Friday, July 3, 2009

All Aboard Egypt

By Andrea McMahan
CAIRO - After spending eight days in Egypt, it is easy to see how the country has earned a reputation as one of the most mesmerizing places on the planet. With its lush green landscape and miles of smooth Nile waters, it's not hard to get swept up by the sultry vibe of the city. After a few days one can’t help but feel transported to an entirely different place in time. However, it wasn't immediate smooth sailing. After fleeing Iran during the country's most tumultuous national elections, we landed in Cairo wild-eyed and dazed, eager to share our thoughts about the whole experience. As it turns out, the national media cared to listen thus beginning a three day whirlwind of studio appearances and media interviews. Which is not to say the whole experience was unwelcomed- quite the contrary. However, it did throw our initial plans of endless hours of sight seeing out the window. But this is a trip where we have come to expect the unexpected. So we embraced our 15 minutes of fame and, in the meantime, ended up making a series of encounters with fascinating people who were eager to share their own experiences about Egypt.

On our first night in Cairo we accepted an invitation to watch the USA versus Egypt soccer match with the Cairo producer of our Good Morning American segment, Daniel Radcliffe. We met Danielle at the Marriot hotel where we watched the American players deftly pounce their opponents on a movie-theater sized TV screen set outdoors. The weather was perfect for this drive-in style evening- mid 80’s, slightly balmy with a cool breeze. Much more tolerable than the 100+ day time temperatures we endured earlier that day. Over a couple of Egyptians beers, we got to know Daniel and learned that he is an American expat living in Cairo managing one of the largest video satellite and production companies in the city. A former Reuters reporter for 15 years, Daniel eventually found his way to Cairo via London where his family is still living temporarily. His wife, a successful writer for the New York Times Magazine and other publications, had stayed back in London at their flat while their three children finish out the school year. He expects the family to move to Cairo sometime in August—the first time they will have lived under the same roof in nearly a year. Aside from Daniel being an incredibly nice person, he’s also wicked smart and quite in tune with the political climate both abroad and in Egypt. Last fall Daniel headed up the Democrats Abroad organization and campaigned on behalf of President Obama while living in England. He told us about how Obama’s campaign had an arresting affect on the people in the EU and the Middle East (much as we had found) and he had seen first hand how the President’s recent speech in Cairo was able to resonate with a traditionally skeptical audience. We continued to see Daniel socially in Cairo and even had a meeting with his boss, Gohad, the head of Video Satellite Cairo (VSC). We learned that Gohad had been the official personal photographer to former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and he shared with us his wonderful collection of photos and old cameras from his days on the presidential trail.

While in the VSC office, we taped a short segment about our experiences on Iran for an Austrian news channel. The segment was produced by an Austrian journalist named Karim who was also in Tehran for the elections. We talked at length about the impaling situation in Iran and the sad fate of the Iranian people. We also talked about the chances for foreign engagement and the implications that these protests- and the government’s iron fisted response- will have on the surrounding region. Look for Justin’s article on our discussion in an upcomimg Dispatches blog. Suffice it to say, everyone was intrigued to hear about our experiences and it was nice to meet people who shared our same fascinations and hopes for progress in Iran.

Another interesting person we met during those first days in Cairo was Shawn Baldwin, who Justin knows from his days at the EastWest Institute. We were connected to Shawn by Karen Mroz, who thought we would get along well given our interest in the Middle East. She was right- Shawn was a fantastic host who took us to an open-air Italian restaurant and entertained us with his harrowing stories of traveling through the Middle East as a war photographer for the New York Times. While he currently resides in Cairo, Shawn has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, spending significant time in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and other places. Prior to moving to Cairo, he spent three years living in Baghdad in a boarding house with other Times journalists and Blackwater personnel. He described his time as less Full Metal Jacket and more like M*A*S*H as he and his fellow journalists were often confined to the house when violence intensified on the streets. However, that didn’t stop Shawn from capturing some incredible photos of the Iraqi people and their lives—check out his full portfolio at

When we weren’t traipsing around with the Egyptian journalist set, we were able to take in the sights on Cairo, going first to the stupendous Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx. There we marveled at these gorgeous sandstone structures and wondered how it was possible that such dominating landmarks could be found in the middle of the open desert. We also gawked at the onslaught of camel drivers and beaded jewelry vendors—these guys are relentless! Their tenacity gives new meaning to the words “hard sell”. Later we visited the Egyptian National Museum and saw the famous tomb of King Tut and his solid gold Egyptian mask. The museum is a monstrous collection of Egyptian artwork and artifacts that spans hundreds of thousands of years. Unfortunately the collection is not as meticulously organized as we’d hoped, and so after much aimless wandering through the museum without air conditioning, we retreated to the temple of coca cola outside.

