Friday, March 5, 2010

En route to an Oasis in Egypt

March 3, 2010
Overcast, cool
Right now we’re back in the gigantic orange bus en route to the Black and White desert from Cairo.
So many places I’ve been so far have fostered contradiction. Cairo has been no different, but the weird scenes I’ve seen have been some of the most interesting in the world. For example, yesterday I saw a donkey cart running full-speed down a major highway, carrying stacks of vegetables and being passed and honked at by cars. The driver of the cart would yell back and make rude hand gestures, feeling that he had as much right to access the road as anyone else. At night, I saw a man leading a woman in a full burqa out of a lingerie store, holding a bag full of sexy underwear. And in a canal leading from the Nile, bringing water to date-farms, huge dead animals flowed down the river, getting caught in gigantic trash heaps that form dams as people walked past nonchalantly.
Yesterday, we visited the Giza Pyramids, the Step Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the ruins of the ancient capital, Memphis. Nikki, Kanako and I rode camels around the Giza Pyramids and an Egyptian rider called out to us, “You’re the best! I hope you’re getting a good massage.” Camels are gigantic; when I sat down it immediately got up, and suddenly I was ten feet in the air with my legs dangling over the hump. I loved seeing the different ancient monuments. I think my favorite was going into one of the step pyramids and seeing the hieroglyphics written on the wall. Everywhere I go, I’m shocked at how well-preserved things are. They were covered by limestone until the 12th century, but still, the pyramids seem to be in great shape for being three or four thousand years old.
We just passed a development outside of Cairo called “dreamland,” which looks exactly like this American development in Pleasanton, California. The only difference is the gigantic mosque minaret rising up above the colorful condos. Also, I think the first gas station our bus went to was out of diesel, so we are now waiting in a huge line at the second gas station with perhaps ten trucks in front of us and more coming in behind us.
Anyways, throughout all of yesterday, we drove up and down a canal of the Nile. This was the dirtiest body of water I’ve ever seen – the one with all the dead animals. But even worse than the dead dogs and donkeys that floated along right next to small canoes out of which people were fishing (at least dead bodies are biodegradable) were the huge heaps of trash on either side of the canal. At some points, the piles were ten feet tall and around fifteen feet wide, containing every gross trash item imaginable. There were birds and goats picking over the refuse, and their fur and feathers, which must have previously been white, had been covered in mud and oil. When we sat down to lunch, the dirty egrets came to beg from our table. More than India even, this scene makes me realize how desperate a situation we’re in – we can no longer rely on plastics. The switch to biodegradable packaging must happen soon or every river in the world will be dammed with candy wrappers, plastic bottles, and grocery bags.
More light heartedly, I would again like to note the differences between Egyptian beggars and beggars in the rest of the world. I’ve noticed that here, people rarely beg but will provide menial “services” and get very angry if you refuse to pay. For example, virtually every bathroom in areas frequented by tourists, no matter how gross, will have an attendant handing toilet-goers a few squares of toilet paper. They will have a few pounds in a jar sitting next to the sink. For most of yesterday, I hadn’t been able to get any pounds so I had no local currency and all my dollars were tucked away deep in my purse.
I went to two bathrooms yesterday, both of which contained seemingly kindly women handing me a few squares of toilet paper. In one of the bathrooms, an Egyptian woman left right before me without tipping and the attendant seemed to not care. I left without much of a problem in the first bathroom, escaping with only a dirty look and a few hissed Arabic words. I washed my hands in the second bathroom and the woman cornered me, shaking a few coins in her hand. “Pounds. Pounds. Pounds.” I told her I didn’t have any money, and she said, “You have dollar? Who leads your tour?” What’s his name?” I dodged aside, and fled while she spit out what was certainly a string of angry Arabic.
Then last night, I was sitting in an open air café, and a small, well-dressed boy approached me and smiled. He hugged me and kissed my hand. I assumed that it was the child of one of the families sitting nearby, and thanked him, expecting him to leave. Instead he grabbed my hand and kissed it again, then pulled on it roughly and gave me a third kiss. By this time, I pulled my arm away and tried to get him to leave. “Pounds. Pounds. Pounds.” I told him no, and he gave me a sharp punch on the arm and ran away to a gigantic man sitting right behind me, and stomped his foot and pointed at me. The man waved him away and smiled apologetically at me as the entire café laughed. I laughed too – it was too ridiculous to not laugh.
I wish I had more to say about the pyramids, but everything I could say has already been said better in the last four thousand years. Just know that it was stupendous and I love being in Egypt. My inner Cleopatra-obsessed eleven-year old is having a field day.

