Monday, July 30, 2007

Home at last!

As a last stop on the tourist track in Cairo, I went to visit the Coptic Museum today.

Surrounded by beautiful buildings and churches, it traces the history of Christianity in Egypt in terms of food, clothing, teachings, materials, inventions, etc.

Well worth the visit, but probably best in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the H-E-A-T!

Friday night i went to hear one of Egypt's top marimba players perform at the beautiful open air-theatre at the Cairo Opera House.

Accompanied by 10+ person band who played inspirational piano, trumpet, drums, djembe, flute, and other instruments i don't know the names of, they put on a rousing show for 90 minutes nonstop.

Incredibly sweet and charming, she is known to help children in the community, mainly with disabilities, to give them an opportunity to create music.

At one point a little girl, probably no more than 8 years old, dressed in a pink angel outfit, came out to sing a song. Later on, a deaf boy gave a solid performance on the electric piano.

According to the French couple whom i was sitting next to, this boy was also featured in her concert 3 years ago as a budding protigy. Obviously he has grown and matured, both in size and musical talent. Overall, a wonderful night of authentic Egyptian music and ambience. And with the light breeze, the heat was bearable.

I 'm reading Khul-Khall, Five Egyptian Women Tell their Stories. Written by

Nayra Atiya, a native-born Egyptian who immigrated to America only to return years later to learn more about her origins, she compiles these women's stories and arranges them to show how different women in Egypt view their role in the family and greater community.

Quite anthropological, it provides a good insight into Islamic-Egyptian culture, albeit a bit dated as it's set in the early 80's.

Well, my longer-than-expected Cairo stopover has definitely given me the yearning to return and explore other areas of Egypt, especially the South. It is very fascinating, from the friendly people to the culture to the ancient artifacts and monuments. But definitely for next time, I'll be sure to pack two essentials: a detailed guidebook and a Matt.

I'm back in Hong Kong again, and having missed being together on our 2nd Jersey wedding anniversary (July 29), Matt met me at the airport with a Xinjiang meal take-out, still hot from Shenzhen! We had initially planned to hop across to China in search of some fatty lamb kebabs and banmian to celebrate the day. It turns out he went on his own and brought some back instead. It's good to be home!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Salam from Cairo - again!

No excuses this time, just total carelessness.

After realising that the time i had written down in my diary/calendar was in fact 12:10 AM and not 12:10 PM, it was too late to make my flight on Wednesday. So here i am still in Cairo, but hey, it ain't such a bad place to spend a few days -even by default!

Luckily I was able to rebook with Singapore Airlines on the next outgoing flight to HK via Singapore leaving 12:10AM Sunday. "Make sure you check in Saturday night this time, mizzz" the agent on the phone tells me in a tsk-tsk tone. "Yessir," i reply sheepishly. I've learned my lesson.

In any case, yesterday was a fantastic day. I went off exploring in the small narrow alleys of Old Islamic Cairo, Khan-al-Khalili. Just for description purposes, it was as if i was dropped into the middle of an Aladdin or Ali Baba storybook.

Everything is sand-coloured and there is this aura of a desert paradise that you could tell was once the centre of trade and travel, the crosssroads of the world.

People say they come to Cairo for the madness and chaos, and i suppose it's true. Wherever you turn, the old bearded men harass and heckle you to "come look, it's free" and the old women flash their products in your face: wallets, tissues, lighters, semi-precious stones, examples of henna hand painting (which i succumbed to!), etc.

There are camels, donkeys, stray cats and dogs, mules and an incredible number of flies. The ground is uneven, unpaved and dust rises and kind of settles right at a convenient eye-level.

I lunched on a surprisingly delicious mushroom pizza near one of the most sacred Islamic sites in Egypt, the Mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein. See pic.

Apparently it is the burial place of the head of Al-Hussein, grandson of the Prophet. Although non-Muslims are not allowed in, just admiring the intricate carvings on the outside walls is enough.

By late morning, i was already covered in sweat and dust, and utterly exhausted from walking wide-eyed and getting lost in the labyrinth of alleys while attempting not to trip over any rocks or step in any muddy puddle.

