Friday, May 23, 2008

Where Institute Equals Store

Day 2 of our Egyptian adventure started out with a fairly blasé breakfast in the hotel. The staff were all nice, although I was wracked with fear that every piece of food was laden with hostile germs that would lay me low for the rest of my vacation.

Our guide arrived about 9 AM, a very nice headscarfed woman who spoke good English. The group was just me and Wifey and Chester and Susan. My first question to our guide?

“Are we going to see where the Aliens landed their spaceships while they built the pyramids?”

Yeah, she pegged me as a troublemaker right off. Our first stop on the tour was Saqqara, where you can see a giant temple complex and the stepped pyramid of Zoser, designed and built by history’s first architect, Imhotep. I had a woody just thinking about it, since I’m an engineer and a dork (but I repeat myself).
First He Erected This, Then It Erected Me

What was most striking about the site was the mangy dogs. We’re not talking about undernourished dogs; we’re talking about emaciated-covered-in-ticks-with-open-sores-animals-staggering-about-looking-for-a-place-to-die dogs.

The day was not too bad; kind of warm, but not more than we could take, somewhere in the mid-90s. And it was sunny, which was nice. Traffic was much better, since Friday is their Sunday, and the driver was very good.

We entered one pyramid, a nondescript affair on the outside but beautifully carved on the inside. It was simply amazing, and I couldn’t help but admire the crafty thieves who stole from it so long ago without breaking their necks.

After our visit to Saqqara we stopped at a carpet school where they teach children and young women a useful trade so that they can get some money. They show you how the carpets are made (impressive), then they hock their wares to you. Since I’m never going back to Egypt, I bought a little silk panel. For no apparent reason, they wrapped it in Precious Moments paper.

Then, the carpet guy asked if he could get my opinion on something, and showed me a big piece: St. George and the Dragon. WTF? Who buys one of the premiere icons of Christianity in Egypt? Stupid people, that’s who, which is what I told him.

After this we took in lunch at a delightful outdoor restaurant. On the menu were roasted chicken, vegetables, and a fruit plate for dessert. All eaten in the delightful company of sore-covered dogs and all a cloud of hopeful flies. Bon appetite!

During lunch our guide treated us to the Official Version of Egyptian History, or what I like to call “Why the Israelis Are Filthy Liars.” The short version is this: they weren’t slaves, and the Pharaoh wasn’t Ramses II, but was rather Ramses III. Oh, those crazy Hebrews, always telling their stories.

Somehow she sounded much more educated than Chester, who chose to argue that the Red Sea couldn’t possibly be parted but the miracle was instead perfectly normal: a tide came that allowed the Israelis to escape the pursuing Egyptian army. I told him that if that was the part of the story that stuck in his craw (rather than, say, the Nile turning to blood or the rain of frogs), then he’d had a good day.

Just for fun, I asked her if Moses was actually Akhenaton, the monotheist Pharoah of the eighteenth dynasty. Her response was pretty vehemently no. Based on that, I resolved to ask every single guide if Moses was actually Akhenaton. When my wife complained, I told her that it was my vacation, too, and I was entitled to have my fun. Especially since I still hadn’t pushed the beds together.

In the afternoon we went to the highlight of the trip: the plain of Giza, home of the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid. All my life I have wanted to see these, and they did not disappoint. Words fail to describe them; they are simply massive, and ancient, and it is worth everything to stand before them once in your life.

The Great Pyramid: You'll Feel Like Herodotus

But what about going into them? Well, it costs about twenty bucks, you have to get in line reaaaaly early, and it’s physically demanding. I passed on it, but I have it on good authority that it’s like this:

You crawl up a 3-foot-tall passage, your face pressed into the ass in front of you. You try not to breathe to avoid the stench of ill-digested salmonella that fills the air. The angle is about 55°, and there are several lights out, so you crawl through the dark, crashing into people trying to crawl down as you crawl up. Finally you emerge into a tiny little room that is very hot from the press of bodies but devoid of any inscription whatsoever. Then, you leave.

I spoke to many people about this, and they were all unanimous: not worth it.

After this we went to a papyrus institute, where they manufacture genuine Egyptian papyrus. First we had the most uninspired ten-second demonstration of how to make papyrus you can imagine, then we were allowed to buy whatever we wanted off the walls. I chose a painting of the golden mask of Tutankhamen, which would be well at home in any 70’s-inspried design scheme.

What can I say? I love the classics.

I’ll spare you the further details of our afternoon, which could best be described as “how to recover from heatstroke without vomiting.” The four of us reassembled late that night eagerly awaiting our trip to see the much-anticipated Giza Sound and Light Show, followed by a wonderful dinner.

