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.

Cairo Surprise

Our place in Cairo is surprising in many ways. We are in an apartment on the top floor of a building that overlooks the pyramids. The picture is the view from our terrace. It took our collective breath away when we first stepped out onto the porch. It was night and the sound and light show was playing. The pyramids kept lighting up at different times in dramatic views. It was in a foreign language so we couldn’t understand a word but we plan to watch again tonight for the English showing. We’re going up to the roof to see it. That was the first surprise.

The drive into our neighbourhood elicited a variety of emotions. It was reminiscent of Istanbul with many small shops selling one specific item. We saw the tire store, the hubcap store and so on. The streets are filthy and everything looks as though it is one step away from demolition. We entered an open parking area filled with horses, camels and donkeys and the car slowed down in front of a building. The ground was dirt as one might expect in a barn area. The smell also helped create a barn environment and although it was dark when we stepped out of the car, we walked carefully.

The door was an iron grate that led to a stairwell. We climbed the cold marble-like steps to the top floor of the building with some trepidation. Our host opened the door into a lovely spacious apartment. The apartment does not match the neighbourhood. It is clean and furnished tastefully and comfortably. Quel surprise! When we stepped out onto the terrace, though, that was when we realized why we were here.

The next surprise was that it was difficult to hear our host greeting us as we are very close to a Muslim minaret. The call to prayer seemed to go on and on so I asked. Ashraf told me that a funeral was taking place. Apparently, they broadcast this to the general public. It goes on for about three hours. In one way, it is kind of nice to be recognized in this way. Don’t get any ideas, Mom. While the funeral was a one time occurrence, the call to prayer happens five times a day. The first time is about 5 am. Ask me how I know this.

The call to prayer is not the surprising sound however. It is the geese and chickens that live on the roof next door that are actually a bit more of a shocker. They rise early and have quite a lively breakfast chat. I have yet to get a picture of the lady who cares for the gaggle. She sweeps with what looks like long pieces of straw and carries a basket balanced on her head. I’m not sure if she can do both at the same time but both skills are equally fascinating to me.

Speaking of fascinating things, today in Memphis we saw some children from the public school nearby. They crowded near us, staring and quietly pulling out their cameras to take pictures. It made me smile thinking of how many pictures I have been taking of the Egyptians going about their business when they find me going about my business just as entertaining.

We passed a public school and I just had to have the driver stop so I could take a picture. You can see the kids on the balcony looking out of the stairwell, I think. There are up to 100 children in a classroom and any Egyptian who can afford it sends their kids to a private school. It is the opinion of our guide that the public schools have a difficult time teaching the kids anything with so many in one class. It makes me shudder to think of it.

School here is divided into categories. There is the school for foreigners and very rich Egyptians which costs around $25,000/yr. Thne there is the private school most Egyptian middle class families send their children to, which costs less because it is taught by Egyptian teachers not foreign teachers. Then there is the public school which takes overcrowded to new levels. For the desperately poor, however, there is Carpet school. These are schools set up to give the children a trade. I didn't delve too deeply into this as Iqbal Masih and child slavery kept flashing before my eyes.

On the train yesterday we met a very nice young man named Amir who shared his lunch with us and many stories as well. He is a pharmacist who wants to immigrate to Quebec. Apparently it is easier to immigrate to Quebec than to Canada. Hmm…that takes some thought. Aren’t we all in the same country? At any rate, he told us Canada is the golden land and to get to live and work there is the ultimate goal for any upwardly mobile young Egyptian. It was an interesting look at our country through the eyes of an outsider. He was friendly and entertaining and his mother makes a delicious meatball sandwich.

He shared interesting information about Egypt as we gazed out the train windows. Many buildings look half finished yet people live in them. That is because they can’t afford to finish it all at once. The price of cement is very high so they build one level at a time. The goal is about six levels. This is so that the sons can marry and bring their wives to live in the same house. Eventually, the son and his family will move out to build their own home in the same fashion. Amir couldn’t get over the idea that we didn’t do the same thing in Canada. How can the kids afford to live on their own right away? Isn’t it lonely? It does give one pause to think. I mean, how DO young people afford a house in Vancouver these days?

He also explained about the different headwraps men wear. Each family has their own style of wrap. The picture here shows three different men with three different headwraps. Sometimes the wrap can denote a religious belief as well. I had never really thought about the different wraps before so it was interesting and has made me look closer at the different styles now.

