Saturday, March 31, 2007

Quick Trip to Suez

"What's your name again?" asked my regular waiter at the cafe downstairs from my apartment.

"Marie." He looked confused. "Mary." He smiled.

"My name is Mohammed." I almost asked him if tomorrow was his birthday, but stopped short when I realized how stupid that was. It's like asking a guy named Jesus if tomorrow is his birthday on December 24th.

I eat at the same cafe a lot. I was just there the night before. Normally, I wouldn't have gone there two days in a row, but I was starving, my friends (all three of them) were out of town or busy, and I was too exhausted to hunt for somewhere different.

I'd gotten up super-early to go to the Suez Canal. It was annoying searching for the minibus to Suez, because one man sent me to the right, the next to the left. I almost gave up and went home to sleep, but my love for giant ships kept me going.

I'd looked, taken a few surreptious photos at great risk to my memory card and personal freedom. (It's a military zone.) I'd had a lemon juice at a hotel with a view, then headed directly back to Cairo to clean my apartment. The Hot Landlord was bringing a potential tenant by at 4 and once I'd moved in, I hadn't bothered to do any housecleaning short of occasional dishwashing.

The landlord never showed up, but my apartment is clean.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Ships of the Desert

Guess where I went this morning?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Countdown

The last week has been a whirl of pyramids, taxis, dinners, newshound poker, work, hairdressers, and movies. It never fails. As soon as I'm about to leave a place, I suddenly get a life.

Last night, Muneer and I went to see "Babel." It was my first experience with censorship in Egypt. When we saw "Ghost Rider," nothing was censored, and when I went with Craig and his students to see the documentary about street girls, it was a private showing at the British Council so nothing was cut.

In "Babel," the violence was untouched. But the nudity was cut. And there is no art in the cutting. It's just a sudden lurch in the film. You know something has been cut, and it's clear from the context what it was. It didn't change the film any as you knew what had happened anyway. My biggest complaint would be that it takes you right out of the film, and then you have to wait to get sucked back in. Apparently, "Last King of Scotland" was significantly butchered--at the hospital scene, approriately enough.

I fly to Spain on Monday night. There are no plans to bring me back to Cairo, but it could happen depending on how my job evolves. My colleagues here have invited me back. Maybe I'll take them up on it.

What should I do on my last week in Egypt? I want to go to Suez to see ships sail through the desert. I have never been to Alexandria. I need to go to Khan El Khalili to buy some gifts. And there there are musems, Coptic Cairo, the City of the Dead... there won't be time for everything.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Bread Line

The sleeper cars in Egypt are not for those with a wheat intolerance. Breakfast reminded me of a time on an Amazon steamer, when I was served French toast with a side order of fried bread.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Dahshur--The Bent Pyramid

The Bent Pyramid is cool because it's, um, bent. I mean, it starts off sloping at one angle and then changes halfway up. Experts theorize that the original concept didn't work out so the builders changed plans mid-stream.

I don't care so much why they did it as that they did it. The reason so much limestone is still on the Bent Pyramid is presumably that it's too steep to scale easily. The Giza pyramids were originally cased in limestone just like this.

I wish I could say that there is a cool and easy way to get to Dahshur by public transport, but it would take first a minibus from Giza, and second some kind of transport from the village with the Dahshur turnoff. I couldn't have done this one on my own. Craig called a taxi driver he knew and set the expedition up. He (Craig, not the taxi driver) posted a few photos on his own blog.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Dahshur--The Red Pyramid


Bless you. No, no, not that kind of Snefru. Snefru was a king. You know, a pharoah. 4th Dynasty, for those who keep up with that sort of thing.

He was the father of Cheops, whose Great Pyramid is the tall one that everyone is familiar with. But Snefru should be famous too, because he got it right and then Cheops improved on his basic idea.

There had been step pyramids before, like the one at Saqqara, but Snefru was keen to make a smooth one. He tried first with the Bent Pyramid (more on that tomorrow). That didn't exactly work out, so he started again, this time producing what is commonly referred to as the Red Pyramid.

I don't think the Red Pyramid looks so red either, but apparently the limestone in the core is reddish.

