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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival 2004
First Two Days
Travel Journal by Shira

It's June, 2004 and I have once again decided to travel to the Ahlan wa Sahlan festival in Cairo, Egypt with Morocco.  This year, she is bringing a commercial tour group of about 40 people. The two previous times I traveled with her to Cairo it was just a small group of 4-5 people she had invited to join her as companions. This time will be an interesting new adventure, thanks to the size of the group. 

Many people have asked me questions about traveling to Egypt:  how much money to budget, what to wear, what it's like, etc. In this journal, I'll try to share the answers to these questions and more.

June 21, 2004: Preparing to Leave!

Finishing Packing
The time finally came to finish the final details of packing. Packing is always much more interesting with help, and The FatMan (see photo above) was happy to offer his services.

My luggage contained 2 calf-length (or longer) loose, flowing dresses.  I wore a third on the airplane with ankle-length long underwear that can double as an outdoor garment under my shorter dresses.  I also packed lingerie, knee socks, and a nightshirt for sleeping. Because of my plans to take classes at the Ahlan wa Sahlan festival, I packed one unitard, one sports bra to wear under it, and one lightweight hip scarf. One of my hotels (the Mena House) has a swimming pool, so I tossed in a swimsuit just in case I might feel inspired to use it. The festival structure includes nightly "summer parties" in which festival participants take turns performing.  I didn't perform last year, but this year I've decided to bring a costume and dance.  In this photo, you can see that FatMan was helping me squeeze my beaded dress into the smallest amount of space possible.

Cairo has grown much more conservative than it was when I first traveled there in 1999, so I took several hijab (head scarves) designed to completely cover my blonde hair.  One was a hijjab that I bought in Cairo in 2003.  Another was an "Al-Amirah" religious hijab that I purchased through the web site.  And two were large polyester square scarves that I bought at the Tie Rack in my local mall which I could use either as hijab or as accessories depending on where I might go and what time of day.  For shoes, I decided to take two pairs:  one comfortable for walking (for all my sightseeing), and one to wear with my dance costume.

--In addition to my clothing, I also took:
--Power converter so I could use all my appliances
--My digital camera with its memory cards, spare battery, and power cord
--My laptop with all of its gear (spare batteries, power cord, modem cord, etc.)
--Some DVD's to watch on my laptop during the long flights
--Several juicy romance novels for recreational reading
--My prescription drugs for my various medical issues (allergy, etc.)
--Assorted hair care items (blow dryer, shampoo, comb)
--"Just in case I catch a cold or get diarrhea" supplies from the drugstore including tissues
--Toilet paper

My film camera with 8 rolls of film and spare battery.  I knew the Ahlan wa Sahlan festival allowed film cameras at 2003's opening and closing night galas, but not digital cameras. I didn't know whether the policy would change for 2004, but I took the film camera with the intent of using it if allowed.

I stashed all of the above items into my carry-on bag. I took a larger empty suitcase to hold all the treasures I hoped to buy in Cairo.  But it seemed a shame to let all that space go to waste, so I filled it with bottled water and a few snack items, knowing that I would be happy to have it available upon arrival!  I could consume all of this while in Cairo, thereby freeing up the space in the luggage to carry home my purchases.

The Airport
Fortunately, the process of going to the airport and boarding the airplane went smoothly. The check-in lines for our flight weren't very long, and I passed quickly through the security checkpoint.  I had had some concerns about clearing security - I had really stuffed my 9x13x22 inch carry-on bag full of items, and I was hoping I wouldn't have to endure dealing with a curious security guard sifting through it all. Luckily, it wasn't my day to arouse their interest.

Unfortunately, I was quite hungry by the time I arrived at the airport, and the international terminal in San Francisco has abysmal restaurant choices inside the secured area.  It's a shame, because the other terminals at this airport have great restaurants such as the Crab Pot and I was hoping one of them would have an outlet in the international terminal. No such luck! I ate something adequate at the Mexican restaurant and headed for my gate.

The flight began boarding promptly on schedule, and took off on time. The adventure had begun!

Day 1, June 22, 2004:  Arrival In Cairo!

This is the first view I had of Cairo, taken from the airplane (you can see the airplane wing at the bottom of the picture, in the foreground):

A 23-Hour Marathon
Traveling from San Francisco to Cairo takes a very long time!  I had decided to use United Airlines and Lufthansa, although most of the other members of Morocco's group opted for gathering in New York and flying together on EgyptAir non-stop from New York to Cairo.  From the time I left the house until the time I walked into my hotel room, I had been traveling for 23 hours and 8,000 miles!  It was exhausting! This included:

1.  It took an hour to get from the house in San Jose, California to the San Francisco airport.
2.  I arrived at the airport 2 hours before the flight, to allow plenty of time to check the bags, clear security, and then wait for the flight. 
3.  I boarded the airplane in time for a 2:30 p.m. departure.
4.  I spent 10 1/2 hours flying from San Francisco to Frankfurt, Germany.
5.  I "enjoyed" a 4 1/2 hour layover.
6.  I spent 3 1/2 hours flying from Frankfurt to Cairo and arrived approximately 7:00 p.m.
7.  It took an hour to claim bags, clear immigration, clear customs, and haul the luggage out to the van.
8.  It took about 1/2 hour to drive from the airport to the Victoria Hotel.
9.  I fell onto my bed in my hotel room and remembered how wonderful it could be to be horizontal!

