Cairo is intoxicating. Hypnotic. And it's now under my skin and pulsing through my blood. I loved hearing Arabic all around me; I had no idea it is such a beautiful language. I was surprised at how ethnically-diverse Egyptians are, how different they look from other Arabic-speaking cultures, and the so many beautiful colors and facial features of the native Egyptians. There are sites, sights, sounds and smells that constantly remind you that Cairo is thousands and thousands and thousands of years old, that it's always been a crossroads of so many cultures. This is the original Tatooine, with it's constant mix of cultures and languages and passions. Egyptians drive like MANIACS. Every time you drive, you think you are going to hit other cars, buses, incredibly overloaded trucks, donkeys, kids, veiled women, not-so-veiled women, groups of men... you just finally have to give into it, just breathe, hope for the best and go with it. And wear a seat belt at all times... It's such a loud, fast, beautiful, ugly, wonderful, frustrating, dusty, overwhelming, old, new, amazing city.
I'm getting ahead of myself...
I have this rule that I don't get excited about trips until I am on the plane and on my way. It was really hard this time to keep the excitement at bay, however, because every 20 minutes on the day I left, CNN or BBC would play that "I Wish I Was in Egypt" commercial. The result was that I couldn't get "Aida" out of my mind during the entire trip.
I took British Airways on my first flight over the Meditaranian, on May 28 in the early afternoon. As usual, I got to the airport here too early, but I'm so paranoid about possible long lines at check-in or security. I took a cab to the Bonn train station, then the airport bus to the airport, saving myself big bucks for a cab ride the entire way. I had a short layover in London, just enough time to stop at a bookstore and get a book to read on the trip and a guide to Egypt. I went with the Rough It Guide again, since it served me so well in Dublin. I really should have gotten the book earlier and read up sooner, but it's hard to buy English books here on such short notice. What I was reading was a mixture of reassurances and things that were scaring me. I knew that I would not be able to go around anywhere by myself, that I was going to have to always make sure I was with someone -- even another woman is fine -- and if I couldn't do that, I'd have to hire a guide.
I was nervous nervous nervous, because a couple of people had told me that there was NO WHERE crazier than the Cairo airport. They talked about how crowded, noisy and confusing it was, a sea of humanity and chaos. However, what I got when I de-planed was a run down, not-very-crowded and kinda small airport. The airport is very run down; it hasn't been updated since the 1960s or 70s, but it was relatively easy to navigate (certainly easier than PARIS, geesh!). Kinda dirty, but no more than some roadside places I've been willing to go to the bathroom at while camping. It is a bit of a jolt, all at once, seeing all signs in a language that, unlike German, Spanish, French or other romance languages, you cannot figure out what they say without a visual aid. This is my first experience with that, and it was every bit as foreign and scary feeling as I knew it would be. But almost every important sign is presented in English as well. I kept waiting for the chaos that I had been warned about... and it just never happened. There never were crowds anywhere, really, here at the airport or in the city, outside of normal Cairo life. It's because of three things, I think:
Anyway, my office had said there would be someone hired through American Express to meet me, and I was very happy to see a woman holding a sign with three names on it, one of which was mine. Myself and the others stood out like... well, Western white people in Egypt. The woman asks me for my passport and VISA, and that of the Brits she was also assisting, and walked off. And we're standing there thinking, geesh, we didn't ask her for her identification... she got us through customs, which actually didn't look that bad -- I'm not sure we got through quicker because of her. It was amazing to pass these government airport offices with their bare dirty walls and desk fans blowing and employees sitting around on metal chairs looking bored... just like what I would expect from third world government offices. I asked the woman if I should get money at the airport, and she said no, "No problem!" This is the woman who took my passport and went away for several minutes and never said what the heck she was doing. This is the same woman who dropped our passports about three times on the floor. I shouldn't have listened. She hooked me up with my own driver, told me he had been paid for the drive already, told me I did not have to worry about a tip, and off we went. And I heard, for the first time, the phrase I would hear again and again -- "You are very welcomed in Egypt."
After we pulled away, the driver immediately tried to convince me that the car wasn't paid for. My guide book had warned me about this kind of thing. It also said that anything with a written bill had a 17 - 25% service charge added to it, so you don't have to worry about tips except with cab drivers and people on the street. So, I was tough -- I kept saying, "The car is paid for." And finally he shut up. He always really, really wanted me to call him the next day to take me on a tour. He kept trying really hard to get me to commit to such, but I stayed vague and said I would call him. And he backed off and was otherwise nice.
