Sunday, March 25, 2018

Exploring the Khan

Need a Camel Saddle? 

No visit to Cairo is complete without a trip to the Khan. Originally built to house makers and sellers of luxury goods it provided a secure indoor location for these merchants to sell their products. Now it is mostly taken over by tourist shops, but careful exploring will yield some of the original craftsmen and merchants. This was our second visit to this fascinating market, and we enjoyed it as much this time as in 2009 when we first visited.

We started exploring out on the streets surrounding the Khan, wandering by shops selling camel saddles, wooden buckets, kitchen tools and numerous other specialities. We went to the Tentmaker's Alley where tents were originally made and decorated, and you can still order an elaborate custom made tent to provide shelter when desert camping, but this area is also slowly being taken over by the tourist shops. We walked by shops selling full coverage women's gowns still common here in Egypt, in any colour so long as it was black, right next to vivid displays or bras and skimpy underwear in every day-glow colour imaginable. Each of these streets surrounding the Khan, has little side alleys tempting you to wander off down to see what they had hidden.

Tents in any colour . . .
When you finally enter the Khan itself, you are inside a massive building with ceilings and multi levels where merchants originally lived and worked. The shops are mostly on the one level, but looking up reveals an entirely separate world of windows and verandas and who knows what.

Fortunately we had our own private guide and we were taken to many shops that were not the average tourist-trap. We visited a custom jewellery shop where you could order special items made to order as you waited. Down one narrow alley/hallway we were introduced to a university professor who has continued his father's craft of creating wonderful items from camel bone. The shop is full to the ceiling with interesting objects carved and created from camel bone.

Is this built to code?
Then we went down another narrow side alley past a shop making glassware from recycled bottles and glass, around three or four tight corners, up various flights of stairs twisting up, up and around until somewhere high into the upper reaches of the Khan, we met a man who we visited last time and he unlocked his Alabaster shop, where objects created from this stone reached from floor to ceiling. It is impossible to leave this shop without purchasing something. I'm just glad my guide knew the way, because I know I could never find it again.

Be careful how you bargain with the merchants. I saw a leather messenger bag I sort of liked and was quoted a price of 2500 Egyptian pounds. However when I examined it more closely I really did not like it, but because I originally expressed interest, the merchant wanted that sale. 2000 EP . . . . 1600 EP, 1000 EP . . . . 800 EP as he followed me down the market. Finally I said I “might be back”, and he left. Mistake, walking back out of the Khan he was still there, bag in hand dropping the price as I walked past. I think I could have gotten it for about $30.00.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Egyptian Pot-Luck Breakfast

All ready for Breakfast

When we arranged to visit our friends in Cairo, we were warned that they were hosting the weekly Maadi Runners “pot-luck” breakfast while we were there, so we might be pressed into service helping to get things ready. I thought this was a great idea, and would give me a chance to meet some of their Egyptian friends.

I was told that it was a casual affair and everyone chipped in, bringing and preparing food. It was a hot sunny day so the whole affair would be held outside beside the pool. Tables and chairs were pulled from storage by the gardener and set up, and in the morning I swept the mango tree droppings off the tables and gave them a wipe down.

Drinks are ready!
The first to arrive was a young Egyptian fellow who immediately took over the kitchen, (Those who know our friend will be gasping at this). He began chopping onions, garlic and preparing a huge bowl of eggs. He pressed me into service trimming beans and then handed the next runner to arrive a knife and asked her to chop mushrooms and spinach.

Next a girl arrived with a bag of tomatoes and cheese and took over the kitchen table to prepare a dish called gibna-tamaatim. However, Mohsen, the leader of this band of runners arrived next with the same idea, but looked at her salad and announced “not a problem”, he would make another different gibna-taamatim. At this point he was introduced to me and he handed me a knife and I was given directions to chop tomatoes. As I got about half the tomatoes done he announced that I was doing a great job, so I was in charge of mashing the tomatoes into the cheese. As a result of his careful instructions, I am now an expert gibna-tamaatim sous-chef. Although we did have a problem with
"He made it!"
spice . . . he wanted his gibna-taamatim to be Egyptian, not “For tourists” and wanted it spicy, but was not familiar with my use of spice and it took our friend's assurance of “Art knows spicy . . do not worry!” before he allowed me to add cayenne to the chili in order to achieve the result he wanted.

