Thursday, January 24, 2008

"The Palestinians left us with nothing. It's true, they are dear to us, but today, they were like locusts." – Jan. 24 BBC quote from an Egyptian

We saw the soldiers out yesterday - lined up, bulletproof vests, rifles, headgear. But everyone else was proceeding as normal – selling produce, begging, crossing streets with briefcases and ties, honking and gesturing, smiling as we ordered koshary. You wouldn't have known that just a few short hours previously a bunch of Muslim Brotherhood members had staged a nonviolent protest in support of the Palestinians breaching the Gaza border to get simple supplies from Egypt, having had electricity and water cut off by Israel, being punished for the isolated actions of a political group. You wouldn't have known that the Egyptian protestors were chased down the streets, arrested, that batons and tear gas were used. We were at Khan-il-Khalili while this was going on, and we came downtown in the aftermath.

Oh, it's nothing, I said to my parents as we crossed Tahrir Square, as we got redirected through the underground Metro tunnel by a few cheerful policemen so that we wouldn’t exit near the Arab League building, as I asked a vest-wearing soldier if we could walk on the sidewalk, as we boarded a boat and took in the strange quiet of the Nile and passed under bridges brim-full of traffic. Probably just the president passing through, I said. Shows you how used to soldiers I’ve become, even when they’re dressed in the accoutrements of riot suppression.

The season of guests is officially over. I slept until 4pm today after an early morning of seeing off my parents as they continue their journey - a few days in London before returning home. They were not at all like locusts, but they are dear to us.

You'll find photos below of our day at the pyramids (Tuesday), which was rainy. I was disappointed at first, thinking how the photos would not show the beautiful blue sky against the structures, but it actually made the pyramids seem more mystical than usual. Also, we managed to see a bunch of those guys who drive the horses and carts go a little nutty - they were racing around the site whipping the hell out of the horses. The tourist police stopped them, and there was arguing, and one guy got his horse taken away. I think it was a slow day at the pyramids, so they figured - hey, why not race?

That day concluded with a visit to the Museum of Antiquities. From the pyramids, we climbed into a cab seeing its last legs and listened to the driver grumble for an hour and spit mucus, deep from his lungs, out the window. He fell asleep in a long moment of stuck traffic. His window wouldn’t go up, and rain and wind dripped in, and the streets, unprepared for rain, puddled with dirty water. Despite what may seem like a complaint, I was thrilled because it felt like true autumn, a season I really miss. My mom, on the other hand, experienced something I have stopped thinking about, which is how when you are in a grimy cab like that one, you feel as if even your lips need a good scrubbing.

The museum is chock-full of stuff from pyramids and tombs, so full that the extras stored in the basement are literally sinking into the ground and will have to be excavated when the museum moves from downtown to the Cairo exurbs. As the rain poured on the building, we saw it dripping on stairs and leaking on ancient statues. The whole place feels outdated, which is charming. It is badly-lit, and many of the typed, yellowing descriptions neglect to identify the time period of the exhibit. The best part of the museum (and I'm counting the beautiful gold sarcophagi of Tut) is the mummified animal exhibit, where you will see a gigantic crocodile and a monster fish, among other animals – birds, dogs, cats, baboons, and even scarab beetles. Honestly, you feel as if Indiana Jones will come around a corner at any moment, particularly on that dank rainy day.

I'm worried that they'll make the new museum too flashy. I'm worried that, in the quest to entertain and indulge waning attention spans, we will lose a musty feeling of discovery, in favor of flashing lights and touch screens and interactivity. I felt that way upon hearing that the Bell Museum in Minneapolis, with its beautiful and under-lit and sometimes misrepresented dioramas, was going to be moved and some of its exhibits thrown out.

Sure, I would like the statues of Ramses to be protected from the leaky ceiling. But I don't need Ramses to speak to me via computer or something. You sense strangeness and greatness in the Museum of Antiquities without either outdated or updated placards. When you have to squint and bend to the floor as you peer into a dark glass case, you feel like maybe you're the first one to notice the badly wrapped foot of one of the mummies in the Fayoum portrait room. Even the better-lit Tut room lacks order – you push and shove past Russians and Japanese to the sarcophagi and have to read small print upside down to understand which of the two in the room held the mummy.

Anyway, enjoy the photos below. The last one is my favorite.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Karen & Gene - Mediterranean Sea - Alexandria

View of the Mediterranean from the Metropole Hotel

Metropole Salon


Little Boy wants his picture - K, A, & J

Fort Qaitbey, site of the Pharos lighthouse, one of the Ancient Wonders of the World

Biblioteca Alexandria - Outer Wall

Biblioteca Alexandria - Karen - planetarium in the distance

Friday, January 18, 2008

My mom and dad are in town! Here's some of what we did today. -A

Bab Zuweila minaret - J & A

Mom & Dad - Al Azhar Park - View of Islamic Cairo

K & A - Al Azhar Park

J, A, & K - Al Azhar Park view of Cities of the Dead

Crow at Al Azhar Park

Monday, January 14, 2008

So, last week we took this cruise from Aswan to Luxor, and it was really magnificent. The first day was spent with the boat docked in Aswan, awaiting the newest influx of cruise guests. We had an early flight, so we got to hang out all day. Aswan is pretty! We walked a bit around town, finding the souk. B & Ad bought saffron, as you can see below. I’m going to refer to Bryan and Adriana as B & Ad to avoid confusion but also because if you put it together it equals “Bad,” which they are, in the way Michael Jackson meant it back in the day.

