Saturday, November 22, 2008

Will you sell me one of those if I shave my head?

you wouldn’t go to Target and argue over the price of a feather duster with the cashier would you?

But, this is how a whole lot of commerce takes place across the globe. There are no set prices and bargaining is a way of life. I have overheard many tourists complaining in the far flung places I have visited, “Why can’t they just list the price, I hate all this haggling.” These people don’t know what they are missing.

I love it. I enjoy the whole process the first extremely insane low ball offer countering the merchant’s opening extortionary price. The back and forth – examining the item for a smudge or loose thread and showing the flaws to the seller who dismissively waves his hand saying that it, “is nothing” or better yet, the imperfections show that the piece was truly hand made by his own convalescing wife and thus, elicits higher value! The walking out of the store and the merchant calling after you to “come back we can talk some more…” Chances are whatever you are bargaining for you will see the exact same item somewhere else – so if you do walk out and are not called back you know you’ve gone below what will be accepted. You can hope to find the item later – or there is no shame in swallowing your pride, smiling and coming back into the shop with a higher offer, just be sure they are really letting you walk.

This past trip to Egypt I developed a new line that was good for knocking a third off whatever price was currently being batted about. Oh yeah, another important part of successful bargaining is to smile, keep the humor going, if you look like you’re having fun the prices will undoubtedly get better. Anyway, my new never fail line was to look the seller in the eyes, smiling, throw my hands into the air while appearing as comically shocked as I could muster and ask “Why do you hate me so very much?”

This invariably caught the merchant off guard and he would laugh, pleading that “No, no, no – I don’t hate you, I am giving you a good price” Then he would lower his “good” price even more. Another trick I picked up this time was no matter how low you got the price down to, right before you shook hands – okay, this is important too, once you’ve shaken hands the deal is done – both parties are bound by their word and negotiation must stop - so this other trick, right before you shake hands on the lowest price you’ve been able to bargain you pull yours back a bit and say “Plus, you give me a gift.”

This will result in the shopkeeper wailing something along the lines of, “You are ripping my heart out!” but more often than not they will throw in some other little trinket from their shop to seal the deal.

Now, let’s say you have negotiated this great price on a fertility icon for your mother in law, if you have change coming do not hand over your money until you have seen it. You would be amazed how nobody ever has change – so ask to see the change before finishing the transaction. A shopkeeper may feign insult, just tell them you know that he is honest but one of the merchants down the road had cheated you like this, so now you are just being overcautious – chances are good that he will agree with you that the other seller is a crook and it is good you have come to this shop. Nevertheless, it makes good sense to scope out the change first.

So, can this M.O. be used stateside? Certainly.

The second day back home from our trip to Egypt our water heater crapped out. The igniter which lit the natural gas to warm the water burned out. We called a local plumbing repair service and they came out. I had already diagnosed the problem through an error code on the electronic panel of the unit and the technician verified my finding. Unfortunately he did not have the part to fix it right then and would have to order it. For this work he quoted me a price of $450.00 and some change. After he left, I looked the part up online – getting three different prices – none of them over 95 bucks. I printed these out and waited the two days for our repairman to come back.

Our guy comes back and I ask him how much the new part costs. It is a good idea to have a little bit of inside info when going into a negotiation – like knowing what price a previous seller let me walk out of a shop in Cairo – the fact that I had three different prices on the new igniter put me ahead in this deal.

He tells me that his company paid 160 dollars for the part. I reply that they are being ripped off and show him the three quotes I have. He blusters a bit about overhead and shipping blah blah blah – but right out of the gate I had him. I tell him I want an itemized bill now – because to my reading, he is about to charge me $350.00 in labor for a twenty minute job. He offers to drop the price by ten percent – I counter with how about double the real cost of the part, $200.00.