In between this cooking lesson I started meeting the members and friends of the Maadi Runners. A tall fellow with a decidedly not Egyptian accent was from Germany, that red hair was not Egyptian but Australian, and so it went . . . . Thailand, France, Scotland, America, Brazil, Malaysia, Austria, Korea, and of course us Canadians, with a friendly pregnant Egyptian street cat thrown in for good measure.

So, although there were about 12 or 13 “real” Egyptians, it was really more of a international gathering of runners. Over half of the 40 people, happily gathered for breakfast after an early morning run, were from countries scattered across the globe.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Good Guides, Taxi Drivers & Cairo Streets

Our Cairo Guide

When visiting foreign lands, it is always helpful to have a good guide. They know the way around, they know what is best to see and understand the local customs. A good guide can make a huge difference in how good a visit is. Our trip to Puglia in Italy was made so much more because we discovered Green Italy Travel, and on the Nile Cruise, we were assigned a great guide,
Michael who spoke almost perfect English, and spent five days showing us around Luxor and Aswan. By the end of the cruise he was more a “friend” than a guide, and he added much to the experience. Here in Cairo we have perhaps the best guides; our Nova Scotia friends who have lived and experienced Egypt for 10 years, and know not only where to take us but know us well enough to know what we will enjoy.

Usually our friends have managed to arrange for their driver to take us around to visit the sites and experiences here in Cairo, but today they were busy, and we were feeling adventurous, so we went off on our own. Our friend, knew a taxi driver who is usually available in the area and she arranged for him to pick us up, take us the 45 minutes into downtown Cairo to visit the Gayer-Anderson Museum and the ancient mosque beside the museum. He offered to wait for us and then bring us home, all for a set price (Egyptian taxis have no metres).
A Cairo Street

Now going any distance on Cairo streets is an experience! The average distance between vehicles is perhaps 18 inches and very few cars are scratch and dent free; most have damage on every body panel. A normal two lane road supports four lanes of traffic and most drivers ignore the lanes, driving anywhere they want and swerving and changing lanes constantly, blasting their horns to warn others of their intentions. Our cab driver today was calm, consistent and steady. He stayed in his lane, signalled directional changes and went with the flow of traffic. Regis gets nervous when being driven in strange places (She likes to be in control), but even she felt comfortable with this driver.

Michael (our guide in Luxor & Aswan) & Regis 

Cairo Street

Cars, people, buses, everywhere . . . .

Our Cairo Taxi Driver

The Doors Of Egypt

Doors, I can't help it, I see an interesting door, I have to stop and snap a photo. I am building quite a collection of photos of doors. I find them interesting, but If you do not, you can skip this post. These doors are from Cairo, Luxor and Aswan Egypt.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Flying Fingers and Twirling Feet

Wekalet El-Ghouri

Our friends living here in Cairo always take any of their guests from Canada to see the El-Tanoura Troupe, so they have probably seen it at least 10 times, but when they took us, they still tried to fill their camera memory card with pictures. Yes that is how good this show is.

Commonly called a “Whirling Dervish” show, it is actually a mixed dance and music performance. Housed in the formally open courtyard of a beautiful old school, you are surrounded with ancient Egyptian architecture while you wait for the show.

However, getting into the show is a big part of the adventure. Situated on a back street, you first have to navigate through street vendors, taxies, motorcycles and pedestrians all vying for spots on the very narrow street. The entrance to buy tickets (No pre-sales for the limited seats) is down slippery ancient stone steps crowded with a mix of tourists and locals. I quickly found that the usual “Canadian” attitude of “Oh, I'm sorry, were you ahead of me?” had to be replaced with an adoption of the local aggressive use of elbows and attitude to force your way to the front. Otherwise we would have been left out on the steps. We also had the advantage of our friends cane wielding mother who managed to find a nice seat up front and then convinced them to allow her companions to sit with her.

