Wherein We Take Cairo

10 October, 2009

I got rousted from my semi-fitful sleep on the tour bus as we hit a huge pothole coming into the parking lot, and suddenly found myself staring at the base of one of the Giza pyramids. “Well, that was quick,” I thought, then looked at my watch. 10:00am. I’d been sleeping on the bus for the past three hours.

Yesterday, 11 of my classmates and myself embarked upon a tour of Cairo. We left El Agamy at around 7:00 am, and didn’t get back until around midnight last night. The day marked the bulk of our tourist-y activities, and while I usually detest anything associated with the word “tourism” (my family can attest to this) I must say I really had a great time.

For whatever faults the TEFL program has in terms of its curriculum, one area where they came through in spades was the excursion to Cairo. We rolled up in a fully air conditioned tour bus that basically saw one to two people in each row, therefore allowing ample room for us to spread out. We got off the bus and met our guide, Amr, and entered got a brief rundown on the history of the Giza pyramids.

Each one was built over the course of 20 years, involving nearly 100,000 people. The tallest one is over 145 meters tall, and accommodates the tomb of one person. The Great Pyramid was constructed of about 2.3 million limestone blocks, each one weighing 1.5-2.5 metric tons. These stones were brought up from Aswan, 900 kilometers down the Nile, during flood season, and borne on the backs of skilled laborers and artisan stonecrafters. (Apparently, the historical thought about them being built by Jewish slaves is something that modern archaeology has been backing away from for years.) The pyramids at one point had a coating of smooth limestone, but those have eroded over the past 5,000 years and are now only visible on the 2nd pyramid (The Queen’s Pyramid) and at some areas around the base of the Great Pyramid.

There’s a misconception that the Giza Pyramids are in the middle of some far-flung desert, far away from civilization with only swarthy Bedouins in the area. Nothing could be further from the truth- if you were to squint your eyes through the haze and smog, you could make out the Cairo skyline, where nearly 25% of Egypt’s 80 million people live. There are paved roads leading up to and around the site, and there are hawkers and their vendors everywhere. As we left to explore the site, Amr said, “Santa Claus doesn’t come in October for Egyptians. If someone tells you something’s free, it isn’t.” Apparently, a favored trick of the camel ride salesmen is to let you on the camel for free- then make you pay them to get off.

You can go inside the Pyramids for a price ($30 LE for the small one, or $100 LE for the Great Pyramid, which equals about $6 and $20 respectively in USD), but there’s no hieroglyphics or mummies or secret rooms full of gold that you can go through. Apparently, it’s just a series of cramped passageways that end in nowhere, and you can’t take a camera inside. Nevertheless, my roommate, the intrepid Lachlan, wasn’t deterred and crawled inside the smaller Pyramid. His conclusion: not worth it, but hey, he can now say he’s been inside a pyramid!

I had a personal milestone of my own: I rode a camel! After much hand-wringing over whether or not I dare do something so touristy, I plunked down my 30 LE and swung my legs over my Dromedarian companion. Several of my companions also elected to join in, including Set and Lachlan.

As my ten-year old guide bellowed, my camel suddenly grew 4x in height and I was nearly deposited unceremoniously onto the fine sands of the Sahara. After righting myself, our guide led us on a five minute stroll throughout the desert. At the end, my guide mumbled for me to hold on tight, and suddenly, my camel was back in its preferred, prone position. Despite their lumbering gait and comedic appearance, camels move fast. I was nearly emasculated by the saddle when my camel laid down. I’ll just leave it at that camel saddles are a lot harder than horse saddles.

After our camel cruise, we headed over to the Sphinx. I did my best to shut my eyes and pretend the hawkers urchin kids and scantily clad European tourists weren’t there, and tried to imagine what it was like before a modern city rose up around it. A historical anecdote suggests that Napoleon blew off the Sphinx’s nose after instructing his troops to use it as target practice for their cannons, but actually, it’s nose and beard were chipped off by a Muslim fanatic named Muhammed Said al-Dahr. Mr. Dahr was infuriated by what he thought was idolatry, so in the 14th century he set about destroying the statue. Egyptians, being somewhat picky about unsolicited redecorating, thanked him for his efforts by promptly hanging him.

