I'm back! I can't get the hang of blogging on my phone, so I'm sorry not to have been posting for a while, or commenting on everyone's blogs. But Egypt was fascinating, so here is a post to tell you about some of my impressions and experiences in Cairo.
And yes, I did go on a camel (above) you can see the back of its head in the foreground , as it plodded towards the Pyramids one evening. It was very easy to ride, I was glad to find. Those big squashy feet seem to absorb bumps and jolts, and you almost glide along.
And that's my shadow...yee-hah!!!!!!!! I was being overtaken by a couple of the horses which tourists also like to hire. Although seems to me that if you have taken the trouble to go all the way out to the Pyramids, you might as well do it properly and hire a camel.
I hadn't known what to expect from Egypt. It turned out that it blew my mind. Even though I've been lucky enough to go to some amazing places, Cairo seemed special. It gave me the feeling that I have hardly ever had before, of history going back in a continuous procession over literally thousands of years. It's bustling and chaotic and that is the way life has been for most of human existence, with people thronging the streets, selling whatever they can. Here people are selling flatbreads, funky laundry baskets and coat hangers, raisins, sweets, lamps.... I just snapped that through a gap in a bridge.
Cairo bears the physical and mental scars of many years of corruption, bad planning and dictatorship, but it is also beautiful, and I was constantly assailed by that feeling of life flowing from the distant past to the present in a continuous stream. Look at the picture below, which shows Islamic minarets, some of which date from the 13th century, rising from today's chaotic traffic, while in the far distance, a pyramid stands where it has stood for the past four and a half thousand years.
I wish I'd had the chance to spend more time in Cairo. It's got such an atmosphere and such a personality, and I made up my mind to go back, not least because for me, the city has some personal associations. My family is not Egyptian or Arab, but my dad was raised in Cairo as a boy, and both he and my mother were there at various times before I was born. We have old family photographs of them in Egypt, and they often talked about it. So, on Mum's instructions, I made sure to go to the street where she had worked, very near Tahrir Square.
There, I found many of the elegant French inspired buildings that she'd described to me, albeit in a very dilapidated condition. Intriguing, though.
I felt really sorry that I hadn't scheduled more time in the city, and I longed to explore this particular shop, which reminded me of one of those strange old antiquities shops that seem to occur so often in Victorian and Edwardian stories, like E Nesbit's children's book "The Story of The Amulet" (it's a great story, by the way - read about it here )
I had a very entertaining lunch in a laid back restaurant in the street, called Felfela, with plants and birds. It's one of those cafes you get in the Middle East where people sit around chatting half the day. I wish I'd got some photos of the food, which was excellent. I'm told it is one of the few places in Cairo that caters for vegetarians - not wanting to eat meat is a concept that Egyptians seem very surprised by.
I didn't find the atmosphere in Cairo the slightest bit dangerous. Ordinary people, even very poor ones, seemed pleasant and decent. Of course I would not have approached a political demonstration if I'd seen one (which I didn't) and there is still much to resolve as the anniversary of the revolution approaches on 25 January. Western residents I spoke to in the city said they felt that it was now as safe as any big city, but to me, the main cause for hope seemed that everyone I spoke to was united in their relief at being free from Mubarrak and in their determination to have a better Egypt, one way or another.
Anyway, although Mum was a bit sorry to find that the area she knew had gone down, she was interested to hear about my more recent impressions, and we were pleased to find that she'd often been to social events at Mena House, where I stayed. I was really pleased that Discover Egypt, which hosted my trip, managed to get me in here. This historic hotel began life as a hunting lodge of Khedive Ismail, but quickly became popular with high society as hotel and gathering place. Mum remembers being very startled by an extremely large belly dancer she once watched there and she also remembered the fantastic view of the Great Pyramid. from what was then the entrance .......
but is now an immensely grand breakfast room
The old part of the hotel has been used as a location for several movies, and you can see why.
I can't resist putting in the picture of my Eggs Benedict. which were recommended by a couple of the other guests. They said they were the best they'd ever had, and I thought so too. If Eggs Benedict were poetry, these would be Byron.
One thing that was rather sad is that the 2011 newspaper reports of city problems (which were very real at the time) have now had a catastrophic effect on tourism even to faraway spots like Luxor where nothing at all has happened and life is very small-town.
Things are now improving, and visitors (many of them lured to Egypt by stunning travel bargains) are trickling back, but the dent this is making in the local economy is specially obvious in Cairo. The big operators can afford to hang on and wait for things to get back to normal, but many other people who depend on tourism, from tour guides to camel-owners, are finding life very hard.
Indeed, last week, in the middle of the high season, I had the Pyramids almost to myself. Great for me as a tourist, but sad, too.