Saturday, June 28, 2008

cairo: population 20,000,000 and me

This is 3 parts: Cairo, the Egyptian Museum, and pyramids.

--- CAIRO ---

I don't really like big foreign cities. To me, it's like being in Chicago, but I'm lost, I can't read the signs, and I don't know anybody. Guess you could say that about all travel, but I don't know... big cities just aren't my bag. So, yeah. Predictably wasn't exactly in love with Cairo. Two examples of things I don't like:

Taxis here don't use meters (same with India, and SE Asia, for that matter). You just ask a local how much the cab ride should be, flag down a cab, and as you're getting out, give the cabbie that amount. The problem is that Cairenes (that's somehow the term) think foreigners should pay more than Egyptians; just as deeply as we think everyone should pay the same price. Like India, this is institutionalized: sites have vastly different official prices for Egyptians vs. foreigners. I just pay the Egyptian cab fare and let the cabbie get angry. I'm not an ATM.

Lots of folks ask where I'm from, and are very keen on chatting with a real live American. They love my Obama pin; all foreigners seem to love Obama, but the Egyptians especially. A couple have confided that they actually hate Mubarak, but there's not much to do about it. Then always comes the whammy: a subject about which I'm very ambivalent ("ambivalent" does not mean "indifferent," by the way -- sorry, just a pet peeve of mine), but the majority of the Egyptians I've spoken with are neither ambivalent nor indifferent. Here's one conversation at a post office, as best as I can remember:

Hahaha, I don't like Mubarak either! Oh you're American -- and now Mohammed get all serious -- what do you think of Israel? Because I mean, America supports Israel, and it's not fair, and Israel takes all the...

Okay, okay, okay, Mohammed, listen (I've gone over this conversation several times by now). You're right: Israel isn't perfect. And you're right: the Palestinians have gotten the short end of the stick...

Yes, Israel steals from Palestinians and all Arabs, but America loves them.

Look, Mohammed, if you're talking about Gaza and the West Bank, I agree with...

Yes Giza and West Bank and Sinai and all of Israel! It is Palestine, and Israel comes...

(Lots of emphatic interrupting, though Mahmoud, who was in the conversation earlier, is quiet and, when he rarely speaks, agrees with me! Hooray!)

Wait, Mohammed. The Israelis did NOT form Israel. That was the UN.

No, Israelis always want land. Before WWOne.

Before WWOne there were no "Israelis."

Jews, yes. Jews before Israel.

Some did, but not all, Mohammed. And they wanted "a land without a people for a people without a land." It was an idea, but...

Yes. They always wanted land.

Mohammed, you know the second world war, yes? Before the war, there were 9 million Jews in Europe...

Oh no no, I do not like Hitler. I do not think that is right.

Nonono, I know nobody likes Hitler. I'm just saying, in 1945, the remaining Jews had no place to go, and this was...

They can stay in their homes.

No they can't, Mohammed! Their homes were destroyed, their families killed. And people thought Jews were dangerous. So in Germany, in France and Poland and all over Europe, they wanted the Jews out...

And you know why?

Here it goes. One of several antisemetic tirades I've heard here, though his was the most flamboyant. The long, impassioned answer to his rhetorical question started with "Because Jews are trouble." But still, it's not this fanatical screaming antisemetism that you can dismiss as peripheral; no, it's eery, calm, pseudo-logical Jew-hating. It really upsets me. I just deleted a rant on why it upset me so much because, uh, it got ranty. So I'll just repeat: it upsets me, on a lot of levels.

If you walk around Cairo at dusk, all the alleyways are straight out of Arabian Nights, with distant minarets silhoutted against the light blue sky, and thousand-year-old mosques around every corner.

And I love the ninja kittens that sneak into your room when you're in the shower. This one was very surprised that I found her under my bed:

She looked like she'd leave on her own, but wait, what's that...

...and she went back to inspect my shoes.

I love you, little kitten, but I need to sleep, so I must escort you out.

There are kittens everywhere here. That was one of five resident kittens at Hotel Dahab in downtown Cairo.

Alright, it's a new day, let's see the Egyptian Museum (come to think of it, pharaoh didn't like him some Jews, too...).


