Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Cairo - For Kids

We were in Cairo for 10 days. During the 5 days that Taufik has training, I had to make sure the kids were entertained and did not get on my nerves (hey, this was my vacation too). So I did extensive research on what activities I could do with the kids, and places that would interest them (aside from the places that we were going with Taufik, i.e. pyramids, citadel and khan el khalili). I had planned a visit to several parks, a few small museums, and one puppet theatre show. Some of the planned activities did not pan out, because of the attack of the cairo foxtrot, but I think the kids were pretty entertained with the stuff that we managed to do.


I think they found visiting the citadel quite fun. The citadel is on top of a hill and had a lot of wide open spaces they could run around on. It also offered an unprecedented view of Cairo. Some say that on a clear day, you could even see the Pyramids in the distance. It wasnt a clear day when we were there.
You could easily spend one whole day in the Citadel. We had lunch in the italian restaurant there and they were quite reasonably priced. The pizza was very good and passed my kids' discerning tastebuds.
The citadel also has a Police Museum that might interest your budding law enforcement officer. But since Ilham was interested in army stuff, we visited the Military Museum instead.

Military Museum

The military museum is in a 2 floor mansion, and holds military equipments (or copies of) from the ancient egyptian times till present. It was quite interesting to see the different eras that Egypt has gone through (Ancient Egypt, Islamic, Industrial and now Modern). Unfortunately, some rooms were cordoned off for god knows what reason.
Ilham's favourite part was outside, actually, where they displayed several tanks and fighter jets. Also on display were a few missiles.
There were many families who were just sitting around in the park surrounding the museum, just spending time with their children and eating ice cream or just chatting.

There is also a carriage museum and a garden museum within the citadel, but we didnt visit them because we got hungry (again) and Taufik needed his daily dose of rice.

Egyptian museum
The Egyptian museum was not as big as I thought it would be, but boy was it filled to the brim with stuff!!!
I hired a guide to help explain what was what. Truthfully, he was quite expensive, but I milked him for what he was worth. He helped me get through the crowds and helped carry the stroller up steps (Tip: if you have a baby in a stroller, officials and visitors alike will usually make way for you). I made him entertain the boys while I sat down at a quiet corner and fed Izani. When he attempted to end the 'tour' prematurely, I whipped out my guide book and showed him the rooms that he had not brought us through and made him bring us through them.
A guide is invaluable though, because unless you've read extensively on the ancient egyptians, the labels on the artifacts really don't provide you much. Our guide related the backgrounds of the important artifacts, its relevance and little anecdotes about them. He kept us moving and engaged, and entertained with his little jokes (he was a fatherly guy).
My favourite artifact must be the Tutenkhamen's throne. It was this rickety looking thing covered in gold leaf, but I liked it because of what was on its back. There was a picture/drawing of Tutenkhamen sitting on his throne, with his wife standing in front of him with an offering of food, one hand on his arm. My guide pointed out that they were sharing a pair of sandals, him wearing the left pair, her the right. I thought it was *so* romantic! (I spent the rest of my stay searching for a reproduction of this drawing, but failed to find one :( )
If you're wondering, we did not go into the mummy room (different ticket), because there were several mummies on display outside of the room and the kids got a little spooked looking at them. When I asked whether they'd like to go into the mummy room, they declined.
I can imagine spending half a day or even one whole day inside the museum, perhaps sitting down and drawing (there were many art students doing that, some even painting with little pots of watercolor). But my guide inticed my kids with the prospect of watching how papyrus is made, so they were itching to get out. I was a little pissed actually, coz tickets were damn expensive (LE50)!
Since I expected him to bring us to his friend's shop that sells payrus and perfumes, I made him help me with crossing the road. If you see how Egyptians drive and the speed at which they drive on Sharia Ramses, his sheer skill at helping me and my 4 kids cross the street is worth at least LE50. After I bargained my way out of the shop with a roll of papyrus and 2 bottles of perfume, we headed for Abou Tarek for some koshary for lunch (yum!). We then made a pleasant leisurely walk back to our hotel.
(no pictures. The compact ran out of battery and I did not want to lug the SLR)

