Saturday, May 22, 2010

Cairo and Giza

Many of you reading this will be no doubt familiar with the parlance of storytelling structure. This, as we like to say, begins the second act.

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In the past few weeks, I've gone to some amazing places, but always in the company of friends or family and always with a pre-arranged place to stay. That is, I had travelled, but it was, with a few notable exceptions, not risky, not an adventure. When I hugged my parents goodbye and set off down the road in Istanbul with only a memory guiding me towards where a hostel had been, it was the real, true start of a new chapter.

So in the interest of telling all of you a good story, I began my second act with a bang. There are many countries friendly to tourists and accessible to the casual, shoe-string traveler - Cairo is none of those things. I knew this full well going in and so it proved. I, of course, speak no Arabic, have no friends there and went in basically completely unprepared.

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It felt like cheating, of course, but I made a reservation in advance at a hostel who offered to pick me up at the airport for a reasonable price. The guy did indeed show, with a hand-written sign with my name on it. Remember how I was saying about that cab in Istanbul? This one was worse. An ancient diesel Peugeot 507 that looked like something out of Mad Max.

Of course, it hardly bares mentioning that the drive into downtown Cairo was like the opening lap of the Indy 500 - lanes are a vague suggestion, horns blaring constantly, people drive millimeters from one another and (a concept pervasive in Egyptian culture) a total lack of any sense of "I got here first" right-of-way. It took about half a hot, smog-filled hour and cost me about $11. If this seems high, it bares mentioning that nearly everything in Egypt has two options, and only two - pay for the privilege of immediacy or go for a more crowded, slower option that will be eye-wateringly cheap. Under the circumstances, I chose the former without protest or negotiation on price.

I would later come to regret this as my first wrong move among many in the endless quest to prevent one's self from becoming a giant walking paycheck.

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That first day, bleary-eyed and queasy, I walked from my hotel a spitting distance to the Egyptian Museum. This is a misnomer, it's more of a warehouse for the metric tons of mind-boggling ancient crap they've dug out of the ground in the last hundred or so years. Row upon row of artifacts, from the intimate daily things like wigs, combs and musical instruments to the grandiose, solid-gold bling of the pharos and their ilk (you can see them too, in their shriveled up glory.) Everything is unlabeled and haphazardly arraigned in display boxes right out of the 1920s. If Indiana Jones sucker punched some Nazi's in the gift shop, no one would notice (he didn't, too busy hiding in a fridge.)

I spent probably four solid hours wandering around and lamented the fact that no photos could be taken. It really is one of the most amazing collections I've ever seen just by sheer volume, without exaggeration. You want some sarcophagi? We got 15 of them, stacked against the back wall. Death masks? Mummified crocodiles? Boomerangs? Chariots? No problem.

I heard they are building a new, modern museum in Cairo, which is understandable but disappointing. The swashbuckling pre-war archeologists will always be tied to Egypt in the Western imagination and this museum plays that role perfectly.

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Afterwards, well, I just picked a direction and started walking. Cairo is an unfailingly safe city and people on the street are very friendly and never threatening. On the whole, the city is so dirty it's almost funny. Everything, the buildings, the cars, look like the were built in the 70s and never washed once. But there's so much life - people are out on the street talking, drinking tea, smoking sheesha (water-pipe) and going about their lives. It had a pulse and a rhythm to it that reminded me of New York, where people seemed to really live in the urban spaces rather than just inhabiting them. It was fun to just walk and soak it in.

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Let me digress for a moment and pontificate on something that has been on my mind since long before I left. Allow me to introduce myself - my name is Daniel and I am a white, middle-class American from a relatively affluent family. My travelling budget for a few months is more money by several multiples than entire families will ever, ever have. I have never experienced real poverty first-hand and probably never will.

This is an elephant in the room in any conversation about Cairo and will become very important later on in my story. So let me be clear - I don't know anything about what's it like to be poor and there's a certain danger in any kind of subjective comparison.

What I'm trying to say is - I try really hard to not be like every rich dude who walks through a poor neighborhood and thinks, "well they seem happy. Group picture!" It weighs on me and I don't want to be voyeuristic if I take a picture or remark how dirty something is. I have my own experience and thoughts about what I see in Cairo and they're mine alone, I can't project them onto the people that live there and won't be following me back to my condo by the beach. By the same token, I also refuse to say stupid things like, "be thankful for what you have", because it's equally wrong to project their lives onto mine.

So, to all the kind Egyptians that stopped on the street just to say hello, thanks and sometime if you'd like I'll try to come back and make your lives a little bit better. Not in a try-a-big-mac kind of way, more like when-your-daughter-gets-pneumonia. Cool? Ok, group photo!