Now, if you dive the ruins of Alexandria (I dived the ruins of Alexandria! How cool is that?!), you'd think sphinxisesies were all unengraved and headless. The thing is, if any Egyptological artifact is noteworthy, like a sphinx with engravings or, say, a head, it's off to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Okay, maybe some went elsewhere, but most everything that's anything heads straight for Cairo. In books on Ancient Egypt, the Egyptian Museum is built up to nearly mythical proportions. The Narmer Palatte, the royal mummies, King Tut's treasures: just a few of its hundreds of thousands of priceless holdings. Let's go!

Was I... disappointed!

Never have I seen a museum with such inaccessible wonders. You walk in, and it's like you just walked into the service entrance in the back, like you're in the storage section, behind-the-scenes. In a museum, things are displayed, like a piece of pink sashimi held aloft between two chopsticks, all delicate and deliberate and precise. The Egyptian Warehouse is more like slop at the army barracks, all glopped together in unbecoming piles. Everything's too close together, nothing attracts your eye; there is no presentation.

Okay, okay, I could get over poor presentation (no I couldn't...), but here's where the Egyptian I-Hope-You're-An-Expertium really crosses the Line Unforgiveable: NOTHING'S LABELED!!

Nothing is labeled!

You gotta be kidding me. So many wonders, and no information! My kingdom for a label!

I was just dumbfounded, flabbergasted. Here, here's some kind of door-looking-thing, made of some kind of dark stone. It must be 9' tall, 5' wide, and covered in inscriptions. There are a couple figures, maybe gods or something. Ummm, guys, I don't read hieroglyphs. What is this?

I wrote down some labels, verbatim.

"1091 - 1183, 1351 - 1578" for a wall with about 160 small statues.

For an entire display case: "Excavations of the Department of Antiquities at Qatar, North of Faqus."

They're almost all like that.

Unbelievable. Just unbelievable. I remember seeing the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum in London*, and thinking if I were the museum's curator (but in England, they call them "keepers," which is a way cooler title: "the keeper of the British Museum"), anyway, if I were the keeper, I'd return the rock to Egypt. It's the right thing to do, right? But now, after seeing the Egyptian Doesn't-Deserve-One-More-Artifactium, I'd tell 'em they can have it after they get a bigger space and put some LABELS ON THE STUFF! 'Til then, the stone goes nowhere.

* - Egyptology was basically born with Napoleon's conquest of Egypt in 1798. He shlepped over some scholars and stuff and they took records of everything. But in 18 oh something the British defeated the French in some battle, and lots of things Egyptological ended up in British hands.

For all this bashing, though, the collections are spectacular. Or maybe that's why all the bashing and disappointment. The potential of this collection is so in-your-face, so present, that you just keep thinking what a shame it is that it's not in a proper museum. The highlight of the massive collections, for me, was King Tut's stuff.

A little note on King Tutankhamun, because I think it's neat (not that you'd know ANY of this after visiting the "exhibit"). The son of the "rebel pharoah" Akhenaten, who pushed Egypt to near-monothiestic worship of the god Aten, Tut-ankh-amun's original name was Tut-ankh-aten. His reign was short and mostly devoted to improving the public confidence in the whole pharaoh thing; his pops really mucked things up. That's the reason... I'm not sure who did it, so I'll avoid the subject with passive tense. That's the reason Tut-ankh-aten's name was changed to Tut-ankh-amun: to distance himself from his crazy Aten-worshipping Dad; Amun was safe as a traditionally powerful and well-liked god. Tutankhamun died young in 1300BC-ish, and was buried in a magnificent royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

I'd bet dollars to donuts there are still sealed tombs under the sand somewhere, whose inhabitants are right now enjoying 3000+ years of obscurity, but Tutankhamun's is the only royal tomb to be substantially robbed by us. It survived 'til 1922 still sealed (that's 3200 years of good hiding!), when Howard Carter and his team plunked it open. So it's not King Tut that's so famous; it's his bountiful, glittering, untouched royal tomb.

But of course we opened it and took all his stuff and they charge you 50 pounds ($10) if you want to see it. I obviously have mixed feelings on this.

