When I went to Egypt in 1998 I sent a number of emails home to friends and family. This article is just a lightly-edited version of these emails, sprinkled here and there with photos from the trip.
(Message sent Sunday 22 November 1998.)
Hi everyone, Joff here writing to you from Alexandria on the northern coast of Egypt. I was originally planning to make my way up the Nile after leaving Cairo, but it seems that there is a security alert in place for the whole of middle Egypt, and tourists are being advised not to go there. So I headed for Alexandria instead. From here I plan to head west along the coast to Marsa Motruth, and then down to the Siwa Oases. This will give me time to get more information and assess the middle Egypt situation.
The security situation is pretty bleak everywhere actually. I don't know what is "normal" around here, but there are armed guards on every corner and the few tour buses I've seen have had soldiers on them and have been travelling in convoy with jeeps full of soldiers.
Flying into Cairo was fantastic. We crossed the tip of the Sinai just as the sun was rising and the amazing sand dune formations were thrown into stark relief. There was a nose camera on the plane and looking at the desert landscape pass slowly by on the monitors you'd swear you were watching something from the Apollo programme.
As the Nile emerged out of the haze I spotted my first pyramid, and as we flew down the Nile I was delighted to be able to identify pretty much every pyramid from my studies. It sure was a thrill to see them, even from the air. When we got to the Big Three at Giza I was astounded. Even from miles up in the air, even knowing what to expect, and even with a city of 20 million people right next to them they still looked unbelievably huge.
Then we flew over the city itself and I was reminded of Mega City One. Vast arrays of dreary-looking tower housing stretching off in all directions without a hint of greenery until they vanished into the haze, and everything the colour of sand.
I spent the morning of my first day in Cairo at the museum. There's lots of cool stuff there, but I think my favourite item was the mummy of Ramses II. I recognised him instantly from photos - it seems clear that people are just as individual and identifiable as mummies as they are when they're alive. It was really freaky to stare at this man across the centuries. The desiccation has an enfeebling effect, and it was so difficult to believe that this man was once the most powerful of his age. I felt quite sorry for him actually: he's achieved his goal of immortality, but I don't think having a million people a year gawking at him and going "eeeuuuuwww" was quite what he had in mind.
I spent the rest of the day just wandering around Cairo. Every few minutes I would get approached by a smiling man, and the conversation would always start like this:
He: You are welcome in Egypt! Where are you from?
Me: New Zealand.
He: New Zealand! I have a brother/sister/uncle in Auckland!
Me: Oh really?
He: I am a student at university. I am studying Law/Mechanical Engineering/Arts/English. How long have you been in Cairo?
Me: x days.
He: And you're still smiling? Har har har. Would you like to go to papyrus shop/bazaar/perfume shop/camel stable?
At first I would brush these people off once the subject had turned to money, but after a while I got a bit braver and started going with them. The first time I went off with one of these touts he took me past a bright shop facade into a barely-lit labyrinth of concrete tunnels and stairs. I was a little concerned at first, fearing that I might be about to come across an ancient tourists' burial ground, but we eventually came to a papyrus show room in the middle of it all. After many cups of tea and much slapping on the back and many cries of "my brother" I eventually bought a couple of things. The guy was quite impressed that I could tell him what a lot of the scenes reproduced on his papyri were. This is a reaction I've encountered quite a lot - it seems that tourists with a good knowledge of the antiquities are something of a rarity. (Smugness alert.)
There are so many of these touts on the street that it's impossible to go more than a few minutes without being approached. In fact at one stage while I was trying to read my guidebook in a city square I actually had a queue of people waiting to introduce themselves. At first I found the attentions of these people annoying, but I've learned to be a bit more relaxed about it now. They do seem genuinely friendly, it's just that they also genuinely want to sell you drek at "special, just for you" prices.
The funniest thing about dealing with these sharks is that they each give me advice on how to avoid the others. The funniest such piece of advice was one guy who insisted on teaching me how to say "I am not a tourist" in Egyptian. Hmmm... let me see ... a guy who quite clearly is a tourist claiming not to be in very bad Egyptian. Would you be convinced?
My favourite interaction so far with a local went like this:
He: You are welcome in Egypt. Where are you from?
Me: New Zealand.
He: Kia ora mate!
It seems clear that even Alexandria is far from the usual tourist routes, as noticeably fewer people speak English compared to Cairo, and almost no shop signs are in English. On the one hand this means that you get hassled less, but on the other hand finding your way around and ordering food and so forth are much harder.
