Cairo Trip Day 4: Photo Shoot with Yasmina

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Yasmina, originally from England, has lived in Cairo for 20 years. She’s a dancer, teacher, photographer, and B&B host. You can stay at her gorgeous top floor flat in Giza while visiting! She has a beautiful studio as well as tons of beautiful nooks and two balconies perfectly set up for photo shoots. No way were we going to pass up this opportunity!

Amity kindly arranged for our group of six to share two days (three people per day) with Yasmina behind the camera. Luckily,  we had had luck shopping in Khan el Khalili the prior day so we had plenty of costume options to choose from!

After worries about cloudy weather potentially interfering with our plans, i woke up to a text from Amity left in us know that we were leaving in just one hour! Thankfully, Nibal was downstairs and she helped us to find a taxi with an English speaking driver and a fixed price. We left the hotel about 10 AM, costume-laden suitcases in tow, to go to Yasmina’s apartment.

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On the way there, we kept bringing up dance topics while Amity made cutting motions across her throat (thank you, Amity!). We are in Egypt now. Best not to blabber on about being dancers in unknown company!

On the way there, with the cab blasting 90s pop music… oh, hey, there are the pyramids! Huge, huge, pyramids, just casually hanging out on the skyline. ‘S cool.

After just a short can ride, we arrived and Yasmina cane down to meet us. Karen and Amity were meeting a professional make-up artist, with stunning results, while I would put my face on in an adorable spare bedroom.

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We spent the next few hours changing costumes and posing and dancing in various corners of Yasmina’s flat. She is very particular about which colors work best in which settings, which is fantastic!

What a joy it was to dance on a rooftop balcony in Egypt under a warm sun in March!

Then came a venue change… At about 3 PM we packed up and headed to the desert to take pictures in front of th pyramids! We donned our desert costumes (bright colors best!), cover ups, and pulled on pants under our costumes. (Note to self: closed toe shoes would have been smart.)

We drove with Yasmina for about 15 minutes to some stables where she keeps her horse. There were 4 horses and a camel waiting for us. With no time to waste, we hiked up our cover ups and costumes and climbed into the saddles. Karen took the camel on the way out, while Amity and I rode horses. An experienced rider, Yasmina took on a high-stepping horse that was still in need of training.

We set off towards the desert, down a small dirt road past a cemetery, some unfinished construction (really common here), my horse being led by the guide since I have no training whatsoever in riding.

As we reached the edge of the desert, a group of eight or so young men came galloping towards us at full speed, ignoring our guide’s motions to slow down. They passed us and our horses didn’t even flinch.

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After about 15 minutes of a leisurely ride over hills of sand, we came to a ridge with a clear view of the pyramids. We dismounted and headed to the edge of the ridge. Yasmina took out her camera and the shoot began! It was a hazy day, with the sun in and out of the clouds, but the result was that our brightly color costumes popped even more against the backdrop.

The wind was strong when we started but it just kept getting stronger, providing really fun movement even when we were posing still. We tried all kinds of different types of set-ups… veils, dancing, poses, camels in the frame. So much fun!

After a while–and tons of shots–the light was fading and the wind was still getting stronger, and we were ready to call it a day. On the way back I decided to brave the camel. They are tall, with a rolling gait, so I was super nervous. But how can you pass that up?! It took a few minutes to figure out the right muscle groups to stay upright and comfortable, but once that phase passed it was awfully fun.

I don’t think there is anything more touristy than riding a camel in a belly dance costume (evinced by comments such as, “Aloha! You look very Egyptian.”). But, hey….. worth it!!

When we returned to Yasmina’s, Amity got a text from our wonderful tour guide from the previous day, Nibal, who said she was on her way by the other half of our group, who had visited Khan el Khalili that day, and she would pick us up.

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Egyptian Perfume Palace, Giza

As it turned out, the others were at the nearby Egyptian Perfume Palace so Nibal brought us there. The power was out (it happens from time to time) so everyone was sniffing botanical essences in the dark while sipping lemon and hibiscus drinks. Of course we couldn’t pass up this opportunity!

The lights came back on half an hour later and we all cheered, then looked around to see all of the beautiful tiny glass perfume bottles (actually made of Pyrex!) lining the walls. We made our purchases and headed back to the hotel, exhausted but happy!

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Cairo Trip Day 3, Part 3: Hallah Moustafa’s Workshop

I tried on my first Hallah costume at Sabrina’s booth at the Las Vegas Belly Dance Intensive in 2013 (where, coincidentally, I am teaching in Sept 2015!) and promptly fell in love. The workmanship is exquisite. The designs are unique and elegant. The bras are pure magic. So, visiting Hallah’s shop was most definitely a Cairo trip priority for me.

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We got word through Nibal that a mutual friend was already there. Our Northeast US group meets Texas in a shop in Cairo run by another American from Washington state!

Our van took us back to Giza, while we again marveled at the way traffic works, and wound down some neighborhood streets onto a dirt road off the pavement road off the main road, all of which are lined with balcony-bedecked building with views of minarets everywhere.

