Archive | July, 2010

Off the Deep End, Part 6

26 Jul

By Eric Shipley

Our first day of sightseeing in Egypt took us to Coptic Cairo, a part of Old Cairo that dates back to the 6th century BC and mingles Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions. One of my most vivid memories, however, is the impression, in several places, that we’d stepped into the scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark that take place in Cairo. The tan colored mud brick and adobe buildings looked just the same, albeit with telltale modern trappings such as TVs. And, as always, there were numerous, heavily-armed guards and soldiers.

Our first stop was the Greek Church of St. George, one of the few remaining round churches in the Middle East (see image below). It was built in 684 AD and sits on top of a cylindrical Roman tower. We approached via a long series of steps that took us past an impressive relief sculpture of St. George slaying the dragon (at right below). Inside, there is an abundance of intricately carved woodwork, some of it with gold-colored gilding. I’m sure there is some religious significance to the designs and iconography, but in my ignorance, it was (and still is) lost on me.

The altar (see below) includes what seemed to me to be a shrine (presumably to St. George) in an alcove that has steps leading up to it. Around the interior walls, in shallow sconces, are paintings of various saints (image below). The bottom couple of feet of these paintings are fronted by a plexiglass sheet that leaves a narrow pocket. Apparently, this was intended to allow people to leave monetary offerings to their chosen saint, and indeed we could see money behind the plexiglass.

The Church of St. George has been burned several times, so what we saw was actually built in 1909. It retains some of the stained glass from the previous building (which was burned in 1904) and still has an awe-inspiring feeling of antiquity.

Next: The Ben Ezra Synagogue

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What I Packed for My Summer Vacation

21 Jul

By Nancy Sokoler Steiner

There are lots of online sources for packing lists, but this is a list of a different sort. These are items you might not think of bringing, but which can make your travels easier or more comfortable. I found them indispensable during a recent trip abroad:

Zip Lock Bags: I brought home wine, olive oil and pesto (guess where I went?), and zip lock bags were my little insurance policies for avoiding leaks. Ditto for shampoo and other toiletries. The bags were also helpful for storing food I purchased and ate while traveling. You can also use them to organize your regular packing items (bag of socks, anyone?).

Wipes: Sure, hand sanitizer can de-germ your mitts, but wipes take the grime off, too. And try using hand sanitizer while gelato is dripping down your fingers! I like Kleenex brand, which come in resealable packs and don’t smell like disinfectant.

Fanny Pack: When I carry my purse at home, I inevitably get sore shoulders from the heavy load. So for trekking on vacation, I purchased a fanny (lumbar) pack. Yes, I know this immediately marked me as a tourist, but … guilty as charged. I chose the Mountainsmith Swift II Recycled Lumbar Pack, less bulky than a backpack, but still supportive and large enough to hold my phone, camera, power bars, sweater and a water bottle. It also allowed me to go “hands-free” in the airport, where I had other baggage to carry.

Body Oil: Nothing kinky here. Airplane air dries out your nasal membranes. Apply a dab of oil to your nostrils periodically during the flight to keep them moist.

Eye Mask: Block out unwanted light on the plane or in your hotel room.

Small, Empty Spray Bottle: Fill it with cool water and you’ll have instant air conditioning while you’re out and about.

For Us Gals: For humid weather, take a scrunchie to get the hair off your neck, and baby powder to help you stay cool and dry. Powder also helps remove sand if you go to the beach.

I’m sure there are other helpful items I haven’t included. Please add your suggestions!

Off the Deep End, Part 5

16 Jul

By Eric Shipley

Lee and Faith’s apartment was in the Heliopolis suburb of Cairo about a mile to the East of where the ancient city of Heliopolis (which means “Sun City”) was located. And as it turned out, the most arduous part of getting there was the ten flights of stairs we had to climb with our luggage. Added to this was the combination of incredibly oppressive heat (which was even more amazing given that it was winter in Egypt) and air pollution that was bad enough to make my eyes and throat burn. But make it we did, and as soon as we dropped our luggage the conversation turned to food.

At this point I should mention Sayid and the magic bus. Sayid was the Egyptian driver Lee hired to shuttle the six of us—him and his wife Faith, Charlotte and me, and our friends Rob and Laura whose visit fortuitously coincided with ours—from place to place. The magic bus (the passenger van mentioned in an earlier blog) was so-named by Charlotte because Sayid managed to squeeze it into spots that by all laws of physics it should not have fit (not unlike the Knight Bus in the Harry Potter books).

So, we piled in and headed to El Shabrowey, a popular Lebanese restaurant. From the outside, it was a hole in a wall of adobe shops on an impossibly crowded street. Normally, I would’ve stopped to look around, but we were starving and the smells coming from the open door were irresistible. Inside, the restaurant was a study in controlled chaos that was hilarious to watch. None of the waiters spoke English, so Faith advised us about what to order and told Lee what we wanted. Then they would argue about how much to get. After a while, they’d come to agreement and the real fun began. Using his broken Arabic, Lee would juggle the menus around between the two waiters and indicate what we wanted while they scribbled frantically and dodged the constant stream of people flowing back and forth. It was quite a floor show. We sat back and marveled, chatting between mouthfuls of flatbread, which Faith made sure was always in ample supply. When we ran low, she’d nudge Lee who would shout “More bread! More bread!” to one of the waiters.

One thing they ordered for us, insisting it would change our lives, was fresh mango juice. And it was indeed amazing. I didn’t know it, but mangoes are a staple crop in the farmlands on the shores of the Nile river, so the juice was lusciously fresh and delightful. (To this day, Charlotte and I get mango juice whenever we can, but it’s rare to find anything that comes close to what we had in Egypt.) Then the food came. There were kabobs, falafel (fried patties of ground chickpeas), tabbouleh (a salad of parsley, bulgur, mint, tomato, and onion with lemon juice and olive oil), shawarma (a dish of shaved meat and vegetables), and various other dishes I can’t remember. It was all exotic and delicious, and the portions were so generous it seemed like we left as much food as we ate. At this point I started to get worried about the bill, which Lee took when it came. He added a very generous tip (about 30 percent as I recall) and told us the total came to 90 Egyptian pounds. The rate of exchange at that time was six Egyptian pounds to the dollar, so that entire extravagant meal for the six of us came to $15. I found that amazing, of course, but also rather embarrassing given that the average Egyptian rarely (if ever) enjoyed a meal like the one we’d had.

We returned to the apartment and started unwinding by tipping the building manager’s son (a teenager) to get some beer and bring it to us. Now that I think of it, this was rather ironic—Egypt is a Muslim country, so alcohol is much less widely available there than it is in the United States, but they have no problem with underage kids buying it. Anyway, we were soon settled on the apartment’s narrow balcony with a supply of the Egyptian beer Stella. As the night went on, we would increasingly frequently, and randomly, shout “Stella!” (ala Stanley Kowalski from “A Streetcar Named Desire”) at the top of our lungs. It was a strange and wonderful evening, catching up with old friends while observing the Heliopolis night life. Among many other sights, we saw three wedding parties go by, each accompanied by an off-key car horn chorus of beep, beep, beep-beep-beep. Cairo at night is really something—a noisy, sprawling, bustling, dirty creature, and yet it has a strange magnificence.

Next: The Citadel and Coptic Cairo

The Magic Bus.