The Land of Ozymandias — Pt. III (January 16th): The Big, Four-Sided 3D Triangles of Giza

A trip to Egypt without the Pyramids of Giza is like a stand-up routine without jokes. Nothing can really justify a holiday in this crazy country and the long haul necessary to get here without the experience of these colossal humblers. As the world’s oldest continuously-visited tourist attractions, the Pyramids have withstood four millennia of concerted sandblasting and opportunistic looting to keep humans stroking their chins in wonder. And the sight of these glorified tombstones is enough to make a moderner stop and ponder with envy: why can’t I have my own army of drafted laborers build a man-made mountain for me?

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It’s frankly amazing that something built two thousand years before the ancient Roman Empire, something that was already an antiquity in Antiquity, can still inspire a tremor of alien fascination in the hyper-stimulated mind of today. In the Era of Glowing Rectangle Love, every bit of larger-than-life entertainment we could possibly want is coming at us at blinding speeds through the internet and the myriad of electronic gizmos that surround us, and within this bubble it’s possible to encapsulate yourself in a fantastical dream-state of never-ending artificial enjoyment. As a victim of this, I can attest that it doesn’t take long before reality begins to shrink in its grandeur. CGI effects and intricate video game graphics inure us to mind-blowing scenes that would shatter the perceptual worlds of our forebears, and watching New York get ripped apart by cosmo-robots wielding skyscrapers for truncheons is something we don’t even blink at. Because of this, perhaps the most awe-inspiring fact of the Pyramids is not that they are simply enormous or venerable, but that they can still cause us, We the Attention-Deficited of the Future, to say, “Wow!”

Okay, some of you may want that inevitable grain of salt about it all. It’s not all perfect, sure—nowadays the Pyramids are being encroached on by the bacterial urban sprawl that Cairo has vomited all over its western bank, and the pollution can occasionally make them invisible. And that’s just the beginning; while you are struggling to reconcile the city’s proximity to the Pyramids (right up to the eastern lip of the complex, in fact), you will assaulted by hordes of souvenir and camel ride touts whose shameless brazenness will leave you speechless as they clean out your too-polite pockets. My story, told from the perspective of a lone backpacker, will illustrate the struggles quite clearly for you, but I can’t iterate enough that the Pyramids are 100% worth a solid visit.

First Stop Dahshur: The Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid

The day I visited the monolithic trio, I began by taking a taxi (225 Egyptian Pounds) down to the pyramid field of Dahshur. This place was my primer for the real deal and I’ll remember it as one of my journey’s definite highlights. It’s located about 35km southward from Cairo and features two excellent examples of pre-Giza pyramids that stand as benchmarks in the development of pyramid architecture. As a refresher for all you who just started reading, Egyptian funerary monuments developed from mastabas—designed as underground burial chambers overheaded by rectangular mud edifices—to pyramids in the course of a few hundred years during the Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom periods (3100 BCE  – 2181 BCE). Both of the pyramids at Dahshur—the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid—are in pristine condition and have the smooth sides that we all know and love. Plus, they are totally out in the empty desert, permitting you a much more authentic and tourist-free setting than what you’ll find at Giza.

I first hopped up a wooden staircase on the Red Pyramid’s north face and got in by descending a tiny diagonal chamber that takes some sturdy legs to move up and down quickly. The interior of the pyramid has about three chambers, two of them high-ceilinged corbel vaults, and the last one being the half-caved in burial chamber. I would say it’s all in great condition and worth a peek, but it is breathtaking how insufferable the smell is that permeates the structure—literally. Be warned: the Red Pyramid has the odor of an ancient piss-trap, splashed over by gallons of tourists and localites’ urine with no drainage system of cleaning apparatus to deal with it all. I saw one suave-looking European fellow and his guide spend approximately two minutes glancing around before fleeing back to the surface for fresh air. However, I suppose that if you can deal with the reek of urea, the inside is just as charming as any other pyramid’s!

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After a few photos of me and the red-colored outside, I hit up the Bent Pyramid and walked a counter-clockwise circle around its huge base. This pyramid is named for its sides, which don’t stay straight but break to an odd lower angle about halfway up the structure. Along the way, some bored police officers toting rusty AK-47s on patrol caught up with me and helped take some photos. One of the wildest things on my holiday happened when I was posing for a shot in the doorway of a queen’s pyramid, and right as the officer was taking the photo, the mother-flipping door I was leaning on broke open and I tumbled down the pyramid shaft. In a matter of seconds I was sliding into inky darkness, luckily on my back facing forward, and I tried to gain control of slide using the soles of my feet. As I quickly flew downward, I caught a glimpse of the sand and rubbish at the bottom of the shaft and thereafter crashed into it with a huge plume of dust. The alarmed police officer called down to me, and after coughing up a pound of mummy particles I notified him of my good health and thanked my lucky stars I was okay. A few minutes later and I had climbed out of the shaft by positioning my feet on the opposite walls to slowly wedge my body upward. When I reached daylight, the officer, still standing there with my camera, chuckled at the sight of me and helped me dust off. Eventually he and his partner wanted a tip for their invaluable contributions to maintaining my safety and their photo-taking, but they kindly let me depart without paying up!

