Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

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Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!

20.11.06

Our Adventure in Egypt, Part One: Getting there and getting to know Cairo

Hi, everyone. I'm back - I told you I would be eventually! I figured that, even with the Thanksgiving holiday around the corner, when the traffic on the Internet in the U. S. shrinks because people are actually interacting with family, I would put up a series of posts about our vacation. I say "series" because you know there's no way I can be concise enough to cover the whole thing in one post. This one below covers two days, and it's pretty damned long. Anyway, not a lot of pictures in this post, but that will change soon enough. Enjoy a vicarious trip to Egypt, everyone!

*****

We left on Tuesday, 7 November, at 4.30 a.m., appropriately enough. (This is appropriate because we were not often allowed to sleep in on this, our so-called vacation. Apparently in Egypt, if you are not fully dressed, in nice slacks and shirt if not a suit and tie, breakfasted, and presumably showered and ready to go by 4.30 in the morning, the Egyptians will not respect your lazy ass and call you an Arabic term that means, literally, "a great steaming pile of camel dung." So it was appropriate that we left so early in the morning, because we got used to it!¹) We took a shuttle to the airport and got all checked in. Now, flying today is rather vexing, because of all the restrictions and, well, idiocy of it all. But, the federal government, in their unceasing effort to make our lives easier, has provided guidelines about how we should pack and what is allowed on board. So we had our liquids packed in a Ziploc bag and we made sure we didn't have any water bottles and we zipped through the security check because, well, we're literate. A woman right behind us apparently couldn't quite figure out how to pack, because she was trying to smuggle - smuggle, say I! - two water bottles on board. Remember, bringing cheap bottled water onto the plane instead of the paying marked-up prices past the gate helps the terrorists. She was all indignant, and they were all "Read the guidelines, ma'am," even though you could tell they wanted to substitute a different word for "ma'am." We just marveled how someone in this day and age could not make sure to know what they could and could not bring on the plane. The restrictions are absolutely idiotic, like, say, Prison Break. But they are also widely publicized, and just like you have only yourself to blame if you watch Prison Break, you're also to blame if you can't follow the imbecilic strictures that the bureaucrats no doubt get paid more money than I ever did as a teacher to concoct.

Our flight left at 6.30 in the morning for JFK in New York, with a stopover and change of planes in Dallas/Fort Worth. Say what you want about people who willingly live in Texas (and there's plenty to say - just a little less than you can say about people who willingly live in, say, Phoenix), but the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport is really freakin' nice. It's like a really upscale shopping mall, with lots of light. We were flying on American Airlines, which, we learned when we landed in Texas and New York, was part of the "One World Alliance." We're not entirely sure what the One World Alliance is, but is sounds sinisterly cabal-like, and I imagine that one day soon we will all be eating One World Alliance Cereal, reading One World Alliance newspapers, flying on One World Alliance planes, and wearing One World Alliance clothing. And won't we all be happier?

We reached JFK International Airport late in the day, with a few hours before our flight to Cairo. I don't know if any of you have ever been to JFK, but not unlike everything in New York, it's bigger than anything you could happen to conceive. I had never flown through JFK before (as opposed to landing there and leaving the airport, which I had done), so we weren't aware of the procedure of the AirTrain, which is a monorail that takes you zipping around like a roller coaster to different terminals. And, not unlike other modes of transportation in New York, people have not quite gathered the basic information that it's far easier to get on the train after you have let everyone else off the train. You might get on twelve seconds sooner, but you won't have to fight, salmon-like, against the tide of humanity rushing toward you. Why are those people who don't let the exiters off the train so anxious to get on board? I can understand if you have a long commute and you want a seat, but the AirTrain just zipped around the airport to different terminals, taking less than ten minutes to complete the circuit. I guess rudeness is hardwired into certain people. We would meet more of them in Egypt, and call them the French.

