A year after we made that family trip to the middle east, I finally got the urge to write about it, hehehe.
Our holyland pilgrimage was a dream come true. I could not believe we had gone there already because for a few years, that pilgrimage was just a far fetched idea, and became a remote idea when all the protests in the middle east keep cropping one after the other. I really thought that part of the world seemed really dangerous.
Anyway, after our ten-hour stay in Dubai for our connecting flight to Egypt [with hotel accommodations courtesy of Emirates Airlines], my mom, my habibi [beloved in arabic], my sister and my brother, together with twenty other pilgrims, arrived in Egypt at around five-ish in the afternoon.
I was still a little wary and afraid because during that time we got there, the news about Egypt and other nearby Arab nations were mainly about the protests and of course, the ongoing war in Libya.
In the airport in Cairo, I was afraid to move around or talk — and it wasn’t helping that the Egyptians were tall people and wearing those traditional Arab clothes, it was enough to intimidate me. Straight from the airport, we went to The Pharaohs Cruising Restaurant. I couldn’t see the surroundings on our way there because it was already getting dark and I fell asleep along the way. The traffic was also moving slow.
Reaching the restaurant, we met my friend Eds who arrived earlier and who was joining the pilgrimage too. I was already tired from the long trip and there was nothing I wanted to do other than go to the hotel and hit the bed.
The buffet was not served yet because we were a few minutes early for our seven o’clock appointment. When it hit 7pm, the cruising restaurant began to move to start the cruise around the River Nile and while waiting for the food to be ready, we were treated to a live string performance by a man, followed by a lady playing the violin. The restaurant was filled with classical music at first and I was very much close to sleeping right there [my brother was already closing his eyes in front of me] — don’t get me wrong though. The performance was lovely, especially that part when both the string and the violin played together. They continued playing even the popular contemporary songs while we had dinner.
The food was plenty and truly a variety. I could not remember everything because I only picked those I wanted to eat [there were really so many], but I distinctly remember I loved the beef dish — it was grilled or something.
We had been previously informed by Ms. Mona, our guide, that our dinner included a belly dancer to welcome us. After dinner, and just about that time when everybody was just finishing dessert, another group of men positioned themselves on the stage and they were busy preparing their instruments and checking the sound system. I thought they were just another band to entertain us so I began to drowse off until suddenly, a very beautiful Egyptian lady dressed in a very colorful belly dancing costume appeared in front of our table and started to dance to the live beat of the drums and other string instruments.
She wasn’t skinny as what others consider sexy to be. She was instead very voluptuous with the right bumps in the right places. I had never seen a belly dance performance live. I can practically see her muscles move inch by inch, especially those in the stomach. Judging from the way she was sweating heavily, I expected the performance to be short but it was not. One dance number was long enough for me and when she exited, I thought that was the end. However, she danced another shorter performance and went around the guests for picture taking.
After the belly dancer, a tanoura dance was rendered by a man who spiraled around and around and around the stage while transforming into different beings, hehehe. He was a large man and while he was becoming like a top in front of us, I could not help but wonder that if he fell down, he’d fall on us, lol. After the performance, the man went around the tables for pictures…and we were later billed for 10 USD per 8 x 10 picture, hahaha.
After our very interesting Nile River Cruise, we went straight to Grand Pyramids Hotel.
The next morning after continental breakfast in the hotel, we went to an early mass at a Catholic Church in Cairo. The church was small that by the looks of it, I think a maximum of thirty persons is all it can accommodate. The church was run by nuns. The advantage of the size is that, the mass was really intimate and very solemn.
Right after mass, we went straight to Liberation Square where the Egyptian Museum was located. That time we went, that square was very popular because it was where the Egyptian people held those almost month-long public protests.
Liberation Square was nil of the mass of people I’ve seen on TV. It was just a usual square, although there were a few men in uniform in the vicinity. At one side of the square is the Egyptian Museum. Upon entry in the gates of the Egyptian Museum, we were required to deposit our personal belongings, particularly our cameras. The security measure reminded me of the same practice when I went inside Louvre Museum in Paris.
At the outside, the museum looked anciently grand and I was so ready to experience another Louvre experience. Pardon me to candidly say that what waited for me inside was such a big disappointment. I don’t know if it was the intention of the authorities to have the feel inside the Egyptian Museum old, rustic and ancient. I mean, when we got in, it was poorly lighted, the painting on the walls were faded, even their ancient treasures weren’t even displayed on special shelves. They were just arranged in the halls, and those precious papyrus writings were just hanging on the walls. I’m still wondering if they were preserved well.