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Onward to Giza! And Surviving the Hawker Trap

Having survived the isolated plain of Dahshur, I was ready for the real deal at Giza. My taxi got me there after an hour-and-a-half of traffic jams northward and I recall taking a pleasant short nap in my reclined passenger seat. But when I awoke, I was unprepared for the incomparable onslaught that is entering the Pyramids. You see, the moment your taxi gets around the illogical traffic circles and their accompanying legions of automobiles into the 400 meter road leading to the northern entrance of the complex, the gauntlet of hawker doom begins. This is what happens. All around you, sprinklings of men, who at first are just standing on the curb looking idle, suddenly come to life at the sight of your taxi—fresh blood—and run towards your car like the starving undead. Then, they nearly collide with the vehicle and run along its sides screaming:

“CAMELRIDEONEHOURMYFRIEND20POUNDSSPECIALPRICEJUSTFORYOUYES!!!”

While you are recoiling in horror from the dirty fingers that are slapping against your window, their masters hungering for your attention, you push the door lock down as fast as you fucking can. But it’s too late: one of them, an extra pushy undead fellow with a hat and greasy black hair, has thrown himself into the backseat and proceeds to tap on your shoulder with a “’SCUZEME ‘SCUZEME ‘SCUZEME”. If you’re like me, you first tell your cab driver to drive past all these bastards, and when he does a shit job of it and now the hawkers have blocked your cab’s way, you simply have to ignore the guy tapping on your shoulder in the back seat trying to get your attention and repeat “LA SHUKRAN” (No thank you) until it becomes as familiar as your first name. To add to the ridiculousness, the fellow pretends to act insulted when you don’t acknowledge his presence past this and says “HELLO I AM HERE”. It’s a surreal game to be a part of. Meanwhile, other hawkers have gotten into fights with each other outside the car and are yelling at each other with accentuated finger-jabbing for unknown reasons.

Anyway, this process repeated itself between 2-3 times more, I lost track, before we got to the parking lot where my taxi dropped me off to buy my ticket. Within a second of getting out, a man had confronted me professing to be an employee of the site, wearing a tattered shirt and a head-wrap, and I brushed him off like all the others. More got in my way but I got to the ticket booth and entered the site without much else happening except for a security officer pushing away the head-wrap guy who was still after me. Once in, on the north side of Khufu’s Pyramid, the chaos of camel ride vendors harassing me for rides started right back up, and at one point I simply snapped and said to one man, “No, fuck off.” The bespectacled fellow got surly and shot back, “Do not say bad things to me or I will say some bad things to you!!!” Whatever, dude. I received more angry comments from those I ignored, some mounted on camels and somewhat hard to get away from, until after about five minutes I had safely reached the eastern side of Khufu’s Pyramid and away from the main cadre of vicious touts. Whew!

Sauntering Round the Pyramids and a Conversation with a Sex Tourist

The complex around the first pyramid, known as the Great Pyramid because it is the highest of the three, was teeming with visitors and it didn’t suit me much; especially after seeing Egyptians illegally climbing on the blocks of the slowly-eroding base, which is now darkened from the grubby hands of millions of visitors every year (A huge threat to virtually every worthwhile monument in the country). So, I took off southward toward the seemingly-bigger and more isolated Pyramid of Khufu. And during my saunter across the emptying sands, the feeling hit me—that wonderful, goosebumpy, and somewhat frightening sense of being dwarfed by the majesty of a colossus. It happens on hikes in high-elevation mountains, it happens when you are on a breaker gazing out over the ocean, and it happened right when I found myself between the two pyramids. With this sensation, I got a huge rush of adrenaline and I was compelled to see the entire site in the measly hour that I had left before closing time at 5PM. My destination was the super-famous picture spot in the southern desert where the most quintessential photos of the Pyramids are taken from.

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I trekked and trekked over the beige land, into the setting sun past the ruins of funerary temples, straggling Egyptian tourists and a few touts before getting to the smaller pyramid of Menkaure, famous for being the unlikely victim of Islamic fanaticism when Al-Malik Al-Aziz Osman bin Salahadin Yusuf, a 12th-century sultan and pipe-dreamed religious nut, tried to tear the pyramid down. He only succeeded in leaving a vertical cut in the north face, more blemishment than an accomplishment. I hopped an enclosure wall surrounding it all and hit the desert proper, happily heading out to the sands that flow into the desert south of the complex. Feeling oh-so-fine, I summited a hill and got my own postcard-worthy pics of myself and the three biggies with the smaller ones of their queens out in front. Heading out there is a must for any intrepid visitor with a good set of legs (or the patience to endure a tout and his camel ride there for an hour). Up on the hill, I encountered a strange Norwegian fellow in his fifties or so with a petite Egyptian girl, maybe 12-15, on a camel ride. The girl was definitely with the white guy as no family members were present, she was uncovered, and she had the same awkward demeanor I’d seen a boy prostitute have at dinner with a fat white guy in Laos a few years back. “Sex tourist alert!” I thought.

