Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cairo, Final Take

The Sphinx and one of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Betty, Thea, and my return to Cairo almost proved to be difficult. The website had said that they do pickups and drop off in Cairo. However, when we had first arrived, the owner said that returning might be tough because their taxis were not allowed in the city. I really wanted to know why their website said something different, but had learned not to ask these questions. Anyway, our guide got us back on time. Then, the owner who subcontracted us out to our guide was subcontracting our ride back to Cairo out to another guy. He made it very clear that if anything didn't go right with the ride that it was not his problem because he was going to have us pay the driver and not him. He gave extra money to the driver in case the police did stop him. Later, we asked an Egyptian guy about this later and he said he had never heard of it. He suspected that they didn't know the address or didn't want to deal with traffic.

Half way to Cairo, we stopped to go to the bathroom. While I waited by the car with the driver, he tried to get me to pay him. Having learned from my earlier mistakes of paying people before services were delivered, I told him that I would pay him when we got to the bike shop. He grumbled about it, but we continued to Cairo. When we arrived in Cairo, he didn't know where we were going. He stopped at a taxi stand. I thought he was going to try and put us in with someone else. He didn't. He picked up another driver to show him the way. Together, they still didn't know the way. They paid another driver to guide us in his cab. After a few phone calls, we eventually made it to the bike shop.

A fancy bike rack and pump at the bike shop.

The bike shop was the first high end bike shop I had seen in the Middle East. We wanted to them to take apart our bikes and box them. We could do it, but we preferred to go play tourist. We tried to negotiate the price. They didn't budge. They were friendly. They were helpful. It was like being at a bike shop in the states. We told them we needed our bikes that day and arranged for them to be dropped off at Thea's house. We didn't want to have to come back later. It was easy. It was probably our best business transactions in Egypt.

From there, Thea went home and Betty and I went to see the Pyramids of Giza. We found a driver to take us down and also pick us up. When he dropped us off, he told us where he would be waiting and to talk to no one because it was not safe. Giza is a poorer area, but I didn't think it was that dangerous. We hopped out, didn't buy the fake tickets that Thea warned us about, and proceeded to the main entrance where we got our real tickets.

The Sphinx.

Our first stop was the Sphinx. It is big. It is grand. It stares east out over the streets of Giza. I would guess that the streets start less than 200 yards away. I can't imagine the changes that the Sphinx has watched there over 5 millennia. To the west, the Sahara Desert begins. After crossing the desert highway, I don't think there is anything except sand until you get to the Siwa Oasis near the border of Libya. To the north, were the pyramids that I had traveled so far to see.

The Sphinx looks east over Giza.

The pyramids were why I had come to Egypt. Way back when I conceived of my bike trip, I saw a ferry from Athens to Cairo and thought biking to the pyramids would be a great way to end my trip instead of stopping in Athens. From there, I realized just how close Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and so many other great treasures were and my trip grew. It was a bummer to not bike up to the pyramids as planned. However, I don't think I would have been able to anyway since I can't imagine they let bikes through the gate. Unfortunately, despite causing the most excitement during the planning of my trip, the pyramids were a let down.

A very unhappy camel.

Unhappy camel (turn your sound up).

As soon as you left the Sphinx area, camel riders approached you to take their picture in front of a pyramid and charge you for it. The camel mounted police wanted to do the same thing. Some guys wanted to give you camel, horse, or carriage rides. Others wanted to sell you stuff. If you didn't want any of those services, they would happily take your picture from what they considered the best spot to get a picture of you and the pyramids. I can only imagine what the tip is like once they have your camera in their hand. It was a nonstop barrage of trying to extract money from tourists. Essentially, it was Egypt. If only we had seen this part first to brace ourselves instead of visiting the rather timid, in comparison, Sinai Peninsula.

In front of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the policeman asked for baksheesh for looking pretty on their camels.

The first pyramid that you arrive at is the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Khufu. It is the largest and oldest pyramid. It is the only surviving structure of the 7 ancient wonders of the world. It is an honorary member of the new 7 wonders of the world. It was the tallest man made structure in the world for almost 3,800 years. The only surviving relic that shows Khufu's face is in the Egyptian museum in Cairo. It is approximately a one inch statue. I guess it is a good thing he built a huge pyramid to be remembered by. Betty and I heard that going into the pyramid was a waste of time so we skipped it and headed back to the second pyramid.

Pyramid of Khafre.

The Pyramid of Khafre and a museum that holds a boat they found on site.

The second pyramid is the Pyramid of Khafre. It looks larger because it is on a hill, but is actually smaller. This pyramid still has some of its casing stones near the top. The casing stones were originally white polished limestone that must have added quite a bit of flash to the pyramids. Unfortunately, they are almost all gone. You can see some piled up at the bottom of the pyramids, especially at the last pyramid that a later Pharaoh tried to destroy.

Two of the pyramids of Giza.

The outer casing stones of the pyramids.

The last pyramid, the Pyramid of Menkaure, is the smallest. However, because it is the longest walk away and the least impressive, it is also the quietest. Right next to it, there are three queen's pyramids which are dwarfed by any of the Pharaoh's pyramids. While these were not the most impressive, you had a chance to really spend time with them and not get harassed by anyone. It was nice. In fact, it is so quiet back there we even saw one guard sleeping.