Part 2:
Our long drive ended at an adorable single-story hotel. Denny had told us there was a pool, and we went to check it out. The pool was a murky green color and had a dead bat floating in it, and the water was body temperature. After getting settled, we piled into four safari jeeps and set out through a dense field of date palms. Streams ran through the orchards, and we drove just past the Oasis to climb up a hill and look around. In the distance, there were flat-topped sandstone hills, but one conical protrusion at the very end of the range. One side was complete barren desert with the sandstone, and on the other side there were lush green agricultural fields.
We tumbled down the sandy slope and returned to our cars, where our drivers took off like madmen across the sand, drifting around corners and speeding up and down the dunes. We came to a huge lake on the eastern side of the oasis, and stood at the water’s edge looking out. The lake was saltwater, and had extremely green chunks of what I’m pretty sure were cyanobacteria floating at the shore. The water was foamy, and the guide told us that the foam was from the salt, which is harvested in the summer time.
Again, we got back into the jeeps and drove off across the dunes to the conical protrusion in the landscape. We stood at the bottom, and looked up, and without warning, Swaffie and Nate dashed up the side of the sandstone formation. About ten more people followed, and at the last moment, I started climbing. I don’t know what the elevation was, but even late in the afternoon the desert is very hot and very dry and I got tired very quickly. I was breathing pretty heavily when I reached Michelle, who was also panting. She stopped at a ledge, looked out, and said that she thought she was finished. I wanted so badly just to climb down the side so I wouldn’t have to keep going. My feet tried to dig into the sand but I kept sliding, and I was worried that I would lose my footing and fall face first down the huge hill.
But I decided at that moment that I absolutely and under no circumstances would I not climb to the very top. I urged Michelle to keep going, partially to make sure that she had the same realization but mostly to keep myself going up. We scrambled through the deep and rocky sand, grabbing at the sandstone outcroppings where we could, and tested each rock to make sure it wouldn’t start a colossal rock slide if we grabbed on. We were about halfway up when we heard a whoop from the top: Nate had made it to the top. We kept going, and each time one of us stopped, the other would encourage. We were not thirty feet from the peak when our group started to walk or tumble or slide down. From the bottom, we heard Denny screaming “Come down! Come down!”
But we was thirty feet from the top and I wasn’t about to leave such a herculean task unfinished. Michelle looked doubtful. She thought they really wanted us to come down. I told her that we would not leave until we reached the top, and so we climbed the last little bit and ascended the pinnacle with a triumphant scream. Then we slid on our butts most of the way down, until there was clear sand in front of me and I went the rest of the way with giant leaps.
Our guides tsked us and we got in our jeep and rushed off to see one of the springs – it was a hole in the ground in a room, and our guide said that it was a thousand feet deep. Nonetheless, the water table is continuing to rescind, and it is predicted that in the next fifty years this oasis will no longer have natural spring water. Finally, we raced to the highest peak in the area to watch the sun set. Another desperate scramble was rewarded by watching the sun dip down over the horizon sitting on the ruins of an old hermit’s hut.
When we returned to the hotel, we ate dinner (the food seems to be exactly the same for lunch and dinner – hummus, pita, a salad of cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes, grilled chicken or sausages, rice, and an orzo pasta soup – it’s tolerable), and then a handful of people jumped into that murky pool after we took the dead bat out. I got in too, despite my better judgment, and the water permanently stained the white bits of my bathing suit brown.
I hadn’t thought about what would happen when I got out of the water dripping wet and had to walk back to my room. There is a security guard who sits at the front gate, and I really didn’t want to walk past him in a bikini. I also really didn’t want to get any of the clothing that I had worn to the pool wet. So I had Kanako open our door and I made the third mad dash of the day back to my room, with the guard catcalling me in the background.
While Indian men usually stared disgustingly at anything with two X chromosomes, they usually didn’t ever say anything. Here, you show a little bit of skin and you get harassed incessantly. I’ve been wearing long pants and long sleeves whenever I go out, but being white and blonde definitely doesn’t help me to blend in. I never realized why women would want to wear burqas until I got here: the very reason I detest the idea of veiling is the reason why it is so useful. When you no longer look like a person, when you no longer have a face or expressions, when nobody knows what your body looks like or even if you have a body, nobody will bother you. And last night, when I walked around some sketchy parts of Cairo with only Matt, I wished that I could have covered my face. I would have loved to be invisible to the Egyptian men. But I shouldn’t have to change how I dress to be respected; the men should change their disrespectful behavior. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to put on a headscarf than reform a millennia-old culture.
One final note in this ridiculously long blog entry (that’s because it really covers two days): don’t feel bad if I’ve written to you and I write some of the same comments in my blog. Emails always come before blogs, and so the similar parts were just the bits of the emails I’ve sent to individuals that I would like to publish to everyone. I would never just copy and paste my blog to you – I miss everyone a lot and love it when I get emails or facebook messages.

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