Trying to continue this whole idea of healthy living, I agreed to go on a hike with Amy and Lizette from work. Near Hillcrest is this rather large gorge called Kranskloof. I think Kloof means “canyon” in Africaans. Lizette’s husband also came along. I can say for certain that I was the least fit in the group, but my excuse is that I was also the oldest. Pretty sure I am bordering on middle-aged right now. The hike was really beautiful but I sadly could not convince anyone to come along for post-hike beer. What’s the fun in exercise if you don’t use it as an excuse to drink more alcohol? I mean seriously! The weekend continued on this theme as I attended my friend Johan’s birthday, which started with a early morning run on the beach, of all things. I joined up and was absolutely left in the dust. Sadly I couldn’t use age as a factor this time. It was Johan’s 52nd birthday. Sigh. I think the biltong and wine are maybe catching up to me. The birthday party later in the day was a proper South African braii. Many meats were grilled and wine consumed. Oops.
The other day I got to do something I have been wanting to do for many years. I met a woman at the birthday Braii (yet another Amy), and she told told me that the local yacht club did cheap lessons for women on Tuesday nights to encourage more female participation in racing. For the equivalent of $7, I was taken out on a Pacer with an experienced skipper and two other learners and we did laps around the Durban harbour until sunset. It was spectacular. Some day I want to get fully certified on a sailboat. After I finish my pilot’s license. There are too many cool things to do in the world! The last two weeks have been bittersweet. I finished working at WGS on Friday and had a lovely going away shindig at the local pub. I will honestly miss the people in that office. There was too much air conditioning and the computers were slow as hell, but the people were damn cool.
The week before I was graciously driven by Joe and Joan (whom I refer to as my South African parents) up to a famous game reserve to the north called Hluhluwe-Mfolozi. This is pronounced as “shloo-shlooey-oomfolozi; I think it is in Zulu but don’t ask me what it means! We stayed in safari tents and did a self drive safari for two days. I felt like goddamn David Attenborough. There were rhinos everywhere and we even saw a male and female lion. I have been to a zoo before but nothing can compare to seeing these creatures in the wild. In Africa, everyone talks about seeing the “Big 5” which includes Elephants, Buffalo, Rhino, Lions and Leopards. I saw everything but the leopards, which are apparently the most illusive. I did see a leopard tortoise, so maybe I can count that! Also on order where various antelope, zebras, baboons, and a warthog family that had moved in under the deck that my tent was built on. Also at the camp we could hear hyenas in the night because they could smell the cooking. With only a canvas wall separating me from the outside, it was a rather surreal experience.
When we got back I finally manged to also squeeze in a day for scuba diving. I had booked a dive way back in December but a serious of unforeseen circumstances meant that I had my dive cancelled three separate times.
The wait was worth it for the dozens of sharks I got to dive with (don’t worry, no Great Whites). A British couple also on the dive took several pictures and will theoretically be sending me some via email, so come back to this post in a few weeks to see the terror in my eyes. Tune in next time for some updated photos and such.
The new year has been much more fit than December so far. This means it is only a matter of time before I fall of the exercise wagon, haha. South Africa has not been kind to my waistline. Too much biltong and beer. For the uninitiated, biltong is similar to jerky but soooo much better. The flavours are truly unique and your jaw doesn’t hurt from chewing afterward because the meat is much more tender. I have been eating bags of the stuff, not to mention the very good, very cheap wine. I have been doing trail runs with zebras and runs around the block, but they cannot stop the siren call of the oh-so-delicious biltong.
New Year’s Eve was spent indulging in more of South Africa’s delicious meat selection as my friends Johann and Tina had a braii (BBQ) for the occasion where we grilled ALL THE MEATS. To be fair I have yet to attend a barbeque without a good array of meat, but lets just say that our South African brethren have this stuff down to a science. No fancy Webber Grill here. All hardwood-fired grills or briquettes. That is some serious skills, my friends.
