Temples, Toilets, and Tombs, Oh My — Part 1

Who was the other guy?

Let me begin this segment from where I left off the last one, because where else should I start? All of us on this Shai Bar Ilan Geographical Tours trip to Egypt (organized by Cindy Kline, with Rabbi/ Professor Joshua Berman as scholar-in-residence) who were arriving from Israel were seated on the tour bus, sporting our newly acquired dorky yellow caps, waiting for the signal to leave the Cairo airport. We had been joined by staff from Shepherd Travel, Migo, the local tour guide, and John, the indispensable logistics guy. (A third member of their staff, Pola, would be with us in Cairo only.) But who was this other shadowy person who just got on the bus? Security.

We – Barbara and I – had been asked any number of times before we went if we thought we would be ‘safe’ in Egypt. There will be security with us everywhere we go, we replied. Whatever one’s thoughts of the Egyptian police department, politically or ethically, there is no question that they do not mess around. There is a special division of the force that deals with tourism and antiquities, and their responsibility is to ensure that tourists have a good time and their ancient sites are protected.  Don’t go anywhere until they tell you to. Which they finally did, and off we went on the long road to downtown Cairo.

Looking out the window

Looking out the bus window, what was there to see along the way? I began to notice something odd. There seemed to be a slew of buildings that were half-finished, their tenant-less shells staring back at us. As Migo explained, there had been a rash of illegal and downright unsafe construction going on all over Egypt. The government’s original response, to fine the offenders, was hardly a deterrent, and so they upped the ante. OK, if we catch you placing one substandard brick in any structure you are building, we will place some of your anatomy – in fact, all of it – in a site equally as unpleasant as what you had in mind for your unsuspecting residents, namely the local hoosegow. And we will give you ample time to repent of your sins. Not surprisingly, all such construction came to a screeching halt. I never thought to ask if there are ever any earthquakes in Egypt, but considering current events in Turkey and Syria, maybe the Egyptian response wasn’t so draconian, after all.

But one might wonder, all the people who might have resided in those half-built buildings, where did they wind up living? One partial answer was also plainly in sight. We passed the necropolis, the cemetery or cemeteries stretching for miles and miles on end, the final resting place of local residents for – what? – a thousand years or more, not as magisterial as the pyramids, but marked with marble slabs large and small. Except that some of the residents of the necropolis are still with us. Yes, there are very live Egyptians hobnobbing today with other people’s ancestors. I know we have a housing shortage here in Israel, but……

Thanks, but no thanks

We arrived at our first stop, the ‘other’ museum in Cairo, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. The good folks doing the planning had assumed (never do that!) that those of us on the tour – most of whom had long since passed the half-century mark – would want to rest up after our long  journey. Not so. A few ‘troublemakers’ had responded that they would be more than happy to have something to do, someplace to go, in those few hours before dinner was to be served at the hotel. Cindy dutifully sent out a feeler to see how many of the group would want to spend extra for a tour of another museum. My response was unequivocal: Thanks, but no thanks. I have been engaged by a ‘reputable’ quality control firm to test the mattresses in Egyptian hotels, and I am eager to get started.’  

This division of the house would prove to be a harbinger of things to come. Several days later, I had a conversation with one of the women on the trip, who was wearing a sweater with YOLO (You only live once) emblazoned on it. Her attitude, shared by a majority of our colleagues, was as follows: We will never be in Egypt again; let’s make the most of it. We need to see and experience everything we can, no matter what. Personally, I can‘t argue with the YOLO part. But I look at things differently. What’s the point, say I, of wandering about a foreign country half-asleep, feeling like I’m on a forced march to somewhere I won’t remember. Let me see as much as I can when I’m on the top of my game. I get very grumpy when I’m tired, and why should I inflict my curmudgeonly self on people I’ve just met? During the ensuing days, a number of our fellow travelers joined the ‘I just want to sleep’ brigade and opted out of some optional activities. It’s nice to have company.

Traffic over the Nile

When we arrived at the museum, everyone else got off the bus, leaving Barbara and me to travel to the Ramses Hilton hotel with Cindy and John.  Our timing could not have been worse. The twenty-minute bus ride took over an hour, as our trip apparently coincided with the arrival of the American Secretary of State, visiting Egypt before heading to The Land. By the time we arrived at the hotel, I was more than ready to assume my responsibilities as a mattress tester. (I should say that all the mattresses I tested in Egypt passed with flying colors, although my positive rating might have been influenced by my nightly state of exhaustion, plus the fact that we were not fighting three cats for a share of the bed.)  The hotel is listed as five stars, but our group, mostly seasoned travelers, were somewhat underwhelmed by our accommodations. It might be five stars, but in which galaxy?, one might ask. Our room was oddly shaped, and the carpet might have been purloined from the resting place of one of the several pharaohs named Ramses. Still, the view from our window, entitled ‘Traffic over the Nile,’ was pretty nifty. But the problem with seeing the traffic is that you invariably will hear the traffic – non-stop from 7AM until way past shluffy time. No matter. We would be rarin’ to go the next morning, and things would start to get interesting. Once the tour really got started, I would finally get a chance to ‘go out photographing,’ and you’ll begin to see what I came up with in the next installment – so be patient.

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