Sunday, March 30, 2008

Fossil Hunting in Riyadh

Actually, there weren't really much 'hunting' required, we did not even have to do any digging!
It was very easy to get to the fossil site, and you don't even need a 4-wheel-drive. You just go on the riyadh-dammam highway (heading towards dammam), take the exit to thumamah, then the junction to buwiah (i may spell it wrong), then go off-road once you see an upright tire on the left side of the road. Just head towards the hills, park your car, and look for fossils on its slopes. You'd be suprised to see how easy it is to find the fossils once you found your first one.

There were lots of fossils that looked like 'lips' (as Sunflora politely calls them), but looks like something else to me (you know what I mean if you see what I named the picture). I think they were some type of sponge or prehistoric sea-life or something. I've been scouring the web for a scientific name for it, but couldn't find any that looked like the ones we found. sorry. If you do know what they're called, please tell me!

If you're lucky, you'd find shells or clams, like the ones I found above. The second one from the left is actually a whole clam (kepah). It looks like just a lump of rock, but upon closer inspection you'd see it's actual shape. The rightmost fossil is of an oyster shell. It's amazing how it still retains its sheen after billions of years.

Also in abundance are fossils of sand dollars and corals, the kinds that branch out like trees and also the soft coral types. Ihsan even found a petrified twig (the 'nose')

My prized posession, though, had to be this really tiny sea shell I found. It was so tiny I almost threw it away, but it felt round so I brushed the dirt off to see if it was something worth keeping and was pleasantly suprised to see that it was a shell :)
We were hoping to find some shark tooth but unfortunately we didn't find any. We didnt stay long enough and didnt have the right tools for digging and breaking of rocks, so we had to be content with whatever we found, but even then they were still impressive to me.

As usual, any melayu trip would not be complete without eating. We had headed out around 7am to avoid spending time out in the dessert under the noon sun, so we had a breakfast picnic near the hills after we got tired of picking fossils and started getting hungry :)
Since we had extra time, we decided to drive to another site further up, to pick 'saudi diamonds' (cubic zirconia like rocks that could be polished and set into jewellery), but unfortunately our drive was hampered by a sandstorm, so we decided to turn back and head for home instead.

We (read: Taufik and I) took a nap before noon prayers (while the kids made a racket playing god knows what), and then we drove to Granada Mall and met up with Ruby and her family for lunch.
We wanted to visit Old Diriyah, a historical site with an old fort and old buildings, but they were closed for restoration and upgrade, so we went to Ita's place for tea instead. We're not that dissapointed. At least we have an excuse to drive up to Riyadh again (and perhaps drag some other people along next time? *winks at lollies*)
That night Jeni, our host, and the other Malaysian occupants of the apartment building we were staying in held a barbecue on the building's rooftop and we had a blast eating and chatting till our tummies almost burst at their seams.

The next morning we said our goodbyes and thankyous to Jeni, and headed for Ruby's place for an egyptian-singaporean breakfast of spicy Singapore style fool (egyptian lentil soup) eaten with bread and Roti John (french bread with a layer of mince meat and eggs fried on it). We were further spoilt with chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, topped with chocolate ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate syrup. I could die happy right there and then.
But I could not die because we had to go to Swahili's house for lunch.
Swahili's house was like heaven for my kids, coz the big boys got to play Halo on XBox, and Anis and Izani played outside with the pool, then snuck off to play in the garden and got so dirty that I had to make them change before having lunch.
Lunch was super yummy and I am amazed at how Swahili managed to make time to cook dishes that cater for both adult and children taste buds. Dah lah tak kasi orang tolong basuh pinggan!
Oh, and at Swahili's I also met Han, who has been reading my blog but commented only once ;) Yay.. dapat kawan baru!

As with all of my trips to Riyadh, it was hectic but fun! Not only do I get to see another facet of Saudi Arabia every time I go there, I also most usually get to make new friends.

The kids had a lot of fun looking for and at fossils. They even had fun cleaning and brushing the dirt off the fossils to discover what it really looked like. It brought up a lot of questions about how old the earth is and how it and its inhabitants have changed throughout the ages.
I'm going to make them search the web for more information, maybe it will spark more interest in natural science.
I hope that they would gain a love for the earth, and the passion to care for it, at the very least.

