5-6 July 2008: Cairo and Giza

We began our sightseeing by walking to Al Azar mosque in the heart of Islamic Cairo. We strolled around the large open courtyard and tried to take in the towering minarets, the smooth curved domes, the intricate Arabesque arches. Inside the mosque, we wandered through a forest of wooden pillars and the many young men dozing up against them, sheltered from the intense afternoon sun. (Our tour guide remarked of the men napping in the mosque, "This is a bad habit.")

Our next visit was to Khan al Khalili market, the noise and bustle of which provided a stark contrast to the solemn serenity of Al Azar. I wandered with Suzanne up and down the aisles and aisles of stalls selling traditional clothing, scarves, papyrus paintings, wooden instruments, silver jewelry, intricate boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl, carved statuettes, and fragrant spices. We were bombarded on all sides by the insistent sales pitches of the merchants, the forceful proffering of items, the assurances of "top quality" and "honest price", the shameless flattery and even several offers of marriage. I have experienced the haggling culture of several different countries now, but in my opinions the Egyptians have thought up the wittiest lines. My favorites included, "I don't know what you're looking for, but I have exactly what you need!", "Ninety-nine percent discount for beautiful girls!", and "How can I take your money?", which I found rather refreshingly honest.

From Khan al Khalili, we went up to El Azar park, which overlooks the city from the top of a hill. We watched the sun set over a hazy skyline, surrounded by happy Egyptian families and small boys flying colorful kites. Then, in the evening, we watched a traditional Sufi dance show. White-robed musicians played cultural flutes, drums, tambourines, guitars, bells and cymbals while Sufi dancers in gigantic, round, rainbow-colored skirts whirled and twirled, sometimes, amazingly, for up to half an hour without stopping. It was a fantastic display of color, motion, and sound.

At the end of the day, the group gathered back at the hotel bar and swapped travel stories over local Stella beers. Suzanne and I really hadn't STOPPED talking since our scene in the lobby, but in spite of this, and despite some serious jet lag on her part coming from India and then the States, we stayed up late into the night catching up on everything from our nine months of separation.

Fortunately, it wasn't TOO terribly early the next morning when we set out for the pyramids at Giza. (The city has encroached much further into the desert since ancient times, such that the Great Pyramids are now only about a twenty-minute drive from downtown Cairo.) Our second day was filled with ancient wonders: the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, King Tutankhamen's gold head mask and golden sarcophagi, and innumerable treasures housed by the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Seeing all these iconic marvels from ancient Egypt, I felt an extraordinary connection to peoples and civilizations of the past, as well as to the millions and millions of others throughout time who have seen and been held in awe.

After a free afternoon (mostly spent napping) we boarded our sleeper train to Aswan. I passed the night playing Texas Hold'em and slept on a bunk bed above Suzanne. It felt just like college again (except that a leak in the piping allowed urine to seep up through a spot in our carpet and stink up our small enclosed car, which only reminded me of isolated moments of college).

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