The city was alive at just after 1 in the morning. The street lights glow orange in the dessert, and there are people everywhere on the street, darting right in front of speeding traffic. There are no street lights -- you just GO. I think my face was pushed up against the window the entire time. I wanted to see everything everything everything. Most women had their hair covered in a dark colored scarf, and many were completely covered in full-body robes (I'm sure there's a proper Arabic name for such). Many people of both sexes were wearing long flowing robes, actually. Wish we'd do that in Austin, as we've got the weather for it. I noticed that some men held hands or walked arm-and-arm; I'd read about that in a guide-to-gestures book Reb got me when I came here. It's an Arabic tradition, just something that many men do. There were armed guards everywhere -- and this theme continued for the entire trip, actually. Lots of people in uniforms with guns. I liked all the police around but not the guns. Not at all.
I got to the hotel, checked in, and heard again, about twice, "You are very welcomed in Egypt." My hottest was a "resort", but not five star by any means. Not bad at all, really, but, I'm easy and kinda second rate myself. It was relatively clean, the room was really big, and the pool was HUGE. The beds had a dip in the middle from over use, but I didn't care -- I crashed. I got up just five hours later. Normally, I need at least a full seven hours of sleep to be fully functional the next day. With six hours, or less, I drop things, I forget things, I can't concentrate, I get overly emotional, and I blabble even more than normal. But I woke up early because I was wired and ready to go. I was in EGYPT.
Rebecca had left a message at my hotel with her phone number in Cairo. She was working there as well; her trip was a month long, and she was almost finished with it. Thank goodness she had saved the major sites of Cairo for little ole me... and thank goodness I had someone to run around with who was somewhat familiar with the city already. She wasn't going to be ready until the afternoon, so I booked a car to take me around Cairo to any store that was open. I had breakfast in the hotel cafe (breakfast included -- wahoo!!) and said hello to all my co-workers. I also checked out my hotel a bit. Like most places, it looks much more opulent online than it really is, although it was opulent by the standards of Cairo citizens, certainly.
Before I left Bonn, Alex had warned me to cover my upper arms and all of my legs whenever I left the hotel. My guide book had said that women are frequently targeted of a feel up who do otherwise. So I went for light, oversized pants or long flowing skirts, bulky "hippy" shirts, and a "wax" (very long shawl) at all times, worn either over my arms or as a skirt over my pants. I watched women leave the hotel in tight pants and would think, well, prepare to have your ass grabbed at least once tonight. Even Rebecca got her boobs grabbed twice, and the most daring things she wore was a baggy short sleaved shirt and baggy pants; just as she was about to throw the boy who did it off the bridge, a guy stopped her and begged her not to. I wasn't with her at the time, otherwise, he would have been swimming.
My driver and I left at 10 that morning, and he had to drive this bizarro way through some neighborhoods to get onto the highway, even though the highway was running right near the hotel. But I was glad for the strange route, because in that winding, crazy drive, I saw so much of the people of Egypt. My hotel was in Giza, very near the Pyramids. Women, covered except for their faces and hands, washed their clothes in a small, filthy tributary of the Nile just down the street, and carried huge bundles, baskets and washtubs on their heads as they walked down the streets. They looked like they were floating as they walked. Many men also wore long robes, but nothing on their heads, and they gathered under any shade available. People darted across the roads constantly, and scared me to death when they did it. There were donkeys pulling carts on the streets, and I felt sorry for the animals on the busy avenues -- it made me so scared to see such. I don't mind seeing farm animals work, but I do mind them being so close to busy traffic. I couldn't take pictures of any of this -- I know that many Muslims, for religious reasons, do not believe in having their picture taken, and I just didn't want to piss anyone off my very first day there.
Some Cairo apartment buildings were relatively well built, with curved Egyptian-style windows, particularly the closer you get to downtown Cairo. But along the highway, many were made of just mud bricks, were not very straight, and were mostly unfinished -- there was always another story in progress. These buildings were just blocks, just squares. If you were to buy or rent a flat in such a place, it would come even more bare than a German apartment: there not only would be no closets or kitchen, there would be only the concrete walls, ceilings and floors, with no glass in the windows -- you have to complete it all yourself. And, ofcourse, many people don't. I have no idea if these buildings along the highway have plumbing; I suspect not. They are right on top of each other, and between them every now and then are lush green fields of corn, rice and alfalfa, a small herd of goats, or mounds of garbage. No pigs. Ever.