My friends in Riyadh, if you're ever in Khobar, do not hesitate to contact me so that I can return your hospitality!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The kids' holiday schedule

at the risk of sounding like a military school head master, here is the holiday schedule for my kids:

Time Activity
8:00 - 8:30 Wake up, brush teeth, shower, dress, make the bed
8:30 - 9:00 Have breakfast
9:00 - 9:30 Clean-up after breakfast, arrange shoes
9:30 - 10:30 Math Exercises
10:30 - 11:30 Ilham/Ihsan play PS2
11:30 - 12:30 Ihsan/Ilham play PS2
12:30 - 1:30 Lunch, clean-up after lunch
1:30 - 3:00 Reading, Jigsaw puzzles, Arts&Crafts or Baking
3:00 - 3:30 Ilham/Ihsan play PS2
3:30 - 4:00 Ihsan/Ilham play PS2
4:00 - 5:30 Play outside
5:30 - 6:00 Shower, dress
6:00 - 7:00 Watch TV
7:00 - 8:00 Dinner, clean-up after dinner
8:00 - 9:00 Free activitity (aside from PS2)
9:00 - ? Time for Bed

I think that works out well.. I can cook lunch while they play PS2 and cook dinner while they play outside. I'll find an activity that requires minimum supervision for 1pm to 3pm on Wednesday (coz that's when Americ@n Id0l is on).
The schedule is not set in stone afterall.. I am willing to make compromises..
Now I just need to come up with acitivities for the 1:30pm to 3pm slot..
Today I was thinking of having them draw pictures and writing stories.
Tomorrow we're gonna bake a chocolate cake which I'm going to bring to the Tajweed Class.
Day after.. hm.. maybe a little reading. Or crafts with balloons (coz the spider that Anis made has shrunk! so we need to make one to show to lollies).
Wednesday more drawing pictures and writing stories so I can watch AI in the meantime.
I still need to make cookies for spring fair, so maybe that'll take up one/two days.
What else can we do? Any ideas?

grr-lah-bah (gelabah = panic)

okay okay okay.

first things first.

Finally got my Growing Up In Trengganu!!! Yay!! Thankyou Papa!
I was so suprised to read my father mentioned by name in the acknowledgements :)
I was also suprised to see a sticker saying the book was a gift from the Trengganu former state minister.. errrr
I was pleasantly suprised to see the author's signature .. I will treasure the book forever.
I've only started reading it, but I've already cried once, when he mentioned that the brass bell on to of Puteri Hill was hand casted by Trengganu makers. I dont know.. just the image of how painstaking it mustve have been, got me overwhelmed with pride, and also sadness.
Oh, I cried twice, coz then I decided to read the last chapter and I couldnt help reading the trengganu bits out loud and it got me cackling to tears.
'Dia laghi sapa kecik ppala!' . gosh I havent heard that phrase for a loooong time.

I'm going to riyadh this evening. more story when i come back.

I took some pictures today:

gotta go pack. bye!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Those who can't pipe, arrange

I am really bad at piping icing, so for Anis' birthday cake, I had to make do with arranging marshmallows and ready made heartshaped candy.
It's good thing too, coz my attempt at piping out the birthday girl's name turned out all squiggly.

We had a pool party that was originally 'Girls Only', but my boys could not stay away from the kiddie pool when they saw all the fun the girls were having and got some of their friends to jump in with them.
It was so difficult to get everyone to get out of the pool to cut the cake, but we managed to somehow.

The candles that I bought didn't want to go out, it got all the other kids blowing at it too. I started thinking aloud that maybe they were trick candles. Only then did I read the fine print on the back of the packet and found out they were "self-relighting candles"!

I had trouble cutting up the cake because it was so spongy and my cake cutter wasn't so sharp and all the girls wanted "the flower". This was the first time that I've been to a party where the cake is finished in the first round. Not because it was good (the cake was actually burnt a bit around the edges), but because it was so small!

How to make the cake:
Cake - Spongy Cake recipe, add a little red food coloring and rose essence.
Frosting - 1 cup whipping cream with 4 heaping tablespoons icing sugar, whipped till stiff, slap on all over the cake. Set aside 4 tablespoons frosting to mix with red food coloring to pipe into name. (I used a ziploc bag as my pipe).
Decoration - ready made heart shaped candy, mini fruity marshmallows. Arranged as flowers, colummns on side and sprinkled around for good measure.
Easy Peasy Lemon Squeazy!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cairo - Mosques

Caution: VERY LONG!

Being a muslim country, Egypt in general has many mosques. Cairo itself has a population of around 16 million and a majority of them muslims, residing in a dense area of only 457 square kilometers, so you would have to expect Cairo to have A LOT of mosques. Due to the extreme density of the city, dont expect to find mosques with sprawling gardens and huge carparks like you do in Malaysia, though. Most mosques are found tucked away on narrow streets (some are more like lanes that could fit only one moving car), in a maze of packed buildings. Some are not even reachable by vehicles with more than 2 wheels. Despite this, I found the sudden discovery of an old mosque during our random walks to be quite pleasant, even if we dont know its name or get a chance to go in.

