Friday~ and Saturday~ . October 9 and 10
Endless day of trying to fill time with business. I got a genuinely warm send-off at the Lab from Donna, John Trost, and Steve Manes. I checked in at Kennedy then sat around the Admirals Club until the flight was ready just a bit late, around 8 pm. I was either early enough or lucky enough to get an exit row seat at the window which meant the luxury of real legroom. I slipped on my eyeshade and earplugs and slipped out to dreamland. We had a three-hour weather delay before we even got started. I was only vaguely aware of this setback and wake up eight hours later to find that I'd missed both dinner and breakfast and that we were now landing in London. With the delay it wasn't worth going to a hotel, so I bussed over to Terminal 4, checked in and whiled away the wait in the British Airways lounge over Vanity Fair and Elle. Then on the plane, where I was ensconced happily in business class. Five hours (2 hours sleep) into Cairo's New Airport. Eleven o'clock at night and there were men hanging around everywhere. Just standing around, not working, certainly not hassling, just hanging out. I was met by Khaled a guide which was nice -- no worry or taxi haggling -- and driven to the Ramses Hilton. (Our planned Mena House reservation seems not to exist.) Martha was safely arrived, so I just showered and fell into bed.
Up, breakfast in the hotel, then met Mustafa our driver and Mohammed our guide. First to Memphis which was a disappointing park with an alabaster sphinx and a statue, both of which look like poured concrete replicas surrounded by souvenir stands. Then up a ridge away from the palm trees and growing fields of the Nile into sand dunes and Saqqara. First entry through a restored colonnade, then into a large court facing the Zoser step pyramid. Other pyramids in the distance over sand. Routine stop at a rug "factory," but both Martha and I are tough to interest so we were in and out in ten minutes or so. On to Giza. Cairo has built itself right up to the pyramids, getting closer every year. Condos with pyramid view. Another sign of the times: a motorbike rally was underway across the dunes around the pyramids, complete with a chase helicopter following the bikes. We headed first for the camels and took the short version ride. I rode "Columbus" while Martha rode "Pepsi." It really is a wild rock forward and back as the thing gets up, and it is not a smooth ride at all when walking. There's no predictable rhythm at all. I wouldn't miss it for the world, but a brief ride was all I needed. Then back to the Great Pyramid where we crept down along and up a long tunnel to reach the burial chamber. The trek was made complete with pinches and grabs along the way. Bare of any art, but full of stale heat and the weight of being under the pyramid itself.
The Sphinx is sadly eroded and poorly restored. Dulled a bit with a sort of flatness.
We revived with lunch at the Mena House where Martha conned us into a reservation for the end of the month with some teary tale of my parents' honeymoon there. Brava. Driving back to Cairo gave a view of the pollution -- dust and diesel -- and traffic. Cars seem to follow the rule of avoiding whatever is in front of them and giving no thought whatever to anything behind or beside. Tunnel focus. Buses are filled to overflowing with standees, mostly teenage boys who fly across lanes of moving traffic to jump aboard and hang off the door platform. I also saw a commuter-type train go by with a man riding on the front cowcatcher. Anything to get along. Martha and I had quick drinks at the Hilton rooftop bar where we watched the sun set wanly into the pollution. Taxi to Felfela for dinner. Enter past an open kitchen full of bubbling frying vats, then through three crowded rooms roofed with bamboo-like arches, hung with stained glass lamps, walled with Egyptian murals, floored with patterned, and packed. Deserves its Gourmet magazine recommendation as delightful for visitors. We walked back to the hotel. Constant consciousness of men coming up to talk and, shall we say, not getting the hint when we didn't reply. No real hassles, but by New York standards its seems aggressive. The true challenge is crossing the maze of street lanes, ramps and roundabouts. Run like crazy seems to do the trick since we arrived back safe and sound.