Downtown Cairo is all old 40s, 50s and 60s buildings, with a few very tall modern structures built by Western companies, such as hotels, scattered throughout, particularly along the Nile. There were Kentucky Fried Chicken places EVERYWHERE, and it made me so sad: this is what they think America is? KFC? Well, at least everyone knew the word "Kentucky" when I told them where I was from. And tell them I did. Rebecca often says she's Canadian or Australian instead, to just people on the street. Not me. I want them to know. I'm not sure why.
Mohammed, my driver, was a talker, which was fine -- I was in the mood for such. He asked me about my family, I asked him about his, I asked if he'd been to Mecca and where he learned English, he told me he didn't think people should have to get married -- we should all be "free." Whatever. Blah blah blah. My book had warned me to be careful of guys that were *too* friendly, and I kept that in mind when talking to him or anyone else. But they were so friendly and funny, it was easy to forget.
When I saw the pyramids poking out of behind a row of buildings, I had to hold back tears. They are every bit of magnificent as what I thought they would be. Mohammed was talking about I don't know what, and I was oblivious to whatever he was saying, staring at those wonders of both the ancient and modern worlds. I wanted to go look at them, right then -- but held back. Rebecca waited a whole month to see them; I could wait a day.
Mohammed took me to a papyrus shop, where I was served majorly delicious hibiscus tea and given the usual touristy explanation of how papyrus paper is made and decorated, what the various symbols mean, etc. He also took me to a nic nac place I wasn't too impressed with -- the stuff inside wasn't that great, although the shop keeper was absolutely hilarious. You really do feel obligated to buy in these places, but I did manage to buy just a few things that I actually wanted. This early in the morning, however, the vast majority of stores weren't open. I wish someone had told me that shops in Cairo don't really open until much later, that most people spend mornings in museums or at the Pyramids or swimming in their hotel pools -- the locals spend it cleaning, sleeping, and preparing for the day. But I don't consider it a wasted morning, because I did get my orientation around the city, and it was nice just riding around.
Mohammed took me back to the hotel, where I found that Rebecca had called and was ready to meet, so I took the car again to her hotel, in downtown Cairo. She was staying at the Marriot. It is a really nice hotel. It has such a feel of the British empire. It's a former palace, actually. It even had a casino. There were lots of Saudis around, and it was obvious that the staff at the hotel had gone through a lot of training regarding dealing with Western tourists.
After our festive reunion, we hit the town. Rebecca had learned to negotiate with cab drivers (who drive cars that are black and white), so she bypassed the hotel drivers (who charge crazy expensive prices by Cairo standards) and got us a black and white to the Egyptian Museum for just five Egyptian pounds. That's not even two dollars, I think.
The Egyptian Museum is a museum piece in and of itself. It is packed beyond packed with items from various tombs from in and around Cairo. There's no room for anything else, so I'm not sure what they will do if a major discovery happens -- or if the Germans or English decide to return the stuff they stole from Egypt. Things are pushed right up against each other in the museum. There's so much stuff, all stuffed in together, like a big warehouse. There are stone statues and sarcophagae everywhere, usually not behind any kind of anything (we were appalled to see an Egyptian family letting their little girl ride one like a horse...). There's no air conditioning, and lighting is mostly natural -- which is probably what keeps everything so well preserved. My Rough It guide says that, if you allowed one minute to view each item, it would take nine months to see everything -- and that doesn't include the tens of thousands of items crated up in the basement (which I pictured looking like the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark . The museum building itself, as well as the wooden and glass museum cases, will be 150 years old in 2008. What explanations and signs there are up are at least 50 years old, fading and cracked. It all has this 1930s feel -- I kept waiting for Abbott and Costello to stumble out from behind a crammed exhibit.
