Is it just me, or do you all find that subsequent visits to a place or event fail to deliver that same sense of magic and excitement as the first experience?! Or maybe, this is just another symptom of the dreaded mid-life crisis – or maybe, as the surf-wise turtle said in Finding Nemo, You’ve got serious thrill issues dude. Anyway, the Notting Hill carnival this year was one such disappointment. Some people have been quick to blame the boxed-in feeling on the threat of terrorism – and I can bear witness to the fact that during the warm-up to the processions, there were probably more police officers that revellers on the streets – others accounted for the lethargic atmosphere by pointing out it was Children’s Day yesterday, but I suspect the reason is more simple … commercialism. Having just returned from Egypt where the hawking was almost unbearable, the last thing I expected was to have copious amounts of jerk chicken samples shoved in my face, or yet another trader trying to persuade the kids to buy a second whistle or horn. Carnivals are times when the street comes alive with dance, music, colour etc – making a profit, in my view, has no place in such events. And so, I doubt I will be returning next year
I will however be returning to the telly next month to (hopefully) witness Michael Vaughan’s boys reclaim the Ashes at the Oval. Yesterday’s nail-biting victory in the 4th Test Match against the Aussies should dispel any myths that cricket is a game for comatose, wimpy couch potatoes who constantly reminisce about the bygone days of the glorious British Empire. At its best (and yesterday’s performance by both teams is a case in point), cricket can give you that adrenalin boost … just when you need it most.
This is our last day in Cairo and we will leave with fond memories of Egypt and her people, especially the Cairenes. We did meet some top guys in Luxor but most encounters were marred by their salacious desire for money and the dishonest methods for acquiring it from innocent tourists.
- finding an old enamel teapot in the souk in Luxor
- Karnak – the temples & complex in general
- fresh mango juice from the numerous juice bars
- half-finished houses everywhere, especially on the drive out to Carrefour in Maadi
- tucking into the best and cheapest tameeya (only 6p) from Akher Saa (opposite Alfi Bey)
- being licked by a giraffe at Cairo zoo
- the felucca trip to Banana Island
- the medieval walk and shopping at the Khan
- the good eateries around Cairo
- taxi drivers in Cairo who drive without their lights at night (it is considered rude to have your headlights on, but honking is ok – go figure!)
- sipping mint tea / sucking on a sheesha every evening in the Bedouin tent at the Pyramisa Isis in Luxor
- the caleche drivers in Luxor
- people who say Welcome and don’t mean it
- hawkers who shout I don’t know what you need, but I’m sure I have it
- Cairo airport – the place , the people … particularly the immigration officers
On balance, it was a super holiday and in the immortal words of Arnie We’ll be back.
Photo below is of the magnificent Opera House, near our hotel.
I caught a few hours of sleep on the overnighter from Luxor. Dinner on the train was, as usual, a non event (unless you find rubberised beef and soggy chicken particularly appetising) but they did manage to provide us with cold cans of the local Stella beer.
We arrived at the hotel with the usual rigmarole of room cock-up – this time, the computer system had cancelled our reservation. We guessed that a wedding reception at the hotel later that evening may have something to do with this error.
This morning, we went on an adventure on the Metro – flat priced tickets at 75 piastres i.e. less than 8p – to Coptic Cairo (Mar Girgis station). While the museum was closed, St George and the Hanging Church provided an interesting insight into this Christian side of Cairo. And for the first time, we were directed by the tourist police and the army to avoid certain streets and lanes – the atmosphere was unsurprisingly tense, considering the evacuation taking place in the Gaza strip.
Anyway, it’s Saturday – and this calls for a trip to Arkadia (a shopping mall on the Nile close to the WTC), a last minute dash to the Khan to buy a sheesha, a walk down Talaat Harb for some footwear, and general soaking of pollution and adrenalin courteously provided by the local taxis. Oh, pic below is J’s nicely decorated hand, done by a Bedouin lady at the Khan.
Question: What do you do when you have two hours to kill in Luxor?
Answer: Take a felucca trip to Banana Island.
We were wondering about aimlessly along the Corniche, having been to Eddie’s little shop (Al Araby) for some cans of drinks (btw, Eddie’s the only guy in Luxor who doesn’t inflate his prices for tourists) when Captain Semsen approached us with a proposition. What a wonderful, likeable guy! Not only did he keep to his word to get us back in time for our train back to Cairo, he walked along with us explaining the flora and fauna, that included a 165 year old mango tree – apparently there’s a 600 year old one by the Rameseum on the west bank.
Banana Island was a favourite retreat of King Farouk’s and has probably seen better times, yet the wildness resulting from several years of neglect has added to the charm of the place, and reminded me very much of the orchard walk to Balik Pulau in Penang. Afterwards, we all sat down to taste the bananas for which the island is famed.
Anyway, look out for Blue Eyes, moored opposite the Mercure – Semsen also told me he married an English girl from Southampton last month, having fallen in love whilst sailing her into the sunset on his felucca. Lucky girl! See what a boat ride can do to your love life.
The kids did not let me forget an earlier promise to take them riding: in Luxor, this activity is relatively cheap – pick your animal (with the exception of J1 who insisted on acting out Frank Hopkins in Hidalgo, we all chose camels) but you will need to tip the boys / handlers who walk along with you. We rented our animals from Arabian Stables, located behind the Mobil petrol station, a short walk from al Mina – the ferry port on the west bank. It’s owned by a great guy called Nobi.
