Diary of a Traveller

Copyright © 1985 Daniel V. Klein

More from "Diary of a Traveller", and again I hope you like it. (The traveller is me, in case you wondered).

Tuesday, 13 Aug. 1985

Cairo/Giza - I returned to this bleak mass of humanity with even more trepidation than I had in returning to Israel. On the way in, I had the good fortune to sit next to a very attractive Australian woman who was travelling on her own. She had recently left her husband, and was making the trip to Europe and the mid-east, partially, I am sure, as a cathartic to help purge herself of the ghosts of her past failed relationship. She was the daughter of child refugees from Europe, and they named her Renata - rebirth - in honor of Italy, the country that had given them succor after the war. Though it sounds quite prejudiced (especially from a kinsman) she was one of the most non-materialistic, self assured, unspoiled, intelligent Jewesses that I have ever met. I suppose that primarily having been exposed to New York City queens, I am a bit biased in my opinions, but it was still very refreshing to meet her, nonetheless. We talked most of the 80 minute flight, and I admitted that when we landed, I was at once both glad and unhappy to be back in Egypt. I had almost decided not to go to Cairo at all, but fortunately I dismissed those notions easily enough. She asked me why this vacillation - why was I unsure, and I told her, perhaps first realizing it for myself, that I was afraid. Not of being alone in an Arab country, no, for Egypt is about as safe as you can get in the mid-east and admit to being a Jew.

No, I guess I was more afraid of being in an alien land with alien people, and of the constant assault of the crowd of vendors at every public spot. Remembering my initial culture shock the first time I was here - of shrinking in abject terror into my hotel room after a 2 1/2 hour taxi ride for a distance of 20 km, amid dust and noise, and blaring horns - cars, busses, donkey carts and camels, bicycles, trucks, motorcycles, hand carts and pushwagons, all crammed into that inexorably flowing crush of traffic that can be Cairo in the daytime - I was leery of a repeat performance. But it turned out that in 5 years, things have changed a bit in Egypt. One must still exchange $150 at the border, but the "official" rate at which one must exchange is now 90% of the bank rate, instead of a measly 65%. And taxi fares are now relatively fixed, instead of mad bartering and innumerable rip-off's. These rip-off's are now a small degree less frequent, and usually only to very gullible tourists.

They will try to rob you here, but no one steals. It is a funny distinction, but while they may not be tremendously honest, the Egyptians are at least very honorable. When one agrees on a price, it is done - but getting the agreement is the rough part. To go back on an agreement is an affront, an almost unconscionable breach of an ingrained moral code of ethics. To get the best deal possible is a given - but to welsh on a deal is unheard of. Thus it is with guard raised that I enter the souk to bargain for the wondrously inlaid boxes, papyri, brasses, and spices that abound there. "How much for this? Oh, sir, only 26 pounds. Come now, I can get it down the alley for only 12. Twelve? Oh, no, that would break me. It is too low. I like you, I will give it to you for 22. Please, I have been here before! You insult me! Fourteen is much more fair. Oh, sir, pardon me, I would mean no offense to you, (Ali, fetch some tea), but I must make some profit, 19 is the lowest I can go. Well, I would like to buy four, but I cannot pay more than 16 - I am running out of money. Oh, you ruin me - but since you wish to buy many, and you are a nice man, I will give them to you for 18, but I cannot go lower. Yes, but I will buy four of these, and more things besides. Seventeen and 1/2? Hmmm. Let me ask my father." And with this, I know that I have bargained to his limit, and also to a fair price. Ismail comes out, and we talk, and drink tea, and I agree to buy the four items. But as they are wrapped, I do not need to verify that I am not being cheated - for I know that to do so would be dishonorable, and these are honorable people. Of course, when I say I will pay in dollars (a valued commodity), Ismail tells me that the exchange rate today is 140. I politely inform him that it was 150 when I entered the souk. He asks, a little contritely, "145?". Done! And we have a deal, and go on to more business. Once the rules of the game are learned, it is indeed a fun game to play! But the learning can be harrowing.

