Walk like an Egyptian…

Posted by barb on Mar 25, 2006 in Travels |

Who knew a day could be so filled with contrasts. Today was a very good day – exciting, thrilling, magical – but it was also a depressing, guilt-inducing, and hard-to-take.

I think many of us have romantic visions of Egypt. Pyramids in the desert constructed in an ancient world before cranes and forklifts. The land of Cleopatra, Ramesses, King Tut, and the Nile. The imagination runs away with images of hieroglyphs, mummies, and cat worship. The truth of Egypt is that it is a third-world country today, not matter what it was in the ancient world. That single modern truth takes most, if not all, of the romance out of modern-day Egypt.

Alexandria Port

Our day started when the ship docked in Alexandria. We went above-deck to look at the harbor, and the first thing that struck me was the number of police patroling the harbor area. Several of these police had rifles slung over their shoulders. These were hardly the last police we saw today – they were everywhere.

We gathered for our shore excursion, and the second we disembarked, we were assaulted by vendors trying to sell us postcards, hats, and bags. This mini-assault was just the beginning, and mild compared to what was to come.

Once all of the buses were loaded, we took off in a caravan, complete with a police escort. We drove for about 20 mintues through Alexandria to get out of the city. Many of the buildings we passed had large portions of bricks missing from the foundations and first floor walls, yet most of them had laundry hanging from the balconies. These certainly would have been condemned in the States, but here they were important housing for the people of Alexandria. Many street corners boasted more police, most of them with rifles.

Alexandria city gate

There was a check-point (or gate?) at the edge of town – it was very cool, with “Alexandria” spelled out in both English and Greek alphabets. Yet, the approach lanes were all lined with ads for Pepsi and vondaphone. I couldn’t help but think, “This checkpoint brought to you by Pepsi”. That’s not exactly the image I think Pepsi would want to be associated with, but who am I to judge.

Ouside of town, the landscape was dotted alternately with plush, oasis-like country clubs and small plots of land with mud huts. Along the road we saw countless donkeys pulling small wagons, and farmers working small tracts of land. The next stretch of land bearing an amusement park. How difficult not to feel like the dirty, rich American in the plush air-conditioned bus.

First glimpse of pyramids

After a 3-hour bus ride, we reached the Giza, and got our first glimpse of the Great Pyramids. During our long bus ride, our tour guide, Iman, had given us an introduction to the Ancient Egyptian beliefs. While we wound through the streets of Giza she gave us a bit of a warning about the people at the pyramids. She said something like, “They are very poor and will try to sell you goods. There’s no guarentee that these goods are genuine, so you can decide if you want to help them or not. Do not ride the camels, because we are doing that later, and if you get on a camel here, it might cost you quite a bit to get down.” That was about as much of a warning she gave us. She also taught us how to say “yes” and “no” in Arabic, then let us go to the pyramids, with 30 minutes of free time. It all sounded so civilized.


Reality was not so civilized.

By any stretch.

They're not so big!

On our way to see one of the pyramids, someone put a souvenir pyramid in my hand. “Welcome to Egypt. This is my gift to you,” he said. I had to try several times to give it back, finally succeeding. Next, we got shuffled off by a guy in a shirt with striped epaulets. He offered to take our pictures, and then grabbed one of th police, and took our picture with him, too. Fortunately I got my camera back, and gave a dollar to each of the two men (the epauletted guy and the police).

Andrew with a holy man

Not ten feet later, another man accosted us. I tried to ignore him. We kept walking, and he kept yelling to us. “I said hello.” I was thinking that this would be one time that knowing Klingon fluently would be useful. Finally my “polite midewest” upbringing made me give in to his persistence. Stupid, stupid me. “I’m a holy man,” he said. “You don’t have to worry, I’m not a merchant.” Hmm…warning, danger, warning. he thrust some beads into my hand. “That’s my gift to you.” Then he grabbed Andrew, and I took a picture. He put a novelty head covering on Andrw, tied his own on me, and snapped our picture. As this was going on, a crowd of locals started to form, and he shooed them all away. Next he thrust a novelty pyramid in my purse. Andrew tried to return the covering, but the “holy man” said, “No, that is my gift to you”. Ugh. If I heard that one more time… “Now, how about a gift for me.” We tried giving him a few Euro coins. “No, no coins. The bank doesn’t exchange those.” he said. Then we gave him a €10 bill. “How about a 20? Ten for each [the souvenir pyramid and the head covering]?” “No,” I said, “Take this back”, and I tried to return the pyramid. We tried to give him a couple US dollars, but he said that as a holy man he couldn’t take US dollars. Ironically, after a little more bickering, he wanted to “have a look” at the US bills. We ended up giving him a few more Euro coins – apparently they were good enough. We finally extricated ourselves by telling him that our bus was leaving (even though we miraculously still had 15 minutes).