Muslims have been building mosques in Egypt since their conquest of the country in 641AD, with the most number and the most architecturally luxurious ones being built between 1250 to 1517, during the Mamluk era. One of the largest and oldest mosques in the country is the mudbrick Mosque of Ibnu Tulun, which was built AD876 and AD879 by an Abbasid governor sent from Baghdad to rule Egypt. Unfortunately I did not get to visit this mosque.

One of the first mosques we visited was the Aqsunqur Mosque, which is also known as The Blue Mosque. It was built on 1347 AD by Prince Aqsunqur Al-Nassery, but decorated by Ibrahim Aga Mustahfazan, who put blue floral tilework on the walls facing east (the direction of the kiblat). There are only 3 mosques decorated in this manner and they are all called "Blue Mosques". One is in Istanbul, Turkey and the other is in Isfahan, Iran. In this mosques lies the tomb of Prince Aqsunqur and of Ibrahim Aga.
This mosque is currently unused after it was damaged in an earthquake and is under restoration. Even in its derelict condition though, you still can catch a glimpse of its past glory by looking at the marbeled mihrab (the carved out niche that shows the direction of Kaa'bah) and the intricately carved mimbar (an elevated podium where the imam would give his sermon). There are still magnificent blue tiles on the east walls and you could still see the floral painted decorations on the wooden rafters.
The custodian of the mosque invited us to go up one of the minarets and even helped to carry Izani. The winding stair going up was narrow and pitch dark at certain parts (we had to feel our way buy holding on to the walls and stepping very very carefully), and the climb was quite strenuous (my disused leg musles ached for two days after!) perhaps due to me being extra tense and cautious in the dark, but the view that we got at the top was all worth it. From the minaret, we could see almost all of Cairo. Even though it was quite a hazy day, we still could see the bluish gleaming domes of the Mohamed Ali Mosque in the Citadel on top of the hill in the distance.
The custodian was very helpful and informative so we gave him a tip, which in restrospect, is probably less than what he truly deserved, but who goes back to a site just to give the custodian more money? Perhaps next time, eh?

The above is Sultan Hassan Mosque and Ar-Rifaie Mosque, respectively. They are located right next to each other, seperated only by a pedesterian street that felt almost like a canyon due to the high walls of the mosques on each side.
Sultan Hassan Mosque is 450years older than Ar-Rifaie, built in 1356, by the renownly greedy Sultan An-Nasr Hassan who used the money from the estates of people who had died from some kind of plague called 'Black Death' in 1348 to fund it. Sultan An-Nasr Hassan was murdered 2 years before the mosque's completion in 1363. His body was never recovered and therefore is not laid to rest in his own mosque.
Ar-Rifaie mosque, however, is filled with glitzy tombs of members of the royal family, including Khedive Ismail and King Farouk, the last king of Egypt. Also buried here is the last Shah of Iran. To enter Ar-Rifaie mosque, you'd have to climb a steep set of stairs. Izani was asleep and my legs were still hurting from climbing the Aqsunqur minaret, so I did not see what it looked like inside.
We also did not go into Sultan Hassan Mosque because they were preparing for Friday prayers and we had wanted to perform ours in the Citadel.

The jewel on cairo's crown must be the Mohammed Ali Mosque, which was built in 1830 by Mohammed Ali Pasha, most regarded as the founder of modern Egypt.
Though not a distinct example of Islamic architecture, it is one of the most famous tourist spots in Cairo, perhaps due to it being located in The Citadel (Al-Qalaa, as it is also known), a fort that was built by the famed muslim commander Salah ad-Din on top of one of the hills on the east side of Cairo. From the fort you could see almost the whole of Cairo to your west, and some people say that on a clear day, you could even see the pyramids (too bad it was hazy when we were there).
On the west wall of the mosque's courtyard stands an ornate clock, a gift from King Louis-Phillipe of France, in exchange for the obelisk that now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The clock was damaged upon delivery and still does not work!

Even though the mosque's floor plan was designed to imitate the Mosque of Sultan Ahmad in Istanbul (the capitol of the Ottoman empire at that time), the decorations inside the dome (apart from the hanging lights) gave me more of a french/italian cathedral feel, with gilded carvings in abundance.
Mohammed Ali's marble tomb sits in a wrought iron enclosure in one corner of the mosque and it is pretty resplendant.
The hanging lights were quite beautiful though. I am seriously thinking of having something like that in my home in the future.. perhaps in the bedroom? *wink*
The lighting in the mosque is quite dark though, and since we're still not experts at taking pictures with the D40, some pictures turned out to be quite blurr. Good thing we took lots of pictures so at least a few were usable.