I recommend a visit to the Red Pyramid because no one was there but the odd new agers and Dr. Hawass. But I don't recommend going inside unless you are prepared to be sore for three days. Apparently it's my quadriceps that are unhappy with having scurried along hunched over down a 27-degree slope for 206 feet. Craig and Jake weren't real happy either.


Sunday, March 25, 2007

Local Treat

My pal Craig is a good sport. Me, I'm less versatile than he is.

On the way back from Dahshur, we passed carts of fresh vegetables for sale. They looked nice and ripe. Bright orange carrots, purple onions, red radishes, green artichokes.

Our driver drove on by several carts, but it seemed he found the pull irresistible. He stopped. He motioned with one finger. "One moment," he seemed to say. Off he went.

He returned with two artichokes.

"One for him and one for the missus," I quipped.

But no. They were both for us. As he drove on, he peeled off leaf after leaf and handed them to us with a smile and a nod. He motioned for us to eat, then tucked into his own artichoke leaves.

Someone might have murmured "Raw?" It's what we were all three thinking.

Craig was in the front seat so he was forced to eat lots and lots of raw artichoke. I nibbled slightly on many leaves, scraping a bit of crunchy artichoke 'meat' off the leaves, then tossing the rest out the window. Jake didn't even bother pretending after the first few. He just held and tossed. Held and tossed.

We all nodded our appreciation and took more when offered. What else could you do?

Craig shared a raw heart with the driver, holding the artichoke by its stem like a Popsicle. Mmm, tasty. Or was it? I didn't try the heart but the raw artichoke meat was not something I would recommend.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

A Day at Dahshur


Exhausted, I'd slept until ten this morning. And then, when I'd moved, my legs hurt.

What had I done yesterday to incur the wrath of seldom-used thigh and buttock muscles? Were they so anxious to remind me that yoga only works if you actually attend class and do it?

I'd used "walking down-then-up at a crouch for 200 feet each way" muscles yesterday, as I'd half-slid/half stepped down a steep ramp (with strips of steel laid across every foot as makeshift stairs). I hadn't even realized visitors were allowed inside the Red Pyramid at Dahshur, so I was surprised when that was the first option we saw when we got out of our taxi. (I mean, after we saw the policemen on camels who offered us photos for baksheesh.)

Down, down, down the ramp we went, crouching and shuffling to get through the tunnel. It was about four feet high. Finally, up ahead, I heard a mystical song.

"That's funny," I thought. "There's a mystical CD played to make being inside the Red Pyramid more atmospheric."

Then the tunnel ended, and I straightened out my back (with effort) to enter the first chamber inside the pyramid. There was a stinky ammonia smell inside, but there was no CD. There were a dozen new age people singing beautifully, some of them with their arms stretched high into the air.

I checked their name badges. They were from around the world. One was from Sweden, another from Australia. But the company is American. (Dr. Z.H. later asked "Are they from Santa Barbara?") They were doing something with the harmonic resonance inside the pyramids, perhaps unleashing some kind of pyramid power.

They seemed to have succeeded in unleashing a massive sandstorm, and when we climbed (slowly, with newly complaining muscles) back up the ramp and emerged into daylight, we were pelted with grainy sand.

Bleh! It got in our ears and hair and clothes. If you spoke, it got in your mouth. Wasn't ideal for photos either. Was this Day One of the 50 days of sandstorms that herald spring? If so, I was glad to only have to endure nine before heading to Spain, then J.C.

We got back in the taxi and headed through the sand to the Bent Pyramid nearby. We'd gotten an early start because Craig had a shoot that afternoon in 6th of October City (he teaches documentary production at AUC). But sand was causing white-outs across the highway. So instead of going our separate ways after the Bent Pyramid, we found Jake a hotel room in our sane neighborhood of Zamalek, and the three of us headed to Cafe Arabica for a leisurely lunch, chatting while the wind and sand raged outside.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Me and the Doc

Dr. Zahi Hawass is the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities here in Egypt. He is one of the most famous archeologists and Egyptologists alive today. He regularly takes on pyramid theorists and new age groups that think the pyramids have mystical purposes and could not have been built by ancient Egyptians. He's a bit of a cowboy-Indiana Jones type, and is famous as much for his brazen outspoken attitude as for his studies. He's the man who controls who can dig where and when, and who is allowed to excavate here. He makes people angry all the time with his decisions, and he doesn't quietly ignore them but instead takes them on in public.