For our tour, we stayed at the Victoria Hotel for the first part of our visit, then moved to the Mena House when the festival began on June 27. Here is a photo of the front of the Victoria:

The Victoria is a three-star hotel located in the baladi (working class) part of Cairo.  It is conveniently located for most sight-seeing purposes, and is viewed by the locals as being a respectable place.  The Victoria sits on a corner where the busy street al-Ghomariyya meets a small neighborhood street. Across the street on the al-Ghomariyya side of the corner is the hospital Mustashfa Sednawi.  Across the street on the other side of the corner there is a mosque whose very large speakers blare out a call to prayer five times per day. The one at dawn is particularly challenging for guests whose rooms are on the same side of the hotel as the mosque. This particular visit, I was grateful to have a guest room on the side of the hotel that is farthest away from the mosque.

Every hotel in Egypt is guarded by uniformed tourist police, some of whom carry loaded automatic rifles. After the 1996 terrorist attack in Luxor when terrorists fired on a busload of German tourists and killed some of them, many people have been afraid to come to Egypt as tourists. The guards at hotels are one of many steps the government has taken to protecttourists since then. One day, I counted 7 uniformed police outside the entrance to the Victoria.

Although I planned to share a triple room with two other people, they would not be arriving until the EgyptAir flight came in the next day.  Therefore, I would be alone for my first night in Cairo.  The hotel decided to give me a single room for my first night, and then I would need to move to the triple room the next day after the rest of the group arrived.  This annoyed me slightly because it meant I couldn't really unpack and settle in. I tried to persuade them to let me have the triple room, but it quickly became clear I was wasting my breath so I gave up.

Upon arriving in my room, I decided it might be nice to send e-mail home telling my husband I had arrived safely.  So I started up my computer, took one look at the phone jack in the wall, and discovered that things were not going to be quite as easy as I expected:

Now, I had stayed at this same hotel in 2003, and last year my room had a phone jack that was appropriate for the modular plug on my modem cord.  So it hadn't occurred to me that it might be necessary to bring any sort of telephone adapter.  Hmmmm, this posed an interesting challenge.  But it would need to wait until morning.  I knew the night staff at the hotel didn't speak much English, and just then I found sleep to be more interesting than solving the modem problem. I also didn't expect the night staff to be sufficiently computer-literate to be useful.

I made my first call on my rental cell phone to let my husband know I had arrived safely in Cairo, then succumbed to the temptation of my bed.

Day 2, June 23, 2004: Settling In

After a wonderful night's sleep, my rented cell phone began to ring at 6:00.  The call was from my not-yet-arrived roommate's husband.  Under the best of circumstances, I am not coherent before 9:00 a.m.  When a cheery voice said, "Hi Shira!  It's Jeff!" all I could respond was, "Jeff who?"  This was very embarrassing, because I have been a guest in their home, and I certainly should have remembered that only one person named Jeff has my cell phone number!  He asked how his wife was doing, so I let him know that I didn't expect her to arrive for another 7 hours. He was clearly disappointed at not being able to speak with her, so I promised to have her call or e-mail him as soon as possible after she arrives.

I was expecting the rest of my group to arrive in the afternoon, probably around 1:30 or 2:00. So I slept in late, enjoyed the buffet breakfast that was included with my room fee, and went to the bank in the hotel to change some money to Egyptian pounds. The exchange rate was approximately six Egyptian pounds per one U.S. dollar.

The Neighborhood
I knew I needed to spend time outdoors in the sun to help my body adapt to the shift in time zone, so I decided to take some pictures around the neighborhood of my hotel.

This neighborhood was an interesting mix of traditional culture meeting modern culture. On the very same street that served heavy automobile traffic, there were also pedestrians and people on bicycles carrying on their business.  I saw one bicycle pulling some sort of cart which contains a large plant. The man riding it was wearing a ghallibiyah (full-length robe/dress).

Another bicyclist was balancing a ladder on his head! This one was wearing more Western-style trousers.

