Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Day One

If this were a book, this would be the foreword, that stuff no one reads. But I am hoping you might read this because, like many forewords, it does contain some things I want you to know.
This blog is a record of my trip to Egypt, the number one item on my "bucket list." The story of how I came to take this trip at this time will have to wait, but for now, this is the record of my adventure.
A couple of things:
1. The tense changes throughout from present to past and I've made no attempt to alter that. I know it changes because I keep notes in a hand-written journal, a Moleskine to be precise, with its black cover and unlined pages, the same sort of journal that traveled with Hemingway and Picasso.(Incidentally, I write in it because it makes me feel like I am joining in a great stream of visitors to this land who, journals in hand, have seen these same magnificent buildings and temples and stood in awe before their history and heritage.) The tense changes in my journal, depending on when I am able to scribble in it and as I essentially transcribe my journal to share with you, I haven't bothered to edit. Partly because I think there is a certain interesting flavor to the immediacy of the words and partly because I'm just too damn tired at night when we get back to do the kind of rewrite and editing that would require.
2. This really is a blog, a journal account. If and when I can, I'll provide links and possible pictures, but internet access isn't always the easiest and so I'm not approaching this with the same degree of detail that I would if I were truly writing a book, for instance.
And because of the internet issues, I'm not sure how often I will be updating this. I'm going to try for daily, but I'm also going to go with the flow.
3. I'm writing this on a netbook with a small keyboard and no spell check...so ignore the typing errors that are sure to appear
Finally, .I'm doing this because I hope to let you in on a bit of my dream and the fulfilment of that dream in the hopes that you will go out and find your own dream. It is only in the sharing that we make our experiences come to life.

And so it begins.
The fulfilment of a dream.
I'm on my way to Egypt. Technically I'm on my way to New York where I'll catch an Egypt Air flight to Cairo. According to othe moving map at the back of the seat in front of me on this Delta flight, I'm somewhere over Forest City, Iowa. The heartland of America. Somehow that seems like poetic justice to begin a journal of an adventure to the mysterious land of the Pharaoahs and the Sphinx, the vast desert and the throbbing lifeline of the Nile. Over Iowa, the middle of the middle of the country of my birth.
The flight from Portland to JFK was supposed to leave at 6:25 am but the number two engine was three quarts low on oil and, for some reason, no mechanic at the airport was authorized to put oil in. So someone else, from some place elesd had to be summoned. This, of course, took a very long time, more than a hour. Clearly putting in a couple of quarts in an Airbus is not like going to the nearby JiffyLube.
Fortunately I have a couple of hours in JFK before I catch the next flight to Cairo (Oh My God, I'm going to Egypt!) so it doesn't much concern me. A few people are panicking, but there always seems to be at least one person who gets freaked out, as if that will somehow make the place fly faster.
Incidentally, if you want to attact attention, just carry an Egypt tour book. Everyone stops and asks if you are going there. Then, when you say "yes," they act quite surprised as if it were usual for people to carry around Egypt tour books. After about the third person said the same thing, I was very tempted to reply, "If you didn't think I would be going there, why do you think I would be reading 'The Rough Guide to Egypt'?" But I refrained. At least so far.
Last night in the restaurant where I had dinner before going to the hotel which offered a Park and Fly option that was ultimately cheaper than paying for parking in the budget lot, the manager was so intrigued, he brought over one of his servers who was from Jordan and they both sat down and talked with me for about 20 minutes. At the end he said that if I would come back on the way home and show them the pictures, he'd give me dinner on the house.
I might just take him up on the offer.
The afternooon air in NY was brisk, but since the airplane had been stiffling, it felt wonderful. I caught the Air Train to the International terminal where, once inside, the presence of veils and rapid-fire world languages made it clear I was leaving the US.
As I was checking in, the man at my Egypt Air station was clearly a supervisor, as he was dressed in a suit and tie, not a uniform. As he took my ticket, he asked if I knew the president of Germany. I said I didn't and then he added, "You look 90% like her. The next time you look in the mirror, you are looking at the President of Germany." I googled her on my iPhone while I was waiting and I'm not sure if we look that much alike. We are both blonde, and sort of round-faced. Perhaps I'll be mistaken for a German in Egypt. Not sure if that is good or bad. German or American? Which would I choose.
In the Egypt Air plane waiting for take-off, I find myself surprisingly delighted to learn that one of the people on the trip is a doctor. Now granted, he is a radiologist, but still. A doctor is a doctor and I'm pretty sure he still remembers how to treat heat stroke or snake bite. In any event, it is nice to be traveling with your own physician of sorts.
He and his wife are traveling with his cousin and her husband. And in the small world category, the cousin's husband graduated from Stanford where my son Matt went. Even though I'm not a Stanford grad, there is a sort of comradery that goes with the Cardinal connection and I was adopted into the "club." So I have some companions for the journey, although I am happy to have my own room.
Egypt Air feels like almost every other plane I've been on except for the foot rests that resemble those on Amtrack. And the fact that everything is in Arabic and English. The announcements take a very long time in Arabic and end with Shukran, thank you, one of the few Arabic words I know. The same announcement in English takes less than half the time. I wonder what we non-Arabic speakers are missing out on?
One interesting point is that instead of a movie or pre-flight announcement, the overhead screens show the pilots' view of the runway. We are slowly taxiing, since we are 20th in line fo take-off. No turning back now.
About an hour into the flight, the attendants brought little zippered pouches with sox, sleepshades, toothbrush, ear bud and a carrying strap. I can only imagine what they must get in first or business class.
We are about 40 minutes for landing. I slept som, rather fitfully and uncomfortably, but I dozed a bit. It's now 2 am my time and I've been up for nearly 24 hours, so no wonder I feel a bit off. I'm not exactly excited or nervous anymore. Just a little spacy. As I look out the window all I can see is a sliver of blue sky beyond the slanting slope of an immense silver wing. We are suspended in space, not part of the earth, but not part of the sky and we hurl through the frigid air, eating, drinking, talking as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. Which, I guess, it is now.
Kemet. The Red and Black Lands. Egypt.