No matter how you slice it, though, Tutankhamun's solid gold funerary mask is badass. I know that's a kinda crass way to put it, but I'm telling you, that's the best word. It's awe-inspiring, like the Taj was, sure. And it's beautiful, but not like a rose. It's beautiful like a puma, or a volcano or something. I don't know; it's just kinda badass.

I thought it would be all dainty and paisy and delicate, but no man. It's big and heavy and gold -- ALL gold, this fat chunk of solid gold -- with these great, great blue stripes all shouting out, and he has a cobra and a vulture on his brow (to hack and spit fire at his enemies, apparently), and falcons on his shoulders. It's just awesome. I want one.

And his innermost coffin is made of solid gold. It's a sight.

So the Egyptian Museum was kinda disappointing (and sorry I couldn't take any photos), but seeing Tut's stuff was worth it. And it's almost just neat to see what happens when you take way too many precious artifacts and jam 'em into a hallway. It's a trainwreck, that's for sure.

--- PYRAMIDS ---

Now, next, obviously, I have to see the pyramids. I mean, every tourist in Egypt, every tourist bar none!, has to go see the pyramids.

And the Egyptians know it, so entrance fees add up really, really quickly. Some are just bizarre: one fee to enter the complex in general, and then seperate fees for each monument within. And then, a very Egyptian thing, there are all sorts of superfluous services rendered solely for the purpose of demanding baksheesh (a small sum of money, like a tip). For example, all tombs are locked, but there's a guy there with a key who opens it for anyone, and then you have to throw him a few pounds. Or these bizarre made-to-be-broken rules like you can only go in this monument every third minute or something, so you and everyone else has to bribe the guard to let you in. Anyway, by the end of the day, I'd dropped about $120, which is a TON for Egypt.

Then again, I didn't just settle for the most famous Giza set. No no, instead I hired my own driver for the day and went to Memphis, Saqqara, Dahshur, and Giza, saw all the great historic pyramids like the Step, Bent, Red, Great(s), and all these auxilliary monuments and statues and tombs and smaller pyramids, and, why not, I saw some of 'em on camelback. So...

The world's briefest history of pyramid-building:

2900BC -> mastaba -> Step -> Bent -> Red -> GREATS (2600BC) -> decline in pyramid-building, possibly reflecting decline in pharaonic power at this time.

The construction of the Step Pyramid is sometimes called the greatest architectural achievement of all time. Wow. The architect, Imhotep, was posthumously diefied, and is possibly more famous than the pharaoh for whom the pyramid was made (Djoser). But I don't know, the guy just stacked a few mastabas atop each other. It's a cool effect, but you can't help thinking, "I could've done that."

step pyramid:..._/______\_

Simple as it is, it's pretty cool-looking. To the right, you see what probably would've happened if I really did try to make a step pyramid.

The coolest part about seeing the Step Pyramid was actually that, despite being 6 miles away and really hazy out, you could see the unmistakeable profile of the Bent Pyramid off on the horizon, with what can only be the Red Pyramid beside it. Heckuva sight. (This view was much clearer than the photo suggests.)

In my head, I was gonna sit there and stare at each pyramid, and try to wrap my head around their antiquity: four thousand seven hundred years! But the shape of a pyramid ensures no shade (the Bent pyramid almost comically, tauntingly so), and the sun is beating, and it's hot. As much as I hate to say it, after 45 minutes, I wanted to get back in the car.

By the way, around the pyramids are some tombs and other neat old things. They're not as photogenic from the outside, but inside (where photos are not allowed), they're covered in 4700-year-old paintings with vibrant colors and all kinds of neatness.

They're still excavating in Saqqara. That's how much sand there is there. The tomb pictured above was found in 1964, and if it weren't for the hole created by grave-robbers, it'd still be tucked away under the sand.

And one last thing before Giza. Every big statue you see here, I swear, every one, is of Ramses the Great. That guy was vain!

Okay, get to Giza and I'm ready for disappointment. Folks warned me: they're not that amazing, they're in front of a Pizza Hut, there are a million trillion touts and tchotchke-hawkers, etc. Um, I don't know what they're all talking about, but mark me down as impressed.

Yup, I'm on a camel.

