topics: bargaining, numbers, antiquities, Egyptian Museum, King Tut, terrorism, rules of the road; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: November 18–19, 1997

Breakfast: At our new home, the Bodmin Guest House, breakfast is included in the cost of the room — which is only 20 E£ (Egyptian Pounds). We were very excited when we learned that we would not have to go far to enjoy what we imagined could be a delicious plate of eggs and buttered toast, with a side of bacon or sausage, or perhaps a full steaming serving platter of pancakes and French toast, or even a bowl of our favorite cereal. Well, that's not exactly what we get. At 8 o'clock every morning, someone stomps down the hall to our rooms, knocks on the door, and barks "Breakfast!" in a heavy Egyptian accent. Bleary-eyed, we stagger down to the "breakfast" room — a dark and decrepit room utterly without charm — and gulp down strong tea (no coffee for andrEa) with two thin rolls, a wedge of processed cheese, and a little container of strawberry jam. Oh well. Better luck next time.

Lunch: Cairo is a city that roars by with the subtlety of dinosaur. Sometimes, it is hard not to do the same. On both mornings, we were so wrapped up in the administrative activities of the day — registering with the authorities, looking for reduced entrance identity cards to Egyptian monuments, writing our daily dispatches — that the lunch hour slipped by and we found ourselves faced with an impossible choice: eat lunch or discover another secret about Egypt. As Anthony has pointed out, we suffer when we do not eat — and Padraic can become positively ghoulish — but we also suffer when we run out of time to learn. As finely tuned as our stomachs are, our brains are just as well oiled. And our thirst for knowledge cannot be sated. We must learn! "More more more," Anthony has been known to utter in his sleep. We know that he could only be talking about knowledge.

Dinner: Cairo is a city full of quickly prepared food. On nearly every street and alley, it is impossible not to find food vendors doling out kushari, falafel, chawarma, fruit drinks (see the Food of the Day), etc. But there are other options as well. Both today and yesterday, we dipped into local establishments and had a little kushari, or chicken, or "macaroni and cheese." The latter was served like a soufflé of puffed cheese over a satisfying, smoking hot mix of pasta . . . and meat! (We thought it was a perfect vegetarian meal but, well, we were mistaken.) Of course, everything is served with bread and torshi. Torshi is a salad of pickled vegetables, like carrots, radishes, and cucumbers. The bread, or reysh, is usually what we would call pita bread.

Food of the Day: Hotel Fawaka

After a long trek through the sensory overload of Cairo's streets, there is nothing like the rich draught of a refreshing fruit drink. And, conveniently located throughout the city is a seemingly endless supply of fresh fruit drink makers. They can usually be spotted from afar by the colorful mesh bags full of fruit hanging from the ceiling. click to view a photograph Orange (burtuaan), mango (manga), pomegranate (rumman), banana (mohz), apple (tuffaeh), strawberry (farawleh), bundles of sugarcane (asiir asab), and sometimes mystery fruit (guava?) dangle in a tantalizing display of temptation that we are less and less able to fight.

And the drinks? Oh my! Pure orange squeezed in hand presses right before your eyes. Mango juice which tastes exactly like (and pours as slowly as) a solid mango. Pomegranate juice as red as the coating on a candied apple . . . and twice as sweet. The sugarcane drink seems to be the local favorite (and the cheapest) and is prepared to a foamy perfection as fast as it is drunk.

It's almost as if there could not be anything better. "And how could there be?" we hear you ask. "What could be better than perfection?" Well, we have an answer: Hotel Fawaka, or Hotel Fruit (fawaka is the Egyptian word for fruit). click to view a photograph

The Hotel Fawaka is one of an endless series of, yes, mixed fruit drinks! Prepared with an artistry that rivals both chefs and sculptors, crafted out of the finest of fruits, layered with the steady hand and focused eye of a practiced professional, chilled to a taste bud's ideal, and served with a flair, these mixes of pulped fruit, solid fruit, cream, lemon soda, and a will to please cannot be topped. The Hotel Fawaka in particular is a thick sweetened pomegranate drink topped with banana pulp and then packed until overflowing with sliced fruit. Only our sense of duty pulled us from the easy atmosphere of Wilson's drink place before we turned into multicolored fruit drinks ourselves!

Word of the Day: Bikam? — "How much?"

Bikam? click to hear an audio clip is the Egyptian word for "How much?" It is an extremely useful word, particularly when buying, well, anything. Most stores in Cairo do not have prices on anything, or, if they do, the signs are written in Arabic and use a different set of numbers (see our Tech Fact of the Day) that we cannot easily understand.

