Monday, November 17, 2008

Egypt - A Lesson in Disappointment

Where do I start? Hm. For one thing, the relationship I haven't had with this blog in the past four months, is pretty much my third-longest relationship. Once that revelation nestles in, allow these similarly shocking notions to land with appropriate gravity: I have a job. I arrive at work at 8:30am every morning. And yet somehow, my drinking habits haven't changed.

This is particularly noteworthy, given that I have managed to do so on a modest budget, and an even more modest amount of sleep. Some will recall my tale of narcolepsy in Budapest; well, that story repeated itself last week, minus the amazing festival, kebabs, and tales of modest triumph.

But enough about all that. What you're really tuning into here is a taste of a little something out-of-the-ordinary; a little taste of something foreign; a splash of whiskey; a little dollop of aoli. You know: some pizazz, some spice. As such, enter [this guy] into Egypt.

I found my exit from Israel to be both necessary and well overdue. For reasons stated only about three months ago in my last entry, I felt an urge to leave the holy land that only god himself could empathize with. The difference being, the nails to his extremities were metaphorically represented in me with each bottle of wine I ingested past the point of cogency.

I hitched a taxi to the Eilat/Taba border station, riding past the foul glitz of the marina (sad), the dolphin pool (sadder), and the Egyptian consulate, which occupies the lower floors of a brownstone that I’m a bit too embarrassed to admit to trying to break into while blacked out (saddest). Or at least that’s what I’m told.

Looking back, Eilat does have the benefit of a convenient proximity to Timna (a national park full of staggering rock formations dating back to 500 million years ago), though it conversely possesses the unfortunate detriment of being the stomate through which each 18 year-old American Birthright traveler insists on flushing themselves like the sticky detritus that clings to my colon walls. They arrive hundreds at a time, and seem to leave at the agonizing pace of a one-night stand. Thankfully though, Eilat and its inexpressive gleam were now retreating into a fleck in my cab’s rearview display that proved to be its most redeeming moment in the six days I spent there.

Finally on the other side of the Eilat/Taba border station, I and my massive backpack board a bus after a brush with an unpleasant sex tourist on his way to Thailand via Cairo. I guess there's just something about a 71 year old guy from Detroit with holes in his shoes telling you he can't wait to get to Bangkok to "fuck, fuck, and fuck some more." Now, I'm all for the relentless pursuit of gratuitous sex, but for some reason when the status of the participants is so egregiously incongruous, I'm filled with pity and sadness. This particular case can be explained away by an economic gap that can most easily be bridged by the offer of sex for money, and I am able to see how both sides benefit. However, when I see some dopey geek strutting down the sidewalk with some girl that looks like she's straight out of an American Apparel ad, I can only assume she has daddy issues and a deteriorated self image. And then I wonder why I didn't have the foresight of said geek. And then I weep. I guess I have daddy issues too.

I'm in Egypt now. After a nine hour bus ride down the eastern coast of the Sinai peninsula, I arrive in Sharm el-Sheikh. Of course, once again I'm met by George Bush and his ever-present road closings and general impedance to any progress I'm hoping to make. This is the fourth time (of five) that I happen to run into him in the nearly 14 months I spent away. I wonder if he's in New York as often during the course of an average year. Probably not. I picture him in the Oval Office smoking joints saying things like: "Why would I go to New York when there's a Denny's over on Tennessee Avenue?" George: we should hang out.

A brief history: The Sinai was always Muslim, since around the 11th century, or around the time of Islam’s rapid proliferation. Then, Israel was created with the auspices of the British and American governments in the form of the British Mandate in 1948. This angered the neighboring Muslim states, and Egypt used the Sinai as a launching pad to initiate attacks on Israel and to block its access to Eilat (a greater favor from a foe has never before or since been paid). In response, Israel retaliated (with the help of Britain and France) and took control of the entire Sinai Peninsula. America and the Soviet Union (allies from WWII) urged Israel to relinquish control back to Egypt, they complied, and as such, Israel and Egypt have remained at peace ever since. This peace was mildly tested while I was in the Sinai when Hamas blew down the wall separating the Gaza Strip from the Sinai and 200,000 Palestinians flooded the peninsula in search of fuel and food.

