Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Day 3 Of 7 - Big Piles Of Rocks In The Desert

Yup, call to prayer woke me up again. Nope, still didn't understand what they were shouting. But that was all right... I woke up knowing that this was the day I traveled several hundred miles for. Today I was going to touch a pyramid.
Found a different place for breakfast this time, and a new kind of breakfast... tameea wa baid. Tameea is that cored-out half-a-pita-bread thing, and it's usually served with falafel and salad in it. Now is the chance I've been waiting for to tell you the salad story. Among the things they told me to avoid while they were shooting me full of vaccine was salad. The salad itself is not bad, but it's the only vegetable that retains most of the water they use to wash it, and that water is hive to several amoebas, all of which are evil. The funny part is the de-amoebafying agent they suggest... bleach. That's right... if you must have a salad in Egypt, throw that sucker in on the gentle cycle and you'll be fine. I didn't. I'm not a fan of regular lettuce, much less the kind you have to pick lint out of. Anyway... a baid is an egg, and that kind of tameea has hard-boiled eggs instead of falafel, and some kind of refried bean substance. Really good, if a tad Mexican. I mean, Mexican is great. I just didn't think Egyptian food was Mexican food. But there you have it.
After that, we stepped back down to Talat Harb Square (which seems to be the middle of everything in Lebowski's hood) and grabbed a cab. Have we talked about the different cabs yet? The yellow cabs are the safe ones. They have meters in them, and you don't have to worry about anything... you just get out and pay what the meter says. The black ones are a bit different. It's still a car (basically), and there's still a guy in it that drives you around, but there is no meter... you have to agree on a price before you get going. I'm not that much of a jerk, which means I'm a lousy haggler, but from our earliest days together I've known Lebowski has jerk supreme tendencies. I'll clarify the grammar there... I don't mean he has supremely jerkish tendencies; I mean he is a jerk supreme, in the way that Taco Bell means when they say Burrito Supreme. He's a great guy, but when the situation calls for it, he steps up the jerk, and I salute him for it. One of those calling-for situations is haggling with a black cab driver (again with the clarification... a person of Egyptian descent driving a black-colored cab). Lebowski's opening denial always features the F-word. That's another thing I salute him for. It's just fun to watch him go, really, because he's nailed what I call the attitude shift of haggling. See, to do it right, you start calm, you get angrier and angrier as you get closer to the final price, and then as soon as you agree, you're instantly friendly again. So, after several F-words and an attitude shift, we were on our way to Giza.
Giza was a lot like San Antonio, except with less Texans. There was a lot of modern town surrounding a really really old part of town. I think that made it actually more exciting, because as you got closer, you could see pyramids peeking up over top of places to get bottled water and really bad hats.

There's a fence around the pyramid section of Giza, and that separates you from three pyramids and the Sphinx. Everything touristy in Egypt is government governed, and so as I was to discover, you always get the same ticket with a holographic Egyptian seal on it. A round symbol, I mean, not the animal. Then after they tear the ticket, you're in, walking the same ground that pharoahs walked. First, you go through the remnants of what was not but looked a whole lot like a Roman temple. Lots of columns, lots of open-ceilinged and narrow halls.

Don't you hate it when the picture gets took before you're set in your pose and you end up looking floppy?

Then after you find your way out of there, there they are. Three pyramids and the Sphinx. I was not prepared. I don't see how anyone could be. These things are almost as old as we are, and you hear about them from the time you're a kid... and they're right damn there.

The Sphinx has always been my favorite. I've always hated the story (true or not) about how whatever occupying force used its nose for rifle target practice, and that's why its face is nearly missing. In pictures, it looks huge. In person, less so... it's about fifty feet tall. Quick fact: The Sphinx is named after the Greek monstrosity of the same name, and that name actually means 'I strangle,' because of what it did if you got the riddle wrong.