And today, Dr. Hawass happened to be standing outside the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur while a French film crew organized their shoot. We went over and talked to him. I was a bit starstruck as I'd just been reading about him on his highly entertaining website, but Craig and Jake had the presence of mind to capture the moment.

Off to Dahshur

I'm going to Dahshur (cool pyramids) today with Craig and Jake. I'll take lots of photos, but I bet they take more.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Usually, We Just Argue About the Fare

"Where you from?" The taxi driver wanted to chat. Tough. I didn't feel like it.

"Al-Kuwait," I said.

His eyes grew big. "No, your country."


After a minute of contemplating this, he asked again.

"Australia, Italy, America... where are you from?"

"Passport says America."




"No. Europe." (Obviously a lie, but it's best to be "married" in cases like these.)

"Egyptians really good. Misr men best. Very strong. No Europe."

"Okay. Whatever."

"I love you."

"La. No, you don't. You love your wife."

"Your girlfriend Egyptian?"

"No, a girl is a female."

"Ha ha, okay, boyfriend. You have Egyptian boyfriend?"

"No. Married."

"I love you."

"La. No."

"I love you. What time?"

"It's one."

"No, I mean hotel. I love you. What time?"

I was pretending I didn't know what he was talking about, hoping to get as close to the office as possible before the moment came when I obviously had to flee.

"No hotel."


"I have an apartment."

"How old?"


"I am 26. Very strong. Forty good. I love you. What time?" He made some breathy, panting noises.

"It's one."

"No, I mean..." He made an obscene motion with his finger. "I love you."

"La. You love your wife."

"Misr men very good. I love you, I love you, I love you."

I spotted a policeman up ahead.


He ignored me, drove on.

"I love you at hotel at what time? I f**k you."

That was enough. He slowed the taxi long enough to let another car by in an intersection. I snarled at him that he was disgusting, got out, and walked the rest of the way.

"Sorry," the taxi driver called after me.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Egyptian Mysteries

What killed King Tut? Who cares? Here are the real mysteries of Egypt.

1) Why do so many people drive with their lights off at night so that you cannot see them? And yet they honk constantly--day or night--to make sure that you DO see them.

2) Why do drivers stick their windshield wipers up on their parked cars?

3) What's with all the mirrors? Mirrors in homes, offices, restaurants. They are everywhere.

4) How do Cairenes flatten themselves out to squeeze between cars (parked or slowly moving)? See that six-inch space between the Fiat and the bus? Any person from Cairo, no matter how thin or fat, can fit through that space without scraping either vehicle and without getting dirt on themselves.

These are the sorts of questions that have been bothering me since I got here.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Glimpses of Flashes

My own flasher story was a little amusing (in hindsight), but I've been hearing others that trump mine completely. My friend D, who has lived here more than a decade, once was jogging around the Gezira Club. A man dropped his pants in front of her and threw himself to the ground and gyrated. She jogged the other direction, but this was the end of her jogging career in Cairo.

Another person told me of a man-of-the-people flasher. An older man stood in traffic and lifted his robe up and then put it back down. Over and over. He wasn't singling out foreign women. He was flashing everyone!

Then a professor at the American University of Cairo told me how his 14-year-old daughter had been flashed by a taxi driver in Ma'adi. The driver had a single front tooth that stuck straight out and a gray streak of hair above his right ear. Had this been the same one that had flashed another young girl the week before? Perhaps not, but in that case there must have been a flashing epidemic in Ma'adi. The 14-year-old was quite upset, so the family had reported the incident to the police.

A few days later, the professor's wife had jumped into a taxi and voila... the driver fit the description! She gave him directions to the police station, then asked him to wait while she went inside. She came back out, but brought the police with her to arrest the man so keen for exposure.

