Saturday, January 15, 2011

January 14-15, Getting there and settling in

We have packed carefully, with quick-drying travel underwear, and a minimum of clothing, so that we can travel relatively lightly. We have a single 24-inch case to check, one rolling carry-on, a small cabin carry-on, and a briefcase with the netbook computer, our Nooks, cameras, and chargers. We are continuing to work in the specialized skill of travelling light (but also having essentials like flashlights and remembering to carry a pocket full of toilet paper). These preparations gave us confidence and flexibility when things became a bit unpredictable.

We have a direct flight from JFK to Cairo, leaving late in the evening Jan. 14. Jim starts the day taking a ski at home (more for style points than anything else). The snow was patchy and drifted, as the big storm that had buried places further south had just barely touched us. Jim said it was half skiing, half clambering.

Then we spend about 6 hours in the office, finishing several tasks for clients before leaving for the airport about 4 pm for the connecting flight from Burlington to JFK. The flight to Cairo takes about 10 hours, and we get some decent sleep. We wake up as we are flying over Athens. We pass over the Greek pennisula and down over the Greek Islands, with the shoreline of Turkey visible in the distance. It is fun to look down and figure out where you are.

Then there is open sea – the "Great Green” the ancient Egyptians called it, for they were spoiled by the ease of navigating the Nile and never learned great seamanship skills. Then quite suddenly you are over the Delta, perhaps one the most distinctive landmarks in the world. Very green and almost entirely, it seems, under cultivation.

But as you approach Cairo, you can see why this land has so long been called the Gift of the Nile. There are lush green fields (we still have to learn what specific crops we were seeing) and then, as though someone had drawn a line with a straight edge, there is sand with not a tree or blade of grass to be seen.

The housing is mostly, it appears, in this unirrigated land. There are mud brick homes in relatively small villages in the Delta, but soon that gives way to high rises and apartment complexes and factories, virtually all surrounded by sand, and lush green fields in perfect rectangles as though drawn for a geometry project.

On the ground the plane has to park far out on the tarmac where it is met with stairs and a bus to transport passengers to the terminal, but the whole process is very efficient and we are quickly in line for entry.

The officer sends us to get visas - $15 each just as we were told – and the entire system is quick and efficient.

Once outside the passport control, we are met by a representative of the tour company who insists on grabbing our luggage and whisks us through customs and out to the waiting van and driver.

We quickly get a phone call from Dalia, who will be our guide for the next two weeks, and from Samir, owner of Real Egypt who has designed our entire tour to our specifications.

From the airport, it's about a hour drive through very busy, often gridlocked streets with - to us - incomprehensible traffic. It would be fair to say that either the driver was not familiar with the hotel or the traffic was unusually heavy and he had to take several detours or that he just wanted us to have a bit of a tour of Cairo.

Into the center of Cairo and we stop at the entrance to a very wide alley. Our hotel is a short distance down this alley and accessed by this quaint elevator, up five flights.

The "alley" is actually a busy commercial district and the activity continued late into the evening. The ground level is mostly retail businesses and small, mostly take-out eating places.

Our hotel, the Talisman, occupies the entire fifth floor of a fairly large building. We do, by the way, feel completely safe as we wander around, but are careful not to go too far for fear of not being able to find our way back!

Our room at the Talisman is pleasing: nice, full sized bed, nice bathroom - convenient, clean and very attractive place. What is especially delightful is the beautiful inlayed furniture throughout the hotel.
Image of Talisman Hotel de Charme, Cairo
This is the Talisman breakfast room - note the furnishings!

After pulling out clothing for the morning when we are to meet our guide at 8 am, we venture out on the street. Trying to convince our bodies that it is 7:30 pm and not just after noon, we decide to have dinner. There are endless stores selling all matter of clothing, leather goods, confections, etc., but the choice of restaurants right nearby is limited and we selected the Excelsior, a family place with a very limited menu in English. But the “Chicken Shish Barbeque” pasta and another chicken dish looked interesting enough. But the food was of a very plain Western style and the only Egyptian thing we had was the Sakura beer, which is also nothing special. Still the name of that pasta dish has possibilities.

After dinner, we explored the streets a bit, acquiring a hazelnut confection at an incredible and very crowded bakery, toothpaste (all the care in packing omitted that essential) and a couple of bottles of water from the little shop across the alley from the entrance to our hotel for our touring tomorrow.

Also found some places down a side alley that were selling street food, including the classic Egyptian puffy flatbread – bought and ate one of those. Oddly no touts – must not be too many tourists in this area. That made walking quite pleasant.

In all we have walked about a dozen blocks from the hotel, and explored a tiny bit of downtown Cairo, but we like it and find people are friendly and helpful. In the drug store the two girls behind the counter seemed to have fun figuring out what we were looking for, since they had no English and we, no Arabic.

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