06 August 2007

Aug 4 – Pharaonic Village, Nile View

I woke up at about 6:30 this morning and decided to hit the Executive Lounge for breakfast this morning. It was quite a spread. I had a small bowl of bran cereal with milk and a whole fig. From a steam table, I got a sort of pancake that was very thin and folded in quarters. I also got a hard-boiled egg but it was so fresh that it didn’t peel worth a darn and I kind of made a mess of it. Next to that was another container that had a type of cheese and 3 smaller plates that had some sort of paste or dip attractively arranged. I took a piece of cheese and a small dab of each of the pastes. The cheese tasted like a fresh cheese, and it squeaked against my teeth like fresh cheese curd does but it was a squarish slice. I have no idea what the pastes were made of or for. I tasted them all but didn’t care for any of them.

I went back to see what was at the other stations. There was one that had a selection of sliced cheeses and meats, one with breads and pastries and one with fruit. I had some watermelon, kiwi fruit and a small pastry that had little pieces of various fruits on top of it.

Shima picked me up at 9:00 and we headed out. We stopped at a supermarket on the way to pick up water and snacks. The supermarket was a small one, she said, but it had an impressive selection and stock of items. Some items were familiar; like V05 shampoo which Shaimaa pointed out as being so much cheaper in the US. In the fruit and vegetable section, I recognized all the items, although some of them were not typical in a store at home...like fresh figs and dates. There were also a lot of cantaloupe and watermelon, which Shima said were very cheap as they were locally produced (I’d seen many donkey carts rolling through the city piled with them so I could easily believe that!), and one lonely pineapple that Shima said was very expensive.

We checked out and then sat in her car for a bit drinking the pineapple sodas that she recommended we get (since they’d get hot if we didn’t) and eating Snickers bars (since they’d melt if we didn’t).

While we were sitting there watching the typical Cairo day unfold for the small street where we were parked. There was a cluster of men across the street, under an overhang milling about. I asked Shima what they were doing and she said it was a “snack garage” and pretty much looked like someone was selling bottled water and other things out of their garage.

On a ledge directly across the street from me, I noticed a light-colored cat lounging on a ledge. It looked so Egyptian…like the statues you see of associated with the Pharaohs of the cat-god Bastet! It was very long and lithe with big ears and a very short coat. Yesterday, Sahid told me Egyptians consider cats to be lucky…especially black ones.

Around 10, we headed out to the Pharaonic Village. Shima said that the village is kind of like the Living History Farms in Des Moines that she saw when she was there. Except that a big piece of the Village is viewed by boat. I was sort of having trouble imagining how that would work but figured it would all become clear shortly.

We had about 15 minutes until the boat left so we wandered in the gift shop for a bit. In the display of papyrus art, there were a number of examples of Arabic calligraphy…verses from the Koran. I had Shima tell me what they said…not a translation, just a general idea. There was one I especially liked about when facing difficulties, be patient. Shima said that things here were very expensive and I could find any of these things much cheaper at the bazaar tomorrow.

When it was time for the boat, we went outside and they directed us to the English boat…it was a smaller one off to the side as there weren’t that many English-speaking people there right then. It ended up being Shima, me, a woman from California and two men with her…one from Ghana and one who was, I think, her Egyptian guide.

The boat crossed this branch of the Nile toward the Village island and the recorded tour started. As we motored around the island, there were various statues to illustrate the various people and events in Egyptian history that the recording described.

Around the back side of the island were people acting out various scenes of farming with a wooden plow, making reed boats, pigeon raising (which the ancient Egyptians raised for food), pottery- and glass-making, etc.

At the end of the boat ride, we got out for a walking tour of displays and were met by our island guide. He was a fairly young man named Ahmed and was very friendly and engaging.

He guided us through various displays of a temple, a rich man’s house, poor man’s house, etc. There were opportunities everywhere to buy a sort of pastry as made by the baker at that display, or to put on various Egyptian costumes and have your picture taken, or buy one of the magic pots that were displayed at the potter’s. The woman from California wanted to have pictures taken and Shima needed to sit down so we went outside and sat at a table in the snack bar/restaurant to have a cold drink while they were doing that.

Shima is 4 months pregnant. She found out about it while she was in the US in June/July. Then, she was really morning-sick. Now, she’s not having so much trouble with morning sickness but her feet and legs are swelling and it’s hard for her to walk a lot. That’s why she was taking me to the Village instead of, say, the Pyramids yesterday. She thought the boat ride would mean less walking. And it certainly has been less walking than yesterday but still, she needed to sit down. She’d been taking about every opportunity to sit during the walking part of the tour, but it wasn’t always possible.

After the break, we walked through a demonstration of glass blowing, leather working, copper work, and various other Egyptian hand crafts. I bought a few of the glass perfume bottles (3 at $4 each) and paid with one of my Egyptian bills. I wanted change in small bills, as I’d been feeling bad about not being able to tip the bathroom attendants in places (they always seem so drawn and hungry-looking…older women or small children), but the cashier didn’t want to give me change that way. Shima had a whole wad of small bills and made change for me. So now my pockets are stuffed with one and half-pound bills.

When we left the Village, it was about 2:00 and we went to Shima’s home to pick up her husband, Tarek. From there, we drove to a restaurant Tawek picked out where we could have traditional Egyptian food. Shima had told me earlier that it was a eat-with-your-hands type of place and asked if that was ok for me. I said, “Sure!” If it’s traditional Egyptian, I’m all in!

We found the place eventually. I’ve come to the conclusion that you cannot drive directly to anywhere in Cairo. The way the streets work (such as it is) requires that you double back a lot…you have to go down a street past where you want to go, then pull a U-ey around the median and go back.