Sunday, 18 Aug. 1985

Luxor, in the Valley of the Kings. The day began at 6:00, and already the temperature was 90 degrees. By the time we got moving at 8:30, it was broaching 100. At two, the thermometer hit 112. I was lucky. The week before it hit 118.

There is no sunlight here. It is solar radiation, and you can feel your brain slowly cooking inside your head, the proteins coagulating as the heat slowly overloads your homeostatic regulatory systems. Today I drink 3 bottles of mineral water - four and a half liters - but I do not feel any perspiration, except where my backpack touches the small of my back, and there I am soaked. In spite of all the fluid I take in, I pee about 1/2 cup the whole day. The rest leaves as sweat. The humidity here is so low that you never notice the evaporation - you just drink all day, even if you are not thirsty. Waiting for your mouth to parch is courting heatstroke. You just drink, and move slowly. The kaffiyeh is a wonderful invention - the dishrag and fan-belt arrangement that the bedouins wear - as is the jalubeah (the long flowing robes). Without them, you are 10 times hotter. It is amusing to see new tourists here in tee shirts and shorts, and then to see them later gasping in the shade, exhausted from the heat. It is far better to eschew western dress, and "go native". To think that this clime once supported the cradle of civilization is a stunning realization. In Luxor, the landscape is forbidding, almost lunar in nature. Huge boulders, stark shadows, glaring, blindingly brilliant sunlight, and there, seeming so out of place, a palatial monument, with soft, curved columns, statues, deeply incised hieroglyphs and pictographs - trebly beautiful in these surrounds. And the statues! Faces long dead, staring out of stone eyes that have seen the passing of more than three thousand years - and still they seem so alive!

Monday, 19 Aug. 1985

Snaphots of dinner - a grand hotel in the old style - 16 foot ceilings, an old hoist elevator in the center of a staircase. Egyptian motif painted as a line of pseudo-hieroglyphs near the ceiling. A stripling rose, clenched tight against the heat, yet with a woundrously strong scent. A lizard climbing the window screen, its tail bobbing in final salute to each insect he catches. The food - not spicy, but hearty and overplentiful for the heat. A cat, wandering about, looking for scraps - obviously with a rangy mind, but with a full enough belly. (No one "owns" cats or dogs here, they merely share the living space. I have seen packs of dogs roaming the darkened streets, but these are scavengers, not hunters). Gardens, shimmering in the heat, but oh! so green against the brown of the desert.

Aswan - the unfinished obelisk, too great in dimensions to capture on film, and certainly too great to believe it could ever have been moved - 1107 tons! The cataract, with faluccas, and the Nubans who offered me lunch merely because I was a stranger, everything from fish, to tea, to grapes, to water and bread. Playing "tennis" with them, and exchanging trinkets. Feeling incredibly at peace the farther south I go, and harder always to go north again.

Kind, gentle people - 10 piasters at dinner for a tip is too much, sir. Giving a pound for a special ride to Abu Simbel (after missing the bus from being in the WC), being politely refused, many times, until I press it on him, genuinely grateful. Caught in the bustle of crushing crowds, and seeing the true meaning of the catch phrase "Ensh'allah" (God's will). The bus is late - Ensh'allah. Can you help me - Ensh'allah. (Air Sudan is sometimes called "Ensh'allah Airlines"). Being as relaxed here as ever I have been.

Egypt is the most dirty, crowded, brown, dismal, oppressive, squalid, backwards, filthy, disorganized, ramshackle place I have ever been in my life. But for all this, I would not have missed it for the world! In a place of despair, the hopelessness is etched in the peoples' faces. But here, there is only hope, with a resignation to a slow and tortuous path, but always hope! I saw no children that did not look contented, and in children one always finds the mirror of the peoples' soul.

It is said that once you drink from the waters of the Nile, you must return. And I must return again, I must.