Tuesday, October 31 (Halloween)

Cairo and the flight to Luxor

Today we must catch our flight to Luxor at 5pm, so we're killing the morning by returning to the alleyway souks that radiate from Midan Ramsis in order to take pictures of Cairene life. Admittedly, I was feeling a bit nervous about this, since some Egyptian women are very uncomfortable about having their picture taken. We've already had some angry reactions to our shutterbuggery, too.

But as we meandered the bazaar, we found that many people, especially young women, were eager to have their pictures taken by us. One girl selling fruit yelled "Hello!" and waved to us. Susanne motioned to her camera and the young woman smiled and waved us towards her. Others joined the portrait, and suddenly it seemed like we were taking photos of a high school class reunion.

Two roles of film later, we went off to the bank to exchange more money and then walked underground in the new metro tubes to the Ramses rail station for a quick Coke and a look around. Back at the hotel, we stopped to check out some postcards, which were sold at a small hotel shop. The old man who owned the shop sold us the cards and some stamps, and then invited us in his back room for a fresh cup of Egyptian Turkish coffee. We talked to him as he showed off some of his finer small trinkets of ankhs and scarabs. Susanne and I bought a few things, and then he offered us an earring and a small statue as a gift. We asked what we could offer him in return, and he said he collected ball-point pens, but we weren't carrying any. Then, out of the blue, Susanne pulled out a wrist watch she never wore and put it on the table in front of him. He looked shocked, as did I, be cause it seemed a bit too generous of a gift. Susanne said she didn't want it and that it would make her happy if he would accept it, so after several moments, he took it, with a pleasantly embarrassed look on his face.

With our bags in hand, we headed outside to catch a taxi to the airport, and lo and behold, it was our old friend Ibrahim, who had taken us to the pyramids the day before. We then parted Cairo and hit the airport, where we had enough time to complete about a dozen postcards and work on our journals. The flight itself was highlighted by a wobbling soundtrack of muzak hits, including "I Love You Just the Way You Are" and "My Way." Beyond that, the one-hour ride was uneventful.

The real adventure began when we arrived at the St. Caterine Hotel, which had been recommended to us by the manager of the Fontana in Cairo. Normally, I'd take such recommendations with a grain of salt, but because the manager, had been quite helpful and never tried to rip us off, we acquiesced. The hotel itself seemed fine for Egyptian standards, but when the manager of the Caterine, Mamdouk, insisted that we come down for some tea and a glass of rosewater, we both got a bit nervous....

As we sat uncomfortably in Mamdouk's office, waiting for the tea, we lied our way through a conversation. When we first arrived at the St. Caterine, we were asked where we were from, and out of habit I said Canada, for we had learned we could handle hagglers and street vendors a lot better if they didn't know we were from the U.S. But this time they needed our passports for registration, so I had to improv a story that we were American citizens residing in Canada. Of course, Mamdouk happened to speak fluent French, having spent five years in Paris, so I was forced to admit that we lived in Toronto and rarely ever traveled to Quebec.

But the worst was yet to come. Two burly toothless men entered Mamdouk's office and they spoke to him briefly in Arabic. Mamdouk then smiled and said, "Because I offer you tea, you will now do a simple favor for us." What favor, I cringed. He then put 100 pounds in front of me and said we should go with a young boy to buy him some Johnny Walker. He explained that they couldn't buy alcohol because the local store would only sell to westerners. I felt wholly surrounded by these men, so I said we would do it as long as the boy didn't join us, fearing that some scam would be specifically linked to him. We headed out the door and one of the toothless men followed, saying he'd show us the way.

Why it took us so long to get a clue and wake up from our naiveté, I don't know, but after walking about 50 feet, we turned around to him and said "We won't do this. We're going back to the hotel." Surprisingly, he smiled and said OK, forget it, and took us back to Mamdouk's office. There, we sat some more, still waiting for that damn tea, until I began to run out of Canada stories, so Susanne faked a coughing fit, which allowed us to leave politely and go back upstairs for bed. The tea arrived just as we were leaving, so I grabbed both glasses and enjoyed them upstairs, even though Susanne was worried Mamdouk might slip us a mickey in order to steal our backpacks, shave our heads, shanghai us into the Upper Egypt Freedom Forces, or something of the like.

Sleeping at the St. Caterine was a task in its own right. The beds were hard, the a/c didn't work, and at four in the morning, a mosque across the street broadcast an incredibly morose call to prayer for a good 15 minutes. Susanne and I sat up trying to find a strategy to check out the next morning at 6am without provoking a fight with Mamdouk, who we were sure would try to keep us to stay another night. We dreaded the coming of dawn.

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