In the area called Islamic Cairo, sitting across Sharia Al-Azhar from each other are the Mosque of Sayyidina al-Hussein and Mosque of Al-Azhar.
Mosque of Sayyidina al-Hussein is considered one of the most important mosques in all Egypt, because it shelters (what the Shiites consider as) one of the most important relics of Islam - the head of Sayyidina Al-Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.). Hussein was the son of Sayyidina Ali, the prophet's son-in-law. It was built in 1154AD to receive the head, almost 500 years after Al-hussein died in a battle in Kerbala, Iraq. This mosque has one feature that I did not see in other mosques - three 'inverted umbrellas' that can be opened to provide shade to worshippers especially during Friday prayers, as seen in the picture above. We did not go inside this mosque because we visited it on a Friday and was advised by the tourist police to pray in the Al-Azhar mosque instead because it is less crowded and more woman-friendly.
Mosque of Al-Azhar is also one of the most venerable mosques in Cairo, because it is also a center of learning. Founded in 970AD, it is considered to be one of the oldest universities in the world. It is still considered central to religious and political life in Egypt, with its Sheikh (I guess like a Dean) being the highest religious authority in the land.
When we were there for Friday prayers, the streets were lined with police on top of a few truckloads more parked on the side. We asked whether they were expecting anything to happen (perhaps as a reaction to the assault on Gaza?), but they shrugged and said everything was normal, they were just there to make sure Friday prayers run smoothly. Right.
The inside of the mosque was suprisingly cool, even though there were no air conditioning, only fans spinning at the end of a really long pole. I couldnt understand the sermon, but somehow I felt strangely peaceful and tranquil. The woman in a white robe and white scarf that help direct women into available spaces by waving at them to come in and pointing to them where to sit, reminded me so much of my mother. There were many women praying in the ladies section, I was literally squeezed!
As the crowds trickle out of the mosque after Friday prayers you could see muslims of all shapes and sizes, of all features and color. There were also many similarly diverse tourists mingling about outside waiting for the worshippers to leave so that they can go in for a visit.

On our random walks in the maze they call 'Khan el Khalili', we discovered the Mosque of Al-Ashraf Barsbey. There were stalls selling brass goods and souviners on the alley in front of it, but that didnt take away its beauty. The guidebook says that this mosque was built in 1423, and boasts a beautifully carved wooden pulpit inlaid with ivory. But again, we did not go in, because the entrance has steps (apart from Mohamad Ali's Mosque in Citadel, Hussein's Mosque and Al-Azhar Mosque, I can't seem to recall seeing any mosques that did not have at least 10 steps at the entrance) and Izani was sleeping in his stroller. In front of this mosque is a very interesting shop selling dried spices (hibiscus, cumin, all sorts of roots) and perfume essence. Also displayed prominently were dried starfishes! I have no idea what they are used for and my arabic is limited to ask questions.

While we were on another walk, another day, this time looking for the Tentmaker's Market (which I will write about in my post about Shopping), we came across Mosque of Sultan Muayyad and Sabil Muhammad Ali Pasha.
Mosque of Sultan Muayyad was built by Sultan al-Malik al-Mu'ayyad Shaykh Abu l-Nasr al-Zahiri al-Mahmudi in 1415. The story that I kept hearing/reading is that Sultan Mu'ayyad was once imprisoned in the dungeon that was once there and he was so miserable that he vowed to demolish the dungeon and built a mosque there if he was ever freed. Obviously, he did :) There is also a madrassa (school) inside. This mosque is just next to Bab Zuweila (Door/Gate of Zuweila), which is 300 years older than the mosque. In addition to being the platform where the previous sultans would watch the departure of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, it was also the site of gory public executions. The heads of criminals and slain enemies would be exhibited there, mounted on spikes.
Sabil Muhammad Ali Pasha used to be a public drinking fountain ("Sabil" means "Drinking fountain"). It must one of the most frequently photographed and drawn fountains in Cairo, because you can see pictures/lithographs of it in almost every bookstore and postcard shops. It was built in 1820 by Muhammad Ali Pasha in memory of his son, Tusun Pasha, who died in 1816. It also houses 2 kuttabs (Schools teaching qur'an).