Andrew Admiring the size of the stones   Great Pyramid_2

We managed to get around to the “back side” of the pyramid, where things were much quieter. We were approached by a man with a camel back there, but a simple “no” got rid of him. Finally we had a chance to absorb some of the magic of the pyramid. We were both surprised by how big the stones were. And while we knew how tall they were, it’s, of course, completely different to actually see, rather than read about them or see them on the Travel Channel. Sadly, the experience had largely been tainted already by the annoyance of the locals.

We only had enough time to walk around one of the pyramids, but I’m not sure we would have survived another run through the locals-gauntlet to get to the other one. We made our way back to the bus, deftly deflecting the merchants and “holy men” along the way.

Sphinx and the great pyramid

We hopped back on the bus and drove just down the hill to the Sphinx. The first glimpse I had from the bus showed the Sphinx against the backdrop of one of the pyramids. Spectacular! We hopped off the bus, and went to see it closer. Unlike the pyramids, the Sphinx is fenced off, to limit contact with it. No matter, we could get close enough. There were minimal merchants there, too, and non of the “holy men”, so we were able to enjoy the atmosphere more than at the pyramids.

I walked up to the fence to stare, and started crying at the magnificent site. I stood for several moments , just trying to take it in. That was my moment to enjoy the “romance” of Ancient Egypt.


There was a ramp next to the Sphinx, to allow a better view of the side, so Andrew and I fought our way up there. An admission fee was required to get into the ramp, so there were no merchants on the ramp itself (they were behind the fence next to the ramp, but it was very easy to ignore them). Our time at the Sphinx was short, but well spent. It was my favorite spot of the day.

Of course, Andrew was struck by the fact that if you stand facing the Sphinx, then turn 180-degrees, there is a Pizza Hut and KFC across the street. They don’t show you that part on the Travel Channel!

We returned to the bus for a ride through Giza to one of the area’s many country clubs &#150 the Sakara Club. Our next adventure for the day was a ride through the desert in jeeps. We were near another set of pyramids on our ride, and could still see the great pyramids of Giza from where we drove around in the jeeps.

Me and Andrew

The jeeps dropped us near a group of Bedouins with camels. Andrew was grabbed by a Bedouin immediately after he got out of the jeep.I caught up, and this Bedouin and his child (?) led us to a pair of camels. Before I knew it, Andrew was on his c
amel, and towering above me. I had a bit more trouble getting on the saddle of my camel. Even laying down, a camel is fairly tall. I finally ended up crawling up, and our guide tried to get me positioned correctly on the saddle. Up the camel went. Yikes! A few more adjustements in my saddle, and our guide grabbed our cameras and took a few pictures. Then we were on our way.

Andrew and I found ourselves at the back of our group. This only made the presence of armed police more noticeable – the guards in the jeep often exchanged words with our guide (I guessed they were telling him to hurry up). Our guid kept asking if we were happy, and then would indicate that we should tip him. Each time we told him that we’d take care of him when we got back to the country club. I can see why its wise to only ride camels with an organized group – often they won’t let you down without paying them a bundle, but we had the protection of our group. At one point, I found out later, the guide asked Andrew to slip a tip into a pocket in the saddle, when we were around the bend from the rest of the group. Ugh. I have to say that riding the camels was fun, but the overall experience of dealing with the Bedouin was annoying.

Andrew on his camel

Oh, my camel’s name was Charlie, and Andrew’s camel was California. We galloped on them a few times, but rather than feeling like we were going faster, it just felt bumpier.

Back at the country club we had a buffet lunch (Indian buffet, oddly enough), and then piled back on the bus to visit the Step Pyramid of Zoser and the tomb of Sakara. Our first stop was at the tomb. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the tomb (lots of police outside the tomb, too). The walls were filled with drawings and heiroglyphs. It was so cool to see them where they belong, instead of behind glass in a museum.

Step Pyramid_2

From there we drove to the Step Pyramid itself. We entered through a columned entrance building. Our guide explaned that the pyramid was constructed in stages, with the final step design the result of 4 stages of construction. Once again, there were police all around the site. We could only stay for about 20 minutes until we were chased out by the police, since it was closing time.

Back in Giza we stopped at a papyrus paper vendor who gave us a demonstration of how papyrus is made. Finally a bit of shopping, then back on the bus for a 3-hour ride back to the port.

In the end Egypt made me feel dirty. Yes, dirty in the sense that I’d been in the sand and wind all day. Dirty in the sense that I smelled of camel and my hair was tangled and sandy. But also I felt like the dirty, rich American. Dirty for intruding on these people’s lives and judging it compared to mine. Dirty for thinking there’s nothing I could do about it. Dirty because I took pictures of it and gawked.

While I was happy to have seen and experienced the Great Pyramids and Sphinx, I could hardly wait to return to my sheltered life on the ship and wash the day away. I can’t see myself ever going back to Egypt, but was glad that I’d been there once.

Check out all of my pictures from the day at my Flickr Egypt Excursion Photoset


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