We woke the 3rd
day excited as ever only to find a thick pea soup fog blanketing the city. This caused major chaos and delays for most drivers as fog this bad is highly unusual. We fought through the traffic and the fog with our driver masterfully honking his horn on average once a minute en route to our first destination: the Egyptian Museum
. Throngs of tourists lead by guides were corralled out front of the main gate by security guards who exchanged high fives and payoffs from those same guides to keep things moving smoothly. Lesson 6: Say it with me….Baksheesh….pronounced, back-SHEESH. Got it? That’s Arabic for tip. In Egypt, tips are the grease that keeps everything moving smoothly. Nothing comes for free and (almost) no one is doing you a favor out of the goodness of their heart. This isn’t to say that Egyptians are not good hearted people; they are an incredible people full of life and very passionate about their country. However, anyone who is in the business of tourism or people services (read almost everyone you will encounter as a traveler or tourist) is working hard to earn baksheesh. So on several occasions during the trip, my friends and I participated by giving baksheesh or witnessing our guides spreading the wealth around so that we got what we wanted or where we needed to go faster…which is not unlike why we tip in our own countries. The difference is that in Egypt it feels like almost EVERYONE is angling for a tip no matter whether or not you want to give one.
So here’s an example of how it works: our guide tips the right person, we skip the line and presto we are looking at a replica of the Rosetta stone in under a minute. Unfortunately…a lot of Egyptian antiquities do not reside in Egypt. We move through the museum at lightning speed, (our guide Moustafa doesn’t do anything slow) weaving between large groups of tourists with their earphones and blank emotionless states with our guide feeding us historical facts. Moustafa peppers us with facts big and small as we meander through the museum en route to King Tutankhamun
’s display. Now…maybe it was just me but I remember learning about King Tut around the age that Legos were cool and G.I. Joes were the next best thing. Seeing his solid gold coffin is absolutely incredible….it looks like something out of Hollywood but it’s real. Lesson 7: The real antiquities of Egypt are like Hollywood props on steroids…it is exhilarating to be in the presence of such beautiful antiquities. (Later on in the trip, we visited the Valley of the Kings where King Tut’s tomb was discovered and that made the museum seem like t-ball. More on that in Part 3) Leaving Tut’s exhibit, it seems as though our tour of the museum is over…but wait…our tour is not finished yet, for a little extra money, we can see more mummies. Lesson 8: Egypt’s sights are very good at always offering an opportunity to buy an extra ticket to see something more special than what you saw before. My advice – listen to your guide about whether or not they think it is special enough and budget some extra money so that when visiting Egypt, you always have just a little extra cash to take advantage of those extra special opportunities.
Fully content from mummies, gold sarcophagi and Rosetta Stones, we took the only photo you can take at the museum because no cameras are allowed inside (see Kate above) we jumped on a felucca boat to cruise up the Nile to our lunch.
Seeing Cairo from the water is a must do experience. The Nile in Cairo is not a clean looking river but neither are rivers I know of which flow through any major city in the USA. Nevertheless, you see Egyptians fishing from the banks and in the center of the river. Huge hotels and sky scrapers flank sides of the river slightly obscured behind the ever present smog which hangs over the capital.
We docked at a riverside restaurant, filled up on Egyptian food and hopped back in our bus bound for Giza. About 20 minutes before you arrive at the Pyramids, you catch your first glimpse of them on the horizon. As you get closer, you are overwhelmed by the Pyramids. Just like Tut, you have been hearing about the Pyramids since you were a little kid and then…HERE YOU ARE!
Just inside the gate your guide probably begins to tell you all about the pyramids but chances are, you are so anxious to take photos and get up close, half of the history of Cheops goes in one ear and out the other. The Great Pyramid of Giza is Awesome. It can also turn you into the tackiest of tourist, inspiring you to ‘walk like an Egyptian’ or smile in wide-eyed wonder like a little kid as you climb up and down the massive blocks at the base – see below.
Turning around you look back to see the city skyline of Giza and Cairo. Our guide advised us against paying the money to go inside the main chamber but for 20 Egyptian pounds (about $3.50) we go into a smaller burial chamber next to the main pyramid. It still feels like a really good Hollywood movie set but it’s so real!
Next stop is a distant sand dune to take the quintessential image anyone who has been there before has shown you with the 3 pyramids in the background.
Now, up to this point, you have been skeptical of the infamous tourist activity of riding a camel past the pyramids. Our guide keeps trying to convince us to spend the $35 bucks to do it. This is where you have to let go of your disbelief and just go for it! We shell out the funds, our guide begins yelling Arabic and 3 camels begin lumbering towards us. Getting on a camel is kind of like a horse but much more awkward: one foot in the stirrup, swing your body over, grab the horn of the saddle and hold on for dear life as the camel puts its back legs up first which sends your center of gravity WAY forward making you think you are going to topple forward before the camel’s front legs stand up and even you out.
Your journey begins with your camel mahout (in our case a 14 year old young man) leading you away from the crowds towards the excavation site where the workers who build the pyramids lived. Recent archeological discoveries have proved that the Pyramids were not built by slaves, they were paid workers. One of the best things about the riding a camel this way was the photo ops you get with no tourists around you and an unobstructed view of the pyramids; specifically, I found myself in love with the shadow’s we cast on the sand complimenting the pyramids.
Half way through our journey, our young camel mahouts let us get some quality pictures complete with Bedouin head wrap known as a Keffiyeh. Next we got back on our camels and rode down to the Sphinx at a pretty good speed. Unfortunately, riding a camel, unlike a horse, gets MORE uncomfortable the faster the camel is moving which inspired me to come up with the line “you look more uncomfortable than a tourist on a camel.”
We dismounted the camels, passed our mahouts some baksheesh and proceeded to the Sphinx. The entrance Sphinx is a crowd clusterfuck; the single original doorway built thousands of years ago was never designed for crowds. Once you are through the door, the Sphinx is still awe inspiring. We snapped several pictures with the Sphinx and the setting sun and went back through the throngs of tourists waiting for an up close glimpse and exited to the parking lot but not before we stopped and took a few more pictures of this incredible panoramic view of the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids.
Our day finished at a papyrus store where we learned the history of papyrus, how paper is made from papyrus and why it is such a durable material for ancient manuscripts. We purchased a tapestry and headed to the airport extremely satisfied with all we accomplished on our first day in Cairo and ready for the next leg of our journey – 2 days in Luxor.