Welcome to Alaska!
December 4, 2008
Our final days in Egypt began at our Nile cruise’s destination, Aswan. There we stayed at a beautiful Movenpic hotel (apparently they don’t just make ice cream. Who knew?), which you had to take a ferry to access from the town. After checking in, we took a sail boat (felucca) to see the botannical gardens, which were very nice, though we were a bit tired from standing in the sun so much that day during a viewing of a giant unfinished obelisk at a stone quarry.
On the way back, the felucca sailors sang a call-and-response song that was stuck in our head for days;
“Ohhh, la lay lay!”
(“Ohhh, la lay lay!”)
“Lah, lah, la la lah”
(“Lah, lah, la la lah”)
They then modified the song to include a typical joke told to Americans by resident Egyptians:
“Welcome to Alas-ka!”
(“Welcome to Alas-ka!”)
At one point, an older Filipino man from our group began doing a little tribal dance along with the song, much to the delight of all.
Unfortunately, the wind died down, and we were stuck immobile in the water. To pass the time, Nesrine first tried to get the “Spicy Girls” to sing (this was the name given to Rucha, Suja, and Helen when they were overheard singing Abba songs in unison the day before). Rucha deftly attempted to deflect the request by announcing that I was a professional musician playing in an orchestra, and therefore I should sing instead. I tried to parry by announcing that Rucha was the author of a book available for sale on Amazon.
Manny, another Filipino in our group, was gracious enough to spare us by starting another round of singing in the same tune that was just taught us:
“Ohh, la lay lay!”
(“Ohh, la lay lay!”)
(to which Suja replied singing “A, mi-tabh Bach-chan!” the name of the Indian actor everyone kept saying to us)
When a motor boat came to tow us back after some time, the song shifted again:
“No, more fa-lucca!
(“No, more fa-lucca!”)
The following day we opted for sleeping in and lounging by the hotel pool instead of taking the optional flight to Abu Simbel and waking up at 5:30 AM. The pool was large and pleasant enough to look at, but I should have been warned by the absence of people actually swimming. I usually like to just jump in pools rather than slowly getting in…like ripping off a bandaid. But as soon as my toes hit the water mid air I felt my body reflexively try and do a cartoon-esque run back to warm land. Alas, gravity prevailed, and I cringed and exhaled in response to how frigid the water was. As I surfaced and began what I was sure I’d read was the initial stages of hypothermia, Helen called out “How’s the water?”
“It’s… not too bad,” I lied, not wanting to admit to my error, and began to swim to try and keep warm. I thought I might get used to, or even numb to, the water, but it was no use, and since Helen wisely tested the water before leaping in I was deprived of any company.
That night we decided to hit the town and see what the streets were like, and found ourselves among more tourist shops. One of them had a sign that said “NO HASSLE!” which turned out to mean “No Haggling,” which was an interesting change. A few shops were doing it, so I wondered whether folks were trying it out to better cater to what westerns were used to. We also noticed that when we went into the store it was empty, but when we left it was full of tourists. The storeowner gave us free gifts, telling us that we brought him good luck, and finally we understood why storeowners asked us to please come into their store, even if we didn’t buy anything, because it brought them “good luck.”. Apparently they’ve realized that tourists tend to go into stores that other tourists are already in, perhaps because people see it as a sign that the store has something of value, or that the storeowner will be too busy to nag them to buy something.
After a healthy dose of “Lucky man, 3 wives!” we spent our last evening in Aswan at our hotel’s bar which was on the 12th floor and provided a nice panoramic view of Aswan. The following day we flew back to Cairo, where we were to spend our last surge of energy seeing a mosque, a church, and a synagogue.
The highlight of that day was actually Cairo’s famous bazaar, which we were ready to just skip after our overdose of peddlers and hassles throughout our time at Egypt. But the Cairo bazaar turned out to be very nice, with picturesque narrow winding passageways and better quality goods than we were used to seeing.
That night, starving to the point of not being hungry any more due to the day’s absence of food, we had our final Egypt dinner with other members of our tour group at an Itallian restaurant in the hotel. The meal was pleasant save for the fact that someone was playing Christmas tunes on a keyboard with an extremely flat key that kept making me visibly cringe whenever it was struck.
There was some quality music later that night when a trio including an Egyptian Tina Turner lookalike took turns singing. The woman did an excellent job singing in Arabic, and I wished they would have let her sing more often. Things really took a turn to the bizarre when Suja pointed out that they were singing a mixture of Maroon 5 lyrics set to the tune of Sexual Healing, perhaps to avoid its scandalous lyrics.
When it came time to part, Gabriel (a fellow tour group member around our age) gave Rucha a long hug goodbye, only to be interrupted by a grumpy old man who banged his cane on the floor in protest.
“Stop this! You do that in your country, not here!” he exclaimed in disgust, shaking his head disapprovingly.
That night we watched some mediocre bellydancing outside in a tent by the pool. At one point, a curvey, hoochily-dressed girl from the audience came up on stage and did an even better job dancing than the woman they had hired. All the while her much older, portly, mustachioed man stood on stage with her, bobbing and swaying back and forth while smiling approvingly. The rest of the sparse audience, all male except for my companions, looked on, transfixed but seemingly without emotion, eating dinner and smoking their sheeshas.
Some final notes about Egypt:
99% of the women in Egypt (not counting tourists have their hair covered by a scarf called a “hijab.” Suja explained to me how her perception of this shifted since coming to Egypt after her conversation with Nesrine, our tour guide. She explained that while some places like Sadui Arabia requires covering your head, people (including Nesrine) wear them in Egypt because they want to. She told how her daughter isn’t wearing one these days, and that she doesn’t plan on insisting that she wear one.
It was interesting to be submerged in an environment where almost all women had their hair covered. I never saw Nesrine’s actual hair, and realized I probably never would, even if I knew her longer as a friend. When we were driving along I saw an Egyptian girl walking along the street with long, wavey, black hair and couldn’t help but turn to look at her since it was such a rare phenomenon. The absense of exposed hair seemed to be making it a kind of special or taboo part of the body.
In Egypt but also Jordan, it was rare to see women in the streets – maybe 20% of the time. It was extremely rare to see them running a store though oddly it was very common to see them acting as tour guides.
Rucha felt like the men in Egypt were aggresive in their comments, flirting, and staring. And this was all while I was there; I can’t imagine what it would be like with no male companion in tow.
Nothing in Egypt is free. If someone is offering to take a picture of you, they’re going to ask for a tip afterwards. Even when an old man picked a flower at the botannical gardens and gave it to us, he insisted on a tip. And even if you give a tip, they will likely complain about its size (I mean this regarding strangers at tourist sites, not hotel employees and the like).
I think that this just hints at a deeper, general need for money; A girl sowing Persian rugs made between 10-40 Egyptian pounds ($2-$8) per month, and apparently the starting salary for doctors is 400 Egyptian pounds ($80). When the girl at the rug shop smiled and invited Rucha to sit with her for a photo, she was quick to whisper, “Quick, before he sees me, give me some money!”
The net result was that it shifted the way we interacted with others in that we always assumed, usually rightly, that any polite contact and conversation was just an interaction that would eventually lead to a request for money. Which was too bad, because I think part of what one takes away from experiences abroad is the pleasure of social transactions of culture for its own sake, for mutual benefit.
Next stop: Goa!