Giza: Finally, some pyramids

Kenny finally, finally blogs about the pyramids.

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The merry band of photographers returns to Cairo, exhausted, on a red-eye flight. I fly too! No bus this time–at least I found a cheap ticket back… My plan was to stay in the airport for the hour-and-a-half or so until my flight out from Cairo to Uganda, but our plane was delayed, and by the time the bags started rolling on the conveyor belt in Cairo, I had about five minutes before boarding would finish in some completely different building. So back to the Sheraton for a few hours (hey, there are plenty worse places to crash!), then up with the photographers to see them off for their flights back to Russia and the Ukraine. Then to find the Ethiopian Air office and exchange my ticket…

I should point out that for some reason, my Ugandan SIM card in my phone continued to work on Egyptian networks. Or rather, it could find the networks but was refused access to them unless I pulled out the battery and actually waited for the phone to lose its charge, then tried again. But using that system, though I couldn’t make any calls, I received SMS’s and could send a seemingly unlimited number of them as well, for free. I even sent one to the States to wish my folks a merry Christmas! And, more importantly, that morning I sent one to AIM Travel to ask them to rebook my second flight (Entebbe, Uganda to Nairobi), which I had also now missed, moving it back to the nearest possible date and confirm with me by SMS. This little phone glitch was essential…As usual, necessity was the mother of invention. Just remember to exhaust all your options before deciding there’s not a way to make something work. I don’t know why resetting the phone changed network access, but God made it work that way, and I’m thankful for it. I’m also thankful that the Ethiopian flight could be changed for free, and the Uganda-Kenya flight was only $15.

I’ll spare you the details of finding the Ethiopian Air office. Even my taxi driver didn’t have a clue and resorted to asking a variety of old men on the street who were hard of hearing. But once inside, the woman at the desk partially restored my faith in the character of the Egyptian people. She was kind and polite despite the fact that money wasn’t involved in our transaction–she even let me fill up my canteen at the water cooler and told me how to get to the bus station! I walked out of the office and into the morning sun and yawned and stretched. Here I was in Cairo with almost twenty-four hours to spare until my next red-eye flight out. “It’s 26 kilometers to Giza,” I thought, “I got a full bag o’ bread, half a packet of dried dates, it’s sunny…and I got a camera with me. Hit it!”

For less than a buck I rode the public bus all the way from some random residential district out to Giza. I had my luggage (just a backpack, thank goodness I traveled light) in addition to my camera bag at this point, since I could sleep at the Sheraton unnoticed but probably couldn’t leave bags with them the same way. So I leaned forward onto my backpack and immediately conked out. A very nice young woman kept trying to wake me up, insisting it wasn’t safe to sleep on the bus, further restoring my faith in the character of the Egyptian people after all the shouts of “hundred percent discount” in the bazaar and the stiff-necked automatons of Shams Alam. She even agreed to let the bus driver know (he didn’t speak English) to wake me up at the pyramids so I didn’t unwittingly ride back…

When I got in to see the pyramids (past the rather persistent tourist-trap hawkers trying to sell you expensive entry by horse-drawn carriage), the first thing I did was fall asleep. It must have been early afternoon by then, no time to take photos. I found a flat stone three meters square lying in the dust in the shadow of the Great Pyramid, stuck my backpack below my legs and my camera bag under my head, pulled my hat down over my eyes and laid out to get some sleep. When I woke up I feasted on the food my Russian friends had donated to me, drank the last of my water, and set about photo-ing.

I pity any non-photographer who has to travel with one of us. If you can do that and not pull your hair out, you’re a hero. I mean when I’m photographing, I move slow. I think I got to the other side of the first pyramid before it started getting dark. But that didn’t hurry me! I was waiting patiently for the “golden hour” to arrive, photographic prime-time. At some point I photographed a Russian tourist couple with their camera–they were searching for someone to do them the favor but apparently didn’t speak English. Then I noticed a young man watching me as I finished with the Russians. Big backpacking backpack on, hiking boots, jacket tied around his waist. Young, with his hair in a pony-tail and a scruffy close beard and moustache. He had a friendly face that reminded me of a guy I knew in college. A point-n-shoot camera dangled from his wrist.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“Where you from?”

“France.”