The sand is really hot and not so easy to trudge through, and what the heck. The 18-year-old guide on horseback next to me was a veritable fountain of false information! Good thing I boned up on my pyramids before coming, or I might have believed that:

The Sphinx's nose was shot off by Napoleon.
Only Khafre's pyramid was initially covered in limestone.
The limestone was taken by Napolean.
They are the oldest pyramids in the world.

None of those are true. The last was particularly good, since I just saw older pyramids (Step, Bent, and Red) earlier that day! Khafre's pyramid, being a generation younger and ten feet smaller than his father's*, isn't the Great Pyramid, but something about it made me like it more.

* - You know Khufu's pyramid was the tallest manmade structure in the world from 2700BC until England's Lincoln Cathedral in 1300AD? That's a loooooong reign!

Sphinxy Winxy was neither as large nor as pretty as I was hoping.

I tried to build my own pyramid, but the blocks at the bottom of the photo here are like, WAY heavier than you think. The big one was gonna be the base, but the medium one was like a million pounds. How did they build those big pyramids?!

One last thing. Tourist attractions attract tourists, some of whom are women who dress more revealingly than the covered women of Egypt, and they in turn attract Egyptian oglers, who sit around tourist hotspots with their camera phones ready, and not-so-slyly take voyeuristic snaps. You see it all the time. Like the guy on the left, ducking down, here.

Okay, ended up a day longer than I wanted in Cairo. There was a Ghana visa botch -- they were not issuing visas due to some "Africa conference" -- so I stayed an extra day for a lady to come back, but still, I have no visa. This could actually be a kinda serious problem, but whatever.

Let's spend a fortune and go diving, huh? To Dahab!

From the Great Sand Sea to the Red Sea, I love me some water. Here's a video from our land-boat, smashing down a big Saharan wave. I sound squealy and childish.


Cam said...

two favorite things:

1. ninja kittens!
2. pic of pyramids from camelback
3. yelping in the landboat

yeah, i know that was three, but i couldn't help it. when are you going to be able to get to ghana? and how much longer is your trip? if memory serves, you only have ghana and morrocco remaining.

Anonymous said...

ucuij1- the videos are great (it's all great)

2-egyptian "warehouse" is a good line

3- how do you know what the "locals" cab fare is?

4- can you please keep your political thoughts about the region to yourself till you get home

daddy said...

the above comment is from daddy and the letters before #1 are an error

Jake Cooper said...

The ninja kitten pics are up, and yeah, I know I yelped. Whatever, I was having fun!

This Ghana thing is actually a problem. I've emailed some embassies and info@ghanaimmigration.something, but so far no responses.

I return 08/08/08. Egypt 'til the 19th, then maybe Ghana 'til the 2nd, then a short jaunt in Morocco.

I know the local cab fare by asking locals, duh!

Everyone wants to know my American opinion on Israel, and I tell 'em the truth. Broadly, I think neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are to blame. It's just a tough situation with strong roots in European antisemetism.

It's 2:13 and I gotta suit up for my 2:30 dive. Woohoo!!

Anonymous said...

When cousin Bobby was asked by Egyptians whether or not he was Egyptian, he responded, "My ancestors were in your construction industry."

How hot is it?

Do you actually tell people you're Jewish? Scary.


P.S. Do not go to Johanessburg. Really dangerous, according to Harold, who should know.

Anonymous said...

You're getting "Gaza" and "Giza" mixed up!!

As always,

Jake Cooper said...

Daddy - congrats on no longer being anonymouse! Ooooh, I like that name: anonymouse.

Mommy -
(1) If it comes up, sure, I tell folks I'm Jewish.
(2) In India, it was HOT like 110 degrees, and here, it's still like 95 degrees, but the killer is how sunny it is. Broiling. So I protect myself under 60 feet of water!
(3) I won't accidentally find myself in Jo-Berg. How would I end up there? Should've taken a left at Albuquerque?
(4) Giza vs. Gaza? Whatever are you talking about ;)

Anonymous said...

When you talked to Mohammud about the West Bank and "Giza." Didn't you mean "Gaza"?

Jeanne said...

Thanks for all the info. You're right, all the guide books really pump the museum up. Is there anything we should definitely do while there?