This is where the sometimes difficult process of bargaining begins. Unlike in some countries, in Egypt (and throughout North Africa), there are very few fixed prices (even if they are posted), and the store owners try their best to make their customers pay as much as possible. On the other hand, the customers try to pay as little as possible. For visitors to Cairo, though, who do not know what a normal price for anything is, agreeing on a reasonable price can be challenging.

The first rule of bargaining is to try to get the other person to name a price first. So, usually, we ask "Bikam?" (see the Word of the Day) first and try to insist on an answer. Let's say we want to take a ride in a taxi. click to view a photograph The driver tells us it will cost ten E£. The second rule of bargaining is that most people try to overcharge non-locals, so you should then suggest a price that is much lower than the first one. Anthony, who usually does the bargaining with the taxis (because he's the biggest and most dangerous looking!), offers three E£. A difference of seven E£! The third rule of bargaining is bargain hard, but always smile. Although it is a bartering game that involves real money, bargaining should not be unpleasant. If it is, it wouldn't be worth anyone's time. So Anthony, who always smiles and laughs when he bargains, keeps laughing, even when the driver insists on eight, then seven, and then six E£. Anthony will then offer five E£ and we all pile into the taxi.

But, remember, it's not only about taxis. You may find yourself bargaining for anything! Even a small sandwich, or a bottle of water!

Person of the Day:

On Monday, November 17, 1997, 58 foreigners and four Egyptians were killed when six or more Islamic militants attacked visitors at the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut on the west bank of the Nile just north of Luxor. The BikeAbout team would like to take this moment to remember those whose lives were lost and to offer our deepest condolences to their friends and families who continue to suffer as a result of the loss. Violence of any kind, especially when brought upon the innocent, should never be tolerated. Never. Nor should the reasons why such violence occurs be ignored. It is only through open and honest dialogue that different people will begin to understand how and why people are different and how and why to bridge their differences.

Monday's attack occurred in southern Egypt and the BikeAbout team was nowhere near the incident. (We nevertheless thank everyone for the many concerned email messages!) But even though we are safe, the attack was something that we — and everyone — should think about and take seriously since it reflects a state of affairs in the Mediterranean and throughout the world that one day we all hope to get beyond, one in which violence is chosen over dialogue as a means of resolving a conflict of interests. We should also give thought to what we can learn about foreign travel and security.

The Mediterranean, in particular parts of North Africa and the Middle East, is a region that has seen lots of violence over the past few years. For too many years, Algeria has been the site of horrible massacres. Throughout the Middle East — in Egypt, Palestine, Israel, and Lebanon — attacks have occurred and claimed the lives of a growing number of people. Why? It's a terribly complex history of religion and politics that has set different political and religious groups against one another. However, rather than trying steadfastly to pursue a course of dialogue, some groups have resorted to violence. A violence that too often results in the deaths of people who play no part in the conflict. This is what many people call terrorism: attacks made against the innocent in an attempt to bring about change to a situation (that, sadly, history has already proven will not change through violence).

As a result, different governments have made statements about other governments and often discourage travel to places they consider to be risky. Libya, for example, is off limits to Americans, as was Lebanon until the Clinton administration lifted the travel ban there. After the attack near Luxor, the U.S. State Department and many foreign governments made statements advising (we believe, unnecessarily) against travel to Egypt. Hundreds of foreign tourists returned to their homes. The lesson learned? Before traveling anywhere, people should carefully consult with their governments and always make educated, but not necessarily alarmist, decisions about where and when they travel.

Place of the Day: Egyptian Museum click to view a photograph

The Egyptian Museum is one of the most important places in Cairo. Packed to the point of overflowing with more than 100,000 relics and antiques, it is a feast for the eyes and brain that was worth skipping a meal for (see our lunch above). click to view a photograph In fact, according to our Lonely Planet guide, "If you spent only one minute at each exhibit, it would take more than nine months to see everything." We had only a few hours, so we saw only the biggest and most important things.

The objects in the museum were first assembled in 1858 by August Mariette, a French archaeologist who worked on excavating many famous temples all over Egypt. It has been added to over the decades as more and more discoveries have been made. In particular, it is now home to one of Egypt's greatest and certainly most famous treasures: the contents of the tomb of King Tutankhamen, or King Tut (see below).

Tech Fact of the Day: Egyptians use a different set of numbers.

The numbers used by many people today in America and Europe are called Arabic numerals. As far as we have been able to determine, they are based on what is called the Hindu-Arabic numeral system that uses 10 different digits — 0 through 9 — to make counting and computation easy. (The reason why they are called Arabic (or Hindu-Arabic) numerals is because they were created by the central Asian Hindu people and then used by and translated for the Europeans by the Arabs. In fact, one of the greatest scientific minds of Islam was al-Khwarizmi, who introduced the name al-jabr that became known as "algebra"!)

