01 March 2014

"Egypt is Safe. Tell Your Friends."

Egypt's National Museum is a dusty old attic. Dying yellow lights flicker beneath metal screens and shadows darken the corridors. It is a world class collection that feels like an eccentric's private stash. Egypt is in flux and the museum, like everything else, is empty. You can wander the halls alone imagining that the sheets were ripped away moments before you arrived because the emptiness affords you that fantasy. But, the sound of your echoing soles comes at a cost.

From what I understand visiting Egypt prior to the 2011 revolution was like visiting an amusement park on the busiest of days. It left you wondering if the ride was worth the line. While tourists ironically bitched about over-commercialization, Egypt grew accustomed to a steady flow of foreign cash.

It has been three years since Mubarak's regime was toppled and less than a year since Mohamed Morsi (Egypt's controversially elected President) was forced out of office. New elections will be held soon, but for now the money is gone and desperation is swirling like sparks from a smoldering fire.

The Egyptians are a proud and kind people whose hustle is deeply rooted in hospitality. Walk into any shop in Egypt and you will immediately be offered tea and conversation.

"Where are you from?"

"America."

"Ah, I love America! Welcome! Is this your first time in Egypt?"

"It is."

"Welcome. Welcome. We used to have many Americans, but you don't come to Egypt anymore."

After a respectful time has passed the proprietor will get down to the business of selling. The sell is never pushy, or isn't supposed to be according to the script. In the past it didn't matter when a tourist said no, because there was always another coming through the door. But the bell doesn't jangle anymore.

"If you don't want to buy, it's okay. But, please my friend, listen. Egypt is not dangerous. We made a revolution in 2011, but it's safe. Even here in Cairo. What they show on your news, it's very bad."

Perhaps like me you'll think of the tanks still parked on the streets surrounding Tarir Square. Perhaps like me you'll offer vague non-committal hope. And perhaps like me you'll see the vendor fold inward as he repeats his exhausted mantra.

"Egypt is safe. Tell your friends."

This is the Egypt I stepped into. I traveled to Cairo, the Pyramids of Giza, Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Aswan. What I saw was both astonishing and sobering.

###

The trip started in that dusty old attic. I was traveling with my friend Tim, a fellow teacher in Saudi Arabia. Travel weary but excited to be somewhere new, we walked the shadowy corridors reading placards and marveling at the beautiful disarray. After a few hours we were ready for a beer so we strolled past the tanks into the roar of Cairo traffic.

We spotted a Hilton across the way and decided to head in that direction. We knew it would be a sterile lounge with overpriced brew, but we didn't have the energy to explore back alleys in search of a deal. The traffic was an impassable snarl prompting Tim to ask, "How the hell are we supposed to get across?"

"Run. And pray to Allah!" came a voice from behind.

An Egyptian man wearing a tweed coat over a turquoise shirt grabbed us by the elbows and pulled us into an instant blast of car horns. We stopped momentarily at a cement barrier dividing the road. "Don't worry. I don't want anything from you," he said. "I'm a professor at the museum." With that he pulled us forward and we darted like lizards across hot pavement.

Safely across he asked us what we were looking for.

"A drink," we said meaning beer.

"Follow me. I know a place," he said meaning tea.

Leading a winding path through the backstreets of Cairo the Professor explained that he specialized in animal mummification and gave us insider details about the macabre displays we had just seen.

When the tea arrived we thanked him, and asked where we might find a local place to imbibe later. "You want beer? Why didn't you say so. Come. Come." Just like that he was on the move again. He dropped a few coins in the waiter's hand and led us to a quiet cafe filled with old Egyptian men smoking shisha. We ordered a round of Stella and chatted with the Professor about anything that came up, Egyptian politics, European museums, Dostoevsky and of course the absence of tourists.

The Professor hustled us. And also didn't. After several beers and several plates of tapas he convinced us that our plan to negotiate our way onto a Nile cruise once we reached Aswan was total crap. Besides, he knew about a special "archaeological tour" that was popular with visiting students.

So once again we followed our host, this time to a travel agency, where we were offered tea and the standard preamble of a hospitable hustle. They chopped us down but good. Twenty minutes later we were at an ATM pulling out cash to pay for an all-inclusive tour; round-trip bus fare, three days/nights on a Nile cruise and guides/taxis at every major stop. The total cost for all of this was $250 dollars.

That may sound like a helluva deal, but it went against every travel instinct I have. I loath set schedules, and package deals, and pretty much anything custom made for casual tourists. I'm snobby like that. And so is Tim for that matter. We told ourselves that we caved because we didn't have time to play the long game. Normally I would be more than happy to spend a day reading in a cafe waiting for a boat operator to drop his price. But, we only had six days and thus little room for logistical error. In truth, I think we caved because of the unity of the Egyptian people. I don't believe that the Professor knew the guys at the travel agency. Nor do I believe that there was ever a special archaeological tour. The Professor had a couple of fish on the line and handed the pole over to the nearest travel agency; not to pull one over on us, or to help his friends, but because Egypt needed it.

