I’m not sure how to start this…it feels like either a “Back before the turn of the century” or a “When I was a kid” type situation.
Well, it was back before the turn of the century. It might have even been as early as ‘89, which would have made me all of 21. That would actually track back to the beginning of what is now kind of an unofficial ritual: the gift of travel for landmark birthdays.
Sure, let’s just go ahead and say that…now, it’s a fact.
Basically, it was so long ago that all of the ruins were, y’know, pretty much new.
The opportunity to travel just kind of fell into my lap, too. My not-even-best friend, a goofy guy named Ken was talking about his friend backing out of their trip and now he was stuck with a solo trip and two tickets.
I’d almost bet money that we were either at Ripples Sunday beer bust or at Taco Bell immediately after beer bust.
I will absolutely guarantee that I was pleasantly buzzed on cheap beer and good music when – in one of the very first “What could possibly go wrong?” moments of my life – I threw out an off-hand, “I’ll go” like it was no big deal whether he accepted my offer or not.
I’d never been outside of North America, and just barely the United States…I’d been to Tijuana during college, obviously, and Vancouver, BC with my parents when I was a kid.
So, this would be a big deal.
My parents had packed us kids into the family truckster one year and made the drive to Seattle to see the King Tut exhibit. Remembering how cool I thought all that was made me really excited for this trip.
Still, I played it cool.
Now, a little advice, if you’ll indulge me. I highly recommend making your first trip outside of your homeland anywhere other than what is basically a third-world country.
That said, I had an amazing time! I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
Ken agreed, after making sure I could contribute $500 toward the airfare and lodging for the trip and whatever spending money I would need.
Me: Um, yeah…I eat at Taco Bell because I want to.
I had a metabolism like a black hole.
So, basically, off we went.
I wonder if I told my parents? I must have…Dad and I were practically neighbors at the time. Well, if I didn’t, that ship has sailed by now.
I just had enough time to run to LA and get a passport before we took off. This was super-pre-9/11 so it was pretty easy. I’d packed a pair of pants, shorts, a bunch of tee shirts and my trusty old denim shirt into a backpack and pulled my first carry on adventure.
You know how long ago this was? It was so long ago people were still allowed to smoke on airplanes. Sweet baby cheeses, let me tell you how much I wished that I’d checked my bag. After 20 hours on an airplane packed with chain smoking Egyptians, I was desperate for a change of clothes that didn’t smell like they had the name Nick O’Tine sewn into the collar.
I’d settle for a shower.
I hadn’t fully understood the difference between a hotel and a pensione when Ken was describing our lodging. Once I was there, I suddenly lost the urge to shower. As a matter of fact, after Ken showed me how to check the mattresses for the telltale signs of bedbugs, I wanted to put on every article of clothing I’d brought to protect myself.
Now I’m gonna itch for the rest of the day.
Naturally, after surviving the first night and not being bled out by bedbugs, I wanted to head off to Giza. Mostly because I was pretty sure I’d die the next night. But, that wasn’t until the next day.
Our first full day was spent downtown in Cairo going to museums. Of course, I adopted a “seen it all” attitude once in the British Museum after my Seattle excursion King Tut immersion experience.
Me: Yeah, those are Canopic Jars. Do you know what they’re for?
It’s like I’ve always been a smidge obnoxious.
Case in point, outside the museum there is a huge hand in the shape of a fist. I think it was a time-dismembered part of a colossus. You know Ken was mortified when I made him take a picture of me standing behind it as if it were…manually pleasuring me.
To help you gauge his level of discomfort, he had checked a bag. A big one. In it were khaki pants, walking boots, linen shirts and…braided leather suspenders. He looked like an extra from Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.
Sidebar: you know you live in Portland when Nile is autocorrected twice to Nike.
Man, I wish I could find that picture. I swear it’s around here somewhere!
But to give you an idea as to the magnitude of our odd-coupled-ness as traveling companions…enjoy.