The disturbing question that no one really likes to think about is "What do the police do to these people?" They probably beat them up and let them sit in jail for a few months. I don't know if I would go through with the police reporting part if it was just me being shocked at the sight of a naked male stranger, but then, if that 14-year-old was my kid, I'd report it in a... flash.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Postcard from Egypt

I brought along some Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik postcards to Cairo. If anyone didn't get one before and wants one, email me your address and I'll send you one with an Egyptian stamp and postmark. My email address is my first name (marie) (at sign) my entire name (mariejavins) dot-com.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Green Line

Most travel articles about Egypt mention that the Nile gives Egypt life, that it makes a ribbon of green that cuts through a tremendous desert.

Nowhere is that more visible than from the sky. To the left, life. To the right, seemingly endless plains of sand, stretching from the western bank of the Nile from Luxor all the way to Libya and beyond.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Back to 8th Street

I've been dreading going back to the US next month, because I've just started to enjoy Cairo (yesterday's pervert aside) and I had nowhere to live back home. Would I sleep on Roberta's sofa? (No, because she doesn't have a sofa.) On Michael Kraiger's kid's bed? (Then where would I sleep every other weekend?) Find another sublet in the East Village? (That's one fast way to go through my salary.)

Then, a few days ago, I got an email from one of my best pals, Yancey.

Boo! My tenant is moving out in April.

Yancey lives in San Francisco right now, but his condo is on 8th Street, the same street I lived on in Jersey City. It's not on my wacky block; it's directly on Hamilton Park. That's an 1800s residential square, surrounded by Victorians and brownstones.

His place is similar to my old place, except that it's in a brownstone and on the 4th floor. It's one room larger, has a Corian countertop that I went with him to purchase, and has the same model appliances that I had. The hot water heater is three years old, there is insulation stuffed up the non-working chimney, and all of the windows are less than four years old. Heating is electric, while the stove and hot water heater are fired by natural gas. I know the apartment almost as well as I knew my own.

And now it is my own. Yancey has a new tenant and I have a home.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Walking to Zamalek

I'd been chatting with our New York office at five and missed my window of opportunity on the metro, so I thought I'd walk home. I have a system for getting to work--I go in late, catch a taxi to the metro, then go two stops to the office. Coming home isn't so easy. I don't have the liberty of hanging around work late, because the "office-boy" locks up at five sharp. And the Cairo metro in rush hour is an incredible experience that is best not-experienced. Yesterday, four beefy women in veils had to block for me as I barrelled left and right, squishing babies and small children, until I landed outside of the car.

"Shukran! Ma salaama!" I waved to my new friends from the metro platform. Their eyes said good-bye. Their hands could not, incapacitated as they were against twenty other women.

"It's a little far," worried Muneer, the Omani designer, when he left me at the corner in Mohandiseen. His walk home was only two blocks.

"If the walk is too long, I'll take a taxi." But I just said that to make him feel better. A taxi in Cairo's rush hour is excruciating. You travel about 1 mile an hour on the bridge over the Nile. I really can walk faster.

But walking in Cairo isn't real fun either. The sidewalks--when they exist--are usually broken and pitted. Every ten feet of so there is a driveway so you step off a steep curb into the driveway, then step back up onto the sidewalk on the other side. So most people walk in the streets with the traffic.

I walked to the 6th of October bridge that connects Dokki to Gezira Island, where Zamalek is. As I started up the stairs, a young man fell into step beside me. He was in his mid-20s, wearing jeans and a long-sleeved maroon shirt.

"Hello. Where are you from?"

Something about the guy gave me the creeps. And I didn't feel like going along with whatever his game was.

"No, thank you," I replied.

"No, c'mon. What's your name?"

"No, thank you."

"How are you? Let's talk."

"I'm not interested, whatever it is." I pulled my sunglasses over my eyes and walked on.

He fell back. I thought for a minute. What if he was just friendly? But no, something about the guy...

At the other end of the bridge, a Nubian man walked by headed the other direction. He smiled, a big, friendly, open smile.

"Welcome to Egypt." He walked on.

"Thank you," I called after him, wondering why some people set off my spider-sense and others did not.

Then, I was on Gezira. There was actually a sidewalk, set a little back from the oncoming traffic. It was kind of peaceful and private, for Cairo, anyway. I walked over. Maybe I could avoid risking my life in traffic for once.

Then, there he was, the guy in the maroon shirt. He'd cut over through traffic and headed directly to the path in front of me. He stood there, and boy was my spider-sense tingling now. I veered back towards the traffic.

