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Africa, Destinations, Middle East

The Pyramids and the Cost of Happiness

February 5, 2009 • By

Does anyone really believe I drank 2 bottles of red wine each night and got up at 6 am and toured? The answer is… no. Unfortunately, it took me fighting with the manager at the Hilton Ramses before I convinced him not to charge me $60 from the mini bar. When the manager asked me if I was sure I did not drink the wine, I sarcastically responded that if he wanted to see me drink 4 glasses of wine he would likely be sending me to the hospital or paying for me to spend an entire day if not more in a hotel room, which would cost him much more than the $60 I was refuting. After an hour of that nonsense, he informed me it was ok because they always listen to the customer. WHAT? Then why did we just waste all this time arguing?

The morning was off to a rocky start since the megaphones announcing prayer (think bomb squad) woke me up at 4 am. It is my theory that 18 million people should be able to set an alarm but apparently I am in the minority since it happens like clock work 5 times a day. Maybe that’s why we stopped going to church in the US (my parents and God parents excluded). We need Big Brother reminding us it is time for mass.

Once I got out all of my aggressions and devoured my Egyptian falafel and foul (vegetable bean porridge thing), I set off to the pyramids. I’ve decided Africans in general have two phrases they firmly grasp in the English language hence they use them often. Those words being, “my friend” and “no problem.” Following a close third is “you happy?”

My tour guide has been showing people the sights for 17 years so I figured I was in good hands. He started giving me a rundown on what I would see, “you want to see the sights no problem. I told him I would like to see Islamic Cairo, the Citadel and Giza. “Ok my friend we see Mosques. The agency says you want to see 5-7 no problem.” Actually that is not me. I would like to see the historical mosques but I don’t need to see 7. “Ok my friend, no problem.” My day went on like that for 6 hours.

We kicked off in Memphis, the former capital of the Pharaohs’ and made our way to Saqqara to see the world’s oldest pyramid. Finally, we finished the day an hour before sunset seeing the Pyramids & Sphinx at Giza.

For starters, Ramses II was one very popular ruler. It is quite common for people to say Ramses is their great-grandfather because he had 50 wives and over 200 children. It is referenced all the time with many people saying, “Oh yes my great-grandfather…. He commissioned this tomb or that statue.” Staring up at a large pile of 5,000-year-old rock I have to remind myself they mean Ramses. He must have been a very busy man between caring for his wives, children and overseeing the statues and pyramids being built in his likeness. I don’t know when he had time to wage war. History reflects he ruled Egypt for more than 60 years. For all you movie fans, he is the ruler portrayed in “The Ten Commandments,” who married Nefertiti his great love.

I finally made it to the Pyramids of Giza. To say I was excited would be an understatement. My journey seemed complete the minute I looked into the clear blue sky and stood before these towering tombs of rock and magnificent works of architecture. It’s hard to imagine that most pyramids took 25 years to build and many rulers did not live to witness the final installments. They just “lived” to be buried in them!

I just had to take a camel ride between the pyramids. It was of course the only way to see all 9 pyramids in a line. I felt like a queen! The pyramids are an every day part of Egyptian life. They seem to rest in Cairo’s back yard similar to a child’s swing set.

The Pyramids of Giza were completed around 2600 BC and the Sphinx 2500 BC. It’s an incredible experience to be able to touch the rock that formed these marvels. I loved taking it all in so much that I even enjoyed the light show. I swear it was Ramses himself speaking to me from his tomb.

Remember “you happy?” I finally got the message. When the camel guy asked me 3 times if I was happy and I naively asked him why he kept asking me that, he said, “when we done if you happy you give good tip for me.” Little did I know this was the beginning of the end? I was dragged to a perfume store and then a bazaar and each place asked me if I was happy and then followed with “no fee for looking.” After seeing nothing of interest (14k gold hieroglyphics aren’t my thing) and I hate perfume, I got a lot of “you not happy? What about your mom? She like perfume?” Nope she doesn’t like it either.