Then, the man and I commenced a conversation, in which he revealed he was an active adventurer who had kayaked from Norway to Israel or something crazy like that, and had motorcycled all the way from Alaska to Argentina at one point in his life. Of course, these are definitely amazing accomplishments, but then he went on to disparage America’s “close-mindedness” and delivered a lecture about the evils of the Midwest. Yea, so America is evil and bad and stupid and what not, and you’re just a paragon of European enlightenment by sticking your prick in an adolescent Arab girl driven to desperation for cash by poverty in a country where she could risk her life and future for such an act? Pardon my crudeness, but sex tourists really ought to be more charming to make up for their creepiness, don’t you think?

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Still, that time on the hill was glorious, and I felt like a total boss heading back towards the main site. I ran virtually the entire way, past rock-cut tombs looming eerily in the sunset, as the complex was beginning to ring with klaxons signaling closing time. Fortunately, I managed to take some sweaty-ass photos at the Sphinx on my way out. Running through sand certainly gets those pores open. Then, I had to vault up the modern road that bisects the area and convince a group of security officers to let me through a closed road to the north parking lot. They listened to me pant for a minute and then waved me through, and I got back to the taxi all right.
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Totaling up Two Days of Ancient Fun:

The day was a total success—I saw the cream of the pyramid crop that Egypt has to offer, and I got some great exercise walking and running around it all in the process. Breaking it all down:

  • Financially, it set me back 450 Egyptian pounds for two days of travelling by private taxi and 110 pounds for tickets (Saqqara=30, Dahshur=20, Giza=60). So, around 80 USD—for any enthusiast of large-scale history it’s a fair price, although splitting the cab costs with someone is advisable.
  • Experientially, backpacking solo there was a good choice. I was able to see everything on my own at my own speed, and that allowed me a great deal of comfort and enjoyment with the three pyramid sites. Tours risk being far too fast and stressful for those who want to really feel the vastness of the places that the pharaohs originally intended.
  • Serenity-wise, Giza is a bit of a mess for its hawkers and Saqarra suffers a little from this as well. Dahshur was the best here by far, although I would still recommend checking out Giza despite the partial madness of getting in.
  • Final result: Dahshur and Giza are Musts, although I’d put off Saqarra if you don’t have time to stop there on your way to Dahshur or if you don’t want to be let down by the restoration. Two days is plenty of time, and if you are a real marathoner and can start at 7AM and go till 5PM, all three sites are doable in one day (though I’d avoid it personally).

To all travelers heading to Egypt soon – Have fun going pyramid crazy. I certainly did!

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The Land of Ozymandias — Pt. II: Warming up for the Pyramids (Jan. 15th)


I have been unhealthily obsessed with pyramids since I was a kid. Back in the day, I constructed Lego pyramids, drew pyramids on sheets intended for homework, forced my parents to buy me books about the Egyptians because I loved their three-dimensional triangular masterpieces, and so on. Whereas some of my other fascinations about Egypt kind of dropped off the map, I think a spark of this one stayed alive for the full decade-and-a-half it took me to get to the real deal. Because when I got to the ancient necropolis of Saqqara, BAM, my heart started pitter-pattering and I could feel my love surge back to life. 

What impresses me about this reaction was that Saqqara wasn’t even that great, objectively speaking: it’s under heavy restoration and much of the site has been filled in with piles of Egyptian rubbish and sand. The site is most known for the step pyramid of Djoser, which was the first large-scale attempt at making an architecturally-viable pyramid that succeeded. Along with the main pyramid, there are smaller pyramids and a medley of tombs that have provided archeologists with their most comprehensive data about life in the Old Kingdom of Egypt (~2,500-2,000 BCE). However, with the restoration of the main pyramid occurring, and most of the northern site blocked off to tourists, it’s not a totally must-see place. That would be the adjacent pyramid site of Dahshur, which I’ll sing the praises of later.

Getting to Saqqara is straightforward if you have your own wheels. I rented out a cab from Cairo for the day for 225 Egyptian pounds with a man who resembled the black sergeant in Tropic Thunder, and we got on quite well due to his good English. We got to the site after an hour’s drive from central Cairo, and upon arrival it seemed quite deserted based on how big the parking lots were designed. The museum of Saqqara has some great artifacts and information about life in the Old Kingdom, and its best piece is a hair-raising stone relief of starving people with ribcages poking through their emaciated frames. The picture is theorized to depict a massive famine that effected Egypt near the end of the Old Kingdom. After an hour at the museum, we headed up to the actual site, where I spent the better part of the mid-day wandering around. The step pyramid looks like it is being eaten by a wooden fungus, which is actually just the restoration scaffolding that surrounds the pyramid on three of its sides. I had to dodge a handful of coercive guides who wanted to show me around in return for baksheesh to get to the technically blocked-off northern part of the site. Although the whole area is filled with tombs, you wouldn’t be able to tell much because of the insane trash-filled land that the renovators and local people have turned it into. Piles of plastic bags, burnt bones, and beer cans aren’t very evocative of the pharaohs!