He unzipped his pants.

I didn't change my expression, just veered steadily back towards public view.

He, um... well, you know what he did. He started flopping something around.

You're not supposed to react, but what was I supposed to do? Let him walk right up to me with his flopping and stupid grin?


He smiled and walked closer, continuing his flopping.


Screech. That stopped him. The magic word. Police.

"So sorry, so sorry." He backed away, as I continued to the traffic.

I didn't go back to the sidewalk after that, nor did I look back in case he was following me. I stayed with the cars. Part of me just thought "How ridiculous" while a tiny part of me was a little worried. He wouldn't follow me... would he?

When I got to Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, I went in for a cappuccino and regroup.

"Tell me," said one of the staff, obviously performing for the other two waiters who stood next to him. "Why are all American women so pretty?"

After Mr. Maroon, this seemed so harmless that I just laughed.

"Big Macs," I said. "It's all the Big Macs we eat."

The guys howled with laughter.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Photos of Abydos

Here are some photos from my Sunday trip to the temple at Abydos. It's three hours north of Luxor and seven hours south of Cairo, so I broke up my trip home by stopping here.

The tourist police escorted my taxi to and from the ruins. The taxi driver asked for my phone number. The police asked for baksheesh. The college student I met on the train asked for an Arabic-Italian electronic dictionary. The so-called journalist on the train took my photo for his so-called newspaper. I was happy to get back to Cairo that night, where I am less of a novelty.


The Temple of Hathor

"I'm sorry, but check-in time is three o'clock," said the hotel clerk.

It was only half past eight in the morning. Ballooning hadn't taken very long. Now what?

I walked to the train station and caught the 9:35 a.m. train from Luxor to Qena. An hour later, a taxi took me from the Qena station to the Temple of Hathor at Dendara.

It was a nice temple with some original paint still intact. The highlight was crawling through a hole to get into a tomb.

On the way back, I paid the taxi driver to get me back to Luxor. I don't know how he did this, but he managed to avoid the convoy. All the other tourists had to ride with the police "protecting" them, while we went alone. No one stopped us.

When we got to Luxor, the taxi driver tried to wheedle more money out of me. I had stepped out of the taxi and was lecturing him loudly that it was unacceptable to change the deal after it was closed, when a man jumped into the conversation.

"Is there a problem? I will explain it to him as I speak both English and Arabic."

The man spoke firmly to the driver (whose English was just fine) in Arabic. He then turned and tried to sell me a ride on his felucca since he'd "helped" me. When I finally escaped him, it was three. I checked into my hotel room, used one of the free dial-up internet numbers that is offered throughout Egypt, then fell asleep. A night on the train followed by a balloon ride and a train-temple venture had left me too exhausted to venture outside and battle wits with touts.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Above the Antique Land

"Marie? Who is Marie?" The balloon pilot was passing out certificates of achievement. After all, it isn't every day that one stands passively in a basket while floating through the air above Luxor's West Bank. Surely the early hour alone merits some kind of trophy. Not everyone gets out of bed at 5 while on holiday.

I stepped forward onto the patch of dirt to claim my prize. The wind had been strong, blowing the hot air balloons far beyond their normal landing range. Rural men with donkeys gathered around, momentarily distracted from working their fields. Young boys poked us and said "Hello baksheesh," while the balloon staff tried vainly to shoo them away.

"Ahlan baksheesh," I'd respond. My Arabic hello gave them pause. They'd grin, then a moment later again ask for baksheesh.

"Marie?" I'd claimed my prize, but it wasn't the pilot calling me this time. It was another crew member. He was smiling, beaming at me.

"Train to balloon!" He said, congratulating me with a handshake. Apparently my transition had made an impression in the Sindbad Balloons office. Not everyone hops off the sleeper train from Cairo and onto a hot air balloon.

But what else is there to do at 5 a.m. in Luxor? Sit in the hotel lobby? I'd already been awake. Multi-tasking would save me the trouble of getting out of bed early tomorrow.

