Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Imagine Cup, Cairo, Egypt, #1

[I'm posting here some email that my wife, Amy, wrote to family and friends to let you know about our travels. I hope you enjoy reading these. - Jeff]

Well, it's our 2nd full day here in Cairo for the Imagine Cup. It's right now Wed afternoon at 3:35 local time. We got in Monday evening around 5 pm and Microsoft sent a driver to pick us up (which was nice and easy). The hotel is on the airport side of Cairo so wasn't a long trip. It would normally take at least an hour to drive across the city. Hotel is beautiful, room comfortable. We were hot and tired so just ate and went to bed.

Day 1 - Cairo City Tour - I had previously arranged this tour with a local agency (Lady Egypt)and they are proving to be very reliable and high quality. A representative met us on time (9am) at the lobby and introduced us to our guide (Adel) and our driver (Maged). Adel is an Egyptologist and "freelances" with many tour companies. We started off by going to the Egyptian Museum. This building was completed in 1907 (no A/C). The artifacts are wonderfull to see but I must say that it is suprising to see how they are housed/kept. The statues are just out in the open and easily touched. Some things like jewelry and King Tut's mask are housed behind plexiglass but there is practically no preservation techniques employed. For example, there are some papyrus scrolls with beautiful painted pictures that are over 5,000 years old but they are hanging in wooden boxes on a wall in a staircase with a skylight above shining sunlight directly on them. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed inside the museum. They are building a new museum to more appropriately house the artifacts near Giza but it won't be ready for a few more years. Things move slowly here. Our guide was great. He gave a thorough history lesson/tour and taylored it towards the kids. We watch alot of history programs and I am a bit of a buff but I think we all learned alot. He really put the time frame in context and answered all my questions easily. Jason had a blast with all this. Claire was hot and just wanted ice cream. Next we went to the old Coptic center of Cairo. This is where one of the oldest Christian Church still exists, called St. Sergius. The holy family stayed in this church for a time while hiding from King Herrod when Jesus was a baby. Next stop, The Citadel. First, it is the highest point in Cairo and is topped by the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. It is basically the Middle Eastern version of a castle. It served as a fort, city, palace, and religious center. It was built in the late 11th century. It served many purposes over the years but one famous battle was with King Richard the Lionheart during the crusaides. He was actually briefly captured here by Saladin (Persian ruler during the 12th century and cruisades), then released upon promise of peace. The Mosque of Muhammed Ali is a beautiful, open place at the highest point in the Citadel. Muhammed Ali was the last of the Islamic prophets. Adel was very patient in explaining the Islamic religion. We had a nice long discussion on the differences between Islam, Christianity, and Jewdaism. People here are very open and happy to answer questions that we might consider too personal. They want you to understand them better.

Last stop, the Khan al-Khalili bazaar. This was a major commerce and trade center on the Spice Route from the east as far back and the 14th century. It is today a confusing maze of tiny galleys and narrow streets of shop after shop and coffee houses. We didn't stay long as we were hot, and too tired to walk much more. We will definately go back as it is open late into the night and will be more able to enjoy the atmosphere then. We got back to the hotel around 4:30pm. Pool, dinner, sleep.....

Day 2 - Giza - Early meet with driver (7:30 am) who took us across town to Giza, which is actually another town/suburb of Cairo. Took a little over an hour. Adell met us at the entrance. He gave us a history lesson and then we were off to explore. Not. We had just started looking at the first and largest pyramid when the camera stopped. Somebody (I'm not pointing fingers - Jeff) had forgotten to charge the battery last night. Here we were at the last remaining 7 wonders of the world with no camera, no shade, cranky children (I'm not pointing fingers - Jason) and over an hour to kill. We did manage to get a few pictures before it died that Jeff will post to the Facebook page. We wandered around and tried to avoid all the men trying to give us camel or horse rides. I won't go into details but they are very, very pushy. We walked around the pyramids, not easy as ground is very uneven and rocky. But without a camera, it seemed a bit of a waste of time ( we already decided we would just have to come back). It was so hot that more crankiness happened (I'm not pointing fingers - Me). We met back up with our guide and drove down the hill to the Sphinx. It was lovely to see and we could get pretty close but not like the pyramids that you could actually climb on. I did expect it to be bigger somehow. Of course it is large but compared to the pyramids, it just seems not so large as I expected. Next we went to a local jewelry store and Claire got an Egyptian cartouche necklace with her name in heiroglyphs. A cartouche is a long oval shape that only the royalty used to mark things as theirs. Their name would be spelled out inside the oval. Next we went to a local perfume shop that is family run since the 1920's. Very nice people, explained Egyptian process which dates back to pharonic times of extracting the natural oils from flowers to create perfumes. The oil is pure essence from the plants, no additives or alcohol. The Lotus flower, which is a symbol of Egypt, can only be found here and is government controlled. It can only be obtained in Egypt and the pricing is regulated. They grow all the flowers on farms out by an oasis south and west of Giza. We were able to smell many flowers unique to the area as well as familiars such as Gardenia, Rose, Jasmine. Canopic jars were found in King Tut's tomb full of Lotus oil and it was still there in the jars and still smelled. We ended the day early ( 2:30 pm) and headed back to the hotel so the kids could swim. We are going out tonight on a Nile river dinner cruise. There will be belly dancers and whirling dervish dancers. Should be a blast. I'm off now to get the kids and Jeff out of the pool to get ready to go for the cruise.

We have no plans for tomorrow as Jeff has to start working for the IT Challenge. I'll probably let the kids sleep in and do the pool. I'll write more tomorrow as I've got to tell you about the traffic, security, and general climate and appearance of everything. 4:48 AM