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The next morning I had once again foolishly taken the expedient option and allowed my hostel to book a car and driver to take me around the pyramids. I was told this would be an air-conditioned van and would cost about $25 but there would be other people taking it also that would share the cost. I agreed without negotiation, thinking that sounded like a good deal. Stupid rookie mistake.

When I showed up in the morning, it was actually the gypsy cab that had picked me up at the airport driving me around all day and I would be the only one on the tour. I didn't know then, but now I can tell you conclusively there is only one way to avoid these situations: make a scene. This is so antiethical to everything we're told about being an American abroad - be polite and patient and soft spoken and never make a scene. People in the Egyptian tourism industry know this and will exploit it ruthlessly.

And you say to yourself - for what, ten bucks? I'm not gonna be a dick to a stranger that seems like a nice guy over ten bucks. And then you, sir or madam, are a giant walking paycheck. Because it only got worse for me from there.

At Giza I was told that I couldn't go in by myself unless I was on a horse. My driver, the nice guy from the hotel, told me that it was too far and dangerous and if I didn't want a horse I could have a camel but they smell bad. I started getting angry at that point, since it was a very obvious lie. But here I am, in fucking Egypt by myself with this dude in a gypsy cab as my only lifeline. So fine, I paid $50 for two hours on a sickly horse with a guide who without comment took me right across the very obvious, very short pedestrian walkway I could have used at any time.

I wised up pretty quickly after that. I was a total dick to the guy who had a conversation with my tour guide, then handed me a Pepsi and after I drank it asked for ten dollars. I gave him two and told him to piss off. At Sakara, the stepped pyramid, when the guys in official looking clothes asked to see my ticket because I required a tour guide, I told them to piss off. I watched them same guys sucker an older couple into paying them $40.

At the end of the tour I was taken to a 'museum of papyrus' which was obviously a small mistranslation since all the priceless treasures seemed to be for sale. Later that day, I tried to buy a plane ticket from a travel agent who, after already booking it and taking my cash, decided to change me an extra $30 in 'taxes and fees' and then pocketed it right in front of me. I was too shocked to even say anything.

Obviously this is not big money but I find this kind of dishonest, predatory behavior disgusting, especially against people who came a long way to see your country.

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It was a low point. I didn't even eat dinner that day because I was so furious and the idea of handing another person money turned my stomach. But as I was sitting in the hostel that night, I struck up a conversation with a Frenchman who had been living in Cairo for last year. Skinny and pale, with glasses and a suit that an engineer would wear, I asked him with the frustration clear in my voice - how do you get through the day when everyone is taking advantage of you all the time?

He looked at me with an expression that spoke volumes about a lesson learned the hard way. In this culture, he explained, strength is the most important thing and if you walk into a situation without projecting strength you will get walked on.

From the next day on, this advice would prove to be the most important thing I learned in Egypt and the more I experimented, the more it worked. I never got ripped off badly again in Egypt, and these kinds of experiences are the things that follow you home.

Oh yeah, and the pyramids were cool. But that's a job for photos:

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As anyone who has stayed in hostels can tell you, they have a certain "charm." This includes: spotty hot water, weird smells and concrete mattresses. Advice: bring your own soap. The best part, though, is the fascinating mix of people that pass through. If you simply sit and wait, interesting things always happen.

I was sitting in the common area of my medium-grade-seedy hostel when I stuck up a conversation with a friendly girl from Indonesia. She was embarrassingly impressed by my work and stories about the Hollywood life. In due course I found out that was a member of a group of 18 graduate students all staying for the week. They were all 'urban design' students, which to my ignorant brain seemed like a kind of civil engineering with a more human touch. As the nights passed, I met more and more of them and was taken in by how each of them were so remarkably different from the others - 18 people from 16 countries - but proximity and time and a shared mission had made them like family. It was a joy to sit and listen to their familiar banter and it reminded me of the bond I shared with my friends back home, those who had worked so intensely for so many hours over the years alongside me.

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One of those nights, over strong Egyptian tea and sweet sheesha smoke, they spoke of the work they were doing in Cairo and its twin city, Giza. A network of government and non-government organization had requested their help in managing what they referred to as 'informal areas' - those that were not governed by zoning laws and civil planning but existed and grew and spread never the less. In short, they were going to go into some of the worst, poorest parts of this massive behemoth of a city and try to make sense of how people were living.

I found this fascinating, and noble, and said as much. Their professor, one of two accompanying them, half in jest, said that I should come with them. Half in jest, I said ok.

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As is my nature, I won't let an opportunity for an experience outside the norm slip away. So at 7 am sharp, I met them, their two bodyguards, and a few local government guides at a bus in front of our hotel. At first, I was laughed at good naturedly - my regular presence with them socially had made it seem amusingly natural that I show up while they were working. It was embarrassing a little, but I swallowed my pride because I knew how unique it was to be invited to something sensitive and important.

