August 3, 2011

Egypt, 3rd installment

The third of several journal entries from my trip to Egypt in 2004

1/5/04. Night.

Today was a full day. We took a cab to our cheaper Cairo hotel -- Hotel Grand at the corner of Talaat Harb and 26 July Street. *Adorable.* We are on the 7th floor, overlooking the hustle and bustle of downtown, listening (right now) to the sunset call to prayer mixed with honking and traffic.

The call to prayer is amazingly pervasive. It covers the city and envelopes all of life in a way I've never experienced with a repeating sound. At noon today, we were lost in the Islamic quarter at a large square when the call rang out. It was a gorgeous experience.

After marveling at our wonderful room and balcony, we walked to the Midam Ataba, the Ezbekiya gardens and tried to find our way to the Khan El Kahlili. We found several street markets but they were modern markets with no tourists to be seen. This is not how the Khan El Khalili is described.

Eventually, we asked some police and one of their English speaking friends for directions. First, they asked for our passports. R gave his. They informed us that R did not "look" Canadian. But I did. Hah.

Many Egyptians today were proud of figuring out that R was Indian. One of the adorable serving boys at Midan El Hussein kept pointing at R and saying, "Indian." He was quite proud of himself and the scene was cute and funny in that way that only a foreign experience can be.

After traipsing through Khan El Khalili (Canadians get directions, apparently), we ate at one of the tourist traps looking at the mosque of Muhammed Hussein (where non-muslims are not allowed).

We then tried to walk to a mosque for entrance but accidentally tried the University entrance (where we were promptly turned away, seeing as how we are not University students).

At the mosque entrance, we had a storybook tout encounter. A young man named Muhammed (Ahmed) tried to show us "Egyptian Hospitality," sheesha, and hand-made handicrafts. We declined, but then he offered to take us to the Blue Mosque, where we could climb the tower and see the pyramids, citadel, cairo tower, etc. We went with him, deeper, and deeper into old Cairo.

Finally, we arrived at the mosque and he said that the student price was 20 Egyptian Pounds, while the regular price was 40 Egyptian Pounds. R declined saying he didn't want to pay to see a mosque. I started to take off my shoes, but thought better of it, deciding instead not to go if R didn't go.

Muhammed was flustered at first and then asked "why?" several times. Finally he asked for a "donation" to help his studies because, "he really needed it."

I was not pleased to find myself the victim of a scam. I explained to him that because he'd told us he wanted to practice his English and only wanted to be friends and show us hospitality, we'd gone with him. If he wanted to be paid, he needed to be honest about it up front so that we could decide if we wanted to pay or not before we went with him. He kept demanding money and I explained that we were not going to give him any, fairly loudly, in the street, in front of various folks in their doorsteps who watched with curiosity at the crazy English speaking lady. After a final emphatic "No" we walked away.

I was frustrated that we'd let ourselves get so far deep into old Cairo before he'd demanded money, and angry that he'd likely used this tactic to get money from others before.

R and I continued walking in the direction we had begun, even deeper into Old Cairo. I was very happy to have the turtleneck to cover me, but even so, we got plenty of stares and some hisses (at me, I assume). We spoke with a few adorable children, including a girl who stepped in front of R and said, "Wot is yur name?" When he replied she babbled in Arabic and ran off.

Eventually, we found some cops, but of course, they only spoke Arabic and initially, they were not friendly. Finally we got them to understand, "Wayen el Allah?" (Where is the Citadel) and they gave us directions. The cop smiled and asked me (while looking at R) if I spoke Arabic. I replied, "a little." He asked again, more emphatically, and I said one of my memorized phrases, which means, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Arabic that well." This made him very happy and he and his friend told us to have a good day.

I was uncomfortable for the rest of the walk, but we did find the Citadel eventually, after passing yet another crudely labeled, "Free Blue Mosque." I stopped R from entering because I was fairly paranoid that the helpful folks at the entrance would hold our shoes for ransome or something like that.

The Citadel was a welcome tourist attraction after the stark poverty and reality of Old Cairo. We ran into one of the taxi fight arbitrators from our morning and he called out to us, asking if the driver we ended up with was good. We looked for him when we left, but he was gone.

In the Citadel, we viewed the mosque of Muhammed Ali, the military museum, and the palace at the Citadel. The views of the city, mosques, towers, and pyramids in the background were my favorite part of the day.

Our taxi ride back to the hotel was a true Cairo rush hour experience complete with mopeds splitting the non-existent lanes against traffic, bottlenecks, pedestrians, bicycles, bus passengers getting on and off in the middle of the street and traffic lights which are defied by the masses.

Now we're off to dinner, Internet Cafe and Coffee at Midan Talaat Harb.

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