Only the exhibit for Tutankhamen's gold and another about Egyptian cosmetics (sponsored by a French cosmetics company) are in modern spaces and lighting. Tutankhamen's glass-encased room is amazing, and what was really wonderful at the time was that there was just a handful of other people there! We got close up looks at everything, which is highly unusual. It's all breathtaking. What would have helped a lot would have been a crash course in the religious practices of the ancient Egyptians, a refresher course in Egyptian history, particularly regarding its relations with other countries. That's one of the reasons I really enjoyed the cosmetics exhibit, because it gave me insight into lifestyle, which I'm as interested in as history (and it helped to have Rebecca, with her basic French knowledge, to read the explanations). Next time I go, I want to hire a guide, preferably a student of anthropology. And I hope she or he will tell me what the heck that stone sculpture of a man's head, probably from the 1930s, is doing hiding on top of a hallway cabinet.
After Rebecca drew the attention of a guard because she got into in one of the very few empty spaces of the museum and said, "Look, the preserved remains of a tourist" and then stood in a perfect Tut imitation, we went through the mummified animal room at a trot (the crocodile was cool, but easy to miss stuck up on top of one of the massive cabinets) and then headed out to our next adventure: Khan el-Kalili.
This merchant quarter of Cairo is a maze-like interior of bazaars up and down and across narrow streets, and has been this way since the Middle Ages. There's silks, jewelry, spices, perfumes, decorative bottles, t-shirts, toys, clothes and what not, and people everywhere trying to get you to come into their shops. I loved it. LOVED IT. It was crazy and wonderful. We spent a long time there, looking for shirts and what not. Rebecca is a masterful bargainer. We had so many fun encounters with shop keepers -- I could tell so many stories. Instead, I'll tell just two:
The first shop we decided to actually go into was run by an attractive young guy in his 20s, who played the typical Egypt sales guy game of "where you are from and are you married?" I think he dug my wallet as much as my hefty shape. He was pushing us hard to buy SOMETHING. His shop was stuffed to the gills with silks and tops and sheer skirts, and the display of materials spilled out onto the street. He kept trying to guess where I was from and I wouldn't say. Finally I said, "Habla Español?" And he did! Not much -- just about as much as me. So, there I was, in a shop in Khan el-Kalili, speaking Spanish with an Egyptian shop keeper. Pretty funny. He said, "I show you stuff upstairs, much more stuff upstairs." So Rebecca and I go up this narrow, wooden, spiral stairway in the back of the tiny, tiny shop and I'm thinking, wow, we get to see the inventory! And we did -- more stuff covering every inch of wall and floor in the tiny room upstairs, and stuff presented electronically on a PC with a Pentium processor in the middle of the room, showing short movies of belly dancers wearing his stuff. I laughed out loud when I saw the computer in that tiny upstairs room in the middle of all the Egyptian garments. I should have taken a picture. I did, indeed, buy a little something, which Rebecca bargained for (she's better at it).
At some point, we found a shop where Rebecca had bought something the day before, and one of the sales guys recognized her. He looked like a teen ager: he was wearing a Tupac Shakur t-shirt. He was thrilled that we knew who that was, and thrilled that we noticed a picture on his wall of he and Coolio, who had been in Egypt in 1998 for a concert no one came to (rap ain't big in Cairo). I bought two shirts from him, and Rebecca bought more stuff as well. He was great, never ever pushy like the guy before. We also had him take our pictures wearing silly tourist hats.
We then ducked into a really nice place for the most amazing mango milkshake I've had in my life. We got so comfortable in this place, which was not crowded at all and whose patrons were mostly Egyptian, we decided to stay and do the Egyptian version of tapaas, getting little bowels of shared food and eating away. Mmmmmmmmm.
Right around this area, just outside the bazaar, are two mosques, Sharia al-Muizz and Al Azhar. The call to prayer is an AMAZING sound to hear. It's when you know you are truly in Cairo. I'm sorry that I never had the opportunity to go to a Mosque. I could have gotten into Al-Azhar for a small fee, but I wanted a guide to go with me and explain Islam, particularly how it is practiced by modern women in Egypt. Next time...
It was only about 9:30 at night, and Cairo was obviously just coming alive, but we were wiped out (I'm old. I'm so old). So, we went to Rebecca's hotel first, and then she explained to her hotel guys where I needed to go and they, in turn, told the cab driver. Although I had this scary feeling they didn't actually do it right... but I thought, oh, Jayne, you don't speak Arabic, don't be stupid. He drove me through the streets of Cairo, and I got to see the city at night again, and this time I was much more awake. It's amazing, packed, noisy, full of life. Yelling, talking, laughing, singing. We drove along the Nile and there were all sorts of Egyptian couples walking together -- girls may cover everything but their face and hands, but teen agers are teen agers, and they like to court along the river. The same is true whether I've been in Bonn, Germany along the Rhein or Henderson, Kentucky at the Ohio River. There was neon and electric lights everywhere. I felt like I was in a movie. I just stared out the window in awe and took deep breathes. It was, as I and so many others have said before, utterly intoxicating.