It was around this time that my laptop decided to absolutely shit itself. The laptop that had all the data and software I needed to do my job. Yeah, that one. I did find an IT guy to save my ass but the part needed to fix the problem was a few days away so I took a week off to go camping. Silver Lining, I guess? Other than the part where my rental car (a different one from the one I dented in the security gate) decided to die in the middle of nowhere. At this point I am not sure if it is me or Africa that is trying to kill my cars. I got three quarters of the way to the mountains and as I got off the freeway I could hear a loud rattling from the vehicle, a Datsun Go. I didn’t even know that they still made Datsuns. I got out of the car, contrary to all advise I had heard about from people who heard I was going to South Africa. I was literally in the middle of nowhere- a narrow road 40km from the closest town and another 30km to the hostel I was heading to in the Drakensburg Mountains. Cool.
Luckily for me a lady stopped and offered to lead me to her nearby farm where she said her husband could take a look. Normally I would take this at face value but after all the stories I heard about this country, lets just say that I was hesitant. The awkward part was when she confirmed that she only stopped because I was a white female. While I felt safer because she was telling me how she was reassuring herself about my safety, there was an underlying guilt because I knew she wouldn’t have stopped if I was a black lady. South Africa is hard on the morals.
Her husband sprayed a crap-ton of WD-40 on my fan belt and warned that the pulley on my alternator was loose (as I suspected, but guys like to think they can diagnose all car problems for you and I appreciated his efforts). The loose pulley meant that the problem was only going to get worse but I was only 30 km from my destination, so I decided to risk it. When I was 10 km from my destination, the belt either broke off or fell off. The car immediately started jerking and the battery and temperature lights both came on. The belt was responsible for recharging the battery and running the fan so this made sense. I nudged the car along by turning off the electronics, constantly shifting and then popping it into neutral on the downhills. Miraculously, I made it to the hostel before the car overheated or the battery died. The rental company got a very stressed out and strongly worded call from me after that (I used all the good swear words).
My plan for the day was to do some hiking which was why I had left at 6 am for the 3 hour drive, but I now had to wait 2 hours for a tow truck and then another hour after that for a replacement car. The only bright side was that at least I wasn’t broken down in some dodgy neighborhood.
I set up my tent and resigned myself to no hiking but I did meet a lovely French lady who was looking for a hiking partner for the next day so we made a plan to go on a 17km hike up Tugela Gorge the next day, so the expreience wasn’t a complete wash. The hike was way more difficult than I had expected and I had to come to the sad conclusion that I was in terrible shape and should plan accordingly. Rather than hike to Tugela Falls (second highest in the world), I compromised on a less strenuous option, where I would be driven to a village Lesotho and do an easier, more cultural hike there. Getting old SUUUUUCKS.
To be fair, the tour of the Lesotho village was actually very interesting. Lesotho is an independent mountain kingdom within the borders of South Africa with a majority barter culture in the south and many citizens who still do sustenance farming. We met the local sangoma (for want of a better word, Witch Doctor) and he told us of how he heals the local populous. It was very enlightening as he made sure to emphasise that he could not cure things like Cancer or AIDS and was much better at joint or back pain. It is nice to know that even witch doctors know the limits of their abilities, I suppose!
We also got to try the local fermented maize beer (like porridge if it was alcoholic) and some regional food (also maize-based). In the winter the people catch mice to supplement their diet. The beer wasn’t bad but lets just say I was glad I wasn’t needing to spend a lot of time in Lesotho. I suppose it might help with my biltong and beer habit though?
As the days ticked closer to Christmas, things got quiet at work. We had an end of year lunch at a restaurant by the beach which was really fun as I got to know everyone a little better and (finally) stick my toe into the Indian Ocean. I had seen the other side of this water body when I was staying in Perth, Australia and I remember thinking to myself at the time that Africa was ‘just on the other side’. And now here I was, looking back toward Australia. I was actually shooed away from the water after a few minutes by the staff though as I think they were concerned about my safety. I suppose this is a fair issue if you are serving alcohol beside the ocean, but I was still rather annoyed.