I sat down at Fishawai's Coffeehouse, one of the oldest ahwas in the city. Strategically placed for people-watching, thier mint shai and shisha pipes are an absolute must.

Unlike the previous night, i didn't feel uncomfortable whatsoever having a smoke and drink all to myself. I must've stayed for nearly two hours, waiting for the intense mid-day sun to pass. (FYI: it's been over 40 degrees Celcius every day, with high humidity)

What amazes me most about Egyptian people is the consistent humour that seems to permeate the thick dusty air. It's like they are on some sort of happy pill and are always laughing and joking with each other. Lots of joie de vivre here, and when the environment is so unbearably hot and dusty, it certainly adds a refreshing 'colour' to the air.

And true to what my Lonely Planet says about Khan al-Khalili market having "some of the greatest smooth talking merchants you will ever meet," i had one who came scurrying up to me to tell me in an urgent voice i had dropped something back along the way. My initial reaction was i had dropped my camera, wallet or worse - passport, so I quickly looked around on the ground and in my bag, which i was carrying in front of me for security reasons, and seeing that i had all of my valuables, decided he must have been mistaken and perhaps confused me with someone else.

I told the guy "I don't think so, i have everything here." He promptly replied without missing a beat, twinkle in his eye, "You dropped my heart, Mizzz. Could you come back and pick it up?"

You've got to be kidding me, i thought to myself. But i had to laugh out loud. I wondered how many times he gets to perform that trick daily! :) I told him i was very sorry but that i'm sure he was used to having his heart dropped every day and that i had to go now. He flashed a big grin and with a little wave and gracious nod, he skipped off.

On my way back to the hotel by taxi, i saw the sun set while crossing the bridge over the Nile River. Alongside our taxi was a father and his son weaving in and out of the traffic, see pics.

Today is my R&R day. I had to switch to another room last night because i didn't have a reservation, obviously, and someone had already reserved that room.

Unfortunately it didn't have, what i now consider a necessity here, an air-
conditioner and i spent the entire night tossing and turning in my own grime and sweat, gently rocked in and out of sleep by the relentless traffic symphony outside my window.

I thought i could suck it up and last one more night, but no. I'm checking out and moving to another hotel, closer to the airport, and with climate-controlled bedrooms.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A pyramids and shishkebab stopover

I'm in hot and steamy Cairo, overnighting for one day until I catch my flight back to Hong Kong.

Matt only had 2 hours stopover and we managed to get him as close to the Giza Pyramids as possible, before him having to turn back and catch his flight to Germany for work meetings. See pic of us 'in front' of the pyramids.

After an unbelievable week in Eritrea where time seemed to stand still and the outside world ceased to exist, being thrown into the hustle and bustle of a 20 million- strong metropolitan city and being taken around by guide Mohammed in the heat of the day to see the wondrous pyramids, Sphinx and tombs is, to say the least, surreal.

So while Matt left, I stayed on with Mohammed, who led me up close and personal to the Giza Pyramids and Sphinx. See him holding some Eritrean nakfa (the currency is completely useless outside the country) I gave him as a keepsake.

We then spent several hours in the Egyptian Museum, a definite must for Cairo tourists. Just the massive scale of the building itself is impressive, and all the treasures and jewels that lie inside is simply mind-blowing. See pic of exterior of Museum.

After a scrumptious shishkebab meal at a local Egyptian restaurant with warm pita bread, jollof rice, salad and a potato stew, I managed to scarf down an apple-toffee cake and a steaming cup of Egyptian sweet tea.

It's strange how after the sun sets in a hot climate, my attention immediately turns to my appetite which has, for some reason, come alive at full force.

I passed a shisha lounge/ cafe and wanted to go in but upon noticing that all the customers were male, decided i best wait until next time with Matt.

Will report back with lots of stories and pictures from beautiful Eritrea! I'm off to write a few postcards in my air- conditionned room and watch Al-Jazeera on cable TV.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Farewell to our Eritrean Family

July 24, 207.

Our last day in Eritrea and Matt and i woke up with sore throats.

Still, there was no time to sleep it off. We had people to see, places to go, souvenirs to buy.

We wrapped up in many layers, swallowed a bunch of pills and headed out the door.

