Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Egypt Pt.1: Chaotic Cairo

Ever since I was a child, I've been obsessed with Ancient Egyptian culture. I remember making a pretty awful mummy project in the third or fourth grade. I even tried to make canopic jars with clay, but that was an utter failure.

I also really love Brendan Frasier's The Mummy. I mean, who doesn't?


For the past several years, I told my friend Sarah that if she plans a trip to Egypt (she was born there) anytime soon, I want to tag along. The stars aligned and a group of eight of us were headed to Egypt the first day in March. Only Sarah and her sister had been, the rest of us were newbies! Micah opted out of the trip because he thinks the country is unsafe right now. You know, reading too much into these travel warnings. I, on the other hand, had no reservations about going! #YOLO.

Sarah was the hostess with the mostest and was an angel when it came to planning our vacation and what cities we would visit. We all settled on four nights in Cairo, three nights on a Nile River cruise and two nights in the beach-town of Sharm El Sheikh.

This post will focus on our first leg in Cairo, the largest city in Africa!

All of us got in late the first night, so when we got there, we went to dinner at Ahlein at the JW Marriott at Mirage City and called it a night. The restaurant itself had good food and even a fun belly dancing show with a band.




On the first night, I, along with a few other people stayed at Sarah's childhood friend's (Salma) house in the suburbs of New Cairo.


This is a shot from their patio. The area is still seeing a lot of construction so people are definitely moving in!


Kids playing in the neighborhood.

Cairo is like any other major city -- people who have the means are moving away from the hustle and bustle and setting up shop in the 'burbs. There are IKEAs, big malls and everything else you would expect to see if you were in Katy, Texas.


The Basics 
Time there: 4 nights (3 in a hotel)
Where we stayed: Hilton Conrad along the Nile River (we got an employee discount so it was $60/night or something like that)
Car Service (10-passenger van): Shahd and our driver was Moustafa (although he didn't speak much English)

Full Day 1:



On our first morning in Cairo, we went to the Cairo Festival City Mall to have breakfast. We ate at this place that had the best foul (pronounced fool). It's like refried beans, but better!


The breakfast came with baskets of Egyptian bread and it was glorious dipping the bread into the foul. So delicious. 

After stuffing our faces, we headed to the Hilton Conrad Hotel along the Nile River to get our stuff checked in and then head out to the Egyptian Museum.

Sarah did an amazing job and called around to get a travel van and driver for us. Since there were eight of us, it just made a sense to hire a driver/van combo instead of trying to get taxis, etc. I believe for the entire three days the cost was around $300, give or take.

The Egyptian Museum was fantastic. I read articles where before the Revolution, tourists would fill this place to the brim and you'd have a hard time walking around because it was so crowded. When we were there on a Friday, it was busy but not crowded at all.

I didn't take that many photos inside because I didn't pay for the camera fee... so the ones inside are totally illegal. Yikes.


REAL canopic jars. I want my organs to go in these when I die.



The mummified animals sections was pretty cool. There was a ginormous crocodile, dogs and other various animals.



I took these and sent them back to Micah because it shows the ancient Egyptians brewing beer. It was the safest thing to drink back then!


So... while at the museum, I started noticing something really strange. A couple of groups of kids/teens came up to me and asked for selfies with me. Umm... okay? Some might say it's because they haven't seen tourists around these parts in a few years... I'd like to think that I'm famous for... being Asian.




That evening, we all jumped on a felucca (small boat) and cruised down the Nile River. The Nile River in Cairo itself is not the prettiest part of the river. People there joke that the only thing that is in that part of the river are dead animals. Gross.



After the boat ride, we had dinner at Abou El Sid. Mary and I decided to split a few dishes since both of us wanted to try different things. After a delicious bowl of chicken orzo soup, we dug into a seafood tagine and Circasian chicken in a walnut sauce. Both were delicious.



The circasian chicken dish wasn't anything I've ever had before so it was a treat. It's basically a mound of rice with shredded chicken on top and then the walnut sauce covers it. It was perfectly nutty and creamy.

Day 2

Our second day started in Coptic Cairo, which is in Old Cairo. Coptic Cairo is made up of a Fortress named the Fortress of Babylon.


Within the fortress are several churches and other buildings: Abu Sarga, the Church of the Virgin Mary, the Church of Saint Barbara the Martyr, Mar Girgis (Coptic), The Hanging Church, The Church of the Monk Mar Girgis, the Fortress of Babylon, The Greek Orthodox Church Mar Girgis, the Coptic Museum and the Ben Ezra Synagogue.




The Hanging Church is one of the oldest churches in Cairo--dating back to the late 4th century A.D. The church's roof is in the arc shape of Noah's Arc.


The Cavern Church (Abu Sarga) is the OLDEST church in Cairo.


The church is famous for being built upon the crypt of the Holy Family (baby Jesus!) where they stayed for three weeks during their escape to Egypt to avoid persecution by Herod the Great.

After Coptic Cairo, we made our way to the Citadel--a building that was turned into a fortress in the 1100s by Saladin.