A day with some excitement, but I'll tell the tale in turn. Started with some travel agent hassles -- what was pre-paid, etc. -- but then on to the Egyptian Museum around 9. The museum is a grand old colonial heap with marble stairways and high domes. Dingy but rather grand. And oh my what's in there! Despite all the bad press, the displays are quite adequate. No dramatic black velvet, but all natural light and most items labeled. The King Tut stuff was unbelievable and the statues, frescoes, and carvings from Tell el Amarna were fascinating. Even I could see the distinctive style. The whole place is swarming with tourists as should be. We spent a solid three hours there then drove to the Citadel and the Alabaster Mosque of Mohammed Ali which overlooks the whole city. It amazes me to look over Cairo and see crumbling buildings and piles of rubble. At brief glance it looks like an abandoned or bombed city from above. On the streets the cars forge ahead while pedestrians, donkey cards and camels dodge around. There's no sign of traffic signals and very little impact by the brownies at the major corners. From there to the travel agency for final arrangements.
It seemed to take forever and it was after three o'clock before we were in the car again plowing though heavy traffic towards Giza and the Fayoum. On the Giza road people were suddenly running out of buildings into the alleys and streets while an intense human electricity filled the air. At first I though it might be a street fight, then as people pointed to the roofs, a fire or maybe a jumper. Or maybe a riot. Mustafa had the same thoughts. He hit the gas but the traffic was too heavy to move. Mohammed locked the doors. I could see women running out of the buildings holding children, pulling scarves over their hair, eyes blazing with fear. Within a block, Mustafa and Mohammed asked through the windows. The answer: an earthquake. We saw no damage -- Cairo looks pretty ruined anyway -- but people swarmed the streets looking up, gesturing, . 5.9 on vibrating. It turns out to have been the strongest earthquake in modern Egyptian history. the Richter scale. We'd felt nothing in the car. (I'm sure Mustafa felt it through the steering wheel despite his denials.) Buildings did collapse in Cairo and the BBC tonight reported 120 dead and 2000 injured. We had no idea of the severity and drove on. The epicenter was 30 kilometers southwest of Cairo. W e couldn't have been more that 15 km from ground zero. After much teasing we had lunch at a charming outdoor restaurant on a canal within hazy sight of the pyramids. A huge meal which we hardly did justice to. Still no feel for the real impact of the earthquake.
On past the pyramids then out across barren sand, windswept into rough patterns. A single paved road and power lines marked our way south. Empty of all but dust, but definitely tamed by that single road. To complete the vision, Mustafa played a tape of classic rock 'n roll all the way across the sands. The sun set quietly, but the deep red came up later as the dark rose from the ground. In the east, a full moon. We'd by now entered the (watered) Fayoum so fields and palm trees were silhouetted against the sky. Near the equator dark -- real night -- comes at six o'clock. I'd forgotten. Fayoum was a bustling town, complete with riot gear armed police. Mohammed's explanation: "There's always security around the police station." Neither Mustafa nor Mohammed knew the roads so we followed a chain of piecemeal directions. We still had to drive a good 10 kilometers northwest to the "five-star" Auberge Fayoum at Lake Qarun. The public rooms are part French inn, part country lodge, but the sleeping rooms are mosquito'd and mildewed with leaky plumbing. Tonight we had a drink. We tried to order in the lobby and were escorted to a stuffy, windowless bar and served by a non-drinking waiter, "gin and soda?" To cap off the day, an Egyptian guide asked Martha (I've promised to tell no one ever) if I was her daughter. Ha Ha. Egyptian joke. Martha was not amused.
Quite enough for any single day.
We headed out after breakfast into Fayoum proper where our first stop was a watermill demonstration post. I don't know why but this particular sort of tourist trap bothers me: the clean but poor family demonstrating an ancient invention in inactive surroundings smiling for tourist tips. I'm sure it's better than losing the history or asking the family to "go find work," but it's an exploitation that grates on me. I prefer the rare cases where it's more genuine or, most commonly, where it's more professionally commercial. Enough. There was also a mineral spring with enough inventive English translation mistakes on the sign to cheer even me up. On through town, detouring around at least one collapsed building cordoned off by police. (Estimates for Cairo are now 400 or more killed, 2000 injured. Many if not most of the casualties came when people where trampled in panic.)
