March 10, 2011
I have just returned from a wonderful trip to Egypt. Fortunately, I returned home a few days before the troubles started. I am not surprised the Egyptian people are dissatisfied with their lot and are in a state of rebellion. Poverty is everywhere and around all the monuments are slums. At the pyramids the slums are within a hundred yards and the Sphinx looks upon some of the worst.
The police are posted every fifty yards in the tourist areas and along the main roads. The visitor really does come to feel that Egypt is a police state, which indeed it is. If anything surprises me about the troubles in Egypt, it is that any popular demonstrations are possible in a country that is so heavily controlled. I am sad that all the people who are employed in the tourist industry are suffering since I am certain tourism is down and will be for some time to come.
Unemployment and underemployment, particularly of the young, is a terrible problem for Egypt. I was shocked to learn that the stewards on the boat on which I cruised down the Nile were lawyers and people with advanced degrees. The Egyptian government provides free university education, even to foreign universities, for students who score well on placement tests. But, after graduation, these bright young people cannot find jobs in their professions and have to settle for jobs as waiters in restaurants with foreign clienteles, or as stewards on Nile cruise ships. Female graduates cannot even get these jobs.
I had firsthand experience of the poverty of Egypt. One afternoon in Luxor City I had some free time and decided to take a walk along the Nile. The Corniche that runs along the river is under heavy reconstruction so that the avenue of sphinxes can be fully excavated. I thought if I kept the river to my right I would be OK. After walking for about fifteen minutes, I decided to turn back. Going the other way, nothing looked familiar. I asked two men for directions to the river and they offered to help me as they showed me some tattoos on their wrists which they said meant they were trustworthy. After a bit, the Nile came into view and I offered to give them some money for their trouble, but I only had 20US. No problem the guys said they had change and I handed over the twenty in exchange for which they gave me two 50 piaster notes.
A hundred Egyptian pounds is roughly the equivalent of 20US, but 100 piasters are worth only about a quarter. They thought I would be fooled into thinking they had given me 100 pounds. They demanded more money since they said they had given me 20 dollars worth of Egyptian. I said I owed them nothing and then they grabbed for my wallet and pulled at my clothes. Thank god, two policemen were nearby and I rushed toward them. When the guys saw the police, they turned and ran. In my former profession, I had guns pulled on me; but I have never been as frightened as I was that day in Luxor City. I intend to keep the two 50 piaster notes as a souvenir of that day.
One pound coins are hard to come by and are necessary since the toilets cost a pound. The Egyptians know this and work all sorts of arbitrage scams. In the Valley of the Kings, a man begged for one Euro in exchange for five Egyptian pounds. The exchange rate for Euros is .12 to one so one Euro is worth 8.3 Egyptian pounds. Because I needed to use the gents, I took him up on his offer with the Euro I got as change for a Coke at Charles de Gaulle on the way to Egypt. Even the attendants at the monuments offer 5 Egyptian for one dollar, which is worth 5.85 Egyptian. I guess they are providing a service; a pocketful of one pound coins is heavy to carry around and you have need of the toilet now and again.
Speaking of toilets, at one of the restrooms, a man sat on a stool with a brass plate in front of him with a woman in a black burka behind him. When you put your coin in the plate, a hand shot from under the burka, took the coin, and hid it somewhere inside her robes, like an automatic bank.
The monuments were wondrous to see. In Cairo I stayed at the Mena Hotel where I had a view of the pyramids from my balcony. In the Khan el-Kalili market in Cairo, I sipped green tea as a perfume merchant mixed exotic oils to match my personality. At the market, I even sipped tea and puffed on a hookah at the el-Fishaway tea house that dates from the middle ages. In the Valley of the Kings I entered the tomb of Tutankhamen and Ramses III whose walls are covered in beautifully colored hieroglyphics. At Saqqara, I walked around the oldest stone structure on earth, the stepped pyramid of Djozer dating from 4500 BC. I sailed the Nile in a felucca, a native sailboat, as the sun set behind the western mountains. I spent five days cruising down the Nile as we passed orchards of oil palms and bananas.
