July 09, 2003

Aegyptification



ONE DAY IN EXPATLAND

9AM Wake in luxurious, high-ceilinged expat mansion in expensive Ma'adi suburb. Drink grande cappucino. Host gives me keys to apartment, introduces me to driver, tells me car and driver are at my disposal.

9:30AM Slightly confused by situation; unaccustomed to travelling with own transport. Humbly request of driver that perhaps he could take me to pyramids at Sakkara, if it isn't too much trouble. Apologize profusely for taking up his day.

10AM Arrive Sakkara. Visit step pyramid. Hot out.

11AM Politely ask driver to stop to buy water and then go to Dashur pyramids. No water stop. Remind driver of water request. Buy water, visit Dashur pyramids. Very hot out.

1PM Ask driver for lunch recommendations. Driver recommends McDonald's. Give driver sidelong look and have him take me to Nile Hilton for lunch. Hilton pleasantly air-conditioned. Blistering heat makes exterior difficult.

3PM Have driver take me to Giza Pyramids. Look around briefly. Glimpse Sphinx from behind. Damn, it's hot.

3.15PM Argue with driver over whether I have spent enough time viewing the majestic antiquities of Giza. Tersely inform driver that conversation is over and instruct him to take me to Meridien Hotel. Heat nearly unbearable.

3.30PM Read IHT over a beer in air-conditioned luxury. Occasionally glance up at Nile visible through the window.

5PM Decide to go to another hotel for dinner. Driver observes that he has a family and would like to see them tonight. Fix cold stare upon driver until he ceases his bleating. Off to Four Seasons for dinner. Driver requests that I leave at 7PM. Leave car without answering.

7.30PM While sitting in bar talking football with American expats, driver approaches and suggests we leave. Tell driver in no uncertain terms (well, possibly slightly uncertain, due to slurring of words) to return to the Goddamn car and wait for me if he wants to keep his job.

9.30PM Stagger out to car and instruct driver to take me back to Ma'adi. Upon arrival, order driver to go out and fetch me beer. Watch satellite TV. Find self laughing at old rerun of "Married...With Children."

10PM Beer arrives. Driver leaves. Discover beer is insufficiently cold. Make mental note to have driver flogged tomorrow.

11PM Jean-Claude Van Damme filmfest is on satellite TV. Watch raptly. Decide to stay here in air-conditioned comfort for the rest of my time in Egypt, watching JCVD and colorized Turner Classic Movies, rather than exposing myself to the heat and the elements. Catch myself wishing wistfully that I had been born in the days of the Raj. Er, that is, born British and upper-class, of course.


CAIRO

"Hell," Sartre once declared, "is other people."

He wouldn't have liked Cairo.

It's a monstrous, giddying, dizzing megalopolis, nineteen million people crammed into the slender ribbon of the Nile Valley, piloting two million cars through perpetual traffic jams despite the terrifyingly efficient use of roads such that two lanes equals four columns of cars. The occasional traffic light performs a useful decorative purpose and serves to lure unsuspecting tourists to their doom. Dust, noise, smoke, soot, blaring horns, bellowed Arabic, screeching brakes, tarnished gray marble. Endless landscapes of concrete blocks sprouting bundles of rebar from the ceiling. Huge hotel and office complexes towering over the wide blue Nile. Rows of pale transplanted trees choking in the smog. Curbs a foot high in order to dissuade Cairenes from parking, or driving, on the sidewalks. Robes, turbans, headscarfs, veils, Diesel jeans, Armani suits, bare midriffs, 'N Sync posters. Pale filigreed spires ascending into the sky from enormous, pristine mosques. Fields thick with rotting trash, patrolled by flocks of goats. In the southwest Giza district a block full of papyrus shops ends with a KFC. Walk another hundred metres and you collide with the Sphinx. It's quite a place.

It also boasts the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, a truly impressive museum which contains a) the famous King Tut exhibit, in its entirety, solid gold mask and coffin and all, b) approximately eighty thousand enormous colossi, steles, columns, statues, busts, etc etc etc, much of it five or six metres tall, casually distributed, barely categorized, dusty, and occasionally stacked two or three high, the overall effect being the attic of a forgetful pack-rat rather than one of the world's great museums, which was fairly charming, and finally c) the Royal Mummies, nine mummified pharaohs or consorts thereof in various states of dishabille, very cool and creepy as hell.

THE SINAI

Previously, when I thought "Egypt", I did not instinctively associate it with "scuba diving", but the Red Sea boasts some of the finest diving in the world. The marine life isn't quite as varied or colourful as Thailand or Australia, but the coral formations, particularly in Ras Mohammed National Park, are staggering, featuring sheer coral cliffs that drop for hundreds of metres and exquisite fan coral 3-4 metres in radius. Other people saw manta rays and sharks as well; I, alas, had to content myself with barracuda and a few huge schools of fish.

