Monday, June 2, 2014

Cairo and Nuweiba


We returned to Cairo for a day before continuing on to the Sinai, and while we were there, we saw some some of Cairo’s newer monuments—relatively young stuff, less than a thousand years old.  We visited the Citadel and the Alabaster Mosque; the Citadel was built by Saladin in the 1100’s, and the mosque was built in the 1800’s.


It’s an impressive fortress, and the grounds were extensive and beautiful.


The Alabaster Mosque has been converted to a museum (there is an active mosque adjacent to it) which meant we were able to take pictures inside.  The sinuous array of suspended lights hung just overhead was striking against the high, multi-domed ceiling.


Two young women asked if they could have their picture taken with our group; this was to be a refrain in Cairo. There was something about them that was infectious--their giggling, their brightly colored clothes and scarves. They had a confidence that groups of young girls do; a flock of chittering birds in flight.


We drove into the central market, registered with the police, and were assigned a plain-clothes body guard.  We didn’t notice until much later that he was armed; his pistol wasn’t obvious, but it wasn’t fully concealed either.  This was a new measure for us, but we didn’t feel that worried—probably in part because we hadn’t noticed the gun yet.  We ate lunch on the edge of a plaza, and watched the chaos while we waited.  Our bodyguard was helpful in the respect that he kept some of the hawkers away while we ate. The constant bombardment was understandably getting to some of our group at this point, just in the volume of selling and it's omnipresence. If we were in public, someone was trying to sell us something. This in addition to all of the places we went to specifically buy things, like perfume oils, papyrus art, and statuary. 


We saw several bread hawkers walking around with enormous loads of bread balanced on their heads. They weren't selling to us, but it was fascinating to watch them. 

While the bodyguard was good at chasing off children trying to sell us packs of kleenex, he wasn't as successful with the myriad of stray cats that live in and around the market. Under our table, there was a very scruffy cat, which some of us surreptitiously fed when the waiters weren’t chasing it off with sticks, and a bevy of other kittens.


After lunch we ran the gauntlet into the market--the first 200 yards of stalls were lined with vendors trying to grab our attention. After that, when we got further into the depths of the market, it was much quieter. The portion of the market that we walked through was partially covered, and the archways between sections were very intricate.


A few of us returned to our meeting point (back at the restaurant) early, Cat and RJ among them.  A group of girls asked if they could have their pictures taken with Cat, and soon they were laughing and bickering about whose turn it was.  We were all fairly amused, but eventually the waiters took pity on us and chased the girls off—at least not with sticks, like the poor cat, which had also moved on by now.


After we regrouped, a street vendor selling a fermented licorice juice wandered by, and Mudi bought a glass (which is rinsed out between uses) and several of us tried it.  David didn’t think it tasted much like licorice, but it wasn’t bad either.  The vendor poured from a large urn he carried, and held the glass as low as possible to get a frothy head on it.


We got back on our mini-bus, navigated some crowds and traffic, and headed back towards our hotel.  From an overpass, we could see that the market sprawled much further than the relatively small area we covered. 


That night, on our way to buy snacks for the long drive the next day, we remembered to take a picture of the KFC where we had eaten earlier, on our first visit to Cairo.  Neither of us is a fan of KFC, or fast food in general, and we normally wouldn’t have given it a second thought, except that we’d heard about this particular restaurant.  It exclusively employs deaf and/or mute workers, and they had developed an efficient way to take orders.  They had a printed menu on the counter, and the man behind the counter pointed to his mouth and ears, then demonstrated pointing at items on the menu.  We each pointed at our selection, and then he clarified; did we want hot sauce (fanning himself), large or small drinks (distance between his hands), what type (point to the logo for soft drinks) etc.  He was full of smiles, and so were we.  The food was ok, though not as good as any of our other meals in Egpyt, but the experience made it worth it.  We bumped into Cat & RJ there, and sat with them and talked about travel.  We didn’t even think about taking video of the ordering process, but another deaf patron did that for us.  And of course An Idiot Abroad had no qualms filming Karl there, where he fulfills his wise fool role.

