Even though I’d read that the name Cairo was Arabic for “The Victorious One”, after only an hour in the Egyptian capital I began to wonder if something had gotten lost in translation, because to me, Cairo must certainly be the Arabic word for “chaos.”
First there was my arrival at the airport, when my hotel neglected to send a driver for me, which left me surrounded by over 100 men desperately trying to convince me to let them take me to my destination. Once my driver found me at the airport, there was the adrenaline-filled ride to the hotel. I witnessed countless women dressed either in colorful headscarves or solid black burqas, babies in their arms or huge parcels balanced on their heads, simply walking out into the streets despite three lanes of traffic bearing down upon them. Often they were trying to catch one of Cairo’s forms of public transportation, dilapidated mini-vans that look like they’re being held together with duct tape and thumb tacks called “Microbuses.” They come to an abrupt stop seemingly on a whim and sometimes in the middle or even the fast lane of major thoroughfares to pick up people who come rushing through the traffic to hop aboard. This causes drivers of every car or bus within a two-mile radius to blast their horns. Meanwhile, microbus passengers often just stand on the bumper and hang on if there’s no room inside the van and off they go into the nightmarish traffic. Finally, there was my first attempt at crossing a street at night. The combination of drivers switching lanes and traveling at breakneck speeds, coupled with the fact that about 20% of Cairo’s drivers believe that using headlights wastes gas meant that I stood a 1 in 5 chance of being flattened by a car I’d never even seen coming. This was a gamble that was a bit too rich for my blood.
This was my introduction to Cairo in January of 2010, where I would be meeting up with a group of faculty and students from my university for a 10-day long study abroad tour of Egypt. I’d arrived a day early, and after seeing what lay outside the walls of my hotel, I decided to relax by the pool in serene safety until my comrades arrived and the tour began. As it turned out, their flight had been seriously delayed by snow in Paris, and they dragged in at 1:00 AM, long after I had gone to bed.
We all rendezvoused over a buffet breakfast at the hotel, and while it was all pretty bland and boring, I did enjoy the hibiscus juice, which looks and tastes somewhat like cranberry juice and is purportedly good for high blood pressure, so I had a couple of glasses! We met our guides, Mohammad, a spectacled man of about 55 years and his assistant, Hassan who was much younger, and had a beaming smile and was very western in appearance and manner. We soon boarded our tour bus for a first day of sightseeing.
Our first stop was Saqqara (sometimes spelled Sakkara), an ancient gray step stone shaped pyramid that pre-dates the famous Giza pyramids. Muhammad called it a “wedding cake” pyramid, and I did like that image better. We saw the enormous statues of Ramses, the Egyptian king who was said to have fathered 114 children, which made me chuckle at the irony that he has a condom brand named after him. As we left the site we were assailed by the most aggressive vendors I have every encountered anywhere in all of my world travels. “Hey mister, where are you from?” “What are you looking for?” “I have what you need!” I find it almost impossible to NOT be polite to people, but it was impossible to make them stop unless I just ignored them and pushed past them. If they would have left me alone, I would have loved to have looked at things they were selling, but with the insane pressure, I just felt cornered and panicked and could not get out of their stall areas quickly enough.
From Sakkara we were off to see the great pyramids of Giza. Those who wanted to could actually crawl inside some of the tunnels at the base of one of the pyramids for an extra $20, but all I wanted to do was to walk and take pictures in the fading afternoon sun and soak up the amazing ambiance of this place. I soaked up maybe 3 seconds of ambiance before the vendors came at us from every direction, across the desert sands and parking lots, wanting to sell us anything and everything and not letting us even talk with our friends or take a picture. It was unbelievable. I strayed off toward the backside of the great pyramid with my friends LeeAnn and Dan, but we all sort of went our own ways and I made the fatal error of taking a picture of a man on his camel off in the distance and he saw me do so. He virtually galloped over to me, and while I am old enough and have studied enough research on social influence to have known better, he pulled me quickly into his web of deceit.
