Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cairo: April 21, 2010

All material including photographs are ©2010 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

It was a lazy morning — I lay in bed a while watching the skyline and the construction going on next door. My stomach began to growl around 8 a.m., so I got up, did my toiletry, and went down for a leisurely breakfast. After eating, I took a little walk around the pool area and watched a group of young Saudis splash in the water while their burka-draped mothers implored them to be careful, with diamond-covered hand gestures.

Back in the room, I continued packing, paying occasional attention to the TV blaring in the background. Just before 11, I put my computer into the safe, grabbed my camera gear, and headed down to met Magdy. We were going to the Khan (the Khan el-Khalili is the major bazaar/souk/market in the Islamic district of Cairo) to do a little last-minute gift shopping and to soak in a little more Cairene ambiance. Not much is open in the souk before noon, so I was not in a hurry.

FYI: Always guard your valuables on the day you check out of your hotel. The staff knows what's in your room and that if something goes missing, you don't have much time to complain. Management knows that you are concentrating on getting out of town, and if they placate you by assuring you that they will look into the matter, you'll soon be gone and they won't have to expend too much energy trying to get your property back.

Magdy was waiting when I got down to the parking lot. I told him to take the scenic route, then I sat back and watched the city glide past. We paid for parking a block north of the souk. Magdy stayed with the car and I headed in to the heart of confusion.

I stopped at the Al-Fishawi Coffee Shop (the Cafe of Mirrors) and had some tea and a small cake to get some more carbs into me so I could negotiate the eccentricities of the market. The Khan was unusually quiet this morning. It was almost as if the major tour providers had altered their schedule so I'd have the place to myself. I was on the hunt for something unusual, which was becoming harder to find as the souks were becoming more and more tourist-centric. I'd been looking for an hour or so when I came across the shop of Zaki Boutros & Fouad. 

Specializing in gold and silver jewelry, antique silverware, and gemstones, the shop was cluttered and dusty. I looked around for a bit, doing my best to spot something unique. But after making the rounds twice, I thanked the owner for allowing me to examine his wares (which I always make a point of doing) and was leaving when he asked if I'd like to see something very special?

He walked me into a room and from a lower shelf pulled a bulging, plastic-wrapped bundle. With care, he placed it on top of a glass counter that held antique English silverware. Unwrapped, the bundle brought forth some very old-looking, frayed, jewelry boxes. Opened, the boxes revealed diamond and ruby pendants and an Art Deco pair of earrings. I asked if he knew the provenance of the pieces.

He did, and began to explain that after the revolution of 1952, King Farouk went into exile and the Free Officers took control of the government. Once they had consolidated power, they organized reforms that weighed very heavily on the minority Christian population. Most of the elite Christians held their wealth in land ownership, and with the new land-reform laws, they realized they would soon be penniless and decided to emigrate rather than see their positions deteriorate any further. They converted what assets they had secreted away and used the proceeds for passage out of the country.

These lovely pieces were some of the jewelry that had had to be liquidated. They were of Turkish workmanship, probably done in the 1920s/30s and brought to Egypt to satisfy the wants of Egypt's elite. The delicate arabesque design was gold with silver overlay. The silver was used to mount the diamonds on, so as not to affect the color of their reflection.

The owner went over the details of each piece and explained why they couldn't be duplicated today. I finally said I was interested in one of the pendants, and he quoted me a price of $12,000. There's a certain ritual here, that once you start bargaining you end up buying something, so I didn't even begin. I asked if I could take a couple of pictures, and he agreed. Maybe one of my friends might be interested. We shook hands and I was on my way, but the story I'd heard stayed with me.

I searched several more alleyways looking for another "curiosity shop" but didn't find anything as wonderful as Mr. Boutros' shop. I finally settled on a gem store on one of the main avenues of the market. I had spied some handsome worry beads in the window and gathered my courage and entered the gantlet. I found the owner and began the bargaining process. We haggled for a while but finally settled on some beautiful amber beads. The cost was a little more than I wanted to spend, but from what I could tell, the quality was good; but not knowing anything about amber, I could have been robbed and not known it. The $120 was a bit expensive for my wallet, but a good present is supposed to be a little dear.

