Wednesday, April 1, 2009

On the road to Egypt...

Academia... gotta' love it! Where else can you get a few days off in the middle of March for Spring Break?! Since all of the students are gone for an entire week, everyone here takes a few days or more for a quick jaunt somewhere new. Last semester, I didn't go anywhere for Spring Break... I thought it was a little premature into my tenure to use such a break. Not this year, though. I pondered for a while of where to go for three-to-four days, relatively cheaply, and without a fifteen hour flight. After going over Jordan and Oman, I settled on Egypt.

On of my co-workers goes to Egypt almost every month to visit friends, and I asked her her opinions on where to stay, what to do, etc. She offered to contact her good friend, Sherief, who happens to be an official Egypt tour guide. So I gave him an email, told him when I would getting into town, and he took care of the rest... seriously. He said the hotel was booked and everything was planned... but I had absolutely no input or any idea as to what I was going to do, see, stay, eat, or pay for this trip. But the idea of traveling to another country without any worries about planning or schedules was actually stress free... I didn't care what happened, as long as I got home in one piece... I'd be fine.

The Thursday before I left, I picked up some Subway for dinner, and started packing my backpack. But it seemed that the good people of Subway wanted me to stay in Qatar longer than I wanted... I got food poisoning. I became an eruption of fluids and club sandwich bits all day, night, and into the morning. All I could think of was how horrible the airport and flight was going to be if I was vomiting and shitting myself the whole time. I guess it would be worse for the other passengers... but I wasn't too happy about it. Thankfully, I stopped spewing bile and my stomach calmed down just before the flight. [NAME REMOVED] gave me a ride to the airport, and I set off for the Land of the Pharaohs.

Cairo... first thing you notice is that the airport is a shithole. Seriously. I went up to one of the bank windows and bought my visa. After security, I entered a huge hall filled with tour guides, drivers, and hotel buses. Shereif had wrote me to say that he would be the tallest person in the hall... and he was right! About 6'5'' and weighing about 100lbs., he cut an impressive figure holding a huge "BEN" sign a foot over everyone's heads. We met up, found our driver, and set off for the hotel in Giza.

Cairo was really unimpressive. As a whole... it is an ugly place. Most of the city is comprised of multiple apartment style buildings that look exactly the same. Shereif explained that one family would save enough money to build a house from rebarred concrete, and enclose the walls with cheap red bricks. But to make money, the family would keep the roof flat, and extend the load bearing columns above the roof. That way, when another family wanted to build a house, they could buy the space on the roof of the first family's house, and just keep building up. Every single building for the first thirty minutes was the exact same faded, junky brick with rebar and satellite dishes jutting up from the unfinished roof.

We kept driving, and crossed the Nile River into Giza. The Nile was... again... unimpressive. Just looked like any other river... wasn't even that big. Traffic in Cairo/Giza is horrible... reminiscent of Delhi without so much pedal power. Huge swarms of cars went back and forth between each other without any sense of law and order. It was odd seeing cops on camel back directly traffic... that was new.

Soon, we were coming up into the western edge of Giza, and that when I saw them... the Pyramids. They looked enormous... raised up against the low city skyline with only desert behind them! The sun was fading, and I only caught fleeting glimpses, but it was enough of a taste to get me ready for the next day.

My hotel, the Oasis, was a nice, simple hotel only a few kilometers from the Pyramids. It had beautiful landscaping, but nothing to write home about. It did have what, I am sure, was the most beautiful bedspreads and fixtures the mid-1970's could produce. The next morning after my breakfast buffet (why do Arab countries think beef hot dogs are sausages?) Shereif picked me up, and we headed to the Pyramids.

The Pyramids... oh wow. They look sooo gigantic from afar, and when you get up close to them... you realize that they are fucking humongous!! We bought my ticket at the base of the hill, then walked up the path until we were about 100 yards from the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Then, instead of climbing the beast, Shereif gave me a history lesson of Egypt, the pyramids, the pharaohs, naming conventions, where his house was, etc. As much as I liked the lesson (and I really did!) when you're that close to something you've always imagined, you just want to get up close! So after thirty minutes of my nodding in agreement, I finally got to get close to it.

It is just like you think it is. The stones are the size of vans. There are no gaps between the rocks... none. And no cement or mortise, either. The angles are precise. The construction is solid. And it is big... very big.

We walked all the way around, all the while he was explaining the tiny pyramids next to Khufu (his family) and the small museum behind the pyramid that holds his stellar boat that took Khufu to the heavens, where he was judged by weighing his heart against that of a feather (look it up.)
Next, we went to the second, slightly smaller pyramid of Khufu's son, Khafre. This pyramid looks like it is larger than Khufu's, but it's an optical illusion since the pyramid rests at a higher elevation than the Great Pyramid. This one also still has the remnants of the original limestone an alabaster covering that made each pyramid completely smooth on all sides. It was at this pyramid that I tried to enter the great tomb. The entrances vary, and the cost varies also. Sherief told me that to enter, you had to duck down and walk down a very steep ramp and stair until you reached the main chamber where it opened up wide. So I gave the doorman my ticket, and started down the steps until I reached the 5000-year-old-doorway.