He wasn’t ready for that – I doubt that anyone had ever lowballed him to this extent before. We went back and forth awhile, he calling his boss three times, and we finally settled on 275.00 for the job. Once that was sealed with a handshake I paid him the 275 and then I tipped him an extra twenty bucks – the “gift” thing works both ways. Plus I figured it would smooth over any ego issues that might impinge on the correct installation of the igniter.

Now would I have had the gumption to bargain over the price of a hot water heater repair bill without the experience of shopping in the markets of Bali, Bahrain, Istanbul or Luxor? Who knows, probably not. Even so I challenge you to go out and strike a bargain today.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sudanese Refugee School

While I was working

in the Cairo American College, my son was volunteering at a Sudanese refugee school in the city. He read to students and tutored in basic math. He had one pupil who loved to add but got upset when he was asked to subtract. I suggested that maybe he had lost so much he didn’t want to see anything else taken away – but in reality he was probably just a kid who didn’t like subtraction. The last day of his stint I went by and did some poems with the kids.

Seems no matter where you go in the world, if there are kids around there are going to be stubborn teachers who think they need schooling. This school reminded me of one we visited in China, where the staff was (illegally) teaching the children of undocumented workers lured to Shanghai from the countryside by the construction boom. The school was unheated and the children were bundled in their coats, but the lessons were being taught. Eventually the authorities relented and just turned a blind eye on the operation. But it is a tribute to the dedication of these rogue teachers.

Similarly this Sudanese refugee school was not equipped with computers or reading programs costing tens of thousands of dollars. No Smart Boards or LED projectors, there was no budget for consultants to come in and assess for adequate yearly progress. This place, like the one in China, is flying just below the radar cobbled together by volunteers and donations. There is still a fair bit of prejudice against the Sudanese in Egypt. But, they are keeping their heads down, their noses clean and they are teaching there.

I was told by the woman responsible for getting my son into the school that the Sudanese have a real respect for education and that the kids are eager to learn. I’d be inclined to agree with her from what I saw there the day I visited. Here’s some pics and a short vid.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Dude looks like a lady...

Our final stop
on our tour of Egyptian ruins is the funereal temple of Hatshepsut. Also on the west bank of the Nile over the Theban Hills opposite the Valley of the Kings. The west bank of the Nile is where the ancient Egyptians watched the sun disappear each night where the goddess of day Nut’s (pronounced Newt) head rests and swallows the giant yellow disc to pass through 12 stations in her body emerging again at her feet in the east with the dawn.

To say the population of the pharaonic eras were obsessed with the afterlife is a monumental understatement everything these cats did pointed to preparations for the hereafter. Pharaohs commissioned statues to be sculpted of themselves in the calm arms X’ed across the chest repose of the eternal sleep of their worldly bodies while they were still alive. Tombs were intricate affairs with antechambers and storage rooms branching off from the main passageway assigned provisions by utility, jewelry, armor, food, clothing, transportation etc. All of this was mapped out beforehand, intricate blueprints for these underground spirit world apartments have been found as have the roughed out sketches for the paintings and carvings on the walls of these repositories. First sketches were done in red then tightened up in black and finally the artisans would carve the artwork into the walls – death was big industry.

So you had your basic dichotomy, light and darkness, death and life, east and west. All the temples built on the East side of the Nile where the sun rose at Nut’s feet were the cult temples built to worship and make offerings to specific gods in order to garner their favor. The West is where one’s corporal body was laid to rest, mummified in anticipation of the soul’s return after a boat ride down the river Styx and the successful completion of a dozen tasks outlined in the book of the dead.

So, it makes nothing but sense that the Pharaoh Hatshepsut built a funereal temple in the west. The rest of this king’s story is a bit more convoluted – even by ancient Egyptian standards. Hatshepsut was a woman who ruled as a king. Not satisfied being a regent to her nephew/stepson the heir apparent, Tuhatmet III, she took on the trappings and authority of full pharaohood. Now it wasn’t unheard of for women to have positions of power in ancient Egypt, but declaring oneself king, donning the ceremonial squared off fake beard AND claiming to be the most beautiful woman in the empire at the same time was pushing things a bit.

