At some point, I realized that there is no way for me to catch up as thoroughly as I wanted for all the moments and adventures I had neglected to chronicle these past few months. So here is my best shot at the best stuff.
With six days between the end of my stay in Alexandria and the beginning of my experience in Cairo I decided that it would be as good a time as ever for a change of pace. Having just arrived in Cairo in the morning, I powered through my LonelyPlanet guide’s section on Turkey through my red-eye to Ataturk Airport (which really ended up being 70% me sleeping on a bench in Cairo International), upon which I found myself in Korea.
Seriously, Koreans travel everywhere, and in giant flocks. On the metro into the city, all around the monuments, even in a small town out in the middle of nowhere, I found myself surrounded by my second countrymen (I consider myself an American first, lest we forget), armed with wide-brimmed hats and fanny packs. I did my best to avoid them because of my merely functional level of Korean, which I know must sound very amusing to natives. Still, I ended up speaking more Korean than English in Turkey.
That aside, I was simply amazed at Istanbul. It’s a surreal experience, siting in a metro car in a city and country you hadn’t really anticipated seeing, watching this whole other world pass by you. Istanbul is truly a monumental mash-up of east and west, where the profound Aya Sofya sits adjacent to the elegant Blue Mosque and the lavish Ottoman Topkapi Palace sits a stone’s throw from Justinian’s Hippodrome and Basilica Cistern. Extemporaneously dropping into a foreign country is something that everyone should experience once in their lives, and kindred spirits will be able to appreciate the added rush I got from being all alone.
There was one other place I needed to visit in Turkey besides Istanbul, and that was Ephesus. It was an experience beyond words to sit in the Great Theater reading Acts 19, imagining the passion and devotion Paul exuded as he walked the streets of the city proclaiming the good news. Ephesus is also the most completely preserved ancient Roman city that exists today, and for someone with a working knowledge of Roman art and architecture who is a Classics minor and long-time Latin student, it’s one of the most incredible places on earth. Almost all aspects of the city, from the public baths, theaters and gyms to government buildings, marketplaces, roads and homes have been preserved to an incredible degree. By the end of this leg of my journey, I had received a first-hand education of a Roman metropole with time left over to kick back by the Aegean.
Returning to Egypt was, in short, painful. I was finally buckling under not having any meaningful Christian community in over two months, and the inglorious transition from Istanbul to Cairo as well as the unexpected (and equally unpleasant) differences between Alexandria and Cairo caught me on my back foot. I gave myself a week to recover, going to classes and staying mostly in my room reading or watching TV, and that week quietly stretched to a month, and then almost two.
It’s hard to pinpoint one thing about Cairo that makes it so exasperating. It is a massive city, definitely on par with New York in size and, in my mind, more overwhelming. For practicality’s sake, I will divide it into four regions.
In Zamalek and Ma’adi you will find the most upscale restaurants and boutiques (as well as the most trees). These places service European and American ex-pats and are generally much more peaceful, though not without higher living costs. Personally, I find these the more culturally uninteresting areas of Cairo.
The heart of the city is downtown Cairo, where people will literally drag you into their shops, telling you stories of their relatives in [insert country of origin here] and insisting that they only want your company only to guilt-trip you into buying something a few minutes later. I think learning to be a bit cold and dismissive is necessary to make it in this city, as nobody will really take it personally, but in my experience it is too easy to let these endless incidents allow one to become overly dismissive and pessimistic of Cairo altogether. Herein lies a major hurdle for foreigners living in Cairo, because you often feel like a walking piñata stuffed with cash, with Egyptians taking a whack at you left and right. I sometimes can’t imagine being a girl, because the chauvinism and ogling can be similarly unbearable.
That being said, it’s the most fun part of town as well. It has an endless amount of places to eat and explore, the culture particular to the city of Cairo is palpable, and there is an amazing church behind Mogamma in which I’ve been able to find amazing spiritual support. When one thinks of Cairo, the first image that comes to mind will usually be this area.
Another distinct corner of the city is Old Cairo (or Coptic Cairo), which is the center of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. While I was initially very excited to explore Coptic tradition and culture when I came to Egypt, I quickly realized that for me personally, the Coptic Church has too many inconsistencies with what I consider Biblical, Christ-centered doctrine that have turned me off to learning more. Still, it is a culture all its own and historically significant in more ways than one. It’s also very easy to get to via Metro.
