Sunday, April 25, 2010

Notes from the Past - Egypt

As this is my first official blog, I'd like to share some posts I previous wrote in other places. It's amazing looking back on my past in this way, perspectives and experiences make all the difference.

October 14, 2007 - My Journey to Egypt

September 26 – October 5, 2007

So my co-intern and friend, Carolina and I decided to go to Egypt for Sukkot break (Sukkot is an 8 day Jewish holiday (around harvest season) so sadly, I didn’t experience it in Israel and ironically, went to Egypt instead [some of you will understand that, others won’t – I won’t bore you with the rest]) and conveniently, my work had off for 12 days so we had to go travel! So in short (for those of you who don’t want to continue reading) we started in Tel Aviv, took a bus down to Eilat (south Israel on the Red Sea), stayed for a night, crossed into Egypt at Taba, went to Cairo, Alexandria, Giza, Aswan and Luxor. We saw the amazing Pyramids, temples, tombs, hieroglyphs, statues, sarcophagi, and met incredible people. The atmosphere of Egypt is indescribable, the people are warm and friendly and the relics of ancient Egypt are incomparable to any place I’ve ever been in my life. I couldn’t have planned a better trip if I tried. I came back with a cold (clearly, because we didn’t sleep) but it was just awesome. If you ever get the chance to go to Egypt, take it, because you won’t be disappointed.

Being back in Israel though really does feel like home. We walked through the border from Taba to Eilat around 7 am on a Thursday morning and as soon as we got through I felt relieved, it was like being home again. We were also ready for our day on the beach at the Red Sea to finish up our vacation. We also then spent Saturday at the beach in Tel Aviv so more relaxing to recover from our insane trip.

So that was my trip in short. I’m still loving living in Israel and I start Ulpan (intensive Hebrew classes) tonight so my days will be packed but I’m excited to meet new people and finally start speaking in Hebrew again!

Now for the “Naomi” version of the Egypt trip. So we went down to Eilat and stayed with a friend of Carolina’s friend. They were great and now we’ve got friends in Eilat. We go to Taba around 12:00 on Thursday the 27th and we wanted to go straight to Alexandria (Alex for short) but the Bedouin wanted to charge us $200USD to drive us there and that we were not spending. So we changed our plans and took a shared van to Cairo with three American kids who are studying at Ben Gurion University. That was a fun ride (the driver was crazy). We got into Cairo around 7pm in the evening and didn’t really know what to do then because we hadn’t planned on being in Cairo that night. So we went and found a hotel, and one of the hotel staff took us to eat dinner. Then he took us to a cool flower oil shop where they make all the bases for popular perfumes (like Donna Karen, Christian Dior, Chanel, Ralph Lauren, etc). It was awesome. We got to smell the bases for all of these different perfumes and it was really great. We drank tea and had a great time. Then we went to a concert at the Opera House in Cairo (outside). It was a concert of the most popular musician in all of Egypt. His name is Muhammed Monir and they call him “the King” (like Elvis). So that was really fun but we were exhausted so we left at like 2am to go back to our hotel to go to sleep. We then got up the next morning and took a train to Alex.

So we got to Alex and a friend of ours picked us up at the train station. He took us to the apartment we stayed in outside of Alex so we could relax. We walked around, went to the beach, just chilled out until after break fast (it’s Ramadan right now so everyone doesn’t eat all day and then they break fast with their families at 6pm). Then we went and walked around Alex at night which is beautiful. We went to a very “American” style café/restaurant and just hung out until about 2am and then we went back to our apt. to sleep. The next day we went to see the Qaitbay Citadel which gave us an incredible view of the Port/Bay at Alex (it’s on the Mediterranean!!). We then went to the Pompee Column which is a big column with sphinx’s in Alex and then we followed that up by going to the Catacombs which were fun. It was ancient Egyptian style mixed with Greco-Roman. That is because Alex the Great (hence the name Alexandria) conquered Egypt in 321 B.C.E (Before the Common Era [B.C.]). We then went to see the Alexandria Library which is beautiful but we didn’t go inside because it was closed. We also went to a gorgeous Mosque. Then we went to our friends’ house for break fast. His mom made the best food. It was incredible. Egyptians are so warm and friendly and welcoming. We were invited back by our friends’ mom to stay for as long as we like. It was great. So then we left Alex around 7:30pm that night (Saturday the 29th) to go to Cairo to begin our tour of Cairo, Aswan and Luxor. On the van ride we took from Alex to Cairo we met a really nice girl named Nancy who is studying medicine at the Cairo University. She’s 20 and she’d never met “Western” girls before. It was also the first time she used the English conversationally. She studied English in school but they never spoke it. She spoke really well and wanted to know if America really is like what the movies depict it to be. I told her it was to an extent but that the movies exaggerate a lot of things. We spoke with her about life as a young observant Muslim woman living in Cairo. She lives by herself in an apartment (which is rare) and she doesn’t want to get married anytime soon. She wants to pursue her career first and is following her goals. So we were very impressed because generally young adults, especially women, don’t live away from home without family.