Thus, as with any maverick hoping to ascend to the highest office in the land an inspiring narrative need be employed, whether all the facts line up as straight as the sphinxes outside of Karnac temple doesn’t really matter as long as the tale plays on the heartstrings of the populace. The story is a good one. One of the most famous examples of the legends about Hatshepsut is a myth about her birth.
(Pieced together from her Wikipedia page) In this myth, Amun (the god in charge of the Breath of Life) goes to Ahmose (Hatshepsut’s earthly mother) in the form of Thutmose I (her earthly father) and awakens her with pleasant odors. At this point Amun places the ankh, a symbol of life, to Ahmose's nose, and Hatshepsut is conceived by Ahmose. Khnum, the god who forms the bodies of human children, is then instructed to create a body and ka, or corporal presence/life force, for Hatshepsut. Heket, the goddess of life and fertility, and Khnum then lead Ahmose along to a lioness bed where she gives birth to Hatshepsut. Pretty cut and dry.

But, you need to disseminate this legend and here is where the funereal temple of Hatshepsut comes into play, the walls of the immense structure are covered with hieroglyphic and artist renderings of this story and her claim to the throne. The whole place is one giant propaganda billboard constructed from stone quarried a hundred miles away in Aswan – home of the unfinished obelisk where we began our trip. Ta Daa, everything comes full circle. There is a lot more to her story what with her nephew trying to erase her from the history books and all, destroying all her statues and citations in official history but you can go and look that up if you’re interested.

Now I would be totally remiss to not give a tip of my hat to our most excellent guide, fount of all things Egyptian ancient and otherwise on this tour, Magdi. I had the opportunity to chat with him a couple times as we trekked back to whatever mode of transportation we were using and I asked him if he liked his job. His eyes lit up, “I love it” he replied. “I even go and visit archeological sites when I am not working.” He did say he missed his wife and son when he was working – his schedule is two weeks on with the cruise ships and then two weeks at home - an antiquities fireman kind of schedule. I told him that we were sort of in the same business, travelling and teaching and we agreed it was a pretty good way to make a living.

Thanks Magdi.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tomb it may concern..

If ya don’t want
your afterworldly possessions burglarized it might be a good idea not to store them in a triangle that’s almost five hundred feet tall – it’ll kind of stick out – especially if you build the things somewhere the terrain is really, really flat – like oh say, a desert. It just might attract some looters – I’m just sayin’.

The ancient Egyptians weren’t buying the old “Ya can’t take it with you” adage in any way shape or form. A couple of millennium before the Boy Scouts of America coined their slogan these guys were pegging the dial on a hitherto unmatched standard in preparedness. They went to great lengths to be sure they were well packed once they broke the constraints of the here and now. Early on they had stored all of these afterlife provisions in tombs encased inside those aforementioned pyramids. After a couple royal cycles though, it was realized that no sooner than they had rolled that big boulder over the tomb’s entrance burglars were slinking off like jackals with all the pickings meant for the hereafter. So, they moved their underground spiritual launch pad/Elysian Fields department store-like tombs into the hinterlands, buried into the base of a range of the desolately non-descript Theban Hills and known today as the Valley of the Kings. The original name of the area was The Great and Majestic Necropolis of the Millions of Years of the Pharaoh, Life, Strength, Health in The West of Thebes. I’m going to stick with Valley of the Kings.

We leave the boat extra early at 7am catching a ferry across the river. Magdi wants to get to the west bank and do some tomb viewing before the sun gets too high on the horizon. This is the desert after all; there will be no shade or respite from the sun once we get out of our shuttle van that picks us up on the other side.

