the Long's Strange Trip

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~  Going Postal ~
June 12 through June 16, 2000
$1 U.S. = 3.4 Egyptian pounds
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Cairo, Egypt
June 12 through June 16, 2000

Chaos, thy name is Cairo  (ccl) Neither one of us was looking forward to leaving behind the idyllic lifestyle we had begun to live in Dahab for the gritty, smoggy reality of Cairo, but we knew we had to go there to get to Istanbul, our next destination.  After nearly nine hours of bus-riding, our peaceful world was shattered when we emerged into the parking lot of the bus station just in time to see a fight break out between taxi drivers over who would take us to our hotel.  Chaos, thy name is Cairo...  

We've kind of started to develop a little bit of a pattern as we travel.  When we get close to the end of our time in a country, typically we've reached critical mass on the number of souvenirs we're carrying around with us, so it's a good time to ship stuff home.  So, one of our tasks in Cairo was to mail a box of stuff we'd bought, plus some of our cold weather clothes, home to Atlanta.  We also planned to stop by the bookstore at the American University in Cairo, where we'd been on our last time in town, to stock up on new books.  Finally, we had a list of several things we needed to get done on the Internet, so we had plenty to keep us busy until our flight for Istanbul left on Wednesday afternoon.

The first order of business once in town was to confirm our flights to Turkey.  After trying to call several Egyptair offices in Cairo, I finally got through to one of them, where a woman practically screamed at me, "There IS no flight to Istanbul on Wednesday!".  I figured I needed to talk to someone about this in person, so we went down to the Egyptair office down the street (what we should have done to begin with).  There, it was confirmed that in fact, no, there wasn't a flight to Istanbul on Wednesday, despite the fact that we had tickets for that day.  Yes, there was a flight on Thursday, but that was full and overbooked by twelve people.  They couldn't issue us a ticket on another airline because our tickets were bought through a consolidator, so we'd have to wait and go on the Friday flight.  Oh great, another day in Cairo.  One of the lessons you quickly learn when you travel on an extended basis is that things don't always work out as you planned, and there's usually very little you can do about it.  If you want your blood pressure to stay down, you have to be flexible and roll with the punches.  On the bright side: this meant that we now had time to visit the Step Pyramids at Saqqara, which we hadn't seen on our earlier stop in town.

We've mailed four or five packages home by now, and we seem to do it differently every time.  Always, the post office is the cheapest and least safe option.  We've sent stuff home by UPS, and that time a pretty small box weighing 11 kilos cost $125 to ship to Atlanta from Bolivia.  If you've read Travel Challenges lately, you know that we shipped a good bit of stuff with a freight company in Morocco and paid nearly $500, total - a huge rip-off.  The box could have practically sat in first class on a direct flight for that.  We've also used the post office, which always costs less but is typically the most time-consuming and the most frustrating option.  We decided to go with the post office in Egypt, because our guidebook gave a fairly detailed description of the process.  Our stuff to send home included a large wooden bowl that the Bedouins use to make bread, our painting that we bought in Aswan, several pieces of winter clothing (jeans, sweater, polar fleece pullover), and some other various and sundry small souvenirs.  One of the guys in our hotel had found us a pretty sorry looking box, but we taped it up as best we could, shoved everything in there, and first thing in the morning, with our stamina at its height, we traveled to Midan Ramses ("midan" means square or plaza) to the Post Traffic Center (it just sounds bureaucratic, doesn't it?).

The building itself, which was probably built in the 60's, looked like it hadn't been cleaned since then, either.  Everywhere, for every person who was working, there were five people who weren't.  All of them sat behind or on stark, 30-year-old metal desks.  There was no air-conditioning, and the atmosphere more closely resembled that of a mental institution than a post office.

The process to get the box mailed was nothing short of hilarious.  First, we had to visit with some women at the "Customs" desk, who rummaged through the package, asked us what things were (they were especially suspicious of the wooden bowl, God knows why), then filled out some forms, stamped them, and sent us across the hall.  There, we paid a guy, who was sitting at a table, alone in a room with nothing in front of him but a calculator, 1 pound 60 piasters to add more stamps to the paper.  And to fill out some form in triplicate (you know you're in trouble when the carbon paper comes out).  Then we paid him 5 more pounds for an "application".  We were then sent back to the Customs ladies, who told us how to fill out the form.  Minutes passed, flies buzzed, papers floated away in the breeze created by the one electric fan, and civil servants sat and stared off into space.  Once we had filled out the forms, signed them, and gotten some more stamps, we were sent over to another guy at another table.  He was the Wrapping and Tape man, and he sealed our box, and sent us over to another counter after paying him two pounds for the exquisite tape job.  There much discussion ensued, accompanied by the shaking of heads and wagging of fingers.  Turns out, in order to ship a package to the USA, England, or Sudan (why Sudan???) the sum of the length and the circumference of the box must not be greater than 180 centimeters.  Folks, we were well in excess of 220 centimeters when our box was measured.  Many scenarios ran through my head.  Would we be sent back to our hotel, now three subway stops away, left to scrap for a new box?  Would we need to write our congressman in order to receive a special release from this bizarre algebraic law?  Much to my surprise, we were sent back to the Wrapping and Tape man, who called in a Special Expert Wrapping and Tape man, authorized for saw blade use, who cut down our box by about eight inches, smashed our stuff down into the new, smaller space, and resealed the box.  Back to the Counter man, who then weighed the box, stamped our forms, took our money and our box, and bid us farewell, but not before the thick soup of boredom was shattered by the midday call to prayer coming from the employee's mosque right across the hall.  The whole process took just under an hour.  Maybe one day we will actually see our stuff.

