Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Full Circle: Desert to Desert

Egypt began with sunrise 1/1/11 on the top of Mt. Sinai.  It officially ended 1/11/11 when i boarded a 14 hour bus from Dakla Oasis to Cairo Airport.  I'd just said goodbye to my friends after watching the sun set over the western desert and the horizon go from orange, to red, to the deepest purple you could imagine.
I didn't write as much of this country as I expected.  Maybe it was because someone gave me their LP Egypt guidebook as I was leaving Jordan.  Traveling with a book has its advantages, but it also takes away a level of surprise and a dependence on the help of others which leads to interesting conversations and friendships.  Or maybe I wrote less because Egypt's 3,000 year old tourist industry streamlined things to less story-worthy material.  Or, more likely, it was the company of friends that changed the tone of the trip.  Not that things became uneventful, but they were eventful in a "You had to be there" kind of way.
It's hard to describe what it's like to be in a small room with ten Nubian men smoking hash from three joints, a glass jar, and a sheesha; looking for a polite excuse to decline an invitation for a second night of lung-caking inhalation; and laughing at the proposal for a "Nubian massage" whispered in my friend's ear.  It's a tall order to make you crack up like we did on top of a crumbling monastery wall imagining the comedic threads that would come from Pharaoh Tutankhamen brought back to life, Jurassic Park style, and then demanding all his treasures returned, tourists driven off, and souvenir hawkers set to rebuilding or placed in chains for selling postcards with his image next to camels humping.  I can't convey the sublime moment of laying on a sand dune in the vast western desert, having just soaked in natural hot springs, staring up at the universe and tossing around deep and absurd thoughts.. like future colonies on mars, on which my buddy and I should be the only men.. the first to father martians with the abundance of women who would naturally volunteer for the program.
What I can tell you is that the people in the Middle East are some of the friendliest in the world.  That Jerusalem is magical and Tel Aviv is going to put a dent in your budget.  That I'm much more wary walking around Venice Beach at 2am than Damascus, Syria.  I can tell you that it's good to wake up early on your travels and see things in the soft morning glow before the tour buses start their engines.  That you should bring a laptop because internet cafes are becoming as scarce as payphones.  That it's good to see an old friend on the road and meet some new ones.  And finally I can tell you that there is something about moving that's important for the soul.  Heraclitus said, "You could not step twice into the same river, for other waters are ever flowing on you."  Try to hold on to one spot and the stream will wear you down as smooth as its rocks.  I made like a felluca:  Observant and present when docked, sails up and ready to go when the wind began to blow.  Walks over sand dunes and down ancient alleys, buses that may or may not be going where I intended, overnight trains on which I slept to the thunk a thunk of the tracks below..  the anticipation and unpredictability of the next, the new, the yet to be discovered.  Getting from A to B was always more thrilling than being there. 

Sneaking up into the bell tower of a church in Beirut

An abandoned monastery

Old and new friends at the Funny Mummy cafe in Dahab, Egypt

Dawn of 1/1/11 where Moses got the 10 Commandments

A felluca makes its way up the Nile in Aswan

A souq in Aswan

The fastest way down a dune

On the trail from the Valley of the Kings to Hatshepsut's temple

Egypt and Egypped

Imagine walking into a coffeeshop in any American city as a German tourist, backpack still on, Let's Go USA guidebook in hand.  You order a black coffee and the barista says, "Ten dollars please."
"Ten dollars?!" you say.  That seems a little steep.
"Ten dollars," he repeats with conviction and turns to his colleagues for support.  The other employee chimes in, "Coffee?  Yeah, it's ten dollars," as if citing a well known fact.
That's out of your budget so you wave "no thanks" and make your way for the door.
"OK... seven dollars," the barista barks just as you walk out.
Now you are an American traveling in Australia.  You jump on the bus to get across town.
"Five dollars," says the driver.
"Five?  No... one or two, right?" you counter, sure its a misunderstanding.
"Its five dollars to ride the bus!" he huffs with such well rehearsed indignation you'd swear you've offended him.
Such is the experience of a traveler in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, or any piece of Egypt that's been kissed, or in some cases bear hugged, by tourism.  From the minute you step out of your hotel door every bottle of water, bus ride, candy bar, haircut, cup of tea, or museum fee could turn into a heated negotiation.  Some will let you walk out of their empty restaurant before accepting the same amount of money a local would pay.
Of course suckers do abound.  Get to the ancient temples at 6am, enjoy a serene walk around the majestic past with only the rising sun and waking birds for company.. and then, as you're leaving, slow your walk and watch them arrive.  They come just as the barbarian armies which tore down these great civilizations at their delicate ends.  The warships and cavalry are now oversized blue and yellow buses.  The swords and axes now cameras.  They come from castles they've constructed, fit with provisions so they need not venture outside the high walls.  Fort Hilton.  Citadel Sheraton.  They wear the garb of their tribe:  Hawaiian shirts, daisy duke shorts, spaghetti strap tops.  Continental breakfasts still digesting they march straight through the temple in a direct line from one touted highlight to the next, checking them off.  There is no time to wander and reflect.  Their commander, General Tourguide has 7 more temples for them to conquer before the sun sets.
If they haven't noticed no Egyptian wears shorts in public, they undoubtedly also haven't noticed that the ferry to cross the Nile cost 20 cents, not 10 dollars.  A bottle of water 40 cents, not 2 dollars. 