“Ohhh!!!—” and we started off talking in French. He asked if I could take his photograph in front of the pyramids. His name was Leo. He was a few years younger than me and had been wandering the Middle East on his own for almost two years now. (He looked surprisingly well-groomed for someone trying to spend less than 5 euros a day, as I would later find!) The kind of guy who’s reserved and very kind, a quiet but free spirit. He said he had just arrived today, and I imagined he might really have just now walked out of the desert beyond the pyramids. I noticed he had several two-liter bottles of water on his pack and so asked if he was hungry. He was, so I proposed a little trade. I was thirsty, he was hungry, I’m sure we could work something out. Shams Alam’s bread rolls came in handy again! Revenge is sweet, or in this case salty. As Leo poured the water into my canteen, I stopped to ask how he had purified it. “I don’t purify at all,” he said. “I drink the water and let my organism adjust, become stronger.” Okaaaay, I thought, that’s great if you’re traveling as long as he’s been. For me, time to add the iodine!

We chatted as we wandered further out into the desert around the pyramids. He had been to school as a gardener, but left to wander the world. Originally he had planned six months, I think, but then had just kept going. The number of other tourists thinned out noticeably in the span of half an hour, until eventually we were the only two non-Egyptians in sight. The only others visible were the Egyptians offering camel rides and a few horse-drawn carriages trundling their tourists back in the direction of the gates. Leo headed off into the distance to take a photograph from a far-off dune. I photographed the Egyptian tourist hunters heading home for the day. Off in the distance some riders flew by on horseback at full gallop, kicking up the dust and playfully racing each other back. At some point I reached into my camera bag and was changing lenses when the umpteenth camel jockey rode up to me and said “ride the camel!” When I said no and moved to walk away, he started talking in either Arabic or an unintelligible attempt at English. I was so sick of them by this point, of having to say “No, no thank you. No, thank, you. No. NO CAMELS.”, that I had ceased to pay attention to what he was even trying to say. I turned to get away from him and rather meanly pulled out a phrase I remembered from the wikipedia phrasebook that meant something like “Get lost” or “Buzz off!”, momentarily feeling very self-satisfied with having said it. It shut him up alright. But when I glanced back at him, I saw he wasn’t following me or trying to get me to go for a ride. He was just pointing with his riding crop at the spot where I’d been standing when he rode past. As I looked, he said the word “pen.” My Cross pen, given to me by my grandfather, had fallen out of my bag when I was fumbling with camera equipment and was lying there in the sand. Not a terrible loss, but not something I’d like to lose, either. Man, did I feel like a jerk. And I was. I walked back, picked up my pen, and told him thank you, thank you, thank you, in Arabic, then stood their thinking, trying to figure out how to make him comprehend that I was sorry for being rude and sure felt bad about it. He just smiled back a shy smile as if to say, forget about it, it’s okay, we all have moments like that. I fumbled for some change, wanting to pay him the cost of a camel ride, but he waved it off and instead pointed to my camera and said something. He wanted his picture taken! Now that, I could arrange. He smiled when I showed him the result and then rode off in the direction he had been going, the direction, in fact, everyone was going except for Leo and I. Where was Leo anyway?

I spotted him at the top of a distant sand dune. He had made it to the top and was just admiring the view. I called out and motioned to him that we’d better go back. When we finally set out, I wanted to go back to the entrance I’d come in at. Leo said no, we’d better go to this other one–and pointed off waaaay into the distance at another set of gates. No time to debate, Leo said, the Pyramids were already officially closed. “And those men standing over there,” he added, pointing in the direction of my entrance, “will probably want a little something from us before we can leave.” Eventually I agreed, it just meant I couldn’t find the same bus from his route. This was the golden 15 minutes of photo time, and it’s a darn shame the pyramids “close” before that. Every time I stood still and turned around to face the pyramids again to get a photo, a distant whistle rang out. Someone was watching us, and was not happy with us. So we kept walking away from the whistles and toward Leo’s recommendation. As we passed one of the smaller step pyramids a crazy old man emerged from who knows where, gestured at the pyramid, and said “Climb the pyramid?” Weird. No thanks. We kept going, momentarily scuttling across some rubble and down into a hollowed-out area with some pillars and blocks, a nice cool spot but no place to stay now. We traversed it and emerged on a hill that sloped down to the wall surrounding the pyramid area. On the other side was the town. We passed by some other ancient building, distinctly non-pyramidal though, with a scrawny black dog perched beside its entrance. A curious sight–the very avatar of Anubis out to greet us, or else to see us off and make sure we weren’t planning any tomb raiding. Oh, and then we passed by the Sphinx. I had spotted it earlier but honestly had not recognized it for what it was, skirting it by and there meeting Leo. Now that I saw it, I thought, “That’s it?” The size is still impressive, don’t get me wrong. Just the placement makes it seem like an afterthought, I suppose. In better (morning) light it might prove different.

