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Travel Notes: The Pyramids of Giza, Cairo, 20-21 December 2006 and a fair whack of culture shock

Visiting the Pyramids at Giza via "The Stables" with Amr (left) and The Guide (right), 21 December 2006
In this post I transcribe my original travel diary from the dates shown. It marks the beginnings of my de-Orientalising process, even though writing this is Orientalist. There are certain political representatives who need to do this, but that is another story. On the 19th December, we visited Petra, Jordan, and I will write a separate entry from my diary for that day. While our arrival in Jordan had given me a fair dose of culture shock, Egypt took this to a level I have never experienced since or ever. Syria was so much easier to get around, and returning to Amman after Cairo was relaxing. Cairo's population is enormous, and negotiation is a way of life. Rather than live on the "Western" part of town, we decided to delve into what we called the "local" side of town. While this was very rewarding, and our guide Amr was more than honourable, for our last night we crossed the Nile and stayed at the Hotel Windsor, which served as the British Officer's Club during the Great War. On the other side of the Nile, every step I took required a negotiation. It was exhausting. But by the time I returned to Amman, my culture shock was at least becoming manageable. I am exhausted just reading these notes and cannot believe we did all this in the space of a few days, not to mention the shortest shoestring budget imaginable. And we did not arrange anything and thought we would just go with the flow (or torrent as it turned out!) I have left out a few bits that are just for me.

CBR-SYD-Bangkok-Dubai-Amman, Jordan, 14-15 December 2006

To put my sense of culture shock into context, we'd left Canberra on 14th December 2006, caught the Murray's bus to Sydney Airport, and had a stop-over in Dubai.

Murray's Coaches 7am CBR-SYD, left SYD at 1950. Stopped Bangkok, not allowed off plane. Arrived Dubai, UAE, Friday 15 December 5am local time. Went to Gold Souq, stayed at Millennium Airport [hotel] until 12pm. Left Dubai 2pm local ->Dubai = +2 hours on Amman.

I remember the arrival at Amman airport. I couldn't tell who was an official and who wasn't, and some people would help and then want money and then others would insist on helping and not want money, and others would want money, insist on helping for free, and then want money. In a little over ten days, returning to this airport would be like returning to my own home in comparison to Egypt.

Friday 15th December arrive Amman 4pm. [Met the family and gave out all the gifts]. Five days later we would be in Cairo.

Amman, Jordan, 16-17 December 2006

Returning home from visiting family, there was a young boy standing on the side of the road, crying. He sold pieces of candy from a box to cars stopped at the traffic lights. The tears were streaming down his face. His box of candy was on the road, flattened by the traffic. We gave him some money, after a debate about the appropriate amount. Later I wrote this:
Western Guilt Trip
Western guilt is that feeling the
rich man had when he asked
Jesus how to enter the Kingdom
of Heaven. But Westerners continue
to decorate the
eye of the needle, never knowing
they are simply
camels.
The next day, the same boy was there, crying, his box of candy flattened in the traffic. People gave him money.
Vintage Visa Stamps for Egypt!

Amman, Jordan, 18 December 2006

Collected visas from Egyptian Embassy at 2pm. I remember the place was packed. It was like a school tuckshop, undercover, but with exposed sides and rails leading up to a window. 

Petra, Jordan, 19 December 2006

Transcription and photographs in a separate entry.

Cairo, Egypt, 20 December 2006

EgyptAir from Amman to Cairo [I remember everybody clapped when the aeroplane landed safely]. Saw Suez Canal on the descent to Cairo. Met by "official" guide [before we cleared customs] - booked hotel for $US40, paid $US12 for "limousine" to hotel. [I still have the business card from the "travel agent" and the company still exists!] Booked 6 hour trip to pyramids for $US35. Hotel was manky - met Amr - [who appeared to be a] dodgy perfume seller [Note: This was my initial and arrogant Westerner impression that would change rapidly], but made a deal to be shown around.

Hotel Aman [ironically] - cost $US40. Used Net on level 8, room was level 9. I remember the bed was terrible and itchy. The bedspread felt like it had fleas. The room was old, and "clean" by standards we would come to know over time. I remember the traffic - all night without stopping, but no air conditioning so the window had to stay open. I remember being exhausted for our first full day there. 

Cairo, Egypt, 21 December 2006

Lift broken in the morning - went to stairs but it was horrible, in very old disrepair and in darkness [I recall going down a couple of flights and we could hear things moving around. We ended up being unable to see - in total darkness - and ran back upstairs] - went back up to level 9, caught dodgy service elevator.

The "officials" were the same as Amr and "the company". Amr seemed friendlier - especially to Australians - stickers, koalas etc in his shop. Also showed "recommendations" from other Australians but I had to read them - his English is very poor. Amr took us to a busy shop for shawerma, bought a camera for £EGP50 [$AUD11.15 exchange rate on this day].

