Egypt Tour

May, 1972

By Nancy Vogel

In May, 1972, we had a really wonderful trip to Egypt. It was a tour, lasting just over two weeks, with a group of 70 Americans, mostly from LA and SF. We were exhausted and glad to be back home afterward, but it was a great experience, and here are some of the highlights, excerpted from a letter I wrote to a friend right after we returned.

One of the most memorable things--hardly a part of the trip itself, but memorable nonetheless--was that in the NY airport (we went LA to NY, thence to Paris, thence, with a stop at Rome, to Cairo) I saw a man have an epileptic seizure. I happened to be watching him (and not far from him) at the very start, because he was with a group of people and I thought he was clowning around for them, and I watched to see what he was doing. He stood up and pointed at the ceiling, then sort of spiraled around and finally fell down backward. He began twitching and having convulsions; an airport attendant ran and held a pencil in his mouth, so he wouldn't bite his tongue, and held his head, and after about five minutes he stopped jerking and began to come out of it. Our plane was about to depart (as was his) so we had to leave while he was still lying on the floor. Presumably he couldn't get on his plane, with his group. What a horrible foulup.

We got to Cairo late at night, and after having been without sleep one whole night were glad to get to bed. In the morning we had a bus ride to the Pyramids, or ALMOST to the pyramids; the last distance is customarily traversed by camel. I had heard rumors of this, and had expressed hope that they would at least be the two-hump kind. Somehow these seem a little more ridable. Well, there were camels all around, all saddled up, and I couldn't reach any conclusion about the number of humps. I did reach one conclusion, though--they didn't look at all appealing. Grant asked me if I planned on riding one (there was an alternative: we could go the 'last mile' in a buggy or on a bus) and he seemed to imply that if I didn't want to it was okay, and he'd ride in the buggy with his cowardly wife. The other tour members were gaily getting on camels, and people said to me things like 'Go ahead, why not?' and 'It's the only time in your life, something to remember,' etc., so finally I found myself walking toward the nearest camel, being urged by tour leaders, camel drivers, and everyone else. I had selected quite a camel. It was roaring with rage, being held down (they kneel before people get on them) by THREE Arabs, whereas the other camels were attended by only one apiece. Anyway for some reason I got on him, protesting with murmurs of 'But he's mean, listen to him, it takes three men to hold him,' and getting reassuring answers like 'No, nice camel, real nice camel, not mean.'

Anyway something I had not reckoned with was the fact that camels get up from the kneeling position before they begin to walk. This is logical enough, but somehow I hadn't thought of it. Try to imagine what it feels like when both front feet are risen to, while both hind feet are still curled up--and then when the hind ones follow. Two lurches so tremendous that even to remember them makes me shudder. How I held on I don't know. There was a saddle horn in front and one behind. I was clutching each for dear life, and realizing what a fool I had been.

Our bus followed along behind and swished by as we were going, with a yell out the window by the tour leader, which startled all the camels and made things even worse. Anyway, my first look at the pyramids was thus taken under very adverse conditions. We descended from our camels and I walked trembling over to the pyramids. Since everyone has seen pictures of the pyramids and the sphinx, I won't go into detail about the external appearances. Later however we climbed up inside the pyramid of Cheops (which I think is the biggest on earth and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world). There was a narrow and very steep and not very high passageway inside, which led to where the coffin was placed. One must stoop all the time one is making the ascent. It is very difficult. I was really surprised nobody fainted along the way but everyone made it, although we had to stop and rest several times.

An interesting thing about the Nile which confused us at first is that although it flows north, the breezes ripple it southward and it looks as if it's flowing southward. So when we got to our hotel and looked out at the Nile and saw the direction it was obviously flowing, we decided that was of course north. It was some tine before we could regain our sense of direction after that error was discovered.

Wherever the tour bus took us around Cairo, especially on the outskirts, bands of kids would gather wanting pencils. They'd make writing motions on their hands to let us know what they wanted. I wished I had taken a lot of old pencils along, but of course not knowing of their wish for pencils we hadn't. There seemed also to be a campaign to keep kids from annoying tourists; always police or official looking people, or sometimes just people walking along the street, would prevent kids from begging. Poverty was great by our standards, and living conditions very low and simple, but there was no hunger apparently. The kids didn't look hungry; but many of them were cross-eyed or blind in one eye, and Egyptian teeth were awful. In many cases there were dark bands like decay across the front ones (and the back ones were probably worse) in early life, and in the adults there were often front teeth missing.

Many of the people we encountered said 'Welcome.' Strangers on the street often smiled, asked us if we were Americans (with the single word: 'American?') and then, with a wide grin, 'Welcome!' I thought there must be some kind of publicity campaign going on: 'Be good to tourists, they bring money.' It couldn'tall be spontaneous. I had expected them to be a little hostile, as a matter of fact, since the US was obviously on the side of Israel. But there was no feeling of this at all. We were received with more interest and apparent approval than anywhere else we've ever been. Also, amusement. Most people smiled at us; some laughed outright as they discussed us. All the foreign tourists were friendly except a batch of Russians, who never cracked smiles, and who would answer friendly queries curtly with one word.