The ancient Egyptians spent a lot of their time on earth preparing for their eternities off the planet. A royal burial chamber could take over seven years to construct and outfit so one of a new pharaoh’s first orders would be the start of his tomb. Since the conventional wisdom of the time figured that we would be spending a whole lot more of eternity wherever we were going after this life than we would be spending here these tombs were no holes in the wall.

The vaults are multi chambered affairs walls decorated with colorful depictions of the journey into the spirit world illustrated from several texts including the Book of the Dead. Along with the decorations would be included a dizzying cache of swag made from anything expensive. Gold, Silver, fine linen, boats, chariots, furniture, nesting sarcophagi – add it up and ya literally got a king’s ransom and then some. This booty was kept safely nestled hundreds of feet through stone into the mountains, angling down over ninety feet below the surface. The Egyptians didn’t do anything half asp.

Don’t even get me started on the whole mummification thing. Secret herbs and spices, miles of linen wrappings, some straw, some mud, internal organs removed and placed in jars – except for the heart of course – that has to be left in the chest cavity so it can be weighed by Osiris during the final jeopardy portion of the eternal judgment show. A whole studio audience of Egyptian deities sitting on pins and needles waiting to see if the heart is indeed lighter than a feather; as everyone knows, the only scientifically accurate measure of a decedent’s virtue.

We go into a couple of the tombs. Magdi gives us the lowdown on them before we go in. Guides are no longer allowed to give talks inside the tombs – it slows the turnover of viewers down to a crawl and the keepers of the crypts feel the less time folks spend inside the better for their preservation. On average around five to nine thousand souls visit the Valley of the Kings daily. There are 18 tombs capable of being opened to the public. Three are opened daily on a rotation basis. No pictures whatsoever are allowed in the tombs – violators can face a five hundred Egyptian pound fine – about a hundred bucks. So when I got caught taking pictures inside Ramses IV tomb I thought my nightmare of incarceration in a country where I don’t speak the language was about to come true. Fortunately for me I was able to assuage the security guards temper by offering to “tip” him fifty pounds as a token of my esteem for a job well done. I also erased the pics I took from my camera – except for the ones I must have accidently missed and are posted here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream...

And they poked all their eyes out…

Our last visit on the east bank of the Nile is the Luxor temple. So far all the temples we have trekked through can be classified as cult temples – temples erected in honor of a certain Egyptian deities, places where offerings can be brought. The east side of the Nile, where the sun rises, is considered a place of birth. Tomorrow we visit the west side, the land of the sunset where the end of the mortal coil is unwound into the afterlife.

Along with the colossal scale of the sites we have visited I am also astounded at the preservation of so many of the artifacts and carvings. Of course a great deal of credit is due the Egyptian government’s Council of Antiquities but perhaps even more gratitude is due the obstinacy of sand and wind. Most of these sites lay buried under tens of feet of sand until excavated within the last century and a half preserving much of the historical record like an insect in amber. At one location our archeologically omniscient guide Magdi informs us if not for the relentless removal of sand the site would be buried again in only fifty years. This is apparent in the photo of the 14th century Abu al-Haggag Mosque, the arrow points to street level at the time of its construction, now the door opens into space twenty five feet above the ground.

After the decline of the Egyptian empire these temples came into varied uses. Coptic Christians hid from Romans within their walls, during the Middle Ages they were used as shelter by squatters who simply moved into the places blackening the ceilings with fires they lit to cook and stay warm during the desert nights, some even became stables for livestock. Long after the identities and narratives of those depicted in carvings and statues in and around these structures were forgotten they still made an impression on the folks who saw them. These artifacts scared the bejesus out of the later residents of the locations. “Who are these crazy folks with crocodile or falcon heads, these giants with squared off beards, and why are they staring at us? “

So, true to human nature when encountering the unknown many attacked what they did not understand. Eyes were gouged out of the carvings; statues’ heads were knocked off arms and legs chipped away from figures on walls all to render these very frightening images defenseless. But, remember the desert, the sand and wind? In some of the sites one can see a definite line of demarcation where the artifacts were protected underground. Above this line: defacement, below a whole mythology waited to be uncovered. What man didn’t have the foresight to preserve the Arabian Desert graciously intervened serendipitously in his behalf.