The mid-stage hair project.
The high-waisted pleated shorts.
The knobby knees!
The too-big tee shirt that I think was a freebie from Hoag Hospital, where I worked nightshift for a time.
But the most embarrassing thing?
I was drinking Diet Pepsi.
Total bush-league, third world country bullshit, that.
The thing that amazed me about Cairo was the sheer volume of people. Ken told me that 90% of Egypt’s population lived in metropolitan Cairo, which sounded like bullshit but looked accurate. Plus, he went on, it was Ramadan and that meant that the other 10% had basically come into the city.
Me: Well, the timing on this was obviously well thought out.
Seriously, I was a total bitch in my 20s. I’ve mellowed.
But, on top of all the people, the cabbies were proving themselves an industrious class of workers. They were driving like crazy through the streets of town – which looked wider and more hazardous than LA freeways, seriously…traffic was a free for all – hailing customers.
Yeah, how bass-ackwards is that? What I first thought was angry drivers firing off warning honks to each other was the lazy cabbies trying to hail pedestrians. The more aggressive cabbies drove up onto the sidewalk and yelled at you through the window to get in.
Um, yeah…that’s a hard pass.
Ok, so that was day one. As I mentioned, day two was Giza. After today, things get a little chronologically fuzzy.
We got up early that morning and hopped into the first cab that hailed us.
It was further out than you’d imagine, but it was good to get there before the sun got directly overhead. We traveled into the Giza complex on a road that wasn’t paved until a US President visited…was it Carter? Maybe Ford. Nevertheless, the drive from the city to the complex was awe inspiring, the pyramids started out huge in town and grew slowly during the drive until they were looming.
And yet I had the feeling that I was standing in the sand covered parking lot of one of the remotest places on Earth.
I learned a lot after my photo op with The Sphinx, standing guard over the pyramids as she does, she seemingly demands the right to inspect every visitor. A big job during Ramadan.
We explored the excavated barge – one of them, anyway – that had carried one or another of the pyramids’ occupants up the Nile to their final resting place.
I learned that up close, the pyramids are very step-like, much like the ruins in Mexico. Of course, these pyramids were single-use as it were, so unlike the pyramids in Mexico, these had no exterior steps. The top was never meant to be reached. I also did not know that these pyramids had been covered in alabaster. Napoleon stripped the alabaster from the surface and did god-knows-what with it, but the amount of looted alabaster was enough to build a 6’ alabaster wall around Paris. France? I can’t recall whether it was a wall around the city or the country…suffice to say, it was a shit-ton of alabaster.
As a matter of fact, please forgive any factual errors you might encounter in this post. It was 30 years ago and I’m not Ken! I’m sure he remembers all this stuff!
Besides, my attention was divided between learning shit and doing shit like this
even though there were signs saying not to climb on the pyramids. Apparently, every so often someone falls down the pyramid to their death.
Probably an American…we ruin everything.
Besides, it’s not like I was the only one.
(In fairness, this was at the Step Pyramid on another day…but still)
Ok, back at Giza.
Did ya know you can go inside the pyramids?
I did not.
Nor did I want to after learning how.
There’s about a 3 ft square opening in the side of the Great Pyramid – why, I don’t know…maybe it was always there so the body and treasures could be taken in, but I would imagine there was a grander, more ceremonial entrance at some point. This opening…it was both ingress and egress, at a steep decline toward the base of the pyramids.
As if trying to go down this entrance while crouched down to fit inside with my backpack on my back wasn’t enough…remember I was going in with roughly half the population of Egypt while sharing the space with the other half as they were coming out.
The worst part?
You think ancient Egyptians were worried about bathrooms for the dead occupants?
They were not.
Likewise, then-modern-day Egyptians were unconcerned with the absence of bathrooms while they visited the sacred-ish burial site of their ancient ancestor.
So, yeah…Giza smelled like a huge cat box.