I should have known there’d be trouble when we met the Second Naggar Dwarf, Surly. He was a tall guy, bespectacled, as friendly as a German with the impeccable manners of a Frenchman.

We climbed back into the “I Love Australia” bus of death and made our way quickly to the pyramids (thankfully they were close by). Wifey, always smarter than me by a long shot, wore jeans and took a jacket. I was in Egypt, so I wore shorts and a T-Shirt.

This turns out to be a bad move, because at night the temperature drops to about 50° F.

When we got to Giza, we were amazed to find a drum and bagpipe band dressed as pharaohs entertaining the crowd. I am not making this up. They played a rousing medley of Middle Eastern-sounding tunes set to bagpipe. Yes, that is as awful as it sounds.

Then the show started. I can describe it in two words: LAME and LONG. I’ll paraphrase it for you (it’s narrated by the sphinx) so you can understand it:

“I have been here a long time. Lots of famous people have stood before me…(dramatic pause) I have been here a long time. Lots of famous people have stood before me…(dramatic pause) I have been here a long time. Lots of famous people have stood before me…”
Help Wanted: Any Creative, Lighting Talent Please Apply

Yeah, it sucks as bad as it sounds. Add in the ten-dollar laser effects, the car that drove through the middle of the show, and the fact that the Cairo airport flight path takes planes about five hundred feet overhead and you’ve got one cold night of shitty entertainment.

As we waited with Surly for the bus, I spotted a Planet Hollywood. One of my relatives collects Planet Hollywood pins, so I ran over there to buy one. It was the strangest experience inside: there was no Planet Hollywood, just a counter selling Planet Hollywood merchandise. As I puzzled over whether or not that counted as collectable, Surly came barging in and insisted that I go so we could make our reservation at this exclusive restaurant.

As I climbed into the Australian bus, Wifey pointed out a nearby restaurant and said “Look! Pizza Hut! Let’s have Pizza Hut!”

“No!” We all said. “We didn’t come to Egypt to eat Pizza Hut!”

God, I wish we’d listened to her. She’d always been against this restaurant we were going to, because it’s a seafood restaurant. She hates seafood, and had only agreed after being promised a chicken dish.

On the way, Surly said “you all eat fish, right?”

I got this sinking feeling in my stomach, like you might if you woke up and heard your one-night-stand in the other room peeing while standing up. “She doesn’t!” I yelled out. “Is it too late to go to Pizza Hut?”

“Oh, they have chicken,” Surly assured me. “I will ask.”

When we finally got to this exclusive, wonderful restaurant, the first sign of trouble was that it was empty. Sixty tables and not one damned fool inside. Secondly, we had to walk by the open-air fish display that reeked of Today’s Catch. Goodbye, any chance of booty for me.

I decided to have a glass of red wine with dinner. This allowed me to discover the there three problems with Egyptian red wine: it is served at 140° F, it is chunky, and I could detect a slight tang of battery acid when I drank it.

Other than that it was perfect.

When they brought out our plates, we had a long debate about what exactly the fish plate entailed. We settled on deep-fried rubber, crawdaddies, a piece of fish steak, two oysters, and potatoes that had been threatened but in no other way cooked.

It was awful. Susan couldn’t even eat it and ended up having dinner again back at the hotel. Thanks to strong teeth I managed to choke it down, but it was dreadful.

By contrast, Wifey told us that the chicken was absolutely delightful, well-prepared and a delight to the palate. She also told us to go fuck ourselves when we asked for a taste and said that we could enjoy the canal-dredge that they’d served us. I suppose we deserved that for dragging her to a fish restaurant.

When Surly came back, he asked how everything was.

“Fine,” I lied, being a total pussy.

“Good!” Lied Chester, being a total pussy.

“It was absolutely unacceptable. You should never bring people to this restaurant again. It was awful. You can’t eat this food. You simply can’t!” said Susan. As we looked on in horror, she simply shrugged. “Somebody has to tell them.”

“My compliments to the chef on the chicken,” said Wifey.

Then it was back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep, because in the morning, we were going to need all our strength to survive a domestic Egyptian flight.

So what did I learn from my first day in Egypt?

1) Egyptologists don’t take alien jokes very well
2) Institute in Arabic means Shop in English
3) Avoid all sound and light shows
4) When Wifey protests a restaurant, agree with her no matter what

Oh, who am I kidding? I already knew #4, I just chose to ignore it. That’s why I have dysentery more than she does.

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