The workers did nothing to stop my walkabout, but one lone galabaya-wearing man at the far entrance of the site tried to follow me and scare me away from the northern area. I basically played a nice game of cat-and-mouse with this fellow, hiding behind dunes while he struggled to keep up, until he had finally had enough and retreated to the shade of his entrance booth. Once free from pursuit, I marched all the way west round the site to the eclectic set of minor tombs for officials located south of the main pyramid. A few of the tombs were simply enormous chasms built by late-era Persian generals who wanted to create a failsafe way to guard their treasures in the afterlife. But, like 99% of the tombs discovered in Egypt, these were nevertheless looted as well. Piety for the dead is quickly forgotten when one act of profanity can land a man riches beyond his wildest imagination!

I took a peek inside a few mastaba (mud structure) tombs, including one of a court minister whose body was mysteriously tossed out in antiquity and replaced with that of Princess Idut, a daughter of King Teti who died around 2,330 BC. Inside there were some curious reliefs of a hippo giving birth and a farmer pulling a calf out of the Nile to save it from hungry crocodiles. Besides this tomb and a few open mastabas, there wasn’t much else to examine at the southern site. Most my energy was spent trying to dodge baksheesh demands from roving Egyptians, which was partially accomplished through hiding in the small pyramid of King Unas for fifteen minutes. Thanks for the hospitality, Mr. U!

So that was my time at Saqqara—it was okay for a visit, but I’d recommend visiting it only once the restoration has been wrapped up and the site has been cleaned.

By the time I left Saqqara, it was too late in the afternoon for Dahshur but too early to head back to Cairo. I couldn’t just go home that early so I toured the nearby tomb and pyramid site of Teti with the unrequested assistance of a pink-faced Egyptian peasant. This guy, like his carbon-copy counterparts that swarm almost every tourist-visited historical place in the country, couldn’t speaky the Eengleesh for crud and tried to direct my attention to delicate frescoes with barely-surviving paint by touching them! You want to scream when you see a grubby finger land on 4,000 year-old wall painting—and to think he’s just doing what nearly every other self-styled guide in these places does. What can a tourist do but cringe? On a brighter note, I got to go inside the pyramid of Teti and actually enjoyed it. The beige-colored hieroglyphics on the inside are in great shape and the carved stars on the roof of the tomb chamber are a treat to see in person. However, the roof seems to be caving in and I wouldn’t like to be the hapless tourist stuck inside when the first part comes down like a piano.

I finished my day by taking an off-the-beaten-track detour to the pyramid complex of Abu Sir. Abu Sir is little more than three misshapen pyramids skirted by a destroyed sun temple’s rubble, but as I am Pyramid Crazy, that was not a problem for me and my obsession. The place is visited by virtually nobody and was ostensibly closed when we arrived, so I had to bribe some local peasants about 40 Egyptian pounds to let me into the complex. Upon access, I received another unasked-for mediocre-quality tour, which consisted mostly of a skinny, sharp-faced peasant man reiterating the word SA-HU-RA—the name of one of the pharaohs buried there—in my face again and again. It went like this:

Me: **I point to the pyramid** Malik? (King?)
Ahmed Ahmedson: Sahura!
Me: Sahura?
Ahmed Ahmedson: LA! (No!), SA-HUU-RA
Me: SA-HUU-RA
Ahmed Ahmedson: La, la, SA-HUU-RAEAEAH
Me SA-HUU-RAEAEAH
Ahmed Ahmedson: La!! **Unintelligible Arabic muttering**

The guy also did not want to linger around the area, but I got to get some nice photos of myself and the pyramids before leaving. On the way out, he asked me if I had any wives and started making pelvic thrust motions. So, I enthusiastically joined in and under that brown skin of his I’m sure he turned a bright pink because one of his friends walked up to us right then and saw me. My embarrassed but giggling guide wanted me to stop but I continued, with a few Borat ‘VAIR NAICE’s thrown in to spice it up. And I jumped in my taxi, gave him the lowest acceptable tip I could shave off from my wallet, and sped off back to Cairo for an evening shooting the breeze with Nick.

NEXT POST: Dahshur and the Real Pyramids. Thanks for reading along so far!

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The Land of Ozymandias — Part I (January 12+13)

When I was scratching my head about what to do during the two-week winter break of my school in Tarnow, I knew that staying in Poland was not a sane option. You see, by the start of December, snow and freezing temperatures silently told me that two weeks with nothing to do here would put me in a Ferrari in the fast lane to alcoholism and/or depression. So instead, I chose two glorious, sunny weeks in the powerful and ancient land of Egypt. In retrospect it was a fantastic choice, and I’ll do my best today to relay why my trip was such a smashing success.

To kick things off, everyone knows a junkload about Egypt because of its immortal hype that we gladly eat up from an early age. Personally, I was an ardent child Egyptologist and even dressed up as a pharaoh one day in the fifth grade, with kohl-lined eyes and the whole costume. Other people probably suspected me to be gender-confused miniature belly dancer, but I can tell you that for 6 wonderful hours in Mr. Halloran’s Dress Up Like Your Favorite Book Character Party, the Blood of Amun-Ra flowed within my heart like the mighty Nile.

Although my fiery obsession with animal-headed gods, tombs, and sacred cats ebbed away as I got older, I knew a visit to Egypt was one of those essential life destinations I had to see before becoming a mummy myself (I’m building my magnificent pyramid as I type this). Well, the chance came and I took it this January of 2013–and now I relate my adventure, abridged, for you all below.