I can’t say that I am comfortable with the fake friendliness of the touts in the streets yet, but I am beginning to love our time in Egypt.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Valley of the Dolls

Today was surprisingly cold. All right, not as cold as Canada, I’ll give you that but it was definitely not hot. The wind choked the heat right out of that big old sunshine. It also brought in a haze which Ramses told us was sand from the desert. This started in the morning and by late afternoon the sun looked more like the moon and the day presented as overcast. The air was filled with dust and the locals had their faces wrapped. Some were watering down the streets to reduce the dust. It made me cough and sneeze and the air had a dusty smell to it, like an attic that hasn’t been cleaned in a while.

We started the day visiting the ladies of the dead valley. Their tombs are separate from the men like the old school dances. Seems a bit weird if you ask me but apparently this was the done thing. Princes, nobles and princesses all had their own spots too. Queen Nefertari, the wife of Ramses II had her tomb here. This is one tired woman. I bet three thousand years of sleep hasn’t caught her up yet. Don’t forget, she had over 200 kids! Her name means “most beautiful of all women”. Yeah, right. Not after 200 kids. Her tomb was closed to the public…

The tombs were interesting and well preserved but we couldn’t take pictures. Again, the helpful guards pointed out pictures and we coughed up the obligatory baksheesh. We do carry the coin but there’s something about being forced to “give” that sucks the fun right out of it.

We went to Medinet Habu after the tombs. This is the last mortuary temple built. It was built for Ramses III. It was pretty impressive. The walls, columns and ceiling were covered in hieroglyphs. Some of the paint was still there and surprise...we were allowed to take pictures! These hieroglyphs look similar to those in the tombs so kind of pretend you know what the rest looked like. Some of these were carved REALLY deep. The deep ones were cartouches and we figured that by Ramses III, they had figured out that the each pharaoh who came along enjoyed defacing the names of prior pharaohs so they better dig really deep if they want the thing to last.

When we got into the hypostyle hall a guard began to drag me into the forbidden areas. I told him I had no money and apologized. He told me it was no problem and continued to lead me around. I reluctantly followed and we took copious quantities of pictures of me in front of various hieroglyphs blocked from public view. Frequently, I reminded him I had no money and resisted following but he insisted. It was actually a great tour and I saw interesting pictures. I even have a picture of me pretending to touch a statue because the guard thought that would be an excellent idea. At the end he launched into the sad story of the many children he has and could I please give him a little something. I reminded him I had no money which was true. He was extremely disappointed and asked me to look in my purse. I offered him my pen but he wasn’t impressed.

The tours of temples and tombs has been really cool but our ride on camels today topped it all. It cost about $30 for the four of us to take a one hour ride and that included a tip that was as much as the price of the ride! It was a lot like riding a horse. The camels were very soft and their feet were soft as well. They don’t have hooves like horses. Their feet are more like calloused skin.

On our ride we went past banana fields, sugar cane fields, mango and lemon trees and a cool little village. We also saw a crocodile-like lizard in the water which was about a metre long. The boys didn’t know what he was called. It’s never good to be on a first name basis with crocodiles. The village, homes and people were fascinating and I thoroughly enjoyed the trip.

They still use animals to plow the field. I haven’t got a picture of the water buffalo but they till the soil, and the farmer walking behind then plants the seeds. As the buffalo walks up the next row, the dirt plowed for the seeds in the last row is dumped back over the seeds and a new row is plowed. In thousands of years, they haven’t found a better way to do this. Interesting. A water buffalo is a very valuable animal to the Egyptians. It can cut their food budget in half. As well as helping farm, it gives milk which can be drank but also makes a yummy butter and cheese.

They use donkeys to carry crops into town and you can see them everywhere along the side of the road. The donkey waits while the farmer cuts the crops by hand. They load up their wagon with the greens and drive in to town or back to the stable. The greens feed the farm animals. Horses don’t seem to be used as widely, probably because they cost more to feed.

Everything about the Egyptian’s lifestyle is so foreign and fascinating. It has been my favourite part of the visit so far.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

And...back to Egypt

Today we went to the Valley of the Kings. Wow! We walked through the Valley of the Kings. We explored several tombs including King Tut’s. It was hot. It was dry. It was strangely normal. Last Saturday we were cross country skiing at the base of the Austrian Alps. Today we stood in the Valley of the Kings. That had me laughing somewhat hysterically at lunch today.

The Valley of the Dead was the driest place I think I may have ever been. The earth around us was composed of hills of stone covered with rubble. The hills were a warm beige and had a parched look about them. There wasn’t soil. There was dust. It coated our feet as we walked and blew in our eyes when the wind picked up. We saw no animals except flies. THEY got in your face and had the annoying persistence of a caleche tout. There wasn’t a green plant in sight. No scrub brush, no tree, no weed, nothing. We saw the remains of what looked like it used to be a plant as we drove out of the valley but within the area, it was, as its name implies, dead.

