Journey Jotters

Bitten by the travel bug

I have described the first part of the trip in this post. After leaving the Pyramids and Abou Shakra restaurant, our driver took us to Key of Life Papyrus, a store for papyrus related articles. The owner showed us how papyrus is made. The stalk of the papyrus reed is cut into thin strips which are then laid in a horizontal layer overlaid with a vertical layer, pressed together and dried. The store carried a vast array of paintings on papyrus, many of which were exquisitely done and all so colorful. We spent about half an hour and bought a small display.

Architecture at the Khan al-Khalili market

The kids were exhausted by this point with the long journey to New York, the overnight flight, and all the excitement of the day. As they slept in the van, Ahmed took us to a retailer that sold clothes made of Egyptian cotton. The colors and embroidery on these clothes were wonderful. But I wasn’t in the mood to buy any that evening.

So off we went, to see the Cairo Tower. Built by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1961, the Cairo Tower is situated in the middle of Gezira island and provides a fantastic view of Cairo, Giza, the Nile, and their surrounding areas. Standing at a height of about 560 feet, the tower is built to resemble a lotus with its open lattice construction. Sixteen stories high, the tower has an observation deck on top, a cafe on the 15th floor, and a revolving restaurant on the 14th floor. It was very popular with the younger Egyptians at the time of our visit. The ticket to the tower was included in the trip.

Cairo Tower, Gezira Island

The entrance to the tower is built with granite stones. A security guard monitored the guests entering and leaving the tower. There was one elevator to ferry guests up and down. We stood in line for a while before it was our turn to ride the elevator. We saw many young couples and families with small children in line. Many of the women wore modern Western-style clothing with a hijab around their head. Young Egyptians form 40% of the population and 29 million people live in Cairo. It wasn’t surprising then that so many young Egyptians were out and about.

Mural in the Cairo Tower lobby

At the top of the tower, we took in the amazing views of Cairo and the Nile. The city was glittering like a million diamonds in the growing darkness. Gezira island is posh and filled with many Western brand hotels. We looked down at a panorama that was entirely modern! And a definite contrast to what we had witnessed that afternoon. Unfortunately, it was cold at the top of the tower and we couldn’t bear to stand there for longer than 20 minutes. Besides, our phones were out of batteries, so we slowly made our way down. The van had outlets for one of the phones to be charged and we made full use of that.

View from the top of Cairo Tower

Next, we headed to the other side of the Nile for our felucca ride. The boat owner told us there wasn’t enough of a wind for the felucca. Instead, he sent us on the Nile with a motorboat, which was disappointing, to say the least. But riding the Nile is an experience, in itself and especially so when you have the boat all to yourself. After all, the Nile is the longest river in the world at 4,135 miles! The boat ride was thrilling! It was fun to watch the river banks glide by on either side, lit by a multitude of neon lights as the waters of the Nile shimmered in their reflections. Again, because of the cooler weather, we huddled together to maintain warmth while the boat cut across the dark waters. We saw small boats on the waters as well as along the pier that were gaily decorated with string lights. Ahmed told us these boats were often rented for family get-togethers and celebrations.

View from our boat ride on the Nile
Our boat for the Nile outing

Back on land, we made our last stop of the day. A visit to the old Khan El-Khalili bazaar. Noisy, crowded and vibrant with color, the market is a treasure trove of all that money can buy. From food to spices to trinkets to furniture, everything and anything can be found here. The children were too tired by now to move their feet. But I wanted to experience the market and so Mr. JJ, I, and Ahmed plunged into the crowds milling outside Hussein Mosque. From there, we followed a warren of narrow and winding streets. Brightly lit shops with their wares overflowing onto the streets, pedestrians, shopkeepers in deep discussions, roadside cafes entertaining guests, it was all a spellbinding tapestry of colors and sounds. The old Marmaluk architecture was evident in some places. Young people were out on the streets in throngs. On certain streets, photographers waited while couples tried on a variety of costumes before shooting their photographs. This area carried with it a certain vivaciousness that thrives in all beloved and much visited local markets, no matter where they are located in the world.

Khan El-Khalili bazaar
Khan El-Khalili bazaar

The traffic in Cairo was manageable and we felt safe during the tour, (Cairo is the 6th safest city in the country, according to Ahmad). The weather was pleasant for the most part except when evening set in, it got much cooler. But the one issue we often faced was finding clean restrooms. We realized this and tried to use them whenever a relatively clean one with toilet paper was available. As in many other parts of the world, the toilet paper was to be thrown into a bin meant for such use and not flushed. Hand sanitizers were very handy during this trip.

At exactly 8 pm, we were dropped off outside the Cairo airport. It had been a long afternoon but also a fun one. The immigration officer had us fill a departure form before letting us back in. We then made our way to a nearby lounge where we caught up on a late dinner before the flight to Johannesburg.

Khan El-Khalili Bazaar

Although I wasn’t attracted by the optics of Cairo, its rich history and cultural heritage make it a city worth visiting. Egypt has long been on our top destinations but safety concerns had kept us away. Now that we have traveled once, I know we will go back for sure. As for the tour, I liked the punctuality of the team, both in picking us up and dropping us off. The driver’s safety skills were never in question. Ahmed’s language wasn’t an issue. We were happy with choice of the restaurnt for the meal. The only aspect I did not enjoy was the commercial side of the tour. Like expecting us to do the camel ride, the papyrus maker visit, etc. I understand all tour companies do this, but for our next trip, I would like to customize a more appropriate itinerary. Similarly, although we enjoyed the Nile ride, the fact that it wasn’t on a felucca lessened the value of the experience a bit.

But all is well that ends well and we had a safe trip to Cairo! Now we can’t wait to go back!!

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