Friday, August 06, 2010

I’m on a Camel!

I have to admit - I wasn’t showing it, but I was pretty nervous about this port. We knew in advance that with the long travel to and around Giza, the heat, and just the all-around craziness of even waking down the street, that Egypt would had the potential to be a really rough port on Elise (and therefore, us). Somehow, the stars aligned perfectly, and we left with the experience that I’ve wanted to have since I was a sixth-grader checking out pyramid books at the Hennepin County Library – yet another item checked off the bucket list.

After two days at sea, we headed south and docked in Alexandria, with full preparation that this port would be unlike any of the other ports we visited. And this was evident immediately outside the port gates in Alexandria, where we docked. Egypt is the closest thing I’ve seen to India since I was in India – a bit dryer, with fewer people, but with the same sensory overload for anyone who steps off the confines of the ship. It’s one of the great formative experiences for anyone of privilege such as ourselves, taking it all in, understanding that this is how much of the world goes about day-by-day.

Our plans were made around the one thing everyone is required to do when visiting Egypt – traveling to Giza to experience be in the shadow of the great pyramids. We decided to sign up for a Semester at Sea trip overnight trip to Cairo, because these trips are impeccably organized, and we didn’t really want to deal with having to negotiate every single taxi ride to unfamiliar places with a two-year-old in 110+ degree heat. In the past, I would have shied away from too many SAS trips because the can be a bit too easy on you (though they are a fantastic way to meet and bond with fellow shipmates), but with a two-year-old, it was exactly the right thing to do.
But the trip to Cairo didn’t leave until our second day in port. So we wanted at least to explore Alexandria the first day on the trip, but not having thought it through too thoroughly ahead of time, we didn’t sign up for any SAS city orientations, and were unsuccessful on jumping on one of the ones that left that morning.

So were 30 other students, so our amazing field office team of Wade, Carol, and Holly put together another city orientation bus with a guide for us, and since I was the only staff member who wanted it, I was made the trip leader - free trip! As soon as we left the port, the amazing dance that is Egyptian traffic began, with our bus finding itself in a lane in the wrong direction, gridlocked with an oncoming tram ahead of us, and another on the side, plus several more cars, all in an Escher-esque puzzle that took all drivers several quick conferences on the road to figure out how to untangle the mess. It was pretty great – I don’t think we traveled all that much, but because of our little street waltzes, it certainly was a 4+ trip when all was said and done.

Alexandria is a amazingly interesting city. Fairly conservative with a majority muslim population, I don’t think we saw any women that weren’t covered – the vast majority had the full burkas on. The beaches (quite numerous) were full of men and women, but all women were fully covered in the water, head to toe, and I can only begin to imagine how hot it is in that sun, while how heavy it could be swimming with all that cloth.

Most people also only get out at night, when the heat is manageable, so the streets that were only marginally crowded during the day are PACKED in the evening, with pedestrians taking over much of the streets in already busy traffic. Much like India, car horns abound, as a statement of affirmation to anyone who will (can) listen, and much more interestingly, I noticed that headlights are not meant for lighten the road for the driver, they are used to flash and alert pedestrians of the oncoming vehicle on an as-needed basis. There certainly is a rhythm to it… we get very nervous the first time we step into the craziness, and it certainly isn’t “safe”, but generally, everybody understands the beat and accidents are probably a lot less numerous than it should be. I thought we would have hit at least a dozen people by the time we got back on the ship.

(Which, by the way, our taxi driver on the last day told us he had done just a month before).
So we got the insulated city tour the first day – great to get the lay of the land with Elise, and having wonderful conversations with our city guide, who also had a two-year-old. We visited sites such as the Catacombs, the Montazah Palace and Gardens, the fort on the site of the old Lighthouse of Alexandria, and the stunning new Library of Alexandria (more on that later).
The following day we boarded the bus for what would be our three-hour car ride to Cairo and Giza. I was the bus leader with about 35 pretty great students on the bus, and we set off early morning through the desert. And really, the highway just goes right through the desert. The entire population of Egypt lives along the Nile, or on coastal cities, and the rest of the country is pretty deserted. My favorite part of the ride was learning about these pigeon houses built everywhere, because apparently pigeon is quite the delicacy out there. Yum. Elise was in pretty good spirits, therefore, so were we.