A couple of days ago I went on an eight-hour camel trek. The only bits of me not hurting are the bits that are still numb. We started with a once-over-lightly trip around the Giza pyramids (I'll be back for a closer look later on of course), and then we headed out through desert and oasis to the Abu Sir pyramids. Just me, my guide, and a camel called Michael Jackson.
My guide was a very devout man, and so he would break into long lamenting prayer songs regularly. Michael Jackson would join in with a perplexing array of sounds from both ends.
On the way my guide took me to meet his family. It being a Friday (the day of prayer), they were having a picnic at the family tomb. So I sat and had tea with my guide and his relatives, both living and dead. The children (and there were a lot of them) were very grubby and dressed in rags, but they were gleefully happy. The have nothing, but they manage to fashion fun from the crud which surrounds them. Cairo is dirty, but the little villages in the oases around it seem much worse, with rubbish piled up high everywhere. In some places the canals are so choked with the curse of plastic that the rats can scamper from bank to bank without getting their feet wet. Even miles out in the desert wind-blown plastic bottles are a common feature.
I think my favourite part of the day was stopping at a group of pit tombs in the middle of the desert. At least I'm pretty sure that they were pit tombs, but my guide insisted that they were underground houses, which I doubt very much. The age he gave for them was also inconsistent with the pharaoh he attributed them to. They consisted of deep square pits dug into the bedrock and covered by small arched enclosures. Whatever they were, the fact that I had never heard of them before and the fact that tourists hardly ever visit gave me a brief feeling of being an explorer rather than a tourist.
On the way back from the Abu Sir pyramids my guide took me to his village (a place where the village square doubles as the village garbage dump) and to his house. The house was three concrete stories high with no furnishings beyond a few stained rugs on the floor. My guide's father (who had a disconcerting similarity to Anthony Hopkins) absolutely insisted that I smoke a cigarette (he seemed to think that he was doing me a favour). So us men sat around smoking Pall Mall while the women cooked our dinner on gas rings in a dark alcove under the stairs. The meal was actually rather good, my favourite dish being carrots marinated in a very hot (chili-hot) brine.
Although they lived surrounded by filth, nobody seemed to stink (or perhaps I was just to far gone myself to notice by that stage), and the women in particular seemed well-dressed and clean. At one stage a woman well-dressed in western clothes and a handbag came down from upstairs and went out into the village, an incongruity I remember seeing in Peru as well.
The simultaneous poverty and friendliness of the people was astounding, and never have I felt so privileged to go home to a cruddy third rate backstreet hotel.
The range of reactions I am getting to my attempts to speak Egyptian are interesting. The most common is a stunned-mullet look followed a few seconds later by guffaws when they realise what I was trying to say, but I have had a few heartening successes. Today I chatted for a few moments with four young men who spoke no English. There names were Mohammed, Mohammed, Mohammed, and Abrahim. (I felt like saying to him "Mind if I call you Mohammed to keep it clear?" but I wasn't sure how cross-cultural Monty Python jokes are).
Well there's lots more to say, but there's also lots more to see, so I think I'll sign off here. Please write to me at this address if you get a moment. I'm not sure where I'll be going from Siwa, so I don't know when I'll next get to a cybercafe, but it shouldn't be more than a week or so.
(Message sent Saturday 5 December 1998)
Hi all, I've just arrived in Luxor, having had a fun few days oasis hopping across the desert. All my gear is dusty, I have Saharan sand in every pore, and I feel great!
I was quite disappointed with Alexandria. The romance associated with the Greek city has long since been squashed by a mini Cairo. Of the remaining ancient sites, by far my favourite were the catacombs. Hewn out of bedrock for a single wealthy family, they are interesting because, dating as they do from the second century AD, they represent the last gasp of the old Pharonic religion. In the reliefs all the standard components are present - Osirus, Horus, the Anubis and so on - but they are rendered with Greek and Roman touches. There is even a triclinium on the first level of the complex so that the living could go and eat with the dead. The whole effect is very strange.
A funny thing happened on the way to the catacombs. I knew roughly where they were, and a half-hour's walk had taken me into a particularly poor part of town. I came upon a five-way intersection clogged with people and donkeys and produce and rubbish, and had no idea which way to go. Suddenly a shout rang out - I rather imagine it was something like "Dopey tourist alert! Everybody do the point!" for out of the throng emerged a line of people all pointing the way. I followed this line of stern-faced pointers around the corner and up the hill to the catacombs.
