Gilded Serpent presents...
Wa Sahlan Festival 2004
First Two Days
Travel Journal by Shira
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.
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
21, 2004: Preparing to Leave!
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.
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.
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 www.alhannah.com 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.
to my clothing, I also took:
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
romance novels for recreational reading
drugs for my various medical issues (allergy, etc.)
care items (blow dryer, shampoo, comb)
--"Just in case
I catch a cold or get diarrhea" supplies from the drugstore including
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.
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 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
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.
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):
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.
arrived at the airport 2 hours before the flight, to allow plenty
of time to check the bags, clear security, and then wait for
boarded the airplane in time for a 2:30 p.m. departure.
spent 10 1/2 hours flying from San Francisco to Frankfurt, Germany.
5. I "enjoyed" a
4 1/2 hour layover.
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.
took about 1/2 hour to drive from the airport to the Victoria
fell onto my bed in my hotel room and remembered how wonderful
it could be to be horizontal!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
2, June 23, 2004: Settling In
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.
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.
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
was balancing a ladder on his head! This one was wearing more
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.
I would see one wearing a niqaab (face
veil) covering the portion of her face below her eyes.
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
dresses were usually neutral colors such as black, brown, or
gray. Tunics and head scarves were frequently brighter or lighter
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
was well underway.
3: First Look at Egyptian History
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more from Shira-
Wa Sahlan Festival 2004-Intro Travel Journal by Shira
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!
3: First Look at Egyptian History
Day 4: More Egyptian
Monuments and First Dance Show
News from the Ahlan wa Sahlan 2003 in Cairo reported
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.
from the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival, The Opening Night Gala by
Tahseen Alkoudsi and Shira
at the Mena House Oberoi Hotel on June 10-17, Cairo, Egypt.
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.
the Road (The Bousada Troupe Tours) by Yasmela
carved our own niche, created our own style, scandalized, delighted,
educated and entertained everyone around us, including ourselves.
We were “Bou-Saada”.
Grace, Belly Dance Comics by Alexandria
I sit here for a few moments?"