That was the good part of the cab drive. The bad part was that we ended up at the wrong hotel, one of the same name as the one I was staying at: Inter-Continental. I heard Rebecca say "Giza" to those guys at her hotel, and at that moment, I realized they had ignored her. I told the driver "Giza Giza Giza." It was a major chore to get out there, because it was way, way, way on the other side of town where he had taken me. And traffic in Cairo at that time of night... oh my... After he got to Giza, we had to stop and ask about five different people how to get to the hotel, and even then, I had to guide him once we finally found the road. I don't blame him and I never got angry -- I should have had the hotel write out the name and address of it in Arabic for just such emergencies, but I didn't (and Rebecca had even suggested I do this earlier). I did, indeed, get back to my hotel -- an hour and a half later, maybe two. I paid him more than we originally agreed, because he did get me back, and for that, I am truly grateful.
I got to bed but couldn't sleep -- I was too wound up mentally, while my body cried for rest. So I watched TV, which was mostly in English, subtitled in Arabic. I watched Seinfeld , Frasier, David Letterman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- I was a happy girl (I've been subjected to TV dubbed in German only for too long)! I finally truly went to bed around midnight, but woke up really early. After breakfast, even though it was only 7 a.m., I decided to go ahead to the Marriott, where Rebecca and I would meet with the guides she booked through American Express. To my shock, the 120 minute drive of the night before was now just 15 minutes. I got to Rebecca's hotel woefully early (45 minutes too early). I hesitated to call her and say I was there, because I knew she would be asleep. And, she was. I felt so bad. I sat downstairs and read my Egypt guide. She came down in a foul mood, desperate for coffee. Geesh, you coffee addicts. I've learned just not to even talk to you people until you've had two cups. We sat out in the garden restaurant of the hotel. It felt so much like the Egypt of the British Empire to me.
The tour was just Rebecca, me, the driver, and two female guides, in a modern VW van with the air conditioning... can you say SPOILED AMERICAN TOURISTS?! I'm glad we did it -- in that heat, it was definitely the way to go, plus, the tour felt much more personal and special. First we travelled to a Western suburb of Cairo. It was so awesome to get out of Cairo and see the farms along the tributaries of the Nile, the overloaded carts carrying goods to town, the farm animals and dirt roads... I wanted to take pictures SO BADLY, but I knew it would be disrespectful. The people aren't living their lives for me to take photos... it was the religion thing more than anything that prevented me from snapping away. But, oh, how I wanted to.
Our first stop was to look at artifacts from Memphis (no, not Tennessee). The statues and artifacts at the outdoor exhibit for Memphis are actually from various different sites in the immediate area, and include the second largest sphinx in Egypt. I wish I had taken a picture of the dogs in the parking lot of the outdoor complex; there are always at least two or three in every ancient site parking lot, begging for food or sleeping in the shade of a tour bus. They were adorable, and I wanted to take them all home. But I behaved. What I will do when I'm in Egypt next is carry a small bowl and give them water. We had most of the site to ourselves. The guide gave us pretty good explanation of everything, and the place was almost devoid of other tourists. But I felt a bit rushed to leave. From now on, the song "Walking in Memphis" is going to have new overtones for me.
Next, we went to the Step Pyramid Complex of Djoser, in Saqqara (or Sakkara). It was here that I realized that Cairo really does sit on the very edge of the Sahara. The land along the Nile tributaries is lush and green, while the desert begins immediately and definitely -- the border between the two is oh-so-easy to see. One second you are in farmland, the next, you are in sand sand sand. We went to the tomb of Maya, about 1500 meters from the actual Step Pyramid. This was the tomb Tutankhamen's treasurer, and the tomb was stuffed with precious objects, still there when it was found only a few years ago. The tomb is far under the sand, not at all obvious. Clear, plastic-covered openings have been put in the roof of the tomb, so that it's all lit with natural light. The inside is covered in hieroglyphics, which the guide did a fantastic job of explaining. Some of the figures still had paint on them. It was awesome. And here's the best part -- WE WERE TOTALLY ALONE. We went next door to another tomb as well, and in the far distance on the horizon, we could see the so-called "Bent" pyramid (but we did not go to it during this tour; next time!).
