We are now safely in Cairo, Egpyt, though thoroughly exhausted from our busy first day in the desert. But first... a quick recap of our last few days in Greece:
Monday: The highlight, and majority of our day since we slept in nice and late, was the Amadou & Mariam concert we attended at the Athens Opera House. The show was a benefit to establish an AIDS orphanage in Mali, Africa, where Amadou & Mariam (a blind couple who sing in French and whom also happen to totally and completely rock) are from. That meant the show was a bit short, preceeded by a video in Greek, and attended by many members of what we would assume are the "artsy-rich" types of Athens. Fortunately, the show was also attended by numerous Greeks our age, some of whom started dancing by the 2nd song (it was at a seated theatre), which gave us the cultural-approval we needed to get up and boogie. By the end of the show almost everyone was on their feet, if not dancing hard, including many old ladies for whom dancing didn't even seem possible. It was definitely a fun, sweaty, international experience, and the endless smiles we received from young and old Athenians alike were as enjoyable as the wonderful music made by Amadou, Mariam, and their French backup band. There are several videos posted on Youtube, and we are trying to get a "Director's Account," so we can post even longer videos for your viewing pleasure.
We rather lucked out on getting our tickets, or invitations as they were called, since they were supposed to be a very spendy 50 euros each, but when we went to the Ivory Coast Consulate to get them (Greece already runs an AIDS orphanage there), we were asked if we were students, and then given the almost half-price student discount without needing any ID. Thank goodness we look young, and that Anderson had just shaved!
So that was Monday essentially, though after the show we did meet some Greeks our age who were very nice, and to whom we need to send links to the photos and videos from the show, which will hopefully happen soon.
Tuesday and Wednesday were also low-key, primarily due to the weather, which was constantly grey and cloudy, and frequently downpouring. We did take advantage of the cheap Greek calling centers (primarily to wish Liz's sister a belated birthday), though the 8 hour time difference was a bit of problem since no one was really home/awake to answer our calls. We did relax at several cafes and coffeeshops on Wednesday, before heading to the Athens airport that night for our well-timed midnight flight on Olympic Airways to Cairo. Apparently that is when most (or more likely the only) flights arrive in Egypt, for our plane was quite packed, and was rather hilarious as it seemed culture clash (or something similar) meant people bordered on being blantantly rude to each other. Of course, the turbulence didn't help much, neither did the nasty tea that they served right before landing.
So... Cairo... is an intense head-trip, filled with seemingly endless touts who want to be your friend, as long as baksheesh (a "donated" bribe) is quick in coming. However, baksheesh is not a tourist-specific phenomenon, but rather is firmly ingrained in a society very, very short on money, jobs, and opportunities, but not short on energetic, enthusiastic, and enterprising entrepreneurs. That said, given the weakness of the local currency, the Egyptian pound, and the strength of the US dollar, most baksheesh is to the tune of 20 cents, though it is the frequent asking, and culturally-expected deliverance, that can quickly become tedious and exhausting, in case a dirty metropolis, plethora of Arabic signs, and desert climate were not draining enough. That having been said, Egypt is an amazing place filled with wondrous curiosities, and being able to cheaply pay for almost anything can often be a wonderful blessing, as long as it is not abused.
We arrived at the Cairo airport then, around 2 a.m., and got through customs easily after buying the necessary stamps for our visas (only $15 US) and exchanging some money to pay for our first few nights at our hostel. We emerged to a crowded baggage claim area, full of Egyptians eager to find us hotels, cab rides, or anything else we could've demanded, so long as their personal profit was involved. Fortunately, our hostel's airport pickup was there waiting for us with a sign, and our driver, Said, quickly brought us through the pandemonium, and out to his beat-up Fiat taxi, which brought us to the Pension Vienna Hostel, on the 4th floor of an old building, a few short blocks from the Cairo museum. After the apparently necessary tea, and a sales pitch or two for tours, we finally got to our beds around 4 a.m. for some much-needed, though all-to-short slumber. Our room is great, with a private bathroom and small balcony, and for only $12 for both of us we even have our own room. A very Egyptian breakfast (tea, bread, cheese, and jam) was delivered at 10 a.m., and after a refreshing shower, we headed on our Said-driven tour of several ancient sites: Memphis, Saqqara, and finally the awesome Giza Plateau. Memphis was Egypt's original ancient capitol city, and doesn't have much to show for it, apart from the splendid Ramses II statue, that weighs 95 tons, is only really the upper-half, and is suprisingly intact. There are a few other decent statues, but really more baksheesh-hungry guards than artifacts worth guarding, in addition to plenty of trinket-stands. Our stay there was brief, and we actually spent as much time at the nearby cafe/papyrus shop, where Said was relaxing. After watching a brief educational demonstration of the papyrus-into-paper process, we gazed at numerous spectacular pieces before treating ourselves to our first real souveniers (3 stunning papyrus paintings of ancient Egyptian scenes) of our trip. We managed to partially haggle the prices, which were more than reasonable to begin with given that the typical painting takes an artist at least a week to paint, with each color needing a full day to dry. We then headed to Saqqara, and fortunately did so with haste, since we arrived right as it was about to close. The so-called Step Pyramid is there, the first ancient pyramid that was the prototype for all to follow. Some baksheesh admitted Anderson to a locked tomb, of which there is a brief video, before we were duly removed.
