Day two in Alexandria was another “you’re on your own” day. This was Christmas day and we would rather have been on our own anyway.
The 4 star we were in had an excellent buffet breakfast. Except that they served No Es Café instead of coffee. We decided to walk the cornice and see where it led us. We found a group of maybe 30 fishermen retrieving a large net.
The cornice in Alexandria is miles long. We knew from our touring the night before that there was a 4 Seasons hotel with a Starbucks waaaay down there somewhere so we walked a couple blocks inland and took the trolley.
Back in time…we knew about the Starbucks because the night before our tour took us to see the royal gardens. As we entered the gardens some officious guys in black leather bomber jackets (always a bad sign) stopped the bus. The head guy made our guide pull out all his IDs, asked questions about how many people were on board, basically got very unfriendly. We got in ok. It was already dark, so the guide was saying things like “look, palm trees” Yeah yeah yeah. But these gardens surround the Royal Palace of King Farouk, the last king of Egypt. His palace is now the Guest house for foreign potentates when they visit Alexandria.
This little excursion became memorable on the way out when the same power trippers in bomber jackets stopped the bus. One actually stood in front of it so we could not move. Our guide got out and an argument ensued. Our guard, the dude packing the semi-automatic was riding shotgun, got into the argument through the window. All the leather jacket dudes surrounded our guide, hence there was no one in front of the bus. Sorry, I did not feel like taking my camera out and asking them to say cheese. The guide jumped back on board and yelled at the driver “DUECE DUECE DUECE” which is Egyptian for “Haul Ass”. He did, and the leather jackets were running behind us yelling to the guards at the gate “STOP THEM”. We did not stop, even for the red light at the intersection outside the gate (no one in Alexandria obeys lights anyway). We were now fugitives from the black leather jacket brigade. Some people watched out the back window as we made our way back to the hotel. When pressed by the tourists what these guys wanted the guide said “entrance fees”. There is no entrance fee, so it was a sanctioned hold-up attempt.
OK Back to our free day.
Starbucks was Starbucks. It does not matter what city in the world you are in. At least they sold real coffee, not NO ES CAFÉ. The only thing we had planned for the day was another visit to the library The library has a planetarium. The two O’clock show was “The Stars of the Pharos”. Sounded good to me. We got there very early, bought our tickets (about $5 apiece) and then we went to the library museum. In the tradition of the original Alexandria Library, the new version is also striving to be a learning and cultural center. They have a modern art museum. Classic art museum, and an antiquities museum. We skipped this last one, hell the whole country is an antiquity museum.
The most interesting of the museums was the museum dedicated to Anwar Sadat. If your recent history is not clicking, Sadat signed the Camp David Accord. Still lost? Didn’t read the papers in the 70’s? The Camp David Accords were signed by Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on September 17, 1978, following twelve days of secret negotiations at Camp David. This could be called the only successful peace negotiation in the Middle East, ever. It was Jimmy Carter’s greatest achievement and has survived to the present. But Sadat did not. One of the displays is the blood stained uniform he was wearing when he was gunned down with an automatic weapon while watching a parade on a holiday. One of the vehicles in the parade had Egyptian soldiers in it. Two jumped out and ran to the dais blasting their guns and Sadat was dead. The museum has an original letter from Carter to Sadat suggesting the meets at Camp David, and many photographs of him with foreign leaders and the Pope. The funniest was Sadat and Nixon. Nixon looks like he has to pee and would rather be anywhere else.
The planetarium show was marvelous. I actually learned a lot. It cemented my resolve to return to Egypt and go to Luxor in the south. There are great temples there, and I feel an urge to see them. We will go in summer 2012, when it is warm and there is no fog.
On the way home we found a Shisha house. Shisha is the local way of saying Hookah, or hubbly-bubbly. We had delicious fruit flavored Shisha.
We returned to the hotel and werte met by Santa.
We had our Christmas dinner there. With my dinner I had a bloody Mary. It was nowhere as good as Joan’s Bloody Mary’s at the Cosmic Crab. If you are ever in Bocas Del Toro, Panama, they are the #1 attraction in the whole town.
Mary Ann challenged my writing skills. She said that if I could describe this Christmas dinner experience at all, she would finally give me credit for my talents. Well let me try. The restaurant was all decorated for Christmas . Sleigh bells, Christmas tree bulbs. Lights. They had a Flamenco Guitar player plucking along. They had a fog machine, and even a bubble machine. Everyone had their own Santa hat to wear.