As one would expect with any office space, once everyone was out of the air-conditioned environs of the WGS office, I got to know my co-workers much better. Natasha, the office manager, surprised me with her preference for tequila, which I indulged (of course!) and all of us had a great time just chilling on the sand for a while. I have this theory that everyone you meet in life should be re-encountered near the ocean. If they don’t look out contemplatively to sea a couple times, then they are probably not very fun people. Everyone sitting on the sand that day look out to the horizon.
I also got to visit a predatory bird sanctuary with my good friend Michelle’s former co-worker and boss (Kira and Carl). They were having a grand re-opening so I got to see some rather rare predators in action. Vultures will ever be my enemy though- I have seen the animated Disney version of Robin Hood too much to trust those bastards.
Once the office was closed for Christmas, I had a couple days to wander around the province so I took a drive to a few waterfalls in the area (Howick and Kranskloof Falls) and just enjoyed doing a bit of wandering on my own. With all the warnings of carjackings and crime, there are actually some really nice roads in KwaZulu-Natal. Lots of green forest and rolling hills. It helps to be on the rainy side of the country. I imagine Cape Town is not so green just now with their horrible drought. Sorry for the lack of photos but the uploading capabilities of Word Press seem to be angry with my phone today. I might be able to work it out later with my laptop so stand by for updates if you are awaiting waterfall pics with bated breath. They were nice but not sell-your-kidneys nice.
One thing I love about the Southern Hemisphere is the fact that Christmas and New Year turn into sunny, warm holidays. Rather than being holed up next to a fire with ugly sweaters on, people get to sit outside or go to the beach. I was warned rather emphatically that Durban beachfront becomes a post-apocalyptic hellhole of traffic and humanity during Christmas so I spent the week with Michelle’s family in the Midlands. Their home is perched atop a steep driveway surrounded by lush trees with a beautiful view of the neighbouring valley.
We showed up with a hatchback full of gifts and food and I was adopted by her parents almost immediately. Peter is a well known botanist and Gyslane taught French at varsity, and is originally from Mauritius (a very small island in the Indian Ocean). Their friend Bernice from Benin was there as well, who was working on her PhD in biology. Opening of presents is done on Christmas Eve in their family, so everyone gathered around the Christmas tree in the afternoon of December 24th and sang carols- very old school and pretty sweet.
Along with her lovely sister, niece, and brother-in-law, I got to meet several member’s of Michelle’s extended family. It was so nice to be around a close group like that over the holidays, even if it wasn’t my own crazy relatives (you know who you are!). Much to my surprise, I had a small pile of gifts to open. I got a little choked up about this because while I am not religious in the slightest, generally there is nothing more isolating than a Christmas with strangers and the Dye family made me feel like I was one of them. This, above all else, was the best gift of all.
When I found out I was going to stay in South Africa, I was told I was going to the coastal city of Durban. In fact, I am actually staying in a suburb called Hillcrest, about 30 minutes inland. This is fine, since the humidity tends to decrease as you move away from the sea and gain elevation. The downside is that the morning beach excursions I had imagined I would be doing became logistically impossible with the morning rush hour being what it is.
Last weekend I resolved that I would be finally be going to the beach! Easier said than done. I got up early to beat the heat and loaded up my car with some snacks and grabbed my towel. I got all the way to the parking lot at the beach and as I drove past the sign listing the hourly rates, I realized I had forgotten my wallet. Goddamn it. I made a U-turn and headed back to Hillcrest. I pushed the button to open the security gate when I got home and as I rolled into the driveway, the two dachshunds that reside there (Chloe and Dexter) came running up to the car. I was terrified of running over the little things so I inched my way forward. Apparently, I moved a bit too slowly, as the gate began to shut when I was only half-way through. Suddenly a loud bang told me that my rental car was no longer in pristine condition. To add insult to injury, the gate then tried to shut again and bumped off it’s rail after a second impact to the car door. I got out to assess the damage as the dogs lay on the pavement looking at me as if to say “don’t look at us, this is your problem”. There was a large black patch of black from where the paint scraped off the gate, some scratches and a small dent along the door panel. At that point I decided I was done for the day and just parked the car. I did manage to get the gate back onto it’s railing but I didn’t want to chance any more bad luck for the day so I gave up on the beach and instead started reading my rental car insurance policy. Ugh.
