A Journal of chimeras (brief postings that vanish)

Copyright Mel. White, 2011-2020

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Back in Cairo

The ship's Internet turned out to be too unreliable to upload posts, which means that I will be uploading various posts and notes later this week.  I burned up ALL of my International data usage (not hard to do when you're the Geek Princess) and was left with the occasional small bits of free Internet via the ship's satellite.  It was slow... almost as slow as some of the fast modems of 30 years ago.

A good story needs photos, don't you think?

So here we are, back in Cairo, at the Mena House Hotel.  It's just after sunset, and that's Khafre's pyramid sitting on the plateau behind us, dividing the dark land from the indigo sky.  We can't see the Sphinx from here, but I know it's watching us.  The hotel sound system is playing classical music with an oriental theme.  I can't identify either the piece or the composer, but it's a violin arabesque that flits and echoes around the walls of the 2nd floor lobby balcony where I'm sitting and typing.

The grounds of the hotel are green and lush - there's several pools and the walks are lined with flowering plants.  Big fat bumblebees stumble and buzz contentedly here, and I saw the familiar pale green-white of a cabbage butterfly ghosting across the lawn.  You can even see the occasional scarab beetle, looking just like a piece of jewelry, trundling along on its way to an unknown destination.   There's not much traffic this weekend -- it's a four-day weekend here in Egypt and everyone who can has gone out of town.  The hotel grounds are quiet and fairly cool, although the temperature is hovering at 100.

The hotel, like all hotels and public places, has guards (discretely armed) who control the gates as fiercely as any guardian in the ancient books called The Book of Gates.  We don't feel threatened here -- the sense is that since military service is compulsory for young men, that they have to be given something to do while in the military, and keeping the flocks of trinket-sellers away from tourist hotels is one of the things that they do.  More about that later.

Night has fallen while I was writing this blog and downloading my homework from the University of Manchester.  I need to go back to the room and dress for dinner, leaving Khafre's "mansion of millions of years" to watch the brilliant night skies for me.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

I Know Ten Words In Arabic and I'm Not Afraid To Use Them

I spent six months trying to learn Arabic (fairly unsuccessfully), but I've been using the few phrases and words that I learned on everyone.  I'm trying to learn (or re-learn) a new one every day.  Sadly, one of the necessary phrases is "get away from me" - every charm seller and trinket seller along the Nile is desperate to see tourist money, and some of them get rude and aggressive and won't take "no."  There were two women today who managed to irk many of us.  They sold scarves, and the "hook" was "by women, for women, won't you support a sister?"  They wanted to sell as many as they could, so they got impatient with some of the women who were trying to buy (they wanted to make a 3 second sale and then run to "hassle" (that's what the Egyptians call it) another woman.)  I would have bought a scarf on the way back but their aggressive approach turned me off.

The ship itself has a little store with a vendor who will haggle for prices.  He lets you come in (really, you're a captive audience since you're on the ship and he's there, too) and look and ask questions.  Our tour guide mentioned him, and Bruce bought a gabeyaah (man's robe) from him.  I've gone in to look at things, and others have also bought from him.  Those of us on the tour understand that these little vendors are eager to sell and do need the income, but when they flock around you and won't take "no" for an answer, it's off-putting.

The first day (at Giza) it was amusing.  By now, it's not.

Bruce has acquired souvenirs, including the now-famous "one eared cat."  Someone bought a large-ish (1 foot tall) statue of Bast, but when they tucked it in their bag, it knocked against something and lost an ear.  The husband and wife were on the bus with Bruce (I think I was off climbing around a pyramid at the time) and the husband held it up and in best vendor manner called, "I have nice cat for sale!  Only one dollah!"