“Take a picture of me with my camel, my friend!” Then he dismounted and invited me to stand beside the camel for a photo, which he took with my own camera. It all happened so fast. “Put your foot up on the stirrup like you’re mounting the camel… it will be a great picture to show your friends!” Well, you can likely guess where this is going. Suddenly I was actually atop the kneeling camel and it stood up as I hung on for dear life, dangling precariously 8 or 9 feet above the ground atop the hump. The owner still had my camera and called his young son to walk the camel out into the desert. I then noticed that my group was being rounded up to get back to our bus and I started to panic. I pleaded with the man to stop the camel and let me off, but my pleas fell on seemingly deaf ears. I saw Dan and yelled to him for help, and he rushed over and asked the man to let me down. After three or four minutes of arguing, the man, acting hurt and wounded, finally got hold of the reins and made the camel kneel to allow me to dismount, but I was in such a hurry to do so that I banged my right shin pretty badly on the wooden horn of the saddle. A nasty bruise and lump formed almost immediately.
Meanwhile, the camel man still had my camera and was now demanding money for the “use of his camel” and for taking my photo! He wanted 100 Egyptian pounds, or about $20. I offered him 20 pounds ($5) and he nearly spat at me with anger. Dan and I both demanded that he return my camera and we started looking for the tourist police who are stationed all around the tourist sites, but were nowhere in sight. I offered 30 pounds, and again he seemed furious and demanded 100 pounds. After I virtually threw the 20 pound bill at him and threatened to get the police, he nearly threw the camera back at me, but he also ran over and ripped the other 10 pound bill from my hand. What a fiasco! I was shaking by the time we got back to our bus. Later, Hassan heard all this and actually got my 30 pounds back for me, even though I told him that I really didn’t DESERVE to get it back after being such a fool for getting entangled in all this to begin with!
And then our tour group went for its OFFICIAL camel ride, just as the sun was setting. I was extremely nervous about “getting back on the horse”, so to speak, but I was a brave cowboy. I had a young boy leading my camel as our group started crossing the desert in a long caravan. The boy said that my camel’s name was Michael Jackson, which I found rather disconcerting, but my camel seemed far more normal than his namesake and thankfully did not moonwalk his way across the desert. The view of the pyramids from atop Michael Jackson was wonderful and it was almost fun. However, when we all dismounted, I learned that LeeAnn and Dan, who’d been riding together on one camel ,had had an accident. Their camel suddenly started to lower its front legs without warning to let them off, and LeeAnn got slammed into the wooden horn of the saddle with full force, only one step better than actually falling off head first! She was bruised, but OK! On a lighter note, after having been assailed by vendors every time I got off the tour bus that day, I laughed myself silly when I saw a t shirt for sale that said, “Leave me alone! I came to see the Pyramids!” Unfortunately, it was about 18 sizes too small for me.
After the pyramids and a rather salty buffet dinner at a hotel, we were off to the Giza Sound and Light Show, a laser light and music “extravaganza” (their words, not mine!) that was almost laughably silly as the Sphinx discussed his past in painful detail and the sorrow he felt when Napoleon’s troops used him as target practice and made him ugly by destroying his nose. I sat with one of my students, Clayton, and we were making many sarcastic jokes about wanting to buy the DVD and the music soundtrack, and how we’d have to be sure to catch the companion show down at Luxor, etc. Unfortunately, some of the other members of our group had actually liked the show and DID want to buy the DVD, so we shrunk down into our seats on the bus ride back to the hotel and kept our mouths shut.
Another day we saw three famous Mosques in Cairo, which were indeed beautiful, but by the third one, we were “mosqued-out”, much like one feels on tours in Italy when you just go from one cathedral to the next. Every time we’d exit a mosque a crowd of vendors waited, and all we could do was run back to the bus, which was difficult for me with my badly hurt leg. I tried to take a photo of the Cairo skyline and people swarmed around me wanting to take my picture with my camera. Sorry, I am not doing that again.
Lunch that day was at the Hard Rock Cafe in Cairo. I was both put off at the thought of eating at a Hard Rock Café and excited at the prospect of being able to order something off a menu after all the buffets we’d been eating. For some odd reason I was craving a tuna melt and fries. Alas, it was not to be: we were not allowed to order from the menu and instead had a buffet with the same old stuff: a mish-mash of rice, pasta, meatballs, way too salty carrots and zucchini or broccoli, hummus, pita bread, salads, and super-sweet honey desserts. Each lunch and dinner was the same exact buffet at a different locale. We started joking about how wonderful “lunch buffet #3” had been and how we’d never forget “dinner buffet #2.”