The duel . . .
The show started with a brilliant drum and Egyptian instrument band, including an entertaining duel between a drummer and a castanet player. Then the first dancer came out. These Whirling Dervishes are dressed in bright colours and wear long heavy multi-level “Skirts” which when the begin to spin flair out around them. What is amazing about these dancers is that they twirl in one direction for up to 30 minutes without stopping, constantly spinning their skirts out around them in brilliant patterns, up, down, sideways and over their heads. The outfits feature multiple layers and during the show, they detach one layer and spin it over their heads creating a double layer of skirt. This first dancer spun for a full 25 minutes (we were told to time him). And some patrons actually thought the show was over and left to avoid the crush getting out.

They should have stayed; the next act featured three dancers in even more elaborate outfits, spinning any twirling around the stage among the drummers who were also spinning and dancing. It really was an amazing performance and I took over 100 photos, so here are a few. Also, you might want to check out a YouTube video of the performance El-Tanoura Troupe, WekaletEl-Ghouri.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Forecast - Dust!

Whats the weather in Maadi?

Egypt is dusty. It hardly ever rains and the thin strip of green that people live on along the Nile is surrounded by desert on both sides, so any wind blows sand and dust from the deserts into the cities. Cairo is literally covered with a layer of dust, and the people who live here have just come to accept living with dust.

When we first visited in 2009, our friends diligently dusted their apartment daily, trying to maintain the dust-free conditions they were used to in Canada; I notice that 9 years later they are not so concerned with dust – it has become normal for them. I was told a story of the first rain they encountered when the arrived in Egypt; they ducked under a tree to get out of the downpour only to discover that the accumulated dust (Turned to mud) on the tree leaves poured down on them, and their clothes never came clean again.

If you walk the sidewalks and streets here, you care constantly kicking up clouds of dust, so sandals result in very dirty feet after a short walk. The Egyptians just accept this and they all wear sandals.

If you park you car on the streets, it loses it's colour in a day or two,
Parked BMW
all turning brown from a layer of dust. You can immediately tell the vehicles left derelict on the street, by the piles of accumulated dust covering the bottom of the tires. Back in cold Canada, you see cars with windshield wipers pulled up off the windscreen to prevent them freezing to the ice; here they are pulled up to prevent then gathering a layer of dust and scratching the glass when turned on.

But then, Egypt is home to one of the oldest civilization on earth, so I suppose we should be looking at the dust not as simple dirt, but the accumulated bits of thousands of years of human development in this part of the world. It isn't dust and dirt blowing around it is the history of Egypt being spread and shared with everyone.

Wife has gone shopping - dusting the car

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Getting to Know the Nubians

Nubian Houses

In southern Egypt, there is a separate cultural group called the Nubians. Their civilization actually predates the Egyptian dynasties and at one time the Nubians ruled all of Egypt. While visiting the city of Aswan in southern Egypt we got to learn a little more about these interesting people.

When Egypt built it's massive dams on the Nile it was the Nubian People who most suffered. Over 200,000 people had to be moved and over 20 priceless archeological sites were threatened by the creation of Lake Nasser, the largest man made lake in the world. Some of the temples were rescued and moved, but the expense was so great that the only way it was accomplished was to donate other temples to the countries helping Egypt move the temples. Many minor sites were simple flooded and lost forever. I recall National Geographic doing a feature on the relocation of the
Boating up the NIle
Abu Simbel Temple, and was interested to learn that this was where it happened.

As part of our cruise ship tours, we visited the Philae temple which was moved from it's original island where it was partially submerged and rapidly deteriorating to a nearby island that was higher. This really was amazing to see. The temple was disassembled stone by stone, moved and rebuilt. Other than little metal pins used to identify the individual pieces, you cannot really tell it hasn't been on the island forever.

We also toured the Nubian Museum which gave a very detailed description of the history of these people including many photographs of the original temples prior to the flooding by Lake Nasser.
Waiting for Lunch

Finally we took a leisurely boat ride up the Nile through protected areas to a Nubian Village. They favour a unique style of domed houses that are built to remain cool in the 40ยบ+ temperatures in this southern region of Egypt. We stopped and had a delicious Nubian meal prepared as we waited overlooking the Nile. Their houses are brightly coloured Mud brick structures decorated with paintings all over the walls. Walking through the village you came across camels lying beside the road, or you might turn a corner to find a camel walking towards you.

Spending time finding out more about the Nubians was a pleasant way to end our cruise.

Lunch - Delicious!

Nubian Family Pet

Camel Parking Only

Spice Market