Friday, January 21, 2011

Walking Like An Egyptian

It’s funny how nowadays one can reach something that once felt so distant. Ever since elementary school I had dreamed of visiting Egypt and seeing the great pyramids. I feel like they’re one of those sights that everyone must see at least once in their life time. They truly speak to the genius and evolution of man. However, as I’ve learned over the years and especially over the last couple months as I took Egyptology as my secondary tutorial at Oxford, the pyramids of Giza are not the only things to see in Egypt. In fact, my Prof. told me to only stay in Cairo long enough to see the pyramids and the Cairo Museum. Other than that, she said the city has really nothing else to offer and to head down south, or Upper Egypt, to Luxor. With this valuable information, Paul and I booked our flights and before we knew it, we were off to one of the most influential civilizations in history. Everything went smoothly until we actually landed in Cairo. As I looked at the monitor on the plane, it showed downtown Cairo miles away from the airport. I had already booked a cheap hotel, but hadn’t booked anyone to pick me up because I had assumed the airport was remotely close to the city. What this meant is that I would have to get a taxi to a hotel that I didn’t even know the address to, all the while trying not to get ripped off. That’s probably something I should explain before I go further into my stay in Cairo. The locals are, how shall put this, annoying, creepy, slow, and only want your money. Now I know that sounds really harsh, but it’s the sad truth. Oh and you must keep in mind that nothing has a price written on it because the store keepers set them based on how much they think they can get out of you, and then it is up to you to bargain in order to lower the price. You come to learn very quickly that when someone asks where are you from? It’s not to create a leisurely conversation, but to either retain your attention or to see how high they can set the price. As a white American, everything costs more. Knowing this beforehand, I always spoke broken English and pretended I was from a poorer country. Now, what do I mean by annoying, creepy, and slow? Well, for one thing, they are always late. It’s called Egyptian time. As for annoying and creepy, I’ll return to our adventure to illustrate those qualities. So we arrive in Cairo not really knowing what to expect. As soon as we walk through the gate, a hoard of taxi drivers rushes over and start saying, “Taxi? Taxi? You need a taxi? I give you good price?” I made the mistake of saying, “hold on one minute.” As in I was going to find another way to get to my hotel. However, this man took it as if he had a client and proceeded to follow me around the airport after I’d told him several times I didn’t want a taxi. And that was just the beginning. So I finally get rid of this guy and find a tourist information desk and they arrange a taxi for me. Problem is my taxi driver was a psycho behind the wheel and didn’t even know where my hotel was. That’s another thing you can add to the list of Egyptian qualities, awful drivers. I didn’t know if I was going to make it into downtown Cairo alive! It’s as if there were no lines in the road. Random donkey’s pulling carriages are on main roads and cars dart in and out at speed s I don’t even drive at. Not to mention they practically drive with one hand on the horn. It’s their way of signaling a changing of lanes or a way of saying, “Get out of the way!” However, let be known, that not everyone in Egypt is like this, just the majority. I had the pleasure of meeting some of the nicest men I’ve met all trip and if it weren’t for them, I would have left Egypt the next day. Where do these men reside? At Backpacker’s Point, Hotel Vienna. You see, After finally finding my my hotel, being asked to buy this man whisky for helping me, and then finding out the hotel was a piece of crap, I grabbed my bags and headed around the corner to Hotel Vienna, which I’d seen while in the taxi. It was at this time with I first met Mr. Ramadan (I don’t know his last name, but he said to just call him Ramadan). Not only did they have a room open, but it was reasonably priced, and the moment after I put my bags down, he started to talk to me about tours and reaching Luxor. Although I had already booked a hostel in Luxor, he told me that I wouldn’t be able to get a ticket on such short notice. Thinking this was a ploy to get me to pay more money, I declined his offer at first. However, he not only offered a first class train ticket, but pick-up, 4 nights in a hotel, and 2 days of guided tours all for 150 US dollars. Needless to say I accepted. After this, Mr. Ramadan, along with the other staff members, offered