Then we went to the Egyptian Museum, and by this time we were all hot and tired and cranky. The museum was not air-conditioned, and we were not allowed to just roam and look at what we were interested in, so we had to follow the guide for 2.5 hours, standing and listening to long descriptions of certain pieces. The only thing that kept me going was to hear that we’d be returning to our hotel by 5:00, leaving an hour for a swim in the beautiful pool (which closed at 6PM!) Of course we actually arrived back at the hotel at 5:45, butI had my suit on and was in the water in 3 minutes flat. We’d been told that the hotel would keep the pool open an extra half hour for us, so LeeAnn’s husband Dan raced down ready to swim at 5:55 and was turned away. I was asked to leave at 5:59. Sigh. Off to another dinner buffet.
After three long days in Cairo we had a 5:00 AM wake-up call and were off to the airport for a flight to Aswan in southern Egypt. Of course our flight was delayed, but we eventually made the 1 hour 20 minute flight and arrived in a noticeably hotter Aswan, home to the great Aswan Dam that was erected in the 1970s to control the Nile River floods. I lecture about the effects that this dam has had on the Nile Delta in my Natural Disasters class, so it was interesting to see it in person, but let’s face it, a dam is ultimately just a dam. Next we took a short boat ride to see the Temple of Isis, which originally sat on an island in the Nile, but was moved piece by piece and reassembled like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle to protect it when the dam was built and flooded the area upriver. Throughout the day we had an armed security guard with us AT ALL TIMES and if you straggled too much taking a picture or reading a sign, he’d gently, but firmly nudge you along.
We also got to take a ride on a felucca, a traditional Egyptian sailboat and sailed downstream to visit a botanical garden and a place called Elephantine Island that had ruins and a museum. There seemed to be curators who stood among the ruins, but I found that if I made eye contact or let them show me something (i.e. “Mister, look! This is a flower!”), they then wanted money for imparting their knowledge, so I just had to avoid all contact and tried to see a few of the sights on my own.
After yet another buffet lunch, we checked in at the docks for our Nile River cruise, which would be taking us down the river toward Luxor the following day. I went to my cabin for a long nap, and then went to the pool on the top deck, only to discover that the water was ice cold and the jacuzzi was barely luke warm, but I still dangled my sore feet and legs in the cold water. I’d begun to notice that my feet and calves were swelling up badly, most likely from a combination of high blood pressure, heat, high salt intake, and being on my feet 10 hours a day. The bruised area from my camel nightmare was still swollen and dark, and my heel on that foot turned purplish with what seemed like blood draining from the bruise on my shin. It was very unnerving and I tried to prop my feet up whenever I had the chance.
The cruise ship was rated as a 5 star luxury ship, but I’d rate it about a 2.5. We had to pass through a metal detector every time we boarded, just as we’d had to do at the hotel in Cairo, but we all chuckled nervously over the fact that the thing beeped every time we’d walk through, but no one ever stopped us. After buffet #8 that night, we walked to a nearby bazaar for a shopping expedition, accompanied by our guard who seemed even more uptight and would not let us tarry anywhere. The onslaught of vendors was really awful, and if I ever hear someone refer to me as “my friend” one more time, I will scream. “Come in here my friend. Good prices! What you want? I help you spend your money! What are you looking for, my friend? Where you from? America? America good! Obama Good! Hey Ali Baba, we have your big size, you come try…” On and on and on. The vendors are adept at watching your eyes. If you so much as glance at something, even without stopping, they immediately catch you and start the sales pitch. The only solution is to look down or straight ahead, and then some vendors will ask why you are being so rude because you don’t look at them when they talk to you. I have never been anywhere in the world like this, and it was exhausting.
Our cruise ship set sail on Saturday at around 3PM and until sunset, we got some glimpses of the Nile as we headed north toward Luxor. It really started to look like I had imagined Africa, with men in long white robes tending cattle or sheep along the river banks, waving at the boat as it passed. It was one of the most pleasant couple of hours I’d spent in Egypt up to that point. After dark there was to be a big party onboard, but most of our group opted out when they learned that our wake-up call would be at 5:20 AM and we’d have at least a 12 hour day or touring. But I went with LeeAnn and a couple other members of our group to watch a women’s “spoon dance”, where 10 women had to dance in a circle around a pile of 9 spoons and when the music stopped, they had to grab a spoon… a bizarre version of musical chairs. Then it was the men’s turn and 4 men had to tie a foil-wrapped potato from a string dangling from their waist and hit another potato on the floor, trying to see who could push the potato over a finish line first… a weird take on croquet! Eduardo, a handsome young Spaniard won the race, no doubt due to his very deliberate hip motions!
