Monday, June 19, 2006

Beans for breakfast and pyramids!

The hotel offers either an Egyptian breakfast or a continental breakfast (bread with butter and jam), but you have to pre-order the Egyptian breakfast. I kept forgetting to order it, but last night Sam did it for me. The Egyptian breakfast was fu’ul, pureed beans, kind of like refried beans, and ta’amiyah, like falafel patties but made with fava beans instead of chickpeas, and whole wheat pita bread. Eleanor and Isaac weren’t thrilled with it, but the rest of us loved it. I’m feeling very grateful to have such adventurous eaters along with me, especially because sitting there on the tray it didn’t look much like breakfast. But everyone dug in with an adventurous spirit. They all want it again tomorrow!

Last night we talked to the desk clerk and another guest here about their advice about the pyramids, as well as looking at our book and checking out the Rough Guide online site. We walked to a metro station and took the metro to Giza. The cars were quite crowded. The front two cars are reserved for women only, but since I had my big strong boys along, we got on one of the last cars. It was pretty crowded, but one of the few women on the car, heavily veiled and carrying a shopping bag, insisted on giving me her seat because I was holding Isaac.

We weren’t sure where to find taxis at the Giza metro stop, but a taxi driver found us. I bargained with him! He suggested 20 pounds, I countered at 10, and we settled at 15. We all crammed into his tiny black Fiat (what else!) taxi and started off. I was a bit worried because he had been working on the engine when he stopped to talk with us, but the engine turned out not to be the problem. Part of the way there, he suddenly pulled over to the side of the road, jacked up the car (with all of us in it), and changed a flat tire! I think it took him a total of about 3 minutes. Very impressive. It was very exciting, as we drove, to suddenly come upon the pyramids, right there at the side of the road.

He drove us past the camel tour operators and the horseback tour operators and let them make their pitch to us, but eventually we got him to leave us at the front gate of the Pyramids complex. We had been warned about all the vendors who follow you around trying to get you to buy things or to buy their services (guiding, horseback or camel riding, etc.), so I was bracing myself for much unpleasantness. It actually wasn’t too bad—there weren’t as many as I had expected, and they tended to take La (no) as their answer. A couple of young women tried to sell us postcards and statues of Egyptian gods, but when we said , “La,” they pulled out their cameras and asked if it would be all right for them to take their pictures with Isaac! So they each held him while the other took a photo. One enterprising man asked, “Do you want a horse ride?” “La.” “A camel ride?” “La.” “An elephant ride?” He made us all laugh.

The Sphinx might have been my favourite thing. It’s a lot smaller than the pyramids, but it’s still huge. We found its tail curved around its body, and I loved the masonry paws. We went into the medium-sized pyramid (all except Ed; we had been warned that it was claustrophobic, and he had no desire to try it). You walk through the original pathway to the tomb room. It’s only about three feet high as it descends deep, so you have to crouch down. At the lowest point it opens up high, but then it starts up again (to the center of the pyramid?) and it’s just three feet high again. The tomb room wasn’t nearly as large as I’d imagined, given the amount of treasure that had been stuffed in it. I think it was about the size of our living room in The Hague. The stone walls of the passageways were beautiful and cut very precisely, smooth and geometric. There were also all sorts of other passageways (blocked) running off the passageway they were in. We all loved imagining how it must have been to be the person who rediscovered the passageways.

Besides going into the pyramid, we visited the Solar Barque museum, where they have displayed a ship for the Underworld that was buried at the edge of the large Cheops museum—it was a fascinating boat, and a huge thing, maybe 40 or 50 feet long, constructed of wood lashed with ropes. It and the museum that held it reminded us a lot of the Viking ships we saw in the museum in Oslo. We also went into the burial chamber, not in a pyramid, of some pharaoh or other. It looked like a squarish-building from the outside, but the very cool thing was that the walls were still covered with incised hieroglyphs. We hadn’t noticed them at first and almost walked back out without looking at them. A helpful Tourist Police officer pointed some of his favourites out to us—some hippopotamuses, including two with their mouths wide open—and encouraged us to take photographs, despite the signs everywhere forbidding photography (we declined). We also saw a hieroglyph of a woman holding a duck in her hand; in the Egyptian Museum we had found a room full of statues of women holding ducks in their hands.