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As we entered the shop, where we were warmly welcomed by Hallah and her assistant, Mona, we passed tables filled with costumes in various states of creation. Piles of assuit, chiffon and beads, awaited requests or a moment of inspiration.

We ooohed and aaahed our way to the foremost room, where the finished costumes hung on display. What else to do but try them on? And boy, was that fun! We settled on our favorites and our custom modifications, and set a date for our return fittings.

Cairo Trip Day 3, Part 2: Khan el Khalili

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Vendors were still getting set up when we arrived at Khan el Khalili market. Prayers were playing out of different shops, incense burning here and there. Cats prowled the narrow pedestrian streets. I quickly lost my bearings but Nibal knows the place like thw back of her hand and she expertly led us towards our first stop… Yasser’s costume shop!

The building’s facade looks like a fairytale place… but it’s real! Yasser’s shop is two narrow levels of belly dancer heaven. Gorgeous hip scarves,  swords and costumes adorn the walls. A big pile of saga (finger cymbals) was in the corner by the door–and I snagged a set of toura, the giant finger cymbals at least 4″ in diameter that are played in bands by musicians.

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We climbed up the second floor (or first floor as they say here) where the ceiling was just a few inches above my head, and started to dig through bags and bags of individually wrapped costumes, looking for colors and sizes that might suit. Yasser had not yet arrived so his assistant set aside the costumes we liked. We would return later to try them on and get the prices. Karen and I both left some piles on the picturesque bench in the upstairs window.

Next stop: Isis Bazaar! Each belly dance shop has a completely different character and they specialize in different products. At Isis I found a whole bunch hip scarves to bring back for my students and other local dancers, and the others found various costume pieces, wings, and more. Luckily we were able to leave out bags there to pick up later!

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After that much shopping and new sensations we were famished. Nibal took us directly to the perfect place: El Fishawy cafe. Princess Farhana had highly recommended this place so I was excited to go there!

It is the most picturesque outdoor cafe imaginable. People carrying big pallets of bread on their heads stride right through, vendors offering henna, sunglasses and tissues come past, but it still feels private and cozy. There are mirrors in elaborate frames everywhere, reflecting light into the spaces and making th alleys seem both more crowded and more open than they are.

We opted to have Nibal order the food for us. We got fuul (a bean dish), baba ganoush, falafel and more, accompanied by fresh pita bread and my very favorite thing–Egyptian red tea with mint!! If you know me, you probably know of my tea obsession. I was over the moon! And, yes, I brought home two boxes of tea!

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After lunch, we went to Mahmoud’s veritable palace of wonder. Three expansive floors of granite and wood, filled with racks of bedlah, skirts, folkloric costumes, hip scarves and more.

After marveling at the vintage photos and fun stuff on the first floor, I climbed the stairs and a pink and turquoise Noussa practically screamed my name. I tried it on, and it was a near perfect fit. After saying a big YES (me to the Noussa, rhe others to various other wonders), Mahmoud’s tailors materialized and eyeballed the alterations we needed. A short while later our costumes were ready to go!

By now it was getting late… Time to leave the market behind and head to Hallah Moustafa’s workshop back in Giza… squeeeeeeee!

Cairo Trip Day 3, Part 1: Nibal, Cairo Traffic, and Going to Khan el Khalili

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Cataract Pyramids Resort in Giza

On our first morning in Egypt, I woke to the sound of screaming birds at 6:00 AM local time. Since we were at a resort in Giza, at the edge of rural land, we didn’t get typically city sounds… instead some gorgeous, sleek black birds with blue tails cawed their hearts out as the sun came up.

I wandered around the resort taking some pictures of the beautiful setting that would be our home for the next 9 days. So much to see!

Determined to adjust as quickly as possible to local time, we hit the ground running. Amity arranged for our wonderful tour guide, Nibal Abdel Aziz, to meet us at 9:00 AM sharp for a visit to Khan el Khalili, the historic market in Old Cairo.

After having consulted with friends who had recently visited Cairo, I decided to dress in jeans and a loose tunic with 3/4 sleeves, with an infinity scarf around my neck to be sure any cleavage was covered. Bonus to the scarf: it could be converted to a head cover of sorts if needed.

I decided not cover my head when going to the market as it is a place with plenty of tourists/foreigners and it would be obvious that I was one of them anyway. American friends told me that they actually got more attention when wearing a hijab than when not. In the car, Nibal confirmed that decision. If I had been in a different city or in a more “local” are of the city I may have made a different decision,  but it turned out to be a good outfit in those circumstances.

It was about an hour’s drive to get there, and our first look at Cairo in daylight. So much to see! Fortunately, Nibal had hired a van for us, so we were able to see out all of the windows and above most of the traffic. She oriented us and explained the things we were seeing, from famous sights to small details, from customs and language, to all of the many questions we had.

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With tour guide Nibal at Khan el Khalili market

Nibal deeply loves Egypt and wants to share her country with us all. She is warm and personable and especially great with small groups. Having her guide us kept our experience from being overwhelming. She was able to suggest things to help us get the most out of our stay, and truly enjoy ourselves.

