grey marble

September 22, 2006

The Mariott and the City of the Dead

The staff at the Cairo Mariott sport buttons that read, "Yes is the answer. What is the question?" When we checked in, Ed asked if our room had a view of the Nile. The attendant looked at his computer and shifted. "No," he said. "It has a view of the garden." We shrugged and accepted our keys. A porter directed us to the elevators and then the 17th floor.

We walked into the room and out onto the balcony. There, spread before us was the northern mass of Zemalek Island. To our right downtown Cairo. And in the middle, we could see the Nile, flowing to the south past our hotel. "It's not quite you expected, is it?" asked Ed. No, I admitted. I was expecting something more exotic and romantic. He said it gets better as you travel further south, when you can see the desert and palm trees lining its banks. Later, I realized what had formed my notions of Cairo. It was Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Yesterday we did very little. Ed napped in the hotel while I went for a swim and read in the lobby. We ate a late dinner, and then retired to the hotel room where we were pulled into watching a zombie movie on tv. This morning we woke late and had a leisurely breakfast before taking a cab downtown. At the Ethiopian Airways office we tried to book our plane tickets, but she didn't take credit cards. She suggested we use the American Express office located just inside the Nile Hilton. It was closed. We decided to try again tomorrow.

Instead we took the afternoon to tour the City of the Dead, to the east of Cairo. We took a cab to the Mosque of al-Azhar and walked east. Soon we were looking across the Sharia-Salah Salem highway, and out over the necropolis.

The city is built similar to any other old quarter, save that the buildings are all effectively mausoleums. The poor live in and around the buildings; famous tombs and mausoleums dot the grounds, including mosques and medressi. We wandered into the center of the city in search of the mausoleum of Sultan Qaitbey, one of the last strong Mamluke rulers. We wound ourselves through the streets and found a few buildings, but none matched that replicated on the one pound note. We wandered around the dusty streets searching for the telltale minaret, soon finding it just a few blocks away.

An attendant lead us into the mosque, and through a door to the mausoleum. We toured the chambers and then he lead us up to the roof and then up into the minaret. The views of the city and the surroundings were what I had imagined Cairo to be, with domes and minarets dotting the smaller sunbaked buildings. In the distance, the Citadel crowned a nearby hill.

From the mosque we walked north, to Sultan Barsbey's Mausoleum and then into the larger complex which houses Sultan Barquq's Mausoleum. This mausoleum boasted two medressi, flanking the main square of the mosque. The attendant took us up into the minaret, and we spent some time standing upon the roof gazing at the buildings around us.

We took a cab back to the hotel and I marvelled at the difference between the cool lobby of the Mariott and the dusty streets we had just wandered. Ed said he had read years before how staying in nice complexes isolated you from the world outside and now, having stayed in a few on business, he could attest to fact that it was so. But being in the Mariott after a few months in Baghdad was a great way to decompress.

We ate cakes and drank hibiscus tea as we relaxed our legs and discussed how to plan our last day in Cairo and our onward ticket, then wandered around the hotel looking for the travel agent. The agency was closed, but as we walked by a Japanese restaurant, Ed said he wouldn't mind having sushi for dinner. I enthusastically concurred.
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September 21, 2006

I am in Cairo

Stepping off the plane in Cairo, I first noticed the smell, a mix of rubber and diesel that sweetened the air. I walked down a wobbling staircase to a bus on the tarmac which took us to the main gate. I waited in line for a visa, then I waited in line the clear customs. As I exited, I was greeted by my cab driver, named Mohammad Ali. He welcomed me to Egypt. It was past three in the morning.

My flight out of New York was delayed and I didn't end up leaving until half past midnight. The airline had supplied snacks while we waited. I attempted to sleep. Some six or seven hours later we touched down in Amsterdam. The flight had been smooth and the skies were clear. My head was anything but. Still, I bought a train ticket to the center of town and then boarded a tram bound for the Van Gogh museum. It was just nice to be outside.

The museum was under some reconstruction, and I wandered the galleries that were still available. I was particularly drawn to the top floor, which exhibited some of Van Gogh's final panoramic landscapes. On the lower levels, a travelling exhibition of Japanese art traced some of what inspired the artist.

I bought a few postcards and walked outside to sit in a nearby park. I hadn't realized that fall was practically upon us. I could see it in the long shadows and feel it in the slight crispness of the air. I wrote my cards and checked the time, then decided to return to the airport to nap before my flight to Egypt.

This morning I forced myself to sleep in. Upon arriving, I was told that the room I had booked was not available and the manager asked if I would share a room. He showed me to the dorms where a man was snoring, his luggage in the bed beside him. I took a quick shower, and went to bed.

As I packed, a man appeared in the doorway. He asked me if I wanted to see the pyramids. No, I told him. He asked me if I were checking out. I said yes. He asked me where I was staying next, and I told him the Cairo Marriot. His eyes widened. Five star hotel, he said. I smiled and said I was staying with a friend. I paid for my five dollar bed and wished him well.
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September 19, 2006

It began in Africa-a-a-a

Tonight I'm boarding a flight bound for Cairo. The plane leaves at 10pm. Tomorrow morning i'll be in Amsterdam for an eight hour layover. I hope to visit the van Gogh museum. Tomorrow night I board another plane and arrive in Cairo at 2am Thursday. Ed's flying from Baghdad to Cairo Thursday afternoon. We've planned to meet at the Mariott on Zamalek Island.

If everything goes according to plan, on Sunday we board another plane for Addis Ababa, arriving the same day. We've planned to spend three and a half to four weeks in Ethiopia, though we have only a very vague sense of what we're going to do. I bought my ticket two weeks ago; I bought the guidebook a week ago.

The other night before bed, I finally cracked open the spine and began to trace possible routes. Ed tells me he's printed out his research from websites. In Cairo we'll have a few days to catch up on sleep and to figure out a plan over Scrabble. I'll be back in New York October 24th. In the meantime, I'll be blogging from the road as opportunity allows. Have a great fall.
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September 5, 2006

When GPS does not show the closest route

David picked me up Friday night to drive back home to Connecticut. He had come up from Washington D.C. We had dinner and then dessert and by the time we were on the road it was midnight and raining. It had been raining all night.

Around 1am, the fuel light on David's dashboard went on. He said we needed to get gas. We drove for another twenty minutes. He said he remembered there being an island on the side of the road, but wasn't sure if we had passed it. I told him we could use the GPS system. He turned it on and hit an icon for gas station. A list scrolled off the screen. We chose the first one and followed the directions.

A few minutes later, we pulled up into the darkened station. Turning to the GPS, we found another. We turned around and drove another mile or two. The station was closed. David started freaking out. We had been driving for around 40 minutes with the low fuel indicator light on. I said if it was really serious, it'd be blinking, the suggested we call around for an open gas station. He pulled up the GPS and started dialing. We called five before we found an open station.

With the tank full, David calmed down. We pulled out of the station and found our way back to the highway. Minutes later, we passed the gas station David had remembered on the side of the road. Posted by eugene at | Comments (3)


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