The Chaotic Culture of Cairo

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Cairo…Lord help me…I wasn’t ready. Cairo is a HUGE city of over 25 million people.  It is chaotic, has the worse environmental, health and safety issues I’ve ever seen…and in spite of all that, it is magnificent.  In order to enjoy Cairo, you have to look past the current state of modern Cairo and imagine what it was like thousands of years ago.

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We start out today by taking a bus for 3 hours from Alexandria to Cairo. On the way, the tour guide gives us a history lesson (which conflicts with the history lesson from the Alexandria/Luxor tour and makes me consult my guidebook because you know how I am about details). Anyway, she does give us this tidbit as we pass this cone-shaped construction…

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It’s a pigeon coop and apparently, pigeons are considered a delicacy in Egypt. They construct these coops to trap the pigeons then kill them and eat them. I’m sure they taste just like chicken. My first thought was of Petey…the pigeon who took a dump on my coat in Florence. He better watch his back if he ever vacations in Egypt because Ahkbar will be like, ‘guess who’s coming to dinner?’

So, we get to Cairo and it’s instant chaos. Imagine 25 million people trying to get around the city. I’m going to break this post into the “good”, “bad” and “just plain sad”.

THE GOOD

Egyptian Museum
This museum alone is enough to bring me back to Cairo. It holds most of the treasure from King Tut’s tomb and words cannot describe how magnificent the treasure is. It is hard to imagine that there was that type of skilled artistry that many years ago. I expected crude drawings but this was delicate & masterful. The marble jars that held his organs were the most beautiful things I’ve seen. And, his bed? OMG. There was also a papyrus chair that looks like you can sit in it now. It’s just amazing how this stuff lasted for so long. And, how much they had! I mean, they had big patio umbrellas, boomerangs, huge beds, chaise lounges…you name it. They were living large back in the day! We were not allowed to take any pictures or even bring your camera off the bus so I apologize for not being able to show you these works of art. King Tut’s treasure does travel to other museums from time to time so I highly suggest you check it out if it comes to a city near you. I promise that you will not be disappointed.

Pyramids of Giza & the Sphinx
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Seeing the pyramids and sphinx up close was amazing. Now, I will be honest with you…you are going to have to block out a lot of foolishness and really FOCUS ON THE MOMENT. Because the hustlers are out in full force. You thought the hustlers in Luxor were bad? That was the B team. These are the professionals.

The pyramids aren’t in the desert…they are right there on the edge of town. Look to the left and there is a KFC/Pizza Hut. But, once you look right and go up the hill, it’s all pyramids. It took over 2 million stones to make the Great Pyramid.

The Giza Plateau which houses the pyramids is older than the Valley of the Kings. While Thebes and Alexandria were capitals of Egypt during pharaonic rule, Memphis may have been the original capital. The Great Pyramid was built around 5000 years ago and became the necropolis (royal burial ground) for Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. It took less than 100 years to build all 3 pyramids.
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There were also smaller Queens’ Pyramids which were constructed for the wives and important relatives of the pharaohs.
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Then there is the Sphinx which is the guardian of the Giza Plateau. It’s known to the Arabs as ‘Abu al-Hol’ or the “father of terror”.
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THE BAD

The Hustlers.

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You could barely enjoy yourself because of how commercial it has become outside the major sites. You know it’s bad when they have to prepare you and give you “talking points” before you leave the bus. The professional hustlers are in cahoots with the cops. They play this game where they will trick you into paying them more money and if you refuse, they loud talk you and the police will come over and make you pay the hustler or face jail. Ridiculous. It’s just a very aggressive peddle market and if you aren’t prepared, it will overwhelm you. So, if you ever go over there, be on the lookout for 2 hustles.