My first glimmer is a flash of red-yellow sand between fluffy white clouds and the azure sky. As the wing dips, I see a bit more and I have an "aha" moment. I now understand why the ancient Egyptians called the desert the "Red Land." Under the yellow of the desert is a pale salmon color and where a road or a building brushes away the surface, deep red lines remain.
The desert is truly endless, broken by patches of buildings, the same color as the sand. It suddenly strikes me as I watch that there is no water. No streams, no lakes, no ponds. Little patches of dusty green pop up now and then, but there is no open water. I understand now why the Nile was so important. It was and still is the only source of water in what is truly an endless desert.
Our group gathered to get our Visas together and as I waited, someone called my name. Hearing one's name in Cairo is a bit of a jarring experience. It turns out someone on the flight (not on my tour) was a member of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Press at the same time I was and he recognized me. Indeed it is a very small world.
I have to admit there is a certain advantage to being in a tour. They take care of details like Visas, customs, luggage etc. All I have to do is find a bathroom. Which grows more urgent by the moment.
The terminal of the Cairo airport we landed at is brand new, as in less than a month old. It gleams in every corner and the bathrooms are utterly spotless. I was a little startled when, in this ultra-modern bath with automatic flush, a hand suddenly came under the door with a wad of toilet tissue. Since there was a roll in the stall, I tried to remember the Arabic for "No thanks," but being a bit tired, trying to balance my purse and carry-on and pee at the same time meant I had no brain. The hand finally pulled back out.
We were accompanied through the city by a police escort which I didn't see, but I did see cars swerve quickly to let us pass so I assume he was in front. I really don't know why we had a police escort. Perhaps all buses filled with American tourists do.
Cairo is greener than I expected although I knew that gardens had been a part of Egyptian culture since the beginning. Nevertheless, I saw many more trees and evergreens than I had anticipated. Most are a dusty green, from the pollution, the cars, and the dust itself. Every now and then, a bank of bougainvillea appears, the red flashes of the blossoms revealing pocket gardens between buildings, in old villas and even, sometime, just along the side of the road.
I had been waiting for my first sight of the Nile and suddenly, we turned a corner and there it was. The Nile. The most famous river in history, perhaps the most famous river in the world. The river of the Pharaohs and Cleopatra and Alexander and the British. It was, well, the Nile. Broad, silvery blue and flowing steadily toward the Mediterranean. I barely got a glimpse before high rises cut off the view, but then we crossed a bridge and below us was the most amazing sight. A couple of small islands of the most incredibly lush green fields. It struck me that they looked exactly like the fields in a computer game about Egypt that my son and I used to play. The islands, in the center of the river between Gezi and Cairo are not filled with masses of tumbling houses, half-built high rises or a jumble of dwellings which appear to have sprung up without regard for direction or safety. Apparently they are considered "the lungs" of the city and are therefore left verdent, to be cultivated as the land of the Nile has been cultivated for centuries.
Our tour guide Fadel Gad has been giving us rolling history lessons as we pass through Heliopolis, the President's Palace, Military Academies and what seems like endless highrises. Much looks as I had imagined or extrapolated from my visit to Jordan, but nothing prepared me for the Cities of the Dead.