I lose track of things here, but I remember we decided to find a place to stay as there was no way we could stay another night in Aman Hotel. I can't find it on Google maps. So we went to a decent looking hotel and asked the price: $US90 per night. What? In Cairo where it was cheaper than anywhere? So we go to the next hotel. $US90 per night. We might as well go to the other side of the Nile and stay at the Hilton. Then we go back to "the company". The older guy says $US40 per night (same as Aman Hotel). So we go back to the very same hotels with Amr, and each one of them is suddenly $US40 per night. We found a place that we could live with and, at less than half the "non-company" price, our shoestring survived. We must have cancelled the pyramids tour with the "official" company... We made Amr come with us. He rode a horse (pictured above) as part of the package.

Pyramid of Khafre, Giza
Met Amr at "the company's" perfume shop at 8.45am. Drove to "The Stables" near pyramids - fee for 2 x camels £EGP500 [$AUD111.46 each] "including visits to the tombs (not the pyramids) and five hours. This didn't happen! So paid £EGP400 [$AUD89.17 each] - still a rip off.

At Giza, I had to "negotiate" with the "boss". He was a fairly big man. Paid Imhotep and the other kid leading our camels £EGP10 each and the guide £EGP20 - the guide wanted 40 but I wouldn't budge I was beginning to get into the groove but exhausted.

I recall the large, bearded man in a chocolate brown dish-dash holding a shepherd's crook invited me inside the shop for the handover of the money. There was nothing untoward, and he simply said "pay whatever you think it was worth. The truth ism, it was worth every cent. As I tried to get back in to the car, children appeared from everywhere, and a woman in a hijab with a young baby and all of the children kept begging, and pressing me as I made my way back to the car. I had to push the hands out as I closed the door.

It was all a strange game. The trip in through the back gates was all nudge-nudge wink-wink past the guard, the trip in was peaceful. At the pyramids, a guard came up to us and Amr, and queried Amr. We said we were students (which we were) visiting a fellow student (which, technically, we were). The guard said we had come through the stables illegally, angling for some money. I don't remember what happened - I think he left us alone when we wouldn't budge. After Petra, I was disappointed in the pyramids. Who does that? Who is disappointed by the pyramids? For me, it was the end of the Disneyfication of everything. 

So many romantic movies about the pyramids. Don't get me wrong, the only surviving original Great Wonder of the Ancient World. The pyramids are impressive. And I wonder had we come in by the buses, like many of the tourists did, would it have been different? But we met the "official" guide BEFORE we got through customs on arrival. So it was a lesson learnt very quickly, but a lesson that was not helpful in either Jordan or Syria, where such things didn't happen to us ever.

Would I change a thing? Maybe global peace and justice and I would never have watched Disney in my life. But as far as things I could control? No. I wouldn't change a thing. Amr turned out to be a wonderful host.

Amr said to meet him at the shop at 9pm. He was late and arrived at 2130 - but then took us to a wedding, then to his house (by about) 2330. Had dinner and then home by after 0130.

We drove for what seemed like hours. It was well outside the main city. the roads were all rough and dirt. Sometimes lined with shops bursting at the seems with cheap clothes and overflow-style goods, with white light so bright it was blinding and crowds of people everywhere. The weeding was in a space between apartment buildings. The dirt ground was strewn with rubbish. But the hospitality was outstanding. We drank Cocal Cola provided by our hosts, and I smoked an argilleh Egyptian style - a drier tobacco with the coals placed directly on the tobacco. We were given chairs and a table to sit at while the married couple sat on a stage with brilliant light and music blaring. 
The Great Sphinx, Giza, Egypt
The argilleh man didn't speak but he would nod and smile. I watched as he would change the coals with his bare hands. With his bare hands! Later, people were asked to pledge money to the couple, and there would be ululations from the women and cheers and clapping from the men. I took my turn. I don't remember how much I gave but it was well-received. 

We went on further into suburbia and we arrived on a dirt street that had craters in it, and not a light to be seen. As we entered Amr's building, you coudl see all the shoes piled up outside people's doors. I guess it was pretty late. We met his mother in the vestibule, she was very nice. And then we entered his house.

It was filled with antiques. Much of the furnishings were gilded. It was a magnificent contrast with outside. Amr's wife was very sweet and they had a young baby, Mahmout. We ate dinner with them at their large table. Chicken pieces with rice from memory.

And there's me, suffering from culture shock, physically knackered, Westernly guilty, stupidly ignorant, but strangely starting to make sense of what cannot be made sense of - I remember talking with one man who said words to the effect of:
You see all this? You want to change it? Make it all how you live? It is impossible. You can only be rich while we are poor. You want to change it? Then you have to give something up. There is a limit to wealth. It has to be shared. We can't magically make wealth. You have to give something up. Westerners have to give something up. That's why you will never change this...
Pyramid of Khufu/Cheops/Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt, smaller pyramid in foreground, Khafre on left