Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Great Pyramids With a Bodyguard

We started off with an entire day of travel. It really doesn't take that long to go from Turkey to Egypt but we had a connection in Athens and layovers... you know how it is.

I want to say this is the airport in... Istanbul? Anyway they had all different kinds of Turkish delight samples. The problem was there were so many different kinds that when I finished sampling I'd forgotten what the first one tasted like, so I had to start all over.

We found a restaurant right next to airport security where we could see the x-ray machine screen over the screener's shoulder. Watching them own people was like watching reality tv. One lady had like 7 bottles of hairspray.

We figured out that Agean Airlines gives you free wine. So we had free wine.

Egypt plays the game where you don't have to get a visa ahead of time but they make you buy one on arrival, which is the most annoying way to do things.

We tried to beat our crazy two days in Istanbul with an even crazier single day in Cairo. Egypt has had some unrest in the news lately with the Arab Spring and all of that stuff. Well the nonsense, nonstop fear-porn of the US media has taken its toll on Egypt’s tourism industry. For a guy who’s trying to see it all on the cheap though, this just means that right now Egypt is on the sale rack.

So we booked a room at the Conrad Cairo with a view of the Nile for like $130. Regular Hiltons are for poor people.

The Conrad had its own airport style security set up which was jarring. We heard there was a casino so we went to check it out. At this point I'm becoming quite the casino connoisseur. As we approached we were stopped at a security desk and they took a long time scanning our passports, taking our pictures, blah blah. Egyptians aren't allowed in the casino apparently. Inside may be the worst casino I've ever seen. The slot machines were all out of date and many weren't functioning at all. When we got to the table games which were actually quite popular we realized the room was almost completely Arab men. We were both getting some looks and some giggles and I was like "you guys are weird, this place sucks, we've been to Vegas" and we left.

Cairo seemed kind of tough to get around anyway, plus we didn’t really know what kind of situation the place would be in politically when we arrived, so we booked a tour company that took care of us from the airport and back again.

I don’t know how the subject came up, but our transporter guy said that he had to like register us with the tourist police, and if he just wrote that we were foreign that would be the end of it, but if he wrote specifically that we were American then we would be given a police escort. He wanted to just write us down as “generic white people that don’t belong here” but I was like: “I’m important and I want the Secret Service!” So that’s what happened.

The next morning a van came for us with our own personal guide/eqyptologist named Waleed. Our plain clothes tourist police escort, Abdullah, and Muhammad the driver rounded out the Epytian A-Team that we had assembled.

Us and our bodyguard in front of the Nile. I was tempted to sing some The Bodyguard soundtrack to him and/or fake a leg injury so he'd have to carry me.

A fun fact that we learned on the ride was that Misr is the Arabic name for Egypt.

Our first stop was Memphis to see a giant statue of Rameses II.

I received a firehose of information through the day but one thing that I recall is that in statues a straight beard means the subject is living and a curved beard means they are deceased.

So we walk in to the open air building where the statue is lying and a couple of guys are sitting inside. I assume they are employees watching the statue so when they offer to take pictures with us I think nothing of it. Of course, then they ask for money. I gave them both a dollar then chalked it up to an Egyptian education.

Sneaky ass Egyptian Mario and Luigi.

There's a carving of his son between his legs.

This baby sphinx has a curved beard which means... it's dead! Spooky. I guess the big Sphinx originally had a beard but it is now housed in the British Museum.

Zeke left his hat on one of our many plane rides and his delicate head needed another. Luckily there were people around selling all kinds of stuff.

Next was the Pyramid of Djoser in the Saqqara necropolis.

I mostly like this picture because of the cobras lining the platform.

Lydia checking for mummies.

This carving was of people stabbing the hell out of some hippos. Rude.

Some of the coloring survived impressively well.

I think this one was people bringing offerings to either Pharaoh or a god, which is the giant guy.

There was a lot of the requisite yellings of "It belongs in a museum"!

I commented on an “oriental carpet school” that I saw out the van window. He asked us if we wanted to stop and see it and we all agreed. The visit went so smoothly though, and was so tourist trappy that now I’m wondering if our guide was taking there all along.

I must admit the school’s story was pretty good. Our guide told us that the area had a high amount of child labor taking place so the government opened these trade schools for kids to learn how to make fancy rugs. The kids only work a few hours a week but get paid, on the the condition that they also go to normal kid school. I thought that was a pretty solid solution to that problem. So we watched their little fingers make knots on a big loom to make carpets of varying size and complexity. We all enjoyed that part. Then came the part upstairs where they tried to sell us the rugs. Meh.

I was daydreaming about opening my own carpet factory in St. Louis but then I remembered that dang ol' Obama and Big Government ruined child labor for the rest of us. Job creators. Freedom.

The tiny rug Lydia has here cost $100.

Our guide told us that there are so many artifacts laying around in Egypt that just playing in the sand at one of the ancient sites is illegal.

We had an awesome lunch at a restaurant where a couple of ladies could be seen making some seriously legit bread right at the entrance. There was a whole lot going on but hummus, rice, falafel, and baba ganoush were all in attendance.