At JFK we "boarded" our flight to Cairo on EgyptAir. I use "boarded" in the loosest possible sense, as EgyptAir, like a great many of the institutions in that fine country, adheres to procedures in only the vaguest way. Our flight was supposed to leave at 6.30. On our boarding pass it stated that we should be ready to board at 5.15 and that the doors would close at 5.45. This struck us as rather askew. Well, printed times in Egypt are even more mutable than they are in the U. S. We were sitting around the gate when they announced that we would have to line up. So, bewildered, we did. It turns out it was simply another security check, but the level of security checking was so poor that we wondered what the point was. The guy at the front of the gate was asking questions but not, apparently, checking luggage. When I got there he asked me (I kid you not!) if I had any batteries. I answered (truthfully) no, and he sent me and my lovely bride back to the seating area, where we waited longer for the plane to board. It was a surreal moment, but should have prepared us for the languor of Egypt. After this show, we boarded the plane and got out onto the runway. Where we sat. And sat. And sat some more. This being JFK, it's not too surprising that we sat in the taxi line, and it had nothing to do with EgyptAir. We sat for well over 45 minutes, until finally, we were off. Goodbye, United States! Hello, country where you can't drink the water!

The flight was long and relatively uneventful. International flights, despite their length, are often more pleasant than domestic flights for a few reasons. You get to steal cool complimentary magazines like Horus, the official mouthpiece of EgyptAir. Did you know that Tiger Real Estate is the only choice for luxury living in Dubai? Did you know that EgyptAir is ready to serve the pilgrim during hajj season (which it is right now) to the extent that you may include zamzam water in your baggage weight allotment? Did you know that Naguib Mahfouz is the only Arabic-language writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature? If you had the November/December issue of Horus, you would! The food is free on international flights, too. The practice of charging for crappy food on American flights is a recent phenomenon, and one of which I wholly disapprove. It's yet another example of the lack of service in every sector of our so-called "service" economy. If we're going to get rid of every manufacturing sector of the economy and become a service economy, why are we so shitty at it? Also, on long international flights, the headsets are free as well. On domestic flights they charge 3 dollars, usually. Listen, if I'm going to get gouged on my ticket price and crammed into a tiny seat and not get the seat I requested, I'll be damned if I'm going to buy your cruddy food and your headphones. EgyptAir has crappy food, but it's free. They show (relatively) crappy movies, but they're free. And that ain't bad.

The movies we watched were kind of lousy. First they showed The Lake House, with Keanu and Sandra Bullock. The lack of brainpower shown by Sandra Bullock, who lives in the present while she communicates with Keanu two years in the past, is staggering. In case you don't know the story, she and Keanu write letters to each other across time, in a mysterious fashion. For the sole reason of making sure the movie lasts two hours, no one in the world has ever heard of Google. And Keanu is somewhat famous, as his father Christopher Plummer is a well known architect. There's a lot else that is dumb about the movie, but as you know, I have a man-crush on Keanu, so anything with him is at least watchable. Then Inside Man came on. I was actually kind of keen to see this, and put my headphones on with some anticipation. Denzel, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster in a Spike Lee bank heist joint? Sign me up! Imagine my surprise when the movie unspooled in, well, dubbed Japanese. At least I think it was Japanese. It may have been Mandarin. Look, I'm a culturally sensitive guy. I think it's groovy that all the people in the world, who really ought to be speaking good ol' American, stubbornly cling to their languages. Look at those cute natives! But we're on a flight from New York City to Cairo. All the movies were subtitled in Arabic, which was fine - we had plenty of Egyptians on both flights to and from Cairo. But I would hazard a guess that if you were on the plane from New York to Cairo, you were either Egyptian or American. So Arabic and English are the only acceptable languages for movies. This is my decree.

So I missed Inside Man. Oh well. The last movie they showed was Shadows in the Sun (which, in a bad omen, is called The Shadow Dancer in other places in the world - whenever a movie has two different English titles, that can't be good), and although it featured Harvey Keitel looking shaggy, some spectacular Italian scenery, and John Rhys-Davies (Sallah!), it also featured Joshua Jackson in the lead and Claire Forlani, who always looks like she's about to cry, as his love interest. No thank you.

We flew deep into the night. Another cool feature of international flights is that they show you where you are throughout the flight, as well as telling you how long it is to your destination. So every once in a while we'd check to see that we had made it across the Atlantic and were now flying over that country that spawned our nemeses on our vacation, France. Then we were over the Mediterranean. Then there were 2 hours left. Then we were flying over the Nile Delta. Finally, after a good ten or so hours in the air, we landed on Egyptian soil. At which point we disembarked onto the tarmac and boarded a bus to the terminal. It was the first of many signs I used to determine that we were in a "developing" nation: lack of jetways. It's not the big things that you notice in foreign countries, but the small and stupid things. I'm not sure why we had to get on and off every plane in Egypt by climbing and descending stairs attached to trucks. They have jetways - on our final flight, we used one. Perhaps it's more romantic the other way.