to take me out to a local coffee shop. They claim it’s the Egyptian thing to do when you’ve accomplished something. Not wanting to insult this “Egyptian hospitality” (as they said many times), I joined them for some tea and water pipes. Oh and by coffee shop, I mean an ally with small tables and chairs where primarily men go to socialize and relax. Not really much of a tea person, I asked what was an Egyptian drink? Mr. Ramadan then ordered me sakileb, my new favorite drink in the world. Made with milk, coconut, hazelnut, some other things I never found out, and then heated until it was too hot to drink right away, it was a great first taste of Egypt. And of course, because of their “Egyptian hospitality”, I didn’t have to pay a thing. Also, it was at the coffee where I met Siad (at least I think that’s how to spell his name), my personal tour guide for the next 2 days. An older man and very quiet, Mr. Ramadan informed me he was not as crazy as other drivers in Cairo. He wasn’t lying. The next day would be one I will never forget. The day started off with a visit to a Papyrus Museum where I was shown how the ancient Egyptians used papyrus to make paper. After this, it was time to go to Giza and see the pyramids and sphinx. However, Siad had a surprise for me. I wasn’t just going to walk around the pyramids, but ride a camel around them. It was getting to Giza however, when I first experience the madness of daytime Cairo traffic. As Siad says, “Cairo has too much busy.” I forget the number exactly, but Siad told me how Cairo didn’t use to be as populated as it is now. It’s just absurd watching these cars exit and get on ramps with no real traffic lights or direction. Luckily, Siad knew his way around and took a couple side roads to get us to the camel depot without any major setbacks. After meeting my camel, which I name Humphrey, we were guided out to the pyramids. Moving slowing at first, my guide picked us the pace to, as he said, “Make me walk like an Egyptian by the end of the trip.” I’ll admit, my groan was a little soar by the end. Riding camels is quite bumpy, even if you sit close to the front of the saddle. With the pyramids in sight the whole time, I couldn’t wait to get up close and look up at once the tallest structures in the world. After stopping on the top of a dune to get pictures of all 9 pyramids in a row, we arrived at their bases. And if taking us out on camels wasn’t enough, our guides even gave money to the police to let us touch the great pyramid, something that tourist’s haven’t able to do for awhile because of an incident when someone climbed to the top and couldn’t get down. After pledging never to wash my hand again (don’t worry I have), we hopped back on our camels and moved on to the sphinx. Equally magnificent, we weren’t able to get as close to the sphinx as we were to the pyramids, but obviously it was still worth stopping for. It was after this that my tour came to an end. As customary after any service in Egypt (even giving simple directions!), they ask for a tip. Not know the exchange rate that well yet, I later found out that I gave a very gracious tip, but whatever, Paul and I had an amazing time. I’ll let that one slide. Once we returned, we had a quick cup of tea and then took off for Saqqara to see the first ever pyramid, the step pyramid. This visit wasn’t as extensive as our stay in Giza. Siad just sat in the car while I bought a ticket and walked around. The step pyramid and temple were cool, as well as the tombs that were open, but the locals were just too annoying. Every time we stopped, they would ask if we wanted a camel ride or a picture and wouldn’t stop. One guy even took my camera when I was going to take a picture of myself and not wanting to deal with arguing with him to give it back, I complied and when he handed it back and asked for 20 Egyptian pounds, I ran away. I got him good. And it wasn’t even that bad of a picture too. Then, one guy told us to go to the top of a dune for a view, and when we reached the top, he wanted money for his advice. I just laughed at him walked away. After this, we’d had enough of Saqqara and continued to Memphis to see a giant Ramses II statue. Siad wasn’t kidding when he said it was big. It was huge! And it wasn’t even complete. With nothing else besides a couple more statues and bazaars, Siad took me to the last place of the day, a perfume shop….