They had a set menu, here it is. OOPS sorry, I cannot figure out how to make my scanner work. The instructions are in 18 languages, and I am not going to figure it out just now. Let me just tell you about it.
It is printed on fake papyrus paper. It starts off with the words HRISTMAS SET MENU. Maybe they did not have spell checkers back when they used papyrus. It describes a 5 course meal, each an adventure in gastronomical spelling.
Smoked salmon in Pineapple boat, duet of white and yellow lump eggs, cocktail sauce
Zucchini and Eggplant Pontage Scented Saffron
Roasted Turkey medallions farced, with chestnut sauce served with seasonal vegetables and potato chateau
Chocolate passion mouse laced with cinnamon and berry sauce
Trio of cheese platter with grapes, and salty crackers served like coffee or tea and Christmas cookies.
OK OK maybe I should have put that up on Facebook. I apologize. But we had a great time sitting there listening to Flamenco music with bubbles floating over the artificial smoke and wondering what lump eggs were, laughing at the creative use of language.
Our Trip Home
Just before dinner we ran into someone from our group. She asked what flight we were on going home. We told her the 3 a.m. flight “No your not” she said. That flight had been cancelled due to fog, and we would be leaving at 10 a.m. Cool with us, we got to sleep longer. Then after dinner she found us again and said the 10 a.m. flight was postponed until 12:30. I was not really worried, but Air Arabia has but two flights a day out of Alexandria to Sharjah, the 3 and the 10. If both were cancelled, what would getting on a flight at 12:30 be like?
The last official act of our tour was “Transfer to Alexandria Airport”. At least it was not in THIS bus.
When we got to the airport, for some reason the gendarmes would not allow the bus to pull up to the terminal. Our guide told the driver to hop the curb. We got half way to the terminal before we were stopped cold. We had to get out about 200 yards from the entrance and carry our bags ourselves. 2500 years of learning how to deal with tourists does not seem to apply to anyone flying. Inside the airport was pure madhouse zany craziness. Our group hung together like lost children, which in effect we were. There was one little sign that said Air Arabia. It did not look like the ticket desk, but it was. Everyone else was pushing and shoving and cutting in line. One of our group took it upon himself to be our hero. He collected all of our passports and pushed and shoved his own way to the counter. He made it clear that we were all members of an Air Arabia sponsored tour, and we all had to get back to work in Sharjah, and he would not accept any nonsense. He managed it! We all had boarding passes and checked baggage.
The flight home, being daylight, was beautiful. The Red Sea, Mt. Sinai were all clear. We got into beautiful Sharjah Airport and home 15 minutes later.
Impressions of Egypt.
I shall return. Only because I did not see Luxor or the Valley of the Kings. I feel like I must. One person I met in our group asked me “If Cairo did not have the Pyramids, would anyone come here?” he asked me that right outside the Egyptian museum. I could not quite agree with him that the pyramids were all there were of interest and I’ll repeat the words of Alexander the Great, Marc Anthony, Napoleon, and Jerry Garcia once again, “oh maaan”. They make the traffic and the overall dingy grey of the city well worth the visit. If you get the chance to go, just do it. I will take this opportunity to thank my wife for the experience, a bucket list item crossed off.
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I’ll start this post at the Pyramids. In the words of Alexander the Great, Marc Anthony, Napoleon, General Montgomery and Jerry Garcia, “oh maaan”. Mary Ann, who has been here before, warned me that I would be overwhelmed and might cry. I was so overwhelmed I had to get into an ambulance, but more on that later.
Let us start with the midnight flight from Sharjah to Alexandria. I have learned to really like Air Arabia. This flight took us over the holy city of Mecca, over Mount Sinai and over the Red Sea, although it was too dark to see any of it. We got into Alexandria at 3 a.m. I had the fantasy that a flight to Egypt leaving at midnight would be nice and quiet. Wrong. The plane was full of crying babies, make that screaming and crying babies. One thing I have learned to not like about the culture here is that they do not shut their kids up when they scream. I have never been on a flight with so many kids. Taking a baby or even a toddler on a midnight flight is just cruel so I cannot blame the kids, but I was ready to crack a few parents heads. But like all flights do, it eventually ended. 3 a.m. in Egypt, and sure enough we were met by the tour company, In Arabic, the word for thank you is Shakran. They even spelled Nash correctly. We have grown used to seeing such a simple name mangled, (Mash, Gash, Rash, and Cash) that it is good sign when they get it right. Plus it meant we had our ride to Cairo, two hours away. It was just us in a Cushy Town Car, no crying kids. Things were looking up.