We stopped at a waterwheel restaurant for tea and when I asked Mohammed if we could walk around the market, his answer was an emphatic "NO." Apparently they would "like us too much." The market was almost exclusively women, most in long dresses and headscarves, selling a rich assortment of foods. [We didn't realize at this time that there had been a series of incidents beginning October 9th involving fundamentalist terrorists shooting at tourists. The warnings told tourists to stay out of Assiyout and Minya provinces ... just the area we were driving through between Cairo and Luxor.]
Then we headed out across the desert; past a vast military training base to the pyramid of Meidum. It's an appealing shape: the outer layers of sheathing have collapsed around the base, while the upper part is steep and sheer. We climbed up the sand, then stairs, then down an impressively long passageway, then up again steep wooden ladders into the burial chamber. Coming out I realized that although we were looking north and west across empty sand, a hundred yards to the east was green. The limits of the Nile. Just like a line in the sand. Back at the Auberge we finished the afternoon and day with a light lunch, sunning by the pool, naps, dinner, and American soaps on the tube.
A long drive south. Late morning we stopped for tea and Egyptian style facilities near Minya. The teahouse was open front and dingy. A stall in back. While we waited, someone went in with a hose to clean it up. The facilities were simple hole-in-the-floor variety. Adequate, but primitive. Not appealing when damp. We then sat at a table and sipped tea. Mustafa also needed the facilities so he strolled through the cafe, audience and all, carrying his roll of toilet paper as nonchalantly as can be. We then pressed on to Tell el Amarna. Hot and dusty when we arrived, but all was overcome. Along with a group of Dutch tourists we were ferried across the Nile then packed into tractor- pulled wagons for our travels around the site. In the village we were besieged by young kids looking for handouts. They run after the wagons, hang from the back, climb up by the windows, and are as persistent as leeches.
Past the edge of the village you're out into an open sweep of desert backed by a huge arc of limestone cliffs. On the plain are the minimal remains of the royal palace, just the outlines, then it's back on the tractors and across the sand to the foot of the cliffs. With some maneuvering, Mohammed detached us from the Dutch and up we climbed along a stairway cut into the limestone. You climb about tow-thirds of the way up, then along a ledge to see the Northern tombs carved into the cliff. I can't do justice to the history, but the tombs, though quite small, are covered with carvings showing the freedom of the "Amarna style." Standing at the entrance and looking across the sweep of desert to the Nile is awing. Pulled in around six to a Western-quality hotel in Minya and was startled by a phone call from Mummy, were we OK? I was able to reassure her and give her Martha's parents' phone number before we were cut off. I guess they've been frantic in the face of a lot of catastrophe reporting.
Another long drive south. The West Bank highway is two lanes of trucks, cars, taxis, pick-up buses with crowds packed in the back, donkeys, goats, camels and oblivious pedestrians. Speed limit is 100km. You pass anything anytime you think you can make it. Pedestrians or slow moving vehicles are less avoided than merely warned by tooting or blasting the horn. I had no urge whatever to drive myself. Towns along the way are brick built with the upper stories unfinished to store grain. Streets away from the highway are unpaved. Dust everywhere. Mostly men seen on the streets, women in black with heads covered. Little sign of much electricity, very little sign of plumbing. Open front cafes and shops all along. Stopping or walking around was out of the question. Every town had a traffic post. You slow down and zigzag through gates. Each time the guards checked out the car. Apparently only licensed cabs should carry tourists, not private cars like ours. Also we were a distraction. If Mohammed was asking directions, he'd get the start of an answer, then a blank stare while we were examined. He'd have to drive the conversation back on target.
Our sites along the way were Abydos and Dendara. At the first I had a mild attack of tourista and was faint from the heat. I was recovered by Dendara and able to enjoy. The heavily columned outer courts of the temples are massive and weighty. Though many of the statues have been moved out to museums, the reliefs on the walls are clear enough to impress with ornateness and decoration. Before heading on we had tea at a little cafe. As Martha took a photo, a passing workman cried an appreciative "bota" to Mohammed who was embarrassed. Martha extracted the explanation that it was a compliment. Much later we asked friends on our cruise about "bota." "Did you hear that on the street?" "Yes, is it a compliment?" "Oh yes." (Much side conversation in Egyptian.) "It means duck." Rounded gestures and swaying. Not entirely amusing. The final half hour of driving was in the dark. Headlights are turned on only when oncoming traffic has already been identified. Other ordinary rules of the road apply. We took a local car ferry across the Nile to the old Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor where we acted out a protracted and sentimental farewell to Mohammed and Mustafa. Martha cried, Mustafa cried, Mohammed and I died. We finally got upstairs to our 20-foot high room with French doors and shutters leading to a balcony overlooking the Nile. Then the electricity went off.
