I now know the significance of the phrase: “Balls like a Cairo taxi driver.”
Driving in Cairo is more like living through a scene from ‘Mad Max‘ where everyone is escaping near death on a daily basis in a post apocalyptic dust cloud of dented cars and trash lined roadways. Lanes are completely optional. If two cars are driving down designated lanes and there is space between them, shooting the gap is fair game. Horns are used as religiously as the Koran. Most cars we rode in didn’t even have seatbelts.
“Don’t try to cross the road here with heavy traffic.” Our friend Susanna said.”It’s not like Vietnam, where they’ll swerve around you. Here, they’ll run over you.”
And run over people we did. Because pedestrian cross walks are non-existent, people are forced to find gaps in the traffic and play ‘frogger’. On our second Uber trip in the city, a pedestrian bounced off our hood and neither him or our driver didn’t even stop.
“Shouldn’t you check to see if he’s OK?” I asked.
“No, he’s probably fine.” The driver said dismissively with a wave of his hand.
The next day, we came to a screeching halt just inches in front of a man escorting an elderly woman across the street. Her guide shook his cane at our driver and our driver shouted back while casting obscene hand gestures. Luckily, Ubers were cheap. Some rides around the less touristy sites came in at less than a dollar, so after getting a ride to our friends Anton and Suzanna’s house, we knew we could rest easy for 3 days with old friends and catching up.
If you ask people: “What do you want to see before you die?“, many will answer the Pyramids at Giza.
Of all the historic sites we planned to see on our trip, the pyramids in Cairo and ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru were at the top of our list. Learning about these structures as young children filled both Lisa, Ava and I with such an awe, that the night before we actually felt nervous; like you do before delivering a speech or a job interview. It was almost if we were afraid of disappointing the pyramids themselves and had anthropomorphized them into judgmental monoliths whose journey through time brought them to life.
The size is the first thing that strikes you. You know they’re going to be big, but nothing prepares you for the size of seeing 2 million blocks built over 20 years with primitive tools that has lasted for 4000 years with only 58 millimeters of variance. Many of the blocks were as tall as me. We did a figure eight around Khufu and Khafre before we walked down the causeway to the great Sphinx.
“Wow, the Sphinx is smaller than I imagined.” said Ava. “And it looks like Imseti. Don’t you think daddy?”
“Who is that?“
“Imseti is the egyptian man that guards the liver in the canopic jars.”
Since she had been reading the ‘Horrible Histories’ version of “The Ancient Egyptians” our daughter would come to teach us much about ancient Egypt and served as our family’s own personal guide.
Our friends in Tanzania (The Fossgreens) whom we stayed with while there and who lived in Egypt for a time told us not to miss the Saqqara complex.
“And the Red Pyramid too.” Bill told us. “You can go down into the antechambers and there is nobody there.”
We chartered a driver for 800 Egyptian pounds to pick us up from our house and drive us south of Cairo to visit the Saqqara (or step pyramid), Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. Bill was right. There was hardly anybody there.
What made the Saqqara complex so amazing is the tombs of the viziers. The royal viziers were the most trusted counsels of the kings in ancient Egypt and although they weren’t given pyramids, trusted viziers commanded respect in the form of large tombs, and carvings worthy of a Pharaoh. While in Saqqara, we visited the tombs of viziers Kagemni and Mereruka, counsel for King Teti in the sixth dynasty which was around 2,400 BC. King Teti’s tomb was also there and in typical fashion of tombs in the pyramids, you have to crouch and descend down a long chamber to the main corridors and interior chambers that were adorned with wealth.
The red pyramid was a harsh lesson in physical fitness. It had a 65 meter descending tunnel into three massive corbel vaulted chambers. By the time we got down, I was dripping in sweat and needed to stop twice on the way out. Our thighs were sore for 3 days afterwards.
Scams to Watch out For
By now, we had gotten pretty accustomed to scams in Egypt, which we read were too numerous to print. Around the temple areas, the scam plays out the same: some guy will be lurking near an off the beaten track part of the complex and tell you your ticket does not cover these rooms and if you want to see them, you have to pay extra money. Or, a guide will miraculously appear at your side and start talking, and after waxing on about the history of the area, ask for a little ‘baksheesh‘ by rubbing his fingers together. Another is a vendor who will give you a shirt for free, and then his thugs will appear a minute later asking for money now that you have soiled his shirt.