For dessert we had a sweet, grain-like concoction called basbousa that tasted suspiciously like that dessert we had at that nice lady's house in Turkey.

We went to a place that makes papyrus. Once again I thought it was really awesome to see how it was made but I had zero interest in buying any.

The plant is first sliced up, then hammered, then… soaked in water, and laid in a lattice like a basket and put in a vice for a time. The sugars in the fibers apparently cause the slices to fuse together. Pretty darn cool.

Now I know how to spot a fake Egyptian rug and fake papyrus! 

When I first caught a glimpse of the Great Pyramid on the horizon I got little tingle. Like OMG there’s the pyramids! It’s one of those things where you see pictures of something so many times that you forget that it’s actually real.

We passed a serious number of police and checkpoint stuff on the drive to the pyramid. I don’t know if I should have felt safe because they were there or scared because they had to be there. I think our policeman in the front seat was doing some Jedi tricks to get us through the checkpoints smoothly.

Our guide was buying us our pyramid tickets and it was taking a while so I popped a squat in the shade next to the welcome building. I’m minding my own business when a policeman comes over and motions for me to stand up and all the other police in the area become excited and start yelling stuff. Oh no, what did I do?

Soon a caravan of fancy cars pulls up and out come a bunch of SEAL Team 6 looking dudes with large guns as well as an entourage. Apparently the Minister of Tourism was there to do a surprise inspection. I didn’t break anything after all.

Well after avoiding arrest I got past the ticket booth and started walking toward the sole surviving wonder of the ancient world. We got a bit of a peptalk outside but strangely our guide wasn’t allowed to accompany us inside the pyramid.

We may have gone a little overboard with the pyramid pictures.

I bought a couple waters from this nice gentleman. Two dollars make him holler.

There’s not much happening inside the pyramid, unfortunately. The walls are completely bare and there wasn’t a single artifact in the whole thing save for a simple black like vault thing that a cool sarcophagus would fit into. Except there wasn’t a sarcophagus and the vault was unadorned inside and out. To be fair the place was so cramped there wasn’t room for anything in there anyway.

There are a couple of really uncomfortable, narrow tunnels with wooden rungs like a diagonal ladder that you have to walk up. The ceiling was so low that I had to bends my knees and crook my neck just to fit in it. Thankfully there weren’t that many othere people in there because I don’t understand how two-way traffic could possibly happen in there.

Speaking of which, I’d read several warnings online and in our guide book that the pyramids would be so crowded that we would need to get there at the break of dawn just to get inside. This was a situation where it was clear how hard Egypt’s tourism has been hit. It was like 2:30pm and there was no line at all!

We popped around the pyramid where the Solar Boat Museum is situated. There they found a ship buried which I believe was meant to take the deceased king to the afterlife.

The museum looked like something from Star Wars.

Everybody knows by now that if you're going to see an ancient Egyptian afterlife boat that you've gotta put on burlap booties.

The hole where they found the boat.

We really made our time in this area count. Next we did a little camel ride! I rode a camel recently in UAE but the scenery was much better this time.

Before we rode Zeke needed a hat wardrobe change.

Last but not least we checked out the Sphinx. I guess the Sphinx has several names but a couple memorable ones are “the Strangler” and “the Father of Terror”. Pretty badass. Waleed did a good job of keeping us moving on schedule, since we were seeing all of Cairo and learning the totality of Egyptian history in one day.

I did not know this thing had a tail.

Unfortunately after all of that rushing our next stop was…. another tourist trap selling us crap. This time was like an aroma therapy place. Once again we saw a glass blower guy which was kind of awesome but then we went upstairs into what I would imagine an old opium den would look like. There were several fancy rooms full of people sniffing magical oils that are supposed to cure what ails you. The smells were so strong and penetrating that I felt like I was breathing a big Ricola cough drop.

Zeke had a nasty cough so I was happy to let the hucksters concentrate on him. They made him breath this cup of hot cough drop to fix him up. I convinced him that it would probably work even faster if he just drank it. Hehe.

We took a boat called a felluca up and down the Nile which was relaxing but there honestly wasn’t much to see. Especially compared to our boat trip in Turkey which was so packed full of things to see it was hard to keep up.

Our final stop was the Khan el-Khalili market. I especially liked having policeman Abdullah with us at this point. Walking around in a market at night is always a little sketchy no matter where you are.

We had a nice chat with Abdullah after stopping at Fishawi's, a famous coffee shop that opened in 1773. He showed us his cool ID card. I asked him why we were so special to have our own guard and he said that he’ll escort large groups of foreigners but even one American or Israeli will get one. We asked what he thought of the US and he said he had a relative that visited recently and left with a good impression, so that was nice to hear. It sounds like the only time he’s been out of the country was to do his Islamic pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

There were lots of people walking by selling stuff which were mostly just annoying. Angela did get a henna tattoo from one such wanderer which set her back 2 bucks.

We had these drinks that were like multi-flavored smoothies with fruit mixed in. I voted yes.

We took one last picture in front of the hotel with the A-Team assembled and then our whirlwind tour of Cairo had ended.

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