25 December 2009

Walk like an Egyptian!

Some of you may have noticed a little change in the blog over the past couple of weeks. The dynamic duo split up for a brief time (thank God we're finally reunited!!!!). I thought I'd fill everyone in on what I've been up to...

Ever since I was a kid, I've always dreamed of going Egypt. A lucky combination of impulse, dear friends in Cairo, sense of adventure, and cheap airfare thanks to Orbitz (I'm willing to be a spokesperson if they are looking!) allowed me to live out my childhood dream and fly to Egypt for a whirlwind week.

Here is the lovely, funny, brilliant, sassy Farah who hosted me in her home in Cairo for the week. She is the ultimate tour guide and made sure to show me as much in one week as humanly possible. We saw all the tourist spots and so much more. She showed me a whole spectrum of places that tourists never go: from the graveyard-turned-slum called the "city of the dead" to the swanky restaurant where the chicest of Cairo residents go to see and be seen.

Even though I was only there for a short period of time, I feel like I got a true glimpse into this vibrant, exotic, constantly-changing country. Egypt is a placed deeply marked by its layered and fascinating history. But, it is also a country entrenched in modern geopolitics, religion, and culture. She helped me see how much more the place has to offer than pyramids and pharaohs (though those are incredible, too!).

One of my first impressions of Cairo was how colorful it was. Tapestries, carpets, colored glass lanterns, apartment buildings, cars...everything was so vivid and bright...a striking contrast to the constant presence of blowing dust and sand.

Personalities on the street reflected this brightness as well. For the most part, I found the people friendly, interested (sometimes far TOO interested), generous, and open.

Some of these streets seemed like they were right out of Aladdin! The streamers here are left up from Ramadan celebrations. From what Farah and her family told me, during the month of Ramadan, Cairo is transformed into a kaleidoscope of light and color with these streamers decking out the streets and colored glass lanterns hanging all over the place.

After spending two and a half months in a predominantly Christian country where every city is built around a glorious cathedral and each village has its little chapel, the mosques of Cairo were a beautiful and fascinating change. The elegant domes and sky-reaching minarets dominate the cityscape while the call to prayer is a constant reminder to the faithful.

Though the vast majority of Egyptians are Muslim, there was still a little Christmas cheer to be found. I really liked the contrast of this very American looking Christmas tree tucked into a very Oriental-looking cove. These guys selling Santa gear were also all over the place selling eerie looking masks.

One of the things I loved most about Egypt was the architecture and design. Like the scene on the street, traditional Egyptian interiors are colorful and every little corner has interesting design elements. This was in an old merchants home we toured -- it was a haven of tranquil and artistic touches. Arches, stripes, and nature-inspired designs are the dominant features.

On my first night in Cairo, Farah took me to a folk music and dance concert. It was held in an incredibly well preserved medieval caravansary which is a covered market place bazaar. The rhythmic drumming, energetic horn melodies, and dizzying dancing were a wonderful introduction to Egypt. I was completely entranced.

Apparently, this kind of dancing is part of a tradition related to Sufi-ism. The man in the green spins around for an extended period of time (in his case, an entire hour). The spinning is supposed to put him in an elevated state of mind, closer to God.

And finally, no trip to Egypt is complete without a visit to the pyramids. You know how sometimes you can build something up in your mind, imagining how great it is all your life, and then when you finally see it, there is a bit of a let down? This was definitely NOT one of those times. Whatever expectations I had, they were completely surpassed by the pyramids. The sheer size and grandeur were breathtaking.

Surrounding the three great pyramids are several smaller pyramids and temples. The walls of the temples are covered with hieroglyphics. I desperately needed my hieroglyphic-reading kit I got for my 7th birthday so I could decode this secret message but sadly I didn't think to bring it with me to France. Too bad! From my elementary knowledge of ancient Egyptian, I think this says something along the lines of "King Tut is the bomb."

Because the pyramids are a hot-spot for tourists, there are lots of guys wandering around trying to offer various services to visitors. We were approached by about one thousand different men trying to offer us tours, camel rides, horse back rides, and fake VIP tours of the pyramids. Our practice was to just look away and say "shukron" meaning "thanks, but no thanks."

Unfortunately, a few people didn't really get the message and were in a fierce competition for our business. The argument devolved into a full blown fight. I was the only one who seemed to find this strange, they're apparently incredibly common. In the end, I didn't end up getting on either of their camels...but eventually, I did get on one!!!

Back in France now, it's hard to believe all that actually happened. It was a trip I will never forget -- Farah and her family showed me an incredible amount of humor, warmth, and generosity. Now, I just have to figure out a way to go back!