We were all incredibly hot and thirsty there. When we first got out of the taxi, I felt like the air just sucked all the moisture out of my body. The city of Cairo goes right up to the feet of the pyramids—a major road runs along the edge of them, but then behind them it is just desert. It was an amazing sight. We had great views of the city in one direction, and then just sand in another. We quickly drank all 3 liters of water, which we had purchased for 4 pounds at the hotel, we had brought with us. There were water vendors there at the site (surprise!). The man I spoke to was selling 1 liter bottles of water, and he told me they would cost 10 pounds each! I really did walk away then, but he called after and told me it was 2 bottles for 10 pounds. Eventually I agreed to pay 3 pounds for each bottle, but I didn’t have small enough change, so I got the two for 5.50.

We took an air conditioned bus back to downtown. It took quite a while, but the seats were comfortable and it dropped us not far from our neighbourhood, and it was pretty cheap, so we were happy with it. And no flat tires!

We were all exhausted and thirsty, so we decided to go to a sit-down restaurant. We weren’t sure what everything on the menu was, so we fairly arbitrarily selected stuff. We did pretty well because we only ended up with one thing that nobody liked much, and everything else was very good. We got more of the falafel-like things and some kebab meats with rice and some spicy meatballs and a wonderful egg and meat dish. We may have to go back there again now that we know what we like.

Now we’ve come home and collapsed. Sam’s asleep. I threw Lucy off the computer (she was playing Sims) to do Pimsleur and write this letter. Eleanor slept for a long time. Isaac read books and has actually been pretty calm—he’s just now getting wild and starting to agitate for ice cream. Ruth has been reading Eldest and Ed has been reading The Return of the King.

Some things I forgot first time around/more stuff that happened:

Eleanor got so incredibly dirty walking around at the Egyptian Museum that I decided she had better start wearing shoes. Whenever I have tried to put them on her before, she has immediately pulled them off. But today and yesterday, she wore her blue striped shoes all day long! What a big girl.

This morning I had been congratulating myself on how well we’ve been doing avoiding mosquitoes. I have no mosquito bites. Then Isaac woke up. He has about five mosquito bites on his face—cheeks, forehead, ear—and a bunch on his arm and his hand. I was expressing my sadness that he ended up with them, and the other kids all said, “I have mosquito bites, too!” So tonight we’re wearing mosquito repellent.

This afternoon we all wanted fruit but nobody wanted to go out to find it, so I left them inside vegging and went out in search of a produce store. It was very interesting, and not entirely pleasant to be out by myself. The streets of Cairo feel very different as a single woman than as a mother. I’m used to people looking at my babies and talking to them. I kept worrying men were looking at me and some teenaged boys said things to me. I noticed that all of the other women I saw on the street were either with another woman or with a man. I told the kids that from now on I thought somebody would need to go out with me if I went out. Last night we were talking to a woman from Mexico who is here at the hostel about getting to the pyramids. She was trying to assess for us how well different types of transportation would work. “Do you get hassled when you go out?” she asked me. I told her that people always talk to the babies. “Oh, of course,” she said, “they respect you with all your children. You would be all right.” It was an interesting observation.

I eventually did find a grocery store. It had one aisle with cleaning supplies, one aisle with rice and beans, and one aisle with pasta. There was also a cold section with feta cheese and other stuff that I couldn’t figure out. Next door to it was a butcher shop with two huge haunches of meat hanging from hooks in the open space next to the front door. Right underneath them were the baskets of fruit—a sorry collection of wilted grapes, shrivelled apricots, and tiny apples. But there were also melons, so I bought a melon. For dinner we ate the melon (rind cut off and thrown away), bread (Sam bought it from a street vendor), and almonds and raisins (we bought at the bakery; they also sell nuts). After family home evening we had wonderful chocolate cake from the bakery—we bought two kinds, one out of nostalgia because it looked exactly like the kind we used to love at Slasticarna Ramis in Sarajevo. It was delicious and fun.

When we were ready to do family home evening, Ruth and I started singing “This is the night we’ve waited for…” As usual, Isaac scampered over and climbed up by us. Both of us were delighted, however, to see Ellie, as soon as she heard the song start, turn around, her mouth in a little “o.” She dropped the thing she was holding and ran as fast as her little legs would toddle, held up her arms to us, and smiled a huge smile. We sang “Families can be together Forever” except I accidentally started singing it to the tune of “This is the night…” and Ed collapsed in giggles. Ed had us act out the story of Moses parting the Red Sea while he read the account from the Bible. Isaac was Moses, Lucy was the children of Israel, Sam was the pillar of fire, Ellie and I were the armies of Pharoah, and Ruth was the Red Sea with Lucy’s turquoise scarf. We played “Peep Peep.”

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