January 12:

I took a set of seamlessly-smooth flights down to Cairo from Krakow and then rendezvoused with my friend Shirley, an old CLU pal, at the airport. After a conversation-laden catch-up session in the taxi to downtown, we then met up with my other friend Nick, also a CLU alum, and one of his Egyptian friends named Moodi. The four of us had traditional Egyptian ‘ful’ beans and minced chicken at a Yemeni-Egyptian restaurant in the Dokki district of Cairo. We chewed grub and chatted for hours; all of these people speak multiple languages so they switched back-and-forth from Chinese, to Arabic, to whatever in a matter of moments. I threw in my two pence whenever I could, which was often enough, and we discussed a variety of topics including the ‘revolution’ and its aftermath. Moodi participated in the original protests and even camped out for 18 days in Tahrir Square. He was a bit disappointed with the revolution’s results, but was very proud of what he did and strongly stated that Egypt’s public has experienced an irreversible blooming of free speech. People are discussing politics and social issues like never before, and he argued that this is a momentous change from times when an errant sentence about Mubarak (the overthrown dictator) could land you a torture session in a secret jail.

After dinner, we got smoothies at a hectic juice bar called “City Drink”, in which the overworked men move like blurs putting drinks together for demanding clients waiting on the street and in their cars. It’s easy to see why the bar is so popular, as its drinks are the perfect cure for the muggy Cairo heat. I then went with Nick to his abode in the Sayeeda Zainab quarter of downtown Cairo and we crashed for the night.

January 13:

Sights: Coptic Cairo, the Nilometer, the Egyptian Museum, and Tahrir Square

My first full day in Cairo was a busy one, filled with a smattering of sightseeing, touring, and round-the-city walking. I started off in Coptic Cairo, home to part of Cairo’s Christian population (10% of Egyptians are Christian) and a surprisingly-large museum on the history of Christianity in Egypt. The museum had an incredible amount of Christian heritage material from Egypt’s past—old crosses, bibles, vestments, etc.—and perhaps because of this I lost interest after about an hour of wandering through it. The museum was worthwhile to see, if at the very least for its fascinating tombstones which show a syncretic fusion of pagan beliefs and Christian motifs: crosses are in the shape of Ankhs, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life, and Anubis can be seen on some of the rarer stones.

Following the museum, I hit up the “Hanging Church”, so called for its suspended construction over other buildings in the preserved district. Both the Church and all the other buildings in the area have had so much restoration work done on them that they seem a little too artificial for the rough-and-tumble confines of Cairo, although taking a stroll through the still-used Church and its gaudy Christmas decorations was interesting. I also took a stop at the less-tended Christian graveyard, which featured battered-up mausoleums that could use some TLC.

My morning in Coptic Cairo was tailed by a stopover at the charming Nilometer, a medieval-era structure on the south tip of Rhoda Island that was built to measure the annual Nile floods via a large cylindrical chamber with gradations for measuring water. As the Aswan dam put a stop to annual flooding, the chamber is empty today and you can wander down inside on a sturdy staircase (Give the guard a little baksheesh—tip—it’s worth it).

I skipped lunch and instead had an intriguing afternoon at the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square. The museum is the Mother-Of-All Egyptian museums in the world and boasts 120,000 artifacts on display. Yet the elegant-looking but massive red building is simply too big and disorganized for any average Jane or Joe to make sense of it without some educated company. Thus, Nick’s Egyptologist-in-training Moodi came along with us to give a free but very helpful tour of the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom’s greatest treasures (We didn’t have time for the New Kingdom). He used a bit of humor and question-asking to generate interest in the pieces he showed us, and I remember the sleek black statue of sexy man Tuthmosis the III and the anthropomorphized colossal statue of Queen Hatshepsut quite well. There was also an awesome painted sculpture of a seated scribe and a husband-woman pair seated together, but I’ve forgotten their names. Time was a-ticking so Moodi rushed me to the Room of Tutankhamun which was a real treat. This room should be an essential part of anyone’s memories of Egypt and the golden burial mask of the man is astounding considering the time and place it was made (3,300 years ago).

The last stop in my cursory tour of the Museum was the fascinating room of the royal mummies. I got to lean in close and check out the desiccated bodies of some of Egypt’s most powerful ancient rulers. Sexy man Tuthmosis III’s skin was still smooth, but all the mummies have squashed noses. I tried to imagine the resemblance between some of the mummies and their statues, but it was hard to put the bag-o-bones that is Ramses II into the towering demigod that he’s usually displayed as in his monuments. Still, it was freaking bad-ass to see them, especially Ramses II, who looks like he wants to wake up, stretch his arms, and continue his legendary 66-year rule.