We were met by the first of many excellent representatives of STI, our travel agency. He was named Ahmed (the first of three Ahmeds we interacted with in two weeks) and he whisked us through customs and out to our waiting van. We were liking the pampering already, especially when we compared to the long line at Customs in New York when we returned. We hopped in the van and sped away, into the most frightening thing man ever could, and ever will, experience: Cairo traffic.

Cairo is a huge city. It's packed with 20 million or so of Egypt's 72 million people, and each one of them is either in a car every second of the day or stepping off the curb in front of those cars with absolutely no regard for the few tons of metal bearing down on them. I suppose the feeling is mutual, because the drivers have no regard for the fragile bags of flesh zipping like dragonflies among their behemoths. Of course, "behemoths" is a relative term, as most automobiles in Egypt are tiny things, the better to maneuver through tiny spaces in the traffic. The biggest vehicle I saw there was a Jeep Cherokee. The country was packed with Renaults, Fiats, Peugeots, Kias, and other small cars with maximum scooting power and minimum protection from every other car. Those quaint lines on the road that mark lanes in the United States were mere decoration to Cairene drivers: they regarded them as if some ancient pharaoh had painted them as part of his temple and had no direct bearing on their modern lives. Those strange posts with three circles at the top that occasionally showed green or red but throughout the city predominantly flashed yellow all the time? Cairenes weren't sure what they were and didn't much care. It was quite the free-for-all.

We fled the airport and entered the city. Along the main drag toward downtown we beheld the first sights of the capital. There were many billboards with Hosni Mubarek's portrait painted upon them. Mubarek has been the president since 1981, when Anwar Sadat was assassinated, and to say that he's basically a dictator is no big secret. I suppose he's more benevolent than most dictators, and he tries to make the country better because he wants to be on good terms with the West, particularly the U. S., but he's still a dictator. American presidents, say what you will about them, don't put up billboards with their visages smiling magnanimously down upon the people. Other billboards showed the military glory of Egypt's past, from pharaonic times to the 6 of October War - I'll get to that. Also along the main route were soldiers stationed every 100 meters or so (we're in Egypt, so it's time to go metric!). Ahmed pointed them out to us and said they were there just for us. Then he told us the real reason - Mubarek had been out of the country, and he was returning that very day. They were there to provide security. His house was on the main route, not too far from the airport. It may have been that Mubarek was coming back to Cairo, but on other days, the presence of soldiers on the streets was only lessened slightly. Egypt has gone out of its way to make sure its tourists, at least, feel safe. I suppose the Egyptians ignore the soldiers like we ignore voting in elections.

Ahmed told us about the sights as we drove toward downtown. One thing that the Egyptians are inordinately proud of is the 6 of October War - commonly known in the West as the Yom Kippur War. There's a 6 of October Bridge and Street and, I believe, military barracks, plus a bunch of other stuff. I don't mean to rain on Egyptians' parades, because the war was psychologically very valuable to them after the humiliation of the Six-Day War, but when your biggest military triumph of the past 500 years ends through United Nations intervention with the Israelis about to destroy your main army, maybe you should think about not being so martial. The 6 of October War did, however, lead to the Egyptian-Israeli summit later in the 1970s, for which Sadat was branded a traitor to his religion (because, you know, the Palestinians would administer the Holy Land so much better than the Israelis), so I guess it's a good thing all around. It's just kind of weird to see it so commemorated - Egypt got back the Sinai as a consequence of the war, but it's kind of like the U. S. making a big deal out of Korea. A bunch of people died and not much was decided.

