Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Shoeshine for all

Day 4(cont.)
Outside the museum building, the cameliers of the pyramids had metamorphosed into shoeshine men. Did the fact that we were wearing sneakers and sandals deter them? No. They insisted on polishing Attila’s cloth sneakers. Out of curiosity, he begged me to let one of them give him a shoeshine. At E£3 a shine, (I didn’t have the energy to haggle) it was money for a double lunch, but what the heck. Splurge time! The shoeshine man was really good at it too. Then Attila insisted it was my turn. I looked down at my grubby feet held in place by the flimsiest of sandals. What polish could he possibly use and did he have a brush tiny enough to sweep over the thin straps? Curiosity got the better of me. Five minutes later, giggling uncontrollably, we walked away with polished feet, pedicured toenails and shiny, dust-free sneakers!

Tut's bling & manicured mummies

Day 4(cont.) 
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast of fruit, yogurt, cheese pies and mango juice - Attila and I quickly switch to local mode with regard to food, vegetarian options permitting - we set out to face the arduous task of haggling for a taxi to the Egyptian Museum. After a hopelessly frustrating forty minutes of miscalculated offers to the fleets of taxis cruising Zamalek, I gave up and forked out E£10; double of what Peter had advised. I can now say with utter conviction that I hate haggling and will do my utmost to avoid it, wherever, whenever! It would have to be cheese pies and mango juice for lunch too.

The museum certainly lived up to our expectations. Well, at least the mummy section, for which there was an extra entrance fee of E£3 each for residents. I guess the attraction it held for children didn’t warrant a concession rate for them. We marvelled, first of all at the abundance of mummies, and naturally, at their preservation.

Most of the heavyweights were there. Seti I, Tuthmosis II and IV, Amenhotep, Ramses II & V. Attila was obsessed by Seti I’s hair and his regal pose. I kept returning to Ramses II to scrutinize his perfectly shaped fingers and long, manicured pinky nails. Only Tutankhamun was missing. He’s down at the Valley of the Kings; where we wouldn’t be going.  
Tut’s treasure on the other hand, was at the museum. It was so over-the-top extravagant; utterly blinding bling; gold and precious stones all around. His treasure filled chamber after chamber, comprising everything from his furniture to his toys and, of course, his sarcophagi (all three of them) and jewels. Not that we were unimpressed. It was just too overwhelming to absorb in one go...

Off guard on guard

Day 2(cont.)
Attila’s prime spectacle, however, were the guards at the embassies. Zamalek houses more than forty embassies, many of them in our vicinity. The ones we passed, had wooden booths of a somewhat decrepit nature stationed outside their walls, with the respective country’s flag colors painted on the sides, making them distinguishable from a distance. At each booth, a uniformed guard armed with a rifle, sat on a low wooden stool inside or next to the booth. Armed guards outside embassies are not uncommon per se, but Attila noticed something quite extraordinary at all four embassy booths that we encountered during our stroll.

The guards were not only asleep at their posts, but their chins were rested on the barrel tip of their loaded rifles! After close, lengthy observation from all angles, Attila pointed out how easy it would be for a passerby to pull the trigger and ’blow the guard’s head off’, as the sidewalks were no wider than three feet. In one case, we literally stepped onto the road, so as not to wake the snoring guard and possibly get shot at for catching him off guard. We couldn’t have been the only ones to observe this eccentric twist in protocol...

The Imam beckons

Day 2 
Peter had an arrangement with a taxi driver who picked him up every morning and drove him to the International School where he worked as a first grade teacher. As the school was a stone’s throw from the pyramids at Giza, he suggested we save on one journey’s fare and ride with him the following morning. Well, perhaps not the following morning as, being on vacation, we could afford to sleep in on our first day. I could live with that.
By “sleep in” we did not mean a 7am wake up call. However, the imam’s calls to the faithful from the mosque across the street from Peter’s apartment, didn’t escape our ears. Surprisingly, it was a pleasant awakening. More like a humming lullaby which, if ignored, lulled you back to sleep till the next prayer time. This was Egypt, after all. Attila loved it. By the third call, he had fine tuned the imam’s call, and in perfect pitch beckoned me in a perfect imitation of ‘Allah...akhbar...’He whined in protest when I insisted that his melodious imitation should perhaps remain within the walls of Peter’s apartment. This was Egypt, after all.
The imam’s calls were accompanied by a mélange of fragrances wafting in from our open windows. Smoky, with an overtone of cumin, bell peppers and citrus fruit, topped with the slightest whiff of exhaust fumes...

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Baksheesh dodging

Day 1(cont.) 
Once in the relative safety of the taxi, the driver piled in two more men (“my friends madam, they go to Cairo too”), whom I refused to share the back seat with. They were forced to squeeze in the front. (Smart move, as they spent their entire journey staring back at us.) 
As we drove off, Attila asked if he could let go of my hand now. Having removed the backpack, my flooded Amazon basin was seeping into the cracked faux-leather seats of the taxi, squelching with every move I made. Attila muffled his laughter in his shirt, while I tried to sit very still and think about plunging into ice pools after a sauna in Finland.
Five miles down the highway, we were pulled over by a uniformed though unarmed, decrepit old man standing next to a deserted booth, smiling broadly. His uniform was several sizes too big for him and thoroughly worn. To our utter astonishment the driver asked me to step out of the taxi and, “show the man your papers, it's normal procedure”. I gazed  at the 'official', smiled back broadly, and shook my head in polite refusal.
After a flurry of arguments in Arabic among all four men, some vigorous nodding from the official, he pulled out a filthy clipboard with a dog-eared form attached, passed it to me through the open window and asked me to write my name and country of origin. I obliged by writing 'Nancy Vurobaravu, Vanuatu', and handed it back to him smilingly.
He thanked me then bent down, peered at Attila and me with beady eyes and stretched out his palm to demand his baksheesh. Attila nudged me to look at his fingernails. They were like tiny saws encrusted with red-green grime. I smiled as politely as I could fake and shook my head. He stepped back, hesitated, looked around nervously and waved us on. The driver and I exchanged glances in the rear view mirror, but he sped off without a word...