FYI: Amber has been used in jewelry since antiquity. It is found chiefly along the southern shore of the Baltic Sea; pieces often contain the bodies of trapped insects. When rubbed, amber becomes charged with static electricity. The word "electric" is derived from the Greek word for amber.

I had been hoping to see the silver seller I've been dealing with for the past 10 or so years. She's one of the few female shop owners in the Khan. A widow from the Six-Day War, she took over her husband's business and has been hard at work ever since. I always buy a couple of silver Anubis charms from her. But that day, her shop was closed each time I stopped by, and after the third attempt, I gave up. I guess she was taking a day off.

Magdy drove me back to the hotel through heavy afternoon traffic. I was going to finish my packing and rest up a little before my flight. He dropped me off in front of the hotel and we agreed that he'd pick me up at 7:30 p.m. Back in my room, I ordered a late lunch and set about inspecting the room to make sure I wasn't leaving anything behind. I laid out what I was going to wear on the plane (Dickies black pocketed T-shirt, Levi's black 501s, SmartWool socks, Timberland premium 6" boots, Domke photo-vest, money belt). I piled everything else onto the bed to make sure my North Face wheeled expedition bag could accommodate the bulk.

Travel Tip: Always wear natural fabrics on the plane. They are much safer in case of fire (the flash point of cotton and wool is much higher than that of synthetic fabric). And ladies, never wear pantyhose on any flight; it's very hard to remove once it's melted onto your skin.

At 5 p.m. I locked my bag and took my camera bag and computer down to the fifth floor. I ordered one last lemon juice and watched the Nile flow past the mansions of Zamalek. At 6, I walked down to the front desk and asked to pay my bill. The room was pre-paid, but I had incidentals (laundry, room service, Internet connection). I charged them on my American Express and went back upstairs to try to relax. I hate the security at airports; if anyone thinks these humiliating inspections are going to prevent more acts of terrorism, they're nuts. I had my Xanax prescription in my pocket and was ready to take one once I was inside the airport terminal.

It was an easy ride out to the international airport. Once parked, Magdy found a baggage cart and we loaded it up with my bags. He walked me to the entrance. We shook hands and I pressed an envelope into his hand, then I walked into the terminal. I waved to him through the glass doors, and he headed back to the parking lot, smiling.

Like all other official endeavors in Cairo, the security process here is cumbersome and confusing. I went up to the screening line and a guy checked my ticket and told me to take a seat. My flight wouldn't be processed until 9 p.m. I luckily found a seat where I could keep my bags right next to me. I slid my leg through the bag straps and closed my eyes a little. At 8:30, the same attendant who'd told me to wait came over and offered to get me into the process early if I'd give him a small tip, which is a usual occurrence in Cairo. I said yes, and I went through the body check and baggage X-ray.

From there, all United States-bound passengers were subjected to an additional screening. We were guided into a private screening area, where we were interviewed to make sure that our nervousness was of the flying variety rather than pre-terrorist-act jitters. From there, we walked to the opposite end of the departure hall to passport control. Then it was up a set of stairs to the departure lounges.

The international departure terminal has been improved, and it now hosts several Western-style food (junk) services. There's a McDonalds, a Cinnabon, and a Starbucks, among others. I couldn't find a seat at Mickey D's, so I settled for a cinnamon roll and some hot chocolate at Cinnabon. 

