monday memories / RTW trip: ancient egypt ambiance

while i have my around-the-world photos out from their usual home in the garage, i think i’ll continue telling some more stories from that adventure. after the last post about kenya ... 


arriving in cairo after two months in kenya was like landing back in civilization ... albeit a muslim civilization (our first experience of muslim culture except for a few days on java and yogyakarta at the beginning of our trip.). in a great city ... great coffee. great food. movie theaters. museums. history. peace. safety. we were psyched!

people were quite friendly, wanting to have a coffee and practice their english. different from kenya where we felt we couldn’t trust people, they wanted to rip us off.

we spent a few days in cairo getting acclimated and doing some business and banking. stayed at the nicest place on our whole trip (except, of course, the uber fancy hotel in bombay, which is in a whole tier to itself) ... the very friendly, clean and well-run pension roma ... in an old building with tons of character, huge rooms with ultra high ceilings and antique armoires and furniture, private bath, and complimentary breakfast. curt bought roses for me several times, just like in portland where he bought me a beautiful bouquet every friday. a far cry from our stay in kenya! and all for 30 egyptian pounds or $10/night! so good that i even noted it in my diary: 

the fruit juice was cheap, too! 30 cents for a big glass of fresh squeezed anything. our favorites: orange and strawberry/banana.

you have to understand ... this was straight off the heels of two months in kenya, preceeded by a month in india, and a month in nepal. all fascinating places in which we, as budget travellers, had stayed in some mighty grotty places. thailand and bali were really quite clean in comparison ... high standards of cleanliness. nepal, india and kenya ... not so much.  

then we headed to luxor. and stayed at possibly the very worst place of our entire trip. ah well, this is budget travelling. sometimes the little budget finds something great, sometimes not so great. i was pretty much the master at finding good places. i have a need for “ambiance.” (my college pals will laugh at this word, but it was true even then, a nascent sensibility and vocabulary word for me!) but it took some looking. curt got used to it, and we developed a system. we would arrive in a new place. he would sit with the luggage while i ran around looking at all the accommodation in our budget. and i'd always find the best! except in luxor :-(

and since we were travellers -- distinct from tourists -- we decided to rent bicycles and tour the valley of the kings on two wheels. hah! we dumbly handed over curt’s passport as collateral for the one-speed bicycles (we'd been travelling for six months by then and we KNEW BETTER!). but off we went sans passport. saw tut’s tomb, hatshupset’s magnificent tomb, and more. and it was the hottest, sweatiest, dustiest day of my life. and perhaps the most dangerous with all those monster wide tour buses racing past us, with their fancy schmancy air conditioning. i was jealous, but it was too late to turn back.

eventually curt’s bike failed ... we can’t remember exactly what ... flat tire? sticking brake? if i recall correctly, curt and i both got on my bike, he pedalled and i sat on the seat holding the broken bicycle to the side. it wasn’t pretty. when we got back to the bike rental place, they wanted us to pay for the repair. we said no, we didn’t do anything wrong, the bike just broke. they were holding curt’s passport until we forked out. i’m sure it wasn’t much, but we were on a budget and didn’t have extra funds. we argued for 20 minutes, loudly, before getting the passport back, without paying for the repairs. not exactly my proudest moment. and limped back to our crappy hotel. NOT the best day of the trip.

back to cairo and pension roma. we toured the fabulous egyptian museum. shopped in khan el khahlili souk. bought perfume. needed a usa fix so went to see “born on the 4th of july” in a movie theater which was an experience in and of itself. you had to sit in your assigned seat and the vendors came to you. weird. no popcorn. not the greatest fix ...  i much prefer the movie-going experience at home!

the absolute best part of our egypt time was wandering around the back alleys of cairo. i admit i'm not the usual tourist or traveller. even now when i'm on a short trip. i don't love going around to tourist sites, just because the place is significant historically. just because the guidebook says you have to see it. i don't usually care to go SEE things. ruins. churches. museums. you know. it all becomes a blur after the first two or three. unless it is significant and meaningful to ME for whatever reason ... to me, this sightseeing is of the head.

i want to have an EXPERIENCE. of the heart. my heart. i much prefer to wander around and meet people, see what their daily lives entail. soak up the ambiance of the place. experience it. 

while meandering the little dirt lanes in the ancient coptic christian area of cairo, we found ben ezra synagogue. having been raised jewish, i was interested in this place. what? jews in egypt? i thought they all left with moses! crossed the red sea and all. the passover story. the man at the door said he had been offering tours of this tiny temple for 40 years. 

this man took us around the old synagogue where he said moses and jesus, mary and joseph spent time. moses was found as a baby in the reeds of the nile near here. this man showed us stones and stairs and all kinds of unphotogenic sites, always asking "photo? photo?" charming.

this man was my favorite part of egypt. just. look. in. his. eyes. now THAT is an experience. i'll take that over any ruin, no matter how historically significant, any day, any time, anywhere.


lessons learned: never turn over your passport, for anything! ever! and especially not for a broken bicycle! and don't think for a minute that being a traveller is any better than being a tourist. it's the same! that was just my egotistical youth talking.