Walden World

The wacky and wonderful tales of Beth's and Catherine's global adventures. And all things Walden too.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cairo and the Impressive Tourist Police

Unfortunately I have not been able to blog before this gentle reader, as the internet is apparently generally unknown in Israel or Egypt. However we are now in Nazareth, home of Jesus Christ and internet is ubiquitous. Not sure if this related to the holiness of the town, or merely an accident of nature.

In any event, C and I are exhausted from awaking at 5:30 am to catch a flight from Cairo to Tel Aviv and begin the arduous journey by train, another train and bus to Nazareth. It also doesn't help that neither of us can walk having descending hundreds of metres on a weird sheer ladder-step thing while doubled over in order to reach some Pharoh's burial chamber. One had to climb way up to the top of the pyramid first only to begin the long climb down to the very bottom by way of a claustrophobic Pharonic airshaft. At first I elected not to descend into what appeared to be a dark, bottomless shaft to hell, however as I was balking a busload of elderly Japanese tourists arrived and gleefully entered the tomb. Despite the fact that most of them probably survived WWII and were thus inured to fear, I could not suffer the shame of cowardice in front of them and thus took the plunge.

Accompanying us on our tour was our extremely nice, but "very" Muslim guide Mohammed. After too many nosey questions on our part regarding his fiancee, his living arrangements, his virginity, the virginity of his fiancee, her head and chest covering ("my wife will be like a precious jewel, which should not be thrown before the mud" [the glances of other men]), the upcoming meeting with the proposed father-in-law and desperate attempts to get a dowry, C and I began to feel awash in mortal sin. It was then C announced, much to my surprise, that she was married but that her husband was working and couldn't come with her on this trip. I am not sure where this left me, except Mohammed seemed suspicious as I had already told him that I was without children, rather preferring the company of cats and now apparently living all alone.

So married C, (also soon planning to have children) and weird old cat lady toured with Mohammed for the remainder of the day.

Most alarming in terms of Egyptian historical sites is the presence of small armies of "tourist police". They are each equipped with Kalashnykov semi-automatics, helmets and strange standing shield barriers, which it would seem, are bullet proof, yet have a small window so that they can peer out and fire back should the Islamic Brotherhood decide to storm an ancient temple and knock out a bunch of Westerners. I would have had more confidence in their ability to protect me had they not spent the entire time pestering me for 'baaksheesh'(a bribe or tip one must regularly dole out to every Egyptian who does anything for you at all, including pointing out the way to say, the door which is right in front of you) instead of looking out for terrorists.

The 'baaksheesh'issue is, of course, simply emblematic of the gross poverty in the country where most of the population of 60 some million lives on about 2 US dollars per day. While outside Cairo in a some 10 km away village, we watched a hundred or so people crammed in a mob, waiting for cheap bread handouts from the government while women got water from a town well which they carried home on their heads.

Perhaps most alarming in Cairo itself was the legendary traffic. All manner of vehicles race along at full speed literally ignoring traffic lights while pedestrians simply wander in and out of their midst. It took C and I a few stiff ones (bottles of wine I mean) to actually get the courage to cross a roundabout. However one does learn to use the Cairenes, who seem oblivious to the danger, as a form of buffer or human shield. I was not buoyed by the young Egyptian man, who seeing our terror at crossing said: "Do what the Egyptians do - close your eyes and pray to Allah".

This morning at 6:00 am while racing (not our choice) to the airport in a beat up old taxi sans seat belts, going 130 km, C had to keep ordering the uncomprehending driver to "Not fast!!! Not fast!!! SLOW!!!!" While he simply stared back at her perhaps thinking she was referring to Ramadam. You see not only are Cairenes speed homicidal maniacs when driving, they consider those white and yellow lane lines as a kind of rough guideline as to where to position your vehicle. Or it could be entirely possible that they think you should follow it right down the middle as most drivers simply straddle the thing while weaving in and about the other cars. I could only compare sitting in a moving car the chariot race scene in "Ben Hur" and was surprised no other driver whipped me through the window.

Thus returning to Israel this morning was a daunting task even after arriving at the airport. First we had to negotiate the scads of pilgrims clad in white off to make the Hajj to Mecca. Then line up at security gates and pass our luggage through x-ray machines manned by bored chain-smoking soldiers who barely glanced at the items on their screen, instead choosing to stare sleepily at the ceiling, chat with their friends or grab another cigarette. I actually have ash burns on my passport from the detritus of cigarette fall-out. C started to panic realizing that no one had even screened the carry on bags, and here we were in the hub of the Middle East, surrounded by thousands of sworn enemies of Zionism and bound for the only plane in four countries, which was going to Israel.

One must compare this with our experience at Tel Aviv airport, boarding the plane to Egypt, where after our luggage was x-rayed by hawk-eyed security personnel, we were all usered over to a counter wherein security people drilled us endlessly about who we were etc...and then wiped a weird wand on every item inside our luggage including the tip toes of dirty socks and underwear, then wiping the wand on an ion scanning machine and then await the results. Somehow security in Cairo felt sorely lacking.

Our fear was not allayed when, getting off the bus to board the plane we were told to match up with our luggage, though the poor staff would often assume some weird bag that didn't belong to you was part of your luggage and impatiently just throw it on the belt for loading directly into the plane while one yelled "No! NO! Not mine!" forcing the irritated baggage guy to return it to the tarmac.

Soon after three men were called to the front of the plane and advised their luggage was missing. A phalanx of security guards and soldiers surrounded the plane.

C didn't help my anxiety much by saying in a loud voice (again, this is not made up): "Oh God, we're going to die...Well at least it will be over real quick! That's it, 'game over'. Oh well, I've had a good life. Could have been worse. I am glad I met you..." as she started reciting the things she was thankiful for until I asked her to stop lest she cause my now full blown panic attack to blow more.

But Allah and every other God and Goddess was merciful and as we touched down in Tel Aviv the passengers began clapping.

Then Israel: modern, clean, no pollution; but then again all the soldiers going home for Shabbat with their M-16s strapped across their back can kind of freak you out.


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