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Travels and Tribulations - in Egypt

Including Cairo, the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx


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Egypt

CAPITAL: CAIRO
LANGUAGE: Arabic
PEOPLE: Arabic, French, English, Berber

Egypt is situated in the northeast corner of Africa. The fertile Nile valley bisects its arid western desert and its semi-arid western desert. Its wealth of antiquities draws tourists from all over the world. With ancient civilisations to ponder upon, pyramids, Nile cruises, and some of the world's best scuba diving at the coral reefs near Hurghada on the Red Sea, there's something for most people.

Attacks by Islamic fundamentalists against Western tourists has not exactly improved the tourist trade - but the unique appeals of Egypt keeps them coming! One of the biggest surprises for many tourists is the close proximity of the capital, Cairo, to the pyramids and Sphinx.

Most of Egypt lies within the hot desert zone - although temperatures drop sharply at night. Winter months are cooler. In the spring the khamsin wind blows relentlessly from the Sahara, often bringing with it heat, dust and sandstorms.

Start of this segment!

We nudged into the Suez Canal at Port Said. Then we were off in another bunch of coaches (buses), this time each of us clutching a cardboard lunch-box containing chicken salad. This was so that we would not have to tackle getting food in Egypt or escaping our guides. (I will explain shortly!)

Bare-footed children scampered around the poor homesteads but, in a few places, we did actually spot a television screen blinking through the openings that served as windows.

We were duly warned about bartering. Everyone was taught how the price asked by street traders was always two or three times what they expected to take, so we were warned to seriously barter. And to inspect. Our friend Antonio, a delightful little Italian, really took this to heart. The moment we stepped off the ship to walk a chain of narrow, floating walkways, we were assailed by the traders with their wares. Mostly they all sell the same things, and it is interesting to see how the starting prices vary from one to the next. Antonio went straight for the kill. He fancied a bag with nice Egyptian markings on the side which the guy was asking 12 Cyprus pounds for, He got him down to six and was triumphant with this trophy when we finally all made it to a coach. It was only later in the day when he found that the going price for these bags was 2 pounds that he really learned the bartering lesson.

The Egyptians have a good way of ensuring that large flocks of tourists pass quickly and efficiently through their country in perfect safety: they give them an armed guard and keep them surrounded! Sanitized also! Now it was hot in Egypt and, guess what: it didn't rain! A couple of dozen coaches set out from the dockyard with a police escort in front and at the rear, with air-conditioning throbbing to keep us at a reasonable temperature. We drove through the tall apartment blocks of Port Said and could have been in any graffiti-ridden city in the world - for a while, at least.

Once we left the city things were different. We followed the virtually empty and virtually straight highway that stretched for miles and miles to Cairo. On either side the fields were not much more than damp paddy fields with primitive accommodation. This 'improved', if that is the word, to become stark, often windowless buildings that were the homes of people on dryer land further inland; although it was clear that they offered little more than shelter from the strong sun. Alcohol is, of course, not on offer to the natives of Egypt and so the likes of Coca-Cola® have really made a killing here. Every mile or so was a stark café with Coke signs; these were clearly the local watering-holes, and they must boost Coca-Cola® profits considerably.

Bare-footed children scampered around the poor homesteads but, in a few places, we did actually spot a television screen blinking through the glass-less openings that served as windows. What an ethereal view of life this must give peoples such as these, living in abject poverty.

Our courier, a petite Egyptian girl, explained much about the Egyptian culture. In fact, for some, she over-explained to a huge extent, although I must admit that I found it very educational. She explained how close-knit the families are, how everyone knows everyone-else's business, and that although she lived in a very busy part of Cairo, if she were to go out with a strange man, say for a drink in a café, news of it would likely reach her father before she even got home! Similarly, if we wanted to find her house and had nothing but her name, simply by asking anyone in the street in the vicinity of her home would provide us with ample directions.