And, while there are occasionally stop lights, for the most part they don’t function and, when they do, they are completely and utterly ignored. There are traffic police, but even they sometimes don’t function. We passed one intersection where the traffic cop was sitting asleep in his little shack as the traffic was whizzing by. There was another intersection…sort of a round-about…where the car ahead of ours slipped the traffic cop some baksheesh through the window and the cop changed the traffic flow to let our way go.

Anyway, the restaurant was a small place…maybe 10 tables. Tawek ordered for us and I went to wash my hands. Food here is served in common plates. On the other tables, I saw a platter piled with a yellow rice and on top of that were half-chickens or pieces of meat. The men (no other women were in the restaurant) were taking a handful of rice and squeezing it to make it stick together, then putting it in their mouths. The pieces of meat were picked apart by hand or gnawed directly. There were also some smaller bowls of a red sauce and a slightly larger bowl of a salad.

When our food came, we had individual plates of rice and meat with a couple of the sauce bowls and a common salad plate. I had chicken and Shima and Tarek had lamb, plus one extra lamb plate to share.

The rice was flavored with some seasoning…a type of curry, I think, plus bay leaf and some other thing that looked like an orange or lemon seed except that it was not hard. Those last two were picked out and set aside with the bones and fat. The chicken (called mandi chicken) was very tasty, as was the lamb. The red sauce was exactly like a fresh salsa except that it didn’t have any cilantro in it and it was more of a puree than chopped…just tomato, onion, and a bit of hot pepper. The salad was a dark lettuce, ripe tomatoes, and cucumber; all cut into small pieces.

It’s an exceedingly messy process to eat. No napkins are provided (Shima brought a package of tissues in with her, which seemed odd at the time, but now I get it!). As you eat the meat, the fat gets all over your hands. We put some of the tissues on the table to hold the inedible parts. And if you wipe your hands with the tissues, a lot of times the tissue falls apart and sticks to your hands.

They did give us spoons, which we used for the salsa and to eat our rice. It’s also accepted practice to eat the salad communally from the same bowl with our eating spoons. Very poor form in the U.S. but when in Egypt…

After the meal I was stuffed. We’d eaten all the meat and most of the salad but still had a plate of rice left. Since we weren’t going to be anywhere with a fridge anytime soon, we just left it.
As we left the restaurant, Shima announced that it was time for dessert. I really didn’t want any more to eat but they were being so gracious… There was a place right next door to the restaurant that served a traditional dessert made with rice, milk, sugar, nuts, etc. She got 3 for us and we went back to the car to eat in air conditioning.

I opened mine. It was in an oval plastic bowl. One half was sprinkled with chopped nuts, the other half with shredded coconut and there was a white stripe down the middle that looked like a piping of whipped cream but was more dense than that. It was cool, fairly light as desserts go, and very tasty.

We headed toward the Cairo Tower for a view of the city and surrounding area. However, when we got there, it was closed for restoration or repair. As we slowed down near the entrance to see what was up, a woman in a car behind us plowed into the back of our car. Tawek got out and a crowd of people gathered. I decided that I’d best stay in the car as there was absolutely nothing that could be gained by my getting out and involved. Shima stayed in the car for a bit too, but then she got out. While her door was open, I heard the other woman talking very loudly, rapidly and angrily. Eventually, Tarek and Shima got back in the car and I heard Shima muttering under her breath that the woman was crazy.

However, we all proceeded on our way afterward as if nothing had happened. It was a minor fender-bender in Cairo terms and not worth much notice.

With the high-up city view not possible, we went to a café along the Nile have cold drinks and hang out. They took me to the Grand Café, which did have a lovely view of the Nile and many comfortable places to sit.

We ordered sodas and sat, talking. We talked about anything and everything and watched the river roll by and the boats out on it. There were a lot of people there smoking tobacco in hookahs. They were probably 2 and a half or 3 feet tall…glass water containers at the bottom, metal ventilated tops to hold the tobacco and coals, and pastel tubes with mouthpieces that the smokers drew on.
There was a guy at a table near ours. He was just reading and smoking. The attendants would stop by periodically to take away the ash and provide fresh coals. I watched the thing work as he exhaled huge billows of smoke but I couldn’t quite get my head around the actual mechanics of it.

I asked Tarek about it (since he’s a mechanical engineer) and he tried to explain but his English wasn’t quite up to it. So I pulled out my little notebook and asked him to draw a picture. Then it was much clearer! I asked him to sign it so that after he was rich and famous it would be very valuable. We all laughed and he signed and dated it.

We sat there until the sun started to go down and it was time to leave to catch the Sound & Light show at the Sphinx. I wanted a picture of us in front of the Nile first so we paid then went down along the edge and I took some great pictures with some sailboats and the setting sun over the Nile in the background.

We headed toward the Sphinx by way of many detours. I think I’ve mentioned that driving around Cairo is not a straight-forward operation. And Tarek and Shima weren’t really sure how to get there from where we were. We could easily see the Pyramids and head in that direction but since you can’t just go that way with all the double-backs, that doesn’t help much. We stopped to ask pedestrians for directions many times and they were all very helpful…helpful to the point of providing directions, even if they didn’t have a clue.

We made and the show was already started but not by much. The outdoor theatre had rows and rows of chairs facing the Sphinx and the pyramids. The story of the ancient kings, the pyramids and history was told as seen by the Sphinx. It was all accompanied by very dramatic music, voice over, and laser light projections. It was quite the spectacle.

By the time it was over, it had been a very long day and it was after 11 by the time I got to the hotel. We said our goodbyes outside the hotel as they dropped me off and I went to my room to shower and crash.