The next weekend turned out much better. Michelle had invited me to the Midlands to meet her family and hang out for a couple days. The Midlands are a lovely area half-way between the Drakensburg mountains and the coast. With narrow, winding roads leading to small shops, cafes and restaurants, it is very reminiscent of the countryside in England. Collectively, the various small roads are known as the Midlands Meander.
When we got to her family home, I was greeted by Michelle’s mom Gyslaine and her father Peter. Originally from Mauritius, Gyslaine asked hopefully if I spoke French. I’m asked this on a fairly regular basis when I travel- it makes me feel like a bad Canadian. It’s shocking how few people are monolingual once you get out in the world. This is particularly evident in South Africa where there are ELEVEN official languages. Along with English and Afrikaans, you have Zulu, Xhosa, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Northern Sotho, Venda, Tsonga, Swati, and Ndebele. Suddenly the argument about signage rules in Quebec seem a bit quaint.
Despite the grim overcast sky and slight chill in the air, we decided to take a drive on the Meander, (‘we’ being Michelle, her mom, and their friend Bernice from Benin, who also spoke French). It was a nice ladies’ day out, with Gyslaine and Bernice chatting away in French in the back seat while Michelle and I sat in front, picking out interesting stops from the little tourist map we brought along. We ended up going to a Greek cheese shop, a craft brewery and the Mandela capture site, along with a lunch stop at the Nottingham Road Hotel. The capture site is the spot on the highway where Nelson Mandela was finally captured by police in 1962. There is a museum and a long path to a beautiful monument on the side of the road. The path represents the ‘Long Walk to Freedom”, also the title of his autobiography.
The Nottingham Road Brewing Company (http://nottsbrewery.co.za/) has a great English pub on site and we of course decided to partake in a sample or two. As I was the only serious beer drinker in the group, we decided to get a double flight and share. We were given a menu that described the various beers and the things we were supposed to be tasting in each variety. After we went about half way through, I realized that the bartender had not poured the beers in the order listed. There was no mango flavour in what was supposed to be my Swinging Samango Mango Ale, nor any citrus notes in the Tipsy Tiger IPA. Scandalous! Rather than demand a refund, I was given the unenviable task of sorting the beers in the correct order, since I was the ‘beer expert’. Ha. It basically just meant that I got day drunk while the ladies complimented my impressive pallet. I blame my sister Jody for turning me into a beer snob, but it is nice to know my skills are appreciated!
So many choices
Bernice and Michelle with our delicious beer haul (get it?)
A long way from Big Spruce Brewing in Cape Breton, or Wild Rose Brewery in Calgary, for that matter
The cheese place was called The Gourmet Greek (https://www.thegourmetgreek.com/) and you got to try a sampler plate of over a dozen types. Between the beers and cheeses, I have ingested this weekend, I may need some new pants, and it’s not even Christmas yet. On the topic of Christmas, I had grand plans to drive down to Cape Town for the holidays, but so many people told me not to that I began to second guess my itinerary. Days of driving, inflated prices and the prospect of spending a week by myself eventually convinced me to try make other plans. Gyslaine invited me to come back to the Midlands and I really think I will go. Even though I’m not with my own family, it seems a very cozy place to hide from the hustle and bustle for a few days.
Sometimes you go out for a beer on a Friday night and two days later you are sitting next to a baby piglet drinking tea in the forest.
To back up a bit, my first weekend in South Africa was not nearly so interesting. I had decided to spend a few days at Pete and Liz’s house, up the road from where I would eventually stay when the homeowners returned. I got in touch with my boss and things got (mostly) sorted out at work by the time I went back to the office on Monday. I have not worked a 9 to 5 job in over ten years so sitting at a desk for hours on end definitely took a bit of getting used to. I may have been in South Africa but at the end of the day, every office ends up feeling the same, somehow. Too much air conditioning, bland colours and a noisy coffee pot in the back room.
