March 30, 2008

If I See One More Temple....

I might have to throw myself in the Nile, which would be on par with taking a dip in the Hudson or East rivers in New York. But instead of floating next to a dead body from a drug deal gone bad, you might find yourself encountering a soggy mummy who never made it into the Egyptian Museum. I don't mean to lessen the magnificence of the temples that we have seen, but after visiting two or three in the blazing sun....well, you kind of get the point - they liked really big columns, statues and absolutely LOVED to write hieroglyphs on anything and everything that had a surface to do so. I guess when you invent the first written language you have  a lot of things to say. An unexpected addition to the trip was my very dear friend Heather's husband Tim who along with offering his tremendous wit and go-with-the-flow- attitude to the group, was quite skilled in deciphering exactly what this ancient text was saying - and let me tell you, parts can read like a Ken Follet novel.
Over the past week, Egypt has become an endurance test of trains, planes, automobiles and well...camels ,which mostly run on "Egyptian Time"  (15 Egypt minutes = 1 American hour) and absolutely no emissions control. There are over 21 million people in Cairo without access to an effective Metro system so traffic and smog might actually beat Los Angeles in the 2008 Beijing Pollution Olympics. But it's worth having constant pep talks with your respiratory system in order to stand in the midst of such incredible history; history which seems to stretch on forever through the vast desert plains which are still being excavated daily, keeping archaeologists from just about every country with good job security. And so, day by day, we chip away at the surface of what is already on display. Sometimes visiting a sight can make you feel like an English explorer from the 1800's coming upon it's majesty for the first time - for instance when Tim and I got to be the ONLY people at the Giza Pyramids at sunset with some camels, a crazy guide named Solomon and a bottle of wine. And other times you feel as though you have just purchased a Disnetland ticket to the Valley of the Kings.
The traffic and smog, the breezy Felucca (sailboat) rides on the Nile, the extreme heat and dining under a full moon next to illuminated temple ruins make Egypt a seductive dichotomy that deserves more time than just scratching the surface.

March 21, 2008

Cairo - Pharaohs, Cemeteries and Souqs

My eyes are bleary, about to fold over upon themselves from the exhaustion of packing in a few thousand years of history in a day or two. Our pace has been more than steady and worth every step. We started yesterday with a must-see trip to the Egyptian Museum - a literal warehouse for most all things excavated from the Pyramids and Egypt in general. And you thought the Louvre was hard to get through in a day? This museum is a two story artifact-o-mat that has surprisingly little security around some major relics which include everything from the massive limestone Pharaoh's to 3000 year old sandals. It's amazing to just wander around the cavernous interior and let history speak through it's objects and inventions. One of my favorite pieces, and one of the more famous highlights in the museum, was the solid gold head of Tutankhamun shining in the center of a dark room alongside the rest of the luxury jewels found on his fine mummy self. As many times as I have seen it printed in books, in person, it really becomes a sight to behold. As my guidebook said though, after two or three hours you start to get "Pharaonic Phatigue". 
I am enjoying the Cairo part of my trip with my two good friends from New York, Chris and Kenny. It was Chris's brilliant idea to pick this amazing, flavorful destination and Kenny is invaluably the son of an Irish Auctioneer. He bargained us into a taxi whose driver turned out to be our official un-official tour guide. Mohamed took us to the Citadel and then to the Souq of Khan-il-Khalili - the largest bazaar in Cairo. Here we sat front and center on the main square participating in the massive ebb and flow of merchant city life. I have been busy trying to learn Arabic from the locals and I found my most useful phrase yet, La Shokran - No Thank You. Here is an off the beaten path traveling suggestion - pick a potentially obscure object and find a merchant who sells something close, but not quite, and tell them what you want. Within minutes they will have you hooked up with a cousin, brother or friend who promises to take you to the right place and, because you picked, let's say, a scarf in a particular size and patter (one that the merchant might be wearing but not selling), they will be guiding you through back alleys to local vendors and into parts of the markets not listed in the guidebooks. It's a great way to make new friends and experience the Souq outside the tourist arena.
On our way to the Souq, Mohamed showed us an area off the Citadel that was a sprawling cemetery that looked like a mini-city with one building larger than the next. Not surprising considering the Egyptians history with extravagant monuments honoring death and the afterlife. He told us of this strange occurrence whereby extremely poor citizens began squatting in the monuments of the cemetery centuries ago. Yes, they actually live there, but it's ot like a cemetery found in the US. The wealthy Cairenes would build an entire compund for the burial of their family members and have furnished rooms for contemplation and entertaining. The government has even since put in running water and a post office. So the have-nots of society got an unusually clever idea to break into these monuments and start a new life among the dead. Mohamed was kind enough, at my unsurprisingly relentless inquisition on the subject, to lead us for a closer look at this peculiar happening. We stopped by the home of a family and were able to help them with a little cash for a sneak peek into their life. 

March 18, 2008

Cairo, Egypt

Ahan Wa Sahlan! (Hello and Welcome)
I arrived safely in Cairo yesterday after a really long but friendly flight. I met a great group on their way to Sudan to film/photograph for a documentary and was seated next to a woman from the Bahamas and an Iranian man who ordered fish instead of chicken for the in-flight meal. The flight attendant told him she would give him chicken if their was left overs and when she came back later he told her "don't worry, I do not want it anymore", to which she replied"I worry, I worry very hard for this, I worry for you without chicken." And that was my first introduction to the hospitality of the Egyptian people.
I began my crush on Cairo the moment I stepped off the plane and took in the dusty, dry air. A taxi ride to the hotel showed a city that despite it's Pharaonic opulence was elegantly understated; long, wide, tree-lined streets with old and new buildings standing together with Mosques, palaces and parks sprinkled in. We are staying in an area called Zamalak - and east village type neighborhood on the banks of the Nile that is home to a bunch of impressive, compounded foreign embassies and a super groovy modern candlelit dinner club right on the water where we dined on Arabic food and smoked apple sheesha. Today we are headed for the Egyptian museum and the Grand Bazaar.

March 11, 2008

In Search of Unhappiness

Above is a map that charts world happiness with dark blue indicating the most and light blue the least.Well, it looks as though I will be leaving the happiness cocoon of America and voluntarily entering some pretty unhappy places. What do Egyptians and Russians have in common? Clearly,their unhappiness. And who knew Saudi Arabians were as happy as us? Perhaps it's because oil is trading at five million dollars a barrel. Too bad I won't get to talk to any citizens to find out for sure. But, if happiness is bought with money or secured with coastal living, as this map seems to indicate, then I am going to be sure to ask residents in Mongolia what their so ecstatic about. In my pursuit of unhappiness, I will be comforted knowing all of you here at home are the opposite. 


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