Sunday, August 30, 2009

Places to do, People to go, and Things to…Wait…

IMG_8143Yes, I’ve fallen awfully behind  yet again, but in my defense, an awful lot has happened in the last week and a half-ish. I have done a ton of things and been to a ton of places. To give you a little bit of an idea of how crazy my life has in, in the past two weeks I have: finished classes, tried to get a new student card, moved, fasted for Ramadan, traveled to the “terrorist headquarters” of Egypt, bought a Koran, crossed two borders, and am now chilling in Jerusalem. Yes, it has been a very eventful several days…

So, where should I start? Let’s see, for that “start” to happen, I need to go check my journal. Which also means I need to write in it, as it’s about midnight and we’re seeing the Dome of the Rock tomorrow.



IMG_8012So, now that it’s tomorrow…I think I’ll start where I left off, at least pretty close. I decided to go to South Saqqara, which contains several pyram ids and temples, and according to my book, had no entrance fee. I donned my qofia and galabeya, and took a few pictures before I was approached by the caretaker and told the site was off limits. I told him I really wanted to see it, and wouldn’t be here in October when it’s more open, and that I could read hieroglyphics. He was skeptical and told me to read the pharoah’s name. After I found a cartouch, it was IMG_7960pretty simple. Pepy’s about the easiest name there is in hieroglyphs. I’m glad it wasn’t something more complex, but I’m sure I would have done fine either way. I can read most names, sounding out the characters and such. He was impressed and we chatted a bit. The reason the area is closed is because it’s an active dig site for a French archeological team. At least the closing makes sense, and not like at Abu Seir where there’s no apparent reason. He did let me take a few pictures before I headed back, though none of them were as cool as I’d hoped.

IMG_7961 The cool thing was that, afterwards, a kid was yelling at me from the walls of Saqqara Village, so I went over to talk. Ended up talking to his dad, Ayman, who’s an archeologist that works with the team when they come every year. We exchanged emails and he will keep me informed on the things that happen on the dig site. Cool! Also, his son climbed the date trees and got me some sun-ripened-on-the-tree dates. SOoooooOOooo good. Oh, and on the way back to the mini-bus stop a lady offered to let me marry her daughter. I politely declined.

I also got to talk with some of the local children, who were especially interested in the reason I was wearing Arab head gear. I explained that it’s because the sun is hot, and it’s more comfortable to dress like they do out in the desert. They were also curious about America, and the differences between villages here and there.

IMG_7981 The next day, I went to the ancient city of Memphis. I was a bit disappointed, mostly because the great majority of the site is fenced off as a “military area,” whatever that means. It seems that there’s a military base adjacent to pretty much every archaeological site except Giza. (There might be one there that I just don’t know about…) Maybe it’s a way to deter tomb robbers or something. (But that didn’t deter Ibrahim the vendor from showing me a cash of Greek and Roman coins, shabtis, and scarabs he swore were found at the site…although the workmanship of most of it was pretty laughable, and the hieroglyphs said absolutely nothing. If it was real, I don’t believe in supporting tomb robbers to begin with. He was even all secretive about taking me back behind his booth and opening up a “secret” compartment/cabinet. Of course when I came out there was a guard right there, and nothing seemed to be the matter. :-P )

IMG_8007 Anyway, I walked around the severely limited enclosure, taking photos and getting yelled at by the guards for walking by the fence and looking into the “restricted” area. The first guy tried to only use English on me, which consisted of “no” repeatedly, no matter what I said or asked in Arabic. Finally, his supervisor came over and answered my questions in Arabic, and everything was fine. Just talk to me people, I’m not an idiot. (No, just a sneak. I got pictures from the catwalk above a famous statue later on…haha. Take that, establishment.)

IMG_7995 The main attraction is a 20 meter high statue of Ramses the Great, which was found on its side in the Nile near the site. Aside from water damage there and a missing leg, it’s quite impressive, if you haven’t been to Aswan (which I haven’t). Also had fun reading glyphs and was pleasantly surprised at how many I remember.

