Sunday, 19 June 2011

Busking in a Brussels Metro Station: The Future and Beyond.

Brussels, I shall dream of thee.
Last year following our return abroad I wrote a final reflective piece on our trip. It's interesting to look back on myself then as the person I was. Sure the trip changed me, but it also influenced an entire year. School, learning French, applying abroad, building my character and self confidence. I'm certain that this trip will ultimately have an equally profound affect upon me in the year to come. I think it already has. Somewhere outside a bar in Brussels I think I made the decision that this is it... that it's time to let go out of all the fears, and inhibitions holding me back- all the reasons I'm staying in the U.S. and find a way, no matter what the risk is- to risk it all and go abroad. I've come back to finish school, and complete my first degree, but when that's over I'm determined to put my American life in storage and go. If it's living in a metro station busking and singing 80's television theme songs for change- then so be it. Life's too short to worry about consequences when the reward is so much greater.

In the last 30 days I've driven through 9 states, visited 10, went to 4 different countries, several continents, and traveled about 30,000 miles in total. I've seen a lot, done a lot, felt a lot- and I've never been more sure of what I want to do... and it's as simple as this... I want to do good. I want to meet as many people as possible, go to as many places I can,and tell as many people as I can find that this thing called "life" is one awesome trip, and to never, ever take it for granted. If we all stop fighting over our petty differences, with our stupid wars, lose our ideologies that demand of us to keep ourselves from loving someone else simply because they're different- perhaps we would all recognize how precious this gift is- how wonderful life can be when we step outside ourselves to be someone else for a moment.

I want to dig wells in Africa for the thirsty, read books to the illiterate in eastern Europe, even perhaps influence a few fellow Americans who all have way to much money and free time and who could be doing these things too. I also want to get back out in my neighborhood and meet our homeless while I'm still here, and get more involved locally. It's not grandiose, or spectacular- but it's simple and as special as the moment you turn around on your international flight from Cairo to London and meet a French speaking Arabic girl and talk to her in French. She couldn't care that I fumble with my words, she's just glad to have a friend... and perhaps one day when she grows up she won't see Americans as the country who brings wars to her neighboring countries, but as me- that one person who played peek-a-boo through the seat back of an airliner.

I think it's appropriate to once again end on the same note as last year with the words of Thomas Wolfe:

He saw now that you can't go home again--not ever. There was no road back.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Almost a victim of Eat, Pray, Love - "There's No Place Like Home."

By day eight Cairo felt firmly apart of us, and we it. We both had a sense that we could both commit to months or years here, but through the looking glass was the life we left behind. Our children, sisters, brothers, friends and parents- a world away in the United States. When we awoke on the final day to the beeping of the cell phone alarm, we showered and went to the front desk of Hotel Juliana where we expected our driver and airport-transfer to be there and waiting for us. What we found was some old man who didn't speak English, had no teeth, and coughed blood into a rag while smoking on a cigarette. While in Egypt, we were informed several times that "smoking is good for your health", however this fine specimen of lung cancer clearly contradicted their advice. In chairs outside of the make-shift office we waited, and waited. Seconds turned into minutes. Then it was ten minutes late, then 15 minutes late. Eventually after thirty minutes, I looked at Shan and she knew it was time to go. Now if someone had told us while sitting in our American living room while planning all this that we'd be stranded in Cairo, with no ride, speaking only a tiny bit of Arabic, thirty kilometers away from the airport, with only minutes left till our plane takes off, forced to find a taxi to escape in when you're in a country in which men ignore women- then, we might have been a bit scared. This however wasn't then, it was now, and we weren't those quaint little people any more. What we had become in Cairo was exactly who we needed to be at this very moment, as we silently recognized and engaged our joint mission together. We lifted our packs onto each other's shoulders, tightened the cords and jumped from the third floor landing down the stairway. With each step the dust rose from our shoes, as we cleared the stairwell  and shot into the lobby which was just beginning to fill with the light of Cairo's dawn. There, the security guard was snoring in the corner, a newspaper over his face. We were now running through Garden City, our lungs consuming the air like machines. Quickly we arrived on the corner to the main road leading to Al Tahrir Square. Eventually we began to see cabs, and frantically waved them down. Immediately we were refused, but then another arrived. The cab driver spoke no English and so we resorted to sign language and hand gestures of airplanes along with our minute amount of Arabic to secure a ride for 50 Egyptian Pounds. Success I thought as we wondered if I had just communicated "take me to Libya" by mistake. Worry turned to reassurance as our cab ripped a hole in the Egyptian morning, flying past signs adorned with a symbol of an airplane. We ended up making it exactly on time for our check-in. Shan turned to the gentlemen with cash and tip in hand, and thanked him in Arabic, then told him "good job" in his native language from her sheet of phrases she had written down. The tired and worn driver's face turned to a smile revealing his lack of teeth which also made us smile. In that moment, we weren't some white female tourists, we were beginning to become apart of this world which we came to visit.
Cairo airport is small and sterile. It's also very backwards requiring you to go through metal detectors before checking in. These were perhaps the first metal detectors we had encountered which actually worked in all our visit. Most metal detectors in Cairo are broken and the guards are forced to simply say "beep" when they want to search you. Inside the terminal there's a small coffee bar, and a McDonald's signaling your return back to western civilization. Before we left, we picked up a few souvenirs and then were shepherded into this glass box with no bathrooms or food. There we waited till they bused us out to this humongous British Airway's 777 with its engines on stand-by, ready to gobble up the sky. The seats were cushy, and the craft even had climatization on the tarmac unlike our Egypt Air arrival. It was hard to believe that in five hours we'd be back in London.

