Thursday, March 31, 2011

Walk Like An Egyptian

I know this post is ridiculously overdue, but I figured better late than never! It somehow ended up in my finished pile without ever getting posted. My brother and I had the chance to take a tour in Egypt from December 30 - January 11. We left shortly before the rioting started, which caused many groups to be cancelled. Andy and I were that much more grateful that we were able to take this trip when we did!

The Brandrews Sphinx

My first impression of Egypt was, "Wow, it's COLD!" Coming from weather in the 80's and 90's, Egypt's low 60's winter chill felt downright frigid. Of course I didn't realize QUITE how cold intolerant I'd become until I was happily snuggled under a fluffy comforter, commenting how nice it was that it was finally cold enough to sleep under a blanket, and Andy informed me that it was 70 degrees in our room. Oh....Uh-oh...

Overall my perception of Egypt was radically different from the other group members'. That was to be expected though; my standards coming from West Africa were just a little different than they might have been if I'd come straight from America. Andy mentioned in his blog post that while our group members were exclaiming over the poverty and dirtiness of Cairo and how crazy the drivers were, I was marvelling over the obvious affluence and tame traffic. They were excited over how cheap everything was, while paying more than $2 for a meal felt like highway robbery to me. I woke up in a 6 cedi-a-night hostel in Accra on a pillow that smelled like mildew and went to bed in a glitzy four-start hotel in Cairo. We ate in the hotel restaurant the first night and I don't think I've ever been so flustered. I felt like everyone was staring at the bold pattern on my skirt and my dirty Keens. They had a four-page menu that actually served everything it listed, with prices in the double digits if you converted them to dollars. I was so overwhelmed by that alone that I literally had to put it down and come back to it. I went around our hotel room that first night just touching everything. And the shower, oh the shower! I had my first hot shower in 16 weeks and it was fantastic. Ghana is so hot that I don't miss hot showers, but considering I couldn't feel my toes in Egypt, it was my new best friend.
Billboards. Fast food restaurants. Turn signals. A GRAND PIANO.
Dozens of things I hadn't seen in more than a dozen weeks.
I enjoyed the luxury even as I felt out of place in it.

The hardest part was thinking in terms of dollars again. I stopped converting Ghana cedis to dollars in my head a long time ago because I quickly figured out that if you do, you'll get ripped off. However in the upscale restaurants and boutiques that our tour group was so fond of taking us to (blech), it was practical to check the price in Egyptian pounds against the US dollar equivalent. Every time we bought something, I was working a double conversion in my head: Egyptian pounds divided by 5 for dollars times 1.4 for cedis. And let me tell you I was NOT liking the numbers I was getting, even while incessantly reminding myself that I had to think like an American again.

News Year's Eve day Andy and I tagged on to an optional trip to Alexandria with a small group who was finishing their tour. Although the sites were interesting, I almost enjoyed the 3 hour drive from Cairo to Alexandria more than anything. We were on our way by 6 a.m. and took the desert road. As we left the outskirts of Cairo, I caught my first glimpse of the pyramids, just black silhouettes against the soft pink-gray sky. Once in Alexandria, our stops included old Roman catacombs, a small museum, a Roman theater and a huge column in the ruins of an old temple called Pompey's Pillar- misnamed because of the myth that the politician's severed head was placed on top after his execution. My favorite stop was the Qaitbay Citadel. Of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, the Great Pyramid at Giza is the only one surviving. However the Citadel was built from the blocks of the Alexandria Lighthouse, fished out of the sea after the Lighthouse collapsed from an earthquake. So the castle-like structure is the closest you can come to visiting a second Ancient Wonder.

Qaitbay Citadel

We spent the first day of 2011 wandering around Cairo on our own since our tour didn't start until the 2nd. We chartered a taxi through our hotel and saw the outside of a handful of mosques and were given free reign to explore the small Coptic (Christian) District - with strict instructions to "stay away from those (roadside) shops. They no good. They push you, run into you...Madam. I take you to good shops." Hahaha, our taxi driver knew I was going to be trouble. All throughout our tour I tried to convince people that I live in Ghana, meaning I'm perfectly used to being hustled, pushed, hounded, propositioned and grabbed. But working with rich tourists day after day has conditioned these guys to coddle their customers as much as humanly possible because God forbid I should breathe the same air as the common Egyptian. So after exploring St. George's Cathedral, I bought a thick wool shawl on the sly from one of the road vendors, suspecting that the "good" shops our driver planned to take us to were more accurately "expensive" shops. And I was exactly right. A papyrus art gallery, a perfumery, a jeweller...gorgeous and definitely a waste of time. I would have to get a second mortgage on the house I don't have to buy anything from those places.

Ramses II Colossus
The first day of our tour took us to Memphis to see a relatively small alabaster statue of a sphinx and the Ramses II Colossus, once 12 meters high but now missing the last 3 meters of his legs, poor guy.
At Saqqara we saw a handful of small pyramids, most notably the Step Pyramid, before heading off to the big dogs: Giza.
In the middle of the bursting Cairo metropolis of 20 million, three colossal pyramids overshadow the crumbling apartment buildings and sleek business centers.