After these few pyramids, the desert opened up. There were a few hills that you could see camels and horses taking tourists to the top of. However, there wasn't anything else. I am sure you could walk right to the pyramids for free if you came from that direction. If I ever go back, I'll be sure to head in that way. I think looking at the pyramids from the peace and quiet of the desert would be a much better way to go. In the movie Cairo Time, that I watched on my flight back, they showed a sunrise visit to the pyramids. It was peaceful. It looked precious. If it is possible, I'd recommend it.

A mosque near the highway in Cairo.

From the Pyramids, we went back to Thea's and her fiance, Sami's, apartment. They lived near an expatriate area. It was a lot quieter than the rest of Cairo. After a couple hours to nap and get cleaned up from our desert adventure, we went out for dinner. We drove and drove and drove to find a place. It was funny to hear them try to decide where to take us for our one meal. The meal was alright, but the dessert was the memorable part. They took us to a fruit smoothie place pronounced far-ga-lee. Don't let anyone else say otherwise. I can't even remember what I had. They put arugula and avocados and all types of crazy stuff in shakes. It was great.

Great green plants along the Nile.

After dinner, it was time to sleep. Betty had to be up early to leave. Her cab showed up early, we loaded up her bike, and she was off for her one day solo birthday adventure in Amsterdam where her layover was. She had tried to book a flight around the same time as me, but ended up booking one 12 hours too soon. Oddly enough, I had a direct flight to New York, where she was going, before I connected to Wisconsin. The best she could find was the Amsterdam layover which she made as long as possible so she could get out and play without rechecking her bags. That still left me with an extra day to explore.

The Red Pyramid in Dashur.

The Red Pyramid of Dashur had been recommended me to so Thea and I decided to catch a cab down there. When we got to the entry gates, some guy in a suit got in the car with us. We were not given any explanation of why. Not every car got someone. I expected to shortly be harassed for him to guide us or sell us something or some new inventive way to get our money. As it turned out, he was a gun carrying security guy. When we got to the site, he didn't do anything. He hung out by the car while we walked wherever we wanted.

Descending into the Red Pyramid.

The inside of the Red Pyramid.

I had expected the Red Pyramid to be red like the rocks of Petra. It wasn't. Because of that, it was a bit of a disappointment. Expectations ruin everything. However, Thea and I did go inside this pyramid which was neat since I had skipped going in the day before. After climbing up a few meters up, we entered the pyramid and started descending down. To do this, you could only be less than three feet tall so we had to hunch over. As I did, the first thing to hit me was smell of the stale air. It was terrible. Thea said, it smelled like urine. I think she was on to something. After descending 68m in the crouch position, we were at the bottom. It was hot. Hot and smelly, my favorite combination. On the other hand, there were only about 5 other people down there with us and we could explore the 3 chambers at our leisure. The walls down there looked a bit red. Two of the rooms had very tall walls that slowly came together near the ceiling. The other one was a regular room. It was neat to try imagine where these small rooms were inside these huge structures.

The Bent Pyramid.

According to the Internet, the Red Pyramid got its name because the outer limestone is red tinted. I did not see it. Originally, it was not red at all. It had the same outer casing that the other pyramids had. This was the largest man made structure in the world before the Great Pyramid was built. It is also the first true pyramid. Before this, according to Thea's architecture classes, they were still figuring out how to make them. Also at the site of Dashur is the Bent Pyramid where it was clear they were still learning. While it was being built, its angle of inclination changed from 54 to 43 degrees. It makes it look like it has sagged over time, but it was built that way.

A kindred spirit, this guy attracted all the dogs in the parking lot when he fed one them his lunch.

We returned to Thea's apartment by noon. I had eight hours before my flight. I looked up a few 'must sees' in Cairo and was going to visit them. However, it didn't happen. The train line was right there and would have taken me to town quickly, but I wasn't feeling it. I was enjoying the peace and quiet of their expatriate neighborhood. It had trees. I walked until I found an area where the expatriate area was butting up against the more Egyptian part. I found a great bagel shop for lunch. I found a great falafel shop for dinner. I read. I watched the world go by.

Palm trees along the Nile.

As I wrote this post, I realize just how many times I've written about peace and quiet. I was missing it. It isn't much of a surprise that I didn't go back into Cairo proper for more sight seeing. It wasn't that I was done exploring, I just needed to do a different type of exploring. I also needed time to think. The idea of being home in a day seemed ridiculous.

After being gone so long and traveling the way I had for so long, that was my life. Even though I was craving stability (in the form of people or location or employment), I couldn't really fathom having it. In a way, I had become institutionalized again, just like when I was in Antarctica for a year. I just got used to things and made them part of me and part of my rhythm. I think that ability to adapt and make the current circumstance be my circumstances are why this trip went so well. Yes, the touts and other things got on my nerves, but I never lost it. I adjusted and found a way to keep enjoying myself.

When it came time to head to the airport, I got a ride from the same guy that took Betty and I to the pyramids and Thea and I to the Red Pyramid. He drove slow. He didn't scare me. I was able to really look around and soak in my final views of Egypt. It was a wonderful way to go.

Me and the Sphinx.

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