 London, I say that like it's a real place, when I'm certain it's just a fantasy world like in Peter Pan which magically appears just for me once a year then disappears like a dream when I return to the States. I knew I had five hours to decide if I was going to tell Shannon our relationship was over and that I would stay behind while she went home and took care of the kids. Another victim of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love? Would I be strong enough to live with that kind of guilt? To give up everything I ever knew for a dream? Perhaps I could talk Shannon into staying with me, and we'd just leave the kids behind an indefinite amount of time with the Grands till we could afford to send for them? That's when I caught the look on Shannon's face out of the corner of my eye and realized I had been saying all this out-loud. "Merde!" I grumbled. Shannon replies with a firm "NO!" "Damn", I think. "What?" the flight attendant says. "Not you",  I retort and cower back into my seat as she hands me my full English breakfast.

I realize now that it was typical sized meal for a normal person, but at that moment it seemed as though the proportions were huge compared to our meals of the past four days in Cairo. Eggs, sausage, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, biscuits, muffin, water, juice, tea. I felt like a starving refugee from Northern Africa who had been given entry in to an American all-you-can-eat buffet. Surely no normal person eats all this. It was good too. No probably not, but British Airplane food was as perfect as you could have ever gotten at that moment. I wouldn't have traded it for anything in the world.

When we landed at Heathrow we swapped terminals, and was surprised that the spanking new terminal 5 didn't have air-bridges to ferry us into the terminal. (Maybe they just don't like people from Cairo?) Eventually we made it to an old familiar place: the American Airlines terminal. There we picked up some Mars bars, a Doctor Who magazine for Chance and some Hob Nobs. Eventually we made our way onto another 777. It had already felt like we'd been travelling all day, and now we had another 7.5 hour flight, a subway journey across New York, and finally another 2.5 hour flight into North Carolina. Shan made friends with some girls from Italy on the flight, and I grabbed a pen and starting writing on my tray table place mat something that I eventually titled "Sheep Under The Sea". A collection of things I learned abroad that was heavily influenced by our friend Jeremie's French accented English as he tried to say "ship under the sea" holding a Belgian beer. I think the title is fitting, and the best part was it seemed to cure my writer's block. Words just poured from my hand, and for the next eight hours I wrote on every piece of paper, styrofoam and napkin I could find.

When we arrived in New York, we went through passport control where a gorgeous New York officer breaks out his text-book immigration probe question: "What did you like better, Cairo or Brussels?" and I quickly responded with the lie I knew would get us quickly through the red tape: "right now America." He laughed, and said "Yup, there's no place like home!", like some Hollywood script paying homage to the Wizard of Oz. It worked, and we were allowed back into the States where we quickly left the airport, took the air-train, then the subway, then a bus at rush hour and eventually made it to the other NY airport where we waited, and waited, exhausted. When we boarded the final three hour flight to Raleigh we had already been up for almost 24 hours, traveled from Africa to Europe, and half way down the east coast of the North America. I immediately collapsed into my pillow after take-off remembering nothing till touch-down. This from someone who can never sleep on planes. When we arrived in Raleigh we called our shuttle driver and he picked us up to take us to our reservation at the Holiday Inn. We were lucky we didn't have to drive back to our house that night. There in the hotel I wrote some more, we ordered some food and sat perplexed in a room with a television bigger than the entire hotel we had been living out of in Cairo. It was intense acculturation. A bit all too much; as emotional sadness overwhelmed me and my body now on the verge of shutting down, caused me to collapse after a shower. Perhaps we were back, but some part of us didn't completely comeback with us. Assimilation back to America brings forth depression as you're forced to capitulate back into reality. I might have been half dead, but I knew that the hardest part was yet to come and I wasn't looking forward to it.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Cairo in a Hijab - Just an Average American hanging out in Egypt.

Lady liberty in a Hijab
By day seven, North Carolina seemed like a world away, like a dark children's fairy tale. Here in the Middle East we weren't worrying about volcanoes, political scandals, or any other petty western silliness. On Cairo time, things move slower- from one moment to the next and that's how we'd live our final day in Cairo. No plans, no time-tables, no one but ourselves to walk the roads of Egypt and discover it for ourselves. Luckily, a familiar sight, Lady Liberty in a hijab was there to help guide us.

