All the silent stones in the desert.
 
All of the silent stones in the desert called us from afar.  Ever since we stumbled upon this peculiar thing called possibilities our daily conversations have been strewn with geographical place names that ring of allurement and then much, much more. Indeed, name dropping is surely easy and undoubtedly fun when you’re hungry and it’s not yet dinner time (which in France can be mightily late).  From around December or so, one of us started saying, “Egypt,” and the other, too, began to say, “Egypt,” as in:  “Where should we go on the next break?”  “Egypt!  Egypt?”  We did waver momentarily after our winter trip but then thought, well, never mind, we’ll be broke but we’ve got the memories.
 
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See Egypt in a different light:  It’s a whole new perspective on film. 
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DAYS  Day 1  Day 2A  Day 2B  Day 2C    Day 4  Day 5  Day 6  Day 7  Day 8
 
 
 
Part and parcel.
 
GIZA – 19 February 2009.  With the three pyramids – the three Pyramids – just a glance away from our balcony (OK, it was more like a sharp turn around the corner and then over a mini hill glance from our non-view room at the Mena House) it was hard to believe that we would do something like sleeping in until eleven.  But we did.  We surely did after a fun-packed and correspondingly wearing day yesterday.  This morning, neither of us felt compelled to wake the other or ourselves.  We slept like two content tourists in a high-ceiling room, with the thick shades drawn, and our minds wandering in distant dreams stretching as far as the vast desert that was then, and forever, steadily encroaching upon this artificial oasis.

We awoke and caught a glimpse of the modern-day capital from our northwestern balcony.  It felt like a typical smoggy day in L.A. with the added longing calls to prayer over the competing loud speakers coming from every which corner.  Down on the second level of the sprawling hotel, we passed a corridor overlooking the café below.  Peering through the geometric patterns of the wooden divider, we spied the odd patrons below and were momentarily transported back to a familiar Cairo of period movies, of colonial times, where the smartly dressed set put up the appearance of normality while the brewing turbulence of revolution and world war was hovering just beyond the compound’s walls.  Today, all seemed to be tranquil, almost sleepy, as if not a bit of what had happened in the last century in Egypt had ever taken place.

We felt a gnawing hunger and thought we ought to finish this half-day by the pool.  So, we grabbed lunch at the aptly named Poolside Café (see Review) where the service was substandard, the food was below par, and the median age of the customers was about twice ours.  We began to realize who came to Egypt to stay at the Mena House.  That, however, did not bother us one bit because we had come to this part of the world for something much, much older.  Compared to all the silent stones in the desert, everyone in residence here was a spring chicken.  We followed lunch with an attempt at sunbathing (after Nez confirmed that the pool was still much too cold) and leisure reading but only succeeded in ordering a round of the very desirable fresh mango juice and napping under a spotty sun.  When we had had enough and got ready to head back to the room our waiter made a startling request.
 

  View of the Pyramid, check.  Ostentatious hotel, check.  Nice looking pool with no pesky kids, check.  OK then, we’ll take it slow today.

 

 
“Do you have any pens?” he asked.
Pens? You need pens?  What about the pen you just handed me to sign the bill?
“I’m sorry I don’t have any pens,” said Riot.
“Pens,” the waiter repeated, “Japanese pens?”
We had nothing to give the poor guy and so left him disappointed.  He had had the bad luck of approaching a very un-Japanese couple whose only pens were of the French supermarket or American lifted-from-the-workplace variety.  Surely, not the type one collected from visitors.

Continuing on with the sleep-and-eat theme of this “rest” day of travel, we decided to leave the safety and comfort of the compound for dinner.  While we would not shy from taking credit for being adventurous, or even brave, travelers, on this night, we were mainly driven by a desire for something different than the Mena House’s seven restaurants.  (We really feel for folks on cruise ships.)  From our guidebook we got the names of a few nearby restaurants but could not tell for certain how far away they were.  As far as we could tell from the guidebook’s map, the nearest recommended restaurant was either just 50 yards from the hotel or half a mile away; rounding errors, really.

Down at the reception desk, we presented our dining choices, scribbled on a torn piece of paper, to the staffer behind the counter and asked which one he would recommend.  His hums and haws indicated that he would like to suggest an onsite option instead.  But we did not give in.  Which was closer, we inquired, sort of already knowing the answer.  Reluctantly, he pointed to the name, Felfela Café, at 27 Cairo Alexandria Road, by the Meridien Hotel.  Could we walk there, we asked.  No, he said, it was too far.  Would we like him to call us a taxi?  No, we would walk, we responded and thanked him for his help.  Who took a cab to go 50 yards or half a mile?
 

  Nez was seriously tempted by the inviting pool but the water was much too cold on this February afternoon.

 

 
As always, Riot’s camera set off the metal detector as we left the ornate lobby but none of the guards on duty batted an eyelash.  By now, we have determined that the stupid thing served no different a function than the little bell that went off in a shop every time a customer walked through the front door.  At the main gate, the guards actually paused from their engaging conversations and gave us a kind of bewildered look, as if to say, “Why are you walking?  Shouldn’t you be in a taxi or with your private driver?”  We thought we were “different” than the “other” captive guests, although, admittedly, the sight of another couple leaving the compound on foot just ahead of us made us feel more reassured about our decision.