The ancient Egyptians must have been midgets... or maybe Hobbits... because there was no way in hell that someone of my stature could fit in this passage. I didn't just have to duck down, but I had to pull myself into the fetal position, damn near a cannonball, and try to walk down a 45 degree ramp with metal slats for steps. I was struggling to lift my foot high enough to clear the stairs. I was doing OK until I saw that people were coming up the same ramp... a lot of them. To get them past me, I had to stop moving, and press myself against the side wall, and I still got felt up by way too many strangers. After about fifty yards of heading straight down, I was able to get a glimpse ahead, and realized that I still had about another 100 to go... and then I had to climb back up. My quads and back weren't going to last much more of this, and I was afraid that I was going to have to be winched back up the tunnel... so I made the call to turn around and start heading back up the ramp. Going up was worse! I had to take off my backpack and get on all fours to make my way back to the entrance.

Shereif was waiting for me at the entrance and said "I didn't think you were going to make it." Thanks for the vote of support, Shereif. But honestly, imagine yourself trying to walk down a tunnel made up of about 300 refrigerator boxes, and you have to walk down then up with trying not to touch the walls... not fun.

After that failure, we checked out the smallest of the three main pyramids, Menkaure; son of Khafre, grandson of Khufu. Fairly small compared to the others, but still pretty damn big. Coolest part about it was that from here you could see the first vestiges of the Western Desert... what we call the Sahara. The car came to pick us up, and drove us away from the pyramids a little ways to a mesa where you can see all three pyramids in one photo. Very cool.

It was then that I realized that I hadn't seen the Sphinx. Wasn't it right next to the pyramids? And wasn't it also huge? Shereif said that was next, and we drove between the pyramids and down a steep slope in the shadow of Khafre, when we saw the Sphinx.

The Sphinx... kind of a disappointment. It very close to, but well below, the second pyramid. But the shocking thing is that it's not very big. Yes, it is carved from one huge boulder, and that is very cool... but compared to the pyramids, it looks absolutely tiny! I did get some good shots of it in the foreground of the pyramids, and then had some tea while looking out. You don't realize it from photos, but Giza stops RIGHT NEXT to the pyramids. It stops where the desert begins. So from the Sphinx, you can see the Pyramids, the Sahara, and a Kentucky Friend Chicken. That damn Colonel is everywhere...
We then drove for an hour, and only covered about 10 kilometers, to the ancient capitol of Memphis. I checked out an outdoor museum filled with statues and sarcophagi, and one enormous statue of a former pharaoh. Next we went to Saqqara, and walked around the famous stepped pyramid of Zoser. This was the first pyramid to be built from stone, and was an early precursor to the great pyramids.

Afterwards, Shereif needed to pay his rent, so he took me to some shops to get his kickbacks. Now, I was going to buy a few cheap items, and some very expensive things too. I knew this... and I still overspent wildly. I cannot help but feel pressured when I enter these stores, and feel guilty if I walk out and not buy anything. I even bought a new carpet... which I love... but paid WAAAY too much for. I may have to take that carpet to work for a few weeks to pay for it.

The next day, we left ancient history behind and traveled into Old Cairo. On the way there, our driver got thirsty and pulled up next to a small storefront. He paid a few Egyptian Pounds and the man in the stall pulled an armful of sugarcane from below the counter, and fed it into two rotating drums that crushed the cane. In a pan under the can, he dipped glasses and filled them with thick, cold, bubbling liquid. Pure, raw, sugarcane juice... so damn good! Grassy and sweet, it was ambrosia...

We ventured to the Citadel of Salah Al-Din on top of the largest hilltop in Cairo. This huge fort had an enormous mosque inside that we went into (shoes off, of course) where Sherief explained the tenants of Islam and the history of the mosque. Cool trivia note... for those of you that have been to Paris (or read this blog), you've seen the great Egyptian obelisk in the Place de Concorde. The same person who build the mosque was the one who gave the obelisk to France. In return, France sent Egypt a large copper clock tower that now sits, broken, in the entrance of the mosque.

After the citadel, we drove into the heart of Old Cairo and checked out some old cemeteries, Roman forts, and the Coptic churches. Coptic churches are the Christian churches that existed just after the time of Christ. Winnowing thru the narrow alleys, I toured the Hanging Church, which actually overhangs a Roman building; the only remaining Jewish synagogue in Cairo, and more mosques. One of the churches is famous for being the home of the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus) after they fled King Herod into Egypt. You can't get into the small room, but can look into it. Now that's history...