What’s awesome inside the Egyptian Museum, are the solid gold death masks, coffins and other accessories of Pharaoh Tutankamun. To this day, I still cannot imagine the values of those treasures, left for public viewing, when the rest of the Egyptians are having a hard life. In fact, when we were inside, the tour guide pointed to a blank shelf, encased with mirror, saying the content thereof was stolen during the time of the uprising in Egypt when some thieves got inside the Museum.
We didn’t stay that long in the museum — it wasn’t that big like the Vatican Museum or like the Louvre. Towards the exit, a small shop stands for some souvenir items.
From the Egyptian Museum, we proceeded to eat lunch in a restaurant about fifteen minutes by car. The economy must be pretty bad, because the restaurant was deserted, only a couple of tables were occupied. The first floor was totally empty. It was understandable because when we went there, the revolution in January was relatively new.
Lunch was a buffet and mostly made up of Western dishes which I couldn’t recall anymore. For sure, I clearly remember I savored the Pita bread and that sauce I dipped it in.
At the height of the day, we proceeded to the world famous pyramids of Egypt. I always had this misconception that because in the pictures, the pyramids stand in the middle of the desert, I thought they’d be far, far away from Cairo. I was expecting a long land travel, but wow, it was only about fifteen minutes and we were there, hahaha. Cairo [and the whole of Egypt] is one big desert and yeah, the pyramids are just there, you can see them along the highway.
At high noon, it was so freakin’ hot to view the pyramids. Before going in, our tourist guide paid our entrance fees. I don’t know how much we paid per head, lol.
Lying in the vast dessert, the three pyramids of Giza stood high and mighty. Up front, the Great Pyramid was really just a big triangular structure made up of stone. Some tourists went inside the Great Pyramid [the biggest] but our guide said, nothing really spectacular to see inside plus the fact that the way in was so narrow, in some parts one has to crawl. That didn’t lure me to go in. There’s an additional entrance fee for those who wish to explore the insides of the Great Pyramid.
Around the area, there were a lot of camels for hire and we were told a camel ride costs 20USD. I would have loved to try it, but our guide warned us that some of the camel guides bring the tourist far away if they don’t agree to pay 100USD, after the initial agreement of 20USD. Because of that, I didn’t get to ride the camel, huhuhu. I was really laughing there because when you want to have a picture taken with the camel, you have to pay too, lol.
There were also a lot of vendors selling souvenir items. Hubby and my brother bought those head gears that the Arabs wear but after picking their choice, they left me to pay for them. I’m so small and the vendors towered over me, insisting I buy from this one or this one that I was really afraid and intimidated that I yelled for hubby to help me, lol. After looking around the Grand Pyramid, we went back to the bus and it was now the driver who showed us miniature pyramids for sale. We bought a lot this time because the vendors just handed the goods to our driver and they weren’t chasing the tourists to buy.
Souvenirs done, our guide took us to a short drive just in the necropolis and showed us the best view to take our pictures where the three pyramids can be taken in one shot. The desert was so dusty and it was also windy that I could hardly keep my eyes open, even with my sunglasses on.
Driving up farther just a few minutes away, our bus stopped along a street where the Sphinx spectacularly rested. It’s really just within the same area where the pyramids are, only that where we stopped was the closer to the Sphinx. We didn’t linger there, because aside from taking pictures, there wasn’t anything else to do. There was a cafe in the area for some refreshments but since we just had lunch, none of us ordered any.
While driving to our next destination, Mona mentioned that aside from tourism, Egypt’s national income also comes from the export sales of perfume oils. So, our next stop was to a shop which sells perfume oils.
We entered a building with shops specializing in perfume oils. We settled in one shop whose owner was a big, jolly fellow. While we took our seats, he offered us cold drinks and ice cream – heaven on that afternoon heat. After taking our refreshments, the owner told us the history of the shop; that it was a family business handed from one generation to another until it reached his hands. He told us that ever since, Egypt was the source of scented oils. He mentioned Cleopatra’s secret for seducing Mark Anthony lies in her perfume oils, lol. He then demonstrated how the perfume oils came to be, while his assistant roamed around, giving everyone a sniff of the different fragrances available. The owner proudly showed us the famous scents known around the world such as the products of Ralph Lauren, Polo, CK, Estee Lauder and so on. It’s really true, the fragrance was the same, I just don’t know if he was telling the truth that these famous perfume company imported from Egypt or that they were the ones copying those famous brands. I wasn’t really interested that much, until the owner mentioned that these oils are also medicinal too… for sinusitis, for aromatherapy, etc. He got us all there, and the next thing I knew, I was ordering a lot of fragrances for us and for my sister back home. Wow, my credit card got swiped, lol.