Traffic in Cairo deserves a blog post unto itself…. Lanes and signs are just suggestions. Near misses are constantly occurring yet I never saw an actual collision of any sort. Motorcycles, mule carts, and pedestrians weave in and out of traffic right along with the cars. It’s a matter of will and grit, with small beeps, hand waves, and flashing headlights to communicate.

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Casual camels in Cairo

The consensus among our group is that traffic is more chaotic yet far less frantic than Boston. People are aggressive by necessity but generally not jerks for the sake of it. All of our shuttle, van, and cab drivers were remarkably relaxed!

We finally arrived at Khan el Khalili, greeted by a gorgeous plaza in front of El Hussein mosque (I think… working off memory…). Then…. we dove right in!

Cairo Trip Day 1-2: Travel

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Turkish Airlines… wow! Our flight path took us Boston-Istanbul-Cairo, which meant a 10-hr flight for the first leg. That was to be my first new experience, and something I was a bit nervous about. However, it was far better than any other air travel experience I have had. Everything was on time and our luggage arrived in Cairo with no problems.

When we got on the plane we found a little care package with an eye mask, ear plugs, toothbrush/toothpaste,  socks, and more. There were blankets, pillows and slippers, too!

Shortly after takeoff the flight attendants brought us hot towels and Turkish Delight. Dinner followed and it was actually good! I got very dehydrated even though I was drinking a lot of water, but I slept for a good portion of the overnight flight, thankfully (though it took a couple of hours of excitingly talking about all things dance and travel with my traveling companion before we could calm down), and woke up wirh just an hour or so left of that leg.

The airport in Istanbul was nice but not especially different from any other… except for the mosque signs and variety of dress on all the people! Also: the food court was awesome. When is that ever the case?! I couldn’t resist stopping at the MAC counter on rhe way to the gate so now I have a liiiiitle bit of Istanbul make-up. 🙂

It was dark for our 2-hour flight into Cairo but I had a window seat so I could see the Nile, minarets, fireworks from above, and all the city lights stretching on forever. This is a city of 20 million people!

Upon landing we bought our entry visas ($25 US cash) at one of the bank windows before standing in the loooong looks good customs. That went smoothly, and then we were officially visitors to Egypt! After about 5 more passport stops we emerged into WARM night air… imagine that, coming from a winter of record snow and freezing temperatures! Our driver was waiting, led us through lots of parking lots, and our first Cairo traffic experience commenced!

It is perhaps best not to think too hard or watch too closely. So many close calls and seemingly chaotic traffic behavior. Lanes? Who needs em? But we tried to just take a clue from our incredibly chill driver and all was well.

At one point we stopped at a random median maybe 30 minutes into the drive and picked up an apparent stranger… who then received a phone call on his cell and handed it to Amity, saying that Leila was on the line. Ahhh, Cairo!

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Eventually we arrived at our hotel in Giza, the Cataract Pyramids Resort, where we all immediately connected to wifi (lobby only, but free! All counter to what the website said, but hey!). We found our rooms after wandering down a lovely palm tree-lined path, turned on the room lights by inserting our key cards into a slot in the wall, oohed over our balcony, and crashed before long. The next day would be a visit to Khan el Khalili!

Visiting Cairo!

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Here in Cairo for the very first time…! A few months ago, I learned that my good friend Amity Alize of NH/VT was going to be teaching at Leila Farid’s Camp Negum festival in Egypt. Then I found out that airfare is 1/3-1/2 of what it usually is, the festival fee is all-inclusive, and I’d be in the company of some experienced Middle Eastern travelers… so I jumped at the opportunity to take my very first trip to the Middle East!

We have been here for a few packed-to-the-brim days now… from Khan el Khalili to a desert photoshoot, from an intimate zar show to a fabulous saidi workshop… I’ll share our adventures!

Yes, we are aware of the potential security concerns here. I did a lot of research through people I know who have lived here for years or who have visited recently. Definitely not walking in blind, nor wandering wide-eyed down dark alleys with strangers. (Though one could argue that we literally did just that at Khan el Khalili! However, the stranger was out wonderful and protective female guide guide… 😉 )

On the ground here we do not feel any danger, other than obvious city stuff, though of course we are careful. This is a crazy, vibrant city. A lot of poverty on a scale that I haven’t seen before. A lot of lifestyle things that are normal here but inconceivable to people of any means in the States, yet a lot of small luxuries that are unbelievably special to us yet normal here. Very different attitudes towards getting things done, not necessarily more or less efficient or responsive here, just different! Traffic is an adventure, but the system seems to work. People are happy to run errands and be helpful. Change for meals is a long time coming in many different trips but it all gets done. And tipping is a whole nother thing!

I’m not used to being such an obvious tourist but this trip I’m just going with the flow and letting the experience happen, oooing and ahhhing with the best of ’em. Cause how can you not?! This will not be my last trip here, inshallah, and this has been a wonderful way to get my feet wet (in the Nile, as it were). And the festival/dancing part has only just begun!