The Amazing Karnak

We cue up
to pass through a drawbridge immediately preceding the lock at Esna. Two cruise ships can fit into the thing at a time and it seems some other boat has cut in front of us and our captain is laying pretty hard on the air horns. This is what wakes me. I think his protestations it would carry a bit more weight though, if they didn’t sound like the eight opening notes of that drunken wedding reception standard The Chicken Dance. Then again, what is more intimidating than Aunt Amy strutting around bouncing and flapping her wings in some puffy sleeved chartreuse bridesmaid dress? Compared to the driving on the streets though – the river traffic is sedate and this little outburst is the first sign of hackles being hoisted, in fact I have noted the ships taking turns leading down the river like considerate bicyclist trading drafts.

As exciting as a an altercation between two 200 foot boats may sound it is really rather boring, sort of like a sumo wrestling match where the combatants are required to strap fifty pound bags of onions to each of their ankles along with the stipulation that they are not allowed to touch each other – there’s a lot of grunting but nothing happens very quickly. So, I head below deck for breakfast. When I come back up almost an hour or so later I see that we are through the bridge and heading into the locks and we are now ahead of the other boat so victory is ours! Once we’ve cleared through the gates we are headed to our last stop Luxor.

Luxor was the capital city of the Egyptian empire from 1500BC until 300BC. Alexander the Great called the city Thebes. There are two big temple sites in the city and Magdi loads us into a shuttle van to head to the first one, Karnak a name made familiar to me by a fortune telling character played by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.

Karnak Temple is the largest temple in Egypt – in fact it is more of a conglomeration of many temples on a sixty acre site – kind of an Egyptian god’s one stop big box shop. The principle deity here is Ra, the grand Pooh-Bah of the old and middle dynasties. Once again I am blown away at the scale of the architecture – these Egyptian cats thought big. One attribute of these temples that I haven’t mentioned yet is their color. All the hieroglyphics, columns and walls were brightly colored in – they were not the tan sandstone that we, for the majority, see today but a mix of vibrant shades. Amazingly enough, some of the coloring is still visible – three thousand years old and the pigments survive – Sherwin Williams should be so lucky.

There is a double row of sphinxes leading into the temple where we pass through a hall of columns, 134 massive stone structures arranged in sixteen rows ranging from thirty to over sixty feet tall and up to nine feet in diameter. The site boasts some pretty huge statues too over thirty feet tall and one big ass obelisk over sixty feet tall and weighing sixty thousand pounds approximately the height of three telephone poles stacked on top of each other end to end and the weight of twenty automobiles. All the sandstone to build this place came from quarries over a hundred miles away south on the Nile. How did they erect these things!?

Magdi squats down on the ground and draws a diagram of the most commonly accepted method for lifting these massive stone monoliths involving ramps and sand pits. After our guided tour portion of the visit we are cut loose to wander around the site for an hour or so and then we head back to the boat for lunch before we visit our last temple of the tour, the Luxor temple, that afternoon.

Magdi explains a cartouche

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Esna place like home

Rumor has it
that there is a tourist bazaar in Esna. We never found it. What we did find was our "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore" experience for this trip.

Esna is a town halfway between Edfu and Luxor. Its main claim to fame is the Electricity Bridge which is a small hydroelectric dam with a set of locks attached to it. On the maps of stops along the Nile sites like Kom Ombo, Edfu and Luxor are in bold yellow type, their location designated with little bull’s-eyes. Esna is in small black print represented by a dot the size of a period. Our cruise ship arrives there after sunset and moors to wait for our scheduled passing through the locks in the morning. At other stops our intrepid guide Magdi has drawn maps to the local souks, the bazaars where we can bargain with the very motivated sellers of goos, gaws, and chotchkes.

