Wednesday, January 07, 2009

egyptian adventure - part 2

i've been to egypt three times. the stories this week are from the first time i was there, when i wasn't yet cynical and suspicious and was much more open to egypt's charms. i'm not sure what happened, but on the second trip, i definitely didn't succumb to the charms of egypt, even leaving a few days early, disgusted with how far today's egyptians seem from the greatness of the pharaohs. on the third trip, i was also happy to leave as quickly as i had arrived, which was when i jumped off the stairs on the outside of an LNG carrier traveling at 11 knots through the suez canal onto a small and fragile-looking boat that the agent struggled to maneuver and hold into position up to the ship. but that's another story for another day. back to the first carefree adventures in egypt...

awaking every morning in cairo to the sights and sounds of the traffic quickly gives you the desire to escape to somewhere quiet and leave it all behind. the pyramids at saqqara were just the ticket. they are step pyramids, built for king dzoser and are older than the great pyramids at nearby giza. we started our day at the giza pyramids, being wholly unable to stay away, so strong was their allure.

circulating around the paths near sphinx are countless locals offering rides in a horse-drawn carriage. we chatted with one of these gentlemen and he agreed to take us via horse & carriage down to saqqara. it turned out to be quite a long journey, as it's a good 18km, but this gave us a chance to get to know mansur, our driver and george, his horse.

we rattled along a gravel road beside the nile, gaining insight into the lives of the people who live along her banks. children playing in the water, women washing clothes, the lush greenery of small holdings where people grew food for themselves and a bit for sale in the markets. you definitely got a strong sense of the importance of the nile to life in the region, as well as the suspicion that it hadn't changed all that much over the millennia. there were a lot of horses and donkeys and hand implements in use on the small farms along the way.

eventually, we rolled into saqqara, quite a lot of sweat on george's flanks. we were very nearly the only ones there, which was wonderful. no tour buses, just us, the hot desert wind, the nooks and crannies of the pyramids and temples and quite literally the sands of time. oh, and quite a lot of stray dogs, some with puppies. and a big group of camel ride guys, waiting to pounce. we fended them off rather quickly and later saw them having quite an entertaining argument amongst themselves. at least it was entertaining to us, since we didn't know arabic and had no idea what they were arguing about. that's always the way, isn't it? we have this notion that important conversations are happening in languages we don't understand, whereas in reality they were probably arguing over whether ahmed's camel was better than mohammed's.

we spent several hours wandering the pyramid complex. it's obvious that archaeological digs have gone on there, but none were in progress when we were there. just very deep holes in the ground here and there that you had to watch out for because they often weren't fenced off. if i'd read murakami in those days, i'd have found it a fantastic place to experience the feeling of being down a well.

we had to laugh a few times as we came across random egyptians hanging out in the shade of the complex, as they put out their hand and demanded baksheesh (tips) though they provided us no services. i took to asking them for some as well, which was so disarming to them that they often laughed and then we had the standard egyptian conversation, "welcome to egypt, where you come from?"

i spent quite some time with my journal in a little heiroglyph-covered, half excavated temple, where i imagined that prayers to the various exotic egyptian gods were once offered--experiencing one of those moments of perfect clarity after which this blog is named. when i have one of those, it is imprinted on my memory in all of its glorious textures. i can still remember the quality of the warm air i breathed into my lungs as i sat there and took in what i can only describe as a spiritual experience. my friend had wandered off and i was alone in the little grotto. it was fantastic, having the place pretty much to ourselves. but we know i have a thing about that with ruins.

eventually, it was time to head back for the relative civilization of giza. mansur and george had waited for us. and on the journey back, he invited us to his home for the "ramadan breakfast," as he called it--or the meal after sunset where the faithful break their fast. we'd gotten to know him quite well...he'd told us about his children (he claimed to want his daughter to have an education as well as his sons), his wife and her mother who lived with them in their house in giza. we were eager to see how people lived, so we agreed.

my friend was very worried about contracting the dreaded pharaoh's revenge and had insisted up 'til then that we eat only at mcdonald's, a habit which was driving me a little crazy by then, so i was quite happy that he agreed.

mansur's house was on a crowded little side street that as we drove there, it occurred to me that we'd never find our way back to the main road near the pyramids by ourselves. he showed us in, where his wife looked pretty surprised that he had brought two strangers home for dinner, but she took it in stride and they made room for us on the floor around a huge, low tray that served as a dinner table. they managed to locate a couple of spoons for us so we didn't have to eat with our hands out of the communal bowls like the rest of the family. dinner wasn't quite ready and we made ourselves comfortable while mansur put george away in the floor below, together with his camel. yes, the first floor was the stable.

although it was twelve years ago, i remember clearly the blue walls and that although we ate sitting on pillows on the floor around an enormous tray laden with food--goat meat, a spinach-like dish, some creamy yogurt and a sort of tabbuleh salad--in the room above was a very ornate, elaborate, gold-painted dining room table and chairs. 

once we were upstairs, that's when my friend got his buyer's remorse over the perfumed oils he had bought and he actually left them there, tucked under some furniture in the room we were in. i've often wondered what the family thought when they ran across that little box. 

it was well after dark and we were a bit worried about how we would get back to an area we knew and starting to get the feeling that mansur was going to suddenly demand a lot of money for the dinner, which had been offered  seemingly with an open heart, but that didn't really happen. he found a friend with a car and he drove us back our hotel. i don't entirely recall, but i think we paid a total of about $25 for the entire day. a price well worth it for the experience. i mean how else was i going to get the opportunity to pick gristly goat meat off of the bones in an egyptian home?


Molly said...

Lovely post.
I giggled at your observation about conversations in foreign languages always seeming so deep and meaningful.
A friend of mine was slowly learning Italian from his wife; while having lunch in a Cape Town cafe he overheard a conversation in Italian and tried to follow it - he noticed they kept saying 'blanco' and thought they must be having a discussion about apartheid. When his wife came back to the table he asked her to translate - turns out they were commenting on how many white cars they could see from the window!

Sebrina Wilson said...

Thanks for sharing this! I am enjoying it so much!

Tess Kincaid said...

Yes, I am enjoying it, too. WT always said that it was amazing how a donkey would be standing next to a Mercedes in the streets and it would be completely normal.

Barb said...

It's great to travel vicariously through your adventures. You described it so well, I feel like I was with you. Barb

vicki archer said...

Oh I loved reading your Egyptian adventures - I went there 26 years ago on my honeymoon! xv

Maggie May said...

it's wonderful to see these pictures