Before we sailed the Nile in prepacked luxury we had Pyramids to see. You can get into the Giza complex for less than $10. We paid A LOT more than that for the privilege of riding busted down camels named Michael Jackson and Mickey Mouse.

With the exception of the front area near the Sphinx, the entire Giza complex was empty of tourists. Normally there are bus loads of people in bad shorts and big hats snapping their bucket list pictures. Our only interruption was Michael Jackson's yellow toothed braying.

Here is my favorite factoid about the pyramids: Cleopatra was closer to us in years than she was to the Pharaohs who built the pyramids. Think about that...

The Pyramids are the most recognizable structures in the world. They have exhausted superlatives in every language and have even led conspiracy theorists to claim that they are the work of aliens. They aren't. When you climb onto the massive foundation stones of Cheops and run your hands over the grooves it is clear that the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is the result of wild human ambition and the no other choice efforts of those tasked to build it.

That evening we waited for our bus at a cafe adjacent to the station. We sat outside in red plastic chairs and sipped hibiscus tea. A soccer match was playing on a boxy TV in the background and the waiter was yelling at a slouchy man with a thick mustache and hairy arms. The waiter was tall and handsome (in a sleazy stay away from my sister kind of way). He reminded me of the actor-waiters in L.A. who approach every table like it's a urinal cake needing to be changed.

We were joined by one of the travel agency reps. He was a practicing attorney who liked to spend most of his time working with tourists because he found it more interesting. Like many young Egyptians he was more than willing to talk about the current political situation:

"Three years ago we made a revolution. The young people did this. No one thought we could make Egypt change. But, we did. And when they saw that it was going to be successful, the Muslim Brotherhood jumped on the revolution. They jumped on the revolution and took it away from us. They used Islam to scare the older people--to make them think that our culture would change. Mubarak was gone, but the Muslim Brotherhood put many of their people in the new government. The constitution was their constitution, not ours. So the young people are very unhappy. They make more protests and again the government changed. Elections are soon. We hope the new president can make Egypt better and bring the tourists back, but it will be very difficult."

In terms of political maneuverings what he described is familiar. Young liberals rise up against the establishment only to be undercut by the far better organized right-wing who push an agenda of religion and perceived national values. It is easy to get caught up in the foreignness and faraway details that smear it all to grey, but the political theater in Egypt is an age-old story that continues to play out around the world. The human desire for a better life bogged down by politics as usual.

We spent the night on a bus that made me thankful that I'm short. In Luxor we were greeted by a dapper Egyptian gent in a camel hair trench coat and polished shoes. It was 6:30 in the morning and he had been waiting for two hours. Not the least bit bothered he treated us to Turkish coffee and briefed us on our agenda while we waited for the city to wake up.

All we wanted to do was crawl onto the boat and go to sleep, but our rooms weren't ready so instead we went straight to Karnak Temple.

Karnak is the largest ancient religious site in the world. It is mostly open air with monuments dating from the Middle Kingdom through the Ptolemaic Period (2050 BC - 30 BC).

Our guide through Karnak was a jovial dude named Laami, who laughed like everything was an inside joke. He was university educated and well versed in Egyptology. Perhaps he could have chosen a different career path, but when he graduated tourism was the smart money.

Laami skimmed over the timeline history and focused instead on art history. Look at the picture below with this explanation in mind. The two figures represent upper and lower Egypt (at one time separate kingdoms). Their stomachs are fat and healthy from the waters of the Nile. The figure on the right is holding a Papyrus stalk. Papyrus was used to make paper, and paper used to make scrolls, thus it represents knowledge. The figure on the left is holding a lotus flower. The lotus flower sinks underwater at night and rises and blooms in the morning. To the ancient Egyptians it was a symbol of the sun and creation. The stems wound together represent a united Egypt. The rod at the center is literally a throat leading down to lungs. And all those symbols at the top, where the head would be, represent the Pharoah who commissioned the relief. Lest anyone forget who was in charge of all that fat-bellied unification.
   
This is one relief among thousands at Karnak. I learned more than I could possibly remember and just enough to give me a new appreciation of Egyptian art history. Laami is thinking about recording his tours and posting them on YouTube. If he does, look for them here.

The Nile cruise was a bit of a disappointment. How could it not be when the first thing they told us was, "Sorry, Sirs. There's no beer on board." We rectified that obviously, but still...

I knew it was going to be touristy, but it out touristy-d my expectations. Everything was on a tight schedule: the daily outings, meals, the limbo contest I did not partake in. It was pure tourist goop. I'm lucky I didn't debark wearing an "I heart Egypt" shirt and bellowing about the lack of ketchup.

