Wednesday, February 16, 2000

TR Egypt Part 2

2/7 –2/15/00

Now where was I? Oh yeah –getting ready to leave Luxor.

But I forgot to mention in the marathon section that the Egyptian Marathon was the 20th marathon/country that I had completed since moving to England. This brings my total country-marathons to 30 which is starting to be respectable numbers even in the 50+DC Club.

Now back to the current story. We arrived at the airport one hour in advance of our 3:45 pm departure on Egypt Air. Egypt Air has a monopoly on air travel within Egypt and their customer attitude and performance (or lack of) reflects it. We stood in line for almost an hour during which time several Egyptians butted into line in front of us until we realized that it is their nature and attitude to be rude and arrogant and to defend oneself you must be rude and arrogant back! Finally Egypt air admitted that the plane would be an hour or more late after a fiery redheaded American lass charged across the ticket counter and demanded information. She also put a few very shocked Egyptian men in their place when they tried to butt in front of her. She told them off in not-very-kind words. I thought they might find her later with her throat slit because women are supposed to know their place in Egypt and do not talk back to men!

When we arrived in Cairo, Gary’s driver was waiting to take us to their apartment that is located in Maadi. Maadi is an exclusive subdivision where most expats, oil company and embassy employees live. Carey took us out for dinner and gave us the lowdown on Cairo and a language lesson. Oh how I wish we had learned those few so-important words and phrases when we were in Luxor! Are you ready? Record these for future use. ‘La = No’.
‘Yella imshe (phonetically spelled) = Get lost’. Very, very useful. When we used this training later at the pyramids and other sites usually a harsh ‘La’ would stop the hawkers. In one case Nicole had to resort to the phrase and the hawker looked at her like he was hurt and said ”that wasn’t nice” – but left!
I also confirmed a suspicion that I had. The Italians must have taught the Egyptians how to drive because the first thing that you notice is that there are no rules! Every car in Egypt is dented. But the Egyptians throw a few more challenges into the game. In two days of driving around Cairo, a city of 18 million people, I saw a maximum of 18 traffic lights of which only two worked and everyone ignored those! And at night the Egyptians drive with their headlights off! They believe that using their lights will kill the battery so they do not turn them on but will flash them to warn another vehicle or pedestrian to get out of the way! It was quite unnerving at first to be driving down a dark road and nobody has their lights on. But they seem to handle it well?

Carey had booked a private tour guide for us during our stay. With a private driver and guide we were able to visit all of the major tourist sites in and around Cairo in the two days. And the tour guide only cost $100 for the two days and that included the $60 of entrance fees into all the sites. But that price is only available to locals –a tourist would never be able to book a guide for that price. Like everything else in Egypt it was half-price or more for a local!

So on Sunday morning we were off! First stop was the Cairo Museum. Our guide took us to all the major exhibits and explained the history and culture of Egypt while showing us statues of the Kings and artifacts from the different periods of history. I would definitely recommend that anyone start their Egypt trip with a visit to the museum. We also visited King Tut’s treasures. The gold mask and headdress fashioned in his likeness is a spectacular piece of craftsmanship considering it was made 3000 years ago. The coffin that contained his mommy was built of solid gold. When you consider that King Tut was only a minor king in Egyptian history it is sad to think of what treasures were buried with the other kings and has been lost forever to the tomb robbers. Our last stop was at a special room that housed many of the mommies of the kings and queens. They were interesting but kind of ugly and disgusting!

Then it was time to visit the pyramids at Giza. I always thought that the pyramids were far out in the desert and they were when they were built –but now the city has been built right out to them! The three pyramids of Cheops, Chepren and Micerinus and the Sphinx as well as other smaller pyramids can all be viewed from the comfort of a bar from across the street if you prefer. But we of course strolled around the pyramids and learned about their history from our guide –and practiced our Egyptian on the hawkers. I visited the burial chamber in one of the pyramids. They warn you not to go in if you are claustrophobic since the tunnels are very narrow and short and you must descend a few hundred feet through these tunnels. The sheer size of these monuments is difficult to describe – you must visit them sometime!
The next and last day we set out for the pyramids at Sakkarah. The largest pyramid is the step-pyramid of Zoser. It has six levels and is the oldest pyramid in the world, circa 2700 BC. The necropolis or burial grounds at Sakkarah are the largest in Egypt. On the way to Sakkarah our driver got lost and drove through the village of Sakkarah. I thought we had stepped back 1000 years in time! The village had no paved roads, only a rough dirt path down the middle of the village with an open ditch on one side that served as sewer, garbage dump, etc! On each side of the path were mud and mud-brick houses with roofs of straw or palm fronds. No electricity or water except for a central well. The village women were carrying water, stacks of vegetables and sugar cane on their heads and the men were riding donkeys. And this village is only twenty miles from the outskirts of Cairo! I told Nicole that we should move there for a month to understand what the priorities in life are!

In the afternoon we proceeded to the Citadelle, an old fort and mosque built by the Turks about 700 years ago. Tourists were permitted to visit the mosque and our guide whom was Muslim explained the Muslim religion to us. The fort is built on a hill overlooking Cairo so afforded a great panoramic view of the city. Our next visit was to ‘Old Cairo’, a section of Cairo built by the Romans during their rule. This area contains the original cobbled streets and several old churches. Of special interest was an old synagogue built on the site (as legend states) where Charleston Heston, er, Moses was supposedly washed ashore into the reeds of the Nile. (Read you Bible again!) Moses made this site into a religious site where he prayed each day and after he left Egypt the first synagogue was built on the site. Legend further states that this is the site to which Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to for refuge from King Herrod (I don’t recall that in my Bible studies). The crypt or tomb where they hid is still open for viewing as the current synagogue was built over the original site. How much is fact and how much is fiction or rumor- not for me to say?

Our final visit was back to the pyramids of Giza for another sound and light show. But this one was much better. The sphinx narrated a story while multi-colored floodlights played on the pyramids and Sphinx in synch with the music and story. And this time there were laser lights that displayed images on the walls of a temple and the pyramids themselves. It was very interesting and exciting to watch. But now it was time to go home! Back to the apartment for a short 3-hour nap before leaving for the airport to catch our 04:15 KLM flight back to merry England.

In summary the trip was very interesting and in spite of the hawkers and constant haggling, enjoyable. I would recommend that you visit Cairo first because the culture shock will be more gradual and you can learn more about the history and culture of Egypt with an initial trip to the Cairo Museum. But you should definitely proceed on to Upper Egypt or the South. An alternative to consider would be to take one of the many cruise boats that sail from Cairo to Aswan. They stop at all the historical sites along the way.
But definitely do take a trip to Egypt at least once in your lifetime to experience the history and culture that you learned about as a child!

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