We had a mediocre meal in the dining room washed down with the local red wine, Omar Khayham. The waiter brought the bottle to the table, displayed the label, shook up the bottle (gotta mix up that dye!), uncorked it, and ceremoniously poured it for me to taste. Strong resemblance to red ink vinegar. Served with all the pomp of the Four Seasons.
Breakfast while looking out over the Nile. W e headed first to EgyptAir to delay our flight to Abu Simbel by a day -- better spent in Aswan -- then walked along the Corniche past Luxor Temple and well along to the north. We were constantly approached for taxis, feluccas or carriages, but "no thank you" while forging on seemed to work. The heat was blazing again at midday , so after a stroll through the market, we wandered back to the hotel for lunch by the pool and a swim. Even a swim-up bar. In the evening we'd agreed to go "on a drink" with Mohammed who turned up around six seeming very nervous. He loosened up as we went along first to get pumpkin seeds, then by carriage to the Sheraton where we sat on the terrace. Walked a longish way back then had a quick supper of soup.
Spent the morning doing arrangements. Forty-five minutes for Martha in the phone operator's room to get our reservation changed in Aswan. A half hour in the room calling Falcon Travel in Cairo to change the hotel vouchers. Then another bout getting connected with the Royal Boat folks. (1 tried American Express for the changes, but "the man who knows how to do that is not here until two hours," so I bought a Herald Trib and did the crossword while Martha struggled.) We were finally picked up and transferred to the boat (after a beer at the Winter Palace with an engineer from Hughes). We got settled, had lunch and were popped in a mini-van with the eight other English speakers to see Karnak. At last we saw a temple big enough and complete enough to take the breath away. Without question the most incredible section is the Hypostele Hall which sports 124 columns forested together" It was even possible to get to a quiet corner and just admire for a few seconds before someone arrived to help. We then went on to Luxor Temple which is another stunner. It may have inspired Aida and it certainly has been used in performance. Back to the boat after a lost tourist adventure, then sailed south to Esna where the Nile is blocked by a barrage and lock. At 6pm, the sunset and darkness came so sitting with a beer on the roof deck was wonderful. The sky was deep blue, not paled out by civilized light, the banks were black spotted with meager points of electricity, the water splashed and murmured just below consciousness. The evening calls to prayer sounded eerie as if they were answering each other .
Early van trek to the Valleys of the Queens and Kings. First the Colossi of Memnon by the roadside, then the majestic Temple of Hatshepsut, named for the only female to rule as pharaoh. It's set in the barren mountainside with wide square columned colonnades. In the blinding sun and heat of the Valley of Kings, we visited the tombs of Ramses IX, Ramses I, and Memaptah as well as admiring the entrance to King Tut's tomb, now closed. On our way out we stopped at a tourist cafeteria which would be right at home on any U.S. interstate. When I went to the ladies room I noticed four urinals on the side. I was wondering if Egypt had gone over to coed bathrooms when I saw the chef (!) at one, washing his hands. They'd been installed as sinks.
We set out late afternoon for the Esna Temple. There are so many Nile ships backed up at the lock -- maybe forty -- that they line up in layers working out from the bank. You walk through boat after boat to finally disembark on land. We set off and I began counting ships: one, two, ... , eight, nine ... Some of the crossings were gymnastically challenging. A three-foot step up, across a gap, jump down on the other side. Or edge along a rail for ten or fifteen feet before getting to the next door. At the next-to-the-last boat, Martha and Johanna went ahead. The rest of us were following, standing on a little ledge between the ships when the doors were slammed in our faces and locked. Through the glass panels we could see crew starting to vacuum the rugs. That ship was next in line to go through the lock and it was moving. We were left stranded. Chaos and consternation. After much shouting, one collision, and a lot of boat jockeying, we were able to pass through boats number ten and eleven -- back to our own Royal Boat. With more confusion, we plowed through two more boats and FINALL y ended up on real ground. We parceled into two caleches to dash to the temple before dark. Off we went with wheels wobbling and ratty horses walking. On the way back, one of the drivers (who'd already been hassling for a bribe) grabbed Martha by the arm to steer her back to the caleche. Wrong thing to do. She came back at him in Arabic, "Imshee. Go away." He was furious and abusive. She'd had it. Farouk the guide gave him some mild scolding, but we all went back in the same carriages.