Sabil Muhammad Ali Pasha, Mosque of Sultan Muayyad and Bab Zuweila are all along a street called Sharia al-Muizz li-Din Allah. I would advise you not to miss walking down this street, starting from the Al-Ghouri complex (another nice building/mosque) which is right at the junction with Sharia Al-Azhar ( a very busy main road, so you can get a taxi to get there). The street is very narrow, and is lined with small shops and stalls selling bedlinens and clothes. Ocassionally a small van or scooter might honk you to make way and the street is dusty and uneven (what small street in Cairo is not?), but it is do-able even for families with children. Walking along the street, the sight of colourful hanging clothes would suddenly clear up to reveal the beautiful Sabil Mohammad Ali Pasha. After the sabil, take the street on your left (there are no road signs!) and you will soon see Bab Zuweila and beyond it, the Tentmaker's Market. The street is a little dirty, but just bear with it and distract your attention with the sights and sounds!

Even with the limited number of mosques that I had managed to visit, I still felt like I had just scratched the surface on learning about the wealth and beauty of the old mosques of Cairo. Each mosque, though some with certain similarities, had unique features whether it is in terms of the carvings and decorations in the facade and domes, or in terms of the decorations of its huge doors, lighting fixtures, stained glass windows, tiled walls and mihrabs and elegance of the mimbars.
Just like the carvings on the walls of the ancient egyptian tombs, somebody had taken their time and effort to design, build and decorate these mosques with meticulous detail, attention and love.

Tip: Dress modestly when you want to visit a mosque, because if you dont, you would be forced to wear a ghastly green tent! I would suggest long pants/skirts, with a loose fitting tunic on top (at least 3/4 arm length). Bring a light scarf just in case the custodians ask you to cover your hair. Wear/bring socks because the marble floors can be quite cold. Bring a plastic bag to put your shoes in if you dont want to tip the guy who looks after your shoes.

More (and clearer) pictures on flickr.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Giza, Memphis and Sakkara


Sakkara is 44kms (27miles) South of Cairo. The drive there was very pleasant, because you get to get out of the concrete jungle that is Cairo and get to drive through the fertile landscapes of Memphis and Saqqara. This road really reminded me of Taufik's hometown because of the canal all along in the middle of the road among the fields and fields of green vegetables and palm fronds. Along the way we met several donkey-pulled wooden carts carrying vegetables (carrots and leafy stuff) and fruits (oranges), which adds to the rural feel.

Then suddenly, the green-ness ended and you meet a vast arid desert.

Saqqara is one of the richest archaeological sites in egypt, being 3000 years old. We were greeted by the limestone wall that hides a colonnaded corridor of 40 pillars, ribbed in imitation of palm stems. The walkway is longer than I thought it would be, but it is very narrow and on a busy day (like the one when we were there), be prepared to rub shoulders with other tourists. When there are less people though, do take a chance to play peek-a-boo or hide and seek with your kids among the columns :)

The pyramid of Djoser was to our right as we exited the corridor. It is also called the 'Step Pyramid' due to it's shape. It is considered the prototype for future pyramids, built in the 27BC for the 3rd Dynasty King Djoser. King's tombs used to be just a flat mudbrick building called mastabas, but King Djoser's architect, Imhotep, decided to build one out of stone. He also decided to build 6 mastabas, one on top of and smaller than the other, which resulted in the stepped shape. We didnt go inside.

We did go inside what was left of the Pyramid of Unas, the tomb of the last king of the 5th Dynasty. This was when we started to really feel that we were visiting the ancient egyptians because the walls were covered with hieroglyphics, recording hymns, prayers and magical spells designed to protect the king in the afterlife. There were amazingly accurate drawings of cows, antelopes and people carrying food/offerings. There were also carvings of King Unas and his wife in full regalia.

I don't know whether it is allowed, but I wish I had brought some paper and charcoal/crayons with us so that my kids could do some wall rubbings. It would've made a great souviner, especially of the walls that were in chambers that were too dark to take pictures in.
Tickets: Adult 50LE Kids 25LE, we also gave a little tip to the old man who showed us around the tombs in the Pyramid of Unas and explained to us what the wall carvings meant.


Memphis is just 3kms (2 miles) away from Sakkara, and where you should head to is the village of Mit Rahina where the museum is. From Sakkara to Memphis we passed through more small villages which you might be interested to take pictures of.
The historian Herodotus described in 5th century AD that Memphis was a "prosperous city and cosmopolitan centre", with magnificent temples and palaces. Sadly all those were torned down and pillaged by foreign invaders from the Romans onwards. What is left is put in the museum in Mit Rahina, one of which is the 80ton collosal calcite statue of Ramses II. Also displayed around the statue under an open-aired (but roofed) building are other smaller granite and calcite statues found in the area.