Whether it be London, Paris, or even Cairo the best way to experience a foreign place is to get lost in it. Forced to find your way back, while you discover the often less touristy, hidden versions of these cities. My grandfather used to say you never were really lost as long as you were on a road. I guess that's true, but it's also likely it was merely his excuse for not pulling over and asking for directions. Losing yourself is as easy as heading down to the Nile and crossing a bridge, and that's just what we did. We passed a statue reminiscent of the those that the American media shows toppled over indicating unrest in the Middle-East. Whomever this statue was, he pointed towards Cairo untouched unlike similar idols of the former president. We then walked over to the Cairo Tower which loomed in his background rising to the heavens.

Cairo Tower
There were some nice parks we'd had loved to enter, but required an admission fee. Everything costs in Cairo- something that seems self defeating for a tourist country on the mend, but then it also prevents beggars and the people who wish to damage such places. I hope to come back some day when the "new" Cairo has had time to crawl out from under the oppression of Moubarak and to see a more open and free city. However we felt it better to see the alleyways than the groomed gardens. Some abandoned, some filled with men who stare at your blonde hair, and western girth as if they wanted to make both love to you and slice you for bacon. I can say in truth that it became a bit too much at one point as the groping and touching became overwhelming in certain parts of Cairo. So on this day, I approached each turn with a certain level of caution that Shannon, whose darker complexion allowed her not to adhere to. In the end, except for a few stares... our journey was rather uneventful.

Pay to see "pretty" Cairo and its gardens.
The heat sneaks up on you in Cairo, it floods the streets like a river, flowing between the abandoned buildings, and shines through the broken out windows and doors. A simple short bridge seems to go on forever as you begin to cross it and become parched of thirst.

You begin to sweat so much that larger than normal salt crystals form on your face till you take on the appearance of white sand paper. The water bottles are now empty as you start to run out of breath. It's the first signs of heat exhaustion.
Free Cairo.

Half way back to Tahrir square with my head now ringing I suddenly begin to hear country music. Is this what it's like when you die? You get groped by Muslim men listening to country music? But Shannon insists she hears it too, wait, "what's that?", I'm not feeling that ill yet, "Is that a mirage?". There in the middle of the Nile is a boat, a boat playing country music, and it is advertising "Lady's Hour - Everything 1/2 price!". I check the time on my phone, add six hour and realize "Lady's Hour" is going on at this very moment and has unlimited free refills. " I couldn't have cared if it was a culture clash or not... we were going to Chili's!
Not a mirage: Chili'

After about thirty or so free Coca Colas, and the manager arriving at our table worried about my tomato red, salt crusted face asking "is the A/C" okay", we were finally able to take in the beauty of the Nile. It actually was quite nice as we listened to Garth Brooks watching the fisherman outside the window. At one pointed I started singing the lyrics then realized the kitchen staff was staring on. You'd pay $150 a plate in the U.S. for a restaurant on the river, but here it was insanely cheap. Dinner on the Nile? Who cares if it's Chili's? It's still a unique, surprisingly different experience than its western counterpart.

After our Oasis of refreshment tour on the Nile and bankrupting Chili's we headed back to Tahrir Square. Then back down to the hostel before venturing out again later that night. We knew our time in Cairo was coming to a close and we wanted to leave without remorse. So we garnished every bit of gumption in ourselves and entered the local Arabic only corner market to buy some local treats and then shot over to a local back street Kashuri vendor.
Yep that's right. No American menus, and no help from anyone else. We did the real Egypt, the real food, with real people, and we knew we were leaving without regrets. We had redeemed ourselves, and gotten to experience a side of Egypt I imagine many tourists don't. Dirty floors, family filled tables, and when we made that last minute decision to walk in to that little Kashuri restaurant on the corner of the street- I think we might have impressed the workers there, that two naive looking white American girls would be willing to walk in and try some traditional food, something important to them. We changed the rules, it was now a journey with no man required. Perhaps in that single instance we birthed a meme that might spread throughout Egypt, one in which the fat, white, American women aren't always considered as ignorant, or lazy as the Middle-East has seen us in the past. Who knows, we may have just changed Cairo.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Tahrir Square and The Cairo Museum - A Revolution of our own

Enjoy the Revolution
It was clear by day six of our journey that not only were we in a midst of a revolution of change, but that our adventure was changing us. Our "tight" pants, which we had debated to even bring were now fitting loosely on our bodies that were now darker than (or redder than) I had seen either of us in ages. My hair had became super bleached and our skin was dry and leather-like in the desert climate. I've come to the conclusion no matter how hard you try to fit in somewhere, the first day you will always look like an outsider- but by the third day- you start to slowly shed something. I'm not saying we completely fit in, but Cairo was clearly beginning to take its affect upon us.