A man with a van had whisked me from the train station to a series of boats, where dozens of tourists waited. We'd crossed the Nile and gone to the launch site. I'd been partnered with Iola, a single woman from Northern Wales, and during the "landing position" drill, I'd gotten rather intimate with her as we were required to crouch down together in a fitted position, with her sitting on my knees.

Gouda, the pilot ("like the cheese"), released plumes of flame into the balloon. It expanded and tried to rise while the ground crew played tug of balloon war with the ropes. Then, they let go and we floated smoothly up into the sunrise.

"The Valley of the Kings is THAT way," whispered Iola. Damn. She was right. We were floating south, towards farms and not towards tombs. Though we could see the temple of Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh who ruled Egypt 3500 years ago. The real successor to the throne of her husband had been a small boy, so she had ruled as regent for 15 years. In modern terms, her temple was the site of a horrendous tourist massacre in the late nineties.

We floated for an hour above the fields and above the temple of Ramses II--Shelley's Ozymandias. You may have heard of this guy. "King of kings." The point of the poem is that he thought he was hot-sh!t, but in the end, Ramses is just another dead guy with some leftover columns. He's remembered more for a poem than for his military victories. I wonder how old Ramses would feel about that. A wee bit concerned, I'd wager.

Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

And stretch away they did, to far away mountains of sand. But to the east was a clear demarcation, a brilliant green border. To the east, the Nile gives life to Egypt through flooding and fertile soil. To the west, the sands were so dry that 4,000 year old tombs were still hanging around.

When we finally landed in the far fields, Gouda admitted that the winds had been unusually strong.

"Al hamdullilah," he said as the basket came to a safe halt on a field. Thank God.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Back to Work

I made it home to Cairo! But it was a loooong day.

For independent travelers interested in doing what I did, I took the morning (9:35 a.m.) train from Luxor to El Banyara, saw Abydos, then caught the 1:58 p.m. train on to Giza. From there it's a quick metro ride (metro and train station are connected) back to Gezira Island. But there was nothing quick about the train. It was a seven-hour journey made excruciating by being in second class (for whatever reason, yesterday this train had no first class). Second class is comfortable, but the problem is that it is crowded, and everyone was anxious to talk to the foreigner. I was the entertainment for seven hours, which was fun for a while, but as always became tiring.

I have to go to work (that's why I'm in Egypt) now so no more blogging for the moment. But you can have a look here at some balloon photos. Click on "Start Slideshow."

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Yoga and Temples

I’d barely gotten to Luxor before it was time to leave.

And so, as I practiced my yoga while shaving my legs in a bathtub at the New Winter Palace Hotel, I contemplated my options.

There was a 9:35 a.m. train to El Banyara. The necropolis of Abydos was near there. I could see this, and then head back on the train (7 hours) to Cairo. I’d sleep in my own bed tonight.

Or I could spend the day in Luxor, check out the famous temple of Karnak again, go see a Ramses temple I’d missed last time, and visit the Mummification Museum. I’d then take a sleeper car back tonight, arriving in Giza tomorrow morning, to go home, shower, and go to work.

There were advantages to both. I’d surely not have another chance to see Abydos, which is totally out of the way unless you are a resident of El Banyara. But Luxor offered more bang for the buck, as well as countless opportunities for meaningful interactions with touts.

In the end, I decided it would depend on when I finished shaving my legs and got out of the hotel.

9:20 a.m. I’ll try for Abydos. Maybe I’ll make it.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Busy Day

Last night, I caught the sleeper train to Luxor. At five in the morning, the balloon company picked me up at the train station and took me up in a hot air balloon. We were done in time for me to catch the train to see the Temple of Hathor at Dendara. I got a lift back to Luxor and by three in the afternoon, fell fast asleep in my hotel room.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Riddle of the Sphinx

I eyeballed my light-blue, penguin-print, flannel pajamas across the bedroom. I shivered under the covers without them, having washed them yesterday and left them out drying overnight.

"If I can make it to my pajamas and slippers, I might have a shot of getting to the office before noon."

Birds chirped outside my window in the early morning sun. Horns beeped in the distance, and planes few high above, but I filtered these out. The Chinese ambassador has a serene garden right next door to my Cairo apartment, a tiny oasis of green amongst the madness. I've never seen anyone in it. It's the nicest, most underpopulated part of China that I've ever seen.

