Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Mountains of Snot

A "felucca" pilot plying his craft on the Nile at sunset in Luxor. Photo taken on my trusty Treo 680.

Let's recap:

-bad back
-feverish
-no sleep in 24 hours or so
-jet lagged
-new item: head cold
-middle seat (groaaaan)

Fold all of that into a 20 hour travel stint from Cairo to Ottawa and you have my Tuesday, Jan 8, 2008.

My last minutes in Egypt were spent trying to get rid of all my Egyptian money. Remarkably, when you need them, there are no touts around to bilk you. So I did a tour of all the bathrooms in the airport and tipped all the bathroom attendants. Mind you, I couldn't find any male attendants anywhere, so I had to skulk around the womens' toilets waiting for the female attendant to emerge so I could pour cash into her hands.

Okay, that sounded way more creepy than I'd intended.

I hate the idea of restroom attendants. I get performance anxiety when I know there's someone skulking outside the stall with no other task but to monitor by excretions and, um, service my sanitary needs. Can there be a more demeaning job? So while I detest the service, I nonetheless feel for the servicepeople. And given that the airport was filled with European backpacker ingrates, I doubt that anyone else had been tipping these folks. Judging from the delight in their eyes when I rained sweet currency into their hands, I think I was correct.

That's me: the Santa Claus of toilet generosity. Okay, that too sounded way more creepy than I'd intended. Change of subject in 3, 2, 1....

To say I am relieved to be home would be accurate, though a tad underexpressed. I was further relieved to find my lone houseplant still clinging to life, and none of my "valuables" looted by curious neighbours. I've yet to venture down to the mail room, though, to check on my stack of junk mail.

What I have found, though, is that my piece of crap Dell Inspiron has once again crashed on me, and I cannot restart it. I am soooo through with Dell. Remarkably, for once in my life I had done something genuinely smart. Hours before I left for Egypt, I backed up EVERYTHING onto an external hard drive, so I'm sittin' pretty. And snotty.

Speaking of which, I'm also sucking back mountains of Neo Citran and sipping canned chicken broth (yummy, I know) in hopes that I will be well enough in a few hours to slouch to the office. I also hope I'll be well enough to attend this: a film about the mining exploitation of Guyana, to be screened at the National Archives later this evening. For free. So come. Once again, the link is www.undermined.ca.

That is all for today. See ya.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Last Night In Cairo

Me, about 3 steps up on the Great Pyramid of Khephren, the second biggest on the Giza Plateau. Photo by Andrew Currie.


Yes, I peed in the Temple of Karnak. And no, I'm not remorseful about it. See, I really really really had to go. And I should get points for managing to do it while hundreds (maybe thousands!) of tourists wandered by. Besides, the bloody structure has been standing in the open for thousands of years, exposed to rain, hail, wind, sand, light, cold and smog; it was meant to withstand a little urine. What it can't withstand is all the "officials" beckoning tourists to bribe them in exchange for access to the more delicate portions of the historic site.

These are my final few hours in Egypt. My back is still killing me, and I'm limping about like the villain of a 1930s horror movie. About 24 hours ago, I came down with a nasty fever and am still recovering. Mind you, if you're going to be sick in Egypt, it may as well be in the $300/night Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel, where my comfort knows no bounds. My illness, however, prevented me from visiting the Red and Bent pyramids, which would have been pretty cool.

A word about touts: several people have emailed me to offer advice on how to deal with aggressive touts and salesmen. While I appreciate the advice, I should point out that I'm no stranger to such behaviour, having travelled extensively in the developing world. Maybe it's something peculiar to this season, but the toutism in Egypt has been unbearably intense during our visit. The standard strategies of always saying no, saying nothing at all, feigning ignorance of English, or even carrying no money, sometimes don't work on this crowd. At Khan al-Khalili market in Cairo, touts would try to physically drag us into their stores! Some, upon being rebuffed, would shout insults to our backs. At one point, one of them even pulled me halfway out of a taxi I was attempting to board; I feared it would come to blows.