After leaving Alexandria I went to Matrouh, a city with an interesting duality. It sits on a beautiful large sweeping white-sand bay, and the shoreline is crammed with hotels and restaurants. At this time of year the whole area is deserted, despite the weather being fine and warm by my standards. But walk one block south and you are suddenly in the middle of a typical Egyptian city - noisy, dirty, and desperately poor. I couldn't understand why the poor people didn't make use of their magnificent beach, at least in the of-season. It was like there was a force-field between the two parts of town that only let rich people through.
I spent a few days hitching up and down the coast, hanging out at the various nice beaches. My favourite spot was "Cleopatra's Bath", a beach where, according to legend, Cleopatra and Mark Antony would go to frolic.
From Matrouh I took a bus south across the desert to Siwa, the westernmost of Egypt's oases. It is said that Siwan society is the most conservative of Egypt's subcultures. Women, once married, may not talk to any man not in their immediate family, and in public they are completely covered. You can't even see their eyes - they wear a veil which they can apparently see through. In the hotel was a sign informing us that alcohol and displays of affection were forbidden in public. Siwans are also amongst Egypt's poorest too I suspect. The people live in poorly-constructed mud-brick houses which, almost without exception, where slumped and cracked. Having said that, it is undeniable that the authorities have achieved remarkable feats - even the most wretched hovel had electricity and the people seemed well-nourished.
I spent my time in Siwa cycling through the palm groves. The most interesting of Siwa's ancient sites was the remains of the Temple of the Oracle of Amun. Alexander the Great visited the Oracle and was told that he was the son of Zeus, and the son of Amun as well for good measure. It felt pretty cool treading the same path that Alexander had walked a scant 2300 years before me, but sadly I received no divine revelations.
Most visitors to Siwa return to Cairo the same way they came - via Matrouh and Alexandria. There is a road, of sorts, due east across the desert to an oasis called Bahariyya, but there is little traffic of any sort and no public transport. A group of seven of us from the usual travelling nations who met up in Siwa hired a Land Rover and driver to take us across. The crossing takes about nine hours and so can be done it one day, but we elected to take two days and spend a night in the desert. It sure was a fantastic trip. I think my favourite part was when we stopped at some nice comfy sand dunes for the night. It was already dark, but the moon was nearly full so I went for a long stroll in the Sahara by moonlight. Magic.
One really odd feature of the crossing was that there were no fewer than six military checkpoints along the way. Each consisted of a barrier across the road, a couple of huts, and two or three very bored very lonely soldiers. One of these guys was actually in the Navy! (I couldn't help wondering which bigwig he had managed to piss off.) We had to get special permission to make the crossing, and at each checkpoint our papers were checked and headquarters radioed for approval before we could proceed.
From Bahariyya I've been making my way slowly south from oasis to oasis - Farafra, Daklah, Kharga - and now I've popped out at Luxor.
I was amazed at how much I loved the raw desert. In fact I preferred the long stretches of desert between the oases to the oases themselves. Every time I went for a walk in the desert I had this really strong yearning to head for the horizon and just keep on walking. I even bought a Bedouin head scarf so that I would look the part (well, as much the part as I ever will!) Actually I bought the scarf because our driver on the Siwa-Bahariyya road looked so cool, rocking along across the desert at the wheel of a Land Rover wearing his traditional Bedouin head scarf and traditional Bedouin Ray-Bans.
There are all manner of delightful surprises in the desert. For example there is the most extraordinary art gallery in Farafra. It contains the work of one man who lives and works in the gallery. The building itself is a work of art. It is probably the most well-constructed building in town (the artist built it himself), and every interior and exterior surface sports a carved mural. My favourite room was the "sorrow room", full of Dali-esque sculptures of people in various stages on angst. All-in-all it was one of the most impressive art galleries I've ever seen, and it's tucked away in a tiny oasis in the middle of the desert where neither Egyptian nor tourist hardly ever goes!
It's funny - I came to Egypt to see the antiquities, but nearly half my time is up and I've hardly even seen a pyramid! But now I'm in Luxor which has more cool stuff per square inch than any other place on Earth.
(Message sent 18 December 1998.)
Hello everyone. I'm back in Cairo with only three days left of my trip, just enough time to do the Giza and Saqqara pyramids properly.