Upon leaving Cairo we headed south to Aswan for a four day, three night cruise down the Nile. We started off our trip by catching the overnight train to Aswan- an 800 kilometer journey that is best done by either airplane or sleeper train. Conjouring up visions of a romantic, Orient Express-style experience, we opted for the sleeper train and were pleasantly surprised. While the train itself was not exactly the epitome of white-gloved luxury, our cabin was clean and efficiently designed with several helpful amenities including two twin beds that folded down from the wall, a small sink, hooks and storage for luggage, and two on-board, airplane style meals- with wine! But it was waking up in the early morning and peeking outside the window to see the gorgeous, lush Egyptian countryside float by that gave the experience a well-deserved 5 stars. For traveling down the Nile, it’s a must!

Once we arrived in Aswan, we boarded our ship, the Nile Star Goddess. As a cruising tyro, I really didn’t know what to expect from a cruise ship. I was hoping that at least the towels would be clean and the rooms fixed with air conditioning. I was actually blown away by the loveliness of our boat! Ours was a four-level ship with spacious rooms all equipped with satellite TV and AC. We had a helpful, friendly staff that bent over backwards to make sure we were taken care of and served us three full buffet meals each day, which were quite good. And we were fortunate to meet some fantastic people on board the ship—John & Estella and Mike & Jenny. All four were Americans who had come to Egypt wanting to see the ancient remnants of civilization. In fact, John and Estella were embarking on a seven week trip around the world, visiting such places as Egypt, Thailand, Indonesia and South Africa. Recently married and living in Los Angeles, we instantly bonded with this doctor-nurse couple over our common California ties and our passion for traveling. We hope to perhaps see them in LA sometime soon.

Between the daily sightseeing and on-board activities that were mapped out for us each day, it was hard to carve out much free time. However, the staff tried hard to be flexible in allowing us to see what we want, at our own pace. And we saw some incredible landmarks, from Valley of the Kings and Queens to the Temple of Karnak and Luxor. Southern Egypt has an extraordinarily rich and tangled history and its vast collection of ancient artifacts can be overwhelming. However, despite the scorching sun we managed to see both Aswan’s and Luxor’s most impressive sights in just four days, and even squeaked in some sun bathing time on the boat.

At the conclusion of our cruise, we disembarked the ship and spent a few hours touring the town of Luxor. Both Justin and I were enchanted by the town’s quaint architecture and easygoing feel. Horse-drawn carriages filled the streets while women with children strolled the sidewalks talking with vendors and lingering in the town squares. It had a feel to it that was so different from Cairo, and it was this small-town charm that drew us in. We stayed and had dinner at the lovely local Egyptian restaurant Sofra that is housed in an old traditional Egyptian house replete with garden seating, ceiling fans and plush, colorful cushions. The restaurant bowled Justin over with its roast pigeon and rice dish and we both left feeling grateful for an authentic Egyptian dining experience.

We headed back to the train station in Luxor and boarded our overnight cabin to Cairo. We then spent the last 48 hours in Egypt trying to make up for lost time- Justin scrambling to get meetings with the last of his contacts and me hitting the streets for some desperate gift-buying and overdue shopping. We said goodbye to the Sheraton Cairo- our home for many nights- and caught a 1pm plane back to Istanbul. But not before we had one last night at Sequoia, our restaurant of choice in Cairo. Set along the Nile with spectacular water-front views, this ultra-chic outdoor lounge and restaurant looks like it was transported from South Beach to Cairo. The tables are low to the ground and surrounded with plush white cushions while billowing silk drapes frame the outer rim of the restaurant. The sweet smell of fruity sheesha and water pipes wafts through the restaurant. Justin and I order our usual four plates of sushi and a bottle of Egyptian white wine, and then settle in to reflect on the last six weeks of our journey.

As you might expect, our overall conclusions and feelings about this trip are too numerous to count and will have to be articulated in further detail. But to give you an idea, you must know that when we finally said goodbye to Cairo and boarded our plane back to Istanbul it was with the heaviest of hearts. This trip was more than just a vacation, as you may have already surmised. It was a life-altering experience that opened my eyes to a region, culture and people that until now I had struggled to understand or witnessed in any full dimension. The images and conversations from this trip are inerasable and will continue to speak to me daily for the rest of my life. I can only take comfort in knowing that this trip marks not the end but rather the beginning of a life that will continue to seek meaning and forge connections with people who are seemingly unlike me. Because in the end, isn’t that what every great journey is destined to be?

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