Gallibiyahs worn by men were a common sight in the neighborhood of the Victoria Hotel.  It seemed as though about half the men in the neighborhood wore Western-style attire of dress shirts, ties, and dress slacks.  The other half wore gallibiyahs, frequently with turbans wrapped around their heads. From a practical perspective, I thought the gallibiyahs seemed like a much more comfortable garment for the hot Egyptian summer than the western-style dress shirts and ties.

For the most part, the local women in this neighborhood dressed very conservatively.  Their hijab (headscarves) entirely covered their hair, and many even preferred the style that comes all the way down to the elbows, covering the entire chest and upper arm areas. Bareheaded women were very rare.

Occasionally I would see one wearing a niqaab (face veil) covering the portion of her face below her eyes.

Many women wore caftan-style loose-fitting dresses with no belt.  Some wore either skirts or loose-fitting pants with a thigh-length tunic over the top that was long enough to completely cover their buttocks and upper legs. The women wearing pants typically looked younger, while those opting for skirts and dresses were typically older.

Skirts and dresses were usually neutral colors such as black, brown, or gray. Tunics and head scarves were frequently brighter or lighter colors. 

Because I had eaten a late but hearty breakfast, I decided to skip lunch.  I knew that Morocco intended to take the group to a nearby restaurant for supper that evening.

Around 1:00 p.m., I put away my camera and took the book I was reading to my hotel's lobby to pass time waiting for the rest of our group to arrive. Of course, I was eager to see my friends who would be arriving on the bus.  I had also become acquainted with several people in our group through Internet discussion forums, list servers, and e-mail over the years, and was looking forward to meeting them in person after all this time.

The Group's Arrival
The bus arrived over an hour late. (I later learned that the EgyptAir flight had been delayed 1 1/2 hours in its departure from New York.)  I enjoyed the quiet time after having spent the previous day in transit among mobs of other people. When the bus finally arrived, I rushed out to greet my friends, thinking they might appreciate a friendly face after the long trip.  My roommates and I made my way up to our air-conditioned triple room. We quickly negotiated who would sleep where.  The hotel brought my bags up from the single room I had occupied the night before.

Exploring and Shopping
To my surprise, both of my roommates (Alexandra Zevin and Glee Jarvela) had some energy and wanted to go out to explore the neighborhood.  So once they had time to freshen up, we headed outdoors for our first adventure. The shops in the Victoria's neighborhood are all intended for local patrons rather than tourists, so exploring this area is an ethnic experience. A shop selling wristwatches caught our eye, and once we found out how affordable the prices were we couldn't resist making some purchases. Alexandra (pictured below) and I each bought one of these watches with a band of pink flowers:

We paid 29 Egyptian pounds (about $5.00 U.S. dollars) each for these.

That evening, an optional group dinner was scheduled for those who were eager to get their first taste of Cairo. Some members of our group preferred to stay in their rooms and try for sleep, others chose to eat in the hotel restaurant, but the majority decided to go with the group.  We were a motley group as we assembled in the hotel lobby, with our American attempts at Muslim-friendly attire, although some of the women in our group had decided to rebel against the recommended dress code.  Morocco had decided that a local Chinese restaurant would be gentle on everybody's travel-worn stomachs, so she led the way through narrow streets to the Peking. We enjoyed a pleasant dinner and returned to the Victoria.

Very few women were out on the street at that hour. The shouts of "Welcome!" and catcalls as we threaded our way past clumps of men were not the most appealing part of the trip. We kept our eyes down and focused on returning to the hotel.

The adventure was well underway.

Day 3: First Look at Egyptian History

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Ready for more?
more from Shira-
6-28-04 Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival 2004-Intro Travel Journal by Shira
Middle Eastern dance artists and students from throughout the world attend this event to immerse themselves in instruction by leading Egyptian instructors, shop for costumes and other supplies offered by Egyptian vendors, and enjoy the gala shows featuring top Egyptian dancers. Check back for regular updates!
Day 3: First Look at Egyptian History
Day 4: More Egyptian Monuments and First Dance Show

6-16-03 Breaking News from the Ahlan wa Sahlan 2003 in Cairo reported by Shira
The flavor of the instruction and dancing are very different from that offered by the U.S. festivals, and it offers an exciting opportunity for immersion in the Egyptian dance arts.
6-29-03 Photos from the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival, The Opening Night Gala by Tahseen Alkoudsi and Shira
held at the Mena House Oberoi Hotel on June 10-17, Cairo, Egypt.
Raqia Hassan's Dance Festival (Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2000) By Latifa
Then my dance idol, Suhair Zaki, walked in, creating eddies of excitement that ran through the crowd.

6-25-04 Romancing the Road (The Bousada Troupe Tours) by Yasmela
We carved our own niche, created our own style, scandalized, delighted, educated and entertained everyone around us, including ourselves. We were “Bou-Saada”.

6-24-04 Saving Grace, Belly Dance Comics by Alexandria
"Could I sit here for a few moments?"

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