Sunday, February 25, 2007
Queen Hatshepsut (back) and Rosemary (front) share a smile at Deir al-Bahri, the queen's imposing temple near Luxor, not far from the Valley of the Kings.
Actually, the 10-day Egypt trip I day-dreamed about all last year was not all smiles. Let's just say that "taking a night train to Luxor" and "strolling though the souk in Islamic Cairo" and "riding a camel" sound much more romantic and exotic than the reality.
The train cabins are the size of your average linen closet and smell like diesel, which is a lot better than what camels smell like. The bizarres are crammed with hawkers, pickpockets and unsmiling people. We went accompanied by a Glock-toting guard. And we tipped him for extra protection. In all the temples and tombs guards and Tourism Police with AK-47s and automatic pistols were prominent. They were comforting and unsettling at the same time.
Cairo may be one of the oldest, largest and most impressive cities in the world, but Egypt feels more African than modern. Some of the tour members had done African tours but you could tell the ones who had not. The crowded streets and hordes of beggars and hawkers oppressed them. They saw the poverty, dirt and hustling but not the colors and vitality.They were offended by the constant jockeying for tips and thrown off by the Arabic and atonal music. Classic culture shock, just what I felt my first three days in Kampala two years ago.
This is not to imply I was at ease and easily got about. The traffic in Cairo is indescribable. Gas is about $1 a gallon, so everyone drives. But the roads were meant for goats and horses -- which still use them -- not cars. The city has swollen to 20 million people while the roads have not swollen at all. The city is winding and confusing in addition. Getting around without a guide would take some getting used to.
Here are some other impressions of Cairo.
It's so loud you cannot think. Drivers don't use lights, even at night unless they are passing someone occasionally, but they lay on their horns.
None of the buildings seem to be finished. The top floors are all open with girders and wiring hanging about and people live here in wooden shacks. Our guide says finishing a building opens a landlord to taxes put on finished buildings. So they don't ever stop construction. That's not exactly a convincing or full argument, but it's colorful.