From the backpacker haven of Dahab I hired a private taxi to drive me to Mount Sinai because there weren't any groups going there. The desert was spellbinding. I spent a little more time in it than I intended to because the taxi broke down halfway through. The driver seemed to know only marginally more about engines than I do, which is absolutely nothing, but through trial and error (mostly error), brute force, and ignorance, we managed to reattach the fan belt and suffered only a few seventh-degree burns from the overheated engine en route. OK, technically first-degree burns, but they felt like seventh.

LUXOR & ASWAN

Old stuff. Egypt's got a lot of it. Seriously old. When Herodotus visited the Pyramids in 500 BC, they were as old to him as he is to us. And seriously big. The ruins of the temple of Karnak, in Luxor, cover more than 80 acres, and the great hall of columns is twice the size of St. Paul's Cathedral. The trouble is that it's all so sprawlingly enormous, and ancient, and elaborately intricately carved with heiroglyphs, and so familiar from countless pictures and documentaries and movie backdrops, that it is actually very difficult to convince yourself that these are in fact real 4000-year-old antiquities and not some theme-park reconstruction. Wandering around Karnak I wouldn't have been entirely surprised if Mickey Mouse and Goofy walked out from behind an obelisk.

The summer heat in Upper Egypt is blistering, oppressive, average daily highs of 45C/110F. On the other hand it does keep the number of package tourists down. I went to Karnak at 2PM and had the entire site pretty much to myself. The Valley of the Kings, which is a little too well-groomed these days to be as haunting as I hoped, was thick with Japanese, but they were far more polite and respectful than the Italians. There were plenty of street hustlers, but even they seemed enervated by the heat, and their cries of "Felucca!" "Taxi!" "See my shop!" "What country?" "Where you going?" were halfhearted and rarely repeated. My increasingly surreal responses (my favourite being "I come from outer space and I seek the Holy Grail") might have had something to do with their quick disengagement as well.

The Nile Valley really is remarkably beautiful and remarkably slender. For most of the train journey from Aswan to Cairo you can look through the windows on either side and see desert hills in the distance. Egypt's reliance on the Nile's vicissitudes used to be absolute, but in 1967 the Russians built them the Aswan High Dam, one of the Earth's great mute testimonies to man's occasional dominion over nature, and
being a hacker tourist I went to investigate. It wasn't near as big or impressive as I expected -- in fact it seemed smaller than, say, Zimbabwe's Kariba Dam -- but it's extraordinary to look south from the dam and to think that this basically simple stone structure created an artifical lake that stretches all the way into Sudan and, whatever its environmental downsides, has saved Egypt from both terrible flood and desperate drought since its creation.

From Aswan I also went to Abu Simbel. I went, but I did not arrive. I took a taxi to the airport; I checked in; I went through three equally pathetic levels of security; I boarded the airplane; I buckled my seat belt; I heard the captain announce the magic word "Crosscheck" meaning that takeoff is imminent -- and then there was a horrible grinding noise beneath our feet, and the lights flickered on and off. This repeated for some time. After ten minutes the captain announced that there was a very, very minor snag with the engine and we would be en route shortly. Those passengers along the left-hand side windows were skeptical, as we could see a dozen engineers had already removed the cowling from the port engine and seemed to being doing their best to entirely disassemble it in record time. After half an hour the pilot admitted that, and I quote, "the airplane is broken," and we were ferried back to the terminal building again. The EgyptAir staff gave us vague cryptic hints of a replacement plane possibly being flown down from Cairo, possibly this week. I decided to save Abu Simbel for the next trip.

ALEXANDRIA

I would have liked to have spent more time in Alexandria, a pleasant, relaxed, ocean-breeze-blown waterfront city, even thicker with (relatively recent) history than the rest of Egypt, but a quick day trip was all I could manage. I liked it a great deal. In part this was because of the Bibliotecha Alexandrina, the fantastic new Great Library Of Alexandria built in the last decade in a bold attempt to echo that burnt (along with more than half of all recorded European writings of the time) by a fundamentalist bishop about 1650 years ago. It's a great building, and the collection looks pretty impressive too.


GOODBYE, FAREWELL, AMEN

You will be sad to know that this is my last travel update from this trip. Shut up and look sad already. I am back in London, where I will spend a few days before heading back to Canada and on to California, with stops in Vancouver and New York next month. Hope you're all well, and I'll see you all whenever...