IMG_8011After completely exhausting available sites and humoring Ibrahim and another vendor, I decided to find my way back through Saqqara village. I bought a bottle of water, and settled down in the shade to drink it and look at the town. After a while, a few little girls who had been giggling nearby came and started to talk to me, asking me questions about why I was here (seeing Memphis and studying Arabic), why I was wearing a Qofia (it’s hot out and it’s comfortable in the sun), if I was Muslim (no, I’m Christian), why I wanted to take pictures in the village (because villages here are different from in the states, for example, lots of brick buildings and date palms), etc. I was extremely happy that I was able to answer all of their questions, and really felt a lot of love for them. Learning the language really does help you connect with the people. I sure hope I find a woman who loves people as much as I do.

IMG_8201 At church this past Friday, I taught my last Sunday School lesson on the Priesthood. It was a good class, though I wish that the students had participated more. It was one of the largest groups I’ve had, but, as is pretty typical for that age group, they were mostly silent when I asked a question. I wish that I had been able to figure out how to encourage better participation in class. However, Sis. Cannon came up to me after church and mentioned how much Cody, her son,  had said he enjoyed and learned from my lessons. It filled me with gratitude to hear that he had gotten so much from my meager effort at teaching. I hope that the Spirit was able to teach him, and the others in my class, things that they will value throughout the rest of their lives.

Bro. Cannon also took me aside and shared a little about the Utah Nat’l Guard language unit, which he thinks could be a good jumping off point for me for a career in the Foreign Service. It probably would be. I considered his offer to call a recruiter form their home, and after a nap, called Bro. Cannon and went to meet at his house.

I never did end up calling the recruiter, but we did have a really valuable (for me at least) conversation. I learned about military operations, what happens in the national guard, basic training, benefits, MOS’s, and a whole host of other interesting things. Most of all, I learned that I need to use my languages more as a means to reach an end, rather than a means to themselves. Bro. Cannon said that if I keep doing what I’m doing, people will take it as someone who lacks direction. Which is true. I hate being locked into something.

I guess I just need to find something I’m good at. I just worry that if I choose something, that I will find that I’m not happy in it. State Dept. would be great cause I’d get to travel to a variety of places. The problem is that the life seems so sterile. You are separated from the society and normal people of the country in which you live. You have to have a driver instead of riding public transportation. I don’t think I would like that. Maybe it will just be something to get used to. I want to be able to have the same range of amazing experiences with people that I have enjoyed these past few weeks, none of which would have been possible if I had to use my own driver.

I also want to do grad school. I have the credentials, just not the direction. Once again, being locked in to something really scares me. Maybe it will actually give me more freedom, but I have no idea how I will grow to see it that way. It seems that any decision I make will only serve to limit my possibilities for the future. Sure, I love Arabs and their culture, but do I want to study that exclusively? No! China? The same. And so it goes for any other country, language, and culture. I want to be well-versed in many styles of the music of human thought, not just one or two. I want to understand the world and the way it works, I want to see the big picture, not just the little pieces presented by each mind set.

I guess I really need to talk to a career counselor or something when I get home. I have faith that things will work out OK in the end when I make the right decision. If only I could figure out what that was.

The final adventure before Israel, where I am now, was a visit to Al Fayoum. The travel book was right on as to the location to catch the bus, however, it failed to mention the sheer SIZE of the minibus depot. It said it was “behind Ramses Train Station.” More like, AROUND Ramses Train Station. All around. There were no less than three separate areas I had to check before I found the right bus. Thankfully, it was in plenty of time.

IMG_8053 When it was packed full, we headed out to the Fayoum. It was a bit uncomfortable, as for some reason everyone kept closing the windows and there was no AC, but we got there in good time. Once there, I was dropped off at some random place not on the map I had, and wandered about until I was convinced to take a carriage ride around the city to see the famous 7 water wheels.

IMG_8029 I mentioned I was fasting for Ramadan, and so the driver assumed I was Muslim and gave me a good price. I still feel a bit bad about that. Not so much so as he ended up taking an extra 5 LE as a “tip” at the end. As if he doesn’t get the money I paid him… Haha. The good part was that he dropped me off at the bus depot I needed to catch the arabea (truck, this a modified pickup turned into a sort of bus thingy by building walls and a roof over the bed) to my next destination, a small town where I would change arbeas to the final village, known as Qasr Qarun.