Everyone was friendly enough, but one gal, Michelle went out of her way to invite me out and then promptly got a stomach illness for the rest of the week. I ended up spending the weekend with Liz, doing some errands and visiting her elderly friend at a care home. All very lovely but not exactly what I had in mind when I got here. I’m also sure you are dying to hear some office stories; learning how to process GPS data and edit text files, but I will skip ahead as this is a travel blog after all. By the next week Michelle had recovered somewhat and invited me out to this great little pub called the Station Masters Arms. The weather was still cold and rainy so the server tucked us into the back near the fireplace. Yes, I was in Africa sitting next to a roaring fireplace- I was weirded out too.
Michelle invited her friends Kira, Ross and Glen and we drained several beers as the weather got steadily worse. Heavy rain became torrential with lighting frequently flashing in the darkness. This, of course lead to even more beers. You can guess where this is going. Michelle still wasn’t feeling great so she went home with Kira and I stayed to hang out a bit longer. This decision led directly to my waking up in a fertilizer factory on Glen’s couch. He lives in a small apartment above the factory and I’m still not quite sure what he does for a living there. Something to do with mixing diatoms?
After a steadying breakfast, Glen asked if I was still keen to go on the outing we had discussed the night before. I had only a hazy idea of what he was talking about but agreed anyway. He dropped me off so I could pack and then showed up with Kira about an hour later. As it turned out, I had agreed to go stay at his sister Marion’s place near Howick (about an hour inland from where we were in Hillcrest) on Saturday night and we would stop at a few cool spots on the way. Glen was to be running a Triathlon nearby on Sunday so he would be staying at the run site and leave us with his sister.
After a bit of off-roading we stopped at a lovely waterfall for a quick snap and then moved on to a nearby game reserve. There are dozens of small game reserves scattered around KwaZulu-Natal (the province I am in), some public and some private. I would compare them to the provincial parks we have back home, except with zebras and impalas thrown in. When we pulled up to the Tala Game Reserve, Glen warned me not to speak, as South Africans get a cheaper rate than foreigners and my Canadian accent would give up the game rather quickly. He also admitted that this was likely not the nicest game reserve as it was quite small and didn’t have any big cat species. Despite this, we saw a heard of white rhinos almost immediately upon entering the park, with a couple babies in tow. So far so good. My stated goal was to see a giraffe, which both Kira and Glen thought as a rather unremarkable plan since they are usually pretty easy to spot. There were several deer-types like eland and kudu as well as the ubiquitous impala, along with hippos, warthogs, wildebeests, and of course, monkeys. We drove around in Glen’s 4×4 for a few hours, but there was not a single giraffe to be seen. Alas! By this time, Glen had to head to the race start at the Midmar Dam to register for the race. We left Tala giraffe-less and barely made it to the registration desk in time.
Rhino and baby
Kudu, I think?
From Midmar, we drove down a gravel road and eventually pulled up to Marion’s house. A beautiful, glass-enclosed structure, the building was surrounded by forest and there was even a private waterfall down the hill. Turns out Marion and her boyfriend lived in Middle Earth, complete with miniature ponies in the pasture. There were a couple chalets on the property as well, which is where Kira and I would be staying, free of charge. Glen’s mom was also visiting and as we sat down for some tea, a piglet came squeaking by, smaller than a loaf of bread. Turns out Marion was a PhD in Animal Science (along with being a literal World Champion canoe racer), and had taken in a couple of her neighbor’s piglets to raise. In the middle of baking cupcakes when we arrived, Marion invited Kira and I to help with the decorating after tea. Once supper and cupcakes were done, Glen headed off to his campsite and we made our way to our chalet.
In the morning, Kira and I woke up to a beautiful sunrise with birds chirping and monkeys jumping in the trees nearby. We could see the waterfall in the distance and as we prepared some morning coffee, we watched a couple small lizards drinking out of a puddle on the patio. By the time we roused ourselves for a walk, Glen was already done his race and coming up the driveway. He was (understandably) wiped out and wanted to head home. We said goodbye to Marion and the piglets and started back to Hillcrest. Partway back Glen thought it would be nice to sample some craft beer at a local chef’s school, so we stopped to enjoy a tipple. At that point some other friends of his were grabbing a beer at a nearby hotel bar so we and met everyone there. Amid the wandering peacocks, there was good beer but no food so we went on to a third place for pizza. And just like that I had a social circle bigger than what I have at home. South Africa is actually a pretty cool place.