Our night finished with a brief stroll through walled-off Tahrir Square, which has been barred off to traffic and by Jan. 13th had devolved into little more than a rag-tag camp of a few hundred people. There were still banners up and a few people still looked like they were full of revolutionary spirit, but the place honestly felt lackluster. Maybe even a bit sinister. Most of those present around the traffic circle (Remember, Tahrir is basically just a big intersection, not a park or anything) were teenagers looking for kicks, racing their motorbikes around or hanging out with their friends. Nick was skeptical of it all and I began to share the same suspicions when we watched a fat little teenager, maybe less than 14 or 15, manning a car checkpoint. The kid was letting a few cars in on a whim, pulling the barricade to the side as he pleased, and no police were in sight to actually regulate the flow. That’s another thing – the police are gone from the streets. They all basically withdrew following the revolution and some say they are waiting for enough social chaos to take hold that the people will demand them back. With no police and general anarchy round Tahrir, it was quite a disheveled sight to see.

The eventful day wasn’t over yet, though. We got an invitation to visit one of Nick’s friends from Sciences Po (Where Nick studied for his Masters) named Karim and headed over to his apartment with another friend named Bowdoin. Karim, who is a brainy half-Egyptian half-Austrian fellow, busted out some wine and snacks for us and we talked well into the early morning about the future of Egypt, and on a completely unexpected note, the dominance of English in American culture over minority languages that are brought to the States. Karim posited that through increasing Latin American immigration, Spanish could vie for acceptance next to English as a nationally-used language, but I was of the firm opinion that English has an uncanny ability through powerful media proliferation to eradicate competing languages not just in America but abroad as well, so Spanish will never gain a legal-political-social foothold in the country like it has in former Spanish colonies. All the while, we imbibed Karim’s choicest teas from Taiwan and another exotic destination in ritualistic breaks that gave us time to breathe and re-direct the conversation.

We stumbled out of Karim’s apartment at 3:00AM and went bed round 4:00. It was an extremely long day, but perhaps my best in Cairo!

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Georgia on My Mind (Part I) — August 12th – 23rd, 2012

I’ll never forget the moment when I, slashed up and bruised during a drunken descent down a trail-less mountainside in the High Caucasus, realized that I could die alone in the woods. Despite having fifteen hundred dollars of hard currency on me, enough to buy thousands upon thousands of delicious Georgian Khinkali dumplings at a safe and warm restaurant in downtown Tbilisi, that grip of cold cash could not fill my cold stomach with the necessary energy to keep on in a stormy, isolated wilderness ten kilometers from the nearest human settlement. And then, like an utterly vexatious bee on a boiling summer day, the old Native American quote that used to hang prominently from my 6th grade science teacher’s classroom wall snapped into my consciousness:

“You will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”

Son of a bitch.

Before I dive into the rest of what happened during my alternatingly harrowing and listless four days in the Caucasus mountains, let’s push the mental rewind button and go back in time to the start of sojourn to the delightfully backwater nation of Georgia. Let it be known that my sources for understanding Georgia primarily come from my own observations, my talks with Georgians themselves, and rants from TEFL instructors working with TLG (Teach and Learn with Georgia), a government-run English teaching program for state schools. I’m not an expert here but an opinionated loudmouth with some friends who seem like they’ve given me reliable information, so sit back and enjoy the junk.

The Country:

To put it succinctly, Georgia is a former Soviet republic pounding at the door of the West for admittance into the 21st century. Although just a few hour flight from destinations in Eastern Europe, Georgia’s un-visited wealth of natural and human wonders demands attention for both the good of the nation’s fumbling economy and the pleasure of international tourists. The amount of photogenic churches, wine vineyards, and soaring mountains is pleasantly surprising given the country’s bite-sized geographical wingspan, and most of these treasures can be visited in day trips or extended overnighters.

However, the country remains very much stuck in the economic backwardness of the former Soviet Union, and the penetration of Soviet culture means that for tourists, speaking Russian will work you wonders whereas knowledge of any other language besides Georgian is essentially worthless when talking to the average Georgian. Even English, which many of us take for granted as the lingua franca of mass tourism, has not settled in with most Georgians and you may have to go out of your way to find English-speaking hotel and restaurant personnel. Fortunately, and like with any place on earth, you can communicate most of your basic tourist needs with a few creative  hand gestures and vivid facial expressions!

The Capital:

I spent my first four days in the kick-started capital of the country, Tbilisi. This city is trying its darndest to look modern and European, with new construction and renovation spearheading the effort all around the city. It’s a bit aesthetically lopsided at the moment as a result; for example, you can find a jumble of decaying  wooden houses from the 19th and early 20th century next to the soaring white colonnades of the presidential palace. In the touristy part of town next between Europe Square and Liberty Square, the construction is never-ending, but after a few years I’m sure the place will sparkle and shine. My base of operations to explore the place was Friends Hostel, a definitely-recommendable establishment with a nice old Georgian woman proprietor and a helpful staff assistant-cum-TEFL teacher from South Africa. Its cheapness and relative closeness to the metro and most of the major in-city sights makes it a worthwhile place to stay, although I did lose (or someone stole) my running shoes while I was there.