New books!  We filled the rest of the day with book shopping, Internet chores, and getting traveler's checks.  The American University in Cairo is supposedly where the well-to-do Cairenes send their children to prepare them for one day going to school in America.  It has, by far, the best English-language bookstore that we have encountered on our trip.  We both picked out four or five new books each, so now our backpacks are heavy again.  If you're traveling internationally and need books, if you're in a city with an American University, it's definitely a great bet for buying new books, including guidebooks.

Zoser's pyramid at Saqqara  The next day we took a trip out to the step pyramids at Saqqara.  Our taxi driver, Mahmoud, agreed to take us out there, drive us around to the various sites, and bring us back to town for 80 pounds.  It's a pretty large site, and you'd exhaust yourself trying to walk between all of the monuments, so the price sounded good to us.  Our first stop was the Mortuary Complex of Zoser.  Zoser was a third dynasty pharaoh, ruling from 2630 - 2611 B.C.  When it was built it was the largest stone structure ever constructed, and represented the first break with the tradition of burying dead leaders in underground tombs.  The pyramids at Saqqara are called "step" pyramids, because, unlike those at Giza, their outer structure is built on a graduated scale, causing them to appear to have steps.  The actual "steps" themselves are quite big.

Despite the large signs throughout the Saqqara area that read, "Attendants are Forbidden from Giving Information", we still encountered those baksheesh-loving guards on our trip.  Mahmoud had told us, "If someone wants to guide you, say 'No, thank you'".  I really like Mahmoud.  Anyways, we were able to deflect most of the clumsy attempts, but we couldn't shake the guy who followed us into one of the temples.  OK, I'm willing to give a guy a little baksheesh if he's genuinely helpful.  Like the attendant who followed us around the tomb of Ti.  Ti was an important court official who held titles like Lord of Secrets, Superintendent of Works, Counsellor to the Pharaoh, and Royal Hairdresser.  This guy knew a good bit of English, and pointed out quite a few interesting things among the many beautiful reliefs on the walls.  Whenever he encounted a relief of Ti, he'd point to it and say, "Mr. T!  Mr. T!".  Now, I ask you, how can you NOT tip a guy like that? 

But the guy who followed us around in one of the temples did little more than point to a picture, which was plainly a cow, and say, "Cow".  In addition, when there was a picture of a small cow, he would point to it and say, "Baby cow".  My, how very helpful!  I hurried out, because they always hit up Wiley for baksheesh, and he followed Wiley for quite a ways, asking first for money and then for a pen.

12th century BC graffiti  I've always been disturbed by graffiti.  My first trip to New York City, several years back, left me shell-shocked.  I couldn't believe that all of these people had made a hobby out of defacing other people's property!  In New York, nothing is safe from graffiti.  Even vehicles, if they're parked in a less-than-savory place for too long, eventually get nailed by the spray can "artists".  When Wiley and I visited Pompeii, I couldn't believe how many people over the years had felt the need to carve their names, their "I was here!" declarations, in that ancient, amazing place.  But in Egypt I have learned that graffiti didn't start in New York, and it didn't start 200 years ago in Italy.  People have been defacing important public places for centuries, I guess out of some need that we as humans have to leave something behind.  At Saqqara, we saw graffiti from the 12th century BC.  That's 3000+ years old.  Archeologists have deciphered it, and it was left by some visiting scribes, who felt like declaring their admiration for Zoser.  Who can explain human nature?

Now we're relaxing in our hotel room, reading up on Turkey, and getting everything ready for our flight tomorrow.  We were saddened to find out today from email that Wiley's aunt, Sister, passed away from a heart attack in her sleep Tuesday night.  She was a wonderful person, devoted to her family, and a rabid Alabama football fan.  We will miss her greatly, and we send love out to our family from far away.

Click here to continue in Turkey with "Fat Cats in Istanbul"



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