Gabaliya park and aquarium

We chose one day to spend entirely in Zamalek island, an island that sits in the middle of the Nile river, in between central Cairo and the suburb of Dokki (where Taufik was having his training).
I had originally planned a morning in Mahmud Khalil Museum, but my kids were a bit hyperactive that morning, so we headed for Gabaliya park instead. Gabaliya Park supposedly has an aquarium in like tunnels and bunkers, so Izani was looking forward to looking at some fish. We were showed the way by a security personnel, who took the time to show the displays and shoo away dating couples within the tunnels while he's at it. The tunnels/caves had a lot of nooks and crannies and coming from Saudi, it was very suprising for us to encounter couples sitting in any available hole or nook. They weren't doing anything outrageous, some were just chatting (Or at least, to what I could observe). But they were about the only lively things in the aquarium section, because most of the glass cases were empty and dry. We saw a few tortoises, catfish, tiny fishes and bottles filled with dead specimens and that was about it.
The security personnel helped carry izani's stroller up the multi story 'cave', till we reach the roof of it, where we were afforded an arial view of the whole garden. Up there with us were a few teenage boys who made it their duty to whistle and tease any couples that they deem were doing 'too much'. It was quite humorous to me. I gladly gave the security personnel some baksheesh for his assistance.
We spent the rest of the morning walking around the park, which was very very green compared to the concrete jungle in central cairo. We sat at the many many benches around the park and the kids drew pictures of the empty fountain, the fish they saw, and we also sat under a banyan tree while Ihsan drew it.
The park was a little dilapitated, but the cheap entrance fee (50piasters) and the peaceful atmosphere more than makes up for its deficiencies.

Walking Around Zamalek

Zamalek is quite pedestrian friendly. The island has lots of trees and wide sidewalks and couple that with the cool weather, was very pleasant to walk in. (Watch out for dog poo though). We stopped for lucnh at Beano's, which is not only a cafe that serves coffee and food, but also sells books. They had really comfortable couches instead of metal chairs and Izani took a really long nap in ours. We went through several books while waiting for our food and I bought a very interesting book called "Hayy bin Aqzan". This is also wehere I ahd the best hibiscus blueberry juice, evah.
After lunch we proceeded to slowly walk from one end of the island to the other end, to meet up with Taufik when his training ends for the day. We walked past the Gezira Sporting Club, and the Cairo Tower before reaching Sharia at-Tahrir. The leisurely walk took not more than an hour, even with stops to take pictures, to gawk at people playing football and a few buildings along the way. The kids didnt complain much.

At the end of our walk was the Cairo Opera House, which not only has 2 theatres where performences (Musical and otherwise) are staged almost every night, but also 2 galleries that display contemporary art by local and foreign artists. The information booth was very helpful with questions and they have brochures on all the performences available there. The galleries were very interesting and I think it inspired my children to produce more of their own 'artwork'.

We had to wait for Taufik to walk to where we were, so we sat at like a tiny bench meant for tourist police (who were not there at that moment). While waiting we played a game where each of us has to pick a number from 1 to 10 and count the cars that pass and the car matching the number they picked would be 'their car'. Izani had fun just waving at the female drivers waiting for the traffic light to change and he'd be most delighted when a few of them would shriek in joy at him.

Walking down the river nile on our way back home was also very nice. There were a lot people selling stuff though, and they would just hand one to your kids, saying it's a gift, but then they would come up to you asking for payment. You have to tell your kids not to accept anything given to them. We had to shell out LE20 for 4 wilting carnations.
Other than that, the bridges and the riverside offer many great opportunities for beautiful pictures!
There are many feluccas parked along the river and you could hire one by the hour. Some people even pack some food and drink with them to eat on these sailboats while watching the sun set. I hear that it could be quite romantic :)
Unfortunately I didnt do this because my husband sememang nya blurr dan tak romantic lansung.

Cairo Puppet Theatre

One other day we decided to watch a puppet show. The Cairo Puppet Theatre is very close to the Ataba Metro Station, which was really close to our hotel. There are even signs for the Cairo Puppet Theatre at the underground station, so we just followed the signs. Emerging from the tunnel, we were suprised to see that the theatre was really close by, just a short walk across a dusty lot filled with people selling all sorts of household items. We identified it by the queue of kindergarten kids at the entrance. We paid LE15 each to get in (even though the guidebook says it's free, i guess it's only free for egyptians) and the guy sat us in the front row, long before they started seating the kindergaten kids and their teachers.
While waiting for the show to start, popcorn and tit bits were sold and the DJ played popular arabic children songs which all the kids (except mine) knew and sang and clapped along to. Some kids even got so excited that they got on stage and danced. It was amazing to watch 4 to 5 year old girls gyrate their hips to the beat of the music like a pro belly dancer. Are they taught this at home, I wonder.
The 'puppets' were not confined to simply puppets. There were live performers in costumes playing the main characters, supported by smaller characters in the form of hand puppets. Even though the whole show was in arabic, due to the physicality of the show, we could roughly figure out what it was all about and it was still enjoyable. The children especially enjoyed the slapstick bits.