Bruce yelled "20 cents!"  ... and ended up with the one-eared cat, which he gave to me (I think we may need another suitcase!)  He added "buyer of one-eared cats" to his self-inflicted persona name on his name tag (he calls himself "Abu Abyad' (Grandfather White))

I have also acquired souvenirs... mine are more expensive.  I have a silver amulet of Sekhmet, who wards off plagues, and a book by Hawass that's basically a catalog of items on display in the Cairo Museum (which I can excuse as a book for my classes.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Great Pyramid and beyond

Today we woke up early (5am our time) to head out to see the Great Pyramid and hear the dawn lecture by Zahi Hawass.  We arrived just as the sun rose and turned the limestone of the Sphinx (where he was standing... eternal showman that he is) into gold.  The old monument regarded the rising sun as it has done for the past 4,500 years while we small ones walked around its huge paws and learned its history.  Up close, you can see chisel marks on some of the facings where restoration had been done hundreds of years ago.

And then it was off to the Great Pyramid.  As we all know, my ambitions are great but my body is not so great.  "We can see all three chambers," they said.  "Cell phone photos are okay but no cameras."  We climbed up to the thieves' entrance, about a 6th of the way up and entered.  "We'll go up to the middle chamber but if you want to see all three rooms, start with the bottom chamber.

We all know where this is going, right?

Yup.  I went down all 300 meters below the earth, into the subterranean chamber.  The passageway is low (even short little me had to walk bent over down the slope), and the "footing" is actually a series of boards nailed together with slats across each (think of a railroad and railroad ties.  There were only a few lights along the way, so Geek Princess here grabbed out her cell phone and used the flashlight function as we went farther and farther from the light.  The last little dot of light at the top winked out and we kept on going.

At the bottom, we reached a small square passageway and had to crawl to go forwards for about 30 feet to reach the unfinished bottom chamber.  I took a photo, and one of the guards said "no photos."  So much for that.

And then it was back up the slope.  Sadly, there's no quick way out -- only the long slope up in the deep darkness.  Then we hauled ourselves to the second level.  "The main chamber's straight ahead," Bruce said.  Two ramps merged, sloping upward, that led to the Queen's chamber.

Yes, I went.  More slopes in the darkness.   I was only able to stay a short time (I move so slowly that it takes me a longer time to get someplace.)  After making my way down, I took the turn (and the crawl) into the main chamber and stared at the granite sarcophagus.  Although I'm making this sound anticlimactic, the truth here is that the wifi is rather unreliable and even my phone drops signal frequently.  So I'm typing in haste, but I have notes and pictures to follow.

This was not the end of my adventures, but it's the end of my typing for the moment.  It's dinner time and believe me, I have earned this meal!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Adventures in Language Land

Too tired to type up adventures today (I will type them tomorrow while we are on the plane.)  But today's episode included a trip on a boat AND getting around Frankfurt with three women from Costa Rica who spoke only a few words in English.  I speak about 100 words of Spanish and about 500 words of Germany.  It was hilariously ... but very strange.

Also, it seems we have landed in Frankfurt on the weekend of a very big festival.  Our hotel is full of police!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Chapter 2 - to Gelnhausen

We made it to Germany!

The flight on Lufthansa was pleasant -- we seemed to have more room than on ordinary flights, and the service was wonderful.  The flight attendants spoke both German and English (and probably several other languages); I practiced my bad German on them.  Frankfurt airport is immense, and a trip from any place in the airport to any other place is like an adventure to an alien land.  We got off the plane and were escorted to buses, which then took a full 20 minutes to wind through various buildings to the place where we could pick up our luggage.  Getting to the rental car place was another long hike.

I was far too amused to find out that "rental car place" in German is "mietwagen"...which I promptly mangled into "meat wagon."  Our "meat wagon" is a huge Mercedes SUV with all the bells and whistles.  It's a rather intimidating beast, and the gear shift is very different from American cars.

At any rate, having acquired our personal "Meat Wagon", we fired up the GPS (another interesting experience since it's not a brand we use) and headed to Gelnhausen, the place where I spent about 4 years of my childhood.

It has changed considerably.  I remember the drive being through farmland, where everyone farmed the land up to the edge of the road.  Now it looks more like America, with a grassy strip between the farmland and the Iroad.  When I lived there, the only high school was in Frankfurt, an hour's trip one way.  It's still an hour's drive from Frankfurt to Gelnhausen but the drive has changed.  It's no longer a small 4 lane highway bordered by farms, but a very large 6 lane highway with concrete walls separating small towns from the roads, and a lot of graffiti.  It looks less tidy.

