Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reflections and Observations on Egypt

By Chuck

There are a number of things that have made an impression on me during our time in Egypt.

• There are mini-berms all along the highway from Cairo to Bahariya Oasis. I finally asked; they are from channels dug to lay cable for electronic connections.

• The only place we have seen solar panels, here, are in the desert—for cell towers. In Turkey, by contrast, they were everywhere. This may be due to the tremendous electricity-producing capacity of the Aswan and High Dams—solar may be less necessary. We are told that electricity is cheap, here; but, no one has a clothes dryer; one source said a dryer would be LE 5000. This is far more than a clothes washer. We were told that a normal household would have an energy bill of LE 40 per month; but, with a dryer this would jump to LE 150. This is only one opinion.

• One of the first things we noticed on the trip from Cairo to the Oases was the sand on the road; there was not much; but, I imagined that it would be a significant and ongoing problem. We soon noticed that there was a gang of workers apparently clearing sand from the railroad tracks running parallel to the road on the way to Bahariya. The sand on the road became worse on the later stretch from Kharga Oasis to Luxor; we never saw anyone clearing it away.

• Pollution and trash in Egypt are quite off-putting from a tourist perspective. Pollution is particularly bad in Cairo; but, there are signs of it almost everywhere, even in remote areas where there is virtually no industry. Trash is all along the roads and in the cities and towns to a greater extent than we have noticed elsewhere—with the possible exception of southern Sicily. As we approached Kitchener Island, a lovely botanical garden, we saw two young teenage boys preparing their inventory for sale; they ripped the cellophane wrappers off their wares and tossed them onto the steps leading into the gardens; there were empty plastic bottles everywhere around the places where tourists visit—both in the Nile and on the streets.

In the Nile at Kitchner Island

Thrown overboard from a Nile cruise boat

• Recycling is rare; we only encountered this in the several oases we visited. I suspect this is a result of poverty and an underdeveloped economy. I suspect I would find similar results in comparable locations of large cities and poor rural areas in the USA. The exception to this rule is tires: used tires are used as road and desert markers, and as bumpers on cars, boats and ships.

• Remote outposts rely on tourists and their entourage of drivers and/or guides to bring certain supplies; once, we brought a load of bread to two different guard stations; another time, a driver brought water to them. In one case, we needed to use the WC; the outside of the station was nicely painted; everyone was friendly and they even welcomed Claire, a woman; but the interior of the place was worse than the inside of freshman college dorm maintained by the residents—it was dirty and crowded.

• Tips. You have undoubtedly heard of baksheesh; but, to experience it is different; people expect it and depend upon it—even when they provide no (desired or value-added) service. If you hear a friendly-sounding voice, you can reasonably expect that a pecuniary interest lies behind it. Some notable exceptions include: the cab driver who drove us two blocks to get to the Temples of Karnak and refused to accept payment; (we especially appreciated this because this was our worst mummy tummy day); Carlos, a waiter on the Nile Jewel who asked where I was from and wondered about my Kindle and, later, bought me a tea.

• Also, the rules for giving baksheesh are somewhat murky; sometimes, we would be aware we had not given a satisfactory amount—normally, they are not shy about telling you either the amount expected or letting you know it is not enough. On the other hand, when you provide more than expected—rare, for me—you may hear protestations that you have done too much—also rare.

• I would say that Egyptians who have no financial interest in getting your attention are normally serious in nature at first meeting; it is only by interacting over a (possibly short) period of time that they begin to warm up and become more friendly and outgoing. As a typical (in this respect at least) American, I tend to smile and try to be open and friendly when meeting people, trying to give them the benefit of any doubt about the possibility of relationship; I think they are more cautious; I don’t think this has anything to do with our nationality; in fact, they seem to appreciate that we have come all the way from America and California to visit their wonderful country.

• There was a young man working in Kharga Oasis who had an Australian sweetheart and had been exchanging emails and text messages with her; he understood the meanings of the words but sometimes did not know how to pronounce them. We were glad to help. He was in the unenviable position of waiting for her to invite him to join her in AussieLand.

• Toilet paper is poor quality, generally, and rare; the rolls are small and loosely wound—they disappear fast; we often had to ask for it in hotels. In public, you had to carry your own—to be sure you were provided for. Most toilets—WCs—were coin operated: you were not expected to enter unless you paid an amount—sometimes unspecified, sometimes clearly indicated. We often wondered what would happen if you had to go and did not have any small coins or bills handy.