Some people emailed me while I was there to make sure I was ok, which puzzled me inasmuch as I am clearly not a source of neither fuel nor food. I do however have an above-average sized nose and a Jewish last name. While in Sharm el-Sheikh, I did my best to throw all Palestinians off the scent as I indiscriminately spent my money the way any Gentile would.

In Sharm el-Sheikh, I am staying on a beach about 9 km outside Na’ama Beach (the main strip) at Sharks Bay. It is here, at Sharks Bay, where I’ll spend the next 11 days scuba diving at some of the most diverse and well-preserved reefs in the world. Sharm is widely considered the premier dive spot in the entire world. Unfortunately, as this was the place I first learned to dive, every dive from now on (with exceptions) is bound to fail to measure up. This is akin to losing your virginity to Keira Knightly or Hugh Jackman, only to break up with them a week later. You’ve had the best, and now you’re just like everybody else: gettin’ drunk enough to make out with people you’d ordinarily avoid.

That analogy doesn’t quite make the impact I’d intended. Upon further inspection however, diving drunk is pretty much a recipe for nitrogen narcosis, and that just so happens to be the only way coming off Keira Knightly and entering the bar make-out scene might be made palatable. Read up on it. Nitrogen narcosis, when removing the threat of death, actually sounds like a pretty excellent time.

Sharks Bay is a tiny community consisting of an intimate hotel-slash-dive school, two slightly larger and higher-end hotels, an intimate beach, and a strip of shops peddling the usual tourist wares. It, along with the rest of Sharm, is patronized almost entirely by oil-rich Russian tourists escaping the January chill up north. The locals, on the other hand, are almost entirely modernized Bedouins seeking to support families from the interior with the money they make from their jobs in the tourism industry. The rest of Sharm is typically all divers.

Forced to choose from a swarm of Russians whose English was far worse than my Ukrainian, I found myself gravitating to the Bedouins in their shops, hanging out in the tiny back rooms that proved to be no more than filthy, unkempt parasites attaching themselves to the shops seen by most visitors. After only a short time, I was frequenting one shop in particular. A 27 year-old economics student named Braun, his cousin (they all seem to be cousins somehow) James who was a gaming geek from Cairo, and their other cousins who owned the shop comprised my crew. Aside from James and Braun, their English consisted mostly of transactional commands like “you buy,” “you pay,” and “I fuck." Good guys.

Braun in particular took a keen interest in me. He was a tall, handsome guy who spoke near-perfect English, who openly dreamed of studying in the United States. But who cares? He had more hash at his disposal than anyone who lives on a blanket in a closet has ever had in history. It’s true. I looked it up.

According to a study conducted by the International Max-Planck Research School on Astrophysics, Braun’s method of smoking hash is the most effective accelerant that we have here on earth, propelling one from stasis to intergalactic space travel in under three seconds. His method (please consult diagram) consists of manipulating the block of hash into a long thin rod, and inserting it into a shortened cigarette that nestles itself in the lip of a drinking glass. One lights the end of the exposed hash rod, and as it slowly smolders (think of an incense stick), one covers the glass with cardboard and waits for the glass to fill richly with pure hash smoke. When this is achieved, one tips open the cardboard, and inhales all smoke through one’s nose. And for the next three minutes, you’ll want to hurl yourself into a wall of samurai swords. After that feeling of impending doom mercifully passes, you’ll want to be alone in a dimly lit place, horizontal, and away from sharp objects and prescription meds. Thirty minutes later, you’ll be ready to hit the town and speak to exactly no one, while having an amazing time for precisely no good reason at all.

Braun is the most unnecessarily proud doer-of-any-drug I’ve ever met in my life. If he wasn’t showing off his uniquely death-defying method of smoking hash, he was boasting recklessly about the quality of his hash. And if he wasn’t talking about hash, he was talking about white women and how they’d probably like to smoke his hash.

White women, it turns out, was the only drug he’d opt for over a glass full of space ether. We’d go out, and no matter the physicality of the target, Braun was radar-locked on achieving the coital union of east and west. It was proof that even in a time and place where typically religious and racial divisions prove difficult to bridge, love can still be found. See? There is merit in sex tourism…

Braun and I got along well. Sometimes, he would even show off his dancing skills for me. It felt a little gay, but beyond that, it also felt kind of nice that he cared what I thought about his gay dancing. He did a pretty good job of freaking out a few of the girls we’d met along the way, but luckily I was too spaced out to give it much notice. Frankly, I was overtly pacified at all times in Sharm el-Sheikh. Whether underwater with Napoleon Wrasse’s, or in the throes of an intense hash binge, I don’t think I ever had the urge to do anything more than wryly smile and enjoy.