In Esna we received no such map.

Even so we disembark and head toward the lit up end of town. Up until now any foray into town has elicited some fairly hard sell tactics by the local entrepreneurs, “Let me tell you something!” “You know how much?” “I’ll pay you to look!””Welcome to Alaska!”

I don’t know what that last one means but we heard it a couple times. In Esna though, we got more silent stares than invitations. I don’t know if it was the time of day, the part of town we were walking in or what, but there was definitely a different vibe nothing overtly sinister, but there definitely a different edge to things. That was until Hanna showed up.

Hanna is a bright dark eyed girl of thirteen who may be five feet tall standing on her bare footed toes. She appointed herself our personal tour guide. She spoke broken but really quite passable English as she gave us the nickel tour of her town. “Is me pharmacia, is me dresses for mama, is me music tape for dance, is me barber for papa.” I thought she was saying is me as in a crude conjugation of “this is my…” but later when perusing our Nile guide book’s Arabic phrase section I find that isme means, my name is, or it is called.

So Hanna wends us through the streets and backstreets of the town. She shoos away hoodlums and joins in on bargaining for a skirt that Sara buys in one of the shops the proprietor laughing and shaking his fist at her after brokering a deal that all agreed was “good for you, good for me.”As we walk along a young man comes up to me and informs us we are in the Egyptian Market not the tourist market and offers to lead us to this other location. Hanna lets out a little hiss to Sara - “Pickpocket” she says and I eye the guy up who smiles and slinks away like one of the many stray cats we’ve seen on this trip.

We stroll through the market and everybody knows Hanna. One man scolds her for not having any shoes on, looking and laughing to us as if to say, what a crazy little girl to be running through the mud dirt in her bare feet! Donkey carts loaded with giant galvanized wash bins and cooking pots pass us as do pickup trucks their beds loaded with young men hooting and shouting. We later learn that these rowdies are most likely members of a wedding party. I notice that the ubiquitous police force, armed with submachine guns we have seen everywhere during our trip are nowhere to be seen. I wouldn’t say that I am worried, but I am definitely keeping aware of my surroundings.

We give Hanna a tip which equals maybe half a buck and tell her we need to head back to our boat now. She points down a dark alleyway and I offer to just go back the way we had come figuring that maybe she has some big brothers waiting for us around the corner. Right about then, a young man comes up to her says something under his breath and Hanna hands over the money we gave her and he dissolves back into the street. Turns out that he is the guy looking into the camera in the picture I took of Sara and Hanna.

Well, against my better judgment we follow Hanna through some alleyways and sure enough we pop out on the main drag right in front of our boat. We give our little guide another tip – this one twenty times the amount taken from her. I wonder if she got to keep it?

The locks at Esna

Work like an Egyptian

The ancient
Egyptian calendar was divided into three seasons - planting, harvest and flood. The yearly flood of the Nile sent everyone inland to higher ground. This same flood provided the nutrient rich silt and water which created the fertile conditions for the farms along the river once the water receded.

Each of these three seasons lasted four months and each of these months consisted of three weeks with ten days for a grand total of 360 days. After awhile the ancient Egyptians (the Egyptians of the time – not really old Egyptians, we saw some really old Egyptians while we were there – but you couldn’t call them ancient unless of course you’re talking about a mummy – I guess THEY really would be ancient - but I digress.)

Anyway, the Egyptians who lived over two thousand years ago and used this particular calendar realized after awhile that they were five days off so they added them at the end of the year. These five days, according to our guide Magdi, were amazingly enough known as the five missing days – later of course leap year was included, I don’t know what it was called back then. The work week consisted of eight days with two off.

Magdi explains this to us at Edfu temple, the most intact temple in Egypt. Edfu means land of the warrior and this temple too is dedicated to the falcon headed god of protection Horus, this time without subletting to any other gods. I am again astounded at the scale of the architecture and even though some of these structures took hundreds of years to complete the physical effort is mindboggling. The twin towers of Edfu temple are over one hundred and ten feet tall made from solid blocks of sandstone the size of refrigerators.