Fresh new roll of TP

• Unfinished construction is everywhere. This runs the gamut from single family homes to gigantic gated communities. New homes here are sold as frameworks; the interior plan, walls, final plumbing and electrical fittings are left to the discretion of the owner.

• First floors of buildings outside Cairo are often made of white brick. I was told this was a style preference. This may be; but, I suspect it has something to do with the fact that these are larger and this means the construction would go faster and the labor would be cheaper. In very rural areas, you could find mud brick, red brick or cement construction, all right next to one another. Often, these would have leaves of palm branches for roofs; sometimes this would be a foundation for mud on top. A few times, we saw cardboard used, even in the cities.

• Flies are everywhere; but, fortunately, mosquitoes are rationed—only one or two per room or balcony. I had been commenting to Claire how I was so used to the flies that they hardly bothered me anymore; she responded, “What about the one on your chin right now?” Flies are ubiquitous in the desert: "I hid under some bushes near the well for hours, against the heat, very lazy, pretending to be asleep, the wide silk sleeve of my pillow-arm drawn over my face as veil against the flies." T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Insect killer provided in hotel room

• In one oasis town, one memorable shop was named The Cheapest Shop in Town; this has to be clever marketing, as every other store sells the same items at the same price. “I give you a good price.” Is the Egyptian motto, I think.

• Pyramids. One guide debunked the myth that aliens built the Pyramids by pointing out that the geography of the land boasted thousands of natural ones that were enough to suggest the idea to the ancient Egyptians; I think there was a certain amount of national pride involved in this, also. Modern dirt removal creates them, too; I saw some along the road to the first oasis and asked what they were from: “Drilling for oil.”

Natural pyramids in Abu Simbel

• Police escorts are quite common, depending upon local conditions and history. In some places in Cairo, an escort attached himself to us. On our trip across the desert through various oases and on to Luxor, only on the last leg of the journey were we unescorted. It has been commented that this is largely due to a need to keep large numbers of governmental personnel busily occupied; some believe it helps tourists to feel comforted. We saw it as a regrettable intrusion, though most tried to be friendly while not being intrusive.

• Military/Police Checkpoints are everywhere. I never asked about the relationship among the various groups—army, police, and tourist police; I guess I thought it might be a touchy subject. It was a little unnerving to see the armed guards and the guard towers everywhere. There were staggered portable gates—or strategically placed oil barrels—to slow down traffic; there were sometimes supplemental speed bumps—even along the highways; finally, there was almost always a row of oil barrels to stop traffic. The middle one would be removed as you were granted. There was at least one rolling bullet-proof shield at each checkpoint and many other locations where guards were located—police stations and banks, for example. Sometimes these were supplemented by spiked strips (held in reserve) that are intended to puncture tires that traverse them.

• Egyptian men typically wear warm clothes, even in warm weather; our guides always had on long sleeved shirts and almost always wore a jacket, too.

• Egypt is an Islamic country and is male-dominated. Many of the people with whom we come in contact carry the Koran with them and frequently read from it, even the officials on duty at the airports. There were people who stopped their routines to publicly pray at the appointed times: women on the top deck on the cruise down the Nile; a clerk behind the desk, while on duty at the hotel in Bahariya; a man walking (and then stopping) on the corniche in Aswan.

• Feminists need not come! Males have the dominant role in decision-making, here; it may be common (and common sense) to consult your wife before making a decision—which house to buy, where to live, which school to send the children to—but, it is a consultation; the final decision is up to the husband and father. “My wife trusts me to make all the decisions.” Claire asked one of our guides about all the washing that the women must do. “That is the woman’s job—to run the house.” Despite this, I believe men here would insist that women—as mothers and wives—are revered. Go figure.

• Most women are scarved in Egypt. Many of them wear full black abayas; sometimes this includes covering the eyes and hands. This becomes more common in rural areas. I saw a very young girl—maybe 6 years old—with a “training” scarf; normally, it is only at puberty that females are expected to go under cover. Occasionally, teen-agers and young women wear scarves and are “covered;” but they are otherwise dressed somewhat provocatively—tight pants and blouses or sweaters. Apparently, the main admonition is to cover flesh in order to not incite men to sexual fantasy and behavior; but, I think that some flesh-covering outfits might also arouse fantasies. One of our favorite images was of a woman fully covered, including black gloves, who was talking on a cell phone while drinking a coke. I guess this is having the best of both worlds.

