Cairo, EGYPT – March 2015
For our second visa run, Matt and I planned to cross the border into Oman from Al Ain again, possibly also staying a night in Al Ain to tourist around a little bit. But then he called me up and asked me if I’d like to go to Cairo, Egypt for the weekend instead, because the company was going to pay for it. Um…yes, I want to go! Actually, I hesitated for a little bit, furiously internet researched (very technical) “visiting Cairo with toddler” in which I found little to no helpful information, then thought would you regret this? Yeah, probably. So, always down for throwing myself out of my bubble, I agreed. Then spent the next four days before travel (yes, last-minute) debating over and over if we really should be doing this with a toddler, and then I found myself on an airplane headed to Egypt. When we were coming in for the landing, I spotted camels working at a construction site, and I was like: Hell yeah! Here we go! We are NOT in Sweden anymore!
Now, this is not normal for the company to do something like this, just FYI. My guess is it was a consolation trip to make up for this burden of having to renew our tourist visas every 30 days until our resident visas come in, but also probably the only one we get to go on. We missed our flight to Muscat last time (fail), and at this point we’re done with the hassle of flying away each time and just want to cross the border and come back quickly. Full disclosure, our family is on an “accompanied tour” for the position in Abu Dhabi (not like Sweden), which means the company pays for all travel and visa costs for Porter and me. We also travelled as a group with Matt’s co-workers who are in the same position as us.
The hotel we stayed at was great. They picked us up from the airport and walked us through getting our Egyptian entry visas (which we would have never figured out – there are bank windows when you walk into the airport after getting off your plane and being shuttled to the terminal, go there and pay them $25 for the visa, then walk around the corner to a customs/immigration window, or have your hotel pick you up and do it for you), and then drove us to the hotel. Have you ever been/driven in Cairo? Thank God we didn’t rent a car. As soon as we arrived, the group set up a tour for the next day and met our guide, Ahmed. We decided on a full day tour to Saqqara, the Great Pyramids, and the Egyptian Museum, with a possible stop at (what I requested to be) the Khan el Khalili market. Early the next morning we all set off for our day. Just in case you care, the time difference (2 hours later) worked out perfectly in our favor with Porter, and he was pretty damn well-behaved that day for as long, hot, and totally different from normal as it was.
Cairo was an intense experience because it was unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before. I understand that much of the world is not like what I’ve only experienced up until now – that is, Western culture – very follow-the-rules and mostly appears very “nice”. I don’t know what I was expecting, but Cairo blew my mind in so many different ways. All I can really say is that just like everywhere else we travel, I fell in love with the place. The Egyptians we met, and the small, quick stories they told us about their lives, were so great. I know that most people we were in contact with were in the tourism industry and were basically paid to be nice to tourists, haha, but I hope we still got a glimmer of real Egyptian hospitality, humor, and who people are. As usual, I left wanting to get to know the people and the place even more, and obviously 48 hours is not nearly enough time to get any real sense of a place. Must go back.
The drive to our first stop was CRAZY, as driving in the city and surrounding areas of Cairo are. Lane lines are there but mean nothing, everything goes on the freeway (busses, cars, donkeys, walkers, horses on trucks, you know), and horns are kind of used like blinkers. Quite inoffensive, really, when compared to how people honk in Washington D.C. (obnoxious).
Full disclosure, we didn’t haul the car seat with us because it was impractical. I feel like I have to be apologetic and explain our reasoning, because Americans like to start parenting wars over stuff like this, but…whatever. We did what was best for the situation, we were safe, and our child’s well-being is always our number one priority. Just know that if you are taking your child to Cairo and plan to do a tour or hire a driver, that you need to take these things into consideration. I don’t know what other people do? But over here…car seats aren’t typically used. Mama’s arms are considered the safest place for babies. We really weighed the pros and cons to hauling our car seat along with us on the trip, but it wouldn’t have even fit in the van anyway. So, I planted myself in the very center seat, strapped on my lap belt, and held my baby with a death grip that he was polite enough not to complain about but did cough at one point from my anxious arms holding him too tight. Sorry kid.
Driving south from Giza, we followed a canal lined by farms, houses, and shops that were quite interesting and pretty, despite some trash in the canals, and some crumbling buildings which you are going to see all over Cairo. The road leading to Saqqara was very pretty with palm trees, potted plants for sale, and people herding animals.
Saqqara! Our first stop, and the first and oldest pyramid in the world. The entrance to the pyramid is built with the oldest stone in the world. I actually asked how old the structure was because it looked new, so it’s amazing that it’s still standing, in such great condition, and looks timeless. Really cool!
The very persistent peddlers started right away. The guys trying to sell things, or almost tricking us to take pictures with their animals for tips, etc. etc. etc. We definitely got trapped right away, even knowing full well what was going on. I think it’s probably a common thought, but to see the magnificent things in Egypt would be so much better without the constant interruption from people trying to get money from you. I don’t blame them, I understand, but yeah.
Saqqara – the Pyramid of Djoser, though, wow. The hieroglyphs in the tombs were INCREDIBLE. To see these images that are so well-known, carved into the walls, some still colorful, and try to fathom how old it all is…amazing. I really don’t have words. The entire experience was so unexpected and I was so unprepared, but thankfully our tour guide, Ahmed, walked us through, constantly talking and feeding us information and history lessons and fielding questions. He really made the day, in my opinion.
