CATEGORY / egypt

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!


Hanging out in the Valley of the Kings. (Photo by Andrew Currie.)

Greetings from the lobby of the Movenpick Jolie Ville hotel, near Luxor. We have checked out and have 7 hours to kill before our overnight train ride back to Cairo. We’re taking this opportunity to relax and lavishly enjoy the free wifi offered by this extremely comfortable facility.

Today we visited the Temples of Karnak. Yes, we took time to also do a cheap version of the classic Johnny Carson Karnak routine (video forthcoming), so don’t ask. The temples of Karnak are an enormous facility, about 1.5km by 800m, containing obelisks, chapels and other stone artistic treasures dedicated to the Theban gods. Karnak was first built during the reign of Rameses III (12th century BC), and was maintained as a place of business and worship for 1500 years. Most of it has decayed and crumbled, but what remains provides quite a taste of what must have been one of the world’s most impressive architectural achievments. In fact, I would say that Karnak is as impressive an engineering feat as the Great Pyramids themselves, so colossal and intricate are its elements, which include scores of ram-headed sphinxes, obelishs, giant pillars, temples and even a giant artificial lake, fed by the water table. To have even designed such a thing speaks volumes about the scientific prowess of the ancients.

I am convinced that if Karnak had been more intact during the time of Herotodus, it would have been counted among the Wonders of the World.

Of course, I’ve been reading about Karnak for decades, and always suspected that one day I would stroll its avenues. But in those fantasies, I never imagined the clouds of annoying tourists blocking my view, scurrying about like rats in a granary, many rarely even looking up to perceive the true grandeur of the wonder before them. It caused us to rank the annoyingness of various tourist origins. I won’t mention which nationality came out as the most annoying, but I will happily report that the Japanese are the least annoying; they are generally happy, respectiful, stylish, engaged and quiet.

I’ve neglected to mention an important personal connection to the Valley of the Kings. Called “the greatest Egyptological find since Tutankhamen”, in 1995 Dr Kent Weeks discovered the tombs of the many sons of Rameses II, a find that has turned out to be the single largest tomb network ever discovered in Egypt. (It’s amazing that such stupefying discoveries are still being made in the modern era). The complex is not yet open to the public, but Dr Weeks’ online project, The Theban Mapping Project, gives us all a glimpse into the design and layout of the KV5 site.

It seems that an old childhood friend, and one of my early polymathic inspirations, was intimately involved in the development of the Theban Mapping Project. Walton Chan is an artist, animator, engineer and architect. When last we communicated, Good Morning America was about to report on his project —from a hot air balloon above the Valley of the Kings!

Indeed, my one regret from this trip is that I won’t have time to rent a hot air balloon and make a similar journey.

I’ve written a lot so far about the antiquities of Egypt, but very little about the bustle of modern Egypt. Cairo is a gorgeous, clean and modern megalopolis. Its subway is efficient and pristine. Several times, I had to remind myself that I was riding a subway in Africa! Luxor is cinematic in the way that high priced hotels and cobbled boulevards on the East Bank complement so well the ancient temples, ochre dust and reaching palm trees of the West Bank. Peppering it all is the smoky, colourful din of rich, Islamic life. Turbans, burqas, veils, luxuriant full-length embroidered suits and stylish leather shoes adorn passersby, lending further romantic zeal to the place.

Yes, the hassle of touts is intolerable. But today it’s all quite acceptable, because it’s the sabbath, and everyone is leaving us alone. The melodic call to prayer echoes from the various minarettes around town, providing a glorious soundscape to mirror the blinding noon sky and the pastel allures of the rising and setting suns.

And threading through both cities, eternal and silent, is the immortal Nile, sparkling and redolent with history.