• Women ride sidesaddle on motorcycles in Egypt; most of them wear dresses, skirts or abayas, which prevent them from riding astride. We were constantly worried about their safety in case of an abrupt stop or turn, or if there were an accident.

• Hitchhiking is common, here; the signal is to extend your arm out from your side and lower it toward the ground. There are also group buses here; usually, they are vans equipped with many seats; occasionally, they are small, covered pick-up trucks with two benches on the sides.

• The oases are far larger than I had anticipated and far more productive, agriculturally; I believe they are more likely to be organic. One unintended consequence of building the Aswan and High Dams is that the rich silt that has fed the Nile for thousands of years no longer flows down; this requires more dependence on chemical means of sustaining agricultural output in the Nile Valley.

• Transportation by bus is more extensively available than that by train; but, the trains we took to Alexandria and back were adequate—though the return trip was by much older and worn cars. We chose, wisely, not to bring Homer to Egypt; this would have been a hard trip for both vehicle and driver. Traffic regulations barely rise to the level of suggestion, here. Lines of traffic routinely exceed the number of painted lanes. People drive on the wrong side of the road for extended periods to find smoother pavement—however, the main roads were often quite good, or at least as those we drive upon in California these days—don’t get me started!

• Travel in early February should be avoided if you want to miss the annual two week Egyptian school holiday. This is when they visit the sites. Cairo is cold in February. There are sandstorms throughout Egypt in March and April (and sometimes May). October and November are the best months for good weather.

• Fish is offered everywhere—even in the desert; I am not sure why. Mayhaps they think it is expected. It is always more expensive than meat, chicken or veggie dishes. Each time we try it, we determine not to do it again—but for different reasons: it is too expensive, it is not fresh, it has too many bones, we worry that it may contain pesticides from the water in which it “lives and breathes and has its being.”

• Ancient Egyptians (at least people who used to live in the area we now know as Egypt) used “boomerangs” to stun their prey. This allowed them to bring home game that was alive and had not started to rot from the terrible heat—clever, no?

• The Al Kharga Museum of Antiquities in the oasis of the same name had a lovely, small display of prehistoric, Pharaonic and Greco-Roman items; the latter two groups were represented by artifacts dated around 2700 BC and between 300 BC and 400AD. It claimed to have the oldest books ever created; they are bound boards with marriage contracts and other legal documents—no novels.

• Large animal carcasses unnerved me, whether on the Western Desert or along the roads. I suppose these camels, horses and dogs merely died of old age; but, my first thought was of predators that might be interested in me!

• Desert. My ideal picture of a desert is the sort of thing you see in the movie The Flight of the Phoenix—endless rolling dunes of sand. There was relatively little of that in my experience in Egypt. We were far more likely to see flat hard ground or sand piled up against mountains. Further, there are 5 different types of sand configurations we lump together as dunes—don’t forget that Eskimos have 24 names for snow.

• Toyota LandCruisers seem to be the vehicle of choice in the desert areas; you see them everywhere.

• All the cars we rode in had a Koran on the dashboard. This included our guides and every taxi we took. We also saw men walking down the street carrying a Koran.

• While in Bahariya Oasis, Peter Wirth casually mentioned that the people we took him away from to discuss payment before we left the next morning were the American and British Ambassadors.

• Dahab—our last “lengthy” visit—is a typical tourist beach town: There is a “boardwalk” along which are the hotels, restaurants, diving shops, souvenir stores and tourist agencies—each offering exactly what the one next door does. And there is a parallel main street that has the shops that (mostly) locals use: Markets, wifi places, banks, the usual—plus the numerous empty storefronts: I guess the worldwide economy and the inevitable tourist slump has hit here, too. There is one restaurant here that has taken the high road: They not only have posters posted along the road into town, they have a declaration of intent and certificate of compliance indicating that they take extraordinary steps to provide healthy, properly prepared foods. They have prices to match this bold step; but, the food is excellent. Claire saw one chef placing a thermometer in a meat dish to ensure the proper cooking temperature had been reached. Our “thick shakes” there were actually very large shake glasses filled over the top with delicious ice cream. It has been gratifying to see how, over time and repeated contacts and requests with the Penguin Village staff and front desk, we have come to be “accepted” into their little community and we receive effusive greetings from almost everyone when we return from one of our formal outings.

• There are 99 names by which Muslims can know God. Each of those names describes a certain aspect of God's character and nature. Allah is the first of the 99 names. It is also said that there is a secret, hundredth name of God. To the one who knows this hundredth name of God, eternity in paradise is promised. An ancient riddle asks, "Why does the camel smile? Because he knows the hundredth name of God."

