My thighs. My thighs.
My thighs have been utmost in my mind today. After spending several hours riding my camel, Michael Jackson yesterday, I woke up this morning with my thighs stretched from here to Alexandria. As I walked down the stairs to my waiting driver, I moved like a stick figure.
With breakfast (pita bread, cheese and Egyptian tea) already finished, I hopped into the car and my driver whisked me off to the Egyptian Museum. I had heard that this particular museum has the best Egyptian artifacts in the world. Made sense to me. After all, it’s in Egypt.
Gamer was my driver again today. He told me he’d be back in two hours after dropping me off. Two hours didn’t do justice to a museum of this magnitude. Similar to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Museo Vaticano in Rome or the Greek Archaeological Museum in Athens, the Egyptian Museum was mind-boggling.
I could have spent two days marveling at the artifacts on display in this museum. There were, of course, the obligatory tombs of the Pharaohs. Some were made of wood, some of limestone or granite. Those made of wood were opulent and intricate with their hand-painted characters. There was also the requisite pottery and papyrus items.
I suppose what astounded me was the unexpected. One section spoke of the evolution of footwear and how Roman conquest changed how Egyptians adorned their feet. There were alabaster statues of simple things such as women grinding grain or merchants selling bread or pouring water. There were sarcophagi of princes, princesses and even babies.
Some of the wooden sarcophagi were elaborately appointed, their painted reliefs in an astonishing state of preservation. Gold leaf for the fingernails of the mummies shone in display cases. There was a game board made of ebony that resembled a cross between checkers and backgammon. Its pieces were calcite.
Each room beckoned with yet more and more to observe. My brain was on overload, similar to my first visit to the Vatican Museum in Rome and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. Some of the statuary, weighing tons and jutting upwards of twelve feet high, were impeccably preserved with nary a chink, even in their corners.
The ancient Pharaohs worshipped dogs, cats, snakes, cows and horses. One statue presented a man’s head on a horse’s body. Mummified dogs and goats were on display.
The museum had literally thousands of pieces for people to observe. Crates were still in many of the aisles, containing yet more artifacts. Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed in the building.
After the Egyptian Museum, Gamer picked me up and took me to the Muhammed Ali Mosque. I was concerned that I would not be allowed in because I was dressed in my usual American manner—khaki shorts and a tank top. The weather was still topping 90+ degrees and I was sweating like a horse, desperately trying to remain hydrated in the Sahara heat.
No matter, I was able to buy a ticket and waltz right in. I was the only American in the compound and I fairly stood out. Virtually no one was in shorts, and at one point I was actually excoriated by a young man for daring to show my naked shoulders.
No one else commented on my attire. As a matter of fact, a number of people made a conscious effort to come up to me and actually welcome me to Egypt. I was taken aback. It was obvious that I was an American and I seemed to entice youngsters, especially. Several ran up to me and welcomed me. Several more asked if they could have a photo with me. I was flattered.
The Ali Mosque was beautiful inside. Mosques are much different than Christian churches in that the floors are covered with carpets. Shoe removal is required before entering. Chandeliers and lights hang from the ceiling. During worship, the observants kneel facing the imam who then recites passages. Most of us have seen video of Muslims kneeling and then bowing with faces pressed against the floor before sitting up again. This ritual is repeated.
Stained glass adorns the inside of mosques, too. However, mosques are not as opulent or grandiose as Christian churches. There is a special place for the imam to speak, but iconography, statuary, paintings, songbooks and even pews are non-existent.
I was impressed with the turrets and spires of the mosques. They give a grand appearance and every time I turned a corner, they seemed to loom majestically and present yet another stately view. I was constantly snapping photos of them.
After the Muhammed Ali Mosque, Gamer arrived to collect me. He had brought me a shrimp and chicken pita sandwich along with a bag of chips. I questioned him about the shrimp because I had assumed it was considered unclean in Islam. He waved it aside and said there was no problem with eating shellfish. It was a revelation to me.