1. The Camel Ride. The hustler will start by telling you it’s $100 to ride a camel for 5 minutes. Then, you negotiate down to $5. You have to be very specific and tell them that the $5 is for the ENTIRE THING. Because, they will charge you $5 to get on the camel…then $100 to get you off. That’s right. You could be held hostage on a camel. The fair price for a 15 minute camel ride is $10. Now, since the camels stank to high heaven, I decided I’d just get my picture taken next to one. This required every negotiation tactic I possessed. See, hustlers sense weakness. You have to go in confident and not show any doubt or insecurity with them or they will loud talk you. So, I just went in with the “I’m from the ATL…I ride MARTA, you can’t hustle me” attitude. I asked Muhammed how much it would cost to take a picture with the camel and his response? “Whatever you want to pay.” Naw, playa. I’mma need you to agree to a fixed price. So, I responded with, “will you accept $2?” He was like, “whatever you want to pay. It can be free. I’m not worried about the money.” Buddy, I’m from the ATL. You can’t hustle me. I already got caught up in the sphinx booty hustle in Luxor. I’m hustled out. So, I said to him, “you specifically agree to $2 because that is what I’m paying you.” He nodded and tried to distract me. Uh uh. Buddy…I’m from the A.T.L. Home of Grand Hustle Records. Please. So, I take the pic and you can see from the smile on his face that he thinks he’s about to pull a major hustle.
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After I take the picture and start to pull out the money, Muhammed was like, “most people pay me $7 or $10”. I was like, “well, you agreed to $2”. He then proceeded to give me a look like he was about to start loud-talking me…I then looked him dead in the eye, gave him the $2 and walked away.  I’ve watched Star Wars a hundred times…I know how to pull off a Jedi mind trick.  Don’t hate the playa, hate the game. Ha!

2. “Free” gifts. After I leave Muhammed, this kid comes up with something that he says is a gift. It’s supposedly free. I already knew about that hustle too. See, I go on the Rick Steves website and see what the current hustles are in each country & city I visit. There was nothing about the sphinx booty so I got caught slipping but I was determined not to make that mistake twice. So, when the hustlers try to give you something (even a “free” gift), you cannot accept it because it magically becomes worth a certain amount of money. So, Lil Buddha comes up and is like, “my father wants me to give you this. It’s good luck and will protect you.” I was like, “no thanks” because I already bought the evil eye in Turkey. I also got Jesus and I don’t need nobody else. After telling him no, he suddenly doesn’t understand English and keeps following me around and trying to lay this gift on my shoulder then arm. I was ducking my shoulder so much I felt like I was doing the wobble. So, after about the 10th time of me saying “no”, he then tells me the gift is from his mother. I was like, “the answer is still no. I don’t want it. Back up off me little boy.” Shoot.

The Just Plain Sad

Environmental, Health & Safety
Sigh. The most shocking thing for me to see was how dirty the city of Cairo is. I cannot remember seeing a trashcan and trust me, I was looking. The canals and streets are littered with trash.

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When someone asked the bus driver to throw a can of soda and potato chip bag away since they couldn’t find a wastebasket on the bus, he threw it on the sidewalk outside the bus! I was like, ‘the hell?’ Seriously? Even the Nile River was dirty! Looking at how squalid the living conditions are and how dirty and unsanitary things are really makes you not want to eat or drink ANYTHING. I’m sure quite a few people are walking around with scavies.

Why won’t the government establish an environmental protection agency to clean this mess up? That could create thousands of jobs that are sorely needed. It would increase the life span and reduce health issues. It’s ridiculous when I can look into a river and see dead fish…or see fumes rising from piles of trash in the center of the city. I can’t get over people littering like that either. Take some pride in your city! I’ve just never seen such squalor & dirtiness on this grand of a scale. If folks are gonna hustle something, hustle some Clorox.

I was reading the Egyptian Mail newspaper which is written in English and has lots of great articles. I’m hoping they have an online edition because if you want to really understand what is going on in Egypt, this newspaper breaks it down and is totally entertaining.  Recently, there was an article of a 6-year-old boy who died because he fell out of a window at school. Where are your safety procedures? Why were kids playing around an open window on the 5th floor?

Poverty
I think this had to be the most depressing thing for me. The city is so poor. With 50% of people out of work, they struggle to survive. Of course, I did see men out smoking “hookah” and just hanging out since they didn’t have a job. Don’t they need to be on monster.com or something? I know the hookah stuff aint free so save your Egyptian pounds for food. As you can see from the pics below, it’s hard to imagine living this way.

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There is a strong history of governmental corruption in Egypt and you can see by the disparity in living conditions. You can see how most folks in the city live above. Now look at the palatial estate below.

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Egyptian officials sold a lot of land at a HEAVILY discounted rate to rich folks who aren’t using the land to help the poor but to build high-end luxury homes. You know, if certain governmental officials would stop selling Egyptian antiquities to folks in other countries for cheap and accepting kickbacks, they could earn enough money to clean the city up. Which brings me to my next point…

The kids.
There are tons of kids out hustling. They are like 5-12 years old!
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They don’t go to school because they earn so much from hustling tourists! Apparently, they end up having drug problems when they get older because they don’t know how to handle having that much money. Also, they pay off the government so they will look the other way and allow them to be truant.