The first ride was good, and I ended up chatting with everyone else for a good portion of the time. Al Fayoum is a hotspot for such radical Islamist groups as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Madrasa Islamia, who were the masterminds behind the 1995 tourist massacre in Luxor. Police presence in the area has been stepped up since then, and I was half expecting to be hassled by them, but the most the police did was smile, wave, and comment on my excellent choice of carriage drivers. I felt like one of the guys in my truck there was a member of the brotherhood. Not for any particular reason…perhaps the way he carried himself and asked questions. He seemed like a nice enough guy. Asked me when I planned to break my fast and I couldn’t remember the word for “sunset” until he said it. (It’s “maghrib.”) The feeling changed when I mentioned working for the government, but they were still civil to me.

IMG_8101 The next bus was not as interesting, and I was dropped off at the Temple of Sobek just before the village. I was the only person there, and the police there had to get Ibrahim the caretaker to open the locked gate and take me around the ruin. It was OK, though I really don’t like having to have a guide, as I like exploring on my own. I still got to look around in the underground passages and shine my flashlight everywhere. It was great! Also went up top and took pictures of the ruins of the Roman and Pharoanic settlements surrounding the temple (which is still standing after 2000 years.)IMG_8114_2

  After that, I bid them goodbye, got my 5 LE change from the front desk, and gave Ibrahim a small tip before making a beeline for the ocean. Across a bridge, I walked for 4 km along a dirt road, which changed into plowed fields criss-crossed by a series of 5 ft deep canals, which I had to find ways across (ie jumping and hoping I didn’t fall in and break my ankle on the uneven ground below or on the other side.) It was a nice walk, though I was a bit worried about time, as my guidebook said the  last bus for Cairo left at 7 PM, and it took over 30 min to walk to the sea. It was cool IMG_8118though, cause I got to take some good pics of the countryside, a donkey riding boy (who offered me a ride, incidentally, but I said I preferred to walk), and a group of hobbled camels. And lots of people. Sleeping the Ramadan fast away. Haha.

IMG_8142 At long last, I arrived on the beach and was greeted by the awesome site of sandstone cliffs across the deep blue acres of Lake Qarun. To add to the surreal effect, there was a small fisherman’s hut, standing guard over a soft blue pile of nets, and several blue painted boats floating placidly beside the shore. I took a picture, and then the fisherman came out and invited me inside to sit and chat for a while.

IMG_8150 I was surprised to find no less than 7 people inside the small hut. After introductions (though I remember none of their names—except I know there was at least one Ahmed, a Mohammed, and probably a Moustafa—I asked about their lives, and found that they work 14 hours every day for a take of 22 kilos of fish, and that that is a decent catch. After a while, I bid farewell and began my walk back to the shore road, where they said a bus truck would take me back to the Fayoum.

IMG_8159 I left as Moustafa (the one standing), a relative I assume, drove up on a motorcycle. They offered to have him give me a ride up, which was much appreciated (and had been prayed for in fact.) I waited by the side of the road, being mostly ignored by the passing traffic, including the trucks. After a while, I flagged down a truck and asked about where to get the ride to Fayoum. They let me hop on until they turned off the main road, and directed me ahead to where I thought another road met up.

OK, I can walk another kilometer. Even though I’m starting to get a stitch in my side from the Ramadan fast, and am dreadfully tempted to take a swig of the water in my bag and break my fast early. May I suggest not doing physically demanding things while fasting… Although, I did learn to appreciate what Muslims go through in Ramadan a lot more, which was the point of joining in the fast in the first place (though most sleep it away, as noted).

IMG_8155 At long last, I was able to catch a lift on a passenger truck, where I met Hady the Duck Man (at least I think that’s what he said. He had a group of empty cages and was very happy about selling them all, whatever “they” were, at the local market. I assumed ducks, cause I know the word for dove and chicken, and he didn’t say that, and there were tons of ducks in the area for sale. :-P) After a while, he and a woman named Hani, the only other person there, helped me to know where to get off to get a bus to Cairo. However, the bus driver disagreed, and I stuck with him cause I didn’t know what else to do. He was good as his word, and flagged down a Cairo bound bus. It was empty and I worried about paying more, but it was fine. 12 LE instead of 10, but they dropped me off at a metro station (sure, it was furthest away from where I needed to be, but it was a metro.)

