Wednesday, July 21, 2010
I will readily admit that I have longed to see the pyramids of Egypt since I was just a young boy and have been very excited for this one stop on our journey. We took a red-eye from Casablanca to Cairo (and swore-off 5 hour long red-eyes for the umpteenth time) and made it through customs without any major hiccups. We even managed to negotiate the onslaught of dudes offering us a taxi with little frustration and find our way into an airport sanctioned cab! Within two hours of touch down, we were checking into the Mariott in downtown Cairo very excited to have a clean space rest and shower.
My stomach was feeling a little unsettled and we were exhausted having not slept well on the flight. Going against our own travel policy it was agreed that a morning nap was in order. It was at some point during this nap I became aware that something horribly wrong was running amok in my gastrointestinal system. In my head I could hear the rallying cry of my white blood cells as they drew a target on my innards and marched in droves to locate and conquer the invading species. While my immune system waged war I spent the entire day lying in the fetal position, clenching my sides, and wishing for a quick painless death. Catherine kindly attended to bringing me fluids and making arrangements for us to visit the pyramids the next day. I survived, made it up the next morning for sight-seeing, and then managed to pass a less severe version of the bug onto Catherine whom also spent the better part of the next day in bed. We had wondered how long it would be before we crossed paths with something stronger than our own stomachs—now we know, 5 weeks.
Amidst our ailments, we managed to get up and meet with our driver/guide to spend a day touring the pyramids at Giza as well as the step pyramid at Saqqara. Ahmed introduced him self with a broad smile and got us loaded into the van. As our driver wound through the chaotic streets of Cairo Ahmed explained the history of Egypt (in excellent English) providing us with a quick rundown on each of the three periods of the Pharaonic age and the associated who’s who of pharaohs along with their accomplishments. Perhaps more interesting was his genuine commentary on modern Egyptian life and what it was like to live in the bustling city of 20+ million people where it rained on average twice a year and was always hot.
We arrived at Saqqara and Ahmed gave us two pieces of advice before we stepped out of the car: 1) Do not accept any offers for camel rides. You will be offered a price of 10E£ and then required to pay more than $100US to get back out of the desert. 2) Do not let anyone take your pictures or have your picture made with anyone. This is a classic scam to pick your pocket. We smiled and told Ahmed that we had lots of good practice in dealing with hustlers and set out to visit the worlds oldest known pyramid—the Step Pyramid. Ahmed gave us an excellent overview of the site along with some recommendations on where we should take pictures. We spent about a half our walking around the pyramid and checking out the restoration efforts that were currently underway at the hands of a Polish firm. At the top of the main court we were pleased to see the Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid lingering in the distance across the desert landscape.
After the Step Pyramid, Ahmed took us to a nearby crumbling pyramid (which resembled little more than a large pile of broken rocks) but promised to delight with its intact burial shaft, chambers, and well preserved hieroglyphics. We made the decent down a long passageway about 1.5m square which opened into a central rooms with a burial chamber to the right, complete with sarcophagus, and a second room to the left for a wife and children. Although this little trip is made by thousands of tourist each year it was still very cool to descend into the middle of a pyramid and try to imagine what it might have looked like 4000 years ago. Before leaving the site we stopped into the mastaba (tomb of the noble man) and marveled over the stone reliefs depicting life and the afterlife in brilliant detail . Back in the van we relished in the air conditioning and set off for Giza.
I never would have guessed it, but the great pyramid at Giza is nestled (surrounded really) right in the metropolis of Cairo. As we pulled into the sprawling visitors entrance to the grounds we were immediately joined by hundreds of other vacationers all eagerly awaiting to see the pyramids first hand. I was mildly disappointed that we weren’t in the middle of the desert with maybe a handful of other tourist, but then again, what should I have expected from one of world’s seven wonders?
Crowds of tourist or not, the great pyramid is a sight to behold. Absolutely mammoth and mind boggling when you stop to consider its construction over 4000 years ago! We took Ahmed’s advice and skipped the extra ticket which allowed you to walk down the burial shaft of the great pyramid instead walking around and taking in the sheer size of the monument. I snapped a lot of pictures and was surprised when we were asked by two different middle eastern groups if we would stand in a picture with them. At one point a couple of the tourist police (armed with automatic rifles) motioned me to come over and take a picture from their vantage point. They proceeded to woo Catherine and I into all sorts of poses and take our picture then handed back their camera, held out their hands, and asked for their tip! We handed over a few pounds and chuckled when we looked back through the pictures—none of them turned out.
Next stop was up the plateau where the infamous “National Geographic” photos are all taken. This is the vantage point we are all used to seeing which tricks us into believing these pyramids lie in the middle of the desert. Nonetheless, it was definitely a Kodak moment and we took advantage.
Last stop was the famous Sphinx and just like the pyramids it was a big heap of awesome. We ran into another American couple who had also left their jobs to travel the world and spent several minutes swapping stories and exchanging information. We both joked that you don’t meet too many Americans who do this type of thing.
On our way home we asked Ahmed if he would assist us with obtaining train tickets on the sleeper car to Luxor the following day. He warmly obliged our request and even went in to the train station with us to buy tickets. Thank goodness he did because I’m not sure we would have found the remote trailer where sleeper car tickets were sold.
At this point the heat and our battle against the evil stomach bugs had both of us drained. Returning to the hotel we spent the remainder of our evening indulging in rest, room service, and some bad movies.
After a long a restful sleep we were both feeling better and spent our final day in Egypt touring the Egyptian Museum. It was really neat but also completely overwhelming. There are so many artifacts from Pharaonic Egypt that the museum (nor the country) really doesn’t know what to do with them all. The museum displays some of the finest pieces but oddly enough things still seem cluttered , unlabeled, and improperly stored. Living in the DC area, it is weird to walk in and see a huge un-air conditioned building filled with wood and glass cabinets that house thousands of ancient relics. We both wondered why the facilities had not been improved given the continuous tourist traffic that claims at minimum $10/pp—but perhaps that is part of its charm. Catherine kindly acted as my guide reading the Lonely Planet highlights as we strolled along. We paid the extra 100E£ to see the mummies and were very impressed—extremely gruesome and cool!
Back at the hotel we collected our bags and grabbed a taxi for the train station. At 9:45pm we boarded train 82 and were comfortably settled into our private little sleeper car. We were served a dinner (very reminiscent of bad airplane food), our bunks were then lowered with beds made, and we laid back for a decent night sleep while the train made way on its 12 hour journey to Luxor.