The Egyptian National Museum is humbling, at least it was for us as Rania (an Egyptian history major and government-certified guide) wove an extraordinary two-hour long tale starting with the copy of the Rosetta Stone (Shame on you, British Museum. You should return at least the Rosetta Stone to its rightful country.), and moving through the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms of Egyptian history. Tsk Tsk to those who we observed using the audio guide to self-tour. Y’all missed out on some incredible history.
Out of sequence a bit, but certainly a highlight of the museum. Anna Grace and I stood thisclose to the Gold Mask of King Tutankhamen! Photography was not permitted in this gallery (this photo is from the Internet), and the temptation to sneak a snap with our iPhones was only tempered by the guards milling about who would likely have yelled at us in Arabic for having done so.
Original Papyrus dating back thousands of years.
Speaking of Papyrus, we were able to appreciate a demonstration of how the paper is made at a shop along one of our guided routes in Coptic Cairo. This is the Papyrus plant, which grows in abundance along the Nile.
The stalks are peeled and allowed to soak, and then are woven into the paper and pressed until dry. “Beware of tourist Papyrus,” our paper guy told us, “They are selling you banana leaves.”
Traffic in Cairo is unlike anything we have witnessed on the worst of the worst days in Washington, DC. Three lanes routinely became five lanes, with vendors selling items in between and along the sides, and people crossing every which way (even on the highways). Anna Grace referred to our experiences in traffic as, “Human Frogger.”
Originally Tony’s hosts had suggested accommodations for us at the Four Seasons, a tiny skyscraper of “America” on the River Nile, thoroughly scrubbed of any local character, and so very much not our travel style. No doubt they were surprised when we politely inquired about other accommodations, but did suggest another hotel in an “upmarket” Cairo neighborhood that was a perfect fit, even if Anna Grace and I were a little bit fussed over during our stay.
Real Cairo city life swirling outside the window of our hotel suite.
The Pita Man was punctual each morning, bearing trays of the aromatic bread to sell to commuters.
Pop-up vendors dotted the neighborhood landscape, as well, selling vegetables and lots and lots and lots of garlic.
“Good Boy,” as we so named the Day Shift Doggie who sniffed each vehicle for explosives that entered the hotel campus. The Evening Shift Doggie was a Shepherd, but each time we passed him he was “working” so we could not take a photo.
The window seat perch from which I would wind down each afternoon. Watching the Egyptian world go by from our windows was mesmerizing.
We ate well in Cairo, even with cuisine options being much less numerous than at home. In fact, with the exception of dinner, we relished the mostly vegetarian “Mediterranean Diet.” The Breakfast Room at the hotel was superlative, an epicurean Mecca for foodies like the three of us. The freshest salads; hummus and pita (though, in all honesty, we like Lebanese-style hummus a little more); succulent olives and cheeses; and our new favorite falafel, prepared Egyptian-style with broad beans rather than the customary chick peas were available each morning, along with Tony’s favorite omelette and a slice of Halvah for me, a treat that I do not often indulge in at home.
Lunch out was not too terribly different, and usually included F”oul Muddammas, a broad bean dish that is best enjoyed with pita.
On one occasion we sat for Koshary, an Egyptian National Dish of elbow macaroni, vermicelli, a bit of ground beef or lamb, chick peas, and crispy fried onions, accented with a dollop of Harissa or chili and a good slosh of a vinegar/garlic/lemon dressing. This dish is hands down beyond delicious, and is an extremely common “fast food” that I am eager to recreate here at home.
Intrigued by the constant traffic at “Tom and Basal,” a Koshary chain across from our hotel, on our first night we decided to “go local,” insofar as much as three Western Caucasian folks can look Egyptian, and ordered Koshary to take back to our suite. And what do you know? The staff spoke English! and guided us through the menu! Dinner was fantabulous!
On the subsequent evenings we followed our noses into the small passages between the apartment buildings across from our hotel in search of dinner. We stood out, not surprisingly. What humbled us, though, were the shop owners who would invite us into their stores, and comment upon learning we were American with, “Viva, America!” and “We love America!” The more we travel, the smaller the world seems, and we were quite pleased not to have been stuffed into the Four Seasons, eating Fancy Falafel on porcelain plates. Or worse.
Lamb at the butcher wrapped for the night, and Mom coming to collect the boys for the evening while Papa finished cleaning up the store. Life in real Cairo.
The aroma coming from this grill was heavenly, but we all suffered from a lack of Arabic/English translation abilities, alas, so whatever deliciousness was grilling was not ours to be.
Nearby to the aromatic grill, a kindly gentleman overheard us and exclaimed that he spoke, “A little bit of English!” Naturally his English was almost flawless. He directed us to his storefront and prepared grilled chicken and saffron rice that almost brought tears to our eyes.
And when combined with Koshary from Tom and Basal, we feasted every night. No doubt the room service staff shook their heads and raised an eyebrow or two when we requested dinner plates and flatware, but no food. Or perhaps they did not.
A toast to Cairo during our connecting flight in Athens! Egypt is not at all a destination for the Conde Nast or luxury traveler, but most certainly its people and their culture are worth befriending for those travelers who seek real experiences. So the three of us departed Cairo a bit sad, as if we were saying, “Goodbye” to a friend we may never see again.