Contrary to conventional supposition, the building and furnishing of these shrines was not undertaken by slaves at the crack of a whip. No, these temples served as the nucleus of a pretty ingenious public works project based on the three Egyptian seasons.

During the planting and harvesting seasons the population was expected to bring offerings to the temples. Foodstuffs, beer, wine, honey the usual things one figures would appease a god with the head of a crocodile, jackal, or ibis. These offerings were used to pay and sustain the priests who ran the temples, numbering in the thousands in some of the bigger joints like Karnak in Luxor. What was left over, which still amounted to quite a lot, was placed in storehouses near the site.

Come the flood season, when all the fields were under the Nile and the populace had moved inland where they could roam the streets being bored and getting up to generally no good like a bunch of students let loose on four month spring break, this is when the work such as temple building, statue carving, obelisk cutting etc. was performed. Seems thousands of years ago the powers that be realized that an idle population is not a happy one, and an unhappy population never bodes well for the powers that be.

So, while the farmers and their families waited for the Nile to return to her banks they were gainfully employed in the arts of building, carving, painting, sculpting and the like. How did they get paid for all this hard work? From the storehouses at the temples! Pretty slick huh? And, since a temple could endlessly be added on to, and the bigger the temple the more offerings it could garner the work was steady.

I thought we were supposed to learn from our history, it seems that quite a few good lessons have fallen by the wayside – doesn’t it?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

When I'm calling you...

Shot through our cabin window somewhere between Aswan and Esna.

Kom Ombo Temple or "Just one more thing..."

Our boat
leaves moorage in Aswan and we motor with the current up the Nile toward the city and temple of Kom Ombo. This temple, relatively speaking is newer in that it is only 2,300 years old sans a few home improvement type additions added by a couple Roman emperors.

We travel with the current passing scenery reminiscent of the illustrations in catechism texts of my stint at St. Gabriel’s parochial school. Cattle herders, mostly boys wearing the traditional Egyptian galabia, a long flowing ankle length shirt – tend to their cows. Fisherman row small color faded boats back and forth near the shore, one manning the oars another beating the water with long poles, chasing their catch of Nile perch and catfish into nets.

At the banks of the river date palms and other greenery hold the desert at bay with varying success, sometimes only a couple yards sometimes nearly as far as one can see, but always eventually the sand and heat wins. Here and there floating pump stations the size of two car garages aid and abet the greenery while some farmers employ smaller and louder diesel engines coughing black smoke into the air, everybody along its banks wants a piece of the Nile.

Our MS (motor ship) Sherry Boat docks in the town of Kom Ombo and our group walks the ten minutes to the temple. Kom Ombo temple is considered Greco-Roman as it was built during the time of the Greek occupation of Egypt by Alexander the Great. The temple took 400 years to complete and was finished in 80BC. The unique detail about this particular temple is that it was built to worship two of the over one thousand Egyptian deities. Generally temples were built in honor of a single god. In this case though, the duo is Horus – the falcon headed god of divine protection and Sobek the crocodile god of evil (pronounced eeeeeeevil by our tour guide Magdi.)

It was hoped that by erecting a temple in the honor of the crocodile god that the actual crocodiles which used to bask in this area of the Nile would refrain from snacking on the locals. Of course a town could be considered suspect if they had a temple to the god of evil so it was decided to split the thing with a much more reputable god Horus.

The country was under the occupation of the Greeks at the time of the temple’s groundbreaking Alexander the Great and after him the Ptolemys understood that in order to get the populace to submit to foreign rule they had to show respect for the local culture and customs. Rather than erecting temples to the Greek gods, these guys depicted themselves in the style of the established Egyptian divinities, employing a “you catch more lies with honey” style of governance. This technique seems to have been lost to some more recent heads of state.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Finish what you start...

