Any time you get a serene second at the Pyramids, an Egpytian tout ruins the moment and shoves some shitty tchotchke in your face. You tell him you don’t want it, so he drops it in your hand and goes, gift! And then demands money anyway, not giving up until you’re uncomfortable and give it to him, or 30 long seconds later when his friend takes over.
You get hardened to it all and tell them to fuck off, with no remorse, even if you consider yourself a friendly, patient guy.
But this one time, this guy won’t leave you alone, and he pretends to be your friend, like they all do. But this fucking guy, he reaches out and tries to shake your left hand.
You weren’t born yesterday (you were born ~9,271 yesterdays ago). You know that in Arabic countries, shaking with your left hand is an insult, because that’s the hand with which he wipes his ass.
A month earlier, we drove by Big Ben in a double-decker bus and everyone gawked and Snapchatted, and I shrugged.
I traveled the world to find myself. I expected to happen upon a train station named after my future wife and purpose — NEXT STOP: JANINE INNER-CITY TENNIS COACH — get off, and start my perfect life.
I found myself in the window overlooking Big Ben: I was an overtraveled, unappreciative douche.
At 20, I had never left the country. I saw Copenhagen and wanted to see everything. Then people told me I had to go to Slovenia and Zimbabwe and places I had never heard of, and they were right, and I realized I’d never see it all.
Eventually, I stopped checking things off the list. I threw out the list.
I don’t give a shit about what I’m supposed to do, or see. I can’t go everywhere.
I want to be, everywhere, whatever that means.
But then my friend texted me. “Wanna go to Egypt?”
My inner fifth-grader awoke from his coma and shouted, GODS AND MUMMIES, YOU BETTER BUY THIS FOR ME!
I realized I was feigning maturity, giddily booked a flight, and couldn’t sleep ’til we left.
Our hotel cost $14 a night and overlooked all three Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. It was as breathtaking as it sounds.
I was a happy tourist again.
When we got off the plane, we needed to pay $25 for a routine touirist Visa.
“What’s that in Egpytian pounds?” we asked.
“We don’t accept Egyptian pounds,” said the Egyptian.
“Isn’t this Egypt?” we asked.
“Yes,” said the Egyptian.
It turned out the next window took our money for a premium, but I was like, wow, this economy is fucked.
Everyone who’s nice in Egypt is trying to sell you something, it seemed. We got to the hotel, and the guy working was nice.
“Do you want dinner?” It was Midnight and we hadn’t eaten dinner. Sure. How much?
We don’t have dollars. How many Egyptian pounds?
“Well, I give you discount for dollars. Bank gives you 8.9-to-1 exchange rate …at market, I get 14-to-1!”
Great. But we don’t have dollars. So we can pay the fair rate, right?
I can get 14-to-1! He kept smiling this smile that suggested he had some great secret we were being let in on. He didn’t seem to understand he was ripping us off. He just wanted his US dollars.
But then we’d be paying almost twice as much. He didn’t get it. We argued back and forth. Eventually, we gave him Egyptian pounds using his exchange rate.
Our dinner probably cost him the equivalent of $4 — he walked outside to the nearest fast-food kebab joint — and it cost us about $23 each.
Aren’t you supposed to save money by traveling to a broken economy?
Walking around the temples of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings — the tombs of dead pharaohs like Tut, Ramses IV and the rest — the most noticeable thing was, wow, the colors!
When we think Egypt, we think muted desert colors. Yet there was deep red and blue and gold all over the ceilings and walls that had been shielded from sun damage.
You couldn’t help but realize these people lived 4,500 years ago. Like, they fell in love and shat their pants, too.
In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argues that most of what we do as humans is done to temper our fundamental anxiety — to deny that we all inevitably die.
He calls us “gods with anuses.”
I think that’s why we love mummies and myths and Pyramids.
People like us built these magnificent structures — how did they do it? — to put a bunch of dead bodies inside.
In Luxor (Thebes), back in 1500 BC, people only lived on the East side of the city. Because the sun rose in the east and set in the West, the entire West Bank was uninhabited for symbolic reasons — well, inhabited solely by mummies.
We spend millions of dollars keeping suffering people alive. We spend endlessly on lifespan, ignoring quality and healthspan and peaceful deaths. We can’t admit that despite the plethora of ways we have to send dick pics, we’re still clueless about death.
We like to think Pyramids and gods were cute, that we’ve got it all figured out, but aren’t we just more complex and “scientific” in our denial?
Our tour guide for the Valley of the Kings, Mohammad, couldn’t help but speak to much of the world’s horrid treatment of Muslims.
“Muslims aren’t like ISIS. Islam is just five pillars, nothing else. (Faith in God and Mohammad praying five ties a day, giving to the needy, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and pilgrimage-ing to Mecca if able).
Religion is not for your country, it’s for you. It’s between you and God.”