It wasn't my kind of travel, but it did have its bright points, namely sunset on the roof with the Nile passing by.

On our second day in Luxor we visited the Valley of the Kings. The ancient Egyptians believed that the sun god Ra was responsible for pulling light across the sky. Every evening when the sun dipped below the horizon he died, sinking into the underworld, where he fought a nightly battle to be reborn in the morning. This cycle of death and rebirth was at the heart of Egyptian religious belief for millennia. Luxor (formerly Thebes) is divided by the Nile. Karnak is on east bank, the side of life. The Valley of the Kings is on the west bank, the side of death.

The Valley of the Kings has never been lost to history. Egyptian Pharaohs robbed the tombs of their long dead ancestors and Muhammad Ali Pasha gave away priceless relics like they were cheap bottles of wine at a housewarming party. The Theban Necropolis has always been a treasure seekers dream and yet there are still undiscovered tombs filled with undiscovered treasure.

Tim and I had the tombs to ourselves. We walked down long ornately carved corridors deep into the mountain, where expansive rooms opened up revealing brightly painted murals. Aside from Egyptian workers demanding tips for the pleasure of their questions we were without distraction. We took our time, and we took as many mental pictures as possible because cameras are not allowed.

Ascending from the final tomb, I redonned my sunglasses and noticed that a lot more tourists had arrived. I pointed out the swelling crowd to our guide.

"It's getting busy now. That's good right?"

She sneered and brushed the crowd away with a flick of her wrist. "These are Egyptians."

Her disdain was not unusual, we heard this often. Egypt isn't interested in domestic tourism, because domestic tourism doesn't pay.

"What were the lines like when things were good?" I asked.

She pointed to a spot at least a hundred yards from the entrance. "The lines used to start back there. People had to wait an hour to get into the tombs. There was a lot of fighting when it got hot."

She said this with tempered nostalgia, and although that horrified me I also understood. She used to have four tours a day and now she has one a week if she is lucky.

The Temple of Horace is in Edfu, a town that wouldn't exist if it wasn't for tourism. When the boat docked there were dozens of horse drawn carriages waiting to take passengers to the temple. The horses were thin enough to count ribs and the carriages looked like sofas left out on garbage day. Passengers streamed off the boat and the zombies swarmed.

I decided to walk. It was only 3km and I was getting tired of entrance fees and tipping and tourist trap carriage rides that I didn't want. I tried to sneak past the crowds by walking along the docks, but I was spotted. Two men started yelling, "You! You!" and several carriages immediately spun around to catch the runaway rabbit.

They all tried, but one was more persistent than the others:

"No thank you. I want to walk."

"Why? It is too far. 50 Egyptians Pounds"

"No."

"40"

"No."

"30?"

By the time he got down to five I felt sick to my stomach. I juked him. I waited until he had gone too far and then doubled back and crossed the street. I narrowly avoided a carriage fight. One man stood up at the reins and charged forward screaming at the carriage in front of him. The other man stood up as well, yelling and gesticulating with angry pinched fingers. This continued for the entire length of the street. The man in front would trot forward and the man behind would charge again still angry over his perceived slight. In the background an elderly couple wearing matching yellow polo shirts slinked away, embarrassed by the drama they had inadvertently caused.

I never made it to the Temple of Horace. I walked until I got tired of getting hassled and then wanted to get back as quickly as possible.

The only thing faster than walking was a carriage. The driver was confused by my refusal to go to the temple, but wanted to earn his 20 Egyptian Pounds ($2.15) so he went the long way through the souk. There were no tourists in the market. There were only locals struggling to survive and me in my carriage. I looked at them through expensive sunglasses and took pictures of them with my iPhone. I was a foreign king riding through the rabble. The king of the assholes.

The word "tip" has a very broad definition in Egypt. And every day was a tip-athon. Tip the boat staff, tip the taxi driver, tip the guide. Tip tip tip. We quickly realized that our "all-inclusive" tour was anything but. And there were no guidelines to tell us whether we were being misers or suckers. I tried asking our guide at the Valley of the Kings and she gave me the answer I expected:

"Whatever you wish. If you liked the service you can tip."

Leaving Edfu, I was tired of the bullshit, so I made the concierge tell me.

"As you wish, Sir. If you lik..."

"No!" I insisted. "That is not good enough. I understand this makes you uncomfortable. But, I need you to tell me numbers. I don't want to cheat anyone. And I don't want to be cheated either."

He looked at me like a doctor had just snapped on a rubber glove and corked a finger up his butt. He checked to make sure no one was listening and then told me what I wanted to hear. I thanked him and went back to the room. As I walked in the phone was ringing. It was the concierge.

"Please, Sir. You must keep our conversation secret. And, Sir. The amount I told you is a minimum. You understand?"

