Monday, July 28, 2008
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Jay Leno Is Real, I Can Prove It
Whenever you watch The Price Is Right, you always see that you can write in for tickets for free at the end of the show, right before Bob would tell you about the spaying and the neutering. Well, I was always suspicious of that. Free tickets to anything, much less a cool show where you can get A NEW CAR... mmm-hmmm. There's a catch. Well, yes, there is a catch. See, the guys at the hotel go out and stand in line outside the studios at ten in the AM so they can give you free tickets when you check in. So you tip them like ten bucks to make it worth it for them to have done that. And depending on how early you ask for these tickets, there's regular tickets and standby tickets, and that's just like the airlines; if you're standby, maybe you get in, maybe you don't.
So I found myself standing in line out front of NBC Studios with a standby ticket at four PM, right before the show goes live at five.
Couldn't quite figure out how a free show gets stood in line for twice, or how a show that's live at five goes on everywhere else at ten. Anyway, the studio filled up, and it didn't look good for us standbys until one of the runners grabbed me and someone else and said, "We got no more seats."
"Aw," we said.
"But we can put you in the sound booth if you want."
"YAY!" we said, and so we got to watch the show from where it happened.
Seeing Jay's desk in real life is weird. It doesn't look real from any other angle but the one you see on TV. There's a guy out front whooping up the crowd before the show, getting people onstage to do whatever they think they can do well, and it's usually not all that good. And the stage manager counts down, Jay (who is pacing and actually looking quite nervous) gets ready, the lights come up, and show happens. The booth where we sat is right in front of the band, and so we got a good view of them playing. The sound engineer was a gray-ponytailed guy who was very nice but told us not to touch anything, especially any of his thousand bobble-heads placed strategically throughout the booth.
Kevin Costner was up first. He talked about a new movie of his called Swing Vote, and told a story about how, during JFK, he got to swim at the White House and Oliver Stone didn't even get to go inside. A comedian named D.L. Hughley was after him. Ever notice how comedians are impossibly funny on talk shows? Like every damn thing they say is funny? Well, here's a thing I didn't know, and I didn't notice this until the segment was almost over: off to one side of the stage was a guy with cue cards, and after D.L. was through saying one funny thing, the cue card guy would hold up a sign that read ASK ABOUT KIDS, and Jay would say, "So hey, I heard your kids are growing up these days," and D.L. would go off on some dumb crap his kids had done. I mean, I'm not taking anything away from comedians, because you have to be funny to get on the Jay Leno show, but that sort of explains why it's rare for there to be an embarrassed silence on a show like this.
Then they evacuated us out of the studio, and corralled us in a place out back with a bigger stage. A smart person would have taken a picture of the stage. But you have me to deal with, and I took one of the mountains it was facing.
I had no idea what was happening (because I don't listen to things people say... they told us who was next seventeen times) until damn Morris Day and the Time took the stage. That's right. Jungle Love. OH-EE-OH-EE-OH. It's funny how you can be not really a fan of something and then when they put you in front of a stage where that thing is happening, you become a fan. These guys are very large black gentlemen, and their suits are as pimp as they wanna be, and they played two mash-ups of their greatest hits, and it was fantastic. I had no idea I knew the words.
They stuck a few pretty people from the audience into a Pontiac on a raised spinning platform, and then whenever Jay would remind us that he was being brought to you by Pontiac, the pretty people would wave and smile glinting smiles. The crowd-whooping guy also returned to toss us little plastic footballs that read THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO and re-whoop us.
Then when the show was over, they ushered us out of the back of the stage, which was onto the front of the street, and we all just stood there, dizzy and smiling, not believing that we'd just seen the Jay Leno show. Or Morris Day and the Time.
Kevin Costner.... I'd believe that.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Fun With Counting
The whole reason I'm telling you this is so you'll now know what FAs are doing when they walk through the cabin looking at you and then writing things down on a notepad (NO we're not taking drink orders, although there's always some wit who shouts, "I'll take a gin and tonic!" and ruins your count). And the whole reason I told you what I just told you is so that I can tell you this: today as I was moving through the cabin, counting and writing, I kept getting funny looks. And after the count was all done and I was putting the pad away, I noticed that some other FA had written SHUT UP I'M COUNTING on the back of it in big letters. Just goes to show you that sometimes you can be a juliet alpha and not even know it.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Modern Law Enforcement Equipment
Saturday, July 12, 2008
The Calgary Stampede
One hitch. Summer. Summer weather the day before. Summer weather the day after. That day, hail.
In July? Seriously?
I mean cold. That's the other chief export of Calgary... misery in weather form. Once we were inside the big gates to the place, we spent most of the time running from the cold. You can't run from normal cold, but you can run from Calgary cold. You can see pockets of it, skulking around with tattoos and switchblades, freezing the slow and elderly. I still have a scar.
Inside, it's like a small town. There's food courts, markets, amusement parks. Stopped into several stores and tried on cowboy hats and fringed leather jackets. The Saddledome is a cleverly-named stadium that actually resembles a Paul Bunyan-sized saddle. Rodeos happen in there.
Problem was, it was too damn cold to do anything outside, and to do anything inside, you'd had to have bought tickets years ago. The place was lousy with country music stars, as you might expect. So we stayed outside and drank to escape the pain.
The whole experience was worth it for one thing, and it involves beignets. Being that, with Aviatrix's help, my reader base has expanded way beyond Louisiana, I'll explain that a beignet is a Cajun doughnut that's basically a small deep-fried pillow that you put powdered sugar on. If any of you not from Louisiana have heard of a place called Café Du Monde when talking about New Orleans, then yeah, that's where they make those, and of course I'm a fan. And at the Stampede, when I saw a booth selling beignets, a place outside of Louisiana (albeit in a country where Cajuns originally came from) I almost got one. I say almost, because right below BEIGNETS on the sign was OREO BEIGNETS. In anticipatory tears of joy, I asked the lady at the counter, and she said yup, there's an Oreo in 'em.
Had I died? Was this heaven?
The answer was yes. I measure food goodness in a) calories, b) preservatives, and c) how many I can eat before I throw up. An Oreo beignet is ridiculous in the first two categories, and as for the third, I could barely finish one. So there I was, being pummeled in the head with rain and ice, frozen solid except for my blood, which was by that point more than fifty percent alcohol, and reeling from a French confection-induced sugar high. YEAH go to the Calgary Stampede. I endorse it.
Now if I could just remember it...
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Safe And Secure
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
A Little Egyptian Weight
There. Now you have all the inside intel needed to stage a hostile financial takeover of Egypt. I had standing orders from my friend Michele (who I found the first KFC with way back when) to send her some of this money as soon as I got back... I think she may have started that takeover already. Move fast.
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
Day 9 Of 7 - Return Of The Phil
Half an hour later, I was not at Jefferson Street station. Nor was I, I think, even in New York anymore. And since I was supposed to be getting on a plane at seven that morning, this was a problem. Enter the new GPS-capable phone I had gotten maybe a week and a half before, to replace the phone I had destroyed in anger. When I was looking for new phones, I saw that this particular model could do GPS, and almost passed it by, thinking, "Aw, come on... when am I ever going to need this?" Well, boy was I glad I splurged this morning. As I was walking the unfamiliar streets, following my own progress via an overhead map on a thin electronic device, it occurred to me that maybe it took twenty years, but the future the 80s TV shows had promised us had finally arrived.
If you've read the blog this far, you already know how my life works. I don't even need to tell you that I made it to the airport, but was exactly two minutes late for the SLC flight that would have had plenty of open seats.
So, JFK airport, and for twelve hours. Four trips to Wendy's, three almost-made-its onto flights that turned out full, and several hours of phone calls to people I hadn't caught up with in a while. And then at seven that PM, I landed a flight home.
Four hours later, I walked in the door to my apartment, dropped my luggage, and took a real live and hour long shower. Glorious.
Egypt, my first real foreign country, and my first trip off the continent... done.
Monday, July 07, 2008
Day 8 Of 7 - Out Of Africa
We grabbed a cab, and it drove us through Talat Harb Square (surprise) back to the apartment. Lebowski was moving out and leaving the country about two weeks after I was, and so we both ransacked the apartment looking for something to bring home to prove we were there. I stole some coins and a copper off-brand Zippo with a semi-nude Egyptian goddess on it. I say semi because she may have been completely nude, but was only visible from the waist up. Semi-present, possibly nude Egyptian goddess. If you go back to the entry where I describe the place, you'll see a small square painting on the wall of a guy with big eyes... I wish I'd gotten that. But it's still there. Oh well... like Maude says, I'll always know where it is.
Grabbed some baid for breakfast, and palmed the Coke bottle with the Arabic script on it. Yeah, I know everyone has one of those, but I actually went there to get mine. Cabbed it to the airport, and Lebowski saw me to the terminal, where we both exacted promises from each other to not be strangers for 13 years again. It's at this point that I have to thank Lebowski publicly for being a cool guy. Not only was he nifty enough to be in Cairo, he put me up for a week, and I know people who wouldn't do that after not having seen me for like a month. I wouldn't say I have friends in high places, but I sure do have some high friends in places. Wait... that didn't come out right.
Well, actually, maybe it did.
Story time. When I, as an airline employee, travel, I call ahead and put myself on the list, so that when I get there, they let me through security because I'm on the list. Failing that, I show them my ID card. Now that I've been through this story, I can authoritatively state that this is the way it works in America, and by implication imply that it works entirely differently in another country. I get to the checkpoint, and tell them I'm on the list. The Egyptian security guy says no, I'm not on the list. I show him my ID card. What is that, he asks me. And there I am, with my one flight that day leaving in an hour, stuck outside of security with my baggage now inside security. I'm not going to explain how I did what I did, because a) you might try it, and b) I'm not even sure how I did it, but I got through security. I will say though that there was a moment where I had a really clear vision of an Egyptian prison cell, made all the more accurate a vision by my accomodations of the last three days. But they bought it, and I got in. That's not a ding on Egyptian security, mind you... I'm just that good. The ding is that they took my Coke bottle and my nail clippers, but left me my aerosol bug spray can and my semi-present goddess lighter.
Got on the plane, and twenty minutes later, I took that nap I should have taken on the bus where that moron was baying and shoe-banging. And ten hours later I was in New York.
Actually, it was ten hours and another two hours... the two hours being the delay getting out of Cairo that cost me my ride to SLC by about a minute and a half. Luckily, I have more high friends in places, these particular friends being college buddies from Louisiana who moved to N.Y., and so I took the subway to their place. Now I've been to New York before, and have even been on the subway, but never by myself, and I got lost several times. I don't remember if you remember the hoopla a few months back about the Grand Theft Auto game that was just released, but it's based on a really detailed fictional New York called Liberty city, and it's so detailed that once I started to navigate like I was playing the game, I started getting places. Ended up at the Jefferson Street station in Brooklyn, which is where the crew lives. Jonathan met me downstairs, apologizing. "Sorry, man, our place is a wreck. We just lost power and there's no air conditioning." As we laughed about the old days inside, I noted it was a lot like Cairo.
Jonathan is part of a N.Y.-based comedy group called The Happy Workers, which is funny as all hell. He told me that he'd kill me in my sleep if I didn't mention that here (except for the hell part, because he's religious). They're currently working on Season Two, which means they've disbanded and all moved on to new projects. The project he's moved on to is an N.Y.-based variety show called Jefferson Street. Now, I'm gonna run the warning flag up right now; THW is uniformly dark, but Jefferson Street is rated IVAAGO for Intermittently Vile As All Get Out. Most of it is for general audiences, but there are a few sequences almost too biological to watch. You have been warned... now go check it out. And stay tuned to find out if I make it back home tomorrow.
Sunday, July 06, 2008
Day 7 Of 7 - Wasting Away Again
The drinking began. I remember falling asleep in one of those conversation pit things, drifting between the smell of apple shisha and the sounds of the surf.
Later we discovered a bar with a name so foul I cannot bring myself to type it. Of course we went in. At the bar were a set of swings instead of bar stools and an Egyptian barkeep named Kal. In a British accent, he engaged us on every subject (Windsurfing: "It's the only thing you should ever do." The war: "A good try, but well, you did make a mess." The pyramids: "We didn't build those things. The ancient Egyptians did. We just found 'em."). He also had some amusing opinions about Dahab. "If you're here for more than one night, you're... you're going to get a shag. If you don't, you're just... you're just dumb." Lebowski and I waited till he turned around to pour something to hang our heads. We talked to Kal for a while, and it became clear that living on a beach just makes you a cool guy. If you're ever in Dahab, go talk to Kal.
The sun went down. We said our goodbyes to Darrin and Freeman and took a cab back to the bus station. I thought that the ride back would be easier because it was a night ride, and thus we'd be able to get some sleep. I was wrong in this assumption. First, before we even got started, a lady threw a fit because of where she was sitting. "I am NOT sitting next to a man!" she screamed. "I am NOT!" I am inclined to side with her, though, because I met a lot of Egyptian men that I would not have wanted to sit next to if I were a gal. And then about an hour into the trip, the driver put on a movie. I use this term loosely. This one made Morgan Ahmed Morgan look like Amadeus. Near as I could tell, this screeching horror was a vehicle for this Egyptian clown to scream loudly and bang things with his shoes for three hours. That's all this idiot did. And I don't mean Jim Carrey scream. I mean bray continuously, with no inflection and very little inhaling. That kind of screaming you do when you're nauseous and just want it to go away. He sounded like a sick cow. And he'd blunder across objects and look like he was going to use them, and then take off his shoes and start spanking them:
MORON (translated from the Egyptian): OH LOOK A PHOOOONE! OH LOOK A PHOOOONE! A PHOOONE! LOOOOOK! I THINK I'LL USE IT! I'LL USE IT! USE IT YESSSS!
MORON reaches for the phone, and then begins to bang it with his shoes instead.
It only took minutes of this atrocity to get most of the bus petitioning for relief. "Turn it off! Hey, turn that down! Turn it off!" And either the bus driver didn't speak English, or he did and just liked the movie, or he did and didn't like us, because he continued to motor along happily while we suffered this howling and shoe-banging bastard for most of the trip along the Suez.
Somewhere in there, I nodded off. And when I woke up, I was in Cairo again, with only hours left in Egypt.
Saturday, July 05, 2008
Day 6 Of 7 - Once More Onto The Beach, My Friends
"We're late, aren't we?" I shouted through the wall.
"Yes!" he shouted back, between F words.
Blasted back down the beach to Sinai Divers, and found out Bob had been there and left. When he re-arrived, he asked us if we knew that meant we pay for all the beers. We sheepishly assented, and so began day two.
More videos. More tests. Then it was back into the gear and back into the water for Confined Water Dive Two. Felt a little more in control this time. I had discovered during the open water phase the day before that your legs are your primary means of propulsion and steering. If you wanna go, you kick repeatedly, and if you want to roll, you kick once, which spins you. Your arms are fairly useless except for grabbing stuff. And unfortunately, when you're kneeling underwater, your legs are no help, so I just resigned myself to spending most of the dive on my face.
More skills. This time we had to swim a good distance (20m maybe) without a breath, to simulate getting to the surface after running out of air. No problem with that. Bob also turned off our air tanks, so that we'd get an idea of what that feels like to run out of air. Feels just like you might imagine. You take a tug of air, and it's a lot harder to take, and then you take another one and nothing happens. Of course he turned the air right back on again, but it was still a little unsettling. And having done that, we worked on helping out a fellow diver whose air has run out. That was sort of the culmination of all the skills, that process. What happens is, a guy swims up to you and makes the 'throat cut' signal for "I'm out of air." You instantly stick your arms up so he can grab your spare regulator, because if you try to get it for him, you'll both bonk heads looking for it until he passes out. Then once he's got it, you lock arms like Roman soldiers, so that you don't get too far away and yank the regulator back out of his mouth. Then you both swim for the surface, and when you get there, he buys the beer. But you don't want to swim too fast to the surface, or you both explode, and in that condition, no one buys the beer.
The amusing part of this dive actually happened before that part. One of the skills is having to take your mask completely off underwater and breathe for 30 seconds, so you'll know what that feels like in case someone accidentally kicks it off your face. Sounds easy. I went first, and I decided that it would be a waste if I went all the way to the Red Sea and didn't open my eyes underwater, regardless of how much it hurt. It actually only stung for a few seconds, and then it was only semi-blinding. However... it seems humans are genetically programmed to not breathe underwater, and thus everyone has triggers that make you freak out when you're submerged. My particular one, as I found out, is having my eyes open. It was difficult to breathe through the regulator with nothing over my nose, but I was able to inhale calmly enough that no water went in it... at first. Soon the 'get out the damn water' reflex took over, though, and I became unable to control my lungs. They kept doing this hitching HUH HUH HUH HUH thing, and no matter what I did, I could not stop them. Only made it fifteen seconds, and then I gave Bob the 'ascending' sign, which, due to my previous behavior, he incorrectly interpreted as 'everything's fine.' So I reinforced the sign with a panicked blast to the surface just to make sure he got the message.
He caught up to me and assured me that that happens to lots of people. Lebowski surfaced just after, and exclaimed that I'm really funny while I'm dying. But I did notice that when it was his turn, he kept his eyes shut, the bastard. And I'll tell you, watching him do that test while I was waiting to do it again was not at all confidence-building. But with my eyes shut, I made it. And it was perversely satisfying to have found a limit, something that hardly ever happens in daily life.
Between dives, Bob gave us the swimming test, where you swim a certain length and also tread water for ten minutes. WOW it had been a while since I'd been in the water. Salt water is not friendly when you accidentally take a snarf of it. But after the test, while Bob went to pick up more gear, Lebowski and I busied ourselves with trying to dive down to this giant concrete thing that was half buried on the sea floor. We both only barely made it, once, and then while using our masks, we saw that there were freedivers just lying there next to it on the bottom, watching us and laughing.
Then it was time for the fourth and final dive, Open Water Two. Things didn't start well. As I was wading out, Bob started making crazy motions over my shoulder, and eventually reached past me and plucked a tiny bedouin kid off my back. He'd been taking hits off my regulator. But again, once we got into the blue, it was fantastic. I really regret not having had an underwater camera, because there would have been more pictures in this entry. Also, you'd have been able to see me all stuffed into SCUBA gear. One thing that struck me is that once you go beneath the surface, you're really there for the duration. If you have a minor annoyance, like the salt sludge that builds up in your mouth from mouth breathing for twenty minutes at a time, you just have to deal with it until it's time to surface. Also, during this dive, my vest kidnapped me. It has a valve at the top and at the bottom, so that you can let the air out if you're too buoyant. You just have to know which valve to open. If you're head up and you pull the top one, great. But if you're say, head down, and not quite smart enough to know that the air has risen to the bottom of the vest, what happens is the vest drags you spazzing to the surface while you yank repeatedly at the wrong valve like a moron. I'm not saying that happened, but yeah, that happened. Twice. Between being too high, too low, and a little slow, I was never where I was supposed to be. But I was in the Red Sea, and alive despite the water's efforts, and when I finally surfaced out of it, Bob shook my and Lebowski's hands. "Congratulations, SCUBA divers," he said.
Didn't keep me from leaving my tank standing up when we got back. Damn.
We hit the bar again, and between alcoholic remuneration, we found out a little more about Bob. Seems he lives just a few blocks over from where we were staying, and just bikes over when it's time to teach new folk to dive. And that's what he does for a living. That's what everyone in Dahab does for a living. It's a town of people who get paid to do what they love to do. That's probably what made him such an excellent teacher. If you're going to learn to dive, learn from Bob. And then eat at Joe's.
Headed back to Sindbad, where Darrin and Freeman had again found the girls. I suppose it's no coincidence Canadians speak French. Now I don't want to suggest the existence of divine providence, but there were four of us, and four of them, and after mixing and matching a while, we all paired off. Miriam was the girl I ended up with, and not just because she didn't speak English and no one else spoke Spanish; she was really pretty. During our conversation, which was halted haltingly more than once by my sluggish language skills, it came out that she was the only one who was not a diver, the only one who was not even interested in diving, and seventeen years old. Wow they grow them mature in Spain. Her age really didn't matter anyway though, because as fun as single-use romance is touted to be, I didn't damn know her from Eve and was perfectly content just talking to her about Spain. Plus, it allowed me to stow my crappy game and watch the other guys throw their crappy game.
About an hour after that, the girls executed what I can only term the Catalan Kiss-Off. They must have had some strange other country telepathy, because outwardly, it just looked like they all simultaneously stood up and waved goodbye. But inwardly, I imagine it went something like this:
MARIA: OK, I'm getting tired. CKO time.
CONSUELA: All right... my guy's a dud.
LIDIA: Not sure about mine. Come back to me.
MIRIAM: Mine's old. Nope.
MARIA: Not digging mine. Connie?
CONSUELA: Mmm... nah. Let's bolt.
The four of us waved as we watched them go, and then sat there in silence for a moment. "Well, that went well," Lebowski finally ventured.
"Club?" Darrin suggested, and we all nodded, thinking it would be harder to hear our resounding defeat over blasting techno.
On the way, we all came up with excuses why the girls hadn't fallen swooningly into our arms. Freeman put the spotlight on me about Miriam, and I shrugged that she had not been exactly legal. "Here she is," he quipped, and I had to admit that that hadn't occured to me. I wasn't in America, was I? Talk about BOOP you're elsewhere...
The dance club was very cool, although if you're trying to forget an instance where girls wouldn't talk to you, the very worst place to go do it is a place where hundreds of girls won't talk to you. It was set off from the beach down an alley, and the door to the place was a giant dreamcatcher-inspired gate that rotated to let you in. Inside it was desert island Tiki hut, and in back there was a balcony that you could only get to by shaky rope bridge. A rope bridge, by the way, is the perfect thing to have in a dance club full of drunk people. I could barely get across it, and I surf turbulence. I'm sure there's a compound fracture in that place three times a week.
After a few Sakaras, we all retreated to our cells, and I prepared for my next and final day in Egypt, during which I planned to do nothing at all but sit and watch the sea.
Friday, July 04, 2008
Independent Of Independence Day
Day 5 Of 7 - Parting The Red Sea, Only This Time Not For As Good A Reason
Still didn't have any idea where I was, so I looked to the right.
I experienced a vague recollection that the gravel had not been raked the night before, and that there had not been some dude sleeping behind the bush. Still mostly confused, I looked to the left.
Now I remembered. Water. Red Sea. Dahab. I'm in Egypt. I'm supposed to go get in that water today.
Lebowski's door was wide open. After ten minutes or so of my version of call to prayer, he woke up, and after ten minutes or so of certain commodity, he threw on his flip-flops. There was a tense moment as he looked from his shorts and flip-flops to my shorts and black Skechers and black socks, and then back to his shorts and flip-flops.
"You, uh... those aren't beach shoes," he finally settled on.
"Nope," I admitted.
"Did you... did you bring any?"
"Do you even own any?"
It was here that I launched into my beach curse story. I bear an ancient curse having to do with beaches. I am basically safe around pools and man-made lagoon-type structures, but any time I get near naturally-occurring water that I can't see the bottom of, I get cut. The most famous of these stories happened in Biloxi, where a couple of high school friends picked me up out of the water for a 'three strapping doughboys carrying Mae West' photo, and then threw me as far as they could. An un-cursed person would have landed in one of the billions of water in the Gulf of Mexico. I myself landed on a barnacle-encrusted concrete pylon. Seriously, the barnacle-encrusted pylon to water ratio in the Gulf of Mexico is insane, but I found one. So I limped back a hundred yards to the beach, right leg numb except for the tickling of used hypodermic needles in the water, and when we all made it out onto the sand, we saw that my right big toe had basically been split to the first joint. In shock, I could think of nothing funnier to do than run up the beach screaming, "SHARK!" And so it's gone with every encounter with a beach, before and since.
Lebowski hadn't moved for the entire story. Finally, he said, "So, you're telling me you don't own any beach shoes is what you're saying."
We headed out for breakfast, flopping and clomping, respectively.
In daylight, Dahab is an intriguing low-tech beautiful. Like I said, it's basically a main drag following the water, but in the dark I hadn't been able to see the brickwork. There are concrete buildings and thatched-roof huts, and every so often a broken-down storefront with three tourist police smiling at you. In this shot, you can barely see Saudi Arabia in the distance. You'll also notice they managed to get the trash near the trash can, and that's because there was one, a feat unequaled in the whole of Cairo.
Found breakfast in a seaside tent. This was one of the few places that had an actual table and chairs. I mention this so I can mention how they did it everywhere else. The Dahab standard is a 'conversation pit' kind of thing, where they make a big square out of four palm tree logs, throw pillows and blankets over them, and stick a small table in the middle barely big enough to put your legs under. If you lean back against the logs, that fits nine people and their requisite shishas. Like I said, low-tech, but neat. The thing about chairs is that cats go under them. It's like sitting on a boardwalk and dipping your feel in a tide of cats. Now and again, one would jump up in Lebowski's lap, and he would brush it off like it had the plague. I am a cat person, and so I wondered why he would do that until one jumped on my lap; this thing looked at me sweetly with the one eye it had, and showed me its brain through its other eye socket. I think it may have had the plague. I followed Lebowski's anti-zombie-cat stance for the rest of breakfast which, oddly, featured bacon.
And orange juice. Did I mention that?
Grabbed some aqua socks from a vendor. In keeping with my beach curse, I suspect I may have a flip-flop curse. I used to wear them when I was little, up until the time I got the bottom of a broken Coke bottle stuck between the heel of the flip-flop and my actual heel. Yeah ouch. Since then I have given any possible curse very little room to work, and so, aqua socks. I never go in the water without some, and you'll remember I wore a pair in the Salt Lake. However, a thing I discovered about aqua socks is that when you wear them outside of the water (which I had never done before), they're hot and cumbersome and generally stupid. I think I should have risked the curse and gone with the flip-flops.
We began our search for a reputable diving outfit. Until this very point in my life, I had thought little about diving. I like to swim, but I've never been that interested in throwing on heavy and expensive equipment in order to paddle around with some fishes. But Lebowski had just been diving in Iskanderun, and had been bitten by the diving bug. He convinced me with very little arm-twisting. His experience, though, prompted us to place emphasis on the reputable in our search for a reputable diving outfit:
LEBOWSKI: Hi, I'd like to go diving.
EGYPTIAN: I am diver.
LEBOWSKI: Are you a certified instructor?
EGYPTIAN: I am diver.
LEBOWSKI: Um... I'm not so sure about--
EGYPTIAN: Let me ask you question. When you breath under water, you breathe like this?
EGYPTIAN: Or you breathe like this?
EGYPTIAN breathes long and slow.
LEBOWSKI: The... second one?
EGYPTIAN (clapping him on the back): You do fine. Come on.
Miraculously, Lebowski survived that diving adventure, and even more miraculously, wanted to go into the water again. We cruised up the beach, checking out various dive shops:
US: Hi, we'd like to go diving.
EGYPTIAN: You not think about cost. What you want to pay?
US: Hi, we'd like to go diving.
EGYPTIAN: Let me ask you question...
US: Hi, we'd--
EGYPTIAN: WELCOME TO EGYPT!
Finally we arrived at Sinai Divers. Inside was a man who intelligently explained the dive process and assured us that they were a member of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, or PADI. Lebowski looked at me. I looked at him. We had found our outfit. An hour later, Bob, who was one of the instructors-on-demand, arrived, and we began.
The SCUBA Diver certification, which is the first and lowest PADI certification, requires four separate dives, all of which themselves require movie-watching and written test-passing based on the movies. You learn things like how air occupies less space and becomes more dense the further down you dive, and what to do when your ears complain about that. You learn about SCUBA equipment, how to put it on, and how to troubleshoot it. And you learn basic emergency procedures, like what to do if your air goes away at ten meters. Oh yeah, did I mention everything was metric? Instead of pounds per square inch, the SPG (submersible pressure gauge) reported to me in atmospheres. Wacky.
We passed our tests (during which Lebowski may or may not have helped me cheat on the math part), and then Bob took us out for Contained Water Dive One. You're supposed to do confined water dives in a pool, but since all we had was the sea, we just didn't go out as far into it. A word about suiting up... and that word is 'uncomfortable.' The wetsuit is skintight, wet, and made of rubber. It's like... well, it's like a wet skintight rubber wetsuit, you can imagine what that feels like. And there's two of them, one with arms and legs, and another without that goes on top. Pinch city. And the equipment is, outside of the water, heavy. I'm guessing we lugged an extra 50 pounds (I have no idea how many kilograms that is) down the beach to the water. If you're an experienced diver, you can run through the checklist pretty quickly, but as we were new, Bob made us do it slowly, and every second you're standing in the hot Egyptian sun in two skintight rubber wetsuits with stupidly heavy gear on is a second you're dying. Bob was good-natured enough to smirk at our pain.
Safety checks done, we flopped our way into the water. Things immediately cooled off and became less heavy. But in trade, a new wrinkle; I could no longer move. I mean, sure, I could flap around, but nothing I did did anything else. Having never been in the water with weights and a BCG (Buoyancy Control Device [a damn inflatable vest]) on, I hadn't yet figured out what motions translated into what resulting moves, and so it was a lot like being a baby again. Just kick and wave and hope something happens.
You can't prepare for being able to breathe underwater. Bob warned us that we couldn't, and I knew this, but still, I was not prepared. We threw our regulators in (that's the chewy piece of the airhose that goes in your mouth), deflated our BCDs, and sank. And there I am, kneeling on the sand, surrounded by water, and damn breathing. Bob gave us a few minutes to get used to it. The videos all stress to keep breathing, because a) it's generally a good idea, and b) if you don't, your lungs can explode. I discovered a third cause for non-breathing; you forget to. It's amazing to be completely submerged and listen to the hiss of your equipment telling you you're not drowning. Of course, it wasn't all beer and pizza. For one, I was weighted wrong. Since you are wearing a damn inflatable vest when you dive, they strap a beltful of lead weights to you so you can sink when you want to. Every diver knows about how much weight to wear, and how to wear it. Unfortunately, the only way to learn this is to do it wrong several times until you get it right. Weighted like I was, when I was kneeling there underwater, I kept drifting forward onto my face. Doesn't seem like much of a hassle, but when you don't quite have the coordination to get back up again, it's a pain. Another thing was that my mask wouldn't seal. You'll notice that pilots are all clean-shaven, and that's because their oxygen masks have to seal, and a beard breaks the seal. Soldiers do the same thing so their protective gas masks seal. Well, I have a beard now, and the low end of the dive mask seals across the top of your lip. Problem. And believe it or not, the diver's solution to that is Vaseline. You just smear some across your moustache, and you're disgusting but good to go. We actually got started a little late because, oddly, none of us had any Vaseline on us, and the pharmacy was closed because the guy running it had been called away to pray. And once I got in the water, I discovered that either I have a destroyer-class moustache, or the Vaseline trick just doesn't work all that well.
In short, I definitely needed the time Bob gave us to get used to things.
During the Confined Water dives, you go through a list of several skills, proving that you'll be able to perform them if you ever have to. One of them is how to put your regulator back in if it ever falls out or gets kicked out of your mouth by another diver. You might think (as I did) that it's an easy thing to put something back in your mouth, but the mask seriously limits your peripheral vision. When that thing falls out, it's gone, and because of all the gear you're wearing, if you don't know where to look to find it, you're in trouble. How to clear your mask if water gets into it was of particular interest to me. In fact, by the time we got to that skill, I had already been doing it for fifteen minutes. Once enough water gets in it to get in your way, you look up, pull the mask off, and blow bubbles into it. That puts enough air in it to seal it back onto your face, and then you can see again. And having regular water get into your mask is bother enough... salt water from the Red Sea? Well, that's like bleach in your eyes, and if you get a snort of that stuff up your nose, game over. Lebowski and I both got a taste of that as we were using the snorkels to get to where we did the dive. Bob told us to make sure to blow the snorkels out before we breathed in for the first time, but I had a feeling he knew we had so much on our minds that we'd forget, and he certainly was watching and laughing when we both simultaneously took in a honking blast of sea water and had a face explosion. It must be amusing to be an instructor.
After we finished all the skills, we left the water, trundled out gear back to the dive shop, and watched more videos. Then we geared up again (the repetition, I suppose, was to get us accustomed to the gear), and did Open Water Dive One. Open Water dives are a sort of free-roaming reward for getting past all those skills. And it was amazing. It was trouble at first, though, even getting below the surface. See, when you breathe in, you become buoyant, and you can't sink when you do that. But what's the first thing you do when you're about to go underwater? You take a deep breath is what. So in addition to deflating your vest and having the right weights, you also have to control your descent with your breathing. And, strangely, it's not a constant thing; for the first ten feet I mean three METERS, it's really hard to sink, and then for the next six meters or so, it's easy. And after that it gets hard again. Something about the density of the water, I dunno. But after the first few tries, I got my naturally buoyant self under the surface, and like I said, amazing. Bob led and we followed. He consulted his dive computer often (it straps to your wrist, but don't you ever call it a 'watch' to a diver's face), which told him how long we'd been under, and checked with us just as often. You use hand signs under water, because of course you can't speak. An amusing thing is that the OK sign is what they use for OK, and the thumbs-up sign, instead of meaning OK, means 'I'm going to the surface.' So Lebowski and I both erroneously reported that we were ascending several times.
You're at peace is what you are. Once you get the feel of maintaining your level in the water by inflating/deflating your vest and using your lungs, you're completely free. Exactly the opposite of how you were out of the water, weighed down by all the equipment. Swimming comes easier than staying in a kneeling position, and it's mostly legs. Your arms are for checking your gauge. A typical exchange went like this: Bob turns to us and signs, "OK?" We both sign, "Ascending," followed quickly by, "OK! OK!" He smirks behind his mask, and then points to me. "What does your gauge say?" he signs, putting two fingers in his palm. I flop around looking for my gauge, which is at the end of a hose just like the regulator, and read it. 120 bar, it says. I make the football 'time out' sign, which means 100, and follow that with two fingers: 120. He points to Lebowski, and I crane to see him through the mask, even though he's right beside me, and I get to see how funny I looked flapping around looking for my gauge. Bob says, "OK," and begins to swim again. Another sequence I got familiar with was pointing to my ears and making the 'comme ci comme ça' sign, which means 'I can't clear my damn ears.' Apparently, my sinuses are rated to 40,000 ft, but not much good below sea level. Bob would sign for us to descend a little, and suddenly I'd get a white-hot spike in both eardrums. The videos say you're supposed to pinch your nose and blow into it to equalize the pressure (the same thing you do if you have problems in a descending aircraft), but for some reason, I couldn't get it to work. Eventually I figured out that I personally have to turn each ear to the surface and clear it individually, but until then, it sucked.
The water was very clear, and there were schools of fish about. They swim around you, but you can never quite touch one... they're skittish. We saw Nemo fish, and several lionfish (Bob interlaces his fingers and flaps them, which is the sign for lionfish, and points to an angry bundle of brown fins under a rock). To tell you the truth, on the first dive I was really too occupied with staying at one level and keeping the damn water out of my mask to look around, but I got a good sense of why people do this. At one point, I realized I didn't have to stay right-side-up (or, I suppose, top-side-up), and rolled over to face the surface for a while. As long as you have one hand on your regulator, you can do that forever. I haven't experienced anything in life yet that's quite like looking at the surface of the ocean from several meters under it. Very surreal.
The dive lasted a forever-long twenty minutes, and then we stepped back out into the air. Three SCUBA tanks and the accompanying gear is too heavy to carry, so they have a trolley for that purpose. Looks like an industrial-strength baby carriage. And we all three hauled that thing from from the dive end to the shop end of the beach each time we went out. I got whistled at once by a foreign hot chick on the way, which made it worth it. It was either me or Lebowski she whistled at. I like to think it was me.
We capped off the first day by buying Bob the beers we owed him. SCUBA tanks are filled with compressed gases, and are thusly potentially explosive. You don't want to drop one. So you're supposed to lay it down every time you walk away from it. Bob explained that every time he caught us away from our tank and it was standing up, we owed him a beer. I managed to make it through the day, but Lebowski was not as lucky. But he's rich and I'm not, and after a while we were all three of us drunk, and so it all worked out.
We retired to Sindbad, where we caught up with the Canadians and the Barcelonans and drank even more beer. I looked upon it as a survival trick at that point; whatever amoebas I had ingested that day could not possibly survive immersion in Sakara. We attempted to wow the girls with our first dive story, and they responded by telling us in attractively accented English that they were of the several-levels-up certification intimidatingly known as 'divemaster.' Darrin and Freeman chuckled behind their hands. During the evening, I had occasion to visit the bathroom and discovered that, because the water pressure is so low, you have to put toilet paper in the waste basket instead of flushing it. Not as horrible as it sounds, or at least I didn't think so at the time. I was pleased to see someone had modified the sign on the door:
PLEASE PUT TOILET PAPER IN WASTE BIN laden
Sometime after that, we stumbled back to our concrete cells and I don't even remember falling asleep. Day Two was tomorrow, and I had to be ready.
Thursday, July 03, 2008
Day 4 Of 7 - Journey To Way Over There
Again, we hoofed it past Talat Harb square, because it's on the way to everything. Eventually we found the bus station. I'm sure he knew where it was, but I didn't. Like I said, our original plan was to tackle Iskanderun, but for reasons I never quite de-Egyptified, we couldn't get on that bus. I just remember Lebowski cursing up a storm at the ticket agent, and the two Egyptian Army soldiers behind him smiling at me and mouthing the F-word making fun of him. So, plan B... Dahab.
You'll notice the bereted fellow in the lower left corner. He's tourist police. Here he is again.
They kind of hang out in large concentrations of tourists so they can be on hand to make sure nothing untoward happens, like you accidentally getting on a bus to Sudan. I was particularly interested in the way they all seem to have different models of weaponry. This guy here had what I suspect was some variant of AK-47, but some police had MP-5s or even Mauser-looking pistols. In the U.S. you get accustomed to authority figures having the same uniforms and equipment, but over there, I guess you just go to work with whatever they issue you, or whatever you have lying around the house. Also, U.S. police usually have their smoke wagons holstered... Egyptian police twirl theirs around when they're bored. A touch unsettling. Lebowski was kind enough to wait till the fourth day among them to tell me that most of them probably don't know how to use a rifle. Jerk. These guys also direct traffic occasionally, but whereas U.S. cops use these big cheerleader movements to tell you when to go, tourist police rarely raise their arms past their sides. Most of the 'come here,' 'stop,' and 'go that way' occurs very subtly at thigh-level, and looks like nothing more than a nervous tic. Pretty amazing to watch it at work, but I can't even imagine having to be legally held to those microscopic signals.
We hopped on the bus at maybe two PM. This is our view of the bus. I had to look at it for ten hours, so you have to look at it too. On the way, Lebowski filled me in on what Dahab was and why we were going.
I was unaware of this, but there's a second part to Egypt. I had always thought it was a vertical block with a northeastern chip missing, kinda like Missouri. Turns out that not only is there a piece there, it's shaped like a falling piece of pizza. This is the Sinai Peninsula, home of Mount Sinai, which is where Charlton Heston was given the bylaws of the National Rifle Association on stone tablets. It's also the site of the 1967 war between Egypt and Israel. We didn't see this, but Lebowski assures me that there are stretches of desert there strewn with dead tanks. Sinai is also across the continental shelf, so technically I hit Asia on this journey too. Ha ha.
There's Egypt, and Sinai. We cruised along that WTHIP-colored line past a lot of arid terrain (always wanted to chart my adventures on a map like in the Indy movies). Looked a lot like Tatooine for more reasons than just my wanting it to... they filmed the Star Wars movies in Tunisia, which is just a few countries west of Egypt. The Suez Canal was off to the right for a while. Dahab, Lebowski explained, is a dive town halfway up the other side of the peninsula, and by dive, he meant 'go in the water.' He'd been there once before, and said it had instantly become his haven from the chaos of Cairo.
There were TVs on this bus, and soon into the trip, they began playing an Egyptian movie called Morgan Ahmed Morgan. The only way you'll be able to fathom the insanity of this movie is by following that link to the trailer on YouTube. From what I was able to piece together from my limited understanding of Egyptian Arabic and what I was able to blatantly make up, Morgan Ahmed Morgan is an Egyptian goofball living a bumbling sort of double life; rich corporate mogul sometimes, unassuming college student other times. With the help of his friend Afro, he gets in over his head in one situation after another, and only manages to get out of them by virtue of the fact that his full name spoken aloud has a tendency to spur dance sequences. Seriously, no one ever calls him Morgan, Ahmed, or M.A, or Buddy. "Hey, is that Morgan Ahmed Morgan?" "Why yes, it is Morgan Ahmed Morgan!" "Morgan Ahmed Morgan? Where?" "That's him over there, Morgan Ahmed Morgan." "No way! Let's have a crazy New Delhi-style dance sequence!" Armed with Afro's ability to start food fights and a song called 'Oh Shee Wah Wah,' Morgan Ahmed Morgan chases modestly after the lovely Hot Teacher, and generally wins over everyone with his so-bad-it's-good dancing and his full name. At the end, there's a dance-off between opposing factions of students (the good guys have cool moves, and the bad guys have just as cool but choppy robot moves), and Morgan Ahmed Morgan brings them all together literally, rising up out of a crowd of them as if he were on a mechanical pedestal. At the time, I was annoyed by this movie (partly, I'm sure, because the driver had the volume turned up to DISINTIGRATE), but the more I watch the trailer, the more I want to go out and rent it.
That got followed by some Tom and Jerry. These particular ones were so old that I think I actually saw Tom meet Jerry in one of them.
The sun went down. We passed what I'm pretty sure was the much-invoked B.F.E. We stopped in a town at the point of the peninsula called Sharm El Sheikh. The only thing that was there was a cigarrette store and a bathroom, and there were kids outside charging one pound for admission.
We finally rolled into Dahab at about midnight. Lebowski and I had struck up conversations on the bus with Darrin and Freeman, two journeying Canadians, and so we all took a cab to the beach section. By cab, I mean we all jumped in the the bed of some Egyptian's truck for a pound each. Knowing that that was what 'cab' meant, I should have reasoned what Lebowski meant when he said we would be staying at a 'hotel.'
This entire room, including the bed, is made of concrete. The Hotel Sindbad is a former bedouin camp, and was re-made into a beachside hostel/hotel when the originally bedouin-settled town of Dahab went legit. This place was, and I mean barely, a north-south row of concrete boxes loosely connected to an east-west row of concrete boxes, across a gravel sidewalk from a set of camp showers. It's funny that how well you handle scary things is usually directly proportionate to how far from home you are... I opened the squeaky wooden door to this rough-hewn prison cell and, instead of running far far away, I said, "Great, I'll bring in my stuff!" Might have been because it wasn't a damn bus.
Lebowski moved his gear into the next cell and then we sat outside for a while listening to the surf and the absolute quiet. I watched the froth of the sea in the dark while he imbibed a certain commodity. He admitted several times during my visit that he had regrettably become jaded to the things Egypt had to offer while living there, and was enjoying seeing me see things for the first time. One of them, he said, was the way I reacted to how he put our new location in perspective:
"See that water?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, because I was looking at it.
"That's the Red Sea." Then he pointed out over it. "See those lights on the other side?"
"Yes," I said, because he was pointing at them.
"That's Saudi Arabia."
BOOP I am way elsewhere.
We caught up with our stout Canadian allies at the hotel next door, who were on quest for Sakara. We met some girls from Barcelona, who were staying in the concrete boxes across from Darrin and Freeman, and in halting English, slightly better Spanish, and abysmal Arabic, made introductions. We invited them to join our quest, and they declined, which was the sensible thing to do, because saying Sakara is better than Stella is still not saying much. The beach section of Dahab is basically a riverwalk-type street along the beach, crowded with restaurants and shops. The design of these places is great; you'll see depictions of ancient Egyptian gods goofing around with Nemo the fish and characters from Disney's Aladdin. We found a tent that was still open, settled out on the beach with drink and shisha for a while, and then we headed back and hit the concrete.
I had some rest to get... I had found the Red Sea, and tomorrow, I was going to get in it.
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
Day 3 Of 7 - Big Piles Of Rocks In The Desert
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 España!" 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.
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Day 2 Of 7 - Adventure In The Two Cairos
"Iiiiiiit's time to pray to GOOOOOOOooooOOOooOOOOOOOOD! Yeah, right now's the TIIIIiiiIIIIME to pray to GOOooooOOOOOOoooooOOOOOD! GOOOoooOOOOD PRAAAaaaaaying time like right nooooOOOOOOOOOW!"
Lebowski tells me that some of the bigger mosques have famous Muslim-world singers do their calls to prayer. In perspective, that's a little like Celine Dion howling at you five times a day from Our Lady Of Perpetual Mercy down the street. But the important part here is that this particular mosque is the smallest mosque in Cairo, and as such, it seemed to have mosque envy, meaning its call to prayer was the loudest of any mosque in Egypt. Waking me up. At five AM.
We'll go on. Just before we headed out for breakfast, the garbage guy showed up. I call him the garbage guy because he had an actual name, but I forgot it. There is no organized system of garbage collection in the part of town Lebowski lives in (don't know if that's Cairo-wide), so people looking for work just pick a building and collect trash in it for money. Like independent contracting at the lowest level. Again, my American self spent a few minutes trying to figure out a better way to do things until my new and emerging world self realized that that's just how they do here.
On the way to breakfast, we saw this guy bringing pita bread to the restaurant he where he works.
Yes, that's a damn door on his head. Yes, that's one million pita breads on the door. And yes he's on a bike. I followed this guy for six blocks just staring. Egypt seems to be all about doing what you can with what you have hanging around. And there were a lot of these guys doing things like this. In Egypt, a talent like this gets you gofer work. Anywhere else, it gets you into Cirque du Soleil.
Lebowski's favorite breakfast spot is a koshary restaurant. They make one thing, and that's koshary. It's either a small bowl or a big bowl of spicy macaroni with various Arabic objects mixed into it. Seeds, nuts, flowers, things like that. Really good stuff. Had more Bebsi with it. Lebowski tells me a story about a place he saw in Luxor, a pub they did up to look Irish. They still use Ps in English signs even though they don't have P in Arabic, I suppose because it makes the sign look authentic. But they're not quite sure how to use them, and sometimes they use B interchangeably, and so the sign out front of this place read 'IRISH BUP.' I could have published a book on just the funny signs I saw in Cairo. One I wish I'd gotten a picture of was a hubcap place that had a sign out front that read FAG. I hope it was an acronym.
And while we're obliquely alluding to homosexuality, let's clear this up. A lot of people here have heard that folk in Arab countries walk hand in hand down the street, male/male and female/female. It's true. But it's not what it looks like. There was a subtle difference between the male couples I'd seen in N.O. walking hand in hand and these Egyptian guys trucking along arm in arm. After much thought, I think I've figured it out, and I'm gonna try to articulate it without offending anyone here. Egyptian culture seems to be a very young culture... not in age but in attitude. Here in the states we've all grown up, and are mostly cynical about everything. It's hard to just walk up and talk to someone in a bar because what if they're too grown up to talk to me? Our thirst to get out of our teens so fast has aged us into isolation. But over there, the cultural rules seem to have kept everyone young. Covered women means more schoolboy mystery for longer. Less money means less look-what-I-got-and-you-don't. The whole place seems to have a fifth-grade playground ethic, and in a good way. So when I saw guys trying hard to dress like George Michael strolling around linked at the elbows, it was simply the male version of a couple of Ya Ya sisters giggling at life.
And hey, if you are gay, it's the perfect cover, so everybody wins. There, I think I did that right. Anyone offended?
After breakfast, we just hoofed it around for a while at street level. Not arm in arm or anything. Just couldn't do it. But I did see the Nile for the first time. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it looked like a river, a lot like any other. Little wider than the Mississippi. But it was knowing what that river had been there for that made it amazing. Same river that pharoahs had dipped into, you know? I didn't touch it. It had amoebas in it. But I looked at it pretty hard.
Also learned to cross the street. The drivers aren't any less supersonic in the city, and there are no crosswalks. You absolutely cannot cross the whole street at one time, because there are so many drivers. So there's a technique to it. Lebowski learned to cross using the human shield trick, wherein you just latch onto an Egyptian who's already crossing the way you wanna go, and stay behind them so that if anyone gets hit, it's them and not you. The way you do it alone is you wait till one lane is clear, and then dash to the first broken line, and stay there, cars whizzing past you on either side, until the next lane is clear. Frogger players from the 80s will have a clear advantage here. And so it goes until you're across, or flat. Actually, the drivers can spot you if you're not Egyptian, and so they'll flash you and slow down if it looks like you don't know what you're doing. Still a hair-raising experience though. I ate crow on that one because I had previously bragged to Lebowski that since I could cross the street in New Orleans, I could cross one anywhere.
Found a bank in which to change my American dollars to Egyptian pounds, or livre égyptienne, abbreviated everywhere as L.E. The French name is a throwback to the French colony days; a bartender later explained to us that the Egyptian people are subtly burned that their forerunners practically invented civilization, and then lost control of it to almost every other culture that walked by. There are (currently) five pounds to one dollar, and that's the only reason I could afford a trip like this on flight attendant pay, ha ha.
You might have caught the word Coptic in the previous entry, and I didn't know what it meant either. Means Christian, and though it is illegal in Egypt to promote Christianity, it is perfectly permissible to build churches and worship. There is a section of town called Coptic Cairo (or Old Cairo), and that's where we took a train to next.
This is the women's traincar. You can ride on whichever train you want if you're a woman, but you're likely to get harassed if you do, and so only women can ride the women's train. That's the downside of that young culture I was talking about... you know how boys who don't know how to talk to a girl they dig will pound on them on the playground because it's the only way they know to relate? Well, it can be like that when a girl walks down the street here. The men make this noise that I can only describe as 'hey baby' as spoken by a cobra... it's a stuttering hiss that probably hasn't ever impressed a woman ever. I wouldn't say it's a juvenile approach. Unsophisticated, simple, direct... those are things I'd say.
Coptic Cairo is laden with very old Christian churches, as you might imagine. The one we stopped into was St. Virgin Mary's Coptic Orthodox Church, also known as the Hanging Church, because it's balanced on top of the ruins of an ancient Roman fortress. The church itself is pretty old, going back to the fourth century.
Pretty amazing place. Again, it's not what the place is, but rather how long it's been there and what's happened in and around it.
They also seem to have a real thing for St. George in this church, one of the only saints I could pick out of a lineup. Here, St. George feeds a stick to a lizard.
Outside of the church is, surprise, a cemetery. Another thing that seems to be the same in other countries is people's need to build places to go to when they wish people weren't dead.
Stopped off for coffee right outside the church. They call a coffeeshop a kahua in Modern Standard Arabic (from the word for coffee), but an ahua in Egyptian dialect. So not only do you have to learn Arabic, you have to learn Egyptian Arabic. Which is scary only until you realize that someone from the Midwest would be confounded if a Southerner asked them to put awl in their car.
We were not the first to our table.
After that, we hit the local market. More shishas, more carvings. Found this mosque. Note the somewhat anachronistic neon sign and loudspeakers.
Also met this goat.
In one of the shops, we met Tariq, who asked us to call him Ta Ta, which neither of us could bring ourselves to do. He mentioned that he was closing early today because his first daughter had been born last night. Congratulations, we said. In his happiness, he had lowered prices... would we like to buy something? Lebowski bought a shisha (which, by the way, is a hookah [or water pipe], if I hadn't mentioned that yet), and I bought a carving of the god Seth, because he's the bad guy. And for the record, I'm not going to say that Ta Ta smoked Lebowski up right there in the damn shop, but I'm certainly not going to not say that.
We got roped into a perfume tent a few meters down the street. Got some Arabic lessons from the shopkeeper, and some culture. "We all like... like five fingers," he said, holding up a fat hand. "We all different, but we all the same." We mentioned that we had met Tariq.
"Tariq, he tell you he have daughter?" he says.
"Yes," we say.
"Tariq, he not even married," he laughs. Welcome to Egypt. Later we stopped by Tariq's place to pick up the stuff we'd left there, and Lebowski couldn't help relating the 'five fingers' anecdote, much to Tariq's face-falling.
You know how, in horror movies, you get into the bad situation you're in by having said previously, "Oh, let's just keep going. It's just a few more blocks." Well, that's how we got from the market to the hood. We just kept exploring until we realized we were completely lost and surounded by locals. Right as our sense of adventure congealed into absolute terror, a group of old and grizzled Egyptians beckoned us over to their ramshackle coffee table. Coffee appeared, and shisha, and the game was on. Somehow we got through an hour of conversation with a few older gentlemen with a full set of teeth between them, a few younger guys who assured us they were not Ali Baba, and several flocks of young kids in soccer jerseys who wanted nothing more to bop us lightly on the head and say, "You Amriki, ha!" One man kept pointing to me, making the international nose itching sign for cocaine, and saying, "You California, ha!" If you'd asked me what surreal meant one week before then, I would have provided the wrong answer.
At one point, one of the men quietly asked Lebowski if he wanted to buy a certain commodity. Lebowski did, and so he went away with him for the longest twenty minutes of my life. My Arabic was put to the test. But I survived, and so did he, and we left our new friends with thanks and well wishing and a small amount of certain commodity.
On the way back to civilization, we saw this:
Yes, that reads Subrman. Also, one of the tourist police, seeing that we were coming from a shady part of town, came to ask us if we were all right. Egypt has police, who wear black, and then a separate faction of police called tourist police, who wear white, and whose sole function is to protect feeble-minded tourists from getting welcomed to Egypt. We'll talk more about them later. We struck up the obligatory "You Amriki?" conversation, and talked for a few minutes. And when we left, he gave me the double face kiss. You know what that is... the European kiss on both cheeks thing. I definitely feel fortunate that I already knew what that was, because I'm not sure what would have happened had I freaked out while a rifle-carrying guy was trying to kiss me. But I threw him a quick double-peck back, and now all I have to do now is look at myself in the mirror every day for the rest of my life.
We headed back home, and the sun went down. Lebowski knew a girl who knew this other girl, and one or the other one of them was having a party that night in downtown Cairo. After an hour of trying to find out whether she had said 13 or 30 on the phone, we found the place, a swanky tenth-floor apartment. All nationalities were represented. Dutch guys, Swedish girls, Egyptians, an Alabaman, and various others; I personally struck up a conversation with an Irish Australian girl who spoke flawless Arabic. If you'd asked me what surreal meant three hours before then, I would have provided the wrong answer. I spent a while drinking a Stella (not Artois, just Stella... it's Arabic for 'crappy but local') and staring off the balcony into Cairo. Boats flashed neon from the Nile, horns honked from below, and signs I could not read offered me products I did not know. I was finally Elsewhere.
During a lull in the party, Kareem, one of Lebowski's Egyptian pals, grabbed us and led us to a rooftop bar where, over the late 90s strains of Backstreet Boys and Tracy Chapman, more shisha commenced. It's a thing you can get at any table at any restaurant in Cairo, from five star to wicker chairs. You just order it like a drink, the shisha, and what particular flavor tobacco you want. There's regular, apple, mango, and a few others. The popular one is apple, or tufah as they say. What you have to know about me is that I'm not a smoker. Never have been. I just prefer air is all, and with the high-speed acrobatics I sometimes perform, I usually need more of it than most humans. I have never smoked a cigarrette. Nary a breath of smoke has greeted these lungs. But there, on a rooftop bar in Cairo, I couldn't not try it. So I did. It was a little like a flaming shot of apple-flavored NyQuil. My esophagus buzzed for about two hours after. I don't think I'd ever do it again, but it wasn't all that bad. I much preferred making the aquaintance of Sakara, which is the other and more better local beer, named for one of the pyramid sites. It was during all this that Kareem let us in on the Egyptian secret of architecture. Most of the buildings you see downtown are in a state of low upkeep...
... and the reason for this, Kareem explained, is that there's a tax on buildings that are completed. So, they just construct a building about 80% or so, and then leave it. It does makes sense, but it's Egyptian sense.
When I left the bar, I was a little smarter, a little dumber, and very amused.
Finally it was time for bed. Or... couch. But first, I had to get through the shower ritual.
Cairo is not any hotter than Arizona, nor any more humid than Baton Rouge. It's just that you can take a shower pretty much anytime you want in the aforementioned places. If you're a foreigner in Egypt, taking a shower is pretty much a decontamination procedure in a hostile environment; the water has bad amoebas, and they will give you that thing you get when you go to other countries if you eat them. So you have to make damn sure your mouth is closed in the shower. Try remembering to do that next time you take a shower.
Luckily for me, Lebowski's bathroom was afflicted with what I termed 'nights and weekends water.' The showerhead provided a very unenthusiastic dribble of amoeba-laden water that became only slightly more enthusiastic around seven at night. That means that since very little water was coming out of the showerhead, very little water was going into that mouth of mine that was supposed to be closed. It was cold water, sure, but after a day in Africa, you kind of want that.
Drifted off that night to the sounds of Cairo again, slightly more at home than I was the night before.