Egypt 2010: Day 1 and 2

Day 1

Every time I find myself in a new country, I see the land from the sky. How the land is organized and parceled, the colours and the textures give clues to how the people below live off of it. In the bayou of Louisiana, there are thick green swamps surrounded by lakes and interlaced with fingers of water that ward off development but harbour mysterious, unknown wildlife. The sandy hillsides around Rome suggest its Mediterreanean climate and rustic nature.

However, today I gave up my customary window seat to a small child also going to Egypt, so she could look out the window with her father. As we broke the cloud deck, the Nile Delta appeared below us, as we had started scrolling down the track wheel on Google Earth. From the aisle seat, I was admiring the golden patchwork of desert towns when the plane banked and almost all the heads to the port side of the aircraft immediately craned out of their seats to look towards Cairo, it’s organic, dust covered self appearing in the desert. As if on cue, the giant primitives of the great pyramids appeared just under the wing, capturing everyone’s attention. They seem, at the thousand foot perspective, to steal a much abused business cliche, to be giant trinkets left by the gods in the sandbox of the African continent.  I was happy let someone else have the front row seat this time. How many times do you get to see the Pyramids from the sky anyways?

Siobhan and I are visiting Egypt for the first time and will pick up a tour tomorrow. Tonight, as we drove into Cairo in a taxi, we swerved and dodged the insane traffic the city is infamous for. If one could complain that lane discipline, as my stalwart car fiend John so respects of the Germans, is bereft in Canada, it takes an artful perversion here in Cairo. At home, perhaps the worst is an idiot driver doing 80 in his Corolla in the fast lane. Here everyone drives fast, straddling lanes and trying to simultaneously warn and chide other drivers from getting too close. I should have known this was to happen, as the cabbie absent mindedly slipped the moorings of the taxi stand, narrowly missing another Kia or Toyota on either side by half an inch to the side mirror. Fifteen minutes later, we were five abreast in a three lane road into the city. The sun set as we drove in, satellite dishes and antennas dotting the dusty old buildings alongside the highway.

As I type, it is 10PM and the streets are still alive with music and incessant honking. Outside, citizens are having a puff or a drink of tea on the plastic chairs that surround this downtown hotel. It is unknown whether or not you all will be able to read this in real time, dependent if I get a SIM or not. My own goal is to learn how to tame the sun for landscape photography and perhaps capture the life of the regular Egyptian on the street or river.

Day 2

Over the years, my travel postings have been filed from strange places. One year, as the strains of revelers singing the fight song of the Hanshin Tigers of Osaka were in the background, I filed by report from the lobby bar of a business hotel in Japan. Tonight, I am in the trailing car of a overnight train from Cairo to Aswan, an olive drab affair populated only with hardened train company employees waiting out the midnight shift as Spice Girls plays on the stereo overhead. They are looking at me with an amount of mistrust and disdain as I opened up my laptop and began dumping memory cards.

Today, we woke up early and walked around the streets of Cairo, making a neat circuit of the neighbourhood surrounding the first hotel. As the sun rose, I could see it blazing brightly on the sides of the buildings from the street. The ever visible fog that surrounds Cairo was present, streaking in rays of sunlight around corners of buildings. Still cool in the morning air, the storefronts displayed wares of new dresses and shoes, on bright shiny metallic mannequins.

Our first destination was the Giza pyramids, and our tour group hopped onto a bus and headed back across the city. The whole scenario reminded of the pictures from my grandmother’s travels in the 1970’s and 1980’s, full of tour buses and exotic locales. If there’s anything to be said about the pyramids, is that they are the ultimate in simplicity. Here are three big, and six lesser but still big, triangular objects in the desert. They first appear on the horizon as large, unadorned stone icebergs in a sea of trinket stores, cell phone shops and other vendors. As you get closer, they start to dominate the field of view. Soon, as you get close to them, they are simply a huge wall.

I suppose I really should understand more about their history, although I guess I’ve watched enough Discovery Channel shows about how they were built. Why they were built is still a story, apart from being monuments to power and an afterlife resting place for kings, which I don’t really know well. But my favourite moment today was walking along the shadow of the second pyramid with Siobhan, as the echos of kids playing on a school trip bounced off the side of the shaded triangle looming over all of us.

I once read that telephotos for portraiture were for cowards, however provocative of a statement that is. If you weren’t going to engage your subject directly with conversation or even eye contact, you were really cheating the process of capturing someone. I have read that in these tourist heavy areas, eye contact, or placing your camera up to your eyes, encourages a demand of money. So while I wanted to capture the nature of life here, however artificial as a man selling camel rides, even before I left, I assumed I was going to need a telephoto lens from a distance. My plan, was to bring the old 350D body and a brand new 55-250mm IS. It’s known as a soccer mom lens, but it’s pretty sharp and inexpensive. I’m using much more than I expected, if anything to capture the situation without anyone knowing. A photographic act of cowardice? Maybe.

We also visited the Egypt Museum today. It is a dusty, dark affair, with literally thousands of items on display. One of the more unusual aspects is that everyone has a guide, making Egyptology a regular profession there. As individual groups of two to ten traversed the objects on show, bits of every language, Japanese to French to English were overhead from the guides. I suppose if you really knew your Egyptian history, this would make a lot of sense. I just enjoyed the collection of items as a whole, cabinets full of curiosities and halls filled with hundreds of giant stone statues. Any of which would be the centerpiece in an entire museum hall at home, I would think.

The traffic here in Cairo, as previously mentioned, is nothing short of insane. Due to the random traffic jams, and the lack of fear of the 82 million Egyptian citizens, they often will walk into the traffic to cross, or better yet, to sell you random trinkets like this young man offering tissue paper.

Eating here as been another subject of interest. In past trips, I’ve really enjoyed the cuisines and experiences from having a meal while traveling. However, the fear of contamination has kept us to mostly tourist oriented places. However, the good news is the guide has kept them largely simplistic and authentic to Egyptian cuisine, so we’re not at McDonalds every day. Tonight we waited for a train at a middle class tea shop, our companions Egyptians out for a night with their loved ones, water pipes and tubes tableside. It was an unusual experience to say the least and I enjoyed seeing them, although I suspect as they eyed our tour group, we were ruining their local ambiance.

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