We reached the Nile Hilton, where we would stay for a few days (yes, we helped feed the ravenous monster that is Paris Hilton - please forgive us!). I took a few pictures from our balcony before collapsing on the bed in exhaustion:




















The first one is the Egyptian Museum, where we would visit in a few days and which houses all the many mummies and statues and whatnot that they found in the tombs throughout Egypt. The next two are typical downtown scenes of Cairo. After that bit of business, we collapsed and dozed for a couple of hours. It was Wednesday afternoon, and we had been go-go-going since early Tuesday morning (technically, it was still only Wednesday morning where we started, but that's still a long time). I dozed for a bit, then got up, took a shower, and headed out to find water and soda while Krys still napped. The hotel had a mini-bar, but that wasn't an option (far too expensive), and the prices in the hotel were rather steep, so I got some money (Egyptian pounds) out of the ATM in the lobby and headed out! It was late afternoon, and rush hour - such as it is in Cairo, where it's always rush hour - was in full swing. Here's a normal Cairo street scene:



I guess everyone knows what they're doing! I passed through a bus station next to which was a small niche in the wall where dozens of men were praying - it was about time for the late afternoon prayer, I guess, and from somewhere the muezzin was calling the prayer (they no longer go up into the minarets of the mosque because they have microphones now, so they could be anywhere). I managed to find a stall selling bottled water and soda (even Egyptians, it appears, do not drink tap water, and I certainly wasn't about to buck that trend). I got two water bottles and two soda bottles for 7 pounds, which is less than 2 dollars. It was one of the few times I wasn't gouged on the price because I am, of course, a rich American. Then I made it back to the hotel (past the armed guards at the entrance, who always brought their drug-sniffing dogs around our van before we were allowed in) and Krys and I got dressed and ate dinner. We sat in the one of the hotel's restaurants and watched Egyptian music videos - those were fun. They included songs by several Egyptian pop stars, as well as some dude named Justin Timberlake. It was fascinating watching the American video in constrast to the many Egyptian ones. In Timberlake's video, the woman was half-clothed and writhing around on some uncomfortable block of something while Justin, presumably, banged her. The women in the Egyptian videos danced alluringly, to be sure, but they showed no extraneous skin, even though they wore form-fitting but not skin-tight clothing. They also didn't simulate sex in any way, even though, again, they danced rather alluringly. It was an interesting cultural difference, and somewhat refreshing to this jaded American who's a bit tired of seeing clothes in this country get smaller and smaller.

Before we went to bed to prepare for our big day on Thursday, we turned on CNN and found out there was a bit of a sea change in the elections on Tuesday. It was the first we had heard of the results. We voted by mail and had my mom drop them off at the polling station, but then we were on a plane or otherwise away from a television for over a day. Very interesting. We just learned last night that Arizona was the only state that rejected a constitutional ban on gay marriage of the eight that had them on the ballot. Way to go, Arizona! And we kicked J. D. Hayworth out of office, so that's a good thing. Maybe now we can get back to having such a huge divide between the president and Congress that nothing ever gets done. That's the kind of government I like to see, rather than the one where they all agree and push all sorts of crap through.

So we were in Cairo. The next day we would start seeing the real stuff. You can't really prepare for what you see in Egypt. It's really amazing. But that's a post for another day!

¹ I know no Arabic. Everyone who met us in the wee hours of the morning was fabulously gracious and not at all impatient. But that doesn't make for good drama, now does it?

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16 Comments:

Anonymous Jon H said...

Those dogs might not be sniffing for drugs, but rather for things that go boom...

21/11/06 10:20 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Good point, Jon. They used the mirror thing too, which checked for bombs, but I just assumed the dogs were looking for drugs. Can dogs sniff bombs? I should have asked, but the soldiers didn't look like the kind of people who encouraged conversation and inquiry into their jobs.

21/11/06 10:24 AM  
Blogger Belladonna said...

A word about the traffic - I too just returned from Cairo. The first day there I literally felt I was taking my life in my hands to be on the roads of sheer chaos. Yet in all the time we spent there I never witnessed a single fender bender, something I can't say for an equal amount of time spent on busy US roads. I also did not see ANY "road rage". YES it es extremely congested with camels and cars and little kids hawking Kleenex all jumbled together. But it seems to occur in an intricate dance of human interaction that the local people understand well. I once took ballroom dance lessons with my husband and learned how to move here or there based on the slightest nudge of a hand at my back. Likewise, the people of Cairo have an amazing level of awareness of when to go and when to wait that is not at all based on street lights (which are nonexistant there) or lane lines (which are mere suggestions there). Instead they base their understanding of right-of-way on DIFFERENT (not less valid) means that we urgent Americans.
Anyway, I've very much enjoyed your photos...you can see mine at both Mind Muffinsand Apprentice Human

And YES, the dogs are primarily there for bombs, not drugs. Although they can smell either.