The fourth area is Islamic Cairo, which is more or less the entire eastern stretch of the city. Here are al-Azhar Mosque and University (two of the most influential institutions in the Muslim world), the Citadel and the Mosque of Mohammed Ali (the largest mosque in Africa), and the infamous Khan al-Khalili Bazaar, where all Egyptian souvenirs can be found. It’s my favorite part of town, and though the hassling is even more intense than downtown at points, the enormous population of conservative, traditional Egyptians here, along with the intense Islamic architecture, give the place an amazingly authentic atmosphere.
In addition to these areas, Cairo is surrounded by and filled in with suburbs. And by suburbs, I mean large, towering, half-constructed apartment buildings covered in layers and layers of dust and pollution with hundreds of satellites mounted upon each roof. They stretch east beyond Islamic Cairo and dominate the western shore of the Nile, and maybe it is the endless rows of apartments in a backdrop of smog and pollution that really gives Cairo such an intimidating atmosphere.
The beast of exasperation begins to take a more definite form when you consider the (very real) physical effects of pollution, the run-down state of most of the buildings and the socioeconomic commentary it implicates, the incessant and manipulative advances of desperate shopkeepers and cab drivers, the difficulty of the language barrier, and the decidedly unique postures one must understand when interacting with different types of Egyptians. Personally, it has also been very challenging to be in a place where Christians of like mind are hard to come by, and the slower-paced and friendlier experience I had in Alexandria gave me a softer expectation of Cairo. It took me almost three months to really even understand why I get so frustrated with the place, but I think that’s the same thing that makes it so rewarding to bust out of culture shock.
Next to seeing the Great Pyramids and visiting the temples of Upper Egypt, climbing Mt. Sinai is just one of those things you have to check off the bucket list. Its legitimacy as the Mt. Sinai is debatable, but just entertain me. For brevity’s sake, and just to mix it up, here are my top 3 thoughts:
1. I can hardly believe a man in his eighties climbed this thing in sandals (or anything like it). It is a legitimate hike and getting down was rough even on my 20-year-old knees. Maybe it’s just that I forget how physically robust you had to be to do the things Biblical characters did, but Moses was a champ.
2. Watching the sun rise over the mountains on top of Mt. Sinai was almost as cool as the sunrise over the Great Sand Sea. Almost.
3. About halfway down the mountain, the path diverges. Being ever the adventurous one, I chose the one they told me was more dangerous, called the Steps of Repentance. It is 750 steep, uneven steps to the bottom, and by the end of it I knew I would never look at elevators the same way again. I don’t know what this guy did, but he must have been really sorry.
Oh yeah, and I went to India. The short version of the story is that I was getting creative on Bing travel before Eid al-Fitr (which wasn’t even that long of a break), looking for an accessible part of the world that was also cheap, and I saw that flying into Mumbai was relatively reasonable for the distance. India is really the only place in that part of the world I would have wanted to visit anyway, and when a friend studying abroad in Shanghai found that it worked for him, we booked immediately and retrieved our visas the morning we flew out.
There is a saying in Egypt that once you’ve lived in Alexandria you can’t go back to Cairo, and there is an equivalent in India of Mumbai and Delhi; there’s just something about the sea that gives Alex and Mumbai the upper hand. The city which the elite still call Bombay is not only the commercial capital of this economic superpower, but it is also the home of countless slums, hundreds of thousands of tiny alleyways and hidden gems, fine art and great food. Middle-class families have housemaids, cooks, and drivers in part to alleviate the mass unemployment, and the aftershock of the 2008 Mumbai bombings can still be felt, especially with one family whom I got to know closely, who own two stores in the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower. Bullet holes remain in their shop, and they make it a point to mention the fact that their Ganesha statue miraculously remained untouched.
From Mumbai we flew to Jaipur, and once more, for brevity’s sake, here are my top 3:
1. Like the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal is one of things where you look at it, walk around it, and leave impressed and satisfied, but also feeling slightly as if someone has been setting impossible standards for these monuments. When it comes down to it, the Pyramids are a confusingly precise pile of rocks, and the Taj Mahal is a big, bulbous tombstone. It’s almost worth it just to say you’ve been there, which is both cool and kind of sad.
2. India has some quirky cultural points that I don’t quite understand. For example, if you ask anyone a “yes” or “no” question, three out of four times they will answer you with a cryptic head-wobble. It can actually mean yes, no, or maybe, and you can only tell by context and by looking at their eyes, which is difficult when they’re wobbling back and forth.
3. The Monkey Palace is the most fun place to visit in Rajasthan. Buy a bag of peanuts, go to the top of the Monkey Temple, and prepare to be swarmed by enthusiastic, pint-sized primates. Especially entertaining if you’re travelling with someone who previously believed monkeys have claws.
And there you have it. More details on Cairo to come soon, as well as reflections on recent trips to Upper Egypt and the Black and White deserts.