Last Night In Cairo

Me, about 3 steps up on the Great Pyramid of Khephren, the second biggest on the Giza Plateau. Photo by Andrew Currie.

Yes, I peed in the Temple of Karnak. And no, I’m not remorseful about it. See, I really really really had to go. And I should get points for managing to do it while hundreds (maybe thousands!) of tourists wandered by. Besides, the bloody structure has been standing in the open for thousands of years, exposed to rain, hail, wind, sand, light, cold and smog; it was meant to withstand a little urine. What it can’t withstand is all the “officials” beckoning tourists to bribe them in exchange for access to the more delicate portions of the historic site.

These are my final few hours in Egypt. My back is still killing me, and I’m limping about like the villain of a 1930s horror movie. About 24 hours ago, I came down with a nasty fever and am still recovering. Mind you, if you’re going to be sick in Egypt, it may as well be in the $300/night Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel, where my comfort knows no bounds. My illness, however, prevented me from visiting the Red and Bent pyramids, which would have been pretty cool.

A word about touts: several people have emailed me to offer advice on how to deal with aggressive touts and salesmen. While I appreciate the advice, I should point out that I’m no stranger to such behaviour, having travelled extensively in the developing world. Maybe it’s something peculiar to this season, but the toutism in Egypt has been unbearably intense during our visit. The standard strategies of always saying no, saying nothing at all, feigning ignorance of English, or even carrying no money, sometimes don’t work on this crowd. At Khan al-Khalili market in Cairo, touts would try to physically drag us into their stores! Some, upon being rebuffed, would shout insults to our backs. At one point, one of them even pulled me halfway out of a taxi I was attempting to board; I feared it would come to blows.

Of my decades of adventure travel, this has been my first experience with locals actually physically touching me in a menacing way. When I venture out alone, mind you, I look like an Arab and people pretty much leave me be. But in tourist rich areas, everyone is fair game for the occasionally threatening tactics, whether I’m with my white colleague or not. This is what I mean about Egypt’s toutism being off the scale in terms of aggression, and why I would not recommend this place as a tourist destination for inexperienced travellers.

But for those who can tolerate such things, or who are willing to insulate themselves in tour groups or with expensive guides, Egypt is a fascinating place rich with living history and modern intrigue. Even the less aggressive touts become funny after a while. They all read from the same script. They ask where you’re from, you say “Canada”, and –to a man– they reply, “Oh! Canada Dry!” Then they take another look at me and say, “You look Egyptian!” This happened so often that at first it was funny, then became annoying, then became funny again after we lost count of its occurrences.

On our last night in Luxor, Andrew and I enjoyed a sunset felucca ride down the Nile, just a few hundred metres from the West Bank and the Valley of the Kings. With a little bit of imagination, you could imagine Pharaonic boats plying the magic hour, or even the boats of Alexander come to claim their Egyptian jewel in the Persian war prize.

And this evening, I dined in the hotel’s Italian restaurant, overlooking Cairo’s stretch of Nile, as all around me, Italians, French, Germans and Arabs chain smoked and imbibed fatty foods. See, Egypt is, in many ways, more European than African. Europe has claimed it for millennia. It has been ruled by the British, the French, the Turks, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. All these nations still claim a sort of romantic ownership of the place. But it speaks well of the robustness of Egyptian culture that its centuries of occupation by foreign powers have in no way compromised Egypt’s sense of itself.

The culture is so refreshingly robust that it seems to exist apart from ubiquitous American influence. The television is replete with Arabic and European content; American content is hard to find. Indeed, even American pop music is remarkably rare here, as the indigenous music and film industries are strong enough to weather any sort of competition.

Speaking of European TV content, I’ve been particularly enjoying the news broadcasts of France 24, an English language news station from France. I think I need to spend more time in Europe.

And speaking of US influence, I have neglected to report on one very interesting observation. When I arrived in Cairo airport last week, what did I see on the tarmac, kept at a respectful distance by security trucks and encircled by men in black suits and sunglasses? Yep, Air Force One. Or maybe it was one of the decoys. I can only assume it was on its way from Benazir Bhutto’s funeral.

Our overpriced (and annoying) guide taking my photo on the Giza plateau, while Andrew photographs his butt crack. Photo by Andrew Currie.

As many of you know, I consider myself a bit of a massage connoisseur. I’ve travelled the world sampling different styles, and even learning a few. I’ll try it all: Swedish, aromatherapy, Ayurvedic, Thai, Rolf, Shiatsu, reflexology…. so long as it involves me doing absolutely nothing, and someone else poking and prodding me to make me feel better, I’m all for it.

My stay in Egypt has been no different. During my ten days here, I’ve had three massages in three different hotels. (I figure the hotel masseuses/masseurs are most likely to be above board). Here’s the rundown. The first one, given by a really goodlooking chick at the Pyramids Meridien in Giza, was a true waste of time. She giggled a lot and barely touched me, with made me more tense than when I went in. In retrospect, I wonder if she was hoping to solicit some of her “extra” services after hours. This seemed unlikely to me at the time, considering it was a family resort-style hotel.

The second one was given by a matronly middle-aged British nurse at the Movenpick hotel in Luxor. Hers was an airy-fairy aromatherapy approach, something I usually don’t have a lot of tolerance for. But I was very surprised by the potency of this experience. While there was nothing special about the firmness or style of her touch, I suspect the order of her touches, combined with her choice of oils, just knocked me right out –in a good way!– like I’d taken half a bottle of melatonin.

The last was just a few hours ago, a Swedish-style pounding given by a burly middle aged man who was probably a butcher in a previous life. I feel that I’m now ready to be marinated and placed on the grill.

Now, I’m typically a fan of the hard styles of massage, particularly Rolfing. But I have to conclude that in this trip, it was the aromatherapy massage that was tops. In case anyone cares.

In Other News

Congratulations to my parents on their 50th wedding anniversary! I’ll be lucky to make it to my 50th birthday…

After the Iowa primaries, has Obama ahead of Hilary in terms of betting odds. Not to me counted out, my man Al Gore still leads the pack with 5-1 odds. I’m not giving up on my prediction yet!

No one knows Pakistani intrigue like Brother Margolis.

Everyone has been sending me this: Intel pulls out of the One Laptop Per Child board, with intentions to push its competitor product onto the market and drown out OLPC. Intel sucks.

My friend Tahmena has shared with us her new blog, describing her experiences with Muslim villages in Southeast Asia.

Sarah sends us this great “poppy” science fiction site.

That be all…. signing out from Cairo!