Thursday, December 16, 2010

Where the hell am I?

How did I get here?

Driving in a 25 year old Peugeot cab, that smells like raw gasoline, we rumble down a dirt city street past burning piles of garbage, women making bread on the dirt street and a man with four family members on a single 125 cc motorcycle. Since there is no garbage collection in Egypt what do you expect the result to be? Garbage dumped everywhere. Everywhere! Some polite people light it on fire; others just let it slide into the irrigation canal. Pretty. The Nile is polluted, garbage up both sides of it, all along the shores. They don’t even bother to pick up a little around the main dock that tourists use to go for felucca rides. The man on the motorcycle with his family was wearing a plastic construction hard hat, I presume this was for safety but only he had the privilege of a helmet. We pass shops, city policemen with machine guns and a crew of five guys fixing a lamp standard with packing tape. Every few blocks the street has barriers that impede traffic flow. This is for one of two reasons; police check points or to slow traffic for safety. Police are everywhere and heavily armed. Crime is very low and I generally feel safe. In Luxor buildings are six or seven floors high, few are finished on the exterior, money is tight and living space is the priority. Below the buildings are donkeys pulling two wheel carts. They are all the same design, two wheels, flat deck of wood with truck tires. Even though they are obviously all hand built they are remarkably similar. Down an alley could be a market selling fruits and tires or a camel stable complete with camel smells. Our cab stops at the destination, another ancient site. We get to the temple from the cab past an army of pushy, desperate souvenir salesmen and pay our 165 Egyptian pounds for entrance. For a few minutes we gaze at ancient Egyptian wonder until the silence is broken with a “where are you from?” Crap, they found us. More Egyptian nickel and dimers who seem to live inside the ancient sites are trying to ingratiate themselves with a few English words about some dusty stone followed by an open palm. It really ruins most of the experiences. After 8 days of this, I expect it, I would like to say it doesn’t bother me but it does, just for a different reason now. At first it was this culture difference that subconsciously offended me. Now it just annoys me that Egypt can’t sell their Egyptian experience properly. Egypt is rich in history, poor in presentation. I would pay more to avoid the hassle. Everyone would be better off. We don’t frequent gift or souvenir shops because it is too big a hassle. I don’t think anyone has a clue they are driving away all their own precious customers. Fresh meat from the tourist buses sprint in fear past the stalls at the exit gauntlet. We smile; we can see and smell their fear. Noobs! We have had some excellent guides in Egypt. Nice people, even they can see the destruction that the hustle causes but they shrug their collective shoulders, “What can you do?”

That is one side of the coin, the price of seeing Egypt, what about the other. Today I saw the pyramids. I actually stood on the base of the largest pyramid in the world, the only remaining ancient wonder of the world. From our balcony we can see three pyramids lit up by the nightly light show. It is awesome. I have walked in the Valley of the Kings; I stood in King Tut’s tomb. I now know that the Sphinx is much smaller than I expected. We have seen so many ancient temples, statues, sites and hieroglyphics that I cannot receive any more information into my head. The food in Egypt is excellent. This is a big relief to a nagging fear that I wouldn’t eat for 14 days. Egypt is much more Muslim than Turkey is. I mean outwardly Muslim. Arabic script is used primarily and many restaurants and stores sell no alcohol. Muslims in Egypt, and Turkey, are very friendly. Egyptians in general are outgoing and talkative. Tourist areas are the exception. Unfortunately, that’s where we are headed.

Ancient Egyptian treasure is not the only highlight. It surprised me that other highlights turned out to be: the garbage, the pushy vendors, the old cabs and the hustle and bustle of a busy city. If you get into the mindset that it is all one huge show, things get pretty good. For instance pedestrians are everywhere, walking through roundabouts or down the middle of the streets, dressed in black….at night. Did I mention that it is illegal to use your headlights…at night? This is true; our cab driver said it was a 300 Pound fine. The trick it seems is to flash your lights to announce that you are in the area, then a short blast of the horn to announce you are going to go by and then you gun the engine to pass. You are allowed to use headlights out in the country where there are no streetlights. Another difference is the local minibuses. They use the same system as in Turkey. They are minibuses that can hold about 10 people. What happens when you have more than 10? Why you just grab the roof rack and stand on the rear bumper of course. It is completely safe. The buses also drive around with all the doors open. This is fun stuff. Where are you going to find this kind of entertainment in seatbleted, bubble wrapped Canada? Clearly Canada has too many rules. A bus ride anywhere in the city of Luxor cost $0.17 CDN. That’s 17 cents folks! Please pay the driver in advance.


vjlloyd said...

Tom and Holly,
I enjoyed your blogs today so much! Reading them is just like hearing you talk.

Steve said...

Tom, very objective comments. It is quite humorous how after a week in Egypt, you are much more immune to the "hassle" of the people trying to get money from you in one way or another, and that you can recognize that same fear/shock in the newly arriving tourists.

I like to think of this as the separation of tourist versus Traveler. The tourist simply sees things from the bus window and never really engages the culture. The Traveler adjusts and immerses, eventually either accepting or embracing. Bravo!