IMG_8171 Maghrib (sunset worship) happened as we drove, and so I listened to the evening prayer on the radio before partaking of the packets of dates and backs of water and date juice which had been handed in for the bus’s occupants by people standing along the road for that purpose. I felt honored to participate in the fast with them, and happy it was over.

Got dropped off at New El Marg, the absolute last stop on the Helwan subway line, and rode to Sadat, where I met up with Kevin Blankenship for a drink (juice of course) and a nice chat. He even helped me get pomegranites from a juice vendor. Also, thanks to him, I now am addicted to wishing everyone “Ramadan Kareem!” which literally means “generous Ramadan.”

Next time, you get to hear about my visit to the Holy Land so far. :-)


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Last Days

IMG_7748 I’m really beginning to feel the end drawing near for my stay here in Egypt, and I am not really looking forward to leaving. Sure I miss my friends and family back in the States, but living there is just…not the same. Especially in Utah. I rather dread the bubble. It makes people have such a limited world view, and understanding and open-mindedness are so important to me. All that aside, I just really like Egypt—the people, the language, the unlimited opportunities for adventure. I have learned and grown so much, and I look forward to sharing my experiences firsthand with everyone when I get back.

Anyway, enough of the sentimentality. I’ve decided that the best way to blog is to simply give summaries of the interesting things in my journal. Interesting things, mind you. Not everything.

IMG_7727 The last few days have been quite awesome. First off, I visited Abu Seir, via public minibus of course. When I arrived, I was informed that the site was “closed,” but that if I gave money to the caretaker, I would be allowed to go inside and take a look. Well, he came over and we discussed how much I would pay. He said the usual price of a ticket is 6 LE, but since it was closed, he wanted fifty. I replied that I couldn’t pay fifty, and told him I could pay fifteen. I then proceeded to take everything out of my “small change” pocket, being careful not to reveal the fact that I had a 100 LE note in my other pocket, and ended up getting in for 17 LE. However, I was required to have a guide so that I didn’t wander off alone into the site. (Which I most assuredly would have done…dang it.)

IMG_7731I really liked the pyramids there. There are three at Abu Seir, all of them in worse repair than those at Saqqara and Giza, but closer together than at the other sites, so it made for some great scenery and photo ops. Was also able to walk around in some of the temples and look into opened IMG_7735mastabas. My guide was a worker at the site, and pretty much just told me the names of things. But, I think it was still worth the trip, though I didn’t get to wear my desert getup and all. At the end, he wanted a tip, too, of course. And I pulled out the money I’d saved for the cab, and ended up giving him the 2 LE. Haha. Not bad, really.

IMG_7739 Was able to get a three-wheel taxi on the way back, and pay them after getting change at a local butcher. (Which I’m sure makes the money, and hence my pockets, rather unsanitary as a result.) But they were all nice people, and I got to see my pyramids, so it was OK. Also walked back to the freeway through Abu Seir village, and chatted with a few people along the way. I really like Egyptian villages. People are really more friendly out in the country. But, I still like the city, too.

IMG_7766 I’ve actually had a lot of opportunities to travel around in the “outback,” as it were, lately. My next trip was to Siwa, with a Muslim friend of mine from South Africa, Ayesha. We had both never been there before, and she saw a facebook comment I’d made and mentioned she had always wanted to go, so I invited her along.

We arrived in Siwa about 6 AM on Saturday morning and found our way without incident to the Palm Trees hotel, which was highly recommended by Ann, another friend who’s been to Siwa. The only problem was that the proprietor was in the middle of a deep sleep. We tried everything. Knocking, shouting in English and Arabic, setting off the alarm on my cell phone, and trying to call with the number in the guide book (which didn’t work). Finally, I found a card with the hotel number on it and he woke up after about 5 rings. We rented a room and slept for 3 hours, then arranged our dune safari and night in the Bedouin camp before heading out to see the sites West of the town.