I had a fantastically amazing time in Luxor. I spent six days there, but even then I didn't get to see everything, let alone get the chance to see the good stuff twice. The west bank there is studded with New Kingdom tombs and temples and I spent three days there, two on pushbike. It felt so good riding through the desert from tomb to temple and temple to tomb that a couple of times I couldn't help laughing out loud like a madman. I didn't know that the tombs were in such good nick - most of the paintwork is faded but still clear. Some were very evocative - you could just picture the artisans working away. The most touching paintings were in the tomb of Amun-her-kepshep, a son of Ramses III who died aged nine. The first chamber is full of life-sized pictures of the Pharaoh taking his son around introducing him to all the gods. The award for best special effect goes to the tomb of Sennofer. The ceiling was left lumpy, covered in plaster and then painted with bunches of grapes. The illusion of being under an actual grapevine was very strong.
I met some neat people in Luxor, most notably an Australian woman who shares some of my historical interests. She did her thesis on society's fascination with Jack the Ripper - how cool is that? (Stand up and take a bow Lushie!) I also met up again with some of the great people I travelled through the oases with (that's June and Glen you see waving from Canada).
From Luxor I went to Aswan, which is a nice little river-side place so I spent a day there mucking about in boats. Then I flew to Abu Simbel (the road being closed because of sandstorms, flooding, the risk of terrorist attack or to drum up business for Air Egypt, depending on who you believe). Abu Simbel promised to be something of a highlight, and it didn't disappoint. You approach the site from behind, and as I rounded the hill and the four massive statues of dear old Rammy II hove into view my brain insisted on playing "Thus Spake Zarathustra" to me. Most tourists return to Aswan the same day they visit, but the plane schedules are arranged such that you only get about 1.5 hours at the site, so I elected to stay overnight. As well as giving me more time at the site, it meant that, come noon, I had the whole magical place to myself.
After returning to Aswan I spent a day visiting the standard tourist sites and then did a felucca trip to Edfu. These trips are a standard part of the backpacker circuit - so standard that for a while I resisted going just because "everybody does it." A group of seven of us from NZ, Hungary and Holland spent two days and two nights on our felucca (feluccas are wide flat-bottomed boats with a single triangular sale which feature in every publicity shot of the Nile), and it was a wonderful experience. Nothing to do but lounge around, chat to the other passengers and watch the banks of the river slip by.
The funniest thing that happened during the trip happened on the first day when we stopped for a rest from our resting. Another felucca pulled up, and when the captain established that I spoke English he got me to paint "Nice Captain Abdula" on the side of his boat. He had some paint, but no paintbrush, so I sat there on one bobbing boat painting on another bobbing boat using the filter tip of a cigarette as a paintbrush. As you can imagine, I made a bit of a hash of it, but nice Captain Abdula was thrilled with the results.
After leaving their feluccas, most tourists head for Luxor, but as I had already spent six days there I opted for Qena instead, mostly out of pig-headedness. One guidebook doesn't mention Qena at all, the other says don't bother going. When I bought my bus ticket even the ticket seller tried to dissuade me, suggesting alternative destinations. When I first arrived I believe I encountered the "we don't want your sort around here" attitude. The first three hotels I tried to check into all told me that they were full, although I suspect none of them were. On my way to the fourth hotel it belatedly occurred to me that perhaps the reason tourists don't go to Qena is that they are not welcome there. Having all but decided to leave again, the fourth hotel turned out to be a gem, quite the best hotel I've stayed in in Egypt with a perfect Nile-side location and friendly, welcoming staff. My stay in Qena turned out to be something of a social highlight. Having no tourist infrastructure at all, I got to enjoy the unalloyed friendship and hospitality of the people. I visited one temple in the area, and had originally planned to visit a second but I had such a good time kicking around in town with the locals that I never got around to it! One guy in particular latched on to me and told me all manner of tall stories. My favourite was to do with reverse dowries. He claimed that the amount the groom had to pay the bride varies from place to place in Egypt. In Cairo it's a straight 100,000 Egyptian pounds (around US$30,000), in Aswan it's a single camel, and in Luxor it's 1000 Egyptian pounds per kg of the bride's weight! He said that he preferred larger women but could only afford a 60kg wife!
OK, that brings us up to date with what I've been doing. Originally I had planned to visit the Sinai and even Petra, but I have no idea where I thought I would find the time. I haven't even had time to see all the Nile valley stuff I wanted to. Everything else will just have to wait for next time.