I stuck a hand out from under the camel-hair blanket and hit the "On" button on my iBook. One strategy I use to get out of bed in the morning is to read email until I'm alert, then suddenly realize I don't need to go back to sleep.

The pajamas taunted me from across the room.

It's only a second of cold. And it's not like it's snowing here. The weather is beautiful.

Once, I'd have gotten the pajamas, made pancakes (with the baking soda I scoured Cairo supermarkets to acquire) and coffee, and eagerly rushed out past the calm of the Chinese garden, past the somewhat pleasant blocks of Zamalek, to throw myself into the middle of Egyptian life.

Once, I'd have chosen to go around the world in the most inconvenient method possible in order to experience the world at ground level, to sink deep into it on the buses and ferries with "the people."

And today, one reason I hate to go to work is that it's in Cairo. And that means transporting myself just a few miles is aggravating.

In the past, I'd have delighted in the challenge of the daily commute. An opportunity to learn about the taxi driver's family! Or better, a chance to follow a crowd to the minibus stop and see how they decipher which bus goes where.

Now, I just decide my penguin-print pajamas are too far away, my emails too boring to stay awake for, and I burrow down into the camel-hair blanket, the sounds of nature reminding me briefly of burrowing down into cheap blankets under the mosquito net above the Murchison Nile, of sleeping through the morning cacophony of bird noises in rural New South Wales. Of lying awake in my tent in Ethiopia, while curious locals murmur just outside, waiting for the faranji to emerge.

Before I was lazy with... disappointment? Disillusionment? Or is it just age?

And before the camel-hair claims me, my last thought before I fall back to sleep is "What have you done with the author of Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik and who do I talk to about negotiating her release?"

But no answers drift up from the Chinese garden. Just warm camel hair, cheerful penguins against sky blue, and goldfish swimming in a pond that never freezes.

An hour later, I get up, find the baking soda, make perfect pancakes, put on long sleeves, and head out to brave Cairo's rush hour.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Saqqara Photos

Chip fixed the last one for me.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

How Do I Get to the Pyramids?

It's a good thing they posted this helpful sign or people might miss them.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Hitching to Saqqara

"You will stand there and wait for another car."

The English teacher in the minibus pointed to a spot on the corner of Saqqara Road and the 1.5 kilometer long access driveway that led to the Saqqara Step Pyramid and archeological site.

I waved good-bye to him and the driver as they pulled away towards Saqqara village, then turned to face a bleak wait.

"Screw that," I thought. "I'll walk."

And off I went, passing fields, goats, and papyrus shops along the way. Tourist buses whizzed past me, full of groups that had just come from Giza and were making the circuit. Giza. Saqqara. Memphis. Hotel. I wondered if they felt sorry for me, walking solo along the road in the middle of nowhere, Egypt.

Then, a beaten-up black Lada taxi slowed. The driver motioned me in. "C'mon, this is a long walk!"

I jumped in. The occupants of the backseat—a European couple—cheerfully said hello. We zipped along to the ticket office, which wasn't that much farther. I'd almost been there.

50 pounds for admission! Wow, that's a lot. $8.75. But in dollars and euros, this is nothing. Especially for someone who has spent hundreds of dollars to fly to Egypt to see the ancient sites. Not everyone took the public bus to Saqqara. In fact, almost no one did this, with good reason (long walk). I forked it over.

The driver, Adul, took us up the hill to the 4,600-year-old Step Pyramid. Yep, that's old all right. This was Egypt's first pyramid, an ancestor of the other pyramids. I could see three to the right, at Giza. To the left were the "Red Pyramid" and "Bent Pyramid" of Dahshur. I wouldn't get to Dahshur today. I'd have to make another trip.

Adul kept telling me I was beautiful when the European couple was out of sight, so I decided to stick to them like glue. Which turned out to be a good thing as they revealed that one of them was from Spain, one from Austria, and both lived together in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We had a grand old time talking about Addis and I was so envious by the end of the trip--they were so happy together and living an adventurous dream together in Africa. I know what a fantastic life it can be.

After we toured the ruins, they invited me to go along to Memphis with them. Once this had been the capital of Egypt, a bustling cosmopolitan city. Now, my guidebook said, it consisted of a few statues and a dirt enclosure.