For the last thing of the day, we went to the Egyptian Museum. This is the famous museum that houses all of the world's greatest Egyptian treasures; including the treasure of King Tutankhamen. I was really looking forward to touring the museum, reading all the fact cards, and checking out the mummies. I was supremely disappointed by it...

The items in the museum are fascinating... unbelievable that you're looking at items that were built 5,000 years ago. But the museum itself is a piece of shit. It looks like it's falling down. It is so cramped with artifacts, that from any given spot, you can turn around and see over 500 pieces at a time... too many! Most of them aren't labeled, and when they are it looks like my Dad typed it out on his old Royal Quiet De Luxe typewriter. In the mummy room, where you have to pay an additional 100 EPs to enter, yes... I saw over twenty fully preserved mummies, which was cool. But half the lights weren't working, so you could barely see any of them.

The thing that killed me the most was the total lack of respect people had for the artifacts. Everything was out in the open! Very few things were under glass or protected in any way. When we entered the museum, Shereif showed me three statues that are considered the most important in the entire museum. He tells me the history of the figures, then reaches out and strokes the beard of the onyx statues! Quit touching the priceless history!! You see all the rounded edges on the sphinxes and worn down hieroglyphics on the sarcophagus... it's because people are touching them!! Quit touching them!! Dammit!!

Later, we headed to Khan El-Khanili, an outdoor plaza where tourist walk the crowded backalleys trying to fend off overly pushy vendors. Best line of the day "Sir, please come in, we have your size. No, I mean it! We really do have your American size!!" Little shit. I got a little lost in the backalleys and came out next to a freeway, and had to walk about five blocks out of my way to get back to the restaurants and tea shoppes lining the stores. Two weeks previous a small bomb went off about fifteen feet from where we were sitting enjoying our tea. I didn't even know this until Shereif told me.
After a nice night at the hotel, I awoke and waited for Shereif again. The weather had gotten a little chilly (down to about 50F and overcast.) He told me we had a three hour drive to the northern city of Alexandria. We took off north and I enjoyed the scenery. Egypt is odd because it is actually much more green than you think it is... but only near the Nile. Once you're about ten kilometers away from the Nile, it turns back into desert real fast. We stopped halfway to have a tea and a smoke at what could be considered the oddest truckstop ever.

This place was an indoor/outdoor restaurant in the middle of a desert stretch, but was decorated in a nautical theme... fish and nets everywhere. There was a fake stream running thru the place, with real fish in the ponds. Next to our table were large cages filled with desert foxes, snakes, and field mice. Just past the bread oven was the petting zoo with camels and zebras. And, of course, I can't forget about the cage filled with sleeping lions that they bring out for performances during dinner...

Alex is a large city on the Mediterranean Sea. Most Egyptians travel there for the summer for the beaches and great weather. Also, Alex shares it's name and heritage with Rome and Greece more than Egypt. The people look Grecian, and many still speak Greek. Our first stop was the Roman catacombs under the city. Shereif and I descended and toured for fifteen minutes the dugout graves that were filled with clear groundwater. After that, we went to a destroyed Roman temple with a single remaining obelisk remaining upright. At this point, it started to rain, so we made a quick retreat to the relative comfort of Citadel of Qaitbay. Another massive fortress on the shore of the Med, I walked around for a while until I got annoyed by the rowdy high-schoolers I was sharing the field trip.

After lunch at a Greek restaurant, I toured the beautiful Library of Alexandria. No longer the ancient wonder that one time held over two millions scrolls included the works of Plato and Socrates, it is a beautiful modern museum that is designed to flow like giant steps into the water. Very nice.

After the library, our final stop was King Farouk's Palace, a beautiful palace and gardens situated on a peninsula on the Med. At this point I was able to make my way down to the beach and step foot in the sea... and I can now cross that one off my list. While I was walking the grounds, a van pulled up next to me, and out jumped one of my former students who was showing his hometown to his girlfriend. Small world.
We headed back to Cairo where I proceeded to pick up a chest cold that I'm just now getting over. The next morning Shereif picked me up and dropped me off at the airport. Shereif was a great guide and a lot of fun... I highly recommend him.
I really enjoyed Egypt, but there were some dark spots to the trip. Most vacations are planned around a certain theme, whether that be relaxation, nature, excitement, shopping, etc. I didn't play Egypt. I just went to have something to do. I love seeing the pyramids and learning about the history of it all, but honestly, I could have shortened the trip by a day and would have felt perfectly happy about my experience. I also wished I would have traveled with someone on this trip. The evenings are a little tame, and it would have been nice to share the "wow" factor of some of these sights with someone who hasn't been to them 1500 times. I've been told that to see the real Egypt, I need to travel to Upper Egypt, including Luxor and Aswan. Maybe another time. But for now, I'm perfectly happy with my time spent in the land of a thousand minarets...

later...

ben

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