For those now glancing anxiously at their scrollbars, wondering what more I have to say, I'd like to prattle on for a bit about Egyptian society and culture. Go make a cup of tea would be my advice.
One of the first things you notice is the relative lack of women. (Well, it was one of the first things I notice - no smart comments please.) 80% of the people you see on the street and 90% of the people you interact with a men. Where do they keep all the women, that's what I want to know. Underground bunkers? Big fridges?
I've tried a couple of times to talk to Egyptian women to find out what their lives are like, but with little success. Once I was walking along the seashore in Alexandria and was hailed by a man and woman sitting together. The man offered me tea and we chatted about the usual things. I tried to talk to the woman (his sister), but every time I asked her a question or addressed a remark to her her brother would reply on her behalf. I didn't want to push things in case by talking to her I was proposing to her or something.
Another weird thing happened during that conversation. At one stage the guy suddenly said "me not straight man, me zigzag man." Huh? At first I thought he was trying to tell me that he was gay, but then I thought it unlikely that the straight/bent metaphor was present in other cultures. But sure enough, after a bit of explanation it became clear that that was indeed what he was telling me. When they realised that I had understood the zigzag man and is sister exchanged high-fives. Huh? Then they guy began to sing a love song from the Titanic to me ("I dream of you every night" or some such.) When he started touching my leg I decided that it was time to leave the zigzag man and his sister to their fates. All the guidebooks say that Egyptian men think of Western women as easy - it would seem that Egyptian gay men think the same of Western men!
Egyptians, as well as being very friendly, are not afraid to ask what would be considered in New Zealand very personal questions within seconds of meeting you. During these frequent conversations there are three things about me which always puzzle them. In increasing order of perplexity caused these are:
1) That I'm not married. "Why not?" is the usual reply. A couple of people have asked me if I prefer boys, one offered to find me a nice Egyptian girl for a good price, and I got offered a Nubian wife in Aswan. My favourite response so far has been "why not - are you too poor?" Well, probably :-)
2) That I don't smoke. The offering of a cigarette is such an important part of hospitality here that one more than one occasion I've had to suck on one of the revolting things to avoid giving offence. When I explain that smoking is quite rare in NZ (and that those that do smoke know their place :-)) people are amazed.
3) The big one: that I don't believe in god. This is truly an alien concept to many people and I have a great degree of difficulty explaining it. When they do understand, I think they really pity me. Poor man: no god, no wife, and no cigarettes.
There is no doubt that the Egyptians are very friendly and welcoming people, much more so than in NZ, but it has to be said that everybody involved with the tourist industry is a fluent liar. They will say anything to get your business. For some reason there are standard lies as well as custom ones. For instance I got dragged into several perfume shops in Cairo, and I got the same story every time: "the flowers for my essences are grown by my uncle in the al-Fayyum oasis and I export my essences to France for use in Chanel No. 5." I actually believed that one the first time I heard it. Every papyrus seller tells you that their papyrus is genuine, but that everybody else's is inferior banana-leaf. Everybody involved in the tourist industry has been so for exactly 15 years. The lies and scams go on and on, but I've found that if you point out their lies with good humour they crack a smile and admit that they've been found out. And then they'll try the next one on you.
I had a really miserable conversation with a British tour leader. After six times round the circuit she had come to loath the Egyptian people, so sick was she of all the lies and scams. I thought it so sad that she had become embittered towards a fascinating country and a friendly people, but could well understand the forces at work. It does sometimes seem that the Egyptians see us the way we see money machines - you walk up to them, work out which buttons to push, and hey presto out pops a wad of cash.
The baksheesh (tipping) system is very difficult to come to terms with, especially coming from a non-tipping culture. It's a major part of the economy and culture, and so is impossible to avoid. I've gone all the way from literally being thumped by a porter who considered that I'd under-tipped him for doing something that I never wanted done in the first place through to having hotel staff swarming all over me when word got around that I was a big tipper.
For me the most trying aspect of the baksheesh system comes in the form of the vermin that infest all the ancient sites. These self appointed 'guides' try to get baksheesh from you by trying to take you on mini-tours ("stand there, look that way, take a photo") or by pointing out things to you. In some places these guys block a stairway or passage that would otherwise be usable and pretend that they're doing you a big favour letting you pass.
I think the thing that bothers me most about both the baksheesh system and the predations of the touristivores is that, in New Zealand, if a stranger is friendly and polite to you, the chances are this is just because that's a nice way to be. Here, the chances are they are angling for an immediate cash payment.