View from the ship in Aswan

B & Ad haggle for saffron

That afternoon we went on a felucca ride with two young crewmen, one of whom was so high it looked like his eyes were bleeding. But he was very happy. And not shy about it. We’ve discovered that Upper Egypt and the Sinai are a little more…relaxed. Many of the felucca guys were smoking joints the size of their little fingers, and J was offered some “marijuana,” hard emphasis on the “j.” As usual, the felucca ride was beautiful. We stopped at a place called Kitchener’s Island, which has been turned into a botanical garden. Curiously, they were keeping well-fed cats among the precious birds and plants. B and Ad dipped their hands in the Nile and didn’t get bilharzia.

The sun was traveling ever down as we circled Elephantine Island. A boy, paddling a tiny boat with two pieces of cardboard, called out to us. The side of the boat was painted in blue with “BOOB 2008.” We’ll just assume that meant “Boy of the Observant Brain.” He wanted to know where we were from. After he made a few wrong guesses, I said “Amrikka,” and he started singing “Yippy-yi-yay!” as he maneuvered himself to the back of the felucca and clung on. Then he paddled away.

The next day we visited Lake Nasser and Philae Temple. Then we got corralled into a “special” stop at a perfume factory, where we had to listen to some dude present to us every kind of natural perfume they sold and then offer a special price with some bottles thrown in for “only 75 LE,” the kind of bottles you can get at Khan-il-Khalili for 5 LE. It was stinky in there.

Philae Temple

J at Kom Ombo Temple

We saw some beautiful temples set in picturesque places. You could still see spots of color in some of the engravings and imagine how loud and proud these were in their prime. We visited one temple, Kom Ombo, at night, and we had our first experience docking next to about seven other boats and having to walk through the foyer of each one to get to the dock. We began to see how lavish you can get on these cruises, as each foyer got nicer and nicer, with marble floors or chandeliers.

Ours was pretty neat, too. Witness the crocodile that the guy who cleaned our rooms made from our bedcovers and towels. Actually, B & Ad’s was better because he propped B’s sunglasses on its snout.

We also had quite a few glimpses of the toll the 400 cruise ships on this route are taking on the Nile as they spew exhaust, their oily deposits skimming the surface. Regardless, as B commented upon in the last entry, the Nile remains ever blue.

The final stop before Luxor was the Temple of Horus near Esna. We then docked for the rest of the day at Esna, waiting our turn to cross the locks, which we weren’t allowed to do until around midnight, owing to the plethora of cruise ships wanting to pass through. We got to relax on the top of the boat, where a miniscule swimming pool and a bunch of deck chairs were located. Little kids would call out to us – two girls convinced me to give them shampoo, and, when I left the boat to give it to them, they told me how their parents were sleeping and pointed to the sky. It was a well-rehearsed speech. Whether or not it was true is not important. In the meantime, B and Ad ventured out into the town, and B got offered a number of camels for Ad.

That night was the Gallabeya Party on the boat, where guests were pressured to buy gallabeyas, the likes of which I’ve never seen any Egyptian wear, and engage in weird dancing games. J and I hung out and watched the lock approach, glancing back at the sequined men and women. I had been really excited about the process and then I remembered how long it takes. So I went to bed as the gallabeyas danced on.

We got up and checked out nice and early for the final day at Luxor and our last day with the tour guide. He was a nice young man but not too interested in questions or in people’s eyes wandering away from his presentation. He dubbed our group “Isis,” and he would constantly call out this name. It was a little confusing when we were at the Kom Ombo temple at night and Ad and I started following the sound of “Isis” in the distance and found ourselves near a group of entirely different Isis people than we had thought we were with. Whenever our multi-national group congregated, he would shout," Where's the Indian family?" He also kept asking me if I could get a discount for him at the AUC bookstore, and when I said I didn't have that kind of power, he would say, "You have that power?" This actually reflects something about many of my conversations with Egyptian men, in which they only hear what they want to hear (and often J will say the exact same thing and he is completely heard.) I know that's a stereotype, but it's been bugging me lately.

There was a moment on the bus to the Valley of the Kings where the microphone stopped working. B & Ad, J and I, and an older British woman and her son were all sitting in the middle back of the sparsely populated bus. Everybody else was crammed up front. It didn’t matter – the guide didn’t need the microphone – he was pretty loud.

Then came a typical statement from our guide: “Isis, can you hear me? I don’t know if you can hear me!”