From there, we went to a papyrus factory. Yup, if you ask me of Egypt, next to the pyramids, what comes to mind are those writings on rolled paper. It was there I know that those rolls of writings were actually made of paper from the papyrus plant. Inside the specialty store, the owner again demonstrated how to make papyrus paper and how it differs from the imitations that were only made from banana leaves and some other grass. I witnessed how papyrus paper never gets torn when wet — just let it dry, and it’s good as new. Across the walls of the store were paintings of local artists painted on papyrus paper. A lot of our companions bought paintings of religious images and were quite pricey. None of us in my family bought one piece. I’m not really into paintings and I don’t think there’s a place in the house to hang it.
It was already dusk when we got out of the papyrus factory, but we proceeded to a street market in downtown Cairo for souvenirs. The street market was near a big mosque and there were a lot of people around that area. Mona gave us more than an hour to shop while she informed us she will just be waiting at the coffee shop in the corner. When we were about to disperse, Mona also warned us not to go alone and not to follow the seller when he says ‘I got more stocks there, come with me’ because he might rob us. That got me really scared. While we walked in the narrow streets in between the shops, an unfamiliar scent filled the air. Vendors were calling us as we walked and even walked along with us to convince us to buy their products. I was really, really, anxious already, even to look at the items I was hesitant, because the minute the vendors caught my eyes, they didn’t easily let me go.
We made our shopping for souvenirs really quick and joined Ms. Mona and Fr. Arlo in the shop. We had coffee while we waited for the others. When all of us finally gathered together, we called it a day and went back to the hotel. My sister and I initially thought we could still take a walk around nearby, but we changed our minds because we just want to rest after a full day.
After breakfast the next day, we checked out from the hotel and moved on to our next itinerary to Coptic Cairo, place of the Coptic [Egyptian] Christians. We visited the famous Hanging Church, Abu Serga Church, and the exact place where Joseph, Mary and Joseph stayed when they fled to Egypt to avoid being caught by the King. It was an amazing experience. The Coptic Church have their own saints, and in one church we went into, the pictures of their Popes were displayed. I’m not so familiar if their faith is like that of the Greek Orthodox. So not like ours in the Roman Catholic Faith. A lot of events in their faith that I have not heard of like there was a portion of the Hanging Church where it is said that Mary had appeared on such site and the column where she appeared was even wrapped with plastic. We also visited a synagogue in that area. The important sites in the coptic area are so near each other, we just walked around. It’s like it’s one big compound and inside, there were narrow pathways which leads from one attraction to another.
It was around lunchtime when we finished touring Coptic Cairo. We went straight for lunch. I again noticed how the restaurants were only half full that time. The economy hasn’t really picked up after the recent revolution.
Since we will already be driving to the Sinai Peninsula after lunch, we stopped for some water and food for the long trip. It was still the same sight in the small grocery shops. Their weren’t that many stocks and no other customers were there except our group. Thereafter, we set on the long drive [about 7 hours] and head out to Mt. Sinai.
We drove through the Suez Canal to cross under the water tunnel into Sinai. Whoa… it was one vast dessert. Nothing on the way but the endless dessert, devoid of any life whatsoever.
Along the way, we passed by Ras Sedr and its springs. It’s said that the area is a station on the exodus of Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt. A number of wells were scattered there, including Moses’ Well.
We continued on ahead and from time to time we could see the homes of the Bedouin tribes. Mona kept telling us about the history of the places we were passing by, but I was just so tired, I dozed off until we arrived in St. Catherine. We checked in our hotel and went straight to the restaurant for buffet dinner. It was a sumptuous dinner, by the way.
During dinner, Mona told us that if we want to climb Mount Sinai, we have to be ready by 1:00Am. Hearing her, we immediately finished eating and hurriedly went to our rooms. There was only a few hours left for sleep before we wake up. Once inside, I prepared what I would wear for the climb. It was going to be very cold, so I prepared layers of clothing and three jackets. H said he wasn’t climbing; my mom said she couldn’t either. So, it was just going to be me, my brother, my sister, and my friend Eds.
I climbed to bed after washing and the last thought on my mind was how I was going to climb the Mt. Sinai for five hours.
[The Climb to Mount Sinai will be in a separate post]..”]