Al Azhar Park

Al-Azhar Park is this huuuge park on top of a hill on the outskirts of Cairo. Be prepared to pay at least LE30 for a cab ride. Our hotel helped us get a cab, and the driver could speak english and was a semi-tourist guide. We secured a ride home with him by promising to pay LE60 at the end of the day.
We spent almost 5 hours in the park (from 10am to 3pm), taking a leisure stroll, enjoying the view of the garden and of the city from the garden. We stopped a few times, once to take pictures. Another time to sit down among palm trees on a green patch. We ate chips and the kids ran around while I read Artemis Fowl. Then we walked around abit more and then stopped for lunch. I only realized after ordering food that I hadnt taken any extra cash. I had to ask the waiter if they accepted credit cards (no) and had to ask him to tally our bill before they brought our food. Luckily the waiter was friendly and obliging, and I was hapy to discover that I had enough money to pay the bill, with less than LE10 in change. The lack of funds sorta tarnished the rest of our day there because I kept worrying if the kids got thirsty or hungry again and I couldnt afford to buy them anything.
While we were having lunch, the day turned for Dzuhr and we could hear the call for prayer coming from mosques at every corner of the city, the first one being the loudest, then garbled by the overlapping calls and lastly growing into almost a hum of calls coming from near and far. It felt quite surreal.
On the way back, our cab driver drove us through the back streets of cairo and we saw how egyptians go about their daily lives, buying bread almost all times of the day, having coffee, buying groceries, fixing bicycles, hitting carpets to get rid of the dust. I asked the driver to wait for me in the lobby while I rushed up to the room to get money for his fair, and I was glad that he didnt scold me or anything.
The kids spent the rest of the day drawing what they saw.

Wikala Al-Ghouri

On the last day we were in Cairo, we decided to visit Wikala Al-Ghouri. 'Wikala' means 'hostel' and this one used to house traders who came from all over the world to sell their goods in Cairo. It's not filled with activities for children but my children enjoyed it anyways. I made them imagine what it was like during its heyday, when the ground floor square would be filled with stalls selling goods from all exotic corners of the world and the fountain in the middle of it would be spewing water for the enjoyment of customers visiting the wikala.
The custodian brought us up to the 3 story living quarters. We had to go up narrow stairs and through heavy wooden doors. He showed us the office with a built in safe, the middle floor for servant quarters and kitchen and the uppermost family rooms. Looking through the mashrabiya (wooden grates covering the windows) towards the open courtyard below, I had a vision of how the womenfolk might have peered through them to watch the trading activities below.
Very interesting indeed.

Other tips

Ilham was given a holiday diary by his teacher, so he spent most of his free time filling that up. Even though the others did not get a diary from school, I bought them writing books so that they could do the same. They were allowed to draw or write about whatever they saw during the day. This had saved me a lot of headaches, especially when I was sick and had to stay in bed.

Even though it sounded like we did a lot of walking, most walks are kept short, or have a lot of breaks within them. Breaks could include a proper sit down for lunch or just an ice cream, or just standing in front of shops looking at their wares in the window. I also think that my kids are so used to us walking alot during our holiday trips, that they've given up complaining about it :)

Allowing them to hold the guidebook or the camera or push the stroller also gave the kids a sense of purpose and responsibility, and kept them occupied and interested. Being observant and interested in your surroundings yourself also helps, coz then you notice and could point out interesting things to them, and they in turn, would start trying to look around more and point out interesting things to you.

All in all, I think cairo was as enjoyable for my kids as it was for Taufik and I.

More (and clearer) pictures with notes on flickr.


  1. elisa...:-)

    looks like your homework and preparation paid off!! a few of those those places could well be obscured if not for a reearch well done. For example, I have been to cairo four times before and didn't know there exist a park called zamalek. mungkin I was focus only on meetings la kut naa..

    did mr Taufik get to join you guys for a relaxation as well? from my own experience - hardly possible la kan.

    thanks for sharing!!


  2. PakPayne - itu makna nya, next time pegi, kena angkut satu family :)
    Taufik got to jalan2 the first 3 days and the last 2 days we were there, and he took a slow walk from the hotel to the metro station at the beginning and the end of every day he had training. Judging from the pictures he took during those walks, I think he got some relaxation lah sikit2..