Monday, June 30, 2008

Day 1 Of 7 - Cairo, City Of The Living

Woke up early in the Colombian morning to catch a four hour flight from SLC to JFK in New York, and from there, a ten hour marathon to Cairo. The first leg was uneventful, but lemme tell you two words about the next leg; first class. How it works is that if there are any open seats in first class, they'll put employees there if we're traveling standby, I suppose in an effort to balance out the fact that, if there are no seats, we're stuck there at the airport.

First class on a 757 is large; not only does it have more seats than our turboprop plane, you could fit the whole turboprop plane inside it. The seats are less airplane seats and more recliners from The Sharper Image. There's a pop-up TV screen with free movies on it, and if you can figure out how to damn un-spring it from the armrest, the day is yours. I was a little apprehensive about being in an airplane for ten hours until I realized that I do that pretty much four days a week, and without sitting in a cool chair.
One of the things I will remember until I die is the sight of the continent on which I was born receding under me, giving way for the first time to strange new blue.
My embarrassing story about my first time in first class is this; when the FA came by to take my order for dinner, I picked the steak. Later she came by with a tray with shrimp on it. I'm a big believer that life sometimes gives you what you really wanted, so I shrugged and chowed down on the shrimp, and then folded up my tablecloth. The FA breezed by again and, seeing the folding, asked if I was not going to be joining them for dinner.
"Wasn't that it?" I asked.
Nope, she explained. Just the first course. Welcome to first class, ha ha (I'd probably be no good at the opera, either). This was a good steak, airplane or not. You're not allowed to drink while you're in uniform, which I was traveling in, but the funny thing about a uniform is that if you take off your epaulettes, you're no longer in uniform. Red wine, white wine... yeah, I had some of that.
After I made sure dinner had stopped arriving, I reclined the seat and slept fitfully over the Atlantic.
The sun rose way faster than I expected (since we were flying right at it), and we landed at Cairo International. A quick trip down the stairs and I stepped out onto Africa.

This is an entry visa for Egypt. As you can see, one can be yours for $15. After hearing the woes of people trying to get an American visa, I was unprepared to be able to just buy my way into a country.
My friend Lebowski was waiting at the airport. As is the way with old army buddies, we had previously hailed each other by last name, having lost our first names to our good Uncle. We recognized each other immediately, depite both of us having hair. He grabbed a cab and, on the way to his place (after more than a decade of knowing each other), we settled into first names.
Cabs are cars, and cars in Egypt are crazy. I'm sure you've heard stories about how they drive in other countries. Stories with words in them like unsafe, reckless, and deadly. I'm here to tell you those words are untrue. Alarming, maybe. In Egypt, there is no such thing as your driver's ed instructor's 'space cushion.' It just isn't there. They drive right up until they almost touch another car, and then stop. It's the only way to merge the way they do it. You see, there are no lanes, no stop signs, and no traffic lights. They drive by flocking. At different times, roads are two, three, four, or five cars across, depending on the collective intelligence of the drivers on the road. Traffic circles are one way and two way depending on who needs to go where. Horns are less an expression of anger and more echolocation. At times, our driver would mumble a request to merge to the driver to his left, who was five feet away from him through both their windows. It was amazing to watch.

Lebowski's place is awesome. It's a small furnished flat on the fifth floor of a building in downtown Cairo. As I discovered, certain words mean different things in different places, one of which is furnished. In America, it means having furniture placed in the apartment by the landlord. In Cairo, it means having the stuff the previous tenant left behind. None of this stuff was Lebowski's. In fact, there was a bench with a secret compartment under the seat, and inside, Lebowski and his girl discovered letters from the 70s detailing a romance between a former denizen and his lady. He's planning a book about that.
What I haven't told you so far is how you have to get to the fifth floor. There is an elevator. Lebowski called it the Elevator Of Death. You see, the door to get into it is not part of the elevator. It's a glass door that belongs to the floor it's on, and when the elevator starts moving, you can reach out and touch the door as it vanishes below you. You can touch the concrete floors as they go by. It would not be a stretch to lose your arm in this way, nor would it be a stretch to open the door on the seventh floor and fall to your death into the shaft. Just a week before I got there, Lebowski was present for a rescue mission involving a little girl who had gotten stuck in the EOD and had climbed out of a hole in the ceiling and was screaming from the roof.
Incidentally, the ground floor button read T, which we reasoned stood for The Ground Floor.

Lebowski and I caught each other up on our post-army lives on the balcony. From there, you can see a Coptic Church (that clock tower on the left), and any number of people milling about five stories below.