Al-Tahrir Square
One of key reasons for staying at the Juliana Hotel was its closeness to Tahrir Square, the famed town square of Cairo where the January Revolution took place last winter. Only weeks prior to our arrival had the military removed the last of the tanks occupying the streets and changed their military officers back into the white, less intimidating, "street police" uniforms. Despite these changes there still was a feeling among the people and the city that the revolution was on-going. Currently Egypt is in limbo with no-central government. Its military attempts to maintain law and order without appearing they've seized government control as some factions already are suggesting and complain of. There's a constant pressure for the military to demonstrate that Egypt is in the hands of its people, not its military. The hope is come Fall, is that elections will be held and a new democratic Egypt will emerge. It is however a country at a tipping point, and it's clear that the American government would prefer  "The Brothers", a conservative organization of male Islamic fundamentalists, (similar to our own Tea-Party) to never reach power. However rather than seize the government, the Muslim Brotherhood has paid attention to history (perhaps reading Mein Kampf) and have chose to rise to power through the election and will of the people. Despite a very liberal and young Egypt, (average age is 30 in Egypt)  it's likely the "new" Egypt will be led by an older generation with more conservative Islamic values. It certainly makes little to no sense, but apparently if elections were held back in January, the Muslim Brotherhood would be heavily in control of tthe Egyptian government. Yet it was the younger revolutionaries who adhere to a more modern interpretation of Islamic laws and values who were the ones who overthrew the Moubarak and the government. It shall be truly interesting to see how the country goes, and I was so grateful to experience the place, and meet the people of the revolution.
Burned out building behind the Cairo Museum.
Politics aside, Tahrir Square is a land area about the size of a foot-ball field, and it's more of a giant traffic circle. It's the center of everything, much in the way Times Square is in New York. There's travel agents, the antiquities museum, the American University, and several fast foods including KFC, and Hardee's. Yes Hardees. Weird. Yee Haw!

Tahrir like many public spaces in Egypt, or just as well in Europe, are commonly used for recreation. Especially after night-fall when the 95F+ heat subsides, and families congregate to socialize and have dinner (often picnic) in Tahrir or down by the adjacent Nile river. During the day there is some panhandling and begging, but nothing like what occurs out at the Pyramids. I certainly would refer to my previous "guide" to how to handle these situations.

Al-Tahrir Square
It was on day six we grabbed our first full meal in about two days. Previously we had lived off some cheese and chocolates our Belgian friend Christie had gifted us. We were ready to conquer The Cairo Museum adjacent to Al-Tahrir Square. The problem with eating for the first time in two days when you haven't is something in Cairo they call "The Mummies Revenge". I clenched real hard, swallowed my emergency loperamide and hoped for the best as we entered the museum. Unfortunately there was nothing I could do, and Shannon broke out her list of Arabic phrases to approach a woman and ask for the nearest toilet.
One Western Bacon Thickburger Please!
As she pointed to a small door on-top of several flights of steps I let out a whimper hoping my semester of weight training would benefit certain muscles and their ability to hold back disaster. I made it and tossed the attendant a couple Egyptian pounds for about 5 squares of toilet paper. When I landed into the nearest stall, the toilet rocked back on the bolts as I completed my mission of shock and awe to the Cairo water treatment plant. Praise Allah! Now there was the matter of the five squares. I have never been less wasteful with toilet paper in my life. It was like a wrinkled dollar bill in a coke machine to which you unfold every little corner. I was lucky enough to also have a maxi-pad which I shredded into little chunks so I might gain an upper hand on the situation. All I needed was one more wipe and I'd be good to go. That's when I noticed the plastic wrap for the pad. Oh yes I did. Cairo changes you... makes you appreciate toilet paper.
Cairo Museum

Unfortunately they don't allow cameras into the museum. Shan almost went to jail when the military officer believed her GPS was a camera. She tried to explain it's a "map thingy"... which didn't quite translate. Eventually she stood up to the armed officer and said "It's bloody maps!!!", (imitating a Cairo taxi man driving) and they let her through. Cairo changes you... makes you take on armed guards.

The museum is amazing. We paid extra to see the mummy room. It's worth it just for the air conditioning, but even more worth it when you realize you're two inches from Ramses II. You could see he's hair, and toe-nails. Gosh, I hope they take a strand and clone him. It would just blow his mind wouldn't it? He could then come to Cairo and see himself in the museum- how cool would that be?

Egyptian Museum Cafe
After countless dynasties of mummies, hieroglyphics, sarcophagus, and jewelery rooms- right when your mind is about to explode at the realization your in the Museum you always watch on National Geographic Channel, you do what every western money making attraction does and "exit through the gift shop".

While the prices are reasonable, and better yet hassle-free, its very touristy. Once out, there's a small cafe in the back of the museum and a small soda-pop stand for quick Coke. Being dehydrated from the heat and diarrhea- I can say they may have the world's best coke in the world.

On the way back that night we picked up some dinner and drinks to take back to our room. We were starting to get a handle on Cairo... or was it starting to get a handle on us?

Friday, 10 June 2011

Walking in Memphis, Egypt - "But do I really feel the way I feel?"

