You see my country

Trip Start Dec 28, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Flag of Egypt  ,
Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My one mission from when I arrived at JFK until my flight touched down in Cairo was to find some friendly Egyptians who I could talk to so I could figure out if it would be worth it to leave the airport and do something with my 10.5-hour layover in Cairo, and if it was, what I should do with that time (I had a full-day layover on the opposite end of the trip when I'd be with Rachel so I was avoiding the obvious stop of making a quick run to the Pyramids). Finding friendly Egyptians turned out to be no problem whatsoever. Finding a consensus, however, was. The two older men standing in front of me at the preposterously convoluted check-in line thought I'd be foolish not to go. Taxis would be cheap, it'd be no problem, go, see the city, have a nice meal. Karen, the cute Egyptian girl I sat next to on the flight, though, was terrified at the idea of me venturing out into the city on my own with such limited time. She told me that if she didn't have a family function to get to immediately she'd show me around -- and this was before we even took off -- but thought that between the confusing city streets and the horrendous traffic (more on this shortly) that too much could go wrong and she didn't think I should risk it.

So that didn't simplify anything. With that on my mind, I decided to flip through the in-flight magazine. The Egypt Air magazine is split in half, with the English version going one way and the Arabic version running the other. I'm not sure what compelled me to go turning through the Arabic pages -- since it was pretty much exactly the same, except in a language and alphabet I can't comprehend -- but about halfway through I found an ad for a travel agency associated with the airline that provided various tours of Cairo that you do without getting a visa. Why an advertisement that is all in English and clearly aimed at tourists would be buried in the Arabic section, that I can't comprehend either, but I was starting to feel a lot more optimistic about the middle part of my journey.

After some asking around in the terminal, I was directed to a man who was just beginning his schpiel with a family of Indian South Africans. "You see my country," he was saying with an upbeat smile. "We want you to be happy in Egypt, see the city. We take you to the Pyramids. Let you try Egyptian food." And how much would this cost? How about free. So I'd end up seeing the Pyramids again, but you don't argue with free. I tried to find Karen so I could tell her that I was set up and get her email address so we could try to meet up for dinner when I was back, but she'd already passed through customs. I handed over my passport and boarding pass to the airline officials (normally a no-no for me, but I figured the airline would be culpable for it, and I had witnesses; albeit equally trusting witnesses) and went on my tour with the South African family and a father and son who were Ethiopian-born but living in Fort Collins and a professor and freshman, respectively, at Colorado State.

We drove out the airport laughing at the ridiculous massive block-letter ads for American products plopped on the hills like the "HOLLYWOOD" sign and out on to the highway toward Giza. Shortly after driving over the Nile, just as the city skyline was giving way to more block apartments, we could see two triangles poking out on the horizon. It's impressive standing on the Parthenon and looking all around you at the modern city of Athens. There was something special about walking through Rome, having my friend Adrian suggest, 'Why don't we turn left here?' and looking over to see the Coliseum. But the best of all has to be driving through a modern city and seeing the only remaining Ancient Wonder of the World. (What are the other six? I've yet to meet anyone who can name them all. Sort of like the Seven Dwarfs.) We went through the dirt roads of Giza, past fruit markets and small boys corralling big groups of horses or donkeys, and watched as the city grew more and more touristy until we reached the gates of the Pyramids. The catch for this tour was, while we had a tour guide, we weren't actually going to be entering the Pyramids complex. We stood outside the gate, which was good enough to be able to view the three large Pyramids, as well as the Sphinx gazing at you in front of them, as our guide gave us a brief rundown on the history and significance of what we were looking at.

After a little while out there, we set out on the other catch for making this a free tour. Our next stop (and probably where we spent more time than at the Pyramids) was at a perfumery down the street in Giza. We were given a whole rundown of how what we'd be smelling were pure, 100-percent essences of flowers. The commercial perfumes (many of which import these essences as their basis) dilute the essences with large quantities of alcohol, which Egyptians, as Muslims can't work with. The lack of alcohol was also probably why all the perfume didn't set off a massive allergic reaction. From there we went to a papyrus shop where we were given a demonstration on how papyrus is made. We didn't spend nearly as long there because the Ethiopian-Americans weren't interested in buying anything, I didn't want to do any souvenir shopping this early in the trip, and the South Africans had already spent all their money at the perfumery.

From there, we headed out to dinner. Slowly. Cairo traffic is truly something to behold. The mayhem that is Cairo traffic is so steady, so persistent, so mind-numbing that after a while you don't feel like you're in traffic. You're just in Cairo. Donkey carts are part of the chaos. On the highways, there's an unreal number of pedestrians ducking and weaving through the stream of traffic. Two-lane highways become four. And somehow they make it all work relatively incident-free. And when there are incidents, there seems to be a very nonchalant approach to it all. We watched one car brush into the side panel of another as about four vehicles tried to all make the same turn into the same lane. The driver of the hit car waved for the other driver to back up. She did, he got out of the car, assessed the damage, saw it was minor, shrugged his shoulders and dismissed the other driver with his hand, got back in his car and drove on like nothing happened. Imagine how something like that would've gone down in the States. When we parked for the restaurant, all we could see was a McDonald's and a KFC. I looked at the other Americans, and we figured, well, if it's free you can't really argue. But we turned a corner and were led to an Egyptian restaurant that had a large outside seating area with sheeshas set up. Free or not, the meal was great. It wasn't anything crazy or complicated, just some pita with a few dips and then a simple grilled chicken in herbs and spices. But it was delicious. And did I mention free? All in all, I'll trade stops at commission-based tourist traps to
compensate seeing the Pyramids and getting a dinner for freeeeeee.

I was feeling good, and feeling much better about Egypt Air, after picking up my passport and boarding pass and going stress-free through security. Not only did I have an enjoyable day at no cost, the activity would help speed up the process of defeating jet lag since the tour ran from about noon to 8 local time. The father and son and I found a restaurant where we could cap the day with a beer and I could charge my iPod for the 6-hour flight to Dar es Salaam. This was a pleasant surprise, since in researching my layover I had been under the impression that the Cairo airport would be a difficult place to pass so much time because it was lacking a bar.

I drained my Sakara and passed through the horrifyingly lax final wave of security. I boarded the plane and saw that my luck of airplane neighbors would continue, sitting next to Chris, from Norway, and across the aisle from Kate, a Sydneysider who got her degree from Uni New South Wales. Both were friendly, and both were heading straight for Zanzibar as well. But we were only in the air for an hour when Egypt Air re-burned up all its good will. We were told we had to prepare for landing, and no, we hadn't made record time to Tanzania. We were landing in Aswan. The reason we were given was they needed to refuel. I'm no expert in such technologies, but I can see through bullshit, no matter what country it originates in. Did they mean to tell us that they hadn't put enough fuel into a non-stop international flight to get outside the borders? We were on the ground for nearly two hours, growing restless as the flight crew didn't bother to give any information about what was going on or when we'd be resuming. Finally, the German guy who was sitting at the window of my row (who must've set some sort of record for asking to get out and sounded a little like this guy) and traveled to Dar constantly got up to demand answers. He told us that they were getting reports of bad weather around Dar and needed to top off to make sure they had enough fuel in case they had to circle above the airport. Dubious. We then sat around, and this is at about 2 am mind you, waiting for "clearance" from the Aswan air control before we could finally resume travel to Dar es Salaam. And a 27-hour journey became 29 hours.

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