Good Luck at Luxor

(Photo by Andrew Currie)

Luxor is simply lovely. It is the romantic stereotype of a former Nile capital: palm-lined river banks patrolled by lazy sailboats and ferries, Islamic traders bustling back and forth; on the East Bank, the imposing rusty pillars of the ancient Luxor temple, and, on the West Bank, the gateway to the storied Valley of the Kings. Above it all, hot air ballons dance against the blinding blue sky.

Luxor is also the “hassle capital” of Egypt, with touts, salesmen and drivers pestering us with every step. I’ve travelled a lot in the developing world, and like to think I’ve learned to “go with the flow” when it comes to such tactics. But in Egypt I have found the most annoyingly aggressive of this breed. Touts place items in your hand while you walk, then demand payment for it. They start conversations then insist that the dialogue is in fact a binding contract. They never ever take no or –as Andrew discovered– “leave us the @!#$ alone” for an answer.

Perhaps on another day, I’d be more forgiving. But we had just got off a jerky overnight train. We had barely slept and had not bathed. My back is still bugging me, to the point where every step is agony. I can put up with all of that. But to deal with those factors while fending off the unending barrage of touts is simply unbearable…. and I’m one of the nice ones. In fact, as Andrew keeps reminding me, I’m too nice. I’m very forgiving of these individuals who must scrounge to make a living. What they don’t understand is that if they’d simply give us room to think and breathe, we would happily pay more than market price for most items and services. We have money and we wish to spend it …lavishly! We just don’t want to be annoyed into it.

The hassle culture is so prevalent here that I would hesitate before recommending these locales to many friends as a tourism destination. If you’re not prepared to have your blood presssure climb into quadruple digits, Egypt is not the place for you.

That aside, today was filled with more explorations of Egypt’s storied antiquities. The gateway to the Valley of the Kings are dual megolithic statues called the Colossi of Memnon, each about 18m in height. The Greeks named them such because they believed them to be statues of legendary King Memnon. In fact, they were built by Pharaoh Amonhotep III centuries before the Greeks ruled this land. Weirdly, the nothern statue was famous in Greek times as being a “singing statue”. It seems that during sunrise, the temperature and pressure changes caused the colossus to emit a weird wailing noise, which the Greeks believed to be the cry of Memnon greeting his mother, Eos the Dawn. When the statue was repaired in the 2nd century AD, the strange noise ceased. Most interesting about the colossi is the Greek graffiti scratched onto their legs, perhaps dating back to Ptolemaic times!

Despite my earlier chastisement of the Egyptians for their poor management of the Pyramids of Giza (see photo above), I was very impressed by how they have preserved and protected the Valley of the Kings. The Valley, of course, is where the tombs of many Pharaohs –including that of Tutankhamun— were secretly located, to fool erstwhile ancient (and modern) grave robbers –with mixed results. Its entrance is a modern museum-style facility with information stations and a controlled security station –something the Pyramids desperately need!

We explored a number of tombs, including that of Tut himself. Tut’s tomb is among the least impressive, but is undoubtedly the most famous. Similar to our earlier good fortune at the Pyramid of Cheops, for a few minutes Andrew and I managed to find ourselves alone with Tut’s mummy, partially unwrapped, and with his famous golden sarcophagus, both recently returned to this site.

For those cognizant of history, it can be a very powerful moment, to stare into the unseeing eyes of King Tut himself, to appreciate his leathery, blackened skin, odd shaped skull and diminutive stature. The experience ties one to the trunk of history, and is a reminder that all great figures were merely mortal, fragile humans, even this boy king, once the wealthiest and most powerful figure in the world, his tragic story and rediscovery now part of the fabric of human world culture.

Tomorrow, on to the great temples at Karnak, then back on the overnight sleeper train to Cairo!


Still haven’t uploaded any Egypt pics. But here are a few by Andrew:

1. Here we are in one of the architects’ tombs at the feet of the Great Pyramids. What are we thinking? “How will the locals try to fleece us next?”

2. Here’s the standard tourist photo:

3. And yes, proof that I peed on the Giza Plateau:

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