I don't know about you, but I felt VERY safe and secure at all times. The level of security there is quite comprehensive without being intrusive, at least that was my experience.

21/11/06 3:24 PM  
Anonymous Jon H said...

"Good point, Jon. They used the mirror thing too, which checked for bombs, but I just assumed the dogs were looking for drugs. Can dogs sniff bombs? I should have asked, but the soldiers didn't look like the kind of people who encouraged conversation and inquiry into their jobs."

Yeah, I believe there are sniffer dogs (love that term) for explosives.

I expect they'd want the dogs to check for bombs being carried into the hotel, as opposed to 'mere' bombs attached to the car.

Especially after the hotel bombings at the coastal resort towns, a while back.

21/11/06 3:35 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Belladonna - we saw one accident, or actually the aftermath of an accident, on the road to Saqqara. One of the tiny cars was wedged underneath the cabin of a big truck, and it looked really nasty. I noticed the lack of road rage, but I wonder if the accidents they DO have (and they have to have some) are far worse than here, even though they might be less frequent.

I also felt very safe there, and you're right - the security wasn't intrusive at all, even when they rode along with us (which they did occasionally). But I still noticed the soldiers everywhere.

I'll have to check out your photos - I'll have many, many more up over the next few days!

Jon - the terrorist attacks were the reason we flew from Cairo to Luxor, because it's not a great idea to drive it.

21/11/06 4:55 PM  
Blogger Belladonna said...

Speaking of security - when we traveled from St.Katherine's to Sharm el Sheikh we ended up with an Egyptian CIA agent riding along part of the way. I never did get clear whether he just needed a lift or if our US passports triggered that. He never spoke in English in our presence so I don't know whether he spoke English or not and our guide did not explain. Weird. He seemed courteous enough and we had room in the van since we were traveling privately, just my husband and I with our driver and guide. I will say having him along made getting through all the checkpoints on the way to Sharm seem to go extremely efficiently. I do know that was where terrorist bombs exploded just a couple years ago so they've really cracked down on security there...but the place we stayed was truly lovely and we never felt at all at risk.

21/11/06 11:34 PM  
Blogger Roger Owen Green said...

Welcome home, effendi! Almost everyone else I read is on hiatus, so you posting makes a certain daffy sense.

22/11/06 9:15 AM  
Blogger john sweet said...

Welcome home. Glad to hear all is well and to see the posts rolling in so that I might live the life of a world traveller vicariously.

Bomb sniffing dogs... yup. They sniff out everything from human and animal scents to drugs to chemicals that make big bangs.

Well, I laughed, I cried... but mostly I laughed during this post. Great way to build the suspense concerning the French too. Can't wait for them to appear.

UncleMonster

22/11/06 10:21 AM  
Blogger Nik said...

Great post, amigo! Eager to hear the rest!

22/11/06 12:54 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

Greg, I am back blogging again. And good post.

22/11/06 2:05 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Yay! Thomas is back!

I will reveal all about the French soon. Oh, it is quite the story. I hoped to post one of these every day, but that's not happening. I'm working on the next one, though, and it has many more pictures!

22/11/06 7:50 PM  
Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

-- American presidents, say what you will about them,
-- don't put up billboards with their visages smiling
-- magnanimously down upon the people

That's true, but you do carve effigies of dead ones on mountainsides. Imagine how that'll look to an archaeologist of the future.

Anyway, welcome back. The blogosphere has missed you.

23/11/06 3:26 AM  
Blogger Roxy said...

YEA! Can't wait for more stories and pictures!

23/11/06 10:37 AM  
Blogger Jules the Crazy said...

welcome back!! thanks for the great introductory post--can't wait to read more and see pics! i too have noticed, winced at, and wondered at the driving in other parts of the world. it becomes a fun game if you're a pedestrian, because you take your life in your hands every time you cross the street! love it.

and happy thanksgiving! :)

23/11/06 1:07 PM  
Anonymous Donann said...

Salve Greg! What fun to see this - and really, Cairo must not have been THAT different from Phoenix, right? I loved everything except...(I'm sorry) Keanu??? Say it isn't so! Donann

28/11/06 6:00 PM  
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