Also, the Sphinx is known as Abu al-Hul in Arabic. That translates to “The Father of Terror” in English. Someone get Slayer on the line, I’ve found them their next album title!

After our sojourn to the Sphinx was through, Amr hustled us onto the bus. Apparently, it was time for prayer so we were dropped off at a papyrus factory while they sprinted into the Mosque across the street. Set will have to fill you on on the elaborate process of papyrus construction because I snuck out to take pictures of the Mosque where our drivers and guide disappeared to. Upon my return, I couldn’t help but admire the beauty of the hand-made scrolls of ornate papyrus- especially the portrait of Sir Anthony Hopkins, nestled in between classic hieroglyphics and portraits of long-dead pharaohs.

After that, we crossed from the Giza area into Cairo proper and headed to our lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe. We had a free buffet, but were told we had to pay for our own drinks. Thinking they meant beer, I ordered a coke and nearly choked on my salad when presented with a bill for 25 LE. I could have bought an authentic Rolex at the Sphinx for that!

Another hilight of lunch was when the wait staff serenaded us with an extremely awkward rendition of the Village People’s “YMCA.” I cringed when they dramatically belted out the chorus as “WHHYYYYYAAAAA EMMMA CEEE AYYYYYYE” but had to otherwise laud them for their enthusiasm. Karaoke, as in any other language, will always be awkward.

After lunch, we headed to the Egyptian Museum. Home to over 140,000 pieces, this place has some of the most amazing artifacts imaginable. I saw King Tutankhamun’s golden sarcophagus and death mask, his 4-room burial chamber (specifically constructed so the Egyptian Book of Life could be etched into his tomb, as custom dictates) and learned that statues of living kings were always done with their left foot forward. This was done to show how they kind they were, or that they led from the heart. A statue with both feet together means that the person depicted is dead.

It costs 100 LE to see the “Mummy Room” so Set and I elected to busy ourselves with the rest of the museum. Ancient Egyptians also mummified some animals too- I saw a few cat mummies and thought “It’s a good start.” Slightly creepy were the snake mummies (with resin stuffed in their mouths to prevent them from attacking after death) and gigantic crocodile mummies. The zombie movie aficionado in me couldn’t help but imagine those things coming back to life and wreaking all kinds of havoc throughout the museum.

After the Museum, we headed over to a large, outdoor market. I’ve long maintained that Egyptians are friendly people, and boy, did they ever demonstrate it! I couldn’t stop hearing about how lucky I was to have Set at my side (followed quickly by “Rolex! Rolex!”) and she was buried up to her neck in compliments about her dusty boots (again followed by “New shoes over here!”) We tried to gain access to one of Egypt’s largest mosques to take photos, only to find out that they were closed for the night and we’d have to come back later.

Shortly thereafter, we boarded our bus back to El Agamy. Drained, I fell back asleep for a few hours, and awoke to one of the driver’s incredibly loud ringtone going off repeatedly. Perhaps vibrate mode hasn’t crossed the pond just yet, or maybe people like showing off their phones, but it seems like a prerequisite to have one’s phone on the absolute loudest setting at all times. Unable to fall back asleep, I tried to catch up on a few of my long-dormant podcasts, but was distracted by none other than Kenny G’s Christmas album. In Egypt. In October. Surreal.

We pulled up around midnight, and racked out shortly thereafter.  The next day was spent catching up on work, laundry, and of course, spending some quality time in the Mediterranean- now colored yellow as silt from the Nile made its way out of the Delta. I’m attaching several photos from the trip to this entry, and stand by for a great entry regarding our foray into a “real” Egyptian market from Set!

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