Thursday, June 03, 2010

Things I’ll Miss About Egypt #2: Days Like This

We went for a day out – L – an Egyptian, and E, an American expat. First to the Smart Village, a satellite world of modern buildings and kempt grass. Even the mosque was futuristic.

In the Smart Village you’ll find something called CultNat, a project working to archive all matter of information about Egypt. They produce CDs – for instance, you can buy a CD that pulls up a map of several parts of Cairo. You can click on different buildings and get the architectural context of each, zoom in on various attributes of the building, look at it in 3-D, and see various drawings and photos of the building. If you’ve been to downtown Cairo, you can see the influence of all matter of architectural styles, and even an idiot like me can appreciate this. Geography? Wildlife? Tombs at Giza? Medicinal herbs of Egypt? They’ve got it at CultNat. Another room featured a fantastic film about ancient Egypt on nine screens, and another offered an array of 3-D photos. Still another room contains working replicas of such things as the first clock to run on water.

From the strange Smart Village in the desert, we headed to Giza for lunch at the exorbitantly priced Mena House hotel ( It took us a while to get there; we could see the pyramids from the Alex Desert Road, calling out to us across the brilliant green farmland, but, alas, there were no exits. Eventually we found one but still didn’t know how to get to the pyramids.

I love getting lost in Cairo. No, really. Because I am never driving when this happens. So – feast for the senses. Men selling watermelons from a donkey cart by the side of the road. A woman with a stand of drinks in metal containers reflecting the sun. Boys and men on motorcycles. Children tapping on cars in traffic jams. Frankly, I wasn’t a help to L because I enjoyed being lost so much. It’s true, though, that I had spotted the “pyramids” sign on the highway. Of course, I don’t think I was the only one in the car that spotted it – just the only one to be so proud of myself for seeing it.

We arrived at the intersection where the Pyramid of Khufu stands loud and proud.

There, we were accosted by men creating triangles with their hands and pointing, as if we couldn’t see the ancient being before us. One man knocked on the car from front to back. When L rolled her window a crack to ask them the quickest way to get to the Mena House (that we weren’t interested in the pyramids), they ignored her. Though the Mena House is lovely, it was not the main attraction. What we came for was a view of the Great Pyramid from a quiet space.

During lunch, L had decided that the watchbands on both of her guests for this outing were unacceptable. Before she would agree to drop us off on the Corniche so we could catch a cab back to Ma’adi, we had to get new watchbands. She knew where we could get them for twelve Egyptian pounds. Sure enough, soon we double-parked on a Cairo street somewhere near Mohandisseen, and L disappeared. She came back moments later with her fists full of watchbands. E quickly chose one. I, picky, insisted upon going back in with L while E’s watchband was replaced. The store was one of those pantry-sized affairs you commonly find in Cairo. Its main purpose seemed to be the selling of electronic accessories such as phone covers, and behind a counter sat three young men, too many for the size of the store. In one corner sat the watchband guy. Two boxes held a jumble of bands. To my delight, I found one. My watch was admired. The band was set.

On to the Corniche, said L. But, first, let’s drive by Manial Palace. E – who, like me, is leaving Egypt – had wanted to go there for quite some time, but it had been closed for restoration ever since she had arrived in Egypt three years before. At least you can see the outside of it one more time, said L. When we pulled onto the street, L engaged a policeman whose belly was hanging out of his white shirt, which wasn’t tucked into his pants. His belt, its buckle coming undone, was strapped haphazardly over his belly, and he waved a cigarette as they spoke in Arabic. My guess was that they were arguing over whether she could go that way down the street, but when L parked and got out, I discovered that she had been coaxing her way onto the palace grounds. Once inside, we ran into a gaggle of workers who vigorously protested our presence while L smiled and maintained her ground with her firm, charismatic tone. Finally, a man with a conspicuous grey toupee and grey moustache came out from a tent. He protested for a while, and L kept smiling and insisting. I laughed nervously, as is my wont in such situations. E said, “Oh, she’s going to get us in. Just watch.”

Soon we were following the big-bellied policeman, a self-appointed tour guide with an everlasting cigarette, and the tour guide’s friend, who helpfully gestured and served lookout since he knew there would be an inevitable tip at the end of this journey. We peered into a room with solid gold pillars. We rounded a corner, then, to the vast gardens that make up most of the grounds. The centerpiece of these gardens is the “mother tree,” a banyan that birthed all other banyans in the place.

The guide showed us how the aerial prop roots of each tree eventually droop to the ground and plant themselves, growing into trunks that look the same as the original trunk. Older trees can spread across large tracts of land. All the banyans on the grounds, then, are connected, and the mother banyan was the largest of them all.

Earlier, the guide had gestured toward the house of Muhammad Ali, Jr. It was closed, he said. As we passed an open doorway, however, the jaunty sidekick suggested we go in. Quick, they said, glancing around for...someone who doesn't allow rule-breaking in Egypt? Good luck, friends. Anyway, one of them stood lookout as we entered. The inside was covered with tiling and alabaster that looked very much like the Harem of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. So – amazing. We tipped our three guides and headed to the Corniche.

Days like this. Familiar and unfamiliar. I’ll miss the peculiar way I feel this in Egypt.


Bryan said...

It's so nice to see you breaking the rules. You'll be bringing that back with you from Egypt?

That banyan tree rules!

Andria said...

This was totally fascinating. Thanks for making me feel like I was on a little day-trip in Egypt (when I am actually in Illinois).