IMG_7757 We decided to walk, as it was fairly nice out and we assumed there would be shade from all the palm trees. Well, there was, just not so much over the main roads… Good thing I wore my Kofia. Anyway, after a while we struck off through the date plantations and just stayed parallel to the road. (As much as possible. Every so often there’d be a deep, water-filled canal that we couldn’t get across and we would walk along it till coming to a bridge. Considered swinging across on a palm branch once, which would have been uber cool, but common sense took over… )

IMG_7763Reaching our first site, Cleopatra’s spring, we dangled our feet in the pure, clear water and enjoyed watching an Egyptian family teaching their younger brother (stark naked and with a gourd tied to his waste for flotation) how to swim. They were full of encouragement, and it was cute to see.

IMG_7784 After that we went to a ruined temple to Amun Re, which we thought was the Oracle that Alexander the Great visited, but turned out not to be. That was further down the road, and we walked boldly into the Oracle room, where I asked it what my name was. I got no response. The Oracle, apparently, hates me. Or only responds to questions posed in Ancient Greek or Heiratic (in both of which I am seriously lacking…) Got some good pics regardless.

IMG_7799Hitched a ride on a donkey taxi with Thomas from France, a trip of about 10 minutes and 5 LE (a dollar) and got back in time to catch our desert safari. We were with about 4 other people, most of whom also spoke Arabic, but much better than we did, so I especially didn’t do much talking.

IMG_7859 However, the safari was AMAZING! Our driver, Ahmed, seemed to have all kinds of fun careening through the desert, and we all enjoyed this as well. Some of the dunes that we went over were about 50 feet high and had a more than 45 degree drop on the other side. It was rather like a natural roller coaster going up and down them.

IMG_7817 I was struck by the raw, awesome beauty of the desert. It’s amazing how many different shades of sand can be together in the same area, and even the most subtle differences add to the harmony of the endless tracks of shifting dunes. Dunes come in many shapes, but most of those in the Great Sand Sea (a part of the Sahara covered by dunes which encompasses an area greater than the size of New York State.) are crescent or sword shaped. Some of the most mobile ones move around 14 feet per year, and can even drop over ledges and reform at the bottom.

Aisha and I also tried sandboarding for the first time. Pretty much like snowboarding, but on sand. Which makes it dirtier. And grittier. And easier to lose things (like my student ID card…) But is still definitely worth doing. I actually started to figure it out and was able to stand up all the way down for 50 feet or so. Until the bottom. When I promptly crashed. But you can be assured, it was with excellent form. Except for the headache I had from the repeated smashing of my butt into the hard sand.

IMG_7820 The windward sides of the dunes are crusted over by a half-inch layer of congealed sand which is at times strong enough to hold my weight (about 140 lbs) without breaking. The leeward sides, however, are very difficult to walk up as you are likely to sink a foot with each step you take.

IMG_7834 We also visited a cold water spring. Way out in the middle of the desert, with nothing for miles around it. I really wonder what kind of geological process allows things like that to form. There were several local families swimming, and most of us joined them. I, for one, stayed in the shade of the reeded banks as much as possible, and entertained myself with catching the fish that lived there. Now there’s a question. How did fish find their way out there? I mean, grass I can understand, as seeds travel by wind. But fish??

IMG_7841 Then it was off to a hot spring. I was not so sure that I wanted to sit in a hot spring in the desert, but I was there, so might as well. It actually wasn’t that bad and was rather refreshing. Except for the gooey green algae everywhere. A group of Spanish tourists joined us, the larger ones gracefully belly flopping into the pool after slipping on the slimy steps. They were good humored about it though, and everyone had a good laugh. Also met Dave and Kevin (briefly). More on them later.