Except, that is, for the toiling trek up Mount St. Catherine. The summit is where Moses allegedly received the Ten Commandments, spoke to a burning bush, and thought it was God. Sounds to me like Moses was spending a bit of time with Braun as well, and to that effect, I kind of felt like God himself was wagging a finger at me while I coveted a few of the Russian pilgrims once atop the apex. After a moment of reticence, I wrote it off to hash residue, gave Moses a knowing nod, took about 90 pictures, and resumed coveting.

There is some conjecture that copyists misinterpreted the word “Sinai” in Hebrew as “bush,” as there was a mountain of Sinai that was also on fire at some point in the sordid history the Old Testament attempts to recount. In any event, after the nearly three hour climb to the summit in the dead of night to catch a rather spectacular sunrise, I was more than a little ready to return to the friendly confines of Braun’s cousin’s back room with a nose full of dense fumes to take me back to a place that felt more like something I can actually believe in.

My last night in Sharm I spent at the Sinai Grand: a glistening, beckoning beacon of gambling splendor that from my first moment in Sharm I knew held within it the promise of riches. It was one of those things where I just knew even before I walked in that I’d walk out with a smile as wide as my wallet.

After an inordinately swift loss of 300 euro, I cashed back in for 200 more. Keep in mind that at this time the exchange rate was 1 euro = $1.54. Add to that the juice the casino takes on every transaction, and I was facing losses along the lines of a $1.70 per euro. Upon my return to the table, a Russian couple (shocker) had sat down. After the umpteenth time this fool and his wife split 20s and won nothing, all the while scoffing at me when I hit on 16 against dealer 8s, I had amassed a stash of chips equal or greater than the pile he and his wife had lost. Ordinarily, I get frustrated when people at the table don’t employ basic strategy. But in this case, his burgeoning anger was entertainment enough, to say nothing of the amazing luck he was affording me. By the time the casino kicked us all out, I was sitting in front of a pile of almost 1700 euro (up about 1000), and smiling ear-to-prophetic-ear.

The following day, I hopped a flight to Luxor, to do some hardcore Egyptian sightseeing. As it turns out, greater Egypt has a far different feel than the Sinai. Luxor was a proper city. Touristy; yes. But it was about as clean as a Bedouin taint. Luxor is a sullied city of under 400,000 people that straddles the Nile in the southern part of Egypt. As the site of the ancient city of Thebes, it is considered the world’s largest open-air museum. Personally, I think that title belongs to Cloris Leachman’s vagina. But then again, I’ve never been there as far as I can remember. On the other hand, I have very distinct memories of Luxor.

Luxor, on the east bank, boasts the Temple of Karnak, the Temple of Luxor, the mummy museum, and the Luxor Museum. On the west bank, is the Temple of Hatshepsut, The Ramesseum, The Valleys of the Kings, The Valley of the Queens, Tombs of the Nobles, and the Temple of Ramesses III. And yes, I saw all of them (except The Valley of the Queens).

I’ll save you the details of each, but will offer these bullet points:
- The Luxor Museum was far more impressive on a bang-for-your-buck basis than the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
- The Valley of the Kings gave me the inspiration for how I wish to be buried. Lavishly, and by the hands of hundreds of loyal disciples. It was like an MTV Cribs marathon from 2500 years ago.
- After looking on a map and seeing the relative proximity of the Temple of Hatshepsut to the Valley of the Kings, I opted to hike alone over the hills to get there. It took forever. This, I learned later, was not recommended.
- The Temple of Luxor was littered with phallic images of the God of Fertility. In each instance, the massive cock in the engraving was tinted dark with the oil of a thousand hands. It seems that in order to pray for fertile sperm, one needs to rub an ancient engraving until it emits some of its own.
- Ramesses III was not afraid to live large. He was the Ludacris of the Egyptian Age.
- Tombs of the Nobles were the best-preserved tombs of all that I saw. And I saw many. Not that you care, but at least some of this blog needs to recount things I did and saw and not merely kowtow to you people.

