To wonder at the world

Cairo was a different land from Luxor. It was still hot. It was still desert. The faces still stared blatantly, questionably. The tourists swamped the sidewalks like Disneyworld. But there was a smog that filled the air, a pungent cloud that could only be the effect of 25 million people living together in one city. To give you an idea of what this is like, think of New York City, and all its towering skyscrapers filled with bodies: the locals, the commuters, and the drifters. And don’t just picture Manhattan with its romantic streets full of people, shoulder to shoulder. But picture all five of the boroughs. The entirety of New York City’s population is 8.5 million. Now picture that times three and add a hot, arid landscape with no trash disposal system. It’s actually a lot more beautiful than it sounds.

People tend to flock to wonders of the world. They are intriguing, and the Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest monument of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I’ve always had the idea that the pyramids would be placed strategically out in the desert, away from civilization, an invisible wall of admiration separating them from the smog of the city. But they weren’t. They were viewable from the streets and from the hotel windows. Right there, next to the bustle of a commercially driven world.

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The Great Pyramid of Giza.

Cairo shocked me in many ways. Such as the heaps of garbage everywhere. The bumper to bumper traffic, only much worse because the lines in the road were merely suggestive of traffic lanes. Every store our guide took us into yielded a different type of pride from the Luxor shop owners. These men owned stores next to one of the world’s wonders and they sold their antiquities to world travelers. They were proud to live in Cairo and to be Egyptian. Not that the people in Luxor weren’t, Cairo just encompassed it more.

Another thing that shocked me was a story for the newspaper that fell into my lap. A woman on the trip with me, Elizabeth Baker, took six soccer balls to a boys’ orphanage for her nephew, Kassem Akil. Akil used to live above that orphanage and befriended the orphans by playing soccer with them. He became so close to those boys, he started a program called “Soccer for Syrians” for his high school senior project. He raised more than 200 pounds of clothes and soccer gear to take to the Syrian refugees and to his friends at the orphanage this past summer. He’d tasked Baker with dropping off a few more soccer balls since she’d be in town, and she invited me to go with her. I was able to talk to some of Akil’s friends, photograph the boys playing soccer and then interview Akil about his experience with the project for an article I’m pretty excited to publish.

As soon as we got our bags through security at the hotel and retrieved our passports, Baker and I rushed back through the door to a private driver she’d hired. He drove fast and dangerously down the interstate, coming within centimeters of other cars. Trotting camels passed us on the road. Little boys lounged in the back of truck beds on top of piles of debris. Mopeds loaded with families of five whizzed between the nearly stopped traffic. Old, used-to-be white VW vans stopped in the middle of the streets to pick up passengers. The vans were used as taxis and the back ends were strapped permanently up to keep from overheating. Once, a van even jumped the sidewalk to skip the lines of traffic.

The orphanage was in a nicer area of town, yet still trash lined the streets. The driver said he would wait outside, so we cautiously walked through the open gate. More than a hundred boys in dusty shorts and sandals ran about within the fenced area. Some played with soccer balls so tattered, they no longer resembled balls. Some chased each other shrieking, and some sat in the dirt, content to watch the others. Yet, there were no adults. As soon as Baker said she was Kassem’s aunt, cheers whooped from the crowd of boys bunching in around us. I continuously shot photos as she slowly pulled the balls out of her bag and watched them all disappear within seconds.

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Baker handing out soccer balls to the boys.

Hopefully, they went to the right boys because they vanished amid a sea of grasping hands. After interviewing some of the boys, they took us to meet the directors of the orphanage, who didn’t speak English. The older boys insisted they play us music before we left, so we followed them into a room lit only by the afternoon sun streaming in through the windows. One of the older boys locked a gate behind us. Immediately little hands and eyes peered through the gate to watch the show. They proudly played us a couple of Arabic songs, we would later hear again at a wedding in the hotel. Proud doesn’t even begin to explain the smiles on their faces. They were ecstatic to share their talent with someone, especially Kassem’s aunt. They were so grateful to not only receive the balls, but hear that he was well.

After returning to the hotel that evening, we made it just in time to join the group to the laser light show over the pyramids and sphinx. Which, I would not recommend. It was interesting, but it was dark, so you couldn’t see the pyramids that well and the information and quality of the show was very outdated.

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The Sphinx faces East to greet the rising sun each day.