As soon as we get near Giza, the big pyramids come into view. You can see them from everywhere, and they are quite the sight – exactly how you’ve seen them in the million of pictures since childhood. We drove past them, through the extremely poor outskirts of the city to avoid the traffic, straight to the Step Pyramid, which is the oldest attempt at building a pyramid that we know of.

As our favorite tour guide Hedy explained, the everyday things could be built of perishable materials, but the tombs and stuff for the afterlife had to last forever. And boy, did it. In the intense, intense desert heat (summertime is not the high tourist season in Egypt for a reason), we ventured out into the tombs and into the pyramid for our first experience with hieroglyphs, which are everywhere and still in pretty great shape.

What we discovered is that Elise would really enjoy going to the pyramids, not because of their sense of awe and wonder, but because there sand everywhere. Egypt is a big sandbox to her (maybe that’s why we saw so many cats too). You can see it in all the pictures – we would step off the bus, and while everyone is looking at the sights, she’d go straight for the ground. Our biggest regret is we had purchased sand toys exactly with that scenario in mind, but forgot it aboard the ship. Oh, well, next time. We have to come back to see Luxor someday anyway.
We went back to the hotel (Mena House?), literally in the shadow of the great pyramids. One thing that you don’t realize from all the pictures is that the city encroach right up to the pyramid complex, with houses and hotels and highways fairly close to them, yet it is really hard to tell that that’s the case from all the pictures, given how everything is positioned.

We finished the day at the Cairo Archaeological Museum (which was really crowded… and it isn’t even the high season). The best part of the museum? The Tutankhamen exhibit, with all the artifacts we’re familiar with. There’s are so many items there, that makes me think that the traveling Tutankhamen exhibits don’t really have anything left to show. It’s more impressive when you think that Tut wasn’t the most lavish of the tombs – only the one that was found intact. Elise was running on empty at that point, so we skipped the mummy exhibit and headed to the hotel.

In typical SAS fashion, the hotel was perhaps 7 stars (is that possible? I have no idea. And low standards.), and much to Elise’s delight, full of grass for her to run all over the place. Monika took over as bus leaders to take the students to the cheesy sound and light laser show at the pyramids, where the Sphinx was the british narrator over an overly-dramatic musical score. I stayed back and let Elise enjoy her first bathtub in months before she fell hard asleep. It was a good day for all.

The next morning I was up at 4am (while the ladies stayed behind), to take the students to the pyramids for sunrise and camel riding. One of the advantages of being on Semester at Sea is that they can pull off things like this… they opened the pyramid complex just for us so we could see the sunrise behind the pyramids. The view was amazing and the temperature was perfect at that time, and we also had a lot of fun doing some camel riding, but I have to say I don’t think I’ll ever do that again, as the camels aren’t very well treated over there.

What else can I say about the pyramids that haven’t been said before? I think the most amazing part is that they were the worlds tallest structure for 3500 years, of a size and scale that required an ungodly effort to complete in 20 years. I think that perhaps there’s an emotional connection as the pyramids are something that people (myself, at least) have distinct memories learning about in their childhood, and to see them materialized in front of you, picking up the little details that can’t come up in any book, is something worth seeing.

We met up with Monika and Elise soon afterwards, spending over three hours around the pyramids and the sphinx (including the sunrise), then went to the biggest bazaar in Egypt, and finished with a cruise on the Nile. The cruise, unfortunately, matched a lot of Vegas with some of the cheesy aspects of it. It had over-the-top Egyptian decorations (think Luxor Casino without the budget), complete with a photographer half-dressed in pharaoh’s clothing. The food was good but the music was too loud, so we spent much of the time on the staircase since Elise is pretty sensitive (still) to loud noises. They had a bellydancer, and having been surrounded by burkas all trip long, it felt so wrong and dirty in the context. I asked our guide how bellydancing is perceived in the area, and her face led me to believe that we were in the region’s equivalent of a strip cruise. I would have loved just to sail the Nile, but I assume there is a real demand for this type of cruise when in Egypt. Oh, well.

Other than that, the cruise was lovely. It really was – there was a derv-ish dancer aboard who did some truly interesting moves, and Elise kind of bonded with him.