Then we drove the short distance to the Step Pyramid, which looks somewhat like the pyramids of the Maya in Central America. Incredibly impressive and FASCINATING. And very few people. The guide did a great job of taking us around and explaining the various rituals the kings did around the pyramid to demonstrate their strength to the people. Here's more about the place.
After this, we went to a so-called "Carpet School." I knew this and all the others along the road were sweat shops. The guides get a cut of anything that gets sold to their charges, which is why they strongly encourage you to go to a particular one. Outside the one we went to, it looks opulent. And inside, in the supposed "learning" area, there are only about 12 kids, three at a loom. The implication is that it's a fantastic place for these kids to "learn" a trade. But I knew, as I stood there, that I wasn't seeing the even worse "classroom" elsewhere in the building where these kids usually were. I did some research and found comments on the U.S. Department Labor web site that read almost EXACTLY like what the school "director" told us: The manager claimed that the factory was in fact a school that received government support for its training program. He said that young girls start as trainees at age seven or eight, and it takes one to two years for the girls to learn how to make the knots and how to work from a printed pattern. By the time the girls are approximately 10 or 11 years old, they start working on professional looms. Then their hands are too big and they "retire" to get married. Owners claim all of the girls attended school for half a day and would work in either in the morning or the afternoon, depending on their school shift, for up to three hours. Independent interviews with the child workers revealed that not all of them attend school and some work a full day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., in violation of Egypt's labor laws.
I did not buy a carpet.
We went back to the hotel for a break. I was starving. I was beyond starving. I was scary hungry. I think I'm hypoglycemic. Suddenly, I was as bad as Rebecca is before her coffee in the morning. We got food quickly, and I felt much, much, much better after eating. I felt beyond better.
It was time to head back to the parking lot and the main event of our day-long tour: the Pyramids of Giza. Those structures you've seen all your life. Those things from a different time, that were built when people were probably smarter and could do such things without trucks and bulldozers, that will probably be around when our oh-so-sophisticated and modern world is long gone. There are close to 100 pyramids in the area, but the Giza Pyramids are, ofcourse, the most well-known. They are just as big as they have been represented on film and in pictures. Maybe bigger. You truly appreciate their size the closer you get to them. The city surrounds the pyramids on one side, and the Sahara on the other. I don't really know what I can say about them that hasn't been said before, but I had to fight back tears as we entered the grounds. I don't know how to explain the reasons why. The same reasons I almost cried at New Grange in Ireland. Once again, there were no crowds at all.
First the guide took us to an overlook out in the desert, where you can buy things from Bedouin merchants, or even take a very short ride on a camel. Rebecca and I decided to go for it. She's rode a camel for several hours in Jordon, so she's experienced -- it was mostly a photo opp for her. I took the back seat, and was glad because there's a big, tough knob in the back of the saddle, and it was much easier to hold on to than anything in the front. I really wonder how many tourists tumble off the front of the camel as it rises? It would have been soooo easy. The guide couldn't figure out how to take a photo with my camera, so the Beduion guy who owned our camel, a man of the desert, took my camera with great confidence, snapped a photo, and handed it right back -- something he's probably done a million times. Maybe you had to be there, but I thought it was hilarious. We took our short ride, while the little boy leading our camel tried to B.S. us 10 different ways -- I'm ready to hire him. He's smarter and speaks better English than a lot of people I went to high school with.
There were very few people around, just like always -- I'm so sorry for tourism being so down in Egypt, but it sure made taking pictures and feeling some solitary moments in such grand places relatively easy. As I stared at those three incredible monuments, I realized what so many others before me have as well -- the current buildings of Cairo will be long gone before the Pyramids are. I also felt the same awe that I felt when I first saw New Grange: these structures are testaments not just to humankind's ingenuity, but to its faith in something greater than ourselves. I was humbled, not for the first time in my life, not for the last.