We toured the pyramids and crawled at a sweaty 45-degree-angle inside the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Eventually the upward angle leveled out and ended in a small, stone room: his burial chambers and sarcophagus. 4,500-year-old stone smoothed by the touch of millions of hands. I’ve seen ancient ruins before, but something about the intermingled simplicity and complexity of the pyramids is truly breathtaking. Although, there are many theories about the building process, one thing is commonly understood and that is years before anyone else discovered the mathematics of our world, the Egyptians had already incorporated those numbers into the architecture of the pyramids, and we still to this day have no idea how they did it. So much information was lost and it is magical. To touch something so ancient, something that has been studied and desired by so many people before, lost and found again, yet still stumps our world’s greatest minds.

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The camels we rode.

Here are some interesting facts about the pyramids:

  • There are roughly 140 pyramids in Egypt.
  • They (Great Pyramids) were originally covered in limestone; however, the limestone in most places was taken to be used in later monuments.
  • The Sphynx was built by the Pharaoh Khafre and represents his face.
  • There are six smaller pyramids surrounding the three Great Pyramids containing wives and other Pharaoh’s favorites. It was believed that if buried near the King, that person had a better chance of finding the afterlife.
  • Our guide told us that the stones are not held together by mud or a type of cement, but a recent theory is that they were somehow vacuum-sealed from the inside.
  • The Egyptians worshipped the Sun God Ra excessively, hence py-RA-mid. The pyramid’s shape, position and measurements possess many of the sun’s attributes and are numerically accurate when used in formulas to find the radius of the sun and the ratio from the earth to the sun.
  • The Great Pyramid is the most accurately aligned structure in existence and faces true north with only 3/60 error. It is believed that before minor shifting of the position of the north pole, it was at one point aligned exactly.

We rode camels around the pyramids. Both tickets to ride the camel around the pyramid and to go inside the actual pyramid cost me only $20 altogether. One U.S. dollar was the equivalent to about 17 Egyptian pounds while we were there. Our money stretched very far.

  • It should also be noted that money cannot be bought or exchanged outside of Egypt. So, if you have any leftover at the end of your trip, and don’t wish to keep it solely as a souvenir, I recommend exchanging it before your flight out of the country.
  • While on the topic of money, it should also be noted that tipping is expected in Egypt, for nearly everything. Be prepared to have change on hand if you wish to use the restroom. Although, in our group of eight. It was also acceptable to pay one U.S. dollar for everyone, males and females. U.S. money is widely accepted in Egypt and sometimes preferred. Also, not every public restroom will have toilet paper or running water, so also be prepared with tissues and hand sanitizer.
  • Some drivers and bag boys will expect tips, however, some guides and even waiters will deny a tip 2-3 times before accepting, especially towards a woman. I even had a waiter one night at dinner say okay, but put it in my pocket. He really did not want to appear to accept it. Very strange, but culturally normal.

We toured the National Museum and saw King Tut’s treasures. Currently, the National Museum is the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts in the world. But, a new “Grand Egyptian Museum” is currently under construction and estimated to be partially open in 2018. After completion, it will be the largest museum in the world. Conveniently, it’s very close to the pyramids.

We ended the day in the old town and this is where it really came in handy having a local guide and armed guard. Our guide warned us to stay close, then proceeded to twist and turn through streets that eventually began to resemble Diagon Alley from Harry Potter. The alleys became so narrow and the buildings rose so high that the daylight dimmed and we would have never found lunch on our own. He pulled chairs together in a protective corner filled with hookahs and dangling metallic lamps for sell. Scrawny cats began circling around our legs positioning themselves for dropped food. Our guide disappeared and reappeared with eggplant, falafel wraps and mint tea.

No one dared to harass us as we weaved through the Suk, one of the largest markets in the world, browsing carelessly. We were a pick-pocketer’s dream, our pale skin slathered in sunscreen, cameras dangling from our necks, clearly foreign tourists. With the safety of our armed guard trailing us, I learned the art of bargaining. Name your price, and slowly walk away. They will cave, and just about everything is negotiable in Egypt. Although I kept my bag on my chest, it wasn’t necessary. Everyone’s eyes were focused on the guard’s rifle, not our pockets. Jill, even left her camera at a stand and the man chased after her with it. We were absolute royalty.

So, I do believe that American tourists would be safe in solo groups smaller than five. In most large city areas, there are tourist police stationed, such as in tourist heavy areas of Europe like the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. However, if in doubt, put together the minimum of five and hire a private guide. Although unnecessary, it can add peace of mind to your travels in the Middle East.

Egypt was a culturally enriching experience. One I’d only ever read about in textbooks. Seeing it first-hand was incredible. Follow for an update on the next section of the adventure: climbing mountains in the lost city of Petra, floating in the dead sea, and eating a dinner cooked in the sand in a Bedouin camp.

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Onto the next adventure!

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