Many of the houses outside the city were built with bricks made of dirt--just four simple walls, and stacks of hay as the roof. It made Tijuana, and the shacks on the hillsides there, look good by comparison. Farming was done by old, old methods; we saw only about three tractors the entire time. Water buffalo pulled plows. We saw one team of a water buffalo and a camel. (Incidentally, I finally saw some 'unsaddled' camels; they had one hump.) Burros abounded, hauling huge bags. And burros pulled 'taxis' or busses (sort of large wooden rafts on wheels) on which people sat with their feet hanging, to go to town. We saw these all over Cairo.

Lots of the people dressed about as we do, but many of the men wore long nightgown-like robes and sandals, and many of the women wore long black dresses and black shawls. No covered faces, though, although we had expected to see some. There was no evidence of women's inferior status, and surprisingly no falling to the ground to pray five times a day. We watched for this but didn'tsee it. Once in Aswan at 6 a.m. I heard the muezzin giving the call to prayer. I got up and went to the window, and saw everybody going about his usual business. (One woman on our tour said she had seen the men who row the boats all kneeling to pray before they got on their boats, earlier.) It was the least westernized place I had ever seen--no American products or American touches. And very few white faces except around the hotel.

On the streets of Cairo we saw people carrying burdens on their heads--big baskets of bread, etc. And in the country, women carrying all sorts of things on their heads, especially water jugs. We were careful about drinking water ( it was said to be okay only in the hotels) and avoided unpeeled raw vegetables or fruit, but almost everyone on the tour got sick. A previous tour of the same number of people included a friend of Grant's, who reported that three fifths of them got sick. It's a pretty drastic change of diet, and maybe some bugs are involved. (Grant got sick on the way home, and had quite a fever and chills for a few days after we got home.)

The food throughout was probably okay, but I was not used to eating such heavy meals or such 'artificial' food. I like things sort of as nature grows them. But these were combined with rice, flour, all sorts of strange combinations so that you often couldn't tell what was in the dish. I recall one soup which we described as wet, warm, asparagus-flavored flour. The meals were plentiful, filling, usually fish and chicken or meat at each meal, and a strange-tasting and unsatisfying kind of sherbet for dessert.

Toward the end of the trip Grant started eating unpeeled tomatoes (one of the no-nos) and that finally did him in and he became ill. I never ate anything unless it was peelable (oranges, bananas) or cooked. But I did drink water after the first few days. At first I ordered bottled water, but slowly began to drink small amounts of the hotel water with no bad effects. Bottled water cost 80 cents a quart, more than beer or wine. Why? Because they flew it in from Paris. They couldn't boil water locally or distill it, apparently. We had taken a little appliance along which Grant used at home to boil water for one cup of coffee--a metal thing you put in a cup of water, and plug in, and in a few moments it boils. Well, over there we boiled a quart of water so it would be safe to drink, and the appliance expired. His electric razor also expired, although he was using a converter. Everybody reported the same experience with razors; using a converter, the razor still raced along at high speed, and with great noise, and some of them blew out. Grant didn't shave for a couple of days. He can go from looking like a bank president to looking like a skidrow bum, and back, just by the addition or subtraction of a little stubble on his face.

There was quite a black market in American money. It gave you a little more confidence in the American dollar. People on the street urged us to accept more than a threefold rate of exchange. It was illegal, but tempting. And we found it would hardly have been necessary to exchange our money into Egyptian when we got there. All the merchants would much prefer American money, and would give a better deal for same.

We went to Luxor and Karnak, saw the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. We saw the tombs of King Tut and several others. Very impressive. At his tomb, Tut's mummy was still lying there under its gold cover like a body lying in state. It was exactly like a funeral. We filed up the stairs to view the body, mourn a moment, and move on so others could follow.

The route on foot from our Cairo hotel (the Shepheard) to the museum was a ghastly one. It was one we had traversed before because it was also the way to the Hilton, which we'd wanted to see. Of course our tour had included a trip to the museum, but we wanted to go back on our own to browse once we had seen the actual tombs from which some of the things had been taken. We saw other mummies at the museum, including the one of Rameses, the Pharaoh that supposedly chased Moses into the Red Sea. And mummies of monkeys, a dog, crocodiles, and lots of pharaohs. Some of them were unbelievably well preserved, with hands which had fingernails still visible, etc. Tut's tomb was so small (about the size of two living rooms) that Grant couldn'tbelieve that all the stuff in the museum which supposedly came out of it, really did. These included golden chairs and chariots, and boxes as big as garages (gold) which his tomb was sealed away in. Anyway, the route--down the street under a bridge-- had no sidewalks or real place for pedestrians. We walked along the side and hoped that none of the speeding tooting cars would hit us. Lots of pedestrians went that way to avoid the other route which involved crossing many many streets. The actual distance was quite short. They seemed to be constructing a walkway right along the Nile which when finished would simplify things greatly.