“We can hear you,” I called. We had been hearing him for three days.

“Isis, I don’t know if you can hear me!”

Then he tries to get the middle-back people to move closer.

“We can hear you,” said the Brit woman.

Since I am a rule-follower, my muscles twitched, ready to get up. Nobody else was moving, though, not even the nice elderly British woman, who as good as folded her arms and shook her head. I mouthed, “Should we move?” to J, and he gave me a blank face. Ad's face was all: "No can do." And B wouldn't look at me. This went on for a few more uncomfortable moments. Then the guide gave up. I think I am telling this story because it reveals how tired all of us were of being passively-aggressively asked if we were paying attention. Ad, actually, had developed a temporary hatred of the guy. Sometimes we would hiss “Isis!” at each other.

So we pulled into the Valley of the Kings, and I was prepared to be disappointed, if only because I had been looking at ancient Egyptian stuff for days now and it was all beginning to look the same: engravings of people smiting other people, people offering various goods, gods weighing hearts, etc. You feel bad about that, but it’s all part of the overload. It’s like when we went to the Antiquities Museum and everything you’ve ever seen only in small stolen exhibits in other countries was crammed into one place and then some. By the time we got to Tut’s goods, which are lovely, we were kind of over it. Sad but true. And frankly I am at times a little weirded out by all this plundering of tombs and the women with fanny packs who pay to see it.

Back to the Valley – tombs literally carved into a mountain with lengthy chambers. We didn’t see the mummy Tut, who was recently unveiled there. Basically, our guide said we could see it if we wanted to purchase an extra ticket but we probably didn’t want to see it because it was really nasty because Howard Carter didn’t do a real bang-up job preserving the boy king. Honestly, we didn’t care too much. We especially didn’t care whether or not we saw another mummy when we entered the first tomb and observed the full glory of what we could only imagine when we had noted spots of color at the temples. Almost all of the color in these tombs had been preserved, and it was rich, and detailed, and everywhere. This goes down as the most impressive “ancient Egypt” site I’ve seen. The only thing that was ruining the moment for me in that first tomb was the guy behind me unabashedly clicking his camera, click-ed-y-click, so busy taking pictures illegally that there was no way he could be appreciating what we were seeing. In an ancient tomb in Egypt, I shot him my own little follow-the-rules passive-aggressive look. The moment became brighter when the security guy who had been at the entrance came in and took the camera away and deleted every one of the tomb pictures he had taken. Heh-heh. Look! Just look! You don’t need a picture, little mustached man!

WOW. You just have to see it.

After that, we were taken on another “special” trip to a stone factory or something, and I got a free necklace from a guy who said I had pretty eyes and kept asking me where my “husband” was because Egyptian men often become baffled if J and I don’t stay together in one place once they learn we are buddies. I kept pushing the necklace back because I was certain it wasn’t free. In the end, it actually was. Golly. We saw the displaced homes of people who have been in this area forever – there are tombs beneath their homes that the Egyptian government wants to excavate. There was a big story in Life about this. Then to Hatshepsut’s Temple, much of which has been restored, and a literally five minute stop "for photos" at the Colossi of Memnon.

We spent the rest of our Luxor day on the boat relaxing and awaiting our evening flight. I know we should have been out and about and visiting more temples and stuff, but we had experienced a whole lot of hassling, and this wears you down. (After B & Ad left, I decided I needed some time away from Egypt, which involved two days sitting in my apartment watching my satellite and the first season of Huff and speaking no Arabic except every once in a while proclaiming to myself, “Oh, you live in Egypt? I give you special Egyptian price!”)

At one point, some boys in a rowboat with crude oars came up and begged for money, wanting me to throw it over the side. It was an interesting moment because I was only speaking Arabic to them and told them I couldn’t speak English and they couldn’t seem to figure out where I was from, although they were playing a game with me as much as I was playing with them so who knows what they thought. I held up an orange and one of the little boys held out his gallabeya to catch it, and that was that. They made kissy faces and lewd comments and sang as they rowed away, meeting up with a few other boys in boats.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Maybe some stories later, but for now I'm feeling a bit lazy. Below are some choice pics from the visit of Bryan and Adriana, Minnesota friends. So nice to see them!! So, so nice!! All friends: consider coming. I think we had a great time: Islamic Cairo, Al Azhar Park, the tentmakers, Museum of Antiquities, AUC, Sakkara, Dashur, Wissa Wassef Art Centre, Giza pyramids, and a Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor, during which we saw Lake Nasser, the Philae Temple, Kom Ombo, Temple of Horus, Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut Temple, the Collossi of Memnon, and ate a bunch of food. We made them try koshary, which Adriana liked and Bryan didn't, but only because it involved some lentils and chickpeas. We finished the last day bargaining at Khan-il-Khalili.

J, Adriana, and Bryan at Bab Zuweila in Islamic Cairo

Bryan and me at the Great Pyramid

Bryan and Adriana's America's Next Top Model Audition - Pyramids of Giza

View from Philae Temple near Aswan