Saturday, May 30, 2009

Farewell to Cairo

We stayed in the Zamelek district of Cairo and there are a few establishments there that cater to Foreigners like this bookstore that sells English books. Most evenings we retreated here to have some sweet tea and to browse through their books. We had dinner at the Egyptian restaurant across the street from it, a very popular establishment, always full, of locals and visitors. That was how we spent our evenings in Cairo. Then we go back to our room, shower and write in our journals or at least that's what I did. I make it a habit to record the day's events the same evening so the memory is still fresh in my mind.

This was our last evening, we had just come back from Wadi Natrun. We told our taxi driver that we would like to get some 'kushari'. So we bought some 'kushari' to go and was then eating on the balcony of our hotel. It was a great trip, one I'll always remember..... and will return to Cairo and Egypt soon.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The intrepid traveler

This was our second visit to Khan al-Kahalili even though there had been an explosion the day before our first visit. We saw few tourists, just this small group. He bought this head scarf and I told him he looked good in it and took his picture. I only speak English and a spattering of Chinese and I've been to a lot of countries that don't speak either language. I've managed and have enjoyed all my trips immensely. Rick Steves, continuously, encourages his readers to be militantly positive. It is a good attitude to adopt. Even though we were cheated at Cairo airport when we arrived, I didn't let the incident dominate my mind. It was a non issue, it was only money that we lost, and my ego. Now that I've tackled Cairo, I feel ready to tackle China and India, with similar attitudes towards visitors. One needs to be cautious but not too overly sensitive. Brave and bold as I am, I won't put myself in harms way like stay out late at night or get drunk or go with strangers. I won't go to a dangerous place either like Tijuana, Mexico.

Here is one last look at the spice markets till I find myself in another country with a similar spice market.

The Irq-sous man. How do I know? I saw a drawing in George America's book, 'Egypt Illuminated'. George America, an artist, spent considerable time in Egypt and sketched and drew while he was there. Usually this guy carries with him an elaborate contraption which holds some liquid that he sells to passerby. What luck. We bumped into him. I quickly snapped this picture while Sophie tried chasing him around to take a picture showing his frontal view but he kept dodging her. I don't know if she ever got any pictures of him.
It is with a little nostalgia as I write the last postings on this trip. We were told when we first arrived that there wasn't much to see or do in Cairo. I proved them wrong. If you can get past the initial culture shock, Cairo is an incredible place.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Another monastery

I don't remember the name of this one. It is also in Wadi Natrun and this one has a kind of Seminary and there were a lot of visitors. The drive up to the gate is really pretty, lined with tall Eucalyptus trees that smelt so good and flowers. Wow, flowers? That's very unusual in the desert. The inside structures are adobe and looked like Arizona or New Mexico. The bathroom was another story, the old squat toilets that were filthy. I almost burnt my pants.... I went back to the hotel room and stuffed them into a plastic bag and washed them at home. It was that filthy. Warning, warning...... for other visitors.

There was a service going on and they were chanting in Coptic.

The living quarters.

On the way back to Cairo, we passed this truck loaded with bananas. They grow their own and it is very heartening to see how the great Nile supports so many people since like eternity, since the days of the Pharaohs.
Our trip is drawing to a close. On the way we passed a lot of new housing developments and shopping malls. Our taxi driver has a brother who lives in one of these new housing developments and he wanted to stop to visit him. I said, no, it was late and I really wanted to get back to Cairo, to pack and get ready to leave the next morning. While I love being away, I also love coming home.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Wadi Natrun, St Bishoi

A tok tok, an import from India. The Egyptian government thought it was a good idea and imported a million of them. They are only found in use in Wadi Natrun. Where is Wadi Natrun? It is on the highway between Cairo and Alexandria, closer to Alexandria than to Cairo. The guide book said, some 100 Km from Cairo, I think it was more than that. We were almost in Alexandria before we came to Wadi Natrun. If I had known it was more than 100Km, I would not have gone and would have missed the beauty of Wadi Natrun. I was scared the old taxi we hired wouldn't get us there, let alone get us back. We would be stranded on the highway between Cairo and Alexandria and would probably missed our flight the next day and would be stranded in Egypt. I like Egypt but to live there is not a prospect I would entertain. I don't think any of these would happen but I was scared anyway. When we got into our taxi, our driver started to pray in Arabic. I said to myself, I'm going to pray to my God that we'll get there and back safely. We saw an accident on the way back. Half way there I did voice my concerns and asked to return and skip finding Wadi Natrun. We finally found Wadi Natrun and the turn off on the road towards the monasteries. The reason for going to Wadi Natrun was to see some of the Coptic Christian monasteries. There are at least four of them here, scattered all over the place. All of them started in the 4th century during persecution of the Christians , especially under Diocletian. They have all been rebuilt during the 8th century and has basically the same floor plan. The most accessible of them is St Bishoi and I met an Egyptian on the flight back who told me about the legend of St Bishoi. This is the visit to St Bishoi. We invited our driver to join us, he was curious too.
The town of Wadi Natrun is primitive as is all Egyptian villages. It was raining a little during that day. It doesn't rain in Cairo but it does rain in Alexandria and since we were so close to Alexandria, it experienced some rain.

Wadi Natrun was known even in ancient times by the Pharaohs, they mine a certain salt there which they use for mummification. Today the government has supplied water and turned this place into a quasi oasis and everywhere on church compounds, the hose is running to water the flowers, fruits and vegetable gardens and Wadi Natrun looks like some lush European community.

We see a lot of visitors at St Bishoi.

Here is the drawbridge leading to the oldest part. This can raised and the invaders locked out while the Christians retreat to the secured part of the building where there are living quarters, water reservoir, kitchen and chapel and can live for a long time while the siege goes on outside.

Today, tourists from all over the world are the only people that trample on this drawbridge.

Look at the size of this door, it dates back to the 4th century.

We went on the roof top, to view the surrounding area.

Our tour guide, I forgot his name. He allowed photographs, he was very accommodating, he has to be, he wants the world to know their plight. Christians are not free to worship in Muslim countries. I told him I was from Malaysia and he knew where it was. I was a Christian living in a Muslim country.

Here is the chapel in the fortified area.

The remains of the water well.

The oven.

This is the basis for Romanesque church construction, it started in monasteries like this in the 4th century.

The Coptic Christian liturgy.

He demonstrated a few Coptic hymns.

Christian monasticism was born in Egypt's Eastern Desert and not to have visited Wadi Natrun would have missed an important component of a visit to Egypt. The monasteries in Wadi Natrun is definitely more accessible than St Catherine in the Sinai desert. The easiest way to visit is to hire a taxi and be sure the taxi is in good condition but there's no way of checking because all the taxis are old and decrepit. I would say be sure it is a Peugeot from France. The French dumps all their old cars to Egypt. Ours was some Eastern European wreck but thank God it got us there and back. I was praying the whole time.