Of my decades of adventure travel, this has been my first experience with locals actually physically touching me in a menacing way. When I venture out alone, mind you, I look like an Arab and people pretty much leave me be. But in tourist rich areas, everyone is fair game for the occasionally threatening tactics, whether I'm with my white colleague or not. This is what I mean about Egypt's toutism being off the scale in terms of aggression, and why I would not recommend this place as a tourist destination for inexperienced travellers.

But for those who can tolerate such things, or who are willing to insulate themselves in tour groups or with expensive guides, Egypt is a fascinating place rich with living history and modern intrigue. Even the less aggressive touts become funny after a while. They all read from the same script. They ask where you're from, you say "Canada", and --to a man-- they reply, "Oh! Canada Dry!" Then they take another look at me and say, "You look Egyptian!" This happened so often that at first it was funny, then became annoying, then became funny again after we lost count of its occurrences.

On our last night in Luxor, Andrew and I enjoyed a sunset felucca ride down the Nile, just a few hundred metres from the West Bank and the Valley of the Kings. With a little bit of imagination, you could imagine Pharaonic boats plying the magic hour, or even the boats of Alexander come to claim their Egyptian jewel in the Persian war prize.

And this evening, I dined in the hotel's Italian restaurant, overlooking Cairo's stretch of Nile, as all around me, Italians, French, Germans and Arabs chain smoked and imbibed fatty foods. See, Egypt is, in many ways, more European than African. Europe has claimed it for millennia. It has been ruled by the British, the French, the Turks, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. All these nations still claim a sort of romantic ownership of the place. But it speaks well of the robustness of Egyptian culture that its centuries of occupation by foreign powers have in no way compromised Egypt's sense of itself.

The culture is so refreshingly robust that it seems to exist apart from ubiquitous American influence. The television is replete with Arabic and European content; American content is hard to find. Indeed, even American pop music is remarkably rare here, as the indigenous music and film industries are strong enough to weather any sort of competition.

Speaking of European TV content, I've been particularly enjoying the news broadcasts of France 24, an English language news station from France. I think I need to spend more time in Europe.

And speaking of US influence, I have neglected to report on one very interesting observation. When I arrived in Cairo airport last week, what did I see on the tarmac, kept at a respectful distance by security trucks and encircled by men in black suits and sunglasses? Yep, Air Force One. Or maybe it was one of the decoys. I can only assume it was on its way from Benazir Bhutto's funeral.

Our overpriced (and annoying) guide taking my photo on the Giza plateau, while Andrew photographs his butt crack. Photo by Andrew Currie.

As many of you know, I consider myself a bit of a massage connoisseur. I've travelled the world sampling different styles, and even learning a few. I'll try it all: Swedish, aromatherapy, Ayurvedic, Thai, Rolf, Shiatsu, reflexology.... so long as it involves me doing absolutely nothing, and someone else poking and prodding me to make me feel better, I'm all for it.

My stay in Egypt has been no different. During my ten days here, I've had three massages in three different hotels. (I figure the hotel masseuses/masseurs are most likely to be above board). Here's the rundown. The first one, given by a really goodlooking chick at the Pyramids Meridien in Giza, was a true waste of time. She giggled a lot and barely touched me, with made me more tense than when I went in. In retrospect, I wonder if she was hoping to solicit some of her "extra" services after hours. This seemed unlikely to me at the time, considering it was a family resort-style hotel.

The second one was given by a matronly middle-aged British nurse at the Movenpick hotel in Luxor. Hers was an airy-fairy aromatherapy approach, something I usually don't have a lot of tolerance for. But I was very surprised by the potency of this experience. While there was nothing special about the firmness or style of her touch, I suspect the order of her touches, combined with her choice of oils, just knocked me right out --in a good way!-- like I'd taken half a bottle of melatonin.

The last was just a few hours ago, a Swedish-style pounding given by a burly middle aged man who was probably a butcher in a previous life. I feel that I'm now ready to be marinated and placed on the grill.

Now, I'm typically a fan of the hard styles of massage, particularly Rolfing. But I have to conclude that in this trip, it was the aromatherapy massage that was tops. In case anyone cares.


In Other News

Congratulations to my parents on their 50th wedding anniversary! I'll be lucky to make it to my 50th birthday...