Egypt is definitely a very observant and conservative country however as an individual you can observe Islam or whatever religion you practice freely. About 80% of the population in Egypt is Muslim and 20% is Christian. There are apparently still a handful of Jewish families living in the Coptic Christian quarter of Cairo. Oh side note, Carolina and I did not mention that we are Jewish or that we are living in Israel or that we’re working at the Institute for National Security Studies. That would not have gone over well with anyone we encountered. We learned that Egyptians HATE Israel. I never realized how much until I got there. But it was interesting to hear all the craziness that they believed. For example, they truly think that Israel wants to make war with them even though there is a peace treaty. They also think that Hertzel (the founder of Zionism [the belief that the Jewish people should have a modern nation-state of our own]) orchestrated the Holocaust. So that was interesting. I had to play really dumb when speaking about Israel there – it was definitely EXTREMELY hard to do (esp. knowing me). But I managed. But we didn’t encounter anti-Semitism, just the hatred of Israel, not the Jewish people. Our friends now know that we are Jewish and living in Israel (the ones we made in Alex) and so far we think they’re cool with it – they haven’t mentioned anything to us yet – so we still have to wait and see. Also hiding who I truly am in Egypt was a little sad because we did have such an amazing experience with the people we met there.

Ok, anyway. So now I’m onto Cairo and Giza. The Egyptian Museum was incredible. We could have stayed there all day except that it was the most crowded museum I’ve ever been to. Think the Air and Space Smithsonian Museum on a national holiday times 10. Or Disney World times 10. Pretty intense. Apparently there are 8 million visitors every year and it’s the worst during the Christmas season. The best part of the Egyptian Museum was seeing all of the treasure and gold that they found in King Tut’s tomb. It filled halls upon halls and King Tut’s tomb was thrown together during the 70 mummification process because he was only 17 when he died and it was unexpected so they didn’t have as much things to bury with him. All of the other tombs that have been uncovered in Egypt are empty. If they weren’t empty it would have been insane because the Museum was already packed with artifacts. So that was pretty awesome. We saw the classic mask of King Tut. We learned about the symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt. It was quite confusing. So here is how it works. Upper Egypt on the map is the south of the country because it’s where the Nile begins. There the symbol is the Lotus flower. Lower Egypt is the Nile Delta and the northern part of the country on the map because the Nile flows out to the Mediterranean there and the symbol is the Papyrus plant which only grows in the Nile Delta and what the first paper was made out of. Then we went to Giza where the Pyramids are. They were magnificent. Incredibly beautiful and awe-inspiring. I went into the tomb in one of the Pyramids (I forget the names of the Kings right now) and it was crazy going inside. I had to walk down this ramp of stairs (like a gang plank – getting off a boat type stairs) bent at the waist because you couldn’t stand up straight at all. It was very hot and damp inside the pyramid and empty. So it really wasn’t that impressive but I’ve been inside a Pyramid, so that’s just cool. We then did a quick drive by of the Sphinx (because everything closes early during Ramadan). We also went to another Citadel which was also beautiful (but couldn’t go in because it was already closed). We also went to a papyrus shop which was very cool and we were shown how they make papyrus paper. It was fun.

We were then dropped off at the Khan el Khalili market in Cairo. Think the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or a really crazy big market where people try to sell you anything and everything. It was fun. Everyone thought I was Spanish (from Spain) for some reason. I found it highly amusing.

Another side note – our tour company thought we were Israeli citizens and apparently all Israeli citizens have to have a security guard from the ministry of tourism in Cairo – so we had a body guard when we were in Cairo on the 30th. That was amusing. We thought he had left when we got dropped off at the Bazaar but we ended up wandering up these stairs to look for an internet café (which was closed) but when we came back down the stairs, there was our security guard freaking out about where we had gone! It was SOOOOOO hysterical, we started laughing and made him come drink some Turkish coffee with us even though he didn’t speak any English.

Oh and I learned how to count to 10 in Arabic (very similar to Hebrew) and to say “thank you”, “no thank you” and “it’s all good”. I also learned a few curse words, but those aren’t appropriate to discuss.

