Thursday, November 8, 2012

Walk like an Egyptian

After our guide explained to us that many souvenir vendors would be targeting us at the pyramids, he ended his talk with, “Now, walk like an Egyptian”.  That phrase he prefaced with, do not give them eye contact, do not speak with them, not even to say no, thank you, especially don’t say thank you, do not take anything they put into your hands, let it drop, rather than touch it.  They are illegal vendors.  We cannot police licensed vendors around the pyramids for they ride in from the desert side with their goods.  I am ashamed to say that the tourist police also want money if you have your picture taken with them.  Negotiate the price for the camel ride before the ride begins.  It may be five Egyptian dollars to get on a camel, but it is 100 Egyptian dollars to get off of that camel.  Nothing is free; do not get your picture taken with them.

David and I spent a 14 hour day together, going to Alexandria, Cairo, the Pryamids of Giza and then on to Saqqara for a lesson on the Architectural Evolution of the Pyramid.  We saw Zoser’s Step Pyramid.  But most importantly to me, David and I stood inside one of the funerary chambers – the one where the body was mummified.  Mohamed Hamdy, our guide, pointed to the hieroglyphs of the wall in front of us, reading them to us – showing us why it is that we can all recognize a hieroglyphic.  The code is the same – the proportions of the legs to the upper torso, the two left legs, the front of an eye on the side profile of the head, the white colour to identify the character as a woman, the red legs to let us know it is a man.  What was amazing to me was the original colour – the red, painted there 2,000 B.C.

“Remember the old song, ‘I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked’”, I said to our group late at night when we gathered in the Oceanview Cafe to rehearse our day together. “I thought about that song when my feet were deep in sand and besides, I had stepped in camel dung, so I knew some of the sand where Jesus walked was going home with me.” 

Greg added, “I thought to myself, I didn’t need to come out as a tourist today.  This is just like Lagos”.  What had powered his remembrance is the garbage on the streets – there for two reasons.  The first is that there is a scandalous corruption charge against the companies who have the contract to pick up the garbage, international companies, so that chasing them down would have to go through International Courts, too heavy a price for the community to pay.  And the second reason, the rural folks who come to Cairo to begin a better life, build shanty towns anywhere, have no overall planning to the placement of their buildings, so there are no streets between the houses, no way to get their garbage and they aren’t used to garbage collection, anyway. Oh, and a third reason.  The garbage men are on strike.  They are paid $200 (Egyptian) a month.  They want $600 a month. The average Egyptian wage is $700. “I agree with them,” said the guide.  Would you want to pick up garbage for $200 a month?

For a while I was taking pictures of the garbage on the streets, because I couldn’t seem to focus on anything else: families walking through it, out on a Sunday stroll with their little children.  Finally, I could feel myself wanting to get out of the bus and start picking it up.  My lifetime would not be enough to pick up all of the trash on the streets.  So strange, to me, to see the elderly fellow ship-cruisers on the bus, trained in their own cultures to take care of the garbage, being so careful on the bus – every tissue and banana peel taken care of, put into plastic bags they  are carrying or into the garbage bins on the bus – and then looking out the window of the bus.  A whole nation throwing their garbage on the streets, it seemed.

The day was amazing.  Our tour guide has his Masters Degree in Egyptology.  He started out strong on the bus, telling us the background of what we were to see, telling us that he had to give us this information to make it meaningful, to let us know why it was important to look at what he would later show us.  He was fantastic.  Mohamed Hamdy,, (+2) 0101384686 should you ever be in Egypt and need a private guide.  I hate to throw away his handout, though I can’t carry along with me all of the paper I collect. I should throw it away for I have studied the handout and now have it  indelibly imprinted into my head, since I studied it so many times yesterday as we drove along.

I started out to tell you about Memphis, probably the first organized capital of the known world, one day experiencing its glory, and now a shanty town, the poorest town you will ever see, our guide told us.  But it was important for us to go there, he said, – to see the quartzite sphinx and the statue that lays down – probably only two of the remnants left from the ancient world there.

I have been thinking about the board game that we used to play in London with Duncan and Alex – the 7 Wonders of the World.  I am going to all of the places where those structures existed and are now gone.  Today I am going to the foundation of the great lighthouse.  As I drive along, I think about playing that game back in London – and now the sights are before me.  The bus driver asked people to call out the names of the 7 wonders of the world.  They could get everyone one but Halicarnassus, Duncan!  I knew you would have been able to tell them.

I am having the best of times.  In the mornings, if there is time to go to Pilates, the instructor ends the session “Namistat”, and then slips into an English translation of the prayer, “We are thankful for this day, for our health, for our family and friends....”  You would know the drill if you do pilates.  The words are also surely in my heart all day ... especially that part about being thankful for health.

I am having so many experiences, wonderful ones that money can buy: the Pyramids of Giza, The Sphinx Papyrus Institute, today Fort Qait Bey (the foundation of the seventh wonder of the world), the Pharos lighthouse, The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Mosque of Abu Al-Abbas Al-Mursil, and today, the Catacombs of Kom Ash-Shuqqafa.  The guide kept pointing out the five-star hotels and restaurants that line the street that circles the bay, Coronation Avenue.  No one on the bus made a sound about our own accommodations which are a five-star boat equipped with five-star beds, food and tomorrow, the five-star sight of the interface of the Suez Canal. 

When the guides opened up the floor for questions today, people wanted to know about the Egyptian economy, about the garbage strike that is crippling the city, about the chances of the new government, the Muslim Brotherhood to really make changes.  I didn’t know how important tourism is to the Egyptian economy, that our boat will pay a one million dollar tariff (Egyptian) to go through the canal tomorrow, that billions of dollars are generated as convoys pass through the canal, but that tourism itself brings in three times into the economy, what travel through the Suez generates.  Now I understand why the police stop the regular city traffic in the morning to let the hundreds of buses full of tourists, out of the port and into the city.  We saw the Monteza Gardens outside of King Farouk’s former palace.

The catacombs and the palace are at different sites.  The straight line between them passes along a canal that borders the poorest side of town, families squatting on the side of the creek, living in make-shift shanties of reeds and cardboard. In the question period, some of the Brits were complaining about the windows in buildings and homes – how they didn’t seem to ever be washed.  I thought to myself, well, I don’t want to see any better out the windows of this bus than I am already seeing for the poverty is heart-wrenching.


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