Thursday, May 30, 2013

Day 2: Giza and the Pyramids

Although today would be our second day in Egypt, we decided that we wanted to see the Pyramids early.  We had taken notice of the lack of tourists that are in Egypt.  In fact, we thought that much of that had been over-exaggerated, but the reality is that we had only seen a handful of other tourists when at the market.  In fact, when we traveled by bus around the city we were often the only two tourists on board.

What has been over-exaggerated is the threat in Egypt since the revolution.  We are staying close to Tahrir Square, where much of the action has happened in Egypt, and we have noticed that everything is pretty quiet now.  Many businesses, however, are suffering.  The reality is that Egypt is currently a very safe place to visit, and many of the people who have been coming here are saying the same thing.

With that said, let's get to the meat of the post, shall we?  We decided that we wanted to see the pyramids, so we awoke and made our way to the Tahrir square bus station.  The station is spread out under some highway overpasses and is quite difficult to navigate.  There are small restaurants all over the place, and some people sell juice and falafel and the like for the typical prices of 1 to 2 EGP each.  At the time of this writing, one US dollar is worth close to 7 EGP.

Well, we decided that we were going to take the bus, which is only 2 EGP for an air conditioned bus or 1 EGP for a non-AC bus to the pyramids in Giza.  We had no idea how difficult finding these buses would be.  The bus station was packed full of buses, with all the numbers written in Arabic.  I had enough foresight to learn how to read Arabic numbers before heading to Egypt, but it would still be a challenge.  I knew that there were four buses that went to the pyramids from this station, but finding them would be another story.  After asking a bevy of bus drivers we had an idea of the general direction.

We waited in the hot sun as cars zoomed past us and fumes filled our nostrils.  Even though it was around 8:30 AM, it was very hot in the desert sun.  We waited and waited and a bus came by quickly and the driver said something.  After it registered in our minds that he said Giza Pyramids, the bus was long gone.  We would wait another 30 - 45 minutes in the blistering sun before a bus arrived.  It almost left us, but a man was nice enough to get it to stop and we boarded, hot and already somewhat dehydrated.  We were on our way to the pyramids though, and for that we were glad.

The ride was longer than we thought it would be, and we thought it would be long.  This does not tell you much about the actual ride however, so let me fill you in.  We went from the bus station in downtown Cairo, along the Nile and across it to an island where we crossed yet again.  Then we followed a host of traffic down a seemingly endless straightaway with cars, vans, buses, and motorcycles everywhere.  After the long journey we came upon, in the distance, the pyramids rising over the outskirts of the city.  It was quite a site to behold.  Our bus circled around and came to its final stop at Giza, the site of the pyramids!  We disembarked the bus and entered the intense heat.

Upon climbing off of the bus, we made our way along the street up a small hill.  A man came up to us and started talking to us about how to view the pyramids.  It all seemed fishy, so we saw a tourist information office and went in quickly.  While inside the tourist office and talked to one of the ladies who told us to not talk to anyone, but instead go to the entrance at the top of the drive.  We left, thanking her, and made our way in that direction.  We were immediately accosted.

A man came out, brandishing a grin and eyes shining like desert pearls in the moonlight.  His lips moved slowly as he formed dastardly discourse.  "This way," he said, leading us.  Then he made an abrupt left into a stable.  I knew this was not the way.  He was the first of many camel men.  I followed for a moment, perhaps to humor him.  Or perhaps it was out of curiosity.  He told us it was illegal to follow the trail to the pyramids without an animal under us.  We found this hard to believe.  He then pointed at a lone tourist that was sitting in a cart and made an example of him.  "See, there are other tourists here," he said.  The poor kid looked terrified.  The smell of horses and camels in the hot sun mingled with our nostrils to create a scent that made us feel that we had enough stable time.  He continued to follow us, basically begging us to ride one of his animals, remaining adamant that it was illegal to walk up the pathway.  We continued to walk and reached the top.  He watched us and let us be.

Immediately upon reaching the entrance where one pays to enter the pyramids, another man came to help us.  He had his own agenda in mind.  He took us to where we were to pay and we purchased our tickets for the pyramids (30 EGP for entrance as students each) and a pair of tickets to go into the great pyramid, which was 50 EGP each as students.  Otherwise, prices are double.  We went through the turn style, thinking we lost our new friend, but he hoped the wall outside and came upon us, taking our tickets and telling us to follow him.  He insisted he was not a guide and instead worked for the police. We knew this not to be true.  We demanded our tickets back but he continued to walk quickly in front of us.  Beverly immediately stopped in front of some police and said she was not going any further until she got the tickets back.  The man complied.  We then stated we wanted to go on our own.  He let us be.

At that moment, a man on the back of a camel arrived and told us to trust nobody.  He said to not take anything from anyone who was offering items as gifts.  We nodded, and he followed us for the next half an hour on his camel, which was named Pepsi, suggesting that there were some good views out in the desert if one takes a camel out.  We said we were not interested but he said "think about it."  We nodded and told him that if we decided to take a camel, which we probably would not, it would be through him.

As we walked, people tried to hand us stuff.  One man put a small stone scarab on my arm and said "gift."  I gave it back.  Another man tried to give us a picture of the pyramids.  We told these people we were not interested.  We made our way up a long road that had a great view of the pyramids.  I think the camel guy that was following us was surprised that we walked the whole thing without a camel.  There were no other tourists walking up that way, but instead mostly buses and people on camels or horse buggies.  When we reached the area where everyone was standing we took some pictures.