The Cities of the Dead, which is now a sort of squatters' area inhabited by the living as well, is enormous. Literally miles and miles of what look like small houses, shrines and temples surrounded by walls. It truly is a City....of the deceased. If ever one were to realize that the necropolises of Pharonic times are not yet gone, one has only to look at the City of the Dead. It is estimated that as many as 500,000 Cairenes live in these cemetaries and, as we passed by some of the alleys with evidence of live habitation, it was a very odd thing to think about children playing literally on the bones of their ancestors. Life and death. Birth and rebirth. It is a very Egyptian concept, the living and dead together. But a bit eerie from my Western perspective.
The Citadel of Salah-al-din is located near the end of the Cities of the Dead, at least via the route we took. An enormous fortified Crusader-era complex, it stretches like a Medieval spider across the landscape. Our tour guide said that we would not be visiting it because it "wasn't that old." In a land where time is measured in thousands of years, the 13th century truly isn't all that old. In fact, it's practically modern by comparison.
The landscape almost immediately changes from city to rural and just as we turned off to go to our hotel near the Pyramids, there began to appear little stands with a vegetable seller and always a donkey. Carrots must be in season for everyone had bunches for sale. They are beautifully arranged, their bright orange ends bundled and fanned out like some oddly pointy flower arrangement that has fallen onto its side. At one of the stands, a grey donkey contently munched his own bag of carrots. As we passed, the vendor began tossed water from a bucket onto the vegetables and being the quesy-stomached American, I no longer considered how lovely and picturesque the carrots and vegetables were, but began to think Immodium thoughts and recalled how a friend of mine nearly died from eating raw carrots in Egypt. I can see why she was tempted, but I will resist the temptation.
Our hotel is magnificent. The Mena House was once a khedival hunting lodge and was the placw where Roosevelt and Churchill initiated D-Day as well as the signing of the peace treaty between Isael and Egypt. Upon our arrival we were given glasses of karkaday, a scarlet beverage made from hibiscus flowers. It is slightly reminiscient of cranberries, with the same sweet-tangy flavor.
My room is modern and comfortable, but the most amazing thing is that outside on my balcony I can see Cheops' Pyramid, soaring high above what appears to be the minuet of a mosque. (But it might be something else pointy.) I am sitting in a comfortable chair, with a slight breeze blowing, looking at the Great Pyramid. I can bearly believe it. After a lifetime of dreaming, it appears before me as if it were itself a dream.
A flock of bird soars to the heavens, temporarily creating a cloud of living smoke in front of this, the last remaining wonder of the ancient world, old at the time of Christ, ancient even to Cleopatra, this symbol of eternity seems almost itself to be eternal. As the birds circle and then dive, I can see why the ancient Egyptians chose the bird to be the sign of the Ka, the soul. I feel like for a moment I've been given a glimpse into the soul of the Pyramid.
Directly in front of me, a lush green manicured lawn glides up a gently slope. Palm trees sway in the breeze, their fronds waving gently. The temperature is ideal and I now understand why, in the 19th century, people came to Egypt in the winter for their health.
Turning my attention back to the Pyramid that fills the skyline, I sense I'm holding my breath.
I am here.
I am really here.
It has begun.


  1. Congratulations on fulfilling a dream, I'm proud of you! Keep sharing your thoughts...

  2. I'm delighted with your words and living your experiences through your writing - how fun!

  3. Oh how wonderful! Thank you for posting your trip journal. I will never be able to get to Egypt so I'm going to live thorugh you.

  4. How great that you are there and sharing your experiences with us. What a wonderful gift.

  5. The Robins are with you heart and soul. Fly!