Monday, April 4, 2011

20 Million

Apparently when the US Embassy in a country is evacuated you can't travel to that country on an official US passport. Duh. Luckily, Craig insisted that we all get regular tourist passports before we headed to Egypt. Because when we present our official passports to the Egyptian customs official, he responds, "I'll pretend I didn't see that", We realize, he's being very kind. He points at the visa office in the hallway where we can get a regular tourist visa, to accompany our regular tourist passports, which is all we'll require now. So, $100 later we're in Cairo looking at the outside of the terminal.

Cairo is one of the biggest and fastest growing cities in the world with a population of 20 million. That is the population of the top 5 most populated cities in the US combined. There's no hiding it's enormity. You can see it in the congested traffic, in the immense crowds and in the filthy streets defiled with garbage. But, even though we're in a huge city, we’re anything but invisible. We're obviously tourists, at a time when there are virtually no tourists. Revolution isn’t exactly good for tourism. So everyone everyone notices us. Everyone has something to say to us, something to sell us and everyone stares at us. They are brimming with happiness and thanking us for coming. I feel completely embraced by the Egyptians. Even if they are embracing me while sticking their hands in my back pocket for some baksheesh.

n. pl. baksheesh: A gratuity, tip or bribe paid to expedite service, especially in some Near Eastern countries.

While the US government may proclaim Egypt unsafe for travel, I strangely feel overwhelmingly safe. I was prepared for pick pockets, looting and chaos, but that's not what we found at all. I have never gone to an ATM guarded by a guy with a body shield and a machine gun before. Maybe Martial Law isn't so bad after all. Everywhere we went in Cairo we saw tanks, body shields and machine guns. As if Egypt didn’t have enough going for it pre-revolution with all its hieroglyphics, sarcophagi , pyramids and all that stuff, Sky and River are completely enamored with the revolution and military rule. And Sky is studying Egypt in school, so he’s telling us stories of King Tut and we let him be our guide and tell us everything he knows. Did I mention Sky doesn’t like school?

Our first stop is Tahrir Square, the heart of the revolution. The name means "liberation" and the 2011 revolution is actually the third that has taken place here, preceded by the revolutions of 1919 and 1952. As we get closer to our destination, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, which is on the square, we see the burned remnants of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Unbeknowst to us at the time, it was burned down March 22, a mere 5 days before our arrival. Ignorance is bliss right? So we head into the museum which is prodigious. There are so many artifacts heaped together it looks like a garage sale. It's hard to imagine that the museum was looted. How crowded it must have been before the looting? And how the hell did they know what to take? After all, most stuff is not labeled. And how the hell do you steal a 7 foot statue made out of granite anyhow? It’s perplexing. What’s funny is they checked my small tote bag on the way out of the museum to make sure I didn’t steal anything.

Walking around Cairo we see some murals celebrating the new found liberation of Egypt. There are men selling t-shirts. We of course are the perfect targets and throngs of vendors approach us. As soon as one leaves another one comes. Craig handles the hasslers effortlessly. Thank god. It's hard for me to say no. Not only do I have boundary issues, I’m half-Canadian, which makes it virtually impossible to say no to anyone. Until I find grown men leering at my two young daughters. Then they ask over and over through the streets of Egypt how many camels I’d like for a dowry for Jade, my 9 year old. That’s when I lost empathy for young Egyptian men. I would save my compassion for the rest of the population.

Husslers surround the Great Pyramid of Khufu, scam central. This is the end of tourist season, or what would have been the tourist season if not for the revolution. You can't blame anyone for wanting to feed their family. When we enter the pyramid hunched over to make it up the narrow inclining passageway into the chamber. What would normally be packed with tourists breathing in each others recycled air, is absolutely eeriely empty. On our way down back to the entrance, a guard quietly asks us if we want to see the Queen's chamber, which isn’t part of the tour and is closed off behind lock and key. We move quickly and quietly knowing he's risking his job for the tip he'll receive. We see the seemingly interminable tunnel descending to the bowels of the pyramid. Of course a woman would get the accommodations in the basement. We hear footsteps and chatter. Someone is coming and we scurry back up the stairs. We baksheesh him. This was ethically and morally wrong. We're horrible parents. But, it wouldn’t be the last time we’d do it.

We did the same at the Al-Azhar Mosque, one of the world’s oldest university. Where I was forced to wear a loner head scarf to enter the courtyard of the mosque. We aren’t permitted in the mosque because we’re not Muslim. Then, a man always approaches us. Do we want to go up to the top of the minaret for a view of the whole city? Only 20 Egyptian Pounds. By this time, we know that price is bullshit because it’s never ONLY the price they say it is. We follow him and quietly skulk through the door into the until spiral staircase ascending to the top of the edifice. We pay his friend at the door 20 EP. Then we’re escorted up for a panoramic view of the mosque, university and city. It's almost sunset and the colors are soft and golden. He takes a picture of our family. One of the few that we will have all together because you don't want to hand your camera to a stranger in Cairo. Often you’ll have to pay to get it back. We figure it's only him and us up here and we can easily take him if he tries to make off with it. We're still at the top when he announces that the tour is over and stands staring at us. Oh, so this is the part where we pay HIM for the tour also. Craig gives him something. It's not enough. It never is enough by the way, no matter how much you pay. Craig turns out his pockets and shows him they're empty. Somehow that satiates our guide.

We descend the dark staircase lit only by a match our guide holds. I'm shocked he's not charging us for the matches. Wow, he is really an honest guy. Oh my god, I can't believe I just said that. We've been in Cairo too long. I think I have Stockholm syndrome. I think we've met all 20 million people who live here and baksheeshed them. I have dry black boogers in my nose from all the pollution. I want to be invisible again. Thank god we get out of the big city tomorrow and take a flight south to Luxor.

Can we make it through the insane Cairo traffic to get to the airport in time for our flight to Luxor?
Will I whip out that one ton statute in my tote bag and go ballistic on someone?
Will we be invisible in Luxor?
Can we buy an invisibility cloak in Luxor?
Do they also speak baksheesh in Luxor?
Or do they have a different dialect?
Will my boogers return to a lovely shade of green in Luxor?
Or is our family devoured by crocodiles on the Nile?

Stay tuned for the final installment of the Egypt trilogy...


hocam said...

An interesting time to see the country. A friend of mine visited a couple of years ago and had to pay to get their camera back after been photographed on a camel. There was no way down without paying.

The Loerzels said...

We read similar stories before we went. Cameras taken or people being forceably separated from their group at the pyramids especially and needing to pay baksheesh to proceed. Crazy!


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