On the summit of the Citadel sits the mosque of Mohammed Ali--which was built between 1828-1848. The mosque is beautiful and from the summit, there are great views of Cairo below.

Inside the Mohammed Ali mosque
Remember how I told you about the kids wanting to take photos with me? Well, that happened more often at the Citadel.


In one instance, I got a little worried because what started as a selfie with a couple of kids turned into a group of 15 or so around me. Our friend Salma jumped in and rescued me from the group and chided them for being so aggressive about taking pics.

After the Citadel we made our way across the street to visit the Mosque of Sultan Hassan, which was built from 1356-1363.




One of my favorite pics!!


The mosque is massive. The mosque has great architecture and all the hanging light fixtures makes it a beautiful site.


Visiting all these mosques made us hungry. Koshary Abou Tarek was the only restaurant I really wanted to visit in Cairo. And koshary we had--that's all they serve there! The place was busy but service was quick and easy.



Koshary is a simple meal that consists of noodles, lentils, chickpeas and fried scallions. You top it with a mild tomato sauce. One of the best meals I ate in Egypt! For sure.



Once we got our fill of carbs, we made our way to the Khan El-Khalili bazaar. It's a labyrinth of markets selling everything from spice to souvenirs. Egypt is very much a haggling country. There are no set prices at these markets so it's really up to you on how well you bargain. The picture above shows us bargaining over some jewelry.

Day 3

This was a big day for us. THE PYRAMIDS in Giza. We were supposed to start early that day, but our driver overslept and we were running about two hours behind schedule.

Ramses II Colossus



Our first stop was the city of Memphis--once ancient Egypt's capital. We stopped off at the museum that houses the Ramses II colossus.

We then made our way to Imhotep and Saqqara pyramid. While enroute, Salma (who was not with us) notified us that Will Smith was in Cairo and that he was at the Mena House (hotel/restaurant) the same day we were going to that restaurant but later that day. We joked that wouldn't it be funny if we were to run into Will Smith...


Saqqara is the oldest step-pyramid. They created the step pyramids before the more triangular ones that people are familiar with.



While we were getting into our van to leave Saqqara, our driver said he overheard that there was a famous American actor at the pyramids. We were like -- could it be Will Smith?! The parking lot wasn't busy at all and we noticed there were a few vans that might've been shuttling a celebrity. To confirm our suspicions, we had our tour guide as one of the guys in the van if he was driving Will Smith and he said, yes, but he couldn't say where they were headed to next. As we were sitting in the van, an entourage sauntered down from the side of the pyramid. And sure enough, it was WILL SMITH.


Some of us (I didn't get out of the van since I was in the back) tried to walk towards him but his security waved us away and all we got was a wave from the super star. We had to travel all the way across the world to meet Will Smith. Crazy.


After our brush with the super star, we visited the Pyramids of Giza. To go inside one of the tombs, you have to pay a few extra bucks.


If you're claustrophobic, going inside the pyramid is probably not the best idea. The route up is steep, narrow and a low-ceiling. It was a fun workout though! The tomb itself is basically a room. Once again, because tourism is down, there were no lines to go inside the pyramid.



This is also where most visitors take a camel ride down towards the Sphinx. You've seen the pics.



Mary taking her bear for a ride.

Mena striking a pose on her camel



Everyone in my group opted for the camel ride, except for me. I wasn't really interested in the camel ride, so I just took our van down to the Sphinx.


After the pyramids, we had dinner at the Mena House Hotel which has a gorgeous view of the pyramids. Dining with the pyramids behind you? Priceless.


Even with a tiring day in the books, we managed to make it to Sarah's cousin's 25th birthday party in New Cairo! Sarah's family was lovely and the food they brought in was delicious.


Spending time with Sarah's family was the perfect way to end our last day in Cairo before we flew to Aswan to start cruise the Nile.

Takeaways:



One of my biggest takeaways from Cairo was that the traffic is horrendous. Even at 1 a.m. there was traffic. And rules don't matter. Lanes don't mean anything over there. It's a free for all.


Trash is a problem. So much so that the city is paying residents to bring in trash!

The city is safe. I never felt unsafe in Cairo. You hear a lot about the Revolution of 2011 and how not all changes have been for the better. Tourism had dropped since 2011, but tour guides say 2017 is looking better--even though the Egyptian Pound is dropping fast. When we were there, the exchange rate was around 16 Egyptian Pounds for every US Dollar. Just 8 months ago it was 1 to 7. 

Selfishly, I liked that the touristy spots were less busy, but for a country that depends on tourism, it is tough times. I think Egyptian officials know that which is why they're so tough on terrorism. 

I was a little taken aback at first when I heard prayers booming over speakers. Five times a day, the prayers from the closest mosque would be broadcast over the intercom system. It's a little loud before dawn, but after the first day, it became a soothing sound. 

Everyone we came across were absolutely lovely! The hospitality made me feel at home! 

With that being said, Cairo was an exciting place to visit and explore. 

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