January 13, 2004

Quick Recap

I'm back in the USA. Egypt was difficult, amazing, beautiful, scary and wonderful. Classes begin in 2 days and I'll be stuck in early morning classes 5 days a week. Given that I'm not over jet lag or the egyptian version of montezuma's revenge that I caught, I'm not excited for school to start. Oh well.

The short version of the Egypt trip:

  • Cairo is huge, full of smells, districts that are VERY distinct from one another, and many, many, many people. The basic tourist sights of the pyramids of giza, the antiquities museum, the citadel, Islamic Cairo and Khan El Khalili are all overwhelming and worth visiting again.
  • The smog in Cairo is actually as bad as I had read it to be (approximately 30 cigarrettes a day)
  • Downtown Cairo has the safest feeling streets of any major city I have ever visited. I had no fear of violence, theft, or any of the other nonsense of which I am usually apprehensive when in a major city like London, Paris, Rome, or New York.
  • Egyptian food, on the whole, is really quite terrible. Their bread is an amazingly coarse pita-like thing called fu'ul. Greek pita bread, lebanese bread, Italian bread, so many nearby countries have much better bread, but the Egyptians have not yet gotten the memo. The same logic applies to spices, sauces and meat. The best food we had was at Greek restaurants in Alexandria (We highly recommend Denus, where you select your fish from the platter of fresh/frozen kills and I had the best fried calamari I've ever tasted.)
  • Alexandria is a picturesque city on the mediterranean sea, a looser and more open younger sibling of Cairo. It is more common to see women in western dress, and young couples of opposite sex actually interacting with one another, perhaps because of the University of Alexandria and its proximity to the areas we visited. Upon arrival at the downtown train station, we managed to leave out the wrong exit and get lost on the other side of the peninsula in the working class neighborhoods--people were wonderfully friendly and helpful in helping us to get a cab back to where we were staying despite the lack of any common language other than us pointing to Midan Sa'ag Zaghloul in the rough guide. Our first night there, we stayed at the Union hotel on the 6th floor, in a room overlooking the Corniche. The view of the eastern harbour and the walks provided along the Corniche were amazing.
  • Our second night there, the Cecil Hotel was a grand experience, which provided a much needed input of western water pressure and toilets during my bout with an intestinal bug.
  • An intestinal bug, which comes upon you in the night at a $2 hotel in an oasis in the middle of nowhere, is not fun. Neither are fever and chills in the desert night and getting up every 30-45 minutes to run down the hall to the shared restrooms.
  • The Siwa oasis is worth being sick with an intestinal bug. The Siwan people are wonderfully friendly and the culture is still locked into its past although how far back the hold goes is slowly slipping with the onslaught of tourists, factories, automobiles and other trappings of the modern way of life. Additionally, the local sights are some of the best that Egypt has to offer. We chose to go to Siwa over Luxor and Aswan and didn't regret our choice one bit. Luxor and Aswan will be there in the tourist-trapping splendor the next time we go, but Siwa may have completely altered itself by then.
  • My trip would have been significantly different had I not been reading Palace Walk while in Cairo, Alexandria, Siwa, and on trains and buses surrounded by Egyptians. The book gave me a rich cultural and historical background against which to appreciate current Egyptian culture. I highly recommend this book to Westerners looking for some cultural perspective on Egypt. I had rented a few Egyptian films prior to going and none of them gave me even a tenth of the insight that the character development and stories in Palace Walk did.

Other than that, I'm happy to be home and almost recovered from my stomach bug. Now, I've just got to keep myself awake today and beat this jet lag before school begins...

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