We got back in the van and road down between the two largest Pyramids, Cheops (Khufu) and Chephren (Khafre). The former is the older and the larger; the latter still has an intact summit. I wanted to go into Cheops, per Stefan's suggestion, but the guide told us we could only go into Chephren (I've since learned that Cheops is, indeed, open). The descent into the chamber beneath the Chephren pyramid is sharp; Rebecca went down backwards, while I went in completely forward and crouched over. Somehow, we managed to go in well before a very noisy group. The walls are sheer and smooth, and there are no hieroglyphics anywhere. In fact, I think there are no hieroglyphics inside any Pyramids. The inside has all been rebuilt since a bomb exploded inside in 1993, to the point of being a bit sterile. But it's no less impressive to eventually get to the main chamber and stand there, in the bottom and center of the Pyramid. I just wish there had been someone standing there telling us about what place we were in, and what place it might have been.
We left just as the noisy group of Indian tourists were coming in -- I was so glad to have avoided them. I just don't believe in being loud and crazy in any place that was sacred to someone. Whether you believe in the same religion, or don't believe in any religion at all, how can you be so disrespectful?
Next up was the Sphinx. You will frequently hear from others there, "It's not as big as what I thought." Well, I was ultra impressed. I see why some people theorized that it was protecting the Pyramids. I was so glad the guide was there to tell us more than, "Hey, look at that big sculpture out there!" I really wanted to hear more about the place, what it might have meant to the people at the time, etc., and she did a great job.
More and better pictures than mine of ancient sites in Cairo are posted here; but while he thinks Camels sound like Chewbacca, I'd say they sound much more like a Taun Taun.
We went over to a papyrus "school" near the exit for the Pyramids and Sphinx (there's yet another KFC and Pizza Hut nearby as well), where I heard exactly the same lecture from another Muslim woman about how Egyptian paper is made as I had heard the day before; they all go to the same tourism school, I guess. Rebecca called it a night, so she went back to her hotel and I went with co-workers to a floating restaurant, either the Nile Pharaoh or the Golden Pharaoh -- they are owned by the same company, both mock-pharonic and overly ornate barges. Cheesy, and yet, worth it, because the food was good and the views lovely. The entertainment began with a belly dancer, probably Russian or another Eastern European country, with small hips, a flat stomach and big fake boobs. She wasn't awful, but she was far, far from the real thing. Next came a male Egyptian dancer, who continually spins and spins and spins and spins, never stopping until his performance is over. I was dizzy by the time he was done, and even if I did have to look away a few times just to get my bearings, I must say he was very entertaining, . After dinner, everyone drifted upstairs to enjoy the views and the lovely Egyptian evening as we traveled down the Nile.
In bed that night, I was repeatedly attacked by mosquitos -- I had forgotten to turn on my little light switch with the bug repellent in it, and it's something you have to do a few hours before you go to bed. So I slept under a sheet the whole night. Very stuffy.
Oh, yeah, work... that reason I was in Egypt in the first place. Work is what took up my whole Wednesday, day three. One of the things that charmed me most was a co-worker from India, who kept calling me "Jay-nee," something very few people call me -- and I really liked it, particularly in her lovely accent. Afterwards, I went for a swim in the hotel pool, one of the largest pools in the Middle East. I then watched part of a Spanish soap opera subtitled in Arabic, and then Rebecca came over. We had a drink by the pool with some of my co-workers, then Rebecca and a co-worker named Sean and I decided to go to the Giza branch of Felfela, a well-known Cairo restaurant very near by. We walked out to the road to let Sean flag a taxi down. The Muslim woman with her two kids that was waiting for a service taxi (usually a VW, somewhere between a taxi and a city bus) smiled wriley as we passed -- I guess she enjoyed seeing two Western women obviously being lead by a guy down the dusty highway. We flagged down a taxi and made jokes about being Sean's wives in the short ride to Felfela, where we sat outside for dinner. Rebecca ate a stuffed pigeon. We all smoked two shishas as well. Now before you think I did something drug-related, the shishas were a mixture of tobacco and apple. I don't smoke, you all know that, but, hey, it was a beautiful Egyptian night, I was in a legendary city of the world, shishas are famous there... Rebecca and Sean compared volunteering abroad experiences (she's former Peace Corps, he's a former UN Volunteer), while I sat there feeling like something out of Alice in Wonderland, enjoying the night and thinking about the history of the place. Sorry now I didn't take a picture of us so relaxed.
