Tuesday, January 06, 2009
an egyptian adventure - part 1
after leaving russia by taking a train to the finnish border all by myself in 1994, i felt i was an invincible traveler. there was nowhere i couldn't go and no adventure i wouldn't attempt. it was with this attitude firmly in place that i arrived in macedonia on my fulbright to find the university and the library i needed for my research closed for several weeks for a winter holiday. finding skopje in january a bit drab and boring (not to mention empty, since everyone had apparently headed for australia or toronto to visit relatives) i did what anyone would do. i took a vacation.
i got in touch with a german friend who i had studied together with in russia and he said, "let's go to egypt, i saw some cheap tickets in a travel agency window." before i knew it, i found myself on malev hungarian airlines, squeezed in between my friend and an elderly muslim woman with a enormous duffel bag (from which i swear i heard a muffled "baa") that she intended to set across both her own lap and mine for the duration of the flight. i immediately told on her to the stewardess and they took the bag away and stowed it somewhere.
armed only with let's go egypt (and isreal. what were they thinking?) and the blankets we appropriated as souvenirs from malev, we stumbled out of the dark airport at midnight and allowed ourselves to be herded into a taxi and taken through the surprising amount of honking traffic for the hour to a random hostel owned by the taxi driver's cousin. not bad at $3 a night, but we were sure glad we had those blankets.
we took off bright and early the next morning for giza and the pyramids, talked into a day trip by an enterprising young "guide" (read: random dude with a car). before taking us to the pyramids, he had other plans for us, taking us to a papyrus "museum" where he surely would get a cut of anything we bought and then to a perfume shop. at that point in time, i traveled with a minimum of cynicism, so i was, in retrospect, charmingly open to the entire experience. the papyrus was lame, but the perfume shop was marvelous.
egypt, for centuries, has been famous for the essences and perfumes and oils that they make. we met this marvelous man, adel (thank goodness i wrote his name on the back of this photograph):
he had presence and bearing. he held himself very elegantly and you can see that his crisply-pressed clothes contributed to his manner. the room itself was wonderful--plush red velvet benches around a dark wood round table, pleated crimson fabric lining the ceiling. the bottles of mysterious and marvelous oils lining the walls. he showed us ingredients from all of the world's best perfumes and told us about how they were made. we were, of course, served sugary tea in small glasses. i loved the experience. i felt privileged to have met such a person and had such an experience. as a poor student, i bought a few small bottles of oils and a selection of the beautiful decanters as gifts. my friend bought a few things as well, tho' he later had buyer's remorse and felt taken advantage of. frankly, we hadn't spent enough money to have been taken advantage of.
as we were leaving for the pyramids, adel mentioned his carpet factory and that we should visit it and see the women (and children!) working on the rugs. but, we were anxious to see the pyramids, so we left him with a vague maybe.
it being early february and ramadan to boot, it wasn't high tourist season, so we had a good day at the pyramids. we were able to get tickets to go inside all 3 and we managed to escape the many offers of camel rides. in fact, i'm quite surprised we managed to get this picture without any visible camel ride guys getting into it. they must be just out of the frame, because there weren't many tourists and they were quite desperate.
i don't entirely remember why, but i was carrying around a stuffed seal named schuster (i had a cat at home named simon). i think i found it whimsical to have a little arctic seal in the desert, so i took his picture everywhere. i even have a picture of him inside one of the crypts in the great pyramid. i remember that the locals were quite charmed by this eccentricity and often scurried to help me position him just so for his photo or suggested other poses. i definitely talked to a lot more people than i would have because i was carrying him around.
we did go back to adel's carpet shop and it was from him i that i bought the little silk rug that's now in my studio. i never saw the small children who he proudly said knotted the silk rugs because their tiny little hands were suited to it. i guess it was before that became politically incorrect.
i have mixed feelings about it because those kids doing that work are often providing an essential income to their families and would end up involved in all sorts of far more sordid activities if it weren't for the job in the rug factory. but i am glad i didn't actually see them, so i can still tell myself that perhaps my rug wasn't made by children. i must have been out of film at the rug shop because i don't have any pictures from there. alas, remember those days before digital? i think the camera i had was actually a clunky old kodak advantix with the panorama setting. i have to admit i actually really liked that camera, tho' i seem to recall that film was tough to find.
more stories from this journey later this week.