We fly into Aswan

to join our cruise ship the MS Sherry Boat. The boats that ply the Nile are large four deck affairs – not as big as the ships that cruise Alaska or the Caribbean – neither of which I have experienced – so this is the largest boat I have ever been on. Lounges, dining halls the whole shebang.

The rooming situation is a bit different form the spacious apartment given us in Cairo by the American College. We are now, three of us, inside a room the size of one of the three bedrooms that were in the apartment. Fortunately all we are using the room for is sleeping – so it is kind of like camping – except we do have our own bathroom.

We are on a package tour with a guide – the ship sails for about four or five hours at a time and then we disembark and tour historical sites with an English speaking guide named Magdi. We are in a group of a dozen or so strong of other English speakers from the US and Canada. Our first stop in Aswan is a visit to see an unfinished obelisk. An obelisk is a giant pointed stone structure – think of something the shape of the Washington Monument. These sculptures were roughed out in the quarry from where they were extracted, transferred to the Nile and then floated to their final destination where they were polished and inscribed.

The reason this particular obelisk was left unfinished is that it cracked during its extraction. This defect occurred even though there were painstaking processes in place to verify the stability of the rock before the quarrying took place. Three further attempts were made to remove smaller portions from the original attempt and they too failed. Again I was surprised by the sheer scale of the operation. This piece was at least three times bigger than I was expecting. Perhaps it was over ambition on the part of the original designer (if the effort had been successful – it would have been the largest of its kind ever produced in ancient Egypt) of this particular obelisk that doomed it from the start.

This led me to speculate the conversations between the laborers when the cracks appeared.

“I knew it would crack, I told them so – but did they listen to me? – Noooo, Mr. I Designed the Biggest Obelisk Ever just went ahead and tried anyway. But what do I know I’ve only been cutting these things out of this pit for thirty years, my father cut obelisks, my grandfather cut obelisks – but do they want MY opinion? Fancy Cairo education – book learning, that’s all they know. They ain’t got a lick more of common sense than one of those baby crocodiles in the market. How ‘bout you come on down in the pit and insert the cedar wedges? Not a chance, they might get some granite dust on their starched white skirts – I told them so.”

His long suffering buddy just sighs, “I know you did.”

And the foreman shouts down into the pit “We’re not paying you in beer to flap your lips!”

Finished Obelisk @ Karnac Temple
notice man in bottom right corner

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Cairo American College

It's Official

Cairo American College is one of my favorite schools that I have visited - ever.

I had a rotten cold for two of the days I was teaching here and even that couldn't put a damper on my enthusiasm for the students, staff and parents who populate the campus.

We based our operations at a round table in the library outside of curriculum specialist's Peter Ducket's combination office and coffee oasis. From this vantage we deployed into elementary, middle and high school classrooms for five days. In every single class we found interested students eager to learn and engaged teachers. We worked hard, but with participants like the crew we met here in Cairo one can really say, without fear of hyperbole or cliche, it was a labor of love.

Every evening was filled with excursions into the city or to the campus book fair which was running in conjunction to our visit. Special shout out to Sue and the rest of the parent volunteers at the book fair - you made us feel like rock stars. As long as I'm naming names Shy-mar (my phonetic attempt) Peter's secretary couldn't have been more helpful, knowing what we needed before we did. If Ann the librarian is not one of the nicest persons walking the face of the earth I'll eat a bowl of sand from in front of the great Sphinx.

I can't thank Seamus Marriot, the elementary school principle whom we first met while he was Shanghai, enough for facilitating our visit here. And of course, I would be no better than a mummy eating jackal if I neglected effusive and babbling kudos to our gazelle gaited guide to all things Egypt, Peter Ducket who went above and beyond the call of duty making us feel welcome, wanted and in some cases happily weary.

Thank you Cairo American College - 'til we meet again.