This entertainment did not even abate when the air-conditioning ceased to throb. While she talked, the driver stopped the coach to try to get it to work again. The police escort, of course, chose to continue with the other couple of dozen coaches and abandon us. We wondered how necessary this guard was when we chugged off again, the driver having assured us that another coach would be available for us to transfer to a bit further on.

Sure enough there was a standby-coach - quite impressive out there in the middle of nowhere - and clutching our cardboard lunch-boxes and early purchases, we transferred to a coach with air conditioning that did work. At this point many of us thought it perhaps wise to eat our lunches before they went off in the heat; the chicken-salad lunch was not too easy to eat on the bumping coach, but we did the best we could, with the strawless-drinks offering the greatest challenge.


Cairo and Giza

The approach through Cairo was something else, and included crossing the river Nile. On the outskirts of the city the road passes directly through the centre of an enormous cemetery, complete with all kinds of fantastic and weird structures, many of which were far from perpendicular. Some looked like model palaces! Our courier explained that the Egyptian believed they should build accommodation befitting the status of their dead, hence these amazing structures.

Entering the city proper, there was an incongruous mixture of buildings and building quality, from some quite respectable blocks to other blocks practically crumbling to pieces. Around these tower block bases were playing children, chickens and bent cars. Our ever-informative courier informed us that the reason why some buildings were in such a terrible state was that there were regulations preventing the owners putting up rents, so they figured the best way was to let them fall down, thereby get rid of their tenants, and then start over.

The most amazing aspect of Cairo was how it teemed with life - and traffic! Right alongside the road the men would set down their prayer-mats to reserve a place for the next prayer session - rather like Germans with their towels around the pool - and right alongside the traffic bore relentlessly onwards. (Did the traffic fumes heighten their spiritual awareness, I wonder?) Only in a place such as this could you see a man carrying an enormous gas cylinder in one hand as he weaved in an out of the busy traffic riding a bicycle! Only here, where destiny is so pre-ordained, could you see dark-robed women walking across the road right through closely-knit traffic moving at around 30 mph as if it just didn't exist or present any hazard. Only here could a coach driver calmly accept the miracle that he was not constantly mowing people down. Such a pity there wasn't time for a stroll in Cairo, to soak up some of this tremendous atmosphere, but time was pressing and the nearby Pyramids were calling.

Pyramids at Giza, Egypt - click to enlarge!Pyramids at Giza, Egypt - click to enlarge!It seems so strange that the Pyramids of Giza are so near to Cairo. Until you've been there you imagine they are located somewhere deep in the desert, miles from anywhere. Nor do you imagine them surrounded by tour coaches! Yet this is only because all who photograph them keep up this mystique by getting their camera-angles just right. Here's what I mean. My picture of the left shows a pyramid with the coaches. The pyramid on the right shows a more appealing and traditional camera angle!

Here, in the shadow of the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx, camel rides are on offer and young lads vie for your attention to sell souvenirs, chiefly miniature pyramids and the book called All of Egypt, which is really quite a good buy. I don't remember what I paid for one of these books in the end, but I do remember that I halved what I first was asked, offered that to the second seller who walked off in disgust, and bought it from about the fourth after trying a lower price yet again. I felt a heel for beating them down for such a good book, but what else do you do in such a volatile market?

As I mentioned, if you wish you can take a camel ride here, a kind of romantic thing to do in this setting, but be warned. Agree a price before you climb aboard. Apparently a few tourists have been hi-jacked and taken out into the desert until they agreed to pay a high price to get down! So be camel-wise!

Pyramids at Giza, Egypt - click to enlarge!Now a bit of boggling history about the pyramids at Giza, namely Cheops, Chephren and Micerinus. According to the Greek Herodotus, based on testimony of various people who had lived in Egypt, Cheops left behind him a colossal piece of work: his pyramid. Cheops compelled his subjects to labour for him. (What's the point of being a ruler otherwise?) Some were forced to drag blocks of stone from the quarries in the Arabian hills to the river Nile, where they were ferried across and taken over by others who hauled them to the Libyan hills. This work went on in three-monthly shifts, 100,000 men in each shift! It took 10 years just to build the track along which the blocks were hauled. The pyramid itself was constructed of polished stone blocks decorated with carvings of animals. The block-tier structure enabled each stone to be lifted, tier by tier, using short timber cranes. Then the pyramids were finished off from the top down, to achieve a smooth surface. Today only the very tops still resemble that surface and the lower tiers reveal the large stone blocks. Let me just stand on one so you can get the scale! (That's me holding a rock on the first tier.)