How Memphis likely looked originally.
I remember a time about 20 years ago driving across the country in an old Mustang with broken out windows and the radio blaring Marc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis". It seemed like the world couldn't get any bigger then, but I never could imagined that some day I'd be walking in another Memphis. One of the oldest cities on earth, home of Ramses II, giants, and a vast capital to the world in a time before gospel, catfish and Elvis.

And I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain

The Memphis Museum in Egypt..
As we stopped at the Museum and walked past the first gate of security, a tourist policeman shadowed us at the window to purchase our tickets. As mentioned before, we felt a sense of relief as the ticket agent was forced under scrutiny to count back the money to us in an accurate manner. We entered a second pair of gates where a single lone vendor promised us cheap cold coca-colas for five Egyptian pounds.. Inside was fairly quiet as we stood in awe of the five story statue of Ramses the II on his back. His legs broken from various attempts to relocate him in the past to Paris or Britain. So great, even modern society could not remove him from Egypt, and therefore modern Memphis decided to build a museum around this giant statue.

This photo depicts the unearthing of the Ramses II Statue.
If that's not the greatest lawn gnome ever I don't know what is. It's hard to grasp the size of the statue from our photos- but let's just say it's massive. Then try imagine the fact that when it was carved it was done so from a single piece of rock, placed into a vertical position, and its details carved with a precise perfection that permitted no room for mistakes. It's a phenomenal feat of talent and art and that is before you realize how old it is.

Memphis itself is mentioned in many ancient texts. It's a feeling of something "biblical", "wrath of god" type stuff to quote Ghostbusters. It makes you feel small, it makes you question how much truth is in fairy tales, and what kind of world used to exist. I'm reminded by this in the Cairo Museum the next day as I see Egyptian statues of dragons. Dragons?

1200 B.C. Wow!
Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes...
The dead rising from the grave!
Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!

Though all that remains of this once great time in mankind's history is kept here in this mostly out-door museum with relics being scattered throughout the adjacent area. Even the massive statue of Ramses is housed in more of a canopied picnic shelter than a real indoor structure. I suspect with regime change and a proper tourism department these facilities could be properly improved to rightfully protect the relics, if Egypt manages to elect the proper person come this fall. It's sad to think the majority of these pieces sit outside in a garden unprotected from the elements. To think about what effort went into creating all this, and that modern man doesn't even have the desire to toss a building up around them and air condition them (for their sake not the tourists) seems a tad bit backwards, if not ironic.

The one thing you may be interested is in Memphis is that there is one of many doorways to the afterlife. Unfortunately its closed at the moment and protected with plexiglass... so you may want to find another one.

Not actual size. Or maybe not?
Again it takes some difficulty to wrap your head around this place. For instance this sign (above-left) indicating this statue is of the 19th dynasty or 1200 BC left us in awe. Think about that. 1200 years before Christ. It's 2011. That's 3200 some years ago. It's just mind blowing to me.

I just find it so interesting that here in America we've created a museum to Noah's Ark, which despite your personal beliefs, the "museum" contains no actual physical  bits of history at all on display. Yet Egyptian history, the physical history of ancient mankind such as what's in Egypt, remains in some remote suburb of Cairo and continues to be destroyed by the elements. Men bathing in sewer-water in canals of trash around the greatest empire in human history but in Paris sits the Mona Lisa. It's just kind of funny what we as humans choose to cherish. If I had to guess as to why the ancient Egyptians would have chosen to carve their lives in stone rather than paper, to build pyramids as vaults to their culture then I think, I hope that, most people would agree it was for preservation- to save something important- yet the irony of which their descendants, you and me- the people of Egypt neglect and overlook this great ark of history is tragic. I find it odd that most Americans will never see this stuff, many too intimidated to go, yet they expect to participate in a world built on the backs of this history. It's rather quite tragic.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Saqqara Burial Grounds - Egypt

The famed step Pyramid.
Ask the average person if they want to roam around a room that once was filled with dead bodies or run their hands across coffins in the cemeteries and I imagine their answer would be "no". Of course we don't see Saqqara (also spelled Sakkara) to be as foul as we do modern death. The bodies are gone, the stench of death far removed, and all that remains are the ruins of a time in mankind's history we have difficulty relating to. Remember that as your precious little Nike trainers trample over the final resting place of some mankind's earliest modern ancestors.
A current excavation

Of course I'm not normal, and I admit I enjoy imagining flesh and decomposing bodies laying on the mummification tables, the smell of spice and candle to cover the smell of death. I want to crawl into a sarcophagus and lay upon the quartz entombment whose smooth surface has eroded away from the acidic levels of decomposing material placed in it with its king or queen. Not out of fetish, just human curiosity.

"Ok turn around now Shan.... SURPRISE!"
Saqqara unlike the Great Pyramids we visited earlier in the day was slightly further from the city preventing a the large work-force of day-jobbing peasants to beg. There were of course a few, of a different variety though. Berber desert dwellers who live in nomad camps just out of sight of the pyramids commute in by camel or foot to earn tips telling made up stories about the burial chambers and the Step pyramid. Luckily we had grown smarter by this point and managed to find some solace just outside of a current excavation of the Step pyramid. For the first time we joked and played around taking candid photos of one another and taking in the wonder of the ancient world.