On the way to my departure gate, I found a variety store and bought a couple of bottles of water to drink on the flight. At Gate 6, there was another security check, where they confiscated my water while I stood in line for the X-ray. They made me take my computer out of its case and send it through along with my boots, camera bag, and hat. The attendants weren't watching the line and let my computer tumble to the ground, which I let them know I didn't appreciate. Ten feet further down the line was a hand-check station, where they hand-inspected my carry-ons. First they took the batteries out of my flashlight and threw them into the trash, followed by the unopened AA 12-pack I had in one of the side pockets of my bag. Then they wanted to dump all my camera batteries, which was over $500 worth. That was too much for me, and a giant argument ensued. When it was over, they kept the double A's, but the camera batteries were in my bag. My luck held and I got on the first transport bus. It was a five-minute ride out to the Delta 747, which the bus circled, stopping on the left side. I de-bussed and headed to the rear boarding ramp. I was in 39F, an aisle seat, and the bins were empty. My camera bag and computer were first in.

Flights out of Cairo always seem to be a little glum; even though Cairo is an unorganized, over-built megalopolis, no one seems happy to be leaving. I've made this flight several times before, and the 12 to 13 hours' duration is always a killer. It's very hard to zen out when you know what's coming. After the first five hours, you're ready to go insane, being confined to such a tiny space, and unfortunately I'd already seen all the movies. They did serve a snack and a light breakfast, pretty shoddy compared to other international carriers, but it did break up the boredom.

I had a fast change at JFK. Our flight was a little late, so I only had two hours to get through immigration/customs and find my new gate. Luckily, I had been issued a boarding pass for the L.A. segment of my flight. I'd just have to double check which gate I'd be leaving from.

I got through immigration/customs without too much hassle and headed into JFK. When your bags are checked-in in Cairo, they are given tags for your final destination (in my case, LAX). When the plane arrives at JFK, all the bags are delivered to the customs area. There, you have to claim your bags and declare anything that you are bringing into the country. Once you leave customs, you have to recheck your bags for the domestic portion of the trip. Delta has arranged a very simple method for doing this, and I was soon in line for a security re-screening. While I was waiting, a Delta rep came up and pulled about 20 of us out of line and escorted us through the airport to our gates.

I was on Delta Flight 87. The flight was packed, same as the flight from Cairo. Everyone on the flight seemed tired. My seat mate was dead to the world, and I just wanted to get home. About 30 minutes into the flight, Delta offered to sell us snacks, but you needed a credit card. NO CASH! I have a Delta credit card, but what an affront not to be able to use legal United States currency. This is one of the reasons that I find the service of U.S. carriers to be sub-standard. I feel they just don't give a damn about their passengers.

Five hours or so later we touched down on the main runway at Los Angeles International Airport. Once we had deplaned, I made my way to the baggage carousel and hoped that my bag had also made the trip with me.

Twenty minutes later, I was outside and rolling my bag across the airport's inner drop-off lane to the transportation island. It took a while to decide whether to take the Flyaway bus back to Union Station or grab a SuperShuttle for a group ride home. Just as my mind was about to click into position, a blue van pulled up with a Pasadena sign, and my decision was made. I flagged the driver and helped him load my bag. I took the driver's-side seat on the back bench and waited while we gathered another three or four paying passengers to make the trip profitable.

It took two more trips around the terminal circuit before we were loaded. From there, we took Sepulveda south to the Century Freeway entrance and got into the carpool lane heading east. We turned north at the Harbor Freeway and drove straight into Pasadena. The driver asked each of us our destination, and I was the one the van's computer decided would be the first drop-off.
We took the Fair Oaks exit and headed north to a couple of blocks from the top. I told him to stop, I'd get out there, there wasn't enough room for him to turn around if he went any farther. The bill was $35. I handed him two 20s and walked to my dark house.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Cairo: April 20, 2010

All material including photographs are ©2010 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

My second-to-last day in Cairo broke bright and hot. I'd slept in a little later than usual, as I was in no hurry to get started. The Antiquities Office didn't open until 9 a.m., and I knew that most of the people there didn't want to receive visitors until after they'd had their morning tea, so I figured 9:30 was a safe bet. I had a delicious breakfast of Twinkies and Diet Coke, then turned on the news to see if there was anything new with the volcano.

