Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Great Pyramids

The Giza Necropolis- more commonly called The Great Pyramids of Egypt, actually is an ancient temple complex of three large pyramids, three small pyramids, and the mighty Sphinx. Built in 2560 BC, it is also the only one of the Seven Wonders of the World that remains intact.. or somewhat, at least. Of the structures that make up this complex, The Great Pyramid of Giza is the tallest, the largest and the oldest. Originally built as the final resting place of Pharaoh Khufu in the Fourth Dynasty, it took 20 years to build and remained the tallest manmade structure in the world for 3,800 years- finally surrendering that title to the English Lincoln Cathedral in 1311 AD.

There have been varying scientific and alternative theories regarding the Great Pyramid's construction techniques. Most accepted construction theories are based on the idea that it was built by moving huge stones from a quarry, dragging and lifting them into place. Originally, the Great Pyramid was covered by casing stones that formed a smooth outer surface. What is seen today is the underlying core structure because in 1301 a massive earthquake ripped most of the casing stones free. Some of these stones that once covered the structure can still be seen scattered around the base, but essentially these stones knocking loose are what made climbing the pyramids possible. A goal of mine for many years, climbing one has been something I have read about but is inherently difficult and remains so for many reasons.

So one day while visiting Cairo, we set out to visit the pyramids. Arriving at the Giza Necropolis before sunrise and thanks to Muhammad the taxi driver, we were directed to some back alley which we learned later is a standard tourist trappy kickback to drivers. Turned around, a bit confused as to what was being pressed on us and ultimately still interested, we elected to see a bright orange sun rise on the pyramids from a nearby roof top and then hopped on horses with a guide named (yep) Muhammad who led us around the south side of the complex and up to the crest of an overlooking dune. There, we watched excited kids race horses back and forth haphazardly across the sand while shepherds tended to their flocks of sheep as they headed out to grazing fields further out from civilization.

Once the site opened for the mornings tourist rush, we said goodbye to Muhammad and waded into the masses that exist at the front of the complex. There we paid an entry fee that is 10 times what it is for locals, but in all truth, what can you do? It's not like you cab blend in.. and you want to see them. So you just deal with it, knowing all the while that you are getting ripped off but it's still only about 5 bucks in Egyptian Ribles.

Once inside, you aren't exactly immune. Throngs upon throngs of street urchins and "cultural sentinels", or whatever these guys claim to call themselves exist even past the ticketed entry point and were absolutely shamelss in their attempts to hit you up. Their goal: to milk you from as much of your money as possible. This was actually so bad that we routinely resorted to two methods that clearly slowed our cash flow to these people: One was to split cash in to no less than three pockets- large bills into one, medium into another, and then a final pocket to hold an assortment of smallish bills that could be doled out with a "sorry, this is all I have". Sometimes this wouldn't work- I had a kid actually pat my pockets when I gave him a low Rible note.

The other, better way was to respond to the universal 1st question of "where are you from" with a 3rd world nation. This being because the stronger the economy you throw out, the more you are hit up for in your local currency. Amazingly, these urchins also speak an unlimited set of languages for cash. Say you are from Italy? Italian flows from their tongues. French? Look out, they speak that too. I even bumped into a kid who knew enough Japanese to tell that I was warning some tourists- and respond back to me in Japanese. They are that familiar with Tourist Milk. So- the most sure-fire way of getting them to leave you alone?

"Where are you from?"
.. walk-off.

Not only do they not know where Paraguay is- hence the inability to hit you up for any given amount of Euro, Yen, USD.. whatever, but they also don't know what language to talk to you in. In essence, a perfect formula.

Weaving our way through the unexpected crowds, we meandered over to the Sphinx- in many ways it is stunning to see this firsthand with your own eyes. There is so much history behind the Sphinx that seeing it elicits a bit of a unique response. Almost immediately, a dude on a camel came by and asked us if we wanted to ride. I'm pretty sure his name was Muhammad. It's so funny.. at first there was no way I was getting onto his camel- it just seemed too touristy. But Jon had his SLR handy and we all decided to give it a go. Despite all of the people just meters away, we still were able to capture ephemeral scenes that were right out of storybook Rudyard Kipling or Richard Burton lore.