A thing I was surprised to learn is that the back of its head doesn't slope. The way it's all set up, there's really only one angle from which to take a picture of it, and so the pyramid behind it always makes it look like the back of its head sweeps back farther than it does. Here's what I mean:

And from a more different perspective:

A stupid thing about that one picture-taking angle is the ubiquity of the folks I came to call Barnums. Named after the famous P.T. Barnum, who made sideshows the thing and who once guided people to an exhibit he called 'The Egress,' which is in fact Latin for 'the exit,' these guys stand around a tourist spot and do anything from catcalling to walking with you to getting right in your damn way in order to show you something that you can already see yourself and then ask for a baksheesh, which is Arabic for tip. And of course, there's a Barnum in this one picture-taking spot, who advises you that this is a great spot to box the Sphinx.
"You stand here, box Sphinx. Box, like this." And he puts up the dukes.
I did want to have a picture of me boxing the Sphinx. But I didn't want the same forced perspective me-fighting-the-Sphinx that everyone has, probably because this yahoo has been standing there the whole time, and so I did something else.
"No, no, you box. Box Sphinx. Like this!" And he puts up the dukes.
I tried to ignore him. I really did. But he just kept getting in the way of the camera until I just gave up and took the boxing-with-the-Sphinx picture. I erased it later. Ha ha.
Here, incidentally, is a view of the Sphinx you never see.

Again, the three pyramids behind the Sphinx are fenced off. You can get to them, but that requires renting a camel. No, really, you can rent a camel. Actually, they come to you; the camel guides accosted us several times in the 'you box with Sphinx' vein, causing Lebowski to rev up a few more F-words. He'd just done that tour a few weeks ago, and assured me that a) the pyramids don't get any bigger up close, and b) your flanks are never the same after three hours jammed into a camel saddle.

This picture cost us ten pounds. The bedouins (who we'll talk about again in exactly one paragraph) are indigenous folk who don't actually live anywhere... they just hang out at the pyramids and show you stuff for baksheesh. And if you take a picture of them, you're supposed to baksheesh them. Thing is, they're kinda like the cats in that, if you take a picture of anything, they're in front of it, and then baksheesh. I think these guys probably clear 60 thou a year. Remember those bedouins we were talking about one paragraph ago? Well, they have a racket, and it goes like this: they set up at the prime viewing spot for the big pyramid (the one with the cap at the top [which is actually the second-biggest pyramid due to a really big optical delusion]), and because of this, you eventually wander into their net. They approach you and put their Arab headdress on you (that red checkered thing), and then if you're wearing a hat, they put that on their head. It's really funny to see a man who calls the inhospitable Egyptian desert home wearing a pink Minnie Mouse ballcap. Then they put you on their camel or donkey and kidnap you. Yeah, first they steal your hat, and then they steal you. Go back a bit and focus on that 'put you on the camel' part. They don't just point at the thing and make 'get on that' noises. This man picked Lebowski up by the biceps and plunked him onto a donkey. Leboswki is not a small guy... he's the kinda guy I want on my end of the barfight. And this guy deadlifted him, while he was quietly talking to another guy, and put him on this donkey. Along with Lebowski, I want the bedouins on my end of the barfight.
I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to get a camel as vehicle du jour. You know how you watch a nature show and, if there's a camel on it, all they ever talk about is the way they stand up and sit down? Well, that's because it's bizarre how they do it. When they're lying down, their legs are all buckled up under them, and then when they stand up, they go up back legs first and then front ones. That may not sound too bizarre, but wait till you feel it from the saddle. They're so tall that you can't mount one while it's standing like a horse... they have to be sitting when you get on. And so when they kick up their back end, it happens fast, and so if you're not ready to throw yourself back violently against the camel's spine, you're going over the handlebars. I'm proud to say I didn't go over. Though I may have revved up an F-word.