The Sphinx at Giza, Egypt - click to enlarge!Then there is the Sphinx, just a stone block's throw away from the Pyramid of Cheops. Fascinating in its own right, and with many ancient and modern theories about it, which space does not allow me to go into, although it is all fascinating stuff: like the evidence that all these edifices are much older than the Egyptians would have us believe. Look back at the pyramid behind the Sphinx in this picture and you can clearly see how the upper part is much smoother than the lower tiers.

Then on to the huge Egyptian Museum in Cairo, comprising two floors and 100 exhibition rooms. (A couple of weeks before we visited Jerusalem there was a bomb in a café there. Then a coach was fire-bombed in this Egyptian Museum car-park the week after we were there. This made us glad we chose the rainy-season for our vacation instead of the bombing-season.) It is here you can find the Treasures of Tutankhamon, including the fold coffin and famous mask. Our little courier girl made valiant attempts to explain things within this museum but, it has to be said, everything is total chaos inside, with countless tour guides all shouting their heads off to be heard in the terrible acoustics. With bustling flocks of tourists of all nationalities attempting to see and hear all at once, you can imagine the results. Although I was pleased to have seen these treasures of antiquity, I would much have preferred the option to have stayed longer at Giza. There was insufficient time to go into the Pyramid of Cheops and, given the option, I would have taken this in place of seeing the Sphinx and the museum. Ho-hum!

Then the return trip through Cairo and back to Port Said. (By the way, we never did catch up with our police escort.) Some of the apartment blocks in Cairo looked quite respectable - many didn't, of course - and it was in the penthouses of some of the better ones that some of the really rich people live. They are so rich that they even have elevators to take their cars up to their apartment level for safety (and maybe to wash off the sand). Bet you couldn't guess how many of these got so rich? What their profession is? (No sir, you're wrong!) They are - get this - belly-dancers! Because such frivolous activities are beyond the pale in Egypt, and no self-respecting girl would gyrate her body for the entertainment of anyone other than her husband, these girls are paid fantastic sums of money. So, girls, if you want to get slim and rich, here's an idea for you!

On the way back the coach stopped at a check-point just before entering Port Said, and a group of smiling young boys came to the coach for what must have been a ritual hand-out of our cardboard lunch-boxes. Those scraps that we didn't want to consume would find eager mouths among these poor folks who, I reckon, would be relatively immune from food-poisoning. Pity we didn't know about this for we might then have saved considerably more. I was never to sure about eating that chicken after the morning's heat in the coach! Then, after a brief walk-about in Port Said, with constant bickering/bartering for the likes of leather wallets with bottomless pockets - what-you-think-you-see is not always what-you-get - it was walking the plank onto our fabulous cruise ship and the final queue for dinner and pictures. Did I mention that the ship's camera crew even sprang up at the Sphinx to take our pictures? (By the way. If you do this cruise, get to the meals as early as possible. Pray to be on the first of the two shifts. This gets you off to a better start all round.)

Overall verdict? If you go to Cyprus, one of these trips is quite an experience. It was well worth it even if the 'cruise ship' was not all we had hoped for. (If you get a better ship it might be much better!) Clearly you must realize that such a trip is only a taster: but it left a great taste, and great memories. However, if you really want the time to properly explore the Holy Land or Egypt, go for one of these alone and opt for quality time rather than quantity! Do your Holy Land tour or Nile Cruise in style. Me? Well, my brief is to get around and tell you all about it. Hope I am achieving this!

End of this segment!

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