All the while, I scoped out possible entry points to the complex. How do people scale these pyramids? Where do they get in? I have read several narratives and blog entries- the best time seems to be in the dead of night when you can slip in and then watch sunrise, to get busted on the way down, paying Paraguayan bribes to keep out of jail. Interestingly, climbing the pyramids used to be legal- even Mark Twain did it. But in the 1980s, Egyptian authorities put an end to the practice- for cultural reasons and specifically after several westerners slipped and fell. There are many stories about Japanese tourists who are particularly adept at avoiding guards and slipping up top in the middle of the night, but I didn't really have that luxury so this initial foray around the complex was also a bit of a recon of sorts.

We slowly made our way around the Pyramid of Khafre and south toward the Pyramid of Menkaure- a moderate sized pyramid that sits alongside the Pyramids of the Queens. As we wandered around this 200 foot tall pyramid, some Egyptian casually skulking by the far corner said quietly to us "hey.... do you want to climb?" and pointed toward the top. This stopped me dead in my tracks. Was he serious? His shifty narrow eyes darting over toward some police and back toward us made me realize that he definitely was.

"How much"
"What country are you from?"
"40 Euro"

There are many things in Egypt that cost 40 Euro but climbing 200' of pyramid under my own steam to what clearly was a bribe didn't make any sense to me. We moved on, but something in me wondered if that was an offer I shouldn't be turning down. Yet dressed in white and standing out like a sore thumb didn't make me feel like this undertaking at midday among hundreds of money grubbing "Cultural Sentinels" would keep me from seeing the inside of an Egyptian jail or completely clean me out.

We wandered on, but part of me still wondered. Was it worth it? To climb to the top and see Mark Twains, Alexander the Great, or other famous names etched into the summit block as rumor has it? Would it be better than this picture, taken on the first few steps of the Pyramid of Khafre? This one- while cool- still cost me $10 bucks and resulted in a feeding frenzy over that money between the Sentinels and some guards who clearly wanted in on the action.

I wondered aloud what it would cost if I got nailed on top. Everything in this park comes with a price, a bribe, and an equal secondary bribe. But why not? After all, to say that I had climbed a pyramid was well worth 40 Euro to me. It was set- I wanted to go back and take a shot.

The next day Chris and Jon headed off to sightsee at the Citadel and walk around the Old City while I grabbed a bunch of cash and headed back to the Pyramids. I negotiated a rate with a taxi driver outside the anti-terror barricade of the Cairo Hilton, and made it crystal clear that I was limited on time. My goal: Get to the pyramids. Climb one. Get to taxi. Get back to hotel. We fly out. The driver said he understood. He didn't care.

Instead, he drove me right back to the same little sketchy horse stable we were dropped off at that first morning. Wtf!? I jumped out, told him to get lost and headed straight to the ticket booth. I was immediately swarmed by urchins who actually followed me into the site but were easy enough to shake. I headed right back to the corner of the Pyramid of Menkaure and looked for the same kid who offered me to climb. Not around, some other dude kicked off bidding at 80 Euro. For a Paraguayan, this is pretty steep.

I declined, stated 40 Euro- and said that I had no more. He finally relented, seeing that 40 Euro was better than 0 Euro, which he was rapidly cruising toward. The caveat: "can you come back at 1:00?" We were heading to the airport at 12:30 so that was clearly out of the question. Apparently this is when the guards go on siesta, and when climbing a pyramid is possible.

"I can't. It has to be sooner"
"Ok ok. Come back in 30 minutes" he said, warily glancing over at three guards.
I did, and was told again that I had to come back in 30 minutes.

This happened two more times, and I was getting tired of this. The urchin was clearly aware of this, and finally asked "can you come back at 1?" Frustrated, I said "sure, I'll come back at 1." "You are going to come back at 1, aren't you?"
"Promise me"

Promise me? Is he serious? The guy that is looking to milk me out of my money, probably dime me out to a guard so he can get a cut, and has had me sitting around for close to 2 hrs?

"I promise. See you at 1."

With that, I turned, walked down past the Pyramid of Khafre, past the Giza Pyramid, past the Sphinx and out into the crowd. For now, the summit of a pyramid would have to wait.

Marine Antics
While on active duty in 29 Palms, CA, I worked with a Gunnery Sergeant named Ward Lemmons. A crusty salt who was at the end of his time in the Corps, he told me a story at one point about his Marine Security Guard assignments. American Embassies are guarded around the world by US Marines, whose charter is to ensure that embassy personnel and the actual grounds- deemed sovereign US soil are fully protected. The assignment typically involves a small team of Marines that work for 4 days on/ 3 days off or whatever, with the first Embassy being a "hardship" (I use that term loosely.. if you have ever seen State Department living overseas it is hardly a hardship) tour, then the second Embassy being a premier posting.

