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.


December 18, 2011

Cairo continued

SO I have now been out of Cairo for over a month. But don’t worry! I have pictures to remind me of everything!

After Mohammed left, I went to a Cilantro Cafe to meet Ramya. I was slightly disappointed to go to a chain that’s in London, but I was assured it’s where all the students go as it’s near American University and Tahrir. To my surprise, it turns out to be a Cairo-based chain, the first to bring a Western-style espresso cafe to Egypt, and an answer to the ahwas (traditional coffee shops) that serve mostly men. However, it has the now-very non-European custom of indoor smoking. I sat and read and Ramya arrived shortly after. We discovered an adorable sofa that was circular and set into the wall, which seemed to confuse the waiter as he kept thinking we were leaving (it was our third table choice). Eventually Alex showed up as well, and we all had more tea, and then we decided to go to Khan el-Khalili, the street market. Every guide book assures travelers that this is a terrible place, where people will force their products upon you with such vigor that you will throw money at them and run away, so we were prepared for the worst. We still had Isem, so we didn’t have to worry about hiring a taxi; unfortunately, some roads were blocked because of a protest. It wasn’t violent (at that time), but a dude climbed a statue and there was banner-waving and everything. It was right by Groppi’s, which I had read about in The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit – in the 50s it was the hippest joint in town, with fancy pastries and dancing and all that fancy. I heard it is now disappointing and has retained none of its prestigious colonial heritage in the post-colonial age.

We arrived at Khan el-Khalili soon after, and stopped at the first stand to look at general things (ahem, inlaid boxes). The proprietor, Mohammed, very quickly introduced himself. We pretended not to speak English for at least five minutes until we realized that he was not trying to push items on us and just wanted to chat (sales probably being the eventual goal though) and we admitted to being American. He started talking about how much he liked Americans, and how Egypt really needed tourists, and the economy is so bad since the revolution. And what did the revolution do? Nothing. Except scare away tourists.

[the following was written without access to the first few paragraphs, and has been kindly posted by Ruth] :