Being happy apparently is costly in Egypt.

Africa, Destinations, Middle East

The Key to Prosperity

February 2, 2009 • By

I’ve decided mosques are like churches after 5 or so I’ve seen enough. It’s important to note that I’m always searching for a new religion but I won’t be converting to Islam anytime soon. The problem being that the only thing I do 5 times or more a day is pee and eat and I already have a big enough forehead I don’t need a scar from bowing my head to the east in prayer everyday. In Islamic speak, the east is towards Mecca (Mecca , the birthplace of Islam for all of us uninformed, is where Muslims flock to during the month of Ramadan). The Koran says Muslims must make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their life. It also says men can take up to 4 wives and as my guide put it to me nicely,”one is enough!” Besides, I really like my long flowing hair and think the whole world deserves to see it not just my imaginary husband.

While I’m on a rant, I also don’t understand why Muslim women should be forced to wear black when its 150 degrees. I can tell when a woman is shapely and I’m surprised the religion is so insistent that a woman’s body not be seen even clothed. I wore a white shirt today (yes to REFLECT the hot sun). It occurred to me I made a mistake when some guard at the oldest mosque in Egypt chased me down yelling “hair lady, hair lady,” which meant nothing to me (my hair was covered with bits showing) but apparently my guide deciphered that to mean me. As a result, I adorned a very bright green Star Wars like cape covering me from head to toe. My hair was a conversation starter once again when I stopped at the souvenir shop when the pushy sales lady (watch out New York this woman has skill) followed me around the store—the store I was in only to check out the facilities—saying long hair lady maybe you like this crystal or jewelry or…. Ok I can deal with the nickname “hair lady.” I much prefer that to baldy!

On the tourist front, I visited the oldest and the largest Egyptian mosques, the Coptic Museum and the area known as Old Cairo or the Christian section (with the most random and gorgeous synagogue- Ben Ezra). Many of the poor live in Old Cairo but even then Egypt is a relatively prosperous country. People here live in flats and apartments reminiscent of old European cities where the outside looks sketchy but the inside is perfectly respectable. In a city with 18 million people, the same problems one would find in NY, London etc. apply here. It’s expensive and overcrowded, housing and jobs are scarce and pollution is an issue. There is room for improvement but its not in complete despair.

Egypt’s biggest industry is agriculture and thank goodness. Where would we get our 1,000 count $800 Egyptian Cotton sheets? Now if I could only lug those fine sheets around in my backpack. For $150, I could purchase an incredibly soft queen set. I had to rub my face against them just to dream.

Lastly, I visited the Citadel, an area where several great mosques dating from the 12th Century were constructed. One mosque in particular resembles the design of the Hague Sofia in Istanbul and likely illustrates the influence the Ottoman Empire maintained at that time. From high atop the mountains, the Egyptians could watch for intruders along the Nile. It’s a massive complex and all around I could view the city’s vastness filled with mosques, business, housing complexes, the mighty Nile and the pyramids in the distance.

Before calling it a day, I asked to visit a papyrus store. The namesake in the US charges a great deal for the so-called stationery. The ancient Egyptians figured out they could peel the papyrus plant, wet the insides for a week and then roll out the “sheets” by crisscrossing one line over the other. The papyrus dries and becomes paper in a months time and then people could write or paint on it. The paper is very durable and does not smear the writings.

Being a hopeless romantic, I just had to buy the parchment portraying the love story of King Tut and his wife. The famous painting uses two powerful symbols uniting the couple in life and death: the locust (love) and the key to prosperity, a bow-like hieroglyphic. The “key” is very wildly used in ancient script especially in the writings for the kings who longed for prosperity in the afterlife. I have my ancient fairy tale and the band (at dinner) is now playing, “Your the Inspiration” by Chicago. Is that some kind of sign?

I’m off to eat my large helping of falafel and kebabs. Just hoping I don’t get Pharoah’s revenge as the locals call it.