After you and the other kidnappees are properly seated, the bedouins guide you over to the pyramid viewing spot, steal your cameras, and take pictures of you on your monster in front of the pyramids. It really was a cool experience, well worth the baksheesh. I still haggled though. And lemme tell you, when the camel sits down, it does it even faster than when it gets up. I kinda knew it was coming, though, because I noticed all the bedouins gathering up and pointing to where they thought I was about to land. I'm even prouder to say I stayed in the saddle all the way down, without actually even holding on. Oddly, I seem to be a natural with camels. Lebowski was not so much the donkey natural, and so was unceremoniously removed from his mount in inconceivably strong bedouin style.
This is where that picture of me on a camel in front of a pyramid would go if they'd stolen my camera and not Lebowski's. Stay tuned.
Regrettably, I have to mention the heaps of trash. They're there too, at a four thousand year old monument, once the tallest human-created structure and the last existing wonder of the world. McArabia cups, plastic bags, dot-matrix printer paper. They're their pyramids, I reminded myself again. It just stung a little to see them so ill kempt.
We headed to a juice shop while we figured out if we wanted to go inside the one pyramid you're allowed into. It's embarrassing to say, having grown up in the South, but I had never had fresh-squeezed OJ. Because of this, orange juice had always been so-so to me. But this guy just cuts an orange in half, jams it in a masher, mashes, and gives me a glass. It was the most amazing thing I've ever tasted, besides that octopus that one time. I could not believe this juice had come out of an orange. And so, for the rest of the trip, everywhere we went, I got some OJ.
We decided we were tired enough of the Barnums not to cram ourselves in a small underground room under several million tons of stone with them, and so we checked out a rug school across the street. Rug School is what it said out front. We're still not sure exactly what it was. Had rugs inside it. Had people making rugs. By the way, that's incredible to watch. You know those three-inch looms you made out of popsicle sticks in second grade? Well, these ones are ten by twelve, and feature as many threads as there are tons of stone in pyramids. The guy we watched weave explained that he had been working on this particular rug for a year. Next time you notice a Persian rug under your feet, think about that. They never did teach us anything, but they did try to sell us a rug, and that's when we left.
Negotiated a black cab price to get to Sakara, which is where more pyramids are. Along the way, just outside of Giza, we saw this:

Half an hour later we arrived at another dead temple...

... and also the Sakara pyramid, famous for its stair-step edges. It's so famous it's on the Sakara beer label.

This thing is a lot older than the Giza ones. They theorize that they are so old that the Egyptians hadn't quite figured out how to engineer straight edges yet, and so built them in levels. That's technical ignorance I'm inclined to forgive, because look at the size of that thing. This one is in an open area, and you can just walk up to it and touch it. And that's what I did, putting another quest to an end. An ancient Egyptian put that rock there right there where I found it, and I touched it.

There were plenty of ruins around the site. They were kinda set up like a city street. We played on these ones here. Was strange to me that they weren't fenced off and protected with laser trip-wires. All they had were a couple of tourist police that would yell half-heartedly at you if you got too close to something important. These ones they didn't care about.

During Lebowski's F-word-laden negotiations with the black cab driver, he'd secured his services for the entire trip. Which means that when we came back from the pyramid, he was there playing backgammon with all the other black cabbies waiting for their Abercrombie & Fitches. That's just how they all spend their day when they're not driving the tourists. This will become important and potentially life-ending later.

The next stop was Memphis. OK, I admit it, I sat around trying to think of a clever way to make a joke about the name of this place, but they all came out granddad, so I'm just not doing it. This place had a series of very tall statues of Ramses. One of them was about thirty feet high, and I'm embarrassed to say I missed it because it was hiding behind a tree. It's really weird to look at a tree and slowly notice that there's a giant pharoah peeking out from behind it.
The biggest Ramses is gone from the knees down, and is so big that he's lying down. They've built an observation deck around him.

It was outside this stop that the incident occurred. Our cabbie had found himself a group in which to hang, and as we drew closer, it became apparent that one of the gentlemen, a fellow we'll call Big Crazy, had become incensed with him for a reason that never got cleared up. At first there were stares, and then mean faces, and then threats, and then yelling, and eventually a lunging stranglehold. Three of the smaller guys dashed over and hauled Big Crazy off into a hut, and Cabbie just sat there like he had good sense. A pattern emerged, wherein Big Crazy would mouth off from inside the hut, Cabbie would smartly return fire, and Big Crazy would stomp out, dragging his attendants three, until they could calm him down and get him back into the damn hut. Lebowski and I were just putting our heads together about how to get Cabbie out of this when a new wrinkle appeared in the pattern; Big Crazy came staggering out with a loaded box cutter.
"Knife," I quietly say to Lebowski. He nods back, and I assume from his reaction that this is something that happens in Egypt all the time, and so I lean back to watch the show.
Big Crazy never got all that close to Cabbie with the box cutter. He didn't have to, though. I mean, it was already bad enough; there's ten people there, one of whom is an old lady who is whapping both the combatants on the head, but of course it's got to be the ten-foot-tall one who has the knife. But Big Crazy did get so angry that he couldn't quite stay standing up straight from all the ire, and as he flailed he became a sort of maypole with the three guys hanging off of him.
Lebowski and I got as close to Cabbie as we could (which was not too close, because there was a killer pointed at him) and tried to draw him off towards the cab. Sometime during this process, Lebowski completely destroys my sense of calm by exclaiming, "Oh crap, dude, that guy has a knife!" After several jousts, we get Cabbie into the car and we speed off, Big Crazy tearing after us in the rear-view.
Nobody said anything for about five minutes. Lebowski finally stammers, "You all right, dude?"
Cabbie hauls out a box of Cleopatras and says, "I need cigarette. You want?"
Ten minutes later, everything was fine. Welcome to Egypt.
Next was the Imhotep Museum. I should mention that, when you see the word museum, you probably think cold and dark hermetically sealed establishment of enormous size, but in Egypt, this word means small, mostly open-air badly converted three-bedroom house. There were a lot of ancient Egyptian figurines and relief carvings, and even a few cubit rods, but what I think you really want to see is this:

That is exactly what you think it is. I don't know this guy's (or girl's) story, but he really looked like he was just sleeping. He was a little sunken, and of course gray, but the preservation was amazing. He was also very short... maybe five feet even, maybe. One of his toes was missing. I hope he was already dead when he lost it.
Lebowski and I decided that was all the history/knife fighting we could take for one day, so we cabbed home to Talat Harb. I practiced crossing the street till dusk, and then we checked out some of the shops. I wish my camera battery hadn't died just then, because then you wouldn't have to take my word for how funny the liquor knock-offs are. We strolled up to a display window filled with what at first looked like Johnny Walker Red. On closer inspection, the bottles were not quite the right shape, the labels were slightly crooked, and read JOHNNY WADIE. Next to those were bottles of BAGARDI rum. These things were hysterical, and I bet you can find pictures of them on the internet right next to those FAIL picture sets. Perhaps in them.
Another thing I haven't told you yet is that, sometime during this day, I grew tired of being Amriki and became Spanish. You see, in Arabic, Phil is pronounced 'feel,' which is the Arabic word for elephant. So when they curious passers-by asked me, "Ha, you Amriki, ha? What you name?" I would reply, "Felipe! Soy EspaƱa!" This would, of course, result in several soccer players' names being lobbed at me, and I'd have to look to Lebowski for help because I don't know crap about sports. "Why don't you be Russian or something?" he finally grumbled.
After dark, Lebowski explained that one of his favorite things to do is grab a soda in the old fashioned bottle and drink it on the street corner, because you really can't do that in America anymore. So we bought a couple of Bebsis and leaned up against the bricks like cheap hoods and talked about the old days. Soon a group of scary-looking guys wandered up, and one of them started talking to us. I was able to pick out a few words, and it seemed like he was asking if we preferred one or the other. I remembered these words quite well from when I was studying Arabic, because they're the words you want to learn first in any new language.
The Bebsi vendor leaned out of the booth and nodded sagely. "He talk about genital system."
We very quickly got across which team we played for, and the guys burst out laughing. "You Amriki, ha!" they all said before skulking off.
I went to couch that night shaken, stirred, and having touched a damn pyramid.


Anonymous sdbanjo said...

Very cool! Sounds like an amazing place to be and having a friend like Lebowski seems to be the best way to see it! Love your writing!

7:57 AM  
Blogger Jo Jo Fat Stuff said...

Can't wait for day four!!!

9:04 AM  
Blogger Sue said...

Thanks for keeping us updated. I love your stories and can't wait to hear more about your trip.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Aviatrix said...

Yay! An update! I really like the "back of the sphinx" picture. Send us more pictures of the backsides of famous monuments. I should have taken a picture of the back of Mount Rushmore.

4:36 PM  
Blogger AkuTyger said...

Cool dude.

6:26 PM  
Anonymous zb said...

I hope your L.M. is fine with this many F-words, dude.

6:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As long as he says them politely, it's OK. L.M.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

Glad you guys are appreciating this story. Also glad to see some of you have been there, so you'll know I'm not lying. Much.
Stay tuned for more unbelievable.

8:02 PM  

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