You can also see the smallest mosque in Egypt, which is right below his flat. This will be important later.
After I took a short and well-advised nap, we grabbed a cab and and headed out. First stop was Talat Harb square, home of one of those amusing traffic circles, and also where we picked up Lebowski's girl. Then we blasted over to a market called Khan al Khalili. Picture the French Quarter done up in Islam Onion Top and you've about got it. The trash must be mentioned here, because here's the first time I noticed it. Cairo is beset with trash. Besotted. There are piles of garbage hip-high in the streets. I was carrying an empty water bottle and looking for a garbage can, and as a ploy to get me into a shop, one of the merchants took it from me, saying, "Here, I throw away for you," and lobbed it over his shoulder. At first I thought typical American thoughts like, 'Why don't they clean up their trash?' But then it slowly dawned on me that that's just how they do over here. I'll clean up my USA streets, and you can do yours like you wanna. Live and let live. The cats must also be mentioned. No wonder the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats; every time they tried to worship something else, one of the sixty million cats got in the way of it and was accidentally worshipped. These are not fluffy American kittens... these are rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet killers done up in Canopic jar sleek. They'll let you pet them, but if they sense food (or fear), they'll have an artery open before your heart causes that to be a problem.
The merchants are hilarious. To get you into their booth, they'll say anything. "What you need? I have what you need. You don't think about payment. How much you want to pay?" I don't look remotely Egyptian, so inevitably the conversation turned to where I was from. "You Amriki?" they would ask, and when I nodded, they would welcome me to Egypt. A word about this welcome. I didn't know it then, but in the coming days I would come to understand that WELCOME TO EGYPT is sort of code for YOU'RE ABOUT TO BE TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF or HEADS UP, GUYS, WE GOT A SUCKER HERE. Most of them made sure I knew they were not Ali Baba. "I not rip you off, I no Ali Baba!" It was great fun to let them tell me a price and point at them slyly, saying, "You're Ali Baba, aren't you? You are!" and watch them shrug back with, "No! No Ali Baba!" Another thing they tended to do is assure me that I was going to get an 'Egyptian price.' "You no worry, you no pay a lot. I give you Egyptian price." For what that means, see WELCOME TO EGYPT.
Occasionally, they would for no reason I could discern, welcome me to Alaska.
After looking over a lot of small carvings of ancient Egyptian gods, tiny pyramids, lamps and shishas, we cabbed home and realized we were hungry. Lebowski mentioned a few options, and one of them, believe it or not, was McDonalds. I know, I know, I came halfway across the damn world to experience new things... but I felt that that one of those things was 'how the hell do they do McDonalds in Egypt?' and so I caved.

McDonalds damn delivers to your door in Egypt. Kofta is a meat food which contains lamb and goat, and the whole thing was wrapped in pita bread. This was my first inkling that every country in the world has Mexican food. Pretty good. We washed that all down with a couple of Bebsis. What are those, you ask? Factor in that Arabic has no P sound, and you'll get the picture.

Then it was time for bed. I stretched out on the couch next to the air conditioner, which in Cairo is an open balcony, and for the first time in my life, fell asleep under an Eastern sky.


Blogger Guy said...

Phil -- thanks for the flocking metaphor. I have tried and failed to properly describe driving in India (which, from the description, is exactly like driving in Egypt). In India most traffic is on motorcycles, which only adds to the impact of flocking...

5:49 AM  
Blogger Phil said...

Wow, motorcycles? That beats my story! I can only imagine how crazy THAT is.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Guy said...

I tried to find a video that captured the chaos, but this one was the closest I got. Bonus points for spotting the family of three on a scooter. :)

6:25 AM  
Blogger AkuTyger said...

Haha, accidentally worshiping cats. That's awesome.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

I thought all great trips to Egypt started in Peru.

Also, don't eat the dates!

11:33 AM  
Blogger Phil said...

Nick: Yeah, they're supposed to. I just skipped the running-from-the-big-stone-ball phase of the trip. I'm OK with tarantulas. I just don't like spiderwebs is all.

5:28 PM  
Blogger nicardo1 said...

Dude, I love that you went global. I've always thought that I never see enough photos/video of you in different places. Kind of like the guy in this other site ( A corporate sponsor? Why not?

9:00 PM  
Blogger Anna said...

Phil - your writing style has me in tears...and I thought Bup was bad about that...

I love reading about your adventures. If you're ever slumming it in Montgomery, stop by. (That is, if we're not NOLA-bound before then...we miss LA Renfest.)

5:40 PM  
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