Bus to the temples at Edfu and Kom Ombo. Frankly, I'm kind of tired of temples, but there were a few highlights along the way. One was seeing camels being transported to the market at Darrow. three or four in the back of a pick-up truck gazing calmly ahead, necks swaying gracefully. Another eye-opener was seeing the roof stones -- BIG -- that fell at Kom Ombo during the earthquake. We were told that no one was hurt, but that seems unlikely given the swarm of tourists and the extent of the collapse. I hope for once they're speaking truth. We all bussed back to the boat in ill humor, then drooped into our various cabins for naps. I woke around four to find that we had at last worked our way through the traffic jam and were finally moving through the lock. We sailed south. In the dark again. It was lovely to sit in the blackness sipping beer and watching the Nile roll by.
Aswan is clean and attractive. Our first stop was a quarry where you can see an unfinished obelisk still locked in the granite. Then it was on to the High Dam which disappointed me somewhat. It's a marvel, no question, and enormous, but it looks like a roadbed. There's no sense of its being a thing. It's too low and squat to seem man-made. More like a ridge. It comes complete with a socialist-art monument celebrating the glorious cooperation between the two great countries of Egypt and the (ex) Soviet Union. On to a refreshing boat ride and visit to the temple of Philae. It's been relocated to high ground beyond the dam and is quite charming, but we were all feeling the brutal heat by then. Back to the boat for lunch, then out mid-afternoon for a felucca ride to the Botanical Gardens and the Aga Khan's tomb. Everyone was bitching about the cruise and the Americans who'd joined our English-speaking group. I was sick to death of whine, whine, whine. We were late leaving the Aga Khan's tomb which meant an endless, windless return felucca trip. They had to row and the "oars" were nothing but wooden beams; no blades. Maybe the boat's too big -- seats 20 -- to properly row. Dinner was perfectly dreadful, but we took some wine up to the sundeck and chatted for a while in the dark to get calm again.
We certainly did our bit to carry on the tradition that everyone visiting Egypt gets sick. Around midnight I woke up and spent the rest of the night sick as a dog. By morning I was pretty limp, so Martha took over and spent several hours giving the boat management hell, getting the bags first to the Oberoi where -- oh yes, this is Egypt -- they'd lost our reservation and had no room, then on to the Cataract where she bullied the Amex rep to bully the hotel into giving us a Nile view room in the new wing. Then she collected me at the boat and we taxied back to the Cataract with Maha and Khaled, our Egyptian honeymooner friends from the cruise. We sat in the coffee shop for a bit while the room was made up and chatted with an Australian couple. He works in Saudi Arabia, she keeps house for two daughters and a business back in Australia, shuttling back and forth several times each year. They were both delightful but they shared some disquieting news. Apparently for the last ten day or so Muslim fundamentalists have been stepping up agitation here in Egypt with bombings and shootings. The tourist police, if not the tourists themselves, have been targets for encouraging the influx of evil Western influence. There's been trouble in the mid-Nile area and also around Esna, even a report that a cruise ship was caught in crossfire and someone killed, several injured. No one here in Egypt gives tourists a straight answer on anything, but this is another plausible explanation for the machine-gunned guards at Amarna, the riot police in Fayoum, Mohammed's general nervousness for us along the way and his unwillingness to have us walk around anywhere. The Australians also shared the rumor that the boat jam at Esna may have been aggravated by worries that the earthquake had damaged the lock. Truth is a rare commodity around here!