So throughout the day we drove from place to place, pointing out in a clinical way what each neighborhood represented. One was old, what was once a small village that was simply swallowed up by the city's amoeba-like growth. Another was new, brick and mortar apartment complexes built by hand, springing up like weeds along the highway, with no real attention to regulations or sound construction practices. We walked through a series of crumbling buildings along the edge of the Nile and the local children came out in droves to follow us around, jumping and laughing about this unexpected invasion of their world, such as it was.

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At one point a man was lying in the street fixing a car bumped when another car came down the street without warning and ran over his outstretched legs. Everyone screamed and ran to his aid, but he got up and limped around a little, apparently unhurt. At times them and I would lapse into casual conversation as if we were walking down a regular street on a regular day, and moments like these would jolt us out of that, starkly.

But mostly, I hung back, kept my mouth shut and took photos in as tasteful a way as I could. It seemed voyeuristic and insensitive - what kind of asshole takes a picture of a poor person's house because it's crumbling around them? But - it also seemed important to document, to show anyone who would look how these people lived. One by one the students would ask me - what do you think about this? I would say that it breaks my heart, but I'm glad I can see it with my own eyes.

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And, let me add, that none of the people we saw were the poorest of the world. They seemed nourished and healthy, the living conditions dirty but suitable. I've witnessed the same and worse in South-Central Los Angeles. But the scale - the sheer numbers, are staggering. Cairo is one of the largest cities on earth, and these conditions are the norm for much of it. (The business-minded part of me was tickled to see a common fixture in even the roughest of these houses - a satellite dish.)

The day concluded with a meeting between the students and a group of local politicians. Had I known this was part of the tour I would have thought twice about coming, since we were escorted into a government building and sat at a long conference table to have a discussion about the work. These local politicians - middle-aged, bearded men all, expressed their reservations about the students' work. Each spoke in turn, and each had a similar message - the people have a right to live as they please, and these neighborhoods have history and value as they currently are.

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In conversation later, I was asked what I thought about what was said. I answered honestly, that though I'm an ignorant outsider, I thought it was bullshit. I got the overwhelming impression that given the choice, these politicians would take the status quo. It suited them just fine to keep the people poor and uneducated and living in squalor, because that assured the continuation of their power. Perhaps it came from a good place, a fondness and a desire to tend to their flock, but I doubt very strongly these shepherds would set their sheep free.

But what do I know?

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Anyway, at that point I left them to finish their work for the day and took a cab home to the hostel. I slept most of the rest of the day and still somewhat embarrassed at what felt a little invasive, I avoided my new friends for a day or two and explored more of Cairo. I bribed an Imam to let me climb a 1000 year old mosque's minaret for a spectacular view of the city. I visited the citadel and the war museum, which featured an ornately framed oil painting of surface-to-air missiles. I wandered the twisty alleyways of the Islamic bazaar and had tea and cigarettes with old men in tea houses with sawdust floors. I nearly had a fistfight with a guy in the tourist market over a $2 price difference for a pair of socks.

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Still, Cairo is a deceptively small town and I ran into the group again on the street the next day, they were lost and looking for our hostel. I showed them the way and they invited me out for drinks and dinner. Beer is hard to find in Cairo, liquor doubly so, but we managed fine and had a long night of cheap pints and good food and better conversation. It was sublime.

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The next day I woke up early and a guy from my hostel drove me to the airport. His car had no battery so we pushed-started it in the narrow streets as the sun rose. He drove like a mental patient, even by Cairo standards, but I was too lost in thought to really notice. So it goes - bittersweet to leave a place and people just as they become familiar, but beckoned forward by the promise of something new always on the horizon.

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Six days later I return to Cairo. It was just the same as I had left it, but I had other things on my mind. My trip to Iran was looming over me and I was anxious to keep moving. I half-heartedly visited a few more museums, ran some errands and explored some bits of the city I had missed.

One very interesting day-trip was visiting briefly the coastal city of Alexandria. In this part of the world the shadow of Alexander the Great still looms over its history. The city that bares his name, though, is a quiet and scenic town on the Mediterranean. It’s key feature is its library – a huge modern building that houses in grand fashion books and museums and supercomputers. It was impressive, but I still wondered where the millions came from to build it in what is still a very poor country.

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I had intended to return on the train in the evening, but tickets sold out. A few fellow couchsurfers, two foreigners and two locals, were trying to get home as well, and we ended up eating dinner and staying quite late (featured entree: pigeon.) Our route back, around 1am, was a ragged old cab stuffed to the gills with people. For the 4-hour trip back, I managed to sleep with my legs folded against the seat in front of me and my neck backwards among the 3 other snoring people in the backseat.

