December 28, 2011

Sudan: That time I accidentally didn’t see the pyramids, and that time I accidentally did

Saturday in Cairo. Ramya and I set out early (early like SEVEN AM, ha) for
the metro and headed towards Giza. Since Alex was staying home to
work, we decided to ride the women’s car. Apparently male children up
to puberty can also ride, as can male beggars, but overall it was
mostly female persons in the car. Since there isn’t a crosstown line
yet (as in Athens for the first 12 years of the Metro)  we had to
ride 20 minutes north and again 20 minutes south on the other line.
However, when we stepped off the train, we were super close to the
pyramids. The city literally goes to within a few kilometers of them.
After struggling to exit the station (as it contained no exit signs)
we found a taxi rank and one insistent driver persuaded us to get into
his cab. Unfortunately, the cab seemed to be parked in, and we waited
while the driver went to find the owner of the other car. Failing
this, he gathered a bunch of his taxi driver friends together and they
pushed the car partly out of the way. However, that cab was also
parked in, so our driver backed us onto the sidewalk, turned the car
around, and maneuvered out through the limited exit space. (I am
continually impressed with the ability of non-US drivers to negotiate
small spaces. We think that because we have big cars we need lots of
room, but this is a complete lie.)

Once out, we headed for the pyramids ( el-ahram in Arabic, but
popularly called the “byramids” due to Arabic’s lack of the p sound),
which were surprisingly another 20-minute highway drive away. Our
driver also didn’t know the name of the stables we were heading to
(the directions included “turn left at the KFC”) so we had to call
them multiple times and have them speak to the driver. Eventually we
made it and were offered tea while we waited for our horses. We had
decided to use this one, FB Stables, as they have a reputation for
being a little bit pricier but actually feeding their horses. We saw
some of the horses from other stables walking around with ribs and hip
bones sticking out, and it was one of the saddest things I’ve ever
seen. They had sores where the saddles rubbed and their coats lacked
luster, and their eyes were exhausted. I’m used to seeing fat,
muscular American horses, and this was pretty shocking. Our horses
were still not fat, but at least they weren’t skin and bones like the
others. (This stable also gives the horses regular malaria treatments
and medical check-ups). We decided to ride down to the Saqqara
pyramids, about three hours south, and then ride back to see the Giza
pyramids later in the day.

It took a while to get used to riding in the sand, but soon we were
galloping through the desert, clenching our bums to stay on. I’m
repeating common knowledge here, but horses are really intelligent
animals and I believe they have emotions and likes and dislikes. And
let me tell you – those horses LOVE running through the desert. It’s
like they were born for it. Our guide, Ashraf, told us that he
completed a 300-mile desert race to Hurghada, which sounds amazing.
Ramya’s horse got a little overexcited at one point and took off
without her agreeing, stopping just long enough to allow her to gently
roll off the side; Ashraf had to chase him down and corner him in a
little grove. Eventually we got to their rest station at Saqqara and
stopped for a little snack, which was delicious bread and white goat
cheese called jibneh. I could have sat and eaten all day, it was so
good. We got a driver to take us to the pyramids and wait there.

Saqqara is an older set of pyramids that the ones at Giza, built
around 3000 BCE. One of them, the step pyramid, is the oldest known
pyramid. It has a statued colonnade leading up to it and then a large
forecourt. The burial chamber was closed, but we could peer down the
large hole to its entrance. We walked up some steps to get a different
angle for photos and saw some camels. Uh-oh, I thought. It’s the
please-ride-my-camel guys. In every Arab country, I feel, there are
men who wait at tourist sites with their camels and try to trick you
into riding their camels and then paying for the privilege. It’s not
that I don’t like camels. I love camels. I think they’re adorable,
with their big eyes and long eyelashes and soft furry feet. I just
hate the extortion of being forced to interact with them by some dude
who won’t take no for an answer. (This happened in Jordan, and
eventually I gave in and rode the camel for 5 dinars.) The man in a
turban approached us. “Please,” he said, “take a picture with my
camel?” No, I replied. I don’t want to take a picture. “Please,” he
continued, “do not be afraid. She is a nice camel.” I don’t think so,
I replied. We wandered over to the edge, facing away from man and
camel, where we could take pictures of a giant triangular pile of mush
that used to be a pyramid. “This the Sahara,” he said. “very big
desert. This Sahara. Take a picture of Sahara with my camel?” We tried
to escape, we really did. But before we knew it he had handed my
camera to his friend and we were sitting on the camel trying to look
happy and oh, the camel was standing up and this man was going to
kidnap us on his camel. The camel sat down and he handed the cameras
back. “Very nice, very nice. Now something for me and my camel?” I
handed him 10 pounds (£1), all I had left. Ramya did the same. “And
something for my friend the cameraman?” What was this now? We had to
pay his friend too? I shook my head. No more money. He held out his
hand in the begging position: “Please, for my friend.” I opened my
wallet to show him, look, I don;t actually have anything else, and we walked away quickly.
More people approached us like this, offering their postcards or their
guiding services. Near the pyramids was a whole complex of noble tombs
with magnificent hieroglyphic inscriptions and drawings, but the whole
experience was marred by men coming up and pointing, “this hieroglyph
for life, this pharaoh as mummy, this pharaoh wife” and expecting to
be paid. We feigned ignorance and claimed not to speak English. The
experience was made slightly better/worse/more amusing when we saw a
pack of tourists being surrounded by a pack of wild dogs in
the parking lot.