On our way, we stopped at Howard Carter's house. Howard was the archaeologist who discovered King Tut's tomb. His house is oasis in the middle of the arid rock. It was really neat being there, though, because I have read quite a bit about him and his discovery. Also, his last name comes in handy for interesting pictures.

We arrived around 8:30 in the morning but Ramses told us most of the tour buses arrived around 6 am. The valley wasn’t crowded because the tours mainly come on Friday at the end of their week excursions. Everyone normally arrives and leaves on a Saturday. We paid for our tickets, paid for the train, paid for a guide book, paid for more tickets, paid for water (it comes in bottles in this valley), paid the guards who pointed out little things we might not have noticed. None of it was overly expensive but it nickels and dimes you to death…heh, heh.

The guidebook turned out to be money well spent. It had a map and information about the tombs. There were no descriptions anywhere to describe anything, except for Tut’s tomb. There are over sixty tombs that have been discovered so far but your ticket allows you to see only three. You pay extra to see Ramses VI and Tut. We paid the extra. It is difficult to make a decision on which tombs to visit. Ramses, (the cab driver not the dead king), told us which ones to see but when we got in there none of us could remember his recommendations. The names don’t exactly roll off the tongue. It’s not like he said to go see Fred, Bob and Larry’s tomb.

Most of the names sound very similar because the pharaohs would assume a god’s name as part of their own to symbolize their godlike status. For example, Amun is the leading god in these parts so Tutankhamun and Amenotep both have Amun in them. Akhenaton changed his name to reflect his new belief in one god, the god of the sun, Aton. Akhenaton is the one Joseph visited. Joseph helped him interpret some difficult repeating dreams and saved Egypt from famine so Akhenaton decided to dump the old multiple god beliefs and follow Joseph’s one god theory. This didn’t win Akhenaton any friends and he was murdered some time later. Akhenaton was also married to Nefertiti.

It was wonderful entering the tombs. The entrances varied in length, width and height. One tomb had a metal staircase to climb up into the rock hill and then on entrance, you had to walk down, down, down into the hot stone. Many times you had to duck your head and it must have been quite something trying to get the sarcophagus in there. The tombs were surprisingly hot. I mean sweaty hot. The further in you went, the further it heated up. Only a few had fans inside and that just blew the hot air around. When a new pharaoh was crowned, an architect, chief stonemason and vizier would climb into the valley to select a spot for his tomb. This was a huge honour because only a select few knew the location of the tombs. The artists and craftspeople who designed the tomb’s interiors all lived in a village on the West Bank and did not fraternize with the general populace. Speaking out of turn meant certain death.

They must have discovered the other tombs in their selection process because many are very close together. Ramses VI is right overtop of Tut’s. Actually, Ramses VI is Ramses V/VI because the son decided just to usurp his dad’s tomb and they are buried together. Ramses II’s tomb is interesting as well, though we didn’t get inside of it. He is the one who had over 200 kids and being the family man he was, he had rooms for each of his sons added to his tomb. He’s the only one who did this as far as we could see. It is quite the complex, as you can imagine.

Paintings covered the walls of many entrances but some hadn’t been finished. The paintings showed images of the gods enacting various events from the Book of Gates, Book of Caverns, Book of Heavens, Book of Dead and so on. Well read bunch. Many of the paintings were not in very good condition but it HAS been three thousand years or so. One of my favourite paintings was the ceiling of the tomb in Ramses V/VI burial chamber. It showed Nut, goddess of the earth and sky covering the heavens.

We left the Valley of the Kings and went to see Hatshepsut’s temple. Hatshepsut was an interesting pharaoh because she was a lady. She was one of the only female pharaohs. Her father, Thutmosis I was a pharaoh. Her husband, Thutmosis II took over from him and when he died she took over. She ruled for 16 years quite successfully but she must have been one interesting character. When her son, Thutmosis III took over after her death, he began defacing her monuments. Her body disappeared from its tomb and was only discovered recently. Other pharaohs also dismantled monuments she had erected so there isn’t much left of her around. I don’t know if this says more about her personality or the male ego but when we get a good internet connection, I want to find out.