Day One: 

I took a dreadful 12:50 AM flight from Istanbul to Tbilisi on the morning of the 13th and spent the wee hours of the morn fruitlessly looking above and around piles of construction supplies for my hostel. It really does pay to bring a print-out with a map when you come to a country in the dead of night where no-one speaks English. For a few hours I gave up, found an all-night restaurant, and enjoyed my first non-Turkish, non-taxed-to-hell beer with a selection of delicious Georgian meat dumplings called Khinkali. The restaurant, Machakhela, is probably the most reliable restaurant in the Caucasus region and I couldn’t recommend it more. I never found such great value and stellar selections of traditional Georgian food, like dumplings, khachapuri (Cheesy bread), and clay-pot beans at any other establishment in the country. After that early hours pitstop, I came back many times during my stay to fuel myself for sightseeing in the city.

I eventually found my hostel and took a long, long nap for the better part of the morning. When I regained my energy, I set out on an extended walk across the town past stately-looking Soviet-era government buildings and wide boulevards traversed by maniac drivers. My goal for the day was to secure an Azerbaijani Visa from a shadowy tourist company called “X-Tours” (30 T. Abuladze Str.), and the search sent me stomping around the town for about three hours. With the assistance of a merciful bank teller who was the first person to give me understandable directions, I discovered the agency’s building in the northern part of the town next to the Turkish Embassy (I almost wanted to chat with a security guard in Turkish just to offset the linguistic loneliness that solo travel in Georgia had already forced upon me…but they turned out to be Georgian). I got my papers sorted with the agency, paid the $180 for a visa, and was told to wait three days for the document. It appears that the agency is nothing more than an operation for getting Western tourists Azeri visas, and although I suspect there could be some palm-greasing involved with the unusually-easy and expedited process, I didn’t care and was happy to have gotten that sorted out.

Later that night, I ate some McDonald’s ice cream like the dirty imperialist I am, bought a beer, and took a funicular ride up to a hill overlooking the city to enjoy its expansive views of the city’s illuminated downtown nightscape. The ride was certainly worthwhile, especially if you want to get a closer look at the magnificently slim-bellied and large-breasted statue called Kartlis Dede (Mother of Kartli) which stands sentinel over Tbsili. Up there, I was a man alone, sipping my brew forlornly as Azeri and Georgian tourists chatted all around me. But it felt good to just sit on the stone guard rail in silence, drinking in the amber glow of the valley’s light as the cheap beer coursed down my tired throat.

Day Two:

I marshaled my recuperated energy from a night and morning of relaxation for a day trip to Mtskheta, the historical capital of Georgia. In spite of having a consonantal car accident for a name, this city was quite pleasurable for a leisurely afternoon of strolling. Mtshketa is right outside Tbilisi and is the long-time home of the Georgian Orthodox Church, a unique offshoot of Orthodox Christianity with early roots dating to around the 5th century. The town’s biggest draw is its big old cathedral (Svetitskhoveli), formerly the largest church in the country, still surrounded by a low-lying protective wall that hearkens back to the instability of the Middle Ages. It must be said that outside the appreciable church complex, however, the roads and shops look a bit too heavily restored to really make the city as enchanting as many tourist brochures make it out to be. I bumped into some French backpackers on the  rollicking minibus to the city, and we toured the cathedral  and got some lunch together. Later on, I took a taxi to the hilltop Jvari  Monastery for an hour-long visit. Jvari provides a great view of Mtskheta and has a squat little church that looks good in the photos and isn’t too bad in real life. The place was locked up when I arrived, but I stayed a while longer until the resident priest unlocked the sanctuary and let the tourists in, which definitely made the experience a lot more valuable.

Day Three:

The Day of Stalin–oh boy. Yes, the man was an indelible black spot on the pages of human nature and systemically murdered millions of his own innocent countrymen, but missing a visit to the Man of Steel’s birthplace of Gori and namesake museum (Just a few hours away from Tbilisi) was something I would not let occur. If you care about modern history and if you’re a human rights lover, I think that a grim instinct of responsibility, like what guides modern people to concentration camps, compels you to see such a spectacle.

I prefaced my visit to Stalin’s hometown by a stopover at the Georgian National Museum, which has one of the best exhibits on ancient gold artifacts that I’ve ever seen. Georgia was known to the ancient Greeks as Colchis, the land of Jason’s Golden Fleece. The natives have been collecting bountiful quantities of natural gold from the Caucasus as far back as written history can attest to, and there’s a theory that the Golden Fleece myth originated from a practice of gold panning where locals dipped sheep wool into the river to collect the stuff’s shiny particles. True or not, Georgia’s reputation as a center of gold should stand the test of time with the numerous amounts of unique artifacts that have been discovered in the region, many of which are singularly beautiful for their unique designs. The museum goes to lengths to let visitors know that many such designs are endemic only to historical Georgia–a fact is understandably braggable. In addition to the exhibition on Georgia’s gold, I took a much more somber tour of the museum’s section on Georgia’s history under communist oppression from 1921 to 1991. The low lighting, sad pictures of intellectuals and dissidents who were shot by the authorities, and blurry pictures of insidious orders from the authorities communicated the nation’s opinion of those dark seventy years. The icing on this sad cake was a full-sized rail car, poked through with hundreds of gleaming bullet-holes, in which the Red Army’s opponents were packed to be mercilessly cut down by Soviet machine guns during the 1921 invasion.

