PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Into Egypt, Day 1

Every so often in life, you are dealt unexpected curveballs that seem unfair and moments of true serendipitous grace. For me, in the past year, I’ve had both. When I left my call at Emanuel, I lost a Lily Sabbatical Grant that would have provided an amazing experience for my family and me. And now I have begun a truly astonishing trip to Cairo and a cruise down the Nile River, thanks to the generous offer to join my cousin, Cindy, on this Egyptian journey.

My sojourn began with a series of flights from Boston to New York City to Paris to Cairo. I had a long layover in Paris, where I initially planned to run into the heart of the city for lunch on the Champs Élysées, or near Notre Dame. However, the recent strikes in Paris made me think better of that. The last leg of the trip was into Cairo, where I was met by our travel agent with fresh flowers and the most seamless passport experience of my life. The fact that it was just after midnight after more than 24 hours in transit made that even more lovely.

Cindy’s plane also got in late, so we met our tour guide at 9:30 a.m. to begin our exploration of the area. It is just Cindy and me, which makes it quite lovely. Our tour guide has a PhD in Egyptology and works at an area university but reserves time for taking small groups around Cairo. To say that she has a font of information and knowledge would be a gross understatement.

Our first stop was Dahshur, a royal necropolis located in the desert on the west bank of the Nile approximately 25 miles south of Cairo. It is known chiefly for several pyramids, two of which are among the oldest, largest and best preserved in Egypt, built from 2613 BC to 2589 BC. Building the Dahshur pyramids was an extremely important learning experience for the Egyptians before they could build the Great Pyramid of Giza. Two of the Dahshur Pyramids, bent and the Red Pyramids, were constructed during the reign of Pharaoh Sneferu.

I stood in awe as I looked at the pyramids, not believing I had finally gotten to Egypt. Cindy and I took the many steps up to the entrance of the Red Pyramid and then the very narrow way down. We had to go backward, like we were climbing a sloped ladder, until we reached the floor, which was below ground. We were told this was the best pyramid to enter and we were both very glad we did. Once in, we also had another climb to see another section of it, basically going up and down the same sets of stairs repeatedly. I had been nervous about this because I have been sick. But whether it is adrenaline or excitement, it was remarkably unproblematic.

After touring the pyramids, we headed to Memphis, said to have been founded by the legendary first king of Egypt, Menes, in 3100 B.C. The ancient city of Memphis was the capital during the Early Dynastic Period (circa 3100 B.C. to 2686 B.C.) and Old Kingdom (circa 2686 B.C. to 2181 B.C.), and continued to be one of the most important cities throughout more than 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian history. It was a center for the worship of the god Ptah, whose temple was one of the most important places in all of ancient Egypt.

We had a chance to visit the site of the very impressive statue of Rameses II, where we learned a great deal about Egyptian kings. What struck me about the statue was the musculature of the arms and the deliberate nature to make him look buff for the afterlife. Our guide took us around and taught us about the different hieroglyphics symbols as well as burial practices.

One of the most interesting things was the number of antiquities that have been found since the Arab spring. After the Arab spring, more people were allowed to build. But as they dug, they kept finding artifacts and antiquities. The reason that they were given to the museum is because the easiest way for people to deal with those antiquities was to give them to the government and then they would not run into a bunch of zoning problems. Whoever thought that bureaucratic paperwork with the yield such a benefit.

From there, we traveled to the grand Egyptian Museum, which when it opens, will be one the largest museums in the world and will host most of the antiquities of Egypt. Architecturally, Cindy and I both found it one of the most fascinating buildings we’d ever been in as a museum. The use  of light and shape in the structure was phenomenal. I found visiting it absolutely incredible even without the artifacts, so I cannot imagine what it’s going to be like when it’s filled. One of the ways that they were able to afford to build it was by taking antiquities, like King Tut, on tour to places like the U.S.

On our trips around the area, our guide infused us with so much information about Egypt, its culture and Muslim practices that it was like taking an advanced college course. By the time I leave here, I am going to have so much more depth of understanding of this culture that I will find it hard to believe.

By this time, Cindy and I were both feeling the effects of jet leg and our late arrivals, so we were glad to be able to go back to the hotel for naps and a chance to use the hotel pool, sauna and hot tub. One of the best parts of this were the smells in the spa area, which invited amazing relaxation.

Then we experienced Iftar. We are here during Ramadan, which means the people around us are fasting, and, of course, taking part in prayer practices, as our guide did in the van, during our travel. Their faithfulness during this time is quite astounding.

Iftar begins at sundown and is a celebratory end of the facet that began at 4:30 in the morning. All I can say is the buffet we went to gave new meaning to the word opulent feast. I’ve included some photos from it and I wish you could attach , the tastes and smells.

Both Cindy and I are daring eaters and tried things that we had no idea what they were. There is nothing I regretted eating, many of which I will dream about for years to come. The savory items had unique tastes and textures and the sweet items or amazing, but not cloying.

When I went to get my dessert plate, I asked an Egyptian gentleman there what the best items were. He was glad I asked and proceeded to select items for me. This is indicative of what I have already seen of the Egyptian people, who exhibit polite and joyful confidence and delight in their culture and sharing it with others. I can already tell this is going to be an astounding trip.

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