Outside in the garden sits the "Alabaster Sphinx", though the guidebook says it is made of calcite (Calcite = alabaster? *shrug*). This sphinx is of course smaller than the one in Giza and still has his nose intact. Walk further on and you'll see artifacts from the temple, which includes calcite slabs where bulls were mummified. There is a very tall statue at the end of the garden but my guidebook did not mention it and there are no signs, therefore I do not know whether it is an artifact or a mere reproduction for decorative purposes.

There are stalls that sells souviners outside the museum, but you are better off buying stuff in Khan El-Khalili Bazaar (more choices, more competition, therefore more bargaining power).
Tickets: Adult 40LE Kids 20LE


Giza is closer to Cairo than Memphis and Sakkara, but it is not on the same highway. I would suggest you visit Giza in the morning then Mempis/Sakkara in the afternoon instead of the other way round like we did, coz we ended up with such a short time in Giza before the sun started setting. We even missed visiting the Solar Boat Museum, which holds a full-sized ancient Egyptian boat which is just like the ones seen in tomb paintings used by the sun-god to make his daily trip across the heavens. I would've loved to see that boat.

The Great Pyramid of Khufu is HUGE. It seemed almost pointless to take pictures so close to it since all you see are block of rocks, but it didnt stop us :) I now can say I have touched the great pyramid (one item off my "to do before I die" list.). To take the picture shown above, you have to drive up to the lookout point. You only get to do this in private transportation like a tour bus/van or a private hired cars. They do not allow taxis up here. (So tip: Hire a private car for the day, dont take a taxi to go to the pyramids). Another option is of course to ride the camels/horses that are for hire there, but they are too expensive in my opinion (Prices range from 150LE to 250LE, depending on your bargaining skills. Please agree on a price before mounting, otherwise the guy wont let you off the animal until you pay his price).

The Sphinx, the protector of the pyramids, is actually located on your way out of the Giza archeological site. You can actually walk closer to the statue, but we didnt have time to *boo hoo*. So we ended up only taking pictures from afar.
They have a Sound and Light show every evening. We weren't really interested so we didnt check the timing for the english shows nor the prices.
On our way out, it was glaringly obvious how the Giza modern town is encroaching the site of the pyramids. Almost right at it doorstep is a KFC and a PizzaHut! There goes my vision of the pyramids being in the middle of the desert.
Tickets: Adult 50LE, Kids 25LE, extra charge for car, i think 2LE.

All in all, it was a good day spent among the ancient egyptians. I am really amazed at their achitectural and artistic feats. The rocks were huge and hard, it is mind-boggling to imagine the amount of effort and determination that it took to cut and haul and carve those stones to be what they finally became.

More (and clearer) pictures on flickr.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Cairo - general

First impression

My first impression of cairo is that it is a very very old city.
We had to drive through the suburb of Heliopolis to get from the airport to central cairo, where our hotel was. Heliopolis had retro looking buildings with european influences. With old taxis (mostly boxy fiats and ancient peugot 504s) and vespas dominating the streets, vintage sounding music (trumpets and drums) blaring through the taxi's radio, and the near-sunset light washing a sepia tone over everything, it is not suprising that Ilham felt like he was in an old black&white movie. I half expected to see P.Ramlee walking down the street with a fez on his head.
The traffic in cairo was not as bad as I thought it would be. I had been in worse traffic jams in KL. You'd have to be a daredevil to drive in cairo, though. I don't think I'd have the guts to swerve and dodge traffic and pedestrians alike in cairo.
As we got into central cairo, the buildings got older and older, and if I may say so, also dirtier and dirtier. Some buildings still retain their magnificent carvings and decorations, but everything looks so dusty. As if someone had kept these buildings in an outdoor shed and have not been doing any cleaning for centuries. I still can see beauty underneath all that grime though.

When searching for an alternative accomodation to Sheraton, I noticed that that are really no mid-range hotels in Cairo. You have either the (supposedly) 5-star high-end accomodations (mostly hotel chains) and then you have the budget/hostel type accomodations. What I feared most was to pay 5-star prices and getting 3-star accomodations (which is very likely in cairo). So we had opted for Windsor Cairo, which claims to be 3-star, with 3-star prices.

Our hotel was right smack in the middle of central cairo.
We had a corner room on the 3rd floor that had one side facing a burnt down barbecue place, and another side facing a coffee shop slash sheesha place, that seemed to be open for business from 8am to what feels like 4am every day.
From our room, we could hear the buzz of male conversation and the rat-tat-tat of the metal thongs used to pick up the coals that burn the sheesha pipes. We could also hear vehicles that seem to speed up as the night grew later. By the 3rd night, however, we got used to the noise and now it feels kinda too quiet sleeping in my own room.