As an aside here, the rep from the tour company who met us at the airport was named Mohammed. It is the most common name in the Moslem world, so it was easy to remember. At the hotel, we were approached by a cab driver who would take us anywhere we wanted…his name, I swear was Obama. The guy who led the tour the next day was named Osama, “Just call me Sam” he said. But I digress.
We are staying at a hotel called Barcelo Pyramids in Giza. We stayed at a Barcelo before, in Mexico, and they deserve the four stars. We crashed, got up at noon, and went to the roof top pool to have an Egyptian beer.
I got my first view of the Pyramids from there, across a smoggy, unpleasant stretch of Giza. This is not a beautiful city.
That night we went to the Pyramids Sound and Light show. (This is done in the same outdoor theatre where in 1978 The Grateful Dead did a two night stand for Dead Heads who invaded Cairo in tie-dies. I missed it and have always regretted it.) The show borders on cheesy, the sphinx talks, laser beams blast across the Pyramids and anyone with any historical knowledge is not going to learn much. But seeing the Pyramids and sphinx for the first time, all lit up like Las Vegas is mighty impressive. You get an idea of the size of them, even in the dark. Supposedly the footprint of the Great Pyramid of Cheops could contain most of the Vatican, with Rhode Island thrown in just for kicks.
Our first “tour day” was today. We started at the Egyptian Museum.
This is of course where they keep the King Tut stuff. His was the only tomb found in the Valley of the Kings that had not been cleared out by grave robbers. Consequently there is a whole wing just to house his treasures. Amazing because he was a minor pharaoh who died young after ruling less time than Nixon. It leaves you wondering what must have been in the tombs of Pharaohs who ruled as long as FDR. In size, this museum (built in1901 or so) is not as big as any of the Smithsonian museums in DC. But it is so crammed full of everything from mummified crocodiles to King Tut’s death mask that it boggles the mind.
There are important items, statues and such, from all over Egypt that the guides make sure you see. There are guides speaking most of the major languages to tourists from Japan, China, all over Europe and even America. The worldwide drop in tourism due to a combination of the economy and manufactured fear has not hit Cairo. The joint is jumping. Everywhere you go is jam packed with groups of geese being led by mother hens chattering away like ducks. (How is THAT for mixing metaphors!)
The guides race from the old Kingdom to the middle Kingdom to the third, stopping long enough to quack about a statue or a burial crypt. They move fast to not hold up the other groups behind them, and to keep the tourists from breaking off in search of Tut. They cover the important stuff, but crammed in this corner and that cubbyhole, down some dark hallway, and behind the sign to the men’s room is more STUFF. Thousands of things, large and small. The collection is all over the place. Items that would be the proud possession of the LA County Museum, are just gathering dust with nary a word describing what it is and therefore ignored by the masses. I got the feeling I could walk out with something like a cat statue, and no one would ever miss it. Word is that in 2012, they are opening a new museum behind the pyramids to better display these things, and, believe it or not, empty out the BASEMENT of this museum of STUFF gathering cobwebs since 1901.
Well, Mary Ann and I did break away from our group and headed for the Tut wing. There is enough gold in this collection to pay off some national debts. Impressive, awe inspiring, breathtaking are all insufficient to describe the feeling you get as you wander the length of this wing of the museum. Then, finally you get to the special room where the iconic Tut Death mask is displayed. No photos are allowed anywhere in this entire museum, (unless you are Japanese I guess) and I must say that no pro photo I have ever seen of the Tut mask comes close to the beauty of this treasure. Astounding.
The museum has an excellent gift shop. The only thing I bought was a King Tut baseball. Too bizarre to pass up!
We found our group and headed off for lunch. We found ourselves sitting in a restaurant called the Cleopatra, in Giza, in the shadow of the pyramids, and listening to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” sung by the Chimp Monks. Way too weird.
From there they took us to a papyrus museum. The word museum is a stretch. They did show us how papyrus is made.
