The 5:30 a.m. wake-up call rings. My first thought is “What idiot scheduled a 7:40 a.m. flight?” Oh, right. That idiot would be me. My great idea was to be in Cairo early enough to do a full day of touring but I can see from the groggy, cranky faces of our kids that was a mistake. At the Sharm airport I decide to jettison the second half of today’s itinerary: Dr. Ragab’s Pharaonic Village will have to wait. It’s a kid’s museum and park that is probably great for Lily, but also could be cheesy dull. Maybe we’ll go tomorrow.
We get an early check-in at the Cairo Grand Hyatt and many of the staff remember us. The tattooed mom and cute blond girls are hard to forget. The view from our new room is stunning. They put us in a tiny corner room with two, floor-to-ceiling, 15-foot wide windows. Each one takes up nearly an entire wall. The effect is like floating above the Nile over Cairo, 500 feet in the air. Even with the heavy smog, we can see for miles, and Cairo sprawls forever. The Giza marina is right across from us with a hundred or so moored private boats. Traveling in low season has its advantages — we’ve gotten the best rooms in every hotel.
The (revised) plan for today is to attack Khan e Khalili, the old Cairo bazaar. It’s got a reputation for being a tourist trap, and it is in many ways. But it’s also an ancient marketplace, the home of trade craftsman working in tiny shops off tiny winding streets for hundreds of years. And since we need some gifts and souveniers, there is no better place to go.
Khan e Khalili is divided into the ‘Egyptian’ part and the ‘Touristic’ part (as they call it). We start down the Egyptian part, just wandering around. I expected it to be like the Muslim quarter in Jerusalem, which was old and scrappy but still very charming. It’s nothing like that. The first things we notice, besides the narrow alley-like streets, are the mud and trash. There are fruit stands aplenty, but many of the shops are closed. We see no tourists around, just the shopkeepers and working folk who pay us no attention. Turning a few corners, we are technically lost, although we’ve traveled such a short distance we couldn’t be far from the main avenue. Still, I begin to wonder “What have I gotten into?” I decide to just find the tourist-friendly part and skip this side. The girls, who are several feet closer to the pungent road than the adults, are visibly distraught. A few locals point and say, “Touristic bazarr. That way.” But they seem to point in different directions.
An Egyptian comes up to us and begins talking in very good English. We are so accustomed to being hassled, that I prepare my usual defense. But he’s got a much better command of the language than most, so it’s not so hard to just listen. And he doesn’t really ask for anything, he just asks where we are from and says he’ll show us to the touristic bazaar. Ok. I follow him. We are slightly lost anyway, so why not? As we walk, he describes the difference between the authentic and imitation goods that are sold in Kahn e Khalili. The major crafts are copper lanterns, boxes made with mother of pearl, papyrus, spices and, of course, silver and gold jewelry of every weight, size and quality.
He stops and points casually to a one-room, 4×6 foot shop on his right that he calls a ‘factory.’ A young boy works at a desk and in Arabic, he and the boy exchange a few words. Two boxes are produced. One the ‘fake’ and one the ‘real.’ It’s amazing how similar they look until he (articulately) points out many, many differences. I find it pretty fascinating. He doesn’t even seem to be selling the box. Most of the real stuff is on the Egyptian side he tells us.
I look around us and realize we have been taken to the back of an alley. My first reaction is fear, mostly because I hadn’t noticed the dead-end while I was looking at mother-of-pearl boxes. But we immediately head back out and I feel stupid for worrying. It appears now that we are getting a full tour of the Egyptian side. Our friendly guide is named Ahmed. Ahmed talks about how this is the ‘real life Egypt,’ referring to the fact that we are on the non-tourist side.
I express interest in the spice market and we walk there, twisting and winding through the carpet and, eventually, the wedding section. Some of the alleys are only about 12 feet wide, some no more than five. Still we see mopeds, tiny Japanese trucks and a horse and wagon splash through the filthy puddles alongside a steady stream of people. At the spice stand we are seated and get a presentation of spices, perhaps 25 or so. They all smell fresh and the kids really like the show-and-tell aspect. Lily, the budding chef in our family, is particularly interested. I buy a few ounces of black peppercorns for about $5 — expensive, yeah. But I don’t mind paying for the show too. And we get to see an antique balance scale.
Ahmed suggests we see papyrus being made. I saw a papyrus making demonstration last year and found it interesting. To make it, they shave long, thin strips of the raw papyrus root, soak them in water, weave them together, press the water out in a vice, then dry it flat. We go to a shop up three flights of stairs in a ‘factory’ building then down a long, dark, smelly hallway. On our right, men in small rooms cut sheets of black leather into shoes with hand tools. On our left are a dozen scrawny cats that get underfoot as we head toward a door marked ‘Delta Papyrus Center.’
Inside is an oasis — it’s air conditioned, bright and clean smelling. On the walls are papyrus paintings of silly ancient Egyptian and modern religious iconography. We don’t get to see any being made, but Trisha does buy a bunch of small prints for her co-workers.
Outside, the mid-day heat and rising stench are getting to us again, so we head toward the tourist side, saying goodbye to Ahmed. Along the way he had mumbled something about a U.S. green card and wanting an invitation, which perhaps hints at his angle. But he was genuinely helpful and never asked for baksheesh, so I give him 50 Egyptian, about $10 for his troubles. It’s one of the rare times that I was happy to tip.
Through the tunnel that goes below the main avenue, we emerge in a different scene entirely. Every shop is densely lined with stuff: t-shirts, plastic trinkets and lots of jewelry. They are aggressive, but not as tough as the sellers at Luxor or even the Great Pyramids.
We were interested in a copper lantern and Ahmed couldn’t find an open shop for ‘real’ ones on the Egyptian side. So we buy a lower quality one. It’s still pretty nice for $35. I show Trisha the jewelry store I used last year to buy her a silver pendant necklace. We look at other stores, but this one is better than any other place: air-conditioned, nicely presented and fixed price. And they have the most interesting stuff. She picks out two beautiful necklaces, and we splurge for a few hundred dollars. They look great on her.
Next door, is some plastic jewelry we buy the kids for a few bucks. The seller tells me that he “likes America!” But he does not like George Bush! and “Obama is a little better.” Haha. “Yessir, you got that right,” I say. I’m reminded that we’ve barely seen any Americans in Egypt. Maybe they are on tours?
The kids buy some stuff — Emma a pocket mirror, Lily a fuzzy camel mini-backpack. I bargain for every item we buy, and often close the deal getting a few knick-knacks thrown in, like fridge magnets and key chains. The girls go home with some decent loot.
It’s been four hours since we arrived and all want to get back to the hotel. The ride back is one of the worst. The heat and car exhaust from sitting in traffic with open windows is nauseating. It makes me very excited to get out of the giant city and go deep into Morocco, our next stop.
We’re hungry because we skipped lunch again. It’s just too difficult, expensive and time-consuming to stop and do a full lunch. And there isn’t much we can get on the street that we trust to eat. Our top priority has been avoiding sickness, and we’ve been successful so far. But it means we can’t have every convenience with food. Fortunately, the kids and I discover that the hotel has a complimentary evening buffet. I send Emma and Lily back upstairs to “tell Mommy about the hors d’oeuvres downstairs.” On the way, Lily jumbles the words and excitedly screams to Trish in the hotel hallway, “Daddy says come quick, there are ARABS downstairs!”
A few hours later at dinner, the kids fall asleep in their chairs. An early flight and a long shopping trip were all we could take.
[Photos by Trisha Creekmore]