I hung-up with a dismissive, "Yup." The Egyptians looking out for Egyptians storyline that had so charmed me in the beginning was starting to feel a lot like manipulation.

Here is my advice. If you visit Egypt and prearrange guides for any of the ancient sites, negotiate their fee up front. The guides are great; interesting; educated, happy to tell you about their culture--past or present. But, what they call tips is actually an hourly wage. Nail that wage down with your travel agency before you embark so you don't have to put a concierge through a verbal rectal exam.

Aswan was the last stop on our tour. Before the Pharaohs claimed it, Aswan belonged to the Nubian Kingdoms. And Nubian culture is still prevalent in the area today. Much of the landscape was altered after the construction of the Aswan Dam. Including the location of the Philae Temple.

Our guide Ahmed explained that the temple had once been located on a small island on the Nile, but had since been deconstructed and rebuilt with the cooperation of the Soviet government on an island in Lake Nasser. The boat ride to the temple was beautiful. Ahmed explained the history and pointed out the heavy Greek influence. Some of what he told us was new and some was not, but after so many guides and so many temples the history was bound to repeat.

Ahmed was proud of Aswan and wanted to show us more than we had scheduled, but we had neither the time nor the energy. If it had been earlier in the trip we might have paid the extra expense to visit the Nubian Village or Abu Simbel, we might have asked Ahmed if Aswan had any nightlife and invited him to join us if it did. But, six days of go, go, go had taken its toll. We just wanted to go home.

Ahmed took us to the bus station and hung out while we waited. We were pleasantly surprised when the bus arrived, it looked big and comfortable. Not so much. The bus operators had bolted in as many extra seats as they could. We were pickled.

Ahmed waved goodbye as the doors hissed closed. "I hope you enjoyed Egypt. It's safe. Tell your friends!"

And there it was again.

Dear Friends,

Egypt is safe. The images you see on the nightly news are the images that sell. Yes, there has been violence, but the worst of that is over now. And most of what remains is confined to a specific area of Cairo. This may be the only chance you'll ever have to see Egypt this empty. Go. See Giza without a thousand cameras obstructing your view. Go. See what Luxor looks like as a sleepy riverside Oasis. Go now. Soon enough the tourists will be back and your chance to meet real Egyptians and experience the real Egypt will be gone--you'll be just another body herded through the amusement park. Go.

I wish that would help...

The truth is revolution and vibrant tourism cannot co-exist. The Egyptian people I met would like nothing more than for their revolution to play out in a vacuum with tourism and commerce thriving around it. But, that cannot be. Two days after I left a bus carrying Korean tourists was blown-up near the Israeli border. When I read the story, I imagined all the people I'd met (the Professor, Laami, Ahmed, the guys at the travel agency) shaking their fists in anger. Because that is not Egypt. It was a random act of violence in no way connected to that first wave of young people who stood up to Mubarak and demanded a change. But, tourists were killed which means that the story will glow from television screens in America, Europe, China, Japan and everywhere else tourists come from. Everyday the friends I made push a message of peace hoping to calm international fears and bring business back. But, until the new government is elected and settled, until the violence (however disconnected, however random) stops, their efforts will continue to be Sisyphean.

Our bus reached Cairo at 4:30 in the morning. One of the guys from the travel agency was there to greet us and smiling despite the hour. We had not arranged for him to be there. Ahmed had called and told him we might need help, so he came just to see. Our flight wasn't for twelve hours, but we were done being tourists. We asked if he could help us find somewhere to shower and sleep.

He led us through the dead streets of Cairo to what looked like an abandoned building. All the budget spots are in abandoned looking buildings; haunted entrances with haunted elevator shafts that open into beautifully restored boutique hotels. His friend was asleep behind the desk, but happy to admit us. We thanked him for everything and promised to speak well of Egypt. That was all he wanted--the knowledge that we were leaving happy.

I didn't wander far after my nap. We had been told that there might be protests so I stayed close to the hotel. I found an outdoor cafe and read a book while Egypt whirled around me. I vaguely remember hearing the call to prayer. I'm used to it now; it's the background sound of Arabia. It was the silence that got my attention.

I looked up from my book and saw that behind me hundreds of people had gathered in perfect lines, shoulder to shoulder. They were standing behind prayer mats and brightly colored scarves--the entire sidewalk transformed into a tapestry. Facing Mecca they knelt and began to pray. The first line was adjacent to me and the last I could not see. The street which had been bustling minutes before was empty and there was no movement in the opposite direction. Not wanting to stare, I watched the sidewalk prayer through the reflection in a shop window. A man rounded the corner on a yellow bicycle marred by fissures of red rust. He weaved through plastic chairs and abandoned shisha pipes with a pallet of bread balanced on his head. The prayer ended and I closed my book.