Sunday, September 7, 2008

Cairo Update

Where to start?
So basically, I’ve done the three things I most wanted to do in Egypt: I’ve been to the Egyptian Museum (all five hours of it, virtually without stopping); I’ve been to the pyramids, some of it on the back of a camel; and I’ve ridden in a felucca, the sail boats that ply the waters of the Nile.
Can I come home now? Just kidding.
Those parts have been wonderful.
Going out to Giza and seeing the pyramids was a surprise. I knew that they were not far outside of Cairo, but they’re literally about a half hour south. In fact, the city has grown around them on three sides (east, west and north), but the south side still just pours out onto the Sahara.
I spent the day with Hamem, the driver who picked me up at the airport. Again, he doesn’t speak much English so I wasn’t always sure where we were headed, except that I knew I could trust him – and he always kept an eye out for me. We would arrive and he dropped me off at the ticket booth, and then told me where he’d pick me up. It was good, for the most part, although I did have a few pangs of guilt when I thought about him having to just sit in the hot car while I waltzed around the pyramids… (BTW, for the day, I paid him 200 Egyptian pounds, which is about $40, and he seemed quite happy with that.)
We first went to the lookout point, along with 6,000 tourist buses, to get a sense of the scale of the Giza pyramids (OK, and to get my picture taken on a camel…). You pay one sort-of-low fee to get into the pyramid site, and then each of the exhibits costs extra (and some of them are quite high!). It costs 50 pounds (or $10) to just get in, and then the individual tombs can cost anywhere from $5 to $20 more, each. Yes, tourism costs do add up in Egypt. Several were closed, so that saved me the agony of having to choose…
What can I say? The pyramids have been here for over 3,000 years, and no one can still understand how or why… and yet they exist. (But did aliens help them!?!?! I couldn’t find anyone who would venture an answer to that, nor do I think they really understood the question.) Since I was on my own, I did what you do: listen in on the other guides. I could find some in English, but more in Spanish, so my bad Spanish helped a bit.
Then there’s the sphinx… It’s just smaller that I thought. I guess it’s that you’ve seen the photos forever, and shot from the front is does look imposing. But in actuality, its size was dwarfed by the nearby pyramids – but please don’t think that I was disappointed in any way. How could I? The cost to get into Giza included the sphinx!
Then we drove to Sahkarra, which is where the earlier pyramid was built, the one that looks like stepping stones. It was built something like 3,5000 years ago, sort of an early part of the learning curve before they figured out how to slope and angle the sides.
On the way back from there, we ran into a horrible traffic jam, which I later found out was because of the rock slide that happened in south Cairo and killed a number of people. We ended up backtracking and going around the bedlam, and made it home safe and sound.
Today (Sunday Sept 7) was spent at the main market in Cairo, called Khan al-Khalili. It took me awhile to find the place, even though it stretches on for many, many blocks. It’s a bit of a labyrinth, and I was warned about the aggressive sales guys. But generally they were pretty light-hearted about their game…. And believe it when I say that it’s obvious they know how to sell, since they’ve been doing it here for centuries! If they ask what you’re looking for and you say “nothing,” they say “come into my shop, I have nothing.” It’s that sort of game. Surprisingly, only a few were aggravatingly aggressive and would call out to you for half a block before they finally got it that you weren’t coming into their store.
They also love to ask “where you from,” so of course I would vary it up. If I said Canada, they invariably would say “Canada Dry,” as in the soft drink. If I said Holland, they’d say “you want some hashish?” knowing full well that no one is selling that in the market.
The market has pretty much anything you’d want, from gold to toilet paper, and about everything in between. Lots of it is similar, redundantly so. But every now and then you spot something different, like some amazing light fixtures that I’d buy if I had any way to get them home for less than a grand. I was a bit surprised to see the sexy lingerie, with feather ruffles even and in wild colors like red and pink. Also, there were many shops selling very fancy, expensive, Western-style wedding dresses. (The local paper here had a huge half page spread on some TV presenters wedding, with women in strapless gowns and all looking very sexy. It’s part of the dichotomy of the Arab world that still perplexes me, as many women on the street wear the robes where you can only see their eyes.)
I was standing at the door of a mosque, and a very nice man motioned for me to come in. I never know if it’s allowed, since some do and some don’t. But this was a very old mosque and evidently it’s allowed. The first thing you notice is how cool it is, from the fans as well as from the ceiling height being so tall, so consequently many guys are just lounging or napping. It was fully carpeted, and everyone has to take off their shoes and either carry them or check them with a gay at the entrance. I was shown the holy room, which somewhat looks like Mecca. Guys would come in, some would kiss each step as they arrived, and many would go around kissing every railing, doorknob and wall, always praying as they go.