“Good is everywhere. Evil is everywhere. But good is more. There are people with closed minds. The end of evil is coming soon.”
Anyone with a brain knows not to listen to hate speech, but the value of travel is giving the other side a face. Whenever I hear hate from the media or peers, I’ll try to think of Mohammad’s genuine smile.
We only spent four hours together, but I was sad when he left. As all Egyptians did, he called each of us “brother.”
We were supposed to ride a traditional felucca (sailboat) to see a Nile sunset. The King Tut wished us a “Naic Trip,” but the wind was going in the wrong direction so we had to shift to a motorboat.
Our captains, Mohammad and Mahmoud, both in their mid-twenties, apologized profusely. The motor noise ruins the calm, they said.
I’m sure it would’ve been better sans-motor … but for a bunch of overstimulated Americans, it was pretty fucking serene.
Cairo is chaos. It’s like if you took New York City and removed most modernity and hedonism and doubled the number of people.
But there’s an Impostor Google store.
Everybody who travels says “wherever you go, everyone is the same.”
Mohammad and Mahmoud took the boat to “Banana Island” where we ate lifechanging bananas and saw Mohammad taunt a wolf in a cage like a five-year old.
Mahmoud saw a pigeon and taught us that it’s a delicacy, especially “good for honeymoon, good for have sex all night long.”
They offered us beer and drugs — in a friendly way. We declined, in a friendly way.
We had a Naic time.
We hung out on the boat for a while and talked. They repeated everyone’s heartbreaking story of depressed tourism — back in the day the boat was full all day; now they were lucky to get a trip a week. Everybody seemed to suggest tourism had dropped 5x, at least.
“There were two revolutions — one in 2011, another in 2013. But nothing changed, and now tourists are afraid to come.”
I felt safer than I do at home, and I feel safe at home.
Remember that $4 dinner I paid $23 for? It was one of the best meals of my life. In NYC, I would’ve paid $75 for it. Seriously. Perfectly seasoned, succulent chicken and bread that I’d kill my firstborn (child in the SIMS) for.
“In the summertime, the boat is our home.” Mohammad and Mahmoud slept and cooked and ate and drank in that tiny, beautiful felucca.
We got dreamy eyed — isn’t that the life, living on a boat on a Nile?
We mentioned our extensive travels. They mentioned they’d never left the country.
Then that “there might be another revolution next month.”
Oh, right, we almost got arrested.
My friend wanted to take the scenic route home from the Lebanese restaurant, and at first, we had our big tourist backpacks checked by guards.
That’s just a computer, we’re digital nomads, don’t worry, brah. They didn’t. And on we went.
And then there were more guards.
The thing is, you’re worried about going to Egypt, but the (one) great thing about a military state is that when you’re a foreigner from a privileged nation doing nothing wrong, you feel safe when military men when machine guns abound.
But then we realized our path to the museum was blocked by barracks.
Right by the US Embassy. We all laughed and instinctively took out our phones to snap. But they caught my friend.
“HEY, STOP!” An angry Egyptian in civilian clothes came running towards my friend. “No pictures!”
“I’m just walking through, sir.”
“You can’t take pictures!”
“Why doesn’t the police say something?” He pointed to the armed guards who were still calm with their machine guns.
“I am the police!”
My friend and I stood still. It’s not like this guy could get away with scamming us in front of armed guards. That’s the thing about a military state.
We realized he probably wasn’t lying. We realize it would probably make sense to have a cop in civilian clothes.
They checked our passports and we explained we were dumb tourists and all of a sudden, they were friendly. “My friend is from USA! You should meet him.” His friend had just left for a break, but really, they were kind and pleasant and we understood why we shouldn’t have taken a picture.
Everyone who wasn’t trying to sell us shit in Egypt was friendlier than Mother Theresa. Even the guy who we thought was going to arrest us.
I kept my picture. I probably shouldn’t post it.
Remember the guy who reached out his Shit-Wiping Hand?
His other arm was just hanging there.
It took me a minute to realize it was badly broken, unfixed. He couldn’t move it.
Their economy was bad before the revolution, and now it’s awful, and healthcare is nonexistent for normal people. No wonder touts pester you.
We had already declined his shitty tchotchkes, and were walking away. Still in shock, I didn’t give him any money. I wish I had. I don’t know if it would’ve helped.
I checked my ticket for the five-hour flight back — window seat, yes!
When I got to my row, there was an older woman in traditional Muslim dress parked in my window seat. In the aisle, an older man. I felt frustration rise in my chest, and started to speak. Excu —
Then for whatever reason, I took a deep breath, smiled, and sat in the middle silently.
A few minutes after takeoff, aisle-seat guy moved, so I took his seat.
But then I felt compelled to write about the one minor deed I did in Egypt. One day I’ll mature.
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