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Egypt - It's sounds and smells - Egypt Travel Story

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Title: Egypt - It's sounds and smells
I recently returned from 10 days in Egypt. While I was there I looked for stories. I wanted to remember things I could write about when I came home. Things to enlighten Americans about this exotic and alien country. To make us all better world neighbors. I did come back with stories, yes, but really, just shreds of stories. Opening sentences that led nowhere. An image here illuminated by a split second flash. An anecdote there. Impressions more than anything, that may or may not give insight into a complex society, one that is so different from ours. It was naive to think I could learn anything substantial to pass along in such a short time. But here goes anyway.

Cairo is loud and dirty. Every morning the muezzin woke us at 5:00 calling the faithful to prayer. There is no way to block out this unearthly sound. It is as loud and as persistent as an air-raid siren. In the morning smog obscures the city. At the end of the day your nose is filled with soot and blood because of the smog and the dust that blows in from the Western Desert, and because the desert climate dries your sinuses.

Egyptian drivers do not obey traffic signals or bother with traffic lanes. Think of the traffic at the end of a Patriots’ game or a concert at Great Woods. Now think of that traffic going 40 miles per hour. Cairenes constantly lean on their horns, so during the day Cairo sounds like one big American wedding. At night they don’t use their lights. Their driving habits make crossing the street a dangerous adventure. Still, I never saw one traffic accident the whole time I was there.

I don’t have words to describe the Great Pyramids at Giza. I’ve never seen anything like them, and I’ve been to just about every major U.S. city, and a lot of foreign capitals, too. Unfortunately, the Egyptians have turned the area into a circus. It’s impossible to contemplate the pyramids’ enormity without being pestered to ride a camel or buy a postcard or a trinket. The suburb of Giza butts right up to the site. There are houses, then a street, then a parking lot for tour buses and taxis, then the Sphinx. I always had been under the impression they were out in the middle of nowhere, but I should have known better. Civilization is encroaching everywhere.

Mummies conjure contradictory feelings. The mummies in the Egyptian museum are unwrapped. They are 3,000-year-old bodies, replete with hair, teeth, and fingernails. Seti I and Ramesses II were the most powerful men on the planet at one time. But physically they were so tiny— about the size of a sixth grader. And now they lie in glass cases so tourists can gawk at them.

Everyone in Egypt seems to have a cousin in the States, and extraordinarily it seems they all live either in Philadelphia or Chicago.

Egypt’s primary source of income is tourism, but, since 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, tourists have been reluctant to visit. Mostly you see French and German tourists. The drop in tourism seriously affected the populace’s income. It doesn’t appear as if the government has done anything to alleviate the problem. Instead, businesspeople redouble their efforts to make a pound, worth about thirty-four cents. You can’t walk out the front door of your hotel without being accosted by a taxi driver, or stroll down any street without someone scooting up next to you trying to entice you to visit his bazaar. The notion that you may be capable of deciding whether or not you need a taxi, or whether or not you wish to shop, is absent. In Luxor you literally can’t move 15 yards without being approached. On one hand it is extremely irritating to be bothered so much. But it does bring you into contact with an extraordinary amount of people. And also one can’t help to think that these people are desperate for business. They are only trying to make a living. They see an American and see an opportunity for business. To them, Americans are beyond wealthy. What we have is beyond the average Egyptian’s comprehension. A taxi driver asked me what kind of car I drove. I didn’t have the heart to tell him most Americans have at least two cars.

Egyptians appear to be a proud people, whatever a generalized statement like that means. They refuse to beg. Instead, they operate under a concept called baksheesh. Some people think baksheesh means bribery, or an aggressive form of tipping. Actually, loosely translated, baksheesh means “share the wealth.” Kind of like, “you’ve got it, I don’t, give some to me.” Baksheesh can be taken to ridiculous heights. If you ask directions from someone on the street, chances are that person will expect baksheesh. But they don’t beg, and the idea of welfare seems insulting. They earn their money, no matter how small the amount, no matter how small the labor.

One of the most wonderful smells in the world comes from ma’assil , a tarry kind of tobacco, burning in a sheesha, or a water pipe. It smells like the incense Catholics burn in church. In the street below our hotel in Cairo there was a coffee shop, a place where men traditionally go after hours to play backgammon, dominos, and smoke sheeshas. The smell of burning ma’assil is so strong it came into my open balcony door 14 floors up.

Egypt is predominantly Muslim, but it is a moderate country so fundamentalist practices are not overtly evident. Along the Corniche Road in Cairo, which runs along the Nile, we would even see couples sitting closely in the shadows, touching one another. We didn’t see a lot of this, but enough to realize that the word “Muslim” doesn’t mean fundamentalist any more than “Christian” does in the United States.

While the sights are what impress you during the moment in Egypt, they are receding with time and what I find myself remembering are the people we met. Sayed, the Bedouin whose cousin sewed appliqué pillowcases, and Kamal, who could do a perfect American accent. There was the felucca skipper who called himself Shakespeare because he claimed he had studied English literature. Mohammed, who ran the Internet Café in Luxor. Abdul, and his little nephew who took us out on the Nile in their family’s felucca. The shoeshine boy, who yelled out, “Where’s your heart?” after I declined a shoeshine. (Let it be known that I reentered the U.S. with a very shiny pair of hiking boots.) There was the taxi driver who spirited me away behind a mortuary temple at Giza so I could take pictures of the sun going down behind the pyramids. The list could go on for a page with the roll call of the major and minor characters we encountered.

The thoughts and impressions keep coming. Egypt can be a shock to your cultural system, and coming home is like awakening from a dream. You ask yourself, did I really stand in the shadow of the pyramids? Did I really see a dog being stoned? What did I learn? And what can I do?

Reviews (1)

thats sooo true, at which hotel did u stay in cairo???