Color Complex
Like just about any country on this earth, there is a color complex in Egypt. The lighter you are, the more beautiful you are by society standards. While we have a product line in the US called, “Dark n Lovely”, they have one called “Fair n Lovely”.

The Funny
So, now I’m going to get to a couple of funny things that happened. Apparently, if you are a black American, you are automatically an Obama. Everywhere we went, we heard, “Obama Family!” I’m not sure if my brother is Malia or Sasha. 

On the way back to Alexandria, we were involved in a bus accident. The bus sideswiped a car on the highway (they drive so crazy here) and instead of pulling over and exchanging insurance information and calling the police, the bus driver speeds up and runs away from the scene of the accident. So, we are now fugitives from the law. Lord help me.

Overall, going to Egypt was a great experience. I would suggest you add it to your list of places to visit…even if it is just to see the Egyptian Museum. Once you get past the hustlers and the filth of the city, you can really see why Cairo has so much to offer.

 

Photos of the Day: Alexandria, Egypt

We arrived in Alexandria around 6am…just in time to see the sun rise. I could hardly sleep the night before in anticipation for what I’d get to see. The first thing I notice as we pull into port is that the water in the harbor is dirty and there are sunken ships (which were actually pretty cool).

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Alexandria is the capital where Cleopatra ruled from 51-30 BC. The city was named for Alexander the Great when he conquered Egypt from the Persians. The story of Cleopatra is fascinating. One thing I did not realize is that she was a descendant of Greeks (Ptolemy, who was a general of Alexander the Great). Cleo was highly educated (she spoke 8 languages) and hard core (she killed her sister to have the throne). A big thing back in the day was for sisters and brothers to marry each other and procreate to keep the royal bloodline going. Of course, this resulted in genetic deformities and poor health for the offspring (see the latest article on the DNA testing of King Tut) as well as a touch of the crazy. Anyway, Cleo was married off to her brother (Ptolemy XIII aka “P13”) but she was like, “this is gross and I’m out.” So, she ended up falling out with him and Julius Caesar had to resolve the conflict of who should rule Egypt. P13 thought he could outsmart his sister and keep her from using her charms to get Caesar to rule in her favor. But, he underestimated her. Where there is a will, there is a way. Cleo had herself rolled up in a carpet and was taken right past her brother’s guards in the palace to Caesar. She put her charms on, was granted the right to rule Egypt and made Caesar her first baby-daddy.

After Caesar was killed (“et tu, Brutus?” is one of my favorite lines), Cleo put her charms on Marc Antony and had 3 kids by him. Marc ended up living in Alexandria and boozing it up. When he was defeated by Octavian (Caesar’s heir to the Roman throne and his rival), he was told that Cleo was dead. So, he killed himself. Cleo actually wasn’t dead and when she found out Marc had committed suicide and she had lost the throne to Egypt, she killed herself by having a deadly snake, an asp, bite her. It’s so tragic. Her kids ended up being taken to Rome where the boys were killed so they wouldn’t pose a threat to Octavian but her daughter, Cleopatra Selene, was allowed to live and ended up becoming the Queen of Mauretania.

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Walk Like an Egyptian…

“Naharak Saeed” (“Good Day”) from Egypt!  I struggled with how I would blog about my visit.  Egypt is complex, a bit schizophrenic & absolutely breathtaking.  I’ve been waiting my entire life to visit this magnificent place.  In one day, I found myself in awe of the great works that were achieved thousands of years ago…and then repulsed by current conditions.  As always, I’m planning to keep it real so you are going to get Egypt straight with no chaser.  I hope you are ready!

I read several books on Egypt in order to educate myself on the history & culture of the country.  The history of the pharaohs can get a bit complicated so I’ll try to simplify it as best I can.  I am going to give you a quick background so that you will understand my reaction to certain situations I recount later.

BACKGROUND

Religion

Islam is the official religion of Egypt (with about 90% of the people being Sunni Muslim) which means that it’s a pretty conservative country.  Women must cover up (long sleeves and pants even in the HOT sun) and drinking and gambling in public are frowned upon.  That already puts me out of the mix as I don’t like to be wearing a lot of clothes when it’s hot and how am I supposed to hit the jackpot without a cool alcoholic beverage to clear my mind?   However, I believe in trying to live like a local so I wore long pants and a long sleeved shirt (and reserved my drinking for home).