Back at the stables, we realized that we could hardly walk and that it
pained us to get back on the horses. Our bums and legs ached with a
fury. We had figured it would take less time to get back since we were
now better riders (compared to that morning), but we were very wrong.
We did take a slightly different route though, because of one detail:
the horse body dump. As we were riding out – not half an hour past the
stables – there came a terrible smell. Suddenly there was garbage
everywhere. In Egypt there are apparently no landfills – trash is
dumped in the desert just outside the city and burned. (Or inside the
city, in the streets.) And our route took us through this dump. After
a minute there was an even worse smell coming from almost the middle
of the trail. It belonged to a large dead horse with its guts spilling
out. I thought it was very sad, perhaps it had just keeled over and
died and the owners couldn’t move it. But then I saw another, and
another. It was like a World War I film or something, all these dead
horses, some reduced to bones and fur and others freshly dead, guts
gone green and exploded everywhere from gas buildup and wild dogs.
It was horrific, carnage everywhere, and clearly our horses were
agitated. Ashraf explained (in Arabic, to Ramya) that the stables in
the valley across the road were not so kind to the horses and took
them out here to die (I’m not sure if he meant to starve or to be
killed), he said sadly. FB stables takes care of their horses into old
age and buries them in the desert, he explained. We asked if we could
go a different route back. So, on the way back, we went a different
way that skirted not only the body dump but also most of the burning
trash! Which really makes me wonder: in a country where so much of the
economy is based on tourism and tourism is currently so low, why show
tourists this? Why not show everything Egypt has to offer, a scenic
desert ride, full of ancient history and free from rotting carcasses?
It was like the poorly cut marble all over again: they have the
capacity to succeed, but not the will.

Anna recently told me a joke: a British man, a Chinese man, and an
Egyptian sign up for an experiment where they are each put into
separate small white rooms with no windows and no furniture and each
given two rubber balls. After three days, the scientists open the
doors to see what they’ve done. The Brit is bouncing his balls at the
wall, Great Escape-style, waiting to be released. The Chinese man is
juggling both balls while standing on his head, practicing some
complicated acrobatic maneuvers. The Egyptian, however, is just
sitting there looking bored (and probably smoking a Cleopatra
cigarette). “Why aren’t you doing anything?” the scientists ask.
“Where are the balls?”
The Egyptian looks at them and shrugs. “One is broken and the other’s
lost,” he says.

After all this, we arrived back at the stables too late to get into
Giza. So I saw it from 500 meters away, from the “party roof deck” of
the stables which was unfinished and had bits of rebar and splintery
wood everywhere. Pictures of me with distant pyramids and of said
party roof deck can be viewed on Facebook.

Now I’m in Sudan, which has its own pyramids. The kingdom of Meroe,
which arose in the 3rd  century BCE, built its own pyramids north of
what is now Khartoum. They look different from the Egyptian ones –
shorter but pointier, as if they’re been shrunk to different aspect
ratio. As we were driving the 8 hours from Khartoum to our little
village, we suddenly looked up and saw some pyramids. In the scheme of
things, we practically tripped over them, they were so close to the
road. Was definitely not expecting that, but I took some nice photos
out the car window. Yesterday we went to see a Kushite cemetery that
had the bases of some small pyramids, but the rest had been robbed
away. These were shoddily constructed, with reused blocks of
sandstone and inexact construction. But still – perhaps the universe
is trying to have me stumble onto a whole bunch of others since I
missed the big ones.

And if you’re interested, I don’t want to ride horses for quite a long
while, as Ramya and I could hardly walk for the next three days! She
had giant blisters where her bare feet rubbed the stirrups, and I had
bruises from each swollen instep up the calf from the stirrup straps.
We hobbled back like two old ladies, but managed to still go out for
dinner and see a display of Whirling Dervishes. More later.



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