In the wake of a con I had to rectify with the help of the police, several Egyptians, embarrassed to hear the story, pointed out that there are bad people and good people everywhere.  Absolutely true.  Get away from the tourist trail and you'll find mostly warm, welcoming people.  They'll call out greeting from cafes, help you out with directions on the bus, lend you their phones and even money if you're in a spot.  They want to know where you are from and what you've seen.  They universally say, "Welcome to Egypt.. welcome," with the tone of a proud host ushering a new friend into his house.
Soon I was reminded that a raw deal is not a purely Egyptian specialty.  The carriage rider who switched my money around and claimed, "I am a Muslim.  I don't lie," temporarily had me for a 20 dollar loss.  The Christian cab driver who told me three times "I love Jesus," tried to double my fare for a 4 dollar loss.  A casting agency in Los Angeles, for whom I cut my trip short, tried to take me for a 350$ loss by refusing to refund what I spend to adjust my plane ticket.
The Egyptian police helped me get my 20 back.  Threat of a law suit helped me get the 350.  As my old man says, "The right incentive always motivates people to honesty."
Aswan PD hard at work on my case

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Egypt: Come for the Big, Remember the Small

Sinai Peninsula

The big attraction:  Diving the Red Sea.  Saw lots of fish.  No killer sharks. Damn.

The small ones:  Mt. Sinai.  Made a last minute plan from Tel Aviv, Israel to meet my friend Greg on the summit of Moses' mountain 24 hours later for sunrise on 1/1/11.. going non stop subway, bus, taxi, minivan, walking, microbus, hiking to get there for that magical moment.

Smaller one:  Going into a pharmacy to get some Valium for the 10 hr bus ride to Cairo.  After some friendly small talk the pharmacist asks, "You have lady?"  Then slides me a quaalude and a viagra as a parting present and instructs me to take half of each before getting it on.. but only half!  Get that at Walgreens.


Mistaking the Sphinx for another camel ride tout I missed out on ancient words of wisdom by accidentally telling him to "talk to the hand".
The big attraction:  The pyramids.  Amazing sight but lots of touts constantly hard selling camel rides and the best view, honest to God, is just outside the gates on the roof of a Pizza Hut.. you don't even have to buy a slice.


Big attraction:  Ancient tombs all around.  Interesting history and hieroglyphics.

Quiet side of Elephantine Island.. not in the LP.

Smaller attraction:  Nubian village next to ruins.  Put away the guidebook and got lost in the windy streets.  Met some kids playing soccer and got schooled as the guest star goalie. Approached a group of guys to get directions home and am now invited to a wedding tomorrow.  At the market my buddy Greg pays for use of public bathroom with a cigarette. Guy hits him up for another smoke on the way out, so Greg makes him shake on the deal that we've got a free piss there tomorrow.  Everyone who hears I'm American smiles and says, "Obama good!"   Down the road I bought a t-shirt in a shop and the owner invites us to Christmas mass in the big Coptic church in town (their xmas is later than ours)  I might give this one a skip in light of what just happened in Alexandria.. as a believer I'd at least be a martyr, as an atheist I'd just be unlucky.  Talked with another guy a few blocks down while munching a falafel and he invites us for tea and hasheesh at his cafe overlooking the Nile... that might be more my speed.