christmas in cairo… family edition!

The end of December brought about some major events. First, I was consumed with finals, which ended up being spread out over a couple of weeks because of the hectic flight schedules of most of the international students in my classes. Then, two of my closest friends here, Margaux and Kjrstin, returned back to the States, which resulted in last minute sightseeing around Cairo and hectic trips to the airport. Alex and I had to move out of the dorms by Christmas Eve, meaning that we ended up with a lot of luggage and crazy taxi rides to our new apartment. Also on Christmas Eve: my dad, stepmom Thuy, and stepsister Katie came to Cairo to visit!! I really wanted to make sure that they saw everything that I had loved around town, which resulted in some jam-packed sightseeing days, but I really enjoyed revisiting some of my favorite spots and playing tour guide. I’m attempting to do a quick recap, but this will probably end up turning into yet another short novel. Here we go:

The parents arrived on Christmas Eve, so I went to go meet them at the airport to try to reduce the chaos of them finding a taxi back to their hotel. The taxi driver that took me to the airport was willing to wait with me and drive us all back downtown together, so the driver and I ended up spending like three hours together…and he spoke almost no English. We ended up bonding over cell phone games. I had also underestimated the amount of luggage that the family was going to have, which resulted in our driver throwing most of it on the roof of the taxi and securing it with a single piece of twine. I’d say this was probably the family’s first introduction to the joys of T.I.N.A.

Crammed in the cab, with luggage stacked two bags high above our heads, we successfully made it back to their hotel- the Semiramis Intercontinental. I had never actually been inside any of the hotels in Cairo, so I was completely shocked to see how clean and well-organized it was! Who knew that things made sense in the heart of Cairo?! After getting settled in their room, we headed out for some Christmas Eve dinner at my favorite Egyptian restaurant, Felfela! A quick walk through Tahrir Square (the main square downtown) introduced us to some of the constants of Cairo life: stray cats, persistent taxi drivers, and wild traffic. Soon enough, we arrived at Felfela, Alex met up with us, and we all enjoyed some typical Egyptian staples: falafel, tahina, and stuffed pigeon, among other things. It was great! Felfela is always a reliable spot for good food. After dinner, we made our way back towards the hotel to try and find somewhere to take a short felucca ride (the small boats that float along the Nile). Two blocks, one crazy street-crossing, and some bartering later, we were on a felucca! The ride was calm, the Nile was serene, and the city lights around us made for a nice end to our Christmas Eve.

The next day, I took the metro over to the hotel to grab some breakfast with the family before we all headed over to my apartment. The family got to check out my and Alex’s place for a bit before grabbing a taxi to the pyramids in Giza! The driver took a strange route that neither Alex or I had ever seen before, and I’m pretty sure it was longer than necessary, but we got there eventually. I’ve always kind of enjoyed the wild taxi rides though Egypt- it gives you a good perspective of everyday life here. Once we arrived safely, Alex and I pushed to the front of the ticket line, argued with the ticket sellers who were trying to tell us to wait in a completely different line, and got our tickets. Christmas at the pyramids was a success! We did the usual wandering around the three pyramids, sneakily taking pictures of camels and tourists all the while. After an hour or so, we bartered with some of the Egyptians for a camel ride down to the Sphinx, which is always an…interesting way to travel. We took the necessary photos at the Sphinx (touching the top of the pyramids, pushing them over, kissing the Sphinx, etc.) before heading back to the Great Pyramid, where we decided to get tickets to go inside a pyramid. After waiting in line one more time, we trekked back to the smallest pyramid, argued with a security guard about bringing cameras inside, and then crouched down a small passageway for about ten minutes. Going inside the pyramids sounds cool in theory, but it’s definitely one of those things that you only do once- it was hot, crowded, stuffy, smelly, and all of the artifacts had been moved to museums long ago. But hey- not many people can say they’ve been inside a pyramid!

By the time we headed towards the gate to search for a taxi, it was around 4 pm. We rode to Cairo Tower, hoping to catch sunset, but we weren’t the only ones with this idea. After being stuck in line for a few minutes, we rode to the top of the tower and missed the Call to Prayer, but were still able to have tea and snacks while admiring the view of Zamalek and Cairo. Exhausted, we decided to just head back to Downtown Cairo and eat at a small koushary place instead of going out to a nice dinner. So, we walked a couple of blocks from Cairo Tower to the Zamalek metro station, rode back to Tahrir Square in Downtown Cairo, grabbed some food, and the family returned to the hotel.

The next morning, Alex and I headed over to meet the family at the hotel for breakfast once again before walking a couple of blocks to the Egyptian Museum. We wandered around the premises for a few hours, admiring the King Tut exhibit, various sarcophagi, animal mummies, and other relics before leaving the museum to check out a couple of mosques. First up was the Citadel, a huge mosque near Islamic Cairo which overlooks almost all of Cairo. We sat inside the main prayer room for awhile, admiring its decorations, huge chandelier, and strange assortment of other visitors. Once we went outside to the courtyard, we were immediately surrounded by the Call to Prayer from multiple mosques across the city. It was a very pleasant surprise! I had been hoping to time things just right so that the family could experience one of my favorite parts of life in Cairo.