I am heart sick that the Cairo Museum was vandalized. The museum is one of the great museums of the world. I have heard on the news that priceless objects from King Tut's tomb were smashed for their gold. Only poor, desperate people would destroy their patrimony. Let's hope that the decorations of the temples and tombs are not defaced by those who want to profit by the sale of artifacts.
In ancient Egypt, the Nile provided abundantly, so much so that the people could imagine no better afterlife than one which mimicked their lives along Father Nile. The faces on the coffin lids smile confidently at the eternal sky safe in the knowledge that a spotless life ensured them an eternity of joyful abundance. The ancient Egyptians recognized certain acts as unforgivable which would result in your body being eaten by the crocodile that stood ready to devour it if your heart was found heavy with sin. Many of those sins involved acts of selfishness in failing to share the abundance of Egypt.
I became somewhat saddened that the Egyptians placed such store in death. Agathe Christie in her book Death Comes as the End wrote that the business of Egypt was death. An Egyptian worked all his life to gain enough wealth to build a tomb and stock it with all he would need in the afterlife. At his death, all the wealth he had accumulated was buried with him. The only wealth that passed from generation to generation was land, and the animals and the serfs that made the land productive. However, even some of the proceeds of that land were used for offerings for the continued repose of the souls of the dead. The Egyptians believed that the dead continued to have an effect on the world of the living. The dead Pharaoh ensured the sun rose each day; but the dead common people helped the living protect them against evil which was the precinct of the afterlife.
Sad to say my doctors were right about the trip affecting my health. I became very tired early on and began to skip supper so I could get extra sleep. As much as we were fed on the trip, skipping supper was not necessarily a bad thing. Even with the extra rest, I began to slur my words and become confused. I believe my confusion is why I got lost in Luxor City. I avoided Nile tummy by eating simply and using only bottled water. I had just a few panic attacks which weren't serious.
My doctors told me Egypt had no mosquitoes and I didn't need to worry about diseases they carried. I hate to tell them, but since the Nile was dammed, it is nothing more than a brackish tidal river that receives little if any inflows from upriver. At the Aswan Dam, on one side you have Lake Nasser and on the other a slow moving swamp. Papyrus and lotus no longer grow along the riverbanks because of the water's brackishness. Drainage canals filled with garbage are everywhere in the cities. I wanted to sleep with my windows open and to go to hotel pools at night, but I soon found that large, fat, lazy mosquitoes quickly came calling. I of course did not bring bug repellant since my doctors told me Egypt had no mosquitoes. I have some strange muscle pain and weakness as well as a slight fever since I got back, but nothing unmanageable.
The breath of tourists causes a black mold to grow in the tombs that causes a mild infection called tomb lung. All of us on the trip caught it and I am still coughing up luggies. I had a bad night after I got back during which I couldn't catch my breath. My partner has COPD and I used his inhalers to get me through. I am still a little short of breath.
All in all the risk was worth it. A friend of mine told herself she would travel when she was older. Now that she is older, she is too sick to travel. You should not put off anything that you can do today. I love to travel; but, I don't know how many more trips I have in me. I certainly don't believe I could do another arduous packaged tour. My partner and I want to go back to Venice and the Italian Lakes. Our friends in Scotland keep bugging us to visit them. Both of us want to go back to Paris and to Montpellier where I studied French.
A wise person told me years ago that there is enough time for all that is important in our lives so long as we know what is truly important to us. Since I have retired, I have times in which I think of all that I didn't do or didn't do well. I didn't take the Fellowship to Case Western because my partner didn't want to move to Cleveland. I couldn't find a well paying job in the UK. I didn't die of AIDS when all my friends did.
Regret is an evil mood. Life is movement. We must keep doing our best and learn to forgive ourselves. Being in the moment doesn't mean we forget the future, but that we are aware of each moment as it passes. When Protease Inhibitors came along in 1995, those of us with HIV/AIDS were given back our futures; after years of living in the moment, planning for things in the future like retirement or career growth seemed very strange to me. I have become comfortable with the future while living in the moment. I plant bulbs in winter to bloom in the spring. I plan trips I may not be able to take while I enjoy my cat that is prowling round my keyboard as I write.
How does ALL of this work? I don't know; it's a mystery.