Windsor used to be a British Officer's Club, so the decor is a little antique.
It's really just a small hotel, with only 55 rooms on 6 floors. It is a very good 3 star hotel, in my opinion. About the only things that seperate it from a Sheraton were lavish decorations, a huge marbeled lobby, satellite TV, room service and a pool. The housekeeping is immaculate (our room and bathroom were cleaned and bed sheets changed every day. I know, because the room usually smells like puke in the mornings and smells fresh by mid afternoon).
The wooden floors are a little creaky, but couple that with the metal-spring rollaway extra bed and the sweet smell of cool clean cotton sheets on a lembek lembik (soft mattress), it instantly reminded me of my grandmother's house in Merang.

My kid's favourite part of the hotel is the open-shaft elevator. They like pulling at the grilled doors and help the bellboy with the lever controls. When they're not in the elevator, they look at the exposed pulleys and chains and wave at the people inside the elevator. They keep asking me what does "Appel" mean on the button that we have to press to buzz for the elevator. Their favourite bit of the day is when half of us would ride the elevator (it could only fit 4 people at a time) and the rest (usually Ilham and Ihsan) would wait till the bellboy says "Go!" and they would race down/up the stairs that winds around the elevator to see who reaches the lobby/room first.
I swear I've seen that happen on television before and it was confirmed when I saw a picture of Michael Palin on one of the hotel walls with the inscription "Around the World in 80 days" under it.

My favoutire part of the hotel is the 2nd Floor where the dining room is, with the sitting room (the bar) beside it. The dining room had huge windows that ran along one wall and is quite a pleasure to have breakfast in. The sitting room had a small library (only one book shelf, actually), but I still managed to find something to read on those days that we didnt go out. I finished reading Ben Elton's Dead Famous and Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception.

Windsor's complimentary breakfast was simple - a pot of coffee or tea, juice in a glass, a basket of toasts and buns and an assortment of butter, jam and cream cheese. We would always order a pot of hot chocolate and by the 4th day the waiter started to bring it without even asking and it was on the house. Certain days we would order scrambled eggs or cheese/mushroom ommelletes. It wasn't that heavy, but enough to hold us up till lunch time.
Their lunch and dinner menu is quite okay, with choices of western platters like roast beef or grilled fish, and also traditional egyptian food like koshary and grilled meats. They also make great pizza, which my kids really liked. Considering the exchange rate, the prices are reasonable.

Outside, the local food offerings have less variety. It's usually shawarma, kebabs, falafel, grilled meats with bread. We ate koshary (pasta and rice and lentils in tomato sauce) at the famous Abou Tarek restaurant one day, and the kids liked it, but I think I would have enjoyed it much more if I wasnt sick. We had a delicious lamb tajine (Lamb and vegetable stew) at Aly Hassan Al-Haty & Aly Abdou Restaurant, which was "once the haunt of cabinet ministers and movie stars" says the guidebook, but was a little run-down and overpriced in my opinion. In Zamalek, we had lunch at Beano's, a restaurant that also had shelves of books for sale, and I had the best Blackberry Hibiscus juice I have ever tasted. We frequented Gad restaurant which serves normal egyptian fare mentioned above and one day I tried the egyptian pancakes which was yummeh. Even then, we grew quite tired of egyptian food after a while and I longed for some sambal tumis or curry. I even wished I had the foresight to pack some sambal daging (spicy beef floss) with me. Our saviour was KFC and McD, which provided some form of respite from egyptian food. (the fried chicken was a little different though, and not as tasty as Malaysian KFC.. tak cukup ajinomoto kot? ha ha )

The 'Cairo Foxtrot'
It all started with Anis on the very first day we arrived in Cairo. She started spewing chunks and kept going to the bathroom. I thought maybe it was because she was really slow at eating lunch before we left and that she didnt chew her chicken properly, but when it went on for 2 days and she kept dozing off and being lethargic, I started to worry. We got her some anti-vomitting medicine from the nearest pharmacy and she got better.
On the third day, I started feeling a bit off. I thought maybe it was the mint tea I had in Khan El-Khalili (I knew I shouldnt have eaten/drank anything at such a filthy place), so I stopped drinking tea or taking anything dairy. I spent the next day just sleeping in bed and going back and forth to the bathroom.. pity my kids who had to content with watching arabic tv. I managed to take a short walk to the grocery store and bought them some writing books and asked them to draw what they had seen for the previous 3 days. That occupied them while we waited for Taufik to come back from his training. After dinner we stopped by the pharmacy and bought medicine for diarrhea.
Then Ihsan felt a little queasy and said he had a headache, but luckily we already had medicine and he felt better really quick. Then Izani started puking, so I was sure it must be something in the environment that made us all sick, one by one. From then on we treaded carefully when we were out on our walks, we watched what we were eating, we watched what Izani was touching and putting in his mouth, like a hawk.
Us getting sick really put a little damper in our plans. When I was sick we missed one whole day of sightseeing, and since at least one of us was sick in the following days, we had to limit ourselves to just a few activities (sometimes just one activity) a day. The Cairo Foxtrot also robbed me off doing one thing that I really really really wanted to do: watch the Whirling Dervishes. boo hoo!