Getting back into the city, we shared a cab with some friendly – is there any other kind – Canadians we met out at old Sphinxy.
I was amazed at how no one really bothered them like they did me. Beggars were forever asking me if I was American, immediately followed by something along the lines of, “Good money!” and some waggled eyebrows that seemed to indicate I should give them some.
It turns out that this couple took turns wearing either a tee shirt, hat or bandanna that had the Canadian maple leaf on it. The beggars weren’t interested in crappy Toonies, it turns out.
That night, we had a four way with the Canadians.
Just kidding. Although, if this were a movie – or Midnight Express – I’m sure that would have happened.
We did, however, meet up for dinner at a hole in the wall – everything was – restaraunt that sat about a dozen people.
On the floor.
We ordered plates full of Egyptian cuisine, baba ganoush, hummus…other pasty delicacies. Meat on sticks. A bit of everything, which was easy because it didn’t cost anything. It was so cheap, that after giggling for a minute, trying to figure out what Bom Frites were – not scary, this was pre-9/11 – we just ordered them.
This would be the first of many times during my travels abroad that I would try to order something exotic and end up with french fries.
Bom does sound amazingly similar to the French word for potato, pomme.
Live and learn.
And, seriously, I do that in almost every foreign country I visit.
Ken and I decided to end the night by walking off dinner. We ended up at the Nile Hilton for a nightcap. Remember how I said everything in Cairo was a hole in the wall? I meant everything but this.
Holy shit. This place was extravagant! Also, remember what I’m wearing…and it may now smell like urine. We went into the bar, because we’re Americans, damnit.
I told the bartender we wanted a beer, “Whatever the locals drink!”
“Ah, you want a Stella!”, which to hear him talk was pretty much the national beer.
Yeah, it was Stella Artois.
Not the nationally brewed beer, just the most convenient to import. Little did I know that this whole experience would annoy me two decades later when every d-bag in Seattle was ordering the trendy “new” beer that everyone raves about.
That was now owned by InBev…parent company of Anheuser-Busch. Twats.
Meanwhile, back in Cairo…we find ourselves wandering back to the pensione after dark when we’re beset by a bunch of street kids yelling “American?” at us. Taking a page from our dinner companion’s playbook, I respond, “Nope, Canadian!” which resulted in confused looks from the kids and a lecture about the gravity of renouncing one’s citizenship from Ken on the rest of our walk home.
So, I’m a teensy bit of a traitor. Flash forward to today and I bet that Ken is happily living in Canada after the 2016 election.
Later days found us alternating between cultural and exploration type excursions, just to give ourselves down days where we weren’t trekking out to the middle of the desert every day.
One of the down days, we wandered into something of an old town or walled city.
Not a bad piece of architecture, eh? For context – again, if I remember correctly – old town refers to post-pyramid-pre-Nile-Hilton, so it’s a fairly broad descriptor. I believe this mosque(?) was outside of the walled city and a century or two newer.
I’m pretty sure what I’m doing here was sacrilegious, but I made it out alive.
Inside the walled city is basically a bazaar. What I’m now programmed by Hollywood action movies to understand would simply be the setting for a nice machine gun battle followed by a super destructive high speed car chase.
Whatever. I bought these!
I opened the box to see what was inside, it had been years since I opened it! The necklace was folded up inside, as was some feathery boa souvenir thing from a Pride parade, about a hundred ticket stubs from Sting and Indigo Girls concerts, a couple of locks of hair from the two times I’ve grown my hair out in my adult-ish life and my original passport!
The Egypt trip was in ‘90, turns out. It also turns out that maybe I already had my passport, since it seems to have expired in ‘95…but the picture looks right for the timeframe, and I definitely got it in LA…I wonder if they used to only last five years and not ten since I was still in a) high school and b) <gulp> Kansas in 1985.
Riddle me that, Sphynxy.
