Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Crusin' Egypt

In a departure from my regular PLACES column that covers somewhere to go in Southern California, I have this question (and my answer) for you: Of all the places in the world, where would you like to go? Many of us think about this question and ponder the possibilities, especially as we are at work doing the same old, same old. Maybe you want to travel to Africa and go on a safari (I do!). Or go to Australia and do a walkabout and visit kangaroos (I do!). Or go to Hawaii and relax on tropical beaches (I do!). Apparently, there is a lot I still want to do! Somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit, because I was fascinated by studying it in its ancient version in school, is Egypt. So mysterious, so foreign (to this Southern California woman), and so far away and therefore, so expensive.
This past April I got to go to Egypt. (How and why I got to go is covered in my PERSONAL part of the blog.) I never knew Egypt had such varying topography! I pictured desert. That’s it - just endless stretches of desert, which certain parts of Egypt definitely are. But I didn’t know about the multi-colored jagged mountains jutting up spectacularly from the ground, or the open fields with acres of crops growing by the riverside, or the overwhelmingly crowded cities where people are crammed in old high-rise buildings that are crumbling. I’ve decided that ignorance about geography, a country, inhabitants, etc. is not bliss - it’s just ignorance.
One of the most memorable days in Egypt was my first one. We took a 3 hour bus ride into the interior of Egypt with Luxor, Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut’s temple and Karnack as our main destinations. The ever-changing scenery was so utterly fascinating to behold. Our one-lane road, which traveled alongside a river almost its entire length, was filled with a hodge-podge of people and modes of transportation. Some women were clothed head to toe in black berkas and abayas, while some of the younger women wore skin-tight jeans, long-sleeved shirts covered by a tube top, and a beautiful colored scarf atop their heads. Men were dressed in business suits, casual clothing (although I never saw any indigenous people wearing shorts, no matter how hot it got), and the traditional clothing (i.e. galabeyas) and talked with each other while walking along the dirt road, riding bikes, driving donkey carts, riding dirtbikes, driving impossibly tiny cars, and hopping on and off buses and vans already overflowing with people. It was a collision and intertwining of two worlds - the ancient and the modern.
I had never, to my shame, heard of Karnack which, in my opinion, was the most magnificent ruins of the ancient Egyptian temples. Monstrously huge at one mile by two miles, I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t a movie set, but the real thing. I walked among gigantic columns, carved long ago with intricate hieroglyphics. I gaped in awe at enormous and majestic statues that immortalized gods and goddesses, or at least people. The sheer immensity of Karnack and the quality of the ruins took my breath away. Literally, actually, as I at one point I was running through them just to see if I could reach the other end of them. (I did. Am I really an adult?)
Swelteringly hot, dusty, and surrounded by a current-day construction site, the sights of Karnack and the memories of walking almost worshipfully among the amazing feats of craftsmanship from centuries past boggled my mind and senses. This is the Egypt I’ve read about and now got to experience.

There was so much more to our trip in and around Egypt - snorkeling in the Red Sea at Sharm El Sheik (I don’t think I will ever sea more astounding underwater life - the brilliance of the fish and the multitudes of them and variety - wow!); being, just being, at Mt. Sinai where Moses received the 10 commandments; exploring the catacombs in Alexandria; floating down the Nile in an old-fashioned felucca: dining at a palace; getting bargains (I think) at the marketplaces (shopper’s paradise!); and much more.
One last sight I will share in greater detail, though, is the quintessential Egypt - the pyramids. Just a half hour bus ride outside of Cairo, I strained my neck and eyes to get a first glimpse of them through the smog. There they were! Oh, no - that was just a tourist shop shaped like a pyramid. Aha - I saw them in the distance (for real, this time) and got more and more excited as with each bend in the road we got closer and closer to them. I was about to see one of the highlights of my entire trip!
And it was. And they were. Although commercialism has encroached fairly close to the pyramids, when we drove up above the three pyramids for a view, it was just like I pictured in my mind, with lots of desert still in the background.
The stones of the mighty pyramids are not clean cut like I envisioned. (Oh my small, Westernized frame of understanding.) They are, instead, rough hewn and utterly massive. And such pyramidal-shaped perfection! As I was snapping away with my camera, I finally realized that the pyramids from one angle looked pretty much the same as the pyramids from another angle - stones going up at a triangular slant. Huh! The engineering feat and gargantuan size of these monuments are almost beyond belief, even when actually staring at them. Camel rides down and around the desert surrounding the pyramids are available here, too.
The Great Sphinx of Giza is only a few minutes down the road and yes, this architectural wonder is mythsterious! We stared at it, walked around in awe, and took more pictures. We actually returned that same night for a light show that incorporated laser beams shining in neon colors on the sphinx and pyramids. Kind of odd, dated, and hokey, but still fun to see.
One other "must see" in Cairo is the Egyptian Museum. This museum holds one of the greatest collection of Egyptian antiquities, including mummies and treasures from King Tut’s tomb, some of his coffins, the famous gold mask, and pieces of his stunning jewelry. I could easily have spent a full day, or two, here.
This was a trip of a lifetime that can best be summed up by reiterating what I kept telling myself while on the trip, "I can’t believe I get to do this!"
I don’t know if I now Walk Like An Egyptian, but some of the lyrics from this song are fun and kept running through my head while there (sing along!):
All the old paintings on the tombs
They do the sand dance don't you know
If they move too quick (oh whey oh) They're falling down like a domino

