Saturday, March 28, 2009
The energy that circulates this place comes in pulses: sometimes instantaneous flashes of tranquility in an otherwise sea of chaos, other times small heart attacks in the already intense atmosphere. The city sprawls across the plains on both banks of the Nile, the life force behind this city. Outside the Nile river valley the desert resumes its arid ways, sand rocks sun wind desolation purity.
We have been staying with the amazing Ahmed Zeiden, a photographer that we hooked up with through couchsurfing.com. His apartment is on the 25th floor of a building that looks out over all of Cairo, including the pyramids. It has been incredible staying here and getting to know him.
The city is so massive that it would take weeks to explore it all, if Danny and I actually had the desire to do that. We have been in Cairo for too long now, happily, but overrun and rundown by big city life. Our first day here will stay in my memories forever. From the beginning, walking to the metro from Ahmed's apartment we got the first sense of what it would be like to be out in public during daylight hours. Whistles, honks, stares, glares, and shouts are more than common; watermelon covered hands from small boys reaching out to pull my hair, Danny narrowly dodging the sticky redness, me not so lucky. We wonder that if we were just normal white people without long hair if we would get so much attention. Never, even in west Africa, have I gotten so much attention just by walking the streets or taking public transit. It definitely takes its toll, and it has left somewhat of a sour taste in my mouth about Cairo.
No rules on the roads whatsoever. Real anarchy in action. No traffic signals, stop signs, speed limits, emissions controls, safety regulations, no headlights at night (they are only used to flash people to get the hell out of the way). Ahmed told us that if we could successfully cross the street here ten times without dying then we would make it in this city. It is like playing real life frogger. Im talking crossing four lane highways dodging traffic while blindfolded. It is fucking insane. At least you can rest easy knowing that the chances of drunk driving are pretty slim for the most part. Alcohol is not very common here, but luckily you can have beer delivered to the apartment.
There must have been a national campaign to teach English to the general public in which the entire language was compiled into, "Welcome, welcome to Cairo!" It can come from any direction at any time. But it is all genuine welcoming from the community here... maybe. Sometimes it is hard to decipher tone of voice; people could be saying "go fuck off Yankee", and we wouldn't ever know the difference. Today actually we got into a, "No, you go fuck yourself" discussion with some kids on the street. For years I had been warned that Egypt is the worst place for encountering touts and people who work hard to lure the wallet out of your pants. It is the same old shit that I hear everywhere i go. Oh, dont go here dont go there, danger blah blah. Beyond the oogling at the two furry white guys strolling down the avenue, we are generally welcomed here and there has been almost no intense hassle outside of the pyramids. People are kind here, and looking past the conservative Islamic blanket which I see sometimes as stifling the outflow of emotions in public, there is a warmth and kick in the step of almost everyone on the streets.
The pyramids at Giza are the only remaining ancient wonder of the world, but it is hard to overcome the barrage of "hey mister you want camel ride?" It comes every five seconds, and there is no stopping. Men on camels will follow you for minutes just in case you happen to change your mind. Everyone wants baksheesh (bribes); from the police to the local kids who offer to point you in a certain direction, there is a "charge" for everything. Danny and I are far from suckers and usually try to have fun at the expense of the touts, but the experience of seeing such marvels is almost ruined by the intensity of the harrassment. That and the ass load of other tourists.
Did you know that the Sphynx is really small? Not small, but not as big as we thought. In all the pictures it seemed like it was as big as a pyramid, but it is actually quite little in comparion.
It is funny the hypotheses that exist about how the pyramids were built. New Agers come and say that the aliens brought them there, but Danny and I know the real truth behind the wonderful rock pyramids. Lots of Jews.
A higlight of the entire trip so far was definitely the Sufi dance and music show put on by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. It was a free show in a fantastic old stone building; An open courtyard surrounded by ornate wooden balconies. The show started just with music, a group of drummers, horn players (imagine the stereotpyed snake charming horn), hand symbols, and singing. Holy shit the drumming was amazing and the players were glowing, smiling and working the crowd. After a while of just the music dancers came out and began the whirling. Sufism is the mystical side of Islam, and they are known for their whirling dervish dance, spinning for hours on end in communion with Allah. The drumming picks up, the spinners move faster and slower and faster again, arms and neck twirling almost independently from the never relaxing feet. The colors are psychadelic: blues, reds, yellows, and greens, flying through the air. Multiple skirts are worn and sometimes are lifted above the head and twirled as well. It is unreal to see. I was on the edge of my seat, hooting and shouting after each raucous finale, like Kerouac at a jazz club.
We have been in this city for too long, and we are stressed. Tomorrow we will take the train north to the legendary city of Alexandria along the shores of the Mediterranean. It is Egypt's most cosmopolitan city which is not what we are looking for, but it is at least more of a transition to the less crowded more open spaces tranquil western Egypt that is our next main destination.