Leo had led us to a small gate in the wall with just one guard sitting by it. As we approached, the guard lumbered up and locked the gate. Oh great, I thought. Just in time. Or maybe this guy wants a few bucks too. But when he saw us, he leaned forward, turned his head, and pointed at a larger gate, for vehicles, the entrace for the paved road coming down from the pyramids. A single black SUV with tinted mirrors was making its way down the path, some high-profile tourists I guess. The gate was being opened for them to leave as we watched, so we took the guard’s advice and used the opportunity to slip out that way.

On the bus we ate the last of my apples and discussed where we would go that evening. There’s nothing quite like wandering the city streets at night with no imposed schedule or objective. But I think I’ve told you about that already, in an earlier post…

Beau - March 1, 2011 - 5:25 pm

GREAT IMAGES…

What kind of glass are you using?

Kenny - March 2, 2011 - 1:54 am

Beau! Great to hear from you, and nice to get a compliment from someone who knows great images.

C’mon Beau, you know me! Except for the plastic-fantastic Canon 70-300mm 4-5.6 (hey, a guy’s gotta zoom!), this is all Minolta Rokkor glass from the early 60s thru early 70s. I love the bokeh on that stuff, and find I don’t really need anything else… Unless of course you’ve got some spare L glass you’re just dying to unload on someone =) I sometimes wish I had one of those all-purpose “wedding photog” zooms like the 28-105 or 24-70, because I sometimes miss “the moment” while fumbling to change glass. But then again, shooting slowly and deliberately has its advantages too.

Dad - March 2, 2011 - 6:48 am

Superb work, Son. I knew that if and when your travels ever led you to the pyramids that the photos would be breathtaking and that the tales of the experience would be memorable.

Grandma - March 10, 2011 - 1:53 pm

Dearest Kenny, I just told Grandpa I hope you come home alive!! Please be careful!! Love, G. Ma.

Anne & Jim Mitchell - March 12, 2011 - 7:06 am

Kenny — we live across the street from your grandparents on Windy Crest, and they gave us this link to you! We are also avid travelers and photo-junkies, and Norman & Jan knew we would be truly interested in what you are doing! Love your work, and these shots of Giza brought back a lot of memories — it is so amazing when you simply walk/drive up, and there THEY are!! — as if it were a movie set! The hawkers were a major nuisance, but we kept finding little nuanced routes to avoid them. Stay safe, embrace the world, and keep shooting!!!

Hot Rod Anglican - April 9, 2011 - 5:23 pm

Fabulous pics!!

Shams Alam: Christmas on the Red Sea

Sun, surf, and photographers on the Red Sea. Photos taken with Olympus PEN

Shams Alam! I think from Egyptian Arabic it translates as something like “Sign of the Sun,” with “shams” meaning sun and “alam” as the word “sign,” (also rendered “flag” or even “world” depending on context) referring to a pile of stones set up in the desert to mark the way.

Either that or it translates as “Absurdist Farce In the Phrygian Mode.” My Egyptian Arabic is a wee bit rusty, so I’m basing my translation on what I found there.

Shams Alam was full of surprises, things to groan about in the moment and laugh about afterward. Like one day there: I have rarely eaten so expensive a lunch buffet, but rarely have I eaten so much for lunch in my life either. If they’re gonna price-gouge me, I’m gonna stuff my face! And then on towards dinnertime my trusty companions were growing concerned that I might not have a dinner to eat–no way was I shelling out what they wanted for it. Truth be told, I was still recovering from my massive lunch and just in case had smuggled out an orange and some bread. So I asked the staff permission just to sit with my friends at dinner and they reluctantly agreed. I could feel the keen eyes of the waiters, Mohameds nos. 5 thru 17, watching my every move as they circled around to make sure I wasn’t nicking anything. After dinner someone suggested we walk down to the beach, ostensibly to watch the stars.