If anything, the last exhibit sobered me up for my time at the Stalin Museum in Gori. The museum of Mr. Steel is in a curious position at the moment, as the man is still more-or-less glorified by the extensive documents, artifacts, busts, and photos that are on show of him, despite the conventional wisdom on the man’s bloody legacy. The museum authorities, presumably under their own initiative and that of entities like the EU, will be changing the museum to the “Museum of Stalinism” in the near future, but I think they’ve got a lot of work redesigning everything ahead of them. Still, the museum was a novelty to walk through, featuring everything from Stalin’s first poem to his death mask. The information was overwhelmingly in Georgian or Russian, so I paid for a tour guide to show me around the place. I don’t remember that much from what she said but it wasn’t very critical of the man, and she seemed to be in a hurry to get done with our tour. The two coolest parts of the tour were looking around Stalin’s private rail cart–essentially, a green tank on train tracks–and seeing the rinky-dink house where he was born, which is now covered by a protective roof to sustain the people’s most glorious house’s longevity. On the interior walls of the house, some of Stalin’s letters to his mother were pinned up, and it appears that the moment his pen used to touch paper for a letter home, this brute of a monster transformed into a mawkish little boy with a soft-spot for mommy. One of them, dated 1931 (when he was 53 years old) from the Kremlin, thanked her for sending homemade him jam and Georgian candy!

I rounded off my day by taking a look at a small local museum on World War II, which was nothing special except for a morbid photo of a fallen Hero of the Soviet Union (a dead hanged naked Georgian woman) and some rusted WWII kit. Once again, everything was in Russian/Georgian and I had to hire a tour guide. However, the place had some information about the recent war with Russia in 2008, and I had the unique opportunity to pose holding a used Russian cluster bomb. So, despite the defenses put up by people interested in protecting Russia’s image, I’ve seen (and held) the infamous munitions myself and can attest to their usage in the conflict.

Day Four:

As my last day in Tbilisi, I did a bit of souvenir shopping at the so-called “Communist Market”, where almost anything you can dream of from Soviet times can be purchased. Old-school cameras, pins, military medals, flags, knives, swords, passports, canteens, hats, and shit-load of other shitty cool shit can be haggled over and purchased in this ironically uber-capitalist exchange. I unceremoniously purchased enough medals to receive de facto control of an infantry battalion for prices that would make yesteryear’s martyrs of Marxism weep. There was something deliciously crass about it all, like I was rubbing our country’s Cold War victory in the absent faces of long-dead enemies with each Lari I spent buying their dead honor. At least with the medals, it makes you shudder with pity and a tiny morsel of genuine sadness to think you are purchasing something that someone worked so hard to get–and now, it means nothing. Let that be a lesson, perhaps, to ourselves as we seek in vain to value our lives with what are really meaningless benchmarks of accomplishment.

***So folks, that’s it for now, but stay tuned for the really meaty stuff about my time struggling through the Caucasus. This is part one of three. Thanks for reading***

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A Note About My Travel Writing

In today’s world of easy-access jet-setting, the glamorous aura that has surrounded international tourism has begun to fade at an ever-quickening rate. Thanks to expanding airline networks, cheaper tickets, and a rapidly thickening atmosphere of global communication, Average Jane and Joe can throw their junk in a suitcase for a two week excursion into the depths of a Costa Rican rainforest to visit villages trapped in time and eat queer delicacies only dreamable to prior generations. As with any commodity that has traditionally been rare, an expansion in the “supply” of international tourism has necessitated its demystification into a more mundane, typical part of people’s lives. 110 out of 313 million Americans (My countrypeople) now own passports, a record number, and this subgroup will only continue to grow in size over the next few years. Like the Ford Model T was for automobiles in the early 1900s, modern cross-border travel has deconstructed a luxury good by making it mass-produced and easily consumable.

So, for all of those who’ve participated in mass-scale foreign travel and/or enjoy watching our society develop or decay, a big question presents itself: with each foot that steps onto an airplane bound to another land, is travel sinking into a pit of crowded, prosaic blandness? Some of us, lost in the romanticism of yesteryear’s forays into untouched destinations as told by adventurers like ibn Batuta, Dinesen, Orwell, and the like, are definitely tempted to respond yes (I’m one of them).

Nevertheless, all observers of globalization must admit that the march of history here is unstoppable. People will continue to travel more often, and to make this as painless as possible for both themselves and the unwitting natives who will receive them, travelers need all of the guidance they can get. I write because I have accepted this fact and hope to turn my own adventures into something that can be useful for all of you out there, who may perchance wander into an odd corner of the world like a former Soviet military base in the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia. And to speak idealistically for a second, everybody deserves the chance to jump on a jet and experience the thrill of being washed over by humidity and pungent smells as the plane door slides open to the tarmac of Exoticstan.

Through my own tales, I hope to motivate you to go to wherever your “exoticstan” may be, and perhaps you’ll chuckle a bit and get informed on the way. I may write about some sordid topics, or stray into the realm of uncomfortable intimacy, but I hold the belief that what I share is ultimately relevant to the curious traveler-to-be or is, at the very least, humorous enough to merit a mention. Enjoy!

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