Gender Issues

I read an article a couple of years ago which focused on Egypt having a high rate of sexual harassment.  The article stated that Egyptian men think western women are “loose” (since we drink and wear tank tops).  If you expose a lot of skin, the men think this is an “invitation” and may expose their genitalia as an offer for sex.  Recently, I read an article on “Using social media tools to battle sexual harassment in Egypt by Rima Abdelkader, NBC News which said “The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights in Cairo called harassment in Egypt a dangerous social cancer in a survey in 2008. The survey reported that 98 percent of foreign women were sexually harassed and 83 percent of Egyptian women experienced harassment throughout Egypt.”   I don’t know why the men just don’t import some of those erotic calendars from Pompeii.  They may not have access to the internet but they can certainly carry those calendars around to satisfy their lust.  I found them in a pocket-size version.  A little something for freaks on the go.

My guidebook also recommended that women not look a man directly in the eye as it is seen as an “invitation”.  That was hard for me because I am used to looking people in the eye as a show of respect (plus it shows that I’m listening to you).  If my eyes drift…so has my mind.  I’m not saying it’s right, it’s just how it is.  I think I suffer from adult ADD.  Anyway, I made sure to wear sunglasses the majority of the time because I didn’t want men thinking I’m soliciting them for sex.  But, um…there were some really good-looking men in Egypt 🙂

I also observed a man offer 5 camels to buy a woman from the man that she was with.  Apparently, in Egypt, camels are currency & women are commodities.  So, you could be walking along the Nile River and Ahkbar could just come up and be like, “I’ll give you 7 camels for Betty.”  It happens.  Better hope your boo doesn’t owe too much to Bank of America because you may be making papyrus on the Nile.

Environmental, Health & Safety Issues

We were told COUNTLESS times not to drink the water or eat any uncooked food.  While this is what you hear whenever you go to Mexico, it’s on a whole new level in Egypt.  I will cover this in more detail in the next post on Cairo (as that is when it really hit home).  This was the most shocking and disappointing aspect to the trip.

Poverty

Egypt has a 50% unemployment rate.  I will touch upon this issue in the next blog post since it has not only a rural impact but a major urban one as well.  This is where “hustlin’” was born.  I thought it was bad in the Dominican Republic.  They are amateurs compared to the Egyptians.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  There has been a lot of governmental corruption so be prepared for me to get on my soap box. 

What is Egypt like?  I think the answer is different for each person.  It’s all in what you make of it.  If you love history (like me) then you will be able to see past the crazy, absurd and disappointing to focus on the beauty of this African country.  So, let’s get started! 

ALEXANDRIA

We arrived in Alexandria around 6am…just in time to see the sun rise.  I could hardly sleep the night before in anticipation for what I’d get to see.  The first thing I notice as we pull into port is that the water in the harbor is dirty and there are sunken ships (which were actually pretty cool).  

Alexandria is the capital where Cleopatra ruled from 51-30 BC.  The city was named for Alexander the Great when he conquered Egypt from the Persians.   The story of Cleopatra is fascinating.  One thing I did not realize is that she was a descendant of Greeks (Ptolemy, who was a general of Alexander the Great).  Cleo was highly educated (she spoke 8 languages) and hard core (she killed her sister in order to have the throne).  A big thing back in the day was for sisters and brothers to marry each other and procreate in order to keep the royal bloodline going.  Of course, this resulted in genetic deformities and poor health for the offspring (see the latest article on the DNA testing of King Tut) as well as a touch of the crazy.  Anyway, Cleo was married off to her brother (Ptolemy XIII aka “P13”) but she was like, “this is gross and I’m out.” So, she ended up falling out with him and Julius Caesar had to resolve the conflict of who should rule Egypt.  P13 thought he could outsmart his sister and keep her from using her charms to get Caesar to rule in her favor.  But, he underestimated her.  Where there is a will, there is a way.  Cleo had herself rolled up in a carpet and was taken right past her brother’s guards in the palace to Caesar.   She put her charms on, was granted the right to rule Egypt and made Caesar her first baby-daddy.

After Caesar was killed (“et tu, Brutus?” is one of my favorite lines), Cleo put her charms on Marc Antony and had 3 kids by him.  Marc ended up living in Alexandria and boozing it up.  When he was defeated by Octavian (Caesar’s heir to the Roman throne and his rival), he was told that Cleo was dead.  So, he killed himself.  Cleo actually wasn’t dead and when she found out Marc had committed suicide and she had lost the throne to Egypt, she killed herself by having a deadly snake, an asp, bite her.  It’s so tragic.  Her kids ended up being taken to Rome where the boys were killed so they wouldn’t pose a threat to Octavian but her daughter, Cleopatra Selene, was allowed to live and ended up becoming the Queen of Mauretania.