I heard from others that ‘Baksheesh‘ was a dreaded term in Egypt and many locals would not do their job unless some gratuity was promised or given for their meager efforts. Upon landing at the Cairo airport on day one, a bathroom attendant pulled a paper towel down from the dispenser so it was easier for me to grab and wanted baksheesh. I would ask guards and attendants for information on this or that and they wanted baksheesh. As tourism is just starting to rebound since the revolution of 2011 when tourism revenues fell by 95%, many locals are still hurting for money and jobs and appreciate every little bit.
Luxor: Time to Relax
Since we had been staying with friends in Oman, Dubai and Cairo, we decided to splurge for our 4 nights in Luxor by staying at the Hilton Luxor Spa and Resort and celebrate having gotten new teaching positions in Lima, Peru starting next summer. Although the rooms were $140 a night, we got 3 times our normal 14 times points as this was the low season and with our diamond status got free room upgrades with breakfast and complimentary cocktails in the evening and the point tally would push us over the amount needed for a free 4 night redemption in Brazil in March. Having 4 full days to lounge around the pool in the afternoon with room service, massages and spa access was the cats whiskers and just what we needed to unwind after the emotional rollercoaster of an international job search.
Before entering the temple of Karnak, Lisa and I bought checkered ‘Kieffer’ headscarfs to keep our pates out of the scorching heat. Kieffers are commonly worn by locals in the Arab world and they vary much on the fabric, size and design depending on whether your intent is style or function. Ours were made of cotton and were a slightly heavy weave to absorb the sweat and were just under a meter square to allow us enough material to wrap securely around our heads but allow enough material to drape over our neck and ears to keep the majority of our heads shaded. Many locals volunteered to show us different head wrapping styles that they themselves had favored over time.
Valley of the Kings and Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple
We chartered a car that took us to the west bank of the Nile to see the Valley of the Kings one morning while in Luxor. The valley is pretty unseemly, and what surprised us was how many people were buried in the region. We had thought going into it that a dozen or so kings and queens lie buried in ancient tombs, but it turns out that there are thousands of people from upper and upper middle class Egypt that had been laid to rest over the centuries. Some modern villages were built on top of the tombs and after UNESCO declared the area a world heritage site, the local homes had to be demolished and moved to a new area that complied with conservation mandates. 24 hour video cameras keep an eye on the huge area to prevent further grave robberies.
Valley of the Kings was pretty spectacular. Admission gains you entrance to 3 tombs of your choice, but some of the more decorative ones like Seti and Aphrodite have additional, eye gouging fees. We visited the tombs of Ramses the III, IV and IX and the carvings were exquisite. We didn’t visit King Tutankhamun’s tomb as there was an extra fee and as he died young and rather unexpectedly, so there wasn’t time to make his tomb as large and elaborate as the other kings of old. His claim to fame was the tomb itself escaping burglary and being only discovered in 1922 with all his possessions still in the chambers. His golden mask at the Cairo museum might just be one of the most beautiful artifacts we’ve ever seen.
On the way out, we stopped at queen Hatshepsut’s temple which was anything by subtle. The mortuary temple at Deir El-Bahiri is a colonnaded symmetrical entrance with that is a grand gesture to her time as ruler and her achievements such as her fairly long reign and expansion of trade routes and building projects within the Egyptian civilization.
Our Middle East Trip Takes a Turn
While in Luxor, we decided to take the next portion of our middle east trip off our journey. Although Lebanon was a place we’ve wanted to visit for some time, travel there had recently become a headache since anti-government protests started mid-October and the country was starting to suspend basic services and roadblocks were making it difficult to get around. Our friend Damon who is a teacher there relayed that his school had been cancelled, banks were shutting down, and kidnappings were up around border areas near Syria and Israel so we decided to avoid it for the time being. Even the US state department raised their travel advisory one notch below the level: “Avoid all travel“
So, while in Luxor, we cancelled all our Lebanese bookings and researched an island in the Mediterranean sea we knew nothing about which we would come to discover soon: Cyprus.