Back to the medical saga. I crawled into bed to rest while Martha went down and had some lunch. By late afternoon I was relapsing and running a fever and Martha was heading down the same road, violently sick. Around seven we called the hotel doctor who works with the Anglo American Hospital and arrived with the hotel nurse, an elderly, kindly, Egyptian man. He checked us out quickly and declared that we had the standard non-specific gastritis and dehydration. Consistent with the tourist industry, he assured us that it was caused by heat, not food.
Then for the comedy. He hooked each of us up to a re-hydrating IV. the bottles hung from the picture hook over the bed. He left us supplies of Lomotil and re-hydration solution, the kind they give to babies in the third world who've been poisoned by powdered milk and bad water. The instructions read, "Continue breast-feeding as normal." The nurse was as kind as could be, patting heads and holding hands as the needles went in. Quite a hoot and I felt very comfortable with the doctor and his all sterile-packed gear. We both felt better immediately and went to sleep, waking up only to drink more solution in lieu of breast-feeding.
In the morning I felt so much revived that I was up by seven, cleaned the bathroom, took a shower, washed my hair, listened to the no-news news and was ready to go. Martha also much better, if not quite so perky. We breakfasted simply on the balcony and admired the Nile. Later we had juice on the terrace, then soup and rolls in the coffee shop where we met AlIen the Australian again. He turns out to be a doctor who organizes medical care for government services in Saudi Arabia. He was good looking and charming along with carrying the romantic aura of being an Australian expat. His comment on our illness, "Heat, no. Food, yes." Then began another round of Egyptian chaos. We went to Amex for our airport transfer and hit a new rep who organized a taxi for us. When we went round to the New Cataract entrance to collect our bags, there was another taxi organized by Amex guy #1. We stuck with our own and rode out to the airport where the driven hit us for LE 30. Double billing pure and simple. We paid and headed inside. EgyptAir came through. Two reps saw our fury and calmed us down, checked our bags, walked us to the correct terminal and arranged VIP treatment for us. (Make sexism work for you.) One chatted with us for quite awhile, saved us front seats on the plane and gave us an introduction to his colleague in Abu Simbel. The flight was only 25 minutes over barren desert with rocks along Lake Nasser. The lake is deceptive. Stupidly I had pictured a sort of oval lake with smooth edges. The truth of course is that it just filled in the landscape and is jagged and unpredictable, narrow at some points, then spreading out broadly further south. And it goes a long way south. I began to better understand the "jokes" that if anything ever happened to the High Dam, all of Egypt would be swept into the Mediterranean. Not so far fetched.
Landing in Abu Simbel, the sun glare was so strong that we couldn't see the temple. However, Mr. Salaam, the EgyptAir manager, took good care of us, confirming our return flight which changed inexplicably from 1pm to 5pm, then having our bags collected and seeing us onto the hotel bus. Abu Simbel as a town doesn't exist. It's barely a military outpost. The Nefertari Hotel is maybe a half-mile beyond the temple, on the banks of Lake Nasser. White stucco, low to the ground overlooking the lake. We have a lake view room and a toilet with continuous flush. Part of the three star service.
I feel fully recovered, though maybe not full strength. Martha is a bit cranky and headachy , but essentially recovered too.
Up for dawn at the temple. We left in pitch dark walking past the hotel guard (armed) and down the road while still only the slightest orange-red streak in the sky, stars still shining. Maybe thirty-five people waiting in front of the temple. Just before six, a guard came rushing to open the wooden door and hustle us along the tunnel-like corridor. Sure enough, as the sun came up the light struck the figures, slightly off center. (Presumably it was full center yesterday which was one of the two yearly festival occasions.) It was all fairly quiet and quite moving if you thought about how spooky it would seem in an earlier era. After sunrise, they clear the temple until the official opening at seven. It was noticeably cool and breezy waiting by the lake. The busses began to arrive with the re-opening, but we were able to go through the smaller, subsidiary temple all by ourselves. The wall carvings and paintings here were in as good condition as any we've seen. Afterward I climbed the back of the new-made mountain for a lovely view of the main temple from above. Then back to the hotel for breakfast and a nap. We had to check out of our room by noon, but we had a leisurely lunch and a quiet afternoon sitting by the pool chatting with all comers (Martha) and crocheting (me). Martha even went back to the temple, but in light of the midday sun, I stayed put.