Ramses took us to a great café for lunch. It reminded me a lot of Turkey. The food was fabulous and similar to Turkey as well. The food has been unexpectedly delicious. We had no idea what Egyptian food was like but fear not! When you visit, the food is great! One nice thing is that when you order a meal here they bring all the accompanying foods with it. We ordered tagine, which is a stew made in a clay dish. It also came with pita and a curry flavoured humous-like dip called tahine, a plate of fresh salad vegetables with vinaigrette, fried eggplant which was surprisingly delicious and rice.

After lunch we visited the ghost town of Deir el Medina. It is where the artists and craftspeople I mentioned earlier lived. It was a bit of a disappointment because there wasn’t a guide. The best we got were the guards who would point to various pictures in the tombs and identify the gods. They each needed to be paid, of course. By the end of the day we had NO small change left and were forced to run when we saw the guards coming. The tombs we saw in the village were very well preserved. They belonged to the head artist. In his free time he would decorate his own tomb. It turned out very well. Obviously, the tomb artists and craftspeople did not lead a life of desperation.

You weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside the tombs so I have none to share. This one is from the Deir el Medina temple. You’ll just have to come see the tombs for yourself.


Rothenberg was a small walled medieval town that had a friendly feeling to it. We also did a wall walk around part of the wall, and that was cool because of all the names of people who had donated to Rothenberg on the wall. In our short stay, we went to 3 museums. The first museum was some sort of monastery. Embedded in the monastery's wall, there was a halved barrel on a swivel so that the nuns/monks/whoever could anonymously give food to the poor.

For some reason the monastery had somebody's private collection of medieval weaponry inside. The person collected quite an astonishing number of deadly weapons. They had one of the first pen knives there; and it was all eaten away at. They also had gotten hold of Marie Antoinette's hunting rifle set. There were guns, spears, sets of armour, swords, knives, daggers, chainmail, and much more. They had a picture of how they would battle with the swords and daggers, and it looked pretty gruesome. I'm not sure how the monastery managed to obtain the collection, but they did none the less.

The monastery also had a funny statue of Moses with horns because the craftsman thought the description read “cornuta” which means horned instead of “coronata” which means crowned. I laughed out loud when Mom told us this. The other statues the monastery had were probably from the streets around town. Mom found a picture that she liked and I knew the place where the scene was in real life, so I showed everyone and there it was.

This was a fairly big museum with a fairly large variety of objects. It had a device that medieval women would wear because their husband didn’t trust them when he went out of town and wanted them to stay “loyal” to him. The "Chastity Belts" might also be used if the woman just feared for their own safety in a particularly bad town. It looked like a steel lasagne-strapped iron bikini bottom. It was a little odd to be around.

The second museum we went to was the oldest house in town from like, 889 A.D. or 889 years ago, I can't remember which. It was unchanged because it was inhabited by a hermit. The floor was the original; hard clay with rock paving stones. There were 3 floors, and it was made exclusively from wood. On the bottom floor there was an indoor well, and an indoor toilet (what a luxury; It must've been added in later!). There was also some sort of shoemaking room, and a sewing/weaving room. Over the years lots of different people have inhabited the house including Coopers & Weavers.

On the second floor, there were 3 bedrooms; the master bedroom, and two children's rooms. You wouldn't be able to tell they were children's rooms had it not said so until you looked at the beds in one of them (the beds were smaller). There were no toys, and not much entertainment. In an average marketer’s home, you might find 4 or 3 bedrooms. 3 of which are split between 10-15 children. 10-15 children was normal. There may be indoor or outdoor wells or toilets. There would be a definite lack of indoor heating.

On the third floor, the attic, there was a bed in a cupboard inside of a small room. The room's size was about 1/3rd of the size of the attic. When we were there the attic was filled with typical junk you might find in your own attic. The attic wasn't originally used for this purpose though. Almost every house had a beam coming out of the front of the house. The beam was used as a crane to get grain up into the attic for siege storage. The attic was an excellent place for the grain because it was clean, high, dry, and away from the, wet dirty streets.

The third museum was about crime & punishment. There was one of those things that people threw food at you when you were in them. They had funny masks and more chastity belts and cool boxes. They had a spiky chair and a stretcher. They also had a lot of lists of punishments for crimes. There were levels of punishment. They had things that held you in a position that made you look like you were playing the violin. They had a thing that held 2 people together, but it was basically a double violin thing so if there was a couple that weren’t getting along they were put in the thing until they did. They also had thumb presses for torture and jingle boots to alert everyone that the criminal was coming with a funny mask on. They also had a thing for bad musicians. It was like a clarinet, but it didn’t work and you were fixed in a single pose. I think they had the most humiliation masks.