After the mosques, Gamer took me to a Coptic church but it had already closed for the day. We opted to sit at a café and nurse Pepsis while I made notes on my iPhone about the wonders I had experienced. The colorful scene that surrounded me was enchanting.
Flatbed trucks filled with people, crated appliances and various household goods jostled by with horns honking and people cheering. Gamer explained that someone had just gotten married and they were celebrating with the neighborhood, showing off their bounty of gifts. The flatbed trucks were followed by sedans as they drove back and forth along the street. An old man swept the filthy roadway, a task that seemed useless to me.
People were selling tires, knickknacks and Egyptian antiques. Coolers filled with pop and ice cream treats were everywhere. Cars, bikes and tiny three-wheeled motorized vehicles fought for supremacy on the street.
As in Marrakech, I noticed there were no women in the café. This was sacred ground for only men to enjoy. I was pondering the patriarchal attitude when Gamer jumped up. It was time to return to the motel for my Nile dinner cruise.
Upon leaving the café, Gamer drove me back to the hotel so I could freshen up. Now I have to say that Gamer’s driving makes Italians look like sissies. We flew onto a ten-lane freeway and he put the pedal to the metal.
Literally swerving in and out of traffic, Gamer straddled the line between cars. Tailgating tractor-trailer rigs with only inches to spare, I could feel an ulcer forming in my chest cavity. Constantly honking his horn to notify cars that we were coming, brake lights ahead would flash before my eyes, along with the past fifty-six years of my life.
Gamer noticed that I was silent, sitting firmly upright, stiff as a Ramses statue. He patted my knee and laughed. I managed a weak smile. Blowing past one hundred ten miles per hour, we flew by vans and trucks and I swore I could feel a little pee trickling down the side of my leg.
I finally gave up worrying and opted to let him drive. I figured he knew Cairo traffic and its drivers better than I did, although I did find myself rededicating my life to Jesus Christ several different times.
After arriving at the motel and cleaning up, we left for the Nile dinner cruise. Crowding into the freeway traffic, we barely missed a delivery truck. We streaked within a few feet of pedestrians who were foolishly trying to cross five lanes of traffic. With one hand on the wheel and the other clutching his mobile phone, Gamer once again deftly squeezed in between trucks, forced cars aside and crossed several lanes at a time. Meanwhile, I was picturing my obituary.
We arrived at the dock. Shakily, I got out of the car and checked my trousers for wet stains. After regaining my composure, we boarded the Nile cruise boat. The cruise was wonderful. The ship moved like a skater on ice, so smooth was the journey. The food was not cuisine, but it was good and plentiful.
I filled one plate with chicken, roast beef, pasta and roasted potatoes. The second plate was full of salad. A third was piled high with Egyptian desserts. During our meal, a lounge singer painfully attempted Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to a mostly older Western audience. Belly dancers entertained the crowd.
After dinner, I sat on the top deck and enjoyed the pleasant breeze. My sunburned shoulders and arms welcomed the respite from the blazing sun. Gamer had joined me for the cruise, something I was not expecting. He told me that he didn’t want me to be alone.
I found myself warming to Gamer, indeed to the Egyptian people. After my experience at the Ali Museum, where so many people were spontaneously welcoming me to Egypt, I started relaxing and savoring the generosity and openness of this nation’s citizens. Gamer underscored their kind spirit and hospitality.
He showed my photos on his phone of his wife and three children. In virtually every picture featuring him and his wife, she is kissing him. They are always in an embrace. One memorable photo showed him lying on the grass in a park. His two youngest daughters are each kissing a cheek and his oldest, a son, is kissing his hair. I told him how fortunate he is to have such a loving family.
Tomorrow I will be laying low. The past three days have been relentless and I need to rest and do a brain dump. I am in my room right now and my thighs are still aching from straddling Michael Jackson for hours yesterday in Giza. I want to plan for the rest of the time here and I want to write, check email and follow up on my job search.