Gunny's first embassy was Cairo. On this posting, he said: "you know, those pyramids go way out there! Me and a few other Marines would hop in a Jeep and drive way, way out into the desert. Finding some random pyramid, we would climb to the top with a case of Heineken and sleeping bags. And those Heineken bottles are made of some tough glass too. We would roll the empties off the top, hearing them go 'clink clink clink' on their way down until you couldn't hear them anymore. We would pass out in our bags until morning when some British tourists, thinking they were going to have some spiritual experience would stumble onto us after passing all those empties on their way up. Thinking they were going to have some spiritual experience at sunrise, instead they'd find a trail of empties leading to bunch of passed out Marines."

He went on to tell me that during this posting he also managed to make it into one of the extensive catacomb networks riddling the Egyptian plain. There, he stole a human skull, tossed it into his backpack and brought it back to the Marine House where he would then pull it out from time to time for party-goers to inspect: "you can tell he was a grain eater because his molars are all worn down."

Two years later, Gunny Lemmons found himself and his Egyptian skull assigned to the US Embassy in Paris, where he met and married a local girl. His proposal came with only one demand: Get rid of the head. So, he concocted a plan with some fellow Marines. One quiet Sunday afternoon they all boarded the Métro de Paris with the skull in a brown paper bag. Sitting down, they put the bag under their seat, waited a few stops and then collectively disembarked. The bag and it's occupant kept going on it's merry way, finally to be discovered at some point down the line. The next morning's front page newspaper headline read: "Human Head Found in Métro" although it did seem to confuse everyone how a 3,000 year old head managed to get there in the first place.

The Muhammad's

If you have ever seen the coming-of-age movie "Superbad", one favorite story line comes when Fogel is proudly showing off his Fake ID to his friends. Seth and Evan comment on the name he has chosen for himself: McLovin, the Organ Donor from Hawaii. His friends get on his case until Fogel claims that his choice was between McLovin and Muhammad. Seth says "Why the F*@k would it be between McLovin or Muhammad? Why don't you just pick a common name like a normal person?" Fogel's response: "Muhammad is the most commonly used name on Earth. Read a f-ing book for once."

So here we are in Egypt, and everyone we meet is named Muhammad. Taxi drivers, Egypt Museum crappy tour guides, hotel bellhops. Even in this mob of kids- at least ten of them are named Muhammad.

Exiting the swarm of tourists and vultures at the Giza Pyramid main entrance, I track down a taxi driver who leads me to a side alley and his vehicle. Jumping in, I notice a solitary figure sitting alone on a storefront stoop diligently and carefully carving away at a piece of alabaster. "Hey Muhammad, can you wait for a second? I want to see if he is selling canopic jars." I crossed the street and approached this largish individual in man-dress and keffiyeh who immediately breaks out into a giant smile and strikes up a conversation.

"Hi, how are you my friend? My name is Muhammad."
"You don't say. I'm doing well, thanks for asking. Do you sell canopic jars?"
"Yeah I do."
Yeah? Hmm.. that's a little odd. The conversation wears on.
"Where are you from?"

Typically, this general question would have elicited my usual "Paraguay" response, but for some reason that I couldn't explain I felt ok and replied with "United States"

"What part?"
"Quite rainy there this time of year."
Err? This response definitely wasn't normal. We continue talking.

"So do you hand make these?"
"Uh huh."

At that point I stop, turn around and look him in the eye. "Ok...Where. Are. You. From?"

"Hawaii. Big Island."
"Get the hell out of here."

We talk for the next ten minutes while I get his life story, which involves him growing up as a surfer outside of Kona, meeting an Egyptian woman (of course), falling in love and her convincing him to move to Egypt in the mid-90s, converting to Muslim along the way. He travels home every other year where the old gang remains the same and where he's still able to maintain the faint glimmer of Hawaiian Pidgin that he now feels ok to spurt fluently. There we are- two Americans who bumped into each other, half way around the world at the foot of four thousand year old pyramids and talking about surfing in Hawaii. So incredibly random. His smile grows larger and he laughs heartily when I tell him that my usual response to the tourist vultures of nationality is Paraguayan, then becomes saddened when talking about a drying of American tourism post-9/11. "It will come back though, I am confident!" he replies, pulling out his smile again. He insists that I not even consider haggling with him as he gives me bargain-basement prices on everything I want to purchase and then throws in a few pieces free of charge. We part ways, only after he insists a return to his store again when visiting Cairo next time.

I promise, Muhammad... because I need to get to the top of that pyramid one day.

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