Day Four began very early in the morning, because the Pharaoh's Revenge was having a visit. It hit me at about 5:30 in the morning. Luckily, I had some bottled water, some German antacid tablets, and a new book I'd bought in London, Memoir of a Geisha , so the next few hours weren't nearly as bad as it could have been. Now, why in the heck am I sharing this disgusting tid bit with you? Because I get the impression some times that you all think my adventures are trouble free. They aren't. Ever. I leave out most of the suffering, just because I don't feel like remembering it. Also, the reality is that I seem to get sick at least once when I go somewhere, either with a cold or a stomach something. I just kinda accepted that fact a while back and try to pack appropriately. And, finally, at least an upset stomach is a typical Egyptian experience, according to my guidebook and every single person I've talked to. I offer these details so that others might be prepared.
After work, I headed back to the hotel pool. I love to swim, and I was oh so happy to get to do it in such a lovely place, although it felt somewhat obscene to swim in the desert, with so much poverty around as well. I had drinks by the pool with co-workers, and then decided to go back to the hotel room. How boring, I know. But I was tired. I needed to de-program.
My last day in Egypt, I had to do an interview for an Egyptian TV crew, which arrived an hour later than scheduled. I learned that Egypt time is similar to Spanish time (had it been African time, however, it would have been two hours later). Hopefully, I'll get a tape, and hopefully, I won't have been edited out to make room for my much more lively two co-workers. Then I headed with Sean to the American University in downtown Cairo. We got on campus only because Sean had an expired student card that they didn't look at very closely; one guy wanted me to leave my bag at the door, but he walked away, and the other guy just waved me through. Despite its name, the university is overwhelmingly Egyptian. We headed to the bookstore, where Sean bought the book I had been blabbering about to him on and off, Stupid White Men by Michael Moore. I was stuffed from breakfast, but Sean insisted we go to this cafe to try a true Egyptian student lunch. No, it is not what made me sick later -- it was noodles, rice, onions, spices, and REALLY delicious.
I was the only Western woman on the streets as we walked in that part of town. I felt scared and fascinated, all at once. I walked behind Sean like a good Muslim woman, and thereby avoided getting felt up, even when Sean stopped on the street to get his shoes shined. I liked standing there while he did that, listening to the call to prayer from the mosques around us and watching the madness of traffic and people. It was chaotic and amazing. I only ever saw two Muslims praying during the entire trip -- two men in a jewelry shop. I admired them for being so devoted as to take the time to pray so regularly, even at work.
Then we headed back to Khan el-Kalili. Sean wanted a stuffed camel for his daughter, and I wanted just one more experience in such a place. We had tea in the oldest tea house in Cairo, smoked a bad shisha, bargained, blabbled, bought... it was a terrific goodbye to Cairo. Sorry I couldn't have another mango milkshake as I had had during my first visit to the market... those things are addictive. I asked Sean millions of questions about Egypt and Arab life -- he's better than any guidebook. Just before we left, I bought a CD by Umm Kalthoum, one of Egypt's most famous singers ever. It was a funny experience, because the guys at the CD shop were glued to the TV, watching an Egyptian league soccer match (the World Cup games were already over for the day) -- it made me think of Kentucky during a basketball game.
The taxi driver that took us back to the hotel gave Sean an earful when he realized he spoke Arabic, so I sat in the back snapping photos. A co-worker joined us in Sean's room later for drinking and debating the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and then we headed to dinner... which I decided I really didn't want. I would love to have gone onto a late night with the guys, but I had to get up at 4 in the morning, and decided I might as well call it a day and pack. And I'm glad I did, because I did not feel well the next morning at all. I wish I could have seen the Pyramids once more as we drove out of the city, but we went in a different direction. As we approached the airport, I realized just how small it is. How can such a large city have such a tiny airport? I was woefully early for my flight, but you just never know these days what you are going to get at an airport before an international flight. So, I wandered around the airport aimlessly, had two Sprites, ordered some meds from the airport pharmacy, and then felt better when I finally got on the plane.
And then I was home, trying to recover from whatever creature has taken up residence in my stomach. I ended up in the hospital here in Bonn two days after getting back, with a nasty intestinal infection that caused the worse pain I have ever experienced in my life.
So, what have I learned that I hope to keep in mind when I return to Egypt?
Okay, enough lessons.
See photos that go with this essay.
A return to Austin and Kentucky is next -- first time in 18 months -- so, no travelogues for quite a while, as I'll be seeing you all and you will be experiencing this craziness with me. How funny that I will be flying through Memphis, Tennessee on that trip... first one Memphis, now another.
See pictures from other travels.
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