Chapter 0 - Prequel: A Thousand Miles Up The Nile (via Germany)

Since I teach Egyptology and am getting a degree in Egyptology, the choice to take a vacation in Egypt makes a lot of sense.

But I'm sure a lot of you are wondering, "Why go to Germany?"

In the early years of our marriage, my husband kept trotting me around to all sorts of different places in West Texas, telling me about family members who lived there or friends of family members who lived there or... even just places they'd passed through.  His family had a rich and deep connection with the land here in Texas.

Me?  I had nothing.

I grew up as an Army Brat, moving about every three years (long enough for me to get to know the people around me but never long enough for a lasting friendship.)  There was no connection to the land.  Teachers didn't know me or my family, and I wasn't an exceptional student (I was annoying, however, because I'd read through the textbooks very early in the semester and spend the rest of the time covertly reading science fiction.)  The only thing I felt a connection with were the lands and the forests, and in particular the forests of Germany.  They are still part of the landscape I see in dreams, cool and green, and welcoming with fragrant arms of pine.

Fast forward 42 years.  My parents have died and I have a small inheritance -- enough to pay for the rest of my degree in Egyptology and to fund one (just one) trip abroad.  Egypt was calling!

But it's a very long flight to Egypt if you fly directly.  I was afraid that we'd arrive, exhausted and in pain, and not able to enjoy our trip.  So I checked the balances and discovered we could afford a few days in Germany.  This was MY chance to get some revenge on my husband -- take HIM to all the places where I grew up!

Plotting a multistage trip without the help of a travel agent is a real challenge, but I threw myself into it and then started trying to learn Arabic (one of the 5 hardest languages for an English speaker to learn) and German.  I'd taken German courses in school back when I lived there (in 1960), but my German was pretty rusty.  I gathered up tapes and books and spent about 10 minutes over a course of 6 months trying to learn a few new phrases in Arabic and the final month before the trip, I switched over to trying to re-learn German.

If you know me, you know that I tend to overplan everything.  Yes, I've been packing and repacking for the last month, researching what to take and what not to take.  Among the thing that you might find odd are an electric teakettle (they recommend boiling the water in Egypt, just in case... and I have no patience for those little coil-dunkers), sewing kit, handi-wipes (face wipes), empty medicine bottles (for the face wipes), sports whistle, and several flashlights.  I also brought a bathtub stopper (with my bad back, I prefer baths.  Showers just won't unkink the back.)

I had to make the hard decision about which technology I could bring, eventually settling on my little light laptop (after I backed it up), my cell phone, and my small Samsung tablet.  I felt awfully darn naked.  For art, I packed colored pens, colored pencils, a sharpener, scissors, and a tablet of index cards to serve as drawing paper.

...and then I repacked again.  It's kind of a new hobby, y'know?

Some questions answered!

From Kathryn Rodman
1: Have you been to Germany or Egypt prior to this trip?I lived in Germany for about 8 years.  My dad was in the Army, and we made two trips here.  I've never been to Egypt.

2: how long was the place ride? (if you were in a plane) 

This time, the trip was about 10 hours nonstop.  I took a sleeping pill so that I would sleep for some of the trip.  My first trip to Germany was when I was 3 years old.  I was on a ship, but I don't remember anything about it.

3: Would you go again? 
You betcha!  I love travel!

4: how different is the food from America and what was your favorite place to eat? 

Here in Germany - not too different.  I think the main thing is that the food isn't quite as sweet, and nobody puts glasses of water on your table (you have to ask for it, and what you get is something like Perrier water.  So far, my favorite place was a Greek/Mediterranean place in Gelnhausen.

5: Did you go to see any pyramids?
Not yet -- I will in two days, though!

6: did you go to any museums if so what was the best thing you saw? 
Not yet!  Next week we will!

7: What was the first thing you noticed was different from America?
The airport!  We didn't roll up to the gate.  Instead, they came for us in buses.