Woke to the calls to prayer this morning. It began around 5 am and continued off and on till almost 6 am. The buffet breakfast was fair, and the Oasis provided tolerable coffee. The downside to being a coffee snob such as myself is that traveling presents a coffee challenge. I resign myself to suffering inadequate coffee or no coffee in any populated area other than my home. It was appropriate that I began the journey reading Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory For Forgetfulness – Beirut, August 1982. Darwish dedicates much of the first 22 pages to his love affair with coffee. His aching desire for the first cup of coffee so powerful it rises above the reality of a morning destroyed by Israeli bombing from the sea off Beirut. His deep, soulful connection to life with coffee endures simultaneously with the terror of death by explosion. I can’t know what it’s like, though I can understand that kind of relationship with coffee.
Hossam cautioned us with many admonishments of what not to eat, and I find myself wavering between hesitantly unsure and devil-may-care. We can’t drink the water. We can’t eat any fresh vegetables or fresh fruit because the water is so bad. We can’t eat dairy products. Is this list designed to protect frail, elderly, disabled people? Is it to protect Gate 1 from angry sick people? Is Egypt truly that poisonous? Finally I decided that though I would acquiesce to bottled water, the rest of the food rules were too restrictive, and I would just eat whatever they served. How bad could it be – honestly?
Our day, our week, in Egypt began with a pow! at the pyramids of Giza. Very very cool. I wasn’t expecting more than big, crumbling pyramids in the desert, and that’s what it was. Some people expressed disappointment because they weren’t big enough (seriously I think some people can never be happy), but I think crumbling pyramids in the desert are AWESOME. The most interesting thing about the pyramids to me is how we are able to spot them from many places in the city. I recall this from Athens as well, when I could spot the Parthenon somehow only mildly conspicuous above the city. Here, between rows of apartments, are pyramids – THE pyramids; one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – soaring up and ignored in the background.
Our first stop was at King Cheops’ (or Kufu) Great Pyramid itself, built around 2500 BC. There are dozens of pyramids in Egypt. Today we saw the pyramids of Giza. We climbed up the side a little bit, where a path was clearly worn from millions before us. Then we moved on. We bought two extra tickets for things that were not part of our tour: camel rides and an opportunity to go inside a pyramid. Our pyramid tour went down, down, down a long narrow tunnel and then up, up, up a long narrow tunnel, and came out into a small room with a vaulted ceiling. It was a plain, dark, rectangular room with an empty sarcophagus at one end.
We discarded our misconception that pyramids were built by slaves. None of the pyramids were built by slaves or foreigners, but mainly by unemployed farmers, who needed a livelihood during the seasonal Nile flooding.
Of course we rode the camels! We handed our pounds over to Hossam, who negotiated a good price. Soon we were coached onto the large beasts. You climb on the same as a horse, then lean way back as he gets onto his hind legs first, and lean forward as he stands all the way up.
The men handling the camels are a motley crew: sun-darkened skin and shining eyes; many dressed in gallabiyas and turbans to ward off the sun. Many dressed in jeans and sweaters and hats. They were multicolored, multilingual; impressive in their ability to bounce from French to German to Japanese to English…as they attempted to determine from what country their customers hailed. They helped us onto the towering camels with ease and humor, then tied the camels one to another and led us out into the desert. Tara was up on her camel well before I was, and she seemed to have a fun time watching the rest of us climb.
We were treated to about a 10-15 minute ride that brought us a little bit closer to the pyramids. My gentle guide took my photo for me many times, then pleaded “I take care of you, you take care of me” through our trip back. As was often the case throughout the rest of my trip, I had left my money elsewhere, and was not prepared to hand out baksheesh, or tips.
As long as we’re on this topic, I will say a bit about how completely unprepared I was for managing money in Egypt. No one in Egypt will make change for you. They’ll change a 100 pound note (Egyptian pound = EGP) into 50s. If you find a particularly generous soul in the practice of handing out their own favors and not obsessed with milking you for yours, you can get 20s for your 100. But the only way to get smaller than a 20 pound note is by determined strategy. “Who cares?” you might ask. Ah, well, therein lies the rub. An American tourist needs small bits of money for multitudinous reasons in Egypt.
People mill about simply waiting for an opportunity to do something for you and demand baksheesh for their service. Someone will point to the way to what you are seeking, then hold out a hand. Stand at the doorway of the bathroom, and request payment before you pee. Hold out a steadying hand as you step off the curb, and ask for a tip. Open a door; pull out a sheet of paper towel on your behalf; lead you to a good place to take a photo; offer to pose with you for a photo; answer a question; it’s all a reason to hand over baksheesh. If you don’t, you get a pitiful look that will guilt you into tipping the next time. This look says to you something like, “My family will starve today because of your selfishness, but how could you understand, rich American?” I could have managed it more gracefully if I had a steady supply of change to help feed the hands. But I frequently received a bitter scowl – even wagging fingers as though the mere request was a faux pas! – and a good scolding: “No change! No change!”
The bus dropped us next at the Sphinx. Yes, the Great Sphinx, I could hardly believe it, and Tara was very excited. We snapped some awesome photos but could not go close enough to touch.
Back on the busses to reach a papyrus workshop and tour. I hadn’t even considered purchasing papyrus, but apparently it’s one of the key souvenirs from Egypt. We saw a demonstration of how it’s made, and then wandered the showroom of course, and ended up purchasing an image of Bastet, the cat goddess, and an historical Egyptian calendar.
After eating barbecued chicken at a local restaurant, we went to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities where we were forced to zoom from display to display, shouldering our way through hoards of people. The museum collection is huge and every piece is remarkable, so our guided tried to get us to the really big sights rather quickly. He turned us loose to look for whatever we wished, so Tara and I quit the place. We found a bathroom – paid a dollar (5½ Egyptian pounds) since we didn’t have anything smaller – and then moseyed outside to catch a few last rays of sunshine and to get away from the people. Before long, members of our group began to cluster around us. When our bus arrived we were tired and most of us wanted to go home.
We went instead to the market, arriving around 5:15pm, and given an hour to shop. Tara and I had an agenda of sorts, so that made it a little easier to stay awake. We both wanted gallabiyas (traditional robes) to wear for dinner tomorrow night. Tara wanted to get several gifts for her friends in Egypt, so she bought a handful of scarabs and a sparkly keychain.
It was a very crowded market with shops crammed in and around and on top of each other, and we were given a safety speech before released from the bus. Hossam gives us so many words of caution that I am never sure when to feel safe. Is he pandering to the majority of the American public’s need to feel frightened of everything? At home I ignore the official safety warnings from food to purchases to companies to travel, etc. etc. In my opinion (here’s my conspiracy theory), all that caution to excess is a system by which our government and our religions hold us hostage. A bunch of mouton (French for sheep, but in slang it means a bunch of people doing whatever everyone else is doing. The English equivalent to “lemmings”) unable to be independently resourceful. I think CEOs and Senators and Popes prefer us this way because we’re easier to control.
So with this opinion firmly carved into my mind, I can’t decide whether to take Hossam seriously. It doesn’t really make sense that Egypt has danger lurking every 5 steps…it can’t possibly be that dangerous, or there wouldn’t be swarms of mouton out here. Hossam seems extremely comfortable at every stop and with everyone he comes across. Tara and I were thrown for a loop due to our inept bargaining savvy, and to the superior salesmanship of our Egyptian vendor… but in the end we had our gallabiyas.