Arrival in South Africa was somewhat less than smooth. There were no troubles with customs and no one asked me about my one-way ticket, but the weather was absolute garbage. Jet-lagged, I picked up my rental car (after an hour wait) and programmed my phone’s GPS to navigate to my temporary new home. Darkness set in as I made my way onto the freeway and the rain did it’s best to overtake my windshield wipers. To add an extra level of difficulty, I haven’t driven on the left side of the road in several years. Fun times.
The 45-minute drive stretched into more than an hour by the time I arrived. At the address I was given, there was a large security gate barring entry. This is a very common thing in South Africa thanks to the high rate of home invasion. Even middle-class homes are built like fortresses with electrified wires and security beams and house alarms. I called the number I had to see if I could get the gate opened. I was to be staying at the home of my co-workers’ parents (Joe and Joan), who were currently away in Australia. Their friends Pete and Liz were to show me around the place and get me familiar with the security system.
Their SUV pulled up behind me after 20 minutes and they let me into the driveway. With everything disarmed, Liz started explaining the procedures; which doors had to be shut to arm the system and what buttons to push and the code word if the alarm went off accidentally. My eyes must have glazed over because she looked over at me and immediately decided that I would be staying at her house for the night; I was not about to say no. Between the stressful drive and the long day (I had left Cairo at midnight and it was now well past 8 pm). We loaded my luggage into the SUV and drove off into the rain yet again. Luckily their house was not far and when I got inside, I was immediately served some hot soup and given a sweater. Liz set up an electric blanket in the spare room and sent me to bed. The cold front rolling through had dropped the temperature down to maybe 10 degrees Celsius. With no central heating, the blanket and sweater were greatly appreciated as I was very much regretting leaving my coat in Calgary by that point. Sometimes it’s nice to be mothered, even by a complete stranger.
Liz also had a house like Fort Knox- crime is a proper big deal in this country. Shootings, muggings and car jacking are shockingly common. Before I left home, I was warned to never stop for a broken down vehicle as it is often a trap to rob you. Even if there are bodies on the road, they are likely faking to make you stop to help. Canadians take for granted just how damn safe our country is. South Africa has some serious socio-economic reasons for their high crime rate; the divide between rich and poor is pretty drastic and things aren’t improving any time soon, sadly. The way locals deal with it is by installing the elaborate security systems I described above.
Today, I went to the office I was going to be working at behind yet more gates and bars. A small hitch revealed itself when I arrived, though. The folks there didn’t seem to know I was coming. Hmmm. My grand South African adventure seems to have hit a snag. I will be calling my boss when the time zone allows and hopefully things will be sorted out by Monday. For now, I’m going to see the new Thor movie. Movie theaters have been a standard fallback of mine when things go awry in foreign countries. Nothing like a couple hours of escapism to rest the brain from travel stress. Onward to Ragnarok!
Despite the travel advisory to avoid Egypt, I went to Cairo because who knows what could happen in the future. Think of all the priceless archaeological sites that have been destroyed in Syria in the last 5 years. Not that the Pyramids could be easily destroyed, but you never know.
After a night in the Freedom Hostel, I took a walk down toward the Egyptian Museum, located on the far end of a little place called Tahrir Square. This location might be familiar to anyone who followed the Arab Spring demonstrations in which the people ousted long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak. Funny story- I asked the young man working at my hostel about the revolution and he merely shrugged his shoulders saying “Eh, he wasn’t so bad.” The hostel clerk would have been in his early teens when the uprising began, so he might have a less nuanced perspective. Even so, it is interesting to think that the dictator may have had a stabilizing influence on the area. I can’t claim to know a significant amount about Egyptian politics but my general assumption would be that dictator = bad, but as a white atheist Canadian, my opinion is less than relevant.