Around 4:15, the EgyptAir bus collected us for the airport where Mr. Salaam again checked us in. As we headed for the plane, the guy collecting boarding passes asked where we were from. "New York." "I'm from Queens." What else. The flight was direct to Cairo with one stop in Aswan. Naturally, no one from Falcon was at the airport, but our bags came quickly and we cabbed to the Hilton where both the bellman and the security guard said, "Welcome back." Room service supper, CNN, shower and sleep for an early rising. Then at 11:15 the phone rang. Khaled the nerd. I'll suppress the details, but a more useless travel rep would be hard to find. He didn't know our morning flight, couldn't figure out what time to leave the hotel, can't meet us at the airport, didn't know we were to have been met tonight, but - will set up a wake-up call. Idiot.
October 24- 28
Up at 4:15 am. Easy checkout. Cab to the airport from the hotel service, reasonably orderly check-in and quickly onto the plane. Our days at Sharm el Sheikh certainly blended together which is exactly what I was ready for. You step off the plane straight into blazing heat, but with a slight ocean softness. The sun is fatal during the middle of the day; painful even by mid-morning. With that in mind, I slathered on sunblock, kept a t-shirt on even for swimming, and lounged exclusively under the shade of a beach umbrella.
Sharm exists solely as a diving and snorkeling resort; there's really no town or other activity to interfere. All of the hotels -- six or seven major ones -- are laid out as "villages" of little bungalows with a reception area out front by the road, restaurants and dining terraces toward the beach, and beach bars on the sand. The beaches line Naama (Pleasant) Bay with a walk just behind where people spend the evening strolling. There are baby reefs with wonderful fish and dull coral right off the beach within sixty feet of my lounge chair. Martha took a morning trip to Ras Mohammed at the very point of the Sinai Peninsula. I passed it up for fear of sunburn (and needing some solitude) but she had a fine time. I think though that I saw as many fish in the bay as she did in open water. Our routine: wake up around 8, eat breakfast, head straight for the beach, loll and snorkel for the morning, lunch at one of the beach bars, back to the beach until 3:30 or so, then nap to recover from our exertions. Out along the strip for drinks and dinner in the evening. The only flaw was that the food was uniformly awful. Certainly my stomach was still off -- a definite after-effect of dysentery -- but this went beyond that. Martha chatted up every waiter and non-American tourist in town so we had plenty of welcome and conversation up and down the beach.
We spent one evening at the Hilton "Egyptian culture show." Three men, two women dancers, plus musicians and singers. The costumes were gorgeous: elaborate scarves, Bedouin robes, veils, hats, shawls, all stunning. Dancing so-so.
The highlight was our trip on Tuesday to Mount Sinai and Saint Catherine's Monastery. We organized it through the hotel and had a group of eight or so Italians, three Canadians, two Germans and a lecherous guide. We left around 11:30 pm and slept through the bus ride to St. C's, pulling in around 2:30 am. In chilly darkness and under a rich blanket of stars we headed up the mountain at a steady if fairly brisk pace. Nothing at all to see but a few other clusters of flashlights zigzagging up above us. The path was even and smooth, but rising at a steady clip. After about an hour people had quieted down and we began to hear and then meet camels suddenly looming into the beam of our flashlights. On we went past five or six tea stands until we hit the last stretch, uneven stone steps going up steeply and raggedly. Rough and exhausting. Also frightening to be scrambling on rough and loose rocks in pitch darkness. At last it was clear that we were near the top. Our timing was perfect 5:30 am. The sky had gone through the milky haze of approaching light, then the molten rim of sunrise. Several hundred people had made the climb and were ranged all over the chapel and rocks waiting. More and more light, then that magic moment when the first spark of sun bites through the ridgeline. Camera click crescendo. Germans singing hymns. The mountains on all sides are barren and jagged.
