Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Great Pyramids and Alexandria

So, after my first two days on the job with the Synod of the Nile, I took a little detour. Emil, the Secretary General of the Synod and my supervisor of sorts, proclaimed that we would be going to Alexandria to attend a prayer conference. As it turned out, seven Americans had just arrived from The States to do a little tourism, and two of them were to speak at the prayer conference. Harry, Thelma, Emily, Anne, Najy (sp? Sorry if I misspelled your name!) little Jonathan, and even littler Sebastian all became my new friends and were great companions over the course of the trip.

I met Anne first. She is originally from Egypt, but immigrated to Michigan where she lives with her husband Najy, and their two boys Jonathan and Sebastian. She picked me up from Ramses College at 8am on Wednesday morning in a van (driven by a Muslim. More on that later). We then scooted over to the hotel where Harry, Thelma and Emily joined us. They are all very educated in theology and at times spoke waaaaaay over my head, but were very nice people and were very curious about Egyptian customs. We became acquainted on the drive to Giza for the first tourist stop… THE GREAT PYRAMIDS!!!

This was a totally unexpected treat for me. I didn’t think I would be going to them until later with the rest of the Young Adult Volunteers. I got to have a sneak preview of sorts.

If you have been keeping up with the photos on my web site, you already know that the Great Pyramids are just on the edge of town in Giza, NOT in the middle of the desert as most people (including myself until recently) think. We could see them in the distance, getting larger as we got closer. Then, we turned left off of the main road into the parking lot… just like that. Our driver parked near the largest one, Khafre, and we got out. This was almost a religious experience for me… aside from the fact the pyramids have nothing to do with Christianity, and for that matter were built almost 3000 years before Jesus was born. Anyway, the pyramids are HUGE!!! I thought the base of Khafre was just over the rise. I crested the hill and saw the teeny-tiny people at the base, and suddenly the sheer size of the pyramid was thrown into perspective. Anne took my picture in front of the pyramid, then I wandered away from the group to have a little “me time” at the pyramids… a little time to reflect on what I was seeing.

That’s when the Tourist Policemen, trinket salesmen and random Egyptians converged on me, trying to sell their stuff, letting me take pictures of them (for a price, which I got suckered into), and offering to take pictures of me with my camera (also for a price, which I also got suckered into). They wouldn’t stop hounding me. Ugh! I got away from them, we all piled into the van and were on our way. I would like to go back and spend more time there at some point, preferably somewhere away from the tourist hounds.

We drove a short distance to the panoramic view, a hilltop where you can see all three Great Pyramids at once. We got out, started snapping pictures, and AGAIN I was suckered by some guy wanting a buck. He was dressed in a long robe that fell to his ankles and a loose turban. With a big grin on his face, he asked me where I was from and then he asked me to take a picture of him. Then he said he would take a picture of me. I had a sense of déjà vu. I handed him my camera, he put his loose fitting turban on my head, he turned, said follow me, and struck off toward a herd of camels.

The whole way I was saying things like “Sir. Sir? I need to stay close to my group. Sir? SIR!” The loose turban was awkwardly flopping around my ears. Just a little further he said. Fifty yards later we arrived at his camel. He insisted I get on the camel. I knew this trick. He would get me on the camel and then wouldn’t let me down until I paid what he wanted. I REFUSED to get on the camel. He INSISTED. Again I REFUSED!!!! Finally he snapped a few pictures with me standing next to the camel. He gave me my camera back and then asked for a contribution. I practically threw 20 Pounds at him and skeedadled out of there as fast as I could. I met back with the group and again we piled in the van. We were off to the Sphinx.

The Sphinx was much more enjoyable. There were barely any money-leaches and we were all hip to their techniques by that time anyway. We got some great photos, and enjoyed a few moments admiring the Sphinx with the splendor of the pyramids behind it.

We hit the road to Alexandria and arrived after a four-hour drive. We promptly went to the prayer conference where Emily delivered a speech just moments later. I wish I could tell you what the speech was about. I am not a good aural learner. All I could focus on was how Anne was translating Emily’s speech into Arabic. I listened intently for Arabic words that I knew. The conference closed for the evening, and our group parted ways for the day.

I was lucky enough to stay the night at the Fairhaven Residential Commons where my fellow YAV’s, Jen and Jennifer, had just moved in two days prior to my arrival. Also, Teri, Sarah, and Jay managed to get some time off from work in Cairo and rode a train up to Alexandria. They also stayed at Fairhaven making this one big YAV reunion (after two whole days of separation) on the Mediterranean Sea.

The next morning I woke up and attended the second day of the prayer conference. It was Harry’s turn to speak. Again, I didn’t understand what the presentation was about, but I recognized some Arabic words in Anne’s translation.

After the conference ended for the day, we toured Qaitbay Citadel which sits on the Mediterranean Sea, guarding the harbor of Alexandria. It was a castle that was built on the ruins of the Alexandria Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. I even saw remnants of the lighthouse. That made two of the Seven Wonders in two days (the Great Pyramids are also one of the Seven Wonders).

We looked across the bay and could see the Library of Alexandria, which we later visited. Unfortunately it was closed due to Ramadan. Its futuristic appearance reminded me of a spaceship from Star Trek.
We drove an hour to a Presbyterian retreat called Bate el-Salam (lit. House of Peace) to eat dinner, tour the facilities, and watch the sunset on the Mediterranean Sea.

Now for some details on Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims fast during the daylight hours. No food, drink, or cigarettes are to pass their lips. They are not even allowed to swallow their own saliva. Also, no sex or impure thoughts AT ALL, even after sunset for the whole month. As I mentioned previously, our driver was a Muslim. So, our driver did not eat or drink anything all day long. Everyday at sunset we had to be at our destination because he wanted to eat the moment the sun was out of view. He was also a smoker, so the cigarettes were not far behind. Both Thelma and I thought the same thing… how well was this guy driving if he hadn’t had anything to eat or drink all day?

On this particular day the driver was able to eat before we left the retreat center. But once we left I noticed something strange. The streets were deserted. Everyone was indoors eating their hearts out; they had broken their fast all at the same time. The trip to the retreat took an hour, but the return trip took only thirty minutes! Similarly the streets of Cairo, a very large city with an enormous population, are deserted from 5:30pm to 8:00pm. There will be more about Ramadan in future journal entries.

The next morning I woke up at Fairhaven. Teri and I made breakfast for the other YAV’s before we parted ways. We made pancakes, scrambled eggs, and hash browns. Yum!

I attended the last morning of the prayer conference, and then my traveling compatriots and I piled once more into the van with our fasting driver, and made our way back to Cairo. I’ve had the weekend to rest, but I will start back bright and early at the Synod tomorrow. I’ll also begin teaching English at the Coptic Cathedral on Friday!

Yours in Christ,

No comments: