Floating down the Nile on a boat for lunch!
First I must start off by saying the title was unfortunately not my original joke.. all credit goes to Alex Van Tilburg. I could not stop laughing when she said this as we were standing right next to the longest river in the world, The Nile. As we were looking out onto this dark green river, everything I had learned from my 6th grade World History class started flooding backwards from an unknown source - where I keep my knowledge of calculus and random facts about the Backstreet Boys - and back into my head... just like the backwards flow of this incredible river. My history books were coming to life right before my eyes.
This amazing experience, one I will remember for the rest of my life, occurred in just one weekend. We had decided a couple weeks ago that we would take a boat to Egypt and go on a tour once we got there. The only other time I had been on a boat to travel from one country to another was in Brazil. The boat we took then was ancient. The metal was rusted and the wooden boards were rotten, it's a miracle no one fell through the boat and into the water while we were puttering down the mighty Amazon!
When we stepped onto the dock ready to leave for Egypt, every one of our mouths dropped. This was not just any boat, this was a cruise ship.
However, this ship was unlike any cruise I had ever been on in a very diversely cultural way. Just walking down the dock I could distinguish at least four different languages. Even the cruise workers were welcoming us in Arabic! Or so we thought. One cruise worker shouting something to us, and Zaina replied back, "Some of us can speak Arabic you know." And the entire crew started laughing hysterically. Zaina later told us that the man had said "Oh American girls! I will party and drink with you hotties!". Needless to say we were all very happy to have Zaina around, and that was my first of many cultural experiences during this week.
The biggest culture shock came from realizing how little I knew about Egypt. When the engine of the boat stopped, thus shaking the entire ship and causing us to fumble around aimlessly off balance, I ran outside having no idea what to expect. I knew of Egypt's magnificent pyramids and vast dessert, but what I saw when I stepped outside was an old run down, dusty city.
Shocked, but still excited to be there, we ran out of the boat and had our first encounter with the Egyptian souvenir sales man. Aggressive was too calm of a term to describe these men. They were suffocating, not taking "No" for an answer. One even shoved a bag on Dr. Legg's arm, grabbing his hat off of his head, and put it in the bag. They have a very rehersed way of making you feel guilting into buying something. The most common game I heard was when one would give you a "gift" because he liked you, then 10 seconds later ask for a Euro in exchange for the "free" gift.
As tough as it was to ignore the souvenir salesman, was no comparison to see were the children who were working as salesmen. I had seen little kids before used as beggars or workers, but it never gets easier to see. The children run up to you, trying to be as aggressive as the adult salesman. Sometimes they get annoying, but in the back of your head you cannot help but feel sorry for them. They are just children.
One little boy ran up to Zaina and asked her to buy a postcard for 1 Euro. Zaina replied back to him in Arabic that she didn't want one. Knowing only how to say "1 Euro" in English, he began to tell her how tired and thirsty he was in Arabic, and how he cannot stop selling these postcards until he sells every single one. She leaned down on his level, handed him 5 dollars, and said, "You take this money and don't tell anyone you have it. Take it for yourself." His smile was from ear to ear as he walked away from our group.
The aggression of these souvenir salesmen make you think the biggest part of Egypt's economy is tourism. However, there is no comparison to the amount Egypt's economy gains from their agriculture. We drove past vast acres of farms growing cotton and rice. We even drove past what looked like giant rock towers. Our tour guide explained that they use these towers for pigeon breeding. A delicacy in Egypt is pigeon, they eat them for weddings and fancy dinners. I was overjoyed to hear this. My past experience with pigeons had been less than enjoyable. I never will know what the second half of that cookie would have tasted like.
The tour guide continued about Egypt's agriculture, so exited to teach all of us about her country and culture. You could tell from the first moment she began telling us the story of Ancient Egypt how proud she was of her heritage. That seemed to be a common trait among the Egyptians. Their museum was magnificent and very well kept in order to teach all of us all about Ancient Egypt and specifically King Tut. We walked into one room in the museum, and almost had to squint from the glare of the massive amounts of gold. The tombs were gold, the chariots was gold, even the beds were made out of gold. And the detail on every work of gold was incredible. The headdress/mask of King Tut was one of the most detailed piece of artwork I had even seen.