IMG_7852 More dune hopping and a fossil bed followed (the Sahara used to be an ocean, which has since, obviously, dried up/receded. We saw tons of shell fossils and even the fossil of a larger fish.) We headed to the top of a tall dune to watch the sunset. It was quite a surreal experience, watching the dunes turn first to gold, and then vermillion, then crimson, as the sun sank slowly behind the horizon. It was made all the more poignant by the small steams of sand blowing from the tips of the dunes, continuing the onward migration which has pushed them across the desert for millennia. I put my hand down to feel the fine particles blowing against it, and wondered at the minute striations covering the dune on which I stood.IMG_7888

After that, it was time for a short tea break (I was sad they had no herbal tea.) and then we headed to the Bedouin-style camp where we were to spend the night. Officially met Kevin and Dave. They both work in the entertainment industry, Kevin being a storyboard artist for South Park, and Dave an aspiring movieIMG_7914 director. (His movie is mostly in the post-production stages.) We had some great conversations in the firelight about the effect of media on society and what makes a good movie. The fact that Dave is an avid Sci-Fi buff didn’t hurt either.

In time, I felt the need to sleep (around 2 AM) especially since I wanted to be cognizant for the rest of the adventure in the morning. I lay down on the small mattress I had pulled out into the open and gazed up at the thousands of stars strewn across the sky. It really is amazing, looking at the stars right before one drops off to sleep. I miss seeing them. In Cairo we have perhaps two at any given time. One’s a planet, and the other is…moving? Oh wait, that’s an airplane…

I can’t say I slept well, but it was a good experience (especially after I found the stack of blankets for the taking.)

Woke up around 8 AM and shortly thereafter returned to the hotel. Aisha and I dumped our stuff and then headed to the bus station to change our tickets. As we’d seen everything we wanted to in Siwa, (and Aisha needed to get a good night’s sleep before work tomorrow.) we decided to go to Marsa Matrouh, a famous beach town with brilliant blue water. Had to pay a fee to get our tickets refunded, and there was no big bus today, but we planned to take a minibus instead.

IMG_7921 Having about an hour or so, we went to explore Shali fortress, an ancient mud-brick castle where most of Siwa’s population used to live. If I remember correctly, the earliest parts date from around 900 AD, and the lower areas still boast inhabitants and a few bazaars. It is built on a hill overlooking the rest of the oasis, and there are some great views from the top. Unfortunately, due to time constraints (and the heat…) we didn’t get to see the mountain of the dead, a rock formation riddled with old Roman era tombs.

Grabbed a guava milkshake and then climbed into the mini bus. There was a bit of a disagreement with the driver about where we should sit, but Aisha finally figured out the problem. The driver wanted her in a corner so she wouldn’t have to sit by anyone she didn’t know. It’s part of the whole man-woman relations thing here, which I still don’t get, but thankfully Aisha is a lot more savvy than I in that regard. So we crammed into the side of one of the seats (which had almost 0 leg room) and waited for the bus to fill (which it did, completely) while sipping our guava shakes.

IMG_7935 The trip to Marsa Matrouh was long, and rather uncomfortable, but I enjoyed seeing the endless expanses of desert, interspersed by herds of camels, Bedouin tents, and the occasional cell phone or radio relay station. (In spite of that, dead zones abound. It would really be not cool to get stuck out in the middle of the desert without phone service…) At about 2 PM, we stopped for the midday prayer at a small cafĂ©, with a mosque to the side, in the middle of the desert. Getting stuff out there must be a bit ridiculous. Most people disembarked and prayed, and then it was on the road again.

IMG_7939 Got to Marsa Matrouh around 4 PM, and bought a bus ticket to Cairo for 6:30, then high-tailed it to the beach for an hour or so. The beach, of course, required changing into swim suits. Which involved the exceptionally pungent facilities which we were charged to use.

IMG_7943 And then we found a vacant umbrella and set up camp for a bit. The water was cool and very blue, and I found a fish egg, which I enjoyed showing the Egyptian family we made friends with. You could see the eyes, yolk sac, and even the brain. It was sweet, and after they all looked and were amazed I cast it back into the sea with a shout of “Aieesh!” (“Live!” in Arabic.) We all laughed.