But the main purpose of this “museum” is to sell you paintings on papyrus. Some were gorgeous, some, well most, were truly expensive. Our group bought a bunch of them, which is good for the tour guide who gets a cut. He could have taken us to any of a dozen such “museums”, so they take care of him. Me? Well I found a drawing that was on the Grateful Dead poster back in ’78, so I had the artist write, in hieroglyphics, Grateful Dead Cairo 1978. Another useless souvenir.
Now it was bucket list scratch off time. We headed for the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the first and largest of the three. Actually there are nine here, six for queens.
Mary Ann and I either travel by ourselves, or we hire a private guide, usually option 2 so we do not need to deal with Taxis or –gasp- public transportation. This time we booked the entire trip through Air Arabia and we are in a group with a dozen Americans who all work in the UAE. They are good pleasant people. But, you know me well enough to know that I am not one to accept arbitrary limits on my fun. When the guide said, “OK, we are here for20 minutes” I growled “bullshit”. I have been waiting all my life to stand here, and no bozo with a stop watch is going to tell me when it is time to leave.
I was simply not prepared to take in the scope of this edifice, this monument, this tomb, this pile of 10 ton rocks. I could not set my eyeballs on wide angle enough to take it all in at once. My head was spinning back and forth and my neck was bent out of shape from looking up up up. Of course my cheap camera (Have I mentioned I hate my camera?) could not capture any of the grandeur. One could walk a half mile back and take a shot, but are you kidding me? I walked right up to the first layer of stones, taller than I am, petted one and said “You ROCK.”
Then, for some reason beyond all reason, my nose started shooting out blood like I had a severed artery. Nothing like this has ever happened to me. Here I am bleeding on the last of the seven wonders of the ancient world like a stuck pig. A world heritage site now is stained with my type B+. (if you ever visit Cheops tomb, my contribution is on the second stone in from the NE corner).
Mary Ann was wondering what the hell she could do for me. I almost suggested she should put a tourniquet around my neck, but I was afraid she might take me up on it. Then an Egyptian man came running up. I thought maybe he was upset about me defacing his source of income. But he pulled out a pocket sized pack of Kleenex, which I immediately stuffed up my nostrils and turned them bright crimson. He led me away from the royal tomb, which was a good thing on its own, but then he walked me to an ambulance. The paramedic did what he could do. He then told me he wanted to take me to the hospital. I understood him but politely declined. He was not sure I understood him so he waved his finger in a circular motion over his head and went “Whoowhoowhoo.” Maybe laughing was all I needed because the hemorrhaging stopped. I had a larger problem than blood loss to deal with, I was late for the bus.
Our time at the pyramids was not over. Osama took us out into the desert where there was a herd of camels and their owners. Osama told us to beware of most of the guys, but that he knew one who would give us “good price”. I’m sure he got a cut here too, big deal.
Even though 20 minutes earlier my nose was a gusher, I knew Mary Ann really wanted to ride a camel, so I joined her.
We were led by a 12 year old named Adam, who is a hustler in training, but great kid. He had a well developed sense of humor, spoke English to us, shamelessly flirted with Mary Ann, and spoke Hindu to some people from India in our caravan. As long as the pyramids do not fall down, he will make a comfortable living.
From here we went to the Sphinx. As someone might say after they meet a movie star, I thought he was bigger. But he (she some say) was beautiful, even without a nose. Some say the French soldiers shot his/her nose off, some say it was an Egyptian Queen, jealous of how good looking she/he was. This is a very impressive antiquity. Built to protect the tombs, it has stood guard for thousands of years. I think this will remain my favorite memory of Egypt.
Our day was not over. We took a dinner cruise on the Nile with whirling dervishes (one of them a dwarf) and a belly dancer. The belly dancer dragged me onto the dance floor and I did my best to imitate her moves.
And now, my favorite foto of the trip.
Stay tuned for day 2 where we visit a Citadel buil to defend against Crusaders. I will take you to the church where Jesus, Joseph and Mary hid from Herod. 100 yards away from this church is a synagogue where baby Moses was found in the rushes of the Nile by the daughter of a Pharaoh. Amazing as all that sounds, we also visited a Coptic church carved out of the mountain that was the quarry for the rocks that built the pyramids. AND I will take you to a place called garbage city.
Thanks for reading, tell a friend and please make a comment.