Not only was it made in pure gold, but the paintings on the face were flawless. The stones used for his chest were cut in tiny, perfectly rectangle squares. But the most fascinating was the inside of the mask. What could have easily just been smooth, pure gold was decorated in tiny hieroglyphics all over the inside of the mask. Each drawing must have taken such a long time to create, yet they had hundreds of them in a place no one would even see. The same went for the tombs King Tut was buried in. They did not just use one extraordinarily decorated golden tomb, but instead made four that fit inside of each other. Around that they build many rooms for all the King's belongings. And on top of that they built an enormous pyramid.
Seeing these pyramids with our own eyes was an indescribable experience. We had all thought we knew what to expect, the Egyptian pyramids are all over movies and media. However the size of these pyramids we all greatly underestimated. One block, just ONE block of these pyramids was almost as tall as I was. We got the opportunity to walk inside one of the pyramids. They warned us how claustrophobic it can get inside the pyramids, but once again we greatly underestimated what they meant. We found ourselves hunched over in a 90 degree angle, holding on for dear life to the only skinny rail along the way as the steep incline took us down a seemingly black endless hole. When we finally entered a tall enough room to stand up, we found ourselves starring at a tomb that was left wide open. Stephen danced inside of it. Hopefully he will not be cursed now.
Almost immediately after we entered, we turned around and made the uncomfortable climb back out of the pyramid, walking past a little girl with tears streaming down her face. "It's fun I promise!" reassured Stephen. The disbelieving glare on the little girls face let us know she would more than likely be scarred for life.
After emerging from the pyramid and taking many pictures, I decided to try something my dad tells me over and over again to do while traveling to another country. Try to blend in with the culture.
This is what ended up happening.
We had seen the pyramids, the Sphinx, the museum filled with gold, tools, and household objects from the Ancient Egyptian times. And the final event on the agenda was debatably the most culturally enriching experience yet.
We traveled to a small store where they make and sell Papyrus. Papyrus is the first form of paper ever discovered. They take a stalk of the Papyrus plants and cut it into layers, then roll the strips and weave them into a square. Then they let it dry. This process takes weeks, but the outcome is amazing. The paper is extremely durable and the artwork they paint on it is breathtaking!
On the bus ride back to our cruise ship, I only had one thought going through my mind as we drove past the broken down buildings once again. The Ancient Egyptians spent hours, weeks, even years on details. They decorated everything with gold, despite the expense. Their appreciation for the little things in life was evident. Their patients to make giant works of art such as the Sphinx and Pyramids was incredible. The effort and time they put into their works of art and religion created a culture that still be admired thousands of years later. It was crazy to me to see that this seemed to not be upheld by Egyptians today. Maybe it has to do with lack of money. Maybe it has to do with lack of enthusiasm. But I could not help but think that if King Tut himself had seen the half constructed buildings we drove by, he would have been shocked. However, the ancient Egyptians believed in slavery and that is how a lot of their monuments were built. Freedom is well worth the cost of beauty to the city, but if Ancient Egyptians could build masterpieces with nothing but their bare hands, surely the freed Egyptians today can get together and make their country historically breathtaking once again.
That was my initial thought on the bus ride back to the cruise ship. But the more I thought about it, the more ignorant I realized I was being. Yes, it is easy for me... a middle class American with so many opportunities, to criticize a country for not caring enough to upkeep the streets and buildings. Never did it cross my mind that maybe this country is trapped between a rock and a hard place, struggling with the intense gap between the extremely wealthy and the very poor social classes of Egypt, with little in between. And on top of that, trying to survive in a unevenly rationed world... with my own country being one with alarge portion of the wealth. When you are not given the money, you have to survive any way you can.
Instead of looking at the apparent lack of "beauty" of the city.. maybe I should have been looking at things from another prospective. Yes the streets might be dirty, and the buildings might be falling apart, but the real beauty is how the common people, the everyday Egyptians, survive. Everyday they must watch as hundreds of rich tourists come into their home. I wonder what goes through their head when we walk by? We go back and stay in fancy hotels and have nice houses to go home to. While living in a building most of us at home would label "condemned", they are still able to have pride in their heritage and survive in the most difficult surroundings.... That is the true beauty of Egypt.