It is currently the holy month of Ramadan, and since Egypt is definitely an Islamic country, everything currently has shortened hours. During Ramadan all faithful Muslims over the age of 10 fast from 4 a.m. until after the 5:30 p.m. call to prayer, which means the lack of food, drink, smoking, and sex puts the country at a virtual half-speed. Consequently the nights are filled with feasting, and merry-making, as most people stay up until the 4 a.m. call to prayer, before sleeping as late as the brutal desert heat will allow them to (conveniently bypassing several hours of fasting). Once we have recovered from travel and heat exhaustion (and we cannot wait for that moment to arrive), we will definitely take advantage of the city's later-than-usual hours, though at least for tomorrow we plan to rise early in order to maximize our time at the Egyptian Museum (which is most assuredly closing early).
After Saqqara then, we headed to Giza, where we were assured by Said that we would have plenty of time to wander about before catching the sunset. We discovered exactly why that was when we arrived at his friend's stable, where the details slowly and painstakingly came out that the the Pyramids were officially closed for Ramadan, but we could easily get anywhere we wanted to (quasi-legally) on either camels or horses with one of their guides. After some debating, and haggling, we went with the 2-horse option, a guide, and a ride until dark for 170 Egyptian pounds (plus baksheesh afterwards, which goes without saying in Egypt). Our horses were nice, Liz's supposedly was called Princess, and Anderson rode Ali, who constantly wanted to go faster and obviously knew that his rider was a rookie. Our guide spoke relatively excellent English, kept us in-line, and allowed us to run, gallop, or walk wherever we desired in the Giza complex, after slipping past a guarded gate. It became quickly apparent that this is somewhat commonplace, since our guide knew all the people, tourist police included, that we passed by during our 2+ hour tour. We got ample photo-ops, were able to touch a pyramid, entered a semi-forbidden tomb, and could've taken a whole pyramid with us if we could've somehow carried it, though we did decline his offer for a pyramid rock, since posterity needs that more than us. The Giza Plateau is amazing, and horseback optimizes the experience as would-be agonizingly lengthy walks are non-existant, and the sun and sand would have otherwise been quite the battle. We saw the smaller-than-imagined Sphinx, as well as the larger-than-life pyramids in all their splendor, and enjoyed the sunset from a vista with a priceless view.
We learned several lessons on our first day in Egypt: the fast-talking salesmen (which are really all Egyptian men it seems), ought to relocate to car-dealerships in the States, but in the meantime definitely need to be dealt with curtly and quickly for not only our financial benefit (or non-loss) but also for our ever-shortening mental health. Also, inadvertantly fasting all day due to site-seeing is a date with disaster, as our post-Giza exhaustion was magnified ten-fold. However, genuine hospitality must be appreciated and enjoyed, even when that means eating sweet dates and endless glasses of hot tea. The stair-climbs to star-less rooftops, and perfumery-visits we can hopefully further avoid, but a strong sheesa (tobacco from a hookah) numbs your tired body quite well, and our lifetime supply of Lotus Flower extract will ensure that we are pleasant-smelling regardless of how much of Cairo's filth we end up in! We can definitely say we have positively no idea what our upcoming days in the land of the Pharoahs will hold, but we are exhaustedly excited, and will keep you up to date as well as the internet will allow us to. Many more videos will be coming to a Youtube near you, as well as many exciting photos, though none from our museum trek tomorrow, as the four-step security process most definitely does not allow cameras. That's all she wrote here in Egypt for tonight, and unlabelled photos will be momentarily ready for your viewing pleasure!