I saw not one but two shooting stars, almost simultaneously, one chasing the other it seemed. A beautiful night sky hovered over the water, midnight blue instead of black, while the waves sighed and turned over in their restless sleep, whispering “hushhhhh, hushhhhh.” I had just reached the point of wondering, “You know it’s funny that they’d want to come out here to the beach at this hour, we could see the stars fine from up there” when Anton (the Pentax rep), ever the cavalier, produced two thin plastic bags, one stuffed with bread and rolls, the other with french fries and one and a half fried chicken wings. Then some of the others brought out an orange, an apple, and the like. They’d dragged me down to the beach so they could give me dinner! And it’s still a mystery to me how any one of them smuggled any food at all out from under the watchful eyes of the staff.

Or there was that other day–I forget which one. It couldn’t have been Christmas, because I remember laughing that they were celebrating on the wrong day. The resort was putting on a Christmas gala dinner that would make Samuel Beckett (and I don’t mean Scott Bakula) proud. I knew we were in for it bad when we spotted Mohameds nos. 3, 6, and 24  dressed up in Santa Claus outfits and roaming the premises that evening. Then there was the doorman droning “Mehri Kdismass, Mehri Kdismass, Mehri Kdismass” at the door to the banquet hall. But he did know other English words as well–when you walked by him, the chant changed to “Mehri Kdismass, Mehri—doyouhahvaticket?!?” Then we were ushered to our table and forbidden from serving ourselves the food that lined the room until the designated time. And after thus thoroughly establishing an atmosphere of Christmas cheer, the staff treated us to a spectacle on stage which I shall (indeed which I cannot) ever forget. When I say “the staff,” I do mean the staff. They didn’t bother bringing in entertainers, except for the dwarf of course. We’ll get to him later.

My memory of that evening is hazy. I was operating on just a few hours of sleep and they say the brain tries to suppress traumatic experiences. There was a male bellydancer, some guy performing sleight-of-hand tricks, and then a whirling dervish dwarf whose performance must have gone on for a good half hour. His costume lit up (half the lights worked), it had multiple layers that spun independently, and the poor little guy looked like he was going to pass out at any moment. It was so bad, it was good. He passed through the audience, twirling part of his costume in the air and dervishing dangerously close to everyone’s heads. The loudest cheers were from a table or two in front of us occupied, apparently, by his friends and relatives. I was in such awe of the performance that I didn’t even snap a single photograph. But the true highlight of the evening, the crux of the entertainment, was that while some of the (non-Christmas-related) music was blaring and someone was dancing on-stage, I looked back to see the cooks who had prepared the meal rocking out together in the back, where all the food was located. Food service was finished and they, in their funny outfits and classic chefs’ hats, were having a serious dance-off amongst themselves.

As usual in such tourist holes, the best part of the experience is the people you’re with. People who can have a good time and remain amicable even on three hours of sleep. The Russian and Ukrainian photographers were truly remarkable people and a whole lot of fun to be around. I’ve decided that under “friend” in the dictionary, there needs to be an entry about people who will swipe you food from a 5-star buffet.

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Without further ado, here are some photos from Shams Alam, all taken with my Olympus PEN. Have no fear–the camera being doused in water is a new Pentax model designed to take such abuse. At the time I didn’t realize this and was horrified until someone kindly explained.

Grandpa - March 2, 2011 - 9:22 am

i really enjoyed your pictures of the Red Sea. I think if I had been on that trip with you I would have spent my entire time on the beach looking at the sea and shooting stars and meditating. I also appreciated your descriptions of the resort hotel. It sounded like an Arabic equivalent of the resorts in the Catskills (e.g., Grossingers or the Concord). I found the atmosphere at those places repressive. I much preferred to be outside.

The Bedouin “Camp”

The next day we traveled out to see where the local Bedouins live. I heard our guide explaining that the government had at some point given money to build these Bedouins houses… so now they’re mostly living in permanent structures! Katya Rykova, who had visited Egypt before, remarked that it seemed like everything in Egypt was transformed since her last visit. In Cairo, new cars in place of putzing old jalopies, and with the Bedouins, squalid little brick houses instead of traditional tents. But she maintained that three things haven’t changed with the Bedouins–the hospitality, the tea, and the coffee!!

