Where: Cairo, Egypt
Plate of food: Kushari – a dish of lentils, rice, and macaroni (unexpected, I know), topped with fried onions and a spicy tomato sauce.
I discovered this vegetarian delight one afternoon as we rattled along in a van with the rest of our small tour group. We had been on the go all day and had not yet stopped for lunch. Suddenly our tour guide, Waleed, passed small styrofoam containers back to us; I peeled back the lid to reveal Kushari.
My hunger may have clouded my reasoning, but this simple food tasted so delicious. It was warm, filling, scented with garlic, and rich with fried onion flavour. We ate voraciously as we watched minarets whizz past our windows in a blur.
If Cairo is frenetic (and it is without a doubt), Kushari is serene: a dish of well-balanced, comforting flavours. Relax, eat, enjoy. And then get out of the way of oncoming traffic.
The best: I nearly wrote about the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities because it is a building straight out of Indiana Jones and it houses incredible artifacts like Tutankhamun’s death mask, plus it has the word antiquities in it (can’t go wrong with that, I reckon).
But it seems crazy to choose anything other than the Pyramids of Giza, which are awe-inspiring. They are a sight so familiar from books and movies, but nothing compares to seeing them in all their glory. Despite what you might think, the Pyramids are very close to the city; they suddenly rise up out of the sand just past shabby looking shops and bustling streets. It is stunning to catch that first glimpse of them.
We walked around the base of the Pyramids, craning our necks to see the apex which disappeared in a blaze of sunshine. The four sides of the Pyramids are not smooth, but terraced with stacks of huge weathered stones, each taller than a man. The outer casing stones (highly polished limestone) are, for the most part, missing; only one Pyramid has a cap of smooth stones, like snow on a peak.
We could enter one of the Pyramids through a tunnel originally used by workmen. We queued up in the hot sun until it was our turn to slip into the dark mouth of the tunnel. There were wooden planks under foot and dim lighting stretched along the roof of the tunnel. We were forced into single file in the narrow passageway and we had to hunch over due to the low ceiling (it was designed so that anyone who entered had to bow before the King). After descending through a long passageway, we then climbed steeply up to the inner chamber. People were impatient and pushed from behind, urgently trying to get to the chamber where one can finally stand up straight.
On our ascent, a few people were overcome by the stale air, the sweltering heat, and the dreaded awareness of thousands of stones above them. A woman started shrieking which brought all of us to a sudden halt, stumbling ahead like dominoes. She turned and tried to come back the way she had come. It was too narrow, but we all knew she had to get out. Her panic brought our own fears to the surface. Whose idea was it to come in here, anyway?
The endless line of people pressed themselves against the stone wall to allow the woman to pass. It was a hasty, fumbling retreat. As she disappeared down the tunnel, we all stared at one another. We didn’t need to speak the same language to know the thoughts that were running through our heads: “on the count of 3, let’s all just turn around and leave”, “I’ll buy you a beer if you let me pass”, “this chamber can’t be worth it”, “I won’t tell anyone that we held hands”….
But on we went. And truth be told, the chamber is not worth it. It is worth it, though, to be in the presence of these great structures, and to imagine the hands that placed each stone all those centuries ago, and to think of all the people who have gazed at those Pyramids through history.
In the end, we stumbled back out into the blinding sunlight and stretched our stiff backs and legs. There may or may not have been some hand holding…I am not saying anything.
Story that needs to be told: We decided to take a taxi to some spots within Cairo. In an attempt to be prepared, we had someone translate the place names to help the taxi driver understand where we wanted to go. He nodded in recognition as we showed him the slip of paper, so we clambered into the back seat.
He took off at a great speed only to veer wildly over to the curb after 500 metres. He had pulled up alongside a petrol station…to ask directions.
Turns out he had no idea where we wanted to go. The numerous staff members at the petrol station were sitting in the shade having their morning tea break, but they helpfully crowded around the car and tried to guess at our desired destination.
It did not take long, however, for some of them to realize that they had a captive audience; a captive audience with money (probably). They proceeded to try every international greeting they knew: “G’day!”, “Ni hao!”, “Howzit?”, “Guten tag!”, and amazingly “Kia ora” (the New Zealand Maori greeting, which justifiably impressed the socks off of us). They also tried to sell us what they had on hand; pushing half drunk cups of tea and crumbly hunks of cake through the taxi window. Tempting, but no. You have to admire their ability to spot an opportunity, though!
We did make it, eventually, to the places we had on our piece of paper, but those first 10 minutes in the taxi made a more lasting impression. It was Cairo in all its fast-paced, confusing, opportunistic, friendly glory.
“People don’t take trips – trips take people.” John Steinbeck