In Egypt, the system of counting is the same, BUT the numbers are different. This has made it difficult for us to pay the right prices, get on the right buses, and go to the correct addresses, but we have survived . . . and learned a whole new way of counting.

The '1' looks almost exactly like a regular '1,' but the '2' looks like a rounded backward seven and the '3' looks like a backward seven with a bump in it. The '4' looks like a script capital 'e,' the '5' looks like a zero, the '6' looks like a seven (?!) and the '7' looks like a capital 'v.' The '8' looks like an upside-down capital 'v' and the '9' looks like a regular nine. Phew. Oh yeah, the 'zero' is no more than a big dot.

Another interesting fact that many or may not be true (it did not come from a completely reliable source) is a logic behind the shapes of the Arabic numerals as we know them. It all has to do with the number of angles made in a symbol. Check out the following graphic and count the arcs formed by the intersecting lines. Whether or not the theory is true, it certainly is interesting.

Angles in Arabic Numerals

Group Dispatch, November 18–19

picture of Ethan

Tuesday was an unusual day for us. Late Monday afternoon, we learned about the attack made by an Islamic fundamentalist organization, called Islamic Group, on tourists enjoying the sites around Luxor in the south of Egypt (see the Person of the Day). We were at the inTouch office and consulted one of the news sites on the Web just as the first reports were beginning to appear. Over the next few hours, we followed the updates and grieved for the loss of so much life. By Tuesday morning, the details were all over the international news and many people were discussing it on the street. An act of such sudden and ferocious violence does not go unnoticed and everyone seemed very concerned. We were too.

Although we didn't really talk with one another too much about our private fears, each member of the BikeAbout team probably wondered what would happen in the days to come. For example, we did talk about whether or not to juggle the schedule that was emerging for the coming days and would include some very important tourist sites. Our worry was that, should the attacks continue, tourists might still be targets and it might therefore not be wise to spend too much time in or around areas where tourists congregate: the Egyptian Museum, the pyramids at Giza and Saqqara, the monuments of Islamic Cairo and Coptic Cairo, etc. But this seemed too much of a precaution to take, especially since one of the reasons why we are here is to enjoy the cultural richness of a country and share it with you. Plus, the probable response to the attack would be beefed up security. So, while we agreed that we should not be "complacent" (as the newspapers warned), we decided that we would continue to fulfill our goals.

Tuesday, then, was the day we would see what had changed in Cairo in response to the tragedy in Luxor.

When we ventured into the streets, our first impressions were the same as our old ones: the smog and traffic and incessant urban overload were as soothing as a vampire's laugh in a dark room. Cairo is an incredible city — vibrant, alive, throbbing — but the unstoppable flood of honking cars careening wildly and lawlessly through laneless streets can be maddening. click to hear an audio clip It is particularly frustrating trying to move around Cairo on foot. Sure, there is a constant flow of pedestrians filling the sidewalks and packing even the streets click to view a photograph, but Cairo is not a town for walkers. Despite the elevated roads and the traffic cops on almost every corner, the car is king. And the car has priority. Really. Unlike the streets of New York, where traffic and noise pollution can certainly be bad . . . but the pedestrian always has the right of way, in Cairo, if you play chicken with a car, you will lose. So you have to be very careful. Very careful. Which seems impossible because there aren't many official crosswalks and few drivers pay attention to traffic lights or signals. Crossing a road means mustering courage and guile and then taking your life into your hands as you estimate speed and distance and dodge unpredictable cars. click to view a photograph Cars that will NOT stop or even slow down if they see you!

Our second impression was that there had indeed been a change. During our earlier days here, we had already noticed a great number of armed guards stationed throughout the city . . . in front of important buildings, patrolling the streets, making sure that there is at least some respect for rules. click to view a photograph On Tuesday, however, there were twice as many as we had seen before. It is hard to say that we actually felt more secure, since the guards were usually bored young men in uniform with AK-47s slung over their shoulders. But there certainly were plenty of them. (Note: All Egyptian men are required to serve in the army: three years is the basic amount of time, which can be reduced to two years with a high school degree and one with a college degree. Sounds like a good reason for going to college!)

And so we went about the tasks of the day. Our early morning was spent in relative calm as we finished some work on our computers. Then the team split into two reconnaissance groups, each with assignments in the wilds of the city, while Padraic, crippled by a bad response to something he ate, chose to stay in bed all day and attempted to recover. So andrEa and Anthony went to try to register BikeAbout with the authorities, and Corinne and Ethan struck out in search of the Supreme Council of Antiquities to ask for free passes to Egyptian monuments on the BikeAbout list. We had set noon as a meeting time in front of the Egyptian Museum.

By 1:30 p.m., we had finally all assembled at the museum. So much for punctuality. But then again, we all know full well these days that time is just not always what we expect or even hope it to be. Nor are our expectations always met. This particular day was proof of that, as it was full of disappointment. While Anthony and andrEa returned having been stumped by the Egyptian bureaucracy, Ethan and Corinne showed up empty-handed, having gone to the wrong part of town to look for the Antiquities offices. Anthony and andrEa had been led from window to window and room to room in the Mogamma — a monument to Egyptian bureaucracy in the form of an enormous building with over 18,000 people working in 14 government ministries and departments (!) — until being told that registration was unnecessary for us. We still don't believe this, but there's nothing we could do. Meanwhile, Ethan and Corinne found the fax number for the Antiquities people and finally succeeded in sending off the appropriate documents to the correct address.

That done, it was finally time to enjoy the museum (see our Place of the Day).

It is unfair to speak of the Egyptian Museum in anything less than as many words as there are artifacts. But that would be the making of a very thick book on ancient civilizations. Without exaggeration, the museum is a fantastic collection of rooms that are PACKED with hundreds and thousands of big and small statues click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, figurines click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, rings, coffins and sarcophagi, boats click to view a photograph, weapons, glassware objects, wood and metal tools, masks, coins, seals, mummies, cloth, papyrus drawings, stone and clay tablets with hieroglyphics click to view a photograph, jugs, amulets, models, photographs, etc. etc. etc. The list could go on. And on and on. Just as a visit to the museum could take forever. Wandering from room to room is like taking a stroll through history by appreciating the tools and objects that the ancient Egyptians used when eating, gardening, farming, reading, cooking, writing, celebrating, sleeping, preparing for parties and religious events (and maybe even dates!), mourning, traveling, etc. Think about all the things that you use during your every-day routine and then imagine someone putting them all in display cases in a museum. It would be a huuuuuuuge collection. That's what the Egyptian Museum is all about.

Knowing that we would not have the energy to tackle so much stuff, we headed straight for the star attraction in the museum: the 1,700 or so objects on display straight from the tomb of, yes, you guessed it: the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, better known to us today as King Tut.

You see, in 1361 BC, a young boy (only about nine or ten years old!) named Tutankhaten, ascended to the throne as pharoah (or king) of the New Kingdom. His rule of nine years, until 1352 BC (he died suddenly and without leaving any heirs) was not marked by anything unusual or spectacular. And yet, known today as Tutankhamen, he seems to be the most famous pharaoh of all. (Maybe this is because of Steve Martin's song about him!)

Why? Well, in 1922, a British Egyptologist named Howard Carter, after several years of searching, found King Tut's tomb completely intact and full of a glorious array of ancient treasures! This is important because ALL the other tombs of ALL the other Egyptian pharaohs had been looted by robbers over the centuries. Even though all tombs were meant to be secret, of the 60 known tombs in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings in southern Egypt north of Luxor, only that of Tutankhamen went undiscovered and retained its treasures.

The most famous of all the objects discovered in the tomb is proudly lit up in the center of one of the central rooms in the museum: the legendary gold mask that was placed over the head of King Tut's mummy. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph It is still mesmerizingly beautiful, especially after so many thousands of years hidden away in the desert. But most people don't know that this is just one — although probably the most spectacular mdash; of 11 layers in which the body was placed, including more masks and body wraps (made of gold and precious rocks), coffins of different sizes (also made of, or covered in, gold), and large gold-covered wooden shrines. Even King Tut's inner organs were kept in four compartments of a beautiful alabaster container. In addition, the body was accompanied by enormous amounts of exquisite jewelry click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, beds supported by animal sculptures click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, chairs, boats, chariots, and lots of other assorted goods click to view a photograph intended to be used by King Tut after his death. The ancient Egyptians believed that the pharaoh would make a great journey through the afterworld and did not want him to leave unprepared.

Well, whether or not King Tut was prepared, we certainly left the museum with a much deeper understanding and greater awareness of ancient Egyptian civilization. We hope that this knowledge helps us along the great journey on which we have embarked.

After the visit, we lolled around in the museum garden area for a while click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, then wandered into the city in search of a meal (see our dinner and Food of the Day), returning to our hotel just in time for good snooze.

Wednesday was our work day, putting the finishing touches on another week's worth of dispatches, writing email and more letters to potential sponsors and supporters. None of us actually left the hotel until it was time to go straight over to inTouch and log on for the weekly chat 'n' debate.

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