Khan el-Khalili was emptier than I expected – probably because there were no tourists in it. I appeared to be the only non-Egyptian there, and I guess I didn’t count as I was following along “Egyptians” (Ramya counts as Egyptian since she looks enough like one, apparently; they assume her name is Rania). There is a part of the market for tourists and a part of the market for locals, but it was so big we just wandered around looking at everything. The basic things sold in the market were hookahs, jewellery, scarves, and little model pyramids, but eventually we found a galabiya shop. We hadn’t had any trouble with hassling to that point, but they wouldn’t accept my low offer – I feel like whenever I go to a haggling culture, I always get stuck with the one guy who hates haggling. They offered me tea and I said yes, then we went “upstairs”, which was apparently just the extra five feet below the ceiling with a rickety spiral staircase installed haphazardly. Ramya and Alex started looking at these nice tapestries, talking among ourselves as they were really expensive for the location. We were there for probably 20 minutes, continually asking them to discount things, but to no avail. I finally decided to buy the galabiya I wanted for the “lower” price they’d offered, and when we were leaving they reminded us that we still had not had tea, and the owner sent some kid running to find tea, at which point we escaped.
We went to find a sugar cane juice stand before dinner. The city is full of little juice shops and coffee parlors since 90% of the population doesn’t drink alcohol due to Muslim laws. (Only Copts, or Egyptian Christians, can own liquor shops; I presume there are some Muslims who drink, but not in public.) All the fruit is really fresh, and all grown around Egypt – oranges, guavas, mangos, and cane. Near Luxor there is a big sugar refinery, and most of the land along the river seems devoted to cane. The juice stands have a cane crusher into which they feed a couple stalks, spitting out a grassy-smelling clear liquid. We could even tell which stands had fresher cane based on its grassiness. I think the juice culture is quite refreshing, especially on a hot evening, much more so than a beer (my dislike for beer aside). We also had some kind of warm bread thing with salt and cheese; I can’t remember its name, but they were sold from a little cart for about 50 piastres. For dinner we went to a big restaurant by the road called “India-Orient” that had Casbah-themed décor and had a menu that was – unsurprisingly – Indian food on one side and Middle Eastern food on the other. We ordered a bunch of mezze dishes, all of which were excellent. Afterwards we walked around the market again and got to experience the “hissing”, which is common to all Egypt: instead of saying “coming through!” or “out of the way!” men carrying heavy sacks or pushing carts will go pssssss pssssss psssss psssss. I was almost run over a number of times as I thought someone was talking to a cat, not trying to push through a crowded street.
During our wanderings, I decided I should use the toilet before we left as it’s a long drive back to Maadi, the suburb where Ramya and Alex live. We went back to the restaurant and found it unfortunately closed, so we asked a local-looking guy where we could find a toilet. The word for toilet in Arabic is “hammam” (the same we use to describe a Turkish bath), but the dude misheard us a started flapping his hands at his shoulder. A very confused conversation followed; the Arabic for pigeon is “hamam” and he thought we wanted a restaurant that served it. After recognizing the misunderstanding, he directed us to a pay toilet around a corner and down some steps. Once there, we encountered a little boy who grabbed my arm and pulled me down the stairs, where I was handed off to an old man, who pushed me into the bathroom. I have honestly never been in a more disgusting place that calls itself a public utility. The water on the floor was at least an inch deep in places, and there were a variety of men milling about watching me. The old man pulled me to the last stall, which he opened with an allen key and threw me inside. The toilet had no seat, so I squatted. Then I couldn’t find the flusher – not on the back, not on the wall, not hanging from the ceiling. There was one knob which I decided to turn in the hope that it would produce some water effect: and produce it did. Egyptian toilets are usually fitted with an auto-bidet – usually a small metal pipe sticking up in the direction of one’s seated bum. This is because most Muslim countries wash rather than using toilet paper (which I had  brought myself). Anyway, I was squirted with a stream of hopefully clean water before I could turn it off and unlock my stall door with the allen key. The old man was waiting for me, and he pulled me towards a sink and forced my hands under the tap; he then poured laundry detergent onto my palms and watched as I scrubbed. Cleanliness is very important to Egyptians, and the man next to me was performing his ritual washing. I just wonder why they had to be so rough about it! I tried to walk out, but the man and the boy should their heads and held out their hands. I gave them 1 pound, and they shook their heads. 2 pounds? No. 3 pounds (Egyptian) it cost me for the most terrible bathroom experience in my life. I emerged wet and miserable and seriously questioning the Egyptian toilet industry.
Friday in Cairo was my birthday! We had a particularly late morning, with tea and breads and fruit, and then headed to Old Cairo. For this we had to take the Metro, which I have heard described by a number of people as the only system in Cairo that works exactly as it’s supposed to. We had to take a taxi to the station though, and then bought single-journey tickets for 2 pounds. The trains are clean, modern, and actually come much more frequently than the trains in Athens. They even have womens’ cars for ladies riding alone. Our first stop was the Ben Ezra synagogue, which is kind of in the back of Old Cairo, behind the churches. We got to stop in cute little wooden doorways and tiny convents and go down curving alleyways. The synagogue had three security guards who were just standing around and a metal detector that didn’t work. The inside was fabulous – the entire space was like the inlay boxes from Khan el-Khalili, with mother of pearl inlaid into dark wood in the shapes of Hebrew letters and stars and swirls. No one actually knows when it was built, or if it was a church before, or the extent of the 19th-century renovations. It was the home of the Cairo genizah, or holy papers repository, for at least 800 years; from this we know quite a lot about the medieval Levantine Jewish world. The synagogue is no longer in use, as there are probably less than 100 Jews living in Cairo today. No photos were allowed inside, but the guards decided to be friendly and let us take some of the exterior. They also showed us a palm tree by a well around the back of the building, where supposedly baby Moses was found in the rushes. This is patently untrue as Cairo is an early-medieval city with no history of occupation before the Islamic conquest.
We wandered around Old Cairo for a bit, then decided to see the Citadel. Cairo is the English corruption of Al-Kahira (sp?), which means “the fortress”, after this building. To get there, we walked through a street full of live sheep being prepared for the upcoming festival and then had to take a minibus. The Cairo minibuses are little 1980s Honda death traps on wheels, made to seat 10 with no seatbelts and hardly any remaining bounce in the seats. The way to pick up a minibus is to stand in a place where you think they might be passing and wave your hand. It will then pull over on the side of the highway or wherever and you ask if it’s going in a certain direction. If it is, you can hop on and pay anywhere between 1 and 3 pounds, which you hand forward until it reaches the driver. When you want to stop, you are similarly dropped off and left to fend for yourself on whatever busy street you have to cross. I was always the only non-Egyptian, and I’m pretty sure a woman with small children was giggling at me – what is she doing HERE of all places??? I held on for dear life as we bumped and jolted across the city. Then we got out and took another one. When we got to the Citadel, it was 4:15; although the guidebook said it closes at 5, it didn’t list a last-entry time, which a guard informed us was 4. Seeing how dejected we looked, he let us go up the main gate and take some photos. Around this time the muezzins started going off. We were right in the center of the City of 1000 Muezzins, all calling the city to prayer in a beautiful cacophony. Amid the din we headed back towards Khan el-Khalili to hang out before dinner.
The long walk and the heat and pollution exhausted me, so I decided that we must go into the first cafe, or ahwa, we saw. It wasn’t a big famous one, but it was built in 1927 and still had all of its original décor (slightly in disrepair though). Alex had a coffee, Ramya had a mint tea, and I had a mango juice. The mint tea came with a mint plant in a pot so you could pick the freshest mint. My juice was basically a chilled mango blended up, with no additions (excellent and refreshing). We also had a hookah, and sat around enjoying the full ahwa experience. Afterwards, we caught another minibus to the Metro station. The highway that passes Khan el-Khalili seems to have been placed directly over a two-lane street but at the third-story height, and hurtling through the tall buildings in the dark felt a little like flying through the city.
We went for dinner in a fancy neighborhood called Garden City, where they keep the embassies and nice houses and things. The strange thing was that there was trash dumped in the streets, and some buildings looked recently deserted. I commented that it would be a really beautiful area – large shade trees, wide streets, big white buildings – if it didn’t have the feel of a wartime video game (complete with armed soldiers at the embassies). The restaurant was Lebanese, and it was excellent. We met up with Julia, a college friend of ours who is learning Arabic through a state department grant, and with Alex’s aunt, who lived in New York for a while before moving back to Cairo. We had a bunch of mezze dishes, tabbouleh, fatoush, little spicy sausages, and delicious bread. I learned that Egypt doesn’t really have any Egyptian restaurants – if anyone wants to “eat Egyptian”, they just cook or get little takeout dishes of foul (cooked fava beans) and some kind of fried eggplant. Apparently Alex’s other aunt in Alexandria is an excellent cook. The complaint visitors usually have is that Egyptian food has no spice. This is so, so true. When Egyptians want a fancy meal out, they eat non-Egyptian cuisine. As per birthday custom, dessert with candles was delivered to the table: it was crispy sweet cheese. Although not the usual red velvet cake, it was incredibly delicious.
Afterwards we went home, since we had to wake up early to see the pyramids!