Heading to the museum
Tahrir Square seems quiet today
Getting to the museum meant crossing one of the busier main roads around the square. If you watched the video I linked to in my last post, you know that crossing a street in Cairo is no mean feat. The strategy I adopted was to draft off of a local Egyptian, walking parallel to them as they navigated between cars. There is no pedestrian signal or crosswalk- you just start walking into traffic, try to make eye contact with the slower moving vehicles and hope for the best. I thought I was a seasoned traveler, having dealt with the traffic insanity of Mexico City, but Cairo is the boss level of street crossing. I found an old lady in a black hijab to follow, going on the idea that if she survived this long, she must be an expert. She noticed me when we were about half way across and I like to think she nodded slightly before she carried on as if to say “don’t worry, you dumb white girl- I can see you are out of your depth and I will escort you safely”. This was likely my imagination though.
After several trips to Latin America, where I was slowly picking up the language (a language that used a familiar alphabet), it was jarring to be suddenly so illiterate. Every sign was in Arabic, its swirling cursive completely impenetrable. The last time I was in a place like that was Poland, and while the Slavic based characters were mostly unfamiliar, at least I had the comfort of the European architecture and history. The only English I saw was on some of the tour operator signs, their shops mostly empty. Ever since a plane full of Russian tourists was blown out of the sky on their way to Sharm Al-Sheikh in 2015, Cairo has become a tourist ghost town. Other than a group of hardy Asians I saw on one of those giant tour buses, there was nary a non-Egyptian in sight (were there too many narys and nons in that sentence? Too bad, I’m doing it!).
To get into the museum, I was required to go through not one but two metal detectors, and there were armed guards all around the interior courtyard. During the revolution there were a few enterprising individuals who tried to loot the treasures within but they were stopped by a human chain blocking their access. Dr. Zahi Hawass, the former Minister of Antiquities has an excellent account of the events at the following link: (http://www.drhawass.com/wp/the-egyptian-museum-and-the-looters-by-zahi-hawass/).
The museum itself if is a strange pink colour, constructed of the same granite as the interior of the Great Pyramids themselves, and when you walk inside, you feel like you’ve stepped into the 1800s. There are no interactive displays or digital signage- only glass cases with wooden frames housing some of the world’s most precious antiquities. Starting with the simplicity of the Old Kingdom, you can trace ancient Egyptian history up to and beyond Roman occupation. At the back of the museum is the showpiece: Tutankhamun’s burial treasures and funerary mask. Officially you are not allowed to take photos in that room but… my hand slipped.
I wandered the museum for a few hours and then spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to find the exit. It is truly shocking how little was stolen during the Arab Spring. There is a LOT of gold lying around in cabinets secured only with simple padlocks. For an extra fee you can see the actual mummies in a separate area but to me the funerary masks and sarcophagi are the most interesting part. It also seems weird to want to view what are essentially dead bodies, old as they may be. Besides, one must always be aware of the potential for curses! I would also like to note the absence of certain items of world renown, like the Bust of Nefertiti or the Rosetta Stone. Like the Elgin Marbles of Greece I mentioned in my last post, these priceless artifacts are currently in the possession of the British Museum.
When I finally figured out how to leave the building, I headed through the central hallway through a crowd of teenage Egyptian girls wearing a dizzying array of colourful hijabs. One forward young woman asked me for a selfie… I said “Sure why not?” I was suddenly mobbed by the whole group, clamouring for photos with their phones. I was peppered with questions: “Are you a Muslim?, Where are you from? Are you married?“, and so on. I think I shocked a few of them with my answer to the last one; they all giggled. In a minute or two, a black-clad woman, who I can only assume was their chaperone or teacher, came over and broke up the impromptu photo session. She gave me a stern look and shepherded the girls into the next gallery. I honestly have no idea why this happened; whether it was my short, uncovered hair, my pale-ass skin or my vague resemblance to Ginnifer Goodwin, I will never know. Traveling can be weird sometimes.