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On the very last night I heard that one of the grad students, Paola, from Brazil, was still in town so I dropped her a line and we went out for some water-pipe and tea. She spoke of the work they had done, the sleepless nights and nerve-wracking presentations. But, they had made some real progress and were happy with their results. Hopefully, with a little time and luck they would make a difference in some of these neighborhoods.

I was happy and a bit proud to be a part of it, even just as a witness.

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The night ended with a few local friends of Paola's inviting us to a karaoke bar. However, instead of being a party-atmosphere where drunken idiots belt out Sir Mix-A-Lot, it was a random mix of locals that seemed to be trying out for Egyptian Idol, singing pitch-perfect renditions of very slow, sad songs in heavily accented English. We just drank and laughed and had a good time, which people seemed to find a little annoying.

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And then, as had at that point become quite a routine part of my life, I woke up very early and caught a cab to the airport, where I would fly to Istanbul again and spend a mind-numbing 8 hour layover drinking coffee and searching in vain for a bench to sleep on before embarking on a very nervous flight into Tehran.

And that is another story I will tell you soon.

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4 comments:

  1. your storytelling only gets better with each entry. this trip is totally what you needed, in many different areas of Dan. oh and that horse you're on doesn't seem sickly.

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  2. wowww!!why didn't you tell us about "bribe an Imam so he let me climb the minaret??!!!" We should ddo that together. This group of 18 people will be crazy to do that :D
    Nice to meet you,Dan ^^

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  3. well, here is an egyptian comment on this article,

    First Dan, it was a pleasure to meet you (although for a very short exhausting period), I feel sorry about your experience. I will not try to 'beautify' the picture as most of it is true in many ways. In the tourism industry in almost every country you have the local specialists who try to benefit the most out of you, illegaly. And sorry Dan but you seemed like an easy pick...hahaha. I am a bit angry, frustrated and sad that you mentioned the word 'fucking' right before Egypt among to others. Well, I just hoped that you had a different experience. The hostel is definitely one of the worse places to stay. Downtown Cairo is among the highest rated cities in the world for pollution. And believe it or not, Cairo was ranked the most beautifull city in the world in the 1920 and because of DownTown in particular with it's amazing architecture and history! I did not have time to chat with you back then as you were surrounded, as you said, by 18 people at the time and I was busy with them too!
    The locals that were leading the tour are Egyptians working for NGOs and they are not government officials. What they do and what we try to do is to upgrade the living conditions in every aspect of life for the poor! And when they or we say, keep them living where they do, does not mean that's how it is and we r keeping it this way! and i quote from you 'keep the sheep and don't let go'. These people want to live there because in these places, they work, they go to school and THEY LIVE. Our work is upgrade their area to basic standards. It can be bullshit what you heard Dan but ...well, don't we hear this shit everywhere and anywhere? :)
    One of the guys, that are talking bullshit, told us on the first day this:
    I have a request to ask you from you: when you go to the Informal Areas I ask you to have TWO eyes: One to see the good and the other for the bad. Don't go with 2 bad eyes or 2 good eyes. For me, I couldn't help but have two good eyes. Maybe because I'm a local and live considerably a rich life compared to them. But for me it will always fascinate me to see Egyptians in the streets offering to help, chat and smile for nothing in return under the conditions they go through DAILY. The french guy's advice to you is correct but not the only way to go through and by far not the easiest :)
    I just thank God that you haven't been to worse places. In fact the areas we went through are somehow intermediate :)

    I hope you don't take my comment personal and if you ever decide another visit, although I don't think so...hahaha, I will be more than glad to help. Whether Cairo or any part of beautifull Egypt.
    I wish you great success in your work and life.

    Again, it was nice to meet you Dan.
    Karima from Cairo :)

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  4. haha - how did you learn to say PISS OFF In egyptian??

    and, while i can't say i feel sorry for you ... for being white and rich and educated and american and priveleged and full of options and a secure future ... i do feel sorry for that guilt and nervous tone you have about writing what you saw/felt.

    for me, as a female from the so called third world ... it's not as difficult to say things as i see them. but, that's probably i only have the white man's language. my world is not that much different to theirs.

    i think your attitude is alright though. as a white person in nepal recently said they get treated and get more attention than nepalis (say, in restaurants) but they also pay about four times more for the food. we have obvioius 'nepali' and 'foreigner' prices and white people are perpetually hounded by beggars ... it's not as bad as some places, but it's all relative so it matters what place you are really talking about

    i had friends who did a study abroad in cairo and they loved it so much i've always wanted to visit. this blog just makes it more sure.

    poverty sucks. the white world is clean, and orderly and predictive. but you're right, life is just busteling in these parts ; )

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