After the Iowa primaries, Gambling911.com has Obama ahead of Hilary in terms of betting odds. Not to me counted out, my man Al Gore still leads the pack with 5-1 odds. I'm not giving up on my prediction yet!

No one knows Pakistani intrigue like Brother Margolis.

Everyone has been sending me this: Intel pulls out of the One Laptop Per Child board, with intentions to push its competitor product onto the market and drown out OLPC. Intel sucks.

My friend Tahmena has shared with us her new blog, describing her experiences with Muslim villages in Southeast Asia.

Sarah sends us this great "poppy" science fiction site.

That be all.... signing out from Cairo!

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Luxorious

Hanging out in the Valley of the Kings. (Photo by Andrew Currie.)

Greetings from the lobby of the Movenpick Jolie Ville hotel, near Luxor. We have checked out and have 7 hours to kill before our overnight train ride back to Cairo. We're taking this opportunity to relax and lavishly enjoy the free wifi offered by this extremely comfortable facility.

Today we visited the Temples of Karnak. Yes, we took time to also do a cheap version of the classic Johnny Carson Karnak routine (video forthcoming), so don't ask. The temples of Karnak are an enormous facility, about 1.5km by 800m, containing obelisks, chapels and other stone artistic treasures dedicated to the Theban gods. Karnak was first built during the reign of Rameses III (12th century BC), and was maintained as a place of business and worship for 1500 years. Most of it has decayed and crumbled, but what remains provides quite a taste of what must have been one of the world's most impressive architectural achievments. In fact, I would say that Karnak is as impressive an engineering feat as the Great Pyramids themselves, so colossal and intricate are its elements, which include scores of ram-headed sphinxes, obelishs, giant pillars, temples and even a giant artificial lake, fed by the water table. To have even designed such a thing speaks volumes about the scientific prowess of the ancients.

I am convinced that if Karnak had been more intact during the time of Herotodus, it would have been counted among the Wonders of the World.

Of course, I've been reading about Karnak for decades, and always suspected that one day I would stroll its avenues. But in those fantasies, I never imagined the clouds of annoying tourists blocking my view, scurrying about like rats in a granary, many rarely even looking up to perceive the true grandeur of the wonder before them. It caused us to rank the annoyingness of various tourist origins. I won't mention which nationality came out as the most annoying, but I will happily report that the Japanese are the least annoying; they are generally happy, respectiful, stylish, engaged and quiet.

I've neglected to mention an important personal connection to the Valley of the Kings. Called "the greatest Egyptological find since Tutankhamen", in 1995 Dr Kent Weeks discovered the tombs of the many sons of Rameses II, a find that has turned out to be the single largest tomb network ever discovered in Egypt. (It's amazing that such stupefying discoveries are still being made in the modern era). The complex is not yet open to the public, but Dr Weeks' online project, The Theban Mapping Project, gives us all a glimpse into the design and layout of the KV5 site.

It seems that an old childhood friend, and one of my early polymathic inspirations, was intimately involved in the development of the Theban Mapping Project. Walton Chan is an artist, animator, engineer and architect. When last we communicated, Good Morning America was about to report on his project ---from a hot air balloon above the Valley of the Kings!

Indeed, my one regret from this trip is that I won't have time to rent a hot air balloon and make a similar journey.

I've written a lot so far about the antiquities of Egypt, but very little about the bustle of modern Egypt. Cairo is a gorgeous, clean and modern megalopolis. Its subway is efficient and pristine. Several times, I had to remind myself that I was riding a subway in Africa! Luxor is cinematic in the way that high priced hotels and cobbled boulevards on the East Bank complement so well the ancient temples, ochre dust and reaching palm trees of the West Bank. Peppering it all is the smoky, colourful din of rich, Islamic life. Turbans, burqas, veils, luxuriant full-length embroidered suits and stylish leather shoes adorn passersby, lending further romantic zeal to the place.

Yes, the hassle of touts is intolerable. But today it's all quite acceptable, because it's the sabbath, and everyone is leaving us alone. The melodic call to prayer echoes from the various minarettes around town, providing a glorious soundscape to mirror the blinding noon sky and the pastel allures of the rising and setting suns.