A little after nine, Magdy and I made the obligatory trip across the Nile to Dr. Hawass's office. As agreed, Magdy circled the block, while I took the stairs two at a time up to the second floor. There, I found the gentlemen who were in charge of my permissions and made sure to find out who at the museum knew I was coming. I was handed a slip of paper with my museum contact's name written in Arabic and was told "no problem, if God is willing."

My contact, Mr. Abdeen, would be responsible for getting me and my cameras inside with as little hassle as possible. A couple of years ago, because visitors didn’t have the ability to turn off their camera's flash, Dr. Hawass was forced to prohibit cameras all together. Now, photographers must be accompanied by a staff member at all times during their working sessions.

Side Note: Located next to the museum, the Nile Hilton is, or used to be, my favorite hotel in all of Cairo. It is a mid-century architectural masterpiece / landmark that has fallen on hard times. I've stayed there several times in the past, and even in its elegant shabbiness, its patisseries and restaurants were the preferred rendezvous spot for many of Cairo's movers and shakers. Last year, I noticed that all of a sudden, the Hilton name was missing from the front of the hotel. Upon inquiry, I found that the Hilton Worldwide chain had sold the place. It was open for a while as the Nile Hotel. Now, the place is completely closed and undergoing a major renovation. When it reopens, it will be part of the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain. I am eager to see if any of the old mystique remains, but still, the name Nile Hilton will live on in the romantic memories of many past patrons, including myself.

Every day, busloads of tourists from Red Sea resorts (a six-hour ride each way) are dropped off in front of Egypt's holy of holies, The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, known commonly as the Egyptian Museum, for a two-hour visit. If you're unlucky enough that your arrival coincides with theirs, you can expect a very long security process. This was the case when I pulled up. Two giant behemoths were disgorging their Russian-speaking passengers into the museum's already bulging queue. I just laughed the laugh of the experienced traveler and said what the hell, and went to the back of the line. By the time I'd got through security, the back of my shirt was soaked through.

I stood in the courtyard surveying the faded oxblood neoclassical facade. Built in 1891, the museum has three front entrances: the main (center) entrance is for paying visitors, the left is the entrance to the museum's library, and the one on the right leads to the museum's administration section, which is the one I headed for. This is the entrance for employees and official guests. I identified myself at the guard station and asked for direction to Mr. Abdeen’s office. Like most Egyptian offices, it was full to overflowing with visitors. I waited my turn, then introduced myself to Mr. Abdeen. He invited me to have tea. I didn’t refuse; this is part of the Egyptian ritual of hospitality, and you never want to be viewed as impolite. I cleared away a space, sat down, and accepted the boiling-hot glass of tea. This is the normal way tea is served here, in a clear, small glass, usually emblazoned with the Lipton Tea logo. Once I'd slurped down the contents of my glass, he summoned the young woman who was charged with expediting my visit. Ms. Sayed was in her early 20s, attractive even in her demure Islamic dress.

To get from the administration section into the museum proper, you have to go through another security checkpoint. The guards made a thorough inspection of me and my camera bag to make sure I wasn't bringing in any weapons or illicit contraband. I knew from past experience that they'd be twice as thorough on the way out, making sure I wasn't leaving with more than I came in with.

Ms. Sayed led the way across the museum through flocks of color-coded tourists to the southwest corner, where the Old Kingdom relics are housed. This section is dominated by the descendants of Snefru (in my opinion the greatest Egyptian king). He was the father of Khufu, grandfather to Khafra, and great-grandfather to Menkaure. His bloodline's monuments have defined the world's vision of Egypt for the past four thousand years.