The effects of the downturn in tourism are evident in many places. Felucca middlemen try to coax you into their boats every couple of steps along the Nile, every corner is crowded with unused taxis and horse-drawn carriages, and the tourist bazaars are empty. I went for a walk through the main tourist market in Luxor one evening. I felt like a bomber over enemy territory, for every few steps a human missile would launch itself at me and try to get me to buy the same made-in-Taiwan crud that fifty other shops in the street were selling. I encountered the raw face of this problem at the end of a day on the west bank at Luxor. I arrived at the river's edge to get a boat to the other side and was immediately set upon by perhaps a dozen boatmen trying to secure my fare. People were begging me to go with them, saying that they hadn't worked in a week. The ferocity with which they scrapped over a fare worth a dollar or two left me in no doubt that their desperation was real. People were pulling at me from all sides and trying to snatch my bike off me. It was frightening and depressing.
While the average Egyptian lives in conditions that would be called "abject poverty" in New Zealand, there is less begging than I expected, and the cynic in me wonders if a lot of what there is isn't studied. A couple of heart-rending incidents stand out in my mind however. One one occasion a grubby little girl at one of the temples approached me holding out a pathetic doll made of sticks and rags. She was clearly trying to sell it to me but she didn't say anything coherent, just made these pathetic "eep" noises. I briefly considered buying the wretched thing off her and throwing it away, but in the end I just walked on by.
In another incident a poor man tried to sell me flowers. I sent him on his way with a dismissive wave of my hand. As he left he threw a flower at me with no expectation of payment and was gone. I could've given him a few piastres, an amount which I earn in a second at work but which might have meant the difference between him eating and not that day.
Well, that's all I want to say for now. I hope you've all enjoyed my messages, and I can't wait to see everyone over Christmas/New Year. For those I won't see, I hope you have a relaxing holiday.
As a reward for sticking with me this far, I'd like to leave you with a lovely line of poetry that has come down to us from the Pharonic age. I don't know why I like it, not even quite what it means, but it goes like this:
"Your love is in my heart like a reed in the arms of the wind."
(Message sent Friday 25 December 1998)
Hello everyone, I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas. I'm back safe and sound in NZ, and I thought I'd send one last message to talk about the things I did in the last few days of my trip.
My last day in Egypt was fantastic, a perfect end to my time there. I spent the day at the Giza pyramids, my third visit. Although the pyramids are so famous that they are cliched and almost tacky, there is no denying that they are wondrous, stupendous, gob-smacking structures.
I spent the morning in and around the main pyramids, and then in the early afternoon I started exploring some of the smaller pyramids and mastabas. At one stage I was approached by a baksheesh bandit. Usually I would just ignore them, but this particular guy was friendly and funny and promised to take me to a set of tombs that tourists hardly ever visit so I went with him. Rather than relying on the baksheesh system I insisted on negotiating a price for his services before he led me anywhere. The place he took me to was fantastic. It was a series of interconnected rock-cut tombs. Some of the chambers contained sarcophagi carved into the bedrock of the floors, in other places the sarcophagi had been hewn out of single blocks of stone and then lugged into the tombs. Some of the passages were so small that I had to crawl through the dust on my tummy, and the only illumination came from my trusty torch. Pieces of human bone and scraps of mummy cloth were strewn everywhere. I had a great old time - it was the closest I got to an Indiana Jones experience the whole trip.
Then there was the issue of whether or not I should climb the pyramids. Of course I really really wanted to, but officially you are not allowed to because of the danger. (Before the ban some plonker would tumble down a pyramid to a messy and spectacular death every couple of years.) Of course that argument didn't carry much weight with me, but the conservation argument was a real concern. On the one hand it seems clear that having thousands of people a year climbing all over the pyramids must be detrimental to them, but on the other hand the things have been there for 5,000 years - it's difficult to credit that my boots could do any real damage. So in the end I came to the following ethically dubious decision: that climbing the pyramids was wrong, but that I would do it anyway.
