saqarra, dahshur, memphis

I had a bit of a rough night -- what am I doing drinking strong tea at night?? -- but I must be running on a travel high, because we were up and out early. Yesterday, when we asked our hosts about arranging a driver and guide for us to see more local ancient sites, they advised doing that right away, and saving more urban sightseeing in Cairo for later in the week. They quoted us a price for the whole day -- three sites, including all admission fees, plus lunch, and all gratuities. And, they said, the greatest guide. And they were right!

We had our lovely little breakfast on the roof, looking out at our friends the Pyramids and the Sphinx. While we were eating, our guide dropped by to introduce himself. He said his name was Abdul, and he wanted to make this the best day of our holiday. He told us to take our time, we had all day and he would go according to our pace.

So off we went with Abdul. First stop, a papyrus "museum", as many retail stores call themselves. A charming young man brought us drinks (Turkish coffee for me and hibiscus for Allan), then demonstrated how papyrus is made, by making some in front of us. We also learned how the imitation papyrus sold on the street is made and why it is inferior. And thus began my first lesson in shopping, Egyptian style.

Papyrus Guy showed me a small sample, with my name on it. What a coincidence! So now I know that Abdul has a deal with this shop, and possibly our hotel is in on it, too. We saw some truly beautiful painted papyri, and I started to get sucked into the idea of buying one. We’re not huge shoppers, but we always buy one really special thing on each trip, then a bunch of less expensive items like earrings, bookmarks a such. The “one nice thing” from this trip could be a beautiful papyrus painting.

When Allan and I conferred privately, I discovered I had completely misread the price of the painting. I thought it was 98.00 LE; it was 9,800 LE. That is almost $700, almost what we paid for air fare to Egypt. I apologized to Papyrus Guy, explaining what I misunderstood, and went to find another, less expensive paintings. To my surprise, Papyrus Guy was unfazed. He said, “You have a budget, and this is outside your budget.” I said, yes, well outside our budget. And suddenly the painting was 4,000 LEs! Still more than our “one nice thing” usually costs, but much closer!

And so we began negotiating. I noticed that once we got down to 3,500 or less, PG now offered to throw in other smaller paintings for free, or to not charge us tax or credit card fees. I could get more stuff, but I couldn’t get it for less than 3,200. In the end, we bought the painting I loved best, plus a smaller painting, and a third even smaller painting, for the equivalent of about $225 Canadian. This is not out of line with our handmade Aran sweaters from Ireland or our mates burilados from Peru. Buying it on the second day of our trip was disconcerting. But oh well! It was done. Papyrus Guy rolled it and wrapped it and taped it within an inch of its life, made sure Allan was still breathing, and off we went.

On our way to Saqarra, Abdul recounted the history of Egypt from the Old Kingdom to present times. He’s a good storyteller, and his English is perfect (spoken with a slight Australian accent), and it was enjoyable. He brought us all the way to Morsi, who he called “the greatest man for Egypt,” and the military coup that overthrew him.

And then we were at Saqarra. Abdul gave us these instructions: talk to no one but me, don’t even say ‘no thank you’ to anyone else, don’t take pictures of animals (because the owners will try to get money), don’t take out your money, take all the time you want, if you want photos where you are not supposed to take them, I will tell you when to shoot.

Inside, there were a few other scattered tourists and a school group, but it was mostly empty, especially compared to Giza. Everyone knew Abdul -- which would be the case all day. As we walked around Saqarra, I told him about our experience at Giza, and he was visibly upset. He said passionately, “I hate those men! I hate them. They make life so much harder for tourists, and that means harder for everyone who runs a legitimate business.” When I told him the different ways I had tried to avoid them, he said, “They love to hear ‘no’. ‘No’ is gold to them...” and I said, “Because now you are having a conversation”. Abdul put up his hand for a high-five. He said, “Say nothing. Focus and say nothing. Do not say ‘go away’. Do not say a word."

