Monday, March 10, 2008

Day Three--My First Pyramid

My first day touring Egypt (Wednesday, November 28, 2007) was yet another day I embarrassed myself. The guest delegates (minus the professionals) stopped in Memphis at an open-air museum which had been built around an enormous fallen statue of Ramses II (simply awesome, by the way). While I was viewing the artifacts displayed on the grounds, a museum guard (who I figured was bored) indicated with hand gestures that he’d help me take a picture; I accepted. Afterward he made it clear he wanted some cash for his efforts. I’m afraid I was surprised but quickly complied with a couple dollars. I didn’t give in when he asked for more money for his friend, and I silently swore I wouldn’t let something like this happen again. My face probably turned bright pink. I felt like it was just my luck to be taken advantage of, but I later learned this exchange wasn’t so unusual. A lot of locals hang around the sites in Egypt looking to earn ‘tips’. This includes many of the employees and guards trying to add to their meager incomes. Nothing’s wrong with tourists throwing a little money their way. I’m afraid though, I was suffering from culture shock at the time, and it took me a while to comprehend this . . . in the US, a museum guard could get fired for something like that, right?

This incident became generally known in my group as next I went out of my ‘comfort zone’ and befriended some fellow guest delegates. The first was Bill from Missouri. He had (bravely) shopped from a bazaar near the museum, so I hoped to enlist his bargaining skills. I needed to purchase souvenirs for a large quantity of people, and, since I know I’m a procrastinator, I was determined to start buying them right away. Thanks to Bill I was able to check a cool cat statue for my daughter off the list. Unfortunately this experience also started my addiction to haggling for trinkets . . . more on that some other time.
The next stop was Saqqara with King Zoser’s pyramid, the world’s oldest free-standing structure (whatever that descriptive phrase means) designed by Imhotep the architect; apparently he’s the one who started the whole pyramid craze. Picture a crumbling step pyramid, about seven-stories(?) high, in a field of dust and limestone fragments. Here and there were excavations and ruins (some with cobra-head d├ęcor). Surrounding it all was a wall, currently being restored. It was great, and I made friends with some guest delegates who were in the same circumstance as me. We were all separated from our professional school teacher moms while vacationing ‘with them’ in Egypt. We laughed, climbed around the site, and took comfort in each other’s presence while being harassed by souvenir vendors and locals interested in ‘helping’ us.

If it seems like we were just messing around at an extraordinarily historic site, this is partly true. I’m used to touring in the US, where you can spend hours (if not days) reading the information on the plaques at sites, or the displays at museums. I first discovered here in Memphis and Saqqara that Egypt generally lacks these. I never asked, but I think this is to help the economy. If tourists want to learn anything while they visit, they employ Egyptian guides. Miss Eman El Assey was the Egyptologist assigned to our guest delegate bus. She had introduced the site to us but then let us fend for ourselves. It was a little odd to wander around without anything to read about, but that’s alright; I made up for it with Wikipedia when I got back to the States.

Our last stop before dinner was the Oriental Carpet School. It was alright. Kids worked on expensive silk carpets while we watched. The kids were all cute and talented, some were showoffs. A guy gave us a tour and explained things like how children (we’re talking pre-teens) are employed because their fingers are small enough to fit through the loom strands. These kids in turn learn a valuable trade. He also preached about why silk carpets are so amazing and durable, which I’m sure is true and all, but I can’t afford a 10 thousand dollar carpet. The salesmen were set on us, and after a while I left to check out the view from the parking lot--which was nice. I watched farmers riding home on their little burrows at the end of the day.

Dinner was at Al-Azhar Park, or I should say, a restaurant with a balcony dining area open to the park. The park had extensive gardens and a grand-looking mosque, so it was definitely a picturesque dining experience. Truthfully, meals during almost this entire trip were torture for me. I was starving and given all this yummy looking food, most of it authentic fair, most of which I couldn’t eat. And I’ll apologize if I keep bringing this point up in future Egypt blogs. But I think the haze of starvation added to much of my stupidity throughout the remainder of this trip. (At least, I’m hoping my capability for logical reasoning doesn't effortlessly abandon me every time I vacation abroad.)
A last tidbit from day three: People to People delegates and guests were introduced to all the Egyptologists who would be guiding our various groups over the next couple of weeks. Walid Ibrahim(?) shared some pictures he had of Dr. Ruth (a celebrity of-sorts--for those of you who don’t know) at the pyramids in Giza. He had been her guide recently. Apparently, despite her age, Dr. Ruth is pretty active still and hasn’t changed much personality-wise--just thought I’d share.