Just on closing time I hung around the base of the smallest of the Big Three pyramids (I thought that climbing the Great Pyramid might be pushing my luck). Sure enough a baksheesh bandit approached me and offered to take me up. (I had heard that it was best to take a guide, firstly because they know of safe routes to the top and secondly because you need someone who knows how to handle (for which read "bribe") the guards if you get caught.) The ascent was tricky but not too bad. Each course of stone came up to about my abdomen, so it was something of a scramble to get from level to level. Every now and then we had to duck down behind a rock to avoid being spotted by the security patrols. The descent was worse, since you can't avoid looking down the steep slope, but it was no big problem. It was a short but exhilarating trip. By the time I got down the guards had cleared all the other tourists out of the area, so I had the whole pyramid field to myself for a while.
I was getting hungry by this stage so I tried to find a place to eat with a view of the pyramids. The only place I could find was the local KFC, so I sat and watched the sun set over the pyramids with a coleslaw and fries.
To round off the day I went to the sound and light show that night. The show involves illuminating the pyramids and sphinx and scribbling all over them with laser beams. It was cheesier than a four-cheese pizza with extra cheese, but still loads of fun.
I'd like to tell you now about a disturbing visit I paid to a "real" Egyptian home a couple of days before I left to return to NZ. A guy I had met on my first day in Egypt had always talked about showing me the "real" Egypt. Unfortunately I didn't like him very much (he came across as bit of a sleaze) and I was uncomfortable with the degree to which he tried to monopolise my time, but when I bumped into him again at the end of my trip I accepted his invitation to visit his house. His house turned out to be the most filthy flea-ridden cesspit you can imagine on the sixth floor of a stack of filthy flea-ridden cesspits in a suburb of Cairo where the rubbish was piled high on the streets. The house had a room that was clearly the family's designated trash heap, although it also had a bed in it so I assume it was somebody's bedroom as well. All the walls were black with grime and the few items of furniture were filthy and broken. I had visited other Egyptian dwellings, and while they were certainly basic I had never encountered such squalor before. I hope you don't think me precious but I just wanted to run away. I didn't want to sit on their filthy mattresses for fear of what might be inside them, I didn't want to eat their food for fear of their hygiene standards, I didn't want to drink their tea for fear of where the water came from. But of course I sat on their mattresses and ate their food and drank their tea and tried to be a gracious guest, but I'm sure my unease must have communicated itself. Those people live in conditions that you or I would (rightly) be arrested for keeping a dog in, but I guess it's the daily reality for millions of Egyptians.
Even in the depths of this squalor there was still evidence of working infrastructures: the place had electricity and the children (happy and well-fed as everywhere in Egypt) were doing their school homework when I arrived.
Things went from bad to worse when the subject of money came up. My host was building a lamp for Ramadan, and invited me to share in the project. I was keen to, thinking that he meant for me to help him build it. It quickly became clear that my "share" was to pay for all the materials. I refused to give him any money, which made him think I was a tightwad. When I explained that having money demanded of me under the guise of friendship made me uncomfortable he was insulted, and we parted on strained terms. I've been over the events of that evening many times in my mind, trying to work out how I could've handled the situation more graciously, but when it comes down to it I think that our standards of living and our expectations of the host/guest relationship were just too different for things to have worked out well.
The security situation in Egypt is a bit of a worry. Frequently people I met would tell me that there were no more problems in Egypt than anywhere else, and that tourists were in no particular danger, but the large number of soldiers on the streets made these assurances difficult to accept. Many buildings in the main cities had armed guards - banks, hotels, McDonalds. Each ancient site had a rapid reaction unit stationed nearby - five or six guys in black uniforms with machine guns and bullet-proof vests standing around a modern four-wheel drive car. Bag searches, x-ray machines and metal detectors are a part of daily life.
At some of the ancient sites they try to soften the impact of the armed guards by dressing them in suits. Picture lawyers with machine guns. Now I'm scared of guns at the best of times, but the thing that always got me was that these guys always had a second clip of bullets sellotaped onto the gun somewhere - wouldn't do to run out of bullets at an inopportune moment I guess.
The guards were always very friendly, but there's something surreal about having an amicable chat with a guy who's idly fingering the trigger of his death-dealer.
There are some places that tourists aren't allowed to go without armed escort. For example, after our felucca trip we were driven to Luxor in a convoy consisting of three tourist cars escorted by two car-loads of armed guards. It was mildly disconcerting to watch the man riding shotgun in the chase car put a clip into his machine gun and then kiss the barrel. The convoy travelled at break-neck speed and the chase car spent the whole journey weaving back and forth across the road, physically preventing anyone from overtaking the convoy.
I had a fantastic time in Egypt, and I sure hope to return one day, but for now I'm happy to be back among friends and family.