…. Not a perfume guy, I didn’t really want to buy any, but I felt like I had to after all the salesman went through. He would not except that fact that I didn’t want any and kept on lower the price and saying that I needed them. Plus, it didn’t help that it was just the three of us and he was a friend of Siad. It was because of this fact that I finally caved. Paul was disappointed in me. Eh, I got my souvenirs for my parents covered I guess. After this we made a quick stop at a bazaar, where I didn’t buy anything, and then returned to the hostel. Continuing their Egyptian hospitality, Mr. Ramadan offered a traditional Egyptian dish for dinner called Koshari. I replied, “If it’s anything like sakileb, then yes!” Turns out its better. I still don’t know the exact details of what is in it, but I do know it’s a combination of noodles or pasta, rice, tomato sauce, spices, and that’s I know. I’ll look up the recipe later. Anyways, it was delicious, filling, and cheap. The perfect combination. Before I left for my room, Mr. Ramadan explained what I would be seeing on my last day in Cairo before taking the overnight train to Luxor. A much more relaxed schedule than my first tour, the morning was free for me to see the Cairo Museum, then Siad would pick me up back at the hotel and take me through the Islamic and Coptic Christian sections on Cairo before relaxing in Al-Azhar Park, probably the nicest place in Cairo. Similar to visiting the Danish Museum in Copenhagen, it was an incredible feeling to walk through the door and instantly know what objects were. In fact, the first piece I saw, the Narmar Palette, I had touched on in one of my papers focusing on Egyptian cosmetic palettes. As I stood there I found myself nodding along with what the tour guides were explaining to their groups. It really spoke to how much I actually learned in only 8 weeks. I probably wouldn’t have passed other pieces throughout the museum too if I had stayed longer at Oxford and learned how to interpret hieroglyphics. However, most people don’t go to the Cairo Museum for the Narmar Palette, they go to see the Royal Mummies Room and the King Tut exhibit. The only drawback to the Cairo Museum is that camera’s aren’t allowed. This was devastating when I caught a glimpse of King Tut’s famous golden mask. Not wanting another Accademia Gallery fiasco, I didn’t try any funny business with my phone as we had to hand cameras in to the storage room. After this Paul and I got our tickets for the Royal Mummies Room. Although I had no idea who the majority of the mummies were, they did have some very well-known ones, for example, Ramses II. Was it still worth the money? Yes. It was something else seeing firsthand some of the most influential rulers and authorities and how well their bodies were preserved through the mummification process. It was after this that I met up with Siad to see the Islamic and Coptic Christian sections of Cairo. Being a religious man, Siad knew a lot about the various mosques we passed and even informed me that President Obama visited the Al-Sultan Mosque when he visited Cairo. This busy and crowded section of Cairo was followed up by a gated off, quiet, and clean Coptic Christian area. If you don’t know, Coptic Christians were the first Christians ever. Usually associated with Islamic or its ancient god worshipping roots, it’s surprising to see how similar the churches and cemeteries are to those one will find back in the US. However, just because you go through a gate to enter this area, doesn’t mean you’ve left all aspects of Cairo behind. If you can believe this, Paul and I actually got asked by a “Tourism Police” officer for money. He gave me directions (which I didn’t even ask for nor did I want) and thought it was worthy of a tip. Absurd. Getting late, we left for Al-Azhar Park. As I previously stated, this park is probably the nicest place in Cairo. Filled with gardens, palm trees, fountains, restaurants, and finally, a great view of Cairo (even if it’s nothing special to look at, you can see the main mosque), it makes for a very relaxing sunset. At about 6:30pm, we returned to the hotel for some koshari and so I could pack for my overnight train to Luxor. When 8:30pm rolled around, Paul and I were brought to the train station and by 10:00pm, we had started our 10 hour ride down the Nile to our last destination of our Excellent Adventure, Luxor.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Paul and Phil, I use to live in Egypt for about six years. Just now I was searching for Mr. Ramadan by chance and found you. Isn't that amazing?!! I believe in what you said that we know the same person. His family was very kind to me when I lived there and I would like to contact him. He is a short man wih black receding hair. He has a shop near the Sphinx and Pyramids in an area called Abu Ghoul (sp??) It would be great if I could contact him and his family to make sure they are ok after all the fighting taking place there now. My email address is If you could forward me any information like a web address, email or telephone number it would be a great blessing. I would truly appreciate it. Thanks.