And threading through both cities, eternal and silent, is the immortal Nile, sparkling and redolent with history.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Good Luck at Luxor

(Photo by Andrew Currie)

Luxor is simply lovely. It is the romantic stereotype of a former Nile capital: palm-lined river banks patrolled by lazy sailboats and ferries, Islamic traders bustling back and forth; on the East Bank, the imposing rusty pillars of the ancient Luxor temple, and, on the West Bank, the gateway to the storied Valley of the Kings. Above it all, hot air ballons dance against the blinding blue sky.

Luxor is also the "hassle capital" of Egypt, with touts, salesmen and drivers pestering us with every step. I've travelled a lot in the developing world, and like to think I've learned to "go with the flow" when it comes to such tactics. But in Egypt I have found the most annoyingly aggressive of this breed. Touts place items in your hand while you walk, then demand payment for it. They start conversations then insist that the dialogue is in fact a binding contract. They never ever take no or --as Andrew discovered-- "leave us the @!#$ alone" for an answer.

Perhaps on another day, I'd be more forgiving. But we had just got off a jerky overnight train. We had barely slept and had not bathed. My back is still bugging me, to the point where every step is agony. I can put up with all of that. But to deal with those factors while fending off the unending barrage of touts is simply unbearable.... and I'm one of the nice ones. In fact, as Andrew keeps reminding me, I'm too nice. I'm very forgiving of these individuals who must scrounge to make a living. What they don't understand is that if they'd simply give us room to think and breathe, we would happily pay more than market price for most items and services. We have money and we wish to spend it ...lavishly! We just don't want to be annoyed into it.

The hassle culture is so prevalent here that I would hesitate before recommending these locales to many friends as a tourism destination. If you're not prepared to have your blood presssure climb into quadruple digits, Egypt is not the place for you.

That aside, today was filled with more explorations of Egypt's storied antiquities. The gateway to the Valley of the Kings are dual megolithic statues called the Colossi of Memnon, each about 18m in height. The Greeks named them such because they believed them to be statues of legendary King Memnon. In fact, they were built by Pharaoh Amonhotep III centuries before the Greeks ruled this land. Weirdly, the nothern statue was famous in Greek times as being a "singing statue". It seems that during sunrise, the temperature and pressure changes caused the colossus to emit a weird wailing noise, which the Greeks believed to be the cry of Memnon greeting his mother, Eos the Dawn. When the statue was repaired in the 2nd century AD, the strange noise ceased. Most interesting about the colossi is the Greek graffiti scratched onto their legs, perhaps dating back to Ptolemaic times!

Despite my earlier chastisement of the Egyptians for their poor management of the Pyramids of Giza (see photo above), I was very impressed by how they have preserved and protected the Valley of the Kings. The Valley, of course, is where the tombs of many Pharaohs --including that of Tutankhamun-- were secretly located, to fool erstwhile ancient (and modern) grave robbers --with mixed results. Its entrance is a modern museum-style facility with information stations and a controlled security station --something the Pyramids desperately need!

We explored a number of tombs, including that of Tut himself. Tut's tomb is among the least impressive, but is undoubtedly the most famous. Similar to our earlier good fortune at the Pyramid of Cheops, for a few minutes Andrew and I managed to find ourselves alone with Tut's mummy, partially unwrapped, and with his famous golden sarcophagus, both recently returned to this site.

For those cognizant of history, it can be a very powerful moment, to stare into the unseeing eyes of King Tut himself, to appreciate his leathery, blackened skin, odd shaped skull and diminutive stature. The experience ties one to the trunk of history, and is a reminder that all great figures were merely mortal, fragile humans, even this boy king, once the wealthiest and most powerful figure in the world, his tragic story and rediscovery now part of the fabric of human world culture.

Tomorrow, on to the great temples at Karnak, then back on the overnight sleeper train to Cairo!

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Photomania

Still haven't uploaded any Egypt pics. But here are a few by Andrew:

1. Here we are in one of the architects' tombs at the feet of the Great Pyramids. What are we thinking? "How will the locals try to fleece us next?"



