Saturday, February 7, 2009


It was a sunny and mild January 18th, 2009 when we arrived at the airport in Cairo, Egypt after a 3 1/2 hour flight from Frankfurt, Germany on a cramped Lufthansa flight. The weather was a pleasant respite from the frigid Chicago winter where a day earlier it was -20F.

We made our meandering way through the somewhat decaying airport and were fortunate enough to spot our Tauck Tours representative who, among many others, was holding up a sign. Our guide, Ahmed greased our way through customs, and we followed him outside to a waiting van for the long ride to our hotel.

We noted that, although the airport is rundown, the government is building new roads and terminals to modernize it. The Egyptians are known for their architecture, but most of it is over 3,000 years old and still standing. On our one hour drive to the hotel, we traveled on a new highway which was in the process of being landscaped. Because of Egypt's rapidly growing population, numerous apartment complexes are being built. Much is misleading, because most buildings appear to be in a state of incompletion with loose construction rods sticking out of their top floors. We noticed this all over Egypt. We learned that many families build houses, leaving the top floors under construction until their families expand or they raise more money to finish them. We were told an unfinished building is subject to little or no taxes, so they're not in a hurry to finish them.

Cairo is a huge city of 20 million, located next to the Nile River. Adjacent to Cairo is Giza, a suburb I guess, although a pretty large city itself. I expected the Nile to be much wider, like the Mississippi river. And it used to be, during flood season. There hasn't been a flood since the Aswan Dam was built in the 1960's.

Driving through Cairo, we found that Egypt's drivers pay little heed to striped lanes. A 4 lane road becomes 6 lanes of traffic. In addition, the well worn cars in traffic compete with pedestrians, camels and donkeys on the teeming streets. Most of the cars are tinny models, made in Egypt. Foreign cars are subject to 100%tariffs, so a Chevrolet can cost $100,000.

Cars are seen traveling the wrong way against traffic. Horns are honking. Donkeys pull carts piled high with carrots and oranges. Most of the people on the street smoke. Many of the stands display cartons of Camels or Winstons. A pall of air pollution hangs over the city. The main street through Giza is divided by an irrigation canal running down the median. Into that canal, many people dump their trash, even when trash containers are close by. We even saw a dead horse lying in the canal. Our guide told us not to buy vegetables on the street, which were probably irrigated by that canal.

The only war we saw in Egypt was the cola war between Coke and Pepsi. On virtually every bodega was a Coke or Pepsi sign.

The Egyptian people are relatively well educated for a Third World country. The children attend public school, but the graduates are trained for bureaucratic jobs assuming they can find them. They often have to wait several years to find jobs. The elite send their kids to relatively expensive private schools so they can qualify for better jobs in the private sector and for multi-national companies.

We finally arrived at the Oberoi Mena Hotel, which is an oasis in a dusty city. This world famous hotel was originally built as a hunting lodge for Khadive (King) Ismail in the 1860's, in the shadow of the Great Pyramid, which is right down the street. The movie, "Valley of the Kings" was made here, starring Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker. Although not related or married to Robert, Elizabeth Taylor stayed there also. During World War II, Churchill and Roosevelt stayed there. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed at the hotel.

The hotel was named after the first Pharaoh, Mena. Travel and Leisure Magazine lists the hotel as one of the 500 best hotels worldwide. It is even listed in the book 1000 Places to See Before You Die. It is gated and surrounded by a wall to keep out the persistent street hawkers and cab drivers. Security is high. To get inside the hotel, you must pass through a metal detector, manned by armed guards.

After a well deserved rest, the next morning we explored the hotel and had lunch outdoors by the pool. Trying the Egyptian food, I have the tasty lamb shawerma, which is rolled bread with ground lamb and vagetables--comparable to a burrito. The Egyptian lentil soup resembled split pea soup and was very good.

After lunch, we ventured out of the hotel grounds into the crowded streets. We were instantly accosted by cab drivers and shopkeepers. Although we were not in danger and not assaulted, we couldn't escape the persistent peddlers. One driver, Ashraf, offered to take us around the city for $5 per hour in his beat up taxi. He promised to show us the papyrus museum, perfume museum and cotton museum. After some negotiation, we finally agreed.

We came to find out the "museums" are not really museums, but are shops to sell you something. We saw about 20 papyrus museums, while driving around Giza. Presumably, Ashraf and the other cabdrivers get commissions from the "museums" if the tourists buy things. We, of course, didn't know that when we accepted the ride, but we enjoyed the experience anyway.

At the papyrus museum, the owner demonstrated how to make paper from a papyrus plant, the cross section of which is shaped like a pyramid. She squeezes the water from the stalks, flattens it, and dries it for several days. Then the artist paints the famous Eqyptian scenes on the resulting paper. We bought a beautiful water color painting for about $100 plus another $25 to ship to the U.S. by FedEx. The original quoted price was about $500. After we saw the stuff the street hawkers were selling, we believe we got a good deal on this painting, and now that we have it, we're very happy with it.

We then went to a perfume factory where the various perfume essences like lotus and jasmine were trotted out for us to sniff. They rub the stuff on your hand and proceed with the sales pitch. Dianne likes Shalimar and won't buy anything else. We ended up buying 3 unique perfume bottles for 50 L.E. (Egyptian pounds--about $9 U.S.) Our hosts brought us tea (Lipton) which we were obliged to drink, as it would be considered rude to refuse.

The cotton factory was just a clothing store, and we quickly left and asked Ashraf to take us back to the hotel, which he did. The Egyptian people we met were very friendly and gracious. Obviously they want our money because unemployment and poverty are prevalent. Tourism is the major industry in Egypt. Some of the street vendors appeared desperate to make sales. Overall, we found the people to be honest, and even apparently happy, despite their obvious poverty.

As I mentioned earlier, driving is an adventure in Egypt. Just driving a mile or so, we narrowly avoided accidents on several occasions and almost hit several pedestrians. There aren't a lot of personal injury lawyers in Egypt, and accident damages are typically resolved between the people's tribal leaders.

We went to the golf course across the street from the hotel but decided not to play. The Great Pyramid looms up right behind the golf course, but at least, it's not behind a WalMart or a McDonalds. The Sphinx is a different story as I'll explain in a later installment.

Several times a day, we heard the loud cacophonous sounds of the muezzins call to prayer in a Muslim country. These consisted of horns blaring and loud music. Although some people do go to the mosques at that time, I had expected that the people would be streaming, like lemmings toward the mosques. But no, the city did not shut down for every prayer session, and people went about their own business.

At dinner, in the hotel, I feasted on sea bass tegen, which is a fish stew with ginger and tomato base. When in Egypt, I not only walk like an Egyptian, but I also eat like one.

Next: the Great Pyramid: Built by Aliens?



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