Saqarra is Egypt’s largest archeological site, and was used as a huge necropolis for almost 3,500 years. We entered through a long colonade, something that I would have thought was Greek or Roman, but amazingly, predates those column-makers by thousands of years. There is a stepped pyramid, about half the size of those at Giza (and similar to the size of the pyramids at Teotihuacan). We went behind a barrier to walk around the entire pyramid, although parts were blocked off by scaffolding and repairs.

The columns and the remains of a great hall, and of course the pyramid, were all impressive. But the highlight of the day, by far, was the hieroglyphs. I was excited to see some intact glyphs on large stones from broken walls and columns, but that was nothing compared to what was waiting for us.

We went down a passageway that was much easier than the one at Giza -- wider, better lit, more airy, empty (no other tourists), and not very deep. The clearance was low, requiring you to bend completely at the waist, but not for so long that it was uncomfortable. And the payoff: wow.

The tombs were completely covered in hieroglyphics, top to bottom and the ceilings, as well. Some retained their original colours of red or blue. There were so many, and a huge variety of symbols and pictures, more than I realized existed.

We went into many tombs like this, wall after wall of stunning hieroglyphs, many in colour, telling the stories of processions, and sacrifices, and journeys to the afterlife. Different types of birds depicted in accurate detail, water buffaloes, a cow giving birth to a calf while a crocodile waited to make it its prey. Fisherman and fishing boats hauling in baskets of fish, each detailed to represent a different kind. Processions of people leading their oxen. Symbols indicating how many of each. It was stunning. (I can see I will quickly run out of superlatives.)

You are not supposed to take photos in any of these rooms, but Abdul had already greased the palms -- and quite lightly, we were told -- so we were free to click away. Did someone say photos in a tomb? Now Allan understands why I bought our new wide-angle lens!

A few temples at Saqarra were a short drive away, and those tombs were even more richly decorated. Abdul did his thing, then told us one of the hangers-on -- more tout than actual guard -- would bring us down into the tomb. Through a similar non-scary passageway, and into a room with a sarcophagus. And the guide is telling us to go inside -- in the sarcophagus! I wouldn’t, but he practically forced Allan in! So Allan is lying in a tomb, and the tout says to me, “Do not tell Mr. Abdul! He will be angry! Do not tell him!” and he goes on and on. “Promise not to tell him? Promise?” I’m thinking, why would I not tell Abdul? And who is this guy that I should protect him? And didn’t Abdul pay off these clowns? After Allan emerged from the coffin, the tout expected to be paid. That was unsurprising, although against Abdul’s instructions.

But here’s where this tout made a big mistake. I gave him a 20 LE note, and he said, “This was very special! Very, very special! You must pay me dollars. Only dollars!” (More on this obsession with dollars later.) I told him I have no dollars, only Egyptian pounds. “I must have dollars! This is not enough!” And he went on and on, trying to badger me into giving him more money -- in other words, trying to extort me.

Outside, Abdul was waiting, and we went into a few more beautiful hieroglyphic-covered tombs. (Did someone say photos in tombs? Now Allan knows why I bought our new wide angle lens!) On our way out, I asked Abdul, did you pay those guys to let us take photos? He was immediately on guard. “Did they ask you for money??” I said, yes, but that was not a big deal. I didn't mind tipping him; it was his attitude that I objected to.

Abdul is a big man with a bald head. He looks stronger and more imposing than any of the older men hanging around the site in galabeya and kafiyeh. Abdul called out to the man in sharp barks, holding his hand out, demanding the return of the money. I said, “No, it’s ok, it’s ok,” but Abdul wouldn’t hear of it. He took the 20 LE note and berated the man for his greed and stupidity, then put it in my hand.

In the car, driving to Dahshur, Abdul told us his philosophy of service. He feels very strongly that part of his job is to protect his clients from unwanted attention, and to make sure there are no hidden costs, that the agreed-on price is the real price. Abdul pays the entrance fees, the bribes, the gas -- that is all his overhead. I understand that is taken into account in his price, but he is self-employed and takes pride in his work, and in great customer service -- something I truly respect.