Luxor however, was my first experience with the aggressiveness that is the Egyptian people. If you are white, and walking, you are invariably a target for belligerent hassling that exists on a scale that approaches a screaming boil. And the screaming will be your own. I hatched a plan to combat this by renting a bicycle solely to avoid the badgering of the locals. This decision proved to be the most effective use of $2 I enjoyed in all of the Middle East. And that includes every two packs of cigarettes ($1 each) I’d choke down.

Luxor also had an impressive market, within which were even more intrusive shop owners who would be physically unable to allow me to pass the gaping mouth of their shop without declaring my friendship. Their misinterpretation of friendship is far worse than that of half of my Facebook friends. As such, I opted to enjoy the market with sunglasses and a hood pulled low. I figured I may as well look like someone who may steal something if I want to be left alone. And frankly, that was also a marvelously successful strategy.

At this point, I was beginning to feel as though I had conquered the acute unilateral attacks of the Egyptian people. So when I purchased dried apricots from one particular shop owner and asked for cashews, the deeply-creased 68 year-old Bedouin set in motion a search for cashews across the entire Luxor marketplace. To no avail. To express his sincere regret, he invited me for tea and hash at his apartment, to which I enthusiastically agreed. When an aging Bedouin asks you for tea and hash, here is really no other option.

We traipse the seven or so blocks to his flat, on the third floor of a building in average condition. The interior, however, was a different story indeed. As we enter, he explains to me how he owns three shops, the fruit/spice stand at which we’d met, a tailor across the street that he’d opened seven years ago, and another tailor across town. Tailoring is the trade he is most proud of. Mine is boning. I rule.

The three-room apartment is dimly lit with a total of two light bulbs. In the main room is a shredding polyester blanket that stretches between padded benches lining the walls. Before we sit on the blanket, we customarily remove our shoes. Upon sitting on the blanket, this action seems evermore ironic. To be sure, the ground outside is considerably more unpolluted than the blanket on which I was now seated. There were inexplicable grains of sand attaching themselves to any patch of exposed skin left uncovered. But the beer was cold and delicious and once the hash entered the picture, I lost all cares in the world. No wonder this shit is so popular in places where life typically sucks.

After flipping through an enormous stack of pictures of his friends (ie. white people who took pictures and sent them to him) I am left wondering if it’s the hash or am I starting to think these guys really do make friends this easily? Like, do the Egyptians employ friend-finding methods only recently revolutionized by Facebook patrons? Fourteen hours later, I wouldn’t care anymore. Because Cairo made me want to kill myself.

I will say this about Cairo: it fucking sucks. And that includes the pyramids. Consider for a moment that I probably read more than two dozen books on the pyramids before I entered high school (yep, I was that cool), and I am saying this unequivocally: the pyramids are a disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong, the pyramids themselves are impressive indeed. But everything around them (the litter, the Bedouins hocking donkey and camel rides, the pirates asking for your ticket only to have you bribe them to get it back, the totally gay night laser show) was seriously awful. I made a comment to many people that if the ancient Egyptians ever saw how the current-day Egyptians are treating their landmarks, they would wage war on them. And they’d win convincingly because they all ride camels that are about 90 years old and malnourished to a point where the word “euthanasia” tickles your sympathy bone.

Cairo is also a horribly filthy city, so much so that you can actually taste the pollution. Imagine always walking around with a mouthful of orange juice right after you brushed your teeth, along with an ashtray shoved up your nose, and you’ll only begin to understand what it’s like to walk around Cairo. The food there is decent, and there is a vibrant nightlife scene, but it can all be missed.

I did however, manage to use my charm to score some privacy while they kicked everyone out for the three hours before the light show, which allowed me to watch the sun set over the pyramids alone and in peace. I got the feeling as it was happening that it was a uniquely rare tourist experience.

One additional special moment was watching the Super Bowl (as a Giants fan) at an ex-pat bar in Cairo. Kickoff was at midnight, and along with about thirty other people (mostly Australians and Brits), watched the greatest NFL game in history. Word spread around the bar that I was from New York, and I enjoyed minor celebrity status the likes of which only Samantha Ronson can probably relate to. By the end, I was the recipient of countless hi-fives, free shots, and invitations to parties for later in the week… if only I didn’t already have a flight booked to Dubai two days later. Dubai is a much more entertaining story, provided I can figure out a way to write it appropriately.

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