All the bazaar men by the Nile
They got the money on a bet
Gold crocodiles (oh whey oh)
They snap their teeth on your cigarette

Foreign types with the hookah pipes say
Ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh
Walk like an Egyptian
My mom called me last August and said that she got a brochure from a cruise company that day that was offering a trip to Egypt. She said she was thinking of going. O.K. She called me the next day and said that she spoke to my sister, Beth, and that Beth said that she wanted to go too, so the two of them were going on a cruise to Egypt in April. I was thinking: Hey - wait a minute! Do you mean to tell me that if I said I wanted to go, I could go too? Couldn’t hurt. I called my mom the next day and said, "That trip sounds like fun. I’d like to go." She said O.K. - it costs $$$$$$$$. (i.e. a LOT of money). Hm. I knew Beth wasn’t paying and I always thought that I was, if not her favorite (there is another older sister), at least in the running for it. Guess not. My mom called me the next day and said, "When I die, I will leave your older sister (who had no desire to go) the ‘extra’ amount of money that this cruise is going to cost me to pay for you and Beth to go, so I’m basically deducting it from your inheritance. Let’s go!" O.K.! I didn’t even know we were going to get an inheritance. My mom needed the definite answer by the next day because there was a discount for early birds (which is always better than a worm).
Then she told me that the cruise was for 19 days, plus an additional 4 days in Cairo. Oh my gosh! I had just assumed that going on a cruise meant going away for a week, maybe two. Over three weeks? I have a husband and family that I love dearly. Could I be away from them for that long? And, my husband loves to travel, too. Was this fair to him, that I go and he couldn’t? (He couldn’t go on the trip because he couldn’t take that much time off of work, plus he wasn’t really invited. Sorry, honey.) Another factor - I get seasick, really easily. I can look at a glass of water and if the water is sloshing a little back and forth, it makes me . . . . No, I’m not quite that bad, but I can stand at the end of a dock and feel the sway of the water and have to bolt for land to not toss my cookies (or whatever else I’ve eaten). 19 days on a ship? Really?
Now you might be thinking - those big ships are so big you can’t feel the motion at all. That might be true, but we weren’t going on a big ship. We were going on a ship that holds 120 passengers - that’s a small ship! And we were going to be in open waters for days at a time - no land; no escape. I asked my mom, "If your goal is Egypt, like Cairo, how about if we just fly there and spend extra time on land?" (Please?) Such sound reasoning. My mom, however, was a like a mountain - unmoving. She wanted to go on this cruise with this cruise line and that’s what she wanted. And she was paying for it - she could do whatever she wanted.
I spoke with my husband at great length, and quickly as I had to make a decision by the next day. I prayed hard and fast too - what to do? Trip of a lifetime with my mom and sister (did I mention that the three of us were going to stay in just one cabin?) on board a cruise ship for days at a time and I get motion sick?! Hmmm. I could lose a lot of weight, though.
My biggest reason for wanting to go was not to see the world famous sights, but the opportunity that I would have to spend this time with my mom and sister. (Did I mention that there was only one cabin for the three of us for all 19 days at sea and 3 days on land??) I understand that this prospect could be daunting if not downright terrifying for some people, but my mom and sister are some of my closest friends. (I was about to find out how close we were and how much we actually loved each other.) And this would be a golden ticket adventure; a once-in-a -lifetime event, as well.
Obviously I went and it was one of the most marvelous and memorable times of my entire life. Yes, we saw and explored exotic parts of the world I had only read about and every excursion and all the food was five-star quality, really. (Remember all those $$ symbols?!) Those are great things. But what really made this experience marvelous and memorable was the time I got to spend with my mom and sister.
Not to be morbid, but to be realistic - we don’t know how much time we have left on this earth. Maybe another 30 years, maybe 5, maybe a day. We can make choices, for the most part, about what to do with this precious time; how to spend it and who to spend it with. For that time, for those cherished three + weeks, I got to spend fun, deep, silly, serious, extraordinary time with my mother and sister. What a gift! We talked and laughed (sometimes at each other) and learned together. We spent uninterrupted time together. We shared hopes and fears. We rolled our eyes at each other (O.K. Beth and I did that to each other when we knew mom wasn’t quite keeping up with us, but we did it in a loving way, I’m sure.) We met new people on board the ship (there was only 34 passengers on that cruise!) that we might never see again, but who changed our lives.
I learned more about my sister and mom, too. I learned that my sister is a deeply compassionate person who cares more about people and relationships than anything else in the world; far above her business that she runs well and operates. She is also one of the most gracious and giving people that I’ve ever been blessed to know. And she is fun! Her sense of humor is awesome - maybe because I get it and we’re a lot a like. (And all this after spending 23 intimate days together!) I learned that my mom is 100% relational. She doesn’t care to follow politics too closely and she doesn’t completely care about the educational value of the places and things we saw and did, but no one beats her at listening to people, caring about them, enjoying who people are - just as they are, and loving her kids and grandkids. What a legacy she is already leaving.
It’s been about 6 months since we’ve been home. My mom and sister and I are closer than ever before. Whenever you have shared experiences, good ones and even not good ones, there is a closeness that happens. That’s the good stuff. That’s the important and valuable stuff in life. I wouldn’t have bypassed that trip for anything. Having said that, I wouldn’t do it again, either. I missed my husband and family waaaaaaay too much. They are the good and important and valuable stuff to me, too.

 "Carpe diem! (Seize the day!)"

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