It was in this area that the camel man started to really want us to ride his camel out into the desert where we could see the pyramids in a straight line.  He said it made a great picture.  We said thanks, but no thanks.  We had heard stories about people who rent camels and are left in the desert to either pay more or to walk back.  We also had heard stories about camels not letting one down unless one paid a lot of money (such as 50 EU).  I was not in the mood to go for that kind of ride, and I figured that if we do feel the need to ride a camel (which we do not), we will ride them somewhere less touristy.  Furthermore, I heard that some of the camel riders here were used in the "battle of the camel" at Tahrir square and felt that it was perhaps wrong to support that.

After talking for a while and being made to feel bad about the lack of tourists visiting the pyramid, we began to head back.  (The camels have no food, etc.) He slowly followed behind us and seemed to give up.  We decided that we would now go into the great pyramid.  We made our way to the pyramid, where we met a couple of new friends wanting to take pictures of us and sell us stuff.  We said no and made our way into the pyramid.  After climbing some stairs on the outside and giving up our camera, we were finally in the inside of the pyramid.  At first, it was cool in the shade, but as we made our way deeper in, the passageways became cramped, where I had to basically crawl through, and it was stifling hot.  The further we went in, the hotter it was.  We finally reached the middle where there was a huge ramp going up about 100 meters or so.  When we reached the top, we found ourselves in the room where the sarcophagus of Cheops was.  In the room there were air shafts and a guy who explained to us about the workings of the room.  He asked for some baksheesh, so we gave him a 1 EGP coin.  He seemed amused at how cheap we were.  After a while soaking it in, we returned to the outside.  As we climbed down the ramp, it looked like we were at an incredible height.

After being in the humid pyramid, it was nice to be outside.  At least until the camel man and a friend showed up, asking for us to ride their camel again.  He continued to say, "do you know how much it is to ride?" and we said 40 or 50 EGP and he said, yes, 40 EGP, but I will give it to you both for 35 EGP.  I still was wary of it and said I was not interested.  They both seemed impressed that Beverly was dressed in the Muslim fashion, with an abaya and headcovering.  They asked her if she was Muslim and she said no.  They smiled and said I was lucky and then let us be.

We decided that we wanted to go see the Sphinx before leaving.  We were not exactly sure where to find it, so we began to walk alongside the cliff that overlooked Cairo and made our way to the back of the pyramid.  As we got to the other side, a man approached us on his camel and told us about some of the tombs and where the Pharaoh's boat was found buried.  He mentioned a few of the tombs that we could go into but we said we had seen the inside of the pyramid already and were just walking.  He followed us, pointing out random areas, such as old tombs where workers were buried.  Some of them were open up and we looked inside as we walked.  As we made our way, he began to ask us about riding his camel and we said no.  He really wanted us to ride and he said he would follow us in case we changed our mind.  We continued to walk, looking for the Sphinx, but could not seem to find it.  After a while, the man on the camel said the Sphinx was just ahead and as we walked we began to see it peeking over the hill.  He asked again if we wanted to ride on his camel, and we said we were not interested.  Overall, he was pretty nice about the whole thing.

After looking at the Sphinx, we headed out through a gauntlet of shops selling all sorts of goods.  We met a little girl there who wanted us to buy her papyrus style bookmarks for 10 EGP.  I felt bad for her right away, but did not feel like supporting child labor.  I have heard stories of adults exploiting children for money and did not want a part of that, so I said thanks but we were not interested.  She did not want to take no for an answer, and she continued to follow us, begging us to buy.  I looked at Beverly, but she agreed with me.  She said no, and we walked our way through the town area outside.  The entire time the girl followed us, growing angrier at us for not buying.  At one point she began to yell at us and throw the item at us, telling us to take it.  Although I felt very bad for her, I still did not want to support whoever she was working for.  Eventually after perhaps twenty minutes of her following us and trying to block us from moving, the girl left.  We grabbed some lunch, some juice and went to find a bus.  At this point, three or so taxi drivers were following us telling us to ride with them.  Another camel guy came up to us and wanted us to go back to the pyramids and ride his camel.  We obviously said no way.  We spent about an hour waiting for a bus in the heat where some boys were training horses and preparing to take over the position of camel/horse touts at the pyramids one day.

After a very long wait, we finally got on a bus and waited another half an hour for it to leave. We made our way back to Cairo, but a different route, and missed our stop due to the bus passing through a very unfamiliar area where we were supposed to get off.  So, we ended up riding to a completely different part of the city and waiting another half an hour to head back.  When we got back to Tahrir square, we were hot, exhausted and thirsty.  We were let off at the side of a highway ramp and had to dodge cars and traffic while hanging from a wall before we could slide under the overpass and dodge traffic to safety.  One thing about Egypt is that there are very few crosswalks and lights.  Therefore, one has to run through 4-5 lanes of traffic, dodging moving cars that are honking at you, in order to cross.  It seems very dangerous, but it is how things are done here.  Drivers expect people to do it though and they usually just stop and lay on the horn while you run like a banshee.

We made our way to the Koshery restaurant for some lunch and back to our hostel afterwards.  Later that night I went out for some more Koshery for take away and brought it back.  We also had some rice pudding.  Then we went to bed.  The whole day cost 250 EGP total (around $37), which is not bad at all.

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