IMG_7948 In time, we changed back again, (And I somehow managed to drop my retainers into a pile of I have no idea what. Definitely not wearing them until after a few days of bleach…) paid for the umbrellas (I had been approached by the people who collect the money, but hadn’t recognized some of the vocab they were using…but Aisha figured it out. J) and then returned to the bus station. The trip to Cairo was fairly uneventful, except for the first decent Egyptian action movie I’ve seen, and we arrived about 20 after midnight. I even managed to catch the last subway back to Maadi, which made me very happy. (In spite of the 10 minute random wait at one of the stations. I have no idea why that happens so often…this was the longest one yet, though. I’d prayed for the train to be running, cause I didn’t have much change for a cab…)

Stay tuned for more adventures from the land of Fusha, Fuul, and Pharoahs.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Joe vs. The Desert


So there I was, alone in the burning sands of the Sahara desert, not a soul in sight but myself. And, of course, the massive stone pyramid to the West, if the bones of Snefru count as a "someone." I realized that I had forgotten my water, and that it was hot, and the raging sun was doing a number on my skin, but I was determined to conquer and survive. I was tired, sunburned, cramped, and a little dehydrated as I stumbled into the ramshackle camp of the Egyptians guarding the Bent Pyramid, hoping against hope that they'd have some water to share.

But let's go back a few hours and see how I got myself into this predicament. (Or, at least in my eyes, one heck of an adventure. :-)

Most of yesterday morning was spent trying to figure out how to prove all the guide books/travel sites wrong. I mean, all of the resources I found (save one) said that it was impossible to get to Dahshur (home of the Red and Bent pyramids) by public transportation, and that taking a taxi was the only way to go. I, being the cheapskate/frugal/adventurous person that I am, decided that this was an unacceptable course of action, and opted for the road less traveled. (A common ailment I possess.)

I scoured many webpages searching for any evidence that would lead me to the site of a minibus stop servicing the desired area, which is about 30 km outside of Cairo proper, and, as I said, found only one. I also posted a query to the list serve of which I am a part, and received a response later in the day which pretty much told me what my one resource had already provided. So, I had two witnesses, and the stage was set for my adventure today.

Fast forward about 12 hours.

After arriving at Giza station, hopped off the metro and found a minibus heading to Morutayia, a main artery of Cairo which heads south along the west bank of the Nile. Had to ask the bus driver to stop at the right place, as he’d neglected to (after trying to cheat me out of extra money, I might add. Thank goodness for Arabic.), and found myself at a fairly extensive minibus depot under the Morutayia Freeway. Asked for the bus to Dahshur, and was informed that I’d have to go to Saqqara first and change busses from there. Fine. I was half expecting that anyway.

Was joined by a slew of Egyptians heading the same way, and ended up sitting next to Ali, who was heading back home to Dahshur and offered to help me get there. His English was great, and we chatted the whole way to the Saqqara Village stop, then hopped another minibus to the rest of the way to Dahshur. All told, I paid a grand total of, let’s see, under 5 pounds to get there. (Taking a taxi costs about 50.)

When we arrived, we hopped onto a truck thatIMG_7633 happened to be going the direction we were headed, with a few of Ali’s friends. His family seems to be pretty well known, and everybody recognized and greeted him as he passed by. I soon learned the reason for this situation.

IMG_7700Ali invited me to spend a few minutes resting at his home. A recently married college graduate in information technology, Ali helps his father manage the family date plantation. At the moment, it is up for sale for around 1 million dollars US. They do pretty well I guess. The house, large by Egyptian standards, has all the amenities of modern life, though not so opulent as those in the states (ie the shower did not include a bathtub.) Ali and his wife live upstairs, in a separate apartment, while his father and his family live downstairs. Ali’s sister, also married, lives next door. The family also has several hired hands which help out in the garden and with the date harvest.

IMG_7708Dahshur seems to be one of the premier date growing regions in Egypt, and there are date palms as far as the eye can see. Dates come in two varieties, the more common yellow dates, and the savory, sweet red dates. I had never had a raw date before, and Ali remedied that situation as soon as we arrived. They are definitely dates. I’m just not used to the tanginess of raw yellow ones. They are good though.

IMG_7639After a goblet of mango juice and a few minutes of conversation and rest, Ali walked me through his neighborhood to the entrance to the Dahshur archeological site. I thoroughly enjoyed the scenery, and greeting the neighbors as we walked by.

IMG_7645At the gate, I bid Ali farewell, and promised to be in contact (In Sha Allah.) before purchasing a ticket to the site for 15 LE. Being the cheapskate that I am, I walked the 3 km through the burning desert to the first attraction, the Red Pyramid, realizing as I did so that I had forgotten my water at Ali’s house. Oh well. We’ll see how Bedouin I can really be.