Another day we went to Aswan and saw the dam and a temple which was in the water at its base and was to be moved. At the Aswan airport, as we were waiting for our plane, all standing on the field (it was a substitute airport, obviously, for tourists, they weren't letting anyone see the real one, lest we blow it up, probably) a jet plane buzzed us and rebuzzed us. He zoomed in like a bumble bee--very close over our heads, coming like a bullet, over and over.

In Aswan part of our tour was to Lord Kitchener's Island, where we saw the mosque-tomb of the Aga Khan. One of the young men who rowed the boats to take us to the island wanted to take us, for a small fee, to the Nubian village where he lived, about an hour's row. We were a little leery of this, and nobody went. The town of Aswan was interesting enough. There were many crowded tiny stores, burros, flies galore, and people milling about. The Aswan dam is very nice, but would probably, we thought, change Egypt a lot. For thousands of years the regular rising of the Nile has deposited silt and fertilized the land. Now the silt will accumulate behind the dam, and the land will have to be artificially fertilized. We saw one fertilizer plant operating, belching out streams of air pollution, and artificial fertilizing certainly isn'tgoing to make their agriculture any better. So apparently they were now starting on the road to smog and pollution..

The hotels were nice, but not very well kept up inside. One, in Alexandria, was on the outside very beautiful, and the lobby was the most beautiful I have ever seen. I felt sure there was no Hilton anywhere that could compare with it. Marble columns, spaciousness, winding stairways, etc. So we were really eager to see our rooms--how lovely they must be! But, as in all the other hotels, the bathrooms were dirty. And much of the plumbing didn't work. The tourists had to make repairs themselves. Usually these were simple things that would enable the toilets to flush or the faucet to give hot water as advertised--whereas the local help when called to fix something would jiggle it a bit and say okay now it will work--but it wouldn't. At first upon seeing the dirty bathrooms people would come rushing out indignantly demanding a change of room. But toward the end we all just ignored things, or commented that it was clean enough by Egyptian standards.

Back in Cairo, next to the last night, there was a tent party, with a belly dancer. Pictures were taken for sale of her cuddling up to various men, including Grant. She tried to get ME onto the floor to dance with her. I resisted, although she was pulling with considerable force. Grant got a picture of that. Unfortunately my face didn't show, being covered by her hair. My expression would have been interesting.

And the last night of all, we were taken back to the pyramids and the sphinx for a Sound and Light performance, in which the sphinx spoke and told us the history of Egypt and of the pyramids. It was very dramatic. Various pyramids (three are quite close together). would light up at various times, and the voices would come from different areas, as well as various recorded sound effects. The sky was lovely, a half moon, and Venus setting ahead of us, and warm breezes. I felt sad as it ended and I knew I would never be here again or see the pyramids again. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments of which you are acutely conscious, and aware that in just a short time it will be past and only a memory.

The whole tour had been planned in the most dramatic way. with each thing a little more impressive than what we had seen previously. The route to the pyramids at night, to the seats which were permanently set up for the sound and light performances, was a different one from the route we had taken before in the daytime to the camel area. This route was lined with nightclubs and neon--yet all along the way were the little dirt brick- walled houses, barefoot people, black robed women, etc., as well as some nice apartment houses with fancy balconies.

As we were leaving the hotel the last day, the bus window was open and a peddler thrust in a handful of jewelry. :One dollar!' It consisted of a fancy necklace, bracelet, and earrings, so we bought it. Later on the plane we showed it to a man from Saudi Arabia, who said it probably had been stolen, because it was worth a lot more than we had paid. So I have some hot Egyptian jewelry--and with a clear conscience, even.

I had one experience that was a first--I was frisked. In the Athens airport. Our plane from Cairo stopped at Athens for about forty minutes to refuel, get more passengers, etc. We all got off and milled about the airport, buying a few things, etc. And before we could get back on the plane we had to be frisked! It was quite a shock. They had the women go through a little curtained-off place where they were frisked one at a time by women, while the men were frisked publicly by men. Also, although they hadn't searched us before we went to the Aswan dam area, as our bus was preparing to LEAVE there, we'd had to get off and go into a police station and have our bags and purses checked! Seemed odd timing.

One of the funniest things, as I recall it now, was the Arabs' imperfect understanding of some of the American phrases which were familiar to them because they heard them a lot. One of these was 'My husband.' I guess I wasn'tthe only woman who thought of a good ploy to get rid of the persistent peddlers: 'My husband has all the money.' This led to such queries from the peddlers as 'Where is my husband?' Very amusing to hear an old Arab peddler, laden with bags of jewelry or toy camels, crying plaintively 'Where is my husband?' 'Is that my husband?'

When we got home we stopped at grocery store. Grant was very tired and a little ill, so he waited in the car while I went in and shopped. At the checkout counter, I had an impulse to ask the clerk if he would believe it if I told him I had been in Egypt, Greece, and France that day.

I could hardly believe it myself.