And, yes…that necklace was a part of my Halloween costume that year. The next year, I went in drag, got confused for a True Lies Jamie Lee Curtis (I’d cut my hair by then) and haven’t dressed up since.
One of our day trips was our to the Temple of Horus. Remember when I kinda said Cairo was safe? Did I? I think I did…but I definitely meant to.
Well, Cairo may be safe – aside from the cab drivers – but going out to this remote temple, we had to travel in an armed convoy. That wasn’t the least bit intimidating.
Me: (imitating Ken while glaring at machine guns) Come to Egypt, it’ll be fun.
Me: (imitating me) What could possibly go wrong?
That outing required some spirits to soothe my wracked nerves, so we went to the Winter Palace on the Nile for cocktails and to watch the sunset.
You’d think that I’d have a picture of the sun setting over the Nile, wouldn’t you?
Anyhoo, we met these fantastic British travelers and had a couple of drinks with them as the sun set. It was two super fruity English men – is there any other kind ? – and their female traveling companion who looked just like Mrs Roper from Three’s Company. You just know that was a fun evening!
They made us promise to come back another night, but we never reconnected, even though we did go back for another sunset.
I recall two more busy days on this trip. The first is our trip out to the Valley of the Kings.
Do I need to tell you it was amazing?
Again…you’d think there would be pictures, no?
Some of the tombs you could walk into and through. Just like the Great Pyramid, there were rooms and rooms inside the tombs. It was fun to see the excavations inside, as well as the remains of some of what were thought to be grave robbers and the damage they did. Other tombs, like the boy king’s were set up so you didn’t get much of a look inside.
I think this same day trip took us out to the Valley of the Queens, too. All I recall of that part of the day was some huge – talking big, ok? – temple for a queen with an impossible name. I remember it in a very Anna Wintour manner as rhyming with Hates Cheap Suits. So, make of that what you will with your extrapolations…
Fine. It’s something like Haethupsut.
It’s Hatshepsut. I googled it. Here’s a pic I ripped off the inter webs.
Not bad for a queen, eh? I’d say she was held in pretty high regard. Or since she likely commissioned this herself…
While on the google, I noticed that this was in or near Luxor, meaning that I’m probably getting my days mixed together. The day we visited Luxor, we hung out all day and hit the Pink Floyd Laser Light Show that night.
I shit you not.
That’s worth the $500 cost of the trip right there.
Anyway, let me group a bunch of shit I remember about the trip into a final “day”.
We went and visited some Colossus statues that were still standing as well as nearby ruins…that’s where that Diet Pepsi/laundry day outfit picture was taken. Also nearby was an alabaster mine. Not much to look at, but the roadside shanty tent gift shop got a couple shekels from me. One purchase still sits right on my coffee table to this day.
I use them as tealight holders. The veins look amazing when the room is dark and the candles are lit. The veins in the alabaster just glow.
You know these are going to get broken now. But they have lasted nearly 30 years!
I guess the only thing that I can remember and haven’t mentioned was Alexander the Great’s…residence?
I don’t know.
It was huge.
And pretty trashed, but it was fun for us two gay boys to stand amongst the ruins of the base of operations for his empire and just consider what it must have been like to be him – basically our age, albeit about 2500 years removed – and ruling the Roman Empire.
And, y’know…a big homo.
Talk about your old fruits…
Honestly, though, it was really something to consider in the days where gays were unprotected in our home country. No workplace or housing protections, let alone other basic civil rights like the right to marry.
No hate crime legislation…almost, but not just then.
And a government that seemed fairly content up to then to just let us all die of AIDS, god willing.
Let’s not even get started on what they do to the poor gay boys in Egypt!
Well, to be a part of a marginalized and powerless subculture in America and be standing in the ruins of Alexander the Great’s empire – Northeast African Branch – and think of a sub-30 year old gay controlling the world as he knew it?
Pretty empowering stuff.