I was very pleased to have slept a full night last night. The time difference is so much easier going east. We hear the Muslim call to prayer very loudly, but I went back to sleep afterwards. Each room in this hotel is equipped with earplugs!
We had breakfast on the rooftop patio; all the seats face the pyramids the way Parisian cafes face the sidewalk. Breakfast consisted of breads, some herbed white cheese, a few hardboiled eggs, some fig pastries, plain yoghurt (really creamy and delicious) and bananas. Two highlights were halawa, a sweet made of sesame (my grandmother used to bring us this when I was a kid), and a few falafel. The falafel were delicious and different from the ones we see in North America. Here they are made from ful (fava beans). These also contained some pistachio. They were light and fluffy, and right off the skillet. I managed to get by with only two cups of coffee, half of my usual morning need. Our host has to walk downstairs for each cup. I couldn't ask him to do that more than twice!
After breakfast we headed down the street to the entrance to the Giza plateau, where the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx stand. It was a bit surreal, walking up past the Sphinx towards this crazy-huge structure, something we've seen pictures of all our lives. We've seen the pyramids in Mexico, and they are impressive and wondrous -- and these are almost twice the size.
We walked around all three pyramids. As we finished the furthest one and walked back towards the first, it had gotten considerably more crowded. The tour buses and the selfies and the screaming kids are bad enough, but it's not the crowds that grate. It's the touts. Men approach you constantly, trying to get you to buy things, or ride a camel, or ride in a horse cart, or whatever. And they do not take no for an answer. If you ignore them, they hound you. "I'm speaking to you. Do you not hear me? Most people say 'no thank you'." Then if you say "No thank you," that is taken as a sign of interest and it all starts up again. Sometimes a sharp "no thank you" will work, other times I resorted to "Please go away!" It is obnoxious, and tiring -- and it's constant. People have to earn a living. I get that. But these methods are extremely off-putting -- and for me, not at all conducive to buying!
The other thing I found difficult was the animals. Camels are adapted to the desert, and they move slowly. But are horses equipped for day-long exercise in the hot sun? They pull carts often loaded with people, and the drivers make them gallop. They appear to rest between rides, but they have no access to water and no shade. On our way out, we saw lines of horses pulling carts up and down a long hill. Some of the horses seemed strong and able, but I saw some who were really struggling. The pavement is worn smooth, and I saw one old-looking horse sliding down the hill, the cart behind it. It appeared terrified.
Before writing this, I looked for information about animal welfare or standards. I found some other travelers concerned about the welfare of the animals, and the Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals, who endeavoured to feed starving animals when businesses were devastated from the sudden disappearance of tourism after the revolution in 2011. Other than that, I didn't see anything about standards of treatment.
So the experience at Giza alternated between breathtaking, irritating, and disturbing.
There's almost no interpretative signs, so groups have their tour guides and we used our guidebook. Allan has read a lot about the pyramids, and I studied ancient Egypt when I was writing children's nonfiction about ancient civilizations. Besides walking around the three pyramids, and the Sphinx, two other items are worth noting here.
In 1954, four huge wooden ships -- 43.6 meters (143 feet) long each -- were discovered under giant limestome blocks, buried under the sand. One ship was in more than 1200 pieces, plus miles of rope. Over a period of 13 years, one ship was re-assembled using the original materials and is on display. There's a gallery that gives an excellent view. You can also see the original pit it was buried in, and the 41 limestone blocks that guarded it, each weighing 18 tonnes. Wikipedia says that some scholars believe the ships were symbolic only, for the Pharaoh Cheops to sail to the afterlife, and others think the boats transported his funerary haul to the pyramids on the Nile flood plain. Factoid: in the boat museum, you are given canvas coverings to put over your shoes, to keep the sand out of the museum.
The other thing of note was literally a nonevent: our failure to get into the tombs. We had read that the passageways were very narrow, and that even a touch of claustrophobia would render the tombs impossible. We waited in line... only to learn there was a separate admission ticket. Then we waited in line for those tickets. Three different people told us to stand in three different lines. Then we waited in line again to enter. You cannot enter with a camera, and we were not about to leave our camera on the ground next to the ticket-taker, so we thought we'd take turns. I can handle those kinds of things better than Allan, I could give it a try and report back.