2. Here's the standard tourist photo:



3. And yes, proof that I peed on the Giza Plateau:

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Pyramid Power

Greetings from the top bunk of the sleeper train from Cairo, en route to
Luxor. Andrew is in the bunk below me, and I fear odours tend to rise.
(But snoring expands in all directions, so take that!) We have just
finished watching the Dr Who xmas special on my laptop and have retired to
what I am sure will be a restless, difficult sleep, as the train trundles
noisily along the banks of the Nile.

It occurs to me that my most vivid travelling memories involve train
travel. Seventeen years ago, I was nearly shot by a border official (long
story) while crossing from Thailand into Malaysia by rail. The sweet
pastoral smells of the fields and tranquil images of schoolchildren, while
en route from Penang to Kuala Lumpur via train, will always linger with me.
And the sounds of wild animals howling at night, as the open-window
sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai crept along nearly 2 decades ago,
remains one of my most treasured recollections.

Adding to those priceless memories is today's supreme adventure. After
once more braving the wilds of baksheesh ("tipping") country, we managed to
secure entrance into the Great Pyramid of Cheops itself, the largest and
most impressive of the plateau's wonders.

We had every expectation of a crowded tourist experience. But imagine our
surprise --and delight-- at finding ourselves the only living humans within
this ancient tomb!

The trek involved what seemed like a 200m long claustrophobic climb up a
thin shaft, carved about sixty degrees up into the pyramid's interior. I
had seen this climb in documentaries 30 years ago, and always knew I would
one day do it... But never realized how happy and unafraid I would be doing
it!

The shaft ended at a brief tunnel, through which one must crouch in order
to progress. As I was a few minutes in front of Andrew, I rushed ahead so
that I could savour the unique experience of being absolutely alone within
the inner sanctum of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

The sanctum is an antechamber at the heart of the stone mountain, pitch
black but for a tiny artificial light erected in one corner. I needed my
little penlight to fully perceive the room. I was shocked --and briefly
terrified-- to find myself alone in the dark with the altar that once
supported the mummy of pharaoh Cheops.

I paced out the room: about 8m by 4m and maybe 6m in height. And I did one
more thing: I lay on the floor and imagined Egyptian slaves stocking the
room with gold to accompany Cheops into the afterlife, some of the slaves
compelled to lay down their lives in that very room, so that Cheops would
have servants in the underworld.

Andrew quickly joined me and we took (non-damaging) videos and photos as
best we could in the darkness. As usual, mine wont be uploaded till I get
home. But one of Andrew's is available on his blog (acurrie.wordpress.com).

This has been without a doubt one of --if not the-- most profound travel
experiences I have yet tasted. It was tainted by one thing: the discovery
of litter on Cheops' altar, and of modern graffiti on the walls of the
tomb, much of it dated this year.

It is sickening and saddening that so many cannot appreciate the wonder of
this ancient accomplishment, and that so many who have been so privileged
to have visited it have nonetheless been idiotic, destructive and
uninformed, while thousands more would give all they own to see and touch
what Andrew and I saw and touched today.

Onward to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings!

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Grateful In 2007

Regular Deonandians will know that my first post of each year is usually a
personal one, in which I list the things in the previous year for which I
am most grateful. This year's inaugural post is a tad different as I am
writing it on my pda at 2am in a hotel room in Cairo, gradually becoming
more stoned on fine, fine back medication.

So let's begin. The top 5 things from 2007 for which I am most grateful:

5. In 2007 the gamble I took in 2006, of starting my own full time
consulting firm, finally paid dividends. I am now comfortably
self-employed, loving each day of work, though I have to find a way to
balance in my exercise and nutrition schedules!

4. In 2007 I taught my first ever complete university classes, at the
University of Ottawa: international health theory (which is still ongoing)
and research methods. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed teaching and by
how much I actually like my students (some of whom, I fear, are reading
this post!) I suspect university teaching will grow into an increasingly
important part of my life.

3. In 2007 I got to know better all the children in my life, from cousins
to neighbours to the children of friends. As I enter middle age, it only
now dawns on me how important children are to my own happiness, and I am
grateful for that revelation.

