Continuing on my long overdue trip blogging, Philippe and I arrived at Port Said in Egypt after 9 days of sailing from Colombo.
This might sound really daft, but the first thing that struck me upon entering Egypt, via the Suez Canal, was just how much sand there was everywhere - on the streets, blanketing vehicles, choking even the mangy looking wild dogs roaming the alleyways.
Second, it was bloody hot, even though we arrived in the evening. This wasn't helped by my well-intentioned attempts at modesty, covering up at the port in long sleeves, jeans and a headscarf only to be surrounded the next day in Cairo by Russian tourists prancing around in hotpants, spaghetti straps and stilettos.
Coke that's ice-cold and not covered in sand, how I love thee! Actually I hope it was really Coke and that the Arabic doesn't actually say Caramelized Camel Pee.
Third, Egyptian people are really hard to deal with. Our captain had warned us several times on the ship that nothing gets done in Egypt without tips or the odd 100 cartons of free cigarettes (most other ports only require 20-50 cartons to get through customs apparently) and, true enough, we found ourselves fighting for every little thing just to get around.
"No, for the last time, we don't want to visit your cousin's papyrus museum"
"No, we are not going to pay you any more than the metered fare"
"No, I don't believe you don't have change for my bill"
Honestly, having bargained our way through China, India and most recently Sri Lanka (where the bellboy at the Kandalama literally stood in front of our car, preventing us from leaving until we had tipped him sufficiently), I'd thought I was fairly thick skinned when it came to defending my right to not be cheated, but Cairo literally had me alternatingly screaming or scowling in frustration.
My impressions were nothing but heightened when we arrived at our first stop - the Pyramids of Giza. Sand and heat aplenty, plus what appeared to be a festering ground for trainee touts, from the lanky teenagers acting as policemen demanding to see our entry tickets where entry tickets weren't even required to the grinning men on smelly, malnourished camels trying to rent you a ride from pyramid to pyramid, even when the pyramids are barely 100m apart along well-paved roads. Here's one such charming gentleman:
The one thing that Cairo does have going for it though, is good food. In particular, good food that is usually hard to find in our little corner of the world.
Ok, so it has splendid Islamic architecture too, but you can't eat that, can you?
So, after a head blazing, joint aching morning hiking around the pyramids, we headed off by funky taxi (an honest driver for a change! must be the soothing cow spots on the dashboard) to the sprawling bazaar of Khan al-Khalili, led by visions of mint tea, bags of jewel-coloured spices and mountains of perfumed sweets.
Khan al-Khalili is a sprawling warren of store-lined streets and alleys, stocked with every thing from religious literature to tourist kitsch to cheap made-in-China household sundries. Passing our first few stores, I'd made a mental list of not-so-awful souvenirs or potentially cute home decor that we could attempt to acquire:
Camel stuffed toy for baby Gabriel...
Oriental leather slippers or gilded shot glasses for Tam and Sa...
Funny fez for Aaron...
...only to have that list shorten each time we passed another store selling the exact same thing, with the gradual realization that what I thought was charming then would later turn out to be unforgivably tacky or, at the very least, simply too curious. Eventually my list got scratched down to zero. And so we simply focused on what we could eat.
First stop, the revered Cairo institution that is the El Fishawy Coffee House. While host to numerous Lonely Planet pilgrims, the coffee house fortunately also had its fair share of locals, lingering over shisha and mint tea. This, more than the pyramids or the cantankerous touts, was what Egypt was about - thick, candy scented smoke, steaming hot tea in the middle of the afternoon, peeling walls and chipped mirrors boasting a blissful ignorance of the passage of time.
Refreshment pit stop over, we then wandered through the souk in search of more food to eat or buy.
Philippe turned out to be a bit overzealous and, while I was engrossed in a neighbouring spice shop, skipped over to this vendor to inquire about how to eat his wares.
They were loofahs :)
Ok, some real food! Fresh baked bread...
And finally, an assortment of honey covered desserts. Just as well we didn't have this in the morning - the sugar rush from one slice alone would have sent me running up and down the pyramids.
We rested our feet and took in some much needed airconditioning at Cafe de Najib Mahfouz, named after Cairo's famous novelist-philosopher and the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Apparently one of his writings was actually titled The Khan Al-Khalili which, if the cafe's elaborately carved heavy wooden doors and gilded tables were anything to go by, might've been a swirling mix of intrigue and exoticism. Or maybe not, who knows.
By good fortune, my random choice of drink turned out to be incredibly good. I need to look up the name but it's essentially a warm, thick milk, almost like a lassi, that's scented with almonds and coconut. You get a little pack of condiments - nuts, raisins and toasted shredded coconut - to toss in, and the end result is practically a hug from your grandma in a glass.
And, before we knew it, it was dinner time! Dinner was at the Zamalek branch of Abu El Sid, a sexy, Arabesque chain of 3 restaurants across Cairo that bring out the best of the city's see-and-be-seen crowd.
While the decor was undoubtedly glamourous, the food turned out to be disappointing. We had falafels, hummus, a yoghurt dip, stuffed vine leaves and the house specialty of grain-stuff pigeon, all of which were average at best. The funky lighting which had so awed us upon our initial entry also eventually threatened to throw us into fits of epilepsy, so we ended up rushing through our meal and leaving a fair bit on the table.
Oh, and a note on the wine. Don't ever ever EVER attempt to drink Egyptian wine. I'm no wine expert, but this was just plain vile. Water from the Nile, downstream from a camel settlement, would possibly taste better.
Although apparently Egyptian beer is pretty good.
Changed hotels the next day in order to check out the Mena House Oberoi at Giza, a gorgeous and stately former hunting lodge of royalty-turned-luxury hotel.
Lunch was good and light - the usual suspects of hummus, yoghurt dip, cucumber salad and the like, but refreshing after a couple of sticky days.
And what better way to celebrate the end of stickiness that an afternoon by the pool, gazing cocktail in hand in the distance at the same pyramids we so painfully trekked around the previous morning?
Yeah, I know it looks like Vegas, but that really is the real Great Pyramid of Khufu in the background.
Date trees! Lining the hotel driveway.
Spent our final evening too lazy to stray from the hotel, so ate dinner at one of the hotel's restaurants that had a cultural show thrown in, just for the kitschy fun of it. Most of the entertainment came from us trying not to choke on our food while the visibly bored staff members went through the motions of dancing, clapping and hooting to Egyptian techno music.
My own personal favourite? The spinner man, who was not only highly skilled in the art of continuous twirling, but who also managed to peel off layer after layer of twirly skirt to turn himself into the human technicolour prata.
And so we reached the end of our little Cairo adventure. It was exhausting and frustrating; it was exotic and intriguing. Would I do it again any time soon? Probably not. But I will be on the lookout for more good Middle Eastern food, and making myself a cup of hot mint tea every now and again. Spinning prata man to entertain me while eating or no.