Shannon clearly can read Ancient Egyptian.
The thing to remind yourself as your roam Saqqara is that the next time you visit even less will be there. Once a complex of massive statures and pristine buildings, many monuments have been moved to museums both in Cairo and the western world. Some damaged in the process, and then there were the countless pirates, pillagers, and simple tourists who carve the walls, crack the rocks or thieve a bit of history over time. While it's still overwhelming what remains, it helps to arrive with a perspective and imagination of how amazing this place would have looked thousands of years ago.

Saqqara is probably the closest you will come to that westernized feel of romanticized Egypt. Private nooks to get lost in, treasures around the corners in the ruins and a bit of quietness as your contemplate why you never went to school to become an archaeologist.

There's also a bit of Greek and Roman feel to some of the outer buildings which is common among the later dynasties. It's much more than history or monument- this is where myth, legend, and some of most amazing stories we have to tell today probably begun. It's like looking into space and seeing back in time, the pyramids and more importantly Saqqara allows you to peak back in time over decades, over thousands of years and see the evolution of man- of you, of me- of us.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Tips & Advice from our visit to The Great Pyramids, and Giza Plateau

I realize this is the post everyone has been waiting for. What's worse is I have tons of photos, but to put it all into context is going to be a bit hard. The actual experience was nothing like what we expected, yet in retrospect, every expectation of what the Pyramids themselves are, were, is still all true to us.

You see, I had this image of coming to Cairo, going out to the pyramids (which are way out in the desert) and standing beside them being humbled by the scope and size. (holding hands while humming the Indiana Jones theme song.) I'd try to grasp touching and witnessing something which are thousands of years old. Before Christianity, before Jesus, and before anything else I could possibly imagine. (before time began!!!!) It was supposed to be deep and moving, it was supposed to be spiritual, but it wasn't. Well at least not in the way I romanticized it. Unfortunately the place is covered in beggars and cons who won't leave you alone. Shan quickly became flustered as she managed to create an infinity knot with the two neck-cords of our passport purses in the metal detector and left me to sort it out. It's hard to take it in when people won't just shut up.  Yet somehow, they're still so big and powerful you realize it's still something great you're participating in.

"My friend, my friend..."
If the "new" Egypt is ever to succeed it must do so either by finding some oil, or bar the 7 year old children living in ruins from selling "gifts" 15 feet from their national landmark. Not that you shouldn't go or that I want to take away from this marvellous adventure, it's just unlike anything I've ever experienced. The pyramids are worth this pain and much more, it's just not one single online review mentioned how to handle their sales techniques:

It goes like this:

1. They see white Americans or English being dropped off by taxis.
2. They run up to you and pretend to be a tour guide and ask for your ticket saying "My friend, my friend..."
Never give your ticket to anyone unless they're carrying a gun or official uniform (white)
3. This is when they confirm you're a fat white American by asking you where you're from.
4. If you say America, they'll say "Oh Americans.... nice people.... Welcome to Egypt" If you say somewhere else, anywhere else but say it in English they'll say "Oh the English.... lovely people..... Welcome to Egypt."
"You're from wonderland?... Oh English.... Lovely People"....
5. They then tell you you're beautiful if you're a woman and attempt to dress you with head-dresses they sell, throw you on a camel and ride you off into the desert to demand money.
Never get on the camels! 

On a personal note, if you're blond, they may forgo the sales technique and just want to make you their wife. They love fat girls and blond girls. I was like Paris Hilton there.

6. If they give you a tour, they want to be tipped about 20EP. Say "NO" or better yet DON'T SPEAK ENGLISH- learn or pretend to speak French, German, or even Klingon and they'll go away!
7. They are not your friend. You can't "connect" with them. Get mean, get rude, and when they tell you it's free- They're lying! NOTHING IS FREE!

Note: In fact I started to figure out the whole "don't speak English thing" when I simply started saying "no, no" in a French accent and they went away. (No with accent is universal around the world as "leave me the ___ alone") See they can't speak anything but English and Arabic, (a few speak Spanish) so they can't sell, or talk you into things. Don't respond with looks just pretend like they're not even there and speak in another language. If you can't speak another language pretend you're deaf.

NOTE: If they get your ticket, you can't go into the other pyramids, and they "GET YOU and YOUR MONEY". Don't hand anyone your ticket, your camera, or anything you remotely cherish to anyone. Despite the fact some of them are genuinely sneaky saying they're on "salary" with the pyramids, they're  LYING!

NOTE: Don't be scared of the white clothed military people: the tourist police... they're there to protect you from the cons. Well not protect you, but to prevent you from being stabbed or robbed. Always count your change, and never walk behind some back portion of the pyramid without a tourist policeman shadowing you.

Side Note: We thought by learning some Arabic it might help... it doesn't. Don't respond to them. Though it does make them laugh. "Ha, ha... the white girl said la shokran to you in Arabic Ahmed!!!" (they then fell to the pyramid floor laughing.)

Side Note: Some will even come up to you pretending to be teachers or archaeologists, and not like the "others".... it's a lie! They think you're stupid.

Descending into the burial chamber is frightening.
So if I knew all this prior to going, it would have made the process easier. Being I didn't it was a learning curve enough to make you start puppy throwing the seven year old children selling souvenirs. Also I'm sure it's easier if you have a man with you. A wrestler to make "Hulk Hogan threatening" faces at the persistent salesmen.

While it's possible the true explanation may or may not border on science fiction the one thing I can say without a doubt is that there's more history, and more than we understand about the Giza Plateau and the pyramids than meets the eyes. I mean, if these people were so smart that they could create precision cut bricks that must weight tons, then align them perfectly with the stars (particular stars at that), design it so it aligns perfectly with other celestial and earthly position points, you'd have to believe it's for something more important than just burying mummies. Intelligence tends to breed less egocentric individuals and less religious people, the two core ideals we associate with our explanation of the pyramids. It's like Stephen Hawkings and Einstein getting together and saying they're Gods, and building something they know that will be around in 10,000 years. On the other hand if I'm wrong, then our current explanation means the pyramids were the biggest waste of human productivity in the history of mankind. Oh well...

I had the opportunity to climb down in a burial chamber. The almost vertical staircase required us to bunch ourselves over into little balls. Once below another 200-300 foot passage way is crossed in a similar bent over position. It's rather scary.

It's tough to take in a the hieroglyphs and sarcophaguses while you're there. The constantly blathering from the quasi-con-man-tour guides whom we royally upset by not paying made it difficult for us to stand there and comprehend. I'm quite sure their explanations were all made up anyways. Yet still, there's so much more. A feeling of hiraeth as you realize someone carved these words into the wall 6,000, 10,000 or 12,000 years ago (or older). Yes I did look for the Stargate.
Shannon looking a bit Indiana Jonesish
The bottom line is Giza, and the Great Pyramid is an awesome, once in a lifetime experience. It's evidence mankind is capable of building some of the greatest, most amazing wonders, and do so in a manner that makes them look like Gods. Then over thousands of years their descendants will pillage and destroy their creation till society resembles what it does today: men in dresses selling Chinese made pyramid paper weights outside the entrance and breaking off a piece of the pyramids to make money from the fat Americans. Bucket list this one baby, because one way or the other it's an experience you'll never forget.

Juliana Hotel - The Cheapest Karma in Cairo

Juliana Hotel
I realize it's unlikely most people my age would choose to stay at a Hostel in Cairo just blocks from Tahrir Square but that's just what I did. Backpacking across Europe, check. $12 a bed hostels, check. I realize it's not for everyone... but don't you want to, just once say you did?

We ended up staying at the Juliana Hotel and Hostel in Cairo Egypt, because of the high recommendations on the Internet. While I was fully prepared to say upon our return, that the hotel offered me exactly everything I expected, on the last day, our hotel reserved and provided arrangements to taxi us to the Cairo airport were either ignored, forgotten, or lost in translation. We were left at 4 AM in the heart of Cairo with no ride to the airport. After a somewhat amazing feat of endless running to Al-Tahrir Square, we somehow brokered a deal with the non-English speaking taxi driver, knowing hardly any Arabic, and using hand gestures to imitate an air-plane taking off. I still wonder was the failure to appear on purpose, or simply a mistake? You may be wondering why I'd even ask such a thing, but I have an odd feeling our predicament was the result of our hesitation to tip our driver on a previous excursion. Being poor students, we felt it was justifiable (this is a hostel after all) if we could wait and see how much money we had on our final day, and offer our driver a lump-sum tip at the end of our visit to thank him. Perhaps he disliked our innovative tipping strategy and chose to teach them two American girls a lesson in Egyptian karma? Or was it simply all a big mistake? Despite this rather unfortunate series of events, prior in the week, our driver did stand in as our man-proxy when local merchants or hucksters attempted to take advantage of our western naiveness, or wouldn't talk to us to us because of being women. We did want to tip him.
The view from the balcony.

The first thing to understand about the Juliana Hotel is that the reviews online are often authored in the Juliana lobby on a computer that "smile happy" Jimmy ("Jimmy?" did his mother hate him?) has set up. Personally, I can't say I'd necessarily give a completely honest review, if those whom I was reviewing are standing over me, or God forbid, necessary for my ride back to the airport. Since no one showed up that morning, we weren't persuaded to make such a obedient review, though I did witness several other victims, I mean guests, during the week who weren't as lucky. As karma would have it,  (and I bet Jimmy never saw this one coming) I just happen to own a website where I can post my unbiased review.
Hannu, our driver through Karma and Cairo.