So after the Bazaar we took a night train to Aswan. It was supposed to take 12 hours – it took us 14. It was freezing cold and the bathrooms were unusable (hello third world country). So that sucked. So our tour wanted us to not take showers or brush our teeth or change our clothes when we got in and we hadn’t eaten anything in about 20 hours so we were having none of that. So we were demanding and got ourselves to a hotel that had a bathroom we could use and food to give us so then we were human again in Aswan. We also had them push our train ticket back that night because they thought we’d be ok with traveling 14 hours to spend 4 hours in Aswan. Not so much. So we got what we wanted because we’re awesome like that.

Anyway, so we went to some beautiful Temple in Aswan. I don’t remember what it was called right now but I’ll figure that out eventually. Oh and there are NO crocodiles because of the Aswan damn. We saw the damn. It’s big. It helps to form Lake Nasser. We also went to shop where they make stuff out of Alabaster and other cool stones/rocks/gems.

We also went on a felucca ride (which is a sale boat) on the Nile and walked around Aswan. So it was definitely awesome. We then took a 3 hour train ride to Luxor.

So we started our tour the next day in Luxor at 8 am (sooo early). We went to the Luxor Temple, Karnak Temple, Hatshepsut’s Temple (the only woman Queen/King of Egypt) and the Valley of the Kings. Hatshepsut’s Temple was phenomenal. It definitely beats the Pyramids. So does the Valley of the Kings. So do Luxor and Karnak Temples come to think of it. The hieroglyphs were so impressive it was incredible. The paint they use still remains on the tombs that are 3,000 years old!!! The Valley of the Kings is where there are 62 tombs of Pharoh’s. Absolutely unbelievable. Also at Karnak Temple there were 3 obelisks. The tallest one in the world (unbelievable), a broken one and the third is in Istanbul (Club Med – we saw it, remember?)!! The hieroglyphs at Karnak were so big, it was unbelievable. But some dumb French archaeologist in the 1920s thought it would be smart to clean the temple – so he damned up an area of the Nile and forced water through the temple, which CLEARLY destroyed a lot of the artifacts and structure there. There was also a lucky scarab that we walked around at the temple. It was funny – the tour guide was showing it to us and there were all these people walking around it. And she asks, what are those people doing? And I replied, “they’re walking around the scarab 7 times for good luck”. I was half-joking, half being serious and she goes – well, you’re pretty much right. So apparently if you walk around the scarab 3 times, you will get married, four times you get good health and five times you have children (or something like that) but if you walk around it at total of 7 times, you get all of those things, so you’re covered. Oh also, the scarab symbolizes the god Ra, the sun god (as does the sun). So Luxor was just amazing with all of the temples and tombs. The Nile is so gorgeous there too.

So that was pretty much Luxor and then we took a train that night back to Cairo (another 12 hours). We got in at like 6 am and got dropped off at another friends’ apartment at 7am. We were able to take showers and leave our stuff there while we wandered around the rich part of Cairo and had an amazingly delicious lunch at a 5 star restaurant. You’ll never believe how much the entire meal cost, we had an appetizer, 2 liter bottle of water and two entrées all for a total of $20USD. Crazy right?

Then we went into Old Cairo via the Metro of Cairo. We rode in the women’s car. It’s the first car at the front of the train and we were told to ride in it to be ‘safe’. What I mean by that is not get harassed by men because we’re not dressed properly and clearly Western. Old Cairo is beautiful. It’s got all of the Coptic churches and even an old synagogue. We just wandered around for a little bit – we were extremely tired though so we took it easy. We then just strolled around Cairo some more. In the evening, our friend picked us up and we went back to his office to see a documentary he produced on the poverty in Cairo. It was very moving. The poverty is so extreme – many families only receive about 150 Egyptian Pounds a month – which is about $20USD. It’s nothing. They don’t have running water or electricity and many live in old buildings and on the street. We however didn’t see any of this where we were. So it was a really nice reality check and very moving. Then it was time to head to the bus station to go back to Taba. That was pretty much a miserable bus ride back through the Sinai at night. It took us 7 hours to reach Taba and we arrived in Eilat at around 6:30 am. We crossed the border and spent the rest of the day at the beach. Swimming in the Red Sea is gorgeous – all of the beautiful fish just swim around you. I can’t wait to go back in a few weeks to go snorkeling! So the next day we had to get onto another bus – and we got back to Tel Aviv Friday evening and crashed at my place. Carolina stayed with me because the buses don’t run on Shabbat (the Sabbath/Saturday) and taxi’s are very expensive as well. So the next day we just went to the beach in Tel Aviv and hung out relaxing and recovering from our trip.

So that’s my story. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life and I feel like I’ve grown and learned so much in such a short period of time.

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