No sooner had we stepped past the entrance barrier (our force field, if this were a sci-fi flick) than a mob of taxi drivers descended upon us.  No, thank you, we said to the first layer of aggressive hawkers and no, thank you, we said to the uninspired secondary group who did not bother to leave their vehicles or sidewalk benches.  A left turn led us to a busy intersection with heavily armed police brewing tea behind bullet shields and too many cars careening in every direction.  This was the real Cairo of Cairenes going home in the evening, in whichever mode of transportation they had, and in their midst were a few pesky tourists trying to cross a busy thoroughfare.  We followed the example of the locals; we waited for what looked like a large enough gap in traffic and ran.  It worked.

We had not seen any street signs since we started our evening stroll.  Riot guessed that Cairo Alexandria Road should be the street that stretched east-west from the intersection, but he was wrong.  We only arrived at that conclusion after walking for a while and not seeing any restaurants.  We doubled back to where we started and took only the other road, which to Riot felt just as right as the one we just decided was wrong.  It was getting dark and we were getting hungry.  We passed by a restaurant, whose English sign did not say Felfela Café, and a plump, middle-age man rose from his sidewalk bench to ask if we needed help.  We had been wary of unsolicited assistance but were not ready yet to give up on the guidebook’s extolling of Egyptian’s general friendliness.

“We’re looking for the Felfela Café.”
“Felfela?” asked the man.
“Felfela Café,” Riot repeated the full name just to be sure.
“OK,” he said.  Pointing to the restaurant behind him, “This is Felfela.”

Great, we thought, we had found ourselves one of those.  We pointed to the restaurant’s sign, said it did not say Felfela, and thanked him for his help.  We started walking.

“No, no,” he tried to stop us.  “This is Felfela.”

Who did he take us for?  Two tourists who ventured out beyond the safety and familiarity of their five-star resort and found themselves lost?  We repeated that we did not believe him and thanked him all the same.

“Wait, wait, where are you going?” he asked, as if we had not been over that point already.
“Felfela Café,” Riot was losing his patience.  “By the Meridien Hotel.”
“The Meridien Hotel?” the plump man asked.
“Yes.”
“I’ll take you.  It’s this way.”  He pointed to a dark lane that led from the main road we were on.

Who did he take us for?  Yes, we had taken a wrong path earlier but we believed we had gotten our bearings by that point.  From our hotel room, we could see the Meridien Hotel, and from where we were then standing, we could see our hotel.  So, by deduction, the Meridien Hotel should be on this large street and not in some unlit alley.

“Come,” he waved at us to our incredulity.  “I’ll take you. It’s a short cut.”

We shook our heads and took one last look at this stranger, whose body was half obscured by the darkness into which he had stepped.  We saw what remained of the ordinary face of deceit that gave honest Egyptians a bad name and made their undoubtedly true national trait of friendliness immediately suspect.  We turned and walked away, for good.

Not 50 yards ahead we found the clearly-labeled and well-patronized Felfela Café.  There, a good meal awaited, especially the stuffed pigeon that Riot ordered.  (See Review.)  It was right on Cairo Alexandria Road, befitting of its street address, and not some side street.

 
  At night when the crowds had gone and the gates leading to the Pyramids of Giza were guarded, one could have a nice quiet moment with Cheops’s monument right from the garden of the Mena Hotel.    A close up of the orderly layers of stones.
 
On the way back, we came across the same petty fraudster, still sitting on his sidewalk bench.  We ignored him.  “Do you want to see my shop, my friends?” he asked, either not remembering or pretending not to remember us.  But, this time, no answer was forthcoming.  The guidebook warned against being unnecessarily and unwarrantedly rude by ignoring an Egyptian’s sincere desire to strike up a conversation.  While we might be guilty of that with others we encountered on this trip, with this particular individual, we could not be any surer that we weren’t.  Another block up, a man carrying a walkie-talkie in a preposterous manner approached us and uttered a single phrase:  “Police escort.”  Perhaps we said, “No, thank you.”  Or, maybe we just laughed quietly.  The “police escort” followed us for a block anyhow before dropping off.  Maybe he got a call from dispatch to come fetch the assault rifle he had forgotten at the barracks.  That would have made his ruse more believable.

Later that night, Riot tried to confirm something he had read in rock lore.  He headed back to the same piece of ground on that first night with a clear view of the Great Pyramid and cranked on the opening track of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.  Unfortunately, Riot could not remember exactly what was supposed to happen when one listened to a certain track of this great album beneath the Pyramid under a certain moon (most likely a full moon).  In any case, nothing extraordinary happened except a good listen to fantastic music before an unbelievable sight.  (In any event, it was only a waning crescent moon.)  Tonight, there was no one touting an unauthorized pyramid climb probably because there was actually someone manning the main gates to the Pyramids.

After what happened this evening, we could see why people would want to stay behind the walls of the likes of the Mena House.  Yet, from our great outing yesterday with Mostafa and Mr. Ali, we saw why people needed to get out from the comfort and perception of safety of the very same walls.  The silent stones in the desert and the chaotic reality of modern Egypt are simply part and parcel of the same entity.  One could not see the Pyramids without seeing Egypt.  And, it would not be the same experience to see the Pyramids entirely removed from the context of its surrounding.  Need proof?  Go see the kitschy version in Vegas.
 
DAYS  Day 1  Day 2A  Day 2B  Day 2C    Day 4  Day 5  Day 6  Day 7  Day 8
 
Go to Dine | Cairo  Go to Sleep | Cairo
 
 
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