And then 5:20 AM Sunday came far too soon and what I will refer to as “Temple Tour Hell” began. By 7AM we were outside the amazing and colossal Temple of Edfu when it opened, but most other tour groups had the same idea and there was such a stampede of tourists trying to get through the narrow entry gate I actually had to shield some of the smaller members of our group with my larger bulk. Horrible! But the temple was beautiful and the morning air still cool and comfortable. Then we were whisked off to the Valley of the Kings where we toured three tombs. I only did two of them and sat out the third. It was getting hot, my feet were tired, there were crowds and endless stairs. It was getting to be too much. Our next stop was a tomb for a goddess whose name I can’t recall, but it was a beautiful place, directly carved into the face of a mountain. By 2:30 we finally got to stop for lunch, but alas, it was yet another buffet and immediately afterward, it was on to the temple of Karnak, another amazing site spoiled for me by the fact that we were marched through on a fast tour and there was no time to simply sit and stare and contemplate the place. By the time we arrived at the famous Temple of Luxor toward sunset, almost half the group just mutinied, sitting in a shady area too exhausted to move or to care anymore while the tour guide went on ahead with a few of the more hardy members of our group. It was really a shame, because the temples were magnificent, but it was just too much in one day. And of course, each temple exit led directly into a bazaar area where we had to endure more sales pitches; it was like going through a fraternity hazing before we could re-board the bus.
When we finally got back to the ship for our evening buffet, the housekeeping staff had prepared “surprises” for us: they stacked piles of bedspreads, towels, and articles of people’s clothing like sandals or sunglasses such that it looked like a person was sitting in your room, which was scary as hell as you entered your darkened cabin. That evening, a few students reported money was missing from their rooms. And then, several people began to get sick with food poisoning. Luckily, my stomach was fine, but after 12 hours of temples and heat and salty buffets, my feet looked like balloons and I laid on the floor of the upper deck with my legs elevated on a chair, trying to make the swelling go down. Are we having fun yet? I have rarely wanted to leave a place as much as I wanted to leave Egypt at that moment. “Now I understand the motivation for the Exodus!”, I mused. “Let my people go!”
We were told to expect a 4:00 AM wake-up call the next morning for our flight from Luxor back to Cairo. I awoke at 5:02 AM, and with horror realized I’d either slept through my wake-up call or had never received one. I freaked out. I was showered and dressed and out the door of my cabin at 5:08, but was told that my group was already gone. Dragging my bag behind me I ran down the dock and thankfully found them still loading their luggage onto a bus, but I had no breakfast and was totally disheveled. At the airport things got worse, as more and more members of our group were dropping like flies from King Tut’s Revenge. Some were so ill that Mohammad arranged for a doctor to meet us at Cairo airport, and many were given shots to counteract food poisoning. There was also a mix-up with our luggage, and many of our bags had name tags for other members of our group; some folks lost their bags and never got them back. I was beginning to wonder if those folks who’d opted to crawl around the tunnels of the Giza Pyramid had invoked the Mummy’s Curse.
When we got back to our hotel it was only about 10AM and many people just went to their rooms to try and sleep. I got myself into the pool and spent my time floating, trying to relax and praying that I would soon be led out of Egypt, by Moses or whoever else could do the job, as quickly as possible. Those well enough to go out again were taken to a very ornate restaurant for lunch, and I must say that “Lunch Buffet #6” was probably the best of all. The highlight was the most fluffy and fresh pita bread and probably the best hummus I have ever tasted, and I simply made little sandwiches of this, and washed it down with hibiscus tea. It was very nice.