Camel, folded up like a card table

• As we were landing at Cairo International, we looked to the right of the runway and saw, to our great surprise, the burned out wreckage of a prior flight sitting in a ditch alongside the runway! Fortunately, we had all our prior experience on Egypt Air flying safely and comfortably, and with satisfying meals accompanied with our choice of juice—mango was our favorite—to keep things in perspective. But, lightening can strike twice! I was the last person through the last of several security and passport checkpoints as we were leaving Cairo—so far, so good...routine reviews and stampings. Then a guard wanted me to open my backpack; he began to look into the numerous plastic bags I use for convenience; finally another guard waved him off and he motioned for me to close my bag and move on. Twenty-five steps later, at final passport control, an official notes that I was not stamped through at Sharm El Sheikh! Massive consultations occur; guards from other checkpoints are summoned—presumably to re-check and ensure I am not a terrorist sneaking through the system. Claire, waving frantically from the bus where she ran to grab seats, and the entire busload of passengers leave for the plane on the tarmac. She is screaming "Let me off, my husband is in there!" The driver won't open the door. Other passengers join the cry. The bus leaves. I collar an airline official: "I'm worried the plane will leave without me." "Don't worry, we'll hold the plane." But, I notice he is running back and forth constantly on his walkie talkie, looking for the guy with my passport and boarding pass. Finally, the guard returns; I get my documentation; I jump on the bus—the only passenger; we speed out to the plane—still waiting, with Claire on the runway, refusing to board until I am found. Such loyalty. Habibi (lovely one). We are on our way back to Instanbul.

Total cost for one month in Egypt: €5,394.63

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends. ~ Maya Angelou


Karin said...

As wonderful as the Entire have just given a huge sigh of relief! That airplane episode was some Episode! All's well that ends well, so the saying goes!

Nice to know you have "done it, been there, enjoyed it", etc, but nice also to know you are soon to be back with Homer and on your way to Greece!

I bet Homer misses you! Ha, ha.

Karin from Prague,
Soon to be back on Paros

Paul King said...

Great, evocative post. The place came alive for me. A real mixed bag - that religious element always feels offputting to me but it does serve as some sort of societal glue.
Although glue can make it hard to progress!
I'm relieved you guys are heading "home".

Chuck and Claire said...

Egypt is such a puzzle. We are so glad we had the opportunity to experience this fascinating country and will never forget it. But, it's nice to be back in "civilization" again. I will be absorbing the experience for a very long time.

Elisabetta said...

Me too, Claire: "absorbing the experience" through Chuck's dense and informative writing for a long time.. thank you for your rational and accessible essay!
Am in Berkeley visiting my young-but-wise daughter in a community, where as you know, respect for all cultures is the normal way of life.

The religious fervor and ubiquitous Koran made me uneasy, even from 1000s of miles away. Felt like the far-right Bible thumpers except that those folk tried to convert us as we exited, for ex, the Museum of Nat'l Hist in DC.
I long for the "Pagan-Catholic" mystery that is part of my core faith and seems to seep upwards from the ground in Italy.. the power of my view of St. Francis' island from my window to Lake Trasimeno!
I was struck my Maya Angelou's omission of the word "love" in her quote. Recently received another quote of hers which said, "it's not what you say or do, but how you make people feel!"
Apropos of that: did you not like (or maybe never receive?) my nice comment about what model travelers you are, and my question about how you would "decompress" in the suburbs after having had these exotic and spiritually profound experiences...I paid you the highest compliments and kept checking for ur responses! Do you have a plan or protocol for "re-entry" after a year's odyssey of such dramatic proportions?

I referenced my own off-road experiences in saying how difficult it was for me to return to Passignano after only a month's wandering in S.Italy/Greece.. preparing for the return to "home" can be the hardest part, my friends!
You will see everything here with transformed eyes and new sensibilities; I wonder what you'll think of how you used to live, and who you used to be. Surely, major shifts have occurred .. or not?
Your deep-thinking friend, Elisabetta (+Tartufo near me!)

Chuck and Claire said...

Sorry, I don't recall receiving the comment you are referring to--and with highest compliments too! We do talk occasionally about what it will be like to be home again. We know we will see things with new eyes but at the moment, we are literally, living in the moment. Having said that, we do look forward to being home again and diving back into our lives and seeing much missed friends and family.