That's not far off but we did get the opportunity to look up the skirt of the giant statue of Ramses.

We then sat through a semi-pleasant but semi-excruciating cup of tea with a papyrus dealer. We were all keen to get going, and at least one of us was waiting on the hard sell, but we escaped unscathed and un-papyrused.

"Can you drop me at the metro?" Adul did. He'd become less fresh after napping while we toured the sights. I gave him 50 pounds. The same as the admission at Saqqara.

I boarded the women's car at the last stop on the line. The line of cars pulled out of the station, as the sunset lit the faces of the women and children around me.

The day hadn't worked out quite like I'd hoped it would, but any day that you get to look up Ramses' skirt is a good day.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Commuting to the Sights

Getting to the Great Pyramids by public bus was dead-easy.

I caught a taxi to Midan Abdl Moniem Riad. It's a small bus park in front of the Ramses Hilton.

"Aina bus haram?" I went up to the information booth and butchered the Arabic language. That might mean "Where bus pyramids" or it might mean "I bus bathroom."

The man behind the counter motioned in a U-turn and then to a spot in the middle of the street. Ah, of course. I followed his instructions to a small curb at the foot of the 6th of October bridge. Traffic raced around me.

"Haram bus?" I asked a policeman.

He pointed to the spot I was standing on.

"Right here?" I was dumbfounded. It looked nothing like a bus stop.

He and the three men standing with him laughed and reassured me.

I waited about 40 seconds and then a bus slowed down. They all motioned me on.

"Giza?" I asked the driver.

"Haram. Pyramids." He nodded, took my two pounds, and motioned me back to a comfortable seat in the air-conditioned bus.

It was Friday, so there was almost no traffic (that's like Sunday morning for us). It seemed like we were in Giza on Pyramids Road in less than 20 minutes. I stared out the window, passing papyrus shops and carpet shops, a McDonald's and Hardees, and a big hospital.

Suddenly there they were, dominating the skyline. And then they were right next to us, rising up out of the desert. And HUGE.

I've been to see the Giza Pyramids before, but that didn't stop me from grinning and snapping photos. When I got off the bus, I had to stop and stare in awe, at least until a kid approached me to try to sell me postcards.

But I wasn't in Giza to go to the Great Pyramids. I was there to find a way to go to see Saqqara and Dahshur. There are something like 90 pyramids along the Nile, and my plan was to get a look at some of the less-famous ones.

I hiked back to the Saqqara Road turnoff. I stood for a while, waiting for a taxi to stop. When one did, I asked him "Saqqara and Dahshur?" I wanted to see both, but didn't want to bother with Memphis which the guidebook rated low. He nodded. I got in and he drove a few blocks.

Then his friend jumped on top of the car. The driver stopped and the friend poked his head in the window.

"Saqqara is very far from the road. Very difficult to get to. You must go to Abu Sir and ride a horse from there."

I got out and started walking away. He chased me.

"I don't want to go to Abu Sir and ride a horse. I want to take a taxi to Sakkara and Dahshur."

"Okay, okay. This is okay."

I got back in, and then realized we hadn't negotiated an amount. I had a feeling of impending doom. I suddenly wanted very much not to be in the taxi of a man keen to sell me his friend's horse ride. As soon as he slowed down in traffic, I got out and walked back to the Saqqara minibus, the driver honking and calling after me. He gave up after a while.

In the Saqqara minibus, I sat down next to a man who turned out to be an English teacher. "It is only 1 pound to Saqqara, but you must take another car 1.5 kilometers after we drop you off."

Okay. I'd do that.

As we drove down Saqqara Road, the English teacher explained to me that in the past, everyone wanted to go to America. But now, no one wanted to go to America, because Americans think all Arabs are terrorists and maybe would beat them up. I tried to explain to him that there are many Arabs in New York, but I don't think he believed me. He also told me that America should not declare war on Iran because Iran is much stronger than Iraq. I told him I did not think Americans would support this and that America was too busy to invade Iran. I don't think he believed this either. Which isn't really a surprise, since the newspapers here are presenting an Iran invasion as a nearly done-deal.

Tomorrow: Saqqara.