Monday, October 18, 2010

Chris Wren On VPR's Trip To Egypt

Having lived and worked for three years as Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times, I thought I knew Egypt, but VPR’s trip there encompassed so much that I had never seen before. The traffic jams are worse than ever, but our group became connoisseurs of such frustration on wheels. Our excellent adventure was a great success, thanks to our intrepid band of travelers, who bonded immediately with each other, sharing that restless intellectual curiosity that seems to distinguish VPR listeners.

We crawled over and through ancient temples, tombs and tunnels that dated back nearly five thousand years, sometimes quite literally on hands and knees. We visited Muslim mosques and Coptic Christian and Jewish places of worship. We rode camels near the Pyramids; Elizabeth Pearce and Tracey Morrill opted instead to take horses into the desert, saddling up at three a.m. to greet the dawn on horseback. We flirted with the First Cataracts of the Nile in an outboard motorboat on our visit to a friendly Nubian village in southern Egypt. We bounced along in old carriages glistening with polished brass, and watched a fat moon rise over the Nile from the deck of our five-star deluxe riverboat. But no one complained when we rose before dawn to beat the crowds to the ancient tombs in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens in the desert outside Luxor, or caught our flight to Abu Simbel, north of the border with Sudan.

We haggled for bargains at the night market in Aswan, with street vendors on Luxor’s riverfront and the merchants in Cairo’s sprawling bazaar, the Khan Khalili. We sampled a variety of Egyptian culinary treats – who bothered to count all the falafel we ate? We picked up some useful Arabic, and even learned how to read hieroglyphics and sort out the Pharaonic royalty and their gods and goddesses.

No one complained, even when the desert temperatures climbed above 110 degrees. Bottle after bottle of cold water supplied by the solicitous Carrie McDougall slaked our thirst throughout the day, and there was frosty Stella and Saqqara beer under starry night skies. If we grew weary from the unflagging pace, no one looked bored. The sole mishap was Karen Bowles's banged-up toe, which Doctor Bill Krause taped up to keep her in motion. Al Wakefield set new sartorial
standards with a colorful new Nubian skullcap every day, sending us all out to acquire our own Egyptian apparel.

Carrie McDougall of Cultural Crossroads was a fantastic tour organizer. She recruited a brilliant Egyptologist, the delightful Amany Gawdat, to accompany us as our constant tutor. Carrie’s Egyptian-American colleague, Sherif El Sabai, and his hard-working assistant, Tamer, ensured that everything came off without a hitch. We wound up living next door to the Pyramids, in Egypt’s most celebrated hotel, Mena House, where Sherif, who seemed to know everyone in Cairo, arranged early check-ins and very late check-outs.

Lisa Smith was accompanied by her son Thatcher, who turned thirteen years old on the Nile and was adopted by our entire group. We chose Thatcher to mark his birthday by steering our boat from the bridge, alongside the captain. And we celebrated Sidley Heney’s birthday on a restaurant veranda overlooking the Pyramids, with two chocolate birthday cakes that Sherif carried in from Cairo’s finest bakery. Several fellow travelers stayed a day longer for an outing to the Mediterranean port of Alexandria.

A high-point was our private audience with the Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, the renowned archeologist Zahi Hawass, who discussed some of his discoveries, and shared his plans to recover ancient artifacts abducted from Egypt, including the bust of
Nefertiti (now in Berlin,) the Rosetta Stone (now in London,) and the ancient calendar ripped out of a temple in Dendera that Napoleon carted back as booty to Paris (now in the Louvre.) We were also allowed to go inside the barriers protecting the Sphinx and examine itclose-up.

In some afternoon lectures, I discussed how and why Egypt made peace with Israel in defiance of its Arab neighbors, Egypt's current role in the Arab world, the problems with American aid to Egypt, and contemporary Egyptian politics, focusing on who might succeed the ailing President Hosni Mubarek after nearly three decades in power. My wife, Jaqueline, related the challenges of making a home and raising two children in Cairo. The questions from our companions were perceptive, and our discussions spirited. When I proposed a reunion in Thetford, Vermont, later this fall, everyone agreed to come, decked out in Egyptian costume.

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