I was a bit drained after my walk through history and celebrity experience so I found a little expat cafe on my way back to my hostel to have a little meal and a beer. The Cafe Riche feels like it was lifted out of an Indian Jones movie. Considering it was built in 1908, that makes sense. The scene for countless political and intellectual debates over the years, the Cafe was long a hotspot for malcontents and rabble-rousers. There was even an attempted assassination in 1919. After a slow fall from grace, it regained prominence during the 2011 revolution. Here is a great article chronicling some of Cafe Riche’s history: (http://www.economist.com/node/21541715)
As I sipped my Sakara lager, I could hear some familiar accents behind me so I turned around and said hi to the couple. Haleigh and her boyfriend (whose name escapes me right now, I think it’s Italian… Anthony? We’ll go with that) were from Alaska and work in the hospitality industry so they go traveling every year after freeze-up. My kind of people! We shared a few more Sakaras and marveled at the fact that we were traipsing around coat-less in November. We agreed to meet the next day to see the Pyramids together. I hate to admit it, but traveling with a man in Egypt is just a lot less stress.
In the morning I met them at their hostel down the road and we walked back to the road in front of the museum in the hope of catching a cab with an English-speaking driver. Originally we were going to take public transit, but after a morning coffee that took a little longer than planned, it was already getting hot. I cannot overstate how surreal it was to be weaving through Cairo’s insane traffic on my way to see the Great Pyramids. As we got closer to the Giza Plateau, I could see the biggest pyramid over the top of the buildings. We pulled up to the gate and Anthony negotiated a deal with the driver to hang out and wait for us for the day so we wouldn’t have to deal with touts at the site.
Sometimes when you see enough pictures of a landmark or see it in a movie several times, it can be rather anticlimactic when you see the real thing. This was not the case with the Pyramids. They are truly incredible in the truest sense of the word. The fact that they were build FOUR THOUSAND YEARS AGO is rather hard to comprehend. Think of it this way: The Great Pyramids were as old to Cleopatra as she is to us. When you have someone who was alive during the Roman Empire saying “Damn, that’s old!”, you know you are dealing with a truly ancient piece of architecture. Get off my blog if you even so much as mention Ancient Aliens. That show is terrible and stupid and is making idiots of us all.
Haleigh and I paid extra so we could actually enter the biggest of the Pyramids (constructed for Khufu in the 26th Century BC). A narrow back-breaking tunnel leads to the center of the pyramid where you can see the granite sarcophagus of the aforementioned pharaoh. There are no visible hieroglyphics along the walls, as the pyramid was likely gutted by grave robbers millennia ago. Still, even in the dark, humid and mostly empty space where the grave goods would have been, you get the sense of the weight of history around you. Humans have made some crazy shit.
After exiting the Great Pyramid, we checked out an adjacent building that housed Khufu’s funerary boat and then walked down the plateau to the Sphinx. Unlike the pyramids, the Sphinx did seem a little smaller in person, though still incredible to see. From here we hired some camels to walk us back. We could have done a full tour to the smaller pyramids by camel-back but the desert heat was starting to get the best of us so we made our way back to our taxi driver and rode back to town. Getting him to wait for us turned out to be an excellent idea, as the amount of people trying to sell you things at the plateau can be rather overwhelming. Being able to say that we already had a ride organized removed some of the pressure, though I still could have bought hundreds of chess sets and rolls of papyrus if I was so inclined.
This is my jet-lagged face
Tiny wine waiting to fly out of Cairo
Flying over Zimbabwe
We finished off the day with more beers at the Cafe Riche. The Alaskans had a boat down the Nile to catch and I was flying to Durban at midnight so we traded emails and parted ways. The Cairo airport was just as intense as I anticipated. Three separate metal detectors! I was also not allowed to buy alcohol unless I bought food. The very dry cheese sandwich went into the trash so I could enjoy a very small sub-par bottle of wine. Still worth it though! As I write this, I am in the air-conditioned austerity of the Dubai airport, waiting for my connection to South Africa. I am jet-lagged as hell and Egypt already feels like a world away. Onward and upward, as they say (or Southward, in this case). See you in South Africa!