After lunch we entered the nearby El Khalili Bazaar in downtown Cairo, where we were allowed to wander for 2.5 hours. Ahhhh, freedom! I paired up with Clayton, my partner in crime at the Giza Sound and Light Show, and I was very impressed by his negotiation skills. We started working together to try and get the souvenirs we most wanted. I must say that the behavior of the vendors here was much more reasonable. Yes, they tried their usual tricks, but they were not nearly as “in your face” as we’d been encountering and they actually had a good sense of humor, so it was almost fun bargaining with them. I ended up finding a miniature set of the three Giza pyramids (to go with my collection of miniatures from all over the world: the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon, Sydney Opera House, etc. With Clayton’s help I got a very good price. However, there was one street within the bazaar that Clayton and I dubbed “Aswan Street” because in this one block, the merchants were as nasty as they had been in Aswan and elsewhere. They called me either Ali Baba or Rambo; Rambo? Do I bear any resemblance to Sylvester Stallone? One guy came over and patted my belly, asking “You have baby? You pregnant? Maybe two babies? Three babies?” I thought I had heard it all, but this was the height of rudeness, and as I kept walking I informed him that this was NOT the way to get me to buy something from him!
After the bazaar, we then visited the 67 story Cairo Tower, from which we could get an amazing night view of the city, looking down at the seemingly endless traffic jams and hearing the accompanying horn honking below. We ate Dinner Buffet #6 at an outdoor restaurant below the tower, and in an attempt to eat something healthy, I piled my plate high with carrots and broccoli, but after a couple bites I realized they were so salty I could barely eat them.
On the final day of our trip I laid in bed deliberating as to whether I should go on that morning’s tour, or whether I should get a doctor. My legs were in bad shape, and knowing that I was covered by my trip health insurance for only one more day, I decided to stay behind and call the house doctor at the hotel. The doctor gave me three medications: a diuretic to get rid of the swelling, an antibiotic in case the leg was somehow infected, and a rub on, anti-swelling, anti-inflammatory gel. He said that while walking was good for me, I should avoid standing in one place for long periods of time. And he advised that I should avoid salty food at all costs! I almost couldn’t stop laughing!
I spent the day chatting with some of the folks who’d stayed behind at the hotel that morning because they’d been sick. I was in the pool for a good two hours, and I went to lunch at the hotel’s little rooftop cafe and ordered a club sandwich and fries (not my tuna melt fantasy, but in the ballpark!). From the restaurant you could see the nearby pyramids, hazy in the smoggy fog that covered everything that day. It was the calmest day of the trip and the hotel was like an oasis amidst the chaos that was my Egypt experience.
That evening, we went on a Nile River Dinner Cruise through downtown Cairo, featuring – you guessed it – a buffet – followed by live entertainment. The buffet was better than some, worse than others. The singer was pretty sappy, playing white bread versions of songs by everyone from the Beatles to Ricky Martin. Then there was to be belly-dancing, and I was not going to risk my non-pregnant belly getting dragged out on some dance floor, so I ran as fast as my swollen legs would carry me to the upper deck. Several of the folks from the tour were up there too and as we tried to enjoy the night air and city views, we were unnerved to notice that our boat was being shadowed by 3 police boats, all with their lights off, which felt a little spooky. At one point one of the students came up to tell us that the belly-dancing was over and now there was a whirling dervish performing. She said she’d tried to video tape the performance, but given her still queasy stomach, the rocking of the boat, and the swirling motions made by the dervish she’d become too nauseous to continue, which I found hilarious.
This was our final night of the tour, and from the cruise ship, everyone in my group boarded a bus for the airport, while I returned to the hotel by cab, as I was about to embark on my own for a trip to Jordan and Israel the following day. I felt a bit uneasy at the prospect of being alone again in Egypt, if only for an overnight, and I wondered whether Jordan, my next stop, would be as stressful as Egypt had been. But soon it was morning and a hotel limo took me to the airport. My very congenial driver, another Mohammad, filled the time talking about how much he hates Al Qaida, how he fears the prospect of Iran ever getting a nuclear weapon, and how he worries that President Obama is too inexperienced to deal with the complexities of the Middle East. Bidding him farewell, I got checked in for my Royal Jordanian flight to Amman, Jordan with little time or hassle and was very happy to be saying goodbye to Egypt. I was glad to be able to say I have now seen the pyramids, the Sphinx and the famous temples, but I was also sad, because unlike so many places I have traveled to in the past, I really felt little desire to ever come back to this place. Tired, battered, but a little apprehensive about what lay ahead, as the plane took off and headed east across the Sinai I was grateful that my prayers to be safely delivered from Egypt had come true.