After leaving, I tried asking a policeman how much a taxi would cost to get to my metro station. He said 20 pounds, and then asked if I wanted him to get me a taxi. (Clearly, he would’ve gotten a big commission for that…) I said no, because I knew that was way too much. Instead I heard a guy ask a taxi driver to the same metro station, so I asked if I could go with him and he said sure….. and it cost me 2 pounds instead of 20. What you go through to save $3.
Then I walked over to the Nile River, to where I thought there would be some feluccas (the sailboats). It seemed very slow, so I didn’t have to bargain very hard. I ended up paying 50 pounds (or $10) for an hour on the Nile, just me and Captain Helme! He didn’t speak a word of English, except somehow he knew the word “zigzag,” which is exactly the method he used to get us back into port. OK, it wasn’t two days on the Nile at Luxor, but I get the whole gist of what the felucca thing is all about. I major hotels (Four Seasons, Grand Hyatt, Hilton) are all right on the Nile as well.
And now…. Just some random notes on Cairo and Egypt.
• I don’t think I’ve ever seen to many palm trees laden with dates… at least we know where they come from now, just like the olives from Tunisia.
• During Ramadan, the restaurants and cafes are either closed or empty, but by late afternoon, before sunset, you can see people starting to drift in, waiting until it’s official and they can finally eat. If you have family, you generally eat with them, but restaurants do open after dark. There are also places set up that seem to be feeding the homeless (or that’s how it appears, which would make sense since Ramadan is all about giving of yourself to God.)
• One of the primary employers has to be the police departments and the national guard. There are SO many policemen out on duty, sometimes 3-4 at a station, most with guns or rifles, and almost all looking extremely bored.
• I told you that the best and fastest, and free, wifi is at McDonald’s. It’s amazing, and they don’t care how long you stay online. I always buy a coke or an ice cream, although other seems to just come in and use it for free. There is that “McArabia” on the menu that I should try tho… evidently it has garlic sauce and onion.
• Egypt is the economic powerhouse for all of the Arab world, there’s just no way around it. They’re consumers, and export as well, and shopping seems to be a national pastime. But if you want to succeed in the Arab arts, politics, technology, fashion, etc. etc., you must “make it” here in Cairo first.
• Also during Ramadan, there are many special soap operas that show at night, specifically made and geared for that time after dinner when the family is sitting around and looking for something to do. Evidently, many of them either ratchet up the story line, or bring in big name stars during Ramadan, all to capture your interest.
• One thing about Cairo: no two of anything is alike. There’s no cookie cutter aspect, and every car, home, door, street, metro stop, bus and on and on is different from the next. I haven’t been out to the nouveau riche parts of Cairo, with names like West Lake and Le Grande, but I bet you they don’t all look the same. That said, I do wonder if any construction projects get done here, since the vast majority seem to be stalled or abandoned.
• There are women-only cars on the subways here, and they’ll tell the men to get off if you accidentally get on one. (I know!)
• There was an article in the Egypt Times, the English-language daily newspaper that comes with the International Herald Trib, about how one of the leading Muslim clerics has said that good Muslims should not celebrate birthdays. (Not all the clerics agree on this matter, however.) They do celebrate Muhammed’s birthday, but that’s it. The article said that birthdays are a “western innovation” and someone in the article said that birthdays only “remind me that I am closer to death.” But some parents still put on birthday parties for their kids, and that can include clowns, cake and pony rides at vast expense. However, some of the merchants report that it can be hard to get birthday items imported, like balloons and such, and that they can also be hassled by the “religious police.” Eh?? What’s that??
• A fanous is a lantern that is used only during Ramadan, sort of like a multi-colored Christmas lantern. They used to be homemade from tin and glass, but now the Chinese are making and importing them, which upsets some people here.
• Truth be told, I’m not in love with Cairo. It’s vast, sprawling, decaying, dirty (on the verge of filthy) and noisy, and this from a guy who likes big cities. Yes, it has its history — thousands of years of it. And then Omar Sharif… but what after that? I just don’t find the people very friendly, and sometimes even disdainful, sometimes nearly hostile.
(PS: I really did try and post more pix, but I keep getting some error code from Blogger, and I just don't have to figure out what's going wrong. Again, there will be lots of photos to see, someday!)

Enough for one blog! Up next: Alexandria.