Great Pyramid
The Pyramids at Giza are...there aren't words. I'm simply awestruck by the things humans are capable of. The inside of the Great Pyramid was nothing like I'd imagined. Although certainly I realized that the grandly decorated maze of passageways full of booby traps and trick doors that Hollywood portrays was unrealistic, that's still what I had in my head. What I encountered was a steeply sloped tunnel 90 cm wide by 100 cm tall, packed with two lanes of people. An eternity of creeping uphill through the massive granite blocks at a crouch brought us into the burial chamber. A dimly lit room with nothing but a built-in sarcophagus the size of a small car. Nothing to impress the eye, but thrilling to the mind. I walked through a manmade mountain, built nearly 5,000 years ago by 20 million pairs of hands. Back in the fresh air, we were given nearly an hour to marvel before driving a short distance away to see the Sphinx. Not surprisingly, I found something incredibly moving about the sight of the Sphinx standing guard in front of the pyramids. He faces modern Cairo, almost as if he's warning it to stay away. How could I not be fascinated? All the sites we saw in Egypt were amazing testaments to human achievement, which draws a distinctly different reaction than a natural wonder.

We took the sleeper train to arrive in Aswan on the morning of the 3rd, where we toured the Unfinished Obelisk, the High Dam and a lotus-shaped monument built by the Russians in the '60's. We took a short motorboat ride to the island temple of Philae, a picturesque site of worship for Isis, the mother goddess. That afternoon we were introduced to the luxurious cruise ship M/S Norma, our home for the next three days. After lunch we went to Kitchener's Island to see the botanical gardens- an unimpressive place in January- and take a feluca (a traditional sailboat) ride. 

Aswan at night

January 4th was set aside for an optional trip to Abu Simbel, one of Egypt's most popular attractions after the pyramids. But at a steep $250 per person, Andy and I opted to wander Aswan on our own instead. We hired a horse-drawn carriage to take us through some of the back streets. For the second time in our trip, I hid my blond hair under a headscarf and savored the rare opportunity to escape my role as a stereotypical tourist. Admittedly Egypt is a very difficult country to visit independently and our trip was greatly improved by the involvement of a professional tour group, but being catered to like that nonetheless made me uncomfortable. That night we saw the Kom Ombo temple, dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek and the falcon god Horus, dramatically lit up at night.

Sailing through the night brought us to Horus' temple at Edfu, the temple that has remained the most intact, and then on to Luxor.

January 6th (Epiphany!) we went to the Valley of the Kings outside Luxor. A seemingly drab, lifeless valley, this was hands down one of my favorite stops. 61 of the 62 tombs had already been emptied by grave robbers by the time modern archeologists unearthed them- the exception of course being King Tutankhamun's. The thing that struck me about Valley of the Kings was that, since they are underground, the paint on the carvings has survived. The sight of Anubis' striking black jackal face, Horus' regal blue feathers and Amun-Ra's rather amusing green-blue skin brought the history to life for me in a way that none of the other temples did. It finally hit me that I was seeing the things I've been learning about in history books in school my whole life. What 3rd grader doesn't know King Tut? I mean, c'mon- VALLEY OF THE KINGS...! On the other side of the mountain is Hatshepsut's temple, built by one of Egypt's female pharaohs. Our day ended with a visit to Karnak. At 300 acres it's the largest temple and used to employ 81 thousand people. Crazy, huh? It boasts the world's largest hall of columns, where Andy and I wandered for close to an hour with our jaws dragging on the ground. It looks like it should have been built by giants, not ordinary humans without modern equipment.

Hall of Columns at Karnak

The next day we took a short flight back to Cairo and pretty much just bummed around the hotel. January 7th is the Egyptian Christmas, which happened to fall on a Friday- the Muslim holy day. About 10 hours after Andy and I left, a bomb went off outside a church in Alexandria on New Year's Eve, the first terrorist attack Egypt has seen in a decade. Our assumption is that our tour group was concerned about more tension between Muslims and Christians and was trying to keep us out of potential crossfire. We did get out briefly to see the laser light show at Giza though- impressive light effects, but a hilariously outdated script.

The last day of our formal tour took us to the Mohamed Ali Mosque (also known as the Alabaster Mosque), the Hanging Church in the Coptic District and the famed Egypt Museum where we saw the loot from King Tut's tomb among a thousand other interesting artifacts.
It was surprisingly hard to say goodbye to our guide and the five other group members.

It was even harder to say goodbye to Egypt when the time came for Andy and I to go home.
Leaving was a very bittersweet experience. Between having my brother with me and most of the luxuries/ amenities (depending on your point of view) common to American life, I felt like I'd actually gone home in a lot of ways. Sure, the signs were in Arabic and most of the men still wanted to marry me, but it was close enough. Egypt made me homesick in a way I never expected. Suddenly the next five months looked pretty long and part of me wished I was getting on the plane in Accra with Andy the next week.

And yet, as soon as I arrived back in Ghana, the comfortable feeling of returning home sank right into my bones.

I was happy to be back in a place where I speak a passable amount of the native language, as well as a useful form of pidgin English...versus only two words of Arabic and getting confused looks when I told people I would "Go and come, go and come." People responded (positively) when I hissed at them. I didn't have to stress over giving an appropriate tip, and Ghanaian vendors tend to be much less aggressive in regards to prices. And- maybe most importantly- I was WARM!!!
Whirling Dervish performance

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