Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Egypt: final days in Cairo and parting thoughts

After getting our fill of Luxor’s heady sights, we hopped a night train back to Cairo. At long last, the great Pyramids! Determined to save a few pounds, we braved the public bus system to get to Giza. A little trickier than it sounds, given that everything’s in Arabic and bus stops aren’t always marked. Happily we made a ‘friend’ en route, Sayed, who wanted to show us the way. We tried to shrug him off, and he scoffed at us for being suspicious. It's always such a tough call with these interactions. We hate to feel suspicious of everyone we meet, but more often than not there is some sort of sales related catch to the encounter. Sayed did indeed lead us to the right bus, and then, of course, to his friend’s ‘Desert Storm’ stable, where we could get a big discount on a a horse and camel tour. Ha! Alas, it was totally worth it, as they conceded quickly and politely to our ‘la shukran/no thanks,’ and we got to stumble through the lawless back streets of Giza---a pungent mix of top-volume Arabic rave music, camels, horses, taxis and firecrackers. Total anarchy.

And in the end, we got conned onto a camel, anyway. In all honesty, we don't even know exactly how it happened. Somehow our 'free gift' headscarves landed us on top for a photo op with demands of $10 for this fabulous opportunity. Kathleen was literally hoisted onto the animal physically, skirt and all. In the end, after some heated negotiations, we got off for about 30 Egyptian pounds. And we had a hard time being mad, because the whole thing was so hysterical. Rest assured that prolonged camel trekking is decidedly not in our future!

The pyramids and Sphinx were just as impressive as we’d hoped. While certainly well-touristed (the line of buses amazed us!), there's a reason for their fame. And that’s saying something, considering the Grateful Dead played there and Eric had high expectations. Our favorite moment was when we offered to take some Saudi Arabians pictures for them. They were so grateful that they wanted to take all of these pictures of themselves with us. Holding hands! Each individually. It was hilarious, and god only knows if we’re now featured on some Saudi website.
Also worth noting is the Solar Barque museum. An enormous full-scale boat built over 3,000 years ago with painstaking detail in the desert with the sole intention of providing safe passage into the afterlife. It’s an amazing work of craftsmanship designed solely to be buried. Hard to fathom.
Our last days in Cairo were spent braving the souk in Islamic Cairo, where the smell of sweat, tobacco, hibiscus tea leaves, and rubbish set the stage for heated negotiations and haggling. We escaped relatively unscathed, save for a backgammon board under our arm. We look forward to playing a hand with you when we return.
As we reflect on our time in Egypt, there’s nothing we would have done differently. Images that capture it for us are: the donkey-drawn cart carrying ice-blocks down a narrow alley. Turbaned men smoking sheesha in every doorway. Women balancing bags on their heads, swathed in black robes and scarves. Lobster-red tourists sweating and fanning themselves (not us, of course!). Fiery bougainvillea providing drops of color in an otherwise dust-coated landscape. The infectious smile of children eager to practice their English.

We were delighted with the warmth and hospitality of the Egyptian people. A good example being the cabbie who couldn’t speak English or read our note, so he flagged down another cabbie who spoke a little English, who then beseeched the help of a veiled woman sitting in the back who spoke fluent English. All of this while moving at top speed down the highway. A fabulous cross-cultural exchange of laughs and sign language. We found that most everyone was eager to help and show their pride in Egypt. They were glad we had come, and they wanted us to go home happy. Even when Eric accidentally stood in the women-only line for ice-cream, he was gently re-directed with many giggles from behind veils. Admittedly, this side of Muslim culture was the most different for us. We rarely got to interact with women, although Kathleen was frequently offered a phamplet on 'Women in Islam'. Had we spoken better Arabic, perhaps we could have gained more insight into this aspect of Egyptian culture.
Next time though, we’ll come in the winter!

1 comment:

Andreea Vaas said...

So many busses near that great pyramid. That's the most realistic pic i saw in a while ;)