyramid itself looks a lot like the Cheops pyramid -- it's only a few meters shorter -- and is in about the same condition, although sand and similar debris is pushed up the sides of it. Unlike the Giza pyramids, the site is totally isolated, so basically you have a pyramid in the middle of a sweep of sand. The effect is a lot more impressive, and the interaction with it seems more personal somehow.
We went on to the Bent Pyramid, so called because the architect was forced to change the angle of the pyramid halfway through, giving it a curved or bent appearance. It's the only pyramid that still has most of its facing, the smooth limestone blocks that made the pyramids flat and shiny. It's pretty impressive to look like but is unfortunately pretty unstable--whole sections of it have fallen off and it looks like it's ready to crumble any minute.
We headed back, hoping to go to Saqqara. Unfortunately, it closed at 4pm so instead we headed back to Cairo, stopping briefly at the Wissa Wassef Centre famous for its weavings and tapestries (although the Nubian-inspired architecture there is worth a look itself).
That night we dined at the really fantastic Lebanese restaurant Taboula in Garden City, just across from the British Embassy. Really fantastic food, and not that expensive either.
The next morning we all woke up early to get ready for our flight to Sharm el Sheikh. At that point, we ran into a problem: Toby had lost his passport. We searched everywhere for it, but it was nowhere to be found. This was a pretty big problem, for two reasons. First, you need your passport in Sinai, if you want to be able to get back to the Egypt mainland. Second, this was the only time Toby would be in Cairo. If we'd been able to continue on our trip, he wouldn't have had the time to get a new passport when we got back.
So, the trip to Sharm had to be canceled. Instead, we decided to go up to Alexandria. Sonia and Michael had been hoping to go anyway, and this way we would be able to get some beach time in. Friday evening we went to the really fantastic restaurant Aros el Bahr (literally Bride of the Sea, i.e. Mermaid) in the center of Alex. Really fantastic fish...you point to what want from a giant platter of whole fish arranged on crushed ice. It all gets served with a delicious array of salads. During the dinner Maryam, a friend of mine from TEFL, joined up with us. We all stuffed ourselves and then headed out. We ran into a couple of wedding parties going on and danced with them. They got a kick out of seeing Agnabi (foreigners) shaking their bodies to el Einab, and of course Maryam, who is not at all shy about shaking her hips to music, was the center of attention.
The next day we split up, Mom, Dad, Sonia and Michael heading for the beach at Montazah while Toby and I walked towards central Cairo. It was a long walk, and took us a few hours. We had to hurry up to make it to the hotel in time on the way back. We took the 7:30 train back to Cairo. This was the same train as my flatmate Hesham, so we were able to chat on the train. When we got back to the flat my parents gave Hesham some gifts they'd brought him from the States.
Okay, so on Sunday the plan was that Mom, Dad, Sonia and Michael would get the earlier flight out to Luxor while me and Toby stayed behind to get the passport. That's another story really, but suffice it to say we finally got it and then headed out to grab another few sites before jumping on the plane to Luxor. The most interesting place we stopped by was Sednaui, a department store that had definitely seen better days. I will say this for it, though: never have I seen a greater selection of colors for slacks: ochre yellows, turquoise greens, rusty oranges -- nearly every color on the rainbow was represented in muted yet saturated glory. Toby bought a couple of shirts, we headed home, packed, and then jumped on the plane. We made it to Luxor around midnight.
The area around Luxor is really beautiful, lush and green. We spent the morning at the tombs, Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. In the afternoon we rode a felucca down the Nile for a bit. In the late evening we gathered round a fire and chatted with the owner of the hotel we were staying at.
The next day we went on a donkey ride, which was really fun. I got pretty familiar with riding the donkey and by the end of the ride felt pretty comfortable with it, although I think it'd be years before I could figure out how to get it to go where I wanted. During the ride dad got lost, which had all of us freaked out for a while. He was finally found and we headed back for a meal. Then we went on to a Nubian village that was just opening up and saw how some of the scarves were woven and pottery made. We bought a couple of things. Toby and I got dropped off at the site of a village designed by an Egyptian architect to use old-style Nubian building techniques. It was pretty interesting to look around at the structures, which were very beautiful and impressive considering they were all made mostly of mud brick. After that we chilled at an old qahwa chatting first with some kids and later with other grownups who slowly filed into the place. That night we went to the Karnak temple light and sound show, which was pretty hokey.
The next day we headed on the early morning convoy to Aswan. Our guide was really great, very knowledgeable on the sites and willing to answer our questions, no matter how inane. Apparently, everyone on the convoy stops at the same locations, which are a few temples along the way. We got into Aswan and took a boat to a temple on an island (I think called Philae, although don't take my word for it -- I'm not that into Pharonic history honestly). We had just a little time at the Aswan market before we were whisked to the airport for the flight back to Cairo.
Wow, is it after 5pm already? Got to run. Rest of story to be continued tomorrow, I promise.