Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Getting Lost in Cairo

Yesterday Tara and I had a big day of sightseeing--it was the first really warm day and a perfect day to be out seeing the city. A friend from lab wrote down the places we wanted to go in Arabic--while I know where I want to go, I can't say the names so that anyone can understand me. I have a long ways to go in improving my conversational Arabic skills...

Our first cab ride brought us to the Al-Azhar Park. It used to be a garbage pile, but with the help of an NGO, it's the largest green space in Cairo. We ate koshari outside and then walked around the streams and gardens, watching kids play and then took pictures of the view.

We could see the Citadel, but due to the crazy traffic, decided to take a cab instead of walking. The Citadel is an old fortress built over 700 years ago and added on over the centuries. There are huge walls and a lower and upper enclosure. We got a glimpse of the pyramids and more views of Cairo. We visited my first two mosques there, including the enormous Mohammad Ali mosque. It is absolutely exquisite inside. Many tour groups were walking around or sitting in groups listening to the history of the mosque, inappropriately dressed females were given green robes to wear, a dozen or so chandeliers hung from the ceiling and chimed lightly in the breeze, the various levels had beautiful stained glass windows, the floor was covered with carpets, and the domed ceilings were ellaborately painted and decorated. It was absolutely beautiful.

Next we had a choice between taking a taxi or walking to our next destination outside of the Citadel. We could see the mosque we wanted to walk to (or so we thought) and set out. Then we found ourselves in a bustling crowd of people boarding and getting off at a busy mini-bus stop. We stood out but kept on walking. Kids getting out of school would walk by or chase after us saying "hello what's your name?" or saying "I love you!". It's nice to know we're loved by so many middle-school Egyptian boys... ;-) We were in front of two very large mosques and saw tour buses (always a good sign), but it wasn't where we meant to be. Time to try out the cab skills, but by then I had lost the sheet of paper with our destinations written down. Thankfully, Tara enjoyed the adventure & wasn't mad--some of the best memories are completely spontaneous. We found a cab dropping someone off and again I tried in my broken English to communicate where we wanted to go--he didn't understand, but his former passenger happened to be an Egypt Air Airline stewardess. She helped us--she didn't understand me saying "Ibn Tulun mosque" the first time either, but she eventually interpretted and we were on our way.

We reached Ibn Tulun mosque and that was definitely my favorite mosque of the day. Unlike the Citadel, there were no crowds. Tara and I were the only tourists walking around there and there were two other guys sleeping on prayer mats. It was very serene, very simple, not ornate like the Mohammad Ali mosque. Adjacent to the Ibn Tulun mosque is the very quirky Geyer-Anderson museum. It's mentioned in LP guide and was used in the James Bond movied "The Spy who Loved me." It's two houses combined to one, but it feels very Escher-esque...we kept going up a few stairs, seeing a room or two, then another set of winding stairs, felt like we went up 5 sets of stair to reach the rooftop. We paid a guide a few pounds for baksheesh (tip) to explain a little bit of what we were seeing...there was Iranian and Hindu art, a bedroom, a Damascus room, reading room, painting room, women's room, birthing room...There was even a room with Egyptian antiquities, pieces of hieroglyphics, statues, seemed like a very random collection of rooms and belongings & definitely lived up to the quirky description given by LP.

The Ibn Tulun mosque has a minaret (tower) to climb that suppposedly has some of the best views in Cairo. Unfortunately, I'll just have to take everybody's word for it. Tara and I tried to get up there--we walked around to what looked like an entrance, but in reality it turned out to be another mosque at prayer time. They let us in and showed us the women's room--we gave alms for allah and more baksheesh to get our shoes back, but couldn't get up the minaret. Malesh (oh well).

Once again, it was time for a cab ride--but we circled Ibn Tulun looking for a cab driver, walking down narrow, very non-touristy streets for about 10 minutes to find one. I did my best to say "Ma'adi" and we settled on a price and headed home. Once in Ma'adi, I didn't recognize much for a long time--I saw parts of the suberb I had never seen before. Tara pointed out the number 9 in Arabic in our guide book so he could find the street we wanted. We got out of the cab & he wasn't happy about the price (very common, they often do that) and drove away. With Tara's camera in the backseat. I ran after him & I know he saw me, but he didn't stop--he took a left and slowed down only because a car was turning into him. I got to him just in time to open the door & grab the camera. We said "shokran" (thank you) over and over and I gave him some more money. Maybe it's a lesson to always pay the cab driver a little extra?

The rest of the evening was spent thinking about the events of the day, shopping at our favorite Egyptian gift store in Ma'adi owned by Hani--he always recognizes us and gives us the good Egyptian prices, and eating the best meal I've eaten here. My flat mate, Tara, and I and some other friends went down to the Corniche (street along the nile) and ate at the Fish Market. You walk in & pick out your fish which is kept packed on ice and they grill/bake/fry it for you. While we waited for that, they brought out about 10 different mezzas--baba ganoush, creamy garlic, stuffed eggplants/tomatoes, 2 types of hummus, salad, tahini and pita bread so hot we burned our fingers on it. After that we were full--and the fish hadn't even come out yet! It was unbelieveably good--the best were the shrimp still with their heads and everything. The grilled sole was fabulous as well.

We still had one more shopping adventure ahead of us (Cairo is a very late city...stores stay open well past 10, especially if you're buying expensive rugs!). There is an incredible rug store that we visited. The rugs were exquisite and from many different countries--Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey...The most amazing rug was the silk on silk rug. I don't even want to know the cost. The people we were with have shopped for rugs many times and it was neat to learn what to look for, what makes a high quality rug (small knots), what makes a rug unique (hand made ones are not symmetrical and greens and light blues are less common colors). It was tempting and a fun shopping experience, but I am going home rugless.

This is likely my last post before I land back in the U.S. I'm off to the lab for a bit, more shopping and sightseeing the next few days and finally the pryamids on Monday. Thanks for reading and commenting. Hope you'll all stop by to see pictures and eat hummus & pita with me. I think I can even re-created fuul, tamayha, and koshari if anyone's interested. :-)


Norma said...

Thanks, Molly. Now I'm extremely hungry and it's only 10am!

Unknown said...

Yum, Molly. Please cook for me when you get back! (Of course, that is not different than before you left, but at least the cuisine is somewhat different!)