What I like
I love the people!! The people who are not touts for stores or services are really friendly and helpful. And they love kids so much. I can't tell you how many times I got stopped and asked whether they could take a picture of or with my kids.
Most guards or custodians at tourists spots were also friendly and helpful. They helped me carry strollers up and down stairs, and I gladly gave them baksheesh (tip). I can't tell you how many times I asked a tourist police for directions and got to where I wanted to go. I expected to be hassled for baksheesh a lot of times and was suprised that I wasnt. The only time I was hassled was when I went for Friday prayers at Al-Azhar Mosque and the guy who helped put my shoes in the racks directly asked for some money in a gruff manner, like saying "you must pay! You must pay!" (I gave him one pound at it made him smile very widely). Even touts were gracious and unforceful when I decline their offer politely with a "La, Shukran" (No, Thankyou).
I love that you can walk almost everywhere. This city is quite pedestrian friendly. The taxis and subway is also very good. I can't comment on the buses or altremco (vans or minibus) coz I never had the guts to try get on one.
I love the architecture, be it the Islamic ones or the Roman-Greco ones or the French influenced ones. The Baron Palace in Heliopolis, which was inspired by a hindu temple in Angkor Wat of all things, was the first building that awed me and I was awed all through my visit.
I love the arts and crafts. Fabric and leather patchwork, bedouin jewellery, ancient carvings on granite walls, handmade rugs, copper plates, crystal vases, the hanging lights made of copper, even tacky papyrus ... *sigh* I wish I had the money to buy them all. Limited by the means to bring them home, I had to settle for one papyrus drawing of ducks, 2 patchwork leather poufs (*winks at Chandra*), 2 bottles of perfume essence, one patchwork large cushion cover that can also be used as a wall-hanging, and a mini tent for the kids.
Last but not least, I of course, love the history behind the different civilizations that the country has gone through. I think that is self-explanatory.

What I don't like
What I really dont like about Cairo is that it can be really dirty.
Just like Rome, which had places where you can get horse-carriage rides, some parts of the city is overwhelmed with horse poo and pee. In Zamalek, which I assume is where most of the expats live, the horse-poo is replaced by dog-poo. The thing is, sometimes even places where there are no animals found, you'd still get a whiff every now and again. It's really disgusting.
Store owners have this bad habit of sweeping the rubbish from their premises out into the street. Beware of walking across their path while they are doing this, they might just sweep their rubbish straight into you. They also have this habit of splashing water on their floors and infront of their stores. I think it's meant to be cleansing, but it only makes the rubbish that they have just swept out get wet and makes the street all muddy.
As I mentioned earlier, this made us watch carefully where we step and what we touch. I always keep wet wipes with me and we only drink bottled water. I try to avoid buying anything from street vendors and wipe down cutleries as much as I can. Even then we were still not safe from getting stomach upsets.
If you do get stomach upset though, the pharmacies are really helpful. Ask for Motillium (to supress the vomiting) and Antinal (to cure the diarrhea). It works really well and you should feel better within a day or two. It was a good thing that we were there for more than 2 days, or else our vacation would've really been blown.

In the days to come I will share pictures and stories about the places that we did get to visit :)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


i had written a long entry.
with pictures

izani came and sat on my lap

i dont know what he did, but the whole thing is gone.
gone gone gone.
he is now bawling his eyes out coz my scream startled him.

i am going to take a nap.

Edited to add:

I was trying to teach him how to say "sorry", but he kept on saying "susu" (milk), prolly due to the proximity of my bazookas.
How can I possibly stay mad at this boy for any longer?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

back from cairo

but as usual, I can't blog about it yet, because

... I've got a few loads of laundry to fold
... I am dying for some curry and sambal tumis ikan bilis
... the pictures are still on taufik's laptop
... I have to catch up on election news, idol news, family news

in summary though-
we only did half of the stuff I planned coz we all got sick one after another, but we did get to do the 'important' stuff like visit the pyramids, the museum, citadel and lots and lots of old mosques.
I have mixed feelings about cairo. I loved it, yet there were some parts of it that I loathed. We did enjoy ourselves though, despite falling sick.

more stories later, kay?