On the ground floor, in Hall 42, is the famous life-size diorite statue of the Pharaoh Khafra. This statue of the owner of the second-largest pyramid at Giza was rediscovered by Marietta under the floor in the Valley Temple of Khafre in 1860. This well-polished piece of perfection is the embodiment of the state’s concept of strength, power, and grace — what every good pharaoh should be. I set up my tripod and began to shoot away, while Ms. Sayed stood in the shadows, making sure that I didn't transgress any of the museum's regulations. I spent the next couple of hours looking for and photographing some of the Old Kingdom’s most iconic artifacts, including statues of Ranofer, high priest of Ptah and Sokar, and Prince Rahotep and his wife Nofret, and a painted plaster fragment from their tomb.

It's a little bit weird shooting here now. Since no one outside of professionals are allowed to shoot inside the museum anymore, all the tourist groups stare at you, because you might be someone famous. This can become somewhat uncomfortable, especially when they hover for long periods of time.

From the Old Kingdom, we climbed the stairs to the second floor to find the masks of Yuya. I took a while to line up my shot so as to not get any reflection from the glass case it was displayed in. I tried my polarizing filter, but it dulled the mask too much, so I just kept changing positions until I had what I wanted. I also grabbed a couple of shots of some beautiful wooden ushabti, then headed back down to shoot a couple of Old Kingdom sarcophagi very near the checkpoint to leave the museum. After the last shot, we moved over to the secure exit and stood there a while the guards did their duty, then they smiled and passed us on. I said goodbye to Ms. Sayed and headed out into the courtyard.

I sat down for a couple of minutes, collecting my thoughts and putting most of my camera gear away while I watched the tourists filing in. Tourism is Egypt’s main source of foreign currency, and without it the state would be very hard-pressed to continue. That's why most Egyptians cherish visitors, even the ones who arrive with a "light purse." I gave Magdy a buzz, and he said to give him ten minutes. Out front, I watched the buses reload and head out with dazed passengers. The Pyramids would be the next stop for these weary travelers, who'd been riding since before midnight to make this journey of homage to ancient Egypt and travel promotions.

From the museum, we headed to Zamalek. I love the island (Zamalek). It's where most of the foreign embassies are located and where most of their staff reside. It has a very European feel, with an exotic twist that is almost intoxicating. Several years ago, I'd stayed in a friend’s flat at 25 Ahmed Hashmet Street. I was only there a few weeks, but it was a very memorable experience. Magdy found a tentative place to park, and I made my way down to Cafe Tabasco for a late lunch. I selected a table and ordered a tuna sandwich. The cafe has changed a lot over the past year, and has much more of an internet cafe feel now. They have WiFi now, no more dragging out of long land lines to connect to the internet. I finished my sandwich and walked to the Saudi Store to get a few snacks for the plane. After that, I walked around a little to soak in the ambiance. This is a high-end section of Cairo, with some upscale shops that have fabulous window displays. I snapped a couple of photographs, but the area is so densely populated with people that it's hard to get enough clear space for a good shot. I found my way back to the car, where Magdy was soothing the person in charge of the space. I tipped him and everything was fine. It was late afternoon, so I we headed back to the Hilton. I needed to relax and write in my journal, and try to decide what to do tomorrow, and begin to pack.

I asked Magdy if he wanted to settle the car rental that evening. He thought this might be a good idea, since that way we wouldn't have to deal with it tomorrow. He parked out front of the Hilton while I ran upstairs to get some cash. I dumped my bags, went to the safe and worked the combo, then counted out five one-hundred-dollar bills. I thought it was a fair deal for the 10-day rental, especially since we had gone outside the city limits to Tuna Gebel. I grabbed my 5D and took the elevator down. Magdy smiled at the greenbacks, and I waved as the guards lowered the chains and he drove out.

I stopped on the fifth floor, went out to the terrace café, and ordered a lemon drink. I sat there staring out at the sun setting over the Nile with a little sadness, knowing that I wasn't sure I'd ever be back.

Around 8 I ordered my usual spaghetti and had a leisurely dinner out on the patio watching the lights of Cairo. There's something about the feel of the night here that's like the decaying elegance of a past gone forever. It lingers in the mind long after you've moved on.