August 31-Sept 15, 2000

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Egypt's Overcrowded, Polluted, Hassle-Ridden Capital

August 31 - September 3

Our first impression of Cairo as we gazed out through our airplane window upon approach: God, what a massive city! Through the dense haze of lead-fumed smog which is one of the city's trademarks, a gray-brown sprawl of buildings stretched as far as the eye could see. A shiny, wide ribbon of water sparkled under the low rays of the afternoon sun -- our first glimpse of the mighty Nile. A few minutes later, we touched down at the International Airport. We had at last arrived in Cairo, the Egyptian capital and one of the world's largest cities.

Islamic Cairo

Rooftop view of Islamic Cairo (or, smog can make for nice pictures)

We wish we could issue a glowing report about the city's "romantic Oriental ambience" or something like that, but we can't. Modern Cairo is a mess, caving under the pressure of its exploding population of 16 million plus. There are very few new buildings here -- most of the city's core is full of either dilapidated, rotting colonial structures long ago erected under British or French occupation, or worn-down, ugly cement eyesores dating to the 1950s and 1960s. Chronic air pollution blankets the city in a perpetual purplish-gray haze, said by some to be so full of contaminants that breathing it is like smoking a whole pack of cigarettes in a day. The streets, even the nicer ones, are filled with rubbish and dirt. The sidewalks are packed shoulder-to-shoulder with a mass of humanity. The city is jammed full of aged, smog-belching, leaded gasoline-burning automobiles. Cairo really is a terrible mess, unable to keep up with the crush of its dense and immense population. Within 24 hours of arriving, both of us developed persistent sore throats from all the smog in the air.

On the streets, you can't help but notice the great numbers of poor people, who try to eke out meager existences on wages equal to a hundred dollars a month or less. There is something especially startling about the in-your-face reality of grinding urban poverty here in Cairo. Unlike a lot of third-world countryside poverty, where food is often provided by family plots of land and extended families create webs of social support, cities like Cairo highlight poorness at its most terrible. Children wander filthy asphalt streets in no shoes, women sit on sidewalks begging for a few piastres, boys barely seven years old try to sell cheap leather belts or packages of Kleenex in an attempt to bring in a little more money for the family. And there seems to be no end in sight until Egypt does something to drastically lower its birth rate (currently over 2%), by improving its spending on education and family planning programs. Any economic gains Egypt incurs in today's "global economy" is quickly eaten up by all the extra mouths it has to feed every year.

So it is in Cairo, one of the earth's most crowded and polluted cities. We spent three nights here -- just enough time to see the Great Pyramids and the renowned Egyptian Museum before getting the hell out.

With Pyramids

We came all the way to Egypt, we had to take this picture

No matter what one thinks of Cairo, it is impossible not to be impressed by the city's most famous of sights: the Great Pyramids at Giza. Lying some distance outside of Cairo proper in the suburb of Giza, the Pyramids sit on a vast plateau out in the desert, away from the green belt of and that fringes the Nile. The Pyramids are the only of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing today. And impressive they are, commanding all within several kilometers of their presence to take note, to gaze in awe at their enternal splendor.

We aren't normally given to joining tour groups; we prefer to see things at our own pace without a busload full of other people. But we realized that, with only two weeks in Egypt and a lot of ancient sites to visit, it would be best to join some smaller tour groups while here. We figured that would allow us to make the most of our time, and hopefully learn something more from experienced and knowledgeable guides. Besides, it's actually very hard to travel independently in Egypt. Best to join a tour group to avoid a lot of hassle.

Our group hired a mixture of horses and camels to ride out onto the Giza Plateau to view the Pyramids. Approaching the pyramids, we were completely awe-stricken. They are so much bigger than you could ever imagine until you're actually there in Giza, staring up at the things. So perfect, so imposing. As we rode up to the base of the middle pyramid (Chephren's), we got off our poor steeds and walked right up to the base of the massive structure. Looking up, all you see is one giant, seemingly vertical wall of powerful stone that seems at any moment read to crush you with its might. The Pyramid of Chephren is the only one of the three Great Pyramids which still has some of its original limestone casing intact -- a small patch of its cap at the very top. Originally, all three Great Pyramids were encased in this limestone veneer, which was polished to a smooth, shiny white. What sights they must have been before later generations plundered the stone to build other monuments elsewhere in the area!

Jen w/Sphinx

With the Sphinx

We also visited the fabled Sphinx, which lies in front of the Pyramids. Considered by some scholars to be much older than the Pyramids (there's no academic consensus on this, however), the Sphinx today lies in a serious state of decomposition. Its face, however, is still recognizable even after countless centuries of erosion. The Sphinx was much smaller than we had expected, and the grounds around it are filled with sleeve-tugging souvenir vendors intent on separating the tourists from their cash. So, we didn't linger around the Sphinx for very long.

We rode out onto the high ridge which lies just to the south of the Pyramids, where we got a picture-postcard-perfect view of all nine Giza pyramids in a row (there are the three big ones and six much smaller ones). It was very hot and dusty in the noontime summer sun, but that didn't matter. As we rode away, back to the village which lies adjacent to the plateau, we couldn't help but constantly look back over our shoulders, trying to catch every last possible glimpse of the immortal wonders. The next day, we returned in the evening to watch the nightly Sound & Light show at the Pyramids. It was impressive, but Pyramids are best by day, when their imposing size and ancient splendor are most obvious.

At the Pyramids

Hey, we were in Egypt, we had to take this photo!

The day after our our Pyramid visit, we spent a few hours at the world famous Egyptian Museum. Housed in a grand-looking turn of the century neoclassical building, the inside of the museum is actualy somewhat disorderly. Many of the exhibits have gone unchanged for decades, and almost all of them are poorly marked, housed in simple old wood and glass cases. The museum is also stuffed to the hilt with artifacts -- it doesn't have enough room to display everything. The basement is supposedly full of hundreds of thousands of additional items yet to be displayed. Still, it's one of the world's greatest museums by virtue of its contents alone, regardless of how poorly those contents are displayed. Some of mankind's most treasured antiquities are displayed here for visitors to marvel at. We hired a guide to help us make sense of the exhibits, and we're glad we did. We saw a huge range of ancient Egyptian artifacts, but most splendid of all were the treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Almost everything found in the boy king's unplundered tomb is on display, including the most famous piece held by any museum in the world, the Death Mask of Tutankhamun. It's a beautiful piece of work, as is his solid gold inner coffin, also on display. If this rather insignificant boy king held this kind of treasure, we have to wonder what the tomb of a truly famous king like, say, Ramses II, must contain if one is ever found intact and unplundered.


A splendid example of ancient heiroglyphics

"Baksheesh, baksheesh!" This phrase is unescapable in Cairo. Baksheesh is the term for monetary tips, and everybody is after some here in the world's longest running tourist trap of a city. We had been to places with hassle factors before -- Fes and Marrakech in Morocco, Pamukkale in Turkey -- but nothing can compare to the scam factor of Egypt's main tourist draws. Cairo is the only place we've been where people in the tourist industry will actually lie to you to take your money, underdeliver on their commitments and then have the nerve to ask you for more money when they're through. This Cairo hassle crap put us on our guard throughout Egypt, which was sad because we know we probably missed out on interactions with a lot of genuinely nice people along the way.

Between the smog, the heat, the crush of people and cars, and the lying, baksheese-hungry tourism jackals, we had had it with Cairo after two days. We wanted to get out, so we signed up for a five-day excursion to the south. We departed on a night train headed to Aswan, where we arrived some 14 hours later...

Back to Turkey On to Egypt pg 2!

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