Afterwards, we took the national ferry service back to Luxor town (1 Egyptian Pound) and came across the Fair Trade shop, where J could not resist a very pretty shawl, hand embroidered by the Bedouin women-folk – I’m sure prices here were slightly inflated too, but 50% of what you pay should go back to these very skilful desert people. And then we discovered McDonalds …
Now, McDonalds is literally the coolest place in town! The A/C here is constantly set to ‘freeze’ (which is always welcoming in the excessive heat that touches 40 deg C on a normal day) but the view of Luxor temple puts it into my top 3 McDonalds in the world … the other two coincidentally are in France: the McPlage with a terrace that goes out to sea on the road to Antibes in Nice and the other, the little den at the top end of the Champs Elysee, Paris with comfy sofas and CD players.
OK, the pic is of the colossi of Memnon, but we did manage to visit the Rameseum after lunch at AL Qurna, after descending into the tombs of the pharaohs at the Valley of the Kings – an experience that is not unlike being baked in an oven and one that I’m pretty certain I will not be repeating. Deir el Bahari (the temple of Hatshepsut) on the other hand was amazing!
Anyway, if you remember your Ozymandias, this is what Shelley wrote. It’s not until you get close to the fallen statue of Ramses II at the Rameseum that the words ring out the impotency of this has-been king:
I met a traveller from an antique landWho said:
Two vast and trunkless legs of stoneStand in the desert.
Tomorrow, we are booked to go camel riding through Egyptian villages in the west bank.
If you are in any doubt about the ability of the Egyptians to build large temples, then come to Karnak – 84 hectares of pillars, avenues of sphinxes (what is the plural for sphinx?!) and temples within temples. We arrived at Luxor bleary eyed and before the morning sun lit up the orange cliffs of the Theban Hills in the west bank. At the hotel we had to correct a minor error in room allocation and ended up with a suite that has a view across the Nile to die for, and with sufficient space to host a football tournament!
Luxor is truly a wonderful place – and it is such a pity the inhabitants let it down; on two occasions today we were diverted to shops and scenic routes despite clear instructions to the caleche drivers on destination and price. At least the Cairenes have the decency and humour to let you know when they are screwing you.
Taxi booked for the Valley of the Kings tomorrow – meanwhile feast your eyes on this pic of Karnak.
I’m not convinced about this mobile blogging business: firstly, Opera (my browser on my Nokia 6630) died – in the spectacular way that makes it … well, nearly impossible to use anymore. And then GPRS died, which makes it difficult to say the least to be in communicado. So this comes to you from the air-conditioned business centre of the Pyramisa Hotel, Cairo where we are chilling out before stepping into another boneshaker of a taxi to take us to Ramses train station for the overnighter to Luxor.
Today was an interesting day. Having paid one Egyptian pound to get into Cairo Zoo, we used the rest of our money to engage the head of security to give us a guided tour of this fascinating zoo that basically involved … a dancing monkey, being 2 feet from a 20 year old Bengal tiger, feeding a baby hippo, having a giraffe eat a carrot from the top of my head (J had the dubious pleasure of having a piece taken from her lips!) and being cuddled (Read: almost crushed) by an over-friendly indian elephant.
Later, the kids found the walk through the medieval area of Cairo a bit too much in the heat, but were rewarded with a nice lunch at the Naguib Mahfouz restaurant in the Khan El Khalili market. Oh, pic below is a ceiling shot of El Fishawy – a must-stop for those seeking a recess from the bustle of the Khan. Sit down, sip mint tea, partake in a sheesha (ask for the apple tobacco), and generally chill … as the world about you continues to revolve at breakneck speed.
Speaking of chilling, onwards to Luxor … can’t wait!
I swear I will floor the next Egyptian who bids us Welcome. For all the genuinely helpful people in this city there are four times as many crooks who will lead you to their shop where helpfulness turns into hard selling of tacky papyrus and other equally tasteless pharaonic souvenirs.
The same cannot be said about the food – we have eaten well and in interesting settings. Yesterday we satisfied our appetites at Felfela after a long morning at the Egyptian museum – Fattah with trotters is a new and soon to be repeated discovery.
This afternoon, after a very interesting but hot morning at Saqqara and Giza (to see the Great Pyramid and Sphinx – pic below) we lunched at Alfi Bey (Downtown) on a whole kilo of exquisitely grilled kofta and mutton served on a bed of flat leaved parsley.
Tomorrow we leave for Luxor on the overnight train. Cairo is a great place but I think we all need a night off from the incessant hawking and driving machismo.
The Cairenes have an unhealthy obsession about their mobile phones. As we tucked into our stuffed pigeon and other delectables at the trendy Abu al Sid restaurant (pic of wonderful interior below) in Zamalek, all around us were busy texting (each other) or messing with silly ringtones at the expense of regular dinner conversation. Weird! But not half as weird as the sight of a sheesha disappearing under the niqab of a completely covered Muslim girl
An early night then to ensure we are fully recharged tomorrow to deal with the ordered chaos of this noisy and totally exciting city.