Jan 30, 2019
Dervish performance at the Wikalet al-Ghouri
Egypt: What New, What’s Different, Part 1
A Bit of Background:
This November I returned to Egypt after 25 years. It was my fifth visit. I was both excited and anxious, giddy and hesitant.
In addition to Egypt, I have been to Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Palestine/Israel/the West Bank, so visiting a Middle Eastern/North African country was nothing strange to me. But visiting a country that I was last in 25 years ago, felt strange (I had the same feeling a few years ago about Italy). What would be the same? What would be different? How had I changed?
I decided to go back with my good friend, Lucy Smith. For years we danced together, and travelled together; her import business, Scheherazade Imports, took her to Egypt regularly. So after her last trip in 2016, I told her to let me know when she was going back. And she did.
It was perfect. Only 4 of us (and dancer Leila Haddad with us the first 4 days of the trip). Fourteen days, with day trips planned to Al-Fayyum Oasis, and Alexandria. November, when temperatures have cooled down (75 to 80 degrees during the day). A hotel within view of the Nile River. Perfect.
Change #1, buying the ticket
So I booked my ticket to JFK airport (online, so easy), applied for my Egyptian visa (which I could also get in the airport, but who wants to wait for that once you arrive), packed my painting equipment, and a few clothes in the space that was left, (no extra suitcase-within-a-suitcase, because I knew I would not be making many purchases), brushed up on my Arabic, changed to my travel purse—and off I went, to meet Bonnie (10 times to Egypt), Lucy (25+ trips), and Martha (first time). Please note: not having an extra, empty, suitcase will feature prominently later in my trip, in a different blog…
I must say, JFK was a pleasant surprise, and very easy to navigate. We got there early, so security was breeze (for security). EgyptAir loaded from the back of the plane, so getting on was easy. My carryon was small, so that was easy. Our ‘kit’ from EgyptAir included earphones (that worked great), slippers, eyeshades, etc. Dinner and breakfast were lovely, and no crying children. It was like a dream come true.
Comfort package from EgyptAir
Being Met at the Airport
Change #2, the Terminal:
Once we landed and went through everything, Lucy had arranged for us to be met and be taken to the hotel, about 40 minutes away. (I did this in the Netherlands also, and it is a great idea if you are not familiar with the country, or have a long distance to go). All signs in the International Terminal were in English as well as Arabic, and almost everyone spoke English, so getting through security and customs was not very difficult. The new new international terminal was wonderful, and VERY different from my last visit. Among other things, there was no public smoking! In other places later on I did see special smoking rooms. Once we got our luggage, our next mission was SIM cards for our phones, and money.
Toilet (‘water closet’)
Phones and Pounds
Change #3, phone calls and pound/dollar exchange:
In the past I have arranged with Verizon to make overseas calls while traveling, so my email, social media could be done for a fee/byte if using cellular data, or free if through wifi. THIS time I exchanged my SIM card in the airport. It was so easy, and for about $32 we each got a huge amount of cellular data (so I could post to social media anytime, anywhere, call within Egypt, but only 30 minutes making calls overseas). What a deal! One of us didn’t get that, but they had the What’s Up app, so I downloaded that later and used it as well. It REALLY helped to be able to call/text each other, because we did not stay together all the time. Unfortunately, I did not track how long my calls were when calling home, so about a week into the trip I could not call John anymore (actually we were talking when the line just went dead and a message in Arabic came on the screen that my 30 minutes were up. How rude!). Reminiscing: 25 years ago, we would go down to the lobby, give the desk the phone number, sit in a phone booth to the side of the reception desk, wait for them to tell us to pick up because the call had gone through, and then pay a huge bill at the end, even for a few minutes!
Then to the bank in the airport (on the opposite wall of the lobby). I exchanged $500, for which I got £E 8,930. That was a lot of pounds! The value of 1 pound Egyptian (£E) is about 5.6¢, so 100 pounds is about $5.58, $5=£E 90. The last time I was there, £E 1=33¢! The exchange was almost exactly what my app (XE Currency) said it was, so there was little or no fee. There were plenty of ATMs around, but I I never had to use them. Of course I could also use credit cards, but them I might have to pay an exchange rate or transaction fee. I also held back American dollars, just in case. Redundant. Backup. Systems.
So when I left the Cairo Airport, I was set to go.
Our ride into Cairo was uneventful, and the photos I took from the ‘fly-over’ (an elevated highway) provided me with photos of the St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the largest in Egypt and Africa until the opening of the mega-church in New Cairo (west of Cairo) last month, during the Coptic Christmas Mass. At a certain angle the minaret of Al-Noor Mosque (I think) could be seen as well. This view is now a large painting I have in my show featuring paintings from and of my trip at Crossroads Art Center.
Beginning my painting of view from the 'flyover' (raised highway), which I did after I returned to Richmond
Getting from Point A to Point B:
Change #4, Using Uber:
The secret to defeating jet lag is to not sleep until that evening, so once at the hotel and having unpacked and freshened up, Lucy used Uber (change #3) to get a ride to the Khan el Khalili, the old shopping district of Cairo. (Egypt also has Careem, same as Uber, but Egyptian). We were given a photo of the driver, license plate and type of car, and could track where he was, and how close he was getting. Very helpful, and then when I wanted to catch a regular cab, I had an idea of what it should cost. NEVER get in a cab without establishing the fee ahead of time, (preferably with a meter, but often the meter ‘doesn’t work). Another story about THAT later, as well. The Metro is another option, which we also used on another day.
We visited Mahmoud’s Al Wikalah—belly dancing supplies (not the touristy stuff, the REAL stuff), then Mohammed Bakr Khan’s appliqué shop, had dinner at Gad’s, (fast food, but fresh prepared, and so many choices; I got chicken shawarma), and then a Dervish show. By the time we got back to hotel, it was easy to get to sleep (except for the cars honking, which could be heard even on the 10th floor), and I was up early the next morning ready to go!
View of rush hour traffic from the 10th floor, 5pm
And so begins my blog about my November 2018 trip to Egypt.
Click to see my page about “Egypt: Curbs and Tea Runners” with all my paintings
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