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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Egypt, Part I

We left our apartment at 2:00 a.m., 26 December, for an almost-red-eye out of Beirut. At the airport, young British honeymooners fought with their ticketing agent because they couldn't present the credit card they used to buy their tickets and were thus being denied boarding passes. Travel nightmare. Uneventful, sleepy flight, followed by a cold tarmac in Cairo. Our first experience of Africa ... freezing cold temperatures! We bought entry visas, passed through customs, by now accustomed to the region-wide disregard for lines, and met our guide Meena, who claimed our luggage and ushered us quickly out of the airport, through Cairo, to our hotel. All before 7:30 a.m.

Cairo has a population of 25 million and most streets seem to bear the names of significant dates from the short 1973 war with Israel. "Baksheesh" is the first thing any visitor to Egypt needs to understand. The word refers to an elaborate, annoying system of tipping. In cities and deltas alike, Egyptians surround you and want to provide for-pay services like selling you a souvenir, singing for you, taking your photo, giving directions, or holding a door open. Baksheesh means that constantly someone is asking you for either money or a "gift" like a pen or one of your t-shirts. When we entered our hotel room, a broken television was turned on and the bellhop began to apologize. Later, while Nicole and I took a catnap with the "do not disturb" sign posted, he returned with another tv. This whole process was a baksheesh routine, a situation created in order to provide a service/get a tip.

Meena let us "rest." I.E., he gave us an hour to settle in, shower, and nap before meeting Sobhy, the Egyptologist who took us to Giza, essentially a populous suburb containing the plateau on which the Sphinx and Great Pyramids reside. The plateau represents the eastern edge of the Sahara but the plateau sits just a few meters from the midst of busy and bustling metropolitan Cairo. One guidebook calls the pyramids a massive, ancient, bureaucratic job scheme. Egyptian and Nubian workers (not slaves--the Great Pyramids pre-date Israelite slaves in Egypt by centuries) from all along the Nile built the humongous structures, the largest made of over two million blocks each weighing over two tons.

Sobhy, a cool guy and master practitioner of baksheesh, indulged our desire to take loads of pictures, fed us lots of facts, and introduced us to his favorite camel driver. We paid way too much baksheesh--too tired to negotiate to our full potential--but had a blast riding camels around the pyramids. The drivers take you around the whole plateau, which affords great views not only of the three Great Pyramids (each a tomb for a king), but also the smaller pyramids built for their wives. Our camel driver, leading the animals through the desert, told us how much he loves America and how young we look several times. "I'll make you happy now," he said to me, "and later you can make me happy in private," which would have sounded odd anywhere but in Egypt. By "in private," he meant not in front of Sobhy or the camel owner, who would likely be entitled to a cut of the action. Oh, and of course by "make me happy," he meant "pay me." Giving the animals a short rest when we reached the farthest point from the pyramids, the driver had Nicole and I hold hands, kiss, and pose for various shots from high atop our respective camels. It's definitely one of the cornier things we've done in the mideast, but I recommend the camel ride, the best way to get gorgesous views of every angle of the pyramids.

The Sphinx looks small once you get close, likely because the massive pyramids tower over her. Sobhy told us various legends about who rubbed away the Sphnix's nose (some blame Napoleon, some blame conquering Muslims who don't believe in artistic representations of human--or, apparently, part-human--figures) and we snapped more pictures, thinking that Giza, like the Grand Canyon, lives up to the hype.

We earned a nap late that afternoon, still catching up from our 2:00 a.m. departure from Hamra, followed by a stroll around Zamalek, the Cairo neighborhood where we stayed, essentially an island in the wide vein of the Nile that runs through the city. Cool area after sundown, when you can stroll and see guys smoking sheesha with neighbors, and congregating outside mosques drinking coffee. We ate dinner at Dido's, a great Italian place frequented by American University of Cairo students who apparently go to Dido's for cheap eats (I had a big bowl of penne arrabbiata for less three U.S. dollars!) and the American hip hop they play on the stereo.

We woke up at 3:45 the next a.m. for another early flight, this one from Cairo to Luxor. Meena gave us box breakfasts, shuttled us through "lines" at the airport, and wished us happy Nile cruising. No guide awaited us in Luxor although one guy was walking around with a "William Orthman" sign. He saw my double-take and asked, "Are you Mr. William?" Why yes, I guess I am. This guy was no Meena, but he assured us he must be our guide, despite the name mix-up. He fussed with his cell phones (most guides have at least two) and had some tense conversations, informing us that our driver was stuck at security and unable to enter the airport. He went over to another driver and after an approximately ten-second conversation, said we should go with him. Now, between the William Orthman signage and our being outsourced to another driver, I grew doubtful we would make it to the right boat.

We drove through Luxor and down to the Nile bank where cruise ships docked next to one another, parallel with the shore, five or six deep. This means that if your boat is the fourth one out, you walk a plank to the first boat, walk through the lobby of that boat and step gingerly onto the second boat, through that boat's lobby, onto the next boat, etc. Basically, you must hop from boat to boat until you reach your destination. A guy who seemed to be in a uniform of some type opened the doors of the van we were in, grabbed our suitcases, and quickly headed down the plank carrying both of our bags. Our driver nodded, which seemed to indicate "have a nice day" and/or "give me baksheesh." Disoriented, I gave him a few guineas and Nicole and I began to chase the guy with our bags. Can you picture Nicole and I running after a very tall Egyptian man? How does this guy know which boat is ours? How does he know who we are? Especially given that we were not in the vehicle we were supposed to be in.

Unable to keep up, we lost the guy with our luggage. By then, we didn't know what boat we were on, whether our luggage had been scammed and stolen, or if we even had been driven to the right place. For all I knew, I was on William Orthman's boat, without the bags of neither Bill Orthman nor Bill DeGenaro. I went up to the desk in whatever ship I was on and said something like "Some guy has our bags!" The guy shrugged his shoulders. We raced to the next boat, then the next one, scanning for our bags. Finally, we saw them in the lobby of one of the boats and were assured that, yes, we were in the right place. Jittery, we sipped grape juice in a lounge (not unlike the one in "Death on the Nile" thank you very much), and saw that one of my AUB colleagues, Sean, and his wife, Lina, were on the same boat. Talk about coincidence. Soon, Akhmed, our guide during the cruise, joined us in the lounge, explained that our cabin was ready, and apologized for any confusion.

Next: temples, tombs, and a baby crocodile.

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