Sunday, October 28, 2007

Day 2: Getting Settled

The plane trip was long and uncomfortable, but would have been OK if I wasn’t so darned HOT. I’ve gotta find a way to turn down my personal thermostat. I slept 3-4 hr, then woke up and watched Spiderman 3, subtitled in Arabic on a 13” TV suspended from ceiling 5 rows forward. Not a bad movie!

We landed around 3 PM local time. The Cairo airport is utter chaos! Once we made it through immigration and into the airport proper, which took very little time, actually, we had to collect our luggage at the baggage claim. This was not an orderly process. Most of the travelers, understandably, had tons of luggage, and one Egyptian lady was buttonholing total strangers – including some members of our tour group – and ordering them to put her luggage on the little wheeled cart she had. One sweet guy from our group – who is physically small and slight, and was probably outweighed by the suitcase – tried to help her until his wife came over and made him stop lest he rip out his hernia again.

Next, we were met by GCT reps and divvied up into sections. There are maybe 120 of us on the tour, so they broke us up into 4 color-coded groups, each with its own Program Director (combination sheepdog and tour guide) and its own bus. Dad and I are in the Blue Group, and our “mama bear” is named Ihab Kamel.


The ride to the hotel was a little harrowing. I never realized how orderly American drivers are, and how very little traffic we have. In Egypt those little niceties like obeying the rules are more like guidelines, suggestions, or hints. In fact, Ihab says there are only two real rules: don’t touch anyone else’s car, and don’t hit any pedestrians. That’s about it.

Our five-star hotel, the Cairo Marriott, was supplied with everything we could possibly imagine. Including gates, guards, and a metal detector. In fact, everywhere you go in Egypt there are metal detectors and armed guards. They REALLY want you to feel safe.

decorative but practical gate

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the queue for the metal detector

We checked in to our room at the Cairo Marriott by 6:00 and were in our room by 6:15. The room was great, with a view of the Nile River (the Marriott is on Zamalek Island, in the middle of the Nile) overlooking some floating restaurant/casinos on riverboats tied up to permanent docks.

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And the beds! They were soft and comfortable, and had maybe four of these wonderful squishy pillows that feel like feather pillows but didn’t give me asthma. I want pillows like that!

Rough Schematic Cairo Marriott

The Marriott is a vast hotel built around the core of a 19th century palace. There are two towers anchoring the ends, the old palace in the middle, and a curved 3-story structure of these garden-suite hotel rooms enclosing gardens in the middle. You feel like you’re royal, or at least a hanger-on – there’s wonderful marble pavement everywhere, ornate metal chandeliers that were probably from the palace days, etc., and you really felt like you were in a private enclave, too, especially since you have to go through a metal detector and get your purse X-rayed every time you enter the place.

There are about a dozen restaurants on the premises, where we were told we could eat without fear of being poisoned by bad food hygiene. [They told us that the tap water is pure, but that the way they treat it uses different-enough chemicals that it would make us extremely sick, and NOT TO EAT OR DRINK ANYTHING BUT BOTTLED WATER OR THINGS MADE WITH BOTTLED WATER. Or coffee, since that’s boiled. More about water later!] Grand Circle decided to treat everyone to dinner at the Egyptian Nights restaurant, which is a marvelous open-air restaurant in the courtyard that serves Middle Eastern food. (You’d think I wouldn’t have to say that part, but the other restaurants on site include “Roy’s Country Kitchen”, the “Ristorante Tuscany” and a sushi place.) There are a lot of open-air places in this country, which makes sense when you remember that it rains maybe once a year here. Actually Cairo would be vastly improved by being washed off in an occasional shower, but hey.

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Dinner was delicious. Salad, spicy lamb sausages, couscous or something similar, and fresh, fresh pita-style flatbread baked by authentic Egyptian ladies in an authentic brick oven with roaring flames, situated less than 20 yards from our table. If they’d just given me that bread and a pot of hummus, they wouldn’t have needed to bring anything else. And then they brought out the dessert plate, which included two kinds of baklava, one kind of cake, and two gooey squares tasting of ground almonds, honey, and (in one case) coconut. We sat with Merle and Pauline, a brother- and sister-in-law who travel together after the death of their respective spouses. He was an economist at Stanford, and she was a nurse in Iowa. Very nice! Even though it was late in the evening, the temperature was still 82 degrees, but there was no humidity to speak of. I can deal with that!

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