See pic of the main street of Asmara. Across the road is the imposing, but gorgeous Catholic Cathedral.

Our first stop was trying to track down the latest LOST series, season 3.

Being addicts to the tv series, we saw it once on the first day, but in Tigrinya.

We were now on the hunt to find it in English.

After a few desperate attempts in various stores and shops in the most random of streets, we were just about to declare defeat when it started to hail!

We couldn't believe it, chunks of ICE were beating down and it hurt!

See Matt throwing an ice-ball at me, a first in Africa!

We then went back to Saba and Haileb's house where we showed a slideshow of the week's pictures.

Everyone loved seeing themselves on screen.

While our last injera dinner was being prepared in the kitchen (this is the meal where we ate the delicious Adi Gulti chicken), with last minute family pictures being taken and with Al-Jazeera blasting from the television, I taught the kids how to fold a paper ball, one of my babysitting tricks.

See pic of Selina and Ruta blowing up their ball.

I've also posted some pics of the other family members here.

Basically it has been a completely enriching week, and despite the obvious culture and language barriers, we were taken in like family and made to feel at home.

What better way, then to share a last communal meal with them.

These are the people who have made our trip so special, so memorable and whose generosity and kindness is a true treasure in this world.

Monday, July 23, 2007

It's a family affair in HOT Massawa

July 22-23, 2007.

With 7 kids and 6 adults, we set out very early for Massawa, the port city by the Red Sea.

I won't elaborate much more except to say that this road trip was full of twisty-turny roads, gorgeous mountain passes and sand dunes, lots of music and laughter, and plenty of pee and barf stops :)

The best thing about travelling with children is that everything is new to them too.

It's exciting, it's adventurous and just plain fun.

For the most part, the Eritrean coast (unlike the Egyptian one) has remained wild and very much untouched.

Despite being only 100 km east of Asmara, Massawa has a completely different vibe, very much influenced by the countries and connections with Arabia across the Sea.

I would assume this would be the place where resorts and hotels would be built once tourism picks up in the country. It really is gorgeous.

The moment we arrived, we all jumped into the sea.

It was like paddling in warm bath water in a very large bathtub.

For one of the kids, Nigisty (Ghebre's niece), it was her first time ever to see the ocean and her first attempt at swimming.

Shocked to see so much water in one area, she asked us where it all came from. Good question.

She was very courageous and extremely persistent in the water and by the second day, she was kicking and doing the front crawl like she had been swimming all her life!

What a joy to see! See Nigisty holding Ruta in the pic.

That night we had a delicious meal of Yemeni fresh fish.

It is sprinkled with hot pepper and baked in a tandoori oven. Divine!

Over bottles of cold beer (which little Yohanna took quite a liking to!) we had a family of cats gather at our feet, waiting for us to drop the fish bones.

Early the next morning, with all the kids already in the water, Ghebre and Haileb took us into Massawa town to see some of the city.

Despite being a dusty port city, the town has some incredible Islamic architecture (although most of it is deteriorating and crumbling).

See pic of the 3 tanks that were captured by the Eritreans during the Struggle for Independence.

Due to Massawa's tumultuous history, where it was occupied by the Portuguese, Arabs, Turks, Egyptians, British and Italians, it saw everything from pearls to giraffes to ostriches to slaves pass through its port.

During the Struggle, nearly 90% of the town was bombed by Ethiopia.

Restoration is slow and walking down the small alleyways, you get a haunting feeling thinking about what happened just a few years ago.

What i found quite pleasing were the many beautiful murals painted on the main roads.

They all depicted images of the Struggle, of community, of family and of freedom and hope. Very inspiring.

After a last swim, wash and injera lunch, we called in on Nigisty's cousin before making our way back home. But not before the traditional coffee ceremony!

All in all, the trip was a memorable and fun event.

I've posted lots of pictures of the kids, mainly because they were such a big part of the trip and also because i think they have got to be some of the most beautiful children I've ever met.

About an hour away from Asmara, we took a final family picture (minus Nigisty who was taking the photo).

Here, we took one last bathroom break and pulled on our long trousers and shirts; we were leaving the 40+ degree heat and entering the low cool lands once again.