The Red Pyramid is so name because of the facing of red, weathered limestone which remains, which was originally situated beneath a veneer of whit limestone. Built by pharaoh Snefru, it is the oldest “true pyramid” in Egypt, and shows the advances of technical understanding of pyramid building. It’s nearby cousin, the Bent Pyramid, was an earlier attempt, but the architects were forced to dIMG_7670epress the angle of the pitch about halfway up when the stress of the weight became too great. (They had been building at the same angle as a step pyramid, which uses less stone, and therefore has less weight on the supporting stone beams.)

IMG_7654The Red Pyramid is one of the few which you can go inside, and, so, of course, I did. And the great thing is that there’s no set price for entrance. You just pay a little Baghsheesh (a tip of sorts) to the man sitting at the entrance and walk on in—down the 100 meter passage into the badly lit, dark interior, afraid for your life at every step of the steep descent. They have stairs consisting of ironIMG_7663 bars laid across the floor, and handrails, but at times they seemed a bit unstable. At the bottom of the initial passage, the ceiling flies above you as you step into the first chamber. Other than the support beams, and the fact you’re inside a pyramid, there’s not much of interest. The next room is much the same, albeit there is a large staircase adjoining the far wall, which leads to the burial chamber, where they found a collection of human bones.

It was pretty Indiana Jones-esque, and I appreciated the experience, in spite of the fact I sweat more inside the pyramid than outside in the desert. Haha.

IMG_7667Returning up the passage was easier than going down, and I didn’t cramp up as I had earlier (stupid dehydration), and I headed out past the guards posted at the head of the road to the Bent Pyramid.

IMG_7676According to my guide book, the Bent Pyramid is off limits, as it sits within a military district, but apparently that’s old information. After paying 5 LE for a picture on a camel named Antonio from a guard who had no idea how to use a camera (he tried to look through the lense and ended up taking a nice IMG_7672picture of his eye…), and who was later yelled at by his buddies and forced to return the money after I explained how poor I was due to the economic crisis. Haha. I began the walk to the Bent pyramid, striking off on my own across the desert when the road curved away. There were many times when I saw no one else, and it was just me and the desert. Very cool. And the cool breeze blowing across the plateau was much appreciated. And sometimes I wished I would have had Antonio…

IMG_7681By this time I was getting rather hot and a bit sunburned (the Bent Pyramid is about 3 km from the Red) and asked for a few minutes rest in the shade with the guards sitting beneath the shadow cast by an overhang of the bent pyramid. Some of the facing had caved away, and left a nice little niche. I chatted with them for a while, and they gave me some water and talked about Obama (Obama good!) and informed me the inside of the pyramid was closed, that I couldn’t go to the Black Pyramid, and the it was forbidden to take pictures of them. That’s OK, I said, I have a picture in my mind. To which they all IMG_7689smiled. When asked, they pointed me to the gate, though they suggested taking the road. As soon as I was out of site, I made a beeline across the desert. I mean, the shortest distance between two points IS a strait line, right?

IMG_7693Getting my bearings at the top of each of the rocky dunes, I made my way toward the exit, only becoming distracted for a few minutes by a few ruined mastabas. I made it back to the main road about a 10 minute walk from the gate, and decided that tramping around in the desert wasn’t so bad. Next time, I need to dress more Arab, (ie sleeved robe and kofia headdress) so I don’t get as burned.

IMG_7710Walking back to the bus stop, about 2 km away, I got to chat with a lot of local children, some of whom wanted money, some of which gave me dates and tried to convert me to Islam, and one cute little girl that just wanted to speak Arabic with me. One of them even climbed a date palm and provided me with a handful of dates for the road. (But didn’t want me to take his picture.)

The bus ride back was fairly uneventful, except that everyone was happy I spoke Arabic and made friends with me, which is great. Got back to the apartment about 6:30 pm, having spent a grand total of less than 30 LE on the day. And Ann said she couldn’t come cause it was expensive… (Although, perhaps it’s good she didn’t come, cause I would have felt bad if she passed out in the desert from dehydration…)