We wandered around and really shot the place up good. It must have been strange for those folks having so many photographers descend on them en masse. And while their domiciles might not be as picturesque as you would expect, the unique characters and human expression we found there was as fascinating as ever. You look in the faces and imagine the lives behind them. One man looked like he was hiding some secret, or that he knew something you didn’t, another looked like a ежик в тумане, running to and fro in a perpetual state of bewilderment. There was the little girl who smiles mischievously and runs away–she’s probably as clever as the boys twice her age; the pudgy little sweet-toothed kid munching away; the show-off glamor girl eating up every second of limelight; and the little brat who really really did not want to be woken up, dragged outside, and asked to pose for photographs. (She had quite an impressive scowl!) The women working hard while the men sit around. The wife covered from head to toe in her abaya. And the daring team of Russian and Ukrainian photographers tearing the place up! Wait…who let them in here?

Here are some portraits and snapshots of Bedouin life.

Camels and Coffee, Part II: COFFEE!!!

The Bedouin camp, part two! Now with 100% less camels and 100% more būn!! (also known as coffee)  They prepared it in the traditional way, and it sure was good. Interestingly, I wanted to find out what word they used to describe the ibrik/cezve, the little pot in which they heated the water. So I consulted my wikipedia printout of survival Egyptian Arabic and managed to get the question out. They discussed among themselves, never came to a clear answer, and then forgot about the question. So that one will remain a mystery… Oh well, they were busy with something more important–making the coffee!!!

Whatever you wanna call it, that coffee was amazing. You can follow most of the steps of preparation by going through the photos in order!

Hope you all enjoy the photos. I’m writing this from Beira, Mozambique, from where I’ll be departing early tomorrow morning for some locations in the bush. You meet the most amazing people out here… a few days ago I helped unpack a 6-ton container and load its contents onto a truck, along with a South African biker-turned-missionary named Jinx and his two Irish mates, Walter and Billy. Walter is a forensic scientist who was struck by lightning eight weeks ago and has had Type II diabetes ever since! Billy is a retired Irish policeman who, in his own words, was “paid more for what I _might_ have to do than what I actually did.” Billy and Walter both had their share of dealing with the IRA…living in a house with bulletproof windows doesn’t sound like much fun to me!

They were some jolly good fellows to work with, and their undiluted Irishness amused me. I think in the hours we worked that morning, I heard the words “wee,” “aye,” “cheeky,” and “stuffed” more than I have in the last year entire! And Jinx is quite the character as well. He described his former life as a biker over lunch, saying he would wake up in the morning and his first action would be to fumble around until his hand closed around a rolled joint. He told several stories of “stupid, stupid things” he would do on motorcycles, of terrible crashes, and each time how he was fortunate to still be alive. He was smoking weed and guzzling beer 24/7, and he says if you had told any of his mates that Jinx would be a missionary some day, they would have died laughing. But as I have seen time and again out here, God is in the business of changing hearts and working miracles.

Hot Rod Anglican - April 9, 2011 - 5:24 pm

I like the coffee photos!!

Camels and Coffee, Part I: Camels

Ah, camels. The great humpbacked haulers. Those “ships of the desert!” The… okay, I can’t keep that up. I don’t like camels very much, maybe because I’ve ridden an animal that actually listens to its rider before… But in the desert, camels are the transport of choice and an integral part of Bedouin life.

And so our merry band of photographers was treated to some brief camel rides as part of the “Bedouin Experience™”. We were taken out to see a Bedouin community living near Marsa Alam–there was song and dance, chilled hibiscus juice, camels…and of course, coffee!

You’re a brave viewer if you can get past Part I. But remember, if you survive the camels, there’s some really tasty coffee waiting in Part II! =)
(and I should add, the camels were actually a lot of fun! Plus, some nice desert scenery and even a baby goat may have snuck into the photos, too…)

Mom - February 15, 2011 - 7:19 am

What ‘personality’ in those camel faces and the baby goat is adorable. Now, on to the coffee!