2. In 2007, I continued to meet and enjoy the romantic ministrations of
remarkable women from all walks of life. I even found time to enjoy two
monogamous relationships (yb and dh). Both, I fear, were not good long
term matches for me, but both shall remain in my heart for the duration of
my life, alongside the great loves whose affections I will always be
grateful for .

1. While others lost loved ones in 2007, I remain blessed to have all of my
immediate family stile hale and healthy. I know such a circumstance is not
sustainable, but I remain thankful for it while it lasts.

Here's hoping 2008 turns sorrow into joy, and joy into ecstasy, for all of
us.

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Defending The Pyramids

Yes, I peed on the Giza plateau. No, it was not against a pyramid, but
rather against the tomb of one of the pyramids' architects. And no, I am
not remorseful about it. The fact is, I really really really had to pee
and there were people everywhere and no toilet within a 1km radius. So I
did what I had to do, adding no more physical insult than has already been
given by 5000 years of slaves' excrement, camel shit and, more recently,
acid rain. And no, I don't consider this an insult to the dead, either,
but rather a celebration of life. And, to be candid, I would never dream
of peeing against one of the actual pyramids, such is my reverence for the
things that I am even a tad regretful to have soiled them with my very
touch, however undamaging it might have been.

Besides, something everyone should know is that the Giza plateau is sadly a
modern garbage dump. Empty coke cans, cigarette butts and plastic bottles
litter the site. Plastic bags are shoved between the stones of the great
monuments; and camel and horse dung are so plentiful that you'd think the
pyramids were home to the royal stables.

The natural refuse (shit and piss) I don't have a problem with, since it is
quickly reclaimed by the desert. But the human garbage is inexcusable.

The site is patrolled by the so-called "tourist and antiquities police",
which is a dreadful mistake. Today I witnessed one such "policeman" toss
an empty bottle into a hole on the side of the pyramids. Then he smiled to
Andrew and me, held open the rope separating us from that restricted
portion of the pyramid, and insisted that we break the law by climbing the
great structure (in exchange for a fee, of course). We eventually managed
to decline, but only after the fellow pestered us for some minutes.

And he was not alone. The officials tasked with protecting humanity's
greatest architectural antiquity regularly troll for opportunities to
exchange damaging opportunities (like photographing frescoes) for pocket
change, so poorly are they remunerated. I've even heard of tourists being
allowed to abscond with actual chunks of the pyramids! The things are
mountainous, but even they would not last a generation if such a practice
were more widespread.

The culture of visitor harrassment is so pervasive here that it is
seriously restricting my ability to fully appreciate this experience. I
suspect it's also affecting the health of the monuments and indeed Egypt's
ability to more fully profit from its treasures in a more sustainable,
respectful and safe way.

At this stage, I would argue for the site to be taken out of the hands of
the Egyptian government and be handed to UNESCO, to be administered by a
board of archaeologists whose main concern would be the preservation of
these sublime structures.

Sadly, a more likely scenario is that the plateau would be licensed to
Disney or Coke, to protect it in exchange for exclusive branding rights.
Don't laugh, it could happen.

I would argue that the site does not ethically belong to modern Egyptians
(who, after all, do not share race, culture, religion, government,
language or even values with their ancient predecessors) or to the present
Egyptian government, but to the entire world, to be treasured and
experienced by all peoples of the Earth.

To be frank, I'm not particularly impressed by the "diligence" being shown
by modern Egypt in protecting this most precious of world treasures. Hell,
I have yet to see a single garbage bin anywhere on the sprawling plateau!
That says a lot.

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Egypt Pics

My photos will have to wait until I get back to Canada. (I was gonna say "civilization" for ironic effect, 'cause Egypt is the cradle of civilization and Canada isn't even though our dollar is stronger and... oh never mind. Shut up). But if you can't wait, Andrew is uploading his pics as we go. You can see his pics here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewcurrie/sets/72157603590575829/

And don't forget the dueling blogs! Andrew's Egypt insights are here:

http://acurrie.wordpress.com

Next post: my traditional look back on 2007.

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Two Geezers At Giza

Let's recap, shall we? Ray hurt his back 2 weeks ago. Massage,
chiropractic treatment and drugs allowed Ray to get on a plane to Egypt.
This morning, Ray felt well enough to join Andrew in the hotel gym for
Ray's first workout in weeks. Ray felt great! His back was flexible and
pain free. Happy at last, Ray enjoyed a shave and shower... Then he
sneezed and promptly re-injured his back.