At Dahshur, about 10 kms away, there are two failed pyramids -- one built at a weird angle, and another that is falling apart (relatively speaking). From there, you can see the stepped pyramid at Saqarra. Dahshur is just a quick stop.

Memphis, the long-time capital of ancient Egypt, houses an outdoor museum with many statues and pieces of statues. The highlights are a Sphinx for Queen Hatsupshet, the only female pharaoh, and a monumental statue of Ramses II, lying horizontally in a room, with a gallery for better viewing. It is enormous, and carved out of a single block of limestone. Here, too, and on the way -- everyone knew Abdul and welcomed him like the return of a conquering hero.

On the drives between sites, we passed through tiny main streets, with poor-looking stores and a few cafes. We also passed shocks of bright-green fields, growing alfalfa, the occasional man on a donkey cart, children in school uniforms, boys leading horses. There was a lot of garbage. And many scavengers -- dogs, children, old people.

We went to a huge, simple restaurant. I knew that Abdul had called ahead -- I can understand enough Arabic to get that -- so our lunch arrived moments after we did. Abdul told us he would give us privacy and disappeared. First came tahini, hummus, baba ganoush, and grilled eggplant, and of course puffy bread. Then came plates of grill chicken, koftas, and chicken livers. We were quite hungry and the food was so good.

On the way back, we drove through a lot of poverty. There’s a huge amount of garbage, which is obviously connected to the absence of healthy drinking water. Perhaps that’s the first great divide of a world of haves and have-nots -- access to sanitation and drinkable water.

We were almost back at the Pyramids View when Abdul told us he’d be back in “an Egyptian minute”. (He said this is like 30 Canadian minutes.) He popped in to a store, and soon came out with a wrapped take-out container, urging us to eat a bit now, and save the rest for later. It was an Egyptian desert called kunefah, and it is awesome. It’s something like baklava, but substitute tiny shredded wheat noodles instead of phyllo leaves, and add shredded coconut. If you like honey and coconut, you’ve got to eat this.

Back at Pyramids View, we had to reserve our overnight train from Cairo to Luxor. We tried numerous times to do this online, but it was impossible. Literally impossible. There is the appearance of a website, but it simply does not function. Emailing for support is useless. Anyone posting on Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet forums confirms this. We figured we would do this while in Cairo, and our hosts are happy to help. However...

It became a bit complicated. The hosts offered to send someone to the station with copies of our passports and money, to buy tickets for us. But we can’t pay in cash; for large purchases like that, we need to use a credit card. We thought we could do that tomorrow while sightseeing in Cairo, but today would be the last day to reserve for a Sunday night train. After some discussion, our hosts called the train station, confirmed that we can pay by credit card there, and sent us in a cab. The cab would wait while we bought the tickets, and then drive us back.

The traffic was crazy, but in some places the road was relatively open, so we were back to the crazy races between cars, vans, tiny two-person cab scooters, motorcycles and horsecarts. At the train station, the “sleeping car train” office took our reservation with a pen and paper. There was no computer. Aaand... cash only. Fortunately there was an ATM nearby. Factoid: the ticket agent has a sister in Toronto. She is a doctor. He loves Canada -- in the summer.

The ride back was quick. We saw a lot of dogs, who must come out in the evening to forage. We saw a family of five riding one motorbike -- two small kids squeezed up front with dad, and mom and baby riding on the back -- the baby in a blanket, held in the crook of the mother’s arm, off to the side of the bike. We saw a lot of sad things. When I see these things, I rage inside about the injustice of capitalism. All these things are preventable.

Back at the hotel, we were tired but happy. We couldn't thank Abdul enough, and hoped we tipped him appropriately. It's so hard to know!

Yesterday we couldn’t see Diego on the webcam -- the dogs were out, but he was not there, prompting Allan to email Dogtopia. They said he’s doing great, and tonight we saw him.

The whole time I’ve been writing this, the sound and light show of the Pyramids has been going full-tilt, over and over, in three or four different languages.

Photos from Saqarra, Dahshur, and Memphis are here.

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