Afer a busy two days in Cairo, we were soon on our three hour drive back to Alexandria. Elise fell asleep the entire time, so we really couldn’t have scripted it better.

I have to say that as interesting as the pyramids were, I was pretty fascinated by the often ignored history of Egypt since the ancient times, and where Egypt is today. Egypt has gone through as many transitions through the ages as Turkey, and it is easy to forget that there were several thousand years of history (and fairly interesting history at that), that happened since the ancient times – with the Greeks, Romans, Christians, Muslims, and everyone else between dropping by. Its particularly interesting to see such a predominantly Muslim country when it was Christian not so long ago, and how the population embraces its distant past.

Most interesting to me was experiencing the country with Elise and Monika. I hope Monika writes an entry from her perspective – she was getting so many mixed messages. On one hand, men were really forward with her, particularly when they didn’t see I was with her, taking pictures of her, and on the other hand, she was in a society where she wasn’t supposed to interact with men who are not her husband. She said several times that it would be much easier for her to maneuver around if SHE was wearing a burka, so she didn’t have to worry about what to do (and she was dressed conservatively by our standards – covered shoulders with full-length skirts the whole time.

Also interesting was traveling with Elise. As has been true in every country, but especially in Greece and Turkey, people were extremely forward and loving with her. The main difference I felt this time was that more women came forth to her than before, and that there was a curiosity factor to the interaction that hadn’t existed in the other countries – perhaps because tourists don’t usually bring a two-year-old to travel to Egypt too often. When we visited the library at Alexandria, Elise wasn’t allowed in (had to be 6 or older), so Monika and took turns hanging out with her outside for almost three hours. She was mobbed by women and children coming up to her, picking her up, kissing her, taking pictures of her and with her. At first, Elise took it extremely and surprisingly well, smiling for the pictures, and not freaking out when full-burkaed women picked her up to hold and kiss her. After three hours, she finally got tired of it, and when a man came up from behind her and picked her up, she screamed, and that was the end of the touching for that day (the man did, however, as me permission if he could take a picture with my wife. I said yes.).

Speaking of the Library, that is easily the most impressive thing we saw in Alexandria. Located on the same site as the ancient Library of Alexandria, it is a masterpiece in design. The outside is pretty neat – a circle that submerges beneath a pool at sea level, but the inside is simply stunning, with several staggered, open, naturally-lit floors, each with their own unique function interspersed between the books. The library has books in Arabic, English, and French (and I saw others too, all on the same shelving), with half a million volumes, but it has enough space for eight million items (it is very empty right now). The guide told us it is the fourth largest library in the world, but should be the largest once it is all completed – larger than the Library of Congress. It would certainly look more impressive.

The last thing of note was that I didn’t want to come all the way to Egypt and just experience it from the insular bubble of the ships and tour buses. It is very difficult to just go out with Elise, so once she fell asleep, I went out to walk around the city of Alexandria with Emily, Kris, and Holly. This was sensory overload at its peak, as we went out in the cool hours of twilight when the masses came out. There was so many people all over the place, navigating effortlessly through the chaos, full of colors from the fabric of the bazaars. We had two guys follow us for 25 minutes before we told them we were just going to walk alone, and I was sure they just wanted to see us something, but after hearing stories from people on the ship that they were followed and helped by these individuals for hours who didn’t try to sell them anything, I realized I may never know if we blew off two individuals with purely noble purposes. It was a pretty neat experience all around.

Egypt is tough, and I think the most important port for the shipboard community to have visited. I hope people took in more than the pyramids, because just like India, I think that’s what will stick with me when I look back at this trip years from now. It is the kind of place where you find so many hidden wondrous gems in the unlikely of places, surrounded by a chaos and poverty that makes you realize how randomly lucky we are to be born where we are. I think about that all the time.

We’re bunkering right now on the shadow of the massive Rock of Gibraltar out our window, finishing six days at sea, sailing through the Barbary Coast (no pirates! But same view they had.) before docking in Morocco. We’ve had the Sea Olympics (always awesome), the Talent Show, and the Crew Talent Show (absolutely, positively the most amazing and awesome crew in the world). We’ll be in Casablanca in the morning, Marrakesh in the afternoon, and four days later, we will be at sea for ten days, reflecting on the experiences on our way home.

Gotta go take Elise to dinner. Back in a few.

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