The timing was particularly bad because today was to be the culmination of
a lifelong dream... to see and touch the Great Pyramids of Giza, towering
structures of fame, mystery and foreboding, and the pinacle technological
achievement of humanity's first true civilization. Few landmarks have
elicited such imagination, fantasy and anticipation.

But the back ache gave us the excuse to do the tourist thing and rent
camels. Yes, we were bilked. But whatever. The fact remains that we rode
camels --named Michael Jackson and Bill Clinton (Clinton had diarrhea)--
through part of the Sahara desert, arriving upon the Giza plateau to behold
mankind's most ancient physical achievement.

So many things in life fail to live up to their expectations. The pyramids
are not among them. Considering when they were built, they are gargantuan.
Their blocks are gargantuan. They were built, no doubt, by giants: men
whose imaginations, power and will dwarf those of we pathetic modern
mortals.

And there is every indication that the pyramids were built by mortal,
fragile humans, however colossal their dreams and achievements. The
pyramids are imperfect, and one can almost smell the blood and sweat
spilled in their backbreaking construction. The lesser tombs of the
workers are visible in the great tombs' shadows, as are the ornate
underground tombs of the architects.

And it is there, in the lesser tombs, that the disappointment of modern
Egypt arises; for despite necessary restrictions on the use of cameras (in
order to preserve these fast fading treasures of humanity), every minor
official offers tourists the chance to snap a photo in exchange for a
piddling bribe of a couple of US dollars. Even I enjoyed a priceless
scamper up the side of one of the great pyramids, in defiance of reasonable
law, and in exchange for pocket change.

The decline of the greatness of Man is measured in nickles and dimes.

And yet I do not regret my transgression. The pyramids were meant to be
touched, just as they were meant to scrape heaven.

Tonight is New Years Eve. Andrew and I will attempt to return to the
plateau to welcome 2008 by beholding the profiles of antiquity, cut out
from the backdrop of Egyptian winter stars.

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Wow. Wow. Wow.

After suffering through 6 hours of agony on a plane, enduring a bad back,
then crouching next to the only free AC outlet in Heathrow airport in order
to recharge my PDA, I boarded an uneventful flight to Cairo...

...That is, until we flew over the pyramids. The only words that issued
from my lips were, "Wow. Wow. Wow." If the plane had turned around then,
I would have been content, having seen the last standing wonder of the
ancient world with my own eyes.

But it did not turn around. I am in the Meridien hotel in Cairo, literally
across the street from the Great Pyramids of Giza. They fill the bedroom
window.

The pyramids are history's greatest and most profound architectural
achievement. The big one stood as the highest manmade structure for
millennia, finally overtaken by the Eiffel Tower in only the 19th century.
To sleep in their shadow is literally a dream come true.

And so now I shall dream... Of pharaohs, belly dancers and kebabs. The
ancient wealth of Egypt awaits in the waking morn.

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Nearly e-Jipped

Droogies, I am minutes from boarding a flight to Egypt. My back has been spasming all week. It was almost at the point where I'd be forced to cancel my trip, as I was almost in tears a couple of days ago, lugging a light backpack on the subway in downtown Toronto; downtown Cairo would have killed me! But the miracle of chiropractic "science" has stepped in to win me some pain-free reprieve, and I am sufficienly recovered to chance this voyage to one of the finest destinations on the planet. A crap-load of cheap booze helps, too.

I've travelled many places in the world, but, like many, I've always held a secret fascination for Egypt. Not only for its storied pharaohnic history, but for its rich Islamic traditions and modern geopolitical intrigues. Yes, the pyramids capture my fancy, but I'm also excited to possibly view the tomb of Saladin, and maybe (though unlikely) climb Mt Sinai itself, and view the land of Moses stretch out to the horizon.

More likely, Andrew and I will spend every evening drunk and tempted by the local entertainment:



Well, boarding time is nearing, and the free port that I'm sucking back in the executive lounge is starting to sour. So I will end with some wry political commentary:

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