Next up was actually a stop at a carpet school, where they are continuing the education of hand-making carpets to keep the tradition and skill alive. It’s a little strange to stand behind kids and watch them work away at knotting their carpets, as it goes against what I am used to… But, long story short, we ended up buying a carpet. Of course they took us there to make a purchase! But I didn’t think we actually would! Of course, I’m not going to fight it if my husband is like, “Should we pick one out?” Ha…“Oh…sure darling. If you’d like. I wouldn’t mind a beautiful hand-made Egyptian carpet in my house forever. Go ahead, pick one out.” Coy smile. Dying inside. GIVE ME ALL THE CARPETS.
Matt picked out a lovely living room rug and haggled the price down nearly 60% and basically stole it. He also had them roll it up and put it in a bag so we could haul it back ourselves. Reason being, it was cheaper to do so. And we have no address in Abu Dhabi at the moment. Also, because he didn’t want to get swindled and sent some other cheaper carpet (not to have ill intentions of the place, but these things happen, and Matt’s a well-traveled man and thought about it). Meanwhile, I stayed well away from that scene as it is against my nature to haggle or argue about price, and think I’m insulting someone for even asking. Egyptians in the tourist industry would love me without Matt around…
After this, there was a stop at a Papyrus tourist trap (this is apparently very common if you do a group tour like we did, all of these places work together with the tour guides), then we set off for the Great Pyramids of Giza! I’d love to say I was super amazed, and I was! But it was mid-day at this point and very sunny, and we were trying to wrangle the toddler crazies amongst pyramid peddlers, tourists, rocky sandy terrain, and camel poo. We were able to take some great photos and listen to Ahmed as he gave us some great history while we were there, but it was a fairly quick stop. Next time I’d like to climb up some of the lower stones to get a better sense of scale (but not go crazy, some people were climbing on top of the smaller pyramids!), maybe go inside, and go earlier or later to be able see more. But, wow. We got to see the Great Pyramids!
After that, we were dropped off at “the bazaar” which I thought would be Khan el Khalili – a very famous souk in Cairo, where you can buy anything apparently. What Ahmed was saying, it sounded like that’s where we would be taken (since I had mentioned it by name a couple of times) but it wasn’t. We were dropped off at a “bazaar” shop, where we could buy more souvenirs or jewelry while Ahmed and the driver got us some schwarma for lunch. I was so confused walking in, and I think we were all kind of let down and tired of being sold stuff at every turn. We were also hot and hungry at this point, so yeah, less than enthusiastic, to say the least.
Back in the shuttle bus with our take away schwarmas (somewhat questionable yet tasty), we set off for the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Tahrir Square. It’s pretty cool driving within the Giza and Cairo, and luckily we were there on a weekend, so not too much traffic. We managed to see a few interesting things on just the drive over: a freshly burnt van, a baby laying asleep on mother’s lap as she rode passenger on a moped without holding on, goats/camels/donkeys in the city, and a Western (white) woman riding her bike without a helmet in a crazy traffic roundabout. Also, a horse standing on a truck while driving on the freeway, with a little boy sitting in the bed of the truck next to the horse. Honestly, we were all like this:
Porter fell asleep during our drive to the museum, so I strapped his big toddler body in the travel Ergo carrier to walk around the museum. He’s definitely about grown out of it I think, but that carrier still saved me for this trip. I’m happy Porter was napping for most of our time in there, because I was so interested in what we were looking at and happy without a distraction.
The museum is filled to the brim with Egyptian antiquities discovered up and down the Nile, and in the course of only an hour or two, Ahmed gave us an impressive tour. We’ve all read you could spend forever inside and still not see everything. Ahmed said for his education he spent a year and half learning at the museum alone! We also got to see King Tutankhamun‘s mummy mask, and many of his things that were buried in his tomb, as well as some REAL MUMMIES that are around 4,000 years old (mind blown). Ancient tombs, statues, carvings, art, chariots, I mean, it was incredible. No photos allowed in there though, so sorry!
The day’s not over yet!
After the museum, I think we all thought we might be going home. We drove through a bit of downtown Cairo, which I could see as being as beautiful as any major European city, but unfortunately the effects of Egypt’s struggles shows. We drove across the Nile and stopped for a hot second on the highway(?) to take pictures (tourists…). Then all of a sudden we were in another part of town, where the camels were headed home after a day of work at the Giza Pyramids. Quite a funny sight…but our hotel was definitely in the opposite direction. Another stop to buy things, this time at an oils place. They got us again! Finally, after a demonstration and some purchases we went back to the hotel, though not without one last harrowing drive through Cairo streets and highways.
We all enjoyed a late dinner at the hotel, talking about our day. Not only did we see and learn so much, but we made it back alive, and Porter was healthy and happy and well-behaved after a seriously long day. Relief! And wine.
The next day we leisurely awoke, packed up and set off for our flight back to Abu Dhabi. With a giant carpet in tow.
What an unexpected, adventurous, eye-opening trip. This is why we wanted to continue being expats!