Monday, March 15, 2010

First Impressions of Egypt

I’m writing this post from the outdoor café on the thirteenth floor of the Pharaoh Egypt Hotel at 2:00 AM, so this might explain why things are a little disjointed. I’m just going to try to recap everything that I’ve done in Egypt thus far starting, from the beginning:

The first thing you notice when you land in Cairo is the air. It’s the muggy, humid, polluted, and generally disgusting byproduct of 18 million people (and their cars, air conditioners, etc.) living and working in close proximity. If you doubled the amount of smog in 1970s Los Angeles, you could begin to picture what Cairo is like. I’m not trying to hate on Cairo—the fact that the city has so many people also means that it’s much more lively than Amman. The streets below me are still bustling with foot and car traffic right now, and it’s Sunday night/Monday morning. I guess having such an enormous urban population is a double-edged sword.

On the first day after we got off the plane, we got picked up by our giant tour bus. These buses are everywhere in Cairo because the guided tour industry is so ubiquitous in Egypt. In two and a half days, I’ve seen French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese (possibly Brazilian?) tour groups as well as Americans [Footnote: When all of these different groups wind up at the same places, the multilateral culture clash is shocking. For example, at the Sphinx we ran into a group of young cruise ship couples who were wearing pretty scandalous clothing by Arab standards—the guys were rocking boardshorts and parading around shirtless while their lady friends had miniskirts and midriff-baring tanktops. However, in order to experience “local culture,” the girls decided to wear the hijab and the guys were sporting kufiyas. So the cruise ship crowd was simultaneously offending locals (by wearing headdresses improperly and usually in the wrong colors) and the older American tourists (by dressing promiscuously). Meanwhile, all of the old people were getting herded about by tour guides—the herd mentality was so evident, some of the groups even had matching hats so they could find each other or identical earbud headphones to listen to the same guided audio tour. These clumps of octogenarians tend to move in slow masses, obstruct photos, and generally get on everyone’s nerves except for the local vendors who understandably see them as cash cows. And, to return to my original point, all of these groups roll around in the same air-conditioned tour buses that we take everywhere]. In our bus, we went to a restaurant on the Nile River for lunch before checking into our hotel. Egyptian food is incredible—they tackle the basic stuff right and have a lot of exotic options too. For example, the bread and chicken that they serve at every restaurant is delicious—very fresh, natural, and flavorful. On the exotic side, I’ve eaten stuffed pigeon (tastes like turkey, but with less meat on the bird) and veal liver (just plain foul) as well.

After we ate, we checked in at the hotel and chilled out for a bit. Our hotel has a pool on the 13th floor as well, so we all headed up here to unwind after the flights. We had nighttime class in the hotel banquet room, which was nice but frustrating because nobody actually wants to have lectures when we’re in Cairo (by “nobody,” I mean “me”), and then we had a little bit of a hotel party in my room to celebrate the beginning of the trip. There’s liquor store named “Drinkies” right around the corner from our hotel which clearly caters to Americans, so we walked over there and bought some Egyptian alcohol. Most of it is terrible, but I want to list what I’ve tried just for posterity: Auld Stag whiskey, Omar Khayyam wine, Sakara beer, Sakara King (kind of like a 40), and Stella (not Artois, but a local brand that may be the lightest beer ever made). We stayed up until 2 AM just hanging out on our balcony, which was really great. Unfortunately, everyone including me was a little red-eyed for the lecture the next morning, but we made up for it by going to the Pyramids in the afternoon. At first, I was worried that we were going to get the tour-bus version of things—when our guide announced at our first stop that we had just 20 minutes to walk around the Great Pyramid, there was nearly a small riot in the group. As it turned out, we actually were just rushing to go to different spots around the Pyramids, so this wasn’t as big of a deal as we thought. Still, I thought the whole day was very structured and tour-like—I saw too much from the bus and not enough on foot. Group tourism is one of my pet peeves, because I think it’s a giant cop-out to have the exact same “cultural experience” as thirty-plus other people. I can’t help but compare it to the summer when I worked at the Main Sail restaurant and served lobster, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, and blueberry pie to hundreds upon hundreds of old tourists in a day. I had absolutely no regard for the quality of their experience and was actually quite hostile to them for thinking that they could sample Maine in an hour and a half. And by comparing the Main Sail with, say, Abel’s, where I actually try to do a good job with the customers because they care enough to go somewhat off the beaten path, I think Egypt will be much better for me the further away I get from tour groups. And unlike Abel’s, it will probably be less expensive.

Anyway, I managed to make the best of my Pyramids experience. I got to ride a camel with the pyramids in the background, and I paid the guide 10 Egyptian pounds (under $2) to untie my camel from the caravan so he could just gallop around, which was really fun. That’s another thing about Egypt that’s awesome—everything is comically cheap. Tonight, we spent a grand total of 18 pounds (about $3.50) on 8 cups of tea and two hookahs with unlimited coals. I have a lot more to talk about but right now it’s going on 3 AM so it’ll have to wait until tomorrow. Until then...

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