When you first enter, you're in a wide passageway, and air is circulating. (Everyone was taking pictures with their cell phones.) Soon after, there is a narrow, uphill passage. Small guide rails have been put in for your hands and feet, and you climb up at about a 20 degree angle. There is very little clearance over head, or on either side. And it's crowded. I started up, and someone a few people ahead of me started freaking out. She tried to turn around, and couldn't, and panicked even more, forcing her way backwards. I had only taken three or four steps, but it was already very hot and humid, and I was starting to sweat.
I stood in the wider part of the passage, trying to decide if it was worth it. When it was clear of people, I tried looking up the climb to see how far it went. It went a very long way. If it had been all in one direction, so you climbed in and then continued climbing out, I could have done it. But this passage wasn't built for tourists. There is one passage, and long lines of people are going both in and out. As I stood there considering my options, many people exited -- drenched in sweat. It just seemed not worth it.
Outside, I told Allan he wouldn't want to do it either, but I encouraged him to go see for himself. He came out shortly, smiling at the folly of even trying.
Although seeing the Pyramids was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it was also a difficult one. I imagine it will be like this at every stop on the trip. Although hopefully without the animals.
We walked back to the room, our boots white with dust. We cooled off and cleaned up, then headed to a restaurant that sounded great. We hadn't eaten since breakfast, and somehow I was still doing ok at 3:30 p.m. (No idea why. Adrenalin?) Our hosts were very excited about our choice of restaurant and called a cab for us.
The restaurant, Andrea, is far off in a newly developed area called New Giza. There are billboards promoting it all over Cairo -- all in English. The restaurant was a knock-out -- a large patio of beautiful wood tables overlooking a valley, with colourful sails and sheets designed both for beauty and protection against sun and sand.
The food is simple but perfect. We had baba ganoush and tahini, then the flame-grilled chicken they are known for. And everything is eaten with this delicious fresh puffy bread. (Apparently good restaurants here all bake their own bread.) As we were eating, the patio was filling up with families and large groups. Servers went by carrying platters piled high with chicken and mountains of puffy bread.
On our way out, we saw women sitting on rugs, making the dough and sliding it in and out of brick ovens. They were colourfully dressed and obviously an attraction. They gave me a bread right out of the oven, and we took a few pictures, and tipped them. The bread... oh boy.
Then we had one of those ridiculously difficult times getting back, the kind that make you wonder why you went out in the first place. But we did make it back, in time to get our jackets (it is cold at night) and sit on the roof for the Pyramid sound and light show. You can see and hear it perfectly from the rooftop patio here.
Seeing the giant pyramids lit up against the night sky was an impressive sight. The narration was completely corny and ridiculous, with pompous music that sounded like something out of an old Hollywood newsreel. But it was lovely sitting on the roof, drinking tea and looking at the Sphinx!
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Readers may be wondering if I'm using the Arabic I've been studying. People here are speaking to us in English, and it seems pretentious and silly to reply in my beginners' Arabic. But I am understanding a lot of what I hear! That is pretty cool. I can pick out a lot of words, and I can hear the words used in context. I can tell you that Mango is as advertised: the speakers sound exactly like what I'm hearing. Maybe later in the trip I'll get to speak more? Whether or not that happens, I'm hooked on learning this language and want to continue.
Another question people will ask is about women -- how they are dressed, if they wear hijabs. Most girls over a certain age and women do wear headscarves, but some do not. Almost everyone is in modern dress. The girls look exactly like the Muslim girls in Mississauga -- jeans, sneakers, cute tops, cell phones, hijabs. We have seen a few older women wearing galabeyas, and a couple of women in niqabs. I saw more women in niqabs in Malton then I have here.
Personally I find hijabs either completely unremarkable, or pretty. In the tradition I was raised in, men cover their heads for worship, and many men cover their heads at all times. If a man with a little beanie on his head is unremarkable, then surely a woman with a scarf should be, too.
Photos of Giza can be found here.