We stayed for an hour or so, then joined the long line of tourists climbing back down the mountain. The steps were still rough, but walking down the rest of the path was comfortable. Martha opted to take a camel down and we've been disputing since then the relative merits of sore knees versus saddle sores. The heat soon became oppressive. Off came the sweats and warm-ups. Climbing in the daytime would be out of the question. By eight o'clock we were breakfasting at the tourist village down the road, then back to tour the monastery. The church is Greek Orthodox, wildly ornate with icons, lamps, and censors all over. Many exquisite things, but all looking dusty and threadbare as did the two monks greeting the visitors. They have a fabulous collection manuscripts displayed in wooden cases in the pitch-dark vestry. The guides highlights his explanations by grabbing an offering candle and dripping wax on the glass case. Outside is THE burning bush in a stone enclosure. (I think many tourists miss it entirely.) Because one of the Italians was a priest, we were allowed into the main chapel of the burning bush and saw the stone sarcophagus holding the relics of Saint Catherine. The 6th Century mosaic over the chapel is one of art history's world-class treasures, but it looked dusty too.
Out of Sharm by plane and back to Cairo where we were met by Mustafa who was angry that the agency was not providing a transfer for us and so came himself. Very sweet, but because he speaks no English, we ended up at the Ramses Hilton again and had to head out to the Mena House by taxi. The Mena House is beautiful, ornate, Indian, and works. Martha called a friend of a friend, Maha, and we taxied into Cairo to meet at her apartment. She turned out to be an economic researcher for an Egyptian banking institute. Very fluent in English. Addresses in Cairo are inexact, so the taxi driver found the building by asking. Directions always include landmarks such as "across from the stationery store" etc. We climbed up four flights of stairs -- sheltered if not truly indoor -- in total darkness to find her flat which was airy and modern with VCR, stereo, balcony, portable phone, et al. She served tea and snacks, then took us to a gallery around the corner for shopping. Unique silver pins, bookmarks, lots of nice gifts. Cabbed back to the hotel and finished our souvenir shopping with camels and cartouches.
Last real day started with a setback. Falcon had not reconfirmed Martha's flight so her reservation was cancelled. Mine seemed to be OK. She wanted to stay an extra day anyway, but now everything's up in the air. We spent the day doing Old Cairo, hiring a cab and English-speaking driver through the bell captain (our friend) at the hotel. Coptic Museum, Monastery of St. George, Hanging Church, Mosque of Ibn Tulun, Gayer-Anderson House, and, best of all, the Khan-el-Khalili bazaar. It's a vast maze of tiny shops, alleys, and workshops all packed together with no apparent order. We spent a good three hours wandering around. Naturally we included a stop for mint tea at Fishawi's, a three hundred year old coffeehouse that looks it. We even managed to find a jeweler recommended by Maha where we splurged on gold rings. W e swung by the Pyramids again. before heading back to the hotel. Loads of Cairenes spend Friday afternoon at the pyramids on family outings, so there were lots of baby strollers, grannies, and fidgety kids. Much better than tour buses. By cultivating and tipping the bell captain back at the Mena House we maneuvered ourselves into a Pyramid view room for our second night. As an aside, we'd noticed several unidentified men (very polite) posted in the hallway. Late night sounds of kids running races in the hall complete with cheering fans. Turns out a Saudi prince had taken over a wing (!) for a visit. German security guards. I feel more secure. I think.
In the evening we had dinner in Dokki, the same area where yesterday's Maha lives, with Maha and Khaled from the cruise. Lots of fun, though neither of us was very hungry but we enjoyed hearing more about newlywed yuppie life in Cairo. She's learning to cook, because he goes out with his friends. Mom's always pampered him, now it's Maha's turn. As we'd left the hotel, a wedding party was leaving. The festivities included both a bagpiper and women ululating. Eerie. They make this shrill warbling trilling sound that signals celebration I guess. Takes you out of this world.
I got up at 5;30, bid Martha adieu and good luck, and cabbed to the airport. I had the pleasant surprise of being checked into British Airways business class as arranged although my ticket showed coach. They sent me to the business lounge and generally got me out of Egypt. Comfort, an afternoon in London, a nap on the American flight, and safely home. Martha eventually got home, a day late, overcharged by bribe-happy EgyptAir agents, and sick with pneumonia. Arriving back at work, she was informed that her job had been discontinued. I had a much better return!
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