We're doing 3 days in Cairo (Museum, Islamic Cairo, and pyramids)- overnighter to Luxor (2 days)- day trip to Sinai through Hurghada and ferry over Red Sea- day trip to Petra.

1) Did you like your hotel? What was the fare?
2) What coastal town did you end up staying while in the Sinai?
3) Swimming with dolphins...any suggestions on that?

Love you! the 2nd part of J2

Betty said...

Jake - Well, are you nitrox certified yet? And if you like kittens, you can do no wrong.

Jake Cooper said...

Mom - You're right, but I edited the error (see!). The semicolon-close parenthesis is computer-talk for a wink (imagine rotating it 90 degrees clockwise). But yes, you're right; I messed up.

Betty - I'm nitrox-certified (woowoo!), I logged my 100th dive(woowoo!), and this afternoon I'm heading to a 3-day liveaboard (WOOWOO!)!! Saw a blue-spotted ray yesterday and thought of the WR.

Jeanne -
(1) It might put you in a sour mood to learn you have to pay an extra 100 pounds each to see the royal mummies, but it's worth it. See if you can't get a booklet guide to the museum ahead of time. The hired guides give too much information for my liking. If I had a guide I might've enjoyed it (more?), but when I tried to glom on to some tours-in-progress, I found myself bored.
(2) My hotel in Cairo was the Dahab Hostel downtown (by Midan Talaat Harb), for $5 a night. But given the concrete-box no-A/C rooms and shared toilets of dubious cleanliness, unless you're bent on budget, I'd choose something more... nice. For the cheap options, though, it was acceptable and cheapest.
(3) I'm based in Dahab right now, which, of Hurghada, Sharm, and Dahab, is the most non-diver friendly. It's still basically a dive resort, but Sinai is gorgeous, and there are day trips to Mt. Sinai, the interior, and 2/3-day trips to Petra. (Cheaper to do that one yourself: bus to Nuweiba, ferry to Aqaba, bus to Petra.) Sharm and Hurghada are basically dive-only. I'm heading to Sharm this afternoon to catch my liveaboard. Dahab also has some top-notch snorkeling.
(4) I don't know anything about swimming with dolphins. Can I swim with dolphins?

I'm out of contact for a few days. Love you guys, and of course I'll stay safe. Diving's a funny catch-22; if you think it's safe or think it's dangerous, either way you're wrong.

Jake Cooper said...

Jeanne - I almost forgot: Petra is not really a day-trip from Egypt -- transportation makes that impossible -- so you'll have to sleep in Petra at least one night. Give Petra (including transport) 2 days if you do it military-reconnaisance-style, and 3 days if you relax.

tad said...

So glad to hear that you are having a great time in Egypt. Your infectious excitement is making me really look forward to my time there.
As the monsoon has arrived and the rains are still intermittent, India has cooled down and I have wandered up to the relatively low key Ahmedabad (wonderful city).
Love your kind and understanding treatment of kittens
Hope you had some wonderful diving!
~Tracy (still in India)

Anonymous said...

Hi Jake - I am a distant cousin from the cornfields of West Central Illinois. I was told about your blog from your aunt Cecelia Shea. I decided that maybe I should send a hello along since I check up on your adventures 1-2x/week. I have to say, I am pretty jealous. Nonetheless, I enjoy reading your posts and learning about all the places that I can probably say I won't be seeing anytime soon, if ever. Good for you for being adventurous! The last adventurous thing I did was buy a minivan. :) Take care and enjoy the rest of your travels.
Margie Rhoades
p.s. - When you ask your mom how we are related, tell her I am cousin Joan's daughter and she can probably piece it together for you. :)

Cam said...

liveaboard dive trip... you sound like baron von billionaire! also, you didn't mention that the ninja kittens were so teensy-weensy! can you smuggle one back to the states for leah and me? if you get a chance, that is...

Jake Cooper said...

Tracy - I hope you're getting excited for Egypt, 'cause this place rocks. And after India, you'll be a tout-&-scam pro, so easy peasy. Glad India's cooled off a bit.

Margie - Minivans can be adventurous! Glad you're enjoying the blog, and flattered, too!

Cam - I got a kitten in each pocket, as requested. If I can get 'em past customs, we're golden.