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Bright and early the next morning we headed out from Cairo to cross the Sinai peninsula.  We first drove under the Suez canal, which was a neat experience (we are just entering the tunnel above). On the far side of the Sinai we were to stay a couple of nights at a resort in Nuweiba, snorkeling and relaxing before crossing the Red Sea on a ferry and continuing our trip over to Jordan.


The original purpose of our trip across the Sinai was to visit Mt. Sinai and St. Catherine's Monastery, but in the time between when we booked the trip and when we got to Egypt, the isolated road up to the monastery had become a safety concern, with incidents of kidnappings of tourists by Bedouins in the intervening months. So our trip to the site of the Burning Bush turned into a military escorted convoy of vehicles across the vast wasteland of the Sinai desert.  Instead of visiting the very remote monastery, we'd spend an extra day in Nuweiba, just relaxing.  This particular day was a transit day, but we had snacks, reading material, headphones, and well...plenty to look at.  The female portion of our group (the majority) felt the Egyptian army men were very handsome.


Our convoy stopped a couple of times for bathroom breaks, in places where a bathroom was just about all you could see for miles. After waiting for the convoy to regroup and take off after the second bio break of the day, we had both bonded as a group and gotten a tiny bit punchy. We stole this recording from our friend April, but we both wish we had gotten our driver's video.

Finally, after we exhausted the Convoy Bus Dance Party mix, we settled down just in time to see the Red Sea.


We arrived at our resort in Nuweiba at dusk, and just had enough light to capture the oddity of a camel on the beach.  The lights on the distant shore are Aqaba in Jordan, and Eilat in Israel.

We spent the next couple of nights and one full day, enjoying the pool table...


and some excellent games of foosball in the evenings.


On our day off from any tour obligations, we spent time snorkeling and kayaking in the Red Sea, sitting in a shaded gazebo with the local dog, chatting with each other and enjoying a variety of food and drink.


Late in the afternoon, instigated by Mudi, some people got up a friendly game of non-competitive volleyball which left quite a few players with bruised forearms that lasted throughout the rest of our trip through Jordan. Everyone was having so much fun that they played much longer than they probably should have.

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Some sneaky folks managed to give Lana a bit of a birthday celebration, after a crappy actual birthday in which there was a power outage in Luxor. They were incredibly sweet, to a person, and Lana was very moved.


It was our last night with Mudi, as the next morning he would deliver us to the ferry which would take us across the Red Sea to Aqaba, where we would meet our Jordanian guide. All us girls let Mudi teach us how to salsa dance, and we ate cake and danced the night away. We couldn't have asked for a more fun last night in Egypt than our final night in Nuweiba.


Mudi had explained that normally he wasn't able to escort us through customs and on to the ferry, but that he'd managed to grease a few wheels and would be able to take us through in the morning.


After navigating customs and immigration, we were immensely grateful that he did. Nothing was in English, there was no rhyme or reason, and when we cleared customs and entered the waiting room for the ferry, we found that every bench inside was occupied by a variety of truck drivers and other men sprawled fully out snoring (the ferry chiefly transports semi trucks full of commercial goods between Egypt and Jordan, bypassing the more tricky land connection through Israel). If they weren't snoring, they were staring at us pretty intensely, so we were very glad when Mudi walked us through and outside to another waiting area, where we weren't a featured zoo exhibit.

After waiting a while, we were herded onto a bus just ahead of a heard of sweaty, smelly truck drivers, where it was approximately 900 degrees. David and Dell's expressions just about say it all about this part of our journey. The bus shuttled us to the dock where the ferry was moored.  Again, there was no information about what to do with our luggage.  Thankfully Mudi came with us, talked to the ferry staff, and then showed us where the shipping container was that was dedicated to luggage for the few tourists to use this route, and that would be an easy to find it again when we got to Aqaba.  We were already very attached to Mudi, but his aid in getting us on that ferry made it hard for us to leave him behind. But we all said our heartfelt goodbyes.


Finally, finally, our time in Egypt was over, and we were on our way to Aqaba, Jordan in a ferry filled with our little group and several hundred truck drivers.  The end of our time in Egypt was true to the heart of our experience there--exhilarating, sweaty, chaotic and definitely an adventure.