A few photos later, we hopped back in a cab and headed down the hill to the Sultan Hassan Mosque- the same one that I visited with Margaux, Kjrstin, and Alex on Margaux’s birthday. The girls covered their hair with scarves, and we all removed our shoes before heading inside. I always love exploring mosques, and the Sultan Hassan is no different- it’s impressive in its architectural design, not so much because of exceedingly colorful or intricate decoration. Soon enough, we headed back downtown and took some time to freshen up at the hotel before going to dinner at a place called Sequoia that night. Sequoia is a rare gem of a find at the tip of Zamalek (the island in the Nile). It’s clean, quiet, and has great food. Nonetheless, the welcoming atmosphere comes at a price- it’s pretty expensive compared to the norm in Cairo, which means that drinks, food, dessert, and sheesha comes to about $20 a person, instead of the $2 koushary that we had eaten the previous day. It’s nice to escape the chaos of the city every once in a while, which we did while enjoying salmon, salad, and mango juice, among other things.

The next day, we took it pretty easy. After breakfast at the hotel, we hopped in a cab and rode to New Cairo to see the new AUC campus. We got there without any fuss, and wandered around campus for a few hours before grabbing some falafel sandwiches from Omda for lunch. When it came time to get back to Downtown Cairo, I called a cab, but the language barrier resulted in a strange conversation over whether he would be here in “one half” (a.k.a. 30 minutes), or “five and half” (a.k.a. 5:30). I still have no idea what he meant. We weren’t willing to wait until 5:30 to find out, so we just walked back outside of the main gate in hopes of catching a cab driving by. Cabs in New Cairo are pretty rare, but we eventually got lucky and grabbed a cab that had just dropped somebody off at campus. I tried to call the cab company to cancel the taxi that I had ordered previously, but still received a phone call about an hour and a half later from the driver, saying that he would be at campus soon. T.I.N.A.!

That night, we ended up just having snacks at the hotel’s “happy hour”, which included veggies, dip, meat and rice, and dessert- even baklava! The food and tea at the hotel lounge were great throughout the entire visit. To be honest, there aren’t that many great food options in Downtown Cairo. You basically have your choice of random fast food (namely KFC, Pizza Hut, and McDonald’s), koushary and shawerma vendors, and one or two good, quality restaurants. We really weren’t missing out on much food-wise.

During our last day in Cairo, the family moved all of their luggage over to my and Alex’s flat. My dad and Thuy had come up with the idea of them staying there that night to make things easier the next morning, when we would have to leave for the airport at around 5 AM to catch our flight to Dubai. Once we got all settled at the apartment, I showed them around Dokki (the area that I live in) and visited my favorite discovery so far- Tahran Street! The street is only a short walk away, and even has a small garden area at the end of it. We took the necessary pictures and made our way back to my flat before hopping on the metro to return to Downtown Cairo. My dad and I had to visit the bank inside the AUC downtown campus to pay a bill, which meant that the entire family was allowed onto the campus, which is extremely rare! Normally, only AUC students with current ID cards are allowed inside- this is one of the few things that security is actually strict on. So, we were able to wander around campus (and take pictures of the dozens of stray cats lounging inside) for a good portion of the afternoon.

The last thing on the to-do list was Khan al-Khalili, the big bazaar near Islamic Cairo which sells literally anything you could ever want from Egypt. It can be a little overwhelming at times, but despite the constant influx of tourists, it’s a pretty legitimate Egyptian shopping experience. We wandered its maze of small streets for a couple of hours, buying scarves, mosaic-covered boxes, and jewelry. Shopkeepers greeted us with the ever-popular “Welcome to Egypt” and bartered with us to no end. The girls all got necklaces with our names written in Arabic on them, and we completed the afternoon with a visit to Al-Fishawy, also known as Cairo’s oldest coffee shop. For our final dinner in Cairo, we grabbed a cab back downtown, and returned to Felfela, the first restaurant that we had visited on Christmas Eve. After feasting on koushary, fried eggplant, falafel, tahina, and hibiscus juice, we treated ourselves to some Om Ali for dessert before heading back to the apartment and settling down for the night. Over the course of the week, we managed to squeeze in everything that I had wanted them to see, and then some! I really enjoyed the visit, not only because I got to see family for the first time in a few months (which is always appreciated, and being abroad made it ten times more so), but also because it was fun to see Cairo through their new perspective. It really showed me how much I’ve come to learn during my time here, and put the city in a different light. Next stop: Dubai for New Year’s!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “christmas in cairo… family edition!

  1. Renee

    WOW! I so want to come visit. I’ve always wanted to see Egypt but my one sojourn to the Middle East came in 1972 when I worked on a kibbutz in Israel for the summer. That was back in the day when you could either have an Israeli visa on your passport or an Egyptian visa, but not both. It’s on my bucket list! 😀

  2. this makes me really want to visit!! miss you girl!

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