Egyptian Breakfast.
So now that we got the ugly elephant out in the room and dancing in his pink skirt, let me say for the money, and despite the rather interesting experience at the end- Juliana Hotel is worth every dollar. It may not be what you want but they'll give you what you need. (They should use that as their mantra!) First some advice. If you're going to Cairo and your name isn't Liliane Battencourt, then prepare to fend for yourself. Cairo is a self-reliant place. Your taxi might not show up, people will lie to you, and it's up to you to become capable of getting yourself in and out of situations, and to and from places- even having a backup plan when your first choice fails. A handheld sat-nav (gps) and some basic Arabic are a necessity. If you're rich and staying at a 5-star hotel, touring with armed guards on a mini-bus, you'll have a completely different experience. These two faces of Cairo are for two different kinds of people- the Indiana Jones explorer, and the other... someone who doesn't mind spending tons of money for a faux experience. Egypt is expensive despite its 6:1 exchange rate on the dollar. Egyptians believe all English speakers are from either America and England, and that we're all rich and fat. If you're going to visit Cairo, I highly recommend learning enough French or Spanish (or other language) to communicate with the people in your group; because speaking English is like a giant blinking neon sign above your head that says "I own a Corvette, a five bedroom house, and eat three meals a day -therefore very, very, very rich." Let me clarify, because I certainly don't mean to stereotype, but this was the prevailing opinion I took home from meeting the people of Cairo. As a result, I used more French in Cairo than in Belgium because of this fact. Most less fortunate beggars can't speak French, so if you reply back to their overused "Welcome to Egypt, where are you from?" hook with "Je ne comprends pas" (I don't understand) they quickly go away. (Demographics suck, no?) Say anything in English, and prepare to make a new friend who wants to give you "a gift" for your "gift".

Clearly they don't understand the various meanings of can.
So lets say you decide to stay at Juliana Hotel. You can choose between either a hostel style booking with shared water closet (toilet) and shower, or a private hotel style room. If you go down to the lobby (a cubicle at the end of the hall) at 8 AM each morning, they'll bring you some breakfast consisting of a hard boiled egg, some Olive Garden style bread-sticks and tea or coffee. It may not seem like a lot, but you'll find it's more than adequate as your diet adjusts to the heat and the massive consumption of water. Some mornings it was too much. The Showlet as we dubbed it, is a wet-room shower and toilet combo that requires you to trash your toilet paper rather than flush it. Of course the habit does not change with ease. The rooms are overall clean, though there is some wood rot in the bathroom, and the grouting is rather scary in areas. You'll also likely wake up with mysterious bites from some elusive nocturnal Egyptian insect (or scorpion). The streets are loud, and the call to prayer at three, five and ten, feels like it's being broadcast from your balcony. Then again you get a good air-conditioner and four-hundred channels of television in Arabic all for the price of a happy meal. You really can't complain... plus it's an adventure!
Don't all hotels decorate with tinsel and white boards?

Where the Juliana Hotel really shines is its location. Sure the arm-rails to the stairs are falling in, and the the elevator only goes up, and then only on certain days; but you're two blocks from the Nile River, and less than a half mile from Al-Tahrir square. You can't get more Cairo than this. On the corner of the street is a blue gas station (that you'll become very familiar with) that sells nothing but gas, but across the street, and to the right (the opposite direction of Tahrir) is several authentic Arabic language only Egyptian street food eateries. You're also near the embassies, if that makes you feel any better about a hotel that had tanks parked out front earlier this year. It's also worth pointing out, if you absolutely must eat American, at Tahir Square, there's a Hardees. Yes a bloody Hardees. Nothing says revolution like country music and biscuits.
One Double Bacon Western Cheeseburger Please.

Where Juliana appears to make their money is on the excursions. Three hundred-fifty Egyptian pounds ($70) for an all-day driver who took us around to the pyramids, the Memphis museum, and eventually back to the Juliana Hotel. The bad part is there's several "upsell" destinations (which they don't tell you when you book) with which they stop at along the way, and where you're pressured into everything from camel rides, to papyrus paper paintings, and eventually dinner. Of course this is part of coming to Cairo, but as two poor students who just wanted to see the pyramids, it became a bit overwhelming and monotonous. Eventually, covered in sweat and tired from the day, we skipped the dinner to obtain our own meal once we found it it was 50 EGP a person. While that may seem cheap, (less than $10 a person) you can go around the corner from the hotel, and buy two huge containers of Kushari (true Egyptian street cuisine) for $12 EGP or $2 USD. Juliana, like much of Cairo, will nickel and dime you till you leave their country in poverty, if you don't stand up for yourself and know exactly what you want. Bring a huge bag of Egyptian-pound coins, (and exact change when checking in) and if you're a British or Australian who isn't accustomed to tipping for normal stuff, let alone everything, be prepared!
Was a perfect tasting recipe for Kashuri.

What you'll want most is water. Buy it soon, and buy it often. Take two to three times the money you expect that you'll need, even if you're a poor student staying at a hostel like Juliana. Never say anything in English- especially with regards to you being American. But if you want the adventure of a lifetime, and some amazing stories to tell your grandchildren, then hold your karma close, because there is only one place to stay in Cairo: The Juliana Hotel.