30 March 2013

marching down Egypt

Flying into Cairo was an experience.  The flight was fine but jetting over endless golden brown was different. Cairo houses an astonishing 23 million people or so.  Buildings, basic and packed together, amidst the sepia-toned sprawling desert with an occasional cliff interruption is something I've never seen before.

I landed in Cairo Saturday evening and fumbled my way through getting my visa--having to go to the right desks in the right order.  I was driven from the airport to the tour group hotel which was a crazy one hour drive.  The experience reminded me of Bali.  We were speeding along, weaving in and out of lanes wherever we fit, flashing the headlights to tell those in front to speed up or move over.  There was technically four lanes but at times traffic was six cars wide.  Indicators are sometimes used as are headlights and I think they have their own unofficial road rules so somehow the system more or less works.  The hotel was really nice.  It was called Oasis and came across as one.  I settled into the room I was sharing with another girl and then we went to the briefing.  It was an overload of information and I found it hard to process.  Most of it would be repeated as we approached each day of the itinerary anyway.

Sunday we were up early for a great banquet breakfast and then piled into the minibus to head to Giza.  I didn't realise it was so close to Cairo.  It's practically a part of Cairo.  We first stopped Sakkara to visit the step pyramid and heard about the architectural evolution to get the pyramids to their classic shape without collapsing. There was a man walking around with a pretty beat up donkey there calling "Taxi. Taxi."  That was amusing.  It was also amusing when one of our group went for a ride on it.  At Giza I wandered around with my roomie snapping photos and taking in how huge the pyramids are and the individual stones that make them.  My roomie bargained a camel ride for us down to the Sphinx and we made the slow, wobbly trek without falling off.  A satisfying experience for Egypt.  My young camel driver even 'proposed'. "Two hundred dollars and I come with you to Australia."  Ha  ha.  I didn't take up the offer.  After our Giza visit we went back to our hotel to shower, hang out and eat some tea before we moved on.

Cairo traffic can be a bit unpredictable I think.  Either ok or insanely busy.  That's my explanation for arriving at the train station 1.5hrs early.  We weren't quite sure what to expect of our train.  My expectations weren't that high but they weren't as low as my roomie's.  It was a little on the grungy side but not too bad with an excellent amount of leg room in my opinion.  The toilet, on the other hand, was an entirely different story.  Our guide suggested we go in pairs as the lock didn't really work.  I only went once and then planned to only go if I got absolutely desperate.  It was disgustingly smelly and gross and hard to balance--coz I wasn't gonna sit on the seat--with the way the train rocked around.  It was hard enough standing just outside while you waited.  And the flush was a lever on the floor you stepped on and it opened a trap that released the contents to the passing tracks below.

As a matter of fact, Egypt's environment quite surprised me.  For a civilized westernised culture it wasn't much as I expected.  It's African, for the most part Islamic and very much a desert region so I was expecting it to be different from all the European countries I've been hanging out in but it had such an air of third world. Crazy traffic, beat up roads, rubbish-lined streets and waterways, deserted, broken or incomplete buildings and other signs of poverty everywhere.  Drugs are common and not so hidden and people smoke anywhere and everywhere, inside and out.  A country struggling with a history of poor government.  For me it was a totally new experience.

The government offices below burnt in the recent protests in Cairo

My roomie and I were entertained our overnight train for the first while by a cute little 1-2yo boy in front of us.  My roomie was playing peek-a-boo with him as he stood on his mum's lap and looked back at us.  He was loving the attention and soon started trying to climb over the seat to us.  He did eventually come over and my roomie held him while we played.  He wore my hat and we played more peek-a-boo.  I did wonder what the parents thought with us hyping up the boy.  They struggled to get him to sleep later even at 11pm.

We arrived in Aswan mid-morning on Monday and were taken to our hotel to relax for a couple of hours before our afternoon tour.  We went and saw High Dam, the building of which created Lake Nasser.  It gave the ability to control floods and provide water for irrigation and generate hydroelectricity.  From there we took a boat ride out to an island to visit Philae Temple dedicated to the goddess Isis.  There were so many names and dates thrown at us I didn't take much of the info in.  Perhaps this was also influenced by the heat and tiredness.  This was the case for the entire trip.  I relished the heat though, even with most days between 37º & 43º C.  It's been so long since the weather has made me feel hot and the sun was glorious!  And even with so much sun, I never once got burnt.  I'm a little proud of that.  Philae Temple was actually moved to its current location since the dam plans were going to flood it's original home.  It was taken apart piece by piece, carefully noting where each belonged and then transported and reconstructed just the same as it was.  Egyptians were fond of covering their sacred places with hieroglyphics -the sacred script--and images that often told stories or what they hoped to happen.  They were a very symbolic people.

Most of the group went to the Nubian dinner which was an extra you could pay for.  The Nubians are the darker skinned (typical African image) people of the south and they used to have their own territory before all was combined into current day Egypt.  A few of us just went back to the hotel to chill.  The hotels we stayed in throughout our trip were very western and rather comfortable.  It was a nice balance to have with our non-hotel nights.

Tuesday morning was relaxed.  We slept in, ate breakfast, packed our bags and waited for the few who went to Abu Simbel to return.  When they did we loaded up and headed down to the docks four some Nile time.

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